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28

We walked side by side down Larrabee to Santa Monica. The sun shone, unimpeded by clouds. Simon put on sunglasses. We hadnt said a word since leaving the apartment. The building had been full of people, the smell of roasting turkey, a holiday mood. I couldnt 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 wasnt sure of anything. He probably just-

He reached out and took my hand. My heart started beating so hard I thought Id 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 didnt have to have seconds, I said. If you noticed, P.B. and I didnt touch the food, and Uncle Theo doesnt count; hes been known to eat raw hemp. Thanks for not arresting us, by the way.

Its my day off. He gave my hand an admonitory shake. Dont worry so much. Everyones got families, and they never behave.

You dont seem like an FBI agent. Are you sure youre 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 Theos Richard Feynman the one youre thinking of?

Yes. Hes a hero of Annikas. Shed been reading his biography.

I stopped. Stared. How could you possibly-whats your interest in Annika?

I have no interest in Annika.

Not you personally, I said. I mean the FBI.

I understand. Were not interested in her. Were 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.

Were 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. Im sorry? What?

I want to recruit you.

You want me to-join the FBI?

No. I want you to leave town. But youre stubborn, and its 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. Im sorry, Im having a hard time-I cant even do sit-ups. Im afraid of guns, I dont 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 dont have weeks. I have days.

My God. Biological Clock-are you serious? My cheesy TV show? Youre putting me on, right? This is government humor.

No, Im funnier than that. He touched my elbow, indicating we should walk. He spoke casually, looking straight ahead. Its not uncommon for us to use civilians. Its not my first choice right now, but its necessary.

Youre saying you want me to spy? On Biological Clock? On my friends?

Theyre 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 didnt. Our sources indicate an imminent merger between the party you associate with and a larger organization weve been targeting for some time. This is good luck for us. Well 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. Youve got a fish on the line, a fish Im working with, and youre 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 youre in the water already-yes. He pointed to the walk icon. We crossed to the south side of Santa Monica and took a left. Luciens 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 Im asking you. She declined.

Why?

She believed her mother in Germany would be killed if she did.

I took a long, slow breath. And then she disappeared.

Yes.

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 didnt flinch.

I said, Did you-the FBI-have anything to do with Annikas disappearance?

No.

You dont know where she is.

His eyes glinted. I already told you I dont.

Rico Rodriguez tried to talk Annika into something she didnt 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. Shed 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, shed be here today, because we take care of our own. But we didnt arrest or deport her. She said no, she was free to walk away. Okay?

No, its not okay. Because what if she was harmed or kidnapped by the bad guys-these other people she wouldnt work for?

That was a chance she took. I wasnt going to force her to work for us. She was scared and she was in a tough situation. But it wasnt 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. Youd sign a contract, he said. Theres some money in it, not much. Youre not an employee of the FBI, youre not authorized to do anything illegal beyond whats organized or sanctioned by your handler. Thats me. Youre what we call a cooperating witness, a CW. If youre scared-

Should I be scared?

Yes. The word, naked and unequivocal, hung in the air between us. But youre 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 Id 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 dont 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. Shed 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 wont have to go through it alone. This kid, reassuring me like she was my mother.

Ill 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, Youre on.


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