Thirty-two

I stared at myself in the mirror.  Behind me, water chuckled into the bath.  It was going to take a long time to fill.  A noise and a motion behind me made me turn with a little involuntary cry–I was still thinking about Taiisha–but it was only a cat.  Lexi’s black cat–Malice, that was her name–was sitting on the edge of the tub, looking at the water.  “Don’t fall in,” I told her.  “You’ll get burned.”

Malice looked up at me and meowed.  The cat settled into a comfortable-looking sit on the edge of the tub and watched me.  She’d obviously been there a lot, and knew her balance.

“As long as you know what you’re doing, then,” I said.  The cat trilled softly in reply.  “Oh, did you come in here to talk, then?” 

Meow

I smiled.  “I don’t feel much the fuck like talking.  It’s been a long day.”

Mau.

“You, too, eh?  Tell me about it.”

Malice replied with a vocalization that was somewhere between a meow and a trill. 

I had never heard a cat talk so much, it was kind of funny.  “You’re right,” I said, “I’m just bitching.  I’m not anybody, really.”

Meow.

“You are a talky little one, aren’t you?  You want to hear a story, is that it?”

Mau-wow, Malice said.

“Okay, then, I’ll tell you a story, but only if you promise to keep it a secret, okay?”  I scratched her head.  “This is how Nicole Kerry Saxen comes to find herself about to take a bath in an old house in Michigan,” I said.  The cat sat up a little straighter, eyes fixed on me as if she were listening and understanding me.  “Mmm, does that intrigue you?  It’s a long story, so make yourself comfortable.  She was born in Albany on a frigid afternoon two days after Christmas, to Thomas Douglas Saxen and Beverly Marina Saxen.  Now, almost twenty years later, her dance with death continues to invent new steps.  Is that too melodramatic.”  The cat didn’t seem to think so.

I turned away from the mirror and took a packet of strawberry bath salts out of my bag.  I had slipped it in there while grocery shopping.  “Thomas and Beverly were the most loving, caring parents an American child could want.  Nikki’s tendency to attract death didn’t concern them in the least.  Not even when Thomas’ mother died while babysitting Nikki.  The child wasn’t old enough to understand what was happening when Grandmother went into cardiac shock, and she certainly had nothing to do with it.”  I checked on the cat, who had settled back into a more relaxed repose on the side of the tub.  Malice was either paying attention to me, or just liking the warm porcelain. 

“Of course, this isn’t The Omen.  Nikki isn’t the Antichrist.  She’s just got some kind of unspoken agreement with death.”  I could hear the sarcasm in my voice, although in my blacker moods I came close to believing what I was saying.  “A year or two after Grandmother, death took Rowboat, the family bloodhound, in the form of a pizza driver who wasn’t watching what he was doing.”

Malice meowed with a hint of derision.

“Well, I know, but we liked that dog,” I said.  “Don’t interrupt me, or I won’t tell any more.  For a few years, the black clouds went away.  There were other clouds, to be sure, but they were normal, suburban clouds.  Then, the Army assigned Nikki’s brother Charles to an overseas post, and everything fell apart after that.  Death returned and had a party.” I poured the bath salts in the tub.  The room was beginning to fill with strawberry-scented steam, and I liked that.  “Nikki’s parents and entire extended family were murdered at a campground in Vermont.  She doesn’t remember what happened that night, or for two weeks after that.  She’s read all of the newspaper reports, about how the family was found hacked to bits in the cabin with only Nikki and her uncle Richard Schirmer not accounted for, how the cops searched for them and finally Uncle Rich’s motorhome was found crashed in a ditch in Pennsylvania.  He had a hole in his head from a hunting rifle found at the scene.  Nikki was malnourished but otherwise unhurt.  It wasn’t a good thing for a fifteen-year-old to go through in any case, even though she doesn’t remember what happened at all.  She’s thought about the possibilities, many of which have been discussed at length before, so we shall continue.

