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31

I woke up on my living room sofa, dressed. Morning. My head hurt. Memory came in slowly, like coffee through a drip machine.

Why wasnt I in my bed? Had I been so drunk last night Id 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.

Simon.

I clutched the back of the sofa and closed my eyes. Had we-?

Kissed?

I sat back down. Scenes replayed like a home movie. Kisses. Outside the apartment, under a tree, in the grass, the car, the elevator. Id found the gun he wore on his waist. Hed checked out the apartment for plumbers, but then what? Please God, tell me he hadnt 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 hadnt 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 Whos 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 couldnt have written myself, because Id been dating them, and if theres one thing I know how to be its 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 masters 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 whod 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 Savannahs biography, and found it plausible. Especially Savannah. Maybe shed started this sideline in Central America, when she realized the poor of Guatemala werent 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 Id come for, an idea sparked by Vic Mauser. A password was required for the mailbox. I tried my mothers 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. Id 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 its 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: shes alive shes in danger she thinks shes going to die she thinks Im 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 couldnt move. Her e-mail had come from feynmanfan. Wed never e-mailed each other, but this had to be her account. Why hadnt 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? Im in danger. Big, general, nonspecific danger. Rescue me.

Could the e-mail be traced? I picked up the phone, and set it down again. Wed been through this, with Marie-Th'er`eses mail. Yes, but it would take time. Annikas 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. Hubies. They didnt fit, let alone match, but theyd save me from having to sneak into my bedroom and wake Prana.

What about Prana?

Nothing in Annikas e-mail suggested the danger was in my apartment, and my mother wasnt one to respond to threats, in any case. She didnt believe in medical checkups, earthquake preparedness, or national security advisories, and she wouldnt believe in this. She certainly wouldnt 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 shed seen a computer, remembered the shows 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 Ricos disappearance on the national news, which had so distressed her shed 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 shed 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 persons report. He might see this e-mail as confirmation that shed left voluntarily.

Joey. Tell no one wouldnt mean Joey, because Annika, unlike the FBI, understood about best friends. When I reached Sherman Oaks, I went into Rex and Tricias 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 dont get drunk often, being, if not a blackout drinker, a brownout one. I dont 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 cant 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 wasnt my friends 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. Im-

Oh, gosh. Ricos 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. Richies roommate. I understand you met Kevin. And Lyle. At Pepperdine.

Yes, I did.

Kevin tells me-hes very kind, he calls the house every day-he says youre friends with a young woman Richie dated. A girl from Germany.

Annika. Yes.

Ive spoken to the detective in charge of my sons 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 detectives feelings. I dont 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. Id 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?

Information. Knowledge.

Of course Ill meet you, I said. But theres someone else you may want to talk to. Ill 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-shes a huge fan of this show youre on. Hey, do you have an autographed photo? Shell 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! Maizies voice changed drastically. Dont you go near that ironing board. Lupe! D'onde est'a?

I spoke quickly. Maizie, Im close by and I wonder if I could bring a friend to meet-

Yes, fine- Emma! Wollie, Im 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 Id 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 couldnt 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-were doing sausage, and its not pretty. Gene took one look and went to play golf. City boy. Theres fresh-squeezed juice in the fridge.

Thats the fridge, Emma said, pointing to the paneled-front appliance. Its a refrigerator fridge.

I see, I said. Maizie, you make your own sausage?

Yes, Im 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?

Shes on her way, I said. And shes not precisely a friend. Maizie looked curious but continued kneading. I said, Her name is Lauren Rodriguez. Her son was Annikas boyfriend, Rico. Hes missing. Have you heard about this? Its been on the news.

Maizie stopped working, hands suspended above the bowl. She stared at me. His mother is coming here?

Yes. I think shes in bad shape, understandably, and shes trying to um, retrace the steps of her sons-Im 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 Id just burped loudly. I said, I guess it is a problem. I-wasnt 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 Emmas high chair. She smoothed the flyaway hair until Emma batted her away the way youd shoo a fly. Maizie smoothed her own hair. The seconds dragged by. She gave me an uncertain smile. Its fine, really, I just cant fathom what that woman is going through. I have seen the news. Its every mothers nightmare, you know.

I didnt know. I wasnt 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 politicians wife.

Youve both met my son. It was a voice unadorned with inflection.

Maizie asked Lupe to finish with Emmas lunch. Then she led Lauren and me into what wouldve 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 Laurens face. She doesnt sound like Richies type.

Whats his type? I asked.

Trouble.

Annika is very pretty, Maizie said, almost defensively.

Yes, of course. Laurens 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. Ive 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 thats 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 wasnt the impression I got from him, I said. But of course, Id just met him; hed hardly confide in me.

Laurens thin fingers worked the clasp on her bag. Its a silly theory. Who elopes?

I believe Annika felt herself to be- Maizie chose her next words carefully. In love with your son. I cant 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 hed 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. Hes 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 Annikas 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, Theres 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 hadnt told Maizie that Annikas mother was missing. Now probably wasnt the moment.

Gene thought it was time. Maizies lips pressed together, as though the next thought had to be held back. Then she said, He felt a week was long enough.

Laurens face went rigid. It was another story at her house, I guessed. Ricos bedroom would be as hed left it to go to Pepperdine: athletic trophies, his train set, plaid blankets on bunk beds. Nothing wouldve 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 cant 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 directors 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, Theyre 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 wouldnt like her for me. You see?

Um, no, I said.

Its 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 thats what he was acknowledging.

What will she have to have?

Social prominence. Style, education. Things I assume this girl doesnt have.

I looked down at my orange bicycle shorts. A lot of people dont.

Something else. He said, Mom, shes just like you. Shes beautiful and blond and she speaks three languages.

I stared at her, but she didnt notice.

So I just came right out and told her. Annika wasnt remotely blond.


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