Thirteen (Taiisha)

Taiisha found herself at once pleased and annoyed with Nikki, because she hadn’t finished Edward, as she was supposed to.  In fact they’d left San Francisco together in a big silver car and driven off across the country like newlyweds.  It wasn’t all bad, though; in staying with him, Nikki had the opportunity to learn more from him.  Edward had a useful way of dealing with the world; it was good for Nikki to learn that.  It was a good enough rationalization for now.

She had no doubt that Nikki would eventually do as she’d been told.  The punishment she’d gotten in San Francisco had been harsh.  Taiisha chose to allow the girl the luxury of dawdling, for now.  Taiisha went off in her own direction to run some errands.  She went to the same car dealer that Eddie had, and bought a car for herself, trading her seventeen-year old Thunderbird for a new black Lincoln coupe.  The cool blue dash lighting and leather interior amused her, and she liked it.  Time allowed her the luxury of some networking, as it were, so she stopped in Reno, put on a friendly face, and asked questions at the casinos until she found Antonio Seago at Circus Circus.

Taiisha didn’t like Antonio, but he was a useful connection.  Antonio prided himself on being able to solicit her services for a variety of employers, when in fact he was little more than a go-between.  He was by no means the only go-between she used, just as she wasn’t the only hunter-killer he found jobs for.  Their relationship was mutually indifferent.

Antonio spent the majority of his time prowling the casinos (in Taiisha’s opinion, for lack of more productive pastimes).  She found him at Circus Circus, lunching in one of the restaurants with an idiot girl on one shoulder.  He looked as though he’d been awake for a day or two, which was about as fresh as his pockmarked, prematurely weathered face ever looked.  The graying waves of his shoulder-length hair were yellow with grease at the ends, and his suit was a few hours off.  The girl with him looked freshly primped.  That was the last bit of attention Taiisha paid to her.

“Taiisha,” Antonio said when he saw her approaching.  He stood and pulled out a chair for her.  She feigned mild pleasure at the action, as she did at much of his fawning over her.  “You know, I got nothing for you, babe,” he said as she sat.  “Nothing domestic, anyway.  Wanna go to Libya?”

“I’m not here for a new game,” she said.  She spoke without any of the fake accents or inflections she frequently used.  Taiisha liked her voice, and the way she spoke.  It was as striking yet nondescript as her face.  If she were to address a group of people, they’d disagree for hours as to where her accent was from, or if she even had one.

“No?”  Antonio didn’t like Taiisha any more than she cared for him.  He pretended he liked her as much as anybody, because she scared the shit out of him.  She was good at what she did–which was to track and kill people, anywhere in the world, for any reason that suited her–but she was scary even for a professional killer.  The other hunters Antonio worked with, he could have a conversation with them, nothing about business, but just talking.  Maybe it meant they were sociopaths or something, but he didn’t care.  Taiisha was something else entirely.  He couldn’t say shit to her.  She didn’t discourage conversation directly, but he got the sense that she was constantly waiting for him to say some specific thing, and he didn’t know what would happen when he said it.  Maybe she’d kill him.  She looked like she wanted to, a lot.  Every so often, when he talked, she’d tilt her head just so, or purse her lips, and he’d think that he had just said whatever it was she was waiting for.  It creeped him the hell out.  He was already losing his appetite, with her sitting here.  Antonio tried glancing at Tammy, but even a coked-up showgirl wasn’t enough of a distraction from the woman in gray sitting across from them, waiting for him to say something.  “What is it then? You look all business.”

“Other business, that.” Taiisha said, thinking of Nikki.

She smiled a secretive smile, indicative of some inside joke that she wasn’t going to tell him.  Antonio let it go, not having much other choice.  “You want some dinner?”

She sneered slightly at the offer of roasted chicken.  “No.” She enjoyed Antonio’s free-floating discomfort.  She knew he was afraid of her.  It kept him from playing any games.

Antonio took a few furtive bites of food that he didn’t really taste and glanced at his date again.  “So, um, how did that troubleshooter you wanted work out?  Eddie Sharp.  You asked for him, remember?”

“Worked out,” she said.  “All finished now.” She had used Antonio to locate Edward for her, prior to sending Nikki that way.

“Huh.  I just had him on the phone like an hour ago.  He’s a good guy, isn’t he?”  No answer, just those sunglasses and that goddamn stoneface.  Antonio was so nervous he started talking again with a mouth full of mashed potatoes.  “So, do you know anything about what I hear he got into?  The Ile du Soleil treasure?  That what you were up to?”

