I showed up to work at sundown, responsibility weighing heavily on my polka-dot-silk-clad shoulders.
Biological Clock had found a restaurant called Olga’s Kitchen willing to accommodate us on Thanksgiving, offering a prix fixe dinner of dark-meat turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and canned cranberry sauce for $9.99. A fair number of diners were taking advantage of this, including a party of fourteen, dressed for the holiday in everything from shorts and flip-flops to a T-shirt that said “I used to care but now I take a pill for that.”
I regarded them all with suspicion.
Once I’d signed on to be a CW, a cooperating witness, Simon and I had walked to West Hollywood Park to discuss the details. He wouldn’t identify the bad egg I was working with, referring to the malefactor as Little Fish. He admitted the illicit business was drugs only after I pointed out that an FBI-DEA joint operation was unlikely to be anything else. To tell me more, he said, lessened my value as a corroborating source and, later, a witness in front of a judge or jury. The thought of ratting out someone I knew in court was distasteful, but a bigger problem was secrecy. I couldn’t tell Joey or Fredreeq what I was up to. My best friends.
The FBI, Simon explained, had no best-friends exemption.
My assignment was relatively simple. I was to listen on the set for European accents, watch for people using pay phones, and report immediately the sighting of shopping bags from Hugo Boss, Fendi, or Ermenegildo Zegna. These shopping bags were used for dead drops, exchanges of drugs or money.
Then there was the quid pro quo. Simon agreed to assign someone to track down Annika. I imagined some low-level trainee making a token call to the LAPD, then tossing Annika’s file onto a “do later” pile. “Suppose I gave you a license number,” I said. “You could get me an address, right? Also, could you guys trace an e-mail, even if it’s no longer in service?”
I told him about Marie-Th'er`ese, and then about the goateed man, the man who’d broken Bing Wooster’s fingers and talked about making someone disappear.
“Give me the license number and the e-mail,” he said, “and we’ll look into it.”
I shook my head. “Give me the addresses and I’ll look into it-”
“Really? You’ll find this guy and sketch him into submission?” He smiled at my reaction. “Your profession isn’t classified information. Which brings up another-”
“This isn’t what I agreed to, me feeding you information about Annika, and you-”
“Wollie, I don’t mean this unkindly, but you paint frogs for a living. Right now my concern is you. Tell me about the man following you on Friday.”
And that’s how it went. I’d steer the conversation one way, and he’d grab the wheel and do a verbal U-turn. No wonder he and the DEA were having “issues”; I was developing some myself. I had a childish impulse to call the whole thing off, but Annika’s fate was clearly tied to his operation, and if I was being asked to work with a paper bag over my head, at least I was on the inside. I’d just continue my own investigation parallel to his. Anyway, I’d signed a contract. He’d pulled it out of his pocket when I’d said yes.
So here I was at Olga’s Kitchen, made up, coiffed, and poised for espionage. It hadn’t mattered that I’d shown up a wreck. Fredreeq could get a corpse camera-ready, and as for my state of mind, everyone around me seemed more or less unhinged. Bing Wooster was as high-strung as an Afghan hound. But Bing was working his Betacam with two taped fingers and painkillers, which might’ve accounted for it. I asked Joey her opinion.
“Whatever the reason, he’s more peevish every day, and he’s started smoking. Elliot says he’s welcome to have a nervous breakdown, as long as he keeps bringing in episodes on time and under budget. He’s a mess, but they’ll never fire him.”
“Peevish?” Fredreeq said. “He’s mad as a hatter. These Vegas saboteurs have a gun to his head, making him rig the show. He’s in their pocket. I’m sure as I can be about this. And TV Guide may be in on it too, giving Savannah an inside photo.” She applied mascara to my already encrusted eyelashes. “You share the cover with thirty-two contestants from eleven other shows; she gets a quarter-page photo, two paragraphs, and they mention her horse. Her horse got more coverage than you. She’s in bed with TV Guide. I can’t prove it, but I feel it.”
“You know,” I said, trying to sound casual, “I’m thinking of coming in on my nights off to see how Savannah and Kimberly do things. I’d be like a customer. Sit in the back.”
