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"Let's move this project to your room, girls," I said, helping them gather their materials. "I've got to straighten up the living room. Grandpa, Grandma, and Gran-gran will be here in a little while. In fact, you have to change clothes and look pretty for them."

"Boys don't look pretty," Annie patiently informed me. "Boys look handsome."

"I look pretty," Andy protested, thrusting out one of his feet and spreading his rainbow-hued toes for our appreciation.

"Daddy looks pretty, too," said Lucy.

"Thank you, Lucy Jean. Your opinions on beauty matter a lot to me, seeing as how you're going to be Miss Colorado one day."

"I'm going to be better than that," Annie announced as we moved toward the stairs. "When I grow up, I'm gonna be a bullshit artist."

They do surprise me. Perpetually.

Halted by this proclamation, I said, "Annie, wherever did you hear that?"

"Yesterday, the mailman told Gran-gran she looked foxy, and she told him, "You're a real bullshit artist, George." Then he laughed and Gran-gran pinched his cheek."

You don't want to tell them that a word is taboo. If I made that mistake, all three of them would work bullshit artist into every third sentence out of their mouths, which would make this a memorable Christmas for all the wrong reasons.

Letting it pass with the hope that they would forget about it, I resettled them with crayons in the girls' room.

I had no concern about them being upstairs while Lorrie and I were on the lower floor because for one thing the house was locked tight; for another thing, the alarm system had been set in monitor mode. If any door or window opened, the alarm would not sound, but a digitized voice on the system chip would announce, through speakers throughout | the house, the exact location of the breach.

Downstairs again, I went to the foyer and watched the street through one of the tall, narrow French windows that flanked the front door.

The police station lay less than ten minutes from our house. I intended to open the door before Porter Carson could ring the bell and alert the kids that we had a visitor.

Within two minutes, a Mercury Mountaineer pulled to the curb at the end of our front walk.

The man who got out of it wore a dark suit, white shirt, dark tie, andl open topcoat. Tall and trim, he moved with purpose and shoulders-back confidence.

As he climbed the steps, the porch lights revealed that he was in his mid-forties, handsome, with dark hair combed straight back from his brow.

When he spotted me at the window, he held up one finger, as if to say Wait a sec, and withdrew a vertical-fold ID wallet from his coat. He held his FBI credentials to the glass so that I could read them and compare his face to the photo before I opened the door.

Obviously, Huey Foster had told Carson that we were security conscious, and if the agent knew Beezo's history, he must understand why paranoia was common sense.

Conditioned by Hollywood, I expected Porter Carson to speak with the clipped diction and cool detachment of a movie fed. Instead, he had a voice that I at once warmed to: friendly, all the sharp edges rounded off the words by a Georgia accent.

When I opened the door to him, the digitized voice of the alarm system announced, "Front door open."

"We have the same feature on our home alarm," he said as we shook hands. "My son, Jamie, he's fourteen and a computer whiz. Dangerous combination. He couldn't resist teachin' the monitor more vocabulary. Suddenly it starts sayin', Front door open, watch your ass. That got him grounded awhile."

I locked the door behind him. "We've got three kids, five and younger. They'll be teenagers together."


As I hung his topcoat in the foyer closet, I said, "We're thinking

about just locking them in a room and feeding them through a slot in the door until they're all twenty-one."

He drew a deep breath, savoring the air. "This house smells like the highest-rent neighborhood in Paradise."

Garlands of deodar cedar, star-pine Christmas tree, lingering fragrance of peanut brittle made just that afternoon, popcorn balls, vanilla-and cinnamon-scented candles, fresh coffee, ham baking in a bath of cherries, chocolate marmalade cake in the second oven ... Taking in the dazzle of tinsel and lights and our ubiquitous collection of Santa figurines, Porter Carson cocked his head to listen to "Silver Bells," sung by Bing Crosby. "You folks keep Christmas like almost nobody does anymore."

"And isn't that a shame," I said. "Come along to the kitchen. My wife's peeling some Idaho beauties for scalloped potatoes."

Actually, Lorrie had finished and was drying her hands on a poinsettia-patterned towel when I introduced her to Carson.

If the rest of the house had smelled like Paradise, the kitchen was an even higher realm, the fragrant palace of divinities.

