Fifty-one

Lexi had overturned or piled up everything in her room so that it was all the same height.  Except for the giant mirror on the wall, nothing existed above an imaginary line about thirty inches above the floor.  The floor was completely covered with tipped-over furniture, books, clothing, and things I couldn’t identify.  Her dresser was turned over, to keep it below the imaginary line.  She’d even taken the headboard off the bed and laid it flat, and pushed the mattress off of the box spring.  The down comforters were piled in a corner and squashed down to match everything else.  It was wild and random, but at the same time very deliberate.

It was easy to hide Eddie in there, at least.  I buried him under a pile of clothes, leaving his face only lightly covered, and then went back downstairs.  My bag was in the kitchen, and I wanted my sword.  Now.

Martin was in the dining room with Taiisha.  She was still out.  He was standing over her.  He looked more disappointed than surprised, which worried me.

“I heard the fight,” he said.  He turned his back on her unconscious body, and looked at me.  “I had my money on Gray, actually.  She doesn’t look it, but she’s pretty strong.  You break her leg, or did Sharp do it?”

I didn’t say anything.  I started to walk around him and into the kitchen, and he reached out and stopped me with his hand.

“Wait just a sec.  Where’s Sharp?”

I slapped his hand away and started walking again.

He grabbed my shoulder harder, spun me around.  “Don’t think that just because I’m waiting for the cavalry, I won’t kill you myself if I have to.  Where is Sharp?  And where’s the video?  The Ile du Soleil documentary?”

“Let me go,” I said, “or I’ll split your fucking head open.”

He let go, raised his hand.  I could tell he wasn’t going to fight me if he didn’t have to, and he was going to lose if he did.  And he knew it.

I continued into the kitchen.  My bag was on the table, and I got my sword.  The weight of it was comfortable in my hand.

Martin had followed me.  “Very impressive,” he said of my striped knife.  With a sigh, he pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and sat down.  “Where do you keep that thing, when you’re not using it?  You ought to have some kind of sheath, or scabbard.”

I didn’t say anything for a moment.  “How long?” I asked finally.

“‘Till what?”

“Someone’s coming to get the disk.  How long till they’re here?”

He shrugged.  “Ten minutes.  Fifteen.  An hour.  How the hell am I supposed to know?”

“What are you going to do when they get here?”

“Stay out of the way.  They’re the bosses.  I got better things to do than get killed.”

“Doesn’t it bother you to get him killed like this?”

“Who gives a shit? People get killed all the time.  He got himself killed, darling.  A man like him knows what he’s getting into.”

“Maybe he didn’t. We didn’t give a shit about Ile du Soleil.”

He shrugged.  “Then he got himself killed by not knowing enough.  Same difference.”

“I’m not going to let them hurt him,” I said.

Martin laughed.  “Be my guest.  I told you, I’m staying out of the way.  I’m going to find a quiet room, crack open a beer, and wait for my ride back to civilization and my paycheck.”

“What about your car?”

“What about it? It cost me two hundred bucks from some hickbilly in Mount Pleasant.  Less than a plane ticket.  Let Lexi keep it, I’m sure she’ll be happy with it.  She can put it in her damn ballroom, or up her ass for all I care.  By the way, these people won’t mind killing you, too.”

“Are you trying to scare me?”

“No.  Just telling you.  It’d be a shame to see a pretty face like yours ruined.  But, shit, I seen it happen before, it’ll happen again.  These guys,” he shook his head, “serious bad news.  Stone cold killers.  It’s all they do.  They live for it.  You want a smoke?”

I ignored the cigarette he held toward me.  Did something move outside? No, it was dark and still.  “Why hire killers? Why not Taiisha?”

“Who?  Wait a second, I’ve heard that name before.  She’s an assassin, a freelancer.  Is she involved in this?”

He really didn’t know who he’d been sleeping with, and I had no interest in telling him.  “Never mind.  What are they going to do to Lexi?”

“There’s another pretty face that’ll get ruined, if she’s here.” Martin blew smoke in my face.  He didn’t seem to realize he’d done it.  “Where is she?”

My stomach turned at the thought of something happening to Lexi.  “I don’t know.”

“Hope she stays hidden.  If they don’t find her, maybe they’ll forget I said she was here.”

“You wouldn’t try to save her either?”

He frowned.  “Why should I?”

“She didn’t do anything worth dying for!  If anyone in this world deserves to live, it’s her!  She’s special, can’t you see that?”

“What, are you in love with her or something?”

It was all I could do not to hit him.  “Imbecile,” I said.  I started to leave, to go somewhere away from Martin, and heard a car engine in front of the house.  It was louder than Ian’s truck had been.

