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Who did he think he was, giving me orders?

I flashed him my sincerest con smile. "Sure. You can trust me."

Escape tip #15: When the going gets tough, the tough stop and ask: "Why the f **k am I doing this?"

Forty-five minutes later I was zipping into a parking slot in downtown Milwaukee. I'd been forced to bring m.u.f.fin along because he'd have attracted too much attention left back at the station. He'd ridden shotgun, standing on the seat with his nose pressed to the window, barking to alert me to pa.s.sing cars, garbage cans, blowing paper, and other dangers.

I parked in the trendy Third Ward, where old warehouses had been converted into lofts and condos and where Labeck's Volks would blend in with the Priuses and Mini Coops favored by the resident hipsters. Taking the toolbox and clipboard, I got out. m.u.f.fin shot out like a small, hairy torpedo and immediately attacked a flock of sparrows on the sidewalk. I'd have to ditch him somewhere in the city, maybe stick a label on him and drop him in a mailbox.



I found duct tape in the toolbox, tore off a strip, and taped Labeck's keys to the car's rear wheel well, a trick I'd picked up from a Taycheedah inmate busted for running a chop shop. Later I'd contact Labeck and tell him where he could find his car. I quashed my guilt pangs by reminding myself that I was doing him a favor. The more distance I created between us, the safer Labeck would be. Irving Katz hadn't struck me as the kind of fed who made idle threats; I was taking his obstruction of justice warning seriously. Labeck didn't deserve going to jail because he'd allowed himself to get sucked into my mess.

I was starting to trust Labeck, which worried me. The man was contradiction piled on contradiction: gentlemanly enough to allow me to hog his bed while he slept on the sofa, but boorish enough to watch while I took a bath. He possessed the rogue mindset of a clever criminal, yet he was cautious and clever enough to not get caught. He was overbearing, chauvinistic, and treated me as though I had brains of suet. On the other hand, he'd fed me supper, a.n.a.lyzed the nanny cam video, and lent me his car.

Fortunately, Ben Labeck's quirks were no longer my concern. I was ditching him, Volkswagen and all, before he wound up in prison, too. Right now I had to focus all my energy on staying free.

s.n.a.t.c.hing up the toolbox and clipboard, I strode off. Radon-Man, saving the city from radon, whatever radon was. The day was unseasonably hot and humid. Everyone else was wearing shorts or skimpy skirts, and I was dying in my heavy twill shirt and pants. My cap kept sliding down over my ears and the toolbox b.u.mped against my thighs, growing heavier with every step. My pontoon-boat shoes smacked against the pavement like Play-Doh being flung against a wall.

m.u.f.fin was having the time of his life, lolloping along without a leash, wee-weeing at every hydrant, terrorizing pigeons, drinking out of rain puddles. I walked faster, hoping to shake him. Radon guys didn't go around with their little doggies. "Scram," I hissed at him.

He ignored the order and tagged along, looking happier than I'd ever seen him, his small red tongue outthrust, not even giving the ankles of pa.s.sing pedestrians a second glance.

It was a ten-minute walk to the corporate headquarters of the Brenner Brewing Company, which sat in ma.s.sive splendor above the east bank of the Milwaukee River. A knockoff of the German Renaissance style, it was built of cream city brick with a black slate roof like scalloped licorice and a twelve-story clock tower. The beer baron who'd commissioned the building had wanted to cap the tower with a forty-foot-tall beer stein that would flip its lid on the hour, wafting buckets of beer suds over the city-it's three-hic!-o'clock-but more sober heads had prevailed, and the tower had been topped with a ho-hum copper dome.

Sweaty after my ten-block walk, I gazed up at the building's top-floor windows. Kip's office used to be up there. Back in our early days, when the marital waters were clear and unruffled, I'd often popped in on Kip so we could go out for lunch. To get into Kip's office, though, I had to pa.s.s through his secretary, Freda Schermerhorn, who guarded Kip's inner sanctum like Smaug defending the gold in the Lonely Mountain.

