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.