SEPTEMBER 21ST – 3 PM
Natalie Hollister edged her sister’s Corolla to the curb in front of Chino’s, the corner shop of a drab little strip mall on South Santa Fe Avenue. At a glance, it appeared to be part deli and part mom and pop grocery. The parking spot was as close to Rich Lamaruso’s warehouse as Natalie could find.
She looked out the passenger’s window and assumed the two-story brick structure across the narrow side street was Rich’s. There was no sign on the building, but why distrust the navigation system? After several wrong turns through Vernon and tired of the digital nagging, Natalie was happy to pull in front of Chino’s and visit silence. She had an appointment to meet one of Rich’s employees, Rodriguez, at 3 PM. He was supposed to help her look for Pete Shines’ knapsack and journal, left behind when Pete went missing in July. His unsolved disappearance was the whole reason Natalie had come to California.
She was nervous waiting alone in what was obviously a seamy neighborhood, or more like the bowels of Los Angeles. Actually, it was Vernon, California, an industrial area through and through. If not for the GPS, she would never have found her way and there’d be no getting out of here. Natalie checked her cell phone for messages and the time.
She scratched at the scab on the side of her right knee where Perry, Pete’s hand-me-down Jack Russell Terrier, nipped her two days before. The scratching seemed to excite the reflexes in her foot.
Too much coffee, she thought. Or is it the neighborhood?
Rich Lamaruso was an old friend of Pete’s best friend, Parker. He’d hired Parker to work at the warehouse when he hitchhiked to Hawaii years before, then offered Pete the same opportunity when he followed in Parker’s footsteps. Although Natalie was suspicious when Rich’s nurse contacted her, she agreed to meet with them. Rich wanted Natalie, who he insisted was Pete’s daughter-in-law, to have the knapsack and, especially, Pete’s journal. It made no sense why Rich wanted her to have Pete’s belongings, but a person can’t argue with a dying man’s wishes. Despite her misgivings, Natalie hoped the journal would provide some clues as to where Pete might be, especially for Bobby’s sake.
She decided to walk over to the warehouse. Natalie locked Linda’s Corolla, looking suspiciously around the empty parking lot. Chino’s—in fact the entire façade of the strip mall, which included two empty store spaces—was dirty. It showed up especially at the corners of the plate glass windows. There were oil spills in the empty parking spaces and gum dotted the sidewalk. Grime was the vibe.
Natalie rushed across the side street and went first to the front door facing South Santa Fe. She could see that entrance wasn’t used due to boxes or furniture stacked against the frosted glass door. She went around to the East 53rd Street double doors and knocked several times. She noticed a two-story hotel and apartment building up the narrow street directly behind the little strip mall. A homemade “Rooms 4 Rent” banner draped from the second story balcony made her queasy.
Rodriguez didn’t answer the back door either. Feeling wholly uncomfortable, Natalie scurried back to Linda’s Corolla and locked herself inside. Maybe it was that the neighborhood seemed too quiet. Maybe it was too much information. Natalie asked herself if Pete’s only known personal effects were worth putting herself in harm’s way.
Too soon to pick that scab properly. Natalie pushed away from thinking the worst and loosened her tense grip on the steering wheel. She looked around the area realizing she was alone except for the skinny Mexican man immersed in an open newspaper. Only his brown arm and a white wedge cap were visible above the top of the paper.
For a native New Englander, southern California appeared as overexposed, dead dry, a desert city. Natalie thought everything looked so low, well except for downtown LA. The only good thing was the sun seemed to bleach away all the grunge, except of course, for the plate glass windows and the pavement. This place was desert dead.
Quiet, too quiet. This place was exactly the kind of neighborhood people disappeared from. Good going, Pete.
She focused on a piece of lint on the acrylic control panel of Linda’s pristine Corolla. She found a pack of Kleenex in the ashtray and wet the corner of one with her saliva. The lint stuck perfectly and all was returned to Linda good order.
Natalie tapped the steering wheel and second guessed that scab. She wondered when this Rodriguez fellow was going to show. She again looked across to the brick building. All quiet.
Lacking something better to do, she pulled out her notebook and pencil.
If it’s good enough for Pete Shines, it’s good enough for me. If he can keep a journal, I can too. What else is there to do?
I’m going to assume you’re dead, Pete. I hope that’s okay. If it turns out I’m wrong, I’ll be the first one thrilled to apologize to you in person. But I think you have to be dead. You were always a nice guy. You would never just disappear on your son. He has enough issues that Pat died. He misses his mother. I know you do too, or did. You would never turn Bobby’s world upside down and inside out. I hope we find you, or whatever’s left of you. I want Bobby to have some closure, at least.
