When I opened my eyes, an unnerving, half-remembered dream fading into obscurity, my body was quiet from the neck down.  I flexed a finger, to make sure everything was still there, and even that tiny motion made my leg throb madly.

I was in my room, in the canopy bed.  It was still dark outside, but I had no way of knowing if it was the same night.  I guessed that it was, because Eddie was sitting next to the bed, his chin on the back of the chair.  If I had been out more than a day, he probably wouldn’t be alive.  The look on his face was somewhere between his concerned look and an angry one.  I wasn’t sure what it meant.

“In Chicago, when you said you weren’t going to kill me, you were serious, weren’t you?”  Eddie spoke without smiling or acknowledging me other than to look at me.  There was a purple mark the size and shape of my foot on his jaw.  “I didn’t give you a chance to explain yourself, Poppet.  And it looks like a lot of noses got broken.” He sighed and looked at me.  “But not mine.  Why?  Was what she said true?”

I closed my eyes, feeling suddenly very tired.  “I’m sorry, I should have told you about it sooner.  As soon as she and Martin came here.  I wasn’t going to,” I said.  “She sent me to you, but I didn’t want to do it.”


It was my turn to sigh.  “I don’t think…that you deserve to die.  That’s all.”

“Are you sure that’s all?”

I opened my eyes.  He was irritating me a little, but I supposed that he had the right to for the moment.  “How does she know you?”

“It’s not your turn to ask questions.  How does she know you?”

“She kidnapped me.”

“You didn’t run away?”

“No, no, I did run away.  I never lied to you, Eddie.  She kidnapped me in Nevada.  Las Vegas.  I had been gone from home for almost a month by then.”

“I don’t think you can kidnap a runaway.”

“Well, fuck you, she took me against my will, is that better?”  I was too tired to be angry, and it probably showed in my voice.  “She took me out to this cabin and beat me up until I started learning to fight back, and she made me kill several people.  You were supposed to be the next one, and then I was going to become her heir or something.  She never explained it to me, I’m sorry.”

He looked at me for a while, then put two cigarettes in his mouth and lit them both, handing me one.  “And what about now?”


“Going to kill me now?”

“No, goddammit.  I spent the whole night dragging your fucking three hundred-pound unconscious ass around.  Trying to hide you from all the people trying to kill you.”  I blew smoke and cut my hand angrily through the cloud to dispel it.  “I think I could have saved myself a lot of goddamn effort if I wanted you dead.”

Eddie smiled.  He reached into his pocket, pulled out a gun, and tossed it on the bed.  When it hit the blankets my leg gave a shriek of pain and I winced.

“Sorry,” he said.  “Didn’t think.”

“What’s the gun for?”

“In case you weren’t my friend.”

I looked from Eddie to the gun on the bed and back.  “You’d have never gotten it out of your pocket in time, stupidfuck.  You trust me now?”

He nodded.  “As much as I ever did,” he said, smiling.

“Can you do anything without trying to hurt my feelings somehow?”

“No, I guess I can’t,” he said defensively.  “You have too damn many of them.”

“Where’s Taiisha?”

Eddie startled visibly when I mentioned her name.  “Is that who she is?  Now I feel lucky to be alive.  I’ve heard that name before, and never had a face to put to it.”  He put his forehead in his hand.  “People like her are one of the big reasons I don’t get involved in political shit.”

“Don’t tell me she’s another troubleshooter.”

Eddie made a face that left no doubt as to how far off base that was.  “Hardly.  She’s a killer.  Period.  One hundred percent human pitbull.  But it sounds like you already knew that.”

“She acted like she knew you,” I said.

He nodded, bit the inside of his lip.  “I think I had a run-in with her fifteen years ago.  Didn’t see her face.  But I recognized her voice, when she changed her accent.  The bitch pulled one of my teeth out with a pair of Vise-Grip pliers, and laughed the whole time.”

“Why?”  I would have felt a bit more pity if I wasn’t already in a world of pain.

