Twelve

Nikki sat in the back seat while Eddie drove.  The car smelled like leather and a mellow sort of plastic.  She was on edge for the entire first day of the trip.  Eddie talked continuously.  He spent most of the time punctuating halfway interesting conversation with things that annoyed her with their familiarity, like he’d known her all her life.  She didn’t like that, and made it clear by not speaking to him all the way through Nevada.  Not that it did much good.  If he wasn’t talking, he was singing along to classic rock with an earnestness that wouldn’t have been out of place in an overly sentimental family movie.

Nikki was looking out the window at Utah with thoughts of completing Taiisha’s mission rolling about in her head, while Eddie sang along with the Eagles.  Then the radio went off, and he was talking to her again.  “You got any paper in your bag, Poppet?”

She looked reluctantly away from the Great Salt Desert.  “Don’t call me Poppet.”

He laughed.  “Whatever.  You got any paper?”

“What for?”

“To write on.  I want you to write something down for me.”

“Oh, I’m your goddamn secretary now?”

“No, if you were my secretary you’d be up here sucking my dick.  You got any paper or what?” He laughed again.  Nikki didn’t.  She still wasn’t sure if he believed she actually thought he was funny in spite of the fact that she didn’t laugh, or if he didn’t give a damn.

She took out one of her spiral pads and flipped past pages of pencil and pen sketches.  Most of the recent pages had faces of people she’d seen or random images vomited up by her mind, things with teeth and claws and flashing lights.  Not surprisingly, her mind had been a turbulent place recently.  Last night she’d drawn Eddie pierced by a hundred swords…literally.  The last page contained a more careful portrait of a grassy hill, curving gradually away into a cliff that fell away into mist.  It was the edge of the world.  Nikki dreamt about this place sometimes, although she’d never seen it.  She drew it on and off, and she got the sense of a place she’d like to go, where she might learn something about herself just by sitting quietly and absorbing the aura of the place.  In this particular drawing there was a little person hunched at the edge of the cliff, and that was her, from a great distance.  There was also a figure behind her, and it was scratched out.  Nikki didn’t know who it was supposed to be, and couldn’t recall why she had scratched it out, though she remembered doing it.  Maybe it was Taiisha.  Maybe it was herself, too–one dead, one alive.  Maybe, it was someone else who could die and come back like she and Taiisha could.  Were there others?  There had to be.  How could she find them?

“Hey, did you fall asleep?”

Nikki flipped the page and uncapped her pen.  “Okay, what?”

“Just a sec.” Eddie took the phone out of the console and dialed a number.  The first three tones were the same; he was calling directory assistance.  He asked for the phone number at an address she didn’t recognize.  He read the number aloud and she wrote it down.

“Whose number is it?”

“It’s a film production company in Chicago.”

“What, the one you hired?”

He shook his head.  “A completely different one.  I was reading some of the files that we copied from Prodigy, and I acquired a curiosity.  Want to hear about it?”  She did, but not enough to say so.  Eddie took her silence as a yes.  “Most of the stuff on the drive was pretty dry–business related crap, you know.  ‘Micro-‘ this and ‘Exp-‘ that.  That’s the stuff we were there for, I’m sure.  But there was a folder called ‘PirateKing,’ full of some pretty cool stuff.  Our friend Prodigy has a password-access only website devoted to the secrets of Ile du Soleil.  Ever heard of the place?”

“A little bit.  They’re islands somewhere south of Hawaii, aren’t they?”

“South and west.  And they’re big islands–all three of them together are a bit bigger than Texas and Oklahoma.  Haven’t got any natural resources.  It looks a lot like this,” he said, indicating Utah around them.  The whole place is basically one big salt flat, with some mountains around the edges.”

“And people live there?”

“Oh, yeah they do.  There wasn’t anything there till the Cold War, when businesses started investing in offices there just so they’d have something left when the world nuked itself into oblivion.  Now Ile du Soleil’s got a real population, cities, the whole nine yards.  And crime, too.  It’s a pickpocket’s paradise during tourist season, with plenty of studs in thongs.  You’d love it.”

