Juniper Song—an unforgettable new crime heroine hailed as "young, sharp, and worldly-wise" by New York Times bestselling author Meg Gardiner—returns in this smart, fast-paced follow-up to Steph Cha's critically acclaimed debut Follow Her Home
Working as an apprentice at a P.I. firm, Juniper Song finds herself nose deep in a Hollywood murder scandal where the lies may be more glamorous than most, but the truths they cover are just as ugly. When a young woman named Daphne Freamon calls looking for an eye on her boyfriend, her boss punts the client to Song. Daphne is an independently wealthy painter living in New York, and her boyfriend Jamie Landon is a freelance screenwriter in Los Angeles, ghostwriting a vanity project for aging movie star Joe Tilley. Song quickly learns that there's more to this case than a simple tail, and her suspicions are confirmed when Tilley winds up dead in a hotel room. Nonetheless, when Jamie becomes the prime suspect in the movie star's murder, she agrees to help the charismatic couple discover the truth, even as the police build their case against Jamie. As she chases leads and questions grieving Hollywood insiders, she uncovers a sordid layer of blackmail and hidden identities, of a history of violence that leaves no one—not even Song—safe from judgment.
An edgy, gorgeously written read, Beware Beware is perfect for fans of Megan Abbott and Tana French. It's a tale that twists around the lies we tell ourselves and others, that examines the ugliness under the skin-deep glamor of L.A.
Praise for Follow Her Home
"[Song] is a compelling and original protagonist… One only hopes that Cha and her driven, neo-noir detective have more opportunities to explore those troubling intersections over many books to come." –LA Times
"Engrossing… Steph Cha's intriguing debut Follow Her Home works as a testament to the power of storytelling and a cautionary tale against forsaking reality for fiction…Cha elevates Follow Her Home with glimpses at the culture of Korean-American families." –Oline Cogdill, Tulsa World
"Stephanie Cha's brilliant debut is as Noir as Old Nick's sense of humour. Compelling from first to last page, she takes on contemporary L.A., sweeping the reader through Chandler's twilight, heartbroken city from mansions to faux K-town hostess bars. L.A. Noir at its finest." -- Denise Mina, author of The Dead Hour
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
A Juniper Song Mystery
By Steph Cha
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Steph Cha
All rights reserved.
The weekend hovered in full view an hour away, like an island in silhouette gaining color with its steady approach. There was a time when this meant something to me, when the school bell or the desktop clock said it was time to go home, time, at least, for happy hour.
I sat on the floor with my bare foot flexed under the desk. It was a slow day in the office, and my toenails were about as long and dirty as I’d seen them, and they’d been long and dirty before. There was no sense keeping them pretty from November to March, with my flip-flops put away. It was February now, and my nails chafed against the insides of my shoes. They were starting to hurt.
A thick rind flew off a big toe with a crisp, clacking sound. It ricocheted off the back of my desk, the panel of cheap wood that hid me from view should a client barge in. As I reached to pick up the crescent, footsteps shuffled behind me and a sneaker pushed into my lower back. I turned my head and looked up at Chaz Lindley, who stood arms crossed and scowling.
“Song, if Art sees you like this I’m the one who’s got to suffer. You know that, right?”
A week ago, I’d walked into Chaz’s office and caught him with his shirt up, tweezing nipple hairs with a binder clip. I’d shuffled out the way I’d come in, and neither of us had brought up the incident. I felt the easy comeback on my tongue, and let it go unsaid. Chaz was my boss.
I met private investigator Charles Lindley under strange circumstances. He got me out of a couple good tangles, and when I was in the clear, he recruited me. I’d always liked the idea of PI work. I spent a lot of lonely years dreaming of Philip Marlowe instead of living my own life. When I crossed paths with Chaz, I was in the thick of my first real case, which I hadn’t asked for in the least. I wasn’t half bad at the work, but it ended disastrously anyway. It scoured me clean of any romantic feelings for the job, but when Chaz offered to hire me, I was grateful. The fact was, I had nothing better to do, and we both knew it.
I joined Lindley & Flores as a gofer, with the idea that I’d get my own license once I racked up the work experience. He ran his practice out of a small office in Koreatown with a forty-five-year-old ex-cop named Arturo Flores. Chaz said they could use a scrappy errand girl with nothing to lose. His exact words.
