WHEN I was growing up, I innocently believed that grandmothers were mostly round-faced, cheery women who supplied you with cookies and a bit of money when your parents weren’t looking. Sadly, despite having reached manhood with most of my delusions shattered by reality, I seemed to have clung to that naïve myth of grandmothers and cookies.
Which was probably why I was now running down the length of an overly landscaped backyard with shotgun blasts going off behind me.
It was supposed to be an easy job. When Mr. Brinkerhoff, a pleasant-looking elderly man, came into my office to ask if I would take a case, I agreed to it, thinking it would be a piece of cake. Hell, I even cut my rates down because I thought it would be a simple matter of trailing his grandmotherly, churchgoing wife as she ran around town one evening. He suspected that she was cheating on him, but in his heart of hearts, he didn’t believe it. Not his Adele.
Love makes a man do stupid things. I certainly wasn’t doing this for love. And the money definitely wasn’t enough to risk my life for. Mr. Brinkerhoff and I were going to have a serious talk when I got back to the office. Provided, of course, I even made it back to the office.
Branches tore at my sleeve as I pounded past a topiary. A leafy-green elephant reached up to the stars with its elegant trunk. Or at least it did before the blast of shot tore its head right off. Debris flew, and the scent of evergreen overpowered me when the tree’s resin struck my face. My cheek stung where the bush’s remains struck me, and I almost slipped before I made it to the relative safety of a large Grecian-style vase. The grass was wet from the rain, a passing deluge that had left the ground too soft to run on, and I’d gained far less distance than I wanted.
Despite what they say, it does rain in Southern California, usually when I’m trying to run away from someone shooting at me.
An ache developed in my chest, more from the twinges of panic than overexertion. Taking what cover I could from the maze of evergreens and hedges scattered about the tiered garden, I plotted my way through seemingly random brick paths, hoping I could find where I’d left my Range Rover. The scenery turned familiar as I scanned my surroundings. An overgrown morning glory nearly choked the rim of a fountain. I’d spotted that first when I’d come through the back gate to spy on Mrs. Brinkerhoff’s evening pleasures. The back gate would be nearby, and unlike when I’d arrived, I wouldn’t have to pick the lock to get in.
The high, wooden-slat fence separated me from my car. Standing nearly eight feet tall, the fence was a residential requirement to hide pools away from roaming packs of hot children looking for a watering hole to play in during the summer. I’d parked in one of the many back alleys that cut through Los Angeles’s streets. Here in the more upper-class neighborhoods, they served as a way to hide servants’ and gardeners’ cars from the street. Perfect place to park my old Rover.
Lights were starting to come on in the enormous houses around the one I’d found Mrs. Brinkerhoff in. In a few minutes, I would be enjoying the company of LA’s finest unless I got my ass in gear. Hearing the distinct click of a shotgun being reloaded gave me my incentive to scale the fence. Damn the gate, I needed to get out of there as quickly as possible before the cops were standing over my cooling body, making off-color jokes about how I got my kicks.
The wood dug splinters into my hands as I grabbed the top of the fence. My sneakers found a little purchase on the rough surface, and I pulled myself up, hooking a foot over the top. The fence edge slid against the inside of my thigh, and a shock hit me when my sac met the unforgiving wooden slats. I wanted to take a moment to breathe and get myself under some sort of control, but Mrs. Brinkerhoff had other ideas.
From my higher vantage point on the fence, it was easy to spot her white, coiffed helmet, a frosty cap of fine hair artfully arranged around her rosy cheeks and pert bow mouth. She’d been cute when she was younger. The kind of girl that men flirted with casually and dreamed about taking home to Mother. Her body was rounded into a pleasant, huggable shape that children would find a comfortable lap to sit on. It just wasn’t a body made for the leather bra and panties set, glinting with diamond studs, she wore as she hunted me across the mansion’s landscaped back lawn.
