Sixteen

Of all the things Eddie had said or done to annoy her, nothing had made Nikki want to kill him more than this.  And it wasn’t even his fault.  That was ironic enough that she might laugh about it later.  Maybe.  Right now, all she wanted was to get out of this bank, strangle him, throw him on a fire, and watch his eyes pop.

She was lying flat on the floor, in the middle of a serpentine line of prone people.  An hour ago, three heavily armed men had stormed into the bank, taken control with a few warning shots, and then forced everyone to lay on the floor.  The bank staff joined them shortly, so that they were in a loose group in the middle of the lobby, just out of sight from the front doors.  No one looked at anyone else.  The blinds had been pulled as well, blocking any view in or out.  A few hostages sobbed softly.

Their three captors were identically dressed, in black fatigues, bulky flak jackets and shiny black open-face helmets.  Dark plastic visors covered their faces past the cheekbones, and they wore gloves as well.  Their individuality was limited to their chins:  one white, one black, and one blond-bearded.  Each of them carried two pistols and a submachine gun.  The bearded one seemed to be the ringleader; at least, he was the one who had spoken with the police negotiator.  He spoke calmly, but there was malice in his voice.  “No, I’m not going to wait for you to call your supervisor,” he told the voice at the other end of the line.  “I suspect he’s out there already anyway, isn’t he?  It’s not an outlandish request.  Transportation to a plane, which will then take us to Mexico.  An hour is plenty of time for that, I think.  And if it isn’t, we’ll see how quickly you move when I begin shooting.  I’ll shoot every last hostage in here.  Ta-ta.”  With that, he hung up and turned to his companions.  “Looks like we’ve got an hour to kill.  No pun intended.  How do we pass the time, fellows?”  He slung his Uzi over one shoulder and clasped his hands behind his back, strolling among the huddled hostages.

Nikki watched him as best she could as he drew close, following him with her eyes.  She couldn’t turn her head.  From somewhere beyond her field of vision, there was a thump and a groan as one of the hostages was kicked, apparently for sport.  She guessed that they were going to rob everyone.  And she was still carrying fifteen thousand dollars in cash.  Shit.  Nikki closed her eyes and listened to the feet moving to and fro on the floor.

She was wrong, though.  After some discussion, the robbers decided to force all of the women to strip.  Well, two of them wanted to.  “Haven’t you always wanted to do that?” the clean-shaven one said.

“It don’t serve any purpose, man.”

“Screw purpose.  I like breasts.”

Nikki kept her eyes closed as they selected their first “contestant.”  She didn’t care to have a visual of a woman’s meek protests.  It didn’t take long anyway.  The woman whimpered, the ringleader cocked his pistol menacingly, and their subsequent ugly laughter suggested that she was disrobing.

She felt a surge of mingled hatred and disgust, as much for the hostages as for the men with the guns.  Not a single one of them was willing to fight back, to try to stop this, to not be humiliated.  They’d lie passive on the floor if these men chose to walk around and shoot them one at a time.  Like sheep.

Nikki knew the attitude was more Taiisha’s than her own, but it had leached into her so deeply that she wasn’t sure where her own feelings began just right now.  Every last one of these hostages lying here with her was pathetic, groveling on the floor because scary-looking men were waving guns about.  Nobody wanted to be a hero, of course, but waiting around to be saved was little more than an excuse not to act.  The robbers were probably too chickenshit to actually shoot anyone–just as meek and herd-like in their own way as their captives.  Truly dangerous…Nikki had seen truly dangerous people.  Lived with them.  Fought them.  These guys were garbage, elevated only by superior weapons.  Someone had to call their bluff.

When they picked a second woman and made her start taking her clothes off–despite her two children lying prone at her feet–Nikki stood up.  “Stop this,” she said.  Her voice was stronger and clearer than she expected it to be, and her eyes were on the bearded one.  “Stop this right now.”

He looked down at her with a grin.  “No one told you to get up,” he said.  “I think you’d better wait your turn.”

If Nikki had expected any of the other hostages to stand with her, she had cast her lot with the wrong group.  She hadn’t really expected any of them to get behind her anyway.  “Screw you,” she said.  “Don’t make anyone else do this.”

