The cell phone blared its overloud, overcheery tune. Desi bolted upright and bashed her head on the top bunk. She seized the phone and slid the button to answer, more to silence the ringtone than to reply to the call. It was getting hard, this clandestine living in the police station.
It was the watch commander. “Desi, you’re up to bat. We got a stiff in an alley, eleven thousand block behind Santa Monica. Sanitation guys called it in.”
Desi rubbed her already throbbing skull. “What’s it look like?”
“Male, white, twenties. Likely OD. It’s three blocks from the station.”
Desi swung her legs off the thin mattress and checked the time. 5:11 a.m. Shit. She’d forgotten to set the alarm again. She had to be out of the cot room before day watch started arriving. She made the bed, plumped the pillow and surveyed the room, making sure she’d left no trace of herself. She stuffed a backpack containing clean underclothes, t-shirts and sweats under the bunk, pushing it into the farthest corner, and cracked open the door. The hallway was clear. She dashed into the women’s locker room.
Twenty-eight minutes later, hair dripping like a leaky faucet down the gully of her back, she was ducking under the yellow tape that cordoned off the alley behind an eclectic collection of storefront businesses on Santa Monica Boulevard — a Mexican taco joint, a Thai massage parlor, a Vietnamese nail salon and a hipster coffee shop.
“Nimmo, West LA homicide,” she announced to the bluesuit, who jotted the information on the scene log.
Another patrol officer milled around an abandoned corduroy couch upon which lay a young man, cold and lifeless.
“Coroner?” Desi asked.
“They’re heading over,” the officer said. “The sanitation crew had to continue their round, but I got their contact info in case you need it. How’s Ray doing, by the way?”
“Good,” Desi lied, stepping away from the officer to discourage chitchat. She was asked that almost every day, it seemed.
She couldn’t let it slip that she’d left Ray. Cops being the gossips that they were, it would be all over the department inside twenty-four hours, and she’d be persona non grata for leaving a hero, a cop’s cop who’d been shot in the back by a fleeing drug dealer during a raid. The asshole was still in the wind, while Ray was marooned in a wheelchair.
She sized up the deceased. He boasted a tan and a messy man bun, with what was likely a carefully calibrated stubble over his cheeks. He was better dressed than the typical street OD — a button-down paisley shirt worn loose over neat jeans, rolled up sleeves, docksiders with no socks — but this was Los Angeles’ affluent westside. She ran her eyes over his hands, no rings, but there was a white band on his wrist indicating he usually wore a watch. At a glance, there appeared no sign of foul play.
She couldn’t do much until the coroner’s techs arrived. The dead were their domain. She turned to the patrol officer. “Get a search going for any hypos and shit. You know the drill.”
Over the officer’s shoulder at the far end of the alley, she clocked a familiar scruffy figure with a balding pate and a curtain of long grey hair floating around the shoulders of a tattered raincoat. In the invisible world of homeless street territory, this was his turf. He might have seen something last night.
“Sal!” she called. He caught her gaze and scurried off.
He wouldn’t go far. She strode around her end of the alley onto the boulevard, sweeping the block with her eyes. In the gap under a bus shelter wall, she spied a pair of fraying sneakers, the toe of one flapping free from the sole. She walked up to the structure, where Sal was sitting on a bench. She stood at an angle to block his exit on the two open sides.
He answered with a frown.
She caught a noseful of human stink. God, he was ripe. He obviously hadn’t been to the rescue mission in a while. She switched to breathing through her mouth as she patted her jacket pocket. She usually carried Vaporub for death scenes and interactions with the homeless, but it wasn’t there. Dammit, the Vapo must’ve fallen out in the rush of gathering her things and moving out.
“Did you see the guy on the couch in the alley last night?”
He stared at the gutter. A lie was coming. “Nope.”
“Sal, remember how I saved your suitcase when you left it chained to this very bus shelter and a rook called out the bomb squad? You owe me one.”
He scratched his chin through a thick matted beard. “He was on my couch.”
“Was he dead or alive?”
“I didn’t roll him. He was dead when I got there. The sonofabitch died on my couch.”
“Was he alone?”
“Far as I could tell.”
“What time was this?”
He shrugged. She wasn’t going to get any more out of him. “All right, then.” She stepped away.
“Hey Desi, you ain’t gonna take the couch, are you?” The plaintiveness in his voice made her pivot. “The lady in the coffee shop said she don’t mind if I sleep on it. She said I could use it as long as I wanted, and she wouldn’t call for it to be picked up.”
“Sal, you know the rules. Furniture isn’t allowed in alleys. Sanitation found the body, so they probably already called bulky waste pickup.”
“Can you do something? I had to fight a couple guys over that couch. I’ll get that watch for you.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” She walked off.
