Page 16


Although I understood everything about the effects of yeast and about the chemical process by which eggs raised a souffle, I had neglected my studies of high explosives. I didn't know exactly what would happen when the boom plastic went off.


Yanking open the doors on the back of the van, I imagined the entire


front of Snow Mansion collapsing on us, burying us under tons of brick and limestone.


Moving boxes from the handcart to the cargo hold of the van, I also imagined the force of the blast tearing us limb from limb in an instant.


Six boxes, eight boxes, ten boxes ... In my mind's eye, I saw myself being battered and lacerated and set afire by a storm of blast-propelled debris, blinded and blood-soaked, running along the street with my hair ablaze.


Thank you, Grandma Rowena.


As I shoved the last of the boxes into the van, Punchinello said, "Leave those doors open for now. We'll ride in back with the money. You can drive."


When we got wherever we were going and I parked the van, he would be behind me, in a perfect position to shoot me in the back of the head. I knew he would do it.


The way this guy was behaving, we were going to have to find someone else to be little Konrad's godfather.


"Catch," he said.


When I realized he was going to throw the keys to me, I cried out, "No! Wait. If I miss them, they might go down the street drain, and then we're screwed."


Between us lay a four-foot-by-three-foot steel grille with inch-wide gaps between the bars. Walking across it I caught the faint scent of brackish water below.


He held out the keys, and even though the pistol wasn't pointed at me as I approached him, I had the feeling that he would shoot me when I reached for them.


Most likely, this apprehension arose from my queasy ambiguity about what I intended to do. As I took the keys with my left hand, I swung my right fist in a low-origin arc hard into his crotch, driving the nail file deep and no doubt pinning the parts of his male package into an unprecedented arrangement.


In the dark, I could not see the blood drain from his face, but I could almost hear it.


Surprising myself with a ruthlessness that I had never exhibited-or required-in a bakery kitchen, I twisted the nail file.


Dimly I recalled that Jack had done something like this to the giant at the foot of the beanstalk, except that he used a pitchfork.


Letting go of the shiv, I grabbed at once for the pistol.


As he had taken in the nail file, he had let out his breath with a high-pitched sound, half wheeze, half squeal. The file stayed in him, the breath stayed out, and he made dry strangulation sounds as he tried to inhale.


I expected him to drop the gun or to have had his grip weakened by shock, but he clutched the weapon with grim determination.


As she twisted her body and shuffled her feet in a graceless dance, trying to stay out of the line of fire, Lorrie hit Punchinello in the face with her free hand, hit him again, again, grunting with each blow, exhibiting the machine determination of a figure swinging a hammer at a bell in an animated Swiss clock.


We fought over the pistol, my two hands prying at his one. Muzzle flashed, shot cracked, and a slug ricocheted off the sidewalk, spraying chips of concrete that tattooed my face, clanged off metal, maybe the van, maybe my sweet Shelby Z. I almost had the weapon, but he managed to squeeze the trigger again, and in spite of all that my father had done for his father, the ingrate shot me. Twice.


I;


If an ax had cleaved my leg, the pain could not have been worse than this.


In movies, the hero takes a bullet and keeps on coming, for God, for love of country, for the sake of his woman. A bullet might make him wince, but often it just pisses him off and drives him to even greater heroics.


As I said earlier, since childhood I had thought of myself as having the potential to be a hero if put to the test. Now I realized that I lacked at least one essential requirement for the job: a really high pain threshold.


Screaming, I fell off the curb and onto the pavement, between the van and the Shelby Z. My head rattled the drainage grille, or maybe the grille rattled my head.


I was terrified that he would shoot me in the face-until I realized I had possession of the pistol.


Reaching between his legs, he tried to pull the nail file out of his crotch, but merely touching it caused him to squeal more pitifully than


a nig catching sight of the butcher's blade. Agony knocked him to his knees. Then he went all the way down, onto his side, pulling Lorrie with him.


We lay there screaming, Punchinello and I, like two teenage girls who had just found a severed head in an old Jamie Lee Curtis movie.


I heard Lorrie shouting my name and something about time.


Unable to focus through the pain, undoubtedly slightly delirious, I found myself imagining what she might be saying:


Time waits for no man. Time and the river, how quickly they go by. Time bears away all things.


