In my next life, if I’m a woman again, I’m going to be petite. I realize it’s a drawback when you’re at a rock concert or a parade and trying to see over the person in front of you, but for getting through bathroom windows, it’s indispensable. Also, shoes look better in size five than they do in size eleven.
In the bathroom we found the plunger, which we broke while trying to smash the front door. Then we found the window. Joey squeezed through first, barely making it, which should have alerted us, but it’s her nature to jump first, ask questions later, and I was distracted, watching our back. I expected armed security personnel to come bursting in-Secret Service, for all I knew, since au pair agencies are regulated by the State Department. When I heard Joey’s “All clear” I threw my backpack through the window and followed it, arms first, then head, with my feet balanced on the toilet tank. My head made it. My rib cage didn’t. Okay, my breasts.
“Joey, I’m stuck.”
“You’re not stuck.” She grasped my upper arms to pull me into the alley. “Just inhale. No, exhale. On the count of three. One, two-”
“Just try it. Come on. Big breath, then let it all out. Flatten yourself.”
I exhaled. It worked. Joey was able to get another six inches of me out into the night air. The downside was that I was stuck tighter. It was an old double window in a half-open position, big enough horizontally for my shoulders, too small vertically for my chest.
“Again,” Joey said.
“I can’t. This is not physically possible.”
“It has to be,” Joey said. “I did it and you can too.”
“You did it because you’re Olive Oyl. I’m Betty Boop.”
“You’re not stuck. You can’t be stuck. I won’t let you be.”
I now saw the kind of toddler Joey had been, forcing the round peg through the square hole with the plastic hammer, breaking the toy. “Joey, I like your can-do attitude, but without a breast reduction, this is it for me. I’m having a little trouble breathing and I might panic.”
“No panicking. Okay, we’ll put you in reverse. Here we go.”
“Ow! Ow! Stop. Don’t push. Major pain.”
“Sorry.” Joey raised her hands and stepped back. She was just a touch below my eye level, in the alley. She looked up and smiled. “Go at your own speed. Plenty of time.”
I struggled to get myself back into the bathroom, but all I could do was wiggle the bottom half of me like a mermaid. The windowsill dug into my sweatshirt, bruising my armpits, and random bits of hardware scraped my back. “It’s like when you try on a ring that’s a little tight and then your knuckle swells up and you can’t get it off.”
“Canola oil. That’s what we need. Or-uh-oh.” Joey turned to look down the alleyway. “Is that a car door? Do you see headlights?”
“I can’t see anything from here, I- Okay, go. Run.”
Her head whipped around so fast I was hit in the face with a wave of red hair. “Are you nuts? I’m not leaving you here.”
“No, listen,” I said. “There’s no point in both of us getting arrested-”
“We won’t. I’ll talk our way out of it.”
“What if you can’t? Someone should be on the outside, arranging bail or whatever.”
“I’ll be a decoy,” she said. “I’ll run out front, head them off, they won’t know-”
“Great,” I said. “I’ll be stuck here for the weekend while you’re in jail. Sssh. Listen.”
We listened. Silence. The alarm had stopped. Did I hear voices in the office behind me? “Joey,” I whispered. “Don’t argue. Take my backpack and go. No, leave the backpack, but take the stuff on Marie-Th'er`ese, the folded page-do it. Don’t get sentimental on me.”
Joey, torn between the unthinkable-abandoning me-and the illogical-sacrificing us both-hesitated. Then she grabbed my backpack, tucked the photocopied page into her jeans pocket, and looked me in the eye. “Tell them you work here, you were working late, you forgot your key. Tell them Marty Otis will confirm it. But stall. I need half an hour.” She gave me a fast kiss on the forehead. “Don’t worry. I won’t leave San Pedro without you.”
She slipped down the alley as a voice behind me in the bathroom said, “Hold it right there. Don’t move.”
“Don’t worry,” I said.
