This is Chapter 9 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
I was a shipwreck in need of an island. Whenever a thought touched on my last hour with Anya, an evil black ooze filled the fringes of my thoughts. I had to stay in the present, so I made a to-do list for my afternoon and repeated it until it became a mantra. Find Edith’s mother Maria. Question her about Edith’s disappearance. Return to the Henrietta. Get input from Hernandez about the conversation with Maria. Eradicate library books. No – that last one brought the ooze so I scrapped it from my list.
I noted without judgment that I already trusted Hernandez.
I must have caught the Red Line train into Hollywood, because here I was where Maria worked. I stood outside Yucca Elementary School and watched buses line the driveway at the end of the school day. According to their window placards, the buses came from several schools. This must be a hub of summer school activity. I thought about budget cuts and working parents and my eyes filled with tears. I had a titch of PTSD, or I sensed this would be the last time for a long time that I would spectate such a normal scene.
Hernandez’ description of Maria was as authentic as a photograph. When she emerged, I had no doubt it was she. Short and sturdy, Maria reminded me of the log cabin where Ben and I finished our honeymoons. She wore sensible shoes like she had no other styles at home, and she walked as though she was on her way to her second but not her last job of the day.
She stopped because I asked her to, listened after I said that Hernandez had sent me, shut down when I explained that I wanted to help find her daughter.
“This I do not ask!” she said, angry or frustrated. “Edith is no – Only the family -” She shoved her arms folded.
“Señor Hernandez told me that you understand much English but it is difficult for you to speak it. I am in a worse position. I only know Spanish that is no use to anyone. Hace frio este deciembre?” This demonstration earned the world’s most fleeting smile. Emboldened, I continued. “The Garcias say that you are searching for Edith. Together.”
“Did they lie to me? You are not looking for Edith together?”
“They did not lie about that.”
“But they lied about other things?”
“I miss my bus.”
I walked with her down the street.
“Are you still looking for your daughter?”
“No more. Mistake.”
“So she was okay all along?”
“No more. Mistake.” Her voice was brick scraping cement.
“Why do the Garcias want to find Edith?”
“My bus is here,” she whispered.
Getting info from Maria was like the time I tried to drive my scooter up a runaway truck ramp. I kept gunning it, then, too, until the friction burned a hole in a tire. I boarded the bus behind her. She did a cornered animal thing with her eyes when I slid into the seat beside her.
“Do you want the Garcias to stop looking for Edith?”
“Why did you partner with them?” She didn’t understand that one. “Why did you help the Garcias to look for your daughter?”
It wasn’t any of the answers I anticipated. She met my eyes and announced, “I was ignorant.” The way she turned to face front, I knew those were the last words I would get from her today.
I thanked her for her time and got off the bus at the next stop. I’d only ridden about half a mile but I hadn’t attended to the turns and I had no idea which direction would get me to the train station. My map app was no help. The dreaded compass interference. I waved my phone to draw infinity symbols in the air as I walked. Still nothing. That was one mighty big compass.
I chose a direction that put the Hollywood Hills to my left, which meant I headed east. Within two blocks, the neighborhood became detectably scuzzier, which meant I was nearing Western Avenue, which meant I was walking away from the station and needed to hang a left and a left.
I wasn’t lost, exactly; after all, it can be slow to get your bearings when on foot. I didn’t know this area, the dregs of Hollywood. Elvis Cole would know his way around here. He knew his way around everywhere – he knew every street in Los Angeles County. He must just drive around between cases… er… between books. Well, anyway, his author sure knew L.A.
Was it possible to be a detective in Los Angeles without a car? Whatever the answer, I would have to make it possible for now. I hadn’t expected to get cases so soon. I had recently loaned my car to Jenn, and if I took it back even briefly, she would refuse to borrow it again – and she needed it to get to her more exotic medical treatments. Jenn has M.S. and fights it with medicine from all hemispheres.
I had a blister where my Asics met one ankle.
I turned into an old neighborhood with mature trees, whose roots made the sidewalks treacherous. I had to watch where I put my feet, so almost collided with a construction flatbed that pulled into a driveway in front of me. The driver was a kid who knew he was too good for this job. He jumped out like he dared me to complain about how he had cut me off. I gave him two days on the job, I wouldn’t have to lift a finger, he’d hurt himself just fine. I detoured around the back of the truck, turning my other cheeks to him. Gandhi lives.
The apartment buildings that flanked the driveway were three-story boxes with the architectural flair of loading docks. Over one carport was a wooden sailboat, riding waves with most crests broken. Chain link fence with green webbing surrounded the complex and signaled a construction site.
The truck driver caught my attention a second time. His walk had lost its strut and he slunk to a corner outside the webbing, where he huffed an electronic cigarette, pretended to study the dried weeds, and cast furtive peeks at the crew who unloaded his truck.
