Page 15

I assumed the fourth key point in the town square-the county courthouse-was likewise wired to blow. Quiet little Snow Village was going to be big news.

Bakers are a curious bunch, especially when something in a recipe doesn't seem right, so I asked Punchinello, "Why flashlights here but candles in the tunnels?"

"Candles were so authentic out there," he explained. "I am a connoisseur of the authentic wherever it can be found, which is less often every day in this increasingly plastic, polyester world."

"I don't understand."

He regarded me with what might have been pity when he said, "You don't understand because you're not an artist."

That didn't clarify anything for me, but we were already moving on to a spacious nineteenth-century dumbwaiter with a folding brass gate instead of a door. Driven by pulleys and counterweights, it had the capacity and leverage to accommodate the handcart with all the boxes of cash.

We climbed four flights of stairs to the kitchen at the back of the house, on the main floor. The flashlight beams flared off white ceramic-tile counters, polished copper, and the beveled glass in French-pane cabinet doors.

I spotted a large polished-granite insert in one tile counter, the perfect surface on which to work dough for pies and tarts. Even if Cornelius had been the greedy, exploiting, blood-sucking, black-hearted, running-dog, drooling, baby-eating pig that Crinkles had described, he could not have been all bad if he'd had a particular liking for pastries.

Honker said, "Look at this great old iron stove."

Crinkles said, "Food tasted real coming out of that baby."

"Because it was authentic," Punchinello said.

Honker put his flashlight on a counter and worked the crank that operated the dumbwaiter cable drive, bringing the proceeds of the bank robbery to the kitchen.

Crinkles set his flashlight aside, too, folded open the brass gate, and pulled the cart into the kitchen.

Punchinello shot Honker in the chest, Crinkles in the back, then pumped two more rounds into each of them as they thrashed, screaming, on the floor.

The unexpectedness and ferocity of these murders shocked silence into Lorrie, but I think that I screamed. I can't be sure because the screams of the victims, although brief, were ghastly and louder than whatever half-throttled screech might or might not have escaped me.

I do know that I almost threw up. Nausea rolled through me, and a sudden flood of bitter saliva insulated my mouth against the acidic rush from my stomach.

Clenching my teeth, taking deep rapid breaths, I swallowed hard and quelled the nausea largely by opening the tap of anger.

These killings sickened, frightened, and enraged me even more than did the murder of Lionel Davis, our librarian. I cannot say with any certainty why this should be the case.

I was physically closer to these victims than to Lionel, who had collapsed out of sight behind his desk instantly upon being shot. Maybe that was it: a proximity that forced upon me the very smell of death, not just

the subtle odor of blood but also the reek of one victim's bowels loosened in his final agonized spasms.

Or perhaps I was so powerfully affected because the killer and his two accomplices had been conversing with evident mutual affection such a short time before he had blown them away.

The victims were men of low character, no question about that, but so was Punchinello. No matter what breed of miserable lost soul you might be, you deserved at least the safe community of your own kind.

Wolves do not kill wolves. Vipers don't attack vipers.

Only in the various communities of human beings must brother be on guard against brother.

That lesson had been so vividly delivered with six bullets that I felt hammered by cold truth. As the shock knocked the wind out of my lungs, another exhalation escaped my spirit, leaving me two kinds of breathless.

Ejecting the magazine that now contained four rounds, inserting a fresh one in the pistol, Punchinello misread our reactions. He grinned, pleased with himself, assuming that we also were pleased with him.

"Surprised you, huh? Bet you thought I'd clip them only when we were loaded in the van and out of town with the money. But trust me, this was the best moment."

Perhaps if Lorrie and I had never stumbled into this caper, he would have murdered his companions at this very place. Three million dollars is a powerful motivator.

If he could so coldly execute these men who had seemed like uncles to him, however, betraying his promise to us would trouble him no more than jaywalking.

"My wedding gift to you," he said, as if he had given us a toaster oven or a tea set and would, in due course, expect a handwritten thank-you note.

To have called him mad or evil, to have registered revulsion or anger at his ruthlessness, might have invited instant execution. When balancing a bottle of nitroglycerin on the point of a sword, never complicate the task by trying to tap dance.

