Welcome to an alternative Los Angeles.
The femme fatale is an archetype in literature, especially in crime novels. Think of Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice or Phyllis in Double Indemnity. (Both those novels were written by James M. Cain. He seems to have had a thing for femme fatales.) These are women who are seductive and usually beautiful who lure men into compromising or dangerous situations.
SG (Sandra) Wong has taken this classic noir mystery trope and turned it on its head, which I just love. Lola Starke is the femme fatale in Sandra’s historical crime novels, and she’s also the private investigator.
Sandra reads to us from book 2 in the series (there are 3 books so far), called In for a Pound which finds Lola Starke and her friend Ria on the scene when a murder takes place.
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This week’s mystery author
SG (Sandra) Wong writes fiction across genres, has garnered some crime fiction awards nominations, speaks on writing and publishing topics, and volunteers for important community causes such as Sisters in Crime, which she serves as National President.
Her Lola Starke novels and Crescent City short stories are set in a 1930s-era, fictionalized “Chinese Los Angeles,” with ghosts and magic, in an alternate history in which China established a city-state colony at the start of the Gold Rush.
Sandra’s next book is coming in 2022 from HarperCollins Canada and is a stand-alone suspense novel.
To learn more about SG Wong and all her books visit SGWong.com
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Excerpt from In for a Pound
“Why, hello stranger.” Ria looked up at Lola, gave a lazy smile. She patted the shoulder of the man in whose lap she sat. “This is my new friend Charlie. Charlie, meet my best friend, Lola Starke.” She switched to a stage whisper. “I bet she’s here to take me home.”
“I’m here to take you home,” Lola said, deadpan.
Charlie smiled and nodded. He had a dimple in his right cheek and a jaw shadowed with dark stubble. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Starke.” His gaze measured her from head to toe—and back again.
There might have been an awkward pause then, but the trumpet player chose that moment to blow for all he was worth. Lola turned to face the stage. The club patrons were out of their seats, clapping, jumping, and shouting encouragement. Ria bumped Lola’s right hip as she straightened up. Lola threw her a sidelong glance. Ria winked.
The trumpet player reached his apogee, his body a taut arc, his eyes squeezed shut. The cheering grew. Tables were bumped. Glassware tumbled with clinks and crashes. The crystal chandeliers rattled and Lola felt pressure building in her eardrums.
Just as she started to cover her ears, the trumpeter’s high note cut out and the rest of the band slammed to a halt. The calls of the crowd became a wave of sound and energy, cresting as the band members collapsed into their chairs, and breaking into laughter as the bandleader swept a spotted kerchief across his forehead and fell onto his seat at the edge of the stage.
Lola turned to Ria. They grinned at each other like fools.
Ria whirled around to face Charlie, kissed him soundly on the lips, and pushed away, laughing. She grabbed Lola’s hand and led the way around smashed glass, tipsy people, giggling cigarette girls, and potted palms. Lola glanced back to see Charlie wave languidly at her, dimples deepening and eyes glinting.
The women burst through the beautiful etched doors of The Supper Club. Lola was laughing so hard, she could hardly stand up. Ria was little better.
They stumbled away from the doors and the startled doorman, turned right on the pavement, and made for the beach. Lola drew a deep breath, only to dissolve into more laughter at Ria’s continued mirth. It went that way, back and forth for another half block.
As the sun lightened the sky in the East, its long rays cast themselves across the ocean waves. Glimmers of white appeared as the waves crested and broke. Lola breathed in deeply and craned her head, stared straight up. She felt Ria’s hand tighten on her own. She pressed the soles of her shoes into the pavement and vainly searched the sky for the moon as the dim stars seemed to fly away from her.
A screech of tires broke the spell. Lola whipped her head around, back toward The Supper Club. A dark Packard idled at the curb, its front passenger window wound down. A small whirl of dust rose around the car. She caught her breath and willed her heart to calm. She shook her hand from Ria’s grip.
“Someone’s hubby, I bet.” Ria’s drawl was lazy, throaty. “Come to see what wifey’s up to.”
Lola watched the car.
The Packard remained still. Lola narrowed her eyes, but the windshield gave nothing away, its glass reflecting the overhead streetlamp. No one came strolling over to it, and, indeed, the street behind the car was empty of people.
“I bet the doorman’s gone inside to fetch them,” said Ria.
