And what if it's four jacks in a row?


At last Maria answered Jacob's question in a murmur, making the f sign of the cross once more as she spoke. “Never saw four. Never even just I see three. But four ... is to be the devil himself."


This declaration was received seriously by Edom and Jacob, as if the devil often strolled the streets of Bright Beach and from time had been known to snatch little babies from their mothers' and eat them with mustard.


Even Agnes was briefly unnerved to the extent that she said, “Enough of this. It's not fun anymore."


In agreement, Maria pushed the stack of unused cards aside, and she peered at her hands as if she wanted to scrub them for a long time under hot water.


“No,” Agnes said, shaking loose the grip of irrational fear. “Wait. This is absurd. It's just a card. And we're all curious."


“No,” Maria warned.


“I don't need to see it,” Edom agreed.


“Or me,” said Jacob.


Agnes pulled the stack of cards in front of her. She discarded the first two, as Maria would have done, and turned over the third.


Here was the final knave of spades.


Although a cold current crackled along the cable of her spine, Agnes smiled at the card. She was determined to change the dark mood that had descended over them.


“Doesn't look so spooky to me.” She turned the knave of spades so the baby could see it. “Does he scare you, Barty?"


Bartholomew had been able to focus his eyes much sooner than the average baby was supposed to be able to focus. To a surprising extent, he was already engaged in the world around him.


Now Barty peered at the card, smacked his lips, smiled, and said, “Ga.” With a flatulent squawk of the butt trumpet, he soiled his diaper, Everyone except Maria laughed.


Tossing the knave onto the table, Agnes said, “Barty doesn't seem too impressed with this devil."


Maria gathered up the four jacks and tore them in thirds. She put the twelve pieces in the breast pocket of her blouse. “I buy to you new cards, but no more ever can you to be having these."


Chapter 32


MONEY FOR THE DEAD. The decomposing flesh of a beloved wife and an unborn baby transmuted into a fortune was an achievement that put to shame the alchemists' dreams of turning lead to gold.


On Tuesday, less than twenty-four hours after Naomi's funeral, Knacker, Hisscus, and Nork—representing the state and the county held preliminary meetings with Junior's lawyer and with the attorney for the grieving Hackachak clan. As before, the well-tailored trio was conciliatory, sensitive, and willing to reach an accommodation to prevent the filing of a wrongful-death suit.


In fact, attorneys for the potential plaintiffs felt that Nork, Hisscus, and Knacker were too willing to reach an accommodation, and they met the trio's conciliation with high suspicion. Naturally, the state didn't want to defend against a claim involving the death of a beautiful young bride and her unborn baby, but their willingness to negotiate so early, from such a reasonable posture, implied that their position was even weaker than it appeared to be.


Junior's attorney-Simon Magusson—insisted upon full disclosure of maintenance records and advisories relating to the fire tower and to other forest-service structures for which the state and the county had sole or joint custodial responsibility. If a wrongful—death suit was filed, this information would have to be divulged anyway during normal disclosure procedures prior to trial, and since maintenance logs and advisories were of public record, Hisscus and Knacker and Nork agreed to provide what was requested.


Meanwhile, as attorneys met on Tuesday afternoon, Junior, having taken leave from work, phoned a locksmith to change the locks at his house. As a cop, Vanadium might have access to a lock-release gun that could spring the new deadbolts as easily as the old. Therefore, on the interior of the front and back doors, Junior added sliding bolts, which couldn't be picked from outside.


He paid cash to the locksmith, and included in the payment were the two dimes and the nickel Vanadium had left on his nightstand.


Wednesday, with a swiftness that confirmed its eagerness to make a deal, the state supplied records on the fire tower. For five years, a significant portion of the maintenance funds had been diverted by bureaucrats to other uses. And for three years, the responsible maintenance supervisor filed an annual report on this specific tower, requesting immediate funds for fundamental reconstruction; the third of these documents, submitted eleven months prior to Naomi's fall, was composed in crisis language and stamped urgent.


Sitting in Simon Magusson's mahogany-paneled office, reading the contents of this file, Junior was aghast. “I could have been killed."


“It's a miracle both of you didn't go through that railing,” the attorney agreed.


