From the Corner of His Eye

Page 18



“Actually,” Vanadium said, “mainly I came to get my quarter."


Junior opened his eyes but continued to breathe properly to ensure calm. He tried to imagine what Victoria's br**sts would look like, freed from all restraint.


Standing near the foot of the bed in a shapeless blue suit, Vanadium might have been the work of an eccentric artist who had carved a man out of Spam and dressed the meaty sculpture in thrift-shop threads.


With the stocky detective looming, Junior wasn't able to stroke his imagination into an erotic mood. In his mind's eye, Victoria's ample bosom remained concealed behind a starched white uniform.


“Cop's pay being what it is,” Vanadium said, “every quarter counts."


Magically, a quarter appeared in his right hand, between thumb and forefinger.


This could not be the quarter that he had left with Junior in the night. Impossible.


All day, for reasons he couldn't quite put into words, Junior had carried that quarter in a pocket of his bathrobe. From time to time, he had taken it out to examine it.


Returning from his tests, he'd gotten into bed without stripping off the thin, hospital-issue robe. He was still wearing it over his pajamas.


Vanadium couldn't know the whereabouts of the quarter. Besides, even when he'd swung the lunch tray over Junior's lap, the detective hadn't been close enough to pick the pocket of the robe.


This was a test of Junior's gullibility, and he would not give Vanadium the satisfaction of searching his robe for the coin.


“I'm going to file a complaint about you,” Junior promised.


“I'll bring you the proper form next time I visit."


Vanadium flipped the quarter straight into the air and at once spread his arms, palms turned up to show that his hands were empty.


Junior had seen the silvery coin snapping off the cop's thumb and spinning upward. Now it was gone, as though it had vanished in midair.


For an instant, his attention had been distracted by Vanadium's presentation of his empty hands. Nevertheless, there was no way the cop could have snatched the coin out of the air.


Yet, uncaught, the quarter would have dropped to the floor. Junior would have heard it ring off the tiles. Which he hadn't.


As quick as a snake strikes, Vanadium was much closer to the bed than he had been when he tossed the coin, at Junior's side now, leaning over the railing. “Naomi was six weeks pregnant."


“What?"


“That's the news I mentioned. Most interesting thing in the autopsy report."


Junior had thought the news was the lab report, which had found no ipecac in his spew. All that had been distraction.


Those spike-sharp eyes, — tenpenny gray, nailed Junior to the bed, pinning him for scrutiny.


Here, now, came the anaconda smile. “Did you argue about the baby, Enoch? Maybe she wanted it, and you didn't. Guy like you—a baby would cramp your style. Too much responsibility."


“I ... I didn't know."


“Blood tests should reveal whether the child's yours or not. That also might explain all this."


“I was going to be a father,” Junior said with genuine awe.


“Have I found the motive, Enoch?"


Astonished and appalled by the cop's insensitivity, Junior said, “You just drop this on me? I lost my wife and my baby. My wife and my baby."


“You're as good with the illusion of torment as I am with the quarter."


Tears burst from Junior, stinging torrents, a salt sea of grief that blurred his vision and bathed his face in brine. “Get out of here, you disgusting, sick son of a bitch,” he demanded, his voice simultaneously shaking with sorrow and twisted by righteous anger. “Get out of here now, get out!"


As he headed toward the door, the detective said, “Don't forget your apple juice. Got to build some strength for the trial."


Junior discovered more tears than could have been found in ten thousand onions. His wife and his unborn baby. He had been willing to sacrifice his beloved Naomi, but maybe he would have found the cost too high if he had known that he was also sacrificing his first-conceived child. This was too much. He was bereft.


No more than a minute after Vanadium departed, a nurse arrived in a rush, no doubt sent by the hateful cop. Hard to tell, through all the tears, if she was a looker. A nice face, perhaps. But such a stick-thin body.


Concerned that Junior's crying jag would trigger spasms of the abdominal muscles and ultimately another attack of hemorrhagic vomiting, the nurse had with her a tranquilizer. She wanted him to use the apple juice to wash down the pill.


Junior would rather have chugged a beaker of carbolic acid than touch the juice, because the lunch tray had been brought to him by Thomas Vanadium. The maniac cop, determined to get his man one way or another, was capable of resorting to poison if he felt that the usual instruments of the law were unequal to the task.


At Junior's insistence, the nurse poured a glass of water from the bedside carafe. Vanadium had been nowhere near the carafe.


