Lorrie felt dizzy. "You know Nedra?"
"I knew her for a few minutes, the poor dear," Beezo revealed. "What are those totems with antlers all about, anyway?"
Wondering whether Nedra lay at rest among the cords of dry pine in her woodshed or in her basement freezer, Lorrie put one hand on the assault rifle.
"That's not friendly, missy."
She took her hand off the weapon.
Beezo put the open hypodermic kit on the dashboard, placed the prepared syringe atop it. "Be a lamb and take off your parka, roll up a sleeve, and let me find a vein."
Instead of obeying, she said, "What are you going to do to me?"
He surprised her by affectionately pinching her cheek as if he were a maiden aunt and she were a favorite niece. "You fret too much, missy. Too much worry only makes the most-feared thing come true. I'm going to sedate you a little to make you cooperative and pliable."
"I'll cut the lap and shoulder belts from this vehicle, fashion them into a sling, and pull you up this slope to Hawksbill Road."
"As anyone but a blind man can see," Beezo replied, and winked. "There you go worrying again. I won't secure the sling in any way that would harm you or the baby. I can't carry you up that incline. Too hard. And dangerous."
"And when we reach the top?"
"I'll load you in the Hummer and drive to a nice cozy private place. When the time comes, I'll deliver your adorable baby."
Appalled, she said, "You're not a doctor."
"Don't you concern yourself. I know the procedure."
"How would you know?"
"I've read an entire book about it," he said cheerily. "I've got all the necessary supplies and instruments."
"Oh my God."
"There you go, fretting again," he said. "You really do need a better attitude, dear. Attitude is the secret to a happy life. I can recommend some excellent books on the subject." He patted her shoulder. "I'll tie everything off just right and leave you where you'll be safe until you're found. Then the boy and I will be away on our great adventure."
Speechless with horror, she stared at him.
"I will teach him everything I know, and though he doesn't have Beezo blood in his veins, he will become the most acclaimed clown of his century." An ironic laugh bubbled from him like gas from a swamp. "I learned with my Punchinello that talent doesn't always travel from generation to generation. But I have so very much to share and such a passion for sharing it that I have no doubt I will make him a starlIt's going to be a girl," she said.
Smiling, always smiling, he wagged a finger at her in gentle admonishment. "Remember, I've been listening for a week. You didn't want the doctor to tell you the sex of the baby."
"But what if it is a girl?"
"It'll be a boy," he insisted, winking, winking, winking again until he realized that the wink was about to become an uncontrollable tic. "It will be a boy because I need a boy."
She was afraid to look away from him but could barely tolerate the rage and misery in his eyes. "Why? Oh. Because no girl has ever been a famous clown."
"There are female clowns," he acknowledged, "but none of great merit. The merry kingdom of the big top is ruled by men."
If her baby was a girl, he would kill them both.
"It's cold in here now," Beezo said, "and getting very late. Be a sweet thing and take off your parka, roll up your sleeve."
His smile grew fixed, then sagged. He forced the curve back into his lips. "It would grieve me to have to knock you unconscious with a punch or two. But I will if you give me no choice. A thing was done, for whatever reasons, and in your heart you know fairness requires that I be compensated. You can always have another baby."
he door hung open. I had a rock the size of a small grapefruit in my right hand. I leaned into the Explorer, and as the rifleman became aware of me and turned his head, I slammed the rock into his left temple, hard but not as hard as I would have liked.
He regarded me with the surprise that anyone might have shown at the sight of a shot-and-drowned pastry chef miraculously returned to life.
For an instant I thought I would have to hit him with the rock again. Then he slumped into the steering wheel, blowing the horn with his face.
Pushing him back against the headrest, silencing the horn, I looked past him at Lorrie, inexpressibly relieved to see that she appeared to be unharmed.
She said, "I never again want to hear that song "Send in the Clowns."" Not for the first time, I stood uncomprehending before her. Indicating the man slumped in the driver's seat beside her, Lorrie said, "Punchinello's daddy."
Amazed, leaning into the SUV, I pulled off his toboggan cap to examine him. "I guess he looks a little like Konrad Beezo...."
"Twenty-four years and plastic surgery," she explained.
