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About The Author

Steph ChaSteph Cha

STEPH CHA is a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School. She lives in her native city of Los Angeles, California. This is her first novel.

photo: Susie Cha

Beware, Beware
August 14 - September 29, 2014
Meet Steph Cha as she reads from her new novel Beware, Beware, from the Juniper Song Mysteries.

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EXCERPT

One
 

It was about ten o’ clock on a Friday in mid-July, the Los Angeles night warm and dry, the only wind rising from the whoosh and zoom of traffic on Rossmore. I was wearing a slinky black dress, black patent leather platform pumps, silver cascade earrings, and a black lambskin clutch. I was perfumed, manicured, and impeccably coiffed. I was everything a half-employed twentysomething should be on the sober end of a Friday night. I was calling on an open bar at Luke’s new apartment, ready to spend a little time and respectability on a blurry and colorful evening.
Luke’s place was in the Marlowe Apartments in Hancock Park, a complex towering pretty as a castle just north of the Wilshire Country Club. It stood less than two miles south of Hollywood and Ivar, where its namesake found his vocation. But the Marlowe was a luxury apartment more likely to house the rich degenerates of Chandler’s novels than his wisecracking private eye with a heart of noir gold.
Luke’s loft was on the third floor. I entered the building from Rosewood through an iron gate propped open by yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, then passed through a plush outdoor patio and a furnished lobby offering complimentary coffee. The Marlowe featured a fleur-de-lis floating in the valley of an M as its logo, and fleur-de-lis peppered every plausible surface of the place, from the spikes on the gate to the hallway walls and elevator doors. I rode up to the third floor and found Luke’s apartment tucked in a corner behind a black door with three squares staggered in white geometric outlines from top to bottom.
A printout taped to the door commanded in bold black font: COME ON IN AND LOSE THE SHOES. I turned the knob and laughter and hip-hop spilled out at the first crack in the doorway, the pulse of the subwoofer smacking my ribs with a little less force than cardiac arrest.
A landfill of footwear clogged the entrance—flip-flops, Birkenstocks, loafers brown and black, Nikes and Converse, floral printed espadrilles, round-toed ballet flats in twelve colors. I looked down at my glossy pin-thin heels and scoured the floor for a friend. A wadded yellow sock peered at me from an unlaced sneaker, and as I started to surrender, I saw the pair that made mine look like Sunday shoes. They were tall, pointy, and painted in glitter, with bloodred soles and scarce worn in-soles reading CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN.
She was about as hard to spot as a clown in a prison cafeteria, wearing just a shade less makeup, tarred and sequined in steel gray from bust to midthigh, earlobes hoisting oversize Eiffel Tower chandeliers. She clocked in at about five foot one on a tall day, and except for some heavily jeweled wrists, she would have been easy enough to smuggle in carry-on luggage. Her left hand held the conic bowl of a martini glass in a loose circle between thumb and forefinger, and her right hand gripped the sleeve of Luke’s button-down midbicep. Her long, dark eyes squinted as her wide red mouth gaped with silver laughter. Loose curls dyed a toasted honey brown fell past her shoulders, ends trembling on a modest bosom. She crinkled a nose that could hide behind a penny. One crooked incisor poked just a couple millimeters ahead of her front teeth—this would be her moneymaker, the Cheshire detail, the bite mark in your memory.
He looked like a giant next to the girl. He had always been tall—when I met him he was six foot two and 140 pounds. Sometime in college, he had filled out and grown into impressive good looks, with soft toffee-brown hair, an unearned surfer’s tan, and kind eyes the mellow green of new sage. He wore dark jeans and a gray dress shirt with a thread count higher than most people’s sheets. Luke, like many of his classmates at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, had an indulging father with deep pockets, and, though he didn’t like to admit it, expensive taste.
Luke and I had been friends since high school, though back then we spent little time together off campus. We were both good students, and we developed a comfortable rapport over a series of shared classes, without getting to know each other particularly well. In December of our senior year, we were both admitted early to Yale, and we started to hang out and become friends. By a stroke of fate, we were placed in the same residential college our freshman year, and soon after that, I fell in love with his roommate. Except for a brief hiccup after Diego and I broke up, the three of us went through college like peas in a pod.
