Five

Nikki jumped, feeling the trickle of adrenaline lacing her veins turn into a flood.  He was shaped like a pear atop a pumpkin, wearing an amazingly tasteless Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, and a straw hat, and he was smiling at her.  He had a good tan except for lines where his sunglasses had been.  Her eyes met his, dark blue locked with bright blue.  Edward?  Nikki decided that it was.  If it wasn’t, he was in for an awful, awful surprise.  If it was, Taiisha wanted her to make him chase her.  Nikki shrugged the hand off of her shoulder and walked away from him, pulling her bag closer to herself out of habit.  The gesture made her look nervous, too.  Good.

Eddie Sharp grinned in amusement and followed Nikki.  He’d been watching her work the crowd for an hour.  He had her pegged for a runaway, probably recently arrived from somewhere back east.  She was just the type he was looking for.  Desperate enough for a little crime, but not so criminally far gone that she’d be impossible to clean up, if necessary.  She picked pockets smoothly, like she had been doing it for a long time, but she was too obviously uncomfortable with the reality of taking other people’s stuff to be a long-time wallet-snatcher.  Eddie guessed that she’d had magic lessons, learned a little sleight-of-hand somewhere.  Whatever the reason, she had plenty he could work with.  With luck she wouldn’t be dumb, either.

He followed her at a distance, to keep from spooking her.  It wasn’t hard; in a gray T-shirt that had been black about two thousand washes ago, a charcoal-colored, ankle-length skirt, and dark blue boots, she didn’t blend in with the tourists.  Her hair was black and needed a wash and trim.  Cleaning up would come later, though.  She definitely had promise.

She went into a corner store, with exits on two sides and haphazardly placed racks overflowing with silly hats.  She disappeared into the brightly colored cover.  Eddie waited ten seconds, fifteen, before following.  He wanted to keep her from bolting.  A walking chase he could handle.  If she ran, she’d outrun him in about five seconds and he’d never find her again.  Eddie didn’t have time to go looking for another candidate, and didn’t want one anyway.  He’d made up his mind; it was her or nobody.

She saw him as soon as he entered the store.  Her furtive eyes pegged him from behind a moose-antlered cap, and she went out the other door, with increased urgency.

Nikki hesitated outside a moment, playing scared.  She didn’t need to look to know he was coming out, but when the door opened she looked anyway.  It was him.  He met her eye and started to smile again and she pasted a false look of apprehension on her face and ran.  It wasn’t full flight.  She let him keep up.  She bolted quickly through the crowd, pretending to hesitate when a knot of people slowed Edward, then sped up again when he was clear. 

She reached the curb where Taiisha had dropped her off, saw a bike unattended on the sidewalk while its owner bought ice cream, and she didn’t hesitate to take it.  She ignored the yelling that began behind her, pedaling almost leisurely away and looking over her shoulder.  The breeze of motion blew her hair into her eyes, but she saw Edward run out of the crowd, still moving pretty fast for a fat man, and jump into a beige car parked at the curb.

With a glance at his watch, Eddie gunned the Caprice away from the shoulder.  He’d lost his straw hat while he was running.  Oh well.  Ahead, the girl looked over her shoulder, saw him in the car, and started pedaling for all she was worth.  There wasn’t enough traffic to slow him down, and nowhere she could take that bike that he couldn’t follow in the car.  All Eddie had to do was keep her from getting into the city.  She probably knew it, too.  Eddie felt a little bit sorry for her.  She’d been outmaneuvered.

Nikki felt like she was on a ride just about to spin out of control.  The chase was beginning to turn a little intense, like a game of tag that had gotten personal.  She let the desire to flee drive her without allowing herself to actually get away.  She had to play as hard as she could, but still play to lose.  Come on, then, she thought.  Catch me, you fuck.

