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The Jasmine Trade: A Novel of Suspense Introducing Eve Diamondby Denise Hamilton
The office was full when I arrived and the coffee was gone. My good mood evaporated as I thought about what lay ahead — visiting Marina Lu's grieving parents. In J-school, they had taught me that distraught families found it cathartic to bare their souls to a complete stranger. It was modern-day therapy for our violent age. Wouldn't Mom and Dad like to tell the public what a good kid Johnny was, to haul out his school yearbook and awards, to elaborate on the tragedy of his being gunned down/drowned/blown up before his life had barely started?
As a rookie I had risen to the challenge, relishing my skill at getting families to open up, a stealth psychologist who won their trust with my ponytail and freckle-faced demeanor. I had lost the stomach for it. But the more I loathed it, the better I got, sitting primly on some suburban floral sofa, knees and ankles together, scribbling into a notebook on my lap and cooing condolence at the appropriate moments while thinking how in their place, I would have shouted "Go fuck yourself!" and slammed the door hard. But they never did. Instead, they opened the door and murmured 'Please come in' and I did, fastening like a vampire on the sad details of their personal lives.
The Lus lived at 327 Elm Street in San Marino. That wasn't surprising. A bastion of old-money WASPdom, San Marino's leafy exclusivity was now drawing wealthy Chinese who chased the American dream of big homes, good schools, and low crime with as much fervor as any native. In the last decade, the city had gone from all white to half Asian. For years they had refused to let in Catholics, Jews, blacks, and people with accents. Now they were reaping the harvest of their own conservative social politics.
As I neared my destination, the homes grew bigger, the yards more lush with mature trees whose names adorned the streets: Maple, Elm, and Chestnut. I saw Mediterranean Revival homes, Tudor, California Craftsman, and 1950s moderne, all in exquisite repair unlike my own neighborhood. I didn't see anyone playing ball or tag on those lawns green as AstroTurf, hushed as a church. There was only the occasional Latino gardener, genuflecting over a flowering shrub.
The Lu family had opted for Tudor. In the driveway of their mansion stood a white, late-model Mercedes with gold trim. I bet it had a working air-conditioner. I parked on the deserted street and walked up the long brick pathway. I took my time, letting my surroundings wash over me, and noticing a huge elm tree near the front door that someone had hacked to a barren stump. Its trunk was wide as my car and gnarled like an elephant. From the clumps of earth and spade marks around its base, it looked like the workers would be back soon to finish the job.
So the family believed in feng shui, I thought. That means Overseas Chinese, not Chinese-American. I had written about pitched cultural battles between old-time whites and Chinese immigrants here. Because feng shui placed great importance on the alignment of objects to create a positive energy flow, or chi, the first thing the immigrants often did after moving in was to uproot gracious, 100-year-old trees near the front door because they blocked the beneficial chi that brought health and prosperity to the family. This butchery of the local flora incensed the lily-white brigade, who hadn't wanted a bunch of Asians moving into their neighborhood in the first place.
At the front door, I grasped the heavy iron clapper and brought it down hard on the wood, then stepped back to wait, making sure my notebook nestled in my purse. I didn't want to scare them off right away by waving it in their teary faces.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a curtain flutter in the nearby window. A moment later, the door was opened by a tall Chinese man in a sleek, double-breasted charcoal suit. His broad shoulders filled the frame.
I introduced myself and told him I was working on a story about the tragedy. "We've already spoken with the police, but I'd like to talk to some family members. Would you be her father?"
I smiled tremulously, trying to convey the proper blend of sorrow for the most unfortunate tragedy and duty that compelled me to stand stuttering like an idiot on their doorstep. It occurred to me that Mr. Lu might not speak English.
Behind his gold-rimmed glasses, the man didn't blink. I pegged him at about fifty-five. Smooth-shaven, with graying streaks in his thick black hair that he combed straight back from a high forehead. Rolex on a hairless wrist. I averted my eyes so as not to stare, using the opportunity to check out his shoes. Smooth, supple ebony leather with tiny, detailed stitching marked them as expensive.
"I'm her father."
The voice spoke in British English. I waited. Most people fear silence more than anything and will rush to fill the vacuum, saying things they don't mean or will later regret, valuable things for my newspaper.
