Chapter Nine: Stefana
Half past six.
Stefana exhaled a lazy cloud of smoke, flicking ash onto the concrete as she scoured the main street for any sign of her brother's car. It was getting late and, irritated when Luca had not returned home, she had set out to look for him. Half-believing that the phone call from Sirena had been a ruse to steal her brother's attention away yet again, she had determined to find him and tell him once and for all what she thought of him. But his car had not been at the apartment building where Sirena lived, and the porter there had only been able to tell her that he had headed in the direction of the city centre alone, some hours earlier.
"And where the hell he's gone now is beyond me." She muttered, taking a final drag on her cigarette and tossing it down a nearby drain. "He must be around here someplace. What the hell has gotten into him lately? I don't know. First he's all off after that Sirena witch, and now he's just cutting band practice and making the rest of us work doubly hard to cover his absence! We'll never get this record out on time, at this rate...and it will be all Sirena's fault. Wherever he is now, I'm sure it has to have something to do with her."
She pushed open her car door, stepping out onto the main street itself and, after a moment of deliberation, decided to head in the direction of Misfit Music. If he wasn't at the singer's apartment, she mused, there was no reason to suspect that he wasn't at enemy headquarters.
"And I'll bet it's all a plot to lure him away from Diablo, for her mother's stupid company." She muttered. "Well, it's not going to happen! Not if I have anything to do with it, anyhow! Blood is blood and he's my brother. That's final!"
She turned down the first street on the left, absently waving to a group of excited fans which squealed her name, and slipping neatly into a crowd to avoid their attention. As she did so, she caught sight of a familiar number plate, and her brows knitted together.
"So here you are." She murmured. "Parked up outside some ice cream parlour? What gives, Luca? You better have some answers for me!"
She pushed open the door of the parlour, glancing around inside for any sign of her brother, but he was nowhere to be seen. Frowning, she went up to the counter, ordering a double choc chip cone, and asking the man behind the counter if he'd seen anyone fitting Luca's description. Starstruck at the prospect of serving one of the city's most up and coming young stars, the man was as helpful as he could be, but Stefana soon found that his encounter with Luca had been brief.
"He asked if I'd seen a lady with a baby." He remembered. "Said it was real important. I couldn't help him, not even with the description, miss. My eyesight isn't the best from a distance and we have a lot of customers. Are you looking for someone too?"
"My brother told me to meet him here." Stefana lied, inwardly curious at the man's words. "But I guess he hasn't come back here yet." She paid for the ice cream, casting him a smile. "I'll probably check back here later - I'm going to go enjoy the sunshine for a bit."
"Say, miss, could I ask for your autograph? My grandkids are such fans of Diablo." The man asked. Stefana, inwardly curbing her impatience, obediently signed her name on the proffered napkin, for she could never resist a chance to flaunt her star status. Then she took her leave, taking a bite of her ice cream and pausing on the pavement to consider.
"I could just hang about here, by his car. He has to come back here sooner or later." She mused. "But who knows how late he might return? It's probably Sirena he was looking for - she's the only woman with a baby I can think of him spending time with. God knows how his mind is working lately. I might do better if I went after him."
As she stood there, trying to make up her mind, she caught sight of another familiar face. With a jolt she recognised the woman from the restaurant, but it was not that which gave her chills down her spine. The woman was not alone, for she was carefully steering a child's stroller, and the infant who was safely strapped into the seat was clearly not a bit happy about the arrangement. A cold feeling gripped Stefana's heart as suddenly the conversation at the Red Rock made sense. The baby in the pushchair she had seen many times before, in the photographs that lay carelessly scattered over Luca's desk. It was Michael Gabor, and suddenly everything fell into place.
"Luca said something had happened with Michael." She murmured, slipping back into the shadows as she contemplated what to do next. "And that psycho woman has evidently upped and fled with the brat - what am I going to do?"
"I don't know what you think you can do to help."
Sirena turned from her vigil at the window, meeting her mother's gaze with sombre emerald eyes. "He's gone, Mom. I don't know where to even begin looking. Los Angeles is a huge city, and she must have planned this. I haven't a clue where she might have taken Michael - or why."
"Gabors don't talk like that." Phyllis said curtly, dropping down into an empty seat. "What did the police say, anyway? Anything of any use?"
"God knows." Sirena shrugged. "To be honest, it went in one ear and out of the other one. I'm still reeling...I keep thinking that, at any minute he's going to crawl out of the shadows and everything will be fine again. I don't understand why I'm feeling so damn helpless about this, either! I always thought I was strong enough to get a damn grip when something major happened...but look at me! All I want to do is sit down and cry!"
"A lot of use that's going to be." Phyllis snapped. Then she sighed. "Look, Em, the cops are useless. They'll look for as long as they think is wise, then they'll ascribe Mike to missing persons and that'll be that. Let me call some of my contacts in private investigation, huh? They're much more likely to turn up something - they're on a steady paycheque, and there's always a bonus if they come up lucky."
