Forty-seven

“I can’t believe I’m riding in a Porsche,” Molly said.  She looked out the window at the darkening day.  Ahead of them, the taillights of her rental (currently being driven by Lexi) were partially obscured by the snow the tires were kicking up.  “It’s good to finally see you face-to-face again, too, by the way.”

“You too,” he said.  “And you look fantastic as always.”  He had an easy smile which Molly liked.  With his snow-cone knit hat (complete with pompom) and goatee, he looked a bit like an elf. 

“Where do you get ‘always’ from?  It’s the second time we’ve met,” she said, amused.

“Well, I picture you in my head when we talk, and you always look fantastic,” he said. 

“I assume that’s because I’m naked?”

He blushed.  “Not at all!  You dress great.  I can’t believe some of the designers you wear.”

She snorted.  “So what’s your tale this weekend?”

“I came up to interview Lexi, and things got strange; she bundled me off to her friend’s house, and God knows what happened last night.  I do know she was cleaner and less obviously damaged yesterday, but that’s all.”

Molly smiled.  “Welcome to my world,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Seems like I’m always arriving after the emergency has happened, especially when it comes to Lex.  That, or she’s getting me out of the way before the shit hits the fan, on some misguided notion that I shouldn’t be involved.  I should smack her for it one day.  So did she fill you in on what happened?” 

“Not exactly.  Something about her houseguests killing each other.”  He caught the look on her face.  “Was she serious?”

“That’s a question you don’t want to ask, because you might end up testifying,” she said.  “I already know more than I want to.  Take that to mean what you will.”  Her tone suggested strongly that she didn’t want to discuss it further.  “So, what’s happening now?  Something to do with the car she’s building for Ren?”

“Yeah.  She’s got to finish it, and the bodies are all in a warehouse down in Detroit.”

“It’s not a warehouse, just the barn behind the house she grew up in.  We used to play in that barn when we were kids, in fact.  How did the interview go?”

“It’s not exactly finished yet.  I’ve barely had a moment to talk to her. Although I have a feeling that your average sit-down interview isn’t going to happen anyway.”  Glen glanced at Molly.  “Half of me wishes I had stayed home and done a phone interview.”

“What does the other half wish?”

“The other half hasn’t had this much fun since I finished third in class at the Runoffs three years ago,” he said, grinning.

“The Runoffs?”

“Oh, sorry.  It’s a regional amateur autocross.  Semi-amateur, really.”  Seeing that her blank look hadn’t lessened, he added, “Car races.  Drivers compete for the best time around a little road course.”

“And you were third?”

He shrugged, suddenly shy about being boastful.  “It was a good time.  I’m not really in it for the trophies.  I just like the driving part.”

“Sounds like loads of fun,” Molly said diplomatically, remembering one or two hot, miserable afternoons spent at a race track with Lexi and Ren and bored out of her mind.  “Anyway, I’m still halfway pissed at myself for not calling the cops and sending that son of a bitch Eddie to jail.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Probably can’t do it without sending Lex, too,” she said.  “And he’s doing what he can to make amends.  I have to admit that he was trying to protect her.”  She sighed and looked out the window.  “It’s Ian I should be after.  He’s the one who set all of this in motion, whether he meant to or not, the greedy bastard.  I suppose I have the mysterious Langdon Quimby to thank for it.”

Glen swallowed, sucked air the wrong way, and coughed.  “You know Langdon Quimby?”

“Is he a real person?”

“Of course he is.  How do you know him?”

“I got some photos of the Crane-Packard factory in the mail.  They’re the reason I suggested that Ajax go to the place.  And he still hasn’t turned up.”

“His car did,” Glen said. 

“Excuse me?”

“Let me back up a little.  Mr. Quimby’s a bit of a meddler.  The sort of person who’ll give the locations of oil tankers to Greenpeace, if you get my drift.  I don’t know his politics exactly–he doesn’t seem to have any–but he is anti-unpleasantness, if that makes any sense.”  Molly nodded.  She seemed accepting enough that Glen was comfortable continuing.  “Among the other things he does, he’ll sometimes drop me bits of information that are…interesting.”  He told her about the papers he’d found in his bag after Lexi had left him at the warehouse. 

