Nolly was, as usual, “Nolly” to everyone, but here Kathleen was “Mrs. Wulfstan."

They ordered martinis, and when Kathleen, perusing a menu, asked her husband what looked good for dinner, he suggested, “Oysters?"

“Yeah, you'll need 'em. “ Her smile wasn't the least mouse like.

As they savored the icy martinis, she asked about the client, and Nolly said, “He bought the story. I won't be seeing him again."

The adoption records on Seraphim White's baby weren't sealed by law, because custody of the child was being retained by family.

“What if he finds out the truth?” Kathleen worried.

“He'll just think I'm an incompetent detective. If he comes around wanting his five hundred bucks back, I'll give it to him."

A table candle glowed in an amber glass. To Nolly, in this glimmering light, Kathleen's face was more radiant than the flame.

A mutual interest in ballroom dancing had resulted in their introduction when each needed a new partner for a fox-trot and swing competition. Nolly had started taking lessons five years before he had met Kathleen.

“Did the creep finally say why he wants to find this baby?” she asked.

“No. But I'm sure as can be, the kid is better off undiscovered by the likes of him."

“Why's he so sure it's a boy?” she asked.

“Search me. But I didn't tell him different. The less he knows, the better. I can't figure his motivation, but if you were tracking this guy by his spoor, you'd want to look for the imprint of cloven hooves."

“Be careful, Sherlock."

“He doesn't scare me,” Nolly said.

“Nobody does. But a good porkpie hat isn't cheap."

“He offered me ten thousand bucks to burglarize Catholic Family Services."

“So you told him your going rate was twenty?"

Later, at home in bed, after Nolly proved the value of oysters, he and Kathleen lay holding hands. Following a companionable silence, he said, “It's a mystery."

“What's that?"

“Why you're with me."

“Kindness, gentleness, humility, strength."

“That's enough?"

” Silly man."

” Cain looks like a movie star."

” Does he have nice teeth?” she asked. “They're good. Not perfect."

” So kiss me, Mr. Perfect."

Chapter 54

EVERY MOTHER BELIEVES that her baby is breathtakingly beautiful. She will remain unshakably convinced of this even if she lives to be a centenarian and her child has been harrowed by eight hard decades of gravity and experience.

Every mother also believes that her baby is smarter than other babies. Sadly, time and the child's choices in life usually require her to adjust her opinion as she never will in the matter of physical beauty.

Month by month during Barty's first year, Agnes's belief in his exceptional intelligence was only confirmed by his development. By the end of the second month of life, most babies will smile in response to a smile, and they are able to smile spontaneously in the fourth month. Barty was smiling frequently in his second week. In the third month, many babies laugh out loud, but Barty's first laugh came in his sixth week.

At the beginning of his third month, instead of at the end of his fifth, he was combining vowels and consonants: “ba-ba-ba, ga-ga-ga, la-la-la, ca-ca-ca."

At the end of his fourth month, instead of in his seventh, he said “Mama,” and clearly knew what it meant. He repeated it when he wanted to get her attention.

He was able to play peekaboo in his fifth month instead of his eighth, stand while holding on to something in his sixth instead of eighth.

By eleven months, his vocabulary had expanded to nineteen words, by Agnes's count: an age when even a precocious child usually spoke three or four at most.

His first word after mama was papa, which she taught him while showing him pictures of Joey. His third word: pie.

His name for Edom was E-bomb. Maria became Me-ah.

When Bartholomew first said “Kay-jub,” and held out one hand toward his uncle, Jacob surprised Agnes by crying with happiness.

Barty began toddling at ten months, walking well at eleven.

By his twelfth month, he was toilet-trained, and every time that he had the need to use his colorful little bathroom chair, he proudly and repeatedly announced to everyone, “Barty potty."

On January 1, 1966, five days before Barty's first birthday, Agnes discovered him, in his playpen, engaged in unusual toe play. He wasn't simply, randomly tickling or tugging on his toes. Between thumb and forefinger, he firmly pinched the little piggy on his left foot, and then one by one pinched his way to the biggest toe. His attention shifted to his right foot, on which he first pinched the big toe before systematically working down to the smallest.

Throughout this procedure, Barty appeared solemn and thoughtful. When he had squeezed the tenth toe, he stared at it, brow furrowed.

He held one hand in front of his face, studying his fingers. The other hand.

