Seven

The last thing Eddie expected was to find Nikki asleep when he returned.  He knew she wouldn’t have gone anywhere without her precious bag.  He had figured she’d turn on the TV, maybe try to pretend she wasn’t afraid.  But there she was, curled up on the spare bed, asleep.  She really wasn’t afraid of him.

She woke up instantly.  There was no pause to rub sleep out of her eyes or stretch, just immediate, alert wakefulness.  It made Eddie think of a watchful dog.  “That’s gonna cost me three bucks, you know,” he said, noticing the can of Sprite she’d gotten for herself. 

She didn’t say anything, just followed him with her eyes.  He put the McDonald’s bag on the dresser next to the television.  “Hope you like cheeseburgers.” He went into the bedroom, and saw that she had taken the blankets off of his bed to curl up in.  Eddie grinned.  “Civil disobedience, eh?” he called.  She didn’t answer.  When he returned to the living room, the McDonald’s bag had disappeared, and she had pulled the covers over her head.  “Oh, you took all the damn food, too.” This was going to be fun.  “I didn’t say we were married, Poppet.  You mind if I get some of that?”

Paper rustled as Nikki unwrapped one of the cheeseburgers and didn’t answer him.  She wanted to see if Eddie was easily irritated by nonsense, or patient.  Taiisha called it ‘bending.’

“You gonna stay under there all night?” he asked.

Nikki spoke suddenly, and her voice was curt.  “As long as you’re going to sit there.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why’re you staying under there?”

“Ask again later.  I’m eating.”

“At least one of those burgers is mine,” he said, trying not to laugh. 

“So what?”

“Can I have a French fry, then?”

“No,” she replied implacably.  He sounded like he was smiling, but she couldn’t see him to be sure.

“Just one?”

“No.”

“I’m going to become very hungry.”

“You need to lose weight,” she replied.

“Actually,” Eddie said, bending over to take off his shoes, “not eating slows the metabolism down, and ultimately contributes to weight gain.  You want me to take those cuffs off?”

Nikki realized with an inward sigh that she could bend him all she wanted to.  He wasn’t even ruffled.  In fact, he seemed to be enjoying her resistance.  She pulled the blanket off her head and pushed herself up against the back of the couch-bed, as far from Eddie as she could get.  “Your handcuffs,” she said, “are disposed of.”

“Where are they? I may need them again later.”

“Ask when you need them then.  You put them on me, I got rid of them.  Now I have them.” God, she sounded like Taiisha.  She had been almost the only person Nikki had interacted with for so long and now she was talking like her.  It would be good to stop doing that.  “I’ll give them back when I’m ready to, so stop bitching about it,” she said.  She met Eddie’s eyes for a moment, then dropped the bag of food at her feet for him.

He took a Quarter Pounder out of the bag and unwrapped it carefully, as if it was made of porcelain.  “Not complaining, Poppet.  Just curious,” he added, taking a bite of his burger.

“Don’t call me Poppet.”

Eddie laughed.  He dug a brand-new Master combination lock out of his pocket and tossed it on the bed.  “Open this.”

He sounded like he was talking to a dog.  She glared at him.  “No.”

“Why not? You know how, don’t you?”

She did, but she had no intention of telling him.  “I have no reason to.”

“It’ll make me happy.”

Nikki wondered if he expected her to bend or break.  Her gut instinct was to resist, so she did.  “I don’t give a shit.”

“Why don’t you want to open it?”

“You open it, if it’s so important to you.”

Eddie sat in silence for a moment, staring at a spot on the ceiling just above her head.  It was futile trying to meet her head-on.  She required a softer touch.

He looked at her for a moment.  She looked back, no fear of him in her eyes, safe behind a shield of pure, uncut mean.  Eddie was getting a better sense of her just by watching her watch him, unflinching.  She was the kind who had two or three close friends, and she’d do anything for them.  If you weren’t one of them, you could go to hell.  But she wasn’t with her tribe now, whoever or wherever they were.  She needed friends.  She was scared after all, and all she had to fall back on right now was that wall of attitude that only her friends were allowed to penetrate. 

He changed tack.  “What brings you to California?”

Nikki was amazed.  His good mood was completely undamaged.  For half a second she considered telling him Taiisha had brought her to kill him, and then breaking his neck.  That half-second passed.  Nikki had to admit that she liked people who weren’t brought down by her, even if she was trying to bring them down.  And besides, it wasn’t time to kill him yet.  “Lack of anyplace better to be,” she said finally.  She shrugged.  “I like the ocean.”

“Ran away from home?”

“Doesn’t everybody, eventually?”

Eddie laughed.  “How long have you been traveling?”

She shrugged.  “A while.”

“And you came from the Midwest.  Michigan, Ohio, around there?”

Her eyes jumped up from the bed to his face, surprised.

He smiled.  “I can hear your accent.  Or, rather, your lack of one, to my ears, since I’m from Detroit.”

“How lovely for you.”

“Oh, come on.  I want to be your friend.”

“Really?  Then let me give you some advice.  Traditionally, my friends have not chased me, attacked me, or kidnapped me.  What the fuck do you want?”

He shrugged.  “Help,” he said through a mouthful of fries.  He took a sip of his drink, then offered it to her.  “Strawberry shake?”