Molly didn’t say anything for a long time.  Glen looked over at her, and saw tears on her cheeks.  “He’s dead, isn’t he?  Ajax is dead.”

“We don’t know that–“

“Don’t soft-shoe me, Glen,” she said, her voice sharp.

“Well–yes, it sounds like he might be dead.”  He got a chill, saying it, and the conversation faltered for a few minutes.

“I shouldn’t have asked him to go there.”

“Don’t,” Glen said.  “Don’t beat yourself up.  He was an adult, and he made his own decision, and if you try to start blaming yourself, you’re going to make me sound like a bad film noir detective trying to ease your guilt.  I actually just told you ‘don’t beat yourself up, kid,’ didn’t I?”

Molly found herself caught between a sob and a laugh, and spluttered.  That made Glen laugh, and the moment broke gently.  It felt like they’d made a nonverbal agreement to not talk about it right now, without pretending that nothing had happened. 

Silence fell again.  It wasn’t an uncomfortable or awkward silence, but for some reason Glen was desperate to break it.  The only thing he could think of to do was turn on the radio, though, and that didn’t seem right either.  He listened to the Porsche’s engine burble instead.  Molly was looking out the side window, and he left with her thoughts for a few minutes. 

The clouds filling the sky broke momentarily, and a waning moon shone down surprisingly bright, illuminating the snow-covered fields.  She spoke first.  “New subject,” she said. 

“Well, it’s tangentially related to Langdon Quimby, but did I tell you that I belong to a secret society?”

“No, you didn’t.”  Her voice rose, interested.  “But I’m a big fan of secrets.”

“Well, okay, it’s not exactly a secret society, it may be too small.  But it is a loose collection of car guys scattered about the country.  We call ourselves the Road Associates.”

“Hmm.  That doesn’t sound particularly intriguing.”

“Well, we meet at a place called the Minilite Bar, whose location is a closely guarded secret.  And we gather semi-regularly to drive our cars, and do good works.”  He added the last as an impulse.

“What kind of good works?”

“Oh, you know, fighting crime, curing disease.  Bringing toys to sick children.”  Molly was giving him a skeptical look.  “Okay, we do good work on cars.  Is that more believable?”

“I suspect lots of standing around drinking beer, and talking about working on cars.”

“Actually, we do work.  And we’ve gone to a few shows together.  Harold and Walter got it started; they wanted to have a club for hard-core, hopeless automotive basket cases, and went in search of like minds.  So far, there are ten of us.”

“Do you all have a special jacket, or a badge?  Or some special car you drive?”

Glen shrugged.  “Not really.  Like I said, it’s a loose affiliation.  The notion is that we can network, and visit each other, or help out.  It started out in Harold’s basement, but now it seems like people keep hearing about us and wanting to join.  Harold and Walter actually had to devise a questionnaire to screen prospective Associates, and we all have to vote on them.”

“Oh, my,” Molly said.  Now that Glen had told her more about it, the concept was vaguely familiar.  Lexi and Ren had talked about the Road Associates once, but she didn’t remember much more than that.  “Do you have a secret initiation rite as well?”

“I am not at liberty to tell you that,” he replied quickly.  “Besides, if I told you, you might end up testifying.”

She grinned at him.  “Nothing I’ve never done before.  I testified against my brother, you know.”

“Did you really?”

“Yes.  Peter’s a bit of a delinquent.  Actually, he’s a lot of a delinquent.  The night he snuck out of the house to rob a liquor store, I saw him go.  He threatened to kick the crap out of me if I told anyone, of course.  But that never stopped me from tattling before.  I don’t know why he thought it would work that time.  Not the shiniest apple in the barrel, is my brother.  I got to testify in court at the tender age of seventeen, and Peter got to do five to seven years.”

“You said you were seventeen then, so he gets out in, what, four years?”

“No…”  Molly frowned, then broke into a lazy smile.  “Are you trying to suggest in a subtle way that I look eighteen, Glen?”

He feigned shock.  “You mean you’re underage?” 

She swatted his shoulder gently.  “Geek.”

“Guilty as charged.  Are you going to testify against me now?”

“Nah, I like you.  You should remain a free man.  And, for the record, so is Peter.  He got paroled in ’93, right after I graduated college.  Just in time for my wedding, in fact.”

“Was he there?”

