Thirty-one

When I got back from the grocery store, Ian’s truck was gone.  A shallow place in the snow and a set of tracks marked where it had been.  I could hear a television murmuring from the end of the house opposite the kitchen, and went that way.  The room to the left of the foyer had been a library once, with dusty, empty shelves built into the walls and an ancient Oriental rug that had a big rectangle of deeper color in the center where a piece of furniture had stood.  There were nine or ten large boxes in one corner, and a precarious tower of books on top of each one.  The room seemed to be in black and white, except for the brilliant color in the center of the carpet.  I stopped and looked around the room, savoring the effect.  It really was a pretty house, despite its condition.  I found myself a little bit jealous of Lexi.  The place made me want a big old house of my own.

Eddie was in the next room, which was a sort of den.  There was a television on the floor next to a pair of VCRs.  There was a tremendous pile of throw pillows in lieu of a couch, and a fireplace that would have looked a lot better with a fire in it.  Eddie was sitting on the floor with his laptop in front of him, smoking a cigarette.  He was paying no attention to the TV at all.  “All stocked up?” he said, not looking up at me.

I didn’t feel like carrying all the grocery bags myself.  “Help me bring the food in.”

“Coming, dear,” he replied, getting up.  I ignored that completely.  “The grocery store was bigger than you expected, eh?” he asked.

“How do you know that?”

“I don’t.  Guesswork.”

“Cocky motherfucker.”

“I have to be.  Arrogant self-confidence has gotten me where I am today, Nicks.”

He had never called me Nicks before.  I instantly disliked it more than Poppet, so I pretended not to notice in hopes that it would go away.

Lexi was in the kitchen when we got there.  Her sleepshirt was gone; she wore a tank top and matching yellow panties and was eating cheesecake by the light of the refrigerator.  I saw why the cheesecake was ring-shaped; she had a spoon and was eating it from the center outward.

“Afternoon,” Eddie said.

She looked up at us.  “Mmm, cheesecake,” she said.

“Why are you eating it like that?” I asked.

“To…make you wonder why,” she replied after a moment of deliberation.  Eddie laughed.

“Good to see you have a sense of humor back in there,” I said.  I didn’t want to snap at her, but Eddie’s laughing had put an edge on my mood.

Eddie put his bags on the counter, and Lexi noticed them for the first time.  “Oh, did we get groceries?” She forgot all about her cheesecake and started looking through the bags.  “A cherry danish would be nice.  Or cheese…cherry cheese.  Maybe.”

Eddie looked at me and tapped his watch, tossing his hand and head back slightly, as if he were doing a shot of whiskey.  It was time for Lexi’s pill.  That made sense.  She was somewhat lucid and animated compared to before.  I liked her better this way, in spite of being a little annoyed with her.  “Are you hungry, Lexi?” Eddie asked.  He sounded too much like Dr.  Zheng.

She stopped looking through the bags instantly.  “No.  Not a bit.  I’ve hardly eaten all day.  A little here, a little there.  I shall waste away to nothing if I keep this up.” Lexi spread her arms and tilted her head back with a theatric sigh.  She frowned.  “There are cracks in the ceiling,” she said, as if they had appeared just to irritate her and were somehow our fault.

“It’s still a nice house,” I said.

“It has its moments,” Lexi replied.

“I could get you a cherry cheese danish, if you want.”

“Oh, stitch that,” she said, still looking at the ceiling.  “I don’t need a silly danish, or a pecan spinwheel either.”

I looked at Eddie, who wasn’t helping a bit.  He winked at me and headed back out to the car to get more groceries.  Asshole.

“I am not hungry,” Lexi said.  I opened my mouth to tell her I knew that, but she continued.  “But cats are hungry.  It’s time to feed cats.” She wandered over to the sink, looked into it for a long moment, then squatted so suddenly it looked as if she’d dropped into a hole.  A bag crackled, the unmistakable sound of a pet food bag.

I’ve never owned a cat but I like them enough to know that even in that huge house both of them would hear it.  Soon there would be two cats charging through the house to get an early evening meal.  I smiled at the thought.

I was only half-right.  I heard scuttling of rapidly approaching cats right on schedule, but the cats kept coming, and coming.  Soon the bowls she had put out were a crowd of waving tails and crunching noises.

“Fuck me,” I said, momentarily forgetting my false face of professionalism.  Lexi didn’t appear to have heard.  Lexi didn’t have two cats; she had six.  “You have more cats than I thought.”

