His hard expression softened. He lowered the pistol.
With perhaps fifteen feet between us, I didn't dare rush him. I could only repeat, "What did he ever do to you?"
He smiled and shrugged. "I wouldn't have shot him if you hadn't come in."
Like a slowly turning auger, the pain of Lionel's death drilled deeper into me. The tremor in my voice was grief, not fear. "What're you talking about?"
"By myself, I can't manage two hostages. He was here alone. The assistant librarian is out sick. There were no patrons at the moment. He was going to lock the doors-then you came in."
"Don't tell me I'm responsible."
"Oh, no, not at all," he assured me with what sounded like genuine concern for my feelings. "Not your fault. It was just one of those things."
"Just one of those things," I repeated with some astonishment, unable to comprehend a mind that could be so casual about murder.
"I might have shot you instead," he said, "but having met you earlier in the street, I figured you'd be more interesting company than a boring old librarian."
"What do you need a hostage for?"
"In case things go wrong."
His sport coat was cut stylishly full. From one of the roomy interior
pockets he withdrew a pair of handcuffs. "I'm going to throw these to you."
"I don't want them."
He smiled. "You are going to be fun. Catch them. Lock one cuff around your right wrist. Then lie on the floor with both hands behind your back, so I can finish the job."
When he threw the cuffs, I sidestepped them. They rattled off a reading table, clattered to the floor.
He'd been holding the pistol at his side. He aimed at me again.
Although I'd stared down that muzzle before, I didn't find it any less disconcerting the second time.
I'd never held a handgun, let alone fired one. In my line of work, the closest thing to a weapon is a cake knife. Maybe a rolling pin. We bakers, however, tend not to carry rolling pins in shoulder holsters and are therefore defenseless in situations like this.
"Pick them up, big fella."
Big fella. He was approximately my size.
"Pick them up, or I'll do a Lionel on you and just wait for another hostage to walk through that door."
I had been using my grief and my anger over Lionel's death to suppress my terror. Fear could diminish and defeat me, but now I realized that fearlessness could get me killed.
Wisely giving recognition to the coward in me, I stooped, picked up the cuffs, and clamped one steel circlet around my right wrist.
Snaring a set of keys off the librarian's desk, he said, "Don't lie down yet. Stay on your feet where I can see you while I lock the door."
When he was halfway between the main desk and the portrait of Cornelius Rutherford Snow, the door opened. A young woman, a stranger to me, entered with a stack of books.
She was prettier than a gateau a Vorange with chocolate-butter icing decorated with candied orange peel and cherries.
I wouldn't be able to endure seeing her shot, not her.
She was prettier than a souffle au chocolate drizzled with creme anglaise flavored by apricots, served in a Limoges cup on a Limoges plate on a silver charger, by candlelight.
The door had swung shut behind her and she had taken a few steps into the room before she realized that this was not a typical library tableau. She couldn't see the dead man behind the desk, but she spotted the handcuffs dangling from my right wrist.
When she spoke, she had a wonderfully throaty voice, the effect of which was heightened by the fact that she addressed the killer in a stage whisper: "Is that a gun?"
"Doesn't it look like a gun?"
"Well, it might be a toy," she said. "I mean, is it a real gun?"
Gesturing at me with the weapon, he said, "You want to see me shoot him with it?"
I sensed that I'd just become the least desirable of available hostages.
"Gee," she said, "that seems a little extreme."
"I only need one hostage."
"Nevertheless," she said with an aplomb that dazzled me, "maybe you could just fire a shot into the ceiling."
The killer smiled at her with all the expansive good humor that he had directed toward me earlier, in the street. In fact it was a warmer and even more adorable smile than the one I'd received.
"Why are you whispering?" he asked.
"It's a library," she whispered.
"The usual rules have been suspended."
"Are you the librarian?" she asked him.
"Me-a librarian? No. In fact-"
"Then you can't possibly have the authority to suspend the rules," she said, speaking softly but no longer in a whisper.
