We entered the house through the back door. There was no sign of the killer goose, but Mr. Snuggles approached in a frenzy, the kind small terriers excel at. Maizie gave me a treat for him, a miniature faux T-bone steak. Mr. Snuggles ate it and accepted me into the pack.
“Emma feed him,” Emma said. “One scoop. His bowl is yellow.”
“Oh,” I said. “How old are you, Emma?”
“Two and three-quarters.”
“Two and eleven-twelfths, if you want to get technical,” Maizie said. “Santa brought you to me.” We trooped single-file through a laundry room and hallway to a staircase. I wanted to study details, but with Mr. Snuggles setting the pace and the two blond Quinns flanking me, there was no dawdling. I had an impression of mahogany, Oriental rugs, and lemon oil.
“Beautiful house,” I said, on the landing.
“Thanks,” Maizie said. “We love it. Bought at the bottom of the market, and we’ve put a lot into it over the years. Horrible commute, but I tell my husband he’ll have better luck moving his office building than moving me. One more flight up,” she said, as Mr. Snuggles raced down the second-floor hallway. Emma barreled after him, calling, “Loo-pay, Loo-pay, alla myna engine!” From a distant room, a vacuum cleaner switched off. Maizie led me to what looked like a closet, closed with a hook-and-eye latch up high, out of reach of small fingers. This turned out to be the door to another stairway.
The third floor was an attic room, wallpapered and wood floored and charming.
Annika wasn’t a slob, but she was no neatnik either. Under the multicolored quilt, the bed was made, but it was the work of an amateur. Books filled the bookshelves, in English and German, along with a collection of videos and DVDs-every genre from Blade Runner to The Parent Trap. Framed pictures covered a dresser and snapshots overlapped each other on a bulletin board. On the walls were posters: Albert Einstein, Eminem, Keanu Reeves. Maizie opened the door to a cedar-paneled walk-in closet filled with clothes, shoes, suitcases, and the miscellany of a young woman’s life. The suitcases were old and somber, with the look of hand-me-downs, the clothes bright and cheap, built to disintegrate in a year or two.
“We stayed out of here, except for Lupe, once a week for cleaning, so I can’t say if anything’s missing.” Maizie raised shades and cranked open windows. “I came in last night. I didn’t see a passport, but she always carried that in her purse. Which isn’t here, of course.”
She seemed to assume that no female would leave the house without a purse. I remembered Annika’s suddenly, a red patent leather shoulder bag.
“What about that?” I pointed to a computer, hooked up to a small printer. “She wouldn’t leave that behind.”
Maizie squinted at it. “You don’t think so?”
“No. She’d been saving up for it forever.”
“It does look brand-new.” Maizie switched on a Tiffany lamp to get a better look. “I’m afraid my husband is the computer person here. And Emma. It’s scary how quickly children pick up technology. Are these expensive?”
“I guess anything’s expensive on a hundred forty a week. It’s a selling point, how cheap au pairs are, but it’s embarrassing to pay someone so little.” Maizie perched on the edge of the bed, as if afraid to get comfortable, not having been invited. “You know, she’s due to go home next month, so I can’t understand why she’d leave early. The agency imposes a financial penalty if they don’t finish out the year, and she’s very frugal.”
“It’s true,” I said, still startled by the small salary. “Have you called her mother?”
“Oh, God.” Maizie looked at me and glanced away. “I don’t have the heart for it. What do I say? I spoke to her once last summer; it’s painful. Her English is bad and my toddler knows more German than I do.” What she’d done, she said, was call the au pair liaison, a woman named Glenda, who’d notified the agency. They, in turn, would contact Mrs. Gl"uck, using someone who spoke German. “I’m sure she’s heard from Annika by now. They’re very close.”
“You don’t think something happened to Annika?” I asked.
“I don’t know, whatever happens to people who disappear. Kidnapping, or…” I hesitated to say anything worse out loud.