She laughed.  “I am the Queen of the Cats,” she said in a regal voice that didn’t go at all with her skimpy clothing.  She looked down at the cats with a pleased smile on her face, the ghost of the sunshine smile she had flashed earlier.

“What are their names?”

Lexi squatted and began introducing me to her cats.  Eddie came back in with four more bags of groceries, looked at us, at the cats, raised his eyebrows, and went back out again.  “This is Amy-Ann,” Lexi said, indicating the tortie who had inspected me earlier.  “The gray tabby next to her is Teague, and the big Maine coon,” the cat whom I had seen sitting on the rail that afternoon, “is Nance.  Teague and Nance are–were–Ren’s cats.” Her voice cracked a little.  Lexi touched the corner of her eye with a finger, dabbing at a tear I couldn’t see.  “Mirror is the white cat with the mismatched eyes, Audrey is the longhaired calico, and this…” Lexi stood up, held out her arms, and made a little kissing noise.  The last cat in line, a long-haired black cat, stopped eating and jumped right up into her arms.  “This is Malice,” she said.  “Malice is my familiar,” she added with a grin.

There was a little bit of malice in her smile, too.  It was nothing like the sunshine smile I’d gotten earlier.  A chill raced gleefully up my spine, as if Lexi had been reading my thoughts.  For an instant I saw what Dr. Zheng must have seen when she’d thrown a wrench at him.  Maybe.  I resolved not to underestimate her, in any case.  I looked into the cat’s gorgeous green eyes for a long moment.  “She’s pretty,” I said finally.

Lexi hummed in agreement and let the cat jump to the floor.  “You look uncomfortable,” she said.  Her eyes were less muddy than they had been earlier.

“I was in California a few days ago.  My body’s still adjusting to the weather.” Lexi just nodded.  I tried not to look at Lexi’s bare thighs and feet, but failed.  In a series of little glances I noticed a tremendous keloid scar running up Lexi’s right shin.  It was straight, like a surgical scar, but irregular pockmarks stippled the area on both sides.  “Aren’t you cold?”

“Yep.  Freezing.  You?”

I frowned and decided not to pursue it.  “The house is creeping me out a little bit, too.”

“It’ll do that.  Wait till it gets dark out.  It’s haunted, you know.  Oh, and some of the wiring is bad.  Mice, I think.”

I grabbed the first grocery bag close to me and started putting the cold things in the refrigerator.  “I’ll bet the lights in the room with the canopy bed don’t work.”

“How’d you know? Oh, the doctor told you.  Doctor Edward.  Is he really a doctor? I don’t think he is.  I don’t think any of them are.  Or were.  I just wonder too much, too many things.” I opened my mouth to assure Lexi that Eddie was a real doctor, but her mind had already changed the subject.  “I hope it snows more.  I like snow.”

“I don’t.”

“Not even to look at?”

I shrugged.  “Maybe to look at.”

Lexi handed me a can of frozen orange juice.  “I like being cold.  It’s easy to warm up when you’re cold, and it feels good.”

That and the cold can made me think about how much I hated to be cold.  Just thinking about it made me cold.  “I prefer to stay comfortable.  Then I don’t require relief.”

“Relief, whatever.  I just like the changes in scenery.”

I thought about it a second.  “Yeah, I guess ups and downs are better than constantly being in the middle.  But it’s hard to remember that during the down times.”  My words were familiar, like I had heard them before but not said them myself.

Lexi smiled again.  She looked like she was about to say something else, and then Eddie came back with the last bags of groceries.  “Did I interrupt?” he said.  “Heard you talking all the way out at the door.”

“We were talking about you,” Lexi said suddenly.  “We’ve figured out your little ruse, and it’s not going to work, not for a minute.”  She turned on her heel and left, taking her secret passage again.

I became aware that I was staring after her in open surprise.  Eddie didn’t look surprised at all, and I tried to get the look off my face.  Lexi was obviously being silly; she couldn’t know Eddie wasn’t really a doctor.  Could she?

“She’s out of her head, Poppet,” Eddie said.  “Don’t let it play mindgames with you.”

“This whole house is playing mindgames with me.  You finish this, I’m going to my room.”  I expected him to complain, but he let me go.

It wasn’t late, but I had been up early and driving all day and I was worn out.  I liked Lexi okay, but wasn’t in the mood to be toyed with, even unintentionally.  At the same time, if Ian and Zheng had been treating her like a Barbie doll, I could see why Lexi was being the way she was.

