This is Chapter 4 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
There was only one way that I could function normally and that would be if I evicted the memory of the hall vanishing. That proved more difficult than my earlier efforts to evict concern about my seemingly psychic dream and my fantasy of Jay’s demise. Still, although my imagination was an adrenaline junkie, there would surely be a logical explanation for everything. When my two newest clients returned, I would get the vanishing explained. I like to pull the plug on unhealthy thoughts and these were off life support by the time I straightened from not petting the cat. In fact, throughout the afternoon, I managed to keep my thoughts away from the vanishing, but the underlying memory of that incredible event infused my commonplace hours, like being in love while shopping at the supermarket.
I was relieved to see Aurelio and Norma Garcia exit the elevator. Of my three pairs of prospective clients today, they were the only ones I might have expected to get. He carried a large thin book like it was an hors-d’oeuvres tray. She had her elbow hooked with that of a man, the better to propel him from the elevator. The man was Jay’s substitute custodian, now wearing crisp slacks and plaid button-down shirt.
We made introductions and I got them all to sit down. “Mr. Hernandez, thank you for coming here to help us. I can see that your shift has ended and we are interrupting your free time.”
Hernandez sat like an iceberg awaiting a ship. It seemed like he understood when I spoke, yet he waited for the Garcia translation. His head snapped at points during it with a nod like a rusty stapler. Yes, that’s what I thought she said.
“You work here as a substitute for Jay?” He did. “Do you know why he is not at work?” He did not. “How long will you be working here in his stead?”
Hernandez’ reply to this had numerous syllables, and Señor Garcia translated it as though he were being forced to discuss toilet habits. “He says, ‘I have not been informed, but that is not any problem. Substitute custodians have no [smile] families, so do not need to know how long will they have a job.'”
This was going well. “Do you think Karina’s friend Edith is missing?”
“I think nothing about this.” Mr. Garcia translated without the original sneer.
“Do you think her mother should search for her?”
This provoked a venomous barrage that Norma Garcia answered in kind. I understood zip nada zero percent of what they said. “Excuse me!” I jimmied the words in. Norma and Hernandez shut up and turned their glares on me.
In other circumstances, Mr. Garcia’s peacekeeping translation might have been funny. After he omitted the angry words there weren’t many left. “He says [smile] no.”
“Does Karina know where Edith is?”
Hernandez answered for himself. “I will ask my daughter.” He plucked a business card from the holder on my desk. He stood and nodded goodbye to me only.
“Today ask her, tomorrow morning tell me what she said,” I requested.
Garcia’s translation was still at mañana when Hernandez replied in English, “I will do as you suggest.”
“Excellent.” I was optimistic that we had just arranged to speak without the Garcias present. I needed to know what that clenched-jaw exchange had been about. I was not surprised to find that Hernandez understood English just fine. The Garcias had a control-freak vibe so I got why they wanted to ‘translate’. But why did Hernandez agree to let them act as his interpreters? I intended to find out when he returned.
I watched him walk away, his back stiff and erect thanks to pride or a back brace. The door slammed behind him with a muffled sharp sound like fireworks across town.
While the Garcias conferred in whispered Spanish, I considered the man I had just met. Hernandez was nothing like Jay, yet reminded me of him. That closet arrogance must be an occupational hazard for a smart man in a position where at best he would be overlooked. Human woodwork.
Jay. Memory is a remarkable contrivance, the way it shifts time and space. In the moment it took the Garcias to finish their whispers and approach me, I recalled in detail the night I’d met Jay.
It was back in February, during the best storm of the winter. The wind drove an echoing howl through the parking garage and blew trash in circles. I was waiting for the elevator. Waiting.
At last the doors opened and I hastened to drag stuff inside the elevator car. In my building, the hall lights go dark at 10p so I needed to get everything into my office before then. I couldn’t move during the day because the items indicated I was sleeping in my office. I heaved the futon frame across the elevator threshold then I realized I was not alone. Startled, I released my grip and the frame slid open. The elevator door attempted to close, wedging the frame half in, half out.
A sandy-haired man stepped from the back corner of the elevator to help unjam the door and refold the frame. “Thanks,” I greeted him, “this futon will help on nights when I work so late that I’m too tired to go home.” The lie oozed around us like fresh asphalt on a hot day.
The man raised an eyebrow to direct my attention to the large bags stacked in a corner. Soil amendment, garden soil, potting soil. He shrugged defiantly. I wasn’t the only one with contraband. “Floor?” The button for floor number ten was already illuminated. The penthouse floor.
At Nine, he propped a soil bag against the elevator door to hold the car while we crab-walked the frame down the hall. In my office, it took some rearranging to get the futon set up. Only when he was certain I was satisfied with the arrangement did he press his hands together like a yogi, say “Very nice to meet you,” and return to the elevator.
He seemed pleased to find me following him. “Hey, you’ve got something on me so I need something on you,” I justified tagging along.
“That is only fair,” he said, so solemnly I was not sure he knew I was kidding.