Eddie sighed.  “Fifteen years ago I was fresh out of college and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.  This was before I got started in my own little business; I was schlepping boxes in a warehouse to pay the bills.  Guy I worked for comes to me one day and asks if I want to make a little bit of extra money.  I tell him sure, what do I have to do?  Turns out he needs a truck unloaded, down in Detroit, at three in the morning.  He doesn’t want to say any more than that.  I figure it’s fence goods, hot appliances, whatever.  I don’t really care because I can use the money in my pocket.  I think he offered me four hundred bucks for an hour’s work, something like that.

“So I show up, and it’s pretty much like I expected, one truck backed up to a garage and two other guys there tossing boxes out of the back.  They look up at me once and forget about me, go back to lumping this truck.  I hop up there and join ’em.  Nobody says anything except to talk about baseball a little bit.  Nobody wants to know anybody.”  Eddie took a long drag off of his cigarette.  “The whole thing got broken up about twenty minutes after it started.  The guy who brought us all there must’ve stepped on someone’s toes, because they sent a goddamn hit squad in there to execute him and cut up the hired help for good measure.

“We all ran when the bullets started flying.  Shit, I’d never been in a situation like that, guns going off and people screaming because they’d been shot.  Bad sounds.  Nightmare sounds.  I was pretty close to the door, so I just dropped the TV I was carrying and bolted.  I was around one-eighty, one-ninety back then, so I could move pretty good.  Made it a block and a half, didn’t do any good.  Taiisha was one of the hit squad, and she caught me before I got to my car.  She knocked me down, and I thought I was dead.  I could hear them shooting at the other guys who were running away.  But no, she puts her feet on my elbows, her ass on my chest, and a knife to my throat, and with her other hand she smacks me across the face with these damn vise-grip pliers.  When I yelled, she stuck them in my mouth, got a tooth, and locked them down.” Eddie rubbed the unbruised side of his jaw, looking up at me.  “The sound of one of your own teeth breaking is a pretty awful noise.  Goes right through your whole head.  I bucked the bitch right off of me, it hurt so much.  That pissed her off.  She went off on me with those pliers and her fists, hit me I don’t know how many times.”

“I know what that’s like,” I said.

He grinned.  I wondered which tooth she’d broken, but he had probably capped it long ago.  “Or maybe she wasn’t so pissed, because I’m pretty sure she was enjoying herself.  She laughed a lot while she was hitting me.  Once I quit trying to get away, she sat on me again and went after the tooth again.  Same tooth.  I don’t know what her hard-on was for it.  Those pliers crushed it more, and I didn’t think there was any more fight in me, but that pain woke me up in a hurry, and I threw her off again.  I didn’t care about the knife to my neck, didn’t care about any of that, I just had to get away from that.  Bet you know what that’s like, too.”

That made me frown.  “Why would I?”

“Just a feeling I get, Poppet.”

“What did she do then?”

Eddie looked at the end of his cigarette, which was burned down to the butt, and stubbed it out.  “Kicked me in the head a few times, in the gut too, then rolled me over and yanked what was left of that tooth out.  I about choked on the blood that came out of the socket.  Then she said something to me like, ‘you survived that well, I’ll let you walk today,’ and just strolled away.” Eddie shook his head.  “It was one of those memories you put away in the back of your head and don’t worry about bringing up too often, you know?  When she changed her voice, I recognized it right away though, even after fifteen years.  If she comes back, I’ll put a bullet in her brain and see what she thinks of that.”  Eddie picked the gun up again.

“It won’t do any good if you kill her,” I said.  Goosebumps jumped up all over my arms and back as if to ask, are you really going to say it?  “She’ll just come back,” I said.

Eddie narrowed his eyes at me.  “Come again? Repeat that, Poppet, and a lot more clearly.”

Fine.  So he would think I was insane.  I wasn’t going to use that as an excuse not to warn him.  “She can die, and come back,” I said.  “She calls it borrowing time.  If you kill her, she’ll just come back mad.”  I saw the smile start to crawl onto Eddie’s face.  “Listen to me, dammit!  I’ve killed her twice! Does she look dead to you?” I told him about the times I’d killed her, and the smile disappeared.  “I’m serious.  I don’t know how to stop her.  Do you believe me? Do you believe what I’m saying?”

Eddie looked at me and smiled diplomatically.  “I believe you saw what you saw,” he said.

