An LA Crime Story

I was born on Normal Road. . .


After Hours

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I was hungry late last night… craving the oxtails from Madame Matisse’s on Sunset near Lucille but they were closed. I called anyway; sometimes she’ll cook after hours for me – I once got her out of a tough jam.

I squeezed an old lime into a cold Tecate and waited for Madame’s delivery. My window was open to the warm L.A. air, thick with nicotine light and the soft thudding of angels’ wings. It had taken me awhile to get used to them once I knew they were there but now – even when they fly so close their feathers brush my hair – I just forget about them, like I do with prayer. I gave up God when I was seventeen, not long after my sister Aggie got lost. I told Him straight up to “Go fuck with someone else.” I’m thirty-eight now and I’ve gotten used to nothing work out. But when my doorbell rang and I opened it, hungry for that meat… there stood a whole other treat.

Leaning in my doorway like a dark lanky dream was a man I’d first seen a week ago in Domingo’s bar on Cesar Chavez near Pleasant Street. It hadn’t been open in years but when I saw it’s burnt out neon sign sputtering “ingo’s”, I’d parked outside. Bad memories I had of the dump kind of crept up the back of my neck and eased me in. I sat at the nearly empty bar and ordered.

“San Miguel?”

The bartender slid me a warm Corona. I took a swig then noticed, in the shadow at the end of the bar, was the lanky dream. Good god he was gorgeous, in a Day-Lewis way, with a little more hunk but less soul. He was drinking a San Miguel. I raised my beer.

“I bet you said please.”

“I always do.” He nodded but never looked at me. I noticed he had paper bag on the bar, spotted with grease and sporting a familiar stamp: “Lupita’s Tamales”. I moved a seat closer.

“Her chili-cheese are pretty good.” I mentioned. “But her sauce could use a little more cumin.”

That got his attention. He looked at me. But before I could make a move, the bartender shot him a glance; she must’ve had some kind of hold on him because he got up to leave. But he brushed past me with a promise in his eyes and a prowler’s way of walking that could easily hypnotize any faded two-bit dreamer from Paradise to Blythe and baby, that was me.

Now here he was at my front door with a crooked smile and a take-out carton of Prawns in Oyster Cream. Still, I blocked the door.

“How’d you find me?”

“You’re in the book.” he answered.

I laughed, “You don’t even know my name.”

“I know you like cumin”, he said as he pulled a copy of the local freebie rag ‘The Hollywood Pulse’ out of his back pocket; it was open to one of my food reviews.
“And you like duck simmered in Remy and you eat your tamales whole. And anyone who’d drive three hundred miles for a salsa verde” he flattered me, “Is someone I’d like to know.”

“How far would you go?” I asked him, letting a smile slip out.

“All the way.” he smiled back and stuck out his hand. “Hi. I’m Panama Jones”.

I took his hand and pulled him in… him and his oyster cream. And later I shared my oxtails from Madame Matisse.

My name is Rhea Porter. I eat.


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“That your real name? Panama?” I asked, opening two Tecates, trying for a little small talk though we both knew what we were here for.

“Yep.” He nodded and opened the carton of Prawns, getting right down to it. Alright by me. I breathed in deep and smiled. “These are from Ming’s on Hyperion.”

“You are good.”

“You have no idea.”

As he sucked the juice out of the tail of a big fat prawn, I swear I could taste him. I got my throat wet with that beer, then pulled him to me. He slipped off my skirt, I was the first to say “please” as he lifted me onto the daybed and bit hard on that prawn. The cream it oozed dripped down my thigh. He smeared a drop with his finger and gave me a taste – it had a musky tang. Then he licked the rest up and whispered:

“Open wide.”

We ate every bite, every drop of those prawns. And we gnawed every inch of those tails until we were done. But I was happy to see him slip out my door when we were through. I like a guy who leaves when I’m full and I like waking up alone. But I couldn’t get him out of my mind – not a good sign as I only like men who are bad for me. You could say it’s because I hate myself but I’d nail you to the nearest tree. And I sure as hell didn’t like thinking about that so I killed the day working on a Nopalitos review, then I went out for some comfort food.


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The “Food For Less” market on Sunset and Western has a “five for two dollar” Mexican pastry deal. I bought a chocolate concha, an empanada oozing cream, a coconut dome and two big pink polvorones. Dinner for one.

I got a couple of Yoo Hoos on aisle fourteen, checked out and left. I was planning to go back home but I found myself driving down Sunset, heading east. I cruised past Figueroa where it turns into Cesar Chavez and kept on going, slowing as I passed Domingo’s. The dump was open again tonight. I parked behind an auto body shop, a good stake out spot where my old LeBaron wouldn’t be seen. Just thought I’d see if Panama turned up. And if he was alone.

I opened a YooHoo, bit into a polvorone and settled in. Just ten minutes gone, two bites into my coconut dome, Domingo’s door opened and the old snake-skinned bartender slipped out. She was carrying a brown paper bag with a child’s stuffed monkey peeking out and can of Rosarita refried beans. She got into a gray beater of a car and drove away. Something didn’t seem right to me.