Nikki sighed.  At least he wasn’t singing.  “So what was the website about?”

“I just skimmed it.  There’s a lot of history-book stuff about Ile du Soleil.  Do you want to hear it, or did you already learn it watching Jeopardy?”  Eddie looked at Nikki in the mirror; she didn’t smile.  Okay, so she didn’t watch Jeopardy, apparently.  But she was listening to him.  He could tell, because her dark blue eyes were eating up her face, absorbing everything he was saying.  Despite her resistance, she was probably enjoying the books he gave her to read, too.  He considered telling her that if she were a little bit stupider, he’d find her attractive, but decided not to tease her just now.  “The islands were discovered in the late sixteen hundreds, by Captain Joseph Emmerling.  There wasn’t anything there, but he sailed right back to Europe and spread stories that there was.  Cities, treasure, natives, the whole nine.  He convinced a few ships to follow him there, to trade, and none of them ever came back.  But Emmerling came home, kept traveling, and spread even more stories.  ‘Course by then, no one believed him.  He got tried as a pirate or something, and strung up.  But wouldn’t you know, fifty years later his great-grandson David Emmerling resurrects these stories.  Says he’s seen his great-grandfather’s treasure.  Not with his own eyes of course.” Eddie lit a cigarette, chuckled.  “David Emmerling was a complete kook.  Claimed that his great-grandpa had spoken to him from the spirit world, and given him the keys to some great vault full of the treasure he’d stolen from those six trade ships.  Nutball or not, little David managed to convince a ship to take him there in the mid-1700s.”

“What did they find?” Nikki asked.  She vaguely remembered some of this from school, but it hadn’t been as interesting as Eddie was making it sound.

“Not a damn thing, of course.  A storm left ’em marooned there.  End of story.  Until, another fifty years later, Bergstrom Roylton turns up.  He’s some random nephew of David Emmerling’s, and he gets England to grant him the deed to Ile du Soleil, and goes around getting all the other European countries to recognize it.  They didn’t care, it was a useless hunk of salt in the middle of nowhere.  Still, pretty impressive work getting them to let him have this land in the midst of everyone’s empire-building.  I’ll bet the guy was a smooth talker.  Anyhow, once he got that, Bergstrom returned to Ile du Soleil.  Didn’t find a single living soul, of course, just some wreckage that proved his uncle’s crew had indeed starved to death there forty-nine years ago, or so.  And that’s about it until World War II.  Seeing as how they owed the British Empire one, the Roylton family allowed the Allies to land planes there, build facilities, help out the Pacific Theater.  That wound up being the start of their industrial base–everyone left their shit behind once the war finished up, and the Royltons used it.  Then along came the Cold War, like I said, and more and more people wanted to build there, and the Royltons dealt with everyone just like they were a government.  Eventually the UN recognized Ile du Soleil as a nation.  The Roylton family ruled Ile du Soleil until the Seventies.  Good old King Khorbin.  You remember the big uprising…oh, wait, you were barely born then, never mind.  Shit, that makes me feel old.”

“Good.”

Eddie glanced at her in the mirror, grinning.  “Doesn’t matter.  What matters is the shipwreck they found in ’69.  The wreckage of David Emmerling’s ship.  They found ‘interesting artifacts.'”

“What were they?”

“The website doesn’t say for sure.  Prodigy might not have known.  The rumors circulated faster than the stuff did, and then there was that coup in ’72 that sent everything crazy in Ile du Soleil and the shipwreck disappeared during that.”

Nikki’s curiosity was piqued.  Just a little bit.  “So nobody knows what was found.  That’s impossible.  It wasn’t that long ago.  Somebody has to know.”

“I’m going to try to find out.  Supposedly that film company in Chi-town is putting together a documentary for A&E on precisely that subject; Ile du Soleil’s mysteries.  It was supposed to air last summer, but Prodigy’s website says it didn’t.  A bunch of the crew, including the commentator, got killed while wrapping up production in California–bus crash–and they pulled the show.  I’m going to see if I can get a look at the unfinished tape.”

