This is Chapter 10 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
Anwyl was at my desk behind my locked office door and acknowledged my entry with a lightning bolt of a smile. He was doing something on my laptop – or to my laptop, which made a throbbing noise I’d never heard before. I looked over his shoulder. Gone from the monitor were the usual windows of apps and docs. The view seemed more like a real window now, looking onto a steep barren mountain that seemed dimly familiar until it began to spew chains of numbers that slid down its sides. Anwyl’s head moved back and forth like he was reading teletype. At one point he slid a finger across the keyboard, which moved a grid on the screen. Under the grid, numbers flowed. Outside the grid, rocks and dirt slid down the steep slope. “Again,” Anwyl said to the screen, then watched intently as a duplicate rockslide occurred.
“Thank you, my friend, and tell no one.” Anwyl spoke to the screen as he skimmed a fingernail across the keyboard. The mountain vanished and my computer’s desktop windows reappeared.
“Tell me everything that you experienced on the roof,” Anwyl belatedly greeted me. “Omit no detail, however insignificant it seems.”
I tried to comply, but Anwyl isn’t a good listener. In fact, I predict he is somebody who skips ahead to read the last page of a novel first. What am I saying? Anwyl’s not a fiction kind of guy. But if he were, that’s what he would do. He is about as patient as I am quiet and my attempt to tell the story of my day frustrated him beyond what his rudimentary politeness could handle. Clearly, I didn’t understand what mattered. He was dismissive of what I considered the big deals: something came after us that could bulge the steel door on the roof and mess with my thoughts; we went to a Frame where the Henrietta’s doorway resembled a poorly healed wound; we had to jump off the roof because he had confiscated my Guide.
Actually, that last point made him look like he might know the definition of contrite. He extracted my Guide from his tunic. When I took it from his flat open palm, his fingers snapped to grab my wrist like I was slipping off a cliff. “You must never Travel on your own, for any reason. You could be lost in a manner that prevents us from finding you.”
“Okay, I get it.” I wanted my wrist back. “Promise.”
“A vow uttered aloud has more strength.”
“I said I promised. What else do you want me to say?” He made me repeat after him. “I promise I will never use the Guide to Travel the Frames by myself, whatever the reason, however short the journey.” I wondered if that was a promise I intended to keep.
He released my wrist. Someday it would bend again. Another lightning bolt of a smile and I savored the flow of electricity, until he muttered, “Anya will banish me to the far Frames if I allow harm to befall you.”
He resumed pacing my office like a marathoner in a dash, unable to stride far enough to satisfy his need to move. “Continue your tale. You may have observed something of value.” He sounded skeptical.
I’d already told him the afternoon’s chronology, from the moment I’d found Anya crouched in the garden to the moment I returned to the building and was permitted to enter. Now I closed my eyes and free-associated tangential memories as they came to me. Three things proved important. Or so I assumed, because Anwyl questioned me about details. I couldn’t tell heads from tails with any of it.
“When the door bulged, from inside the building there was a sound like a helicopter in a cavern.”
“How far inside the building was the sound?”
“Far. Like down in the lobby.”
Grunt. “What else?”
“She didn’t want me to hold on to the library books. She made me leave some in the stairwell.”
“Where in the stairwell?”
“Just a few stairs from the top. I should show you. She said you should help me return those. And my others, too.”
“There are no books in the stairwell now. Where are the others?”
I looked to the shelf by the door, where I keep library books: empty – but there had been five or six books there.
“They’re gone. Somebody took them while I was – – did you see anyone else around when you got here?”
“What books resided here?”
I was a little embarrassed to tell him. They were mostly save your life and start fresh, pep-talk self-help drivel, plus a couple new detective series I had skimmed for business research. I didn’t mind telling him about those. But as for the self-helpers, “I don’t remember for sure what I had, because my friend Jenn picked them out for me, she thought I needed a boost but to me that kind of crap is more like a kick in the -”
“Most likely they have enlisted. Mercenaries,” he hissed, with a violence that frightened me.
“We’re talking about books, right? Not soldiers.”
He gave me the look you’d give a used car that you were offered for free. “Books are the armies of the Frames.” His frustration with my ignorance was palpable.
“Anwyl, lose the long-suffering, okay?” My sharpness of tone surprised us both. “You use this tone of course everybody knows this stuff – and maybe everybody does in your neck of the Frames. But I ain’t from around there.”
Now, he did look contrite. “I extend apologies. You have adjusted so quickly that I forget your inexperience.” He finished with one of those smiles.
I’ve never been the type for reassuring hugs, but he couldn’t know that. If I said I needed a hug, he would have to – he interrupted my fantasy with, “What else do you recall?”
“Anya said you should help me get rid of books I don’t love.” I opened the doors of the floor-to-ceiling cabinet, revealing the crammed bookshelves inside.
He grunted again, strode to the bookshelves. Shelf by shelf, he withdrew books and hefted them. Some he returned to their places, some he piled on an emptier shelf. Somehow he removed and piled all the books that mattered least to me. He did this rapidly, then said, “I sense no traitors here. We will thin the ranks another day. What else do you remember?”
