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"h.e.l.l, no. You didn't say it had to be warm."
"Switch it over to hot." My voice shook. Every part of my body shook.
The gushing water camouflaged the sound of the slamming car door. Now grotesquely distended, the condom resembled the world's most unappetizing watermelon.
"So I'm thinking this thing works like a two-man saw," said Norbert, breathing rapidly. It was going to be a race as to which burst first, the condom or Norbert. "One bad girl pushes while the other one pulls."
Through the window, I watched the trooper stride toward the shed.
"Tie a knot in the end," I told Norbert, taking another step backward.
Tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth, Norbert worked at the knot.
"Now squeeze it. Make it into a shape," I coached.
"What do you think, Norbert?" One and a half baby steps back. I tensed all my muscles.
"I get it," he said, giggling. "Long enough for two bad girls."
He squeezed the center of the condom. It exploded.
Norbert yelled in shock. The shed door banged open. The trooper burst in and spun toward Norbert, startled at the yell. Going into a crouch, he whipped out his gun and aimed it at Norbert.
I bolted toward the shed's rear door and barreled into the barn's milking parlor-empty now with the cows already milked. The room was dark after the brightness of the shed and I was temporarily blind, unable to find the door leading outside. Blundering around in the murk, I stumbled across a set of crude wooden steps. Behind me, the door banged open and Norbert detonated into the barn, the trooper right behind.
"Hold it!" yelled the trooper.
I practically levitated up the steps.
Norbert was across the barn in a flash, boiling up the stairs behind me, his head popping up out of the stairwell like an ugly rodent in a whack-a-mole game, water streaming from his hair and face. The instant my feet hit the second-floor deck, I heaved over the trap door, smashing the heavy planks down on Norbert's greasy head. Take that, you stinking pervert!
Judging from the string of curses, Norbert had toppled onto the trooper. I didn't inquire; I wove through the junkyard of prehistoric-looking mowers, reapers, and loaders on the second floor, trying to find a way out. There it was, just a couple of yards away-the floor-to-ceiling track doors at the far end of the barn.
Just as I reached them, the doors rolled open with a thunderous boom. A uniformed county cop stood silhouetted there, blinking as his eyes acclimated to the gloom of the barn. Beside him a snarling German shepherd strained at its leash.
"She's up here," the cop yelled to someone behind him. "I got her!"
Behind me the trap door banged open and the state trooper emerged from the stairwell.
"I got her," the trooper yelled.
In that split second of jurisdictional horn-locking, I darted behind a corn s.m.u.t chucker and began tacking my way through the machinery. Norbert, frothing at the snout and apparently believing the reward applied whether I was dead or alive, pounded across the floor bellowing about how he was going to wring my weasely little neck. Some dumbbell fired his gun. Pigeons erupted from the rafters in great fluttering swarms, rats streaked across the floor, and I darted from machine to machine, vying with the rats for hiding places. Walkie-talkies blared, dogs barked, cops argued over who had command of the situation, and emergency vehicles, sirens screaming full blast, poured onto the property as though it were the site of a 747 crash.
I leaped onto Norbert's grain escalator, a tall, narrow metal chute used to move heavy loads upward. It was angled at a steep but still-climbable pitch. While my pursuers hunted me below, I inched up the escalator, hoping n.o.body would think to look up. I was halfway up when my foot slipped and I crashed to my knees. The hollow metal rang like a steel drum. Every head in the barn jerked up.
I looked down. Norbert lumbered over to the escalator, s.n.a.t.c.hed up the machine's power cord, and plugged it into an extension cord. The escalator suddenly clattered to life, its cogged belt hauling me upward, Norbert cackling below.
"Come down, Mazie!" the trooper yelled.
Yeah, right. The escalator was carrying me up, up, up. Up to the barn's rafters, three stories above the barn floor. And at the end of the escalator there was . . .
An open cargo door framing a square of bright blue sky.
Below, Norbert and the Smoky were wrestling over the extension cord, Norbert clutching it tightly in his grimy fists.
"Shoot the sonovab.i.t.c.h!" one of the cops growled. I hoped he meant Norbert. I was desperately trying to scoot back down the chute now, but the thing was cranking along at twenty-five miles an hour. I was five feet from the open cargo hatch . . . four . . . three . . . and then the escalator spat me over the edge.
