Twenty-six

The waiter could tell that Nikki was half Eddie’s age; both of them noticed his arched eyebrow as he seated them.  Upon arriving in Chicago, Nikki had resumed her Goth makeup and made a small shopping trip with Eddie’s credit card when he had told her they were going to a nice restaurant for dinner.  Of course, in the startling black and purple velvet dress and fishnet stockings she had bought she stuck out like a sore thumb (which was comfortable in its own way) and that somehow made her look even more like jailbait.  They had gone to the well-known Whitehall Hotel for dinner.  They weren’t staying there–famous or not, Eddie wasn’t in love with the Whitehall–but it was decent practice mingling with the country club types, and he’d told her so.  He had made a few backhanded comments about her clothes and black makeup, too, but hadn’t gotten a rise out of her yet.

Nikki needed the practice more than he did; she couldn’t stop looking at their fellow guests.  Eddie made sure they got a relatively private corner, so Nikki didn’t have to stress too much, and ordered dinner and drinks for both of them.  He had to reassure her that it wasn’t stupid or tacky to order a fuzzy navel.  She was skeptical, but content with her drink nonetheless.  It was her second.  Eddie caught the waiter looking down his nose at Nikki and asked, “Is there some problem, Philip?” pitching his voice in a perfect offended-sugar-daddy tone.

“No, sir.”  The humbled server disappeared, and returned shortly with their drinks.  Dinner was served with no resurgence of snottiness, even when Nikki ate her filet mignon’s garnish.

“I apologize for throwing you under the bus,” Eddie said, once they were nearly finished and he had ordered dessert for both of them.  “I thought I could trust Mitch.  I owe you.”  He slid a small piece of paper across the table to her.

“What’s this?” she asked as she took it.

“A ticket to see Miss Saigon.  Tonight.  It’s sold out, but I managed to wrangle you a seat.”  She argued about it for a bit, but he finally convinced her that he wanted her to go so that he could work.  He didn’t add that he might have some company, too.  He knew a girl in Chicago who called herself Dizz, and he didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to give her a call.  He took a drink of water, then grinned.  “Actually, I’m just not used to having someone around to help me.  You’ve been such a big help, I need to spend a night alone just to remind myself not to take you for granted.”

She blushed.  The compliment sounded sincere.  “How long have you worked alone?”

“Since always.  I always had friends everywhere, but no partner.  Usually I just hire help when I need it.”

“Like the film crew.”

He took another drink of his water, nodded.

“Why change? Why me?”

“The world’s getting to be a very uncertain place,” he said.  “It’s getting harder to put trust in people I’ve known for a week or less.  I was getting paranoid about who my second pair of hands might be.  Most of the work I do, it’s pretty easy to point to me as the fattest scapegoat, you know.”

“No pun intended,” Nikki said.  Eddie looked at her, taken completely by surprise, and she burst into laughter.  She wondered if Eddie was getting her drunk on purpose, or if she was doing it of her own free will.  Either way, she was definitely tipsy, because she heard herself telling him so.  “I’m getting drunk,” she said.

Eddie just laughed.  “I’d’a thought would have happened a hell of a lot sooner than this,” he said.  “Figured you’d be on the floor after the second one.”

She’d had three?  She didn’t remember…one during dinner, one before, one now…yes, that was three.  “Fast metabolism,” she said.  “My body burns it all up.  I’ll sober up in an hour or so.” She finished her third fuzzy navel.

“Well, I’d better pump you for information now.”

That made her laugh.  “Yeah, whatever.  What do you want to know this time?”

“Hm, let me think about that a second.”

“Why do you want to know so much about me anyway?  You ask all these questions all the time.”

“Isn’t that how people get to know each other?”

Nikki shook her head, frowning.  “So why do you want to get to know me? Why me?”

He shrugged.  “Because you’re here.  I like to know about people.  Everyone has a story.”

“But why mine, Eddie?”

