I didn't want to be disagreeable. I wanted her to like me. Every guy wants a good-looking woman to like him. Nevertheless, I could not accept her characterization of me.

"I'm not a pessimist. I'm a realist."

She sighed. "That's what every pessimist says."

"You'll see," I said lamely. "I'm not a pessimist."

"I'm an indefatigable optimist," she informed me. "Do you know what that means-indefatigable?"

"The words baker and illiterate aren't synonyms," I assured her. "You're not the only reader and thinker in Snow Village."

"So what does it mean-indefatigable?"

"Incapable of being fatigued. Persistent."

"Tireless," she stressed. "I'm a tireless optimist."

"It's a fine line between an optimist and a Pollyanna."

Fifty feet away, having left the room earlier, the killer returned to his table with an armload of yellowing newspapers.

Lorrie eyed him with predatory calculation. "When the moment's right," she whispered, "I'm going to tell him I've got a female emergency and need my purse."

"Sharp or not, a nail file isn't much use against a gun," I protested.

"There you go again. Congenital pessimism. That can't be a good thing even in a baker. If you expect all your cakes to fall, they will."

"My cakes never fall."

She raised one eyebrow. "So you say."

"You think you can stab him in the heart and just stop him like a clock?" I asked with enough disdain to get my point across but not sarcastically enough to alienate her from the possibility that we could have dinner together if we survived the day.

"Stop his heart? Of course not. Second best would be to go for the neck, sever the carotid artery. First choice would be to put out an eye."

She looked like a dream and talked like a nightmare.

I was probably guilty of gaping again. I know I sputtered: "Put out an eye?"

"Drive it deep enough, and you might even damage the brain," she said, nodding as if in somber agreement with herself. "He'd have an instant convulsion, drop the gun, and if he didn't drop it, he'd be so devastated, we could easily just take the pistol out of his hand."

"Oh my God, you're going to get us killed."

"There you go again," she said.

"Listen," I tried to reason with her, "when the crunch came, you wouldn't have the stomach to do something like that."

"I certainly would, to save my life."

Alarmed by her calm conviction, I insisted, "You'd flinch at the last moment."

"I never flinch from anything."

"Have you ever stabbed someone in the eye before?"

"No. But I can clearly picture myself doing it."

I couldn't suppress the sarcasm any longer: "What are you, a professional assassin or something?"

She frowned. "Keep your voice down. I'm a dance instructor."

"And teaching ballet prepares you to put out a man's eye?"

"Of course not, silly. I don't teach ballet. I give ballroom-dancing lessons. Fox-trot, waltz, rumba, tango, cha-cha, swing, you name it."

Just my luck: to be cuffed to a beautiful woman who turns out to be a ballroom-dance instructor, and me a lummox.

"You'll flinch," I insisted, "and you'll miss his eye, and he'll shoot us dead."

"Even if I flub it," she said, "which I won't, but even if I do, he won't shoot us dead. Haven't you been paying attention? He needs hostages."

I disagreed. "He doesn't need hostages who try to stab him in the eye."

She raised her eyes as if imploring the heavens beyond the ceiling: "Please tell me I'm not shackled to a pessimist and a coward."

"I'm not a coward. I'm just responsibly cautious."

"That's what every coward says."

"That's also what every responsibly cautious person says," I replied, wishing I didn't sound so defensive.

At the far end of the room, the maniac began to pound one fist against the newspaper he was reading. Then both fists. Pounding and pounding like a baby in a tantrum.

Face contorted fearsomely, he made inarticulate noises of rage. Some rough Neanderthal consciousness, remnant in his genes, seemed to break free from the chains of time and DNA.

Fury informed his voice, then frustration, then what might have been a wild grief, then fury once more and escalating. This was the performance of an animal howling with loss, its rage rooted in the black soil of misery.

He pushed his chair back from the table, picked up his pistol. He emptied the remaining eight rounds in the magazine, aiming at the newspaper he had been reading.

The hard report of each shot boomed off the vaulted ceiling, rang off the brass shades of the inverted torchieres, and crashed back and forth between the metal filing cabinets. I felt echoes of each concussion humming in my teeth.

