Twenty-eight

It was barely ten.  I wasn’t tired, but I was hungry again.  Dinner had been filling, but I had been starving all day thanks to dying.  The lunchtime binge had barely gotten me back to normal.  “I’m hungry,” I said.

He picked up the phone and handed it to me.  “So order a pizza.”

“Do you want some?”

“Trying to watch my weight,” Eddie said as he bent down to peel his socks off.  I snorted, and he looked up at me with a sideways grin.  He didn’t care how fat he was.  I envied him the ability to not care about his appearance when he didn’t have to.

I took that to mean he was going to eat too, and looked in the phone book for someplace that was close and that delivered.  I wasn’t going out again.  Domino’s fit both criteria, so I ordered two medium pizzas.  I didn’t have to ask Eddie what he wanted; he liked ham and pineapple.  I ordered a Hawaiian pizza and a supreme.  I wanted two for myself, but couldn’t do that with Eddie here.  He was going to hassle me enough about eating one pizza all by myself.

I was feeling somewhat better.  Not a great deal, but I had some things to ask Eddie, and I was more in the mood to deal with his shit now.  I wanted to think about our next job, not about the fact that Taiisha had told me to kill him after the first and this would be our third.  “Who’s Lexi Crandall?” I asked him as I put the phone down.  I had heard the name mentioned on his voicemail.  Whoever she was, we were going to her house, to play caretaker for her.

“Crane,” he corrected me.  “Lexi Crane.  Never heard of her?”

“Did I or did I not just ask you who she was?”

He grinned and turned his laptop on the desk so he could see it.  “She was engaged to a friend of my friend Ian’s.”  I had spoken to Ian briefly on the phone; he had a nervous-sounding voice and a brusque, impatient manner like I’d imagined a cartoon goat would have.  “You probably never heard of Warren Packard, either.”

“No,” I said, letting some of my irritation show so Eddie knew he was making me feel stupid.

“He was a real car guy.  Worked at Ford for a few years, then got into racing.  He met up with Lexi somewhere along the way, and the two of them together designed and built a car, started their own car company.  They built about fifteen sports cars.  Called ’em Crane-Packards.  Do I sound like a history book, or what?” Eddie made a bemused face, and I acknowledged it with half a smile.  “Anyway, they were set up to be the next big thing, got a ton of backers for Crane-Packard because they were the most dynamic and exciting things to hit the car world in twenty or thirty years.  Not the cars, of course, they were sort of funny-looking, I mean Lexi and Warren.  They would have been the most exciting things to hit any social scene.  I met Warren once, saw pictures of Lexi in a couple magazines, and they just had it, whatever it is that makes a person a media darling.  Charisma up the ass.  I’m talking Cary Grant and…I don’t know, Audrey Hepburn or somebody.  Only younger.  They had the right presence, without being so obviously phony as to turn people off.  Maybe it was a shtick, maybe not.  Warren was honestly fun to be around.  He made you feel good to be alive.  Lexi, I don’t really know about.”  Eddie was a good judge of false faces.  Not a surprise, since he wore so many of them himself.  “In April, right after the Crane-Packard’s public intro, Warren died.  His car went off the road up in New England somewhere.”

He was looking at me like he expected a nod of recognition, but I hadn’t seen a newspaper for two years, not counting the last two weeks.  “I haven’t been watching the news much,” I said.

Eddie nodded and didn’t seem surprised, to my relief.  “Well, you’ve heard the thumbnail, that’s all you need to know.  Of course the company folded after he died.  There are whispers that the accident wasn’t completely an accident, if you know what I mean.”

“Whose whispers?”

“Just whispers.  Nothing solid.  Anyhow, Lexi cracked up.  Warren was her whole life and she fell apart.  The Packard family put up a fight over the estate–they had a couple hundred classic cars, a house, and the Crane-Packard company turned into something like fourteen mill after they flushed the stock and paid off all its debts.  Lexi and the Packard family got into it in court, but Lexi couldn’t handle it.  She had a nervous breakdown in June, right on the proverbial county courthouse steps.  You didn’t see that on TV?”  Eddie’s laugh went right down my spine and left a trail of irritation.  I wanted to shout at him that I’d been in a goddamn desert cabin and too busy being tortured to watch TV, but I didn’t.  “It was great.  It was hilarious.  Newsies shouting questions at her, people swarming around yelling ‘Lexi!’ this and ‘Lexi!’ that and jabbing mikes at her, and she just puts her hands over her head and starts screaming.  She goes down on the ground in a fetal position and won’t get up.  Ian and another guy had to carry her away.  They stuffed her in the car and took off with reporters banging on the windows.  I should have Ian tell you about it.  Anyhow, they took her back to the house in Arcadia that she and Warren owned, and kept her there.  He’s been taking care of her until she’s fit to tend to her own affairs–which include a pretty good chunk of those assets I was telling you about.  Seems the court agreed with Warren’s will, which didn’t leave his family a goddamn thing.  She’s been a catatonic little rich girl since then.  What’s that, six months?”

