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Moist night wind swept the skin on her arms and flicked sharp points of hair into her eyes. Pulling her sweatshirt tight against the gusts, Nikki tucked her hair inside the hood and splashed the oars into the deep black water of Lake Tahoe. A hundred years ago, under the same crescent moon, a Washoe Indian in a kayak would have known how to dip the oars silently, secretly, but no matter how she tipped them, they sucked water into the air, leaving behind a trail of sound.
Silvery snow tipped the mountain peaks that circled like clouds around the lake. She stayed close enough to the shoreline -- flat black trees against a glinting navy sky -- to track her progress, but far enough out to remain unidentifiable by anyone nosy enough to observe her. She could not be caught, because tonight...
Tonight, she was going on a raid! And for the first time, she was going alone.
She felt high with the strength of her arms and the tautness of her legs as she rowed, as high as she had felt on New Year's Eve when her mom had let her drink champagne, so even though she didn't like being out here all alone, floating above a deep, dark immensity she didn't want to think about, she wasn't about to turn back.
Scott would have come with her if she had told him about it, but tonight -- tonight was personal. She was not just skulking and peeking in windows for a joke, or scrounging a few leftover Heinekens from an outside cooler. Not that she didn't miss having him along. She wouldn't mind a warm body beside her floating into this dark moonlit haze.
As a steady breeze blew over the lake, the water churned, pushing her farther out than she liked. But it wasn't far now.
She knew what she was doing was wrong. But a while back, being bad had stopped feeling bad. Scott had helped with that. So many rules were stupid. He had shown her a whole new way of thinking. You had to make your own way.
Tonight was about making something really wrong right again.
She stretched. Her arms ached. She wasn't used to rowing so much, but then, her original plans for the year hadn't included breaking into someone's house. She hadn't exactly trained for it. She had been forced into it. Three days before, the mail brought a letter addressed to her mother from a law office. That scared her. Her mother wasn't around, so she had opened it. A so-far nice day turned real bad right then. The letter said they were about to be evicted. The landlord wanted his money, and he wanted it right now.
When her mom came home Nikki held the letter in her face, making her read it. "What is this?"
"Don't worry, honey," Daria had said in that drifty way she had. As if everything took care of itself somehow. As if they weren't going to have to pack their things in boxes in about two weeks and go squat in a condemned building. Nikki sat her down, tried to have a practical conversation with her. Where was her last paycheck?
Gone. They had had a lot of back bills to pay.
Not worth screaming about. The bills never got paid until the third notice because they weren't Daria's priority. At least this time she hadn't gotten rooked by some guy who was off to make his mark as an artist or a musician in Vegas.
What about her job? Nikki had asked. Where were the paychecks? Oh, she had lost that job a few weeks ago. She didn't want Nikki to worry and had planned to tell her just as soon as she had another one, which would be any day now.
Nikki had decided. They would resort to the unthinkable. They would borrow money, using Grandpa Logan's land in Nevada for collateral. That was when her mom got nervous and darted around the living room rearranging trinkets.
Finally, Daria had admitted it. She had sold the land to Nikki's uncle Bill for twelve hundred stinkin' dollars.
Her mom shrugged, saying what was done was done. "That land is in the middle of nowhere and it's basically worthless. He did us a favor."
"Where's the money?" Nikki had asked. Maybe Grandpa's land would perform a heroic rescue. Maybe it would save their home. But no. Her mom had already spent that too paying a few other late bills. The money was gone, just like everything else. Like her dad. Like the security she had once had: that she would have lunch money or new shoes in the fall.
Her mom had never grown up. She trusted everybody, even Uncle Bill. He had never helped them out before and he hadn't helped them out this time. Nikki knew darn good and well that land was worth more than he had paid. All you had to do was to check out the Reno Gazette. Land in Nevada was going up, even scrub desert in the foothills. You couldn't buy land for thirty bucks an acre. You couldn't buy anything for thirty bucks, period. He had taken advantage of her mom's totally inept sense of business.
All of which she had told her mom.
"Oh, honey. Your uncle's a very savvy businessman. Believe me, he knows how much that land is worth."
Duh! He knew, all right, but he was smart enough not to pay it.
Her next thought was, okay, she would talk to him, maybe just ask him to pay a fairer price for Grandpa's acres. But that was dreaming. He couldn't stand her or Daria, because they were poor and he was rich. Sometimes Nikki even thought Uncle Bill was afraid of her, maybe because of her smart mouth.
But they were really in the pits this time, so she thought, we'll ask him for a loan. But anytime she and Daria had been hurting in the past, he had made sure to joke about how stupid it was to loan money to relatives, rubbing his clean surgeon's hands together and watching to make sure they got it.
That made up her mind. She would go to his house, find money, and take it. She had studied the newspaper classifieds. She figured the land was, rock-bottom minimum, worth twice what he paid. She was sure he kept cash around the house. She would take no more than what he should have paid them in the first place. Tomorrow, before he had time to call the police or something dumb like that, she would 'fess up.
Because, let's face it. He owed them.
If he got really ugly about it, they could promise to pay him back when they could. He would just have to lump it and accept that the money was gone. Ultrarespectable Uncle Bill would never tell anyone his niece had to come and steal money from him to save herself and her mother from being evicted. He would never allow a public scandal that might reflect badly on him. His surgical practice depended too much on people admiring him and thinking he was so brilliant and such a saint. Nobody wanted a mean, stingy guy cutting them up.
Did she hear splashing? Turning her head, she looked behind her. If there was another boat or something out here, she couldn't see it. When she was young, she believed that monsters roamed this lake. Bedtime stories, she knew, but still ... she was alone, shivering in a new rush of wind. The lake felt powerful and alive under her. For a moment, fear took over. She fought the urge to turn around and go home.