Call it curious. Call it nosy. I crossed the street to perch on a porch step and get a broader view of whatever had so altered his mood.
Five guys in hard hats unloaded rebar from the flatbed. A sixth stood to one side, watching them. It took me a minute to figure out what was weird. They worked in full sync yet complete silence. At one point, without discussion, they all stopped and changed direction, backing up to turn left in order to deliver that load – and only that load – to the other side of the site. They didn’t look at one another, but they would occasionally turn in unison to regard the foreman, before performing a new action in unison.
My waist prickled where Anya’s lanyard touched me. The prickle became a searing jolt when the foreman turned to look at me. The crew had their backs to us but turned in unison to follow his gaze to me. I hunched lower onto the porch step, grabbed my phone, and pretended to mess with it.
“Help you with something?” came a bass voice from behind me. In retrospect, I recalled hearing the door and the screen door open behind me.
“Train station? Think I took a wrong turn. Sorry to intrude – your porch has the best shade in blocks,” I said, and listened carefully to the porch owner’s directions. While we talked, the flatbed drove away and the gates to the construction site closed. The lanyard ceased its prickling.
I had the train station to myself, which disturbed me. I reminded myself that it was typical for a station to be empty at this time of day. Rude attention from construction guys was also typical. It was no wonder that I reinterpreted the ordinary in terms of my experience with Anya. But I had to stop extrapolating or I’d become no use to anybody, especially myself.
I had just missed one train and at this time of day, the next would arrive in 20 minutes. That gave me some time to think about what I had and hadn’t learned from Maria. I found a not-very-sticky bench and adjusted my shoelace so my shoe hit my ankle below the blister. There was a rustle of synthetic fabric and after that I was not alone.
The other bench dweller spoke to me. “Why are you looking for Edith Moreno?”
I gave her my best you talkin’ to me? She flashed a badge and I hid my surprise with a blurted question of my own. “Which side is the mother on, anyway?”
“Maria’s coming around,” the detective replied, out-murking me. I didn’t like taking second place in the cryptic answer competition, but I liked my new companion, immediately. No makeup, freckles, good bones, auburn hair slicked back in a tight wrap with a shine that said it was pampered off-duty. She wore Doc Martens with toe scuffs that may have come from kicking wrongdoers, and a pantsuit purchased on an honest cop’s salary. The jacket was tight like a weightlifter wears tight.
“Are you looking for Edith?” I tried.
“I am not and you need to stop. Are you working for the Garcias?”
“They asked me to find her. I want to make sure Edith is safe.”
“What did they tell you?” Her voice was a draft through an igloo door.
“That there was trouble at home with her mother and she split and she is their goddaughter so they are concerned.”
“And which parts of that did you believe?”
“Not enough to tell them where Edith is – assuming I find her – before I understand what is going on. Enough to believe Edith could need help.”
“She did. She’s safe now.”
“Do you know where Edith is? Are you hiding her from the Garcias?”
She stripped her face of expression, which seemed to tell me yes when she non-answered, “Why would you think that?”
“You’re hiding her? Really? Why? See you’ve got a really expressive face so when you freeze it up like that, you answer me without answering.”
Surprise registered. She didn’t know that about herself.
“I don’t want to cause trouble for Edith. Tell me what else I need to know about the Garcias. What is their interest in Edith?”
“It’s not in her health,” she snapped, reinforcing my instinct to doubt my clients. The train arrived and she walked me to the train’s door, but did not join me in the car. She handed me a card. “Tell me before you tell the Garcias anything.”
I had just spoken with Detective Pat Henson, Domestic Crimes Unit, Los Angeles Police Department.
The train trip downtown was uneventful, apparently. I had too much on my mind to pay it any heed. The walk from the train station to the Henrietta was hot yet refreshing. It was late afternoon, so the sun was low enough to build thick shadows between the downtown buildings. Anwyl was due to arrive in just under two hours.
When I got to my building, I couldn’t open the entrance door. It wasn’t locked but it was stuck. From what I could see when I pressed my forehead to the glass, the lobby was empty. I searched for a buzzer to the office, but then – shooting up from my toes, flooding my body – came rapid realizations: I didn’t want to be there, I had come back too soon, I needed to leave, and I needed to find a crowd to blend in with.
I joined a brisk squadron of commuters headed for the train hub at Union Station. From there, I rode the trains back and forth and all around. Rush hour flowed and ebbed. At 6:45 p.m., I tried to go home again. Now the building door opened like it had just been oiled. I entered the lobby timidly, but it felt fine. As my finger reached for the elevator call button, the elevator doors slid open for me. There was no one in the elevator but my floor, number 9, was already illuminated.
Go to next chapter.