Thirty-five

I cleaned up the sugar before Eddie came down for breakfast at seven-thirty.  He was fully shaved and dressed.  A subtle draw to his face was the only evidence that he wasn’t a doctor who rose with the sun every day.

“‘Morning,” he said when he saw me.  “Is there coffee?”

“Not made,” I said.

Eddie looked at the afghan.  “I figured I’d stay in character for a couple of days, at least.”

“Shh.  Walls have ears,” I said.  Eddie pantomimed sleep and pointed upstairs.  “That’s what Zheng said yesterday, and she wasn’t,” I told him, and he nodded.

“S’okay.  I don’t think the masks matter too much.”

“No, she doesn’t care.” I didn’t really want to talk about Lexi.  “It snowed.”

He had found the coffee and ran water into the pot.  “So I see.  We’re here to stay now.  What do you think that is, two feet? Two and a half?”

Eddie was right.  The snow would have been waist-deep if I went out there.  “I’ve never seen that much snow fall so fast.”

“Welcome to northern Michigan.  You want some breakfast?”

“Are you going to make it?”

“Sure, I will.” He smiled indulgently and began rolling his sleeves up.  “Will you be having the omelet or my famous Belgian waffle?”

His cheerful tone was condescending, and it annoyed me.  “Magnanimous fuck-slut bastard,” I said, turning to look out the window.

“I heard that.”

“You were meant to.”

“What, you don’t think I can cook?”

“No, I’m sure you can,” I said.  “I just can’t imagine who you’d cook for.  It’s not like you ever eat.  So I doubt your food’s famous.”

“Well, it’s true there is a shortage of female companionship in my life right now,” Eddie said.

“You don’t say? I can’t see why that is.”  Sarcasm splattered the walls and ceiling.

“Ehh, women are crazy.  Don’t know a good guy when they find one.”

“You’d be surprised.”

He laughed.  “Yeah, you’ve stuck around longer than most of my girlfriends have.  Should I be reading something into that?” I turned my eyes back into the kitchen and looked at him.  I was just in time to catch him looking away.  He spoke before I could.  “Don’t worry, I’m just kidding around.  Far as I’m concerned ours is strictly a professional relationship.”

The most awful upside-down thing about his words was the tiny spike of disappointment I felt when he spoke them.  I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in Eddie, but it still hurt to hear that the feeling was mutual.  I didn’t want to be in the kitchen anymore, so I got up to go upstairs and get dressed.

In what passed for daylight this day, I could see the full contents of my room; bed, nightstand, chair, armoire, and an army of boxes.  Everything looked dusty and gray, a tribute to the light as much as to its actual condition.  Opening the drape didn’t do much good, but the room became colder almost instantly.  I closed it.  In my bag I found my only reasonably thick skirt to wear and a University of Michigan sweatshirt that didn’t quite match it.  I doubted anyone was going to care.  It was too cold to care.  The house was about sixty-five degrees and I was freezing.  I had no warmer clothes at all.  My only sweater had been irrevocably torn during one of Taiisha’s training attacks.  When Eddie and I had stopped in Denver I had visited a Salvation Army, and had found the warm skirt, but nothing but infant-sized sweaters.

When I got back to the kitchen Eddie had scrambled eggs on the table for me.  He was reading a document on loose sheets of paper while he ate.  He looked at me, expecting some sarcastic remark, but I didn’t give it to him.  I just said “Thank you,” and poured myself some orange juice.

“That comes from a recipe passed down to me by my Grandma Sharp.  It contains a secret combination of spices that she brought over from Poland, and passed on to my mother who gave it to me.”

He was overselling it, which made me nervous.  I tried it, a little suspiciously.  They were fine.  “This is pepper and seasoned salt, you charlatan,” I said.

Eddie laughed.  “But it’s good, isn’t it?” I nodded.  “It doesn’t have to be exotic, you just have to sell it like it is.” He shuffled through his papers and looked at me over them.

“It would help if I believed you, too.”

“Aw, that’s just because you know me.  I bet if I gave Lexi that same story she’d believe it.”  He thought about it a moment.  “Okay, maybe she’s a bad example.  Fruitcakes will believe anything.”

I wasn’t sure how to feel about Lexi, but I didn’t like Eddie making fun of her like that.  He sounded like he was talking about a rock.  “She’s not a fruitcake,” I said.  “It’s the drugs she’s on.”

“Like I said, fruitcake.  I don’t give a damn.  As long as she’s not running amok I don’t care what drugs Ian and the good doctor want to whack her up on.  And if it gives her an excuse to lie around starving herself, so much the better.”

