THE POOL GUY’S KID
A Novel by Larry Mollin
There are two thousand, eight hundred, twelve backyard swimming pools in Beverly Hills. It has more per capita than any city in the world. My dad services maybe twenty-four or five of them a week. Maybe because occasionally the clients’ monthly payments have an abrupt stop. It happens. He’s been known to say, “In Beverly Hills, peoplegotits up or join the underground.” He has no filter, also no ambition. It’s enough most of his steady customers like and trust him. He works in the self-proclaimed, garden spot of the world but he is straight, working class, West LA. His name is Duke Montrose, I have the enviable position of being his only kid, Gilly.
There’s a lot of time to kill before daylight and while I don’t have an internet signal hiding inside this junked, five-hundred-gallon propane tank, I do have a voice recorder and a full charge on my iPhone13 which is finally paid for. If it goes tits up for me, this recording may be all that survives, so listen on.
A little background –
I go to University High like my father did and hope to graduate come June. After that, if there is a that, who knows? I earn my keep in the rent control, two-bedroom Duke and I share on Olympic and Bentley by helping him do pools after school.
Correct, it sucks.
So, it was no surprise when I got a text from him before sixth period. The Duke was stuck on the other side of the hill, in the San Fernando Valley, looking for a used pool heater and more discount chemicals. I was needed to cover the only job of the day. It was a rental house behind the Beverly Hills Hotel, end of Laurel Way with a saltwater, infinity monster and equally huge jacuzzi. A two-man job. Would I rather be hanging out afterschool playing Fortnite and debating Leticia Almora on the merits of being my Senior Dance date? If only.
None of what happens this November afternoon is the fault of Duke. I want to make that clear. I have to as this could be my last word and testament. Our plan now is to wait till sunup and sneak out, try to get back over the hill and find someone in the Beverly Hills Police force who believes us. I did say, us. I am not alone in this dark, empty tank that the Duke once rigged for a Bachelor party gag in this Sun Valley scrapyard. I am with Aeura Kim, pronounced Aura. She is visiting from Houston, looking at colleges and we’ve hardly known each other two days though it seems like a lifetime. Her dad is being held by the police for murder and we are the only ones besides the killers who know Mr. Sidney Kim is being framed. Is that as corny as it sounds? I hope not because it is true.
Two Days Ago
After I got that afternoon text from Duke, I shot one off to VJ, my good friend and auxiliary, pool cleaning helper. He’s third generation Japanese American. Lives off Sawtelle and Tennessee in the same house from which his great grandparents were ripped from and put into a detention camp during World War II. It’s next to the family nursery the government returned. VJ is a senior like me and also on the debate team which happens to be the best club to meet girls if you are not an athlete, says VJ. I joined as a promise to my mom, Estella, whom I miss every day. A car crash almost two years back put her underground. Everything that’s classy about me comes from my Chilean-born mother. She had me reading Lorca poetry when I was twelve. Funny, reading Lorca was what first caught my eye about Aeura. Mom’s angel hand at work?
Duke had left the tricked out, vintage Ford Ranchero he was known for all over the westside parked on the bad side of the road for the street cleaning day. Such was the Duke’s parking Karma that he almost never got a ticket. Of course, he was an occasional bedmate of the meter maid so there was that. The old pick-up was his pride and joy, stolen more than once, always magically coming back better. Duke called it his car-ma. Me and VJ loaded it at the storage shed at the back of our 6-unit apartment building. It was conveniently close to the unemployment office, Duke loved to point out. He was looking forward to retiring at fifty. More so, since he was already fifty-five, too young for Medicare and Social Security. Lack of these entitlements haunted him deeply and prevented him from the agony of doing the bills. That became my job too. Don’t get sad for me. I have my fun, my own money and hopes. Not to mention, one immediate desire, make that a prayer, that the Armenian goons who followed us from Glendale haven’t found Duke’s truck we abandoned under the pile of old palm fronds on this junkyard boulevard, in the shithole of the Valley. Let me slow down so you get the whole picture of what went down that job.
Heading to the hills of Beverly, VJ and I went true north on Sepulveda and took Sunset east to Whittier St. to Lexington to Benedict Canyon and then Laurel Way. I laughed thinking of Duke’s favorite Saturday Night Live sketch, The Californians. It was an LA soap opera where between intrigue and romance all the characters were obsessed with finding the best route to avoid traffic. VJ who was a Waze app junkie didn’t get the joke. We rolled up to the estate and things took an unfortunate turn. New security at the service gate stopped us and asked us to get out. This was an elite property owned by an old Uni High classmate of Duke’s who made a killing in real estate before he was thirty. A lost opportunity for the Dukester to have partnered early on. When he would get really low, mi padre would beat himself up on this blown chance.
