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STRANGE BEDFELLOWS EXCERPT

CHAPTER ONE

AIN'T NOBODY'S BUSINESS IF I DO

When Aubrey Scott invaded the bathroom where I had retreated that Monday morning, I knew I was in for a surprise. It just wasn’t the kind I was expecting. For starters, he was fully dressed. And what was worse, instead of taking off his clothes and joining me in the steam room like he had some sense, he dragged me out of my warm cocoon by the hand.

“Check this out,” he ordered as he turned on the television in the bedroom.

 

         An early morning talking head was blabbering about the aftermath of a multi-car accident on Route 219 near Modesto, some three hundred miles north of Los Angeles. Saturday morning, he informed us, “tule fog, that monster weather condition peculiar to California’s Central Valley, had spread like a cancer, causing a sixty-five-car pile-up that claimed the lives of nine people, including a CHP officer, and injured twenty others,” including the subject of the news bulletin Aubrey was so intent on me seeing.

 

“As reported on Channel Four this weekend,” the newscaster went on, “the driver of one car, a late-model Toyota, had disappeared. Police speculated that he may have wandered away from the scene and died from his injuries. Well, the mystery driver has been found alive and identified as nineteen year-old Nilo Engalla, wanted for questioning in a shooting that occurred eight months ago right here in Los Angeles.”

 

Aubrey stroked my arm.  “Isn’t that the Filipino kid you were looking for last summer?”

 

I mumbled a reply, surprised Aubrey would remember a case I had investigated during the early months of our relationship. I pulled on my robe and sat on the edge of the bed to try and figure out how to handle this unexpected curve ball.

 

An exterior shot of a one-story concrete-and-glass building was on the screen. “Engalla showed up last night at this urgent care center in Ceres, some five miles south of the scene. He was transferred to a Modesto area hospital, where he’s listed in critical condition. Police are hoping Engalla regains consciousness so they can determine how he found his way to the urgent care center and how he came to have over twenty-seven thousand dollars in cash concealed in the wrecked car.”

 

I was still staring at the television when the bulletin ended, concerned that they’d revealed too much about Engalla, and concerned about something else, too. “This is great news!” Aubrey exclaimed, putting an arm around me. “Nothing like getting back into the swing of things after a tough case.”

 

“Nothing like.” Thankfully, Aubrey was sitting on my right because my left eye had started twitching again, as it had regularly since I’d left the Parker Administrative Building last Wednesday. Twitching in response to a sight I never wanted to see again, but which kept playing in my dreams in a continuous loop of blood and brains and tears.

 

Which was why I was sitting here instead of “getting back into the swing of things,” as Aubrey so quaintly put it. But how could I tell him the truth? My dilemma reminded me of an old saying of my grandmother’s: One lie calls for another and another.

 

Aubrey kissed my neck and kneaded my shoulders. “The steam seems to be helping these knots.”

 

If it would only stop the racing of my heart. “What’re you up to today?"

 

“Typical Monday. Meeting with the CEO over at White Memorial to review the short list of candidates for their new ER director. But I’ll be home early to start cooking for tonight. Unless you want to cancel.”

 

Cancel what? Then I remembered, said, “No, that’s fine,” hoping he hadn’t realized that I had forgotten March was our month to host Film Night. It was a tradition that started in the Justice family years ago and now included Aubrey in my family’s cut-’em-low critique of new and classic movies. “Did we decide on a movie?”

 

“I’ve got that handled. You need to call your lieutenant."

 

My heartbeat accelerating way past the legal limit, I rubbed my left eye to stop its spasmodic dance. “I will, later.”

 

“If you do it now, I can drop you off downtown.”

 

As encouraged as I was about this new development in the search for Engalla, my boyfriend driving me to work was just about the last thing I needed. “I can drive myself.”

 

“In what?”

 

    It was Aubrey’s way of chastising me about not picking up my car from the Parker Administrative Building since wrapping up that case on Wednesday. I had put it off, saying I had been given a few days off to get some rest and was planning to take ultimate advantage of it by not doing battle with L.A.’s hellacious traffic.

 

But now it was Monday, and I had run out of excuses for not picking up my car, for not going back to my office in the PAB, for not telling Aubrey the truth. “I can catch a cab.”

