Life Expectancy Page 23


Alone and imperiled, Lorrie needed Davy Crockett. Instead, all she had was me-a hairy-chested Julia Child.


This I did not see but have been told: Locked alone in the Explorer, Lorrie turned in her seat as best she could to watch me set out into the forest. Considering the depth of the gloom, this took fifteen seconds, after which she was free to contemplate her mortality.


She opened the cell phone and keyed in 911 again. As before, she could not get service.


Her wristwatch had clocked off just half a minute, and she had already run out of options to pass time. These weren't circumstances conducive to singing "Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall."


Although I had saved her life (and she mine) on the night of the day we had met, she wasn't entirely confident in my ability to sneak up on the rifleman and overpower him barehanded.


She later told me, No offense, muffin man, but I figured you had gone off to be killed and I would wind up being the bride of Big Foot or worse.


Sharp anxiety at once scraped her nerves raw-not so much worry


for herself, she says, as for me, which I believe because that is quintessential Lorrie. She seldom puts herself first in anything.


Our unborn baby was equal to me in her thoughts. Her inability to protect her child in any meaningful way elicited alternate floods of anger and anxiety.


Awash in strong emotions, she felt that if she just sat there waiting, if she didn't take some positive action, frustration and fear would gnaw at the seams of her mind, loosening the stitches a little.


A plan occurred to her. If the ground under the Explorer allowed and if her distended belly didn't get in the way, perhaps she should slip out of the SUV, squirm beneath it, and wait there, out of sight.


If I returned triumphant, she could call to me from her hiding place. If instead the rifleman showed up, he might think she had fled either with me or, later, on her own.


She popped the locks and opened her door. She felt the cold air suck all the color from her face in an instant.


The winter night was a vampire, its wings the darkness and its fangs the cold.


Under the Explorer, she would be lying on frozen ground. There would be welcome heat from the cooling engine, but not much and not for long.


A sharp contraction made her gasp. She pulled the door shut and engaged the locks once more.


Never in her life had she felt so helpless. Helplessness fed her frustration, fear, and anger.


Eventually, she thought she heard shots being fired. She turned the ignition key, not far enough to start the engine, just to be able to power down her window a few inches.


Another volley confirmed that she had heard the bark of an automatic weapon. Her gut clenched, not with a contraction this time but with dread, for she thought she might be a widow.


Curiously, a third burst of gunfire reminded her that she was an indefatigable optimist. If our adversary had failed to kill me with the first two barrages, maybe he wasn't such a great shot or maybe I wasn't easy to kill.


When she had opened the door, she had let out a lot of heat. Now the cold night insinuated itself through the gap in the window, and she shivered.


After putting the window up, she switched off the ignition and searched for a weapon, first in the map pocket on her door. A little soft black vinyl trash container half full of used tissues. A plastic bottle of hand lotion.


She fared no better in the glove box. A pack of chewing gum, Life Savers. A tube of lip balm. A change purse full of quarters for parking meters and newspaper dispensers.


If you'll spare my life and my baby's, I'll give you two dollars and seventy-five cents.


The console storage compartment contained a box of Kleenex. Two foil packets of moist towelettes.


Although it wasn't easy in her condition, she managed to lean forward and feel under her seat, hoping to find something, anything, a screwdriver. If a screwdriver, why not a revolver? If a revolver, why not a magic wand with which to turn the rifleman into a toad?


She found no wand, no revolver, no screwdriver, no anything, no something. Zip, zero.


A man appeared out of the darkness in front of the Explorer, breath smoking from his open mouth. He carried an assault rifle, and he wasn't me.


Her heart swelled painfully, and hot tears rose in her eyes, for the arrival of this gunman seemed to suggest that I must be dead or at best badly wounded.


Superstition gripped her, and she thought that if she simply refused to


grieve, then I would not be dead, after all. Only when she accepted the loss of me would that loss become true and real. Call it the Tinkerbell-resurrection strategy.


She fought back the tears. Her vision cleared.


As he drew closer, Lorrie saw that he wore a pair of peculiar goggles. She guessed, correctly as it turned out, that these were night-vision goggles.


He stripped them off and stuffed them in a coat pocket as he approached the front passenger's door.


When he tried the door, he found it locked. He smiled at her through the window, gave her a little wave, and rapped his knuckles on the glass.