A blur of activity at the club doors suddenly deposited four women and two young men in rumpled evening wear on the sidewalk. Lola recognized the immaculate posture and elegant bearing of Gillian Gee, the Club manager. The cigarette girls with her were as fresh now as they’d been at nine o’clock. Black, black and bleached blonde. They gleamed from their upswept hair to the short excuses for skirts on their costumes. Even half a block away, Lola could read the genuine affection in their smiles for the two men.
Ria gasped, poked Lola in the ribs. “Lola, do you see him?”
“Elbows to yourself, doll.” Lola turned her gaze back to the Packard.
“It’s Tommy Chu!” Ria paused, made a noise of disappointment. “He’s shorter in real life.”
“Aren’t we all.”
“That must be Stuey Lim, then. What a dish. C’mon, let’s go say hello.” She gave Lola a little shove.
They neared in time to hear the famous comedian’s signature chuckle. Lola felt a sudden intimacy, a joyful laugh bubbling up in response.
Tommy Chu looked up at them, his eyes sparkling with mischief. “The gods have answered my prayers at last,” he said, using English. The cigarette girls tittered quietly. Lola nodded to Gillian, who bowed and hustled her employees back inside.
Ria stopped just in front of Tommy Chu’s companion. “He’s got to have better lines than that,” she said, her Cantonese smooth and lilting.
The other man shrugged, smiling. “He’s been up two days.” His reply was in Cantonese. He looked at Lola and grinned. “Hiya, ace.”
“Stuey.” Lola smiled as he bussed her cheek. She felt the faintest scratch from his whiskers, couldn’t help herself from taking a deep breath. Sandalwood, cigarettes and other women’s perfume.
“Stu, you sneak, you know these sirens,” said Tommy.
Lola caught Ria’s look of surprise. She lifted a corner of her lips. Ria glowered at her.
“We share an Auntie,” said Stuey. “Uncle Stanley’s wife, Vivian.”
Tommy’s face was blank for a few seconds. Then he punched his friend in the shoulder. “The Mei Triplets? That Vivian? Vivian Mei?” He punched his friend again then turned to Lola. “You’re the Mei Triplets’ niece?”
Lola automatically searched for any hint of sarcasm or disbelief, but Tommy’s expression was open. Excited and eager, in fact. Lola eased her shoulders. “The Aunties were close friends with my father. From the silent era. They practically raised me.”
Rubbing his shoulder, Stuey lifted an eyebrow at his friend, then turned back to Lola and Ria. He said, “Tommy’s a student of the Old Theatre. He always said Vivian had the biggest—”
“Laughs,” Tommy said. “She always got the biggest laughs. That’s why she’s my favourite Mei Girl.”
“Well,” said Lola, “I’ll tell her you said so. She’ll be thrilled.”
“I’d love to tell her myself.” He used his thumb to indicate Stuey. “This one keeps hedging.” He grinned at Lola. “But I see you’re a much better prospect.”
Stuey gave a snort. “I keep telling him it’s a bad idea, but he won’t believe me.”
Tommy splayed his hands out, his face arranged in a mock plea.
“Yes, but you’ve never explained why it’s such a bad idea, old man.”
Stuey ignored him. He said to Lola, “Perhaps you could…?”
Lola shook her head. “You’re on your own with that one, I’m afraid.”
Stuey’s eyes crinkled at their edges as he grinned back at her. Lola’s heart sped up. She was suddenly aware of the soft breeze along her bare shoulders. She shivered.
“Well someone oughta tell me.” Tommy gave a theatrical sigh.
Lola gave herself a mental shake. She smiled politely. “Not my story to tell. Sorry. Besides, I stay well away from Auntie Viv’s feuds. I like my life peaceful.”
Now it was Ria’s turn to snort.
Tommy grabbed Lola’s hand. “Life is too short to live peacefully.” He twirled her in a smooth circle, ended with an elegant dip. Lola laughed as Tommy straightened back up. He stepped away and bowed formally. “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.”
“Now we’re talking,” muttered Ria. She glared at Lola, who grinned. The men bowed elegantly and kissed the women’s hands in the European fashion.
Lola hesitated, cleared her throat. “May I give my regards to your Ghost, Mr. Chu? My father was close to a mutual friend, Nicky Lo.”
