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Unwilling to risk calling down upon our heads a buzzing hive of misguided and self-righteous bureaucrats by telling Porter Carson about Grandpa Josef, I answered the question in Lorrie's eyes with a shake of my head.

Turning to Carson again, Lorrie said, "All right, okay, listen to me, I can't tell you how I know, but I know the crazy son of a bitch is coming right here sometime between midnight tonight and midnight tomorrow. He wants-"

"But ma'am, that's just not-"

"I'm talking to you, I'm begging you, listen to me. He wants my little Andy, and he probably wants to kill all the rest of us. If you're truly serious about catching him, then forget Venezuela, he's not in Venezuela anymore if he ever was. Help us set a trap here, now."

The fervor in her face and the adamancy in her voice unsettled Carson. "Believe me, ma'am, I can absolutely assure you that Beezo is not on your doorstep and will not be here tomorrow. He-"

Frustrated, gray-faced with anxiety, Lorrie pushed back her chair, rose to her feet, and, wringing her hands, said to me, "Jimmy, for God's sake, make him believe it. I get the feeling Huey doesn't have enough manpower to protect us this time. We aren't going to be lucky like before. We need help."

Looking distressed, too much a gentleman to stay seated when a

woman stood, Carson rose, and I stood, too, as he said, "Mrs. Tock, please let me repeat and explain what Chief Foster told your husband on the phone a short while ago."

Carson cleared his throat and continued: '"Jimmy, we've just got some good news about Konrad Beezo you'll want to hear.""

The most peculiar thing wasn't that he repeated precisely what Huey had said on the phone but that he sounded exactly like Huey, not like Porter Carson.

No, that wasn't what Huey had said on the phone. I had not been talking to Huey earlier, but to this man.

To me, the FBI agent said, "And your response, as I recall, was pointed." A pause." "This isn't much in the yuletide spirit, but I hope the bozo turned up dead somewhere.""

His voice was so similar to mine in timbre and in nuance that I felt fear like blood flukes twitching in every vein and artery.

From beneath his suit jacket, he withdrew a pistol fitted with a sound suppressor.

Porter Carson had assured Lorrie that he hadn't come to warn her that Konrad Beezo was on her doorstep.

He was sincere on two counts. First, he had no intention of warning her. Second, Beezo had already gotten past her doorstep and into her kitchen.

Likewise, he had been confident that Beezo wouldn't be here tomorrow-because Beezo was here today.

Konrad Beezo had hazel eyes. Porter Carson's eyes were blue. Colored contact lenses had been available for years.

Beezo was nearly sixty years old. Carson looked forty-five. Now I could see similarities in body type and bone structure, but otherwise they appeared to be two different men.

Some of the world's finest plastic surgeons have offices in Rio to serve the jet set from all over the world. If you are rich, if you will accept the medical risks of profound restructuring, you can be redesigned, rejuvenated, fully remade.

If you are paranoid and obsessed with vengeance, if you believe you were destined for greatness that others conspired to deny you, perhaps you have the motivation to endure the pain and the hazards of multiple surgeries. Madness is not always expressed in reckless action; some homicidal paranoids have the patience to spend years planning their revenge.

Listening to Beezo's uncanny imitation of me, I remembered that he had mocked Dad by imitating his voice, too, in the expectant-fathers' lounge over twenty-eight years ago.

In response to my father's amazement, Beezo had said, I told you I'm talented, Rudy Tock. In more ways than you can imagine.

In those words my father had heard only a boast by a vain and troubled man full of show, fond of flourish.

Nearly three decades later, I realized that it had not been a boast but a warning. Don't tread on me.

Now, as the three of us stood around the kitchen table, Beezo's smile was ripe with gloating. His hazel gaze, even filtered through blue lenses, burned with a vicious exultation.

In his own voice, not in the mellow Southern accent of Porter Carson but the rougher timbre of the man who had harried us in the Hummer, Beezo said, "As I told you, I came here to ask something of you. Where is my compensation?"

My attention, and Lorrie's, moved on a short vertical track: from his hate-twisted face to the muzzle of the silencer-equipped pistol, to his face again.

"Where is my quid pro quo?" he demanded.

Pathetically, to gain time to think, we lamely pretended not to understand his question. Lorrie said, "What quid pro quo?"

"My recompense, my makeweight," Beezo said impatiently, "my something for something, your Andy for my Punchinello."

