“We'll discuss it when the time comes. And . . . please call me Wally."

The physician's long, narrow face, his undertaker's face, ideal for the expression of unnameable sorrow, was not the face of a Wally. You expected a Wally to be freckled and rosy and round-cheeked and full of fun.

“Wally,” Celestina said, without hesitation, because suddenly she saw something of a Wally in his green eyes, which were livelier than they had been before.

Champagne, then, and two shopping bags packed full of Armenian takeout. Sou beurek, mujadereh, chicken-and-rice biryani, stuffed grape leaves, artichokes with lamb and rice, orouk, manti, and more. Following a Baptist grace (said by Grace), Wally and the three White women, a fourth present in spirit, sat around the Formica-topped table, feasting, laughing, talking about art and healing and baby care and the past and tomorrow, while up on Nob Hill, Neddy Gnathic sat tuxedoed at a lacquered black piano, sprinkling diamond-bright notes through an elegant room.

Chapter 47

STILL WEARING HIS white pharmacy smock over a white shirt and black slacks, striding purposefully along the streets of Bright Beach, under a malignant-gray twilight sky worthy of a Weird Tales cover, with ominous accompanying rhythm provided by wind-clattered palm fronds overhead, Paul Damascus headed home for the day.

Walking was part of a fitness regimen that he took seriously. He would never be called upon to save the world, like the pulp heroes in the tales he enjoyed; however, he had solemn responsibilities he was determined to meet, and to do so, he must maintain good health.

In a pocket of his smock was his letter to Reverend Harrison White. He hadn't sealed the envelope, because he intended to read to Perri, his wife, what he'd written, and include any corrections she suggested. In this, as in all things, Paul valued her opinion.

The high point of his day was coming home to Perri. They met when they were thirteen, married at twenty-two. In May they would celebrate their twenty-third anniversary.

They were childless. It had to be that way. Truthfully, Paul felt no regrets about missing out on fatherhood. Because they were a family of two, they were closer than they might have been if fate bad made children possible, and he treasured their relationship.

Their evenings together were comfortable bliss, though usually they just watched television, or he read to her. She enjoyed being read to: mostly historical novels and occasional mysteries.

Perri was often fast asleep by nine-thirty, seldom later than ten o'clock while Paul never turned in earlier than midnight or one in the morning. In the later hours, to the reassuring susurration of his wife's breathing, he returned to his pulp adventures.

This was a good night for television. To Tell the Truth at seven-thirty, followed by I've Got a Secret, The Lucy Show, and The Andy Griffith Show. The new Lucy wasn't quite as good as the old show; Paul and Perri missed Desi Arnaz and William Frawley.

As he turned the corner onto Jasmine Way, he felt his heart lift in expectation of the sight of his home. It wasn't a grand residence—a typical Main Street, USA, house-but it was more splendid to Paul than Paris, London, and Rome combined, cities that he would never see and would never regret failing to see.

His happy expectation thickened into dread when he spotted the ambulance at the curb. And in the driveway stood the Buick that belonged to Joshua Nunn, their family doctor.

The front door was ajar. Paul entered in a rush.

In the foyer, Hanna Rey and Nellie Oatis sat side by side on the stairs. Hanna, the housekeeper, was gray-haired and plump. Nellie, was Perri's daytime- companion, could have passed for Hanna's sister.

Hanna was too driven by emotion to stand.

Nellie found the strength to rise, but having risen, she was unable to speak. Her mouth shaped words, but her voice deserted her.

Halted by the unmistakable meaning of the expressions on these women's faces, Paul was grateful that Nellie was briefly stricken mute. He didn't believe he had the strength to receive the news that she had tried to deliver.

The blessing of Nellie's silence lasted only until Hanna, cursed with speech if not with sufficient strength to stand, said, “We tried to reach you, Mr. Damascus, but you'd already left the pharmacy."

The pair of sliding doors at the living-room archway stood half open. Beyond, voices drew Paul against his will.

Spacious, the living room was furnished for two purposes: as a parlor in which to receive visiting friends, but also with two beds, because here Paul and Perri slept every night.

Jeff Dooley, a paramedic, stood just inside the sliding doors.

He gripped Paul fiercely by the shoulder and then urged him forward.

To Perri's bed, a journey of only a few steps, but farther than unwanted Rome. The carpet seeming to pull at his feet, to suck like mud under his shoes. The air as thick as liquid in his resistant to his progress.

