Three

It didn’t matter whether Taiisha called them “tasks” or “lessons.”  The terms seemed to be interchangeable.  Had Nikki expected any kind of reprieve after committing two mindless, random murders at Taiisha’s behest, she would have been disappointed.  But she knew better.  No sooner had she dropped the knife, still wet with blood, than Taiisha threw her down the basement steps, jumped down after her, and handcuffed her to a water pipe.

“Get loose,” Taiisha had said.  “Come upstairs.  I shall set this house on fire in a quarter hour, whether you’ve come or not.”  And then she was gone.

Nikki lay still for several minutes, taking in the unfamiliar basement. The floor beneath her was carpeted, and the walls partially finished with wood paneling.  There was a small television and an orange couch, both looking like castaways from the more expensively furnished den upstairs.  A rickety bookshelf full of book club selections slouched against the wall behind the sofa.  Where the carpet and paneling ended, there were a washer and dryer, and a workbench.  Tools were neatly hung on the wall, and a worn-out three-speed bicycle as well.

None of that was much use to her.  Lying almost prone, with both hands manacled to a pipe, Nikki’s five-foot-nothing height didn’t allow her much chance of dragging a pair of bolt cutters down off of the wall, which was a good twenty feet away.  She could barely reach the television with her toes. 

The pipe she was locked to came out of the floor, made a ninety-degree bend just above her head, and then entered the wall, lead ending in concrete at both ends.  Too bad; she might have been able to kick a hole in a PVC pipe.  Nikki closed her eyes to think of a solution, ignoring as best she could the imaginary clock in her head that counted down the seconds until immolation.  The death wouldn’t be permanent, but it would be excruciating.  And the punishment for failing, which would no doubt follow, would be worse.

It was easiest to do what Taiisha had told her to do.  Just doing as she was told was easy.  Even the killing.  Asking questions or refusing incurred a host of terrible repercussions.  Nikki had learned to stop thinking, if she didn’t have to.  It was easier.  Open this door?  Okay.  Cut this woman’s throat?  Okay.  Block my attacks?  Okay.  Get free from these handcuffs?  Okay.  Taiisha had showed her how to do everything.  All Nikki had to do was perform when commanded to.

Her eyes went to the paneling on the wall, tracing the seam that started just below the pipe.  That was it.  The wood had to be attached to something.  Nikki lay on her back and turned her feet toward the wall, arms twisted uncomfortably over her head.  How much time had passed?  Didn’t matter.  Get free from the handcuffs and go upstairs, that was what mattered.  Nikki kicked the paneling, hard.  She was rewarded with a heel-shaped dent in the wood.  Several more kicks resulted in a good-sized hole, and the wood framing that held the paneling in place showed through.  Pieces of the paneling had broken off and hung loose, revealing what she wanted–finishing nails.  The two-inch long, narrow-headed nails made acceptable lockpicks.

Up on her knees, she was able to hug the pipe and get her hands close enough to the wall to pry a nail free.  The cuffs were off in seconds.

She ascended the basement steps as quietly as she could, but Taiisha was looking directly at Nikki as she entered the kitchen.  “Good,” she said, not smiling.

Her legs ached, but Nikki didn’t sit down.  Taiisha sighed, stood, and poured the rest of her coffee into the sink.  “Juice?” she offered.  She had already poured a glass.  Nikki took it, although the offer made her nervous.  Any expression of kindness from Taiisha did.  Unpleasantness invariably followed.  She asked no questions.  She knew that obedience was what was expected.

Taiisha resumed her spot by the kitchen window to watch Nikki drink.  The girl’s black hair was cut short with scissors and conspired with her slight frame to make her resemble a preadolescent boy more than a nineteen-going-on-twenty woman.  With her big midnight blue eyes, just-barely-upturned nose, and a perfect little oval of a face she was somewhat less anonymous than Taiisha.  That was just as well; Taiisha didn’t expect anyone in a position to remember the face to live long enough to identify it.  Either way, she tried to keep Nikki slightly scruffy and dirty; it made her more forgettable.

She collected Nikki’s juice glass and put it in a trash bag.  “Hungry?” she asked.  Nikki shook her head no.  “Your sack is on the steps, Kerry,” Taiisha told her.

