I didn’t expect a call from Detective Cziemanski anytime soon, but he found me and my cell phone stuck in stop-and-go traffic on the 134 West, just past the 5.
“Guy named Yellin,” he said. “Sheriff’s Department in Lost Hills, he’s working the Rodriguez case. I gave him your number and he’ll get in touch. When did you say you met the Rodriguez kid?”
“So it’s not like you’re the last one to have seen him.”
“I don’t know much about Rico,” I said. “It’s Annika I know about, and her connection to Rico. Speaking of which, I have the license number of a guy that’s threatening this other guy, Bing, who knew Annika and possibly Rico, who-”
“All right, tell it to me, but it’s Yellin’s case now. I meant what I said, though, last night. About being friends. I’m feeling like a jerk about this whole thing.”
“No, it’s my fault. I should’ve met you a decade earlier.” Or had kids of my own that he could fall in love with. I should’ve gotten pregnant before Doc left. And gotten a college degree. Yes, it’s a lot to squeeze into a five-month relationship, but the race, as they say, is to the swift. “But it’s okay,” I said. “I’m always up for another friend.”
Generally, I see stopped traffic as an opportunity for manicure touch-ups, eyebrow tweezing, and the cleaning out of glove compartments and purses. Today I was preoccupied with failed math tests, missing boyfriends, jealous German girls, and blue-eyed men. If Britta had sold out Annika, reported her outdated F"uhrungszeugnis to the agency, why hadn’t the agency reported it to the Quinns? Had Marty Otis blackmailed Annika? I pictured him calling her, scaring her, saying, “We’re on to you,” and Annika in her attic room, circling the date on her F"uhrungszeugnis, thinking, I have to run. But why? How bad had it been, her trouble with the German police? And what could Marty Otis want from her? It’s not like she had money. And what did any of it have to do with Biological Clock? Or Rico’s disappearance?
Traffic inched toward Forest Lawn, whose inhabitants moved more slowly than we on the freeway only because they were dead. I noticed my mail scattered on the seat next to me, retrieved from my box on my way to the math test. I picked it up, sorted through bills and catalogs, then tossed it aside and picked up Annika’s pink file. On the back of her application, as Maizie had noticed, was another girl’s, this one from Thailand. Nootjaree “Noot” Chanaboon. She was adorable. I imagined Gene Quinn happily downloading au pairs from the Internet…
It was the woman at Miss Grusha’s music class who’d put this in my head. I didn’t want to be thinking this, about someone cheating on Maizie, a mom who made her own bread. And I didn’t want to think of Annika in an adulterous relationship. With her employer. The HMO doc. A man twice her age.
Grown men lusting after nubile babysitters is a clich'e, but clich'es are clich'es because they happen so often. Gene Quinn could’ve had the hots for Annika without her encouragement. In fact, this scenario might have given her another reason to disappear.
I pulled the F"uhrungszeugnis out of the pink file, stuffed it in my backpack, and called the Quinn house.
In some cultures-Japanese, for instance-frogs presage good fortune. In others, they’re a symbol of the devil. I assumed that Rex and Tricia took the benign view, since they’d commissioned the mural, but there’s a difference between tree toads hopping about and the visual assault of a West African goliath of biblical proportions.
I stood in the foyer of the Mansion and peered down the long hallway at my amphibian. It’s not like Rex wouldn’t pay me if he and Tricia hated the mural. Rex was a good egg. I’d dated him briefly, so I knew this. He’d pay me, then pay the painters to paint over the kitchen, then spend the rest of his life never inviting me for dinner, to spare my feelings. I’d be the object of pity and ridicule.
I couldn’t look at the West African goliath. Looking at him made me want to futz with him. I turned my back on him and set to work on my horned frog, the Chaco. My cell phone rang.
“Hi,” a voice said. “We met last night at the gas station. I take it you got home?”
My pulse rate increased. Standing still, I could feel it. “Is this the first time you’ve called me, or have you called before and hung up?” I asked.
There was a pause. “First time. What’s that in the background?”
“Croaking frogs.” I considered turning down the CD player, and decided not to.
“Would you mind telling me where you are right now?”
“You’re slipping,” I said. “Yes, I would mind. A good stalker shouldn’t have to ask.”
“And if I were to ask you to go straight home when you’re finished there?”
“Then I’d assume you know where I live, and since you’ve misplaced me, you want me to return to ‘Go,’ ” I said. “Look, if it’s this tough for you to keep track of me, maybe you should try a different line of work. Or practice on something simple, like a city bus. They’re harder to lose.”