I was going to have to splash a bucket of bleach into my eyes to get rid of the sight of Mrs. Brinkerhoff and her lover frolicking around a red-velvet-curtained bed. I didn’t find women sexually attractive, so unlike most men, two women getting it on means that there’s twice as much stuff going on that I’m not interested in, but there was just something wrong about seeing mounds of infirm, pillowy flesh undulating over crimson sheets, or the sight of Mrs. Brinkerhoff’s mouth on another woman’s privates. The leather getups were an added bonus, and after taking pictures of what happened on that bed, I wasn’t going to switch to women anytime soon.
The woman moved carefully around the topiary corpse, silent on her bare feet. If I hadn’t been the one she was stalking, I’d have to give it to the old lady. She was definitely not someone to mess with. The shotgun barrel was kept pointed down, her hands gripped expertly on the stock and at the ready to pull it up if she spotted me. Any other time, I’d have applauded her hunting skills, but right now, I just wanted out of there before she filled me full of holes.
“Great,” I mumbled, watching Mrs. Brinkerhoff’s head bob up and down among the sculpted trees. “She’s on fricking safari and I’m the goddamned antelope.”
The ground seemed to be a lot farther away on the other side, built on a gentle slope that would take excess runoff and channel it toward grates set in the middle of the tight alley. Calculating the distance down, I wondered if I would break my leg when I dropped on the mold-slick cement below.
Mrs. Brinkerhoff’s head jerked up when I slid to get a better angle to fall from, and I couldn’t stop a small moan escaping between my clenched teeth as the fence dug deeper into the crux of my thighs. Her hair gleamed, a white poof of silvery cotton that made my spine tingle when I saw it. In the dim light from the floods along the side of the house, I saw her eyes squint and the pinprick of a murderous gleam form when she spotted me straddling the fence. Shadows winked away when the shotgun turned to fix on me, the watery orange of the streetlights catching on its dull metal surface.
I did what any sane man would do when a pixie-faced grandmother lined him up in her sights: I jumped.
Hitting cement is never pleasant, especially after an eight-foot drop. The top of the fence exploded, going the way of Mr. Elephant’s head. It was raining wood on my head, and off in the distance, amid the echo of the shotgun blast reverberating in my ears, I heard sirens approaching. Definitely time to get into my car and speed away.
Patting at my chest, I heaved a sigh of relief. I still had the slim camera in my jacket pocket, captured evidence of Mrs. Brinkerhoff’s indiscretions and probably the source of my therapy bills for years to come. No sense nearly getting my head blown off if I wasn’t going to get paid for it. My keys were there too, even better luck since breaking into my own car wasn’t on my things-to-do-tonight list.
The Rover started up with a roar, matching the bark of Mrs. Brinkerhoff’s weapon. I gunned the engine and barreled down the alley just in time to see her pale, plump shape poke out of a gate near the end of the fence. She brought the shotgun up, nestling the barrel against her soft shoulder, and aimed. I caught sight of her in my rearview mirror, standing bare to the cold wind coming down the alley.
Take away the leather bikini get-up and shotgun, replace it with a flowered housecoat and some potholders, and I’d have that warm, sweet grandmother I’d imagined she was. Or at least that was what I was thinking when the shotgun went off again, shattering the Rover’s back window. Pebbled glass flew forward, hitting my shoulders and the back of my head.
“Shit.” The blast tore at my hearing, leaving me with a throbbing headache and a ringing that resembled the church bells from my old Catholic school. The Rover hit the street hard, its back tire jumping off the curb. Squealing to the right side of the street, I pressed the pedal down and peeled away, leaving Mrs. Brinkerhoff and her equally doughy lover behind me.
I PULLED the Rover up to the old building I’d bought when I’d first decided to become a private investigator. It was in what was once a rundown part of Los Angeles, one of those neighborhoods that showed its belly to people looking for someplace cheap and hip to live. There were now at least five coffee shops within walking distance of my front door and more sushi bars than I could even count. If I liked sushi, it would be great. I was consoled by the presence of an Irish pub a block down. The quasi-ghetto turned into a thriving community while I slaved away to restore a building that most people thought was a lost cause. It was a nice place to live, an even nicer place to work.
Seeing the building still gave me a sense of pride when I drove up to it, its weathered gold brick exterior lit up from the outside with small floodlights hidden amid the bushes. Its restoration took me two years, each day spent with cursing, sweat, and more than a few drops of my blood. The building had no intention of making it easy for me, and I’d earned every damned inch of its resurrection.
