“What’s he driving?” Joey asked, her voice scratchy over the cell phone.
“Some sports car.” I glanced in the rearview mirror. “I don’t know if he’s following me. All headlights look the same.”
“Okay, get off Ventura Boulevard-that’s a circus, you’ll never be able to spot a tail. Try one of the canyons. Coldwater-that shouldn’t be too bad on a Saturday night.”
“I passed it-no, there it is.” I zoomed into the right lane, an act of courage that would normally take me blocks to work up to, and swerved onto Coldwater Canyon. “Now what?”
“Now you coast awhile, give him a chance to follow, assuming he’s going to-”
“What do you mean? I thought I was losing him.”
“You probably did, but here’s how to find out. Harvard-Westlake is coming up on your left, it’s a high school. Pull in, signal first, and see if anyone follows. No, don’t signal. Too obvious. I wish I knew his skill level. Tailing is tougher than you’d think.”
“I’d think it’s plenty tough,” I said. “Joey, there was a guy on my street last night. Not this guy, someone shorter. Maybe one of the guys Fredreeq and I saw.”
“Standing. Lurking. Hovering.”
“They probably work together. Surveillance is a team sport. This guy tonight, he’s the one from Hot Aloo?”
“I think so.” Coldwater Canyon was nearly deserted, but I caught up to another southbound car, the red taillights like a friendly animal leading me down the mountain road. “He’s tall, anyway. I looked at him, he looked at me, I panicked. I’m still panicky.”
“No, you’re not, you’re fine. Your cell phone may cut out, but you’re in civilization, it’s Saturday night. Harvard-Westlake probably has some play or game going on, so you’ll feel safe.”
“What about you, Joey, how are you doing? Recovered from the morgue thing?”
“I’m good. I’m having a margarita, and my neighbor just brought over a joint. I didn’t think anyone in Pasadena got high, but it turns out-”
My cell phone cut out before Joey could enlighten me about drug habits in the San Gabriel Valley. How long until she realized I’d turned into dead space? How much information went unreceived every day, people talking to themselves on cell phones? Pondering these metaphysical questions, I drove past Harvard-Westlake. Damn.
I checked the rearview mirror. There was a car behind me now; at least one, maybe more. Coldwater veered to the left, then right and soon would start the nausea-inducing curves that gave the canyon roads character.
Should I keep going? Could I live without knowing if he was following me?
Could I sleep tonight?
Well, sleep. Who needed sleep?
You, Ruta said. You aren’t getting nearly enough. And you can’t lead him to your doorstep. We talked about this.
Why was I listening to a dead babysitter? What kind of way was that to live a life? What would Fredreeq do in this situation? What would Joey do?
I took a right on Mulholland, a turn so sharp it was nearly a U-turn.
In the rearview mirror, nothing. Good. I’d drive to some observation point and turn around. Mulholland Drive was littered with observation points.
I looked again. Headlights appeared, twin full moons in the blackness.
I panicked. I stepped on the gas.
What a stupid idea, trying to think like Joey. Joey loved driving. I didn’t. Teeth clenched, shoulders scrunched up around my ears, I negotiated the horrible turns. If Coldwater was curvy, it was nothing compared to Mulholland, the road through the mountains running to the sea. What was I doing, I who hadn’t bothered getting a driver’s license until my twenties? Why did I live in L.A.? I should’ve moved to New York long ago, or Boston, Chicago, Paris, Rome, Buenos Aires, anywhere with functioning public transportation. Failing that, I should never, ever go near Mulholland Drive, the road that killed James Dean, or was it Montgomery Clift? One of those sports car-mad movie stars and who knows how many other people over the years, crashing into the mountain on one side, driving off the cliff on the other, coyotes eating them, joggers finding what’s left of their bodies…
The headlights were still behind me, closer now. Tailgating.
How far to the next outpost of civilization? Beverly Glen? Yes, the Glen Center, with that Italian place, a video shop, sushi… could I make it that far?
He was right on top of me. Not just scary, but rude.
What to do? Slow down and he’d plow into me. Speed up and I’d drive off the road. There were places to pull over, but I couldn’t see them until I was passing them.
I turned on my brights. There-on the right. I pulled over.
He passed me.
He slowed. The taillights went from red to redder.
He went onto the shoulder, then into reverse, the red orbs coming toward me. Who backs up on Mulholland? Was he wearing a parachute?
I did a fast and awkward series of moves to get my car facing the other way, achieving it as his taillights grew close. I drove back toward Coldwater Canyon. How far was it? One mile? Six?
And then his headlights were behind me again. He’d made a U-turn. Did he have a death wish? And where could I go now?
TreePeople. Yes! At the corner of Mulholland and Coldwater, TreePeople, a nonprofit organization that planted trees, studied trees, lobbied for trees, gave tree tutorials, trees as Christmas presents… They’d help me. That’s what nonprofits do. And I’d made a donation-this year? Last year? Whenever. I was a donor, I was one of them. They’d rush to my defense, armed with-clubs. Tree stumps. Like medieval villagers.
He flashed his lights. What was that supposed to mean?
Would anyone be at TreePeople? They often had hikes during full moons, rustic fund-raisers, the well-heeled paying top dollar to roast marshmallows among the conifers. Was it a full moon? I glanced skyward. A moon, yes, but not-
The rearview mirror showed more flashing lights, veering to the right. He was trying to pass me. What kind of demented-?
Fine. I veered to the left, across the center line. If he wanted to risk a thousand-foot drop down the cliff, who was I to stop him?
He did. He passed me easily, thanks to a turnout on the right, then did a near-fishtail spin of his car, so that it came to rest on the center line, in profile, blocking the road completely. I slowed, then stopped.