“Screw me?” the ringleader laughed.  He pulled one of his pistols and pointed it at Nikki’s face.  She could see herself reflected in his dark goggles.  “I think not.  Screw you.”

He pulled the trigger.  Nikki’s hands came up in an abortive defensive motion, and her head snapped back as the back of her skull was blasted out.  Already dead, she dropped to her knees as if to pray, her head lolling like a ragdoll’s, and then she crumpled forward onto her face.

Sixteen

By the time I push the door open and struggle out of the car, the sheep’s gone.  The road’s empty and silent except for the not-quite sound of snow falling.  Tracks from my back-and forth fishtail skid are already vanishing under snow, but sapling I crunched might not recover so quickly.  It’s almost serene.  The Saab’s damage I can assess with a glance:  a tire peeled off the rim but no wheel damage, the wheel itself cocked, which means I snapped a suspension piece or two, part of the front bumper knocked into little bits and scattered across the street, and a healthy dent in the left front fender.  Ick.  I don’t want to think about that right now.  I walk back up the road to the drive from which the sheep presumably issued.  Sure enough, it’s there, and the dog I saw is chasing it up the drive, nipping expertly at its heels as it drives it back into its pen.

The house is the centerpiece of a very small and increasingly snowy farm; small pastures on either side of the fence, house at the end of the drive, and a petite barn out back.  Beyond the barn, the woods lean close, just like they do behind my house.  It’s a quaint house, with rolled-over eaves suggesting a thatched roof and irregular stone walls, and there is indeed a person on the porch, sitting and clapping. 

I wave on my way up the rutted drive.  I’m getting mud in my shoes. 

He’s in his late fifties or early sixties and he’s in a wheelchair, with a big, flat triangle of stiff yellow and blue fabric on his lap.  He’s got a beard–more of a glorified goatee really–long but neatly trimmed, and the hair poking out from under his Union cap matches it.  The thing on his lap is a kite, I see as I get closer, and there’s a small table next to his chair with a teapot, four mugs, and the usual tea accouterments on it.  The table looks handmade.  The porch smells of tea and cinnamon and I like it here already.

“It’s a little snowy for kites,” I say as I reach the porch.  I stop short, so the snow can keep falling on me.  I like the little individual flashes on my skin as the flakes hit, like cold sparks. 

“I’m mending Ramona, not flying her,” says the man, picking the kite up again.  I realize that for a moment I was half-afraid he would be a ghost, and I’m glad he’s not.  His face crinkles up charmingly when he smiles.  He has a Scottish accent so light it might be an intentional affectation, and I like that, too.  It explains the sheep, in a perverse way.  Livestock sounds and smells drift through the nonsound of the snow–more sheep, and goats, too.  “Have some tea?”

“Do you have lemons?”

“Always.”

“Sugar cubes?”

He smiles.  “Tourist?”

“Hm?”  I look around.  Oh, he means me.  “Oh, not me.  I live over…” I point in the direction of my house, which isn’t in sight of course.  “It’s a big old haunted house, with two towers that are unrelated to Tolkien.  One’s round and one’s square.  Tea would be good.  Lots of lemon and sugar makes it like hot lemonade.”

The man smiles.  “You’re the lass who moved into the old Maddox place, eh?”  He sets the kite aside and pours me a cup of tea with a care that’s almost dainty.  “William Charles Stirling, at your service.”

“Alexis Andrea Victoria Margaret Corinne Crane, at yours,” I reply, ascending the single step to the porch.  My legs are a bit shaky, as if my body has already forgotten how to get around without wheels.  I sit on the stoop and turn halfway so I can see him.

“What a title!  Are you royalty?”

“Nope.  Creative parents.  But why do you have four extra mugs, Sir William?” I ask.  He hands me a cup of tea.  It is practically hot lemonade.  Lovely.  I give him a big smile.

“Just in case a lass like you drops by.  She can’t escape whilst I’m bumbling about inside looking for a cup, you see,” he says.  “And one smile like that makes it worth lugging the extra tray out here.  That’s a smile a man could go to war for.”

