Bye-Bye, Black Sheep: A Mommy-track Mystery

Bye-Bye, Black Sheep: A Mommy-track Mystery

by Ayelet Waldman
     
 

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A new arrival in the bestselling mystery series.

Private Investigators Juliet Applebaum and Al Hockey finally have a steady stream of clients coming through their garage-turned-office. But they'll realize it's no child's play tracking down the killer of a gorgeous transsexual's sister.See more details below

Overview

A new arrival in the bestselling mystery series.

Private Investigators Juliet Applebaum and Al Hockey finally have a steady stream of clients coming through their garage-turned-office. But they'll realize it's no child's play tracking down the killer of a gorgeous transsexual's sister.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Juliet Applebaum, a PI and mother of three. continues her balancing act in Waldman's smart seventh Mommy-Track mystery (after 2005's The Cradle Robbers). When Heavenly, an African-American transvestite, shows up in tears at the office Juliet shares with her partner, ex-cop Al Hockey, the sassy, bighearted former public defender commits to tracking down the murderer of Heavenly's sister, Violetta, a drug addict and prostitute whose death has been ignored by the LAPD. The case takes Juliet from the privileged comfort of her home in the Hollywood Hills to the projects of South Central, where she interviews Violetta's family and streetwalker colleagues, all of whom are depicted with compassion. Juliet works methodically through her list of suspects-"Tricks, Boyfriends, Coworkers, Family"-until arriving at the sad answer to Violetta's demise. Whether scrambling for child care or bribing pimps, Juliet is resourceful, and her humor shines through in this brisk, thoroughly readable tale. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Mommy meets working girls. Juliet Applebaum, wife of a schlockmeister L.A. screenwriter, mother of three and part-time partner in the p.i. agency former cop Al Hockey runs out of his garage, barely gulps when she surveys her new client's vibrant green eye shadow and nail polish and full-fashioned wig, not to mention her six-foot-plus frame. Miss Heavenly, a former he, wants to know who killed her sister Violetta. So what if she was an addict and a Figueroa Street hooker? She's been dead six months, the cops haven't a clue, and her poor mother's heart is breaking. Juliet carpools her kids, then heads for Figueroa, where, with the permission of Baby Richard, the pimp loitering at the taco stand, she buys coffee and buns for his girls and learns Violetta was not the only one killed, probably by the same man. Juliet rushes off to the detective in charge of cold cases. Meanwhile, another pimp crosses Juliet's path, and she sinks much of her babysitting budget into coffees for the working girls. Turning to Violetta's family for insight, she discovers that Violetta shot up the money supposed to finance her rehab and came on to her own brothers, even Heavenly, before he changed over. But did it all add up to murder?Though Juliet (The Cradle Robbers, 2005, etc.) is still adorable, Waldman has bouts of preachiness better suited to the op-ed page than a mystery.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780425216392
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/03/2007
Series:
Mommy-track Series, #7
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
1,443,956
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.65(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

“A master of smart, snappy repartee.”

Kirkus Reviews

Praise for

THE CRADLE ROBBERS

“Customary humor . . . dependably tart mommy-track wisecracks.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Witty . . . smart sleuthing.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Human and credible characters—in particular, a smart, sensitive sleuth . . . should delight committed fans and attract new ones.”

Publishers Weekly

“Fabulous.”

Midwest Book Review

“Waldman always provides full-bodied characters, humor, and a socially conscious plot that entertains as it enlightens.”

Booklist

MURDER PLAYS HOUSE

“Well-plotted . . . Juliet is a wonderful invention, warm, loving, and sympathetic to those in need, but unintimidated by the L.A. entertainment industry she must enter to search for clues . . . What a motive, what a resolution, and how clever of Juliet to figure it out.”

Publishers Weekly

“The Mommy-Track Mysteries get progressively feistier and wittier.”

Midwest Book Review

“As always, Waldman uses humor to portray the Los Angeles scene while making some serious points about what is really important in life. This thoroughly modern cozy will be popular.”