"Did you phone ahead?" Freda would inquire. "He's busy, you know."

It didn't matter to Freda that I was Kip's wife and that the only thing I might be interrupting was Kip's forwarding dirty jokes on interoffice email; I still had to be vetted and approved before she buzzed me in. It was annoying, but at least I didn't have to worry about Kip enjoying nooners with Freda, who was twenty years too old to be his type. I think she lived in terror that Kip would pension her off and replace her with some cute young bon-bon. Hardly likely, since he couldn't have functioned without Freda's help. She wrote his reports, compiled his statistics, and fibbed for him when he came in late. She dropped off his dry cleaning, waited in line to buy him Bucks playoff tickets, and lent him pocket change when he was broke. All this for a salary one fourth of what Kip made.

It was painfully obvious that Freda was in love with Kip and I'd felt sorry for her, a lonely middle-aged woman who lived only to make her boss's life run smoothly. I took her out to lunch every couple of weeks and invited her to join my book club. We discovered that we shared an enthusiasm for Ruth Rendell mysteries and secretly adored Harry Potter. Our mutual enthusiasm for books formed the basis of a tentative friendship, and when Kip was murdered, Freda at least didn't jump on the send-the-b.i.t.c.h-to-the-slammer bandwagon.

The police had interviewed Freda at the time of Kip's murder, but she'd always insisted that there was nothing suspicious going on at the company, n.o.body in Kip's circle of business acquaintances who'd have reason to kill him. But wasn't it possible that Freda knew something without realizing she knew it? She might possess some tidbit of information that when pried loose, would prove to be the clue that would point to Kip's murderer. "I suddenly remembered," she would say. "Mr. Vonnerjohn was financing a Colombian gun cartel and was getting threats from a New Jersey gambling syndicate."

Imagination. A shiny helium balloon with an unfortunate tendency to rip loose from the moorings of reality and soar off toward Never-Never Land.

Obviously I couldn't just brazenly march into the building and knock on Freda's door, not with every security guard in town slavering over that five-grand reward. I could try the radon scam again, but the Brenner building had its own full-time staff of gas sniffers, official types who wore uniforms and IDs on lanyards. They'd spot me as a phony the minute I walked in.

I glanced at m.u.f.fin, who was snuffling around a Keep Milwaukee Clean trash barrel. Gingerly I poked at a soggy Waffle House bag. Could fast food be my ticket to the top? The Brenner staff, who liked to believe they were so overworked they barely had time to scratch their own b.u.t.ts, were always ordering out. Delivery guys waltzed in and out of the building all day. I pulled an Erbert & Gerbert sack out of the trash and peeked inside. Corned beef on rye with a single bite chomped out and a side of slaw. m.u.f.fin climbed my leg, trying to get at the rank-smelling stuff.

"We can do better than this," I told him. The dopey dog seemed to be bonding with me and if I didn't keep him occupied, he might try to follow me into the building. Shoving my toolbox out of sight under a bush, I started hauling trash out of the container and spreading it across the sidewalk. Mazie Maguire: Murderer, Car thief, Litterbug. While m.u.f.fin was occupied with a sack of goodies, I picked up the Erbert & Gerbert sack and my clipboard and strode toward the building entrance.

Heaving myself through the set of heavy revolving doors, I studied the directory signboard in the vast, marble-floored main lobby. Freda, I discovered, had been downgraded to Data Processing and now resided in the bas.e.m.e.nt.

This was bad. The bas.e.m.e.nt offices offered all the privacy of a football stadium.

Abort mission. I about-faced.

Too late. An authoritative voice rang out behind me. "Hold it right there, mister."

Mister? Did he mean me? Slowly I turned around, keeping my head ducked. A security guard was giving me the once-over.

"You got a visitor's pa.s.s?" he asked.

