The Wedding Guest
Stupid name for a signature cocktail. Brears had found the recipe online, this tequila-Baileys thing. Seven shots plus the deejay speeding everything up plus the pink wine Leanza had drunk before the ceremony were killing her bladder.
When she got to the ladies’ room, a line trailed out into the hall. Pathetic little ladies’ room, like two stalls, because of what the venue had been before.
She took her place at the back. Her bladder felt like it was gonna explode.
No Regrets. As if.
Last week at the bachelorette in Vegas, Brears was all about regrets. After ten shots of her signature bachelorette cocktail, this rum and some sweet orange thing with bubbles in it. The week before there was a signature bridal shower cocktail, champagne and grapefruit soda and a toothpick with a little plastic bride on top.
Everything had to be “bespoke” for Brears, since she’d learned the word, she couldn’t stop using it.
Once her mom or dad died there’d probably be a signature funeral cocktail.
At the bachelorette, Brears was throwing back shots faster than anyone while doing a man-spread on the sofa in the suite and letting out artisan shrimp pizza burps that smelled like the bottom of a fish tank.
Then she started talking, looking like she was gonna cry.
Plenty of regrets about Garrett, what the eff am I doing?
Everyone telling her what a great guy he was, she was doing the right thing.
Brears drinks, burps, looks like she’s falling asleep but she isn’t. Coupla more shots, she’s all I love Garrett so so so so much.
Then she did cry.
But right then the hot-boy strippers came prancing in like ponies. Fireman / cop / cowboy / pool boy. Stripped naked in seconds.
Brears had no regrets about them.
Leanza was sure Garrett, who really was nice but kind of smart-dumb pathetic, had no clue. His signature cocktail wasn’t. Some kind of pale ale made from oats? That is not a cocktail.
Leanza’s stomach pressed down and moved around weird. Like she’d swallowed a rat and it was chewing on her bladder.
The line hadn’t budged since she got there.
Two old women, had to be friends of Brears’s or Garrett’s parents, got in line behind her and started talking about what a lovely affair it was. Considering the venue. Did you know? Giggle giggle.
Old bitches shouldn’t giggle, they sounded like maniac squirrels.
Maybe that was the problem with the ladies’ room, some grandma not able to get the plumbing going . . . then oh, shit, there was Mom, barely able to walk, her boobs hanging out as she wobbled toward the line and Leanza knew she’d want to have one of those girl-to-girl talks that proved to Mom she was still young . . . oh, God, she was going to explode.
Then she remembered.
Upstairs, where she and the other bridesmaids had sat in a crowded room and did their hair and makeup—all by themselves, you’d think Brears would share her stylists but no—upstairs there was also a bathroom. Leanza hadn’t used it but Teysa had, Leanza remembered because Teysa came back with the bottom of her dress all flipped up in back and Leanza had joked you look like you just took it in the backside and Teysa had laughed and Leanza had fixed her.
Problem was, the stairs were all the way on the other side of the building. Probably some office space for when it used to be a strip joint. Could she make it back there without totally exploding?
Would she get up there and then find someone else had figured it out first and then she’d have to come back here and go to the end of the line?
The only other choice was sneaking out into the back alley and squatting and just doing it. Some dude saw her, his lucky day, the way she felt, she could care less.
But the alley was even farther than upstairs and to get there she’d have to run all the way around the building and then out back.
No way, it was either stay where it wasn’t moving or make a break for the stairs. And in a second Mom would see her.
Muttering, “Eff it,” she ran.
The old ladies behind her said something rude.
Eff them, they were lucky they weren’t getting sprayed.
Barely able to move her legs without leaking, Leanza climbed the shaky, creaky, dirty-looking stairs. What a dump, Brears’s idea of creative.
Holding her breath and fighting to maintain control, she finally made it to the top and saw the door up ahead and to the right marked Employees Only.
No one waiting here, if she was lucky, no one inside. She charged the door.
Open! I am Warrior Princess!
Without bothering to close the door, she threw herself in.
Gross stinky place. No window, a gross stinky closet.
One urinal, one stall. Figures.
She yanked on the door of the stall, was already pulling down her pantyhose and her thong when she saw the girl.
Sitting on top of the lid of a closed toilet, her head dropped, dark hair falling to one side like a curtain. Dressed in a tight red dress and gold do-me sandals with heels as long and skinny as a lead pencil. Leanza hadn’t seen her at the ceremony or the dancing, didn’t recognize her, probably someone from Garrett’s side.
