The Adventure of the Shield Bug with Nikki and Trey
by Devon Pitlor
...The purpose of man's life...is to become an
abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons
he is not to question. --Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged,
I. The return of Toby Dasher
After the disappearance of the destroyer asteroid Ilystra Damals, the world, as we all know, regained its usual composure, and no one, including myself as you shall see, seemed hardly much improved by it. Whatever forces had threatened mankind for those three weeks in November of the dismal year 2010 must have just decided to go elsewhere and wreak havoc because no great lessons seemed to have been acquired among the warring tribes of Earth, which continued as always the animosity they have always borne toward one another. Life went on. People and things recovered..
And one of them was television.
Nikki Barazan, my lifelong soul mate, and I watched very little television, but sometimes it was just impossible to miss. We lived in a basement apartment in Nikki's mother's house for very minimal rent. Tracy Barazan, now divorced from Nikki's father Erv, busied herself intruding with a dust cloth into our lives whenever she could and mostly whenever she was tipsy on vodka and wanted to snoop or chat. When she came downstairs, she always switched on our otherwise rarely used television, and on the day I am pinpointing in this memoir, she stood back from the television and said "Um..um...um" as if in a perfect imitation of some cloned African-American woman she had once passed in the supermarket.
The object of her admiration was the very, very pretty Toby Dasher, Nikki's short-lasted husband of the previous year. Toby had been a media intern on the Weather Channel for some time before the coming of Ilystra Damals, and now he was of all things grinning wide into the camera and chopping meat and shallots. Somehow Toby had moved from weather to cooking and boasted his own show now.
Though Tracy Barazan and I were far from amicable, we stood side by side for a moment as I waited for the usual Toby-praise to spill from her slurring mouth. And, on cue, it came: "Um..um..um...That boy sure was cute, and I bet he makes good money too and could pay me a lot more than you two. Instead, I get the boy next door who crawled around in the same mud as my daughter and who has been like a puppy in the closet all our lives. Your mother, may her soul rest in peace, and I were pregnant around the same time and you were born only four weeks ahead of Nikki. The two of you haven't been outside of one another's sight since then. Trey Agremont, something told me you would amount to very little."
"You mean like a big television star like Toby?"
"Something like that," slurred Tracy, taking another gulp of her ubiquitous clinking drink. "Do you have my rent by any chance? I have bills to pay, and Erv is off somewhere biking with that bimbo and doesn't contribute a thing."
I handed Tracy a pre-counted wad of twenties for the monthly rent.
"Nikki's money, of course," she sneered. "Always Nikki's money. When are you going to find some work?"
"Never," I said, pretending to be involved with Toby's cooking prattle. Suddenly, Toby cut his finger with the chopping knife and sucked the blood. "Add blood," he said with a sickening smile into the camera. "It adds a certain rough flavor. Ha. Ha."
"Disgusting," I muttered. "Who wants to eat something laced with Toby's blood? Clumsy motherfucker, isn't he?"
"I wouldn't know," said Tracy dusting around the television cabinet. "At least he has a job. You've got my daughter out pimping for you..."
I shot Tracy a look of contempt and switched off the television, left the basement and walked into the yard. As I passed up the stairwell, I spied yet another one of the myriad shield bugs that had taken to infesting Tracy's house that spring. As with all shield bugs, it did not even notice me or a make any pretense to move. Immobile sons of bitches, I thought. Every other bug in the insect kingdom scurries as fast as it can away from humans, but not shield bugs. They just sit there. You can kill them, and they don't even seem to care.
Then I realized that my entire solvency at that time depended on a shield bug and its perfect willingness to sit indefinitely in one place for days.
I think that is the story I want to tell first. It is the part that makes me less angry.
II. The stink bug
Shield bugs of the genus Halyomorpha are often called stink bugs because they produce an unpleasant odor, but the ones which literally infested Tracy Barazan's ill-kept house had never done anything of the kind. The brown, shield-shaped things just sat around on the curtains and chairs until someone either killed them or flicked them away. Nikki, however, put one on the back of her hand one day and admired its color and shape. "The don't move," she said musingly. "They must know something we don't. Anyway, I'm going to paint this one and hang the picture in Ursula's gallery. Ursula likes unusual paintings, and she has some of the most unusual clients in the world."
Nikki, who was becoming an accomplished artist, had already sold several of her pictures via Ursula and her kinky gallery on Rehobkin Street in Marstown. That was, of course, how I was "pimping" her and where we got the money for our rent and groceries. So putting the stink bug on a cushion in her makeshift studio behind a hanging sheet in our tiny quarters, she set to work, obsessively I might note. Nikki was and is the most important person in my life, and if she wanted to paint an immobile bug, that was her business, but I did wonder at her sheer frenzied application to the task. I had been looking for work for a long time without success, so I never questioned Nikki's choice of art subjects, nor the strangely frenetic ardor with which she painted.
And for those who may have followed our story in previous memoirs, let me remind you that it was, in my sincerest belief, one of Nikki's paintings that saved the world from the asteroid Ilystra Damals, but that is another story, and you will just have to find it and read it if you want to know how or why.
Anyway, as always Nikki divided her time between painting and me. Our lovemaking and intimacy, if anything else, had become more intense and had solidified into something larger than either of our lives would have ever produced separately.
Scratching on the stretched canvas for hours, she painted the patient bug in such detail that I was dumfounded to gaze on her finished work. The bug looked more alive and real than its model, which still had not moved from the cushion on which Nikki placed it. The painting was finished and hanging in Ursula's when Tracy, drunk as usual, had come down and smashed it with the palm of her hand. She had been killing shield bugs for weeks. In fact, she admitted that she enjoyed killing them because it gave her something "easy" to do. Tracy was always looking for some easy activity. Without a second thought, therefore, she killed our innocent model and the provider of our current subsistence.
An odd buyer of art called Ronan Bax had begun bidding with Ursula on the painting. Ursula, always a keen one for art bargaining, managed to bring him to the shocking level of fifteen thousand dollars when the bidding was done. Ursula had taken five thousand and given us ten. And that was the extent of my pimping. One of the strange things that came of this sale was that Ursula, who had been in the art sales business for years, later decided that she could have gotten considerably more for Nikki's portrait of a shield bug than she did.
Nikki laughed at her when she mentioned it. "It was just a bug," she said. "Trey and I have to find some real work or go somewhere else. This will tide us over for a while."
