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"Eddie? It's two in the morning. He'll be in bed."
Labeck snorted. "Don't be ridiculous. The kid is sixteen."
It took him only a few computer taps to find Eddie's number, then he texted: Dude, fvor 4 MZ MG. ID waitr in px. Is yr cuz Luis?
I felt like Methuselah. You could send Internet photos over a phone? Apparently while I'd been away in prison, where we weren't even allowed pens and had to write in crayon, texting had become the universal form of communication. The lingo might as well have been ancient Sumerian to me, but Eddie Arguello made perfect sense out of it, because Labeck received a reply about thirty seconds later.
ID. Y U need 2 no? Iz MZ OK?
"Translation?" I asked.
Labeck smiled. "Positive identification. Why do you need to know? Is Mazie okay?"
"Text him back," I said, and for the first time that day I managed a smile. "Tell him MZ is very much OK."
But Bear Brenner was not going to be okay. Bear Brenner was going down.
Escape tip #29: There's no such thing as too tight or too low-cut.
"You're going to make a spectacular blonde, hon." Magenta swished warm water around my head to rinse out the dying solution. "I'm thinking subtle-more Madonna than Marilyn, know what I mean?"
More like Marilyn Manson, I thought, judging from the gunk he'd slathered on my hair. But he was right about the blonde dye. Doctor Richard Kimble would have done the same thing.
"Is she finished yet?" Labeck poked his head around the screen. He was dog-sitting. He and m.u.f.fin were best buds now and I was jealous. m.u.f.fin wrinkled his nose at the ammonia fumes in the air.
"Go away," Magenta flung a wadded-up towel at Labeck, who backed out hastily. "Get a haircut, you b.u.m. Rent a tuxedo-and for G.o.d's sake don't let them talk you into a shirt with ruffles. Gold cuff links-not silver. If you show up with patent leather shoes I will personally chop your feet off."
I was sitting with my head in the shampoo basin of Magenta's beauty salon, which was a single sink, a padded chair, and a cabinet, all tucked behind an embroidered Chinese screen at the rear of his Brady Street shop.
"I'm not even licensed to run a beauty parlor," Magenta confided as he dried my hair with a magenta-hued towel. "I only do hair for a few select clients."
"Honey, you are going to be my masterpiece." We moved over to the styling counter and I plunked down in the swivel chair. Running his fingers through my hair, Magenta studied me in the counter mirror. "An upsweep, I think. Conceal the frizzle where that a.s.shole burned it. Strands falling over those fantastic cheekbones. We just need to wait a few more minutes for the color to set."
He took a bottle of cranberry juice from the mini-fridge beneath the shelf, poured gla.s.ses for both of us, and turned on the large-screen wall TV, its screen saver the pouty lips logo of the Rocky show.
Bear Brenner appeared on a local channel. My heart gave a dull, panicky thud. Brenner was being interviewed by a fawning young female reporter in his downtown office. No trace of dirt under his nails, no burrs on his pants today; he wore a pin-striped suit, a gleaming white shirt, and a tie with a federal eagle print. He looked tanned, relaxed, and senatorial. "The BodyWorks show is a feather in Milwaukee's hat," Brenner was saying, flashing a boyish grin. "I'm proud to have helped bring it to our city. We expect it to generate some much-needed revenue for our fabulous public museum."
"I understand you're emceeing the opening ceremony," the reporter cooed. "The three-thousand-dollar-a-plate gala tomorrow night?"
Bear grinned modestly. "I'm not up to Jay Leno standards, but I'll do my best."
"Oh, so will we, Senator," Magenta said, his voice going hard and gravelly, ma.s.saging my shoulders as though I were a boxer about to go into the ring. Magenta was in civilian wear today: T-shirt, baggy white shorts, espadrilles, and tiny hoop earrings. Turquoise eye shadow brought out his green eyes, although I had to admit that minus the Rocky Horror makeup, Magenta was a bit vanilla: large nose, scanty eyebrows and brown hair pulled back in a pony tail. He claimed to be thirty-two, but I thought that was probably ten years off the expiration date.
Scratch Magenta's flamboyant exterior though, and you discovered a cool, calculating tactician. He'd come up with the most creative ideas for our plot, but had reined us in when we wandered too far into fantasyland. We'd all stayed up until dawn last night, going over Luis's photos and stolen files, discussing ideas, and finally roughing out the kind of plan you formulate when you're punch-drunk with fatigue and the desire for justice is the only thing that keeps you going. We had a three-p.r.o.nged goal here: to expose Brenner publicly in such a way that he couldn't lie or bribe his way around the truth, to find a safe venue for me to surrender, and to use the files and photos as a bargaining chip to keep the guys on my team safe from prosecution. Magenta and Labeck had even given the whole cobbled-together c.r.a.pshoot a code name: Operation Payback.
Guys, I swear.
Magenta whisked the towel off my head, blew my hair dry, finger-combed it, then spun the chair around so I faced him. "Time to gild the lily! This is going to be the most fun I've had since I showed up at my ex-wife's second wedding in full drag."