But Mr. Lu wasn't biting.
After forty-five seconds, I cleared my throat and continued.
"I know this is a very difficult time for you right now. And you have my deepest condolences. But I would like to ask you a few questions."
Mr. Lu hesitated and gripped the door handle more tightly, as if fighting a private battle with himself. Then his big shoulders rolled back and relaxed. I waited to see which side had won.
"Come in," he said finally, stepping back from the door.
He ushered me through a marble foyer and into a sunken living room laid with white Berber carpet. I sat at the edge of a white brocade sofa and pulled out my notepad and Bic pen while I took inventory. On one wall hung an antique Chinese scroll behind glass. An Impressionist seascape in gilt frame stood watch over the formal dining room and I wondered whether I ought to recognize the artist's name. The coffee table was cut from a single slab of etched glass, delicately balanced over carved Greek pillars. Atop it stood a pale green vase from which a single flower drooped blood-orange petals. The place was decorated with taste and money, but it had the sterile feel of a model home, I thought, one that was meant to be photographed, not lived in.
"Will Mrs. Lu be joining us?" I asked brightly.
"Unfortunately, Mrs. Lu was visiting her parents in Hong Kong when the news came. She is en route now."
I knew he wasn't taken in by my tactics. While I had been surveying his home, Mr. Lu had been studying me, observing the hammered silver earrings, vintage skirt, natural leather purse, sensible shoes. Perhaps he was reassured that I posed no threat to him, with my designerless clothes and rough-hewn jewelry. My smiles and hesitancy. He was a power broker, used to wielding control. I yielded it to him.
"What do you want to know?" Mr. Lu asked, so quietly that I had to lean forward.
I started with general questions, working my way methodically to the specifics. That was another journalism trick. First throw them some softballs. Then, when they're all relaxed and opened up, smile sweetly and go for the kill. Mr. Lu's first name was Reginald. He was a Hong Kong banker who had come to California ten years ago to scout out new business opportunities for his employer. After criss-crossing the Pacific for several years, Reginald Lu had brought his family over with him. He consulted with friends and relatives already in the United States, then bought in San Marino, whose bucolic wealth and spaciousness beckoned as the antithesis of Hong Kong's vertical claustrophobia.
The Lus wanted their two children to attend high school here because they liked the U.S. educational system and had heard that San Marino students scored high on standardized tests. Plus 98 percent of the district graduates went on to college. Mr. Lu wasn't a perfectionist who wanted success for its own sake though. He knew American high schools were less cutthroat than back home. The children would have a better chance of getting into a good American university. Marina had already been accepted into UC Berkeley, Mr. Lu said proudly. She had been a quiet, intense girl who played the violin and had scored a perfect 800 on her English SAT. Yet she was equally fluent in Cantonese and wrote classical poetry she copied into a journal she rarely showed anybody.
"Did the police ask to see the journal?" I asked.
An imperceptible pause. Then, "No, I'm not aware that they did. Why would they?"
"You're right. There would be no reason." I moved quickly onto another topic, making a mental note about the journal.
"Tell me about her fiancé."
Michael Ho was twenty-four, a friend of the family. The parents had known each other for decades. Michael worked for Lu's bank.
"What's he like?"
Reginald Lu flexed his long, blunt fingers.
"I'd rather not get into that," he said. "I don't see what such personal details have to do with your story. He is a fine young man we would have welcomed into our family."
"Well, it just seems so tragic that she was killed while planning her wedding. I wanted to know a little more about him."
Again, "I don't see how that's relevant."
Segueing into something less threatening, I asked about his business in America. Early on, he had realized that all those new immigrants would need somewhere to put their money but that they wouldn't trust American banks. So he started his own. I later learned that Golden Pacific Bank catered almost exclusively to the Overseas Chinese, offering Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking tellers, weekend service, and flexible loans. It drew new business quickly through word of mouth in the insular Chinese community. Lu also exploited a gap in knowledge between American and Chinese culture. Where U.S. banks were loathe to make business loans to Asian immigrants who lacked equity or collateral, Lu loaned like crazy, knowing his customers would work three times as hard as a Westerner to pay off the loans, since defaulting would mean a loss of face. He was right.
