Highway Patrol Officer Cheryl Gibson stood in the admitting area of Keck Emergency at the USC complex. Los Angeles Medicine at its most immediate. Huge letters plastered across fifteen feet of curved wall, spelled E - M - E - R- G - E - N - C - Y in case you had any doubt. She watched the man on the gurney roll away, blood leaking from a shoulder wound. A man she'd spent every waking moment with the last two weeks--Professor Bhakti Singh--appearing on her doorstep a complete stranger. Then never leaving her side. Until now.
The Punjabi man was babbling, Janet-Janet-Janet. But who listens to crazy Punjabis in an emergency room? That's never the emergency.
A camera crew from the reality show Lady Blue hovered nearby, about as subtle as a split lip. A crew of three: the cameraman who looked like a troglodyte shouldering a rock, a nose-ringed dink in headphones with a boom mike and the annoying lady host of Lady Blue, whose name Cheryl couldn't remember for the life of her.
"Get them out of here!" someone shouted. But the crew kept on filming.
The host of Lady Blue threw question after question at Cheryl:
"The family of Chico Montoya--alleged Jane Doe Killer--has sued you and the City of Los Angeles for excessive force and wrongful death. Care to comment?"
"Do you regret discovering Jane Doe's body?"
"Did you know the father, Professor Bhakti Singh found you through a palm reader?"
"Is this why you're getting a divorce from your wife? An affair with a man?"
Right, the host bitch implying Cheryl was cheating.
Of course... Whatever you do don't forget to mention the divorce.
How did it come to this? How did it all go wrong?
She met Sweet Jane.
Then she blew the late, lamented Chico Montoya's head off.
And met Professor Bhakti Singh.
Only a few short weeks ago Cheryl "Chippy" Gibson had come up from the valley, parking her California Highway Patrol motorcycle on a lip of a canyon in Ladera Heights to think things through. She took off her CHiPs helmet and caught sight of herself in the bike's side view mirror.
If you took away the uniform, the holster, the radio, the BMW copper chopper--just another black face in LA. Praline cocoa skin, a few shades lighter than fancy molasses and glinting eyes which always looked warm, even in chilly weather, even in the shadows. But wearing the britches and 17" knee-high Chippewa boots, helmet and shades she was bitchin' on wheels, deadly nightshade and nobody with whom you'd dare to mess.
L.A. at night, city of light. Long tracks of streetlights on a black pan leading to the Pacific, the moon silvering the waves. The cars coming and going, taillights and headlights glowing red and white, the occasional siren, racing to an eventuality, all so distant from this spot it almost seemed benign.
She and Rachel used to come up here just to hold hands. Better times.
From a swanky house down below, the sound of a radio playing faintly out an open window rose into the air. That Bob Seger song, Hollywood Nights; curiously, the music was right but the words sounded all wrong, the radio blatting out twisted lyrics from the famous oldie...
Oh, how Hollywood Bites
Those cute Hollywood Jills
She was looking so dead
With her needles and pills
That wasn't how Cheryl remembered the song at all. The signal wavered in and out until the song finally ended. Then the announcer came on, nobody Cheryl had heard before, no gruff Wolfman Jack--but a silky voice.
The velvet voice crept up the canyon walls.
"This is the Smiling Cat on Night to Night--" the announcer said. "Your favorite Oldies as Newbies, in ways you've never heard..." The Smiling Cat? That Smiling Cat was everywhere now.
And the DJ just riffing off The Newest Thing.
Down below someone killed the radio and the seductive voice died. The silence felt even creepier.
Her and Rachel.
How had it all gone so wrong? When it started so right? I know your face better than my own, Rachel once told her. Going from lust to romance to building a life. Eyes and mind and heart for no one else. African-American lady cop and Hollywood Jewish lady lawyer; married on Nantucket not a year ago. Somebody even found a miniature California Highway Patrol chopper to put on the cake, a mini-Cheryl in uniform standing next to a mini-Rachel in a dark black suit. Blue and black. Good fit, good yin and yang. But then it somehow turned black and blue. The first time Cheryl slapped Rachel's face she wasn't even that drunk.
And what was so important about the argument that somebody needed a bitch-slapping? What color to make the window treatments? Spoiled milk in the fridge? An unpaid parking ticket? Did Rachel work herself into high Hollywood lawyer dudgeon, about Cheryl never paying attention and not caring? Bringing the job home at the end of her shift? What then--was so provoking?
Well, actually a life and death thing. Dead girl, dead perp, with a cop pulling the trigger.
