She returned to bed and pulled the covers over her head until Eddie’s alarm woke him up an hour and a half later. She dressed in her new clothes while he showered and shaved, and was sitting on the edge of the bed ready to go when he emerged from the bedroom to see if she was up yet. Eddie grinned at her, then turned around to go and put a shirt on. They drove to pick up the cars in silence, and then Nikki trailed him to San Jose.
The first thing she said to Eddie that day was, “Did you actually hire a film crew?”
“Absolutely,” he said. Eddie had arranged to meet them in the parking lot of a bank near Prodigy’s house because it was easier than giving them directions to find the house itself. They were waiting for the film crew when Nikki asked her question. Everything was closed; it was ten to seven on a Saturday morning. The hotel’s continental breakfast hadn’t been set up yet when they left, so Nikki smoked one of Eddie’s cigarettes instead. It didn’t fill her up, but it gave her mouth something to do. She was awake and alert, but annoyingly hungry. The back of her neck was cold, too; her new haircut was short in the back.
“That’s pretty expensive, isn’t it?”
“You wouldn’t believe the expense accounts I get access to, Poppet.”
“Don’t call me that.” She was getting sick of telling him this.
He laughed. “Can I have a hit off that cigarette?”
“Finish it.” She gave it to him. “So who does this guy work for, anyway?”
“The man whose house I’m breaking into. Don Watson. Prodigy.”
“Does it really matter who he works for?” Eddie asked.
That irritated her, but she let it go. “Whatever,” she said. “I don’t care.”
Eddie looked at her for a long second. “You look good,” he said, of her new clothes and haircut. “Very grown up.”
He thought it would mollify her, but it only made her more angry. “I am grown up,” she muttered, taking a step away from him.
Before he could reply, the film crew pulled up, in a clean black van.
“Hey! How’re you guys doing?” the cameraman said. He handed Eddie coffee and a box of donuts. Eddie handed them right to Nikki, then introduced them. Her name for the day was Kerry Christian. Eddie had made it up on the drive from San Francisco to San Jose.
The film crew consisted of Dale, Jason, and Yoav, interchangeable twentysomething guys in worn jeans and earth-toned T-shirts. Nikki said hello through a mouthful of raspberry-filled donut and got smiles in reply. Jason was ostensibly the one in charge; he had the paperwork, and he asked most of the questions. He had also brought the donuts, which made him Nikki’s favorite person for the morning.
“What’s the plan?” Jason asked.
“We’re going to meet Mr. Watson at his house at eight-thirty. We’ll do a quick walkaround of the new car there, and then he’s going to take a drive. We’ve laid out a route for him. It should take about an hour. I’ll have your camera and sound guys go with him, to record his comments.”
“You’re not going along?”
“No, we actually get our best responses when there’s no factory rep sitting there.” Eddie said, inventing the excuse off the top of his head. “We just need straight tape. We’ll edit it–if we have to–later. This is just for the engineers back in Germany. We should be done in time for lunch.”
Jason nodded approval, clearly glad they weren’t going to lose an entire Saturday, and they headed for Prodigy’s house.
Because Nikki was going to be doing the breaking and entering, she stayed out of the way when they arrived. It was better for Dale, Jason, and Yoav to barely notice her.
Don “Prodigy” Watson and family lived in a pricey part of town; wide streets, wide yards, modern houses that looked nothing like one another. Every house seemed to have a cluster of bushes with huge leaves separating it from the next. Every other house had a circular driveway laid with fieldstone. The lawns were mown short, like Marine haircuts. When they found the address, Nikki parked the BMW, opened her window, and heard the familiar sprinkler-punctuated silence of an upper-class neighborhood on a Saturday morning. Shit, it had been a long time since she’d been in a place like this…and she still didn’t like it.