So far I’d done grunt work in the office and three straightforward assignments on cheating spouses. Two pissed-off husbands and one pissed-off wife paid good money to learn things they already knew. It was low-glamour stuff, but I knew that going in. I spent a lot of time in the office, bored out of my mind and always uncomfortably hot. I helmed the receptionist desk, and when Chaz wanted to look good for a client, I played the quiet, efficient office lady as best I could in blue jeans, but mostly I just sat around. Arturo had been out all morning, and it was just me and Chaz passing time. I knew better than to clip my toenails with Arturo around. He was a serious man with a line for a mouth. He thought I was a bit of a joker, who Chaz had hired out of pity. He was probably right.
I started to get up off the floor when Chaz plunked down in my chair. “You can finish,” he said. “But then I have some actual work for you.”
I stood up and slipped my feet into my shoes. “What’s up?”
“I got you a client.” He smiled, broad and goofy, showing his big teeth. “Girl needs someone to check up on her boyfriend. You up for it?”
Quitting time was around the bend, and I jumped at the chance to postpone it. The week had been slow and I had nothing in the way of weekend plans. “Sure. Cheaters are kind of my specialty.”
“Yours and everyone else’s.” He pushed a Post-It onto my desk with a phone number scribbled in his incongruously elegant hand. “Name’s Daphne Freamon. Give her a call. I think she needs a woman’s ear.”
* * *
With three divorces under my belt, I was starting to feel a little comfort in the job. Each assignment was quick, simple, and dirty in a way that didn’t compromise me. I cleared them, and with each clearance I increased the distance between me and my past mistakes. I wasn’t delusional enough to think this was good work that might buy my atonement, but it helped to put whatever skills I had to someone else’s bad use.
My new client had a 917 area code. I dialed, and she answered after three rings.
“Hello?” She sounded quiet and expectant, like she was speaking into a darkened room—she’d been waiting for my call.
“Hi, Miss Freamon? This is Juniper Song, with Lindley & Flores. How are you today?”
“Call me Daphne, Miss Song.” She had the kind of distinctive voice that I knew I could recognize out of context months, maybe years later. It was timid thin-wired high-pitched but a little raspy. I wondered if she was a smoker.
“Sure, Daphne. Call me Song. It’s what people call me. What can I do for you today?”
“Well,” she said. “Listen, Song—Mr. Lindley says you’re twenty-seven, unmarried. Is that right?”
I smirked. “Yeah, that’s right. What else did he say about me?”
“Oh, no, nothing much. It’s just—we’re the same age. I talked to Mr. Lindley for a bit, but I think he thought I’d rather talk to you.”
“Would you rather talk to him?” The idea didn’t offend me. Despite his groin-scratching solicitous dad-ness, Chaz was the pro to my peewee league. I’d go straight to him if I wanted shit done.
“No, no, this is much better,” she said. “Song, do you have a boyfriend?”
“Well, I called you guys because I’m worried about mine. We’re long distance. I live in New York and he’s in L.A. He got this gig ghostwriting for Joe Tilley about six months back and moved out there for a while. Do you know Joe Tilley?”
The name sounded familiar, but it was generic enough. “I might. Who is he?”
“He’s an actor. A pretty big one. He used to be a bit of a heartthrob in his twenties, but he’s turned his career into something pretty serious over the last decade. He was nominated for an Oscar a couple years ago and a lot of people think he was robbed. You’d probably recognize him if you saw him. Late forties, lot of muscle. He kissed pop stars on-screen in the nineties. These days he plays mysterious men with obsessions and dark pasts.”
I typed the name into Google and the face clicked into place. “Oh, this guy. I know this guy. Nice. He’s a pretty big deal.”
“Jamie—that’s my boyfriend, Jamie Landon—Jamie says Joe’s been keeping him busy writing this screenplay, but I don’t really know what else he’s been up to. He disappears for days at a time, won’t answer my phone calls, and I’m afraid he’s getting into trouble again.”
“What kind of trouble?”
There was a lip-biting pause. “He has a coke habit. Had a coke habit. It’s supposed to be past tense, but I’m skeptical. I’d say the odds are good that he’s holed up on a coke binge, who knows who with.”
“Has he done that before?”
“Yes.” She hesitated for a second, unsure of how much to share. “He’s been in rehab twice. I gave him an ultimatum. Told him it’s over between us if he falls off the wagon.”
“You must be pretty serious about it to call me.”
