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37

At seven A.M. I left a message on the machine of the Johannessen family in Minnesota, asking that their au pair, Marie-Th'er`ese, call me anytime, collect, concerning our mutual friend, Annika, about whom I was worried.

I turned on my computer and looked for a new e-mail from Annika. Nothing. I looked again at the old one. It will be over soon. Three days old, those words. Was it over already? Time was running out. Biological clocks, ticking clocks, the sun moving from Sagittarius to Capricorn, the sun approaching its eclipse, twenty-eight shopping days till Christmas, missing persons not found in the first forty-eight hours not getting found at all.

I called Joey to ask if Savannahs work application showed her birthday, to see if she was a Capricorn. Joey didnt answer. Sleeping, probably. I shouldve been sleeping too, but thoughts leaped in my head like frogs. Frogs. Rex Stetson and Tricia, his bride, would return-I looked at a calendar. My God. Impossible.

Tomorrow.

The phone rang. Had breakfast? Simon asked.

I barely-

Dont. Ill pick you up in ten minutes.

Yeah, but-

Simon was not big on chatter. In fact, he hung up on me. Maybe it was his seven calls Id neglected to return, or maybe he wasnt a morning person. Or maybe, as we had a contract, as I was a cooperating witness, this was a business breakfast. One I didnt have time for. Id suggest debriefing each other or whatever in the car, over doughnuts, so I could get to work.

Eleven minutes later I was outside my building in my best paint clothes, wearing makeup. Not a lot of makeup, because I didnt want to look like I cared. I did care. My nerve endings buzzed. The Bentley pulled up, and Simon reached across and opened the passenger door for me from the inside. Aha. We were progressing. The last time hed gotten out of the car to open my door. The next time Id open my own door.

If there was a next time.

The car was heated, a good contrast to the nippy November morning air. I got in, said hello, went for my seat belt, and Simon went for me.

The thing about morning kissing is that people tend to taste more like toothpaste than, for instance, red wine, which lends it a certain reality. You cant say, I was carried away by the spearmint. But I was. That, the smell of shaving cream, whatever he used to starch his shirts had aphrodisiacal properties. The smells were cool, his body was warm, his mouth was cool, the car was warm. Even with the discomfort of the console between us, it was heaven. If one were considering making out in a Bentley, Id recommend it.

As suddenly as it began, it ended. He pulled back to study me, his face unreadable. He said, What are you hungry for?

I didnt say anything.

That made him laugh. Im talking breakfast, he said.

Im not a breakfast eater.

Thats gotta change, he said, starting up the car. Breakfast is key.

To what? Anyhow, I dont have time to eat. I have to get to work, my day job.

Tell me about this mural, he said.

Theres nothing to tell. Its visual. Frogs. Im serious, I dont have time to eat; cant we discuss things in the car?

Start talking, he said, but he pulled away from the curb.

Okay. Savannah Brook is Ricos blond girlfriend, the one he had a date with on Saturday night. Either shes working for Little Fish, or she is Little Fish-you know which. I think shes Little Fish. Heres my theory: Savannah met Annika and Rico on the set and offered them jobs. Annika was going back to Germany soon, shed be a natural courier, and both she and Rico were students and Euphoria, this big-deal drug, this miracle, its big on campuses. Rico said yes, but Annika said no. Savannah threatened Annika with deportation, and threatened her mother. Thats where you guys came in. And when Annika disappeared. Maybe Savannah turned her in to Immigration, got her deported, and maybe you dont know this because maybe their guys didnt tell your guys. Or maybe Annika ran away and Savannah freaked out and sent people to Germany to kidnap Annikas mother, to ensure that Annika would keep her mouth shut. Or maybe Savannah kidnapped Annika and her mother, but three days ago Annika got ahold of a computer, for five minutes, and she wrote to me, because all right, as theories go, its got some holes, its a little sloppy, but some of it must be right.

He drove in silence, his face impassive behind his sunglasses.

