Nineteen

Eddie ordered room service the next morning; Nikki was awake and watching the sunrise when he got up.  She took a piece of toast and covered it generously with grape jelly for herself, then another.  And another.  She ate as though she were starving.  He watched her for a while without saying anything; she tore through four slices of toast, a cup of coffee, a glass of juice then two of water, all of the sausage, and two plate-sized pancakes and paid him no attention at all.  Finally he spoke.  “Here’s the plan.  I’ve got to go to Chicago,” he said to her.  “I’m going to fly out in two hours.  I need you to do a quick thing here for me this evening, and then drive the car out to meet me in Chi-town the day after tomorrow.”

Nikki’s mouth fell open.  “What?”  She all but jumped to her feet.  “You’re leaving?”  What the fuck would Taiisha do?  She glanced at her bag, on the floor next to her bed.  Her knife was in there.  She’d have to kill Eddie right here and now, unless she wanted Taiisha to “school” her again.  Why was he doing this?

“Don’t panic, Poppet,” he said, misreading her agitation.  “I promise not to abandon you.  We just have a couple of different things going on right now, and it’ll work best for us to split up.”

Maybe it was because he said we instead of I, but Nikki decided not to lunge for her bag.  It took her a moment to find her voice.  “What’s in Chicago?” she asked.  She sat on her bed and hugged her knees.

“That production company, the one who did the Ile du Soleil documentary that never aired.  They’re going to let me screen one of the production tapes.  Shouldn’t take but an afternoon, but I’ve got to fly out there today.  I’ll be at the Whitehall Hotel, that should make it up to you.  It’s a nice place.  Very much your style,” he added with a touch of sarcasm. 

She sighed.  “So what am I supposed to do?”

“Play usher tonight, is what I’m told,” he said.  He wrote an address on a hotel pad.  “Super-simple.  If you get bored, steal some pagers for me.  I can use them.”

Nikki frowned.  She didn’t move from her position on the bed with her knees to her chest.  “These people can’t find an usher on short notice?”

“Not one willing to carry listening devices in and out,” was the reply.  “I told you, half of my business comes from people who’re too paranoid to trust the average moron.  And I can’t tell if you understand what I’m saying because your face never changes.”

“I hear you,” she said.

“Figured you did.  Just checking.”

“When do I need to leave?”

“Around seven forty-five.”  He wrote the time on her note as well.  He didn’t ask if she had ever been an usher before.  She didn’t ask what it entailed, either.  Eddie liked that.  She had apparently decided that she’d handle the situation, like she’d handled it in San Francisco (well, hopefully not exactly like that, as no faces needed to be smashed in).  That independence was one of his favorite things about her.  He wrote the Whitehall’s Hotel’s name on the note, leaving it up to her to find the place and find him there.  He didn’t doubt she would, or could.

Nineteen

Glen Grant sighed.  He’d put it off as long as he could, but it was inevitable:  eventually, he had to put his Austin-Healey away for the winter.  Upon arriving home from the office, he tackled the task methodically, thinking more about dinner than what he was doing as he drained the car’s fuel, put it up on jackstands, and carefully plugged the air intakes and exhaust pipe with steel wool to keep rodents at bay.  He went through a mental checklist, which contained eleven items, then pulled the Healey’s cover snug and went into the house, shutting off the lights behind him.  His condominium’s garage was two cars deep and one wide, and with the Healey now stored behind his vintage Triumph racer, he wouldn’t be opening the garage much until spring.

It was a yearly ordeal, prepping the little cream-on-blue roadster for its season-long nap, and it never failed to bum him out.  The very sight of the snugly-covered car in the garage spoke to him of time’s passing, and of opportunities not taken.  It always felt like the year was over.  It might as well be 1997.  At just this moment in fact, Glen would have cheerfully skipped Christmas through Easter and everything in between, just to get back to a season in which it was an option to take a drive in the Healey. 

He tossed a desultory pot pie into the oven, trudged to his study to check email, and saw that Molly Snow had already responded to the email he’d left twenty minutes ago.  Answering her question about the missing Crane-Packard inventory, he’d told her that Ren had mentioned much of it being accidentally shipped to the Arcadia house.  Didn’t Ian know it was there? 

“Doubt he noticed anything,” was Molly’s typed reply.  “When I walked the house, it looked like he was seeing some of the rooms for the first time.  He hasn’t explored the place at all.”  The response was time-stamped only a few minutes before; she must be at her computer.

