This is Chapter 19 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
My visit to my new advocate confirmed it. All I needed was a crown and I’d be royally screwed. Even Kick-Ass the lawyer went a titch pale when she looked at the deposits in my bank records, and every time I said I didn’t know how or from where the money came, she said some variation of “I can only represent you if you are completely honest with me.” When I insisted she investigate the money source, I could tell she thought I was wasting her firm’s resources and my fee to find an answer I already knew.
Pain management consumed my afternoon. My body showed no outward sign of injury, but whatever the Cobra had shot through my hand arm torso shoulder to loosen Hernandez’ grip, it felt like it was still in there trying to eat its way out. Except, with teeth like that, it should have been out by now. I tried heat. I tried ice. I tried stretching. I got a street corner massage. I’d be okay for a while then – blammo. The pain came and went, surged in great nauseating waves. I thought I had a high pain threshold from all my years of playing through injuries on soccer teams. But this was a growing struggle to ignore and function with.
The only thing that helped was Anya’s lanyard. I hurt much less where the belt touched me. With the lanyard’s infinite elasticity, I was able to drape it bandolero-style to cover more of the injury, yet contour it snug against my body. Pain still flowed, muted, outside the edges of the lanyard.
When Hernandez first arrived, we coulda had a moment, the way he first smiled at me – until I grabbed his arm as my knees buckled. It was the worst wave of pain yet. Either the lanyard was losing effect or the pain was growing.
“Nica! What’s wrong?”
I swiped at my body where the pain was and he understood it was the Cobra’s injury. He made me sit down and insisted on investigating. Last night, I had the energy to stop him. Today, he cut me off with “I was a medic,” and pushed and tapped and rotated joints until he ran out of things to try. I could tell he was baffled by the lack of evidence of injury versus the contortions my face made in response to the discomfort.
Just as suddenly and inexplicably, the pain was gone. By now, the absence of pain was also debilitating because I didn’t know when it would return. I stayed on guard for it, braced for it, anxious and tense.
Hernandez followed me in his truck and our first stop was to return Ben’s van. We were nearly there when we had to waste a half hour making arbitrary turns. The damned Garcias were following us! At a stoplight I texted Hernandez about them, but he had already figured out why I made wandering progress. The Garcias must have hoped we would lead them to Edith. They were harder to lose this time, but not by much; I don’t think they ever realized that we had spotted them. That they could be so vile yet clueless especially pissed me off.
I was eager to confront Ben and pounded on his door. Today, I would force him to tell me why Mathead was in his life. Despite the minor detail of no evidence, I was convinced she was a dirty cop. Nonetheless, Mathead was a cop and Ben didn’t hang with cops. Hernandez let me pound Ben’s door for a while, then he slipped the van keys through the mail slot and led me away, making soothing noises. The day was wearing on me.
The Little Room is not a full tilt bar, it is only open an hour before and after each Largo show. We were too early to go in, so we grabbed a starter drink at the vampire bar down the block, a room with no windows, black walls, and the lowest electricity bill in the county. I was glad Hernandez was driving tonight. I needed a second drink before I had finished telling him what went wrong before noon.
I was so bummed that I had missed Anwyl’s visit, which coincided with my meeting with my lawyer. I’m sure Hernandez did a perfectly fine job relaying the previous night’s events to Anwyl, but he didn’t ask the questions I would have asked. Not that Anwyl would have answered them. One of the scariest nights of my life distilled as follows: Anwyl wasn’t surprised to hear about the Cobra – but we don’t know what he thought about our seeing an Anya-like Traveler. Anwyl was displeased that I had meddled in the Cobra’s business – but we don’t know if he disapproved my instinct to protect the Traveler. Anwyl dismissed the gravity of the police charges against me – but we couldn’t say whether that was because he didn’t understand this legal system, or wouldn’t care if I had to do time. Anwyl thought we would be safe enough at the Largo tonight, provided we stayed more than 10 feet from the Connectors. Somehow safe enough wasn’t enough.
