He laughed out loud, now, spitting wine. Rule the world! He couldn't even rule himself. Superman! In a world of ordinary men, a superman was no king, not even a romantic fugitive. He was simply alone. And alone, he could accomplish nothing.

He thought of Annie, of dreams and love unshared, of futures destroyed. He continued to drink.

After midnight of that day, he returned to Staznik's Restaurant to check the garbage for discarded tableware. At least that was what he intended to do. Instead, he spent the night walking swiftly down a succession of dark, twisting alleyways and side streets, his hands held out before him, a blind man trying to find his way. As far as Annie was concerned, he'd never existed.



BILLY NEEKS HAD A FLEXIBLE PHILOSOPHY REGARDING PROPERTY rights. He believed in the proletarian ideal of shared wealth—as long as the wealth belonged to someone else. On the other hand, if the property belonged to him, Billy was prepared to defend it to the death. This was a simple, workable philosophy for a thief—which Billy was.

Billy Neeks's occupation was reflected in his grooming: He looked slippery. His thick black hair was slicked back with enough scented oil to fill a crankcase. His coarse skin was perpetually pinguid, as if he suffered continuously from malaria. He moved cat quick on well-lubricated joints, and his hands had the buttery grace of a magician's hands. His eyes resembled twin pools of Texas crude, wet and black and deep—and utterly untouched by any human warmth or feeling. If the route to Hell were an inclined ramp requiring a hideous grease to facilitate descent, Billy Neeks would be the devil's choice to pass eternity in the application of that noxious, oleaginous substance.

In action, Billy could bump into an unsuspecting woman, separate her from her purse, and be ten yards away and moving fast by the time she realized that she'd been victimized. Single-strap purses, double-strap purses, clutch purses, purses carried over the shoulder, purses carried in the hand—all meant easy money to Billy Neeks. Whether his target was cautious or careless was of no consequence. Virtually no precautions could foil him.

That Wednesday in April, pretending to be drunk, he jostled a well-dressed elderly woman on Broad Street, just past Bartram's Department Store. As she recoiled in disgust from that oily contact, Billy slipped her purse off her shoulder, down her arm, and into the plastic shopping bag that he carried. He reeled away from her and took six or eight steps in an exaggerated stagger before she realized that the collision had not been as accidental as it seemed. Even as the victim shrieked, "police," Billy had begun to run, and by the time she added, "help, police, help," Billy was nearly out of earshot.

He raced through a series of alleyways, dodged around garbage cans and Dumpsters, and leaped across the splayed legs of a sleeping wino. He sprinted across a parking lot and fled into another alley.

Blocks from Bartram's, Billy slowed to a walk. He was breathing only slightly harder than usual. Grinning.

Stepping out of the alley onto Forty-sixth Street, he spotted a young mother carrying a baby, a shopping bag, and a purse. She looked so defenseless that Billy couldn't resist the opportunity, so he flicked open his switchblade and, in a wink, cut the thin straps on her bag, a stylish blue-leather number. Then he dashed off again, across the street, where drivers braked sharply and blew their horns at him, into another network of alleyways, all familiar to him.

As he ran, he giggled. His giggle was neither shrill nor engaging, but more like the sound of ointment squirting from a tube.

When he slid on spilled garbage—orange peels, rotting lettuce, mounds of molding and soggy bread—he was not tripped up or even slowed down. The disgusting muck seemed to facilitate his flight, and he came out of the slide moving faster than he had gone into it.

He slowed to a normal pace when he reached Prospect Boulevard. The switchblade was in his pocket again. Both stolen purses were concealed in the plastic shopping bag. He projected what he believed to be an air of nonchalance, and although his calculated expression of innocence was actually a dismal failure, it was the best that he could do.

He strolled to his car, which he had parked at a meter along Prospect. The Pontiac, unwashed for at least two years, left oil drippings wherever it went, just as a wolf in the wilds marked its territory with dribbles of urine. Billy put the stolen purses in the trunk of the car and, whistling happily, drove away from that part of the city, toward yet untouched prowling grounds in other neighborhoods.

Of the several reasons for his success as a purse snatcher, mobility was perhaps the most important. Many snatchers were kids seeking a few fast bucks, young hoods without wheels. Billy Neeks was twenty-five, no kid, and possessed reliable transportation. He usually robbed two or three women in one neighborhood and then quickly moved on to another territory where no one was looking for him and where more business waited to be done.