Well, damn it. Tell me Im right about something.

Youre right about a lot. He came to a light and shifted gears. Traffic was heavy on Santa Monica. Tonight, Biological Clock shoots in the back room of a restaurant called Fini, in Culver City. This is where the big meeting gets set up. Youll be wearing a wire. Shooting starts at seven. I want you there at five.

Five oclock? Impossible. Ill be knee-deep in frogs at five.

Extricate yourself, he said. I want you on the set at five.

No.

His head turned so fast I thought hed hurt himself. If his dictatorial manner surprised me, my response surprised him more. He must be high up in the food chain, I decided, to be so shocked at the word no.

I quit, I said. Im terrible at this. Everyone on the set last night recognized me, I havent helped you, I havent told you anything you didnt already know. And you havent told me anything, period. I dont believe youre any closer to finding Annika than I am on my own, and I have to take it on faith that youre looking at all. You know all about me, but I know nothing about you, whats going on with you, because you get to lie and shut down and clam up, and Ive been dating men like you for years, I dont need to work for one of you.

Simon did a fast right. Horns blared as the Bentley cut off a car in the next lane and came to a screeching halt in front of a fire hydrant. He turned off the ignition, got his seat belt off in one snap, and threw his sunglasses on the dashboard. His blue eyes turned on me.

Theres nothing I wouldnt tell you if I didnt have ethical considerations. I do have them. Im not apologizing. I like what I do. I believe in it. But I have a big conflict of interest here, and whats going on with me is Im doing every goddamn thing I can think of to make this work, Im bending rules on both sides, and I still dont know if I can pull off what I need to pull off, and I have no idea if youll want to know me when its over.

Why will you want to know me? I asked.

By way of answering, he reached over and pulled me to him. We didnt kiss. I could barely breathe. My face was mashed into his tie, my rib cage was getting crushed right where Id been stuck in a bathroom window, and there was that console thing between us and a gun attached to his waist where one of my hands held on to him, but love is a strange thing.

Love. That word he was whispering in my ear. It covers a multitude of sins and a lot of other things. Pain. Awkwardness. Doubt.

Half an hour later he pulled into a parking lot near Hugos and smiled at the attendant, who stared at us like a monk greeting the pope, nearly weeping over the Bentley. Its only the cheap Bentley, I couldve told him, but why spoil his day?

The L word, once said, changes things. There are people who throw it around like salt on popcorn. Others are more comfortable with profanity than endearments. Id have bet Simon was in the latter camp, that Id heard it wrong, that he mustve said, dove or glove. But I couldnt come up with a good reason for someone to whisper glove with such heat.

I felt myself undergoing metamorphosis.

Simon told our waiter to bring us two spinach-and-mushroom egg-white omelets with sides of fruit, and that brought me back to earth. Its one thing to hear someone say love and another to let them order your breakfast.

And pancakes for me, I said, snapping my menu shut. Simon smiled, but he didnt say anything until the waiter had gone. We were back in business. I was a CW, a cooperating witness for the FBI. He was my handler. For one last day.

At three P.M. he said, a man named Esterbud will drive you to the set, get you wired, and go over your instructions. Youll sign a waiver, acknowledging your consent to wear recording equipment and have your voice recorded. If you have problems, hell be able to reach me. You wont. Anything you need in the next twenty-four hours, go through Esterbud.

My stomach clenched up at the news that he was going to disappear. Even for a day. I dont like people disappearing.

Tonights shoot will use all six contestants, to deflect attention you might attract for being on the set. Dont ask how I arranged it. The show will use a boom microphone, so the only body mike youll wear is ours. Youll activate it at ten P.M. At that point an Indian woman and a companion will enter the restaurant and sit in a booth near you.

American Indian or Indian Indian?

