Thirty-nine

As soon as Eddie introduced himself to Taiisha (who was calling herself Gray) and Martin, I slipped out of the room to vanish.  I needed to get off my feet, and I didn’t want to be in the room with her.  It was bad enough being in the house with her.

I changed out of my wet clothes and found a quiet nest of shadows in the turret room at the back of the house.  The room was round, the windows blocked by snow-covered dead ivy, and the complex latticework of light and shadow made it an easy place to be invisible.  It was cold, because it was at the back of the house, but no one had a reason to go back there and I was happy.  There wasn’t any furniture in the room, only a few stray boxes.  I lay flat on the floor.  I needed to stretch out my back.  If I ignored it, I wouldn’t be able to stand up straight in an hour.  Shortly one of Lexi’s cats–Teague, I think it was–entered the room, sniffed me, and walked up on my belly.  He settled down as if I was a pillow.  Teague was a big cat, but the purring fur felt nice.

It took Eddie a while to find me.  When the conversation died down I heard him walking around, and guessed that he was looking for me.  When he entered the turret room, he scanned it once, started to leave, then saw me and stopped.  “They’re not going to be able to get a tow truck up here tonight,” Eddie said.

I felt gratified that he had even come to find me, even though he likely just needed something.  I didn’t move; I liked having Teague on my stomach.  “Figures,” I said.

He smiled.  “Doesn’t it though?  They’re exhausted.  Martin was driving all night, and his Italian girlfriend managed to hit her head on the bathroom door, so she went to nap with him.  Got a nasty mark on her forehead from that.  If she has a concussion and slips into a coma I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“I doubt that’ll happen.  Think they’re real?” I knew at least Taiisha wasn’t, but I wanted to know if Eddie could tell she was dangerous.

“I don’t see anything to make me pull a gun,” he said, “but my gut’s telling me I ought to be ready to.  Then again, I think I got an overactive instinct circuit.”

“What do you mean?”

He scratched his head.  “Nothin’.  Sometimes I get that gut feeling around you.  It’s nothing to do with you.  I’m just not used to working so close to someone.  Guess I forgot how.” He sat on the floor a respectful distance from me.  “You okay?”

“Yes.  My back just hurts.”

“Lying on the floor makes it feel better?”

“Yes.”

“After the crash, did you ever go to physical therapy?”

I turned my head to look at Eddie.  He had that worried look on his face.  “Of course I did.  I had my own chiropractor until I ran away.”

“Maybe we should find you another one.”

“I said I was fine.”

“I’m going to do something pretty embarrassing, here.” Eddie sighed.  “I just want to apologize right now, for past and present.”

“Why?”

“I know I can be a dickhead.  Usually people aren’t around me long enough to care one way or another.  Even my friends.  But I was just thinking about it, and I realized that I might be wearing you a little thin sometimes.  I wanted to apologize for that.  I don’t take you for granted, Nikki.”

“You want me to do something really humiliating, right? Is that where this is leading?”

He shook his head.  “No.  I won’t play bullshit games like that with you, because you won’t put up with them.  I’m being serious.  Some of the things we talked about earlier made me realize that I haven’t been treating you like a human being all the time.  And I promise, sometimes I’ll forget and be a dickhead to you in the future, too.  It’s the way I work.  Just do me a favor and remember that I do value you.  As a partner and a person.  Okay?”

His speech sounded practiced, but not fake.  I imagined Eddie going over it in his head, trying to find a way to speak to me the way I wanted to be spoken to, and I felt a little bit sick.  Eddie wouldn’t value me much if I told him the truth about our association, and his words were something I needed to hold on to.  Just for a while.  I nodded and didn’t say anything.

Eddie returned the nod.  “Well.  Okay, then.” He sounded a little bit embarrassed, like he had expected more of a reaction from me.  He didn’t say anything either.  The silence got a little bit uncomfortable. 

“So what’s in that Ile du Soleil documentary?” I asked finally.  “You watched it.”

“Good stuff.  This treasure’s a very wild, well-kept secret.”

“Did you find out what it was?”

“It’s all sorts of things.  The descendants of the Emmerlings ran the place until the late sixties, and then there was a military coup., when they ousted King Khorbin Emmerling.  Called himself a king, even though it wasn’t a monarchy.  You probably don’t remember him; I think he croaked in seventy-six, somewhere around there.  Died in exile.  He was one of those leaders that everyone either loved or hated.  The folks who loved him were loyal to a fault.  The ones who didn’t accused him of skinning his enemies alive, eating babies, all that kind of stuff.”