Tommy’s expression froze. Lola wondered if she’d overstepped. His eyes remained on her as he cocked his head slightly to the right, listening to his Ghost.
Tommy’s mouth tightened just before he said, “Yes, of course.” He paused. “Lucky says hello. He, ah, sends his regards to your father, of course.” Another pause. A tight smile. “He says you should pay your respects to Nicky more often.”
Lola considered explaining that her father had passed on almost a dozen years ago. She nodded instead. “I’ll do that. Thank you.”
Stuey said, “Don’t you have a Ghost, Lola?”
“Long story.” She put on a rueful smile. “A bit of a recluse.”
“Aubrey?” said Ria, eyebrows raised. “I doubt that.”
Tommy waved his hand impatiently. “If he doesn’t want to talk, let him alone. The gods know, don’t they, Miss Starke, how precious privacy is to Hosts and Ghosts alike?”
Lola made a noncommittal noise.
Tommy turned to Ria, expression thoughtful. “Monteverde. You don’t happen to write for The Herald, do you Miss Monteverde?”
“Why yes. I run the City Desk.”
“Any chance you’re on good terms with Walter Yee? I’ve got a new show in the works and he’s always been my most, ah, stringent critic.”
“Oh Walter, of course. He’s a real pussycat when you get to know him.”
“I’ve been thinking of holding a preview and inviting the City’s top critics, including Walter naturally.”
Ria smiled. “I’m afraid my information can’t be bought, Mr. Chu. I’ve got to work with Walter every day, you see. Wouldn’t do for him to think I’d sell his darkest secrets so easily.”
Tommy grinned, shrugged. “I didn’t get this far just because of my good manners, Miss Monteverde. I’m sure we can find a middle ground, don’t you?”
Ria shook her finger at Tommy. “No disrespect, but that’s entirely too glib. I believe I’ll err on the side of caution. Just this once, you understand.”
Stuey hid a smile behind his hand.
Tommy opened his mouth, about to argue, Lola was certain. Instead, he put on another charming smile. “How about a drink before we greet the dawn?”
Ria turned to look over at the ocean. “Oh, let’s just stay out here. It’s too gorgeous to go back inside.”
Tommy inclined his head. “Of course. Whatever my lady desires.” He offered Ria his arm.
Lola found her own hand being tucked into the crook of Stuey’s elbow.
“Shall we?” he said.
She looked into his eyes, so close now. Thick black lashes, deep brown eyes. And that crinkle again as he smiled warmly at her. He led her slowly down the sidewalk. Ria and Tommy talked animatedly as they strolled a few paces ahead. Lola felt the soft breeze growing as they neared the beach.
“Here,” said Stuey, “let me get that for you.” He gently tugged her wrap up and around her shoulders. “It’s always cooler near the shore.” His fingers skimmed her skin. Lola shivered as goose bumps appeared on her arms.
“Do you know if Walter happens to enjoy the duck at White Crane?”
Lola had to admire Tommy’s tenacity. She saw Ria shake her head, smiling, even as Tommy continued. “Do you know if he has a particular favourite dish?”
“I’m sorry,” Stuey said.
“Lucky not knowing about your father.”
“I wouldn’t expect him to know. ‘Butch Starke’ was hardly a household name even when he was in the business.”
Stuey smiled gently. “I’m not sorry about his mistake. I’m sorry if it brought up an old sorrow.”
“Oh.” Lola cleared her suddenly thick throat. She knew there ought to be words she could say, something facile and cool. She found that she didn’t know any. Or perhaps, she didn’t think it a fair repayment for this man’s genuine concern.
“I’d forgotten that about you,” she said. “Your ability to always say just the right thing.”
He chuckled. “Well, I remember your ability to deflect conversation you didn’t like.”
Lola couldn’t help smiling. “Caught in the act.”
He shook his head. “No, no, that’s fair. It was a gamble.” He looked out at the water, breathing deeply.
“Well then, since we’re being so terribly gracious, I’m sorry I couldn’t help your friend with Auntie Viv.”
Stuey laughed. “My friend. You may be the only person in the entire world who’d refer to him like that.”
“I knew you first.”
Stuey patted her arm. “Loyal to a fault.” He made a face. “As for Vivian, ancient history. I’m happy to follow my parents’ lead. Besides, now that I’m older and wiser, I’m inclined to agree that Viv and Uncle Stanley married too young. No fault in that, surely?”
