"To have a caring mother," the maniac mused. "What must that be like?"
"Good," I said, "it's good," but I didn't trust myself to say more.
Spinning gossamer from its innards, the spider unreeled a longer umbilical, finally dangling in front of our faces.
With dreamy-voiced eloquence, the killer said, "To have a caring
mother who makes you hot cocoa each evening, tucks you in bed every night, kisses you on the cheek, reads you to sleep___"
Before I myself could read, I was almost always read to sleep because ours is a bookish family. More often than not, however, the reader had been my Grandma Rowena.
Sometimes the story was about a Snow White whose seven dwarf friends suffered fatal accidents and diseases until it was Snow alone against the evil queen. Come to think of it, a two-ton safe fell on Happy once. That was a lot cleaner than what happened to poor Sneezy. Or maybe Weena would read the one about Cinderella-the dangerous glass slippers splintering painfully around Cindy's feet, the pumpkin coach plunging off the road into the ravine.
I was a grown man before I discovered that in Arnold Lobel's charming Frog and Toad books, there was not always a scene in which one or the other of the title characters had a foot gnawed off by another meadowland creature.
"I didn't have a caring mother," the maniac said, a disturbing note of whiny distress entering his voice. "My childhood was hard, cold, and loveless."
Now occurred an unexpected turn of events: My fear of being shot to death took second place to the dread that this guy would harangue us with a droning account of his victimization. Beaten with wire coathangers. Forced to wear girly clothes until he was six. Sent to bed without his porridge.
I didn't need to get kidnapped, cuffed, and held at gunpoint to be subjected to a pity fest I could have stayed home and watched daytime-TV talk shows.
Fortunately, he bit his lip, stiffened his spine, and said, "It's a waste of time to dwell on the past. What's done is done."
Unfortunately, the glimmer of teary self-pity in his eyes was not replaced by that charming twinkle, but instead by a fanatical gleam.
The spider had not continued its descent. It hung in front of our faces, perhaps freaked out by the sight of us and frozen in fear.
As though he were a vintner plucking a grape from a vine, the maniac pinched the fat spider between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, crushed it, and brought the mangled remains to his nose to savor the scent.
I hoped he wouldn't offer me a sniff. I have a highly refined sense of smell, which is one reason that I'm a natural-born baker.
Fortunately, he had no intention of sharing the heady fragrance.
Unfortunately, he brought the morsel to his mouth and delicately licked the arachnid paste. He savored this strange fruit, decided it was not sufficiently ripe, and wiped his fingers on the sleeve of his jacket.
Here was a graduate of Hannibal Lecter University, ready for a career in hospitality services as the new manager of the Bates Motel.
This spider-sampling had not been a performance for our benefit. The entire incident had been as unconscious as shooing away a fly, except the opposite.
Now, quite unaware of the effect his culinary curiosity had on us, he said, "Anyway, the time for talking is long past. It's time for action now, for justice."
"And how will that justice be achieved?" Lorrie wondered. For the moment, anyway, she was no longer able to maintain a sprightly, let alone flippant, let alone devil-may-care tone of voice.
In spite of his adult baritone, he sounded uncannily like an angry little boy: "I'm going to blow up a lot of stuff and kill a bunch of people and make this town sorry."
"Sounds pretty ambitious," she said.
"I've been planning this all my life."
Having changed my mind, I said, "Actually, I'd really like to hear about the coathangers."
"What coathangers?" he asked.
Before I could talk my way into a bullet between the eyes, Lorrie said, "Do you think I could have my purse?"
He frowned. "Why?"
"It's a female emergency."
I couldn't believe she was going to do this. I knew I hadn't won the argument, but I assumed that I'd put enough doubt in her mind to give her second thoughts.
"Female emergency?" the maniac asked. "What's that mean?"
"You know," she said coyly.
For a guy who looked like a babe magnet able to draw swooning women like iron filings from a hundred-mile radius, he proved surprisingly obtuse in this matter. "How would I know?"
"It's that time of month," she said.
He claimed bafflement. "The middle?"
As if it were infectious, Lorrie caught his bewilderment: "The middle?"
"It's the middle of the month," he reminded her. "The fifteenth of September. So what?"
