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39

No luck, Maizie said, locking the door behind her. But I thought of one more place the pill might be. Im sure I didnt toss it, and its not like I mailed it to Annikas mother.

I snapped out of my paralysis and pushed the earlobe aside with my foot. The yellow cat, thinking it was a game, bunched himself up, swaying, ready to pounce. I stepped lightly on the earlobe, covering it with my sneaker.

Check this out. Maizie bent down to a braided area rug and moved it aside. I designed it and, I have to admit, Im pretty proud of it.

She knelt on the white floor and counted tiles. She found the one she wanted, pushed on one end with her thumb, then lifted it out to reveal an aluminum-like surface underneath. A metal ring rested in the aluminum. She hooked her finger through it and pulled. A section of floor lifted up and became a trapdoor.

She stood and smiled, gesturing to the open door. After you, she said.

I thought of Seth, the Krav Maga instructor, and something hed said in class: Dont get in their car. I hadnt understood it then, but now it was obvious, which was funny because this wasnt a car but an underground room Maizie was inviting me into. I knew that going down there was a bad idea. Bad, bad, bad.

Wollie? She seemed not to notice that I hadnt said a word since shed walked in.

I stepped forward and looked down. A light had gone on automatically, revealing a spiral staircase of polished oak. Spiral staircases, Fredreeq said, were bad feng shui.

The yellow cat nuzzled my foot.

Maizie was waiting. Smiling.

Id rather not, I said. I get claustrophobic. It wasnt a lie. Id never been before, but now I had a profound need to be outside and far away.

Wollie, its incredible. I have something so similar, with airplane cabins. Severe. I cant fly, not for all the tea in China-its not flight itself, its the closed cabin. Believe me, youll like this. Maizie put a hand on my arm, guiding me toward the trapdoor.

I kicked the earlob aside, talking loudly to mask the sound of its journey across the tile. Its not claustrophobia, technically, its- I searched through what was available of my brain. Spelunkophobia. Fear of caves. Basements, subways. Rec rooms.

Try it. If you hate it, well come back up. Cat! Leave that alone, the primer isnt dry.

I turned to see the cat batting at the torso of a wooden reindeer leaning against a counter. The earlobe mustve landed behind it.

I should run for it. Maizie stood between the door and me, but I could just barrel over her. We were probably in the same weight class, although I had two inches on her, even given her high heels. But she looked solid whereas I was a jellyfish. And thered be no going back. Theres no alternative scenario, no polite reason for bashing into someone. Once you do it, from then on its all about whos stronger, whos meaner, whos been to the gym more. And that wouldnt be me.

But I couldnt go down that staircase. Only an idiot would go down there.

Unless she had a gun.

She did have a gun.

It was in her apron pocket, not even hiding. Part of the outfit. Had it always been there, or had she gone to the house for it?

Okay, once a gun shows up, the rules change. Dont they? Wasnt it better for the gun to stay in her pocket than get pointed at me?

She was looking at me. Her hand went to her pocket.

Maizie! My voice was shrill. Ill do it. Before I lose my nerve. Feel the fear and do it anyway. I think that was the name of a book. Anyway, I love to see how other people do their houses. Did you design all this yourself? I think your husband mentioned that you did.

Thats right, you met Gene. The cat knocked over the reindeer torso. Freaked out, he raced across the room. Maizie grabbed him. She walked toward me, the cat wiggling and mewing, wanting to get back to the earlobe. Ricos earlobe. The earlobe of Rico Rodriguez.

The cat was no match for Maizie Quinn. Nor was I. She held him in one hand, the other hand in easy reach of her gun. The three of us were going down.

The staircase was a long one. The underground room had a high ceiling-or a low floor, depending on your perspective. And Maizie was right; it wasnt cramped. You could have ballroom dancing down here or, more likely, a cooking class. Half the room was a test kitchen, with extra sinks and stovetops, all of it well lit and aggressively clean. Walls, floors, and counters were white, with copper hardware. And it smelled of perfume, something spicy. That scent again. Annikas.

What did I tell you? Maizie said. Does it feel like youre underground?

