Chapter Seven

Three Weeks Earlier (continued)

"So," Sarah said, plopping herself down next to Nicky on the sofa, "how do you like it so far?"

Nicky laughed. "I've read almost five whole pages."

"Well, read faster. I want to know what you think."

"You want to know what I think? I think you're distracting me, that's what I think."

She turned her attention back to the book. When Sarah had learned that Nicky had never read any of Perry Nelson's novels, she had devoted a lot of thought to which of the three would be the best to start with. She had finally decided that Nicky should read all three, in order, as quickly as possible.

Of course, Nicky had read all three books already, many times, so she had to resist the temptation to skim as she started "The World." She had to read it as if this was the first time.

She read another page, then she looked up. "Hey," she said, "this is what you meant the night we met, about my name being a coincidence. You meant because the girl in this book is named Nicole, right?"

Nicky had asked Sarah about that comment a couple of times, but the other girl had just looked mysterious and refused to answer. In fact, of course, that was why the name Nicky had been the only one Nicky had been able to think of when she'd suddenly had to introduce herself to Sarah in the bar.

Now Sarah nodded. "She's in all three books, though not much in the second one. But she's in the third one a lot." Sarah still had the mysterious expression when she said this, and Nicky knew why, but she knew there was no point in asking about it. She turned her attention back to the page, but then Sarah nudged her as Sam came into the room.

"Pay attention," Sarah said to Nicky.

"Pay attention to what?" Nicky asked, thinking that at this rate she'd be lucky to finish the first chapter before bedtime.

"I'm going to Boston," Sam said. "I'm taking the bus that leaves at midnight, and I'll be coming back tomorrow night. With Terry, I hope. Try not to break anything while I'm gone."

"This is it," Sarah whispered eagerly, nudging Nicky in the ribs. "He's going to say it."

"He's going to say what?" Nicky demanded.

"I'm not going to say it," Sam said, gesturing at Nicky with a slight movement of his elbow, "Not with–"

"Oh, she's family now," Sarah said. "You can say it."

Sam nodded. "Okay." He squared his shoulders and gazed at the far horizon. "A man's got to do what a man's got to do," he said, and Sarah closed her eyes and swooned against Nicky's side.

"I love it when he says that," she murmured. "It makes my girlish heart melt."

"Mine, too," Nicky said quickly. She grinned at Sam. "So, you're going to take the little woman in hand and tell her you know what's best for her, huh?"

He nodded. "Sometimes it's the only way."

"Does that mean Perry Nelson will be coming to visit this weekend, too?" she asked.

"I expect so."

Nicky opened the book again. "I'd better read faster, huh?"

"Oh, no," Sarah said, "we never talk about his books."

Sam nodded. "Both Terry and Perry get all weird if you bring it up. Perry gets all uncomfortable–"

"And you-know-who turns into the Wicked Witch of the West Side," Sarah whispered loudly.

Sam just smiled. "And I think I speak for all of us when I say that's not how I want to be spending my weekend."

"Doesn't it get awkward, not talking about it?" Nicky asked.

Sam shook his head. "Oh, no. We just stick to nice, safe subjects. Politics and religion, mostly."

There was a brisk knock on the apartment door. When Finch opened it, Nicky snapped to attention and threw him a salute. "Private Nicky reporting, sir," she announced. "I have news from the front."

"Come on in, Private," Finch said. "We were hoping for some new news."

Nicky marched straight in, deftly made a sharp right hand turn, and proceeded into the kitchen. She came to a halt in front of T.C. and saluted.

"At ease, Private," T.C. said. "Smoke if you got 'em. What's the news?"

Nicky climbed onto a stool as Finch came back into the room. She carefully lit a cigarette. "Big doings downstairs," she said, taking a deep drag.

"Never mind the foreshadowing," Finch said. "When we want–"

"Sam went to Boston last night. He's going to bring the little woman down for the weekend, or he'll know the reason why. Now, she was supposed to be spending the weekend with Perry, and so the idea is that he will show up here, too."