“You know, I really don’t.” Maizie pressed her lips together, then shook her head. “Two months ago, I might’ve thought so, but now…”
I waited for her to finish her sentence, but she seemed to be struggling with a decision. Then she stood, grasped the footboard of the mahogany bed, and moved it out from the wall.
There were dust bunnies on the floor where the bed had been-Lupe must’ve cut a few corners here-and a dime, a small amber bottle, and a stray pill. Maizie picked up the bottle, set it in the palm of her hand, and held it out. “Do you know what this is?”
It was a tiny jar with a screw-on top and a miniature spoon attached by a chain. Memories of an old boyfriend came flooding back, not pleasant ones. An old boyfriend with bad habits, one of which had killed him. “Is it for cocaine?” I asked.
“That’s my guess. There’s white residue inside. I haven’t seen one of these since college. And how about this?” She bent down and plucked the pill from the floor and handed it to me. She had a craftsman’s hands: short nails, no polish. Like mine.
The size of a vitamin, it was round and blue, with a marking pressed into it.
A kind of symbol, or maybe a short word, with letters so stylized I couldn’t recognize them. I shook my head and handed it back. She set the pill and vial on the floor and pushed the bed against the wall once more.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Or why I’m leaving them there. I found them last night. Should I get the pill analyzed somehow? Obviously, if she has a drug habit, I can’t have her around Emma, but I hate to think this of her. She’s so not the type.”
“No, she’s not. Did you tell the agency?”
“God, no. They’d have her on the next plane to Germany. My husband too, he’d just-. I can’t tell him this. I can’t just ruin her life without talking to her first. What would you do?”
It was my turn to look away. I didn’t want her to see in my face that I was holding back, that I had my own secret knowledge of Annika. Guns. And now drugs. And whatever “big problem” she’d wanted to talk about. “I guess I wouldn’t tell anyone either,” I said. “Are you sure those are hers? Has anyone else stayed in this room?”
“No. We have two guest rooms. And we bought the bed the week she came, so no one else has even slept in it. Of course, she has friends over occasionally. And Lupe-” Maizie gave a short laugh. “Well, let’s just say if Lupe had a cocaine habit, I expect she’d clean a lot faster. God. I’ve been trying to figure this out. Annika has been distracted recently. Erratic behavior. Keeping to her room instead of hanging out in the kitchen. Cooking. She loves cooking, but I can’t remember the last time… but it’s a tough age. It was for me. It never crossed my mind that this-moodiness-could be a drug thing.”
All I knew about drugs was that unless the person was pretty far gone, it was hard to tell who did them and who didn’t do them, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t do them. Joey was good at drug detection. I wasn’t.
“What about her boyfriend?” I said. “Have you heard from him?”
“No. So maybe she’s with him, maybe they took off together. I wish I could remember his last name. Rico-but whether that was a nickname, or short for Richard…”
Richard. I remembered a tutoring session I’d had with Annika at one of our hangouts, a coffee bar. When we finished, Annika stayed, saying she had a date. With-Richard? Maybe. Richard Something. “But if she didn’t take off with him,” I said, “if something bad happened, shouldn’t you tell the police? Before the trail gets cold.”
Maizie opened a door to a bathroom. “The agency’s doing that, they have procedures for when girls take off. Apparently it happens enough. I don’t mean to sound uncaring, but for a seven-thousand-dollar fee, these are the problems you hand over. Or so my husband says.”
I nearly choked. “Seven thousand-and Annika makes a hundred forty a week?”
Maizie explained that the fee covered interviews, psychological evaluation, translating references, airfare, and training in child care, CPR, and first aid. The host family was interviewed too, their house inspected and their references checked. An au pair was less an employee than an instant teenage daughter, and the girls weren’t in it for the money but for a year in America. “Otherwise,” Maizie said, “you may as well hire a nanny. Which my husband now says we should have done. But I feel like she’s coming back. I just do.” She straightened a yellow bath towel embroidered with “Annika,” then pulled it off the rack, saying, “She should at least come home to clean towels.”