I put my chilled fingertips to his throat, feeling for a pulse. His heartbeat was slow and steady.
"What's he doing here?" I asked.
"Soliciting donations for UNICEF. Plus he wanted our baby."
My heart dropped, my stomach turned, something seemed to be wringing my bladder: a major rearrangement of internal organs. "The baby?"
"I'll tell you later. Jimmy, the contractions aren't more frequent but they sure are a lot more painful, and I'm way cold."
Her words scared me more than gunfire. Beezo had been subdued; but we were a long way from a hospital delivery room.
"I'll shackle him with the tow cable, put him in the backseat," I told her.
"Can we drive out of here?"
"I don't think so."
"Neither do I. But we've got to try, don't we?"
She probably wouldn't make it to the top on foot. Too far, too steep. In her condition, if she slipped and took a bad fall, she'd probably start to hemorrhage.
"If we're going to drive," she said, "I don't want him in here with us."
"He'll be restrained."
"Famous last words. He's not just your ordinary maniac. If he was your ordinary maniac, he could sit on my lap and I'd feed him Life Savers. But he's the great Beezo. I don't want him in here."
I could sympathize with her position. "All right, I'll shackle him to a tree."
"As soon as we reach the hospital, I'll inform the police, and they can come back here for him. But it's awful cold, and maybe he's had a concussion, so he might not survive."
Staring at the unconscious Beezo with a ferocity I hoped never to see directed at me, Lorrie said, "Baby, if I had a nail gun, I'd crucify him to the tree and never tell anyone."
Here was an important lesson for villains who hoped for a long career in lawbreaking. The maternal instinct to protect offspring is an awesome thing. Never threaten an expectant mother with the theft of her precious child, especially not if she is the daughter of a snake handler.
I took the assault rifle to the back of the Explorer, opened the tailgate, and put the weapon inside.
The toolbox contained the coiled tow cable. Each end featured a snap link with a locking sleeve.
Up front, Lorrie cried out urgently, "Jimmy! He's waking up."
When I hurried around to the open driver's door, I found Beezo groaning, rolling his head back and forth.
He muttered fearfully, "Vivacemente."
Earlier, feeling for his pulse, I had put the rock on the seat beside him. I picked it up and tapped him solidly on the forehead.
His right hand fluttered up from his side, fumbling feebly against his face, and he mumbled, "Syphilitic weasel, swine of swines ..."
The first tap I had administered had been too restrained. I rapped him harder with the rock, and he slumped unconscious once more.
Having been reluctantly pushed to violence by Punchinello more than four years previously, my ruthlessness didn't surprise me, but I was disturbed to find I enjoyed it. A warm satisfaction flushed my winter-bitten face, and I was tempted to smack him again, though I did not.
My restraint seemed admirable and a consequence of the wholesome values with which I had been raised, but a part of me believed then-and still believes-that a restrained response to evil is not moral. Revenge and justice are twin braids in a line as thin as the high wire that an aerialist must walk, and if you can't keep your balance, then you are doomed- and damned-regardless of whether you fall to the left or to the right of the line.
I hauled Konrad Beezo out of the Explorer and dragged him to a suitable pine tree. He was a difficult package to handle, but that was even more true when he was conscious.
After propping him against the pine, I opened his coat, quickly fed the tow cable up the left sleeve, across his chest, and down the right sleeve. Then I buttoned the coat to his throat.
One at a time, I took the ends of the cable around to the farther side of the tree and hooked one snap link through the other. I screwed the locking metal sleeves over the snap gates.
Little slack remained in the cable. He would not be able to get his hands in front of himself to try to strip off the coat. He had been essentially strait jacketed which seemed appropriate.
I checked the pulse in his throat once more. The artery throbbed strong and steady.
For a while in those days, we had a saying in our family: The only way to kill a clown is to beat him to death with a mime.
Returning to the Explorer, I put on my leather glbves. I brushed the crumbles of safety glass off the driver's seat, got in behind the wheel, and pulled the door shut.
Huddled in the passenger's seat, Lorrie pressed her hands to her rounded abdomen, alternately hissing through her clenched teeth and groaning.