Lola thought of her own status, now five years a divorcée at twenty-eight. She grinned at the thought of her ex-husband, Martin. They were better friends since their parting and she was content that they’d made the right choice.
“Has anyone told Vivian that?” She kept her tone light.
Stuey slid a sideways glance at her. “Not me. Public enemy number one, remember?”
Lola winced. “Sorry. Put my foot in it again.” She cursed herself inwardly. What was the matter with her? The infatuated twelve–year–old girl she used to be seemed determined to rise again. She flushed, imagining how fifteen-year-old Stuey must’ve seen her then, a gawky girl with knobby knees and sharp elbows making calf eyes at him.
Stuey shook his head. “It’s not even personal, strangely. I mean, I know she shoots dagger-eyes at me, sure, but it’s not me she sees, y’know?” He shrugged. “I don’t hold grudges. I can’t say I understand Vivian.” He paused. “But I guess I can feel some sort of compassion. Stanley was an ace of an uncle, but I can see how he might not have been a great husband or father, with all his travelling.”
Lola nodded, took a deep breath of salt-tinged air. The breeze brought freshness with it even as it crept along the nape of her neck, creating tingles. She felt the softness of Stuey’s jacket fabric along her arm and resisted the urge to squeeze. She imagined corded muscle beneath and turned her face away slightly, hiding her grin. Her shoes dangled in her hand. She swung them in a lazy circle.
Stuey nudged her. “I’m afraid Tommy’s doing his best impression of a steamroller.”
Lola laughed, returning her attention to the pair ahead. “Ria’s a tough cookie. She won’t let herself get flattened. Even if it is the famous Tommy Chu.”
Stuey chuckled. “Aha. Your contempt for fame reveals itself.”
“Contempt is rather strong.” She grinned. “Let’s call it a jaundiced view, shall we?”
This time, he laughed outright.
Ahead, Ria stopped and turned, pulling Tommy back along with her. She pulled a face.
“You two are having entirely too much fun. I want to walk with you. Mr. Chu here only wishes to talk business.”
Tommy bowed. “My abject apologies, Miss Monteverde. I’m a terrible man. Can I make it up to you back inside the Club? I happen to know Gillian keeps a beautiful bottle of cognac for special occasions.”
“Are you saying I warrant a special occasion, Mr. Chu?”
“I am indeed, Miss Monteverde. A very beautiful, very special occasion.”
“That’s much better.” Ria allowed her arm to be recaptured and secured in the crook of Tommy’s arm.
“Um,” said Lola.
“Don’t say it,” said Ria. “I don’t wanna hear it, Mother.”
“Doll, you made me promise.”
Stuey cocked his head. “A previous engagement?”
“I promised to remind her that she has to be at the office for an eight o’clock meeting. And that we don’t have the luxury, as men do, of showing up in whatever shape we happen to be in.” Lola gave Ria a weighted look.
“Surely, you can reschedule?” Tommy grinned impishly.
“I’m afraid not,” said Lola, gaze still locked with Ria’s. “I’m certain Ria said something about a big meeting. With her editor.” They stared at one another for a few silent moments.
“Time to retreat gracefully, old man.” Stuey grinned. “You’re not gonna budge her, not if she’s the same girl I remember.”
“If you’re suggesting I’m stubborn,” said Lola, “it’s beside the point, although you’d be correct. However, she made me promise and I don’t break my promises.”
Ria heaved a dramatic sigh. Tommy patted her hand.
“Now that we’ve made friends, I assure you we’ll be seeing one another again.” He waggled his eyebrows and exaggerated his grin.
Lola felt amiable and light, tucked into Stuey’s side neatly, as they were of a height. She flushed again, surprised at the strong pleasure that realization gave her. Just a rarity, she told herself, Chinese men being on the whole so much shorter than she was. It was a relief to be able to look a man directly in the eyes rather than having to avoid looking at his hair pattern. She suppressed a snicker.
The men graciously served support as the women replaced their strappy sandals on their bare feet and the four of them walked slowly up the few wooden steps to the pavement. Tommy began expounding on the unfathomability of women’s shoes. Ria countered with the ancient Chinese tradition of feet binding and they were off. The four argued good–naturedly until they found themselves in front of The Supper Club doors.
