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When I was twenty-two, I sold three sets of eggs for a total of $48,000. I was broke, bored, and quietly depressed, and had no strength to fight the call of easy money. It was a questionable decision, but I've made enough of those that this one doesn't keep me up at night.
I'd seen advertisements for egg donors in the Yale paper, but back then I was still on the payroll of a hardworking immigrant mom who saw no better way to spend money than to push her shitty kid through the Ivy League. The ads made a bit of a splash in cafeteria conversations, but as far as I knew, no one really responded. We had a whole campus full of prestigious eggs and, in aggregate at least, a brash imperviousness to financial pressure.
That changed for many of us soon enough. I left Yale with an attractive diploma, an unattractive transcript, and zero to negligible job prospects. I moved to L.A., not because I had dreams, or even family anymore, but because it was a city I knew, one that I liked better than others.
One day, after pinning tutoring fliers in coffee shops full of dead-eyed college graduates just as unemployed as I was, I came across a New York Times article about Asian-American egg donors. Apparently, our eggs commanded high premiums for rarity on the market-Asian-American women waited longer than average to have babies, chasing those professional dreams with their biological clocks ticking softly in the background.
It was like a help wanted ad singing my name.
There was another reason, too, an enabling reason if not an actual impetus-despite my sadness and weakness of spirit I felt, in a way, invincible. It wasn't that I relished the idea of my spawn running the earth. The truth is, I didn't think about that much at all. I was young and cavalier, with a disregard for consequences that had almost nothing to do with reality, mine or anyone else's. Consequences were things that happened to other people. What happened to me was bad luck.
So I did some research and sold my eggs to the highest bidder. They went out into the world, and maybe some of them became people.
I hadn't thought about them in a long time, and then I met Rubina Gasparian.
* * *
It was a warm Tuesday in early March, one of those pre-spring Los Angeles days that knocked an unnecessary nail into winter's coffin. I'd had my private investigator license for almost a year, and during that time I'd made a steady, honest living, as free of mishap as any period in my adult life.
When I got to the office that morning, there was a woman waiting outside the locked door. She was standing straight, facing the hall, and when I looked up from my phone she was already watching me, waiting for me to acknowledge her. I nearly jumped.
She was a slim woman wearing a gray wrap dress and short, professional heels. I was almost a head taller, even in flip-flops, but there was something commanding in her presence that negated the impression of smallness. She was pretty in a brutal way, with a high forehead, straight black hair, and an immaculate gloss to her pale skin. Her eyes were sharp and dark, and by the time I got around to greeting her, they'd run their way right through me.
"Hi," I said. "Are you looking for Lindley and Flores?"
"Yes. I hope you don't mind my coming in so early. I don't have an appointment." She spoke quickly, but with a tentative, deferential tone of voice.
"Not at all. I'm Juniper Song," I said, holding out my hand. "I'm an investigator."
"Rubina Gasparian." She shook my hand with a firm grip, and I felt the press of a ring on my palm. Wrong hand for a wedding band, but I saw that she had one of those on, too. "It's nice to meet you."
I opened up the office and Rubina followed me inside. I sat down at my desk and, before I was able to offer, she took a chair across from me.
"So, Ms. Gasparian. What can I do for you today?"
"It's Doctor," she said, then added, "Though that doesn't matter."
"Sorry." I smiled, feeling mildly caught off guard. "Dr. Gasparian, what can I do for you today?"
She crossed her legs and folded her hands over the top knee. "I'd like to hire someone to follow my cousin."
"We can certainly do that," I said. "All three of us are seasoned tails. That's kind of the bread and butter of this job. What can you tell me about her?"
She produced a 4 x 6 photograph and pushed it delicately across the desk. It was a professional photo of Rubina in a wedding dress, with one arm around a younger woman in a lavender dress, unmistakably a bridesmaid. I took a long look at the cousin. She had the same pale skin and round eyes as Rubina, but she gave off a rugged impression, even in pastel chiffon. Her bare arms showed a colorful splash of tattoos, and her shoulders were broad and well honed. She wasn't as traditionally attractive as Rubina, but she would never fade standing next to her.
