Bhakti found a funeral home for Janet’s remains where he could grieve both in private and in public–the Cremation Society of greater Los Angeles. The crew from Lady Blue camped outside. That way they could get an establishing one-shot of Sweet Jane: Bhakti with his daughter’s body on a gurney entering through the back door, and then the now famous father of Sweet Jane emerging through the front door post cremation to address the crowd of mourners.
In the 24 hours since Bhakti offered his $250k reward for any info leading to arrest and conviction–Lady Blue received 673 hotline tips, set up a special phone bank/caller ID/computer registry and hired three customer service reps to cover the traffic. Calls to date 673 and before all was said in done over 800 leads.
800 of them eventually run down, and 800 totally worthless.
Strangers even showed up at the crematorium with flowers, placing candles on the sidewalk. Janet’s picture from Facebook was set beside the flowers and the candle gardens along with teddy bears and candy and tiny plastic crosses and Virgin Marys until the offerings became a shrine. Maybe three hundred anonymous souls showed up for Janet’s funeral, far too many for the funeral home–so the mourners waited outside–Bhakti did not know a single soul, still he made the effort to thank them all.
The Cremation Society was a single story ranch house with a touch of Spanish Mission about it; wide entranceway arches under terra cotta roof tiles. Clean, functional. A Taco Bell for the dead. Bhakti chose Officer Cheryl Gibson to witness Janet’s cremation–the only one allowed inside. Both watching through the fireproof glass window as the gas jets released the poor girl’s soul.
Bhakti did not look away. Instead he began to chant the Antim Ardas, the final rite of the dead, the soft Punjab dialect filling the viewing room: "In the Lord’s fear, the wind and breezes ever blow. In the Lord’s fear, thousands of rivers flow."
As the father and the officer waited for the ashes to cool Bhakti picked an urn from a leather bound catalogue. A Nambe urn, a kind of silver metal alloy that never lost its shine; he chose the shape of an hourglass. The urn radiated a kind of eternal, timeless beauty, the luster of silver and the durability of iron; it didn’t so much remind him of Janet, but as a kind of invulnerability, an exoskeleton–giving her all the protection in eternity, he failed so miserably to give her in real life.
Then outside to make a final statement, thanking the waiting crowd, and the crew of Lady Blue. But Bhakti excused himself from the night’s vigil saying simply, "I’m tired–I think I’m going to rest. If the public has any further information the show has posted a tip hotline. Thank you all for your prayers and support."
Half an hour later found the lady Cop and the lonely Dad sitting at Canter’s Deli. Same table and chair as Herman the union lawyer. Bhakti even ordered the same bloody thing. Cottage cheese and a peach half.
"What were you doing when I showed up at your door?" Bhakti finally asked. "Moving out?" The lady cop pondered an answer; the man’s cottage cheese came.
"Just put in my two weeks’ notice with the highway patrol," she said slowly; then in final resignation, "Getting a divorce." She went silent for a moment.
"What are you going to do now?" Bhakti asked her. Cheryl looked back the cottage cheese plate, the peach half and the whey running together.
"What are you going to do?"
Cheryl had heard bits and pieces, but now she heard Bhakti’s whole mad tale. How Janet just vanished, the fruitless search along the border. Finally giving up, going into a Fortune Teller’s storefront in Las Cruces, New Mexico where "Senora Malvedos" mumbled out the address of the LA Coroner’s Officer and the details of a Sweet Jane’s toe tag. His one and only lead. Panned out, but not in time to save the girl. Thing was, Bhakti had Cheryl hook, line and sinker at, "I woke up at three AM and just knew something was wrong."
"But there are others, Officer Gibson, aren’t there? There must be others. How many? Dozens of Sweet Janes? Hundreds?"
"I don’t know how many. A lot."
Her heart-attack sandwich came and she felt her chest tighten. Same as before corned beef and chopped liver. Idly Cheryl slipped her napkin to her lap. That grinning Felix face smiled up at her; yet another urban artistic anarchist had drawn a version of the cat right on table top in black pen. Indelible black pen. The restaurant had just been covering it up with a napkin until they could get a new table.