When the building was new, it was a law office or someplace where tiger oak paneling and high, arched windows were a requirement for doing business. I’d given the place the once-over, sizing up how long it would take me to strip off the paint from the wood and repair the abuse to the interior walls, and fallen in love. I’d seen the potential in its abandoned squalor, and I certainly had the time and money to spend on turning the rooms into someplace I could live and work.
Besides, the hard labor of stripping varnish and sanding down endless yards of wood kept my mind off of Rick. At that time, that was what I needed the most. I’m not sure I’ve stopped needing it, but I’ve run out of wood to sand down.
I’d divided up the building into two spaces, the front part of the first floor serving as an office for my investigation work. A separate entrance off of the front porch gleamed with a brass plaque announcing to a client that they’d found Cole McGinnis, Private Investigator. A covered side porch protected the entrance to my home, a living room and a kitchen downstairs and a pair of rooms above it. I’d knocked down walls to create a large bedroom away from the street, leaving the shotgun-style room in the front as a library of sorts. The space was large enough for a family, if I’d had one, but I didn’t. It echoed around me. Living there suited me. I felt about as empty as the house, most of the time.
I backed the Rover into the carport. There was nothing in the car to steal, but with its rear window missing, I wasn’t going to borrow trouble. There was a light on in the back half of the first floor. The last thing I wanted right now was company, but there’d be no avoiding him. I’d spotted my brother’s car when I’d driven up, and Mike wasn’t someone I could dodge for long, especially when he was stalking me in my own living room.
Slouched on one of the red couches, Mike didn’t look dangerous. I knew better. I’d grown up with him. The bump on my nose was testament to the hardness of his fists. The only thing that saved me was he’d stopped growing at five-nine while I’d kept going for a few more inches. It didn’t make me more intimidating. My height just meant I had longer legs to run away with.
Mike took after our Japanese mother. His face was broad, and his thick black hair was cut into a bristled hedgehog he ran his hand over when he was thinking something out. I got more of our father’s Irish coloring and build, light brown eyes and hair, but we definitely shared our mother’s face. She existed for me in flat paper squares, photographs taken when my father first met her in Tokyo up until when she died. I had a picture of her holding a baby, her eyes nearly closed with her smile. The baby was Mike. She hadn’t lived long enough to hold me.
“You’re coming home very late, little brother,” Mike said, glancing up from a stack of papers. Even while stalking, his mind was on his security business. There was a half-empty beer bottle on the coffee table, a coaster advertising a brand of tequila I’d never bought soaking up the condensation. “And you’ve got branches in your hair. Another jealous-husband case?”
I handed him the camera as a response, telling him to go through the pictures while I got myself a beer. His lurching snorts were audible from the kitchen, and by the time I returned to the living room, his face had turned a bright, beet red. I wasn’t certain if there was an actual chortle, but he came close to choking on his own laughter as he ran through the images.
“This is disgusting,” he said, waving the camera at me. “Someone paid you to take these?”
“Her husband,” I replied, leaning over my brother’s shoulders and tapping a close-up of Mrs. Brinkerhoff’s cherubic face. “Apparently he suspected that she was cheating on him. He could have told me she can shoot the balls off a fly. Her girlfriend saw me in the window and screamed. Next thing I know, there’s a shotgun pointed at my face and bits of a tree elephant in my hair.”
“You should come work for me. No one shoots at us, and you definitely don’t have to deal with this kind of emotional scarring.” Mike leaned over, picking the last of the leaves out of my hair. Tugging at the long strands near my jaw, he shook his head. “You’ll have to cut this first. No one wants their bodyguard looking like he dropped off a romance cover.”
“Cute,” I said, poking him with my bare foot. “And thanks, but no. I suffered enough growing up with you. I sure as hell ain’t going to work for you.”
“You’re just jealous because teachers knew you lacked my brilliance.” Mike shot me a sly grin, poking at a long-healed-over scab. Older than me by three years, he spent high school being the smart, intelligent McGinnis. It made life hell for me following him, always being compared to what he’d done before. Struggling with being gay at the time didn’t help either.