"If you want to." Sirena shrugged, turning away from the window and sitting down absently on the sofa, her hands idly toying with the tassels on her belt. "I don't see how they can do anything. They don't know Mike, and we don't know who or what we're dealing with. Luca said..."
"Luca Ranieri is tied up with Rory Llewelyn and Rebel Records." Phyllis interrupted. "So what are the odds of this all being a set-up, huh? One of Rory's goddamn schemes to get back at the Gabor family?"
"Luca's not like that!" Sirena flared up in an instant. "He's my friend, Mom, get used to it already! Just because you have a hate complex with most of the big business people in the city, it doesn't mean that I can't have friends who genuinely want to help! Luca is at least out looking for Michael - which is more than can be said for you!"
"No, I'm not out looking for Michael." Phyllis said acidly. "I'm protecting my investments."
"Which means what, exactly?" Sirena demanded.
"Which means, you silly girl, I'm here to make sure you don't do something damn stupid and risk your own neck into the bargain." Phyllis retorted. "Luca wants to help? Fine, he can help. Let him put himself at risk. You're my daughter, and a Gabor does not do her own dirty work!"
"You came here...to stop me getting hurt?" Sirena stared. Then she laughed, a hollow, emotionless laugh. "Well, guess what, Mom. This isn't some spy ring scandal or...or big business deal. This is my son that's missing. My flesh and blood! Your flesh and blood. You're too late. I'm already hurt...more than you will ever ever know!"
Phyllis was silent for a moment. Then she shook her head.
"I understand more than you might think." She said gravely, reaching into her pocket and pulling out her purse. Slowly she flipped it open, hesitating, then pulling something out, and handing it to her daughter. Confused, Sirena took it, turning it over.
"What the...? Mom, why are you showing me some old picture? I don't get it."
"Sheesh, for a Gabor, you sure are dense." Phyllis rolled her eyes, but Sirena detected a note of awkwardness in her tone. "Who the heck do you think that is in the picture, huh? Donald Duck?"
"What?" Sirena set the photo down carefully, touching the image almost reverently. "You mean...this is me?"
"First picture there ever was of you." Phyllis bit her lip. "Noone knows about this, and noone ever will, you hear me? I took it, a few hours after you were born, with Dad's old polaroid camera. Don't know why I took it - guess I wanted a reminder of the mistake I'd made. I wasn't going to do that again. And...well, you were a Gabor. I had to give you up, Emily, and I damn well don't regret doing it. But..."
"Maybe you do understand." Sirena whispered, handing the photograph back. "Mom...I can't explain what Mike means to me, but I have to get him back. Somehow - whatever it takes. Do you understand that? That he's such a big part of me now? I don't know what kind of woman kidnaps someone else's baby, but...but they can't get away with it. They just can't!"
"They won't." Phyllis said grimly. "Listen to me, kid. There have been enough rifts and upsets in the Gabor family tree. Michael is coming home...whatever it takes to do it!"
"It's none of my business if Sirena's stupid baby gets kidnapped and dragged
across town by some lunatic."
Stefana slipped down into the driver's seat of her car, ducking below the steering wheel and dashboard as she carefully observed the woman in her rear view mirror. "It's no skin off my nose if the brat's been snatched, after all. I should just go home, forget it. After all, the bitch was rude to me at the Red Rock Restaurant the other night - she deserves it. The baby is probably better off in that lunatic woman's hands than Sirena's!"
She narrowed her eyes, her gaze flitting every so often towards the street where Luca had parked his car, as if hoping that her brother might appear at any moment to solve her dilemma. It was not often that Stefana had any kind of conscience call, but the sight of Sirena's baby in the care of someone else had shocked her. She was bright enough to know that the young boy was not there with his mother's consent, for she had seen the look of anxiety on her brother's face that morning, before he had left the studio. Inwardly she cursed Sirena for putting her in this situation.
"If she could learn to look after the brat right, this wouldn't have happened, and I wouldn't be sat here now like Nancy Drew." She muttered, stubbing out her cigarette and sliding even lower in her seat as the woman glanced her way. "Come on, Stef. Put your foot on the pedal and just drive right outta here. It's not your problem. Sirena's baby is her business - she told you that herself."
She put her hand to the key in the ignition, then paused.
"But, on the other hand, what if she thinks I'm involved in this? I did threaten her at the Red Rock, and it could look majorly bad if I was to let this go and not tell anyone. The police would get involved and, knowing how that bitch works, I'd probably get hauled in to be questioned. Not good for Diablo's image! No. I can't just pretend I didn't see it. She could kill the kid and fine, I might hate Sirena, but I ain't gonna sit back and let anyone get killed. I'm not a psychopath! I guess my only option is to trail her, see where she goes. I hope it ain't too far - I still need to find Luca and give him a piece of my mind!"