“That’s so unfair.  Eddie, did you ever ask yourself if anyone got hurt by what you were doing? I mean, did you ever ask yourself if it was right? I beat the shit out of a fifteen-year-old kid back in San Francisco.  Do you really think that was a good thing?”

Eddie looked at me like I was an idiot.  “You mean Ethan Watson?  Actually, he was seventeen.  What’s your problem?”

“There’s something here I can’t believe in, that’s all.”

“People bring things on themselves,” he said.  “Through choices of lifestyle, choices of career, choices of action.  Nobody is an innocent victim.”

“Did you ever care about anyone besides yourself?” I knew it was a nasty thing to say, but I said it anyway.  It bothered me that he didn’t give a shit if Lexi was getting better or not.  It bothered me that all he really wanted was to stay in her house for a while, get paid, and then go on to the next potentially terrible thing that was e-mailed to him.  It bothered me that I couldn’t help thinking that in my own way I was the same only far, far worse.

“Care about someone else?  Now why would I go and do a thing like that?” He glanced at me one last time over his papers, then went back to reading.

It was all I could do not to throw my glass at him.  “Asshole,” I snapped, and got up from the table.

“I never claimed to be anything other than polished filth,” I heard Eddie say as I left the kitchen, and I tossed a “fuck you” over my shoulder.  He could have breakfast with that.

I walked through Lexi’s ballroom, to get a look at it in the daylight.  Very little of the subtle light cast by the snow-heavy clouds made it through the tall, dusty windows.  The floor creaked, and the big empty space echoed it back at me slightly.  The ballroom was big enough to be a good-sized apartment by itself.  The ceiling was like that of the kitchen; cracked paint and handsome carved moldings.  There was an intricate pattern in the wood floor, but the tiles were water-damaged and coming up in the corners.  They rested in little piles and there were a few of them scattered about.  Maybe the cats had been playing with them.

The sound of snowmobiles scared me half to death.

Oh, shit! I thought as soon as I heard the buzz-saw wailing outside, and remembered the men in Denver who had killed me.  They had to be working for someone, and now they had caught up again.  I bolted upstairs to my room and grabbed my bag, so my sword would be close.  The snowmobiles were close, at the porch already, two maybe three of them.

I made it back to the stairs, ran down to the first landing.  They hadn’t knocked, but Lexi was already at the door.  Eddie was right behind her.

I was about to scream at them, to tell Lexi not to open the door, but it was too late.  She had it open and was standing there in the cold air blasting in from outside (although she was dressed today, thankfully) and she called out, “Good morning!”

A voice from outside answered, and soon there was a man dressed head to toe in puffy red and blue vinyl in the doorway.  He was struggling with a Lands End box, and dropped it on the porch with a sigh of relief.  “Miss Crane?” he asked.  “I’m Mike.  Mike Kelly, from down in town.  We were at old Will Sterling’s place, checking up on him, and he said we ought to come up here as well.”

“How is Sir William?” Lexi asked, smiling back and stepping aside.  “You should all come in for hot chocolate,” she said.  “Or coffee, or tea, or milk.  Whatever.”

“Much obliged,” Mike Kelly said, “but we’ve got a ways to go yet today–lots of people to check on.  You got heat, and food?”

Lexi nodded eagerly.  “We are so peachy we’ve got fuzz in here,” she said.  Eddie stepped forward and introduced himself as well, then eased out onto the cold porch to say hello to the other snowmobilers.  How he could stand being out there with no coat, I didn’t know.  Maybe it was his layer of protective blubber.

Mike Kelly stayed at the door.  “We’ll take that hot chocolate another time, though.  Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you, with this place.”

I sat on the steps, just out of sight of the man in the doorway.  I looked at my hands, not looking for anything in particular, and listened to Lexi chat with her neighbor.  I thought about Taiisha’s threat to kill everyone I met until Eddie was dead, and wondered if the woman would take the time to track down every one of Lexi’s neighbors and kill them, since I had now come into contact with them.  It was very, very possible that she would.  There might be no one left in northern Michigan by the time this was over if I didn’t do something soon.

Presently Eddie came back inside.  Mike Kelly indicated the box he’d brought with.  “This is for you, I guess.  Stan–the UPS guy–got stuck in the snow coming out of Frankfort, so a bunch of us rounded up the stuff he had to deliver it for him.”  He grinned.  “Ain’t UPS regulations, but there you go.  It’s for someone named Kerry Christian, care of you.”

I looked up; Kerry Christian was an alias that Eddie had used for me at the hotel in Denver.  Lexi was thanking Mike Kelly and dragging the box into the house.  Eddie had gone into the library, and was headed toward the back of the house from there judging by the groaning of the floors.  Apparently the box was my problem.