Calcutta. Heavy accent. One of ours. He paused while a waiter refilled our coffee cups, waiting for him to leave. The woman will have a conversation with her companion. This is what youre picking up. When you hear her say, The best part of Thanksgiving is the leftovers, stop talking, clanking silverware, all extraneous noise. When she says, Its not the heat, its the humidity, its over. Shell go to the restroom. Notice who in the cast or crew her companion makes contact with. Esterbud will go over all this again.

I nodded, wondering who in the FBI made up the code sentences and whether they took courses in that sort of thing at Quantico. Wondering if anything would be more hazardous than Fredreeq, Venus, Savannah, Kim, and me in the same room at the same time. Why cant Miss Calcutta wear the wire? I asked. Or just memorize the information?

Big Fishs people will frisk her. And we need the conversation on tape, later, to elicit cooperation.

Cooperation. A nice word in other contexts. In this context, code for blackmail.

Not to sound petty, I said, but again, what about the quid pro quo? Annika.

In twenty-four hours Ill contact you. Ill explain things Im not able to talk about now. Anything you need before then, Esterbud will be nearby.

Simon, what about Annika?

Twenty-four hours, Wollie.

I saw in his face the stress Id been feeling myself, the lack of sleep, the proximity to danger. I thought about what it was he wasnt telling me, the thing so big I might not want to see him after tomorrow. Something in me went cold. Simon, I said softly, I just have to know shes not already dead, that you havent found Annika in the last day or two, and youre not telling me, because-

Because?

You need me to keep working for you.

He stared. You think Id do that?

I think that you- I couldnt say love me. Yet. Even though hed as much as said that. Even though I believed him. I said, I think for you, the end justifies the means.

That depends on the end.

I focused on my napkin. Thats the wrong answer. It should depend on the means. There are lines you dont cross, even to serve a greater good.

But whose lines? Drawn where? Good people cross lines all the time. On your behalf.

I shook my head. I dont want them to.

Yes, you do. You just dont want to know about it.

Was he right? I raised my eyes to his. A waiter came and plunked down two small bowls of sliced fruit on the table between us. Neither of us looked at him. But if I dont want to know about it, I said, what am I doing with you?

He picked up his fork. Thats the question, isnt it?

Leaving Hugos, Simon drove east, toward Laurel Canyon.

Where are we going? I asked, alarmed.

Im driving you to work. Were carpooling.

Carpooling? Nobody carpools. I need my car. How am I going to get home?

Esterbud.

No. I could feel my temperature rise. Im not kidding. No. My God, this is L.A., you dont leave people stranded without a car. What happened to civil liberties?

Im not taking chances. I want you on the set tonight, not in jail in San Pedro. He glanced at me. I guess you dont watch the morning news. I hope Joeys got a lawyer. Shes getting slapped with a lawsuit.

I closed my eyes. This was turning into a very long day, and it wasnt even noon.

Want to tell me what you were doing there? Simon asked.

No.

All right. We should have a talk one of these days about which laws you obey and which ones you ignore when it suits you.

We should, I said. You can explain the nuances of crime, like how driving people to the Valley against their will doesnt constitute kidnapping. Seriously. What if I need to go to the store while Im working, what if I need paints? How do you know I have keys with me?

I imagine your whole apartments in that backpack. Whatever you need, send Esterbud.

So nice seeing our tax dollars at work.

Wollie, youd make my job easier if you kept your cell phone on. And returned your calls occasionally.

When we got to Sherman Oaks, to the Mansion, which he found without asking directions, I did not say good-bye. I did not kiss him good-bye. I got out of the car with as much grace as possible and slammed the door behind me. I did not look back.

The way he gunned the engine and took off down the street, they could hear his cheap Bentley in San Pedro.

I looked out the window of the Mansion. There he was, not even bothering to hide. Esterbud. Parked in some kind of big Chevy with tinted windows. Drinking out of a liter bottle of Coke. That must be lunch. Hed be knocking on the door in an hour to introduce himself and use the bathroom.

I turned my back on Esterbud and his liter bottle and looked into the yellow eyes of my West African goliath, Conraua (Gigantorana) goliath.

He was monumental.

