Ch 1: Must Have Spooked Me

This is Chapter 1 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.

The older I get, the more feral I become. I’d been inside all this fine day and if I didn’t inhale some outdoor air soon, I couldn’t be held responsible. The air didn’t have to be fresh, just open. I tipped back in my chair, back so far my thighs squeezed the undersides of the desk to keep me upright. From this position, I caught a hint of breeze through the gaping skylight and spied a wisp of cloud idling in an unexpectedly blue sky.

“Are you like even listening to what I’m telling you?” the prospective client whined and flicked her hair, which lay like a doormat down her back. I pondered the chicken and egg of her. Which comes first, being a tweaker or being a moron? Whatever the answer it was a tight race.

I glanced up one last time before I answered, surprised by my yearning for that view. I’d spent many hours staring at this patch of sky. I didn’t know it would be my last chance for a leisurely gaze. I didn’t know that three pairs of clients were about to take over my life. I only knew that I wanted this creep out of my office. From somewhere I mustered a tone of professional politesse. “Every time, you bet. You want me to find the men who took your black duffel bag. You don’t happen to remember what was in the bag, but the bag itself is what matters. It was inherited from your grandmother and that’s why you want it back. You don’t want to involve the police because you are kind-hearted. What if the men took the bag by mistake, why get them in trouble – should I get you a towel?”

She had swiped her forehead with her hand and then, to get the sweat off her fingers, ran them along the seat of my client chair, leaving tracks like a slug race. And that was the classiest thing about her. “This hot flash shit is a bitch,” she chuckled. “Menopause. You know.”

“I can’t wait.” I needed to get her out of my office before she crashed. Ladies and gentlemen, the meth has left her building. I walked to the outer door and, as intended, she followed me. “I’ll be honest with you, Miss Fitzpatrick, this kind of work can be very expensive, you might prefer to – hi there.”

Sitting on the floor across the hall was another one. Not exactly a matched set, though they had in common complexions like cheap stucco. This one was picking at the scabs on his bald spot. I’ll spare you the rest of the description, no point ruining all our dinners. He stood when he saw us, looked to my would-be client for guidance about whether to return my greeting.

“How much per day?” she demanded.

“Three thousand plus expenses.”

Sorry and surprised to say she didn’t flinch. “How much up front?”

“Five days,” I continued to ad-lib. Surely now we would say adieu.

“Three days here, the rest by tomorrow.” She dragged a wad of bills from her purse. The outer bills were crusted with something that looked like dried puke. I didn’t want to know and I certainly didn’t want to touch that cash. But I hadn’t priced myself out of the job, as intended. Instead, I had made it difficult to turn these creeps away. This was real and serious money, enough to help Jenn with her medical bills. I shouldn’t say no just because the clients were shall we say repellent. And yet.

“By the way, how did you hear about my being in business here?” That would be a promotion route to avoid in future.

“I don’t remember. Do you remember?” They shared a shrug and a smile to a secret punchline that I could tell wouldn’t make me laugh.

I held the bills with my fingernails as I handed them back. “I couldn’t start until I have the full advance, and anyway I couldn’t start for several weeks because I have to finish another case first.”

Mathead gave me a witch’s smile. “We’ll be back with the full amount tomorrow. You’ll find a way to fit us in.”

I had about 24 hours to devise a better turndown.

I just so happened to be going out too, I claimed, as I escorted them into the elevator. I wanted to see them exit my building. What creeped me out the most was the way Scabman made tiny sucking sounds like he had a hard candy in his mouth except he didn’t.

“That must be quite a duffel bag,” I said. “Now, I need to advise you as I do all my clients that a private investigator is just a hired hand, no special rights, nothing like attorney-client privilege.” The tiny sucking sounds stopped and the air in the elevator got very still. “Should it turn out that the duffel bag contains illegal goods – such as if the guys who stole it put them there – I would have to notify the authorities.”

“You won’t have anything to tell anybody,” the woman assured me, and for an instant her overworked pupils were windows to a very dark place.

If you take shit you’ll eat shit. I knew enough about tweakers to know that I couldn’t let them think she’d intimidated me. Although she had.

