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33

I drove through the Valley with the Euphoria in a Tylenol bottle.

Dating Is Murder

It was a twin of the pill Maizie had found under Annikas bed. Bigger than an aspirin, round, and with a logo that was both strange and strangely familiar. Stopped at a red light just before the entrance ramp to the 210, I took it out of the plastic bottle and held it between my thumb and forefinger, gazing at it. A squiggle set into its surface, a piece of calligraphy.

This was the third time Id come across it, and it gnawed at me like a song lyric gone astray: where had I seen it before? But it didnt matter. What Id just learned connected Rico to Little Fish. Rico had asked Annika to transport drugs. According to Simon, Little Fish had also tried to recruit her. It had to be the same operation. How many drug dealers were out there signing up au pairs? And this connection might not be news to the FBI, but it might be to the police, who were on a high-profile search for Rico. If I showed them this pill, pointed out Ricos wall, and told them what Britta had told me, wouldnt they expand their search to include Annika?

Should I tell Simon I was doing this? Wouldnt he tell me to leave it to him? Yes.

My cell phone rang, startling me. I felt around on the passenger seat for it while making a left turn onto the freeway entrance ramp. In the process I dropped the pill. Damn.

Statistics on cell-phone use and traffic accidents jumped into my head. Ring! The car behind me honked. The entrance-ramp traffic was slow, which made people testy. I inched forward, closing the three-foot gap between me and the car in front of me. Ring! My hand located the phone in the Bermuda Triangle of my backpack; I found the answer button and said hello. When no one responded, I yelled, Hello!

Wollie. Simon.

H-hello.

Everything okay?

Yes. I cleared my throat. The car behind me honked again, nearly sending me through the roof. Again I closed the three-foot gap between me and the car ahead. Annikas alive, I said. She e-mailed me. And also, Rico Rodriguez-

Did she say where she is?

No. She- Id had all day to plan this and still, I hesitated. Tell no one. Annika hadnt said, Tell no one but the FBI. But what counted more: whom she trusted or whom I trusted?

Whom did I trust?

Wollie? What did she say?

The danger is so great and if you die too it will be so bad. I had it memorized. But this was not informative, only theatrical. The gist of it was, I said, situations urgent. Times running out. Clocks ticking. But listen to this: Rico Rodriguez asked Annika and another au pair to act as couriers for him, smuggling a drug called Euphoria into Germany. Rico was working with Little Fish, he couldve met Little Fish through Annika. I was now first in line to enter the freeway, waiting for the red light to turn green.

You found out all this today, hungover?

Okay, I should explain that martinis-well, gin. Gin acts on me in ways that-tequila too- The car behind me blared its horn. Okay, its green, I see it, Im going! I shouted.

Bad time to talk?

No, not at all. So what do you make of all this?

What? You trying to pin it on the martinis?

Pin what on the martinis?

The damage to my shirt.

I searched my memory. Buttons. I remembered buttons. And cuff links. And a watch. An amazing silver- What kind of watch do you wear? I asked.

A Vacheron Constantine. You liked it.

Did we discuss why a civil servant is wearing a Vacheron Constantine?

Yes, Im on the take. You really dont remember a lot, do you?

I made a note not to take so much as a decongestant in front of this man. I was so easily disoriented by things-this freeway, for instance. Where was Lake Avenue or Orange-oh. Because I was on the 210 East, not west. Heading to Arcadia, Azusa, Nebraska. Oh, hell, I said.

Its okay, we left a few things in the planning stages.

I hoped he was referring to sex. Im sorry, I said, Im talking to myself. Im one of those people who shouldnt drive and talk, drive and read, drive and trim my hair-

Youre scaring me. Good-bye.

No, wait. I need to ask you-

Call me when you get home.

I hung up and found my way off the 210 East and onto the 210 West, fighting a sensation of well-being. How could I feel this way, with the day Id had and all that had happened? Yet the sound of his voice made investigations, drugs, blondes, veal, plumbers, frogs, math, guns, e-mails, and mothers fade into the dust, like the city of San Marino.

