Tom Vanadium rose to his feet and, with one hand on Barty's shoulder, he surveyed the faces of those gathered on the porch. Most of these people were such new acquaintances that they were all but strangers to him. Nevertheless, for the first time since his early days in St. Anselmo's Orphanage, he'd found a place where he belonged. This felt like home.
Stepping forward, Agnes said, “When Barty holds my hand and walks me through the rain, I get wet even while he stays dry. The same for all the rest of us here ... except Angel."
Already, the girl had taken Barty's hand. The two kids descended from the porch into the rain. They didn't circle the oak, but stopped at the foot of the steps and turned to face the house.
Now that Tom knew what to look for, the gloom couldn't conceal the incredible truth.
They were in the rain, the solid-glassy-pounding-roaring rain, every bit as much as Gene Kelly had been when he danced and sang and capered along a storm-soaked city street in that movie, but whereas the actor had been saturated by the end of the number, these two children remained dry. Tom's eyes strained to resolve this paradox, even though he knew that all miracles defied resolution.
“Okay, munchkins,” Celestina said, “time for Act Two."
Barty let go of the girl's hand, and although he remained dry, the storm at once found her where she'd been hiding in the silver-black folds of its curtains.
Dressed entirely in a shade of pink that darkened to rouge when wet, Angel squealed and deserted Barty. Spotted-streaked-splashed, with false tears on her cheeks, with a darkly glimmering crown of rain jewels in her hair, she raced up the steps as though she were a princess abandoned by her coachman, and allowed herself to be scooped into her grandmother's arms.
“You'll catch pneumonia,” Grace said disapprovingly.
“And what wonders can Angel perform?” Tom asked Celestina.
“None that we've seen yet."
“Just that she's aware of all the ways things are,” Maria added. “Like you and Barty."
As Barty climbed to the porch without benefit of the railing and held out his right hand, Paul Damascus said, “Tom, we're wondering if Barty can extend to you the protection he gives to Angel in the rain. Maybe he can ... since the three of you share this ... this awareness, this insight, or whatever you want to call it. But he won't know until he tries."
Tom joined hands with the boy—such a small hand yet so firm in its determined grip-but they didn't have to descend all the way to the lawn before they knew that the prodigy's invisible cloak wouldn't accommodate him as it did the girl. Cool, drenching rain pounded Tom at once, and he scooped Barty off the steps as Grace had gathered up Angel, returning to the porch with him.
Agnes met them, pulling Grace and Angel to her side. Her eyes were bright with excitement. “Tom, you're a man of faith, even if you've sometimes been troubled in it. Tell me what you make of all this."
He knew what she made of it, all right, and he could see that the others on the porch knew as well, and likewise he could see that all of them wanted to hear him confirm the conclusion at which Agnes had arrived long before he'd come here with Wally this evening. Even in the dining room, before the proof in the rain, Tom had recognized the special bond between the blind boy and this buoyant little girl. In fact, he couldn't have arrived at any conclusion different from the one Agnes reached, because like her, he believed that the events of every day revealed mysterious design if you were willing to see it, that every fife had profound purpose.
“Of all the things I might be meant to do with my life,” he told Agnes, “I believe nothing will matter more than the small part I've had in bringing together these two children."
Although the only light on the back porch came from the pale beams that filtered out through the curtains on the kitchen windows, all these faces seemed luminous, almost preternaturally aglow, like the kiln-fired countenances of saints in a dark church, lit solely by the flames of votive candies. The rain-a music of sorts, and the jasmine and incense, and the moment sacred.
Looking from one to another of his companions, Tom said, “When I think of everything that had to happen to bring us here tonight, the tragedies as well as the happy turns of fortune, when I think of the many ways things might have been, with all of us scattered and some of us never having met, I know we belong here, for we've arrived against all odds.” His gaze traveled back to Agnes, and he gave her the answer that he knew she hoped to hear. “This boy and this girl were born to meet, for reasons only time will reveal, and all of us ... we're the instruments of some strange destiny."
A sense of fellowship in extraordinary times drew everyone closer, to hug, to touch, to share the wonder. For a long moment, even in the symphony of the storm, in spite of all the plink-tink-hiss-plop-rattle that arose from every rain-beaten work of man and nature, they seemed to stand here in a hush as deep as Tom had ever heard.
