Nine

When she entered the lobby, a concierge tried to stop her, asking if she needed the police, an ambulance, her parents.  Nikki ignored him, though he accompanied her up the elevator, asking over and over what had happened and who he should call.  It was easy to ignore him; he was barely real to her.  Only Eddie was real.  Eddie and Taiisha.

Eddie was still there when Nikki knocked on the suite’s door.  The television was on, some cheerful afternoon talk show.  Surprised she had come back so soon, he opened the door with an indulgent smile.  The look vanished when he saw her, covered in dirt and blood, with her lip swollen and mouth bleeding, her shirt torn.  He didn’t spout platitudes or ask what had happened to her.  Eddie’s face went blank, a look of pure crisis management, and he came and took her hand and led her into the bathroom.

Nikki felt his hands take her bag away, heard him send the concierge away, but she didn’t really see him moving around her.  Shock was sweeping over her now; she would have fallen if he hadn’t sat her on the toilet.  She looked at the floor, then at the ceiling when he started to clean her face, and didn’t say anything.  After a moment she closed her eyes.  She felt the warm rag brushing her forehead, her cheeks, tenderly touching the swollen flesh around her mouth.  She felt Eddie’s warmth, too, a few inches in front of her.  She heard him breathing.  He still smelled faintly of French fries.

Eddie started to pull her shirt up, to check the rest of her for injuries, and Nikki pushed his hand away, saying, “no,” in a little child’s voice.  He made a soothing noise, and didn’t try again.  She was right, they didn’t know each other well enough for that yet.  He went back to cleaning her face.  What had happened to her? Had she been mugged? He’d been right about her needing her friends, if she’d come straight back to him after getting attacked.  If nothing else, being there to help was a step closer to being on her good side, even if it was because he was the only familiar face in town.  She had nowhere else, no one else.  It was providential, to be sure, but he put that aside for now.  He’d clean her up, let her rest if she wanted, and if she still wanted to go, he’d let her.  Eddie wasn’t sure what had set her off before, but just because she needed help didn’t mean it might not still apply. 

He didn’t think she’d leave again.

“So,” Eddie said when he was finished.

He phrased it like a question, and Nikki looked up at him when he didn’t continue.  His eyes met hers again.  For a moment she saw someone who was truly focused on her well being, and not trying to get something from her.  Nikki hadn’t seen a look like that in almost a year.

Then that smirk crossed his face and he was once again Eddie the trouble-shooter who thought she was a whore.  “What do you want for dinner?” he finished.

*  *  *

Eddie spent a few days letting Nikki recover from her mysterious beating.  He didn’t ask her what had happened, and she didn’t offer.  He had a week until he was scheduled to meet Prodigy.  He used the time to teach her the nuts and bolts of troubleshooting; how to put on a face that would make people comfortable with her, the best way to talk to people, the best way to make quick hotel, dining, and food reservations, how to find just about anything for sale or rent, ways to seem familiar with a town she’d just arrived in, and how to sound like a secretary, or someone who was used to having secretaries, depending on what was needed.  She was a good little actress, when it came down to it.  He had her make and break dinner reservations and random meetings with business people she’d never heard of, every day, training her to sound professional and friendly.  He even had her call random numbers pretending to be a telemarketer.

He also bought some books for her to read.  She looked dubiously at the proffered Dickens and Joyce tomes, fresh from Barnes & Noble.  “I already read,” Nikki complained.

“Have you read the classics?”

She shrugged defensively.  “Some of them.”

“You’re going to read more.” She didn’t ask why, but Eddie could tell she wanted to know.  “I want you to have as much of a basic college education as I can make up.  So I want you to read some classic literature, and some psychology, and some philosophy, and some history, and so forth.  Did you take any foreign languages in high school?”

“French, two years,” she said, looking at him from under her eyebrows.  She was wondering how many of these stupid books she’d have to read before she blew his head off.

“Damn, I speak Spanish.  Oh, well.  If we can find you a tutor some time, you can brush up on it.”

“I don’t understand what this is for.”

“Just polish.  You’ll carry yourself a little differently, knowing about little trivial things that come up more often than you’d expect.  The difference between someone who quit learning as soon as they got out of high school and someone who continued, is obvious in the way they act, the way they talk.  It’s not the keg parties that do that to you, it’s having base knowledge about a wider range of subjects than the average high school offers.  And you and I need that.  If some drunken matron starts spouting off about Dickens or Trotsky or Skinner at a party, you look better if you have some idea who she’s talking about and what those people stand for.  Most people can’t fake understanding well enough to avoid looking even stupider than they may already be.  Which brings me to one of the most important aspects of troubleshooting, which is to above all look smart and in control, even if you don’t feel it all the time.  If people aren’t worried that their work is in the hands of morons, they’re happier.”

