Twenty-one

Eddie wrote down his instructions for Nikki, and then he left.  She didn’t get a chance to try to stop him, and none to kill him, either, since he took a taxi to the airport.  It didn’t occur to her until after he’d gone that she could have followed him and done him at the airport.  She had felt unplugged when he left her, unable to move.  Nikki sat on the bed for half an hour looking at the hotel room’s door and waiting for Taiisha to kick it down.

But she didn’t.  Nikki knew she was in town, so where was she?  She had to know that Eddie was gone.

The paralysis broke before noon.  Nikki still had the day to kill, so she searched fruitlessly for a decent sweater at a succession of thrift stores.  Eddie had left her his coat to wear (a Land’s End coat, no less), which was just as well.  She spent most of the rest of the day at a convenient mall, being antisocial, and then returned to the hotel room that evening, took off her makeup and changed into more neutral clothes, and caught a taxi to the address given to Eddie for the job he’d passed on to her.  Eddie had written “Mitch” at the top of the page.

After a fifteen-minute cab ride through the cold, the taxi let her out in front of a badly lit building whose sign identified it as Mabry’s Machine Shop.  Nikki stood in front of the faceless aluminum door–a cutout in a larger, roll-up door–and waved the taxi off.

“You sure?” the cabbie called to her.  He looked up and down the empty, dark street, uncertain.  “This ain’t a great part of town…”

“…for a little girl like me,” she finished for him.  “I know that already, thank you.  Now leave me to my fate.”  Nikki turned her back on him and rapped impatiently on the door.  It rattled in its frame.  The wind was fiercer along the side of the building, and it tore at all the seams in her clothes, seeking ingress.  Shit.  She hated winter.  Nikki banged on the door again.

Footsteps approached from the other side, and the door opened with a screech.  A longhaired guy in a Notre Dame sweatshirt regarded her for a long moment with bloodshot eyes, then shrugged and stepped out of the way.  He smelled like clove cigarettes.

“Are you Mitch?” she asked, pitching her voice higher than usual.  It made her sound like a bimbo in black, which in turn made people underestimate her.

“Naah, he’s upstairs,” the guy said.  “I’m Jerry,” he added with a smile at some inside joke he didn’t let her in on.  “What’s up?” He turned around and led her through the shop.  The door closed behind her with a bang that echoed across the concrete floor and up to the high ceiling.  Dormant machinery stood in the dark like iron sculpture, and she smelled oil and dust.  There was a van parked just inside the door, and an orange 4×4 behind it.  Beyond them, rows of shelves marched into the darkness like soldiers in formation.  Nikki heard a flutter from the rafters and looked up.

“Fuckin’ pigeons,” Jerry said.  “They get their asses stuck in here all the time.”

She caught a glimpse of feathery motion up there as the pigeon landed on a rafter.  She suddenly thought that it might not be the only creature trapped here tonight.

Nikki followed Jerry up a set of rusty metal stairs to a short catwalk and an office decorated in girlie calendars, grease, and metal.  Large windows looked out on the shop; she saw the truck and van from above, as well as a sleek silver Porsche parked beyond the van, which she’d been unable to see before.  It looked out of place next to the dirty trucks and well-used machinery.

Turning her attention into the room and past Jerry, she saw five battered filing cabinets and three desks in a room designed for perhaps two and one.  Two of the desks were occupied.  With floor space at such a premium, that was no surprise.  The room smelled of cigarette smoke and hours-old McDonald’s fries.  “That’s Mitch,” Jerry said, pointing to the occupant of the desk at the far end of the room.

Mitch was fat, fatter than Eddie, and a great deal older and dirtier.  Nikki wondered how he had gotten back there, because the room’s walking space was smaller than he was; maybe the furniture had been moved in after he had installed himself.  The stubble on his face was almost as long as the stubble on his head.  There were yellow crumbs stuck in the three-day scruff, and he was eating Oreos like they were crackers.