Prodigy was on the porch, dressed in a burgundy and yellow running ensemble. Nikki couldn’t see what college it was from. He was reading through the paper without a great deal of interest, and he looked up and smiled when he saw the “test car” with Eddie at the wheel, the BMW behind it, and the van. Eddie got out to greet the man, and introduced him to the film crew. Nikki stayed near the BMW and pretended to fuss with Eddie’s laptop. She figured Prodigy would assume she was Eddie’s secretary. She was right; after looking her up and down once he ignored her completely. Soon the “test car” left with Prodigy and two of the film guys in it. Jason had stayed behind to wait with Eddie. Nikki let them chat for a few minutes, following Eddie’s instructions, and then she switched on a pager he had modified for the occasion. All it knew how to do anymore was call Eddie’s cellphone, which it did. Nikki smiled to herself, watching Eddie fake a conversation with a dead line, and then he excused himself from Jason and came over to the car.
She closed the laptop as he approached. “Worked all right?”
“Absolutely beautiful,” he said. “Now you have to go to the hotel and pick up a fax.”
That was the ruse under which Nikki was going to disappear for an hour or so. If all went well, she’d return before Prodigy got back, with only Jason aware that she’d done anything other than sit there. “How much time?”
“Forty minutes. The drive route takes sixty and the wife and kid aren’t home. They went to an antique show. Should be out of pocket till at least noon.” He gave her another pager. “I’ll buzz you if there’s trouble.”
She checked to make sure the pager was on and in its soundless mode, then looked past Eddie at Jason. “Do they have a dog?”
“You’re completely clear on pets, Poppet.”
Nikki glared at him. “I told you not to call me that.”
“Your cheeks flush when you get angry. It’s sexy,” he said, and returned to talk to Jason again.
She could almost hear the clock ticking. Nikki counted the houses as she drove to the end of the block, then left the neighborhood and parked the car in a drugstore parking lot. The stupid shoes Eddie had gotten for her to wear were expensive, but would be useless on the grass, so she took them off and left them in the car. Entering the subdivision from the other side of the block, she crossed backyards until she was at Prodigy’s house.
Lucky her–there weren’t any barking dogs to speak of. She made it to Prodigy’s back porch without any eyes. So far, so good. A deck complete with Jacuzzi dominated the back of the house, but she didn’t try the sliding glass door. There was a back door into the garage. Much easier to open; Nikki let herself in that way.
It was strange, breaking into someone’s house. Walking around in a place she knew she wasn’t supposed to be was a peculiar sensation. The silence was hyper-real, as if the house was holding its breath in apprehension at her presence. At the same time, each and every tiny sound was magnified; the buzzing of an electric clock, the click of a thermostat, the bubbling of a fish tank. She could hear all of these things as she entered the house through the laundry room, as if her hearing had suddenly become superhuman. The nervousness sent a thrill of adrenaline through her that was equal parts nerve-wracking and pleasant. She supposed she felt alive, if such a cliché made any sense.
The house was a split-level; the furniture and decor was expensive and meticulously arranged. She didn’t have time to appreciate or deride it, so there was no point in pausing to take any of it in. She noted only that nothing looked like it was more than a year old.
Nikki guessed that the computer was going to be in the lower level and went down there first. Luck seemed to be on her side. The first room she looked into contained an imposing workstation perched on a desk of delicate wood angles. The whole office was straight out of a Crate & Barrel catalog.
The screen saver swam with brightly colored tropical fish on a green background. Nikki touched the mouse and it disappeared. There was no password. Eddie had guessed that they’d catch Prodigy with his defenses down if they went directly to his home, and here she was, inside his computer without a keystroke. In a way it annoyed her that Eddie was right; she didn’t like seeing his cocksure attitude justified.
