Life Expectancy Page 11


Trouble.


She was making herself look more seductive before announcing that she had a female emergency.


Being seductive with Crinkles made no more sense than trying to unwind a coiled rattlesnake by kissing it. He would see through her even quicker than had the nameless maniac, and he would be so pissed by her attempt to manipulate him that he'd put the nail file through her eye.


Apparently, my credentials as a reader and the analogies I had drawn between Crinkles and various monstrous fictional characters gave her reason to pause. She glanced at me, hesitated.


Before she could speak, Crinkles spat into his hand the object he had been rolling on his tongue. It was round, the size of a large gum ball gray and glistening with saliva.


The ominous glob might have been something other than a wad of the plastic explosive, but that's sure what it appeared to be.


Maybe he got a thrill from holding in his mouth a couple ounces of concentrated death so potent that if detonated it would turn his head into a spray of mush.


Or maybe this was a good-luck ritual, the equivalent of kissing the dice before throwing them across the craps table.


Or maybe he just liked the taste. After all, some people enjoy creamed Spam. He might really have a festival of flavor if he first rolled the round treat in crushed spiders.


Without a comment about it, he put the gray wad on the chair in which I had been sitting, and he said, "Let's get out of here. Move it."


On our way to the alcove that waited behind the secret door in the bookshelves, we walked by the table on which stood Lorrie's purse. She boldly picked it up as we passed. Behind us, Crinkles raised no objection.


bout eight feet in width, the limestone-clad tunnel . featured a low barrel-vaulted ceiling but straight walls. Underfoot, the rectangular paving stones had been laid in a herringbone pattern.


Cast off by fat yellow candles in bronze sconces, draft-stirred light shimmered lambently along the walls and, with shadows, wove an ever-changing tapestry across the curve of the ceiling.


This forbidding passageway appeared to be long, dwindling into a confusion of shadows and sinuous sylphs of light before an end could be glimpsed.


I would not have been surprised to encounter Edgar Allan Poe, but there was no sign of him, nor of Honker and the nameless maniac.


Although the cool-but not damp-air smelled surprisingly clean and free of moldy mal odors scented by nothing but raw limestone and hot candle wax, I expected bats, rats, roaches, scuttling mysteries, but at the moment we had only Crinkles.


We had proceeded hesitantly ten or fifteen feet when he said, "Stop there a minute."


While we waited, he closed the secret door in the bookshelves from this side and then shut the ironbound oak door to the alcove. Perhaps the intention was to minimize the effect of the blast on the tunnel if the library explosion occurred prematurely, before we had reached absolute safety.


While Crinkles closed things behind us, Lorrie zippered open her purse and rummaged through it. She found the steel nail file.


To her shock, with my free left hand, I snatched it from her.


She expected me to throw it away, and when I didn't, she said, "Gimme."


"I pulled this Excalibur from the stone, and only I have the power to use it," I whispered, going totally literary on her with the hope that this would charm her into acceptance.


She looked like she wanted to take a swing at me. I suspected her punch would pack one hell of a wallop.


Rejoining us, moving past us, so arrogant and so sure of our timidity that he actually turned his back on us, Crinkles led the way. "Come on, come on, and don't think I haven't got eyes in the back of my head."


He probably did. Everyone had back-of-the-head eyes on his native planet.


"Where are we?" I asked as we followed him.


The core of him was such a tightly wound ball of psychopathic fury that he could make a direct and simple answer sound fraught with anger: "Going under Center Square Park about now."


"I mean the tunnel. What is it?"


"What the hell do you mean what is it? It's a tunnel, you shit-for-brains moron."


Taking no offense, I asked, "When was it built, by who?"


"Back in the 1800s, before anything else. Cornelius Snow had it constructed-the greedy, grasping bastard."


"Why?"


"So he'd be able to get around town secretly."


"What was he, a Victorian Batman or something?"


"The tunnels connect four of his major holdings around the square- the belly-crawling capitalist pig."


Throughout this conversation, Lorrie cast meaningful looks my way, wanting me at once to attack Crinkles with Excalibur.


As enchanted swords go, the nail file left a lot to be desired. Mostly hidden in my hand, the flat length of steel felt stiff but not as thick as a knife. The point wasn't sharp enough to prick my thumb.


