If there’s anything trickier than finding a missing person, it’s finding the boyfriend of the missing person when all you have to go on is “Rico.”
We called Annika’s mother from Joey’s car, on the 101 freeway. It was three P.M. in L.A., midnight in Germany, but I figured Mrs. Gl"uck wouldn’t be sleeping well, and I was right. All she could tell us about Rico, though, whose last name she didn’t know, was that he was a “goat boy.” There aren’t a lot of goats that need tending in Southern California, so I decided she meant “good boy.” I told her I’d call when I had news, and hung up before her lamentations could put me over the edge. I was worrying quite well on my own.
I tried Maizie Quinn, on the chance that she’d recalled Rico’s last name. A human answered-Lupe, the housekeeper, who said Mrs. Quinn was at her sushi class. When I hung up, my phone rang. I answered it and was met with silence, the kind that signals a telemarketer about to take a stab at your name. Did telemarketers call cell phones? “Hello,” I repeated.
That was the whole conversation. I said hello again, then did something I must’ve picked up from the movies: I pulled the phone away from my ear and stared at it.
“What?” Joey said. “Who was it?”
“No idea.” I shook my head, disoriented. An electrical current of sorts was running through me, shaking me up despite the prosaic nature of the words. It jogged my memory. “Wait, I’ve got it. His last name. It’s Feynman.”
“Annika’s boyfriend?” Joey said. “Rico Feynman?”
“Well, she called him Richard. It was after one of our tutorials. We were at the coffee bar, and I was going to walk her to her car, but she was going to wait around, she had a date. I said, ‘A nice guy, I hope?’ Because we’d been talking about our tendency to fall for the wrong kind of guy, and she told me not to worry, this one was a fine man. Literally. That was his last name. Feynman. She spelled it out.”
“Did you meet him?”
“No,” I said. “I walked by the coffee bar an hour later and looked in the window. She was reading a book. I wondered if he’d stood her up. Did Annika ever talk about this guy to you?”
Joey took the Laurel Canyon exit south, toward L.A. “No, but I know she brought him to the set to visit. I heard Savannah talk about him. Did I tell you, Elliot and Larry want me on the set every night from now on? Like my presence will improve ratings. The only thing that will improve our ratings is Elvis showing up as a guest expert. Sorry. Is Elvis a sensitive topic? I saw you crying in the grocery store when ‘Suspicious Minds’ was on the Muzak.”
“No. That was just-Fritos. I used to buy them for Ruby; they’re hard to get in Japan.”
I missed twelve-year-old Ruby with a persistence that surprised me. I wondered if that’s why I was reacting so strongly to Annika’s disappearance-she’d filled that place left empty by Ruby. I missed Doc, too, but in a different way. It was no longer like an ice pick through my heart to think about the hundred or so sexual encounters with my ex-fianc'e. Sometimes I had to work to recall the sound of his laugh, the way his hands looked on a steering wheel, the feel of his beard stubble against my face. I had no erotic stirrings for anyone else, though, let alone that rampant libidinous hunger, where you fantasize about the NBA, or random heads of state on the front page of the paper, or the checkout clerks at Costco.
Yet. Fredreeq said it would happen again. Joey too. That’s what friends do, they keep a grasp on reality when you’re stuck down some emotional rabbit hole…
“Joey,” I said. “Annika might not’ve talked to us about Rico, but she talked to friends her own age. The other au pairs. Glenda, the counselor, even complained about it.”
“Do you know their names?”
I racked my brain. Berta? “One took care of twins,” I said. “That’s all I remember. And I can’t ask Glenda-she was very nervous talking to me at all. She kept saying she was a volunteer, as if that were some neurological problem.”
“I’ll get her talking,” Joey said. “Tell me about her.”
