Eighteen

Eddie decided that it was a good time to pretend he hadn’t been paying attention.  She didn’t trust him yet, and it was too soon for him to know too much about her.  “Anyway, whenever you’re done,” he said with a bored air, “this is for you.”  He tossed the phone onto the bed next to her.

Relieved as she was that Eddie hadn’t made the connection, she was somewhat annoyed that he wasn’t listening to her, either.  “What’s this for?” she asked, looking at the phone like she might a boiled cow’s tongue.

“So we can stay in contact easier.  I’ll give you my cell number, too.”

“How sweet,” she said sarcastically.  “I could have used this–“

“I know, I know,” he said, holding up his hands.  “I made a mistake, it happens once per century.  Won’t happen again.”

“So can we leave Denver yet?”  Not that she was particularly eager to get to Michigan, but she didn’t want to have to drive past that bank any more.  Besides, Taiisha was in town.  She had no illusions that moving on would get rid of the woman, but the need to be moving gnawed at her nonetheless.

“In the morning,” Eddie said.  “And we have another stop to make along the way, too.”

“Why, another job?”

“For starters.”

Nikki sighed again.  What next?

“Your enthusiasm is infectious,” he said.  Nikki muttered something, lay down and rolled over on her side, facing away from him.  “You want dinner?” he asked.  She ignored him, pretending to sleep.  She did that sometimes.  He knew she wasn’t really sleeping, because if he spoke while she was really out she came awake with a little jump.  Nikki was the lightest sleeper he’d ever known.  He wondered if she ever got any rest.

But, if she was going to feign unconsciousness, then she either wanted to be left alone, or she intended to spy on him.  Eddie didn’t have anything to hide; let her eavesdrop, if she wanted to.  He picked up the phone and called his answering service.  There were three messages, but only one worth returning, from Ian Warnock.  It wasn’t too late to call him in Michigan, so Eddie did.

When Ian’s wife answered, Eddie said, with a chuckle, “Hey, bitch, put Ian on the phone.”

Sara laughed at the old shared joke.  “I’ll get him, Mister President.”

Ian was on the phone in a moment.  “What’s up?”

“Not much, just getting close to your corner of the country.  Wanted to touch base with you, as they say.  How’s it going?”  Eddie knew Ian would rather bitch about his own problems than listen to anyone else’s.  He wasn’t even in the habit of telling Ian about his personal life, and Ian rarely asked apart from a perfunctory question or two about Eddie’s sister.  This was not a problem; Eddie and Ian had been friends long enough that he was used to it.

“It’s a nightmare, that’s how it is,” Ian said with a sigh.  “We had the auction just the day before yesterday.”

“What auction?”

“The collection.  The cars, mostly.”

“And?”

“Went well,” Ian said a little proudly.  “I think it took just four of those cars to offset the cost of the whole deal.  Amazing stuff.”

“How many total?”

“Two hundred eighty-nine.”

Eddie whistled.  “And you saved one for me, right?”

Ian was instantly frantic, talking so fast Eddie couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  “I thought you said you were going to buy a new car?   God, Eddie, those cars were so much trouble to deal with, I just wanted them all out of here.  If you could have told me which one, I might have been able to–“

“Back up the truck, Ian, I’m just kidding.  I did get the new car, by the way.  I take it you enjoyed yourself, then.”

“Oh.  Well.  It was completely chaotic.  It’s still completely chaotic.  Warren’s records are the most cryptic things I’ve ever seen.  I’ve been checking the estate inventory against the auction sales list, and there are cars missing.  How the hell do you lose a whole car?  Not to mention all of the furniture, and the leftovers from the sports cars they were building.  Half the inventory is missing.  It’s supposed to be warehoused in Detroit, and the place is empty.  So all of this automotive tooling equipment is just…somewhere.  It’s a nightmare, and I’ve got to get through it all before I can even think about selling that house in Arcadia.  And I haven’t even gotten to the cherry on top.”

“Which is?”

Ian hesitated, and Eddie instantly knew it was something under the table.  The guy was always uncomfortable discussing shady stuff over the phone, as if somehow every line was tapped.  “Maybe it should wait until you get here.”

“Maybe I’ll be more help if you tell me now.”

A sigh, then another long hesitation.  “I’m in over my head, Eddie.  I just…the auction, the cars and things I’m fine with.  But the warehouse…Frederick suggested that I lease it out rather than selling, to keep some cash flow, and that was a good idea, but there’s something going on there.  I don’t know what.  Something’s moving through that warehouse.  I don’t know if its guns, or drugs, or what.  But I’m tied too closely to it–my name is on everything, Eddie.  If they go down, I go down.  I don’t know how to put a stop to it before this blows up in my face.  And her friends are breathing down my neck now, too.”