“The usual dictatorial bullshit,” I said.  “So he got overthrown.  I knew that.”

Eddie nodded.  “And when it became clear he was going to be overthrown, he hid everything.”

“Great, just like Hitler,” I said, gazing at the ceiling.

“The comparison has been made.  There are caches of treasure all over Ile du Soleil, according to the people the documentary talked to.  King Khorbin’s loyal subjects were instructed to hide stuff all over the place, and not to reveal its location.  The folks in charge there now would like nothing more than to find all of that stuff, of course.  It’s practically a religion with the Khorbin fanatics; the Lost Treasure of Our Leader, forever hidden from the eyes of the heretics.  And the heretics–these days the loudest anti-Khorbins are calling themselves a Green party, although I don’t think they know exactly what that’s supposed to mean–want to find the treasure, all of the Khorbin artifacts they can get their hands on, and they’d probably burn it in the public square, so to speak.  Can you believe Ile du Soleil’s considered a First World nation, with those kinds of whackjobs running around?  Anyway, ‘most everyone who would know for sure is dead or not talking.  They interviewed two or three guys, supposedly Khorbin loyalists who knew about treasure from hearsay, and you could tell that they were holding a lot back.”  He sat up a little straighter.  “If this show had aired, Ile du Soleil would’ve been inundated with treasure-seekers.”

It sounded halfway interesting.  The idea of going to Ile du Soleil appealed to me, too.  I had always wanted to travel.  “So we’re going on a treasure hunt?”

Eddie shook his head.  “Too much work, too little return, from what I can see.  Even if you managed to find some of that stuff–and the documentary didn’t have a map or anything–the government would claim it.  National treasures, all that.”

I was a little disappointed, but quashed it.  “Whether or not you want to go after it, Eddie, those men in Denver thought you were going to.  They probably still do.  Especially if they know you have that video.  It’s a loose end you ought to deal with.”

He dodged the subject.  “If they show up again, I’ll just tell them you’re the one hunting treasure.  After all, you broke into Prodigy’s house, not me.”

Instant rage flooded me.  The cat scrambled off of me as I sat up, as if it could feel the anger in me.  My back twitched in hurt and that just made me angrier.  Up on my knees, I was just a little bit taller than he was sitting down.  “If you do that to me, Eddie, I swear to God I’ll fucking hunt you down and kill you and watch you rot.”  That was it, that was the excuse I needed.  The feeling that I really would kill him if the right buttons were pushed exploded to the surface.  The hell with warning him about Taiisha, I’d cut off his head and leave it in her room.

I wasn’t aware that I was glaring at him the way I was until I saw the startled look on his face.  “Shit, Nikki.  I was just kidding,” Eddie said.  “Just a joke.  A bad one.  I forgot about Denver, I’m sorry.  I really wouldn’t do that to you.  I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

I closed my eyes and shook my head.  The anger was fading.  I didn’t want to kill him.

“Jeezus.  For a second you looked dead serious.  You ought to take one of Lexi’s pills to calm down. Give me a second to let my balls crawl back down, would you?”

“Tasteful image.”

Eddie laughed the tension away.  “No, Poppet, I was joking.  I wouldn’t throw you under the bus.  You have my loyalty and trust.  I hope I have yours.”

If only he knew…  I couldn’t think about that right now, so I put it out of my mind.  “Okay.  Lexi’s guests.  Business as usual for now?”

“With an eye toward anything that feels wrong, of course.”

“Don’t worry about that.”

Eddie got up and left; I lay back down and stayed there for a few minutes longer.  When I finally got up, my back was still sending a loud moan of pain through my system.  I needed to take a hot bath–and to keep my mouth shut this time.  First I looked in Eddie’s room, though.  A spark of jealousy went through me when I flipped the switch and the overhead light came on.  It was as neglected as my room but less ornate, with a dusty sleigh bed and an armoire in the corner.  The closet door stood open and I could see that Eddie had hung some of his clothes in there.  It still felt like a hotel room.  I wondered if Eddie actually called anyplace home.  I knew that I didn’t.  I wanted to, but I didn’t.

“Whatcha thinking about?” Lexi asked from behind me.  Malice was riding on her shoulder.

I jumped a little.  “You need a bell,” I said.

She smiled.  “I learned where all the creaks are so I don’t step on them,” she said.

“Are you going to fix this house up?” I asked her.