The FBI agent appeared to be smitten with Lorrie, as all men are, and treated her with Southern courtliness. He remained standing while she poured three cups of rich Colombian blend, then held her chair for her as she sat.

I felt like a clueless primitive and reminded myself not to slurp my coffee.

Settling in his chair at the table, getting down to business, Carson said, "I don't want to raise false hopes. God forbid anythin' I say might cause you to let your guard down too soon, but I think your troubles with Kon-rad Beezo may be drawin' to an end at last."

"Don't worry," Lorrie said, "I won't believe he's dead until I see his body being fed into a crematorium and ashes coming out."

Carson grinned. "Mrs. Tock, you're my idea of a carin' mother."

As far as I knew, the murders Beezo committed hadn't been under federal jurisdiction. "What got the FBI on his case?" I wondered.

"This is great coffee, ma'am. What's that extra bit of taste in it?"

"A little vanilla."

"Perfect. Anyway, Beezo took a page from his son's book, put together a little crew, started robbin' banks not long after he torched your house."

Bank robbery is a federal crime. So is removing a stuffing-analysis tag from a mattress before selling it retail. Guess which offense gets the FBI's attention.

"Hasn't blown up one of 'em yet," Carson said, "but he doesn't mind shootin' guards and tellers and anyone else gets in his way."

"Tell me his crew isn't more clowns," Lorrie said.

"No, ma'am, it isn't. Maybe his son recruited all the thievin' clowns there are. One of his crew was a guy named Emory Ornwall, been in Leavenworth for bank robbery. The other two were roustabouts."

"I've heard the term," I said, "but I'm not sure I know what it means."

"Roustabouts are the guys who put up the circus tents and pull 'em down, plus they take care of the equipment, the generators, that kind of stuff."

"How many banks have they hit?" Lorrie wondered. "Are they good at it?"

"Yes, ma'am, they were. Seven in 1998, four in '99. Then they hit big with two armored-car heists, August and September "99."

"Nothing in the last three years?"

"The thing is, the second of those armored cars was such a rich score- six million cash, two million in bearer bonds-Beezo decided he could retire, especially if he and Ornwall killed the roustabouts and didn't split with 'em, which is what they did."

"Hard to imagine guys who knew Konrad Beezo would turn their backs on him," I said.

"Maybe they didn't. Both roustabouts were shot point-blank in the face with such high-caliber rounds their heads were hollowed out like Halloween pumpkins."

Carson smiled, then realized that what was a simple fact to an FBI agent might be excess information to us.

"Sorry, ma'am."

"So you've been after Beezo all this time?" Lorrie asked.

"We nailed Ornwall in March 2000. He was livin' in Miami under the name John Dillinger."

"You're kidding," I said.

"No, sir." Carson smiled and shook his head. "Ornwall knows end-all about banks and armored cars, but he's one bean short of a full spoon."

"Maybe two beans."

"He told us bein' Dillinger was like Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Purloined Letter," like hidin' in plain sight. Who would expect a wanted bank robber to be livin' under the name of a famous dead criminal?"

"Obviously, you guys did."

"Well, because first time we arrested Emory Ornwall and sent him to Leavenworth, he was hidin' under the name Jesse James."

"Unbelievable," I said.

"A lot of criminals," Carson said, "are dim bulbs."

"More coffee?" Lorrie asked.

"No thank you, ma'am. I can see you've got a big dinner comin' up, so I want to get out of your hair soon as I can."

"You're welcome to stay."

"Can't, I'm afraid. But thanks for your kindness. Anyway ... like I said, Ornwall ... he knows end-all about banks and armored cars, but he's no strategist or tactician. Beezo planned the jobs, and he was brilliant at it."

"You're talking about our Beezo?" Lorrie asked disbelievingly.

"I mean, ma'am, we've seen some smart guys gone wrong, but none the equal of him. We were in awe of Beezo."

This surprised me. "He's crazy."

"Maybe he is, maybe he isn't," Carson said, "but he's a genius when it comes to executin' big-ticket stickups. They say he was on his way to bein' the greatest clown of his day, and for sure he found this other line of work he was also born for."

"From our experience, he's all emotion and rage, no reason."

