Any of the various disasters would have been enough on their own: Margo trying to turn Papa against her and succeeding, Papa having a new family with Margo and not wanting anything to do with her any more, Nikki’s brother fucking her to get information, Valentine showing up and showing that goddanmed porno to all of her friends, and last but not least, getting herself and Nikki kidnapped by said psycho. Any one of those things would have made a perfectly miserable week. Coming all at once as they had was a disaster series of remarkably clarifying proportions.
Liz spent much of the sleepless night on the floor trying to decide if she thought she was worth saving. She lay on her side, ankles and wrists taped together, and just went over herself in her mind.
Oh, certainly someone would try to save her. There wasn’t much doubt of that. She had called Charles, like Valentine had told her to, and told him what was going on. Liz could tell without hearing him say so that he was going to show up with ten thousand cops, regardless of Valentine’s “no cops” order. And then, maybe Valentine would shoot her. He had already killed Pogo.
The thing that Liz wanted to decide, once and for all, was if her being shot to death would be a good thing or a bad one. The night passed while she thought about it, staring at the base of the television. Valentine and Eric moved about the house, making inscrutable plans, but Liz ignored the sounds they made. She ignored the crawling hunger in her belly and in her veins. Nikki remained in the chair Eric had dumped her in, motionless.
She tried not to think of what would happen to Nikki if Valentine decided to shoot them. Liz knew she didn’t want Nikki to die. For just right now, though, it wasn’t about Nikki. It wasn’t about Andrew, or Papa, or any of the people who might or might not miss her when she was gone. It was about herself. She remembered telling herself that it wasn’t time to die yet, in that filthy bathroom in LA which seemed so far away but was closer than it seemed, because here she was again, ready to die.
So, what’s it going to be? she asked herself. Is a white-trash living room in Michigan better than a filthy bathroom? At least you’re dressed this time. Liz’ throat tightened as she pondered the answer.
It came almost without conscious thought, after a few hours of meditation. She didn’t feel the desire to live forming; it was just suddenly there, and she knew that the answer was no, this was not any better a place to die, and no place would be a good place. She didn’t want to go yet. Useless as she felt, she was making things better, and she wanted the chance to continue. Not to prove anything to Papa, or Andrew, or anyone, but because that was what she wanted. And that was the way it was.
She had no memory of falling asleep. Maybe she’d been asleep already. When Liz opened her eyes, though, the sun was coming up. She could see the bluish silhouettes of the furniture in the crowded living room, and her legs cramped as she sat up. She could see Nikki again, her face still cruelly taped. Liz got to her knees and hobbled over to the chair, and started trying to peel the duct tape away from Nikki’s mouth.
Nikki gave a little jolt when Liz touched her, breath whistling sharply through her nose; maybe she’d been asleep. “It’s me,” Liz said softly. “It’s okay, it’s just me.” Nikki relaxed.
The gag was slow going. Liz was clumsy with her hands stuck together. Eric had twisted the tape at the ends, so she had to tear it. She had torn it about halfway through when the kitchen lights came on. “Get away from her,” Valentine said.
“Fuck you. She can’t eat if her mouth is taped shut, asshole,” Liz said.
“Does this look like a bed and breakfast to you?” Valentine snapped. He rushed into the room and shoved Liz away.
Without looking at him, she got slowly to her knees again and continued to worry Nikki’s gag.
Valentine didn’t push her again. “Jesus, you’re fucking stubborn as ever,” he said.
Liz wanted to ignore him. She knew that bothered him more than anything else. But that was childish; right now she wanted to escape, not enrage their already unstable captor. “I guess I am,” she said. “Learned it from you. Only you call it being committed.”
He laughed humorlessly, a dry bark. “Sure as shit,” he said, and returned to the kitchen.
“You’re lucky you have all this makeup on,” Liz told Nikki. “It’s making the tape come off easier.” She tore through the gag, and pulled it away from Nikki’s mouth. “Do you want me to take the one off of your eyes, too?” Liz hadn’t noticed before that Nikki’s hands, wrists and forearms had been taped together, palms facing. Nikki couldn’t even use her fingers. And her legs were all but coccooned from the knees down. Outraged, she was on the verge of asking why Valentine had gone so wild with the tape, and then remembered the unsettling ease with which Nikki had disarmed him in the grocery store.
