From critically acclaimed author Steph Cha-Los Angeles-based P.I. Juniper Song is back in a thrillingly written, masterfully plotted story of how far a mother will go for her child
Finally a licensed private detective, Steph Cha's "compelling and original" (LA Times) crime heroine Juniper Song is managing her own cases as the junior investigator of Lindley&Flores. When a woman named Rubina Gasparian approaches Song, she knows she's in for her most unusual case yet. The daughter of Armenian immigrants, Rubina and her husband Van recently learned that she cannot get pregnant-so they hired Rubina's younger cousin, Lusig, to act as a surrogate. However, Lusig's best friend Nora has been missing for a month, and Rubina is concerned that her cousin is dealing with her stress in a way that could harm the baby. Rubina hires Song to shadow her and report all that she finds. Of course, Lusig is frantically searching for her friend, and Song's case soon turns into a hunt for the missing woman, whom she finds was deeply embroiled in a public and ugly battle to erect an Armenian genocide memorial. As Song probes the depths of both this tight-knit immigrant community and the groups who antagonize it, she realizes that someone was willing to stop at nothing to ensure Nora's silence. But can she find the killer before it's too late for Rubina and Van's child-or for Song herself?
A gorgeously written, tightly plotted, and emotionally charged read, The Surrogate is an unforgettable story of love, parenthood, and the things we do for our children, perfect for fans of Lisa Unger and Tana French.
About the Author
STEPH CHA is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough. Her writing has appeared in The L.A. Times, The L.A. Review of Books, and Trop Magazine. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, she lives in her native city of Los Angeles, California.
Read an Excerpt
Dead Soon Enough
A Juniper Song Mystery
By Steph Cha
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Steph Cha
All rights reserved.
When I was twenty-two, I sold three sets of eggs for a total of $48,000. I was broke, bored, and quietly depressed, and had no strength to fight the call of easy money. It was a questionable decision, but I've made enough of those that this one doesn't keep me up at night.
I'd seen advertisements for egg donors in the Yale paper, but back then I was still on the payroll of a hardworking immigrant mom who saw no better way to spend money than to push her shitty kid through the Ivy League. The ads made a bit of a splash in cafeteria conversations, but as far as I knew, no one really responded. We had a whole campus full of prestigious eggs and, in aggregate at least, a brash imperviousness to financial pressure.
That changed for many of us soon enough. I left Yale with an attractive diploma, an unattractive transcript, and zero to negligible job prospects. I moved to L.A., not because I had dreams, or even family anymore, but because it was a city I knew, one that I liked better than others.
One day, after pinning tutoring fliers in coffee shops full of dead-eyed college graduates just as unemployed as I was, I came across a New York Times article about Asian-American egg donors. Apparently, our eggs commanded high premiums for rarity on the market — Asian-American women waited longer than average to have babies, chasing those professional dreams with their biological clocks ticking softly in the background.
It was like a help wanted ad singing my name.
There was another reason, too, an enabling reason if not an actual impetus — despite my sadness and weakness of spirit I felt, in a way, invincible. It wasn't that I relished the idea of my spawn running the earth. The truth is, I didn't think about that much at all. I was young and cavalier, with a disregard for consequences that had almost nothing to do with reality, mine or anyone else's. Consequences were things that happened to other people. What happened to me was bad luck.
So I did some research and sold my eggs to the highest bidder. They went out into the world, and maybe some of them became people.
I hadn't thought about them in a long time, and then I met Rubina Gasparian.
* * *
It was a warm Tuesday in early March, one of those pre-spring Los Angeles days that knocked an unnecessary nail into winter's coffin. I'd had my private investigator license for almost a year, and during that time I'd made a steady, honest living, as free of mishap as any period in my adult life.
When I got to the office that morning, there was a woman waiting outside the locked door. She was standing straight, facing the hall, and when I looked up from my phone she was already watching me, waiting for me to acknowledge her. I nearly jumped.