It crept up Cheryl like slow strangulation. Maybe they’d been too late for the chopped girl in the orange Chevy, for Bhakti’s Janet, but maybe they could save the other Sweet Janes… A thought crystallized in her mind: with both of their lives altered by the grinning cat, with both Bhakti and herself working the case–
Find the Janes’ killer. That’s what they’d do. By doing so, give Sweet Janet her final rest. How they got to this place in their minds didn’t seem so complicated. More like an unspoken decision, over a canned peach and half-eaten sandwich. We will proceed.
Find those who killed Janet.
For Cheryl the rest of the nagging details of daily life, splitting with Rachel, moving back east to Poughkeepsie somehow fell into place. Meathead Movers had taken her party clothes and everything else away. She kissed Rachel good-bye on the $100k pretty sand patio. And patiently listened as Rachel promised one of her lawyer colleagues would somehow protect them from the vampire wrongful death suit by the terribly aggrieved family of the arm-chopper choir boy, Ricardo Montoya. Yeah, good luck with that.
Bhakti picked and paid for a motel to set up base command in Escondido, the Holiday Inn; and yes, they even shared a room. Privacy didn’t seem to matter, the Punjabi scientist seemed to have been raised in the Queen’s Own Privy Guard, more considerate than even Rachel, a stickler for hygiene protocol–god, the guy even rinsed out the sink after he combed his whiskers or brushed his teeth and put the toilet seat down. Now, that was well housebroken.
The only things she kept of her past life were her uniform blues, her CHiPs motorcycle gear and her sidearm. Since she’d given notice at the department, they put her on zero shifts and zero duties and with a little of Herman the Union lawyer’s finagling she didn’t have to turn in her shield until the last day. So for the first lap of their search for the Sweet Jane Killers she did it on her BMW, in uniform hooked into Dispatch and that helped when talking to scumbags. While Bhakti followed along in the black rental SUV.
Let regular cops run down the useless Lady Blue tip-line.
Cheryl and Bhakti cruised the streets; their first lead came from a handyman for some local bangers, his curbside office a bare sidewalk in South LA by a smiley Felix spray-painted in an alley. Street dealers always knew what was going on. The one they found, a kid about 15, doing the Hi-Bye, how you doin’? Whassup? Catch you later act for any and all curbside cruisers that crossed his shadow.
The young dealer jumped up and down and waved his arms like a gooney bird as Cheryl idled her BMW bike and climbed off. He didn’t try to run, he was a scarecrow for the look-outs with binoculars. In 40 seconds their rat trap would be an empty shell. And nobody’d bother with their front man, as he was only a kid. No point in booking.
Cheryl escorted the young lad into an alley, unholstered her Glock and put it in his mouth. The kid’s eyes widened, but he wasn’t that scared. Probably happened to him before. Nothing like a little experience to take the edge off critical moments. It was her buddy, Babu the tag-along–the one in the chinos, polo shirt, and cheap pull-on loafers like Abdul from the local dollar store that looked scared. Like he hadn’t expected this bitch cop to pull a gun.
Cheryl spoke to her new buddy very slowly and deliberately, "Look, cuz. I don’t care about your business. I think with a little luck you’re going to grow up and have a great future in commercial real-estate. Brother Trump of Long Beach. What I care about is a dead girl. Indian. About 18. Not from around here. Here’s my cell number. Your boss is gonna talk to me about the pimps. Not the regular pimps, the weird ones. Understand?"
The kid understood.
"Now empty your pockets."
The kid emptied his pockets, little vials and twisted baggies came out in his hands. A nice haul.
"On the ground."
The vials and baggies were put on the ground in a small pile. Cheryl the bitch cop carefully crushed them with her boot, spreading the pixie-dust around. The kid’s face dropped, but he knew this drill. This was the fishhook into the boss.
"Tell him, I’ll double the price on whatever you spilled on the ground today. Looks about a thousand. So for a ten minute meet he can have 2K. Got it? We’ll hang at the Dunkin’ Donuts."