Although I realized that he might read the truth of our feelings in our silence, I could find neither my voice nor anything to say.

Not for the first time and certainly not for the last, Lorrie saved our skin: "Would it even begin to be an adequate expression of our gratitude if we named our first son Konrad?"

I thought this offer would strike him as pure sycophancy and that he would be offended by her obvious attempt to manipulate him. I was wrong. She had struck the perfect note.

In the backwash of the flashlight beams, Punchinello's eyes visibly misted with emotion. He bit his lower lip.

"That's so sweet," he said. "So kind. I can't think of anything that would please my father, the great Konrad Beezo, more than to know that the grandson of Rudy Tock was named after him."

Lorrie greeted this response with a radiant smile that Leonardo da Vinci would have given his left foot to paint. "There all that remains to make me and Jimmy happy is if you would agree to be our baby's godfather."

When in the presence of a prince of madness, safety lies, if anywhere, in presenting yourself as a member of that same royal family.

More lip biting preceded his emotional reply: "I understand the obligation. I'll be little Konrad's protector. Anyone who ever wrongs him will answer to me."

"You can't know," Lorrie told him, "what comfort that gives to a mother."

Not as though issuing an order, more as though he were a friend seeking help, he asked us to take the handcart through the rambling historical mansion to the front door. I pushed the cart, and Lorrie picked out the route with a flashlight.

Punchinello followed us with a flashlight in one hand and the pistol in the other.

I didn't want him behind my back. I had no choice. If I had hesitated, he might have accelerated through one of his hairpin mood turns.

"You know what's ironic?" he asked.

"Yeah-that I was worried about going to the dry cleaner."

He had no interest in my irony: "What's ironic is that as bad as I am at clown craft I'm that good at walking a wire, and I'm at home on a trapeze."

Lorrie said, "You inherited your mother's talent."

"And secretly took some training," he admitted as we passed from the kitchen through a butler's pantry into a grand dining room. "If I could have put half the time into those instructions as I put into clowning, I'd have been a star."

"You're still young," Lorrie said. "It's not too late."

"No. Even if I sold my soul for the chance, I could not become one of them, never an aerialist. Virgilio Vivacemente is the living god of aerialists and knows them all. If I performed, he would hear of me. He would come to see me. He would recognize my mother's face in mine, and he would kill me."

"Maybe he'd embrace you," Lorrie suggested.

"Never. To him, my blood is tainted. He would kill me, dismember me, marinate my remains in gasoline, burn them, urinate on the ashes, put the wet ashes in a bucket, take them to a farm, and stir them into the muddy wallow in the corner of a pigpen."

"Maybe you're overestimating his villainy," I suggested as we followed a narrow hall to a wider one.

"He's done that very thing before," Punchinello assured me. "He is an arrogant beast. He claims that he is descended from Caligula, the mad emperor of ancient Rome."

Having seen Punchinello in action, I couldn't argue against the proposition that he might come from such lineage.

He sighed. "That's why I've decided to throw my life away in a frenzy of vengeance. Might as well die if I can't fly."

A grand staircase swept up into gloom from the lavishly detailed foyer. An inlaid black granite and terra-cotta floor depicted toga-clad figures and mythological beings reminiscent of images on ancient Grecian urns.

Our sweeping flashlight beams imparted an illusion of movement to the scenes and the processions underfoot, as if these populations lived in a two-dimensional world as real as our realm of three.

A brief dizziness spiraled through me, related less to the patterned floor, I suspect, than to a further delayed reaction to the murders of the two men in the kitchen. In addition, I felt unsteady because I recalled my premonition that Lorrie would be shot, and I wondered if this might be the place where the trigger would be pulled.

My mouth was dry. My hands were clammy. I wanted a good eclair.

Lorrie gripped my right hand, held it tight. Her elegant fingers were icy.

At one of the windows that flanked the pair of tall entry doors, Punchinello extinguished his flashlight, parted the brocade drapery, and scanned the night. "No lights anywhere around the square."

The detonators in the subcellar of the mansion were ticking toward zero. I wondered how long until everything under us erupted in a blast wave and fire.