“There, now, don’t you feel better, now that you’ve confessed?” Eddie said.  “Don’t get your panties in a bunch, I can take care of it.  You still need me to babysit, too, right?”

“That’s the–yes, yes I do.”

“Then I’ll take care of both problems at once.”

“You can do that?”

“Are you kidding?  It’s what I was born to do–fix other people’s problems.”  Eddie glanced up at Nikki, who hadn’t moved or made any sign that she was listening.  “So how is the patient?”

It took a moment for Ian to figure out what he was talking about.  “Oh.  Lexi’s doing fine.”

“She still in La-la-land?”

“That she is.  So when are you getting here?  Right now Charlie Zheng’s up there with Lexi, but I don’t like leaving her with him.  She hates his guts.  And, as brilliant as the guy is, he’s got all the warmth and charm of Jack Kervorkian.  She’s not much more than an experiment in damaged psychology to him.”

“Sounds like that bothers you.”

“It does, a little.  I feel like I’m putting her in a zoo when I leave her with him.  I just want her to be happy.  I’m thinking I’ll find a place for her closer to Sara and I, maybe out in Grass Lake.  I can set her up there with a live-in, and she should be okay.”

“Of course she will.  We’re on our way.  If you had told me about the auction, I could’ve handled that for you, too, you know.  Are there any other loose ends you need me for?”

“No, just replace Charlie, and keep her occupied.  And if you can help me with this warehouse thing, that would be great.  That way I can figure out what to do next.”

“Take your time,” Eddie said, grinning.  So what are you doing with the rest of the money?”

“What money?” Ian replied, a little cagily.

“You know what money I’m talking about.”

“Well, that’s still TBD,” Ian said.  “I need to discuss your fee.”

“How much extra you’ll pay me to kick back to yourself, you mean?”

He could practically hear Ian’s tight smile.  Eddie liked needling him.  “Maybe we should talk about it when you get here.”

“I can do that.  Just tell me one thing:  how many digits are we talking about?”

“We’ve been friends how long, Eddie?”

“Shit, I don’t know.  Ten years?  Fifteen?”

“Can you stay at least six months?”

“If the pay’s good enough,” he joked.

“Then it’s at least six figures.”

Eddie couldn’t help but grin.  “I like the way you think, sir.  I really, really like the way you think.”

Eighteen

Swish-click. I wake up in the middle of the night.  My pill has worn off completely, taking the pink clouds with it, and I want to dance.  Dancing seems like a good way to end a rather eventful day (which, technically has already ended, but this is not a time to argue with myself).  There’s no sign of my ghost, and I hope that learning her story hasn’t chased her off.  I like the idea of having a haunted house; there’s something comforting in it.

I don’t turn any lights on as I make my way downstairs.  Skulking about in the dark is fun.  At least one cat follows me, but I can’t tell who.  I find my way to the ballroom; the stereo is on the floor in a corner.  I put it in there some time ago, and set up a speaker in each corner of the room, but never got around to hooking up the subwoofer or dancing.  What a waste of a ballroom!

Tonight is the night to fix that.  My eyes adjust to the dim light, and I can see well enough to load the CD changer with one of the CDs Cygnet sent me.  She’s sent me songs for myself, and songs for Ren, and I can dance to all of them.  I squat in front of the stereo in anticipation.

The first song to play is Oingo Boingo.  The first strains of “Dead Man’s Party” fill the ballroom, and then the whole first floor as I turn the volume up, up, up.  Dead man’s party, indeed.  Perfect!  I’ll dance for Ren, that’s what I’ll do.  Maybe then he’ll come and visit, like so many other dead folk have been doing.  Surely he knows how badly I want to see him.

It feels good to move.  I’m rusty–it’s been too long since I used my body, and I’m distressingly out of practice.  For a while my feet don’t know where to go; they usually pick a path unerringly.  Oh, well.  I stretch and twist, following whatever steps come to mind next in a corkscrewing path across the long wood floor.  I wonder how long it’s been since my ballroom was danced in.  Too long, in any case.  The kinks begin to loosen as I relearn the familiar tricks of balance and motion.  I had forgotten how much fun it is to dance.  “Don’t run away!” I sing along with Danny Elfman, “it’s only me!”  Ren liked this song–so do I.  I can’t even remember which of us this CD belonged to originally.