The kid nodded. "Cool."
Bitch Cop Cheryl kept one of the vials. Held it up to the light, examining. It didn’t look like regular crank or rock. It had a strange shimmer to it, sort of rainbow sparks.
"What are you peddling?"
The kid preened a little. "You haven’t seen it yet, have you Mamacita? It’s the new Dr. Pepper. I’m a Pepper. He’s a Pepper. Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too?" When she didn’t respond the lad answered her question in a more conventional way. "They call it Big D. It’s Dalekto. It’s delicious. It’s delightful. You take a snoot, you’ll dig it."
"Maybe another time."
The call from Super Fly came about five minutes into a coffee and doughnut.
"You got my money?" said a voice into Cheryl’s phone.
"We will. Do you take a check?"
A pause. "You’re one crazy sistah. I could get to know you."
"Get to know me now."
The limousine pulled up to Cheryl’s bike in the parking lot of the Escondido Holiday Inn around dusk. Bhakti had retired to his SUV, but got out when the long black car stopped by the curb. The window rolled down an inch and the voice came out. "Why look if it isn’t Snarky and Putz."
Bhakti looked a little confused. Cheryl snorted. "I don’t think he watches many cop shows," she said through the partially open window. "We can go into the bar if you want." But no reply came from inside the car. Then after a moment the shiny car door unlatched and swung open. Under the sodium lights of the motel apron, Cheryl and Bhakti slid into the spacious back of Mr. Bossman’s limo and let their eyes adjust.
The guy wasn’t much of a Super Fly, no flash, no gold bling-bling. A Banka-Gangsta; he wore an Armani suit and Testoni crocodile loafers. Size 48 and 12 respectively. But not a fat man. Nice, polite, tight and controlled.
He measured the two guests in his private mobile office for a few silent moments. "You want a soda? A Perrier? A Dr. Pepper?"
Bhakti swallowed hard, like his throat was parched. Shook his head but didn’t dare to speak–he’d never been this close to a criminal before. The Gangsta-Banka smiled and wagged his head a little and looked at the Punjabi scientist. "When we’re done here, you let the officer from the highway patrol take you into the mall and get some clothes. You can’t walk around like that in LA. With those rubber shoes with the fake stitching and ten-dollar knock-off Lacoste Wal-Mart shirts. I mean, the only thing you’re missing is the leaky pens in a pocket protector."
Bhakti glanced at himself, up and down. Then said, frankly enough. "They’re in my lap-top case."
At which point both the Banka-Gangsta and Cheryl erupted in laughter.
"Where’d you find this guy, Lady Blue?"
Cheryl shrugged. "I found his girl. Then he found me. Sort of an accident."
Cheryl shook her head no, then showed him her phone, the Facebook photo of Janet. "We want to know her friends in LA."
The Banka-Gangsta lit a cigarette and flipped on the reading light behind his head. He put on a pair of reading glasses and stared at the photo Facebook page. He sighed, a stream of smoke shooting from his nostrils and then the remnants from his mouth.
"A lot of girls come through LA. You know that. This is Booty-City. All the starry-eyes going for Goshywood, you got the Spics runnin’–" He broke off, didn’t mean to insult Cheryl, figuring she was who-knows-what. "Sorry. I didn’t mean anything." He came back to the point. "Look, the Chinese and Japs and Koreans, they got gambling, protection, loan shark, yeah–but they’re not crazy about anybody messing with their sweet stuff. Y’know it’s a family thing. They’ll marry a seventy year old to a fourteen year old, before they’ll put high class poon out for bids. Take care of the brothers and uncles too. No kidding. Arranged marriage. Wild, right?"
Cheryl didn’t answer immediately. Then, savvy: "C’mon, they have Asian hooker rings up and down the coast, you know that. Acupuncture salons, nail salons."
"But they’re not high class, are they? Boat people. Working off their passage."
When Cheryl just looked at him he tried another approach. "Thousand dollar Ho’s, for the Burbank crowd, sure. There’s one or two Madams. And they run it clean, you know pay off everyone in sight. Maybe your gal fell in there? Maybe you’ve put the touch on them yourself from time to time. They have a big payroll, lots of coppers on it."