A dead creep holding a gun his hands. Trying to surrender--that's the way they'd play it.
The immortal moment broadcast viral on Lady Blue.
Bad news all around.
And all Rachel had to ask was a simple question, an innocuous question--with the wrong choice of words. Nothing to get angry about. Nothing at all.
While all Cheryl could think about--was what came before--life and death.
A bad day on the job.
The Felix Kidz. That smiling cat... It all came back to that.
For some time now a strange bit of graffiti had been popping up in all the hoods. Sometimes spray painted in bubble-letter style, sometimes in chalk--Felix the Cat:
And sometimes this bit of scribble wasn't simply limited to South Central or the weirder parts of West Hollywood. At first, like most things that suddenly appear out of nowhere, nobody really noticed it. Not like the President as The Joker that got noticed real quick. This one, just another bit of urban effluence, of questionable significance, easily overlooked in the general chaos of LA's freewheeling freeway culture.
Felix's goofy face appearing on walls in alleys strewn with empty crack vials, wine cooler bottles and condom wrappers. Then his wild grin showed up on the crack vials themselves, and meth bags.
Surfacing again as a tattoo on a Jane Doe--some nameless young woman, her body dumped in a concrete spillway of the L. A. River. Like so many of the hopefuls coming to the City of Angels for a modeling job, for a bit part, to get away from daddy who called her, "the best kisser in the trailer park," to finally a waitress, then hostess in some strip dump, to finally get her big break in the movies--but this time bent-over, ass up, and really acting like she meant it.
But not moaning up to snuff and tripping down to Hollywood Boulevard for a real spell of Stanislavski Method Acting. And failing at that, finding the needle or the powder. All ending somehow in a damp storm drain, missing a high-heeled pump with her skirt over her waist. Felix the Cat grinning at Chippy Gibson of the California Highway Patrol from Jane Doe's corpse, the DB's pale, cold rump. The uniformed cops who always found these innocent gals gave them a nickname, Sweet Jane. And the authorities finally started to notice these girls turning up dead in the general vicinity of a grinning cat face.
A few days before Rachel's face slap, Cheryl's Sergeant chalked up a version of Felix's mug on the blackboard in the ready room for their shift briefing.
"I guess you've all noticed the new cat on the street..."
He shrugged a little, "Puss 'n Boots here. And I'd like to tell you we know what the hell it is. We can't. Gang Task Force tell us it's spread across territory lines, Crips, Bloods, over to the Spanish, M-13, La Surenos, Los Zetas, and even The Wah Chings--there just doesn't seem to be any locus we can put our finger on."
The Sergeant shrugged again. "So what can I say today? What I say every day--you see one of these marks, in an alley, on the sidewalk, on a routine stop--exhibit extreme caution. Ladies and gentlemen, don't try to figure it out on your own, but take a picture on your cell, take some notes and we'll shoot it all back to Intelligence for the big brains to cogitate."
Here, the Sergeant wiped Felix's grinning puss from the board, swiping it into a faceless mush of chalk dust. "As the saying goes... Exercise Extreme Caution."
While at the back of the room the crew from Lady Blue videoed from a tripod; the lady host silent for once in her life as the camera followed the shuffling herd of uniforms now on duty. One or two of the highway patrolmen brushed past the camera set-up, knocking the tripod backwards, as the troglodyte grappled to keep it level, and the dink banged his mike against the wall.
Cheryl waved the crew to follow her. It took them a moment to pick her out of the herd. She'd been volunteered by Command to "show Lady Blue every accommodation and professional courtesy." Today was a ride-along.
Not much later in her shift, Cheryl threw the courtesy to the curb but showed extreme etcetera when she flagged a smoking hot Lowrider on Interstate 10 out by Redlands, belching exhaust; but the pull-over didn't go down easy. To make matters worse the crew from Lady Blue in their TV van couldn't keep up. The smoking hot Lowrider blew past the chugging van and Cheryl's chopper at about 80mph, leaving a plume of fumes behind.
The suped-up Impala ignored Cheryl's lights, ripped down the I-10 off-ramp, jamming a side street and blasting through the chained gate at Pharaoh's Lost Kingdom, a quarter mile away. The Lady Blue crew overshot the exit, and screeched to a halt in a cloud of dust. Then tried a swerving reverse--back to the off-ramp along the narrow service lane.
