“Sazheeq, this is Wollie,” Fredreeq said. “Auntie Freddie’s friend.”
I squinted through the window at the child in the car seat that took up half of Fredreeq’s Volvo. We were in front of Wee Willie Winkies Preschool, on a quiet block of Moorpark in Studio City, in time for Music with Miss Grusha. “Hello, Sazheeq,” I said.
Sazheeq said nothing. She was two and a half, younger than Emma Quinn but as tall, I could tell-all skinny arms and legs and pigtails.
“Come say hello to Aunt Wollie.” Fredreeq hauled her niece out of the car and deposited her in my arms. Sazheeq climbed out of my arms. “Remember: french fries afterward if you’re good. We’ll rendezvous at Mickey D’s.”
Miss Grusha’s was crowded. Two- and three-year-olds with attendant adults sat on the floor of the small room amid toys. A thin woman in red overalls and implausibly blond hair jumped up from the piano to greet us. “I am Grusha. You are Wollie? This is Sazheeq?” She was no spring chicken, but she looked like she could give toddlers a run for their money in the energy department. “Come,” she said, taking Sazheeq’s hand. “Tell us your favorite song so Miss Grusha may play it for you on the piano. If I sound funny it is because I have an accent. Miss Grusha is Russian.”
Sazheeq, finding this acceptable, walked off with Miss Grusha. I joined the group of moms and mom substitutes on the floor.
“Adorable girl,” one said. “Adopted?”
“Uh, no,” I said, then realized that this was the most reasonable explanation for a pale white adult with a very black-skinned child. “I’m taking care of her.”
This did not dispel curiosity; a black child with an Anglo-Saxon nanny would be sociologically odd. I was about to say I’d borrowed her but then I’d have to explain that, and what was the point of a cover story if you spilled the beans at the outset?
The woman introduced herself as Rachel. She pointed out her son, Brandon, and recited the names of the eight other children, all of which I immediately forgot. Rachel then rejoined her conversational pod, discussing someone’s pediatrician’s divorce. Two other women chatted in Spanish. An Asian girl stared out the door, clearly bored, the only adult young enough to be Annika’s peer. I crawled over to her under the pretext of recovering a Nerf ball. “Hi,” I whispered. “Do you know Annika Gl"uck?” She looked at me as if I’d suggested something distasteful and moved away.
I’d crawled back to Rachel to ask her the same question when a musical triangle sounded. On cue, the children tossed toys into a wicker basket. Miss Grusha went to shut the door, just as Maizie Quinn and little Emma squeaked through.
Maizie scanned the room and saw me. A look of surprise replaced her smile, then curiosity as Sazheeq sat next to me. Emma waved in a matter-of-fact way, as though seeing me in her music class were an everyday occurrence.
The next hour we danced with scarves, hopped like bunnies, rode hobbyhorses, sang songs involving hand puppets on a shopping spree, and acted out a condensed version of The Nutcracker Suite with me assigned the role of someone’s uncle. Sazheeq spent part of the time watching, part of the time trying to open the door and make a break, and part of the time lying spread-eagled on the floor, barking like a dog. I attempted talking to her during a dog episode, but this brought forth a scream of such epic proportions that I backed off. Other children hugged, climbed on, and clung to their attendants, but at no time did Sazheeq treat me as anything but a chance-met stranger of dubious character. This caregiver business wasn’t as easy as it looked.
Others seemed to enjoy themselves, and Maizie had particular success as a sugarplum fairy, suggesting ballet in her past. Class was still in progress when she and Emma took off. “Nanny interviews,” she said, and left behind homemade pumpkin cupcakes in honor of Thanksgiving week. Miss Grusha handed out napkins and sent us outside to plastic tables. This was my opportunity.
I told Rachel that Annika had disappeared, that I was looking for anyone who’d been a friend of hers, and that Maizie had recommended this class as a place to start. Rachel was astonished, concerned, and delighted to be drafted. “Georgine! Michelle!” She hailed moms from the cupcake tables. “Come!”
I recounted to them the events of the past week.
“I’m shocked.” Georgine, in workout clothes and full makeup, looked less shocked than titillated. “She was the "ubernanny. I tried to hire her. Offered her a real salary, but she wouldn’t leave that family. I bet they have a seriously nice house. Seen it?”
“Yes. Very nice,” I said. “So Annika didn’t seem depressed to you, or-”
“No,” Georgine and Rachel said together. The other mom, Michelle, was silent.
“Did she ever talk about a Marie-Th'er`ese? Richard Feynman?” I asked.
More head shaking.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Georgine said. “Maizie, Emma’s mom? Not that she’s unattractive, but come on. She’s not twenty. I don’t care how good her cupcakes are, she’s nuts to have a girl as pretty as Annika live in.”
“Maybe she’s divorced,” Rachel said.