“A great deal of hoopla surrounded the massacre, of course.  There were a thousand news reports, and talk show references, and book references.  Lucky it was solved, so there was no fuel for the tabloids and no need to do some fucked-up movie of the week.  Nikki was quickly taken in by distant relatives in Michigan bent on winning the philanthropy sweepstakes.”  I stepped out of my shoes and sat on the toilet to take off my stockings.  My legs were chilly without their woolen covering, but I don’t mind being a little bit cold right before a bath.  “What they hadn’t counted on were two things: Nikki was far from the Little Orphan Annie they expected, and she brought death with her to Michigan as well.”  I was having fun being melodramatic.  It wasn’t as though my life needed embellishment, but it was amusing to do it anyway.  The cat was a willing audience.

“It was all okay at first.  Nikki made new friends at her new school, although she didn’t traditionally go in for the popularity contests.  Around November, death took all of her new friends in a single spectacular car crash, and put Nikki in the hospital for two months.  Brad and Janet and Trish and Jack and Mark and Erin and Tom all died.  Nastily, too.  They were roadkill.  But Nikki survived.” I went back to the sink, curling my toes on the cold tile floor, and ran some water to wash my face.  “Nikki was becoming convinced that she could survive anything, whether she wanted to or not.”

Malice interjected another trill. 

“In a way, she does have nine lives,” I said.  “You’ll have to wait until the end of the story.  After she got out of the hospital, the world continued to turn, like it does.  She made new friends outside of her school, some truly wonderful friends.  Liz and Mikey and Andrew, by name.  Mikey died in June, in another car crash.  But see, Nikki knew the pattern by now.  She wasn’t happy with the Prices anyway, so she ran away.  She told herself it was to get away from them, and all the unhappiness there.  But in truth she knew that death would come for Liz and Andrew as well, if Nikki stayed close.  Nikki couldn’t allow that to happen.  She would not be persuaded to stay, and headed southwest, with a notion of going to California.  In Ohio, Nikki ran out of money.”  Lexi’s soap smelled like peaches. I washed my face, allowing my mouth a commercial break at a convenient moment that I wanted to skip over anyway.  My teeth and tongue were beginning to ache from all this talking.  There was also a nagging feeling that I was leaving something out.  I couldn’t think of what it was, or where it was coming from.  Maybe it was the cat’s expectant look.  “She made a new friend in Nashville too,” I said through clenched lips as I scrubbed makeup off, “named Dori.  Nikki hadn’t eaten for three days, and was sitting in the rain waiting to see if death might come for her finally.  Instead, Dori came, and bought Nikki lunch.  Wasn’t that nice?  They moved into a hotel room for a week.  Even in a week Nikki got too close, though.  Dori was nearly killed when she walked into a robbery, and Nikki had to leave again, to save her new friend.  A bus ticket–that Dori insisted on buying for her–got her as far as Las Vegas, where she lost her boots to some other runaways who knocked her down, sat on her, and stole them.  And then,” I added, wringing out the cloth I’d used to rinse my face and wiping the sink with it, “Taiisha found her.”

Malice meowed mournfully.

“Yes, I know.  But it’s the way things had to be.  Taiisha took Nikki into the desert, and trained her.  She said she had been watching Nikki, watching what the world was doing to her, and that she would make her stronger.  She was willing to kill Nikki to do so.  Training, living, and torture became synonymous during the…” it was hard to say it, “during the two years that followed.  And Taiisha did make Nikki stronger in the most terrible ways.”  I took off my sweater and shirt and bra.  Jesus, it was cold, except for the soft touch of steam in the air.  It was going to be a wonderful bath.  “She found the fear in Nikki, and taught her to fight.” I looked at my arm, and showed Malice.  A network of bruises laced it with black, blue, and yellow from shoulder to wrist.  It didn’t hurt.  “She found the love of privacy, and taught her to deceive.”  I stepped out of my skirt and underwear.  “She found the shyness and taught her to fuck, she found the independence and taught her to obey, she found the hate and taught her to kill.  She taught Nikki even more horrible things than that.  That deal with death became sort of…a license.  She taught her to die, do you understand?”  I looked at Malice, who looked back at me.  “Taiisha unlocked some kind of door that lets her cheat death, and she gave Nikki the key too.  That way, Nikki can play games for her.”

