“Jacob said he wouldn't mind doing it for once."
“Jacob scares people,” Agnes said. “No one would eat a pie that Jacob delivered without having it tested at a lab."
Needles of rain knitted the air and quickly embroidered silvery patterns on the blacktop.
Switching on the windshield wipers, Joey said, “That's the first time I've ever heard you admit that either of your brothers is odd."
Not odd, dear. They're just a little eccentric."
“Like water is a little wet."
Frowning at him, she said, “You don't mind them around, do you, Joey? They're eccentric, but I love them very much.
“So do I,” he admitted. He smiled and shook his head. “Those two make a worrywart life-insurance salesman like me seem just as light hearted as a schoolgirl."
“Your turning into an excellent driver, after all,” she said, winking him.
He was, in fact, a first-rate driver, with an impeccable record at the age of thirty: no traffic citations, no accidents.
His skill behind the wheel and his inborn caution didn't help him, However, when a Ford pickup ran a red traffic light, braked too late, and slid at high speed into the driver's door of the Pontiac.
ROCKING AS IF AFLOAT on troubled waters, abused by an unearthly and tormented sound, Junior Cain imagined a gondola on a black river, a carved dragon rising high at the bow as he had seen on a paperback fantasy novel featuring Vikings in a longboat. The gondolier in this case was not a Viking, but a tall figure in a black robe, his face concealed within a voluminous hood; he didn't pole the boat with the traditional oar but with what appeared to be human bones welded into a staff. The river's course was entirely underground, with a stone vault for a sky, and fires burned on the far shore, whence came the tormenting wail, a cry filled with rage, anguish, and fearsome need.
The truth, as always, was not supernatural: He opened his eyes and discovered that he was in the back of an ambulance. Evidently this was the one intended for Naomi. They would be sending a morgue wagon for her now.
A paramedic, rather than a boatman or a demon, was attending him. The wail was a siren.
His stomach felt as if he had been clubbed mercilessly by a couple of professional thugs with big fists and lead pipes. With each beat, his heart seemed to press painfully against constricting bands, and his throat was raw.
A two-prong oxygen feed was snugged against his nasal septum The sweet, cool flow was welcome. He could still taste the vile mess of which he had rid himself, however, and his tongue and teeth felt as if they were coated with mold.
At least he wasn't vomiting anymore.
Immediately at the thought of regurgitation, his abdominal muscles contracted like those of a laboratory frog zapped by an electric current, and he choked on a rising horror.
What is happening to me.
The paramedic snatched the oxygen feed from his patient's nose and quickly elevated his head, providing a purge towel to catch the thin ejecta.
Junior's body betrayed him as before, and also in new ways that terrified and humiliated him, involving every bodily fluid except cerebrospinal. For a while, inside that rocking ambulance, he wished that he were in a gondola upon the waters of the Styx, his misery at an end.
When the convulsive seizure passed, as he collapsed back on the spattered pillow, shuddering at the stench rising from his hideously fouled clothes, Junior was suddenly struck by an idea that was either madness or a brilliant deductive insight: Naomi, the hateful bitch, she poisoned me!
The paramedic, fingers pressed to the radial artery in Junior's right wrist, must have felt a rocket-quick acceleration in his pulse rate.
Junior and Naomi had taken their dried apricots from the same bag. Reached in the bag without looking. Shook them out into the palms of their hands. She could not have controlled which pieces of fruit he received and which she ate.
Did she poison herself as well? Was it her intention to kill him and commit suicide?
Not cheerful, life-loving, high-spirited, churchgoing Naomi. She saw every day through a golden haze that came from the sun in her heart.
He'd once spoken that very sentiment to her. Golden haze, sun in the heart. His words had melted her, tears had sprung into her eyes, and sex been better than ever.
More likely the poison had been in his cheese sandwich or in his water bottle.
His heart rebelled at the thought of lovely Naomi committing such Sweet-tempered, generous, honest, kind Naomi had surely been incapable of murdering anyone-least of all the man she loved.
Unless she hadn't loved him.
The paramedic pumped the inflation cuff of the sphygmomanometer, and Junior's blood pressure was most likely high enough to induce a stroke, driven skyward by the thought that Naomi's love had been a lie.
Maybe she had just married him for his ... No, that was a dead end. He didn't have any money.
She had loved him, all right. She had adored him. Worshiped would not be too strong a word.
