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"Other ten-year-old boys have nothing useful in their heads," Lorrie said. "Just baseball, video games, and collecting Pokemon cards."

"I didn't get love, but at least he kept me safe from the vicious Virgilio ... and he did his best to teach me all the craft and the technique that had made him a legend in his profession."

A hard clang, like the toll of a tuneless bell, pealed through the room.

At the top of the stairs, having torched open the steel door, Honker and Crinkles torqued it from its frame and dropped it on the landing.

"I've got to do my part now," Punchinello said. His anger and hatred dimmed as if on a rheostat, while warmth and what passed for affection brightened his face. "But don't worry. When this is done, Jimmy, I'll protect you. I know we can trust you not to rat us out. Nothing will happen to the son of Rudy Tock."

"What about me?" Lorrie asked.

"You'll have to be killed," he said without hesitation, his smile fading into a bland robotic expression, his eyes abruptly empty of compassion.

While all evil is insane and while some insanity can be funny from a comfortable distance, few insane people have a sense of humor. If Punchinello had one, it wasn't wry enough to produce a line like that. I knew at once that he was serious. He would release me but kill Lorrie.

As he rose to his feet and moved away, shock briefly silenced me. Then I called out, "Punch, wait! I've got a secret to tell you."

He turned to me. His dark emotions became light as rapidly as a flock of birds radically altering its flight path to catch a sudden change of wind. The robot had vanished, and the cold stare. Now he was all glamor and fellowship: good looks, great hair, twinkling best-friend eyes.

"Lorrie," I told him, "is my fiancee."

He paid out one of those million-dollar smiles. "Fantastic! You make a perfect couple."

Not sure he got the point, I said, "We're going to be married in November. We'd like you to come to the wedding if that's possible. But there can't be a wedding if you kill her."

Smiling, nodding, he considered this as I held my breath. And considered it. Finally he said, "I want only happiness for the son of Rudy Tock, my father's savior and mine. This will be tricky with Honker and Crinkles, but we'll work it out."

The "thank you" came out of me on an explosive exhalation.

He left us and proceeded to the stairs.

However reluctant she might have been to show weakness, Lorrie could not repress a shudder of relief that chattered her teeth.

When Punchinello was out of earshot, she said, "Let's get one thing straight, baker boy. I'm not naming the first kid either Konrad or Beezo."

Punchinello swung the sledge and broke blocks. Honker cut the re bar as it was uncovered. Crinkles moved the debris to the bottom of the stairs and out of the way. They were remarkably efficient and coordinated for a trio of clowns.

Each time that Punchinello paused to rest, allowing Honker to use the acetylene torch, he stepped as far away from his companion as possible, to avoid the sparks showering off the re bar And each time he consulted his wristwatch.

Obviously, they had calculated the time that the power company would need to repair the transformer and were confident with their conclusion. They didn't appear to be nervous. Crazy, yes, but not in the least anxious.

My watch was on my left wrist, so I could check it without disturbing Lorrie, who was shackled to my right arm.

Not that she took a nap as we leaned back against the cozy metal filing cabinets. She was wide awake and-I'm sure this will be no surprise to you-talking.

"I wish my father had been a clown," she said wistfully.

"Why would you want to live with such anger every day?"

"My father wouldn't be an angry clown. He's a sweet-tempered man, just irresponsible."

"He wasn't around much, huh?"

"Always off chasing tornadoes," she said.

I decided to ask: "Why?"

"He's a storm chaser. That's how he makes his living, traveling the Midwest in his souped-up Suburban."

This was 1994. The movie Twister would not be released until 1996. I had never imagined chasing tornadoes could be a career.

Assuming that this had to be a put-on, I played along: "Has he ever caught one?"

"Oh, dozens."

"What's he do with them?"

"Sells them, of course."

"So once he's caught a tornado, it's his? He has a right to sell it?"

"Of course. It's copyrighted."

"So he sees a tornado, and he chases after it, and when he gets close enough-"

"They're fearless," she said, "they get right in there."