Taiisha knew that Kerry was Nikki’s middle name–Nicole Kerry Saxen, the name felt good on her tongue–but renaming her had been a simple enough task.  The girl answered to “Kerry” just as readily as she did to the other.

Without a word Nikki went to the foyer of the house that didn’t belong to them, picked up the battered, oversized leather purse from where it rested on the cream-carpeted stairs, and hugged it tight to her chest.  It held all of her worldly possessions, and she hadn’t seen it in several months. 

Taiisha heard her sigh of contentment from two rooms away.  She was giving the bag to her because the girl’s traveling things were in it.  She’d need them.  She’d also need better shoes; when Nikki returned to the kitchen, Taiisha handed her a pair of battered blue Doc Martens she had been saving for the occasion.

Nikki recognized them instantly, and gave Taiisha a questioning look.  “Retrieved from the girl who stole them from you,” Taiisha told her.  Nikki nodded mutely, and put them on.  The battered tennis shoes she has been wearing Taiisha added to the garbage bag.  Nikki wished she could have put the rest of her clothes in there as well; like the shoes they were streaked with dirt and elderly blood.  Taiisha rarely gave her a chance to wash them.

“Fifteen minutes,” Taiisha announced.  Time to start the fire she had promised.  “Go to the car.  I’ll be along.”

“People will know they were dead before the fire,” Nikki said.

“Don’t care,” was the reply.  “I’m burning away your lovely little fingerprints.”

Three

“Dobie!” Ren called.  They held the elevator for him.

“Warren,” Dobie said warmly.  “A pleasure.”  They shook hands, and Ren nodded to Victor, Dobie’s bodyguard.  Both men were taller than Ren’s five-eleven; Dobie by two inches, Victor by at least five.  Both wore their tuxedos with practiced ease; Ren seemed out of place in spite of his left-of-center pinstripes.  Dobie was the scion of an old-money family from overseas, and his strong resemblance to Cary Grant was getting more pronounced as he entered his late thirties.  Victor was ex-military and it showed in his strong, silent bearing and chiseled jaw.  His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, and there was an earpiece almost hidden beneath his black hair, which was thinning at the temples. 

The rapid ascent to the 65th floor began.  “Congratulations.  Looks like you’re off to a promising start,” Dobie said.

“Thanks.  And thanks for coming.  I know it’s a long flight from Ile du Soleil.”

“More than worthwhile.  Glad to see the fruits of your labor firsthand.”  Dobie was a shareholder, but had contributed largely on the basis of his acquaintance with Ren and a general interest in cars.  He hadn’t actually seen a Crane-Packard before today, Ren knew.   “I spoke to your sales associate too late, though; I’m told I’ll have to wait for the next batch.  A pity.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Ren said.  Dobie could probably purchase several of the $45,000 cars with what was in his wallet and have change.  “In the meantime, I have something I need you to hold for me.”

He raised a brow, intrigued.  “Do tell?”

“Just a briefcase.  Lexi’s birthday present.”

“And you want me to hold it?”

“It’s a month away yet, and she’s a good searcher.  I figure if it’s off in another country, she probably won’t find it and spoil my surprise.  And we’ll have to come there to get it anyhow.  Can you do that for me?”

“Absolutely.”

“Thanks so much,” Ren said, adjusting his glasses absently.  “I’ll have it sent to your hotel when we check out of ours.”

“No need.  Victor can go and pick it up.”

“Thanks,” he said again.  The elevator opened, and they stepped into the art deco opulence of the Rainbow Room.  There were already quite a few people arrived.  Ren checked his watch; not too late.  “First things first,” he said, nodding toward the bar.  Dobie chuckled and walked with him.  Victor faded into the crowd.  On the way there, Ren saw several automotive magazine editors, David Letterman, and two race drivers he knew.  He got sucked into a couple of conversations along the way, and finally met Dobie at the bar.

“Can you fill a tumbler with vanilla ice cream, lemon juice, a splash of cranberry juice, an even smaller splash of vodka and all of the strawberries from the fruit basket behind you, and then grind it all up in the blender?” he asked the bartender, ticking the ingredients off on his fingers and pantomiming the blending.  “It’s extremely important.”

“I don’t believe we have any ice cream.”