"You were married?"
"Honey, some gays are. I just discovered I was more attracted to my wife's brother than to my wife. I'm a guy with an ident.i.ty crisis, know what I mean? I enjoy being a girl, but I don't want to wear pantyhose every day. Why doesn't the sisterhood get its act together and torch all the pantyhose factories?"
That would be one parade I'd be happy to lead.
He led me out from behind the screen into the shop, which he'd modestly named Magenta's. It looked like a collision between a rummage sale and Bergdorf Goodman's. Gently used designer clothes originally priced in the thousands sold here for a fraction of the original cost. Saunter around a corner and here was an Yves St. Laurent gown layered with a Balenciaga sweater; turn another and there was a Dolce and Gabbana beaded purse or an Hermes scarf draped over a table lamp. Magenta began flicking through the racks, giving each beaded, sequined creation a second of squinty-eyed consideration before sliding on to the next. Finally he plucked a red gown off the rack. "This is a Gaultier. Let's see how it looks." He gestured toward a cubicle curtained with heavy striped silk.
Zipping into the dress, I was uncomfortably aware of how long it had been since my legs and armpits had last encountered a razor. I checked the gown's price tag and sucked in my breath. Originally $3,600, a steal at $390. Feeling unworthy of the dress, I emerged from the dressing room and modeled for Magenta.
He c.o.c.ked his head to one side, considering. "Too big," he said finally. "I don't have a lot in your size, munchkin. I have to stock the big sizes because my clientele-"
"Drag queens and straight guys who like to prance around wearing sparkly stuff in the privacy of their homes. They need the big sizes. Big, bigger, biggest. Let's try black-it's a little cliched, but it should be dynamite with your blond hair."
I tried on a shimmering black silk Valentino with a bowed-out back.
"Not bad," Magenta said. "Turn around. Ooh, yummy! Maybe we should test-drive it on Labeck." He c.o.c.ked his head and eyed my reflection in the pier gla.s.s mirror. "So, have you and the Bonaparte-" He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"Didn't he tell you?" Magenta chuckled as he adjusted the back of the dress. "Bonaparte Labeck, that's his real name. He's Quebecois-Canadian, born up in one of those schizo border towns where everyone grows up speaking French out of one side of their mouths and New England out of the other. He got drunk one night after he broke up with his girlfriend and told me the whole story. I'm a fellow hoser, darlin'-from Saskatoon originally. My driver's license name is Howard Pfluge. Well, obviously you can see why I prefer Magenta. I crossed over at North Dakota one year and never bothered to go back. I'm an illegal, a s...o...b..ck, a fugitive from justice. When I got to Milwaukee, I met Boney. He let me crash at his place while I looked for an apartment. I was hoping something interesting might develop between us, he is such a smoldering hunk of Y chromosomes, but unfortunately he's as straight as a Nebraska highway."
I checked myself out in the mirror. Going without meals for the past few days had given my face some interesting new hollows. "If I had any guts I'd give myself up right now," I said. "This whole charade is going to blow up in our faces. You and Labeck will be arrested for aiding a fugitive. Maybe even deported."
"Negative thinking gives you frown marks, babycakes, so just stop. Let's focus on more important stuff. Such as, how is the Bonaparte in the sack?" He handed me a silver gown made of stretchy, beaded fabric. Vera w.a.n.g.
"There is no and." My face flared as red as the Gaultier gown.
"But you'd like there to be some and happening, wouldn't you? Don't fib to your Auntie Magenta."
I turned my back to let Magenta unzip the black dress. "All right, busted. The guy is so hot he sizzles."
"Preachin' to the choir, sweetikins."
I stepped out of the dress. "When he first kidnapped me-"
"Semantics. Anyway, I thought he was a rapist-serial killer."
Magenta gave a bark of laughter.
"But he turned out to be a perfect gentleman. He's never touched me. The first night I stayed at his place, he slept on the sofa, and last night-well, I couldn't let him sleep there again, so I told him I'd take the sofa. But he said it was stupid not to share the bed, since we were rational adults who'd established a relationship of trust-"
"Blah, blah, blah. I'm disappointed in Boney. There's a time and place to be a Boy Scout, and it's not when you and a beautiful woman are in the same bed."
"No, he's right. You should know a person before jumping in the sack with him. I don't know the first thing about Labeck. I didn't even know his real name until-"
"Listen to yourself! The two of you make me want to scream. You're like sixth-graders throwing spitb.a.l.l.s at each other, both of you afraid to make the first move."
He stepped into the dressing room with me and helped shoehorn me into the silver dress. "Know what I think, Mazie? I think you're head over heels for the guy."
"I think you've sniffed too much hair spray."
"And he's got it bad for you."
"Magenta, are you bilingual? Because that's merde!"
But secretly I hoped Magenta was right. I remembered how sweet it had been waking up this morning to discover Ben's arms wrapped around me. I'd felt incredibly safe, protected, even cherished. I'd lain there drowsily, enjoying his warmth, softly stroking the hair on his forearms as he slept. That is, until bad girl thoughts began seeping in, and I started thinking about how it would feel to wake Ben up with a kiss and see where things went from there.
