This is Chapter 14 of Nica of Los Angeles, the first novel in the FRAMES series.
Karina let us ride home without the eye patches. I watched the miles slide by like grease down a gutter. In this butt-ugly part of town, neighborhoods were tight-knit despite the warehouses and light industry that divided their blocks. There was a lot of character here, all on the inside.
When we got back downtown, we had the windows down and cruised in dense traffic. As we proceeded along the Henrietta’s block, it suddenly turned drive-by. We passed a delivery zone where idled a late model silver sedan with tinted glass and one window down, framing the driver. Hernandez tensed and I pointed. I’m mostly glad my finger wasn’t loaded. “Stop the truck. Right here!” I had the door open and one foot out before Karina could comply.
It must have been something in my expression, or my walk. When Aurelio the driver saw me, he shoved his sedan into gear, and Norma the passenger nervously repeated “go go go.”
I hooked my arm through their open window and grabbed the steering wheel. If they wanted to drive away, they would have to drag me – and they wouldn’t want to make such a public mess. “He started when she was fourteen,” I greeted them.
“Is a lie,” Norma sniffed, tilting her head up as she looked out the windshield, finding great interest in the blank white back of the delivery truck ahead of them.
“The family needs help and this lie is the only way they know how to ask for money. We are doing what we can for them,” Aurelio added, with the kindly concern of a pill doctor.
“They try to destroy our son and our name. Everything he has worked for! His students are his life. He is such a good person.” Norma’s chin was way up.
“No, he’s really not,” I replied. “And somewhere inside you know what he really is. Let me add that I can no longer help with your investigation,” I added, as professional as a pre-recorded message. “I have incurred a few expenses on this case but you do not need to reimburse me. You have a good day while you still can.” I released the wheel, ducked my head back out the window, and concocted an ancient-sounding curse. “And may your actions rule your dreams.” I didn’t know what the hell I meant and neither did they but it troubled them, which satisfied me.
Karina and Hernandez monitored my exchange while hurrying into the Henrietta. I caught up with them on the stairs to the subbasement. A glance at the time explained Hernandez’ haste: 11:15 a.m. His shift started at 10 a.m. Something about this made me sad. This wasted sense of duty. He could start his shift late every day and nobody would notice. Office staff at the Henrietta consisted of a bookkeeper and a maintenance guy who rotated among several properties. Wait. I was thinking like Ben. Hernandez was reliable because that’s who he is and not because he might get caught being late.
The stairwell echoed their voices. Hernandez and Karina negotiated where she could take his truck that day and when she would be back to fetch him. They continued practicing for the father-daughter debate squad as Hernandez disappeared into overalls and rubber soles. He stepped into the supply room and backed out wheeling a vacuum.
“Hey!” I interrupted his futile demand that homework get more of Karina’s time than the mall. “Thanks for trusting me to talk with Edith.”
“Now you see,” Karina said simply.
“I do, indeed,” I replied.
“I’m late, Daddy,” she said, and he forked over the keys.
Her steps up the stairs were as light as Saturday morning. Listening made him smile and when I noticed he asked, “Do you have kids?”
“No.” I said and regretted my tone. “Sore subject,” I added, which helped not at all. My “Some other time -” came out simultaneous with his –
“It’s not my business.”
“I would like to explain to you, but not now.” And that was as de-awkwardized as it was going to get.
“Anwyl arrives at one,” Hernandez rescued us.
“Yes. Meet us in my office?”
“No. I thought about it all night and decided I can’t continue with the adventures. I’ve got two daughters and they’ve only got me.”
“I understand and I respect your priorities.” Too bad. Stakeout would be less fun without him.
Dizzy had departed my office through two closed doors, which was as unsettling as finding her inside last night. That cat was the last person I wanted to mistrust. I don’t do mistrust, usually. I trust you or you’re on the other side of my personal force field. Your choice.