Leanza said, “Excuuuse me.”
The girl didn’t answer. Or move. Or do anything.
Stupid bitch. How many No Regrets had she tossed back?
Eff her, this was a toilet not an armchair, do your stoner thing somewhere else.
Leanza took hold of the girl’s bare arm.
Cold skin. Like not . . . human.
She said, “Hey!” really loud. Repeated it.
Cupping the bottom of the girl’s chin—it was even colder than the arm—she lifted the drunk bitch’s face, ready to slap her awake.
Brown eyes as expressionless as plastic buttons stared back at her.
The girl’s face was a weird gray color.
So were her lips, gray with some blue around the edges, hanging loose, you could see some teeth. Dried drool trickled down both sides.
Then Leanza saw it: the circle around the girl’s neck. Like a horrible red choker necklace but this was no jewelry, this cut into the skin, red and gritty around the edges.
Leanza knew she was being stupid but her mouth said, “Hey, c’mon, wake up.”
She knew because she was the one who’d found her grandmother after the heart attack. Ten years old, a Sunday, walking into Grandma’s bedroom wanting to show her a drawing she’d made.
Bottle of ginger beer spilled onto the comforter. The same plastic-button eyes.
The same gray skin.
Gripped by nausea, Leanza backed away from the girl. In the process, she kicked the girl’s leg and the girl slid off the lid and down. Flopping as she continued to slide, her head making a weird thumpy noise as it hit the filthy floor.
Sliding toward Leanza.
Leanza scurried back.
Staring at the dead girl, she said, “Eff it,” and let her bladder do whatever it felt like.
Sometimes Milo briefs me before a crime scene, sometimes he waits until I get there.
This time he sent me an email attachment along with an address on Corner Avenue in West L.A.
This is for context; get here asap if you can.
His call had come in at ten oh five p.m. By ten fifteen, I was dressed and ready to go. Robin was reading in bed. I kissed her, didn’t have to explain. Two minutes later, I was cruising south on Beverly Glen.
I turned west on Sunset, found the boulevard free and clear until a red light stopped me at Veteran near the northwestern edge of the U.’s campus. Activating my phone, I checked out the attachment.
E-vite. Gray lettering over a skin-rash-pink background.
The Thing: Brearely and Garrett are finally doing it!!!!!
Why You: Hey, they want you there!!!!!
The Place: The Aura
The Theme: Saints and Sinners
The Dress: Everyone needs to be hot!
I’d thrown on a navy turtleneck, jeans, and rubber-soled shoes that could tolerate bloodstains, wore my LAPD consultant badge on a chain. Dead bodies and the hubbub they attract call for unobtrusive, not hot.
I took Veteran south, drove through Westwood and into West L.A. Corner’s not far from the West L.A. station, a stubby, easily overlooked street that paper-cuts Pico Boulevard as it hugs the 405 overpass. The address put the scene north of Pico, on a freeway-deafened strip of abused asphalt. Street lighting was irregular, creating leopard-spot shadows.
I passed a scrap yard specializing in English cars, a plumbing supply warehouse, a few auto mechanics, and an unmarked warehouse before reaching the final building, just short of a chain-link dead end.
Two-story stucco rectangle painted dark, maybe black, no windows.
A crudely painted sign topped a slab metal door. Thunderbolts above assertive lettering. Marquee bulbs rimmed the sign. Some were still working.
Alley to the left, parking lot to the right, now yellow-taped. Fifty or so vehicles sat behind the tape. Behind them was a generator-fed trailer that chuffed. Open door, a cook in a white tunic: pop-up kitchen.
Outside the tape was a smaller grouping of wheels: Milo’s unmarked bronze Impala, a white Ford LTD that I recognized as Moe Reed’s current ride, another Ford, maroon, that I couldn’t identify, a gray Chevy.
Four detectives for this one. Plus the eight uniforms who’d arrived in a quartet of black-and-whites. Two of the squad cars were topped by clinking cherry bars.
Off to the right, the white vans, crime lab and coroner’s, a pair of ominous twins.
No coroner’s investigator car. Come and gone.
Easy identification or none at all.
Despite all the squad cars, the only uniform in sight rested her hip against the driver’s door of a blinking cruiser. Working her phone, looking serene.
As I walked toward her, she gave me a glance. Usually I get stopped and have to show I.D. She said, “Hey, Dr. Delaware.”
I’d seen her somewhere; the site of someone else’s misfortune.