Now that the possibility of treachery had occurred to Junior, however, he couldn't rid himself of suspicion. Good Naomi, who gave immeasurably more to everyone than she took, would forevermore stand in a shadow of doubt in his memory.
After all, you could never really know anyone, not really know every last corner of someone's mind or heart. No human being was perfect.
Even someone of saintly habits and selfless behavior might be a monster in his heart, filled with unspeakable desires, which he might act upon only once or never.
He was all but certain that he himself, for example, would not kill another wife. For one thing, considering that his marriage to Naomi was now stained by the most terrible of doubts, he couldn't imagine how he might ever again trust anyone sufficiently to take the wedding vows.
Junior closed his weary eyes and gratefully submitted as the paramedic wiped his greasy face and his crusted lips with a cool, damp cloth.
Naomi's beautiful countenance rose in his mind, and she looked beautific for a moment, but then he thought he saw a certain slyness in her angelic smile, a disturbing glint of calculation in her once loving eyes.
Losing his cherished wife was devastating, a wound beyond all hope of healing, but this was even worse: having his bright image of her stained by suspicion. Naomi was no longer present to provide comfort and consolation, and now Junior didn't even have untainted memories of her to sustain him. As always, it was not the action that troubled him, but the aftermath.
This soiling of Naomi's memory was a sadness so poignant, so terrible, that he wondered if he could endure it. He felt his mouth tremble and go soft, not with the urge to throw up again, but with something like grief if not grief itself. His eyes filled with tears.
Perhaps the paramedic had given him an injection, a sedative. the howling ambulance rocked along on this most momentous day, Junior Cain wept profoundly but quietly—and achieved temporary peace in a dreamless sleep.
When he woke, he was in a hospital bed, his upper body slightly elevated. The only illumination was provided by a single window: an ashen light too dreary to be called a glow, trimmed into drab ribbons by the tilted blades of a venetian blind. Most of the room lay in shadows.
He still had a sour taste in his mouth, although it was not as disgusting as it had been. All the odors were wonderfully clean and bracing—antiseptics, floor wax, freshly laundered bedsheets-without a whiff of bodily fluids.
He was immensely weary, limp. He felt oppressed, as though a great weight were piled on him. Even keeping his eyes open was tiring.
An IV rack stood beside the bed, dripping fluid into his vein, replacing the electrolytes that he had lost through vomiting, most likely medicating him with an antiemetic as well. His right arm was securely strapped to a supporting board, to prevent him from bending his elbow and accidentally tearing out the needle.
This was a two-bed unit. The second bed was empty.
Junior thought he was alone, but just when he felt capable of summoning the energy to shift to a more comfortable position, he heard a man clear his throat. The phlegmy sound had come from beyond the foot of the bed, from the right corner of the room.
Instinctively, Junior knew that anyone watching over him in the dark could not be a person of the best intentions. Doctors and nurses wouldn't monitor their patients with the lights off.
He was relieved that he hadn't moved his head or made a sound. He wanted to understand as much of the situation as possible before revealing that he was awake.
Because the upper part of the hospital bed was somewhat raised, he didn't have to lift his head from the pillow to study the corner where the phantom waited. He peered beyond the IV rack, past the foot of the adjacent bed.
Junior was lying in the darkest end of the room, farthest from the window, but the comer in question was almost equally shrouded in gloom. He stared for a long time, until his eyes began to ache, before he was at last able to make out the vague, angular lines of an armchair. And in the chair: a shape as lacking in detail as that of the robed and hooded gondolier on the Styx.
He was uncomfortable, achy, thirsty, but he remained utterly still and observant. After a while, he realized that the sense of oppression with which he'd awakened was not entirely a psychological symptom: Something heavy lay across his abdomen. And it was cold-so cold, in fact, that it had numbed his middle to the extent that he hadn't immediately felt the chill of it. Shivers coursed through him. He clenched his jaws to prevent his teeth from chattering and thereby alerting the man in the chair. Although he never took his eyes off the comer, Junior became preoccupied with trying to puzzle out what was draped across his midsection. The mysterious observer made him sufficiently nervous that he couldn't order his thoughts as well as usual, and the effort to prevent the shivers from shaking a sound out of him only further interfered with his ability to reason. The longer that he was unable to identify the frigid object, the more alarmed he became. He almost cried out when into his mind oozed an image of Naomi's dead body, now past the whitest shade of pale, as gray as the faint light at the window and turning pale green in a few places, and cold, all the heat of life gone from her flesh, which was not yet simmering with any of the heat of decomposition that would soon enliven it again.
