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Having absorbed my story, Lorrie brooded for a moment and then said, "Are all clowns so angry?"

"I don't know a lot of clowns."

"You know these three. And Konrad Beezo."

"I never met Konrad Beezo. I was like five minutes old when our paths crossed."

"I count it as a meet. So regarding clowns and anger, that's four for

four. I'm bummed. It's like you meet the real Santa Claus and he turns out to have a drinking problem. You do still have the shiv?"

"The what?" I asked.

"The shiv."

"You mean the nail file?"

"If that's what you want to call it," she said.

"That's what it is."

"Whatever you say. When are you gonna make your move?"

"When the time's right," I said patiently.

"Let's hope that's before rather than after we're blown to smithereens."

They had finished placing the five gas lanterns. One stood at the foot of the stairs, one at the middle of the long flight, and a third on the wide landing at the top, outside the back door to the vault.

From a couple of large suitcases, Punchinello unpacked tools, welder's masks, and other items I couldn't identify from a distance.

Honker and Crinkles muscled a wheeled tank of acetylene up the stairs to the landing.

Lorrie said, "What kind of name is Punchinello?"

"His father named him after a famous clown. You know, like Punch and Judy."

"Punch and Judy are puppets."

"Yes," I said, "but Punch is also a clown."

"I didn't realize that."

"He wears a sort of jester hat."

She said, "I thought Punch was a car salesman."

"Where did you get that idea?"

"It's just always the impression I've had."

"Punch and Judy shows go all the way back to the nineteenth century, maybe the eighteenth," I said. "There weren't cars then."

"Well, who would want the same job for two centuries? Back then, before cars, he was probably a candle maker or a blacksmith."

She is an enchantress. She casts a spell over you, and you find yourself wanting to see the world from her perspective.

That's why I heard myself replying as if Punch were as real as she and I were: "He's not a candlemaking, blacksmithing sort of guy. That's just not him. He wouldn't be fulfilled in that kind of work. Besides, he wears a jester's hat."

"The hat doesn't prove anything. He could have been a hip sort of blacksmith with a funky style." She frowned. "He's always going berserk and beating up Judy, isn't he? So that makes five."

"Five what?"

"Five angry clowns and no happy ones at all."

"To be fair," I said, "Judy's always beating the crap out of him, too."

"Is she a clown?"

"I don't know. Maybe."

"Well, Punch is her husband, so at the very least she's a clown by marriage. So that makes six of them, all angry. This is quite a revelation."

Elsewhere in town, the transformer blew up. It must have been housed in an underground vault, for the rumble of the muffled blast seemed to translate laterally through the walls of the bank's subcellar.

Instantly the electric lights went off. The farther end of the room glowed with lantern light, while Lorrie and I sat in gloom.

in the spacious landing at the top of the stairs, Honker and Crinkles stood in welder's masks, full-body fireproof aprons, and flared-cuff asbestos gloves. With the acetylene torch, Honker cut open the sealed perimeter of the steel door.

Smiling, shaking his head, Punchinello dropped to one knee in front of Lorrie and me. "You're really Jimmy Tock?"

"James," I said.

"Son of Rudy Tock."

"That's right."

"My father says Rudy Tock saved his life."

I said, "Dad might be surprised to hear that."

"Well, Rudy Tock is a modest man as well as a man of courage," Punchinello declared. "But when that phony nurse, with a poisoned dagger in her fist, was sneaking up behind the great Konrad Beezo, my father, he would have been a goner if your dad hadn't shot her dead."

As I sat in stupefaction, Lorrie said, "I hadn't heard this part."

To me, Punchinello said, "You haven't told her?"

"He's just as modest as his father," Lorrie told Punchinello.

As the smell of hot steel and molten welding compound spread through the room, Lorrie said, "What about the phony nurse?"

Settling all the way to the floor, cross-legged in front of us, Punchinello said, "She was dispatched to the hospital to murder the great Konrad Beezo, my mother, and me."

"Who dispatched her?" Lorrie wondered.

Even in the shadows, I could see a fever of hatred flare in his remarkable eyes as he said through clenched teeth: "Virgilio Vivacemente."

