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If I escape alive, I will pay the owners for every item I filched, I a.s.sured Atticus, easing myself back out into the main hall, hoping m.u.f.fin had managed to escape and pick up my trail.
"Code Nine," the loudspeaker dinned. "Code nine."
I didn't like the sound of that Code Nine. Translation: An escaped murderess is running amok. Heavy footsteps pounded down a stairwell, someone yelled from a nearby hall, and the loudspeaker kept squawking that d.a.m.n Code Nine. I darted into a hallway with a door at the end marked Emergency Exit Only: Alarm will Sound. Opening the door would set off a buzzer. I might as well send up a flare. Or, it might be a bluff. Sometimes nicotine addicts disarmed the alarms so they could slip out for a smoke. I took the chance, pushed down the handle.
Not a peep! Slipping out the door, I found myself on a dark side street half a block from a bus shelter, where a cl.u.s.ter of tired-looking hospital employees waited glumly for the bus. I hurried over and joined them, trying to look like just another working stiff heading home after a tough night of jabbing people with needles.
A bus was lumbering up the street toward us. Milwaukee's cash-strapped transit system had turned its buses into moving billboards. This bus was a rolling ad for the upcoming BodyWorks show. A skinless basketball player, all exposed sinew and muscle, dribbled a ball toward the rear of the bus. Taking the bus would be a risk. Drivers were probably watching for a woman fitting my description. But if I walked the streets I'd be even more obvious.
So ma.s.s transit by default. The bus hissed to a stop and people began shuffling aboard. I hesitated, torn between my need to get away and my guilt at leaving m.u.f.fin behind. Abandoning him was for his own good, I told myself. He'd be returned to Vanessa, back to regular meals, grooming, and FedEx guys to terrorize.
I missed him already. Yanking up the jacket hood to shadow my face, I hunted through my stolen tote bag for bus change. Suddenly I heard a bark from behind me, and a moment later a small gray body was hurling itself into my arms.
"Oh, you clever dog!" I hugged m.u.f.fin, kissed his nose. He licked my ear. I stuffed him into my stolen tote and, keeping my head down, boarded the bus.
Escape tip #21: Just because guys are wearing white shirts and black pants, it doesn't mean they're Mormon missionaries.
m.u.f.fin no longer bore the slightest resemblance to Vanessa Vonnerjohn's pampered pooch. He was a street dog, with the dirt, scars, and att.i.tude to back it up. He had acquired a swagger. He was a stud. He didn't need to nip ankles to prove how tough he was. He only snapped at me once as I cleaned his wound and applied the antibiotic cream I'd found in my pilfered tote bag. When he decided he'd had enough, he squirmed out of my grip, jumped down from the restroom sink, and began licking off the ointment.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror above the sink. I looked like I'd been run over by a road grader. My pupils were still dilated from the drug, there were bags under my eyes big enough to plant radishes, and my hair looked as though it had been styled with a hay baler. I scrubbed the worst of the dirt off with wet paper towels and mothball-smelling dispenser soap, but I still looked like a person who slept in cars.
Actually I had slept in a car. Last night we'd ridden the bus as far as the Third Ward nightclub district, blended in with the revelers staggering out of the bars, and skulked back to where I'd parked the car. Labeck's Volkswagen was still in the same spot, miraculously intact and undamaged except for a parking ticket. I'd retrieved the Volks's key and started driving, not sure exactly where I was going and keeping an eye on the gas gauge, which was lingering near E. My first impulse had been to flee to the safety of Labeck's apartment, but I deep-sixed that idea as too self-serving. He didn't deserve whatever doom was about to descend on me.
Eventually I'd found a rough-around-the-edges neighborhood on the south side, where I'd shoehorned the Volks in between a rusted low-rider and a '98 Impala riddled with bullet holes. m.u.f.fin and I had slept in the car for what remained of the night, then had driven around until we'd found this restaurant.