At the bedside, Joshua Nunn, friend and physician, looked up as Paul approached. He rose as though under a yoke of iron.

The head of the hospital bed was elevated, and Perri lay on her back. Her eyes-were closed.

In the crisis, the rack holding her oxygen bottle had been rolled to the bed. The breathing mask lay on the pillow beside her.

She rarely needed the oxygen. Today, needed, it hadn't helped.

The chest respirator, which Joshua had evidently applied, lay discarded on the bedclothes beside her. She seldom required this apparatus to assist her breathing, and then only at night.

During the first year of her illness, she had been slowly weaned off an iron lung. Until she was seventeen, she required the chest respirator, but gradually gained the strength to breathe unassisted.

“It was her heart,” said Joshua Nunn.

She always had a generous heart. After disease whittled Perri's flesh, leaving her so frail, her great heart, undiminished by her suffering, seemed bigger than the body that contained it.

Polio, largely an affliction of younger children, had stricken her two weeks before her fifteenth birthday. Thirty years ago.

Ministering to Perri, Joshua had pulled back her blankets. The fabric of the pale yellow pajama pants couldn't disguise how terribly withered her legs were: two sticks.

Her case of polio had been so severe that braces and crutches were never an option. Muscle rehabilitation had been ineffective.

The sleeves of the pajama top were pushed up, revealing more of the disease's vicious work. The muscles of her useless left arm had atrophied; the once graceful hand curled in upon itself, as though holding an invisible object, perhaps the hope she never abandoned.

Because she'd enjoyed some limited use of her right arm, it was less wasted than her left, although not normal. Paul pulled down that sleeve of her pajamas.

He gently drew the covers over his wife's ruined body, to her thin shoulders, but arranged her right arm on top of the blankets. He straightened and smoothed the folded-back flap of the top sheet.

The disease hadn't corrupted her heart, and it had left her face untouched, as well. Lovely, she was, as she had always been.

He sat on the edge of the bed and held her right hand. She had passed away such a short time ago that her skin was still warm.

Without a word, Joshua Nunn and the paramedic retreated to the foyer. The parlor doors slid shut.

So many years together and yet such a short time ...

Paul couldn't remember when he began to love her. Not at first sight. But before she contracted polio. Love came gradually, and by the time it flowered, its roots were deep.

He could recall clearly when he had known that he would marry her: during his first year of college, when he'd returned home for the Christmas break. Away at school, he had missed her every day, and the moment that he saw her again, an abiding tension left him, and he felt at peace for the first time in months.

She lived with her parents then. They had converted the dining room to a bedroom for her.

When Paul arrived with a Christmas gift, Perri was abed, wearing Chinese-red pajamas, reading Jane Austen. A clever contraption of leather straps, pulleys, and counterweights assisted her in moving her right arm more fluidly than would otherwise have been possible. A lap stand held the book, but she could tam the pages.

He spent the afternoon with her and stayed for dinner. He ate at her bedside, feeding both himself and her, balancing the progress of his meal with hers, so they finished together. He'd never fed her before, yet he wasn't awkward with her, or she with him, and later what he remembered of dinner was the conversation, not the logistics.

The following April, when he proposed to her, she wouldn't have him. “You're sweet, Paul, but I can't let you throw your life away on me. You're this ... this beautiful ship that will sail a long way, to fascinating places, and I'd only be your anchor."

“A ship without an anchor can never be at rest,” he answered. “It's at the mercy of the sea."

She protested that her ruined body had neither any comforts to offer a man nor the strength to be a bride.

“Your mind is as fascinating as ever,” he said. “Your soul as beautiful. Listen, Per, since we were thirteen, I was never primarily interested in your body. You flatter yourself shamelessly if you think it was all that special even before the polio."

Frankness and tough talk pleased her, because too many people dealt with her as though her spirit were as frail as her limbs. She laughed with delight-but still refused him.

Ten months later, he finally wore her down. She accepted his proposal, and they set a date for the wedding.

Through tears, that night, she asked him if the commitment he was making didn't frighten him.

In truth, he was terrified. Although his need for her company was so profound that it seemed to arise from his marrow, a part of him marveled-and trembled-at his dedicated pursuit of her.

Yet that evening, when she'd accepted his proposal and asked if he wasn't frightened, he said, “Not anymore."