Eddie looked for cops, saw none, and figured it would be about three minutes before someone called one.  He raced ahead of her, laid on the horn and spun the car to a halt right in front of her.  I should’ve been on Hunter, he thought.  Horns blared.  The bike was on a collision course with the Caprice’s right front fender, too fast to stop, and the girl bailed.  She fell, tumbled knees to hands, rolled with the fall, and came back up on her feet, barely.  Her bag pulled her off-balance.  The bike slammed into the side of the car with a violent bang as she came to her feet.

The cars that had stopped to avoid him were starting to spit out curious people.  Eddie jumped out of his car, summoned an authoritative voice, and yelled, “I’m a cop!”  Everyone froze, naturally.  They’d gawk, (a few of them might videotape it) but most of them wouldn’t interfere.

Nikki’s paralysis broke first.  She turned and started to run, back toward the piers.  Too late; the whole world had turned against her at Eddie’s shout.  Curious onlookers were suddenly trying to grab her and jumping in front of her.  She ducked under a couple of ineffectual grabs and kept running.  Eddie took a few steps in her direction.  As it became clear he was pursuing her, more people got in her way.

A man stepped out of his car waving his arms at her, then grabbed the strap of Nikki’s bag as she ran past him.  She spun toward the unexpected resistance, losing her balance, and the man spun her headfirst into the opening door of another car.  She got her arms up, but not in time.  Nikki saw stars, and in the next instant she was staggering backward, her head completely numb, knowing she was hurt but not able to feel anything at all.  Someone else crashed into her from behind and she went down.  The pavement scraped her hands and knees when she fell.

The numbness faded to a single spot on her forehead, and the rest of her head began to throb painfully.  She was lying on her stomach in the street, mouth hanging open in shock.  Horns were still honking, people yelling, the sun relentlessly and mindlessly cheerful in the sky.  A deck shoe-clad foot kicked her bag away and then its incredibly heavy owner sat on her back.  “Now,” he said, “are you going to be civil, or do I have to sit on you?” It was Edward.

Nikki lay still, breathing hard, hurt and angry and resisting the urge to jump up and fight back. She forced herself to relax, to acquiesce for now.  Edward let up on her back a little bit, and then she felt a handcuff ratchet closed around her left wrist.

That wasn’t acceptable.  The game wasn’t over yet if he was going to handcuff her.  Nikki yanked both her hands out of his grasp and spun onto her back.  He could have stopped her just by putting his weight back on her, but that would have put them in a fully clothed missionary position in the middle of the street, and that fact made him hesitate.  Taiisha had taught her that it would.  Nikki used that instant to buck her hips up and into his groin. 

It surprised him more than it hurt him.  He gasped, and she kicked backward, throwing her hands out so he couldn’t grab her wrists.  He put his hand down to keep himself from falling and she was out from under him, and on her feet.  She kicked him in the jaw, then snatched her bag up off the ground with her right hand.  With the left, she swung backhanded at the man who’d thrown her into his car.  The free cuff cracked across his face and he howled in pain.

She paused when she got to her feet, trying to decide which way to go and how far to go to keep him in the chase.

In that instant, Eddie grabbed the free cuff, hooking two fingers through it before she could snatch it away.  When she tried to run, Eddie stood up and planted his feet.  She wasn’t strong enough to drag him.  He kept one hand cocked, in case she tried to hit him again.  “It’s okay, folks,” he called out, rotating his lower jaw, which felt like it was about to fall off.  Christ, she’d jobbed him good.  Some dim corner of his memory spat out an old comedy routine about giving people a “boot to the head!”  He smiled to himself, thinking of it.  Smiling hurt.  “Show’s over.  Come on, get back to your cars and clear the street.  Are you okay, sir?” Eddie made a perfunctory show of checking out the man she hit, who had a nasty scrape on his cheek but muttered that he was fine.