No. Its wonderful. Is this where you make your aromatherapy products?

She smiled and stroked the cat, who purred so loudly I could hear him across the room. Thats right. Shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, and methylenedioxymethamphetamine. Ecstasy. With a little something extra. Fentanyl. X plus F: I call it Euphoria.

Another interesting thing about the human brain, at least my brain, is that while I expect it to work in an orderly fashion, one discovery leading to another, building to an inevitable conclusion, in fact its one big shopping bag I throw things into: tax receipts, toenail clippers, half a banana, nothing connecting to anything else until it all comes together in one big Aha! moment. Thats what Joey calls it, the Aha! moment, but in this case it was more of an Uh-oh! moment, followed by an I Cant Believe How Stupid Ive Been moment.

Everything Id surmised about Savannah Brook actually applied to Maizie Quinn. Maizie, with whom Id spent time on a practically-every-other-day basis, Maizie, dropping clues right and left, except I was too busy admiring her quilts and flowers and homemade lawn ornaments to notice. Maizie, who made her own sausage and bread, now standing between me and the staircase that was my only way out of here.

I found my voice. Wow. For how long?

Down here? Less than a year. Oh, you mean when did I get into the business? I cut my teeth on Ecstasy back in college. I was the sorority supplier.

But, Maizie- I heard my voice squeak. You act like its nothing, but you invented a drug. Thats historical. Youre the Madame Curie of Encino. How did it happen?

Maizie laughed delightedly. I just love you, Wollie. Thank you. It is a big deal, its huge, but you know, I was sitting around one night thinking about analgesics and hallucinogens, and voil`a! Exactly like cooking. You know how that is?

I said, I dont cook.

Well, but you paint. Cooking, painting, organic chemistry-same thing. The experimental spirit. If youre willing to make mistakes, you can achieve anything.

I nodded, thinking of my freehand mural. My West African goliath. My mistakes. Just stay connected to her, I thought. But to go from an idea to an actual product-?

She nodded too. I derivatized some fentanyl, combined it with MDMA, and started test-marketing. People loved it. So then I had to talk Gene into a regular supply of fentanyl-hes such a stick-in-the-mud, but once he saw the profit potential- She guided me farther into the room, away from the staircase.

Thats right, Genes a doctor, isnt he?

Not the most inspired, but hes found his niche now, running this pharmacy scam; he gets me all the fentanyl I need, in the form of pain patches. A man has to thrive professionally or he feels like a big fat loser. Remember that when you get m-. Oops. Sorry.

No, what about? I said brightly.

I was going to say when you get married, but obviously you wont. Now.

Something inside me started to tighten up, in my throat, but I waved off the implication as if it were nothing: a party I wasnt invited to, a bad haircut. I just waved it away, my hands doing air ballet. Okay, but listen-Vladimir Tcheiko, its him, right? That youre going into business with? Because I actually read about him in International Celeb-

My God, Wollie, Im giddy. Maizie laughed. Did I tell you its tonight?

Tell me everything!

Maizie nearly squealed. Were meeting here. Its like the president coming for dinner. No, better, its like the Rolling Stones. I mean, the arrangements-endless. They didnt want Gene here, no one but me, they did background checks on the family, Lupe, the gardeners, people in the neighborhood, the goddamn film across the street-

Why do this at all, if theyre so paranoid?

Because Vladimirs bringing me into his organization, and he wont take on anyone he cant see face to face; he goes with his gut. And since I cannot get on a plane and you cant drive to Africa, the mountain, so to speak, is coming to me.

Jeez, Maizie, it must be a big deal, its like you invented Velcro or something.

Yeah. Its my year to be prom queen. I couldve had Forio, or the Asians Thats a big reason Tcheikos interested, because his competition is. And the timings good; hes bored with hiding out, wants to show hes still in the game and expanding.

But-what happened with Annika?

Maizie rolled her eyes. She brought Rico around. Thats what happened to Annika.

And he liked U4? He wanted in on it?

