This is Chapter 7 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
The next morning, by the time I usually would have folded away the futon for the day, I had already gone for a run twice my usual 3 miles, pumped iron, showered at the gym, and stopped for my bagel with fresh-squeezed juice. Today was pumpernickel with cucumber-ginger-carrot-apple. The roads were still relatively clear of droopy commuters, so it was easy to avoid a flesh-versus-auto incident. I only needed two evasive maneuvers.
Today would be a good and productive day. I would wrap up my other cases so that I could serve Anya as soon as –
Serve Anya. I had really just thought that. Well, if it sounds weird, you never met Anya.
I confess to confusion of intent, however. I also wanted to lock in more cases unrelated to Anya and Anwyl, the better to anchor me to my world.
In the lobby of the Henrietta, waiting at the elevator, I touched my hand to the wall’s black marble wainscoting. “Thanks for the referral,” I said to the wall. If I hadn’t distracted myself watching for a reply from a building, I might have noticed that the elevator took longer than usual to arrive, which meant it descended from a top floor. Or I might have noticed the stale medicinal smell in the elevator, which I had encountered for the first time yesterday.
In the doorway from the hall to my waiting room, I collided with her and when I took a step back, he appeared behind me to shove me forward again. Mathead and Scabman, hours before their expected time of return. They must have changed their meds. They were not vacant like yesterday. Their aggression surrounded me like hornets in a sandstorm.
“Hey, good morning! You folks are earrr-ly! I’m impressed!” Breaking Bad had confirmed what I saw in Ben’s worst friends: tweakers were unpredictably violent. I wasn’t sure how to handle them, but instinct suggested that I strive to be their village idiot – they have to understand somebody’s words before they know whether those words piss them off, right?
I busied myself unlocking the inner office door. With a few more seconds, maybe I could formulate a desperate escape attempt. I retreated behind my desk and pantomimed a burned finger, as though my coffee cup was hot and that’s why I hurried to set it down.
“We got all your money so now we want our duffel bag. This one.” Mathead sliced a photo through the air. It hit my chest above the heart and fell to my lap. I studied the blurred image. It was a pink and orange bag with some designer label. I had seen this before and recently. I frowned, until Mathead noticed.
I exaggerated the reaction to distort it. “Yesterday you said the bag was black.”
“We weren’t sure we could trust you back then.”
“And now you can? What the hell, nothing has changed!?” I shrilled.
She reached for the photo, I yanked it back, it ripped, I sobbed, “Awww, nooo!”
Her next reach was tentative, like a child comforting an alkie aunt. My emotionalism had thrown her. I felt on top of the situation, until I remembered where I had seen a bag like that before: among Ben’s stuff now stored in my closet. Oh Ben, what have you got yourself – and me – into this time?
“We’re paying you to find this bag. Start by asking everybody you know, have they seen it?”
Scabman stopped the little sucking sounds. The future depended on my response.
I made no response. Instead, I obsessed with using desk tape to repair the photo, making a big show of removing tape from the dispenser. The plan was that the movements would disguise the shaking of my hands. They didn’t want a detective, they wanted Ben, and they were here because they thought I could lead them to him. Luckily, he liked mornings about as much as I liked this morning. Otherwise, that refined ding down the hall might be him exiting the elevator.
I needed to convert my fear to useful emotion. I pulled free a length of tape. It stuck to itself. I wadded it with fury and tried to throw it across the room. It stuck to my hand. Mathead watched me as though I were about to dictate a deathbed confession. She unfolded a thick wad of bills and began laying out hundreds like she was setting a table using only knives.
I slammed my hand to the desk. “Oh. My. Fucking! GOD! There is only one explanation!” I yelled directly to Scabman. He resumed sucking pensively.