“I didn’t have a choice but to invite him, he’s the only brother I’ve got.  But it was a good wedding, Peter didn’t mess it up.  He’s grown up.”  Molly considered this statement.  “A little bit, anyway.” 

“It sounds like it was a good wedding followed by a bad marriage.”

“I wouldn’t say that.  It was a good marriage, for what it was.”

Glen angled his head.  “And what was it?”

“A union between two type-A personalities who probably shouldn’t have gotten together.  We really loved each other, and wanted to make it work, but I think that the collective delusion was there all along–that if we both wanted it badly enough, we could make it work.  I have learned that it either works, or it doesn’t.”

“And if it doesn’t, you stop trying?”

“That’s the hard habit to break, isn’t it?  I have had so many project boyfriends it isn’t funny.  It really isn’t.  The problem is that I’m stubborn, even when I’m telling myself that I’m wrong.  Rich and I were better friends than spouses.  We were both too competitive, too territorial, and that really came out when we started living under the same roof.”  She considered.  “And, of course, he was an insufferable prick, like all ex-husbands are.  I married a wonderful man, and he slipped out the back door at the ceremony and I got Rich in his place.”

Glen laughed.  “Ouch.”

“Okay, maybe I’m a little bitter.”

“You think?”

“Hey, I have a right to be.  You know how I knew it was over?”

“I’m almost afraid to ask.  Did he cheat on you?”

“Actually, he never did.  I knew it was over when I realized that I wasn’t even enjoying the arguments any more.  That’s a pretty sad state of affairs, for me.  I love to argue.  If I can’t enjoy a screaming fight, then something’s wrong with my life.  A good argument is better than sex.”

He looked at her in the dark; she was looking back at him with a silly grin on her face.  “Is that true, or are you just joking?”

Molly arched an eyebrow.  “You’ll have to get me under oath to find that out.”

Ahead of them, Lexi pulled off the highway and took a few turns through suburbia.

“Good God, we grew up here,” Molly said.  “I haven’t been here in years, since my folks moved to Massachusetts after I finished school.  If you turn left right here,” she said, pointing into a subdivision, “you could go to our old house.  Straight down this road about five miles is the high school we went to.  That party store is new; it used to be a donut shop.  And that,” she said, pointing as the SUV Lexi was driving swung a driveway that was shared with a small white farmhouse and a large, incongruous-looking barn, “is where Lex grew up.”

The house looked lonely, set near the edge of the busy street and surrounded on all sides by subdivisions full of cookie-cutter houses.  Lexi drove to the barn, and Glen followed.

“Those housing communities behind and to the left of the house weren’t here when we were kids,” Molly said.  “It was all woods.”

“Did you play in them?”

“Yes,” she said with a smile.  “I hung out with a bunch of tomboys.  Lex included.  In fact, she might have been their queen.  Or king.  Which one should it be?”  She laughed.  “Anyway, when her father passed in ’93, she got the barn and her dad’s, ahem, girlfriend Margaret got the house.”

Glen had two questions at the same time.  “Does she still live there?  Does Lexi get along with her?”

“Yes, and yes,” Molly said as the porch light came on.  Lexi was already opening the barn door.  “You’d better go help Lex,” she said.  “I doubt Nikki’s going to be much help with her leg in a cast.  I’m going to go say hi to Margaret.”

He watched her go, feeling a twitch of regret that the entertaining conversation was over.  It had been so long since he…but that wasn’t a good train of thought.  Glen did his best to put Molly out of his mind, although he had a feeling she’d be back in it later.  For now though, he could distract himself; he had promised to help Lexi build this car, after all.  Hopefully Molly would stay, too.  Glen felt a bit of hope that she’d watch them work on the car, that she’d see his good qualities went farther than just being a decent driver in nasty weather and being able to keep up some light, somewhat flirtatious banter.  Women liked guys who could fix things, after all.

Dammit, he was doing it already.

“Good drive?” Lexi asked him when he reached the door.  She was kicking the bottom edge of it, which was frozen in half an inch of ice.

“Yes, it was.  Thanks for not losing us.”

“Did Molly like the Porsche?”

“Well enough, I guess.  I don’t think she really noticed it, much.”

“No surprise.  She’s failed to be impressed by much more exciting cars.”