Fredreeq stepped away from me and stared. “The back of what?”
“Of whatever restaurant the show’s shooting in.”
“You want to see how they do things, why don’t you just watch the show?”
“Because then I’d have to look at my own face and also, there’s a big difference between what Bing shoots and what shows up on TV after it’s edited.”
Fredreeq turned to Joey. “You think they’ll go for that, Wollie lurking?”
“I’ll be in disguise,” I said.
Fredreeq looked baffled. Joey said, “Working undercover, Wollie?”
I turned so fast that Fredreeq’s mascara wand raked across my cheekbone. Fredreeq shrieked. In the mirror I saw black stripes adorning my face. “I can’t comment on that, Joey,” I said. “But if you guys were to guess what I was up to…”
Joey nodded. She made sure I wasn’t wearing a sound mike, then told Fredreeq I was probably a rat for the DEA. While this was neither flattering nor accurate, it dovetailed closely enough with Fredreeq’s Vegas theory that within minutes they’d joined forces, discussing disguises for me to wear on my night off.
“Here’s mirrors,” Fredreeq said. “You and Carlito check your teeth whenever Bing says ‘Cut’ and every hour, do lipstick. You up to it? ’Cause I can blow off Francis’s family-”
“Don’t be silly. It’s a holiday. You have kids. I can powder my own nose. Go home.”
My Thanksgiving date was Carlito Gibbons. We sat side by side in a booth, more attentive to our mirrors than each other. I wondered how actors fall in love on movie sets, given the self-absorption of this work, not to mention the crew hanging around and sound guys listening to conversations on their headsets. Which led me to wonder how actors kiss each other when they’re not in the mood, which led me to wonder how Savannah, Kimberly, and I were going to kiss Carlito, Henry, and Vaclav all through Week Seven, as the show’s promos indicated. Week Seven, I realized, started shooting Monday.
“Let’s move to the guest expert,” Bing yelled. “Paul! She here yet? Noel Whositz?”
“Not her. Him,” Paul said. “‘Nole,’ not ‘No-Elle.’ Professor Wiederhut. In the john.”
“Whatever. Get him.”
Carlito picked at his molars with a fork. I offered him a toothpick, but he plucked a strand of hair from his head and set about flossing. How… resourceful. Could Carlito be Little Fish? I couldn’t see him in charge of a drug operation, but I could see how a paralegal on the team could be useful. Also, why had Annika approached Michelle, the music mom, rather than Carlito, if she was looking for a lawyer? She saw Carlito more often. And the set, with its long hours and endless downtime, was more conducive to that sort of conversation. Hmm.
“Lovely, lovely!” A gnomelike man approached, escorted by Paul. He wore a striped turtleneck, bringing to mind a black-and-yellow poison-arrow frog, Dendrobates leucomelas. “I so love your American Thanksgiving. Cornucopia, rich in metaphor. Vessel and phallus all at once. The fertile turkey. No coincidence there, what?” His accent was delightful. European?
“Yo. Nole. No-elle,” Bing said. “However you say it. No turkey talk once we roll.”
“This show isn’t live. When it airs, Turkey Day’s history. So don’t refer to it. Go again. Action.” Dinner plates appeared before us. Carlito and I delicately chowed down. Professor Wiederhut held forth. Bing filmed.
“I’m a Celtic neo-Jungian,” the professor said. “I applaud your program’s iconoclasm. Not easy to challenge this country’s conservative culture, yet this road you travel is not without precedent. Footprints! I speak in metaphor, the language of myth, to-”
“Don’t. Speak in English,” Bing cut in. “Dumb it down. Go again.”
“Hullo? Ah, yes. In a nutshell, then. Parenting as Life Path in mandatory conjunction with Sacred Partnering is a construct imposed from without by a society that paradoxically-”
“English!” Bing screamed.
The little gnome face turned to me with a pained look.
“American,” I said softly.