“I guess it’s nice to have a hobby.”

“What?”

Nikki shook her head and looked out the window again.  She was wondering if she could help him with that.  She’d forgotten about killing him for the moment; suddenly she wanted to impress him somehow.  The feeling was fading fast.  But if she helped him, maybe he’d help her find more people who could die and come back.  Before she killed him that was.  Because he wouldn’t be back.  “Nothing.”

He turned halfway around in the seat to look at her.  “No, what did you say? You said something about hobbies.  Pardon me if I can’t hear you.  Maybe you should try talking instead of muttering in that little voice of yours.  If I even think of other voices, it drowns you out.”  Nikki looked back at him, turning her eyes without turning her head, and he made a face of mock fear.  “Ooh, midnight blue eyes, you’re so intimidating, Poppet.  What did you say?”

It was too much, coming on the heels of her friendly thoughts about helping him.  She considered telling him that he had no idea who his enemies were.  Nikki considered telling him a dozen things that might wipe that smug look off his face.  She even considered climbing over the seat, making him stop the car, and breaking his legs just so she could kick him to death out on the salt and take the car and get this all over with.

In the end she just looked at him for a long moment, then looked back out the window without saying anything at all.  Nikki didn’t like the rage inside herself when it started to get out of control.  It didn’t feel like it was hers any more.  She turned and looked out the back window, half-expecting to see Taiisha’s car on the horizon.  There weren’t any cars at all, though.  Maybe, just maybe, she didn’t know where they’d gone.  She doubted it, but it was a hope.

Outside, nothing had changed.  The salt ran white and flat on either side of the freeway.  She hadn’t seen a building in almost an hour.  It was desolate and beautiful.

A hot, charged silence filled the car for a few minutes.  When Eddie broke it, he surprised her for the second time since she had met him.  “So where’d you get your necklace?” he asked.

Nikki touched the charm, a turquoise glass oval living in the bell of a silver teardrop.  She hadn’t been wearing it around Taiisha, who would have merely tried to strangle her with it, but with Eddie she was beginning to feel comfortable wearing jewelry again.  When she thought about it, it made her happy.  “Why?”

“Just curious.  It’s nice.”  Like when he’d sat her down after Taiisha had attacked her, his voice conveyed real interest and concern.  Maybe it was sincere and maybe it wasn’t, but her instinct was to believe him.  His interest melted her ice a little bit.

“It was my mother’s,” she said.  “It’s the only thing of hers I kept.”

“She died?”

“Yes.”

“What happened?”

Nikki looked at Eddie in the mirror.  He was looking at the road.  She found it easier to talk to him when he wasn’t looking at her.  “She was murdered,” she said, looking out the window again.  “My whole family was.”

“Well.  That’s what I would call a speed bump on the road of life.”

That brought the anger back, and Nikki kicked the back of his seat.  Hard.  “Fuck you!  Fucking shit-eating asshole, fuck you!”  She leaned across the seat so she could get more extension on her leg and kicked the seat twice more, tearing the leather with her heel and knocking Eddie against the steering wheel.  The car swerved into the next lane as Eddie was thrown forward.

“Sorry,” Eddie coughed, straightening the car.  “No, really, I am, that was a crappy, tacky thing to say.  I apologize.  I just wanted to know about the necklace anyway.  Where did she get it?  Your mother?”

She held the teardrop out on its slender chain so she could see it, and decided to accept the apology.  Her hand was still shaking.  “It came from a garage sale.  When I was young we would go to garage sales.  I picked this out for her, when I was in second grade.  I think it cost a quarter.  It’s just glass.”

“Real silver?” Eddie looked at her in the mirror, saw her looking back, eyes narrowed.  “I ain’t going to steal it, Nikki, I’m just curious.”

“Yes, it’s real silver.  Why are you asking about it?”

“To learn more about you.”

“You could just ask me directly.”

“And I doubt you’d ‘fucking’ answer,” he said.  “Would you, if I asked you what your hobbies were? What your favorite TV show was? Where you were born? Your favorite food?”