It wasnt until the 210 had become the 134 and then the 101 that I started to worry about what had happened to the pill.

I walked into my apartment to find Joey, Fredreeq, and my mother sitting in the kitchen. Joey was eating Sara Lee cheesecake. Prana, in a peach caftan, was laying out Tarot cards.

Wollie, Fredreeq said, you never told us Prana is a regressionist. She says I was a courtesan in the Manchu dynasty, and Anne Boleyn.

Congratulations, I said, going to the window. I raised pigs in ancient Greece. Prana, any plumbers show up today?

No, dear.

Because if anyone tries to get in, if anything suspicious happens-

I wont be here for it. Theo and I are attending the Dances of Universal Peace.

And we should hit the road, Joey said. Have fun, Prana. Thanks for the reading.

Joey, may you find peace in San Pedro. Prana looked up and removed her glasses. Wollie, she said, what on earth are you wearing?

Twenty minutes later I was in black jeans, black sneakers, and a black hooded sweatshirt, in the passenger seat of Joeys husbands BMW, heading south. Fredreeq followed in her own car.

On the subject of Annikas e-mail, Joey was unequivocal. We cant stop looking. Unless we find her, youll never stop wondering, and you wont feel safe. If you dont know the source of the danger, youll be paranoid around people you should trust, and trust people you shouldnt.

Even if the FBI promised to look for her?

Joey glanced at me, then back at the road. Wollie, I dont know any Feds besides my cousin Stewart in New York, but Ive known my share of cops. They dont have a high opinion of informants. Thats you. They pretend to care, if thats what it takes, because what works for them is surveillance, torture, and informants, and tortures frowned upon. Im just saying a promise from them is not the same as a promise from you. If Annikas vital to their case, theyll find her. If shes not She changed lanes. The good news is, cousin Stewarts heard of Simon Alexander. At least your guys the real deal.

You had him checked out?

Yeah, and the Bentley he drives was seized in a case last month. Its his bu-car, in Fed-speak. She looked at me. Of course I checked, I was worried. Its weird, someone recruiting you. Youre not ratlike enough.

Thanks, I said, not liking anything about this conversation. So what about tonight? Are we sure the agencys even open?

Fredreeq checked. She has ways of getting calls returned you cant imagine. Theyre open the Friday after Thanksgiving because of their international business. Till five.

And well be back for Biological Clock? Im spying tonight.

Bing couldnt get the location till midnight, so its a late start. You and Ill be done long before that. In and out. A drive-through burglary. Sorry, did I say burglary? Borrowing.

I rode to Au Pairs par Excellence with trepidation. Joeys casual about things I care about, like physical safety and staying within the law. But Marie-Th'er`ese, Annikas confidante, was still the most direct means of finding Annika. One phone number, an address, thats all we needed, and we could be home free. Instinctively, I checked the rear window to see if we were being followed. We were. Half of California was on the 405 South.

Relax, Wollie, Joey said. Even your mom approved this operation. By the way, who was she in a past life?

Everybody. Shes a very old soul.

Anyone Id know?

Beethoven. Winston Churchill. Cleopatras stillborn child.

Joey nodded. It could be worse. She could be in the state pen and youd feel compelled to go visit her every week. Or she could be dead. Of breast cancer, something youd worry about inheriting and passing on to your daughters.

Im not having any daughters. Or sons. Even if Im still physically capable, Im not mother material. Im broke, uneducated, bad at long-term relationships, really bad at math, and I recently let a three-year-old eat six cupcakes in four minutes. Fredreeqs still in shock.

Well, nobodys perfect. You may not be the best judge of your maternal instincts; ask Ruby if youd make a good mother.

I couldnt ask Ruby. She was in Asia. And I missed her.

What my shrink would say, Joey continued, is that youre childless because you fear turning into your mom. Thats what he tells me.

I hadnt realized Joey had baby issues. What does he say to do about it?

