- Pages: 400 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9780593532041
An Excerpt From
Kill Her Twice
In 1932, Los Angeles was a city of reinvention. It was a place where mountains could be moved and riversre shaped, where even stars could fall from the sky and walk around on Earth. The blood of an Angeleno coursed through the veins like gasoline, primed for the explosion that would drive progress.
“Stop looking like we’re about to rob a bank.” I tied my straw hat tighter. My older sister, May, with her long arms gripping the steering wheel of our father’s flower delivery truck, did not look poised for progress. In fact, she looked like she was waiting for the truck to drive her.
Around us, customers hunted bustling City Market for deals on the last of summer’s bounty—corn, stone fruit, zucchini—though it was already October. “Pretend you’re the lead in one of those Hollywood flickers. We’re stylish women in the latest robin’s-egg-blue Cadillac about to go for a drive.”
The Mule, what we called our old Ford Runabout pickup, was definitely not robin’s-egg blue. More like turtle-egg brown.
May frowned at me, a tiny Y crease forming between her tea-steeped eyes. Even when she was annoyed, she had the kind of beauty that drew eyes and tripped feet. “Are you wearing lipstick?”
I pressed my lips together. “As a matter of fact, yes. Lulu Wong’s Noir Red.” The silver-screen starlet and our hometown celebrity had the dark-red shade made vegetarian for her. “Here, you wear some too. Put it on quick.” I plucked the tube from my clutch.
“They’ll think we’re hussies!” Her serious eyes blinked double time.
“They already think that.” If I’d had enough money, I would’ve gotten the kohl pencil for drawing on Lulu Wong’s tiger-charming beauty mark, a mole round and perfect enough to stop a tiger in its tracks. “Oh, forget it. Work the gears. Let’s get this bucking mule on the road.” I swept my hands toward the exit of City Market, where Ba had carved a niche selling flowers among all the produce vendors. But few bought blooms during a depression. Save for a few big orders placed during the Summer Olympics, it felt as if flowers came to our stall to die. We’d only sold a third of our inventory this morning, mostly the cheaper lilies. But this time, we weren’t going to simply donate them around town like we always did. Ba wouldn’t approve, but he was sixty miles away and might not return for many months.
“You and your big-thinking head,” she muttered, using a Chinese expression for someone with grand ideas. “I have a bad feeling this will get us married off for good.” With grudging movements of her hands on the gears, May eased us forward.
I snorted, though my leg began to jitter with annoyance. With fewer eligible maidens in Chinatown than bachelors, Bahad always told us that his three fierce clouds—Mei Wun, or “beautiful cloud,” for May; Gam Wun, or “fresh cloud,” for me; and Pan Wun, or “wishful cloud,” for our youngest sister, Peony—would blow favorable winds to our family. But with the city’s plans to bulldoze the heart of our community for a train station, May and I worried the winds would scatter us to new households sooner than we were ready to go.
“They won’t like us selling at Westlake Park,” May groused, crawling us along. The Mule bucked, tossing us like rice in the wok and clattering the buckets in our truck bed. One of the City Market sweepers shook his broom at us. May gave him an apologetic wave. She had always been the nicer one. Reaching San Pedro Street, she gunned us out of the lot, her face growing dark again. “Remember how Guitar Man tried to visit the park?”
“Of course I remember,” I grumbled. Our friendly Chinatown bum, who always carried a guitar case, had been so distressed at being ordered to leave the park, he’d gotten on the wrong streetcar and ended up near Pasadena. The city preferred the Chinese keep to Chinatown, except when we were selling here at City Market, located two miles south. Los Angeles relied on our produce. Of course, if they swept us out of Chinatown, their dinner plates would suffer, but by the time they figured that out, it would be too late for us. “Guitar Man spits a lot and scares people. We are not going to scare people. We are a delightful vision. Aren’t you always telling me people judge with their eyes first?”
May shifted gears and the Mule bucked again. “I was talking about show business.”
A truck rumbled by, sweeping dust through the Mule’s doorless entries.
“Well, this is a kind of show. Our feminine wiles will go a long way.” I eyed her pale-green dress, wishing it was more à la mode, which was French for “fashionable.” May sewed our dresses from castoffs like old curtains and tablecloths. Though her creations were clever—she had split a doily to make the collar on my own dress—they always had a washed look to them.
Her tongue clicked in annoyance. “Feminine wiles? Sorry, Gemma, I left mine at home next to my girdle.”
“And along with your sense of adventure,” I said breezily.
“Along with my sense, you mean. How much did that lipstickcost?”
I made kissy lips at her, and she groaned. If we were going to sell our flowers to the beau monde, which was French for “the upper crust,” we had to look as presentable as possible. Lipstick was a minor investment for a bigger payoff.
Traffic wasn’t heavy on a Saturday afternoon. The white tower of the new city hall saluted us several blocks northeast, toward Chinatown. Buildings passed in streaks of concrete and brick, each day bringing more everything must go! signs and longer soup kitchen lines. I imagined all the business we’d find in Westlake Park: couples strolling the lake, families walking their dogs. Westlake residents could still afford luxuries, unlike those in most neighborhoods, who could barely buy the necessities.
“I bet we could make twenty dollars today,” I said. That would more than cover our flower costs for the month.
“How do you figure we’ll do that, short of clubbing people over the head and taking their wallets?” Her nose started to twitch, as it always did when something bothered her.
“It’s very simple, May. We quadruple our prices.”
Her posture slouched as the wind blew out of her. “That’s it. I’m turning around. It’s clear your noodles have gone mushy.”
“Keep your hair on. Westlake people are used to paying certain prices for things. If we didn’t quadruple the prices, they might worry over the quality.”
