We got to West Hollywood an hour before I was to meet Simon. The lights were on at Book ’Em, D’Agneau, and on impulse I had Joey drop me there. I wasn’t the only customer. My uncle was in the back, having decaf with Lucien.
“Waiting for my ride,” Uncle Theo said. “Your brother rode back with the troops, but Prana and I took in a cabaret act. She’s in deep meditation now, which requires solitude.”
Lucien offered me a liquer. I declined. “Do you know a drug called Euphoria?” I asked.
“Don’t you mean Ecstasy?”
“Related to it, I think. Do you know much about Ecstasy? Like, how it’s made?”
“My friend Roger could tell you,” Uncle Theo said. “You remember him, Wollie, the homeopath in Ojai. He’d make up batches of the stuff for Christmas presents. For close friends. It was handy because safrole, the operative ingredient, is derived from sassafras oil, which Roger had on hand for his medicines. Safrole has few other legitimate uses, you see. Unhappily, he’s doing time now, although not for the Ecstasy. He didn’t believe in paying taxes.”
“Okay. So if Roger had gone beyond Christmas gifts,” I said, “and built a thriving business, would that get the attention of a drug bigwig? Like Vladimir Tcheiko?”
“I don’t believe I know him,” Uncle Theo said.
Lucien shook his head. “It would take more than Ecstasy to interest Tcheiko.”
“Like a new drug?” I said. “If it’s a really big deal? If this Euphoria, for instance-”
“U4,” Uncle Theo said. “Is that the same, do you suppose?”
I stared at my uncle and nodded.
“A young man at the hospital with P.B. described it to me,” he said, “as tripping on clouds at the bottom of the ocean. ‘U4 is 4U, U4 is 4U’ he liked to say. He had repetition compulsion, repeating words in multiples of eight. The drug sounded quite delightful.”
“Mental hospital,” I said to Lucien, by way of explanation. “Okay, would that do it? Would a new drug that’s big with college kids interest Tcheiko?”
“Oh, undoubtedly.” Lucien refilled Uncle Theo’s coffee cup. “But how far would he go for it? Actually, I’m inclined to think that if it’s big enough, he would go very far. The man is a megalomaniac, a publicity slut, a player. Outsize ego made larger by his famous escape last year. He is in retreat now, on the coast of Africa, they say, but he will no more live there quietly than movie stars retire upon winning Oscars. Yes, I can imagine him needing to be associated with the next trend, whatever it is. Heroin and cocaine are the old world order and Tcheiko sees himself as the new.”
He sipped his coffee and gazed at me. “Now we have questions. Yesterday a man came in asking about you. I made him buy two books and one of your greeting cards and told him nothing.” He nodded at my reaction. “Receding hairline. Medium height. Unlike the well-proportioned being who walked you down the street today, who came in Sunday and bought one each of your cards, thirteen in total. I charged him for twelve. Question: why did the man yesterday leave here and drive off in a van with a plumbing logo on its side?”
“And why,” Uncle Theo said, “did your building superintendent stop by to say Happy Thanksgiving and that he wasn’t aware of your plumbing problem?”
I had no answers. I had no plumbing problems. I had other problems, though.
Uncle Theo and I pondered these while walking to my apartment. We arrived without incident and once I’d delivered my uncle to his friend Gordon, who was waiting in his truck on Larrabee, I headed to my own car, parked right in front of my building. I opened the trunk, removed my art portfolio, and went to wait for Simon in the lobby. While I waited, I sketched. Sketching relaxes me, occupying my hands when thoughts trouble my mind.
I’d been doing a line of condolence cards, initially inspired by my broken engagement. There is no end to things deserving of sympathy. “Sorry about that canceled wedding” led to “Sorry about your cholesterol levels,” “Sorry your house has mold,” and, this being Hollywood, “Sorry your series was canceled.” I finished “Sorry you flunked” and was starting a new one, “Sorry about your biological father,” when a knock on the building’s glass door made me jump.
I slapped my sketchbook shut and went outside to meet Simon Alexander.
“Nice office,” he said, indicating the lobby. He took my sketchbook. “May I?”
