Chapter Five

Three Weeks Earlier (continued)

Nicky had met Sam's brother David only briefly, and she knew three things about him:

  1. he was the middle of the three siblings, younger than Sam but older than Sarah,
  2. he lived in another apartment in the same building, two floors higher and on the opposite side, and that he shared the apartment with several roommates, and
  3. he was gay.

This third fact had never been explicitly stated to Nicky, but she'd put a couple of comments together. And then, during his brief visit to their apartment (which she was already starting to think of as "home"), she had confirmed it to her satisfaction. She had the idea that she could tell if any man she met was gay or straight by certain small things about the way he reacted to her. This theory had never been subjected to rigorous testing.

Sarah had given a strange look when Sam had asked Nicky to trot up to David's apartment to borrow a couple of lemons. He'd outlined the complex series of hallways and then sent her off. Something was obviously going on besides just a search for lemons, but Nicky consoled herself with the thought that, if it had been something bad, Sarah would have said something.

She smelled the cigarette smoke before she even knocked on the door.

David opened the apartment door and said, "My, what a pleasant surprise. Please come in."

He gestured and she stepped inside, saying, "Sam sent me. I'm Nicky. He was wondering if we could borrow a couple of lemons."

"Oh, I'm sure that could be arranged," David said. "Come on in."

The kitchen seemed impossibly tiny, with a small, high, round table in one corner. There were three stools around the table, two of which were occupied, one by a small man in a bathrobe and the other by a large woman who wore a lot of rings and bracelets on her chubby fingers and wrists.

"Hi," Nicky said, "I'm Nicky, from–"

"Step up a little closer," the woman said, motioning her into the room. "Lemons are easily available, but why don't you sit and visit a minute? After all, we're all practically family now."

Nicky viewed this statement with a certain amount of alarm, since "family" was an extremely negative word in her vocabulary, but she moved forward as the woman said, "I'm T.C., by the way, and this is Finch. Have a smoke?" She took a wooden box from the table, opened it and held it out.

"Oh, thank you," Nicky said, "but I don't smoke."

"Of course you do. You can't indulge downstairs, I know, because Sarah is somewhat asthmatic, and Little Miss Sunshine dislikes smoking because of the possibility that some people might enjoy it."

Nicky's head was spinning and she had to stop herself from reaching into the wooden box. "Sunshine?" she asked in confusion. "Little Miss Sunshine?"

"Sam's girlfriend. You've met her. The one who turns the world on with her smile?"

Nicky covered her mouth as she stifled a giggle. Then she took a cigarette and climbed onto the remaining stool. T.C. held out her lighter, flicking it into life. It was ceramic, the size and shape of a large eggplant. Nicky leaned forward and got her cigarette going, then she gestured with it.

"How did you know?" she asked.

Finch smiled. "Oh, that was elementary. You gulped in air when you came through that door like you'd just spent a month on a submarine. Nobody but a smoker has that reaction to this apartment."

Nicky's favorite place in the apartment was the windowseat in the living room. It was padded with a piece of carpet, and wide enough for her to sit comfortably on it, her back against one side and her feet at the other, with her knees up. That way she could look out of the window as she sat. There was a little sliver of park visible in between the buildings, and she liked to look at that.

Sarah was in the shower. Nicky knew she would probably have been welcome to join her, but she didn't feel like it. The interrogation up in the other apartment had unsettled her. It was obvious that they has a pretty good idea she wasn't just living with Sarah for love, but it was equally obvious that they didn't really care, except for the possible entertainment value, and wouldn't say or do anything.

An arm draped itself across her shoulders, a familiar hip pressed against hers, and Sarah said, "Whussup, Gidget?"

Nicky shrugged. "Nuttin' much, Midget." It always unnerved her how Sarah could come up on her without warning.

"How was the third degree?"

Nicky turned to regard her lover, who was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, her feet bare, her face still shiny and damp from the shower. "You knew what it was going to be like?" Nicky demanded. "You knew they'd be grilling me?" She nudged her playfully with her hip. "I thought you were supposed to be looking after me, making sure nothing bad happens to me. Some girlfriend you are."

She folded her arms and turned to look out the window at the rain, then turned back as Sarah nuzzled her neck. "Stop that," Nicky said, "I'm being mad at you."

Sarah put her other arm around Nicky, leaning against her. "How's it going?" she murmured. "You nice and mad yet?"

Nicky chuckled. "It's a lot easier to be mad at you when you're somewhere else," she admitted.

Sarah nodded and nudged her again with her hip. "Skootch over there and make some room for me."