Even in my condition, I quickly realized that she would not be waxing philosophical at a moment like this. When I recognized the note of urgency in her voice, I also knew the essence of what she must be saying: Time is running out. The bombs!


The pain in my left leg churned with fiery exuberance, and I was surprised to see that flames weren't eating through the flesh. I could also feel something bristling in the meat of it, perhaps shattered bones. I could not, however, move it.


How odd to be terrified but at the same time weary to the point of sleepiness. Wracked by pain yet capable of taking a nap. Pillowy now, the pavement. Bedding with a faint fragrance of tar.


This tempting slumber was, of course, the sleep of death, which I recognized and resisted.


Making no attempt to stand, dragging the useless leg after me as if I were Sisyphus and it were my stone, I scaled the towering curb. I crawled to Lorrie.


Lying on his side, one arm behind him, Punchinello remained cuffed to Lorrie. With his free hand, he plucked the nail file out of his crotch- and promptly threw up on himself.


I was gratified by this evidence that he felt worse than I did.


During the past few hours, I had come to believe in the reality of Evil for the first time in my twenty years. I believed suddenly not merely in


evil as a necessary antagonist in movies and books-bad guys and boogey men-not merely in evil as the consequence of parental rejection or parental indulgence or social injustice, but in Evil as a presence alive in the world.


It is a presence that tirelessly romances and beguiles, but it cannot consummate a relationship until invited to do so. Punchinello might have been raised by an evil man, might have been instructed in the linguistics of evil, but ultimately the choice of how to live was his alone.


My gratification at the sight of his suffering might have been unwholesome, corrupting, but I don't believe that it was itself a small evil. At the time it felt-and even now feels-like righteous satisfaction prompted by this proof that evil has a price to extract from those who embrace it and that resistance to it, while costly, might have a lower cost than acquiescence.


Funny how so much windy philosophy could be inspired by a little puke.


One man's regurgitation, even if it might give rise in him to some remorse, couldn't stop the ticking of a single detonator. We must have had at most a minute or two until the works of Cornelius Rutherford Snow fell into ruin nearly as complete as the empire of Ozymandias.


"Gimme," Lorrie said.


"What?"


"The gun."


I hadn't realized I still had the pistol.


"Why?" I asked.


"I don't know which pocket he put the key in."


We didn't have time to search the pockets in his pants, coat, and shirt. Considering the vomit, we didn't have the inclination, either.


I failed to understand what the gun had to do with the handcuff key. I worried that she would hurt herself, so I decided not to give her the pistol.


Then I realized that she had already taken it out of my hand.


"You've already taken it out of my hand," I said, and my voice sounded slurred.


"Better turn your face away," she warned, "there might be shrapnel."


"I think I like shrapnel," I replied, unable to remember what the word meant.


She fumbled with the gun, squinting at it in the dark.


"I don't think I hurt as much as I used to hurt," I told her. "Now I'm mostly cold."


"That's bad," she said worriedly.


"I've been cold before," I assured her.


Punchinello groaned, shuddered, and began to upchuck on himself again.


"Have we been drinking?" I wondered.


"Turn your face away," Lorrie repeated, this time sharply.


"Don't talk so mean to me. I love you."


"Yeah, well, we always hurt the one we love," she said, grabbing a fistful of my hair and pulling my face away from the handcuffs.


"That's sad," I said, meaning that we always hurt the one we love, and then I discovered I was lying on the sidewalk and must have fallen. "Lummox."


A gun boomed, and I didn't realize until later that she'd put the muzzle of the pistol against the links of chain that connected one handcuff to the other, and had freed herself from Punchinello with that shot.


"On your feet," she urged me. "Come on, come on."


"I'll lay here till I'm sober."


"You'll lay there till you're dead."


"No, that's too long."


She cajoled me, she cursed me, she commanded me, pushed and yanked and pulled, and the next thing I knew, I was on my feet, leaning on her, moving between the van and my Shelby Z, into the street, away from the mansion.


"How is your leg?"


"What leg?"


"I mean what about the pain?"


"I think we left him back there on the sidewalk."


"God, you're a hulk," she said.


"I'm a little husky, that's all."