The other four people in the room were all sitting at or on the other desks, a woman and three men, not counting Jerry.  All three of them were in their thirties.  The woman had curly blond hair and a paradoxically happy, burned-out expression on her face.  Her stupid smile went hard when her eyes shifted to Nikki.  The tallest of the three men, who had been talking to her, followed her gaze and reacted the same way.  He had small round glasses, a drastically receding hairline, an expensive charcoal colored suit, and an air of intentional anonymity that reminded Nikki of Taiisha and put her on guard.  The second man looked a lot like Jerry, except for his overly trendy goatee, soft Mohawk, and lankier aspect.  The last man was sitting at the desk and playing with a stapler.  He didn’t look up; all Nikki saw was greasy black hair, slightly curly.  He had a suit similar to the balding man’s except that it was brown.

“How you doin’?” Mitch called.  “I didn’t know Eddie had an apprentice.”

“I just started,” Nikki said.

Mitch grunted noncommittally.  His chair let out a crackle of relief as he stood up.  “Might as well innerduce you.  Jerry’s our butler.”  Jerry snorted.  Mitch indicated the mohawked Jerry analog, “that shithead there is Mark, that’s Ruben,” he motioned to the man with the stapler, “and his buddy is Georges.  The lady is Julia.  The well-dressed guys are here from, where was it, Seattle?”

Georges and Ruben looked surprised at having been introduced.  They both glanced quickly at Mitch.  Julia didn’t take her eyes off of Nikki, who met the gaze until Julia blinked and looked away.  No one asked her name, and she didn’t offer it.

“Get outta that skirt,” Julia said abruptly.  “Put these on.”  She picked up a grocery bag stuffed with black and white clothes.  There were two of them, actually; the other one stayed on the floor.  Julia tossed it indifferently onto the desk.  “They’re gonna be too big.  Leave your sack here,” she added.  Nikki reluctantly handed her bag over.

Jerry led her back out of the office and down the stairs to the bathroom, and Nikki changed quickly.  She concentrated on not touching anything in the filthy bathroom with her bare skin.  Permanent-marker graffiti on the cracked tile wall over the single toilet read, “____ LIKES IT IN THE ASS,” but the name had been smeared into illegibility.  It started with a J.

The clothes, a pair of black overalls and a nice white fleece shirt, fit her nicely.  Nikki kept her own shirt on underneath, enjoying the warmth of the fleece.  She had a nagging sense that she ought to be acting professional, but had no idea what “professional” might be.  These didn’t look like usher’s clothes; something wasn’t right.  Maybe Eddie had had the job wrong, or he’d used some jargon she didn’t understand.  It was cold, so she put Eddie’s coat back on.

They were waiting for her when she came out, as if they’d never spoken or moved while she was gone.  Even Ruben was still playing with the stapler.  A line of goosebumps crawled up Nikki’s back, then went away.

“We’ll leave for the Hyatt in a few,” Mitch said distractedly.  He plopped back down into his chair, which let out a noise like a tin toy being crushed.  “It’s an easy job, we’ll explain it on the way.  Eddie just passing through town?” he asked.

“We’re on the road,” Nikki said.  Whatever knack Eddie had for being calm in situations like this, she lacked it.  Her hands found one another and squeezed.  She tried to relax.

“Yeah, our man Ed, he comes through town once or twice a year, actually.  He’s always on the road.  Not a big skier, but he stays there to check out the tourists, am I right?”

Nikki shrugged.  She had no idea why Eddie had chosen Denver, or the hotel they were staying at.

“He staying at the Holiday Inn, like always?”

“No,” she said.  “At Residence Inn.”  No need to tell him that Eddie had jetted out of town and left this business to her.  They probably already knew.

“Oh, yeah.  That new one?”

She shrugged.

“I know which one that is.  They only just put it up a few months ago.”  He paused to cram another Oreo into his mouth.  “So, why the interest in Ile du Soleil?  Why’s he gathering information about the treasure?”