The second floor was split; Lexi’s bedroom and a bath on one side, guest bedrooms and another bath on the other.  The hallways were parallel, the house seemed bigger because I could never see the length of it.  I explored the side that Eddie and I were to sleep on.  The fixtures had turned yellow, but the lights in the hallway worked.  The first room at the top of the stairs was Eddie’s, then mine, then another empty bedroom.  Unfortunately Lexi had been correct about there being no electricity in my room.  I squinted at the dark, and could only make out the huge boxy shape of the canopy bed in the middle of the room.  The window was a faint pale square in the darkness.

I had a penlight in my bag, so I dug it out.  The little shaft of light speared a hole in the dark, and I saw a massive canopy bed that hadn’t been slept in by anything other than cats for a long time.  Oval puddles of fur dotted the cover, like nests.  My light found a chair and small table next to the bed, and more boxes in the corner.  Otherwise the room was empty.

I pulled back the top cover, revealing clean sheets, and put my bag on the bed.  The fishing line wasn’t holding, I noticed, and grimaced.  There wasn’t much life left in it.  Leather could only be mended so many times, and the thing was dry-rotting on top of that.  Too many drenchings and not enough saddle soap.

I laid my afghan across the pillows.  It’s a little ritual.  At any temporary lodging, I put my afghan on the bed.  It can make any little spot into home for me.  I was tired.  I needed to feel at home somewhere so I could sleep better, and the afghan helped.  But first I needed to find a candle.

The bathroom had lights, and there were two votive candles on the sink.  It looked as run-down as the rest of the house, except for a beautiful claw-foot bathtub.  It looked new, or at least freshly restored.  The tile on the floor and sink were stained, but the tub’s smooth white belly was pristine.  The fixtures shone as well, shiny new chrome.

I turned the HOT knob.  I didn’t expect it to work, but after a moment a gentle flow of surprisingly hot water began filling the tub.  I made a little exclamation of happiness.  A hot bath sounded better than sleep.  I went back to my room and got my bag.

Thirty-one

I’m in the kitchen.  Nikki is trying to get at the bread I made, which is on top of the refrigerator where it ought not to be, the heat from the fridge will make it stale.  I could reach it for her, but instead of asking for help she’s dragged one of the big heavy chairs in from the dining room to stand on.  She’s stubborn about being short.  “You’re such a little bulldog girl,” I tell her, watching her cut her bread and spread jelly on it.  “Nothing’s ever going to stop you, if you don’t let it.  No matter how difficult, or horrible.” 

“I don’t think moving a chair is a very good representation of my entire life,” she says, wrapping the rest of the loaf up.  “How’s the car coming?”

“I’ll have to go and get a body this week. Want to come with?”  That reminds me of Marion’s Packard and I all but fall off the chair in excitement.  “Oh, wow!  I almost forgot!  Treasure!  I have to show you what I found.”  I bounce up and beckon Nikki to follow. 

Nikki puts her bread and jam on a paper towel like the fastidious little cutie she is, brushes her skirt even though nothing is clinging to it, and follows me to the front door.  “Outside?” she asks, disappointment in her voice.

“Oh yes, oh yes.  Some of the most wonderful things are outside, you know…” I say, opening the front door.

“Let’s put coats on first, Lexi.  You’re some kind of fucking penguin.”

“Penguin?   Hardly.  I’m better dressed,” I say, and do a little sexy dance, apropos of nothing.

“Nice day for a walk,” Gray says suddenly.  She’s on the second floor landing, looking enigmatically down at us.  Nikki looks startled, sees her up there, and looks even more startled.

I take my time in recognizing her.  “Every day is a nice day for a walk,” I say, hoping I don’t trigger another homicidal rage.  “If you know where to walk.”

The weather isn’t any warmer, of course.  The sky’s sunless, and a solid ceiling of clouds threatens more snow.  The Weather Channel will probably back me up on that.  If it snows much more, Nikki won’t be able to leave the porch without ending up neck-deep in snow. 

For the moment, though, the white stuff is only up to her waist, and she can flounder about well enough.  I take her to the carriage house and show her the Packard, which she’s only moderately impressed by.  Actually it seems to creep her out a bit, and while I’m looking under the hood (it is a twelve-cylinder) she’s looking at the floor.  “Lexi,” she says.  “Do you know the floor in here’s fucking collapsing?”

I go to where she is and see a deep crack in the concrete-slab floor.  It’s half an inch wide and widens to several inches on its way to the wall.  The floor is sagging toward the gaping crack.  “You certainly are, aren’t you?  What’s wrong with you?” I ask it.  I go to the wall and give the floor an experimental tap, then squat and put my hand in the crack.  It’s deep, and I can feel the slab moving up and down a bit.

