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Labeck began, "We're here to fix-," but a frenzied yapping set up in the hallway behind Purvis and suddenly a tide of snarling fur b.a.l.l.s engulfed us, growling, snapping, and clearly stating in dog language: We're going to tear you to kibble and gnaw your ears like they're dried apricots. These were the fiends from h.e.l.l-Vanessa's venomous shih tzu-bichon frises. Their names were m.u.f.fin, Tufty, and Snook.u.ms, kittenish names for creatures with the volatility of land mines and the temperament of wolverines. Tufty sank his fangs into my heel.
I yelped in pain.
"Bad dogs!" Purvis, who was hard of hearing, apparently hadn't picked up on my voice. She aimed a kick at Tufty. If Vanessa had witnessed this sacrilege, Purvis would have been sacked on the spot, forty years of service or not. "Go lay down now! Down!" She scooped up Tufty and Snook.u.ms, who squirmed around and tried to bite her, but she was too wise to them; she held their muzzles squashed against her watermelon-sized b.o.o.bs. Labeck nabbed m.u.f.fin, locking the creature's vicious little snout in a hand vise.
"I apologize," Purvis said. "Those dogs never got trained. They're like animals-they need that Dog Whisperer."
I'd have whispered to them all right. Go play fetch on the freeway, you little furry t.u.r.ds! Go pick a fight with a pit bull.
"The missus home?" Labeck asked.
"Nope. She left a couple hours ago. Didn't say when she'd be back."
Purvis was not exactly the loyal old family retainer. She and Vanessa waged an ongoing war over the kitchen, Purvis believing the room was her sacred turf, while Vanessa, who cooked as a hobby and baked as a religion, trespa.s.sed in the kitchen whenever she felt like it, probably to whip up new varieties of poisoned pastries. She left her dirty dishes for Purvis to wash, messed up Purvis's alphabetically arranged spices, and put the utensils away in the wrong drawers, offenses that sent Purvis into muttered rants and fits of cabinet slamming. I wouldn't have been surprised if Vanessa ended up facedown on the kitchen tiles one day, the duck boning knife sticking out of her back with Purvis's fingerprints all over it.
"Glad you're here. We haven't been getting any cable at all lately," Purvis said. Labeck shot me a smug look. "Since Sat.u.r.day, if I recollect. It stopped just like that. You think you can get it fixed today? I don't like to miss my programs."
"Ho-kay. Just point me toward the nearest TV set and I'll take it from there," said Labeck. Holding m.u.f.fin at eye level, he spoke sternly. "You gonna behave?"
m.u.f.fin spiked out his fur, bared his teeth, and snarled. Purvis peeled him off Labeck and steamed away with the squirming bundles in her arms, looking as though she intended to toss them lock, stock, and collar into the microwave. Us cable guys swaggered into the living room. The room stretched the width of the house, with floor-to-ceiling windows that provided a stunning view of Lake Michigan. The decor didn't live up to the view, though; the furnishings looked as though they'd been lacquered in place during the Eisenhower era and never moved since. Olive green brocade sofas and matching wing chairs perched atop vine-patterned carpets. Prissy vases, figurines, and silk flowers were arranged on end tables like museum exhibits. Frankly, my cell at Taycheedah wasn't this depressing.
Labeck found the ma.s.sive cabinet that housed the television set, squatted down and started messing around with a screwdriver. He actually looked like he knew what he was doing. He was even displaying the repair guy's b.u.t.t crack.
"Fifteen minutes and out," he warned.
With pounding heart, dry mouth, and wire spooling out behind me, I scuttled up the stairs. I eased cautiously into Vanessa's bedroom. The dill pickle color motif lived on here in the bedspread and curtains. Hands shaking, I rummaged through drawers, hoping to find a secret side to Vanessa-movies with t.i.tles like Porking Polly, a gorilla-sized d.i.l.d.o, a cat-o'-nine-tails . . . actually, the whip wasn't all that far-fetched. Vanessa's lily of the valley scent hung heavily over the room, making my insides go all squishy with fear. I'd been scared of Vanessa when she was my mother-in-law; now that I was breaking and entering her house, I was nearly gibbering in terror.
