I hate funerals.
Especially the ones where you bury family. I guess I appreciate the nice things everyone has been saying about my dad. But after hearing so much of it, I have to wonder if Dad is already rolling around in his grave, even though they just lowered his coffin to the bottom of the hole dug by a backhoe. Well, it’s time to put on my brave little daughter face.
Lord only knows I don’t have any tears left after crying my way through the whole service.
“Hi, Bobbi. I’m sure going to miss your dad.”
“Yeah me too, Melvin.”
I remember how Dad would always refuse to borrow a loaner car from Melvin and instead hang around his auto repair shop for hours so they could talk. You could play Six Degrees of Separation starting out with either Dad or Melvin and end up knowing most of L.A.’s people and their secret sins, the kind only a Catholic priest who hears Confessions or a lawyer are supposed to know.
“Uh, I don’t mean any disrespect, Bobbi, but there’s someone here who really needs your help.”
“Can’t it wait?”
I hope my flushed red face is backing up my anger. At least the heat now radiating there has probably dried up any evidence of my earlier bawling.
“I feel like a lowlife, Bobbi. But this dude is one of my best customers and he told me how –”
My glare shuts Melvin up. “Have him call my number and leave a place and time to meet tomorrow, not today, okay?”
* * *
The next morning I drive into L.A. from Lancaster. I had moved up there five years ago to be closer to Dad. You know, bring him home to my place from his assisted living place on weekends. Dad said he wanted his two-day passes to turn into 365 days a year ones. When I begged off, he said he understood.
Before I go into the office where Dad started his private investigator business long before I was born, I have to eat. His funeral yesterday left me nauseous and without much sleep last night because of too many memories. For me, memories far too often turn into regrets.
I think I’ll have my breakfast of champions, an apple fritter washed down by a large mocha. And the best place in L.A. to find them is at Ellie and Felipe’s Donut Shop, located right off the freeway in North L.A. Dad introduced me to them when I was about five. Ellie and Felipe introduced me to apple fritters.
We’re talking the real deal, 100% all natural ingredients, nothing out of a can. They slice up the apples fresh each morning about 3 a.m. because their shop opens at 4:30 a.m. And they put so many inside the fritter it is still more than half apples after being fried in olive oil. The coffee beans are medium grade but the chocolate tastes like what it must have to the Spanish explorers who came to Latin America hundreds of years ago. It is so thick and rich I think it has more caffeine than the coffee in my mochas from the shop.
Looks like I timed it just right and missed the crunch time crowd of those who eat breakfast during their morning commute. Oh great, I’m getting weird vibes as I walk through the front door. So I slide my hand to the .38 Special tucked into a holster on my belt and hidden under my windbreaker.
Every other time, someone behind the counter has greeted me. But today the shop looks deserted. I’m tempted to call out into the back room where about sixty dozen donuts are baked six days a week. But Dad’s warning replays in my mind, loud enough that I think he’s standing right behind me.
Don’t ever make any noise until you know what’s going on when things don’t seem right.
So I crouch down and duck walk up to the counter and kneel down and wait. A minute later, a young punk with a gun to Ellie’s head drags her into the small section with tables and chairs for customers. He’s forcing her toward the front door and God only knows where after that. I jump to my feet to try and look bigger and badder than someone who can still buy clothes from the teenager’s racks at the store.
“Let her go!”
My order spins him around, his 9mm pointing straight at me.
“Shut up, you whore, or I’ll shoot you!”
What happens next all feels like slow motion.
I lean right as I squeeze off three quick rounds. His first shot whistles by my head and shatters the glass display case crammed with donuts. His second shot hits the ceiling as his body jerks backward, which flips his arm heavenward. Maybe that’s where he’s going. I’ll let God in His heaven decide whether it’s heaven or hell for the one who just tried to kill me.
By the time I walk over to the kid, the three holes in his white T-shirt are letting the three holes in his chest ooze enough blood that its top has already turned red. His eyes focus on me.
“Good shooting,” he says as his eyelids flutter and shut.
I retch but nothing comes up out of my empty stomach.
“He…he hit Felipe with his gun,” Ellie says. “Please help him.”
“Okay. Call 911 while I go check on him.”
I drop my phone to where Ellie has collapsed onto the floor next to the corpse of the kid who seems to be younger every time I look at him.