“Sounds like you got about two minutes to save whoever you’re going to save,” Martin said casually.  He stood up.  “I’m gonna get that beer now.”

I wanted to stab him in the back.  I didn’t.  My sword felt good in my hand as I ran up the back stairs to Lexi’s room.  A glance told me Eddie was still there.  I didn’t dig him out.  From the hallway outside Lexi’s door, I could hear what was happening downstairs in the entry hall.  There was some acoustic trick of the house taking place.  As I stood there I wondered how many times Lexi had stood in the same spot listening to us.

The new arrivals didn’t knock.  The front door opened and two sets of cold shoes squeaked on the marble floor.  “Mr. Stone?” a gruff male voice called.  It was vaguely familiar, and then I placed it: Ruben, from Denver.   So that was Martin’s boss.  Had I known that for sure I might have killed Martin already.

Martin’s muffled response answered him from the kitchen.  “All right, then,” Ruben said, and the shoes began moving again.

When I stepped out to look at them I realized that I was in the same position from which Lexi had looked down on us with her bow and arrow.  I understood the confidence that glowed behind the madness in her eyes; the entrance hall spread out below the landing as if viewed through a fisheye lens.  There seemed to be no blind spots, and the two men who had entered Lexi’s house–Ruben and Georges–were right in the center of my field of vision.

That didn’t last long.  The moment they saw me their mouths dropped open.  They recognized me, and certainly weren’t happy to see me.  Good.  Both men pulled guns, and I didn’t flinch.  “Go ahead!” I yelled.  “It didn’t work before, did it?” 

Ruben cracked first; he ran to the cover of the ballroom with a womanish scream.  Georges ducked into the library.  Neither of them took a shot at me. 

The stairs creaked as I went down.  They never creaked for Lexi; she knew where to walk.  I tried not to think about what I was doing.  Taiisha had told the right parts of me what to do; I let them take over.  I didn’t have to hold back this time.  Not at all.  I descended at a steady pace, sword held casually, pointed at the floor.  I felt as though I was slipping on a second skin, turning into a predator  Taiisha would have been proud, but she wasn’t in my head either.  It was all me.  A new me.  I let the steps moan, let them wonder for a few more seconds how I could be here, alive.  It was the kind of shock that got deeper, the more one thought about it.

I stopped two steps from the bottom, and then I was on silent marble.  The entrance to the library was fractionally closer to the stairs–six feet instead of twelve or so–and I went that way without a sound.  Neither of the killers was looking out; they were under complete cover, waiting for me to make a sound, to tell them where I was.  Georges was still just inside the library, gun up, waiting.  I could almost hear him breathing.  The silence would get to him.  He’d get impulsive, have to act.  I squatted just where he’d pop out, when he did, and rested my sword silently in my lap, pointing the tip toward where he would be.  If Ruben jumped first, he’d be able to shout a warning or even shoot me in the back, but he wouldn’t move first.  He had already put a bullet in me once, and simply by being here I was sure I’d broken his world. 

I could almost feel Georges thinking, thinking that I’d stopped on the steps to psyche him out, thinking I might be getting ready to jump or roll past the doorway and come at him from the other side.   He couldn’t outwait me.  I could smell his sweat, overwhelming his cologne.  I could hear his resolve crumbling, and the library’s wood floor creaked a little as he moved, he jumped out of the library, gun leading the way, pointed right at where my face…would have been, if I had been standing up. 

But I wasn’t.  I launched myself off of the floor, to throw my weight into the thrust and move into him, under the gun.  As he realized his mistake and the gun started to track downward, I thrust my blade forward and up, stabbing deep into his belly, puncturing his liver and diaphragm (if my aim had been true). Before he hit the floor I had my hand on the gun as well, and twisted it easily out of his hands.

I came to my feet in a crouch, Georges’ gun–a shoot-to-kill Colt Commander, I recognized from Taiisha’s many lessons–held by the barrel in one hand, my bloody sword in the other.  Georges was sprawled on the floor in front of me in a growing pool of gore, looking back up at me.  His mouth was moving, but he wasn’t saying anything.  I nodded down at him, answering the question his eyes were asking, and then he closed them and slumped back.

I flicked the Colt’s safety on and put it in my waistband.  I didn’t want it, but it was range and could come in handy.