“But what’s in the box?” Lexi asked after she’d seen her neighbors off.  The sound of snowmobiles retreated into the woods, and only then did I come down to the foyer, to investigate the box.  “Nothing!  Absolutely nothing!”  Lexi chirped.  I split the tape with my thumbnail and opened the box. 

It contained a wonderful, puffy dark green down-filled coat, three heavy gray wool sweaters, three pairs of long underwear, a pair of real jeans, three pairs of winter socks, a pair of thick black fleece mittens, and a matching scarf and hat.  There was also a four hundred-dollar invoice with a third name on it.  I recognized the name: Andrew Mallor, one of several Eddie had credit cards under.  “It’s not nothing,” I whispered.  I wasn’t going to freeze to death after all.

“I love snow!” Lexi exclaimed from the doorway.  She had opened it and gone back out.  She was standing out on the porch, watching the snow fall.  The air blasting through the open door was bitterly cold.  Lexi stretched her hands up to the clumps of snow drifting relentlessly from the sky.  “Now, class, the first thing you’ll notice about Cool Whip is that it’s actually rather cold,” she said.  “This is normal.  You know, my best friend is Molly Snow,” she added.  “I think that’s…a coincidence.”

I was still too dumbfounded by Eddie’s gift of warm clothes to answer.  I wondered if he was trying to remind me that he was paying attention, even when I didn’t think he was.

Thirty-five

Glen was reasonably sure he’d done the right thing.  He had seen deep, deep insanity in Lexi’s eyes, the sort of temporary insanity that might get one acquitted of murder charges, and was thus content not to have been in the Town Car with her when she drove it away.  Somewhere, something bad was likely happening, and while the reporter in him wanted to be there to see it, Glen’s inner engineer was happy to observe this particular psychological failure mode from a safe distance.

Of course, this also meant that when she rammed her car through the door of the warehouse and drove off, he was somewhat stuck here.  The second vehicle that had pulled up outside drove off in pursuit before Glen could signal them. 

It was likely to be at least a mile walk to a pay phone, so he settled himself down in the storage area’s little office, which was thankfully heated and protected from the cold that was now sweeping gleefully in through the broken door. 

The office was cheerfully drab, with a pair of folding chairs next to a scarred cafeteria table, an unplugged Coke machine and a Steelcase desk that dated to the Fifties.  The walls were decorated only with taped-up notices about shutting off the lights properly and generic accident-safety posters.  Glen sat on the Steelcase desk, dropped his bag next to him, and drummed his knuckles rhythmically, looking at nothing.

Oh, well, might as well do something constructive with the time, since there was no telling how long he might be here.  Hopefully if Lexi got arrested, she’d remember to send someone for him.  Otherwise, it was going to be a long walk out to the road, and likely a long wait for a car to pass.  It was about two miles’ walk into Frankfort, which was big enough that he could be assured of finding a phone and civilization, but he hadn’t really worn the right shoes for traipsing around in twenty inches of snow, and his feet would freeze.  Best to wait a few hours.  If Lexi hadn’t returned by two or three, then he’d set out walking so he could get to town before it got dark.

He had half an interview, anyhow.  Glen opened his bag to get a legal pad out.  He had left the laptop in his car, but he never went anywhere without some means of note-taking.  As he pulled the pad out, a large manila envelope sighed to the floor.

Frowning, Glen hopped off the desk to pick it up.  There shouldn’t have been anything in the bag except his camera, the notepad, a book he was reading and a few copies of Late Apex that he carried to hand out.  He’d have certainly remembered an envelope.  Tearing it open, he found a sheet of glossy paper, torn out of a magazine, a newspaper clipping and a sheet of copier paper.  He recognized the magazine page momentarily as one of the acknowledgements pages from the booklet that had been handed out at the auction of Lexi’s cars–one of which Lexi herself had just found a few minutes ago, in fact.  It had been torn roughly out, and a name had been highlighted:  David R. Frederick.  Glen frowned at it, turned it over to see if anything was written on the back, then set it aside.

The photocopy was of a police report.  A brand-new Subaru wagon had been found in Toledo, burned.  Tennessee license plates.  Registered to Albert Jaxon…Lord, that was Molly’s friend, the one who’d disappeared.  His car had turned up, and its condition didn’t bode well for its owner.  The police report said nothing of any search for Ajax; it was just a routine bit of impound-yard paperwork.

The news clipping was a brief biography of Bobby Silver, a Canadian expat living in the Detroit area (with a vacation home in the Keys, of course), acquitted of smuggling charges.  According to the article, the FBI suspected Silver of bringing weapons into the United States, but lacked sufficient evidence to indict.  

“Dammit, Langdon,” Glen said, knowing that the envelope full of mysteries had to be the shadowy man’s doing.  “I’m a car writer, not an investigative journalist.”