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Escape tip #31: Look like a lady, fight like a fiend.
As I unwound myself from the limousine's backseat, the driver blatantly ogled my b.o.o.bs, levered to gravity-defying heights by my dominatrix-delight bustier. I was wearing the clingy silver floor-length gown with the plunging neckline, tummy control panty hose, and killer heels. My faux-blond hair was twisted up in a chignon with strands wisping down to partially conceal my face. I wore the centipede lashes and carried a beaded purse the size of a gumball.
After a week of perfect weather, the skies had opened and it was spitting rain. The limo driver held an umbrella over my head as I tottered forward on my torture-device spike heels. Labeck shambled behind, rained on and unnoticed, mere scenery as far as the driver was concerned. All around, important people were alighting from their Mercedes-Benzes and Audis and old-fart Oldsmobiles and ascending the museum steps to the site of the BodyWorks Ball.
Protesters lined the sidewalk, waving signs and catcalling. Grave robbers! Hitler did it, too! Shame on you! Would you want your grandma to be plastinated? The big shots who were sh.e.l.ling out three thousand dollars a plate for this event hurried past like hedge fund managers doing the perp walk.
The driver leaned down and whispered in my ear. "Good luck, hot stuff," he said, patting my rear. Rico made a dazzling driver. Gone were the earrings, the pony hawk and the wispy goatee. He looked like a professional chauffeur in his dark uniform, snappy visored hat, and white gloves, all courtesy of Magenta's Halloween costume collection. No one would have guessed that Rico's usual mode of transport was a rip-stick. The limousine wasn't really a limousine either, merely the biggest, shiniest Cadillac in the Hertz fleet.
"If that kid puts his hand on your a.s.s again I'm tearing his arm off," Labeck growled. I wanted to tell him to shut up, but my face felt too stiff to talk. My heart pounded against the hard struts of my bra.s.siere cage and my legs trembled in their boa constrictor casings as we walked up the steps and into the building.
The museum's atrium was all glitzed up for the occasion. White fairy lights twinkled in a forest of small live trees. Bright, silk-screened banners the size of highway billboards hung from the museum balconies, each displaying the BodyWorks logo and the words: Funded by the Brenner Foundation Sponsored by Senator Stanford T. Brenner Way to get yourself publicity, Bear, you intestinal parasite.
We followed the crowd of tuxed men and gowned women up the staircase to the second floor and into an enormous room. The suits of armor and the American Indian dioramas had been deep-sixed for the night and the room had been transformed into a banquet hall. Dozens of round tables were arranged around the room, set with porcelain and crystal and lit by glowing candles. An orchestra was tuning up on a raised platform and the Channel 13 news crew, tipped off by Labeck, were setting up their equipment in a corner.
Labeck led me to a table near the center of the room, next to the computer set up for the slide presentation. With a sleight of hand worthy of David Copperfield, he shifted the guest placards set there to an adjacent table and pulled out a chair for me. I sat down shakily, setting my d.i.n.ky bag atop the table. Who was the moron who'd decreed that women had to accessorize their evening gowns with purses so useless you could barely cram a Tylenol into them?
Every female eye in the room was riveted on Bonaparte Labeck. He looked fabulous, his tux emphasizing his wide shoulders and trim waist, his white shirt setting off his ruddy skin. His hair was trimmed, he'd shaved to within an inch of his life, and his dark eyes glinted with mischief and excitement.
Phase One of Operation Payback was accomplished. We were inside and no one had recognized me.
A waiter materialized next to us. "Would you folks care for drinks?" he asked.
I looked up at a grinning Eddie Arguello. He looked splendid, too. His hair was back to its natural black, his little mustache looked like it had been hair-sprayed, and his Hombre fumes overpowered the cut flowers. He wore black pants, a white shirt, and a black bow tie he'd borrowed from a cousin who was a priest.
"Any trouble?" Labeck asked.
He was talking out of the side of his mouth, for Pete's sake. I wanted to kick him.
Eddie grinned. He set a gla.s.s of champagne in front of each of us. "No. I just show up wearing dark pants and a white shirt, looking like all the other Mexican waitstaff, and they figure I'm legit. The lady in charge scolds me for not having my vest, so she digs one out for me."
"You look very authentic," I told Eddie.
Wonderful smells were wafting from somewhere close by, but I knew I wouldn't be able to eat. I'd be happy if I just managed to not throw up. The museum's kitchen was inadequate for such a large crowd and the food was being prepared by a catering staff. I happened to know this because Labeck and I had spent the last two days researching every detail of the gala, trying to antic.i.p.ate problems. The biggest challenge had been finding out which computer the museum would be using for the show, how powerful its sound system was, and who'd be running the PowerPoint presentation.
