If Annabelle hadn't found a body lying under “Sherman,” she wouldn't have been late for her appointment with the Python. But dirty bare feet stuck out from beneath her nana's ancient Crown Victoria. One extremely cautious glance under the car revealed they were attached to a homeless man known only as Mouse, who was famous in her Wicker Park neighborhood for his lack of personal hygiene and fondness for cheap wine. An empty screw-top bottle lay near his chest, which rose and fell with the sounds of his wet snorts. It testified to the importance of her appointment with the Python that she momentarily considered trying to maneuver the car around the body. But her alley parking space was too tight.
She'd allowed plenty of time to get dressed and make the trip downtown for her 11 a.m. appointment. Unfortunately, obstacles kept creeping up, beginning with Mr. Bronicki, who'd caught her at the front door and refused to leave until he'd had his say. Still, this wasn't an emergency yet. All she had to do was get Mouse out from under Sherman.
She gingerly prodded his ankle with her foot, noting as she did that the emergency mixture of Hershey's chocolate syrup and Elmer's glue she'd applied to a scuff mark on the heel of her favorite pair of strappy sandals hadn't entirely camouflaged the damage. “Mouse?”
He didn't stir.
She prodded him more vigorously. “Mouse, wake up. You have to come out of there.”
Nothing. Which made it time to revert to more drastic measures. With a grimace, she bent over, gingerly picked up one filthy ankle, and gave it a shake. “Come on, Mouse. Wake up!”
Nada. If it weren't for his slurpy snorts, he might have been dead.
She shook him more vigorously. “This happens to be the most important day of my professional life, and I could use a little cooperation here.”
Mouse wasn't interested in cooperation.
She needed more leverage. Gritting her teeth, she carefully slid up the skirt of the buttercup yellow raw silk suit she'd bought yesterday for 60 percent off at a Field's Day sale and crouched by the bumper. “If you don't get out from under there, I'm calling the police.”
She dug her heels into the ground and yanked on both filthy ankles. The morning sun beat down on her head. Mouse rolled over just far enough to wedge his shoulder under the chassis. She yanked again. Beneath her jacket, the white sleeveless shell she'd chosen to complement Nana's pearl teardrop earrings had begun to stick to her skin. She tried not to think about what was happening to her hair. This hadn't been the best time to run out of styling gel, and she prayed the ancient can of industrial-strength Aqua Net she'd found under the bathroom sink would tame the bedlam of her red curls, always the curse of her existence but especially so during a humid Chicago summer.
If she didn't get Mouse out in the next five minutes, she was in serious trouble. She made her way around to the driver's-side door. Her knees cracked as she crouched down again and peered into his slack-jawed face. “Mouse, you have to wake up! You can't stay here.”
One grimy eyelid flicked open then slid shut again.
“Look at me.” She poked his chest. “If you come out from under there, I'll give you five dollars.”
His mouth moved and a guttural rumble oozed out, along with a string of saliva. “G'way.”
The smell made her eyes water. “Why did you have to pick today to pass out under my car? And why my car? Why not Mr. Bronicki's car?” Mr. Bronicki lived across the alley and spent his retirement coming up with new ways to make Annabelle crazy.
Time was running out, and she was starting to panic. “Do you want to have sex? Because if you come out, we could maybe talk about it.”
More drool and another putrid snort. This was hopeless. She jumped up and dashed toward the house.
Ten minutes later, she managed to lure him out with an open can of beer. Not her best moment.
By the time she'd maneuvered Sherman from the alley to the street, she had only twenty-one minutes left to navigate the traffic into the Loop and find a place to park. Dirt streaked her legs, her shirt was crumpled, and she'd broken a fingernail when she'd opened the beer can. The extra five pounds that had accumulated on her small-boned frame since Nana's death no longer seemed like such a big problem.