"Worse?" I asked.
"You remember the chest-burster scene in Alien?"
On the dashboard lay a small black leather drug kit with two hypodermics.
"He wanted to shoot me up to make me cooperative and 'pliable,"" she revealed.
Rage flared in me, but nothing would be gained by letting it build into an all-consuming fire.
As I carefully returned the filled syringe to its niche and then zipped the kit shut, setting it aside as evidence, I said, "Domestic bliss through
modern chemistry. Why didn't I think of that? I'm all for pliability in a wife."
"If you were, you'd never have married me."
I kissed her quickly on the cheek. "For sure."
"I've had enough adventure for tonight. Get me to an epidural."
Hesitating to turn the key in the ignition, I worried that the engine wouldn't start, that the pinching trees wouldn't release us.
She said, "Beezo was going to make a sling out of the lap and shoulder belts and haul me up to the highway like a hunter dragging a deer carcass."
I wanted to get out of the Explorer and kill him. And I prayed that we wouldn't be reduced to implementing his plan.
On the second try, the engine turned over and caught. I switched on the headlights. Lorrie cranked up the heater to compensate for the icy air pouring through the broken window.
The gap between the ancient firs that bracketed the SUV had been narrow enough to halt our backward slide; but those trees might not have us in a sufficiently tight grip to resist the forward thrust of the engine.
I eased down on the accelerator, and the engine growled. Tires spun, stuttered, spun. The Explorer creaked, protesting the hard embrace of the trees.
Pressed for more power, the engine shrieked. The tires squealed, and the creaking increased, augmented by a phantom rattle the source of which I could not place.
The Explorer began to shudder like a terrified horse with a leg trapped in a rockfall.
A hard metallic grinding arose. I didn't like the sound of it. When I eased off the accelerator, the Explorer settled backward an inch or two. I had not been aware of gaining that ground when the SUV had been straining forward.
I established a rhythmic application of the gas pedal. The Explorer rocked gently back and forth, abrading the bark on the fir trees.
Turning the steering wheel slightly to the right had no effect. When I turned it slightly to the left, we jolted forward four or five inches before getting hung up again.
I eased the wheel back to the right, pumped the pedal. A loud twangl reverberated around us as if we were in the hollow of a bell, and suddenly we were free.
Lorrie said, "I hope the baby comes out that easy." "Anything changes, I want to know right away." "Changes?"
"Like if your water breaks."
"Oh, honey, if my water breaks, you'll know it without being told. You'll be ankle deep in it."
Because of the altitude, I didn't think that the Explorer would get far in a direct assault on the slope. Still, I had to give it a try.
The incline wasn't as steep down here as it became higher up, and we powered forward farther than I expected, deviating from a straight ascent only to ease around trees and the rare knob of rock. We had gone perhaps a hundred yards before the way grew steeper and the air-starved engine began to cough.
From that point on, I intended to pursue a switchback ascent, thereby demanding less of the vehicle. Proceeding due north or due south, crossing the slope at ninety degrees to the gradient, would be suicide; the way was too steep, and the Explorer would sooner or later roll. But tacking left and right at cautious angles, we might neither stall out nor roll, and wend our way up as if following the architecture of a staircase.
This strategy required caution and intense concentration. Each time that we switch backed I had to calculate, by sheer instinct, the angle of ascent that would gain us the most ground while putting us at the least risk.
The terrain proved wildly irregular. Frequently, if I pressed forward the slightest bit too hastily, the Explorer began to rock side to side on the corrugated land, bouncing us roughly in our seats, gathering lateral momentum that on this hillside might topple it. More than once in my mind's eye, we went crashing to the bottom of the ravine, caroming from tree to tree like a pinball bouncing off flippers and bumpers.
Sometimes I slowed to let the vehicle stabilize. At other times I stopped altogether, frightened by the way the steering wheel pulled in my hands. Pausing, I studied the forbidding landscape revealed by the headlights, making small adjustments in our route.
When we passed the midpoint of our journey, I dared to believe that we would make it.
Lorrie's confidence must have improved, too, for she broke the tense silence in which we had thus far ascended: "There's something I would have regretted never having told you if we died here tonight."