“Maybe there’s a basement.”

“Carriage houses didn’t usually have them, but this is a weird house.  Maybe there is,” I concur.  “At any rate, I need to drag this six-thousand pound shithead out of here before he falls through the floor.  I’ll get Furious to drag him out.  What shall I name you?” I ask the car.  It certainly needs a name.

“What do you mean, you’ll need to get furious?”

That makes me laugh.  “Oh, no no no.  Furious is our–my–Suburban.  He can tow anything, even a certain three-ton car with its drivetrain frozen solid.”

Nikki narrows her eyes at me.  “You laugh all the time but you have a cat named Malice, a car named Furious.  A shrink would fucking love to peel your brain.”

“Many have tried,” I tell her.  “Most have gone mad themselves.  Walk not down that path.”

“And speaking of frozen solid,” Nikki says, laughing, “can we go back inside now?”  My fingers agree with her; inside is a good thing.  I follow Nikki back to the kitchen and sit while she makes soup.  I rearranged all of the cans in the pantry by color instead of content a while back, to confuse Doctor Edward, but he never gave me the satisfaction of noticing.  When Nikki asked me why, I told her it was so the French wouldn’t be able to find anything if they invaded, and she found that funny.

My mind starts racing, thinking about the Packard, and Ren’s car in the library, and it’s not long before I have to put my head down on the table and cry for a while.  When I get started doing that, I can’t stop.  Nikki holds me for a while, and that’s nice, and soon Doctor Edward is there, too, and he urges me to eat a bowl of soup which undoubtedly has a pill in it, and the crying goes away.  I think.  I’m not really sure.  I don’t feel any better, but I do feel less, and that’s an improvement.

I think.

I’m not really sure.

Swish-click.  Ian’s here again, he’s dropped in to say hi and I shall make chili for everyone.  I like making chili.  Molly’s a better cook than I am but I have my moments.  I ask Ian if Molly is coming and he gives me a patient smile that says no.

I go into the pantry (I like having a pantry that is its own little room, it reminds me of the house I grew up in) to look for the kidney beans.  There should be tomato sauce in here too, somewhere with the other red things, but someone’s moved it.  I suspect Mister Doctor Edward Sharp,  because he’s apparently incapable of putting things back where he found them.  Nikki and I have bonded over this.  While I’m squatting on the floor, Ian shuts the door behind me and everything goes dark.

I jump up to complain, because who likes being locked in a closet?  But Ian’s talking to Doctor Edward, and I realize it was a mistake; he must think I’ve gone upstairs or something.  From the way they talk I can tell that Doctor Edward and Ian are friends from way back, which makes sense in a way.

“I’ve got to get that goddamn place cleared out, Eddie,” he says.  His voice is all twisty, like it gets when he’s agitated.  “They’re moving guns.  Guns!  I was there, and I saw them, and when I asked what the hell was going on, they threatened me, Eddie!”

“Did they?”

“This greasy European bastard stuck a gun in my face!  I practically pissed myself.”  The notion of someone sticking a gun in tweedy little Ian’s face is actually kind of amusing.  I imagine his eyes getting enormous, and his cheeks quivering.  Ian’s saying, “I told them I wasn’t the property owner, just managing it, and I was only passing on the owner’s wishes, and that got them to back down.  I can’t be associated with these people any more.  They said they’re watching all of us.  They told me they know where we all live.”

“Standard pushing,” Eddie said.  “Don’t worry, they’re just scare tactics.  Don’t forget,  Ian, they have as much to lose as you do.  How did you hook up with this crowd again?  This isn’t your usual social circle.”

Oh, there’s the tomato sauce.  Wonderful.  I choose two cans and I’m down to two left so I should get some more, and am I feeling dexterous enough to carry four cans at once?  It appears that I am.  Ian is saying,  “I can’t believe I’ve screwed this up so badly,” and he’s probably shaking his head.

“Let me see what I can do,” Doctor Edward says.  He doesn’t sound quite like himself.  “What’s the guy’s name again?  Not the one who threatened you.  His faceman, the one who originally approached you and signed the paperwork.  The name is probably false, but I just need his number.”

“What do you mean the name’s probably false?”

“They wouldn’t use their real names, Ian.  What if this ends up in court…oh, hell, your name’s on the paperwork, isn’t it?”

