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"I'm leaving my car here and taking the truck," I heard Moose say. "I've got an early-morning a.s.signment."
"Hey, while you're at it, stop at a car wash and get them to clean off that stink."
Moose grunted a response, climbed in the van, started it, and drove off. About twenty more minutes pa.s.sed before he finally parked and got out.
Go away, I silently willed him. Nothing happened. I waited a few beats, then cautiously raised my head and peeked out through a side window. I knew immediately where I was-Five Points on the east side of Milwaukee, where Murray, Farwell, and North all come together to create a traffic nightmare. Hoolihan's Bar was off on the left; the Oriental Theater was to the right.
The van's back door opened. There was a silence, then Moose spoke.
"You can come out now."
Escape hint #10: Sell it with skin.
I felt as though someone had stuck a turkey baster down my throat and sucked all the air out of my lungs. Busted, five feet from freedom. I crawled out from under the bench, sprang out of the van, knocked Moose Cap sideways, and took off running.
That's what happened in my mind's eye. Here's what actually happened: my cramped legs accordioned on me and I crashed to the pavement. Moose Cap grabbed me under the armpits, heaved me to my feet, and propelled me along the sidewalk. Ordinarily a man hauling a woman in manure-stained clothes along a public street would attract attention, but this was the lower east side of Milwaukee; among the kids scoring drugs, the street people sifting through dumpsters, the drunks staggering out of Hoolihan's, and the Goths spilling out of The Rocky Horror matinee, Moose and I were just street theater.
I couldn't yell at someone to call the police. The price on my head was enough to keep a crackhead in product for six months. Moose manhandled me around a corner, into a building, and up a flight of stairs. Easily sidestepping my kicks, he fished a key out of his jeans, unlocked a door, and shoved me inside.
This was his apartment, I a.s.sumed. It wasn't the milk crate and pizza box decor suggested by his overall grunge, but a high-ceilinged place with hardwood floors, comfortable-looking furniture, and walls hung with photos. Through an arched doorway I glimpsed a kitchen with a porcelain sink and old-fashioned gla.s.s-fronted cabinets.
"Bob was right," Moose said. "You do smell like cow s.h.i.t. It hit me like a ton of bricks when we got back in the van." He let go of me, but didn't take his eyes off me. "Get those clothes off."
"Go screw yourself!"
Being raped by this creep would only be one notch above being molested by Norbert Lautenbacher while hanging from a pipe, but it wasn't going to happen. I lunged toward a lamp on an end table, s.n.a.t.c.hed it up, and swung it at the guy with all my strength. Unfortunately, he was too tall and I only managed to whack his shoulder. Reacting as though I'd swatted him with a newspaper, Moose wrenched the lamp out of my hand.
"I don't find manure a big turn-on. Your virtue is safe with me. Come on-bath time."
He dragged me into his bathroom and locked both of us inside. This bathroom wasn't going to make the starting lineup at the Vonnerjohn Design Center. Its floor was laid with those nickel-sized tiles all old bathrooms have, made of some substance that will be here long after the rest of the planet is a big cinder in s.p.a.ce. There was a radiator under the window currently being used to dry wet socks, an old, plain white toilet, and a claw-footed tub the size of an ice rink. A jock strap hung jauntily from a towel bar.
"Shower stopped working a year ago," Moose shared as he tidied up, tucking the jock strap and socks underneath the sink. "So I started taking baths. Got so I liked 'em. I read halfway through War and Peace in that tub, until I got so bored I didn't care which side won the d.a.m.n war. Now get your clothes off."
"All right," I said, stalling, trying to keep my gaze away from the window. "But I'll need some privacy."
He looked at me. "You're a scary woman, you know that? You survived a tornado, a wall of exploding toilets, and a four-story leap out of a barn. For all I know, you can turn into a bat and fly out a ventilation duct. So. You think I look dumb enough to leave you alone in here?"
No, actually-I didn't think he looked dumb at all. His eyes stayed on me, unblinking. Eyes the color of Hershey Kisses, but not as warm and sweet, and they didn't miss much. We stared at each other, taking each other's measure. He was linebacker big, not the sort of cameraman who's going to get pushed around while filming a riot. He had lots of straight, dark brown hair and bristles way past five o'clock shadow-getting on toward midnight. His general scruff made it hard to judge his age. Early thirties maybe?