I nodded.  “So Ian’s been taking care of her up at her house?”

“That’s what he tells me.  He got her a doctor, and he’s basically playing butler.  She won’t do anything for herself, and they’ve got her on antidepressant drugs, so she doesn’t cry all day and try to kill herself.”

“That’s sad,” I said.  “Was Ian getting paid?”

“No.  He was a friend of Warren’s, worked with him at Ford and helped out with some of the development on the Crane-Packard, if memory serves.  He’s just being a good neighbor.  Lexi doesn’t have any family or friends nearby.” I was about to ask Eddie what we were going to do, but he started telling me before I opened my mouth.  I think he saw the question in my eyes.  “We’re going to replace Ian for the winter.  She’s all but chased the regular doc out, so Ian asked me to step in for a while.  And it’s paying very, very well.  We’ll head up tomorrow.  You drive, so I can do some reading on the way.”  Eddie was going to read enough of the right books so he could sound like a doctor, if Lexi questioned him.

“What if that other doctor wants to know your credentials?  He’s going to find your holes.”

“He won’t ask any questions.  Believe me.  Ian says he just wants out, and he needs someone who understands his position up there, not just any doctor.”

“What’s Ian’s ‘position?'” I asked.

“Well, he’s got power of attorney over her money, for as long as she can’t take care of herself.  It’s a lot of money, and just maybe she might not quite appreciate everything he’s done with it, if she bothers to think about it.  Do the math.  You’re going to play assistant.”

“As usual.”

“Hey, you make a good assistant.  ‘Sides, then I won’t have to do anything.  She’ll be happier to have a girl tending her instead of an old horny fatass anyhow.  She won’t be much trouble.  It’s a complete dawdle.  I couldn’t very well leave you behind, now could I?”

I shook my head and looked directly into his eyes.  “No, you couldn’t.”

He met my gaze, then smiled and looked back at his computer.  “I bet your baby-sitter thought you were possessed.  Your last name didn’t used to be Addams, did it?”

Yes, I’d been compared to Wednesday Addams before.  “Funny,” I said without returning the smile.  Eddie didn’t notice in any case. 

I started to say something else, but there was a knock at the door.  It was the pizza.  I paid the delivery guy and dropped Eddie’s pizza into the chair across from him.  He was still working on his laptop, and appeared to have graduated from the pretend work intended to get him through the awkwardness of my being pissed off at him to real work.

“Are you looking up more about the Ile du Soleil stuff?” I asked.  The information from Prodigy’s computer still had his interest, and he was as intent on it as he was any of his troubleshoots. 

He nodded.  “I need to watch that video I borrowed today.  Everything Prodigy had on his website is culled from the rest of the Net.  I’m not finding anything new.  The video has to be the key.  One of ’em.”

“Why are you so sure?”

“I’m not.  But you have to admit, when half the production crew croaks just after completion of a documentary, and then every cable channel in the free world yanks it, then something must be up.”

“Maybe there’ll be a VCR at Lexi’s house,” I said.

His response was a nod.   Eddie was paying more attention to the computer than to me, so I retreated to my own bed to eat in silence.  When I got myself a glass of water, I didn’t ask if he wanted one.  I got my sketchpad out and tried to some more, but my mind wasn’t in it and I wasn’t happy with anything I did.  Eventually I gave up, put down the pencil, and smeared pizza grease around on the paper in a swirling pattern.  It looked like the residue from acid rain when I was done.  I wasn’t happy with that either.  I didn’t want to read, either; I closed the empty pizza box, crawled under the blankets, and went to bed.

I was asleep, I was awake, I was dreaming I was awake, I was asleep wanting to be awake, wanting, wanting, wanting, trying…

I woke up from a nightmare, some time late.  I didn’t look at the clock.  I woke up terrified, lunging forward in bed with a scream clawing to get out of my throat and my hands clutching double handfuls of the blankets so tightly I left creases in them.  As usual, I couldn’t remember the dream.  I hadn’t screamed this time, at least.  Eddie was still asleep.  Sometimes the scream got out before I woke up.  My heart was hammering, and the adrenaline surging through me made me want to get up and run, to flee something that wasn’t there but had to be fled nonetheless.