I had just enough time to go to the gym, so that’s how I killed the incredibly long hour until Anwyl was due to return. Hearing Edith’s story had left me with much bad energy to expend and I put speed metal in my earbuds while I pounded the treadmill and slammed the punching bags. I planned to put Coach Garcia in the front line the next time we fought Maelstrom.
I can’t explain how, but I knew when Anwyl entered the Henrietta so I went out in the hall to meet him. “I saw more hunters,” I greeted him, “but not here,” and I described the whereabouts though not to his satisfaction. He made me detail every nuance of the encounter, even whether they had looked at the detective before or after they looked at me. With each new question, he grew more dangerous. He stared out my skylight like daylight pissed him off. Same team, same team, I kept reassuring myself.
He went to the window and looked down from the edge of the glass to maximize the area he could view.
“It’s bad, right, to have hunters around?”
He looked at me like he had just noticed I was there. “It is not unexpected,” he said, with a gentle smile that gave me the warm fuzzies in all the right places. And since you asked, no. I never do stop thinking about Topic A.
Except when shamed. Surely I hadn’t been speaking aloud, yet Anwyl looked at me with fond bemusement, like when your puppy humps your ankle. Surely he could not read my mind! That would be worse than freshman year when Joey Maricopa read my journal. Some parts of high school never end.
Astonishingly, now Anwyl looked sheepish, which suited him not at all. “I extend apologies. Anya forbids gathering thoughts.”
“You sound frustrated about that.”
“It is more efficient and time is short.”
“So when time is short and Anya is gone.”
“Know that I will not intrude again.” He concluded this formality with a don’t tell Anya look, which thrilled me with the prospect that she might show up again soon.
“I don’t care either way, so don’t stop gathering on my account if it helps you get the job done.” Let’s face it. Private thoughts don’t help me for long. I can embarrass myself sooner or I can do it later, might as well get it done at the thoughts stage and save my jaw some use cycles.
I don’t know whether he heard me. He had returned attention to the view outside. Bottom line: he hadn’t looked horrified by my warm fuzzies, so I labeled his reaction positive enough to merit future exploration.
“You always open my window,” I noted as he opened my window.
“Buildings do not suit me.”
“I don’t like being inside either but I didn’t know opening a window could help.”
“It limits isolation,” he said, then cocked his head as though something just proved his point.
“What do you hear?” I heard much and thus nothing, a wash of sound from the cars trucks sirens pedestrians skaters car stereos street hustlers.
“Each day, more steps that should not walk here,” he said darkly, bringing a cryogenic chill.
For the first time, I felt the seriousness of the situation. “My job is to wait somewhere and watch as they come and go between Frames, right? Tell me where to go and I’m on my way.” Captain my captain, reporting for duty.
My assignment sounded easy enough when he ran through it. Each evening I would hang out and observe and remember. I would record my observations and report them to Anwyl each morning. How would I know whom to observe? I would just know. Now that I’d spent time in other Frames, I would be able to distinguish visitors from natives of this Frame.
“Why only in the evenings?”
“That is the time when those Connectors function.”
I would eventually learn that a Connector is a tunnel between two Frames. Anyone can use a Connector to Travel, after a little training. Outside the Neutral Frames like mine, children learn Connector Travel in school. Most of us can use a Guide, too, but only beings with powers – like Anya or Anwyl – can create a Guide or move from Frame to Frame at will.
Anwyl stressed that on my assignment, I must be careful to remain anonymous and I must do nothing to call attention to myself.
When I learned that one Connector was in a bar, I thought about spending my entire evening there. “I might need to have friends with me. If you don’t want me noticed, you don’t want me drinking alone.”
“Follow all customs,” he agreed, sounding pleased. “I am not familiar with the rituals of bars but you are right to conduct yourself appropriately.”
“OMG you’ve never been to a bar? When we’re done saving the world we’re going out.”
“Is it an important ritual?”
“Maybe not, but it’s a fine one, with the right company.”
