Authors: Penny Rudolph
Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General, #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / Women Sleuths, #Mystery fiction, #Los Angeles (Calif.), #Recovering alcoholics/ Fiction, #Women alcoholics/ Fiction, #Women alcoholics, #Recovering alcoholics
Gordon reappeared holding a glass of clear liquid with tiny bubbles breaking against the floating lemon slice.
Gabe removed the toothpick and wrapped it in his napkin.
Gordon set the glass in front of Rachel, slid onto the bench across the table, then reached up and fingered the knot of his tie before picking up his own drink, which looked like scotch on the rocks. “I won the bet.” He gestured at Gabe. “This gentleman thought you wouldn’t show.”
“He was close,” Rachel said. “I didn’t think I would, either. But I have a question, and it occurred to me one of you might be able to answer it.”
Gordon tilted his head toward her. Gabe was wiping up a wet spot on the table with his napkin. They both said the same thing. “Shoot.”
The bubbles buzzed up her nose as Rachel took a sip of soda. She set the glass down and pressed her napkin to her lips. “It’s about the hospital. The east wing on the,” she stopped to count, “I think it’s the fourth floor. The one with the sign that says Area Closed for Repairs or something like that.”
Gabe shook his head. “No clue. I’ve only been here a couple months and I hardly ever get out of the pharmacy. When I do, I go outside, not upstairs.”
Gordon was examining his swizzle stick as carefully as if it were the entrails of a sacrificed animal. He glanced at Gabe. “Maybe she means the celebrity wing.”
Gabe frowned. “What celebrity wing?”
Gordon rubbed a finger along the end of his thumbnail. “You mean you don’t know?”
“So what’s there to know?” Gabe asked.
“Where are we?” Gordon asked. “Could this possibly be Los Angeles? More celebrities than anywhere in the world? Okay, maybe New York has more per square foot, but a load of famous people right here, no?”
Rachel’s eyes moved from Gabe to Gordon. She took another sip of soda.
“So where do you think they go when they get sick?” Gordon asked. “Or maybe even when they just get a facelift?”
Gabe broke into a smile. “Son of a gun, is that right? You mean we might have Paris Hilton up there?”
“Of course they’re quiet about it. No one wants to be mowed down by a mob of star-struck fans,” Gordon said. “Or worse, a platoon of paparazzi scaling up the outside of the building. I’ve heard that some of the big-time pols, even a president or two, have been here at least once. They know Jefferson will protect their privacy.”
Rachel put her glass down. “Okay, that probably explains it. Thanks.”
Gordon glanced at her. “How did you find out about it?”
“I stumbled across it earlier today when I was lost, and couldn’t help but wonder.”
It wasn’t until she had left the bar and was driving home that it occurred to her that the mud-colored wainscoting and mustard-colored walls didn’t exactly connote celebrity. Incognito or not.
Later that night on the bench in front of the garage Rachel mentioned to Goldie the Jefferson ward that Gordon thought was reserved for celebrities.
“Makes sense,” Goldie said. “If you’re Julia Roberts and you’re getting tucks here and there, you don’t exactly want your fans running through the halls, barging into your room, askin’ for autographs and seeing you without your face on. Ditto photographers.”
“If it’s a secret place for celebrities, why the ugly color scheme, the dingy look?”
Goldie shook her head, crossed her arms, peered over her eyeglasses and gave what Rachel called her school teacher look. “You ever think that may just be the point? The Army has a name for it. Dis-information or something.”
“Okay. Maybe,” Rachel agreed. “But come to think of it, the room I saw had three beds. Three celebrities in a room?”
“So maybe they have people who stay with them. Secretaries, beauticians, people like that.”
A truck lumbered by, its tires clicking on the pavement, its exhaust fouling the night air.
“That’s two weird things about my newest client. Jefferson Medical Center loses track of kids brought to the hospital, and has a mysterious ward that’s in use, but has a sign—of the few signs in the whole damn place, by the way—that says it’s closed.”
Goldie thought about that. “Okay, there was a sign. But it wasn’t hanging on the door. You said you found it on the floor. Maybe it was meant for somewhere else, fell off a cart or something.”
