Despite our director’s stoicism, we wrapped early Monday night. Bing’s fingers swelled so badly he had trouble operating the camera, and he swilled so much sake to deal with the pain that he fell over backward into the sushi bar, enraging the chef. Joey wasn’t there to do her producer thing, soothing ruffled feathers and handing out twenty-dollar bills, so we were asked to leave.
Tuesday morning, Fredreeq called to say she and Joey were en route to my apartment. “To take you to an undisclosed location, in order to save your life. Wear running shoes. Dress sporty.”
These last five were words I’d never expected to hear from Fredreeq. My curiosity aroused, I was waiting on the curb when Joey’s Mercedes pulled up. “Is this about the guy who broke Bing’s fingers?” I said, climbing into the back seat.
“Indirectly,” Joey said.
“Absolutely,” Fredreeq said. “It came to us the exact same moment. Bing’s gun went flying and we both thought, ‘Krav Maga.’ ”
Joey steered with her thigh and wrestled her red hair into a scrunchie. “I called Bing last night, but even drunk as a skunk, he wouldn’t say who the goatee guy was.”
“It’s obvious who he is. He’s blackmailing Bing.” Fredreeq pulled out a cell phone. “Keep talking. I just gotta call my kids.”
“Where’d you go last night?” I asked Joey.
“I tried to follow the goatee guy, just to see if I could. I couldn’t. I don’t even know when I lost him, because I followed what I thought was his truck all the way to Inglewood. I did get his license, though, right at the beginning.”
“The goatee guy,” Fredreeq said, putting away her cell phone, “works for Savannah Brook. Or organized crime in Vegas. He’s our saboteur. He’s the messenger, and here’s the message: Make sure Savannah Brook wins this contest or we make someone disappear. Annika, Wollie, Kimberly-”
Joey said, “That is the wackiest theory I’ve ever heard.”
“Wacky?” Fredreeq said. “You two ever hear of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding? Did I make that up? Did Pete Rose bet on baseball?”
“So what is this undisclosed location?” I asked. “We’re not going to buy an attack dog or dye my hair or-”
“Dye your hair?” Fredreeq turned around in the front seat to stare at me. “Are you drunk? Women in this town run to their colorists every six weeks to get that shade of blond. We just told you. Krav Maga.”
“Yes, but what is it?”
“Hebrew,” she said. “Very trendy.”
“A deli?” I said.
“Much more fun than that.” Joey zoomed across Sepulveda. “A martial art.”
Uh-oh. “Is this something we’re going to watch?”
“Nope,” Joey said. “It’s something we’re going to do.”
“But I don’t want to do this. This is not something I’d like doing.”
“It’s very hip,” Fredreeq said. “It’s more martial than art, so you don’t have to learn calligraphy and eat seaweed and wear those white pajamas.” She, I now noticed, was wearing tight, rainbow-colored workout clothes. “In less time than it takes to get your teeth capped, they turn you into a killing machine.”
I didn’t want to become a killing machine. I articulated this as clearly as I could, but my friends were unmoved. My life was at stake, Fredreeq said. Was I or wasn’t I being stalked? Forget getting myself a gun. Had a gun helped Bing? Or Annika?
This would give me confidence, Joey said; I owed it to myself to give it a try.
I expected a low-ceilinged, mildewy room, because an old boyfriend had taken karate in a place like that, but Krav Maga shared the ground floor of the City National Bank building, and maybe the bank’s decorator and cleaning service. It was an aesthetically pleasing space, with a small boutique near the front, displaying, among other things, Krav Maga baby T-shirts.
Three people worked behind the desk, one more cheerful than the next. “Excessively happy people signify cult activities,” I whispered to Joey. A lovely girl introduced herself as Taffy, checked us in, had us sign a waiver in case we were maimed during the introductory class, and handed us three pairs of leather gloves.
“Not me. Sciatica,” Fredreeq said, indicating her lower back. “I’m just here for moral support.”
Taffy nodded and explained that the free introductory classes were usually held on Saturdays, but one had been added this week due to a sudden holiday demand.
“Are people anticipating a Thanksgiving crime wave?” I asked.
“Exactly.” Taffy smiled, immune to sarcasm. “The Orange County ATM thieves.”
“But this is a Jewish organization?” I asked, growing crankier by the minute. “And you work on the Sabbath?”
“Imi, our founder, was Jewish, but we’re open to everyone. I’m Presbyterian. And we train seven days a week, because criminals work seven days a week. This way!” She came out from behind her desk and led us through a lobby surrounded by workout rooms. The workout rooms had windows for walls, enabling us to see the people within, red-faced, dripping with sweat, punching bags with rigorous intensity. One man had strange headgear on. A woman’s knees were bandaged. No one was smiling. “Level two,” Taffy said, pointing. “And over there is Fight.”
And this was supposed to sell us on the program? What kind of people enjoyed watching other people suffer?
Joey. She was salivating, a diabetic looking into a bakery. Fredreeq inspected the lobby, pointing out vending machines, a TV suspended from the ceiling, and walls covered with photographs, magazine covers, and articles featuring testimonials from movie stars and cops. “Tasteful,” Fredreeq said. “Like the first-class lounge at the airport.”
Taffy pointed to the locker rooms and sent us on our way.
I expected our instructor to be some Special Forces type from the Israeli army, but again, they outmaneuvered me. Ten of us, all sizes, shapes, and ages, stood around, looking mostly uncomfortable, and at 8:47, a lanky guy disengaged himself from a trio of teenage girls, walked to the front of the room, popped a CD into a player, and introduced himself as Seth.