He was right, of course.  Nikki shrugged and looked out the window.  Her sketchpad was still on her lap, and she put it on the seat next to her.

“Besides, you learn more from the little things.  Why people wear what they wear, keep what they keep.  Knowing what makes you tick is more interesting than knowing you grew up in Dog’s Balls, Idaho.”

She felt suddenly exposed, naked.  “I guess.”

“Didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” he said.  “I just want to be your friend.” That got him another look in the mirror.  “I’m not bullshitting you.  You spend all your time around someone, which we certainly will be–” the hairs on her neck rose, fearing needlessly that he was talking about an intent to rape her, “–and you want to be able to talk to them, that’s all.  Ask me something, if it makes you feel better.”

Nikki tried to think of a question similar to his.  There was nothing she wanted to know about him, and for a moment she was ashamed of herself for that.  “Okay.  Why did you buy this car?”

“To get cross-country without flying,” he said.  “Or do you mean, why a Lincoln?”

“Why this Lincoln? Why did you pick silver with a blue interior?”

“This is the biggest car they make, and I wanted a big, comfortable car, something not as showy as a Benz or a Bimmer.  And silver is a nice color.”

“Silver’s a noncolor.  The car might as well not be painted,” she said.

“Fine, then, we’re more anonymous.”

“Why didn’t we fly?” Nikki asked.

Eddie’s eyes met hers in the mirror.  “So we could get to know each other on a nice long family trip, of course.”

“Liar.”

He smiled.  “It’s what I do.”

“No, tell me why.”

He didn’t back down this time.  “I already did.  Is it my turn to ask you another question yet?”

Twelve

Molly set her laptop on Lexi’s dining room table, plugged the machine in, and slapped her notepad on the table.  The sound echoed in the room, a flat smack that denoted irritation.  Ian jumped, but she wasn’t actually annoyed.  Of course, having him walking on eggshells around her didn’t bother her; since the dressing-down he’d gotten the last time she’d been here, he had been positively rabbit-like.  That was fine with her.  “You’re still following me around,” she said, glancing at him over the top of the PowerBook’s screen.

“I’m just curious,” he said.  “I expected you’d have all sorts of ghost-hunting equipment, not just the notepad.”

She refrained from rolling her eyes.  It had taken Ian long enough to warm up to the idea of her coming to Lexi’s house for a short visit at all, and she was determined to be cordial, even while she was making him twitchy.  He’d avoided her calls for weeks after she’d dressed him down about the missed meeting in Detroit, and while she was glad he was afraid of her, it made it awfully hard to get in touch with Lexi.  Lately a man who claimed to be Lexi’s doctor had started answering the phone most of the time.  “Phone jack?” she asked, holding up the modem’s cord.

Ian nodded and took it.  Molly carried a twenty-five foot loop of the stuff; you never knew how far it would have to stretch sometimes. 

She was at once glad Ian had let her come up, and annoyed that she felt compelled to ask his permission.  It was Lexi’s house, after all.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t get through to the lady of the house.  Molly wanted desperately to talk to Lexi, apart from the occasional addled late-night phone call, so she’d decided to pull some vacation time ahead and take a Christmas shift on the newsdesk to make up for it, if she had to. 

Of course it was looking like it would be for naught; when she arrived, Lexi was barely lucid, loopy on antidepressants.  Ian had introduced her briefly to Dr. Zheng, a florid little Chinese man who had assumed the mantle of live-in doctor for Lexi, and then she’d gone right to exploring the house for evidence of Lexi’s ghosts.

“So what happens next?”

“It’s very exciting, Ian.  I’m going to sit here and transcribe the notes I took while we walked through, while it’s still fresh in my mind.  You’ll be able to feel the tension in the keystrokes.”

“But what are you writing about?  We didn’t see any spooks,” he added.  There was slightly mocking skepticism in his voice.

