The entire block of Moon Canyon where the Quinns lived was cordoned off for the film shoot, overflowing with cars and trucks and equipment and people. I hailed a sunburned man in a muscle shirt and the leather back-support belt of a weight lifter or furniture mover, who advised me to park on Moon Crater, two streets ahead, and walk back. From somewhere on Moon Canyon, the sound of a megaphoned voice intoned, “Background… and… action!”
I did as advised, wedging my car between an Explorer and a Lexus in front of an Italianate castle, and approached the Quinns from the opposite direction. The houses here were set close to the street. Presumably they had yards in the back, a place for the pool, but from the front they were like multimillion-dollar tract houses. Through windows I saw wallpaper, books… children. Maybe someday when I grew up I would live in a real house, rather than a succession of cramped apartments. Maybe not. Uncle Theo lived in a converted hotel. My mother lived in an ashram. P.B., in two days, would be living in a house, but it was a halfway house, which wasn’t the same thing. We probably weren’t house people.
I carried the Williams-Sonoma shopping bag. Since I was never going to return the utensils I’d bought there, I’d offer them to Maizie. If ever there was a person for kitchen gadgets, it was Maizie Quinn. Not that she was needy, with her fleet of cars and exquisite house, but I was always showing up unannounced and asking for things, so this felt right. A hostess gift. Even very wealthy people, in my experience, loved free stuff.
I reached the back of the Quinn property and a gate set in a wood fence displaying a Guard Dog on Duty sign. Packages were stacked up against the gate, FedEx and UPS, from Banana Republic, Martha by Mail, and Sur la Table. I noticed a doorbell on the fence. I rang it, then tried the gate. It was open.
I tried to pick up the packages, but there were too many. I took the Williams-Sonoma gadgets out of their shopping bag, stuffed them in the pockets of my jacket, forced the Martha by Mail box into the shopping bag, picked up the other two packages, and squeezed through the gate.
I followed a path through a profusion of fauna that must’ve taken some tending, to be blooming in late November. It was quiet here, the foliage seeming to mute the sounds of the film shooting out front. The door of the artist’s studio was open. I knocked and stuck my head in.
“You look like Santa Claus,” Maizie said, welcoming me. “Is all that mine?”
“Left at the back gate.” I handed her the shopping bag and the packages and moved past her into the room. A fire blazed in the fireplace, making me want to stay forever.
“That damn film.” Maizie headed to the kitchen area. “My across-the-street neighbors rented out their house. On and off for weeks. Just when we think we’ve seen the last of it, they’re back. So inconvenient. Some workers don’t even try to get through. Service people just take the day off. Garbage trucks. I’ve actually faxed the UPS people maps to the backyard. I can’t live without my deliveries. Hot cocoa?”
“Yes. Great.” I sneezed. “What are you making?” Wood in interesting shapes covered the studio floor, getting a coat of primer. The sawhorse and circular saw I’d seen a week earlier had been replaced by a professional sander. Maizie wore a denim apron over her white shirt.
“Lawn ornaments. I’ve never found a really satisfactory Santa and reindeer, so I’m making some. It shocks me, how people have gorgeous homes and landscaping, then stick a plastic- Cat, move.” She made a pass at the yellow cat, who leaped out of the way, something in his mouth. She stood, hands on hips, then turned to me. “What’s up?”
“I’m wondering if you still have the pill you found under Annika’s bed.”
“Well, I’m not… sure. Why?”
I told her about the logo on Rico’s bedroom wall, and the pill Britta had given me. “Rico tried to recruit Annika and Britta as couriers, but this woman on my show, Savannah Brook, is the kingpin. Queenpin. Whatever. She’s the woman Rico told his mom about, the woman he was dating when he vanished.” I sneezed again. The cat was rubbing against my leg.
“God, that’s wild.” Maizie shooed the animal away. “And the police don’t know this?”
“No, but they will tonight. If I can pull it off.” If I had the pill, I told Maizie, I’d show it to Savannah, I’d tell her Rico had given it to me, that I was interested in a deal, in doing what Britta and Annika would not, because I needed the money. Savannah liked deals.
I did not, of course, tell Maizie I’d be wearing an FBI wire. I’d do what I had to for Simon, then get Savannah alone. She’d say something incriminating. If I had the pill. The pill would give me credibility with her, and then with Yellin, at the Sheriff’s Department. The pill in my hand, the logo on Rico’s wall, Savannah’s natural blond hair, her Capricorn birthday, her affair with Rico, an incriminating conversation caught on an FBI tape-whether or not the FBI acknowledged its existence-if all this wasn’t enough for the cops to investigate, it would be enough for the TV news. Especially when I, an FBI cooperating witness and incidental celebrity, was willing to give interviews. And explain that Annika Gl"uck and Rico Rodriguez, two people who could tie Savannah to Vladimir Tcheiko, were now missing. What news station wouldn’t be interested? Three out of four of those people were celebrities.
