Fifteen

Eddie was deep inside a cellphone.  He had the little Nokia’s back panel removed, and was carefully tracing a circuit.  The Allman Brothers played softly in the background, and Eddie was singing along in a low voice.  Playing with electronics was about as close as he got to entertainment, these days.  He’d had an idea not too long ago about giving Nikki a cellphone, and an unrelated one about one whose location he could track with the satellite navigation system he’d already installed in the Lincoln, and combining the two sounded like even more fun.  He was looking for a place to put a tracking patch in without having to cut up the phone’s case.  It looked like it was going to work, too.  He wondered if Nikki would accept the phone.  He figured she would; she was stubborn, but she was sensible, too.  If he had thought to give her a phone earlier, the Prodigy situation might not have been such a snafu.

Sending Nikki away for the rest of the evening had been a good idea; she didn’t seem to like being far away from him, even though she didn’t like him much and they’d done little but argue today.  Maybe she expected him to try to ditch her or something.  Still, they needed to split up, just for a few hours.  Plus, once he’d sent her away, he had been able to get a local call girl he knew to drop by for about an hour.  That accounted for his good mood as much as the electronics work did.

He heard the door open, and said, “Hello, Poppet,” without looking up.  Nikki didn’t reply.  “What did you do?”

“Washed clothes,” she said dryly.  “Thought about killing you.”

That was about as much of a joke as she ever made, and Eddie was learning that if he laughed at them, she wouldn’t tell any more.  He turned to look at her, and she was standing between the beds, fixing him with a funny, creepy look.  No, hell, it wasn’t a look at all.  “What the hell did you do to your face?”  She was wearing black and white vampire makeup and about eight earrings.  “Are you wearing black lipstick?  Jeezus.”

“This is what I look like,” Nikki said.

Aha!  So she was getting more comfortable around him, whether she admitted it or not.  “Remind me to buy you a coffin to sleep in,” he replied.

“Drop dead,” Nikki said.

“Is ‘what you look like’ going to make it hard for you to dress like the rest of us humans once in a while?”

She narrowed her eyes a little, turning them to black dashes in her face, and waited for a long moment before answering.  “No, I won’t mind.”

“Good.  Long as you’re flexible, you can look any way you want in your downtime.”

His lack of reaction was both disappointing and a relief.  Nikki pulled her afghan out of her bag and spread it on the bed.

“You’ll be happy to know that I finished today’s project while you were gone.  We’re working tomorrow afternoon,” Eddie said.  He was no longer watching her, but had his attention back inside the cellphone.

“What are we doing?”

“Security game.  Local company wants to test their new security and see if someone unauthorized can get into their building during office hours.”

“Sounds easy,” Nikki said.

“It is.  And fun, too.  Sort of like Capture the Flag; we get in, grab some paperwork–and my payment–and get back out again, and I’ll mail our contact a report of how we got it.  But if we get arrested, they won’t bail us out.  That’s part of the challenge.”  He was looking forward to the challenge, and it showed.

She sighed.  Something about the things that made Eddie excited bothered her.  Maybe it was just his big shit-eating grin.  “It better pay well.”

“This kind of crap always does,” he replied.  “They’re always surprised that I get in and out.  It’s easy shit.  I might do it for laughs, even if I wasn’t picking up a check.”  Nikki looked a little nervous, so Eddie reassured her some more.  “I’ve never been arrested, and I do this about twenty times a year.”

She nodded, looking at the floor now.

“If the shit hits the fan, I promise to come and bail you out.”  He knew it would be easy; he’d already checked to see if she had a record, which she didn’t.

Nikki looked skeptical.  “Really.”

His answer was to turn up that irritating, knowitall smile a few more degrees.  He laid out the setup for her; a security guard slash secretary at the front door, back door monitored from that desk by a camera and opened remotely by a buzzer that was right on the desk.  Eddie already had a plan in mind, and the next morning they went and did it. 

Just that easily.  Nikki (dressed down for the day) went in the front, told the guard that her car had broken down and that she needed to use the phone, then had a loud, embarrassing argument with a nonexistent boyfriend (actually Eddie’s voicemail).  As she screamed, the guard took a courteous walk away from the desk and gave Nikki time to bang an outraged fist near and then on the back door buzzer when she saw Eddie in the camera.

The rest was up to Eddie.  It was child’s play; he moved through the building like he had every right to be there, no one asked him any questions, and by lunchtime they were back in the Town Car and headed for a bank, because the little company had paid him in cash.

“I can’t believe they didn’t write me a check.  What business raises fifteen thousand dollars in cash these days?”

“Now you know why they wanted the security tested,” Nikki replied.  She was riding in the passenger seat with her eyes closed.  She was glad that it had gone well, and felt peculiarly satisfied about this whole troubleshooting thing.  It would be disappointing when she killed him.