“It happens…”  The pink clouds are pushing back a little bit, and I get lost in the falling snow and tea for a bit.  A View-Master scene change tries to happen, but I stop it from happening.  The tea keeps me in the moment, it’s almost as good as hot chocolate.  But why am I here, again?  There was a car, a dog…”The sheep!”

“Ah, that stupid old ewe’s fine, don’t worry about it.  She deserved the scare.  She’s back in the pen.”

“Do you live here alone?  Except for…um…the animals, of course.”

He’s smiling, with a gleam in his eye.  “Of course.  Been here by myself for going on forty years now.  The kids say I’m the local crazy old wizard, since there’s no witch, if you don’t count yourself.  But that’s just because they know I’ll chase ’em with Ramona, if they don’t stop trying to ride my sheep.”  He picks the kite up again, and I can see that the ends of the delta are tipped with pieces of flat, hook-shaped metal.  There’s a whetstone on the tea caddy; Sir William has been honing the edges.

“It’s a kite with claws…” Am I really here?

“Linoleum knife blades, actually,” he says.

“That’s deeply, deeply sick,” I tell him.  I’m leaning farther and farther toward the kite, and make a point of straightening, lest I fall completely over.  “I have just decided that I like you a lot.”

“Why, thank you, Miss Alexis.  Should I call a tow truck for your car?”

“It’s not mine,” I say, trying to concentrate.  He called my house the Maddox place.  “So…you know something about where I live?” I ask.  “Did you know it’s haunted?  What’s the kite for, besides chasing kids out of your yard?  What makes me a witch?”

Sir William looks at me.  He has grey-blue eyes under rather bushy brows, and I realize I’ve been calling him Sir William as if he was a knight, because but for a sword and armor, he looks like one.  An aged one, but noble nonetheless.  I wonder if he minds.  At length, he says, “Shall I answer one at a time, or all at once?”

It’s getting hard to concentrate without the car, and I have to let the words roll around in my head for a moment before they make sense.  “Sorry.  One’s good.”

“You certainly know how to keep an old man entertained.  What do you want to hear about first?”

“The kite.”  My butt is cold; I shift to a more comfortable lean.

Sir William tells me about his fighting kite Ramona, and of summer afternoons spent slicing children’s kites out of the sky down by the lake.  “You might think I’m just an evil old codger, but the boys line up to challenge Ramona whenever I’m there.  One lad built a box kite with metal framing, no less.  Ramona cut him down in two skirmishes.”  I laugh.  A lot.  I can’t wait for summer.  “You planning to leave your car out there?” he asks, nodding toward the road.  Dr. Zheng’s Saab is barely visible from the porch, a smear of silver on the white and brown landscape.

“Oh, right.  I should call Dr. Zheng and tell him about that.”

“Dr. Zheng is…?”

“It’s, um, his car.  He stays at the house.  With me.  He’s not my regular doctor.”  I stand up and turn in a half-circle; the motion pushes the pink clouds back again.  “My regular doctor is Doctor Hu,” I tell him.  Why I mention Josie is a mystery to me, it just falls out of my mouth.  “Is there a phone?”

“Tinpot, phone,” Sir William says.  The Australian sheepdog that I noticed earlier has been sitting at the foot of the porch this whole time, and he pricks his ears, rises and trots up the stairs.  The door has a modern-looking lever-style handle, and just like that the dog lets himself into the house.  “Tinpot takes care of ‘most everything,” Sir William says.  “I cook and clean, and the dog handles ‘most everything else.”

“I can cook,” I say randomly.  “I could make lunch.”

William looks carefully at me.  Maybe I’m crazy, and I’ve come to poison him and take his car.  That’s what it looks like he’s considering, with that assessing look.  “That sounds all right, then,” he says, wheeling his chair around.

“What do we have?” He leads the way to the kitchen, which has low counters and a high ceiling and walls with lots of postcards and photos on them, and I poke around until I find fixings to bake a dish of macaroni and cheese.  Fresh Wisconsin cheddar, yum!  I tell him about Molly’s mac and cheese recipe, which is wonderful just like everything else she cooks, and once lunch is in the oven I use the cordless phone that Tinpot brings to call Dr. Zheng.  He seems annoyed when I tell him where I am, and even more annoyed when I tell him to bring a tow truck.