If you have any pull from wherever you are, will you encourage Bobby to lighten up a little? To forgive me? It wasn’t my fault you disappeared. You would have moved on whether I threw you out of the house or not. Please. If you can, please show Bobby I’m not the reason you died. Okay?
Natalie looked up to turn out more lead from the mechanical pencil. What about the mystery knapsack, she thought. Why did Rich want me to have it? I only met Morrison once–that time when Pete brought her through Connecticut. If I’d a kept my mouth shut, I’d still be in Connecticut. Maybe Pete would too. Bobby never forgave me for insisting they leave. It figures– karma–now I’m supposed to find the pack and give it to Morrison and Ben because that’s what Pete wanted. I must be out of my mind.
Natalie jumped at the hard rap of knuckles on the window. All she saw was a fist and a big silver ring. It looked like letters tattooed on fist fingers. Brown fingers, blue ink, and a white tank top. Her adrenaline rush almost caused her to convulse.
The white torso backed away. “I’m Rodriguez,” he said with a big smile, gesturing she should roll down her window. “Sorry I’m late.”
Natalie let out a gasp as she began breathing again, then struggled to unlock and fumble out of Linda’s car. “Hi,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m Natalie.”
“Come on,” Rodriguez said. “Let’s get you what you came here for.”
Natalie looked up to Rodriguez’s blazing black eyes. He was very tall, and not what she was expecting.
“Is it all right to park here?” she said as she locked Linda’s car. “You know, since we’re not buying anything.”
Rodriguez turned to Natalie from the middle of the street. “Not a problem. My brother and me are half his business.” He waved to the man still engrossed in the newspaper.
The visible brown hand waved back. Natalie followed Rodriguez to the rear entry of Rich’s building. Rodriguez unlocked and opened the door, standing aside to let Natalie enter first.
She was overwhelmed with the musty smell of the warehouse. “Won’t all this stuff take on that smell?”
“It’s usually not this bad.” Rodriguez slapped the side of a mattress far above his head. “But since Rich got sick, the stuff sits for too long.”
“Who would buy furniture that smells like this?”
“Lots of people,” Rodriguez said. “A couple of days in the air and it won’t stink. No stress.”
Natalie peered around a pile of nightstands and saw the entire space was floor to ceiling with dressers and easy chairs and lamps, all segregated by type. “How do you pile everything so high?”
“Tow motor.” Rodriguez smiled at Natalie. “Come on with me. Let’s check out the space up in the walls. Isn’t that where Rich said Pete’s stuff is?”
Natalie followed Rodriguez through the labyrinth of furniture and around a shelf full of pillows, into the old part of the building. They passed the piles of boxes covering the South Santa Fe entrance and the entire front wall, to a narrow alleyway leading to an open stairwell. The stairs were piled with old phone books and what looked like bibles.
“What is all this stuff?” Natalie swiped her fingertips over one of the piles as if inspecting for dust.
“Hotel furniture,” Rodriguez said. “They lease it and get rid of it,
usually after two years. Rich buys it from the leasing company and resells it.”
“That’s a business?” Natalie said, weaving up the stairs.
“Everything’s a business,” Rodriguez turned to her, grinning again. “This is America.”
Natalie felt his piercing black eyes look her up and down with satisfaction. She never thought twice about heading to the second floor of a warehouse with a strange man in the middle of a wasteland of used hotel furniture.
“This is where Pete was living,” Rodriguez said. “The space between the walls is under the landing of the stairs to the roof. Is that right?”
“Search me. Rich said you’d know.”
Rodriguez pulled a desk away from in front of the stair landing and dropped to his knees. He removed a small panel and fumbled in the dark. “I can’t feel anything. I wish I had light so I could see.”
Natalie rooted for her cell phone in her purse, then switched on the flashlight feature. “Will this help?”
Rodriguez rolled onto his back and took the phone from Natalie. “Thanks, doll,” he said, rolling onto his stomach and sticking his head into the small hole.
“What did you call me?” Natalie said.
“What? There’s nothing in here at all. Well, cobwebs.” He crawled out of the hole, stood, and brushed the dust from his jeans. “Nothing,” he said. “Sorry.”
“That’s a shame,” Natalie shook her head. “I came all this way for nothing.”
“Don’t worry.” Rodriguez smiled. “Rich is getting pretty out there. Let’s look in the bathroom. Your father-in-law was using it. Maybe he stashed the pack down there.”
“Pete wasn’t my father-in-law. I went out with his son for a long time, but we broke up.”
“I’m sorry,” Rodriguez said. “But you shouldn’t worry. You won’t be alone for long.” He smiled at her again.
