From the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Willa-nominated author Denise Hamilton comes SUGAR SKULL
Acclaimed by award committees and critics for her groundbreaking The Jasmine Trade, Denise Hamilton returns with a penetrating new Eve Diamond crime novel sure to confirm her reputation as a rising star.
Los Angeles Times reporter Eve Diamond usually works out of the paper's San Gabriel Valley bureau, but she's taking a weekend shift downtown when a distraught Vincent Chevalier breaks through security and demands her help.
His fifteen-year-old daughter, Isabel, is missing, and the cops won't go looking for her until forty-eight hours have passed. The man thinks he knows where she might be -- with some runaways in a dismal squat in East Hollywood. He wants Eve as his witness when he enters the squat and tries to bring Isabel home.
Eve senses a possible story: Why would a privileged young girl from Pasadena spend time with the down-and-outs in East Hollywood? But there will be no interview with Isabel. Isabel is dead, her body wrapped in a dirty futon and abandoned in a derelict basement.
Eve's questions have only begun. What brought the blond-haired teenager to such a tragic, early demise? Did a man named Finch, who's had past arrests for drugs, burglary, and theft, have something to do with Isabel's murder? What about her father? There's something unsettling about him. And what was Isabel's relationship with Paolo Langdon, her schoolmate and the son of a socialite hostess and a prominent politician?
Even as Eve must fight against powerful forces that want her off the story, she finds herself emotionally drawn to the brooding scion of a Mexican music-promotion titan. It's dangerous to mix professional with personal, but Silvio Aguilar is hard to resist. And in his world, in the little sugar skull confections that commemorate the Mexican Day of the Dead, Eve may find some clue to a killer.
Written with the authenticity and bold strokes that Denise Hamilton has made her own, Sugar Skull is much more than a triumphant crime novel -- it's a dazzling portrait of a city full of diversity. Rich with nuance and insight, this is compelling, illuminating crime writing at its best.
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I was sitting at the city desk, halfway through my first cup of cafeteria coffee, when I saw him. His jacket was flapping, his arms flailing, as he sprinted along the computer terminals and zigzagged past three-foot piles of newspapers, eyes trained on the prize -- a big sign that said METRO, under which I sat, scanning the wires on a slow Saturday morning.
You might think that with all those deadline pressures, newsrooms would be kinetic places where people leapt and darted and yelled all day long. Maybe they do at other places, but here at the Los Angeles Times, the only place I've ever worked, such displays are considered a mark of poor breeding.
I'd never seen anyone run in the newsroom and wasn't sure what to make of it. But up he came, skidding to a stop before me, white bubbles foaming at the corners of his mouth. He wore a tweed cap, which he took off and ran along his forehead to swab up the sweat pearling at his hairline. Then he placed the cap over his chest like he was pledging allegiance.
"Miss, you've got to help me look for her. The police won't do anything until forty-eight hours have passed. But something's dreadfully wrong, I feel it here."
His cap flapped weakly against his chest.
"Look for who?" I cast around for someone who could wrestle him to the ground if it came down to that, but it wasn't yet eight o'clock and the newsroom was empty. How had he gotten past security downstairs?
"My daughter. Isabel," the man said. His face tightened, and he looked over his shoulder. "She's been missing since yesterday. I think I know where she is, but I don't want to go alone. The press should be there. Please, miss, are you a reporter? Will you come with me?"
He must have heard how unhinged he sounded, because he shoved his hand into his pants pocket, rooted around for a wallet, and pulled out his driver's license.
"Vincent Chevalier," he said, holding it up with a trembling hand. "I'm a sound engineer. Done all of Jackson Browne's records since Late for the Sky."
He looked at me. "Of course, you're too young to remember that one. I know what you're thinking. That I could be an ax murderer."
Damn straight, I thought, inching away my chair.
"I know I sound crazy, and I am -- I'm crazed about what might be happening to my daughter. Please, miss, we have to hurry."
He craned his head again, and this time, I did too. We heard yelling and the pounding of feet.
"He went that way. There he is, get him."
For the second time in my career, I saw people running in the newsroom. This time it was two security guards, charging straight for the city desk. Was I going to be on the news myself tonight? The guards pounded up, each seizing one of Chevalier's arms.
"He flashed an ID at the door," one of them said, "but it didn't look right so I told him to wait. Then he ran up the stairs. I had to radio for backup before leaving my post."
The guard saw me staring at him, and then at the man he had apprehended much too late to save anyone. He shifted from one foot to the other and hooked his thumb into his thick black belt.