If Lorrie had been wearing spike-heeled shoes instead of white tennies, I'd have preferred to go at Crinkles with one of those.


I responded to her increasingly exasperated looks with the broad expressions of a bad mime, telling her not to be impatient, not to be rash, just to give me time to find the right opportunity for nail-file mayhem.


"So ... what four major holdings do the tunnels connect?" I asked Crinkles as we moved forward through wafting candlelight and clinging shadows.


He listed them with increasing venom: "His mansion, that pile of gaudy excess. His library, which is nothing but a temple to decadent Western so-called literature. His courthouse, that nest of poisonous judges who oppressed the masses for him. And the bank, where he stole from the poor and foreclosed on widows."


"He owned his own bank?" I asked. "How cool."


Crinkles said, "He owned most of some things and some of just about everything-the blood-sucking, black-hearted, running dog. If a hundred men had divided his possessions, every one of them would have been too rich to be allowed to live. Wish I'd been alive back then. I'd have cut the imperialist swine's head off and played kick ball with it."


Even in the inconstant candlelight, I could see that Lorrie's face was red and taut with barely contained-one might almost say hysterical-frustration. I didn't need a facial-language specialist to interpret her expression


for me: Go, Jimmy, go, Jimmy, go, go, go! Stab the bastard, stab the bastard! Siss-boom-bah!


I chose instead to bide my time.


She was probably wishing she had worn those spike-heeled shoes so she could take them off and tattoo my head.


A moment later we came to an intersection with another tunnel. A still gentle but stronger draft moved here. To the left and right, more sconces with additional fat yellow candles threw rippling curtains of light into a crawling darkness.


I should have realized that a cross of passageways must underlie the town square, because each of the four holdings that Crinkles had bitterly enumerated was in a different block from the others: north, south, east, and west of the park.


Nevertheless, I could not help but be impressed by the abruptly revealed complication of this subterranean structure. Looking left, right, back, forward, I thought of the stone corridors and torchlit chambers in old movies about a mummy's tomb, and in spite of our perilous circumstances, a thrill of adventure shivered through me.


Crinkles said, "This way," and turned left.


Before we followed him, Lorrie put her purse on the floor. She tucked it in shadows close to the wall, in the length of corridor along which we had walked from the library.


If the nameless grinning feeb saw her with the handbag, the jig would be up-if you're willing to allow that our pathetic nail-file scheme qualified as anything so grand as a jig.


She seemed reluctant to leave the purse. No doubt she considered it an arsenal of makeshift weapons. We might be able to suffocate Crinkles with a powder puff. If she had a hairbrush, we could spank him severely.


As we trailed after our guide once more, I said, "Why all the candles?"


Crinkles grew less patient with me by the minute. "So we can see in the dark, you freaking idiot."


"But it's not very efficient."


"This is all they had back in the 1870s, candles and oil lamps, you drooling imbecile."


Once more Lorrie began signaling me, by fantastical contortions of her face and a mad-horse rolling of the eyes, that the time had come to stab him.


Crinkles had declined so drastically in my affections that, against my better judgment, I was almost ready to carve him like scrimshaw.


I said, "Yes, but we aren't in the 1870s. You could use flashlights, battery-powered lanterns, those spark less chemical-tube flares."


"Don't you think we know that, you brain-dead jackass? But then the ambience wouldn't be authentic."


We proceeded several steps in silence before I could no longer resist asking: "Why does the ambience need to be authentic?"


"The boss wants it that way."


I assumed the boss must be the nameless maniac, unless there was a Mr. Big whom we had not yet encountered.


At some date long after the initial construction, the last ten feet of this corridor had been walled off. They had used a double width of concrete blocks with embedded steel re bar


Recently half the blocks had been broken out. The re bar had been cut with an acetylene torch. To one side of the corridor lay a pile of rubble.


We followed Crinkles through the gap in this partition, into the last portion of the corridor. Another ironbound oak door stood open at the end of the passageway.