“Gee. That sounds like, I don’t know, almost like a threat.” My phony puzzlement ended in a smile like a bear trap. “Threats are not – recommended.”

Her eyes flashed once then she bailed on our staredown.

The tiny sucking sounds resumed. I turned my back on the duo to watch our descent. The elevator indicated floors with a dial like a sundial. The sharp nose of the dial speared the 5, the 4, the 3. I felt Scabman’s eyes exploring my back. I wondered what it feels like to get a knife in the kidney.

“We’ll be back tomorrow with the rest of your retainer,” Mathead said to the empty space where the door gaped open.

Love that ground floor. I had jumped out immediately and held the door for them like it was mine to control.

Maybe this detective thing wasn’t such a fun idea after all. I watched them head down the street like parasites between hosts. The homeless guy at the alley looked down as they approached and did not ask them for change. I watched them until they were so far away as to be indistinguishable from the pedestrians who had good reason to be on this street. The instant I lost sight of the duo, I looked over my shoulder in case they were closing in. Behind me, sunlight flashed off the lenses of countless bobbing sunglasses and the smog shimmered in the July heat. I retreated inside my building, pretending I had decided against a walk because it was too hot.

What I needed was to prop myself against a wall and hyperventilate. This was the first time I had met Mathead and Scabman, but it wasn’t the first time I had encountered them. Now that they were gone, I felt safe to dwell on the previous time. The disgusting duo had previously ruined a perfectly good dream. Yes, that is exactly what I mean. I dreamed about Mathead and Scabman before I met them.

I love dreams and it would be a kick to be psychic. But not if it means spending extra time with those two. And not if it means having pointless dreams. Dreaming of clients I won’t take on – that’s like dreaming of washing broken dishes.

It had been a peculiar snippet of nightmare in an otherwise luxurious dream. I ran through a field of soft, amber grass under a sky colored like bruises. Around the field, in all directions, rose high-rise buildings vibrant with life. As I neared the buildings, a man and woman rose up to block my way. They resembled Mathead and Scabman, but the dream denizens were larger and edged in red like burning coals. I awoke at their snarls, to find myself sweating much as I was doing now, propped against this cool marble wall.

I don’t like coincidences and there was no reasonable explanation for their appearance in my dream. Certainly, Mathead and Scabman deserved to be in nightmares, but I had only met them today. I must I have backfilled my dream memories, adding their images. They must have spooked me more than I could admit.

Good thing I stopped smoking. This would have been a perfect time to light up fast, but my hands were shaking so hard I would have put out the flame. And that would have been frustrating.

Get a grip, Nica. The marble wall at my back was smooth and cool; the lobby was dim and quiet. A perfect antidote to the July streets. The lobby lights made a warm buzz like bees in lavender. In this moment, life was good. Stay in this moment.

I needed to be physical. As a revised constitutional, I took the stairs, all ten flights, to the hidden garden on the roof. I can’t yet make all ten flights in one gasp, but by the time winter restricts my outside activity, ten flights will be the new one flight. For now, I climb a couple flights, then walk through the building to the stairwell on the other side, then climb a couple more.

On one of the lateral treks, I heard three no two voices arguing in Spanish. Their discussion paused when they saw me turn the corner. The custodian who subs for Jay clenched the handle of the mop and looked everywhere but at the faces of a man and woman who had their backs to me but heads swiveled to watch my approach. I must have been dismissed as pure gringo because they resumed their discussion.

Not so pure, as it turns out, and I understood enough Spanish to get that the man and woman were looking for a girl and they thought Jay’s substitute knew where she was. They were accusing or pleading or maybe both. Jay’s sub wasn’t holding up his end of the conversation. No. Si. No and a venomous lo siento. So it wasn’t just me he refused to converse with. As I passed them they stopped talking again. “Howdy, what up?” I offered, to reassure them that I couldn’t possibly understand a word they were saying.

Jay’s sub whispered that I was a private investigator. I considered turning back to introduce myself but instead pushed through the door to the south side stairs. Not the best time to reveal my comprehension.

Back in the stairwell, I slipped my sandals off and left them on the landing. Ah, that was what I needed. I loved the stairwells in my building. The white marble steps were sculpted moonlight and perennially cold. February’s air always filled the stairwells in summer; it was so welcome this afternoon. Everything changed on floor ten, though. The tenth story penthouse and the roof access had concrete steps in a separate stairwell, with separate doors, unattached to either of the stairwells that connected floors one through nine.