He pinched all his toes in the same order as before.

And then he pinched them in order again.

Agnes had the craziest notion that he was counting them, when at is age, Of course, he would have no concept of numbers.

“Honey,” she said, crouching to peer at him through the vertical slats of the playpen, “what're you doing?"

He smiled and held up one foot.

“Those are your toes,” she said.

“Toes,” he repeated immediately in his sweet, piping voice. This was a new word for him.

Reaching between the slats, Agnes tickled the pink piggies on his left foot. “Toes."

Barty giggled. “Toes."

“You're a good boy, smarty Barty."

He pointed at his feet. “Toes, toes, toes, toes, toes, toes, toes, toes, toes, toes."

“A good boy, but not yet a great conversationalist."

Raising one hand, wiggling the fingers, he said, “Toes, toes, toes, toes, toes."

“Fingers,” she corrected.

“Toes, toes, toes, toes, toes."

“Well, perhaps I'm wrong."

Five days later, on Barty's birthday morning, when Agnes and Edom were in the kitchen, making preparations for the visits that had earned her the affectionate title of Pie Lady, Barty was in his highchair, eating a vanilla wafer lightly dampened with milk. Each time a crumb fell from the cookie, the boy plucked it off the tray and neatly conveyed it to his tongue.

Lined up on the kitchen table were green-grape-and-apple pies. The thick domed crusts, with their deeply fluted edges, were the coppery gold of precious coins.

Barty pointed at the table. “Pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie."

“Not yours,” Agnes advised. “We've got one of our own in the refrigerator."

“Pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie,” Barty repeated in the same tone of self-satisfied delight that he used when announcing “Barty potty."

“No one starts the day with pie, “Agnes said. “You get pie after dinner."

Thrusting his finger toward the table with each repetition of the word, Barty happily insisted, “Pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie."

Edom had turned away from the box of groceries that he was packing. Frowning at the pies, he said, “You don't think. . .

Agnes glanced at her brother. “Think what?"

“Couldn't be,” said Edom.

“Pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie."

Edom removed two of the pies from the table and put them on the counter near the ovens.

After following his uncle's movements, Barty looked at the table again. “Pie, pie, pie, pie, pie, pie."

Edom transferred two more pies from table to counter.

Thrusting his finger four times at the table, Barty said, “Pie, pie, pie, pie."

Although her hands were shaking and her knees felt as though they might buckle, Agnes lifted two pies off the table.

Jabbing his forefinger at each of the remaining treats, Barty said, “Pie, pie."

Agnes returned the two that she had lifted off the table.

“Pie, pie, pie, pie.” Barty grinned at her.

Amazed, Agnes gaped at her baby. The throat lump that blocked her speech was part pride, part awe, and part fear, though she didn't at once understand why this wonderful precociousness should frighten her.

One, two, three, four-Edom took away all the remaining pies. He pointed at Barty and then at the empty table.

Barty sighed as though disappointed. “No pie."

“Oh, Lord,” said Agnes.

“Another year,” Edom said, “and instead of me, Barty can drive the car for you."

Her fear, Agnes suddenly realized, arose from her father's often expressed conviction that an attempt to excel at anything was a sin that would one day be grievously punished. All forms of amusement were sinful, by his way of thinking, and all those who sought even the simplest entertainment were lost souls; however, those who desired to amuse others were the worse sinners, because they were overflowing with pride, striving to shine, eager to make themselves into false gods, to be praised and adored as only God should be adored. Actors, musicians, singers, novelists were doomed to hell by the very acts of creation which, in their egomania, they saw as the equal of their Creator's work. Striving to excel at anything, in fact, was a sign of corruption in the soul, whether one wanted to be recognized as a superior carpenter or car mechanic, or a grower of prize roses. Talent, in her father's view, was not a gift from God, but from the devil, meant to distract us from prayer, penitence, and duty.

Without excellence, of course, there would be no civilization, no progress, no joy; and Agnes was surprised that this sharp bur of her father's philosophy had stuck deep in her subconscious, prickling and worrying her unnecessarily. She'd thought that she was entirely clean of his influence.

If her beautiful son was to be a prodigy of any kind, she would thank God for his talent and would do anything she could to help him achieve his destiny.

She approached the kitchen table and swept her hand across it, to emphasize its emptiness.