Booklist

“Witty Waldman is so endearingly pro-kid that you may run right out and get pregnant, and so unsparing about Hollywood sylphs and pro-anorexia websites that you may never diet again.”

Kirkus Reviews

DEATH GETS A TIME-OUT

“Juliet and her patient husband make an appealing couple—funny, clever, and loving (but never mawkish). Waldman has an excellent ear for the snappy comeback, especially when delivered by a five-year-old.”

Publishers Weekly

“Waldman is at her witty best when dealing with children, carpooling, and first-trimester woes, but is no slouch at explaining the pitfalls of False Memory Syndrome either.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Think Chinatown, but with strollers and morning sickness. Arguably the best of Waldman’s mysteries.”

Long Island Press

A PLAYDATE WITH DEATH

“Smoothly paced and smartly told.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Sparkling . . . Witty and well-constructed . . . Those with a taste for lighter mystery fare are sure to relish the adventures of this contemporary, married, mother-of-two Nancy Drew.”

Publishers Weekly

“[A] deft portrayal of Los Angeles’s upper crust and of the dilemma facing women who want it all.”

Booklist

THE BIG NAP

“Waldman treats the Los Angeles scene with humor, offers a revealing glimpse of Hasidic life, and provides a surprise ending . . . An entertaining mystery with a satirical tone.”

Booklist

“Juliet Applebaum is smart, fearless, and completely candid about life as a full-time mom with a penchant for part-time detective work. Kinsey Millhone would approve.”

—Sue Grafton

NURSERY CRIMES

“[Juiet is] a lot like Elizabeth Peters’s warm and humorous Amelia Peabody—a brassy, funny, quick-witted protagonist.”

Houston Chronicle

“A delightful debut filled with quirky, engaging characters, sharp wit, and vivid prose.”

—Judith Kelman, author of After the Fall

“[Waldman] derives humorous mileage fom Juliet’s ‘epicurean’ cravings, wardrobe dilemmas, night-owl husband, and obvious delight in adventure.”

Library Journal

Berkley Prime Crime books by Ayelet Waldman

NURSERY CRIMES

THE BIG NAP

A PLAYDATE WITH DEATH

DEATH GETS A TIME-OUT

MURDER PLAYS HOUSE

THE CRADLE ROBBERS

BYE-BYE, BLACK SHEEP

BYE-BYE,
BLACK
SHEEP

Ayelet Waldman

Acknowledgments

This novel was written at Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers. I am eternally grateful to that marvelous place and its incomparable staff for the gift of time, solitude, peace, and space.

Thanks to Tsan Abrahamson, Kristina Larsen, and Devin McIntyre.

And to the wonderful people at Berkley: Leslie Gelbman, Abigail Thompson, Susan Allison, Donita Dooley, Sharon Gamboa, Don Rieck, Michelle Vega, and Trish Weyenberg. And especially Natalee Rosenstein.

Table of Contents

One

I fingerprinted my seven-year-old daughter because they made me. I didn’t want to do it. It made me uncomfortable to dot her plump thumbs on the little pad of ink and roll them on the stiff white card. Her left thumb was soggy and creased from its night’s sleep tucked firmly against the roof of her mouth, so the print it left was smeared and almost unreadable.

“Okay, all done. Go wash your hands,” I said, as I tucked the card back into its plastic jacket.

“My turn,” my son, Isaac, said.

I shook my head. “We don’t need to do one for you.”

“But I want to do it, too.”

“Sorry, honey.”

Ruby turned from the kitchen sink where she was lathering up her hands with an excess of dishwashing liquid. “It’s only for big kids,” she said.

“Why?” he said.

She gave a disdainful shake of her carrot-colored curls. “Because.”

“Why does she get to do it?” he demanded. “She’s not so big.”

I said, “Because her teacher said we had to.”

“It’s for my own protection,” Ruby said, parroting the words of the kindly Los Angeles Police Department officer who had come to her school and distributed the cards. “It’s so that if I get stolen Mama and Daddy can get me back.”