Before the song’s half through I’m jumping and half-running from one side of the ballroom to the other, my feet sketching complicated patterns on the parquet.  I heel-toe, I step and stomp, I pop-turn and bounce.  I’m inspired by Janet Jackson and Ray Bolger (you know, the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) and Curly Howard.  More songs follow as the player picks music at random from what was in there; Shriekback, Hanzel Und Gretyl, Cibo Matto, Siouxsie, and other wonderful, bouncy or moody or twirl-able things.  It’s a good thing.  It’s a very good thing.

I know when Dr. Zheng arrives, because he turned on every light on his way downstairs.  He watches me dance for half of a song.  It inspires me to move even more, knowing that someone’s watching.  On some level I think (hope) that Ren is watching too, but if Dr. Zheng is my audience, that’s good enough.  He needs to see this, if he wants to know more about what’s going on in my head.  It would be fun if he’d dance too, but I doubt he has it in him, really.  It takes a special sort of madness to dance to 16 Volt, anyway.

Halfway through a really cool song called “Motorskill” Dr. Zheng turns on the ballroom lights and walks toward me.  He’s actually purple.  His short black hair (what’s left of it) seems to be standing on end, and he’s purple with rage.  Apparently Dr. Zheng isn’t a four-in-the-morning person.

He comes like a bull, not speaking (not that he’d be audible over the music anyway), fists clenched at his sides.  He’s a few steps away when I see the hypodermic in his right hand.

“Don’t do anything I’m going to refuse to forgive you for,” I tell him.  I’m not yelling, but my voice is pitched such that it carries over the music. 

Dr. Zheng lunges at me; I bounce backward, but he grabs my left wrist with his left hand in a painful grip and yanks me back toward him, pulling me onto my knees.  I try to stop the hand with the needle, and he kneels forward, dropping his weight on top of me.  I don’t like being physically overpowered; it makes my heart race in a bad way, makes me want to panic.  Bad, bad, horrible things have traditionally happened after I am outmuscled, and some part of my brain goes into reptile, kill-or-flee mode.  Not that it does me any good.  His arms are stronger than mine.  I close my eyes, squirm, buck, and finally scream, but my arm is bent inexorably back and a sharp pain in my shoulder tells me that I’ve lost.  Zheng lets me go and steps away, then turns the music off.

“You stupid, stupid shit,” I say, my voice as calm and deliberate as I can make it through rapidly encroaching numbness.  My vision is already getting blurry.  This isn’t a pink cloud; it’s a warm, wet down comforter, enfolding me, crushing me with its weight and blotting out the light.  Everything shrinks into a dot, like an old TV, and then winks out.  Unfortunately, I’m not conscious long enough to formulate an immediate plot for revenge.

There’s no View-Master swish-click this time.  I just open my eyes, and it’s later.  I’m awake, the sun is up, and it’s hard to move.  Nothing’s holding me down, not that I can see anyway, but the goo seems thicker than usual.  Heavier.  I think about getting up, but nothing happens.  I’m lying flat on my back in my bed, under the covers, and I’m hungry and I have to pee and it seems like I’ve been here for a long time, but when I issue the order to get up, whatever happens isn’t enough to make anything move.

I close my eyes for a moment, and it’s nighttime again.  I know I’ve missed my pill, and the pink cloud is gone, but I still can’t move.  I’m still hungry, and my bladder is about the size of Jack Nicholson.  I listen, but I can’t hear Dr. Zheng.  And I still can’t move.  If I concentrate, I can lift my arms a bit, but it’s not like they’re connected to me.  I feel like a psychic trying to lift a couch ten feet away with her mind.  They weigh too much, and I let them drop back down.  There’s only one thing left to do; I wet the bed, and there’s nothing quite so angry-making as having to consciously piss yourself, in your own bed no less.

I can’t move, but I can be mad.  That doesn’t take any moving.  It seems like I should’ve let it go by now, that it was a long time ago, the little fight in the ballroom, but it wasn’t long enough and I can’t stop being mad.  All I wanted to do was goddamn dance.  That was all.

That.

Was.

All.

One little thing, I’d been miserable and unhappy and had decided to do something about it, inspired by Sir William and my little drive in the snow, and he had shot me full of drugs.  That was wrong, it was wrong wrong wrong, and I can’t stop being mad about it.  The more I try to not think about it, the angrier I get.  Driving calmed the angry-snake down, and so did dancing, until Dr. Zheng stopped me, and now it wants to turn on him instead.  I can’t stop wondering why he’d stop me from doing something that makes me feel better?  Isn’t that what he’s here for?