George Webb restaurants are a Wisconsin thing, like bubblers, stop and go lights, and cheese that squeaks. George Webbs are Nighthawks territory-wide plate gla.s.s windows, spinner stools, and solitary people drinking coffee at two in the morning. Their menu is wall-posted and basic: hamburgers, chili-fries, and the best breakfasts on the planet.
Washed and ready for our close-ups, we left the restroom and headed for the lunch counter. A sign clearly stated Only Service Dogs Allowed, but the counter guy didn't bat an eyelash when m.u.f.fin popped out of my tote bag and hopped onto the stool next to mine. The guy took my order and five minutes later set out scrambled eggs, bacon, and b.u.t.tered toast, served up on that thick white restaurant crockery that always makes food taste better. m.u.f.fin had a cereal bowl filled with water, four sausages, and a waffle. Two cups of black coffee cleared the lingering rohypnol cobwebs from my brain.
The only other customer in the place was a hungover guy who was snoring, head down on the counter, with a newspaper draped over his head. The newspaper headline read: Mazie-mania Inspires Prison Escape Reality Show.
The waiter and I both gazed up at the wall-mounted television set, tuned to Channel 13. Natty in lavender shirt and violet tie, Peter Polifka was anchoring the morning's local news. "A woman believed to be Mazie Maguire was admitted to Milwaukee County General Hospital early this morning," he reported, his voice quivering with excitement. "According to informed sources, Maguire was suffering from a drug overdose."
I could feel a dozen blood vessels in my brain exploding. They were making me sound like a crackhead!
"A small dog was present in the hospital emergency room," Peter Polifka continued, grinning to show that this was all great fun. "The dog, stolen from a local family, is a valuable sh-shi-s.h.i.ts yu." Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead.
"Sheet-sue!" someone yelled from off camera. Was that Labeck?
"Sheet-sue," Peter Polifka said with relief. "A valuable sheets-sue, umm . . ."
He frowned at the TelePrompTer, then hurriedly gabbled, "A valuable sheet-sue bison fry. Maguire, eluding hospital security, slipped out of the building and was last spotted on an eastbound number fifteen bus. An anonymous donor has offered a fifty-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to Mazie's Maguire's apprehension."
An anonymous donor. Golly, who could that be?
"You look like her," the waiter said. He was gangly, with an oversized Adam's apple, and his white paper hat kept sliding down his narrow head. He pointed at the television. "That Mazie Maguire."
"Everybody says that." I tried to sound nonchalant. "I wish I was. I'd turn myself in and collect the fifty K."
We both got a hearty chuckle out of that one. Actually, that wasn't a bad idea. Maybe I should turn myself in, just explain to the police what had happened: See, Senator Stanford Brenner knocked me out with a drug, shot my dog, tossed us in a trash bag, and buried me in a pre-dug grave.
So who ya gonna believe? A.) a popular and respected United States senator working hard to bring defense contracts home to his state, or B.) a husband-shooting, car-stealing, dog-napping, drug-overdosing escaped convict?
Bear would simply deny everything. Bear could have gotten the owners of the t.i.tanic off the hook by claiming the pa.s.sengers went swimming too soon after dinner. He would claim I was suffering from dope-inspired hallucinations. He'd tried to help me, but look what had happened-now I was flinging all kinds of ridiculous accusations at him. The police were welcome to check out his house, where the alleged a.s.sault occurred. Naturally Bear would have wiped my fingerprints off every surface, dishwashered every molecule of my DNA off his dinner plates, and gotten rid of the clothes I'd left in Charlene's closet.
But I still had the snapshot, snugged against my belly. Apparently Bear had been too revolted by my urine-scented undies to do a thorough body search before he'd dumped me in the trash bag last night.
"You got a dog, too," the waiter said. "Like that Mazie Maguire's dog."
"Funny coincidence, huh? But that dog on TV was a shih tsu. And it's a boy dog. Mine is a girl dog, and she's a c.o.c.kapoo." Which sounded like what m.u.f.fin had done on the sidewalk a few minutes ago.