Isaac’s lower lip began to tremble and glycerin tears gathered on his eyelashes. “But I want to come back, too. It’s not fair.”

This was precisely why I hadn’t wanted to do this in the first place. This was why I object on principle to the whole notion of educating small children about abduction and kidnapping. The fear that our children will be stolen from us has become a national obsession. We watch the stories of Polly and Amber’s abductions on television, and torture ourselves by imagining the last hours of their lives. We instruct our children to avoid contact with those they don’t know, never to speak to strangers, never to get into the car with a stranger, even if he asks them to help him with his sick puppy, or if he tells them that Mommy sent him to pick them up because something terrible has happened. We teach them about “bad touches” and “good touches.” And now it seems we fingerprint them and file the cards away, not, as Ruby says, so we can find them if they are snatched, because if they are found we would know them. I fear that these cards have one use only. They are used to identify the bodies.

All this fear, all this anxiety and, when population is factored into the analysis, the rates of stranger-abduction have remained constant over the years. It is no more likely that our children will be stolen and murdered than it was when I was small, in the late 1970s. No more likely, despite the fact that back then we all had the run of our neighborhoods, riding our bikes through the streets, playing kick the can and hide-and-seek until dark.

The cost of this parental apprehension is high. I see it now in Isaac’s face as he struggles to understand from whom his sister is being protected and why he is not lucky enough to dabble in black ink to earn the same defense. I see it in Ruby’s understanding of a world that, infected by the unease of the adults around her, now includes hordes of malicious strangers intent on doing her harm.

“I want to do my fingerprints,” Isaac wailed.

Sadie, who at eight months old is always ready to lend her voice to any catastrophe, looked up from her pile of Cheerios and let loose with a full-throated cry.

It’s important for a parent to stand firm, to be consistent in her rules. Once a mother makes a decision, she must stick to it, whatever the cost. Otherwise the child learns only that a tantrum is the best method to get his way.

“Okay, okay,” I said. “I’ll get another card from Ruby’s teacher and we’ll do your fingerprints tonight. Stop screaming, or you’ll wake up Daddy.”

Another stellar moment in the annals of Juliet Applebaum, bad mother.

But I really didn’t want the kids to wake Peter up. My husband is a screenwriter, responsible for such classics of American cinema as The Cannibal’s Vacation and Flesh-eaters I, II, and III. With an animated version of his cannibal series in production, he had earned himself a little room to experiment with something new. The cartoon cannibals would pay the mortgage on our rundown 1926 Hollywood Hills pile of a house for a little while, at least until the series was canceled, so Peter didn’t have to churn out another horror movie right away. I still wasn’t earning very much as a private investigator, although the month before had been unusually lucrative for me and my partner. In that one month I’d brought home almost as much working part-time as I had when I was working ten hours a day or more as a federal public defender. That was a significant improvement over the months when the business had cost me money.

Peter was making the most of the opportunity his series had bought him, and had been up until close to four A.M. hashing out the structural problems of Act II of a screenplay entirely unlike anything he’d ever done before.

He was writing a kung fu movie.

Some people think my husband is a strange guy, although I take issue with that. I think most men of his generation harbor a perhaps unhealthy obsession with comic books, action figures, and other detritus of their childhoods. Peter’s passion for vintage Mego action figures and DC 100-Page Super Spectaculars stems from a slightly different place from most of the guys he hangs out with at Hi De Ho Comics. He has the complete run of twelve-inch G.I. Joes, from 1964 to 1976, with a particular interest in Kung Fu Grip and Life-Like Hair, not because those are the toys he played with when he was a little boy, but because those are the toys he desired but did not own. It’s nostalgia, but nostalgia for unfulfilled passions. Peter grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city quite a bit closer to Appalachia than most people realize. It’s as far as his parents got when they climbed up out of the holler and down off the mountain. They made it to the city, but the city didn’t make much of them, and there was never enough money to go around, certainly not enough for toys. Peter never had a G.I. Joe. He had a couple of G.I. Joe outfits, and a knock-off military doll from a discount store that was called something like Army Jack, but he never had the real thing. He’s making up for lost time, now. I think his collection is up to around thirty, and those are just the G.I. Joes. I couldn’t even begin to count the other vintage superhero dolls. And then there are the Star Wars action figures.

