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Icily, Jimmy rejected this bizarre protestation of fatherly love: "You aren't my father even in the sense that you might call yourself the spiritual father of everyone in your troupe. Punchinello and I aren't in your troupe, and we're not your sons in any sense. We're technically your grandsons, God help us. But I don't accept even that relationship. I deny you the right to be my grandfather, I refuse you, I renounce you, I repudiate you."


The beseeching hands that had been pressed together abruptly separated. They formed into white-knuckled fists.


Although Vivacemente had no sense of humor, he had a rare capacity for hatred, which sharpened his eyes into knife points and which expressed itself unmistakably in the tightly screwed features of his carved face.


The old man's voice was hypodermic, his words poisonous: "Konrad Beezo never had a child with any woman he ever laid with. He was the husk of a man, sterile."


With a jolt, I remembered-and I'm certain Jimmy did, too-Konrad Beezo in our kitchen, the Porter Carson identity cast aside, just before he shot me. He wanted Andy as recompense for our sending Punchinello to prison, as "something for something." He hadn't known that Jimmy was Punchinello's twin, hadn't realized that Andy might be of his bloodline. He just wanted quid pro quo, his "makeweight." When I had asked Konrad why he didn't lie down with some desperate hag who might have him and make a baby of his own, he flinched from my words and could not meet my eyes. Now I knew why.


This venomous filth before us, this walking worm in a scarlet robe, drew himself to his full height and with demented pride said, "I wanted to concentrate the aerialist genes as they had never before been concentrated. And my dream was conceived in the biblical sense. But she fled me for Beezo, and denied me what was mine. Natalie was my daughter, but I am your grandfather and your father."


Whoa.


Having adjusted to the creepy discovery that he was Konrad Beezo's son and Punchinello's brother, poor Jimmy-sweet Jimmy-now had to get his mind around the even creepier idea that he was still Punchinello's brother but was in fact Vivacemente's son and grandson, the product of incest.


Move over, Johnny Tillotson. The hits just keep on coming.


ovement at the perimeter of the tent drew our attention. From outside, the muscle-bound brute with the cobra eyes stepped into the main entrance and stood there with his legs wide apart, looking as if he could deflect a runaway elephant. He was armed with a shotgun.


Another man spookily like the first-except that he had keloid scars across his face and neck, as if he had been cobbled together by Victor Frankenstein-appeared in the performers' entrance. He, too, held a shotgun.


Three others had slipped under the sidewall canvas where it hung loosest between stakes. They were spotted around the big top, beyond the footlights, in shadows but visible. I suspected they had weapons, too, but I couldn't see them well enough to be sure.


"And so you see," Vivacemente continued, "your son Andy is my Natalie's grandson. He is also my grandson and great-grandson. My dream has been delayed one generation, but now it will come to pass. If you


don't sell me young Andy for four hundred twenty-two thousand five hundred dollars, I will kill the two of you. I will kill Rudy and Maddy, and I will take all three of your children at no cost to me whatsoever."


Clearly Jimmy didn't want to risk taking his eyes off Virgilio Vivacemente any more than he would have turned his back on a coiled rattlesnake, but he nevertheless looked at me.


Most of the time, I could tell what my Jimmy was thinking. The terrain inside his wonderful head was my backyard; I felt at home there.


This time, his lovely eyes were not windows to his thoughts, as previously they had always been. His expression remained flat, enigmatic.


A lesser man might have been so hammered by these revelations that he would have been paralyzed by shock, revulsion, and despair. He might be shocked and revolted, but Jimmy never despaired.


He said, "Does this blow or does it blow?"


"It blows," I said.


Sensing triumph, his face crafted for the smug expression that overcame it, Vivacemente put his hands in the pockets of his scarlet robe, rocked back and forth in his red slippers, back and forth. "If you think I can't kill all of you and get clean away with it, you're wrong. When the two of you and Rudy and Maddy are dead at my feet, I will dismember the four of you, marinate your remains in gasoline, burn them, urinate on the ashes, put the wet ashes in a bucket, take them to a lovely farm I own, and stir them into the muddy wallow in the corner of a pigpen. I've done it before. There is no vengeance equal to the vengeance of Virgilio Vivacemente."


His gaze still locked on me, Jimmy quietly said, ""With the right psychotic hag, you could father another murderous little maggot as insane as your firstborn.""