I had to stare down Mathead and I couldn’t give her room to reply. “What is so important about that stupid gym bag? What have you got in that bag? Drugs, right? There is no fucking way I am helping any more druggies. I was married to one. He took everything from me. EVERYTHING! No fucking way. And then he went for more! I cut him out of what’s left of my pitiful life I can sure the shit cut you out. Oh. My. Fucking! Look at this place! Everything I own came from a garage sale. Get out! Take your money and get out before I completely lose it. Oh, whoops!” I shrieked sarcastically as the desk light hit the floor. By now, I was pacing the room and backhanding stuff onto the floor for punctuation.
Shit. She only partially bought my freakout – she stepped back but looked skeptical. I gave a rage-filled stomp, near where the glass base of the desk light had shattered, which stomped my sandal onto an evil claw of broken glass.
For a moment I froze, then we all watched my foot ascend, streaming blood, as I raised my leg and yanked free the impaled glass. The pain in my foot was so intense that for a time it was outside the range of human perception. Then it shot up my leg. And the blood. It splashed the side of the desk and pooled on the marble floor like a vampire had spilled a Grande.
I didn’t need to fake hysteria now and I was making enough noise to echo in the subbasement. Scabman retreated to the hall but Mathead held her ground at the door. Through my howls, she demanded to know where Ben was.
“You tell me! I’d love to fucking know!” I shrieked, “If you find him before I do, you tell him that THIS time I’m – holy fucking shit. Ow ow ow OW OW.” I had tried to wrap a towel around my foot and the increase in pressure detected another shard of imbedded glass. While I struggled to hold still to extract it, the musty medicinal odor receded. Mathead and Scabman were gone.
They weren’t gone forever but my display of emotional instability had bought me some time. Village idiot might have worked better, but I had been too stressed to pull that off. I collapsed onto the futon and worried the glass shard free. Suddenly, I was wiped and it took my remaining energy to hold my gaze steady. I couldn’t be sure Mathead and Scabman had left the building, so while I focused on my foot, I continued to issue bursts of foul expletives in what I hoped sounded like soul-torn venting against druggie ex-spouses but, when I tuned in, sounded more like a parrot with Tourette’s.
I cleaned my foot, I cleaned the glass, I cleaned the blood. No one was in the hall. I locked my office door and unpacked the closet. It was in the bottom box. The designer duffel bag that was an identical twin to the one in Mathead’s photo. I gasped. Rage and terror hit me like toxic fumes. Removing the duffel from the box, its handle caught on something and I yanked it harder than Ben jerked my chain. This propelled me in a backward ricochet from closet to futon frame to desk.
Immediately, I had a welt on the back of my skull and pain that helped me forget about my foot.
I was starting to fear that this was not going to be a good day after all.
The duffel bag was empty and its interior held no residues or odors. I was tempted to stick it out in the hall, maybe over by the elevator, or down in the lobby. But that wouldn’t necessarily get rid of the tweakers. If the bag was a McGuffin, as I suspected, then their real intent was to use me to get to Ben. In that case, the worst thing I could do was acknowledge recent contact with Ben.
Luckily, Mathead and Scabman had come by too early to cross paths with Ben – unless he had stopped by after an allnighter. Was he still pulling allnighters? Who the hell knew? Cared? I dared not rely on luck though. Ben had to stay away from this building. I had to warn him. But I refuse to save his phone numbers nowadays, so I didn’t know how to reach him. So he needed to stop by the building. But he had to stay away from –
My mind was on its hundredth loop of this circular racetrack when the light flashed above the door, indicating entry to the waiting room.
At first, the waiting room seemed empty, then I discovered Hernandez, sitting as relaxed as an ice sculpture in the chair behind the door. Without a word, he came into my office and sat again, with his stiffness from pride or injury or military training.
“Thank you for coming back. Did you talk with Karina? That’s nothing, just an accident with some broken glass.”
Was it a custodian thing? He had immediately zeroed in on the wastebasket full of bloody paper towels. But he wasn’t reacting to my words. “Do you need an interpreter?”
“I don’t. Do you?” He sneered without curling a lip.
Conversation with him was like walking an alley at night. It was dark and uneven but I sensed there would be light at the other end.
