“No luck,” Maizie said, locking the door behind her. “But I thought of one more place the pill might be. I’m sure I didn’t toss it, and it’s not like I mailed it to Annika’s 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, I’m 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 he’d said in class: “Don’t get in their car.” I hadn’t understood it then, but now it was obvious, which was funny because this wasn’t 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 hadn’t said a word since she’d 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.
“I’d rather not,” I said. “I get… claustrophobic.” It wasn’t a lie. I’d never been before, but now I had a profound need to be outside and far away.
“Wollie, it’s incredible. I have something so similar, with airplane cabins. Severe. I can’t fly, not for all the tea in China-it’s not flight itself, it’s the closed cabin. Believe me, you’ll 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. “It’s not claustrophobia, technically, it’s-” I searched through what was available of my brain. “Spelunkophobia. Fear of caves. Basements, subways. Rec rooms.”
“Try it. If you hate it, we’ll come back up. Cat! Leave that alone, the primer isn’t dry.”
I turned to see the cat batting at the torso of a wooden reindeer leaning against a counter. The earlobe must’ve 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 there’d be no going back. There’s no alternative scenario, no polite reason for bashing into someone. Once you do it, from then on it’s all about who’s stronger, who’s meaner, who’s been to the gym more. And that wouldn’t be me.
But I couldn’t 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. Don’t they? Wasn’t 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. “I’ll 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.”
“That’s 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. Rico’s 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 wasn’t 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. Annika’s.
“What did I tell you?” Maizie said. “Does it feel like you’re underground?”
“No. It’s 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. “That’s 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 it’s 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. That’s what Joey calls it, the Aha! moment, but in this case it was more of an Uh-oh! moment, followed by an I Can’t Believe How Stupid I’ve Been moment.
Everything I’d surmised about Savannah Brook actually applied to Maizie Quinn. Maizie, with whom I’d 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 it’s nothing, but you invented a drug. That’s historical. You’re the Madame Curie of Encino. How did it happen?”
Maizie laughed delightedly. “I just love you, Wollie. Thank you. It is a big deal, it’s 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 don’t cook.”
“Well, but you paint. Cooking, painting, organic chemistry-same thing. The experimental spirit. If you’re 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-he’s such a stick-in-the-mud, but once he saw the profit potential-” She guided me farther into the room, away from the staircase.
“That’s right, Gene’s a doctor, isn’t he?”
“Not the most inspired, but he’s 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 won’t. 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 wasn’t invited to, a bad haircut. I just waved it away, my hands doing air ballet. “Okay, but listen-Vladimir Tcheiko, it’s him, right? That you’re going into business with? Because I actually read about him in International Celeb-”
“My God, Wollie, I’m giddy.” Maizie laughed. “Did I tell you it’s tonight?”
“Tell me everything!”
Maizie nearly squealed. “We’re meeting here. It’s like the president coming for dinner. No, better, it’s like the Rolling Stones. I mean, the arrangements-endless. They didn’t 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 they’re so paranoid?”
“Because Vladimir’s bringing me into his organization, and he won’t take on anyone he can’t see face to face; he goes with his gut. And since I cannot get on a plane and you can’t drive to Africa, the mountain, so to speak, is coming to me.”
“Jeez, Maizie, it must be a big deal, it’s like you invented Velcro or something.”
“Yeah. It’s my year to be prom queen. I could’ve had Forio, or the Asians… That’s a big reason Tcheiko’s interested, because his competition is. And the timing’s good; he’s bored with hiding out, wants to show he’s still in the game and expanding.”
“But-what happened with Annika?”
Maizie rolled her eyes. “She brought Rico around. That’s 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 might’ve 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 wasn’t comfortable around her anymore. But by then I couldn’t send her home-Tcheiko doesn’t like changes in domestic staff close to a meeting like this-so I had to threaten her mother’s life, all sorts of nonsense. What a big, unnecessary mess.” Maizie sat on the staircase. “Rico should’ve seen she had a streak of puritanism.”
So what happened to her? I wanted to ask again but couldn’t. If the answer was bad, I wouldn’t 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 don’t 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. You’re 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 wouldn’t like to be skinny, but I am one damn good cook, and I’m 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 you’d like to taste the result.”
“I saw it?”
“Saturday night. The bird. Oh, there’s so much to talk about. Such a shame. I always felt an affinity for you, Wollie. You know Emma thinks we’re cousins? And you’re Grammy Quinn’s 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. “Let’s not get into that, okay?”