But I hadn't acted on that impulse. I'd slipped out of bed and dressed, giving myself a mental pat on the back for resisting temptation. Once Labeck was up, he'd barely looked at me, just grabbed a Pop-Tart for breakfast and headed out the door.
"I have to talk to my lawyer," he'd explained, probably glad to have an excuse to get away from me.
Meanwhile, I'd stayed hidden in the apartment, recuperating from my near-death experiences and jumping every time I heard a noise. Finally, late in the afternoon, Magenta had arrived bearing a disguise for me. Camouflaged in a wig and oversized jacket as Riff Raff, the Rocky Horror caretaker, I'd been able to walk the few blocks to Magenta's Brady Street shop virtually unnoticed.
Magenta had put the Closed sign on his front door so no one would disturb us while he worked his voodoo. Although this was ordinarily his busiest time of day, he'd sacrificed his profits so he could turn me into the kind of femme fatale who could waltz past security without being recognized. The bad guys would be looking for a singed-around-the-edges woman in a baseball jersey, not a glamorpuss in a designer gown. You shall go to the ball, Cinderella.
I finally wriggled into the silver number. "Too tight," I said, emerging from the dressing room to check myself out in the three-way mirror. "And too low cut."
Magenta hooted with laughter. "No such thing, darling. It's perfect. You'll knock Labeck's socks off."
He tugged the neckline still lower. "And hopefully, the rest of his clothes too."
Escape tip #30: Blondes really do have more fun.
It was nearly ten that evening before we left Magenta's shop. I slipped into the G.o.dawful Riff Raff costume again and we walked back to Labeck's place. Magenta gave a complicated series of raps, the secret code he and Labeck had arranged, the idiots.
Labeck opened the door.
Magenta thrust the bright purple shopping bags into his arms. "Handle with care-pricey gear inside. Mazie, show him your hair."
I pulled off the Riff Raff wig.
"So? What do you think?" Magenta put his hands on his hips, blatantly fishing for compliments.
"Nice. I like it." Labeck tucked a strand of my newly bleached hair behind my ear. Magenta had trimmed it to even out the sides and now I didn't feel so lopsided. I wished Labeck wouldn't stand so close. He pulsed male pheromones the way some men gave off body odor. "But I liked you as a brunette, too," Labeck added.
"Thanks for everything, Magenta." Standing on tiptoes, I kissed him on the cheek. "You're a prince."
"Or princess." He bent and whispered in my ear. "Go for it, baby."
Howard Magenta Pfluge, part pimp, part yenta.
The men started going over details of the plan, actually using words like Zero hour minus twenty and operatives. I just rolled my eyes and headed for the bathroom. Seeing a blond person in the mirror gave me a jolt, and for a split second I thought I'd walked in on someone else. Being blond was going to take some getting used to, but I thought I was going to like it. For one thing, I now could wear colors brunettes couldn't. Magenta had done a trial run on my makeup, too, slathering on a creamy foundation that concealed most of my scratches and bruises, although he'd had a hard time covering over the burn mark, which today flared angry maroon.
A centipede crawled out of the drain. I gave a shriek, then realized that one of my false eyelashes had fallen into the sink.
There was a light rap on the door. "Mazie? You okay?" called Labeck.
"Want your stuff?" The door opened a crack. Magenta's shopping bags appeared, attached to Labeck's oversized hands.
I took them. "Is he gone?"
I sighed in relief.
"You don't like him?"
"Of course I like him. I love him! He's a great guy. And he does a terrific manicure. But four straight hours with Magenta is-"
"Like being in a bar where the only thing on the jukebox is Cher?"
I'd been thinking it was like being slowly strangled with a feather boa, but the Cher image worked, too. I untied one of the bags and delved into the tissue paper. I'm a sucker for clothes wrapped in tissue paper. Even K-Mart footsy socks look elegant swaddled in layers of white tissue. I pulled the bra.s.siere out of its tissue. Magenta had ordered me to wear it under the gown. It was long-line, like a bustier, the kind that squishes your waist and lifts your b.o.o.bs so they look like pears served up on a platter. It was champagne-colored and lacey and hooked up the back. Since there hadn't been time to try it on in the shop, I decided I might as well do it now, in case it had to be exchanged for a smaller size tomorrow.
Stripping off the T-shirt I'd borrowed from Labeck, gritting my teeth, I embraced the iron maiden. It was the first time in days my charlies had been restrained and they hated it. The tiny hooks, located in the most inaccessible parts of my spine, were murder. Having one hand bundled in bandages didn't make it any easier; it was like trying to crochet a doily wearing an oven mitt.
"Need some help?" Labeck called from the other side of the door.
"You're handicapped. You probably need a personal a.s.sistant."
I blew out a breath, knowing this was a bad idea. "Okay. But keep your eyes closed."
"Sure. I'm legally blind."
Labeck came in, one hand held ostentatiously over his eyes, and groped around. "What do I need to do?"