This is Chapter 11 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
The Towers moved out to the street, and I felt chilled and exposed as though I’d been in a tent that got yanked away by a sudden blast of wind. Rounding a corner, we moved closer to the building and I was enveloped in warmth. We pulled away again and I felt exposed again.
“Henrietta makes me feel protected,” I realized.
“Got that right,” Miles chuckled.
“But not when I’m on the roof in my Frame. Which isn’t the same roof in this Frame. She has a different roof here.”
“What is up with your roof!” Miles agreed.
I rode a few blocks in silence, not thinking about the roof in my Frame, nor what might have happened to Jay there. “Does Henrietta move around in this Frame?”
“She is sentient in all frames but animate in none.”
“Poor thing! Or – well. Is that bad or good?”
“That is her circumstance, not a point of judgment,” Monk replied. I took that as Monk speak for it is what it is.
“Are all buildings sentient?”
“The answer is as varied as the Frames,” Monk replied.
“So some buildings are sentient in some Frames, some in others? And some in none?”
“None and never and nowhere cannot be used when speaking of the Frames,” Monk advised.
“When you say something never happens, maybe you just never got to a Frame where it does happen,” Miles added.
Hernandez had listened carefully and now asked, “What is a Frame?”
“A glimpse of reality,” Monk said.
At the same time Miles replied, “A layer of the universe.”
Hernandez nodded and looked around in that careful way he had, as though memorizing his surroundings.
“Do you talk to Henrietta?” I asked them.
Miles tilted toward Monk, who answered instead. “We meet with more clarity than words allow but you may imagine it as talking.”
“Next time you ‘talk’ to her, tell her thanks for watching out for me and – careful! There’s a cloud.”
“Yes, that is a cloud,” Monk agreed, with what might have been puzzlement.
“Clouds are bad, right?”
“A sky without clouds is a Frame we don’t want to visit.”
“Anya makes us stop talking whenever there’s a cloud around,” I explained uncertainly, wondering if I had misunderstood.
“Caution is one kind of wisdom,” Monk said.
“Clouds go most everywhere,” Miles explained, “so they get gigs as messengers, and some of ’em work as spies.”
“Spies for whom?”
“Agreed. Or for what,” Monk said.
I thought about that one and I thought it made sense, then it didn’t, so I let it go. Anya and Anwyl usually ducked my questions. It was refreshing to have some answers, even though I didn’t feel closer to understanding.
“Why am I here? Why did Anwyl and Anya come to me?”
“It was time,” Monk said.
“I don’t get what you mean.”
“You will when you do,” Miles assured me.
“That sounds like something your brother would say!” Which filled the air with static charge.
I checked on Hernandez. He listened and watched with the intensity of a lip reader in dim light. His body made an elliptical rolling motion as he clung to Monk and I wondered if I looked the same to him. Under me, Miles’ translation felt like waiting for a wave in a gentle surf with erratic swell.
We were out of downtown Los Angeles and headed south, just past USC and the Coliseum. The buildings were surrounded by what looked like an off-road rush hour. Cars were everywhere, at all angles and directions, and now I confirmed my earlier impression: they grazed on asphalt. It wasn’t the only curious thing I had noticed.
“I haven’t seen any people in this Frame. Do you not have people here?”
“Not native,” Miles said. “But our Frame and yours are pretty close so you can catch some folks moving around in your Frame. See, there’s some right there.”
“There’s some more.”
“What direction should I look? I don’t see anyone.”
“Sorry, I still don’t see anybody.”
We kept going ad absurdibus infinitum. There! Where? Right there, Where there? Abbott and Costello could have finished Who’s on First before I finally figured out he was referring to ghostly flickers of light, which I had taken to be reflections in glass.
“Those quick flashes of light, those are people?”
“Those are the traces of people in this Frame,” Monk said.
“This Frame moves faster, that’s why the view doesn’t last,” Miles added.
“Some Frames are faster than others? Wow.”
Wow wow wow. When my mind finished boggling, I felt ready to send it for a new spin. “How many Frames are there, anyway?”
Monk and Miles made similar noises and the air filled with static electricity. They were laughing again.
“That is a question answered by faith, not knowledge.”
“So nobody knows how many Frames there are?”
“Ill-formed questions have stillborn answers,” Monk intoned.
