Never live in a home so removed, so remote, that the neighbors can't hear you scream.
That was the mistake made by the Tates, the LaBiancas, and possibly by Roland Hutchinson, a Forbes 400 member. That thought kept looping through my head, as I eyed this crowd. Moneyed, educated, multihued, a Cal Tech event at the home of a benefactor that my on-again lover Wallace had dragged me to, where stiff-necked white-jacketed servers passed through with platters of small bites, carefully enunciating each syllable to describe the mouthfuls of morsels
"Sopresata with fig and quince paste."
It looked like jam on pepperoni to me. I demurred.
"Bufala mozzarella with anise basil on heirloom sun-dried tomatoes."
"How old are those tomatoes?" I asked. I passed. I was annoyed. I could have been at my krav maga workout, practicing my elbow thrusts, my footwork, and finding those painful pressure points on my assailant. Instead I was here, in a dress borrowed from my sister, cunningly pinned at the bust, waist, and hips. I had applied eyeliner and mascara, at the risk of poking out my eyeballs. I had completed this mid-winter ensemble with strappy little sandals which hurt my toes and sunk deep into the rye grass as I crossed the lawn towards the closest of five outdoor bars.
Before we had left my home Wallace had looked at me with that faraway gaze that implied unbridled lust, cleared his throat and said, "I think we're going to have to be late."
"Wallace, it took me and Helen a half hour to get this pinned just right. If you take it off now, I'm never putting it back on."
We had reached an impasse. He mentally licked his lips as I watched him think. The light hit his auburn hair, giving him the effect of a halo. That guileless, open, Norwegian face. Under that tux he wore was a toned body, waiting for an impromptu work out.
"That might be preferable," he said.
"Fine. I really don't want to go to this thing anyway."
The fog of desire lifted from his blue eyes. I could see it was a difficult decision. He shook his head and said, slowly, deliberately, "Hutchinson's considering a donation which would make him single largest benefactor of my department. You really don't think I could pin that—"
He stood and kissed me, one of those kisses that dim the exterior world, and said, "Then let's go."
Roland Hutchinson's Southern California extensive pied-à-terre overlooked Pasadena's arroyo. According to Wallace, who had done some research, this was one of his five private homes. A security nightmare, if you asked me, which explained the high stone walls, the wrought iron spikes on top of that, and the coded entrance, entered by a servant as Wallace pulled his red sheened Miata onto the drive. As we drove up the steep drive this manor looked as if it had been moved, stone by stone, from a moor in Great Britain then carefully reassembled here in Pasadena. It exuded the warmth and friendliness of the Tower of London.
After a valet took Wallace's keys we walked through a foyer which could have moonlighted as a ballroom for well over one hundred and fifty people. Wallace and I paused a moment. Roland Hutchinson was one of the one hundred wealthiest men in the world, depending on the stock market on any given day. We stood overlooking his back yard. It was similar to my back yard. It had grass. But whereas my yard had a weathered propane grill on the stone patio with a table and chairs, and a walnut tree providing shade and variety, Hutchinson's sprawled on and on and on.
We then headed towards the light, the noise, the music, and Hutchinson's vista of the San Gabriel Valley. The grounds sparkled with tiny white lights, the air was filled with the excited chatter of people delighted to find themselves in glamorous surroundings. The illuminated Colorado Street Bridge spanned the arroyo; in the distance an imposing Spanish Revival structure stood like a sentry. A century ago Vista Del Arroyo was a luxury resort, now it had been refurbished and reincarnated as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. I had been there a few times, all related to my investigations.
Due to the unseasonably warm late January weather, many people ignored the heat lamps, and seemed to be in scintillating, vibrant conversation with each other. Most of the attendees appeared to be just like Wallace, in the sense that they were Cal Tech employees; I recognized the faces of quite a few, from previous Wallace functions. But Wallace never seemed to acquire neither their pallid grey coloring, nor their flaccid muscle tone, like many in his department. Most of them, I assumed, were in Wallace's obscure-to-me field: biogenetics and its mathematical analysis. A young, slim Asian woman with fashionably startling glasses grabbed Wallace's elbow, and began chattering away quite happily. Before he had a chance to introduce me, I walked towards one of the five outdoor bars.