No. Ridiculous. Naomi wasn't slumped across him. He wasn't sharing his bed with a corpse. That was E.C. Comics stuff, something from a yellowed issue of Tales from the Crypt.
And it wasn't Naomi sitting in the chair, either, not Naomi come to him from the morgue to wreak vengeance. The dead don't live again, neither here nor in some world beyond. Nonsense.
Even if such ignorant superstitions could be true, the visitor was far too quiet and too patient to be the living-dead incarnation of a murdered wife. This was a predatory silence, an animal cunning, not a supernatural hush. This was the elegant stillness of a panther in the brush, the coiled tension of a snake too vicious to give a warning rattle.
Suddenly Junior intuited the identity of the man in the chair. Beyond question, this was the plainclothes police officer with the birthmark.
The salt-and-pepper, brush-cut hair. The pan-flat face. The thick neck.
Instantly to Junior's memory came the eye floating in the port-wine stain, the hard gray iris like a nail in the bloody palm of a crucified man.
Draped across his midsection, the terrible cold weight had chilled his flesh; but now his bone marrow prickled with ice at the thought of the birthmarked detective sitting silently in the dark, watching. Junior would have preferred dealing with Naomi, dead and risen and seriously pissed, rather than with this dangerously patient man.
WITH A CRASH as loud as the dire crack of heaven opening on Judgment Day, the Ford pickup broadsided the Pontiac. Agnes couldn't hear the first fraction of her scream, and not much of the rest of it, either, as I the car slid sideways, tipped, and rolled.
The rain-washed street shimmered greasily under the tires, and the intersection lay halfway up a long hill, so gravity was aligned with fate against them. The driver's side of the Pontiac lifted. Beyond the windshield, the main drag of Bright Beach tilted crazily. The passenger's side slammed against the pavement.
Glass in the door next to Agnes cracked, dissolved. Pebbly blacktop like a dragon flank of glistening scales hissed past the broken window, inches from her face.
Before setting out from home, Joey had buckled his lap belt, but because of Agnes's condition, she hadn't engaged her own. She rammed against the door, pain shot through her right shoulder, and she thought, Oh, Lord, the baby!
Bracing her feet against the floorboards, clutching the seat with her left hand, fiercely gripping the door handle with her right, she prayed, prayed that the baby would be all right, that she would live at least long enough to bring her child into this wonderful world, into this grand creation of endless and exquisite beauty, whether she herself lived past the birth or not.
Onto its roof now, the Pontiac spun as it slid, grinding loudly against the blacktop, and regardless of how determinedly Agnes held on, she was being pulled out of her seat, toward the inverted ceiling and also backward. Her forehead knocked hard into the thin overhead padding, and her back wrenched against the headrest.
She could hear herself screaming once more, but only briefly, because the car was either struck again by the pickup or hit by other traffic or perhaps it collided with a parked vehicle, but whatever the cause, the breath was knocked out of her, and her screams became ragged gasps.
This second impact turned half a roll into a full three-sixty. The Pontiac crunched onto the driver's side and jolted, at last, onto its four tires, jumped a curb, and crumpled its front bumper against the wall of a brightly painted surfboard shop, shattering a display window.
Worry Bear, big as ever behind the steering wheel, slumped side a s in his seat, with his head tipped toward her, his eyes rolled to one and his gaze fixed upon her, blood streaming from his nose. He said, “The baby?"
“All right, I think, all right,” Agnes gasped, but she was terrified that she was wrong, that the child would be stillborn or enter the world damaged.
He didn't move, the Worry Bear, but lay in that curious and surely uncomfortable position, arms slack at his sides, head lolling as though it were too heavy to lift. “Let me ... see you."
She was shaking and so afraid, not thinking clearly, and for a moment she didn't understand what he meant, what he wanted, and then she saw that the window on his side of the car was shattered, too, and that the door beyond him was badly torqued, twisted in its frame. Worse, the side of the Pontiac had burst inward when the pickup plowed into them. With a steel snarl and sheet-metal teeth, it had bitten into Joey, bitten deep, a mechanical shark swimming out of the wet day, shattering ribs, seeking his warm heart.