“Good morning, sluts,” Eric said as he entered the room, cheerful and smelling of whiskey and cigarettes. He drew the word “sluts” out, rolling it over his tongue as if reveling in the nastiness of it. He strutted across the living room. Liz thought he looked like a kid in the role of a badass in a high school play. “Welcome to the first level of hell.” His chipper demeanor evaporated when he pulled the curtains open and looked outside. “Oh, fuck!” There were police cars parked all over the street, and they seemed to be intent on his house. “Valentine! Fuckin’ cops!”
“I told you he’d call them,” Liz said wearily. She looked out the window, then went back to work on Nikki’s blindfold. Eric was frantic, and Valentine didn’t bother trying to calm him down. Liz watched him pace quickly from the window to the kitchen and back again once, and then he disappeared into the back of the house.
Eric saw what Liz was doing with the tape on Nikki’s face, and smacked her hands away.
She glared up at him, and he slapped her across the face. Liz sat back against the couch. “If I thought you had the balls to do that when I wasn’t tied up, I’d be pissed off,” she said. “Nikki, I’ll get your eyes later.”
“No, you won’t,” Eric said, trying and failing to regain his initial swagger. Liz ignored him. “You guys are dead, do you realize that? Your boyfriend screwed up big time, bitch.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Liz said.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Maybe you should turn the TV on, and see if you’re famous.”
“Maybe we should send your Hollywood debut to the police and make you famous,” he shot back.
“How many windows does this room have?” Nikki asked.
“Three,” Liz said. “One big picture window, one in the door and one over the mantle.”
“Don’t stand up,” she said. “If there are cops, you might get shot. They’ve probably got sharpshooters in place already. Let them kill these assholes, and we’ll be okay.”
“Shit!” Eric gasped, and ran into the kitchen. “What are we gonna do, Valentine?” he called. If there was an answer, it wasn’t audible.
Liz wanted Valentine back where she could see him. There was a shred of a chance she might be able to reason with him, to talk him down. The last time he’d tried to kill her he’d gotten this mindless, blank look in his eyes though, she could remember that. This time he seemed to be thinking. As he returned to the living room, Liz realized she was wrong; she couldn’t talk sense into him this time. He had an air of a higher purpose, and from him that was a scary, scary thing.
“Maybe they brought your briefcase,” she told him, hoping to rattle him. He didn’t even look at her.
The phone rang. Eric brought the cordless. “It’s the police. They want to talk to you. They know your name already.”
Valentine turned his attention to the phone. “Good morning,” he said to the cop on the other end, then laughed. “Really?” he laughed. “And how do you to plan to do that, Rich?” He listened briefly, his grin getting wider as the hostage negotiator tried to reason with him. “I don’t know. There are some people I really want to hurt. You going to help me hurt them?”
Liz was clenching her fists. She looked at Nikki, who made no indication that she was listening.
“Looks like it’s a little too far gone for that, Rich,” Valentine said. “After all, you’re all out there with a bunch of guns, and I’m in here with a bunch of guns. I think there’s only one way to end this, don’t you? You want to send someone up here, send that damn lawyer. He shouldn’t have called you guys.” Valentine hung up. “Come here,” he said to Eric, and the two of them went to the back of the house again.
Liz got back up on her knees and started working on the tape around Nikki’s eyes.
“Who is he?” Nikki asked.
“Someone who used to be a friend,” Liz said. “A close one but not a good one. I went to Los Angeles after you left,” she added, then didn’t know what else to say. She’d always felt like a big sister to Nikki, and the notion of telling her everything she’d screwed up was not a pleasing prospect. This wasn’t the time or place.
“That’s funny,” Nikki said. “I went to San Francisco.” Liz couldn’t get the tape wrapped around Nikki’s head out of her hair without tearing out large chunks of it, so she left it there. The skin around her eyes was pink, irritated by the pulling, but Nikki met Liz’ eyes. “We’ll talk later,” she said.