Barty followed the movement of her hand, raised his gaze to her eyes, hesitated, and then said questioningly, “No pie?"

“Exactly,” she said, beaming at him.

Basking in her smile, the boy exclaimed, “No pie!"

“No pie!” Agnes agreed. She parenthesized his head with her hands and punctuated his sweet face with kisses.

Chapter 55

FOR AMERICANS OF Chinese descent-and San Francisco has a large Chinese population-1965 was the Year of the Snake. For Junior Cain, it was the Year of the Gun, though it didn't start out that way.

His first year in San Francisco was an eventful one for the nation and the world. Winston Churchill, arguably the greatest man of the century thus far, died. The United States launched the first air strikes against North Vietnam, and Lyndon Johnson raised troop levels to 150,000 in that conflict. A Soviet cosmonaut was the first to take a space walk outside an orbiting craft. Race riots raged in Watts for five fiery days. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law. Sandy Koufax, a Los Angeles Dodger, pitched a perfect game, in which no hitter reached first base. T. S. Eliot died, and Junior purchased one of the poet's works through the Book-of-the-Month Club. Other famous people passed away: Stan Laurel, Nat King Cole, Le Corbusier, Albert Schweitzer, Somerset Maugham.... Indira Gandhi became the first woman prime minister of India, and the Beatles' inexplicable and annoying success rolled on and on.

Aside from purchasing the T S. Eliot book, which he hadn't found time to read, Junior was only peripherally aware of current events, because they were, after all, current, while he tried always to focus on the future. The news of the day was but a faint background music to him, like a song on a radio in another apartment.

He lived high, on Russian Hill, in a limestone-clad building with carved Victorian detail. His one-bedroom unit included a roomy kitchen with breakfast nook and a spacious living room with windows looking down on twisty Lombard Street.

Memory of the Spartan decor of Thomas Vanadium's house lingered with Junior, and he addressed his living space with the detective's style in mind. He installed a minimum of furniture, though all new and of higher quality than the junk in Vanadium's residence: sleek, modem, Danish-pecan wood and nappy oatmeal-colored upholstery.

The walls were barren. The only art in these rooms was a single sculpture. Junior was taking university extension courses in art appreciation and almost daily haunting the city's countless galleries, constantly deepening and refining his knowledge. He intended to refrain from acquiring a collection until he was as expert on the subject as any director of any museum in the city.

The one piece he had purchased was by a young Bay Area artist, Bavol Poriferan, about whom art critics nationwide were in agreement: He was destined for a long and significant career. The sculpture had cost over nine thousand dollars, an extravagance for a man trying to live on the income of his hard-won and prudently invested fortune, but its presence in his living room immediately identified him, to cognoscenti, as a person of taste and cutting-edge sensibilities.

The six-foot-tall statue was of a nude woman, formed from scrap metal, some of it rusted and otherwise corroded. The feet were made from gear wheels of various sizes and from bent blades of broken meat cleavers. Pistons, pipes, and barbed wire formed her legs. She was busty: hammered soup pots as breasts, corkscrews as nipples. Rake-tine hands were crossed defensively over the misshapen bosom. In a face sculpted from bent forks and fan blades, empty black eye sockets glared with hideous suffering, and a wide-mouthed shriek accused the world with a silent but profound cry of horror.

Occasionally, when Junior returned home from a day of gallery hopping or an evening at a restaurant, Industrial Woman-the artist's title-scared away his mellow mood. More than once, he'd cried out in alarm before realizing this was just his prized Poriferan.

Waking from a bad dream, he sometimes thought he heard the ratcheting of gear-wheel feet. The scrape and creak of rusted iron joints. The clink of rake-tine fingers rattling against one another.

Usually, he remained still, tense, listening, until enough silence convinced him that the sounds he'd heard had been in the dream, not in the real world. If silence didn't settle him, he went into the living room, only to discover that she was always where he had left her, fork-and-fan-blade face wrenched in a soundless scream.

This is, of course, the purpose of art: to disturb you, to leave you uneasy with yourself and wary of the world, to undermine your sense of reality in order to make you reconsider all that you think you know. The finest art should shatter you emotionally, devastate you intellectually, leave you physically ill, and fill you with loathing for those cultural traditions that bind us and weigh us down and drown us in a sea of conformity. Junior had learned this much, already, from his art appreciation course.