Far below Agnes, down there in the land of the living, light glimmered along the barrel of a hypodermic syringe in the hand of the paramedic, glinted from the tip of the needle.


The cop had unzipped the top of her jogging suit and pulled up the roomy T-shirt she wore under it, exposing her breasts.


The paramedic put aside the needle, having used it, and grabbed the paddles of a defibrillator.


Agnes wanted to tell them that all their efforts would be to no avail, that they should cease and desist, be kind and let her go. She had no reason to stay here anymore. She was moving on to be with her dead husband and her dead baby, moving on to a place where there was no pain, where no one was as poor as Maria Elena Gonzalez, where no one lived with fear like her brothers Edom and Jacob, where everyone spoke a single language and had all the blueberry pies they needed.


She embraced the darkness.


Chapter 13


AFTER DR. PARKHURST departed, a silence lay on the hospital  room, heavier and colder than the ice bags that were draped across Junior's midsection.


After a while, he dared to crack his eyelids. Pressing against his eyes was a blackness as smooth and as unrelenting as any known by a blind man. Not even a ghost of light haunted the night beyond the window, and the slats of the venetian blind were as hidden from view as the meatless ribs under Death's voluminous black robe.


From the comer armchair, as if he could see so well in the dark that he knew Junior's eyes were open, Detective Thomas Vanadium said, “Did you hear my entire conversation with Dr. Parkhurst?"


Junior's heart knocked so hard and fast that he wouldn't have been surprised if Vanadium, at the far end of the room, had begun to tap his foot in time with it.


Although Junior had not answered, Vanadium said, “Yes, I thought you heard it."


A trickster, this detective. Full of taunts and feints and sly stratagems. PsychologIcal-warfare artist.


Perhaps a lot of suspects were rattled and ultimately unnerved by this behavior. Junior wouldn't be easily trapped. He was smart.


Applying his intelligence now, he employed simple meditation techniques to calm himself and to slow his heartbeat. The cop was trying to rattle him into making a mistake, but calm men did not incriminate themselves.


“What was it like, Enoch? Did you look into her eyes when you pushed her?” Vanadium's uninflected monologue was like the voice of a conscience that preferred to torture by droning rather than by nagging. “Or doesn't a woman-killing coward like you have the guts for that? “


Pan-faced, double-chinned, half-bald, puke-collecting as**ole, Junior thought.


No. Wrong attitude. Be calm. Be indifferent to insult.


“Did you wait until her back was turned, too gutless even to meet her eyes?"


This was pathetic. Only thickheaded fools, unschooled and unworldly, would be shaken into confession by ham-handed tactics like these.


Junior was educated. He wasn't merely a masseur with a fancy title; he had earned a hill bachelor of science degree with a major in rehabilitation therapy. When he watched television, which he never did to excess, he rarely settled for frivolous game shows or sitcoms like Gomer Pyle or The Beverly Hillbillies, or even I Dream of Jeannie, but committed himself to serious dramas that required intellectual involvement-Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Fugitive. He preferred Scrabble to all other board games, because it expanded one's vocabulary. As a member in good standing of the Book-of-the-Month Club, he'd already acquired nearly thirty volumes of the finest in contemporary literature, and thus far he'd read or skim-read more than six of them. He would have read all of them if he had not been a busy man with such varied interests; his cultural aspirations were greater than the time he was able to devote to them.


Vanadium said, “Do you know who I am, Enoch?"


Thomas Big Butt Vanadium.


“Do you know what I am?"


Pimple on the ass of humanity.


“No,” said Vanadium, “you only think you know who I am and what I am, but you don't know anything. That's all right. You'll learn."


This guy was spooky. Junior was beginning to think that the detective's unorthodox behavior wasn't a carefully crafted strategy, as it had first seemed, but that Vanadium was a little wacky.


Whether the cop was unhinged or not, Junior had nothing to gain by talking to him, especially in this disorienting darkness. He was exhausted, achy, with a sore throat, and he couldn't trust himself to be as self-controlled as he would need to be in any interrogation conducted by this brush-cut, thick-necked toad.


He stopped straining to see through the black room to the corner armchair. He closed his eyes and tried to lull himself to sleep by summoning into his mind's eye a lovely but calculatedly monotonous scene of gentle waves breaking on a moonlit shore.


This was a relaxation technique that had worked often before. He had teamed it from a brilliant book, How to Have a Healthier Life through Autohypnosis.


