I drove through the Valley with the Euphoria in a Tylenol bottle.
It was a twin of the pill Maizie had found under Annika’s 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 I’d come across it, and it gnawed at me like a song lyric gone astray: where had I seen it before? But it didn’t matter. What I’d 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 Rico’s wall, and told them what Britta had told me, wouldn’t they expand their search to include Annika?
Should I tell Simon I was doing this? Wouldn’t 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!”
“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. “Annika’s alive,” I said. “She e-mailed me. And also, Rico Rodriguez-”
“Did she say where she is?”
“No. She-” I’d had all day to plan this and still, I hesitated. Tell no one. Annika hadn’t 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, “situation’s urgent. Time’s running out. Clock’s 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 could’ve 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, it’s green, I see it, I’m 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, I’m on the take. You really don’t 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.
“It’s okay, we left a few things in the planning stages.”
I hoped he was referring to sex. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m talking to myself. I’m one of those people who shouldn’t drive and talk, drive and read, drive and trim my hair-”
“You’re 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 I’d 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 wasn’t 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?”
“Because if anyone tries to get in, if anything suspicious happens-”
“I won’t 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 Joey’s husband’s BMW, heading south. Fredreeq followed in her own car.
On the subject of Annika’s e-mail, Joey was unequivocal. “We can’t stop looking. Unless we find her, you’ll never stop wondering, and you won’t feel safe. If you don’t know the source of the danger, you’ll be paranoid around people you should trust, and trust people you shouldn’t.”
“Even if the FBI promised to look for her?”
Joey glanced at me, then back at the road. “Wollie, I don’t know any Feds besides my cousin Stewart in New York, but I’ve known my share of cops. They don’t have a high opinion of informants. That’s you. They pretend to care, if that’s what it takes, because what works for them is surveillance, torture, and informants, and torture’s frowned upon. I’m just saying a promise from them is not the same as a promise from you. If Annika’s vital to their case, they’ll find her. If she’s not…” She changed lanes. “The good news is, cousin Stewart’s heard of Simon Alexander. At least your guy’s the real deal.”
“You had him checked out?”
“Yeah, and the Bentley he drives was seized in a case last month. It’s his bu-car, in Fed-speak.” She looked at me. “Of course I checked, I was worried. It’s weird, someone recruiting you. You’re not ratlike enough.”
“Thanks,” I said, not liking anything about this conversation. “So what about tonight? Are we sure the agency’s even open?”
“Fredreeq checked. She has ways of getting calls returned you can’t imagine. They’re open the Friday after Thanksgiving because of their international business. Till five.”
“And we’ll be back for Biological Clock? I’m spying tonight.”
“Bing couldn’t get the location till midnight, so it’s a late start. You and I’ll 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. Joey’s casual about things I care about, like physical safety and staying within the law. But Marie-Th'er`ese, Annika’s confidante, was still the most direct means of finding Annika. One phone number, an address, that’s 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. She’s a very old soul.”
“Anyone I’d know?”
“Beethoven. Winston Churchill. Cleopatra’s stillborn child.”
Joey nodded. “It could be worse. She could be in the state pen and you’d feel compelled to go visit her every week. Or she could be dead. Of breast cancer, something you’d worry about inheriting and passing on to your daughters.”
“I’m not having any daughters. Or sons. Even if I’m still physically capable, I’m not mother material. I’m 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. Fredreeq’s still in shock.”
“Well, nobody’s perfect. You may not be the best judge of your maternal instincts; ask Ruby if you’d make a good mother.”
I couldn’t ask Ruby. She was in Asia. And I missed her.
“What my shrink would say,” Joey continued, “is that you’re childless because you fear turning into your mom. That’s what he tells me.”
I hadn’t realized Joey had baby issues. “What does he say to do about it?”
“Since I can’t change her, I have to take a stab at appreciating her so that turning into her doesn’t depress me. Realize I’d like her just fine if she weren’t my mom. Admit she loves me, however imperfectly. Acknowledge she’s not truly bad, she’s 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 didn’t know what to say. Didn’t 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 don’t just hang out a shingle and take orders.”
No. You signed on with Vladimir Tcheiko and went global. Little Fish must’ve 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.’ I’ve done everything that doesn’t involve needles or aerosol cans, but I’ve never sold, even when I needed money. Little kink in my moral code. Other people deal them but don’t use. On B.C. I don’t know; I’m the producer, people don’t 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 we’d come in to enjoy the view, they didn’t 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. “What’s 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 we’d met the previous week. Joey and I slipped out of the Laundromat and into the empty agency.
File boxes were everywhere, as they’d been the week before. If anything, they’d reproduced. I checked under Marty Otis’s metal desk. Even there, boxes. “Joey?” I said.
“Go for it.”
“What about you?”
Before she could respond, we heard Fredreeq’s voice outside, unnaturally loud. I crawled under the desk, amid boxes, and pulled the desk chair in after me. I was as cramped as I’ve ever been, but I was hidden. I heard the door swing open and Fredreeq’s voice amplify.
“-didn’t want you thinking it was me. People so damn irresponsible, no accountability- Where’s 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.
I waited for Joey’s 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 chiropractor’s.”
“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 didn’t think about that. Did you?”
“It crossed my mind, but that’s not what worries me. It’ll be Christmas before we get through these boxes. This is insane. I can’t believe I’m asking, but is it worth it?”
“It’s worth it. I’m 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 Annika’s 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 hadn’t 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 we’ve 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. That’s 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 receptionist’s desk.
“Is that the edible stuff?”
“No, the blue’s edible,” I said. “This is the pink, cheaper but toxic tasting.”
“It’s my first breaking and entering. Next time I’ll bring snacks.”
By eight-thirty, in addition to countless au pair applications, we’d 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 I’d 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 he’s 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 didn’t stop her. This wasn’t getting us closer to Marie-Th'er`ese, but she was happier now than she’d been in three hours.
“Aha!” she said, moments later. “Quite the entrepreneur. Let’s check out this Web site.” She seated herself at Marty Otis’s desk. “Good. Bills. His address. We’ll keep that.”
“What’s the story?” I asked.
“Wait a second. Let me figure out how this computer-please, God, don’t 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 I’d 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 we’d found it in, and Joey tore herself from the computer to deal with the lock on the door.
“This doesn’t look so bad,” she said. “I mean, you do need a key to open it, but let’s try a credit card. Oh. I didn’t 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 it’s 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 didn’t open them, but it did set off the alarm.