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Custer ignored him. He picked a piece of sc.r.a.p iron off the floor and began grinding his knife blade against it with a fingernails-on-blackboard scritch that jangled my frayed nerves. "People think General Custer was an idiot, getting ambushed by the Sioux," Custer said. "But he was actually a real brave guy. He was in the Civil War, fought at Bull Run."
"I know," I said. "I saw that on the History Channel." We were establishing a rapport here. Custer was starting to like me.
"Yeah, I saw that show, too," he said.
"Did you know George Custer was once a schoolteacher?"
"It's true. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse. I'm a teacher, too."
"That right? I had a crush on my sixth-grade teacher."
Then, without changing expression, Custer brought the knife slicing down across my unprotected hand.
I screamed in shock.
We all stared at my hand, which was spurting blood from the pads of tissue beneath the fourth and fifth finger. Miraculously, Ring Man and Pinky were still attached.
"You missed!" Jong screamed, wheeling on Custer.
"You said a finger. A means one. So I do what you say, shoot for one finger."
"You did zero! Zero isn't one, dumba.s.s!"
"She got small hands. I can't do just one."
"You're supposed to be this hotshot shank artist and you can't cut off a f.u.c.king finger?"
"She moved. You didn't tape her good."
"The f.u.c.k I didn't."
"The tape is loose. She jerked away."
"A three-year-old could do better with a b.u.t.ter knife."
"Stop picking on him," I yelled at Jong, thinking this divide and conquer stuff might still work.
"Shut up," Jong growled at me. His small mouth pursed into an a.n.u.s shape. "I've got better ways to make her squeal." He knotted his fingers into my hair and yanked my head so I was looking at him. "Know what this place is, Mazie?"
I was barely able to see him through the tears blurring my vision. My hand throbbed and burned. I set my jaw against the pain, trying to slow my panicked breathing.
"It's a brewery, ain't it?" Custer said.
"I wasn't talking to you, d.i.c.kbreath," Jong snapped. He turned back to me. "This place is a brewery," he said.
Of course. This must be the old Brenner brewery, unused for years since the operations had been switched to the suburbs. The buildings were scheduled for demolition next year, but at the moment the brewery was conveniently empty, an ideal site for torture and murder. Bear must have ordered them to use this place.
"Know what goes into beer?" Jong asked.
"Some stuff called wort," Custer said. "I had this beer-making kit once-"
"That was a rhetorical question," Jong said, glaring at him. "Rhetorical is when I get to answer the question myself. Malt, that's what! Malt goes into beer. They used to roast the malt in the furnaces here. They still got the electricity and gas turned on in this end of the building. We got malt oven number five turned on. See?"
He jerked my head backward, wrenching my neck. I got an upside-down view of the thing behind me, a great beast of a furnace, towering to the ceiling, sprouting iron pipes like tentacles. Set into its belly was a square door, its outlines glowing red-orange. It seemed to have grown hotter in the short time I'd been strapped to the conveyor. It pounded out heat in pulsing waves.
"That is one hot mother," Custer said admiringly. He went over to it and plinked his index finger against the temperature gauge set into its side.
"Don't screw with it. I got it set where it's supposed to be," Jong snapped.
"It's getting too much gas. You let that thing get out of control, it's gonna blow."
"It's not out of control, a.s.shole."
Jong jerked my head back to face him again. He took a Zippo lighter out of his pocket and began flicking the flame on and off. "Those malt furnaces get to twelve hundred degrees, Mazie. Hot as a crematorium."
Flame on. Flame off. I stared at the lighter flame, hypnotized. Rigid with fear, I strained against the tape holding me to the conveyer, angling my mangled hand so the blood dribbled toward the tape.
"A body going into that furnace will burn to ashes-bones and all-in fifteen minutes," Jong said. "When they tear this place down, all someone looking inside an old furnace will see is a heap of greasy ashes. So here comes my deal, Mazie, baby-onetime offer only-you tell me what I need to know and I make sure you're dead before you go in the furnace."
He kept flicking the Zippo, as though he had a nervous twitch. Flame on, flame off. Why was I so cold, shivering and shaking, when it was Sahara-hot in this room?
"Let me give you a little taste." Jong moved the flame toward my hair, close, closer-and then the stink of my own burning hair filled my nostrils.
"You don't tell us, we hogtie you like a Sunday roast lamb and shove you in the furnace while you're still alive," Jong said. "You burn up real slow. n.o.body hears you scream."