She ignored it.  “No, we didn’t.  It doesn’t matter.  I want to describe the house.  What it feels like.  What it smells like.  The way that the original wallpaper feels under your fingertips as you walk down the hallway upstairs.  The fire damage on Lexi’s wall.  Every old house is different and I want to take my readers into the moment.”  She typed in her dialup number and let the modem’s screech change the subject.  “So, isn’t the doctor expensive?” she asked. 

She had hoped that Ian would be taken by surprise, but he merely folded his hands on the table in front of him.  “It’s better than having to rush to the emergency room in town, if something happens,” he said.  “The funds from the auction are paying for it.”

“And how’s Lex taking it?”

“Taking what?”

“The cars being gone,” she said, pushing her chair back.  Connection made, she clicked open her mail program, fingers dancing on the trackball.  She disliked having to ask Ian things she’d come up here to talk to Lexi about, but decided to make the effort to trust him.  He was looking out for her friend, after all.  She needed to let the Detroit thing go; he’d made an honest mistake, and it wouldn’t happen again.  If she kept treating him like an asshole for it though, things certainly wouldn’t get any better, and Molly wanted to be on the list of people Ian would call if he needed help or advice.  Grudges were a bad habit of hers. 

“Ah, that,” Ian said.  “As well as could be expected, I suppose.  We’re trying to get her to sleep less.”  Neither of them really wanted to talk about Lexi–at least not to one another–so the subject faltered and died.  Molly fussed with the hair at the back of her neck, looking through her email.  Newspaper stuff, newspaper stuff…here was a note from an editor saying that no, thank you, her ghost column didn’t sound like it was for them.  And an email from Glen Grant.  Molly frowned.  The name was vaguely familiar, and curiosity brushed the sting of the rejection note aside.

“So, how do you do…whatever it is you’re going to do?  What other tests do you run?”

She smiled.  “There aren’t any tests, Ian.  All I do is pass on the stories about the ghosts.  Kind of like modernizing folk tales.”  Oh, now she remembered.  She’d met Mr. Grant at the Crane-Packard introduction, in New York, he was another car journalist, and Lexi had mentioned that she’d done an interview with him, or was going to.  It was hard to tell what was in the present or past with Lexi lately.  “I’ll spend the night and keep my ears open,” she told Ian, plucking at her earlobe for emphasis, “and that’s about it.  I’ll also contact the town hall, or whatever passes for one, and try to get the history of the house.  Maybe I’ll be able to figure out who the ghost might be.”

“Purported ghost,” Ian corrected her.  “Lexi says she sees ghosts everywhere,” he sighed, shaking his head in disbelief.

Molly nodded, dividing her attention between Ian and Glen’s email.  He had gotten her contact info from the business card she’d given him, and wanted to ask her about Lexi–specifically, what kind of treatment she was getting.  He added in a postscript that it was off-the-record; he’d seen something that concerned him was all.  “Seen anything yourself?”

“I’m sure I haven’t.”

“No need to be shy.”  Her lips curled in a teasing smile.

“No,” he said, meeting her eyes but not matching her amusement.  “I haven’t seen anything.  You do realize that she likes to make up stories, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.”  His tendency to be condescending was one of the things Molly disliked about Ian.  It made it hard for her to remember how big a help he’d been these past few months.  While he talked she keyed a rapid response to Glen Grant:  Ask me anything. It was coquettish–she remembered Glen being moderately attractive, in a semi-bookish way–and of course she could decide whether she was going to talk about Lexi behind her back or not once she knew what he wanted to know.  She sent the email and said, “Lex does make stuff up sometimes, but we’ve shared experiences before, and she wouldn’t have me up here on a wild goose chase.”

Ian nodded, unconvinced.  “You say you’ve seen ghosts together?”

“More than once,” Molly said.  The things that she and Lexi and Cygnet seen as teenagers flitted through her mind, and she decided not to share the details with Ian.  “More than once,” she repeated.

“And then newspapers buy your stories?”

“Are you asking lots of questions because you’re curious, or because you’re trying not to give me the chance to ask any of my own?”  She looked from the computer to Ian and was satisfied to see a slightly guilty look on his face.  “Yes, newspapers buy them.  In fact I’m up to twelve papers a week now.”  Yeah, twelve positive responses from three hundred query letters, a sarcastic voice in the back of her head droned. Molly ignored it.  “People like to hear folk tales.”

