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Maybe this meant he had croaked so many people that he found discussion of murder boring and therefore needed richer language to maintain his interest. Or, conversely, he might be a hit-man wannabe, all boast and jargon, with no guts when it came to doing the dirty deed.

Considering that Crinkles hung out with a madman who shot librarians for no reason and who saw no difference between spiders and bonbons, I decided that the wisest course was not to doubt his sincerity.

"You can whack her when we won't need hostages anymore," the maniac promised Crinkles. "I don't have a problem with that."

"Hell, you can whack both of them," Honker said. "Means nothing to me."

"Thanks," Crinkles said. "I appreciate that."

"De nada," said Honker.

The maniac guided us to another pair of wooden chairs. Although he had backup now, he nevertheless secured our cuffs to one of the back-rails, as he had done previously.

The two newcomers began to unload the cargo on the handcart. There were at least a hundred one-kilo bricks of a gray substance wrapped in what appeared to be greasy, translucent paper.

I'm not a demolitions expert, not even a demolitions dabbler, but I figured these were the explosives of which the maniac had spoken.

Honker and Crinkles were physically the same type: burly and thick-necked but quick on their feet. They reminded me of the Beagle Boys.

In the Scrooge McDuck comic books that I loved as a child, a group of criminal brothers were perpetually scheming to raid Uncle Scrooge's enormous money bin, where he swam through his fortune as if it were an ocean and occasionally recontoured the acres of gold coins with a bulldozer. These felons were blunt-faced, round-shouldered, barrel-chested,

doglike creatures that stood erect in the manner of human beings, had hands instead of paws, and owned a signature wardrobe of prison-stripe shirts.

Although Honker and Crinkles chose not to advertise their villainy by the outfits they wore, they were body doubles for those comic-book villains. The Beagle Boys, however, were more handsome than Honker and a lot less scary-looking than Crinkles.

These two worked quickly, tirelessly. They were obviously happy to be occupied in useful criminal activity.

While his associates distributed bricks of plastic explosives to all points of the subcellar, in this room and others, the maniac sat at the study table. He carefully synchronized the clocks on more than a dozen detonators.

He hunched over his work, concentrating intensely. He pinched his tongue gently between his teeth. His dark hair fell across his forehead, and he kept brushing it back, out of his eyes.

If you squinted, blurring the scene just a little, he looked like a twelve-year-old hobbyist assembling a plastic model of a Navy fighter jet.

Lorrie and I were far enough away from him that we could talk privately if we kept our voices low.

Leaning close, she said conspiratorially, "If we're in the room alone with Crinkles, I'm going to tell him I'm having a female emergency."

Being in the hands of three psychotics instead of one, hearing herself referred to as it, listening to them discuss our execution with no more emotion than if they had been deciding who should take out the trash: I had thought all of that would surely give her second thoughts about reckless actions based on wildly exuberant optimism. To Lorrie Lynn, three psychotics just meant two more opportunities to bamboozle someone with the female-emergency story, get her hands on the nail file, and stab her way to freedom.

"You're going to get us killed," I warned again.

"That's lame. They're going to kill us anyway. Weren't you listening?"

"But you'll get us killed sooner," I said, managing to make a whisper surprisingly shrill, and realized that I sounded as if I had a university degree in wimp.

What had happened to the kid who'd been pumped for intergalactic warfare? Wasn't he still inside me somewhere?

Lorrie couldn't get her hand out of the cuffs, but she could slip her hand out of mine. She looked as if she wanted to wash it. In carbolic acid.

When it comes to romance, I'd had some success, but I wasn't a reincarnation of Rudolph Valentino. In fact, I didn't need a little black book to record the phone numbers of all my conquests. I didn't even need a page from a little black book. A Post-it note would do. One of the half-size Post-its you stick to the fridge as a reminder: just room enough to print BUY CARROTS FOR DINNER.

Here I had the clearest shot that Cupid was ever likely to give me- chained to the most beautiful woman I'd ever met-and I couldn't take advantage of the moment, couldn't woo her and win her, for the stupid reason that I wanted to live.