Insane with fear, I whipped my head to the left, smothering out my burning hair against the belt's rubber surface. But now I was aware of something else-my blood-soaked right hand was sliding out of the duct tape. I twisted it, hoping they wouldn't notice.
Obviously a man who enjoyed his job, Jong flicked his Zippo again, bringing the flame toward my face. I gave one last, frantic tug and yanked my arm free, the reflex swing catching Jong in the crotch. He shrieked as though he was having his prostate examined with a fondue fork. The lighter flew out of his hand, arced through the air, and landed in a pile of old wooden excelsior shavings. Feathery as air, flammable as hair, the fiery curls wafted upward on air currents, igniting stacks of cardboard cartons and floating around the room like fiery moths. A dozen small fires broke out.
A sprig of burning excelsior swirled up and torched the back of Custer's pants. He swatted awkwardly at his backside, bellowing at his partner to help, but Jong's pompador was now on fire.
"f.u.c.k!" Jong screamed, clubbing at his head. "f.u.c.kf.u.c.kf.u.c.k!"
Preoccupied with saving their own skins, they didn't attempt to stop me as I ripped my arms and legs free, heaved myself off the conveyor belt, and bolted across the room toward m.u.f.fin's crate. As I hauled m.u.f.fin out, it seemed as though the very air ignited-all those molecules of malt dust in the air spontaneously combusting. With a roar that sucked the oxygen out of the room, the fire flashed over and everything was burning. The furnace thumped and thudded and suddenly a warning klaxon sounded with an ear-blistering blare.
Clutching m.u.f.fin to my chest, I sprinted out through a doorway, through a series of interconnected rooms, and finally onto railroad tracks that ran along an arched brick tunnel. Bursting out of the tunnel, I found myself in a train yard where row upon row of old boxcars, hoppers, and switch engines stood on a web of rusted tracks the size of an interstate highway.
I risked a look over my shoulder, hoping my would-be barbecuers had burned up.
No such luck. Here they came, staggering out of the tunnel, coughing and hacking and with half their clothes burned off, but so mad they were emitting rays of fury nearly visible to the naked eye. Custer spotted me, yelled, and charged after me.
I hopscotched between tracks, slid beneath the undercarriages of boxcars, hid in the shadows of the big train wheels. Sensing the danger, m.u.f.fin remained quiet in my arms, his heart beating wildly against my own. The Janitors split up and began running between the tracks, hunting me. But the sun was setting now, and my skin and clothes were dark from soot and dirt. I blended into the dark like a tomato in spaghetti sauce.
Suddenly there was an explosion. The malt building's walls bulged and enormous orange flames reared up. Another explosion followed on the heels of the first, then another. If you're going to heat a malt furnace to twelve hundred degrees, you ought to keep an eye on it. The explosions sent the sc.u.mbags running. Peering from beneath a boxcar, I saw them dashing toward the brewery's ornate iron gates.
Sirens sounded. First from the north, then from all directions, louder every second. The green Lincoln peeled out an instant before the first hook and ladder screeched to a halt. Every fire truck in the city was going to be needed for this monster, I thought. Already flames were leaping fifty feet into the air and the ten-story grain elevators on the brewery's east side were glowing. When those elevators went up, this fire was going to be visible clear across Lake Michigan.
This was not a good place for a girl and her dog. By the time the third fire truck careened to a halt, m.u.f.fin and I had squeezed beneath a fence and melted into the night.
Escape tip #26: Use what the good lord gave you.
I'd reached a new low. I was stealing from ten-year-olds.
Half a dozen kids slouched in front of a small grocery store on the corner of Buffum and Locust, slurping Popsicles and staring off to the north, where the sky was lit by the glow of the burning brewery. Business was brisk, with people popping down to the store for last-minute dinner fixings and lottery tickets.
I stared longingly at the Popsicles. My throat felt as though I'd been gargling with hot sand, my slashed hand throbbed, and I could feel the skin on my left cheekbone puckering into burn blisters. After escaping from the brewery, I'd walked for nearly an hour, creeping along side streets, jumping every time a vehicle came up behind me. I could feel the Janitors out there, hunting me. As darkness fell their job would be easier. A lone woman was a target for every creep on the streets. Even the hookers usually banded together for protection after dark.
m.u.f.fin sucked up shamelessly to the kids, wagging his stumpy tail and licking up the sweet icy Popsicle spatters on the steps. While the kids fussed over m.u.f.fin, I eyed their bikes, left sprawled in untidy heaps on the sidewalk. Choosing a purple bike with a white wicker basket that looked as though it might be a good fit, I set it upright, scooped up m.u.f.fin, plopped him in the basket, straddled the bike, and pushed off.