When I went through the door to the isolated concrete stairs on floor ten, I invariably felt like I had moved to another building. Today, the temperature leapt thirty degrees and I was panting by the time I opened the door to the roof. I squinted against the wind that always gusted across the roof and headed for the secret green rectangle, the garden hidden to all but air traffic. Someday this garden would be discovered as the source of water staining the south penthouse ceiling. Until then, it was known only to its creator, Jay, and his co-conspirators.

As soon as I got around the stairwell I could see the wall of fragrant vines, the only sign of life unless you count pigeon droppings. Sweet pea, wisteria, jasmine, clematis, and others I couldn’t name. In that lush damp overgrown corner of the bed, Jay had planted so there would be scent for most of the year. It was like what the South would be if it weren’t for the rednecks. A frayed lawn chair nestled under the vines in the shade.

In the past, when Jay left his lawn chair out, that meant he anticipated a short absence. But I hadn’t seen him for three no four days. He must have underestimated this absence. More family trouble, I had to assume. On a good day, his family got along like boulders in a flooded creek. I had better start watering daily. Despite all Jay’s water reclamation miracle contraptions, in this weather no plant could go more than a few days without help.

Summer in Los Angeles. From here you could see the mountains except not until October when the air cleared. In the old days when smog was smog, the sky would have been a toasty brown. Today it was dingy. The euphemism was hazy and the haze did mute the sun, so with just a few steps to reach the garden, I might make it without heat stroke.

I could still feel the grit of Mathead’s money on my fingertips, so I rubbed them in the loamy soil and then pulled them lightly across the marjoram, releasing a benign soothing scent which made it difficult to remember that noxious encounter.

Uh oh. Several plants had snapped and broken limbs. Had the hawk divebombed? Was the garden attracting rats? No – the destruction was too broad for those explanations. Entire plants were missing. What had been planted there? The orange cherry tomato? No, that was over here aaah look a tomato that was perfectly ripe and required picking. Eating. Delicious.

Focus, Nica. I keep mental snapshots of the garden to rifle through when I get annoyed, but I couldn’t picture the missing plant. Even odder, the plants circling the empty patch were failing, with leaves in limp collapse as from blight.

Maybe the missing plants had left identifiable roots – I started to dig with my hands, hunting roots. At my disturbance, earwigs swarmed in and out of the soil. Just beneath the surface, the loam soil was soggy, laced with mold, and exuded a metallic odor. The entire empty patch was soggy and I didn’t want to touch it anymore. It smelled like dirt might smell if a bucket of blood had emptied into it.

A helicopter churned the haze overhead and I ducked to slip behind a spider web that was a marvel of sophisticated symmetry. The web didn’t look anything like the Watts Towers but it reminded me of them, because the Towers had been constructed over decades and it must have taken the spider-time equivalent of decades to get the web to this size.

As I waited for the ‘copter to pass, I tallied individual nights of spider work. At least five. I then held very still as a bee hiked my arm toward my yellow tanktop. I was flattered to be mistaken, even briefly, for a pollen source. I felt a tiny pressure as the bee pushed off my skin and flew toward the sage. I previously hated bees and spiders. Jay revised my thinking as he showed me how to encourage a healthy garden, how to create a complex ecosystem on the dusty scorched roof where only roaches and silverfish had previously foraged.

Jay would know what to do about the blood-?-soaked dirt. I sure the hell didn’t. Calling the cops could lead to unfortunate revelations. The building owner would likely learn about the existence of the roof garden, which she might not consider an asset. The cops would question me and at some routine point request my home address, which was not supposed to match my office address. This building was not zoned residential. I’d only met the owner twice and she seemed like a good egg, but perhaps lacking in the imagination necessary to expand her building’s potential beyond mundane barriers like zoning and safety regulations.

What would blood-soaked dirt really smell like? Maybe this wasn’t blood but a fertilizer application that backfired in the sudden heat wave. How silly to involve police or building management in a gardening error.