I tried to remember the dream.  I always tried to, because there might be clues to the memories I had lost.  It rarely did any good.  The nightmares were just as likely to be a recurrence of any one of twenty other frightening times in my life.  I could only remember one aspect of the dream; moving shadows.  That was no thing at all.  Whatever was in my head, it had slipped from my grasp.  Whatever was lost belonged there, as far as part of my brain was concerned.  I likened it to the quest to photograph the Loch Ness Monster; every once in a while I was convinced I had something, a new detail or angle, but it always turned out to be another tree limb.  The monster refused to confirm its existence.

It was three in the morning.  A cramp in my stomach told me I was hungry again.  The pizza had been exactly four hours ago and my belly was empty again already.  I pulled a skirt and sweatshirt on, stuffed my feet into socks and boots, took Eddie’s key, and went out to see if I could find something to eat.

I didn’t want to walk through the snow to Dawn Donuts in the middle of the night, so I settled for two cans of orange juice and three packets of Nutter Butters from the vending machines.  I took my snack back to the hotel room and let myself in.  Eddie didn’t even stir.  I didn’t feel much like sleeping, but I knew Eddie was going to make me drive all day so I lay back down.  The cookies cheered me up, and were filling.  My body was getting back to normal.

Six o’clock came and I hadn’t fallen back asleep.  Eddie’s little portable clock beeped the usual 6:01 alarm and he sat up and turned it off before the third beep.  I pulled the covers over my head and pretended to be asleep.  The blankets muffled his morning-noises, too.  I couldn’t stand the sounds Eddie made in the morning–grunting, snuffling, smacking his lips, and the daily fusillade of farts in the bathroom.  With the pillow over my head, I didn’t have to hear a sound until he was out of the shower and human again.

While Eddie was in the shower I dozed off.  I lay there under the covers, heard the shower start, and suddenly Eddie was tapping my shoulder through the blanket.  “Six-thirty, Poppet.  Time to get moving.” He sounded gentle.  He always got a funny air about him if he caught me sleeping, like it made him feel sentimental and mushy and that embarrassed him.

“I’m driving today?” I asked.  My voice was soft and rusty, like it always was in the morning.

“You sound like you need a cigarette.” Eddie tossed me the pack but I didn’t pick it up.  “And yes, you are driving today.”

“How far?”

“Arcadia’s about a hundred and fifty miles as the crow flies, but we have to drive around Lake Michgan.  Figure four or five hours.  Depends on the weather.  Traffic ain’t too bad going that way.”

I nodded.  Eddie straightened the cuffs of his shirt and turned around.  “How do I look?” He had combed his hair and parted it, which made him look more scholarly.  He wore a pressed shirt and dark blue slacks that fit him reasonably well.  There was a matching jacket lying on the bed.

He looked harmless, but intelligent.  “Wear a tie,” I said.

He smiled.  “You’re getting the hang of this, Poppet.”

“Don’t call me Poppet in the morning.”

“I didn’t call you Poppet in the mor–“

I made a sideways chopping motion in the air with my hand and he stopped.  I didn’t say anything else to him while we packed.

The weather had gotten colder.  The sky was a solid mass of gray clouds just beginning to show streaks of dawn.  Yesterday’s freezing drizzle had turned to a cold, dry breeze that dried up the puddles and turned their shredded remains to frost.  The cold brought silence with it.  I liked the silence; the rest of it could go.  My nose got a chill almost immediately; the fingers and toes followed suit.  There was a light blanket of frost on Eddie’s Lincoln, as well as all of the other cars in the lot.  I got in and turned on the defrosters for the windows and windshield and moved the seat to the right position while Eddie paid for the room.

The thermometer on the Town Car’s dashboard said it was six degrees.  Winter had arrived a little bit early in Chicago.  Wonderful.  My fingers were already going numb.  I sat on my hands to staunch the flow of heat from my body.  When Eddie got back he turned on the GPS navigation system that he had installed at the bottom of the dash, and entered Lexi’s address.

He didn’t ask if I wanted breakfast.  As soon as we left the parking lot Eddie read the GPS and directed me to the highway heading north, opened a book, and started reading.  He was sitting straighter than usual.  He was already getting into character, as he called it.  Eddie read for a while longer, then looked through some other papers I hadn’t seen.  I guessed that Ian had given them to him.

“This is going to be easy,” he said when he finished reading.  “She gets a pill in the morning and one in the evening.  Other than that we just baby-sit.  If anything else comes up I’ll make it up as I go along.”

