“Sorry,” Joey said. “It just came out of me. I’ve been taking double classes at Krav Maga.” She didn’t look sorry. She looked revved up on adrenaline and danger, red hair all over the place, driving onto the 405 like a maniac. “Body shots,” she said. “We worked on them Wednesday, I took a level-two class by mistake. I think I got his liver. Or maybe he had a preexisting condition, to topple over like that. He didn’t even fight back. I could’ve taken him.”
“Joey, he didn’t want to ‘take’ us. He wanted to take pictures of us. Film us.” I thought about the plumbing van. Could my plumbers and stalkers be-paparazzi?
“Okay, I know. But I reacted, Wollie, I didn’t freeze. It’s one thing to practice, but to react when it really happens-I always think I’m gonna be the deer caught in the headlights.”
I’d never thought of Joey as the deer caught in the headlights. But I noticed the white scar on her cheek and remembered that once in her life, she hadn’t reacted. “Thanks for rescuing me,” I said. “From him. From getting arrested. Sorry you had to resort to blackmail and assault to do it. And I’m extremely sorry about the damage to Elliot’s car.”
“He’ll get over it. Eventually. Okay, so Marty Otis? He’s running an agency within an agency. Green-card marriages. Americans willing to get married and have sex and live with strangers from foreign countries for a year or two for lots of money. Or some money. There’s a sliding scale, based on physical attractiveness.”
I said, “Could this be something Annika stumbled onto and-”
“No.” Joey shook her head. “He never met Annika. He got anonymous phone calls about drug use and some police problem in Germany and he blew them off because he didn’t want to call the host family, file reports, attract attention. Same with her disappearance. This guy’s all about staying under the radar. The agency gives him cover for overseas phone calls and operating expenses, but the au pairs aren’t part of the green-card scam.”
“He just told you all this? And do you believe him?”
“Yes. It’s what I was talking to that cop about. There’s a hierarchy to crime. Homicide detectives don’t go after shoplifters, and on the other side of the fence, Marty isn’t going to get all sweaty over his little green cards if he’s just kidnapped someone. And he was sweaty. So I told him I only cared about Annika and keeping you out of jail, and he relaxed. I was nice. With a little encouragement, people love to talk about their work. Even sleazos.”
I closed my eyes and melted into the heated leather seat. One short night’s work resulting in violence, deception, destruction of property-albeit a plunger-all for a phone number. A doubt assailed me. What if Annika truly didn’t want to be found? What if it wasn’t just a case of her being noble, worrying about me? “At least we know Annika’s not a criminal,” I said. “She’s a bad judge of boyfriends, but that’s it. Well, and she lied on her au pair application.”
“She’s a bad judge of girlfriends too,” Joey said. “She told Britta her dark secret. And Britta told the agency, which left Annika open to blackmail. Deportation. Except that Marty Otis wasn’t blackmailing her. So who was?”
Little Fish, I thought. I had another thought, then, one far less palatable. The FBI.
Biological Clock hadBiological Clock found, for once, a restaurant with class. Etude in Beverly Hills, tiny and chic, was willing to accommodate the show after hours. We got there a half hour late, before things had got under way. I’d never been on the set when not actually working, and I was nervous about my appearance. The disguise Fredreeq had put together for me, glasses and a cloche hat, was in the trunk of Fredreeq’s car, an oversight on everyone’s part. The best I could do at this point was my sweatshirt with the hood pulled up.
The shoot was outside, a garden warmed by standing heat lamps, yet cold enough to justify my hooded head. Still, my appearance was odd. I could tell by the way Etude’s owner turned us away, until Joey identified herself as the show’s producer and asked that I be seated at an out-of-the-way table. There were only nine tables, so out-of-the-way was relative, but to my great relief, no one paid attention to me. The other diners were “fillers,” friends of the owner, and the cast and crew were too preoccupied to notice background players. I might be wiggy from a night in San Pedro, but I could still, apparently, spy.
I turned on my phone and listened to three voice-mail messages from Simon, each one more peremptory than the one before, the third one telling me to follow standard operating procedure tonight and all of them telling me to call him. I turned off my phone. The last thing I needed was to explain the last seven hours to the Feds. I was alone now, Joey having gone to deal with production details, so I began standard operating procedure, checking around for Beverly Hills shopping bags and listening for European accents. Etude did not have a working pay phone, according to my waiter, so I didn’t have to deal with that. Meanwhile, the evening’s couple and expert took their places at a table Paul had lit with a cliplight attached to a tree. A bottle of Takei Sake awaited them.
The contestants tonight were Vaclav and Savannah.