“I called beforehand to make sure you’d have some,” Ren said patiently.

“Let me check–oh, here it is.  Right away, sir.”

Dobie was impressed.  “You’re a man with strange tastes.”

“On the contrary.  I know exactly what I like.”  The blender whirred.  The bartender passed the smoothie to Ren just as Lexi arrived.  She was still wearing her glasses; usually she only wore them to drive but she also had a habit of hiding behind them when she felt overwhelmed.  Ren offered the drink to her; she traded it for the valet parking ticket with a little cackle of satisfaction and walked past them, on her way into the main room.  Ren heard someone call her name, and smiled as he asked the bartender for a glass of Sprite.

“I take it back,” Dobie said.  “Your little Audrey Hepburn lookalike has you very well-trained.”

Ren laughed.  “She doesn’t look that much like Audrey.”

“I’m not the only man to disagree with you.  Is that your brother over there?”

“Indeed it is.  Danny,” Ren said loudly enough for his younger brother to hear, and nodded so he’d join them.

Danny Packard arrived grinning, and raised a martini to Ren.  “Congratulations,” he said.  “Nobody thought you’d be able to make it happen.”  The backward compliment was Danny’s way of expressing approval.  He was here against their mother’s wishes, Ren knew, and the conflict of loyalties–going against Becka to show his support for Ren, even though it was also tacitly showing approval of Lexi–was probably mentally taxing enough to make any sort of civility from Danny a miracle.  Unlike Ren, Danny was the spitting image of his mother, equal parts American royalty and kid next door in his attitude.

Ren leaned toward Dobie, pretending to speak confidentially.  “Nobody ever believes me when I say I’m going to do something.” 

“I believed in you.”  Danny sounded offended.

“‘Course you did.”  Hors d’ouvres were being passed; Ren saw fancy little sandwiches with olives on top, but no servers were close enough to grab one.  “What do you think?”

“I think it’s a great car.  When can I buy one?”

“Danny, you don’t even know how to drive.”

“So?  Klaus can drive me in it.  Or you can teach me, you’ve been doing all of that racing.”

“In my experience,” Dobie said, “if a man hasn’t learned to drive by the time he’s twenty-five, he’s not going to learn.”  Danny flushed, and Dobie held up a hand to still the younger man’s temper.  “I didn’t say it was a bad thing.  The most important men shouldn’t be bothered with driving.”

“Precisely my reason for not being important,” Ren said, needling his little brother.  He couldn’t help himself.  He glanced to his right and saw Lexi at the doorway to the ballroom, chatting with someone from AutoWeek.  She met his eye for an instant, then looked back to the journalist she was talking to, plucked the fat olive from the top of her sandwich and tossed it underhand.  The fruit tumbled quickly through the air, covering the thirty feet that separated them; Ren leaned backward and caught it in his mouth.  Some of the guests who noticed laughed. 

Danny recovered first.  “I’m throwing a party at the house tomorrow evening.  It would be great to see you there,” he said to Ren.  “Both of you.”  Dobie’s family had been friends to the Packards since they were children; Dobie was eight years older than Warren, and the familes had been close when he was a child.

“Mom won’t allow Lexi in the house.  You know that.”

“I’ll see if she’ll make an exception tomorrow,” Danny said unconvincingly.

“Sorry.  We’re headed to Vermont tomorrow.  We’re going to hibernate at a little B&B and shake all of this socializing off.”

“What about the show car, and the display?  Didn’t you and Lexi drive it in?” Dobie asked.

“That we did.  And we’ll drive it back out again, too, Smokey and the Bandit style.  Driving a forty-foot gooseneck through Vermont should be amusing as hell.”  Danny and Dobie looked lost.  “Big trailer, big truck,” he explained.  “Anyway, we’ll be unavailable tomorrow, and the next day.  And possibly the next.”

“I see you got her to dress up,” Danny said.  “I was sure she’d be wearing her combat boots.”

Ren replied without looking at Danny.  “What she wears is her decision,” he said.

“Do you ever regret saying that?”

He shook his head slightly, willing Lexi to throw him another olive.  She obliged.  He caught this one in his hand and offered it to Danny, who pulled a face and turned to the bartender to get his martini replenished.  “Okay,” Ren told Dobie, clapping him on the shoulder, “I’m off to circulate.  Got to act like a host, after all.”

