This is Chapter 8 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
I needed to think about what Hernandez hadn’t said, about how to crowbar him for more information, about how I would approach Maria. Usually my office was my sanctuary, but right now it felt oppressive. Maybe it was the duffel bag in the closet and the bloody glass in the trash.
In fact, I felt inexplicable urgency to get out and stay out. I decided to head for the Central Library. Just walking through those library doors, I always think more clearly. And the library was on the way to see Maria.
I had a shelf full of library books, overdue and untouched. I love checking out library books but by the time I get around to reading one, I owe fines commensurate with the purchase price. Something about the new and untried being more desirable than the familiar and obtained. If you need to draw comparisons with my marital habits, get it over with and let’s move on.
I grabbed the most egregiously overdue and headed out. But no sooner had I touched the books than I felt a need to go up to the roof and check on the garden. Perhaps it was mentioning the garden blight to Hernandez that focused my concern up there.
Every step is an exercise opportunity. I walked briskly down my hall and around the two corners to reach the stairs that connected to the roof. The door looked different but I couldn’t place the change. It was like a tromp l’oeil version of itself, a painting on a wall. I could turn the handle but nothing else budged. With each attempt I yanked harder and when the door did open, I became a one-woman comedy skit, thrown off balance with library books flying. All the books managed to land without damaging themselves. I could not say the same.
The air in the stairwell was as refreshing as the inside of a dumpster. I held my breath and sprinted up the steps. At the top of the stairs, the roof door also stuck. I had to hurl my weight into it to push out onto the roof. Maybe the door hadn’t stuck, maybe the midday summer air was thick enough to offer resistance. It reminded me why I usually visited in early morning or late evening.
A few strides across the roof, I got my first view of the garden and thought no wonder I needed to come up here. Which made no sense but I thought it anyway.
Anya was here. She knelt at the edge of the garden, her fingers palpating the blighted soil. She straightened and smiled at me, which revitalized the air around us and left the world more dreary when the smile concluded.
“Did you figure out what happened here?” I greeted her, resisting an improbable urge to bow.
She stared at the library books tucked under my arm. “Those are not yours and you must not keep them.”
“They’re late, I know, but I always pay the fines?” I used intonation to ask why she cared about my borrowing habits.
“You must not allow them near you.”
“I’m returning them as soon as I leave here.” Were we really having this conversation?
“You must dispose of them.”
“Are you telling me to get rid of my books?”
“Those are not your books. Books that do not belong to you must be separated from you. You must accomplish this today.”
“I’ll get my loaners back to the library. Do you mean I can keep my own books?”
“It is safest to keep only those you love best. Are there books that you love?”
“Keep those. Do not keep any others.”
“Okay.” The weirdest part was that I knew I would comply because the instruction came from her. She led me back to the door and I left the treacherous library books inside the stairwell where she indicated. She shut the door snugly, then slid her hands along the edges of the door frame.
She looked up to the sun, yet inward, searching for something that I knew I could not see. I watched her instead, poised and listening. “They have begun.” She returned her gaze to me, there on the roof; for a moment, her eyes were sky reflected on glacier and I understood her to be afraid. She already had the best posture I’d ever seen, but now she stood taller and straighter. She thrust her arms toward the sky as though fear filled her with strength. “So, then, must we.” She held the pose with the defiance of a lightning rod, then she braced my shoulders and led me away from the door.
I was stunned by the change in the garden. The blight was winning and now more than half the garden was crippled and gray. Her walk past the blighted plants was resolute until we passed the plants most recently stricken. She paused next to a failing bush bean. “Courage, my friend,” she whispered to the plant.
At the far corner of the garden, still untouched by blight, she lifted some jasmine vines and ushered us into a secluded bower, deep in the healthy section of the garden. The vines had only a few remaining flowers but when Anya stepped in, the fragrance grew as intense as it had been last spring when the jasmine was in full bloom.
She reached into the folds of her thin white cloak and extracted a flat woven cord that was as supple as silk but glinted and faintly clinked as though spun with strands of platinum and gold. “This will protect you, Nica,” she said softly. Until her reassurance enveloped me, I hadn’t realized how vulnerable I had been.