"That was taken on my wedding day, almost six years ago. The girl on my left is my cousin Lusig. I can e-mail you a more recent photograph-her hair's much shorter now, and she has a piercing in her nose, which I made her take out for the wedding." She paused and nodded, making a note to herself. "I've known her since she was in my late aunt's womb. She's a wonderful girl. I love her like a sister and daughter, and now, she's carrying my baby."
"How's that?" I asked.
"For a few reasons, chief among them that I am thirty-seven years old, my husband and I are unable to conceive. Since we want children, and adoption is out of the question, we decided on a gestational surrogate."
I wondered briefly why adoption was out of the question, and something in Rubina's eyes dared me to ask. It didn't seem like my business-not that that always stopped me-but I bit.
"Why was adoption out of the question?"
"Here are two clues," she said, holding one hand up in a V. "My married name is Gasparian. My maiden name is Balakian."
"You're Armenian," I said. Armenian surnames were almost as easy to spot as Korean ones.
"Very much so. And as an Armenian couple, Van and I would like to continue our bloodline. There are only so many of us left."
"Forgive me if I'm off track here. Been a long time since World History. But you're referring to a genocide?"
She nodded. "Of course. It's telling that you're uncertain. Not-" she added hastily-"telling of your ignorance, but of the Armenian genocide's status in history. But that is a long conversation, and we were already in the middle of another one."
"Right," I said. "You were telling me about a gestational surrogate. That means what, your egg, her womb?"
"And that surrogate is your cousin Lusig."
"Exactly." She smiled, lending a little warmth to her features. "Lusig wasn't ideal in every way. The perfect surrogate is a woman who's been pregnant before, who won't form an undue attachment to the baby. We think Lusig will be fine with giving him up, but this is her first pregnancy, and she had no familiarity with the process before she agreed to sign on."
"So why her?"
"First, she offered. She knew we needed help, and she said she was more than happy to. Second, Lusig and I are very close. She would be in the baby's life, as more than an aunt, if a little less than a mother. Third, Lusig has no desire to have children of her own."
"How old is she?"
"Early to make that call, wouldn't you say?"
Rubina shrugged, a small, mechanical motion. "She's maintained this position for many years. Lusig is a headstrong, stubborn girl, and she is not known to change her mind. On top of which, she's unmoved by children, and thinks she would make a poor mother. Between you and me, I agree with her."
"Well, practically speaking, Lusig has never been employed for more than a year at a time. She has very little interest in figuring out her life, and I can't imagine she'd have room for a child anytime soon. And I know she's young, but twenty-six is not twenty-two."
I suppressed a smile. Rubina could have been describing me before I started working for Chaz. I'd spent my post-college years tutoring around the city for bursts of cash, just enough to pay rent and maintain my pantry and one shelf of my fridge. Pregnancy would have been a nightmare.
"What's she do?"
"This and that. Temp work, mostly. Sometimes she participates in psych studies and focus groups. She lives at home, with her father, so her living expenses are very low. We've been paying her a stipend while she carries the baby, so she isn't working now."
"None of this sounds particularly permanent," I said. "You think she'll always be unfit for kids?"
"I love her, but she's a selfish girl. She's a classic only child, not conceited but very self-centered. She's always surprised to recall that the world doesn't revolve around her."
"I don't think I'm especially selfish, but I would run far away if anyone wanted to borrow my body for nine months."
"Of course she's often generous. Maybe this is getting lost, but I think Lusig is wonderful. She's only fundamentally selfish."
I nodded, wondering how damning this was supposed to be. "Is that why you're here?"
She gave me a thoughtful stare before speaking again. "I suppose it is," she said. "I'm worried that she's putting herself before the welfare of my child."
"She's almost eight months pregnant, well past the initial touch and go. Not that this pregnancy could ever have been less than a deliberate, serious affair, with all the money and energy poured into it from the beginning, but my son is more baby than fetus now. He will be born. I'm going to be a mother." She looked pointedly at my left hand. "You don't have children, Miss Song?"