"This gives me the authority," he declared, and fired a round into the ceiling.
She glanced at the front windows, where the street was visible only in a succession of wedges between the half-closed "Venetian blinds. When she looked next at me, I saw that she was disappointed, as I had been, by the pathetic volume of the shot. The walls, padded by books, absorbed the sound. Outside, it might have been not much louder than a muffled cough.
Giving no indication that his casual gunfire rattled her, she said, "May I put these books down somewhere? They're quite an armful."
With the pistol, he indicated a reading table. "There."
As the woman put down the books, the killer went to the door and locked it, always keeping an eye on us.
"I don't mean to criticize," the woman said, "and I'm sure you know your business better than I do, but you're wrong about needing only one hostage."
She was so dangerously appealing to the eye that under other circumstances, she could have reduced any guy to his most deeply stupid state of desire. Already, however, I found myself more interested in
what she had to say than I was in her figure, more fascinated by her chutzpah than by her radiant face.
The maniac seemed to share my fascination. By his expression, anyone could see that she had charmed him. His killer smile became more luminous.
When he spoke to her, his voice had no bite to it, no trace of sarcasm: "You have a theory or something about hostages?"
She shook her head. "Not a theory. Just a practical observation. If you wind up in a showdown with the police and you have only one hostage, how are you going to convince them you would actually kill the person, that you're not bluffing?"
"How?" he and I asked simultaneously.
"You couldn't make them believe you," she said. "Not beyond a shadow of a doubt. So they might try to rush you, in which case both you and the hostage wind up dead."
"I can be pretty convincing," he assured her in a mellower tone that suggested he might be thinking of asking her for a date.
"If I was a cop, I wouldn't believe you for a minute. You're too cute to be a killer." To me, she said, "Isn't he too cute?"
I almost said I didn't think he was that cute, so you can see what I mean by her bringing out the deeply stupid in a guy.
"But if you had two hostages," she continued, "you could kill one to prove the sincerity of your threat, and after that the second would be a reliable shield. No cop would dare test you twice."
He stared at her for a moment. "You're some piece of work," he said at last, and clearly meant to compliment her.
"Well," she replied, indicating the stack of books that she had just returned, "I'm a reader and a thinker, that's all."
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Lorrie Lynn Hicks," she said. "And you are?"
He opened his mouth, almost told her his name, then smiled and said, "I'm a man of mystery."
"And a man with a mission, by the look of it."
"I've already killed the librarian," he told her, as if murder were a resume enhancement.
"I was sort of afraid you had," she said.
I cleared my throat. "My name is James."
"Hi, Jimmy," she said, and though she smiled, I saw in her eyes a terrible sadness and desperate calculation.
"Go stand beside him," the maniac ordered.
Lorrie came to me. She smelled as good as she looked: fresh, clean, lemony.
"Cuff yourself to him."
As she locked the empty ring around her left wrist, thereby linking our fates, I felt I should say something to comfort her, in response to the desperation I'd glimpsed in her eyes. Wit failed me, and I could only say, "You smell like lemons."
"I've spent the day making homemade lemon marmalade. I intended to have the first of it tonight, on toasted English muffins."
"I'll brew a pot of bittersweet hot chocolate with a dash of cinnamon," I told her. "That and your marmalade muffins will be the perfect thing to celebrate."
Clearly she appreciated my confident assertion of our survival, but her eyes were no less troubled.
Checking his wristwatch, the maniac said, "This has taken too much time. I've got a lot of research to do before the explosions start."
k 11 our yesterdays neatly shelved, time catalogued in . drawers: News grows brittle and yellow under the library, in catacombs of paper.
The killer had learned that the Snow County Gazette had for more than a century stored their dead issues here in the subbasement, two stories under the town square. They called it a "priceless archive of local history." Preserved for the ages in the Gazette morgue were the details of Girl Scout bake sales, school-board elections, and zoning battles over the intent of Sugar Time Donuts to expand the size of its operation.
