This is Chapter 17 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
It was a short drive to Parker Center. I had never before been behind-the-scenes at police headquarters. I looked around with great curiosity – it was like a grade school field trip, seeing all sorts of cool stuff I wasn’t allowed to stop and touch, such as the photos in a timeline that looked straight out of Cold Case.
Suddenly it was a small world, like underpants two sizes too small. As they steered me around and between desks, there in a chair with her back to me was Mathead, waving her hands while she talked non-stop, her every gesture emphasizing her familiar attitude. Negative negative negative. The cop who seemed to be interviewing her looked everywhere but at her: he doodled on a yellow pad, he surveyed the room, he followed our progress. I kept my eyes on the linoleum from then on. Just in case. Without eye contact, she was less likely to recognize me. If she saw me, she would wait for me outside and that tweaker was not how I wanted to end my evening.
“Coffee?” My cop’s smile seemed genuine.
I shoved my smile into place and replied, “Water would be nice, thanks.” He left me in a room with his partner, who spent our alone time lining up his chair just so with the table. I took in the view. The room was the size of the bathroom at my laundromat and twice as clean. It was decorated in early strip mall. The low-watt fluorescent ceiling lights resembled mutant corkscrews and coated everything with a weak pink film.
I couldn’t decide whether I was nervous or eager to get started. I wanted to know what they knew. Why did they think Anya was missing? Who filed the report? When? Who took that picture of her and how did the police get it? Who else had they interviewed that knew her?
As soon as my water and its bearer arrived, I fired off my questions. They exchanged a glance and my cop played the photo onto the table like it won him the jackpot. Instead of giving answers, he added a question, “When was the last time you saw this woman?”
There were so many things I could have said. I settled for, “Why don’t you use her name?”
“What is her name?”
I recalled how Monk had once referred to her. Anya of the first lands. “Anya Firstlander, I think she said.”
“How long have you known her?”
“Less than a week.”
“How did you meet her?”
“She hired me. She came to my office.”
The other cop at last had his chair the way he wanted it and tilted backwards onto two legs, which skidded and changed the alignment but I wouldn’t be the one to tell him.
“And what is it that you do?”
“I’m a private investigator.”
“Oh, really? See your license?” He poised pen to pad of paper as though all set to copy the license contents.
“I don’t have one yet. And seeing as how it’s late, could we skip the questions that you must already know the answers to?”
He nodded like I’d just made a good point.
“When was the last time you saw – Anya?”
“Couple, three days ago. I would have to look at my case notes to say for sure.”
“Where did you see her?”
“At my office. She came to my office.”
He played another photo. “Was this man with her?”
It was a photo of Anwyl. It had a different quality of light: Anya’s photo seemed to have been shot midday, while this one had late afternoon shadows. In this photo, Anwyl stood behind the bus bench with the Henrietta behind him. Everything in Anwyl’s photo was in crisp focus except him. Anya was similarly the only thing out of focus in her photo. Interesting.
“Should I repeat the question?”
“No, not that day.”
“You’ve seen them together other days?”
“Yes they hired me together.”
“And what is his name?”
Anwyl a framewalker. “Anwyl something. I don’t recall his last name. If I had my case notes… ”
“They hired you to do what exactly?”
“They’ve wanted me to take them around L.A., show them the sights.”
“Like a tour guide, you mean?”
“Pretty much. So far.”
“They tourists then?”
“I’m not sure where they’re from or why they’re in town. It hasn’t come up in our conversations.”
“Why not hire a tour guide if they want a tour guide?”
“I’ve wondered that, but – being low on clients – I haven’t pressed the point.”
“When was the last time you saw this Anwyl?”
“Was Anya with him?”
“No, I told you – I haven’t seen her for a few days.”
I sounded certain about what I had told them, but in reality I was getting lost in their questions. I struggled to remember what I had said, versus what I planned to say if they asked. That was dangerous. I had to stop anticipating their questions and focus on what they had just asked. And kiss kiss kiss. Keep it simple, stupid.
My cop tapped Anwyl on the eye. “When you saw him today, did he ask where Anya was?”
“No. I assume he knows. Whereas I don’t need to know. One or both of them comes to my office, asks me to take them somewhere. I take them. That’s the extent of our interaction.”
The other cop now aligned the notepad to be one inch from the side of the table and one inch from the bottom of the table. Apparently it was really hard to get the notepad positioned correctly.
“You say Anya came by herself that day. The last time you saw her. Did you go anywhere together?”
“No, we never left the building.”
The OCD cop now worked on pencil alignment. This was his greatest challenge yet.
“Go anywhere else in the building besides your office?”
