It was Ian’s and Lila’s anniversary this weekend, and they went to the Desert Rose to celebrate.
Ian and Lila parked in front of their place and made their way to the front door.
“Pearson is going to be thrilled to see us,” Lila pointed out.
“I’m sure,” Ian replied dryly, carefully opening the front door to block any attempt by the cat to escape. As expected, Pearson greeted them meowing vociferously, and demanding an explanation for their absence.
Walking in, instead of almost tripping over Pearson as she usually did, Lila managed to skid across the bamboo floor on an envelope pushed under their door by someone. After catching her balance, she reached down and picked up the envelope.
Pearson nearly crawled up her pant leg in his excitement at their return, so she stumbled over to the kitchen table and took a seat. He promptly climbed into her lap, kneading it, before settling in with a loud purr. Ian sat beside her at the table.
Lila thoroughly examined the unmarked envelope before slitting it open with her fingernail. Pulling out a single sheet of heavy cream-colored paper, she placed it on the table where they could both see.
GOLEMS. 2ND FLOOR AHMANSON BLDG. 15:00.
Lila looked quickly at her watch.
“We only have a couple of hours. Let’s grab some tacos and head over.”
“Sounds good,” Ian agreed.
They walked up the street to their favorite taco place where they got their usual orders of fish and shrimp tacos with drinks.
Appetites satiated, they prepared to drive over to LACMA.
Lila took Ian’s arm and began walking with him toward the taco joint. As they entered, she watched the reflection on the glass door as it swung outward. She saw the dark haired man whom she dubbed “Charlie” start walking toward them.
Tightening her lips, she walked to the counter and made her usual order. “One fish, one shrimp taco, and a jamaica to drink.”
“I’d like two fish, one shrimp taco, and a Mountain Dew.” Ian ordered his favorites, and after paying they walked to the corner barstools to wait for their order. Lila leaned into Ian’s shoulder and whispered in his ear, “Is our friend having tacos too?”
“Looks like it.” Ian commented and patted her on the shoulder. “Order up.” He gestured toward the cooking area where their tacos awaited them. They loaded up on Sessy’s Salsas, Lila’s favorite being the Radish Relish, bright red and yummy, while Ian coated his in mild salsa.
Taking their drinks and food outside to the seating area, they waited to see what their new friend would do. Lila positioned herself facing the entrance, and Ian took the seat beside her. They proceeded to consume their tacos, Ian inhaling his at his normal pace, while Lila picked at hers, eating slowly while keeping an eye on things.
“Charlie” exited the restaurant and came toward them, sitting at a nearby table. He looked over at them and commented, “Great tacos.”
Lila nearly swallowed her tongue. “Yes. Yes they are,” she said in a strangled tone of voice. She glanced at Ian and saw him nodding in agreement.
“You from here?” Ian asked nonchalantly.
“Yep. And you?” the man replied.
“Oh, we’re from here and there.” Lila laughed uncomfortably.
“You know there’s a cool ride I’ve heard about at Griffith Park,” the man paused, “It’s called the Haunted Hayride. Heard of it?”
Ian coughed. “Yeah. You interested in going?”
The man took a bite of his taco and made an appreciative noise. After chewing for a moment and swallowing, he replied. “I was thinking about next Saturday.”
Lila nearly blew a chunk of taco out her nose. Choking, she took a long drink of her hibiscus tea.
“You all okay?” The man asked concernedly. “Seem to be choking on that taco,” he pointed out. “Spicy?”
“No, just super hungry.” Lila managed to say between wheezes.
Charlie continued. “I’m really interested in seeing parts of Griffith Park. I’ve heard it’s haunted.”
Lila joked, “Are you a ghost hunter?”
The man looked over at her seriously. “Actually, that is an interest of mine. I’m a big fan of history, and there’s lots of it there. Death, mayhem, murder.” He finished his taco, and rose to throw away the paper dish. As he passed their table, he pointed underneath it. “Looks like you dropped something.” He strolled around the corner and disappeared from view.
Lila leaned down to check under the table and saw a small package. Her head jerked up in surprise, and she stared at Ian. “I didn’t hear anything. Did you?” she said in an amazed tone of voice. “That wasn’t here when we got sat down. I’m sure of it.”
