Forty-one

It was almost laughable that I had thought myself “too jaded” back then.  Especially considering what had happened to me in the meantime.  I wondered if I was jaded for real, now, or if the word even meant anything the way I’d used it.

There wasn’t a lot of light, but I could see the ladder that Lexi had climbed.  The secret door slid quietly closed behind us, on freshly greased hinges.  Soon we were in the attic.  Lexi pulled a chain and the lights came on.

There seemed to be more boxes in the attic than there were in any of the rooms.  There was less dust too.  She had been spending a lot of time up here.

I looked back at the ladder we had climbed, and saw a trap door propped open at the top of the little shaft.  There was a conventional set of folding stairs in the middle of the attic.

“Delicious, isn’t it?” Lexi asked.  “Some of these boxes were here when I moved in.  I looked in a few of them.  They’re mostly old newspapers and some pictures.  When I get a chance I’ll take them to Sir William’s.  He might know who some of them are.  He’s in a wheelchair and he’s got a little farm that he runs by himself, you know.  I met him a few days ago, and he’s the coolest neighbor I’ve ever had.”  Lexi frowned, then shook the entire thought away.  “The door over there leads out onto a little widow’s walk on the roof,” she said, pointing to a slightly thinner dent in the puffy insulation.  “Strictly a summertime activity, I think.  What I’d like to do, when the snow breaks a little bit, is start moving things from the storage area up here.”

“Storage area?”

“Ian moved a lot of things out of the house when we had the windows out this summer, to redo the insulation.  They’re in storage, with the cars.  I keep forgetting to have him bring them back.  I think I could use a car here too…ah…” She changed the subject suddenly as she came upon something.  “This was Ren’s saxophone,” she said, taking a black case out of one of her boxes.  “He used to play for me…”

“Where’s the storage area, Lexi?”

She snapped out of her downward spiral.  “Hm?”

“The storage area.  Where the other things are.”

“Oh! It’s in Frankfort.  Not far away.  I have a whole garage full of things, full of wonderful and delicious things.  Cars and toys and things that make noise.  I’ll have to take you there some time.  When I’m better,” she added with a bitter twist to her lips.

“It wasn’t your idea, was it?  The pills.”

“It’s for my own good,” Lexi said.  She sounded defensive.  “They keep me…sane.”

“They keep you fucked up,” I said.  “You don’t need that shit.  Grief isn’t fatal.”

“It can be.”  She was looking more at the ceiling than at me.  Her eyes bounced briefly to my face, then fell to the floor.

“No, it can’t.  I went through the same thing…” I trailed off as I realized what I was doing.  I wanted to talk her out of taking the medication–Ian had some kind of agenda, it was just a feeling–but still wanted to keep the things she knew about me locked in her head.  I wished I could just ask her not to tell him.  I looked at her face.  She was still looking at the floor.  Her hands played with the hem of her shirt.  “Look at me, Lexi,” I said.  Was that something I could ask of her? She gave me such a good feeling when she was lucid.  She seemed to give off something that was good for the world.  But could I trust her?

Whatever I was looking for in her eyes, I didn’t see it.  I let the subject of her pills die.  “Why am I looking at you?” she asked.

I shook my head.  “Never mind,” I said.

“Never mind what?”

“I said never mind, Lexi.”

“What were you looking for? Fish? It’s only me.  Crazy little lazy little me,” she said.  “Listen–if you go into the basement, there’s a sort of wine cellar.  It’s a little room, behind the furnace.  And if you go in there, you’ll see a bunch of old shelves half-bolted, half-leaning against the far wall.  Um, the north wall I think,” Lexi said.  “And if you look sort of past those shelves, at the wall behind them, the bricks are a different color, in just the shape of a door.  Marion–or somebody–bricked up a doorway there.  Maybe there’s another room there.  And another thing; most houses like this have central staircases–meaning, that the stairs to the basement should be directly under those that go upstairs, right?”

I shrugged, thinking of old houses.  “I guess so.”

“Well, in this house, they aren’t.  The basement steps are in a completely separate area.  There’s a door leading off of the TV room.  Looks like a closet, but it’s a short hallway, and the walls and ceiling are all old mirrors.  The door at the end–if you can find it, there’s no knob, you just sort of push on it–leads to the basement.” Lexi looked at Nikki and smiled.  “You can go down there if you want.  The hall of mirrors creeps me out.  There aren’t any lights in there.”