"I have not been so blessed," I said. "You can call me Song, by the way. Though 'Miss' is correct."
"I've always wanted to be a mother. I waited longer than I ever thought I would, but I went to medical school, then did my residency, then a fellowship, and before I knew it I was looking at limited options. If you're open to some friendly advice, I'd suggest you not wait too long."
The conversation was taking a weird turn. Rubina was not the type of woman who inspired quick and easy confidences, and I was more guarded than most. There was a clinical, universal tinge to her prescription, but it still struck me as somewhat intrusive. I ignored it and pressed on.
"So why are you worried about your cousin, Dr. Gasparian?"
"You can call me Rubina," she said. "I'm sorry I corrected you. It's a strange reflex."
"Sure. Rubina. Tell me your concerns about Lusig."
"She was a party girl. Through college, through her early twenties. And she's only twenty-six, so her early twenties were not very long ago. We've been Facebook friends for years, and I've seen all her pictures, drinking and carousing with friends. Nothing abnormal, understand, but she's always inclined toward the wild side. Nightclubs, vodka shots. I suspect some illicit drugs."
I pictured Rubina culling through her cousin's Facebook page, before and after entrusting her with her baby. The picture came easily.
"Drinking and carousing with friends seems pretty standard, really," I said, though I suspected as I said so that Rubina's youth had been tame and studious. "And from what you're saying I gather she got a lot of that out of her system well before she got pregnant. I imagine you wouldn't have chosen her if you had any doubts. What changed?"
She seemed surprised by the question, but recovered quickly. She tucked her hair behind her ear with a swift, precise motion. "Lusig's best friend is a girl named Nora. They've known each other since the seventh grade-they're both Armenian, both only children, and they stuck to each other from the beginning. I've met her several times, though I can't say I know her very well. In any case, Nora has been missing for almost a month."
I sat up a little straighter. "Missing? Like, officially? The police are looking for her and all that?"
"Yes, the police are looking for her. No one has said so, but everyone always suspects the worst."
"I see," I said, blinking hard. Murder had just entered the conversation.
Rubina broke the silence before it could set. "But I'm not here about Nora. I'm only giving you background. My concern is that Lusig has been acting strange ever since the disappearance."
"She's been moody, and it's been hard for me to reach her."
"She's been off the radar?"
"Not exactly. Let me explain myself." She gave me a tight smile. "In general, I don't care what other people do with their lives. Lusig is my cousin, and we've always been close, but I haven't agreed with every one of her life choices. She hasn't asked me about most of them, and I've withheld unsolicited advice on many, many occasions."
I nodded. Something in her tone suggested unreasonable pride in her own restraint.
"But when you're pregnant, you don't own your body, at least not one-hundred percent. This might be especially true if you've signed on to be a vessel for someone else's baby."
My mind revolted against the idea, but I couldn't say it was without truth. Instead, I asked, "Then, who does?"
"Who does what?"
"Who owns your cousin?"
"Well, to be frank," she said, twisting her fingers together, "I think I do."
I let her statement ride a brief pause, and she let out a tight little laugh.
"I don't mean she's my property, per se. And I know in this day and age women have certain rights to their own bodies, which I support wholly. But in this situation, I believe I have an unusual amount of interest in the contents of her womb, don't you agree?"
"That's true," I said, and decided to get back on track. "So, your cousin hasn't been attentive to your demands as the mother of the child."
"No. She's been defiant and unpredictable, going on errands she doesn't care to explain and snapping at me when I ask where she's been."
"It sounds like she has some reason to be upset," I said.
"Of course she does, and I'd like to give her space to deal with her ... grief, if that's the right word for it."
"On the other hand?"
She pressed her lips together. "On the other hand, I need to know if she's mistreating her body."
"Ah, so this is where I come in."
"I don't want you to bother her," she said. "Please just observe her, tell me what she's doing, take pictures as you deem appropriate or necessary."