"We only have a skeleton crew on the weekends since budget cutbacks," he mumbled. "C'mon, you." He jerked the captive's arm roughly to show him who was boss. "Out we go."
An anguished howl leapt from Vincent Chevalier's throat. "Isabel," he bellowed. Then the fight went out of him and he began to weep. "And what if it was your daughter? Wouldn't you do everything you could?"
It wouldn't be my daughter, I thought, because I don't have a daughter. But if I did, I'd keep closer tabs on her than you obviously have. "Late for the Sky" indeed. But something about his tone got to me.
"Wait a minute," I said. "He came up here wanting to talk to a reporter. Let's hear what he has to say."
Reluctantly, the guards stepped back. Vincent Chevalier's face took on a cautious, cunning look. He knew he had one chance and he'd better not flub it.
"My daughter is only fifteen, but she's precocious. We live in a nice part of Pasadena, prep school and all that, but in the last year she's gotten restless. Started hanging out with an edgier crowd. Some of them are runaways, and she brings them food and warm clothes. They squat in abandoned buildings. There's a young man she's been trying to help. He gives me the creeps but I keep my mouth shut. I don't want to drive them closer. They've been on and off for months. Yesterday she said she was going to visit a girlfriend and would be home for dinner. She never showed."
He looked at us, anxiety mounting in his eyes. "I want someone to go to the squat with me."
"Why can't you check it out by yourself?" I asked.
Vincent Chevalier twitched his cap up and down against his fleecy sweater. He was slight and couldn't have stood more than five foot eight inches tall. "Last time I saw Finch, that's her squatter friend, he threatened me."
"Sounds like you need a bodyguard, not a puny girl reporter."
He stared at me. His silvery-black hair was curly and wet, plastered against his pale skull, except for one unruly lock that fell forward into his eyes.
"What I really need is the police, but they won't come. They've been there with me before, when she's run away. They don't take my calls seriously anymore. But if the press noses around, maybe they will. I don't want to go by myself. I want a witness."
"Where is this squat?"
Something about his story gnawed at me. His daughter had been hanging out with a disturbed runaway in some abandoned building and he didn't put a stop to it? And now he wanted me to help find her? Yet desperation rolled off him in big, crashing waves. He was bewildered in that way honest people get when they find themselves spinning into madness. And he had already tried the police. I suppose that counted for something.
"East Hollywood," he said. "You can follow me in your car."
I scrolled through the wires again to see what else was going on in the city. All over town, people were dying violently -- shot in dead-end bars, withdrawing money from ATMs, working the night shift in liquor stores, and playing hopscotch on the corner. Usually, we waited until Sunday, when the final tally came in, then did a roundup. Unless the victims were rich, prominent, or had met their end in some horribly unusual and tragic way, they got folded into the main story as smoothly as egg whites into cake. So far the wires were at fourteen and counting. As for scheduled events, there was a Mexican concert and All-Star Rodeo in La Puente at noon. The mayoral candidates were debating at the Century Plaza Hotel. Vietnam vets were demonstrating in front of the federal building at three o'clock. It was a slow news day.
Vincent Chevalier tapped his black suede sneaker impatiently. I focused on its agitated dance. It could be a great story. I pictured the headline, strategically placed in the paper's coveted Column One slot. DANCE WITH THE DARK SIDE -- BORED RICH GIRLS SEEK ULTIMATE THRILLS SLUMMING WITH HOMELESS RUNAWAYS. But if he wasn't on the level? I looked around. The other 8 AM reporter was just strolling in, carrying his designer coffee in its corrugated paper holder. He was a Princeton graduate who had studied with Tom Wolfe and achieved notoriety when his senior thesis, a literary deconstruction of speed metal songs, had been published to great acclaim. I had gone to a state school and jostled with 250 students in a drafty auditorium for the attention of some postdoc lassoed into teaching Journalism 101.
Chevalier was watching my colleague too.
"Is he a reporter?" Chevalier inclined his chin. "Maybe a man would be better."
That settled it.
"Can I see your ID again?" I said sweetly. Chevalier handed it over and I typed all his stats into the computer. Then I compared his license photo with the face before me. A few more lines, a certain tautness around the mouth, but it was him all right. I got his home and work phone and typed that in too, leaving a note for the early editor, who was still upstairs in the caf eating breakfast and perusing our competitor the Daily News to see what stories we had missed. I would be back way before noon if they needed me to cover one of the wire events. But that was all canned, predictable stuff, while the foot-tapping Vincent Chevalier was dangling some very live bait. I made a printout of what I had just typed, tucked the cell phone into my purse, and told the guards they could return to their post.