The voices in the bathroom turned out to be two people, from the security company. I assured them that I wasn’t a dangerous criminal and that I was, incidentally, female, something the bottom half of me apparently didn’t make clear. One of them actually informed me that my feet, standing on the toilet tank in sneakers, were men’s feet. I suggested they reach under my heavy sweatshirt and check out my breasts, straining to get through the window. They declined. I told them to come around to the alley and meet the rest of me. One did. The other stayed behind to guard my legs.
A flashlight appeared first, then a uniformed woman, her hair in a tight ponytail that meant business. She shone the light in my face. “Bernie, she’s right! She’s female! You stuck?” I nodded. “Bernie, she’s stuck!” She pointed the flashlight at the window. “You armed?”
“Heavens, no, I don’t like guns. I was here working, going through that mountain of boxes you waded through.” This was true enough. “And the receptionist locked me in, not knowing I was here, and I couldn’t find the key and I accidentally set off the alarm. Um, Ms.-”
“Sims. Wait a second. You sound like-” The light blinded me, and I heard an gasp. “Criminy. It’s you. Bernie! It’s the woman from that show-that late show-what’s it called?”
“Biological Clock,” I said.
“Biological Clock! It’s her. The blond one.”
“What?” Bernie’s voice, muffled, came back.
“That reality show, where we pick which ones should have a baby!”
“What about it?”
“It’s her, the blonde!” The light hit my face again. “You work here? You’re a TV star.”
“We all have day jobs,” I said. “We get paid for the show, but not a huge amount.”
A second flashlight came around the corner. Another uniform, this one a guy with close-shaved hair. Another light in my face. Then: “Who’s she supposed to be?”
“The one on that TV show, Biological Clock. The blond contestant.”
“Who, her? You’re nuts. She doesn’t look anything like her.”
I said, “We wear a lot of makeup. Everyone on TV does.”
“No kidding,” Ms. Sims said. “I saw Courtney Thorne-Smith one time in Century City and you couldn’t even tell it was her.”
Bernie was not convinced. Nor was he willing to accept at face value my story about working late. And neither of them seemed to understand how a person who turned up on television could also turn up in San Pedro.
“My backpack’s on the ground there,” I said. “You’re welcome to check out my ID, but first could you help me out of this window, because I actually have to get to the set-”
“No,” Bernie said.
“Liability. We’re not trained for that sort of thing.”
“It doesn’t take much training,” I said. “If you go around inside and grab my legs-”
“No. If something happened, you could sue.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
Bernie shook his head. “You might.”
I closed my eyes, then opened them. “Bernie, people die of asphyxiation when their bodies are stuck in positions that interfere with their breathing. I’m not saying that will happen here, but I’m not feeling well. I could pass out, and then it will be tough getting me out of here because I’ll be unconscious and unable to assist in my own rescue.”
The woman spoke up. “She’s right, Bernie. That’s how Jesus Christ died. He was hanging on the cross so long he couldn’t get air to his lungs.”
“We’re not authorized to physically engage with-”
“Bernie,” I said, “never mind that I have a show to do. Have you heard of Good Samaritan laws? You can’t ignore someone whose life is in danger, you have to help if you’re able, or you’re criminally responsible. Body parts might have to be amputated if I hang here much longer.” I was straying from the truth, but my feet did happen to be asleep.
“Bernie,” Ms. Sims said, “for gosh sakes, let’s get her out. Call it in and give me a hand.”
“Call it in?” I asked. “To whom? Who are you calling?” But Bernie was already on the phone and his partner was on her way inside.
Good Samaritan Sims lacked the upper-body strength to pull me through the window, and Bernie, impervious to pleas, wouldn’t help. So we settled in to wait for the Harbor Division police. I felt like a West African goliath frog, whose throat swells to five times its size in order to croak. I felt like a circus woman, preparing to be shot out of a cannon. I felt like an idiot. My only comfort was that Simon was not witnessing this.
There’s a psychotherapeutic technique called rebirthing that was big in the 1980s or ’90s, where a therapist hypnotizes you so that you can reexperience the trip down the birth canal in order to work through the trauma of it all. I had never done this technique. Now, thanks to two San Pedro law enforcement officers pulling with all their strength, I would never have to.