"So he gets right in there and then he-what?-you can't just shoot a tornado as if it were a lion on the veldt."

"Sure you can," she said. "It's pretty much exactly the same."

This was beginning to seem less like a put-on than like a kind of madness that Punchinello might embrace.

"Would your father sell to me?"

"If you had the money."

"I don't think I could afford an entire tornado. They must be expensive."

"Well," she said, "it depends on what you want to use it for."

"I was thinking I could threaten Chicago with it, demand ten million, maybe twenty million, or else."

She regarded me with clear impatience and with what might have been pity. "Like I haven't heard that lame joke a million times."

I began to suspect that I was missing something. "I'm sorry. I want to know. Really."

"Well, partly he charges by how much video you want to buy-a minute, two minutes, ten."

Video. Film. Of course. He wasn't out there lassoing tornadoes. I had become so accustomed to her cockeyed conversation that when she said her father chased tornadoes, I hadn't been able to believe that she meant exactly what she said.

"If you're a scientist," she continued, "he charges you a lower rate than he'd charge a television network or a movie studio."

"Geez, that really is dangerous work."

"Yeah, but it seems now like even if he had been a clown, that wouldn't have been a cakewalk, either." She sighed. "I just wish he'd been around more when I was a kid."

"The tornado season doesn't last all year."

"No, it doesn't. But he also chases hurricanes."

"I guess he figures he's already geared up for it."

"That's exactly what he figures. When one season ends, the other is beginning, so then he's tracking weather reports along the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic seaboard."

At the top of the stairs, the three larcenous jack puddings had opened a hole large enough to afford them entrance to the vault.

With flashlights, Punchinello and Crinkles disappeared through the broken masonry. Honker stayed behind, keeping a watch on us from the landing.

"When the generator didn't come on after the power went off," Lorrie said, "maybe an automatic alarm went out over the phone line, and the police are in the bank right now."

Although I hoped her unshakable optimism would prove justified, I said, "These guys would've covered that. They seem to have thought of everything."

She fell silent. So did I. I suspected that our thoughts were occupied with the same worry: Would Punchinello keep his promise to let us go?

His cohorts were going to be the problem. Neither of them seemed tightly wrapped, but they weren't insane in the way that the son of the great Konrad Beezo was insane. Their feet were more solidly on the ground than his. Honker was motivated by greed, Crinkles by greed and envy. They would not be in the least sentimental about the son of Rudy Tock.

Silence sucked. Worry thrived in it.

I felt better just hearing Lorrie talk, so I tried to start her up again. "I'm surprised your mother and you didn't travel with your father. If I were married to a storm chaser who was away from home all the time, I'd want to be with him. Well, her."

"Mom has her own successful business. She loves it, and if she left L.A." she'd have to give it up."

"What business is she in?" I asked.

"She's a snake handler."

This seemed promising.

Lorrie said, "Having a mother who's a snake handler isn't as much fun as you'd think."

"Really? I think it would be a delight."

"Sometimes, yeah. But she worked out of our home. Snakes-they aren't as easy to train as puppies."

"You can house break a snake?"

"I'm not talking potty training. I mean tricks. Dogs love to learn stuff,

but snakes get bored easily. When they're bored, they try to slither away, and sometimes they can move fast."

Punchinello and Crinkles came out of the vault, onto the high landing where Honker waited for them. They were carrying boxes which they put down and from which they removed the lids.

Honker whooped when he saw the contents. The three men laughed and high-fived one another.

I figured the boxes contained something more exciting than either snakes or pastries.

They brought sixteen boxes out of the vault, carried them down the stairs, and loaded them on the handcart that had previously held the explosives. These were cardboard cartons with removable lids, similar to the kind in which movers pack books.

"Over three million in cash," Punchinello said when he urged Lorrie and me to our feet and led us to the loot.

I remembered something he'd said earlier: To all appearances, it's not a major bank, not worth knocking over.

"There wouldn't be this much cash on hand in most big-city banks," Punchinello said. "This is a Treasury Department collection center for what's called 'fatigued currency." All banks cull worn currency from circulation. Those in a twelve-county district send it here on a weekly basis for retirement, and in return they receive freshly printed bills."