“No, there’s a husband,” I said. “I’ve never met him, but she talks about him.”
“I’ve met him,” Georgine said. “An HMO doc, so I bet she has to work. And those guys don’t keep super-long hours, not like real doctors, so there you go.”
“What are you saying, the husband had an affair with Annika?” Rachel asked.
Georgine glanced at the picnic table. “Hallie, no more cupcakes, you’ll get carsick,” she called, then turned back to us. “It happens. Ever read Jane Eyre?”
Good God. This was something I’d never considered.
Michelle, an athletic brunette, smiled. “So why would you hire her, Georgine?”
“I was separated. Last summer, before Allen came crawling back. Now I’ve got Maria, two hundred pounds and gray hair. Hallie loves her, Allen doesn’t. Hallie! Two more minutes, then we have to go shoe shopping!”
Belatedly, I remembered my own charge. Sazheeq, now in the sandbox, was bathed in orange frosting. How many of those damn cupcakes had she eaten? Stricken, I went to collect her. The party broke up as bigger children and their keepers filtered in for the next class. I separated Sazheeq from the sandbox and Miss Grusha separated twenty-five dollars from me, saying she hoped to see us again.
Rachel wished me luck. “Georgine might be right, but I’ll tell you, I never saw a kid and a nanny crazy about each other like Emma and Annika. I hope for Emma’s sake that you find her. And that it’s nothing-you know. Icky.”
When we got out to the parking lot, Michelle was squatting in front of a Jeep Cherokee, brushing crumbs from her son’s overalls. She stood when she saw Sazheeq and me and flagged us down.
“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Georgine,” she said, “but two weeks ago-well, the last time I saw her-Annika asked me how to find a lawyer. I told her I’m a lawyer. I don’t practice, but I’m a member of the bar. She got a little flustered and said no, she needs the kind who finds lost people, an immigration lawyer. I said that’s not what lawyers do, but she said she’d heard of ones who find people who disappear.”
My heart was beating a little faster. “Disappear.”
Michelle looked down at her son and Sazheeq, staring at each other the way children do before manners set in and force them to either converse or feign disinterest. “Disappear into the judicial system. Noncitizens, held without charges, who don’t get a phone call. She heard about it on National Public Radio.” She rubbed her forehead. “I was in a hurry. I said, Don’t worry, you’re not a terrorist, this wouldn’t happen to you. But she wasn’t the worrying type. She was in trouble, I’m thinking now. Damn it. I should’ve asked more questions.”
“Damn it,” the little boy repeated.
“Okay, you, jump in your car seat,” Michelle said. She opened the Jeep and her son climbed in the back. She reached into her glove compartment, withdrew a business card, and handed it to me. “In case you find her and she’s in trouble. I did estate planning, so as a lawyer, I may not be much help. But as a mother I may be.”
Michelle’s words rang in my ears. I dialed Annika’s mother, as I’d been doing periodically since waking up. I’d done the same the day before, Sunday, until ten P.M. German time. The response was the same now as it had been the last eight tries.
No one picked up the phone.
The answering machine wasn’t on.
Mrs. Gl"uck seemed, in fact, to have disappeared.
There were no horned frogs on my mural. I realized this as I changed into an old pair of Doc’s sweatpants at the Mansion. I was not fond of the grumpy, cannibalistic ceratophrines and had let personal taste outweigh artistic considerations, but really, is eating one’s own species worse than eating “prekilled” pinkie mice or the vitamin-dusted crickets that other pet frogs call lunch? And while I found horned frogs homely, Tricia might thrill to them. People did.
I found a place over the vegetable sink for a Chaco horned frog, Ceratophrys cranwelli, and set to work. To achieve the mottled effect of the Chaco’s brown-on-beige markings, I needed a daub cloth, and I was searching the Mansion for a rag when I recalled something else about the Chaco. And about Annika.
It was nearly the last time I’d seen her. She’d been looking through one of my frog books, lying on the floor of my apartment. “How do you call this one?” she’d asked. “Chay-ko, like the drug lord?”
I’d told her my guess was Chock-o, more Spanish-sounding, since the frogs were South American. And then, wondering why a drug lord would be a point of reference, I’d asked what her interest in Tcheiko was.
“He grew up in East Berlin,” she’d said. “We hear of him, even before-but he is so evil, this man, and scary-” And then she’d changed the subject, visibly disturbed. I’d wanted to tell her she wasn’t responsible for every bad egg who ever lived in Berlin.
I wondered about this now, thinking about the bedroom eyes I’d seen in International Celeb, but the thoughts troubled me, and I tried to focus on work. I tore off one leg of Doc’s sweatpants below the knee, creating a daub cloth. If I’d had a degree in graphic arts, maybe I’d be better equipped for this kind of work, instead of making up tools as I went along. Not that it was a big sacrifice; the sweatpants were spattered with saffron-colored paint and destined for the ragbag anyway. Which would please Fredreeq.
