This is Chapter 15 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
The Largo has two Connectors, one here in The Little Room and one in the back of the theater. The bar was crowded and I tilted my chair so that I could see between Ben’s shoulder and the head of a guy at the next table. This gave me a sliver of view to the far side of the bar where the Frames connected. An off-duty employee was the only one standing near the Connector and then just-like-that someone else was there and brushed past, behind the employee. If you hadn’t been watching, you’d assume he had exited the unisex restroom at the end of that aisle. Except I had been watching and knew he hadn’t.
How can a Frame Traveler transfer into a room full of people yet avoid notice? Maybe a crowd makes it easier. I watched the guy walk the length of the bar and out the door to the courtyard, then excused myself for a pretend trip to the women’s bathroom, past the courtyard in the lobby. The guy crossed the lobby without a glance in any direction, then yanked at the rear door to the theater. It was locked. The gal at the snacks counter tossed him a cheerful, “Doors won’t open for 30 minutes,” then looked startled by his reaction, which I couldn’t see.
He pretended to loiter in the courtyard but he couldn’t stand still long enough to work up a convincing loiter. As more people arrived for the show, his movements became ricochets. He and other people were magnets with the same charge; they repelled him.
Otherwise, he seemed like anybody else in this Frame. Were there always visitors from other Frames among us? Were there Frames with beings quite different from me? Maybe those nutso sightings of aliens were real sightings of visitors from distant Frames!
I needed to see Monk and Miles, they would give such questions the serious answers they maybe deserved.
I followed the visitor back into The Little Room, undecided whether he was dangerous or benign. I watched hard but couldn’t witness his exit out of the Frame. He was there, walking toward the unisex bathroom, and then my eyes were still moving but their gaze paced someone who was no longer there.
“Did you want a real drink?” Ben nursed his fizzy water and wondered why I was staring at the bar.
“I’m good, thanks.”
“Nica, Nica, always searching,” he covered my hands with his, like he was cheating at a shell game. “Maybe I will join you at the show tonight.”
“It’s been a long time,” I said noncommittally. I let him catch my eye and suddenly there was my Ben, upbeat and funny and sage; and I couldn’t figure whether he had just showed up or I had overlooked him until now. Sparring with Ben the hustler king, you couldn’t look him in the eye or you’d get frozen like snake food.
“Private investigator suits you. You’re happier, I can tell. Your moxie opened the right door this time.”
“Yeah, I like it. I might be too zen to be a great detective, though. For years I’ve been training myself to not pursue, to let it all happen. But clients don’t want to hear ‘I’m letting your case evolve.'”
“Some might. Those are your clients. It’s interesting. Lots of your jobs taught you how to sneak and pry and push. Those are good detective skills.”
“Yeah, I was thinking about that too. Remember when you helped me repo that furniture and the guy came home and he had a gun behind every chair cushion?”
“‘Course I do. Remember when you subbed at the family therapy place and you talked that guy off the roof with my Lakers tickets?”
“I forgot about that one, actually.”
“Because they weren’t your tickets. How about the time you were threatening deadbeats at that credit agency and I turned up on your call list?”
“That one got me fired, asshole.”
He snorted. “You hated that job, so you’re welcome.” He looked around the room like it was the pony he never got for Christmas. “Do I feel longing for what used to be or for what can never be? Did the good old days ever really happen?”
“Somewhere they’re still happening,” I said to the bottom of my glass, then added to him, “What the hell are you doing?”
What he was doing was bowing and kneeling at my side. “I bow to the sensei. ‘Somewhere they’re still happening.‘ You out-Yoda’d me, Neeks.”
“Dummy, get up, you’ll trip somebody,” I pretended I was embarrassed and needed to look away. Before, Ben had been in the perfect spot for me to look at him and watch the Connector behind him. Now my gaze was off. Peripherally and partially, I saw a torso materialize and I jumped up to follow its exit. “Excuse me. Too much coffee today.” I used the old standby, the weak bladder excuse, to dash after the torso. I sensed Ben’s surprise – he wasn’t used to all this walking out on him – but that awareness was faint as a jet contrail. My focus was on the torso.
In the lobby, the visitor turned around. It was the same guy as before, now in different clothing. Fashionista or incognito? What would happen if I asked him? I wondered what his voice sounded like.