The girl didn’t resist as Eddie dragged her back to the Caprice.  He opened the door and put her in the front seat.  He locked the free cuff tight around the rearview mirror.  She relinquished her bag without a fight, and he put that in the back seat.  The gawkers were dissolving into excited little family groups to talk about the scene.  Eddie glanced at his watch again.  The whole thing had gone down in about two minutes.  Good.  He’d gotten it over with before a real cop showed up.  He dragged the wrecked bike to the curb.  Its owner could find it soon enough.

When he came back and got behind the wheel, he rubbed his jaw.  “So much for that root canal,” he said.  “You ever play soccer?”  He thought, Boot to the head! again, and had to stifle a laugh.

Nikki didn’t answer, and he pulled into traffic.  Eddie saw her looking around the car and registering that there was no radio, no police equipment that she could see.

“I’m not a cop,” he confessed.  “It just keeps people out of the way if you say you are.  My name’s Ed.  Ed Sharp.  Friends call me Eddie, always have.  Do you make your living stealing, or is it,” he paused dramatically, “just a hobby?” She didn’t answer him, kept her eyes outside the car.  “You do it for a living, don’t you?” She still didn’t answer.  Fine.  She could play statue if she wanted to.  She was probably scared shitless, although her eyes were unreadable.  He wanted her at ease.  He really was doing her a favor, when it came right down to it.  “Well, my little Poppet, let me tell you what I do for a living.  I’m what I call a troubleshooter.  I fix all sorts of legal and not-so-legal problems.”

“You’re a mercenary.”

Eddie laughed.  “Nothing that dramatic, Poppet.  Most of the time I just arrange secure hotel rooms and break into expensive condos like any ordinary hood.  A little bit of corporate espionage here and there.  But I could use a second pair of hands.  Yours, I mean.  I could use your feather touch, and there are a thousand things I could teach you.  You’ll have to learn fast, but I’ll bet you’re a fast learner.  And you’re more curious than you act.  There’s a lot I can teach you.”

Nikki looked at him, absorbing his condescending tone.  Without warning, she twisted her left hand, made a fist, and then jerked her arm straight down.  The mirror snapped clean off of the windshield, hit the roof, and bounced onto the floor.  It nearly dislocated her wrist, but she bit down on the pain and didn’t let Eddie see.  “There’s a lot you can learn,” she said, looking at him.

His eyes met hers for a moment.  She could see him wondering just what he’d brought into his car.  “Going to bolt now?” he asked after a short moment of silence.

“Why would I? You’ve got everything I own in the back seat.”

“Ownership is fleeting,” he said with a smile.  “People get so uptight about owning things.  Thieves like you and me especially should be above that.”

“I’m not a thief,” Nikki said.  If you had any idea what I am, she thought, you wouldn’t be smiling like that.

Eddie smiled again.  “Whatever.”

Five

A hotel conference room, complete with rows of tables and pitchers of water, was an inauspicious ending to what should have been a success story.  Ian Warnock couldn’t help thinking that it just wasn’t fair.  Eight months ago, he’d been chief financial officer of a hot new car company, and now he was here, taking a day off of groveling to get his old job at Ford Motor Company back to preside over one last Crane-Packard shareholder’s meeting.  He checked his watch; fifteen minutes until they arrived.  Ian had wanted to keep it light-hearted to the last, and organized a small reception prior to the meeting, but in the end he hadn’t been able to bring himself to attend.

There were no pictures of the Crane-Packard in the room.  Just the hotel’s baroque décor and drapery.  Ian hadn’t been able to bring himself to drag out any of the framed publicity photos of the car, either.  He’d gotten over his grief at losing a good friend, but it was still a heavy-hearted business.

Ian sighed, and poured himself a glass of water.  “This sucks,” he told the empty room.

Behind him, the door moaned softly open.  “Hello?” 

Recognizing the voice, Ian stood and turned.  He straightened his blazer, though there was no need for formality.  “Ajax,” he said.  “You’re early.”  Ian, Ajax and Ren had been roommates in college.

“I know.  Didn’t feel much like having drinks with the Wall Street boys, you know?”