Thirty seconds of tear-ass later, Cheryl's legs turned to water as the bike roared into Pharaoh's Lost Kingdom Parking. The defunct amusement and Water Park, dead as the Sphinx of Giza--temporarily re-opened for flume, swim and splash, but had gone Death Valley again from the everlasting drought. One of LA's dead zones--and this was no good.
Cheryl heard her own voice, a trifle too urgent talking to Dispatch, "Officer 62, I-10, WB, Pharaoh's Lost Kingdom Parking lot, reckless speed, ignoring instructions. Request other units or local PD."
Dispatch came back, "Pharaoh Parking."
The vehicle screeched to a halt with a smoke of rubber, but its engine still belched exhaust. Cheryl stopped her BMW copper chopper, twenty feet behind.
"'Mid '60s bright Orange Chevy Impala, California Vanity Plate, FLX22."
Dispatch came back again. "Local San Bernardino, black & white ETA three minutes."
Three minutes. A prompt response window, but still an ice-age in real life real time. Cheryl dismounted the motorcycle, unclipped the safety strap from her Glock 9mm. held her right hand on the grip, ready to pull the gun from the holster. She hated the way the thing felt in her hand. Always blood-warm, since she drove around in the sun all day, and then clammy at night.
"Please shut off your engine, sir." Her voice came out strongly now, no room for argument. The engine died with a last burp of exhaust. She approached the Orange Chevy, five steps away. Somewhere behind, Cheryl heard the rev-rev of the TV van.Lady Blue had finally arrived. The van ground to a halt. The sound of a panel door sliding open; the pitter patter of busy little TV feet.
Cheryl ignored them. The problem was in front, not behind.
"Please put your hands on the wheel, sir."
But the driver's hands were already clamped on the steering wheel, yet something was decidedly wrong. Cheryl took in the man in the front seat. A Chicano, about age twenty, Laker's B-Ball jersey, yellow, number 24, Bryant--with the wrong kind of hands on the wheel. A woman's hands; a pair of lady's hands sat at ten and two o'clock, normal driving position--but the driver's own hands, young-man-hands--sat on his thighs, a finger going tap-tap-tap as if impatient with everything.
The young man was wearing an extra pair of arms.
It seared into the back of her skull in all of a second. The top section of a human body had been skinned, the shoulders and arms, specifically, cut from the torso; a large hole where the neck used to be, a broad flap from the spine, leaking blood. From inside the bloodstained Laker's Jersey, the dead arms protruded from the arm holes, gripping the wheel. The driver wore the skinned mantle like football shoulder pads, so he could steer from the 6 o'clock position with his real hands.
The rest of the body lay on the back seat. Head and trunk intact; only the arms and back flap of skin missing. Lovely, angelic face. Another Sweet Jane.
The young man looked around from his place at the wheel. "Buenos dias, officer." A small round tattoo of Felix the Cat grinned at Cheryl from the young man's forehead.
"Sir, please put your real hands on the steering wheel." Chippy felt her voice about to crack, but somehow it didn't. Flat, even, controlled.
"No problemo." But just before he placed his hands on the wheel, his finger flipped a switch on the dash, powering up the hip-hop feature of the hydraulics. The radio blasted to life at the same time, the tune from the funk band War way back in the 1970s. The late Charles Miller's black tar voice rumbled out the car window, the thumper "Low Rider." Perfect choice, as the musician had been murdered in LA and the killer never found, perfect Hollywood.
Come to think of it, the words coming out the radio were wrong here too. Just like the Bob Seger song played by the DJ who called himself 'Smiling Cat.'
So backup? Backup! Was anybody coming to help?
Two minutes, thirty seconds to backup remaining--an ice age:
All my Cats know the Low Slider
That Cat Felix skins 'em maybe better
The Low Slider takes a little slower
Low Slider, is a real goer
The powerful thump of the jumping car hydraulics and the low beat of "Low Rider" caught her by surprise and Cheryl stepped back. The other half of Sweet Jane lolled around in the back seat like an armless broken doll. The music kept rocking on, the grinning face of Felix staring at her from the kid's forehead.
The Slider knows every street, yeah
Felix, is the one to meet, yeah
That Cat don't use no mask now
Sweet Jane be Low Slider's bitch now
Somewhere behind Cheryl's head, the host of Lady Blue whispered to her cameraman:
"You getting this?" The whisper dying under hydraulic grunts.
Then the Chicano boy did the stupidest thing of his life. A gun appeared in his real hand and pointed out the window, bouncing loosely up and down.
"I got something for you, chica."