Cut loose two floors underground, the barrage would be at most a faint crackle at street level.

Splinters of the old oak refectory table sprayed and scraps of paper spun and a couple bullets ricocheted through the air, some fragments trailing threads of smoke. The fragrance of aging newsprint was seasoned with the more acrid scent of gunfire and with a raw wood smell liberated from the table's wounds.

For a moment, as he repeatedly squeezed the trigger without effect, I rejoiced that he had depleted his ammunition. But of course he had a spare magazine, perhaps several.

While he reloaded the weapon, he seemed intent on delivering ten more rounds to the hated newspaper. Instead, with the fresh magazine installed, his rage abruptly abated. He began to weep. Wretched sobs racked him.

He collapsed into his chair once more and put down the gun. He leaned over the table and seemed to want to piece together the pages that he had ripped and riddled with gunfire, as if some story therein was precious to him.

Still lemony enough to sweeten the air that had been soured by gunfire, Lorrie Lynn Hicks tilted her head toward me and whispered, "You see? He's vulnerable."

I wondered if excessive optimism could ever qualify as a form of madness.

Gazing into her eyes, I saw, as previously, the fear that she adamantly refused to express. She winked.

Her stubborn resistance to terror scared me because it seemed so reckless, so irrational-and yet I loved her for it.

Whidding through me, like the spirit of Death's black horse, came a premonition that she would be shot. Despair followed this dark precognitive flash, and I was desperate to protect her.

In time, the premonition eventually proved true, and nothing I did was able to alter the trajectory of the bullet.

Tears damp on his cheeks, green eyes washed clear of bitter emotions, and clear of doubts as well, the maniac had the look of a pilgrim who has been to the mountaintop and knows his destiny, his purpose.

He freed me and Lorrie from the chairs but left us tethered to each other.

"Are you both locals?" he asked as we rose to our feet.

After his violent display and flamboyant emotional outburst, I found it difficult to believe that he now wished to engage in pleasant chitchat. The question had a purpose more important than the words themselves conveyed, which meant our answers might have consequences we could not foresee.

Wary, I hesitated to reply, and the same logic led Lorrie to remain silent as well.

He persisted. "What about it, Jimmy? This is the county library, so

people come here from all around. Do you live in town or outside somewhere?"

Although I didn't know which answer he would regard favorably, I sensed that silence would earn me a bullet. He had shot Lionel Davis for less, for no reason at all.

"I live in Snow Village," I said.

"How long have you been here?"

"All my life."

"Do you like it here?"

"Not handcuffed in the subcellar of the library," I said, "but I like most other places in town, yeah."

His smile was uncannily appealing, and I couldn't figure out how anyone's eyes could twinkle so constantly as his unless implanted in them were motorized prisms that ceaselessly tracked environmental light sources. Surely no other maniacal killer could make you want to like him just by cocking his head and favoring you with a crooked smile.

He said, "You're a funny guy, Jimmy."

"I don't mean to be," I said apologetically, shuffling my feet on the honed limestone floor. Then I added, "Unless, of course, you want me to be."

"In spite of everything I've been through, I have a sense of humor," he said.

"I could tell."

"What about you?" he asked Lorrie.

"I have a sense of humor, too," she said.

"For sure. You're way funnier than Jimmy."

"Way," she agreed.

"But what I meant," he clarified, "is do you live here in town?"

As I had answered the same question positively and had not been immediately shot, she dared to say, "Yeah. Two blocks from here."

"You lived here all your life?"

"No. Just a year."

This explained how I could have missed seeing her for twenty years. In a community of fourteen thousand, you can pass a long life and never speak to ninety percent of the population.

If I had just once glimpsed her turning a corner, however, I would never have forgotten her face. I would have spent long anxious nights awake, wondering who she was, where she'd gone, how I could find her.

She said, "I grew up in Los Angeles. Nineteen years in L.A. and I wasn't totally bug-eyed crazy yet, so I knew I had almost no time left to get out."