“Any reason you’re here?” The beer was cold, soothing in my throat. “It’s late, and somehow I don’t think Mad Dog sent you over here with leftover casserole to pawn off on your younger brother.”
“Don’t call her that. Her name’s Madeline.”
“You married her. She should be committed just for that,” I replied, shrugging.
“Wait till you get a new boyfriend,” he threatened. “There’s going to be hell to pay on that.”
“Don’t hold your breath. Look how my last relationship turned out.”
Rick hung between us, a crucified sacrifice to my choices in life. Mike’s eyes fell, his wide-open smile fading as the memories of what had happened flooded both of us. I didn’t want to revisit those events. I certainly never wanted to relive that night, but it came back to me when I slept, sometimes even creeping up on me during the day when I least expected it. I knew Mike had his own guilt he carried around. Neither of us was going to rake that night open and spread its entrails out in front of us to look for good fortune. Nothing good ever came of talking about it, and we weren’t about to start now.
“And you’re wrong.” Mike broke the silence. “I did bring some casserole. Tamale pie, even. You don’t eat well, Cole. How many times a week can you eat steak?”
“Seven,” I answered with a shaky grin. “Sometimes I even go out and get someone to cook it for me. But thanks for the food. I promise I’ll eat it.”
“I came over because I’ve got a job for you.”
“If it includes taking pictures of septuagenarian lesbians, I’m going to have to pass.”
“Nice use of a big word there, little brother. And if it did, then I wouldn’t tell you, just so I could see your face when you found out,” Mike snorted. “One of my clients’ son committed suicide. They swear he wouldn’t do that to the family and want someone to take a look at what happened.”
“People do that kind of thing to their families all the time.” Shrugging, I took another sip of my beer, leaning back into the softness of the couch. “It’s kind of what suicide does.”
“His father insists his son never would have done it.” Shaking his head, my brother sighed. “Look, I think he killed himself, but the father’s a big client. They use our security details all the time, and I can’t just tell him he’s full of shit because he doesn’t want to believe his son did himself.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
“Just look into it.” Mike slid a thick manila envelope out of his pile of papers and passed it over to me. Flicking open the tab, I saw the number of zeros on the check fastened to the top of a paper-clipped report. “Take some time, maybe a couple of weeks, and poke around what he was doing. There’s probably nothing there, but I want the family to feel like at least someone took a second look.”
“But the kid definitely killed himself?” The package held photos of a smiling young Korean, some by himself while others showed him with groups of people or with a thin-faced Caucasian woman. “This is his girlfriend?”
“Wife.” Mike dug through the photos and pulled out one of the young man holding a bowlegged toddler. “Not a kid, really. Late twenties, married, and already with a son. Good Korean boy by all accounts. Pride of the family and all that.”
“Kim Hyun-Shik? Am I pronouncing that right? Kim’s the last name, yes?” It was hard to roll the syllables off my tongue. I studied the young man’s face. He was good-looking, a pretty mouth set into a strong face. His black hair was shaped into a conservative brush much like my brother’s, and his eyes were dark and sparkling. There was love in those eyes for the young boy he held up for the camera, pride beaming out from his face.
I was jealous of that pride and love. It had been a long time since I’d seen that look in my father’s eyes.
“When did he die?” There were reports in the envelope: an autopsy report and lists of places that Hyun-Shik frequented. I recognized a few restaurants, and then a familiar name jumped out at me. “I know this place, Dirty Kiss. It’s… a guest bar.”
“Just a couple of weeks ago. And a guest bar, my ass. It’s a gay whorehouse,” Mike interjected. “Call it what it is, Cole.”
“Whorehouse just seemed a bit rough.” I shuffled the reports, looking for cause of death. “Most customers don’t even make it to the sex rooms. Female impersonators perform shows on the main floor. You have to be a member to get into the upper area.”
“Yeah, well, our boy made it to the upper rooms.” The label on Mike’s beer was taking a beating from his fingernails, its edge peeled back into strips. He was trying to act nonchalant, skirting around a question he wanted to ask but couldn’t. “You go there? For company, I mean? Not that it’s bad. You should get some, once in a while.”