“I’d very much enjoy continuing this discussion tonight.” Tommy bowed over Ria’s hand, kissed it. Ria murmured something meant only for his ears.
Stuey pulled a card from his inside pocket and held it out to Lola. She caught the scent of musk and cloves.
“Friends should keep in touch.”
She nodded, slipping the card into her clutch purse. Stuey gently arranged her wrap around her shoulders once more, kissing her on the cheek.
“Looks like the valet’s missing. I’ll run in and roust someone, shall I?”
Lola smiled. Stuey pushed through the glass doors. Lola caught herself staring after him and shook herself. She turned away.
Tommy Chu was whispering into her best friend’s ear. Lola steeled her jaw and closed in.
“Excuse us a moment, if you would, Mr. Chu.” Lola took Ria by the elbow and herded her down the sidewalk. She stopped about five feet away, manoeuvred so that Ria’s back was to Tommy. He grinned at Lola as he patted his pockets. A cigarette case and a lighter were soon in hand. He winked. Lola refrained from rolling her eyes. She turned her attention back to her friend.
“What are you doing?”
Ria sighed contentedly, looked up at the slowly brightening sky.
Lola sighed, impatient. “He’s trouble with a ca–pi–tal, Ria, and you know it.”
Ria smiled broadly. “The best kind and you know it. Anyway, that’s all beside the point. You’ve been holding out on me.”
Lola tamped down her exasperation. She answered carefully. “I haven’t seen Stuey in years, not since the Old Blossom retrospective. Auntie Viv complained of a headache as soon as Stuey and his parents showed up. We left.” She paused. “I was still married then.”
“Ah,” said Ria. “Still, how could you forget to mention you grew up with Tommy Chu’s best friend?”
“We were never close.” Lola felt heat rising to her face.
“Well, if I’m any judge of character, he’s certainly worth getting to know now.”
“Oh, was it his character you were assessing then?” Lola flushed, glancing at the Club doors as movement caught her eye.
Stuey stepped out, his handsome face alight with laughter. He held out a handful of keys. “No sign of the valet, but I’ve discovered his treasures. Guess we’ll have to hunt them out ourselves, ladies. Let me guess, Lola, something beautiful, speedy, and red, yes?”
The doors behind him exploded in a shower of glass. Lola instinctively flattened herself on the pavement, pulling Ria down with her. She raised her head in time to see a blur of movement on the street. It was the car, the black Packard. She cursed herself for an idiot. She’d forgotten all about it.
The big black car caromed into a sharp turn, its tires screeching, and sped away. Lola pushed herself up off the ground and grabbed Ria’s hand, hauling her friend up roughly.
“Are you all right?” she shouted.
Ria nodded. “Fine. I’m fine. What happened?” Her gaze caught on something behind Lola. She gasped sharply, pushed away. “Oh dear gods.”
Lola’s scalp prickled and a chill spread down her spine. She faced The Supper Club doors fully.
Shattered glass speckled the grey pavement. Stuey’s black hair and evening jacket glittered with it as he lay prone, one arm flung against the door frame. Lola felt her face go cold. She took a halting step forward, stepped crookedly on her heel and stumbled. Her knees didn’t seem to be working properly, but she pressed on.
Ria was shouting into the interior of the club. Lola dimly noted shapes in her periphery. A scream sounded, piercing and shrill. Lola stared at Stuey’s hand, outstretched on the pavement. A jumble of keys lay scattered around. Clenching her jaw, Lola looked into his face. She held back a sob. Stuey’s dark eyes stared upward, wide and blank.
Lola turned then, the dark edges in her vision receding, sound returning in a crashing wave. She heard crunching footsteps, an urgent voice. She watched Ria snatch a bit of cloth from the wide-eyed doorman.
Tommy lay motionless on his back, his head almost touching Stuey’s shoes. Ria was kneeling in the blood next to Tommy, pushing the kerchief against his neck. The white cloth darkened under Ria’s fingers. Blood spread across the pavement, relentless, quick.
Lola couldn’t stop herself glancing once more at Stuey. She felt her gorge rise. The shards of glass in his hair were mingled with bits of white bone and dark matter. Lola swallowed, hard. She heard Ria curse, trying desperately to stop a man from bleeding to death with nothing but a square of fabric and her fierceness.
Lola knew it was useless.
Tommy Chu, the most famous comedian in Crescent City, was dead.