“Okay,” I said.  I couldn’t stop looking in the mirror, afraid I’d catch a glimpse of Taiisha’s Thunderbird.  I didn’t see her, but doubted that we’d lost her.  “Do I need a costume, too?”

“Naw, you’ll be fine as you are.”  A scruffy goth nurse?  I trusted Eddie’s judgment, but it seemed thin.  “Ian says the house is a big, creaky old mansion.  You should like that.”

“Why would I like that?”

He made a show of looking me up and down.  “Little Miss Cobweb herself is asking me that? Surely it’s sarcasm.  Lighten up, eh?  This is gonna be a good time.  Easy job, not a lot to think about.  Practically a vacation.”

“Whatever you say.  I hate snow, Eddie.  It’s going to be cold and I don’t like it cold.”

“Bitch, moan, complain.  We’ll get you some mittens and a coat, and a nice fuzzy scarf.  You’ll look like a bundle of wool.  Will that make you happy?”

I almost smiled.  “I’ll just stay inside all winter.  There better be heat in this house.”

“Poppet, heat is a foregone conclusion in northern Michigan.  You don’t have heat, you die.  Period.”

“You know, when you call me Poppet, it annoys me so much I barely hear the next thing you say.”

“Then you ought to listen closer and stop getting so uptight about your nickname.”

“That’s not my nickname.  You started calling me that without my permission or approval.  I don’t like nicknames.  I want to be called by my real name.”

“Okay, Nikki,” Eddie said.  He sounded like a ten-year-old.  “Which, I might add, is short for Nicole.”

“Go to hell, you stupid stinking bastard asshole whoremagnet motherfucker!” 

He started laughing.  Eddie laughed with his whole body, doubling over in the seat and clutching at his sides.  I had seen him actually roll on the floor laughing at Jay Leno.  “What did you say? Did you call me an asshole whoremagnet motherfucker? That’s absolutely beautiful.”

Saying fuck you would have done no good any more, so I didn’t say anything.

“You put together the most amazing chains of profanity when you’re angry.  I think it’s a natural talent for you.” Eddie laughed again.  “Who taught you to talk like that?  What sick individual put all that in your head, huh?”

“Just like any other pile of garbage, Eddie, it collected here.  No one’s responsible.”

“I figured you learned it from your older brother.  You had an older brother, didn’t you?”

“Have, still.  Somewhere.”

“Did he get sent to a different foster home?”

I shook my head.  Talking about Charles didn’t bother me.  I was proud of my brother.  Eddie sensed this and didn’t say anything to piss me off.  “No, he’s seven years older than me.  He’s overseas, in Germany, in the Army.”

“He didn’t come home when his parents and the rest of your family got killed?”

“No.  They didn’t tell him.  I don’t know why.  I wrote him a letter about it and he hadn’t heard about it at all.  Not a word.  The last letter I got he said his CO hadn’t passed any messages on to him and that he was busting some asses to get home so he could get involved, and…” I let the sentence die.  I wished terribly that Charles could have come home.  I had written him a somewhat bitter letter, assuming he’d been told about what had happened, and still not come home.  I felt horrible for inadvertently telling him all of those terrible things, none too gently.  He had always taken care of me, and I should have given him the benefit of the doubt.

“But that didn’t happen, I take it.” Eddie said.

“I don’t know for sure.  Things got bad with the Prices and I left.  I haven’t heard from Charles since then.”

“You sent him a letter last week.”

That took me a little off-guard.  I didn’t know Eddie had even seen me writing the letter, let alone caught me mailing it.  I didn’t underestimate him as much as the rest of the world seemed to, but I was occasionally guilty.  Like my size, his demeanor invited it.  “Yes, I did.  But he can’t write me back, he doesn’t have an address to send things to.  I don’t even know if they’re getting to him.”

“Bet the Prices have a bunch of mail for you.”

I sighed, to let him know I wasn’t interested in pursuing that line of thought.  “Maybe.”

It was starting to snow again.  Dry, powdery flakes.  The sky was dark with the threat of more snow.  The cities and suburbs had melted gradually away; we were driving through a lot of everything and nothing.  There were homes, farms, and woods, but not enough of anything that we were “driving through” anything.  After a while I mentioned this to Eddie and he looked up politely, took a glance out the windows, chuckled, and went back to reading.

Twenty-eight

“So he never called you back?” Glen asked Molly.

“No, he didn’t.  He hung up on me, and said he’d call back in twenty minutes.  Two days ago.”  She bit her lip.  “I’m worried.  He’s not married and he has no family, so there’s  no one that I know to call.”

