I drove toward West Hollywood in a daze. “Forget you ever met her,” he’d said.
Forget her? I couldn’t forget him, and I didn’t even know him.
I replayed our conversations. For some reason this man wanted me to give up looking for Annika but wouldn’t come out and say so. What kind of enforcer, or whatever he was, followed someone only to play twenty questions? Maybe he was just a bad bad guy. A novice. A bad guy with scruples. A big, blue-eyed bad guy who looked like he was in good shape, judging by the close-up I’d had of his waist, which suggested abdominal exercises, because a lot of guys get a little cuddly right there once they hit forty, which the lines on his face suggested to me he had. I liked the lines on his face. The hardness of his face. I like a face that’s been around.
Okay, he was on my radar now.
The question was, Why was I on his? Why bother with me? It’s not like I was doing such a bang-up job of finding Annika.
Unless I was closer than I knew. Maybe I’d ruffled someone’s feathers asking about her. Not Marty Otis: I couldn’t imagine this man, this blue-eyed force of nature, in the employ of rabbity little Marty.
But I didn’t have to worry about it tonight. He was done for the night, unless he suddenly remembered another cryptic utterance he had to make. I should give him my phone number, save him some gas. Maybe he had it, I thought, remembering the recent hang-ups.
The guy lurking last night on Larrabee-when I’d alluded to the incident, Mr. Tall had said, “Last night?” like he didn’t know what I was talking about.
He didn’t know what I was talking about. They weren’t partners.
Someone else was following me too.
The thought made me swerve. Get a grip, I told myself, clutching the wheel. I hated this Integra, Doc’s hand-me-down. It swerved too easily. I checked the rearview mirror. Yes, there was a car behind me. Two cars, four, endless cars, hundreds of people following me, a nocturnal procession. When we got out of the canyon into the flat part of Beverly Hills, my cell phone rang, alerting me to missed calls. Three. All from Fredreeq. I called her back, with compulsive glances into the rearview mirror.
“Joey told me we have another stalker situation,” she said. “She waited for you to call back and now she’s having sex with her husband, so I’m taking over. You home?”
“No. Car. Sunset. Beverly Hills. Fredreeq, I’m scared to go home. There was someone outside the apartment last night and-”
“I’ll talk you through this. Francis and I are at a bowling alley with Franceen’s sixth-grade class. We got eight more frames. That should get you parked and inside the apartment and you can check all your closets.”
“What if I don’t make it, what if-”
“I hear any screaming, I put you on hold and call 911.”
“That’s ridiculous, it’ll be too late-”
“It won’t be too late, because it won’t happen. I’m not saying you’re not being followed, but I know nothing bad will happen this week. I just did your chart. Nobody gets hurt with the two major trines you got going.”
Astrology. I have no firm opinion on its merits, but Fredreeq was willing to put my life on the line for it. She talked trines and sextiles and a bunch of other mathematical-sounding jargon while I made random turns on the sleepy blocks of Elevado, Linden, and Carmelita. Then I was back on Sunset, heading west, reasonably sure I’d lost anyone who wasn’t following me from a hot-air balloon.
I was still on the phone an hour later. I was in bed, holding a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies and dressed in my signs-of-the-zodiac flannel pajamas, a gift from Fredreeq four Christmases ago, so fragile now I wore them only in times of stress.
“Pick you up at ten-thirty tomorrow,” Fredreeq said. “Lights out now. No math, no frogs. You need your beauty sleep.”
I may have needed it, but not even the threat of waking up as Tammy Faye Bakker could get me to sleep at that moment. I said good-bye, the face of the blue-eyed man rising in front of me, as if he’d been lounging on the edge of my consciousness, eavesdropping, waiting to take center stage and obsess me some more.
I saw him in his polo shirt, and then in his suit. I saw him in the fluorescence of the minimall and the moonlight of Mulholland. I thought of all the ways I’d seen him and expanded on that, imagining him in a grocery store picking out produce, in a movie theater eating popcorn, in my kitchen.
I saw him in boxer shorts, kicking back on the sofa, watching CNN.
My God. I opened my package of cookies. What was happening to me?
My eyes wandered to a bookcase across the room, to a photo of Doc and Ruby. Black Irish, dark hair, infectious smiles, both. This is your fault, I told them. I wouldn’t be having these kinds of thoughts if you guys hadn’t left me.