Dobie let him go and maintained his position by the bar.  He didn’t have any significant networking to do here, and would probably do well to make sure Danny didn’t feel ignored or cast aside.

“I don’t understand,” Danny said, attacking his second martini.  “I don’t get him, what she’s done to him.  He didn’t need her to do any of this, and he acts like she’s…” he waved a hand inarticulately. 

Ren had moved into the far room, while Lexi had circled back toward the door, butterflying from group to group.  Dobie watched her while Danny ranted, and didn’t reply.

“Look at her,” Danny said, as if Dobie wasn’t already.  “Look at her.  The help looks better than she does.  She looks like she pulled that dress out of a dumpster.”

“I think you’re overstating the case somewhat,” Dobie said.  He didn’t go so far as to say that he was buying into his mother’s hatred of Lexi, but the thought was there.  “I agree that her dress doesn’t suit her.  I’ve even spent enough time around models” –Dobie didn’t say dating; best to be a gentleman, even when talking to someone as coarse as Danny Packard– “to be able to say that it’s too tight across the hips and is emphasizing her shoulders and upper arms too much.  She’s got an athletic build, and–“

“She’s dumpy,” Danny interjected.

“As I said, athletic.”

“She looks like a maid.  An ugly maid.  I figured Ren was just slumming when he picked her up, just an easy lay, you know?  And then he got all gaga over her.”

Dobie favored the younger man with a tight, patient smile.  “Your point is taken, Danny, though I honestly don’t think this is an appropriate time or place to be making it in any case.  Can we move on to another subject?”

Danny was properly chagrined.  “Sorry, sir.”

Dobie nodded, and kept watching Lexi, who had a small ring of auto writers around her now.  Though her dress didn’t suit her as well as it could have, she stood out by virtue of being supremely comfortable in her own skin.  Take away her oval-framed glasses and the shocking white streak bleached in her dark brown hair and she was actually rather plain-looking–a pretty sort of plain, perhaps, with happy brown eyes and animated features, but not a model or actress by any stretch.  She wore almost no makeup, which didn’t help in Dobie’s eyes.  But Lexi had a carefree, almost immodest glow that transcended mere appearance, and Dobie wasn’t the only one to have noticed, judging by her audience.  He had wanted to discuss the matter further with Danny and see if the younger Packard noticed as well.  The two of them usually ended up talking about women at gatherings like this.  It was clear that Lexi wasn’t a woman to Danny, though.

“I could go for her friend, at least,” Danny said, interrupting Dobie’s reverie.

“Who’s that?” 

“Her friend.  Molly.  Molly Snow, that’s her name.”  Danny indicated a woman who had just joined Lexi’s circle.  About four inches shorter than Lexi’s five-eight, the newcomer had dusky Italian features, with wavy brown hair surrounding a heart-shaped face.  Dobie noticed absently that Molly’s royal blue and black dress was professionally fitted, where Lexi’s hadn’t been.  “And look at that rack.”

Dobie gave Danny a look acknowledging the crudity but at the same time agreeing with him.  They were back on comfortable ground; Danny was generally a simple creature and Dobie liked him best this way.  The deeper workings of Danny’s mind were too much like his mother’s, and though she was a fine woman, the Western world probably didn’t need a twenty-five year old male version of Becka Packard.  And there wasn’t any denying Lexi’s friend’s endowment, either.

“Something about those corn-fed Midwestern girls always gets me going,” Danny said.  “I took a shot at her, but she played it off like she wasn’t interested.  I just let it go.  I wasn’t going to have her stringing me along, I just wanted her to feel included, you know?”

Dobie nodded.  “I know,” he said.  He didn’t miss being in his twenties.

“Mr. Cassarell?” a voice at his shoulder asked.  Dobie turned.  “I’m Ian Warnock, CFO of Crane-Packard.  Ian was five-nine, with piercing hazel eyes that didn’t match his black brows and what remained of his hair, which wasn’t much.  Ian was obviously Ren’s age, too young to be fully bald on top.  Ian seemed to be aware of this, and his eyes flicked to Dobie’s full, slightly graying mane before he began speaking.  “I just wanted to introduce myself to all of the shareholders, while we had you all in one place.”