Felipe isn’t moving where I find him sprawled between the deep fat fryers and racks holding the trays of donuts in the kitchen. But his pulse is strong even though his breathing is shallow. There are trays of ice in the small freezer attached to the kitchen’s only refrigerator so I dump some into a plastic bag and tie off its top. Then I set it on the huge bump growing out of the back of Felipe’s head.
By the time I get back out front, the first two police units are pulling up in the parking lot.
I recognize the older cop and wish I knew the younger one, even though he’s at least ten years younger than me. Beggars can’t be choosy, like Dad always used to say.
Both cops point their weapons at me as they enter the shop.
“What are you doing here, Bobbi?” the older cop, Nick, asks. “Let me guess. You got tired of playing private eye and pretended to be a cop instead.”
I point at the shattered glass of the display case. “He fired first. I had no choice.”
Nick looks for surveillance cameras. When he sees none, Nick turns to the younger cop.
“Hey Juan, I need you to take the statement from the lady sitting on the floor there since you speak Spanish and all. Just in case she wants to give her story in Spanish. You know me, I only yo hablo Espanol un poco.”
My pointing to the kitchen and then giving a thumbs up sign causes Ellie to make the sign of the Cross and cry and say, “gracias, El Senor Jesus,” all at the same time.
“I heard about your father passing away, Bobbi,” Nick says. “Sorry I didn’t make the funeral but the chief has us pulling some extra shifts again.”
* * *
I had to hand over my gun after giving my statement. Standard police procedure: run ballistics on it to see if it matches the three slugs it placed into the would be robber or the one a detective found embedded in a cream puff inside the display case. According to Ellie, the kid was upset by the small amount of cash at the donut shop and was forcing her to drive him to her house for a bigger payday of jewelry and any other valuables.
It actually feels good to get to the office on a day like this.
My land line phone’s voice mail box is full. Most of the calls are condolences from former clients of Dad or me. One is from the landlord wondering when she will get last month’s rent. The last is from the guy Melvin wanted to introduce me to at Dad’s funeral:
Ms. Heck, my name is Paul Chang. Please forgive me for intruding during your time of mourning for your father. However…
He goes on to ask for help with a wayward grandson who is in jail and to meet me for lunch. I decide to take the case because that incident back at Emma’s and Felipe’s kept me from eating breakfast and now I’m starving. Besides, I’m a sucker when it comes to helping someone with a family problem, even if it’s just a private eye’s most common assignment, spying on a wayward spouse or significant other.
* * *
I haven’t been to Chinatown in years but know the restaurant chosen by Paul Chang has been one its best for a very long time. He is dressed in a hand-tailored suit worth at least $1,000 and is nothing but good manners as he escorts me from the lobby to a table for two.
I’m only on the second course of a six-course feast when we get interrupted by the approach of my least favorite LAPD detective, Perry. I can count people whom I regret having ever met on one hand. Perry is one of them.
“You really should watch who you keep company with, Bobbi,” Perry says as he leans over our table, probably trying to get a better view of my breasts by peeking down my blouse. “Paul Chang is well known to have connections with the Triad.”
“Cool it, Perry. Paul is a family friend who attended Dad’s funeral, which is more than I can say for you.” My half-truth works.
Perry sneers at Mr. Chang, then me. “Whatever. Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he says as he stomps off toward the exit.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Chang. Ever since I wouldn’t be Perry’s girlfriend back during high school, he’s had a huge grudge against me. Now what exactly is it you want me to do for your grandson?”
Mr. Chang sets down his chopsticks. “Two things, prove his innocence and more importantly, pass on some of what you Americans call street smarts to Ed. Ed is much too naïve and idealistic to survive in this world.”
* * *
I meet with grandson Ed Chang staring through the glass partition separating us and talking on the phones connecting us. For the first few minutes, he pretends to be Mr. Macho, just long enough to provoke the wrath of the Irish I inherited from my mother.
“Look, your grandfather is rich enough that he could have bailed you out of here right away. Instead, he’s spending good money to hire me to help you. Guess what, tough guy? I’m no different than a doctor trying to save a patient from an early death. I can only help those who cooperate. Did you beat that store owner up? He and a witness claim that you did. You’re looking at getting convicted on felony assault and battery and maybe doing time in prison.”