All bags out on the penthouse floor then lugged to the stairwell to the roof. We dragged bags up the stairs and when he opened the roof door, I gasped. Darkness at our feet, magic all around. Taller buildings surrounded us, offices illumined behind vast tinted windows which made walls of lights that glittered in the wind.
The wind was so strong he insisted I crouch to move forward. I studied him as we advanced in the flickering light. His dishwater hair was held in a heavy ponytail that reached below his shoulder blades. He had a build like a bobcat, compact and graceful.
Around the corner were many other bags of dirt and soil amendments. Redwood planks formed a raised planting bed. Behind this was a garden hose, spliced into the metal pipes of the penthouse cooling system. The wind continued to gust, but here we were sheltered by the stairwell enclosure and by an ingenious windbreak crafted in the chicken wire around the cooling system.
I sat on the piled bags of dirt, grinning like a dog at the beach. He grinned back. Jay came up to my shoulder in height and in years but from that moment I looked up to him as the mentor he quickly became. We shared the hard work of his rooftop garden and, shoulder to shoulder, tending plants, I felt as close to him as I’ve ever felt to anyone including certain of my spouses.
The Garcias waited patiently for my attention. “You may be too polite,” I told them.
Their album was a narrow three-ring binder holding a scant few pages of photo sleeves. The cover was pink embossed velveteen and when I opened it, I released faint fumes of fresh vinyl. Most of the pages were blank and there were not many photos. “These photos are all about the same age.”
“Yes, these are the pictures that show how Edith looks today.”
“Why are they in a book by themselves?”
“You want to see photos that are not of Edith?”
“So you assembled this album just for me.”
“No, we did not know who would be the detective.”
I abandoned my fishing expedition. It wasn’t helping me to identify what troubled me. I wished Walter Neff were here, he would have already figured out the Garcia angle. According to him, everybody has an angle. But Walter wasn’t the helpful type. To find out what he knew about the Garcias, I would need a curvy dress and maybe some pearls. Nica! Focus!
“Alright, let me start with this,” I hefted the album and walked with them to the outer office door.
Once in the hall, Mr. Garcia turned back to say, “Tell your brother thank him for waiting.”
Brother? Sure enough, Ben was standing at the stairwell door, leaning like a forgotten mop, messing with his phone.
As soon as the elevator removed the Garcias, Ben shoved off the door and sauntered closer. “Hey, sis.”
“What’s with the lurking?” I greeted him. Watch his feet: gait tells all.
He knew what I looked for, or rather, feared to see. “I’m not high.”
“Thanks for sharing.” I headed back toward my office with a hand wave that told him he was okay to follow. I was pissed. Using, not using, I didn’t care, I didn’t need to ask or know. Anyway, that was the theory. Every time I went for a while without Ben in my life, I had to relearn how to let him back in it.
“Got yourself some customers. Good for you.”
“The proper term is clients although so far mine are more like patients.” He had stayed put, so I circled back to join him. We had spent so much of our together time like this, one holding firm, requiring the other to advance or retreat.
“What I asked earlier, about staying with you – stay chill! I get it and I won’t ask again. The thing is: where I’m staying now, I don’t like to leave my favorite stuff there, so could I store it with you?”
I thought this through carefully, searching for hidden catches. The building was Sunday morning quiet and somewhere a faucet dripped like the second hand on a cheap clock. Think about it, in another generation no one will get that reference any more, digital has –
“Neeks, you still here?” He knew better than anybody about the daydreaming. There was a time when I self-distracted myself out of any gainful conversation.
“Long story,” I shrugged.
We each held up a wall. He stepped forward and clunked his forehead against mine, hard enough to sting but leave no mark.
“Ow,” I said.
“Ow,” he repeated, which completed our post-fight ritual. There had been so much tension between us the last few years, the ritual had started cropping up when there was no certifiable fight for it to conclude.
“Yeah. I have space in the closet here, bring the stuff by any time before seven.”
Just past yeah he was dragging stuff from the stairwell where he had it stashed. He had known or assumed I would agree. I could get huffy or I could laugh it off. I snorted, grabbed the saxophone case, and led the way to my closet.
The stuff fit, barely. Now I no longer had a walk-in closet and it took me a few jumps over boxes to reach the pull chain that toggled the closet light. By then, Ben was paging through the pink photo album. “This for a case?”
“She’s missing.” I pointed to a tall slim girl with mahogany hair that was corralled in a tight band atop her head but loose over her shoulders. “Edith.” She would be striking when she finished growing into her face. I touched Edith’s emulsified cheek. I was worried about her.
“Who are the others?”
“Those are her girlfriends on the basketball team.” I pointed to a trio of girls with Edith in many photos. Three thoroughbreds with a colt. The three were about the same age as Edith but had an assurance that she lacked. “Karina, Griselda, Edith, Graciela.” I pointed to each as I said her name.
“Edith was absent the day they passed out the fancy names.”
