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As Maddy Grant plummeted from the forty-second floor to certain death amid the blaring traffic of Ninth Avenue, all she could think was, Stupid.
Until then, it had been such a sweet gig.
She had said she was a college student, an incoming freshman at Columbia University, and it wasn't even a lie—Maddy fully intended to enroll at Columbia now that her situation was finally stabilized. Now that she had a job and a place to live and proper identification. A whole new identity: Brittany Higgenbotham, age eighteen, from Tempe, Arizona. The only thing she didn't have was references, but the woman who had hired her was so eager for a live-in nanny-slash-housekeeper-slash-whatever-else-she-could-think-of that she didn't care that it was Maddy's first job. All she cared about was that Maddy was cheap.
The condo was beautiful, a roomy three-bedroom on the West Side, just a five-minute walk from the park. Broadway and Times Square were not much farther. Maddy could hardly believe it: She was living in New York City!
Even in her achingly, fakingly sunny memories of growing up in the prairie suburbs of the West, she had always had a fascination with New York—so distant and out of reach, a fat, golden apple dangling from a high branch. More myth than reality. To her knowledge, she had only ever visited twice, years ago, once on a school trip and once with her parents, but somehow it was a deeply familiar place, the only place on the whole map that beckoned when she was lost and desperate. When she had nowhere else to go.
It was her second month on the job. Maddy's employer, an aging, fading starlet named Angela Brightly, was out for the evening, just as she was every evening, running out to clubs and parties and gallery openings, schmoozing with the rich and famous while Maddy babysat her two kids. Little Danielle and Sam knew that their mother was not just a swinging socialite but a struggling singer, actress, and model in fierce competition with all the newer models out there…; most of whom hadn't had two children. The living room was full of pictures and artifacts of Angela's once-promising career, many cropped to remove the face of her ex-husband and manager. Her children had learned to accept the situation without fuss: Mommy works hard so that we can have a good life. They were the quietest, gloomiest children Maddy ever met…; but they were certainly no hassle.
On that particular evening, Maddy made them dinner, read them animal stories from their collection of vintage children's books (television was a strict no-no), and tucked them both in. Then she changed into her sweats, made a big salad and some garlic bread, and plopped down in front of the TV. For dessert, she was looking forward to a nice slice of the cheesecake she had picked up at Zabar's that morning. Ms. Brightly wouldn't be home for hours. It was going to be another quiet evening—Maddy's favorite kind.
Then the fire alarm went off.
At first, she didn't recognize the noise; it wasn't the shrill peeping of a room alarm but a loud bell coming from outside. Annoyed that it was going to disturb the kids, she jumped up and ran to the front door, peering through the peephole. The emergency lights at the ends of the hallway were flashing. Shit! She opened the door a crack and could see other people on the floor sticking their heads out as well.
"Is it a fire drill?" someone called above the deafening noise.
A bald man across the way said, "I don't know."
"Either way, we better go down."
"It's probably nothing. Somebody burned the popcorn."
Suddenly, the elevator opened, and four firemen emerged. They had shiny yellow helmets, fire axes, and spanking new fire-retardant suits. The leader wore a tank on his back. They advanced down the hall, banging on doors, and shouting, "Everyone out! Now!"
People trying to ask them questions were jerked from their doorways and shoved toward the stairs.
"Get out of the way! Move! All of you! Everyone out, right now! Drop what you're doing and go! This is an emergency!"
One of the firemen glanced straight at Maddy, then hurriedly flicked his eyes away. It was a subtle, barely noticeable thing, but suddenly she realized what was going on. There was no fire, not even any fire drill—they had come for her. She could scarcely believe it, but somehow they had found her.
Maddy shut the door and locked it, her heart slamming in her chest. Her worst nightmare come true: They found me. And yet, in a strange way, it was also a relief, the end of the suspense. Thoughts racing, she headed for the kitchen and spotted Sam and Danielle standing anxiously in the bedroom doorway. The poor things must be scared out of their wits. Maddy made an effort to look calm.
"It's okay, guys. Just a drill, it should be over soon. Go back to bed."
"Sam needs to go potty."
"Well, you're such a big girl, why don't you take him?"
The front door exploded inward. It was a steel security door with multiple dead bolts, but it blew off its hinges like cardboard. The whole building shook.