"That's my bike," cried a little girl with stubby braids, jumping to her feet.
"I need to borrow it," I called back over my shoulder. "I'm sorry." I was lower than a squashed bug on the sidewalk.
"Hey!" A small boy pointed at me, spitting Popsicle pulp in his excitement. "That's Mazie Maguire!"
"That escaped killer!" another kid shouted. "The one that busted down the walls of the state prison with a tank-"
"And stole a helicopter-"
"And bombed that toilet factory!"
A teenaged girl came running up alongside, thrusting a pen at me. "Autograph my shirt, Mazie!"
Word spread at the speed of Twitter. Customers poured out of the store, cell cameras snapped, people yelled my name. Arguments broke out: That's her all right, just like on TV! The h.e.l.l it's her-she looks like a bag lady!
"Yo, Mazie!" A boy on a skateboard lobbed a bottle of lemonade into the bike basket.
I outdistanced the kids, but now a large man wearing a barbecue ap.r.o.n ran out of a backyard and halted in front of me, blocking the sidewalk like a defensive lineman, obviously determined to stop me. He grinned, and I could see the dollar signs gleaming in his eyes.
No wiggle room to the left because of parked cars; none to the right because of a fence.
What else could I do? I balanced the bike with my knees and hauled my jersey up to my armpits. Mazie Maguire don't need no stinkin' bra! Eat your heart out, Pamela Anderson!
The guy's eyes locked onto my b.o.o.bs, his mouth fell open, and in that nanosecond I-ahem-flashed past him.
Heart thumping madly, I pedaled off like the wind, leaving my posse far behind, praying I'd make it out of the neighborhood before the police showed up. But, funny thing-minutes ticked by and no patrol cars came sharking around. Maybe the cops figured it was just another crackpot Mazie Maguire sighting and weren't going to be suckered into investigating it.
No one tried to stop me as I flew along the narrow, potholed streets, grateful for the shot-out streetlamps that left the streets dark and shadowy. Finally I stopped to catch my breath in an empty lot, plopping down onto an old abandoned tire. I broke open the lemonade and shared it with m.u.f.fin, pouring it into my cupped hands for him to lap.
Grimacing at the sour taste, he looked up at me: What is this stuff?
"I know," I said. "b.u.mmer. But it's all we got, buddy." I pulled off a strip of duct tape still clinging to my jeans and wrapped it around my bleeding palm. Duct tape was amazing stuff, I thought. It could cure warts. It could repair broken fan belts. It could tape people to malt conveyor belts. Maybe it could hold together the edges of my knife wound so I wouldn't need st.i.tches.
What was I thinking? I wasn't going to live long enough to require st.i.tches. It was only dumb luck that I wasn't already a ma.s.s of blackened carbon. Poor Luis hadn't been so lucky. He'd died of a heart attack after Bad and Badder got going with the knives and the lighters.
I felt my brain going into shutdown mode. I could have lain back on that filthy tire and slept until the crack of doom. Instead, I forced myself to my feet.
"C'mon, m.u.f.f," I said, my voice a raspy thread. "Onward to Piggsville."
If you want to get a good bar argument going, ask a Milwaukeean how Piggsville got its name. It was-take your pick-named for a hog slaughterhouse that once stood there, for a foundry that produced pig iron, or-most popular-for a Mrs. Pigg who once ran a wh.o.r.ehouse on the site. A small town gobbled up by the city of Milwaukee, Piggsville was a pocket-sized patch of city tucked beneath the thundering ceiling of the I-94 viaduct, cut off by the Kinnickinnick Ca.n.a.l on one side and by the Thirty-fifth Street Viaduct on the other.
I hid the bike in a clump of bushes near the ca.n.a.l and forged ahead on foot. m.u.f.fin trotted behind, delighted to be out of his basket. I had no idea where the pickle factory was, but figured it had to be somewhere in Piggsville's industrial area. We crept cautiously past a tent and awning warehouse, a snowmobile factory, and a concrete-producing facility. I was about to give up on the pickle factory when a p.r.i.c.kly-sour aroma reached my nostrils. There it was, down close to the ca.n.a.l: Piggsville Pickle Products.
Its buildings were painted a hideous shade of olive probably intended to be gherkin green, but which instead made the place look like an army base. Hidden in the shadows, I watched as a truck pulled out of the complex. Its trailer bore the Piggsville Pickles logo: a dancing pickle with big, bugged-out eyes and stick arms and legs. I guess Mr. Pickle was supposed to be a knockoff on Mr. Peanut, but he looked sort of like a giant green t.u.r.d. This was definitely a company in need of an image makeover.
