I woke up on my living room sofa, dressed. Morning. My head hurt. Memory came in slowly, like coffee through a drip machine.
Why wasn’t I in my bed? Had I been so drunk last night I’d lost my way? No, my mother was occupying the bedroom. Okay. What day was it? Friday. I had to work on the frogs. I sat up. All my brains shifted to the front of my head. I lay back down. I sat up again, then stood. Okay, I was really making progress now.
I clutched the back of the sofa and closed my eyes. Had we-?
I sat back down. Scenes replayed like a home movie. Kisses. Outside the apartment, under a tree, in the grass, the car, the elevator. I’d found the gun he wore on his waist. He’d checked out the apartment for plumbers, but then what? Please God, tell me he hadn’t stayed. Bad enough to not remember, but with Prana in the bedroom and paper-thin walls-
I got up, and this time made it all the way to the kitchen, to a quart of cold water and medication. I was able to manage the childproof cap on the Tylenol bottle, but the coffee grinder presented a problem. Would it wake my mother? Maybe. Was it worth it? No. This was why God had created instant coffee.
My eyes lit on my computer, sitting on the kitchen table.
While the kettle heated up, I logged on to the Biological Clock Web site. The fact that I hadn’t done so until now raised an interesting question. Did I simply not enjoy computers, or was I, in fact, in denial about this show? Was I, like Prana, appalled?
The Web site was itself a little appalling, all primary colors, capital letters, and exclamation points. I felt like putting on sunglasses. There was a page called “Who’s Got the Best B.C. Body?!” that I chose not to visit. I was drawn instead to “Biological Biographies!”
There was nothing about Carlito, Vaclav, and Henry I couldn’t have written myself, because I’d been dating them, and if there’s one thing I know how to be it’s an attentive date. The competition was another story. I clicked on Kimberly Karmer. Kim was from a large, loving family, was a former Junior Miss, an award-winning clarinet player, and fluent in American Sign Language, thanks to a hearing-impaired mother. In the summer she taught music to underprivileged youth and she was now working in retail while pursuing a master’s degree in psychology. Dear God, I thought, and clicked onto Savannah Brook. Worse. Laker Girl, French major. MBA from Columbia, then spent a year building houses for poor people in Guatemala, currently a systems analyst, whatever that was, for a banking consortium and an equestrienne. And, of course, a black belt in Krav Maga. The kind of date who’d fix your roof, balance your checkbook, and advise you on your groin kicks.
Then there was me. My biographical profile said I designed a line of greeting cards, painted murals, and lived in West Hollywood.
That was it? What about my failed business, my three semesters of junior college, my institutionalized brother? Or my most noteworthy accomplishment, a string of dates that, put end to end, would stretch from Beverly Hills to the Panama Canal? Oh. I recalled Sharon, the battle-weary production person in the B.C. office, begging me for more information.
I imagined adding “drug dealer” to either Kim or Savannah’s biography, and found it plausible. Especially Savannah. Maybe she’d started this sideline in Central America, when she realized the poor of Guatemala weren’t advancing her career fast enough.
I clicked on a feature called “Fan Mail” and discovered I had my own mailbox. My head throbbed wildly. This was what I’d come for, an idea sparked by Vic Mauser. A password was required for the mailbox. I tried my mother’s maiden name, recalling that Sharon had once asked me for it. It worked. A daunting pile of e-mails popped up. I scrolled through, opening one at random. Someone called BarnyardAnimal wanted to know if my breasts were real.
Then a subject line made my heart beat faster: “Latte + 5 Sugars.” I had a vision of Annika at Grounds, our coffee hangout, opening packet after packet of sugar. I’d told her that Doc liked sugar in his coffee too, that maybe there was a correlation between sugar, brown hair, and mathematical ability. The e-mail was two days old. Shaking, I hit “Read.”