Rachel scratched the end of her nose. “Maybe. But area closed means area closed. And the area where the sign was looked like it should have been closed, only it wasn’t.”
“Maybe it’s closed some of the time,” Goldie said. “Maybe it’s an overflow area.”
“You’re probably right. That’s what I thought when I first saw it.”
“I’ve heard of women having babies in the halls of some hospitals. Or maybe it’s some sort of charity ward that they open when they need it.”
Rachel thought about that. “I guess that’s possible, too.” She leaned forward. “What do you think happened to that boy I took to the emergency room?”
Goldie pursed her lips and blew out a stream of air that sounded like a punctured tire. “You got me, sweet pea. Maybe he did pass on before they got him admitted to the hospital, like that security guy said.”
“If that was the case, they’d have to file some kind of report, wouldn’t they? He wouldn’t just disappear. After all, the kid was a victim of criminal neglect, at the very least. Surely the cops would be called in.”
“Seems like. But that’s probably the very sort of thing that falls between the cracks.”
“I’d sure like to get a better look at that ward.”
“You got some fool notion they stashed that kid there?” Goldie drew back. “Don’t you be giving me that look. Nosiree! I am not going to help you nose around that hospital.”
“Okay. I didn’t ask, did I?”
“I already did that once for you, over there.” Goldie nodded toward the building across the street. “My heart will never beat normal again.”
She had sneaked Rachel into InterUrban Water Agency’s headquarters with the cleaning crew so they could search the office of the CEO who had been killed—murdered, as Rachel had suspected. They were caught red-handed by the chairman of the board and Rachel had lied their way out of it.
“I said okay. I’ll figure out….”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t help.” Goldie paused and flashed a grin. “It was kind of awesome.”
“And I was right.”
“Yeah, you were right. You sure were.” Goldie grinned. “Hoooooooo-ee! That was exciting.”
Rachel pulled a wry face. “Maybe you miss that stuff. I sure don’t.”
“I think that may be a wee bit of a fib.”
“No way,” Rachel said. “I hated every minute.”
Goldie was silent for a moment. “You know what? If there are celebrities in that wing, or even if there aren’t, you can be damn sure they aren’t cleaning those rooms themselves.”
“I might see if I can find out who is cleaning over there and ask what’s up.”
“Uh-huh. I just might do that very thing.”
One by one, the cleaning crew was leaving the office building across the street and streaming toward them. They were all young. Six of the nine had chubby round faces and rounder cheeks. Rachel had trouble telling the boys from the girls because all had hair about the same length and their nearly identical overalls hid any physical dissimilarities. Most were Down’s Syndrome people. All were earning a living. Most lived at a sort of halfway house named, for some peculiar reason, Downers Grove. Maybe the naming was deliberate. My kids, as Goldie had explained, don’t have much use for political correctness and prettified terms.
“Get in the van,” Goldie called to them. “I’ll be right there.”
“Right-o, Golda,” a voice shouted, and several giggled as they all turned and headed for the big van parked in a short half-circle driveway in front of the office building.
“I love those kids,” Rachel said. “Don’t they ever get tired?”
“Never tired, never crabby,” Goldie said. “Well, hardly ever.”
“We should all be so lucky.”
Goldie got up to follow the cleaning crew. “Why don’t you give Rampart a call? See if they know anything about those Mexican kids you’re so curious about.”
“You know why.”
“Well, Rampart has been butt deep in its own scandal. They play high-and-mighty with you, I believe I would gently remind them that you’ve been clean a lot longer than they have.”
“I’ll do that. I’m sure they’d enjoy hearing it. Especially from me.”
“’Bout time you get over that, girl.” Goldie called over her shoulder as she crossed to where the kids stood in a cluster under the street light.
It wasn’t that Rachel had a grudge against cops. She just figured they would discount most of anything she had to say. But that was her own fault. Six or so years ago, up north around San Francisco, she had been high on booze and a snootful of meth to boot. She’d run a car off the freeway. It was pure luck the father and son in the car weren’t hurt.
She got out of doing jail time thanks to a clever attorney. And she’d never taken another swig, snort, or drag of anything. But she was sure any cops she talked to would somehow be able to look up her record and then would chalk up anything she had to say as chatter from a junky.