There didn't appear to be a night shift and the plant began closing down soon after I arrived, employees streaming out of the building to the parking lot. The prospect of entering a dark factory after nearly being grilled alive in another was unappealing. It was probably a complete waste of time, anyway. I no longer had Luis's locker key and-even a.s.suming I managed to find the locker-what were the chances that anything of Luis's would still be left in it?
But I'd exhausted all my other leads and having come this far, I might as well give it a shot. Getting into the building wouldn't be difficult. Security was so spongy you could have driven a tank through it. Pickle factories apparently weren't high on terrorists' hit lists. The guard in the booth out front showed no signs of making rounds. He sat comfortably ensconced in his shack, and I could see the flicker from his television as m.u.f.fin and I slipped through the employee parking lot and into the complex.
The plant was laid out in a rough square, with water towers and vinegar silos in the center and the processing buildings ranged along the sides. Enormous vats of fresh cuc.u.mbers sat next to bins of dill, salt, garlic, and mustard seed. Tiptoeing through the buildings, which had been left unlocked, I noticed how clunky and old-fashioned the machinery looked. The wooden floors creaked, the work surfaces were caked with grit, the forty-watt lightbulbs threw menacing shadows on the walls, and the flypaper coils dangling from the ceilings were studded with dead flies like furry raisins. Making a mental note never to eat Piggsville Pickle products again, I crept through three buildings, jumping at every noise and shadow, without finding a single locker.
One more and out, I promised myself. And after that? I didn't know what happened after that. Possibly death by exhaustion.
I slipped into the fourth building. Cider vinegar fumes slapped me the instant I opened the door. This would be the brining room, I guessed, where enormous vats of pickles were soaked to the desired degree of sourness. Eyes stinging from the fumes, I crept along the main aisle. Five more seconds in here and my skin was going to start pickling. Double doors at one end of the building led to the employee lunchroom. Why would you stick the lunchroom in here where the workers would be forced to eat amid the stomach-churning fumes? I cracked the lunchroom door and glanced inside. The room was unlit, but I could dimly make out a few tables and chairs, a row of vending machines flashing Out of Order signs, and restrooms.
The Womens' sign triggered a powerful Pavlovian response. If I didn't get to a toilet this instant the factory was going to suffer a ma.s.sive flood. Groping my way to the women's room, I found a stall and peed for what felt like a half hour. m.u.f.fin trotted into the next stall and lapped thirstily out of the toilet. Another first for Vanessa's pampered pooch.
By the time I emerged from the womens' room, my pupils had enlarged and I could pick out shapes in the dark. Which was why I was able to see, directly across from the restrooms, a row of battered steel lockers. Adrenaline washed away fatigue. "We found them!" I yelled to m.u.f.fin, then clapped my hand to my mouth. Whatever was sleeping here in the shadows, I didn't want to disturb it.
"Ten nineteen," I whispered, creeping along the row of lockers. The locker numbers were too small to read in the dark. Maybe there was a light switch here someplace?
As I fumbled for a switch, a sound from the brining room made me jump. m.u.f.fin growled. The door to the lunchroom creaked. I whirled around, heart in throat, watching in terror as it slowly opened. Someone stood in the doorway watching me, a dark shape silhouetted against the murky shadows. Judging by the size, it was a man. He flicked on a flashlight and stabbed the light in my eyes.
Escape tip #27: If you can't use your head, use your feet.
m.u.f.fin shot forward and attacked, snarling canine curses. The man yelped in pain; hopped on one leg, lost his grip on the flashlight.
"Get him off me!"
Blood resumed pumping through my heart chambers. "Labeck?
"What're you doing here?"
"Rescuing you, what's it look like?"
I hurried over and peeled m.u.f.fin off him. Reluctantly allowing himself to be restrained, m.u.f.fin continued to growl deep in his throat, warning Labeck that if he put a single foot wrong, his intestines were going to be m.u.f.fin's bedtime snack.
Labeck stooped for the flashlight, shone it on me, gave a visible start. "What happened to your hair?"
"Kim Jong Zippoed it."
Labeck's look of bewilderment seemed genuine, but being drugged, buried alive, and kidnapped by giant sausages had made me paranoid. I backed up, keeping an arm's length between me and Labeck. "Bear's guys. The Janitors. They were going to burn me up."