"Sure, I can do that. Out of curiosity, though, what if I do find out she's slamming shots and sharing needles?"
"I will cross that bridge only if necessary."
* * *
I'd been surveilling people for a couple years now, and it had long since started to feel like a creepy second nature. I could follow any car across town at any time of day, and I developed a talent for blending into most environments, without the assistance of a trench coat or a fedora. Most people don't suspect they're being followed. After all, hiring a private investigator to solve a personal problem-sussing out infidelity being the classic case-is a somewhat nuclear option, one that many can't imagine using themselves. I couldn't follow a man into a public restroom and take a video of his stream, but anything short of that was more or less possible.
Still, some assignments were trickier than others. I wasn't quite ballsy enough to attempt a nighttime tail on a quiet road, but empty bars were usually manageable. Being an Asian woman worked in my favor-despite my height and somewhat unforthcoming demeanor, no one ever thought I was dangerous.
Lusig Hovanian was going to be an easier mark than most, and not because she was oblivious. Rubina, as I might have expected, kept her cousin on a short leash. Within a few hours of leaving my office, she e-mailed me a complete schedule of Lusig's day. She gave me the name and address of a restaurant in South Pasadena and requested that I eat there at seven o'clock. She gave me a fifty-dollar stipend-she'd researched the restaurant and determined that this was enough to cover dinner for two. She thought, correctly enough, that I'd stand out less if I wasn't eating alone.
There weren't too many people I wanted to meet for dinner, so I was happy that my roommate was free. Lori Lim was my best friend, an adopted younger sister of sorts, with whom I had almost nothing in common but a few shared episodes of extreme trauma. We'd been living together for about two years, in a two-bedroom apartment in Echo Park. I liked to think this arrangement was for her benefit, but we both knew I'd be lonely as all hell without her.
She was also pretty useful as a plus-one on stakeouts, not that she always knew when we were on one. She disapproved softly of my PI work, maintaining that it was unsafe. Fair enough, really, as I'd been drugged, threatened, and held at gunpoint since I'd met her, among other things. But even she recognized that my experience had been largely atypical, and most days she was content to leave me be.
Manhattan Bar & Deli of Pasadena was a cozy neighborhood place, and I guessed from the name that it was run by newish immigrants. I felt minorly vindicated when we were greeted by a middle-aged Chinese woman with halting, friendly English.
Lusig was already seated when we arrived. The restaurant was small and relatively empty, so I spotted her right away. She looked less fresh than she had in Rubina's wedding photo, though this, of course, was understandable. She was younger then, but I suspected the difference was due more to pregnancy and lack of makeup than to advancing through her mid-twenties.
Nothing about her appearance suggested an ideal surrogate mother. She looked slovenly and unnurturing, like she could hardly bother to take care of herself. Her hair was dyed crow black and cropped messily above her chin. It looked choppy and unwashed, with an oily shoe-polish shine. She wore a black T-shirt under a bulky military jacket big enough to hide a boar. Her ears were studded up and down with a spray of metal and stone. A tiny bright dot adorned one side of her thin nose, and above it, her huge, wild eyes were the focal point of the room.
Lori and I sat at a nearby table, within comfortable eavesdropping distance. I glanced at the young man sitting across from Lusig. He was clean-cut and handsome, with the kind of nonthreatening face that did well with mothers. He had dark hair, thick eyebrows, and sideburns that looked difficult to groom. Lusig had his full attention.
I ordered a hot pastrami Reuben and Lori got lox and cream cheese, which she formed into bite-sized bagel sandwiches, setting one on my plate. Fifty bucks left beer money, so I had a pint while Lori tucked into a milkshake. I told her it was my treat, and she thanked me with unnecessary enthusiasm.
She chattered about her job and her boyfriend Isaac, and I gave her the greater part of my attention while keeping one ear open to receive any revealing tidbits from Lusig's table. Lusig had a low, steady voice that cut across space without apparent effort. It was easy to track, even while carrying on my own conversation, and when I heard a change in tone and tempo, I pretended to devote all my energy to my sandwich. The small talk was over.