“How many Frames have you been to?”
“Many and yet few,” Monk replied.
“Have you ever tried to just see them all?” I had a vision of teenage Towers blasting through Frames on a dare.
“Few of us could survive an attempt,” Monk answered.
“So it’s dangerous? Why?” I persisted. They needed to talk faster. We were nearing Watts and I feared that Anwyl would show up and terminate the Q and A.
“Danger is everywhere sometimes,” Monk said.
“Frame Travel just ain’t healthy if you go too far. You get too far from your own – environment, like.” Miles groped for words, like an Italian who had to teach cooking in German. “Even here, near your own Frame, you spend too much time here and you’ll feel it. Just like we need maintenance in your Frame.”
“Metal and flesh cannot share meals,” Monk agreed.
“Deep-sea fish die in shallow water,” Hernandez offered, his voice pitched lower than usual. He made a gesture to indicate bulging eyes. I understood what he meant. We must have seen the same PBS show about those strange white creatures that live at the bottom of the deepest oceans with no light or warmth. That show distressed me; it was like learning about Serbian orphanages.
I wondered if I looked like Hernandez, who was pale and had a sweat mustache. I hoped he wasn’t going into shock, and I hoped I wouldn’t join him. I doubted the emergency rooms here would suit us.
My next question tackled a conundrum that I couldn’t think about on my own because it gave me such a headache. “So. The Watts Towers must not disappear from my Frame when you are here because I would have heard news stories if the Towers vanished or reappeared. That means you occupy two Frames simultaneously. Am I in two Frames now too?”
“No, you are completely animate,” Miles said.
“Animate beings are only in one Frame at a time?”
“Is the cat with him?” Hernandez asked. I thought he was playing Trump the Non Sequitur with our hosts, until I followed his gaze. It wasn’t a non sequitur.
Next to the Towers that were mere structures, Anwyl stood, facing us but looking down. His stance said locked and loaded and even from this distance he was intimidating. He didn’t hold a weapon but he was ready for battle, equally prepared for offense or defense. My stomach knotted and I felt a very personal betrayal. His aggression was directed at the ground, where Dizzy ignored him, washing her face with a paw as though she had just dined on fresh sparrow.
The fact that Dizzy was here intimidated me, too. “No!” I shouted, then explained to the others, “I love that cat but I’m starting to fear she might not be on our side.”
“Cats have only their own side,” Monk said.
“Love her all you want, just don’t trust her,” Miles advised.
Dizzy was too far away to hear us, but she looked at Monk then Miles then me, then walked away. Suddenly she wasn’t there anymore. She either went behind an invisible curtain or she vanished. I thought of all the times she had curled up on my futon for an afternoon and wondered if we’d ever share such normalcy again.
Anwyl beckoned us to follow him. Hernandez and I tightened our grips, and the Towers resumed their translation south. On paths to intercept our route, half a mile away and closing, were two of my favorite LA landmarks.
From the south came the Vincent Thomas bridge. In my Frame, this suspension bridge spans the Los Angeles harbor near the ports. It’s so tall and solid, whenever I drive near it I feel like a midget; and, gawking at it, I always miss my turn. I love the sliding intersecting shadows its struts and cables cast on my car hood as I drive by it. I don’t love the racket of all the car horns, but I guess they have a point. Mesmerized by the sliding shadows, I have more than once strayed from my lane. The bridge looked so elegant here on its own, away from the cranes and diesel that infest the waterfront. It moved toward us with a ratcheted walk; its suspension cables rotated around its pilings and met the ground at a hundred faceted angles, reflecting light as they advanced.
From the north came a red trolley car, legacy of an early mass transit success. Decades after the auto and tire industries snuffed the Red Car as a real transportation option in Los Angeles, it had been reinstated as a tourist attraction at a single steep hill called Angel’s Flight. You wouldn’t know that this squat square car was a frivolity. Its red lacquer paint gleamed like liquid rubies. It advanced with a slight sideways sway and as it sashayed, it trailed a section of track that was endlessly replenishing. The track was solid steel beneath the black-spoked wheels and dissolved to a glittering chrome trail that remained visible behind the car for several seconds before it evaporated, marking the train’s sinuous passage.