“You’re a cop! You can do what you damn well please!” he yelled. The words hit her like blows on the back. She felt a pinch of sympathy but quickly stifled it. If you let it, this job would chew you up and spit you out. She couldn’t save the world.
When she got back to the dead man, the coroner’s tech assistants were loading him into their van.
“Hey Desi, I was wondering where you were.” Preeta, the forensic tech, hooked around an ear a hank of dark hair that had strayed from her ponytail.
“Chasing a potential witness.” She pointed with her chin at the body. “OD?”
Preeta whipped back the sheet to expose the dead man’s bare feet. Small bruises bunched around his toes like spoiled grapes. “Third one this week on the westside. Looks like there’s some bad shit on the street. You might want to alert your narc guys.”
She watched Preeta replace the sheet and close the van doors. Another life wasted by drugs.
“Catch you on the next one, Des.”
She raised a hand in response, then gave the all-clear to the patrol officers so they could resume their watch. A rumble behind her gave her a jolt. It was the massive, dark blue bulky-waste truck. She darted out of its way. That was fast. It must’ve been in the neighborhood. It extended its giant claw and lifted the couch. Swinging it around, the claw opened and dropped it in the rear bin with a dull thud.
The truck moved off with an engine snort, revealing Sal standing in the middle of the alley. He glowered at her. There was nothing she could do. He knew the ordinances better than most people.
She walked back to the station to get started on the report, stopping in the break room on her way to the detectives’ bureau. She hadn’t eaten breakfast and her stomach felt like a bottomless pit. She fixed a cup of coffee and grabbed two strawberry Pop-Tarts, then entered the detectives’ area, greeting several colleagues en route to her cubicle but not hovering to chat. She didn’t want to talk to anyone. She sat at her desk and powered on the computer.
Finbar McNab scooted in reverse out of his cubicle on his wheeled chair. “Early morning jog again?”
“Huh?” What was he talking about?
“The other day. You were in super early with wet hair. You said you’d been running.”
“Oh. No. Had a callout. OD in an alley.”
He studied her for a second. “Everything all right? You don’t look so hot.”
“Thanks for the compliment.”
“You’ve been putting in long hours lately, Des.”
“Catching up on paperwork, parole board letters, you know how it is.”
In truth, she stayed in the bureau or break room until the station emptied and it became safer to occupy the cot room. She had no money to go anywhere even if she had a place to go. Then she had to be up early to avoid the station’s first wave of arrivals. It must be nice to work a nine-to-five, she thought suddenly. There was a certain comfort in structured days.
“How’s Ray?” McNab said. “Don’t worry, sooner or later, we’ll get the asshole who did this.”
“If you don’t mind, I have a report to write.”
McNab threw up his hands in mock surrender. “Whoa, just asking.”
He rolled his chair forward and disappeared behind the cubicle wall. Finally. Desi took a deep breath and pulled up a blank report form, but her focus was gone.
What people didn’t know was that her four-year-old marriage was faltering before Ray got shot, thanks to his increasing micromanagement of her life. She told him she wanted out unless he agreed to go to couples’ counseling, but he refused. She was pondering her next move then got the call from his captain to get to the hospital. She wondered whether he’d chased the dealer, ignoring department protocols and hurdling a chain-link fence right into an alley ambush, in some sort of ego-driven attempt to prove to her what a superior being he was.
She’d stayed, of course. She couldn’t very well leave him when he needed her the most. But since the shooting, he’d spent more time drunk than sober and found fault with everything she did. She still had her badge and he didn’t.
After yet another fight, the cause of which she couldn’t recall now, her mouth had launched the words like missiles: “I’m leaving.” Ray hadn’t said a damn thing He simply rolled out to his garage man-cave, where he kept a small fridge stocked with beer, and blasted Black Sabbath, which he knew she hated, as she packed her life into garbage bags.
Desi had no plan for where to go, but the fact that Ray had offered no resistance made her all the more resolute. He thought she was bluffing. He’d see.
As she stared at the report, its blanks waiting to be filled in, she realized she missed her husband — the old him, the one she’d married, not this new version, but she didn’t know if the old Ray would, or could, ever return. She pushed the intrusive nostalgia back into its box and concentrated on the report. She powered through and when finished, went to the break room to reward herself with more coffee and Pop-Tarts.
Lieutenant Migdalia Machado stuck her head out of her door as Desi walked by. “Desi, gotta minute?”
Desi turned. “Sure.” She trailed her boss into her office. Machado had probably seen the stiff in the alley on the incident log when she came in and wanted the rundown.
“Close the door and have a seat.” Shit. Maybe not.
Machado reached under desk and thumped Desi’s backpack on her desk, the one that she’d shoved under the bunk in the cot room that morning. Desi slumped as if a vacuum sucked all the air out of her body.
“Is this yours?”