Frantically I grabbed at the machine's underlip with my wired hands. The steel slots kept turning, battering my knuckles. My legs thrashed into empty s.p.a.ce. A pigeon nesting on the tackle block above the door observed me with beady pink eyes. Far below I could see the manure-caked cement of the cow yard. Police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, and TV vans were all converging on the farm, people running every which way like ants pouring out of a stepped-on anthill.
My eyes swiveled back to the barnyard, with its mountain of manure. My fingers were starting to lose their grip on the escalator. Why was it I always seemed to wind up in high places with no place to go but down?
A cop must have rammed a cattle prod up Norbert's a.s.s, because the escalator abruptly stopped. I felt it vibrating as someone in hard-soled shoes clambered up. A man appeared in the cargo doorway. From my position I had a good view of his nostrils. We stared at each other for a long moment, then I said, "You're Irving Katz."
He nodded. In real life he was much better-looking than on TV. His eyes were so dark they were almost black. His mustache looked as though each hair had been clipped individually. He wore a b.u.t.ton-down shirt, a tie with muted stripes, and an expensive-looking suit jacket feathered with hay chaff. He was as out of place crouched on a grain escalator as Norbert Lautenbacher would have looked on Macy's mezzanine.
"You don't look like a marshal," I said.
The corners of his eyes crinkled. "You want I should wear a ten-gallon hat?"
My fingers slipped down a couple more inches. "You're from New York?" I asked when my heart had resumed pumping blood.
"How come you're here?"
"In the wilds of Minnesota, you mean?"
Annoyance cut through my pangs of terror. We cheeseheads hate being confused with those lutefisk-eaters across the river.
He gave a potato-pohtahto shrug. "I p.i.s.sed off the wrong people."
This was probably the most bizarre conversation I'd had in my life. "What if you don't catch me?"
"Then they'll send me somewhere worse. Maybe Idaho, to nail guys with twelve-year-old wives." He levered himself farther out the window, extending his hand until it nearly grazed my knuckles.
"Don't!" Was this guy nuts? He was going to overbalance, kill himself, and ruin his expensive suit. "You'll fall."
"Nah. I'm braced. Come on, Mazie-grab my hand. I'm tougher than those cowboy marshals. I won't let you drop."
I looked up into the licorice eyes. "I didn't kill my husband."
He looked back at me, unsmiling, then, as though channeling Marshal Gerard in The Fugitive, said, "I don't care."
His fingers wiggled invitingly, inches above my own, like worms on a fishing line. All I had to do was bite. Not far away, some enterprising firefighter was backing a hook and ladder truck in my direction. I was willing to bet there was a four-story extension ladder on that truck.
You'll never take me alive, copper.
I've always wanted to say that.
I didn't have the breath left to say it, though. I simply released my hold on the elevator, flailed my arms and legs, and soared into s.p.a.ce.
Escape tip #9:.
You can't go wrong with basic black.
Accessorize with white.
I landed in a pile of p.o.o.p, a mini-mountain of cow manure and straw bedding ten feet tall and twenty feet long. I could see now why Norbert wanted a new manure spreader.
Cow manure has a lot of uses. Applied to fields, it grows crops. Burned, it's a mosquito repellent, although I personally planned to stick to OFF. But the best thing about manure? It's soft enough to break a human's fall from a height of four stories. I knew this because my brothers had once dared me to jump onto our farm's manure pile from the cargo door of our barn. Of course I did it. I burped cow p.o.o.p for a week.
Another advantage of manure? It's a natural lubricant; I was able to wriggle out of the wire binding in seconds. I corkscrewed myself out of the muck, rump-skied down the hill, heaved myself to my feet, and took off running.
Stunned by my suicide leap, the law enforcement people just stood there, jaws agape. This gave me a heartbeat's head start, but within seconds they were hard on my heels-cops and yelping dogs and reporters and camera crews-everyone yelling contradictory orders and getting in one another's way.
Galloping over a rise, I blundered straight into the Lautenbacher cow herd. They were Holstein cows-the black-and-white spotted ones that star on all the Wisconsin postcards. Holsteins are big and bulky, but unless they have a newborn calf or their teats are pulled too hard they're shy and gentle.