But Ursula persisted. Ronan Bax was both spooky and loaded with money. Maybe Nikki could paint something else for him. Asking for fifty thousand would be no big deal. Bax owned some kind of a company and had a chain of restaurants on the side. He could probably make available some kind of employment for Trey (me, etc.) Ursula talked on until Nikki agreed to meet Bax the next day at the gallery. I decided to hang around like Nikki's doppelganger, which is about all I was anyway, but always very content to be so.
And sure enough, the following day a lurchingly tall, lecherous looking guy wearing a striped suit shows up with a briefcase padlocked to his wrist, which made me assume it carried mostly cash. Bax sized Nikki up from head to toe and arched his eyebrow at Ursula in some kind of approval. "The artist is beautiful," he said at length. "I never expected such beauty." I was completely ignored, but by this time I was quite used to that. Nikki's crushing, radiant glow arrested everyone's attention, and I was all too content to simply be her disregarded appendage.
"I'll paint you another bug," said Nikki briskly, taking my hand and going toward the door.
"I'm sure you will," said Bax, "and I'll buy it too." But then he slid a very slim envelope out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Nikki. "Open this later," he said. "I would like it to be your next subject rather than some bug."
"Let's get out of here," Nikki whispered in my ear. "The guy gives me the crawling willies."
Once in the street, Nikki told me that she wasn't going to paint any more bugs and that she wasn't going to take any of Bax's money either. "He's after me," she said firmly, "like some kind of acquisition. He's not going to get me either."
"Why not?" I joked. Nikki and I were well past the point of being jealous of one another. After twenty-two years of life together, we trusted one another implicitly and indeed felt the other's heart beat and read their thoughts. It is impossible to describe just how intimately the two kids who grew up next door to one another were soldered together and cemented, but we knew it was for life, and we didn't need to discuss it or worry about it. Nikki's divorce from Toby Dasher was final now, and there was nothing, except perhaps the intrusion of Nikki's mother, that could wedge us apart. Tracy really was no big deal either because we planned to move out as soon as possible. Nothing would ever stand between Nikki Barazan and myself again. Especially not a creepy, androgynous scarecrow like Bax.
And that is why her response shocked me a little: Without joking, she looked at me soberly and said: "He wants me and he is going to do everything in his power to get me. I am afraid, maybe for the first time in my life." It was uncharacteristic of Nikki to know fear, but I saw it in her eyes.
"Care to explain?" I asked.
"Not right now," she said, opening the passenger door of her truck for me. "Let's just go. We have not seen the last of that vile man." Then she added almost as an afterthought "Or his money."
III. A shock in the kitchen
It was late afternoon when we finished our rounds in town and got back to Tracy's house. An unfamiliar car was in the driveway. Nikki, always curious, wanted to know who her mother was entertaining and pulled me into the side door of the house. She put a finger over her lips, bidding me to be quiet, and we crept around to the kitchen and looked in from an invisible vantage point.
In the kitchen was none other than Toby Dasher, wearing only his red-checked boxer shorts, feverishly chopping stuff on the counter cutting board. Tracy was nowhere to be seen.
Nikki breezed into the kitchen. "What's up, Toby?" she snickered. "Have you decided to do a show from our house?"
Shocked and redfaced, Toby blurted "I thought you two lived in the basement?"
"We do, but we come up for air now and then," laughed Nikki.
Just then, Tracy bounced in from the side bedroom where she slept. She was wearing only her panties and a skimpy torn tee shirt which barely covered her somewhat pendulous breasts. It was clear that she and Toby had already spent an undisclosed amount of time together in the bedroom.
She offered no apology for either's underwear. Staring with some sort of blatant pride at us both, she announced "Toby has come over to cook for me….if you two don't mind, and we would like a little privacy."
"Oh sure," giggled Nikki. "We have stuff to do downstairs anyway. Don't cut yourself, Toby. And Mom, you really do need some firmer support in the balcony if you catch my drift."
Tracy grumbled something unintelligible at her cute daughter and wound an arm over Toby's bare shoulder. Toby pretended to be distracted by his cooking and hummed a few disjointed bars of something that wasn't even a tune. Just as we left, Tracy kissed him behind the ear. Or rather she bit him. But it really doesn't matter. Both of us laughed about it once in the basement. "Mom has really been going wild lately. We need to split soon."
"We will," I promised eagerly. "We have scarcely lived anywhere else but in the subdivision all our lives. It creeps me out to see my family's old house next door empty."
"In this economy, it is going to stay empty for a long time too. Too bad so much of it is owed to the bank. We could have..."
"No way. I've spent all my life next to your mother. Had enough."
"Did you fuck her once too?"
"Almost. She would have liked that. I was fourteen. She came onto me. I know I told you about it."
"Yeah, I remember. She just liked to one-up me. I'm sure you would have been let down."
Then she sat down on the arm of the only chair we had in the makeshift dwelling and cupped her head in her hands. Something was really wrong. I could see it as well as sense it. Despite our constant proximity, Nikki and I did have secrets that we deliberately kept from one another in order to give our individual selves a small amount of privacy. I knew this dark mood had something to do with one of those secrets.
"My father was such a wimp," she said. "Mom always ruled this house...and tried to rule me. But you saved me all my life from that. Playing every day outdoors with you, finding one new adventure after another, that's what kept me out of her clutches."
"Yes, she had other plans for me. And she probably still does. I even worry about you every day because now that she's alone, she could turn crazy just like that."
"I'm a big boy..."
"I know, I know. And you can take care of yourself. But don't eat or drink anything she serves you from now on. I'm serious."
"I've eaten her food and drunk her juices all my life."
"Yeah, but you never know. This whole thing with Toby is probably to spite me."
Another easygoing shield bug had crawled up on a window ledge close to Nikki's armrest seat. It sat patiently waiting for whatever it is that shield bugs wait for. I squinted at it in the failing afternoon light.
"Damn bugs," said Nikki sullenly. "Why in the fuck don't they fly or run away? They trust us far too much. They must think they are pets or whatever."
"The last one earned us ten thousand dollars."
"No! That's not true, Trey. I earned us ten thousand dollars. I made that bug better and more detailed than his little model. I put my entire soul into that painting. I always do. You know that. I become obsessed, and something inside of me just takes over. The bug was only a model. It was what I brought to the painting that made it what it was. There are no stink bugs on earth as lovely as my painting of that one was. It just comes over me."
"One of your paintings may have saved the world."
"Let's not discuss that anymore now. I have something else to tell you."
Nikki erected her supple frame from the arm of the chair and pulled off her tight-fitting black tee shirt. As usual, she wore no bra. Her breasts were as firm and frisky as they had been at sixteen. "Let's get naked," she said. "That is how we always liked to talk. I don't know why. I suppose we just like looking at one another."
