“No. You only mishandled it so badly that you had to take it. Make it work. Get some ice cream and strawberries. She’s a woman, Allen. Treat her like one. There’s nothing wrong with her that a good screw won’t fix.”
Expression ugly, Allen ended the call and shoved his phone away. “Still think I don’t know what I’m doing?” he said bitterly. “Bill trusts me. That Peri doesn’t is exactly why he does. I’m doing my job, so don’t tell me you’re ending it when I’m the one with the riskier, harder task here. Got it?”
Silas looked beyond him and into their past. “How much of that was a lie?”
Allen picked up the cat food. “If you’re asking if I’m sleeping with her, I’m not.”
Silas let that settle, not liking that it meant so much to him. “I’ll give you two weeks.”
“You’ll give me? You are not in charge, Silas. I am.”
Silas’s fingers found the gun in his pocket, and he jerked back. “She’s too close to a MEP. If this doesn’t break in two weeks, I pull her out. I don’t care if the alliance shuns her, ignores her, or puts a hit on her,” he said as Allen frowned, knowing the threat was real. “Two weeks.”
Turning, Silas stomped away into the rain.
Allen’s apartment was as much to Peri’s liking as the things now hanging in her side of the closet, both a mishmash of colors and textures that had her wondering if Allen was color-blind. Somehow the professional polish exuded by his clothing had failed to make it to his decorating style. Maybe he was just eclectic in his taste.
Sighing, Peri sat on the leather ottoman before the gas log fireplace, Carnac on her lap as she watched an insurance commercial. She couldn’t help but admire the Band-Aid-strewn guy on TV catching the kitchen drapes on fire when the homeowner tried to relight the pilot light with a match. He was having fun creating destruction with no thought of the consequences. Maybe she needed to be more like him.
The bell on Carnac’s collar pinged as her nail hit it, and the cat jumped, his claws digging into her leg. He was jittery from having been jammed in a box for the trip over here. It was either that, or the garish, modern art paintings of blocks of color were getting to him, too.
Most of her stuff was still at her old apartment, and if things didn’t improve fast, she was going to grab her toothbrush and her cat, and go home. The more time she put between her and the doubts that Silas had instilled, the more foolish and unlikely they seemed. If not for Jack, currently standing at her box of talismans beside the empty shelf, she might be doubting herself.
Maybe this is the first stages of MEP.
As if her thoughts had stimulated the hallucination, Jack turned, holding up a stuffed doll wearing a kimono. “Where, by the sweet fires of hell, did you get this?”
“Like I know?” She stood and brushed cat hair from her. That none of the things in that box held any real meaning was grating. Allen claimed it was because they hadn’t defragmented the memories attached to them, but she had doubts—if Jack’s poking around in them meant anything. Allen had cleared the shelf above the TV for her to display them, but she didn’t have the heart for it. He’d only just left, and she was restless. The cat box had made it over here, but the cat’s food hadn’t, and so he’d gone out for some.
Peri wandered into the kitchen, cringing when she opened the fridge; she wasn’t going to turn into Allen’s mother and start cleaning. But the sight of three pouches of cat food stopped her cold. “I thought …,” she muttered, glancing at Carnac twining around her feet in the throes of starvation. “I’m sorry, Carnac. It was here all the time.”
On the other side of the living room, Jack snickered. He was fingering a scrap of woven cloth that meant nothing to her. Now she remembered having put the pouches in there, and she grabbed one, opening a cupboard to find a saucer. The lapse wasn’t like her, and uneasy, she put the remaining cat food in the pantry where it belonged.
“Give me a sec,” she protested as she tore one open. The cat jumped onto the counter before she could put the bowl on the floor, and she laughed. “Good grief, you’re not starving,” she said as she put first the bowl, then the cat on the floor. Carnac hunched into it, ignoring her last fondle behind his ears as she arranged the collar so the hourglass pattern was obvious.
They brought my knitting over, she thought, seeing the canvas bag beside the couch, and then she remembered telling Allen she was going to finish the scarf this weekend. “Why did I put the cat food in the fridge?” she said as she plopped on the couch.
Jack walked between her and the fireplace, startling her. “How else would you get Allen out of the apartment? Anything but cat food could wait until morning.” He shuffled in her box of talismans. “He’s driving you nuts.”
She shrugged, liking Jack’s idea better than the thought that she was so stressed she was gaslighting herself. “Yeah?” she muttered, wondering if the place was bugged. Maybe she should stop talking to Jack. Jack, can you still hear me? she thought.
“No,” he said, confusing her. “Come look at this. You think this is real, or something Bill’s wife picked up at a yard sale?”
“Oh. My. God. Talk about pegging your ugly meter.” Peri levered herself up, becoming increasingly comfortable with the hallucination. Silas had said Jack betrayed her, but how could she be angry at a hallucination? What bothered her more was that Jack really wasn’t holding the seashell with the mermaid stuck to it. It was still in the box, and she didn’t want to know what kind of mental gymnastics her mind was doing to try to reconcile the difference.