"It's my time of month," she elucidated.
He just stared at her, befuddled.
"I'm having my period," she declared impatiently.
The furrows in his brow were smoothed away by understanding. "Ah. A female emergency."
"Yes. That's right. Hallelujah. Now may I have my purse?"
If she ever got her hands on that nail file, she would plunge it into him with enthusiasm.
"I need a tampon," she said.
"You're saying there's a tampon in your purse?"
"And you need it now, you can't wait?"
"No, I absolutely can't wait," she confirmed. Then she played to his
compassionate side, which he hadn't shown to the head-shot librarian, but which she seemed to think must be there, considering that he had not been actually rude: "I'm sorry, gee, this is so embarrassing."
Regarding matters female, he might be a bit thick, but regarding Machiavellian schemes, he smelled a rat instantly: "What's really in your purse-a gun?"
Admitting that she had been caught out, Lorrie shrugged. "No gun. Just a pointy metal nail file."
"You were going to-what?-stab me in the carotid artery?"
"Only if I couldn't get one of your eyes," she said.
He raised his pistol, and though he pointed it at her, I figured that once he started blasting away, he'd drill me, too. I'd seen what he'd done to the newspaper.
"I should kill you dead right here," he said, although without any animosity in his voice.
"You should," she agreed. "I would if I were you."
He grinned and shook his head. "What a piece of work."
"Right back at ya," she said, and matched his grin.
My teeth were revealed molar to molar, as well, though my grin was so tight with anxiety that it hurt my face.
"All these years, planning for this day," the maniac said, "I expected it to be gratifying in a savage sort of way, even thrilling, but I never thought it would be as much fun as this."
Lorrie said, "A party can never be better than the guests you invite."
The lunatic killer considered this as if Lorrie had quoted one of the most complex philosophical propositions of Schopenhauer. He nodded solemnly, rolled his tongue over his teeth, uppers and lowers, as though he could taste the brilliance of those words, and finally he said, "How true. How very true."
I realized that I wasn't holding up my end of the conversation. I didn't want him to get the idea that a party of two might be more fun than three.
When I opened my mouth-no doubt to say something even more inappropriate than my stupid coathangers line, something that would bring me closer to a bullet in the groin-a great hollow peal tolled through the vaulted subcellar. King Kong pounded his mighty fists one, two, three times against the giant door in the massive wall that separated his half of the island from the half where the nervous natives lived.
The maniac brightened at the sound. "That'll be Honker and Crinkles. You'll like them. They have the explosives."
As it turned out, Cornelius Randolph Snow not only had a keen appreciation for fine Victorian architecture but also for Victorian hugger-mugger of the kind that flourished in melodramas of the period and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had used with singular effect in his immortal Sherlock Holmes yarns: concealed doors, hidden rooms, blind staircases, secret passageways.
Hand in hand but only because of the steel cuffs, quickly but only because of the gun prodding us in the back, Lorrie and I went to the end of the room where the maniac had brutally shot the old newspaper.
Shelves spanned the width of that wall, rose from floor to ceiling. Stored thereon were periodicals in labeled slipcases.
The maniac studied several shelves, up and down, back and forth, maybe looking for the 1952 run of Life magazine, maybe hoping to spot a juicier spider.
Nope, neither. He was searching for a hidden switch. He found it, and a section of bookshelves pivoted open, revealing an alcove behind them.
At the back of the alcove, a stone wall embraced an iron-banded oak door. In an age that demanded harsher punishment for patrons with overdue books, they might have kept a tardy Jane Austen reader here until solitary confinement and a short ration of gruel brought the miscreant to remorse and contrition.
The maniac pounded one fist three times on the door-obviously an answering signal.
From the farther side came two knocks, hollow and loud.
After the maniac responded with two, a single knock came from the space beyond. He answered with one thump.
This seemed to be an unnecessarily complicated pass code but the maniac was delighted by the ritual. He beamed happily at us.
His toothy smile no longer had quite the endearing quality that had marked it previously. He was an adorable-looking fellow, and against your better judgment, you still wanted to be charmed by him, but you kept scanning for dark hairy bits of spider on his lips and tongue.