Then Angel said, “Will you throw the pig now?"
THE MORNING THAT it happened was bright and blue in March, two months after Barty took Angel for a dry walk in wet weather, seven weeks after Celestina married Wally, and five weeks after the happy newlyweds completed their purchase of the Galloway house next door to the Lampion place. Selma Galloway, retired from a professorship years earlier, had subsequently retired further, taking advantage of the equity in her long-owned home to buy a little condo on the beach in nearby Carlsbad.
Celestina looked out a kitchen window and saw Agnes in the Lampion driveway, where the three-vehicle caravan was assembled. She was loading her station wagon.
After moving all of a hundred feet, Celestina and Wally-with Grace fretting that someone would be hurt-had torn down the high stave fence between properties, for theirs had become one family with many names: Lampion, White, Lipscomb, Isaacson. When backyards were joined and a connecting walkway poured, Barty's travels from house to house were greatly simplified, and regular visits by the Gonzalez, Damascus, and Vanadium branches of the clan were also facilitated.
“Agnes has the jump on us, Mom."
At the open kitchen door, arms laden with a stack of four bakery boxes, her mother said, “Will you get those last four pies for me there on the table? And don't jostle them, dear."
“Oh, that's me, all right. I'm on the FBIs most-wanted list for criminal pie jostling."
“Well, you ought to be,” Grace said, taking her pies out to the Suburban that Wally had bought solely for this enterprise.
Trying not to be a wicked jostler, Celestina followed.
Filled with the songs of swallows that evidently preferred these precincts to the more famous address of San Juan Capistrano, this mild March morning was perfect for pie deliveries. Agnes and Grace had produced a bakery's worth of glorious vanilla-almond pies and coffee toffee pies.
Under Celestina's guidance, the menfolk-Wally, Edom, Jacob, Paul, Tom-had packed cartons of canned and dry goods, plus numerous boxes of new spring clothing for the children on their route. All those items had been loaded into the vehicles the previous evening.
Easter still lay a few weeks away, but already Celestina had begun decorating more than a hundred baskets, so that nothing would need to be done at the last minute except add the candy. Her living room was a warren of baskets, ribbons, bows, beads, bangles, shredded cellophane in green and purple and yellow and pink, and decorative little plush-toy bunnies and baby chicks.
She devoted half her work time to the neighbors-in-need route that Agnes had established and steadily expanded, the other half to her painting. She was in no rush to mount a new show; anyway, she didn't dare renew contact with the Greenbaum Gallery or with anyone at all from her past life, until the police found Enoch Cain.
Truly, the time spent helping Agnes had given her uncountable new subjects for paintings and had begun to bring to her work a new depth that excited her. “When you pour out your pockets into the pockets of others,” Agnes had once said, “you just wind up richer in the morning than you were the night before."
As Celestina and her mother loaded the last of the pies into the ice chests in the Suburban, Paul and Agnes came back from her station wagon at the head of the caravan.
“Ready to roll?” Agnes asked.
Paul checked the back of the Suburban, since he fancied himself the wagonmaster. He wanted to be sure that the goods were loaded in such a way that they were unlikely to slide or be damaged. “Packed tight. Looks just fine,” he declared, and closed the tailgate door.
From her Volkswagen bus in the middle of the line, Maria joined them. “In case we get separated, Agnes, I don't have an itinerary."
Wagonmaster Damascus at once produced one.
“Where's Wally?” Maria asked.
In answer, Wally came running with his heavy medical bag, as he was vow doctor to some people on the pie route. “The weather's a lot better than I expected, so I went back to change into lighter clothes."
Even a cool day on the pie route could produce a good sweat by journey's end, because with the addition of the men to this ambitious project, they now not only made deliveries but also performed some chores that were a problem for the elderly or disabled.
“Let's roll 'em. out,” Paul said, and he returned to the station wagon to ride shotgun beside Agnes.
In the Suburban with Wally and Grace, as they waited to hit the trail, Celestina said, “He took her to a movie again, Tuesday night."
Wally said, “Who, Paul?"
“Who else? I think there's romance in the air. The cow-eyed way he looks at her, she could knock his knees out from under him just by giving him a wink."
“Don't gossip,” Grace admonished from the backseat.
