Six

Lexi wasn’t anywhere near the underground booths.  She had drifted upstairs and outside, drawn by the sound of the cars passing on Jefferson Avenue.  The cloudy mid-October certainly looked chilly, but she couldn’t really feel it.  It was a little over fifty degrees and she walked with her coat open, drifting through Hart Plaza like a sleepwalker.  The cars were all she wanted to see today. Food smelled good, but she didn’t feel like eating anything.  Ian had been nice, but she didn’t want Ian around, not today.  He reminded her of Ren. Everything did, really.  The air seemed to tremble with the memory of him, and it was too much.  She wanted to be back in the house, in bed.  Asleep.

When Ren had died, all of the texture had gone out of the world.  Even after they said he was in the ground, everything remained shades of gray, every surface dull and featureless, every meal as tasteless as dust.  Nothing had any relief.

There were snatches of life, at times.  She could remember the brilliant turquoise stripes on their Packard Caribbean, the feel of new Converse All-Stars, the smell of mustard.  And there were flashes.  Her room would jump into color for a few seconds, as if it had forgotten, and she’d be able to see the green of Malice’s eyes, and then–pop–it would go again, back to grayscale.  Lexi had banged her head against the wall, the floor, trying to jar the color back, like you’d whack a TV with a failing picture tube into submission.  That had mixed results.  Mostly it upset Ian.  Now she was outside, and she could see that it was fall, but none of the colors or the temperature or the smells touched her.  It was like looking at a movie.

She took a tremulous breath, and focused on the narrow patch of Jefferson she could see between the bandshell and bus stop.  A minivan went by–a Ford Aerostar.  And after that a decrepit Pontiac Bonneville, then a GMC tow truck hauling a Dodge Neon.  Cars.  A faint smile touched her lips.  She wanted to watch the cars.  That would be nice.  They still existed, without color or smell or taste.  They were real.

She was only incidentally aware of walking that way, but soon she was at the road, right where Jefferson and Woodward Avenue met.  Woodward dead-ended into Jefferson, four lanes of traffic coming straight at her and four going away, and Lexi sat on the sidewalk where she could see both streets and watch the cars turn and file past in front of her.  The giant bronze fist that was a memorial to Joe Louis pointed north over her head.  Wonderful.  She watched the cars file by, new and old, domestic and imported, all of them in motion, none of them boring to her.  The curb was cold under her butt.  The cold felt nice.  So did the air; Detroit had a industrial smell, almost like clean-cut metal, that she had always liked.  She realized that she really could smell it, and it was wonderful.

And for a few minutes, she didn’t think about Warren Packard, or the crash that had taken him from her.  A knot deep in her belly loosened, just a fraction.  She had wished that Ian would have let her drive herself from Arcadia, but he had insisted on making the five-hour trip to pick her up and bring her down to Detroit in his stupid Explorer.  It would have been a nice drive, with the trees up north already changed and the colors just starting to change as she got farther south.  She could have driven the Caribbean, in fact.  Or the Edsel, whose name was Frank.

Lexi and Ren had named all two hundred and fourteen of the cars they’d collected.  She’d gotten him started doing it, and the habit stuck.  It was an easy way to remember them, as well as a welcome addition to the weird shorthand they had spoken to one another in. Lexi had liked having a secret language.  She missed it, of course.

She watched the cars shuffle past instead.  Ian hadn’t let her drive because of the pills.  Dr. Zheng–who wasn’t Lexi’s regular doctor, but they wouldn’t call Josie for some reason, or maybe Ian had said she was too busy, she couldn’t remember–had prescribed some pills for her, which were supposed to make her feel better.  All they really did was bring a big pink cloud down around everything and made it hard to think, but that was better in a way.  It was close to time for the lunch pill, and things were a little bit clearer right now.  That was why she was thinking so much about Ren, and why it was easier to look at the cars and let them keep her from thinking.  If only the pink cloud didn’t make it hard to drive, she’d have been perfectly happy.  Well, maybe she could drive with it.  She was a good driver.

Lexi let the thought break up and admired a severely rusted mid-Seventies Oldsmobile that wheezed past.  Good car to restore.  There weren’t a lot of Ninety-Eight sedans around these days, really.  A moment after it was gone, she had forgotten it, but that was okay, too.

Without warning, someone sat on the curb next to her.  “Hello, Ms. Crane,” a voice as rich and mellow as good eggnog purred.