Since I cant change her, I have to take a stab at appreciating her so that turning into her doesnt depress me. Realize Id like her just fine if she werent my mom. Admit she loves me, however imperfectly. Acknowledge shes not truly bad, shes just offbeat-bad mothers leave their children alone in locked cars on hot summer days with the windows rolled up.

This is good, therapy by proxy, I said. Anything else you found out about me?

Yes. Your desire to find Annika is a way of wishing someone had rescued you at that age. When you were on your own in a big city, falling for bad men. This wish is unconscious. Consciously, you thought you were having a good time.

I didnt know what to say. Didnt everyone live like that at nineteen?

The rest of the way to San Pedro we talked about Lauren Rodriguez. And Britta and the pill that connected her to Annika, pills Rico was apparently handing out right and left.

Sounds like he was exporting this to Germany, Joey said. But the international drug trade-there are syndicates to go through. You dont just hang out a shingle and take orders.

No. You signed on with Vladimir Tcheiko and went global. Little Fish mustve recruited Rico when he visited the set. Maybe Rico was eager to show some initiative, putting together his own team in preparation for the big merger.

Joey, I said, if someone on the show is into drugs, would you know?

Joey glanced in the rearview mirror. Depends on what you mean by into. Ive done everything that doesnt involve needles or aerosol cans, but Ive never sold, even when I needed money. Little kink in my moral code. Other people deal them but dont use. On B.C. I dont know; Im the producer, people dont let their hair down around me. Production sucks.

Joey circled the block so Fredreeq could precede us into the Au Pairs par Excellence lot. We parked too, and went into the Laundromat next to the agency, positioning ourselves near the window. If any coin-op customers found it odd that wed come in to enjoy the view, they didnt mention it.

Fredreeq got out of her Volvo, looked around, then approached a boxy orange vehicle next to her and slowly walked the length of it, touching it. Whats she doing? I whispered.

Drawing a line with Wite-Out, Joey whispered.

Fredreeq returned the Wite-Out to her purse and hurried into the agency, emerging seconds later with the secretary-receptionist wed met the previous week. Joey and I slipped out of the Laundromat and into the empty agency.

File boxes were everywhere, as theyd been the week before. If anything, theyd reproduced. I checked under Marty Otiss metal desk. Even there, boxes. Joey? I said.

Go for it.

What about you?

Before she could respond, we heard Fredreeqs voice outside, unnaturally loud. I crawled under the desk, amid boxes, and pulled the desk chair in after me. I was as cramped as Ive ever been, but I was hidden. I heard the door swing open and Fredreeqs voice amplify.

-didnt want you thinking it was me. People so damn irresponsible, no accountability- Wheres the phone? She made a call to her husband, Francis, asking about stores that carried car paint. I wondered where Joey was hiding and told myself not to worry, that she was a toothpick, that her hair took up more space than her body.

Fredreeq sounded prepared to talk indefinitely, but the receptionist eventually told her she had to close up. Thank God. Fredreeq said good-bye, drawers opened and closed, a window cranked shut, a phone machine message changed, and, finally, a key turned in a door.

Uh-oh.

I waited for Joeys faint Wollie? before I crawled out from under the desk. It took me a full minute to stand. Was this what arthritis felt like? I looked around and said, Joey?

A muffled sound came from a file cabinet. It was a vertical job not much more than four feet tall, moved out from the wall about fifteen inches, due to a fortuitously placed pipe. It rattled and from the back Joey emerged, looking like I felt, hair disheveled and body parts unfolding with difficulty.

How did you fit back there? I asked.

Squatting and bent over. I may have to spend the night at a chiropractors.

We may have to spend the night here. I went to the glass front door for a closer look. What if we need a key to get out? I didnt think about that. Did you?

It crossed my mind, but thats not what worries me. Itll be Christmas before we get through these boxes. This is insane. I cant believe Im asking, but is it worth it?

Its worth it. Im telling you, Marie-Th'er`ese knows about Annika. If I had a problem, who would I tell? You. This girl is the Joey Rafferty of Annikas life, and in one of these boxes is her address and a phone number.