"It's all right, it's okay. Lean on me. Come on."


In a voice now as thick as English custard, I said, "Are we going to the park?"


"That's right."


"Picnic?"


"That's right. And we're late, let's hurry."


I peered past Lorrie, toward the sound of an approaching engine. Headlights washed across us. An array of revolving blue and yellow beacons on the roof indicated that it was either a police cruiser or an intergalactic vehicle.


The car slid to a halt, doors flew open, and two men got out about fifteen feet away. One of them said, "What's going on here?"


"This man is shot," Lorrie told them. I wondered who she was talking about. Before I could ask she said, "We need an ambulance."


The cops approached warily. "Where's the shooter?"


"Over there on the sidewalk. He's hurt, doesn't have a gun anymore." When the officers moved toward Punchinello, Lorrie shouted, "No! Stay back. The building's going to blow."


In my condition, her warning was mystifying; it didn't seem to make sense to the police, either. They hurried toward Punchinello, who lay half revealed in the backwash of the squad-car lights.


With single-minded determination, Lorrie kept me moving toward the park.


"Too cold for a picnic," I said. "So cold."


"We'll build a bonfire. Just move."


My teeth chattered, and words shivered out of me: "Will there be p-p-potato salad?"


"Yes. Plenty of potato salad." "The p-p-pickly kind?" "Yes, that's right, keep moving." "I hate the p-pickly k-k-kind." "We have both kinds."


Another curb almost defeated me. The sidewalk looked soft and inviting.


"It's too c-c-cold for a picnic," I said, "and too d-dark." An instant later it was also too noisy.


The four virtually simultaneous explosions-mansion, , bank, courthouse, library-purged confusion from my mind. For a moment I could think too clearly.


As the ground rocked, as the evergreens in the park swayed and shook off dead needles, as the initial blasts gave way to the mad-gods-bowling clatter of stone structures collapsing, I remembered being shot twice and not enjoying it either time.


The pain didn't return with the memory, and now I was clearheaded enough to understand that being unable to feel my leg at all was worse than the fiery agony that I had first endured. The utter lack of feeling suggested that the leg was damaged beyond repair, already dead, amputated, gone.


Exhausted, I stumbled when the ground rocked. Lorrie helped me lower myself to the grass, where I leaned against the trunk of a sycamore, even as the final blasts quaked through the town square.


With the memory of being shot came a nightmare montage of the


three murders that Punchinello had committed in front of me. These bloody images were more vivid in recollection than at the time of the killings, perhaps because then I had been so concerned with my own and Lorrie's survival that I dared not consciously consider the hideous details for fear of being paralyzed by terror.


Sickened, I tried to repress those memories, but they tormented me. All my life, I had been comfortable inside my own head; but now that interior landscape was bloodstained and darkened by an ominous eclipse.


When I wished for the comforting return of the haze to which I had earlier succumbed, it came immediately in a great gray wave-drowning the lights of the police car in the street, then seething through the trees as might rich billows of wind-driven fog, which was curious on a windless night.


Dust.


The turbulent mass proved to be neither fog nor mental haze but thick clouds of fine dust expelled from Cornelius Snow's mansion as it crashed down from imposing edifice to shattered ruin. Pulverized limestone, powdered brick, crushed plaster: In a thousand scents and flavors, dust rolled over us.


Pale as it approached, the cloud brought darkness when it fell upon us, a gloom deeper than the lightless night itself. I eased away from the sycamore and rolled onto my right side, closing my eyes, pulling my shirt up to mask my nose and mouth against the choking dust.


I reached down with one hand to touch my numb left leg, to reassure myself that it was still there. My hand came away slick with warm blood.


In what seemed but an instant, dust caked the blood and formed a grisly plaster around my hand.


At first I thought that Lorrie must have dropped to the grass beside me, covering her face against the suffocating pall. Then I heard her voice above me and knew that she remained on her feet. She called for an ambulance, coughing, wheezing, ceaselessly shouting for help, help, a man's been shot.


I wanted to reach for her, pull her down, but I had no strength to raise my arm. A fearsome weakness had overcome me.


The comforting mental haze that I had wished for now returned. Frantic about Lorrie, I no longer wanted this escape, but resistance was impossible.

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