Loved it. He and his friends were my first distributors. But eventually he told Annika. And she mightve gotten used to the idea, but she caught him kissing me one day and that was it. She was such a child about that, I wasnt comfortable around her anymore. But by then I couldnt send her home-Tcheiko doesnt like changes in domestic staff close to a meeting like this-so I had to threaten her mothers life, all sorts of nonsense. What a big, unnecessary mess. Maizie sat on the staircase. Rico shouldve seen she had a streak of puritanism.

So what happened to her? I wanted to ask again but couldnt. If the answer was bad, I wouldnt be able to keep this up. I cleared my throat. Rico was not, I take it, puritanical?

She gave me a sidelong glance. Not in any way you can think of. I dont know what my face was doing, but she laughed. The cat squirmed. She set him down. Shocked that I slept with him?

Not at all. Youre beautiful, Maizie. If we could just go on like this, I thought. Like friends. Chatting. Gossiping. You have the skin of a twenty-year-old. And the earlobe of a twenty-one-year-old. Upstairs. Under the lawn ornaments. I was losing it.

Elizabeth Arden day spa. And I got my eyes done last year. She patted her hip under her denim apron. Where the gun was. Being ten pounds overweight minimizes wrinkles. Not that I wouldnt like to be skinny, but I am one damn good cook, and Im not making foie gras for my three-year-old. Oh, my goodness, did I ever offer you some?

Foie gras? No. What was foie gras? Liver?

She looked at her watch. Well, too late now, but you saw it in progress, so I thought youd like to taste the result.

I saw it?

Saturday night. The bird. Oh, theres so much to talk about. Such a shame. I always felt an affinity for you, Wollie. You know Emma thinks were cousins? And youre Grammy Quinns favorite, on that show of yours She stood, reached into her apron pocket-not the gun one, but the middle one-and pulled out a piece of Tupperware. It was the size of a hockey puck. Lucky you. Fentanyl, far better than morphine. Nap time.

And then what?

Hey. She winked. Lets not get into that, okay?

No, really, I said, my voice shrill. What will you do with my body? Its not easy to lug around-my feet alone-. Believe me, this is something I know about. Perhaps I was going into shock, talking about my body as though it were a suitcase.

Honestly, you dont want to know. People get so squeamish. A guy in my charcuterie class Sunday had to leave the room when I pulled out Goosies liver.

That was Goosie? I gasped. I thought it was a turkey.

She laughed. It was a pain in the ass, frankly. It took seconds to wring her neck, and forever to turn her into foie gras. But thats life: moments of drama, hours of cleanup. No time for that tonight, Ive got dinner cooking. And youre right, I cant carry you anywhere; I could barely drag Rico across the room.

A murder confession. That was awfully easy. I swallowed. This room?

She shook her head. Upstairs. I dropped him through the trapdoor.

Then what? I whispered.

If you must know, I had to get his limbs off. I tried a Skilsaw, but tissue splattered everywhere, so I went with a hacksaw, fit the torso and head in one Hefty bag, ground up arms and legs in the meat grinder, the small parts, and got the large bones out to the car in a second trip. Not bad.

My mouth was very dry. Youre losing me. Wh-why the meat grinder?

I had to limit trips to the car. Not so important on this end, but in Antelope Valley that kind of thing attracts attention.

Why Antelope Valley? I asked, keeping my voice conversational.

Good distance. Nice Dumpsters.

But wasnt there a lot of blood?

Oh, at first, just spewing out, and his body thrashing around, but not so bad once his heart stopped pumping. I used an aluminum tub for his parts, the kind we use at picnics to store ice and drinks, and a six-mil plastic sheet to contain things Thank God for custom ventilation. Gene made a big fuss over the expense last year, but you dont do aromatherapy, let alone drug production with a ceiling fan.

What to do? She had to be a little mad. Maybe a lot mad. These were not words I used lightly, considering my brothers history with schizophrenia, but it helped me. I dont know much about real evil, but mental illness is a world Ive lived in. It could work to my advantage. Since she was armed, it was perhaps my only advantage.

What a week for you, I said. Youre not just creative, Maizie, youre brave.