For years the estate operated as a top end, month to month leaser while Duke’s bud, lived year-round, an even higher life in Majorca. He could afford better pool cleaners than Duke, but he was loyal and occasionally would give Duke stock tips that hit. The property attracted the superrich and beautiful and usually there was a party atmosphere for the Oscars or the Grammys or some other Beverly Hills bullshit. This felt different. No party was going on. The new tenants’ security was a prime cut above rent-a-cop, Thoughtfully Duke had complied with their instructions and had forwarded my ID ahead to the swarthy, pockmarked, hard-bodied guard at the back gate. It was my DMV photo from when I was sixteen, short haired, still pudgy, and shorter. Not tall, handsome, and buff like I am now. Unhear that, don’t want to jinx it.
Mr. Suspicious whom I later realized was Armenian looked me up and down, wanded me with care and gave an okay nod. VJ, however, got no nod. The hardo wouldn’t even look at his ID. VJ was not on the entry list and wasn’t getting in. Duke had neglected to send VJ’s, saying he thought I would. Another lame excuse as if I knew the number to the service gate. On the phone with Duke, I could tell he was at a bar waiting for the rush hour gridlock to die down. This was going to be a job from hell for one person. I begged him to reschedule but Duke said they had guests and it had to be done. He said he’d make it up to me. I knew he would. Duke wasn’t the worst dad.
I paid off VJ for his time cause that’s how I roll and got him a rideshare. With the time change, the sun was already hanging low. I parked the truck as close to the pool area as I could and started shlepping the gear in, two hand trucks’ worth. I was not alone. The closer I got to poolside, the clearer I could hear young girls giggling from one of the closed cabanas They stuck out their heads as if on cue and giggled some more at the sight of me. They were flawless, full color, anime figures. Korean for sure, maybe fifteen or less. Learning in a diversity hub like Uni, I can tell difference between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean girls. VJ had schooled me hard. These kids were straight out of that K-Pop world and flaunting it. They had the black bang cuts, cool tee-tops and plaid schoolgirl, miniskirts. Better that VJ wasn’t here or like a bad loser, he’d be going off about Koreans. He can’t get over the fact Korea not Japan makes the best movies, TV sets and cars. For centuries Koreans were the lowest rung of the Asian pecking order, the absolute bottom, a mongrel race. Like Bolivians to my mother’s South American friends. People always feel better when they have someone else to shit on. Way of the world, says Duke.
I got to it, unpacked the necessities, and was in a good working rhythm, wired headset feeding me a Malcom Gladwell type podcast that Leticia had recommended about social media and children under twelve. It was an upcoming debate club topic and I committed to take the pro side to defend it. Next fall Leticia was probably going to be headed to UCLA on a scholarship where her mother was a professor of Economics. She had a real look of success, a damn head turner too, when she tried. I was aiming high, punching above my weight, according to dear old dad. If he’s the King of low expectations, what does that make me, the Prince? To date, I am not sure if Leticia is grooming me for something or is falling in love. With the podcast’s pedantic arguments grating my ears, I did my thing, jacuzzi first, ran the saltwater analysis, cleaned all the filters, and spied another Korean girl. This one in a ponytail, sweatshirt and yoga pants reading a book inside another cabana at the diving board end of the pool. I almost fell into the water angling to double check its cover which I thought was, and actually was, Collected Poems of Gabriel Lorca. I wanted to give a little thumbs up, but a terrified squeal got me running to help. It was one of the K-Pop twins. Her Bluetooth ear pod had popped out of an earring laded lobe and landed under the hardscape’s French drain. Oh, the tragedy. Agitated, as if facing death itself, she communicated in Korean. I got the gist and knelt down face to the ground and did the dirty work necessary. The pod was wedged in and took a little time and careful maneuvering to free it whole. While I was rescuing it for them, they were filming behind my back, my butt crack flashing. I only found this out later from Aeura who predicts the little pop tarts will put it on Tik Tok. My butt jiggling double speed to an EDM track? Aeura thinks it would go viral. Joy.
The pool wasn’t going to clean itself. I got back to balancing the PH factor, acid base ratio, using my twelfth-grade math and science acumen. Perfect. Duke insisted that part of the job be spot on. This was always easier to calculate and correct than the older chlorine pools we serviced. We had to use those chemicals with more care. They were poison. Skull and crossbones stuff. You wore gloves and a mask on those calls, or it could screw with your skin and lungs. Cleaning pools is a good workout. My muscles are toned, and I was stripped to a Tee in the last sunlight of the day. With my LA Dodger hat on backwards I was feeling maximum cool which doesn’t happen often. While skimming the sparkling saltwater pool along its edges, flaunting my dip net skill at debris retrieval in the golden time before dusk, I noticed my hand truck on the back path. My chemical box for non-saltwater jobs was not there. While packing up, had I left the old, black milk carton with the big plastic jug of Chlorine back in the shed? That seemed logical. I would not have needed it. But still…
(Flash forward to right now, a few nights later, doing this recording. I did not leave the chemicals in the shed. VJ confirmed that. I should have paid more attention to my gut at the time, but I had work to do and not much daylight.)