I almost told him that I could borrow time too.  Almost.  As it rose into my throat to tell him, I envisioned him sending me into suicide situations just because he thought I was immortal, and the words froze on my lips.  Would he do that?  I considered him my friend, but did he feel the same way about me?  He said ours was ‘strictly a business relationship’ and the things he did for me were usually self-serving, but behind all of that did he really think of me as a person, or as a tool?  I wanted to believe the former.  Eddie had to be a better alternative than Taiisha.  “Fair enough,” I said finally.

“So, what’s her next move? What’s she going to do next?”

“She’ll come after me.  She followed me all the way across the country, Eddie, she’s not going to give up now.  How long was I asleep?”

“It’s past eleven.”

I looked at the dark window.  “Help me up.  She must have gotten out from underground by now, even with her leg hurt.  She’ll come in here.”

Eddie put his hand on my chest when I started to sit up.  He didn’t push, just stopped me from rising.  “Stay in bed.”

“Fuck that.  She’ll kill you.  And Lexi.  I’m not going to just lie here.”

“With that through-and-through in your leg, you don’t have much choice, Poppet.”

“I’m stronger than I look,” I said.

“Sure you are.  Tough as nails.  But you’re still shot.” Eddie stood up and pulled the covers back.  I got a glimpse of my naked legs, one swollen and purplish from the knee down, and twice its proper size.  I yanked the covers back, closing my eyes.  “Right,” Eddie said.  “Just pretend it’s not there.”

“Why am I naked?”

“You’re not naked,” he said calmly.  “You’ve got those lacy little black panties on and I see you’re very careful about your bikini line.” 

I actually took a swing at him, lunging as far off the bed as I could.  It hurt, and I made a noise.

He stepped back, trying not to smile.  “Hey, chill out, Nikki.  Lexi took your clothes off.  They were soaking wet, and you were in shock.  She put them in the dryer.  You want me to bring you something to eat?”

“Juice.  We need to be ready for her.  To kill her.  We have to break her up.  Get a crematorium, a meat grinder, something like that.  I saw a big stump grinder somewhere…where was it?”

“It’s almost midnight, Poppet.  Even if that wasn’t one of the sickest things I ever heard, where–“

“Be a troubleshooter, Eddie,” I snapped.  “I know you can find one.  When she dies, her body…fixes itself.  Somehow.  If it’s ripped into little pieces it won’t be able to regenerate, or whatever it does.”

“Are we going to scatter the fragments to the four winds, also?”

“I might.”

“I’ll get some silver bullets, too.” He was trying to ease the tension, but it wasn’t quite working.  Taiisha would kill him and Lexi in a second, and he didn’t see that, or didn’t want to.

Lexi banged the door open.  She was carrying a milk crate with an unidentifiable assortment of junk in it.  She smiled secretively, as if we were sharing a joke.  “You’re going to want to get up, aren’t you?” she asked me, not even looking at Eddie.  “Of course you are.  You can’t keep a good Nicole Saxen down, that’s what I thought when I looked at you.  Bulldog girl.  I brought you lots of soft puffy things to keep your foot off the floor, and my old walking cast.”  She held up a full-leg brace made of electric blue material and Velcro straps.

“Now why in the hell do you have that?” Eddie asked.

“Oh, I drove a car into an equal and opposite car and put some exciting new joints in my right leg a couple of years ago,” she said lightly.  “Got a titanium rod down there now, and a rilly cool scar, I’ll have to show you some time.  The scar at least, I mean.  But not right now.  You think this’ll fit? First let’s swaddle your foot.” Lexi dug three boxes of gauze out of the crate.  “This should do,” she said with a smile.  “I also brought you a box of Peeps.”

Eddie picked up the package of yellow marshmallow chicks.  “Explain, please?”

Lexi snatched them away.  “For her, not you.  And you’re the doctor, you know full well that sugar is a natural painkiller.”

“No, it isn’t,” Eddie said.

“Eat a whole box of Peeps and you won’t care,” she replied with a giggle.  “With two boxes of Peeps, a Karmann-Ghia, and a case of Mountain Dew, I could take over Wisconsin, you know.  I would be invincible.”