Maizie shrugged but looked pleased. Its no different from a surgeon or butcher. Once you get past the smell of blood and cutting through bones, its a series of tasks. Killing him was harder in one sense. It comes down to a moment. You cant hesitate or you lose your nerve.

Was it because he wanted to be a partner?

Oh, please. Fifty percent of my gross? For what, his people skills? Not in this lifetime. The problem was, he threatened to turn me in. Think about that. Im arrested, Genes arrested. Forget losing the house, the cars, Emma growing up in Palm Springs with Grammy Quinn. Prison would be the least of it, because by then Id met Yosip and Frito-

Frito?

Tcheikos lieutenants. I could identify them. I know some organizational details the Feds would be interested in. And Tcheiko would lose face among his peers, because of my error in judgment, and hes very unforgiving about that sort of thing, that was made very clear to me. I dont think federal custody is really the place for me, do you?

Then it was self-defense. Killing Rico.

She smiled. Im not sure a jury would see it that way, since he was naked at the time. In front of the fire. Unarmed, except for prosciutto and olives, and a loaf of sourdough.

Whatd you kill him with?

The W"ustof.

Excuse me?

Bread knife. Using whats at hand, thats a core homemaker philosophy. I went down on him, he fell asleep, I slit his throat. I always have my knives sharpened for the holidays, a little cutlery store in Beverly Hills. Ear to ear is what you always hear, so thats what I focused on, one good incision. And from there it was just a step at a time. You can do anything in the world if you break it into small, manageable parts. Oh, please. She was looking at me now, eyes narrowed. Dont waste your sympathy on him. Do you know he came over on Saturday to ask if Id killed Annika? You told him she was looking for a gun, so he thought Id killed her. Thought he could squeeze me for a bigger percentage. Do you need a Kleenex?

My nose was running, the way it does when I try not to cry. I thought of Lauren Rodriguez, the look in her eyes that would never go away now. Shed never get over losing her son. I couldnt stop my nose. I felt as though my face were leaking. His mom, I whispered.

Maizie stood. She shouldnt have raised such a selfish kid. Im sorry for her, I truly am, but everyones got a mother-you cant let that stop you. I have a child. She glanced at her watch. She was like Bing, ready to yell Cut! the minute the conversation palled.

Capricorn, I said breathlessly. Emmas the Capricorn. The logo on your pills.

Maizie smiled. Yes. Emma. There was a counter between us, a white counter, sparkling clean, no trace of the blood that must have spattered here from Rico Rodriguez going through a saw. Because you know what real euphoria is? An epidural, after fourteen hours of labor. And then the prize. My Emma. Giving birth to my baby was the best day of my life.

Maizie, I said. Shes so wonderful.

Thank you. Youd have been a good mom, too, Wollie. Im sorry, I had no idea youd keep at this the way you did. And you figured out a lot. Surprisingly. Not to be offensive, but you just dont look that smart. I think its your hair.

I suppose- I cleared my throat. If I didnt want to take this-fen-

Fentanyl, she said, and her hand once more reached into her denim apron pocket. She drew out the gun. It was small. Black. Its a twenty-two. Its all I could find; Genes always walking off with the keys to the gun cabinet. Itll do the job, I just cant guarantee how fast, and you could be conscious the whole way out. And consider the mess. I dont have time to clean and even if Lupe were here, I couldnt ask her, shes Catholic. And its loud. The rooms insulated, assuming the trapdoor worked. It should close automatically- Maizie walked over to the spiral staircase, heels clicking across the white tile floor. I looked around frantically, but there was no place to run, hide, no door, nothing. A weapon, then, something, anything. I tried a kitchen cabinet. Locked. Each cabinet had little locks.

How had she pulled this off, how could no one know about this, the police, the FBI-

They did know. She hadnt pulled it off. For the second time in an hour I felt like the stupidest person alive. Simon had tried in every way he could to prevent this. There was no crime going on at Biological Clock except bad TV; hed recruited me to distract me. Hed done everything but glue my feet to Santa Monica Boulevard to keep me away from here.

But here I was.

Where was he?