Eddie had supplied her with an optical drive and a floppy disk. He’d spent half of the day before drilling its operation into her, but it was three times easier than he made it sound. Eddie already knew exactly what kind of computer Prodigy had, and had told Nikki which port to look for. The drive plugged in as if it belonged there. The disk went into the drive; it contained a program that copied everything on the computer onto the optical drive. Getting the disk started was as easy as turning it on; the system booted from the disk. Even Nikki understood it. She got it set up and let it go about its merry little electronic business. With about ten minutes to kill while the disk and drive read, copied, and compressed, she looked around the desk. There were single sheets of paper and dozens of Post-It notes scattered about, evidence of a mover and shaker at work. Underneath the scraps of paper, it was neatly organized and very impersonal. Prodigy had no pictures of his family on the desk or on the walls. The only things on the wall were pricey prints of Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe paintings she half-recognized. She didn’t particularly like any of them. She kept looking for family pictures. She didn’t know why she had gotten a bee up her ass to find some. It didn’t make sense to her that there weren’t any.
Suddenly, the pager Eddie had given her went off. The sudden vibration at her hip made her jump. Nikki hit the button and looked at the display: 911 911 911. Eddie was telling her to get out of the house.
She swore under her breath and glanced at the screen. The optical drive wasn’t finished yet. Three more minutes. Nikki looked for ways out. To get out the back door, she’d have to cross the living room and go through the kitchen, an avenue that would probably be out of the question long before the drive had finished copying. The thought of just yanking the cables, leaving the job half-finished, and walking out didn’t cross her mind for another forty-eight hours or so, during one of her many mental replays of the events that followed.
She never thought of aborting the job, though she was supposed to kill Eddie anyway. Her performance was irrelevant. Furthermore, if they had to marshal their skills and try again, she would be away from Taiisha longer. She should have just given up and bolted before she got caught. In all honesty, Taiisha wasn’t on her mind, though. Nikki wanted to do a good job for Eddie. She didn’t want him to be disappointed.
And he was going to be plenty disappointed if these people caught her in their house. The adrenaline thrill swelled fiercely and suddenly, organic electricity making her heart rate soar and her knees shake. She listened carefully to the silent noise permeating the house and discerned a new sound; a car, pulling into the garage. The back door that she had entered through was in the laundry room, which was basically a short hallway leading to the garage. If the drive finished right now she could yank it out and run out the front door…and right into a big mess, with Jason out there.
It was a moot point. The drive wasn’t finished. Nikki stepped out of the computer room, and she could hear keys in the lock of the door that led into the house from the garage. There was a windowless half-bath across the hall from the computer room, and she ducked into it. The darkness swallowed her like a velvet cloak.
From the sound of it, Prodigy’s wife and kid had come home early. The kid sounded about her age, maybe slightly younger. High school. They were chatting about the antique show being next weekend. They’d had the date wrong.
Nikki’s breaths were shallow, noiseless gasps. If she could have stopped her heart to silence the beating, she would have. She heard Mom cross the kitchen and go upstairs, her footsteps thumping up and past Nikki’s head. The son stayed in the kitchen. Cabinets opened and closed, then a drawer, followed by the toneless sounds of shuffled flatware.
They were both busy for the moment; she slipped back into the computer room. The drive was 87% copied, according to the counter. She wanted to scream. It took an effort to move quietly back into the bathroom; Nikki was ready to run, heedless of the noise she’d make. She could run right up the steps and out the door before anyone knew what had happened.
No, there was a better way. She turned on the bathroom light and pushed the door to. If they found her there, she’d tell them that she had needed to use the bathroom and good old Dad had let her in before taking his test drive. It was weak, hysterically weak, but it was an excuse. She’d stick to it until a better one came along.
The last thirteen- percent of the copy had to be completed. She listened, heard no one moving toward the steps to come downstairs, and stuck her head out so she could peek into the computer room again. The status bar wasn’t solid yet. Nikki hissed through her teeth and slipped back into the bathroom.
Just in time, too; the son was coming downstairs. If he set himself up in front of the television, she wouldn’t be able to get out of the house without being seen at all. If he came into the bathroom, her options got even slimmer.
