Life Expectancy Page 12


"Somewhere," Lorrie guessed, "you've rigged a power-company transformer to blow, cutting electrical service to the town square."


"When the power goes," I said, "the generator won't cut in, and the vault will be vulnerable."


"You're both very quick," he said approvingly. "What's the story with you two? Have you planned a heist before?"


"Not in this reincarnation," Lorrie replied. "But that's another story."


He indicated the farther staircase. "That leads to the half of the bank's upper basement where they fill coin rolls, bundle cash, verify incoming money shipments, and prepare outgoing transfers. The front door to the vault is also in that area."


"The vault has a back door?" I asked with a note of disbelief that amused him.


He grinned, nodded, and pointed to the nearer staircase. "The door at the top goes directly into the vault."


This detail seemed to belong entirely in the maniac's distorted view of reality and not at all in the real world that I inhabited.


Pleased by my amazement, he said, "Cornelius Snow was the sole stockholder in the bank when he built it. He arranged things for his convenience."


"Are we talking skullduggery here?" Lorrie wondered, and seemed to be delighted that there might be some.


"Not at all," he assured her. "From every indication, Cornelius Snow was an honest, civic-minded man."


"He was an insatiable greedy drooling pig," Crinkles angrily disagreed as he worked on another explosive charge.


"He didn't need to misappropriate any depositor's funds because eighty percent of the deposits were his to begin with."


Crinkles had no interest in these facts of accounting, only in emotion: "I would have roasted him on a spit and fed him to dogs."


"In the 1870s," the maniac said, "there wasn't anything remotely like the complex web of regulation and oversight by which banks operate these days."


"Except dogs would have the good sense not to eat the venomous bastard," Crinkles added in a voice bitter enough to curdle milk.


"Shortly past the turn of the century, that simpler world began to fade away,"


"Even inbred, starving sewer rats wouldn't have eaten the avaricious creep if you'd basted him in bacon grease," Crinkles elaborated.


"After Cornelius died, when the bulk of his estate was left to a charitable trust, the section of tunnel leading to the bank's subterranean entrance was walled shut."


I recalled the breach in the wall that we had passed through en route. The Beagle Boys had been busy.


"The steel door at the head of those stairs to the vault isn't actually operable," the nameless maniac continued. "The old oak door was replaced with steel in the 1930s, then welded shut. And on the other side is a reinforced concrete-block wall. But we can get through all of that in maybe two hours, once we've dealt with the alarm."


"I'm surprised this room right here isn't alarmed," Lorrie said. "Though I suppose if that was really a time machine, it would be."


"Nobody saw the need. To all appearances, it's not a major bank, not worth knocking over. Besides, after 1902, when they sealed off the underground approach, there wasn't a back entrance anymore. And in respect of the bank's security, the charitable trust that owns the Snow Mansion agreed not to disclose Cornelius's tunnels. A few people in the historical society have seen them, but only after signing a nondisclosure agreement with teeth."


Earlier he had mentioned torturing a member of the historical society, who was no doubt now as dead as the librarian. No matter how tightly a lawyer constructs a nondisclosure clause, there are ways around it.


I won't say that I was thunderstruck by these revelations, but I was certainly flabbergasted, however fine a point that might be. Although born and raised in Snow Village, and although I loved my picturesque hometown and was steeped in its history, I'd never heard so much as a rumor about secret passageways under the town square.


When I expressed my amazement to the maniac, the warm twinkle in his eyes crystalized into a colder glitter that I recognized from the eyes of Killer the Gila monster and Earl the milk snake.


"You can't deeply, fully know a town," he said, "if you love it. Loving it, you're charmed by surfaces. To deeply, fully know a town, you've got to hate it, loathe it, loathe it with an unquenchable fiery passion. You've got to be consumed by a need to learn all its rotten shameful secrets


and use them against it, find its hidden cancers and feed them until they metastasize into apocalyptic tumors. You've got to live for the day when its every stone and stick will be wiped forever from the face of the earth."


I assumed that once upon a time something bad had happened to him in our little tourist mecca. Something more traumatic than being given a lesser hotel room when he had reserved a suite or being unable to buy a ski-lift pass on a busy winter weekend.