I looked at myself naked and pale in the mirror.  I looked so small, like a woman in miniature.  “And now after this long dance,” I said to my reflection, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”  The words came out of my mouth like that, in a screwed-up phrase like one Taiisha would have used–except it wasn’t; I couldn’t think of where I’d heard them before but knew they weren’t Taiisha’s or mine–and I watched myself say them.  My lips curled in an ironic, bitter, violent smile.  My eyes were darker blue than I’d ever seen them, and accented by what remained of the day’s makeup. 

I blinked, hard, and my eyes seemed to return to normal.  A thrumming tension up and down my arms and back that I hadn’t even noticed faded just as suddenly.  I turned away from the mirror.  My bath was almost ready.  “Are you confused?” I asked the cat, who didn’t seem confused.  I lowered my voice and whispered to her.  “This is what that means.  Taiisha gave Nikki a task.  That’s how she ended up with Eddie Sharp, to whom she was delivered.  Eddie thought he had met her by chance, and he took her in.”  I turned off the water, sat on the edge of the tub, and tested the temperature with my fingers.  “He didn’t know it, but he was in for a surprise, when the game was finished.  But that’s going to be as far off as she can make it.  There are some things she wants to find out, that Taiisha can’t–or won’t–tell her.  Meanwhile, Eddie taught Nikki things, too.”

Lexi’s voice ripped straight through my reverie.  “Doesn’t sound like there was much left to learn.”  My heart nearly tore itself out of my chest and I bolted to my feet with a sharp gasp that only just missed becoming a scream.  She was standing in the door, which she’d pushed partly ajar, and she was holding her glass of juice as if we’d been having a conversation.  I hadn’t even heard her there.  “No more horrible things, anyway,” she said.  “Maybe you learned something pleasant–oh, don’t stop, keep telling your story.  Malice likes stories.”  When the cat heard her name, she hopped off the edge of the tub with a little feline burble and went to rub Lexi’s feet.

I realized I was naked.  I grabbed my skirt off the floor.  It was the largest piece of clothing I could reach.  I curled downward and stepped back, holding the skirt in front of me like a pathetic shield.  Some uncontrolled flight instinct nearly turned into an attack as I realized that the only way out of the room was to get through Lexi.  “Go away!” I yelled, unable to think of anything else.

Lexi tilted her head a little.  She didn’t seem to care that I was naked.  “Go away for now or forever?” she asked.

“Just go!” Eddie was going to hear me screaming but I couldn’t lower my voice.  Fright and outrage had done that.

She nodded, lifted her glass to her lips with a little smile, and turned away.  As soon as she stepped out of the door I ran over and slammed it behind her.  There was no lock.  I put my back against the door and my face in my hands.

When I was sure Lexi was gone, I put my skirt down again and got into the tub.  The water was perfect, almost unbearably warm, but I couldn’t relax any more.  I ended up thinking about Taiisha instead.

Thirty-two

The need to move woke Lexi up before dawn.  Again.  Her eyes opened to find her room tinted with the faint, dark blue light of early morning.  Blue air, black-blue sky.   Blue world.  It was a good time of day for motion.  She and Ren had always liked leaving on road trips when the world was blue.

She didn’t run this morning, though.  Not every morning was for madcap dashing about.  Lexi slipped out of bed (she was wearing naught but sweat pants that had “TEXAS” printed down one leg in red.  They had been Ren’s, and as far as Lexi knew, he didn’t really like Texas that much.) and went downstairs, enjoying the blueness of her house and the cool morning air the whole way.  Malice followed her, a punctuation to her passing.

Ian was snoring in the TV room, and Teague was snoring in the second wingback chair, which had been in the library and was now in the ballroom, dragged in there for some forgotten reason.  Lexi woke neither of the snorers on her way to the kitchen.  She tore a fist-sized hunk off of the bread she’d baked two days ago to nibble on, and kept going.  The first floor of her house made a perfect place to run laps.  She’d gotten up and run pell-mell through it enough times that she could walk it blindfolded.  Maybe.