He laughed.  “Need some help?  What’s in the barn?”

“The other twenty-five bodies in white.”

So the unpainted, unassembled frames of thirty unfinished Crane-Packard sports cars were tucked away in a barn just outside of Detroit.  Amazing, the things you never even knew.  Glen was less than twenty miles from home.

As the door finally broke loose, Glen remembered going to another warehouse with Lexi barely thirty-six hours ago.  Lexi was fresh out of her cocoon, and Glen hoped that the bodies in white hadn’t met the same fate as the rest of the collection.  The madness, the hopeless, lost madness Glen had seen in Lexi’s eyes in that instant before she had stormed out was so familiar it scared him.  It was an amped-up version of something he’d felt himself, and he really, really didn’t want to be in the presence of it again.  So, hopefully her cars were here, safe and sound, and she could finish building her tribute car in Ren’s memory, and maybe move on.  Glen had a feeling that the world was much better off if Lexi was able to move on.

The door slid slowly open to the accompaniment of rusty creaks and the crackles of ice breaking off the hinges.  The late evening shadows made it impossible to see more than a couple of feet inside. 

“Hello, zombie army!” Lexi called into the darkened barn.  It was sixty feet deep and wide enough to admit a pair of buses side by side.  The floor was cement, and filling half of it were twenty-five wheel-less, engine-less, interior-less primer-painted Crane-Packard bodies, fifteen coupes and ten convertibles pushed in end to end. 

They’re here! Glen thought with a mixture of relief and awe.

A massive workbench and tools of every description were visible behind the bodies in white.  Grizzle was parked in front of both of them, a dusty old Ford pickup on four flat tires.  Lexi considered the bodies.  Should Ren’s car have a roof, or not?  Chances were it didn’t rain in heaven, so there was no point in wondering if he’d have convertible weather.  The coupes were just a bit faster though, so she decided to build him a hardtop.  “That one,” she said, partly to herself and partly to Glen, pointing at the nearest coupe body.  “Spotted and selected.  Let’s unload.”  She spun on her heel and brushed past Glen, heading for the laden Tahoe.

Glen looked at the body Lexi had selected; it was no different from the rest of them.  He found himself looking forward to helping Lexi to build her tribute car.  Professional detachment wasn’t important, here.  The nice thing about it was that it was going a bit above and beyond, compared to the usual sit-down-and-chat celebrity interview, but since his contact with Lexi was more likely to be of interest to the personality magazines than the car books (Lexi had been tabloid fodder for a month after her public nervous breakdown, and her subsequent six-month seclusion had naturally served only to make the speculation wilder).  Being the first writer to sit down and chat with her in all this time was sure to be worth something.

That was the professional writer talking, of course.  The more time Glen spent with Lexi, the less he thought about writing any sort of article.  After hiding away for so long, she had accepted him into her inner circle for no apparent reason whatsoever, and he wasn’t entirely comfortable with telling the world her innermost thoughts.

Then again, Lexi didn’t seem to care one way or the other.  Glen decided not to think about it for now, and to just enjoy the moment.  “Where do you want to work?” he asked Lexi.

She opened the Tahoe’s back door and looked inside, deciding what to drag out first.  “In the garage, of course.  It’s a bit chilly out here.  Plus I don’t want the spacemen to see what we’re doing.”  What was she doing, by the way?  One of her hands crept to her collar in a gesture of sudden uncertainty; she had to talk to Molly.  “I need hot chocolate,” she told Glen.

“Before or after unloading?” he asked, surprised at the sudden change in her tone and direction.

“Before.  Now.  Must get hot chocolate.”

“Fair enough,” he shrugged.

Lexi strode purposefully into the house.  Molly, Nikki, and Margaret, the lady of the house, were in the small kitchen.  Because she knew Lexi hadn’t eaten all day, Molly was busy making something to eat, appropriating Margaret’s food as she saw fit.  A laid-back, handsome woman in her mid-sixties, Margaret didn’t seem to mind the imposition.  “Girl’s a better cook than I am anyway,” she told Nikki as the two of them sat at the tiny kitchen table.  Her tone made it obvious that this–Lexi and friends showing up unannounced and helping themselves to food–was a common and welcome occurrence.

“I need to go to a hotel,” Nikki told Lexi as she came in.