Drinks in hands, people were slowly drifting toward their tables. These were Milwaukee's elite, people able to pay six thousand bucks a couple to prove what culture vultures they were. A lot of them I recognized from my days as the little-n.o.body wife of a Vonnerjohn scion. Beer barons, floor wax moguls, paper diaper magnates, politicians, media people-anyone who wanted to see and be seen and could finagle a tax credit off the cost of the ticket.
Gazing around, I suddenly caught sight of Vanessa Vonnerjohn a few tables away. She angled her head in our direction and I quickly ducked behind my menu. When the seconds ticked by and she hadn't leaped onto a table, pulled out an Uzi, and sprayed me with automatic fire, I figured she hadn't spotted me. I risked a peek from behind the menu. She was wearing her usual bouffant helmet, freshened up with a coat of black lacquer for the occasion. What was that thing she was wearing? A sequined gold tube that flared out at the hips into swirls of spangled, poufy net. Somewhere a Christmas tree was missing its skirt. She had defied the fashion fatwah decreeing teensy evening bags in favor of a quilted klunker the size of a mail pouch. What did she have in there-a boom box? The skulls of her enemies? A grenade launcher?
The lights suddenly dimmed, the band struck up "Happy Days Are Here Again," and a spotlight played on Senator Stanford Brenner as he jogged jauntily up the steps to the orchestra platform. The crowd rose and applauded.
It wasn't as though this guy was donating a kidney, for Pete's sake-all he'd done was cough up a chunk of change from the Brenner corporate coffers. He probably saved his personal piggy bank for thugs and slugs.
"Please." Bear held up his arms to quiet the applause. "You're embarra.s.sing me. And I'm not easily embarra.s.sed."
Everybody laughed. I almost laughed, too. Hand it to him; he knew how to shovel the s.h.i.t. I had to keep reminding myself that this was the guy who without a single twinge of conscience had buried me alive and when that had failed, had ordered his toadies to burn me to ashes.
"I a.s.sure you I'm not going to talk long. I'll be quick-that's what my wife always says, anyway."
More laughter. Good one, Bear.
"And you can have your dinner while I'm droning on, so you can block me out and concentrate on your lobster." What modesty, what charm, what a crock.
He cleared his throat and spoke again, glancing down at the cheat cards in his fist. "BodyWorks is currently the top-selling museum show in the United States and Europe. Wherever it goes, people marvel at the realism of the bodies. They ought to marvel, because the bodies are real. The bodies are carefully preserved through plastination, a process similar to lamination. Each one of these marvelous sculptures is insured for half a millon dollars."
That got the CEOs' attention. Bear flashed a grin. "Now we've all had to endure that gauntlet outside, those protesters who claim these bodies come from executed Chinese prisoners. Not true, I a.s.sure you. In fact, when I die, I want to be plastinated, too. They can prop me up at the Yacht Club Bar. My staffers a.s.sure me n.o.body will be able to tell the difference."
Laughter. You're slaying 'em, Bear.
Eddie rolled a cart to our table and began handing out salads. "Everything's set to go," he whispered. "I switched the computer program and gave the PowerPoint guy a hundred bucks to disappear."
"You'll all have a chance to tour the exhibit after dinner," Bear was saying, "but right now, here's a little appetizer."
Doors at the side of the room were flung open and two museum staff members rolled in the appetizer on a wheeled base. The orchestra launched into "Touch My Body," a version so white-bread it would have made Mariah Carey puke. A startled gasp rippled through the crowd as the wealthy benefactors craned their necks, oohing and ahhing and applauding.
It was a horse and rider. Both had been skinned and had parts of their muscles and skeletons exposed. It should have been repulsive but was oddly beautiful, like a da Vinci anatomical drawing done in three dimensions. Muscles flexed, tendons tautened, sinews stretched, bones burst from epidermis. The horse, a palomino, was reared up on its hind legs, his long golden mane and tail preserved. The skeletal rider, whose spinal column, ribs, and pelvis were exposed, was waving an arm as though he were about to la.s.so a runaway steer. Blue gla.s.s eyeb.a.l.l.s, set into the skull sockets, were framed by long, real eyelashes. It was beautiful and macabre at the same time; the Rider of the Apocalypse does the rodeo.
Bear was hamming it up, stepping down from the stage and sauntering around the sculpture, hands clasped behind back, playing this for all it was worth. "This looks like the nag I bet on last time I was at Arlington. No wonder he came in last."