“I will enjoy your optimism about the future.” He smiled for the last time that day and brought me back to task. “Nica, now listen and obey without questions or resistance. If you observe someone who departs the area near the Connectors, you must not follow. Let visitors pass by you without seeing you and under no circumstance should you leave your Frame.”
“I already promised that I won’t Travel alone.”
“You must not leave your Frame, no matter what occurs, no matter who or what you witness. Repeat this as a vow.”
His solemnity rattled me. If that was his intent, his plan worked. I repeated, “No matter what happens, I will not leave the Frame tonight and I will never use a Connector.”
When I made the promise, I fully intended to keep that vow. But of course not even Anwyl could have predicted how the deal would go down.
I needed wheels to get to my Connector stakeout, so I broke a long-standing vow to myself and went to Ben at home. He always lived in cool apartments and he never stayed longer than a year in any. His current abode was a stucco cottage at the Day of the Locust Arms. He was down the far end of a terra-cotta courtyard with a burbling ironwork fountain. I heard the murmur of a single voice, found an actor in a chaise lounge memorizing highlighted lines from a few stapled pages of script.
Ben was home here at mid-day, which bode ill, but I only had to knock once, which was a hopeful sign. Jiminy Jehosophat, again I had reverted to old ways, looking for signs and portents to discern whether he was using, or what he was using. All of which infuriated me so fast that by the time Ben opened the door, I shoved it at him. The empty pink duffel bag sought by Mathead and Scabman.
When he recognized the bag, he went whiter than overcooked macaroni. “Did -”
“You never get any better with your choice of friends,” I overrode him.
He looked up-down the walkway while he tossed the bag behind him into the dimness of his apartment. He pulled me in and shut the door.
“It’s not like you think,” he began.
“Gee I have never heard that from you before,” I monotoned.
“But it’s complicated.”
“Really? You went back to that line? Oldies but goodies day.”
“Nica, I’m not using. I swear on our first night.”
Okay. That was the one oath that remained sacred proof of honesty. So far. “You look good,” I noticed and admitted. His shirt was ironed and matched his – good lord, a tie.
“Just got back from a -”
“- meeting with investors.”
Another entrepreneurial phase. “In other words, you interviewed at Starbucks?”
“Something like that.”
Don’t worry, he wasn’t deflated by my jabs. He only deflates when he can’t have something he wants, and then just to make room for more desires, the same way my exercise ball initially loses a little bounce when I insert the air gun to pump it fuller.
You probably think I am too hard on Ben, who is always so upbeat and so ready to try something new. You might be right. But it’s an attitude that is necessary to keep myself from getting captured in his orbit. Ben is the sun. I used to be the inner planet, and life was steamy but I was always getting scorched and facing only him. Now I’m more of a comet. I get close occasionally but I’m protected from recapture.
A timer went off. I followed him back to the kitchen, where he poured himself a tall green thick one from a blender; from a double boiler, he added things that sank with hisses. He gestured, did I want one?
“What would I be saying yes to?”
“Cucumber smoothie with steamed grapes.”
I shrugged. “Two fingers for me.” It couldn’t be as bad as it sounded. Ben never chose to do anything that wasn’t pleasurable.
“So are you in rehab?”
“Got out a while ago.” He led us from the kitchenette to the overstuffed rattan couch that felt like sitting on a cloud. My favorite furniture ever, purchased during our flea market days. I let Ben take it when our second marriage concluded, because sitting on it without him, I only felt the iron screws and the hardwood frame.
“You didn’t mention that you were in rehab again.”
“You went through it with me twice as a spouse, twice as an ex-spouse. I didn’t want to disturb the symmetry.”
When he put it like that, I had to agree. My rehab support dues were paid in full.
“What is so life or death about that empty duffel bag and why do you have such royal scumbags hounding me to get to you?”
He slouched like he had a rubber spine. “They’re not technically trying to get me, they just want more contact than I think we need.”
What a crock of. I set my glass down hard enough that we checked the plywood tabletop for dents.