He’s good at sharing, though. There are definitely figures he insists on keeping in their original blister packs, but there are plenty of others he lets the kids play with. Peter’s office is an authentic dungeon in the basement of our house, complete with handcuffs bolted to the wall and an antique vaulting horse that still bears the marks of leather straps and cords (either the movie star who built our house, Ramon Navarro, had something of a predilection for the sadomasochistic or he’d been taken for a ride by an insane interior decorator). It is a paradise of toys and dolls.

Another of Peter’s loves is Hong Kong martial arts movies. His favorite director is Yuen Woo-ping, the Master. Peter says his name with an awed reverence, the kind you might reserve for the Pope if you were a devout Catholic, or for Leonard Nimoy if you spent your weekends at Star Trek conventions, in uniform, wearing a pair of fake pointed ears. Peter’s goal with this current project was to write a script worthy of the Master, or of Tsui Hark or King Hu or one of the other Hong Kong auteurs whose light touch and balletic grace with a sword and nunchaku he so admires.

That morning, I had to keep the kids quiet so Peter could get a decent morning’s sleep after a hard night’s work. Then I had to get the kids out the door for school, and get myself and Sadie down to Westminster, to my partner Al Hockey’s garage, from which we ran our suddenly not-entirely-unprofitable business. Al and I met when he was an investigator for the federal public defender and I was a newbie lawyer. He’d helped me get through my first investigations, and I’d earned his respect, despite my manifold screwups. He liked me, he said, because I was “game.” When I left the office to stay home with my kids, Al warned me that I wasn’t going to make it as a stay-at-home mom. “You’ll be bored in about three weeks,” he said. He was wrong. Very wrong.

It took three days. Three days of Gymboree and Mommy & Me and story time at the library. Three days of walking the neighborhood pushing my stroller and desperately trying to meet other moms with kids more or less the same age. Three days of driving from one playground to the other, making a thorough and scientific comparison of the various swings and teeter-totters. After three days I was pulling my hair out. I just wasn’t suited to that kind of life. I wasn’t one of those moms who could be happy spending soporific hours in the park discussing theories of child development and swapping potty-training tips. I love my kids, but spending eighteen hours a day alone with them was turning me into a psychotic bitch with a vocabulary more constricted than the average toddler. I stuck it out, though, for years, doing my best to drown my sorrows in whipped mochas and crumb cake.

I had finally decided that neither my ass nor my ambitions could hack it anymore, when Al showed up with the idea of starting an investigative agency. He said I could work a few hours a day, just to occupy my mind with something other than which breast pump was the most effective and whether or not exposure to television would cause my children to develop attention deficit disorder. (The answer to that last question, by the way, is yes. Yes, of course, but so what? It’s worth it. Nothing buys a mother a more peaceful eighty-four minutes than the DVD of The Lion King.)

Two

WHEN I got to the garage I found Al and our assistant, Chiki Rodriguez, dancing anxious attendance on a very unusual guest. The first thing I noticed was that she was tall; even sitting down she seemed to tower over Chiki. She stared down at the top of his head as he refilled her coffee cup. The second thing I noticed was the size of her feet. She had one leg crossed over the other, and a boat of a parrot green pump dangled from her long toes. The shoes, with their chrome spike heels glinting in the harsh light of the fluorescent bulbs, were easily a size thirteen.

“Juliet,” Al said. “Miss Heavenly has been waiting for you.”