As she watched, the woman headed across the car park, gently trying to soothe the baby as she put the squalling Michael into the baby seat of her car. Then, without even registering that she was being watched, the woman drove off and, not without misgivings, Stefana put her car in gear, pulling out at a safe distance behind her, and beginning her pursuit. Fortunately, the woman did not drive far out of town and, once she had observed where the other car was headed, Stefana turned her own vehicle around, speeding back towards the centre of the city.
"Luca sure owes me for this." She muttered. "I'd die if that witch knew I'd been out looking for her son."
"Steffi!" As she pulled into the layby behind her brother's car, she heard a familar voice and she flung open her driver's side car, casting him an accusing glare.
"And where in hell have you been?" She demanded. "I've been looking all over for you!"
"Stef, this isn't the time to get all possessive." Luca sounded weary. "Sirena's son has been kidnapped, and..."
"Shut up, I know." Stefana dismissed his words with an impatient gesture. "Listen to me, Luca. I saw Michael with some woman in town - dark woman, early forties. She was at the Red Rock too, the other night."
"Hang on a second - you've seen them?" Luca stared at her. "And hey, how did you know she was at the Red Rock? When were you at the Red Rock?"
"Ask your precious girlfriend." Stefana spat out. "She threatened me there."
"Stef, I haven't time for this now." Luca held up his hands. "Did you or did you not see Michael with some strange woman in town today?"
"Not only did I see them, I trailed them." Stefana told him levelly, describing the vehicle she had followed, and giving him enough of the numberplate for him to realise that it tallied with the three digits Sirena herself had taken down. "God knows why I did, but I guess it wouldn't look all that good in the press if Sirena's damn son got hurt or something. Lots of free publicity for her, and not much for us if we didn't help out. Right? Don't think I did it because I like her, because I don't."
"You...trailed them?" Luca stared at his sister in wonder, then, "Where did they go?"
"Forty eight, first avenue, on the new housing estate, just out of town." Stefana said with a shrug. "She didn't see me. I turned my car around when I saw her park, and came back here to find you. For some strange reason I thought I should tell you - God only knows why."
Luca hugged his sister tightly.
"Thank you." He murmured. "See, I knew you weren't such a bad girl, deep down."
"Hey, no hugs in public, Luca!" Stefana pushed him off, but her eyes sparkled at the praise. "Listen, for what it's worth, I think this woman is a total nutcase. She said something to me at the Red Rock about having had her son taken away from her, and she called herself Kelly Arca. I think that she thinks Michael is her son - she mentioned a son named Carl. That ring any bells with you?"
"Blade?" Luca stared. Stefana nodded.
"Yep. I told you. Nuts."
"Well, if that's the situation, it means she won't be putting up a ransom." Luca pursed his lips. "But I suppose it also means that she won't hurt the kid."
"Depends on why her son was taken from her in the first place. Probably because she was round the twist - not that I care." Stefana shrugged. "Anyhow, get lost, will you? Don't you have a baby to find, or something?"
"Yes, as soon as I've rounded up Nancy and Sadie." Luca nodded.
"Nancy and Sadie? You're hanging out with Jewels too now?" Stefana put her hands on her hips.
"Only till Mike is found, Stef, I promise...and you've more than done your bit towards that." Luca assured her. "I'm grateful, and so will Emily be when..."
"No." Stefana shook her head. "It's bad enough I went after that woman - the last thing I want is for that bitch Sirena to know about it! I ain't gone soft on her, you know - the more I think about it, the less I can work out why I did what I did anyway! Seems ludicrous to waste time and gas chasing after some worthless kid."
"All right, I won't tell Emily." Luca was not fooled for a moment by his sister's bravado. "And I won't take up any more of your time. I appreciate you helping me out, though. It really meant a lot to know that, even if we fight a lot, you'll still help me out once in a while."
"Well, don't get too used to it. I don't plan on doing it again, and you seriously owe me." Stefana told him flippantly. "Besides, I see airheads approaching, so that's my cue to leave. Later, Luca. Don't spend too much time with these losers."
Luca watched her head back towards her car, shaking his head slightly in disbelief.
"I guess Emily underestimated you a little, Stef." He mused. "And perhaps I did, too. Your heart really is in the right place, after all."
"What did Stefana want?" Nancy asked, as she and Sadie rejoined his side. "Did you tell her what had happened?"
"She just wanted...a favour." Luca shrugged. "But I...thought I caught a glimpse of the woman, heading towards the new housing estate. How about we check it out?"
"Sure." Sadie shrugged. "I didn't see anyone acting suspicious, so it's better than nothing."
"Well, we have to give it a look." Nancy agreed. "Let's go."