Perhaps Dr. Parkhurst, too, was disturbed by this fascistic and fanatical spew sampling, because he became brusque. “I have a few appointments to keep. By the time I make evening rounds, I expect Mr. Cain to be conscious, but I'd rather you didn't disturb him until tomorrow."

Instead of responding to the physician's request, Vanadium said, “One more question, Doctor. If it was acute nervous emesis, as you suggest, wouldn't there have been another cause besides his anguish over the traumatic loss of his wife?"

“I can't imagine any more-obvious source of extreme anxiety."

“Guilt,” said the detective. “If he killed her, wouldn't an overwhelming sense of guilt be as likely as anguish to cause acute nervous emesis?"

“I couldn't say with any confidence. None of my degrees is in psychology."

“Humor me with an educated guess, Doctor."

“I'm a healer, not a prosecutor. I'm not in the habit of making accusations, especially not against my own patients."

“Wouldn't dream of asking you to make it a habit. Just this one time. If anguish, why not guilt?"

A Dr. Parkhurst considered the question, which he ought to have dismissed  out of hand. “Well ... yes, I suppose so.” Spineless, unethical quack bastard, Junior thought bitterly.

“I believe I'll just wait here until Mr. Cain wakes,” Vanadium said. “I've nothing more pressing to do."

An authoritative note came into Parkhurst's voice, that emperor-of- tone that probably was taught in a special medical-school course on intimidation, though he was striking this attitude a little too late to be entirely effective. “My patient is in a fragile state. He mustn't be agitated, Detective. I really don't want you questioning him until tomorrow at the earliest."

“All right, of course. I won't question him. I'll just ... observe."

Judging by the sounds Vanadium made, Junior figured that the cop had settled once more into the armchair.

Junior hoped that Parkhurst was more skilled at the practice of medicine than he was at browbeating.

After a long hesitation, the physician said, “You could switch on that lamp."

“I'll be fine."

“It won't disturb the patient."

“I like the dark,” Vanadium replied.

“This is most irregular."

“Isn't it, though,” Vanadium agreed.

Finally wimping out completely, Parkhurst left the room. The heavy door sighed softly shut, silencing the squeak of rubber-soled shoes, the swish of starched uniforms, and other noises made by the busy nurses in the corridor.

Mrs. Cain's little boy felt small, weak, sorry for himself, and terribly alone. The detective was still here, but his presence only aggravated Junior's sense of isolation.

He missed Naomi. She'd always known exactly the right thing to say or do, improving his mood with a few words or with just her touch, when he was feeling down.

Chapter 12

THUNDER RATTLED like hoofbeats, and dapple-gray clouds drove  eastward in the slow-motion gallop of horses in a dream. Bright Beach  was blurred and distorted by rain as full of tricks as funhouse mirrors.

While sliding toward twilight, the January afternoon seemed also to  have slipped out of the familiar world and into a strange dimension.

With Joey dead beside her and the baby possibly dying in her  womb, trapped in the Pontiac because the doors were torqued in their frames and wedged shut, racked by pain from the battering she had Agnes refused to indulge in either fear or tears. She gave herself to prayer instead, asking for the wisdom to understand why this was happening to her and for the strength to cope with her pain and with her loss.

Witnesses first to the scene, unable to open either door of the  coupe, spoke encouragingly to her through the broken-out windows.

She knew some of them, not others. They were all well-meaning and concerned, some without rain gear and getting soaked, but their natural  curiosity lent a special shine to their eyes that made Agnes feel as  though she were an animal on exhibit, without dignity, her most private  agony exposed for the entertainment of strangers.

When the first police arrived, followed closely by an ambulance, they discussed the possibility of taking Agnes out of the car through the  Missing windshield. Considering that the space was pinched by the crumpled roof, however, and in light of Agnes's pregnancy and imminent second-stage labor, the severe contortions involved in this extraction would be too dangerous.

Rescuers appeared with hydraulic pry bars and metal cutting saws. Civilians were shepherded back to the sidewalks.

Thunder less distant now. Around her-the crackle of police radios, the clang of tools being readied, the skirl of a stiffening wind. Dizzying, these sounds. She couldn't shut her ears against them, and when she closed her eyes, she felt as though she were spinning.

