Ch 13: The Last Kid in Line to Talk to Santa

This is Chapter 13 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.

Next morning the futon was open, the sheets were on it, I was between them. Dizzy was gone. None of the books had changed position. Someone had lined my mouth with sandpaper. Maybe I hadn’t brushed my teeth last night, although someone had opened the door to my bathroom and left the toothpaste where I leave it.

I uncorked the special water and ground the magic beans and with my first sip of espresso, color came into the day. I tilted back in my desk chair to examine the sky and waved to a cloud that might have been CharcoalStringCheese. No response, but then we’d never been formally introduced.

All in all I was in a fine mood, considering, and the mood persisted when someone knocked on the outer office door. The knock was tentative yet solid, like your best friend at the new school, and I opened the door to find Hernandez with a mid-teenage girl who shared his wide angular jaw and velvet eyes. She wore five earrings and a push-up bra that hadn’t yet had much work.

“You can only be Karina,” I guessed, and they shot me smiles like I’d stoked twin furnaces. I sensed or maybe remembered that she was of the age where each would struggle with her evolution from daddy’s girl to her own young woman. I’d lost my dad before we got past that struggle, but I know we would have come through it okay.

They took seats flanking the door. I gave her space by perching on the chair arm farthest from her. “Thanks for agreeing to talk with me, Karina – and for getting up at such an unteenage hour on a Saturday morning.”

“I’m always up early for basketball practice. The thing with Edith,” Karina said, “It’s not like you think.”

“Consider how it looks to an outsider like me. Edith’s missing, her mother doesn’t know where she is, they’ve had some fights, her godparents are worried.”

“They only say they’re worried when they want to look nice.”

“I know. But they hired me to find her. Still – they’re my clients so I’m not supposed to say things like this – there’s something about their story that feels bogus. I can’t get myself to trust them. Whereas, your dad I trust a lot.” He sat, impassive, unwilling to influence the conversation.

“Edith is okay but she needs to stay away,” Karina insisted.

“I’d like to believe you,” I began.

“I know, Dad explained about you,” she said. A lesser ego might have wilted.

I sipped my espresso. “I probably seem like a relaxed person to you.”

“I guess.” She wanted to stay on my good side.

“Well, when it comes to getting information, I’m such a pain that people get their ass amputated to get rid of me.” She choked a laugh, which I ignored. “I’m relentless. And I’m resourceful. I’m going to find Edith. It’s up to you whose side I’m on when I do.”

“The Garcias are liars and Edith is fine! She just needs to stay away for a little while longer.”

“I so want to believe you, but it can only happen if I see Edith. Why don’t you bring her here?”

“No! I can’t do that! Why can’t you just believe me? I’m telling the truth!” She stormed out, pausing to glare at her father. “Thanks a lot, Dad.”

After my door slammed, I heard their argument in Spanish recede toward the elevator. Then I heard Hernandez speaking English and after a time, I realized he was on the phone. Then I heard nothing and brewed myself a second cup of espresso. The first sip had crossed my lips when the door shuddered like someone hit it with a mallet. They were outside, Hernandez behind his steaming daughter.

“I don’t want to upset you, Karina, it’s just that Edith -”

“- is the only one who can convince you. I know. That’s why we need to take you to her.”

I downed the espresso in one gulp and chewed grounds as I pocketed my phone and wallet. They were already down the hall. “Let’s go,” I agreed.

 

Hernandez drove a Toyota truck with so many dents that it looked laminated in golf balls. The paint was a red plaid, thanks to its many touch-up shades. “How many miles?” I asked, as I pretended to protect myself with the middle lap belt, which in a crash would crush my intestines and impale my forehead on the rearview mirror.

“Just passed two hundred k,” he said.

“Just getting started,” I said appreciatively.

“Don’t encourage him,” Karina advised me and immediately told her dad, “I still need my own car.”

“Kids today,” I said. It felt good to have a conversation with no subtext or import.

As Hernandez pulled out of the Henrietta’s subterranean parking garage, I caught a flash of movement at the curb. A tinted car window slid closed, but not before I saw eyebrows and forehead that seemed familiar. I watched the late model silver sedan in the rear view mirror as we moved down the street and I tried to place those eyebrows. The sedan pulled into traffic two cars behind us. I could see two forms in the front seat, but couldn’t see who they were.

“Don’t head out just yet, wander a few blocks first,” I instructed. The sedan duplicated Hernandez’ increasingly arbitrary turns. When Hernandez made a last-minute three-lane shift from left turn lane to right turn lane, the sedan did the same. Yup, it was tailing us – and suddenly I could picture the face that went with those eyebrows.

“The Garcias are following us. That silver Camry. Ditch them.”

Hernandez sped up out of his latest turn. Garcia was a considerably more cautious driver, so it did not take long to lose them. Hernandez kept weaving and turning until there were zero late model silver sedans behind us. That took a while.

At last satisfied that no one tailed us, Hernandez pulled over and traded places with Karina. She slid behind the wheel, but she kept the stick in neutral and looked expectantly at her dad.

“You can trust me zero or one hundred per cent,” he told her in a voice full of paternal frustration. “There is no half trust.”

“Dad, you still have to.”

Muttering, from the dash compartment he produced four eye patches. He put one over each of his eyes and when I had done the same to my eyes, Karina shifted into first gear and joined the traffic flow.

Haar maties. I don’t know where she took us, but we got there after 10 minutes on freeways at full speeds and where she exited, the air smelled like cumin and garlic.

Left turn, left turn, right turn, then left turn into what must have been an open garage. As soon as the ignition shut off, I heard Karina’s door open, rubber soles scuff the pavement, followed by the characteristic garbage-truck-full-of-marbles vibration of a motorized garage door.