“I’m not going to lose you,” the tall man said.
Slowly, I hung up. I stared at my frogs for a long time. Then I put away my paints, cleaned up the kitchen, cleaned up myself, and drove to Encino.
“Miss Maizie no home.” Lupe, the housekeeper, held an apoplectic Mr. Snuggles in her arms. She stood in the doorway of the big house, feeding the dog a steady stream of treats from her apron pocket. “You want talk to Mrs. Grammy?”
“No, that’s okay,” I said. “Is Mr. Quinn home?”
“Lupe!” called a high-pitched voice. “Where my ice cream?”
“Coming, m’hija!” She threw a look over her shoulder, then turned back to me. “Mr. Gene in the studio. You know where is it?”
“Yes, I know. Thanks.” What luck.
I skipped down the porch steps, icicle lights twinkling at me, and followed the flagstone path to the back of the house. I kept an anxious eye on the grounds, but no crazed goose appeared to torment me. When I reached the studio, I knocked. Twice. After a moment, I went in.
A man sat at the worktable, his back to me, stuffing envelopes. AM talk radio played loudly, which was probably why he hadn’t heard my knock. I cleared my throat.
“Gene?” I said. “I’m Wollie Shelley. I dropped by to return a file to Maizie.”
He turned, lowered his reading glasses, and reached for a remote. “Who?”
“Wollie. Shelley.” I moved farther into the room. “Maizie lent me this file on Annika.” I held out the pink file, unsure where to go from here. “Sorry I missed her.”
“She’s at one of her classes. Sushi or sausage or something.”
Pastry, I could’ve told him, but he was already back to his envelopes. Gene Quinn wasn’t the world’s most polite guy, or the most curious. I walked around the worktable to stay in his field of vision. He looked fiftyish, with a receding hairline, ruddy complexion, and sand-colored eyebrows that made his dark eyes appear beady. I sneezed, and as he couldn’t be bothered to say “Gesundheit,” excused myself. “I’m nuts about this room,” I said. “It makes me feel creative, just being in it. Did you design it?”
“It’s so quiet.”
“Sound-studio insulation. Blocks out the kid and the dog. Goddamn racket.”
But not the cat. The big tabby sat on top of the refrigerator, looking down on us. He was silent, which was perhaps why he was tolerated. “Doing a mailing?” I said.
This took a minute to process. What election was it, when the San Fernando Valley voted against splitting off from Los Angeles to become its own city? It had not been a close vote. “Is it-back? The secession issue?”
“It will be. Were you for it?”
Gene didn’t ask me to have a seat, but I took one. “I didn’t formulate an opinion. I’m sorry. I don’t live in the Valley, so it wasn’t on my ballot.” I saw Gene’s glimmer of interest fade, and added quickly, “What an art form, staging a comeback.”
“It’s a march. I’m a foot soldier.”
“Like a second job, a project like this. You must be passionate about it.”
Gene licked an envelope. “The Valley’s a bastard child, sucked dry to pay for every spendthrift social program L.A. comes up with.”
I’d probably voted for every spendthrift social program he had in mind. “You know what I liked?” I said. “The proposed names, if secession had won. My favorite was Valley City. There’s a city in North Dakota named Valley City.”
Gene licked another envelope. “I liked Camelot.”
“Camelot, California,” I said, envisioning a change-of-name greeting card. “Yes, that was… alliterative.”
Gene kept licking. Another minute and he’d turn up the radio and I’d have to leave, or come up with a darn good reason for staying.
“Gene, any ideas what happened to Annika?”
“Annika Gl"uck. Your au pair.”
“Oh, Jesus.” He tossed a stuffed envelope onto a pile. “Don’t get me started.”
“Look at this. Think I like doing it? This was one of her jobs, ungrateful bitch.”
I nearly gasped. I could think of no one less bitchy than Annika. Could this animosity spring from love gone bad? “Ungrateful?” I said. “How so?”
“These babysitters have you by the short hairs. Oh, excuse me. Nannies.” His disgust was palpable. “Interviews, references, background checks, agency fees, temp fees, bonuses for the goddamn housekeeper to work overtime, because you know who wants to start a job Thanksgiving week? Nobody.”
I made a vague noise of sympathy, which spurred him onward.
“You’ve got to budget time for that,” he said. “We did not budget time. Or money. She should’ve helped herself to a few thousand bucks on her way out, that’s what we shelled out this week, hemorrhaging money, and for what? Someone to serve peanut butter and jelly to a two-year-old.”