Jeez, Maddy thought, shielding the kids. She had been expecting a few more seconds at least.
The firemen poured in, shouting, "EVERYBODY ON THE FLOOR, NOW!"
Deafened, Maddy sprinted past the bedroom, grabbed the two children on the fly, and piled into the bathroom. She shut the door just as the lead fireman let off a stream of liquid flame that roared down the corridor and set off the sprinkler system.
There were no windows, no escape. Looking around the bathroom for something, anything, she yanked open the medicine cabinet and scanned the dozens of prescription bottles—Ms. Brightly was a total hypochondriac if not a drug addict—then grabbed a toenail clipper. As heavy boot steps squish-squished toward her across the wet carpet, Maddy used the clipper to strip the wires from a curling wand, then twined the bare wires around the brass doorknob and plugged it in.
Someone grabbed the knob. There was a bright blue spark and a loud snap, then a scream and a bone-jarring crash. The lights flickered, dimmed, and the men outside shouted, "Get back! Don't touch him!"
In the couple of seconds she had bought, Maddy hurriedly searched for a means of escape. The bathroom was like a desert, easily the emptiest room in the house; everything useful was bolted down. Still trying to act cheerful, she made the children lie down in the bathtub and covered them with an armload of towels and the toilet lid. They were both wide-awake, and intensely curious about whatever was going on.
"Them men shouldn't be here. It's too loud. My mommy's gonna be mad."
"Don't worry, I'll take care of it."
As axes began chopping at the door, Maddy reached up and pulled on the shower curtain rod. It was a fat enameled tube about five feet long, lightweight but sturdy. There was no way to get it down in one piece, not without tools—okay. Leverage. Sliding the shower curtain to the center and twisting it like a rope, she yanked the bar so hard it broke, landing her flat on her butt. Ow. She got up, wincing, and wrested the two halves out of the wall. The kids were fascinated.
"Oooh—you broke it. You're in trouble."
"Just stay there and be really quiet, okay? Just like two little deer in the forest."
"Just like Bambi, shh."
Digging around under the sink, Maddy grabbed a can of hairspray and a blow-dryer, then hunted around for a combustion chamber of the right size. Her darting eyes sought out shampoo bottles, the kids' potty, the plastic sheath for the toilet brush. Hmmm.
In front of the tub was a furry nonskid rug with rubberized backing—she flipped it over and placed the two halves of the shower curtain rod on either side, parallel with each other, then rolled them toward the center so that they resembled a fluffy pink scroll with metal tubes protruding from one end. Into these tubes she stuffed two pill bottles wadded with toilet paper. Into the opposite end she jammed the conical sheath for the toilet brush, minus the brush itself. At last she tied everything together with nylon stockings from the laundry hamper. It had to be tight, practically airtight, but the rubberized backing made a good seal. The only openings were the ends of the metal tubes and the hole in the plastic sheath where the brush handle had fit. Into that aperture, Maddy crammed the barrel of a blow-dryer, so that the entire device resembled a double-barreled shotgun with a pistol grip—a pink shag blunderbuss.
The whole operation had taken exactly forty-seven seconds.
She flicked on the blow-dryer as a boot kicked in the splintered door. A wave of smoke and burning wet stench poured in, and with it came a dripping, yellow-helmeted man, ax held high. His face was pasty white, and his mouth a rippling gullet lined with concentric rows of inward-curving black teeth, needle-sharp as acacia thorns.
Sitting against the tub, Maddy sprayed hairspray into the blow-dryer's suction fan. The aerosol's flammable propellant gas—propane—filled the plastic chamber of the toilet brush, while microparticles of sticky hairspray compound flooded the dryer's nichrome heating coil. There was a spark.
With a loud pop, both barrels fired at once, launching the pill bottles straight into the man's face. Blue pills and bits of orange plastic shrapnel exploded in all directions. The man fell backward, bellowing in pain, but Maddy didn't hesitate: She quickly loaded two more pill bottles, ramming them home with the toilet brush, and fired again. Then again and again. As the men fell back, she stood up and followed…; to the limit of the hair dryer's cord.
A blinded man was writhing at her feet; another one was crawling away—probably the one who'd been electrocuted. The other two were nowhere to be seen, but as Maddy stood there in the rain of the sprinklers, she realized she had a more serious problem.