"But when you come right down to it," Lorrie said (somewhat riskily, it seemed to me), "this whole escapade isn't about hate or about justice, like you said earlier. It's about bank robbery. It's just about money."


The maniac's face turned so livid that from hairline to chin and from ear to ear it looked like one big bruise. His smile went flatline.


"I don't care about money," he said so tightly that the words seemed to escape him without parting his fiercely compressed lips.


"You're not breaking into a produce market to steal a lot of carrots and snow peas," Lorrie said. "You're robbing a bank." "I'm destroying the bank to break the town." "Money, money, money," she persisted.


"This is about vengeance. Well-deserved, long-overdue vengeance. And that's close enough to justice for me."


"Not for me, it isn't," Crinkles interjected, leaving his work with the explosives to contribute to the conversation more directly. "This is about money because wealth isn't just wealth but also the root and stalk and flower of power, and power liberates the powerful while it oppresses the powerless, so to crush what crushes, those who are oppressed must oppress the oppressors."


I made no attempt to rerun that sentence through my memory banks. I was afraid that by trying to untangle it, my brain would crash. This was Karl Marx filtered through the lens of Abbott and Costello.


Aware from our expressions that his point had been too blunt to penetrate Crinkles stated his philosophy more succinctly: "Some of that filthy stinking pig's money belongs to me and to lots of other people he exploited to get it."


"Gee whiz, take a rest from stupid for a moment," Lorrie told Crinkles. "Cornelius Snow never exploited you. He died long before you were born."


She was on a roll now, insulting everyone who had the power and the motivation to kill us.


I shook my cuffed hand, thereby shaking hers, to remind her that any spray of bullets she invited was likely to leave me dead, as well.


Crinkles's mass of wiry hair seemed to stiffen until he less resembled Art Garfunkel than he did the bride of Frankenstein.


"What we're doing here is making a political statement," he insisted.


Thus far phlegmatic compared to his companions, Honker joined them, so exacerbated by all this talk of vengeance and politics that his caterpillar eyebrows twitched as if jolts of an electric current enlivened them.


"Cash," he said. "That's all it's about for me. Cold cash. I'm here to take the money and run. If there wasn't a bank, I wouldn't have signed up for this, the rest of it doesn't matter to me, and if you guys don't shut up and get the job done-then I'm out of here, and you're on your own."


Honker must have had skills essential to the heist, because his threat quieted his partners.


Their fury, however, did not abate. They looked like thwarted attack dogs, held back on choke chains, faces dark with unspent rage, eyes hot with violent passion that would not cool until they had been allowed to bite.


I wished that I had some cookies to give them, maybe German lebkuchen or nice crisp Scotch shortbread. Or chocolate pecan tarts. The poet William Congreve wrote, "Music has charms to soothe the savage breast," but I suspect good muffins are more effective.


As if aware that his associates' submission to a threat did not constitute teamwork, Honker threw a bone to each man's mania, beginning with Crinkles: "There's a clock running and we've got a lot to do. That's all I'm saying. And if we just do the job, your political statement will be made, loud and clear."


Crinkles bit his lower lip in a manner reminiscent of our young president. Reluctantly he nodded agreement.


To the green-eyed maniac, Honker said, "You planned this caper 'cause you want justice for your mother's death. So let's do the job and get that justice."


The librarian-killer's eyes grew misty, as they had done when his heartstrings had been strummed by my revelation that my mother used to iron my socks.


"I found the issues of the newspaper that carried the story," he told Honker.


"They must have been hard to read," Honker sympathized.


"I felt like my heart was being ripped out. I could hardly... force myself through them." His voice thickened with emotion. "But then I got so angry."


"Understandable," Honker commiserated. "Each of us only gets one mother."


"It wasn't just her being murdered. It was the lies, Honker. Almost everything in the newspaper was a lie."


Glancing at his wristwatch, Honker shrugged and said, "Well, what do you expect from newspapers?"


"Capitalist lapdogs is all they are," Crinkles observed.


"They said my mother died in childbirth and Dad shot the doctor in a mad rage, as if that makes any sense."