She angled her head casually, and saw that she was talking to a short, wide black man with rhinestones embedded in the frames of his shaded glasses. It was a gray day and he had no need for the shades, but there you were.  He wore a sweater with so many colors woven through the fabric that it looked like a hallucination, and something about the weave suggested that it was brutally expensive.  If nothing else it was mesmerizing; she hadn’t been noticing colors for months, but the sweater seemed to dance and shimmer.  Lexi wondered if maybe the rhinestones on his glasses were really diamonds.  They would have matched the fat rings on his thick fingers, in that case.

He was smiling at her.  She smiled back at him, a little lazily.  “Hi,” she said.  Did she know him?  She didn’t think so. She had a good memory for faces, even if the names escaped her.  She could call him Doug, she supposed.  She and Ren usually referred to men whose names they didn’t know as Doug.  Unknown women were named Emily until further information was provided.  It was Ren’s quirk, but had melted into Lexi over time.

“What are you doing out here, my dear?  Waiting for a bus to come and take you away?”

She liked his voice, and instantly wanted him to keep talking.  “Um, I considered it,” she said.  “But then I don’t know where I want to go exactly. So I was just car-watching, and thinking about fish.”

“Is that a sport?  Like bird-watching?”

Lexi nodded.  “Only less dorky.  And, um, more rewarding, too.”  Looking at the man, with all of his sparkly jewelry, it was hard to concentrate on what he was saying.  Maybe it was the smell of his shoulder length, jheri-curled hair.  Looking back at the traffic helped a little.  There went a first-year Taurus SHO, and right behind it a Dodge Omni GLHS.  Weird.  She frowned.

“What is it?” the man (Doug?) asked.

“Hm?”

“What do you see?”

She didn’t look at him.  “Fast cars pretending to be slow ones.  Two of them.  They could race.”  She pointed to the SHO and the GLHS and glanced at her companion.  He didn’t seem to know what she meant.  He wasn’t a car person.  Oh, well.  “Both factory tuner cars,” she said, then fell silent again.  He probably didn’t know what tuner cars were either.  Ren would’ve.  He would have seen the two cars as soon as she did, and…Lexi watched a brightly green Geo Metro speed past (“Three cylinders of pavement-ripping power!” Ren had sarcastically shouted once), and let the thought dissolve.  The Geo seemed to turn gray as it moved away.

“You look like you need a friend,” the man said.

“I have a few.  They’re just hiding.”  Or in the ground, a voice in her mind said suddenly.  The knot in her belly tightened anew.

He smiled, flashing teeth with gold in them.  “Would you like another?”

“Hm?  Another what?”

“A new friend, of course.  Or a fast car pretending to be a slow one, if you’d like.”

Lexi bobbed her head a little, glancing at him and then back at traffic. A green and yellow Mayflower moving van was lumbering through the intersection, making a right onto Woodward, and she watched it go.  It was a Peterbilt straight truck, and that was unusual too.  She didn’t tell the man this time.  But she figured he could be her friend, even if he wasn’t a car person.  “I’d like that,” she said.

“Well, I’m Curve.”  He held out his hand.  “It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Alex,” he said as they shook.

“You can call me Lexi,” she said.  Some question bubbled in her brain, about how he had known her name, but the pink cloud was still strong enough to swallow it.  All she noticed was that he was standing up as if to leave, and he was going to take his lovely voice with him.  “Don’t go.  Please, talk to me some more.  We can watch cars together.”

He was standing.  He was barely five-one even in expensive, tall-heeled wingtips.  At five-seven, she would have towered over him if she weren’t sitting with her feet in the gutter.  He patted his pockets, then swore passionately.  “God-dammit!  I knew I forgot something.  I forgot your gift.”

She rolled easily with the nonsensical idea that someone she’d just met would have brought her a present.  “What gift?”

“I always bring a gift when I’m meetin’ someone young enough to be my grandchild.  But I forgot yours.  Let’s go and get one.  My car’s right this way.”

That sounded more or less okay to Lexi.  “You’re not old enough to be my grandfather.”

“How would you know?” Curve said.

That was true; she’d never had one, come to think of it.  Her parents had both been only children, and both sets of grandparents had passed before she was born.  She liked Curve.  He made sense, in a funny, rhinestones and jheri-curl juice way.  Lexi followed him down the sidewalk toward the five shimmering glass skyscrapers that made up the Renaissance Center.

“Do you like this building?” Curve asked.  “I remember before they put the damn thing up.  Never have gotten used to it.”