Yesterday afternoon I had done a little digging at the Henrietta’s office and learned a couple, interesting facts. “I understand you used to work for the school district, as do the Garcias. Did they have anything to do with your getting fired?”
“I didn’t know them. I’m just a custodian, they are important people.”
Farther down the alley is an abandoned pit bull.
“Now here they are bothering you again, this time at a job that is probationary. You could lose this job if any trouble arises. I won’t let them cause trouble for you here.”
The pit bull mistrusts the food you throw to it. “Thanks for your concern.”
“Is that why you hate them?”
The dog is too suspicious to chew the food. “You ask me whether I hate your clients and if so, why. What’s the benefit to me if I respond?”
“To find Edith, I need to understand what is going on. I have heard the Garcias’ side. As with any story, there will be other sides.”
The dog follows you. “I can’t help you find Edith.”
“Is that what Karina told you?”
“It’s better that they don’t find her.”
You reach the lighted end of the alley. “They the Garcias?”
The dog runs back into the dark, barking.
“The Garcias and Maria.”
I followed him back into the dark. “It is better if her own mother does not find her?”
“If you want to help Edith, you need to believe me.”
“If our situations were reversed, what would you do? Who would you believe?”
“I would seek the truth, not the girl.” He stood.
“So help me find the truth.” I stood, too. “Get me started. Give me something. I’ll get it without you, but I’ll be less inclined to believe you if I do.”
He made a sudden motion toward me, then smiled, maybe because I had not flinched. He grabbed my pen and note pad. “Maria finishes work at two p.m.” He wrote an address and tossed the pad back on my desk with a twist so that it fell in a readable position.
“Let’s not waste time on games. You must already know what Maria will tell me so – just. Ho-kay.” No point drying out my spit. He was already out the office door.
At the hall door, he turned back to me, spine so stiff it was as though the room spun around his immobile axis. “I’m just a custodian,” he repeated.
“Yeah, you mentioned that.” I pocketed the address as I joined him at the door. “My investigation will lead me to Maria at two.”
I grabbed his arm. I thought the space invasion would distress him, but if so, he kept it hidden. “Is Edith safe?”
“Karina says, yes for now.”
There was something noble about him and I felt proud of myself for liking him before I realized that.
I had one more question and blocked his way to ask it. “Jay?”
For the first time, he looked away. “I’ve got nothing to tell you,” he said. I couldn’t decide whether his elevated tension was from what he wasn’t saying, or having to step around me. The room went dark and we looked up. In the skylight, blue sky was obliterated by the passage of a thick dark thundercloud, the playground bully at CharcoalStringCheese’s school. I couldn’t remember another July with so many clouds.
He was past me. “What destroyed the roof garden?” This stopped him.
“Is there a garden on the roof?” he asked, to my double disappointment. Jay had told me that Hernandez helped him rig the roof irrigation. So Hernandez knew there was a garden, yet he pretended ignorance – and made the lie convincing.
“There is something very wrong in the garden. I wonder if the problem has anything to do with Jay’s disappearance.”
He cut the crap. “Don’t go up there, it’s not safe there.”
I wondered how closely his experience matched my vision, but I dared not bring that up now, when I was just starting to connect with him. “His son thinks his dad ditched him.” This was an easy jump from the facts. I knew he had a son; and my previous snooping had determined that his son had phoned the Henrietta’s business office, looking for Jay.
“I can’t help his son feel better.”
“You need to tell me what you know.”
“I don’t – know anything.” His gaze held steady.
“Then Jay told you something. Or you heard something. Or saw something.” He glanced away and his fear hit me like a load of bricks in the fast lane. “You saw something.”
“I thought I saw something that makes no sense. The irrational is embarrassing.”
I pretended that I was willing to drop the subject. “Okay. If you want to talk about it later, you know how to find me.”
“I’ve got work now.”
“Of course. But I may need your advice after I talk with Maria. May I come find you after I talk with her?”
“I work until eight tonight.” He took another minute to describe how to find Maria at her job. As I listened, I observed the separate thinking his eyes were showing while his lips gave directions.
Go to next chapter.