From the Corner of His Eye Page 34


Junior had almost fumbled his fork when he recognized the tune. His heart raced. His hands were suddenly clammy.


From time to time, customers had crossed the cocktail lounge to drop folding money into a fishbowl atop the piano, tips for the musician. A few had requested favorite — tunes.


Junior hadn't paid attention to everyone who visited the pianist though surely he'd have noticed a certain stump in a cheap suit.


The lunatic lawman was not at any of the tables. Junior was sure of that, because indulging his appreciation for lovely women, he had roamed the room repeatedly with his gaze.


He hadn't paid close attention to those patrons seated at the bar behind him. Now, he turned in his chair to study them.


One manly woman. Several womanly men. But no blocky figure that could have been the crazed cop even in disguise.


Slow deep breaths. Slow. Deep. A sip of wine.


Vanadium was dead. Pounded with pewter and sunk in a flooded quarry. Gone forever.


The detective wasn't the only person in the world who liked “Someone to Watch over Me.” Anyone in the lounge might have requested it. Or maybe this number was part of the pianist's usual repertoire.


After the song concluded, Junior felt better. His heartbeat soon returned to normal. The damp palms of his hands grew dry.


By the time he ordered crème brulee for dessert, he was able to laugh at himself. Had he expected to see a ghost enjoying a cocktail and free cashews at the bar?


Chapter 49


WEDNESDAY, fully two days after delivering honey-raisin pear pies with Agnes, Edom worked up the nerve to visit Jacob.


Although their apartments were above the garage, back to back, each was served by a separate exterior staircase. As often as either man entered the other's domain, they might as well have lived hundreds of miles apart.


When together in Agnes's company, Edom and Jacob were brothers, comfortable with each other. But together, just the two, no Agnes, they were more awkward than strangers, because strangers had no shared history to overcome.


Edom knocked, Jacob answered.


Jacob backed away from the threshold, Edom stepped inside.


They stood not quite facing each other. The apartment door remained open.


Edom felt uneasy in this kingdom of a strange god. The god that his brother feared was humanity, its dark compulsions, its arrogance. Edom, on the other hand, trembled before Nature, whose wrath was so great that one day she would destroy all things, when the universe collapsed into a super dense nugget of matter the size of a pea.


To Edom, humanity was obviously not the greater of these two destructive forces. Men and women were part of nature, not above it, and their evil was, therefore, just one more example of nature's malignant intent. They had stopped debating this issue years ago, however, neither man conceding any credibility to the other's dogma.


Succinctly, Edom told Jacob about visiting Obadiah, the magician with the mangled hands. Then: “When we left, I followed Agnes, and Obadiah held me back to say, 'Your secret's safe with me.'”


“What secret?” Jacob asked, frowning at Edom's shoes.


I was hoping you might know,” said Edom, studying the collar of Jacob's green flannel shirt.


“How would I know?"


“It occurred to me that he might have thought I was you."


“Why would he think that?” Jacob frowned at Edom's shirt pocket.


“We do look somewhat alike,” Edom said, shifting his attention to Jacob's left ear.


“We're identical twins, but I'm not you, am I?"


“That's obvious to us, but not always to others. Apparently, this would have been some years ago."


” What would have been some years ago?"


“When you met Obadiah."


“Did he say I'd met him?” Jacob asked, squinting past Edom toward the bright sunlight at the open door.


“As I explained, he might have thought I was you,” Edom said, staring at the neatly ordered volumes on the nearby bookshelves.


“Is he addled or something?"


“No, he's got all his wits."


“Supposing he's senile, wouldn't he possibly think you were his long- lost brother or someone?"


“He's not senile."


“If you ranted at him about earthquakes, tornadoes, erupting volcanoes, and all that stuff, how could he mistake you for me?"


“I don't rant. Anyway, Agnes did all the talking."


Returning his attention to his own shoes, Jacob said, “So ... what am I supposed to do about this?"


“Do you know him? “ Edom asked, gazing longingly now at the open door, from which Jacob had turned away. “Obadiah Sepharad? “


“Having spent most of the last twenty years in this apartment, not being the one who has a car, how would I meet a Negro magician?"


“All right then."