The last additional memory I could conjure was of the emotional Doppler effect when Anya and I were on the sidewalk and the happy party talk changed to angry shouts as we walked below the windows. That had thoroughly creeped me out, but Anwyl dismissed it with a rude hand wave and grabbed my arm to pull me toward the door. I reacted to the rude wave and he forced his manner to seem less brusk.
“You have done well, Nica.” He looked up at my skylight and the darkening sky outside. “We must away.”
“Back to Miles and Monk?”
“We will meet with them, yes.”
But we needed no taxi to Watts tonight. As soon as we reached the hall outside the elevator, he brandished his Guide and reminded me where to set the dial on mine.
“Anya could transport us without a Guide.” I confess. I wanted to needle him.
“Anya had no choice but to use another method. Whenever possible we will employ Guides. They are awkward but safest for a new Traveler.”
He put the Guide to his mouth.
He lowered it with exasperation. “They permit more precise arrivals to fewer Frames.”
Thus concluded our Frames FAQs session. I bit down on my Guide.
The Travel sensation was different this time. Instead of the rapid sideways falling sensation, the hall stretched like an old rubber band that had lost elasticity. I looked to Anwyl for explanation. He looked at the floor behind me and spat “No! Release us!” His level of tension frightened me. I turned to find the building cat, Dizzy, prancing toward Anwyl. I reached down to hold her tail as she went by. Her back legs skidded and I released the tail. Hold the tail, this was a game we always played and she reacted as she always did. She stopped marching forward and returned to rub against my legs. I felt no small degree of relief. This was the cat I knew. This wasn’t a netherworldly creature that Anwyl and Anya mistrusted.
“Do not toy with us, cat,” Anwyl muttered. Dizzy puffed up like Anwyl was a foe.
I recalled the wording of a question that Anya had posed when she first spied Dizzy. “This creature is known to me, Anwyl.” To Dizzy, I whispered, “Remember the alley, babe.” I had rescued the cat from an alley where she was cornered by a trio of dogs, and brought her to live inside the Henrietta.
“I hope it is sufficiently known,” Anwyl replied. After hesitation, he stepped aside and Dizzy pranced past.
Just as the sideways sliding sensation began to build, the elevator chime sounded, the doors opened, and Hernandez exited the elevator with his back to us, pulling a cart of cleaning supplies.
Anwyl issued expletives in a language I couldn’t place.
“The Guides aren’t working,” I said.
At the same time Anwyl exploded. “The cat yet holds the route open!”
I looked past Anwyl. Dizzy was at the end of the hall and before she turned the corner to disappeared from view, she flicked her tail. I looked back toward Hernandez and realized I had been mistaken. The Guide had worked, but somehow Hernandez had shifted Frames with us.
When he first saw me, he raised a hand in greeting but the hand lowered hesitantly as he approached. The hall walls and the cleaning cart became translucent, transparent, gone. We stood on a long stretch of platform and the skin on my cheeks felt the bite of a breeze that suggested we were still nine stories up.
“Nica. Anwyl. Over here.”
The uppermost points of Miles and Monk poked up beside the platform.
“Hold on tightly, there is wind on our journey.” Anwyl strode to the edge and climbed off the building onto Monk’s frame.
I headed for Miles, but called out, “Anwyl, what about?” I gestured back toward Hernandez. We couldn’t just leave him here.
Hernandez walked to the edge of the platform, looked down at the Towers. “How’d we get to Watts?”
“We’re not – long story,” I replied.
Indeed, we were still surrounded by the buildings of our block in downtown Los Angeles. Nine stories below, there were cars and an occasional bus moving slowly, every which way, on sidewalks and asphalt, as though grazing rather than driving. We stood in a divide between two halves of a building that looked like the Henrietta except for this gap through the middle.
“Why does this warrior dress like a servant?” Anwyl demanded, studying Hernandez, who studied him back.
“My job cares not who I am,” Hernandez replied.
“Hernandez is known to me,” I tried the phrase again. Anwyl looked at me, baffled. “You don’t need to send him away. I can vouch for him.”
“I will not send him away. If he is here, he is meant to be here.” This statement interested me on many levels. For one: maybe Anwyl isn’t ye olde compleat control freak, after all.
The wind picked up and Miles suggested that we get moving.
“Is this a dream?” Hernandez marveled, taking it all in.
That was a good question. We looked to Anwyl for guidance.
“Do you prefer this to be a dream?” he replied.
No, I didn’t need to reply. I swung a leg out to climb onto Miles.
Hernandez looked around as though weighing pros and cons. Eventually he replied, “No.”
Anwyl nodded approval. He held an arm out for Hernandez to use for balance and Hernandez jumped onto Monk. Then Anwyl climbed from Monk back to the platform. “I will meet you there,” he told Monk, and he loped back into the building.
Go to next chapter.