Savannah was a knockout. I’d seen her on television, on the Web site, in TV Guide, and twice in person, but I’d never seen her like this. She looked Old Hollywood, fine-featured and radiant, perfectly made up. Her dress was forties, her red hair swept over one eye `a la Veronica Lake. She would have beautiful children. On visuals alone, she had my vote.
Vaclav seemed improved by his close proximity to her. I’d worried that he was too foreign for the TV audience to warm up to, but tonight he seemed dashing and urbane. A lovely, sophisticated couple. I imagined that Savannah had the same improving effect on Henry and Carlito. Not only would viewers want her to reproduce, they’d want her to be their mom.
Across from them sat a generously proportioned woman in a tweed suit and red turtleneck that suggested Wisconsin. I tried, without success, to imagine her manufacturing drugs. Cheese, maybe. When the camera went on, she smiled into it. “Hello, I’m Ursula Fitzgerald-Camacho, a personal educational consultant, here to shed light on a topic that many pre-parents do not find stimulating.”
“As long as you’re stimulating, Ursula,” Vaclav said, giving a throaty laugh.
Savannah said something to Vaclav that sounded like Russian, which produced another laugh from him, and an invitation to Ursula to continue.
Ursula’s smile faltered. “Education in California is one of the most complex issues our elected officials grapple with. Sacramento, like every state capital, must draft a budget that accommodates unfunded federal mandates, demanding fiscal sacrifice-”
“Cut!” Bing yelled. “Sweetie. Words that bore us: ‘Fiscal.’ ‘Budget.’ ‘Elected officials.’ The only sacrifice we want to hear about is human sacrifice, virgins in the rain forest, that kind of thing. Start again. Action!”
Ursula’s smile died, but she launched into a dissertation on public versus private schools. I was distracted from this important topic by a woman one table over, shifting in her seat. Revealing, under her chair, a shopping bag.
“… study elementary school test scores to determine which neighborhood suits you,” Ursula was saying.
“We have to move to have a child?” Savannah asked. Good question, I thought.
“No, dear, only to educate the child. Think Harvard, then work backward. California ranks poorly in pupil-per-teacher ratio nationwide, and L.A. Unified is-”
“Cut,” Bing yelled. “Sweetheart: ratios, nationwide, nobody cares. Make it sexy. Also, you got something green on the corner of your mouth.”
I leaned down to get a better look at the shopping bag. Fendi, Hugo Boss, Ermenegildo Zegna: any of these would indicate a dead drop. And the people at the table, a nice middle-aged couple, would they be Little Fish’s customers or employees? If I could just see the shopping bag’s logo-
“-difference between public schools is considerable,” Ursula was saying.
“So’s the difference in rent between neighborhoods,” Savannah said. “For what it costs to move to Beverly Hills, you could afford private school.”
Another good point, I thought, and slid out of my chair. Ursula agreed, noting that rent saved by living in a less desirable neighborhood could add up to an annual twelve grand, which bought a year of preschool, five half days per week, with snacks.
What kind of snacks? I thought. Caviar? Dom P'erignon? I crouched between tables, straining to see Bing’s camera. I didn’t want to show up in the background of his shot. But Bing was on the move, so I waited, pretending to tie my shoe. I thought of Mrs. Rodriguez and Mrs. Gl"uck, two women who’d helped with homework, packed lunches, gone to track meets, band practices, dance rehearsals, day after day for years. Now, having signed off on the last algebra assignment, term paper, college application, these soccer and fussball moms found themselves filling out police reports.
“The young brain,” Vaclav said loudly, “is a sponge. Languages must be learned before nerve endings myelinate-”
“Vaclav!” Bing yelled. “No nerve endings, no sponges, no science words no one knows. Jesus Christ, it’s like Face the Nation tonight.”
Bing stopped moving, so I approached my quarry in a crouch reminiscent of a runner coming out of the starting blocks. It was hell on my back. I neared the table. The woman uncrossed her legs and the tablecloth shifted, obscuring the shopping bag.
A waiter with a large tray weaved around tables, delivering soup to one and all, intoning, “Lobster bisque” in hushed tones. I hoped he couldn’t see me.
“… overwhelming for pre-parents,” Ursula said. “But look at the top ten best-paying jobs: physician, lawyer, pilot, pharmacist, marketing exec, architect, and the four engineers: aerospace, chemical, electrical, mechanical. Isn’t that what we want for our kids?”
My God, was it? I hadn’t given this any thought at all. I had no career goals for my preconceived child. The realization coincided with a severe leg cramp. I gasped, then straightened up to relieve it, and bumped into the waiter.
