By the Light of the Moon Page 2

Farther along the street, she bought dinner at a burger place. A counter clerk as wholesome and cheerful as an idealized grandmother in a Disney film, circa 1960, insisted on fixing a smiling-toad pin to Jilly's blouse.

The restaurant appeared sufficiently clean to serve as an operating theater for a quadruple by-pass in the event that one of the customers at last achieved multiple artery blockages while consuming another double-patty cheeseburger. Of itself, however, mere cleanliness wasn't enough to induce Jilly to eat at one of the small Formica-topped tables under a glare of light intense enough to cause genetic mutations.

In the parking lot, in the Coupe DeVille, as Jilly ate a chicken sandwich and French fries, she and Fred listened to her favorite radio talk show, which focused on such things as UFO sightings, evil extraterrestrials eager to breed with human women, Big Foot (plus his recently sighted offspring, Little Big Foot), and time travelers from the far future who had built the pyramids for unknown malevolent purposes. This evening, the smoky-voiced host – Parish Lantern – and his callers were exploring the dire threat posed by brain leeches purported to be traveling to our world from an alternate reality.

None of the listeners who phoned the program had a word to say about fascistic Islamic radicals determined to destroy civilization in order to rule the world, which was a relief. After establishing residence in the occipital lobe, a brain leech supposedly took control of its human host, imprisoning the mind, using the body as its own; these creatures were apparently slimy and nasty, but Jilly was comforted as she listened to Parish and his audience discuss them. Even if brain leeches were real, which she didn't believe for a minute, at least she could understand them: their genetic imperative to conquer other species, their parasitic nature. On the other hand, human evil rarely, if ever, came with a simple biological rationale.

Fred lacked a brain that might serve as a leech condominium, so he could enjoy the program without any qualms whatsoever regarding his personal safety.

Jilly expected to be refreshed by the dinner stop, but when she finished eating, she was no less weary than when she had exited the interstate. She'd been looking forward to an additional four-hour drive across the desert to Phoenix, accompanied part of the way by Parish Lantern's soothing paranoid fantasies. In her current logy condition, however, she was a danger on the highway.

Through the windshield, she saw a motel across the street. 'If they don't allow pets,' she told Fred, 'I'll sneak you in.'


High-speed jigsaw is a pastime best undertaken by an individual who is suffering from subtle brain damage and who consequently is afflicted by intense and uncontrollable spells of obsession.

Shepherd's tragic mental condition usually gave him a surprising advantage whenever he turned his full attention to a picture puzzle. He was currently reconstructing a complex image of an ornate Shinto temple surrounded by cherry trees.

Although he'd started this twenty-five-hundred-piece project only shortly after he and Dylan checked into the motel, he had already completed perhaps a third of it. With all four borders locked in place, Shep worked diligently inward.

The boy – Dylan thought of his brother as a boy, even though Shep was twenty – sat at a desk, in the light of a tubular brass lamp. His left arm was half raised, and his left hand flapped continuously, as though he were waving at his reflection in the mirror that hung above the desk; but in fact he shifted his gaze only between the picture that he was assembling and the loose pieces of the puzzle piled in the open box. Most likely, he didn't realize that he was waving; and certainly, he couldn't control his hand.

Tics, rocking fits, and other bizarre repetitive motions were symptoms of Shep's condition. Sometimes he could be as still as cast bronze, as motionless as marble, forgetting even to blink, but more often than not, he flicked or twiddled his fingers for hours on end or jiggled his legs, or tapped his feet.

Dylan, on the other hand, had been so securely taped to a straight-backed chair that he couldn't easily wave, rock, or twiddle anything. Inch-wide strips of electrician's tape wound around and around his ankles, lashing them tightly to the chair legs; additional tape bound his wrists and his forearms to the arms of the chair. His right arm was taped with the palm facing down, but his left palm was upturned.

A cloth of some kind had been wadded in his mouth when he'd been unconscious. His lips had been taped shut.

Dylan had been conscious for two or three minutes, and he hadn't connected any pieces of the ominous puzzle that had been presented for his consideration. He remained clueless as to who had assaulted him and as to why.

Twice when he'd tried to turn in his chair to look toward the twin beds and the bathroom, which lay behind him, a rap alongside the head, delivered by his unknown enemy, had tempered his curiosity. The blows weren't hard, but they were aimed at the tender spot where earlier he had been struck more brutally, and each time he nearly passed out again.