I started the vacuum scrub at the pool’s deep end and put my heart into it switching out of the podcast and into a playlist that reflected Duke’s musical influence. First song to welcome me on shuffle was Derek and the Dominos’ “Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad.” I wondered about Leticia and me. So far, we had not even kissed. I mean we… she held back, ok. I got the message and have patience. Why does love have to be so sad?
At the other end of the pool area an older Asian woman emerged from the house in a bathrobe. Hong Kong Chinese, I thought and was right. She waved me over and I got the spa up and running for her as she asked. I set the heat at one-hundred three degrees which is optimum for an ideal, jacuzzi experience, quoth the Duke. The woman laid out on a chaise in a two piece while it heated up. She was maybe Duke’s age and would fit in at any shop in Beverly Hills with the amount of plastic surgery to her face and figure. She thanked me in an accent-thick English, and I could tell she was very nervous. I thought it was about me and tried to work faster and finish up. That was it. The full time I spent with Delores Sung who would be dead by evening.
I have to pee.
I cannot see Aeura’s eyes inside the junked propane tank, but her voice has that urgency that can’t be denied. It was going to happen sooner or later. We’d already been hiding out for hours. I stop my recording and check the time. 3:20 AM. Pocketing the device, I open the tank’s top hatch that Duke had custom made for a surprise, bachelor party stripper to appear. I peek around, head barely out like expecting gunfire. Am I being too dramatic? It’s dark and quiet AF in this junkyard that’s been our salvation. I see ghostly rows of disassembled autos, auto parts, discarded appliances, and of course, propane tanks. The yard’s owned by an old poker buddy of Duke’s who is huge in the scrap metal world. Another winner who makes Duke feel like a loser. A guy not unlike Duke who broke through the working class ceiling and lives large up on Roscomare in Bel Air. The fresh air is intoxicating. I help Aeura climb out. We both disappear as nature calls. We’d snuck under the yard’s barbed wire fence to get in and lose the Armenians. I think we can slip out the same way and get the truck. For the first time in a while my phone connects and dings with notifications. I mute it and hold my breath. They are from Duke and one from VJ. Duke’s messages are all cursing that I took the truck, and the police had come by. Why am I not surprised? VJ’s text is all in caps.
GET OFFLINE AND KILL CELLULAR, DUDE, THEY CAN TRACK YOU!
Two days ago
Aeura Kim was on a break from a private school in Houston where she was a Junior. She lived with her divorced mother there and unlike her father’s partner’s vacationing K-kids from Seoul, she’d been in America for the last ten of her seventeen years. She spoke English with a slight English accent from her time in Hong Kong. Her hair was clipped short, and the heavy, dark eye makeup sets her apart as a goth, emo, intellectual type outlier of Korean descent. I noticed none of this on first seeing her covered up with a hoodie and sweats. All I noticed was her choice of reading. Before I left the property, I dragged some hose by her cabana and remarked on the Lorca book. I assumed like the K-pop twins she wasn’t from this country. She didn’t help matters by looking at me blankly and nodding without speaking a word back. The older woman on the chaise seemed to be watching us and I got that vibe again to cut it short and keep moving. Before I finished hauling gear and repacking the truck, the moon was rising with a mocking smile on the lowly like me who toil for the rich and useless. I was off to catch up with Leticia about debate stuff and keep working her angles. Duke would be back soon and if past is prologue, he would have gone to Chili John’s Chili House in Burbank and picked us up a few quarts of deliciousness. It all seemed suddenly promising. Before I could start the engine, she tapped on the passenger window.
Can I grab a ride with you to West Hollywood? Book Soup.
-Sure, hop in.
What was I going to say? Dressed now like the rebel she is, Aeura got in with a backpack and a twinkle. The Ranchero’s rebored V-8 jumped to life. Across the pool area, a uniformed maid came charging down the service path toward the truck waving her hands and calling.
Miss Aeura! No! Stay here! You must stay!
I went, went at Aeura’s command. Was it wrong? Probably. Aeura ducked down in her seat, and we shot out the back gate before the guard noticed. Down Laurel Way I did ask the obvious.
Am I going to get into shit for this?
-I’ll pay you for any trouble.
Book Soup? I couldn’t let her go alone. It’s one of the best independent, damn ass cool, book stores in LA. My mother took me there a number of times to hear authors and get her books signed. She loved the classic poets; Browning, Keats, Dickinson but kept up with the latest. I got to meet the great Billy Collins at Book Soup. Look him up on your search engine. She wouldn’t read Bukowski though, too sexist, and urged me not too which of course made me a fan. I parked in a loading zone on Sunset and helped her out.
I’m Gilly. Short for Guillermo.
-Aeura. Pronounced Aura.
Sweet. Let’s go find you some books.
I don’t want to panic Aeura, but I have to get her back into our hiding place. If VJ is right, the Armenians could be camped out by the truck. We need to wait at least until daylight. In the dark of the confined space I can hear her crying.
-Don’t say anything.
It’s alright to–
-I’m not crying.
Right. I reach for her and give a comforting, brotherly hug. Aeura dissolves into my arms, head buried deep in my shoulder. I can feel the wetness of her tears. Or was that a kiss? My heart is racing. I can hear hers beating harder.