What wouldn’t please Fredreeq was me stopping for gas on the way home, in full view of Ventura Boulevard at rush hour, without changing back into my “good” sweats. While the gas pumped, I went for the squeegee. A dirty car is a moral issue in L.A., making my Integra a degenerate. A sports car pulled up behind me-strange, considering there were four empty self-serve islands at the station. I turned toward it.
The car was clean. Metallic. A grille like a flyswatter.
A man got out of the car. Tall. Very tall.
The Guy. The Mulholland menace. My heart started thump thump thumping away, the blood sprinting through my veins.
If I dove into my car and drove off, would the pump go with me or would the hose disengage, spraying gas all over Ventura Boulevard? What about my gas cap?
The man walked toward me. Long strides. Relaxed.
What should’ve concerned me was that we were the only ones here at the gas station-not counting the clerk inside, who wasn’t paid enough to intervene, should this encounter turn dangerous. What did concern me, of course, was how I looked.
He stopped in front of me, inches away, and settled against my extremely dirty car, hands in pockets. A beautifully casual pose, like a clothing ad.
“Hello,” I said. It came out crackly. I cleared my throat. “Hello. Again.”
I could sense his body temperature. Standing this close to someone signaled impending contact: Teeth cleaning. An eye exam. Assault.
This preoccupation with kissing: could I be coming down with a psychiatric disorder, some late-onset obsessive-compulsive stress-induced-
“I beg your pardon?” I looked down to see the windshield squeegee raining soapy water onto my pants, my saffron-spotted sweatpants, cut off below the knee on the left side, as if I’d borrowed them from a peg-leg pirate.
He reached out and took the squeegee and set to work on my windshield.
I stood, lumplike. Another person would’ve asked what kind of stalker cleans his victim’s windshield, but not me because I was too busy watching his forearms flex. He wore a pale yellow dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His arms were muscular, tanned, with fine blond hair glinting under the gas station lights and a silver watch going back and forth, back and forth with the squeegee, his moves displaying the grace of an athlete or a professional gas station attendant.
Why on earth was he doing this? Why wasn’t I asking?
He finished, returned the squeegee to its water pail, and instead of using the paper-towel dispenser, wiped his hand on the back of his pants, which made me like him more. They were beautiful pants, charcoal, well-fitting, knife-creased, worn with a belt I recognized as a Cartier. Not that I was staring, I told myself. It’s just sad, having a stalker so much better dressed than oneself.
“Shall I check the oil?”
I dragged my eyes from his lower anatomy to his face. “No, thanks. I already did that this year.”
He smiled. His face wasn’t hard after all. How had this happened? “I was wrong about you,” he said. “You’re a very good girl, aren’t you?”
I winced. Guys did not, in general, fall for very good girls, any more than girls went for very nice guys. I tried to keep the defensive note out of my voice. “Sometimes I leave shopping carts in the parking lot instead of returning them to their racks.”
An eyebrow went up.
“Sometimes I eat grapes in the produce section. I tell myself it’s to make sure they’re not sour, but after the first eight or ten, I lose credibility. Also, I read magazines I don’t buy.”
“Is all your bad behavior grocery based?”
“I don’t rotate my tires.”
We were flirting. How could we be flirting?
He disengaged the gas nozzle from the Integra with a little flip, sending drops of gasoline flying. It struck me how masculine a gas nozzle is, how feminine a gas tank-how had this escaped my attention my whole life, the sexual nature of pumping gas? He pressed a button on the credit card pad, screwed on my gas cap, then took the receipt that popped out of the machine and handed it to me. “Going home?”
“What?” I was completely distracted by the sex act I’d just witnessed.
“Go home. Take Sepulveda; Coldwater’s bad right now, Beverly Glen too. Freeway’s worse.” He went to the driver’s door and opened it.
I just stood, staring.
“Unless,” he said, “you need to stop at the store for a quick crime spree?”
I shook my head, less in response than to disperse the fog of bewilderment. I felt a horizontal gravitational pull toward him. I resisted it.
“Come,” he said.
I stopped resisting. I can’t say why. I got into the car, and he shut the door after me, gently, then leaned down and in.
“Who are you?” I said.
He smiled. That was it. It changed his whole face. “I’ll call you when you’re home,” he said. “Shouldn’t take more than an hour.”
I did not go home. I might’ve had a mental disorder, I might’ve been under the effect of toxic gas fumes, but I’m not a lemming; I don’t just go home because tall, well-dressed strangers with strong opinions about routes tell me to. I went west on Ventura, because that’s the direction my car was facing, coming out of the gas station. When he passed me and speeded up, that metallic sports car weaving in and out of traffic like a movie stunt car, I did a clumsy U-turn and went on with my life.