“Not nice to pry,” Taiisha said.  “Although that wasn’t my game.”

Antonio nodded, relieved that she was finally speaking in something close to full sentences, at least.  “I didn’t think it was, you know, your style.  I just remembered you asking about him, right before this came up.” He ran a hand through his hair; gray curls shifted, found order, then fell back into disarray.  Taiisha met his gaze, waiting for him to continue and offering nothing.  “Well, it’s got the Ravens all wound up.  You know, the Ile du Soleil secret police–“

“Know who they are.”

“Yeah, they been lookin’ for whoever stole the recovered part of that treasure back in the Seventies, you know.  Been looking for the treasure longer than that.  If the damn thing exists.  I say, if it’s out there somebody woulda found it by now–“

“Tangent,” Taiisha said impatiently.  “The Ravens?”

“Huh.  Yeah.  You know how they are.  They know all the guys who are into the treasure, all the mystery and archaeology and mythology nuts.  They’ve researched all of ’em till they’re just about pets.  I guess Eddie stole some computer files from a guy who was one of those mythology guys.  But now they think Eddie has that stuff, and they don’t know him.  There’s been some ears out to find out why he stole all that information.  I don’t even think it’s what he was after, do you?”

Taiisha frowned at the pointless prying.  She briefly considered killing Antonio’s idiot girlfriend if he asked another question.  She could do it without anyone but Antonio noticing.  But talk of the global web of secret-trackers and hired muscle known as Ile du Soleil’s Ravens having interest gave her pause.  Taiisha had worked for the Ravens herself.  She didn’t want Nikki tagged by them for any reason.  Purging a record from the Ravens’ massive database was difficult, expensive work, and Nikki needed to remain a shadow.  Taiisha had gone to a lot of trouble already; she’d made a late-night trip to the hospital where the boy Nikki had attacked was convalescing, and found the mother there visiting as well.  It had taken minutes; son dead, mother vanished.  Perhaps they’d find her eventually.  Two birds, one stone, and no one left who had an inkling of Nikki’s abilities.

Taiisha also didn’t want Nikki’s kill stolen.  Whatever their interest, Taiisha doubted the Ravens had any interest in keeping Edward alive.  Troubleshooters–even good ones–were easy enough to find.

“Maybe I don’t want Edward squeezed,” she lied.  A pretense of interest would grease the wheels of the occasionally recalcitrant information machine that Antonio was.  “I rather liked him.  What’s their intent toward him?”

Antonio shrugged, glad for any tiny opening up from Taiisha that he could work with.  He was a people person when it came down to it.  He got to know people, learned what made them tick.  Only if they never goddamn said anything, it was kind of hard to do.  “I might know a guy you could talk to,” he said.  He didn’t.

“Find me one.  Don’t care about treasure nonsense.  I just want to know Edward’s fate.”

“Huh.  I’ll see if I can find anything out.”

“Do,” she said with a rare smile, and left him.

As soon as Taiisha was out of earshot, Antonio squeezed Tammy’s arm, speaking as much to himself as to her.  “That is one scary chick, eh babe?”

Tammy, whose name was actually Margie, nodded mutely, having only half-heard what Antonio had said.

Once finished with Antonio, Taiisha resumed following Nikki.  She trailed Nikki and Eddie to Denver.  She followed as she always had, using signs the girl left that Taiisha herself couldn’t even explain.  She’d been following Nikki for years, just by listening to some quiet inside voice that told her where the girl had gone, what exit she’d taken, what aisle of what store she’d been in, and she was always at the end of the trail.  Taiisha followed Nikki’s trail precisely, drifting through the stores and restrooms and out again.  She was almost a full day behind them.  She wasn’t in any particular hurry, and it amused her to go where Nikki had gone.

Once in Denver, Taiisha found the hotel Nikki and Edward were staying in.  They were in their room, likely for the night, so Taiisha sought a quick dinner.  She returned to find Nikki across the street in a laundromat.  Taiisha smiled to herself.  The girl was fastidious to a fault.  She looked content sorting her small pile of clothes.  When she finished loading the machine, she curled up in an uncomfortable-looking chair near the window.

Near the window!

In the dark!

Taiisha’s soft smile became a scowl.  The foolish girl’s guard was completely relaxed.  She needed to be waked up.