Nikki took a step backward toward the door.  Her bag was on the desk, though, and she wouldn’t leave it.  “There’s no job, is there?” she asked.  Mitch smiled back at her.

“Oh, don’t run away,” Ruben said.  He was looking up now, and smiling.  His lips shone, as if he had lip gloss on, and he had an accent that she couldn’t place.  “We still need you.”

“We don’t know anything,” Nikki said.  “We got the file by accident.”

“Of course you did, dear,” Georges said.  Julia laughed harshly.  “So, if we asked nicely, do you think he’d just give it up?”

“Give what up?” Nikki measured the distance to her bag.  It was too far for her to get to and still get out the door before someone landed on her.  “We’re not looking for the treasure.  Just let me go, and I’ll tell him to forget all about it.”

“No can do,” Georges said coldly.  “We need your corpse.  But we’ll be sure to tell Mr. Sharp for you.  Is there any other message you’d like to pass along?”

An arm went around her neck before she could turn.  Nikki smelled Jerry’s clove-smell, and he looped his other arm underneath one of hers and behind her neck in a half-nelson, then lifted her off her feet with little effort.  She tried to kick backward at him as he hustled her out of the room.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ruben, Mark and Julia squeezing their way through the desks to follow.  Four against one.  If she was lucky.

They took Nikki back downstairs, to the back of the machine shop, past the trucks and machines.  Jerry’s breathing grew more excited as they passed behind racks holding sheets of raw aluminum, steel, and Lucite.  The flat sheets of metal blocked the rest of the shop completely.  Nikki looked quickly for a way out, but there wasn’t one; just the wall.  Jerry shoved her roughly against the wall and let go.

She turned around, her eyes adjusting to the shitty light, and saw Jerry and Ruben six steps away.  Julia was standing behind them, and Mark was beyond her, carrying a crowbar.  She couldn’t rush them.  Nikki could tell the men were going to rape her by the hungry look in Julia’s eyes.  “Please, don’t,” she said uselessly.

“You wanna do her first?” Jerry asked, his voice harsh and excited.

Ruben frowned, then stepped forward.  He looked down at her with dead, uncaring eyes, yanked the bib of the overalls so hard that both buckles snapped and she almost fell forward, then pawed her chest roughly with his open hand.  His face melted farther into a sneer.  “No tits,” he said.  “I hate it when a bitch hasn’t got any tits.” 

Then he drew and shot her in the chest.  Flash, impact, and backward tug as the bullet exploded out her back blurred into one fantastic sensation.  Nikki took a step backward, then fell.  She heard Julia start to laugh, smelled the gunpowder, and felt a pain so massive it seemed to be frying the nerves in her chest, and then everything shut down before it could get any worse.  She had a single, crazy thought:  fuckijustruinededdie’scoat.

Twenty-one

“Is Alex in Wonderland your full name?” Nikki asked.

Lexi said nothing for a long moment, slowly processing the question, then straightened a little bit, looked over Nikki’s shoulder, then at her.  “No.  No, no, no.  My full name…is Alexis Andrea Victoria Margaret Corinne Crane.”  She pressed her lips together in an expression of pride.  “I have enough names for a…”  A what?  She’d forgotten.  Sir William had said something amusing about that, but she’d lost it.  Stupid pink cloud.  She was happy that Dr. Zheng was being replaced by this little gothic pixie; at least they could probably dance together.  And juice would be nice.  Yes.  Lexi turned toward the kitchen mid-pause, and went to the refrigerator.  “I want some juice.”  She stared into the fridge for a moment, focusing on the pitcher she wanted, then grabbed it with both hands, as if it were trying to move away from her, and hauled it out onto the counter.

Nikki watched her as the pitcher wobbled and weaved as if it and Lexi were opposed ends of a magnet.  She put her sketchpad back in my bag and got up to help.  “Where are the glasses?”

