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?”
“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.”
“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?”
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.”
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.