Today, Golden Pacific Bank had $800 million in deposits and was a heavy hitter in the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Lu himself judged the Chinatown Beauty Pageant each year.
Nose in my notebook, I wondered if he took his pick of the prettiest contestants. I didn't doubt he had mistresses. Rich, powerful men usually did. Nothing serious. Very discreet. Exquisite, porcelain-skinned Chinese women younger than his dead daughter. Afternoons at anonymous hotels, between board meetings. Precious tokens of affection that fit easily into scented female palms. I imagined that beneath the proper exterior hid a man who licked mounds of black caviar off the tan, flat tummies of his girls. I wondered how it would feel to have him spoon out cold caviar as I lay outstretched. I glanced up, afraid he had divined my thoughts, but he was explaining details about global financing. This is the way my mind works after eight months of sleeping alone, I thought with chagrin. And I don't even like older men.
"Mr. Lu, is it usual in Chinese culture for girls to get married at such a young age? I was under the impression that most young women finish college first."
"That's true, but it was a love match and we wanted our daughter to be happy. We were also greatly pleased when she and Michael drew closer, as our families were already linked by commerce. Michael would have made a fine son-in-law. Age is not always important. And now, Miss Diamond, if you're through..."
Mr. Lu stood up. The interview was over.
As he shut the door behind me, I felt Mr. Lu watching again from the window but didn't look back. I had his business card and a promise that I could call him if I had any more questions. It was time to find out what Marina Lu, A-student, was like once she left her parents' house each morning.
But I had timed it wrong. Classes were still in session at San Marino High and no students loitered outside. It must be weird to get married barely out of high school, I thought.
As I drove back to the office, I had another idea. If Marina Lu was picking out bridesmaid dresses and making all those wedding arrangements you have to do months ahead of time, why wasn't her mother at home helping her? What could she be doing in Hong Kong that was so important? Or was Mrs. Lu perhaps cloistered in an upstairs bedroom, too red-eyed to come down and talk to a reporter? Was Mr. Lu trying to save face with a little white lie? Perhaps that's all there was to it.
"Hot enough out there for you?" she grinned, exposing a mouthful of big, straight white teeth like you see in a toothpaste commercial. Except that right now, she had a fleck of basil stuck on her eyetooth.
"Luz, go like this," I pantomimed, scraping my tooth with my nail. "You have hierbas in your dientes."
Luz grimaced and complied.
"Now that I've saved you from ridicule for the rest of the afternoon, will you do me a favor? I need a ride home one day this week. I have to get the A/C fixed in my car or I'm gonna go postal and you'll end up writing about me. They want to keep the car overnight."
"Sure," said Luz, who passed just blocks from my house on her way home to the Fairfax District. We often did each other commuting favors; it was common courtesy in this city where cars were more important than apartments and often served as one in a pinch.
"So. How's your love life?" she asked. "Finally getting over Tim?"
"Maybe. You know Mark Furukawa? He counsels delinquents at the Rainbow Coalition Center. He kind of flips my skirt. I'm thinking of having a drink with him. This morning, I found myself fantasizing about a fifty-five-year-old guy I was interviewing, for God's sake. Very inappropriate considering his daughter just got offed in that carjacking. If he only knew what I was thinking."
I giggled. I wondered if other people were able to compartmentalize their lives so that things didn't seep from one dimension to another at the most disconcerting times.
Luz stabbed at her penne.
"I've run into Mark on stories, and I have one word for you on that action. Player. He's a little too cool for his own good."
"But everyone says the kids worship him."
"Great, so he's got a fan club of fifteen-year-old hoodlums who think he's God. What happens when you don't worship his hipster ass like they do?"
"I would hope he could differentiate between his clients and a woman he sees after hours," I said stiffly.
"You would hope," Luz echoed.
A jingle of keys interrupted us. Then an angry sputtering.
"What do you mean he's not in his office yet? He's a city employee, isn't he? I'm going to call back in fifteen minutes, and in the meantime, please leave a message on his desk that Trevor Fingerhaven of the Los Angeles Times is looking for him. F-I-N-G-E-R-H-A-V-E-N. That's right."
Slapping his cell phone shut in a dramatic gesture, Trevor Fingerhaven swept imperiously past and eased into his desk with a soft grunt.