I willingly pulled off my clothes and went to squeeze Nikki around her slim, taut waist.
"Not now," she said. "This is talking naked time. Not fucking naked time. Let's get in bed."
Though bursting with the usual passion that Nikki provoked in me, I simply slid down beside her in bed. It was indeed a habit we had developed as early teens, even before we had first had sex. We liked to look at one another undressed when we discussed something of concern to one or the other. I propped my head up on my palm and waited for whatever it was Nikki was trying to say. Then it came:
"That guy, Bax. He was here before. It was a little over ten years ago. I...we...were twelve. Do you remember what we both used to do every Wednesday when we were twelve?"
"Well, it wasn't fuck," I chuckled, trying to lighten the mood.
"No, we hadn't messed that part up yet," continued Nikki. "Think hard. Wednesdays after school for about a year."
I remembered, of course. I remember my entire life with Nikki Barazan, so why should I not have remembered this? Nothing in our saga was ever lost on me. "We used to walk, and sometimes...often hand in hand when they weren't looking, down to the park and to the free art classes for kids they had at the little YMCA. You would paint, and I would scribble and watch you paint. And you became an artist."
"And you became an artist's lover."
"And that's about it. You had a lot of talent. Water colors, wasn't it?"
"Yep. And one Wednesday when you weren't there, when you and your family were vacationing in Yellowstone..."
"I remember that! All I could think about was you."
"That one Wednesday my father was off somewhere too, somewhere for his company. Mom had that guy in the house, Bax, I mean. He looked then just like he looks now. He had no age then and has no age now. Like a fucking vampire. Except this one is a vampire of souls. Mom knew him from somewhere. Maybe he was someone she met while shopping with me in the grocery store. Anyway, she called me out of my room and told me to bring my water color paintings with me, the ones from the Y. I obeyed, and here was this strange, alabaster-skinned man sitting at the table piercing me with his eyes. My mother introduced me to him by name, Ronan, just like Ursula did. Then she told me to give him my paintings. I didn't want to but she insisted. He looked at each one of them and kept glancing back up at me. God, he was fearsome. Then, you know what?, my mother told me to go into the bathroom and take off everything but my trainer and panties. I was shocked."
"You never told me," I cried, suddenly annoyed that my lifelong playmate had been exposed to a strange adult when we were twelve.
"I came back out into the living room, and he was paying Mom for the paintings. She later gave me most of the money, which I just saved. But he wanted to see me in my underwear. He never touched me or made any lewd suggestions. He just motioned for me to pirouette around like a ballerina and then shook his head in approval and gestured for me to go and get re-dressed, which I did."
"Weird," I said. I glanced back up at the shield bug which was still immobilized on the window sill. It occurred to me that the shield bug too had now seen Nikki unclothed. I became slightly jealous, both of a mysterious stranger from ten years back and a ridiculous bug that refused to move for days at a time. I looked at Nikki's smooth and pleasing naked torso and wondered if there were any more to this story. Both Nikki and I had been with others, and Nikki had of course been briefly married to Toby Dasher... But a kind of nascent possessiveness was slowly unfurling in my mind of late.
Then just as I was thinking about Toby, Nikki, once again reading my thoughts, broke in: "Yep, Toby. This freak was there at the wedding too. You were with our Turkish friend who saved me from the demon..."
"I saved you from the demon..."
"With his help."
"Okay, so I didn't notice. There were lots of people there. I was distraught. Why was he at the wedding?"
"Well, it wasn't to buy any more of my art because I wasn't painting in those days."
"I'm not sure. I have a theory, however. I think it was about some kind of deal he made with my mother. A deal regarding me. I know that money changed hands between them. In fact, my mother slipped him a huge amount of cash that night. I saw it but never said anything. And he left before the rest of us. Now my mother is broke, and he reappears. I think I have an idea why."
"Care to share it?"
Nikki got up and slipped across the room and found a pack of cigarettes that she rarely touched. She lit one up and slid it into my mouth and then back into hers. "I wish we had a joint," she sighed.
"What about Bax? You're telling me that it is no coincidence that he went to Ursula's studio and bought the bug?"
"I'm sure my mother told him about it. She had been spying on my artwork for days before I took the finished painting to Ursula. What I think is that on that day over ten years ago, when my wimp of a father was away and when my next door boyfriend was absent on a family vacation, in the very living room above us now, I think that...that..."
Nikki buried her face again in her palms, but her slight tears were more the tears of fury than sadness. She continued, talking into her hands: "I think...that in this very house that day...right here after I put my jeans and shirt on again and went back to my room to wait for you...I think that...
"For chrissakes Nikki...what?"
"I think that my mother sold me!!"
Nikki went on to explain that her mother had a private safe that even her father refused to go near and that on numerous occasions she had seen Tracy putting sheaves of paper into it. But the most shocking thing was that Tracy also had a private bank account, and that from that day on, she never seemed to have any money worries. "Even when my father's business failed during the recession," she said, "my mother kept us afloat. She seemed to have endless funds. My father never asked any questions."
But then, Nikki explained, "Toby happened." Nikki had never been quite able to figure out her attraction to the overly ginger and pretty Toby Dasher in the first place, but she had just resigned herself to marrying him. It appeared to her that her mother needed to return some funds to Bax after that, and she did it right at the wedding reception under everyone's nose. "And she was broke from that night onward," concluded Nikki.
Then Nikki rolled over and kissed me. "Let's do something physical to get my mind off this," she said.
And finding the familiar holds, we did.
IV. One week later: The mortgage burning party
I awoke the following Saturday to not only the sound of Nikki's mysterious and unseen brushstrokes against her hidden canvas, but also the very familiar sound of the Barazan's ancient lawnmower, which had been in the family for as long as I could remember. I bounded out of bed, up the stairs and onto the lawn, where a lanky, longhaired kid, embroidered with multiple tattoos was pushing the chugging relic over the grass. "Hey, I thought that was my job," I shouted above the roar of the struggling gas engine. The kid looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. He mouthed something over the din about "the lady" and continued with the grass.
Still wearing only my shorts and bare-chested, I walked into Tracy's kitchen to see why I had been replaced. Tracy was still in her bathrobe and sitting at the table drinking a black coffee no doubt spiked with the usual vodka. "Morning Trey Agremont," she said wearily, paying me very little attention. For years, she had customarily used both of my names in addressing me. It was Tracy's way of telling me that she was tired of me and wished I would go away, but she knew I would not. I was a fixture. That always merited two names.