As Edom crossed the threshold, moving outside to the landing at the top of the stairs, Jacob followed, proselytizing for his faith: “Christmas Eve, 1940, St. Anselmo's Orphanage, San Francisco. Josef Krepp killed eleven boys, ages six through eleven, murdering them in their sleep and cutting a different trophy from each-an eye here, a tongue there."


“Eleven?” Edom asked, unimpressed.


“From 1604 through 1610, Erzebet Bathory, sister of the Polish king, with the assistance of her servants, tortured and killed six hundred girls. She bit them, drank their blood, tore their faces off with tongs, mutilated their private parts, and mocked their screams."


Descending the stairs, Edom said, “September 18, 1906, a typhoon slammed into Hong Kong. More than ten thousand died. The wind was blowing with such incredible velocity; hundreds of people were killed by sharp pieces of debris-splintered wood, spear-point fence staves, nails, glass-driven into them with the power of bullets. One man was struck by a windblown fragment of a Han Dynasty funerary jar, which cleaved his face, cracked through his skull, and embedded itself in his brain."


As Edom reached the bottom of the stairs, he heard the door close above him.


Jacob was hiding something. Until he had spoken of Josef Krepp, his every response had been formed as a question, which had always been his preferred method of avoidance when conversation involved a subject that made him uncomfortable.


Returning to his apartment, Edom had to pass under the limbs of the majestically crowned oak that dominated the deep yard between the house and the garage.


Head lowered, as if his visit to Jacob were a weight that bowed him, his attention was on the ground. Otherwise, he might not have noticed, might not have been halted by, the intricate and beautiful pattern of sunlight and shadow over which he walked.


This was a California live oak, green even in winter, although its leaves were fewer now than they would be in warmer seasons. The elaborate branch structure, reflected around him, was an exquisite and harmonious maze overlaying a mosaic of sunlight green on grass, and something in its patterns suddenly touched him, moved him, seized his imagination. He felt as if he were balanced on the brink of an astonishing insight.


Then he looked up at the massive limbs overhead, and the mood changed: A sense of impending insight at once gave way to the fear that an unsuspected fissure in a huge limb might crack through at this precise moment, crushing him under a ton of wood, or that the Big One, striking now, would topple the entire oak.


Edom fled back to his apartment.


Chapter 50


AFTER SPENDING Wednesday as a tourist, Junior began to look for a suitable apartment on Thursday. In spite of his new wealth, he did not intend to pay hotel-room rates for an extended period.


Currently, the rental market was extremely tight. The first day of his search resulted only in the discovery that he was going to have to pay more than he expected even for modest quarters.


Thursday evening, his third in the hotel, he returned to the lounge for cocktails and another steak. The same tuxedoed pianist provided the entertainment.


Junior was vigilant. He took note of all those who approached the piano, whether they dropped money in the fishbowl or not.


When the pianist eventually launched into “Someone to Watch over Me,” he didn't appear to be responding to a request, considering that a few other numbers had been played since the most recent gratuity. The tune was, after all, in his nightly repertoire.


A residual tension drained out of Junior. He was somewhat surprised that he had still been concerned about the song.


Through the remainder of his dinner, he was entirely future focused, the past put safely out of mind. Until ...


As Junior was enjoying a postprandial brandy, the pianist took a break and conversation among the customers fell into a lull. When the bar phone rang, though it was muted, he heard it at his table.


The modulated electronic brrrrr was similar to the sound of the telephone in Vanadium's cramped study, on Sunday night. Junior was transported back to that place, that moment in time.


The Ansaphone.


In his mind's eye, he saw the answering machine with uncanny clarity. That curious gadget. Sitting atop the scarred pine desk.


In reality, it had been a homely device, a mere box. In memory, it seemed ominous, charged with the evil portent of a nuclear bomb.


He'd listened to the message and thought it incomprehensible, of no import. Suddenly, tardy intuition told him that it could not have been any more important to him if it had been dead Naomi calling from beyond the grave to leave testimony for the detective.


On that busy night, with Vanadium's corpse in the Studebaker and Victoria's cadaver awaiting a fiery disposal at her house, Junior was too distracted to recognize the pertinence of the message. Now it tormented him from a dark nook in his subconscious.