No scent of gasoline fouled the air. Apparently, the tank had not burst. Sudden immolation seemed unlikely-but only an hour ago so had Joey's untimely death.

Rescuers encouraged her to move safely away from the passenger's door, as far as possible, to avoid being inadvertently injured as they tried to break in to her. She could go nowhere but to her dead husband.

Huddling against Joey's body, his head lolling against her shoulder, Agnes thought crazily of their early dates and the first years of their marriage. They had occasionally gone to the drive-in, sitting close, holding hands as they watched John Wayne in The Searchers, David Niven in Around the World in 80 Days. They were so young then, sure they would live forever, and they were still young now, but for one of them, forever had arrived.

A rescuer instructed her to close her eyes and turn her face away from the passenger's door. He shoved a quilted mover's blanket through the window and arranged this protective padding along her right side.

Clutching the blanket, she thought of the funerary lap robes that red the legs of the deceased in their caskets, for she felt sometimes cove half dead. Both feet in this world-yet walking beside Joey on a strange road Beyond.

The hum, the buzz, the rattle, the grinding of machinery, power tools. Sheet steel and tougher structural steel snarling against the teeth of a metal-cutting saw.

Beside her, the passenger's door barked and shrieked as though alive as though suffering, and these sounds were uncannily like the cries of torment that only Agnes could hear in the haunted chambers of her heart.

The car shuddered, wrenched steel screamed, and a cry of triumph rose from the rescuers.

A man with beautiful celadon eyes, his face beaded with jewels of rain, reached through the cut-away door and removed the blanket from Agnes.

“You're all right, we've got you now.” His soft yet reverberant voice was so unearthly that his words seemed to convey an assurance more profound and more comforting than their surface meaning.

This saving spirit retreated, and in his place came a young paramedic in a black-and-yellow rain slicker over hospital whites. “Just want to be sure there's no spinal injury before we move you. Can you squeeze my hands?"

Squeezing as instructed, she said, “My baby might be ... hurt."

As though giving voice to her worst fear had made it come true, Agnes was seized by a contraction so painful that she cried out and clutched the paramedic's hands tightly enough to make him wince. She felt a peculiar swelling within, then an awful looseness, pressure followed at once by release.

The gray pants of her jogging suit, speckled with rain that had blown in through the shattered windshield, were suddenly soaked. Her water had broken.

Darker than water, another stain spread across the lap and down the legs of the pants. It was the color of port wine when filtered through the gray fabric of the jogging suit, but even in her semi-delirious state, she knew that she was not the vessel for a miracle birth, was not bringing forth a baby in a flush of wine, but in a gush of blood.

From her reading, she knew that amniotic fluid should be clear. A few traces of blood in it should not necessarily be alarming, but here were more than traces. Here were thick red-black streams.

“My baby,” she pleaded.

Already another contraction racked her, so intense that the pain was not limited to her lower back and abdomen, but seared the length of her sphic, like an electric current leaping vertebra to vertebra. Her breath pinched in her chest as though her lungs had collapsed.

Second-stage labor was supposed to last about fifty minutes in a woman bearing her first child, as little as twenty if the birth was not the first, but she sensed that Bartholomew was not going to come into the world by the book.

Urgency gripped the paramedics. The rescuers' equipment and the pieces of the car door were dragged out of the way to make a path for a gurney, its wheels clattering across pavement littered with debris.

Agnes was not fully aware of how she was lifted from the car, but she remembered looking back and seeing Joey's body huddled in the tangled shadows of the wreckage, remembered reaching toward him, desperate for the anchorage that he had always given her, and then she was on the gurney and moving.

Dusk had arrived, strangling the day, and the throttled sky hung low, as blue-black as bruises. The streetlights had come on. Gouts of red light from pulsing emergency beacons alchemized the rain from teardrops into showers of blood.

The rain was colder than it had been earlier, almost as icy as sleet. Or perhaps she was far hotter than before and felt the chill more keenly on her fevered skin. Each droplet seemed to hiss against her face, to sizzle against her hands, with which she tightly gripped her swollen abdomen as if she could deny Death the baby that it had come to collect.

As one of the two paramedics hurried to the ambulance van and scrambled into the driver's seat, Agnes suffered another contraction so severe that for a tremulous moment, at the peak of the agony, she almost lost consciousness.