Eventually, I was sitting at the receptionist’s desk of Au Pairs par Excellence, rubbing under my arms and repeating the story I’d told the security response team, this time implying without actually saying “I work here.”
The cops listened with no indication of whether they believed me. They were mildly interested to learn I was a contestant on a reality TV show, which I needed to get to-fast. They were somewhat more interested in how far I was from West Hollywood, my home address. Their attitude was as polite and respectful as one could ask of two men who had intimate knowledge of my waist and thighs and size eleven feet.
“Do you have any proof that you work here?” the younger of the two asked. He had a curly-haired cherubic look; I pictured him sitting for Leonardo da Vinci, the model for the archangel who tells the Virgin Mary the good news about her pregnancy.
“Like a paycheck or a time sheet?” I said. “Gosh, I don’t. You can call Marty Otis. He runs the show. Here’s his home number-” I pointed to the speed-dial list on the telephone, where “Marty-home” was listed as No. 4, right between FedEx and Gianni’s Pizza. I was pleased with myself for having noticed it and hoped I gave the impression of familiarity with the office.
“Is that the 9032 number?” Bernie, of the security company, asked. “That’s what we got on file. Already tried it. Got a machine.”
The older cop, Asian, tired-looking, and a little crabby, nodded. He tried the number, left a message for Marty Otis, then turned to Bernie. “All right, we’re headed back to the station. You people got keys, right? You can lock up after us.”
“So you’re all finished with me?” I asked.
“No, you’ll come with us.”
I didn’t ask if I was under arrest. It’s the kind of thing Joey or Fredreeq would get clear on right away, but I’d function better pretending we were buddies driving to the station to sort out details. I’d hate for them to go into good cop, bad cop mode, when we were doing okay with good cop, crabby cop.
There were two cars in the seedy parking lot, neither of which was Joey’s husband’s BMW. No one asked me which car was mine, which was good, because I had no idea how to explain being without wheels so far from home.
In the back seat of the squad car, I hugged my backpack. It was the middle of the night. I was in San Pedro being transported to God knows where, some distance from the last place my friends had seen me, by police officers who probably did not consider me one of the good guys, in a vehicle that did not smell particularly… fresh. At least I was an American citizen and spoke English without an accent. Annika, in a similar situation, might have been a lot more scared than I was, and I was, frankly, scared.
Simon. Many hours ago, he’d told me to call him. I’d wanted to, but I’d been too busy trespassing, burgling, and misleading the police to find the right moment. Maybe after my sentencing hearing I’d get back to him.
LAPD Harbor Division had an actual building, more substantial than the LAPD West Valley trailers, although for a potential suspect, “substantial” isn’t a big selling point. But Curly and Crabby walked me past the building to a trailer, a detectives’ office much like Detective Cziemanski’s. Few of the desks were manned or womanned at this hour. I was shown to a hard wooden chair and told to wait, while my captors did paperwork and checked voice mail. I brought up again the necessity of getting back to Los Angeles and Biological Clock as fast as possible, but no one got too excited about it.
I studied the carpet, not the teal blue I’d come to expect, but a nice dirt gray. I thought of Prana, what her reaction would be if she were awakened with the news that her daughter was in jail in San Pedro. She might be proud. She’d probably have some Zen-like take on it, that this was karmically necessary for my personal growth, that there are no accidents, that-
“That was your boss,” the older office said, hanging up the phone. “Says you were authorized to be there. Next time take your key, save some trouble. Stay out of windows.”
I stood. “I’m free to go? Really? That’s… great.”
“Wait around, we’ll get you a ride back to your car.”
Officer Crabby left. I called Joey’s cell phone and got voice mail. This was not surprising, since Joey’s cell phone often lies around forgotten on her kitchen table. I wondered how I’d explain a missing car, and if I’d have to fill out a stolen car report, and whether that would be perjury, and then, since Joey would be long gone, having given up hope of ever finding me, if there was anyone else who’d come from L.A. to give me a ride, since it was cheaper to charter a yacht from San Pedro than to take a cab. What was I doing in this godforsaken place?