The round towers of the Ren Cen were an inseparable part of the Detroit skyline to Lexi’s eyes.  And it was called Ren, for goodness sake, how could you not like it?  Oh, Christ that knot hurt! “How old are you?” she asked him.

“I don’t know.  Here,” he helped her up the steep concrete steps leading to a raised taxi drive which went around the clustered skyscrapers.  The walls that surrounded them funneled the air into a frigid blast.  Curve used his free hand to shield his face from the wind; Lexi closed her eyes and let it tousle her hair violently.  “That’s my car, down there,” Curve said, indicating a new Bentley Turbo R at the curb.  The car’s slick paint shone even in the cloudy light, and she realized that it was red.

“I had you pegged as a Lincoln person,” Lexi said.

“Traded it in for this,” Curve replied quickly, making her laugh.  “Want to drive?”

“I’m kind of medicated,” she said, even though she really, really wanted to.

“It ain’t far.  I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”

She didn’t argue with that.  Curve handed her the keys.

The big British sedan was as buttery smooth a drive as the last one she’d driven, its mailed-fist, velvet-glove power much more fun than Ian’s Explorer could have hoped to be.  Curve reclined in the seat, his short, stocky form completely at ease.  Lexi traced her fingers lightly across the leather steering wheel and dash as she drove, enjoying the way the car felt.  He directed her to drive north, and they headed a few blocks up from the Ren Cen, into a crumbling industrial district that was quickly being turned into upscale condominiums.

The new-looking awning over the door they stopped in front of said “El-Cue” and gave no hints as to what would be found within.  Beautiful leaded-glass windows made wares in the window shimmer as if viewed through a kaleidoscope.

Lexi was still smiling from the drive.  She hadn’t driven in months, and her fingers and toes tingled with pleasure.  Curve held the door open for her.  El-Cue seemed to be a store of Franklin Mint-style gifts, mostly.  The shop was dominated by glass display cases filled with crystal and porcelain miniatures.  Curve went right to the counter.  The clerk seemed to know him, and they had a brief, quiet conversation that Lexi didn’t catch.  Curve gave the man some money, and when he turned around he was holding a small, oblong box not much bigger than a hardcover book.  “Now you’ve got your gift, Lexi,” he said, handing it to her.

She took it.  “Should I open it now?”

Curve shook his head.  “Better get back, before we upset the chaperone too much.”

Lexi wasn’t sure what he meant for a moment.  Oh!  Ian.  She stuffed the box into her pocket.  “Oops, you’re right, I didn’t tell Ian I was leaving.”

“Irresponsible girl,” Curve said, but he was smiling.  “Now let’s get back and see if they saved my parking spot,” he said.

Curve’s parking spot was still there.  “Look at that,” Lexi said.  “Parking…” The pink cloud suddenly swooped down, and she forgot what she was going to say.  She struggled for a moment to regain her train of thought.  Detroit, hotel, parking…cars…yes!  Train of thought regained.  “Parking doesn’t last long down here,” she said.  “‘Specially on special days.”

“Then someone’s smiling upon us today,” Curve said.

Lexi guided the car easily into the space.  Parallel parking was fun.  “All done,” she said.  Curve was already getting out of the car.  Lexi frowned, not wanting him to go yet.  She wanted to hear his voice some more.  “You’re leaving already?  Come with me.  Come and meet Ian.”

“No, I’ve got to run along.  Your chaperone’s looking for you.  But we’ll be in touch.”

“Who’s we?” she asked.

“Langdon Quimby and I.”

Lexi laughed, and Curve smiled in response.  “That can’t possibly be a real name.”

“Oh, but it is.  When we meet again, I’ll tell you more.”  He started off down the sidewalk, whistling.  “Booth 138 has some great fried catfish, by the way,” Curve said over his shoulder as he started down the sidewalk.  “You ought to have a taste.”

It was hard to tell if Curve was really there, or if the pink cloud had made him up.  Lexi had the feeling that he was real, but she wasn’t completely certain.  Lexi waved goodbye, smiling and thinking about catfish.

In a blur of motion, the Bentley’s door was jerked open, and a valet parker with a stud earring and a blond crewcut grabbed her arm.  “Can I help you?” he snarled in a way that suggested he meant something entirely different.

Startled, Lexi recoiled from the hand and the voice.  “I was just parking my friend’s car,” she said.  With her free hand she took the key out of the ignition and held it out to the valet.  “See?”

The valet turned and spoke over his shoulder to a man wearing an expensive-looking trenchcoat over an even more expensive-looking suit.  It was Dobie Cassarell, with Victor in tow.  “Is this your car, sir?”  Dobie nodded.  “Is she a friend of yours?”