Laughter. The VIP bets on loser horses, just like the rest of us. What a swell guy.
"I'd like to take credit for bringing this show to Milwaukee. We beat out Baltimore, Los Angeles and"-heartbeat pause-"Chicago."
Wild applause. Milwaukeeans hate Chicago.
"But it was our fabulous committee members who were here day and night, working with the museum staff, who are responsible for this wonderful exhibit. I think the following presentation will highlight their contributions."
My stomach loop-de-looped and my body trembled. Beneath the table, Labeck gripped my clammy hands in his big, warm ones. Phase two of Operation Payback was about to begin.
The horse and rider rolled away at a snap of Bear's fingers, a movie screen descended, and the room darkened. Returning to the stage, Bear started reading from a prepared script. Eddie Arguello glided to the computer and tapped keys. Slides scrolled across the screen.
"These are our hardworking committee members," Bear narrated. Wealthy suburban women, including Vanessa Vonnerjohn, huddled around a table, smiling for the camera.
"Some of our members flew down to Miami on a fact-finding mission." Apparently the fact they'd found was that they could charge their poolside room service to the public museum.
"Here we are, discussing our budget." Bear and the committee members, enjoying a working lunch at an expensive restaurant.
"And here we have-" A scrawny teenaged boy next to a half-naked man, whose hand was flung up to block the camera.
The audience t.i.ttered at first, most people believing the photo was a put-on, part of the show. Bear turned to see the screen, and his face went as pale as his shirt.
"The boy in this photo was named Miguel Ruiz," intoned a baritone voiceover-Magenta, in full macho male mode. "He's fifteen years old in this picture. The man in the ugly shorts is an American businessman named Stanford Brenner. The photo was shot by Miguel's brother, Luis. Both boys were off-the-books employees at a Brenner container plant in Janos, Mexico."
"Turn that thing off," bellowed Bear, squinting against the light, trying to see who was running the computer.
"Stan Brenner had another off-the-books activity," continued the voiceover. Photos appeared on the screen in rapid succession, their details now sharp and clear, thanks to Labeck's techno-juju.
Grubby-looking boys working in a laboratory. A big, Anglo-looking man, back turned, appeared to be supervising.
Boys funneling small white pills into beer containers.
Boys loading the containers into Brenner beer semitrailers.
A wild buzz broke out among the gala-goers. Now this was worth three grand a plate! Cellphones switched on, video cameras whirred, flashes strobed like lightning. Reporters sniffed the air, smelling blood. The Channel 13 news crew suddenly sprang to life, their cameras focusing. The news people were going to love this one; they'd dig their teeth into it and not let go until they'd gnashed every drop of scandal and skullduggery out of it. Luis Ruiz would have been delighted.
Bulls.h.i.t your way out of this one, Bear, you pusbucket!
"Mr. Brenner's lucrative little sideline was producing rohypnol, a potent date-rape drug. Mr. Brenner shipped the drug across the border into the United States hidden in beer containers. There it was sold to dealers-"
Leaping off the stage, Bear thrust between tables and barreled in our direction, the Janitors slithering out of some rodent hole and hurrying in his wake. As Bear lunged for the computer, Labeck stood and blocked his way, a grim goalie who wasn't going to let anything past.
When Labeck didn't move, Bear swung a punch. Labeck sidestepped and the momentum of the missed punch staggered Bear off balance. As he went down he locked his arms around Labeck's knees. Both men toppled to the floor, grappling and punching, banging into tables, sending plates and gla.s.ses crashing to the floor. The men were evenly matched size-wise, both big and muscular, but my money was on Labeck. A hockey brawler from way back, he probably knew even more dirty tricks than Bear. Women screamed, cameras snapped, people climbed on chairs to see better.
Then the Janitors bowled in. Kim Jong kicked Labeck in the ribs, allowing Bear to roll away. Custer hauled Labeck upright, locking his arms. Jong chopped Labeck in the stomach, making him grunt in pain, then drew back his fist for another punch.
Not on your Zippo-flickin' life! Launching myself off my chair, I hurled myself at Jong's back, clawing, gouging, ripping what was left of his frizzy hair out by the roots. Shrieking in pain, he whirled me around helicopter style and sent me skidding across the top of a table. Labeck jacked his elbows into Custer's belly, pivoted and hit Custer so hard he went sprawling into Bear, who'd been attempting to get up and went down again. Eddie leaned over and tried to smash a champagne bottle on Custer's head, but missed. The bottle shattered against a table edge, spraying everyone with jagged shards of gla.s.s.