It still seemed there was something missing here, something we should be doing. “If she’s not in trouble, why hasn’t she called anyone?” I said, thinking about the gun. “Her mother, for instance. Why not leave a note for you?”
“What if she’s doing something she thinks we’d disapprove of?” Maizie switched off the bathroom light and leaned against the wall, cuddling the bath towel. “I don’t know what’s happened to her. But I know what I wish, and that’s that she comes walking in the back door at dinnertime, asking what smells so good.” Her voice trembled a little. “Emma keeps asking about her.” She looked at me and cleared her throat. “You might want to check with Glenda, the au pair counselor. Come, I’ll get you her number.”
Glenda Nacy worked at Williams-Sonoma, a housewares store in the Westfield Shoppingtown Promenade, farther into the Valley. I decided to go there rather than wait for a return phone call, which Maizie warned me could take a while. Glenda was a volunteer, she explained, although why anyone would volunteer to supervise foreign teenage babysitters was something Maizie had wondered about all year.
I found my way to the mall and to Glenda Nacy, a sixtyish woman in orthopedic shoes with lipstick on her front teeth. As I explained my mission, she stocked packs of potpourri on a display table alongside boxes marked “Snowflake Spice Balls,” spreading the scent of ginger, cloves, and nutmeg. This was the kind of store I avoided these days, a sensory reminder that I had no husband, no children, and no cooking skills. Glenda offered me a cup of hot apple cider and said, “I can’t give you much time. My boss puts the kibosh on personal business during shifts. She’s off-site, but if she comes back, ask me about crockery.”
“I won’t take long,” I said. “I’m just wondering if you filed a police report on Annika.”
“Oh, that’s not for me to do. I’m the community counselor. That would be up to the agency, Au Pairs par Excellence.” She pronounced it “Ah Pairs per Excellence” as though there were nothing French about it. “The moms-the host moms, I should say-they’ll call me instead of the agency, because I have a personal relationship with them and the girls. Then I contact the agency, so that’s how that works.” She was, to hear her describe it, a combination mediator, interpreter, tour guide, and spiritual adviser.
“So you really got to know Annika,” I said. “Any idea where she might’ve gone?”
“Well, golly.” Glenda reached up for a silver cheese grater from a well-stocked wall display, and began to rub the handle with her apron. “I’m not sure I’m supposed to discuss this or anything, being a volunteer.”
“You probably should just talk to the agency.”
“Glenda,” I said, “I’m not anyone. I’m not an investigator or the police or-. I design greeting cards. Annika’s my friend, and I just want to make sure-”
Glenda glanced over my shoulder and, with a forced cough, handed me the cheese grater, then handed me two more. I turned. Coming through the door was a woman considerably younger than Glenda and much better dressed.
“I think three should do you,” Glenda said, in a bright, salesperson voice. “Fine, coarse, and ribbon. And what else do you need for your dinner party?”
“Uh-” Deception came as easily to me as sheep shearing. “Oh. Crockery?”
“Right this way.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Now listen. Why don’t you just give a call to Martin, he’s Southern California regional director-”
“I promise I won’t quote you or anything,” I whispered back. “I’m just curious about what you thought of Annika. I mean, she’s been here almost a year now, and as the den mother-. I’m sorry, what did you say your title is?”
“As community counselor, you must know her better than Martin, unless-. How big’s the community?”
Glenda perked up at this. Big, she said. She was responsible for L.A. and Orange County. However, only three au pairs currently inhabited the community: Annika in Encino, Britta in San Marino, and Hitomi in Palos Verdes. Hitomi had a nice setup, a whole guesthouse, which she deserved, Glenda felt, for caring for two sets of twins. Each month, Glenda organized a Sunday excursion. “Like picnics or Magic Mountain, and we have all sorts of fun and the girls tell me how things are going.”
“And how were things going with Annika?”
“Well, she never complained. This is Wedgwood transferware, called Highgrove, after Prince Charles’s country estate,” Glenda said, picking up a plate. “Dishwasher safe.”