Four days later, Rachel was still trying to rid her head of the image of the kids on the squalid floor of that van. No matter how many times she told herself it had nothing to do with her, it somehow did. What kind of a world was it if everyone just looked the other way? Just ignored what happened to others? Especially kids that young.
As soon as the morning rush hour was over, she worked up her nerve, picked up the phone and called the infamous Rampart police station. A woman answered, put her on hold, then cut her off. Rachel called back. On hold again she pictured some of the cops she’d seen. They looked like Marines on steroids with necks as thick as thighs and so much muscle they were bowlegged. On the other hand, there was a police captain who occasionally showed up at her AA group, and he looked, acted and sounded like a university professor. Go figure.
After being transferred for the third time, she was muttering to herself about the possibility that if you called a police station and said it wasn’t an emergency, they transferred you to some job that had been outsourced to India and your call was handled like corporate customer service. She drummed her fingers trying not to give way to annoyance.
Finally, a raspy voice asked if its owner could help.
For the third time, Rachel described finding two young boys and taking them to the emergency room at Jefferson Hospital. “It was too late for one of them,” she said, amazed at the dispassionate sound of her voice. Maybe if you say something often enough you don’t care anymore.
“And the other?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out. They said he was being admitted, but he’s not at the hospital. I don’t know what happened to him. Would they have to file some kind of report if a kid was brought in suffering from what was obviously criminal negligence if not worse?”
“Yes and no.”
“What does that mean?”
“The one who was dead, that would be the coroner’s office. You’ll have to call there.”
“And the one who was alive?”
“Well, maybe he died, or maybe his parents came and got him before the hospital admitted him.”
“Would there be any kind of report made, in either case?”
“I can look. The date?”
She told him.
A few minutes later, he was back on the line. “Sorry. Nothing like that on that date.” And without another word, she was listening to a dial tone.
Rachel reached for the phone book and thumbed through the pages. How would the coroner’s office be listed? Under City of Los Angeles? County? Looking up, she saw Irene peering into the garage, one hand on her supermarket cart, which seemed to have gained a bright blue and yellow striped blanket. Beneath the blanket, something protruded that might be the tail of an animal.
“Hallo, dear girl.”
“I like your new blanket,” Rachel said as the woman pushed the cart into the garage. She never asked where Irene acquired things.
“Getting on toward winter. Got to be prepared. Wait till you see this.” Irene reached into the cart and drew a fur coat from under the blanket. Pulling it over her plump shoulders, she twirled. The coat reached nearly to the ground.
“That is spectacular,” Rachel said.
“There’s a small tear in the back.” Irene slowly spun about holding the right side of the coat out like a model. “Otherwise it’s perfect. My old mother had one of these. I think it’s raccoon. Found it out behind the Rainbow Theater on Beverly. They are closing, you know. Tossed out a lot of costumes. I had me a very good day, I did.”
“You haven’t had use for me lately.”
Rachel closed the phone book. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t that I didn’t want your help. I had a client move out of town and I was worried about money. About keeping this place afloat.”
“Ah, that I understand. I do indeed. But your credit is good with me, luv. Anytime. Remember that.”
“Well, thank you. But I think I’m okay for now. I got another client pretty quickly.”
“Good to hear it. Yes indeed. That’s very good.” Irene took off the coat, folded it and put it back under the blanket in the basket. “Did you ever find that poor boy you were looking for?”
“No. He seems to have disappeared.”
“Doesn’t surprise me. Doesn’t surprise me at all.”
“You said that before. I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Oh, I hear things, I do.”
“Things a girl like you would rather not know,” Irene said.
Rachel raised her eyebrows. “Try me.”
“Life on the street is not always good, you know,” Irene said. “Every now and then someone disappears, never to be heard from again.”
“Well, that’s not at a hospital.”
“Not always, dear girl.”
“People sometimes disappear at hospitals?”
“They might,” Irene answered cryptically.
“You ever hear anything about that particular hospital? Jefferson?”
“Well, I could say yes, or I could say no. Like what?”
“Like do they have a lot of celebrity patients?”