"Two thirds of this," Honker said, "is fatigued currency, and the other million is new and crisp. Don't matter. It'll all spend the same."

"We just drained some blood out of a capitalist leech," said Crinkles, but his weak metaphor reflected his physical exhaustion. His explosion of wiry hair had gone limp with sweat.

Consulting his watch, Punchinello said, "We're going to have to shake ass to beat the fireworks."

Crinkles and Honker exited the bank's subcellar first, one pulling and the other pushing the handcart. Lorrie and I followed, with Punchinello close behind us.

In Cornelius Snow's secret subterranean corridors, half the fat yellow candles were guttering in the sconces. The quivering flames illuminated the passageway less well than they had done previously. Sinuous figures of light and clawing shadows contested silently on a battlefield of limestone walls and ceiling, like spirits in a war between good and evil.

This was one of those places where you wouldn't be surprised if Leatherface, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, turned a corner and fired up his trademark weapon. He might have met his match in the killer clowns.

"Tonight," Punchinello said as we approached the intersection where a right turn would take us to the library, "I will finally make my father proud, after failing him in everything else."

"Oh, honey," Lorrie said, "don't be so hard on yourself. You seem to be a whiz on all the gun-knife-poison stuff."

"That wasn't what mattered to him. All he wanted was for me to be a clown, the greatest clown of all time, a star, but I have no talent for it."

"You're still young," Lorrie assured him. "Plenty of time to learn."

"No, he's right," Honker said with apparent earnestness. "The boy has no talent for it. It's a genuine tragedy. His father's the Konrad Beezo, so he learned from the greatest, but he can't even do a good pratfall. I love you, Punch, but it's true."

"No offense, Honker. I faced the truth long ago."

At the intersection, we turned neither left nor right. I had my bearings

now. Straight ahead would be the Snow Mansion, in front of which I had parked my Shelby Z, directly across the town square from the bank.

Crinkles said, "I've been in the ring with Punch, done the exploding clown-car routine with him, the foot-in-the-bucket hokum, the rain-from-under-the-umbrella skit, even the mouse-in-the-pants number, which nobody can screw up-"

"But I screw them all up," Punchinello said morosely.

"The audience laughs at him," Honker revealed.

"Aren't they supposed to laugh at a clown?" Lorrie asked.

"This isn't good laughter," Punchinello said.

"Really, miss, it's mean," Honker told Lorrie. "It's laughing at, not with."

"How can you tell the difference?" she wondered.

"Oh, lady," said Crinkles, "if you're a clown, you know."

As we proceeded under Center Square Park, I was struck by these two men's change in attitude. They seemed less hostile toward us, positively chatty. Lorrie was now miss and lady instead of it.

Maybe the three million dollars put them in a better mood. Maybe Punchinello had spoken to them, explained who I was; they might see us not as hostages any longer but as honorary clowns.

Or perhaps they intended to waste us in the next few minutes and preferred to shoot people with whom they had formed a bond. Trying to think like a psychopath, I asked myself, What fun can it be, really, to shoot a virtual stranger?

In a mood to flagellate himself, Punchinello revealed, "Instead of getting my foot stuck in the bucket, I once got my head stuck in the damn thing."

"That sounds pretty funny," Lorrie said.

"Not the way he did it," Honker assured her.

"They booed," Punchinello said. "They booed me out of the big top that night."

In front of the handcart, pulling as Honker pushed, wheezing, Crinkles said, "You're a good boy, Punch. That's what matters. I'd be proud if you were my son."

"That's nice, Crinkles. That's really nice."

Honker said, "What's so great about being a clown, anyway? Even when rubes are laughing with you, they're also laughing at you, and the fringe benefits suck."

At the end of the passageway, we arrived at another formidable oak door with iron banding. Beyond lay the subcellar of the Snow Mansion.

The three men produced powerful flashlights with which they revealed this space. The most salient details were the explosive charges set strategically around the enormous room, at the bases of support columns, detonators already inserted.