Under the pressurized circumstances, I heard his reply-which he delivered with more sibilants than the words actually contained-as just an ear-pleasing series of meaningless syllables.

Apparently Lorrie made no more of it than I did because she said, "Gesundheit."

"The hateful aerialists," he said acidly. "The world-famous Flying Vivacementes. Trapeze artists, high-wire walkers, overpaid prima donnas. The most arrogant, most pompous, most conceited, most overrated of them all is Virgilio, the paterfamilias, my mother's father. Virgilio Vivacemente, swine of swines."

"Now, now," Lorrie said, "that's not a nice thing to say about your grandfather."

This admonition triggered a rush of rejection from Punchinello: "I deny his right to be my grandfather, I refuse him, renounce him, I repudiate that old preening pile of crap!"

"That sounds terribly final," Lorrie said. "Personally, I'd pretty much always give a grandparent one more chance."

Leaning toward her, eager to explain, Punchinello said, "When my mother married my father, her family was shocked, furious. That a Flying Vivacemente should marry a clown! To them, aerialists are not merely the royalty of the circus but demigods, while clowns are to them a lower life-form, the scum of the big top."

"Maybe if clowns were less angry," Lorrie said, "other circus people would like them more."

He seemed not to hear her, so determined was he to make the case against his mother's family.

"When Mother married the great Konrad Beezo, the aerialists first shunned her, then scorned her, then disinherited and disowned her. Because she married for love, married a man they considered to be beneath her class, she was not their daughter anymore, she was dirt to them!"

"So," Lorrie said, "let me get this straight. They were all in the same circus, your mom living on the clown end of the encampment with your father, the Vivacemente family living in the upper-class neighborhood, on the road together but apart. The tension must have been uncomfortable."

"You can't know! Every performance, the Vivacementes prayed to Jesus that the great Beezo would break his spine and be paralyzed for life when he was shot out of a cannon, and every performance my father prayed to Jesus that their entire family would fall as one from their high trapezes and die horribly on impact with the center ring."

Glancing at me, Lorrie said, "Wouldn't you like to have seen Jesus's face when he read their e-mail?"

Breathless with the momentum of his story, Punchinello said, "On the night that I was born here in Snow Village, Virgilio hired an assassin who came to the hospital disguised as a nurse."

"He would know where to find an assassin-for-hire on a moment's notice?" she asked.

Punchinello's voice wavered between the most caustic hatred and abject fear: "Virgilio Vivacemente, that animated sewage that calls itself a man ... he is connected, he sits at the center of a web of evil. He plucks a strand, and criminals half a world away feel the vibrations and answer them at once. He is a pompous charlatan and a fool... but he is also a venomous centipede, quick and vicious, supremely dangerous. He

arranged to have us murdered, while he and his devious family were performing-an airtight alibi."

This was the story of the night of my birth as reimagined by a drunken lunatic.

Punchinello had been nurtured on it instead of on mother's milk and love. Having heard the tale a thousand times, having been raised in an atmosphere of paranoid fantasy and hatred, he believed in this absurd history as idol worshippers once believed in the consciousness and divinity of solid-gold calves and slabs of stone.

"And in the expectant-fathers' lounge," he said, "when the hired killer crept up on my father from behind, Rudy Tock entered at that very moment, saw the fiend, drew his pistol, and shot her before she could carry out Virgilio's orders."

Poor Lois Hanson, young and dedicated, murdered by a psychotic clown, had been transformed by that same clown from a nurse into a combination Ninja assassin and baby-killing agent of King Herod.

Patting my knee to snap me out of a trance of astonishment, Lorrie said, "Your dad carried a pistol, did he? I thought he was a simple pastry chef."

"Back then he was just a baker," I said.

"Wow. What's he packing now that he's become a pastry chef-a submachine gun?"

Compelled to tell his woeful tale, Punchinello impatiently pressed on: "Saved by Rudy Tock, my father realized that my mother and I, too, were in great danger. He rushed into the maternity ward, located the delivery room, and arrived as the doctor was suffocating me-me, an innocent newborn!"

"The doctor was a phony, too?" Lorrie asked.

"No. MacDonald was a real doctor, but he had been corrupted by Vir-gil io Vivacemente, that worm from the bowels of a syphilitic weasel."