It took everything I had to hold my casual slump of a position. I turned to the other cop. “Sorry. I don’t want to be rude but my uncle had OCD and you are really distracting me.” I returned to my cop. “Yes, come to think of it. I took her up to see the roof garden.”
“You have a garden on the roof?”
“Not exactly. I help a guy with his garden. The custodian, Jay.”
OCD made a big show of extracting a notebook from his pocket, flipped through it, found an entry midway through the pages, read it aloud.
“Jay Mansour, reported missing ten days ago.”
Now seemed like a safe time to sit up straight. I wasn’t sure where this was headed but wanted off the bus. “I didn’t know that, but I have been asking around the building, asking when he would be back. He hasn’t been at work.”
“Didn’t try calling him or anything? Ask was he okay?”
“I don’t have his number. I only know him at the building.”
My cop turned and repeated this to the OCD cop, who made a sarcastic note. “She only knows him at the building. Ms. Static, let’s get back to you and Anya. You show her the roof garden, then what?”
Carefully, oh so carefully. After all, we’d just met. It was a tad soon to tell the nice officers that Anya and I jumped off the roof and broke our fall by shifting Frames. “We looked at the garden, then she left.”
“Why did the two of you climb to the top of the shed that encloses the ventilation system?”
What the fuck. How could they. “Oh, yeah, that’s right, we did, now you mention it. I wanted her to see the pattern in the garden. Jay laid out the plants so that contrasting colors would spell ‘Hola’ to helicopters.” Crap, that was many more words than my previous answers and they had noticed. My nerves. I showed them embarrassment instead. “Heh. I do go on about that garden. Jay really planned it right. The pattern still shows now that the plants have grown ten times bigger! I don’t know how anybody thinks of something like that! If you are ever in the building again you should check it out.”
“Did you and Jay climb up on the ventilation system shed to admire the garden?”
“Uh. Probably at some point. I don’t remember. Usually we’d climb on top of the penthouse skylight. That gave the best view.” The OCD cop had stopped arranging to listen.
“You didn’t want Anya to have the best view?”
There wasn’t time to climb to the penthouse roof, an evil but inexplicable presence was coming to get us. “She’s a client, not a friend. I don’t know her level of athleticism. I didn’t want to embarrass her. There was a chance she might not manage a climb up to the skylight. Whereas anybody can climb the ventilator shed.”
“Good answer,” OCD snorted.
“True answer,” I replied, with just the right mix of annoyance and puzzlement.
“You’re pretty athletic then?”
“Yeah, I am.” Like the song goes, he gave me the once-over twice. My response was a look. I could take you in a fair fight so better hold on to your gun.
“After you admired the garden, then what?”
“Like I said, we went back to my office and soon after, she left.”
“Can you prove any of this? For example, does your building have a guest sign-in book in the lobby?”
We knew he knew the answer was no. “Not to my knowledge. It’s a pretty low-frills set-up at the Henrietta.”
He smiled like he found my composure amusing. I really wished OCD would resume organizing and stop listening so intently. “You didn’t stay on the roof that day? Maybe do some gardening?”
“No, you can’t garden at that time of day in July.”
“You ever throw anything off the roof?”
“What would I throw off the roof?”
“How about an empty fertilizer bag? So you don’t have to carry it down to the trash?”
“I wouldn’t throw anything off the roof. I could hit a pedestrian. Anyway.” Fewer words the better. Fewer words the better. My loquacious nature was not an interview asset.
“There is a pretty high railing around the roof. I would really have to lob something in order to clear the railing. Easier to cart it downstairs.”
“I see. Let’s go back to the ventilator shed roof. How high is the railing there?”
“The shed stands above the railing.”
“So it would be easy to throw something from the top of the shed.”
“Dragging it up to the shed roof would be a lot of work. Anyway there is no ‘it’.”
“Would you have to throw it? Once you’re up on the shed roof, maybe you could just push it?” My cop had sketched a decent rendering of the layout of the roof. He drew two stick figures, one going off the edge, the other with arms out.
“What the hell do you think I pushed off the – oh for chrissake, are you saying I pushed Anya off the roof?”
“Now, that’s a funny thing to say. What makes you say a thing like that?”
“Maybe she’s been talking to our witness,” OCD sniggered.
“You have fucking got to be fucking kidding.”
“I know, right? You just never know when someone is watching.”
“You know that isn’t what I meant.”
“Do you always know what people are thinking? Is that a burden or a gift?”
At last and too late I said nothing. I looked from one to the other and back again, couldn’t decide who was the bigger or more dangerous idiot.
“Tell us about the last time you saw Jay. Was that also up on the roof? Maybe the shed roof?”
“If I’m pushing people off the roof, why isn’t anybody finding a mess on the pavement below?”
