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On my feet at her bedside, swaying, I gripped her hand, and she said, "You can lean on me, big guy," and I sincerely said, "Thanks."

When the red-haired nurse brought the baby, it was washed and pink and swaddled in a soft white cloth. "Mr. Tock, say hello to your daughter."

Lorrie held the precious bundle, while I stood paralyzed and speechless. For nine months, I had known where this was leading, but it nevertheless seemed impossible.

We had chosen the name Andy if it was a boy, Anne if it was a girl.

Anne had fine golden hair. Her nose was perfect. Her eyes, too, and her chin, and her tiny little hands, all perfect.

I thought of Nedra Lamm in the freezer, Punchinello in prison, Konrad Beezo out there somewhere in the winter night, and I wondered how I dared to bring a vulnerable child into a world as dark as ours, and getting darker year by year.

On days when the universe seems cruel or at least indifferent, my dad has a saying that he relies on to cheer him up. I have heard it a thousand times: Where there's cake, there's hope. And there's always cake.

In spite of Konrad Beezo and all my concerns, "my eyes filled with tears of joy, and I said, "Welcome to the world, Annie Tock."

As you might remember, Annie came to us on Monday night, January 12, 1998, exactly seven days before the second of the five terrible dates foreseen by Grandpa Josef.

The following week was the longest week of my life. Waiting for the other big clown shoe to drop.

The storm passed. The sky became that hard pale blue familiar to those who live at high altitudes, such a clean and steely and sharp shade of blue that you felt you could reach up and cut your hand on it.

With Beezo loose and the fateful day ahead of us, our house on Hawksbill Road seemed dangerously isolated. We stayed in town with my folks.

Naturally, our worst fear was that Annie, with whom we had been so recently blessed, would be taken from us-one way or another.

We were prepared to die rather than let that happen.

Because Huey Foster knew all about my grandfather's predictions and their unsettling accuracy, the Snow Village Police assigned an

officer to my parents' house around the clock, beginning Wednesday morning, when I brought Lorrie and Annie home. Indeed, we were driven from the hospital in a squad car.

Each officer came for an eight-hour shift. He patrolled the house every hour, checking door and window locks, studying the neighboring residences and the street.

Dad went to work, but I took time off and stayed home. Of course when the tension made me crazy, I baked.

Each of the cops chose the kitchen table as his post, and by Thursday all of them agreed that they had never eaten so well in their lives.

In times of loss and trouble of all kinds, neighbors usually express their concern and solidarity by bringing food. In our case, the neighbors were too intimidated to offer the usual casseroles and homebaked pies.

Instead, they brought DVDs. I don't know whether independently each of them arrived at the conclusion that in this media-drenched era, DVDs were an acceptable substitute for consoling gifts of food, or if they had a community meeting to debate the issue. By Friday our home-entertainment needs for the next two years were covered.

Grandma Rowena snatched up all the Schwarzenegger movies and watched them on the TV in her bedroom, with the door closed.

We put the rest of the DVDs in a box in the corner of the living room and forgot about them for the duration.

Mom finished painting the potbelly pig and started work on a portrait of the baby. Perhaps she had restricted herself to animal subjects for too many years, because on her new canvas, our sweet little girl had a weird resemblance to a bunny rabbit.

Annie didn't keep us as busy as I expected. She was a perfect baby. She didn't cry. She hardly fussed. She slept through the night-baker's night, from nine in the morning until four o'clock in the afternoon- better than any of us.

I almost wished she would turn cranky just to distract me from thoughts of the fugitive Beezo.

Even with a police officer in the house at all times, I was glad that I had a pistol of my own and that I had taken instruction in its proper use.

I noticed that Lorrie always kept a sharp knife close at hand-and an apple that she said she intended to peel and eat "in a little while." By Saturday morning, the apple had withered somewhat, and she exchanged it for a pear.

Usually you peel fruit with a paring knife. Lorrie preferred the blade named for the butcher.

Dad, bless his heart, came home with two baseball bats. They weren't those modern aluminum kind, but solid-wood Louisville Sluggers. He'd never had an interest in guns and had no time to learn. He gave one bat to Mom.

No one asked him why he hadn't bought a third bat for Grandma. With no strain at all, each of us could conjure up a vivid mind movie to explain his decision.