"Who's the kid? Why is he doing the lawn instead of me? I thought that was part of our agreement."
"Don't worry about it," said Tracy languidly and with great disinterest. "Go on back down to your sweetheart and plan out your day. I'm sure you two have a lot to do as usual. What is she painting this time, another bug?"
"I don't know. She keeps her painting private, and I respect that. Obviously you don't."
"It's my basement, and I look at anything I please, including your stuff, Trey Agremont. Oh, and when I say it's my basement now, I really mean that. I want to talk to you and Nikki this morning about the mortgage. It's paid off now. Erv is totally out of the picture."
Tracy had gone from broke to solvent in one week. I thought about whatever deal she had once had with Ronan Bax. I immediately suspected the later as the source of her sudden wealth. Tracy continued to look out the window as she spoke. I realized that she was eyeing the boy mowing her lawn.
She spoke in a monotonic patter, never taking her eyes off the kid. "I'm free now. Divorced from Erv. No more house payments and a little cash in my pocket. In fact, you and Nikki don't even have to worry about next month's rent because I'm going to let you stay one more month for free. Then I want you out. Understand?"
I grunted that I did.
"The kid is from the half-way house. He's only seventeen, but he used to be in prison for robbery. A friend of mine over there sent him to me to do odd jobs during the day. They have to go back in at night. And he wears an ankle bracelet. He has to stay here until they come for him. I need to keep him busy."
Tracy said her last words with a kind of lazy indolence that immediately suggested to me that she had ways other than odd jobs to keep the boy busy.
"Go and get Nikki," she said at length, still staring out of the window at the trim muscular juvenile felon. "I have an announcement."
By the time Nikki and I got fully dressed in our jeans and black tee shirt uniforms, Tracy was starting to show her Saturday tipsy. She had not bothered to change out of her robe and was clinking some ice around in a rocks glass full of vodka. Nikki looked at her mother disapprovingly. "I hate coming up here," she said audibly enough into my ear.
Tracy motioned for us to sit down on the couch and steadied herself in front of us. She repeated what she had already told me about paying off the mortgage and the free rent and the eviction. Nikki took it all in with as much suspicion as I did. When Tracy darted off to pee, promising to be right back, Nikki whispered in my ear that Ronan Bax was behind this sudden wealth, and that she was getting seriously disturbed.
Tracy came back with a smile on her face and a refill in her glass. "Some friends and I are having a burn the mortgage party tomorrow afternoon, and I want you two to be there. I have very little family. We are all meeting at the Reload House off exit 25 on the interstate near Bridgerton Hill."
"The Reload House?" said Nikki rolling her eyes. "It sounds like a gun joint."
"It's really nice," continued Tracy. "A close friend of mine owns it. He was the one who suggested the mortgage burning party there. It's an all you can eat buffet that specializes in huge hamburgers. I mean really huge. Reload House….get it? You can reload as much as you want. Of course, I don't eat all that much, you know, but maybe some of the others will. They have acres of fries too. Like a standing five foot glass case of them…." Tracy's voice trailed off as the vodka started to mess with her thoughts. "Anyway, be there tomorrow at three PM….or ….or…."
"No free month of May before you leave."
Nikki scowled and agreed for both of us that we would be there. I realized that something bigger than a mortgage burning party was going down, but, as with all things, Nikki would get around to explaining it to me in her own time.
We went back downstairs and made fervent love for an hour, then got redressed and ready to go out driving to some stores and just "around," as Nikki always called it.
As we left, we both caught sight of the skinny, tattooed kid. He was buck naked and standing up, spread-eagle looking out of Tracy's bedroom window. He made no attempt to hide his nudity as we passed, but rather stuck up a thumb as if to tell us that he had scored with Tracy, but we both knew that anyway. It was of no matter.
V. The Reload House
Nikki knew it was true before we even arrived: Ronan Bax was the owner and general manager of the Reload House. His restaurant supervisor was an enormous fat man named Guy Harley, who, not unpredictably, had the words "Harley Guy" unprofessionally scribbled in uneven ink over the pudgy girth of his bulging right forearm. He pointed to it proudly as he shook Nikki's hand. Nikki, amused, traced her finger over the quotation marks and said "Oh then, you're not really a Harley Guy, but something else entirely?" Guy Harley gaped at her in the most abject incomprehension, then shook his head, smiled and went back to emptying huge bags of white, anaemic-looking, uncooked frenchfries into a vat of bubbling oil several times larger than a standard bathtub. One of his assistants had what looked for all the world like a huge fishnet on the other side and was scooping out immense loads of cooked fries and dumping them into a glass case the size of a large refrigerator box. The fries were, moreover, disappearing fast. They seemed to be a big favorite with the customers, who waddled up to the fry case with deep plastic mixing bowls to reload. "They're reloading, " said Nikki under her breath. "This is the Reload House." I smacked her on her tight butt as if to say shut up. The customers were also reloading on titanic mounds of billowy mashed potatoes, upon which they drizzled cascades of some sort of brown lumpy fluid, presumably gravy, from a huge dispenser hanging overhead. But the pièce de résistance must have been the hamburgers. Tossed out across a warming shelf, they resembled huge frisbees. Under them were towering stacks of equally gargantuan buns. "Where on Earth do they find these flying saucers?" whispered Nikki, still feigning innocent ignorance.
Ronan Bax, who had been pre-occupied with Tracy and a few of Tracy's companions, stepped forth, almost filling the body space between Nikki and myself with his six-foot something frame and insufferably confident manner. He was still wearing the same striped suit, or one like it, that he had worn the day at Ursula's." My restaurants are a hit with big eaters," he said, raising a hand to point out some of the hugest people I had ever seen squeezed into some seats before us. "We're going to all eat over here in the wing room. Would you like a hamburger?"
"Which one of us do you mean?" said Nikki coldly. "Your back is turned to Trey."
"Oh Trey, for sure," said Bax turning around to shake my hand. "I remember Trey."
"I remember him too," said Nikki, "and more often than you do probably."
Bax frowned at the remark. "Well, just help yourselves. The party starts soon. Ask Guy Harley if you need anything."
Nikki glanced at Guy Harley who was twisting off the top of what was literally a full-sized plastic barrel of ketchup, which sat next to the vast hamburger warming trays.
"Everything here is super-sized," said Nikki to no one in particular. "And my mother is still friends with Bax, as you can see. Bax, who I'm sure tried to buy me once."
