Twenty-five

Taiisha looked at the man’s sleeping form in the dark, then got out of bed without disturbing him.  The thermostat in the cheap hotel room was dialed low enough that frost was forming inside the windows.  She preferred warm weather, but cold didn’t bother her unduly either.  Outside, snow drifted down slowly, like a curtain.  She turned the facts of her situation over in her head.  The man’s name was Martin, and he was from Ile du Soleil.  The Ravens had heard of the computer program Edward had found, and they were looking for him.  This man was too self-assured, too used to surveillance on unwary citizens.  Taiisha had spotted him almost immediately.  Nikki should have as well, although the girl had made no attempt to deal with him.  Martin had no idea who Taiisha was, and seducing him was easy.  It would be easier to control the problem if she were with him, so she stayed. 

She could feel Nikki ahead of them, as if the girl was a beacon, calling to her.  Their window faced north, and she looked that way, as if she could see through the snow and the miles to where Nikki was.  She could find Nikki whenever she wanted; the trick was to keep Martin and the powers that pulled his strings from finding her.  If she separated from him, she doubted he’d blink an eye, but she wouldn’t know what he was up to, either.  So she would keep her Italian accent, and pretend to be horny and harmless.

She didn’t want to wait, though.  She was rarely impatient, and wondered what had gotten into her. 

She heard Martin stir, then sit up.  “Baby?” he called.

She resented being called anything other than whatever name she’d chosen for herself at the time.  “What do you want?” she asked, not concealing her irritation.

She could hear him smile, the slick sound of his lips parting to reveal his teeth, and he sat up further, pulling the sheets around his naked hips to settle in for a romantic middle-of-the-night heart-to-heart.

“Just to talk.  Why’re you over there?”

Oh, yes.  She’d give him her heart, but he’d give his in return, and maybe she’d feed it to him.  “I chose not to sleep.”

“Are you worried about your daughter?” he asked.

“Of course,” she replied.  That was true, if not in the sense he meant exactly.

“I wouldn’t worry about her.  If this guy left her alone and trusted her to do as he told her, he’s probably not gonna hurt her.”

“So say you.  There are many ways to hurt.”

“I’ve read up on the guy.  He’s not a total sleaze,” Martin replied.  “Almost a decent guy, actually.  I bet I’d like him, if I met him.  And I probably will.  Chicago is only a rest stop for them.  My people think they’ve gone to meet a woman named Lexi Crane.  Looks like we know who they’re selling the information they stole to.”

Taiisha frowned; she knew that Eddie had stolen the Ile du Soleil information on accident, and he wasn’t the type to risk the wrath of a spy network by selling information.  His playground was almost exclusively corporate.  “But who is this person?” she asked.

“It’s a degrees of separation game,” Martin explained patiently.  “Sharp went to college with a guy named Ian Warnock.  He’s nobody, an accountant at Ford.  But Warnock was also a good friend of Lexi Crane and Warren Packard, the car guy who died recently.”

Taiisha nodded.  “Go on.”

“Packard was an acquaintance–friend, maybe–of Dobie Cassarell, who, as you know, is a landowner and minor political figure in Ile du Soleil.”

“This name I know.”

“Well, Cassarell has placed a few calls to Ms. Crane in the past few weeks.  He was also at her house recently, for an estate auction.  And now, Sharp has placed a few calls to her house and I’m willing to bet he’s on his way there.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she was selling the information to him.”

“And what for?”

“I have no idea.  Ruben has just told me it’s my job to find out, and we have about a week to do it.  Maybe less.”

The Ravens meant to disappear everyone involved, Taiisha was certain.  She had heard of Ruben before as well, a thug whose fearless viciousness had impressed short-minded superiors enough to give him far more authority than he deserved.  She surrounded by the stupidest operatives Ile du Soleil had ever produced.  The Ravens she met were usually of much higher quality.  “And in a week what happens?” she asked.  “My daughter–“

“Don’t worry, Gray, she’ll be okay.  I’ll make sure of it,” Martin said.  “We’re going to go up there.  You can get her out yourself.”  He was smiling at her in the dark, as if he’d just proposed.  “If I take you with me, that is,” he added.

Even though she knew he was working on making another excuse to make her have sex with him, Taiisha didn’t like the note of suspicion.  “You don’t trust me?”

“It’s not my job to trust people, babe,” he said. 

She supposed he thought he sounded intimidating and mysterious, like a character in a romance novel.  Fair enough.  She thickened her Italian accent and rolled onto him, pressing her body against his, feeling his warmth.  “You can trust me,” she purred, feeling his body respond and knowing that any suspicion was forgotten.  “How do we get to this place?” she said then, to keep him occupied with the sound of his own voice, which he seemed to like very much.

“Access to military pilots can be a wonderful thing,” he said.  “You’re going to like this.  The weather’s about to turn; they say Arcadia’s going to be nailed by a blizzard by the end of the week.  The folks up there will just have to take in some lost travelers who are having car trouble, won’t they?  We’re going to walk right into Crane’s house.  We’ll play boyfriend and girlfriend–shouldn’t be too much trouble, eh?”  He looked at her in the dark, as best he could.  Taiisha kept her eyes on his.  “You’ll be able to talk to your daughter face-to-face.  It’d make great television.”

The insufferable idiot.  Being face to face was the last thing she wanted.  It would undermine the entire point of her exercise.  And at this point, she couldn’t allow Martin to go without her.  Not only would it destroy her masquerade, which hadn’t yet outlived its usefulness, but she wouldn’t be able to be at this place to get Nikki out before the Ravens arrived and burned it to the ground.  Odds were she’d just be buried in an unmarked grave somewhere, which wasn’t a problem, but the information-mongers would also get her fingerprints and description before they killed her, in case there were some loose ends or unsolved issues that could be resolved with them, and that would prove very troublesome when Nikki turned up alive later.  She wanted to strangle Martin, right here, and place a call to Ruben to tell him to back off, but knew the man was too stupid to be thwarted thus.  Taiisha kept her conflict and irritation off of her face, and said nothing. 

