This is Chapter 16 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
“Nica!” Hernandez grabbed my arm with both his hands and spun us around to face each other.
“Let’s get Ben and get out of here.”
“Ben left, he said to tell you he had things to do.”
The shriveled everyday part of me twinged, wondering what things those were. The rest of me led Hernandez toward the exit gate.
The pre-show deejay stepped in front of us. “Everything okay?” he asked me, confirming that I had, in fact, screamed when Hernandez touched me.
“Yeah, I screamed because he touched my sunburn. Now we are leaving together because we both want to. But thank you for checking.”
The deejay stepped aside. He was half the size and a quarter the muscle of Hernandez, but sometimes it really is the thought that counts.
Ben had left his van for me. As Hernandez drove us to the Henrietta, I described what had happened to me after I disappeared, huddled against the passenger door so that I could watch his expressions and determine whether he thought I’d whacked out. He had not seen the Anya-like woman in the bar, but he had noticed the Cobra and didn’t have a good impression. When he’d realized I had followed the Cobra, he’d hurried to find me.
He parked in the delivery driveway behind the Henrietta. At this time of night the area was deserted, but the Henrietta’s lobby was mere steps away and cast a protective glow. The night had cooled just enough. Summer night is when all that daytime heat makes sense. Without discussing it, we rolled down our windows. Hernandez shoved back on the balls of his feet to get a hand into a jeans pocket and extract his phone, which he plugged into the van’s sound system. Empty savings account, billion-dollar sound. Thassa my Benny.
Hernandez scrolled slowly through his musical options. I didn’t get impatient; the night and the situation called for the music to be right.
I knew his choice from the first beat. I don’t know much rap but all of my husbands idolized the same dead gangsta, which probably says more about me than about them.
“What’d you expect? Mariachis?”
I was tickled to see him go all huffy, but he faked me out. “You think I would listen to that? In July? Menudo is winter music.” We listed to a couple Tupacs in silence, then Hernandez said, “Any requests? Let me find something for you…”
“Don’t try to find a band I like. The ones I like break up before anybody knows them.”
“Always ‘the ones that got away’, for you?”
“The doctor izz inn, for me?” It was my best bad German shrink accent.
“You’re right, it’s none of my business.”
“Leave it. This music feels exactly right for now.”
We stayed in Ben’s van and blasted fury, crudity, and wisdom into the July night. Eventually, Hernandez dropped the volume so we could resume discussion. He also fished through an antique first aid kit he found under the seat and got an ice pack, which didn’t help me at all. From my right wrist, up across my chest, and over to my left shoulder, my insides blazed and stung. The Cobra had shot an evil lightning through me to break Hernandez’ grip. Curiously, when I’d felt heat, Hernandez had felt pressure and expansion like my shoulder had detonated. I wouldn’t let Hernandez examine my shoulder, which was where I hurt the most. I didn’t want to know what it looked like because it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to pop in to Urgent Care. I would wait to ask help from Anywl about the Cobra’s injury.
We agreed that morning seemed too far away to notify Anwyl, but we had no way to contact him to come back sooner.
“Let’s go to Watts. We can use my Guide to get to Monk and Miles. They’ll know how to reach Anwyl.”
Hernandez couldn’t believe he heard me right. “You were just trapped inside that Frame in a room with no exit.”
“Yeah, but I got trapped because I Travelled there from the Largo. If we go to Watts, we should be fine. Hey, I just thought of something. Maybe that blank room exists to stop Travelers who come through the Connector at the Largo. Maybe that room prevents Travelers from entering Miles and Monk’s Frame.”
“That’s a reasonable guess,” Hernandez agreed. “I wondered why that room would be different than the Largo in our Frame, when everywhere in that Frame that we saw last night was configured exactly like our Frame.”
“Configured?” I teased him.
“Configured.” He held firm.
“Anyway, we won’t get lost or stuck if we start our Travel in Watts, I’ll know my way around.”
“We’ve only got one Guide.”
“There must be a way to share it.” I admired Hernandez’ stamina for the debate. Usually I won simply because an opponent dropped out.
“Anwyl told us to stay in this Frame.”
“He didn’t know what the evening would turn into. He and the allies need to know about the Cobra A.S.A.P.”
“He must expect bad visitors or he wouldn’t have us watching Connectors.”
“True, but – holy freaking shit!” I interrupted myself. A face loomed next to my outside mirror. I saw the uniform, registered cop and concluded, “You startled me, officer.”
Now we had eye contact. “Step out of the vehicle, please.” Another cop hovered outside Hernandez’ window. Hernandez complied in slo’ mo’ and, without being asked, clasped his hands behind his neck.
“We already turned it down. Sorry if we bothered anybody.” The music had to be the reason for their interest.
“Is this your vehicle, sir?” the other one asked Hernandez. Oh oh. A van from Ben could have legal issues.
Before Hernandez could answer, my cop snapped, “Forget that, Johnny!” To me he demanded, “Veronica Static?”
He pulled a photo from his breast pocket. It was a picture of Anya. This double freaked me. I hadn’t thought Anya could show up in anything as earthly as a 3 by 5 glossy. Also, seeing her in the photo made her seem trapped by the cop.
He watched me react to the photo. “How well do you know this woman?”
I took the photo to study it. It wasn’t a very good likeness. She only looked transcendently beautiful. “Not very. I only met her recently.”
“We would like you to stop by the station and answer some questions about her disappearance.”
“That is what I said.”
“Like me to? It’s up to me?”
“It is up to you.” He tried to catch my eye but I held my gaze on the photo. Anya’s image was fuzzy as though snapped while moving. The background was in focus but in shade. The more I looked at it, the more it looked like the area outside the front entrance to the Henrietta.
“Where did you get this photo?”
“Let’s talk about that at the station.” He took it back and slipped her smooth face into his scratchy pocket.
I reached for the truck’s door handle but they led me to their car. They didn’t tell Hernandez that he couldn’t come with us, but insisted that he move the van and park outside the loading zone – and as soon as he complied, they drove away without him. That was when my situation started to feel hinky, although they remained as friendly as Wal-Mart greeters.
Go to next chapter.