He got a moment to think about it as their dessert arrived.  “There are a lot of layers to you,” he said.  He considered that, decided it was enough of an answer; Nikki was distracted by her giant slice of German chocolate cake, anyway.  “Tell me what happened in Denver.  You said Mitch did a double-cross, and someone was there from Ile du Soleil.  Tell me what happened, exactly.”

Nikki met his eye.  “No.”

“How’d you get away?”

“I just did.  Who cares?”

“That’s what I mean,” Eddie said with something like triumph, even though he was a bit annoyed that she didn’t think it was important enough to tell him despite whatever she felt she had to hide.

“What’s what you mean?”  Funny, when she was buzzed he didn’t actually irritate her so much.  Nikki considered, half-seriously, the possibility of staying drunk around Eddie continuously.

“About layers.  Some people would be happy to talk about how they got away.  Most people would, in fact.  People are proud to talk about their successes, usually.  But you’re not.  You’re not happy when you win.  It’s a curious mannerism.”

“Well, if you’re so fucking smart, why do I do that then?”

“No idea.  I’m not a shrink.  Maybe I’ll figure it out, maybe I won’t.”

“You are a shrink.  Maybe you didn’t take all the classes, but you are.  You have to be, to know people as well as you do.”

“I don’t know people, Poppet–“

“Don’t! Don’t call me that!” She kicked the table.  The dishes rattled violently.  A few other diners glanced their way, but their bubble of privacy held.

“Oh, shit, call the maitre’d!  She’s a mean drunk!” Eddie laughed.

“Dry up and die.”

She could make the bitterest sentiments sound just a little bit cute.  He figured it was her size, and her little voice.  He also figured it was a bad time to tell her so.  “Anyway, I was saying that I don’t know people.  You have to talk to people to know them.  I can read people.”

“Yeah, that, whatever.  Wrong word.  You read people well.”

Eddie couldn’t help smiling.  “I don’t pretend to be the world’s expert.”

“You are really good at it.  Seriously.  I have a hard time talking to people.” The thought crossed Nikki’s mind that she was talking more than she ought to, but she didn’t stop.  “I’m not interested, and when I am, even, I don’t want to ask.  I just wait and see.”

“You rely on instinct, it sounds like.  It can be pretty helpful, too.  While I’m out in front pressing the flesh and talking people up, you’re behind me watching everyone’s eyes.  See?  We make a good team.” He raised his glass to her.

“Maybe,” Nikki said.  She dropped her eyes and lifted her glass shyly.  The dark hair framing her face made her mascaraed eyes look twice as big and dark as they were.

“So here’s my question for the day.  When we left San Francisco, you said you didn’t have any music with you because you lost your CD player.  I want to know what happened to it.”

Her reaction was an instant stoneface.  “I left it somewhere.”

“Tell me where.”  Nikki started to protest, but Eddie interrupted her.  “And don’t tell me you don’t know where.  I’ve seen you taking your daily inventory.  You know where you left it, don’t you?”

She seemed to get a little bit smaller in her chair.  “Yes.”

“So tell me about it.”

If she wasn’t drunk she wouldn’t have.  She would have told him to forget it.  She might have yelled at him to leave her alone.  Stress and alcohol and exhaustion had shut off too many of the usual defenses and filters this day.  Nikki was quiet for a long moment.  Eddie just looked at her, waiting.  Their server came by the table to ask if everything was okay, and Eddie ordered another round of drinks.  He grinned and turned his attention back to Nikki.  “You’re a fucking bastard,” she said.

He shrugged, not rising to the bait, and waited.

“I left it in a truck, ” she said finally.  “After I ran away, I hitched a ride from Toledo to Nashville with a trucker.  He was nice.  He reminded me of my father.  He had the same hands and arms.  Big and thick.”

“What did your father do?”