Finally the terrible day came.

Monday was a day off for Dad, and from midnight Sunday until dawn on January 19, the six of us gathered in the dining room. We fortified ourselves with cookies and kugelhopf and streusel and pots of black coffee.

We kept the drapes tight shut. The conversation was as fluent as ever, but we spoke in softer voices than usual, and from time to time we all fell silent, heads cocked, listening to the settling noises of the house and to the snuffling wind in the eaves.

Dawn came without a clown.

The sky had aged again, gray and bearded.

Our police guards changed shifts. The officer leaving took a bag of cookies with him; the new arrival brought an empty bag with him.

As the rest of the world went to work, our bedtime came. Only Grandma and the baby were able to sleep.

Monday morning waned without incident.

Noon came, and afternoon.

Guards changed again at four o'clock, and little more than an hour later, the early winter twilight descended.

The uneventfulness of the day did not reassure me. Quite the opposite. As we came to the last six hours, every nerve in my body wound tighter than an efficiency expert's watch spring.

In that condition, I would most likely use my pistol only to shoot myself in the foot. Another moment of family history worthy of a needlepoint pillow.

At seven o'clock, Huey Foster called to inform me that our house on Hawksbill Road was ablaze. Firemen reported that the intensity of the flames indicated arson.

My first impulse was to race out to the fire, be there, do something.

Officer Paolini-who happened to be our bodyguard that shift- made a convincing case that Beezo might have set the fire with the purpose of drawing me out in the open. I stayed with my wife, my daughter, my well-armed family.

By eight o'clock, we learned that our house had burned to the ground with such fury that nothing remained but hot coals. Evidently the interior had been liberally doused with gasoline before the match had been struck.

No furniture could be salvaged. No kitchen utensils, no clothes. No mementoes.

We returned to the dining-room table, this time for dinner, no less worried, no less alert. When ten o'clock came without further activity, however, we began to wonder if the worst that would happen had already passed.

Losing your house and all of your possessions in a fire is not a good thing, granted, but it's a lot better than being shot twice in the leg and immeasurably better than having your beautiful infant daughter kidnapped by a maniac.

We were prepared to make this bargain with fate: Take the house and all our possessions, no hard feelings, as long as we know we'll be safe

until the third of Grandpa Josef's terrible days-Monday, December 23, 2002. That price for nearly four years of peace seemed cheap.

By eleven o'clock, the six of us-and even Officer Paolini, who diligently set out on another patrol through the house-suspected that fate had accepted our offer. A tentative celebratory mood began to color our conversation.

Huey called with news that seemed to give us closure, but it didn't inspire us to raise champagne toasts.

As the firemen had been mopping up the scene and stowing their hoses, one of them noticed that the drop door on our roadside mailbox was hanging open. In the mailbox, he found a mason jar. In the mason jar, a folded slip of paper.

The paper had a message for us in neat handwriting that police later matched to Konrad Beezo's penmanship on the admission forms he had filled out when he'd brought his wife, Natalie, to the hospital on the night of my birth. More than a message, it constituted a promise: if



All I Ever Wanted Was Immortality

No one's life should be rooted in fear. We are born for wonder, for joy, for hope, for love, to marvel at the mystery of existence, to be ravished by the beauty of the world, to seek truth and meaning, to acquire wisdom, and by our treatment of others to brighten the corner where we are.

Simply by existing, unseen and in some distant redoubt, Konrad Beezo made the world a darker place, but we lived in light, not in his shadow.

No one can grant you happiness. Happiness is a choice we all have the power to make. There is always cake.

Following the destruction of our house in January 1998, Lorrie and Annie and I moved in with my parents for several weeks.

Huey Foster's estimation, the night of the fire, that nothing whatsoever could be salvaged from our house proved correct as to furniture, housewares, books, and clothes.

Three items that qualified as mementoes, however, were raked from

the ashes in acceptable condition. A cameo pendant that I had bought for Lorrie. A crystal Christmas-tree ornament that she had purchased at a gift shop in Carmel, California, on our honeymoon. And the free pass to the circus on the back of which my father had written five dates.

The face of that card had been singed and water-spotted. The words admit two and the word free had vaporized entirely. Only a few fragments of the beautifully rendered lions and elephants survived as ghost images, glimpsed between mottling scorches, embedded soot, and water stains.

