Previously too weak to lift a spoon, Agnes now had the strength of Hercules and could have held back two teams of horses pulling in opposite directions, let alone support one small baby.
“His eyes are so beautiful,” said the nurse who passed him into his mother's arms.
The boy was beautiful in every regard, his face smoother than that of most newborns, as if he had come into the world with a sense of peace about the life ahead of him in this turbulent place; and perhaps he had arrived with unusual wisdom, too, because his features were better defined than those of other babies, as though already shaped by knowledge and experience. He had a full head of hair as thick and sable-brown as Joey's.
His eyes, as Maria told Agnes in the middle of the night and as the nurse just confirmed, were exceptionally beautiful. Unlike most human eyes, which are of a single color with striations in a darker shade, each of Bartholomew's contained two distinct colors-green like his mother's, blue like his father's-and the pattern of striations was formed by the alternation of these two dazzling pigments within each orb.
Jewels, they were, magnificent and clear and radiant.
Bartholomew's gaze was mesmerizing, and as Agnes met his warm and constant stare, she was filled with wonder. And with a sense of mystery.
“My little Barty,” she said softly, the affectionate form of his name springing to her lips without contemplation. “You're going to have an exceptional life, I think. Yes, you will, smarty Barty. Mothers can tell. So many things happened to stop you from getting here, but you made it anyway. You are here for some fine purpose."
The rain that contributed to the death of the boy's father had stopped falling during the night. The morning sky remained iron-dark, plated with knurled clouds, like one giant thumbscrew turned down tight upon the world, but until Agnes spoke, the heavens had been for some time as silent as iron unstruck.
As though the word purpose were a hammer, a hard peal of thunder crashed through the sky, preceded by a fierce flash of lightning.
The baby's gaze shifted from his mother, in the direction of the window, but his brow didn't furrow with fear.
Don't worry about the big, bad crash-bang, Barty,” Agnes told him. “In my arms, you'll always be safe."
Safe, like purpose before it, set fire to the sky and rang from that vault a catastrophic crack that not only rattled the windows but also shook the building.
Thunder in southern California is rare, lightning yet more rare.
Storms are semitropical here, downpours without pyrotechnics.
The power of the second blast had elicited a cry of surprise and alarm from the two nurses and from Maria.
A quiver of superstitious dread twanged through Agnes, and she held her son closer against her breast as she repeated, “Safe."
On the downbeat of the word, as an orchestra to the baton of a conductor, the storm flared and boomed, boomed, brighter and far louder than before. The windowpane reverberated like a drum skin, while the dishes on the bed tray clinked xylophonically against one another.
As the window became totally opaque with reflections of the lightning, blank as a cataract-filmed eye, Maria made the sign of the cross.
Gripped by the crazy notion that this weather phenomenon was a threat aimed specifically at her baby, Agnes stubbornly responded to the challenge: “Safe.
The most cataclysmic blast was also the final one, of nuclear brightness that seemed to turn the windowpane into a molten sheet, and of apocalyptic sound that vibrated through the fillings in Agnes's teeth and would have played her bones like flutes if they had been hollowed out of marrow.
The hospital lights flickered, and the air was so crisp with ozone that it seemed to crackle against the rims of her nostrils when Agnes in haled. Then the fireworks ended, and the lights were not extinguished.
No harm had come to anyone.
Strangest of all was the absence of rain. Such tumult never failed to wring torrents from thunderheads, yet not a single drop spattered against the window.
Instead, a remarkable stillness settled over the morning, so deep a hush that everyone exchanged glances and, with hairs raised on the backs of their necks, looked up at the ceiling in expectation of some event that they couldn't define.
Never did lightning vanquish a storm rather than serve as its advance artillery, but in the wake of this furious display, the iron-dark clouds slowly began to crack like cannon-shattered battlements, revealing a blue peace beyond.
Barty had not cried or exhibited the slightest sign of distress during the tempest, and now gazing up at his mother once more, he favored her with his first smile.
WHEN A GLASS OF chilled apple juice at dawn stayed on his stomach, Junior Cain was allowed a second glass, though he was admonished He was also given three saltines.
He could have eaten an entire cow on a bun, hooves and tail attached.
Although weak, he was no longer in danger of spewing bile and blood like a harpooned whale. The siege had passed.