"No," Lorrie said neither angrily nor with apparent fear, but with a flat finality.

"I will treat him well," Beezo promised. "Better than you treated my son."

Anger and sharp terror throttled my voice, but Lorrie firmly said again, "No."

"I've been robbed of the fame that should've been mine. All I ever wanted was immortality, but I'm willing to settle now for a little secondhand glory. If I teach the boy what I know, he will be the greatest circus star of his age."

"He has no talent for that," Lorrie assured him. "He's the descendant of pastry chefs and storm chasers."

"Bloodlines don't matter," Beezo said. "All that matters is my genius. Among my gifts is mentoring."

"Go away." Having fallen nearly to a whisper, Lorrie's voice had the quality of an incantation, as though she hoped to cast some spell of sanity upon him. "Father another child of your own."

He persisted: "Even a boy with a minimum faculty for clownery can be molded into greatness with me as his guide and his master and his guru."

"Father a child of your own," she repeated. "Even a creep like you can find some madwoman who'll spread her legs."

A cool scorn had entered her voice, and I could not grasp her purpose in further angering him.

She continued: "For enough money, some drug-addled slut, some desperate whore, will gag down her nausea and mate with you."

Incredibly, instead of angering him further, her scorn clearly disconcerted him. He flinched more than once at her words and licked his lips nervously.

"With the right psychotic hag," she continued, "you could father another murderous little maggot as insane as your firstborn."

Perhaps because he hadn't the courage to meet Lorrie's eyes any longer or perhaps because in my furious silence he sensed the greater threat, Beezo shifted his attention to me.

Trembling, the pistol in his right hand followed the interest of his eyes, and the muzzle offered me the dark bore of eternity.

The instant Konrad Beezo was distracted, Lorrie thrust a hand into a pocket of her cheerful Christmas apron, extracted a miniature pressurized cannister of pepper spray.

Realizing his error, Beezo turned away from me.

As he twitched toward Lorrie, she scored a bull's-eye. A rust-red stream of fluid splashed his face.

At least half blinded, Beezo squeezed off a shot-a hard muffled thup-exploding a pane in a windowed cabinet door, shattering dishes.

I snatched up a chair and thrust it at him as he squeezed off another wild shot. He fired a third as I drove him backward across the kitchen in the manner of a wild-animal trainer warning off an enraged lion.

A fourth shot drilled the chair between us. Splinters of pine and soft wads of foam padding flicked my face, but the bullet didn't find me.

When he backed into the kitchen sink, I rammed the legs of the chair into him.

He cried out in pain and fired a fifth shot that cracked the oak-plank flooring.

Cornered, the rat found a tiger in himself. He wrenched the chair from me, fired a sixth round that blew out an oven window.

He threw the chair. I dodged.

Gasping for breath, wheezing out the fumes of pepper spray, streaming tears from bloodshot eyes, waving the gun, he staggered across the kitchen, nearly cold-cocked himself with the refrigerator, slammed through the swinging door into the dining room.

Lorrie had fallen into a terrible silence, a perfect stillness on the oak. Shot. And oh, God, the blood.

I could not leave her there alone, yet I could not stay at her side with Beezo loose in the house.

This rending dilemma was in an instant resolved by one of the many tough equations of love. I loved Lorrie more than I loved life. But the two of us loved our children more than ourselves, which in the language of mathematics, you might call love-squared. Love plus love-squared equalled an inevitable choice.

Sickened by the prospect of an intolerable loss, terrified by the anticipation of another loss unendurable, I went after Beezo, desperate to stop him before he found the kids.

He wouldn't be content to escape and return another day. We had seen his new Brazilian face. Never again would he enjoy the advantage of surprise.

We were in the end game. He would have his compensation, his something for something, Andy for his Punchinello. He would murder the girls, too, and call it fair interest on the debt.

As I crashed through the swinging door into the dining room, he staggered out of there, clipping the frame of the archway with his shoulder.

In the living room, he shot at me. Pepper-blurred as his vision must have been, luck rather than skill guided the bullet.

Fire seared my right ear. Although the flash of pain was not disabling, it scared me into a stumble, a fall.

I scrambled up.

Beezo had vanished.

In the foyer, I found him with the pistol in his right hand, his left hand clutching the bannister on the balustrade, doggedly climbing the stairs, with half of the first flight already behind him.