To him, this was not small-time thievery committed either by impulse or out of desperation. Instead, Billy saw it as a business, and he was a businessman, and like other businessmen he planned his work carefully, weighed the risks and benefits of any opportunity, and acted only as a result of careful, responsible analysis.

Other snatchers—amateurs and punks, every one of them—paused on the street or in an alley to hastily search purses for valuables, risking arrest because of their inadvisable delays, at the very least creating a host of additional witnesses to their crimes. Billy, on the other hand, stashed the stolen purses in the trunk of his car to be retrieved later for more leisurely inspection in the privacy of his home.

He prided himself on his methodicalness and caution.

That cloudy and humid Wednesday in late April, he crossed and recrossed the city, visiting three widely separated districts and snatching six purses in addition to those that he had taken from the elderly woman outside Bartram's and from the young mother on Forty-sixth Street. The last of the eight also came from an old woman. At first he thought that it was going to be an easy hit, and then he thought that it was going to get messy, and finally it just turned out to be weird.

When Billy spotted her, she was coming out of a butcher's shop on Westend Avenue, clutching a package of meat to her breast. She was old. Her brittle white hair stirred in the spring breeze, and Billy had the curious notion that he could hear those dry locks rustling against one another. Her crumpled-parchment face, her slumped shoulders, her pale withered hands, and her shuffling step combined to convey the impression not only of extreme age but of frailty and vulnerability—which drew Billy Neeks as if he were an iron filing and she a magnet. Her purse was big, almost a satchel, and the weight of it—in addition to the package of meat—seemed to bother her, because she was shrugging the straps farther up on her shoulder and wincing in pain, as if suffering from a flare-up of arthritis.

Although it was spring, she was dressed in black: black shoes, black stockings, black skirt, dark gray blouse, even a heavy black cardigan sweater unsuited to the mild day.

Billy looked up and down the street, saw no one else nearby, and quickly made his move. He did his drunk trick: staggering, jostling the old biddy. But as he pulled the purse down her arm, she dropped the package of meat, seized the bag with both hands, and for a moment they were locked in an unexpectedly fierce struggle. Ancient as she was, she possessed surprising strength. He tugged at the purse, wrenched and twisted it, desperately attempted to rock her backward off her feet, but she stood her ground and held on with the tenacity of a deeply rooted tree resisting a storm wind.

He said, "Give it up, you stupid old bitch, or I'll bust your face."

And then a strange thing happened:

She changed before Billy's eyes. She no longer appeared frail but steely, no longer weak but darkly energized. Her bony, arthritic hands suddenly looked like the dangerous talons of a powerful bird of prey. That singular face—pale yet jaundiced, nearly fleshless, all wrinkles and sharp pointy lines—was still ancient, but it no longer seemed quite human to Billy Neeks. And her eyes. God, her eyes. At first glance, Billy saw only the watery, myopic gaze of a doddering crone; but abruptly they were eyes of tremendous power, eyes of fire and ice, simultaneously boiling his blood and freezing his heart, eyes that saw into him and through him, not the eyes of a helpless old granny but those of a murderous beast that had the desire and ability to devour him alive.

He gasped in fear, and he almost let go of the purse, almost ran. In a blink, however, she was transformed into a defenseless old woman again. Abruptly she capitulated. Like pop beads, the swollen knuckles of her twisted hands seemed to come apart, and her finger joints went slack. She lost her grip, releasing the purse with a small cry of despair.

Emitting a menacing snarl that served not only to frighten the old woman but also to chase away Billy's own irrational terror, he shoved her backward into a curbside trash container, and he bolted past her with the satchel-size purse under his arm. He glanced back after several steps, half expecting to see that she had fully assumed the form of a great dark bird of prey, flying at him, eyes aflame, teeth bared, talon-hands spread and hooked to tear him to bits. But she was clutching at the trash container to keep her balance, as age-broken and helpless as she had been when he had first seen her.

The only odd thing: She was looking after him with a smile. No mistaking it. A wide, stained-tooth smile. Almost a lunatic grin.

Senile old fool, Billy thought. Has to be senile if she finds anything funny about having her purse snatched.

He could not imagine why he had ever been afraid of her.

He ran, dodging from one alleyway to another, down side streets, across a sun-splashed parking lot, along a shadowy service passage between two tenements, and onto a street far removed from the scene of his latest theft. At a stroll, he returned to his parked car and put the old woman's black purse in the trunk with the others taken elsewhere in the city. At last, a hard day's work behind him, he drove home, looking forward to counting his take, having a few icy beers, and watching some TV.

