I ran up the spiral staircase. At the top, waiting for me, was the yellow cat, wanting out.
I wanted out too.
There was no handle, though, or door knob, so I pressed and pushed and banged the side of my fist against the trapdoor. It wouldn’t open. There was a keypad but I couldn’t begin to guess a code, so I punched numbers. The cat meowed at me. I thought about panicking and then remembered I had a cell phone. In my pocket. My other pocket.
I got reception. I called Simon. I didn’t think twice. When his voice mail answered, I said, “It’s Wollie, I’m in her house, the studio behind the house, underground, in an underground-and I can’t get out and I’ve maybe-killed her. And she said Annika’s dead but she can’t be dead because she e-mailed me.” My voice cracked and I hung up and clutched the banister of the spiral staircase, where I sat, my body knotted like a pretzel. The cat purred and rubbed itself against my shoulder.
I dialed 911. They asked me questions. I answered them. I hung up.
I sneezed. Then I waited.
Life is short. That’s one of those things that occurs to you when you glimpse death, yours or anybody’s. You think, “I’ll remember this, this will remind me not to waste time,” but you forget. You carry on like you have several hundred years to live and like it matters if some guy now living in Taiwan who once loved you still does, or if you pass a math test or win a reality TV show or finish the frogs or get your car washed before the end of the year.
When all that really matters is that you’re not dead. The rest of it, like what that means in the long run or what I was feeling right at the moment, I couldn’t sort out. I didn’t know if Maizie Quinn was or wasn’t dead, and I knew that this distinction would make a big difference in the lives of many people, me among them, but for the moment I didn’t care. I had her gun on the top step, away from the cat, and I had the meat mallet. There were no sounds below me, the sounds of a human being rallying. If I were a different sort of person, a brave one, for instance, I might have gone down to see if I could do something about her, like revive her or tie her up, but I was the person I was, so I stayed where I was, crouched and tense and concentrating on steady shallow breaths, thinking about being alive. Sneezing.
I don’t know how long it was just the yellow cat and me, but after a time there were voices, so muffled I might have been hallucinating. I screamed and pounded and then the door opened upward and people moved past me down the spiral staircase. Someone-he told me he was FBI, they were all FBI-helped me up, took from me the meat mallet, with blood drying on its silver surface, and, after I directed his attention to it, the gun. He led me to a chair near the fireplace and gestured to a woman, who came and stayed close to me. At some point someone from below called up, “She’s alive,” and for a moment I thought they were talking about me. And then I slid out of the chair onto the floor, I’m not sure why, except that I wanted something more solid underneath me. I stayed there across the room from the reindeer pieces with their primer drying until paramedic types brought Maizie up from below on a stretcher. I didn’t see her face, only her healthy-looking blond hair, matted with the darkness of drying blood. I began to shake all over again. That’s when Simon walked in.
When I saw his face, grim and tense and pale, I had to work not to cry. He scanned the room and saw me.
Came toward me with long strides. Stopped when someone grabbed his arm to whisper something in his ear. Nodded to him, spoke a few words, came over and looked down. Then he knelt on the floor next to me, very close.
“You all right?” he said.
I nodded, not able to speak.
I shook my head.
“Don’t move.” He gestured to the woman with me, then stood and walked away.
A minute later another medical type with a first-aid kit came over and checked out my vital signs and asked me some questions. My answers seemed to satisfy him. I started to tell him to check on the cat, but the words came out funny. He covered me with a blanket, let me stay on the floor, walked away to say a few words to Simon, and left.
Simon seemed to be the Bing Wooster of this operation. I wondered why the area wasn’t being roped off as a crime scene, then thought that maybe no one but me knew a crime had been committed here, except the crime of me hitting Maizie with a meat mallet. I turned to the woman at my side. “There’s an earlobe here,” I said.
“An earlobe.” I stood. She touched my arm and started to ask me something, but I wrapped my blanket around myself and walked over to Simon, standing in the kitchen. He must’ve had eyes on the side of his head. He turned immediately.
“Yes? What is it?”
“There’s an earlobe around here somewhere. On the floor.”
“An earlobe. It belonged to Rico Rodriguez. The cat was playing with it. The rest of Rico is in Antelope Valley.”
Simon took a long look at me, then nodded. The news didn’t seem to surprise him, but I figured they train them not to look surprised. He put a hand around my upper arm, gently, but his hand was so big it surrounded my bicep like a bandage. “Wollie,” he said. “You need to-”
“Not now.” As if to reinforce this, his cell phone rang. He listened, frowning, then addressed the room at large. “All right, we’ve got company. They’re early. Exiting the 405 at Valley Vista, taking surface streets. Let’s move.” He addressed the woman who’d been hovering and asked where her car was. Base camp, she told him. “Put her in mine,” he said, and fished keys out of his jacket. “Windows up.”
