DEAD IN L.A.

I set out to write something in the vein of Holmes-Watson with a paranormal twist, but I messed the character dynamics up right from the start. The detective is not a bossy know-it-all, and his sidekick is far from clueless.

Dead In L.A. consists of two stories, each with a mystery and a bit of romance. The setting is Los Angeles, and mostly the Pasadena neighborhood. I had fun mixing real events with fictional ones. However, even the fictional parts are based on actual stories. Searching through the unclaimed bodies section of L.A. County Coroner's website left me with ideas for several stories.

I plan to write at least one more book possibly more. The next installment is tentatively titled Dead in the Desert. I know how it begins and how it ends, I just have to figure out that pesky middle part.

I feel these characters with their slow-burning romance fit for a series, but only time will tell.

 

Excerpt:

Chapter One

It's the randomness of things that scares me the most—not knowing what fate or blind chance have in store. Your whole life can turn on a dime when you least expect it. I'd known that for a fact, and hated the out-of-control feeling. But after a rough year of it, I was finally on the mend. I thought if I kept my head down, and my life complications-free, I'd be fine. So when I put up flyers at nearby campuses, a roommate was all I was looking for. Preferably a socially inept nerd. Someone to pay half the rent and cause no trouble.

Barely a day later, the first email inquiry arrived from someone called Lea. I sent back a brief reply telling her to stop by after three. If she didn't mind sharing an apartment with a guy, I had nothing against her.

Five after three the bell rang, and I found a skinny guy at my doorstep. The first thing that struck me about him was how his blond hair stuck out in every direction—as if it was trying to escape his scalp. The second thing I noted was a pair of cornflower eyes.

They beamed at me with unwarranted cheer. "Hi, I'm here about the room." With his smooth skin and guileless gaze he seemed as young and innocent as a freshly laid egg.

He had me confused and I made no secret of it. "I was expecting a girl—Lea." I pronounced it Lay-uh, like a normal person would.

He flashed a smile. "Oh, that's me. Leander Thorne, Lea for short." He said it like Lee. "Rhymes with tea," he added, and held his hand out.

There I was, having known him for five seconds, and he already had me mixed up. It should've been a clue, but hindsight never needs bifocals. I shrugged off the confusion and marched on. "Jon Cooper. No H."

We shook hands and I invited him in. While I showed him around, Leander—what were his parents thinking?—hung on my every word.

"And this is your room," I said, concluding the tour.

He stepped inside and spun around on his heels. "Very nice. I love the color."

The landlady had given me a break on the first month's rent when I offered to repaint the rooms myself. I didn't know why I'd chosen that sunny yellow for this one, but I thought it suited him. Of course, I didn't tell him that. Instead, I stuck to business. While he inspected the room, I laid out the facts. "There are house rules. My name's on the lease, and I'll put your ass out on the street if you break them. No loud music, at any time. No wild parties or other crap that would annoy the neighbors. No pets. And for goodness sake, if you have friends coming by to pick you up, have them walk up to the door. That honking on the street business is fucking obnoxious."

"That won't be a problem. I don't have friends," he said it in an off-handed way, while scrutinizing the deep corners of an open dresser drawer.

You had to be a cold-hearted bastard like me not to be affected. With a name like Leander? Surprise, I thought, but what I said was, "You're young. I'm sure you'll pick up a few. How old are you anyway, eighteen?"

"Twenty-two!"

I swallowed a laugh at the sight of him puffing out his narrow chest. Yeah, you could say I liked him right off, and he seemed suitably nerdy too.

"Good for you." I slapped him on the back, but grabbed his shoulder before he launched face forward. "C'mon, let me show you the half-bath."

I maneuvered him to the door at the far wall. The room behind wasn't much—only a toilet and a sink, but it would give him added privacy, and it also meant I'd have the main bathroom mostly to myself.

"Cool," he said absently and tilted his head like a bird as he looked at me. "I saw an empty book case in the living room, and I have a few books…"

This further sign of nerdishness brightened my mood. "Sure, it's yours. Anything else?"

"No."

"So you want the place?"

He nodded vigorously.

I figured this set up would work out pretty well for me. I was six foot three and in the neighborhood of two hundred pounds. I could probably bench press the guy, even with my bad shoulder. He'd be no problem.