Desi nodded. “I just put it there for safekeeping.”
“Have you been using the cot room as a crashpad?”
“Save it.” Machado picked up an envelope from her desk and drew out two long auburn hairs, dangling them in the air. “There’s only one person in the station with this hair. I found them in one of the bunks and on the floor. This explains why you were napping in your car in the parking lot the other evening, why you’ve been here at all hours, why microwave dinners, mac and cheese boxes, canned soup and Pop-Tarts have appeared in the break room, with your name on them although all I’ve ever seen you eat is organic Whole- Foodsy stuff.
“Listen, I don’t know what’s going at home and it’s none of my business, but you know that sleeping in the cot room is strictly against the rules if it’s not for official police business.”
Desi didn’t have the energy to lie any longer. “I left Ray.” She suddenly felt as if an anvil had lifted off her chest.
Machado blinked. “I figured as much. I’m sure he’s not easy to be around these days.” Her tone had softened.
“Are you gonna write me up for this?” Desi had an unblemished record. Not one complaint, internal or external, in fourteen years on the job.
“I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll pretend this never happened if you find somewhere else to live and you follow up on this for me.” Machado turned to her computer and started typing.
Desi decided to wait until she finished to ask her not to broadcast her marital woes.
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone about you and Ray,” Machado said, not taking her eyes off the monitor. Was she telepathic?
“I’d appreciate that,” Desi said.
Where was she going to go? Her credit cards were maxed out and her credit rating had plummeted. She and Ray were down to a single income, plus Ray’s disability check, but one of his favorite hobbies these days was ordering useless stuff from Amazon. Piles of boxes piled up at the door practically daily. Plus, she’d had to take out a loan to retrofit the house for a wheelchair. She didn’t have any friends outside the department or nearby relatives where she could crash for a few days. She’d spent the first night on her own in a West Hollywood motel that cost a hundred bucks for a room with a stained bedspread and stale pot reek, then decided to move into the station.
She thought it would be relatively easy to live there, for a short while anyway, since the station was equipped with a cot room, showers, lockers and a kitchenette. It would give Ray enough time to realize how much he needed her. He’d come to appreciate her, beg her to come back. Then she’d have leverage to get him into therapy and rehab. But she hadn’t banked on how stressful it would be to evade detection, inventing excuses to be at the station at odd hours, and how people would pick up on the smallest changes in habit. She was juggling lies like balls, but her hands just weren’t fast enough to catch them all. And it had been five days, and she still hadn’t had as much as a text from Ray. Her shoulders slumped.
Machado hit enter with a flourish and twisted back to Desi. “The captain got an email yesterday from Councilman Hounanian’s office, which he passed on to me, which I just forwarded to you. Report back to me by end of watch. Close the door on your way out.”
Desi walked back to her desk calling up her email on her phone. When the westside councilman called the captain, it always meant some bullshit complaint from his constituents: graffiti, people living in RVs parked at the curb, loud parties. She skimmed through the forwarded email and rolled her eyes. “Jesus fucking Christ,” she muttered. This one was bullshittier than usual. No wonder the LT had palmed it off as part of a deal. She drew a deep breath. She’d handle this, then figure out where she’d sleep that night.
Desi looked around the living room at the eight expectant faces. The residents of the upscale Brentwood neighborhood had complained to the councilman that their cats and dogs had been disappearing. An elderly lady, a cloud of snowy hair framing a birdlike face, gave her a friendly smile, which she returned.
“Have a seat, Detective.” Sarah Cohen, the host and group organizer, gestured toward the dining chair pulled around the coffee table for extra seating. “Can I get you coffee?”
“No thanks. I can’t stay long. I have witnesses to interview on another case.” A pre-emptive lie. Desi sat in the indicated chair and Sarah perched on an ottoman next to her.
The elderly woman nudged a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies toward Desi, who smiled noncommittally. “So, I understand your pets have gone missing,” she prompted, flipping open her notebook. She still couldn’t quite believe she was investigating this.
Sarah unfolded a square of paper on top of the ziggurat of landscape photography books in the middle of the table. “This is what’s been going on.”
It was a map of the neighborhood marked with eight numbers and a corresponding key listing the pets and dates they were last seen.
“Jim,” Sarah pointed to a bearded man on the couch who obediently raised his hand, “and I canvassed the area to see how many pets had gone missing. As you can see, the disappearances started four months ago. All expensive breeds.”
Jim leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “There’s a pattern that makes me think there’s something deliberate about it. It started with cats, then small dogs, then bigger dogs. It’s not random.”
Desi studied the list to verify what Jim was saying, wondering if he was Jim Hendrie, the noted movie director. She cast her eyes around the circle. “Has anyone noticed any strangers hanging around the neighborhood? Any odd bowls of food or water?”