“Okay, fine, enough bullshit public relations training,” Nikki said.  “I’ll read the books.”  Eddie was honestly trying to help her.  Of course, it was in a way that would help him, too, so at least some of the philanthropy was self-serving.

As the day of the troubleshoot drew closer, Eddie crammed more and more things into her time.  In one afternoon, Nikki learned how to bypass a variety of burglar alarms, how to copy no less than four kinds of electronic information, and just for laughs, how to install a wiretap.  Eddie’s hobby was electronics.  He had taught himself how to tap a phone, just by playing around.

He spent the afternoon telling her about the BMW and its competition and its place in the luxury sports car market.  Nikki barely listened to it; he had told her he was just practicing, getting into character.  He sounded convincing to her.  His streetwise, smug attitude was completely gone.  He was knowledgeable, interested, charming, approachable, all of the things a great PR person needed to be.  Nikki was amazed that he could transform himself so completely, and made a note to remind herself that any smile, any mannerism, anything coming from him could be a lie.

The evening involved two hours spent washing the cars, followed by a shopping trip to get professional-looking clothes and a makeover for Nikki, who enjoyed neither errand.  She got an expensive haircut, a manicure, and instructions on how to put her new, boring makeup on, as if she didn’t already know how.  The need for business casual clothing confused her even more.  What was she going to do?

Eddie finally told her after dinner, and glorious relief swept through her at the news.  All she had to do was break into a house, copy the hard drive, and get out.  That was all.  No one to kill, no one to screw.  Wonderful.  And on top of it all, the rest of the family was going to be gone.  All she had to do was ghost in and out.  Eddie didn’t realize how cheaply he’d sold his life.

In the morning, Nikki woke before dawn, as usual.  She rose without being frightened awake by Taiisha or nightmare, and it was pleasant.  Eddie had taken her bag away, presumably to keep her from running, and with it her big knife was gone.  She liked that knife, but it wasn’t her only armament.  It never would be.  Nikki quietly opened the tackle box that served as Eddie’s toolbox and found a box cutter in the little drawer he had designated for it.

He didn’t stir as she eased open the door to the suite’s bedroom and slipped in.  Nikki stood over the bed watching him sleep.  He lay flat on his back, mouth open, snoring roughly.  He looked like a corpse already, and he reeked of Ben-Gay.  Asleep, she could see him the way Taiisha must see him; an overweight, lazy, stinking fool, oblivious to the world around him and not caring about who he hurt.  No, wait, the last thought was her own.  Taiisha wouldn’t have cared who he hurt.

Nikki climbed onto the bed, softly, silently.  She was so light he didn’t wake as she carefully straddled him, the shirt she had slept in riding up high on her hips.  Nikki didn’t care.  She wasn’t embarrassed that he’d see her underwear if he woke; the thought never crossed her mind.  She’d made him less than real, for the moment.

He was too big for her to kneel so she squatted, only the insides of her thighs touching him, feather-light.  From here she could smell his breath, and wrinkled her nose at the sour odor.  Dragon-breath, she thought, and a faint smile worked its way through her unconscious expression of revulsion.  She touched the edge of the razorblade to his neck, where she could see his pulse even through the fat.  It would take a simple flick of her wrist, that was all.  A hand over his mouth and a flick of the wrist.  Nikki closed her eyes.  He’d probably wake up.  Probably be strong enough to grab her, pick her up, too.  But the damage would be done by then.  Eddie didn’t know a damned thing about fighting.  He might be able to throw her, but wouldn’t be able to do any serious damage before he bled to death.  It would be easy.  And then…she’d go back to Taiisha.

Nikki opened her eyes.  The room seemed devoid of color in the early morning light.  Once upon a time, she’d liked to watch the sun come up.  Something about new days used to make her happy; she didn’t enjoy them much any more.  She looked down at Eddie again, and he was just Eddie, and if he woke up he’d be able to see down her shirt and up between her legs all at the same time.  Nikki took the blade away from his neck and slid carefully off the bed, never disturbing him.  Later, she’d be back.  After the job.

Nine

Swish-click. I’m in the kitchen.  The leaves have fallen; I missed a big chunk of fall.  It’s not that I don’t remember the time passing any more, it’s just that I’m outside of it, none of it touches me even though I’m there, and before you know it a week has gone by. If things of significance happen, they’re far beyond the pale and off in the pink, and as meaningful to me as popcorn noises.  I felt better when I was in Detroit. Watching the cars was nice. 

Ian says I don’t have to take the pills any more.  Right after he says that, I pour myself a glass of funny-tasting orange juice.  These facts are clearly related, but the fuzzy pink cloud makes it easy to not care.  In fact, the more juice I drink, the fuzzier things get.  I like that.