“You have to understand. Jamie thinks of himself as this nice guy, but as soon as he can blame asshole behavior on anything else, he becomes an asshole. Drugs are an easy scapegoat. It isn’t so much that he blames the coke to my face—it’s that he can tell himself it isn’t him, so he cuts himself tons of slack when he’s high or between highs. I wouldn’t even have to know about it.”
“Oh,” I said, and waited for her to continue.
“I’m a painter. My painting—it’s one of the most precious things in the world to me; it’s my life. I had an exhibit a few months ago, a really important one. He knew about it for months, bought plane tickets and everything. I was stressed out and emotionally restless to begin with, and then he disappeared, never got on the plane. I couldn’t reach him for days. You know that feeling? When you want so badly to reach somebody, and you just can’t get them to hear you?”
I nodded into the phone, mumbled recognition. I knew.
“My mind always goes to the darkest places. I almost called the police because I was so convinced that he couldn’t do this to me, that he would sooner be dead in a ditch than stand me up on that day. But I thought, how embarrassed will I be if he is, in fact, holed up doing blow, betraying me for a stupid high.” She sighed, one raspy drawn-out note. “So I told myself if I found out he was getting high again, it’d be over. I’ve given him about eight second chances, so I decided to throw some money at it this time around, hire someone and see if maybe that would make this breakup stick.”
She paused for a while, so I said, “Sure.” It came out more callous than I felt.
“Sorry. I’ve been going on and on.”
“No, not at all,” I said quickly. “Can I ask why you’ve put up with him until now?”
“Good question.” She laughed, a bitter, cornered laugh. “When he’s good, he’s really good, you know? He’s sweet and he’s got this puppy-dog charm. Sometimes I look at him and I just want to take care of him, do you know what I mean?”
“I do,” I said. “Okay. When is the last time you heard from him?”
“It’s been three days now, and I’ve been calling.” Her voice thinned to a gasp, and I listened to her held breath for half a minute, afraid that it would dissolve into tears. “I’m really worried, Song.”
“Okay Daphne, so what is it you want me to do for you? You want me to check on him?”
That caught me off guard. “You want a tail on him, then.”
“Yes. I guess that’s it.”
“Can I ask why?”
“What do you mean?” She sounded defensive.
“No, it’s just—I thought you just wanted to know if he was alive or coked up or whatever. I could find that out for you in an afternoon.”
One thing I learned quick about PI work was that the overwhelming majority of it was overwhelmingly boring. Chaz and Arturo didn’t deal in big mysteries, didn’t come across too much of anything that wasn’t straightforward. The job was almost routine, and after all the upsets of the previous year, I kind of liked its plainness. All the same, my heartbeat responded to Daphne’s meaningful silence.
“There’s more,” I ventured.
“There might be more. I’m not really sure.”
“Okay, well, that’s why you called us, isn’t it? But this will work a lot better if I have a vague idea of what to look for.” I rubbed at the hinge in my jaw and kept my voice level. “What are you worried about, Daphne?”
“I’m worried,” she said. “I’m worried that he’s using, but I’m also worried that he isn’t just using.”
“You want to know if he’s selling?”
There was a rustle on the other end of the line, a wordless shake or nod. “Yes,” she said a few seconds later.
“Do you have any reason to think he is?”
“Other than that it would be so in character for him to start doing something stupid for easy money?” She chuckled, a little trickle of sadness. “I don’t have anything solid. He mentioned once that he had a friend who was slinging, and it stuck with me. If he’s really back to using all the time, I know that’s how dealers get started.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll follow him around for a few days. Where can I find him?”
“His place is in West Hollywood, but his roommates say he hasn’t been home either. I’d start at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. That’s where he told them he was going to party, apparently. He didn’t bother to tell me, and that was on Wednesday.”
“Okay, let me get his address anyway.”
She gave me an address near Santa Monica and Crescent Heights, on Havenhurst Drive. “Just find him for me, please. I need to know what he’s been up to.”
“I’ll report to you tonight. What time do you go to bed?”
“Call anytime. I’ll pick up.”
* * *
The Roosevelt was an old, historic hotel on the loudest stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. Marilyn Monroe called it home for two years, and in 1929, it provided the venue for the first Academy Awards. It fit right into the glitzy story of tourist Hollywood.
