"Does this mean no candy money, either?"
"And no Cheez Doodles."
He seemed genuinely surprised at my attitude. "What about the Constance Hammersmith paperbacks?"
"Give me the photo."
Releasing it to me, he said to the prison guard, "We need a few more minutes of privacy, please."
The guard looked at me. "Sir?"
Afraid to speak, I merely nodded.
The guard retreated from the room and watched from behind the window.
"Did you bring a medical release for me to sign?" Punchinello inquired.
From the threshold of the drab room, where she had been holding open the hallway door for me, Lorrie said, "I have three copies in my purse, drawn up by a good attorney."
"Come in," he said. "Close the door."
Lorrie joined me on the sane side of the table, though I'm sure she suspected, as I did, that he was playing us for fools, setting us up for one more cruel reversal.
"When would we do it?" he asked.
"Tomorrow morning," I said. "The hospital in Denver is ready for us. They just need twelve hours' notice."
"The deal we made..."
"It's still yours if you want it," Lorrie assured him, removing the medical forms and a pen from her purse.
He sighed. "I love those detective stories."
"And Hershey's bars," I reminded him.
"But when we negotiated," he said, "I didn't know I'd be giving up a kidney, which is a lot to ask, considering you've already gotten both my testicles."
"There's one more thing I want," he said.
Here's where he would surely hit us with the punch line and laugh at our devastation.
"This is a private room," he advised us. "No listening devices because inmates usually meet here with their attorneys."
"We know," Lorrie said.
"And I doubt the moron at the window can read lips."
"What do you want?" I asked, certain that it would be a thing beyond my power to grant.
"I know you don't trust me like you should a brother," he said. "So I won't expect you to do this before I give her my kidney. But once she has it, you're obligated."
"If it's something I can do."
"Oh, I'm positive you can do it," he said cheerfully. "I mean, look what you did to the great Beezo."
I couldn't read him at all, didn't know whether this was leading to a vicious joke or to a genuine proposal.
Punchinello said, "I want you to kill that scab on Satan's ass, Virgilio Vivacemente. I want you to make him suffer and let him know I'm the one who sent you. And in the end, I want him deader than any man has ever been dead."
This was no joke. He meant it.
"Sure," I said.
The white fluorescent panels in the gray ceiling, the white documents on the gray steel table, the granular snow blowing white out of a gray day, tapping the windows as the pen described his signature with the faintest whisper of ballpoint on paper... Punchinello's guard and the one who had accompanied us from the holding chamber stood witness. They signed their names under my brother's.
Lorrie left one copy of the document with Punchinello and returned the others to her purse. The deal had been sealed, though the' conditions of it were not on paper.
We didn't shake hands. I would have if he'd wanted to, a small un-pleasantry in exchange for Annie's life. But he didn't seem to feel that a handshake was required.
"When this is all done and Annie's well," he said, "I'd like it if you'd bring her here to see me once in a while, Christmas at least."
"No," Lorrie replied bluntly and without hesitation, though I would have said anything he wanted to hear.
"I'm her uncle for one thing," he said. "And her savior."
"I won't lie to you," she told him. "And neither will Jimmy. You'll never be the smallest part of her life."
"Well, maybe the smallest part," Punchinello said, reaching back as best he could, in chains, to indicate the position of his left kidney.
Lorrie stared him down.
He grinned at last. "You're some piece of work."
"Right back at ya," she said.
We left him there and brought the news of his change of heart to Charlene Coleman in the hallway.
From the prison, we drove into Denver, where Annie had been undergoing just-in-case prep at the hospital and where we were staying at the Marriott.
The bruised sky spat granular snow like bits of broken teeth.
In the city, patches of fresh ice mottled the pavement. Wind whipped the coattails of pedestrians on the sidewalks.
Charlene had met us at our hotel that morning- Now, after hugs and thank-yous and God-blesses all around, she drove back to Snow Village.
In our Explorer again, just the two of us, with Lorrie behind the wheel, on the way to the hospital, I said, "You scared the hell out of me when you told him Annie would never be a part of his life."
