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5

Wednesday was another unseasonably gorgeous day. Joey and I could fully appreciate this along with everyone else on the 405 South because the San Diego Freeway was moving us along at the speed of barges. Which gave me time to wrestle with the idea of Annika being a druggie.

I wouldnt say an unidentified pill and an empty coke vial constitute a druggie, Joey said. Not where I come from.

You come from Nebraska.

Exactly. The decadent Corn Belt. Hey, youre getting a little obsessive, arent you, going to San Pedro at this hour? What happened to your day job, your mural deadline?

Their floors are still wet. And I wouldnt have to go to San Pedro if people would answer their phones. Thanks for the ride, by the way.

Joey opened a window. Her Irish setter hair whirled around the front seat, a victim of the Santa Ana winds. Thanks for qualifying me for the carpool lane. She was on a mission to sell her husbands year-old BMW. Not one person answered Elliots newspaper ad, she said, so now we deal with the dealers. Today, Long Beach. Tomorrow, City of Industry. Dont marry a man who needs a new car every year; lifes too short.

Why doesnt he just trade it in? I asked.

He says its worth more than they offered. We went through the same thing last year.

Why doesnt he just lease? I asked.

Who can say? Why does he do anything? Why invest in a reality TV show?

Okay, why?

Joey changed lanes. I like to think Biological Clock is a money-laundering scheme and my husband is stowing large amounts of cash in a Swiss bank, preparing to buy me a small village in Italy for our third anniversary. Elliot says its a case of Larry, his old fraternity brother, needing a partner in his production company. Swears itll pay off. She changed lanes again. Thats what he said about the race horse. And then it died.

And does this actually make you a producer, being married to an investor, or is that something Bing made up?

Both, Joey said. In one sense, theres no limit to the number of producers on a show-its like ants at a picnic. You invest money or head the production company, youre a producer; you find the writer or star or idea, youre a producer; if youre a big enough writer or star or director, youre a producer, and maybe your agent and manager are too, along with your husband, girlfriend, maybe your mom. In the glory days, they all got screen credits. Now they have to fight each other for them. Joey honked at a Ryder truck one lane over making a preliminary move to cut her off. Anyhow, the real producer, in this case Bing, who hires the crew, does the budget, shows up on the set, thats the lowest form of producer, which is why he resents me. Im a producer-by-marriage, and also because I once made a lot of money by modeling and doing schlock TV, enabling my husband, who knows zip about show business, to invest that money in schlock TV. Theres a symmetry to all this.

Eventually we found the car dealer, who made a lowball offer on Joeys husbands BMW, citing a scratch on the front fender the depth of a strand of hair. Joey argued that a jewelers loupe was required to see this, and heated words were exchanged before I dragged her away, to the western regional offices of Au Pairs par Excellence.

If there was a high-end section of San Pedro, this wasnt it, a mile or two inland from the harbor. The storefront office was wedged between a Laundromat and a shoe-repair shop called the Leather Goddess. The office staff was a young woman behind a gray metal desk reading a copy of In Style magazine.

Hi, she said. Are you guys the exterminator?

My guess was, they didnt get a lot of walk-in business. Desks, floor, and the top of the gray metal filing cabinet overflowed with boxes and stray papers. Novel filing system.

No, were not exterminators, I said. Ive called four or five times, but no one called back, so I came in person. Im worried about one of your au pairs, Annika Gl"uck, whos been missing since Sunday. I want to know if youve contacted her mother or filed a police report.

Um, want to come back this afternoon? the receptionist asked. Martyll be in then.

No, Joey said with a big smile. We want you to call Marty and ask him to come in now. Unless youd like to be the agency spokesperson. I write for the L.A. Times, and by this afternoon my article will be on its way to tomorrows edition.

Wow. Her eyes sparkled and she sat up straighter. You sure you want us? Were just a branch office. Maybe you want to call main headquarters in New York-

No, I said. We dont want to call anyone. We want Marty.

She nodded. Okay, Ill do an SOS on his pager.

I marveled at Joeys improvisational ability. Joey calls it lying, but thats because shes modest. We sat on folding chairs along the wall, watching the receptionist page Marty, then return to her magazine. After a moment, she got up and looked through the glass door, staring at something. I have a new car, she said.

Congratulations, I said. Joey asked what kind it was.

Honda Element. Orange. I hate parking it here. Those Laundromat people next door are really careless, they park too close and they bang it with their laundry baskets.

The phone rang. Oddly enough, she didnt answer it. The three of us stared at the message machine as a nasal voice expressed interest in an unspecified position and informed us shed just had her teeth done and needed the extra money, which was the reason shed decided to call. The receptionist replayed it several times, jotting notes on a While You Were Out notepad. Ten minutes later, a dirty white Mustang with a bad paint job pulled up. A man got out and peered at us through the glass doorway. He checked the soles of his shoes, the way you do when you suspect bubblegum or something worse, then walked in. The receptionist jumped up and handed him the While You Were Out message. He glanced at it and told her to take an early lunch. He was thirty or thirty-five, slim, in khakis and a button-down shirt, with slicked-back hair. A prominent Adams apple reminded me of the marbled reed frog, Hyperolius marmoratus. Because of my mural, most things these days reminded me of frogs.