Today I have a numb sort of vague sense that something important is going on, something more important than anything else recently. There are people in our (no wait just my, Ren’s dead, altho’ I don’t see why that means it can’t be his house too) big old house, going in and out.  I suggested to Ian that I would make bread for them, and he liked the idea.  In fact, they ate it all, so I’m making more.  Ian is bustling back and forth too, one minute on the phone, the next out in the living room, the next completely gone.  He keeps disappearing and he doesn’t hear me when I ask him where he’s going.  I just go on making bread; I like doing that.  Last night I remember waking up hearing my father Bert talking out in the hall, but when I got up to go and see if he was really there, he was gone by the time I got there.  His would have been a nice ghost to see, and I woke up sort of sad.  He and Ren have been on my mind on and off and it’s chewing away at the edges of my pink cloud without success.  It’s not quite a distraction.  I drink more juice to make it go away.

In the middle of all this, someone from Late Apex magazine is hovering around me, asking questions for an interview.  I don’t mind that.  Late Apex is a decent magazine.  A little heavy on snottiness sometimes maybe, but a decent magazine, and the reporter is younger than the crusty old boys that I met from Late Apex about an eon ago, all of whom treated me like Ren’s hood ornament or something.  I can talk to this younger guy, whose name is Glen Grant, once the bread gets made and the cats get fed, or maybe while I’m taking care of those things.  I can multitask, even with pink goo slowing me down.  As if there’s not enough going on, Terminator 2 and Beetlejuice are on at the same time, on different channels.  So if something important is happening, it’s going to happen without me, because my hands are full.

Glen has blond hair, a hairline that hasn’t receded quite as far as Ian’s and a fashionable little goatee that’s more red than blond.  Actually, maybe his hair is sort of strawberry blond.  I can’t tell exactly (no colors) but it must be.  You never think of guys as having strawberry blond hair, but some of them must.  He keeps up with me well, considering that he’s a couple of inches shorter and has to follow me from kitchen to TV room every two or three minutes.  On top of that there’s always a cat hassling him because Teague and Amy-Ann like to demand attention from any guests who are demanding attention from me.  I keep forgetting what I was talking to Glen about.  He’s patient with me.  He stops and scratches Amy-Ann behind the ears whenever he gets the chance, and that makes my tortie purr (which sounds like a pleasantly filthy innuendo, but isn’t).  He’s wearing a white polo shirt and black jeans, and they are already liberally cat-furred.

Right now Glen wants to know something about the house.  He must have asked, anyway, because I’m talking about it,.  “It’s kind of a wreck right now,” I say.  “If I had known there was so much space I could have gotten more furniture,” I say.  No, that wasn’t what I meant to say.  “It’s not as clean as it could be.”  That’s right, I wanted to tell him that I would have swept up more of the dust if I had expected guests.

He just smiles.  “I think it looks great.  It won’t take much to make it an amazing place.  How many rooms do you have here?  I got a chance to peek in the library and ballroom, but I haven’t been upstairs.”

“There were um, three bedrooms on each side upstairs, but there was a fire or something so I knocked out the walls on my side and made one big room.  That’s my room.”  That was the last bit of renovation–the only bit of renovation–we did before Ren died, but I don’t tell Glen that.

Glen grins.  “Space for a car in there?”

“Hmm, maybe.  But…there isn’t one.  I might put one in the library though..”  There’s something else I want to say, but I can’t think of what it is.  Glen’s frowning.  “Downstairs so I could take it out…and drive.  When I wanted.”

He nods in understanding.  “Hell, you’ve got space for a mini-museum in that ballroom.”

“I’d rather dance in there…”  I lose myself for a moment in kneading dough.  It’s easy to do.  Dancing would be fun, too.  It seems like there are a lot of things that would be fun if I could bring myself to do them.  Some part of me is convinced that I’m not allowed to do things any more, and I’m not sure whose permission I need to be asking.

“How old is the house?” Glen asks.

“It was built in, um…”  I draw a complete blank until a Ford Model A pops into my mind.  Yes, the house was built in the first year for Model As.  “1928.  It was empty when I, when we bought it.  Had been…”  The dough captures my attention again.  Squash, fold, fold, squash.  It feels nice.  I like making bread.  I wish I could smell it but I can’t seem to.

“So,” Glen says, drawing my attention out of the dough, “let’s talk cars.  Who did the car thing first, you or Warren?”

“Technically, he did it first, but that’s just because he was born first.  I already had the disease when we met.”

“What was your first car?”