“Tinpot, fetch my reading glasses and scrapbook, if you could,” William says.  “I’d like to show Lady Lexi some things, while that damned fine-smelling dinner bakes up.”

The dog is back in a few minutes with Sir William’s scrapbook, and we adjourn to the den.  I guess it’s a den, anyhow.  Sir William has a couch and an empty spot under a lamp where a wingback chair would be, that’s clearly where the wheelchair parks.  There’s no television, just a fireplace.  There is a big vacuum-tube style radio in the corner though, with books piled on top of it.  The room smells like tweed, and there’s a china cabinet that appears to be full of Scotch.  He settles me onto the couch and Tinpot arrives with Sir William’s glasses carried delicately in his teeth.  Sir William praises the dog and ruffles his fur gently.

“That’s so cool,” I tell them both.  “I don’t like dogs on principle.  But he’s not a dog, I like him.”

I get an over-the-glasses wink.  “Let’s see what I know about your house,” Sir William says, opening the scrapbook.  “It was empty when I homesteaded here, but since I quit walking I sometimes paint the town with a ravishing older lady by the name of Constance Smith, Connie to her friends.  She actually lived in that very house, as a boarder during the Second World War.”  Sir William looks at me over his glasses again.  “Convenient, eh?”  He puts the glasses back up, holds up the scrapbook so I can see what’s in it.  The pictures are black and white photos of my house, maybe in the Forties, mixed in with pictures of other local homes.

“It was built in 1928,” I say.  “That’s all the realtor lady knew.”

“That ain’t all Betty knew,” he scoffs.  “That’s just all she told you.  I’ll give her a tongue-lashing for that when I see her.  She means well, of course.”

“I wouldn’t have been scared away just because it was haunted, though.”

“Is it, now?”  The glasses go down again,  “Now that is something.  Have you met your tenant?”

“Sort of.  There are more than one.  I haven’t seen the Chinese girl for a while, but there are at least two others.  I think one of them is the lady of the house.  She floated ’round the bed last night.” 

Sir William grunts.  “Five’ll get you ten that’s Marion.  Marion Maddox was always the lady of that house, and always will be, I’m sure.  It was her husband’s money that built the place, but it was her soul that made it come alive.  They built it as a party house, Marion and Henry did.  They lived in Chicago, a young pair of partiers who made it through the Depression with their lifestyle intact.  Happy couple, I’m told.  Marion loved it up here so much she spent most of her time at this house, and when Henry died overseas in ’32–bad heart, they said–she sold the Chicago house and moved up here full time.

“She married again in ’37, to a fellow by the name of Brantley Foster.  He was in a similar business as Henry.  Couldn’t tell you what it was.  It took him on a lot of business trips, from one side of the country to the other, overseas during the war, even.  Hard to see why Marion married him; from what I hear she almost never saw him.

“A few years after that–this would have been on around 1940–it turned out that was just as well.  Something happened to Marion.  Until ’40 she was as she had been married to Henry Maddox.  She brought her friends up from Chicago and in from New York City to have their parties, and she went and saw them.  Great fun.  That year, though, she stopped going out.  Came up to Arcadia and stayed here.  Stopped entertaining, too.  I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure, but Connie says that Marion told her friends she didn’t want to see them any more.  She wrote to them, but that was the only contact she’d have with them.  Says she treated Brantley like dirt, too.  Yelled at him all the time, wouldn’t let him stay in the same room as her.  Funny stuff.

“That’s about the same time Connie started boarding with Marion.  She shooed all of her friends and husband away, and then took in a boarder.  The other strange thing, Connie says, was the building.  Five or six years she had workmen up at that house, coming and going.  Connie says they worked mostly in the basement, and Marion couldn’t abide having them around.  Wouldn’t let them be in the same room as she was, if they were up in the house.  Connie was a boarder, but she wound up being a companion for Marion, too.”