Magusson was a small man behind a huge desk. His head appeared too large for his body, but his ears seemed no bigger than a pair of silver dollars. Large protuberant eyes, bulging with shrewdness and feverish with ambition, marked him as one who'd be hungry a minute after standing up from a daylong feast. A button nose too severely turned up at the tip, an upper lip long enough to rival that of an orangutan, and a mean slash of a mouth completed a portrait sure to repel any woman with eyesight; but if you wanted an attorney who was angry at the world for having been cursed with ugliness and who could convert that anger into the energy and ruthlessness of a pit bull in the courtroom, even while using his unfortunate looks to gain the jurors' sympathy, then Simon Magusson was the counselor for you.


“It isn't just the rotten railing,” Junior said, still paging through the report, his outrage growing. “The stairs are unsafe."


“Delightful, isn't it?"


“One of the four legs of the tower is dangerously fractured where it's seated into the underlying foundation caisson-"


“Lovely."


"-and the under girding of the observation platform itself is unstable. The whole thing could have fallen down with us on it!"


From across the vast acreage of the desk came a goblin cackle, Magusson's idea of a laugh. “And they didn't even bother to post a warning. In fact, that sign was still up, inviting hikers to enjoy the view from the observation deck."


“I could have been killed,” Junior Cain repeated, suddenly so horrorstruck by this realization that an iciness welled in his gut, and for a while he wasn't able to feel his extremities.


“This is going to be an enormous settlement,” the attorney promised. “And there's more good news. County and state authorities have agreed to close the case on Naomi's death. It's now officially an accident."


Feeling began to return to Junior's hands and feet.


“As long as the case was open and you were the sole suspect,” said the lawyer, “they couldn't negotiate an out-of-court settlement with you. But they were afraid that if eventually they couldn't prove you killed her, then they'd be in an even worse position when a wrongful death suit finally went before a jury."


“Why?


“For one thing, jurors might conclude that the authorities never really suspected you and tried to frame you for murder to conceal their culpability in the poor maintenance of the tower. By far, most of the cops think you're innocent anyway."


“Really? That's gratifying,” Junior said sincerely.


“Congratulations, Mr. Cain. You've had a lot of luck in this."


Although he found Magusson's face sufficiently disturbing that he avoided looking at it more than necessary, and though Magusson's bulging eyes were so moist with bitterness and with need that they inspired nightmares, Junior shifted his gaze from his half-numb hands to his attorney. “Luck? I lost my wife. And my unborn baby."


“And now you'll be properly compensated for your loss."


The popeyed little toad smirked over there on the far side of his pretentious desk.


The report on the tower forced Junior to consider his mortality; fear, hurt, and self-pity roiled in him. His voice trembled with offense: “You do know, Mr. Magusson, what happened to my Naomi was an dent? You do believe that? Because I don't see ... I don't know how could work with someone who thought I was capable of . . . “


The runt was so out of proportion to his office furniture that he appeared to be a bug perched in the giant leather executive chair, which itself looked like the maw of a Venus's—flytrap about to swallow him for lunch. He allowed such a lengthy silence to follow Junior's question that by the time he answered, his reply was superfluous.


Finally: “A trial lawyer, whether specializing in criminal or civil matters, is like an actor, Mr. Cain. He must believe deeply in his role, in the truth of his portrayal, if he's to be convincing. I always believe in the innocence of my clients in order to achieve the best possible settlement for them."


Junior suspected Magusson never had any client but himself. Fat fees motivated him, not justice.


As a matter of principle, Junior considered firing the slit-mouthed troll on the spot, but then Magusson said, “You shouldn't be bothered any further by Detective Vanadium."


Junior was surprised. “You know about him?"


“Everyone knows about Vanadium. He's a crusader, self-appointed champion of truth, justice, and the American way. A holy fool, if you will. With the case closed, he has no authority to harass you."


“I'm not sure he needs authority,” Junior said uneasily.


“Well, if he bothers you again, just let me know."


“Why do they let a man like that keep his badge?” Junior asked. “He's outrageous, wholly unprofessional."


“He's successful. He solves most of the cases assigned to him."


Junior had thought most other policemen must consider Vanadium to be a loose cannon, a rogue, an outcast. Perhaps the opposite was true-and if it was, if Vanadium was highly regarded among his peers, he was immeasurably more dangerous than Junior had realized.


