Life Expectancy Page 26


"I wouldn't take that side of the argument," I said.


Huey sighed. "I'm half of the same conclusion," he admitted. "I just called up four off-duty men. They'll be coming around to the hospital just in case."


"How long till they get here?"


"Ten minutes. Maybe fifteen. Meanwhile, you better watch out for Lorrie. I don't think it'll come to that, but it might. She have the baby yet?"


"It's on the way right now. Huey, listen, he camped out in Nedra Lamm's house to keep a watch on us."


"Nedra's a pill, but she wouldn't allow that."


"I don't think she had a choice. It's maybe not too far for him to get back to her place. If he thinks the Hummer's now too hot to drive, she has a car he might want."


"That hideous old Plymouth Valiant."


"It's in showroom shape, and she keeps snow chains on it."


"We'll check it out," Huey promised. "Now you better get back to that special girl of yours and don't let anything happen to her till my men arrive."


I hung up. My palms were slick with sweat. I blotted them on my hospital greens.


Beezo was coming. I knew it in my bones. More than twenty-four years after his first visit, he was returning to the Snow County Hospital maternity ward. This time, the baby he wanted was ours.


I didn't want Lorrie to learn about the situation. As it was, she had her hands full. Well, not her hands, but she was otherwise fully occupied, and it couldn't be good for her to know that Beezo was loose.


If I returned to the delivery room, no matter how distracted Lorrie was, she would at first glance read the fear in me. I would not be able to lie to her even for her own good. I would be butter to her hot knife, and she would spread me on toast in six seconds flat.


Besides, Dr. Mello Melodeon would have more questions about my chocolate apple lattice tart, and I didn't have time for that.


I hurried to the expectant-fathers' lounge where, in different decor, Dr. Ferris MacDonald had been shot to death. From this room, Beezo had burst into the maternity ward, shooting Nurse Hanson.


If criminals really did like to return to the scenes of their crimes, he might come after our baby by this route.


Might.


I wasn't willing to hang the fate of my wife and baby on a might or a maybe.


Blotting my hands on my greens again, I stepped into the main corridor that served the second floor.


The place was unnaturally quiet, hushed, even for a hospital, as though the heavy snowfall exerted a muffling influence through the walls.


Farther to my right, on this side of the hall, were four doors that evidently led into various departments of the maternity ward. Beyond the doors lay the long window that provided a view into the neonatal care unit where newborns were cradled in bassinets.


At the end of the hall, a lighted red EXIT sign marked the door to the emergency stairs.


Beezo could come up the stairs and choose any entrance to the ward. I wouldn't see him from the expectant-fathers' lounge, so I'd have to stand guard here in the corridor.


Ding! Soft but instantly identifiable, the chime issued from the elevator alcove that branched off the midpoint of this m'ain corridor. Someone had arrived on the second floor.


Lately I'd gotten so much practice holding my breath that I would soon be ready for a career in pearl diving.


A doctor in a white lab coat came out of the alcove, carrying a clipboard, chatting with a nurse who was too small and too female to be Konrad Beezo. They headed toward the farther end of the hall.


I thought I should go to the emergency stairwell and listen for ascending footsteps, but I didn't want to turn my back on the hallway.


Where were Huey Foster's men? Surely they should have arrived by now.


Consulting my watch, I discovered that only two minutes had passed since I'd hung up the phone. Huey's men were still putting on their shoes.


Time doesn't pass a fraction as fast when you're waiting for a killer as it does when you're having fun in the kitchen.


The hospital had a single security guard stationed in the lobby on


the ground floor. I considered calling him up here to help cover the territory.


His name was Vernon Tibbit. Sixty-eight years old, pot-bellied, nearsighted, Vernon didn't have a gun. Basically his job entailed giving directions to visitors, assisting patients in wheelchairs, getting coffee for the lady at the information desk, and polishing his badge.


I didn't want to get Vernon killed and leave the info lady with no one to fetch her Java.


If Konrad Beezo didn't actually drive a tank through the walls of the hospital, he would at least arrive with a formidable weapon. I had the distinct impression that he didn't go anywhere without heat.


I didn't have a gun. I didn't have a knife. I didn't have a club. I didn't have a spitball.