“There’s a shabby Econoline van that parks on my street at night,” the elderly lady said.
“That ‘shabby’ van belongs to my son,” said a man whose too-perfect hairline belied the presence of implants.
“What time of day did the animals disappear?” Desi asked.
“Mostly night.” Sarah looked around the group for confirmation. Heads nodded.
“I let my dog out at night in the back yard to do his business, and he never came back,” said a woman pushing large black-rimmed glasses up her nose. “Mine’s the Pekinese.”
“No unusual barking?” Heads shook.
“Not to sound alarmist, but what if someone’s engaging in some kind of animal sacrifice cult?” Jim said. “Like Santeria or Vodou or something.”
Desi sucked in her lips to keep from bursting out in laughter. Rich people were too much. “Those types of rituals usually involve hens and goats.”
“We’re completely baffled as to why our neighborhood would be targeted,” Sarah said. “It’s really quite worrying. What will they graduate to next: home invasions? We have a lot of elderly residents.”
Desi closed her notepad. “There’s been a cat and dog shortage since the pandemic. People emptied shelters for pets to keep them company at home, so animals are getting high prices right now. I’d say that’s the motive. And once their scheme worked the first time, the thieves came back, getting better and bolder with each theft.
“They probably chose this neighborhood for the simple reason that it offers easy access to Sunset Boulevard and the freeway, and it’s all single-family homes with open yards. I suggest checking Craigslist to see if any of your pets are being sold online. If you find any you think are yours, call me.”
Sarah bobbed her head at her neighbors. “Good idea, everyone.”
Desi took out a wad of business cards from her pocket and handed it to Sarah, who took one and passed it on. “I’ll request patrol to step up neighborhood checks, especially at night. Keep your pets inside or on a leash. Don’t let them roam by themselves, even in your yard. Somebody could be luring the animals with food that contains tranquilizers. Take a couple good photos of them, too, for identification purposes.”
“Do you want to take a look around the neighborhood?” Jim asked.
“Not necessary. I saw it when I drove in.” Desi stood.
“That’s it?” said the old lady. “No fingerprinting?”
“Nothing to fingerprint, ma’am,” Desi said. “Even though we’ll have extra patrols, the best leads will come from residents. Stay alert. If you notice anything unusual, call me.”
Sarah accompanied her to the front door and stepped outside onto the stoop with her. “Thank you so much for coming, Detective. I know you must have bigger crimes to handle, but for some people, their animals are all they’ve got. They’re really bereft.”
“I understand.” Desi’s eyes fixed on a burgundy tufted velvet couch across the street on the curb. She must’ve missed it on her way in as she was peering at house numbers. “Get back to me if you find anything.” She started walking across the street then an idea occurred to her. She turned. “Is someone throwing out that sofa?”
“That’s Jim Hendrie’s. The Salvation Army’s coming to pick it up.”
He was the film director. “Can you tell Jim to cancel the Salvation Army?”
Desi slid into the driver’s seat of the Crown Vic and took out her phone. “Hey Fin, I need to borrow you and your pickup truck at lunchtime. I’ll buy the sandwiches.”
A couple hours later, Desi wandered through the book stacks to the section of the library with the Internet-access computers. She spotted Sal right away. Having stopped at the drugstore on her way over, she daubed her nostrils with Vaporub before heading in his direction.
“Sal,” she stage-whispered.
He looked around and pursed his lips in distaste when he saw her before turning back to the monitor.
“I got a surprise for you. In the alley.”
“What — steel bracelets with a nice little chain? Or a card that says, ‘Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200’?”
“Just come check it out.”
“If I get up now, I’ll lose my spot for the day.”
Desi walked out of the library onto Santa Monica Boulevard and past the station, heading to the coffee shop that backed onto Sal’s alley. She managed to snare a free latte by “casually” pulling back her jacket to expose her gold detective shield and then waited in the alcove of the rear door to the alley.
Several minutes later, Sal turned the corner. She ducked back into the alcove so he wouldn’t see her then peered around the wall to keep him in view. She needn’t have worried. He’d spotted the couch and barrelled toward it like a torpedo. He stopped in front of it and stroked the velvet as if it would purr, then flopped on it with gusto, hands clasped behind his head.
Desi smiled. She pushed open the coffee shop’s door, walked through and exited onto the street. Now she had to figure out where she was going to sleep. As she walked back to the station, her cell phone buzzed in her pocket. She pulled it out and checked the caller ID. It was Ray.
Christina Hoag is the author of two novels: Girl on the Brink, named to Suspense Magazine’s Best YA list, and Skin of Tattoos, a Silver Falchion Award finalist. She also co-authored the nonfiction book Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence. A former journalist, she reported from Latin America for Time, Financial Times, New York Times and other media. Her short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary journals.