Heart knocking against my ribs, I pretended to read from my clipboard. "Delivery," I muttered, drawing on my natural alto. "Corned beef for Schermerhorn, B eighty-nine."

"Yeah, okay, go," grunted the guard. "Just tell Freda she's supposed to phone up here when she's expecting a delivery."

Now I was forced to go through with the charade. The guard watched as I descended the steps to the bas.e.m.e.nt, my hands leaving sweat streaks on the curlicued iron railings. Data Processing was just as I'd remembered it. A dump. The floors were cracked, pipes ran along the ceiling, the fluorescent light fixtures buzzed like angry flies, and the central area had been part.i.tioned off into chest-high prairie dog cubicles that offered the privacy of public urinals. It looked as though they'd modeled it on the inmate-processing center at Taycheedah.

In for a penny, in for a pound. As long as I was here I might as well try to track down Freda. I strode briskly along the row of offices that lined the outer walls. The secret to success as a fugitive, I'd discovered, was appearing to know where you were going. B89 was halfway down the hall, its door open but the room unoccupied.

Freda had come down in the world since her days as Kip's secretary. Back then, she'd had her own office suite, a view of the river, and a private bathroom. Now her office was a nine-by-twelve-foot box with a steel desk, a shabby swivel chair, and ranks of oversized file cabinets that looked like body drawers in a morgue. Freda's cat photos provided the room's only splash of personality. No view of the river here-just a coat closet.

Clumping into the office-Erbert and Gerbert at your service!-I plopped the sack lunch onto Freda's chair while scoping out the appointment calendar on her desk. She had a meeting that ran until four o'clock. It was 3:45 now. I just had to stay out of sight for a few minutes until Freda returned. Pretending to scribble something on my clipboard, I covertly studied the closet door. It appeared to be stout oak, with a bra.s.s key the size of a teaspoon resting in the lock.

It would be bad manners to unlock that door. Bad business ethics, too; Erbert and Gerbert would frown on their delivery personnel poking their noses in their customers' closets. On the other hand, people shouldn't leave keys out in plain sight if they didn't want doors opened, I rationalized, using the same logic Vicki Jean employed to forage her way through supermarkets. Stifling whatever pangs of conscience I still retained, I unlocked the door, angling it so it screened me from the view of anyone pa.s.sing by.

The door opened into a supply closet. It was crammed with broken furniture, old wastebaskets, electric typewriters, file boxes, manila folders that appeared to go back to the nineteenth century, and other bits of junk quietly moldering away until they reached the age where they could officially be considered antiques. The disturbed dust floated into the air, sending me into a fit of sneezing. Trying to stifle the sneezes made my sinuses back up like clogged drains.

Being a fugitive sucked.

Time dragged by. It was dark in the closet, illuminated only by the light through the half-open door. To keep myself occupied, I began picking up random files and skimming them. Compulsive reading is one of my worst habits. If I don't have something to read before bedtime I can't sleep. At times I'm reduced to reading my toothpaste tube.

But what was this? Beneath a rack of outdated files and a stack of burned-out fluorescent light tubes was a cardboard box labeled in black marker: Save-Mr. Vonnerjohn's Personal Possessions. Freda must have cleaned out Kip's office when he died, boxing up all his possessions and hauling them down here. I dragged the box from the shelf and flipped off the lid. Keeping one ear alert for approaching footsteps, I pawed through the box's contents, wondering whether Freda occasionally fondled through this stuff, hoping for a faint whiff of Kip's cologne. It was mostly junk: a stray golf glove, pens, gum, Post-its, coffee mugs, outdated calendars, and a slinky-type letter holder crammed with receipts, invoices, unpaid traffic tickets, and a copy of the rear end of some female staffer who'd sat bare-a.s.sed on the Xerox machine.

There was an entire collection of female tushes here, I discovered. They were autographed: Darci. Brittani, Traci, Staci, the i's dotted with little hearts.

