“Call him back.” Joey, in my passenger seat, was unnecessarily cheerful. “He’s not married. Call him.”
I glanced at the ocean, the midday surfers, then back at the highway. I thought of my cell phone in my purse, holding on to a message left that morning: “It’s Simon. Call me.” Four words, one phone number. It’s a bad sign, memorizing messages, then saving them.
“I can’t,” I told Joey. “Not with you listening. I’m self-conscious enough.”
“I’ll call him. I’m not self-conscious-” She reached over and honked my horn. “Okay, so I haven’t tried U4, Euphoria, but I’ll tell you what Ecstasy would do for you right now, besides raise your body temperature and make your teeth clench. It would override the conditioning that tells you you can’t fall in love with one man if you’re still- What the heck is with the traffic? It’s two in the afternoon.”
“Day before Thanksgiving,” I said, happy to change the subject. “People fleeing L.A. in search of autumn leaves and a little nip in the air. Wow. Look at that campus.”
Pepperdine University burst into view on a Malibu hill. Cantaloupe-colored buildings with terra-cotta roofs dotted an expanse of green lawn. A crucifix etched into a slab of cement greeted northbound traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, proclaiming the school’s religious affiliation. Joey pointed to John Tyler Drive, a back entrance tended by a small gate. “Is Ecstasy addictive?” I said, pulling up to a security kiosk.
“Debatable. I didn’t get addicted, anyway. My former shrink used to recommend it, back in its golden age. Hi there,” she said, leaning across me to talk to the guard. “We’re here to see Lyle Ayres, he lives in Lovernich. By the way,” she continued, to me, “Ecstasy’s always big with students. I bet Euphoria is too. I’m dying to know what it is.”
I’d spoken that morning to Detective Yellin, the guy working on the Rico Rodriguez disappearance. He had not sounded impressed by the Rico-Annika connection, so Joey had suggested we check out Rico’s college roommates, who were all over the TV news, talking to anyone with a microphone.
Finding them was easy, once Joey remembered that her brother’s wife’s sister’s daughter was a law student at Pepperdine. This girl was happy to perform introductions; along with the rest of the campus, she seemed to know all about the Rodriguez case.
Lovernich Residential Complex up close was charmless concrete with a cottage-cheese texture that discouraged graffiti. Joey knocked on a painted steel door, which was opened by a stocky kid wearing a pair of red-and-purple boxer shorts. He held a phone and a crumb-filled plate. He managed a “Come on in” gesture without interrupting his phone conversation. “Cop’s like, No cell phone, no Palm Pilot, no-brainer: guy took off for Vegas. I’m like, Dude, who leaves three hundred bucks on his desk and goes to Vegas? Who leaves his laptop? Cop’s like, Guy’s rich, right? So he buys himself a new laptop wherever he is. I’m like, He’s rich, he’s not stupid, you’re stupid… Then, like an hour later they find his car!” He paced as he talked, circling the living room-kitchen-dining area, perhaps seeking a surface on which to set his dirty dish. Plates, glasses, and utensils were everywhere, and empty soda cans overflowed from brown shopping bags, evidence of recycling.
“Okay, gotta go, some people here to interview me and Kev… Yeah, and they’re talking maybe Dateline or something, next week… ’Kay. Later.” He turned to us and held out a hand. “I’m Lyle. You’re the private eyes. Cool.”
Joey had suggested that I wear something nicer than paint clothes, which made us rather formal next to Lyle and his expansive stomach. We took seats on two dormitory-issue, sheet-covered sofas with a view of a swimsuit calendar, a particularly violent poster from one of the hobbit movies, and some framed autographed sports jerseys.
The front door opened. A wiry, fresh-faced kid with an overbite introduced himself as Kevin. He stared at Joey with a trancelike gaze I knew. “Hey,” he said. “You look just like-is it you? Gun Girl?”
Joey smiled. Gun Girl, her old action series, had enjoyed modest success and a small cult following until a random act of violence committed against its star had caused its demise. The scar resulting from that act of violence was covered at the moment with makeup, and virtually invisible. I felt the scar didn’t so much diminish Joey’s beauty as add to her mystique, but this was not a view universally held in Hollywood, and Joey’s reluctance to undergo plastic surgery was considered eccentric to the point of madness.
Kevin was wide-eyed. “My dad and I are, like, your biggest fans. My dad says you’re totally hot. My mom hates you. Did you really do your own stunts?”
“Only after my stunt double was killed. Kidding.” Joey punched him in the arm, which visibly delighted him. “So, Kevin, Wollie and I are here to ask a few questions about Rico. You guys must be sick of this by now, but would you mind-?”
