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3

I woke up Tuesday thinking about Carlito. Wed stopped filming a mere five hours earlier, after an on-camera discussion about Carlitos desire to have children. His was a patriotic view of procreation, a commitment to keep Americas gene pool strong in the face of unattractive, evil, and just plain stupid people out there multiplying like rabbits. This, for me, was not Carlitos finest hour.

Biological Clock taped six nights a week, with a different couple combination each night, and a new expert and restaurant every three days. Bing handed off this footage to a stressed-out editor, who turned it into a weeks worth of episodes, each episode featuring all the contestants. This gave viewers the impression that the six of us partied together Monday through Friday, when in fact each contestant worked two long nights per week, never encountering their same-sex competition. We did get to know our dates. After nine or ten hours together, bonds form-the kind, I suspect, that are experienced by victims of natural disasters.

How, I wondered, had Annika stayed on the set with us all those times and got up the next morning to take care of a toddler, her real job, her job job? After four hours of sleep, I felt like mice had been chewing on my esophagus.

I made my way to the navy blue kitchen, considered coffee, opted for apple juice, and headed for the shower before the kitchen walls made me nauseous. The apartment belonged to Hubie, a friend who needed someone to water his plants while he followed the rock group Supertramp around Europe. Hubies offer came just as my former fianc'e, Doc, left for Taiwan. The house Id shared with Doc was expensive, the thought of acquiring a roommate depressing, so Id moved my stuff into storage and myself into Hubies until I could figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I hadnt figured it out yet, but I still had five weeks. Hubie would be home by Christmas, and it was now a week before Thanksgiving.

I left another message on the phone machine of Annikas host family, the Quinns. Then I got dressed and hit the road.

The weather was gorgeous, the air clear and smogless in a Disney-blue sky. Halfway to the 405, the every-hour-is-rush-hour freeway, I decided instead to take Beverly Glen Boulevard to the San Fernando Valley. I was passing De Neve Square, a tiny park above Sunset, when I remembered to turn on my cell phone. There was one message, from the friend whose frog mural I was painting. His Texas twang precluded the need to identify himself. Darlin, take the day off. My floor guy called to say he varnished them and theyre still wet. Check in tomorrow.

Darn. I missed my frogs. And now I was halfway to Ventura Boulevard. Disinclined to make a U-turn, I checked my mental lists to see if I had any Valley errands.

Uh-oh. The Quinns-Annikas host family-lived in the Valley. Encino.

Forget it. I could turn around. I was smack in the middle of the low-rent section of Beverly Glen, just past Fernbush, with old, yardless houses practically falling onto the street. I could take a right on a little road called Crater and turn around, no problem.

Yes, problem, said a voice in my head. Ruta. My childhood babysitter, dead for years, still talking to me. They dont answer their phone, these people, you should go visit them.

In L.A. you dont just drop in on people, I said. Its not done. I dont know how they do things in Germany, but I dont think Mrs. Gl"uck expects me to run all over the San Fernando Valley, bothering everyone.

Of course she expects it, Ruta said. She is a mother. This is her little girl.

Plus, they have a dog. A guard dog, probably. A pit bull. Mr. Snuggles.

Not to mention the fact that I didnt know where in Encino they lived. I could go home, get Mrs. Gl"ucks number, call her in Germany, get the address, and visit the Quinns some other time. Immediately I felt better.

Until I remembered directory assistance. To my annoyance, 411 gave me an address on a street called Moon Canyon Road. What kind of people, I wondered, are listed in directory assistance? I tried to recall what Annika had said about them. A mom with some home-based business, a doctor or lawyer dad, a child Annika adored. I did not want to barge in on them.

None of this wouldve happened if you had taken more math in high school, Ruta said. Or finished college when you were supposed to, instead of futzing around, in and out, in and out all these years. Then you wouldnt have need for a math tutor. Then you wouldnt care so much about this girl. But you didnt, so you did, and you do, so now you must.

I wished I were someone else: the kind of person who can be rude to telemarketers, who doesnt recycle, someone whod simply get herself another math tutor and to heck with somebodys mother in Germany. I wished Id given Annika ten minutes last week.