There were over a hundred boxes. Had these people been in business since World War II? The au pair program hadnt been around nearly that long. I picked one at random, and looked at my watch. In less than seven hours we had to be in Beverly Hills for B.C. Do we leave things tidy? I asked. Are we trying to cover our tracks?

We could turn a leaf blower loose in here and no one would notice. I say we just start in. Maybe put a check mark on the boxes weve looked at.

It was 5:22 P.M. At 6:49 we turned on the radio to liven things up, and listened to the latest report of volcanic activity on the Big Island of Hawaii. At 8:03 we stopped the au pair search and began a food search. Protein bars. Oyster crackers. Thats what normal people keep in an office, Joey said. I bet this place is a front for something.

I found Sweet n Low, I said, rummaging through the receptionists desk.

Is that the edible stuff?

No, the blues edible, I said. This is the pink, cheaper but toxic tasting.

Its my first breaking and entering. Next time Ill bring snacks.

By eight-thirty, in addition to countless au pair applications, wed found tax receipts for Marty Otis, yearbooks from Millard High in Wisconsin, and old issues of Playboy and Hustler.

At nine-fifteen, Joey said, Eureka.

You found her?

No, I found Polaroids.

I crawled across the icky tan carpet to her. She passed me pictures. People smiled-or not-into the camera, dressed in swimsuits, leotards, or skimpy loungewear. One man in knee socks and boxer shorts wore some sort of harness that reminded me of Margaret, a ferret Id once known. Not quite pornographic, but not au pair photo collages. The subjects ranged in age from teens to seniors, all body types, races, and genders, and were rated with one, two, or three stars, drawn in the upper corner with a felt pen. Each photo was numbered. Look at this three-star guy in the Speedo. I think hes worth another half star. You know- Joey crawled across the carpet. I bet these numbers correspond to files-I saw a box of files somewhere-

I didnt stop her. This wasnt getting us closer to Marie-Th'er`ese, but she was happier now than shed been in three hours.

Aha! she said, moments later. Quite the entrepreneur. Lets check out this Web site. She seated herself at Marty Otiss desk. Good. Bills. His address. Well keep that.

Whats the story? I asked.

Wait a second. Let me figure out how this computer-please, God, dont let there be a password- She logged on to the Internet, still mumbling to herself. I bet he charges a huge fee on that end and pays chicken feed on this end. Yes! Speedo, on the home page. Hello, Speedo. Mind-boggling what people will do for a few thousand bucks.

No kidding, I said, thinking about Biological Clock. I was glad not to be on camera tonight. Espionage is less stressful than trying to look beautiful, act charming, and keep viewers from changing channels. Of course, if we got stuck in San Pedro and missed the shoot, that would be more stressful. The FBI probably frowned on calling in sick, and calling Simon at all would entail telling him some form of the truth, which-

And then, there it was. The name Id been seeking so long that once I found it I almost missed it. Small, rounded printing. Marie-Th'er`ese. Last name DuCroq. Twenty years old. Staying with a family called the Johannessens in Minnesota. Arrived early January.

Elated, I showed the application to Joey, then used the copy machine to reproduce the contact information. We worked quickly now. I got the office back to the approximate state wed found it in, and Joey tore herself from the computer to deal with the lock on the door.

This doesnt look so bad, she said. I mean, you do need a key to open it, but lets try a credit card. Oh. I didnt bring a purse in. Did you?

I had my backpack. Joey said not to use a card I really needed, so I handed over my Blockbuster Video card, then my Costco membership, and, finally, reluctantly, my library card. When all three were mutilated, I started searching drawers for a spare key.

You know, Gun Girl never had this hard a time, Joey said, still working the lock. I realize that was TV, but She stood back and surveyed the glass. I suppose its a bad idea to smash the whole thing.

Yes. Bad. Try it, though.

Looks pretty flimsy. I bet I could just-

For such a skinny thing, Joey was strong. She gave the double doors a shake that simulated a mild earthquake.

It didnt open them, but it did set off the alarm.


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