This aria had made Gene red-faced. He went back to licking envelopes with a vengeance, having worked up a good supply of saliva. I thought about the gadget that wets envelopes and stamps, but maybe it was too pricey for his budget. I mumbled good-bye and let myself out. Gene was already reaching for the stereo remote.
Not only could I not imagine Annika sleeping with this guy, I couldn’t imagine anyone sleeping with him. He had offspring-Emma looked enough like him that sex had probably occurred at some point, but it was depressing to think about. I’d rather watch people pump gas.
I was walking past the main house toward my car when the back door opened. Grammy Quinn appeared. “Hello, there-was Gene out in the studio?”
“Yes.” I stiffened, seeing the unpleasant man’s mother. But she was dressed in purple leggings and a pink Donald Duck sweatshirt, which discouraged harsh judgment.
She came closer, then smiled. “Oh, it is you-I wasn’t sure. I’ve misplaced my glasses again. Have you found our little Annika?”
“Oh, thank God. I thought it might be bad news, for you to go out and talk to Gene first. I was just coming to get him for dinner-” A voice inside the house made her turn. “What is it, sweet pea?… Well, you need shoes on, don’t you? Hurry. Chop-chop.” She turned back to me. “Lupe and I talk and talk about this. What would make that girl walk away without a word to Emma is something we don’t want to think about. But that’s not helping anyone, is it? I’m supposed to keep those thoughts to myself.”
She walked me to my car, pointing with interest to the film shooting down the street, which made me think she wasn’t from L.A., film shoots being as common as sunscreen to us natives. I drove away from Encino, wondering about Annika’s life there. Now that I’d met Gene, I had a better sense of why a teenage girl might go elsewhere for emotional support.
Like Marie-Th'er`ese. She and Annika would have compared notes on host families, cities, classes. Boys. There had to be some way of getting Marie-Th'er`ese’s address, of forcing or tricking Au Pairs par Excellence to fork it over.
An hour later I got home. I was glad to see a fair amount of activity on my block, a deterrent to stalkers. I waved to a neighbor, then saw a woman sitting on my building’s steps rise as I approached. She was small, she wore a baseball cap, but she was a dish.
“Wollie,” she said, offering her hand. “Savannah Brook.”
I shook it. “Of course. I know. I’m-I admire your work.” What was I saying? How ridiculous, to be starstruck by a fellow contestant. Also, I felt huge next to her; she couldn’t have been more than five foot two.
She smiled. “Thanks. Got a minute?”
“Sure.” I invited her up to my apartment, but she was due on the Biological Clock set in twenty minutes, so we sat on the steps.
“I’ll cut to the chase,” she said. “I want to do a deal.”
“What kind of deal?”
She looked right at me, with perfect, doll-like features. “I’m going to win B.C.”
“R-really?” How remarkable. Where do people get that kind of confidence?
“Yes. The question is, by how much. I want a landslide. Kim Karmer’s a lightweight, but you’ve got a small following.”
“Come on. The blonde with the boobs-it’s a type, it never goes out of style. You’ll pull in votes on looks alone. Kim too, but you’ll get more. I can live with that, but the swing vote’s up for grabs. The undecideds. I want them.”
I was losing that starstruck feeling. “Why do you need a landslide?”
“Okay. The producers are talking a sequel, Morning Sickness, if I get pregnant, and I have a firm offer from ZPX to host a miracle show, but they’re lowballing me on money. That’ll change if I can book mainstream network talk shows. But I can’t just win, I have to take every market, because my publicist can’t deliver the morning shows unless I’m a cultural phenomenon.” She stood, stretched, then sat back down.
“And what do you have in mind for me to do?” I asked.
“Tone down the warmth. I’m not asking you to act; we know that’s not your strong suit. Just do your awkward thing, that slouch. The worry lines so you look older. You know what I’m talking about. The wallflower. Bore the guys. Bing. Carlito.”
I felt a weird smile take over my face. “And what’s in it for me?”
“Five percent of my first paycheck from the next gig, if it comes as a result of Biological Clock, if I win by more than seventy-five percent of the final vote. A three-hundred-dollar bonus for each network talk show I book, one fifty if it’s cable.”
I stood. Smiled for real. Looked down on her from my height of six feet. “You know, Savannah, even if I had no ethics or self-esteem, I do have bills. Talk about lowball offers.” I unlocked the door of my building and enjoyed the look on her lovely, upturned face. “See you on the small screen.”
I called Joey to tell her about the day’s encounters.
“So much for Mercury trine Saturn,” she said.