The lawyer's eyes appeared as round as his face. “Aggie, please don't tell me you've started to share Jacob's ... enthusiasms? “

“No, no. But being around him so much, inevitably I absorb some details. He's a compelling speaker when the subject interests him."

“Oh,” Vinnie agreed, “I wasn't bored for a second."

“I've often thought Jacob would've made a fine schoolteacher."

“Assuming the children received therapy after every class."

“Assuming, of course, that he didn't have these obsessions."

Extracting documents from his valise, Vinnie said, “Well, I've no right to talk. Food is my obsession. Look at me, so fat you'd think I'd been raised from birth for sacrifice."

“You're not fat,” Agnes objected. “You're nicely rounded."

“Yes, I'm nicely rounding myself into an early grave,” he said almost cheerfully. “And I must admit to enjoying it."

“You may be eating yourself into an early grave, Vinnie, but poor Jacob has murdered his own soul, and that's infinitely worse."

“'Murdered his own soul'—an interesting turn of phrase."

“Hope is the food of faith, the staff of life. Don't you think?"

From his mother's cradled arms, Barty gazed adoringly at her.

She continued: “When we don't allow ourselves to hope, we don't allow ourselves to have purpose. Without purpose, without meaning, life is dark. We've no light within, and we're just living to die."

With one tiny hand, Barty reached up for his mother. She gave him her forefinger, to which the sugar-bag boy clung tenaciously.

Regardless of her other successes or failures as a parent, Agnes intended to make certain that Barty never lacked hope, that meaning and purpose flowed through the boy as constantly as blood.

“I know Edom and Jacob have been a burden,” said Vinnie, “you having to be responsible for them-"

“Nothing of the kind.” Agnes smiled at Barty and wiggled her finger in his grip. “They've always been my salvation. I don't know what I'd do without them."

“I think you actually mean that."

“I always mean what I say."

“Well, as years pass, they're going to be a financial burden, if nothing else, so I'm glad I've got a little surprise for you."

When she looked up from Barty, she saw the attorney with his hands full of documents. “Surprise? I know what's in Joey's will."

Vinnie smiled. “But you have assets you aren't aware of."

The house was hers, free and clear of mortgages. There were two savings accounts to which Joey had diligently made deposits weekly through nine years of marriage.

“Life insurance,” Vinnie said.

“I'm aware of that. A fifty-thousand-dollar policy."

She figured that she could stay home, devoting herself to Barty, for perhaps three years before she would be wise to find work.

“In addition to that policy,” said Vinnie, “there's another. . .—he filled his lungs, hesitated, then exhaled the air and the sum with a tremor—-'seven hundred fifty thousand. Three-quarters of a million dollars."

Certain disbelief insulated her against immediate surprise. She shook her head. “That's not possible."

“It was affordable term insurance, not a whole-life policy."

“I mean, Joey wouldn't have bought it without-"

“He knew how you felt about having too much life insurance. So he didn't disclose it to you."

The rocking chair stopped squeaking under her. She heard the sincerity in Vinnie's voice, and as her disbelief dissolved, she was shocked into immobility. She whispered, “My little superstition."

Under other circumstances, Agnes might have blushed, but now her apparently irrational fear of too much life insurance had been vindicated.

“Joey was, after all, an insurance broker,” Vinnie reminded her. “He was going to look out for his family."

Excessive insurance, Agnes believed, was a temptation to fate. “A reasonable policy, yes, that's fine. But a big one ... it's like betting on death."

“Aggie, it's just prudent planning."

“I believe in betting on life."

“With this money, you won't have to cut back on the number of pies you give away—and all of that."

By “all of that,” he meant the groceries that she and Joey often sent along with the pies, the occasional mortgage payment they made for someone down on his luck, and the other quiet philanthropies.

“Look at it this way, Aggie. All the pies, all the things you do-that's betting on life. And now you've just been given the great blessing of being able to place larger bets."

The same thought had occurred to her, a consolation that might make acceptance of these riches possible. Yet she remained chilled by the thought of receiving a life-changing amount of money as the consequence of a death.

Looking down at Barty, Agnes saw the ghost of Joey in the baby's face, and although she half believed that her husband would be alive now if he had never tempted fate by putting such a high price on his fife, she couldn't find any anger in her heart for him. She must accept this final generosity with grace-if also without enthusiasm.