Wollie, I hope you find this, I have no other way to reach you. It is so bad, all that has happened. But you must not look for me. The danger is so great and if you die too it will be so bad. I want so much to see you and everyone, but I think I will not so always remember me with kindness. I am crying now as I write but it’s OK. I did not think I believed in God, but now I find I do so everything will be all right, even if nothing turns out as I thought. I did not think my year would end like this, people so much better than I expected and also so so so much worse. It will be over soon please do not look for me PLEASE. Tell NO ONE I write to you. Do not try to write back. Worse of all would be if you die because of me. Love, Your Little Sister.
I stared at the screen, my thoughts tumbling over one another: she’s alive she’s in danger she thinks she’s going to die she thinks I’m going to die. I typed back, “Are you still there? Are you all right?” and sent it. Almost instantly, a message appeared.
“Message cannot be delivered because mailbox is full.”
I couldn’t move. Her e-mail had come from “feynmanfan.” We’d never e-mailed each other, but this had to be her account. Why hadn’t she emptied her mailbox? Whose computer had she used?
What kind of danger was she talking about? Bombs? Guns? How could I guess? How did she know I was looking for her? I dialed Simon, got voice mail, and hung up. What could I say? I’m in danger. Big, general, nonspecific danger. Rescue me.
Could the e-mail be traced? I picked up the phone, and set it down again. We’d been through this, with Marie-Th'er`ese’s mail. Yes, but it would take time. Annika’s message had been waiting for two days. It could wait ten more minutes, while I calmed down. I printed it out.
In the hall closet I found some bicycle shorts and a rugby shirt. Hubie’s. They didn’t fit, let alone match, but they’d save me from having to sneak into my bedroom and wake Prana.
What about Prana?
Nothing in Annika’s e-mail suggested the danger was in my apartment, and my mother wasn’t one to respond to threats, in any case. She didn’t believe in medical checkups, earthquake preparedness, or national security advisories, and she wouldn’t believe in this. She certainly wouldn’t alter her life for it.
I went outside and checked the street for female plumbers and curious men with receding hairlines. Then I said a prayer, got in my car, and headed for the Valley.
Halfway up Coldwater Canyon I started to think more clearly. Annika was alive. Or had been two days ago. If she was being held against her will, maybe she’d seen a computer, remembered the show’s Web site, and typed out a fast message. But kidnappers did not typically leave computers lying around. Perhaps she was in hiding and had seen Rico’s disappearance on the national news, which had so distressed her she’d written to me, frightened that what had happened to him would happen to me. But if the danger was so great, why not just tell me what it was?
And how exactly was I to stop looking for her? Should I stop thinking about her? Avoid saying her name? Not drive my car? Quit the show? Leave town? Which part of my life was the dangerous part? Being a CW, a cooperating witness for the FBI, the job she’d turned down?
Tell no one, Annika had said.
I had to tell someone. Cziemanski? Annika was still his case. No, not a case, a missing person’s report. He might see this e-mail as confirmation that she’d left voluntarily.
Joey. Tell no one wouldn’t mean Joey, because Annika, unlike the FBI, understood about best friends. When I reached Sherman Oaks, I went into Rex and Tricia’s Mansion, armed myself with a gallon can of deck paint as a weapon, checked the house from top to bottom, locked the door, and left a message for Joey.
One good thing about the e-mail, beyond the fact that Annika was alive, was that it distracted me from my hangover. I don’t get drunk often, being, if not a blackout drinker, a brownout one. I don’t forget whom I was with, just the details of what I did with them. Which makes for some uncomfortable mornings after. This one was no exception.
“Wollie, I can’t talk,” Joey said on the phone, interrupting my painting. “But be home at three-thirty. I have a plan.” She hung up. Immediately, my cell phone rang again.
“Joey?” I said, but it wasn’t my friend’s gravelly voice that responded.