“I’m leaving for Arcadia on Thursday,” he replied, “but my Mondays are usually pretty open.  I’ll drive past tomorrow, and see if there’s anything to see.  Though it’s close enough to downtown that if he was mugged or something, I’m sure he would have turned up by now.  What did he drive?”

Molly thought about it for a moment.  “Do you know, I have no idea?  Ajax was a good friend of Warren’s, but I wasn’t particularly close to him.  Not that I’d have been able to tell what it was anyway.  Are you completely disappointed in me?”

“Deeply disturbed,” Glen joked.  He was serious almost immediately.  “I’ll see what I can see.”

“It’s probably nothing,” she said with more hope than conviction.  She hadn’t told Glen that Ajax had said something about finding weapons.  “He probably got chased off of private property and is too embarrassed to call and tell me about it.”

“Probably,” Glen agreed.  “But there’s no sense in stressing out about it right now, so let’s talk about something else.”

Molly found herself smiling.  She’d been thinking the same thing, and wanted to tell him about the envelope full of photos, but it was redundant at this point and she didn’t want to go round the same carousel again.  “Like what?”

“Well, I’d been wanting to ask you how you tumbled into writing about ghosts.”  He sounded genuinely interested.  She also liked that he automatically twigged to the freelancing as her chosen career, even though it didn’t currently pay her bills.  He understood the difference between the job that made the money and the one that meant the most, something her parents (and ex-husband) had never seemed to pick up on.

“To skip over the boring childhood crap, let’s just say I’ve always collected ghost stories,” she said. “Spooky folk tales, things like that.  I always had a scrapbook full of ghost stories that I copied out of library books, and newspaper clippings of weird happenings.  On a lark last spring, I tracked down the history of a local haunted house, here in Boston, and got an editor to run it.  It re-ran in a few other papers, and so I did a couple more, to see if there was interest in a folksy sort of ghost story column, and it looks like there is, at least in New England.  We like our ghosts on the East Coast.”

“Seems like you’d find a market in any region, actually.  You might have to do some traveling.”

“Oh, hurt me.  Getting to see the country as a result of my job?  What a nightmare,” Molly said, going heavy on the sarcasm.  “I like doing it, anyway.  It’s a shame I can’t collect ghosts and race them and make millions by selling them, like some folks can do with their obsessions.”

“You have clearly been misled.  Who told you that people make money collecting cars?”

“Well, I know we talk about her a lot, but I could bring up Lexi.”

“To tell the truth, that was a decent sale, but I’ll bet you they paid more for most of those cars than she got out of the sale.  I’d be surprised if she broke even, on the long-term accounting sheet.”

“Really?”

“Really.  There are guys who make loads of money trading in classic cars, and then there are people like Lexi and Ren, who love old cars.  The former group is good at buying from the trade sheets that tell them what’s going up in value; the latter buys from the heart.  These groups rarely intersect.  I saw that collection, and there were a few significant cars in there but most of them were just vehicles that they loved.  Quirky stuff, personalized stuff.”

Molly was confused.  “So, what about the auction.  Ian said that there was enough money for Lex to live off of for the next twenty years.”

Glen hummed, thinking.  “I don’t know.  Based on what I saw–and mind you, I’m no expert–he may have overstated the case a little.  A lot of those cars went for the bare minimum.  If this auction had been a serious moneymaking venture, they’d have put reserves on more of the cars, and if they had put reserves on them, they wouldn’t have sold.”

“What’s a reserve?”

“A minimum selling price, based on market value.  Most of Lexi’s cars went away for less than market value, and it was the five or six percent of them that were actually rare enough to spark some serious bidding that made up the difference so she broke even.”

“That’s so depressing,” Molly said.
“You know what they say about one person’s treasure,” Glen said.

“Wow, that’s dark.”

“Sorry.  We haven’t seen the sun in Detroit for about a week and a half.  Tends to make folks around here grumpy.”

Molly laughed.  “I feel your pain, Glen. We get the same way up here.”

“Let’s get away from it all.  I’ll get us a couple of tickets to San Diego.  I’m sure there’s a haunted house down there somewhere, so you can expense it.  What do you say?  We’ll romp in the surf and drink wine while watching the sunset.”  His enthusiasm rolled along, gaining momentum. 

“It’s November.  The water will be freezing.”

“Well, that’ll make parts of your swimsuit that much more interesting, now won’t it?”  Molly burst out laughing, and she could practically hear Glen blush.  “I’m sorry, that was tacky.”

“No need to apologize,” she said.  His moment of silence seemed uncomfortable, though, so she changed the subject.