“He was an electrical engineer.  But he did a lot of hunting, and fishing, and boating.  Physical things.  He was very fit, and his hands were workman’s hands.” Eddie smiled and nodded.  Nikki thought Eddie’s hands were a little like her father’s also.  She looked away from them.  “This trucker was around Dad’s age, too.  He told me all about the truck, and his family.  He lived in Jacksonville, Florida.  He was on his way home to see them.”

“What was his name?”

“Why, you think you know him?” she asked sarcastically.  “I don’t remember.  Seriously, I don’t.  On the radio he called himself Silver Dollar.  I remember he was telling me about what everyone was saying on the CB, what all the code words meant.” The fourth round of drinks arrived.  Nikki could have ignored hers, but she wanted it.  The alcohol killed more of the filters.  She didn’t hesitate to continue.  “When we got to Nashville it was time to stop for the night.  He bought me dinner.  I was glad, because I didn’t have any cash with me.  After dinner we went back to the truck and he fucked me.”

Eddie wasn’t surprised.  Even her emotionless delivery didn’t surprise him.  He could almost see the hurt and anger hiding behind the mask she’d made her face into.  “Rape?” he asked softly.

“No, I let him.  I didn’t know…maybe I didn’t think he really would.  It was stupid to think he wouldn’t, but he made me think so much of my dad.  I told him it was my first time, and that excited him even more.  He said he was being gentle.  It hurt, though.”

“As old as your father and married, too,” Eddie said.

“Oh, bullshit you’re disgusted.  Don’t act all high and mighty.  You’d do the same thing.”

“I just might,” Eddie said, feeling a little guilty.  “But this is different.  It’s you,” he added, a little too quickly for comfort and before he’d had a chance to think about what exactly he meant by that.  “You’re not exactly a stranger,” he clarified.  “I’m a little protective.” He wasn’t comfortable with the seriousness of that.  Somehow his words had taken a funny turn.  That didn’t happen a lot.  “Besides, you’re not my type.  Too skinny.”

Nikki grabbed a spoon and threw it at him.  Eddie ducked, and the utensil bounced off of his side of the booth, over it, and skidded across the carpet.  He tossed a dinner roll at her in retaliation, and she caught it with an unconscious ease that belied her drunkenness.

“Okay, finish the story.”

“No.  You’re a bastard.  I don’t want to talk to you any more.  You make me sick.”

“C’mon.  I was kidding.  Finish.”

“I was finished.  I am finished.  I’m not telling you any more stories.”

Eddie frowned.  He didn’t want her to be angry with him.  Somehow it meant more now that she was a inebriated.  Drunk words speak sober thoughts, Eddie said to himself.  “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Liar.  You get off on upsetting me.”

“What made you so mad? It was just a joke.”

“It was the wrong joke.” Nikki grabbed her glass and destroyed half of her drink.  She didn’t feel better afterward, but she cared less about how she felt.

“What did I say?”

“You.  Called me skinny.”

“Well, you are.  And I’m fat.  So what?”

“Before they tried to kill me.  In Denver,.  One of the men there said the same thing.  They didn’t rape me.  Because I was too skinny.”

Eddie felt like she’d kicked him in the stomach.  He didn’t even know they had tried to kill or rape her.  Not that it was his fault; she had refused to tell him about it.  He had thought she was being secretive, but she was clearly just too upset to talk about it.  And the fact that they’d been willing to kill to find out what secrets she might know about Ile du Soleil was not a good sign, either.  All of the information he had gotten from the banned documentary was about hidden treasure; he’d thought it was nothing political.  But then, you never knew what made something political.  But for the moment, Nikki took precedence over that.  “Aw, shit, I’m sorry, Nikki.  I didn’t know.”

She wouldn’t look at him.  “Don’t know what’s worse.  Being raped.  Or not being worth raping.”

Her tone suggested she’d experienced both.  He frowned and leaned forward a little, wanting to talk to her about this.  The hurt in her voice spoke to an awkward, lonely fat kid, turned down for the prom sixteen times and subsequently stuck at home mortified and alone on the big night.  “I think the former is worse, don’t you?”

