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Magenta pursed his lips and blew a kiss. "Love to, darling."
"I think he recognized me," I said when we'd pulled away.
"He won't tell." Labeck turned into the narrow alleyway behind his building, which was built up against the Oriental's back wall. "I keep his secrets, he keeps mine."
Labeck parked the Volks between two dumpsters. Unless you were looking very hard, you'd never see it there. Expecting Jong and Custer to burst out with switchblades and flaming Zippos any second, I grabbed m.u.f.fin, dashed from the car to Labeck's building, and rocketed up the stairs. Labeck clumped up behind me, holding the locker loot. He retrieved a key from the top of the doorframe.
"Handy for burglars," I commented.
He raised an eyebrow, managing to wordlessly convey the fact that he'd trusted me with his apartment key, a key now in the possession of two very nasty professional killers or possibly incinerated along with the brewery.
I set m.u.f.fin down once we were inside. He'd gotten over his Labeck issues and was warming up to him. Labeck's approval rating rose further when he opened his refrigerator and scrounged m.u.f.fin a leftover hamburger patty. I hoped there was something in there for me, too. The ballpark brat felt like years ago.
Labeck took my arm and dragged me toward his bathroom. "First we play doctor."
I sat on the toilet while he sat on the bathtub rim. Knee to knee, all cozy-wozy. I tried to ignore the s.e.xual frisson set up by the body contact. Labeck had large, competent hands and didn't seem at all bothered by blood. He gently washed the wound, took a tube of antiseptic salve out of his medicine cabinet, uncapped it, and looked at me.
"You're not going to be a baby about the antiseptic this time, are you?" he asked, a grin lurking close to the surface. He began spreading the strong-smelling salve gingerly over my palm. I didn't want to look at the cut, so I gazed at Labeck instead. His head was bent, exposing the back of his neck. There was something endearingly little boy about his nape, with its small stray curls; it made him seem vulnerable. I could understand the appeal of vampirism. How would it feel to gently press my lips against his nape, just there . . .
He looked up at that moment. Our eyes caught and locked, his holding a question. There was definitely chemistry here; I could feel our ions bonding.
No! Nein, non, nyet, ixnay, not bonding! No hanky-panky!
"This cut is really deep," he said, turning his attention back to my hand. "It ought to be st.i.tched."
"Forget it. That's my Girdle of Venus."
"I would have put your Girdle of Venus a bit lower, but then, I didn't go to med school."
"I learned the parts of the hand in a book on palmistry I read when I was a kid. I was planning to make money telling fortunes."
"Just a wild guess, but I'd bet you didn't make a lot of money."
"As it so happens, I was a very good palm reader." Taking his left hand in mine, I peered at it. "Hmm."
"You had something with mustard for lunch." I turned his hand over. Wide calloused palm, long fingers, non-hairy knuckles. No ring. Heart line that swooped upward toward the Jupiter finger, indicating a pa.s.sionate nature. Stay the heck away from that one.
"What else?" he prompted.
"You will live a long life and have fifteen children."
"Not what I wanted to hear. Is there anything in there about who's going to win the Stanley Cup this year?"
"Yes, but the palmist doesn't work for free." I shoved his hand back.
He pressed a wad of gauze over the gash in my palm, then used almost a whole box of Band-Aids to tape the gauze down. "That's the best I can do for now," he said. "Take two aspirin and stay away from bad guys."
"No problem." He lightly touched the singed ends of my hair and ran his hand down my neck to my collarbone, caressing it with his thumb. I forgot to breathe. If this was what his hands could do with my collarbone, what could they do to my- Stop it! I was not going to make a fool out of myself over the first male who wasn't slicing, dicing, or frica.s.seeing me. I stood up quickly, which was a mistake, because I suddenly felt dizzy.
Labeck steadied me. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. Sorry to go all girly-girl."
"Nothing wrong with girly-girl. I like girly-girl." He kept his hands on me. In the bathroom's narrow s.p.a.ce, I was pressed against him, and couldn't help noticing that the front of his jeans, the part that contained his Tower of Eros, seemed to be undergoing some seismic activity. I looked up, because I didn't want to be caught looking down, and found myself staring at Labeck's mouth. Why hadn't I noticed before what full lips he had? They were a little chapped, the lips of a guy who was outdoors a lot, but they looked as though they would be very . . . nice . . . to . . .
He smoothed my hair off my forehead and gazed into my eyes. This was it! Ben Labeck was going to kiss me and I was going to kiss him back, because I had been through an awful lot in the past twenty-four hours and I deserved a reward, d.a.m.n it! One little closed-mouth kiss-was that too much to ask?
Bending his head, Labeck lowered his mouth toward mine. Then he stopped, six inches short of my lips, frowning.
