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 Savannah’s work application showed her birthday, to see if she was a Capricorn. Joey didn’t answer. Sleeping, probably. I should’ve 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.
The phone rang. “Had breakfast?” Simon asked.
“Don’t. I’ll pick you up in ten minutes.”
Simon was not big on chatter. In fact, he hung up on me. Maybe it was his seven calls I’d neglected to return, or maybe he wasn’t a morning person. Or maybe, as we had a contract, as I was a cooperating witness, this was a business breakfast. One I didn’t have time for. I’d 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 didn’t 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 he’d gotten out of the car to open my door. The next time I’d 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 can’t 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, I’d 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 didn’t say anything.
That made him laugh. “I’m talking breakfast,” he said.
“I’m not a breakfast eater.”
“That’s gotta change,” he said, starting up the car. “Breakfast is key.”
“To what? Anyhow, I don’t have time to eat. I have to get to work, my day job.”
“Tell me about this mural,” he said.
“There’s nothing to tell. It’s visual. Frogs. I’m serious, I don’t have time to eat; can’t we discuss things in the car?”
“Start talking,” he said, but he pulled away from the curb.
“Okay. Savannah Brook is Rico’s blond girlfriend, the one he had a date with on Saturday night. Either she’s working for Little Fish, or she is Little Fish-you know which. I think she’s Little Fish. Here’s my theory: Savannah met Annika and Rico on the set and offered them jobs. Annika was going back to Germany soon, she’d be a natural courier, and both she and Rico were students and Euphoria, this big-deal drug, this miracle, it’s big on campuses. Rico said yes, but Annika said no. Savannah threatened Annika with deportation, and threatened her mother. That’s where you guys came in. And when Annika disappeared. Maybe Savannah turned her in to Immigration, got her deported, and maybe you don’t know this because maybe their guys didn’t tell your guys. Or maybe Annika ran away and Savannah freaked out and sent people to Germany to kidnap Annika’s 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, it’s got some holes, it’s 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 I’m right about something.”
“You’re 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. You’ll be wearing a wire. Shooting starts at seven. I want you there at five.”
“Five o’clock? Impossible. I’ll be knee-deep in frogs at five.”
“Extricate yourself,” he said. “I want you on the set at five.”
His head turned so fast I thought he’d 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. “I’m terrible at this. Everyone on the set last night recognized me, I haven’t helped you, I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know. And you haven’t told me anything, period. I don’t believe you’re any closer to finding Annika than I am on my own, and I have to take it on faith that you’re looking at all. You know all about me, but I know nothing about you, what’s going on with you, because you get to lie and shut down and clam up, and I’ve been dating men like you for years, I don’t 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.
“There’s nothing I wouldn’t tell you if I didn’t have ethical considerations. I do have them. I’m not apologizing. I like what I do. I believe in it. But I have a big conflict of interest here, and what’s going on with me is I’m doing every goddamn thing I can think of to make this work, I’m bending rules on both sides, and I still don’t know if I can pull off what I need to pull off, and I have no idea if you’ll want to know me when it’s over.”
“Why will you want to know me?” I asked.
By way of answering, he reached over and pulled me to him. We didn’t kiss. I could barely breathe. My face was mashed into his tie, my rib cage was getting crushed right where I’d 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 Hugo’s and smiled at the attendant, who stared at us like a monk greeting the pope, nearly weeping over the Bentley. It’s only the cheap Bentley, I could’ve 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. I’d have bet Simon was in the latter camp, that I’d heard it wrong, that he must’ve said, “dove” or “glove.” But I couldn’t 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. It’s 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 didn’t 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. You’ll sign a waiver, acknowledging your consent to wear recording equipment and have your voice recorded. If you have problems, he’ll be able to reach me. You won’t. 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 don’t like people disappearing.
“Tonight’s shoot will use all six contestants, to deflect attention you might attract for being on the set. Don’t ask how I arranged it. The show will use a boom microphone, so the only body mike you’ll wear is ours. You’ll 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 you’re 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, ‘It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,’ it’s over. She’ll 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 can’t Miss Calcutta wear the wire?” I asked. “Or just memorize the information?”
“Big Fish’s 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 I’ll contact you. I’ll explain things I’m 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 I’d been feeling myself, the lack of sleep, the proximity to danger. I thought about what it was he wasn’t 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 she’s not already dead, that you haven’t found Annika in the last day or two, and you’re not telling me, because-”
“You need me to keep working for you.”
He stared. “You think I’d do that?”
“I think that you-” I couldn’t say love me. Yet. Even though he’d 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. “That’s the wrong answer. It should depend on the means. There are lines you don’t 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 don’t want them to.”
“Yes, you do. You just don’t 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 don’t want to know about it,” I said, “what am I doing with you?”
He picked up his fork. “That’s the question, isn’t it?”