“You don’t understand,” she said, shaking her head and looking down at her glass.  “It’s just different for a man.  For men.”

“What’s different?”

“You don’t need to…you don’t need…” She was drunk enough to want to talk about it, but couldn’t articulate her thoughts.  “Never mind.  If you’re not beautiful you’re nothing.  That’s all.  Better pretty.  Better to be something someone wants to possess.  Wants to fuck.  Wants to control.  Than to be nothing.”

“Don’t be so sure I don’t understand–“

She cut him off.  “Silver Dollar said I was beautiful.  He was lying.  Just being nice.  But at least he said it.  Maybe I let him screw me.  Just because it felt good for him to say that.  To think he actually wanted me.” Nikki shook her head again.  “I can’t talk to you like this.  I’m drunk.”

“Drunk words speak sober thoughts,” he said, voicing his earlier rumination.  He wasn’t drunk at all.  He changed the subject for her, though.  “What about the CDs?”

“I left them there.  In his truck.  After…I just wanted to get away.  I had been listening to it .  Before.  When we were driving.  It was on the front seat.  I ran away from the truck with my bag.  I forgot about the CD player.  And when I remembered it was too late.” Nikki felt like crying.  There were too many rotten memories surfacing at once.  “I’m going to go.  And do something.  Until I sober up,” she said.  “Going to the show.”

“Sure,” Eddie said.  Miss Saigon didn’t start for forty minutes, but that wasn’t particularly important right now.  “Thanks for having dinner with me.”

“Don’ worry, I won’t kill you,” she said.  She was horrified.  It had just come out.  Eddie just smiled, not understanding how serious she was.  Nikki stood up, and was relieved to discover that she wasn’t quite stumbling drunk.

Twenty-six

Now why on earth is there an oldish Buick station wagon plowing through the snow with its right front wheel missing?  It’s about the strangest thing I’ve seen (excluding things I dreamt or imagined) all day, and I watch as it grinds to a stop in front of me.

The cold’s beginning to creep through my socks, so I stay on the fence hoping to preserve some of their heat-retention ability for the run back to the house.  A bearded man gets out from behind the wheel, and a woman with flowing dark hair looks out of the passenger seat, her eyes shielded by sunglasses.  “Nihao,” I say to both of them.  “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“We hit a fencepost,” the driver says.  “The wheel came right off.  I was trying to get to a phone.  Is there a town near here?”

I have to think about it a moment.  I know there is one, but it’s…  “Six miles,” I say, pointing west.  “I wouldn’t drive it that far like that, you’ll just hurt it worse.”  All of a sudden I’m bristly at the notion of having people around, but my mouth says the right thing without waiting.  I’m not feeling particularly pink-cloudy and I’m surprised when I hear myself say, “Want to use my phone?  I’ve got hot chocolate, too.”

“That would be fantastic,” the man says.  He seems confused that I’m out here without shoes or a coat, and that’s just fine.  “I’m Martin, and this is Gray.”  The woman nods.

“I’m Lexi.  Nice to meet you.”  My face is wet with melting snow.  I really should go back inside soon.  “It’s going to get stormy, too.  Hope you didn’t have anywhere to be quickly.”

“We were hoping to get to Traverse City,” Gray says.  She has the most wonderful Italian accent, better than Molly’s grandmother’s. 

“It’s our one-year anniversary,” Martin says.  Gray looks at him as if she didn’t expect him to say that.  “Dating, that is,” he adds.

“Of course it is,” I say.  “Mr. Murphy might have ruined it for you, though.  Or not.  Come inside, have a spare bedroom if you need one.”  I hop down off the fence and lead the way back to the house.  I’m getting used to the idea of having guests for the night.  Taking care of people is pleasant.  Halfway there, Nikki’s just getting out of the snow, brushing herself off and sporting more wounded dignity than Amy-Ann did the time she fell in the toilet.