The condo was full of dense smoke, getting thicker and more toxic every second. It was coming in through the front door—if it hadn't been before, the building now really was on fire. Dropping the fluffy pink weapon, ducking low, she approached the doorway and could see that the entire outside hall was in flames. The heat from the open door was murderous; she had to back off fast.
Making sure the apartment was empty of human—or inhuman—threats, she crawled on all fours to the kitchen and found the fire extinguisher. Empty! And the phone was dead! She couldn't believe it. Furiously grabbing a DustBuster off its charger, Maddy hurried back to the bathroom. She could hear the kids coughing in the tub.
"Okay, guys, we have to play a little game."
"I want my mommy!"
"I know, Dani, your mommy's coming. But we have to meet her outside, okay? You don't want to stay in here with all this yucky smoke, do you?"
"No. It hurts my eyes."
"No, I know it does, Sammy. Then you both have to do what I say. Get ready, this might be a little chilly…;"
Maddy turned on the shower, soaking the complaining children from head to foot and draping wet towels over their heads. She then covered them with the clear plastic shower curtain and cinched it around their middles with another pair of dirty nylons, tucking the DustBuster in with them, nozzle downward. When it was turned on, the shower curtain inflated around the children's heads like a bubble—a bubble of filtered air.
"Okay, now everybody hold hands—we're gonna take a quick walk into the living room."
Leading the children, shielding them from the two injured men as well as the worst of the heat, Maddy hurried them into the living room and sat them by the open window. The street far below was hectic with sirens and the red and blue lights of emergency vehicles—real ones, she hoped. But even if they were, no rescue could come soon enough to save them. There would have to be another way.
"Listen, you guys, stay here by the window and wave so the nice men can see you. Breathe through your towels, like this. I have to go get something—I'll be right back."
Covering her upper body with the shower curtain, using the DustBuster to draw relatively clean air from the floor, Maddy searched the apartment for solutions, for some magic carpet to fly them out of there. What she wanted was rope, a nice, sturdy nylon rope—about five hundred feet of it—but the best she could find was bales of extension cord and old USB cable, pretty poor substitutes. Searching for something better, she began twining the available cables into a crude harness—a sling chair strong enough to hold the children.
But what to hold the harness? Some kind of parachute? A hang glider made with duct tape and garbage bags? A hot-air balloon? A chemical arresting rocket? Everything she needed was there in the apartment, but even a rope of knotted bedsheets would take too long—she had maybe two minutes left to assemble the raw materials and build anything. As it was, she could barely see; the smoke was becoming impenetrable, her makeshift breathing hood starting to melt, and she could hear the kids crying and coughing their little lungs out.
Maddy was nearly at the point of despair when she noticed the dining-room rug.
Hey. Flying carpet indeed—this was her day for miracle rugs.
In the center of the dining area, nearly covering the floor, was a handmade braided carpet—an Amish rope rug at least fifteen feet across. Damn. Quickly doing the math, a simple spiral algorithm, she figured it should be very nearly long enough…; and hopefully strong enough. She couldn't believe she had almost missed it.
Moving as fast as possible, smoke and sweat stinging her eyes, Maddy shoved the dining table and chairs out of the way, then tried dragging the heavy rug into the living room. No chance—it was soaked from the sprinklers and weighed a ton. Okay.
Finding the outside end of the rope, she cut the binding threads with the toenail clipper until she had enough slack to tie it to a massive china hutch. Then, moving to the center of the rug, she freed the inner tip of the spiral, fastening it to her half-fashioned cable sling and unspooling the wires back to the living room. Her fingers were bleeding.
The kids started moaning for their mom at the sight of her, but Maddy had no time to reassure them—the sprinklers had cut out, the heat at her back was withering. Pressing the kids' shuddering chests together, she cinched the cable straps between their legs and up under their arms. It might pinch, but it would support them.
"Now hang on tight to each other!" she shouted, and threw them out the window.
Posted January 30, 2011
This was such a different kind of read for me and out of my normal book picks (paranormal, contemporary romance). The plot is complicated. The main characters thoughts are "out there." How she manages to piece together what is happening is pure genius. This was like being on a fun, fast-paced roller coaster. It had ups and downs and twists and turns as well as plot twists that this reader didn't see coming. I highly recommend!
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