She couldn't risk the construction gridlock on the Kennedy Expressway, so she cut over to Division. In the rearview mirror, another curl sprang free of her hair spray, and perspiration glistened on her forehead. She detoured down Halsted to avoid more road repair. As she maneuvered Sherman's tanklike bulk through the traffic, she scrubbed at her dirty legs with the damp paper towel she'd snatched up in the kitchen. Why couldn't Nana have driven a nice little Honda Civic instead of this bilious green gas-guzzling monster? At five feet three inches, Annabelle had to sit on a cushion to see over the steering wheel. Nana hadn't bothered with a cushion, but then she'd hardly ever driven. After a dozen years of use, Sherman's speedometer didn't quite register thirty-nine thousand miles.
A cab cut her off. She laid on the horn, and a trickle of perspiration slid between her breasts. She glanced at her watch. 10:50. She tried to remember if she'd put on deodorant after her shower. Of course she had. She always put on deodorant. She lifted her arm to make sure, but just as she took a sniff, she hit a pothole and her mouth bumped against the buttercup yellow lapel, leaving behind a smudge of tawny lipstick.
She gave a cry of dismay and reached across the vast front seat for her purse, only to have it slip off the edge and tumble into the Grand Canyon below. The light at Halsted and Chicago turned red. Her hair was sticking to the back of her neck, and more curls were springing up. She tried to do her yoga breathing, but she'd only been to one class, and it wasn't effective. Why, when Annabelle's economic future was at stake, had Mouse picked this day to pass out under her car?
She crawled into the Loop. 10:59. More of Chicago's permanent road construction. She passed the Daley Center. She didn't have time to follow her customary practice of cruising the streets until she found a metered parking space large enough to accommodate Sherman's bulk. Instead she wheeled into the first exorbitantly expensive parking garage she could find, threw Sherman's keys at the attendant, and took off at a trot.
:05. No need to panic. She'd simply explain about Mouse. Surely the Python would understand.
A blast of air-conditioning hit her as she entered the lobby of the high-rise office building. 11:08. The elevator was blessedly empty, and she punched the button for the fourteenth floor.
“Don't let him intimidate you,” Molly had told her over the phone. “The Python feeds on fear.”
Easy for Molly to say. Molly was sitting at home with a hottie football player husband, a great career of her own, and two adorable children.
The doors crept shut. Annabelle caught sight of herself in the mirrored wall and gave a hiss of dismay. Her raw silk suit had turned into a limp mass of buttercup wrinkles, dirt smudged the side of the skirt, and the lipstick smear on the lapel stood out like a light-up Christmas pin. Worst of all, her hair was uncoiling from the Aqua Net curl by curl, with the hair spray weighing it down just enough so that the escaping locks hung lank around her face like bedsprings that had been tossed from a tenement window and left in an alley to rust.
Usually when she got upset about her appearance—which even her own mother described only as “nice”—she reminded herself to be grateful for her good features: a pair of very nice honey-colored eyes, thick lashes, and—give or take a few dozen freckles—a creamy complexion. But no amount of positive thinking could make the image that stared back at her from the elevator mirror anything but horrifying. She scrambled to tuck a few curls behind her ears and smooth her skirt, but the elevator doors opened before she could repair much of the damage.
In front of her, she saw a glass wall imprinted with gold letters, champion sports management. She hurried across the carpeted hallway and entered through a door with a curved metal handle. The reception area held a leather couch and matching chairs, framed sports memorabilia, and a big-screen TV muted on a baseball game. The receptionist had short, steel gray hair and a thin-lipped mouth. She took in Annabelle's disheveled appearance over the top of half glasses with blue metal frames. “May I help you?”
“Annabelle Granger. I have an appointment with the Py— with Mr. Champion.”
“I'm afraid you're too late, Miss Granger.”
“Only ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes was all the time Mr. Champion had available in his schedule to see you.”
Her suspicions were confirmed. He'd only agreed to see her because Molly had insisted, and he didn't want to upset his top client's wife. She glanced in desperation at the wall clock. “I'm really only nine minutes late. I have one minute left.”