Dobie frowned, still trying to puzzle out    Lexi’s sudden appearance.  For some reason, the valet took this as his cue to snatch the keys from Lexi’s hand and drag her out of the car, against her protests that she was still belted into it.  He jerked roughly at her while she struggled with the latch, and they compromised when Lexi came out of the car with the unlatched seatbelt wrapped around her arm and neck.

Dobie’s surprise broke, and he shouted,  “Hey!  Hey!  There’s no need for that!”  Victor stepped forward, inserting himself between Lexi and the valet, shouldering the younger man aside through sheer force of bulk.

“Would you like me to call the police, Mr. Cassarell?” the valet asked, looking up at the bodyguard who had shouldered him aside.

“No, thank you,” he replied without taking his eyes from Lexi.  His were pale blue; hers were brown, and a little unfocused at the moment.

She squirmed out of the seatbelt on her own, and got to her feet three seconds before her center of gravity made it off of the ground.  Dobie Cassarell caught her as she started to fall over backward. “Thank you,” she said.  “I haven’t had lunch yet.”

“You should take better care of yourself.”

“Funny,” she said, “that’s what the other guy said.”

Dobie frowned.  “What other guy?”

“The one who said that your car was his.  Didn’t you see him?”

Dobie and the valet shared a look.  “We didn’t see anyone but you stealing the car, crackhead,” the valet snapped.  Dobie favored him with a look of disdain.  Victor was already moving to tip the young man and dismiss him.

Lexi had to think about that a moment.  While she was thinking, she saw Ian pounding up the sidewalk toward them, coat flapping.  “Ian!” she called and waved.  She made a mental note to apologize for worrying him–because she had, she could tell by the look on his face–and promptly forgot it.

Ian’s relief lasted just as long as it took for the situation to be explained, then changed to irritation.  He took a moment to compose himself, pinching the bridge of his nose as he did so.

“You always remind me of Molly when you do that,” Lexi said.

“Molly?  Oh, yes, your friend.”  Ian remembered suddenly that Molly had left messages asking him to tell her if Lexi was coming down to Detroit for the meeting, in which case she’d fly out to do lunch with her.  He had told her Lexi wasn’t coming, partly because he didn’t feel like dealing with Molly.  She asked too many questions about what was going on, and he didn’t have time for her.  “Why on earth did you steal Mr. Cassarell’s car?”

“Curve told me the car was his,” Lexi said.  She had sat down on the curb because she was still dizzy.

“Who’s Curve?”

“He must be her imaginary friend,” the valet interjected, “’cause she was the only person in that car.”

“He’s not imaginary,” Lexi insisted.  “He’s just very short.”

“Why are you still here?” Victor snapped at the valet, who immediately started walking toward the door.

“Get that kid fired,” Dobie said quietly, still looking down at Lexi.

“On it,” Victor said, and was gone.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Cassarell,” Ian said.

Dobie was smiling, though.  “It’s no problem.”  He took Lexi’s hand as if to kiss it, and helped her to her feet.  “Did you enjoy the car?”

“We’ve got to go,” Ian said before Lexi could answer.

“Yes, we do,” Lexi agreed.  “I want catfish.  There’s a good place to get some back at the food festival.”

“No, Lexi, we’ve got a meeting.”

“Go ahead and have your meeting.  It’s all about numbers, and I don’t care about numbers.  I’m getting catfish, it’s much more important.”  She spun on her heel, went around two hundred and fifty degrees instead of the intended one-eighty, and walked away, correcting her course as she went with her arms held out at her sides.

He couldn’t leave her alone in the city like that.  “Wait, Lexi, I’ll come with you.”  He turned back to Dobie.  “Sorry again.  Thanks for making the long trip.  Why don’t you go on in, and we’ll be there in a few minutes?”

Dobie nodded.  “I’ve talked with Becka Packard, you know.”

“Everyone has,” Ian said.  “You’re friends with the family, too.  I hope your decision not to sell your stock to her didn’t cause any friction?”

He waved a hand.  “Just business.”

“Well, thanks for sticking with us.  It’s been a hell of a year.”

“It certainly has.”  Dobie was looking over Ian’s shoulder at Lexi, who had walked a few car lengths up the sidewalk, then sat down on the curb when she saw that no one was following her.  “So, be honest with me. What do you think?” he asked in a low voice.

“Think?”

“About Becka’s suspicion.”