He leaned over the tub, ran hot water, and dumped in half a bottle of shampoo. "Swish that around and you'll get some great bubbles."
The water got higher. Bubbles bubbled, froth frothed. The scent of coconut shampoo mixed with the stench of drying manure. My eyes darted around the room, searching for something to use as a weapon. Punch the cabinet mirror and go for his jugular with a shard of gla.s.s? Rip off the toilet seat and clobber him? Strangle him with his own jockstrap? There had to be some way out of this situation, but my tired brain refused to function.
"Take 'em off." He folded his arms across his chest. "Or I do." The arms were hairy and muscular. The chest was encased in a T-shirt that looked as though it'd been used to clean a car engine, the long legs in old, ripped jeans. What a slob! I know, I know-people in gla.s.s houses and all. But this guy had chosen to look like a slob.
"Bath," he said.
Fine. He was going to win this particular battle. But the war ain't over yet, jerko. Hopping from foot to foot, I slid off my cheap prison-issue sneakers-more hole than canvas by now-peeled off my wet, slimy socks, ripped off the garage sale sweats and T-shirt, unhooked my bra, and slid out of my underpants. I flung the whole stinking mess at Moose's feet with a screw you flourish. Then I climbed into the tub.
Hot, soapy water. Sheer, decadent, exquisite, toe-curling bliss. I shuddered in head-to-toe ecstasy, not caring at the moment whether my captor was a serial rapist with a bathtub fetish. I submarined beneath the suds, immersing my whole head. When I surfaced, blowing like a whale, Moose was bent over the tub, looking concerned.
"Scared I was going to drown myself?" Ticking off this thug was probably dangerous. He might have control issues, and if challenged, would go all gonzo. At the moment, though, I was too hungry, tired, and battered to rein in my anger.
He backed away and sat down on the toilet seat. "Nah. You're a survivor."
I looked around the room for the hidden camera. "I'll bet you're filming this."
He looked insulted. "What kind of person do you think I am?"
"The kind who sells pictures of naked jailbirds to tabloids."
"I'm a highly respected photojournalist."
"Bulls.h.i.t. You shoot car wrecks and burning buildings for a third-rate TV station."
"We've moved up to second-rate. We're seventh in the local ratings."
"Out of what?"
I splashed around in the water, watching him out of the corners of my eyes, trying to figure his angle. Was he another Lautenbacher, turned on by the notion of s.e.x with a female convict? Lots of guys wanted to be pen pals with inmates. Women in stir received marriage proposals all the time. Some guys wanted to bring inmates to Jesus, some wanted the privilege of conjugal visits, and some just wanted the chance to get their hands on a woman whom they felt deserved to be tortured and killed.
So where was Moose on the whack job scale? He appeared to be normal enough, in a grubby kind of way. He wasn't even that bad-looking, if you didn't count his nose, which looked as though it had collided with a baseball bat.
"If you knew I was in your van, why didn't you turn me over to the cops?" I asked. "There's a big reward on my head."
Don't say head, stupid! It might give him images of my severed head in a pillowcase.
But I couldn't seem to shut up. This guy irritated me so much I just wanted to jab the h.e.l.l out of him. "If you collected the reward you could probably buy some new jeans. Maybe get a shave and a haircut."
"I don't care about the reward."
Ominous. People who didn't care about money were, in my experience, deeply warped. Or fabulously wealthy. Which this creep obviously wasn't or he wouldn't be living in Five Points. I kept on my guard, waiting for him to lunge at me.
He got to his feet, but it was only to pick my dirty clothes off the floor and toss them in the wastebasket. He leaned against the sink, keeping his eyes a scrupulous two inches above my head, but this sudden regard for my maidenly modesty was a bit too after the fact. "The reason I haven't turned you in?" he said. "Because I wanted to hear your side of the story. About your husband's murder. The truth."