I nodded.  “A hall of mirrors with no lights in it is sort of silly,” I said.

“So am I.”

“You have a point.”  I looked around some more.  “I like your house, by the way.”

“Stay here a while then, with me.  You can be mistress of the house and I’ll be your faithful servant.”

I smiled, then laughed.  “I could do that.  I could live with that.”

“You look like the luxury type.  I can see you curled up on a green velvet throne being waited on hand and foot.”

“Purple velvet.  And I don’t like people touching my feet.”

“Irrelevant.  You want the high life, you got to suffer a little bit.”

I rolled my eyes.  “So I’ve heard.”

“And?”

“And, nothing.  I have nothing to add.”

Lexi sighed.  “I don’t believe you.  I think you’ve always got something to say, but you usually keep your mouth shut.”  Now it was her turn to stare carefully at me.

“So what’s the difference?  Things unsaid don’t exist, do they?”

“In a big old house full of secrets,” she began, and then abruptly, “hey, there’s someone in my room,” she said suddenly, looking toward the far end of the attic with a frown.  I didn’t ask how she knew.  Lexi forgot about the mysteries and model cars and stood up.  “Walk where I walk,” she said, and trotted in a light, zigzagging path to the second trap door.  Her bare feet were silent on the floor.  I walked as softly as I could and stayed close enough to her path that the floor didn’t creak.

The ladder under this trap door was angled.  Lexi half slid down it, disappearing into darkness.  I climbed down after her.  We were in her closet.  I crouched, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark, then crawled to where Lexi squatted, her eye to the keyhole in the closet door.

“It’s Gray,” she whispered.  “She’s looking under my bed–“

I put my hand over her mouth.  “She’ll hear you,” I said.  Taiisha had an uncanny ear for the tiniest sounds.  I remembered her being able to tell if I was awake or asleep by the sound of my breathing–from the next room.  And I don’t snore.

“Why do you say that?” Lexi asked, looking at me.

Taiisha yanked the closet door open so suddenly that Lexi had to catch herself before she tumbled out.  I recoiled from the sudden motion, scrambling backward out of the light.  When she saw Lexi, Taiisha immediately put her semi-innocent Gray voice on and let out a gasp of surprise to mirror Lexi’s.

“Hellopers,” Lexi said.  She tilted her head far to one side, then the other.

“You frighten me!” Taiisha said, still using her Italian accent.  “But what were you doing in there?  I heard you talking and didn’t know from where it could be coming.”

“Impossible.  Everyone knows cats are telepathic.  We were just, um, talking,  It is my closet, you know.” Lexi said.  She was acting more stoned than she was all of a sudden.

“We?”

“Myself, and Nikki…a snail or two.  And some other imaginary friends.  We were discussing the exploits of the late, great Brad Pitt.”

“Brad Pitt’s not dead, Lexi,” I said.  I crawled forward out of the shadows.

Taiisha frowned.  At least part of her frown was real.  “You were both in there?”

“It’s…therapy,” Lexi said, drawing out the ‘th.’

I liked the confusion in Taiisha’s eyes.  I suppose I wanted to contribute to it, because without even thinking I added, “Hypnotic post-traumatic regression.”

Lexi giggled.  “It’s the latest thing.  You imagine surviving a train wreck and wandering around in a trancelike daze.  That’s the post-traumatic part.  And the hypnotism.  Then you, um, wet your pants.”

Taiisha affected a sardonic smile.  ” And this is helpful?”

“Who was in my room last night?” Lexi asked suddenly.  “Who the hell was in my bed?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Were you looking for me?”

“It’s such a beautiful house, that you have.  I wanted to see more of it,” Taiisha said.  “I am sorry, if I intruded.”  She sounded so sincere it turned my stomach.

“Feel free to look around,” Lexi said.  “I believe in free everything.” She stood up and crawled out of the closet, shaking herself.  I followed her.  She spread her arms like a tour guide. “This is my skanktum skanktorum.  That’s, um, Latin, for a place of great meditative skanking.”

“No, it isn’t,” Taiisha said.

Lexi prattled on as if she hadn’t spoken.  “That’s why there’s no furniture in here, except for the bed.”