Being around Ben put me in a reckless mood. I approached the visitor. Up close, his skin was the luminous grey of soapsuds in a metal sink. I said conspiratorially, “It’s later than usual, isn’t it? That they’re opening the doors tonight.”
He looked at me like I had phlegm on my face, winced, stepped away; and I realized that his ricochets were not nerves but an effort to avoid contact with everyone in this Frame. I couldn’t tell you whether the concern was germs or cooties.
I walked past him like my plan was to purchase a snack and I waited in the snack line with my back to him. After a time, the air changed – the theater doors were open. Immediately, the visitor pushed his way into the theater. I dropped out of line and followed. He race-walked along the back aisle and my eyes kept pace. Fortunately, there was no one between us to block my view. Where the back aisle intersected with the far side aisle, the visitor stepped through the Connector and I was looking at aisle with no visitor. I walked to the spot where he had vanished, walked past it, turned down the far side aisle, pivoted, made the return trip. Nothing special or different about any of it, walking the aisles at the Largo, a walk made countless times.
What would happen if I stood directly at the vanishing spot all night? Would I block egress or would visitors somehow flow around me? That could be a counterproductive experiment, given that I was supposed to observe who and what used this Connector.
When I got back to The Little Room, Hernandez sat in my chair laughing at something Ben described with large gestures. When Hernandez saw me, the laugh converted to smile and he stood.
“Everything okay, Nica?” Ben greeted me.
He sounded so concerned that I felt ever so slightly heel-like to duck the question. “I didn’t know you knew each other.”
“We looked familiar and we figured out that we’ve seen each other at the Henrietta,” Ben explained.
“I’m glad you came here and thanks,” I told Hernandez, who dragged a chair from the next table so that I could join them.
“I discussed the situation with my daughters, how I could be away sometimes. We came up with a strategy that lets me participate.”
“And Karina let you have your truck after all?”
“No she dropped me – off.” Something over my shoulder had caught Hernandez’ attention. It was a matron with waist-length silver hair, a denim work shirt loose over a flowing flowered skirt, arms bright with stacked bangles and pastel tattoos. A gypsy grandmother who Ben ignored but Hernandez watched intently, though he was oblivious to the many others populating the bar.
I thought she was a visitor, too. Sure enough, she walked into the Connector and vanished. “Good eye,” I told Hernandez. Hmm. The Connector in this room went two ways, and allowed exit from as well as entry to this Frame. Was that also true for the Connector in the theater? Did Hernandez and I need to split up to watch both Connectors? Anwyl could have given me a wee bit more information about the set-up.
On my phone, I made notes about the two visitors and used the note-taking time to observe the fellas.
Hernandez always returned his root beer to the same location, and every time he lifted the bottle, he wiped moisture from the table with his napkin, single action same motion like a robot with OCD. From his usual deep slouch, Ben watched with a bemused smile. When Hernandez noticed Ben watching, he explained, “I had some attitude adjustments when I entered the Service, which got me special cleanup duties, which set some habits.”
Hernandez was something. The way he presented himself to the outside world was so different from the person that was emerging over the last couple days.
“What branch were you in?” Ben asked.
“Marines,” Hernandez sat straighter if that were possible.
“Two tours in ‘Stan, one in ‘Dad.”
“Wow,” Ben said slowly.
“Meaning?” Hernandez replied.
“I’m amazed they didn’t fuck you up.”
“Who says I’m not fucked up?” Hernandez bristled.
“Okay psycho, let’s see what you got,” Ben play-taunted him. Or, anyway, I knew it was play. I also knew it was pointless to intervene.
Hernandez tightened his clench on the root beer bottle while meeting Ben’s stare.
“Are you really going to break that bottle in here in this crowd?”
Hernandez stopped squeezing. “If I stop, you’ll have to trust me that I’ve done it before.”
“Seriously? Your grip is that strong?”
“Will, not strength, breaks the bottle. You just keep squeezing.”
“And the bottle shatters in a blow out? Glass everywhere?”
“No, it gives way. You see cracks on the outside, but you feel it weaken from the inside. Until. It just gives way.”
“I want to see that!” Ben enthused.
“Try it for yourself. It’s boring to watch.”
“I’m a watcher.”
“I would not have thought that.”
