Fifty-two

I went back to the kitchen to get my coat and hat and mittens.  I felt someone behind me and turned around, just in time for Taiisha to slap me across the mouth so hard I saw stars.  If I had even suspected it was her I might have ducked, but I had stupidly assumed that she was still unconscious.  I fell across the table, then to the floor, the room whirling around me.  When I finally focused on Taiisha, I looked at her leg.  It was tied up in a crude splint, and she was favoring it almost to the point of standing on one leg.  But she was on her feet, conscious, and pissed off.

“Darling Martin woke me up,” she said.  “He proves useful after all, although some fool told him who I am.  I shall deal with that later.  You, Kerry, have frustrated me for long enough!  Why is this being such an annoyance?”

She finished her sentence by swatting me again.  Her hand caught my right eye partly open and left a red smear of hurt on my vision.  I backed away from her and ended up next with my back to the counter, hands on my face.  I thought for a second that she’d torn my eye out with a fingernail, but it was just a scratch.

She grabbed me by the hair.  “Get up,” Taiisha growled.  “Up, up, up!  What did you do with Edward?”

My eye was tearing violently, and my lip was cut.  “I’m not going to kill him,” I said.

A little bit more rage twisted her features worse than they already were.  “Don’t overestimate not,” she said.  Pulling me up by the hair, she grabbed the inside of one of my thighs with her free hand.

“Don’t!” I closed my legs and pushed her hand away with both of mine.  She pulled at my hair again to control me, and I dropped toward the floor, dragging her off-balance.  She let go of me to keep from falling.  I snatched my bag and coat off the table and backed away from her.  “Don’t ever.  Never again.”

Taiisha smirked and raised an eyebrow.  “Then do as you’re told.”

“No.”

She took a limping, shuffling step toward me, and I pulled one of the guns out of my bag.  Taiisha expected me to point it at her.  She wasn’t frightened by it at all.  I didn’t point it at her, though.  I pressed the muzzle to the bottom of my chin.  Her eyes widened, confused.

“Leave me alone, or I swear I’ll kill myself.  I won’t come back.  You can find a new slave.”

Taiisha stopped.  She was genuinely concerned.  It showed for a fraction of a second before she smothered the emotion under her ice-queen mask.  “You know I can’t find another,” she said.  “The gift can only be given once.”

“Not my problem.  Leave me alone.”

“You’d squander the gift I gave you?”

“You should have asked me if I wanted it.”

She smiled condescension at me.  “Precocious girl.  You did.  You do.”

“Try me.”

Taiisha took another step toward me, hopping on her injured leg.  “A lot of thought and time went into choosing you,” she said.  She was breathing raggedly.

I had a flickering thought of seeing her when I was on the phone with Liz in Toledo.  And on the heels of that, the notion that her face had been familiar even then.  Couldn’t think about that now.  “And you’re about to have wasted it,” I said, my voice fiercer and stronger than I could remember having heard it.  I clenched my teeth and tightened my finger on the trigger slightly.  It couldn’t hurt that much, and I already knew what I’d see on the other side.  The hard part would be resisting the temptation to grab onto one of those mirrors as I flew past them.  I forced the fear out of my eyes, because she was looking for it.

I might have succeeded.  Taiisha stopped, then lowered herself on her good leg until she was on a sitting position in the doorway leading to the dining room.  “Do what you will, Kerry,” she said.  “For now.  But you will not waste my gift.” She reclined casually on her hands, betraying no pain whatsoever, and closed her eyes.

I took the gun away from my chin, tentatively.  She didn’t move.  I rushed out of the room as if she were chasing me, even though she made no move to do so.  My bag rattled as I ran down the back hall, around through the TV room and library and finally back into the foyer.  I could see Georges still sprawled where I’d left him and Ruben sitting on the stairs.

I saw Martin, too.  He was in the doorway to the ballroom, and he had a snub-nosed revolver in his hand, pointing vaguely at the floor as if he expected me to be afraid of it.  “Oh my God,” I said, “who gave you a gun?” It came out more condescending than I expected it to.  I didn’t have much respect for Martin.  I feared the gun in his hand more than I feared him.

“Bought it myself, actually,” he said, walking out to meet me.  “Now c’mon, where’s Sharp?”

I pointed the gun that was in my hand at his face, as an answer.

“That gun’s going to break your arm if you pull the trigger,” he said.

I knew he was full of shit; I had fired similar guns before.  “You think?  What’ll it do to you in the meantime?”

Martin stopped.  He considered, then mustered his last reserve of bravado and raised his own gun.  “Two can play that game,” he said.

There was a blur of motion out of the corner of my eye, and a hissing sound that I might have imagined, and suddenly a knife had grown out of the side of Martin’s neck.  His hand flew to it; his other hand forgot the gun completely and dropped it as he went to the floor.