“Fuck,” she says under her breath.

“Oh, dear,” I say.  I think you need snowshoes.”

“Taking a tumble, are we?” Gray asks.

“I’m okay,” Nikki says.  She doesn’t look at Gray and I’m not sure she’s okay, she looks like she might have really hurt herself.  I brush snow off of her and introduce her.  “This is Martin, and his girlfriend Gray.  Isn’t that just the coolest name?  They have an Estate Wagon problem, so I offered them hot chocolate and a free phone call.  They’re entitled to it by law, you know.”

“We were going to try to make it the rest of the way,” Martin says.  “Figured if the roads stayed snowy we wouldn’t do too much damage.”

“He’s the optimist of the family,” Gray says.  She’s still smiling but doesn’t sound completely happy.

“I could fix that wheel maybe,” I say.  “Buicks are tough.  If the rotor and spindle aren’t tweaked, all you need is a wheel.”  I squat to consider the car.  When I’m down like that, only my head sticks out above the snow, and I feel like some sort of anti-aircraft gun emplacement.  I scan the horizon for the Luftwaffe.  All is quiet on the eastern front, except I’m facing south.  I notice that the Buick’s back bumper is a two-by-six.

Nikki says, “I’m cold.  I’m going inside.  Are you coming, Lexi?”

I want to go and look at the car, but I should probably put shoes on first as my feet are getting freezy.  Nikki leads Gray and Martin and I indoors.  After digging out some proper winter gear, I go back to the fence.  When I get there, Alison sitting in the passenger seat of Gray and Martin’s Buick.

“You’re such a Samaritan,” my dead sister says.

“I helps those what can’t help themselves,” I say, squatting to look at the damage.  “I can probably get them up and running.  It’s not like I’ve never worked in the snow before.”

Alison looks over my shoulder.  Her feet don’t crunch in the snow, of course.  “What’s the verdict?”

It’s not right.  Once I pry away the snow that’s packed itself tight around the brake disc and caliper, I can see that there’s not any real damage.  The brake rotor is fine, and the studs aren’t stripped or broken off like they should be if the car really lost a wheel whacking a fencepost.  The fender isn’t dented either, for that matter.  “How can you get a wheel knocked off without bending any sheet metal?” I ask the car.  Old Buicks don’t bend easily, but to lose a wheel to an impact without hurting anything else is just about impossible.

“What’s wrong?”

“I have a funny feeling that if we walk a mile or two up the road, we’ll find the spot where they stopped to pull the wheel and toss it in the ditch.”

“Which seems like a strange thing to do if you’re on the way to Traverse City,” Alison says.

“It does, doesn’t it?” 

“You think they want to get in your house?”

“Oh, that’s just paranoid.  Who’d do a silly thing like that?  And anyway, if someone who’s not related to Becka Packard wants to stay in my house, they just have to ask, everybody who’s anybody knows that.”

“Then I guess we’re not dealing with anybody.”

I make a snowball and throw it at the windshield with a complete lack of joy.  Things are not all grapes and roses with Gray and Martin.  “I hate it when people insist on trying to steal what I’d give willingly,” I tell Alison. 

“Who are you talking about?”  There’s a funny curl to her voice.

“Hm?”

“Are you talking about these two, or about Doctor Edward and Nikki?”

I have to think about that for a moment, because she’s got a point, there’s a wiggle in the back of my head that something’s not right about them, too.  Which is a shame, because I like Nikki. “Pah,” I say. 

“Go inside before you freeze to death, sweetie.”

That’s funny, because Alison never used to call me ‘sweetie.’  I wonder where she picked it up, and since it makes me feel good to hear her say it, I go in.  Malice meets me at the door with a greeting sound; I squat and she jumps up and climbs my back to crouch on my shoulder for a ride.