Minutes later Joey was calling Williams-Sonoma, doing what she called gagging, impersonating someone on the phone. She adopted a British accent. “Ms. Nacy? I’m Caroline Maxwell-Grace, with the Department of State in Washington. Your name was mentioned by Martin Otis of Au Pairs par Excellence as an Outstanding Community Counselor… Yes… So we’re adding you to our list of national finalists, one of whom we’ll honor with a-an honorarium.” Joey slammed on the brakes, honking at a car coming to a sudden stop at Mulholland. “At a banquet. Attended by the secretary of state… Pardon?… Funny how many Americans don’t know the secretary of state.” Joey turned to me, her face a plea.
I went blank. The secretary of state? I shook my head at her.
“As Henry Kissinger used to say, Beg pardon?” Joey looked at me again, eyebrows raised. “Cappuccino machine? I’m sorry, I already-ah. Aha…” Glenda’s voice could be heard chirping away. The car ahead of us inched forward. We inched too. Joey said, “Safe to talk now? Right-oh. I do apologize for calling your work. Now: we’re sending a field agent to California to gather testimonials, so which of your host families would you prefer us to interview? I understand there are three assigned to you…”
Horns honked on Laurel Canyon, angered by the standstill. “Mr. Otis does authorize you to make this decision, or he would not have had us-” Outside my window, a convertible was creating a new lane on the shoulder of the road. “By all means, confer with him, but my problem is, further delay may prevent my field agent reaching your people. You know what let’s do? I’ll order a cappuccino machine for my office staff. As you write up the order, think about which of your host families we should speak with. How does that sound?”
I rummaged through Joey’s bag for a credit card, and handed it over as Joey made up an address for the State Department. She repeated names and neighborhoods and thanked Glenda, ending the call. “She doesn’t have the numbers on her,” Joey told me. “We’ll try information. If they’re not listed, we’ll just have to bludgeon Marty Otis for them.”
In San Marino there was a listing for R. Dobbler. After a fast phone call and an illegal U-turn, we were headed back to the Ventura Freeway.
San Marino street sweepers run a tight ship: no fallen leaf was allowed to loiter in the stately, silent residential neighborhood. “Is the whole town like this?” I asked.
“Smug wealth?” Joey nodded. “What do these people do? That’s what I want to know. Back in Nebraska, there’s money, but everyone knows where it comes from. You drive down a street like this, you say, That guy’s chief of staff at Saint Elizabeth’s, that family owns five car dealerships… Even Beverly Hills, you can point to a house and say Lethal Weapons Seven, Eight and Nine bought that. Here, who knows? They must commute to L.A., right? There can’t be enough business here to support this.”
“The really rich don’t go to work,” I said.
“But these aren’t even the really rich, these are the medium rich. The really rich don’t have houses you can see from the street.” Joey shook her head. “I lead a life my family back home can’t comprehend, but next to this, I’m the working poor.”
The Dobbler family’s was a Spanish-style mansion. We parked in the driveway under a basketball hoop and stepped around bicycles and skateboards to the entrance. I was glad there were no signs of smaller offspring, being acutely baby-sensitive these days. Joey knocked on the rustic wooden double front doors with iron door knockers. The girl who answered verged on womanhood, in low-slung blue jeans and a peasant shirt. Her white-blond hair was a perfect match for her porcelain skin and pale eyebrows.
“I am Britta,” she said. “You are the friends of Annika?” Her accent was so like Annika’s it unnerved me.
We followed her to a large, antiseptic kitchen. We sat in a breakfast nook around an octagonal table set with five woven placemats. Britta didn’t offer us refreshments. She said she had only twenty minutes before the two Dobbler boys returned from swim practice.
“You’ve heard that Annika is gone?” I said.
“No, I didn’t hear this.” She seemed almost excited by the news. “She is sent back?”
“To Germany? No,” I said. “Why would you think that?”
A look of doubt crossed her face. “Ja, okay. I don’t know. I just thought.”
“That she was sent away? You don’t think she’d leave on her own?”
“No, of course not.” Britta opened her eyes wide. They were blue-green, too close together for beauty, but in combination with her white-blond hair, striking. “Her situation is very good, just one girl to care for, and the host family very nice. She can drive the car everywhere, whenever she likes.” This seemed to be a thorn in Britta’s side.
