Muscles I thought kendo- and resistance training had toughened and prepared for extreme use screamed rebellious agony when I crawled out of bed. Groups of muscles I had forgotten existed altogether complained several octaves higher and with more precision. Executing something between a ginger walk and an awkward half-limp, I found the bathroom and the shower.
Hot water stung where it seeped through bandages, soaking into cuts and scrapes. Steamy spray dialled as hot as I could endure soothed and brought some comfort. Hot water now turned off, I forced myself to withstand the cold torrent, hands braced on either side of the frosty fountain let the umbrella spray hit my head and cascade down. Chilled to the marrow, covered by a blanket of goosebumps, I reversed the tap and relaxed again beneath steamy soporific wellness. Alternating temperatures between the two extremes invigorated my abused body, preparing it for the demands I would ask of it. Odera’s laughter, as she danced out of the shower leaving me beneath a cold spray, haunted me.
Warm memories fed cold hate.
Memories were a luxury after surviving the condominium’s firetrap. Better to own painful memories than to become a memory, I thought. As neat as a boxer’s corner cut-man, Sarah had stitched closed the three deepest cuts. Sticky cloth bandages covered the other cuts and gouges. I had survived the debris-flinging tempest remarkably well. Not all my luck ran down my leg. Perhaps sniper asshole believed me dead in the blaze. Once the arson investigator reported a lack of bodies everyone would know differently. I needed to catch a break. Then I remembered I was alive.
Fine. I could live with that.
Upon my return to the guest bedroom, I found a set of clothes, store tags attached, laid out. Donning the boxers and the grey Dockers, I gritted my teeth as I lowered myself slowly to the floor. By the fourth set of push-ups and deep-knee bends, much of my muscle soreness had departed.
“Are you decent?”
“Depends on who you ask.”
Barbara poked her brunette head into the room. When she glimpsed one or two cuts leaking, she stepped inside, her index finger wagging back and forth like a metronome.
“Do you want to start them all bleeding?”
“Not if that means re-employing you guys.”
“Mom says you need to rest, not crushing push-ups. You lost a lot of blood.”
“No can do. Exercise regularly and your body will produce an extra pint or so,” I returned, and pulled on a pair of socks. “In a day or three I’ll be back to normal. Right now, I need red meat, liver pills, vitamins and protein powder. And coffee.”
“You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”
“I still don’t know what or why.”
“Leave your shirt off. I’ll re-bandage the leaks.”
Upon her return and while she placed fresh bandages over two of the stitched cuts, I asked, “Is she downstairs?”
“With a patient. I’ll cook breakfast and bring it up.”
“I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble for using the stove unsupervised.”
“Ha, ha, not even remotely amusing,” she replied dryly patting my back, done. “Mr. Henry’s about finished his treatment. He’s the last. Mom cleared the rest of her schedule.”
“Right. I nearly forgot about the ‘Wanted’ posters.”
“I picked up three newspapers. You should read the articles about what the police are claiming. Someone posted a U-tube vid of the fire. Facebook is silent, but the papers loosely connected the fire to you. I didn’t see reading glasses in your stuff. Want me to read to you? Oh yeah, I picked up red hair dye, a moustache from the costume store and make-up.” A silly grin brought her face to life, unlike last night when she wondered if I had committed the crimes cited by newspapers. “I’ll check a few blogs later. See what’s posted.”
“Theatrical. To lighten your complexion. Not to mention removing grey years. Most redheads have fair skin and freckles.”
“Still playing Mr. Dress-up, eh.”
“One more cheesy comment and you’ll get a double dose of bran for breakfast,” all one hundred and ten pounds of Barbara warned. “Then there’s your retro hairstyle. That’s definitely got to go. Next time you colour your hair, dye your burns as well. Talk about tacky. With the right boots and insoles, we can add a couple of inches to your bone-shrinking height,” she said going up on tiptoes. “Shrunk a bit since I saw you last haven’t you?”
“Actually, I need to reduce my height to be less noticeable. I thought you were majoring in political science, not make-up artistry.”
“I’m a woman.”
“Now that we’ve cleared that up, did you mention food? Time to prove that wild exaggeration with a little stove time, but first, I’m stepping out for a bit.”