"What's this?" He touched the angry red blotch on the side of my face, where I'd used my cheekbone as a fire extinguisher for my flaming hair. "This looks serious, Mazie. I think it's a second-degree burn-"
"It's nothing! It doesn't hurt, it's no worse than a bad sunburn. A little aloe vera and it'll be as good as new," I babbled. "And another short of that Bushmills stuff wouldn't hurt."
Labeck shook his head. "You're a walking disaster, Mazie. Maybe I ought to kidnap a doctor and force him to treat you at gunpoint."
"Don't be ridiculous!"
"Then I guess it's going to have to be my grand-mere's famous burn remedy," he said. "We'll need the kitchen."
The kissable moment had pa.s.sed, and I wasn't sure whether I felt disappointed or relieved. Labeck pried ice out of his freezer trays, tossed the cubes into a large bowl, added water, and stirred the stuff until it was the consistency of a soda fountain drink. He dipped a towel into the icy water and ordered me to hold it against my face.
"Better?" he asked after a minute.
"Much. Your grand-mere is a genius."
Then we both turned our attention to Luis Ruiz's backpack. Labeck set it on the table, took out the 7-Eleven bag, unsnapped the rubber band that held it closed, and reached into the bag. My heart was beating ridiculously fast. A blackened banana peel would be inside the bag, I told myself. Five hundred generations of fruit flies were about to burst out.
No fruit flies. Photos. Instamatic photos. Dozens of photos. Handling them gingerly, as though we were crime scene technicians, we studied them. They were amateurish, off-center, and slightly blurred, as though they'd been snapped in a tearing hurry by someone lurking in the shadows with a cheap camera. By Luis?
A familiar face appeared in a photo.
"Is that who I think it is?" Labeck's eyebrows skidded toward his hairline.
Oh, yes, indeed! It was Bear Brenner as he might appear if time-lapse photography worked in reverse. Say, eleven or twelve years in reverse, around the time he'd been interning at the family plant in Mexico.
"Got a Hulk Hogan thing going there," Labeck commented.
Blond, mustachioed, and wearing a muscle shirt, this Brenner was a far cry from the exquisitely barbered, star-spangled-tie-wearing politician who advocated stricter penalties for drug offenders. He wasn't introducing a bill to have June declared National Cheese Awareness Month here. And he wasn't checking up on container production either, because beer cans were aluminum cylinders, whereas the products in these photos came in heat-sealed blister packs.
"He's running a meth lab!" Labeck said, incredulous.
"Not meth," I said. "I think it's Mexican valium." The stuff he'd used to drug me. Flunitrazepam, as Nurse Nasty called it, legal in Mexico, but a banned drug in the United States. During my years in an inner-city high school, I'd learned a lot about the vile stuff.
We carefully examined the rest of the photos. Some were taken in the manufacturing lab, some showed the pills being concealed in empty beer containers, and some showed the beer containers being loaded into semitrailers. Other snapshots showed Bear in Uncle Teddy mode, hosting parties where the liquor flowed in a never-ending river, the doobies were set out on plates like appetizers, and the partygoers were teenaged boys. One snapshot, nearly identical to the one I'd found in Kip's stash, showed Bear with his arm around Luis.
Except the boy couldn't be Luis. Luis was the photographer, wasn't he?
I flipped the photo over and read the words gouged deep into the paper with ballpoint.
este es mi hermano Miguel Javier Ruiz, narcotizado y matado por Tio Teddy el 14 de julio de 1999.
"Can you read Spanish?" I asked Labeck.
"I can pick out a few words. Mi hermano is my brother. I think narcotizado is drugs, or drugged. Tio Teddy, of course, is Uncle Teddy."
"It think it means murdered."
"So . . ." I puzzled it out, wishing I'd taken Spanish instead of French. "Miguel was drugged to death. Maybe Brenner did him the way he did me, crushed a pill into the boy's drink."
Labeck nodded. "When I was in college, a girl OD'd on roofies. Only it was called Easy Lay on my campus. She popped a couple at a party, went into a coma, and died. Lay was all over the college scene about ten years ago. Dirt cheap, two bucks a pop. Kids used 'em to get high at raves. But the stuff was dangerous. Sleazy fraternity guys would dope girls' drinks, then rape them."
"So when Miguel died, Luis must have blamed Bear. He told Eddie he was in Milwaukee to revenge himself on the man who'd killed his brother."
Labeck started to crumple the 7-Eleven bag, then stopped. "There's something else." He shook out a floppy disk. Labeck held it up, turning it in his hands. "Let's try running this thing on my computer."
A few minutes later Labeck's up-to-the-second, bells-and-whistles Hewlett-Packard was up and humming, spitting out file after file. Lists of transactions, coded numbers that might have referred to bank accounts, names, phone numbers, shipment dates, suppliers-the entire cosmos of a drug empire.
"I do not believe this," Labeck breathed. "I f.u.c.king don't believe it. Brenner was making hundreds of thousands off the pills. Maybe millions."