“Indeed. Some people are gifted at raising children. Others, at sex-phenomenal, lustful, playful, erotic, adventurous, dirty, imaginative, dangerous, mysterious, mystical sex, year after year, decade after decade with the same partner in a long-term intimate relationship.” Noel severed off a forkful of gelatinous cranberry sauce and tried to get it to his mouth. He was not successful. It slid onto the table with a quiet plop. “The problem is that modern society demands that each of us be both.”
Celtic. His accent was certainly Euro, but would Little Fish be one of the weekly experts? Unlikely. Joey booked the experts. Besides-
The professor was still talking, reminding me that I was on camera too. “… onerous professional responsibilities requiring total dedication,” he concluded. He tried the cranberry sauce again, but it fell onto his mashed potatoes.
Carlito piped up. “So your contention is, it’s okay to go have kids and not get married.”
“The gods governing motherhood are not those who reign over erotic love. In ancient times, we experienced all roles through ritual and tribe, not as individuals. We paid communal tribute-tribe-ute-to the archetypes. Nowadays tribe is dead, ritual is reduced to greeting cards on holidays, community is television-”
“Wollie designs greeting cards,” Carlito said. I was touched that he remembered.
The professor nodded. “Lovely. I am not denigrating greeting cards, I merely-”
“Denigrate,” Bing said. “Go ahead. Liven things up.”
“No. Design is art. Artists are sacred storytellers. They carry the psychic wound, transform it, and bring it forth as symbol. They are to be revered.” He took a sip of his wine.
From inside my purse, my phone rang.
“Oh, Christ!” Bing put down his camera. “It’s probably the network, canceling us. Anyone got a Xanax?” He walked off toward the back of the restaurant.
I found my phone, embarrassed that I’d neglected to turn it off. It better not be my mother, I thought. “Hello,” I said, discouragingly.
“It’s Simon. Bad time?”
“You mean you don’t know? The water glasses aren’t bugged?” I walked to a quiet corner of the restaurant, lowering my voice. “Tell me something. Can you figure out where I am by me using my cell phone?”
“Does the technology exist? Yes. Are we doing it to you? No.”
“But other parts of my life have been bugged, right? In the last week or so?”
“I’m more concerned with who’s listening to this conversation right now.”
“You mean your own agency is bugging you?”
“No. I mean on your end.”
I looked around. Carlito was checking his teeth. Professor Wiederhut was sniffing the stuffing. Diners were dining. Bing was sulking. Isaac was stepping out for a smoke. No one was looking at me. “I think we’re safe.”
“And plumbers? Anyone follow you to the set?”
“No. And Joey drove, so I’m not alone.”
“What time do you get off?”
“Eleven,” I said. “Bing’s estimate. That’s early for us, but it’s a holiday.”
“At eleven? You overestimate my social life.”
“How about if I pick you up at your apartment? You up for that? Midnight.”
My heart thumped and was still. “For… debriefing?”
“Call it that if you like. I’m calling it a date.”
We finished at nine-thirty. I called Simon, but I got voice mail, the first time I heard his recorded message. It was also the first time I left a message. My message was rambling, explaining that I could meet him earlier, unless I didn’t hear from him, in which case midnight was fine. His message was two words: first and last name. It didn’t seem fair.
“Bing’s losing it,” Joey said, gathering Fredreeq’s makeup supplies. “All night, same table. No camera moves. We’re not going for the Emmy, but would it kill him to do an establishing shot? And the after-hours club on the schedule-canceled. Paul doesn’t know what’s going on, and Paul knows where all the bodies are buried.”
I looked at Paul, packing his lights into their compact cases. He was Annika’s age-didn’t he have a family to be with on Thanksgiving? And Isaac? I watched him wrap up his sound equipment. Isaac would be the only child of parents long ago departed to the afterlife. Isaac would go home to a squalid apartment, a hamster, a stack of Scientific Americans. For fun he’d use his equipment to listen to his neighbors. He caught my eye. I looked away.
Or he could be a drug lord. Paul too. Paul would be a junior drug lord. A drug princeling. I wondered why the world of drugs used such aristocratic terms: drug lords, drug barons, drug czars. Other criminals didn’t get that kind of respect. There were no assault earls or homicide dukes. I was pondering the possibility of a greeting card on the topic when my phone rang. It was Cziemanksi, working, as I was.
