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22

By eleven Id gone home, changed, and made it to Santa Monica College. I had yet to feel the happy effects of the astrological transit Mercury trine Saturn that Fredreeq had promised.

The first thing Id done, from Krav Maga, was call Detective Cziemanski. If the cops hadnt made a connection between the disappearance of Rico Rodriguez and the disappearance of his girlfriend Annika, I could save them time. Cziemanski didnt answer, so I explained this to his voice mail. I told myself Ricos plight could be good for Annika, focusing attention on her case, but this didnt cheer me up. Seeing Ricos mother on TV had been profoundly disturbing.

The last thing I needed was a math test, but postponing it didnt make sense, so I braved the parking facility and trudged across campus to the Liberal Arts Building, only to find the assessment-test office closed. Doughnut break?

I walked to the cafeteria for a doughnut of my own and realized that if the police were really going to focus on Annika, things could get complicated. I rummaged through my backpack and found the number for Britta, the au pair from San Marino, and left a message on her host familys machine. In the cafeteria, I tried Cziemanski again, and got lucky. He apologized for our last conversation, then got to the point. Everyones heard about the Rodriguez case, he said. The senators son.

Congressmans son, I said. He was dating Annika Gl"uck.

There was a pause. Really?

Yes. I talked to Rico last week. He had no idea where Annika was and now hes gone too, and thats an awfully big coincidence, dont you think?

Its worth looking into, he said. Ill put in a call to the detective on the case.

Why arent you the detective on the case? Youre Annikas detective, and if its a-a serial disappearance, shouldnt all the cases get the same detective?

First, Annikas case right now is a missing persons report. Second, Rodriguez goes to Sheriffs Department, not LAPD. Third, we dont know theyre related; if they are, LASD may get both.

How come Ricos is a case and Annikas isnt? Because his dads important?

No. Thats why it made the news. Its a case because the kids Corvette was found at LAX twenty-four hours after he was supposed to be home for dinner.

That doesnt sound so dire, I said. Maybe he made a detour to Tijuana.

Another pause. If he did, he left two grand in the glove compartment. And what looks to be his own blood all over the trunk.

Oh. Id missed that, back in my apartment, channel surfing. The case was on the local stations, but Id caught only snippets, most featuring Ricos father, John J. Rodriguez: Johns career as congressman, Johns business as an industrial developer, and Johns ex-model wife, Lauren. One reporter stood outside the Rodriguezs multimillion-dollar home in Lost Hills. John and Lauren did not appear, but a Dalmatian was spotted on the front lawn, its identity confirmed as the family dog, Hero.

His own blood in the trunk of his car. I felt sick. I pushed aside my doughnut, wishing Id eaten it before calling Cziemanski.

I was headed back to Liberal Arts when my attention was caught by a guy smiling as he walked toward me. I couldnt place him, but I smiled back anyway, on general principle.

He stopped. Wendy, he said.

No, uh-

Winnie.

Its Wollie.

Troy. He stuck out his hand, and we shook. We met last month. Some coffee place in West Hollywood. Im Annikas friend. Well, her tutoree. Tutee. Whatever. And youre her other one, right? Alle meine Entchen?

Um, I dont speak German. Sorry.

Oh, okay, Im a geek. He gave me a quizzical look. She wasnt tutoring you?

In math, not German, I said. What was it you just said?

Oh. He grinned. This nursery-rhyme thing she made me memorize, to help with prepositions. I figured youd know it too.

Something nibbled at my memory banks. How does it go?

Well, she told me not to try picking up German girls with it, theyd laugh at me.

I smiled. Why? Whats it mean?

Okay. He smiled again, dimples showing. Alle meine Entchen-thats, uh, all my little duckies-Schwimmen auf dem See, schwimmen auf dem See-swimming in the sea, swimming in the sea-K"opfchen in das Wasser, Schw"anzchen in die H"oh, heads in the water, tails in the air. Okay, the plots weak, but you know what? It helped. I aced my German final. Shell be so jazzed. Bin ich nicht gut? Hey, do you know, is she out of town?

With a shake of the head, I told him what was going on, and watched his face fall.

Disappeared? Youre kidding, he said. That is, like, so weird.

Yeah, it is weird.

Yeah. He gazed off, clearly troubled. The last time I saw her was right here. Well, there. In front of the bookstore. Man, you wanna know whats really weird- He stopped, looked at me, then at his watch. Shit, eleven fifty-two? Shit! My psych teacher said one more late, it counts against my grade. Sorry, man- He turned and took off at a lope.

But-!

Cant slow down, he yelled over his shoulder.

I loped after him. I hate loping. It attracts stares. Troy! Wait up! I yelled. Also, I wasnt in loping shape. Especially after Krav Maga.