Impeded by overly solicitous servers I finally reached my destination.
The bartender handed me a glass of red wine. I changed my mind, handed it back to him and switched to white. I was wearing Helen's dress, after all.
I sipped it and glanced around at the crowd. The dress was making my skin prickle all over. I must be allergic to silk, I thought. I caught a glimpse of Wallace. The pretty young Asian woman watched him raptly as he spoke.
Maybe I could sign him over to her.
Oh, right. I mean, sometimes when I am with Wallace it is as if there is nothing else in the universe. Time stops. That's usually in bed. Then other times, like right in the thick of a case, it is a distraction. I figure singleness is a state best appreciated when coupled. You pine and pine for someone, then someone comes along and you're happy, but then you end up at putting on a pretty face for mindless events when you could be doing anything else. Working out. Working a case. Clipping your toe nails. Popping Effexor.
Even though Cervantes was talking about food, I think he got it right about relationships. Hunger is the best sauce. And right now I was full.
As I sipped my drink and glanced around I thought that singleness also leaves the door wide open into the realm of possibility. I thought about the bartender who had just poured my drink. An impassive, handsome face, a thin mustache on his upper lip. Tall, bien guapo, as my grandmother would say.
Easy to pick on Wallace. Easy to blame frustration on simply having a boyfriend. Part of me knew I was still in knots over my last case. It could be summed up like this. I go to my fragile thirty-something client and tell her, "I've got some good news and some bad news. You know that twenty year old murder of your mother you wanted me to solve in order to give you 'closure'? Figured it out. Here's the evidence. Oh, yeah, they're picking up your father as we speak."
Words to that effect, anyway.
Sometimes you do wish they killed the messenger.
As I stood, trapped in this cheerful line of thought, I heard a woman speaking rapid-fire Spanish and laughter behind me. I turned in its direction, and watched as an elegantly dressed blonde nodded her head at the two men behind the bar. She turned, and surveyed the scene on the lawn, then back to the bartenders. She wore a strapless floor length gown, I suppose you'd call it, which swished a deep shimmering lavender color as she turned. Her blond hair flipped before it hit her bare, pale shoulders. She looked stunning, but the two men behind her were still gazing at her, with admiration more than desire. Then, in Spanish, she said, "Be sure that's bottled water. I don't want to endure the gringo's revenge while I'm here."
Then men laughed again. She took her goblet of water and returned to watching the crowd.
How charming. Some European condescending to interact with the great unwashed. She was good, though, I couldn't hear a mangled r, t, or d. But don't ask me in which country she studied her Spanish. I can barely distinguish between someone who hails from Wales or someone visiting from South Africa, so don't expect me to unravel whether she studied in Madrid or Buenos Aires.
I noticed she was looking at me.
"That is a fabulous dress," she said.
Helen would be pleased. "Thank you."
"Of course, you need the arms for a dress like that, and you've definitely got them. Weights?"
I nodded, and noticed that the biceps on her relaxed arms were well-defined as well. Now that she stood closer, I could see her green eyes, sapphire earrings, and a sapphire pendant resting in the hollow of her throat. She looked my age, early thirties. But some women have a knack and the means for maintaining that look for an additional decade.
"Angelica Real," she said, presenting her hand. Except she pronounced it "Ahn hel ee ka Reh all"
"Inez Leon," I said, shaking the proffered hand. Smooth, strong grip.
"So, which link brings you to this party? Are you in Wallace Dahl's department?" I asked, knowing of course not. No adjunct assistant instructor anywhere made enough money to manage the rent on the dress this woman was wearing.
"You know," she said, "it's a generalization based on reality. In America, the first thing people do at parties is ask you what you do. In Europe, no one asks that question, as it is frowned upon as using a social event as some kind of venue for networking. Cultural and political events are their main topic of conversation, with a subtext of flirtation. In Mexico, we of the alta aristocracia," she gave a little laugh, "seem to already know everyone who's been invited. That's why I love coming to parties in the States."