Then she fell silent. As before, I could see that something was definitely wrong with the girl I had known since my earliest recollection. Something was preoccupying her mind, and I wanted her to tell me what it was, but Nikki being Nikki, I realized that it would only come when she was so inclined. "Let's not eat," she said. "The sight of all these mountains of brown food is making me sick. God only knows what he puts in those burgers to make them so big..."
"Textured vegetable protein and olean," said Guy Harley overhearing us and coming up from behind. "It really stretches the meat, and we can sell them for cheap. Some of our customers eat seven or eight at a sitting."
"And probably don't shit for a week," rejoined Nikki. "That TVP can plug you up for good."
"FDA approved," snapped Guy as he went back into the kitchen and began stirring a huge caldron of stew with what looked like the oar of a rowboat.
"I can just imagine what is in that stew," said Nikki. "It is making me nauseas. We need to congratulate Mom and get out of here. I'm feeling faint."
And then suddenly again without warning, Nikki glazed into a faraway look and said "Okay." I realized there was no use asking okay what? "I need to go to the bathroom," she said, putting a weak hand on my shoulder.
"Do you want me to go with you?"
"Definitely not," she replied with an unaccustomed rigidity that set off more alarms in my mind, as she drifted listlessly off toward the bathroom.
Tracy, meanwhile, was sitting at a front table encircled by several woman that I had occasionally seen in her house. They were buzzing about something womanish when Ronan Dax stood up and banged a spoon on a glass. "Attention everyone," he said. "We have come to celebrate Tracy's freedom, not only from a stifling marriage but from a mortgage that she could no longer pay and which now, in agreement for some small private services, my company has definitively amortized." He then clapped his hands vigorously and glared his eyes at all present to do the same. After a small but uncomfortable silence, a general uproar began.
Small private services, I thought. What were they? And how was it that a leering fiend like Bax was so involved in Tracy's life?
On cue, Toby Dasher arrived solo and pushed his way into an empty chair close to Tracy. He put his arm around her neck and grasped her hand. "Sorry I'm late," he said with his usual syrupy charm, "and congratulations."
Guy Harley ambled out of the kitchen with a huge chafing dish in his hands. He placed it on the table in front of Tracy, who was glowing with delight. On one side of her sat pretty, pretty Toby Dasher and on the other was the darkly dominant lurching Bax. Tracy reached into her handbag and pulled out some stapled papers, presumably the mortgage, and crumpled them into the chafing dish. As she did so, a lacquered lock of her long, gray-streaked hair plummeted down out of its tower formation across her forehead and dangled near the chafing dish. Guy Harley approached with a butane torch and lit the papers on fire. Unfortunately, Tracy's lock of unruly hair was also caught in the flame and fired up like a flare until Bax gallantly smothered the flame with his huge hand. The mortgage burst into flames and then died. Once again, Bax glowered at the guests and called for applause, which came after a couple of seconds of hesitation. Then he motioned for Tracy to stand up and speak. Already tipsy from her morning drinking, Tracy found unsteady traction and rose to her feet.
"I will always honor my contract," she stammered. "Mr. Bax has changed my life because…" Bax shook his head vehemently and cut her off. Tracy looked confused but then smiled and sat down. "Everyone eat," she shouted. "The food is on Ronan." Bax shook his head favorably, and Tracy's small group of guests, none of which bears much description here, began approaching the huge buffet with oversized dishes outstretched in their hands. As none of them were any more overweight than Tracy, they seem dwarfed not only by the other customers with whom they were forced to mingle but by the lofty pyramids of food arrayed on the various buffets before them. Most of the other customers, the fat ones, carried large plastic bowls to capture the mashed potatoes, stew and french fries, but Tracy's friends only used the dishes, which were still too large for the small portions they chose from the gigantic display.
As I watched the guests and customers mingle at the buffet, I suddenly caught Toby Dasher's eye watching me. He smiled warmly and raised his hands as if to ask "Where is she?" It flashed immediately through my mind that Nikki had spent an exceptionally long time in the bathroom. I jumped up in fear and ran directly to the women's room at the rear of the restaurant. In front of the closed door was planted a woman with cascading braids who must have easily weighed in at four hundred pounds. "Someone is in there," she said angrily, "and I have to go." I noted that the woman had brought an entire loaf of rather doughy-looking bread with her and was gnawing off the end it as she waited. I pushed past her and threw open the bathroom door. "Hey, you can't do that," grunted the elephantine woman. "You're a man." "I remember," I said, pulling the door shut behind me. On the single toilet seat with her pants pulled totally up before me sat Nikki, eyes glazed over and staring woodenly at me as if I were a total stranger. "Come on," I shouted to her. "We need to get you out of here. Something is really wrong."
"I can't," mumbled Nikki. "Not until he lets me. I have no will. I can't even stand up until he says. It's the bug. He's used the bug."
Then, without warning, Nikki came to her senses. Her eyes brightened, and she jumped off the toilet. "Let's go and go fast," she screamed. "He has just released me. Run for the truck."
Pushing past the hippo lady who was still munching on her bread, we did just that. Running out the back door we must have escaped the detection of Tracy, Bax and the others. Nikki punched the accelerator of her pickup truck and blasted off down the road.
After a time, she turned to me and said "His mind control or whatever it is that takes away your will doesn't work after you get some distance away from him. I can't hear his voice in my mind anymore, so we must be beyond it."
We continued down the expressway and purposely bypassed Marstown. Then Nikki pulled off at a rest stop and jumped out of the truck. "Let's sit down on the grass," she said. "We are well out of his range."
VI. Canyon Callaguey
Nikki explained to me that Ronan Bax had the power to turn people into virtual zombies but only if he had a wedge to pry himself into their souls. "He got the start of that wedge years ago with the water colors," she said. "And then he had a contract with my mother. I'm sure that was what she kept in the safe. She put his money in a bank account, however" said Nikki with a certain calculation in her eye. "Then came Toby and my craziness. She had to pay him back his money, and she did it at my wedding. Then came the divorce, you, our living arrangements. And the bug."
"What could the bug possibly have had to do with it?" I inquired.
Nikki gave me an annoyed look, the sort of grimace that I recognized from our earliest childhood, an expression which meant that I had missed something important that she didn't think she needed to say. "Figure it out," she said.
"Okay, I'll sketch it out for you. Ever since we were kids, I put my heart and soul into my painting. You know that. Because of my obsession with art and what it produces in me, a part of my will is transferred to everything I create. It is that part that Bax is able to latch onto. When he got the bug, he had enough to control me. If I get close enough to him, he can make me stay in one place until he releases me like he did on the toilet of his restaurant. I totally lose my will. I belong to him, and I'm paid for."