After my freshman year, my family left Los Angeles for Houston. No one expected me to settle down in Texas, and after graduation I moved back to my hometown. When I did, Luke was the reason I still felt at home. I did most of my moviegoing, grocery shopping, and eating out with him. He spent the year after graduation contemplating life goals, then ended up in film school with an aspiration to produce documentaries with deep, important social messages. He was a fitting companion for a private tutor without higher ambitions. Most weeks I worked twenty hours for an hourly rate high enough to keep me afloat. We both had plenty of free time and lacked the credentials to judge each other, and two consecutive days without contact was a strange and infrequent occurrence.
Luke cupped his hand and curled his fingers to call me over. I was his exact height in five-inch heels and enjoyed standing shoulder to shoulder, but I obeyed the sign before stepping over to Luke and the girl.
“Song! Thank God you’re here.”
I raised an eyebrow and looked at the girl enjoying his company. “Are you in need of rescue?”
He glanced at her and shook his head with a guilty smirk. “Just happy to see you.”
“Likewise, then. The place is really coming together.” When I had visited on Wednesday, there had been nowhere to sit.
“Like it?”
“Well, you did let me pick the couch. And you know how much I love Philip Marlowe.”
He smiled. “So much that no flesh-and-blood man can compete.”
“With witty brooding Philip Marlowe? Of course not.” I gave him a light punch on the shoulder. Luke was also between relationships, but my perpetual singledom was still a favorite topic.
He remembered the girl on his arm and introduced us. “Sorry, Song, this is Lori Lim. Lori, Juniper Song. But everyone calls her Song. I guess you can understand why.”
“Oh, shush, my parents were immigrants. Not all of us get to have names that wear sweater-vests, Lucas William Cook.” I turned to Lori and put out a hand and a “good to meet you” with my best meeting smile.
She slid her tongue over the jutting corner of her jagged tooth and clamped it lightly in a lazy smile. Her dark eyes were sugar-glazed and sleepy, glitter lids fluttering and drooping. A lightweight. She took my hand in two dainty paws and planted a kiss, staining it with sparkling, plum-tinted lip gloss. Her glass pushed against her cheek and a few drops of clear liquid spilled onto the floor.
“You’re tall, aren’t you?” She looked at me, pupils hidden coyly behind a wall of mascaraed lashes.
“Can you tell she’s a little drunk?” Luke yelled in whisper-tones. “Did you Korean girls get together and decide this was a cocktail party, by the way?”
After a four-second delay, Lori bent over dripping with laughter and socked Luke in the shoulder.
I watched her and smiled. “I guess I didn’t realize we were still nineteen. When do we start taking body shots?”
“Aren’t you hilarious.”
“I’m kidding. Congrats on the new place. I did overdress, but in my defense it’s been a while since I’ve been out among non-you people. So I decided to pull out the stops for this thing.”
“Well, you look good. I’ll buy you a drink from my fridge.”
“Thanks. I’ll take a beer.”
“I’ll be back in a second.”
“Hold it.” I pointed at the petite lush and mouthed, What do I do with this? She was humming now.
Luke turned and twisted his mouth. “Give her a boy to play with, she’ll know what to do.”
I turned to Lori. “I’ll be right back. Want anything?”
She squinted her eyes and gave me a dreamy pouty smile and a belabored shake of the head. I followed Luke to the kitchen.
“Hostile, much? She’s drunk, not insensate. Who is she anyway?”
He opened the refrigerator and looked thoughtfully at the beer supply. “She works for my dad’s firm. Some kind of secretary or paralegal or who the fuck knows.”
“I can tell you’re a fan.”
“I’m oozing with adoration. This is me oozing.” He tilted his head down at me and gave me his best impression of a jaded student in a lecture on fractals.
“She is adorable. She’s a my-size Barbie with an A-cup. I kind of want to take her home and have her look pretty on my couch. Can she even talk, or is that Joker mouth for show?”
He pulled two cold beers from the fridge and snapped off the caps. They hissed and smoked deliciously.
“Oh, definitely not for show.” He chuckled and took a sip of his beer. “Actually, I have to talk to you about something.”
I was about to take a swig but brought the bottle back down. “Yeah?”
He furrowed his brows and his eyes were long triangles as he pointed at Lori with his chin. “I need to find out if she’s banging my dad.” I started to laugh but inhaled it. Staring back at me were two pools of green sobriety. “Seriously, Song, I think she’s sleeping with him.”
*   *   *
Luke didn’t make a habit of second-guessing his father. He was an only child, and he grew up with an admiration of the elder Cook that bordered on worship. Mr. Cook was about as warm and playful as an onion, but he doted on his son. He never threw a ball around with him, but he was as present as an ambitious lawyer could be. He worked seventy-hour weeks, and by the time his son was in middle school, he had founded Stokel, Levinson & Cook. Even at his busiest, he managed to drive Luke to play dates and doctors’ appointments, and he never missed a school function.
He had hoped that Luke would become a lawyer, or better, a powerful client, but he was supportive when Luke told him he wanted to make documentaries. The decision cost Mr. Cook tuition money and living expenses for a few more years, but he never acted like he was doing his son a favor.