"I'm sorry I haven't been able to meet you till now," she said with a note of remorse.
The man laughed uncomfortably. "You're eight months pregnant, and I know this hasn't been easy for you, either."
"No, it hasn't. To be honest, it had nothing to do with pregnancy. There is nothing easier for a pregnant woman than to eat a pastrami sandwich."
He laughed again, but stopped when she didn't join him. "Okay," he said instead.
"Do you want to know the truth?" she asked.
"Of course." He didn't sound especially excited to know the truth.
"I was mad at you."
She stared at him across the table, her eyes searching his. "You didn't keep her safe, Chris. You were supposed to be there for her, that was the whole"-she made a framing gesture with her hands, encompassing his figure-"point of you, and you didn't keep her safe."
He moved back in his seat, dragging his chair a few loud inches across the floor. "I didn't keep her safe? You have some nerve, Lusig."
She watched him closely, and then her expression softened, taking on the contours of contrition. "I'm sorry. I'm projecting, I know." She shook her head and looked disapprovingly at her dinner, then looked up again at her companion. "Where do you think she is, Chris? Where could our girl have gone?"
Chris was slumped over, looking helpless and crestfallen, and as I waited for him to answer, I noticed Lori was raising her eyebrows across the table.
"Unni," she said. "Are you listening?"
I made a show of chewing and swallowing the bite of sandwich in my mouth. "Sorry, I zoned out a little."
She shook her head and bit her lip with her crooked tooth. "Unni, are you working right now?" she whispered.
"Shhhhh," I said, widening my eyes. "Jesus."
"I knew it."
"I'll tell you about it later, okay? Sorry, what were you saying?"
She twisted her lips, but I could tell she wasn't really annoyed. She was used to my work mode after living with me for so long. Our friendship was also the only good remainder of a case that had left us both devastated, and she knew that the job stabilized me, even if she didn't understand how.
"I was just asking if you'd noticed how much time I've been spending at Isaac's."
"I am a detective, Lori."
She'd been spending most nights at Isaac's for the better part of a month. He'd moved into his own place downtown, and suddenly he was less interested in sleeping in my apartment. I hadn't seen his face at all for a couple weeks, and even Lori was scarce. His place was within walking distance of her job-she worked in human resources for an accounting firm-and she only seemed to stop home for an hour or two here and there to pick up clean clothes and make sure I had enough to eat.
"Do you mind?" she asked.
I smiled, a little wider than felt sincere. "You're an adult, Lori. I don't stay up all night worrying about you."
"I know, but you aren't too lonely?"
I shrugged. "No, not too. I'm good at being alone."
She nodded, still looking solicitous, but she changed the subject.
It wasn't long before Lusig reclaimed my attention, along with Lori's and everyone else's in the restaurant. Her voice was raised, and she was glaring at the waitress.
"Guess what's none of your fucking business," she said.
The waitress looked around the room. She was a small Chinese girl, about college-age, probably the owners' daughter. She wore a Manhattan Bar & Deli T-shirt over slim blue jeans and dainty shoes. Her face twisted into a look of scorn that searched for validation as she scanned the restaurant.
"You're acting very belligerent," said the waitress.
"Am I? I'm sorry. I just thought I could order a beer without being interrogated."
"I only asked if you were pregnant."
"Sure. Not a loaded question." She scoffed. "Of course I'm pregnant. Look at me. You knew I was pregnant, so don't fucking pretend you were just being curious."
"I don't know if I'm comfortable serving alcohol to a pregnant lady."
"It's a beer."
"You're acting pretty drunk already."
Lusig stood up, rising a half head taller than the waitress, who seemed stunned to have this irate customer glaring down at her face. "I've had five drinks in the last three months, you judgmental cunt." She flung a twenty-dollar bill on the table. "Come on, Chris. Let's get out of here."
Chris gaped at the scene in front of him, and then stood up after Lusig, half bowing with apology. He left more bills on the table in a quiet hurry, then followed her out of the restaurant.