I am so sorry I got you into this.
That apology is little comfort if we can’t survive the night. I don’t say that or say anything which I think she appreciates. Instead, I focus on our options starting with the Beverly Hills Police. They are holding Aeura’s father in the death of his second wife Delores. Aeura and I are wanted as people of interest insane as that sounds. More on that later. Seeking Duke’s help is no help and worse. To get in touch with him could put him in jeopardy. The people behind this are in deep. Billions or bust. They have already killed two people, set up a fall guy with motive and planted evidence. It would be our word against theirs if we are lucky enough to stay above ground and speak truth to power.
Aeura is nodding off. I will keep documenting.
Two days ago
There was magic in the Sunset Blvd. bookstore that evening. The clerk was new to me. He was a wizard, a word nerd to the 100th. Aeura was looking for an older saga about five generations of an Afghani family and found it without knowing the title or author thanks to Owen Lattimer. Aeura had some wicked fun trying to stump the UCLA World Lit major. Owen was loving the attention and aiming high. I respected that and left them laughing about John Kennedy O’ Toole while I searched for a book of my own. Aeura had told me to pick anyone I wanted, and it was on her, I couldn’t decide between Richard Lange or John Fante novels and then had an epiphany. If I could have one book it might as well be something that needs to be a hard cover. Otherwise, I’d rather have another file in my Kindle. Unlike my mom I am a digital media consumer and proud of it. On demand books, movies, and music, I only come in the Book Soup once in a while for the vibe. I picked out a dream coffee book instead. Rock star images from Beverly Hills’ own Guy Webster, a pioneer, record album photographer and old friend of Duke’s, long gone. It was a worthy treasure and Aeura approved. When Owen rang us up, I could see he and Aeura had made a connection. Was I the only one watching them?
Speculation: Book Soup was not where Aeura was supposed to be in this murder plot of her father’s business partners. All the traces of her absence from the Laurel Way house needed to be erased. Including me. Including Owen.
At the bookstore, the clerk Owen despite the desire percolating inside him couldn’t escape the fact Aeura’s credit card was not going through. No matter how many times he tried, he couldn’t ring up our stuff. Without cash on her it was me who saved Aeura the embarrassment and paid for it all with a debit card. Owen bagged us up and invited us to an LA Poets Circle reading the following night. When we both said we’d come he made a funny about uninviting me. He was cute, all in for Aeura, and I feel so guilty, and nothing will change that. If I had gotten his phone call earlier maybe Owen would still be alive.
Outside, Aeura thanked me and on the spot, Venmoed me all the money I had laid out plus, a generous five-hundred dollars more. I hit the bank transfer button to ACCEPT as quick as I could. The exchange went through. Glory be. I felt like I won the lottery.
It was all downhill from there.
It’s almost 4 AM. Aeura is asleep, head in my lap. I am hoping the Armenians have called off the search and gone to bed themselves. I am sure Aeura’s father’s business partners, James Hyung of Seoul and Rodney Allan of Beverly Hills are wide awake and scheming. They successfully set up their former partner Sidney Kim as the only suspect in the death of his wife. Now they need to silence us before their crypto-mining IPO hits the market next week. Why Armenian goons are helping them I can only imagine.
(Speculation: Aeura says the American partner is a high roller, a gambler. Her father and step-mother had argued about the source of their company’s bridge financing. Maybe the Armenian mob provided that and is protecting their investment.)
We have to make a move soon and it has to be the right one. For now, this tank is home, a womb where we are safe. Recording starting again 4:02 AM. Where was I?
Two nights ago
On the ride back from Book Soup, I gave Aeura a tour guide’s cruise of West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. It was somewhat depressing for me. Almost everything memorable is gone including the House of Blues that Duke got me into regularly as a kid. Rock and Roll, Blues and Soul, fare thee well. Traveling west we passed the Whiskey a Go Go. It still holds the corner at Clark and Sunset where it’s been since the 60’s. Aeura knew all about the 80’s LA punk music scene that started there. More than me. She teased my punk and emo ignorance which I took as a badge of honor. It was a decent cruise, cool. I didn’t feel an attraction to her. It wasn’t like that. Aeura was good company, interesting, funny in her negative way of seeing things. She hated most everything popular. She told me she wanted to be a journalist so she could expose bullshit wherever she found it. She had started a bullshit detecting blog that had some followers till her father asked her to stop till after his company’s IPO went through. VJ texted me during the ride that the debate club officers, namely he and Leticia would be at the Westwood Starbucks around 8 PM. I planned to drop off Aeura, drop off Duke’s truck and make it on time. I am known for being on time. It was drilled into me by my mother. She had been actress in Chilean theatre and was trained with that discipline. We turned on Benedict passed the Beverly Hills Hotel, passed Lexington, made the left at sleepy old Laurel Way and what the hell, there was traffic backed up. News vans, a fire engine, BHPD cars and an ambulance.
Let me out!
