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I nodded. That had all been part of our Operation Payback plan.
"Once he'd killed your husband, Brenner only had to get rid of Luis. Oh, and cancel the car and the other items purchased with the extortion money. The senator used an insulating layer of lawyers and accountants, of course, but he eventually recovered most of the money Kip blackmailed from him. Brenner is nothing if not thorough. Unfortunately for him, it only took a little pressure to get his accountant to blab everything."
I sat there in silence, trying to make sense of what Katz had told me. Finally I asked, "Why go through all that trouble? Why not kill Kip in a dark alley, make it look like a random shooting?"
Katz shook his head. "Brenner couldn't risk having some enterprising cop looking up his own drawers. You had to be implicated, Mazie. Spouses are always the primary suspect in a murder, and you were straight out of central casting-young, pretty, a woman scorned. It didn't help that your mother-in-law was denouncing you as Satan's sp.a.w.n or that Brenner got you the world's most incompetent lawyer."
My spirits were rapidly rising. "So my name has been cleared? I'm going to be set free?"
"There'll be a hearing. A Superior Court judge was scheduled to review your case next month." Katz got to his feet, looking pleased with himself. "But I managed to get it moved up to next week."
"Next week? How did you-"
"I pulled strings. It's the least I could do. There are now three separate government agencies investigating the former senator's activities. More bodies are turning up in Mexico, arrests are being made, and I'm coming out of this smelling like a rose. My boss is recalling me to New York."
He shook his head. "Too bad. I was just starting to like cheese that squeaks."
Escape tip #34: If you must surrender, then surrender to the right person.
"Mazie Maguire Vonnerjohn," intoned the Superior Court judge, a gray-haired woman so short she probably had to sit on law books to see over her own desk. "In light of evidence that has recently come to light, it is the judgment of this court that you did not commit the crime for which you were convicted and imprisoned. You are hereby released from state custody and are granted your full and unequivocal freedom."
Freedom. Is there a sweeter word?
I stood in front of the courtroom, my hands icy, my ears roaring, certain I was about to pa.s.s out. Bonaparte Labeck, who'd held my hand throughout the whole two-hour ordeal, pulled me against him. I clung to him gratefully, feeling his own radiating warmth soak into my cold, shaking body. But I didn't cling too hard, because he had two very tender healing ribs, battle scars from Operation Payback.
"Congratulations," he whispered, and although I was pressed against his chest and couldn't see his face, I could hear the smile in his voice.
I shook my head. "You're the one who deserves the congratulations."
Labeck stroked circles on my back. "Nah, you would have come through anyway, Mazie. Life gave you lemons, you made lemonade."
This was the man who'd believed in my innocence from day one, who'd kicked open lockers, hot-wired cars, wrestled the bad guys to the floor, and adopted my kidnapped dog. If he wanted to spout the occasional cliche, he was ent.i.tled.
Someone cleared his throat behind us. I looked up to see U.S. Deputy Marshal Irving Katz standing there. A jolt of terror shot through me. There'd been a screw-up. I was going to be sent back to prison!
"Relax, Mazie," Katz said, and he smiled. "I'm not here to drag you back to the slammer."
"I though you'd gone back to New York."
"I flew back for your hearing. To make sure everything went all right."
I returned Katz's smile. "More than all right. I was given an unconditional release."
Katz nodded. "Any other decision and the judge would have heard from me."
"I owe you. For speeding things up."
There was something-a gleam in the dark eyes-that made me think that Katz felt a rather personal interest in my well-being.
"How about if I do you one last good turn?" Katz tilted his head toward the courthouse entrance, where the noise of the waiting media mob was audible even through a double set of doors. "How do you feel about trying to push your way through that pack of piranhas?"
"I'd sooner face Vanessa's homemade electrocution kit."
"Thought so. The guy in charge of courtroom security tells me there's a tunnel beneath this building. So I could go out front and let the piranhas chew on me while you and Mr. Labeck sneak out below."
Labeck and Katz shook hands. Then Katz turned to me. "Stay out of trouble, Mazie."
"I'll try." Impulsively I gave Katz a hug, chasing it with a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you. For everything."