I passed Sadie from my hip to Chiki’s waiting arms and extended my hand. The woman’s chartreuse acrylic nails added a good two inches to what were already vast hands and, as my palm disappeared into hers, I felt like a miniature schnauzer giving a paw to her mistress. The woman’s handshake was firm, but not bone-crushing. She was clearly adept at restraining the force of her grip. I looked up from her hand to her face. It was covered with a thick layer of creamy foundation, fluttery false eyelashes, and eye shadow that precisely matched the sparkling green of her nails. I’m embarrassed to say that it was only at that moment, as I was staring at the theatrical makeup applied with a clearly practiced hand, that I realized that Miss Heavenly was a man. Or had been, at one point in her life.

“I’m Juliet Applebaum,” I said. “How can I help you?”

Sadie squawked and I turned to Chiki. “Will you take her to Jeanelle for me?”

A few months before, when it became clear that Sadie was no longer going to sit quietly in her bouncy seat while I worked, I had confronted the dilemma of every working mother: What was I going to do about childcare? Most days I worked only during the hours that the older kids were at school, but I still needed someone to watch Sadie between carpools if I was going to get anything done. I had a couple of disastrous interviews with nannies sent over by a nanny search service. One woman informed me that she required a scent-free environment and would only work for me if I removed all products with fragrances—including, but not limited to, detergent, soap, and cleaning supplies—from my house, my baby, and my person. This was a somewhat ironic request, as this particular nanny applicant might have been scent-free, but she was sure as shooting not odor-free. Another prospective nanny took one look at my house and my three children, one of whom was, at the time, busily trying to resuscitate a dead pet banana slug named Francisco, and declined the job. Taking pity on me and on her husband’s fledgling business, Al’s wife, Jeanelle, had offered to help out a few hours a day. I’d resisted at first, worried about taking advantage of her, but she genuinely seemed to enjoy Sadie’s company. I’d also offered pay her, which she graciously declined, informing me gently that I could not afford her.

Chiki disappeared into the house with Sadie and I turned back to my guest. She was adjusting the collar of her ruffled blouse and I noticed that her cleavage swelled seductively in the gap of the plunging neckline. The skin of her chest was the smooth, clear brown of maple syrup, darker and more lustrous than her face under all the makeup. She noticed my gaze and smiled.

“Oh, they’re real, honey,” she said. “I grew these girls all by myself.” She cupped her breasts with her hands. I heard a strangled groan and turned to Al. He was fairly purple with embarrassment.

“Why don’t I take Miss Heavenly inside the house,” I said. “We’ll talk in the living room, and you can get on with the Fanswatler search.” We had an assignment from a film studio to work on a movie called The Amazing Adventures of Arthur Fanswatler. Unfortunately, an actual person named Arthur Fanswatler had come to light, a docent at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. With a name this bizarre, the studio can protect itself from litigation by tracking down three or more people who share the name, thus putting it in the realm of the unusual but not unique. We were being paid a fee of ten thousand dollars to track down two more Arthur Fanswatlers.

“No, you stay here,” Al said. “I’ll work inside.” He took off through the door leading to the house.

Miss Heavenly shook her head. “He’s not one for the ladies, now, is he?”

I considered explaining to her that my partner is a traditional libertarian, and thus believes wholeheartedly in an individual’s right to choose to behave and dress in any manner he or she pleases. Moreover, he’s a conspiracy theorist with an arsenal that rivals that of David Koresh, and a long history of militia activity, so he not only believes in her right to be who she is, but would go to battle to protect it. But he’s an old-fashioned, macho kind of guy, and however much he pontificates about individual liberty, a hulking transvestite in a skintight leather skirt and Diana Ross wig is just going to freak him out.

I shrugged. “So, what can I do for you?”

“You know my cousin, Pauline. She goes by Sister Pauline.”

“Of course I do.” A few months before I had worked on a case where Sister Pauline played a role. “How is she doing?”

“Oh, she’s good. She’s doing real good with the baby and all.”

“That’s great. I’m so glad.”

“She told me what you did for her, and when she found out about my little sister she said, ‘You just go on and see Juliet. She’ll help you out.’ So here I am.”

I settled myself behind my desk and woke up my laptop. “What’s going on with your sister?” I said as I opened a blank screen and began typing.

“She was killed.”