“What’s the matter?” Martin asked.

“My daughter…” Taiisha said.  “It has been a long time.  She might not know me.”

“Oh, you’re afraid she won’t recognize you?”  He reached up and gave her breast a squeeze.  “Don’t worry about it.  I think that the mother-daughter connection is one that you can’t ever truly break.  She’ll know who you are.  And I’ll need your help, too.  You gotta convince her not to warn Sharp.”

Taiisha clenched her teeth, hard, then relaxed.  “Indeed,” was her response.  She had heard enough from Martin tonight.  After sex, he’d be quiet again.

Twenty-five

“Why won’t you eat?” Nikki asked Lexi while they were dawdling in the library.  Nikki was looking through Lexi’s books and discovering that they read a lot of the same things, too (King, Barker, and Straub, to name a few).  Lexi had been dragging more car parts out of boxes, and had decided to arrange them in the library.  She’d moved boxes out of the way to create a car-sized space in the middle, and had an assortment of parts Nikki would have called junk, except they were clearly new.  After an hour or two of arranging, Lexi was taking a hot chocolate break in a sunbeam.  The snowstorm had broken for an hour or two, and the sun was dazzling on the white world outside.

“Hm?” Lexi swirled a melting marshmallow on her spoon.  She enjoyed her hot chocolate.

“I said, why won’t you eat?”

“I’m…not hungry,” she said, immediately losing interest.  “Why won’t you let anyone be your friend?  Catholic girls are scary.”

“What?”

She looked away, apparently drifting off into the mist in her mind.  “This film has been modified from its original format to fit your screen,” she said.

“No,” Nikki said, a little more forcefully.  “What did you mean by that?”

“God, Minerva! I was just joking!” she burst out.  Nikki suddenly figured out what she was talking about.  The two of them had watched Hudson Hawk that morning.  Bits of dialogue kept spouting out of Lexi instead of coherent conversation, like steam escaping from her mind.  Nikki guessed that it was the pills they had her on.  She wasn’t sure she liked the effect they had on Lexi, but on the other hand if she was loopy, she probably wouldn’t tell Eddie what she’d overheard.

“I’m going to the kitchen,” Nikki told her.  “Do you want anything?”

“All I told you to do was follow the Hawk.  It’s not like I said ‘teach our nation’s children to read.'”

“I’ll take that as a no,” Nikki said.  She left Lexi to her hot chocolate and car parts.

Lexi watched her go, surprised that Nikki was irritated.  Maybe she thought the quote game was part of her pink cloud.  Both Nikki and Eddie were under the impression that she’d been bothering to take the pills for the past couple of days, when actually she hadn’t had one since the day after they had arrived.  Well, that wasn’t true, there had been one, but she had thrown it up.  Thinking too much hurt, but Lexi had things to do, a car to build.  She listened until she could hear Nikki in the kitchen, then picked up a partially assembled mass-air meter, singing under her breath.  “Would you like to swing on a star?  Carry moonbeams home in a jar…”

She decided to take a break, and got up to go and play in the snow.  There was about two and a half feet of it, just like she’d wished for, and it had been there for three days and she hadn’t even gone out and jumped in it yet.  What a waste of perfectly cool weather.

She got out in the cold and the white as soon as possible.  Some neighbors had come by on snowmobiles the morning after the big snow, to make sure that she was okay, and she walked on their tracks first.  The tamped-down trails had been almost covered by newer fallen snow, though, so she jumped off to slog through the heavy stuff.  It clung to her pants and pushed back at her in a delightful way.  She was sweating with delightful exertion before she got halfway around the house.

Around back the snow was deeper, as the land sloped away from the house slightly.  Lexi listened to her feet crunching in the stuff, and scooped up a snowball.  She looked back at the house, noticing for the first time that it looked a lot like the Addams Family’s house from the back.

A voice echoed in the woods, faintly.  It was coming from the front of the house.  Nikki was calling her.  Lexi continued her circuit of the house at a slightly quicker pace, to see what she wanted.

Nikki smiled back when Lexi smiled and waved, but she was angry underneath it.  “Lexi, come on back inside, okay? It’s cold out here.”  She was bundled in a big dark green coat that looked bigger than she was.

Lexi said, “‘Actually, it’s Rome,’ she said, as if it made a difference.  Are you cold?  You look four times bigger in that coat.  It’s cute.  But you should have a hat on,” she said, fully aware that she wasn’t wearing a coat…or shoes.  Her socks were soaked with snow, but they were Ren’s, they had some sort of neato-mosquito wicking ability that kept the cold away from her feet even when they were wet, at least for ten minutes or so.  “I shall jump around in the snow and then go take a hot bath.  You like hot baths too, don’t you?”

“Inside,” Nikki snapped.  “Now.”

“Why won’t you let anyone be your friend?”

“Stop asking me that.”

“Oh, did I ask that before? I can never remember what I said out loud.” Lexi turned and looked out toward the road.  “I need…” she said, then cocked her head, listening.  “There’s a car coming!”  She began bounding through the snow toward the road.  She was clumsy; she fell twice.  The snow was so deep the world turned white, and she was buried until she was vertical again, and it was so shocking-funny she couldn’t help but laugh.  She stumbled to her feet, looked back for Nikki and saw only another divot in the snow where the other woman had, presumably, fallen also.  When Lexi reached the end of the drive she jumped up on one of the open gates so she could see better.