Junior Cain was committed to continuous self-improvement. He believed in the need constantly to expand his knowledge and horizons order to better understand himself and the world. The quality of life was solely the responsibility of oneself he author of How to Have a Healthier Life through Autohypnosis was Dr. Caesar Zedd, a renowned psychologist and best-selling author of a dozen self-help texts, all of which Junior owned in addition to the literature that he had acquired from the book club. When he had been only fourteen, he'd begun buying Dr. Zedd's titles in paperback, and by the time he was eighteen, when he could afford to do so, he'd replaced the paperbacks with hardcovers and thereafter bought all the doctor's new books in the higher-priced editions. The collected works  of Zedd constituted the most thoughtful, most rewarding, most reliable guide to life to be found anywhere. When Junior was Confused or troubled, he turned to Caesar Zedd and never failed to find enlightenment, guidance. When he was happy, he found in Zedd the welcome reassurance that it was all right to be successful and to love oneself Dr. Zedd's death, just last Thanksgiving, had been a blow to Junior, a loss to the nation, to the entire world. He considered it a tragedy equal to the Kennedy assassination one year previous.


And like John Kennedy's death, Zedd's passing was cloaked in mystery, inspiring widespread suspicion of conspiracy. Only a few believed that he had committed suicide, and Junior was certainly not one of those gullible fools. Caesar Zedd, author of You Have a Right to Be Happy, would never have blown his brains out with a shotgun, as the authorities preferred the public to believe.


“Would you pretend to wake up if I tried to smother you?” asked Detective Vanadium.


The voice had come not from the armchair in the corner, but from immediately beside the bed.


If Junior had not been so deeply relaxed by the soothing waves breaking on the moonlit beach in his mind, he might have cried out in surprise, might have bolted upright in bed, betraying himself and confirming Vanadium's suspicion that he was conscious.


He hadn't heard the cop get out of the chair and cross the dark room. Difficult to believe that any man with such a hard gut slung over his belt, with a bull neck folded over his too-tight shirt collar, and with a second chin more prominent than the first could be capable of such supernatural stealth.


“I could introduce a bubble of air into your IV needle,” the detective  said quietly, “kill you with an embolism, and they would never know.


Lunatic. No doubt about it now: Thomas Vanadium was crazier  than old Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate, the teenage thrill  killers who had murdered eleven people in Nebraska and Wyoming a  few years back.


Something was going wrong in America lately. The country wasn't level and steady anymore. It was tipped. This society was slowly sliding  toward an abyss. First, teenage thrill killers. Now maniac cops. Worse  to come, no doubt. Once a decline set in, halting or reversing the negative momentum was difficult if not impossible.


Tink.


The sound was odd, but Junior was almost able to identify it.


Tink.


Whatever the source of the noise, he was sure Vanadium was the  cause of it.


Tink.


Ah. Yes, he knew the source. The detective was snapping one finger  against the bottle of solution that was suspended from the IV rack be  side the bed.


Tink.


Although Junior had no hope of sleep now, he concentrated on the  calming mental image of gentle waves foaming on moonlit sand. It was  a relaxation technique, not just a sleep aid, and he rather desperately  needed to stay relaxed.


TINK! A harder, sharper snap with the fingernail.


Not enough people took self-improvement seriously. The human  animal harbored a terrible destructive impulse that must always be resisted.


TINK!


When people didn't apply themselves to positive goals, to making better lives for themselves, they spent their energy in wickedness. Then I got Starkweather, killing all those people with no hope of personal gain. You got maniac cops and this new war in Vietnam.


Tink: Junior anticipated the sound, but it didn't come.


He lay in tense expectation.


The moonlight had faded and the gentle waves had ebbed out of his mind's eye. He concentrated, trying to force the phantom sea to flow back into view, but this was one of those rare occasions when a Zedd technique failed him''


Instead, he imagined Vanadium's blunt fingers moving over the intravenous apparatus with surprising delicacy, reading the function of the equipment as a blind man would read Braille with swift, sure, gliding fingertips. He imagined the detective finding the injection port in the main drip line, pinching it between thumb and forefinger. Saw him produce a hypodermic needle as a magician would pluck a silk scarf from the ether. Nothing in the syringe except deadly air. The needle sliding into the port ...


Junior wanted to scream for help, but he dared not.