Lexi stuck her tongue out at me.  “It looked worse when I moved in,” she said.  She threw herself onto Eddie’s bed.  The cat rode about halfway, and jumped off to land next to her.  I’d never seen a cat tolerate so much unpredictability before.  Lexi bounced a few times, then lay down.  “It’s going to be a lovely place, when it’s done.  Room for cars, and treasures, and friends.  Of course you’ll come back to visit, won’t you?”

That took me off-guard.  “Why would you want me to come and visit you?”

“Because I like you, silly.”

“You don’t know me at all.”

“Well, that’s no reason not to like someone.  That’s like…like…well, I can’t think of what it’s like, there are still clouds around my thoughts.  Not a lot, but enough to keep me from thinking bad thoughts, you know.”

I remembered wishing for something to keep me from thinking of my family after they had died.  That made me smile a little bit.  “Yeah, I know.” Explaining myself further would have led her to think about exactly what she wished to forget, so I kept it to myself.  “Who lived in the house before it was abandoned?” I asked, to change the subject.

“Erm, that would have been Opal Foster.  She’s the end of a long story.  Well, not that long.”

“Did she…die here?”  My throat got tight, as if I’d stumbled across a secret.  I walked around to the foot of the bed.

Lexi looked over her knees at me with a morbid grin.  “She died on the porch.  She choked to death on sunflower seeds.  Grisly, innit?”

“You said the house was haunted.”

Lexi nodded.  “But not by Opal,” she added, sitting up.  “At least not only by her.  I have two or three ghosts.  Now follow me, and I’ll show you something.”

“What’s that?”

She put a finger to her lips in an unmistakable gesture.  “There’s no earthly way of knowing,” she sang in a quiet little voice.

I recognized the song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  “Which direction we are going…” I added.

With a sunshine smile, Lexi went past me, into the closet and pushed her way past Eddie’s clothes.  She knelt on the floor and pushed at the back wall of the closet.  A two-foot high section slid aside, revealing what looked like a secret cubbyhole.  Lexi crawled inside it and stood up.  I could only see her feet and legs.  “The danger must be growing,” she said, her voice muffled by the wall, “for the rowers keep on rowing.”  Then her feet disappeared too  I got on my hands and knees and looked into the hole.  I didn’t know why she was confiding in me all of a sudden.  It made me nervous.  After a short internal debate, I decided to trust Lexi, and followed her.

Thirty-nine

I turn off the flashlight.  There’s a fainter pop,  and a bullet zings out of the tunnel with a little scream.  After a second faint shot from the far end, I hear someone gasp in pain in the tunnel.  The crawling sounds begin again.  I take a few cautious steps forward on the uneven floor, so I’m behind the LaSalle, but there’s no light.

The crawling gets closer, and shortly someone tumbles out of the tunnel, short, high breaths echoing in the chamber.  It sounds like Nikki, not that I’ve ever heard her gasping.  She’s fetched up against the front of the car, and I know it’s her when she sighs and says, “Another fucking car.”

“It’s a LaSalle,” I say, and turn the flashlight on.  I manage to shine it directly in her face, and she squints, looking away.  She’s covered in dirt, like I probably am, and her leg is bleeding.  She looks small and frightened, her eyes big and black.  I turn the flashlight away.  “Sorry.  It’s a 1934 LaSalle, ” I tell her again.  “Roadster.  Needs a new top, among other kinds of love.”

“Where did they come from?” Nikki asks.

She’s hurt; the little bulldog girl is doing her best to hide it, so I decide to let her, for at least thirty seconds.  Clearly, whatever’s going on topside is Extremely Not Good, with capital letters.  “LaSalles?  Detroit, I think.  I can’t remember for sure if they built them at Fisher alongside the Cadillacs or not.  It might have been–“

“No.  I didn’t mean that.”

“Well what did you mean then?”

Nikki shakes her head.  “Never mind.  We have to go.”

I won’t let her stall any more.  “You’re hurt.  Did you get hit?” 

She nods, her face crinkling as if she feels guilty for getting shot. 

I squat to look at her leg.  She tries to pull it away, but I tell her to wait and push her coat and skirt away from the wound.  There are two ugly looking holes, one in the sole of her shoe and one in her calf by her knee, both of them bleeding slowly.  I’m no Dr. Auschlander, but I’d be willing to bet that means good news, relatively.  “Bullet came out, but I’ll bet you know that.  You’re turning gray, too.  Let me feel your pulse.”

“I’m okay, Lexi.”