“Georges?” a querulous voice called from the other side of the foyer.  He’d heard Georges die, whether he was admitting that to himself or not.  There was no time to wait for Ruben to come to me.  I ran across the entry hall.  My shoes squeaked on the marble this time, alerting him to my approach, and I still didn’t care.  I was more dangerous than Ruben was.  We both knew this.  He stepped cautiously out well before I reached him, his gun leading the way.  I could see him asking himself what he was going to do.  He knew he’d already shot and killed me once, and I was back.  His confidence in his weapon was completely gone.  My very appearance had broken him; the arrogance I remembered in his eyes from Colorado was gone.  Everything was gone.  He was just afraid of me.  “Stop,” he said, not very convincingly.  “Stop right there.”

I didn’t.  I put my head down and ran faster for three steps, then threw myself into a somersault.  He waited too long to shoot at me, and I was diving by the time he did; the bullet went over my head and somewhere into the empty library (he had a Colt, too:  one shot, six left, I thought reflexively).

I bounced to my feet in front of him, grabbed his gun hand with my right, locked his elbow with my left and yanked him toward me, spinning him toward the wall.  When he hit it, face-first, I kept driving the arm until the elbow broke.  He made a cackle of pain and his gun dropped into my hand.  It was enough.  Already psychologically beaten, Ruben sat down hard and clutched at his face with his good hand.  I picked up his gun and pressed the hot muzzle briefly to the crown of his skull, pushing his head down.  “You stay,” I told him.  My voice was a feral growl.  I collected both guns and went to get my bag from the kitchen.  After that, I put Eddie’s handcuffs (which I had been carrying since San Francisco) on him, dragging him to the stair railing and locking him to it.

“Georges…” he muttered, looking glassily into the library at the bloody corpse but not seeming to see it.

“Is dead,” I said, not looking at him.  I put the wreck that had been Ruben out of my mind and ran upstairs.  I needed to find someone who knew Lexi, who cared about her, to help sort out the mess with Ian.  I was guessing that none of Lexi’s true friends knew what was going on.

And even if I could find her a friend, I had to get her out of that hole in the ground.  I stopped in Lexi’s doorway.  I had forgotten about her trashed room.  I wasn’t ever going to find anything resembling an address book in that mess.  Even if I had known where it was to begin with, it was buried now.  I looked anyway, and found miraculously that the book was on top of the dresser, as if someone had put it there for me.  Maybe Lexi had.

The name was Molly, I remembered.  I couldn’t remember the last name, although she’d told me before.  It wasn’t Winter, it was Wind, no, Snow.  Lexi’s handwriting was all straight lines and curves, no sharp edges, and she favored off-color pens.  At the top of the “S-T” section was the name, address and phone for a Molly Snow written in green pen.  That was her.  I put Lexi’s phone book in my bag and went back downstairs.  The house was silent; I still didn’t see any cats.  I expected to see Martin, but I didn’t.

A glance in the dining room told me Taiisha was still inert on the floor.  I went the opposite way, through the library and the TV room, and while I walked I took out the cellphone Eddie had given me.  I dialed Molly’s number quickly and listened to it ring.  The VCR clock said it was 6:18 PM.  Not too late to call.  My chest seemed to constrict.  I didn’t know what I was going to say.  Before I had decided the line clicked and a woman’s voice answered, a little bit nasal and just barely cultured enough to cover the Boston or New England accent in it.

My voice cracked.  I had to clear my throat before I could speak.  “Hello, is this Molly?”

“Yes, it is.  Who’s this?”

“My name is Nicole.  I’m at your friend Lexi’s house.  She needs a friend right now.  A real one.  I was on the side of her false friends, but I’m trying to be a real one,” I babbled.  Silence greeted me.  “Fuck, I’m sorry.  Look, she’s getting fucked over by her so-called friend Ian, and she needs help.  She mentioned you once and said you were friends, so I found your number and called.”

“Where is she?” she said finally.

“I don’t know.  Here.  Somewhere.  She went underground.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said, she went underground.  She kicked a hole in her garage floor and went under it.  There’s some kind of tunnel down there.”

“Oh, Jesus wept…is her doctor there?”

“Dr. Zheng was just keeping her on drugs so they could clean out her house.  I told you, Ian wasn’t her friend.  He sold her cars and he’s selling her furniture.”

Molly was quiet for another long moment.  I could hear her drumming her fingers on something.  “I knew something wasn’t right when she quit calling.  Pardon me while I flog myself, would you? Looks like I’m coming to Michigan,” she said finally.  She sounded cheerful and determined, like a puzzle fanatic opening a new box.

A smile broke across my face.  “Thank you,” I said.

“No, don’t thank me yet.  I’ll be there in eight and a half hours.  Thank me then.” She hung up quickly.

I put the phone away.  The clock was ticking now; I had to find Lexi.  Part of me was afraid she was frozen to death just under the carriage house’s floor.  I pushed that thought away.  She wasn’t going to die.  I wasn’t going to let her die.