Convinced that the video wasn't here, I tiptoed down the hall to Kip's boyhood bedroom. The day he'd introduced me to Vanessa he'd given me a tour of the house, which had ended with him dragging me onto his boyhood bed for a reenactment of an adolescent fantasy. Kip had the finish line all to himself that day. The thought of his mother bursting into his room and finding us naked cast an icy wet blanket over my libido.
It was hard not to feel sorry for Kip, growing up an only child in this house. His dad had died when he was ten, leaving him at Vanessa's mercy. Considering how she alternately bullied and spoiled him, it was amazing that he hadn't turned out to be more screwed up than he was. Now, gazing around at the model airplanes, the sports trophies, the bed with its plaid spread, everything preserved as it had been when Kip was a teenager, I realized that Vanessa would never have left the videotape of her son's murder in this room.
I was about to let myself out when my eye lit on Kip's bedside lamp, a heavy glazed ceramic pot whose base screwed on and off over a hollow interior. Kip had showed it to me that day we'd made whoopee on his bed. When he'd been a teenager, he'd stashed his dope and emergency cash in the lamp base, safe from his mother's prying eyes.
Maybe his stash was still there! Even fifty bucks would keep a desperate fugitive alive for a couple of days. The screws holding the lamp base in place loosened with a twist of my fingers. I pulled aside the base and groped inside. A baggie of graying hash fell out and-yes!-a baggie of bills! I was about to rip open the bag and count the money when an icy chill jagged up my spine and my nape hair stood on end.
Vanessa was here. There was no way I could have known it, but I did. My heart began to thump in ragged beats. Every system in my body went on red alert. Had I just heard raised voices, a shout, from the first floor? The dogs were barking up a storm. Maybe they'd treed Labeck atop the television cabinet. But I didn't really believe that. She was here, and she was hunting me.
Ramming the baggie into my pants, I blazed for the door, ran out into the hall, and hurtled toward the stairway. Too late. Footsteps on the stairs. Someone was coming up, moving fast. It wasn't Labeck; he would have called out. Frantically I looked for a place to hide. The linen closet! After Vanessa walked past, I'd sneak out of the closet and streak down the stairs. Inside, the closet was dark and stuffy. It smelled like rubber vacuum hose and had shelves that jutted into my spine.
The footsteps reached the top of the stairs. A pause, then a heavy tread down the hall. Whoever it was knew this house well. The person halted in front of the closet door. The scent of lilies of the valley wafted to my nostrils. The k.n.o.b turned. The door opened. Light flooded the closet.
Vanessa Vonnerjohn stood there, wearing a triumphant, terrible smile. She was holding a gun. She raised it until it was pointing directly at my heart, and I saw my own death in the barrel's small, round hole.
"I knew you'd come back," she crowed. "I haven't slept a wink since you escaped. I left the doors unlocked at night, I turned off the burglar alarms, I drove away from the house every morning hoping you'd sneak in. And you did! You fell right into my trap, you stupid little tramp!"
Her eyes glittered and her hands shook. Vanessa is tall, with wide shoulders, flat b.o.o.bs, and the long, muscular legs of a tennis player. She has an outthrust jaw, vodka on the rocks eyes, and a small, tight mouth. Her hair is shoe polish black, teased and sprayed into a bullet-deflecting helmet that looks as though it might harbor poisonous spiders. Her taste in clothes fossilized forty years ago. Today she was wearing a shin-length corduroy skirt, a puffy-sleeved blouse, a frilly ap.r.o.n, and orthopedic running shoes. She accessorized with said gun.
"Walk," she ordered, gesturing with the gun barrel toward the stairs leading to the third floor.
She wouldn't shoot me while Purvis was in the house, I told myself. Purvis hated Vanessa even more than she hated the dogs; if she heard shooting, she'd call the police.
"Don't think that old fool Purvis is going to save you," Vanessa sneered. My bowels turned to icy mush; I'd always had the eerie feeling that my mother-in-law could read my mind. "I sent her out for groceries. While she was gone, you broke into my house. You attacked me. I shot you in self-defense."
"Hush, Jezebel!" She lunged at me, whacking the gun barrel against my skull, staggering me against the wall, then yanking me upright by my hair. She was amazingly strong, as though she worked out with anvils.
