Even though she relished the idea of being away from Taiisha, Nikki expected more of the same treatment from Eddie.  She expected to be tied up in a dingy corner, then released long enough to perform some act.  With luck it wouldn’t involve excruciating degradation.  Whatever happened, when it was over, she would use the first moment of free motion she had to end his life and get away, back to Taiisha.  Nikki didn’t even realize that this was her expectation until she found herself surprised at the hotel.  It was an impressively appointed Sheraton in downtown San Francisco.

Eddie watched Nikki eyeing the lobby of the four-star accommodation.  She was almost overwhelmed by the lobby alone; she clearly wasn’t used to this kind of place.  She cradled her handcuffed wrist self-consciously.  Eddie handed her bag to a bellhop who was less than impressed with the battered leather purse.  Eddie was watching Nikki carefully.  He wouldn’t tell her so of course, but she had scared the shit out of him when she’d broken the mirror.  Actually…maybe startled was a better word.  He had assumed she was just a runaway, that she’d be easily swayed with a little pressure and the promise of a hot meal.  When she broke the mirror, he’d seen a hardness in her eyes.  Eddie had seen that hardness before.  Whoever this girl was, she’d lived too much, too fast.  Maybe she wasn’t as green as he thought.

When they got to his suite, he hummed “Hail to the Chief,” as they entered.  She didn’t smile.  Eddie tipped the bellhop, got Nikki’s bag from him, got rid of him, and said, “Your castle, milady,” with a laugh.

She looked back at him, meeting his eyes.  Her eyes dilated just a bit, turning almost black, and Eddie felt like she was looking right into his thoughts.  His smile almost died.  He kept it on his face, but the mirth went out of it.

The stare was something Nikki had learned from Taiisha.  She saw it working, then raised her arm, making the free cuff rattle.

He saw the demand in her face, but didn’t bend to it.  “When I get back,” Eddie said.  He turned and went to the door.  He was banking that it had been so long since she’d had a shower and a hot meal that she’d never consider leaving the hotel while she could.  If he showed that he was willing to leave her there unattended, she’d be curious enough to wait around.  Then again, if she was a true hardcase, she’d be gone, and that would be just as well.  He couldn’t trust someone who’d been on the edge for too long.  He had left a pair of little cameras in the room; he could watch what she did later.  “Make yourself at home, Poppet,” he called over his shoulder, and was gone.  He took her bag with him.

“Bastard,” she hissed under her breath.  Nikki sneered at the suite for a moment.  Her back was hurting from getting tackled, the scrapes on her hands stung, she was hungry, and she wanted this over with.  There was nothing to be done but wait for him to come back, so she put the irritation out of her mind and explored the suite. 

She thought again about having a bath.  The tub had brass fixtures and glass doors.  The hotel even provided bubble bath and robes.  Nikki reluctantly decided she didn’t want to be caught naked.

She sat on the toilet and undid two of the five thick safety pins that lived inside the hem of her skirt.  Nikki bent them and used them to pick the lock of the handcuffs.  Thus unencumbered, she inspected her clothes, which were getting more than a little bit threadbare in places.  She had only three changes of clothes and they were all heavily mended.  There was a new rip in her skirt, where she’d fallen after jumping off the bike.  Nikki made a face of silent irritation; this was the better of her two skirts, and it was going to be shredded to uselessness if this shit kept up.  She used a third safety pin to close the rip for the time being.

Back in the suite, there was a fold-out couch in the main room, and a king-sized bed in the bedroom.  Eddie had left no luggage.  All of the drawers and closets were empty as well.  Nikki helped herself to a can of Sprite, a Snickers bar and a package of peanut butter crackers from the mini-bar and opened the hide-a-bed.  The domesticity of it was surprisingly pleasant.  After hiding the handcuffs underneath a drawer, she closed her eyes and slept immediately and wonderfully.

*   *   *

Eddie’s errand took him a little bit south of town, to a self-storage yard called The Final Frontier.  Cute.  The parking lot was empty.  Murray Kenzie, who was supposed to have a car for him, was late, as usual.  Eddie wasn’t in a hurry.  He parked in front of the gate and looked around.  These places always reminded him of a game show, each door with a surprise inside.  And speaking of surprises…he smiled to himself and pulled the girl’s bag up onto the front seat, to have a look.

He found her wallet quickly, and checked out the driver’s license first.  Nicole Kerry Saxen, from Birmingham, Michigan.  He raised an eyebrow.  Eddie had grown up in metro Detroit, and was familiar with the tony suburb.  Birthday December twenty-seventh.  She’d be twenty in December.  She looked younger–she was short, small-boned, and skinny.  Eddie had figured she was about sixteen.  If she wasn’t a minor, so much the better.  There was a cheap fake ID in the wallet as well.  Same information, different birthday.  A drinking ID.  Eddie expected to find a handful of wallets from her pickpocketing, but there weren’t any, just a folded roll of almost seven hundred dollars.  She’d ditched the billfolds already.  Shrewd.  There was a newspaper and lot of the usual purse junk, which Eddie ignored, and enough personal and emergency items–including two cans of soup–to tell him that Nikki’s bag was the closest thing she had to home.  A colorful, folded afghan took up about a third of the space in the bag, and tightly rolled clothes below that.  Eddie shook them out, and found a skirt that looked just like the one she’d been wearing but in worse shape, three or four shirts, a pair of black jeans with a huge rip in one knee, a pair of socks, and two changes of surprisingly frilly underwear.  Eddie turned a black lace bra inside out, looking at the tag.  30A.  Training bra, he thought with a smile, and tossed it on the pile.

