“And no one can touch me,” she said, a hint of triumph in her voice.
Heath’s eyes fluttered. The ceiling above the bed on which he lay was equipped with a hard-wired smoke detector. The wallpaper might have been yellow or brown, but the room was dark, and he wasn’t sure. He could hear the steady, soothing sound of highway traffic outside.
A door opened, letting in dim light and the smell of snow. The door closed again, and a light was switched on, revealing Puddles. She held a white plastic bag with something heavy and square inside in one hand.
“What’s that?” Heath said, sitting up.
“Takeout food,” she said warily, closing the door behind her.
“Where are Colin and Clorox?” Heath asked, putting his feet on the floor. “And where are we?”
“We,” Puddles said, “are in a cheap room in a seedy motel off the highway in the middle of nowhere. Clorox is sanitizing the Jeep. Colin is in the office, negotiating with the scumbag night auditor.” Without an audience, her habitual amused superiority seemed like an affectation.
“Negotiating for what?” Heath asked.
Puddles removed the the Styrofoam container and a packet of plastic silverware from the plastic bag. She put them down on the night-stand and sat on the bed next to Heath. “His undoubtedly filthy personal vehicle,” she said, reaching back and examining her braid with her fingers. “He knows a mechanic who will make the Jeep disappear without asking inconvenient questions.” She pointed to the steaming white clamshell. “You need to eat.”
Heath opened it and looked inside. The contents appeared to be chicken lo mein. He unwrapped the little fork and knife, set the container on his lap, and dug in.
“Thank you for hauling that thing out of me,” he said between bites.
She took her jacket off and set it on the bed behind her and undid the loop of black leather that secured her hair. “I’ll kill you sooner or later,” she said with a smile that was nearly genuine, her thin fingers undoing the braid with the ease of long practice. “I don’t want anyone else depriving me of the pleasure. Least of all one of Carroll Carver’s little playthings.”
Heath chewed and swallowed. “Offer I made you last time’s still good,” he said, glancing over at her. “Let us power you down and undo the scar Carroll carved into your soul. Daryl will undo the geas and you can be ordinary again.”
Puddles’s smile went away. She turned away from Heath and shook out her long hair. She ran her fingers through it, smoothed it, and began to re-braid it. “And I told you last time,” she said, without looking at him, “I like what I am.”
“You can’t touch anyone,” Heath said gently. “Not much of a life.”
She turned to face him and smiled again, this time defiantly. “And no one can touch me,” she said, a hint of triumph in her voice. “Not even you, maithili.”
“You were the one that broached the subject of marriage, not me,” Heath said. He took a last bite of lo mein, put his fork on top of the remains, and closed the container. He put it on the night-stand and lay back on the bed with his hands behind his head. “I just held you to it.”
The door opened and Colin strolled in, looking pleased with himself. He was followed by Clorox, who carried his suitcases inside and set them by the door, then closed it behind them. “How you doin’, Ridgeback?” the cleaner asked. He sounded both concerned and impressed.
“I’m good,” Heath said, sitting up and nodding his thanks at the little man. “Did you get the Jeep taken care of?”
“It’s done,” the dwarf said authoritatively. He climbed up on the other bed and sat facing Heath and Puddles, his short legs dangling off the edge. “I prefer to clean automobiles with a little more finality, but that vehicle don’t look nothing like it did this morning.”
Heath nodded. “Good work.” He turned to Colin. “Do we have transportation?”
The Englishman jingled a set of keys and dropped them in his coat pocket. “Night auditor’s monkeyshit-brown Buick is now ours,” he said with a smirk. He sat down next to Clorox. “I believe the body’s ‘eld together with compressed rust, but aside from that it looks mechanically sound.” He glanced over at the takeout container and glared hard at the Dancer. “I ‘ope that one didn’t touch the food,” he said coldly.
Puddles looked as though she’d been slapped. She stood up without a word and went into the bathroom.
Heath watched the bathroom door click shut behind her. He sighed and turned back to Colin and Clorox. “I’ll take first watch. You two get some shut-eye.”
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No. That was my reaction to the prospect of this as the penultimate chapter
For everything we've seen of Puddles so far, I didn't expect the surprising (very understated) sympathy and near-tenderness she's offered in this chapter. This is great storytelling, in the sense of saying a huge amount in the fewest possible words. I don't really need to know exactly what her deal is, or any of her many deals; what matters is that you've got me wondering, and even ever-so-slightly wishing her well. Someday, in the future, maybe.
Now please do bring us back around to Carroll. It's been too long, and I can't take any more of his looming significance without resolution.