This is not hard to remember, surprisingly.  Words tumble out of me, as if Glen has pressed a button on a tape player.  “An ’82 Subaru wagon.  Four-wheel drive.  Yellow.  I went for practicality more than sport.  I named it Buttercake and drove it all through high school, into college.  By the time the rust got terminal, Buttercake had about three hundred thousand miles on her.  I got a new Loyale to replace her.  My first new car, a ’92 Subaru wagon.  It got wrecked within a month, of course.  Believe it or not, the guy I was dating when I first met Ren was chasing me at the time.  I’d have never hit that ice cream truck otherwise.”

Glen tilts his head, and Amy-Ann meows at him.  He wiggles his fingers and she pushes her nose into them.  “You left this guy for Ren?”

That’s not right at all, and I shake my head.  In fact I made a point of not leaving Darron for Ren, because I didn’t want to be that chick.  “He got increasingly paranoid about my friendship with Ren, and over time that wrecked our relationship.  Not to mention my Subie, my dignity, and both our houses, among other things.  After we reached the point of seriously irreconcilable differences, that was when I started going with Ren.”

“Okay, that’s a lot of information all at once.  How did it wreck your house?  And your…dignity?”

“His house got wrecked when Ren drove a Jeep into it, as some sort of boneheaded vengeance, after Darron–the prior boyfriend, in case you hadn’t guessed–and three of his friends trashed my house, killed my cat, and had a bit of a gang-bang party with me, this after I dumped a bowl of chili on Darron’s head because he slapped me during an argument.  The fact that we were at the Radisson at the time means more to him than it does to me.”  It all falls out of me, one thing after another, a massive information-dump, and if I was thinking I don’t think I’d have told him all of that but I can’t seem to shut up and am feeling apathetic enough that it doesn’t occur to me that maybe I want to keep the rape to myself until I’ve already babbled it out.  On the other hand, it startles the hell out of him, he’s predictably horrified, and I like that he’s reeling emotionally and not sure of what to do next.  It puts us on common ground.

It’s a few seconds before Glen can speak properly.  “What…wait…he did WHAT?  When did all of this happen?”

“Ask the car, silly–it was in ’92.”  I watch the bread for a while.  Glen falls silent.    When he doesn’t say anything for a while, I ask him, “Have you ever lost someone you loved a lot?” 

“Yes,” he says, “but not in the same way you did.”

The admission instantly makes me like him better.  I turn and give him the biggest smile I can.  He smiles back, but looks like he’s just bitten tinfoil.

Someone taps me on the shoulder; I turn and see Dobie Cassarell.  “Good afternoon,” Dobie says.

“Hey…” I say, trailing off with my hands in the mound of dough.  What’s he doing here?  Is he here?

“I just wanted to stop in and say hello before the big event,” Dobie says.  “How are you holding up?”

“Up?”  What is he doing here, anyway?  Does that mean Becka Packard is here too?  I don’t want to see her, but her being here makes no sense anyway, since Becka vowed never to set foot in this house because of the pain it caused her, reminding her of Ren.  I can’t remember when she said that but I’m sure she did.  And not only was that an utterly silly thing to say, but it was just like her, because even though Ren bought the house with me he hardly even came here before that, before he, before Vermont, and who cares, it’s her loss anyway and I certainly wouldn’t make bread for her

“Really?” Glen asks.

Oops, I must’ve said that out loud.  “It’s…the truth.  She hates me, you know.”

“So I’ve heard,” Dobie says.  “Have no fear.  Danny’s here, but Becka isn’t.  He was excited to see the house.”

Why is Danny here?  He hates me as much as she does, with the added bonus that he’s jealous of Ren.  I manage not to say this out loud, but before I can protest that I don’t want the little blueblooded plague monkey in my house either, Ian appears out of nowhere and puts his hand on Dobie’s shoulder.  “Lexi’s got her hands a little full, guys,” he says. 

My mood changes like a card flipping over, and I forget all about Danny Packard.  It’s a weird feeling, but thinking or worrying about it is hard, so I don’t.  I pour myself more juice to make it easier not to think about it.  “Of dough,” I agree with a giggle, and hold up the soft mound I’m kneading.  “There’s some in the oven already, and then this one…” I tell Ian.  “Twenty minutes until bread.”

“That’s great,” Ian says, escorting Dobie out of the kitchen.  “I’ll be back for it.”

“What they need,” I tell Glen after they’ve gone, “is jelly.  Butter and jelly.  Strawberry jelly.  Or blackberry, from that place in Frankenmuth.”  He seems to think it’s a good idea.

Outside the window, I see another ghost.  She’s one of the three that appeared at first, not the tall woman who’s always trying to lead me from one place to another but the shorter Chinese woman.  She’s out in the backyard, standing in a pile of leaves.  I get the feeling that she’s beckoning to me but she doesn’t move.