Beyond, electric light from more ceiling fixtures, added decades after the original construction, revealed a large stone-walled room with massive columns and herringbone floor. Two stone staircases with stately ornamental iron railings climbed opposite walls to doors of brushed stainless steel. But for the stainless steel, there was a feeling of an occult temple about the place.


Half the space stood empty. The other half contained rows of green filing cabinets with aisles between.


Honker and the killer of librarians stood beside the handcart with its depleted load of explosives, in murmured conversation.


Concerned that the brighter light would reveal too much, I surreptitiously slipped the nail file into my pants pocket.


Beaming at the sight of Lorrie and me, as if we were old friends arriving at a cocktail party, our smiley host came to us, indicating the encompassing architecture with a sweep of one arm. "Some place, huh? The institution's historical records are stored on this level."


"What institution?" I asked.


"We're under the bank."


Lorrie said, "I'll be damned. You're going to rob it, aren't you?"


He shrugged. "Isn't that what banks are for?"


The Beagle Boys were already planting explosive charges at two of the columns.


Pleased with himself, the maniac pointed to a hulking piece of equipment in a corner of the room. "Do you know what that is?"


Lorrie guessed, "A time machine?"


Having come from a family in which non sequiturs were as common in conversation as adverbs, I had adapted to the young Ms. Hicks's style in short order.


Although the maniac was intrigued by her, he wasn't always able to dance with her as I could, metaphorically speaking. His green eyes glazed, and his smile slightly rounded into puzzlement.


"How could it be a time machine?" he asked.


"At the fantastic pace science is progressing," she said, "space shuttles and CAT scans, heart transplants and computerized toaster ovens, now cell phones you can carry anywhere and lipstick that won't smear ... Well, I mean, at this rate, sooner than later there's going to be a time machine, so if there has to be one, why not here and now?"


He stared at Lorrie for a moment, then looked at the equipment in the corner as though wondering whether he had misidentified it and whether it might in fact be a time machine.


Had I made that same speech, he would have decided that I was either a head case or a mocking smart-ass. Annoyed or offended, he would have shot me.


A beautiful woman, on the other hand, can say just about any damn thing, and men will seriously consider it.


Her guileless face, pellucid eyes, and sincere smile prevented me from determining whether the time-machine comment-or any other off-the-wall business that came out of her-was offered with total sincerity or in a spirit of fun.


Most people don't have fun while being held hostage and being threatened with death by the likes of Crinkles. I suspected, however, that Lorrie Lynn Hicks might be capable of it.


I couldn't wait for her to meet my family.


A lot of people don't actually have fun even when they're at a party having fun. That's because they don't have a sense of humor. Everyone claims to have a sense of humor, but some of them are lying and a significant number are fooling themselves.


This explains the success of most TV sitcoms and movie comedies. These shows can be entirely humorless, but scads of people will laugh uproariously at them because they come with a label that says funny. The congenitally humor-challenged audience knows it's safe to laugh, that it's even expected.


This part of the entertainment business serves the community of the humorless in much the way that a manufacturer of prosthetic limbs serves those unfortunates who have lost arms or legs. Their work maybe more important than feeding the poor.


My family has always insisted on fun not only during the sunny times of life but also during times of adversity, even in the face of loss and tragedy (though right now they must be sick with worry regarding my whereabouts). Maybe we inherited an acutely sensitive funny-recognition gene. Or maybe we're just on a permanent sugar high from all the baked goods we eat.


"No," said the nameless maniac, "it's not a time machine. It's the bank's emergency generator."


"Too bad," Lorrie lamented. "I'd rather it had been a time machine."


Gazing wistfully at the generator, the maniac sighed. "Yeah. I know what you mean."


"So you've disabled the bank's emergency generator," I said.


My statement harried him out of his time-travel fantasy. "How did you know?"


I pointed. "The parts scattered there on the floor were a clue."


"You're quick," he said with admiration.


"In my line of work, we have to be."


He didn't ask what job I held. As I've learned over the past ten years, psychopaths are routinely self-absorbed.


"The bank closed an hour ago," he said, clearly proud of his elaborate plan and gratified to have an opportunity to share it. "The tellers' drawers have been reconciled, and they've gone home. The vault will have been closed ten minutes ago. By routine, the manager and the two security guards were the last to leave."

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