Happily, Troy wasnt in shape either. He slowed, I caught up with him, and we switched to racewalking. Jeez, he said. Gotta get to the gym more.

Me too, I said. So whats really weird about Annika disappearing?

He held up a hand, battling for breath. Confidential.

I said, I already know she was looking for a lawyer, and a gun, that she worried about disappearing into the criminal justice system-

He stopped. No shit?

I stopped too. Nodded.

Okay, shit. He was panting heavily. Not good. I was the one who told her this could happen. This means-what? It means she did what I told her not to. Unless shed done it already. You know, Im pretty sure I shouldnt talk about this.

Troy. I fought for breath and patience. I have no idea what youre not talking about, but as I seem to be the only person in North America looking for her, anything you know-please. Please, please, please.

Troy veered to the right, and I veered with him, still racewalking. We passed the facilities maintenance building. Okay, he said. I told her about how my roommates brother in Chicago got in trouble with the Feds because he lent his cell phone to someone who was part of a drug deal that was going down. He disappeared-

The drug dealer?

No, my roommates brother. The Feds arrested him on conspiracy, and he didnt get a phone call, so no one knew where he was. For, like, two weeks. Of course, hes Iranian.

Your roommates brother?

My roommate too. Second generation. No accent whatsoever, and not even Moslem or Muslim or whatever, but they busted him anyway. Hes doing time now.

For conspiracy. I was struggling to follow the story. Hows this tie in to Annika?

Man, shes German. The Feds totally have it in for Germans. And the French.

Why would she even come to their attention? Shes an au pair in Encino.

Troy looked at me, then away. Wed reached an old, fairly ugly brick building. He took the stairs two at a time, and at the top grasped a railing to recover, breathing hard. Apparently he wasnt here on an athletic scholarship. She wouldnt, he said, come to their attention. If she was smart. Thats what I told her.

The conversation couldnt have been less clear if it were in German. Does this have to do with guns? Or drugs? Or a guy named Feynman?

Troy said nothing. My heartbeat, already in the anaerobic range, beat faster. I could see him teetering on the fence: to tell or not to tell. He glanced inside the glass door of the building.

Please, Troy, I said. Im not the Feds, Id never talk to the Feds, Im practically a Socialist; heck, Im a Communist. Well, in the area of universal health care.

He looked at the people hurrying into the building, then back at me. She wanted to know about-the drug scene on campus, how youd score stuff. So I told her the thing with my roommates brother. I told her, Dont even go there. Keep your nose clean.

What kind of drugs was she interested in scoring?

She said she was just asking, but why do you ask about them unless you want them, know what I mean?

Troy, what kind of drugs?

He closed his eyes and sighed. Euphoria.

It was a sister drug to Ecstasy, only a warmer, fuzzier trip, he said, a way more happy trip. As my knowledge of Ecstasy was limited, this was not really helpful. I remembered when you got ecstasy through transcendental meditation, when a rave was a good review, when euphoria was a guy you liked liking you back. How innocent I was. How ancient.

Troy hadnt done Euphoria himself, he assured me, but it was the Next Big Thing. Very hard to get. U4. He drew the nickname in the air with his finger. And then he went to class.

And I went to my assessment test. The office was open. I put drug thoughts aside long enough to state my intention to a girl in capri pants and an SMC sweatshirt, who led me into a small room and set me up at a computer terminal.

Fredreeq believed my stars were so aligned today as to make a multiple-choice test impossible to fail. I considered what Vaclav had suggested about religion, that mere belief conferred an advantage. Why not try to believe in astrology? I cleared my mind of its kaleidoscope of concerns and focused on the computer screen. Amazingly, I sailed through the first two levels of questions. Annikas tutoring worked. I was exhilarated. Then came question thirteen.

Dating Is Murder

What? I didnt even understand the question. A buzzing sounded in my brain, a phenomenon that occurs when people talk to me about auto mechanics, computer programming, or compound interest rates. Next would come singing fairy voices and hummingbirds and bunnies cavorting in a meadow. My hand, taking on a life of its own, doodled on my notepad, copying the equation or whatever it was. I attached long sticky fingers to it, bulging eyes, some spots, and watched it turn into a greeting card: My Frog Ate My Brain.

Concentrate, Wollie, I told myself. Youre a grown woman, you once operated a small business, you can set your VCR to record. How hard can this be, really?

I decided to pick the answer that looked prettiest: D. (csc2 o) 1

The next problem, number 14, asked, From a point on the ground the angle of elevation to a ledge on a building is 27 degrees, and the distance to the base of the building is 45 meters, blah, blah, blah and had a diagram next to it that looked like either a treehouse or a club sandwich. I chose answer B, for Believe in the Stars. After that, I didnt bother reading questions; I just went straight for the answers. This astrology thing either worked or it didnt.