Could this be my first actual clue? Maybe some female employee with exfoliation needs was the dark-haired woman who'd worn my nightgown in the nanny cam video. I set aside the tushes and began flipping through the receipts, not really expecting anything more cluelike than an Office Max sales slip. A number caught my eye and I blinked, certain it was a case of a misplaced decimal point. I examined it more closely, squinting in the dust-speckled light. Davidoff Automotive Imports, River Hills, Wisconsin. One Maserati Quattroporte Sport DST, with customized options, sold to K. Vonnerjohn, $143,000, paid in full with cashier's check. Estimated delivery date: 11/18.

I rubbed my eyes. Kip could barely afford a glue-it-yourself car from Hobby Lobby, let alone pay for the world's priciest sports car. Where had Mr. Garnisheed Salary gotten the money for a Maserati? It had to be a joke.

Hastily I thumbed through the other receipts. All were for expensive items-tailored suits, t.i.tanium golf clubs, a lease on a luxury box at the basketball arena, a new Jet Ski. All were paid by cashier's check and purchased in the two or three weeks prior to Kip's murder.

There was a noise behind me and I whirled around.

"M-Mazie!"

Freda Schermerhorn stood framed in the doorway, her face white and terrified. The office supplies she'd been clutching exploded out of her arms. For a horrible moment I thought I'd shocked her into a heart attack.

She looked unwell. When she'd been Kip's secretary, she'd worn tons of makeup and dressed in expensive suits. Now her hair was thin and dry, her makeup was a bare scrimp of lipstick, and her eyes were pouchy behind unflattering gla.s.ses. I'd lost touch with fashion, but even I could see that Freda's sweater and pants were off the clearance sale rack. Probably her salary had taken a hit when she'd been downgraded to this department.

Forcing a smile, I spoke in a soothing, nonthreatening manner. "h.e.l.lo, Freda. It's good to see you ag-"

"You shouldn't be here!" Freda's voice trembled and her caramel-colored eyes watered. "I could get in a l-lot of trouble."

She bent to pick up the stuff she'd dropped and I quickly stooped to help her, handing her stacks of folders, an office stapler, markers, and printer cartridges.

"I don't want you to get in trouble, Freda. I just want to ask a couple of questions."

She looked up at me, obviously terrified, her voice edging into a panic-stricken squeak. "You have to go now! I'm calling the police."

"Come on, Freda-we're friends, right? You know I didn't kill Kip."

"I don't know what I think anymore," she whimpered.

I felt like a schoolyard bully bracing kids for their lunch money. I reached out to give her a rea.s.suring pat, but she jerked away.

"Don't touch me, you-you convict!"

I should have been used to it by now, but it still hurt. "All right, fine, I'll leave. Just one tiny question." I held up the wad of receipts. "These were in with Kip's things. Do you know anything about-"

"Those are company doc.u.ments," she hissed, s.n.a.t.c.hing them out of my hand.

Shame on me! I'd let a sixty-year-old woman get the drop on me; I was losing my prison reflexes. "No, they're Kip's personal stuff. Look at them. They're receipts." I moved closer, trying to point out the proof, but Freda backed away.

"Don't come a step closer!"

I wanted to grab the receipts back, but hesitated, worried that an aggressive move on my part might send the poor old dear reeling over the edge. Which just goes to show what happens when you try to do the decent thing: Fate jumps on you with steel-toed boots.

Freda's arm suddenly shot out and she rammed a staple into my cheek. I shrieked in pain, my hand flying to my face. It stung like red-hot needles! She came at me again, jabbing, vicious as a hornet. Furious at myself for being suckered twice, I pivoted around Freda, sidestepped out of the closet, and slammed the door in her face, then turned the key in the lock.

"Help! Police!" Freda started pounding on the door, screaming. But the solid old door m.u.f.fled sound. No one looked up as I hurried out of Freda's office. It was the hour when employees are sneaking in a round or two of computer games or checking their fantasy football teams before they start shutting down for the day. Eventually someone would notice Freda's pounding and go check it out, I thought, tossing the closet key onto a desk as I pa.s.sed. Didn't want Freda's death by suffocation on my conscience.