We stared at each other.
It was him. The guy. The one from Hot Aloo. All I could see were eye sockets, but I knew the rest. Hard face. Blue eyes.
Here we go again, I thought. A strange sensation began sneaking up on me, a feeling that all the fluids in my body were draining downward, down my arms and legs. Soon they’d pool in my feet and my hands, swelling them all out of proportion, so that I wouldn’t be able to drive, my hands too heavy to raise to the steering wheel, my foot stuck on the brake. And where was there to go? To my left was a ditch. To my right the sheer drop. Behind me were darkness and death-defying curves.
I could ram my car into his. The problem was that people, particularly Los Angelenos, grow displeased when their cars are damaged. This man, already on emotional thin ice, judging by his driving habits, could crack. Why were we staring like this, in the dark? There was a hypnotic quality to it…
His car door opened. Okay, he wasn’t hypnotized. He came toward me, long stride, maximum ground covered with each step. Tall. A tall guy. Six foot five or six.
I slammed my Integra into reverse and hit the gas pedal. The engine roared and the car, inexplicably, went nowhere.
He reached my car.
My hand moved of its own volition to lock my doors. They were already locked.
He was at my window. He wore dark pants. A dark polo shirt. A belt. His crotch was at my eye level. I stared at it. My cell phone was in reach, but I knew it was worthless. Doc had talked me into it, for emergencies. He must’ve meant emergencies in neighborhoods with better cell signals.
I can’t stand to be afraid. When I’m cornered, my fear aversion is stronger than my fear, so strong that I experience a kind of denial and act as if what’s happening is not happening, as if I’m in a parallel universe where everyone is my friend and everything is fine. Joey calls it playing dumb. Fredreeq calls it dumb.
He was leaning down now, his face level with mine, elbows resting on the car door. With a flick of the hand, a snap of fingers against the glass, he motioned me to roll down my window.
The advantage of playing dumb is that it postpones the moment of confrontation, when you acknowledge you’re on opposite sides, when someone fires the first shot. If you’re already at a disadvantage-like, for instance, if your car’s in neutral when you thought it was in reverse-it gives you a chance to reach for a weapon. I slid my hand to the passenger seat, distracting him by rolling my window down an inch.
“Hi, there,” I said, and cleared my throat. “What’s up?”
He flicked his finger against the window again, motioning. “Come on. Open.”
“No, it’s chilly. Out there. There’s a chill in the air. I’m-”
“Chilled. Yeah. Open.” He didn’t look threatening, merely annoyed. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Then quit it!” Fear moved over, making room for anger. “If you’re not going to hurt me, quit scaring me, quit following me, quit driving me off the road-”
“I was trying to get you to pull over. Why didn’t you stop?”
“I did stop. I-” I rolled down the window, tired of talking through it. “I’m stopped. I stopped last night, too, I was cowering on the sidewalk forever, so why-”
“Larrabee. Outside my-” Don’t say “apartment,” dummy. Maybe he doesn’t realize you live there. “-friend Hubie’s apartment.”
He said nothing.
“So,” I said. “What do you want from me?”
Mulholland was quiet. Then an owl hooted. He spoke. His voice was conversational. “I’d like to think I made an impression on you the last time we met.”
“Yet here we are.”
He had nice breath. That’s unusual, when someone’s very close to you and you don’t know them and you find their breath appealing. It happens with babies, of course, but not often with people over the age of four. “Okay,” I said, “I have a question. When you told me to back off, did you-”
“I said ‘back off’?”
I thought about it. “Or ‘buzz off.’ ”
“I wouldn’t have said ‘buzz off.’ ”
No, he wasn’t the type. He was the type who dresses up for an airplane flight. “Back off, buzz off, words to that effect,” I said. “You didn’t say what from.”
The blue of his eyes was purple in the dark. He smelled like soap, like he’d just showered. For Saturday night. Such an intimate smell. “From what,” I amended. Maybe if I could keep my prepositions in their proper places, my thoughts would follow.
“What is that you’re holding?” he asked. “Price tag’s still on it.”
I looked down at my hand. “This is a meat mallet. I’ve been meaning to return it.” I put the silver gadget back in the Williams-Sonoma bag.
“What were you doing downtown this morning near Temple Street?”
“Looking for the morgue.”
That surprised him. After a moment he nodded. “I want you to rewind a week,” he said. “Go back to Sunday.”
“Okay.” Sunday: paying bills, clipping coupons, researching frogs, that leftover piece of quiche, so disappointing because of the soggy crust…
“Now stay there.”
I stared. “What the heck does that mean? Stay in Sunday?”
He turned to check out the traffic, which did not exist, or maybe to check out the owl. The owl quieted. He turned back. “Monday you showed up on my radar. I want you to drop off again.”
“Why don’t you just turn off the radar?”
“You don’t turn off radar.”
“Fine. I’m not a radiologist-”
“-but you’ll have to get more explicit about this problem you’re having.”
He leaned in very close. “You’re the problem I’m having. Think about the bad things you do. Then stop doing them.”
I blushed. I didn’t even know what I was blushing about. “I… um.”
His eyes were looking at my mouth. Was there food on it? When had I last eaten? No, there was nothing on my mouth but a pair of lips. Could it be he was going to kiss me? Was there something I’d said that made him think I wanted him to?
Did I want him to?
And then he was gone, a shadow in the moonlight, heading back to his car. But there was an echo of the thing he’d said so softly I wasn’t sure if he’d said it or if I’d just thought it. Five words.
“Forget you ever met her.”