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 wouldn’t 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, you’re getting a little obsessive, aren’t you, going to San Pedro at this hour? What happened to your day job, your mural deadline?”
“Their floors are still wet. And I wouldn’t 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 husband’s year-old BMW. “Not one person answered Elliot’s newspaper ad,” she said, “so now we deal with the dealers. Today, Long Beach. Tomorrow, City of Industry. Don’t marry a man who needs a new car every year; life’s too short.”
“Why doesn’t he just trade it in?” I asked.
“He says it’s worth more than they offered. We went through the same thing last year.”
“Why doesn’t he just lease?” I asked.
“Who can say? Why does he do anything? Why invest in a reality TV show?’
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 it’s a case of Larry, his old fraternity brother, needing a partner in his production company. Swears it’ll pay off.” She changed lanes again. “That’s 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, there’s no limit to the number of producers on a show-it’s like ants at a picnic. You invest money or head the production company, you’re a producer; you find the writer or star or idea, you’re a producer; if you’re a big enough writer or star or director, you’re 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, that’s the lowest form of producer, which is why he resents me. I’m 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. There’s a symmetry to all this.”
Eventually we found the car dealer, who made a lowball offer on Joey’s husband’s BMW, citing a scratch on the front fender the depth of a strand of hair. Joey argued that a jeweler’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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, we’re not exterminators,” I said. “I’ve called four or five times, but no one called back, so I came in person. I’m worried about one of your au pairs, Annika Gl"uck, who’s been missing since Sunday. I want to know if you’ve contacted her mother or filed a police report.”
“Um, want to come back this afternoon?” the receptionist asked. “Marty’ll be in then.”
“No,” Joey said with a big smile. “We want you to call Marty and ask him to come in now. Unless you’d 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 tomorrow’s edition.”
“Wow.” Her eyes sparkled and she sat up straighter. “You sure you want us? We’re just a branch office. Maybe you want to call main headquarters in New York-”
“No,” I said. “We don’t want to call anyone. We want Marty.”
She nodded. “Okay, I’ll do an SOS on his pager.”
I marveled at Joey’s improvisational ability. Joey calls it lying, but that’s because she’s 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 didn’t answer it. The three of us stared at the message machine as a nasal voice expressed interest in an unspecified position and informed us she’d just had her teeth done and needed the extra money, which was the reason she’d 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 Adam’s 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 girl’s out on maternity leave. I’m Marty Otis. How can I help you ladies?”
I didn’t 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. We’re 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, “we’re wondering if you’ve filed a police report on Annika.”
He leaned back, folding his hands. “Let’s put this in context, shall we?”
“So that’s a no?” I asked.
“You need to understand teenage girls. Off the record? Opportunists. They come here with some kind of work ethic, because that’s how it is for them back home. Then they see their American counterparts, and in three months, they’re as reliable as rock stars.”
“They don’t come from Mars,” I said. “It’s not like there’s 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. They’re from backwater towns. If they were more sophisticated, they’d be in college, not coming to change diapers for minimum wage.”
“What’s 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. That’s the type to take off and leave us holding the bag, finding a replacement for the host family.”
“And what if Annika wasn’t a One or a Two?” I said. “Have you met her?”
“I don’t have to.” He patted a stack of documents. “We’ve had complaints. Discrepancies on her application, for starters. Go to the police? Police aren’t 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.”
“Isn’t that handy?” Joey said. She’d been leaning so far back in her folding chair, I worried she’d 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 you’re fond of? Because I wouldn’t take it for granted.”
Marty left his post at the doorway to join me behind the desk, perhaps feeling he’d 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 aren’t quite clean, trying to get another day’s wear out of them.
“Get out of here,” he said. “This is private property and you’re trespassing.”
“Okay,” I said. “Call 911.”
Joey strolled to Marty’s other side, so that he was now pinned between desk and wall, Joey and me. “Go for it, Marty. Tell them you’re 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?”
“What’s the discrepancy on her application you referred to?” I said.
“This isn’t for publication. I’m not giving you permission to print this.”
“I guarantee it won’t make it into print.”
“There was an incident with the police back in Germany that she didn’t 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. That’s our limit. Why not just tell us?”
“I’m telling you. There’s a police report on her. Unspecified.”
“How’d you find out about it?” I asked.
“I got a phone call, I don’t 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?”
“Doesn’t matter. Any run-in with the law is a no-no. She lied about it, that’s 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 didn’t 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.”
We’d pushed him into a corner. I took a conciliatory tone. “What else? You said there were complaints, plural.”
“I don’t have another word to say to any goddamn reporters,” he said. “And I’m calling the Times.”
I smiled. “Oh, did you think we work for the L.A. Times? I’m 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 receptionist’s 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 it’s going to get,” she said, “you meet Marty. Where to now?”
“Where nobody else wants to go,” I said. “To the cops.”