“Miss Shelley?” It was a woman, soft-spoken. I thought of the female plumber and felt chills up and down my spine. “My name is Lauren Rodriguez. I’m-”
“Oh, gosh.” Rico’s mother. I froze. “I know who you are. How are you doing?”
“Not well.” An audible breath. “Pardon the intrusion. I was given your number by Kevin Irving. Richie’s roommate. I understand you met Kevin. And Lyle. At Pepperdine.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Kevin tells me-he’s very kind, he calls the house every day-he says you’re friends with a young woman Richie dated. A girl from Germany.”
“I’ve spoken to the detective in charge of my son’s case. I asked about this young woman. He says the connection is tenuous. Miss Shelley-”
“Call me Wollie.”
“The detective feels it best if we leave him to do his job. I am not much interested in the detective’s feelings. I don’t know if this will make sense to you, but I want to meet everyone my son met, go where he went; I would like to walk through his life of the past weeks. I’d like to hear about this young woman. If we could meet for a cup of coffee, lunch, anything. Anytime you like. I have nothing but time.”
I felt sad down to my toes. What could I say to this woman, what could possibly help her right now?
“Of course I’ll meet you,” I said. “But there’s someone else you may want to talk to. I’ll make a call and get right back to you.”
Maizie answered on the first ring. “Wollie! Guess what: Grammy Quinn called last night from Palm Springs, she just figured out why you looked so familiar-she’s a huge fan of this show you’re on. Hey, do you have an autographed photo? She’ll be back for Christmas-”
“I can do better than that,” I said. “She can visit the set if she wants. Listen, though-”
“Oh, my God. It would be like the Second Coming- Emma Amanda Quinn!” Maizie’s voice changed drastically. “Don’t you go near that ironing board. Lupe! D'onde est'a?”
I spoke quickly. “Maizie, I’m close by and I wonder if I could bring a friend to meet-”
“Yes, fine- Emma! Wollie, I’m sorry, I have to deal with this. Come on over. Bye.”
I drove from Sherman Oaks and Lauren Rodriguez drove from Lost Hills, both of us heading to Encino. As I’d expected, when she heard Annika was an au pair, Lauren wanted to meet the host family. I drove as fast as Ventura Boulevard allowed, anxious to brief Maizie on the sensitive nature of this visit. I was putting her on the spot, but I couldn’t see her refusing, and I was glad not to have to meet Lauren alone. There is something scary about grief.
Lupe and Mr. Snuggles escorted me into the kitchen, where Emma sat at the table with a plastic plate in front of her and a bib around her neck. “Emma eat lunch,” the child informed me, holding up tiny silverware.
“Looks good.” Turkey, stuffing, and peas sat on the plate, each food forming an island, nothing touching. A tiny, perfect wedge of apple pie occupied its own plate, just out of reach.
Maizie came through the doorway, aproned, carrying a large Tupperware bowl. “Hey, there,” she said, heading for the counter. “What can I get you, Wollie? Actually, you might want to help yourself-we’re doing sausage, and it’s not pretty. Gene took one look and went to play golf. City boy. There’s fresh-squeezed juice in the fridge.”
“That’s the fridge,” Emma said, pointing to the paneled-front appliance. “It’s a refrigerator fridge.”
“I see,” I said. “Maizie, you make your own sausage?”
“Yes, I’m taking a charcuterie class.” She poured the contents of her Tupperware into an enormous bowl, added a measuring cupful of what appeared to be spices, and plunged her hands in. “Oh, Lupe, I have the three-eighths-inch blade chilling in the fridge, could you get it? Anyhow, Wollie, come to our Christmas Eve open house. Grammy Quinn comes in the day before-oh-” She looked up. “Did you say you were bringing a friend?”
“She’s on her way,” I said. “And she’s not precisely a friend.” Maizie looked curious but continued kneading. I said, “Her name is Lauren Rodriguez. Her son was Annika’s boyfriend, Rico. He’s missing. Have you heard about this? It’s been on the news.”