Though Luke never came out and said so, I gathered that his busy father’s committed involvement in his everyday life stemmed from the relative absence of his mother. Erin Cook was a stay-at-home wife who didn’t do much when she stayed at home. She didn’t cook or clean, and she took only a nominal role in watching and raising Luke. Much of his childhood was spent with a series of Spanish-speaking nannies, but he never spent enough time with any one to develop a significant attachment—not a single one lasted a year before getting the slip from Erin.
What I knew about Luke’s relationship with his mother, I learned from a few long, late-night conversations scattered over the span of our friendship. He didn’t resent her, and when he spoke of her, it was with a fond, faraway tone you might use to talk about an old neighbor. She was never entirely present—she traveled often, spending dollars like pennies, and when she was home, she kept to the bedroom. In all the years I knew Luke, I had only met her a couple of times.
She had been clinically depressed for decades. When he was a toddler, Luke asked her for a baby brother and she broke down sobbing. That was one of his earliest memories. Like a Fitzgerald heroine, Erin was frail and neurotic with a penchant for woeful melodrama. But this was her disease—there was no play-acting element to it.
She tried to kill herself just days before Luke’s tenth birthday. He heard the reason from his mother’s mouth, hours after she recovered—his father had been unfaithful. Luke was young enough to pretend he didn’t understand, and she didn’t bring it up again. He never did find out if it was true, and he didn’t dwell on the question.
If Mr. Cook had transgressed, he was a model husband and father in the years before and after. He was the central figure in Luke’s family life, and I knew Luke’s casual intimation of an affair came from a place of genuine agony. I grabbed him by the elbow and we peeled off from the party into his bedroom. I closed the door, and the music reached us more in throbs than in sounds.
Luke had been living at the Marlowe for all of one week. While he had managed to slap up enough house for a housewarming, he had yet to settle into his bedroom. A new queen bed sat kitty-corner from the door, his disheveled comforter spread across it end to end in an homage to a made bed. The only other furniture was a bare, L-shaped desk and a rolling desk chair, both new. The carpet was littered with poster tubes, a framed diploma, cardboard boxes in various sizes, taped and untaped, some open showing white plastic hangers, a baseball glove, books with worn covers. I could only imagine the state of his closet.
He sat on a corner of his bed, palms flat and pushing into the mattress. I took the chair and rolled it close. I crossed and uncrossed my legs four times in the silence that followed.
I clucked my tongue. “Talk to me.”
“I went home for dinner today and mentioned to my dad that I was short on cash. He said he’d give me whatever was in his wallet, and I don’t know if I should have, but I took that to mean I could help myself. When I did, I found a receipt. Chanel, three grand, dated last week.” He leaned forward, fingers locked, and looked up at me, chewing on his lower lip.
I could read the distress clear as lettering on his face. Luke looked up to his father with a childlike devotion, and for the first time since I’d known him, it was being tested. I felt a flush of relief. He was waiting for me to speak, and I gathered from his silence that there had been no further discoveries. If this was his evidence, there were a hundred ways for his suspicions to be wrong. “And you think this means your dad is having an affair?”
He nodded, slowly, evaluating my response.
“Your dad makes millions a year. You don’t think he was just shopping for himself?”
“I know my dad,” he said. “He doesn’t spend that kind of money on anything for himself unless it comes with wheels. And Chanel? Not the brand for an aging lawyer.”
“So you think he was buying something for Lori. Not, say, your mom?”
“There’s no occasion, and I mean, he isn’t really spontaneous with the gifts. My mom hates surprises, even when they’re expensive.”
“He could’ve been picking something up for her. Or something. I guess it’s weird, but I think you’re being a little paranoid, no? It’s a receipt. People buy things.”
He scratched his nose with a fast knuckle. “I don’t know. I just have this feeling that that’s what’s going on. Did you happen to notice what was on Lori’s arm?”
“An arsenal of bangles, but other than that, no.”
“You would’ve noticed. She must’ve put it down. Any guesses?”
“I’m going to guess there were some linking Cs involved.”
“Could easily have been three grand worth. I mean, a pair of Chanel socks goes for what, a thousand dollars?”
“Give or take.”
“I wouldn’t have noticed, but it just makes so much sense. How else do you explain it? She can’t make more than a few thousand a month.”
“Maybe she has a rich boyfriend. One who isn’t about to die.” I paused and opened my mouth. “Sorry. It’s just, she’s a total knockout. She could be on Nickelodeon, dating a boy who wears bow ties.”
“Please, Song. I can’t kick this feeling that something’s wrong. I’m just asking you to help me find out.”