"We'll get an opportunity," I told her, "and when it comes, we'll take it. But it's got to be something a lot better than the female-emergency gimmick."

"Like what?"

"Something that'll give us an edge."

"Such as?"

"Something. I don't know. Something."

"We can't just wait," she said.

"Yeah, we can."

"We're just waiting to die."

"No," I said, pretending I was analyzing the situation, seeking advantages, instead of vamping in hope of a miracle. "I'm waiting for the right opportunity."

"You're going to get us killed," she predicted.

I threw some withering scorn at her: "What happened to the indefatigable optimist?"

"You're smothering her."

She had lobbed the scorn back at me so fast that my face was flushed and burning with it before I fully realized I'd taken the hit.


it ting two stories under the evil streets and surrounded 'by the evil earth of Snow Village, we watched Honker, Crinkles, and the nameless maniac plant explosives at key structural points and plug timers into the charges.

You might think that our terror sharpened by the minute. I speak from much experience when I say that it isn't possible to sustain terror at a peak for long periods of time.

If monstrous misfortune can be called a disease, terror is a symptom of it. Like any symptom, it is not expressed continuously to the same degree, but waxes and wanes. Sick with the flu, you don't vomit every minute of the day and are not in the throes of diarrhea from dawn to dusk.

That may be a disgusting analogy, but it's apt and vivid. I'm glad I didn't think of it while chained to those chairs with Lorrie, because in my eagerness to patch things up with her and break the frigid silence between us, I probably would have blurted it out just to have something to say.

I soon discovered that Lorrie wasn't one to gild an offense or nurse her anger. In perhaps two minutes, she broke the silence and became my chum and co-conspirator once more.

"Crinkles is the weak link," she said softly.

I loved her throaty voice, but I wished that she would use it to say something that made sense.

At that moment Crinkles was packing plastic explosives around the base of a ceiling-support column. He handled the boom clay with no more trepidation than a child playing with Silly Putty.

"He doesn't look like a weak link, but maybe you're right," I said by way of conciliation.

"Trust me, he is."

Now with both hands busy shaping explosives, Crinkles held a detonator in his teeth.

"Do you know why he's the weak link?" Lorrie asked.

"I'm eager to hear."

"He likes me."

I counted to five before replying, the better to ensure that my voice was free of an argumentative tone. "He wants to kill you."

"Before that."

"Before what?"

"Before he asked the grinning feeb if he could kill me, he very distinctly expressed a romantic interest."

This time I counted to seven. "The way I remember it," I said in a tone that I hoped might be taken for cheerful reminiscence, "he wanted to rape you."

"You don't rape someone you don't find attractive."

"Actually, you do. It happens all the time."

"Maybe you would," she said, "but not most men."

"Rape isn't about sex," I explained. "It's about power."

She frowned at me. "Why do you find it so hard to believe that Crinkles might think I'm cute?"

Only after I got to ten did I say, "You are cute. You're beyond cute. You're gorgeous. But Crinkles isn't the kind of guy who falls in love."

"Do you mean that?"

"Absolutely. Crinkles is the kind of guy who falls in hate."

"No, I mean the other part."

"What other part?"

"The cute-beyond-cute-gorgeous part."

"You're the most amazing-looking person I've ever seen. But you've got to-"

"That's so sweet," she said. "But I'm not sensitive about my looks, and though I like compliments as much as any girl does, I prefer honesty in the long run. I'm aware of my nose, for instance."

Honker lumbered in from the adjacent room, slouched to the explosives-laden handcart, looking like nothing so much as a troll brooding over whether he'd added enough sage and butter to the child currently cooking in his oven.

Still holding the detonator in his teeth, Crinkles blew his nose in his hand and wiped his hand on the sleeve of his jacket.

The maniac prepared the last of the detonators. When he noticed me looking at him, he waved.

"My nose is pinched," Lorrie said.

"It's not pinched," I assured her because in truth it was no more pinched than the nose of a goddess.

"It's pinched," she insisted.

"All right, maybe it's pinched," I agreed, to avoid an argument, "but it's pinched in a totally perfect way."

"Then there's the problem with my teeth."