In the parking lot, Chevalier and I turned to look at each other. In the milky light of a fall morning, I blinked and wondered why I was embarking on a human scavenger hunt to find his daughter.
Chevalier fingered the bill of his tweed cap, then stuck it squarely back on his head. "I'm a single father, you know, and it's been tough since she hit adolescence. She's constantly challenging authority. I understand that, since I was a rebel myself. So I keep the lines of communication open, like the books say. I tell her I love her and I'm there for her and then I let her go. She runs away a lot. Once she was gone for three months. Don't look at me like that, she'd call. Tell me where she was, what she was up to. Tucson, Kansas City, New Orleans. It made me feel better, knowing where she was. She's always come back. Until now."
Yikes, I thought. Mister, she's a fifteen-year-old girl. She needs you to lay down the law, and instead you hand her a Kerouac novel and wish her good luck.
"We'll find her," I told him, keeping my parenting lesson to myself.
He told me to get off the freeway at Western and head north, past Santa Monica Boulevard to a side street called Manzanita. The kids squatted in an old government building that had been damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake and was now condemned and fenced off.
I jotted the directions down, then got in the car and pulled out behind him onto Spring Street. Downtown was empty at this hour, only an occasional panhandler and a few Latino families trudging off for a day's shopping on Broadway. I usually worked in a small bureau in the San Gabriel Valley but pulled an occasional weekend shift downtown on rotation. Today, my number had come in.
Pulling alongside, I glanced at Vincent Chevalier's black SUV. It used to be that you could tell a lot about a person by what they hung from the rearview mirror. Asians decorated their cars with golden pagodas and good luck characters. Little plastic virgins and rosary beads meant Latinos. Fuzzy racing dice, well that was low riders. But then things got all mixed up and the street-racing Asian kids started hanging fuzzy dice and Latinos began thinking pagodas were way cool. Then the white punks appropriated dragons, dice, santos, and milagros and my whole theory went south. Chevalier's windshield was as bare as the Sahara. No window to the soul there.
I let him pull ahead, then grabbed my computer printout and looked at his car again. The plates matched. Check No. 1. Then I groped in my purse, past the squishy black banana I kept meaning to toss, until I felt the smooth plastic of the cell phone. Holding it up to the steering wheel so I could see the keypad, I punched in the home number Chevalier had given me and got a recording saying that Vincent and Isabel weren't home but would return my call as soon as possible. Check No. 2.
Now I dialed the Times editorial library, only to learn that the librarian on duty was working on a deadline project about campaign contributions in the mayoral race. Could I call back after nine, when more librarians came on?
Great, I thought. I'm going to end up dead in some filthy squat so that star political reporter Tony Hausman can reveal the shocking story that big money influences politics.
I hung up and considered my options, mentally tracing a path through the paper's labyrinthine corridors that stopped at...the copy messenger desk. Yes, that was it. Luke Vinograd could help me. He was a snarky and overgrown copy messenger who had spent years chipping away at a library degree. By now he should have been running the place, but something had stalled him, and so at an age when most people were hitting their career stride, Luke Vinograd was still delivering faxes from the wire room and ferrying over morning editions to impatient editors who had no time or desire to chat about the sixteenth-century Italian poet whose lyric couplets he'd just discovered or the fabulous French farce he'd seen the previous night.
That was a shame, because in a place that lived and died on words, millions of them each day, Luke was renowned for his bon mots, a Noel Coward type but more wickedly bawdy. Even early in the morning, he sounded as though he should have a martini glass in one hand and a cigarette holder in the other.
"I do hope you're calling to invite me to brunch," Luke said, recognizing my voice.
"Thank God you're there."
"I know this fabulous place where they throw in salsa lessons with the eggs Benedict."
"In the morning?" I groaned. "Those moves are hard enough at night."
"Dawn's early blight, eh? The trick is to extend your night through brunch."
"Then when do you sleep?"
"Sleep's for sissies. A real man can hold his yawns."
"I see. Well, see if you can stay awake for this one. I need a huge favor."
I filled him in on my concerns about Vincent Chevalier, then asked him to go online, look up Jackson Browne, and tell me the name of the sound engineer on his last albums. Sure enough, several clicks later, I had my confirmation. It was Chevalier. Check No. 3.
"No pretender, him."
"Glad to hear it. Hey, Luke, just a couple more favors."
"Your requests always come in multiples, don't they, Eve?"
"Like my orgasms, dahling." Despite myself, I blushed. Luke always brought out the Miller's Wife in me. "Now don't smart-mouth me, it's too early," I continued. "Could you please check property records on this Vincent Chevalier?"