Nicky turned so her legs were dangling and Sarah sat down next to her. "I knew you'd be okay up there," she said with a grin. "They're fun, you just have to get used to them. They like to know what's going on." She shrugged, smiling. "I figured you'd have to go up there sooner or later, why not get it over with?"

Nicky shrugged. "Well, I guess I escaped without any real injuries. They mostly wanted to know if Terry's coming down this weekend. Something about planning Movie Night, whatever that is. They want Sam to come, but they think he won't if Terry is here."

"Sam's still trying to get her to come down," Sarah said. "He's really worried about her, and she said Perry was going to be visiting her for the weekend. That always freaks her out."

Nicky had to control herself. Every muscle in her body wanted to react to this news, but with Sarah pressed against her, any tension would have given her away. "Perry?" she asked casually. "Who's that?"

Sarah grinned. "Perry is Terry's step-brother," she said. Then she paused, waiting for Nicky to get it.

"Terry's step-brother?" Nicky asked. "I don't get it, Fidget, why all the . . wait a minute. Perry . . . Nelson? The Perry Nelson? He's Terry's brother?" God, it was hard to pretend to be figuring out something you already knew.

Sarah nodded. "Yeah, that's our big family secret. Step-brother, actually."

"And have you met the mystery man?"

Sarah nodded again. "Oh, sure. Lots of times. He was here to visit just a couple of months ago. He's nice." She grinned wickedly. "Nothing like Terry."

Nicky laughed. "But you said he was going to be visiting Terry? And Sam's going to ask her to come down here? I don't get it."

"Terry wants to be a writer, and she gets weird around Perry because he's so successful, and a lot younger than she is. I guess things get intense when they're alone together, so a lot of times they hang out with us." She shrugged. "That way they get to spend time together without it being all weird."

"I'll bet it gets weird anyway," Nicky said with a smirk.

Sarah giggled. "Oh, you think you're so smart," she said, poking the other girl in the shoulder. "Of course it does. You saw how it got with just Terry, Sam and me, the night we met. There's usually some sort of fireworks, but there's usually some good times, too. I think sometimes Perry would like to come visit us when Terry wasn't here, but then she'd probably get mad about that." She sniffed at Nicky's hair. "Yuck, you reek of cigarette smoke. C'mon, let's go get you all scrubbed up and shiny clean."

"Oooh," Nicky said, standing up, though she was still not in a sexy mood. Then she saw the clock on the VCR. "What time do you have to be at work?" she asked.

Sarah looked at her watch and made a face. "Five minutes from now. Shit. Well, don't shower with anybody else until I get back."

Nicky smiled. "I promise."

Nicky got back into the windowseat as Sarah ran out. Then she went into the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea. The news that Perry Nelson might be visiting as soon as the coming weekend was vindication of the decision Nicky had made when Terry had left. She had been torn. Should she follow Terry, as she had been for a week? There were a lot of difficulties. For one thing, she now had almost no money. And she knew she couldn't bring herself to steal money from Sam and Sarah, even if they had had any to steal. Plus, following Terry would be even more difficult now that Terry knew her.

Was she losing her resolve, seduced by food, comfort, sex and affection? She didn't think so, but it was hard to tell. She told herself that it was just changing tactics, taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity. The big advantage of this approach was that, when she did meet Perry Nelson, she'd meet him as the lover of a trusted friend, not as a grungy little stranger. Given everything she'd read about the famously skittish novelist, that would probably make a big difference.

And all she was losing was time, and she was in no hurry. She took her mug of tea and went back into the living room, getting back into the windowseat. She held the mug of steaming tea between her hands and breathed in slowly, enjoying the smell. It was very quiet when there was nobody home except her. She sometimes felt that this was her favorite part of the day, the only time when she felt as if the apartment was at least a little bit hers.

Sometimes she poked around through Sarah and Sam's stuff, but she soon stopped that when she realized there really wasn't anything interesting to look at. If Sam and Sarah had any secrets, they were well hidden. And that was fine with Nicky. It seemed to invite discovery of her own secrets to poke too deeply into anybody else's. She was very content to take other people at face value.

She'd been staying there for three days already, and there didn't seem to be any reason to think she couldn't stay on. Sarah certainly seemed to want her to stay, and Sam was friendly enough, even though she was eating their food and not contributing any money.

It had been distressing to her to discover how easily she'd been able to seduce Sarah. Men were pretty easy, or at least you could always find one who was, but she'd always used this to support her unarticulated belief that men mostly weren't very bright. But if women were led around by their hormones as easily as men were . . .

Then she smiled. One thing she had been dreading was the inevitable exchange of sexual histories with Sarah. She had run it over and over in her head, wondering how much to reveal, how much to leave out. Would it be better to admit to only girls, or should she include some boys? And how many? She knew whatever story she did tell Sarah, she would have to remember it, so later conversations would make sense.