“And a big round mirror to watch yourself in,” I said.  Lexi turned and gave me a sunshine smile that made me smile back.

“No furniture?  What about the dresser?” Taiisha asked.  “The armoire?”

“That’s not furniture, silly,” Lexi said.  “What’s wrong, were you born in Europe or something?”

Taiisha stared at Lexi for a moment.  After a heartbeat she shook her head and looked at herself in the mirror.  She looked into it for a long time.  Taiisha liked mirrors.  I had seen her gazing into the mirror in her cabin, too.  She got lost in them.  “This is a beautiful frame,” she said finally.  “But the glass is going dark.”

“Is it? I thought it was just polarized.”

Another frown crossed Taiisha’s brow.  Only I noticed the tenseness that went through her like a shot, the slight tightening of her jaw.  Then it was gone.  She obviously had little patience for the absurd.  Lexi had absurdity in quantities to rival my sarcasm.  I liked that about her.

“It’s almost time for my nap,” Lexi said.  “Life is a series of naps joined by breakfast and calisthenics,” she added, then dove into the bed without warning.  She tumbled over once in the blankets then stood up with Amy-Ann in her arms.  Lexi almost fell, but regained her balance, and held the cat out to Nikki and Taiisha like an offering.  The tortie didn’t seem to mind dangling in the air.  “Rowr,” Lexi said, then dropped the cat into the rumpled bed.

Again I felt the need to avoid being in the same room as Taiisha.  “I’m going to get some hot chocolate,” I told Lexi.  “Do you want some?”

“Yes please, but no deadly nightshade this time.  It gives me gas.”  I started toward the door, suppressing a smile, and Lexi pointed toward the door next to the closet.  “No, take the secret stairway,” she said.  “It’s lonely; it likes to be walked on.  And if it asks you to tell it your name, don’t.”

“Is that the door that comes out next to the refrigerator?”

“The same.”

I opened the door, saw a dark staircase with sagging steps and cracked walls.  It felt more solid than it looked, though.  As I went down, I heard Taiisha ask Lexi if there were other secret doors in the house.

She replied, “No, just that one.”

Eddie and Martin were in the kitchen sharing a beer.  They were talking sports; I paid no attention to them.  When I poured the hot water Eddie half turned and asked “For Lexi?”

I made an affirmative noise, and he went back to his conversation with Martin.  I didn’t think he had anything else to say to me, but when I turned toward the secret door with the mug and medication he asked me how my back was.

“Hurts,” I said.  “I’m going to take a bath.”

“You have back problems at your age?” Martin asked.

“Car crash,” I said.

“Whiplash?”

“No.  Lower.”

He seemed genuinely impressed and sympathetic.  “Broke your back?”

“Pretty much.”

“Man, that’s going to be with you for a while.”

I didn’t feel like sharing with him.  “I thought you were having a nap?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” he replied.  “Woke right up the minute my head hit the pillow.”

“I hate it when that happens,” I said dryly.

“I could give you a back rub, if it’ll make you feel better.  I’m sure Gray won’t mind.  She’s not the jealous type.”

“I am,” I said.  It just came out.  I didn’t think about what I meant by it.  I left them to discuss what I had meant, and went back upstairs.

Eddie’s voice drifted up the stairs to me; “Don’t worry,” he said.  “She’s immune to charm.”

Forty-one

Nikki is more or less passed out on codeine by the time I get her back to the house.  There’s a Range Rover with Virginia plates that I’m pretty sure wasn’t there when I left, parked in front of the house.  The lights are all off in the front half of the house, but the smell hits my nose the moment I open the door.  It’s a rich, horrible, meat-and-shit smell, and the foyer is full of it.  I can see shiny spots on the floor and tangled lumps that look vaguely human, and I’m glad the lights are off.  There’s just enough light leaking down the hall that leads to the kitchen to get me across the foyer and up the steps.  I can’t think about what–or who–is lying terribly inert there, or what I’ll do when the inevitable moment of finding out comes.

I don’t want to throw up.  I don’t want to have to.  But I won’t think about that for now.

Nikki is shambling along beside me in a way that says I don’t have to carry her, but there’s still nobody home right now.  I get her upstairs, acting as a crutch for her injured leg, and into her bed as carefully as I can.