Looking pleased, Katz strode off to offer himself up as a human sacrifice while Labeck and I descended into the tunnel beneath the courthouse. We hurried along damp corridors for what felt like miles before climbing a flight of steps and exiting through the back door of the munic.i.p.al garage, finding ourselves only a half block from where Labeck's Volkswagen was parked.
"So what do you want to do first?" Labeck asked, unlocking the Volks's pa.s.senger door, which had been fitted out with a brand-new window. "Shopping? Beauty parlor? Miniature golf?"
Yes! Everything! Later. But right now- I told him what I wanted.
The dark eyebrows winged upward. He'd probably been hoping I'd want to celebrate at a bar, but if he was disappointed he didn't show it.
We got caught up in heavy weekend traffic, but twenty minutes later we were zipping onto Port Washington Road. There it was, just up ahead on the left. Garish and gleaming, pink and turquoise neon, winking and blinking like a 1947 Rock-ola jukebox, Kopps Drive-in stood, unaltered by so much as single toe-stop on a carhop's skate since I'd been away. Probably nothing had changed in forty years. Any second now Richie and Potsie were going to pull up in a big-a.s.s Chevy and punch in "Barbara Ann" on the curbside music players.
This morning I'd been too nervous to eat, but now my stomach was banging against my backbone. There was no question in my mind what to order. It was the food I'd fantasized about for four chocolate-deprived years.
The carhop came, checked out Labeck, took our order, checked out Labeck again, and skated off with a lot more hip sway than was strictly necessary. I borrowed Labeck's phone and called my mother to give her the good news about my release.
"Was she happy?" Labeck asked when I hung up.
"Delirious. She wants me to come down to Florida and visit. You're invited, too."
"Florida sounds good. Let's go in January and stay until July."
"Pretty wimpy for a guy who grew up on the frozen tundra."
Labeck took my hand, turning it palm side up and studying my nearly healed Girdle of Venus. "The boys are throwing you a welcome home bash at my place later today."
"Eddie and Rico?"
"And m.u.f.fin. And Magenta. Be prepared-Magenta is wearing a b.u.t.terfly costume in honor of the fact that you've emerged."
"I can hardly wait."
"It's supposed to be a surprise party. So act surprised."
"Hey, I've acted my way out of a lot worse situations than a surprise party."
He leaned across the seat and brushed his lips across mine. "I've got a couple of other surprises planned for you."
"You didn't have a s.e.x change operation, did you?"
He smiled lazily. "You'll have to find out for yourself."
An image of Bonaparte Labeck, wearing only a c.u.mmerbund, flashed through my mind and I suddenly found it hard to breathe. I was holding hands with a hot guy who'd attracted the drooling attention of every mini-skirted carhop on the lot. And I was free! It was just starting to sink in. No one was chasing me, trying to slice off my fingers, or forcing me to pick tomatoes. I was going to a party, and even though it would feature an oversized female impersonator in a b.u.t.terfly costume, it was still a party. There might be balloons and cake.
Life was sweet.
The carhop brought our order then, and life got even sweeter.
She set two hot fudge sundaes in tulip-shaped gla.s.ses on the tray that attached to the window. Labeck handed me mine. I held it up, examining it with loving eyes. Truly a thing of beauty. Double scoops of Kopps to-die-for custard smothered in hot, rich fudge sauce, topped with whipped cream and a cherry.
I took my first spoonful and moaned in ecstasy. It was even better than I remembered.
"Mazie," Labeck choked out. "If you keep making those sounds, I'm going to be so turned on we won't even make it back to my place."
I thought of the bed waiting back in his apartment.
It was too soon to be hopping in the sack with someone. It was too soon to be falling in love, no matter how brave or smart the guy was, no matter that he'd risked his own freedom to help me gain mine, no matter how great he looked wearing only a c.u.mmerbund.
But life is uncertain. I'd learned that over the past four years.
And when life gives you hot fudge sundaes, always eat the cherry first.
About the Author.
JULIET ROSETTI grew up on a Wisconsin farm with four brothers and a dozen cats. She has managed a bookstore, taught school, and coached an Australian cricket team. Currently she lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with her husband and son, eats way too much dark chocolate, and is plotting new escapades for Mazie Maguire.