He had a broad, bold-featured face, like a clay model for a new Mup-pet. She didn't think she had ever seen him before, yet something about him was familiar.


Leaning close, voice muffled by the glass but easily understood, he said with a friendly lilt, "Hello there."


As a young girl searching for order in a world of snakes and tornadoes, Lorrie had read Emily Post's famous book on etiquette, but nothing in that thick volume had prepared her for this bizarre encounter.


He rapped on the glass again. "Missy?"


Intuition told her that she should not speak to him. He needed to be handled in the same way that children were taught to deal with strange men offering candy: Don't talk, turn away, run. She couldn't run, but she could refuse to be engaged in conversation.


"Please open the door, missy."


She faced front, looked away from him, remained silent.


"Little lady, I've traveled a long way to see you."


Her hands had fisted so tightly that her fingernails gouged her palms.


"Is the baby coming?" he asked.


At the mention of our baby, Lorrie's heart broke from a canter into a full gallop.


"I don't want to harm you," he assured her.


She searched the gloom in front of the Explorer, hoping that I would appear, but I did not.


"I don't want anything from you except the baby," he said. "I want the baby."


Trash container, hand lotion, chewing gum, Life Savers, lip balm, change purse, Kleenex, packets of moist towelettes ... Even seized by a passionate, urgent desire to become a killing machine, Lorrie could not see any previously overlooked deadly edge to any of the items through which she had earlier sorted. A simple length of rope could double as a garrote. A fork could serve either as an eating utensil or as a weapon. But she didn't have rope or a fork, and she couldn't lip-balm a man to death.


At the window, the rifleman's voice sounded neither accusing nor hateful, nor hostile in any way. He was twinkle-eyed and smiling, and he spoke in a teasing, you're-naughty-and-you-know-it tone: "You owe me one bouncy baby, one cute itsy little baby."


Although he was not a dwarf, he was deformed in mind and spirit, which caused Lorrie to think Rumpelstiltskin. He'd come to collect her end of some monstrous bargain.


When she didn't answer him, he started toward the front of the Explorer, and she knew he would go around to the driver's door.


This Rumpelstiltskin had never taught her how to spin flax into gold, so there was no way in hell the son of a bitch would get her firstborn.


Leaning across the console between the seats, she switched on the headlights.


Thus illuminated, the steeply ascending forest, stark black trunks and silhouetted foliage, seemed as unreal and as stylized as a stage setting.


Brightened by the beams, Rumpelstiltskin paused in front of the Explorer and peered at her through the windshield. He smiled. He waved.


Flurries of snow found their way through the thick canopy of interleaved branches. They swirled like celebratory confetti around the grinning, waving man.


Never had Death looked so festive.


Lorrie didn't know whether the headlights could be seen all the way up on Hawksbill Road. Probably not in the storm, perhaps not even on a clear night.


Still leaning toward the steering wheel, she blew the horn. One long blast. Then another.


Rumpelstiltskin shook his head sadly, as if he were disappointed in her. He sighed out a long plume of breath and continued around the Explorer to the driver's door.


Lorrie blew the horn again, again.


When she saw him draw back the assault rifle, she let up on the horn, turned away, and protected her face.


He smashed the driver's-door window with the butt of the weapon. Wads of gummy, prickly safety glass sprayed over Lorrie.


He popped the lock and settled in behind the wheel, leaving the door open.


"This sure hasn't gone anything like I planned," he said. "It's one of those cursed days makes a man believe in bad mojo and the evil eye."


He switched off the headlights.


When he put down the assault rifle, laving it across both the console and Lorrie's lap, she twitched with fear and tried to shrink from the weapon.


"Relax, little lady. Relax. Didn't I already say I wouldn't do you any harm?"


In spite of having spent time in the cleansing wind and the freshening cold, he reeked of unwholesome things: whiskey, cigarette smoke, gunpowder, and gum disease.


Switching on an interior light, he said, "For the first time in a long while, I've got hope in my heart. It feels good." Reluctantly, she looked at him.


He had a kindly and happy expression, but it was so utterly unrelated to the torment in his eyes that the smile might as well have been painted on his face. Anguish issued from his every pore, and chronic anxiety was the underlying smell of him. His eyes were those of a trapped animal, full of throttled fear and yearning that he strove to conceal.