Ian shrugged in an I-don’t-know manner, and leaned down to pick up the package. Written on the box top were their names in large, black letters. Their eyes met across the table. He slowly pulled the tape from the top and they looked inside.
“Holy…” Lila exclaimed.
“That’s what I see all those billboards for, right?” Ian pointed outside to Sunset Boulevard.
“Yes,” Lila replied. “I wanted to go last year, but you were out of the country — again.”
Ian flashed her a smile. “Occupational hazard.”
“I know, that’s why I was hoping this year,” she gestured toward the piece of paper, “we would be able to go together.”
“We still don’t know who sent this note, or what they really want.” Ian’s voice trailed off as he took a closer look at one of the photos. “I know this guy.” He pointed to the photo of a red haired man with a big grin. “I’m not sure where, but…” Ian paused. “Wait.”
He stood up and walked over to a box in the corner and began rifling through a bunch of papers. Picking up a dented Altoids box and flipping it open, Ian pulled out a stack of business cards. “I knew it!” he said triumphantly. He showed Lila a card with the man’s photo and company name on it. “We met last year at a disarmament meeting.” Ian looked puzzled. “So what does he want with a hayride?”
“A hayride?” Lila ventured to guess sarcastically.
“Hardey-har.” Ian joked. ”I mean besides that.”
“A visit to purgatory obviously. Here, check out this website.” Lila pulled up the Haunted Hayride website and showed it to Ian.
“Wow, ‘one of the most paranormally active sites in all of California,’” Ian recited from the website. “Sounds like our kind of place.” He gave a quick grin.
“I’ve been wanting to go for ages, but just under different circumstances.” Lila’s mouth twisted.
Pearson jumped onto her lap and settled in for a nap as Lila began sorting the photos and info pages into piles. “Did you see this one?” She showed Ian a picture of blond girl who looked to be about twelve. “Why would they — whoever they are — have photos of kids?”
Ian’s eyebrows rose. “I don’t know, but maybe,” he paused to rearrange the photos, “these go in families.” He nodded. “Yep, check it out. One set of parents per two to three kids.” He looked over at Lila’s laptop and nudged her shoulder. “Let me take a look.”
She picked up Pearson and moved to the chair beside him so she could watch the screen after he seated himself and began typing. “Russian families spying?” Lila read aloud his search query. She looked puzzled and then her face cleared. “Like in that Magnum episode when he meets up with the woman who was a plant. Her family had been stationed undercover in the U.S.”
Ian pointed to the screen. “Or a few years ago, those ten spies that got sent back to Russia. Eight of them had kids. What better cover than being a nice family?” Ian sat back in his chair. “When I saw this guy,” Ian touched the red haired man’s photo, “he looked much older than in this photo.” He turned to Lila. “What’s his name?”
“Sergey Ivanov.” Lila read, and then quickly began sorting the photos by name. “Good idea,” she muttered, “each of these is tied together by last name.” After she finished, they had four families and one individual.
“I’m hungry,” she announced, “and I think better with food.”
“Tacos?” Ian inquired.
“I’ll get ready.” Lila pushed back her chair, set down Pearson, and went to change out of her work clothes into something more casual.
As they left the building and walked up the street toward their favorite taco place, Ian had the feeling that someone was watching him. He took a casual look around as they were crossing the street, and murmured to Lila, “Don’t look now, but we’ve made some new friends.”
Lila’s eyes widened subtly and her breathing sped up. She pulled Ian to a stop in front of several shop windows, using the reflections to spot whoever might be following them. She took a quick breath as she saw a dark haired man who appeared to be studying an apartment building across from them.
Ian and Lila often wander up to Best Fish Taco in Ensenada in Los Feliz for quick, affordable, tasty meals. It’s only $1.75 for a fish taco or $2.25 for a shrimp or a potato (papataco, for veggie/vegans) taco, and just $1 for a soft drink, fresh horchata (cinnamon rice milk), jamaica (hibiscus tea) or tamarindo agua fresca (tamarind drink). Plus, Lila feels like she’s at the beach while eating at the adjoining patio underneath a canopy of palm fronds. Bliss.