“Gosh, no.” Kevin didn’t seem to find it odd that a former TV crime fighter should metamorphose into a real-life one. Nor did Lyle, launching into the story of the last time he’d seen Rico.
“Saturday. I was heading out to the movies-Vin Diesel. Rico was like, Man, it sucks, don’t go. I didn’t listen. You know, you never think, ‘This is the last time I’ll ever see you, man.’ You never think that. And then they’re gone.”
“So you think Rico’s-” I hesitated. “Dead?”
“I don’t know. He’s a survivor. But major crime for sure. The cops, they’re like, Maybe, maybe not. But hey, do the math.”
There it was again, that phrase. “Do it for me, would you, Lyle?” I said.
“Okay. He had tickets for hockey next weekend. Killer seats. He’s going to blow that off? I don’t think so. And: Thursday night he studied. You don’t spend an hour on chem if you’re not going to be around for finals. Who would do that?”
“Kevin, when did you last see Rico?” Joey asked.
“Saturday. Seven, seven-thirty. Dressed for a date. I don’t know who with.”
“Did he say it was a date?” I asked.
“No, but that was the Saturday drill. Sleep in, lunch, work out, shower, shave, aftershave, real clothes, date.”
“Same girl every week?”
“Not usually,” Lyle said, and grinned.
“Did you know Annika Gl"uck?” I asked.
They looked at each other. “She hasn’t been around for a while,” Kevin said.
“He dumped her,” Lyle said.
Kevin said, “You don’t know that for sure.”
“Oh, like she’d dump him? I don’t think so.” He looked at us. “Kev dated her.”
“I didn’t date her,” Kevin said. “We were friends.”
Lyle laughed. “Friends. That just means you didn’t get any.”
“We weren’t like that.”
“Yeah, but you wanted to be like that. Rico snaked her from you.”
“No, he didn’t. I introduced them.”
“First mistake, dude.”
Kevin flushed. I said, “What did you think of Annika?”
“Loser,” Lyle said. “No money, average in the looks department-”
“C’mon, Lyle. She was totally pretty,” Kevin said. “You’d go out with her in a minute.”
“So? I’m not saying she’s a dog. Maybe in Hicksville, Germany, she was a ten, but she wasn’t in Rico’s league.”
“Did you know she’s missing?” I said. This got their attention. “Nobody’s seen Annika for over a week. Think it could be related to Rico?”
Kevin looked stunned. Lyle said, “I don’t-see how. He hasn’t hooked up with her in a while. He’s into someone else now.”
“Who?” Joey asked.
Lyle threw a sideways look at Kevin and smiled. “He wouldn’t say. But if he got a new shirt, he’d go, Does this make me look older? Is this cool? so we figured she was off-campus. Pepperdine girls, his attitude was like, They should be so lucky.”
“What do you think, Kevin?” I asked. “Any ideas about Annika?”
“No, it’s just-” Kevin glanced at Lyle, then looked down. “No.”
Joey said, “If you had to guess, what do you think happened to Rico?”
“He had some business deal going,” Lyle said. “Like a stock market thing.”
“What kind of stock market thing?”
“Well, I don’t know that’s what it was, but there’s this old movie Wall Street. It was on TV. Then Rico bought the DVD and studied it, and now he’s all portfolios this and that, reading the paper, the business section. I’m like, Dude, to have a portfolio you gotta have something to put in the portfolio, but he said he had it handled.”
“So he did have money or he didn’t?” I asked, confused.
“Okay, gargantuan allowance, but one time we were watching TV, I’m going, What would you do for a million dollars, would you eat a live rodent? and Rico goes, A million’s pocket change. By the time I’m twenty-five I’m gonna buy and sell my dad.”
“That was a career goal?” I said. “To buy and sell his dad?”
“You ever meet his dad?” Lyle looked at us, then shook his head. “Hard-core.”
Kevin stood. “Hey, I gotta get to Union Station, catch a train.”
“Yeah, I gotta pack too,” Lyle said, not moving from the sofa. “Driving up to Lake Arrowhead for Thanksgiving.”
Joey asked to use the bathroom, and on impulse, I asked to see Rico’s room. Kevin led me down the narrow hallway. “Cops took his computer and his mom and dad took things, but there’s still stuff left.”
If the room was picked over, it was hard to imagine what it had looked like before. Bunk beds, desks, and chairs overflowed with sheets, blankets, clothes, running shoes, weights, underwear, fast-food wrappers, dishes, coffee mugs, textbooks, notebooks, and backpacks. A teenage-boy smell filled the room, sweat and hormones and deodorant and dirty socks. “We shared. It’s a little-we haven’t cleaned in a while,” Kevin said, dragging a duffel bag from a closet. He cleared off a chair for me, throwing a wet towel on the floor, along with some jeans. Coins rained onto the dirty carpet. I looked out the window. Either the glass was gray with dirt or the sky had darkened in the time we’d been in here. I’d rarely seen such a mess, from floor to-
“Was Rico the top bunk?” I asked.