Yet here we were in the Little Bar, overwhelmed by our night’s assignment. Last night, visitors had trickled from the Connectors. Tonight, they poured. Tonight was also a more hectic and crowded night for the Largo theater – a sold-out comedy show, a benefit featuring everybody from Seinfeld to Russell Brand. Hernandez and I debated whether the volume of Travelers linked to conditions at the Largo: in tonight’s crowds, more people could move through Connectors without detection. Amazing how oblivious we all can be to the strangers around us. Hernandez and I were the only ones who noticed traffic through the Connectors.
Most of tonight’s Travelers arrived from the Connector in the bar and hurried to depart via the Connector in the theater. They had a negative vibe I couldn’t identify at first. About the time Hernandez said, “they look worried,” I realized they reminded me of crowds I’d seen in a recent news special.
“They look like refugees.”
“Hurrying away from something,” Hernandez agreed.
The Little Room shuts down during performances, and we couldn’t buy last-minute tickets to the sold-out show, so when the show began we strolled through the neighborhood, headed for the truck, parked a few blocks away. The piranhas were back inside my shoulder and Hernandez kept my mind off the pain by having me describe it in lurid detail. By the time I was done, I was speaking from memory of the pain.
“It hurts so much less! You are my hero. You did that. How did you do that?”
“When you describe the pain, you accept it without trying to change it and that limits its effect on you.”
“My hero and my mystic.”
He snorted, or I did. It was a perfect night for a walk. The breeze carried a hint of cooling and pushed ginormous phosphorescent clouds overhead, their edges illumined by the nearly full moon. Their undersides glowed with reflected city lights. Somewhere nearby was a late blooming jasmine, which reminded me, “I really miss Anya.”
“Is she very different from Anwyl?”
“Oh, yeah, and she bosses him around.”
“That is difficult to imagine.”
“What is even crazier is -”
“Nica.” For an instant her voice was everywhere.
We stopped and looked around, searched everywhere, earning puzzled wary glances from the dog walkers and after-dinner strollers who passed by. None of them acted like they had heard the voice.
“Anya!” I whispered to Hernandez. Even though this universal voice might be a private experience, I sensed that I should keep its identity quiet.
“Convey this message to the others.” The bougainvillea vibrated with her words.
“Do you see where she is?”
Hernandez touched my arm. He looked like an Old Testament illustration. Awestruck, he pointed at the cloud overhead. Anya’s next words confirmed that her voice came from the cloud. Messengers and spies. That’s what Miles had told us about clouds.
“Tell them this: ‘Two in the west for three. And raspberries.'” Her final words felt illusory, a tromp l’ears as a wind picked up and faint thunder rolled. As the last word vibrated around us, the cloud spread and blocked the moon.
The first raindrops plunked our cheeks as we stared skyward. So did the second third tenth drops. Finally, Hernandez came to and got us running to his truck.
Like most of our summer thunderstorms, this one was over before you could wish you owned an umbrella, and afterward the air was as soft as a bunny.
Although it seemed pretty clear the encounter with Anya was over, we sat in the truck with the windows down. Just in case.
“‘Two in the west for three,'” Hernandez repeated, like repetition would give it meaning. “‘With raspberries.'”
“It must be a code. She usually makes more sense than that. Sometimes.”
As anxious as we were to deliver this message, we decided that we must first finish our observations at the Connectors. As soon as the Largo closed and our evening’s assignment concluded, we would tell Henrietta about the cloud’s message. And maybe we would go talk to the Watts Towers, too. We spent the rest of our break trying to decode the message itself. Hernandez guessed and raspberries was an authentication, a prearranged proof the message was from Anya. That made sense. Clouds could be messengers or spies and our allies shouldn’t count on Hernandez or me to detect the difference.