Maizie stopped working, hands suspended above the bowl. She stared at me. “His mother is coming here?”
“Yes. I think she’s in bad shape, understandably, and she’s trying to… um, retrace the steps of her son’s-I’m sorry, this is very awkward. Is it a problem?”
Maizie glanced at Emma, a stricken look on her face. I felt my own face go red, as though I’d just burped loudly. I said, “I guess it is a problem. I-wasn’t thinking.”
A buzzer rang.
“Lupe,” Maizie said, “please show our guest in.” She stepped over to the sink and washed her hands. She dried them on a dish towel, removed her apron, inspected her nails, then moved to Emma’s high chair. She smoothed the flyaway hair until Emma batted her away the way you’d shoo a fly. Maizie smoothed her own hair. The seconds dragged by. She gave me an uncertain smile. “It’s fine, really, I just can’t… fathom what that woman is going through. I have seen the news. It’s every mother’s nightmare, you know.”
I didn’t know. I wasn’t a mother. I could only guess.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway. We all watched the doorway.
Lauren Rodriguez was medium height, shorter than Maizie and me, and ballerina slender. She preceded Lupe into the kitchen like a gazelle, long-necked and fragile. She looked nothing like Rico, her sandy hair pulled back into a ponytail and held with a tortoiseshell barrette. She wore khaki pants, a white blouse, loafers without socks, and carried a purse. Her only jewelry was a gold watch and a wedding ring. Her pierced ears were bare. She shook hands with us, with a strong grip. I remembered she was a politician’s wife.
“You’ve both met my son.” It was a voice unadorned with inflection.
Maizie asked Lupe to finish with Emma’s lunch. Then she led Lauren and me into what would’ve been described in another era as a parlor. It was a room suited to tense conversation. The furniture was antique mahogany with needlepoint cushions, small, dark, and hard.
“I met Rico-Richard-very briefly, last Thursday,” I said. “To talk about Annika.”
Maizie cleared her throat. “Two or three times he came here to pick up Annika for a date, or just to visit. Once I made pizza and we all watched the World Series in the den. A charming young man. Extremely well mannered.”
“Yes, he is,” Lauren said. “Thank you. What can you tell me about this girl?”
“Annika?” Maizie said. “Wonderful with children, excellent English. Good personal hygiene. A little… withdrawn, the last month or two, but I chalked it up to hormones or homesickness. An ideal employee in every way, until she disappeared. Such a bright girl.”
I nodded. “Really smart. And energy-volunteer jobs, projects, college courses… generous and goal-oriented.”
A fleeting smile appeared on Lauren’s face. “She doesn’t sound like Richie’s type.”
“What’s his type?” I asked.
“Annika is very pretty,” Maizie said, almost defensively.
“Yes, of course.” Lauren’s eyes darted around, her social mechanism breaking down. Already she looked older than she had on TV days before. A beautiful woman, affected by sleeplessness, anxiety, and heartsickness. She wore no makeup. Her pallor unsettled me.
“Lauren, I have a question-” I started, then stopped. There was really no graceful segue from teen dating to crime.
“Ask. I’ve been asked everything this week.”
“Was your son ever involved in-or were his friends into… um, drugs?”
Both women looked at me with blank expressions.
“No,” Lauren said. “Richie was never a problem, even as a little boy. He never liked guns or swords. Just fire engines and cars. His train set, of course. Then girls.”
What a strange answer. It told me nothing about him, but something about her, what she could bear to think about.
“I have this hope,” she said, “that they ran off together, Richie and this Annika. He never brought her home. His roommate, Kevin, tells me my husband might have found her… unacceptable. Do you think that’s possible, that they eloped?” Her face was a plea.
I looked at Maizie, who studied her hands, frowning as though trying to understand the question. I swallowed. “That wasn’t the impression I got from him,” I said. “But of course, I’d just met him; he’d hardly confide in me.”