“Mike, it was one of the places I ended up looking into when I was a cop.” The thought of paying someone to dance naked in front of me would have seemed like a good time a few years ago. Times definitely had changed. “I worked Vice, remember? There’s a lot of vice in places like that. The family knows he was a member?”
“I don’t know. He was found there, overdosed on a handful of pills. They didn’t get much when they pumped out his stomach.” He drained the rest of his beer, wincing at its warmth. “His father insists that Hyun-Shik wouldn’t kill himself but won’t talk about his son being gay.”
“A lot of fathers refuse to believe their sons are gay. Look at ours.” Mike shifted uncomfortably, and his face took on a very familiar twisted look.
“Yeah, about Dad,” he said, rubbing at the back of his neck. “He and Mom are coming for a visit in a couple of weeks. Maddy wants to know if you’d like to come to dinner. Maybe bring a guest.”
“Come on, Mike, don’t pull that kind of shit on me.” The beer was tasteless in my mouth, but I drank it anyway, anything to wash out the sawdust clogging my throat. “The old man doesn’t want to see me.”
“It’s been, what… twelve years, Cole?” His eyes were dark, almost moist in the lamplight. “When are the two of you going to stop being stubborn and at least meet halfway?”
Mike hated the schism in our family, hated being the bridge between me and my father. Our Irish Catholic upbringing was good at feeding the guilt that plagued both of us. Mike blamed himself for not being there that night when I told my dad about loving men, and I blamed myself for not being what my family wanted. I’d gotten over mine, but Mike was still working on his.
“Halfway to what?”
I could still hear the slam of the door behind me. The last face I’d seen before it shut was Barbara’s, my father’s second wife and the woman I’d called Mom all of my life. She still wore the look of horror she’d had on since I’d told them my biggest secret, hoping that no matter what, they loved me enough to still call me son. I’d been wrong. “You want me to hide who I am because Dad’s got a problem with it?”
“This isn’t about Dad. This is about you,” Mike said softly. “Tasha’s coming with them. She’s a sophomore now. She wants to see you.”
Our youngest sister had been three when I’d left the family. Other than pictures, I’d not seen her or our other two sisters in years. Mike was a master at playing me. No one else could coax me into doing things I didn’t want to do like he could.
“I’ll think about it.” I eyed my brother, looking for any sign of triumph in his face. “You smile and I’ll punch you.”
“I’m not smiling,” he said, fighting a shit-eating grin. “I’d bring her here if I thought Dad would go for it. Just come over for dinner and be pleasant. Maddy was serious about bringing someone. She thinks it’s about time you date.”
“Tell Mad Dog McGinnis that I’m fine being single.” Mike’s wife meant well, but she’d been on the outskirts of my spiral downward. Mike knew better. Other than not-so-subtle hints that I should get laid, he wasn’t going to push me into anything. “Besides, you think I’d want to inflict Dad on anyone I was interested in? Look how much shit he gave Maddy, and you’re the favorite son.”
“I’ve got to get going.” Glancing at his watch, he winced at the late hour. “Do yourself a favor and take a shower before you go to bed. You smell like one of those pine tree air fresheners you hang in the car.”
“Yeah, right.” I was tired all of a sudden, too many ghosts and relationships flying through my head. “I’ll lock the door behind you.”
“You going to take the job?” Mike gathered up his paperwork, shuffling the pages into their proper order. “I like the guy, Cole. He doesn’t expect you to find anything, really, but he’s got to do something. The kid was his only son.”
“Yeah, I’ll take a look around. I kind of knew one of the performers at the club there. She might be able to give me something.” I snagged the bottles and stood, stretching my body up until I felt my spine crack. A throb started along my ribcage, working outward in a steady, numbing circle. Dropping the glass into the recycling bin, I leaned against the archway and rubbed at the spot.
“Does it hurt?” Mike spotted me working at the spot with the tips of my fingers, worry creasing his heavy eyebrows. “When was the last time you saw the doctor?”
“It’s scar tissue, dude.” The keloid eased its grip on my tangled nerve bundles, and the muscles around the scar slowly began to relax. “Nothing to do about it. I just have to deal with it.”