Maizie replaced the top on a can of primer and wiped her hands on a towel. “I think I know where it might be-I’ll just run up to the house. Stay here, it’s freezing outside.”
I moved closer to the fire, and discovered the cat. He rolled around on a rag rug, as though doing spinal exercises. I said hello to him and he rolled away. He was still playing with his toy, batting it around gleefully. As long as it wasn’t a frog.
I used my cell phone to check my machine. One message. Rex Stetson, reporting about Kona winds and the Big Island volcano. The Honolulu airport crew was working to get the ash under control, but when they did, he’d be home, carrying his bride over the threshold.
My heart stopped. I looked at the cat. He was a big cat, but my African goliath frog could eat him for breakfast. An amuse-bouche. How could I call myself a professional? The Stetsons’ kitchen was a fright, and it was irresponsible of me to be here. I should be in Sherman Oaks painting the wall white, committing murder-suicide. Maybe there was still time. If Maizie found the pill fast, I’d drive back there, throw on the first coat of paint, and-
My cell phone rang. I answered. This was a mistake.
“Where the hell are you?” It was Simon, as angry as I’d ever heard him.
“I-took a cab home.” I couldn’t believe how feeble my voice sounded.
“Stay there. Don’t even think of moving. Don’t drive, don’t walk. Stay. In. Your. Apartment. The next time I call I want to hear you’re sitting in Esterbud’s car. Jesus Christ, he’s a federal agent, he’s there to protect you, not play hide-and-seek. You got that?”
My heart was racing, angry at him for yelling at me, angry at myself for reacting. What kind of whistle-blower would I make, going weak in the knees in the face of someone’s anger? I focused on the yellow cat, with its sudden energy, and reined in my emotions.
“Simon,” I said calmly, “tell Esterbud I’ll meet him at Fini at six. I think I’m capable of driving my own goddamn car to my own goddamn job. But thank you for caring.”
I pushed the end button on my cell phone, cutting him off mid-word. It wasn’t a nice word.
The yellow cat toyed with its little object, tossing it my way, chasing it, reclaiming it with the glee of a kitten. The first sign of real life I’d seen from him.
Why was Simon so flipped out, I wondered, turning off my phone. Was Savannah really so dangerous? Was she on to me? Or did he just not like having his plans messed with?
I went to the window. The light was fading. It was almost the shortest day of the year. In the distance I heard a high-pitched voice. Emma, skipping toward the Range Rover.
The outdoor lights popped on, the little ones that illuminated the footpath. The late afternoon was coming to life now: the singing of the child, the playfulness of the cat. He flopped onto his back, showing me his stomach as he played with his toy. I thought of the Oriental fire-bellied toad, Bombina orientalis, his body green for everyday life. When push comes to shove, he flips over, arching his back and exposing his red belly, threatening predators with poison.
How angry Simon had been. You never really knew someone until you pissed them off. People’s styles of rage were so personal. As individual as sex.
I felt like someone had kicked me. What was I thinking? My God, if I pulled it off tonight, my own evidence-gathering mission, we would never have sex. I would never kiss Simon Alexander again.
I had to sit to absorb this. There would be no going back. He would never kiss a whistle-blower, someone who’d gone behind his back, to the cops, to the press. But how could I want to kiss someone willing to sacrifice my friend Annika?
But I did want to.
The room grew cold.
Emma’s singing was stopped by the slam of a car door and the sound of an engine starting. I moved to the fire, thinking of the song still going on inside the Range Rover. What was it about being three that made you sing the same song over and over?
Not three, though. Two and three-quarters. Fractions. Math. It was everywhere.
It’s strange how a mind works, how you can puzzle over something, a riddle, a song lyric, a poem… and then you relax and look away for a moment and things slide into place like thread across a loom, revealing the pattern you hadn’t seen before. Maybe that’s all math is, a design. Maybe if I’d done the math…
I thought of Emma saying, “Two and three-quarters,” and her mother saying, “Two and eleven-twelfths. Santa brought you to me,” and my own mother saying, “Christmas. Jesus was a Capricorn, didn’t you ever hear that?”
My breathing changed. The coldness in the pit of my stomach spread to my intestines and down my legs.
The yellow cat threw his toy in the air, the paws tossing it like a volleyball. It landed at my feet. I looked at it. It was a strange-looking thing, no bigger than a thumbnail, but thick. I’d been watching it for minutes, ever since I walked in, seeing something flash bright in the firelight. I reached down to touch it with my fingertip.
It was hard and dry and gray.
I drew my hand back.
It was an earlobe. The small, once soft end of an ear. In it was a gold stud earring. Embedded with a red gem. A ruby.
A gold stud earring I’d seen once before, worn by Rico Rodriguez.
I felt a burning in my eyes. The coldness inside me turned to nausea.
I heard the crunch of leaves outside. I saw the doorknob turn. I watched the door open and Maizie Quinn come into the studio.