And another thing occurs to me, too:  It’s my goddamn house.  Guests who do not want to be awakened at three in the morning should sleep more soundly, or elsewhere.  I never promised to be a good host.  I’d like to be an entertaining one, but I don’t promise quality.  But first and foremost I need to know why I can’t do the things I want to do in my own house.  I suppose lately I haven’t been trying, and I also suppose that’s on account of the pink clouds they’ve been feeding me.  But the clouds are gone now, I’m in my room and my wrists hurt where Dr. Zheng grabbed me, and I can’t move.  I close my eyes again.

Swish-click. I wake up, someone has changed my clothes, and I am even angrier.  It’s a vibrating, humming kind of anger that makes me curl my fingers and toes.  It makes me want to scream, to run around in circles and hit my head against the floor.  This is what the angry-snake feels like when it’s loose.  I haven’t felt like this since before I met Ren.

I’m not alone this time.  The ghost is here, the older woman I saw in my dream of the car.  Marion’s her name, that’s right. Sir William told me about her.  She’s standing by the hallway door, which is open, and I can’t see the expression on her face.  I get out of bed and she disappears.

The blood rushes to my head as I stand up, and I see spots.  I think I’ve fallen over, but I haven’t, I’m in the hallway and headed downstairs and the angry-snake is free.  I have a handful of AA batteries, eight or nine of them, but I don’t realize they’re there until I go into the kitchen, see Dr. Zheng sitting at the table writing in his notebook, and throw all of them at him as hard as I can, without even saying good morning.

He ducks his head and batteries hit the table and his chair and the wall behind him, bouncing and zinging everywhere.  He jumps out of the seat, barking something in his authoritative doctor voice.  I don’t listen to him.  There’s an open toolbox on the floor of the dining room, and I grab a half-inch drive ratchet wrench and throw that at him next.  I’m out of practice, because that one misses too, although it does smash the purple cookie jar on the counter (and the ginger snaps in it) to bits with a satisfying ceramic explosion.

Tremble!” I scream at him.  “Tremble, and depart!”  That’s my favorite line from all of Shakespeare.

Dr. Zheng is purple again, but he’s running away from me, through the kitchen and down the back hall of the house.  I stomp my foot at him, and the whole house seems to shake.  I hear something go crashing to the floor somewhere.

I don’t run after the good doctor.  I go up the secret staircase in the kitchen to my room, and listen to him.  His little Italian loafers clatter on the hardwood floors, up the steps and to the room he’s sleeping in.  He slams the door shut when he gets there, and then there’s a big shuddering crash, like he lifted the bed up and dropped it.  He yells something.  Maybe he’s grabbing another needle full of the heavy-duty drugs for me.

I won’t let him do that, though.  I rummage around in the boxes in my room.  Soon I’ve got a roll of pennies and a hammer, and I walk to his room like I haven’t got a care in the world.  It’s so much scarier to just walk when you’re mad.  My dad never yelled or got angry.  He just did his thing, quietly and calmly.  It’s hard to be like that when you’re pissed off and there’s a giant boa constrictor of rage whipping about inside you, but I try.

Dr. Zheng hasn’t opened his door when I get there, so I put the hammer down and throw myself against it a couple of times.

“Lexi, calm down!” he shouts through the door. 

He must think I’m trying to break it down.  I’m not.  I’m shoving pennies into the jamb, stacking them up close to the latch.  Every time I throw myself against the door it makes just enough of a gap to slip another penny in there before it flexes back into place.  Five or six is usually enough to wedge it tight enough that the knob can’t be turned any more.  It’s one of those great college-dorm pranks that I paid good money to learn.  Who’d have thought it would have a real-world application?  I get eight of them in there, and tap in a ninth with the hammer.  Another nine at the bottom, and now Dr. Zheng won’t be going anywhere until I let him out, which will probably take a crowbar.

That’s just as well, though.  I really, really want to hurt him, but I know it’s not a good idea.  If I see his face I’m going to throw something at it, something that’ll do some damage probably, so it’s best to have his face where I can’t see it for a while.

I can’t believe he wouldn’t let me dance.  There’s something not right about him.  The angry-snake is still lashing about inside of me, so I start running.  I run outside, barefoot.  There’s still a bit of snow on the ground, but that’s okay, the cold doesn’t bother me too much.  I have tough feet; I’ve always walked barefoot when I could, regardless of the terrain.  I run down the driveway to the road, and then back to the house, past the garage on the way.  Then I run all the way around my big house, looking at the leafless gray woods and the tufts of dead grass that poke up through the snow and feeling the cold air charge through my lungs.