I said, “Hi, Officer . . . Stanhope.”
Her phone screen was filled with kittens wearing funny hats. She clicked without self-consciousness. “Cute, huh? Around the back, Doc, it’s pretty crazy.”
Slowly spreading smile. “Guess that’s why you’re here.”
The remaining seven uniforms were walking among the parked cars, copying license plates. Milo watched the process from a rear metal door. His arms were crossed atop the swell of his gut. His height, his bulk, and the scowl on his face fit the image of club bouncer. His droopy brown suit, tragic tie the color of pesto sauce, once-white wash-’n’-wear shirt, and tan desert boots didn’t.
He lowered his arms. “Thanks for coming. Got a hundred people inside, a whole bunch of them boozed up. The plan is to settle them down, then Moe and Sean and Alicia Bogomil will try to get info. You get what I meant about context.”
“A wedding?” I said. “I do.”
He stared at me. Cracked up.
I said, “Interesting venue. Looks like a low-rent strip joint.”
“That’s ’cause it once was. Before that it was some kind of church.”
“Saints and Sinners.”
“The wedding theme.”
“Doubtful that’s the reason, Alex. I’ve met the lovely couple, don’t see them as that abstract. C’mon, let me show you where the big sin happened.”
A building-wide passageway carpeted in tomato-red low-pile took us past an open space. Parquet dance floor centering round tables for ten. Paper plates and a single scrawny sunflower on each table.
To the left were a long buffet table, three portable bars, a photo booth, and a bank of videogames. Empty red plastic cups dotted the floor along with crumbs and stains. Plastic streamers drooped from the ceiling. Four polyethylene columns attempting to look like plaster segmented the walk space from the party space. The remnants of a strip joint evoking Caligula.
The tables in the main room were occupied by sober-faced people dressed for celebration. Most were in their thirties, a few were old enough to be the parents of thirty-year-olds. A rear stage held a deejay setup. Obstructing a clear view of the stage were three chrome stripper poles, one bedecked with plastic sunflowers on unlikely vines. Lacking music and dim lighting, the room had the sad, rancid feel of every after-hours club. A bit of conversational hum drifted toward us, unable to compete with a heavy, gray silence.
Detective Moe Reed, with the powerlifter’s build and youth of an actual bouncer, stood watch on a third of the tables. Detective Sean Binchy, tall, lanky, and baby-faced under ginger spiked hair, was in charge of the next group. Last was Alicia Bogomil, just turned forty, with gimlet eyes and knife-edged features. The ponytailed long hair I’d seen when I met her was replaced by a no-nonsense bun.
Milo and I had encountered Alicia when she worked private security at a hotel where a patient of mine had been murdered. She’d been a real cop in Albuquerque for seven years, moved to California for a romance that didn’t work out, was languishing when she helped us with info.
She’d mentioned joining LAPD to Milo. I had no idea there’d been follow-through. No reason for me to know; for nearly three months, there hadn’t been a murder where Milo felt I’d be useful.
As we passed the partygoers, a few looked up. The slumping posture and resigned eyes of passengers stranded in an airport.
I said, “How long ago did it happen?”
Milo said, “Victim was found at nine fifty, probably an hour before, give or take.” He glanced at the crowd. A couple of people looked over hopefully. As Milo continued to walk, their heads drooped.
“Meet my new alter ego: Officer Buzzkill.”
We continued to the end of the walkway, hooked left as if we were exiting through the front door, then he made another left and began trudging up a flight of grimy stairs.
I said, “Up to the VIP area?”
“Doesn’t look like it ever was one, nothing pimped-up about the second floor.”
“Maybe back in the day this place was a pioneer of income equality.”
He huffed and began climbing the stairs. At the top, a third left took us down a narrow, low-ceilinged hallway. Four doors, three of them closed.
A suited, gloved, and masked crime scene tech squatted near the open door. Beyond her was a small bathroom. Urinal and sink to the left, wooden stall straight ahead. The floor and walls were inlaid with yellowish tiles that had once been white.
Cramped, windowless space. A mélange of foul odors.
The stall door was propped open. A dark-haired young woman lay facing us on the floor. Late twenties to early thirties, wearing a blood-red, one-shoulder dress that had ridden up to mid-thigh. Pantyhose trailed up to what looked like red bicycle shorts.
She was diminished by death but still beautiful, with smooth skin and delicate features. Hints of cream in her skin where the terminal pallor hadn’t set in.