"Ah," T.C. said slowly, "these are interesting developments." She leaned back and puffed thoughtfully.

"Damn, I'm good!" crowed a female voice as the apartment door slammed open. A teenage girl maybe two or three years older than Nicky came into the kitchen carrying what looked like a small banjo case. She was dressed in sweats, and flushed with what was apparently victory. "I am fucking great!" she announced, yanking open the refrigerator and taking out a big bottle of water. Finch had to dive across the room, bathrobe flapping, to catch the TV before it toppled onto her head.

"I think it's inadequate competition," David said, trailing wearily after her. He was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and was so covered in sweat that he looked like he'd been caught in a rainstorm. He climbed onto the remaining stool and sighed, laying his Ping-Pong paddle on the table.

Finch nodded. "I think it was Earl Weaver who used to say–"

"I whupped his ass," the girl said, wiping sweat from her head as she put the water bottle on the stove. "Hey, everybody, look at this." She flipped her case on top of the sink and opened the catches. Inside, cushioned in padding, was a Ping-Pong paddle, and, in a separate compartment, a neat row of Ping-Pong balls. Across the rubber surface of the paddle it said "Nasty" in bright red script.

Along the polished handle in block letters it said, "Pro-Line."

"Merchandising," she said proudly, holding it out for their inspection. She took a few practice swings. "Once I win the Gold, every Pong rat in the country will want one of these."

"Pong?" Nicky asked.

The girl looked startled. "Ping-Pong," she said. Then she looked at Nicky more closely. "Who are you?" she asked.

Nicky stuck out her hand. "My name is Nicky. I live–"

"Pleased to meet you," the girl said, shaking her hand vigorously. She turned and closed the paddle case, then she pulled off her sweatshirt and tossed it through the doorway into the living room. "Catch you later. I've got first dibs on the shower!" she said as she left, slapping David on the back.

"Of course, I suppose Perry Nelson is used to this kind of treatment by now," T.C. mused, looking up at the ceiling.

"Who was that?" Nicky asked, leaning back on her stool so she could look into the living room as all the girl's clothing seemed to come off in the same moment, landing all over the furniture.

"My name is Nancy!" she called as she started the water in the bathroom.

"But everyone knew her as Nasty," David added under his breath as he lay his head on his folded arms and closed his eyes.

"I'm going to be in the Olympics!" Nasty hollered as she closed the bathroom door.

Nicky leaned forward, lowering her voice. "Is Ping-Pong really an Olympic sport?"

Finch looked around nervously, put his finger to his lips and went "Sssshhh." Then he got up and put the water bottle back in the refrigerator.

"Okay, Private Nicky," T.C. said suddenly, "here's your assignment. Sell Mr. Perry Nelson on the many and varied pleasures of Movie Night. If he decides he wants to check it out, Sunshine will be trapped."

Finch nodded. "With Perry on one side and Sam on the other, there's no escape. A classic pincers movement."

Nicky got down from her stool and saluted. "It's as good as done, ma'am. If all else fails, request permission to unleash the full force of my feminine wiles."

"Oooh," said Finch as T.C. shook her head.

"From all reports, Private, that might not be your best plan. However, use your judgement. Keep your powder dry. Dismissed."

But as Nicky reached for the door, there was a knock. She opened the door and Sarah came in, kissing her on the cheek as she passed. "I thought you might be up here reporting," she said as Nicky followed her into the kitchen.

"More news," Sarah announced to the room as Nicky tried to figure out whether she should take a drag on her cigarette or put it out. "Sam just came back."

"Victorious?" T.C. asked.

"Defeated, but unbowed. Terry refused to see him. I gather that strong language was used. She won't be coming down this weekend, and neither will Perry. She made it quite clear that she's not seeing him either."

Nicky was tempted to turn and punch the refrigerator. If Terry was that annoyed, it might be a while before she visited again (if ever), and that meant she might never get to meet Perry Nelson. Shit.

T.C. smiled as she looked around. "Movie night is on. Give me a moment and I'll tell you your assignments."

chapter eight