“Yes, Ian, it’s good to meet you.  You’re an old school chum of Ren’s, do I have that correct?”

“That’s right, we went to college together, and then started at Ford around the same time.  When he up and quit and said he was starting his own company, he offered me the job.  After all, you might as well have a money man who looks like a money man, right?”  Ian laughed self-deprecatingly.

“You’ve done a fantastic job, Mr. Warnock.  I know that pulling together funding to start a car company from scratch, even a small one, is no minor task.  You ought to be proud of yourself.”

“Wouldn’t have managed it without all of you,” he said, shaking Dobie’s hand again.  “Let me know if I can get you anything, while you’re here or while you’re in New York.  Are you in the States for long?”

“Just for the weekend,” Dobie said.

“Well, if you have time in your schedule for it, we’re going to do a tour of the assembly facility in Detroit on Thursday, for the shareholders and the first customers.  We’ll fly everyone out there in the morning and be back by dinnertime.”

Dobie raised an eyebrow.  “Let me see if I can make space in my schedule for that.  It sounds interesting.”

In the main room, Ren saw Albert Branda from Motor Trend and Glen Grant from Late Apex, and greeted them both.

“Great intro, Ren,” Al said.  “One of the most fun I’ve ever seen.  Did Lexi train her cat to do that jump?”

“Took two months,” Ren said.  “Malice is a smart cat.”

“Is it true all of the cars are already sold?”

“That’s what Ron says, but you’ll have to ask him to be sure.”

“Why no pre-orders?” Glen asked.  It was customary to take deposits on cars to be produced during the coming months.  Crane-Packard had refused to do this.

Ren smiled.  “I didn’t feel right about selling cars I hadn’t built yet.”

“Wouldn’t the extra capital help to get you off the ground, though?”

He shrugged.  “It’s not about money,” he said.

“What are you looking at, for production?”

“Depends on demand.  I think we’ve got capacity for up to five hundred cars this year, if we break out the whips and drums.  I’m going to play it by ear.  Here’s a hilarious thing–UPS directed all of our supplies to our house, instead of the factory.  Someone crossed the wrong ‘t’ somewhere and now we’ve got fifty crates of car parts in our basement instead of on the production line.  My biography will be entitled, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Another.” 

He knew Lexi was at his right elbow without turning.  She hadn’t met Al or Glen, so he introduced her.  Someone who wasn’t Lexi cleared her throat, and he looked to see Molly with her.  “You forgot one,” she said.

Ren looked at Lexi, put on a goofy Chinese accent and quoted Big Trouble in Little China.  “Who are these people, eh?  Friends of yours?  Now this really pisses me off to no end!”  He turned back to the journalists and spoke in his normal voice.  “And this is Molly Snow.”

There was a shift in the conversation; with the two women present, the shop talk ceased instantly.  “Who do you write for, Molly?” Al asked, shaking her hand. 

“I freelance,” she said.  “But not automotive.  I’m not actually here working, I’m just a friend of Lexi’s.”

“And you got all dolled up just to come out and have dinner with a bunch of car writers.  Aren’t you disappointed?” he said with a grin.

“Not a bit,” she said.  “There are worse ways to spend the evening than getting hit on by guys twice my age.  And it’s an open bar,” she added, indicating her glass of wine.  Al smiled uncertainly, not sure if he was being insulted or not.  Glen smiled.

“I was telling these guys about all of the mechanicals being shipped to Arcadia,” Ren said to Lexi.  She nodded.  “Oh, is it time?”  Lexi nodded again.  “What is that stuff?” he asked, touching the rim of her almost-gone smoothie.

He was quoting from the movie again, and she gave the next line back to him, doing her best to mimic the character Egg Shen.  “It is black blood of earth,” she said.

“You mean oil?”

“No, I mean black blood of earth,” Lexi said, then added, “You’re stalling,” breaking their game. 

Ren scanned the room quickly.  It was full enough.  “This is the last time I agree to be master of ceremonies,” he said.  “Next time, you can be the figurehead, and I’ll be the one everyone thinks is crazy, okay?”  He moved purposefully toward the middle of the room, and the conversation waned around him.