Sensing that she saw the suffering at the heart of him, he let his expression falter, but then painted it on twice as thick. His wide smile grew impossibly wider.


She would have pitied him if he hadn't terrified her. "Just because it's on your lap," he said, "don't make a move for the gun. You don't know how to use it. You'd hurt yourself. Besides, I don't want to have to punch you in the face-you being the mother of my boy."


Lorrie's maternal alarm had gone off when this man had first spoken of the baby through the closed window. Now her mind filled with uncountable steeples full of bells ringing out a tocsin.


"What are you talking about?" she demanded, dismayed to hear a tremor in her voice.


When only her own life was at risk, she could maintain a pose of fearlessness. Now she carried in her womb a hostage to fortune, and she could not hide her fear for that innocent.


From a coat pocket, he extracted a small black leather case and worked the zipper around three sides of it.


"You took my son from me, my only child," he said, "and I'm certain that if you search your heart, you'll be the first to admit that now you owe me yours."


"Your son? I don't know your son."


In a voice of reason and sweet good will, he said, "You sent him to prison for life. And your husband, the ungrateful progeny of Rudy Tock, rendered him ... unable to procreate."


Stunned, Lorrie said, "You're ... Konrad Beezo?"


"The one and only, for many years on the run and often denied a spotlight to display my talents, but still a clown at heart and full of glory."


He opened the black case. It contained two hypodermic syringes and a vial of amber fluid.


Although he had seemed familiar to her, he didn't much resemble the photos in the newspapers that Rudy had kept from August 1974.


"You don't look like you," she said.


Smiling, nodding, his voice chirrupy with inexplicable bonhomie, he said, "Ah, well, twenty-four years takes a toll of any man. And as a fugitive of some notoriety, I spent a long holiday in South America with my little Punchinello, where I had just enough plastic surgery to restore anonymity."


He unwrapped one of the hypodermic syringes. The point of the needle gleamed with unnerving brightness in the dim light.


Although Lorrie knew that reasoning with this man would be no more fruitful than discussing the music of Mozart with a deaf horse, she said, "You can't blame us for what happened to Punchinello."


"Blame is such a harsh word," he said with great geniality. "We don't need to talk of guilt and blame. Life is too short for that. A thing was done, for whatever reason, and now in all fairness a price must be paid."


"For whatever reason?"


Smiling, nodding, insistently cordial, Beezo said, "Yes, yes, we all have our reasons, and surely you had yours. And who am I to say that you were wrong? There's no need for judgmental ism nothing to be


gained by ugly accusations. There's always two sides to every story, and sometimes ten. It's just that a thing was done, my son was taken from me and rendered incapable of giving me grandchildren, heirs to the Beezo talent, and therefore it's only fair that I be compensated."


"Your Punchinello killed a bunch of people and would have killed me and Jimmy, too," Lorrie declared, stressing every word, unable to match Beezo's unshakable cheerfulness.


"So the story goes," Beezo said, and winked. "But let me assure you, missy, nothing you read in a newspaper can be trusted. The truth never makes it into print."


"I didn't read about it, I lived it," she said.


Beezo smiled and nodded, winked, smiled and nodded, let out a little laugh, nodded, and returned his attention to the hypodermic.


Lorrie realized that his fragile self-control depended upon maintaining an air of cheerful amiability, regardless of the fact that it was patently insincere. If that facade slipped at all, it would collapse entirely; his repressed self-pity and rage would then explode. Unable to control himself, he would kill her and the baby that he so much wanted.


Under these smiles and chuckles was not a lovelorn Pagliacci but a homicidal bozo.


Eyeing the contents of the vial, she asked, "What is that?"


"Just a mild sedative, a little dream juice."


His hands were large, rough, but dexterous. With the practiced efficiency of a physician, he tapped the vial and filled the syringe.


"I can't take that," she protested. "I'm in labor."


"Oh, worry not, dear, it's very mild. It won't much delay the baby."


"No. No, no."


"Dear girl, you're only in first-stage labor and you will be for hours yet."


"How do you know that?"


With a mischievous chuckle and a wink and a twitch of his nose, he said, "Darling, I must confess to being just a little bit naughty. A week ago, I planted a listening device in your kitchen, another in your living room, and I've been monitoring them ever since from Nedra Lamm's house across the highway."

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