“How’s your smoothie?”
“Best green glop I’ve ever barely tolerated. Ben, next time they show up they’ll threaten me. That’s the direction it’s headed in.”
He stopped slouching. “No way will they hurt you.”
“Don’t puff yourself up. I don’t need your protection – I can take care of that myself. What I need is to understand.”
He draped himself across the cushions like a thrift shop shawl. “Understand what?”
“What the fuck, Ben.”
“It really is complicated and I can’t explain yet. But I’m not dealing and I’m not using.”
I took a moment to parse and re-parse, looking for loopholes where he could mislead me without officially lying. I didn’t see any, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. I didn’t have his genius or his experience.
You see, Ben is a junkie, so he is a brilliant liar. He is an omni-addict who has tried everything, although heroin remains his one true love. He stays clean for longer periods of time now – whoever heard of an old junkie? He knows he’s running out of time. So he pauses – and maybe this pause will be the time he stops. I don’t have hope left. I don’t have grief left. I’ve spent my rage. I’ve spent them all. Somehow, when I am with him, he still manages to share his confidence and optimism. That is one of his many gifts, all of which the fucker has squandered. Sobriety may one day be his crowning achievement, the one he spent half his life trying to attain. The other half he will have spent trying to score.
Today was apparently an angry day for me. Sometimes it is easier to feel my love for him when I am not around him.
He wrote his current phone number on a scrap of paper, which I pocketed without reading. I no longer store his numbers in my phone. Probably to prove a point about trust, he tossed me the keys to his van without demanding to know why. So I tossed them back and invited him along. He was the perfect cover for my stakeout.
Me, his sax, and his van. Those are the only loves from the old days that Ben has kept in his life. I say van, but the correct term is panel truck. One of those serial killer specials with no windows in back. Ben kept it clean and getaway ready. It was so well-tuned, it started with a purr.
In no time we had reached my stakeout and we parked where we always parked when we went to this bar. Yes, I’d been there before. I’d laughed a good long time when Anwyl told me where my stakeout would be. The Largo at the Coronet in West Hollywood. In a city of a million buildings, this was one of the few that I claimed as mine. So much of my past was lived at the Largo. Ben and I had been regulars at the first Largo location. Ben introduced me to Ick, standing in line there. He’d met Ick a couple weeks before, also waiting for a show. Later, Ick and I – sometimes accompanied by Ben when he was sober – had spent many an evening at the relocated Largo at the Coronet Theater.
I wondered if Henrietta knew the Coronet. I assumed the Coronet was also a sentient building, it had such a special presence. From the street, it was an ignorable red brick box, dwarfed by a hulk of a parking structure and washed by a flashing neon boast from across the street: live nude girls. But as soon as you entered the courtyard, you knew you had arrived somewhere special, where the deejay always plays the right tunes to sustain a mood of mellow enthusiasm. The lights hang low and dim, and make the worn brick and wood mysterious yet homey, varnished with decades of high expectations, routinely fulfilled. The auras of the past performances are magical. Buster Keaton was there. Bertolt Brecht directed Charles Laughton there. Photos of them line the courtyard and flank the box office, which has a big corner window that I have never seen open, adding to the sense of ghost lives. Seeing that window tonight made me speculate about what shows play the Largo in other Frames.
Ben wasn’t interested in catching tonight’s performance – some comedian we had watched through several incarnations – but he was quite interested in hanging with me at the bar before the show began. Two steps into the Largo’s bar, called The Little Room, I stopped and let nostalgia have its sappy way with me, until the bartender greeted Ben by name, then gave me a friendly professional squint. I could have said hey Louie and made him feel bad that he didn’t remember me, but instead I focused on recalling how to detach from Ben. That Ben was still a regular here set me looping like a paper airplane, pondering his sobriety. I skidded my thoughts into a sheltered corner and let them rest; I hoped he was taking care of himself but if I let that be my concern, I would lose my own concerns.
Go to next chapter.