To my astonishment, Ben was the first to look away from their staredown and he loved it. You’d think he had Cuban cigars to give out, the way he extracted two ginger chews from a pocket, gave one to Hernandez, popped the other in his mouth. “I’ve met other vets, can’t hold a job or a conversation.”
I reached into Ben’s pocket and got a ginger candy for myself.
“It takes a certain mindset to move on, and I struggled to find it but I had no choice. Failure wasn’t an option. I’ve got daughters with no mom.”
The conversation ceased for a time. The ginger chews are so small, yet they can glue together so many teeth. Chewing rebalanced the mood, which had started laid back like Ben, evolved tense like Hernandez, was now restored to laid back.
“You serve?” Hernandez asked Ben.
“What’s your guess about that?”
“How about them Dodgers?” Hernandez laughed. I had not heard him laugh before, abrupt staccato bursts like ball bearings dropped on cement.
Ben laughed, too, his gleeful chortle as familiar to me as my own pulse.
I loved it that they were engaging in guy talk at first meeting – and I couldn’t wait to find out from Ben what they were really discussing and learning about each other underneath the small talk. Because in reality when –
I stopped thinking when the next being slipped into Frame. She wasn’t Anya – I realized that immediately – but she could have been a sibling. Same high cheekbones, burnished skin, cornsilk hair. As she passed me and saw me staring, she hit me with a glancing smile that seared me with hope. Just seeing her made me happy. I stood to follow and took a shot put to the gut. I had not felt anything from Anya’s lanyard for so many hours that I had wondered whether a battery needed recharge. Now, the pain was so sharp I had to hold the table to avoid writhing on the floor.
The source of the belt’s negativity was a patron who swiveled to watch the woman who reminded me of Anya, as she stopped at the bar to request then sip a glass of water.
I didn’t know how long this guy had been at the bar. He had an empty glass in front of him, but neither Hernandez nor I had noticed him before. At first glimpse, he terrified me – next to him, even Anwyl would seem more prey than predator. Gaunt and sinewy, with stiff jowls and deeply wrinkled skin, he swayed from the neck as he surveyed the room and reminded me of nothing so much as a cobra. Louie the bartender didn’t want him here, that was clear. Louie never let an empty glass linger unless he wanted the patron to hate the service and go elsewhere. The instant the cobra guy pushed away from the bar, Louie grabbed the glass and toweled the area clean.
The Cobra followed the Anya-like woman and I followed him. Hernandez and Ben took no notice of my departure. The Anya-like woman slowed to appreciate the crazy sculptures in the lobby, and stopped to smile at the phonograph on mannequin legs. The Cobra hovered behind her and suddenly thrust an arm toward her. His thrust got deflected by oblivious teens who shoved between them. The woman seemed unaware of danger, but I was certain he meant her grave harm. He went ahead of her into the theater and all I could think was ambush.
I stood in the theater doorway, pretending to study the seating chart as though I hadn’t memorized it many performances ago. I thought I saw the Cobra sitting in the back row, just this side of the Connector. I waited until the Anya-like woman was behind me and walked in just before she did. The Cobra uncoiled from his seat. I stepped in front of him, but he ignored me. I forced myself to stop and peer into his face, my hand lightly on his arm. “Doug? Doug Hughes? Is that really you?”
He glanced at me, then returned his intensity to the Anya-like woman who passed behind me. He stepped around me to head after her, but I kept my hand on his arm and again stepped in front of him, as though to let the dim light catch my face so he could see me. “It’s Debbie, remember, from last Halloween’s rave in Altadena?”
He hissed over my shoulder, which I took to mean that she had moved out of Frame. “I’m sorry, I thought you were someone I knew.” I let go of his arm and I might have gotten away with the ruse, but as I stepped out of his path I glanced over my shoulder to confirm she was gone.
For the first time, he looked directly at me and I was ever so sorry to attract his attention. He hissed again, slowly and speculatively. He had breath like a corpse. I stepped back and he stepped forward, closing the distance between us. I hastened to get out of his way. At the intersection with the far aisle, I jostled with some patrons and got pushed back in his direction.