After a while, the tranquilizer and the relaxation techniques taught by Caesar Zedd restored Junior's self-control.


The nurse stayed with him until his storm of tears had passed.


Clearly, he wasn't going to succumb to violent nervous emesis.


She promised to bring fresh apple juice after he complained that the serving before him had an odd taste.


Alone, calm again, Junior was able to apply what was arguably the central tenet of the philosophy of Zedd: Always look for the bright side.


Regardless — of the severity of a setback, no matter how dreadful a blow you sustained, you could always discover a bright side if you searched hard enough. The key to happiness, success, and mental health was utterly to ignore the negative, deny its power over you, and find reason to celebrate every development in life, including the cruelest catastrophe, by discovering the bright side to even the darkest hour.


In this case, the bright side was blindingly bright. Having lost both a singularly beautiful wife and an unborn child, Junior would earn the sympathy—the pity, the love—,of any jury in front of whom the state might hope to defend against a wrongful-death suit.


Earlier, he'd been surprised by the visit from Knacker, Hisscus, and Nork. He hadn't thought he'd see their kind for days; and then he would have expected no more than a single attorney taking a low-key approach and making a modest proposal.


Now he understood why they had descended in strength, eager to discuss redress, requital, restitutional apology. The coroner had in formed them, before the police, that Naomi had been pregnant, and they had recognized the state's extreme vulnerability.


The nurse returned with fresh apple juice, chilled and sweet.


Junior sipped the beverage slowly. By the time he reached the bottom of the glass, he had come to the inescapable conclusion that Naomi had been hiding her pregnancy from him.


In the six weeks since conception, she must have missed at least one menstrual period. She hadn't complained of morning sickness, but surely she'd experienced it. It was highly unlikely that she'd been unaware of her condition.


He had never expressed opposition to starting a family. She'd had no reason to fear telling him that she was carrying their child.


Regrettably, he had no choice but to conclude that she hadn't made up her mind whether to keep the baby or to seek out an illegal abortion without Junior's approval. She had been thinking about scraping his child out of her womb without even telling him.


This insult, this outrage, this treachery stunned Junior.


Inevitably, he had to wonder if Naomi had kept her pregnancy secret because, indeed, she suspected that the child wasn't her husband's.


If blood tests revealed that Junior wasn't the father, Vanadium would have a motive. It wouldn't be the right motive, because Junior truly hadn't known either that his wife was pregnant or that she was possibly screwing around with another man. But the detective would be able to sell it to a prosecutor, and the prosecutor would convince at least a few jurors.


Naomi, you dumb, unfaithful bitch.


He ardently wished that he hadn't killed her with such merciful swiftness. If he'd tortured her first, he would now have the memory of her suffering from which to take consolation.


For a while he looked for the bright side. It eluded him.


He ate the lime Jell-O. The soda crackers.


Eventually, Junior remembered the quarter. He reached into the right pocket of the thin cotton bathrobe, but the coin wasn't there, as it should have been. The left pocket also was empty.


Chapter 27


WALTER PANGLO, the only mortician in Bright Beach, was a sweet tempered wisp of a man who enjoyed puttering in his garden when he wasn't planting dead people. He grew prize roses and gave them away in great bouquets to the sick, to young people in love, to the school librarian on her birthday, to clerks who had been polite to him.


His wife, Dorothea, adored him, not least of all because he had taken in her eighty-year-old mother and treated that elderly lady as though she were both a duchess and a saint. He was equally generous to the poor, burying their dead at cost but with utmost dignity.


Jacob Isaacson—twin brother of Edom-knew nothing negative about Panglo, but he didn't trust him. If the mortician had been caught prying gold teeth from the dead and carving satanic symbols in their buttocks, Jacob would have said, “It figures.” If Panglo had saved bottles of infected blood from diseased cadavers, and if one day he ran through town, splashing it in the faces of unsuspecting citizens, Jacob would not have raisers one eyebrow in surprise.


Jacob trusted no one but Agnes and Edom. He'd trusted Joey Lampion, too, after years of wary observance. Now Joey was dead, and his corpse was in the embalming chamber of the Panglo Funeral Home.


Currently, Jacob was far removed from the embalming chamber and intended never to set foot there, alive. With Walter Panglo as his guide, he toured the casket selection in the funeral-planning room.