As if reading my mind, Punchinello turned from the window and said, "We could use more than seven minutes, but that's all we have."

He switched on his light, put it on the floor, fished a handcuff key from a coat pocket, and approached me. "I'd like you to roll the handcart down the front steps and across the sidewalk to the back of a yellow van parked at the curb."

"Sure, no problem," I said, and cringed at the submissive note in my voice. But I certainly wasn't going to say, Do it yourself, clown boy.

As he keyed open my cuff, I considered trying to wrench the pistol out of his hand. Something about his body language told me that he expected such a move and would counter it brutally and effectively.

If Lorrie was shot, an ill-considered action on my part might be the thing that precipitated her death. Prudence seemed wise, and I didn't go for the gun.

I expected him to release her, as well, but in a magician-quick maneuver, he cuffed himself to her and switched the pistol from his right hand to his left. He held the weapon with such assurance that he appeared to be ambidextrous.

He had cuffed himself to Lorrie. I saw it happen, yet I needed a moment to accept the reality. I didn't want to believe that our hopes for survival had so abruptly and so drastically diminished.

Cuffed together, Lorrie and I might have tried to break for freedom once we were in the open air. Now she was his hostage not only for the purpose of holding the police at bay if they should stumble upon us but also to keep me docile.

And as for me ... Punchinello had decided that if his situation soured in any way, I would be expendable.

To question why he cuffed himself to Lorrie would be to question the sincerity of his promise to spare us. Then things might get ugly sooner rather than later.

Consequently, neither Lorrie nor I indicated that his behavior struck us as odd. This required us to appear as naive as newborns.

We were grinning as if we were, gosh, just having the best time.

Her smile was fixed like the smiles on Miss America contestants during the personality competition when the host asked a particularly tricky question: Miss Ohio, if you saw a puppy and a kitten playing on railroad tracks, and a train was coming, and you had only time enough to save one or the other, which would you let die a horrible death-the puppy or the kitten?

My face seemed to have been starched, and my lips felt as if they had been stretched on a clothesline and pinned at both ends: another Miss Ohio smile.

I opened one of the two front doors and pushed the handcart onto the porch.

Cool evergreen-scented air chilled the sweat on the back of my neck.

The moon had not yet risen. A skim of clouds let through only prickles of starlight.

No lights glowed in the park, and the streetlamps had failed. Around the square, the buildings stood dark and silent.

The enormous larches between the sidewalk and the curb screened much of the town from view. Nevertheless, between their branches I could see flashing yellow lights and power-company repair trucks on Alpine Avenue, half a block north of the square.

No traffic in the street at the moment. No pedestrians on the sidewalk as far as the overhanging trees would allow me to see.

Punchinello and Lorrie followed me onto the porch.

He had left his flashlight inside. In these layered shadows, I could not clearly see his face.

That was probably for the good. If I had been able to see him better, I'd have read one crazy intention or another in his face-and wouldn't have known what to do about it.

I wished I could more clearly see Lorrie. I could tell that her smile had faded. So had mine.

The ten steps led between limestone balusters to the public sidewalk. They looked steep.

I said, "I'll have to carry the boxes one or two at a time to the van. The bottom of the handcart's going to get hung up on these steps."

"No, it won't," he assured me. "That's why we bought one with big tires. It'll roll down smooth and easy."


"Less than six minutes," he warned. "Don't let the cart get away from you and spill the money. That would be ... stupid."

His admonition was a taunt to the lummox in me, virtually guaranteeing that I would wind up flat on my back on the sidewalk with three million dollars tumbled atop me.

I got in front of the handcart and pulled it onto the steps, letting gravity drive it, using my body to prevent it from gaining momentum. Miraculously, I reached the sidewalk without catastrophe.

Punchinello and Lorrie descended after me.

I didn't know whether to pray that pedestrians would appear or that we would be left alone. He was so delicately balanced that even an innocent encounter might lead to more murder.

Where was a judiciously aimed falling safe when you really, really needed one?

I pushed the cart to the back of the van.

Just eight feet away stood my Dodge Daytona Shelby Z. A sweet car- and vulnerable.

"The van doors are unlocked," he said, following me, stopping short of the curb. "Load the boxes in the back. And hurry."