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15

I spent Saturday afternoon in the Valley with my mural, resisting the urge to enlarge the West African goliath by keeping my focus near a wall-mounted microwave, where I painted a small Central American red-eyed leaf frog, Agalychnis callidryas.

On my way home I stopped at a Ventura Boulevard newsstand. Fredreeq had insisted I check out the winter issue of International Celeb, featuring a story on Savannah Brook that, while fiction, was the kind of press she felt I needed. I flipped through the magazine until the clerk barked at me, pointing to a sign that said No Free Reads.

Half annoyed, half embarrassed, I took my place in line. If I walked away in a huff, Id have wasted time, a great parking place, and a quarter for the meter, but if I paid six ninety-nine for what turned out to be a one-paragraph article, Id feel like a loser. I resumed my page flipping, determined to read and run. What could the clerk do, shoot me?

It was a three-page article. I forked over seven dollars to learn from my Biological Clock competition that beauty and brains were not incompatible, nor were a successful business and budding television career impediments to romance, cocooning, and baby making. Having lived in five countries in her nearly three decades, Savannah said, she was now eager to put down roots. An accompanying full-page photo showed her in a bikini, a faraway look in her eye, and was captioned with a quote: Whether traveling the world or in my own backyard, I live life to the fullest, in every way.

And just how, I wondered, did Fredreeq expect me to be an International Celeb, I, whod barely been north of Highway 118? I sat in my car, using up my meter minutes, feeling desperately provincial. Obviously I now had to read the damn magazine cover to cover, having invested so much money in it, having looked at nothing but books on frogs for weeks. No wonder I had no repartee. Grimly, I caught up on Britains royal family, an Iraqi boy band, and unexpected volcanic activity in Hawaii, then came to a dead stop on a page called Hard News. A grainy photo caught my attention, a man with a look so salacious I blushed. Bedroom eyes. So I was not, after all, dead to sexual feeling. I should move to whatever country he was from. I read the caption under the photo. Vladimir Tcheiko, fugitive, murderer, head of a notorious eastern European drug cartel. Well. Nice to know that crime was no impediment to international celebrity. At least Id heard of this guy, which was more than I could say about trends in Muslim head scarves, the news that only 9 percent of Vancouverites were obese, and the sudden celebrity of political wives in France.

I went back to Savannahs article and a detail Id missed on the first reading, because, of course, it had to do with math. Her almost three decades? Savannah was well into her thirties, unless shed lied on her B.C. application. Talk about a discrepancy. I looked up from International Celeb and remembered another application, another discrepancy, then realized I was on Ventura Boulevard, just east of Encino. I picked up my cell phone.

Maizie Quinn met me in her driveway, talking before I was out of the car. God, youre a trouper, doing this. Have you found out anything? She was wearing jeans tonight, tight ones, with a pink spandex turtleneck and her usual heels. Maizie had curves Id never guessed at, hidden as theyd been before under work shirts and aprons.

Not much, I said. And Im sorry to bother you on a Saturday night, but I just now thought of it.

I shouldve thought of it the other day when you stopped by. She led me down the path to the artists studio. Gene, my husband, says Im always out to lunch. She laughed. In my dreams. With Alain Ducasse, discussing chiffonade versus julienne. I was about to ask who that was and what that meant, but Maizie was already far ahead, surefooted on the flagstone pathway, even in the dark, in high heels.

The studio was warm and well lit. Gone were the leaves and wires from the center worktable, replaced by a turkey on a cutting board. It seemed early to be doing a turkey, five days before Thanksgiving, but maybe this was a rehearsal bird.

Im trying to think what else might help us. Maizie crossed to a distressed-wood file cabinet. This sounds awful, but Gene checked Annikas computer, to see if we could find well, anything. About where she mightve gone. Gene says a stranger could re-create his whole life from what he downloads from the Internet. She pulled from a drawer a pink file. But no luck. Gene says it would take a hacker to get in there.

I was barely functional on my own computer, but maybe Cziemanski had access to hackers. Id ask him.

Maizie held the pink file in both hands, as if picking up vibrations. Here it is. Letters and cards she sent us, little mementos. Id like it back eventually-there are things I want to keep for Emma. She opened the file and took out some stapled pages. I found her au pair application in her room. As soon as she came, she wanted to see it, to read her letters of recommendation, and how she did on her interview- She turned the pages over and frowned, then smiled. Theres another girls application on the back. We download them from the Internet, and Gene uses both sides of every sheet of paper in the house. Annika too, but she was a recycler. Genes just cheap.