The door swung closed with a tinkle of bells, leaving an awed silence in its wake. The waitress stared at the door with her mouth hanging open.
I caught Lori's eye, and we both covered our mouths to suppress overt laughter.
"Oh, unni," she said. "Please tell me you were here to watch them."
I shrugged, and a sly smile spread across her face.
"She's fun," she said. "This could be a good one."
* * *
I couldn't exactly leap from the table and follow Lusig to her car, so I texted Rubina to report that she'd left. I told her to let me know if she couldn't get hold of Lusig, and after a minute, she ascertained that her cousin was on her way home. I convinced Rubina she could wait for my report until I was done eating. I finished dinner with Lori and called from the car. She picked up immediately.
"Did something happen?" she asked by way of greeting. "She's in a terrible mood."
"She did storm out of the restaurant," I said.
Rubina sighed. "What did she do?"
I told her about the scene in the deli.
"I told you she was behaving strangely," she said. "She's always been a passionate sort of girl, but she usually has good control over her temper. She's not one to make a fool of herself in public."
"In my opinion, the waitress was being unreasonable and kind of insulting."
"That's no reason to make a scene."
"Are you upset about the beer?"
"I thought the occasional beer was pretty much harmless."
"I know what it says on WebMD, but I also know many, many doctors who have had children. Every one of them abstained during pregnancy."
I thought about nine months without alcohol, the first big sacrifice forced on new mothers. It seemed daunting to me, even with ordinary levels of stress.
"She said five drinks in the last three months. That doesn't seem dangerous or anything."
"It's the attitude. She's not acting like a woman putting another's needs before her own. And I don't really believe she's been careful enough to count."
"I don't know, she sounded pretty indignant. I'll bet she's been counting, even if it's with some measure of resentment."
She sighed. "And who was this man she was meeting? Did he look suspicious?"
I almost laughed. There was something childish in the question. "His name is Chris. I was going to ask if he was someone you knew." I paused and decided to add, "It sounds like he's involved with Lusig's missing friend."
"She didn't tell me she was meeting him."
"Who did she say she was meeting?"
"A friend from college." Rubina sounded dissatisfied. "Which wasn't a wholesale lie. She and Chris were at USC together."
"But not exactly the truth, I take it."
"No. He's Nora's boyfriend."
"It doesn't seem off or anything, that her boyfriend and best friend would spend some time together."
"Maybe not. But I know they aren't close friends on their own."
I pictured the two of them, Lusig with her tattoos and oily hair, Chris in his square gray polo shirt. They didn't look like two birds of a feather. Then again, I thought of my friendship with Lori.
"Shared experience counts for something," I said. "They both love Nora, and she's gone now."
"I would go as far as to say that they dislike each other."
"She's talked about him with you?"
"Many times. She adores Nora, and she has always thought Chris was a cold, condescending misogynist. Chris, on the other hand, seems to think Lusig is a deadbeat, a bad influence. He blames her for Nora dropping out of law school. I'm sure both of them have better shoulders to cry on."
There was something suggestive in her tone. "What are you worried about, Rubina?"
"I just wonder," she said. "Do you think she's looking for Nora?"
"I've seen her one time. You'd know better than I do."
"She was talking about her."
"And she was asking Chris where he thought she was."
"Yeah, that's true. But what else do you think she'd talk about with her missing friend's boyfriend?"
"Nothing at all." Her tone was clipped and a little impatient.
"Oh, I get it," I said. "You think she was pumping him for information. She thinks he knows something."
"Lusig must know Nora might be dead."
"And if Nora was murdered..."
"You think she suspects him?"
"I don't know," she said. "But if that is the case, then she was going out of her way to meet a man she judged capable of murder. If she wants to endanger herself, that is one thing, but she is carrying my child."
"Rubina, I think it's important to maintain perspective here. She was getting dinner in a public place with a college classmate."
"You're right, of course." Her tone was gentle but unyielding. "Still, there's no harm in being watchful."
Copyright © 2015 by Steph Cha