"He knew we'd never allow that," she explained. "If we had agreed, he'd have known we were lying. Then he'd have been sure you were lying about killing Vivacemente, too. But now he thinks you'll really do it- because, like he said, look what you did to the great Beezo. If he thinks you'll do it, he'll keep his end of the bargain."
We were silent for a block or two, and then I said, "Is he crazy or evil?"
"The distinction doesn't matter to me. Either way, we have to deal with him."
"If he was crazy first and found his way to evil, there's some explanation for him. And almost some sympathy."
"None here," she said, for she was a lioness with an endangered cub and would give no consideration to the predator.
"If he was evil first, and being evil made him crazy, I don't owe him anything that one brother would owe another."
"You've been thinking about this for some time."
"Give yourself a pass. Forget it. The courts already settled the issue when he was judged mentally fit to stand trial."
She braked to a stop at a red traffic light.
On the cross street, a black Cadillac hearse glided past. The windows were tinted for privacy. Maybe it was transporting a dead celebrity.
"I'm not actually going to kill Vivacemente," I assured Lorrie.
"Good. If you ever decide to turn homicidal, don't just run around offing people at random. Talk with me. I'll give you a list."
The signal light changed to green.
As we passed through the intersection, three laughing teenage boys on the corner gestured obscenely at us. They were wearing black gloves from each of which the middle finger had been cut away to add emphasis to insult. One of them threw an ice-riddled snowball that cracked hard against my door.
A block from the hospital, still brooding about Punchinello and worrying about Annie, I said, "He'll back out."
"Don't even think it."
"Because this is the fourth of my five terrible days."
"It was already pretty terrible there for a while."
"Not terrible enough. There's worse coming. There's got to be, judging by the past."
"The power of negative thinking," she warned me.
In spite of the defroster, ice began to crust on the windshield wipers, and the blades stuttered across the glass.
This was the day before Thanksgiving. It looked like the frozen heart of January. It felt like Halloween.
Captain Fluffy, brave guardian bear who prevented night monsters from creeping out of the closet and nibbling on children, shared the hospital bed with Annie. This was the most difficult assignment of his career.
When we arrived, we found our daughter sleeping. Always tired, she slept a lot these days. Too much.
Though Annie didn't know how close her mother had come to dying eleven months earlier, she knew the story of the cameo pendant, that it had survived an all-destroying fire, that her mother had worn it in the I.C.U. She had asked for it. She wore it now.
My beautiful little Annie had withdrawn into a gray disguise of sallow skin and brittle hair. Her eyes were mascaraed with mortality, her lips pale. She looked tiny, birdlike, old.
Neither magazines nor TV, nor the view from the window, had any interest for me. I could not stop staring at my little girl, seeing her in my mind's eye as she had been and as she might be again.
I was reluctant to look away from her or to leave the room, for fear that when I returned, I would not have Annie to look at anymore, only photographs as she had once been.
Her indomitable spirit, her courage through these exhausting months of illness, pain, and decline, had been an inspiration to me. But I wanted more than inspiration. I wanted her-healed, healthy, full of life once more. My tomboy. My little bullshit-artist wannabe.
My parents didn't raise me to ask God for blessings or benefits. For guidance, yes. For the strength to do the right thing, yes. Not for a winning lottery number, not for love or health, or happiness. Prayer is not a gimme list; God isn't Santa Claus.
As they have taught me, I believe that without asking, we are given all we need. We must have the wit and wisdom to recognize the strengths and tools at our command, and find the courage to do what must be done.
In this instance, however, we seemed to have done all that we humanly could. If her fate had been in the hands of God now, I would have rested more easily. But her fate seemed to be in the hands of Punchinello Beezo, and anxiety, like swarms of something winged, flew around and around in my stomach, fluttered in my bones.
And so I prayed to God to give me back my tomboy, and asked Him to ensure that Punchinello did the right thing if even for the evil reason of buying Virgilio Vivacemente's murder.
Even God himself might need a fancy calculator to compute the mathematics of that morality.