Every issue from 1950 forward could be viewed on microfiche. When your research led you to earlier dates, you were supposed to fill out a requisition form for hard copies of the Gazette; a staff member would oversee your perusal of the newspaper.
If you were a person who shot librarians for no reason, standard procedures were of no concern to you. The maniac prowled the archives
and took what he wanted to a study table. He handled the yellowing newsprint with no more consideration for its preservation than he would have shown for the most current edition of USA Today.
He had parked Lorrie Lynn Hicks and me in a pair of chairs at the farther end of the enormous room in which he worked. We were not close enough to see what articles in the Gazette interested him.
We sat under a barrel-vaulted ceiling, under a double row of inverted torchieres that cast a dusty light acceptable only to those scholars who had lived in a time when electricity was new and the memory of oil lamps still fresh from childhood.
With another set of handcuffs, our captor had linked our wrist shackles to a back rail of one of the chairs on which we were perched.
Because not all the archives were contained in this one room, he paid repeated visits to an adjacent chamber, leaving us alone at times. His absences afforded us no chance to escape. Chained together and dragging a chair, we could move neither quickly nor quietly.
"I've got a nail file in my purse," Lorrie whispered. *
I glanced down at her cuffed hand next to mine. A strong but graceful hand. Elegant fingers. "Your nails look fine," I assured her.
"Are you serious?"
"Absolutely. I like the shade of your polish. Looks like candied cherries."
"It's called Glacage de Framboise."
"Then it's misnamed. It's not a shade of any raspberries I've ever worked with."
"You work with raspberries?"
"I'm a baker, going to be a pastry chef."
She sounded slightly disappointed. "You look more dangerous than a pastry chef."
"Well, I'm biggish for my size."
"Is that what it is?"
"And bakers tend to have strong hands."
"No," she said, "it's your eyes. There's something dangerous about your eyes."
This was adolescent wish fulfillment of the purest kind: being told by a beautiful woman that you have dangerous eyes.
She said, "They're direct, a nice shade of blue-but then there's something lunatic about them."
Lunatic eyes are dangerous eyes, all right, but not romantic dangerous. James Bond has dangerous eyes. Charles Manson has lunatic eyes. Charles Manson, Osama bin Laden, Wile E. Coyote. Women stand in line for James Bond, but Wile E. Coyote can't get a date.
She said, "The reason I mentioned the nail file in my purse is because it's a metal file, sharp enough at one end to be a weapon."
"Oh." I felt inane, and I couldn't blame my dunderheadedness entirely on her stupidity-inducing good looks. "He took your purse," I noted.
"Maybe I can get it back."
Her handbag stood on the table where he sat reading old issues of the Snow County Gazette.
The next time he left the room, we could stand as erect as a chair on our backs would allow and hobble in tandem and as fast as possible toward her purse. The noise would most likely draw him back before we reached our goal.
Or we could make our way across the room with stealth foremost in mind, which would require us to move as slowly as Siamese twins negotiating a minefield. Judging by the average length of time that he had thus far been absent when extracting additional issues from the files, we would not reach the purse before he returned.
As if my thoughts were as clear to her as the lunacy in my eyes, she said, "That's not what I had in mind. I'm thinking if I claim a female emergency, he'll let me have my purse."
Maybe it was the shock of living out my grandfather's prediction or maybe it was the persistent memory of the librarian being shot, but I couldn't get my mind around the meaning of those two words.
Aware of my befuddlement, as she seemed to be aware of every electrical current leaping across every synapse in my brain, Lorrie said, "If I tell him I'm having my period and I desperately need a tampon, I'm sure he'll do the gentlemanly thing and give me my purse."
"He's a murderer," I reminded her.
"But he doesn't seem to be a particularly rude murderer."
"He shot Lionel Davis in the head."
"That doesn't mean he's incapable of courtesy."
"I wouldn't bet the bank on it," I said.
She squinched her face in annoyance and still looked darned good. "I hope to God you're not a congenital pessimist. That would be just too much-held hostage by a librarian killer and shackled to a congenital pessimist."