"Do you recognize this gun?" she crooned in my ear. "You ought to. It's my son's gun, the one you used to take him away from me."
She shoved me forward, keeping the gun snugged against my spine. Terrified that the slightest movement would jar the trigger, I allowed her to b.u.mp and bully me up the narrow, uncarpeted stairway that led to the servants' quarters on the third floor. The ribbed corduroy of her skirt made scritching noises like insects rubbing their legs.
No fancy carpets or hand-carved woodwork up here. Worn linoleum and unpainted plaster walls were considered good enough for the servants who'd once lived here. Iron beds stood in empty, dormitory-like rooms. The air was stale, underlaid with mildew.
"Get in there." Vanessa thrust me into the servants' bathroom. A bathtub was filled with water and a s.p.a.ce heater was set out on the floor, plugged in and turned on.
"You should have gone to the electric chair," Vanessa hissed. "But those bleeding heart legislators outlawed the death penalty. While my son lay cold in his grave, you went on living with your three meals a day, your free dental work, your bowling, your stinking rights!" Her lips curled back from her teeth.
"Vanessa, listen to me! I didn't-"
"Oh, I know how cushy you sc.u.m have it in prison these days with your pedicures, your poetry readings, your self-esteem therapy sessions-"
"And of course the prison psychiatrists tell you that your crime wasn't your fault. No, it was society's fault, boo-hoo-hoo. Well, guess what? I, for one, am not buying it. I intend to see that you get what's coming to you."
"If you'd give me a chance to-"
"Get. In. The. G.o.dd.a.m.n. Tub. Or I'll shoot your kneecaps off."
Looking into the icicle eyes, I knew she would do it. I was wearing the shoes Labeck had lent me-a pair of his old Nikes, ludicrously large, along with three pairs of athletic socks to achieve a semi-fit. I put one jumbo foot in the bathwater. Vanessa impatiently waved at me and I lifted the other foot in. Water sloshed over onto the tile floor. Did she intend to drown me?
I opened my mouth to yell for Labeck.
Vanessa sneered. "Don't think that repairman is going to rush in to save you. He's locked in the bas.e.m.e.nt. I'll decide what to do with him after I deal with you."
The water was frigid. I had to set my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering.
"Take a bath, you dirty pig-all the way in!"
When I just stood there, Vanessa aimed at the wall above the tub and pulled the trigger. Instinctively I dived into the tub, creating a small tidal wave. A chunk of tile above my head exploded. The noise was deafening. I clapped my hands to my ringing ears as shards of tile rained into the tub. On the first floor, the dogs went insane, barking and yowling.
"When I tell you to do something, do it!" Spit flecked Vanessa's lips. She looked down at me, crouched in the water, my arms flung protectively over my head. "Are you frightened?"
"Good. You ought to be."
She pulled out the St. Christopher medal she wore on a chain around her neck. Vanessa was an old-style Catholic who went in for novenas, scapulars, prayer books, and lighted candles. If she'd lived five centuries ago she'd have been an enthusiastic rack-turner for the Inquisition. The Christopher medal was in honor of Kip's patron saint. She brought it to her lips and kissed it. "When Kip was killed, I lost my faith in G.o.d. But I was wrong. I was wrong and beg G.o.d to forgive me. I should have known that in His all-beneficial mercy G.o.d would hear my prayers. G.o.d arranged that tornado to deliver you to me."
Still pointing the gun at me, Vanessa backed up, reached for the s.p.a.ce heater, and hoisted it off the floor. It was an old-fashioned model: large and clunky, turned to the highest setting, its bars glowing fiery orange, its frayed cord plugged into an ungrounded outlet. Clutching it by the handle, she advanced toward the tub.
"You cheated the electric chair, Mazie Maguire, but you won't cheat G.o.d. G.o.d wants you to suffer before you die. G.o.d wants you to experience the agony of having electricity course through your body. G.o.d wants you to jump and twitch and lose control of your bowels."