Tears welled in her eyes. For some reason, her dad's face, the one in the picture of him and her and her mom, appeared in her mind. Maybe it was a blessing on tonight, him coming around. She was off to fight. He would approve of that, wouldn't he? Thinking about the wrong that had been done to her and her mom allowed anger to heat her up and burn away the fear.
"Payback time," she said to the black sky. She was Mel Gibson in Ransom, out to get even. Her voice sounded high and scared, so she said it again, growling.
Through a clump of trees she saw a low wood cabin, classic old Tahoe, looking like something tossed together from recycled crates. Rich people had this trick of trying to look poor on the outside so thieves wouldn't rob them. Scott had taught her about that. But Nikki already knew this place was like a mansion inside and filled with expensive junk. She and her mom had visited there many times.
Letting the kayak wash in on a miniature wave, she managed to get out without swamping and pulled it behind a bush. Water sloshed around her feet on the brief beach, the wind making the leaves blow and sigh.
She moved commando-style toward the house, keeping low behind the plants that made a privacy border. He had a swimming pool, she knew. The knotty lacework of reflections from the pool water flickered on the fence like the light from a TV. Her first problem was the gate, but it was unlocked, easy. She stopped just inside.
Nobody should be home. Aunt Beth and Chris were in LA and her mom had mentioned more than once that Saturdays were Uncle Bill's night to play poker at Caesars.
Remembering the Washoe, she moved slowly through the bushes near the pool, toward the French doors that led to his study. He would keep anything important there.
No sign of anyone around. She crouched down for a moment, intending to creep out into the open and try the door. Just as she straightened up, the door flew open. Shit! She ducked back fast behind the dense brush, stumbling, holding her hands out to keep the bushes back.
Uncle Bill stepped out onto the concrete patio, so close to her she could smell the brandy on his breath and soap on his nude skin. So much for freakin' poker.
Wow! she thought, checking him out. He was buck naked, his dick swinging like a pendulum under his belly as he moved past her. Tight buns and legs showed he worked out all the time. He looked so young, very different from the famous Doctor Bill she remembered seeing in starched white coat and glasses at his clinic. Probably it would give her a complex that her first good look at a naked man was her uncle.
Her heart stepped up the beat and anger took over again. That lying, cheating bastard! Just seeing him out here enjoying himself on a spring night, not a care in the world, made her so mad she wanted to throw something at him, slug him or something. He was too big; he'd catch her for sure. The thought of him catching her in the bushes made her sick. That would blow everything.
Holding the brandy bottle in one hand, he padded toward the steaming pool, put his feet in, and plunked his butt down on the highest step, where the water was only a few inches deep. He took a swig.
"Goddamn!" he said, shaking his head. He took another drink.
Nikki managed to sit down in the pine needles and make a little viewing place for herself through the fronds of one of those dinosaur-era ferns that grew under the trees. Just when she was getting used to the whole scene, he started to jabber. "Not like I had any choice," he said. The sound of his own voice seemed to startle him, and he looked around sharply. Like an idiot, Nikki closed her eyes. As if he wouldn't be able to see her if her eyes were closed! The fronds rustled. Had he sensed someone spying? She couldn't look, but in her mind he moved swiftly toward her, pulled her out of the bushes and ... she was breathing loud enough to lead him right to her.
He mumbled something. What was that? "Nik?" so soft, she wasn't sure if he said it or if she dreamed it, but the sound was so chilling she froze.
Nothing happened. His hand didn't reach over and yank her out. She heard a splash. When she dared to open her eyes again, he was gone ... no, he was swimming away from her, toward the deep end of the pool where the underwater light was.
He swam to the far wall, dove down deep and came up inhaling and coughing, then dove again. Nikki pushed open the branches so she could watch. He was doing something with his hands down in the water at the deep-end wall. Nikki had been in that pool when she was little. She knew it was nine feet deep. Here he was, most likely drunk, acting crazy at the bottom of the pool. Was he trying to drown himself? Should she make a run for the house while he was down there?
No. He might come out and see her.
Kneeling, she pushed the ferns back and stared. He stayed down almost a minute.
She was bad at waiting. Waiting gave her time to think and thinking had a way of contaminating the passing minutes with doubts. The smell of chlorine mixed like toxic gas with the smell of the fir trees, making her feel sick. None of this was supposed to happen. He shouldn't even be home, and here he was acting so stupid!
He surfaced, took a breath, and dived again.
Swallowing the acid in her mouth, Nikki steeled herself and sneaked toward the study. He came up again, splashing, but he still had his back to her. In one hand he held a box made of metal. While he swam to the side of the pool, holding the dripping box up above the water with one hand, Nikki slipped back into the bushes.
Hauling himself out at the deep end, grunting, he set the box on the concrete deck. After he caught his breath, he sat cross-legged at the edge, twisting something on the box. The lid came off and he took something out.
What freakin' luck! So that was where he hid his money. In the freakin' pool!
The wind had finally eased. Now Nikki faced a new dread, the complete silence. Except for the pool pump and Uncle Bill's harsh breathing, there was nothing except the noise of her clacking teeth and whomping heart. Not even the crickets were singing.
He was holding something wrapped in a cloth pouch. Bills, she figured. Maybe some rare coins. Light filtering up from the pool pocked his face with ghoulish shadows. He looked like Jason in a slasher movie. The whole scene was like a nightmare, the pool with its blue light, the darkness closing in, Uncle Bill, squatting like an evil Buddha, drunk, fondling his secret stash.