“Do you make a lot of money at that?”

“I have no plans to quit my day job, if that’s what you’re asking.”  Molly stood up and looked around the dining room, idly clicking the “Send & Receive All” icon as she did.  She stretched her back, looking at the ceiling.  There had once been a light fixture over the dining table, probably something ornate judging by the molding that remained, but it was long gone.  The ceiling and walls of the dining room were stained dark with candle-soot.

When Molly brought her head back down, she caught Ian’s eyes jumping away from her breasts.  She said nothing; most men did it, and it wasn’t the first time she’d seen Ian looking either.  At least he didn’t talk to them.  “So what did you sense?” he asked.  The mocking tone was back.

“I told you, I’m not a medium.”  There was already email; Glen had responded.  He must be at his computer.  “So tell me more about this Dr. Zheng,” she asked.  “I thought Lex was off the suicide watch.” 

Glen’s question was startling:  Does Lexi have a history of epilepsy or other neurological problems?  She had a grand mal seizure while I was interviewing her, and Mr. Warnock seemed unaware of any long-term health problems.  She was heavily medicated and I was concerned that it might be a reaction.

“She is” Ian said.  “But I can’t stay here with her all the time.  I’ve got to go back to work, and she’s not ready to be left alone.”

“I understand,” Molly said.  “How has she been reacting to the anti-depressants?  You said Dr. Zheng had her on something new?”

“She’s been fine,” Ian said, pushing his chair back.  “No problems at all.”

“I just wondered.  She used to have funny reactions to some things when we were younger.”  This wasn’t a complete truth, since Lexi’s ability to get slightly intoxicated on massive amounts of sugar wasn’t something Molly considered particularly funny.

“There hasn’t been anything untoward,” Ian said.  “I’ve got a phone call to make.  Will you be using the phone line for long?”

“Just a couple of minutes,” she said.

“Oh, before it slips my mind–when Lexi wakes up, if you get a chance to talk to her, I need you to ask her about a few things.”

Molly raised an eyebrow.

“I’m just tying up loose ends, and there’s a lot of Crane-Packard inventory missing.  Parts, mostly.  It’s been inventoried, but none of it is at the factory.  I was hoping Lexi might know if she and Warren did something silly with it.”

Something about the way he said it annoyed her.  “Yes, because abject silliness was the business model that they followed.”  On her computer, she typed while she talked:  I’ve never known Lex to have a seizure of any kind, and I. (sitting right in front of me) says she’s had no adverse drug reactions.  Is he lying?  Now I have a question for you:  why is he asking me to ask L. where the inventory of C-P parts is, because it’s not in the warehouse? And even if I knew–if she wouldn’t tell him, why would I? She sent her response as Ian stood up, suddenly afraid he’d walk around the table and see what she was writing about him. 

“I didn’t mean to be insulting, I’m sorry.  But you have to admit that they could be unorthodox.”

“Indeed.  Why can’t you ask her?”

“She’s been playing games with me.  I can’t tell if she’s keeping things from me on purpose, or because of…”  Ian let the sentence hang.  “Anyway, I thought she might be more comfortable talking to you about it.  It reminds her of Ren, and you know how she gets.”

Ian’s excuse was lame, and she didn’t believe it for a moment but pretended to.  There was something going on.  She didn’t know what, but something wasn’t kosher.  Molly kicked herself for sending the email to Glen.  She’d met the man once, and the last damn thing Lexi needed was another reporter intrigued by what was going on in her life.  They’d only just started to get rid of the first thousand or so.  Still, something wasn’t right.  She’d have to email Glen some more and find out what he was thinking, exactly.  Maybe they could do lunch some time, and talk at length about Lexi.  Swap ideas.

The idea had more appeal than it ought to.  She wanted an excuse to talk to Glen some more, and she had no idea why.  There were better people to talk to, however–mutual friends she was more acquainted with.  She started writing an email to Ajax Jaxon.