Seth had shaggy hair obscuring puppy eyes, and the energy level of someone who’d woken suddenly out of a sound sleep to find himself in the front of this room. He pressed a button and soft, alternative rock music massaged our ears. In a self-deprecating voice, Seth rattled off his r'esum'e: a couple of black belts, in karate, Tae Kwon Do, Ho Chi Minh-I lost track. Then he pulled off his worn sweatshirt to reveal a tank top underneath, which in turn revealed a torso like the ones you see on late-night TV, belonging to guys selling exercise equipment. He told us about Imi Lichtenfeld, the guy who’d come up with Krav Maga, and demonstrated the martial art’s only formality, the bow, accompanied by some word that meant, in some language or other, “bow.”
“Ordinarily, we’d turn to the back of the room, to Imi’s photo, but there doesn’t seem to be one in this room, so, uh-” Seth smiled sheepishly. “Okay, just bow to me.”
I decided this wasn’t so bad after all, that it was, in fact, a cute sort of martial art, with cute bows, a cute instructor, and a founder with the cute little name of Imi.
Then the music changed.
Heavy metal took over as we jumped, jogged, kicked, punched, hopped, yelled, hammered, elbowed, kneed, ducked, and weaved ourselves into a frenzy. This explained the waivers. Seth, his sleepiness gone, egged us on. Periodically, he yelled “Time!” and let us sit, panting like dogs, as he demonstrated antimugging techniques. He attacked a punching bag with such force that the heavy bag flopped around like a balloon, decimating any doubts I’d had about his teaching credentials.
“Best targets? Crotch, neck, soft parts of the face. Knees. Eyes.” He smiled apologetically. “Some people get a little squeamish about eye gouging. But look: if you see an opening, don’t waste it on someone’s arm or their abs-a guy’s in good shape, he might not even feel it. Maybe you only get one shot. Maybe he’s got a knife. Maybe there’s three of them and one of you. Do the math. Make it count.”
I hate it when people say “do the math.” I didn’t want to do math. I didn’t want to do this. I wanted to go paint frogs.
I glanced in the mirror. My face was tomato red, my bangs sticking out, stiff with sweat and last night’s hairspray. I’d worn two jogging bras to keep my breasts from having a life of their own. I didn’t have the physique for this. I didn’t have the physique for any sport except wet T-shirt contests.
Joey was another story. Built like a skinny fifteen-year-old, she was in her element. She caught my eye in the mirror and winked.
“Defense and counterattack,” Seth said, “are peanut butter and jelly. Self-defense without counterattack gets you killed, if you’re dealing with someone bigger, or someone with a stick, screwdriver, handgun…”
Screwdrivers? People were out there with screwdrivers?
“The main thing is, you don’t give up,” Seth said. “If you walk away with nothing else from today, take this: worst thing you can do is curl up in a ball and quit. Don’t quit, don’t get in their car, keep screaming, keep fighting. I don’t care how scared you are or how bad you’re hurt. If you’re not dead, you’re not done.”
“Is this great?” Joey bounced past in search of a towel. “Everything he talks about makes me think of sex.”
Before I could wonder about my friend’s carnal habits, we were back on the attack. Seth told me I was doing fine, I just needed to rotate my hips when I punched, but I knew what he meant was “You have no aptitude for this-I’ve seen houseplants in better shape.” Still, I appreciated his tact and, of course, his amazing muscles.
And then it was over. We bowed to Seth, Seth bowed to us, and I staggered into the locker room while Joey went to the front desk to sign up for a lifetime membership.
Twenty minutes later I found Fredreeq in the waiting area talking to a bald man who looked like he’d just been released from the state penitentiary. I was reading a testimonial letter on the wall when I heard him say, “Here she is now. Hey, Savannah!”
I looked up to see a petite woman in a baseball cap and a T-shirt that said “Contact Combat” hurry past the front desk. Even hearing her name, I needed a moment to place her as my fellow B.C. contestant, because I’d never seen her in the flesh.
Fredreeq hissed, flattening herself against a vending machine. Her tie-dyed spandex did not lend itself to inconspicuousness, and I didn’t understand the need for secrecy, but her paranoia was contagious. Obviously, she hadn’t expected Savannah to show up here. I looked for shelter.
Too late. Savannah raced across the lobby, cell phone to ear, and reached up to flick a switch on the television mounted on the wall. She was halfway between Fredreeq and me but paid no attention to either of us, or to the man who’d called her name. She stared at the TV and I stared too, at ads for cat food, allergy medication, and dental stain removers and, then, a Channel 4 Live late-breaking-news special report.
I knew him at once, the face smiling down at us, a face made for TV. Missing for forty-eight hours, the reporter said. Student at Pepperdine. Son of a congressman.
His face disappeared, replaced by a couple in their mid-forties facing a barrage of cameras. The man looked familiar. Congressman Rodriguez, a journalist called him, asking a question I didn’t catch. The congressman nodded. “Richard was to drive home Sunday to join us on a family trip to Telluride for Thanksgiving. He spoke to his mother Saturday afternoon, confirming he’d be home for dinner. To our knowledge, that’s the last anyone’s heard from him.”
Another journalist asked a question, one that Channel 4 didn’t pick up, but it didn’t matter. The camera tightened on Mrs. Rodriguez, lovely, blond, anxious. Her answer came out softly. “His favorite. Linguine with clam sauce.”
His mother. A chill went up and down my spine, a feeling that had nothing to do with the shower I’d just taken, the wet hair dripping down my back. It was the sudden conviction I had that Mrs. Rodriguez would never make that particular meal again.