Page 33

Usually visitors spoke with prisoners through a speaker grille in a bulletproof-glass partition, in a communal lounge that served several parties simultaneously. Conference rooms like this one were used most frequently by attorneys who required privacy with their clients.

We had requested a private meeting with Punchinello not because we wished to discuss something confidential with him but because we felt that in a more intimate atmosphere, we'd have a better chance of persuading him to grant the request we had come here to make.

The word ambience was too highbrow to describe the stark and forbidding mood of the conference room. It didn't feel like a place in which a hardhearted man could be persuaded to do a goodhearted thing.

Remaining in the hallway, the guard who had escorted us now closed the door through which we had entered.

Punchinello's guard departed by a connecting door to another room. He stood at a window in that door, out of earshot but watchful.

We were alone with the man who would have killed us more than nine years ago if he'd had the chance, and who had been sentenced to imprisonment for life based in part on our testimony.

Considering the likelihood of his responding with hostility to any request we made, I wished that prison rules had permitted us to bring cookies.

Nine years behind bars appeared not to have left a mark on Punchinello. His haircut was less stylish and less well executed than it had been when he had blown up the town square, but he was as handsome as ever, boyish.

His movie-star smile seemed genuine. His dazzling green eyes gleamed with lively interest.

As we sat across the wide table from him, he wiggled the fingers of his right hand at us, a gesture most commonly made by grandmothers and accompanied by the word toodle-oo.

"You're looking well," I said.

"I'm well," he replied.

"Hard to believe it's been nine years."

"Maybe for you. Seems like a hundred to me."

I found it difficult to believe that he harbored no grudge toward us. After all, he was a Beezo, therefore marinated in umbrage and steeped in resentment. Yet I wasn't able to detect any animosity in his voice.

Inanely, I said, "Yeah, I guess you have a lot of time on your hands in here."

"I've put it to good use. I earned a correspondence degree in law- though being a felon, I'll never be admitted to the bar."

"A law degree. That's impressive."

"I've filed appeals on my behalf and for other prisoners. You wouldn't believe how many inmates here were wrongly convicted."

"All of them?" Lorrie guessed.

"Nearly all of them, yes," he said utterly without irony. "At times it's difficult not to despair over the amount of injustice in this society."

"There's always cake," I said, and then realized that without having heard my dad's favorite saying, Punchinello would think that I was spouting gibberish.

Taking my puzzling comment in stride, he said, "Well, I like cake, of course, but I'd rather have justice. In addition to getting the law degree, I've learned to speak fluent German because it's the language of justice."

"Why is German the language of justice?" Lorrie wondered.

"I don't really know. I heard an actor say that in an old World War II movie. It made sense to me at the time." He spoke to Lorrie in what sounded like German, then translated: "You are quite beautiful this morning."

"You always were a charmer," she said.

He grinned at her and winked. "I've also learned to speak fluent Norwegian and Swedish."

"I've never known anyone who studied Norwegian and Swedish," Lorrie said.

"Well, I thought it would be polite to address them in their own language when I accept the Nobel Prize."

Because he seemed dead earnest, I asked, "A Nobel Prize in what category?"

"I haven't decided. Maybe a peace prize, maybe for literature."

"Ambitious," Lorrie said approvingly.

"I'm working on a novel. Half the guys in here say they're working on a novel, but I really am."

"I've thought about writing nonfiction," I told him, "sort of biographical."

"I'm on chapter thirty-two," Punchinello said. "My protagonist has just learned how deeply evil the aerialist really is." He spoke in what might have been Norwegian or Swedish, then translated: "The humility with which I accept this award surely is equal to the wisdom of your decision to give it to me."

"They'll be in tears," Lorrie predicted.

Though he was as looney as he was homicidal, I was nevertheless impressed by his apparent accomplishments. "A law degree, learning German and Norwegian and Swedish, writing a novel ... I'd need a lot longer than nine years to do all that."