Becka Packard had more than once floated the notion that Lexi had run Ren off the road, killing him for the inheritance.  There were no witnesses, after all, and the skidmark evidence was inconclusive.  “It’s absurd,” Ian replied without considering.  “Her pain’s not an act.  You don’t see her enjoying her inheritance much, do you?  And besides, Lexi doesn’t have it in her to kill one person–let alone five.  It was an accident, for God’s sake.”

“I’m sorry, I was just asking,” Dobie said.  “No malice intended.  To be honest, I haven’t seen Lexi at all.  Not that I’d ever seen her more than once or twice, or from a distance, but without Warren she’s vanished from the radar entirely.  She even missed Goodwood.”

“I didn’t realize they were such fixtures,” Ian said.  He wasn’t sure what Goodwood was, some car event no doubt, but he didn’t ask.  “She can’t drive, you know,” he murmured.

Dobie glanced at his Bentley, then looked at Ian.  “I beg your pardon?”

Shit.  Ian cursed himself for talking too much.  Dobie reminded him too much of a friendly, higher-ranking executive, and he his easygoing manner was disarming.  Small talk always came back and bit you in the ass with those guys.  It was too late to laugh it off, though.  “Not well, anyway.  She’s taking medication.  For depression.  It makes it hard for her to drive, and I’m glad she didn’t wreck your car.  Have you heard about the sale, Mr. Cassarell?”  Dobie’s raised eyebrow said that he hadn’t.  “The collection.  Their cars.”  Ian knew that Dobie was a car collector; if he knew about the liquidation of Lexi and Ren’s two hundred plus car collection, he’d spread the word.  It would be easier than a loud, public auction.  Ian had been looking for ways to advertise the sale by word of mouth.  Ian glanced down the sidewalk at Lexi again.  “She’s selling the whole thing off.  All of them.”  Actually, Lexi had no idea that Ian was planning to sell the cars off.  He had no plans to tell her if she didn’t ask.  The stock buyout had eaten up a lot of the estate, and upkeep and insurance on the collection was siphoning off a lot of what remained.  She was barely aware of the world around her anyway.

Dobie was clearly interested.  “Are you serious?  There are some impressive vehicles in that collection.”

“I wouldn’t know, to be honest.  All I know is that it depresses her.  Can’t you imagine?  They hand-picked those cars together.”

Dobie nodded.  “And restored half of them, too.  I suppose I can imagine.”

They were both looking at Lexi now.  She was reclining on the cold sidewalk as if it were a beach, and looking up at the Renaissance Center.  “I’ve been looking for a consultant,” Ian said.  “I don’t know much about cars.”

“After working in the industry for all this time?”

“Yeah, but I’m an accounting guy.  One of the ‘bean counters’ you car guys love to hate.  Warren was the car guy.”

Dobie took out a cigar.  “Do you mind?” he asked Ian, who shook his head no.  Dobie lit up, then said, “I know someone you might call, if you need a reliable appraiser.  Have you approached any of the major auction houses?  I’m sure they’ll all want to host the Packard collection.”

“Crane-Packard,” Ian corrected.  “No, I haven’t.  Lexi’s had enough circuses for one year.  We’d rather keep it quiet, have it at the house if possible.  As quickly as possible, so Lexi can start getting better.”

Another nod.  “I understand.  Why don’t you give me a call Monday, and I’ll have a name for you.  Of course, you’ll give me an early look at the collection, and a chance to offer early bids.”  It wasn’t a question.  “Take Lexi to get her lunch.  I’ll see you in the meeting.”

He said a quick farewell to Dobie, then walked quickly up the sidewalk to catch up to Lexi.  She stood up as he approached, and brushed dust off of her legs.  He was in a good mood, having partially dealt with yet another of the estate’s problems, but he didn’t let Lexi know that.  “Jesus Christ, you could have handled that better,” he told her.

“Maybe Jesus could have, but he never met Becka Packard.  I bet he’d have converted if he did, just so he wouldn’t have to be in the same religion as that walking, talking, American Express Gold-toting Funyun.  And I’m considerably more bitter than Jesus Christ was.  So leave me alone.”

“That was Dobie Cassarell, not Becka Packard, Lexi!  One of your primary shareholders, I might add?”

She made a mouth with her hand and yapped it in Ian’s face.  “Bla, bla, bla, you bore me and I’m hungry.  At least he let me drive his car.  Now come with me to get food.  I’m getting sad again.”

“I can tell.  You want your pill?”

“I suppose,” she said, shrugging her outburst away.