My fingers paused over the keyboard. “I’m so sorry,” I said.

She blinked a few times. Waterproof or not, that much mascara would not have survived tears, and she knew it. “I want you to find the man who did it.”

“Miss Heavenly,” I began.

“Oh, you can just call me Heavenly. It’s your friend who kept calling me Miss. My name is just Heavenly. One word, no last name. Like Cher and Madonna.”

“Heavenly,” I said, “Al and I don’t really investigate murders. That’s a job for the police. I can help you in your dealings with the police, give you advice and that kind of thing, but I can’t do the investigation for them.”

The truth was that though Al and I had investigated more than our share of murders, and had a clearance rate as good or better than the LAPD homicide squad, murder cases were just not what we looked to get involved in. We had an entirely different kind of caseload. We did mitigation investigations for defense attorneys, researching a defendant’s history and family to find evidence to prevent the jury from imposing a death sentence. We did insurance investigations, and we had a lucrative contract with an attorney to various Hollywood stars, keeping the messes his clients made for themselves from turning into real disasters. Now we were doing our first job for a film studio. That was the kind of work we needed to stay in business—corporate clients, law firms, no emotional attachment, and the bills paid on time.

A murder investigation requires sophisticated investigative tools. Fingerprints, DNA, and crime-scene analysis are just the beginning. Access to crime-scene photographs and the postmortem report is almost always necessary to resolve a case, as is access to the witnesses. Homicides are most often solved by a sophisticated examination and assessment of the physical evidence, including DNA markings, ballistics reports, and hair and fiber analyses (although these last are iffy at best. Many a person has gone to jail or even faced execution based on a faulty hair analysis.) We just don’t have the resources for that, and there are only so many favors Al can call in from the guys he used to work with in the LAPD.

“The police haven’t helped us,” Heavenly said. She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward in her chair, splaying her large hands out on my desk. “My baby sister was killed six months ago, and the police have done nothing.” Her voice shook. “Nothing, you hear? They can’t be bothered with her. My mother saw the detectives once, when they came by the house to tell her Violetta was dead. I’ve been calling the case officer for months. When he deigns to return my calls, he has nothing to say.”

I frowned. If there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s a story about police incompetence or negligence. It just burns me up. “What’s the case officer’s name?” I said.

She reached into her green faux crocodile purse, pulled out a worn and bent business card, and handed it to me. I took the card and put it on our brand-new copy machine. I made two copies, one for me and one for Al.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said, despite the fact that my better instincts were telling me to avoid this case like the plague. I’ve never done a very good job of paying attention to those little voices in my head. “I’m not sure I can help you, but the least I can do is give this Detective . . .” I glanced down at the card. “Detective Jarin a call, and see what’s going on with their investigation.”

“Thank you so much,” Heavenly said, and now she did tear up. She raised her face to the ceiling to keep the tears from spilling and, grabbing a tissue from the box on my desk, began dabbing at her eyes.

I said, “I’m going to need to hear about Violetta. If you can bear it, tell me as many details of the crime as you know.”

The story Heavenly told was sordid and sad. Her younger sister, the youngest girl in a family of seven siblings, had slipped into a life of drug use and prostitution. “She wasn’t the first of my sisters to go that way,” Heavenly said. “We had it hard growing up. There was never any money in our house, and I think this seemed like easy money to them. My older sister Annette was on the streets for years before she died of AIDS. I have two brothers in prison, one for cocaine and one for jacking a car.”

“Wow,” I said, for lack of anything better.

“But my other sister Chantelle, she’s an RN and her husband’s a doctor. He’s doing a surgical residency at UCLA. My youngest brother, Ronnie, he’s a senior at UC San Diego. He wants to go into computers. Chantelle, Ronnie, and I, we came out all right.”

My face must have betrayed something because she shook her head at me, obviously disappointed. “You don’t think I’m all right?”

“No, no, of course I do,” I stammered. “I mean, I think you’re just fine.”