My ex-fianc'e looked back at me with lovely, normal brown eyes. Don’t eat all of those Mint Milanos in one sitting, they seemed to say.
I awoke with a start, amid cookie crumbs and with Amphibians and You: A Layman’s Guide to Creatures of the Air and Water facedown on my stomach. I jumped up, driven by the idea that had wakened me.
Annika, like Maizie’s husband, Gene, used both sides of sheets of paper.
All the stray paper in my life was stuffed into file boxes on the floor of Hubie’s bedroom closet. I switched on the light and rummaged through sketches, greeting card ideas, tax receipts, and photocopied frogs, searching for math homework.
Annika didn’t like textbooks. “These books are stupid, Wollie. They tell you facts or equations that connect to nothing. We will make our own equations.” She’d done these on her computer, decorating them with flowers and frogs, bringing them to our tutorials each week to illustrate the philosophies, practical applications, and mathematicians she loved to talk about. The equations themselves were of no interest to me now, of course. What I cared about were the backs of my math work sheets.
I found them. Half of the flip sides were printed-out e-mails, the end pages with all the incomprehensible-to me, anyway-data. I set these aside. Maybe there was a way to e-mail these people, but the data looked German, and wouldn’t her mother have contacted Annika’s German friends already?
There were pages that weren’t e-mail: four in German, a recipe in English, a sheet with the words “Emma, EMMA, emma, Emma, Emma, EmmMzzzapso,” Annika’s work schedule, forty-five hours over the course of a five-day week, and a downloaded bank statement showing $165.38 for the month of September.
And there was a fragment of an e-mail. In English.
“because this is life in Hollywood. So my host father says. But me, I think it is not fair your life is horrible because of one person! It is better you quit, but then, no Biological Uhr (sorry! spell?) in Munich? So I think you will stay. BE CAREFUL. Can R.R. not help, if it is dangerous? Okay, we are Friday in Tahiti on holiday, so no e-mail but good news, no snow! (I share room with the baby but at least, maid service!) Ciao! Marie-Th'er`ese
I read it again. I ate four Mint Milano cookies and kept reading. Marie-Th'er`ese must be another au pair. The job in Munich would be Biologische Uhr, which Annika planned to coproduce. Despite Biological Clock’s dismal ratings in America, a German company wanted to try their own version. A nineteen-year-old girl without connections or education getting to coproduce would be a small miracle, but that’s what Bing had promised. His sponsorship and her experience on our show would put it within reach.
“How lucky am I?” she’d said just weeks ago. “To work in TV! In Munich. My mother will move, to be near me. This job is the best of anything I can imagine.”
So what had happened? The Annika I’d known until that last, disturbing night on the set had been incorrigibly cheerful. Maizie, though, had noticed a change, and so had Paul. Marie-Th'er`ese implied that the problem lay in the show itself, a problem serious enough to warrant quitting. But to suggest that R.R. help? That must be Rico Rodriguez, but the Rico I’d met was not likely to drive four miles out of his way to help Annika Gl"uck.
Except that Rico had been disturbed to hear she wanted a gun.
The return-path line at the bottom of the page, I realized, would be the e-mail address for Marie-Th'er`ese. The whole thing could be cleared up in a few short sentences.
I danced out to the kitchen to start up my computer. This was it. I knew the key was finding Annika’s friends. Girlfriends. Rico might be cavalier about her fate. Marie-Th'er`ese was clearly not.
I carefully composed the e-mail, explaining my relationship to Annika and the situation. I encouraged Marie-Th'er`ese to call me anytime, collect, or to e-mail me. I sent it off, ate six more Mint Milanos, and went to bed.
I didn’t sleep well, tossing on Hubie’s California king-sized feather-top mattress, kicking at the sheets assaulting me. In my dreams I fled from a man, my feet turning to concrete as I ran. When I turned to him he smiled from behind the wheel of his big car, one eye brown and one blue. “Are you Richard Feynman?” I asked.
“Forget her,” he said.
“Ruby?” I said. “How can I forget Ruby? She’s just a little girl.”
But he drove away, and I saw a face in the back of his car, its nose pressed against the window. A little blond girl. Not even three. Two and three-quarters.
When I woke the next morning, my computer informed me that my e-mail to Marie-Th'er`ese had been returned, undeliverable.