"Looks like your basic mutt to me," the waiter said, handing another sausage to m.u.f.fin, who was the three-thousand-dollar offspring of purebred shih tzus and bichon frises. The waiter handed me the bill and I got out my stolen handbag. In case anybody asked for my ID, I was Luella Parkhurst. I was African American, five feet nine inches tall, and one hundred fifty pounds. I was an organ donor. I used Luella's hard-earned money to pay for our breakfasts, and then we scrammed. Mazie and m.u.f.fin, on the lam.
Filled with George Webb scrambled eggs and bacon, I felt a surge of energy and confidence. The self-loathing and sense of loss I'd felt last night had vanished, replaced with a cold, hard, revitalizing fury. I was not trash. I was not a worthless jailbird. I was a survivor, like Labeck said. And Senator Stanford Brenner was a lying, cowardly, dog-abusing sack of s.h.i.t. Bury me, will you, Bear? I am going to bury you! I thumped the Volks's steering wheel for emphasis. I am going to bury you in such deep s.h.i.t not all your Brenner money will be able to dig you out.
First step: find Constanza Arguello. I had no idea who Luis was, but my intuition told me that he was the key to this whole puzzle. We drove past the address I'd found on FonePhlip last night, 1633 East Schiller Street. It was on the south side of the city in the Bay View neighborhood, a three-story apartment building dating back to the era when Moorish architecture was all the rage. I parked two blocks away in front of Manny's Barber Shop and was out of the car before m.u.f.fin realized he was being left behind. Outraged, he set up a furious barking. Luckily, this wasn't the kind of neighborhood where barking dogs drew attention. A Doberman was woofing nonstop in a backyard and a Yorkie was yipping from a van across the street. m.u.f.fin was just one more voice in the canine chorus.
Keeping Luella's jacket hood up to help conceal my face, I walked to the apartment building. It was weathered red brick with black lacework balconies and high, arched windows. The foyer door was propped open because a young Hispanic couple and their kids were moving into the building. I waltzed right in with them, thinking that I wouldn't mind living here myself. It was sparkling clean, the walls were painted cheerful pastels, and geraniums bloomed on windowsills. Doors were open up and down the hallways and neighbors were chatting at the mailboxes. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian-the place looked like a United Colors of Benetton commercial.
Glancing at the mailboxes, I found Arguello. Number twenty-four, on the second floor. Heart fluttering with excitement, I climbed the carpeted stairs and knocked on number twenty-four. No one answered. I knocked louder. Still no answer.
Footsteps thumped on the stairwell and a small Asian woman emerged at the top of the steps, puffing heavily, clutching half a dozen string shopping bags. Stooped and gray-haired, she wore a long floral skirt and the sort of head scarf favored by the local Hmong and Laotian women. Tottering down the hall, she halted two doors down, dropped her bags, and fumbled for her keys.
I hurried over. "Let me help you," I said, bending to pick up the bags.
She shot me a frightened look, perhaps suspecting I was going to run off with her bok choy and cuc.u.mbers. Her hands shook as she jammed her key in the lock. I realized I was scaring her. I'm shorter than almost everyone, but I towered over this lady.
"I was looking for Constanza," I said quickly. "Constanza Arguello? In twenty-four?"
"Don't know, don't know," she muttered, avoiding eye contact.
The lock to the woman's door finally tumbled. She leveraged open the door with her hip, eyeing the bags I still clutched in my hands. She might know more than she was saying; I had to find a way to get her to spill.
"I see you bought cellophane noodles," I babbled. "I love cellophane noodles."
The bright black eyes peered at me quizzically. "Harusame?"
"What? Yes, harusame noodles. But I always mess up when I make them. They come out tough as shoelaces."
"You presoak them?"
"You got to presoak."
"Oh. No wonder!" I slapped my forehead. Overkill. "So, okay, from now on I'll presoak."