Taiisha was in the ballroom, leaning on the doorframe.  “Foolish child,” she said as she limped forward.  “Refuse to make my kills all you want, but I shan’t allow you to die by hands other than my own.”  My eyes went from her back to Martin, who was writhing on the floor and making choking sounds, trying to pull the knife out.  He was bleeding heavily, but it looked like Taiisha’s knife had only performed a messy tracheotomy on him.

When she reached him, she bent over with some difficulty and picked up Martin’s gun.  Stupid!  I’d been standing there frozen; I could have picked it up easily.

She had no interest in me, though.  She looked down at Martin, who was looking incredulously up at her and making a bubbly noise that reminded me of the first time Taiisha had killed me.  “Hi, lover,” she said, smiling, then shot Martin in the head.  Then she raised the gun in both hands turned at the waist, and aimed at Ruben. 

Taiisha waited long enough to hear his last words–“Hey, hey, wait, I know you–” and then executed him also.  He had his hands up in front of him, and the bullet blew one of his fingers off before it took him in the forehead.

Taiisha turned back to me with a smile.  “Now you’re safe,” she said.  “What’s the matter?  Upset?  Hurt?  Poor child.  You disobey, and hold yourself hostage?  I don’t have to touch you to get to you.  Sooner or later I’ll find someone you care about enough to save.  Then we’ll talk about Edward, hm?” She limped back to the steps and sat down with a pleasant sigh.  If she was in pain–she had to be–she wasn’t showing it.

She didn’t care who she killed.  If Ian came back, she’d kill him.  When Lexi’s friend Molly showed up, she’d kill her, too.  If Lexi came back in…

I began pulling my mittens on.

“Where you going, Kerry?”

I didn’t say anything to her.  I pulled my hat on and rushed out the front door.  I floundered through the snow and pitch dark to get to the carriage house.  Even following the trail Lexi and I had broken, I had to work to get through the deep snow.  Taiisha wouldn’t be able to follow me with a broken leg.

I hoped.

There was snow in my boots by the time I got into the carriage house, but I didn’t fall.  Good; I wasn’t sure how much more abuse my back was going to take today. 

It took some convincing to talk my feet into stepping into the hole in the floor.  I took the penlight out of my bag and squatted at the edge of the hole.  It smelled of antiques and must, like the inside of the old car did but with more of a dirt-smell.  The bottom was about ten feet down.  There wasn’t any way to climb down; I’d have to hang and jump.  I shined the light around down there.  No Lexi.  I sat on the edge for far too long, scared of the drop.  Telling myself that I didn’t have time for this was what finally got me moving.  Lexi was going to die if I didn’t quit being afraid.

It seemed like I fell forever.  Imagination.  It was only ten feet.  I let my legs fold with the landing, put my hands down so I didn’t roll, and opened my eyes.  It wasn’t just a hole in the floor.  I was on top of a crazy-angled jumble of broken concrete, dirt, ice, and what looked like ceramic tiles.  In front of me, the irregular floor sloped down, deeper.  It was a tunnel.  I called Lexi’s name tentatively and shined the light down there.  No response.

There was nothing to do but follow the narrowing passage down.  Had the ghost shown her this path, the same way she’d shown me the address book?  I tried to remember what Lexi had said right before jumping down.  “Curiouser and curiouser,” she had said.  Alice In Wonderland, again.  I started working my way deeper into the Michigan earth.

The roof changed from cement slab to frozen dirt and tile as I moved out from under the carriage house.  Brown icicles pushed impatiently through the gaps between the haphazardly set tiles, cracking the ceramic.  The earth beneath my feet was frozen solid.  My boots were unsteady on the unyielding, irregular surface.  There were no footprints in it at all, only rolling waves of frozen, water-smooth dirt.  If the tunnel branched, I wouldn’t know which way Lexi had gone.

The penlight wasn’t showing me as much as it had been; the darkness seemed to close in as I moved farther from the surface.  I pushed through a tangle of dead roots spitting down from the ceiling, and nearly cried aloud when I saw a pair of huge eyes staring back at me.

Not eyes, headlights.  It was another old car, with pop-eyed headlights and a hood shaped like a coffin.  It was sunk past the axles in the frozen dirt, rooted in the middle of the tunnel.  I looked at it closer, half-expecting to see a ghostly figure behind the wheel.  Beneath the glass misted opaque with dirty ice, it looked like the interior was empty, though.  There was a handprint smeared into the dirt on hood.  Lexi had been here.  The car was almost as wide as the tunnel; I had a hard time staying upright as I crawled around it.  The passage’s slope got steeper, just beyond it.

I called Lexi’s name again.  There was no answer, but I thought I heard a scratching sound or a footstep from somewhere ahead of me, from down the increasingly steep tunnel.  Fear of heights nibbled at me, chewing on the thought that I didn’t know where the bottom of this thing was, and on the rough ice there was no way I’d keep my footing if this turned out to be a mineshaft.  The tunnel dropped more sharply than I had guessed, slanting down at about a sixty-degree angle.  It looked like it went almost straight down.  With the ice, it might as well have.  I held onto the inside curve of the car’s rear fender and tried to let myself down slowly.  No good.  My feet slipped before I could steady myself and I fell with a gasp of surprise and fright.  I slid across rock-hard mud, clutching the flashlight tight and flailing for a grip on something, the tunnel wall, a root, anything before I slid over the edge of a drop.  My bag bumped along behind me, spilling things out.  A terrified voice in my mind cried, Mineshaft! Mineshaft! Mineshaft! How long was I going to fall?