The second medic wheeled the gurney to the rear of the van, calling for one of the policemen to accompany him to the hospital. Apparently, he needed help if he was to deliver the baby and also stabilize Apes while en route.

She only half understood their frantic conversation, partly because the ability to concentrate was draining from her along with her lifeblood, but also because she was distracted by Joey. He was no longer in the wreck, but standing at the open rear door of the ambulance.

He wasn't torn and broken any longer. His clothes weren't bloodstained.

Indeed, the winter storm had dampened neither his hair nor his clothes. The rain appeared to slide away from him a millimeter before contact, as though the water and the man were composed of matter and antimatter that must either repel each other or, on contact, trigger a cataclysmic blast that would shatter the very foundation of the universe.

Joey was in his Worry Bear mode, brows furrowed, eyes pinched at the comers.

Agnes wanted to reach out and touch him, but she found that she didn't have the strength to raise her arm. She was no longer holding her belly, either. Both hands lay at her sides, palms up, and even the simple act of curling her fingers required surprising effort and concentration.

When she tried to speak to him, she could no more easily raise her voice than she could extend a hand to him.

A policeman scrambled into the back of the van.

As the paramedic shoved the gurney across the step-notched bumper, its collapsible legs scissored down. Agnes was rolled headfirst into the ambulance.

Click-click. The wheeled stretcher locked in place.

Either operating on first-aid knowledge of his own or responding to an instruction from the medic, the cop slipped a foam pillow under Agnes's head.

Without the pillow, she wouldn't have been able to lift her head to look toward the back of the ambulance.

Joey was standing just outside, gazing in at her. His blue eyes were seas where sorrow sailed.

Or perhaps the sorrow was less sadness than yearning. He had to move on, but he was loath to begin this strange journey without her.

As the storm failed to dampen Joey, so the rotating red-and-white beacons on the surrounding police vehicles did not touch him. The  falling raindrops were diamonds and then rubies, diamonds and then rubies.

Joey was not illuminated by the light of this world. Agnes realized that he was translucent, his skin like fine milk glass through which shone a light from elsewhere.

The paramedic pulled shut the door, leaving Joey outside in the night, in the storm, in the wind between worlds.

With a jolt, the ambulance shifted gears, and they were rolling.

Great hobnailed wheels of pain turned through Agnes, driving her into darkness for a moment.

When pale light came to her eyes again, she heard the paramedic and the cop talking anxiously as they worked on her, but she couldn't understand their words. They seemed to be speaking not just a foreign tongue but an ancient language unheard on earth for a thousand years.

Embarrassment flushed her when she realized that the paramedic had cut away the pants of her jogging suit. She was na*ed from the waist down.

Into her fevered mind came an image of a milk-glass infant, as translucent as Joey at the back door of the ambulance. Fearing that this vision meant her child would be stillborn, she said, My baby, but no sound escaped her.

Pain again, but not a mere contraction. Such an excruciation, unendurable. The hobnailed wheels ground through her once more, as though she were being broken on a medieval torture device.

She could see the two men talking, their rain-wet faces serious and  scarred with worry, but she was no longer able to hear their voices.

In fact, she could hear nothing at all: not the shrieking siren, not  the hum of the tires, not the click-tick-rattle of the equipment packed  into the storage shelves and the cabinets to the right of her. She was as  deaf as the dead.

Instead of falling down, down into another brief darkness, as she expected, Agnes found herself drifting up. A frightening sense of weightlessness overcame her.

She had never thought of herself as being tied to her body, as being  knotted to bone and muscle, but now she felt tethers snapping. Suddenly  she was buoyant, unrestrained, floating up from the padded stretcher, until she was  looking down on her body from the ceiling of the ambulance.

Acute terror suffused her, a humbling perception that she was a  fragile construct, something less substantial than mist, small and weak  and helpless. She was filled with the panicky apprehension that she  would be diffused like the molecules of a scent, dispersed into such a  vast volume of air that she would cease to exist.

Her fear was fed, too, by the sight of the blood that saturated the  padding of the stretcher on which her body lay. So much blood. Oceans.

Into the eerie hush came a voice. No other sound. No siren. No  hum or swish of tires on rain-washed pavement. Only the voice of the  paramedic: “Her heart's stopped."