Keeping my head bent over my clipboard as I returned to the lobby, I scurried past the nosy security guard at a brisk, man-on-mission pace, hoping he wouldn't notice my stapled face, and heaved myself back out through the revolving doors. Outside, I retrieved my toolbox from beneath the bushes. m.u.f.fin scooted up to me, tail wagging and tongue lolling, his mouth rimmed with slimy orange gunk.

"Didn't go well," I told him, yanking the staple out of my cheek. Jesus, that hurt!

m.u.f.fin in my wake, I skulked away, expecting to hear police sirens any second. A delayed reaction body twitch set in, and I couldn't get my arms and legs to work together. If I had, I would have strangled myself for my stupidity. Had I actually believed that Freda Schermerhorn would be eager to help me? Yes, as a matter of fact, I had believed it. I was way too good at making myself believe what I wanted to believe. This would be a lesson to me. No more ridiculous risks.

I needed time to think. I needed a place where I could sit down and sort out everything I'd learned so far. I needed a shoulder to cry on. There was only one person in the world who could provide all those things, and he'd never failed me yet.

I just had to find him before the police found me.

Escape tip #16: The clipboard is mightier than the metal detector.

A brisk ten-minute walk brought us to Wisconsin Avenue, the main artery through downtown Milwaukee. I halted in front of a chunky skysc.r.a.per surfaced in bright blue tiles the exact shade of the Phillips' laxative bottle. Its official name is the Henry C. Reuss Federal Building, but locals call it the Milk of Magnesia Building. It houses the IRS, the immigration service, and a host of other bureaucratic nightmare agencies. To even get to the elevators you have to pa.s.s through metal detectors, security guards, and body cavity searches. Okay, maybe not the cavity thing, but bored guards can do some nasty stuff with electronic wands. The home office of Stanford T. Brenner, United States Senator, was here on the tenth story. I stood across the street, clipboard clutched to my chest, staring up at his offices. How was I supposed to get to him-throw pebbles at his window?

Enter through the front and I'd be nabbed by a sharp-eyed security guard faster than you could say dangerous escaped fugitive. Instead, I sidled around to the rear. Bingo! Security here was as porous as Swiss cheese. Construction trucks were blocking the alley and workmen were trundling ladders, tools, and other equipment in and out of the propped-open service doors. My all-purpose navy blue uniform was my magic ticket. Checking off nonexistent violations on my clipboard, I tagged along behind a muscular guy in denim coveralls hauling rolls of insulation on his shoulder. Scampering through the door with me, m.u.f.fin was instantly obliterated by the cloud of dust being kicked up by a metal grinder.

No one questioned me; I was just another guy with a clipboard, making everyone's life miserable by turning off the water or crashing the computers. I found a freight elevator and got in, m.u.f.fin squeaking in by a tail hair just as the doors closed. He was flagging; the long walk had worn him out and he had construction grit in his fur. I scooped him up and set him in my toolbox, where he immediately curled up for a nap.

I got out on the tenth floor. Since I'd been up here once before, I knew the layout. The senator's office was on the east side of the building, with a crow's nest view of Lake Michigan. Toolbox in hand, I hustled down the hall. Just as I approached the receptionist's desk, a security guard strutted around a corner, shoulder epaulets flashing, gun holstered at hip. I dived into the womens' restroom. Force of habit. A female employee emerged from a stall and shot me the look women reserve for guys who pee in city parks.

"Checking for radon," I said in a gruff voice, swiftly backing out. The guard and the receptionist were now carrying on a conversation. I ducked into the mens' john adjoining the ladies' room. Bladder close to bursting, I locked myself in a stall and peed in nervous spurts, checking out the graffiti on the stall wall. Mens'-room graffiti is always way more entertaining than womens'. Never mind how I know that.