I was still a few paragraphs behind. "You're from Mexico?" I said. I think I even squinted and leaned forward. How utterly smooth of me.
"Indeed. Born and raised in Mexico City, university in the States. Made my father happy by getting my bachelor's at his alma mater, Harvard, made my mother happy by getting my law degree at her alma mater, UCLA, and am currently dedicated to making myself happy."
I blinked back at her. I had always thought of blond Mexicans as an oxymoron, a part of the mythology created by us dark people with a keen sense of inadequacy, and perpetuated by the folks at Univision, the Spanish language network with the monopoly on emotionally overwrought telenovelas.
She looked back at me, a bit of disappointment in her face. "As I am fond of reminding the people I meet here, I am one of the many faces of Mexico." She sipped her water. "Tell me," she said, "are you a native Californian?"
"Am I wearing a label?" I asked.
"I apologize if that sounded rude. I'm sorry." She looked around the crowd then back at me. "The greatest wave of emigration was during our civil war. Of course we now refer to it as the War of Independence. Your age — never mind. I'm obsessed." And she laughed again. "When in the States, do as — so, and you? Are you, a singer? An actress? A scientist?"
"I'm a private investigator."
As she clapped her hands together half of her water spilled out.
"Wonderful!" She said. "I love it! And, by the way, to answer your question, I am affiliated with no one tonight. I'm a gate crasher."
Angelica winked at me, then watched three gentlemen approach, Wallace being one of them. His tux was sleek and well-fitted. He always did have a trace of the dandy in him. I could never decide whether this pleased or vexed me. The results pleased me, the efforts exasperated me.
Wallace said to the older gentleman on his left, "I'd like to introduce you to my friend, Inez Leon. Inez, Mr. Roland Hutchinson."
I put on the smile I had practiced, the one I had brushed my teeth for, suddenly so self- conscious that I barely registered his plain, homespun, taken out of context, perhaps even simple, face. I tilted my head a bit forward and shook his hand. He's just a man, I reminded myself. Even if he does own a percentage of the entire world's resources, and Wallace is pinning some of his department's hopes and dreams on him, he's still just a human being. To continue breathing I required diversionary tactics so I turned to my new friend. "This is —"
"Angelica Real," she smiled, "as in the 'real deal'." The Spanish pronunciation had vanished completely.
"Pleasure," Mr. Hutchinson said. When he had smiled and blinked at me, I saw that he was mid-to-late fifties, a full head of neatly combed light brown hair with a scattering of gray. He turned to Angelica and looked at her with a bit more intensity than he had focused on me, before saying, "Allow me, ladies, to introduce Alan Miller."
I now smiled in the direction of the third gentleman, his age between Wallace's and Hutchinson's, the dark brown hair on above his forehead brushed upwards and a bit back. He smiled, shook my hand, shook Angelica's, then continued to goggle at me in a way that made me think to not wear this dress in mixed company again.
"Mr. Hutchinson," my blonde companion said, "you know, I often think that if I needed nectar and ambrosia, yours would be the company to carry it."
Hutchinson craned his neck around searching for a server, then smiled at her and said, "I'm fairly sure that's what I ordered for this evening."
"Truly, you do so many good works — take your involvement in orphanages globally. Thailand, Russia, the Philippines, and Ecuador; I so admire the work of your company in Ecuador. It's incredible how one international company can raise the standard of living."
"I'm beginning to fear that all this buttering up is about to lead me to a frying pan somewhere."
"It's just that — I'm sure you realize your company has an almost insatiable appetite for tomatoes."
Hutchinson said, "Among other things."
"I wish you and the board would reconsider the laborer's demands."
Hutchinson raised his eyebrows.
She continued, "A solid one cent a pound raise would have, literally, global implications."
Roland Hutchinson reached for Angelica's left hand, and neatly tucked it into the crook of his arm. "That Immokalee business certainly started a trend, didn't it. Now, young lady, if you're going to mix business with pleasure at my party, you're going to have to take a walk with me." Angelica didn't pause to glance back at the three of us, and instead set off, walking and talking with Mr. Roland Hutchinson.