He wanted the most expensive box for Joey; but Joey, a modest and prudent man, would have disapproved. Instead, he selected a handsome but not ornate casket just above the median price.


Deeply distressed that he was planning the funeral of a man as young as Joe Lampion, whom he had liked and admired, Panglo paused to express his disbelief and to murmur comforting words, more to himself than to Jacob, as each decision was made. With one hand on the chosen casket, he said, “Unbelievable, a traffic accident, and on the very day his son is born. So sad. So terribly sad."


“Not so unbelievable,” said Jacob. “Forty-five thousand people every year die in automobiles. Cars aren't transportation. They're death machines. Tens of thousands are disfigured, maimed for life."


Whereas Edom feared the wrath of nature, Jacob knew that the true hand of doom was the hand of humankind.


“Not that trains are any better. Look at the Bakersfield crash back in '60. Santa Fe Chief, out of San Francisco, smashed into an oil-tank truck. Seventeen people crushed, burned in a river of fire."


Jacob feared what men could do with clubs, knives, guns, bombs, with their bare hands, but he was most preoccupied by the unintended death that humanity brought upon itself with its devices, machines, and structures meant to improve the quality of life.


“Fifty died in London, in '57, when two trains crashed. And a hundred twelve were crushed, torn, mangled, in '52, also England."


Frowning, Panglo, said, “Terrible, you're right, so many terrible things happen, but I don't see why trains-"


“It's all the same. Cars, trains, ships, all the same,” Jacob insisted. “You remember the Toya Maru? Japanese ferry capsized back in September '54. Eleven hundred sixty-eight people dead. Or worse, in '48, off Manchuria, God almighty, the boiler exploded on a Chinese merchant ship, six thousand died. Six thousand on a single ship!"


Over the following hour, as Walter Panglo guided Jacob through the planning of the funeral, Jacob recounted the gruesome details of numerous airliner crashes, shipwrecks, train collisions, coal-mine disasters, darn collapses, hotel fires, nightclub fires, pipeline and oil-well explosions, munitions—plant explosions....


By the time all the details of mortuary and cemetery services were settled, Walter Panglo had a nervous tic in his left cheek. His eyes were open wide, as if he'd been so startled that his lids froze in a position of ascension, locked by a spasm of surprise. His hands must have grown clammy; he blotted them repeatedly on his suit.


Aware of the mortician's new edginess, Jacob was convinced that his initial distrust of Panglo was justified. This twitchy little guy seemed to have something to hide. Jacob didn't have to be a cop to recognize nervousness born of guilt.


At the front door of the funeral home, as Panglo was showing him out, Jacob leaned close. “Joe Lampion didn't have any gold teeth."


Panglo seemed baffled. He was probably faking it.


The diminutive mortician spoke a few comforting words instead of commenting on the dental history of the deceased, and when he put a consoling hand on Jacob's shoulder, Jacob cringed from his touch.


Confused, Panglo held out his right hand, but Jacob said, “Sorry, no offense, but I don't shake with anyone."


“Well, certainly, I understand,” said Panglo, slowly lowering the offered hand, although he clearly didn't understand at all.


“It's just that you never know what anyone's hand has been up to recently,” Jacob explained. “That respectable banker down the street might have thirty dismembered women buried in his backyard. The nice church-going lady next door might be sleeping in the same bed with the rotting corpse of a lover who tried to jilt her, and for a hobby she makes jewelry from the finger bones of preschool children she's tortured and murdered."


Panglo, safely tucked both hands in his pants pockets.


“I've got hundreds of files on cases like that,” said Jacob, “and much worse. If you're interested, I'll get you copies of some."


“That's kind of you,” Panglo stammered, “but I have little time for reading, very little time."


Reluctant to leave Joey's body with the oddly jumpy mortician, Jacob nevertheless crossed the porch of the Victorian style funeral home and left without glancing back. He walked one mile home, alert to passing traffic, especially cautious at intersections.


His apartment, over the large garage, was reached by a set of exterior stairs. The space was divided into two rooms. The first was a combination living room and kitchenette, with a corner dining table seating two. Beyond was a small bedroom with adjoining bath.


More walls than not, in both rooms, were lined with bookshelves and file cabinets. Here he kept numerous case studies of accidents, man-made disasters, serial killers, spree killers: proof undeniable that humanity was a fallen species engaged in both the unintentional and calculated destruction of itself.