“Chauvinist! I can’t imagine how Odera puts up with your BS. I would have kicked your butt to the curb long ago on GP alone.” At my blank look, she said, “General principle. Don’t be long,” and bounced out of the room.
I purchased liver supplements, branch chain amino acids, and gobbled a handful of each to speed hemoglobin replacement and muscle tissue repair. Now I needed to slip into the Royal York unseen and grab my equipment and money. It was important to stay off the grid. Too many blips and I would give the police the ability to predict my actions. An element of danger existed in returning to the hotel. The risk was manageable so long as I did not show myself at the front desk. They could keep the weeklong room fee, but I wanted my money, laptop and equipment bag.
In little more than an hour, I returned to Sarah’s house.
After six eggs, a medium-rare steak, a pile of pan-fries and three cups of coffee, it was time to be Barbara’s guinea pig. I sighed at the necessity of again having to alter my appearance. Reluctantly, I seated myself in the chair placed in the middle of the kitchen and tried to sit up straight without using the backrest that irritated my cuts. For the next half-hour she cut, tugged, snipped and trimmed. She then coloured my hair and sideburns, or at least what remained of them, I thought with amusement. Having most studiously, with unwarranted glee, performed her task of altering my hairstyle and colour, she dyed my eyebrows a shade of red destined to attract everyone’s attention. Carrot Top and I could be long-lost brothers.
“Don’t look so glum. It’s going to rock. Even I might have taken a second look if I didn’t know your real age. Well, okay, maybe not seconds, but I would have appreciated the effort to escape the Dark Ages.”
Possessing the sense of mind not to tease a person armed with scissors and hair dye, I closed my eyes. Fifteen minutes after she lathered in the conditioner and, eventually, hair gel, she wore a decidedly pleased expression. Barbara held up a mirror. The red hair altered my looks so drastically one might partake of a full five-minute stare and fail to recognize my true self. A sun flare was less bright. I now looked so conspicuous that I blended in.
“Well? What do you think?” she asked, unable to wait any longer.
“Ha! Would it hurt to say something nice?”
“I don’t want to encourage you.”
“Bummer. Too late. Come with me.”
She grabbed my wrist.
“You need freckles.” She tugged me by the arm when I didn’t move. “C’mere, Bruce. Trust me. If I’m going to fem out for you, I’m going all the way.”
“Yes. C’mon, you’ll agree once I’m done.”
After she dragged me into her mother’s bedroom, she pointed at a stool by the make-up table, whose cluttered surface was home to lotions, creams, and other accoutrements one would expect to find in a sorceress boudoir.
“Sit down and lookup. Don’t move. I need to do this properly. I’m a little rusty,” she ordered as Sarah entered the room appraising my transformation in progress. “Move. Go,” she said pushing me with both hands. “Don’t be so stubborn. I’m kidding about being rusty. Sorta. You’ll look fine. Perhaps. You need freckles. Sit. Now.”
“What if I sweat? Won’t they run?”
Having caught the last part of our conversation, Sarah said, “Theatrical make-up won’t run. Do as you’re told or you’ll end up looking like Howdy Doodie’s twin.”
“Howdy Doodie?” Barbara asked her mom as I complied.
“A puppet, baby.”
“I don’t even wanna know.”
Barbara plopped down on my knees facing me. Employing a folding compact filled with base powder, a flat face pad, tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth, she began with my forehead and worked her way over my face and down my neck and throat. Once satisfied my complexion matched the picture in her mind, she reached for a paint pot and brush. An expression many times more gleeful than her previous happiness returned my glower.
“You’re going to pay for this. I’ll crash your fiancé’s bachelor party and introduce him to Chantel the French maid.”
“Go ahead and try. I’ve got him whipped.” Concentration furrowed her brow as she worked top to bottom. “You should be paying me for this. A lot. The least you could do is to sign over your motorcycle in case you land in jail. Somebody ought to be able to enjoy it while you’re breaking rocks. Seriously. Everybody takes advantage of students. But if the cops catch you and they take you into the basement and bitch-slap the shiznit out of you for information about who changed your appearance, I’ll disown knowledge of your sorry butt quicker than a red-headed orphaned stepchild gets spanked. For shizzel.”