"Weasels can get syphilis?" Lorrie wondered.

He chose to consider this a rhetorical question, and continued: "Dr.

MacDonald was paid an enormous sum, a fortune, to make it appear that my mother died in childbirth and that I was stillborn. Virgilio-may he be cast into hell tonight-believed that the oh-so-precious Vivacemente blood had been polluted by the great Konrad Beezo and that my mother and me, being tainted, must be eradicated."

"What a vile man," Lorrie said as if she actually believed any of this.

"I told you!" Punchinello cried. "He is lower than a festering canker on Satan's ass."

"That is low," Lorrie agreed.

"Konrad Beezo shot Dr. MacDonald as he tried to suffocate me. My mother, my beautiful mother, was already dead."

"That's some story," I said, for I was concerned that I might be seen as one of Virgilio's minions if I drew attention to any of the numerous absurdities in this Nuthouse Theater version of those long-ago events.

"But Virgilio Vivacemente, that spawn of a witch's toilet-"

"Oh, I like that one," Lorrie interrupted.

"-that animated dog vomit knew how corrupt this town was, how easily he could conceal the truth. He bribed the police, the local journalists. The official story is the outrageous concoction of lies reported in the Gazette."

I managed to sound sympathetic to his version: "Seems like such a transparent concoction when you know the truth."

He nodded vigorously. "Rudy Tock must have been frustrated to have silence imposed on him all these years."

"Dad took no money from Virgilio," I hastened to assure him, fearing that he might later take a spin across town to gun down Dad, Mom, and Weena. "Not a penny."

"No, no, of course he didn't," Punchinello said, and apologized effusively if I had inferred such an accusation. "Konrad Beezo, my father, has impressed on me what a courageous man of integrity Rudy Tock is. I know they must have silenced him in some brutal fashion."

Understanding Punchinello's psychology well enough to suspect that only wild exaggeration and flamboyant lies had the ring of truth to him, I said, "They beat Dad once a week for years."

"This evil town."

"But that alone wouldn't have silenced him," I added. "They threatened to kill my Grandma Rowena if he talked."

"They beat her, too," said Lorrie.

Whether she intended to be helpful or mischievous, I could not tell.

"But they only beat her once," I said.

Summoning a credible note of outrage, Lorrie revealed, "They knocked out her teeth."

"Only two teeth," I hastened to correct, concerned that we might overplay the lie.

"They tore off her ear."

"Not her ear," I said quickly. "Her hat."

"I thought it was her ear," Lorrie said.

"It was her hat," I insisted in a tone of voice that said enough is enough. "They tore off her hat and stomped on it."

Punchinello Beezo buried his face in his hands, muffling his voice: "Tore off an old lady's hat. An old lady's hat. We've all suffered at the hands of these monsters."

Before Lorrie could claim that Virgilio's henchmen had cut off Grandma Rowena's thumbs, I said, "Where has your father been these past twenty years?"

Dropping his mask of fingers, he said, "On the run, always moving, two steps ahead of the law but barely one step ahead of Vivacemente's private detectives. He raised me in a dozen different places. He was forced to give up the big career. The great Konrad Beezo ... reduced to taking clown positions with smaller shows and demeaning jobs like children's-party clown, car-wash clown, dunk-the-clown in a carnival. Living under false names-Cheeso, Giggles, Clappo, Saucy."

"Saucy?" Lorrie asked.

Blushing, Punchinello said, "For a while he was a clown MC in a strip club. He was so humiliated. The men who go to those places, they didn't appreciate his genius. All they cared about were boobs and butts."

"Philistines," I sympathized.

"Grieving, despairing, in a constant seething fury, terrified that an agent of the Vivacementes would find him at any moment, he was as good a father as he could be under the circumstances, though Konrad Beezo had lost all capacity to love when he lost my mother."

"Hollywood could make a great tearjerker out of this," Lorrie said.

Punchinello agreed. "My father thinks Charles Bronson should play him."

"The absolute king of tearjerkers," Lorrie said.

"My childhood was cold, loveless, but there were compensations. By the time I was ten, for instance, in preparation for the day that I might have to stalk and destroy Virgilio Vivacemente, I'd learned an enormous amount about guns, knives, and poisons."