They took the dead couple’s Pontiac minivan. Nikki didn’t even know their names. Glancing out the back window, she couldn’t see any sign that the cheerful suburban house was burning from the inside out.
Ten miles out of town, they pulled into the hotel parking lot where Taiisha’s black Thunderbird had been parked overnight. After switching cars, Taiisha got on the freeway, headed west, and let Nikki sit with her thoughts for four hours. They were both content with the silence. When they entered California, Taiisha spoke. “You have a new kill to make,” she said. “We’re going to San Francisco.”
Nikki took a long, slow breath, let it out.
Taiisha said, “His name is Edward. He’ll have you do a job. Do the job, then finish him. It won’t take long. A day or two.”
Nikki slitted her eyes. “Another innocent, or did you hire him as prey, too?”
Taiisha resisted the urge to bang the girl’s head against the dashboard; she knew Nikki would do as she was told, but the sarcastic tone in her voice was intolerable. But it wouldn’t do to have her show up bleeding and bruised. “It’s a surprise to him,” she replied. “He won’t expect it. I’ll be close.” When she glanced, the girl’s midnight blue eyes were on her.
“What’s the job?”
Taiisha shrugged. “Whatever it is, do it.”
“How do you know he’ll want me for it?”
“Let him see your beautiful sleight.” Taiisha knew Edward was looking for a thief, and Nikki’s fingers were phenomenally light. “He’ll be on the wharf. Pick some pockets. He’ll see you. Make him catch you. He’ll work for it. Maybe he’ll make you his apprentice. Maybe he’ll partake of your trim little snatch for a few hours. Go with him and do his work. Then do yours.”
“What does he look like?”
“He’s fat. Blue eyes. Insipid smile.”
“Why am I killing him?”
“None of your business. Do as you’re told. I put your knife in your sack for you.”
Nikki could hear Taiisha’s patience running out. The conversation was over, unless she wanted to be hit. She was unaware that Taiisha had already decided not to hit her. Nikki clutched her bag tighter and closed her eyes. She couldn’t sleep this close to Taiisha, but a new facet of this game occurred to her and she hid it behind her eyelids. She would have time away from her self-appointed mentor. If she was doing a job for this ‘Edward,’ whatever it was, and it was a cover for his assassination, that meant that Taiisha couldn’t appear and attack or frighten her with impunity. She had no doubt that the woman driving the car could find ways to work her “lessons” in from time to time, but there would also be times–maybe even hours on end–where Taiisha wouldn’t be able to appear without destroying Nikki’s cover. She might have days of freedom. No eyes on her back. No sleep shortened by training exercises and mindgames.
Nikki suddenly wanted, more than anything, to run a hot bath and soak in it for an hour. Even if there had been a bathtub in Taiisha’s tiny house (there was only a shower stall), she wouldn’t have risked having her head shoved underwater for three minutes again. Being dunked in the stream had been bad enough. Nikki had chanced the shower a few times, but it was an enclosed space with only one exit. No place was even a temporary safe haven near Taiisha, except maybe for unconsciousness. Nikki hadn’t had more than a hasty sponge bath over the sink in four months. She could feel the dried sweat and accumulating grime on her skin. She hated it. She’d never get used to it.
They didn’t speak again until they reached San Francisco shortly after two in the afternoon. Taiisha drove straight to the waterfront. She stopped at the cluster of shops and tourist attractions at Pier 39. She looked at Nikki, knowing it was the last time she’d see the girl for a few days. Sad to part with her, but the things she would learn were more than worth it. Nikki was past the most uncertain part of her molding. Taiisha had no fear for her. She kept her feelings behind the mask that was her face. “Do,” she said, and turned her eyes away from Nikki.
Nikki got out of the car. Taiisha was rolling before the door closed.
She moved straight into the crowds, pretending to ignore the black Thunderbird but watching intently out of the corner of her eye as the car moved off down the block. Nikki moved quickly through the throng, making a beeline to the nearest bathroom. She wanted to wash her hands and face.
At the door she froze. Taiisha could still come back for her. No dawdling, then. It was better to find Edward and get it over with. Nikki paused with her hand on the door, then turned reluctantly away from it, facing the happy, colorful tourist trap with grimy hands (some of the streaks were blood) and greasy hair.
The lunchtime rush should have been over, but the shops and restaurants were crowded, mostly in small family units or pairs. Why was it so busy? The air was cool, actually, too cool to be high summer. Jesus, she didn’t even know what fucking month it was. Taiisha didn’t keep clocks in the tiny desert cabin she and Nikki stayed in, and there were no seasons. When was it? Nikki guessed that Taiisha had had her in that torture cell for at least eight months. She could find out easily; she needed a newspaper for picking pockets anyway.
It took her a few minutes to find a discarded USA Today. The date she saw made her stagger to the closest wall and sit down. It was October. Taiisha had kidnapped her in July. But the year, the year was wrong, the paper said it was 1996, how could she have been traveling with that woman for two years? It wasn’t possible, was it? She hadn’t seen television or read a newspaper in two years? There had been a lot of lessons, a lot of bad things, and it had seemed like a long time, but two years? Nikki closed her eyes, wanting the awful thought to go away. It did, but more rushed in to fill its place, and everything kept coming back to her life. Two years. Gone. She was almost twenty. The ages of eighteen and nineteen were just gone.
Nikki jumped up and ran to the bathroom. She didn’t care if Taiisha was watching this time; she was going to be sick. The door crashed against the wall when she hit it, and she bent over the sink and retched. Nothing came up.
Nikki looked at herself in the mirror, at her dirt-smeared face and grimy clothes. The stains on her shirt were maroon in spots. Jesus, she was covered in blood. She spent a few minutes washing her face, using a lot of hand soap and a lot of towels. She wet her hair down as well, to get some of the dust out, and dried it under the hand dryer, ignoring the stares she got from the women who came and went in the meantime. When the bathroom was empty again, Nikki ducked into a stall, took off her shirt, and exchanged it for a cleaner one from her bag. When she returned to the mirror again, the woman looking back at her was a bit more familiar. She was still two years older than she wanted to be, but she couldn’t get the time back.
Fuck it. Her life was gone anyway. All that mattered now was doing what Taiisha had told her to do. Doing. That was all. Nikki left the bathroom and scanned the crowd. She didn’t see anyone particularly remarkable, and no one paid her any mind either. No fat men with insipid grins.
In spite of the knot in her stomach (two years?), her shoulders felt lighter, knowing that Taiisha wasn’t watching. She briefly entertained the notion of turning away from the pier, of running down the sidewalk and trying to lose herself in San Francisco, but she couldn’t convince herself Taiisha wouldn’t find her. There was nothing to do but her task. A few days’ freedom was enough of a gift, for now. What did it matter? She’d lost two years.
It was easy to lose herself in picking pockets. There was a thrill in it, a constant challenge to choose the right target, to choose the right moment. Nikki didn’t always select the easiest targets. Better to look for people who needed the poetic justice: the stern-looking man dragging a child by one arm and screaming at his wife at the same time, for instance, or the fat woman who tossed a half-full tray of nachos on the ground ten feet from a trash can. Only the first four wallets disappeared into the depths of her bag, however. Nikki needed the cash. After that, she picked pockets without robbing anyone. She took wallets out of purses and pockets–then put them right back. She did it quickly enough that anyone watching would think she’d lifted them. It made a good way to follow Taiisha’s orders and still live with herself. It was a delicious challenge, too. Nikki found herself actually almost having fun, before long.
A hand fell on her shoulder. There seemed to be a direct connection from the hand to her mind, because a male voice asked her in the same instant, “How much have you gotten today?”