Inside the folds of the afghan, Eddie found a knife.  It wasn’t a pocketknife tucked away for emergencies (there was one of those, too), but a big one, eighteen inches of steel, like a seven-eighths-scale pirate’s cutlass.  The chrome blade had diagonal black stripes painted on it, and it was as sharp as a scalpel.  “Now what the hell is this, Ms. Saxen?” he said aloud.  He took a couple of experimental swings at the air.  There was a portfolio wrapped in plastic below the clothes, but he wasn’t interested in it.

Eddie folded the mini-sword back into the afghan, then looked up at the rows of white brick and orange doors behind the fence in front of him.  He lit a cigarette, to help him think.  Nikki had been an impulse buy, in a manner of speaking.  He’d been looking for a partner–well, more of an assistant–for this job, and when he’d seen her picking pockets he’d just had a feeling she was right.  The more he thought about it, the way she’d broken the mirror had been unnerving.  In the end though, it was a bonus.  Who knew, he might learn something from her, too.

He hoped she’d prove reliable as a second pair of hands.  The job wasn’t a hard one; an information systems director named Don Watson–Eddie referred to him as “Prodigy”–had changed jobs, and taken what was known in the business as a sensitive document with him.  A design, a memo, a tell-all, it could have been anything, all they knew was that it was on his home computer.  What it was didn’t matter to Eddie.  What mattered was that the company wanted the document back, and they had their reasons for not simply going and asking the guy, or suing him to return it.  Enter Eddie Sharp.  Eddie had called Prodigy posing as a PR consultant from BMW and invited him to participate in a consumer clinic.  Prodigy was offered the chance to test-drive a new BMW prototype luxury sedan and then tell a film crew what he thought of the car.  A drive in a new luxury car was pretty persuasive bait for an up-and-comer like Prodigy (thirty-four, wife and a kid, house in San Jose, nudging two hundred a year, and just enough debt to show that he wasn’t afraid to spend his money).

It would be enough to get Prodigy out of his house for two hours.  That was when his second pair of hands–Nikki–would break in, copy his entire hard drive, and slip out unseen.  Prodigy would never know about the little piracy.  Nice and quiet.

To make the BMW PR angle look legit, Eddie had hired a film crew who also thought he was with BMW.  That was all set up; today he was here to pick up the cars, and Murray Kenzie was his contact for that.  Murray was an exotic car dealer who didn’t mind giving out loaners from time to time, for a fee.  For a similar fee, Murray didn’t mind making cars disappear, either. Eddie had known Murray for years.

Speaking of whom…a two-year-old purple Porsche rolled up to the gate, which slid open.  The mechanism groaned and clattered.  Murray had arrived.  Eddie tossed his half-smoked cigarette away and got out of his car.  “Murray Antonio Kenzie,” he called, “you gotta get that watch of yours fixed.”

Murray laughed.  “Eddie, peace, my man,” he said, shaking Eddie’s hand.  “I got your cars.  Number 234, let’s take a ride.  Got you a BMW 3-series and the other thing.” Murray motioned to the passenger seat and Eddie got in.

“European?” Eddie asked.

“Uh-huh.  It’s a Seat Cordoba.”

“The hell’s a ‘say-ot?'”

“Basically a Spanish Volkswagen.  It’s a midsize sedan, like the three, and–”

Eddie waved his hand.  “Whatever.  As long as this guy’s never seen one, and it looks modern.  It’s got to pass for a future BMW.”

Murray laughed.  “Does this guy know shit about cars?”

“No.  Computers.”

“Then you’ll convince him.  It don’t look like any VW over here.  Put some electrical tape over the badges, a little on the windows, and it’ll look just like a prototype.”  Murray stopped at the appropriate garage and got out.  He handed Eddie the keys to both the garage and the car inside.  “The temp tag’s good for a month, but then I got to get it back to Europe where it belongs.”

“That’s plenty of time, Murray.”

“Nothing high-profile on these, right?  No high-speed chases, no bullet holes?  You promised.”

Eddie chuckled and patted Murray on the back.  “I don’t do bullet holes, Murray.  I’m a peaceful crook.”

“Strictly white-collar, eh?”

“It’s a good neighborhood,” Eddie said with a shrug.  “So long as I don’t get caught up in anything political, it’s a nice, safe existence.”

“What’s your thing with politics, man?”

“Troubleshooting for companies and individuals is a nice way to get by.  Troubleshooting for governments is a nice way to get killed.”

The pager on Murray’s belt chirped.  He looked at it.  “I gotta get this, man,” he said, leaning back into the Porsche to grab his cellphone.

“No problem,” Eddie said.  “I’m all set.  It drive like a normal car?”  Murray nodded.  “See you later, then.”  He went back to his car.  He stopped at McDonald’s on the way back to the hotel.  Nikki was probably hungry.