The floor groans downstairs.  So someone here is alive.  I fade out of Nikki’s room, leaving the light on in there and the hall light off, and slip down the hall into the bathroom, avoiding the creaks the whole time.  Someone’s coming up the stairs; judging by the tread it’s Doctor Edward.  He and Nikki have been here long enough that I’ve gotten used to the way they walk.  He’s moving slowly and carefully, and he goes into Nikki’s room and says, “Poppet,” with a guarded sort of voice.  Then he says, “Hey,” and then nothing; he’s realized she’s asleep.  I slip silently past the door while he’s in there, then equally silently to my room.

Oh, right, everything’s still knocked over.  That’s okay.  I dig through the closet and change clothes–everything I have is cold and wet and dirty, after all.  That done, I explore the house quickly, back to front.  I account for all of my cats.  Doctor Edward is still upstairs with Nikki, and he’s turned on some lights so I can see.  One of the dead people is Martin, like Nikki said.  The other two are men I don’t know.  Martin’s throat has been ripped out; one of the unfamiliar men has been ripped open like roadkill.  I try to hold it in, but still manage to barf in the ballroom.  Dammit, it’s going to be hard to get that out of the parquet.  Lucky there wasn’t much in my stomach.

Gray is still AWOL.  I avoid Doctor Edward, who doesn’t seem inclined to look for me anyway.  He stays upstairs for almost ninety minutes, and I don’t care what he’s up to.  I focus on the dead body closest to the ballroom.  After staring at it until my gorge goes down, I’m able to bring myself to touch it, and then my mind goes away a bit.  I don’t lose time, but I feel distant.  I’m not dragging a dead man, I’m dragging something that needs to go out the back door.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  It doesn’t matter if it’s wearing shoes and a Rolex.  Oh, crud, I shouldn’t have thought that, I’m gonna–no, I’m not.  I hork up half a mouthful of bile, and then swallow instead of spitting.  I am not throwing up any more, it’s no fun.  I drag the dead guy through the kitchen to the back door, then roll him out into the snow.  Right after I’ve done that, I think of the Range Rover, and have to go outside and dig in the dead guy’s pockets for his keys, hoping all the time that the other one wasn’t the driver, because he’s much messier.  Thankfully, he wasn’t.  I pocket the keys for a rainy day.  I’ve always liked Range Rovers.

Martin’s next, or the Corpse Formerly Known As Martin, technically.  No, nothing terrible here, just some organic matter I don’t need lying about the place.  He’s lighter than the first guy, or maybe the blood trail has lubricated the floor, whichever, and out he goes into the snowy backyard as well.  The snow is piled almost three feet deep behind the house, so it’s easy to roll them out of sight and out of mind.

The last one is the hardest. He’s the one who’s torn open.  He’s not so heavy, either.  I try not to look at him. His eyes are open, and so is the bottom half of his torso, and things are kind of spilling out and dragging and snagging in the irregularities in the parquet.  I can feel the hair on the backs of his hands as I drag him by them and I think he’s wearing Hugo Boss, both the suit and the cologne.  Eww, eww, EWWTHIS IS THE MOST HORRIBLE THING I’VE EVER DONE. 

This does it, I’m never having company again.

Then it’s done, the three dead people in the foyer are outside in the snow where I (and more importantly, Ian) can’t see them for now, and Doctor Edward hasn’t made an appearance.  That’s a good thing; I don’t want to talk to him.  It sounds like Nikki is awake though; I can hear them talking up there.  I let them talk, and wet-mop the foyer, ballroom, dining room and kitchen.  It’s a ten-minute job, not sanitary by any means, but the worst puddles of blood are replaced by a slightly creepy sort of dingy look and that’s an improvement.  It isn’t until now that I wonder if I haven’t possibly disturbed an important crime scene and destroyed irreplaceable forensic evidence.  Oh, well, it wouldn’t be the first time–I took a shower after I got raped, too.  So they’ll lock me up as an accessory.  The thought doesn’t bother me all that much, to be honest.  At least the floor is clean. 

I haven’t eaten in hours and what I’d really like is a grilled cheese sandwich, but I go to the attic first, and dig around up there until I find the old leg brace I wore after my accident.  I put together a little care package for Nikki, take it in there to them, and help re-wrap her leg.