I extended my hand and when I touched the cord I heard whispered commands and instructions, too faint to discern but important to hear. I felt eager and frustrated that I couldn’t make out the words, which seemed to come from the cord itself.
She lowered it over my head and adjusted it around my neck. As soon as the cord touched my skin, electrified honey surged through my veins. She draped the cord over my shoulders and tucked it under the neckline of my tanktop, then frowned. It was flat, but wide, and still mostly showed, although apparently she didn’t want it to. She removed it, which left a chill.
She had me fold down my shorts and peel up my top, so that she could wrap the cord around my waist. She touched me like we’d been best friends since grade school and she was helping me dress for my first wedding. The cord seemed infinitely elastic. She pulled it to slide over my shoulders, pushed it to hug my waist. It did all this without slack or pinch. Then we adjusted my clothes so they lay flat over the cord. Against the skin of my back and stomach, the electrified honey flowed. In other circumstances, the sensation would be one hell of a bedroom gimmick.
Anya said something that I couldn’t make out. Touch had won out over all my other senses. The honey spread throughout my body, then stopped flowing abruptly when she punched at my stomach! I deflected her fist with a physical assurance that was novel but entertaining. She smiled and touched my cheek like I was her favorite granddaughter.
“So this thing improves my reflexes?”
“This is a lanyard. It will tune your senses to threats and protect you from grievous harm. It will limit any injury until you are safe to properly heal. It aids self-defense in many ways. On a better day, I will instruct you in its ways. Until then, you will learn on your own.”
As she made final adjustments, I bumped into Jay’s chair and I couldn’t hold my questions any longer. “What happened to Jay, the one who built this garden? Why did I have that terrible dream about him? Did he die up here? Why? How?”
Anya sighed. “Henrietta gives safe haven in all Frames, but this,” she indicated the roof, “is not Henrietta. It has become a Connector outside the system of Connectors. It allows danger to enter her safe zone.”
“It feels bad up here now, but it hasn’t always. I’ve been up here with Jay lots of times and it always felt great – peaceful and restorative – until lately.”
Anya nodded. “The Connector feels newly activated.”
She clasped gentle hands on my shoulders. “That is a question we must answer.”
“So once the Connector opened, something dangerous came here and trashed the garden? And Jay?”
“Yes, Nica, I fear your friend met with evil here. Yours was a terrible vision, not a dream.”
“But why Jay?”
“He may simply have stood in another’s path.”
Wrong place, wrong time, on a cosmic scale. “Are you confirming that he is dead?”
“Yes, it is likely that he has traveled beyond the far Frames.”
I didn’t understand all of that but I got the essentials. Jay was gone and if my vision was true, his end was terrible. I couldn’t succumb to grief right now – and, unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of practice setting aside such feelings until a better time. Jay, I love you.
I let Anya lead me out the far side of the garden. “What’s a Connector?”
“It is a passageway, a means of Travel for those who have neither powers nor Guide.”
“Some people talk about wormholes. Is a Connector a wormhole between Frames?”
“It does no harm to think of it thus. Come with me now, Nica. Quickly.”
“When does somebody explain to me what is going on?”
“Arrange a taxi for transport again this evening,” she replied as though this were an answer. She paused outside the planting beds and looked for something I knew I couldn’t help her find. Perhaps tonight would make things clear to me.
“Are we going to the same Frame as before?”
“You are,” she nodded, then laughed at my joyful dance.
“I love those guys,” I enthused. I couldn’t wait to see Miles and Monk again.
“The free Frames depend on them,” she agreed. “As do I.”
She hadn’t included herself in tonight’s trip. But before I could form my question about this, I froze. The air pressure changed like it does just before a tornado, although the sky showed no sign of storm and we were in downtown Los Angeles, not Kansas. Below us was a concussion, as though there had been an explosion inside the building. An explosion with shock waves but no sound.
Anya looked toward the stairwell door. I kept my gaze on her. The very thought of that door terrified me and I did not want to consider it. I was a weakling and had no hope against the advancing forces. I wanted to run but there was nowhere to go. I was an imbecile and would be lost if I moved. Better to stay and meet my fate quickly. I was a worm devoid of hope.
Worm wasn’t bad. I could make like an earthworm and slither deep among the jasmine’s roots.