"Who was that again?" Wallace asked.
"I'm really not sure," I said.
Wallace said to me, "If you need security ideas, Alan here is your man."
I wondered if Wallace had seen the curious expression on Alan's face.
"Really?" I said. "Why's that?"
"That's what my architectural firm's known for," Alan said, licking his lips and continuing. This time he kept his eyes on my face. "Renovations of yesterday's homes for tomorrow's disasters. Ill wind and all that, but nine eleven really catapulted us farther than I could have honestly anticipated."
"Alan worked on this home," Wallace said.
"What little improvements did you make?"
"Quite a challenge, actually. When one is so good at certain signature pieces the entire month's worth of assignments can become monotonous, but leave it to Roland to always have a twist." He smiled at me, dared a glance at my chest, licked his lips and continued. "Logistical challenges, retrofitting, I very much enjoy. His projects are always fascinating. I've done all of his homes, and his boat, as a matter of fact. Nothing, unfortunately, that I can talk about in any depth, confidentiality being very important to our clients. But we do have signature pieces that have become quite popular." He cleared his throat. "If you were perhaps interested in a tour some time? Both of you?"
Wallace asked about Roland Hutchinson's yacht; soon I felt the need to escape Alan Miller's ogling, so I tugged at Wallace's arm, and dragged him to a bar for another glass of white wine.
By early the next morning, Wallace had spoken briefly to nearly every one in attendance; the young pretty Asian had drunk too much champagne and was comforted by a friend, and just before the crew began knocking down the bars and the heat lamps, Wallace and I left. His red Miata was down the hill in no time, leaving that heady atmosphere behind us. By the time we got to the junction of Orange Grove and Los Robles I could relax. Tomorrow morning this intersection would be crowded with my cousins from south of the border, with their vending carts, their bus passes, their dollars for groceries and their dollars for wiring home. They looked nothing at all like Ms. Real.
Waves of people. Generations ago those waves created people like me, people like Wallace.
"So, do you get the endowment?" I asked.
Wallace gave a sigh. "The final decision will be months in the making…but I am cautiously optimistic."
I smiled up at him, and started unpinning my dress in the car. At my home at last, Wallace removed the very last one. Even later, sated and tired and nearly asleep, he said, "I hate admitting it, but that was definitely worth the wait."
That evening was the first glimpse I ever had of Mr. Roland Hutchinson, of Hutchinson, Lawes and McDougal, HLM, producers of food for the gods. He did not die early that morning, bleeding slowly to death despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars he had spent on security. That wasn't until later.
The following morning I chatted with my sister Helen, recounting the party and its guests, and she said, "I would have asked to see her passport. I mean, you don't really believe her, do you?"
"Helen, nobody lies about being Mexican. That's something plenty of people like to pretend they're not."
Three weeks later he came at me with the knife and a deadly, steely look in his eyes. One upward thrust and I would catch it in the neck, the chin. One forward thrust and I would be eviscerated. Now came the fun part.
Using both hands and forearms I deflected his lunge, relocated his center of gravity, pounded him forcefully and rapidly on the chest, then quickly kicked him deftly in his groin.
Good thing for him he was packing padding.
He landed with a thud on the mat that reverberated throughout the room.
Three of the spectators gave a brief applause. I stepped over to my opponent, my krav maga coach, Eric, and held out a hand.
"Damn," he said, allowing me to help him up. "Hot damn, Inez."
After my shower, my cell phone rang from my locker. The display read Unknown phone number.
"Inez Leon," I said.
"It's Angelica Real. I know lots of people. Doctors, lawyers, billionaires. But private investigators in the LA area? You're my one and only. I'm hoping I have some business for you. Where can we meet to talk?"
"How'd you get my number?"
"I have a feeling, Angelica, that whatever you have for me is going to be interesting."
