H Is For Homicide Page 76

The funeral home was housed in an extravagant Victorian mansion, one of the rare remaining structures from the early grandeur of Los Angeles. The onetime single-family residence was three stories tall, the roofline broken up by towers and chimneys. The face of it was smoke-darkened stone and brown shingle, ancient tattered palms and cedars overpowering the lot, which was flanked on either side by squat concrete office buildings. The facade jarred my sense of reality, placing me for a split second in the year 1887, past and future trading places briefly.

The interior was a cavernous collection of hushed rooms with high ceilings, dark varnished woodwork, textured wallpaper, and indirect lighting. The muted chords of an organ were barely audible, creating a subliminal mood of sorrow and solemnity. The furniture was Victorian, damask and ornately carved wood, except for the metal folding chairs that had been arranged around the ’’parlor,’’ where Chago had been laid out. The pearly gray coffin rested in a bay at the far end of the room, half lid open to reveal a white satin interior and a portion of his profile. The bier was surrounded by big sprays of white gladioli and wreaths of white carnations, white rosebuds, baby's breath. Raymond had apparently spared no expense.

Luis, Bibianna, and I lingered discreetly near the entranceway while Raymond approached the coffin, bearing his bundle like an offering. I gathered this was the first time he'd seen Chago since his death on Tuesday night. He bowed his head, staring into the coffin, his expression not visible from where we stood. After a moment, he crossed himself. I saw him unfold the white satin scarf and lean close to Chago's body, but it was hard to tell what he was doing. Moments later, he backed away from the coffin and crossed himself again. He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose. He mopped at his eyes and tucked the handkerchief away, then turned and walked the length of the room in our direction. When he reached us, Luis put out a hand and clasped him by the shoulder, giving him a consoling pat. ’’Hey, man. It's rough,’’ he said his voice barely audible.

Bibianna moved away from us. She approached the coffin reluctantly, her apprehension apparent. She looked at the body briefly, then crossed herself. She went over and took a seat, fumbling in her handbag for a Kleenex.

’’You want to see him?’’ Raymond asked. His eyes were clouded by a pleading impossible to resist. It seemed like an intimate moment, observing the dead, and since I hadn't known the man, it seemed inappropriate that I'd join his friends and family at the head of his coffin. On the other hand, it seemed insulting to refuse.

Raymond picked up on my indecision, smiling sweetly. ’’No, come on. It's okay. He looks good.’’

That was a matter of opinion, of course. I'd actually seen Chago twice: once on Tuesday at the CF offices when he bumped into me in the hall, and again that night at the Bourbon Street restaurant when he'd abducted Bibianna at gunpoint. He'd seemed like a big man then, but death had pressed him flat. He looked like a Ken doll on display in an oversize carrying case. He was probably four or five years younger than Raymond, with the same good looks. His face was smooth and unlined, chin and cheekbones prominent. His hair had been blown into a dark glossy pompadour that made his head seem too large for the width of his shoulders. Raymond's satin-wrapped packet had apparently contained religious items. An oversize Bible, bound in textured white, had been clumsily propped up against the chalky pink of Chago's folded hands. A rosary had been laid across his fingers and a framed photograph of him as a small boy placed on the small white pillow on which he lay. The pillow was satin and looked like the sort women use when they don't want to mess up an expensive salon hairdo. Luis and I studied Chago as attentively as one watches an infant in the company of a proud parent.

At seven, some of the homeboys I'd seen at the apartment began to arrive. They seemed ill at ease in Raymond's presence, unaccustomed to seeing him in a sport coat and tie. Chago's buddies had all donned specially made up black T-shirts with ’’In Loving Memory of Chago - R.I.P.’’ on the back and their own names on the front.

I sat down beside Bibianna, the two of us saying little. Occasionally someone would make eye contact, but no one talked to me. Most of the conversations taking place around me were in Spanish anyway, so I couldn't even eavesdrop decently.

The crowd was swelling. There was no sign of either of Raymond's brothers, but I did see three women I took to be his older sisters. They seemed remarkably similar with their large dark eyes, full mouths, perfect skin. They sat in a cluster, beautiful women in their forties, heavy and dark, looking like nuns with their black mantillas and their rosaries. They would exchange occasional comments, but not a word to Raymond, who was making an elaborate show of not giving a damn. In an unguarded moment, I saw him flick a look in their direction. I understood then that Bibianna was just another version of his sisters, exquisite and rejecting just as his mother must have been. Poor Raymond. No matter how many versions of the story he managed to create, he would never win her love and he'd never make it come out happily.

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