The rain was over by the time we got settled into the truck and soon the dog walkers were back outside with their mutts. Pardon the hell out of moi. No mutts in this part of town. None of those people strolling and chatting past our truck behaved like they had just heard a cloud talk. We had to conclude that the cloud’s message came only to us, even though it emanated from everywhere. Trying to understand this new reality gave me the same kind of thrill and sore brain I get when I think about infinity.
When we got back to the Largo, the show was just letting out and to get back inside the theater compound, we pushed against the tide of chattering leave-takers. The bar was open and packed, the theater was emptying fast. We opted to check the Connector in the theater before they shut those doors.
“Looking for anyone we’d like to see?”
Hearing that voice was more fun than dragging my knuckles across a grater. “Detective Fitzpatrick,” I alerted Hernandez, but Mathead took it as a greeting. Scabman stepped from behind her, widening the sea of Largo attendees who flowed around us. Hernandez nodded without surprise. He turned away from me in order to lock his view on Scabman, whose lips twitched. When the crowd thinned, we would be able to hear Scabman’s little sucking sounds, so my short-term goal was to be gone before then.
“Imagine my surprise to learn that you have this important job where you frame people for a living.”
“Your arrest wasn’t our doing, although we were highly interested to learn about it. Weren’t we interested?” She did something I hoped never to do, she touched Scabman on the arm, unleashing a nod that hammered the air with his forehead. “If you help us find Ben Taggart, maybe we could put in a good word for you where it counts.”
“What do you want with Taggart?” Hernandez drew their attention. Their eyes were so dark and so bright.
“We were close and now we’ve lost touch,” Mathead mourned.
A fresh breeze came up and blew their medicinal smell away. Their eyes stopped glittering when a shadow fell on them. Anwyl. I had never been so happy to see him – and he always puts a pistol in my pocket.
“We must make haste,” he greeted us and ignored them. Scabman took a step back and I swear the little sucking sounds developed a whimper.
Mathead stepped between Anwyl and me. She looked from Hernandez to me and back again, spoke slowly like we were supposed to memorize her words. “Tell Ben he has 24 hours to get in touch.”
Anwyl pushed her aside. “These are not messengers. Begone.” And then he had his arms around us and guided us to the Little Bar.
“You must avoid those creatures henceforth,” he advised me.
“I couldn’t agree more!” I assured him.
The bar was filled to capacity and there was a line of people waiting their turn to go inside. No one else could enter until somebody left. Nobody could enter except Anwyl, who shouldered us ahead of him. I expected Mathead to follow us. I expected the front of the line to complain. Instead, for a split second, everything froze – mouths contorted, heads mid-turn, words crystallized in the air from a dozen conversations “Harry… second… wasted… Tuesday… tour… sister…Venice… cutest… sale… because…” – and it was like we stepped through a life-size photo of a busy evening at the Largo. When the freeze ended, we were inside the bar.
A trio of patrons gulped to finish full glasses of wine, stood and vacated as we approached their table. We sat. Although we held no drinks, no one questioned our right to occupy a table.
“We heard her voice,” I told Anwyl, cautious about uttering Anya’s name although I had to yell to hear my own voice in the post-show racket.
“Expect a message each day henceforth,” he nodded. “What word this day?”
“‘Two in the west for three,'” I quoted, and again he nodded as though not surprised.
“‘And raspberries,'” Hernandez added.
Anwyl reacted like Hernandez had sprouted pink wings. “Raspberries! Are you certain?”
“As reasonably as we can be, given that we have no idea what your codes mean and you have no plan to tell us.”
“We must make haste.” He stood, watched us exchange a look that said we weren’t moving without explanation. He sat again with a sigh. Humans. Can’t live with ’em, can’t exterminate ’em without repercussions. “It is a simple code to rank how rapidly our enemies proceed.”
“A is slowest?” Hernandez guessed.
Before Anwyl finished his nod, I was on my feet. “Then R is way too close to Z. Where do we need to go next?”
“To the west,” Anwyl said, nodding toward the Connector in the aisle beside the bar.
Go to next chapter.