“Okay.  There’s a bed here if you want, you know.”

“I know.  But I keep funny hours,” she said.  “And I have friends I need to get in touch with.  People I haven’t seen in a long time.”

“Stay for dinner at least?” Molly asked.

“What are you making?”

“Nothing special.  Spaghetti.  Meatballs.”

“Ooh!  Will you make me a half-pound meatball again?” Lexi chirped.

“No,” Molly said without looking at her.  “There won’t be any meat left for anyone else.”

“There’s only half a pound of meat?”

“I was talking figuratively.”

“Well, I wasn’t.  I want a big meatball.  And I want to talk,” she added.  Lexi’s voice was suddenly equal parts desperate and serious.  Everyone else in the room picked up on the changed vibe–even Glen, who knew her less well than the others did.

“Okay,” Molly said immediately.  “Step into my office,” she said, opening the door to the walk-in pantry.  It had once been a laundry room, but the sink, washer and dryer had been removed years ago by Lexi’s father to turn the room into food storage.  There was plenty of room for two in there, even with the shelves on all of the walls.

Molly closed the door behind Lexi.  “What’s up, darling?”

“What am I doing, Molly?” she asked, sagging against the shelves.  “I’m losing control of it.  I don’t know what’s happening.  I want to go home.”

“So let’s go home, then.  Baby-steps.”

“I don’t want to go home, either.  I hate that place right now.  I hate everything right now.  The only thing stopping me from going back up there and setting that whole goddamn house on fire is knowing that in a couple of hours I’m not going to feel this way any more.”

Molly squeezed Lexi’s hand.  “Hey.  We’re following you, not leading you.”

“But I don’t know where I’m going!”

“You know my solution is going to be to sit down and eat, and think about how you feel afterward.  You need food, darling.”

“I know, I know,” Lexi said, waving her hands impatiently.  “But I’m scared.  I’m afraid of what I’m going to think in an hour.  I don’t know where I am right now and I can’t think about where I’m going next.  And I don’t know if I want to think about what’s next, or to just do it.”

“Do what?”

“That’s the twenty thousand dollar question, isn’t it?  I came down here to build a car for Ren.  And I will, I think.  It’s in that weird place when you have a project and you want to finish it, are eager to do it, but it’s past the point of no return and now it’s half ‘wanna-do’ and half ‘must-do’ and it feels like it’s slipping out of my control.  Just like everything else.”

“You do need to eat.”

“You’re so Italian it’s embarrassing, Molly.  How can I work through the process of discarding my stereotypes if you keep reinforcing them?”

“Don’t change the subject.  Slow the hell down.  Sit down for a minute.  The car’s not going anywhere.”

Lexi stood up straight, grabbing the shelf behind her with both hands.  “But my mind is!  I’ve been like this for a month; my brain is spinning at seven thousand rpm and my body doesn’t want to move.  But now, somehow, my body is moving, and I feel like if I stop, my brain won’t, it’ll just rip itself to pieces.”  Lexi sighed again, deeply.  “I’m afraid to stop.  I want to stop, just for a minute, to think, but I’m afraid to.  It’s not just me, it’s like there’s something else pushing me along.  Like Ren needs this car, and his ghost isn’t going to let me alone until it’s done.”

“So do it.”

“I can’t, I’m thinking too much!  What if I finish and the ghost wants something else? What if this isn’t enough?  What if it’s never satisfied?”

Molly thought about it for a long moment.  “I think that you should have some dinner–you shut your mouth, Lexi Crane, and let me finish–you should have some dinner, and then go work on your car until you’re ready for bed.  Then sleep, finish that car, and then decide what’s next.  That’s what they mean when they say, ‘one day at a time.’  Stop trying to nail down the whole year, and just deal with now.”  She took Lexi’s chin and made her friend look at her.  “Just right now.  You have not had a good year, and even if you act like it, you’re not all better yet.  You’re doing good.”

“Good is relative.”

Molly let her go.  “Don’t get all philosophical on me, bitch, you know I’m not good at this.”

“At what?”

“At talking you down.  Usually I spit out all sorts of advice and then you go off and do your dumb thing anyway.  I’m much better at picking up the pieces than I am at preventing the disasters.”

“Oh, shuttup,” Lexi said.