I nodded, watching him study my work. He’d changed clothes since this morning: different dress shirt, different dark pants, no tie. He turned the pages slowly, studying each as if it were directions to buried treasure. I realized I was holding my breath. Finally, he closed my sketchbook and handed it back. “I like your mind,” he said.
I let out my breath.
He escorted me to his sports car and opened the passenger door. A first-date sort of gesture. I wondered how long he’d do that, hold the door open for me. A lot of guys never do it, which is okay. Other guys start out doing it and after a while they get in the driver’s side and lean over to open the door for you, and then sometime later they dispense with opening your door at all, and the next thing you know, they’re in the car and halfway down the block before they even unlock your door, leaving you to hop after them in your high heels, waving your arms. Would we last that long, Simon and me?
I wasn’t in heels tonight. B.C. dictated flat shoes, since my feet were never seen on camera and Bing didn’t want me towering over Carlito, Henry, and Vaclav. I was also in a tight black skirt that went with my tight polka-dot blouse, part of my recent Beverly Center haul. And a lot of makeup. TV makeup, as applied by Fredreeq, is just slightly more subtle than what you’d see at the circus. Would Simon think I’d worn three coats of mascara to impress him?
I snuck a look at the bump in his nose I was growing fond of, prominent in profile. He caught me looking, smiled, and went back to his driving.
“Nice wheels, your cheap Bentley,” I said. “I thought Joey’s husband Elliot’s BMW had an impressive dashboard, but this one’s downright-” I stopped before saying “sexy.”
“Thank you,” he said, as though I’d finished my thought. “What kind of BMW?”
“I don’t know. Some convertible.”
He smiled. “I thought we’d go to Falcon. Do you know it?”
“You’ll like it.”
“Naturally you know what I like, based on-my FBI file?”
He kept his eyes on the road. “Your favorite potatoes are french fries. You support the legalization of pet ferrets. You like watches. You hate sisal carpets, tolerate Berber, love Persian rugs, but worry about little girls in Third World countries sitting at looms making them.”
He continued. “You designed your first greeting card when you were six, you listen to Christmas carols all year, you used to think James Bond was your father.”
I cleared my throat. “Okay, perhaps a government file is redundant for a contestant on Biological Clock. Still, you cannot predict with certainty that I’ll like… Pheasant.”
“Falcon. I’ve watched you eat without complaint at seedy restaurants across L.A.”
“They haven’t all been seedy.”
“A good restaurant wouldn’t allow a show that bad to be filmed on its premises.”
“Is it really as bad as I think it is?”
“Biological Clock,” he said, “is as bad as it gets. I’m hooked. I fell asleep in front of the TV one night and woke up to your face. Your date berated the waiter for not knowing if the beef was domestic or Argentinian, and you stood up for the waiter.”
I stared. “But that was our first episode. Weeks before I appeared on your radar.”
“If you’re looking to keep a low profile, you might consider a different line of work.”
“Okay, I’m confused. I thought I came to your attention because of this sting operation, you thinking I was in with the bad guys, Little Fish, Big Fish…”
“No, I’ve known about you for weeks.” He looked at me. “Unofficially.”
Something went zinging through me. “Is it common,” I said, “for an FBI agent to approach someone he thinks is working with bad guys, to warn her off?”
He looked back at the road. “No. It’s not common at all.”
He was so relaxed. They probably taught relaxation techniques at Quantico. My heart was pump, pump, pumping away like an old washing machine with a spin cycle gone crazy. “And when,” I said, “did you decide I wasn’t a criminal?”
“Last week. I might have recruited you in any case, but then you’d have been a dirty source. I like it better this way.”
“And you’re done investigating me?” I thought about the man questioning Lucien.
Was that a double entendre? He hadn’t taken his eyes off the road. “Great,” I said. “The FBI thinks I’m clean. If I want to go into crime, this is the time to do it.”
The light turned green. His hand played with the gearshift. He had articulate fingers. “What makes you think I have a sense of humor?” he asked. The car shot forward, leaving my stomach half a block behind.
I said, “What makes you think I’m kidding?”