Ian throws a New Jersey hissy-fit.  “Shit!  Shit!”

Doctor Edward says a bunch of things to calm him down.  That can be a difficult task.  I’ve seen Ian flip out before, more than once while we were pulling together the funding for the car company, and sometimes the only thing that will shut him up is single malt Scotch.

I can’t hear what they’re saying, until Ian mutters, “Maybe I should use it to leave the goddamn country.”

“Oh, sure.  That wouldn’t look suspicious,” Doctor Edward says.  “Shut up and I’ll handle it, okay?”

“But what if they do something?”

“I said I’d handle it.”

Ian sounds like a little kid as he asks, “Do you think they really know that it’s her–” and that’s when I get bored of standing in the dark and come out of the pantry.  He stops talking immediately and clears his throat and looks like he’s about to piss himself with surprise.  “Lexi!  How long have you been in there?”

“I’m not locking any use of language in the wife of your presence,” I tell him.  He wouldn’t recognize a Fibber McGee quote if you tattooed it on his forehead (Ren would) and so it should be clear to him that I didn’t care what he was talking about, and have no intention of caring.  Of course, what it probably makes him think is that I’m just cuckoo, and that’s fine, too.  I’m kind of irritated about being locked in the pantry, after all.

Dinner is a success, even with Gray and Martin attending.  Ian and Martin seem to get along well.  Nikki and I pass notes back and forth, and she draws silly drawings while Doctor Edward tells a story that seems to end with him riding a pig into a barbed wire fence.  I can’t have heard that right, but he’s a good storyteller and I like hearing his voice swell and fade in my ears as it spins around my head. 

I watch Gray and eat chili.  She watches Nikki and doesn’t eat anything.  She’s got a look of animated interest on her face but it looks like it’s only skin-deep, her brain is off somewhere else.  “You’re not eating,” I say to her.

“I am sorry,” she says in her Italian accent, which I don’t think is real.  Did I hear her talking without it some time?  I can’t remember.  I remember that she choked me for teasing her though, and that’s just not right.  “I am not used to dinner so late.  My stomach, it is…” she trails off, seesawing a hand in the air.

“Tch!  That explains why you didn’t eat last night, either.”

“It does.”

“Ian,” I say all joking-whiny,  “I don’t think it’s quite fair that I’m the only one who gets yelled at for not eating.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Oh, don’t pretend you didn’t hear me.  There’s a clear imbalance of respect here.”

Gray’s suddenly gone.  I didn’t notice her getting up, but she must have because I hear her going up the steps.  When she gets there a few seconds later, there’s a big ker-BLAM of something lifting up and dropping on the floor.  Something big.  I think of the dresser in the room Martin and Gray are staying in, that sounds about right sizewise.  Everyone at the table jumps, Nikki most of all.  Gray shouts, a short shocked “Ah!” of surprise.  It startles me, too, but then I remember Marion.

“Jesus,” Martin says.  “Your cats are hard at work.”

“No, they aren’t,” I say, and cram a cracker into my mouth.  Everyone’s looking at me, but I make them wait till I’ve finished my chili cracker.  “The house is haunted.  Get used to it.  By the way, I don’t think my ghost likes your girlfriend,” I tell Martin.

He cocks an eyebrow.  “If anything, Gray should be jealous of a pretty little thing like you,” he says.  That’s about the lamest thing I ever heard, and I get up to go upstairs.  I’m getting better at not swaying when I stand.

When I get to the door of Gray and Martin’s room, she’s there.  Not Marion.  Gray.  She grabs me and drags me through the door, and she’s got a crazy knife, a double-edged thing with a big split down the middle.  I suddenly know the meaning of the word transfixed, because I can’t move, staring at that knife in front of my eyes.

“I’m going to kill you, snipwit,” Gray says.  She’s forgotten her Italian accent again.  “I’m weary of the tricks and I’m going to kill you now–“

And something slaps her.

I can hear it, and see her react to it, can almost see the flesh on her face rippling as she’s hit, but there’s nothing there.  The unseen hand strikes her across the face, on her head, on her shoulder and side and hip.  They’re loud, Three Stooges slaps, flesh on flesh, and Gray’s suddenly got handprints on her face and neck.  She lets me go and staggers back, making a big show of fussing with her hair as she regains herself.  The knife has disappeared and I didn’t see where it went.  When I check it’s not sticking out of me anywhere, which is a good thing.

Gray looks at me, and she looks scared and enraged.  She starts to say something, then turns and walks quickly out of the room.

I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet, with a bit of help that is.