“You're one to talk,” Celestina said. “Who was it told us they were sitting hand in hand on the front-porch swing."
“That wasn't gossip,” Grace insisted. “I was just telling you that Paul got the swing repaired and rehung."
“And when you were shopping with her and she bought him that sport shirt just for no reason at all, because she thought he'd look nice in it?"
“I only told you about that,” said Grace, “because it was a very handsome shirt, and I thought you might want to get one for Wally."
“Oh, Wally, I am worried. I'm deeply worried. My mama is going to buy herself a first-class ticket to the fiery pit if she doesn't stop this prevaricatin'."
“I give it three months,” Grace said, “before he proposes."
Turning in her seat, grinning at her mother, Celestina said, “One month."
“If he and Agnes were your age, I'd agree. But she's got ten years on you, and he's got twenty, and no previous generations were as wild as yours."
Marrying white men and everything,” Wally teased.
“Exactly,” Grace replied.
“Five weeks, maximum,” Celestina said, revising her prediction upward.
“Ten weeks,” her mother countered.
“What could I win?” Celestina asked.
“I'll do your share of the housework for a month. If I'm closer to the date, you clean up all my pie-baking and other kitchen messes for a month-the bowls and pans and mixers, everything."
At the head of the line, Paul waved a red handkerchief out of the window of the station wagon.
Shifting the Suburban out of park, Wally said, “I didn't know Baptists indulged in wagering."
“This isn't wagering,” Grace declared.
“That's right,” Celestina told Wally. “This isn't wagering. What's wrong with you?"
“If it isn't wagering,” he wondered, “what is it?"
Grace said, “Mother-and-daughter bonding."
“Yeah. Bonding,” Celestina agreed.
The station wagon rolled out, the Volkswagen bus followed it, and Wally brought up the rear. “Wagons, ho!” he announced. The morning that it happened, Barty ate breakfast in the Lampion kitchen with Angel, Uncle Jacob, and two brainless friends.
Jacob cooked corn bread, cheese-and-parsley omelettes, and crisp home fries with a dash of onion salt.
The round table seated six, but they required only three chairs, because the two brainless friends were a pair of Angel's dolls.
While Jacob ate, he browsed through a new coffee-table book on dam disasters. He talked more to himself than to Barty and Angel, as he spot-read the text and looked at pictures. “Oh, my,” he would say in sonorous tones. Or sadly, sadly: “Oh, the horror of it.” Or with indignation: “Criminal. Criminal that it was built so poorly.” Sometimes he clucked his tongue in his cheek or sighed or groaned in commiseration.
Being blind had few consolations, but Barty found that not being able to look at his uncles' files and books was one of them. In the past, he never really, in his heart, wanted to see those pictures of dead people roasted in theater fires and drowned bodies floating in flooded streets, but a few times he peeked. His mom would have been ashamed of him if she'd discovered his transgression. But the mystery of death had an undeniable creepy allure, and sometimes a good Father Brown detective story simply didn't satisfy his curiosity. He always regretted looking at those photos and reading the grim accounts of disaster, and now blindness spared him that regret.
With Angel at breakfast, instead of just Uncle Jacob, at least Barty had someone to talk to, even if she did insist on speaking more often through her dolls than directly. Apparently, the dolls were on the table, propped up with bowls. The first, Miss Pixie Lee, had a high-pitched, squeaky voice. The second, Miss Velveeta Cheese, spoke in a three year-old's idea of what a throaty-voiced, sophisticated woman sounded like, although to Barty's ear, this was more suitable to a stuffed bear.
“You look very, very handsome this morning, Mr. Barty, “ squeaked Pixie Lee, who was something of a flirt. “You look like a big movie star “Are you enjoying your breakfast, Pixie Lee?"
I wish we could have Kix or Cheerios with chocolate milk.
“Well, Uncle Jacob doesn't understand kids. Anyway, this is pretty good stuff."
Jacob grunted, but probably not because he'd heard what had been said about him, more likely because he'd just turned the page to find a photo of dead cattle piled up like driftwood against the American Legion Hall in some flood-ravaged town in Arkansas.
Outside, engines fired up, and the pie caravan pulled out of the driveway.
“In my home in Georgia, we eat Froot Loops with chocolate milk for dinner “