There must have been thirty or forty Holsteins in this herd. I threaded my way between the cows, who were standing companionably in the shade of an elm tree, chewing their cuds or just staring aimlessly into s.p.a.ce with their pretty, long-lashed eyes, thinking their cow thoughts. Cows like things to be quiet and predictable. This would be a cow's ideal week: Monday: Eat alfalfa, p.o.o.p, stare into s.p.a.ce.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Sat.u.r.day, Sunday-same as Monday.
Now the circus had come to town. Cops and dogs and people with big, scary-looking cameras were hurtling over the rise. Cows don't like surprises. Cows don't like strangers. And cows really, really don't like dogs.
The dogs had broken loose from their trainers and were dashing around, forgetting they were supposed to be capturing a wanted fugitive, and going berzerko on the poor Holsteins, barking and snapping at them. The panicked cows stampeded, their big, heavy-veined udders swinging as they bowled over cops, trampled expensive TV equipment, and lashed out at the irksome dogs with their surprisingly powerful hind legs.
I risked a glance over my shoulder. Katz was barreling through the herd, zigzagging around cows like a wide receiver eluding tacklers. He was in shape; he looked like a guy who ran every day; he was catching up. But he was dressed wrong for a rundown in his slick-soled shoes; he slipped on a cow pie and went down hard.
In my manure-smeared white shirt and black pants, I blended into the Holstein herd like a chocolate chip into a Dairy Queen Blizzard. Screened by a trio of bellowing heifers, I crashed through a th.o.r.n.y hedge and found myself in a field. Sunflowers this time, splashing up a hillside in a carpet of waving golden heads. Bleeding from wire gouges and thorn scratches, I belly-crawled through the sunflowers, smearing the roots with blood and manure. Mazie Maguire, the Amazing Human Fertilizer! Emerging at last from the sunflowers, I paused to consider my next move.
A narrow gravel road meandered between fields here. A mobile satellite van was parked on the road's shoulder. Bold red letters across the van's sides read Action 13! Milwaukee's First with the Latest! A radar dish the size of a flying saucer perched atop a cherry picker pole. Cables and cords dribbled out of the back doors, which astonishingly-were open! Cautiously emerging from the sunflowers, I duckwalked to the van and peeked inside. Empty.
Acting on impulse, I hoisted myself into the back of the truck. The Action 13 team were slobs. Electronic gadgets, camera equipment, and fast-food wrappers were strewn all over. How did they ever find anything in this mess? Then again, neatness was highly overrated; three out of four fleeing felons preferred clutter to organization. I crept beneath a recessed bench seat, pretzeled my legs, and hauled a thick black cable cord over myself, feeling like one of those circus midgets who crawl out of clown cars. Stinky, the Eighth Dwarf.
I took a deep breath. Then was sorry I'd inhaled. Minutes trickled torturously by as I crouched there, chewing my knuckles, mentally pummeling myself because I'd trapped myself in this van. I should have taken my chances in the fields. It might not be too late. I was just starting to extricate myself from my hiding place when I heard rapid footsteps outside the truck.
Nearly fainting with fear, I braced myself for the drawn guns and shouted orders. But it wasn't cops. It was just a couple of s...o...b.. guys in baseball caps and jeans, tossing stuff in the van, rolling up cable, slamming doors. They climbed into the front, started the truck, and took off. The van b.u.mped along the dirt road, then sped up as it turned onto the highway. Peering out between the strands of cable, I checked out the guys. The driver, bearded and scruffy, wore a camouflage pattern baseball cap. He sniffed. "Jeez-what's that smell?"
"I don't smell anything," said the shotgun guy, who was also scruffy: hair way past its trim-by date, ditto for shave, Manitoba Moose Hockey cap.
"Like cow c.r.a.p. It reeks in here."
"Probably on our shoes. I must have walked through every cow flop on that farm."