I had little use for this part of town, a dingy neighborhood dressed up with buzzing neon lights and the dull trodden stars of the Walk of Fame. Grown men dressed as Spider-Man and SpongeBob SquarePants showed up day after day and suffered startling heat during most of the year to make lousy livelihoods posing for photographs in front of the Chinese Theater. They might have looked lively to a passing bus of tourists, but I saw them whenever I drove by, and I knew the sight was a picture of desolation, of crushed dreams dressed in grimy fourth-hand garments.
I circled the hotel for a good ten minutes before giving up on street parking. I pulled into the valet station and made a note to expense the fee. It was guaranteed to be costly.
It was five in the afternoon and the lobby buzzed with people. It was a nice space with a Rat Pack vibe, with heavy drapes and tall floor lamps built to look like wrought-iron torches. Small pillars met small arches, and a Spanish-looking fountain grew waterless from the center of a burgundy tiled floor. A man in a gray pinstriped suit paced with a cell phone clamped to his ear; a young couple held each other’s knees on a long, low sofa upholstered in tufted tobacco leather. I never figured out who stayed at the hotel. I’d been inside a few times to eat and drink, and the place seemed constantly busy, spilling at each entrance with skinny blond women and men in shiny shirts, every night of the week. The clientele fit a type, but it wasn’t native Hollywood. Maybe Jamie Landon would give me the answer.
I took a seat on an armchair and opened a book, my heart jumping more than I liked. Stakeouts were boring, but they kept me skittish. I always brought a book that I could never quite enjoy. I looked up after every paragraph with whatever stealth I could manage. It was like fishing—I hated almost all of it, but there was a small joy in reeling in the fish.
I studied the picture Daphne sent me on my phone. Jamie Landon, twenty-nine years old. He had a good-looking face, as far as I could tell, that looked vaguely familiar. The shadow of some celebrity, or a cluster of white male schoolmates who shared his features. He was supposed to be five-foot ten, around a hundred and fifty pounds. He favored plaid shirts and hoodies, slim designer jeans. He could be easy to spot or impossible.
After a quiet half hour, I walked across the floor to the cocktail bar. I ordered a bloody mary and carried it back into the lobby, where I repositioned myself on one of the sofas in reach of a coffee table.
I was halfway through my second drink when Jamie Landon hurried out of an elevator, eyes washing over the ground ahead of him as if he were wielding an invisible vacuum cleaner. He was easy to spot, as it turned out, though his jittery walk was at least half the picture. The other half was pleasant enough. His hair was a mess, but a good-looking mess, bedhead, thick and brown with the kind of beachy, loose curl I could never quite coax into my sheet-straight hair. I knew he was almost thirty, but he looked impossibly young.
Behind him was a middle-aged man in a tight graphic T-shirt and faded blue jeans with artful tears at the knees. He wore sunglasses and a tweedy fedora, but it took me only a couple seconds to recognize him as Joe Tilley.
I swallowed my drink and made a quick exit to the valet stand while the two men settled up at the front desk. I was still waiting for my car when they came out the door after me.
There were about a dozen people within view of the front entrance to the hotel, and a strange hush came over them all when Joe Tilley appeared. No one looked at him with anything amounting to pointed interest, but there wasn’t a person with eyes who didn’t know he was there. The man had star power—that was clear enough.
I ventured a closer look. Despite the stupid hat, he was a pretty sight. His face was almost generically good-looking, well angled and masculine with a strong, broad jaw. He was shorter than he looked on-screen, about five-foot-nine on the generous end. His T-shirt had a paper-thin, overwashed look, and it stretched translucent against his chest, showing the meaty outline of his pecs, the textured points of his nipples. I wondered if he was shooting a movie, or if he worked out every day of the year.
Jamie stood in front of him, somehow shrinking himself in the foreground as he handed the valet his ticket. My car came first.
I tipped the valet and sat in the driver’s seat playing with my phone while Jamie waited for his car.
The car that crept into my rearview mirror was a yellow Ferrari, waxed to eye-searing brilliance, by my estimate not more than a day or two old. Jamie got behind the wheel, but I guessed the movie star was the legal owner.
I left the lot before I imprinted my Corolla’s plates on their short-term memory and idled down the block for the thirty seconds it took for them to drive out.
In my time with Chaz, I’d gotten a fairly good grasp on the art of tailing. My car was gray and forgettable, and I could follow any unsuspecting driver across the city without getting obvious. Flashy sports cars just made my job a little easier.