"Another contract. That is what your Mom was starting to talk about when he cut her short."
"Yep, and I would love to see it. It's gotta be in her safe. But what I want to know is how much money she has left over after paying the mortgage and, above all, where she keeps it."
"Do you have a way of getting into that safe?"
"Sure do," winked Nikki. Then she pulled up her black teeshirt revealing once again her firm and perky set of breasts, breasts which I had watched grow over the years from bee stings into stunning female accessories which galvanized the vision of any man who looked at her.
"You're going to break the lock with your pretty tits?" I laughed.
"No, I'm going to break a pretty boy with my pretty tits," she said almost gleefully. "His name is Canyon Callaguey, and you have already met him."
"The kid from the detention center?"
"Yep, he's a born safe cracker. Learned it from his uncle. He claims to have a true talent. When my mother goes out tomorrow, and I think it is going to be with Bax, Canyon promised me to crack that safe as he says "in an instant."
"And then you're going to fuck him?"
"Naw. I'll get out of that. So stop worrying. I can string him along for as long as I want."
The next day around 9 am, a white van with a state seal on it arrived in Tracy's driveway and deposited seventeen year old Canyon Callaguey, complete with his ankle tracking bracelet, in front of the house. Canyon shot an evil glance in my direction and proceeded to undress Nikki with his eyes. Tracy had already left for a time, and Nikki knew it was with Ronan Bax. "He left me a little message," she said. "He can do that. He's telling me not to plan much for today because I belong to him and he might be collecting soon."
Canyon walked boldly up to Nikki and started to put his hands on her butt. He seemed to slather out of the sides of his mouth. The kid was one pulsating hormone.
"Not yet," said Nikki, twisting away. "We have something to do first."
She led Canyon, who totally ignored me, into the utility room of Tracy's house and pointed to the safe, which was bolted to the floor. "Go for it," she said. "Then you'll have anything you want. Trey and I will just stand back and watch until you have it open."
Canyon dropped to his knees and put his cheek up against the side of the safe and spun the dial. "I knew a guy in the house," he said, "who used the head of his cock for this. That was his most sensitive area. For me, it's my cheek." Canyon spun the dial first one way, then another.
"Say the numbers out loud," said Nikki with a kind of sexy insouciance. "I may need to go back."
Canyon, absorbed in his safecracking, found the first stop and said "twenty-three." This was eventually followed by four other numbers. Within minutes, he swung the door of the safe open and jumped to his feet standing back admiring his quick work. "Let's do it now, baby!" he said, again overlooking me completely.
Nikki massaged his muscular shoulder and slid down to the level of the safe. She pulled out a small, paperclipped bundle of typed papers. "The contract," she sneered. I sat down beside her as she paged through the sheets, skimming the words. "I'm worth sixty-two thousand dollars," she said, "plus the extra thirty-eight for the balance of the mortgage. It's all here. Nice to know what one is worth to one's mother, huh?"
"I would have paid more," was my response. In effect, it was a type of crude contract which stipulated that Nikki would "belong" to Ronan Bax upon payment of the money. There was no way it could be legal, but Bax had the document full of warnings about his powers of mind control. There was also a paragraph detailing how he would reduce Tracy to a vegetable if she reneged this time on the contract. Under the papers was an open envelope marked only with an address. Nikki quickly glanced at its contents and replaced both the envelope and the contents back into the safe exactly where they had been.
She looked at me and smiled. "It's precisely what I thought it would be," she said. "The plastic pass key of a storage locker right here in town. That is where her payment for my ass is."
Canyon moved closer as Nikki closed the safe door and spun the lock. "I've already done paid for your ass," he chortled. "Let's get down to it." He made a move to grab Nikki around the waist, and I started to move in. "Relax," Nikki told me. "Mr. Canyon is going to have to worry about his own ass here now."
"My ass?" said Canyon quizzically.
"Your ass," rejoined Nikki, staring at his ankle bracelet. Then she jumped up and darted to my side, pulling her cell phone from her side pocket. She brandished the phone in front of his astonished eyes. "It's all here, Mr. Canyon. A little slide show record of you breaking into my mother's safe. Your pretty cheek against the side and saying the numbers. My guess is that in jail your ass was frequently visited by...well...let's just say it was visited. And if you try anything, I'll run faster than you can catch me to my truck and hand this over to your keepers. It ought to be good for at least another year of incarceration."
Canyon looked crestfallen and deflated. He held out his hands and started to protest. Nikki cut him off sharply. "And if you say a word about this to anyone, I give them this video. I'll copy the fucking thing....your beautiful safecracking...onto the Internet and send it to everyone everywhere."
Canyon seemed to know when he was beaten. He shrugged his shoulders and said "Fuck" and slouched out of the house. We later saw him sleeping under a tree in Tracy's backyard. Nikki's threat was apparently enough to get him off her case.
Nikki took my hand and led me to the basement. "Read a book or something, Trey. I have some painting to do." And she disappeared behind her hanging sheet and set to work on yet another unseen masterpiece.
Later that day, we heard the sound of a large car in the driveway and doors opening and closing. It was Tracy and Bax. They went into the house and steered straight for the bedroom. We crept upstairs to the muffled sounds of Tracy screaming in burbling ecstasy. Bax was clearly satisfying her in bed. "Let's wait until they are finished," Nikki said to me, gripping my wrist. "Then I don't want you to do a damn thing regardless of what I say or do or how I act. Okay, Trey?"
I looked at Nikki bewildered as usual and agreed.
By two o'clock both Bax and Tracy were fully dressed and sitting on the patio drinking from tall plastic glasses. Nikki pulled me behind her and we went up to greet them.
VII. Nikki's strange behavior
Bax seemed surprised to see Nikki coming so close to him. Like everyone else, he ignored me completely and focused his attention on her. He asked if she was ready to join him with his small group of friends. "You will never want for anything another day in your life," he said.
"I'm ready," said Nikki in a lackluster monotone. "I have a little work left to do on the portrait, but I am ready, Ronan. I am tired of thinking. I am tired of making decisions. I know you own me now. I am ready to be yours and gratify you in any way I can."
"You'll have to lose your boyfriend," said Bax taking a deep sip of his drink.
"Trey can stay with me," said Tracy raking her eyes over my body. "There are things he can do for me now that that kid is gone back to his keepers."
"I'm sure there are," said Bax.
