This is Chapter 3 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
Something tickled my arm and when I rubbed my skin, I felt a hard knob of a critter. Smash cut to fifth grade science camp and the tick that burrowed into my arm and needed three teachers to remove – I barely screamed then or now and the crimson panic jolt smeared to pink blush. The critter was a ladybug, traversing my wrist. It must have hitched a ride from the roof garden. I cupped my hand to keep it from flying away and headed out to return it to its proper surroundings on the roof.
I collided with two strangers at the door to my waiting room. Preoccupied with memories of tick hell, I hadn’t noticed the flashing light that meant someone had opened my hall door. Maybe Marlowe did it right, maybe I should use a buzzer instead of a light.
People, be careful for what thou may wisheth. Only yesterday I had rued the fact that my office was always empty.
“I beg your pardon come in give me a moment please.” I preceded them into my office and went to my window. If I freed the ladybug in the building hallway, it would never find its way outside. With a hand still cupped over the ladybug on my arm, I tried to open my window, but my sole available hand was not enough. The ancient window pulley had a broken weights mechanism and the window could only be opened with brute strength. One of the strangers was immediately beside me to provide the brute. The stranger’s hands raised the window as though it weren’t heavy and awkward. I leaned over the sill, uncupped my hand, and gave a quick blow at the ladybug’s butt to propel it back toward the roof.
Curling back under the window into the room, I became aware that the air had changed. My office smelled like a forest just after a flash flood, when everything is power-washed and tree trunks are smeared with riverbed mud. Fresh and wild.
It took much strength to gently lower that window, but the stranger’s arms – all sinew and muscle – showed no strain and his lips maintained the hint of smile with which he had watched the ladybug depart. I took a step back to get a fuller look and to get farther away.
He was a wolf. I don’t mean a predatory flirt, I mean he was long and lean and fast and dangerous: coarse black hair, ice-gray eyes, smile full of teeth, supreme confidence backed with survival instinct.
“Please sit down,” I suggested or pleaded as I retreated behind my desk. As he complied, muscles flexed inside his garments, a loose cotton tunic and drawstring pants that were as gray as February.
She sat down, too. My other visitor was a princess: not as in daddy’s spoiled girl, as in future queen of the fairies. She was as ethereal as he was earthy, exotic but I couldn’t place the ethnic background. Cornsilk hair, slanted eyes like unpolished silver – now green now blue now pewter. She had thick Slavic cheekbones but was otherwise delicate unto frailty, her skin like the penny you’ve always kept in your pocket for luck. Her tunic looked handwoven and was white as a desert sunrise.
“We are in need of your detective arts,” she said.
“That tends to be why people come to this office.” The joke was stillborn. “I’m usually good with accents but I can’t place yours.” They sat as though I hadn’t spoken. Okay. Scratch the indirect. “Where are you from?”
“I first arrived in the place you call Kansas,” she told me.
“Huh.” I’ve been to Kansas and there is nobody like her there. I decided I would not call her a liar and looked to him expectantly.
“Knowledge of my ancestry provides no value. We have need of your assistance,” he said, in a voice that never needed help from anybody.
“The fate of the free worlds is at stake,” she added with a calm that belied the words, in a voice like the first spring breeze on snow.
“Oh-kay. Um. Where did you hear about me, by the way? I haven’t had the business long uh in this location.”
Note to self, cancel ad in Nutjob Quarterly.
“We learned about you from your building.”
“Excellent, I am so glad to hear that. At last! You wouldn’t believe how long it takes to get a name added to the building directory!” They looked at me without comprehension. “By the elevator. It shows the names and room numbers. The list in the lobby.”
I can be a babbler when I’m nervous. Devoid of expression, they continued to watch me babble. They exchanged an expressionless look and she made a slight nod.
She seemed to be giving him permission.
“We have need of your assistance,” he repeated. “Tonight you must accompany us to a meeting.”
“Tell me more. Where is the meeting? Who will be there?”
“That is not information I can relay at this time.”
“Because you don’t know or you don’t want me to know?”
“Because -” he began, then stopped when her hand stiffened. The wrist stayed on the chair bur the fingers poked into the space between their chairs, as though the conversation was a canal and she was the sluice gate. He looked at her hand and the wrist tilted so that the fingers pointed at the skylight.
The room darkened. I rocked back in my chair and through the skylight watched a voluptuous tower of a cloud slide across the sky, briefly blocking the sun. “Looks like we might get thunderstorms this afternoon,” I acknowledged that we were all watching the sky. They nodded and spoke not a word. He stood and went to the window to keep tracking the sky. When the cloud cleared the skylight, he positioned himself so that he could watch it continue into the distance.
She watched me watch him watch the cloud. After it disappeared, he checked the other direction, pivoted, and strode to his seat with a blunt nod to her. He picked up the conversation as though there had been no gap.
“Tonight we will employ your guidance to reach an – associate. We will explain all when it is time to do so.”
She continued to hold my gaze. When she blinked and looked over to him, I realized he had asked me a question. “Missed that one. Repeat please?”
“We have not told you – cannot tell you – what you seek to know. Will you trust us nonetheless?”
I looked from one to the other, she as languid as he was taut. And for reasons unknown, I found it easy to reply, “Yes. Yes I will.” I was the only one surprised by my answer.
“Your remuneration will be one thousand for 24 hours. We understand you may require eight hours or more sleep. Is that amount acceptable?”
“Very much so.” I had no clue what I was getting myself into here, with this pair who were wary of clouds. Yet as we made plans to meet here at 7 tonight, I felt calm and rational.
My bafflement surfaced after they left, like a turtle in a murky pond. I realized I hadn’t confirmed she meant 1,000 dollars per day. No matter. I felt such a pull to see them again, I would have agreed to 1,000 cents. It was generous regardless. After all, I would be permitted to sleep every single day.
Wait. The building could be locked by 7, so my office could be inaccessible when they tried to return. We needed an alternate rendezvous plan. I vaulted over my desk and slammed out both doors to catch up and advise them. I caught up with them around the corner, right before they disappeared. I don’t mean the elevator door closed between us to block them from view. I mean. I rounded the corner, found them standing about as far as I could throw an aspirin. They each held a small apparatus like an asthmatic’s inhaler. They clenched these in their teeth, they inhaled, and they faded away.
As they disappeared, he saw me and lifted a hand in farewell. She began to do the same, then her fist clenched and she stared behind me with a look of bravado or fear. I turned around and found the object of her stare. It was the building cat, whose name tag listed an out-of-service phone number and a name I refused to use, Queen Desdemona.
“Hey, Dizzy,” my voice sounded relieved. The cat headed toward me and I expected Dizzy to rub my legs in a figure eight – that would be her normal routine. But I did not feel that sleek shrug of fur against skin. Instead, the cat walked to the spot where the woman had stood, then sat like an Egyptian tomb carving, more still than when she heard a mouse in the walls.
I stomped over to the cat to pet her. I would have normalcy, dammit. Dizzy flopped and contorted in order to clean her butt. Now, that was business as usual – and gave me hope that I had not just witnessed what I had just witnessed.
Usually, when I pet Dizzy’s belly she attacks my hand. I reached to pet her belly. Today, I would welcome the sting of claws, simply because it was expected. I didn’t get the usual that I craved, though. As my hand reached for Dizzy, the elevator pinged. Nothing spooks Dizzy, really, but she can be dramatic. At the subdued ping she bounded away, leaving me stooped over reaching for nothing.
Go to next chapter.