“I’ll have you know that I have a good job, a steady boyfriend, I own my own home, as well as two rental properties, and I’m supporting not just myself and my mother, but Ronnie, too. I have paid every dime of that boy’s tuition. Not to mention supporting Annette’s two girls and Violetta’s son, Vashon. The children live with my mother, but I’m the one who pays everyone’s bills.”

By now I was blushing furiously. “I apologize. I didn’t mean anything. Really I didn’t.”

She shifted in her chair, not so easily mollified.

“Tell me more about Violetta,” I said. “First of all, what was her last name?”

“Spees.”

“Where did she live?”

“Wherever she could. With me or my mother when she was clean, and in SROs on the South Side when she was using, which was most of the time. Even when she was gone, I’d put twenty dollars a month on her cell phone, just so she could call us every once in a while. So we’d know she was okay.” She began blinking again, determined not to risk her makeup.

“Would you write your mother’s phone number and address down here for me?” I pushed a small pad of paper across the desk. “And yours, too, so I know where to reach you.”

After she returned it to me I glanced at it. Her mother’s name was Corentine Spees. Heavenly’s address was in West Hollywood, not too far from my old house in Hancock Park.

“Do you know anything about who Violetta’s friends were? Who she hung around with?”

She shrugged. “No. I know she worked Figueroa, at Eighty-fourth Street. That was her corner. If I needed to see her I could always find her there.”

I made quick notes on my laptop. That grim area of South Central Los Angeles, with its hot-sheet motels and prostitutes vying with drug dealers for space on the street corners, was a place that the rest of the city did its best to pretend wasn’t there, ignoring the violence and misery, recalling its existence only when it spilled past the designated borders.

“Can you tell me a little about her murder?” I said.

Heavenly seemed to steel herself. “They found her body dumped in an alley. She was beat up bad. The medical examiner said she died of a cerebral hemorrhage.”

“You saw the autopsy report? Do you have it?”

Heavenly shook her head. “The funeral director told me. I think he thought it would be a comfort to me to know that she was unconscious when she died. And I think he wanted to explain why she looked . . . well, why he couldn’t make her look better. Her head was sort of. . .” Heavenly paused and pressed her fingertips to the corners of her eyes. “The side of her face . . . I thought he should have been able to do a better job with that.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “That must have made everything that much worse.”

Heavenly reacted the way I do when I’m upset and someone is sympathetic. She started to cry.

“Damn it,” she said. “I was not planning on breaking down in here.”

“You lost your sister in a horrible way. Of course it makes you cry. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about her before we talk any more about what happened to her. You said she had a son?”

Heavenly nodded. “Vashon. He’s seven years old. He’s a good boy, a little wild. He misses his mama. You know.”

“Was he living with her when she died?”

“No, he’s been with our mother since he was born. Violetta was on the street when she had him. She did her best to clean up while she was pregnant, but it was hard for her. She couldn’t get into a drug treatment program; she tried, but we couldn’t find one that would accept a pregnant woman. She was a fighter, Violetta, and she fought her urges for Vashon’s sake. She did the best she could.”

“Do you know who Vashon’s father is?”

Heavenly gave a short, cynical bark of laughter. “Honey, I told you, Violetta worked the streets. Only the Lord in heaven knows who that boy’s father is. I’ll tell you what, though, I’d put my money on him being a white man. Vashon’s a cup of coffee with a good-sized dollop of cream.”

“Was Violetta seeing anybody else that you know of?”

Heavenly shrugged.

“What drugs was she using?”

“What drugs wasn’t she using? She smoked crack. And when she had some money, she shot dope, too. She did meth once in a while, although I don’t think it was her favorite. Vi always said crank was a white man’s high.”

Heavenly had collected herself, her eyes were dry, and I wished I didn’t have to go back to asking about Violetta’s murder, but there was no way around it. I put my laptop to one side, not wanting to be staring at my computer screen, taking notes like some unsympathetic stenographer. “Heavenly, I’m so sorry to ask this, but can you tell me if Violetta was sexually assaulted before she was killed?”

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