Thanks be, he had continued into the Connector and disappeared. My relief mutated to terror when suddenly his hand was on me, gripping my wrist with fingers as unyielding as iron pipe. He dragged me toward him, or where he would have been if the rest of him were still visible. I twisted my wrist to get away, but it was hopeless. To free myself, I would have had to chop off my hand – and although I was willing to hack, I lacked sharp objects and by now his fingers gripped my bicep.
All these people around but nobody noticed – or they tried to ignore a lone woman having a mental health episode, fighting the air. My body blocked their view of his fingers on my arm. I dug my heels into the carpet, yet, inch by inch, I got dragged closer to the invisible Connector at the juncture between the aisles. The room grew dimmer and the pre-show chatter faded. Moving through the Connector was like dozing on a jet, not quite in one realm or the other. Colors and sounds sharpened again when I felt a new grip on my outside shoulder.
“Nica,” Hernandez whispered at that shoulder, “I’ve got you.”
“Pull,” I pleaded, and he did, until the Cobra hissed and squeezed tighter. From those iron fingers, lava flooded my arm chest shoulder. Hernandez cried out and searing pain scorched my shoulder. By reflex Hernandez loosened his hold. He clutched me again immediately yet that was not soon enough. I was gone.
That was what it felt like, like I was absent from my Frame, not present in another.
Where the Cobra and I were now, it was as dark as despair. The Cobra shoved me backward and my back collided with stone. I felt damp slippery walls on two sides, so maybe we were still indoors, maybe I was in a corner, but there was a numbing cold wind that shrieked where it slid against the walls. A smell burned my throat, reminiscent of fire at the landfill. I heard whispers like cobwebs inside my skull, repeating the same phrases. What is this? What does it know? I rubbed my head but couldn’t clear it. With the intuition of a nightmare, I knew that when the questions got answered, I would die.
I turned, running my hand along the wall as though searching frantically for escape. The whispers in my skull now punctuated with chuckles. No escape, fool. I turned more, patted high and low, hoped I wasn’t overdoing my performance. Another turn and I faced the wall. By now, I had slipped the Guide out of my pocket and he couldn’t see me shove it into my mouth, so hard I chipped a tooth. Home was still the destination on the dial, after my previous visit to Monk and Miles. I inhaled like it was my last breath. A howl told me when he spotted the Guide.
The Guide delivered me to the Largo but I didn’t feel safe. The Cobra could follow so easily. I twisted the dial for Miles and Monk’s Frame and inhaled again. The Cobra wouldn’t know to follow me there – would he?
I so longed to see the Towers, and as my molecules settled again after transport, I envisioned my foot route from the Largo to Watts. With my current adrenalin rush, I could run the whole twenty miles. I couldn’t think about what dangers might dwell on that route.
It was dark here, too. The adrenalin rush faded as I groped forward like a mime exploring a box. A one-armed mime: where the Cobra had touched me, my shoulder wasn’t working. I seemed to be in a large empty room or container with no furnishings, no light switches, no windows, no doors. When I had convinced myself there was no way out, except by using the Guide, I set the dial to home then counted to five thousand. Presumably, the Cobra would have chased me right away and would not linger if he didn’t find me at the Largo.
When I got to five thousand, I inhaled with the Guide and went nowhere. The scene started to shift, then stopped. It was like I was blocked. I thought about how far I had walked in this blank black room and wondered if I was trying to transport into a Largo wall. As best I could, I retraced my steps and when I got back to where I may have started, I inhaled again. The effort felt softer, more yielding, but still I remained in the dark blank room. I took a couple steps, tried again. Took a couple steps, tried again.
It would have been so easy to succumb to panic and flip the fuck out. But I really prefer to stage a drama where I might get an audience. So I kept up the routine. Step step inhale. Step step inhale. Step step inhale. Sometimes the path yielded, sometimes it didn’t. Each time, I remained in the enclosure. Step step inhale. Ah.
I was back in the Largo. Time had elapsed and everyone stood, clapping for an encore, so no one noticed me. I sprinted away from the Connector, shoved through the doors to the lobby. Now I could feel that someone watched me, someone followed me through the lobby. I don’t know why I didn’t break out running. I don’t know what I thought I could do to protect myself, except stay the hell away from the Connectors.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and I may have screamed. The pre-show deejay stopped packing up to study me. He frowned as I twisted free from the hand on my shoulder. Free, but only for a moment.
Go to next chapter.