Aeura was in a panic. Without a word, she threw open the truck door and fled. Forgetting about her bag of books and me, she hurried down the lane through the hive of emergency personnel. When I last saw her that night she was rushing into the arms of an older Asian man, her father, no doubt. They walked away. I waited for a bit, feeling helpless, in the way, like a fool rubbernecking freeway wreckage. I figured I could drop off her bag at a better time and I took off with my Guy Webster coffee table book and five hundred dollars more in my debit account. Even Duke would high five that.
Duke had the Chili John’s rocking in the pan when I came in. I changed on the move. Washing up, I opted not to shave. No point. Unlikely a night for me and Leticia to share a first kiss. Duke asked about the work at Laurel Way. I started off telling him about the color-coordinated K-Pop twins and he was amused. It’s always a crapshoot owning a high-end rental, Duke avowed. Not that he owned any, but he always sounded like a real estate expert. I let him get away with it, something I had learned to do. Scarfing down the good grub, I relaxed and enjoyed it. It was obvious he had not heard anything about the emergency at the property from his bud, the owner. I did not bring it up. If I did, I never would have gotten out of the house. That was wrong and I hope to hell Duke does not pay somehow because I didn’t tell him right away. Instead, I Venmoed him my rent and grabbed my lightweight BMX bike from the shed. The milk crate with a jug and chemicals was nowhere in sight. In denial, I packed away that weirdness in the back of my head and padlocked the shed, pedaling off to Westwood.
VJ and Leticia were nursing their mochaccinos when I strolled in, my sun-bleached long hair still damp from the shower. I was feeling pretty spiffy in almost-new Burberry sweater, black jeans, new Vans. I look older than eighteen everyone says. VJ had to comment on my overdressing for the meeting and I couldn’t tell if Leticia saw me blushing. Leticia was organized AF and gave us hard copy of the run down for the debate match against the hated Beverly Hills High the next day. The Social Media issue was going to be the penultimate match. No pressure, Gilly. I had absorbed a good bit of the super relevant podcast and had some views of my own. I was confident AF. Leticia seemed turned on by that. I was thinking that I should have shaved when my cell rang harshing my mellow. It was Duke. His friend had called. A woman had died in the Laurel Way jacuzzi. WTF!?
It’s a few hours before dawn and black as night outside and inside this godsend of a salvaged gas tank. The only illumination is the display screen on my phone. It’s amazing when you are off the internet how little battery charge you use. I can speak out loud since Aeura is sound asleep, head still in my lap, snoring. Her hair smells good. I am big on smell, and I like the scent of her. I can only imagine how pissed off at me Leticia will be. VJ at least understands why I ditched the debate before the end. As tempting as it is to make a call, I am afraid. The criminals behind this murder and cover up have deep hooks into the authorities and money, lots of money according to Aeura. Her father is no saint either. A mathematician by trade, he married his second wife, the late Delores Sung and she provided the fortune he needed to develop a unique cryto meta-mining start up that became the company. The out-of-the box concept is what attracted the Hong Kong partner and subsequently the American partner. Sidney was skeptical of Rodney Allan. His wife, more so. It was no secret there was tension between the partners as the IPO and its potential bounty loomed. Also, downright hostility between Sidney Kim and his second wife who threatened to divorce him. Aeura had been witness the night she arrived from Houston to a domestic squabble that bordered on a physical confrontation between them. The American partner who Aeura found creepy had seen it as well. Delores had surprised Sidney by flying in from Macau to join him in Beverly Hills supposedly to help with the IPO launch. She wanted to plan the party. Sidney was not pleased. At first, Aeura thought he was being protective of her, his only child knowing she and Delores did not get along at all. A phone call back to her mother in Texas gave a reason. Her father had a mistress just like he did when they were married. Aeura had to hang up before her mom ranted on. Aeura usually believed only half of what her mother said about her father but this time she may have been 100% accurate.
There are a lot of angles in here that I do not understand or much want to. My decision to help Aeura in retrospect is dumb, Now I have to own it. I better record the events of yesterday while still fresh in my mind. Here goes.
After Duke relayed the scant info he got about the death on Laurel Way I excused myself from Leticia and VJ and biked off from the Starbucks, my head spinning. Duke was gone when I got home. The note he left mentioned meeting a friend at Fantasy Island. Not the TV series, a local gentleman’s club that Duke used as an occasional office. He added I shouldn’t concern myself with the clients. Nothing to do with us, ok? With no way to find out more how the woman died, I tried to sleep and finally did. In the morning, I was up with the sun, grabbed that bag of Aeura’s book and the keys to Duke’s truck. He wouldn’t be up or using it till later so I had a free shot. I was going to leave the books at the security gate and get back, bike to school before homeroom. It seemed doable.
