Blondes. Bleach blonde, honey blonde, ash blonde, dishwater blonde. Bad blonde. Rico’s last date was a bad blonde, because if she had nothing to hide, she’d go to the cops and say, “I was with him the night he disappeared. I was the last to see him.” Or nearly the last. If she was truly the last, then she had reason to keep it to herself.
I was no longer thinking of Annika. Or Simon. I wasn’t even hung over. Driving east to San Marino, I had a prickly feeling, like my whole body had gone to sleep and was now waking up. I hadn’t called first, because I wanted to try out Joey’s theory of lying, which required surprise. I had to see Britta’s face.
I heard her first. Or, rather, I heard the children she took care of. Why weren’t they in school, I wondered, and then realized the Friday after Thanksgiving was a holiday. I followed the sounds to the back of the house and let myself in through a gate connected to a high fence. Two skinny boys jumped off a low diving board into a black-bottomed pool in a manner calculated to create the largest possible splash. Slumped on a beach chair in a sweatshirt and tight jeans was Britta, clearly bored. Very blond.
Because of the splashing I was able to get next to her without being heard. “Hi, Britta.”
She jumped to her feet. Recognition dawned, then hope. “Rico? He is found?”
“No.” I hesitated, then plowed onward. “Britta, you dated him, didn’t you?”
The switch to sullen was instantaneous. “It was you who have told this to police.” She took in my outfit, the bicycle shorts and nonmatching shirt, and seemed to find it an affront.
“I-no, I didn’t,” I said. “Have they talked to you?”
“Yesterday. Joshua!” Her head snapped around. “Do not hit your brother!”
I turned to look. One skinny kid was hitting the other while the other screamed.
“Joshua! Stop this any minute!”
One day, some civilizing force might set in, but now the boys were monkeys. Not cute baby ones, but the hostile kind you see at the zoo, screeching when they catch you looking. Joshua paused in midattack and pointed an accusing finger. “Who’s she?”
“You’re not supposed to have friends over when you’re on duty.”
“Anyway, she is not a friend.”
Joshua’s brother used this distraction to push Joshua into the pool, then took off running. Britta yelled at him not to run. He paid no attention.
“I’ll leave in a minute,” I said. “So the cops know you were sleeping with Rico?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t have to talk to you. You are not police.”
“No, but-do you know what a private detective is?”
“You are a detective?”
Joey and I had already played this out with Kevin and Lyle, but it was still hard for me to lie. I sat on the chaise longue. “What’s nice about private detectives,” I said, “is that people tell them things, things they never have to report to the police-”
“So? This is not a crime, I think, to have sex with people.” She flipped her straight blond hair with both hands.
“Of course not. And by the way, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you and Rico were in love, or I would’ve been more sensitive when I told you the news the other day.”
“What I care about,” I said, leaning in, “is finding Rico. This is why I ask personal questions. Forgive me. It must be painful to talk about. I won’t tell the police anything.”
“This is your job? To find Rico?”
“I just met with his mother, only an hour ago.”
Her sullenness dissipated. “Anyway,” she said, “we didn’t do this since one week ago. The police, they are concerned with Saturday night only. Saturday I am here.”
There was no hesitation, no interest in whether I believed her or not. She was, I believed, telling the truth. She was not the blonde Rico had dated the night he’d disappeared.
I thought of the names on Rico’s wall, the girls he knew, the possibilities. It was exhausting to think about. And then I remembered something else on the wall. The. “Britta,” I said, “I guess you didn’t tell them about the-other thing.”
Her head snapped around. “What?”
“The drugs Rico was involved in. It’s common knowledge.”
She didn’t bat an eye at the mention of drugs. “What means that, common knowledge?”
“That means a lot of people know about it.”
She looked young now, like the monkey boys. “Really? I-I didn’t-”
“You’re right not to tell the police. You could get deported.”
Her eyes went wide. “But I did nothing. I told him no.”
No to what? “Then why didn’t you tell the police?” I asked.
She glanced at the boys, racing barefoot around the pool, armed with plastic machine guns. Their swim trunks were baggy and their ribs stuck out and they were happily blowing each other away. I could mention the agency, Glenda, Marty Otis, the secretary of state-
“The host family,” she said abruptly, “do not like the police to come, and park in the street where the neighbors see. But this is not my fault. Jeremy, what do you have there?” She stood. Across the lawn, the brothers had stopped shooting and were huddled over something.
“You are not to murder it. Your mother says.” She settled back in her chair.
I stood. “They wouldn’t really murder it, would they?” Why couldn’t it be a snake or a fly? Why a frog?
“No murder!” Britta called out.
“It’s already dead, stupid!” one of the boys yelled.
Forget the frog, Ruta’s voice said. Talk to this girl like you are someone clever.
I sat. “Well, it all sounds horrible. But since you didn’t do it, why not just tell them he asked you to sell drugs?” I held my breath.
“Not to sell, only to carry in the luggage. How am I to say this? Then they will return and park in the street again and the neighbors will see.”
There it was: confirmation. How much further would she go? “What went through your mind when Rico asked you this?” I said.
“I said, Rico, I cannot. What if they will search my luggage, for example? At LAX. They search so many people. And also, Rico says it is not a problem to find a visa to come back once I am in Germany but it is not such an easy thing. Also, I am not living in Munich or Berlin, with university. In Wandlitz there is nothing and if I say to my father, ‘Now I am to move to Berlin’ just like that, what will he think?”
Not, apparently, that it was a good idea, his daughter moving to the city to enter the drug trade. Rico’s judgment must have been seriously impaired. Britta as a partner in crime? It would be like doing business with Winnie-the-Pooh. “When did you and Rico discuss this?”
“You know, last week. I asked him if he asked Annika also this, and he said we should not think about Annika.”
“That must have been hard for you, since she was your friend.”
“Yes, it was so hard. This is what no one will understand.” She sighed deeply.
“And it’s not fair. What exactly-is it the Euphoria he asked you to take to Germany?”
“Yes, because U4 is to be very popular, he says.”
We sat in silence, watching the boys.
“Did you ever… try it?” I said softly.
She chewed her lip, looking troubled. “I am frightened to. I have the asthma. But he thinks I take it, so I pretend and then he has his trip so he does not know because he is high.”
“Did Rico take it often?” I asked.
“Oh, no. He was not like that. For recreational purposes only. For example, to have sex. Never during class or doing business, he said. That was his rule.”
“I hear that U4 is really good. Better than Ecstasy.”
“Yes, Rico says it is more mellow. So the teeth do not clench and things like this.”
“Did you meet any of the others he worked with? His boss?”
“This is not a boss. Rico is to be full partner, he is to arrange it on the weekend and then we are to be rich. Only now he is disappeared.”
A partner? Did this mean Rico was Little Fish? Or a partner of Little Fish? “Did he tell you who the partner is?” I asked.
“No, he does not talk in real names. It is always pretend name, I forget how you call this.”
Something occurred to me. “Britta, when you didn’t take the U4, when he thought you did-do you still have it?”
“Yes, in my room.”
“Can I see it?”
“It’s something detectives do. You never know what’s important until you see it.”
She looked unconvinced. I imagined it was the only thing he’d ever given her. “It could help find Rico,” I said, then mentally crossed my fingers behind my back. “I’ll return it. And I won’t mention it to the police.”
She turned to the pool. “Joshua! Jeremy! Time to come in. If you hurry, I will give you M &M’s. But you must come right now. And leave the frog.” She looked at me. “To help Rico, of course I will do anything.”
Part of me wanted to tell her how misguided that was, how misplaced her devotion. But she’d learn that soon enough without me.
And anyway, I wanted that Euphoria.