The house must be under surveillance, bugged, the phones tapped-thats how it worked, right? Agents must be in a van on the street, listening to everything wed been saying, getting it all on tape, maybe waiting for the right moment to come rushing in-

Now would be a good time! I wanted to yell.

Maizie climbed back down the spiral staircase with a smile. Okay, all insulated. Wollie, dont be difficult. Its like Emmas pink medicine. She always thinks it will taste bad, but it doesnt. This could be so easy.

Simon wasnt coming. Not that my opinion of men is low, but in my experience, the cavalry doesnt show up just because you need them. If Simon was listening, he wouldnt be listening, hed be in here already, hed be in here at the first mention of guns and whatever Maizie kept yapping about in that Tupperware. He wouldnt use me for bait or for evidence gathering. He wouldnt use me, period.

Simon! I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream, period.

He wasnt here because he wasnt listening, because this was a soundproof room, with no telephone, and a secret entrance that no one, not even a state-of-the-art good guy knew about. And they didnt know I was here because my car was parked blocks away and Id used the back-gate entrance that UPS knew about, but the FBI maybe didnt, since my hostess had neglected to fax the FBI a map and, most of all, they didnt know I was here because they all thought I was heading to Biological Clock.

Shouldnt we do this in your car, Maizie? Or mine? If youre going to use my car to dump my body, wouldnt it be easier if Im already in it?

No, she said, growing exasperated, because then when I dump you, Id have to drag you in one piece and it would attract attention. We went over that. Also, youd be easy to ID, they could determine time of death-no. Trust me, it creates more problems than it solves.

I see. I seemed to be both shivering and sweating now, and then I sneezed; it was as though my body were running through its repertoire of involuntary activities, sensing the end. My memory was running through its own repertoire, saying I love you to P.B., Joey, Fredreeq, Uncle Theo. Mom. Simon. Doc.

I loved you too, Doc said back. I just loved my kid more.

One last thing, I said. Wheres Annika?

Wollie, its so ironic. She killed herself. She left me a suicide note the day she left. I just couldnt show anyone; it was too incriminating.

Thats not true, I thought, wrapping my arms around myself to fend off hysteria. Annika e-mailed me. Just days ago. I had to believe it came from her, because otherwise, what was all this for? If shed been dead all along

I held myself tighter and felt something in my jean jacket, in the pocket. Hard.

I slipped my hand in my pocket. Cold. One of the things Id bought at Williams-Sonoma. The meat mallet. I could feel the tiny string on it, attached to the small rectangular price tag.

Words began to run through my head like voice-mail messages.

Crotch, neck, soft parts of the face. Seth, from Krav Maga.

I couldnt do that. I dont even do sit-ups.

You do what you have to do to stay alive. Ruta, my childhood babysitter.

Annika would never kill herself. Not over a guy. She was smarter than that.

If youre not dead, youre not done. Seth.

Can I look at it? I said, my voice squeaky and high, like little Emma. The fentanyl?

Maizie took a seat and pushed the small Tupperware container toward me.

My left hand worked the lid, my right hand staying in my pocket. I couldnt believe she didnt notice, but she didnt. I was shaking so badly that when I pushed the Tupperware back across the counter, it wouldnt go in a straight path. Im sorry, I said. I cant get it open.

Of course she tried to open it for me. She was a mom. The Tupperware lid was tough, though. She needed both hands to pry it off. She held on to the gun but, still, she used both hands, and so then she wasnt looking at me, she was looking at the Tupperware.

This was it. Now or never. A last voice played in my head. A moment. You cant hesitate or you lose your nerve. The voice was Maizies.

Some force reached into my pocket and pulled out the silver meat mallet with my hand attached to it. I dont know what youd call it, some phenomenon of physics or biology stretching across a white Formica counter to bring the full weight of an arm onto someones neck, head, shoulder, ear, cheekbone, not once, not even twice, but enough times to make her fall from the stool she sat on, onto the white tile floor. When that happened, I stopped.

The blows stopped, but the cries didnt, the raw sounds a throat can make, somewhere between a scream and a sob that I finally recognized as coming from my own body, not hers.


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