"Well, the genius sure wasn't Ornwall or the roustabouts, all second-raters. They would've screwed up most of their jobs if Beezo hadn't planned so well and kept them in line. Pure genius."

"It did take some planning to bug our house that time and keep a watch on us from Nedra Lamm's place," Lorrie reminded me. Then she turned to Carson and got to the quick of it. "Where is he now?"

"Ornwall tipped us that Beezo had gone to South America somewhere. He didn't know where, and it's a big continent."

"When I was trapped in the Explorer with him, out there in the woods, he told me he'd gone to South America in '74," Lorrie said, "after he killed Dr. MacDonald."

Carson nodded. "Back then he spent six months in Chile, two and a half years in Argentina. This time ... took us a while, but we tracked him to Brazil."

"You got him?"

"No, ma'am. But we will."

"He's there now-in Brazil?"

"No, ma'am. He left the first of this month, thirty-six hours before we broke his cover, got his identity and address in Rio."

Lorrie looked meaningfully at me.

"Almost nailed him there," Carson continued. "But he skipped to Venezuela, where we have some problems with extradition treaties right now. Just a hiccup. He won't get out of there except we take him out in handcuffs or in a box."

Only fear for her family could tighten Lorrie's face in such a way as to diminish her beauty. "He's not in Venezuela anymore," she told Porter Carson. "Sometime tomorrow... he's going to be here."

hocolate marmalade cake, baked ham steeped in cherry juice, dark-roasted Colombian coffee, and the subtle sour scent of heart-piercing dread, which also manifested as a faint metallic taste ... Until this moment, I hadn't realized that I had been deeply invested in the hope that Konrad Beezo was dead.

I had told myself that I couldn't count him out, that prudence required me to assume that he remained alive.

Unconsciously, however, I had put a stake through his heart. I had stuffed a clove of garlic in his mouth, placed a crucifix on his breast, and had buried him facedown in a churchyard of the mind.

Now Beezo had risen.

"Sometime tomorrow," Lorrie predicted, "or as early as midnight tonight, he'll be here."

Her cold certainty surprised and perplexed Porter Carson. "No, ma'am, there's no chance of that."

"I'd bet my life on it," she replied. "And in fact, Mr. Carson, that's exactly what I'll be doing, whether I like it or not."

He turned to me. "Mr. Tock, I came here to ask something of you, but please believe me, I didn't come to warn you that Beezo is on your doorstep. He isn't. I can assure you."

By her eyes alone, Lorrie conveyed a question to me that I could read as clearly as printed text: Should we share with him the story of Grandpa Josef and the five dates?

Only the adults in our immediate family and a few close and trusted friends knew about the prophecy under which I lived: five swords of Damocles hung by five hairs, two of which had spared me, three of which still dangled.

Huey Foster knew, but I didn't think he would have shared it with Porter Carson.

Reveal such a thing to a hard-nosed FBI agent, and he would write you off as a superstitious fool. I could almost hear him: So you believe that you're cursed, Mr. Tock? You mean like witches and voodoo?

Grandpa Josef hadn't cursed me. He had not wished five terrible days upon me. By some miracle, in the last minutes of his life, he had been given the power of prophecy to warn me, to give me a better chance to save-not myself, perhaps, but-those whom I loved.

Inevitably, however, it would sound like a curse to Carson. Even if I could pierce his skepticism and make him understand the difference between a malediction and a prediction, he was no more likely to believe in fortune-telling than he was in the effectiveness of a shaman's evil eye.

As a responsible officer of the law, he might feel it incumbent upon himself to report to child-protective services that Annie, Lucy, and Andy were being raised by parents who believed themselves to be hexed, who felt oppressed by diabolists and necromancers, who shared these fears with their offspring and thus terrorized them.

Over the years, newspapers had carried numerous stories of false charges of abuse resulting in parents' loss of custody, families torn apart for years until the accusers admitted to lying or were beyond doubt proved malicious. By that time, lives were ruined, children traumatized beyond full recovery.

Because no one wished to put children at risk, authorities in such cases often believed the most transparent lies by people with obvious grudges to settle. An earnest FBI agent who had no history with us, no reason to malign us, would receive a respectful hearing and swift action.