“All right,” Agnes said, and as she voiced her acceptance, she was shivered by a sudden fear for which she couldn't at once identify a cause.

“And there's more,” said Vinnie Lincoln, as round as Santa Claus and cherry-cheeked with pleasure at being able to bear these gifts. “The policy contained a double-indemnity clause in the event of death by accident. The complete tax-free payout is one and a half million."

A cause now apparent, the fear explained, Agnes held her baby more tightly. So new to the world, he seemed already to be slipping away from her, captured by the whirlpool of a demanding destiny.

The ace of diamonds. Four in a row. Ace, ace, ace, ace.

Already the fortune foretold, which she had strived to dismiss as a game with no consequences, was coming true.

According to the cards, Barty would be rich financially, but also in talent, spirit, intellect. Rich in courage and honor, Maria promised. With a wealth of common sense, good judgment, and luck.

He would need the courage and the luck.

“What's wrong, Aggie?” asked Vinnie.

She couldn't explain her anxiety to him, because he believed in the supremacy of laws, in the justice that might be delivered in this fife, in a comparatively simple reality, and he would not comprehend the glorilously, frighteningly, reassuringly, strangely, and deeply complex reality Agnes occasionally perceived-usually peripherally, sometimes intellectually, but often with her heart. This was a world in which effect could come before cause, in which what seemed to be coincidence was, in fact, merely the visible part of a far larger pattern that couldn't be seen whole.

If the ace of diamonds, in quartet, must be taken seriously, then why not the rest of the draw?

If this insurance payoff was not mere coincidence, if it was the wealth that had been foretold, then how far behind the fortune did the knave travel? Years? Months? Days?

“You look as if you've seen a ghost,” said Vinnie, and Agnes wished the threat were as simple as a restless spirit, groaning and rattling its chains, like Dickens's Marley come to Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve.

Chapter 42

THE SANDMAN WAS powerless to cast a spell of sleep while Junior spent the night flushing away enough water to drain a reservoir.

By dawn, when the intestinal paroxysms finally passed, this bold new man of adventure felt as flat and limp as road kill.

Finally sleeping, he had anxiety dreams of being in a public rest room, overcome by urgent need, only to find that every stall was occupied by someone he had killed, all of them vengefully determined to deny him a chance for dignified relief.

He woke at noon, eyes gummed shut with the effluence of sleep. He felt lousy, but he was in control of himself-and strong enough to fetch his suitcase, which he'd been unable to carry upon arrival.

Outside, he discovered that some worthless criminal wretch had broken into his Suburban during the night. The suitcase and Book-of-the-Month selections were gone. The creep even swiped the Kleenex, the chewing gum, and the breath mints from the glove, compartment.

Incredibly, the thief left behind the most valuable items: the collection of hardcover first editions of Caesar Zedd's complete body of work. The box stood open, its contents having been explored in haste, but not a single volume was missing.

Fortunately, he'd kept neither cash nor his checkbook in the suitcase. With Zedd intact, his losses were tolerable.

In the motel office, Junior paid for another night in advance. His preference in lodgings didn't run to greasy carpeting, cigarette-scarred furniture, and the whispery scuttling of cockroaches in the dark, but though feeling better, he was too tired and shaky to drive.

The aging, fugitive Nazi had been replaced at the front desk by a woman with messily chopped blond hair, a brutish face, and arms that would dissuade Charles Atlas from challenging her. She changed a five-dollar bill into coins for the vending machines and snarled at him only once in strangely accented English.

Junior was starving, but he didn't trust his bowels enough to risk dinner in a restaurant. The affliction seemed to have passed, but it might recur when he had food in his system again.

He bought cracker sandwiches, some filled with cheese and some with peanut butter, redskin peanuts, chocolate bars, and Coca-Cola. Although this was an unhealthy meal, cheese and peanut butter and chocolate shared a virtue: they were all binding.

In his room, he settled on the bed with his constipating snacks and the county telephone book. Because he had packed the directory with the Zedd collection, the thief hadn't gotten it.