I was tempted to seize her wonderfully full lips, pull them apart, inspect her choppers as a vet might examine a racehorse, and declare them fit in no uncertain terms.

Instead, I smiled and kept my voice calm. "There's nothing wrong with your teeth. They're white and even, as flawless as pearls."

"Exactly," she said. "They don't look real. People must think I have false teeth."

"No one will think a woman as young as you has false teeth."

"There's Chilson Strawberry."

No matter how often I put it through the mill wheels of my mind, that statement wouldn't process. "What is Chilson Strawberry?"

"She's a friend of mine, my age exactly, she does bungee tours."

"Bungee tours?"

"She puts together travel packages, takes groups of people all over the world to bungee jump off bridges and stuff."

"I wouldn't have dreamed you could make a living packaging bungee tours."

"She does quite well," Lorrie assured me. "Though I don't like to think what all that taunting of gravity is going to do to her br**sts in ten years."

I didn't know what to say to that. I took some pride in having found something to say throughout the conversation so far, regardless of its mystifying turns. I figured I had earned a time-out.

Barely pausing for breath, Lorrie said, "Chilson lost every one of her teeth."

Interested in spite of myself, I said, "How did she do that-did a bungee break?"

"No, it wasn't work-related. She screwed up on her motorcycle, flipped, rolled, smacked her face into a bridge abutment."

My teeth throbbed with sympathy pain so bad that for a moment I couldn't speak.

"When they rebuilt her jaw," Lorrie said, "they extracted what teeth

hadn't been broken out in the accident. Later they implanted fabrications. She can crack walnuts with them."

"Considering that she's a friend of yours," I said with complete sincerity, "I'm wondering what happened to the bridge abutment."

"Not as much as you might think. They had to hose the blood off. There were a few chips, a little crack."

Her face was guileless. Her limpid eyes were not evasive. If she was putting me on, she gave no clue of it.

"You've got to meet my family," I said.

"Uh-oh," she said. "Something's happening."

Blinking, mildly disoriented, I looked around, as though coming out of a trance. I had all but forgotten about Honker, Crinkles, and the grinning feeb.

Although at least half the bricks of plastic explosive remained on the handcart, Honker pulled it out of the room, through the alcove door, into the tunnel by which he had arrived.

Having synchronized the final detonator, the nameless maniac presented it to Crinkles, along with the handcuff key, and gave him instructions: "When you've finished here, bring the babe and the ox with you."

Ox. The feeb was my size, and I'm sure that he didn't think of himself as an ox.

He followed Honker into the tunnel.

We were alone with Crinkles, which was like being alone with Satan in the sadomasochism wing of Hell.

Lorrie waited a minute to be sure those in the tunnel had gone too far to hear, and then she said, "Oh, Mr. Crinkles?"

"Don't do this," I pleaded.

Crinkles had gone to the distant end of the room to insert the last detonator in the charge that he had packed around another column. He appeared not to have heard Lorrie.

"Even if he thinks you're cute," I said, "he's the kind of guy who'd be

as happy to rape you after he's killed you as before, and how does that help us?"

"Necrophilia? That's a terrible thing to say about a person."

"He's not a person. He's a Morlock."

She brightened. "H. G. Wells. The Time Machine. You really are a reader. Of course you could have seen the movie."

"Crinkles isn't a person. He's Grendel."

"Beowulf," she said, naming the work in which the monster Grendel lurked.

"He's Tom Ripley."

"That's the psychopath in some books by Patricia Highsmith."

"Five books," I said. "Tom Ripley is the essential Hannibal Lecter thirty years before anyone had heard of Hannibal."

Having finished his work at the distant end of the long room, Crinkles returned to us.

As our Grendel approached, I expected Lorrie to tell him she had a female emergency. She smiled at him and batted her eyelashes, but hesitated to speak.

Crinkles's mouth was puckered strangely. He appeared to be rolling something on his tongue as he unlocked the second set of handcuffs that secured our cuffs to the chair.

As we got to our feet, still tethered to each other, Lorrie tossed her head to fluff her hair. With her free hand, she undid a button at the top of her blouse to better reveal her lovely throat.