***

Luckily for Leander, I was home when he arrived with the rental van and could help him unload. His "few" books made up two-thirds of his earthly possessions. They took over the entire bookcase with several boxes left over.

"Have you read them all?" I asked. I hoped he wasn't one of those hoarder types.

"Of course." He collapsed into a chair. I was impressed he'd managed to get those boxes into the truck by himself. Books are heavy, and he wasn't exactly brawny.

"Then why keep them?" I read books too, but I didn't collect them.

He looked at me like I was an alien. "Why wouldn't I?"

"You already know how they end, so what's the point?"

He gave me a wounded look. "You don't read books to know the ending, but for the whole experience. I re-read my favorites at least once a year." He gazed at the bookcase with a rapturous smile. "And they make me feel at home."

Yeah, a regular egghead, all right. That was the most conversation we had for a while. Secretly, I enjoyed having another person around. Solitude had never suited me. I liked finding him on the living room sofa, nose in a book when I got home from school, or simply hearing the noises as he puttered around. The apartment even smelled different with him in it. Leander radiated an easy warmth, but I didn't want him to get the impression we were pals. He had a vague stray cat vibe about him, and I had no plans to play the Good Samaritan.

At any rate, fall semester started and I got busy. And anxious. Going back to school had sounded like a good idea when I signed up, but now doubts and fears sat like a heavy meal in the pit of my stomach. What if I was wrong? I could end up penniless and unemployed. Being older than most students gave me an intense feeling of not belonging. I was a burned-out twenty-eight, feeling decades older, while they flitted around me with their unhatched lives, full of hope and promise. They irritated the hell out of me. I wanted to shake them and tell them to stop being so happy, it would go to shit in no time.

I hadn't always been such a cheerful bastard, but insomnia and nightmares had haunted me since the doctors had taken me off the good drugs. On this particular night I dreamt I was driving a car, but unable to steer or step on the brakes. I half-woke before crashing, kicked off my blankets, and went back to sleep.

Next I knew I was staring at a carton of milk.

"Jon, you okay?" Leander asked.

I gaped at him. "Huh?"

"You look like you've just found the gates to another dimension in the crisper."

I stared at him for a second, then back at the milk. Apparently, I was standing at the open fridge door, wearing only my boxers. Fucking great. I shut the fridge and pulled myself together. "I had trouble sleeping. Did I wake you?" The clock on the wall showed five past midnight.

His gaze snapped from my midsection to my face, and a frown of concern ruffled his face. "Nah, I was reading. I'm a night owl. Sit. I'll make something that'll help you sleep."

I bet it would be herbal tea. He had stacks of the stuff and Ramen noodles in his side of the kitchen cabinet. Not much else. I didn't care for tea, but was too off-balance to object. So I sat and wondered how long I'd been sleepwalking, and whether I'd given myself away. It was bad enough that I was cracking up, I didn't need anyone else to know it too.

He put the kettle on and pulled out another chair. "You go to PCC, right? What do you study?"

PCC is what everyone calls Pasadena City College. I scratched my chin. The scrape of stubble seemed to echo in the quietness of the kitchen. "Art."

His eyes got big. "Really?"

"I don't look the part, right?"

"No! You look good." I swear, he blushed. "Ehrm, what I mean is, artists are like anyone else. Physically. Well, otherwise too. Mostly." He bit his lip. "What did you do before?"

"Construction."

He nodded. I'm sure he had an easier time imagining me in a hard hat than with an easel. "So, what made you go back to school?"

"I needed a change." That was the understatement of the year. After a year of depression I needed to get away from everything that reminded me of my late wife, Alicia, or I would've jumped off a bridge, and it's not that easy to find a suitable one in L.A. Most of them are over freeways. Causing a pile-up wasn't my wish.

He stared at me expectantly, so I added, "I had an accident, and it fucked up my shoulder. I had to find a new career."

"And you decided to be an artist. How awesome!" He didn't just say it to be polite either. His smile shone as if I'd revealed a precious secret.

I had to quickly disillusion him about my awesomeness. "Not exactly. PCC has all kinds of vocational training courses. I planned on taking a practical major like Automotive Technology or Electricity. But I made the mistake of telling my advisor about drawing—it's my hobby—and she asked me to demonstrate. Before I knew what hit me, she had me sign up for advertising design." Seeing Leander's attentive gaze, I realized I was babbling on like an old geezer. Being tired did that to me.