I was the source of the cow c.r.a.p odor, of course. I was a stowaway, an unwanted pa.s.senger like a wood tick on a dog. At the moment I would have traded places with a wood tick on a dog. I hurt in so many places my ailments had to take a number for my brain to process them. But I couldn't think about my cuts and bruises at the moment, because it would take up valuable energy I needed to worry that the Action 13 guys would decide to investigate the cow c.r.a.p aroma. There was no part.i.tion between the cargo hold and the front seat, so my manure odor could circulate freely, stinking up the whole interior.
Both men rolled down their windows.
"We're going national," chortled the Moose cap guy. I couldn't see his face, just his dark, unkempt hair. "CNN picked up."
"Turn it on."
Moose punched on a television monitor mounted in the dashboard. Peeking out between the gaps in the cable cord, I could catch glimpses of what they were watching. It was the Lautenbacher farm.
"Unbelievable," Camo Cap said. "Oh, man-check out this part. Here she comes!" There was Norbert's stupid, ugly barn on the small screen. Then the camera zoomed in on the open hatch door with the grain elevator jutting out. There I was! Dangling on the end of the elevator, legs swinging out into s.p.a.ce, clutching the elevator lip for dear life. Zoom again as Katz appeared in the hatch door, all G-Man square jaw and gallantry, extending his hand and then- "Je-sus!" Moose said. "There she goes."
Camo Cap shook his head. "Could of broken her neck."
We all watched the crazy woman leap through the air, shrieking and flailing. We watched her land in the giant manure mound. Then we watched as the phoenix of cow c.r.a.p rose from the heap and sprinted off.
"I think she just did the four hundred in six seconds flat," said Camo, who was making me nervous. He needed to be watching the road instead of the video, which was now showing me vanishing into the Holstein herd.
I didn't think either of these bozos were reporters; they were too grungy-looking to be on-camera talent. They must be camera crew. And if I was lucky, they were heading back to their home planet, Milwaukee.
Moose changed channels. "Here's the bit we filmed with the cow herd."
Now I understood why the cops hadn't sent the dogs chasing after me. The dogs must have had border collie blood, because instead of obeying their trainers' commands, they were racing around trying to round up the panicked Holsteins.
Coming next on Animal Planet: When Police Dogs Go Wild.
Peter Polifka, the station's main anchor guy, appeared on-screen back in the station's studio, his teeth white against his tanned face, his jaw manly, his voice a rich baritone. "So Mazie Maguire eludes the authorities yet again," he said, chuckling. "And as we can see in this footage"-instant replay of my jump-"she literally slips through the fingers of Federal Marshal Sylvester Katz."
The camera cut to a young female reporter, standing outside the Lautenbacher barn.
"Umm, I think that's Irving Katz?"
Right. Sylvester was the cat who was always after Tweety Bird.
"Well, I'd say that this jailbird is leading the Katz on a merry chase, wouldn't you, Brittany?" He chortled at his own lame pun.
Brittany forced a smile. "She certainly is, Peter."
"Do the police have any idea where Mazie Maguire might be headed next?"
"Authorities refused to comment, Peter."
Camo Cap punched off the TV and said in a deep, pompous voice, "Any idea where my brains are stashed, Brittany?"
Moose said, "I believe you're sitting on them, Peter."
They both laughed, then Moose reached into a cooler beneath the front seat, pulled out two cans of beer and popped them. He handed one to the driver and took one for himself. Icy driblets ran down the sides of the cans. I could almost taste the cold wetness sluicing down my own parched throat. My stomach let out a gurgle nearly audible above the sound of the engine. The van rolled along, the rhythm of tires on road so lulling my lids drooped and I fell into a waking doze, too dopey with fatigue to plan what I was going to do next.
An hour or so pa.s.sed. Although I couldn't see out, I figured we must be in Milwaukee because of the traffic noise and the stop-and-go driving. Camo's cussing becoming more inventive. His actual name, I'd discovered, was Bob, but I hadn't heard Manitoba Moose's real name yet. I hoped we didn't have much farther to go. My muscles were cramping and I was so thirsty I was ready to lick my own sweat.
The van slowed, made a sharp turn, and stopped. Bob and Moose got out of the van, came around to the back and began removing equipment. I scrunched myself into an even smaller ball, keeping my eyes down because most people possess a sixth sense that warns them when they're being watched. At last the rear doors slammed shut.