“No. I tried to keep another protester from beating him. He’s the one who’s guilty, not me. I bet my grandfather told you I shouldn’t have been protesting against capitalism.”
We talk some more but not until I’m about to leave does Ed Chang give me a phone number I’m supposed to call only as a last resort.
* * *
The shopkeeper who Ed Chang allegedly beat up is not happy when I visit him.
“I already gave the police my statement,” he says while rearranging some merchandize inside of his jewelry store. “When those rioters threw a brick through my window, I went outside to try and chase them away. One of them knocked me over the head with a sign. It had to be that Ed Chang who hit me because the next thing I remember is him dragging me back into my store, probably to rob me. He probably took off instead after seeing a cop headed toward my store.” He lowers his head and removes a bandage. “It took fifteen stitches for them to sew me up.”
“Ed Chang claims someone else hit you and he was trying to protect you.”
“Well, he’s the only one I saw anywhere near me. Someone has to pay for assaulting me.”
An hour later, the witness proves even less helpful.
She lives way out in Thousand Oaks in a guest house behind her parents’ two-story mini-mansion. Everything about this place smacks of a miniaturized Beverly Hills estate, except for the attitude of the witness. It’s even worse than the ones the Beverly Hills elite are known for.
“Yeah, yeah. That’s him, for sure,” she says as she points at the picture I took of Ed Chang at the jail. “He really did a number on that poor old man.”
I notice a couple photos of some tanned hunk on the walls of her small living room. “Nice looking guy. Is he your boyfriend?”
“Yeah, isn’t he great?”
“Was he there at the demonstration too?”
She looks away. “No, Danny isn’t into the same stuff I’m into. You know, like creating a utopian socialist society and making the environment safe from pollution.”
“Okay. I guess I’ll be going.”
“What do you think they will do to that Ed Chang guy?” she asks, sounding a little bit guilty.
“That depends on the jury and judge because the jewelry store owner said he’s not going to drop his charges.”
* * *
I call in a favor from a television reporter who works for a local channel. She lets me review all of the footage her cameraman shot of the demonstration, not just the thirty seconds worth that made the news broadcast. I watch it all twice, the second time in slow motion just to be sure I don’t miss anything.
During my second viewing, I notice the witness marching and yelling. A few feet away from her is her hunky boyfriend Danny.
He’s carrying a sign.
* * *
Good luck testifying for a client and getting the jury and judge to believe you are not lying Dad used to say, especially if all you have is “he said, she said” as evidence.
And that’s all I have so far, that the witness told me her boyfriend was not at the demonstration that turned into a riot when there is footage that proves otherwise. So I call the phone number Ed Chang gave to me. Whoever answers sets up a meeting for 1 p.m. at a bench by the ocean.
“I’ll be wearing a stovepipe hat, the kind Abraham Lincoln wore,” he says before hanging up.
* * *
His tall black hat acts like a beacon. I spot it as I pull into the parking lot at Newport Beach. When I sit down next to Mr. Stovepipe Hat, he asks, “Are you willing to do whatever it takes to help get Ed Chang out of jail?”
“As long as I don’t have to break any laws.”
He hands me a large manila envelope, stands, and walks away. At the first trash can he passes, he tosses his cardboard hat into it. He’s young and his strut and clothes radiates Triad, the Chinese version of the Mafia.
Inside the envelope is a long list of names, some of them actors, directors, screenwriters, producers, and others from the Hollywood movie industry. Other names belong to powerful people in politics and the media. Next to each name is a dollar amount. At the top of the list, big capital letters read: DONORS TO THE CREATE A FAIRER WORLD FOUNDATION.
It takes an afternoon of phone calls for me to learn how the Create a Fairer World Foundation is a front that funnels money to organize demonstrations around the country, marches and rallies that often turn violent. Great. Even a below average intelligence girl like me can see where this case is taking me – down to City Hall.
The next morning, at least Assistant District Attorney Sid Beebe seems nice enough, dressed in an off the rack suit from an above average clothing store for men. He even keeps a photo of his wife and three kids turned at an angle on his desk so people like me can know he’s a family man.
“So what brings you here, Ms. Heck?” Sid asks.
“You’re holding Ed Chang on an assault and battery charge.”
“Oh?” Sid clickety clacks on his computer keyboard until Ed Chang’s case appears on one of his two computer screens. “Are you his attorney?”
