We walked side by side down Larrabee to Santa Monica. The sun shone, unimpeded by clouds. Simon put on sunglasses. We hadn’t said a word since leaving the apartment. The building had been full of people, the smell of roasting turkey, a holiday mood. I couldn’t identify my own mood. I felt like someone had grabbed my remote and was channel surfing through my psyche.
We walked close to each other, close enough to hold hands. He wanted to hold hands, I was sure of it. No, I wasn’t sure of anything. He probably just-
He reached out and took my hand. My heart started beating so hard I thought I’d break out in a sweat. Dread and delight fought it out. Dread of what all this might mean and how heartbroken I would be when it ended badly, as of course it would-
“Do you cook like your mother?” he asked.
“You didn’t have to have seconds,” I said. “If you noticed, P.B. and I didn’t touch the food, and Uncle Theo doesn’t count; he’s been known to eat raw hemp. Thanks for not arresting us, by the way.”
“It’s my day off.” He gave my hand an admonitory shake. “Don’t worry so much. Everyone’s got families, and they never behave.”
“You don’t seem like an FBI agent. Are you sure you’re one?”
“How many of us have you known?”
“Some. One, anyway. By the way, do you people ever dress up like plumbers?”
He turned and looked at me. “Why?”
“Nothing. So was Uncle Theo’s Richard Feynman the one you’re thinking of?”
“Yes. He’s a hero of Annika’s. She’d been reading his biography.”
I stopped. Stared. “How could you possibly-what’s your interest in Annika?”
“I have no interest in Annika.”
“Not you personally,” I said. “I mean the FBI.”
“I understand. We’re not interested in her. We’re interested in you.”
We kept staring at each other. A soft wind blew. The sun shone down on us. West Hollywood danced by. I withdrew my hand from his.
“We’re investigating people you associate with,” he said, “engaged in an illegal activity. Initially, we thought you worked with them, because of your proximity and a password we heard you use. Inadvertently, it turns out. We now believe you to be our best shot at intelligence gathering.”
I blinked. “I’m sorry? What?”
“I want to recruit you.”
“You want me to-join the FBI?”
“No. I want you to leave town. But you’re stubborn, and it’s illegal for me to kidnap you. So I want you working for me.”
“For the FBI.”
“Try to rein in your excitement.”
“Me. You want me. I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time-I can’t even do sit-ups. I’m afraid of guns, I don’t wear suits, I-”
“You have access to an organization it would take us weeks to infiltrate.”
“What organiz-?” I asked, then stopped. “Biological Clock?”
“I don’t have weeks. I have days.”
“My God. Biological Clock-are you serious? My cheesy TV show? You’re putting me on, right? This is government humor.”
“No, I’m funnier than that.” He touched my elbow, indicating we should walk. He spoke casually, looking straight ahead. “It’s not uncommon for us to use civilians. It’s not my first choice right now, but it’s necessary.”
“You’re saying you want me to spy? On Biological Clock? On my friends?”
“They’re not all your friends.”
A chill went through me, despite the sun beating down. It was one thing to hypothesize with Joey and Fredreeq about corruption on the show, and another to hear this from a federal agent. “What is it you think I could do?” I asked.
“Watch. Listen. Possibly wear a wire.” He took my arm and we crossed Santa Monica, a boulevard so wide pedestrians were supposed to wait in the grassy median for the next light. People often jaywalked. We didn’t. “Our sources indicate an imminent merger between the party you associate with and a larger organization we’ve been targeting for some time. This is good luck for us. We’ll move in when the two parties interface. Meanwhile, we need to identify ancillary members of the smaller organization.”
“Now you sound like an FBI agent.” I turned to face him. “Let me get this straight. You’ve got a fish on the line, a fish I’m working with, and you’re holding him out as bait for some bigger fish, but you want me in there swimming and spying on this Biological Clock fish, so you can move in and arrest the whole school of fish.”
“Put like that-since you’re in the water already-yes.” He pointed to the walk icon. We crossed to the south side of Santa Monica and took a left. Lucien’s bookstore was ahead. Open. On Thanksgiving. What a great neighborhood.
“How is this connected to Annika?” I asked.
“We approached Annika two weeks ago. The local operation tried to recruit her. Unsuccessfully. We picked this up on our surveillance and asked her to work for us, something similar to what I’m asking you. She declined.”
“She believed her mother in Germany would be killed if she did.”
I took a long, slow breath. “And then she disappeared.”
I stopped again. He turned to face me and took off his sunglasses. A trio of men approached, arms around each other, and maneuvered around us on the sidewalk. “Kiss her, you fool!” one of them cried. I felt myself blush, but I kept eye contact. Simon didn’t flinch.
I said, “Did you-the FBI-have anything to do with Annika’s disappearance?”
“You don’t know where she is.”
His eyes glinted. “I already told you I don’t.”
“Rico Rodriguez tried to talk Annika into something she didn’t want to do. Was it working for Little Fish?”
Simon said nothing.
I looked away. Cars passed. I pictured people driving to their grandmothers’, candied yam casseroles in their laps. “If I say no, where will I end up?”
“Look at me,” he said, and waited until I did. “You think we make people vanish?”
I thought of Michelle, the music mom. She’d said Annika wanted a lawyer, the kind that finds people who disappear. “Maybe.”
The glint in his eye was a flash. “If Annika had chosen to work with us, she’d be here today, because we take care of our own. But we didn’t arrest or deport her. She said no, she was free to walk away. Okay?”
“No, it’s not okay. Because what if she was harmed or kidnapped by the bad guys-these other people she wouldn’t work for?”
“That was a chance she took. I wasn’t going to force her to work for us. She was scared and she was in a tough situation. But it wasn’t part of my job to keep an eye on her. Had I known you cared to this extent, I might have.”
“What do you care what I care?”
“Take a guess, Wollie.”
I looked away again. He took my arm and we continued east on Santa Monica. “You’d sign a contract,” he said. “There’s some money in it, not much. You’re not an employee of the FBI, you’re not authorized to do anything illegal beyond what’s organized or sanctioned by your handler. That’s me. You’re what we call a cooperating witness, a CW. If you’re scared-”
“Should I be scared?”
“Yes.” The word, naked and unequivocal, hung in the air between us. “But you’re safer cooperating with me than not cooperating.”
I caught sight of Lucien in his shop, paused in the act of stocking books in the display window. He was looking at me. “And the man following me last Friday,” I said, “is that someone else I’d be ‘cooperating’ with? How many other goons will-”
Simon stopped, took my arm, and pulled me in close. I caught my breath. This was one big guy. This was not a guy you wanted to get physical with, unless-
“I don’t like the sound of that.” He spoke quietly. “You can tell me all about it in a minute, but I want to tell you something first: no one harasses you into working with us. Do it because you want to, or walk away. Your choice.” He let go of my arm.
Some choice. I was about to tell him to take a hike, but a memory stopped me. Weeks ago, on this very block, Annika and I had come from the movies. She’d grabbed my arm, just as he had, her small hand pulling on my sweatshirt, giving it a shake. “We will solve your math problems, Wollie. I promise. You won’t have to go through it alone.” This kid, reassuring me like she was my mother.
“I’ll help you catch your bad guys,” I said. “If you help me find Annika.”
His eyes were blue again. Not angry anymore. He let out a breath.
He said, “You’re on.”