When I remembered the assault rifle that I had taken from Beezo and that now lay in the back of the Explorer, a thrill coursed up my spine. He had changed the magazine in the woods, and surely he hadn't emptied the second one. I succumbed to a spasm of macho stupidity, envisioning myself as Rambo, except markedly more buff than Sylvester Stallone.


Then I realized I couldn't charge through a hospital, blithely firing an assault rifle. I wasn't a staff member, and visiting hours were over.


In fear of being shot, worried about Lorrie in labor, worried about my unborn child, worried that my aching left leg-having taken so much punishment-would fail me at a crucial moment, I was further distracted by the hospital greens. I wasn't comfortable in them.


After taking off the elasticized cloth booties that covered my shoes, I didn't feel much better. I felt as though I were decked out for a masquerade party.


Halloween had arrived nine months early this year. At any moment, a maniac clown would come trick-or-treating, out of costume but scary as hell nonetheless.


Ding!


I swallowed my Adam's apple, which bounced around inside my stomach.


Following the chime, the second floor seemed more hushed than ever. This was the high-noon stillness of a dusty street in a small Western town, with every citizen gone to ground and the gunfighters about to appear.


Instead of a gunfighter, out of the elevator alcove came Dad, Mom, and Grandma Rowena.


I was stunned that they had gotten here so soon, half an hour before I expected them. Their presence lifted my heart and renewed my courage.


As they started toward me, waving, I moved to meet them, eager to have a hug fest.


Then I realized that everyone I most loved-Mom, Dad, Grandma, Lorrie, and my baby-were gathered in the same place. Beezo could kill all of them in one bloody spree.


Outdoors in winter, Grandma only wore full-body | snowsuits, which she sewed from quilted fabrics.


Having no tolerance for cold weather, she believed that she had been Hawaiian in a previous life. Occasionally she enjoyed dreams in which she wore puka-shell necklaces and a grass skirt, and danced at the foot of | a volcano.


She and everyone in her village had been killed in a volcanic eruption. I You might think this would lead to a fear of fire. But she suspected that in yet another and more recent previous life, she had been an Eskimo who died with her dogsled team in a furious blizzard through which they were unable to find their way back to the igloo.


In a puffy white snowsuit with a closely fitted hood zippered snugly under her chin, leaving only her face revealed, Weena toddled toward me, arms wide in anticipation of an embrace. I couldn't decide whether she looked more like a three-year-old togged out for play in the snow or| like the Michelin Tire Man.


Neither Mom nor Dad had a taste for flamboyant couture-or if they did, they never indulged it, because they knew there were times when Grandma was determined to be the center of attention.


They were full of questions. With all the hugging and the excitement about the baby, I needed a minute to get their attention and make them understand that Beezo was back. Then they formed up around me with the steely determination of the Praetorian Guard, as though they had plenty of practice taking down would-be assassins.


This scared me more than if they had quaked with fear. I was greatly relieved when a few minutes later the first of Huey Foster's officers arrived, uniformed and armed.


Soon a deputy had stationed himself in the stairwell. Two others covered the corridor that provided all access to the maternity ward, and the fourth took up a post in the elevator alcove.


The last of these men brought word that Nedra Lamm had been murdered in her home. Preliminary examination of the body indicated that she had been strangled.


By the time I settled my folks in the expectant-fathers' lounge, a nurse brought me word that Lorrie was still in labor and that Huey Foster was on the phone for me.


Leaving Mom, Dad, and Grandma in the care of the deputies, I took the call at the nurses' station, as before.


Huey was by nature an ebullient guy. Even a small-town cop sees more grisly sights than the average citizen; the consequences of catastrophic car crashes alone ensure that he will be familiar with bloody deaths. But Huey Foster had never allowed his work to twist him through an emotional wringer.


Until now. He sounded grim, angry, and sickened, all at once. Several times he had to stop and collect himself before he could continue.


Nedra Lamm had been strangled, as Officer Paolini reported, but no one could yet determine at what point in her ordeal she had been murdered.


As proudly self-sufficient as she was cranky, Nedra had been a deer hunter with an enormous freezer full of venison. Konrad Beezo piled the packaged deer meat on the back porch and stored Nedra in the


Amana.