Bax, still wearing his striped suit and tie, stood up and reached for Nikki's hand. She put it in his willingly. I wondered if he was exercising the mind control. Something mechanical in Nikki's mannerisms told me he was not because he knew he didn't have to. But there was no way I could be sure. "Get in my car," he said, "and wait." Then he pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket and tossed them to me. "Get lost forever," he smirked. I grabbed the bills, which must have totaled several hundred and backed away. Nikki had warned me not to intervene or protest. All I could do was follow her instructions. My deepest soul mate and the object of my life slunk away and slid into the front seat of Bax's huge Mercedes. She closed the door and powered up the tinted glass windows without a further glance at me. I felt hollow, powerless and lost.
Bax exchanged a few more words with Tracy and walked out to his car. Without a backward look, he drove off with Nikki obediently sitting in the front seat. I wondered sadly whether I would ever see her again. The impetus to follow the car and rip Nikki out of it was pounding in my head, but I respected her command of the situation and the directions she had given me. I hunched over and sat down beside Tracy and poured myself a huge glass of straight vodka without asking.
"He's a potent man," said Tracy. And the sun gave signs of setting. My heart churned with fears of what might happen that night. Jealousy had finally had its way with me. I couldn't bear the thought of Nikki with another man.
Tracy put a sinewy hand with purple colored nails on my wrist. "Everything will be all right," she whispered. "Let's go watch us some television."
It took a lot of feinting and parrying, but I managed to make it only television until Tracy grew weary of my dodges and drank herself into an uneasy and somewhat snorting slumber.
VIII. Nikki returns
I awoke in my own bed the next day to the sound of Nikki swearing to herself behind the sheet barrier which divided her from the rest of the basement. She was slashing bristles against canvas and repeating words like motherfucker and son of a bitch. It was totally out of character for Nikki to use a lot of gratuitous vulgarity. I wondered through an immense hangover exactly what Bax had done to her.
"He didn't do a damn thing," she blurted, coming out from behind the sheet blotched with oil paint. "I didn't let him. I told him I wanted to make it special since he had waited all this time for me. I said I was totally his, but to wait. At one point I blew it and he started his mental crap. You know what? We were touring his so-called factory, where they mold all those plastic dishes for the Reload Houses and put together those huge cases for the french fries. He caught me faking it a little and started to use his mind muscles. A bunch of iron pieces flew up from an assembly table and stuck to his temples and forehead. The guy is magnetic in more ways than one."
Nikki's tone seemed almost jovial.
"Of course, he could have taken away my will just like he did in the restroom of his restaurant, but he didn't. I had him believing I was resigned to be his concubine for life, and, by the way, he has a few other ones....girls... They work there, winding metal pieces together or molding plastic. Not one of them can think for herself. They are all under his control. He has a guard watching them. Wanna know why?"
"Because if they take their eyes off of these girls, they bite one another."
"Yeah, like zombies. Like in the movies. Like the demon who bit me once. They want to eat each other. Bax's hired hands have to keep them apart. They sleep like firewood stacked into the back of a tractor trailer when they are not working, each divided from the other by a slat. Let them get close to one another, and it's chow time. No kidding."
"True zombies," I said. "And you're about to become one of them."
"Not until he pleases himself and drains the last bit of volition he can out of me. I figure that will take about ten sexual episodes before he gets jaded and just slides me on the production line with the others. But first, he has to have his fun."
"Why not last night? Apparently he didn't even need to get into your mind. I mean you are so willing."
"Are you kidding? He's an ancient creep of some sort. His skin is like alabaster coated with plastic. That is why he never smiles much. He can crease himself to look like a rubber mannequin. His face is like a fright mask. God only knows how old he is."
Nikki went on to say that she was meeting him in no less than twenty-four hours. "I'm going to pack a few clothes and go live in his house for a while. Then I suppose my mind will be porked out and I'll be sleeping in a truck trailer like the others. Right now I have the advantage."
I told Nikki that it seemed strange that he hadn't pounced on her all at once. After all, he had waited almost thirteen years and Nikki was at the pinnacle of her astounding pulchritude. Why did he even let her come back to me?
"Because I have a project to finish," she said with the sort of determined finality that precluded further questioning.
About that time, Tracy came down with her dust cloth and spray and started cleaning up wherever she claimed to see grease or dust. "Back so soon?" she said. Nikki told her approximately what she had explained to me but added that she was totally within his sway. She had never liked deciding when to get up in the morning, when to eat, when to kiss me, when to get dressed, when to go upstairs. Ronan was relieving her of all that. It was going to be "wonderful." Tracy smiled. "I knew you would like it. We all have too many decisions to make in this life. Being a part of Ronan, you won't ever have to think again. You'll get over Trey too."
"I'm already over Trey," she said with blank indifference, pushing me aside like a piece of furniture.
As usual, our basement quarters, like the house above, were infested by the slow moving, innocuous stink bugs that never stank. They perched everywhere as if they were waiting for us to entertain them. "Never have I seen insects so stupid," said Tracy, smashing two of them under her thumb.
"One request, Mom, before I go to live with Ronan. Stop killing the shield bugs. They are totally harmless, and as you saw in my painting, they can be beautiful. I painted that one the way I did because I came to truly love it, its intricacy, its subtle colors and marbled veins. I like they way they glow from rich brown to deep orange, and I love their tiny red eyes."
"Sure, sure," grumbled Tracy. "You and your fifteen thousand dollar bugs."
"I love them, Mom, and if I ever see you kill another one, I may kill you."
"Sure...sure," Tracy mumbled sidling out of the basement. Upstairs Canyon, already undressed, was waiting in her bed watching television. He had already called down the stairs several times telling her to hurry up. Canyon had totally disregarded me since Nikki's threat of exposing his safecracking and was undoubtedly content just to satisfy himself with Tracy now.
After Tracy walked upstairs, Nikki looked at me and said "That, Trey Agremont, is probably the first and last time in your life that you will ever hear me tell my mom the truth."
"About the shield bugs. I really do love them. Their lassitude, their lack of fear. Their complexity. Their colors. The gentle grace with which they move their symmetrical legs and wave their delicate antennae. They have brought me closer to believing there is a Grand Designer than anything I have ever seen in the universe. And, of course, it was my fondness and admiration for one of them that got me in this trouble now. It is, you know, possible to pass your very life force, volition and affection into a painting, providing you have the right subject."
"You never painted me."
"Because I didn't want to take anything away from you. You are more than my lover. You are my other part. If I had done for you what was in my heart, what I did in small measure for our friend the stink bug, I could have crippled you for life. You see, I want you whole. I want Trey and Nikki to be two equal units in one awesome fighting machine pitted against the world. I don't want you to be a drooping tail. I want you to be a thrusting horn."