Do not throw cigarette b.u.t.ts in toilet, a sign sternly warned. Below that someone had scrawled It makes them soggy and hard to light. As I was pulling up my Jockey shorts, someone entered the bathroom, strode to the urinal and noisily did his business. I peeked out through the crack in the door.

Stanford "Bear" Brenner, United States Senator, stood five feet away, zipping his Act of Congress back into his trousers.

"Bear," I whispered.

He jerked as though I were a terrorist about to lob a grenade at his private parts.

I opened the door and stepped out.

"Mazie?" His voice cracked in disbelief. "How did you-I don't believe it!" His face split into a grin. He was a big guy, two hundred pounds on a six-two frame. He had hazel eyes, short brown hair touched with senatorial silver, a golf-course tan, and a spattering of precancerous b.u.mps across his nose. He was wearing a light blue shirt, a tie slung around his neck like a noose, and the most wonderful smile I'd ever seen.

"Come to Papa, baby girl!"

His hug felt wonderful. For the first time in ages I felt warm and safe. Bear smelled like cinnamon soap and guy sweat. This man had been my rampart, my staunchest defender, my best friend throughout the whole ordeal of my arrest and trial. He'd never believed for a single instant that I'd murdered Kip. He'd paid for my lawyer, protected me from the worst media abuses, and even after I was sentenced to prison had never abandoned me. He phoned whenever he could take time out of his frantically busy schedule and always remembered Christmases and birthdays. He was my big brother, taking the place of the pathetic excuses for siblings who shared my DNA but who rarely bothered to visit or phone.

"How come you're not wearing a bra?" he whispered in my ear.

"Long story." Tears squirted from my eyes. Being held felt fabulous.

"I want to hear every word of it. My G.o.d, Mazie-you're a folk hero, you're Bonnie Parker and Bambi Bembenek rolled into one."

"Bear-listen! That video, the nanny cam thing-"

"Aunt Van phoned me, Maze. She was insane, she was babbling about you kidnapping her dogs, holding a gun on her-"

"She is insane, Bear! She tried to electrocute me, no s.h.i.t!"

"What were you doing there? You know Vanessa is-"

"Missing a few b.u.t.tons on her remote control? Yeah, but I wanted the nanny cam tape. The tape is weird, Bear. I think it's a guy wearing my nightgown, it's three days earlier and-"

"Whoa! Mazie, baby, you know I love ya, but you're sounding a little-"

"Wacko. I know." I laughed. "But with this video I can get a new trial-"

He held me a little away from him, hands on my shoulders so he could look directly at me. "Sweetie, the first thing you need to do is turn yourself in. I'll arrange everything. We can call from right here, my office."

Maybe he was right. Maybe I should give myself up. With Bear behind me, it wouldn't be too bad.

Girl, are you on crack? Suddenly I was channeling Liza Loonsfoot, Taycheedah's most outspoken jailhouse lawyer. A Ho-Chunk Indian serving fifteen years for killing her abusive stepfather, Liza had earned a mail-order law degree from Marquette University and knew more about the legal system than most Supreme Court justices.

Once they toss you back in the can they'll let you rot! Liza yelled at me. It'll be months before the State Court of Appeals gets around to considering the paperwork you filed. Even then you got no guarantee they'll believe that hairy toes and some computer s.h.i.t is spooky enough to give you an evidentiary hearing. They'll say you monkeyed with the film. They'll ask who besides yourself had a motive to kill Kip and you'll be forced to answer you don't know.

"I'm not turning myself in," I said.

I took a deep breath. Then I said the words out loud for the first time, the words I'd been thinking but hadn't dared utter until now. "I'm going to find who really killed Kip."

Bear smiled. "The real killer. Like OJ, right?"

"Actually, I was thinking Doctor Richard Kimble."

He gave me a blank look.

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The Escape Diaries Part 11 summary

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