Natalie shrunk. “Rich mentioned something about moving the pack from under the landing to between the walls. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Maybe.” Rodriguez pushed the desk against the landing. “Follow me.”
They wove their way through the warehouse to the far end of the rear section and the little bathroom. Almost hidden between rows of mattresses on one side and sofas precariously stacked on the other, it had a curtain for a door.
“How can you sell used mattresses?” Natalie said. “I thought that was illegal?”
“Don’t know.” Rodriguez pulled the curtain aside. “Look through the shelf between the shower stall and the wall. I’m going to squeeze around the corner. There’s another possibility there.”
Natalie slid by Rodriguez, holding back the curtain. He reached in and turned on the light.
“Thanks,” she said.
Rodriguez squeezed between the end of the mattress pile and the bathroom wall, disappearing.
Natalie looked through the little shelf: a pile of hand towels, toilet paper, two Penthouse magazines, but no pack. She heard banging on what sounded like the double doors.
Natalie brushed the curtain out of her way and sidled a little blindly along the wall of mattresses. When she reached the end, she could see better because of the light through a transom window. The pounding had stopped. Natalie wondered if she just imagined someone outside. When she started back to the little bathroom, she was greeted by Rodriguez, also sideways. He motioned she should back up. Natalie reversed course and waited for him where the light was better.
“I thought I heard someone knocking,” she said.
“That was probably Henry.”
“My little brother. He works here too and probably forgot his key. He always forgets his key.”
“I’m sorry,” Natalie replied. “I think he left.”
“Don’t worry. He’ll be back. He went to buy lotto tickets.”
“You didn’t find anything, did you?”
“Nothing,” Rodriguez answered. “Sorry. I think you’re gonna have to ask Rich again.”
“It’s all right.” Natalie sighed. “I don’t know why Rich wants me to have Pete’s stuff anyway.”
“What’s in the knapsack?” Rodriguez said.
“Good question,” Natalie replied. “It has Pete’s journal in it. I think everybody figures it might lead to wherever Pete might be.”
“But I thought he died. That’s what Rich said the police said.”
“That’s what I’ve heard too. But I figure his son would be a lot happier if he knew what really happened to his father. I know I would.”
“What happened to your father?” Rodriguez said.
“He disappeared when I was eight. We never heard from him again.” “Did he die?”
“He just took off,” Natalie said. “Can I ask you something?”
“Is this where Pete disappeared from?”
“Not exactly,” Rodriguez said. “Pete got beat up here. Somebody came in and beat the hell out of him. They put him in the hospital.”
“I didn’t hear that part of the story. I thought he was kidnapped or something.”
“That happened after he got out of the hospital. He and his girlfriend, she came out here after he got beat up, they left the hospital and then the both of them disappeared. That’s what I heard.” Rodriguez struggled to keep eye contact with Natalie.
“So Pete got beat up right here and then went to the hospital before he got kidnapped?”
“Yeah. They lumped him up pretty good. Broke his nose and his wrist, I heard. He was out cold for like two or three days.”
“Really,” Natalie said, looking towards the transom light.
“Rich should be able to tell you all about that. That is if he isn’t too doped up.”
“It’s terrible,” Natalie said. “But I guess it’s better than suffering. It’s too bad. I hoped I’d find out something and maybe pass it along to Bobby, you know. I hoped he’d forgive me.”
“Forgive you?” Rodriguez said. “Forgive you for what?”
Another loud bang made Natalie jump. The doors moved.
“Henry?” Rodriguez turned the deadbolt and the door exploded inward, catching Natalie on the forehead and knocking her to the floor.
“What the fuck,” Rodriguez yelled.
A big man dressed in black, as tall as Rodriguez but much heavier, jumped over Natalie’s legs and, without a word, attacked Rodriguez. They careened backward into the mattress wall. Rodriguez stayed on his feet, but the stranger managed to bear hug him. With a groan, Rodriguez was off the floor. The big man dropped him, but Rodriguez stayed on his feet. The dark man started swinging wildly. Rodriguez screamed and went to his knees.
Natalie saw blood squirt and heard a dull thud, then a crisper sound— blade on bone—followed by the sound a boot makes when it’s freed from mud. She realized the man had stabbed Rodriguez. She recoiled into the fetal position where he lay on the floor, wrapping her hands around her head. Natalie heard Rodriguez groan. She could see he was on the floor and blood was pooling around his lifeless body.
The dark man disappeared around the end of the mattresses. Natalie lay frozen, watching through her fingers. Her head pounded and she felt nauseous. She wasn’t sure where the man went or for how long he was gone.
The man reappeared around the mattress wall just as Natalie tried to get up. His black boot collided with her ribs and knocked her flat. She thought she heard the him say, “I’ll be back for you.”