“There’s that classy chassis I love!” Miles called to her, and although the car didn’t respond, the sashay swept a wider arc afterwards. He was teaching me how to flirt with machines. I wondered where I might apply that skill.
From the northwest, a blurred pillar took form as it neared. It was a Hammerhead roller coaster, come all the way from Magic Mountain, 40 miles north of Los Angeles. It was something like twenty stories tall, with a caution-yellow occupants’ cage that plummeted from the top, faster than it takes to describe the fall. In my Frame, I couldn’t bring myself to ride the thing or watch when Ben rode it. Now, with each drop of the cage, it catapulted a few hundred feet closer. It moved at such speed that my vision could only register a blur of previous location, a blur of current location, a blur of future-now-current-now-past location, with shimmering arcs between, as though Christo had wrapped the air with a fabric of fog.
I fixated on the mundane to protect myself from amazement overload. “Are there north and south in this Frame?”
“North east south west,” Miles turned four times so that I faced each direction as he named it.
“Same as in my Frame.” I said.
“These hold in all Frames where direction exists,” Monk informed.
“Nix on more questions, Nica,” Miles advised. “Our meeting’s starting now.”
Miles, Monk, Anwyl, and the newcomers launched discussion when they were still a Tower’s length from one another. I swallowed my next question, which was to wonder if someone at this meeting was controlling the airspace. There were clouds on all horizons but the sky directly overhead was clear and vivid with stars. Far as I could tell, they were the same stars as in my home Frame, but they were so much brighter here – whatever illuminates this Frame at night doesn’t interfere with the sky view.
The meeting attendees spoke in a language I had never heard. At each pause, Miles summarized for Hernandez and me, although hearing the conversation in English did not guarantee comprehension. Actually, I heard the summary in English – but when Hernandez asked a question in Spanish (“Demasiado?”), I realized that we each heard Miles in our native tongue. Neat trick! In his summary, Miles did not reveal who had said what. Back then, I didn’t know the participants well enough to be able to guess.
“From all our years together, we know we can trust one another. We agree to trust no others without first consulting this group, united here.”
“We cannot ignore the signs, which grow in number daily. Those faithful to (name that sounded like) Warty Sebaceous Cysts and their master may seek to free him. Although (name that sounded like) Maelstrom is in prison, we dare not assume his bonds are unbreakable.”
“Anya will Travel as close as she dares to the prison, to get evidence of the escape attempt and proof that Warty Sebaceous Cysts still follow their old master. The Framekeeps may act if she brings proof. She will not succeed if our enemies know her intent. Thus we must hide her quest, and her absence from the free Frames.”
“We must continue espionage to understand who helps Warty Sebaceous Cysts – and Maelstrom through them – and who would join his cause should he break free.”
“We need more allies.”
“Look to survivors of the dead Frames for allies.”
“No, their anger makes them unstable.”
“And we must ask why they survived.”
This launched a debate and Miles didn’t translate all the details. I used the pause to ask him, “What are the dead Frames?”
The debate stopped and it was Anwyl who answered, as though reminding the others while instructing me. “Maelstrom demonstrated his power by obliterating all life in Frames that fought his rise. His methods were so cruel that some Frames, knowing that he would come for them, chose to kill themselves before he could touch them. Maelstrom took what revenge he could by rendering those Frames uninhabitable. It is those we call the dead Frames.”
“A few survived because away in other Frames,” the red car explained.
“The loyalties of the survivors have always been questioned, as have the loyalties of their offspring,” the Hammerhead added. “I believe this to be a further injustice, but we dare not trust them as allies.”
The others nodded agreement and resumed their previous rapid-fire comments. “We must rally more allies without sounding an alarm with our suspicions.”
“We must appear oblivious to the changes that are taking place.”
“We need more information.”
Translations ceased again during a long, heated discussion that seemed to target Miles. He stopped his usual fidgeting, and for the first time I was aware of sitting on cold hard metal and cement. When this discussion concluded, no explanation forthcame.
“What was that about?” I had to ask.
They all looked at me, then below me at Miles. It was Monk who replied, although his words seemed directed at Miles, not me. “As Miles would say, he needs to get off his bitch ass and take action for the good of the free Frames.”