“Mr. Cain, if he bothers you, would you want me to have his choke chain yanked?"


He couldn't remember on what principle he'd considered firing Magusson. In spite of his faults, the attorney was highly competent.


“By the close of business tomorrow,” said the lawyer, “I expect to have an offer for your consideration."


Late Thursday, following a nine-hour session with Hisscus, Nork, and Knacker, Magusson—negotiating in conjunction with the Hackachak counsel-had indeed reached acceptable terms. Kaitlin Hackachak would receive $250,000 for the loss of her sister. Sheena and Rudy would receive $900,000 to compensate them for their severe emotional pain and suffering; this allowed them to undergo a lot of therapy in Las Vegas. Junior would receive $4,250,000. Magusson's fee was twenty percent prior to trial-forty percent if a settlement had been reached after the start of court proceedings-which left Junior with $3,400,000. All payments to plaintiffs were net of taxes.


Friday morning, Junior resigned his position as a physical therapist at the rehabilitation hospital. He expected to be able to live well off interest and dividends for the rest of his life, because his tastes were modest.


Glorying in the cloudless day and the warmer than usual weather, he drove seventy miles north, through phalanxes of evergreens that marched down the steep hills to the scenic coast. All the way, he monitored the traffic in his rearview mirror. No one followed him.


He stopped for lunch at a restaurant with a spectacular view of the Pacific, framed by massive pines.


His waitress was a cutie. She flirted with him, and he knew he could have her if he wanted.


He wanted, all right, but — intuition warned him that he ought to continue to be discreet for a while longer.


He hadn't seen Thomas Vanadium since Monday, at the cemetery, and Vanadium hadn't pulled any tricks since leaving twenty-five cents at his bedside that same night. Almost four days undisturbed by the hectoring detective. In matters Vanadium, however, Junior had learned to be wary, prudent.


With no job to return to, he dawdled over lunch. He was actually tumescent with a growing sense of freedom that was as thrilling as sex.


Life was too short to waste it working if you had the means to afford lifelong leisure.


By the time he got back to Spruce Hills, the early night had fallen. The pearly, waxing moon floated over a town that glimmered mysteriously among its richness of trees, flickering and shimmering as though it were not a real town, but a dreamland where a multitude of Gypsy clans gathered by the lambent amber light of lanterns and campfires.


Earlier in the week, Junior had looked up Thomas Vanadium in the telephone directory. He expected the number to be unlisted, but it was published. What he wanted more than a number was an address, and he found that as well.


Now he dared to search out the detective's residence.


In a neatly groomed neighborhood of unassuming houses, Vanadium's place was as unremarkable as those around it: a single-story rectangular box of no discernible architectural style. White aluminum siding with green shutters. An attached two-car garage.


Deciduous black oaks lined the street. All were leafless at this time of year, gnarled limbs clawing at the moon.


The big trees on Vanadium's property also stood bare, allowing a relatively unobstructed view of the house. The back of the residence as dark, but a soft light warmed two windows at the front.


Junior didn't slow as he passed the house, but circled the block and drove by the place again.


He didn't know what he was looking for. He simply felt empowered to be the one conducting the surveillance for a change.


Less than fifteen minutes later, at home, he sat at his kitchen table with the telephone directory. The included not only the phones in Spruce Hills, but also those in the entire county, maybe seventy or eighty thousand.


Each page comprised four columns of names and numbers, most with addresses. Approximately one hundred names filled each column, four hundred to a page.


Using the straight edge of a ruler to guide his eye down each column, Junior searched for Bartholomew, ignoring surnames. He had already checked to see if anyone in the county had Bartholomew for a last name; no one in this directory did.


Some listings didn't include first names, only initials. Every time he came across the initial B, he put a red heck mark beside it with a fine point felt-tip pen.


Most of these were going to be Bobs or Bills. Maybe a few were Bradleys or Bernards. Barbaras or Brendas.


Eventually, when he had gone through the entire directory, if he'd had no success, he would phone each red-checked listing and ask for Bartholomew. A few hundred calls, no doubt. Some would involve long-distance charges, but he could afford the toll.

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