Liz was suddenly annoyed at the entire mess, because she really did want to talk to Nikki later. For better or for worse, she wanted to be back in Michigan, moving forward and leaving her old, out-of-control self behind. She’d done her best to leave Valentine and Los Angeles, and yet here he was, fucking everything up. And this time, it wasn’t her fault. Just when she’d vowed to stop messing up her own life, an outside source arrived to try to do it for her. Well, no. She wouldn’t allow that.
Valentine returned, with the gun over his shoulder again. He seemed more confident with the rifle at his side.
“This is a big mess, Valentine,” Liz said. She was trying to untape Nikki’s hands.
“Depends on your definition of ‘mess,’ he said. “I wouldn’t untie her, if I were you.” He slung the deer rifle down from his shoulder.
She sat back again, mindful that he just might shoot her. “You’re not going to get your money.”
“I know. But I’ll get you, finally.”
“You think so?” Liz made her voice as steely as she could. “Drowning me didn’t work.”
“Nothing works. You’re indestructible, like I always said you were. Who’d have thought that fucked-up liver of yours could take a bottle of rubbing alcohol? I figured for sure that would be your last party. But no, you had to jump out of the hospital and go running off to Michigan with the money.”
“You poisoned me?”
“No. I woke you up,” he said. “I shook you up, I tested you. You were tougher and smarter than any of the other idiots who hung around me, and you proved it. And the first damn thing you did was abandon me.” He actually sounded hurt.
“I didn’t walk away from you, I was pushed,” Liz said dully.
“I’d close the curtains if I were you,” Nikki said. “SWAT will just shoot you from the street and save everyone a lot of trouble. Besides, you won’t shoot her. You prefer knives. Don’t you?”
“Shut up! Why are you even alive?” Valentine cried. He took several steps toward Nikki, raising the gun like a club. As he moved toward her, Liz shoved the coffee table into his path. His shins hit it, and he stumbled across it and forward. Nikki swiveled herself clumsily in the chair and got her feet up, kicking him in the face with both heels. Valentine’s stagger stopped abruptly, and he fell backward across the coffee table, mouth agape and stunned, dropping the gun as he went.
Nikki was out of the chair in the same instant. She couldn’t move much farther than a single hop, but that was enough to get her next to the television. With her trapped hands, she reached into the entertainment center and pulled the VCR toward her, into her lap. An avalanche of appliances went backward off the television; the cable box was plugged into the VCR as well. Nikki raked her arms across the VCR’s metal corner, ripping the duct tape. She knelt and started tearing her legs free.
Valentine was coming up, and Liz kicked his feet out from under him a second time. She expected him to call for Eric, but he didn’t. He kicked her in the face instead.
Nikki went for the gun at the same time Valentine did, got there first, and threw it through the picture window. The curtains stopped it from going far, but the rifle tumbled outside into the snow.
The phone rang again. Valentine looked at it reflexively, and Nikki hit him in the face with the heel of her hand with a strength that belied her size. The blow burst his nose like a rotten tomato, drove him to his knees and filled his mouth with blood. Even as he staggered backward she was hitting him again, a wild roundhouse that knocked his jaw hinge loose and left him on the floor.
Nikki turned to Liz, who had pushed herself to her hands and knees. Her small fingers felt like talons as she tore at the tape imprisoning Liz’ wrists, ripped it in half with a single savage jerk. Liz hissed in pain as the little hairs on her forearms were torn out, and gasped again in surprise when Nikki freed her ankles.
“Go out the front door,” Nikki said to her. “I have to find the other one.” The telephone jangled a second time…or was it a third? A fourth?
Liz nodded, and Nikki was gone, toward the back of the house. She clearly didn’t have to save Nikki; the look in Nikki’s eyes said that her friend was all taken care of. She had to save herself. Nikki trusted her to save herself, just like Andrew did. And she wanted to. She wanted to be away from this place, to let the police take care of Valentine and whatever else was happening in this house, so she could get back to the business at hand, that of surviving. This entire day seemed like nothing but a massive distraction from the more important things in her life, and Liz was royally ticked off about it.