Id avoided him for days, so the effect was stupefying. Either hed grown recently, or the wall had shrunk. It was a poster for some low-rent sci-fi horror movie, it was an amphibian the size of a bear, a bald green grizzly holding the kitchen hostage. It was impossible that something that big existed, I dont care what the book said, maybe it was a printing error, that ninety centimeters, no frog could be that long-

I opened up my favorite frog book, and found it. No, there it was. Ninety centimeters. I had it right.

Uh-oh.

The measurement was not SNV, snout to vent, the standard frog measurement. My favorite frog book was illustrating a point, measuring the length from nose to toe. Ninety centimeters stretched out.

I opened up a second book. The snout-to-vent measurement of a West African goliath is thirty centimeters.

No. No, no, no. Id given the West African goliath the torso of a normal-sized human. No wonder he looked like a freak. He was a freak. A mutant. Ninety centimeters is three feet. Three times the size of any frog inhabiting the earth.

My hand went to my mouth, stopping my exclamation. Technical accuracy, my last defense for this monstrosity, was no longer on my side. It never had been. Id made a large math error. Science error. Whatever.

The phone rang. I answered. It was my brother.

P.B. started right in talking about his halfway house, and I stood, thinking about paint. White paint. Somewhere in this house were extra cans of Blush White paint. Id find a paint roller and put the West African goliath out of its misery. No bridal couple wanted to walk into their new home and face a frog the size of a Saint Bernard. Three to five coats of paint ought to do it. If I started immediately, if the pain was quick-drying-

Except-the goliath wasnt alone.

Alongside him was another frog, so tiny as to be nearly insignificant. Id forgotten he was here, having avoided the wall recently. He was a blue poison-arrow frog, Dendrobates azureus, brilliant blue with black spots, his arms and legs a deeper shade of blue, sitting on a leaf, preparing to hop off in search of something to eat. A happy guy. Poisonous, dangerous, but happy. Beautiful.

-to Santa Barbara, my brother was saying. But she wont come.

Um, what? Your girlfriend? I asked, distracted. With the body dysmorphic disorder? P.B., if shes a patient, she cant come. Maybe when shes healthier.

No. Shes out of the hospital, but she still wont come. She says her upper lip is too big. She says everyone in Santa Barbara will stare at her when she eats, so then shell stop eating and theyll hospitalize her again. She says in her own neighborhood theyre used to her, but she cant start over in a new town, shes too old.

I closed my eyes, awash with guilt. P.B. had never had a girlfriend before. This was a big moment in his life. I should be celebrating. I should be taking the time to discuss the mental problems of a woman Id never met, whose name I didnt know, instead of wishing hed get off the phone. If you cant take time for the people you love, whats the point? If Id taken time for Annika, ten minutes one fateful night, everything mightve turned out differently.

I told P.B. Id happily pick up this girl every Thursday from wherever she lived and drive her up to visit him at his halfway house in Santa Barbara, every single week, and anything else he could think up for me to do. Anything except encourage him to stay at the hospital, because I didnt believe it was the right place for him anymore, and staying wouldnt help his girlfriends upper-lip problem in any case. He told me I sounded subnormal.

I am subnormal, I said. Peoples lives are at stake, and Im stuck in Sherman Oaks with a blue poison-arrow and a West African goliath that I need to drown in white paint. If I can send the FBI out for paint rollers.

You cant paint over them, he said. Thats murder-suicide.

What do you mean?

Youre the frog.

Here we go. The blue? I asked, wondering why Id even brought it up.

No, the other one. The goliath. Female frogs are bigger than the males, you told me that. Shes big, shes a girl; youre big, youre a girl. If you paint over her, you erase yourself. Suicides one thing, if youre sad enough, but taking someone with you is murder. You dont murder things, you save things. You put the blue next to the goliath as a talisman. Youre blackmailing yourself into staying alive.

P.B., I said, I love you, but I dont understand a word you just said.

Im in a mental hospital, he said. Do the math.