He looked at me. It was hard to hold his look, because for one thing, I was scared we were going to crash if his eyes didn’t return to the road, and for another thing, eye contact like that says something after a point, something along the lines of Yeah, I’d sleep with you.
He looked away first. I let out a long, slow breath, as quietly as I could, focused on the appealing bump in his nose.
A smile settled in on his face. He said, “This is going to be fun.”
Falcon had valet parking on Sunset Boulevard, but no obvious entrance. A gate to the right of the valet was manned by a woman: intimidating, hip, holding a clipboard. In a careful voice that could turn either respectful or discouraging, she asked if we had reservations. I wanted to say that I had some pretty serious reservations, but I let Simon answer.
She thawed, smiled, and crossed the name firmly off the clipboard. “Certainly, Mr. Alexander. Straight on back, left at the arbor. Enjoy your evening.”
We walked down a long path, a sort of floriferous alleyway leading to a doorway. It was an entrance ritual calculated to make us feel Chosen. Good feng shui, Fredreeq would say.
Falcon was all wood and steel and mood lighting, starkness undercut by whimsy, with fur-covered seating cubes scattered around a sophisticated bar. Booths surrounded the bar’s periphery, and a lower room, actually outdoors, complete with trees and bleachers, served as a nightclub. A waiter/runway model showed us to our upper-level booth, gliding silently across a wood floor. I, in my flat size eleven shoes, galumphed along behind, making loud creaking noises.
The booths were constructed for privacy. “Bet no one in this place does drugs,” I said, pulling the curtains around our table experimentally, then pushing them back.
“Think you could forget for two hours what I do for a living?”
“No. Oh, how nice. The elderly gentleman over there dining with his granddaughters. And they say no one dresses for dinner anymore. A little late for teenage girls to be out, don’t you think? My, they’re affectionate.”
Oh, dear. We weren’t in a car anymore, we were opposite each other, his blue eyes flickering in the candlelight. Candlelight fosters double entendres.
“I’m not nervous.” But I was, because when the waiter came I ordered a martini with an olive, a drink I’ve had twice in my life and didn’t enjoy, as this was a restaurant where ordering white wine by the glass could be a faux pas, which begged the question of why I cared what some waiter and bartender thought of me, for which I had no satisfactory answer.
Simon asked for something called Ketel One, and the waiter retreated. A man came by and set a small plate on our table. It held two servings of something involving phyllo dough, along with two smaller empty plates.
“Amuse-bouche. Veal,” he said, and vanished.
Simon stabbed one of the appetizers, put it on a plate, and moved it to me. “Then let’s entertain our mouths.”
Not finding veal entertaining, I pushed the plate back toward him. “You speak French. Had I known of your erudition when you were stalking me, I’d have asked you to help me pass my math assessment test.”
“I’d have said no.” He ate his amuse-bouche. “Why test out if you don’t know the subject?”
“Because I don’t like numbers. I don’t want to study them into retirement.”
He pushed my amuse-bouche toward me. “That’s because, underneath that good-girl exterior, you’re your mother’s daughter. You think math’s not creative, it’s for left-brain types. I bet you don’t even like computers.”
There it was again. Computers. Web site. Fan mail. There was something I needed to check out when I got home. “Math doesn’t interest me,” I said. “Can’t I not be interested?”
“Yes. But you aspire to higher education.”
“Not in math.”
“Then half the world’s closed to you. The language of physics. Chemistry.”
“I’m not the scientific type.” I pushed my plate back toward him.
“Really? Art is okay, and religion, but science, that other great mode of human inquiry, holds no appeal. Interesting. A little arrogant.”
“I didn’t mean-”
“I have no problem with arrogance; it can be sexy. You really think what bores you isn’t worth learning? Feynman was like that. He thought literature was a waste of time.”
A martini appeared in front of me. I took a long sip from the chilled glass and felt my ears twitch. Imagine getting so heated up about arithmetic. I popped the olive in my mouth and looked at him, his soft white shirt such a textural contrast to the steel booth he leaned against. What a masculine restaurant. Except for those fur-covered seating cubes. I took another sip.