You can't handle the truth: Jack Nicholson's great movie line immediately leaped to mind, but I rephrased it. "Yeah? Well, guess what? No one wants to hear the truth." Lots of bitterness and self-pity there. I thought I'd gotten it out of my system long ago, but apparently a reservoir still remained.
He swiveled his eyes to mine. "Try me."
I scrubbed my neck, which in three days had morphed way beyond ring-around-the-collar into circle-of-crud territory. Why was I talking to this guy? It wouldn't make any difference what I told him. He was going to go ahead with whatever twisted scenario he had planned for me anyway.
"The truth. Okay. I'm innocent. I didn't do the crime."
"Lady, I saw the video."
Everything always came back to that d.a.m.n video. Nabbed by Nanny-cam! shrieked the tabloids, knocking the story of the televangelist caught cavorting with the p.o.r.n star off their front pages.
"It's not me on that video," I said.
"Then how do you explain it?"
"The woman in the video is wearing a nightie. I don't wear nightgowns. I wear pajamas."
He spread his hands. "There you have it. Conclusive proof of innocence."
I grabbed the shampoo bottle, poured the glop over my head, and worked the lather into my hair. d.a.m.n, that felt good! As I raked my fingers across my itchy, sweaty scalp, clots of straw, hay, and various creepy crawlies worked loose and plopped into the water.
I ran more hot water, stuck my head under the faucet, rinsed out the shampoo, wrung out my hair, and settled back against the warm, sudsy porcelain, determined to enjoy what would probably be my last bath. The odds were looking very good that I would soon be returning to cold showers once a week, always keeping one eye peeled for Mona the Mon.o.brow, who liked to sidle over and offer to lather up my backside. That is, if this nut job didn't chop me into little pieces first.
I held the shampoo bottle under the tap and filled it to the brim with water, making no attempt to keep my b.o.o.bs covered. If Mr. Seeker-of-Truth got interested enough, he might forget he was supposed to be keeping me prisoner and start thinking about something else. Get him to come a little closer and I'd give him War and Peace; I'd smack him in the gonads with the bottle of Head and Shoulders, then I'd step over his writhing body and make my escape.
I was tired of thinking of him as Moose. "What's your name, anyway?" I asked.
"Labeck. So that's what-Canadian?"
Ignoring my question, he asked, "What happened to your wrists?"
Ugly red gashes braceleted my wrists, souvenirs of the Sunnybrook Farm torture chamber. I shrugged. So many nasty things had happened since I'd escaped, I could barely keep track of my cuts and sc.r.a.pes.
"You didn't try to-"
"Slash my wrists?" Anger boiled up in me. I'd come within an inch of being s.e.xually a.s.saulted by a s.e.x-crazed yokel, and now Moron Number Two thought I'd tried to slit my wrists? "Yup. Suicide by baling wire."
"Those cuts need disinfecting." Rummaging through his medicine cabinet, he found a bottle of first-aid spray. He stepped toward the tub. "Hold out your hands."
To h.e.l.l with that. s.n.a.t.c.hing the bottle out of his hands, I first-aided myself, splashing a molecule or two of the liquid onto my wrists. I didn't trust antiseptic stuff. Get a sc.r.a.pe at Taycheedah and they treated you with a caustic solution that felt like salt rubbed into an open wound.
"You're not using enough antiseptic," Labeck pointed out. "A big, tough convict like you is scared of a little sting?"
I scowled. Keep it up. Let's see how the little sting feels when I squirt it in your eye.
Before I could consider eye squirting as an escape strategy, Labeck said, "You're starting to get pruney. Let's get you out."
Let's get you oot. You can take the guy out of the tundra, but . . .
I was willing to bet my secret decoder ring that the big lout was Canadian. Evidence A: the Manitoba cap. I was probably one of the few Americans who knew that Manitoba was not somewhere in Montana. Evidence B: The dead giveaway oot. I'd spent six weeks in Montreal during junior year of college and that was how Canadians talked. Oot. Get oot of the warteh.
He took a towel out of a cupboard. It was the kind of towel men like: sheet-sized, white, no frou-frou. He bent and all in one easy movement yanked the shampoo bottle out of my hand and hauled me out of the water. So much for my gonad-whacking plans. In seconds I was all mummied up in the towel. Labeck unlocked the bathroom door. Keeping me close, he steered me to his kitchen and shoved me into a chair.