After two circuits of the house, the snake is going back to sleep.  Good.  Good.  I go inside, my lungs and toes burning.  The first thing I hear is Dr. Zheng shaking his bedroom door and calling my name.  When I shut the front door, he stops.

I go to the kitchen and make myself some hot chocolate.  While I’m doing that, the phone rings.  “Wonderland,” I say, my voice chirpy, “This is Alex speaking.”

“Hello, Lexi.  It’s Glen Grant, from Late Apex magazine.  How are you?”

I remember him.  I’m actually kind of happy to hear from him.  He’s better to talk to than Ian or Zheng, anyway, and he doesn’t make me think of Ren, unless I try.  “I’m flying high on caffeine, Yellow Number Five, and a variety of other complex carbohydrates, Glen, thanks for asking.  I’ve just barricaded my doctor in his room and the asylum is mine.  I think I’m going to eat an entire cheesecake as an encore.  How are you?”

“Not nearly that active, that’s for sure.  So, listen, I was wondering if we could continue our conversation some time?  We talked a few weeks ago, but not for very long, and there are some other things I wanted to chat with you about.  People magazine is interested in doing a story on you.”

“Really?  What a silly thing to do.  I fully endorse it–let’s try it at once.”  I laugh.  Mixing one little movie quote in with everything else reminds me that it’s nice to be talking in my own words, too.

“Great!”  He sounds relieved, for some reason.  “So, how does next Tuesday sound?  I’ll drive up there.”

“What day is it today?  I suppose I’m not going anywhere anyway, so it doesn’t matter much.  What’re you going to drive?  Bring something cool.”

“Let me see.  We’ve got a 911 C4 from Porsche here at the office, that we’re doing a drive report on.  How’s that?”

That makes me giggle.  “It’ll get you in the door.  I’ll show you how much fun it is to drive a Mini in the snow when you get here.  We’ll race.”

“It’s a date,” he says.  There’s some tone in his voice I can’t quite identify, like he doesn’t believe I’ll give him a ride.

“Oh, no it isn’t,” I tell him.

I think about cars for a while after I get off of the phone.  The house is quiet, so I put on one of Cygnet’s CDs, but I don’t dance this time.  My thoughts are running in directions that I’ve been trying not to let them run in, and it hurts, but not in a way that I want to escape from.  I wander through the house.  My feet are getting cold, and at some point I started crying but I’m not sure exactly when that happened.

I’m standing in the library, with its big built-in bookshelves on all the walls, and the books that Ren and I brought with us still in boxes.  Too much of my house is still in boxes but it’s not time to unpack it, something’s not right.  I feel unfinished, like a house with a frame and drywall but no doors or windows, and I can’t go out in the world like that, with the wind blowing through me.  But unpacking isn’t going to fill that hole, I don’t think.

I sit in the wingback chair and look at the library some more.  I remember talking with Glen before now, and telling him that I was going to put a car in there, and now when I picture the library with the books on the walls and nice warm, soft light from the ceiling fixtures and new carpet and proper paint on the walls, I can see the car, too, and it’s one of ours.  It’s a Crane-Packard.  Ren and I designed and built twenty-four of the little bug-eyed cuties.  I could put a CP in the library. 

I could build a CP in the library.  Most of the pieces to do so are in the basement, thanks to that hilarious shipping error.  It’d be too big to get through the door when it was done and I’d have to knock out a wall to get it outside, just like old psychotic Henry Ford did.

That’s the sort of project Ren and I would’ve embarked upon after an evening of homemade fried chicken and store-bought marshmallows (or store-bought fried chicken and homemade marshmallows, depending), and the idea makes me smile.  I could do that, couldn’t I?  Some part of me wants to look around for someone from whom to ask permission, but there isn’t anyone I need to ask.  It’s my damned house. I already told Dr. Zheng that this morning.  I can build a CP in the library if I want to.

I could build a CP for Ren in the library.  Maybe then I’d see him, like I see Marion and Alison and the others who won’t name themselves.

That’s what I’ll do.

I smile again, and slide down to sit on the floor.  From some dark, cat-cozy recess, Malice slinks out of the dark and climbs into my lap, purring.  I think she agrees that it’s a good idea.

The house is quiet except for my music and Dr. Zheng’s plaintive knocking on his door once in a while.  Screw him.  It’s his turn to starve and piss himself.  I get up, eat some fruit, clear out some space in the library and drag a few small boxes of Crane-Packard parts up from the basement.  Then I cry again for a while, and fall asleep in the wingback chair.