The immediate consequence of killing his wife had been violent nervous emesis, but the longer-term reaction was a ravenous appetite and a joie de vivre so exhilarating that he had to guard against the urge to break into song. Junior was in a mood to celebrate.
Celebration of course, would lead to incarceration and perhaps to electrocution. With Vanadium, the maniac cop, likely to be found lurking under the bed or masquerading as a nurse to catch him in an unguarded moment, Junior had to recover at a pace that his physician would not find miraculous. Dr. Parkhurst expected to discharge him no sooner than the following morning.
No longer pinned to the bed by an intravenous feed of fluids and medications, provided with pajamas and a thin cotton robe to replace his backless gown, Junior was encouraged to test his legs and get some exercise. Although they expected him to be dizzy, he had no difficulty whatsoever with his balance, and in spite of feeling a little drained, he wasn't as weak as they thought he was. He could have toured the hospital unassisted, but he played to their expectations and used the wheeled walker.
From time to time, he halted, leaning against the walker as if in need of rest. He took care occasionally to grimace-convincingly, not too theatrically—-and to breathe harder than necessary.
More than once, a passing nurse stopped to check on him and to advise him not to exhaust himself Thus far, none of these women of mercy was as lovely as Victoria Bressler, the ice-serving nurse who was hot for him. Nevertheless, he kept looking and remained hopeful.
Although Junior felt honor-bound to give Victoria first shot at him, he certainly didn't owe her monogamy. Eventually, when he had shaken off suspicion as finally as he had shaken off Naomi, he would be in the mood for a dessert buffet, romantically speaking, and one eclair would not satisfy.
Not limited to a survey of the nursing staff on a single floor of the hospital, Junior used the elevators to roam higher and lower. Checking out the skirts.
Eventually he found himself alone at the large viewing window of the neonatal-care unit. Seven newborns were in residence. Fixed to the foot of each of the seven bassinets was a placard on which was printed the name of the baby.
Junior stood at the window for a long time, not because he was pretending to rest, and not because any of the attending nurses was a looker. He was transfixed, and for awhile he didn't know why.
He wasn't afflicted with parenthood envy. A baby was the last thing he would ever want, aside from cancer. Children were nasty little beasts. A child would be an encumbrance, a burden, not a blessing.
Yet his curious attraction to these newborns kept him at the window, and he began to believe that unconsciously he had intended to come here from the moment he guided his walker out of his room. He'd been compelled to come. Drawn by some mysterious magnetism.
Upon arriving at the creche window, he had been in a buoyant mood. As he studied the quiet scene, however, he grew uneasy.
Just harmless babies.
Harmless though they were, the sight of them, swaddled and for the most part concealed, first troubled him and then quickly brought him —inexplicably, irrationally, undeniably—to the trembling edge of outright fear.
He had noted all seven names on the bassinets, but he read them again. He sensed in their names-or in one of their names-the explanation for his seemingly mad perception of a looming threat.
Name by name, as his gaze traveled across the seven placards, such a vast hollowness opened within Junior that he needed the walker for support as he had only pretended to need it previously. He felt as if he had become the mere shell of a man and that the right note would shatter him as a properly piercing tone can shatter crystal.
This wasn't a new sensation. He had experienced it before. In the night just passed, when he awakened from an unremembered dream and saw the bright quarter dancing across Vanadium's knuckles.
No. Not exactly then. Not at the sight of the coin or the detective. He had felt this way at Vanadium's mention of the name that he, Junior, had supposedly spoken in his nightmare.
Junior shuddered. Vanadium hadn't invented the name. It had genuine if inexplicable resonance with Junior that had nothing to do with the detective.
As before, the name tolled through him like the ominous note of the deepest bass bell in a cathedral carillon, struck on a cold midnight.
None of the babies in this creche was named Bartholomew, and Junior struggled to understand what connection this place had to his unrecollected dream.
The full nature of the nightmare continued to elude him, but he became convinced that good reason for his fear existed, that the dream had been more than a dream. He had a nemesis named Bartholomew not merely in dreams, but in the real world, and this Bartholomew had something to do with ... babies.