Before he consigned her to the big chill, he had stripped her naked. Then he painted her entire body-front and back, neck to toes-in the brightly striped and polka-dotted patterns of a traditional clown costume. She might have been alive for this.


With what appeared to be stage makeup, he had grease painted her face to resemble that of a clown. He blackened three of her teeth and colored her tongue green.


In a kitchen drawer, he had found a turkey-basting syringe. He removed from it the rubber squeeze bulb, which he painted red and glued over Nedra's nose.


The makeup had not been applied in a slapdash manner. Judging by appearances, Beezo spent hours at the task, paying meticulous attention to detail.


Whether she had been alive for all of that, she had certainly been dead by the time he used a needle and thread to sew shut her eyelids. Then he painted stars over them.


Finally, he selected a set of deer antlers from the collection in Nedra's garage, and he tied them to her head. To get her into the freezer with the antlers, in a position that assured her face would be turned up to greet whoever found her, he had to break her legs in several places, a task he accomplished with a sledgehammer.


Huey Foster said, "Jimmy, I swear, he did this 'cause he thought it was funny. He thought someone would open that freezer and laugh, that we'd all be snickering about Nedra in her clown getup for years to come, talking about what a joker that Beezo was."


Standing there at the nurses' station, I was colder than I had been in the woods, in the blizzard.


"Well, the crazy sick son of a bitch didn't get any laughs from us,"


Huey said. "Not one smile. This young state trooper, he bolted from the house and threw up in the backyard."


"Where is Beezo, Huey?"


"Freezing to death in the woods, I hope."


"He didn't go back there for Nedra's Plymouth?"


"It's still in the garage."


"He's not in the woods, Huey."


"Maybe not," he admitted.


"If he made it back up to Hawksbill Road and someone came along, he could have hitched a ride."


"Who would be dumb enough to pick him up?"


"What ordinary decent person wouldn't pick him up on a night like this? You see a guy not dressed for the weather, maybe standing by the Hummer, you think he broke down. If you don't pick him up, he's likely to freeze. You don't say to yourself, Better not pick him up, he looks like a murderous clown."


"If he got a ride, he probably took the car."


"And the guy who gave him the ride is dead in the trunk."


"Hasn't been a murder in this town in thirty years that this creep and his son didn't commit."


"What now?"


"State police are thinking roadblocks. There's only five routes out of the county, and the snow already helps us."


"He won't leave tonight," I predicted. "He has unfinished business."


"I sure hope you're wrong about that."


"I have a built-in oven timer," I told him.


"You what?"


"When I've got something in the oven, I always check it five seconds before the timer goes off. Always. I instinctively know when something's finished baking-and when it's not. Beezo isn't done."


"You get that from your dad. He could have been a cop as easy as a baker. You too, maybe. Me, I had no choice."


"I'm scared, Huey."


"Yeah. Me too."


As I hung up the phone, a nurse arrived to inform me that Lorrie had given birth. "No complications," she said.


Boy, could I have given her an earful.


In the delivery room, the red-haired nurse was at a basin in the corner, cleaning off our little miracle.


Mello Melodeon was waiting for Lorrie to expel the afterbirth, gently massaging her abdomen to control the flow of blood.


Whether or not I could have been a cop as easily as a baker, I could never have been a doctor. I'm not even a good patient.


The only thing preventing me from passing out and breaking my nose against the floor was the certainty that Grandma Rowena would toddle in here and take a picture of me. She would have a disposable camera tucked in a pocket of that snowsuit.


Using the photo as a pattern, she would needlepoint the scene of my humiliation on a pillow and give it a place of honor on the living-room sofa.


The head of the birthing bed had been elevated, so Lorrie was half sitting. She looked sweaty, sore, exhausted-and radiant.


"Well, there you are," she said. "I thought maybe you went off to have dinner."


Licking my lips, patting my belly, I said, "New York steak, baked potato, creamed corn, pepper slaw, and a slab of chocolate fudge gateau."


"When you make chocolate fudge gateau," Mello Melodeon asked, "do you always have to use ground almonds, or can you substitute hazelnuts?"


Lorrie said, "Good Lord, what does a girl have to do around here to be a star?"


Just then she expelled the afterbirth. There's some spectacle involved in this final bit of business, but it's not the stuff of stardom.

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