Maizie, did you ever notice discrepancies in the application?

Discrepancies?

Things that turned out not to be accurate, or I couldnt repeat what Id heard at the au pair agency. Why make her worry in retrospect about the girl shed entrusted her child to for a year?

She moved to the worktable. Only in the positive sense. Her grades were average, except for math, but she turned out to be so intelligent in person. Always reading. What are you hoping to find?

Personal data, mostly. Height and weight, medical records, for the police report. I dont suppose theyve been in touch?

No. Not yet. She glanced at her watch, then grabbed an apron from a wall peg and put it on. It was stained, like my paint clothes, with the evidence of countless projects. Will they, do you think? Id really like to be more proactive in all this-

Dont hold your breath, I said. But at least theyll have accurate information for the database. Ive been trying to learn about Annika through other people, but everyone I talk to has a different story. She was into drugs, she wasnt into drugs, she was boy crazy, she wasnt boy crazy maybe I havent talked to the right people. Do you know any of her friends, besides the au pairs?

Everyone was her friend. Maizie rolled up the sleeves of her sweater, gazing at the turkey. I noticed she wore makeup and that her chin-length hair had been blown dry. All dressed up for Saturday night but unable to stop cooking. Monday I took Emma to her music class and half the moms and nannies asked about Annika. God. Not even a week ago. When I still thought she was coming back

Maybe I could talk to some of them.

Maizie went to the sink and washed her hands. The music moms? I have to confess, I dont know anyones last names. Theres Rachel, Brandons mom, and Georgine, Hallies mom, and Im Maizie, Emmas mom Ill try to find a class roster. She dried her hands. Wollie, mind if I work while we talk? Im so behind, with Thanksgiving coming up, and Grammy Quinns invited half of Palm Springs for dinner She took a small knife and made a slit between the turkeys legs, a deft movement, drawing the knife neatly up to its abdomen.

Is this what you do professionally? I asked. Annika said you had a business.

She laughed. Cooking? No, cookings my passion. My business is aromatherapy. She nodded to the shelves across the room, filled with the Art Deco glass bottles. Bath, body, and hair products. No preservatives or carriers, just pure ingredients, beautiful packaging, and beautiful markup. I keep it small, high-end boutiques and some mail order, so I can work from home. Im not very ambitious. I like my freedom, my hobbies. My family. I like cooking. She made another incision in the turkey, this one horizontal. I was fascinated. No one in my house had cooked much. I should start watching cooking shows. Maizie looked up. Can I ask-dont misunderstand, I think its wonderful of you to take this on-but its a lot of trouble, isnt it?

Have you ever not taken the time to listen when someone needed you to?

Maizies eyes grew soft. Every single day. Im a mother. Theres never enough time. Maybe when youre a grandmother She took a breath and went back to work.

Thats the reason I came here, that first day, I said. Guilt. And her mother had called, and I felt sorry for her because Ive been in that position. I gazed at the turkey. Id never seen one still wearing feathers, tiny ones all over its body. I said, I have a brother whos had some problems, he used to wander off, and trying to find him-youre dependent on peoples goodwill, asking favors of total strangers. It can be awful. And people have been kind to me, too many times to count, and to him So it started like an errand, the sort of thing anyone would do, except that Im not anyone, Im her friend, and even though in the back of my mind I thought Id hand it off to someone, someone would say, Okay, well take it from here, that never happened. And now I cant hand it off, its a mission. I have to see it through.

The curse of the volunteer. The cat came through the open door, the fat yellow guy Id seen the first day. Maizie looked up. You sign on for table decorations and end up doing puff pastry for two hundred. Because youre the only one who can do it right.

I sneezed. Believe me, anyone could do this better than I can.

Maizie moved to the sink and washed her hands again. You know what I think about? How young Annika is, for all her independence. Smart, but not sophisticated. I shouldve been a better mom to her. Maizie grabbed the fat yellow cat and deposited him on a chair, away from the bird. He immediately jumped down. And how will you know when its long enough, when youve done enough? Thats what Gene keeps asking, how long we have to wait before we close the book on this.

I shrugged. I just keep doing the next thing that occurs to me. Until theres nothing left to do.

Maizie picked up the cat again and went outside. I followed.

Theres always something left to do, she said, and pointed to the house. See the lights? The wraparound porch was trimmed in tiny icicle lights, hundreds of them, giving the house a welcoming look. I put them up that day you came for the photo. My husband thinks Im crazy, but I cant turn them off, night or day. Its just a little thing, but its what I do. Gene says Im leaving the porch lights on for Amelia Earhart.



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