Once, stopped at a red traffic light, Billy thought he heard something moving in the car trunk. A few hollow thumps. A brief but curious scraping. When he cocked his head and listened closer, however, he heard nothing more, and he decided that the noise had only been the pile of stolen purses shifting under their own weight.

* * *

Billy Neeks lived in a ramshackle four-room bungalow between a vacant lot and a transmission shop, two blocks from the river. The place had belonged to his mother, and it had been clean and in good repair when she had lived there. Two years ago, Billy had convinced her to transfer ownership to him "for tax reasons," then had shipped her off to a nursing home to be tended at the expense of the state. He supposed she was still there; he didn't know for sure because he never visited.

That evening in April, Billy arranged the eight purses side by side in two rows on the kitchen table and stared at them for a while in sweet anticipation of the treasure hunt to come. He popped the tab on a Budweiser. He tore open a bag of Doritos. He pulled up a chair, sat down, and sighed contentedly.

Finally, he opened the purse that he had taken off the woman outside Bartram's and began to calculate his "earnings." She had looked well-to-do, and the contents of her wallet did not disappoint Billy Neeks: four hundred and nine dollars in folding money, plus another three dollars and ten cents in change. She also carried a stack of credit cards, which Billy would be able to fence through Jake Barcelli, the pawnshop owner, who would also give him a few bucks for whatever other worthwhile loot he found in the purses. In the first bag, those miscellaneous fenceable items included a gold-plated Tiffany pen, a matching gold-plated Tiffany compact and lipstick tube, and a fine though not extraordinarily expensive opal ring.

The young mother's purse contained only eleven dollars and forty-two cents. Nothing else of value. Billy had expected as much, but this meager profit did not diminish the thrill he got from going through the contents of the bag. He regarded snatching as a business, yes, and thought of himself as a good businessman, but he also took considerable pleasure simply from examining and touching his victims' possessions. The violation of a woman's personal property was a violation of her too, and when his quick hands explored the young mother's purse, it was almost as if he were exploring her body. Sometimes, Billy took unfenceable items—cheap compacts, inexpensive tubes of lipstick, eyeglasses—and put them on the floor and stomped them, because crushing them beneath his heel was curiously almost like crushing the woman herself. Easy money made his work worthwhile, but he was equally motivated by the tremendous sense of power that he got from the job; it stimulated him, it really did, stimulated and satisfied.

By the time he'd gone slowly through seven of the eight purses, savoring their contents, it was seven-fifteen in the evening, and Billy was euphoric. He breathed fast and occasionally shuddered ecstatically. His oily hair looked oilier than usual, for it was damp with sweat and hung in clumps and tangles. Perspiration glimmered on his face. During his exploration of the purses, he knocked the open Doritos off the kitchen table but didn't notice. He opened a second beer, but he never took a taste of it; now it stood warm and forgotten. His world had shrunk to the dimensions of a woman's purse.

Billy had saved the crazy old woman's bag for last because he had a hunch that it was going to provide the greatest treasure of the day.

The hag's purse was big, almost a satchel, made of supple black leather, with long straps and with a single main compartment that was zippered shut. He pulled it in front of him and stared at it for a while, letting sweet anticipation build.

He remembered how the crone had resisted him, holding fast to the bag until he thought that he might have to flick open his switchblade and cut her. He had cut a few women before, not many but enough to know that he liked cutting them.

That was the problem. Billy was smart enough to realize that, liking knife play so much, he must deny himself the pure pleasure of cutting people, resorting to violence only when absolutely necessary. If he used the knife too often, he would be unable to stop using it, would be compelled to use it—and then he would be lost. Although the police expended no energy in the search for mere purse snatchers, they would be a lot more aggressive and relentless in the pursuit of a slasher.

Still, he had not cut anyone for several months, and by such admirable self-control, he should have earned the right to have some fun. He would have taken enormous pleasure in separating the old woman's withered meat from her bones. Now he wondered why he had not ripped her up the moment that she had given him trouble.

He had virtually forgotten how she'd briefly terrified him, how she'd looked less human than avian, how her bony hands had seemed to metamorphose into wicked talons, and how leer eyes had blazed. Deeply confirmed in his macho self-image, he had no capacity for any memory that had the potential for humiliation.