It was dark when Detective Cziemanski found me at Grounds, a coffee shop in West Hollywood. Meeting on my side of the hill was his idea; Grounds was mine. Annika and I had met here for so many of our tutorials it seemed some part of her might linger. I was doing pencil drawings while I waited, but when I saw Cziemanski in the doorway I closed my portfolio and smiled. He smiled back, oblivious to the attention he was getting from the mostly male clientele. He stopped at the counter to order a drink, then joined me.
“Nice shirt,” I said.
He nodded. “Glad you like it. Nice decor.”
I looked around at the putty-colored walls, floors, and ceiling, devoid of decoration, and wondered if he was being sarcastic. “Glad you like it,” I said. “Here’s the photo. Will it help, Detective Zhe-Che-”
“If you can’t say Cziemanski-Shum, not Chum-you’ll have to call me Pete. Photos always help.” He studied the picture. I wanted him to comment on Annika’s prettiness, but he didn’t. “Especially when you have a sketch you’re trying to match to-”
“What kind of sketch?”
He pulled on an ear. A greeting card began to take shape, a little boy pulling on his ear at school, then going home to a long-eared family, all pulling on their ears. “Sometimes the coroner will come up with a drawing,” he said, “reconstructing a face from bones. Or we get a witness, we put them together with a sketch artist.”
“You’re saying you’ll only find her if she’s dead?”
“Or robs a bank.” He paused. “Having second thoughts? You only want the happy ending?”
I saw myself telling Mrs. Gl"uck to come collect her kid in the county morgue. Or in twenty years, after her release from prison. I gazed at my decaf cappuccino. “No. Yes, I want the happy ending, but mostly I want to know. I just-I’m not sleeping well.”
“I don’t suppose you have money to hire a private investigator?”
I smiled. “If I scrimp, I can just about cover the double espresso you ordered.”
“You’re not paying for my espresso. I’m paying for your-whatever that is.”
“That’s not how it works, Detective. I was the one who asked to meet.”
“At the station. Where the coffee would’ve been on me.”
“Well, anyway,” I said. “Your paying would make it like a date.”
“No, when it’s a date, you’ll know it.”
I studied my hands. They had paint on them around my nails. Green. I was experiencing a combination of pleasure and alarm. “Actually, I don’t. Date.” Except on national TV.
“Everybody dates. You’re not married, right? Not that that’s always a deterrent, but some people are put off by it. I’m not married either, in case you’re interested.”
I was interested. How interesting. “The thing is, I’m behind on a job I’m doing involving amphibians, I’m working every other spare minute on my greeting cards-”
“You don’t date public servants.”
“No, I like public servants.” I looked at him. “Okay, the real thing is, I was engaged. Recently. Well, three months ago. So I’ve been-depressed and I need to-”
“Eat bad food, rent videos. I can help you with that-what’d you think I had in mind? The philharmonic?”
“Well, yeah,” I said, laughing. “You’ve got to impress girls. At least at first.”
“For how long?”
“Depends on the girl. Anywhere from an hour, hour and a half, to seven years.”
Cziemanski cleared his throat. “I was counting on wowing you with my police scanner and portable siren.”
“Okay, fine,” I said. “We’ll meet late at night and drive around looking for criminals. Meanwhile, though, I found Annika’s boyfriend. Rico. He doesn’t know where she is, which means they’re not off for a weekend in Bali. Which is what you said probably happened.” I paused. Cziemanski did not look excited. “And he remembered her watch was a Fossil.”
Finally. He went for a pen. “A what? Fossil?”
“It’s a brand. Fun. Affordable.” I finished my cappuccino as he wrote on the back of Annika’s photo, in small letters. “I know it’s not feasible for you to get hysterical over each case, but something’s weird here, not-evidence of a crime, just a feeling of-”
“Doom.” I looked down, ill at ease. Cops, with their civil codes and case numbers, probably didn’t deal much in doom. I studied the sticky white residue in my mug. I recalled how Ruta, my childhood babysitter, would read the future in her coffee cup. She’d used an old tin pot that left grounds everywhere. “Anyway, I just want you to know.”
Cziemanski’s cell phone rang, giving me the chance to go to the counter and pay our tab. He gave me a hard time about that a minute later, but I told him to consider it a bribe. “I’m grateful for whatever effort you put into this,” I said, and pulled a business card out of my portfolio. “Call me anytime, day or night, I’m always up. These days.”
“I am calling you. You owe me a date.” He looked at my card, then slid it into the inside pocket of his beige windbreaker with Annika’s photo. I had the whimsical thought that Annika was warm in there, next to his chest.
Cziemanski and I parted ways in front of Grounds, he heading to his car, me turning left, toward Larrabee Street. He apologized for not walking me to my door, being in a hurry to get to some top secret detective-type meeting, but I told him the chances of me being accosted in the six and a half minutes it would take me to get home were slim to none.
I was wrong.