It helped, too, that Jamie drove slowly. I guessed driving a celebrity’s two-hundred-thousand-dollar vehicle made one a little cautious. He avoided lane changes and signaled at every turn. I followed them out of Hollywood on Sunset, then up north toward Griffith Park and into the Los Feliz Hills, where the streets became smaller and strictly residential. The houses flanking both sides of the drive grew big and splendid, structures of alarming taste and beauty tucked into the hill like luxe pocket squares. I followed the Ferrari at a safe distance for as long as I could manage, then started to lose it in spurts as it climbed the hill. Just as I was about to give up and wait at the bottom, the car turned into a grand driveway.
This belonged to a magnificent house, a Spanish-style mansion with a look of perfect preserved grandeur. It was a corrupt clergyman’s house, or a real estate king’s, or an A-list actor’s. The actual structure was a good quarter mile in from the street, obscured from most angles by a thick wall of brambly hedges manicured to a well-managed chaos. The better to block out cameras, I supposed.
I passed the house after a quick disciplined gawk and parked uphill facing back down. Five minutes later, a dusty silver BMW nosed its way out of the driveway. Jamie drove, alone, looking exhausted.
I laughed out loud, tickled by a sudden jab of recognition—Jamie looked familiar because I’d met him once before.
It was a parking encounter a few months earlier, one of those silly interactions that happens every second in Los Angeles. I’d had a depressing day, one of many in a row, and Lori insisted on going out to dinner at a popular restaurant in Los Feliz. I searched for fifteen minutes before finding an empty spot. I signaled, finally triumphant, and a second later a silver BMW swooped in to take it. When the driver got out, I rolled down my window and said something impolite. He looked at me, and his eyes went wide. “Oh, shit, don’t tell me,” he said. “I ate your lunch right out of the fridge.”
My anger deflated. “As long as you know what you did,” I said.
He offered to move, and when I waved him off, he insisted. “I’m offering to vacate a parking spot. How often does that happen in this city?”
Before I could decline more sincerely, he hopped in his car and drove away. That was all there was to it, but I remembered it clearly. It was a rare sparkle of decency that left a deep impression—an episode of mundane anger transformed in an instant to one of flushed pleasure.
I was sorry when he left. I wouldn’t have minded getting his name. Now I knew—that was Jamie Landon, and I wasn’t exactly repaying his kindness.
* * *
I followed him back onto Sunset, the direct path from Los Feliz to his apartment in West Hollywood. The slow ooze of Friday traffic let me keep a loose, steady tail until we reached our destination.
The neighborhood was not quite as royal as the one we’d come from, but it was pleasant, respectable, and I guessed the rent was moderately high. The building was old but well maintained, a one-story complex that might once have been a giant single-family home, parceled into a handful of units. The exterior walls were a bile-colored stucco, broken up by a few square windows. Jamie parked his car on the street, a lucky break for his tail.
The clock in my car said 8:50 P.M. I called Daphne.
“Well, he was at the Roosevelt,” I said.
“Did you see anything?”
“Joe Tilley was with him. Jamie dropped him off at his house. I guess he’d left his car there. They’re close, huh?”
“Joe likes Jamie. Their work is pretty intimate and they hang out often, from what I understand. I don’t know anything about them hanging out in a hotel together, though.”
“Joe Tilley—is he a family man?”
“He has a son and two daughters. None of his kids live with him, though.”
“Number three. Willow Hemingway. Actress. C-list.” She spoke like she was directing me to an unattractive item in a mail-order catalog.
“She’s at home?”
“As far as I know.”
I stretched the fingers of my free hand on the steering wheel, let the knuckles crack in percussive succession. “So he’s leaving her at home overnight to hang out with Jamie. Does he have a history of drug abuse?”
“Might be his most famous relationship.” She drew in air through her teeth. “I guess they could be doing drugs together.”
“I’ll keep watching him.”
* * *
I pulled out my laptop, found some unguarded wireless, and did a little background research. Internet stalking was the first and handiest tool for any private detective, and I made good use of it before and after I got the job. I wondered sometimes in an idle way if private detectives weren’t already going obsolete. Information was our primary ware, and it was plain enough that the Internet was bad news for all middlemen.