That afternoon in my office I stared at those jagged San Gabriel Mountains, and inhaled the scent of scalding hot espresso and toasting almonds from below, then headed for the pastry shop downstairs. As I stepped inside I passed the aging Armenian men who sat out in front, smoking cigarette after cigarette while they argued, scowled, and occasionally stood to smile and greet another aging Armenian fellow. Café life must have been a part of their lives, long ago and far away. Perhaps a small side street off a plaza in Beirut, when it was the Paris of the Middle East.
You can travel quite broadly, here in Pasadena. Inside, were mothers and their toddlers, scriveners hunched over portable electronic devices, half a dozen people waiting in line, with their cell phones or hands free attached to their ears. In other words, people of comfortable enough means or sufficient unemployment to allow them to idle for an hour or more in an over-priced coffee shop.
My large coffee and I waited fifteen minutes, then in came Angelica Real: dressed in a lightweight velvet baby pink track suit, snowy white blonde hair pulled back into a neat pony tail, held with a floral scrunchy, finishing the look with Murano sunglasses. She looked like the quintessential California girl.
Increíble, as my grandmother would say.
She signaled to me, stood in line, then appeared at my table with her own coffee.
"Have you noticed," she said, taking off her dark glasses and staring at me with her startling clear eyes against her pale skin, "how dulce de leche seems to be the flavor of choice this season? It's like production called a meeting and said, 'How do we bring in the Latino consumer? By George, let's offer them dulce de leche!'" She stirred three packets of raw sugar into her coffee. "That, and tortilla and potato chips doused with chile and lime." She shook her head. "They'll woo our taste buds, and our pocket books, but not our dignity. Probably no money in it." She sipped her coffee.
I waited for her to settle in and expel her nervous energy, to be ready to make the point of her visit clear.
"Your boyfriend seems to think the world of you," she said. "Cute, too." She winked at me.
"But not quite as wealthy as Mr. Hutchinson."
She waved her hand at me. "Business," she said. "Anything else would be his own personal fantasy." She continued to stir her coffee. "Your boyfriend called you tenacious. I think that is the quality most necessary here."
She put the lid on her coffee and said, "Let's take a walk." We stepped outside and headed north on a camphor tree lined street. "You're just going to have to pardon my paranoia," she said, "which is why I wouldn't meet you at your office. I won't talk inside a public place or private car because I don't know who's listening. Is it paranoia when it's justified?" She asked rhetorically. Then she turned and looked at me sternly. "Just take my word for it." She was walking briskly and I matched her pace. We probably looked like two women out for our morning constitutional.
"My field is international relations, with an emphasis on commerce and labor. That's a broad field as you might imagine, and truly it covers the businesses all of our countries are loath to acknowledge, when it is within their borders, but happy to point fingers across the borders. Free trade is a wonderful thing, especially for the powers writing the rules. Dinero llame al dinero. But I'm digressing."
Money calls to money. She had pretty well established she was way out of my league. I wondered if that was her intent.
"Simply put," she continued, "workers rights is my field. It's inextricably entwined with our emigration problem, the exploitation of Mexican nationals, and our own horrific labor history. You could trace that back to our continent here before Spain ever entered the picture. My goal, inside of Mexico and out, is that our workers are treated with their fundamental human rights they were born with. To achieve this goal I must narrow my focus and not be detracted. That's where you come in."
We kept walking, shaded by the city council-protected trees, the sounds of passing traffic humming in our ears.
Angela cleared her throat. "A woman I know needs help. She wants my help, but I can not be taken away from my primary focus. Too much is at stake, too many lives, too much brutality. And yet, this woman is the human face of my problems. I was hoping you would be willing to help her."
"I'm not completely following you," I said.
"Her son-in-law, her daughter, and her granddaughter are missing."
"A couple of weeks ago she waited for me at a conference in Mexico City. She waited, followed, hung around, and then she told me her story. At that time, she had found that her family had made their way to Mexico, then into the States. She was hoping I could help her find them."
"Don't say it, I know. There's an estimated two thousand people who cross illegally into the U.S. every day. Is hers the impossible dream? Probably. But I can not turn my back on her, nor can I abandon my work at hand. Please, Inez, please come with me to meet her."
"I'll meet her," I said. "But I can't promise I'll take this."
"You will once you meet her," Angelica said.