The nameless maniac could have been my age. To the day? To the hour? Almost to the minute? If he'd gotten his good looks and green eyes from his mother ... Astonished, without thinking, I said, "Punchinello?"


When Honker furrowed his forehead, his push-broom eyebrows swept shadows of suspicion over his eyes.


Crinkles slipped his right hand inside his windbreaker, touching the butt of his holstered pistol.


The shooter of newspapers took a step back, startled that I knew his name.


I said, "Punchinello Beezo?"


The three clowns placed the last of the explosives and inserted synchronized detonators.


Clowns they were, though not in costume. Honker, Crinkles: stage names that would seem entirely appropriate when they were cavorting in size 58 shoes, baggy polka-dot pants, and bright orange wigs. Maybe Punchinello used his real name as his stage name, or perhaps under the big top he was known as Squiggles or Slappy.


Either in the center ring or out here in the world of rubes, the name Nutsy also would have suited him.


Lorrie and I sat on the stone floor, our backs against a row of green filing cabinets filled with the historical records of the bank's first hundred years. Judging by the preparations being made around us, the building would implode seventy-eight years short of its second century.


I was in a mood.


Although I wasn't yet gripped by terror, which overwhelms the will and paralyzes, my condition was well north of mere misgiving.


Combined with my anxiety was a sense that fate had not dealt with me fairly. No family of good, kind-hearted bakers should have to be afflicted with two generations of Beezos. It would be like after Churchill wins World War II, a week later a woman moves in next door with twenty-six cats, and it's Hitler's batty sister.


All right, that's not a brilliant analogy or maybe not even one that makes any sense, but it expresses how I felt. Put-upon. Cruelly victimized. The innocent whipping boy for a universe gone mad.


In addition to anxiety and a keen sense of injustice, I was tormented by a formless determination. Formless because determination requires the setting of limits within which one must act, but I did not know what those limits should be, didn't know what to do, when to do it, or how.


I felt like throwing my head back and screaming in frustration. The only thing preventing me from doing so was the unnerving concern that when I screamed, Honker and Crinkles and Punchinello would scream wildly with me, honk horns, blow whistles, and squeeze rubber bladders that made a farting sound.


Until that moment, I had never suffered from harlequinaphobia, which is a fear of clowns. Too often to count, I had heard the story of the night I was born, the tale of the murderous chain-smoking fugitive from a circus, but never had Konrad Beezo's homicidal acts instilled in me an uneasiness about all clowns.


In less than two hours, the lunatic son had achieved what the father could not. I watched him and his two subordinate merry-andrews at work with the explosives, and they seemed to me to be alien in the most troubling sense-like the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers-passing for human beings but with an ultimate agenda so dark and so strange that it lay beyond human comprehension.


Like I said, I was in a mood.


The Tock family's exquisitely sensitive funny-recognition gene was still functioning. I remained aware of the screwball nature of the situation, but I did not feel in the least amused.


Insanity is not evil, but all evil is insane. Evil itself is never funny, but insanity sometimes can be. We need to laugh at the irrationality of evil, for in doing so we deny evil's power over us, diminish its influence in the world, and tarnish the allure it has for some people.


There in the subcellar of the bank, I failed in my duty to deny, diminish, and tarnish. I was offended by fate, anxious, angry, and even Lorrie Lynn Hicks in all her glory could not lift my spirits.


She had a lot of questions, as you might imagine. Usually I enjoyed recounting the story of the night of my birth, but not this time. Nevertheless, she got out of me the stuff about Konrad Beezo. She is indefatigable.


I didn't mention my grandfather's predictions. If I brought up that subject, I'd almost inevitably also tell her that back in the newspaper morgue at the library, I'd experienced a semi-precognitive moment of my own, a premonition-sharper than a hunch but fuzzy on the details-that she would be shot.


I didn't see anything to be gained by alarming her, especially since my sudden sixth sense might be nothing but hooey, just a flare from an overheated imagination.


Finished preparing explosives, the out-of-uniform motley fools lit and placed a series of Coleman lanterns to illuminate the chamber when the power failed. They didn't have enough of them to brighten the entire big room, just the end in which they would be working on the vault.


Lorrie and I were left sitting at a distance. When the electric lights went off, we would be in shadows.

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