“What did she build?” I ask, thinking of the passage from my room to the kitchen.  There are other passages in my house, too.

Sir William shakes his head.  “I don’t know.  I wasn’t there.  And Connie never said.  We could go over and ask her one day, I suppose.  You’re fixing the house up, of course?  Restoring it without destroying it?”

I nod.  “What did Marion drive?”

“Funny question.  I have no idea.  Connie said that Marion used to take long drives, all around the state.  And all of that stopped a couple of years later, when the war got going.  I imagine the work stopped because she couldn’t find the boys to do the work.  Why she quit going out, I don’t know.  Connie did the shopping for a while, with the car, and when she moved on, she says Marion had a boy deliver her groceries.

“In the summer of 1946, a salesman found his way out to the Maddox place.  Lord only knows how or why he thought he could sell something to the town recluse.  Didn’t matter, since he never got the chance.  No sooner did he get out of his car and set foot on the porch, than Marion comes out the front door with a pistol in her hands.  A damned flintlock, if some stories are to be believed.  She yells at him, throws curse words at him.  No one knows for sure what was said.  He gets back to his car and throws himself inside, but she gets a shot off at him anyway.

“The bloody pistol explodes in her hand.  She lost the hand, and flying bits of the gun mangled her face.  She was blinded instantly, and died before the doctor could be fetched, right there on the porch.”

“Well, that’s an unpleasant ending.”

“I never said it was over,” Sir William says.  “Poor Brantley comes home to a dead wife and an empty house.  He does manage to retire on her inheritance, and not a year passes before he’s living there with a sixteen-year-old Chinese girl named Opal.”

“So that’s who she was…” I don’t meant to say that out loud.

William doesn’t pause.  “This particular girl had a bad time in that house.  From what I hear, she hated it here, hated the house, hated the weather, and, after a while, hated Brantley as well.  They say she came into town to do the shopping dressed to the nines in traditional Chinese clothes, and she was bitter as nails to everyone she met.  She barely spoke any English, and made no effort to learn.  Poor Brantley; some guys have no luck with wives.  Opal died in 1950.  Choked to death on a sunflower seed, on the porch, I’m told.”

“Note to self:  stay off the porch.”

“Here’s the funny thing; folks I’ve talked to swear up and down that old Brantley found himself another young girl not long after Opal was buried.  But when he moved out of that house in ’55, he was traveling alone.  Girl just up and disappeared.  No one even knew her name.”

There’s an engine in front of the house, a wheezy Chevy big-block from the sound of it; Dr. Zheng has arrived.  I go outside to meet him and get there as he climbs out the passenger side of a rusty red and white Chevy tow truck.   He’s barely polite.  It hadn’t occurred to me that he would be, but he’s actually really pissed off.  “What the hell is the matter with you?” he hisses.

“Hardly professional,” I chide.

“Take this,” he snaps, holding out a little pill cup.  I keep making fun of him for using them, but he insists.

I take it from him, but don’t put it in my mouth.  It just means more pink clouds, and maybe I’m not in the mood.  I want to stay with Sir William for a while.  Dr. Zheng is staring at me, waiting.  I hold up the pill between two fingers and say, “Prostognockis!”, quoting the first Three Stooges doctor scene that pops to mind.  He keeps staring.  “Cotton!” I try, getting an equally blank look.  “You remember, don’t you?  You’re old enough for the Three Stooges.  They’re tree surgeons, and they get mistaken for real surgeons.  But of course, it pays well, so they take the job anyway, and make a huge mess of things.  You don’t remember that one?” 

He just keeps staring sternly, even though I’ve just told him exactly what’s on my mind.

“You make me sad,” I say.  I put the pill in my mouth and swallow it dry, and immediately wish I hadn’t.  Why did I do that?  It’s just going to make me loopy again, and I don’t want to be loopy.  “See you tomorrow,” I say, and sit back down on the stoop.  The pink clouds coalesce quickly, saving me from crushing grief which wasn’t all that crushing.  In fact, I was fine, wasn’t I?  No, not possible, I can’t be fine, Ren’s gone…I’m going to go talk to the goats, that’s what I’m going to do.  Swish-click.