“Chaco,” I said. But I mispronounced it, so that it sounded like “Tcheiko.”
“What?” His body tensed. I could feel it in the space between us.
“Ceratophrys cranwelli, predaceous South American horned frog. I’m painting it. The Chaco. Of the subfamily Ceratophryinae, within the family Leptodactylidae. See? Science.”
Simon relaxed. Smiled. “That’s not science, that’s showing off your Latin.”
The tension had been subtle, but it had been there. Simon had Vladimir Tcheiko on the brain. And he didn’t want me knowing. Tcheiko wasn’t just a drug lord. He was Big Fish.
I was wondering what to do with this when Simon asked how things had gone on the set. I told him I’d followed men to the bathroom all night, lurking in the hallway in case one used the pay phone between the men’s and ladies’ rooms. None did. “And no one,” I said, “stood up and announced, ‘I am Little Fish.’ One Celtic accent, no shopping bags. Nothing I did tonight couldn’t be done by any first-year FBI agent, by the way.”
A waiter refilled our water glasses. Simon thanked him without taking his eyes off me.
“So why me?” I said. “Why me?”
He just kept looking at me. “Stop looking for her,” he said, his voice soft.
I said nothing.
It really was a great restaurant. Our waiter brought me a second martini I couldn’t recall ordering, a salad I knew I hadn’t ordered, and some pasta thing. Simon had a steak the size of my shoe. There were colorful sauces, kaleidoscopically arranged on the plates, and an impressive bread basket with skinny breadsticks and curly pretzelly things shooting out like earth-tone flora. The whole experience was enhanced by the fact that I was drunk.
“I’ve never gotten drunk with a G-man,” I said, leaning over the table a little farther than the rules of good posture allowed. “I bet you have a conservative voting record. I don’t often date Republicans, but Joey says they’re good in bed, more so than you’d imagine.”
“It’s not something I’ve spent time imagining.”
“Speaking of Joey, why didn’t you recruit her? She’s brave, she’s intrepid, and she’s a producer of sorts, so she’s got a built-in excuse for hanging around the show.”
“I have my reasons,” he said.
“Let’s hear them.”
He sat back, his body languid, one hand playing idly with the espresso cup in front of him. He studied me. He studied me for so long I forgot what my question was. For a moment I sobered up. Should federal agents even be allowed to date, when the rules of conversation kept getting suspended every four minutes?
“Joey,” he said, “has a lifestyle and certain… characteristics that make her less than desirable to work with.” His hand lifted in a “Stop” gesture. “Anything I say about this is going to get you defensive. You’re a little fierce about your friends.”
“You mean I’m fierce about Annika but, Simon, if you knew her better, you’d like her. You’d like her better than me. She knew all this math stuff, she tutored me for free, she had no money but she volunteered at pet shelters, she was kind to plants, and so small, with those red cheeks and worried about World War II and she’s not even twenty years old. If they had a reality show called Who Should Not Disappear into Thin Air? she’d win.”
This was not, perhaps, my most lucid moment, but Simon looked at me with gentleness, a gentleness peculiar to tall men. Tall men with blue eyes. There are male frogs that turn blue in order to attract female frogs, I told myself. This got me to thinking about the most famous frog, the legendary frog turned into a prince by a kiss. I seemed to be living the legend in reverse, seeing men as princes and kissing them willingly, only to find they were in fact amphibians, leading a double life, one on land, one at sea. Perhaps this was because the woman in the legend was a princess and I was a commoner.
At some point we walked the long, long walk out of the restaurant, and when we were halfway down the flower-covered alleyway, Simon stopped. I turned to him, stood on tiptoes as if I were going to tell him a secret, which seems like something an informant might do with an FBI agent, and then I kissed him. He kissed me back. After a while, other people came down the flower-covered alleyway, and we stopped kissing and continued on our way to Sunset Boulevard, where it was the morning after Thanksgiving night.
He put his jacket on me while we waited for the valet parking guy to fetch his car. The jacket was too big. It made me feel little. When you’re a girl who is six feet tall, that is nothing to sneeze at.