“Do me a lemon! I ain’t lazy! I just got my priorities straight!” After what seemed to be laughter all around, “This ain’t about lazy. Your plan is sketch. The risk’s too high. I can’t go back there – I won’t make it out again. We can’t afford to lose nobody. ‘Specially not me.”
“You are the only one among us who dare make this visit. All in that Frame know you. They treat you as one of them.” From Anwyl’s tone this wasn’t a compliment.
Miles lurched and I clutched his girders to stay aboard. “Let me say it one more time. They used to be all groovy and fun. But no more. A bunch of wankers came in and now the whole Frame is a clusterfuck. You heard what they did to (name that sounded like) Happenstance. If I go back there I’m next.”
The mood shifted and silence erupted. Anwyl was the only one still willing to press the point. “No one knows the truth of that disappearance.”
“Yeah! ‘Cuz Happenstance is wiped from all the known Frames, so we can’t ask him, and nobody else is talking. And that was the last Frame anybody saw him. And he disappeared before things turned as ugly as they are now.”
The debate overwhelmed me with a sense of dread that emanated from Anya’s lanyard. My dread did not dissipate when the crisis resolved in Miles’ favor. Whether Miles’ arguments or his fear persuaded the others, the mood changed and Monk summed up the new view. “We will not yet ask you to do this. There may be another way. We must use other ways if they exist.”
Anwyl looked at the others like they were trying to climb a waterfall, but he conceded to their decision, of which he obviously disapproved. “We will seek all other ways before we ask this of you,” he told Miles. Anwyl then turned attention to Hernandez, who had raised his hand.
Hernandez said with grave reluctance, “I must go home to my daughters when my time at work concludes.”
Anwyl replied, “Do not feel concern. We will depart soon, yet when you return you will still have your work hours before you. Time moves more slowly in your Frame.” He looked at me with amusement and held up a hand, which stopped my questions before they got from my brain to my mouth.
He looked from me to Hernandez. “Whatever you have heard here, you must forget. When you return to your Frame you must pretend that you know nothing.”
“That won’t be hard,” I assured him. “But why did you bring me-us to this meeting?”
Monk, speaking with the other group, looked away to call an answer to me. “We need your help. This you have always known.”
Hernandez beat me to it. “How can we help if we do not understand?”
Anywl replied, “You can observe. Your Frame is a way station and many beings pass through it. There are travel corridors called Connectors within your Frame. These require scrutiny and as natives you are best suited to observe.” Anwyl included Hernandez in his stare, so I included Hernandez too. We.
“So we are supposed to stand around and stare for you?” I did a poor job hiding my displeasure. I don’t get bored easily, but when I do, it is a kitten killer. In fact, my earliest bad memory is of my discovery of boredom. My whole life has been a flight from that feeling and now – just as I discover the marvels of the Frames, a guarantee against boredom forever – I’m supposed to stay home and watch passersby.
Actually maybe it wouldn’t be boring to just watch visitors. I recalled the un-boring visitor to the roof garden. Which reminded me, “I want to help you find Anya.”
“Heed my words. She is not lost and we must not behave as though she is absent. She can only fulfill her mission in secret.”
“But we don’t know where she is or whether she needs -”
“Nica, you gotta listen to Anywl.” The air around my head had a stinging quality. Miles was frustrated with me. “Or you could lose Anya her life.”
Even Hernandez was giving me a get with the program. It felt like one of those pivotal decision moments. If only Gittes had agreed to stay away from Chinatown.
“Okay take me home and show me where to sit and watch.” I tried to keep my tone neutral but you could cut the ennui with a toy knife. Now the air fizzed with mechanical amusement. Glad I was so entertaining.
“Enjoy these last days without action, Nica, you will soon know them only through nostalgia,” Anwyl said to me, and then concluded to the group. “We ready ourselves for a war without battlegrounds. Our defeat would mean the end of the free Frames and thus we will not fail. Thank you for coming to this meeting.”
“The beginning is now,” Monk hummed, and this brought silence, a stillness deeper than space. The others meditated on the coming conflict. I felt spooked and looked over my shoulder, expecting to see the horizon crowding in. At last, Anwyl raised his arms and I regained the energy to soldier forward.
The guests exchanged words I didn’t understand, then departed. I gave myself whiplash watching each and all of them move away in their separate directions.
Go to next chapter (12).