"Mazie Maguire!" Bear shrilled, crawling to his feet, pointing at me. "It's her, look- it's the escaped convict!"
The news telegraphed across the room. Mazie Maguire Mazie Maguire Mazie Maguire, a sound like buzzing bees. Suddenly I was surrounded by people thrusting out ballpoints and dinner menus, blinding me with their cell camera flashes.
"My daughter is such a huge fan."
"Make it out to Heather-"
Neat trick, Bear's siccing the autograph hounds on me to allow himself the chance to escape. I shoved my way through the crowd, yelling to Labeck. "He's getting away!"
In the melee, a lit candle overturned onto a stack of benefit programs, which burst into flames. Someone tossed a drink on the fire, but the alcohol acted as an accelerant. The flames flared up like a bonfire, licking along the tablecloth and leaping to the paper streamers festooning the ceiling. Fragments of crepe paper spun across the room like flaming jellyfish, setting fire to everything they touched. For an instant the crowd was still and silent, like a herd of zebras deciding whether to run from a lion, and the next instant they broke and stampeded, screaming, toward the exit.
"Mazie," Labeck yelled. "Get out."
The wealthy, well-bred museum patrons now became animals, elbowing, biting, kicking, and trampling anything in their path as they rampaged toward the door. There was a blinding flash as the electrical system short-circuited, then all the lights went out and the galloping flames provided the only illumination. Smoke roiled through the air in choking clouds. The fire alarm went off, adding its deafening clamor to the uproar and belatedly, the sprinkler system kicked in, the hissing water creating a fog of steam that only created more panic.
Dropping to my knees, keeping to the cover of the tables, I began crawling. I was halfway across the room when someone with size-fourteen dress shoes plunked his foot down on my skirt hem, pinning it. "Get off, you oaf!" I screamed.
The klutz didn't hear me. I yanked at my skirt. Seams ripped, sequins popped, the fabric stretched like Silly Putty, but the skirt remained pinned by Elephant Man. No one was moving; two hundred people were bottlenecked like slow ketchup, all trying to plunge through a single door at once. Above the panicked roar of the crowd and the jangling of the fire alarm, sirens were audible.
Only one thing to do. I peeled the dress down over my hips and squirmed out of it, a social b.u.t.terfly emerging from her coc.o.o.n. The sticking point was my heels, which became hopelessly tangled in the dress hem. So I abandoned them, too. Now all I had on was the iron maiden bra, bikini underpants, and panty hose.
Bucking the tide, I crab-walked toward the rear exit, hoping to spot Eddie or Labeck, but the men, in their black-and-white penguin getups, were indistinguishable in the scrum of people. Finally hauling myself to my feet, I groped along a wall, slipped through the stage door, and found myself in a smoky, pitch-black service corridor. Silent in my panty-hosed feet, I padded along, feeling my way by touch.
Phase two of Operation Payback had turned out to be a smashing success. Except for the part where the museum caught fire.
Behind me, the door leading to the stage opened. Someone paused there, then began moving toward me, the tread of hard-soled shoes unmistakably male. Not Labeck-he would have called out. I quickened my pace. Behind me, the stalker sped up, too. I broke into a flat-out run. Turning a corner, I spied an exit sign at the end of the corridor and hurtled toward it. I burst through the door, then reeled back in shock as I came face-to-face with a grinning skull.
Escape tip #32: Don't get mad. Get even.
A Panama hat perched jauntily atop the skull, whose flesh had been split down the center and fanned out to frame the cranium like clown hair. Its body was posed arms out, flasher style. Flaps of skin had been flayed off the torso and splayed out like orange wings. He looked like a comic book villain. Skele-pimp.
He was creepy beyond description. Recoiling, I lurched into the extended arm of a basketball player frozen in driving-for-net position, the top of his head hinged to reveal his brain, a basketball suspended in mid-dribble beneath a bony palm. I realized that I'd stumbled into the room housing the BodyWorks exhibition.
Behind me, the door crashed open and my pursuer burst into the room, silhouetted against the nimbus of light from the exit sign. He spoke in an undertone to someone behind him. "She's in here."
Scarcely daring to breathe, I crept backward, trying not to look at the grotesque sculptures looming around me in the dark. Footsteps clacked purposefully in my direction, the sound of predators hunting prey. I crouched behind two football players entwined in a flying tackle, aware that my near-naked body must practically glow in the dark. I could hear two sets of footsteps, Bear's heavy, the other's lighter. One of the Janitors? Bear whispered something and the second person moved off toward the left. I thought of yelling for help, but that would give away my position. Even if I yelled, who would come? The Operation Payback Expeditionary Force might already have been carted off to jail.