If Dylan had called for help, his muffled shout wouldn't have carried beyond the motel room, but it would have reached his brother less than ten feet away. Unfortunately, Shep wouldn't respond either to a full-throated scream or to a whisper. Even on his best days, he seldom reacted to Dylan or to anyone, and when he became obsessed with a jigsaw puzzle, this world seemed less real to him than did the two-dimensional scene in the fractured picture.

With his calm right hand, Shep selected an ameba-shaped piece of pasteboard from the box, glanced at it, and set it aside. At once he plucked another fragment from the pile and immediately located the right spot for it, after which he placed a second and a third – all in half a minute. He appeared to believe that he sat alone in the room.

Dylan's heart knocked against his ribs as though testing the soundness of his construction. Every beat pushed a pulse of pain through his clubbed skull, and in sickening syncopation, the rag in his mouth seemed to throb like a living thing, triggering his gag reflex more than once.

Scared to a degree that big guys like him were never supposed to be scared, unashamed of his fear, entirely comfortable with being a big frightened guy, Dylan was as certain of this as he had ever been certain of anything: Twenty-nine was too young to die. If he'd been ninety-nine, he'd have argued that middle age began well past the century mark.

Death had never held any allure for him. He didn't understand those who reveled in the Goth subculture, their abiding romantic identification with the living dead; he didn't find vampires sexy. With its glorification of murder and its celebration of cruelty to women, gangsta-rap music didn't start his toes tapping, either. He didn't like movies in which evisceration and decapitation were the primary themes; if nothing else, they were certain popcorn spoilers. He supposed that he'd never be hip. His fate was to be as square as a saltine cracker. But the prospect of being eternally square didn't bother him a fraction as much as the prospect of being dead.

Although scared, he remained cautiously hopeful. For one thing, if the unknown assailant had intended to kill him, surely he would already have assumed room temperature. He had been bound and gagged because the attacker had some other use for him.

Torture came to mind. Dylan had never heard about people being tortured to death in the rooms of national-chain motels, at least not with regularity. Homicidal psychopaths tended to feel awkward about conducting their messy business in an establishment that might at the same time be hosting a Rotarian convention. During his years of traveling, his worst complaints involved poor housekeeping, unplaced wake-up calls, and lousy food in the coffee shop. Nevertheless, once torture opened a door and walked into his mind, it pulled up a chair and sat down and wouldn't leave.

Dylan also took some comfort from the fact that the sap-wielding assailant had left Shepherd untapped, untouched, and untaped. Surely this must mean that the evildoer, whoever he might be, recognized the extreme degree of Shep's detachment and realized that the afflicted boy posed no threat.

A genuine sociopath would have disposed of poor Shepherd anyway, either for the fun of it or to polish his homicidal image. Crazed killers were probably convinced, as were most modern Americans, that maintaining high self-esteem was a requirement of good mental health.

Locking each sinuous shape of pasteboard in place with a ritualistic nod and with the pressure of his right thumb, Shepherd continued to solve the puzzle at a prodigious pace, adding perhaps six or seven pieces per minute.

Dylan's blurry vision had cleared, and his urge to vomit had passed. Ordinarily, those developments would be reason to feel cheerful, but good cheer would continue to elude him until he knew who wanted a piece of him – and exactly which piece was wanted.

The internal timpani of his booming heart and the rush of blood circulating through his eardrums, which produced a sound reminiscent of a cymbal softly beaten with a drummer's brush, masked any small noises the intruder might be making. Maybe the guy was eating their takeout dinner – or performing preventive maintenance on a chain saw before firing it up.

Because Dylan sat at an angle to the mirror that hung above the desk, only a narrow wedge of the room behind him was presented in reflection. Watching his brother, the jigsaw juggernaut, he glimpsed movement peripherally in the mirror, but by the time he shifted his focus, the phantom glided out of sight.

When at last the assailant stepped into direct view, he looked no more menacing than any fifty-something choirmaster who took great and genuine pleasure in the sound of well-orchestrated voices raised in joyous hymns. Sloped shoulders. A comfortable paunch. Thinning white hair. Small, delicately sculpted ears. His pink and jowly face looked as benign as a loaf of white bread. His faded-blue eyes were watery, as though with sympathy, and seemed to reveal a soul too meek to harbor a hostile thought.

He appeared to be the antithesis of villainy, and he wore a gentle smile, but he carried a length of highly flexible rubber tubing. Like a snake. Two to three feet long. No inanimate object, whether a spoon or a meticulously stropped razor-edged switchblade, can be called evil; but while a switchblade might be used merely to peel an apple, it was difficult at this perilous moment to envision an equally harmless use for the half-inch-diameter rubber tubing.