Drawing from a well of inspiration deeper than instinct, Junior knew that if ever he crossed paths with a man named Bartholomew, he must be prepared to deal with him as aggressively as he had dealt with Naomi. And without delay.
Trembling and sweating, he turned his back to the view window. As he retreated from the creche, he expected the oppressive pall of fear to lift, but it grew heavier.
He found himself looking over his shoulder more than once. By the time lie returned to his room, he felt half crushed by anxiety.
A nurse fussed over him as she helped him into bed, concerned about his paleness and his tremors. She was attentive, efficient, compassionate but she wasn't in the least attractive, and he wished she would leave him alone.
As soon as he was alone, however, Junior yearned for the nurse to return. Alone, he felt vulnerable, threatened.
Somewhere in the world he had a deadly enemy: Bartholomew, who had something to do with babies, a total stranger yet an implacable foe.
If he hadn't been such a rational, stable, no-nonsense person all of his life, Junior might have thought he was losing his mind.
THE SUN ROSE above clouds, above fog, and with the gray day came a silver drizzle. The city was lanced by needles of rain, and filth drained from it, swelling the gutters with a poisonous flood.
St. Mary's social workers did not arrive with dawn, so Celestina was given the privacy of one of their offices, where the wet face of the morning pressed blurrily at the windows, and where she phoned her parents with the terrible news. From here, too, she arranged with a mortician to collect Phimie's body from the cold-storage locker in the hospital morgue, embalm it, and have it flown home to Oregon.
Her mother and father wept bitterly, but Celestina remained composed. She had-much to do, many decisions to make, before she accompanied her sister's body on the flight out of San Francisco. When finally her obligations were met, she would allow herself to feel the loss, the misery against which she was now armored. Phimie deserved dignity in this final journey to her northern grave.
When Celestina had no further calls left to make, Dr. Lipscomb came to her.
He was no longer in his scrubs, but wore gray wool slacks and a blue cashmere sweater over a white shirt. Face somber, he looked less like an obstetrician engaged in the business of life than like a professor of philosophy forever pondering the inevitability of death.
She started to get up from the chair behind the desk, but he encouraged her to stay seated.
He stood at a window, staring down into the street, his profile to her, and in his silence he searched for the words to describe the “something extraordinary” that he had mentioned earlier.
Droplets of rain shimmered on the glass and tracked downward.
Reflections of those tracks appeared as stigmatic tears on the long face of the physician.
When at last he spoke, real grief, quiet but profound, softened his voice: “March first, three years ago, my wife and two sons-Danny and Harry, both seven, twins-were coming home from visiting her parents in New York. Shortly after takeoff ... their plane went down."
Having been so wounded by one death, Celestina could not imagine how Lipscomb could have survived the loss of his entire family. Pity knotted her heart and cinched her throat so that she spoke in little more than a whisper: “Was that the American Airlines. . ."
Mysteriously, on the first day of sunny weather in weeks, the 707 had crashed into Jamaica Bay, Queens, killing everyone aboard. Now, in 1965, it remained the worst commercial-aviation disaster in the nation's history, and because of the unprecedented dramatic television coverage, the story was a permanent scar in Celestina's memory, although she had been living a continent away at the time.
'Miss White,” he continued, still facing the window, “not long before you arrived in surgery this morning, your sister died on the table. We hadn't delivered the baby yet, and perhaps couldn't have done so, by cesarean, in time to prevent brain damage, so for both the sake of the mother and child, heroic efforts were made to bring Phimie back and ensure continued circulation to the fetus until we could extract it."
The sudden change of subject, from the airliner crash to Phimie, confused Celestina.
Lipscomb shifted his gaze from the street below to the source of the rain. “Phimie was not gone long, perhaps a minute-a minute and ten seconds at most-and when she was with us again, it was clear from her condition that the cardiac arrest was most likely secondary to a massive cerebral incident. She was disoriented, paralysis on the right side ... with the distortion of the facial muscles that you saw. Her speech was slurred at first, but then something strange happened. . .
Phimie's speech had been slurred later, as well, immediately following the birth of the baby, when she had struggled to convey her desire to name her daughter Angel.
An affecting but difficult-to-define note in Dr. Lipscomb's voice brought Celestina slowly out of the office chair, to her feet. Perhaps it was wonder. Or fear. Or reverence. Perhaps all three.