“No, really,” I said, my voice shrill. “What will you do with my body? It’s 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 don’t want to know. People get so squeamish. A guy in my charcuterie class Sunday had to leave the room when I pulled out Goosie’s 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 that’s life: moments of drama, hours of cleanup. No time for that tonight, I’ve got dinner cooking. And you’re right, I can’t 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. “You’re 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 wasn’t 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 don’t 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 brother’s history with schizophrenia, but it helped me. I don’t know much about real evil, but mental illness is a world I’ve 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. “You’re not just creative, Maizie, you’re brave.”
Maizie shrugged but looked pleased. “It’s no different from a surgeon or butcher. Once you get past the smell of blood and cutting through bones, it’s a series of tasks. Killing him was harder in one sense. It comes down to a moment. You can’t 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. I’m arrested, Gene’s 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 I’d met Yosip and Frito-”
“Tcheiko’s 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 he’s very unforgiving about that sort of thing, that was made very clear to me. I don’t think federal custody is really the place for me, do you?”
“Then it was… self-defense. Killing Rico.”
She smiled. “I’m 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.”
“What’d you kill him with?”
“Bread knife. Using what’s at hand, that’s 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 that’s 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. “Don’t waste your sympathy on him. Do you know he came over on Saturday to ask if I’d killed Annika? You told him she was looking for a gun, so he thought I’d 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. She’d never get over losing her son. I couldn’t stop my nose. I felt as though my face were leaking. “His mom,” I whispered.
Maizie stood. “She shouldn’t have raised such a selfish kid. I’m sorry for her, I truly am, but everyone’s got a mother-you can’t 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. “Emma’s 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. “She’s so wonderful.”
“Thank you. You’d have been a good mom, too, Wollie. I’m sorry, I had no idea you’d keep at this the way you did. And you figured out a lot. Surprisingly. Not to be offensive, but you just don’t look that smart. I think it’s your hair.”
“I suppose-” I cleared my throat. “If I didn’t 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. “It’s a twenty-two. It’s all I could find; Gene’s always walking off with the keys to the gun cabinet. It’ll do the job, I just can’t guarantee how fast, and you could be conscious the whole way out. And consider the mess. I don’t have time to clean and even if Lupe were here, I couldn’t ask her, she’s Catholic. And it’s loud. The room’s 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 hadn’t 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; he’d “recruited” me to distract me. He’d 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-that’s how it worked, right? Agents must be in a van on the street, listening to everything we’d 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, don’t be difficult. It’s like Emma’s pink medicine. She always thinks it will taste bad, but it doesn’t. This could be so easy.”
Simon wasn’t coming. Not that my opinion of men is low, but in my experience, the cavalry doesn’t show up just because you need them. If Simon was listening, he wouldn’t be listening, he’d be in here already, he’d be in here at the first mention of guns and whatever Maizie kept yapping about in that Tupperware. He wouldn’t use me for bait or for evidence gathering. He wouldn’t use me, period.
Simon! I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream, period.
He wasn’t here because he wasn’t 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 didn’t know I was here because my car was parked blocks away and I’d used the back-gate entrance that UPS knew about, but the FBI maybe didn’t, since my hostess had neglected to fax the FBI a map and, most of all, they didn’t know I was here because they all thought I was heading to Biological Clock.
“Shouldn’t we do this in your car, Maizie? Or mine? If you’re going to use my car to dump my body, wouldn’t it be easier if I’m already in it?”
“No,” she said, growing exasperated, “because then when I dump you, I’d have to drag you in one piece and it would attract attention. We went over that. Also, you’d 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. “Where’s Annika?”
“Wollie, it’s so ironic. She killed herself. She left me a suicide note the day she left. I just couldn’t show anyone; it was too incriminating.”
That’s 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 she’d 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 I’d 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 couldn’t do that. I don’t 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 you’re not dead, you’re 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 couldn’t believe she didn’t notice, but she didn’t. I was shaking so badly that when I pushed the Tupperware back across the counter, it wouldn’t go in a straight path. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t 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 wasn’t 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 can’t hesitate or you lose your nerve. The voice was Maizie’s.
Some force reached into my pocket and pulled out the silver meat mallet with my hand attached to it. I don’t know what you’d call it, some phenomenon of physics or biology stretching across a white Formica counter to bring the full weight of an arm onto someone’s 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 didn’t, 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.