“Slow night here,” he said. “Hey, I’m still feeling bad about the dinner I owe you.”
“I absolve you. Listen, Pete-we’re friends, I can call you Pete, right? I have kind of an odd question: why would the FBI get involved with a drug operation? Why wouldn’t that be the DEA, or the police?”
“It’s a question of degree. A guy shooting up on the street is LAPD. An epidemic of new crack houses around town might involve DEA. Drug traffic in and out of Asia, South America, Europe, crime syndicates-that brings in FBI and CIA, with bigger resources. In theory we all share information and work together seamlessly.”
“Naturally,” I said. “Any big drug lords out there right now?”
“You mean like Tcheiko? And Forio, but he’s dying of cancer. Joe Juarez they’ll never get-he’s got his own army, never leaves the jungle.”
“Tcheiko. What’s his story?”
“Interesting one. Convicted last year on racketeering charges, then escaped. Left the Feds standing there with their dicks in their hands, pardon the language. Two agents died and a couple more wished they had. Careers died. Escapes are bad. No one’s supposed to escape.”
I said, “So catching him might involve the DEA as well as the FBI?”
“Everyone wants a piece of this guy. Someone’ll get him, too, because he’s cocky. By the way-” There was a pause. “Happy Thanksgiving. I did a little checking, and you still want the address of that pickup you were interested in buying, grab a pencil.”
“The-what?-oh. Oh!” He’d called the DMV for me. “You’re a saint, Pete.”
“No, we’re friends. I don’t know anything about the truck, how many miles on it, so forth, so you’re on your own, if you catch my drift. And you didn’t hear about it from me. I have mixed feelings about this. I can’t check it out myself, for… reasons. So you have to promise me to take along someone who knows… trucks.”
I glanced at Joey, sitting on a table, long legs swinging, reading a copy of some glossy periodical called the Robb Report. I smiled. “I promise.”
“Vic Mauser. That’s the guy’s name,” I said. Joey’s old Mercedes zipped west toward the Brentwood address Cziemanski had given me. “Sounds like an assault rifle. Shouldn’t we wait until daylight to do this? And what is it we’re doing, by the way?”
“Surprising him,” Joey said. “We won’t get a signed confession, but if we do this right, we’ll find out if he knows about Annika.”
“By asking. He doesn’t expect it, so there’s this window of opportunity while he gets his story together where we’ll see it in his face. We only get one shot, but it’s perfect. Thanksgiving: wine, football, L-tryptophan, the stuff in turkey that makes you sleepy. He’s mellow.”
“He didn’t look mellow three days ago,” I said. “You really think he spent today giving thanks?”
“You think only nice people do holidays?”
I felt a qualm of conscience. “What about your Thanksgiving, Joey? Where’s Elliot?”
She kept her eyes on the road. “Atlantic City. Elliot thinks holidays are sappy. It’s okay, I got calls from four hundred family members, which more than compensated. You know, I bet Cziemanski can’t check out Vic Mauser himself because it’s not his case and it wouldn’t be cool. I’m also guessing he asked around and found out the sheriff’s guys don’t think much of the Annika-Rico connection. That’s why he went out on a limb and got us this address.”
“What about the FBI?” I asked. “Do you think-oops.”
Joey’s head swiveled to me. “Your boyfriend’s in the FBI? Not the DEA?”
“Oh, God. I can’t believe I just said that. I promised I wouldn’t-”
“Oh, boy, a Fed. A fun Fed, better than DEA. My cousin Stewart’s FBI, so- Look, Chenault. What’s the number?”
We parked on Barrington and walked to Chenault, a small street ending in a cul-de-sac, as Joey reassured me about my indiscretion. “It’s their own fault. Anyone who’s known you five minutes can see you’re not wired for deception. Where’s Vic’s pickup?”
“They must have underground parking,” I said as we reached the building. “Unless he’s out assaulting someone.”