Probably.

It was worth an experiment.  Lexi closed her eyes and walked slowly through the kitchen, picturing the walls and appliances and counter around her.  When instinct told her that it was time to turn left, she did.  That put the back hallway in front of her, with its warped floor and little bathroom currently stuffed full of junk.  She walked until the floor changed pattern again–now she was in the turret room.  Lexi turned left again.  Ian’s snoring had gotten louder; she was in the TV room, of course.  Straight across (kicking a stray pillow along the way) and then she was in the library.

In the library she stubbed her toe on the engine stand, which was about five feet farther north than she remembered.  Lexi let out a yip of pain and surprise and opened her eyes, game forgotten.

Ian’s snoring stopped.  “Lex?” he called tentatively.

The blue was beginning to fade rapidly toward dawn, and Lexi could see Ian sitting up on his air mattress, looking at her.  He looked away quickly.

“Put a shirt on, Lexi,” he said with a healthy dose of exasperation.  “Please.”

“Aye-aye, keptin,” she replied, and went upstairs to do so.  Not being able to walk through the house half-naked was but one of the things that was no fun about having guests.

By the time Lexi got back upstairs (Malice was off on some other cat business by this time) she was getting dozy again.  She dawdled over picking a shirt, then finally threw herself back into bed without bothering.  She lay on the edge of sleep, listening to the house.  She heard Ian start snoring again.  The TV room was almost directly beneath hers, so that was no surprise.  There was another sound, too, but she couldn’t quite place it.  “As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door,” she whispered.

It was the front door, actually.  Lexi sat up and listened again.  Yes, it was the front door.  She squirmed quickly into a shirt (an elderly flannel, also one of Ren’s) and flitted downstairs.  When she opened the door, she found a very cold-looking Glen Grant there in a coat that wasn’t nearly thick enough for the weather and a cheerful yellow and blue snow cone hat.  He had managed not to wake Ian up somehow.  She didn’t mind though; Ian could sleep all day if he wanted to.

Lexi smiled.  “Are you Lenore?” she asked.

“Sorry if I woke you,” he said.

“Pish, I was already awake, Mr. Glen Grant.  Step into my parlor.  Perch on a bust of Pallas, if you will,” she said, urging him inside.  “Actually, I don’t have a parlor.  Which might be hard to believe, if you consider how many rooms I do have here, but it’s true.  No parlor.  Not a one.  So what did you run the Porsche into?”

He smiled, embarrassed.  “Is it that obvious?  It wasn’t too far from here.”  He shrugged his coat off at Lexi’s urging, and rubbed his hands vigorously.  She went toward the kitchen, and he followed her, thinking about the last time he’d been there.  The house seemed different in the daylight.  Lexi seemed to be the only thing alive in it; everything else was shades of grey.  Strange that he hadn’t noticed before.  The house seemed…he wanted to say angry, but that wasn’t quite right.  “The roads aren’t that bad, actually.  But there was a sheep–“

Lexi interrupted him with a peal of laughter.  “I know that sheep!  It’s a hobby of hers, crashing cars.  Did you hit her?”

“No, but dodging her put me off the road.”

“Yes, sir, that’s her game.  But it’s good you didn’t hit her, she’s a friend of a friend.  Ren and I hit one, once.  During a rally in New Zealand.  We came over a hill at about a hundred and forty kph, and there it was in the middle of the road, munching and lost in some sheep thought.  We were actually airborne, so Ren couldn’t even steer.  We both yelled at the same time, and then blam!  Sheep bisque.  We had to replace the whole front end of the car, and pay for the sheep too.  We were still finding bits of bloody wool on the undercarriage six months later.  D’you want some hot chocolate?”

Glen made a face of disgust, still smiling.  “Not any more.”

“Squeam,” she chided.  “Bread and jam, then?  Cheesecake?  You nibble on something, and then we’ll go and get a truck to drag your car out.”