Wise guy. I hung up and started for the basement in search of paint, but my cell phone, now that it was on, had other ideas. It practically leaped out of my hand, frantic with unplayed messages.

Hi, its Joey. Listen, somethings bothering me. Since Rico spent time around B.C., why is it the cops havent shown up there to question anyone? You think the Feds told them to back off? And check this out: Elliots at a meeting with Bing and Larry at Bad Seed Productions and he just called to say they need the whole cast and crew working tonight. How weird is that? And oh-we made the news this morning. That guy in San Pedro ran his videocam the whole time. Our housekeeper screamed and woke me up.

Wollie: Fredreeq. What in the name of Jesus Christ on the cross were you two doing? I swear, I leave you alone to rob one little office, and- Theres my other line. This is very bad for the show. Very, very bad. And we might be working tonight, did you hear that? Call.

Wollstonecraft, its Uncle Theo. Dear, I saw you and your friend Joey on the television this morning. Congratulations. Its always so wonderful to see you.

Yeah, uh hold on. Okay. Wollie? Its Cziemanski. I saw that thing on the news and Im a little-okay, I guess youre okay. Call if you need anything. Well, I mean, not anything, but-okay. I gotta go.

Joey again. I forgot to say I didnt find anything incriminating on Savannah, except that youre right, she lies about her age. I have a photocopy of her drivers license. She was born New Years Eve, the same year as you.

I gasped. Savannah Brook was a Capricorn.

Shed put her astrological symbol on the drug shed developed. Euphoria.

She was Little Fish.

One pill connected her, Rico, and Annika. And Simon knew this. But then why didnt he know where Rico was? Or Annika?

Because he wasnt looking for them. He wasnt concerned with Little Fishs victims; to him, Little Fish was bait. For Big Fish.

And when it was over? When the big meeting took place, tonights meeting, when Simon got what he needed, surely then hed turn her over to the Sheriffs Department-

Or not. I thought of Sammy the Bull Gravano, a confessed killer, living in the witness protection program, having ratted out the mob. If Sammy could do it, why not Savannah?

The Feds could make a deal to get her to testify against Tcheiko, offer immunity, and turn a blind eye to the plight of one little German girl. Who wasnt a citizen anyway, so who cared? Maybe to the FBI, it was the cost of doing business, a small price to pay for a guy everyone wanted. Savannah would get witness protection, but Annika and her mother-would they stay missing? Afraid of what Tcheiko or his compatriots would do if they surfaced? Assuming they werent already dead.

Simons conflict of interest. The thing that would so appall me I wouldnt want to know him after tonight: that Rico, despite his prominent father, would never be found, or his case solved. That Annika would not be looked for, ever. Or her mother.

And everything Id found was of no use to anyone because the Feds didnt care and the cops didnt know, and without evidence-

But I had evidence. Id had it since yesterday. In my dirty, malfunctioning Integra.

And now I knew what to do with it.

I walked out of the Mansion, introduced myself to Esterbud, and asked him to buy me some paint rollers. He wouldnt take the twenty-dollar bill I offered. Special Agent Alexander, he said, had told him he might have to do a paint run.

But the cab driver was happy to take my money, forty dollars of it, to get me home.

Only the pill wasnt there. Not in the Integras front seat, not in the back. I found the Williams-Sonoma shopping bag that had been rattling around in the car for ages, I found coins, paper clips, a valet-parking receipt, but I couldnt find the evidence Britta had so kindly donated to the cause. I tried sitting in the drivers seat to re-create the circumstances of the flying pill, and I still couldnt find it. It was here somewhere, someplace I couldnt see without dismantling the car.

Great. So now I was in permanent possession of an illicit drug.

There was only one thing left to do. I fastened my seat belt and started up the car. My pill had a twin, and if I was lucky Maizie Quinn had not yet flushed it down the toilet. I was betting she hadnt. She was a lot like me. A woman who saved things.


| Dating Is Murder | c



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