“I know.  Shit, sit down, this is going to start feeling like a second wake if we keep this up.”

Albert “Ajax” Jaxon was an unlikely shareholder.  A socialist and sometime political activist, he had scraped together the funds to help Ren get his company started by calling in favors and borrowing heavily from his family.  Ajax didn’t care to contribute to any corporate machine, but was willing to slip his principles just this once to help out a friend.  He made an amusing picture among the other money men, as his clothing tended toward Birkenstocks and flannel, and he spoke with a cheerful ignorance of the ins and outs of the stock market.  At one meeting he had actually brought homemade blueberry muffins to pass around.

They sat in silence for a few moments, then Ian said, “I never asked.  Did she contact you, too?”

Ajax nodded, knowing Ian was talking about Becka Packard.  “She offered me four times what I put into it, in fact.”  Ren’s mother had attempted to buy the company out, making offers that were, in polite speech, more than generous for shares of the suddenly leaderless company.  Ian had managed to get the board to resist selling through sheer force of will, and had invoked the specter of Ren’s friendship and what he would have wanted so many times the words barely had meaning any more.  “To be honest, she sent a man to ask me.  I don’t think the old lady was interested in coming down to Nashville.”

Ian chuckled.  “Thanks for holding fast.  I know you have a lot more at stake than most of these guys.” 

“It’s only money.  Why would Ren’s mom want to buy the company anyway?  Just to shut it down?”

“I doubt it.  Becka knew a good thing when she saw it.  I’m sure she would have hired the best and the brightest, and turned Crane-Packard into quite a boutique company in no time.”

“So why go to all the trouble to stop her?”

“You’d understand this, Ajax–it was a matter of principle.”  Ajax raised an eyebrow.  “It’s what he wanted.  Ren said to me, back in March, ‘If something ever happens to me, promise you’ll keep an eye on Lexi and on the company, because my family will go after both of them.'” 

“He said that?”

Ian nodded.  “I don’t know what had him so morbid, but those were his exact words.  I understood why they’d go after Lexi.  The car company, though…Ren didn’t want it to be another Packard family success story, unless it was exactly what he wanted it to be.  He wanted it to earn its success, on his own terms.”

“That’s pretty much all he ever wanted.”

“Right.  So, assume Becka takes control of the company and sets about building Crane-Packards.  What’s the first thing she’s going to do?”

“Make baby-sealskin leather a standard feature?”

Ian and Ajax laughed together, and the conversation’s somber tone broke up for a moment.  Becka’s self-serving pragmatism (a polite way of saying “disregard for other living things”)was the stuff of legend; even Ren had commonly responded to being called a son of a bitch by saying, “Yes, your point?”  The off-color comment was one he would have made.

The laughter took a moment to wind down.  “Seriously, though.  She’d have fired Lexi.”

“No doubt.”

“And then,” Ian continued, “you’d have Crane-Packards being built without either of the creators on board.  No soul, as he put it.”

“Yeah, I can understand that’s the last thing Ren would have wanted to see.”

“So, here I am.  Shutting down a perfectly viable car company, just to keep that bitch from getting her hands on it.”

“What about Lexi?” Ajax asked.

“Oh, they did their best to strip the estate from her.  I think we’ve still got most of it.”  He shrugged ruefully.  “I’m an accountant, not a lawyer, so I couldn’t tell you all of the legal ins and outs of what’s been going on, but we’ve got counsel and it sounds like she’s out of the woods, as far as the Packards are concerned.” 

“I’ve seen the news.  How’s she doing?”

Ian pursed his lips, considering.  Thus far Lexi had contributed almost catatonic grief, spurious suicide attempts and a nervous breakdown (in front of a brace of television cameras no less) to the proceedings.  He didn’t mind being left more or less alone in the eye of the storm.  He also didn’t feel like telling Ajax that speaking of minds, Lexi seemed to have lost hers.  She moped about her half-restored old house in Arcadia, Michigan (located in the uppermost reaches of the Lower Peninsula and thus convenient to absolutely bupkiss unless you were a big fan of trees), and on the rare occasions that she did speak, it was in indecipherable movie quotes.  The always-cheerful, always-active Lexi Crane that he had known seemed to have died along with Ren.  And to be honest, that suited Ian just fine.  Power of attorney over a fourteen million-dollar estate made up for a lot of hardship.