"Move a single eyeball toward that knife block," he growled, "and I tie you to that chair."
Escape tip #11:.
Whiskey is the best anesthetic.
I sat, too excited at the prospect of food to cause trouble. Labeck opened his refrigerator, took out a frozen pizza, and popped it in the microwave. I gazed around the kitchen checking for telltale signs of serial killer syndrome: suspicious stains on the rugs, surgical instruments in the knife block, bone fragments in the dish drainer. It was an ordinary-looking kitchen with lots of white appliances and a big round pedestal table possibly inherited from a great-grandparent. Labeck took two cans of ginger ale out of the refrigerator, popped them both, and handed me one. I took a gulp, experiencing a rush as the tiny bubbles fizzed up my nose. Go a long time without carbonated beverages and you learn to appreciate life's little pleasures. I belched in a spectacularly unladylike way.
"How long since you ate?" Labeck asked.
I had to think. "Not counting jelly beans? Two days."
Labeck opened the fridge again, took out a round plastic container, and set it in front of me. It was a divided veggie tray, the kind supermarkets sell to people who don't have time for a lot of fiddly peeling and chopping. Broccoli, cherry tomatoes, celery, and baby carrots, served with a tiny container of dill dip. The vegetables were crisp and fresh. In prison we never had fresh veggies. They were always out of a can, cooked to mealy mush. We will serve no pea before its time.
I left the tomatoes alone. Everything else I wolfed down like a starving hyena s.n.a.t.c.hing a kill away from lions. My mother would have been aghast that I hadn't said thank you, but I figured that captives had no obligation to be polite to their captors.
A prisoner's first duty is to escape. I'd read that in a book about a World War Two prisoner of war camp and was totally on board with that program. Rations first, though. Can't go digging tunnels on an empty stomach.
Labeck leaned back against the counter and watched as I stuffed. "Don't like tomatoes?"
"They fight back."
He picked up an innocent-looking cherry tomato and bit into it. Seeds and juice squirted out, dribbling down his shirtfront. He looked extremely stupid. I laughed out loud. Couldn't help it; the chortle just bubbled up, as unstoppable as a fart. I tried to disguise it as a cough. This man might have the desiccated remains of a dozen women stashed in his closets and I didn't want to be the thirteenth. He turned and reached for something behind him, possibly a garrote to strangle me for daring laugh at him.
Not a garrote. A ceramic cookie jar shaped like a pumpkin. He plunked it onto the table. "Help yourself."
Oreos! Real, live Oreos, no mistaking those decadently dark circles of crisp chocolate layered with creamy white frosting. Dessert before the meal-this guy was a rule bender for sure. Possibly that could work in my favor. I felt a tiny flicker of hope. If he'd intended to kill me, he would already have done so, wouldn't he?
No. I quashed the flicker. Maybe he was an eat-first-dismember-later guy.
Labeck watched as I demolished a cookie in two bites.
"My girlfriend always took the cookie apart and licked the filling. Sometimes she didn't even eat the cookie part."
He had a girlfriend. That made him seem normal. On the other hand, he'd used the past tense. She might have infuriated him by licking the filling first. Maybe her rotting body lay beneath the floorboards. Did I dare ask him whether his girlfriend was still alive?
No. Dangerous territory. I took another Oreo, recalling a survival tip I'd picked up in prison. To fend off an a.s.sault, make yourself as unattractive as possible. I chewed the cookie but allowed the crumbs and gunk to stay on my teeth.
The grimy teeth bit wasn't working. Labeck wasn't averting his eyes. And he had a one-track mind; he studied me cooly before reverting to his truth-seeking quest. "That nanny cam tape," he said. "If it wasn't you, who was it?"
I chewed on another Oreo. "I don't know. n.o.body else could have been in our house."
"You're certain of that? Where were you when your husband was shot?"
"In our guest bedroom. Asleep."
Labeck c.o.c.ked an eyebrow. "You and your husband-what was his name again-Kip? You didn't . . . uh . . . sleep together?"