He didn't even dare to pretend to wake up now, with a mutter and a yawn because the detective would know that he was faking, that he had been awake all along. And if he'd been feigning unconsciousness, eaves dropping on the conversation between Dr. Parkhurst and Vanadium, and later failing and respond to Vanadium's pointed accusations, his deception would inevitably be read as an admission of guilt in the murder  of his wife. Then this idiot gumshoe would be indefatigable, relentless.


As long as Junior continued to fake sleep, the cop couldn't be absolutely sure that any deception was taking place.


He might suspect, but he couldn't know. He would but would be left with at least a shred of doubt about Junior's guilt.


After an interminable silence, the detective said, “Do you know what believe about life, Enoch?"


One stupid damn thing or another.


I believe the universe is sort of like an unimaginably vast musical with an infinite number of strings."


Right, the universe is a great big enormous ukulele.


The previously flat, monotonous voice had in it now a subtle but undeniable new roundness of tone: “And every human being, every living thing, is a string on that instrument."


And God has four hundred billion billion fingers, and He plays a really hot version of “Hawaiian Holiday.


“The decisions each of us makes and the acts that he commits are like vibrations passing through a guitar string."


In your case a violin, and the tune is the theme from Psycho.


The quiet passion in Vanadium's voice was genuine, expressed with reason but not fervor, not in the least sentimental or unctuous-which made it more disturbing. “Vibrations in one string set up soft, sympathetic vibrations in all the other strings, through the entire body of the instrument."


Boing.


“Sometimes these sympathetic vibrations are very apparent, but alot of the time, they're so subtle that you can hear them only if you're unusually perceptive."


Good grief, shoot me now and spare me the misery of listening to this.


“When you cut Naomi's string, you put an end to the effects that I her music would have on the lives of others and on the shape of the future. YOU struck a discord that can be heard, however faintly, all the way to the farthest end of the universe."


if you're trying to push me into another puke-athon, this is likely to work.


“That discord sets up lots of other vibrations, some of which will return to you in ways you might expect-and some in ways you could never see coming. Of the things you couldn't have seen coming, I'm the worst."


In spite of the bravado of the responses in Junior's unspoken half of the conversation, he was increasingly unnerved by Vanadium. The cop was a lunatic, all right, but he was something more than a mere nut case.


“I was once doubting Thomas,” said the detective, but not from beside the bed any longer. His voice seemed to come from across the room, perhaps near the door, though he had made not a sound as he'd moved.


In spite of his dumpy appearance-and especially in the dark, where appearances didn't count-Vanadium had the aura of a mystic. Although Junior didn't believe in mystics or in the various unearthly powers they claimed to possess, he knew that mystics who believed in themselves were exceptionally dangerous people.


The detective was driven by this string theory of his, and maybe he also saw visions or even heard voices, like Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc with out beauty or grace, Joan of Arc with a service revolver and the authority to use it. The cop was no threat to the English army, as Joan had been, but as far as Junior was concerned, the creep most definitely deserved to be burned at the stake.


“Now, I'm doubtless,” Vanadium said, his voice returning to the uninflected drone that Junior had come to loathe but that he now preferred to the unsettling voice of quiet passion. “No matter what the situation, no matter how knotty the question, I always know what to do.


And I certainly know what to do about you."


Weirder and weirder.


“I've put my hand in the wound."


“What wound? Junior wanted to ask, but he recognized bait when he heard it, and he did not bite.


After a silence, Vanadium opened the door to the corridor.


Junior hoped that he hadn't been betrayed by eyeshine in the fraction of a second before he closed his eyes to slits.


A mere silhouette against the fluorescent glare, Vanadium stepped it the hall. The bright light seemed to enfold him. The detective shimmered and vanished the way that a mirage of a man, on a fiercely hot desert highway, will appear to walk out of this dimension into another, slipping between the tremulous curtains of heat as though they hang between realities.


The door swung shut.


Chapter 14


A SEVERE THIRST INDICATED to Agnes that she wasn't dead. There would be no thirst in paradise.


Of course, she might be making an erroneous assumption about her sentence at Judgment. Thirst would likely afflict the legions of Hell, a fierce, never-ending thirst, made worse by meals consisting of salt and sulfur and ashes, nary a blueberry pie, so perhaps she was indeed dead and forever cast down among murderers and thieves and cannibals and people who drove thirty-five miles per hour in a twenty-five-mile-per hour school zone.

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