Of course, the money was there to provide for Lexi for the rest of her life, which could be a long one if she didn’t manage to off herself first.  Ian couldn’t remember exactly how old she was–five or six years younger than Ren anyway, and he and Ren were the same age, thirty–so that money had a long way to go.  But as long as he remained calm and understanding Lexi seemed willing to let him take care of things and stay out of the way.  Some custom-designed anti-depressants he’d gotten ahold of through the shrink who was taking care of Lexi didn’t hurt, either.

“She’s here,” Ian said finally, realizing that Ajax could see for himself how she was doing.  “She came down for the meeting.  It’s the first time she’s been away from the house since the funeral, in fact.”

“I’m amazed there aren’t any news helicopters.”

“Hopefully they’re too busy talking about the election, now.  We did our best to keep it quiet.”  He hadn’t expected her to come at all, to be honest.  She’d been acting like a walking mannequin and nothing had done much for her moroseness so far.  Upon getting into the car, Lexi had remarked that it was almost Halloween, then proceeded to recite and sing most of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” during the five-hour drive from Arcadia to Detroit.  It was cute, until she looked him dead in the eye and shrieked, “I am the clown with the tearaway face!” at him, and for some reason it made his blood run cold.  He’d never seen the movie, but now the image of Lexi peeling grease-painted skin away from her skull was stuck in his head and wouldn’t go away.  The burst of fire and emotion that had leapt into her voice at that moment was startling, but at least it predicated an apparent return to normalcy. 

“Where is she?” Ajax asked.

“At the reception.”

“I didn’t see her there.”

Ian drained his glass of water.  When they had reached Detroit, she’d been close to her old self and he had dropped her off at the reception before heading up to make sure the meeting room was set up.  “Are you sure?”

“I’m positive.  I was just there.  She’s not there; it’s just all of the suits.”

“Shit.”  He was on his feet.

“Maybe she went down to Hart Plaza.  They’ve got the culture festival going on down there.  She might have gone to get something to eat; they’re only serving cocktail favors at the reception.”   

“Shit!” Ian said again. “Can you wait here for me, in case I’m not back by the time everyone arrives?”

“Do you want help looking for her?”

“No, I’ll feel better knowing there’s someone here.  I’ll be right back.”  He was out the door. 
Hart Plaza was just a short run up the block.  He was in no shape to be running, but hustled anyway.  By the time he got there he had a stitch in his side, and his heart sank.  On a normal fall weekend, Hart Plaza was a mostly-empty expanse of concrete and fountains, thanks in part to the chilly wind blowing off of the Detroit River.  It wouldn’t have been hard to find Lexi there.  Today, the place was abustle with people of every color and culture, moving from booth to booth to sample exotic and not-so-exotic dishes for a minimal fee.  Smells collided in the cool, damp October air.  Shouts from children in the crowd and from the dozens of vendors’ booths echoed on the high concrete walls and rolled along the ceiling in the underground section of the plaza.  Ian felt like a marble in a loud, humid pipe.  He pushed through the crowd, looking for Lexi.  Realizing that they were just a short run from the Detroit River, Ian’s gut went cold.  Dr. Zheng had said Lexi was past her suicidal urges, but you never knew.  Maybe Ajax was right, and she’d just wanted something to eat.  That would have been a blessing in disguise.  Getting Lexi to feed herself was just another of the wonderful challenges his friend Warren had died and left him with.

Dammit Lexi, Ian thought bitterly.  You were perfectly capable of taking care of yourself when he was alive, and probably before you met, too.  Get over it!