It’s also time Doctor Edward knew that I know he’s not really a doctor.  I don’t know what he is, and the only reason I’m not taking a heavy object to his head is that even though he was obviously here to keep me docile for Ian, he wasn’t here when our cars were auctioned off.  Heaven help Dr. Zheng if I ever see him and am holding a red-hot poker, though.  “I have some observations,” I tell him.  “My foyer is covered in blood.  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,” Doctor Edward says.  “And two other hardcases, who came here to kill me and Nikki, apparently.”

“Something to do with the AMA, perhaps?  A little hazing?”  He ignores my stupid joke.  “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?”  I don’t give him a chance to answer.  “Then it’s settled.  You came up here as Ian’s friend, so you’ll clean the mess up.”

Doctor Edward frowns.  “Why me? What about Nikki?” 

“Oh, you’ve been making her do everything, and now she’s hurt.  It’s your turn to do some work.  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, and that’ll have to do.” 

He’s all business.  “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!”  I laugh.  God, I’m an idiot.  “Yes, what do we want to do about her?”

“Nikki has an idea or two,” he says.

“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 attic until I say it’s okay.  What next?  Shall I run around nailing the doors and windows shut?”  No one’s particularly amused by that, either.  I go downstairs, make a quick grilled cheese sandwich, and then spend an hour or two preparing my house for unwanted company.  I hope Ren’s watching.  My father, too.  They’ll be proud.

I’m in the kitchen when I hear the front door open, and low voices from up there.  Nikki’s is almost inaudible; Gray seems to be shouting in comparison, though they’re both talking at normal registers.  I’ve got a stock pot full of water boiling on the stove, and I take it off the eye and start walking down the back hall.  It’s heavy, and I walk carefully so I don’t slosh any of it around.

When I reach the TV room, I hear Eddie yell, “Poppet, get away from her!” and there’s a loud BAM, a gunshot.  I’m startled; somehow it just didn’t occur to me that someone would have a gun.

I rush a little bit, spilling some water on my hands, and I can hear Nikki and Gray scuffling in the foyer as I’m picking my way through the mess I left on the floor between the TV room and the library.  When I get there, Gray’s back is to me and Nikki’s on the floor with a big knife that she’s presumably just failed to cut Gray with.  No one sees me until I dump the water over Gray’s head.

She shrieks in surprise, and just in case the scalding isn’t enough, I hit her over the head with the pot as well.

Gray actually smacks it out of my hands.  I was kind of hoping she’d be curled up in an agonized fetal position on the floor, but to be honest I doubted she really would be.

“I changed my mind,” she says, her voice hot with anger and that stupid Italian accent gone for good.  “Kerry can follow you.”

Nikki’s voice is tiny with fear.  “Oh, God…Lexi, run!”

I’m already taking big, taunting steps backward into the library. Oh, yes, I’ve done this before, I’ve done it now, I’ve pulled the dragon’s tail, just like the time Cygnet beaned Molly’s older brother with a rotten peach, only this time there aren’t any parents around to stop the beating before someone gets something worse than a split lip and a black eye.  I run, full tilt, and Gray is half a step behind me.

That’s okay, though.  Through the library, ten big steps, and then I hook a sharp right into the TV room. I jump as I cross the threshold, because I dumped a bottle of liquid laundry detergent on the floor there.  Will Gray notice it?  A gasp of surprise and a heavy, wet thud from directly behind me suggests that she did not.

That gives me time to get the door to the hall of mirrors open.  Shadowy reflections dance around me as I charge down it to the top of the basement stairs, then pause briefly to pick up the apples I left there, two late-season Granny Smiths, lovely and about to go to waste. 

I throw the first one at Gray’s head as soon as she steps into the hall of mirrors.  In the dark, maybe still rattled by the fall, she doesn’t even see it coming, and the apple bounces off of her blue-smeared forehead with a satisfying pop, breaking into chunks upon impact.  “Touche, pussycat!” I yell.

Gray roars in anger.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a woman roar before.  It’s more than a little bit scary, and I run down the steps without throwing the second apple.  The stairs moan threateningly and the old banister puts splinters in my hand, but they can be dealt with if I live long enough to find them hurtful.  My boots skid on the concrete floor as I turn and make for the storage room.  I reach the doorway as Gray reaches the bottom of the steps, and turn around to watch death charge me.  If she gets her hands on me, she’s going to tear me to bits, I can tell by the look in her eyes.  Why can’t I stop grinning?