She was a slim woman wearing a gray wrap dress and short, professional heels. I was almost a head taller, even in flip-flops, but there was something commanding in her presence that negated the impression of smallness. She was pretty in a brutal way, with a high forehead, straight black hair, and an immaculate gloss to her pale skin. Her eyes were sharp and dark, and by the time I got around to greeting her, they'd run their way right through me.
"Hi," I said. "Are you looking for Lindley and Flores?"
"Yes. I hope you don't mind my coming in so early. I don't have an appointment." She spoke quickly, but with a tentative, deferential tone of voice.
"Not at all. I'm Juniper Song," I said, holding out my hand. "I'm an investigator."
"Rubina Gasparian." She shook my hand with a firm grip, and I felt the press of a ring on my palm. Wrong hand for a wedding band, but I saw that she had one of those on, too. "It's nice to meet you."
I opened up the office and Rubina followed me inside. I sat down at my desk and, before I was able to offer, she took a chair across from me.
"So, Ms. Gasparian. What can I do for you today?"
"It's Doctor," she said, then added, "Though that doesn't matter."
"Sorry." I smiled, feeling mildly caught off guard. "Dr. Gasparian, what can I do for you today?"
She crossed her legs and folded her hands over the top knee. "I'd like to hire someone to follow my cousin."
"We can certainly do that," I said. "All three of us are seasoned tails. That's kind of the bread and butter of this job. What can you tell me about her?"
She produced a 4 x 6 photograph and pushed it delicately across the desk. It was a professional photo of Rubina in a wedding dress, with one arm around a younger woman in a lavender dress, unmistakably a bridesmaid. I took a long look at the cousin. She had the same pale skin and round eyes as Rubina, but she gave off a rugged impression, even in pastel chiffon. Her bare arms showed a colorful splash of tattoos, and her shoulders were broad and well honed. She wasn't as traditionally attractive as Rubina, but she would never fade standing next to her.
"That was taken on my wedding day, almost six years ago. The girl on my left is my cousin Lusig. I can e-mail you a more recent photograph — her hair's much shorter now, and she has a piercing in her nose, which I made her take out for the wedding." She paused and nodded, making a note to herself. "I've known her since she was in my late aunt's womb. She's a wonderful girl. I love her like a sister and daughter, and now, she's carrying my baby."
"How's that?" I asked.
"For a few reasons, chief among them that I am thirty-seven years old, my husband and I are unable to conceive. Since we want children, and adoption is out of the question, we decided on a gestational surrogate."
I wondered briefly why adoption was out of the question, and something in Rubina's eyes dared me to ask. It didn't seem like my business — not that that always stopped me — but I bit.
"Why was adoption out of the question?"
"Here are two clues," she said, holding one hand up in a V. "My married name is Gasparian. My maiden name is Balakian."
"You're Armenian," I said. Armenian surnames were almost as easy to spot as Korean ones.
"Very much so. And as an Armenian couple, Van and I would like to continue our bloodline. There are only so many of us left."
"Forgive me if I'm off track here. Been a long time since World History. But you're referring to a genocide?"
She nodded. "Of course. It's telling that you're uncertain. Not —" she added hastily — "telling of your ignorance, but of the Armenian genocide's status in history. But that is a long conversation, and we were already in the middle of another one."
"Right," I said. "You were telling me about a gestational surrogate. That means what, your egg, her womb?"
"And that surrogate is your cousin Lusig."
"Exactly." She smiled, lending a little warmth to her features. "Lusig wasn't ideal in every way. The perfect surrogate is a woman who's been pregnant before, who won't form an undue attachment to the baby. We think Lusig will be fine with giving him up, but this is her first pregnancy, and she had no familiarity with the process before she agreed to sign on."
"So why her?"
"First, she offered. She knew we needed help, and she said she was more than happy to. Second, Lusig and I are very close. She would be in the baby's life, as more than an aunt, if a little less than a mother. Third, Lusig has no desire to have children of her own."