In this case, it didnt.

I headed to Rex and Tricias Mansion, fully depressed. Having flunked the assessment test, I was now doomed to take Maths 81 through 21, a course at a time, followed by endless science classes, which would keep me on SMCs grubby campus until menopause set in.

At a standstill on the 405 North, I dialed Britta again, and this time she answered the phone. She couldnt see me after three P.M., as personal visitors were forbidden when she was working. With difficulty, I persuaded her to see me in the next hour, while her charges were still in school. Tricias frogs would have to wait.

Britta once again showed me to the kitchen, same table, same seat, same place mat. I was hoping shed offer coffee or tea, after the hour-and-a-half drive Id survived, but none was forthcoming. She sat opposite me, displaying the hospitality of someone facing a tax audit. I handed her the application page Id been puzzling over, the one marked F"uhrungszeugnis.

Before I could ask, her face told me she knew what it was. She looked happy.

You recognize this? I asked.

Ja. The F"uhrungszeugnis. It is the paper that states you are not in trouble with police.

Is there anything strange about it?

Her finger went to the date, prominently circled in red. It is old.

Did you have to get the same document for your application?

Ja, but mine is new, not even one year past.

So what do you think of that? I asked. Why would Annikas be so old?

Perhaps, if Annika has some trouble with the police in Germany, and she knows the agency will not take her, and she wants to be an au pair in United States, and she has a F"uhrungszeugnis from a different year, before she was in trouble, this is what she uses to make the application. And no one has noticed this, so she is allowed to come, and find a good family and has a car for her own use, because she is so lucky.

I stared. Annika told you all this?

Now Britta looked confused, her eyes darting to the left as a hand went to her throat, to play with her necklace. Told me?

That this happened.

I am just-okay, it is just-for example, it could be like this.

I thought of myself as a bad liar, but Britta was much worse. Oh, I see, I said. Does everyone in Germany have one of these?

No. Only, for example, in a job where one must be trusted. A bank. Or au pairs.

Why would Annika have one from two years earlier, I wonder?

Britta looked at her shirt, plucking something from the sleeve. It was the same shirt shed worn the first time Id met her. Perhaps Annika made an application a year before as well, to be an au pair, but for some reason she did not come then.

Thats exactly what had happened. Annika had told me that shed wanted to come to America a year sooner, but her mother had had a medical problem that delayed her.

And why do you suppose the date is circled there? I asked, pointing.

Someone finds she is lying. And so they look at the F"uhrungszeugnis.

A woman came into the kitchen, large and brooding, in stretch pants and a Billy Joel Live T-shirt. She carried a broom. I introduced myself, but she just glanced at Britta and left.

The housekeeper, Britta said. She does not like people to mess the house.

Oh. Okay. I removed my hands from the table, worried Id left prints.

Now she will tell them I had a guest. Even though you are a girl, so I am allowed.

Sorry. Didnt mean to get you in trouble, I said.

Britta made a face. She is jealous because she thinks I do not work hard. Also because I am not so fat like her. Also I have blond hairs. But this is not my fault. Germans have the blond hairs. Annika, no, but many others.

So anyway, I said. You think maybe Annika lied to come to America, and someone discovered this, and perhaps reported her? Do you suppose thats why she disappeared?

Yes, why not? If she lied to come here, she should go home.

It seemed that Britta had sold out her friend. To whom? The agency? Marty Otis had alluded to a complaint call. Do you know another au pair, Marie-Th'er`ese?

No, I dont know.

If Annika met her in New York, I said, if they were in the same orientation session, does that mean shed be from your agency?

Yes, we are all Au Pairs par Excellence, but all from different countries, and we are all going to different places in America. The other girls are jealous to come to California. They dont even know of San Marino, they think everybody is in Hollywood at Starbucks with Matt Damon and Josh Hartnett. She was sinking into bitterness.

I took a deep breath and asked if shed ever heard of something called Euphoria. Her eyes widened. She glanced at the doorway through which the housekeeper had gone, then looked back at me. No, I never hear of this, she said. Did you meet Rico? Is he not cute?

Uh-oh.

I spoke carefully. Have you watched the news today?

No, I dont like news.

Rico is missing. No ones seen him since Saturday night. The police are investigating.

Brittas jaw went slack, her mouth opening as if to say Uh. Her brow furrowed. Then, to my surprise, her facial muscles contracted and she began to weep, mewing sobs like a distressed kitten, not attempting to cover her face. I reached out to touch her shoulder, but she pulled back, then got up from the table and left the room.

I waited for several minutes. When she didnt return, I stood, straightened the place mats on the table, walked outside, and drove away.


| Dating Is Murder | c



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