The scene at Laurel Way was still buzzing. There were no fire trucks or ambulance but there were police vehicles and CSI tech moving around with blue gloves and yellow crime tape closing access to the front gate. I braved it as far as I was allowed. The guard who had given me and VJ that difficult time was on the inside of the yellow tape. I got his attention and held up the bag hoping he would help. What was I thinking? The big man did not give me a second look. He was focused on the driveway where the police were leading off Mr. Sidney Kim in cuffs while Aeura was yelling and trying to pull him away. A policewoman took hold of her as her father was lowered into the backseat of a police car and driven off. I was frozen hoping Aeura would notice me. A slick, young, Asian tycoon whom I would learn later was the Hong Kong partner, James Hyung, put a comforting arm around Aeura. She tossed it off and bolted for the gate. I waved.
She didn’t make it. The gate guard stopped her and pulled her back, kicking and screaming up the driveway. I yelled in her defense. A BHPD policeman came over and tried to calm me down. He wasn’t much older than me and decent. He listened to his earpiece and explained she was being taken to the station to be questioned. It was routine. He didn’t have to explain but like I said, he was decent. I wish I had noticed his name. I watched a plainclothes cop who looked to be in charge take over and with the policewoman helping, they got Aeura into his dark Lexus. The young patrolman moved the tape so the car could exit. He looked over at me.
No. I…never mind.
As the Lexus passed me, I held up the Book Soup bag for Aeura to see. Too late to realize how lame that must have looked to Aeura considering how things were going for her. I didn’t figure when I held it up it, it also caught the gate goon’s eye and made me and the lovestruck, book clerk targets. If Aeura was in West Hollywood buying books, how could she have been helping her father kill her stepmother at the same time. Desperate people like Aeura’s father’s partners do desperate things. Especially when they are in bed with the Armenian mob. The fix was supposed to be in. We were the ‘poop in the pool’ as Duke would say.
I didn’t know any of that at the time and got myself back on schedule. Dropped off the truck and made it to first period. VJ wanted to know everything and between classes I filled him in. By fifth period I had re-thought it all out and told him, better, safer, to forget it all. Timing is everything and mine has been pitiful. Leticia tried to talk to me before AP English. She was excited about our Debate Team meet and I was too. I was going to crush it and earn that first kiss. Before I could even give her my best face forward, the vice principal motioned me to the office. The detective from this morning was here to take me in for questioning. More WTF?!
A walk of shame ensued. Kids craning their necks from classrooms to see me walking down the halls with Det. Joe Boylan of the Beverly Hills Police Department. I could tell photos were being grabbed and postings on social media would follow. I put my sweatshirt hood over my head but that only made it look worse. I lowered the hood and took the heat. It occurred to me as strange, even then, that a homicide detective would come himself to bring me in for questioning. I was not a suspect, or was I? And if I was, wouldn’t there be at least a uniform cop with him? Didn’t feel right. And why did Leticia have to witness it. There she was, with a look and a head shake to me that said, why do I bother with you. That was deadening.
I better stop recording. Aeura is awake and … hold on…she just kissed me in the dark and my ears are ringing.
Thank you, Gilly. You are my only.
Only only. You saved me.
She kisses me again in the dark cramped space. Her body’s warmth radiates through me, and I need it bad. Her lips are the softest, puffiest cushions and seemed electrified. I hold her even tighter and kiss her back till her ears are ringing. Leticia be damned! I am in no position to continue recording. That will have to wait. Aeura is cold and I can’t and won’t let go of her.
Gilly, what if today was the last of our lives?
-Whoa. Let’s not go there. The sun’s up. We can–
She takes my hand and holds it to her racing heart. Her eyes pour into mine. Her skin feels like quicksilver en fuego under my hand. She leans in to kiss me with her tongue darting deep in my mouth, a desperate longing, for the longest time. Then the kiss breaks and we catch the same breath. It’s heaven. It’s hell. A sudden fit of coughing engulfs us at the same time. We are wracked and gasping. Not cool. Something is burning! Something really is on fire! Peeking out the gas tank portal, I can’t see the sun though it must be up. The smell of gasoline stings as much as the smoke that covers the salvage yard. Flames are crackling as a hazy, brutish figure in the distance dumps out more gasoline. The Armenians have set the yard on fire. We have to flee or be cooked! Now!
Detective Boylan sat me in the front seat of his black Lexus and off we went. I tried to relax and be as polite as I could. Things got screwy when we drove right by the Beverly Hills Police building. I didn’t say anything. Boylan started talking shit about Uni High kids not even being fit to take out the trash at Beverly Hills High where he graduated. What a loser, I thought despite the five figure Piaget watch he sported. Cops and real estate agents in Beverly Hills always try to impress. Boylan parked in a handicap spot at La Cienega Park at the east end of the city. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck bristle. This was not what I expected. The detective who looked to be Duke’s age got to the core of the matter.
You’re in big trouble, Guillermo. Chemicals you used in the spa contributed to the death of Delores Sung. Did Sidney Kim ask you do it? Or did you give him the Chlorine jug. Free shot here if you answer now. We’re you in on it?
-What? No! Do I need a lawyer?
Duke had a married, female friend, an Inglewood lawyer who handled his DUI and became a trusted, occasional booty call. Boylan put his hand on me to quell my fears.