"It's a fuckin' scandal, if they think they can get away with that," Trevor muttered. "Because they can't. I'm on to them. Right."
Luz stuck her tongue out at me. I made a quick gagging motion. So much for any kind of personal conversation. Trevor was a former New York Post reporter who had recently transferred into the bureau. Supposedly he had won some big muckraking prize that had been his passport into the Times. Weaned on the scandal sheets of his hometown, Trevor saw conspiracies everywhere he looked and interrogated sources at full volume so none of us could concentrate on our own stories. He was tall and stooped and cadaverous, which gave him the look of a municipal streetlight, and he was messy in a schoolboy fashion that was extremely unbecoming as he approached middle age. Despite having a wife and two kids, he appeared to spend all his free time snouting around the edges of corruption, attending council meetings on his own time, lugging home stacks of government documents, and warning us that he was very, very close to cracking a huge and far-reaching "fuckin' scandal."
It rarely came to pass. But occasionally Trevor's subterranean rootings paid off and he unearthed a modest journalistic truffle. Then, to his great dismay, the story would be pried out of his jaws and handed to a Metro hotshot to pursue. Trevor accepted this indignity with little grumbling, as if he knew his limitations. He certainly knew everyone else's, because he was a notorious eavesdropper, sopping up tidbits of intelligence to stash for later use. He also inserted himself into every conversation. No matter what the subject, Trevor was an expert or knew exactly whom to call for the real story.
"Hey, I've been meaning to tell you about this piece I read in Psychology Today," Luz said and winked.
"It describes the different ways men and women process language. Linguists say that when a woman doesn't know the answer to a question, she'll say so. But men have an answer for everything. They might know nothing about the mating rituals of Saharan camels, but they'll hold forth for hours. The author says it's because men perceive questions as challenges, whereas women see them as straight inquiries for information."
I inclined my head to the back of the room. "I know a few men like that."
Trevor, who had grown quiet in his cubicle and was obviously eavesdropping, couldn't resist. Soon he ambled over, coffee cup in hand, on the pretext of visiting the kitchen. He stopped before us.
"I'll tell you something about that theory," Trevor smirked. "It's absolutely without merit. A good friend of mine has researched the subject. He teaches psychology at the University of Florida. We've had long discussions on the topic. If you want, I can give you his number and you can call him."
Luz turned to me and burst into laughter.
"What did I tell you."
"Ladies, I'm just trying to help." He gave us a hurt look, then ambled off.
We looked at each other. To muffle the belly laugh that was coming, I grabbed a tissue and blew my nose hard. Luz stuffed her mouth with penne. At 6 P.M., when we left, Trevor was still braying into the phone.
That evening, I cleared off a week's worth of dishes from my kitchen table while Bon Jovi peered in from the back porch, drawn by the scraping sounds of silverware against ceramic plates. "Come on in, boy," I said, and he rustled past my legs and settled with a soft moan onto the kitchen tile, placing himself strategically between table and sink. Still standing in the doorway, I watched an owl wing its way across the night sky then settle into a nearby tree and hoot, mournful and solitary. I listened, perched on the edge of a wilderness within sight of downtown.
Much later, after I had fed the dog all the stale cheese and crackers and spinach quiche in my fridge and let him out, I was jolted awake by another noise, one that always unnerved me. The coyotes were hunting again. By day they burrowed into steep hillside lots, biding their time in the bleached landscape. But at night they came down and loped along the asphalt streets, reclaiming their turf as the town slept. Driving home late once after an interminable city council meeting, I had surprised a big brute in my headlights. He stared solemnly at me, then disappeared into thin air. The first time I dismissed it as a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep. But another night while jogging, I had seen a car approach and a dun thing on four legs that raced madly ahead of the light, diving into a hedge just as the car crested the hill. It looked like a beige dog, but no dog moved that fast or was that silent.
The howls grew louder and more urgent now. The coyotes yipped excitedly and my heart raced. I pulled up the blankets and shivered, despite the heat. Somewhere in the dark, a small animal howled in terror, gave a few yelps and then was still. I imagined a dog caught unawares, or a cat slinking along nocturnally in pursuit of mice, only to find itself cornered by gleaming eyes, slathering jaws. What terror must grip any animal at such a sight.
Copyright © 2001 by Denise Hamilton
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