Vivacemente cocked his head. "What did you say?"


I recognized Jimmy's words. He had quoted what I had said to Konrad Beezo in our kitchen on that December night in 2002, just before the clown had shot me.


I had been trying to rattle Beezo with attitude and insults, and to some extent, I had succeeded. He had flinched at my verbal assault, had looked away from me to Jimmy, giving me the opportunity to draw the pepper spray and squirt him in the face.


Jimmy was proposing a similar tactic with Vivacemente.


He saw that I understood.


Pushing us harder, the maniac said, "When you are nothing but urine-soaked ashes in a pig wallow, I will take your three children to an estate I maintain in Argentina. There I will train Andy and perhaps Lucy to be the finest aerialists of their generation, and perhaps Annie, as well. If she is too old at seven ... well, she will have other uses. Lose your lives and all your children, or sell Andy to me. Only a clown could not make the right choice between those two options."


"It's a lot of money," Jimmy told me. "The better part of half a million, cash, no taxes."


"And we'd still have Annie and Lucy," I said.


"We can always have another son," Jimmy proposed.


"With a new baby, we'd forget Andy in no time."


"I'd forget him in three months," Jimmy said.


"Might take me six."


"We're young. Even if it takes us eight months to forget him, we've got a lot of good life ahead of us."


Vivacemente was smiling, or appeared to be, as best anyone other than his surgeons could tell.


Incredibly, he seemed to be buying what we were selling. His credulousness did not entirely surprise me. After all, Jimmy and I had enormous experience talking to maniacs in their language.


"But, hey," Jimmy said to me, "wow, that gives me an even better idea."


I crafted a mask of bright-eyed curiosity. "What's that?"


Turning to Vivacemente again, Jimmy said, "Would you buy two?"


"Two what?"


"Two boys. If we had another, you could buy him early, right out of the cradle."


I said, "Jimmy-"


"Shut up, honey," he warned me. "You've never had a head for finances. Leave this to me."


Jimmy had never before told me to shut up. I knew he meant to convey that he would distract our target to give me the opportunity I needed.


"I'm a bull in the baby-making department," Jimmy told the crazy aerialist, "and the little lady here, she can really pump them out. She could take a fertility drug, too, and maybe we could have them in batches."


Jimmy and I were both going to die. We understood that we were cold meat standing. With all the firepower in the tent, we couldn't escape. But in dying, we could take Vivacemente with us. When this beast lay bullet-riddled and dead, our kids would be safe with Rudy and Maddy.


Expanding upon his proposal with enthusiasm, Jimmy held the old man rapt, and when the moment seemed ideal, I went for my pistol.


I don't believe Vivacemente saw me from the corner of his eye. I think instead that like a champion poker player, he caught some subtle tell from Jimmy.


Without taking his hands out of his cashmere robe, he opened fire on Jimmy with a handgun concealed in the deep right pocket. He squeezed off two rounds as I was drawing, both of which hit Jimmy in the abdomen, fired two more as I brought my pistol to bear on him, and those two slammed Jimmy in the chest. By the roar of them, these were high-power rounds. The first two knocked Jimmy backward, and the second two knocked him down.


Intending his fifth bullet for me, Vivacemente turned my way but not fast enough. I shot him in the head once, and he dropped.


Screaming like a Valkyrie, possessed of a fury that only the righteous


sane can know, that never can be matched by madmen in their moral confusion, I shot him three more times, this thing who raped his own daughter, this monster who bought children, this demon who would make me a widow.


Beyond the damage to his face, I glimpsed in it an expression of surprise. He hadn't thought that he could die.


I should have saved my ammunition, because the thuggish-looking roustabouts came toward me at a run. I couldn't take out all of them, however, and in fact I wasn't hot to shoot any of them, not as long as I could be sure that Vivacemente was down for good, forever.


When I swiveled toward the first of the approaching men, he threw down his shotgun. The second had already discarded his.


The other three came out of the shadows, past the footlights. One had an ax, and dropped it. One had a sledgehammer, and pitched it aside. If the third had been armed, he had chucked his weapon far back near the sidewall of the tent.


Gasping equally with amazement and astonishment, with terror and horror, I watched those five brawny men gather around the corpse of Virgilio Vivacemente. They regarded it with shock, with awe... and suddenly broke into laughter.