He responded quickly:  “I got that impression too, when I was there.  Any idea why he wants to know about the inventory?”  He sent the response and waited, impatiently clicking the “Get Mail” button four times in five minutes, then getting up to check on the pot pie which he knew full well wasn’t ready yet.  By the time Molly’s response arrived, he was tempted to simply send her his home phone number and ask her to call him.  She might get the wrong idea if he did that, though.  And it would be a long-distance call besides.

“He said he was tying up loose ends.  Seems feasible.  But I never got to talk to Lex about it & my hinky-meter is starting to go off a little.”

My grandmother used to call things hinky, he typed quickly, grinning, then deleted it when he tried to picture her response.  She might laugh, but she might be insulted.  Best to stick to the matter at hand—he did have something to tell her, after all.  “I took a drive by the former CP factory yesterday,” he wrote.  “It’s not empty.  The sign has been taken down, but there were trucks there.  CP owned rather than leasing; do you know if they sold it?”

Knowing the response would be several minutes in coming, Glen turned on the television.  The evening news had just gotten to the sports cast, and he muted the television, wishing he had something to do with his hands.  He had a couple of Stromberg carburetors that he was rebuilding for a friend, but they weren’t clean enough to bring into the study.  Glen had the soul of a grease monkey, but was determined to keep his house from looking like a stereotypical gearhead’s pad.  There was no engine on a stand in the living room, nor any partially-rebuilt components taking up space on the kitchen table.  He kept the works-in-progress on the workbench in the garage, and on the rare occasion that he did bring something inside to work on it, he had a rubber mat to put down, to protect the furniture and the carpet.  Too much trouble for tonight.

Besides, to get the carbs he’d have to go back out to the garage, and the Healey was in the garage.  Glen pulled a book (a history of Jaguar) off the well-stocked shelf that surrounded the computer desk on two sides and leafed idly through it, mostly looking at the pictures, until Molly’s response arrived.

“The warehouse belongs to Lex & is being leased,” was her reply.  “As far as I know, anyway.  I could ask I. but he’s avoiding me again.  Asked another friend of L’s—former stockholder—to call but she was too druggy to tell him much.  I don’t like this.  I don’t suppose I could talk you into trying to find out what’s going on at the warehouse?” 

Glen smiled.  He’d just been thinking that it might not hurt to drive by again.  He wasn’t an investigative journalist by any stretch and had no idea how to go about it, but taking a quick drive past the place might not hurt. 

A second email from Molly arrived a moment later:  “P.S.:  Isn’t it just excruciating waiting for messages to arrive?  Next time we ought to just pick up the phone, so this doesn’t take all night.”

He tried to imagine the expression on her face as she typed that, and pictured a wry grin.  Impulsively, he typed his home phone number and sent it before he could second-guess himself.  Molly responded in kind.  Instead of actually calling though, they spent another half hour firing messages back and forth, exchanging facts.  By the time his pot pie was done, Glen knew that Molly lived alone outside of Boston, had a house that exceeded her means and a new Saab convertible thanks to a crafty divorce settlement, and played tennis to stay in shape.  She knew corresponding details of his life—his condo, his daily commute to the magazine’s offices in Detroit, his summer vintage car races and road trips.  Emboldened by the discussion, he even bragged about his skill in heating up pot pies, which made Molly write, “On one hand I’m glad to see a bachelor feeding himself; on the other, JESUS WEPT, MAN, DO YOU KNOW WHAT’S IN THOSE THINGS?  Hie thee to an Italian grandmother, at once!” 

They got briefly onto the subject of movies, but as she began listing the films she’d enjoyed recently—Sling Blade, Feeling Minnesota, Emma, The English Patient just last weekend—he was forced to admit that he hadn’t been to the movies since seeing Twister almost six months ago.  Luckily, Molly had seen it too, and they bantered a bit about special effects and Bill Paxton’s ability as a leading man.  Glen even talked a bit about his notion that the tornado chasers’ cars could be considered supporting characters, and she seemed to find that interesting.  Well, it was impossible to gauge interest based solely upon the words on the screen, but she didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand like the guys at the magazine had, either.  In fact, she alluded that she might even want to sit down and watch it with him when it came out on video, to see what he was talking about.

That led them to an exchange about the significance of trivial objects to different people, which led them back to Lexi.  “She comes alive when she talks about cars, I’m sure you’ve noticed,” Glen typed.

After the delay, which he was getting used to, she replied.  “Absolutely.  Dammit, I’m worried about her. “

“I’ll see what I can find out about the warehouse,” Glen replied.  “And I’m going up there on Tuesday to do an interview.  Hopefully she won’t be incoherent.”

Waiting for her response, he took his bowl to the kitchen sink and ran water in it.  When he got back, Molly had replied.  “Say hi to her for me.  And why don’t you call me when you get back?”