"The secret is, I'm so much more able to make the most of my time and to focus my energies without the distraction of testicles."

I had expected that we'd get around to this sooner or later. "I'm sorry about that, but you really didn't give me any choice."

With a wave of his hand, he dismissed his loss as if it were of no consequence. "There's plenty of blame to go around. What's done is done. I don't live in the past. I live for the future."

"I limp on cold days," I told him.

He wagged a finger at me, rattling the chain that tethered his hand to the table. "Don't be a whiner. You didn't give me any choice, either."

"I suppose that's true."

"I mean," he said, "if we're going to get into a blame game, I hold the trump card. After all, you killed my father."

"It's even worse than that," I said.

"And you didn't name your firstborn son after him, like you promised. Annie, Lucy, Andy, no Konrad."

A chill traveled my spine as I listened to him recite our children's names. "How do you know their names?"

"They were in the newspaper last year, after all the hoo-ha."

Lorrie said, "By 'hoo-ha," do you mean his attempt to kill us and kidnap our Andy?"

Making a patting motion with his hand, as if to gentle Lorrie,

Punchinello said, "Relax, relax. There's no Hatfield-and-McCoy thing between us. He could be a difficult man."

"Maybe 'difficult' isn't descriptive enough," Lorrie suggested.

"Tell it like it is, girl. And who would know better than me? Maybe you remember, nine years ago, when we were in the subcellar of the bank, when everything was fun and hadn't turned ugly yet, I told you that I had a cold and loveless childhood."

"You did," I agreed. "You said exactly that."

"He tried to be a good father to me, but it wasn't in him," Punchinello said. "Do you know all the years I've been in here, he never sent me a Christmas card or a little money for candy?"

"That's hard," I said, and actually felt a faint flutter of sympathy for him.

"But surely you haven't come here just so we could tell one another what a bastard he was."

I said, "Actually-"

He held up a hand to halt me. "Before you tell me why you're here, let's agree upon terms."

"What terms?" Lorrie inquired.

"Obviously, you want something important from me. You didn't go to all this trouble just to apologize for castrating me, though I appreciate that you did. If you get something from me, it's only fair that I be compensated."

"Maybe you better hear what we want first," I suggested.

"No, I'd prefer to get the basic terms established," he said. "Then if I feel I'm getting the short end of the trade, we can revise the deal."

"All right," Lorrie said.

"First, I'd like to receive a birthday card every August ninth, and a Christmas card every year. Most of the guys here get cards now and then, but I never do."

"Two cards," I agreed.

"And not junk cards or those ones that are supposed to be funny but

are really just mean," he qualified. "Something from Hallmark with a nice sentiment."

"Hallmark," I agreed.

"The library here is underfunded, and we can only receive books directly from a publisher or a bookstore, not from individuals," he explained. "I'd very much like you to arrange for a bookstore to send me every new paperback by Constance Hammersmith."

"I know those books," I said. "She writes about a detective with neurofibromatosis. He goes all around San Francisco wearing a hooded cloak."

"They're fabulous books," he declared, and seemed delighted to discover that we shared this literary enthusiasm. "He's like the Elephant Man and nobody ever loved him, he's always been ridiculed, an outcast, so he shouldn't give a crap about anyone, but he does. He helps people in trouble when no one else will."

"She writes two books a year," I said. "You'll get them both as soon as they hit paperback."

"The last thing is ... I'm allowed to have a cash account. I'd like a little money for candy, gum, and now and then Cheez Doodles."

In the end, he had become such a pathetic monster.

"The money's going to be a problem," Lorrie said.

"I don't want much. Like fifty dollars a month or forty. And not forever, just as long as seems fair. Life in here without money is hell."

"When we explain why we're here," I said, "you'll see why we can't give you money. But I'm sure we can arrange for a third party to send you an allowance, if we're all discreet about it."

He brightened. "Gee, that would be wonderful. When you're reading Constance Hammersmith, you've got to have Hershey's bars."