"Speaking of thrusting horns," I said. "I suppose we don't have very much time for that left before you start drawing metal filings and bolts up onto your head."
"Hardly any," cooed Nikki, smoothly stripping off her jeans and tee shirt, rubbing the full blossom of her hard torso against mine. "Hardly any."
IX. Nikki back at work and then gone
When our fiery union was once again spent, Nikki Barazan immediately jumped up, threw on a paint stained pair of boxer shorts and without bothering to cover her chest dashed behind her curtain. The rich odor of oil paints once again filled the room as I lay a few minutes longer on our disheveled bed basking in what few terminal moments of primal ecstasy I could exact from our last coupling. The scene had unfolded many times before, but something was drastically different this time. Nikki was literally slashing her brushes against the coarse canvas in strokes far to furious to convey anything but anger and portray anything but base hideousness. Again she swore audibly as she worked, long venomous phrases that sounded as would a talking cobra spitting strings of expletives at its mesmerizing trainer: "motherfucking freak of goddamn nature, demented evil malevolent son of a bitch, morbid ugly filth of the underworld, a putrid, stinking pile of rotting fucking excrement..." She swore on and on until at length I could not restrain myself from shouting over the curtain "What on earth are you painting? Another bug?"
"Yeah, a cockroach this time. I hate fucking goddamn cockroaches. And this one is the ugliest one ever, a freaking monstrosity from hell. But don't come in. This is one bug you don't want to see. This cockroach."
I remembered solemnly that both Nikki and I had always hated cockroaches. Nikki's benevolent love for the shield bugs had never catechized the cockroach or any of the spider species. I rolled over in bed wondering in deep dejection what my future would hold minus Nikki in less than twenty-four hours. The mere thought of this vacancy put me into a kind of motionless catatonic stupor from which I emerged only with great difficulty the next morning. Looking at my haggard face in the mirror, I seemed much older than twenty three. My life seemed drained away, and my lips were shrunken and almost white. A lump rose from the bottom of my throat, and I vomited a ball of partly congealed blood into the sink. I would not have the courage to say goodbye to Nikki that evening, and I knew it. Thoughts of returning to the streets raced through my head. After all, I had been there once before. But this time I would go the whole way without being rescued by Nikki. My destiny once again was framed as a slow, deliberate suicide in a strange and empty place. 'No Nikki...No Trey' became the litany that burned a torrid circuit through the chambers of my mind.
Arriving upstairs, I spied a half gallon of Tracy's vodka which had been left on the patio table. I poured myself a huge glass, the first of many I would quaff that horrible day which was projected to be the worst in my life.
Ronan Bax, still attired in his striped suit stood alongside of Tracy in the middle of the family room. Nikki, a blank look of lifelessness painted over her face, stood erect before them. It was clear that Ronan was communicating orders to her mentally. Though the man made not a sound, Nikki would raise one arm then another and let them drop to her sides. Then she bent her knees and kicked forward. Then she touched her toes like a young gymnast. Bax seemed pleased. "Obedience," he whispered to Tracy. "It will make her totally free."
Nikki spoke several words without being asked. "Okay. I will. I understand. Forever. You are my master. I serve only you. Things were meant to be that way." Then drifting like a soul-less waif she transitioned once again into the front seat of Bax's huge Mercedes and powered up the window. Her exquisite face disappearing behind the smoked glass was the last vision I would ever have of her. I wanted to rush into the driveway and throw myself down in front of the car as Bax drove off. He had by the agency of Nikki's love for the beauty of an insect removed her from the world of free will and individual volition, and she was prepared to enter a vale of shadows darker than any imaginable in the gloomy realms of Earth as we know it.
I stood immobilized in the driveway, unable to move a muscle. In my head was the vision of a cabinet in the den. In it was, I knew, Erv's old 45 caliber, and it would be loaded. I would use it first on Tracy and then turn it on myself. That was my plan.
Bax's Mercedes, carrying the only thing of value in my entire life, turned a brisk corner and was seen no more. Tracy took a swallow of her vodka drink and smiled at me seductively. "Wanna play around?" she asked blatantly ogling my crotch.
At that moment my feet took hold of the ground beneath me and I ran. I ran for the dark and muddy retention ponds which encircled our childhood subdivision, for the reedy muck where only three years before Nikki and I had unearthed a veritable ogre buried in the Earth, a monster which stole Nikki for a time until I managed to get her back. But this time, a thing beyond normal belief and description had her mind, and had paid hard cash for it to boot. I fell face down in the wet black retention pond soil and screamed in anguish into the deaf and unyielding Earth.
I was still catatonic and face down in the muck as the blackness of the early morning hours filled the subdivision of my youth with the sounds of strange animal noises and insect chirpings. I was dampened to the core by the wet soil and had some trouble pulling my body away from its dank suction, when I felt a sharp kick to my ribs.
"Get up," whispered a familiar voice. "We have to move fast." It was Nikki, of course. She must have come to me in a dream, but no, it was not a dream. It was the real Nikki. She was wearing only a white bra and panties which gave me the only real clue of her whereabouts in the bleak murkiness of the early May night. The white bra and panties jogged off in front of me a few yards and then stopped. "Come on, I said." It was a harsh, unwavering whisper. I stumbled up to where Nikki was waiting, barefooted and almost totally invisible in the dark. "Don't ask questions," she said with determination.
Approaching her mother's house, Nikki stealthed her way around to a side window by Erv's old bedroom, pushed it open and slipped in, beckoning me to follow. We crept down the bedroom hallway using only the vague glow of distant street lamps to illuminate our path, but we both knew the house well. As we passed Tracy's bedroom, we saw that a faint bedside light was on. Tracy was totally naked and enwrapped in the arms of what looked to be the boy who lived across the street, a kid of about fourteen who had started doing odd jobs after Canyon's sudden absence. He too was naked. Tracy tried to roll a bleary eye in our direction, but we passed quicker than her sodden brain could assemble an image of exactly who we were. We went straight to the safe, used Canyon's combination, which Nikki had memorized, and pulled out the contract and the envelope beneath it. Then we bolted for the door. The only way to reach the locked basement would be from the outside entry in the lower yard, a door which Nikki had always left open and which Tracy never noticed.
Suddenly, the huge headlights of a big car swung into the driveway. It was Bax, and close enough we knew to exercise his mind control. For a minute, Nikki froze in place in front of the unopened