"How old is she?"
"Early to make that call, wouldn't you say?"
Rubina shrugged, a small, mechanical motion. "She's maintained this position for many years. Lusig is a headstrong, stubborn girl, and she is not known to change her mind. On top of which, she's unmoved by children, and thinks she would make a poor mother. Between you and me, I agree with her."
"Well, practically speaking, Lusig has never been employed for more than a year at a time. She has very little interest in figuring out her life, and I can't imagine she'd have room for a child anytime soon. And I know she's young, but twenty-six is not twenty-two."
I suppressed a smile. Rubina could have been describing me before I started working for Chaz. I'd spent my post-college years tutoring around the city for bursts of cash, just enough to pay rent and maintain my pantry and one shelf of my fridge. Pregnancy would have been a nightmare.
"What's she do?"
"This and that. Temp work, mostly. Sometimes she participates in psych studies and focus groups. She lives at home, with her father, so her living expenses are very low. We've been paying her a stipend while she carries the baby, so she isn't working now."
"None of this sounds particularly permanent," I said. "You think she'll always be unfit for kids?"
"I love her, but she's a selfish girl. She's a classic only child, not conceited but very self-centered. She's always surprised to recall that the world doesn't revolve around her."
"I don't think I'm especially selfish, but I would run far away if anyone wanted to borrow my body for nine months."
"Of course she's often generous. Maybe this is getting lost, but I think Lusig is wonderful. She's only fundamentally selfish."
I nodded, wondering how damning this was supposed to be. "Is that why you're here?"
She gave me a thoughtful stare before speaking again. "I suppose it is," she said. "I'm worried that she's putting herself before the welfare of my child."
"She's almost eight months pregnant, well past the initial touch and go. Not that this pregnancy could ever have been less than a deliberate, serious affair, with all the money and energy poured into it from the beginning, but my son is more baby than fetus now. He will be born. I'm going to be a mother." She looked pointedly at my left hand. "You don't have children, Miss Song?"
"I have not been so blessed," I said. "You can call me Song, by the way. Though 'Miss' is correct."
"I've always wanted to be a mother. I waited longer than I ever thought I would, but I went to medical school, then did my residency, then a fellowship, and before I knew it I was looking at limited options. If you're open to some friendly advice, I'd suggest you not wait too long."
The conversation was taking a weird turn. Rubina was not the type of woman who inspired quick and easy confidences, and I was more guarded than most. There was a clinical, universal tinge to her prescription, but it still struck me as somewhat intrusive. I ignored it and pressed on.
"So why are you worried about your cousin, Dr. Gasparian?"
"You can call me Rubina," she said. "I'm sorry I corrected you. It's a strange reflex."
"Sure. Rubina. Tell me your concerns about Lusig."
"She was a party girl. Through college, through her early twenties. And she's only twenty-six, so her early twenties were not very long ago. We've been Facebook friends for years, and I've seen all her pictures, drinking and carousing with friends. Nothing abnormal, understand, but she's always inclined toward the wild side. Nightclubs, vodka shots. I suspect some illicit drugs."
I pictured Rubina culling through her cousin's Facebook page, before and after entrusting her with her baby. The picture came easily.
"Drinking and carousing with friends seems pretty standard, really," I said, though I suspected as I said so that Rubina's youth had been tame and studious. "And from what you're saying I gather she got a lot of that out of her system well before she got pregnant. I imagine you wouldn't have chosen her if you had any doubts. What changed?"
She seemed surprised by the question, but recovered quickly. She tucked her hair behind her ear with a swift, precise motion. "Lusig's best friend is a girl named Nora. They've known each other since the seventh grade — they're both Armenian, both only children, and they stuck to each other from the beginning. I've met her several times, though I can't say I know her very well. In any case, Nora has been missing for almost a month."
I sat up a little straighter. "Missing? Like, officially? The police are looking for her and all that?"