“Wollie, check this out.” Joey pointed to the intercom box, with its dialing instructions and list of tenants. Code 004 was Mauser/Wooster.
“Vic Mauser… lives with Bing Wooster?” I said, confused. We tried on the possibility of Bing being gay. It wasn’t a good fit. And Vic, even on short acquaintance, suggested severe heterosexuality. “This is stupid,” I said. “Sane people don’t go knocking on the doors of dangerous strangers, and how do we even get into the building-”
“Look, if he’s lying, we pretend to believe him and walk away. There’s no reason for him to shoot us in the back. And relax. We’ll get in. I have a plan.”
Joey’s plan involved a tenant turning up with a key or a visitor letting us in with them. When this didn’t happen she began punching codes. The intercom squawked. Joey squawked back, “It’s me!” On the fourth try, someone hit the buzzer.
We found 2E. We looked at each other. Joey pressed the doorbell.
A woman answered the door. She wore maroon jeans and an argyle sweater. Her hair was red, not Joey’s Irish setter red, but a short, fluffy tangerine. She looked like she’d packed sixty years of living into forty years of life. “Yeah?”
“Hi,” I said. “We’re looking for Vic Mauser?”
She frowned. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Penny?” a male voice yelled. “What’s the story?”
“Someone to see you,” she yelled back, not taking her eyes from me.
“I don’t know!”
There was a short curse. I imagined the goateed man hauling himself out of a sofa, with unbuttoned trousers and unbuckled belt, dining recovery measures.
He appeared at Penny’s side. I was wrong. He wore shorts and a yellow T-shirt. His feet were bare. His look held no recognition; then he half-smiled, half-sneered. “Well, look who it is. Did he send you?”
“Who?” Penny asked. “Who are they?”
A child appeared in the doorway, wearing pajamas with attached feet. She held a fork in her mouth. Her hair looked like a bright orange Brillo pad, inherited from her mom. Vic glanced down. “Go back and finish your pie. Go on. Penny, take her.” He backed us out into the hallway and followed, shutting the door behind himself. “What do you want?”
“Annika Gl"uck,” I said.
His eyebrows drew together. “What?”
“Where is she?” Joey asked.
“Who?” Vic barked.
“Annika Gl"uck,” I said. “You don’t know who she is?”
“I can’t even understand what you’re saying. Who buzzed you in, by the way?”
“A friend of ours is missing,” I said. “We thought maybe Bing and you-maybe that’s what your argument was about the other night. Annika Gl"uck.”
He looked back and forth at us. “I don’t know what this is about, but you tell that slime bucket Wooster that his kid waited all day for him to show. If he can’t stop reading his own fan mail long enough to pick up the phone-”
“The slime bucket,” Joey said, “didn’t send us. The slime bucket’s not a friend of ours. We just have the misfortune to work with him. Sorry.”
I was already pulling Joey down the hall. “Sorry to disturb your Thanksgiving. Really.”
The elevator smelled like curry. Joey and I were melancholy with thoughts of small girls and absent fathers. There was also something about the idea of fan mail that bothered me, but I couldn’t figure out what.
“So when Vic talked about making people disappear,” Joey said, “I guess he meant Bing’s child, taking her out of state, maybe, if Bing didn’t show some interest.”
“I’ve heard Bing mention a wife or ex-wife,” I said, “so that must be her. Penny Wooster. But he never mentioned their little girl. How can someone talk about himself all the time and not talk about being a father?”
“The whole thing depresses me.”
“Joey,” I said. “Does the show get fan mail?”
“Well, it gets mail, and some of it’s positive. Mostly on the Web site. Don’t you check the Web site? No, of course not. Anyhow. I really hoped to connect Bing to Annika’s disappearance, but I think he’s just a garden-variety deadbeat dad.”
I agreed. Much as I wanted Bing to be Little Fish, he was more of a worm. I couldn’t imagine him being of interest to some Big Fish, or scaring Annika into disappearing.
Scariness, of course, is relative. For instance, in ninety minutes I had a date. It would be my first nontelevised date in four months, since the night Doc left my life and broke my heart. And I was scared stupid.