(For Beach Reads, Paradise, 2019)
“I dunno. We get lot’sa ladies in here,” she said tightly, unkindly suggesting I wasn’t aware of my surroundings, avoiding the photo I rested on the bar as well as my eyes. And they’re damned pretty eyes. ‘Least my mamma says so.
Warwick was warming up. Doors opened at ten and closed at two. Every night. If you were on the List a bouncer in suit and tie unhooked the velvet rope, freeing you and other Hollywood pilgrims into the golden glow of crystal chandeliers and mirrored tables. The fragrance of money hung in the air while a twelve-foot photo of Cara Delevingne, in the buff, graced one wall. Bowie’s “China Girl” seduced through the sound system and a pair of antique armored knights watched over the club from an upstairs balcony. Wilhelmina’s year-end party was just getting started, and already the models’ legs were spilling over the seaweed-colored velvet loungers like tentacles of anemones. Just as hypnotizing, just as dangerous.
Cherry-red nails grasped the shaker, expertly hoisting it into the air above her platinum mane. She spun away from me, pouring the concoction into a v-shaped glass in front of a guy with diamonds as big as dice in each ear. She didn’t spill a drop.
Drying a glass, biceps as big as my thigh, a Jaiman Hansu look-a-like softly nudged her with a nod that said, He’s okay. I’d known Wills for sometime. Fixed a few tickets for him over the years and kept an eye on his kid sister when he was in class at UCLA or making ends meet tending bar. He threw me local information when I needed it and occasionally lent an ear to my heart woes over a neat single malt.
The pretty palomino softened, turned back towards me. Her eyes were cool green, but her words were warmer, “I’ve seen her. Scared of somethin’. Got outta town a while ago with no forwarding address. All I know is she talked about Paradise.”
Wills slid a San Pellegrino my way, “How’s things, Tino? On the hunt?”
“I’m good.” My full name is Valentino DeAngelo, a PI of a small firm. Real small: DeAngelo and DeAngelo. The second DeAngelo is for my pop who retired two years ago.
“Yeah, a girl reported missing by her high school as a minor. Parents couldn’t’ve cared less. Should be about nineteen now, if I can find her.” I rested a loafer on a gleaming brass footrail.
“Hmm,” Wills had a soft spot for kids in trouble.
“Still cutting up bodies?” Wills was into the home stretch of med-school.
“It’s my passion, man.”
“Nice threads,” he grinned at me, poking fun at my Gucci shoes and orange cashmere socks. Threads coming out as ‘treads’ in his Trinidad-flavored accent.
“I’m Italian!” I defended myself, “My mama spent a fortune on these Zimmerlis. Like walking on clouds. Hand knit.”
“Sure... looks like her cousins knitted’em.” Wills laughed it up, his ivories white against mahogany skin. “Ya need anything, let me know.”
I left a Benjamin on the polished granite and made my way through the crowd into the cool November air.
. . .
Two-hundred and fifty miles into US 395 with another fifty ahead of me, passing Bishop and headed towards Inyo National Forrest. Snowflakes dusted the windshield, shining like barite in the thin mountain sunshine. My cell beat out a samba ringtone.
“Hey, Tino, how’s the ride?” It was Mike Brown. Mike’s name was simple, but his mind worked like the intricate and well-balanced wheels and springs of a timepiece. An old law school classmate and the source of many cases for me.
“Fine, if you like long cold stretches of nowhere,” I whined.
“I’m certain you’re dressed for it.”
“You calling me a clothes-horse?” I countered with mock indignation. Indeed, a fine felt fedora worn into the shape of plane rides and rainstorms warmed the top of my head. A sheepskin coat hugged my torso.
“Listen, word just in. The stepdad did time for aggravated assault six years ago. With an inheritance going to this kid, better watch your back.”
“Gottcha,” I scratched my three-day growth of GQ beard, “over and out.”
. . .
Paradise, Population 600, the sign read.
Shouldn’t be hard to find her if she’s here. I parked in front of my first guess, Trout Town Bar. As watering holes go, this was as far away in miles as it was from ambiance to Warwick. Wood plank floors, jukebox softly playing an old Tammy Wynette song, bartender with a blonde ponytail, pressed T-shirt, no city edge.
“Hey,” he said, clean-shaven and relaxed.
“I’m looking for a Lila Wong.” I showed him the photo and my credentials.
He paused, guarded, “‘nother dude askin’ ‘bout her in the last hour.”
“She could be in trouble. I’m here to help.”
“Told him I didn’t know her.”
I waited as he sized me up.
“She goes by Lily. Lily Geist. Little bakery near the lake, next to the boat rentals.”