The terror he hid from her vanished with the recital of their vows. He knew from their first kiss as husband and wife that this was his destiny. What a great adventure they'd had together these past twenty-three years, one that Doc Savage might have envied.

Caring for her, in every sense of that word, had made him a far happier man than he would otherwise have been-and a far better one.

And now she didn't need him anymore. He gazed at her face, held her cooling hand; his anchor was slipping away from him, leaving him adrift.

Chapter 48

FOLLOWING A SECOND NIGHT at the Sleepie Tyme Inne, waking at dawn, Junior felt rested, refreshed-and in control of his bowels.

He didn't quite know what to make of the recent unpleasantness.

Symptoms of food poisoning usually appear within two hours of dining. The hideous intestinal spasms had rocked him at least six hours after he'd eaten. Besides, if the culprit were food poisoning, he would have vomited; but he hadn't felt any urge to spew.

He suspected the blame lay with his exceptional sensitivity to violence, death, and loss. Previously it manifested as an explosive emptying of the stomach, this time as a purging of lower realms.

Tuesday morning, while he showered with a swimming cockroach that was as exuberant as a golden retriever in the motel's lukewarm water, Junior vowed never to kill again. Except in self-defense.

He had sworn this vow before. An argument could be made that he had broken it.

Unquestionably, if he hadn't killed Vanadium, the maniac cop would have blown him away. That was clearly an act of self-defense.

Only a dishonest or delusional man, however, could justify Victoria's killing as self-defense. To a degree, he'd been motivated by anger and passion, and Junior was forthright enough to admit this.

Zedd taught in this world where dishonesty is the currency of social acceptance and financial success, you must practice some deceit to get along in life, but you must never lie to yourself, or you are left with no one to trust.

This time, he vowed never to kill again, except in self-defense, regardless of the provocation. This tougher condition pleased him. No one achieved significant self-improvement by setting low standards for himself When he slid aside the shower curtain and got out of the bath, he left the cockroach basking in the wet tub, alive and untouched.

Before leaving the motel, Junior quickly scanned four thousand more names in the phone book, seeking Bartholomew. The previous day, confined to this room, he'd sought his enemy through twelve thousand listings. Cumulatively, forty thousand had been searched.

On the road again, with no luggage other than the boxed works of Caesar Zedd, Junior drove south toward San Francisco. He was excited by the prospect of city life.

His years in sleepy Spruce Hills had been rich with romance, a happy marriage, and financial success. But that small town was lacking in intellectual stimulation. To be fully alive, he must experience not merely physical pleasures aplenty, not only a satisfying emotional life, but a life of the mind, as well.

He chose a route that brought him through Marin County and across the Golden Gate Bridge. The metropolis, which he had never before visited, rose in splendor on hills above the sparkling bay.

For one glorious hour, he followed an impetuous, random route through the city, marveling at the architecture, the stunning vistas, the thrilling plunge of the steeper streets. Soon Junior was as drunk on San Francisco as ever he had been on wine.

Here, intellectual pursuits and prospects for self-improvement were unlimited. Great museums, art galleries, universities, concert halls, bookstores, libraries, the Mount Hamilton observatory Less than a year ago, at a cutting-edge establishment in this very city, the first topless dancers in the United States appeared onstage.

Now this compelling art form was practiced in many major cities, which had followed San Francisco's avant-garde daring, and Junior was eager to enlighten himself by attending such a performance right here where the dance innovation of the century had been born.

By three o'clock, he checked into a famous hotel on Nob Hill. His room offered a panoramic view.

In a fashionable men's shop off the lobby, he purchased several changes of clothes to replace what had been stolen. Alterations were completed and everything was delivered to his room by six o'clock.

By seven, he was savoring a cocktail in the hotel's elegant lounge. A tuxedoed pianist played romantic music with high style.

Several beautiful women, in the company of other men, flirted surreptitiously with Junior. He was accustomed to being an object of desire. This night, however, the only lady he cared about was San Francisco herself, and he wanted to be alone with her.

Dinner was available in the lounge. Junior enjoyed a superb filet mignon with a split of fine Cabernet Sauvignon.

The only bad moment in the evening came when the pianist played “Someone to Watch over Me."

In his mind, Junior saw a quarter turning knuckle over knuckle, and he heard the maniac cop's droning voice: There's a fine George and Ira Gershwin song called “Someone to Watch over Me. “ You ever hear it, Enoch? I'm that someone for you, although not, of course, in a romantic sense.