He had already reviewed twenty-four thousand names, finding no Bartholomew, putting red checks beside entries with the initial B instead of a first name. A slip of yellow paper marked his place.

Opening the directory to the marker, he found a card tucked between the pages. A joker, with BARTHOLOMEW in red block letters.

This was not the same card he'd found at his bedside, under two dimes and a nickel, on the night following Naomi's funeral. He had torn that one and had thrown it away.

No mystery here. No reason to leap to the ceiling and cling upside down like a frightened cartoon cat.

Evidently, last evening, prior to keeping a dinner date with Victoria, when the taunting detective had illegally entered Junior's house and placed another quarter on the nightstand, he had seen the directory open on the kitchen table. Deducing the meaning of the red check marks, he inserted this card and closed the book: another small assault in the psychological warfare that he'd been waging.

Junior had made a mistake when he smashed the pewter stick into Vanadium's face after the cop was already unconscious. He should have bound the bastard and attempted to revive him for interrogation.

Applying enough pain, he could have gotten cooperation even from Vanadium. The detective had said he'd heard Junior fearfully repeat Bartholomew in his sleep, which Junior believed to be true, because the name did resonate with him; however, he wasn't sure he believed the cop's claim to be ignorant of the identity of this nemesis.

Too late for interrogation now, with Vanadium bludgeoned into eternal sleep and resting under many fathoms of cold bedding.

But, ah, the heft of the candlestick, the smooth arc it made, and the crack of contact had been as hugely satisfying as any home-run swing that had ever won a baseball World Series.

Munching an Almond Joy, Junior returned to the phone book, with no choice but to find Bartholomew the hard way.

Chapter 43

ONWARD THROUGH THIS Monday, January 17, this momentous day, when the ending of one thing is the beginning of another.

Under a sullen afternoon sky, in the winter-drab hills, the yellow-and-white station wagon was a bright arrow, drawn and fired not from a hunter's quiver but from that of a Samaritan.

Edom drove, happy to assist Agnes. He was happier still that he didn't have to make the pie deliveries alone.

He wasn't required to torture himself in search of pleasant conversation with those they visited. Agnes had virtually invented pleasant conversation.

In the passenger's seat, Barty was cushioned in his mother's arms. At times, the boy cooed or gurgled, or made a wet chording sound.

As yet, Edom had never heard him cry or even fuss.

Barty wore elfin-size, knitted blue pajamas complete with feet, white rickrack at the cuffs and neckline, and a matching cap. His white blanket was decorated with blue and yellow bunnies.

The baby had been an unqualified hit at their first four stops. His bright, smiling presence was a bridge that helped everyone cross over the dark waters of Joey's death.

Edom would have judged this a perfect day-except for the earthquake weather. He was convinced that the Big One would bring the coastal cities to ruin before twilight.

This was different earthquake weather from that of ten days ago, when he'd made the pie deliveries alone. Then: blue sky, unseasonable warmth, low humidity. Now: low gray clouds, cool air, high humidity.

One of the most unnerving aspects of life in southern California was that earthquake weather came in so many varieties. As many days as not, you got out of bed, checked the sky and the barometer, and realized with dismay that conditions were indicative of catastrophe.

With the earth still tenuously stable beneath them, they arrived at their fifth destination, a new address on Agnes's mercy list.

They were in the eastern hills, a mile from Jolene and Bill Klefton's place, where ten days ago, Edom had delivered blueberry pie along with the grisly details of the Tokyo-Yokohama quake of 1923.

This house was similar to the Kleftons'. Though stucco rather than clapboard, it had gone a long time without fresh paint. A crack in one of the front windows had been sealed with strapping tape.

Agnes added this stop to her route at the request of Reverend Tom Collins, the local Baptist minister whose folks unthinkingly gave him the name of a cocktail. She was friendly with all the clergymen in Bright Beach, and her pie deliveries favored no one creed.

Edom carried the honey-raisin pear pie, and Agnes toted Barty across the neatly cropped yard, to the front door. The bell push triggered chimes that played the first ten notes of “That Old Black Magic,” which they heard distinctly through the glass in the door.

This humble house wasn't where you expected to hear an elaborate custom doorbell-or even any doorbell at all, since knuckles on wood were the cheapest announcement of a visitor.