“I see. So we’re doing them a favor.”
“Absolutely.” A little risk-taking was what was needed to keep our heads above water a little longer. Despite my airy demeanor, my stomach clenched like the grinding of the clutch. Wewouldn’t have had to take such risks if we weren’t being kicked out of our houses in the middle of an economy that had belly flopped. It was bad enough that Ba had gotten sick. Now it was up to us to save ourselves.
She cut her gaze to me. “I suppose you also have a cage to sell to a lion.”
The wealthier neighborhoods of Westlake folded around us,with its elegant mansions moderne, fussy Victorians, and Spanish haciendas, fronted by spacious lawns. The stately brick buildings of a fancy girls’ school stretched half a block, where girls played basketball on a court so pristine it would make Peony weep.
Soon, the tropical oasis of Westlake Park spread before us with its glamorous palm trees and meandering footpaths. An assortment of canoes and paddleboats floated on an artificial lake. Pumping the brakes, May eased us up the driveway leadingto the boathouse, which oversaw the park. Diners gathered under the shade umbrellas of a picturesque café glanced in our direction.
I prayed that the Mule wouldn’t buck. “Make a left.”
May rolled by the crowds, then turned into the driving lane that encircled the lake. Azalea bushes screened lovers’ alcoves. Weeping willows swayed gently in the breeze.
Before reaching the band concourse anchoring the other end of the lake, I pointed to a palm tree. “Park under there.
”If someone wanted to lodge a complaint about us at the boathouse,they’d have a good quarter mile to walk.
Pedestrians cast us curious gazes, their eyes skimming the words painted on the side of the truck: CHOW'S FLOWERS. We flipped over crates to build an attractive display on the truckbed, topped by a showstopping potted orchid with its cascade of miniature purple slippers. Though I doubted the plant—our most expensive item—would sell, orchids gave off good energy. I scribbled prices on a chalkboard, then slashed those prices as if we were having a sale. The orchid I marked at seven dollars slashed to five dollars. Last, I gathered broken petals and blooms into a basket and looped it on my arm.
“Afternoon, folks,” I chirped, rolling a bright-pink bloom between my fingers. “Get your flowers for your lady loves. Won’t you come look? We’ve got roses, freesia, daisies, zinnias, and mixed bouquets in astonishing and dizzy-fying combinations.”
May raised an eyebrow at me. People began to drift closer.
“Oh, Harold, these are just like the ones we got married with.” A woman with a violet hat pointed at a bouquet of white roses, which I had tied with baby’s breath.
“The white ones are the most fragrant.” I beamed a smile at them that Ba referred to as one of my eye-catching “Gemma facets.”
“We’ll take them,” said the violet hat’s husband, not even blinking at the price.
“Wonderful. You can pay my sister, and I’ll wrap these for you.” We usually used newspaper, but today I had brought the waxed tissue paper that we reserved for the extra-fancy bouquets.I threw May a wink, which she did not return. More customers approached. More flowers changed hands.
I couldn’t help noticing a handsome couple leaning against a stone divider several paces away. The woman tilted her Max Factor face toward the man as she twisted the heel of her white pump with its little bow in the dirt. Her powdered nose was fleshy, the kind of “money nose” that the Chinese believed attracted wealth. Plus, only someone with money would wear white pumps to a park. The young man carried himself with the cultured air of a violin and seemed to be listening to herwith only half an ear, his brown eyes studying us with hishaughty eyebrows tweaked. A fedora created shadows over his smooth face.
Max Factor left her boyfriend’s side and sifted through the bouquets, touching everything as if it already belonged to her. Her young man watched her with the half-annoyed look of someone waiting for a late train to arrive. With a squeal, Max Factor held up a bouquet of bloodred roses, which cost a dollar. He nodded, his smile not reaching his eyes. As May took it for wrapping, the young man lifted himself off the wall and swaggered his pin-striped suit to where I was standing. “Dollar, huh?” he said in a low voice.
“That’s right, and worth every penny. You can see how happy they make her.”
We both looked at Max Factor, who had buried her fleshy nose in the bouquet.
He snorted. “I could buy a whole chuck roast for that.”
“You could. But I doubt it would look as nice on her dresser.”
“Freddie, pay the lady,” Max Factor called, waving.
He pulled out his wallet, and his long index finger riffled all his bills, more than our entire savings. “You people have a good racket going.”
The Gemma facet grew an edge. “I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“You can get these at City Market for a quarter.” His gaze corralled mine, and my stomach clenched at being called out. “I think you just came here to fleece us.”
“Freddie, what’s taking so long?” Max Factor’s Cupid’s-bowlips pouted. “My mother’s waiting for us, remember?”
May narrowed her eyes at me. “Gemma?”
My gut warred with the loftier part of my brain that cared about things like image and pride. “Good news, May,” I said loudly. I didn’t take my eyes from the man, even though hestood a good head and shoulders above me. “This nice gentleman would like to buy our showstopper. Could you fetch it? It’s for the lady’s mother.”
Freddie’s straight nose flared. He glanced at the price—five dollars—and his eyebrows became hooks.
“Oh, Freddie!” Max Factor gushed. “Mother will love it. You are so dear.”
I swore Freddie’s bills screamed as he ripped them from his wallet.
The air swept out of my lungs, and I tried to project serenity. “Orchids prefer indirect light, and they’re sensitive to hot tempers. But if you give them lots of love, they will reward you with many years of good fortune.” I stepped aside in case he was tempted to pick me up and plant me in the nearest pot.
May brought the orchid to him, cutting me a glance that said she knew I had done something bad, something that might affect our family honor. May’s expressions were always specific.