Caesar Zedd teaches that every experience in our lives, unto the smallest moment and simplest act, is preserved in memory, including every witless conversation we've ever endured with the worst dullards we've met. For this reason, he wrote a book about why we must never suffer bores and fools and about how we can be rid of them, offering hundreds of strategies for scouring them from our lives, including homicide, which he claims to favor, though only tongue-in-cheek.


Although Zedd counsels living in the future, he recognizes the need to have full recollection of the past when absolutely needed. One of his favorite techniques for jolting memories loose when the subconsciously stubbornly withholds them is to take a bitterly cold shower while pressing ice against one's gen**als, until the desired facts are recalled or hypothermic collapse ensues.


In the glamorous cocktail lounge of this elegant hotel, Junior was necessarily forced to use other of Zedd's techniques-and more brandy—to liberate from his subconscious the name of the caller on the Ansaphone. Max. The caller had said, It's Max.


Now the message ... Something about a hospital. Someone dying. A cerebral hemorrhage.


As Junior struggled to retrieve details from his memory, the pianist returned. The first number of his new set was the Beatles' “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” recast at such a slow tempo that it was petting music for narcoleptics. This invasion of British pop, even in disguise, seemed to be a sign that Junior should go.


In his hotel room once more, he consulted Vanadium's address book, More brooding soon brought understanding. He sat straight up in bed, alarmed.


Nearly two weeks ago, in the Spruce Hills hospital, Junior had been drawn by some strange magnetism to the viewing window at the neonatal-care unit. There, transfixed by the newborns, he sank into a slough of fear that threatened to undo him completely. By some sixth sense, he had realized that the mysterious Bartholomew had something to do with babies.


Now Junior threw back the covers and sprang out of bed. In double briefs, he restlessly roamed the hotel room.


Perhaps he would not have leaped along this chain of conclusions if he'd not been an admirer of Caesar Zedd, for Zedd teaches that too often society encourages us to dismiss certain insights as illogical, even when in fact these insights arise from animal instinct and are the closest thing to unalloyed truth we will ever know.


Bartholomew didn't merely have something to do with babies. Bartholomew was a baby.


Seraphim White had come to California to give birth to him in or to spare her parents-and their congregation—embarrassment.


Leaving Spruce Hills, Junior thought he was putting distance between himself and his enigmatic enemy, gaining time to study the county phone directory and to plan his continuing search if that avenue of investigation brought him no success. Instead, he had walked right into his adversary's lair.


Babies of unwed mothers-especially of dead unwed mothers, and especially of dead unwed mothers whose fathers were ministers unable to endure public mortification-were routinely put up for adoption. Since Seraphim had given birth here, the baby would be-no doubt already had been-adopted by a San Francisco-area family.


As Junior paced the hotel room, his fear made way for anger. All he wanted was peace, a chance to grow as a person, an opportunity to improve himself And now this. The unfairness, the injustice, galled him. He seethed with a sense of persecution.


Traditional logic argued that an infant, no more than two weeks old, could not be a serious threat to a grown man.


Junior was not immune to traditional logic, but in this case he recognized the superior wisdom of Zedd's philosophy. His dread of Bartholomew and his gut-level animosity toward a child he'd never met defied all reason and exceeded simple paranoia; therefore, it must be purest, infallible animal instinct.


The infant Bartholomew was here in San Francisco. He must be found. He must be dispatched. By the time Junior devised a plan of action to locate the child, he was so hot with anger that he was sweating, and he stripped off one of his two pairs of briefs.


Chapter 51


PERRI'S POLIO-WHITTLED body did not test the strength of her pallbearers. The minister prayed for her soul, her friends mourned her loss, and the earth received her.


Paul Damascus had gotten numerous invitations to dinner. No one thought that he should be alone on this difficult night.


Solitude, however, was his preference. He found the sympathy of friends unbearable, a constant reminder that Perri was gone.


Having ridden from the church to the cemetery with Hanna, his housekeeper, Paul chose to walk home. The distance between Perri's new bed and her old was only three miles, and the afternoon mild.


He no longer had any reason to follow an exercise regimen. For twenty-three years, he'd needed to maintain good health in order to meet his responsibilities, but all the responsibilities that mattered to him had been lifted from his shoulders.


Walking rather than riding was now nothing more than a matter of habit. And by walking, he could delay his arrival at a house that had grown strange to him, a house in which every noise he made, since Monday, seemed to echo as if through vast caverns.

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