“Of course you are, dear.  Or at least you will be until…”

Nikki pulls her skirt back down and stands up, just like I knew she would.  As soon as her foot touches the floor, she lets out a little shout of pain and collapses in on herself like a sofa-bed. 

I knew that would happen, too.  “Until you try to stand up, stubbornlet,” I finish saying.  “I was going to tell you not to do that.  Mind if I use the bottom third of your skirt to tie it up, for now?”  Nikki’s skirt rips easily.  It’s not going to make it any easier for her to walk, but it’ll keep the wound more or less clean.

“Oh, fuck, I’m going into shock,” she says.

“You’ve bought the ticket, reserved the room, and arrived, dearie.  There’s a hole blown in your leg,” I say as calmly as I can.  “Button your coat, and put mine on over it.”

“I can’t take your coat.”

“Yes you can, and you will.  Your body temperature’s going to drop like a tour bus in the Pyrenees.”  Hey, that’s two funny similes in less than a minute, I’m feeling pretty creative apparently.  “It already is.  And you’re wet with sweat.  If you don’t stay warm and try to stay calm, you’re gonna die.”  She lets me put the coat on her.

Nikki’s voice cracks.  “How am I supposed to be fucking calm? She’s, she’s back there.  Taiisha.”

That must be Gray’s real name.  It doesn’t sound like a real name, but there you go.  “You mean the evil chiclet formerly known as Gray?”

“Yes.  She killed Martin.”  Nikki’s wet to the skin, with sweat or snow and ice.  I’m not sure which, and I pay attention to her instead of thinking about what Nikki just said; I’ll leave that in the back of my head to deal with later.  Her teeth begin chattering, and she stubbornly clenches her jaw to make them stop.  “She’ll kill you too,” Nikki says, sounding like the very idea terrifies her.  It doesn’t make me feel too sunshiny either.

She doesn’t need to know that, of course.  I can be the strong one for a while.  “I’ve heard that before,” I say mildly.  I shall pretend that nothing’s amiss while the world goes insane around me.  Besides, I have aces in holes that Gray, er, Taiisha, doesn’t know about, no matter who she’s killed.  “Follow me,” I say, helping Nikki up.  “I have an in with the Mysterious Subterranean Tunnels Department.  She killed Martin?”  Nikki leans heavily on me–well, she doesn’t really do anything heavily, she can’t, but I’m supporting most of her weight, anyway.

“Yes.”

“In my house?”

That comes out more horrified than I intend it to–it’s not every evening you hear that your houseguests are killing each other off, after all–and Nikki makes a mollifying sound.  “I’ll clean it up for you.  I have experience,” she says, then staggers on the way up the slope toward the farmhouse’s porch.  I manage to keep her from falling.  “I’m so sorry.”

“You don’t need to be sorry.  Careful, the floor’s not level here.”

“I can’t fucking see.  I’m going to pass out, Lexi.”

“You can see,” I tell her.  “Open your eyes.”

“I’m tired.”

“That’s because you’re a swooner,” I say.  I want to keep her talking.

“A what?”

“You swoon, when you go into shock.  Some people do.  Some people get manic.  Some get hysterical.  Some get super-anal retentive.  It’s different for everybody.  It’d be cool to take notes, if I wasn’t so worried about you.  I should get a grant and do a study.”

“How do you know these things?”

“Racing.  People crash, they almost always go into shock, even if they’re not hurt too badly.  Pain and fear do that whether you admit to them or not, and all those little traits just pop right out.  I usually get manic–all of a sudden I have to make sure the car’s okay, catalog what’s wrong, make calls for replacement parts, find out if anyone else was hurt, make three hundred phone calls, you know.  There could be a hole in my skull and I’d be yelling for a phone so I could make sure the car got picked up by the right towing yard.  I also get extremely cranky.  After I rolled an MGB once at Road Atlanta, I actually hissed at the corner worker who was trying to get me out of the car.”

Nikki smiles and says something I don’t catch in her little whispery voice. 

“Hm?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh, okay then.”

From the tunnel behind them, there’s a howl.  It sounds like Gray, and she sounds like something awful is happening to her.  Good.  “Dog!” she screams.  “No!  Dog!  No!  Get away!”  I remember that she was asking if I had a dog, and wonder what the angry ghost is showing her.  She seems to have a knack for pulling out the things one finds most horrible, after all.

“What the fuck is happening to her in there?” Nikki says.  Her eyes are huge, and a little bit bloodshot.

“Well, do you have a dog?”