"You presoak. Salt water. Five minutes. Then they are good."
"Wow. Terrific! I never knew that! Thank you!" I handed her another of her bags.
"Connie," the woman said, "is at work."
"Do you know what time-"
"Three thirty. She comes home at three thirty. You come then."
"Right. That's what I'll do, then. Come back. At three thirty," driveled the amazing blabbering mouth, no connection to a brain.
The woman stared at me, probably worried that I was a dangerous escaped lunatic.
"Luis," I said, making a last-ditch desperation cast. "Is there a Luis living with Connie?"
"Luis? No. Luis is dead." She mimed a gun pointed at her head. "Gangstas."
I clamped down on a smile. Even Hmong grannies talked street around here. Handing her the rest of her bags, I turned to go.
"You presoak, okay?" she called after me.
"I will. Thank you."
"No problem. Maybe you mean Eduardo, not Luis?"
I turned back to her. "Eduardo?"
"Connie's son. Nice boy. Helps me move furniture, takes out my trash." She closed the door and her last words came out m.u.f.fled through the wood. "Goes to the high school."
I stood staring at her door. Now what did I do? I'd put all my eggs in the Constanza basket and now I was left with an empty basket. Maybe this Eduardo kid would know something. A feeble lead, but all I had right now.
I hurried downstairs and was about to barge out the front door when a dark green Lincoln with tinted windows glided to a halt in front of the building, parking in a handicapped slot. The Lincoln was not dented, fitted out with double m.u.f.flers, or slung out as a low rider, so naturally it drew attention in this neighborhood. Two men got out of the car.
The word telegraphed up and down the hall.
Zhe she yemin!
Autorodades de la Inmigracion!
It's f.u.c.kin' immigration, man!
Doors slammed; locks clicked; portcullises clanged down. The hallway was suddenly deserted. The strangers moved at a rapid clip toward the front door. I didn't think they were here looking for phony green cards. They wore white shirts and ties and dark trousers. Mormon missionaries?
No. Muscles rippled beneath the white shirts. They looked like the kind of guys who swept inconvenient problems under the rug for U.S. congresspersons. Kip had once told me that most politicians had guys on their staff, referred to as Janitors, who cleaned up their messes. I was willing to bet that these guys were Bear's Janitors. The one in the lead was Asian, a short guy trying to look tall with a mushroom cloud of permed black hair combed straight up off his forehead in an early-Elvis conk. He looked like that North Korean dictator who used to let his people starve while he lived in palaces filled with expensive cars-Kim Jong the Evil or whatever his name was.
The other resembled a character you'd see on the History Channel. Wavy blondish hair, long sideburns, droopy mustache over weak chin. Poke a few arrows in this guy and you'd have George Armstrong Custer.
I was out the back door in a flash. Shadowy forms peeked furtively from behind dumpsters, bushes, and fences-all of us illegal fugitives in one way or another. Keeping to alleys and back streets, I cautiously circled back to the Volks. m.u.f.fin growled to remind me that he was still p.i.s.sed off at being abandoned, but he got over it sooner than most males do, kissed and made up. Digging around under the seats while I was gone, he had unearthed one of Labeck's old sweat socks and had occupied himself with chewing it to shreds. The car smelled like Labeck-hint of old socks, trace of Old Spice. It brought Labeck to mind so vividly he could have been sitting in the driver's seat, eyeing me as though to say: now what kind of scatterbrained stunt are you trying to pull off?
A mere twenty-four hours ago, Labeck and I, working as a team, had pulled off our Vanessa caper. I felt a twinge of nostalgia. Labeck had my back. And he cared enough about me to warn me not to do something stupid. I wondered how mad he'd been when he'd found both me and his car gone.