While I sat with Annie, immobilized by anxiety, Lorrie was all motion, making phone calls, coordinating things between the hospital and the penitentiary officials.
When Annie was awake, we talked of many things, of cabbages and kings, of next year at Disney World and the year after in Hawaii, of learning to ski and bake, but never of now and here, never of the dark what-if.
Her brow was warm to the touch, her delicate fingers cold. Her slender wrists had grown so slight that it seemed they might snap if she risked lifting a hand from the sheets.
Philosophers and theologians had spent centuries debating the existence and the nature of Hell, but I knew there in the hospital that Hell existed and I could describe its streets. Hell is a child lost and the fear of never being reunited.
Healthcare and prison bureaucrats proved extraordinarily helpful and expeditious. During the afternoon, Punchinello Beezo arrived in a prison van, handcuffed, fettered ankle to ankle, under the watchful eyes of two armed guards. I did not see him, only heard reports.
Tests were done. They said he was a match.
At six in the morning, the transplant would be performed.
Midnight of this terrible day still lay hours away. He could change his mind before then-or escape.
At 8:30, my father phoned from Snow Village to fulfill Grandpa Josef's prediction in an unexpected fashion. After lying down for a nap before dinner, Weena had passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of eighty-six.
Lorrie drew me against my will into the corridor to share this news, lest Annie hear.
For a while I sat in a chair in an empty hospital room, so Annie wouldn't see my tears and become anxious that they were shed for her.
On a cell phone, I called Mom, and we talked for a while about Grandma Rowena. You feel grief for a mother and a grandmother, of course, but when the life was very long and happy, and when the end came without pain or fear, it would almost be blasphemous to grieve too hard.
"What surprises me," my mother said, "is that she would go just before dinner. If she'd known what was going to happen, she wouldn't have laid down for a nap until after we'd eaten."
Midnight came. And Thanksgiving morning.
Considering that Annie's deteriorating condition might have made her too weak for surgery in another day, the transplant procedure began none too soon at six o'clock.
Punchinello didn't welch.
I visited him hours later in his room, where he was chained to his bed and watched over by a guard. The guard stepped into the hall to give us privacy.
Although I knew well the nature of this beast, my voice broke with gratitude when I said, "Thank you."
He conjured that movie-hero smile, winked, and said, "No thanks necessary, bro. I'm looking forward to birthday cards, candy, mystery novels ... and one snake-hearted aerialist tortured with red-hot pliers and dismembered alive. I mean, if it works for you to do it that way."
"Yeah, that sounds about right to me."
"I don't want to cramp your creativity," he assured me.
"Don't worry about me. What you want is all that matters."
"Maybe you could nail him to a wall before you really start on him," Punchinello suggested.
"Nails don't hold in drywall. I better buy a stud finder."
He nodded. "Good idea. And before you start cutting off his fingers and hands and stuff, take his nose off. He's a vain bastard, the great Beezo told me, very proud of his nose."
"All right, but if there's anything more you want, I better start taking notes."
"That's everything." He sighed. "Gosh, I sure wish I could be there with you."
"Wouldn't that be wonderful," I said.
Annie came through the surgery as smoothly as a hot-air balloon sailing, sailing.
Unlike its donor, the kidney was neither crazy nor evil, and it was such an ideal match for his niece that not one serious post-operative complication arose.
Annie lived. Annie bloomed.
These days, she charms, she shines, she dazzles, as ever she did before the cancer dragged her down.
Only one of the five days-April 16, 2005-remained ahead of me. Life would seem strange thereafter, with no dreaded dates on the calendar, the future unclouded by grim expectations. Assuming that I survived.
I Am Moonlight Walking,
the Love of Every Woman,
the Envy of Every Man
Between baking cakes and taking additional instruction in the use of a handgun, between perfecting my recipe for chestnut-chocolate terrine and negotiating murder-for-hire contracts with insane kidney donors, I wrote the previous sixty-two chapters of this book during the year preceding the fifth of Grandpa Josef's five dates.
I'm not entirely sure why I felt compelled to write.