I was nearing Mulholland now, the summit of Beverly Glen, where the road was wider, the real estate costlier, and the view spectacular. I pulled over and searched my trunk for the Thomas Guide, a book of maps as common to Southern California cars as Gideon Bibles are to hotel-room drawers.

Fifteen minutes later I was in the wilds of Encino. I hadnt even known Encino had wilds. I thought of Encino, when I thought about it at all, as suburbia, inhabited by women with standing appointments to get their hair done and men who maintained the lawn. Or hired immigrant workers to maintain the lawn. This Encino, however, was enchantingly rural, marred only by distinctive white trucks at the end of the street indicating a film shoot. Film shoots, around L.A., are as common as surfboards.

I drove slowly down Moon Canyon Road, enjoying the multicultural architecture: a Spanish hacienda next to an Italian villa opposite a Tudor manor. I came to the number I was looking for, which was painted on a rock, and parked on the street. An electronic gate stood wide open-a sign from the universe, if you believe in such things. The gate was wood and managed to look quaint rather than high security. I walked through it and followed a flagstone path through a yard that was half garden, half forest, complete with a pond inhabited by koi. The house was traditional American, butter-yellow clapboard with white trim on the shuttered windows. I looked up. A balcony extended from a second-story room. Wind chimes tinkled on a porch, and when I rang the doorbell harmonizing chimes sounded somewhere in the house.

The response was immediate. Set in the front door was a small window at face level, and through the glass I could see a small furious canine head-not a pit bulls-appear and disappear, appear and disappear, as if the animal was jumping up and down repeatedly on the other side of the door, although how this was achieved without a ladder I couldnt understand. The yapping would drive a reasonable person to drink. Hi, Mr. Snuggles, I said, and awaited the appearance of a human or the sound of a voice telling Mr. Snuggles to shut the heck up.

None came. I rang the doorbell again, which brought on another of Mr. Snuggless jumping fits. Was anyone home? I looked around for cars, but the driveway was some distance from the house, presumably leading to a garage or carport in the back. Maybe the family was simply out of town, and Annika with them, in a place without telephone access. A canoe trip, for instance. An impulsive, spur-of-the-moment canoe trip. Perfectly good explanation, I decided, and I descended the porch steps, preparing to leave.

A big white bird waddled up the flagstone path to meet me. Too fat for a swan, too white for a turkey, it was, I deduced, a goose.

Hello, Goose, I said, walking toward it.

The goose took exception to this, flapped its wings violently, and honked. I backed up.

This was a mistake. The goose lunged at me, enraged, honking and hissing. I turned to get out of its way and stumbled over a rosebush, and the goose was on me, pecking my calf through my painters pants. This hurt a lot more than one would think. I became a little enraged myself, and more than a little scared, and tried to kick the bird. As I was wearing Keds, the damage wouldve been minimal, but in any case, I missed. The goose came at me again. I swung at it with my backpack, missed again, and with my right hand slapped at it, connecting slightly. Then I turned and ran.

The goose, affronted by the slap, intensified its demented honking and came after me. We ran around to the back of the house, and I spotted the garage. It was a six-car garage, with five cars in residence. I jumped into the back of a pickup truck, a Toyota Tundra, and ducked.

Ive been in some undignified situations in my life, but hiding from poultry was a low watermark. It worked, though. The goose gave a few more honks, but they lacked conviction. It must have seen me jump into the truck, but either geese have short memories or it felt Id conceded the fight, because it waddled off toward the house. I know this because I peeked.

Suddenly I heard the song Anatevka, from Fiddler on the Roof, coming from somewhere behind the house. I climbed out of the pickup and saw drops of blood; the palm of my hand was wounded. Happily, the Toyota was red. There was also a minivan, a bright green Volkswagen bug Id seen Annika drive, and a white Lexus inhabiting the garage. In the driveway was a Range Rover. All the vehicles looked freshly washed.

Anatevka grew louder. I followed the sound across the lawn and came to a structure that appeared to be some sort of guesthouse or artists studio. The door was open. I looked in.