Cheryl didn't think, she drew and fired. The kid's face exploded. Bye-bye grinning kitty. But the car kept pumping away and the girl in the back rolled from side to side. As the hydraulics sapped the battery, the car jumped lower and lower, the song fading on the radio:
Take a little tip, Take a little tip
Take a little tip from me
Smack her on the lip,
Smack her on the lip for me
Cheryl's three minutes were up and two San Bernardino black & whites screeched to a halt behind her. They shoved the stupid Lady Blue crew aside without a lot of professional courtesy. Guns drawn, pointing at the Chevy. The car dead on the pavement.
One of the back-up cops examined the orange Chevy. Glanced at Sweet Jane in the rear and had to turn away for a moment. Then mastered himself, slipped on a pair of latex gloves and reached into the front seat. He showed Cheryl the young man's weapon. A gag gun from a magic store, the little red flag poking from the muzzle; the flag read: Bang.
"Got it," said the troglodyte with the camera rock.
And that's when Cheryl thought she would gag. But the spasm passed, just a spell of dry mouth; shortly washed away with a couple of gulps from a water bottle, fetched from the black and white. The real gagging came later.
That first night was okay. Rachel held her in bed, the idea pretty clear, I'm just so glad you're alive... She might have even said it out-loud. But Cheryl was a little foggy on the details, it was a tequila and Mexican night. How friggin' appropriate. Finally curling up in bed with the TV droning and the blue light flickering against the walls. She thought she heard Rachel tell her, "You've got time coming. Take a tip from me. When this settles down, let's take a little trip." And for a fleeting second Cheryl shivered. Did Rachel really say, take a little trip? God, she never wanted to hear "Low Rider" again.
The noose tightened about three days later; her departmental paperwork had been filed, time for the official Internal Affairs Q &A. The Inquisition. Her required taped statement with Internal Affairs officer didn't go smoothly. Lots of photos of the fake gun with the imbecilic bang flag sticking out the muzzle. Now running on every cable channel thanks to Lady Blue.
The pictures looked more and more absurd as they were shoved across the table at her. The Internal Affairs officer stared at her with the face of a ferret, lean cheeks, pockmarked from an ancient bout of chicken pox. Didn't listen to Mother when she told him not to scratch.
"Whattaya mean you didn't see this?"
"Didn't notice anything wrong?"
"How many times have you discharged your weapon in the line of duty?"
Answer, obvious, just look at the record: first time. And now, maybe the last.
Worse than that there were two other jackals at the hearing: a division captain, from the LAPD sat in, some politically connected friend of the mayor's--along with a suit from the Dept. of Justice, Los Angeles Civil Rights Division. This last sit-in probably because a local civil rights group was making ugly noises and planted a few protesters across the street from the crumbling Parker Center at the new HQ. The photos of the Bang-Flag-Gun had magically appeared, blown up as homemade protest signs. Not good. And every day the rent-a-mob left for the afternoon Felix's face in chalk grinned up from the pavement...
The light from the windows threw bars across the interrogation table; motes of dust stirred lazily in the air. Nothing was going to be settled that afternoon. Cheryl's eyes wandered from the men in front of her and she stifled the urge to yawn. The urge came on by surprise and it took all her will to stifle it. Yawning was very bad. What every cop knew, yawning during an interrogation meant you were guilty.
But apparently she couldn't mask her glassy eyes.
"Are you sleepy Officer Gibson? Are we boring you?" the pockmarked ferret asked her; and then out of the blue, a curve-ball, "Take a little tip from me, don't yawn." That damn "Low Rider" lyric, like he'd been listening to the same oldie tunes as Chico in the Chevy.
The police captain, the mayor's crony, a well-fed man, full of himself, played at being her friend. Telling the ferret, "Oh, I think we've covered what we can today, Felix. Let's let Office Gibson off for the weekend."
Felix? The Internal Affairs agent's ID tag said, Frederick. A nickname? He took his cue from the Captain, "Sure, whatever." Then to Cheryl, "Thanks for your cooperation."
The ride home that night seemed endless, miles of snaking traffic, of glinting chrome and a cap of yellow smog over all. Rachel wasn't in from work yet. No surprise, she often worked late, lawyer's hours. Cheryl watched the sun go down from the patio; this time of year it always set between two yucca plants. The landscaper planted their canyon back yard in Sonoran colors, sandy shale, rocks, cactus, and a large sitz pool with a horizon edge, water bubbling from a crack of boulders, running off the edge of sight seamlessly into the Pacific. A 100K in "pretty sand" Rachel called it. Hell, she was allowed--her Hollywood lawyer salary made it happen.