“Why,” I started. “Has your dad been acting weird lately? I don’t get where this is coming from.”
“No, nothing like that. I mean, I don’t see him enough to notice strange behavior.” He stood up and started to pace. “But you know, it’s an anxiety I’ve had since I was a kid. On the one hand, I tell myself he would never have an affair, not after my mom took those pills. On the other—it’d be so easy for him to fall into one. He has money, and status, and he’s in good shape for his age. I’m sure women don’t ignore him. And look.” He stopped and ran a hand through his hair. When he spoke again his voice was lower. “My mom is a handful, and he would never say it but she must make him miserable sometimes. He might love her anyway, but I doubt they’ve had sex in the last several years.”
“You mean you wouldn’t blame him if he did have an affair?”
“No, of course I would. My mom is ill. Last time she thought he cheated, she tried to die. I know that wasn’t a reasonable response, and I know my mom is a difficult person to live with. But my dad is who he is because for thirty years he’s stood by her and taken care of her when most people would’ve quit. If he’s sleeping with someone younger than I am, I’ll never see him the same way again.”
He was just short of breaking into a paranoid sweat. I leaned forward with my head in my hands, looking down at my elbows. “Do you remember when you thought Diego was cheating on me?”
He sighed. “I remember. Not my best moment.”
“Well, at the time you had enough to go on that jumping to conclusions didn’t seem crazy. Diego and I had kind of a big fight because I ended up getting suspicious and asked him about it.”
“Yeah, that was my bad. Sorry.”
“Ancient history. But my point is, people look weird and suspicious all the time, even people as virtuous as Diego. And when they do things that make you look sideways, logical explanations can be counterintuitive. Let’s say your dad went and bought boxes of nail polish for charity. It’d be pretty bizarre, but it would still be an explanation. Honestly, it’s at least as likely as what you’re thinking. You have to admit, an affair requires something of a leap. Your dad and Lori just don’t seem plausible.”
He rubbed his nose with the back of a hand so that his voice had to tumble through his wrist. “I don’t know, Song. If ‘plausible’ means ‘capable of happening,’ you of all people should know that it is.”
I felt a sting of irritation in my sinuses. I stood up, smoothed out imaginary wrinkles in my skirt, and glared down at my best friend, whose eyes rested on blank wall. “I’m going to let that slide because you’re obviously distressed, but if you’re referring to what happened to Iris, then you can cry on someone else’s fucking shoulder.”
He touched my hand and threw me a pleading look. “Sorry, Song, that was out of line. I just want you to help me out here.” I kept my eyes on his and felt their white films shudder with heat. He squeezed my fingers and didn’t look away. “Song, forgive me. Please.”
I blinked. “Is that why you asked me? Because you knew I couldn’t say no?”
“Look, I—of course I thought about Iris. I would be lying, and you would know it if I said otherwise.”
I nodded, and felt my anger subside with a degree of surprise—it was rare for me to lash out at Luke, and I was dismayed by the rawness of that eight-year-old wound.
“I know you don’t like talking about what happened, and I promise you that this is not about Iris. I just know you might have a knack for figuring this sort of thing out. You did it before, and no matter what you think, it was the right thing to do.” He waited for me to speak, but I let him continue. “But more than that, I’m asking because you’re my best friend and I need your help.”
He looked abandoned. I felt my shoulders relax and after a moment I clapped my hand on his. “Okay,” I said. “Look, did you think Lori was trouble before she showed up tonight?”
He squeezed my hand and straightened his back. “Yes, yes I did. Diego told me she was all over his bones at a happy hour the other week.”
“Diego did not say that. Does she know he’s married?”
“Maybe he didn’t use those words, but she made him uncomfortable. In any case, if she didn’t know he was married then, she sure does now. One of the other associates practically pried her off of him with a spatula and told her. After which she went right back to humping his leg.”
“I’ll ask Diego about her if you don’t want him privy to your theories. My hunch is that she’s just a touchy girl, though.” I showed him the plum-colored lip print on my hand. “Unless I made her fall for me already.”
“Could you do that? I mean, you can tell him why, but he’ll definitely think I’m nuts.”
“At least you’re a little bit self-aware.” I rubbed my temples with the meat of my palms. “Sure, I’ll ask him. But let’s keep this realistic. I can’t bug your dad’s phone. I can pry around, but anything else is pretty out of my league.”
“Of course. Maybe you could talk to Diego and chat up Lori? She seems to like you.”
“I’ll do what I can, okay? Lucky for you, I like the idea of posing as a dick.”
I got up and rejoined the party, leaving Luke to untangle the tubes of his bothered brain.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Stephanie Cha

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