“We wanted to ask you about that.”
“Don’t take it personally, but your accusations make no sense.”
“I’m sorry, did I misunderstand? I thought you were the one who mentioned the pushing. Wasn’t she the one?” he asked his partner.
“That was my recollection, yes,” OCD replied.
“Dudes! Enough! I’d better talk to a lawyer.”
“Thought you’d say that.” They nodded together and rose up like they were auditioning for a chorus line.
They left me alone in the room to call my lawyer. Except I don’t have a lawyer. So I called Ben, who surely knows many criminal defense attorneys. Except my cell phone reception was crappy and I couldn’t complete the call. I gestured to the one-way mirror but nobody came to help. I found the door unlocked and the two of them hanging outside the room with mugs of skunk piss disguised as coffee.
They would be most happy to let me use one of their landlines and they led me to a cubicle that was empty save for wall phone, 1998 phone books, and a molded plastic chair. The station was a busy place in the middle of the goddamned night and I couldn’t make immediate use of the landline because all its outgoing-line buttons were lit.
While I waited for a free phone line, I thought about how my staying at the police station was voluntary and how I wanted to stay because cooperation appeared more innocent and how it somehow felt like they were expecting me to think that way. It was almost like they were stalling me, keeping me there, but every time I explored that idea, I hit a wall, because I couldn’t imagine why they would want to do so.
“‘S’up.” Ben answered on the fourth ring and barely got the slurred syllable out.
“You sound high,” I greeted him.
He said nothing for a moment, then sounded fine when he replied, “I just stuffed a piece of pizza in my mouth right before the phone rang. Didn’t you hear the rapid chewing?”
He always had an explanation and sometimes they were true.
“I need your help, ASAP.”
“Are you hurt? The insurance card’s in a pouch behind the seat.”
“It’s not your van. I need a lawyer.”
“Cops are claiming a client disappeared and they might blame me for something soon. I’ve been answering too many questions.”
“Are you looking for shady or legit?”
“What are the pros and cons?”
“Shady is better protection but makes them more suspicious.”
“Then legit. It’s all bullshit, the client is fine but I can’t prove it right now and I don’t want to swallow my foot trying.”
“Got it. I’m on it.”
He thought aloud. “It’s way past their bedtimes but I can call some favors. An hour. Ninety minutes tops.”
Two hours later, I called Ben again, but went straight to voicemail. I called every ten minutes after that and got that cold recorded bitch of a voice every time. As 4 a.m. neared, I decided that I shouldn’t judge her when I didn’t know her history and that maybe Ben’s slurring wasn’t pizza and that I needed to go home.
I remembered the card I had shoved in my wallet and fished it out to leave a lengthy message on Detective Pat Henson’s office line. I trusted her to believe me innocent without evidence. When she got to work later this morning, I hoped she might have a lull in Edith’s case that would allow her to inquire as to why the fuck I had been kept here at the police station for hours. A family abuse detective would have no sway with these robbery-homicide guys, but she might know somebody who could ask somebody.
It was time to head home. I wandered past a swinging, thigh-high door into the compound where the detectives had their desks. I spotted OCD across the expanse and wound through the desks in his direction. Would placing the desks along aisles have been out of the question?
I zigged and zagged and zigged. I found myself facing a detective, a detective who spotted me, saluted with sarcasm, and smiled to bare a row of teeth jagged enough to strip bark. It was Mathead, sitting at a desk with the placard Detective Fitzpatrick. Mathead was a robbery-homicide detective and she wasn’t surprised to see me there. I froze, stunned, then filled with molten lead. My interrogator approached her desk with his back to me and set down a folder. From the folder slipped the photo of Anwyl.
I wish I could say the pieces fell into place at that moment but I enjoyed no clarity of connection. Why was my interrogator working with Mathead? No answer came to me.
Mathead gave an infinitesimal nod, at which my cop turned to face me and blocked my way. “You need to stop please, Ms. Static, and head back that way. No civilians are permitted in this area. Is your lawyer on the way?”
“No, I’m going home.”
“I understand why you feel that way but I’m glad you haven’t left yet. Got some late-breaking news and I was just coming to find you.”
OCD stood beside him now and the two of them blocked my view of Mathead. “Veronica Sheridan Taggart Ambrose Taggart Ickovic you are under arrest for the kidnapping and murder of the woman known as Anya.”
“You are fucking kidding me.”
It all happened so fast. Their smug turned to shocked when I shoved between them. I wasn’t attacking them, I wanted to talk to Mathead. But her chair was empty and then they had me on the floor.
It’s hard to get back on your feet when your hands are handcuffed behind your back.
Go to next chapter.