“Did you learn that lingo from your peeps, honey?”
Rolling her eyes, Barbara answered, “Honestly mom, no one says peeps. That trend was lame before it ever really had its day.”
Like a baseball coach working the third-base box, Sarah fired off helpful hints, enjoying my torment as her daughter turned me into a freckled redhead. For ten agonizing minutes, Barbara dipped her brush and dotted my face. Squirming this way and that to view her artistry, her scrutiny imparted not the least clue about her success or possible failure. She stood up and took two steps back to review her work. Sarah and Barbara shared a satisfied nod.
“Signed, sealed, and delivered. Stay away from my friends or I’ll tell Odera.”
“You did a marvellous job, sweetie.”
I stood up and studied her creation in the vanity mirror turning my face this way and that to view the transformation. The freckles looked real and the haircut, combined with those freckles and new hair colour had removed years from my age. When I knocked at Sarah’s door last night, I was a dark-haired, conservative thirty-four. Now I could easily pass for a trendy twenty-seven. Valerie might not recognize me until I spoke.
“Hmm,” I hummed, bringing each cheek into clear view, “I might have to trade Odera in for a younger model.”
“Loser,” accused Barbara and punched me in the arm.
“You do and she’ll probably make you wish the police had arrested you first,” Sarah said in a voice that reminded me of the treaty between all women. “What now? What’s your next move?”
“Thanks. Both of you. Now that I’m a new man, I shouldn’t hide it.”
“A day or two more rest wouldn’t hurt. You could use recovery time. You know that you’re welcome to stay.”
I crossed the room to stand before Sarah and engaged her concerned eyes.
“I know. There’s nothing I’d enjoy doing more than resting and visiting with you and Picasso over there,” and hooked a thumb at Barbara. “Maybe when all of this is over the four of us can get together for an evening and swap some stories about this mess. Maybe by then we’ll have found the humour in it.”
“But you can’t stay, can you?”
“You know I can’t for a lot of reasons. I’ll rest up as much as I can as I go, but the police will eventually tie me to you. There are old letters at my apartment. They’ll drop by or phone eventually. Your brother will be the clincher. It’s just a matter of time before the cops show up on your doorstep. You’ve already done more for me than I had any right to hope or to expect. I am more grateful than you can imagine. The best thing I can do for all of us is to find Odera before they discover our connection.”
“Bring her here when you find her. She’ll be safe until…until the police catch them,” she fumbled, making herself believe I intended to play by society’s rules. “Watch your back, Bruce.”
In response, I offered neither lies nor false assurances. I refused to take my case to the police, who would immediately arrest me and put me behind bars. The last forty-something hours proved Odera’s abductors had taken her for reasons other than money. Whoever kidnapped her would not simply release her when I showed up at their door asking politely. Certainly not after demonstrating a willingness to kill and to harm people without exception. Executing one police officer in cold blood told me more about my options for dealing with Odera’s abductors than any other behaviour could have done.
“When the police come by to question you, tell them I threatened you. That’s why you never reported my presence. Aiding and abetting a fugitive is a pretty serious beef. I mean it, Sarah. Don’t be all loyal and shit. There’s no point in all our lives going into the crapper if things go south. If I go down for other matters an additional charge for threatening won’t mean a thing. Okay?”
Sarah’s pursed lips hinted she wrestled with a thought. Her eyes lighted up. Resolute countenance solidified. Having arrived at an immutable decision, she kissed me on the cheek and hugged me warmly, careful not to cause me undue pain. Before letting go, she whispered softly into my ear. Some things a daughter should never hear their mother speak aloud.
“Find the woman you love, but if those bastards force you to take a life, don’t leave a single kidnapping fucker alive to point a finger. Understood?”
“Loud and clear.”She was correct of course. Were I to take a life, in self-defence or not, it was highly unlikely the presiding judge would grant me the benefit of the doubt, especially with my history. He would more than likely sentence me to an eternity. The parole board would ensure I never again hit the street unless it was in a wheelchair on my ninetieth birthday. One life or ten it was all the same after the first. I was hoping for an alternative solution that did not include me going back to prison. But deep down I knew I was telling myself fables. Happily-ever-after was an extreme longshot.