“Why don’t we go and get it now?”  Glen was surprised by how badly he wanted to get out of the house, suddenly.  Brooding, that’s how the house felt.  It was incredibly unsettling.  Even Lexi’s cheerful mood didn’t offset the feeling of foreboding he’d had ever since entering the house.  “Might as well get it over with before I warm up and get comfortable.”

“Okee,” she replied.  Lexi fished in the fruit bowl for some car keys.  There was no fruit in the bowl, incidentally, just pencils, car keys, and Post-It notes.  Speaking of which…Lexi used a couple of them to leave a note for Ian or whoever woke up next.  “We’ll take Mister Doctor Edward’s Town Car and go fetch Furious, how’s that sound?”  She was on her way to the door.  At the front door, she stopped to slip her feet (sockless) into a pair of boots.

Glen looked at the mess in the library.  “Are you building a new Crane-Packard?” he asked.

“Actually, it’s building itself.  I’m just providing hands.  It’s for Ren.”

“They were wonderful cars,” Glen replied.  “I’m happy to see as many of them running around as possible.  Is it going to be an S1 or an S2?”

“A whuh?  What are you talking about, silly person?”

“Which body style?  Coupe or convertible?”

“Oh, it’ll be a droptop.  Ren liked them better.  But whither the S1, S2 silliness?”

“That’s not the proper model designation?” he asked, surprised.  “Jon and Peter at Auto History Guide just added the CP to their latest collector’s guide, and they use those to differentiate.”

He expected her to ask how much the AHG had said her cars were worth, but she didn’t.  “That’s just silly,” Lexi said.  “There were no model designations.  They all had names.”

“You mean, individually?  I think I remember Ren mentioning that to someone.”

“Of course, individually!”  She unlocked the doors for him, and soon the Town Car was gliding across the snow as if it wasn’t even there.  Lexi seemed to pay only incidental attention to the treacherous roads, but the Lincoln never put a wheel wrong.  She seemed to be having an easier time with the rear-wheel-drive sedan than he had in a four-wheel drive Porsche.  “How else are you going to name them?  Are you taking notes now?  I think we told someone what their names were, but they must not have been paying attention.  Okay, write this down, and make sure you tell the AHG too:  the first one was Lord Vader, it was a charcoal grey convertible.  No, wait.  Technically the first one was a Volvo named Rotaregirfer, it was a 740 wagon with a Crane-Packard engine.  Test toy.  Lots of fun for hassling hot rods.”

“Did you tweak the suspension, too?”

“Of course.  But I’ll show it to you later.  The next CP was Carousel, the white and green and red convertible.  Then we did two hardtops, Spiraltwist and Lemontwist, and then two more convertibles named Solar Sigh–that was the orange one that got wrecked in the crash–and Deadsy.”  She was surprised to find that thinking of the crash didn’t make the world fall out from under her this time.

“Where did you get the names from?”

“Mostly the tops of our heads, or out of songs.  Where was I?  Oh, right, there were three coupes in a row after that.  Edgewise, Snowsnow, and Night Shift.  Then we built Red Over Black and Mirage II, with the crazy race suspensions.  And then last were two more convertibles, King Salamander and Shylock, which was black and white and named after a deceased cat of mine, for the record.”

“That’s great,” Glen said with a grin.  “Why Mirage II?”

“The first Mirage was that Porsche I almost got killed in, on that hillclimb.  We wanted something to remember it by.  And, we’ve got a sick sense of humor.  We did the first eleven together, just the two of us.  After that the production line was running, such as it was, and so the rest got built with the help of the Skeleton Crew, which is what we called everyone who pitched in building cars.”  She told him the names of those Crane-Packards as well.  Remembering was easy, and it felt good.

Glen nodded.  “So what’s the new one’s name?”

“You never know until you drive them,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“So there are lots of rumors about what’s going to happen next.”

“That’s just silly.  I don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone next.  What are they saying?”

“I heard that Nissan is going to buy the Crane-Packard V8 for use in a special-edition Skyline, for starters.”

Lexi actually laughed.  “Someone better give me a call then, because all of the blocks and castings are in my basement.  We had to stop building at twenty-four partly because everything but the bodies in white got shipped to our house instead of the factory, you know.  We didn’t have a truck big enough to shift all of it, so we took enough to do twenty-four down in the back of Deus and that had to be it.”