As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I was able to pick my way further back into the exhibit. It was laid out like an elaborate maze, constantly folding back on itself. Wallboard separated one small room from the next, so that every time you turned a corner you were startled by a new display: Acrobat Man, frozen for all eternity on gym rings; Nervous System Man; Mammary Gland Woman-humans caught in a single moment of action and posed as though they were still alive, but for some reason had shed their clothes, skin, and organs.
I tripped over an extension cord and fell, banging against a plastic cube displaying cross-sliced brains. Bear was there in a flash, hurtling around a corner and skidding to a halt in front of Marlboro Man. Posed in the att.i.tude of a nicotine addict, one arm bringing a cigarette up to his lips, Marlboro Man had his torso peeled open to reveal his tarred, scarred lungs.
"Mazie?" Bear called softly. "Come out, we need to talk."
Yeah, I'm that dumb. Bear's first and second attempts to kill me had failed; he wasn't about to let this opportunity slip through his fingers. I wanted to explain to Bear that killing me would serve no purpose. With the photos out in public now, there was no point in attempting to silence me. But I sensed that Bear had gone beyond all reason; he only wanted revenge on the person who'd brought him down. So I kept quiet.
Bear took a cigarette lighter out of his pocket. For an absurd moment I thought he was going to light Marlboro Man's cigarette, but he thrust the lighter forward and began sweeping it back and forth, trying to pinpoint my location. As he moved closer, I scuttled backward. Something cobwebbed against my face and I let out a terrified squeak. It was the stallion's tail from the Horse and Rider sculpture, a magnificent meter-long brush of real horsehair.
Bear immediately pounced, knocking aside Chess Player to get at me. The plastinated player crashed to the floor, breaking into fragments. Half a million bucks down the drain! I scuttled past Diabetes Man, Heart Attack Man, and Varicose Vein Woman. Caroming around a corner, I slammed up against the most ghoulish exhibit yet-a woman with flared nostrils, slitted eyes, and lips drawn back in a snarl. In her sequined dress, backlit by the fire exit sign, she glowed like a human torch. Call this one Nutzoid Mother-in-Law with Gun. Now I knew what Vanessa had been packing in her purse.
I backpedaled. Vanessa let out a croak of triumphant laughter, raised the gun, and fired. But her hands were shaking and the shot went wild, hitting the sculpture behind me, Archer. The archer's arrow spun off, impaling itself in Soccer Man's kneecap. I dived behind Skateboarder, who was doing a one-armed handstand, legs and skateboard in the air, plastinated for eternity in a monkey flip.
"G.o.ddammit, Van, put that gun away." Bear growled. "How am I going to explain her bullet-riddled body? If we do this right, I can still turn this whole situation around."
"I want to shoot her," Vanessa said sullenly.
"No! Jesus-are you nuts?"
That was a no-brainer, but n.o.body asked me.
"We're going to knock her out, then let her burn to death," Bear said. "You still have keys to this room, don't you? We'll start a fire, lock her in here."
"Burn her?" Vanessa sounded happy, as though someone had promised her all the s'mores she could eat. "Roast her? Toast her to a crisp?"
"Yeah. But it's got to look accidental, so no shooting."
Bear hurried over to Horse and Rider. He thumbed his cigarette lighter and a skinny flame shot up. He held it beneath the horse's tail, which caught immediately, the fire burning up to the horse's rump in a flash, the tail hairs glowing like microfilaments.
"The sculptures!" Vanessa cried. "They're irreplaceable-"
Bear snorted. "They're just c.h.i.n.k coolies. Criminals. Billions more where they came from. Besides, all these f.u.c.king ghouls are insured."
The stink of burning horsehair and bubbling laminate percolated through the room. The horse's haunches began melting like candle wax. Nervous System Man began to liquify, the purple dye inside his linguine-like tangle of nerves dribbling down his body. Vanessa and Bear prowled, hunting me. I dived behind Longitudinally Expanded Man, a ten-foot-tall display of body parts, a human totem pole topped by a skull.
Clanking and hissing, the sprinkler system turned on. Water sprayed from rows of ceiling nozzles, creating a cloud of steam and smoke that made us all cough.
"Now she won't burn up," Vanessa said, sounding p.i.s.sy.
Attempting to slink away, I circled back toward Horse and Rider, but stubbed my toe against the jagged end of Archer's bow and let out a yelp.