Soup bowls slid off the tray, sending eddies of lobster bisque into the air and onto the shopping-bag table, the waiter, and me. The bowls and tray made a lot of noise hitting the ground.
All eyes turned our way. I flexed my foot, working out my leg cramp, and lowered my head, pulling the sweatshirt hood tighter around my face. The shopping-bag woman was making little whimpering noises. Her companion was swearing. The waiter was on his knees picking up soup bowls. My leg cramp eased, and I crouched to help him. The shopping bag under his companion’s chair revealed its logo: Macy’s. Fine. These people weren’t drug dealers.
“Wollie?” Bing yelled. “What the hell are you doing here?”
I looked up. Bing Wooster and his broken fingers and his Betacam loomed above me. He was joined by Vaclav and Savannah, and then Paul. So much for my disguise. I smiled at them. Bing told everyone to take five, and walked off in disgust. Vaclav held out a hand to help me up.
I found myself face to face with Savannah Brook. Or chest to face, considering her lack of height. She smiled and held out her hand, as if meeting me for the first time. I wiped my hand on my sweatshirt, cleansing it of lobster bisque, and shook hers.
She didn’t let go. She pulled me in close and said softly, “You better back off, bitch. I’m going to take you down.”
I pulled my hand out of hers and backed up. She was smiling again. She said something to Vaclav in the eastern European language, and he said something back and they both laughed. What did she think I was doing here? I turned, apologized to the shopping-bag people, and started back to my own table, feeling sick, embarrassed, tall, and soup-drenched. And stupid. In a nice restaurant, a hooded sweatshirt is as inconspicuous as a nun’s habit. What was I-
Isaac was sitting at my table. Our huge sound guy, his trademark headset covering his ears as if he expected airplanes to land. I sat, shocked. In two months, Isaac had barely uttered my name, let alone initiated conversation. “Hi, Isaac,” I said.
He took off his headset. “Whatcha doing?”
“Just… hanging out.” I stared, wondering what had prompted this overture. Maybe it was my civilian clothes, my lack of circus makeup, the complete spectacle I’d just made of myself. Something occurred to me. “Isaac, I never asked you: do you have any thoughts on what happened to Annika? Our Annika, Annika Gl"uck?”
“I always figured she found out about her boyfriend.”
“Her boyfriend? Rico? What about him?”
“Catting around. Getting it on with Savannah.”
My mouth dropped open. “R-really? You know this for a fact?”
“Heard Savannah talking to Venus while they were doing her roots.” Isaac nodded toward an orange-and-purple-haired woman across the garden, sitting alone with a makeup kit. Venus, Fredreeq’s archrival. “Savannah said, Don’t knock it till you try it. He’s fifteen years younger than her. She made him wear a rubber, though, because he was getting it all over town.”
Well, yuck. I started to ask Isaac if he’d recorded this incriminating conversation, but Bing yelled, “Let’s go!” and Isaac lumbered off.
Savannah and Rico. I remembered how she’d raced into the Krav Maga studio, turning on the TV the day his disappearance hit the news. What did this mean in terms of Annika?
I wondered about several things over the next few hours, including what I was doing on the set, now that my cover was blown. Or was it blown? Did anyone know why I was here? Paul dropped by to say hi, as did Vaclav. Vaclav was the only one with a European accent; there were no more shopping bags, no pay phones. Either it was a slow night on the drug circuit or Little Fish wasn’t there. Or Little Fish was there but had canceled all dead drops.
By three A.M. it was a wrap. The work nights were getting shorter, as if Bing’s shooting style was losing steam along with the show’s ratings. I felt both frustration and relief. I’d learned zip for the FBI, I was no closer to Annika, but I could at least get some sleep.
“If only Savannah had been Rico’s last date,” I said to Joey, on the way home, “that would interest the cops. And then I’d point out that Annika had introduced them, which would make it a love triangle, with two of the three sides disappearing within a week of each other-”
“How do you know she wasn’t his last date?” Joey asked.
“Rico told his mom he was seeing a blonde.”
Joey looked at me, her eyes wide. “Savannah’s blond.”
“She’s blond.” Joey looked back to the road. “Bing wanted a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead so the audience could keep you guys straight. They decided your hair was too thin, it wouldn’t survive coloring, so they made Savannah go red.”
“My God,” I said.
Savannah was beautiful. She knew three languages: English, French, and whatever it was she’d spoken to Vaclav in.
And she was blond. She was the bad blonde, the mystery girlfriend of Rico Rodriguez, the last known person to see him alive.