The structure was a high-ceilinged, skylit room. Along one wall was a kitchen, dominated by a granite island work surface. The rest of the space was a hobbyists dream: power tools, gardening supplies, sawhorse, sewing machine, kiln, easel, loom, and computer artfully arranged, a masterpiece of organization and aesthetics. A working fireplace occupied the wall opposite the kitchen. Autumn leaves and pomegranates covered the granite work surface, a wreath-making project in progress.

Across the room, a woman with her back to me stood on a ladder. She wore heels. She was stacking glass bottles in compartments on floor-to-ceiling shelves. Dozens of bottles filled the shelves, the kind used for lotion or bath oil, Art Deco-looking things in amber, violet, and moss green. A subtle scent, spice or oil or potpourri, permeated the room. It reminded me of Annika. Near the loom sat a little girl, playing with the volume on a CD player. The mournful Anatevka zoomed in and out.

You are making Mommy a little crazy, the woman said, without pausing in her jar arranging. Please stop.

Dora the explorer, Dora the explorer, Dora the explorer, the little girl chanted.

If you watch Dora the Explorer now, you cant watch Sesame Street in half an hour.

Dora the explorer. Dora the explorer. Dora the exp-

Okay, okay, okay. But no more TV till bedtime, when Mommys at pastry class. Run into the house and tell Lupe you can watch Dora.

The little girl jumped up, then caught sight of me and stopped. I smiled. She didnt smile back, but when I gave her a little wave, she raised a hand in response, opening and closing her fist in a toddler like gesture. The woman saw it and turned.

Hi. I sneezed. Sorry to barge in. I tried the house, and nobody answered, so

An overfed yellow cat jumped with a thump onto the granite work surface and sniffed at the leaves. The woman on the ladder and the child looked at it, then turned back to me, as if it was still my turn to speak. They were both blond, with wide faces and peaches-and-cream complexions. They wore light blue work shirts and white jeans. I tried to recall if Id ever seen a mother and daughter wearing matching outfits outside of a catalog.

Mommy, that lady has blood.

I looked down. Three drops of blood lay on the white tile floor, from my hand. It didnt seem polite to say their bird had assaulted me, so I closed my fist over the bleeding palm and said, My name is Wollie. I called yesterday and left a message. Im a friend of Annikas

Of course. The woman climbed nimbly down the ladder, someone who obviously lived in high heels. Im Maizie. Im so sorry, I was writing down your number last night and little monkey here hit the delete button. Emma, love- She frowned at the girl, now chanting something that sounded like alla myna engine. Emma, why dont you run in and watch Dora?

Emma want to stay with Mommy.

Maizie looked like she might argue the point, then turned to me. She had an attractive face, with good bones. So. Annika. Its all so-disturbing.

Yes. I sneezed again.

Allergic to cats? she said. Sorry. This guy wandered in and adopted us. Adopted Annika, actually. Are you a close friend?

My stomach clenched, thinking of the last time Id seen her. I nodded. Shes like a little sister. A smarter sister. Shes been tutoring me in math. We met on the set of a TV show.

She is smart. Maizie smiled, dimples softening her face. It sold my husband on her. He respects intelligence. She ruffled her hair. It was thick hair, well cut. Weve been out of town; Annika had the weekend off and Ive been telling myself she misunderstood, thought we were coming back later. But now its Tuesday. I hate to say this, but I think shes-taken off.

Where? I said.

I can think of a few places. Maizie glanced down at her daughter, who followed the conversation with the intensity of a cub reporter. But theres a lot in her life Im not privy to. A boy shes quite taken with; Ive been trying to remember his last name. And theres-well, shes on duty with Emma from six A.M. until four in the afternoon, eleven on Fridays, which leaves a lot of free time. And she fills up those hours. Its one of the things we love about her, her independence, but it makes it hard to-narrow it down.

Emma spoke up. Annika not here, Mommy.

No, shes not, bunny.

Where is Annika?

We dont know. Thats what were trying to figure out.

We better go find her, Mommy.

My sentiments exactly. Is her stuff still here? I asked.

Maizie took a moment, then nodded. Come see for yourself, she said.


| Dating Is Murder | c



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