Lauren’s thin fingers worked the clasp on her bag. “It’s a silly theory. Who elopes?”
“I believe Annika felt herself to be-” Maizie chose her next words carefully. “In love with your son. I can’t say whether it was reciprocated. He seemed to come around less in the last few weeks.” A strained silence followed. “Can I get you anything?”
Lauren appeared not to hear. “Also, he would never let me worry like this. He called Saturday from school to say he would sleep in on Sunday, but he’d be home to watch the game. Football. And dinner. He said he had a mountain of laundry. He would never lie to me, you see. He’s a good boy. Not with his father, not always, but with me.”
She went back to rubbing the clasp on her purse. It was Prada, I noticed. How far from these women I lived, with no children, no husband, no holiday open house. I had odd jobs. And I was dressed in orange spandex bicycle shorts and a blue, red, and yellow rugby shirt, clothes belonging to dear gay Hubie, found in the bottom of a closet. I had no costly accessory to fidget with. The only thing I owned as expensive as that Prada handbag was my car.
After an awkward conversational lull, Maizie offered to show Lauren Annika’s room.
The attic bedroom was now a quilting room. Intricate quilts hung on the walls, and some sort of oversize frame was set up on the bed, holding a quilt in progress. They were gorgeous, but Lauren ignored them. She stood, breathing hard, as if she could inhale a clue. What was it she hoped to find? An emotional connection, a psychic one?
Maizie said, “There’s not much here. I sent most of her things back to Germany.”
“Already?” I said, wondering if anyone would be there to receive them. I hadn’t told Maizie that Annika’s mother was missing. Now probably wasn’t the moment.
“Gene thought it was time.” Maizie’s lips pressed together, as though the next thought had to be held back. Then she said, “He felt a week was long enough.”
Lauren’s face went rigid. It was another story at her house, I guessed. Rico’s bedroom would be as he’d left it to go to Pepperdine: athletic trophies, his train set, plaid blankets on bunk beds. Nothing would’ve changed in the last few years, and now, unless he showed up alive, nothing in that room would ever change. Lauren stared out the window, and I stared at her. Her arms were folded, her right hand gripping her left bicep. Her nails were painted a shade of pale coral, but the polish was chipped and the nails themselves ragged and uneven. This shocked me. Like spotting a cold sore on the Mona Lisa.
“The police,” she said, as if someone had just asked a question, “think he had a date Saturday night with a girl. But they can’t find the girl. So when Kevin told me about Annika disappearing…” Her shoulders slumped, and her head dropped to her chest.
We left the room, and then the house. Maizie walked us to the porch, and Lauren and I continued down the drive, to our cars. The film shoot that had been down the block last week was now across the street. A woman was setting up director’s chairs on the front lawn. I wanted to say something personal to Lauren, but everything I thought of sounded platitudinous to my ears. Like a bad greeting card.
“Did Rico talk about Annika?” I asked.
“Not by name.” A smile touched her face, making wrinkles around her eyes. This was someone who smiled a lot, in normal life. “The last time he was home-he comes home every few weekends-I said, ‘Is there anyone special?’ He said, ‘They’re all special, Mom.’ ”
I waited. She stayed with her memory until we reached her car, a Jaguar convertible, dark green. “He said a funny thing. He said ‘Even Dad would like this one. He just wouldn’t like her for me.’ You see?”
“Um, no,” I said.
“It’s the way you described her. My husband respects a good work ethic. But whoever Richie ends up with will have to have more, and I think that’s what he was acknowledging.”
“What will she have to have?”
“Social prominence. Style, education. Things I assume this girl doesn’t have.”
I looked down at my orange bicycle shorts. “A lot of people don’t.”
“Something else. He said, ‘Mom, she’s just like you. She’s beautiful and blond and she speaks three languages.’ ”
I stared at her, but she didn’t notice.
So I just came right out and told her. Annika wasn’t remotely blond.