Cheryl took the photo back. "We’re looking for a weirdo. Some kind of horror show impresario."
Dead silence again. Nicky the Gangsta-Bankster took off his reading glasses and put them in a silver clamshell case. Poured himself a slug from the minibar. Then stared at it. Swirled it around, then stared at it some more.
At last, "I don’t know his real name. I don’t think he’s got one. But they call him The Magician. They say he’s running some kind of chop-shop, snuff market; they call it the Harrow House. I mean, it may not even be a real place, a real house. You pay and you play. Single Payer System right? We’re not talking some kind of Mistress Spanky and the Gang. Where the Hollywoods come down from Malibu slumming and get their fannies red, and a home movie thrown in for free. We’re talking blood and pus and dead before dawn."
Bhakti’s face had taken on a beige tinge. What it looked like when an Indian’s blood drained from his cheeks. He was going white.
"How do we find him?"
"You don’t, sistah. He finds you." Bossman the Bankster-Gangsta took a hit from the glass.
"What is he–Peter Pan?" Cheryl said with some heat. "Flying in on his tights and flying out again like Mary Martin?" Cheryl took the little glass vial of Dalekto out of her shirt pocket. "Tell me about this stuff."
The Bankster-Gangsta looked curiously at it. Got out his glasses again. Took it in his handkerchief so none of his prints got on the little glass vial. "Where’d the hell you get this?"
"Your boy had it in his pockets."
"You’re kidding me." The gangster was incredulous.
Cheryl and Bhakti shared a fleeting glance. The big Bossman didn’t know? Really? The gangster tried to explain, "Look, I’m in the blow, crank and X business. I never seen this before. But if that kid is playing me, I’m gonna cut his big lips from his upper and lower mouth with a razor. Then he can talk to his mama that way and suck cock in Chino."
A quiet kind of queer fear seemed to creep into the man’s face. The unknown in his world was the mind-destroyer. What you didn’t know could kill you. Snarky and Putz could see it clear enough from their couches across the long back of the limo.
"Well, thanks for taking the time with us, Squire," Cheryl told him. "We’re going to want another word with your boy before you do anything rash. Remember that. You want your money?"
The gangster poured another slug from the armrest and brought it to his mouth. It slipped a little and splashed his Sea Island cotton shirt. "Damn. My money," he said vaguely.
"Yeah, we’ll go to an ATM, or a couple of them. Right here in the mall."
"The mall.." He seemed slightly doubtful. The money. The mall. Then he made up his mind, reached a decision, knew his place in the scheme of things. "No. We’re not going into the mall. I’ll give you a day to talk to the boy before I talk to him. I’ll give you his address. Just leave him alive. About that money now…" A long breath. The breath over:
"I don’t want The Magician to know I even know him. You can keep the green."
Los Angeles at night is part black sky over the glow of sodium lights and bright neon storefronts. They found the handyman’s place easy enough, one of a thousand faceless ‘hoods in LA: the ranch house, the chain link fences, the gated doors and windows, the little square lawns that never got enough water, beer cans and KFC boxes spilling over trashcans. Bad areas in this part of the world didn’t have the thick grime and grit of the rustbelt cities, the grim public housing, fortresses of the poor. No, here it was all wide open spaces, but so what?
As their black SUV pulled up to the curb, a few kids down the block talkin’ smack gave the two strangers the eye for a moment – but went back to themselves after they spotted Cheryl’s blues under the sodium lights. Only gunshots and bubble-lights were worth a look. Hell, she coulda lived nearby.
The chain link four foot fence gate was open, the metal iron-twirled gate at the door, open a crack, the front door itself ajar. Cheryl and Bhakti went in cautiously. Tan painted walls, the smudge of fingers along the door jambs. Discount store furniture. A glance in the kitchen showed cupboards missing knobs and warped doors that didn’t close all the way. A television babbled softly.