“I don’t know…a box.  Some box.  Somewhere…”

There was a glass in the sink, so Nikki washed it out and poured some orange juice for her.  Lexi was returning the pitcher to the fridge when Ian and the new doctor came back into the kitchen.  “This place is amazing, Poppet,” the new doctor said.  He was about Lexi’s height, but fat.  He was an all-over kind of fat, rather than just being beergutted, and looked like he’d have played football in high school simply by merit of being dense and hard to knock down because he certainly couldn’t run far.  “You’re gonna–oh, hello,” the doctor said upon seeing Lexi.  “I’m Edward.  Edward Sharp.”

“Doctor Sharp,” Ian said.

Lexi stared at them both, slowly putting it together in her mind.  “Mister Doctor…Edward Sharp,” Lexi said.  She said each word carefully, turning it into a little cadence.  She began repeating, “Mist-er Doc-tor Ed-ward Sharp” to herself.

Zheng returned to the kitchen with a briefcase and collected his journal.  “Are we all set, then?” he asked.

Lexi drained her glass of juice and banged it on the counter, irritated by the very sight of him.  She wobbled a little off-balance when she did so, and had to put a hand out to steady herself.  “I’m…going back upstairs now.  I’m tired.”  She added something about the door not hitting Zheng in the ass on his way out, but she had turned on her heel and gone through the secret door that led to her room before realizing that she’d forgotten to say it out loud.

She stayed in her room for another hour or so, to avoid seeing Dr. Zheng again.  The new doctor came up to check on her, but thanks to the pink clouds she didn’t remember much of that conversation.  Suddenly she was back in the kitchen, eating a cheesecake from the inside out (she scooped the middle out methodically, turning it into a cheesecake ring), and Nicole (who wanted to be called Nikki) was asking her if she wanted to eat.  There had been grocery shopping, and there were bags all over the counter.  Good.  Supplies to last them through the coming storm.

“No,” she said.  “Not a bit.  I’ve hardly eaten all day.  A little here, a little there.  I shall waste away to nothing if I keep this up.”  Lexi spread her arms and tilted her head back, looking up at the ceiling.  She frowned.  “There are cracks in the ceiling,” she said, as if they had appeared just to irritate her and were somehow Doctor Edward and Nicole’s fault.  Doctor Edward and Nicole.  Sounded like a name for a punk band.  She started to lose her balance then, and flapped her arms to keep from falling.

“It’s still a nice house,” Nikki said.

“It has its moments,” she replied, not looking down.  The pink cloud had receded in the past hour, and she felt better.  Hopefully they wouldn’t ask her to take another one.

“I could get you a cherry cheese danish, if you want.”

“Oh, stitch that,” she said, still looking at the ceiling.  “I don’t need a silly danish, or a pecan spinwheel either.  I am not hungry,” Lexi said.  “But cats are hungry.  It’s time to feed cats.”  She wandered over to the sink, looked into it for a long moment, then squatted so suddenly it looked as if she’d dropped into a hole.  A bag crackled, the unmistakable sound of a pet food bag, and brought all six cats at a run

“Fuck me,” Nikki said, momentarily losing any semblance of professionalism.  Lexi smiled to herself, liking Nikki better instantly.  “You have more cats than I thought.”

Lexi laughed.  “I am the Queen of the Cats,” she said in a regal voice that didn’t go at all with her skimpy clothing.  She looked down at the cats with a pleased smile on her face, the ghost of the sunshine smile she had flashed earlier.

“What are their names?”

That was a good question.  Nikki was proving to be much nicer than Zheng, or Mister Doctor Edward.  Lexi squatted and began introducing her to her cats.  Nikki squatted too, and started getting cat fur on her dark clothes.  Eddie came back in with four more bags of groceries, looked at them, at the cats, raised his eyebrows, and went back out again.  “This is Amy-Ann,” Lexi said, indicating the tortie who had inspected Nikki earlier.  “The grey tabby next to her is Teague, and the big Maine coon,” the cat whom Nikki had seen sitting on the rail, “is Nance.  Teague and Nance are–were–Ren’s cats.”  Her voice cracked a little.  Lexi touched the corner of her eye with a finger, dabbing at a tear Nikki couldn’t see.  “Mirror is the white cat with the mismatched eyes, Audrey is the longhaired calico, and this…” Lexi stood up, held out her arms, and the last cat in line, a long-haired black cat, jumped right up into her arms.  “This is Malice,” she said.  “Malice is my familiar,” she added with a grin.