The deformed, cloaked detective in her books has a passion for chocolate. And for the harpsichord.

"We can't get you a harpsichord," I warned.

"That's all right. I'm not musically talented, anyway. Just what we've

already agreed-that would make a world of difference. Life in here is so ... limited. It's not right, being made to live with so many restrictions, so few pleasures. The way they treat me, you'd think I'd killed a thousand people."

"You did kill several," Lorrie reminded him.

"But not a thousand," he said. "And the courthouse tower fell on that old lady. I didn't intend to waste her. Fair punishment ought to be proportionate to the crime."

"If only it were," I said.

Leaning forward with keen interest, clinking his chains as he folded his hands on the table, Punchinello said, "So I'm just dying to know. What brings you here?"

I said,"Syndactyly."


He flinched at the word as if I'd slapped him. His prison pallor faded from cream to milk to chalk.

"How do you know about that?" he asked.

"You were born with five fused toes on your left foot," I said.

"The bastard told you, didn't he?"

"No," Lorrie said. "We didn't learn about your syndactyly until a week ago."

"Three fingers were fused on your left hand," I said.

He raised both hands, spreading the fingers wide. They were nice hands, well formed, though at the moment they trembled violently.

"Only the skin was fused, not the bone," he said. "But he told me there was nothing to be done about it, that I would have to live with it."

His eyes filled with tears, which he shed copiously, silently. He made a bowl of his hands and poured his face into it.

I looked at Lorrie. She shook her head.

We gave him time. He needed several minutes.

Beyond the windows, the sky had darkened, as if some celestial editor had cut the day from three acts to two, eliminating afternoon, splicing morning to twilight.

I had not known what to expect from Punchinello when we made these revelations, but of all the reactions that I had anticipated, this misery was not among them. The sight of him in this condition shook me.

When he could speak, he revealed his sodden face. "The great Beezo ... he told me the way I walked, hobbled by five fused toes on one foot, gave me a natural advantage as a clown. When I did a funny walk, it was authentic, he said."

The guard at the observation window watched, expression curious, no doubt astonished to see the ruthless killer weeping.

"People couldn't see my foot, just the funny way I walked. But they could see my hand. I couldn't always keep it in a pocket."

"It wouldn't have been ugly," I found myself assuring him. "Just different... and damn inconvenient."

"Oh, it was ugly to me," he said. "I hated it. My mother had been perfection. The great Beezo showed me photographs of her. Many photographs of her. My mother had been perfection ... but I was not."

I thought of my mother, Maddy. Although lovely to the eye, she falls short of physical perfection. Her kind and generous heart is perfect, however, and worth more than all the glamor in Hollywood.

"From time to time, as I grew older, the great Beezo took photographs of my deformed foot and hand. Without a return address, he mailed them to the swine of swines, the old syphilitic weasel, Virgilio Vivacemente."

"Why?" Lorrie asked.

"To show Virgilio that his most beautiful and talented daughter had not produced an aerialist, that the next generation of circus stars in the Vivacemente dynasty would have to come from his other and less promising children. How could I, with my foot, walk a high wire? With my hand, how could I switch from trapeze to trapeze in midair?"

"When did you have the surgery?" I asked.

"When I was eight, I came down with a bad case of strep throat. The great Beezo had to take me to a clinic. A doctor there said that with the bone not involved, separating fused digits would be easy. After that, I refused all instruction in clown craft until I was made whole."

"But you had no talent for clowning."

He nodded. "After the surgery, I tried hard to keep my end of the bargain, but I was a lousy clown. From the moment my toes and fingers were separated, I knew."

"You were born an aerialist," Lorrie said.

"Yes. Secretly I took some instruction. Too late by then. One has to begin practicing even younger. Besides, in the eyes of that talking sewer sludge, Virgilio, I was tainted with clown blood. He'd pull all the strings in his web to prevent me from performing."

"So eventually you decided to throw your life away in a frenzy of vengeance," I said, pretty much quoting him from the night we had met him in 1994.