Nikki backed away from his hand.  Actually, it was more of a flinch.  Eddie immediately put it down, moving back out of her personal space.  Tardily, she shook her head no.  She wanted and expected to feel threatened, to be threatened.  Nikki was beginning to realize Eddie wasn’t anything like Taiisha, but she couldn’t turn the reflexes off.  And she needed to hate him.  She had to kill him.

The significance of her violent reaction hadn’t been lost on Eddie.  That was the flinch of a girl who’d seen too many raised hands, been hit too many times.  Another piece of her puzzle.  He spoke softly, gently “What happened to you, Poppet?”

“What do you want from me?” she asked again, in a lower voice.  Tell me the goddamn job, she thought.  The uncertainty coiling in her stomach, the not knowing what was really going to happen next, was making her more edgy than anything else.

“Like I said, your help.  I can explain.  I’m a troubleshooter.”

“What’s that?”

“I get things that don’t want to be got.  I open things that want to be shut.  Hide things that want to be found.  Find things that want to be lost.”

She interrupted him.  “That’s very mystical.  What do you need me for?”

“You have two important qualities.  First, you’re a small, young woman.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to–“

“We’re opposites.  Example: I need to get into the room next to or behind a particular room.  Unfortunately, it’s the women’s restroom.  Now, you know, all the cajoling in the world won’t get me into the ladies’ room.  Not without some kind of elaborate ruse that’s going to draw too much attention to me.”

It made sense to her.  Nikki had raised her head again.  Eddie thought that she carried herself like a princess, sitting straight and proud.  He didn’t tell her so.  “Like yelling at everyone that you’re a cop?” she said.

“Precisely.  On the other hand, you can walk right in, Poppet.”

“Quit calling me that.”

He pretended not to hear her.  Whether she liked it or not, the nickname was going to be a little connection to her, a potential route to worm his way past her defenses.  “Plus, you can squeeze into smaller places, get into some nightclubs without looking like someone’s dad or a private dick–or both.  Do I need to continue?”

“No.  What’s my second qualification?” Nikki spun a thick weave of sarcasm into her words. 

“Your hands.  The way you move.  You know, I’d been thinking about looking for a partner, just sort of on-again, off-again, and then I was sitting down on the pier having a hot dog and I saw you dip into some lazy schmoe’s pocket, and a light bulb went on in my head.  You have one of the smoothest picks I’ve ever seen.  You have my highest praise.”

She told him what he could go and do.  It involved livestock.

“Oh, no, no, save your platitudes for someone who deserves them.  I’m just offering you a job.  And a meal or two, a roof over your head.”

She couldn’t help wondering why Taiisha wanted him dead, what he’d done to deserve this.  “What if I say no?”

He shrugged again.  “I’ll be disappointed.  You’ll go back to the pier, and keep picking pockets…” His eyes crawled up and down her body.  The thought of screwing her crossed his mind again, much more distantly than it had before.  “Or whatever it is you do to survive,” he added.

Nikki saw the look.  He thinks I’m a whore, she thought.  He thinks I sell sex to feed myself. She knew why it enraged her–but she didn’t know why she wasn’t able to seize control of herself before she jumped to her feet screaming at him.  Eddie actually recoiled and covered his face.  Nikki threw the rest of her cheeseburger at him, screaming, “I don’t need you!  I don’t need your pity or your fucking food or your fucking job or your fucking troubleshooting, I don’t fucking need it you dirty dusty cocksucking bastard fuck, do you hear me? I don’t need it!” She grabbed her bag from where he’d dropped it on the floor and charged to the door.

Eddie didn’t chase her.  He’d pissed her off now.  If she was going to go, he couldn’t stop her.  The thing to do was make her want to come back once she’d cooled down.  He stood up at the foot of the sofa bed and barked, “Hey!”

It stopped the flow of cursing from her mouth, but not her feet.  He thinks I’m a whore.  The thought repeated itself in her head, rolling first one way and then the other like a carnival ride.  Nikki twisted the knob and yanked at the door once.  It wouldn’t open, and she saw that the chain was latched.

“You can go,” he called.  “I won’t run you down.  I’ll let you go and forget about you.  That’s life.  But I really could use your help.  I can teach you things.”

She fumbled with the chain.  His words clattered on her ears like rain on a metal roof, too insistent to ignore.  But he thought she was a whore.  Something he saw in me made him think she went down on men for money.

“I’ll be here a few days.  If you change your mind, come back, okay? Seriously.  I’m not taking any other resumes.”

The chain slid free of its housing, and she got the door open.  Nikki slammed it hard enough to make the walls vibrate, hard enough that it bounced right back open again.  Just as it smashed into the jamb she heard Eddie say, “‘Bye,” in a soft voice, like his best friend was leaving for the evening.

She still expected him to chase her.  She ran down the hall to the elevator, smashed the button with her fist until it lit up, waited five seconds, then couldn’t wait any more.  She had to run.  She went to the stairs instead.  Her heart pounded.  She could almost feel him behind her, one hand about to grab her shoulder.  She charged down four flights before she finally stopped, out of breath, and looked up the stairwell.

Nothing.  There was no one behind her, of course.  No one but bad memories.

Nikki stopped, trying to calm down.  She closed her eyes and tried to center herself.  Her breaths sounded like sobs as they echoed up and down the stairwell.

He thought she was a whore.  Something he’d seen in her…it was a stupid overreaction, but it still filled her with rage.  She tried to hold on to that, to nurse it into a reason to hate him.  He thought she was a whore?  Fine.  Killing him would be worthwhile then.