"Yes, the police are looking for her. No one has said so, but everyone always suspects the worst."
"I see," I said, blinking hard. Murder had just entered the conversation.
Rubina broke the silence before it could set. "But I'm not here about Nora. I'm only giving you background. My concern is that Lusig has been acting strange ever since the disappearance."
"She's been moody, and it's been hard for me to reach her."
"She's been off the radar?"
"Not exactly. Let me explain myself." She gave me a tight smile. "In general, I don't care what other people do with their lives. Lusig is my cousin, and we've always been close, but I haven't agreed with every one of her life choices. She hasn't asked me about most of them, and I've withheld unsolicited advice on many, many occasions."
I nodded. Something in her tone suggested unreasonable pride in her own restraint.
"But when you're pregnant, you don't own your body, at least not one-hundred percent. This might be especially true if you've signed on to be a vessel for someone else's baby."
My mind revolted against the idea, but I couldn't say it was without truth. Instead, I asked, "Then, who does?"
"Who does what?"
"Who owns your cousin?"
"Well, to be frank," she said, twisting her fingers together, "I think I do."
I let her statement ride a brief pause, and she let out a tight little laugh.
"I don't mean she's my property, per se. And I know in this day and age women have certain rights to their own bodies, which I support wholly. But in this situation, I believe I have an unusual amount of interest in the contents of her womb, don't you agree?"
"That's true," I said, and decided to get back on track. "So, your cousin hasn't been attentive to your demands as the mother of the child."
"No. She's been defiant and unpredictable, going on errands she doesn't care to explain and snapping at me when I ask where she's been."
"It sounds like she has some reason to be upset," I said.
"Of course she does, and I'd like to give her space to deal with her ... grief, if that's the right word for it."
"On the other hand?"
She pressed her lips together. "On the other hand, I need to know if she's mistreating her body."
"Ah, so this is where I come in."
"I don't want you to bother her," she said. "Please just observe her, tell me what she's doing, take pictures as you deem appropriate or necessary."
"Sure, I can do that. Out of curiosity, though, what if I do find out she's slamming shots and sharing needles?"
"I will cross that bridge only if necessary."
* * *
I'd been surveilling people for a couple years now, and it had long since started to feel like a creepy second nature. I could follow any car across town at any time of day, and I developed a talent for blending into most environments, without the assistance of a trench coat or a fedora. Most people don't suspect they're being followed. After all, hiring a private investigator to solve a personal problem — sussing out infidelity being the classic case — is a somewhat nuclear option, one that many can't imagine using themselves. I couldn't follow a man into a public restroom and take a video of his stream, but anything short of that was more or less possible.
Still, some assignments were trickier than others. I wasn't quite ballsy enough to attempt a nighttime tail on a quiet road, but empty bars were usually manageable. Being an Asian woman worked in my favor — despite my height and somewhat unforthcoming demeanor, no one ever thought I was dangerous.
Lusig Hovanian was going to be an easier mark than most, and not because she was oblivious. Rubina, as I might have expected, kept her cousin on a short leash. Within a few hours of leaving my office, she emailed me a complete schedule of Lusig's day. She gave me the name and address of a restaurant in South Pasadena and requested that I eat there at seven o'clock. She gave me a fifty-dollar stipend — she'd researched the restaurant and determined that this was enough to cover dinner for two. She thought, correctly enough, that I'd stand out less if I wasn't eating alone.
There weren't too many people I wanted to meet for dinner, so I was happy that my roommate was free. Lori Lim was my best friend, an adopted younger sister of sorts, with whom I had almost nothing in common but a few shared episodes of extreme trauma. We'd been living together for about two years, in a two-bedroom apartment in Echo Park. I liked to think this arrangement was for her benefit, but we both knew I'd be lonely as all hell without her.
Excerpted from Dead Soon Enough by Steph Cha. Copyright © 2015 Steph Cha. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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