When the receptionist was gone, he smiled at us. Temp, he said. My girls out on maternity leave. Im Marty Otis. How can I help you ladies?

I didnt have to look at Joey to know her reaction to my girl and you ladies, but Marty seemed oblivious, so I went through my worried about Annika spiel. Marty gestured toward a desk across the room. We moved our folding chairs to it. Marty took a seat and smiled some more. Let me start by telling you a little about us. Were a licensed agency participating in a cultural exchange program established by the Department of State in 1986. Young people from around the world come to live with host families in America, to provide child care and further their education. By the way, which of you is with the L.A. Times?

I started to speak, but Joey jumped in. We work together.

Marty, I said, were wondering if youve filed a police report on Annika.

He leaned back, folding his hands. Lets put this in context, shall we?

So thats a no? I asked.

You need to understand teenage girls. Off the record? Opportunists. They come here with some kind of work ethic, because thats how it is for them back home. Then they see their American counterparts, and in three months, theyre as reliable as rock stars.

They dont come from Mars, I said. Its not like theres no sex, drugs, rock and roll in Europe.

Marty shook his head. These are working-class types, slated for factory jobs until they get married and produce kids of their own. Theyre from backwater towns. If they were more sophisticated, theyd be in college, not coming to change diapers for minimum wage.

Whats that got to do with- I said, but he cut me off, sitting forward.

What do you think happens when these sheltered young things get turned loose in L.A.?

I imagine that depends on the sheltered young thing in question.

Right. Type One gets homesick, fat, runs up the phone bill. Type Two? She gets drunk, she gets a tattoo, she gets knocked up. Thats the type to take off and leave us holding the bag, finding a replacement for the host family.

And what if Annika wasnt a One or a Two? I said. Have you met her?

I dont have to. He patted a stack of documents. Weve had complaints. Discrepancies on her application, for starters. Go to the police? Police arent going to care about some German girl skipping out on her job a month early.

I had an urge to reach out and grab the papers off his desk. Can I see the application?

Our files are confidential.

Isnt that handy? Joey said. Shed been leaning so far back in her folding chair, I worried shed tip over. Now she straightened up, the front of her chair hitting the floor sharply. She smiled. Smart guy, Marty. Why search for a girl who could turn up dead, which would be bad for business, when with no effort she can stay missing and no one will care?

Marty walked to the door and held it open. Excuse me, ladies. I have work to do.

Nice business license. I went to inspect the document on the wall behind his desk. Cheap frame. Is this something youre fond of? Because I wouldnt take it for granted.

Marty left his post at the doorway to join me behind the desk, perhaps feeling hed made a tactical error in leaving it. He was shorter than me, and there was a subtle smell emanating from his shirt, the kind that comes from ironing clothes that arent quite clean, trying to get another days wear out of them.

Get out of here, he said. This is private property and youre trespassing.

Okay, I said. Call 911.

Joey strolled to Martys other side, so that he was now pinned between desk and wall, Joey and me. Go for it, Marty. Tell them youre being menaced by two tall girls. Joey was tall, and as menacing as a stalk of celery. Still, Marty could not physically remove us without resorting to violence and considerable loss of dignity.

You media people are sick, he said. What do you want from me?

Whats the discrepancy on her application you referred to? I said.

This isnt for publication. Im not giving you permission to print this.

I guarantee it wont make it into print.

There was an incident with the police back in Germany that she didnt tell us about.

What kind of incident?

All I know is, she lied about it. You want specifics, ask the German police.

Marty, Joey said. We came to San Pedro. Thats our limit. Why not just tell us?

Im telling you. Theres a police report on her. Unspecified.

Howd you find out about it? I asked.

I got a phone call, I dont know who from. They said, Take a closer look at her application. I put in a call overseas, and sure enough, they got something on her.

But it could be something minor? I said. Unpaid parking tickets?

Doesnt matter. Any run-in with the law is a no-no. She lied about it, thats fraud, that gets her deported.

So you were getting ready to deport her? I asked.

I saw his mind working, trying to figure out which answer would sound best. We were considering our options.

Let me get this straight, I said. Annika had a police record, but you didnt bother to find out what it was, or tell her host family?

A mulish look came over his face. We had the matter under investigation. Things of this nature take time.

Yes, we can certainly see how swamped you are, Joey said.

Go to hell.

Wed pushed him into a corner. I took a conciliatory tone. What else? You said there were complaints, plural.

I dont have another word to say to any goddamn reporters, he said. And Im calling the Times.

I smiled. Oh, did you think we work for the L.A. Times? Im sorry, you misunderstood. We read the L.A. Times. Joey even subscribes. Me too, but only on Sundays.

Sometimes we write letters to the editor, Joey added.

Marty turned red, then pushed past me with some force and marched over to the receptionists station. Get out.

Gladly, I said, moving to the door. By the way, Annika is not fat, drunk, stupid, lazy, irresponsible, or blinded by the American way of life. Happy Thanksgiving.

Bye, Marty, Joey said. Enjoy the job while you have it. She joined me out in the sunshine and aimed her keys at the BMW, which beeped in response. Just when you think a used car salesman is as bad as its going to get, she said, you meet Marty. Where to now?

Where nobody else wants to go, I said. To the cops.


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