I ran a search for Joe Tilley, figuring he’d be the easiest player to look up. I skimmed his long, detailed Wikipedia entry and scrolled through the column of his life’s work on IMDb. Everything Daphne had told me was publicly available, as was a surfeit of boring factoids made newsworthy by his fame.
Jamie Landon had an IMDb page, too. Sparse, with a small headshot and a few writer credits in shorts and small productions. Nothing else really came up. No one cared where he ate his breakfast.
I lingered on his picture and wondered if I should tell Daphne about the coincidence of our prior encounter. It was a funny story, but it was almost too trivial to mention. I decided against it without much thought—I only remembered him because I’d found him attractive, and there was no need for her to know that.
I looked up Daphne next, more out of interest than anything else. I googled “daphne freamon artist” and the first result was a feature review in a prominent New York magazine. I whistled—Daphne Freamon appeared to be somebody. The review was fairly involved, and it included photographs of both Daphne and her paintings.
Daphne was black, as it turned out, and my brain experienced a brief delay as it processed that minor revelation. I’d heard an uninflected accent, a nonethnic name, and pictured, without thinking, a white girl. I may have grown up Korean in Los Angeles, but my brain couldn’t quite shed those middle-American default settings. She hadn’t mentioned her race, but why would she have, anyway? It hadn’t occurred to me to mention mine. I felt a scorch of shame at my own surprise.
She was also very pretty, but that part didn’t surprise me at all. I had a lot of Raymond Chandler in my PI training.
The review was laudatory, though it struck me as somewhat tone-deaf. The critic was a white dude, and I couldn’t help but cringe at his lingering praise for the “lusty,” “voluptuous” “sensuality” of her work. I had a high school kid’s appreciation and understanding of art, but even I could see there was more to Daphne’s paintings than sexual heat. I found several of them all over the Internet, and spent a good fifteen minutes taking in her portfolio. The paintings were striking, haunting, bloody and visceral in bright splashes of color, and they made me feel uneasy. That probably meant she had talent. Good for her.
Daphne was my age, and for a second, I wondered what I had done with my life. To my relief, I felt admiration rather than jealousy, a sort of creeping desire to be her friend.
I googled myself—nothing at all. All things considered, a blessed result.
* * *
Daphne heard from Jamie an hour later, and she sent me home for the night. It was just after ten o’clock, and Lori was home, unusual for a Friday.
She greeted me at the door, a habit of hers that put me in mind of a little dog. Lori would be something small and energetic, a Maltese or a Yorkshire terrier.
“Are you home for the night?” I asked. She was in her pajamas, a blue-and-white pinstriped two-piece set with girly scalloped cotton shorts. She had a few of these matching sets, and she rotated them weekly sometimes. She saw little sense in washing her pajamas between wears.
Lori and I had been rooming together for about six months, in a two-bedroom apartment in Echo Park overlooking the lake. The ad on Craigslist touted the lakeside location, the jogging path, the calming views. We were savvy enough to visit before committing a thing, and we found that the lake had been drained and fenced off months before. We wrangled down the rent and moved in. Half a year later, the lake was still a yawning dirt ditch, with no apparent signs of a return to glory.
She nodded. “Have you eaten?”
It had been a long time since I’d had a roommate, but I was getting used to it. Lori was messy but surprisingly thoughtful. Within the first month, we figured out our arrangement. Common areas were never cleaned unless I cleaned them, but Lori cooked all her meals for two. She was a good cook—she’d learned from her mother, and she could whip up a good Korean meal in minutes. I’d spent so many years dining like a bachelor—on Hot Pockets and yogurt and a lot of milk and cereal—I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed home cooking.
My stomach growled on cue. I hadn’t eaten since lunch. Lori nodded and heated up a bowl of kimchi fried rice while I took off my shoes. She placed it on our dining table and sat down next to me while I ate.
“Thanks,” I said. “No plans tonight?”
She shook her head. “I thought I’d hang out with you.”
“Don’t let me get in the way of your weekend. You see me every day.”
She shrugged, and I saw in the way her eyes watched her nose that she had something on her mind.
“What is it?” I asked.
She hesitated, bit her lip with her one crooked tooth, and gave me a dolorous, expectant look before sighing. “It’s nothing.”