My sweet Jimmy, my muffin man, lay flat on his back, silent on the ground, and the roustabouts laughed, and one of them cupped his hands around his mouth and called out in circus lingo that made no sense to me.


As I collapsed to my knees at my Jimmy's side, the troupe of aerialists burst into the tent, still dressed in their costumes, shrieking like birds.


or a few days, my chest and stomach hurt so bad that I could almost believe the four bullets had not flattened against the Kevlar vest under my shirt, but had penetrated and done major damage. The hideous bruises didn't fully fade for weeks.


As Lorrie told you, after leaving the kids at my parents' house, we had dressed as seemed suitable for a "most cordial meeting" with a possible lunatic. We'd gotten the two vests a year earlier through Huey Foster.


Okay, we yanked your chain again, like we did back in chapter twenty-four. How much fun would it have been, there in the big top, if you'd been absolutely certain that I had survived?


The Kevlar stopped all four rounds, but the impact, even spread across the surface of the vest, knocked the breath and consciousness out of me. I experienced a brief and not unpleasant dream about chocolate amaretto cheesecake.


When I came to, some people were laughing robustly. Others were


shrieking with what at first might have been shock and fear but which quickly changed to giddy delight.


The adults and the teenagers and the children alike came to the body of Virgilio. None seemed to be either angry about his death or grossed out by his condition.


Instead, each regarded the cadaver with stunned disbelief that gradually brightened into an awareness of their freedom.


Vivacemente had not believed that he could die-and neither had any of the troupe that snapped to the crack of his whip. The collapse of the Soviet Union surely had not surprised them a fraction as much as this did.


With belief, the aerialists found themselves virtually exploding with energy, with joy. They scampered up rope ladders and loop lines, into the higher reaches of the tent, to their platforms and trapezes.


As sirens rose in the distance, as Lorrie helped me to my feet, the flyers flew in exaltation, in rhapsodies.


Earlier, in a windy moment, I-wrote that revenge and justice are twin braids in a line as thin as the high wire that an aerialist must walk, and if you can't keep your balance, then you are doomed-and damned-regardless of whether you fall to the left or to the right of the line. A restrained response to evil is not moral, but neither is excessive violence.


The only anguishing moral dilemma that Lorrie carried out of that big top was related to whether she should have shot to wound and disable Virgilio Vivacemente or whether blowing him to bits with four well-placed, hollow-point rounds might have been justified.


She agonized over this for about twenty-four hours, but during a parade of desserts after dinner at my parents' house on the evening of Sunday, April 17, as Vivacemente still lay in a morgue drawer, she achieved a satisfying catharsis. She decided that if she had shot the crazy son of a bitch five times, including four times after he was already dead instead of just three, that would have been an excessive


and unjustifiable response. As it was, she had no doubt-nor did I- that she was on the side of the angels.


In any moral dilemma, as one strives to analyze one's motives and actions, a speedier and usually satisfying resolution can be reached if one consumes abundant quantities of sugar.


As for me, I came out of the experience with no knotty moral issues. The truth of my conception didn't change who I had become, who I was. I declined to dwell upon it.


More important, the fifth of my five days had come and gone. I had survived. Every member of my family remained healthy and alive, except for Grandma Rowena, and she had died in her sleep.


We had suffered a great deal en route to this safe harbor, but who does not suffer in life? When the pain passes, there is always cake.


Life insurance companies price their policies on the basis of many factors, including actuarial tables. They have arcane formulae to predict your life expectancy, and if they didn't they would soon be out of business.


I do not define life expectancy by the length of life, however, but by the quality of it, by what I expect from it and by how well my expectations are met. What I have learned from my true father, Rudy, and from my true mother, Maddy, and from my glorious wife, and from my beloved children is that the more you expect from life, the more your expectations will be fulfilled. By laughing, you do not use up your laughter, but increase your store of it. The more you love, the more you will be loved. The more you give, the more you will receive.


Life proves that truth to me every hour, every day.


And life continues to surprise:


Fourteen months after the incident in the big top, Lorrie became pregnant. She had been told that she could never conceive again, and her doctors had been so certain of her barrenness that we took no precautions.


Considering the grievous wounds that Lorrie had survived and the fact that she had one kidney, Dr. Mello Melodeon counseled us to terminate.

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