Someone rapped sharply on the front door and we both jumped. m.u.f.fin was on it instantly, a land mine on legs, rocketing down the hall to the door.
"I'm selling magazine subscriptions," rasped a deep voice on the other side of the door.
Labeck let him in. Six and a half feet of bewigged Magenta in French maid getup was too much for m.u.f.fin, who went into Doberman spaz attack mode. Displaying amazingly swift reflexes, Labeck nabbed m.u.f.fin before he could sink his teeth into Magenta's ankle.
"Maybe you should try adding Zoloft to his Alpo?" Magenta suggested. He tugged off his wig and removed his platforms. This somewhat placated m.u.f.fin, who settled for glaring at Magenta and growling out threats about what would happen to his liver and spleen if he tried any funny business.
Labeck made formal introductions.
"Mazie Maguire-this is like, so thrilling!" trilled Magenta, clasping my hands in his. "I've been rooting for you every moment of your escape! You look much cuter in real life than on TV! I am your absolute number one fan!"
"Sorry, position filled," Labeck said.
"I'm good with second banana. Why am I here? How did you two get hooked up? Am I supposed to do something with Mazie's hair?"
"I'm going to swear you to secrecy before we tell you anything," Labeck said.
"Cloak and dagger, I love it!"
I was putting my life into the lace-gloved hands of a man who spent his evenings lip-synching to a movie whose showstopper was "Hot Patootie, Bless My Soul." But Labeck appeared to trust Magenta, and somewhere in the past two hours I'd entrusted my own soul to Ben Labeck. Ergo, whomsoever Labeck trusted, I trusted.
I told Magenta everything. It was a long, involved story, and both men often interrupted with questions. We were all starved by the time I'd wrung out the last syllable, so we raided Labeck's fridge and indulged in an impromptu smorgasbord that was guaranteed to keep us awake with indigestion all night.
"What I don't get," Labeck said, "is how Kip got his hands on that first snapshot, the one he hid in the lamp. How did he know Luis?"
"No idea." I watched in fascinated disgust as Labeck piled potato chips, olives, and braunschweiger onto a wheat bun, then swizzled Russian dressing over the entire mess. "They didn't move in the same social circles. Luis was an illegal immigrant who worked in a pickle plant. Maybe he met Kip when he was moonlighting on some job."
"Is it possible Luis did yard work for you guys?" Labeck asked.
I shook my head. I was the yard help.
"Where did your husband hang out?" Magenta asked.
In motel rooms with twenty-year-old waitresses, I thought, but didn't say. "He golfed a lot. Played tennis, sailed."
I tried to think, but it required a ma.s.sive effort. My eyes burned, my muscles ached, my Girdle of Venus throbbed. I wanted to curl up in Labeck's warm, king-sized bed and wake up to find myself twelve years old again. But I flogged my tired brain into action. "Strip clubs. Sports bars. His mother's place."
"What about Stodgemore?" Labeck asked. "Maybe Luis Ruiz did odd jobs for her."
"Maybe he was her cabana boy," Magenta suggested, wiggling his eyebrows.
Prentice in a bikini, muy yuck! How would she hold up the top? While the guys went back once again to the Brenner files on the computer, I started cleaning up the kitchen. We'd used paper plates, but there were knives and plastic containers to wash up. I ran water into the sink and squirted in detergent. I've always found running water conducive to thinking; my best ideas occurred to me in the shower. I screwed the lids back on the pickles and olives, wrapped the cheese in foil, replaced the buns in their package. And then something shifted in my cerebellum.
"Facebook!" I said.
"Is now the time?" Labeck asked, but I shoved him aside, brought up Kip's Facebook on the computer, clicked on the wedding photos, and explained my thinking. "Eddie told me Luis sometimes moonlighted as a waiter. Kip's Facebook had photos from a wedding he attended a few weeks before he was killed. Luis might have been on the staff that night." I hadn't paid any attention to the waiters when I'd looked at the photos on Kip's Facebook. The help sort of blends into the background at these occasions. Now, clicking from photo to photo, I scanned for waiters who fit my mental image of Luis.
I scowled as a photo of Brenner came up, arms around the bridal couple. And there, a few feet away- "There he is!" Magenta shrieked, pointing at the photo. "Make him bigger!"
I zoomed. Half-hidden between two women stood a small, dark man in a waiter's uniform, toting a tray of dirty gla.s.ses, his gaze focused balefully on Bear Brenner. His face was flushed, his hair was falling into his eyes, and his bowtie had come un-bowed.
"The guy is blitzed out of his mind," Labeck said, grinning.
"He looks like Miguel," I said. "If Miguel had lived to grow up."
Leaning over me, Labeck performed some slight of hand with the keyboard, then dug out his cellphone.
"Now what?" I asked.
"Texting the president of your fan club."