A moment after the last knock, the buzz of a small' high-speed motor arose from the farther side of the door. Then metal shrieked on metal.
A diamond-point steel drill bit thrust through the keyhole. The spinning shaft chewed up the lock mechanism and spat metal shavings on the floor.
Our host raised his voice and reported with boyish enthusiasm: "We tortured a member of the Snow Village Historical Preservation Society, but we couldn't get keys out of him. I'm sure he'd have given them to us if he'd known where to get them, but it was our bad luck-and his-that we chose the wrong person to torture. So we've had to resort to this."
Lorrie's cuffed hand sought my cuffed hand and held it tight.
I wished that we had met under different circumstances. Like at a town picnic or even at a tea dance.
The drill withdrew from the lock plate, fell silent. The broken lock assembly rattled, clinked, twanged, and gave way as the door opened into the alcove.
I had a glimpse of what appeared to be an eerily lit tunnel beyond the door.
A dour man came through, out of the alcove, past the pivoted section of bookcase, into the library's subcellar. A similar specimen followed him, pulling a handcart.
The first newcomer was about fifty, totally bald, with black eyebrows so shaggy that you could have knitted a child's sweater from them. He wore khakis, a green Ban Lon shirt, and a shoulder holster with gun.
"Excellent, excellent. You're right on time, Honker," said the maniac.
I had no way of knowing whether the new guy's name was, say, Bob Honker, or whether this was a nickname inspired by the size of his nose. He had an enormous nose. Once it must have been straight and proud, but time had rendered it a spongy lump, ruddy with a fine webbing of burst capillaries-the nose of a serious drinker.
Honker appeared to be sober now, but brooding and suspicious.
He scowled at me, at Lorrie, and said gruffly, "Who're the bitch and Bigfoot?"
"Hostages," the maniac explained.
"What the hell we need hostages for?"
"If something goes wrong."
"You think something'll go wrong?"
"No," the maniac said, "but they entertain me."
The second newcomer stepped away from the handcart to join the discussion. He resembled Art Garfunkel, the singer: a decadent choirboy's face, electroshocked hair.
He wore a zippered nylon windbreaker over a T-shirt, but I could see the bulk of a holster and weapon beneath it.
"Whether something goes wrong or not," he said, "we'll have to waste them."
"Of course," the maniac said.
"It'd be a shame to off the bitch without using it," said the choirboy.
More than their casual talk of murdering us, this reference to Lorrie as "it" chilled me.
Her hand gripped mine so tightly that my knuckles ached.
The maniac said, "Put her out of your mind, Crinkles. That isn't going to happen."
Whether this was the guy's legal name or nickname, you might expect someone called Crinkles either to have a well-creased face or to be wonderfully amusing. His face looked as smooth as a hard-boiled egg, and he was about as amusing as an antibiotic-resistant streptococcus infection.
To the maniac, Crinkles said, "Why's she off limits? She belong to you?"
"She belongs to nobody," our host replied with some annoyance. "We didn't come all this way just to score some quiff. If we don't stay focused on the main objective, the whole operation will fall apart."
I felt that I ought to say something to the effect that if they wanted to get at Lorrie, they would have to come through me. But the truth was, armed and crazy, they could come through me as easily as the blades of a kitchen mixer churning through cake batter.
The prospect of dying didn't distress me nearly as much as the realization that I was helpless to defend her.
I hadn't made pastry chef yet, but in my mind I had always been a hero-or could be in a crisis. As a kid, I often fantasized about whipping up souffles au chocolate fit for kings while at the same time battling the evil minions of Darth Vader.
Now reality set in. These violent lunatics would eat Darth Vader in a pita pocket and pick their teeth with his light saber.
"Whether something goes wrong or not," Crinkles repeated, "we'll have to burn them."
"We've already gone over this," the maniac said impatiently.
"Because they've seen our faces," Crinkles persisted, "we'll have to whack them both."
"I understand," the maniac assured him.
Crinkles had eyes the color of brandy. They grew pale when he said, "The time comes, I want to be the one gets to ice the bitch."
Waste, off, burn, whack, ice. This guy was a walking thesaurus when it came to synonyms for kill.