“Wake up,” Eddie said as they pulled into the parking lot.  “Go and deposit this for me.”  He held the thick envelope out to her.  “I wrote the account number on the envelope.”

“What, you can’t walk your fat ass in there and deposit your own money?”

“Of course I can’t, Poppet,” he said, reaching into his pocket for his cellphone.  “I’m going to sit here and listen to the voicemail you left me.”

Nikki sat bolt upright.  “Oh, God.  Don’t, please.”  Eddie laughed.  “I’m serious, don’t listen to it.  Just erase it, Eddie, please.”

“Why?  Something incriminating in there?”

“No, it’s just bad.  I pretended I was mad, like you said, and I swore a lot and called the phone names.  It’s so embarrassing.  Don’t listen to it.”  She put her hand on his, to stay it from the phone, then dropped it, blushing because of the familiar way she’d touched him.

He nodded toward the door, still smiling.  “Go on, take care of that for me, and then we can get some lunch.”

“Eddie, don’t.  Don’t call the voicemail.”

“Okay, I won’t.”

“You’re a liar.”

“It’s what I do.”

“Don’t call it.  I’m serious.”

He reclined his seat slightly.  “You have the choice of being here while I listen to it, or of being safely in the bank where you don’t have to listen to me laugh.”

She called him a nasty name he barely understood (fuckwhistle?), jumped out of the car, and slammed the door as hard as she could.  That in itself made Eddie laugh.  It was too easy to make her mad.  And too much fun to stop doing it.

He listened to the voicemail three times.  It was about five minutes long, and his favorite part was where Nikki called her fictional boyfriend a ‘jizz-spewing waste of boyflesh.’  Man, could that girl swear.

The police cars pulling into the parking lot took him completely by surprise.  Eddie came clumsily upright in the seat and reached for the keys, racing through a mental list of possible reasons they’d send a car–no, three cars–after him.  Make that four.  Five.  Okay, he’d never done anything worth five cars.  Eddie’s hand came away from the steering column.  Something else was going on.

The cops blocked the exits, their focus clearly on the bank’s doors.  At the same moment, a helicopter clatter-rumbled into view above.  Oh, shit!  The bank!

There was a tap on the window, and uniformed officer leaned in.  “Excuse me, sir.  We’ve got a situation in the bank, and we need to get you moved back, for your safety.”

“No problem, officer,” Eddie said, getting out.  He took the keys with him.  He could catch a cab back to the hotel.

Fifteen

Halfway down the stairs the radio station in my head (at which Cygnet is the official DJ, thanks to the mixtape she sent me) switches from Primus to EBN-OZN:  “So I’m feeling really cavalier, and I say ‘now call me, if you want to…yeah.  Call me, if you want to.  So she rang me up, and she says, ‘Hey!  Do you wanna go out?’  Ha!  Do I wanna go out!”  I feel like I’m momentarily ahead of the goo in my brain, and I like it.  If I slow down the pink cloud’s going to catch up again, so I swish through the kitchen, barely touching the floor.  I grab an apple, my glasses, and Dr. Zheng’s keys out of the fruit basket as I go past it and then I jam right on through the dining room, the ballroom, the foyer, and out the front door.  I’m going for a drive.

It’s snowing, just a little flurry that’s probably going to continue for some time and the calendar in my head tells me that it’s the middle of November.  Where did the year go? Dr. Zheng’s car is a Saab 9000 Turbo, which makes me happy even though it’s painted either silver or white, instead of red like Saabs are supposed to be.  The door handle obeys my fingers with a light but expensive double click, and then I’m inside, smelling that crisp leather-smell, that Saab-smell.  The pink cloud recedes even more.  The Saab-smell clears my mind and I want to drive.  And, for the record, the car is silver, not white.

Where to go?  It doesn’t matter.  I want to drive, need to drive, to go, to move, and the key turns, the car gives a little shudder–kwith-thithvrrrrmmm–and comes delightfully alive.  I squeeze the cold steering wheel and let the wonderful living mechanical feeling vibrate through me.  The low Saab exhaust-burble makes me smile.  The car will know where to go, off through the snow.  I hope Dr. Zheng put on snow tires.  Probably not.  I could ask him, seeing as how he’s on the porch yelling, yelling my name in a pink cloud and tinted glass-muffled voice like a curious backward echo–“…lexi?  lexi get out of there, you shouldn’t…”

Silly old Dr. Zheng’s shouting is unimportant, though.  I hate it when people shout at me.  I lock the doors with my elbow and feed Cygnet’s tape to the player.  He yells too much; I’ll listen when I come back.  If I come back.  Will the fuzz let go of me long enough for a decent drive?  My left foot wiggles on the clutch, right on the gas.  So far, so good.  Right hand on the e-brake, push the button to release, then on the shifter.  Left on the wheel, resting lightly, not clutching.  This is the position I belong in, this is the first thing that’s felt right in weeks, in months, in all this swish-clicking time since Ren died.  I put the Saab into gear and it gets a lot easier to think, to see from here, yes indeed it does. The tape is just starting that EBN-OZN song, which is why it fell into my head; I sing “A E I O U sometimes Y,” and back up.