“Too ritzy? The Emile Henry, then.” She pronounced Emile “E-meal,” like something you’d eat online, and spoke loudly. “The Auberge collection, inspired by the simple, warm restaurants found in French country inns. Feel that roaster. Go ahead, handle it.”
I picked up the roaster, big enough to house a turkey, as the well-dressed woman moved past us through a door marked “Employees Only.” Glenda replaced the plate and took the roaster out of my hands. “If anyone had cause for complaint, it was me, not that young lady.”
“Annika?” I said. “You had problems with her?”
“The excursions. She was late to Cinco de Mayo because of working at some food bank. She skipped Knott’s Berry Farm due to a TV program she got involved in. So I sat her down and I said, Look, this is not optional, the excursions are mandatory, you’re here to have cultural experiences. Next thing you know, she’s volunteering at a pet shelter. The girls are not supposed to work themselves to the bone. They put in forty-five hours a week with child care, and their studies on top of that. But that wasn’t the worst.”
“What was the worst?”
Glenda raised her voice. “It’s the latest, a nonstick tapas pan, eight and a half inches. Once you get it home, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it.”
The well-dressed woman had emerged from the Employees Only door and was checking merchandise fifteen feet away.
“I don’t actually cook a lot of tapas.” This was an understatement. I used my oven for storing paper grocery bags. The pilot light was out. “So what was the worst?” I whispered.
“That young lady was boy crazy. I see it all the time, the girls want Disneyland and Starbucks and American boyfriends. You can’t blame them, but you have to be strict.”
“Gosh,” I said. “How many boyfriends did she have?”
“Well, just the one, that I know of. But she talked about him to the others all through the Lotus Festival. Didn’t think I was listening, but I keep tabs, because whatever one girl is up to, the others think they need to be doing it too.”
“Did the Quinns complain about the boyfriend?”
“No.” Glenda pursed her lips. “We discourage letting the girls have a boy up in their room, but if the host family allows it, our hands are tied. They’re lovely people, the Quinns, but they don’t keep tabs. Mrs. Quinn especially, she thinks Annika is just perfect, but teens need tough love, is what I tell my moms and dads.”
“Sounds like you know what you’re talking about. So did she meet this guy at school?”
“Now, that’s another thing. The girls need six units of college-level coursework, not aerobics or commercial auditions or whatnot but things pertaining to our culture. Annika wanted physics. I told her no, physics has nothing to do with America, so she went ahead and took it on her own, in addition to ESL. She wanted to do everything. I don’t know when that girl ever slept. She was a bad example for Britta and Hitomi, with her extracurriculars. I tell them, Do your job, help out with the dishes and such, but then enjoy yourself. You’re here to experience the American way of life, not run yourself ragged.”
For some of us, running ourselves ragged was the American way of life. “So what do you think happened?” I asked, hesitant now to mention drugs. An aproned woman headed our way and I grabbed a gadget from a rack. “Say, these are awfully cute. Like a little mallet. For meat, I suppose. What do you call these?”
“Meat mallets.” Glenda glanced at her fellow salesperson, then rubbed her eyes, leaving little dots of cakey mascara on the delicate skin underneath. “I couldn’t say where she is, with all her goings-on. I better ring you up.”
I started to tell her I don’t cook, but her boss was approaching, so I let her sell me three cheese graters and the meat mallet. “After all, everyone eats cheese,” she said.
“But you don’t think Annika met with foul play?” I asked, glancing out into the mall.
“Well, dear, with what you hear on the news these days, I’m surprised we all haven’t met with foul play.”
The Au Pairs par Excellence agency answered with a machine, a woman’s voice promising an end to my child-care problems once I made the decision to bring an au pair into my life. She urged me to check out their Web site and leave a message after the beep.
I left a message every half hour up until six o’clock.
The next morning, I started in again at nine A.M. Then I went down to San Pedro to find them.