I looked over at the next desk, at Good Cop Curly, diligently filling out reports, and had a moment of divine inspiration.
“Officer?” I said. Curly looked up. He had an approachable face. I prayed for the ability to lie to it. “The reason I was working late is there’s been an accusation about one of our au pairs, and if it’s true, I’m worried about her taking care of kids.”
The face continued to look open for business. I explained the au pair program, and then-here’s the sort of thing I appreciate myself for sometimes-I pulled out of my backpack the F"uhrungszeugnis I’d been carrying around for days. “We know she has a police record, but for what? If it’s littering, that can wait till Monday. If it’s child molestation, I have to know, because then every day she’s with children is on my conscience.”
Curly took the document and looked at his watch. “Germany’s nine hours ahead,” I said. He nodded. Crabby stuck his head in the doorway and told me I had a ride. Curly told me to wait in the lobby. Well, I’d bought myself a few minutes in which to concoct a car story.
I didn’t need them. In the lobby, a familiar voice and a mass of red hair was chatting up the officer at the front desk. I went weak with relief, and waited for the officer to pause for breath. “… want to remember,” he was saying, “is a drug case, that goes to a detective, but if it turns into murder, that could get it bumped to Robbery-Homicide. Now those guys, they just want to close their case. If they’re tracking a murder suspect, they don’t stop to arrest jaywalkers, see what I’m saying, unless the jaywalker’s useful to them.”
“Joey?” I said.
“Gee whiz, Wollie,” she said, turning. “I drove over to your work to pick you up, and the security guys said you were here. What’s up?”
“Gee whiz yourself,” I said, pulling her aside. “What did you do, break into Marty Otis’s house and murder him so you could answer his phone?”
“What a good idea. No, I went and banged on his door and said I had his box of photos and if he did us one small favor, I wouldn’t deliver them to the INS or the IRS.”
Before she could explain further, Officer Curly appeared. “Got lucky,” he said. “I faxed a request to Germany and someone in the office there spoke English, took pity on me. It helps my last name is Kubertschak. Here’s the deal. This girl doesn’t have what we’d consider a record. She had a boyfriend-” He checked his notepad. “Klaus Reichert, who was a member of a political group in Berlin suspected of ties to arms dealers in Saudi Arabia.”
I swallowed. “But she’s not an arms dealer herself, right? Or part of this group?”
He shook his head. “I’m not clear if the boyfriend even got charged with anything. But someone filed a report, and that’s why her name’s in the computer. Up to you whether that makes her nanny material.”
I thanked him. Joey said good-bye to the officer at the desk, and we hurried out to the parking area, indicated by a fence, where Elliot’s BMW sat.
A man stepped out from behind a van next to the BMW. A light went on, and I heard a whirring noise, subliminally familiar. A video camera. I experienced confusion, the instinct to hide warring with my recent training to smile and be interesting.
“How was jail, Wollie?” the voice behind the camera asked. “What’s the charge?”
Joey stepped in front of me. “No arrest, no story,” she said. “No paparazzi. Okay?”
With his free hand, the camera guy reached to move Joey aside, grabbing her arm. Hard. Joey knocked his hand away, then turned and elbowed him in the side. Harder.
He fell against her car and lost his balance. But he held on to the camera, even as it bashed into the BMW on its way to the ground. Joey had her hands up, ready for him to stand and charge. He lay on the ground, blinking. Then he brought the camera to his face and continued filming.
To my right, something flashed. I turned to see a woman in the van, taking pictures.
I grabbed Joey’s arm. “Let’s go.”
Joey didn’t resist. She pointed her keys at the BMW. The man hauled himself up and away from the car as we got in, still filming. The woman in the van snapped pictures.
On the van’s side, I saw the words “P’s Plumbers.”