I eased myself into Jay’s vacant lawn chair. The heat smog chopper bees. Maybe I fell asleep. My eyes were still open, yet I no longer viewed what was in front of me. I only saw shadows in a world that was as cobalt as though the sun had long ago set. But the birds that were singing only sing during the day – and I could feel the sun’s heat all over me. So it was daytime, but I was nearly blind. The plants were thick shadows in the dark air. A faint breeze tapped leaves together like whispers through silk. Across the garden, a ladybug rustled under fallen leaves and clicked its shell against a twig. A weight pressed evenly across my thighs and from this weight came an overpowering smell of dirt, as though I held invisible bags of soil amendment in my lap. Intermittently, off-pitch whistles came from a shadow that dipped left then right, left then right. As the dips changed direction, I heard thin scrapes. It sounded like Jay, whistling as he raked soil. The whistling stopped mid-note and my sensations became a barrage of intense impressions.

“What? No! Aaaaaaah. No! Unh! Please! No! Aaaurrrgg.” It was Jay’s voice and in a few seconds it changed from horrified surprise to terrified struggle. Grunts changed to chokes and gurgles. Plant branches snapped, leaves ripped. “Danny! I love you!” Jay sobbed. Danny was his son.

Warm liquid exploded from the direction of Jay’s shadow, splashing and stinging when it hit me with force. I gasped and inhaled liquid, choking. I jumped from the chair, knocking it over. The choking eased. The metallic taste faded. I was back on a hot roof squinting in July sun.

First I added Mathead to a dream and now this, this, vision of Jay’s demise. Did I mistakenly order my latte psychedelic this morning?

I needed to convince myself that Jay was okay. Heading downstairs, I exited the stairs at each floor and crossed the hall to the other stairs, in order to find the substitute custodian and determine what he might know about Jay’s absence. I walked every hall in my descent to the lobby, then checked the custodian’s closet in the subbasement. Nobody nowhere. No how. I gave up looking for Jay’s sub and stopped in the building office. The building manager had not heard from Jay since last time I asked and got no answer when she phoned again while I waited. Unlike me, the manager assumed Jay had found a better job and not bothered to give notice.

I once worked at a cellular service provider, so I know how to get information I shouldn’t have. As I returned to my office, I made some calls and determined that Jay’s cell phone was last used four days prior, on the day he last worked. I set this knowledge aside until I knew what to do with it.

I realized it wasn’t only Jay I should be concerned about. At a minimum, these Technicolor visions were telling me my subconscious needed my attention. In which case I needed to stop thinking. So as I walked, I focused on my building.

I love my building, although it is neither a friendly nor a welcoming place. If buildings were people, this one would be Margo Channing. I should warn you I don’t make as many distinctions as some would like between fictional characters and beings who breathe. In this great big world over all this time, surely everyone who has been imagined could also actually exist, including that fabulous diva Margo.

In its day, this building was a knockout, a head turner; or maybe a head craner, if you wanted to admire all ten stories of its elegant lines. The hall carpets were costly and tasteful enough to qualify as antique rather than threadbare. On this floor, each office entrance door was a luxurious mahogany with a milk glass insert for the firm name. Scrolled brass framed the inserts and the milk glass transoms above the doors. One more twist in the scrollwork would have been too much. These designs were just right.

The building, like the neighborhood, was past its prime but enjoying revival. Miraculously, over all the years of disrepair and disinterest by owners and tenants, no remodeling abomination had occurred on the premises. The penthouse was newer but done in matching style. From floor to floor, house paint smothered the occasional mahogany door or brass fixture, but that was the worst of it. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt deferential to these halls. Not that there were many tenants nowadays. When a tenant vacated, the office stayed vacant, except for occasional lackluster signs of refurbishing. I guessed the current owner was biding time to make a killing in the next real estate boom.

The owner wouldn’t make any money off me. My uncle had a 99-year lease and when he died, I learned that he put my name on the lease, too. All those times we went exploring in here – every floor has a different design, different craftsmanship, different materials – meant as much to him as to me. So here I was with a dirt-cheap perpetual lease: eternal unless I got it terminated because I ignored the clause that forbid tenants to live in the office. If that happened, then my suite would join the majority. Vacant.

I couldn’t let that happen.

 

Go to next chapter.

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