Valentine was on his feet, eyes watering, mouth agape. He looked in the direction Nikki had gone, and then back at Liz. She could tell that he was going to come after her, and said, “Don’t come near me. I’m walking out the front door. I’m sick of this shit. I’m sick of you.” Would the cops shoot at her if she just jumped out?
That was when fantastically loud gunfire erupted from the back of the house.
When the shooting started, Valentine and Liz lunged at the same time. Liz was going for the door; Valentine was after her. They collided halfway. Valentine jumped over the couch, knocked Liz off her feet, and straddled her. He looked down at her for a moment before stomping her, his heel landing hard on one of her shoulders. She let out a little shriek of pain, curling up, and he kicked her in the face. Agony lanced through her head and out the top, taking rational thought with it.
She rolled onto her side, drawing one leg in close, and drove the other into his right knee with all of the strength that weeks of exercise and aikido had been rebuilding. He took a skipping step backward, but the kick knocked his leg awry and he came down on top of her. This is my world now, she thought as he tumbled into her, unaware that she’d said it out loud and in Japanese. Valentine reared back, pushing himself up to deliver a vicious, close-range blow, and Liz came up with him, moving into the punch, catching his free hand with one of hers and his chin under her shoulder. She didn’t hit him, she just flowed into him, doing what she’d learned in class, what she’d learned when she was a kid. Valentine slid naturally under her, tumbling forward with the force of his own thwarted attack. Liz kept his arm; he yelled in pain as it rotated in its socket. She wasn’t even pulling on him, just controlling it. And that was that, he was facedown on the floor and she was pressing his right shoulder hard into the carpet and holding his right arm straight up and turned slightly to the left. Valentine’s fingers spasmed in pain.
He was helpless. She could have drilled him in the back of the head, she could have banged what was left of his face against the floor until his teeth flew across the carpet like dice. She could’ve wrenched his arm out of its socket like a chicken wing and stomped on his nuts. He deserved no less, she was sure, but she didn’t feel like being the one to do it. Liz had more important things to do. Valentine belonged to a part of her life that was over, and she had no desire to relive it, not even to make him realize that he was old news. She held on to his arm, leaned close to the back of his head, and whispered, “No more,” in his ear. The shooting from the back of the house almost certainly drowned it out. She could hear bullets slamming into the kitchen, breaking windows in the back bedrooms and thwacking into the inner walls. One of the photos on the wall over the dining table burst and fell, struck by a projectile coming through it from the other side of the wall.
The shooters had gone wild, and it was migrating toward the front. There were a few pops from the front of the house, and Liz was struck by a strong urge to get the fuck down. She had to get out of here, and join up with Nikki, if Nikki made it.
Liz was sure she would. What mattered now was not getting killed. Letting Valentine go, she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled to the front door. She looked back for him when she got there. He was crawling toward the basement steps, favoring his right arm.
Please don’t shoot me, she thought as she reached up to open the door. Noise and cold air came in, and she reflexively closed her eyes for a moment before raising her hands, coming up out of her crouch, and rushing down the steps into the front lawn with her hands raised.
She saw a word, big, white letters: POLICE. A set of riot gear charged from her left, out of nowhere, and put a hit on her that had come straight out of last Thanksgiving’s Lions-Bears game. Liz went airborne, backward, and the dull-ish pain from Valentine’s stomp increased impossibly, swish, right off the scale. Something stabbed her viciously in the chest as she landed in the snow. The cop came down on top of her, and then another one, and another, and they were screaming at her to lie down, which made no sense whatsoever. Someone wrenched her arms back and pulled her up. It felt as though she’d been torn in half, and she screamed. Incredibly, someone punched her in the gut before the shouting increased around her, voices raised in what she knew was English but didn’t understand nevertheless, because she was losing consciousness. It hurt too much; she’d never hurt this much. She seemed to be moving in several directions at once; up, down, sideways, inside-out, and she just went out with that feeling. Hopefully she’d wake up.