I leave on February 13 for my UK tour of Hardball. Kerry Hood,
who is the Toscanini of publicity, has me covering as much of England as we can manage in a week. I hope that I’ll see some of the UK readers who’ve been posting here along the way.
James Thurber once wrote, “The Beaver is a Working Fool, Who Went to Manual Training School,” an absurd couplet that has clung to me all these years because I seem to be a working fool. I finished the book last week, after rewriting the middle six chapters twice and the ending five times, and I am sort of in a blur right now.
I’m posting a chapter here, in which, V I is indulging in her favorite hobby, breaking & entering. I’ve had interesting protest letters on V I’s hobby–“You think you’re so moral,” they tend to read, “and yet your character breaks the law.” And all I can say is, “right you are.”
We drove down to Club Gouge in Petra’s Pathfinder, Tim in the front seat with my cousin, me drowsing in the back. I’d collected my picklocks from my car’s glove compartment, and locked my handbag, with Chad’s black armor mitt, in my trunk: I planned to drive straight to the Cheviot labs in the morning.
“So, is this, like your first break-in?” Petra asked Tim. “It’s my—I don’t know—do I count the time you broke into my apartment when I forgot my keys, Vic?” She looked over her shoulder at me as she spoke and the Pathfinder fishtailed.
“Keep your eyes on the road: I don’t want it to be my last,” I squawked. Petra managed to straighten out just before colliding with an oncoming bus.
“Do you two gals think because I was a soldier I’m some sort of outlaw?” Tim Radke asked. “I mean, the boss here thinks I’m a hacker and you, you think I’m a break-in artist?”
“I’m the outlaw in this party,” I said, just as Petra started to say, Oh, gosh, me and my motor-mouth. “Unless you have skills you’re keeping to yourself, I’m the one who can pick a padlock in thirty seconds, using the lip of a sardine can. Petra, darling Petra, put your damned phone away or let Tim or me drive, okay?”
“Gosh, Vic, I was just—
Tim took the phone from her. “I didn’t survive five years in Iraq to die in a Chicago car crash.”
“Okay, okay, you two bullies. I’ll get back at you, see if I don’t.”
Without seeing her face, I knew she was giving her exaggerated pout, the look she assumed when she knew she’d been caught in the wrong. We were taking her car because neither my Mustang nor Tim’s old truck handled well on these slush-filled streets, but I was beginning to realize that a good car isn’t as important as a focused driver.
When we got to Club Gouge, I had Petra drive slowly past so I could see if Olympia had any security in place. The fire damage had been confined to the interior, so no boarding alerted you to the damage. Only the empty parking lot told passersby the club was shut, that, and a message in the box by the front door used to announce upcoming acts. Tonight it read: “Club Gouge is closed for repairs. Stay tuned for our grand re-opening next week,” which was clever, because no matter when the repairs were complete, the grand re-opening would happen next week.
No one seemed to be watching the club, either from the alley, or my own forlorn post up on the L platform. I told Petra to park up the street and to stay in the car with Tim while I worked the lock. “If I holler, take off and leave me on my own.”
Tim got out of the car with me. “I learned a thing or two about keeping a lookout when I was in the Army. If you’re going to be an outlaw to try to help Chad, at least I can keep watch.”
Petra decided that meant she should join us, as well. She thought she needed to skulk, lurking behind L girders. then dashing to the next open space. It was Radke who told her she was attracting attention.
“Act normal. Act like you got a right to be here,” he said. “It’s the only way if a patrol—a cop, I mean—rides by.”
A keypad worked the front lock, but Petra had never been given the combo. The side door, which opened onto the parking lot, had a keyhole that sat flat against the panel. It was tricky, but not impossible—although my sore palm enhanced the challenge.
While I worked the lock, Tim disappeared into the shadows behind us. I trusted him. Of course I trusted him. Even if he had a combat medal, he didn’t own expensive clothes: he wore a faded Army parka, not a “soft overcoat.” Still, I was relieved when the tongue of the lock slipped back and he reappeared, a shadow sliding up to the door.
While I held the tongue flat, he slid a metal strip along the door edge and pried it open. When I tried to turn on the hall lights, nothing happened. The building was bitterly cold: Olympia, or perhaps the city, had shut down the power to lessen the risk of the fire restarting, or to save money until construction started.
As we moved deeper into the dark building, the acrid stench of charring began to choke us. Charred and frozen at the same time, what a gruesome end. I pulled my muffler over my nose and mouth. I didn’t want to think about what poisons the fire had released: the synthetic fabric in the curtains, the varnish on the stage floor, the polymers in the wire casings, all those must be grade-A carcinogens when they burn. I imagined my lungs coated with some kind of black grease that would never come out.
“Not all the perfumes of Arabia.”
“Say, what, Vic?” Petra demanded.
I hadn’t realized I’d spoken aloud. Bad sign.
I shone my flash up the corridor. The shadows made ghastly shapes—the wires looked like the tentacles of a giant mantis. I shuddered, but moved forward. Petra was subdued, even clutching Tim’s arm as we edged our way to the back of the stage.
The Body Artist’s computer was still there, still attached to the web cams and the plasma screens. I held the flashlight while Tim unhooked the connectors. We were out of the club and back in Petra’s Pathfinder within ten minutes.
Petra turned north onto Ashland, moving at a fast clip, talking in disjoint sentences: the adrenaline rush made her higher than a fistful of speed.
“Stop!” Tim shouted.
“I’m just saying—“
He grabbed the wheel from her and shoved his foot on the brake. We stopped inches from a silver SUV that was blocking the intersection at Carroll. I twisted to look behind us and saw a Mercedes sedan pull up. As I looked, Rodney began to work his bulky figure from the passenger side.
“On three, you two get out and run as fast and far as you can. I’m getting into the front seat. No argument, just go!”
My gun was in my left hand as I spoke. Tim had his hand on the door handle. On my count, he jumped from the passenger seat. I opened the rear door. Petra sat frozen in the driver’s seat. I yanked open the her door; Tim ran around the back and pulled her out.
Men were climbing from the SUV and heading toward us. I fired over their heads and Tim and Petra took off down a side street, away from us. Someone shot back at me, but I was crouching behind the Pathfinder’s open door. I climbed into driver’s seat, put the car into gear, twisted the wheel and floored the accelerator.
The wheels spun on ice, then grabbed and I crashed into the silver SUV’s left headlight. The impact knocked me against the steering wheel, but I backed up, gears whining. Someone was firing at my windshield. The glass splintered but I bore down on the shooter, and he fell backwards, away from my mad driving.
I wrenched the wheel around again and managed a U away from the shooter, toward Rodney and his sedan. I slithered around him, but just as I thought I was home free, he shot out the Pathfinder’s rear tires. I bumped down the road on the rims. In the rearview mirror, I saw Rodney get back into the Mercedes and come after me.
Oncoming traffic honked at me, or at the sedan blocking the right lane, but no one stopped to see what was going on. Too much MYOB, just like Mrs. Murdstone had said at Mona’s apartment this afternoon.
I jumped from the car at Lake and sprinted toward the L steps. I’d almost made it when a figure in black outran me and pulled me down. I rolled over, got into a crouch, gun out, but someone else came from behind and hit me on the side of the head.