“We’ve got a problem.” It was a new agent, coming in from outside, leaving the door open. He came over to Simon, the urgency in his voice unrestrained. His manner was not deferential. “We picked up Dr. Kildare and Hazel at the Sportsman’s Lodge. He’s falling over himself to cooperate, but all he knows is she’s to stand outside the house, meet them at the gate. Car one is Lenin. He verifies it’s her, drives through, radios car two, that’s Stalin. He comes through, she closes the gate, walks them here to the lab. If she’s not at the gate, the deal’s off. She’s not alone, the deal’s off. Lenin doesn’t ID her, Stalin stays away, we shoot it out with him on the freeway all the way to Tijuana or Death Valley or wherever the hell he parked the getaway jet.”
Simon nodded. “That’s more than one problem. Hazel?”
“Nothing. Knows company’s coming. Betty Crocker’s been cooking all day.”
Simon nodded. “Female agents?”
“Dahl, San Diego, stuck on the 405 and she’s short. We’re working on a wig for Ellis.”
“Won’t make it in time. Passwords?”
“Husband doesn’t know. Surveillance says no, but we’re reviewing transcripts. It’s not something we were listening for. Right now I need you to look at the geography out front. If we can get him onto the block, Potemkin may have a shot from across the street.”
Simon looked toward the door, shaking his head. “Not unless we get them to roll down a window. Even then, it’s going to be a bad night in the neighborhood.”
“I don’t need a wig,” I said.
Both men turned to me. The room went quiet.
“No.” Simon didn’t even think about it.
But the agent with him thought about it. He looked at me with interest, then turned to Simon and said something I didn’t catch.
“I can do this,” I said to them. “I can. I’m like her.”
Simon shook his head. “Not enough. They’ve met her.”
“What are you going to do?” I said. “I knocked out Little Fish. There’s nobody else. I can get them to roll down the car window. I can be Betty Crocker for ten goddamn minutes.”
Simon looked at his watch. “You didn’t sign on for this.”
The other agent said, “Actually, she did sign on for this. This is Kermit, right? Use her.”
Simon’s cell phone rang. He spoke into it, held up a finger to us, then walked outside.
The other agent kept looking at me. “Think you can do this?” he said.
I felt the room around me holding its breath. “Yes,” I said.
He nodded. “Let’s go.”
The room came to life. Two women agents led me to a corner, helping me into clothes they must’ve found in the house, jeans that had to be Maizie’s and a white sweater. They talked calmly and encouragingly. Nothing fit exactly right; the jeans were too short, and the sweater sleeves, but it was all close enough. I smelled like her now, subtle and spicy. It was Annika’s scent too, the aromatherapy products. Sassafras oil, maybe.
One of the agents apologized, asked me to hold still, and then I heard scissors and saw my hair fall to the floor. Another put foundation on my face and handed me a lipstick and a mirror. Maizie’s makeup. Maizie’s haircut. On my way outside, I grabbed an apron from a peg.
Agents flanked me and we hurried down the path toward the house, the butter-yellow traditional American with white trim. The porch was lit up with the tiny icicle lights. We passed other people, one wearing a headset, others on cell phones, the agents on either side of me protective, as if I were the most important person in the world, which in their world, at this moment, I was. We walked faster and faster, toward the security gate, and it began to sink in, what I was doing. I pushed the thought aside. A man ahead of us opened the electronic gate.
The film was still shooting on Moon Canyon, a generator powering big lights that illuminated the street. Equipment trucks, trailers, and cars were everywhere, street, pavement, and grass, blocking one another. The crew milled around, a small army of cell phones and headsets. I had an impression of sailors on a ship, battening down hatches in preparation for a storm at sea. “Crossing Valley Vista,” an agent said into a radio. “Kermit in place.”
Simon stood by a tree, near the koi pond. He wore a headset too, head bowed in concentration, listening. He looked up and stared at me, his face hard. As when we’d first met.
“No,” he said to his headset. “If there’s a password and you can’t come up with it, we pull her out.” He signaled to an agent near me. “Kill half the lights.”
I heard glass break. The yard went darker.
Footlights lined the driveway. I glanced at my sneakers, nearly the only things left on me that were mine. Maizie would spot the shoes immediately. Fredreeq too. But slouching in sneakers, I was close to Maizie’s height, a detail more important than fashion consistency.
A black car turned the corner from Moon Rock Road.
I could see it, being near the gate. Across the street, the film crew could see it. Because of the fence around the Quinn property, none of the agents near the house could see it.
“Damn,” I heard Simon’s voice say. “Not enough.”
Activity across the street had quieted but not stopped. A burly guy in a tool belt ambled past the generator, carrying a cable. Another balanced coffee cups in a cardboard take-out tray.