Too many times Cheryl felt like the spare tire in their jalopy, safely there in an emergency but not on the axle. Rachel's firm was A-Minus List, so for society's eyes Cheryl had to buy a closet full of clothes to match. Things she'd never have bought on her own. Never mind afford. The curious aspect of people relations, the subtle way class still seemed to matter. Not so much race, but the right schools, the right opportunities, the thousand clubs and associations. And of course, the right clothes. Did people talk to her differently, look at her differently? Not really. If anything they bent over backwards to bring her into the winners' circle. In LA cops were movie stars; that's why they tapped her for a ride-along on the latest police show, Lady Blue. But that stoked the coals too; a lower-middle-class insecurity lingering in the Big Box Store of her mind.
Finally home alone. The tequila bottle came too easily off the shelf. One pull after another as the sun did its sinking thing and the street lights came on down below. Cheryl felt her eyes grow heavy and her chin nodding to her breast as she lay on the lounge chair. But still, she seemed to see out across the vast expanse beyond the canyon. Dark blue and gray clouds rushed in from the west, rolling over themselves, the sound of galloping hooves coming in wave after wave.
A figure stood at the edge of the patio. And Cheryl knew exactly who it was; Sweet Jane from the backseat of the Chevy without her shoulders or her arms. The young lady looked plaintively at her, begging her for something. To come earlier, to have found her before it all went bad, before she lost her arms to this crazy Chico. Now the scene shifted to an abandoned warehouse with pigeons cooing on the rafters, Sweet Jane tied to a metal cot, mewing behind a gagged mouth, now the knife was going in, now the arms were coming off... And somebody was singing, Take a little Tip--
Sweet Jane stood over her, touching her shoulder, somehow touching her without arms. The pigeons flew into Cheryl's face and she woke with a shout of Wait!
No, it was Rachel who stood over her, leaping backward in surprise, "Jesus!"
Rachel. Home at last.
They both paused for a moment. Rachel standing, hovering, Cheryl half up in the lounge chair. Rachel dragged its match over and sat on it, so their faces were level. Cheryl's heart still pounded in her ears. And she stared back; Rachel's eyes wide, lips a thin line. She glanced at the tequila bottle standing on the stone patio. "Why don't you lay off that stuff? It's no good."
Cheryl's hand drifted to the bottle, picked it up and contemplated it. About four inches gone, her mouth a wad of cotton. She nodded silently; you're right as rain, searching in vain for the bottle cap. Rachel's eyes glowed a little in approval; always a lot better when people knew they'd had more than enough. "Here," she found the cap which had rolled away somewhere. Cheryl's heart was slowing to normal as Rachel's smooth and melodious voice came at her again with that same line, "When this is over; take a tip from me. When you're done, we should take a little trip--"
The rubber band inside Cheryl's gut finally snapped--and she smacked Rachel's face.
"Shut up! Shut up! Just shut up!"
Rachel started, tears leapt to her eyes, her face gone white and her hand went to her cheek.
When the doorbell rang.
Cheryl lurched from the lounge chair, finally stood, trying to mouth I'm so sorry. But Rachel was already marching through the house towards the front door, wiping her eyes on her suit sleeve.
The front door stood open, a nosey young man in a cheap suit, and cramped JC Penney alligator loafers peered into the house, smiling insincerely. He held a sheaf of papers, bound in a blue folder.
She came forward, "That's me." The blue folder with the papers came into her hand. "The family of Chico Montoya. Wrongful Death. You've been served." So the family was going after her, and Rachel and the bloody house and unspecified damages. Christ, she couldn't even afford the bloody payments or the taxes, not on her yearly copper 40K. This was citizens' revenge, pure and simple. If she'd been a single occupancy renter, the family might not have bothered at all. Sued the PD and left her alone. But 100K in pretty sand was too attractive to pass up.
In a few short days things went from bad to worse. The Sweet Jane nightmare, the tequila bottle that seemed to slide off the shelf on its own. Cheryl just folded into herself and Rachel's sullen eyes stared at her from the bathroom mirror in the morning when she thought Cheryl wasn't looking. But she was.
"You want a divorce? Will that fix it? I'll go back to living on my salary, move down the hill. Financial separation, something."
Rachel finished her eye makeup. After a breath, "Don't be an ass." But that pause, that tiny second, crushed Cheryl's heart. Her gal'd thought about it, already. How to get out of this crap.
Have a nice day.