Lori was not quite a friend in the usual sense—she was flighty and giggly and twenty-three, the kind of girl I never got along with even when I was her age. But she was, I had to admit, something more important, a hybrid of little sister, daughter, and mother, slapped together out of mutual convenience and desperation. Less than a year earlier, her mother, Yujin, had been arrested for murder—a murder that I witnessed, and that had happened at least in part because I was there. It was a vision of hell that I’ll never forget, but it was much worse for Lori. Yujin was arrested on the scene, and Lori only saw her in prison these days. Yujin may have been one twisted mother, but she was the only parent Lori had.
I made the decision to latch Lori’s life to mine. It wasn’t a hard decision, and it wasn’t one made entirely from guilt. When Lori and I met, I was virtually alone, my father and sister dead, my mother living with family in Texas. I’d had a couple close friends to sustain my social needs—I lost them both within days of meeting Lori. The trouble followed from her to me, but I knew it wasn’t her fault. I forgave what there was to forgive, as she forgave my involvement in the calamities that fell on her side.
The truth was, we were both stranded, and we drifted together as naturally as a couple of ions. With her mother gone, Lori couldn’t stand living in her house by herself, and I started staying in Yujin’s bedroom. When it became clear that the house would have to be sold to cover legal costs, we signed a lease together and made things official.
She called me unni like my little sister had when she was alive, and though I hardly knew her before we moved in together, she inspired the same range of emotions as real family. Among these, annoyance bubbled up the most often, followed closely by affection.
“If you want to talk, we can talk, but don’t make me fish for it,” I said.
“It’s just … boy stuff.”
“Are things not going well with Isaac?”
Isaac was Lori’s latest suitor, and they’d been hanging out with some regularity for the past few weeks. He was the first guy she seemed to like at all since last summer, by her admission, an unusual hiatus. It was understandable, of course—Lori attracted deadly men, and they’d brought her enough grief to send any woman running to the nearest nunnery. I was relieved when she started dating Isaac. He was a nice Korean boy, who wore polo shirts and went to church, who feared me a little, though not enough to keep him out of my home.
“No, everything’s fine with Isaac,” she said. “For now, anyway.”
“No, don’t worry. It has nothing to do with Isaac.”
“There’s someone else already, then?”
That got a laugh out of her, and the tension in her face seemed to soften. “Not exactly. It’s just—there’s this guy who works with my samchun.”
Taejin Chung was Yujin’s younger brother, Lori’s uncle. He was Lori’s only family in Los Angeles, at least outside of prison. He was divorced, with no children, and he and Lori were close. I’d only met him once. My picture of him was certainly colored by what I knew, but he struck me as a quiet, lonely man waiting for his life to spool out. He ran a body shop in Koreatown called T & J Collision Center, the initials scooped from his name to provide a thin illusion of all-American blandness. He worked with a small handful of employees, and he seemed to spend most of his time there. He even lived in a small loft above his office. Yujin had used this shop as a hiding place for the byproducts of her misdeeds. In a town like Los Angeles, cars were big giveaways when something went amiss. If a person was meant to disappear, a car had to disappear with her. When Yujin was arrested, the cops found two missing cars in Taejin’s garage—proxies for dead bodies, one of which was supposed to be mine. As far as anyone knew, Taejin was completely unaware of his sister’s crimes. I believed in his innocence, but I had little reason to want him in my life.
“One of Taejin’s minions?”
She shook her head. “I think he’s an investor or something. He loaned samchun some money.”
“What’s he have to do with you?”
“Well I met him today, at the shop.”
“Ah, okay.” I laughed, getting it. “He liked you. What’s this guy’s deal?”
“His name is Winfred. He’s probably thirtyish. Korean guy. Tall. Muscular.”
“A dreamboat, huh?”
She blushed. “No, he isn’t my type.”
“You don’t like him better than Isaac, then?”
“Unni,” she said, turning redder. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I think I like Isaac a lot.”
“What’s the problem then?”
“When I was talking to Winfred, samchun was looking at us funny, like, watching us. I told him later that Winfred asked for my number, and he turned kind of pale.”
“So he doesn’t like him. You’re basically his daughter, you know.”
“I know, and at first I thought that was it. But then he told me to be nice to him.
She nodded, and something heavy sank deep in my gut.
“Well be nice to him, then. It’s easy enough to be nice.”
She nodded again.
“And if you’re supposed to be much nicer, come talk to me. Unni’s got your back.”
Copyright © 2014 by Stephanie Cha
Excerpted from Beware Beware by Steph Cha. Copyright © 2014 Steph Cha. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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