The black car pulled up closer and a window began to descend. The windows on the cars were tinted.
I was alone. The agents seemed to have melted into the darkness around me.
The car came closer. So quiet.
“Wollie, don’t turn around.” A woman was squeezed into a crevice made by the gate joining the fence. Very close to me. “I’m Agent Shepphird. I’ll talk you through this. Approach the car. Say hello and shake hands. Say something friendly; Maizie Quinn’s met this guy. His name is Fritz Benito. Tell him to pull ahead and park anywhere he likes. Then come back.”
I stepped forward. I slouched. The car made the turn into the drive, the driver’s window all the way down. A man in a suit, very dark, round-faced, rough-skinned, looked at me. He didn’t look happy.
I told my face to smile and held out my hand. There was a man in the passenger seat and maybe more in the back. “Hello,” I said. “Pull ahead and park anywhere you like.”
It wasn’t relaxed. I sounded like a computer. The man was staring. I swallowed. “Nice to see you again, Frito.” The minute I said the name, I froze. I’d got it wrong. Bad call.
But he smiled, a brief showing of teeth. The window went up. The car went forward.
I stepped back, into the shadows, breathing hard.
Agent Shepphird’s voice was in my ear. “Wollie. Good job. We’re in. The next one’s our guy. He’s got his first lieutenant with him. Yosip Kasnoff. You’ve met Yosip, but only once. But you’ve talked to Karl Marx-sorry, Tcheiko-three or four times on the phone. He likes you. Hold on, Wollie, I’m getting instructions on my headset. Okay. You’re cooking tonight. They found the transcripts of your last conversation. You promised him fusion cooking: applying California spa techniques to French recipes using African ingredients. And that’s the password. What you’re cooking for him.”
“Okay. What is it?”
There was a pause. Agent Shepphird said, “We don’t know.”
My heart stopped.
“Make up something,” she said. “He’s not going to be eating it.”
“I don’t cook.”
“Hold on. Dinner suggestions, anyone? Kermit doesn’t cook.” She paused, perhaps listening to her headset. “Meanwhile, Wollie, here’s the goal: get Tcheiko inside the compound and out of his car. We have SWAT guys on the roof, MP5s pointing at both front windows in the limo. They just need to see what they’re shooting at. But if it goes wrong, you panic, you see a gun, hear one, hit the ground. Agents will be on top of you like a football. We’ll take care of you. Hit the ground, Kermit-Wollie. You’ll be fine. Here he comes. Wing it.”
My mother has always talked about out-of-body experiences. I’d never known what she meant. What an interesting time to understand something about my mother. Tcheiko’s car pulled up just as the first had done. I stepped out of the shadows and approached. The driver’s window went down, the tinted window, and I was looking into the face of a man, extraordinarily handsome, much more than Simon, more even than Doc, with a black-and-silver beard and a nearly shaved head and salacious brown eyes. “Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m glad you’re here. I hope you’re hungry.”
He regarded me calmly, not smiling but not with the fierce look of the man in the first car. I thought of the guns aimed at us. In the dark. I could feel the sweat form under my skin. Now what? Whose turn to speak? What were my instructions? Why didn’t he speak?
“On a fait une r'eservation pour huit personnes `a neuf heures, je crois,” he said.
My heart was pounding. I was in the wrong movie; I needed the one with subtitles. My face quivered so badly I nearly-
“Et le menu?” he said. “What have you for us?”
I’ve never been to Africa. I know nothing about Africa. Except-
“Frog,” I said.
“Les cuisses de grenouille?” he said, frowning. “This is not typically local.”
“Au contraire,” I said. “The West African goliath, Conraua goliath, is native to Cameroon. And happens to be the largest frog on earth. Which I am honored to have in my kitchen. As I am honored to have you in my kitchen.”
“How will you prepare it?”
“I had considered an amuse-bouche in puff pastry, but as the goliath is thirty centimeters, snout to vent, his legs are the size of… forearms. He’s now a main course. `A la maison Maizie. A little garlic, a bit of flavored oil. Voil`a”
He nodded. He smiled. His window went up. He drove forward.
A movement from across the street caught my eye. The film crew had moved out of sight of the black cars, but I was close enough to the gate to see them run silently across the street, to our side, a hundred feet north of the gate. Dozens of them. Every one with guns drawn.
Car One’s doors opened and men got out, five of them, and walked back to Car Two. They opened the doors of Car Two, driver’s side and passenger’s side. Frito called to me, his accent heavy. “Mrs. Quinn,” he said, with a gesture. “The gate, please. Close.”
There was a movement, and a sound like a crack, like a tree limb breaking.
I hit the ground.
People piled on top of me like I was a football.