Leaving Hugo’s, Simon drove east, toward Laurel Canyon.
“Where are we going?” I asked, alarmed.
“I’m driving you to work. We’re carpooling.”
“Carpooling? Nobody carpools. I need my car. How am I going to get home?”
“No.” I could feel my temperature rise. “I’m not kidding. No. My God, this is L.A., you don’t leave people stranded without a car. What happened to civil liberties?”
“I’m not taking chances. I want you on the set tonight, not in jail in San Pedro.” He glanced at me. “I guess you don’t watch the morning news. I hope Joey’s got a lawyer. She’s getting slapped with a lawsuit.”
I closed my eyes. This was turning into a very long day, and it wasn’t even noon.
“Want to tell me what you were doing there?” Simon asked.
“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 doesn’t constitute kidnapping. Seriously. What if I need to go to the store while I’m working, what if I need paints? How do you know I have keys with me?”
“I imagine your whole apartment’s in that backpack. Whatever you need, send Esterbud.”
“So nice seeing our tax dollars at work.”
“Wollie, you’d 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. He’d 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.
I’d avoided him for days, so the effect was stupefying. Either he’d 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 don’t 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.
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. I’d 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. I’d 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. I’d 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 wasn’t alone.
Alongside him was another frog, so tiny as to be nearly insignificant. I’d 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 won’t come.”
“Um, what? Your… girlfriend?” I asked, distracted. “With the body dysmorphic disorder? P.B., if she’s a patient, she can’t come. Maybe when she’s healthier.”
“No. She’s out of the hospital, but she still won’t come. She says her upper lip is too big. She says everyone in Santa Barbara will stare at her when she eats, so then she’ll stop eating and they’ll hospitalize her again. She says in her own neighborhood they’re used to her, but she can’t start over in a new town, she’s 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 I’d never met, whose name I didn’t know, instead of wishing he’d get off the phone. If you can’t take time for the people you love, what’s the point? If I’d taken time for Annika, ten minutes one fateful night, everything might’ve turned out differently.
I told P.B. I’d 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 didn’t believe it was the right place for him anymore, and staying wouldn’t help his girlfriend’s upper-lip problem in any case. He told me I sounded subnormal.
“I am subnormal,” I said. “People’s lives are at stake, and I’m 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 can’t paint over them,” he said. “That’s murder-suicide.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re the frog.”
Here we go. “The blue?” I asked, wondering why I’d even brought it up.
“No, the other one. The goliath. Female frogs are bigger than the males, you told me that. She’s big, she’s a girl; you’re big, you’re a girl. If you paint over her, you erase yourself. Suicide’s one thing, if you’re sad enough, but taking someone with you is murder. You don’t murder things, you save things. You put the blue next to the goliath as a talisman. You’re blackmailing yourself into staying alive.”
“P.B.,” I said, “I love you, but I don’t understand a word you just said.”
“I’m 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, it’s Joey. Listen, something’s bothering me. Since Rico spent time around B.C., why is it the cops haven’t shown up there to question anyone? You think the Feds told them to back off? And check this out: Elliot’s 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- There’s 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, it’s Uncle Theo. Dear, I saw you and your friend Joey on the television this morning. Congratulations. It’s always so wonderful to see you.”
“Yeah, uh… hold on. Okay. Wollie? It’s Cziemanski. I saw that thing on the news and I’m a little-okay, I guess you’re okay. Call if you need anything. Well, I mean, not anything, but-okay. I gotta go.”
“Joey again. I forgot to say I didn’t find anything incriminating on Savannah, except that you’re right, she lies about her age. I have a photocopy of her driver’s license. She was born New Year’s Eve, the same year as you.”
I gasped. Savannah Brook was a Capricorn.
She’d put her astrological symbol on the drug she’d developed. Euphoria.
She was Little Fish.
One pill connected her, Rico, and Annika. And Simon knew this. But then why didn’t he know where Rico was? Or Annika?
Because he wasn’t looking for them. He wasn’t concerned with Little Fish’s victims; to him, Little Fish was bait. For Big Fish.
And when it was over? When the big meeting took place, tonight’s meeting, when Simon got what he needed, surely then he’d turn her over to the Sheriff’s 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 wasn’t 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 weren’t already dead.
Simon’s conflict of interest. The thing that would so appall me I wouldn’t 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 I’d found was of no use to anyone because the Feds didn’t care and the cops didn’t know, and without evidence-
But I had evidence. I’d 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 wouldn’t 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 wasn’t there. Not in the Integra’s 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 couldn’t find the evidence Britta had so kindly donated to the cause. I tried sitting in the driver’s seat to re-create the circumstances of the flying pill, and I still couldn’t find it. It was here somewhere, someplace I couldn’t 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 hadn’t. She was a lot like me. A woman who saved things.