I followed her west a ways then she turned up Beaudry, curved around a steep little back street and pulled into the garage of a sad little tan stucco house. The garage door closed down behind her. I parked across the street. As I waited , I wondered if her name was Myrna. After awhile, all the lights went out. It looked like a dead end for me, so I decided to head back home. Then a twenty year old dented blue van pulled up and parked out front. Panama got out with a carton of Kentucky Fried, family size. Then he went inside. Well hmmm.


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I used to be a cop. I made it all the way to Robbery Homicide Elite, Exploited Kids Division. This is going back three years, now… Back then, Barragan’s on Sunset had “Dollar Taco Mondays”. Sometimes, a runaway named Sheena I’d gotten to know would turn up and I’d buy her a few. One night she told me she was moving camp from under the Chavez Bridge because she smelled something bad.

“Probably all the trash there.” I told her. “Or maybe all the piss, soaking the ground.”

“No…” she said, kind of slow. Something was bothering her.

“Could be the muck in the L.A. River.” was my next idea.

She almost looked me in the eye, “It’s kind of a scary smell.”

Sheena didn’t scare easily so I thought I’d check it out.

I caught the faint whiff of death under that bridge. I followed it a few yards up the embankment to nearby Domingo’s bar. It was closed; like it usually was back then. I walked around, looked in the shadows: no dead dogs, no dead rats. The Stink was coming from inside – seeping out through a crack in the bolted back door. I went around to the front. That door was jammed tight with twenty years of grime and a two dollar lock. Deciding the smell gave me cause, I jimmied it open. The rotting air kissed me as it escaped the place. And underneath that stench of death was the acrid smell of a recent fire.

A page of smoke slid out from under a closed door in the back of the room. The door was locked. Three kicks knocked it open. Smoke cleared and I entered a tiny kitchen where a blackened stove stood against a burned wall. The scorched remains of some lumps of food were fused to a fry pan and a burned can of chili had exploded against the wall. I could tell it was Hormel.

A layer of soot covered everything, pitted by drops of water from the ceiling sprinklers that had put out the fire. But they hadn’t put it out fast enough. There was a spent extinguisher on the floor, still in the hand of a dead girl lying there. She appeared to be Mexican, around eleven. Her other arm reached out to two more dead Mexican girls, huddled together by the pad- locked back door. They looked about six and seven. Their arms were around each other and their eyes were open.

Then I noticed something purple glint in a sliver of moonlight that came though that crack in that door. I looked closer and nearly cried. Wrapped around one of the girl’s wrists was a plastic bracelet with a purple tin charm on it that advertised “Boom Boom Carneceria. Ensenada. Mexico.”

Boom Boom

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Boom Boom is a little market just down the street from Joe’s café on the outskirts of Ensenada. I hadn’t been there in years. Didn’t want to ever go back. The last time I saw my sister was at Joe’s, twenty two years ago. She was five. I was sixteen.

I’ve been looking for her ever since. I’ve busted three child preds, seen thirty two people die and a thousand who wished they could. None of it mattered to me until I saw that charm on the dead girl’s wrist. I called it in.

My ex boss Detective Strickland is a six foot four, two hundred and ninety pound slab of reality. But I swear I saw him shudder when the air above the three dead girls subtley rippled into the shape of a child, then fluttered away.

“The hell is that?” I jumped, a little freaked by the other-worldliness of it.

“Carbon particles in the smoke caught the light.” he answered, fast. It didn’t sound like he was sure but that was that.

Back then I didn’t see angels – it took me fucking one named Travis to know they were here. Strickland still doesn’t see them, despite what we’ve been through.

We watched the M.E. press open the girls’ little mouths; their blue lips puckered like snap dragons.

“They die of smoke?” Strickland asked him for an early opinion.


Strickland looked around the room; opened empty cupboards. I spotted a cobweb strung from a corner of a battered counter to the wall. I blew on it. Smoke scattered.

“This place has been closed for awhile.”

He nodded as he looked back at the dead girls.

“This dump might be a stash joint.”

“For Illegals.” I said. He nodded again, still thinking. “You think the fire was set?” I asked.

He kept looking at them. “We’ll wait on arson to see–”

“Either way, we find out who stashed them, then we find out who snatched them in Ensenada—”

“We don’t know they were snatched–” he tried to slow me down, “Maybe their mama brought them over. Or their Dad, their Uncle-”

“Boom Boom is two doors down from Joe’s–!” I nearly yelled, hating all the emotion in me.

“I know.” he reminded me as he took me aside “I know. Doesn’t mean every kid that goes missing near Boom Boom was snatched—“

“One was.”

“I’m just telling you, Rhea- and you know – this could be nothing.”

But as we watched a tech bag the girl’s Boom Boom charm, I felt it in my saddest bones. “This was something. This was fucking something.”

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