Vanessa's trolley had jumped its tracks long before Kip's death, but now she had completely derailed. I had no doubt that she intended to carry out my electrocution. I started to scramble out of the tub, but Vanessa shot at me again, the bullet pinging off the waterspout, ricocheting and nearly hitting my knee. I screeched in terror. Still keeping the gun aimed at me, Vanessa swung the heater toward the tub.
At that moment m.u.f.fin exploded into the room, bounded onto the tub, and launched himself at my face. Gasping in horror, Vanessa halted her throw mid-swing and dropped the heater. It bounced against the rim of the tub and clunked to the floor. There was a sizzling crackle as a lightning-blue spark jittered along the length of the cord. Standing in a bathwater puddle, Vanessa was jolted backward by the force of the electrical shock and flung against the opposite wall, the cord wrenching loose as she tripped on it.
Meanwhile I had my hands full with m.u.f.fin. I pried him off, trapped his muzzle, and did something I'd always dreamed of: I spanked his furry little behind. He yelped in outrage. Clutching him against my chest, I heaved myself out of the tub, my legs quivering so violently I could scarcely stand. I bent to examine Vanessa, who was wedged between the toilet and the sink. She appeared dazed, her eyes unfocused, a stream of drool running out of one side of her mouth. Her fingers were twitching and her legs were jerking, but I guessed she'd have all her neurons firing in a minute or two. Then she'd come after me.
I picked up the gun, which had shot out of Vanessa's hands and skittered under the sink. I didn't want it, but I figured it ought to be taken away before Vanessa started taking potshots at the neighbors. Gun in one hand and dog in the other, I bolted down to the main floor, terrified that I'd accidentally pull the trigger and blow my foot off.
Curses and thumps came from the bas.e.m.e.nt. Still clutching m.u.f.fin, my hand clamped over his nasty little snout, I crept down the bas.e.m.e.nt steps. Labeck was locked inside Vanessa's luggage closet, attempting to kick down the door. A padlock was attached to the door hasp, its key nowhere in sight.
"It's me!" I yelled.
The pounding stopped. "I heard shots," Labeck called through the door. "Are you all right?"
"She tried to electrocute me."
"You didn't shoot her, did you?"
"No! She tried to shoot me!" I looked around for the padlock key, hoping Vanessa had left it out in plain sight. Of course she hadn't. Time was running out here and the back of my neck was p.r.i.c.kling. I could picture Vanessa charging down the stairs with a chain saw in her hands.
"Stand away from the door," I yelled. I aimed at the lock and for the first time in my life pulled the trigger of a gun. The padlock exploded.
I screamed. Labeck screamed. He emerged from the closet a moment later, looking pale and shaken.
He stared at me. "You elected to marry into that gene pool?"
Escape tip #14: Don't fall in the radon.
Labeck stopped in a deserted church parking lot to rip the cable company signs off the van while I huddled in the pa.s.senger seat, stuffing wads of Kleenex inside my soaked clothes. Labeck got back in, started the van, and peeled out.
"Was she always like that?" He was still smarting over the way Vanessa had forced him to the bas.e.m.e.nt at gunpoint and locked him in the luggage closet.
"She's mellowed a bit." I sorted through my memories, trying to select one that would ill.u.s.trate what it was like having the kind of in-law who would b.o.o.by-trap your shoes with scorpions or spike your coffee with WD-40. I told Labeck about the time Vanessa and I had gone shopping together and she'd planted an expensive necklace in my handbag so I'd be arrested for shoplifting. How she'd volunteered to mail out our wedding invitations, but had never mailed the ones to my side of the family. How she'd given Kip's best man a thousand dollars to get Kip so drunk at his bachelor party he wouldn't make it to the church.
"You'd have been a lot better off if he hadn't shown up," growled Labeck.
m.u.f.fin snarled, annoyed by Labeck's tone of voice. He was imprisoned inside an upended plastic milk crate on the van floor. The mutt had chased us as we'd run out of Vanessa's house and leaped into the van. A rottweiler trapped inside the body of a beanie baby, he'd rampaged around madly, trying to rip out our jugulars, until Labeck had the presence of mind to clap the crate over him. Labeck was not taking any guff from a two-pound fur ball; when m.u.f.fin snarled at him, he snarled back. Growling sullenly, m.u.f.fin lay back down, his upraised hackles clearly expressing the concept: This ain't over yet.