“No. A concerned party hired me to look into the alleged crime Ed is accused of. I think he’s innocent but need your help to prove it.”
“I’m afraid you’re in the wrong office, Ms. Heck. You need to work with Mr. Chang’s attorney or the public defender if he can’t afford to hire his own. I’m paid by the taxpayers to nail criminals’ butts to the wall, not to prove their innocence.”
I hand a photocopy of the list of donors to the Create a Fairer World Foundation to him.
“Some of these people also donate to your boss’s campaigns whenever she runs for re-election. I’m sure she would like to return the favor by keeping who else they donate to out of the public’s eye. Some of the people on that list are very private kind of people, you know.”
Sid takes his time reading the long list of names. At least he’s thorough.
“Uh, I’ll be right back,” he says as he leaves his office.
Ten minutes later, he returns, without the list of donors. “What do you expect us to do, Ms. Heck? We can’t just let someone charged with a felony like Ed Chang out of jail unless someone posts his bail. You know that.”
“I need you to have someone review the footage of any security cameras or traffic cameras or whatever else is used along the block where the jewelry store is located. It shouldn’t take too long to see if it was Ed or someone else who conked him over the head.”
“Isn’t that your job?”
“Technically, yes it is. But from past experience, I can assure you that business owners have always refused to let me view the footage from their security cameras, unless I fork over some big bucks. Right now, my bank account is down to almost zero because my dad’s funeral cost a small fortune, more than his estate left me.”
“I’ll see what we can do,” Assistant D.A. Beebe says as he gestures that it’s time for me to leave.
That night, while I can’t sleep, I do something I haven’t done for a long time.
It’s not because Dad and Mom did not raise me to believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I guess my lack of talking to my Creator for such a long time is my protest against the messed up world we private investigators have to see in way too much gory detail. Not that I blame God for any of it.
It’s like Dad must have said a thousand times while I was growing up: There are only a limited number of people on Earth at any given time in history. But somehow, they always find what seems like an infinite number of ways to screw things up, big time.
* * *
The next afternoon, I’m relieved to find out God answered my prayers for the Changs when Paul calls and asks me to pick up his grandson from the L.A. County Jail. I still have unanswered questions so I’m glad to.
“How did you get ahold of that list of donors?” I ask Ed Chang as I drive toward the airport.
“I saw it laying around Create a Fairer World’s office so I made a copy of it.”
“Did you do that because you didn’t trust them?”
“Something like that. My mother always told us kids to have what she called an insurance policy just in case our relationship with any organization went bad. Besides, who wants to become the fall guy? How did you get the cops to let me go without bailing me out?”
“A detective reviewed the tapes from security cameras near the jewelry sore. He had to enhance one of the tapes quite a bit, but it definitely showed a white guy at least four inches taller than you smashing his sign into the head of the one who charged you with that assault. The cops showed him the footage and he dropped his charges against you.”
“I suppose you’re taking me to meet my grandfather.”
“Yeah, he said he wants to take a short vacation with you to visit some of your ancestors’ birthplaces.”
Ed pretends to vomit on the dashboard of my Honda Civic.
“Maybe it’s none of my business but you remind me of me when I was your age.” I go on to tell Ed Chang of my wasted years of smoking and snorting dope and running wild and how a judge sentencing me to probation in the custody of my father, which turned my life around.
Ed shakes his head as I end my tale. “Is there a moral I’m supposed to take away from what you just told me?”
“That’s up to you. Your grandfather cares about you just as much as my dad did about me. You need to learn how to trust someone. Why don’t you start out by trusting your grandfather?”
He remains silent for a few minutes and then laughs, the first time I’ve seen him abandon his tough guy act.
“What’s so funny?”
“I was just thinking of how my grandfather was a small boy in China when Mao led his army of over a million peasants to overthrow the Chinese government. Here in the U.S., it’s the wealthy who are trying to overthrow America by using dumb little fools like me as pawns.”
By the time we reach LAX, Paul Chang’s corporate jet is ready for the long flight to Shanghai. Grandpa Chang’s face shows two emotions – gratitude and a pleading look as he hands me a check for my services.
I say, “Thank you,” and then lean closer to whisper into his ear. “Give Ed some time. I think he’s learned a big first lesson.”