The colorful imagination that served Dylan's art now afflicted him with absurd yet vivid images of being force-fed through the nose and of colon examinations most definitely not conducted through the nose.

His alarm didn't abate when he realized that the rubber tubing was a tourniquet. Now he knew why his left arm had been secured with the palm up.

When he protested through the saliva-saturated gag and the electrician's tape, his voice proved no clearer than might have been that of a prematurely buried man calling for help through a coffin lid and six feet of compacted earth.

'Easy, son. Easy now.' The intruder didn't have the hard voice of a snarly thug, but one as soft and sympathetic as that of a country doctor committed to relieving every distress of his patients. 'You'll be just fine.'

He was dressed like a country doctor, too, a relic from the lost age that Norman Rockwell had captured in cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post. His cordovan shoes gleamed from the benefit of brush and buffing cloth, and his wheat-brown suit pants depended upon a pair of suspenders. Having removed his coat, having rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, having loosened collar button and necktie, he needed only a dangling stethoscope to be the perfect picture of a comfortably rumpled rural physician nearing the end of a long day of house calls, a kindly healer known to everyone as Doc.

Dylan's short-sleeve shirt facilitated the application of the tourniquet. The rubber tube, when quickly knotted around his left biceps, caused a vein to swell visibly.

Gently tapping a fingertip against the revealed blood vessel, Doc murmured, 'Nice, nice.'

Forced by the gag to inhale and exhale only through his nose, Dylan could hear humiliating proof of his escalating fear as the wheeze and whistle of his breathing grew more urgent.

With a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol, the doctor swabbed the target vein.

Every element of the moment – Shep waving to no one and blitzing through the jigsaw, the smiling intruder prepping his patient for an injection, the foul taste of the rag in Dylan's mouth, the astringent scent of alcohol, the restraining pressure of the electrician's tape – so completely engaged the five senses, it wasn't possible with any seriousness to entertain the thought that this was a dream. More than once, however, Dylan closed his eyes and mentally pinched himself... and upon taking another look, he breathed yet harder when nightmare proved to be reality.

The hypodermic syringe surely couldn't have been as huge as it appeared to be. This instrument looked less suitable for human beings than for elephants or rhinos. He assumed that its dimensions were magnified by his fear.

Right thumb firmly on the thumb rest, knuckles braced against the finger flange, Doc expelled air from the syringe, and a squirt of golden fluid caught the lamplight as it glimmered in an arc to the carpet.

With a muffled cry of protest, Dylan pulled at his restraints, causing the chair to rock from side to side.

'One way or another,' the doctor said affably, 'I'm determined to administer this.'

Dylan adamantly shook his head.

'This stuff won't kill you, son, but a struggle might.'

Stuff. Having at once rebelled at the prospect of being injected with a medication or an illegal drug – or a toxic chemical, a poison, a dose of blood serum contaminated with a hideous disease – Dylan now rebelled even more strenuously at the idea of stuff being squirted into his vein. That lazy word suggested carelessness, an offhanded villainy, as though this dough-faced, round-shouldered, potbellied example of the banality of evil could not be bothered, even after all the trouble he'd taken, to remember what vile substance he intended to administer to his victim. Stuff! In this instance, the word stuff also suggested that the golden fluid in the syringe might be more exotic than a mere drug or a poison, or a dose of disease-corrupted serum, that it must be unique and mysterious and not easily named. If all you knew was that a smiling, pink-cheeked, crazed physician had shot you full of stuff, then the good and concerned and not-crazy doctors in a hospital ER wouldn't know what antidote to apply or what antibiotic to prescribe, because in their pharmacy they didn't stock treatments for a bad case of stuff.

Watching Dylan wrench ineffectually at his bonds, the stuff-peddling maniac clucked his tongue and shook his head disapprovingly. 'If you struggle, I might tear your vein... or accidentally inject an air bubble, resulting in an embolism. An embolism will kill you, or at least leave you a vegetable.' He indicated Shep at the nearby desk. 'Worse than him.'

At the burnt-out end of certain bad black days, overwhelmed by weariness and frustration, Dylan sometimes envied his brother's disconnection from the worries of the world; however, although Shep had no responsibilities, Dylan had plenty of them – including, not least of all, Shep himself – and oblivion, whether by choice or by embolism, could not be embraced.

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