I fetched up feet-first against more dirt thirty feet down.  A cascade of small things that had escaped my bag arrived with me, rolling and clattering.  The angle of the floor had lessened.  I rolled over with a little sigh, getting my breath back.  It felt as if my spine had been replaced by a solid, vibrating bar, and I remembered lying in the snow paralyzed after the accident.  The cold seemed to make it hurt worse.

It settled down, though, and I wasn’t paralyzed.  There was ice, dirt and broken rock half-blocking the tunnel, the penlight told me.  It was too low for even me to stand.  I called Lexi again while I picked up the things that had come out of my bag.  One of the guns was gone, as were most of my makeup and my sewing kit.  The strap was broken again, too.

All of that was trouble to be dealt with later though.  I tied the broken strap into a makeshift sling, looped it around my shoulder, and squirmed into the narrow space with the light in my mouth to cast a little bubble of illumination ahead of me.  The tile was better set here, and the ceiling arched.  I had about two feet of space, maybe less.  I crawled on my belly, and the tunnel continued on farther than the light could show me.  The ice and dirt seemed smoothed, as if someone had dragged themselves through here recently.  I thought I could smell Lexi’s peach-scented soap, faintly.  I was still on the right track.

I could hear water moving somewhere ahead, but my light hadn’t touched a widening of any kind.  And where was the water coming from, anyway?  It was winter, everything should have been frozen.  I stopped for a moment to rest, and took the penlight out of my mouth.  The tunnel had narrowed to the point that I was lying flat on my belly, able to push myself up onto my elbows but no farther.  The floor was almost entirely made of dirty ice; the tunnel had flooded, then frozen.  The cold forced its way through my gloves, through my coat where I was dragging myself on it.  I felt distantly unhappy about getting the coat and mittens dirty and wet.  Not only did I hate being dirty, but Eddie would think his gift hadn’t meant anything to me.

The voice reached my ears faintly.  I listened closer, then realized it was coming from behind me.  It wasn’t Lexi.  Taiisha had followed me into the tunnel.  She was back there yelling, not saying anything, just howling crazy syllables at me.  She sounded like a cheerfully wicked phantom.

The keening, rising and falling howl was more than I could take.  I spit the flashlight out, rolled over onto my back and dug in my bag for the gun.  With a scream of my own and my eyes closed, I pointed my toes out so I wouldn’t blow my feet off and shot down the tunnel, two, three, four times.  I could feel the concussion from the shots vibrating down the front of my coat, and the brass clanged off the ceiling and fell down around me.  The brief heat was welcome.  My ears were ringing; if I hadn’t been screaming, tightening my eardrums, I’d probably be deaf.

Over the ringing I heard Taiisha laughing.  Then she shot back.  The report sounded surprisingly far away; then a bullet skipped past me, ricocheting from ceiling to floor and back several times.  I rolled back onto my stomach, grabbed the penlight and the gun in the same hand, and started crawling again, frantically.  Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Taiisha’s second shot didn’t ricochet.  It smashed into the sole of my right boot and my leg went numb from the knee down.  When she heard me wail, Taiisha laughed again, and spoke words that echoed up the tunnel.

I wasn’t sure what she said because the pain smashed into my head as she said it, a black wave of hurt that outlined the bullet’s path into my foot, along the bone through the calf, and out again below the knee.  It seemed to take all of the heat in my leg with it.  I wanted to scream again, to let the shock out, but I couldn’t take a deep enough breath.  Little, staccato shrieks came out of my mouth as I dragged myself farther forward.  My body tried to collapse in on itself, anticipating the next shot.  The next one might not exit.  I’d take a long time to die.  I hadn’t been bluffing Taiisha; if I died, I was going to go right past those mirrors, no matter how badly I wanted to come back.  That thought made me afraid of dying, and convinced me that I was going to at the same time.  I imagined myself lying right here in this tunnel for hours, getting colder and colder and colder until I died, and rotting into a heap of child-sized bones that would likely never be found..

But I was still moving.  I crawled several feet in a half-panic before I realized that I’d dropped both the penlight and the gun when I got shot.  I had left them behind.  The small globe of light shrank behind me; nothing but impenetrable blackness ahead.  I ground my forehead against the frozen dirt beneath me, trying to find coherent thought again.  I couldn’t go back with one leg dragging uselessly behind me and no place to turn around.  And I couldn’t stop or Taiisha would shoot me again and again, bullets slamming into my feet and legs and hips and body until I was dead, leaking from a dozen holes.  Forward was the only way to go.  I tried to call Lexi again, but there was no air in my lungs to do it with.