"Do you like it here in Snow Village?" he asked.

"So far, yeah. It's nice."

Still smiling, still twinkly-eyed, with his charm in full gear and none of the insane-guy edge to his voice, he nevertheless said, "Snow Village is an evil place."

"Well," Lorrie said, "sure, it's evil, but parts of it are also kind of nice."

"Like Morelli's Restaurant," I said.

Lorrie said, "They have fabulous chicken all' Alba. And the Bijou is a terrific place."

Delighted that we shared these favorite places, I said, "Imagine a movie theater actually called the Bijou."

"All those cute Art Deco details," she said. "And they use real butter on the popcorn."

"I like Center Square Park," I said.

The maniac disagreed: "No, that's an evil place. I sat there earlier, watching the birds crap on the statue of Cornelius Randolph Snow."

"What's evil about that?" Lorrie wondered. "If he was half as pompous as the statue makes him look, the birds have got it right."

"I don't mean the birds are evil," the maniac explained with sunny good humor. "Although they might be. What I mean is the park is evil, the ground, all the ground this town is built on."

I wanted to talk to Lorrie about more things we liked, attitudes we might have in common, and I was pretty sure she wanted to have that

conversation, too, but we felt we had to listen to the smiley guy because he had the gun.

"So ... did they build the town on an Indian burial ground or something?" Lorrie wondered.

He shook his head. "No, no. The earth itself was good once long ago, but it was corrupted because of evil things that evil people did here."

"Fortunately," Lorrie said, "I don't own any real estate. I'm a renter."

"I live with my folks," I told him, hoping this fact would exempt me from complicity with the evil earth.

"The time has come," he said, "for payback."

As if to emphasize his threat, a spider suddenly appeared and slowly descended on a silken thread from within the shade of one of the overhead lamps. Projected by the cone of light, the eight-legged shadow on the floor between us and the maniac was the size of a dinner plate, distorted and squirming.

"Answering evil with evil just means everyone loses," Lorrie said.

"I'm not answering evil with evil," he replied not angrily but with exasperation. "I'm answering evil with justice."

"Well, that's very different," Lorrie said.

"If I were you," I told the maniac, "I'd wonder how to know for sure that something I'm doing is justice and not just more evil. I mean, the thing about evil is it's slippery. My mom says the devil knows how to mislead us into thinking we're doing the right thing when what we're really doing is the devil's work."

"Your mother sounds like a caring person," he said.

Sensing I'd made a connection with him, I said, "She is. When I was growing up, she even ironed my socks."

This revelation drew from Lorrie a look of troubled speculation.

Concerned that she might think I was an eccentric or, worse, a momma's boy, I quickly added: "I've been doing my own ironing since I was seventeen. And I never iron my socks."

Lorrie's expression didn't change.

"I don't mean that my mother still irons them," I hastened to assure her. "Nobody irons my socks anymore. Only an idiot irons socks." Lorrie frowned.

"Not that I mean my mother is an idiot," I clarified. "She's a wonderful woman. She's not an idiot, she's just caring. I mean other people who iron their socks are idiots."

At once I saw that with the language skills of a lummox, I had talked myself into a corner.

"If either of you irons your socks," I said, "I don't mean that you're idiots. I'm sure you're just caring people, like my mom."

With disturbingly similar expressions, Lorrie and the maniac stared at me as though I had just walked down the debarkation ramp from a flying saucer.

I thought that being shackled to me suddenly creeped her out, and I figured the maniac would decide that a single hostage was plenty of insurance, after all.

The descending spider still hung over our heads, but its shadow on the floor was smaller, now the size of a salad plate, and blurry.

To my surprise, the killer's eyes grew misty. "That was very touching- the socks. Very sweet."

My sock story didn't seem to have struck a sentimental chord in Lorrie. She stared at me with squint-eyed intensity.

The maniac said, "You're a very lucky man, Jimmy."

"I am," I agreed, although my only bit of luck-being cuffed to Lorrie Lynn Hicks instead of to a diseased wino-seemed to be turning sour.