“I did not know that.”

“Most folks don’t.  People should talk to me more.  Tell me some more funny stories.”

“Well, let’s see.  I’ve heard that there will be another production run, but of course that’s not true with the company shuttered.  Two people emailed that they heard you’d be going into mass production in Ile du Soleil though.  I’ve heard that BMW is making a deal to buy the rest of the bodies and install M-spec straight sixes.”

“They don’t even look like BMWs.”  Lexi rolled her eyes.

“I know,” Glen said.  “How about the one where you go to work at Ford’s Special Vehicle Team?”

“I got a job?  How cool is that?  What are they paying me?  What will I do?”

“No idea.  If it’s as true as the one that Ford will be buying up all of the Crane-Packard body dies and the Crane-Packard name, and the one that the Crane-Packard V8 will be used in Formula One, though, you’ll be pretty busy.”

“People do talk about our car a lot,” Lexi said.

“And you, as well.  There are a lot of people saying that Toyota actually stole the plans for your engine for their own 4.7 liter V8, and that you’re suing them to get everything back.”

“Oh, that’s just terrible.  Maybe I should do some corporate espionage–it sounds like fun.  Warehouse is right up here,” she added.

Glen recognized the place from the auction.  He thought about what Curve had said, and wondered if she’d bought new cars or what.  The warehouse they were pulling up in front of had been empty a month ago.

At Lexi’s request, Glen got out of the car, opened the door to the storage area, and flipped a light switch inside, and Lexi drove into an empty warehouse.

The awful ugly reality of it took several seconds to strike her fully.  At first she was convinced that she’d somehow come to the wrong place, and opened the wrong door, because there should have been cars parked along both sides, tucked up tight against the walls with only a narrow aisle to drive down.  This warehouse was empty, nothing but buzzing fluorescent lights, some scraps of paper, a folding table and a concrete floor.  That wasn’t right.  That wasn’t right at all.  The Town Car’s engine echoed slightly on the bare walls.

Glen hit the switch to close the door behind them, to keep the cold out, and ducked in under the door as it clanked down.  It was a bit warmer inside, out of the wind.  Lexi got out of the Town Car and took a few steps away from it.  She forgot to shut it off; Glen started to do so, but stopped partway there as he realized that something was very wrong with Lexi.  Her good mood was gone.  She was walking in little circles, turning around as if she expected the room to change behind her as she went, and staring in gape-mouthed shock around her.

“Where?  Where is everything?” she asked in a confused little voice.  “This isn’t right.  Where is everything?”

She didn’t know?  Glen frowned.  Had she forgotten thanks to being drugged, or had she never known?  He couldn’t tell.  In any case, she had found a discarded auction flyer that was lying on the floor.

As she read it, Glen felt that pensive, brooding feeling he’d noticed at the house creeping into the cool, empty warehouse as well.  The confusion on Lexi’s face was slowly replaced by tension.  He chose not to speak, or move.  If she was just now finding out that the two hundred cars Ren and she had collected had been sold off–and it looked like she was–it was probably a good idea to stand back.  Glen thought about how he’d feel if someone sold his Austin-Healey out from under him, multiplied that potential rage by two hundred, and then decided to take another step back.

Lexi sat on the floor, looking at the flyer in her hands.  Her face had gone pale. 

“I, um…”  Glen couldn’t think of anything else to say, so he climbed back into the passenger seat of the Town Car, where it was a bit warmer.  Lexi sat without moving for ten minutes, fifteen.  Glen thought about Dobie Cassarell’s doubts of whether Lexi was really a car person or not, and figured the fugue state she’d just dropped into was proof enough that she was.  The idea of nominating her for Road Associates membership crossed his mind, more seriously this time.

He watched her through the windshield until she suddenly bolted to her feet and ran for the door.  Glen got out of the car, then heard a second engine outside.  Someone else had pulled up.  Lexi rushed through the people door next to the garage door and out to meet whoever it was.