I turned my mind to my immediate situation. Last night, drugged with enough rohypnol to date rape an entire sorority, I'd barely been able to string two thoughts together. Now, jazzed up on George Webb java, my brain was in overdrive, my neurons furiously cranking out theories. Bear had to have sent the creeps. He would have wakened this morning to the news that I was still alive. Checking the Previous Call display on his kitchen phone and backtracking the Schiller Street address the same way I had, Bear would have sicced those Janitors on me. No more d.i.c.king around with shovels and graves. The Janitors would do a fast, professional job of making me disappear forever.
What I still didn't understand was why it was so important to Bear to get rid of me. What did I know that made me a threat ? Why had he been willing to take such a blatant risk last night? It all had something to do with the snapshot and it all linked back to Kip's murder, I was certain of it.
Right now General Custer and Kim Jong would be going door-to-door at the apartment building, probably flashing my photo, intimidating, bribing. Eventually they'd reach the Hmong lady. And I didn't think they'd be discussing cellophane noodles.
That didn't give me much lead time. I started the car and drove the eight blocks over to the nearest high school.
Escape tip #22: Master the art of time travel.
Clarence Zablocki High School was brown brick, square, and ugly. It looked as though the city fathers had said, "Make this sucker as close to a Victorian prison as possible. Spare no expense." When it was first built, Zablocki had been the neighborhood school for the children of the south side's huge Polish population. In recent decades, Mexican immigrants had flocked to the area, and now there were more Garcias than Grabowskis in the halls. The tiny Hmong lady had told me Eduardo Arguello went to high school and Zablocki was the school closest to his home, logically the place to look first.
Wearing the trendy little lozenge-shaped reading gla.s.ses I'd found in Luella Parkhurst's jacket pocket, with m.u.f.fin stuffed inside the tote bag, I hurried into the school, trying to look as though I belonged there. Before I'd stepped three feet into the building, I ran into a security checkpoint. A burly guy with a brushy mustache and a Zablocki Zebras baseball cap sat on a stool next to a metal detector playing Angry Birds on his cellphone.
Attempting casual, I strolled through the metal detector gizmo. The guard snapped his fingers at me. "Hold on a sec. Where's your pa.s.s?"
"I'm a teacher," I said.
"I'm a sub."
I'd taught at three different schools; I knew the drill. There was an ongoing war between the schools and Central Administration, and just like in a real war, the lines of communications were often cut off.
"They said come over right away." Looking him straight in the eye, I gave him my sincerest con look. "A teacher got hurt or something."
The guard frowned. "The one who got stabbed with the ice pick?"
"I think it was one who got staple-gunned."
The guard nodded. Staplings and stabbings didn't rate a raised eyebrow in the public school system, where probation officers had offices cheek by jowl with the guidance counselors' and electronic monitoring ankle bracelets were the bling of choice. Teaching can be a high-risk occupation. A kid kited out on speed had once zinged a needle-tipped dart at my face when I'd refused to give him a hall pa.s.s. The kid was a lousy shot; the dart sailed above my right ear and chimed out a B-flat on the xylophone behind me, leaving all my facial parts unpunctured.
"I'll check with the office," said Mr. Better-Safe-Than-Sorry, pressing an intercom switch.
A bell rang. Kids exploded out of cla.s.srooms, yelling, cussing, and banging lockers. Two girls got into a scuffle over whose turn it was at the water bubbler and began flailing at each other with their purses, yanking each other's hair, and calling each other b.i.t.c.h.
"You two-knock it off!" I yelled in my best Teacher Voice. I whipped a notepad out of my tote. "I'm taking down names!" Ignoring the guard, I strode toward the girls, who wisely took off in opposite directions.
Relieved that he was not going to have to be the one to deal with the fight, the security guard turned his back and resumed his game. Losing myself in the teeming ma.s.ses, I hurried down a hallway, scanning the attendance lists posted outside cla.s.sroom doors. Arguello, Maria, Arguello, Juan, Arguello, Tammi. This was going to take forever. Zablocki was the size of a small city-three stories plus a bas.e.m.e.nt.