“C’mon, okay, now,” was our signal to remove the eye patches. Karina led us to a tidy granny cottage in a barren backyard and opened the cottage door without knocking. Inside, a TV action drama chased colored light across a couch, where a girl I recognized from the Garcia photo album napped in an upright fetal position, arms clasped around knees, with earbuds blocking both ears. Karina toggled the light switch and strobed the room with fluorescence. Then she shoved at the side of the couch like it was a stray dog that wouldn’t get out of the street. Edith’s eyes opened. She saw Karina and said, “Hey.” She saw Hernandez and uncurled. She saw me and removed the earbuds.

In person, Edith had a lanky frame that would one day be svelte, a voluptuous mouth that she used to hide her big teeth, and eyes like the last kid in line to talk to Santa. Immediately, I could tell that she wasn’t somebody who liked to be alone and she was glad to have our company, even though she mistrusted two of us. She was a lost kitten under a car.

Stylized as a jazz dancer, Karina lowered herself onto the couch next to Edith, then with a giggle, slammed her hip sideways to butt Edith out of the way. Edith smiled fleetingly and made room for her friend. Suddenly Karina seemed younger and Edith seemed older.

Hernandez stood out of sight behind the couch, leaning against the counter that separated the miniscule kitchen from the beensy living room. Even so, it took some time for Karina to get Edith started talking. But then Edith started to spill, to explain why she was in hiding, and soon we were all drowning in her sorrow.

I had been slightly right, when I interpreted the photos from the Garcias. Edith did have a massive honking crush on her coach and P.E. teacher, the Garcias’ son Antonio. I’d worried that he might not handle her delicate feelings with sufficient care. I had feared slingshots while she had been nuked.

For a time, Karina had a thing for the Coach, too. All the girls did. He made every girl feel like she was special and beautiful. And sexy. They competed for his attention and touches. Where he touched each girl was a measure of her appeal.

We’re talking about 14-year-olds, folks. I could tell Hernandez had heard Edith’s story before, by the way he shrunk into himself, nursing his father’s shame at failing to protect so many daughters. I had already mapped out several slow painful ways for the Coach to conclude his sorry existence before the girls got us to the main event.

Edith. She was most special to Coach, so on his 33rd birthday, he took her virginity in the romantic setting that every woman yearns for, the floor of the faculty bathroom. But, hey, he locked the door.

That day was only the beginning. Eventually, the principal reported him and a detective came snooping around. Detective Pat Henson. The Garcia family machine kicked into high gear to protect their son and their name. Norma and Aurelio flooded Edith’s friends and families with help and gifts. They manipulated Edith’s mother Maria: Coach Antonio did so many wonderful things for Maria’s family that at first she trusted the helpful friendly teacher more than her silent moody daughter. Her mother tried to persuade Edith it would be wrong to press charges.

Nonetheless, under Detective Henson’s guidance, Edith did press charges. Karina helped Edith move – run away from home if you will, although her mother allowed the move – to avoid more pressure until the initial legal hoops got hurdled. Eventually, Edith would go home, but for now she needed the Garcias to leave her alone and she needed her mother to stop seeking forgiveness. Which could only happen if they didn’t know how to find her.

In the silence that followed Edith’s story, I felt how alone Edith had been. Detective Henson lived in the front house but was usually at work. Karina hung out when she could. Other times, Edith sat there in a room full of elephants, trying to avoid getting crushed by her own thoughts.

I shoved everybody out the door for an illegal drive – four in a pickup. We took Edith to breakfast at some chain restaurant with ten pages of menu and nothing worth eating. Edith had hot chocolate with extra whipped cream and kind of grinned while Karina teased her.

When the pickup returned to the driveway, Detective Henson paced her front veranda like a panther in a shipping box. Her face went through the four stages of grief as each of us emerged from the truck. I got anger and I raised a hand to deflect it. I warned, “Edith needs to get out more or else she -”

Suddenly I felt dizzy unto nauseated. I dropped my wallet as an excuse to double over. As I rose, I spotted the source of my distress: a pair of joggers with fresh-off-the-shelf exercise apparel. The way they surveyed the neighborhood as they ran, I imagined their expensive earbuds piped not music but chainsaws and screams. They reminded me of the pair in business attire that Anwyl had caught downtown. Were these two also illegally hunting in my Frame? I didn’t know what they were hunting but I wished their prey successful flight.

Detective Henson gave them a hard stare. She didn’t know from Frames but she knew bad guys. The joggers glanced at her, stared at me, and I tried to will a visit from Anwyl. They sped up as they rounded the corner and loped out of sight.

“You know those guys?” she demanded.

I shook my head to hide a shudder. “Guess there are still some assholes I haven’t dated yet.”

She snorted. “Your life story too huh?”

Well, at least the joggers helped us to bond.

“Karina, check this OUT,” Edith yelled from inside, turning up the TV volume. Soon we could hear the girls shrieking like the fifteen-year-olds they were.

The detective smiled like she was testing a toothache. “You’re not a scumbag after all,” she complimented me. Total lovefest, baby.

I gave the detective my card. “I want to testify against the Garcias, if it gets to that.”

“Oh, it will get to that,” she promised, fished a crumpled business card from her breast pocket, proffered it between two fingers like a cigarette that needed a light. The card edges looked like they’d served as a toothpick, but I treated it like my half of a –

“Friendship ring, remember those? We each get a piece and together they make a… never mind.”

“Anyway, what other kinds of cases you work?”

It was a gesture of friendliness, quickly retracted when I hedged, “That’s kind of hard to explain.” But I hedged for her own good. She didn’t want me to tell her about the Frames and make her take me to a loony bin. Are there still loony bins?

 

Go to next chapter.

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