“Yeah. Check it out if you want.”
I eased out of my slingback pumps and climbed the ladder. The male-animal smell intensified up here. I moved aside a pillow, soft and doughy in its red flannel pillowcase. There were matching red sheets and a plaid blanket, all bunched up and personal. I tried to imagine the girls he’d brought up here, but the strongest impression was of a child sleeping soundly in sheets his mother had sent him off to school with. My sense of trespassing nearly sent me back down the ladder.
But the wall was information central. Phone numbers doodled in blue and black ink. Appointment times. Address-book graffiti. I pictured Rico, a kid in his treehouse, talking on his phone, drawing on the wall. “Kevin, did the cops look up here?”
“Maybe. They were in here a while. Hey, um…”
“Do you-is Annika okay, do you think?”
I leaned over the bed to look at him. He sat on the floor, selecting dirty clothes to throw into the duffel. I said, “I’m pretty worried about her, actually.”
“I met her on the beach.” He didn’t look up. “She was reading this book, The Naked and the Dead, about World War II. She wanted to know what Americans thought about Germany. I thought that was so cool. I told her, Don’t worry about it, nobody our age hates Germans, that’s like a century ago. You finding anything up there?”
There were names on the wall and the ceiling. Boys’ names. Girls. Nikki. Jillian. Heather. Courtney. Emily. Initials: L.B., R.A., J.B. “Maybe.”
“I heard them one time. Up there.”
“Rico and Annika? You’re kidding.”
“No, not-I mean, they were arguing. They probably thought I was asleep. They were whispering.”
“She said something like ‘It’s not a problem for you; if we get caught, you’ll get out of it.’ She said for her it was a big deal, because she’s German, the rules are different for foreigners. Stuff like that. Okay, it wasn’t as clear as I just said it, but I was thinking, He’s pressuring her into something.”
“What do you think it was?”
“I don’t know. Rico was like, C’mon, no big deal. That’s how he was. Nothing was a big deal for him. I think when you have a dad like his, and money, you don’t think about how it is for other people.”
I leaned down again, watching him pack. “What about drugs?”
“You mean, did he do them?” Kevin looked up at me. “No more than anybody. Why would he? If you’re into drugs, you don’t go to Pepperdine. It’s not the biggest party school on the planet.”
“Ever hear of something called Euphoria?” I asked, but he shook his head. “And Annika? You think she did drugs?”
He looked at me steadily. “Not with me…”
“She was-you know how she was. But he’d walk in and she’d turn into…”
“What?” I was leaning down now, straining to catch his words.
Kevin sighed. “Like Lyle said. A loser. Sort of. So I don’t know what she’d do to be with him. We call it the Rico Effect.”
Glenda Nacy, the au pair volunteer, had called it “boy crazy.” I leaned back against the wall. I wanted to think Annika was more than that, smarter about men, but I’d been that girl too, the one with the head on her shoulders until the right guy waltzed in and rendered her mindless… I could imagine Rico talking straight-arrow Annika into things she wouldn’t otherwise consider. And if he’d talked her into something illegal, drugs or otherwise, if the two of them had, as Glenda might say, fallen in with a bad crowd, then the reasons for disappearing multiplied.
As if to confirm this, her number appeared on Rico’s wall, the 818 area code and Encino prefix I’d dialed so often in the last ten days it was committed to memory.
How much evidence did I need? Annika wanted a gun, wanted a lawyer, asked where to find drugs, had drugs under her bed, acted depressed and distant, had trouble with the German police… and had contemplated quitting Biological Clock, a job she’d once loved. If I couldn’t reconcile smart, smiling, happy Annika with the one I kept hearing about, maybe I was in denial. I sat up. I should be copying down these numbers. “Kevin,” I said, “ever hear Annika talk about someone named Richard Feynman? Or Marie-Th'er`ese? Britta?”
“Britta, yeah. She’s been over here a couple times. I never really talked to her. And who’s the guy you just said?”
“Sounds familiar. Is he an astronaut or something?”
I tried to imagine Annika dating an astronaut. I thought she would’ve mentioned it. I said, “Did you tell the police about the argument you overheard?”
“No,” Kevin said. “They didn’t ask.”
He gave me a pen and paper and went on talking, about the girls who’d show up at Lovernich at all hours, girls Rico had invited over and forgotten about. I listened with half an ear, then no ear at all, because I found something on the wall, something I knew. Something I’d seen before. A squiggle. It was the logo on the pill that had been under Annika’s bed.