 

“Don’t be silly, Charlotte! I’ll walk the dog while you get dressed and check in with your lieutenant, then I’ll drop you off myself, okay?”

 

I half-turned and gave Aubrey the smile he was expecting. “Sure."

 

A half hour later, we were headed for the PAB, rounding a hill on the interchange that would take us past Chinatown and into the belly of the Civic Center beast. “Your lieutenant say if he was sending you up north to interview that Engalla kid?”

 

On our left sat one of the taller buildings in Chinatown, as silent and ominous as a grave. “He wasn’t sure.” I started fiddling with the radio.  “They might get somebody else to do it.”

 

“But you worked that case with Steve Firestone and Gena Cortez. I would think that with both of them out. . .”

 

Perspiration pricking at my armpits, I found a station playing jazz and turned it up, trying to get lost in a Billie Holiday song.

 

Lieutenant Kenneth Stobaugh had caught me at my house in the Fairfax District that Friday eight months ago. It was a sweltering July evening, and the city’s nerves were still humming from the Rodney King riots, every minor dust-up fraught with the potential to spark and scorch the wings off the City of Angels once again.

 

I was on call for the third time that summer after solving the homicide of Cinque Lewis, leader of the militant Black Freedom Militia, who’d disappeared after gunning down my husband and baby daughter years before. I hadn’t caught a case since returning to duty, which was fine with me, given I was still nursing physical injuries from the riots and a psyche that craved doses of single-malt Scotch, despite the ministrations of the department’s Behavioral Science Services—or what the guys on the street called Bullshit Shrinks. But I was pressing my luck to think I could escape what those same guys called the busy season in a city that was home to over four hundred homicides a year. Those kinds of statistics affected everyone, even a specialized division like Robbery-Homicide, which was assigned only the highest-profile or most complex homicides that floated up from the city’s ever-growing cesspool of crime.

 

“It’s a madhouse down here,” Stobaugh said by way of preparing me. “Chuck Zuccari and a couple of his dinner companions were shot in front of the Oviatt Building on—”

 

“Olive near Sixth.” I put down my glass of Cragganmore and shook my head to focus. “I’m familiar with the location.” Four years before, my parents had thrown me a thirty-fifth birthday party at Ristorante Rex, the pricey restaurant on the ground floor of the Oviatt, but I didn’t tell my lieutenant that. “Who’s Zuccari?”

 

“CEO and chairman of CZ Toys, headquartered down in Irvine.”

 

“And he’s ours because. . .?”

 

“He’s chairman of an ultraconservative wing of the Republican Party down in Orange County. The governor’s office has already been notified by the chief.”

 

       “Great.” While Zuccari’s political connections were a bit of a surprise, I knew the company well. CZ Toys had created a line of chubby-cheeked talking dolls in the sixties and had expanded over the years to include toy trucks and video gaming devices as well as the highly collectible dolls and accessories my mother and uncle prized. I wondered how they’d feel if they knew Zuccari’s politics.

 

As it turned out, that was only the half of it. “How’d it happen?” I asked.

 

I heard pages rustling. “Zuccari, a black male by the name of Malik Shareef, and their wives were coming out of Ristorante Rex when someone wearing a smiley face mask drove by and shot up the place.”

 

The clash between the yellow pop art image and the Art Deco landmark was jarring. “How many DBs we talking?”

 

“None so far, but the paramedics think they could have as many as four dead before the night is over.”

 

I rummaged in a drawer for a fresh notebook. “Status?”

 

“Zuccari sustained a GSW in the head and chest. They took him over to County/USC for emergency surgery. His wife is there, too, with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. Shareef was hit in the chest and is undergoing surgery at California Hospital right now.”

 

A riot-related injury had sent me to California’s emergency room the previous spring, and into Aubrey’s life. But that memory was replaced by a more immediate concern. “That’s only three.”

 

There was dead air on the line, making me wonder if we’d lost the connection. When Stobaugh finally spoke, his voice was oddly muffled: “Zuccari’s wife is six months pregnant. She’s undergoing an emergency C-section now, but they don’t hold out much hope for her or the baby.”

 

My heartbeat started to thrum in my ears as I fought back the rising nausea I always feel when a child is involved. “Any wits?”

 

“The uniforms are interviewing one of the parking valets now. He was the closest to the car as it approached. And Firestone and Cortez are en route to the scene to interview Shareef’s wife and some other wits who were on the street. But a banquet was just breaking up next door at the Biltmore when the shooting went down, so there’s a hell of a lot of them.  How soon can you get here?”