In the main room three figures sat on the couch watching TV. Cheryl heard the sounds of an American Idol re-run; Paula Abdul was at the judges’ table doing her sincere coquette thing. The singer crooned a rendition of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane, lewdly stroking the microphone head as if that young Jane were his favorite knob-polisher.
The three figures on the couch just sat and watched and listened.
A large mirror hung over the TV console showing everyone on the couch. A mother and her two sons. One was the handyman from the alley earlier in the day. He now wore cargo shorts and a Lakers T-shirt–lounge-around-the-house wear. The other, a younger brother; dressed in a matching outfit. None breathing.
Over on her side of the couch Mama stared at the TV with open eyes; a large and round woman, maybe forty-five. She had "single mother" written all over her, the kind who held down 2 1/2 jobs so her kids could get some of the things they deserved; even if their dad only showed up twice a year for birthdays. She was definitely off work now; pink spandex enclosing her bottom, a flowing Hawaiian shirt over her ponderous bosoms, unbuttoned three buttons. No bra and no air conditioning. The unit in the wall was throwing wind but no cool. Thin yellow strips fluttering.
The three figures stared at the tube. Each one’s lips had been cut, top and bottom, exactly like Bossman described not half an hour before. The three sets of white teeth grinned into the mirror over the TV.
Could Bossman have gotten here this quickly, in and out before Cheryl and Bhakti arrived? No way. Why promise them a day to question the boy? No point at all. Bhakti and Cheryl shared a long look.
"You have to call this in." Bhakti said huskily. "Somebody’s got to be notified."
Cheryl’s face took on a veiled cast. "Did you touch anything?"
"You’re not going to leave them here?" Bhakti came back aghast.
"No? You think not? You want to spend the next two weeks in interrogation with your court appointed lawyer? Or do you want to keep on looking for the guy who did Janet? Make up your mind and make it up right now. Whatever we decide this very second will determine whether we find The Magician or not."
Bhakti looked down at himself. Had he touched anything? No, just some footprints on the wall-to-wall – their half dozen steps walking in from the door. He took a deep ragged breath.
"All right then," Cheryl told him. "Back out the way we came. Step for step. Careful not to touch anything."
Back by the curb, Cheryl considered for a moment what to do about Bhakti’s black rental SUV. The kids were gone from the sidewalk two houses down. Still, somebody might have snagged a plate number.
"Get in and drive towards Long Beach."
They found an alley in Compton, off Long Beach Boulevard and not too far from the Almeida rail corridor that fed the docks.
"Leave the windows open and the keys in the ignition."
"Just leave it here?"
Cheryl didn’t know exactly how to explain the Greater Los Angeles area to a newbie tourist from Crumpet Ville, Texas. Compton had its problems; highest murder rate in the USA–longtime home of the Bloods and Crips. The Compton PD had even been disbanded once when the line between law enforcement and gangs blurred to irrelevance. Now it was LA County Sheriff’s Department jurisdiction, some people said Compton was coming back. Still, not nearly fast enough for Cheryl’s taste. You always know something’s rehabilitated when they finally make a movie about it.
"Look, half an hour from now this vehicle will be washed, waxed, vacuumed, a cute New Car Scent freshener pad dangling from the rearview mirror–and on its way to South America. You’ll report it stolen later. When you give them this general address in Compton, they’ll think you’re just an idiot from out of town."
Bhakti saw the logic to it. He was from out of town. They got out of the car and began to walk away.
"Wait!" Bhakti doubled back to retrieve Janet’s ashes. "What if the local cops find it first?"
Cheryl laughed, "Then chances are they’ll boost it down south. Let’s find a cab, we’ll throw out our shoes later."
"What about your boots?"
"If I get tagged with any of this. DNA epithelials, hair, fingerprints, boot prints, hand prints, nose prints–the only thing I can say is that when I arrived nobody was there, or they were alive and I left empty handed. Maybe leave you out of it. You get to visit me in lockup on weekends." She paused at his look of alarm. "All that’s in that house was shoe prints on the wall to wall, yours and women’s size 8. Doc Marten’s Chukkas–they made about a zillion of those last year. I was just taking precautions with you."
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