At 3 p.m. snow was falling steadily, and there was a closed sign on door of Paradise Bakery. I tried the knob anyway, and it gave with one turn, spilling me and my senses into the warmth and smell of fresh baked bread as a little bell chimed. My mouth watered. When was the last time I ate?
An orange tabby was enjoying a bowl of cream on a freckled formica floor just inside the door, and light classical softly played on a Bose speaker behind a lit glass counter. Near the cash register, a green hobnail platter stacked with Bear Claws was topped with a card reading, “Day Old - $1.00.”
Out from the kitchen, wiping a floured hand on a red apron, came a slight, pale girl with hair like a raven’s wing, her head barely clearing my shoulder. A pink skirt brushed below her knees with a thread dangling, threatening a hem disaster at some point in the future. Her white T-shirt sported the words: “You Can Get More with a Smile and a Gun than You Can with Just a Smile - Al Capone.”
“We’re closed,” she said, resting a rolling pin on the counter, quickly noting I was not from around these parts. She reached down to pick up the empty bowl as kitty wound herself between my ankles. Matching tattoos of koi swam around both her forearms, the ink covering old cigarette burns. I handed her my card.
“I’m not going back. I’m not her, the person who lived with them before. Ate bitter. I only eat what appeals to me now.” Her jet eyes sparked, edges of the strength that got her here were in her voice. A feather of a girl on the outside, steel on the inside like the blade strapped to her left lug boot.
“I’m not here to make you go somewhere. A Mrs. Bloom said you used to weed her flower bed and go to the market for her, feed her cats.”
“Nice lady.” Her face gentled a bit. “Used to lend me books to read. She okay?”
“She’s passed away,” I said, softly, and the girl’s eyes watered. “You’re mentioned in her will.”
The bell tinkled and a look of horror seized Lily’s face. I torqued just in time to catch a glimpse of an ogre in a dirty checked flannel shirt. One minute I was upright and the next I saw stars. When my eyes opened Lily was bent over me with a cold cloth to my head. I tasted blood. The ogre lay in a heap on the floor.
“In a bakery, rolling pins come in real handy,” Lily smiled.
My first audience with the Dalai Lama materialized on a dry windy afternoon the summer of 1995. July 6th, to be exact. Under the loose title of Project Coordinator, I was an advance guy for Monkey Business Films, based in North Hollywood, working on Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt. My job description required me to field as much information as possible in preparation to shoot; from the make of what are now his trademark glasses (Bartoli, Italy circa 1960) to his hobbies (taking watches apart and putting them back together again).
Surprisingly, it was easy to get in to see His Holiness. Although the Lama uses no computers, his monks do, regularly scheduling appointments.
“His Holiness will meet with you,” Tenzin Geyche Tethong, his secretary, emailed me. I would have forty-five minutes and there was no special protocol to preform. I just had to be patient.
Three months later I stood on a hot, claustrophobic platform in Dehli, a rail ticket to Pathankot in one hand, my cell phone in another. I strained to hear my girlfriend over the din of the throng.
“You sounded kinda sad yesterday on the phone,” she tiptoed around the elephant in the room.
“Well, yeah. I miss you, and hoped we’d’ve had time together before I left.” My heart a cage of doves yearning for flight.
“You know how busy I am,” the tap, tap, tap of her words tiny nails into what felt like the coffin of our relationship, “The hospital, my kids…I’m still figuring things out.” I’d heard the list before, but for fear of losing more ground I retreated as a red-striped train pushed its way into the station.
The worn wheels of the cab stubbed to a halt outside the monastery. Dust rose like smoke while colorful prayer flags fluttered overhead, sending whispers of devotions and supplications out over jam-packed streets and into the hills beyond. After the fifty-four mile ride to Dharmashala I handed the driver a wad of rupees and stretched my legs, lighting a Camel. Dang things had a hook in me, but offered a moment of calm.
Geyche welcomed me warmly. “His Holiness receives many;” leading me down a cool hallway fragrant with incense, his saffron chögö flowing, “however, no matter one’s rank, if a visitor lacks sincerity, he will dismiss them saying, Thank you, see you next time.” He glanced at me, an impish grin on his face.
“Today is my birthday!” His Holiness exclaimed and chuckled, offering me a seat in his private sitting room.
“Shenpa,” he warned gently, his gaze spanning the space from the box of cigarettes in my breast-pocket to my eyes. I cleared my throat.
A light rap on the door, Geyche slipped in, “Please forgive the interruption, Holiness. Ambassador Zhaohui sends regrets. He has no time to see you today as originally planned.”
The Lama put his fingertips together contemplating this, then looked at me kindly, “If someone says they do not have time, it really means they do not want to.”