Anya grabbed my arm and my fear receded like a winter tide. I regained control of my thoughts as she led me farther from the door. Her Guide was in her hand and she gestured to me to follow her lead. “Take up your Guide,” she instructed.
“I don’t have it! Anwyl took it back!”
With a gesture of frustration, she put her Guide away.
The menace expanded and I knew that soon the door would open. I was not near the door, but I could feel its metal flex and push against the edges of the doorway, which for now remained sealed where Anya had touched it. If I started screaming I would not be able to stop.
Anya led me to the edge of the roof, where a six-foot-high iron railing marked the perimeter. Like everything on the roof, the railing was newer and less stylish than the rest of the building. I’d more than once wondered if suicides had preceded its installation, but I hadn’t gotten around to finding out its history and now I would never know. Amazing how fast and pointless thoughts can fly in a crisis.
The pressure concussions continued to build behind us and beneath us, now accompanied by an intermittent sound like a helicopter in a cavern.
“Do you trust me, Nica?” Anya asked unnecessarily.
“What are we going to do?” I asked, but we were already doing it.
Anya leaped to the flat roof of the air conditioning shed and before I knew it, I had scaled the chain link enclosure to stand beside her. Up here, we were above the iron railing. Holy crap, we were going to jump off the building. Well, if she thought certain death was better than waiting for the door to open, then jump it would be. Certainly, the way the approaching sounds made me feel, it was easy to believe a jump was preferable.
Facing me, she entwined our forearms. Her hands gripped my elbows and my hands clutched hers. Her skin felt like a spring breeze on a meadow.
The roof door exploded toward us with a metallic scream.
We jumped off the building into the scuzzy air. Now, at last, I had the balls to look back toward the door, but instead I saw the penthouse windows shoot up and over my head. I looked down ten nine eight stories to the bus stop at the corner. Below, ant people debarked a bus. I fantasized our fall would be buffered by awnings, but there were no awnings. Our fall would end at the steel and glass bus stop shelter. I hoped the ant people would disperse before we arrived.
Anya looked inward, muttering. I felt the same sensation I’d felt last night when I used the Guide – like I was in an elevator dropping 100 stories, in a world where gravity worked at right angles. Plummeting sideways.
The building remained on my left side and the bus stop remained below our feet, but the ant people and the street traffic dissolved into a broad, sinuous path that undulated like a sidewinder. We were no longer in my Frame. The air was like mercury here, and in it we slowed to a feather’s speed. My feet hit the ground so gently that I didn’t realize we had landed, until Anya let go of one elbow and dragged me toward the building entrance.
The shallow courtyard was the same as it was in the Henrietta I knew, but at the far end there was no door, just a gash like a poorly healed wound. Where the doorjamb had been, stitches of razor wire bound jagged edges of brick that oozed mortar. As we hurried past the door, Anya grabbed both my arms again, spun me around to swap places with her, then released the arm she had been holding and gripped the other arm. She had positioned herself between me and the undulating path, which swerved close to us here.
We turned a corner. Several windows above us were open and I could hear laughter and clinking glasses, like a party in progress. Where the street should be, there was pockmarked relief that had a pattern to it I couldn’t place at first. As I stared, I realized I was looking at a city as though a few thousand feet above it. The pockmarks shifted in movements reminiscent of distant cars and people. I eased us closer in a futile attempt to get a better look – getting closer made the scene more distant. Anya didn’t seem concerned that I got closer to this, yet something about it filled me with unease far greater than the undulating pathway had. From this angle, the sounds above us, inside the windows, made an emotional Doppler shift; the voices were now animated in arguments and the clinks sounded like slaps.
We turned the next corner and Anya resumed muttering. Again, we plummeted sideways and we were back in my Frame, in the narrow alley at the delivery entrance to the Henrietta. We were alone there and I felt exposed. Anya braced my arms in farewell, then backed away, speaking rapidly to me while muttering to herself. As she backed away, she grew as faint as last week’s dreams.
“Do not return to your rooms until Anwyl comes tonight. He will help you dispose of the books that do not belong. Tell him everything that you witnessed today. Tell him I have begun the journey. Goodbye, Nica. We will meet in better times. Now go, and quickly.” She vanished before she finished speaking and her last few words came from all directions.
Go to next chapter.