"What's wrong with advertising design?"

"It's flaky. The world will always need electricians. They make a good living." I still could hardly believe I let Mrs. Matthews talk me into an art major. There was something about motherly women I couldn't say no to. And by motherly, I didn't mean like my own mother, who was as warm as the North Pole.

What Leander did next took me totally by surprise. He reached out and put his hand on mine. I couldn't even search his downcast eyes for explanation. His touch was both soft and firm, sending electrical signals through my body, waking up cravings I didn't want awake. I sat frozen like a rabbit in front of a snake. I wanted to yank my hand away but that would've looked stupid. Fortunately, the shriek of the kettle broke the moment.

"You'll be all right," he said getting up and turning to the stove. "You're not an alcoholic, right?" he asked over his shoulder.

"No, I'm not," I replied startled by the strangeness of the question.

"Good."

While he busied himself, I rubbed the back of my hand and wondered when I'd become such a wimp. I needed to get a grip on myself.

He put a steaming mug in front of me. "Chamomile Toddy. My Grams's recipe."

"Grams?"

"Grandma. She raised me after my parents died. Careful, it's hot."

I got the impression he didn't feel like talking about his dead any more than I did. Most of all, I didn't want to know intimate details about him. Not getting involved with other people and their lives was part of my no complications policy.

"So what do you study?" I asked and took a cautious sip. It tasted atrocious, with the saving grace of rum.

"Oh. Nothing. I'm not a student."

This news surprised me—it hadn't occurred to me he'd be anything else. "So what do you do?"

He bit his lip again. If he didn't stop, they'd chap. "I'm…uhm…a psychic."

Oh great, a whacko. I did my best to keep my face straight. "You tell fortunes?" I asked politely. The proper way to deal with nut jobs is to pretend you take them seriously.

"No. Not like that. I find things."

The plot thickened. "What things?"

"Whatever people lose. Cats, dogs, keys, whatnot."

Sounded hinky as hell. "You can make a living with it?"

He shrugged. "Well, I've only been doing it professionally for a short time. I also do audience work."

"Audience what?"

"You know, sitting in the audience for TV shows."

"I thought people lined up to be on those."

"Sure, the popular ones, but even those tend to have a portion of professionals. A paid audience will laugh even when the jokes are not funny. I've signed up with a casting agency as an extra, and they send me to those. It doesn't pay a whole lot but it's better than nothing."

I started to have an inkling he'd be far more trouble than I'd thought. He'd better pay his half of the rent on time. I wasn't running a charity for overgrown orphans, no matter how big and blue their eyes were.

We sat in silence while I sipped my drink. I was getting used to the flavor and starting to feel the effects. I knew he was studying me, trying to measure me up. I did the same to him. He had an open face, freckles across his nose. His curvy lips seemed ready to smile at the slightest provocation.

"Leander." I rolled the name on my tongue.

"Mmm?"

"What kind of name is it anyway?"

"My mother named me after a character in Greek mythology. Leander fell in love with Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite. He swam a river every night to be with her. She lit a candle to guide him. Than one stormy night the wind blew the candle out and he drowned. She threw herself into the waves to be with him forever."

I digested the story for a moment. "That's just dumb."

"Dumb?" His eyes opened wide with disbelief.

I might have offended him, but stuck by my opinion. "She should've used a proper lamp, or at least a torch, and he should have taken a rowboat. Even the ancient Greeks had torches and boats, didn't they?"

He rolled his eyes. "Tragic love stories are the most romantic. Like Romeo and Juliet, don't you think?"

I hated that stupid play. "No. Young people die for no good reason, because their families are assholes. It's not romantic to me." I knew as I said the words that I was taking it too personally. Alicia's family and mine lurked in the back of my mind.

His lips curved down. "Sorry."

And now I felt like an ass. "Don't be. It's my problem, not yours." I put the empty cup down and stretched. "I should give the sandman another chance. Good night." I pushed myself off the table.

"Sweet dreams."

Fat chance of that. Back in bed, I closed my eyes, and Alicia's face floated into my mind, but I didn't want to think of her, so I concentrated on Leander's instead. Maybe if I counted the freckles… I drifted off before five.


© Lou Harper, January 2012
All Rights Reserved.