“No.”  Another long, anguished scream follows.  I didn’t like that tunnel, either, but at least I bothered to crawl out when it began to suck.  I’d be sad if this chick decided to just stay down here and scream forever…no, on second thought, maybe that would be a good thing.

I tell Nikki about the bad patch, thinking she must have gone by without noticing on account of the bullet holes in her leg.  “It’s obvious that instant karma has come to get her.  Maybe it’ll slow her down.  We’re going up steps now, careful.  One, two, three.”

“Is there a house down here?” she asks.  She’s only just noticed it, not that she hasn’t got a good excuse for being distracted of course.

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more, Toto,” I tell her.  “Yes, it’s a farmhouse.  It’s a little bit squished and a lot tilted, but there is in fact a house here.  There’s got to be the most gleeful story behind how it came to be underground.  There’s a short, steep tunnel to the surface right behind the kitchen.”

“How do you know that?”

I help Nikki across the tilted living room floor.  “I was already up there.  We can get up and out, and I’ll bet we’re close to Sir William’s.  I think I might make this my playhouse, what do you think?  I’ll fill it with toys and come down here when I want to be left alone.”

Nikki whines, “I can’t climb this.  My leg won’t hold me.”

“Oh, shut up,” I tell her.  “We’re halfway out.  You don’t give yourself nearly enough credit.”

To her credit, she manages to climb on her own.  I go in front of her, so I can clear whatever debris is ahead of us out of the way, but I keep looking back to make sure she’s still with me.  She drags her shot leg behind her, and her strength and resolve are fading fast.  “Oh fuck, it hurts.”

“I know,” I say, feeling her pain.  “Just a bit farther, Nikki.”

She starts babbling.  “I hit Eddie.  Gray told him I was going to kill him, and I was supposed to, but I didn’t want to and I wasn’t going to, but she told him and I had to hit him.  I hid him in your room.  And I called your friend Molly,” she says.  I blink in surprise, wondering how she managed that trick, and at the same time suddenly happy that she did.  “I told her to come here.  I didn’t know if you were going to be okay or not, and I thought you needed a real friend here.”

That makes me laugh, in an almost-gonna-cry way.   “This is where I’m supposed to tell you that you are a real friend, right?”  We’re almost to the surface.  “Well, I think your ego’s bloated enough as it is, so I’m not gonna.  But wait till Molly gets here, we’ll make strawberry cake and lasagna for three.  Or should it be four? Shall I invite Mr. Doctor Edward Sharp to dinner as well?”  At the top, there’s a door.  I push, hard; it resists for a bit, then snow and ice give way and it flops sullenly agape.

“Yes,” Nikki says.  I help her out.  We’re in what used to be a deer blind, if my grew-up-with-dad-and-his-buddies memories are correct.   She flops into deep snow and vanishes.  I look at her to make sure she hasn’t passed out (she hasn’t) and then wish I had an anvil, as I do my best to re-bury the door.  It won’t do much good, of course; if I can push it open, so can Gray.  Or Taiisha, or whatever her name is. 

“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” I wish aloud,  “and she won’t find the tunnel.”

“I’ve never gotten lucky in anything that has to do with her.  Don’t take chances.”

“Well, if I had an anvil I wouldn’t hesitate to use it.  But I don’t.”  I look around.  Nope, no anvil.

“We’re fucking lost, aren’t we?”

“No, we’re not.  Silly pessimist girl.  My house is that way,” I point for her benefit, even though she probably can’t see me, down in the snow as she is.  “But Sir William’s is that way.  From my place, it’s five miles by car, and one and a half as the crow flies, thanks to the roads.  And it’s closer than my house, so to it we shall go.”

“How do you know that’s the right way?”

“Internal compass,” I say.  It’s easy to be goofy around Nikki.  Fun, too, even if she is only half-conscious.  “I had a powerful magnet attached to my skull just above the hairline.  My head’s always trying to point north.  If you put an electronic device near my face it’ll stop.  I’m serious.  Try it, it’s cool.  Do you have a watch?”  She gives me a weak smile.  “Okay, I’m lying.  I just have a good sense of direction.  I’ve spent a lot of time sliding sideways through forests in cars.  Not that has anything to do with it, I just like to brag about rallying.  C’mon,” I say, pulling her up and doing my best to play coach.  “We gotta walk, Nikki.  If I was in better shape, I could carry you piggyback, but I’ve let myself go a little bit.  Next time I promise to be strong enough to carry you.  Lean on me.”