Curiously, at the bottom of the free pass, the words prepare to be enchanted were almost as bright and clear as they had ever been. In this new context, that line struck me as vaguely ominous, as it had never done before, as though it were not a promise of delight but a subtle threat.

More curiously still, the reverse of the circus pass appeared all but untouched by heat and water. On that side, the paper had been only slightly yellowed; the five dates in my father's printing were easy to read.

The card smelled of smoke. I cannot say truthfully that it smelled also of brimstone.

In early March, we began looking for a place in town, preferably in my parents' neighborhood. By the end of that month, the house next door to theirs came on the market.

We know an omen when we see one. We made an offer the sellers couldn't refuse, and closed escrow on May 15.

If we had been rich, we could have bought a compound of houses encircled by a wall, entered by a single gate, guarded around the clock. A house next door to my folks, however, was as close as we could get to living like the Corleone family.

Our lives after Annie's arrival went on pretty much as before, except with greater focus on poop and pee. I chafe at the injustice of the

Nobel Prize Committee awarding peace prizes to the likes of Yasir Arafat while failing year after year to honor the person who invented the Velcro-sealed disposable diaper.

Annie didn't need to be weaned from breast-feeding. At five months, she turned adamantly away from an offered breast and insisted on culinary diversity.

Something of a smartie, she spoke her first word shortly before Christmas that year. If you believe Lorrie and my mother, it happened on the twenty-second of December, and the word was mama. If instead you believe my father, it happened on the twenty-first, and she spoke not one word but two: chocolate zabaglione.

On Christmas Day, she said dada. I don't remember any other gifts I received that year.

For a while, Grandma produced needlepoint images of bunnies, kittens, puppies, and other creatures that would charm a child. She soon grew bored, however, and switched to reptiles.

On March 21, 1999, when Annie was fourteen months old, I drove Lorrie to the hospital in good weather and without incident, and she delivered Lucy Jean.

When the afterbirth issued only moments after Mello Melodeon had tied and cut the umbilical, he complimented Lorrie: "Smoother than last time. Why, that was as effortless ness as an experienced broodmare dropping a colt."

"As soon as you pull the wagon home," I promised her, "I'll give you a nice bag of oats."

"Better laugh while you can," she said." "Cause now you're a lone man in a house of three women. There's enough of us to form a coven."

"I'm not afraid. What more could happen to me? I'm already bewitched."

Perhaps Konrad Beezo had some long-distance means of keeping tabs on us-which seemed to be the case, considering his timely visit

prior to Annie's birth. If so, he had chosen not to risk exposure this time until the baby's gender was known.

Although I wanted a son someday, I would happily raise five daughters-or ten!-with no regrets if that would thwart Beezo's thirst for vengeance and keep him at bay.

Just in case fate graced us with a band of sisters, I would have to get serious about the ballroom-dance instructions to which Lorrie periodically subjected me. With five daughters to chaperone and to give away in marriage, I'd miss out on too many memories if I couldn't fox-trot.

Consequently, I learned to trip the light fantastic better than I had imagined that I could, considering that I'm biggish for my size and something of a gimp. The legend of Fred Astaire is in no danger of being eclipsed, but if you let me spin you around the floor either to a bit of Strauss or Benny Goodman, I can make you forget all about Bruno the dancing bear.

On July 14, 2000, after I'd gone to the trouble of learning to dance, fate in a single stroke pulled out from under me the rug that I was cutting, granting my desire to have a son and challenging the mad clown to keep the dark promise in the mason jar.

Fresh from his mother, little Andy did not respond to Mello Melodeon's slap on the butt with the usual birth cry full of shock and dismay. He issued a sharp yelp unmistakably expressing offense, followed by a perfect tongue-between-the-lips raspberry.

At once I had a concern I could not help but relate to Mello. "Gee, he's got such... a tiny one."

"Tiny what?"


"You call it a pee pee

"What-they use a fancier word at medical school?"

"His willy is the usual size," Mello assured me, "and plenty big enough for what he needs it for in the immediate future."

"My husband the idiot," Lorrie said affectionately. "Jimmy, dear,

the only baby boy ever going to be born with the equipment you expected will also have horns because he'll be the Antichrist."