"Ooh," Luke said, delighted by such sauciness as he tapped away, "and who has Miss Eve been mixing it up with lately?"
We had gone out for drinks several months back at the Redwood up the street, the old reporter's bar, moaning into our beers over the peccadilloes of our respective boyfriends. Ever since, the banter between us would have made an ink-stained printer blush.
"It's all completely theoretical at this point, Luke," I told him.
"My condolences," he murmured, hands whirring on the keyboard as he recounted the latest gossip about a reporter who had sneaked off to her editor's van for an afternoon quickie. They had been caught by Times security guards who came to investigate when the vehicle started rocking as they got rolling.
A few more clicks onto the L.A. County Register of Voters database and Luke was reciting the same address on my printout. Check No. 4. So Vincent Chevalier checked out. He still might be a murderer, of course, but he wasn't a liar. He was fifty-four, owned a home, had a real job, and appeared to be who he said he was. I felt better.
"Next," Luke Vinograd intoned.
"Oh yeah, one last thing. Speaking of Jackson Browne, and this is very important, I need you to hum the first bar of 'The Pretender.'"
There was silence on the other end of the line, then sputtering.
"Such abuse. 'My Funny Valentine' would be more up my alley."
"That's all the abuse you get for now, dollface. Muchas gras and talk to you later."
I was in East Hollywood now, which had always served as the industrial back lot for the glitzy Hollywood that tourists searched for in vain at Hollywood and Vine. East Hollywood was home to prop shops and postproduction facilities. It was where wanna-be starlets rented rooms in buildings of decayed glamour and rode the creaky elevators with immigrant families whose vision of the future was no less intense because it was dreamed in Armenian, Thai, Russian, and Spanish.
Latino men lounged on the street corners, signaling with two fingers to passing cars. Crack for sale. I shook my head and kept driving. In front of me, a brown truck pulled to the curb by a large apartment building and honked. In response, black-clad women streamed out the front door, clutching plastic bags and change purses. The driver hopped out and threw open the doors to his truck, oblivious to the traffic backing up behind him.
I groaned and craned my neck to signal Chevalier to wait, but he had swerved and kept going. I cursed the vehicular gods that had stuck me in traffic behind Armenian Home Grocer. It wasn't really Home Grocer, of course, those pretty peach-and-green-colored trucks that delivered food you ordered directly from the Internet. But the concept that had been such an innovation to harried Americans was old news in this ethnic hood. In unmarked brown trucks crammed floor-to-ceiling with fruits and vegetables, pita and fresh herbs, drivers careened up and down narrow side streets where immigrants retained the vestigial memory of haggling at outdoor markets. Armenian Home Grocer didn't charge for delivery either. With traffic hemming me in, I had little choice but to watch the driver hand over scallions and curvy purple eggplants, feathery dill, and new potatoes. The women milled on the sidewalk, muttering "che, che," "no, no," when he tried to sell them something extra.
Finally I saw an opening and pulled out.
Five minutes later, I stopped at a decrepit heap of a building surrounded by a cyclone fence. The place was old, dating back to the 1920s, I guessed, from the white arches and pillars. Fissures had made crazy-quilt patterns in the plaster, and here and there, chunks had fallen out to expose the lathe beneath. All the windows and doors were boarded up with plywood and festooned with yellow emergency tape. If I were fifteen and trying to get as far away from Rose Bowl Landia as possible, I might end up here too. But only if I had a death wish. With its eyeless holes where windows should be, its cracked adobe defaced by gang graffiti, and its jagged piles of plaster and glass, the building struck me as a malevolent and grinning skull.
When Vincent Chevalier walked up, I shivered in aversion. Nothing good could come from going in there. I punched in the cell phone again and got through to George Bovasso, the morning city editor, who had finally finished his cafeteria bacon and egg whites and ambled downstairs to the third floor. I explained where I was and told him to start worrying if he didn't hear from me soon.
"That was my editor," I told Vincent Chevalier, clambering out. "I was just giving him the address. He's going to call the police if he doesn't hear from me in an hour."
I scrutinized him as I spoke, watching his eyes for flinching, for turning away, for any tick or twitch or wolfish quickening that would tell me to turn back. I found none. If I refused to crawl inside the squat, I might lose the best story I had run across in a long time. I had done what I could to check out my companion, to leave a trail, and to alert the proper authorities. I had to take a deep breath, plunge off that cliff, and hope the bungee cord didn't snap.
Copyright © 2003 by Denise Hamilton
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