But the exchange never took place, and she wondered why. It usually came up fairly early on, in any serious relationship. But then, that morning, she had figured it out. Sarah had no sexual history. Nicky was it. And Sarah found this at least as embarrassing as Nicky did her cast of thousands. So, they would probably go on, never discussing it. And that was fine with Nicky.

Nicky looked around and saw a newspaper on the couch. On an impulse, she went over, picked it up and brought it back to the windowseat. It had been a while since she'd read a newspaper, and the international news was a little hard to follow.

When she got to the local news, though, it was strangely familiar. There seemed to be some sort of big crisis going on, or at least some people were talking as though there was, and others were talking as though it was just about over, or as if it had never happened at all.

There seemed to be some agreement that something was wrong with the city economy, variously blamed on graft, ineptitude, mismanagement, previous administrations, sabotage, foreign influence or mass hysteria.

She started reading the articles again, trying to figure out where the few definite facts were buried under all the fluff and opinions. The facts seemed to be these:

  1. The welfare checks hadn't gone out on schedule.
  2. A bank, run by a close supporter of the mayor, had closed its doors.
  3. Various public statements had been made, explaining away any possible connection between these two events, but nobody seemed to believe them.

Nicky didn't think this all applied to her in any way. She was only here until she could connect with Perry Nelson. But she did find it interesting, especially in how amorphous it was, and yet how familiar.

The apartment door opened and the phone rang at the same moment. Nicky picked up the phone and said, "Hello?"

There was a slight pause, as if the person on the other end of the line had to absorb the fact that an unfamiliar voice had answered the phone.

"May I speak with Sam Little please?" a man's voice asked.

"Hang on a minute please," Nicky said, then she covered the receiver with her palm and called, "Sam, is that you?"

He stepped into the room, his jacket still in his hand. "Is it Terry?" he asked.

She held out the receiver. "Not unless her voice is changing."

He took the receiver and said, "Yes? Sam here." Nicky recognized this as the formal voice he used when it might be somebody calling to give him work. "Oh, hi, Perry," he said, and Nicky had to fight down the urge to grab the receiver out of his hand.

"Hmmm?" Sam asked, looking up at the ceiling and loosening his tie. "Oh, really? Yes, I've been concerned about that, too." He shook his head. "No, she was down here last weekend."

He paused, then nodded again, looking out the window. "Well, we'd certainly be glad to have you. Uh-huh. Call when you get into town. Somebody should be here." He paused, then glanced at Nicky. "Oh, you heard, huh? Yes, you'll meet her. Okay. Talk to you soon."

He hung up the phone and Nicky laughed. "News travels fast, huh?"

Sam nodded. "Terry told him about you."

"I hope he didn't believe whatever she told him."

"Oh, don't worry about that. She doesn't dislike you, she's that way with everybody. The closer you are to her, sometimes, the worse treatment you get."

"I'd better hope she doesn't decide she likes me, huh?"

He laughed and sat down, carefully draping his jacket on the sofa beside him. "I've noticed," he said, "that there are some women who have mostly women friends, and there are other women whose friends are mostly men. The same is true of men, I guess. But Terry isn't close to many women. Her friends are almost all men. She has a sister, but they don't see each other very much."

"A sister?" Nicky asked, sitting down on a chair opposite Sam, reflecting that this was their first real conversation without Sarah. "Well, with Terry and Perry, what's the sister's name? Berry? Cherry?"

Sam laughed. "No, I'm afraid not. It's Tammy."

Nicky gave him a skeptical look. "Tammy? I didn't know anybody was really named Tammy. What is she, some babe in a bikini?"

Sam shook his head, smiling at the thought. "No, nothing like that. She's a tall, skinny lawyer with red hair, and I've never seen her in a bikini, but if she did wear one she'd look something like a pencil with two band-aids wrapped around it." He smiled again and sighed.

"A lawyer?" Nicky asked, dragging Sam back from a momentary fantasy about what she herself might look like in a bikini.

"Yes," he said, collecting himself, "and a very successful one. Which is another thing for Terry to whip herself about, of course." He smiled, leaning back. "Ambition is a dangerous thing. It really eats Terry up that her sister is a successful lawyer and her step-brother is a famous novelist. Me, as long as the rent is paid and there's food on the table, what do I care what anybody else does? But she doesn't see it that way."

Nicky nodded. "I'm with you on that one. When you've lived without food and a place to live, you see how important they are."

The apartment door slammed open and a voice yelled, "Goddamn it! Shit!" and a moment later something shattered in the kitchen.

chapter six