Gravel crunches and clatters against the underside of the car as I swing it around in a reverse J-turn that’s not as graceful as it could be because I haven’t been practicing.  The pink goo trapping my thoughts surges briefly, then falls completely away as the world spins around the car.  The falling snow is getting heavier and it makes the air look opaque.  I shift from reverse to first, reach out by instinct and twist the knob that my fingers touch, and there are lights.  In the lights, I see my gate, not as fancy as the Packards’ gate and rusted permanently open.  I put my foot down and the Saab listens, after a customary hesitation.  Turbos always lag a bit, and Saabs are notorious offenders.  Ren and I have a Saab somewhere, painted properly cherry red and named Spirit of Indulgence, because Ren bought it on a complete whim.  And Molly has a Saab, too, a convertible.  Also red.  Good karma, that is.

I give the car a little bit of foot and Dr. Zheng’s Saab launches, faster than I remember Saabs did.  The engine catches the rev limiter and then we’re out the gate and bouncing across cold dry asphalt, hurtful bright light and a blaring horn as something–a pickup truck, a heavy-duty diesel grumble–blurs past, a hairline miss.  Yeep, I didn’t see him!  I spin the Saab in a half-circle to complete the avoid, and it stalls.  Whoops.

Dr. Zheng is running down the driveway in his expensive little Italian shoes, still yelling my name.  I restart, get the car pointed in the right direction, and the Saab charges forward again, faster still on the harder surface, needle climbing and yellow lines running under the car, delightful feeling, fast, white-frosted air and trees and mailboxes flashing by in silhouette.  I can feel the road through the steering wheel and I can talk to the car with my hands and feet.  It’s delicious, oh goodness it’s delicious, grounded flight, one of the best sensations in the world.  This is what talking with Ren was like, what being with Ren was like, each of us knew what every little motion meant and responded and we were both in control at the same time.  There’s less pink fuzz around my thoughts now, in fact it seems to almost be gone except for a wriggling sort of dopey feeling like Dramamine.  And there’s snow coming out of the sky now, too, big blurry polka-dots of it.  Snow!  Yes, snow!  I can hear my laughter mingling with the car’s.

I drive aimlessly and fast.  A left turn, a right turn, then straight for a while.  The roads are mostly straight up here.  The Dramamine-y feeling doesn’t go away, and sometimes my reactions are muddy, a half-second slower than they should be.  That will just have to be fine, since I can’t do anything about it.  If the road gets twisty, I’ll slow down.  Dream Theater is singing and I sing along to sharpen my brain.  Clouds roll by, and I roll with them.

The sheep comes as a complete surprise.

I clip over a little rise at about sixty and there’s a SHEEP standing in the middle of the road and looking back at me. 

A sheep? 

Here? 

How doesn’t matter; I’m closing on it too quickly for the question of how.  Too quick for the stupid thing to run, in fact too quick for it to react at all.  My foot pops off of the gas, a reflex, and I dodge past it on the left.  As I go past I get a glimpse of an open gate, a dog running down the drive toward the sheep, a farmhouse that looks old enough to be handbuilt, and maybe someone sitting on the porch.

Then things get interesting.  I’m not completely right with the swerve; my reflexes haven’t caught up to my brain and I swerve out way too far, right across the lane and into newly fallen snow.  I fight the wheel as the handling gets greasy, stay off the brakes even though I’m going too fast.  There’s a rumbly sort of scrape beneath me as a strip of fresh snow turns to ripped-up brown grass under the car.  I overcorrect back onto the road, a hundred feet past the sheep, dog, gate, and house, still going too fast to touch the brakes and too far sideways to steer, and then just like that I’m off the right side of the road at a bad angle, too fast too fast ohhwww and a hard bounce, world spinning banging around the car, lights on snow telephone pole tree road dirt tree and STOPPED looking up at mostly sky. 

For a moment I think there’s another ghost in front of the car, but it’s only falling snow and steam swirling, making a dancing pattern in the lights.

Oh, poop, I just wrecked Dr. Zheng’s car.  Somehow, though, I don’t feel badly about that.  Not sure why.  Have I turned into a sociopath?

The Saab is quiet, stalled, cocked at a wrong wrong wrong angle in the ditch.  It’s not coming out under its own power.  I’ve done this before and am pretty familiar with the process.  At least the airbag didn’t pop.  “Sorry, Saab,” I tell the car. 

Now, there’s the mystery of the sheep to solve.