He didn’t look convinced. Mike was a worrier. He’d been my de facto mother for years. I didn’t see that changing. It got worse after Dad turned his back on me. If anything else happened to me, I was pretty sure he would move me into a spare bedroom of his house so he could keep a closer eye on me.
“Go home to your wife, Mike,” I said, pushing him toward the door. He might be stockier than me, but I had longer arms, and his halfhearted swing at me swished by my shoulder.
“Stop in on the Kim family before you go to that club.” He stopped on the stoop, holding the security screen open. “The father’s up in San Francisco, but his mother’s down here with the rest of the family. Mr. Kim said his wife’s taking it hard since the cops called to tell them about Hyun-Shik.”
“She knows someone’s looking into her son’s death?” The last thing I wanted was to show up on a grieving mother’s doorstep asking questions she wasn’t ready to answer.
“Yeah, I got the feeling Mr. Kim’s doing this for her. He didn’t say it, but that’s what I got when I spoke with him.” Mike was almost down the steps when I called out to him to stop. The porch light cast shadows over my brother’s face, his prominent cheekbones stark under the glare.
“What if I find something?” I asked. “What then?”
“Then, little brother.” He cracked a smile, back to being the superior sibling I’d known and loved all my life. “I expect you to chase it down and find out the truth. Put that pigheadedness of yours to good use. I don’t expect you to do anything less.”
THE water felt good on my body. What felt even better was washing out the last of the bark from my hair. I leaned against the tile, one hand holding my weight as I watched the dirty water swirl down the drain. The shower spray beat against my neck, and I worked the fingers of my other hand over my scalp, making sure there were no remnants of the night’s activities left. A minute leaf, newly formed and spring green, fell and bobbed on the current. I worked it down the drain with the edge of my toe. The color reminded me too much of Rick’s eyes. They were never that green, but he’d often worn contacts to pop their intensity, liking the startling effect against his tanned skin.
He’d been wearing them that night. Bright greens mocked me at times. The leaf was no exception.
Turning off the water, I grabbed a towel and scrubbed the water from my legs. A bruise was forming along the inside of my thigh, a long line of purple from the thick edge of the wooden fence. The mark ended at the edge of the gunshot scar on my leg, the smallest of my wounds. The bullet had torn through the muscle, passing straight through and embedding into the brick wall behind us.
It was the last shot taken, and I didn’t remember getting hit there.
I passed the towel over my chest and down over my stomach. If I woke up early enough, I could head down to the gym and get a few rounds in before I started work. Working out helped keep the scar tissue on my ribs limber, or so I kept telling myself. At the very least, it helped keep me in shape so I could outrun rabid old women with shotguns.
The nodule of tissue on my ribs was still florid, darker than the one on my chest, and prominent. Rubbing the reducing salve over the circular scars, I let my mind wander, thinking about the young man and his suicide.
There’d been a note of sorts amid the papers, a copy of a paper scrap scrawled with a few bits of Korean. The hand was masculine and strong, confidently marching the letters across the page. If Hyun-Shik was doubting himself, it certainly hadn’t shown in his handwriting.
I recognized the language with the circles and dashes from seeing restaurant signs more than from any knowledge on my part. I could speak English and passable Spanish, but Korean was far outside of my comfort zone. I might have had a Japanese mother, but other than knowing the difference between noodles and rice, I was about as Asian as a bowl of cornflakes.
“Need someone to translate that,” I mumbled to the empty bedroom as I hunted for a pair of boxers. My dresser was sadly lacking in clean clothes. I added laundry to my list of things to do in the morning. Something didn’t seem right about the note. It nagged at me as I turned off the light and lay back on the bed. “What’s there that made them sure it was a suicide? And why would you write your suicide note on a torn piece of paper?” But then that made as much sense as swallowing a bunch of pills at a karaoke sex club in Garden Grove.
Sighing, I closed my eyes, letting my fatigue finally take me. The last image I had in my mind as I fell asleep was of Hyun-Shik’s face as he held his son. The happiness there was at odds with the desperation of a man driven to suicide. But then, I told myself, everyone has demons they keep hidden. It’s when those demons fight free that we find out the truth of things.