Hold Me, Kiss Me, Thrill Me - Kill Me?

One night in 1987, Lois Rische's husband, Allen, the retired CIA field chief for Texas and New Mexico, was stepping into their car when he decided he had to return to the house. He was only gone for a few minutes. Lois thought nothing of it -- until later that evening, when they returned from the show they'd attended and she found that every shoe she owned had been piled in a mountain on her bedroom floor.

Someone had also been into Lois' closet and twisted her clothes into a snarled wilderness; drifts of scouring powder coated the bathtubs. Under Lois' bedclothes, and onto her pillow, someone had shaken a thick layer of dirt and black dog hair. Crowning the toilet seat was a tall, elaborate tower made of art books, picture frames, a Kleenex box and a large flask of bleach.

Someone else might have thought they'd been vandalized, but Lois Rische recognized the author of this chaos: it was her husband. And someone else might have flinched at the apparent evidence of Allen's hostility, which would, in fact, escalate later to include pesticides, booby traps and Indonesian head hunting knives. But Lois Rische saw it differently. She greeted her husband's handiwork with a sort of stunned awe. "It was difficult to believe," she points out gamely, "that in such a short period of time, he was able to accomplish so much." To Lois, the chaos in her bedroom -- and even the real danger to her that eventually followed -- were simply the tragicomic last act in a great love story. It's a story, Lois likes to say, of commitment.

Just before Montrose's Helena Street fades into the empty lots and wooden buildings that edge downtown Houston, Lois' Greek Revival house rises, proud and lonesome. Inside, Lois, an auburn-haired woman in her mid-sixties, tends an odd wonderland of apricot, peacock green and Venetian red rooms, all teeming with antiques and chinoiserie. Crammed though it is, the Helena Street house sidesteps claustrophobia. Its ceilings are too high, its cool air too bracing. Instead, the place exudes a mix of age and live sensuality.

This parlor is where Lois jotted her diaries during the seven years in which her ex-CIA husband transformed under Alzheimer's disease. Even at the time, Lois says, she couldn't help but laugh at much of what happened -- although the man she loved was vanishing before her eyes. Now she's taken the diaries and made a book of them, The Mariachis Are Gone, that she's determined to see in print. This April, in New York for her daughter's wedding, Lois heeded a friend's counsel about the best way to get her book noticed: she rang up Tina Brown, editor of the New Yorker. "My message was, I didn't care to leave a message. I wanted to talk to Tina Brown personally," Lois says, either oblivious to or uncaring about how rare it is for an unknown writer to demand an audience with the venerable magazine's editor. As New Yorker staffers confusedly tossed her call back and forth to each other, Lois patiently and repeatedly insisted that she was in town from Houston, Texas, and that no one but Tina Brown would do on the other end. Finally, in exasperation, someone forwarded the call to Brown.

Lois, who to this day retains the floating voice and flirtatious glance of a confirmed Southern belle, politely explained to Brown that she had a book she thought would be fine for excerpting -- a book about love, Alzheimer's and one of the founding members of the CIA. Brown suggested Lois bring the book by her offices.

Lois delivered the package at once, but hasn't heard back yet. Although no one else has bitten either, she's not given up on publication. After all, Lois reasons, The Bridges of Madison County was a success, and it was mere fiction. Her story, on the other hand -- part romance, part black comedy, part high gothic -- is true. That's fortunate. Because otherwise, it might hardly seem believable.

By the time things started getting strange on Helena Street, Lois and Allen had been in love for seven years. In 1976, when they first met at the eye clinic where Lois worked, she was a widow in her mid-forties. Her first husband, with whom she'd moved to Houston in 1956, had died in 1962, leaving her with three school-age children. Lois, who had been raised in a middle-class family in Maryland and took pride in her independence, studied orthoptics at Baylor and began supporting her family.

Allen Rische, the tall, ruddy-faced man who walked into her office for an eye test, impressed her at once. In the first pages of her Mariachis, sketched out in brief paragraphs and snappy, lunch-date narration, Lois describes how quickly the two fell in love. Despite his Sears Roebuck suit with the too-short pants, the gray-haired, cowboy-booted stranger cut a smart figure. Halfway through the exam, he asked Lois to lunch. On the sea wall near Gaido's restaurant, the lively chemistry that would define their future romance took hold. Within a month, Allen and Lois were inseparable; three years later, they were married.

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Claudia Kolker