He must have thought that I had been head-shot and disabled, or even killed, because he didn't look back or seem to hear me in pursuit.

Before he reached the first landing, I seized him from behind and dragged him down.

Fear for family and the terror of a life alone made me not courageous, really, but venturous, even heedless.

We fell against the balustrade. Wood cracked. He dropped the gun, and we tumbled together to the foyer floor.

I had him in a choke hold, my right arm across his throat, pulling back hard on my right wrist with my left hand. Untroubled by the slightest compunction, I would have tightened the hold until I crushejd his windpipe, would have listened with savage pleasure as he drummed his heels against the floor in death throes.

Before I'd been able to lock the hold, however, Beezo had gotten his chin down, wedging it against my arm, making it impossible for me to apply full killing pressure.

He reached behind his head, clawing with both hands, hoping to blind me. Those cruel hands that had strangled Nedra Lamm. Those merciless hands that had shot Dr. MacDonald, Nurse Hanson.

I strove to keep my face away from him.

He snared my bullet-grazed ear and twisted.

Pain flared so intensely that all breath flew from me, and I almost passed out.

When Beezo felt the choke hold relent for an instant and then discovered his fingers slick with my blood, he knew my weak spot. He bucked and wrenched this way and that in a bid to break my grip, all the while groping backward for my ear.

Sooner than later, he would snare it again.

Next time the pain would trigger a trapdoor, a plunge into unconsciousness, vulnerability, death.

The pistol lay a few feet away, on the bottom step.

Simultaneously, I released the choke hold and shoved Beezo away from me.

One roll carried me to the bottom of the stairs. I plucked the pistol off the step, turned, and fired.

At such close range, as he reached for me, the' bullet tore out his throat. He flopped faceup, arms spread, the back of his right hand rapping spasmodically against the floor.

Assuming that my count proved correct, eight shots had been fired. If the weapon contained the usual magazine, two rounds remained.

Gagging, gushing, whistling air through his ruined throat, Konrad Beezo was dying in wheezes and spurts.

I wish that I could say mercy motivated me to shoot him twice again, but mercy had nothing to do with it.

Death took his life, and something worse collected his soul. I could almost feel the chill of that collector stepping in to take what was owed to him.

His eyes-one blue now and one hazel-looked as round as those of a fish, glazed and senseless, yet filled with the mysteries of ten thousand fathoms.

My right ear was a cup full to the brim with warm blood, but I still heard Annie in the second-floor hallway, calling "Daddy? Mommy?" I heard Lucy, too, and Andy.

The kids were not yet at the head of the stairs, but they were coming.

Frantic to spare them the sight of Beezo torn and dead, I thundered, "Get in your room! Lock the door! There's a monster down here!"

We never teased them about monsters. We treated their fears solemnly and with respect.

Consequently, they took me at my word. I heard running feet followed by the boom of the girls' bedroom door thrown shut with such force that the walls shook, the windowpanes vibrated, and the sprig of mistletoe hanging from the foyer light fixture trembled on the suspending ribbon.

"Lorrie," I whispered, hushed by the fear that Death, having come to gather Beezo, might linger for one more harvest.

I ran to the kitchen.

ove can do all but raise the Dead. '

The mind is quicksand, letting nothing go, and even what is learned reluctantly in school, once thought to be forgotten, rises to the surface less when needed than when some dark spirit would mock us with the uselessness of all we know.

As I rushed to the kitchen, that line of verse-Love can do all but raise the Dead-returned to me from English studies, as did the name of the poet, Emily Dickinson. She had often written to comfort the heart, but these words tortured mine.

What we learn is not the same as what we know. Pushing through the swinging door into the kitchen, I knew that my love was so fierce that it could do what the poet said it couldn't.

Were I to find Lorrie dead, I would resurrect her by an act of will, by the power of my need always to be with her, and lips to lips would pour into her my own life through sweet resuscitative breaths.

Although I knew a conviction in my reanimating power was crazy, as

insane as anything that Beezo had believed, a part of me remained certain of it nonetheless, because to believe that even my love could not raise the dead would be to collapse into hopelessness and a kind of living death.

In the kitchen, every moment mattered and every action had to be taken not only quickly but also in its proper order. Otherwise all would be lost.

First, around the broken chair to the telephone, leaving Lorrie unexamined. The handset slippery in my sweaty grip, I keyed in 911 and endured two rings, each eternal.