 

I checked my watch and my breath, blowing into my cupped hand. Eight–ten, and nothing a little toothpaste and Listerine couldn’t handle. “I’ll be there in twenty.”

 

I tried to intercept Aubrey, who was on his way over for dinner. Take-out was more accurate—that night, I’d bought Mexican-style soul food from Sky’s the Limit. But Aubrey wasn’t at his office or at home, and he wasn’t answering his cell phone. I left a note on the door, telling him to ask Mrs. Franklin across the street for the key, and called to let her know what was going on.

 

“The cards tole me you’d be back in action soon,” she drawled.

 

“I don’t recall requesting a reading, Mrs. Franklin.” My neighbor had a storefront on Pico where she read tarot cards, tea leaves, and coffee grounds under the dba Sister Odetta, Your Neighborhood Psychic.

 

“You didn’t, but I was tired of seein’ you mope around the house so much after the Uprisin,’ I consulted the cards on my own.”

 

“Just keep an eye out for Aubrey, will you?”

 

“Only if he brings that Sky’s over here. Miz Burrell and that boy a’hers make some of the best damn tacos on God’s green earth!”

 

It was a fair enough trade, given that my Houston-born neighbor had always had my back, from the day my husband Keith and I moved into our Fairfax District home sixteen years before. Mrs. Franklin had seen me through everything from changing gardeners to fixing a leaky roof, not to mention funeral services and a shootout in front of my own house during the riots. She sometimes felt more like a mother to me than my own. But the maternal association became a little too real when she’d started needling me about when was I going to cook Aubrey a real meal.

 

“You know what they say,” she’d warned that night. “The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

 

If that’s what it took, I’d thought, I was up the creek without a paddle.

 

But Mrs. Franklin and the little voice in my head had been wrong. Aubrey turned out to be a man who could cook better than I ever would, who knew what I did for a living but invited me to move in with him anyway, less than a year after we met, who deserved to be told the truth of what was going on with me now.

 

I’ll tell him after this song is over, I promised myself. But after Billie Holiday’s song ended, Aubrey switched to an all-news station and started talking about his upcoming meeting. I buried myself deeper in my seat and thought about mine.

 

I had Aubrey drop me off at the corner of First and Los Angeles Streets, about thirty yards away from the PAB. “I don’t need the boys seeing me roll up in a Benz. Some of them already know I’ve moved up to Los Feliz.”

 

“Ain’t nobody’s business if you do,” he snapped, paraphrasing the Billie Holiday song we’d just heard. “Besides, I work damn hard to afford this car!”

 

“You don’t have to justify it to me. I just don’t need any more grief on the job than I’ve already got.”

 

“What do they think I am, a pimp or something?”

 

“You know better than that! It’s just that most cops are so...”

 

“Racist?”

 

“No, paranoid that something as flashy as a Mercedes would attract the wrong kind of attention.”

 

“You talking about their paranoia or yours?” Aubrey turned left and pulled the car to a quick stop near the northeast corner. “If I were you, I’d stop worrying about what other people think, Char, and live my life for myself.”

 

“Well, thank you, Dear Aubrey!” I clambered out of the car, slammed the door, and made a show of walking north toward the PAB, checking every few feet to see if my advice-giving lover had driven away. But Aubrey hadn’t moved, had even pulled out his cell phone and appeared to be making a call. Shit, what would I do now?

 

Ahead I could see my lieutenant walking toward the parking lot, where he shook hands with a curly-headed, mustachioed guy who used to work RHD. Stobaugh couldn’t be trying to get Harry Bosch transferred back to Robbery-Homicide, not after that case he’d screwed up.

 

Or maybe, my voice proposed, Bosch can fill the spot on Stobaugh’s team you’ll be vacating if you don’t get your act together.

 

Avoiding the two men, I edged into the lobby and hovered just inside the door, keeping watch on the traffic outside while ignoring the inquisitive gaze of the uniforms on the desk. My mouth sour, I reached in my pocket for my Altoids tin while I rocked on my toes and waited. After Aubrey’s car finally slid by the building, I counted to twenty as a precaution, then escaped the building to a DASH bus idling at the curb.

 

 

 

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