Nikki looked into the cat’s pale green eyes for a long moment.  “She’s pretty,” she said finally.

Lexi hummed in agreement and let the cat jump to the floor.  “You look uncomfortable,” she said. 

“I was in California a few days ago.  My body’s still adjusting to the weather.”  Nikki tried not to glance at Lexi’s thighs and feet as the other woman was wearing only an oversized yellow T-shirt and matching panties, but failed.  In the glance she noticed a tremendous keloid scar running up Lexi’s right shin.  It was straight, like a surgical scar, but the area on both sides was stippled by irregular pockmarks.  “Aren’t you cold?”

“Yep.  Freezing.  You?”

“The house is creeping me out a little bit, too.”

“It’ll do that.  Wait till it gets dark out.  It’s haunted, you know.  Oh, and some of the wiring is bad.  Mice, I think.”

Nikki grabbed the first grocery bag close to her and started putting the cold things in the refrigerator.  “I’ll bet the lights in the room with the fucking canopy bed don’t work.”

“How’d you know?  Oh, Mister Doctor Edward must’ve told you.  Is he really a doctor?  I don’t think he is.  I don’t think any of them are.  Or were.  I just wonder too much, too many things.”  Her mind changed the subject.  “I hope it snows more.  I like snow.”

“I don’t.”

“Not even to look at?”

Nikki shrugged.  “Only to look at.”

Lexi handed her a can of frozen orange juice.  “I like being cold.  It’s easy to warm up when you’re cold, and it feels good.”

“I prefer to stay comfortable.  Then I don’t require relief.”

“Relief, whatever.  I just like the changes in scenery.”

Eddie came back with more bags of groceries.  “Did I interrupt?” he said.  “Heard you talking all the way out at the door.”

“We were talking about you,” Lexi said suddenly.  “We’ve figured out your little ruse, and it’s not going to work, not for a minute.”  After delivering this nugget, she turned on her heel and disappeared into the depths of the house once again.  She wanted to see what Mister Doctor Edward and Nikki drove.  That would tell her a lot about who they were.

She went outside, putting boots on but not bothering with pants (a nice side effect of the pink clouds was that they seemed to keep her warm as well), and cleaned the snow off of it.  The snow was really starting to come down now, but Lexi saw that their car was a brand-new Lincoln Town Car, silver.  It was a better choice than a Cadillac, anyway.  It had all-season tires instead of snows on it, too, so it’d be nigh-undriveable until the snowplow came.  She’d have to loan them one of her trucks if they wanted to go anywhere.  If they weren’t as annoying as Zheng, she wouldn’t mind doing that, either.

Marion was outside, too.  Lexi saw her go into the garage, a faint glow in the dark that disappeared through the rickety door.  She followed, peering through the door and expecting to see the ghost sitting behind the wheel of her old car, but Marion had disappeared from sight.  For a moment Lexi wondered where she could have gotten to as the garage had no back door, but duh, ghosts could vanish at will, it wasn’t strange at all.  Assuming you didn’t count the ghost herself as strange, of course.

The wind had picked up, whooshing through the leafless trees with a mournful moan.  Lexi could hear the upper branches clicking together as they swayed.  The falling snow obscured the sky completely.  She stood in front of the garage and let some of it melt on her face.  Yes, it was going to be a hell of a snow.

Back inside, Lexi left her boots by the door (tracking snow across the foyer’s marble floor would just lead to a slip and fall) and bounced back upstairs.  She tumbled into bed for a few minutes to warm up, which was one of the best parts about going out and getting cold and wet in the first place.  That, and warm, hot baths.