Ben studied two team photos. The same two males hovered in the background of each. There was a short, squat man with a greased buzz cut and a whistle around his neck; and a teenager who carried a clipboard and sported a similar buzz cut which didn’t suit him.
“Unrequited here, huh?” Ben pointed to the teen boy, who high-fived Garcia the coach but looked beyond the coach to Edith.
In every photo, the boy looked at Edith. “I see what you mean – could be, thanks, I hadn’t noticed that yet.”
“Nice to be of use,” he said, and I felt the old familiar surge that charged the air between us. No matter how bad it gets, you never fully move past your first.
OK, before you call the incest squad. Ben Taggart isn’t actually my brother. He is my first and third ex-husband. But saying that doesn’t define the ties between us. Notwithstanding the occasional surge – especially after Ick died and I spiraled – we are much more like siblings than spouses or ex-spouses. So for purposes of clarification, we superficially misrepresent our relationship.
We lingered in shared air space for a moment, then he imitated the way I took a step away, making clear that he knew I had felt the surge, too. He doesn’t care about the prospect of sex. This is a hobby. He collects proof that I will never really run him off my property, no matter how threateningly I brandish that shotgun.
“I’ll need my closet back soon,” I warned.
“One…” his pocket buzzed and he checked his phone screen “…week, tops. Got to fly. Lunch soon?”
“Maybe next week,” I sighed, knowing his crap would be in my closet as long as it was my closet.
Reassuring to watch him hurry away. There was nothing alarming about his walk. Would he really be able to live the rest of his life sober? Could he stand it?
Nothing alarming and nothing special about his walk today. How long had that been true? The first time I saw him, he moved like the street thanked him for walking on it. I lacked his confidence but made up for it in balls. From the first moment, I knew we would be marauders together.
Now that was a long time ago.
I dragged his boxes out and nosed through them, curious about what he classified as stuff that mattered. One box held a Patagonia rain parka, a pink and orange gym bag with some fancy-ass designer’s label on it, and Bang and Olafson headphones. He never had money, but he always had high-end loot. Stuffed between items and down the sides were loose photos including several of me, but nobody else I recognized. And there were notebooks that appeared to be journals. Self-preservation jumped me and crushed my arms to my sides, preventing me from opening the journals.
In another box were some vintage books, CDs, yellowed philatelist sleeves, vinyl 45 records, antique woodworking tools, and gold-plated silverware wrapped in felt. This month’s strike-it-rich collections.
The saxophone gleamed, pampered as ever. The bottom of its case was lined with pawn tickets.
I got the highball glass I’d found in my bathroom cabinet and kept as a promise of hardboiled adventure. I browsed the mini-fridge under my desk and decided on carrot juice, neat. I settled in to scrutinize the photos of Edith and to make legible my notes from my conversation with the Garcias. I now had several people I needed to meet, foremost Edith’s mother Maria and the friends, Karina, Graciela, and Griselda. The friends. Glamorous and beautiful in middle school. Did that guarantee them popularity? Or was that not until high school? Mercifully, I could no longer remember.
Eduardo, the teen boy in the photos, made me sad and uneasy. He was a worshipper. He stood and dressed like his coach. He watched Edith all the damn time, but I guarantee he never spoke to her. A kid like that could be completely harmless, or very much not so.
The Garcia son, Antonio. He had a big smile and wide shoulders and a face that fit in with the kids, youthful like things usually went his way. Only the skin on his throat told me he had journeyed to the far side of thirty. I looked at him with distaste, which became self-distaste as I realized I didn’t like him because I didn’t like his parents. No good reason. We just didn’t click. Was it too late to ditch the Garcias? I’ve always been so picky about who I spend my time with. It hadn’t occurred to me I might not like my clients. Could I afford to restrict myself to clients I enjoyed?
Really, that depended on the standard of living to which I aspired. Sorry to say I have several modest inheritances – in addition to the lease on this office – which allow me to exist, albeit frugally, without getting up off my ass to lift a thin dime. Sorry because I had to lose my closest and dearest to earn those inheritances; and because, cumulatively, they give me reason to do nothing with my life. But I digress.
Would I ditch the Garcia case? No, because Edith might need help.
Edith and her friends. They all had the same look. I knew it, I remembered it. That searing need to be grown, to do what you choose. Back then, adulthood looked like freedom and excitement and we I they couldn’t wait to have their turn.
If I were Alex Delaware, I’d be on the phone to book an extra session with my therapist, to ensure that my connection with the victim didn’t distort my judgment on the case.
There, I had said it. Victim. My bowels churned like I’d dined on dirt. I had an unreasoned fear that something bad had happened to Edith.
The photos with Antonio Garcia reminded me of the crushes I had suffered over teachers. Edith looked at the coach with a somber affection that shrieked major honking crush. I hoped the coach understood how much her wellbeing depended on his kindness. He looked like the kind of jock who specialized in practical jokes in the locker room, which bode ill for his solicitude to the porcelain ego of a shy 13-year-old girl.
Go to next chapter.