No. You don’t need a lawyer.
-Good. Cause I didn’t use chlorine. Laurel Way property is saltwater.
Boylan said he knew that though I doubted it. He was going to do me a big favor, He could tell I wasn’t involved just careless, he said, leaving it around. The victim was overcome by chlorine fumes, fell backwards, and sustained a fatal head injury on the spa’s rock edge. At least that’s why the killer hoped we’d believe. Coroner considered it an overdose of chlorine. Maybe half a gallon poured into the Jacuzzi. No, way. Yes, way. Crazy! He patted my shoulder with a reassuring tap and told me he’d keep me out of it. They had the victim’s husband and his daughter. Old man snapped at the wife and then tried to cover it up with his daughter’s help and blame you. Boylan was looking for me to thank him. Seriously.
I don’t think so. Aeura, his daughter was with me.
-Huh? Keep that to yourself. For now. Got it?
I nodded that I did. He checked his sick watch and told me to get out. If I was lucky I wouldn’t see him again. What a dick.
How am I supposed to get back to school?
-You’re a smart guy, figure it out.
He pulled out with a squeal and headed west into the city. I was off for the nearest bus stop when my muted cell buzzed in my back pocket. It was Aeura. She was calling from the rest room of an attorneys’ office. She’d been taken there after being questioned by the police. Her father’s lawyer had won her release but now she thinks she’s been kidnapped.
Can you come get me?
Before I could answer she texted me a Glendale address. Glendale? Who in Beverly Hills would be represented by a lawyer from an East Valley city dominated by its Armenian population. I texted back telling her I had school and added some clasped hand emojis and sent it. I hoped she didn’t think that was too weird. With no reply, I got on the #6 bus down Olympic. School was going to be almost over by the time I got back. The debate meet still seemed possible. It would be a little sketchy showing up after missing classes, but I had a good excuse. I tried to concentrate on my social media is healthy argument. Passing through Beverly Hills my phone chimed with a notification. It was a Venmo transaction. Money intended for my account was waiting for my approval. A lot of money with payment described: for RESCUE.
It’s so hot. The lot is on fire. The smell is overbearing. We crawl single file away from the flames below the smoke line. Aeura is behind me. I have been to this junkyard a few times and have an idea where the back fence is. The lot is on an east west boulevard, and we are making our way south where a high, wire mesh boundary lines an alley and a chance at escape. There won’t be a hole beneath to crawl through here, only chain link and nasty hooked wire. Despite the dirty haze, lightning flashes crackle from the heavens. We look up. Who says it never rains in California? It can pour, and please, let it rip. Thunder booms.
Yes! Our faces feel the fat, wet drops and we quicken our pace. I have a jean jacket and take it off at the back fence. The heat is intense. The dampened smoke is a welcome screen shielding us. There’s only one way out. Up.
Can you climb?
Aeura wriggles off her leather jacket and tosses it over the top of the fence where it catches a section of barbwire. I do the same. She hesitates.
It’s going to hurt, isn’t it?
-Less than being roasted.
She goes for it, clambering high to the top. I see the jagged wire catching flesh on her back as she vaults over. She doesn’t scream. Now it’s my turn. I am half up the fence when a gunshot rings out nearby. I hurry to the crest and take the penetrating pain of the razor wire to get over. I hit the ground hard, rolling over the rough gravel of the alley. I am out! I am bleeding. Aeura is bleeding. Ever near, fire sirens are going off for real and also, in my head with an alarming idea. We can surrender ourselves to a fire station like abandoned newborns needing safe haven. We may be OK that way and buy time. We move into the shadows behind a broken down RV to tend to our wounds and wait for a chance to turn ourselves in. One thing to me is crystal. This all could have been avoided if I had stayed at the debate.
I didn’t accept Aeura’s generous offer waiting for me in the Venmo app on my phone. At that moment I was too overwhelmed by the fear of what I might be getting into. Coupled with Detective Boylan’s warning, there seemed to be a risk even talking to anyone about this. The circle of trust was limited to Aeura and I, and I felt lost at how to proceed. I settled back on the bus ride till I was close enough to school to walk the rest of the way. It didn’t help that I played a voice mail I’d missed while I was with the detective. It was from Owen, the kid at Book Soup. He’d searched me out on the store’s database to ask about Aeura. A man in a suit came by wanting to meet with him on his break. Is that cool, he asked. Is that normal? I saved the voice mail before I ever discovered he was missing.
At the after school debate, I ignored my phone and tried to focus on our team’s presentation. VJ was setting up a defense of deed restricted rent control that destroyed the idea of rent control. He was a Conservative and proud of it. Leticia was sitting next to me, and her hand slipped down and clasped mine. At a pause in the action as the Beverly Hills High pro rent control debater took a moment to reconfigure his rebuttal, Leticia never at a lack for confidence, leaned in to whisper in my ear.
Victory party at Starbucks. We got this.
-Patience and preparation.
After party, you, me. my house. My mother’s sunning herself in Costa Rica.