Lexi prattled on like that while she wrapped my leg up.  As soon as she lifted my leg an inch, I almost screamed at her to stop, it hurt so much.  Eddie held my hand, and I squeezed it until I expected it to be nothing but a crushed, bloody lump.  I looked up at Lexi and she was looking back at me and I could see all of my pain reflected in her eyes.  Her brows crinkled just the tiniest bit in sympathy and in that trace expression I saw my mother, I saw Liz, I saw Mikey, I saw Dori, I saw Eddie, I saw everyone who had ever made a point of giving a shit about me.  A second blast of pain came when they snapped the cast around my leg and I knew I couldn’t do this alone, I couldn’t face Taiisha by myself, but that didn’t matter because I wasn’t alone.  I didn’t have to be alone if I didn’t want to.  Eddie and Lexi were with me, and they’d protect me just like I was willing to protect them.  I concentrated on Lexi’s voice and let her mad spiel carry me through the pain.  She talked (in detail) about the Vatican’s plan to rule the world from a fortress located five miles beneath the earth’s crust, and about comic books (her favorites were Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Strangers In Paradise), and about how to make a pie with salmon in it.

Even with the distraction, I was sweating from the pain by the time Lexi finished tightening the walking cast.  “Well, it’s not beautiful, but at least you can hobble around and do more damage to it if you want to,” she said finally.

“Taiisha’s going to come back,” I said.

“Oh, nevermind her,” Lexi interrupted.  She turned on Eddie.  “I have some questions.  Why is my foyer covered in blood?  It’s not like I walked in and didn’t notice, I was just being polite.  I was thinking about it, and it occurred to me that polite guests don’t go splattering blood all over the house if they can help it, so I don’t have to be polite either.  I could be a lot ruder in fact–“

“Martin’s dead, Lexi,” Eddie said, cutting her off.  He wasn’t treating her like a fruitcake any more, and that made me glad.  “And two other hardcases, who came here to kill me and Nikki, apparently.”

“I know, I dragged them out of sight.  But not out of mind.  It’s such a nice foyer without all the blood.  I take it you know how to clean up messes like that?  Protein gets out protein, and so forth?”  She didn’t wait for him to answer.  “Then it’s settled.  You came up here as Ian’s friend, so you’ll clean the mess up.  I’ll pay you, if you want.  I don’t know if I have any money but I can surely pay you in homemade bread.  Is that good?” She had her hands balled up on her hips.  It surprised me how stern her cheerful face could look.

I thought Eddie would keep arguing, but he surprised me by waving her off.  “That’s fine.  Let’s deal with the matter at hand now.”

“What matter?  Oh, that’s right, the evil chiclet formerly known as Gray.  We have to deal with the Gray matter!”  She giggled.  “Yes, what do we want to do about her?”

“Nikki has an idea or two,” Eddie said.

Lexi looked at me.  “So do I.  If you see a string tied to something, or a bucket where it shouldn’t be, don’t touch it.  And don’t go in the basement or attic until I say it’s okay.  What next?  Shall I run around nailing the doors and windows shut?”

I breathed a laugh through my nose.  “No, but I need my bag.  It’s got my sword in it.  You’d better get your bow and arrow.” She helped me up.

“What a wonderful idea! But to be honest, I don’t particularly want to shoot anyone else.  Not even evil chiclets.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “She doesn’t know that.” Fear nibbled in the back of my mind, that Taiisha would kill Lexi simply for pointing the bow at her.  I crushed it.  Taiisha would kill Lexi to watch the smile melt out of her face.  She didn’t need a reason.

Lexi and I went downstairs.  The swirls of blood on the floor were dry.  “I’m afraid to open my closets,” Lexi said, “for fear of finding corpses.”  She turned around and looked at me.  “Are you locomoting okay?”

“I’m all right.” I could only just hop along without screaming.  My bag was on the kitchen counter.  It always looked sad and forgotten when I put it down somewhere.  I had to sit at the kitchen table to rest.  I pulled my sword out and looked at the reflection of the kitchen light in the blade’s chrome stripes.  Then I dug in it for some painkillers.

Lexi looked over my shoulder at the knife.  I half-expected her to quote Crocodile Dundee, but she just sighed.  “Oh, dear, that’s not a safe toy.  We’ll have to clean up whatever messes we end up making before Molly gets here.  I hate not being ready for guests.”