"Think the Queen of Mean called the cops after we left?" Labeck asked.
"Who knows what goes through that diseased brain? If the police pick me up, she loses her chance to force drain cleaner down my throat." Nervously I checked the van's rearview mirror. Vanessa must have seen the cable van, parked outside her house. The police could be pulling over white vans all over the city.
Labeck fiddled with the illegal police scanner on the dashboard and we listened to garbled transmissions for a while. They might as well have been speaking Klingon as far as I could make out, but Labeck seemed to comprehend the static and after listening for a while relaxed.
"Nothing. I think we're okay for now."
He reached inside his shirt pocket and pulled out a black cartridge, tossed it in my lap.
"Is this it?" I breathed. "The nanny cam tape?" There was a white label on the outside and the date 9-25.
"Might be. I found it inside your mother-in-law's VCR. The reason the cable wasn't working is that she accidentally unhooked the cable link when she plugged the cord into her old VCR player."
Yes, I could picture that. Vanessa, sitting in front of her television, watching the videotape of Kip's murder scroll across the screen, psyching herself into the state of bubbling bile that would enable her to execute me.
"I want to run that film through the NSRT at the station," Labeck said.
"Sorry, I don't speak acronym."
"Nonsequential ray tracing. A videotape a.n.a.lysis program."
Moving west through Milwaukee's sluggish mid-morning traffic, we pulled into Channel 13 headquarters half an hour later. It was a one-story brick building with billboard-sized photos of Peter Polifka mounted on the roof amidst a jungle of antennae and satellite dishes large enough to bounce signals to distant galaxies. We rolled around to the back, where a parking lot held two more camera vans like Labeck's.
"Take the toolbox," Labeck said. "There's a face mask in there-put it on."
I found the ventilator mask, a flattened paper cone of the type worn by brain surgeons and asbestos removers, snapped it on, and immediately began to breathe like Darth Vader. We got out of the van, me lugging the heavy toolbox and carrying a clipboard. m.u.f.fin, who'd been sullenly lying inside the crate, sprang to his feet and began biting at the crate slats, growling out threats about what he was going to do to us once he busted out. Labeck slammed the van door.
"You're a service guy," Labeck instructed. "You're here to fix the . . . you're checking for radon. n.o.body knows what the h.e.l.l radon is, so we ought to be safe with that story."
We. What a sweet word. A buddy-buddy word, a spine-stiffening word, a word ten thousand times more powerful than the puny I. When had you and I morphed into we? Had Labeck begun to believe my side of the story; was that why he was still helping me? Maybe it was best not to look too hard into that particular gift horse's mouth.
Labeck took out a set of keys and unlocked the building's back door. I followed him inside, into a service corridor. We hadn't gone two steps before a mens' restroom door opened and a man emerged, still zipping his fly.
"Benny, my man!"
"Hey," Labeck responded unenthusiastically.
My Darth Vader breathing quickened. Standing directly in front of me was the real-life Peter Polifka, Channel 13's anchorman. He was even more gorgeous in person than on TV. He was tan, square-jawed, and full-lipped. His teeth were the blinding white of a Cloroxed toilet bowl. He wore a pink shirt, a burgundy tie, and a dark gray suit. His voice was a deep, s.e.xy baritone. I knew two Taycheedah inmates who had his face tattooed on their inner thighs.
Polifka pointed at me, puzzled by my mask. "What's he here for?"
I hated being a male in front of Peter Polifka. I wanted him to see me as a desirable woman, not a shrimpy repair creep. Although now that he was standing in front of me, I noticed that he was a foot shorter than I'd pictured and that his tan looked like pancake makeup.
"Radon check," Labeck muttered.
Polifka looked alarmed. "Oh. Is there-"
Polifka peered at me. "Do you know your pants are wet?"
"He fell into some radon," Labeck said casually. "It happens. But you should be okay if you stay in your office with the door locked and the blinds down for a couple hours. Maybe crawl under your desk."
Peter Polifka rocked back on his two-inch heels, considering this information. "Well. Okay then. Carry on." He turned around and scurried away, as though radon were contagious.