“You don’t get to drive?” Joey asked.
“The insurance is very expensive. So for some host families it is not expected that the au pair will drive. For example, here the housekeeper will drive the children to school and activities. Also, the housekeeper will drive me, for example to English class.”
I could see what a tragedy that could be, stuck without wheels in a neighborhood with all the excitement of a golf course. “So Annika was happy in the U.S.?” I said.
“Yes, why not? Everything was very lucky for her. She drove a car just for her, not even to share with the family. She never had to ask-if she had free time, she could just drive it.”
“And then there was Annika’s boyfriend,” I said, to distract her from her automobile envy. “She wouldn’t want to leave him, I suppose?”
“Rico.” She cheered up instantly. “Of course she would not leave Rico Rodriguez.”
“Rodriguez?” I said. “That was his name?”
I looked at Joey. “Another man she-was friends with. Also named Richard.”
“Rico’s forename is Richard.” Britta laughed. “But he calls himself Rico, to annoy his father. He says that Rico is the only Spanish word his father knows. He is so funny.”
“Is he a student?” I asked.
“Yes, at Pepperdine. He is very smart, but he has little time for studies, because he is popular and goes to many parties and has many interests as well.”
“Like Annika,” Joey said. Britta looked blank. “She had many outside interests too.”
“Ja, okay,” Britta said. “She has a car, you see.”
“So,” I said, “Rico has a lot of friends? Girls as well as boys?”
Britta nodded and smiled. “Everyone loves Rico. He is completely great.”
“Do you think Annika might be staying with him?” Joey asked.
Britta stopped smiling and considered this. Then she shook her head. “The university, it is strict Christian. The mans and the womans, it is not permitted that they are in the same room, for example, after midnight or perhaps one o’clock. So Annika would not be there. Also, Rico has roommates. There is no space.” The thought seemed to bring relief, and she looked at us again, awaiting the next question. She was an accommodating interviewee, I thought, and a remarkably incurious one. And one who knew a lot about her girlfriend’s boyfriend.
“Do you think Annika did drugs?” Joey said.
She found this startling. “Oh, no. Annika? She is very… I do not know in English. Vern"unftig. You could say, rational… But in any case, no drugs.” A troubled look came over her face. She nibbled on a nail.
“Would you happen to have Rico’s telephone number?” I asked.
Britta looked at her watch, a large-dial pink plastic job, as easy to read as she was. “Ja, okay. I be right back.” She took off at a jog, the sound of footsteps receding quickly.
“Well, there’s another neighborhood heard from,” Joey said. “She doesn’t think Annika’s a druggie any more than we do. And I wonder who this Feynman guy is. I don’t really see Annika playing the field.” She jumped up and opened a kitchen cupboard, revealing glassware. She closed that and tried another, a pantry jammed with enough food to keep a family of four snacking for a month. “Just curious,” she said. “Don’t you love how people eat?” She was headed for the refrigerator when we heard the footsteps returning. She took her seat.
“So where do you think Annika might have gone?” I asked Britta as she bounded in, a daisy-motif address book in hand. “We’ve talked to her mother. She’s not in Germany.”
“I do not know. Perhaps San Francisco. Or Disney World. Look, we made this picture only one month ago.” She handed us a snapshot of three people, arms around each other. I recognized Annika, her face turned away. The boy in the middle towered over the girls, smiling at a glowing Britta. He was out of focus but clearly tall and dark, and possibly handsome. I handed the photo to Joey. She took a look and handed it to Britta, who smiled and traced over it with one finger before placing it carefully back in the address book. I asked Britta if she had another photo of Annika; she didn’t.
She copied Rico’s number in loopy, back-slanted handwriting, and asked that we send him her love, and tell him he should call her. She also gave us the number for Hitomi, the au pair in Palos Verdes, but saw little point in us contacting her. “She is not social,” Britta said. “Also, she is Japanese.”
She did not seem especially worried about her friend and compatriot. She was, as Joey observed walking out to the car, considerably interested in the sudden availability of Rico Rodriguez.
The next day I would find out why.