Then he did something even worse. He came down humming a radio-friendly tune, and he went into the computer room. The humming stopped. He said, “Aw, man, what the hell?” He came back out into the hall. “Mom, do you know if Dad’s doing a backup or something? I was going to play Quake,” he called upstairs. Nikki heard a faint response from Mom; Nothing, that I know of. She sounded like she was in a closet upstairs. The kid went back to the computer. “There’s an optical drive on his desk. It’s loading files.”
Footsteps from upstairs; Mom knew it wasn’t right. Why couldn’t this be a family that didn’t give a shit what Dad was doing at work?
Nikki watched the ceiling above her head, tracking the mother’s footsteps as she answered her son’s call. The job was already screwed up and there was no getting out of that. It might as well be a screwed up success instead of a screwed up failure.
Mom’s footsteps hit the landing, almost directly above the bathroom. At the same time, Nikki ran out of the bathroom. No more sneaking about: she ran, straight into the computer room. The son was standing there, about five-ten and skinny inside his Smashing Pumpkins tee shirt. He turned halfway around and started to say something and she ran into him, bringing her shoulder up into his sternum in a violent body blow. He was already off-balance; Nikki knocked him backward off his feet and he fell next to the desk, taking a floor lamp and one of the shelves off of the wall with him. Her eyes flicked to the computer screen as she grabbed the optical drive. The copy was complete. Nikki punched Eddie’s disk out of the drive with one hand and yanked the cables loose with the other. She tucked the drive under her arm. Son was on the floor, gasping, trying to take a big enough breath to call out to Mom.
“Ethan, are you okay?” she called. “What hap–” Nikki rushed out of the computer room and nearly ran into her. Mom caught one look at her and screamed, “Who in God’s name…?” and Nikki ducked her head to throw herself into the woman. Mom turned and ran away from her, instead. She ran to the stairs, tripped on the second one, and fell. As she tumbled back down she covered her head, crying, “Please, no, don’t kill us!”
Nikki ignored the wailing and jumped over her. She tripped, almost fell down the steps herself, but regained her footing and kept running. Behind her, the cries from downstairs continued. Nikki took several steps toward the front door, then stopped. Not that way. Jason was standing right there, and Prodigy’s family would likely be hot on her heels to tell them all what she’d been up to; she’d implicate Eddie as well. Not a good way to end the job.
Nikki turned to run out the back door just as the son ran up the stairs after her. He shouted, “Freeze right there!” but he wasn’t holding any kind of a weapon. His voice was still wheezy from getting hit in the chest. He grabbed Nikki’s shoulder as she ran past. She didn’t think, just attacked. She reached across, seized the hand clutching at her left shoulder with her right, and pulled it forward and down. As he came forward, she drove her left elbow into his ribs, rotating her shoulders so the blow had her body weight behind it. She kept the motion going and spun partway around him, driving a vicious right into his kidneys that made his spine straighten involuntarily and left his throat open to her slashing left forearm. Nikki swept his feet as she hit him in the neck and the impact flung him horizontal, dropping him onto his back. He gagged, choking on blood. He probably wasn’t even sure what had happened, or why he was on the floor just right now, and that left him defenseless so she could…Nikki stopped herself short of killing him. She’d done too much already. Fuck, the kid had just been trying to defend his house! She hesitated, part of her wanting to help him, then bolted.
Nikki slammed the back door open and crossed the yard at a full run, getting out of sight as quickly as possible. By now, mother would have run outside to get Eddie and Jason.
Nikki ran silently through the empty backyards, again encountering no one. Her hose was shredded by the concrete when she returned to the BMW. She liked it better that way anyway. Nikki sat behind the wheel for a few seconds to calm down, drumming her fingers on the leather and closing her eyes. She hadn’t killed the kid. She had almost done it though, and that was upsetting. It shouldn’t have been; she’d done it before. Nikki forced all of the thoughts of blood and violence out of her mind and drove back to San Francisco.