It was setting up like a dream night. My phone was on mute, but it still almost buzzed its way out of my back pocket with an urgent call. I checked the display. It was Aeura calling. I didn’t answer. She left a voice mail. As Leticia went to the podium to kill her con argument on a new Constitutional Convention, I listened to the message. It was simple.
Come and get me!
No one heard that. Aeura said she was hiding in the building’s loading dock behind a dumpster. There was urgency and tears in her voice. Was I being played? I blocked it out and concentrated on the debate. Leticia had it all going on.
My topic was next. I gotta tell you, it was not easy putting off Aeura. I knew there was something heinous going down and she had no part of it. She was as much a victim as the dead woman. Duke always says trust your gut. Considering his success record it was always a red flag to me as useful advice. I choose to mull over things. My mother was a heady person. She took time and thought things out, at least that’s how it seemed to me. Thinking of it now maybe it was her dealing with life in a second language. When she married Duke after a whirlwind, vacation romance in Miami, he moved her permanently to the States. She learned English watching the soaps on TV during the day and working night as a hostess at Mr. Chow’s, a block west of Rodeo Drive. I’m sure Duke wooed her promising Beverly Hills, champagne, and caviar. Instead she got West LA, 2 Hour Energy drink and a Marty’s Original hotdog combo. They divorced after two years. She never did stop loving him she once confessed. He never said the same about her. Though he knows it embarrasses me, Duke loves to proclaim he can get laid in five languages. Me, I can’t get laid in one. Ok, this is where I admit, I am a virgin.
Leticia was solid with her solid, Federalist argument peppered with a creationist quote from one of the most obscure and cray cray of the Founding Fathers, Button Gwinnett. Seriously? That reference had the judges dazzled. I took a breath and held back an unstoppable yawn as Beverly Hills High’s next debater took the dais. It was Fern Fifer of the Fifer Finance family fortune. Duke loved to let that trill off his tongue every other week when we did their pool which lay behind a mansion on one of the more spectacular lots in the coveted flats of the city. A year younger than me, Fern and I have met at least ten times though each time she has no memory of it and asks my name. I am a peon to her and in a way, I enjoy it. Cleaning her pools I felt invisible. I loved to listen to her inane phone calls with her friends about who had what purse, took what drug, crashed what new car. She’s everything I detested, a golden child of generational wealth with that deep breeding sense of entitlement. She was my competition and I sat up and took in the whole performance. Fern to her credit took a good, long silent moment to smile at the judges and arrange notes on the lectern. Was I getting squirmy? A little, I mean you cannot fault the value of her looks especially since the two teachers on the judging panel were both male. She’s a notch below and five pounds above model quality. There has been plastic surgery somewhere in her early teens. She’s hot and knows it. Is she bright? Maybe. I know she’s never had to work hard for anything in her life. And I was proven right. She basically regurgitated word for word the same podcast Leticia had me listen to. She had it down but ran out of steam and neglected to frame it into the con argument. Instead she kept asking rhetorical questions and stammering under the judges’ glare, ill-prepared. The tutor Daddy had no doubt gotten for her would be fired by dinner. Fern helped prove my points and I knew my rebuttal would obliterate her.
That was all on my mind when I hit the podium with my phone out and toggling the Instagram, Tik Tok and Facebook apps for all to see. A little performance art to open my argument and sink Fern’s robotic presentation. Everyone including the judges, and the debating teams, have these apps and I had all of them where I wanted them. Hypocrites unite! Never too early to log in and gain experience in the virtual fabric of our lives. It was magic. Fern shot me the sneer of death and I finished to applause. VJ my toughest critic gave me a standing O and Leticia followed. I went straight for the door. I couldn’t stay for the last round with VJ back up to close. I had to see what was going on with Aeura for myself. This was not a rash decision. At worse. I was on a well-paying job.
I hit Accept on the Venmo app and made for the exit to the street.
I was not expecting Leticia to chase me down the steps. She wanted to make sure she’d see me later. I said yes cause you can bet your ass that’s what I was planning. She kissed me with feeling. On the lips. Damn, right in open view of late-leaving students and parents picking them up. It was a nice kiss, an invitation for more. I ran all the way home like with wings. Duke was back from the day’s jobs and fast asleep in the arms of someone I didn’t recognize. I closed the door, grabbed the keys, and took the work truck knowing he wouldn’t need it till the next day. There was no way you beat the rush hour traffic, so I sucked it up like a tourist and hit the 405 North to the San Fernando Valley. At the first gridlocked dead stop by the Getty, I texted Aeura. It could take a good hour. Could she hold on? She got right back. She had no choice and this time it was her laying on the emojis with hands clasped in prayer and four yellow danger signs! In a perfectly illegal move Duke claims to have used in emergencies without getting the $500 ticket, I signaled left and worked my solo self into the swiftly flowing carpool lane making up time. I only had to go a few miles down the hill to the 134 East and stressed the whole way that I’d get popped by the CHP. Like Duke, I didn’t and hit the ramp accelerating toward Burbank and beyond, Glendale.