By the light of the moon, p.1
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       By the Light of the Moon, p.1
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By the Light of the Moon


  This book is dedicated to Linda Borland and Elaine Peterson for their hard work, their kindnesses, and their reliability. And, of course, for catching me in that once-a-year mistake that, if not drawn to my attention, would mar my record of perfection. And for discreetly concealing from me that the real reason they stay around is to ensure that Ms. Trixie receives all the belly rubs that she deserves.

  And at his prow the pilot held

  within his hands his freight of lives, eyes

  wide open, full of moonlight.

  —Night Flight, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

  Life has no meaning except in terms

  of responsibility.

  —Faith and History, Reinhold Niebuhr

  Now take my hand and hold it tight.

  I will not fail you here tonight,

  For failing you, I fail myself

  And place my soul upon a shelf

  In Hell's library without light.

  I will not fail you here tonight.

  —The Book of Counted Sorrows

  * * *

  1

  Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he'd never before imagined, Dylan O'Conner left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted fast-food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake.

  The expired day lay buried in the earth, in the asphalt. Unseen but felt, its ghost haunted the Arizona night: a hot spirit rising lazily from every inch of ground that Dylan crossed.

  Here at the end of town that served travelers from the nearby interstate, formidable batteries of colorful electric signs warred for customers. In spite of this bright battle, however, an impressive sea of stars gleamed from horizon to horizon, for the air was clear and dry. A westbound moon, as round as a ship's wheel, plied the starry ocean.

  The vastness above appeared clean and full of promise, but the world at ground level looked dusty, weary. Rather than being combed by a single wind, the night was plaited with many breezes, each with an individual quality of whispery speech and a unique scent. Redolent of desert grit, of cactus pollen, of diesel fumes, of hot blacktop, the air curdled as Dylan drew near to the restaurant, thickened with the aroma of long-used deep-fryer oil, with hamburger grease smoking on a griddle, with fried-onion vapors nearly as thick as blackdamp.

  If he hadn't been in a town unfamiliar to him, if he hadn't been tired after a day on the road, and if his younger brother, Shepherd, hadn't been in a puzzling mood, Dylan would have sought a restaurant with healthier fare. Shep wasn't currently able to cope in public, however, and when in this condition, he refused to eat anything but comfort food with a high fat content.

  The restaurant was brighter inside than out. Most surfaces were white, and in spite of the well-greased air, the establishment looked antiseptic.

  Contemporary culture fit Dylan O'Conner only about as well as a three-fingered glove, and here was one more place where the tailoring pinched: He believed that a burger joint ought to look like a joint, not like a surgery, not like a nursery with pictures of clowns and funny animals on the walls, not like a bamboo pavilion on a tropical island, not like a glossy plastic replica of a 1950s diner that never actually existed. If you were going to eat charred cow smothered in cheese, with a side order of potato strips made as crisp as ancient papyrus by immersion in boiling oil, and if you were going to wash it all down with either satisfying quantities of icy beer or a milkshake containing the caloric equivalent of an entire roasted pig, then this fabulous consumption ought to occur in an ambience that virtually screamed guilty pleasure, if not sin. The lighting should be low and warm. Surfaces should be dark – preferably old mahogany, tarnished brass, wine-colored upholstery. Music should be provided to soothe the carnivore: not the music that made your gorge rise in an elevator because it was played by musicians steeped in Prozac, but tunes that were as sensuous as the food – perhaps early rock and roll or big-band swing, or good country music about temptation and remorse and beloved dogs.

  Nevertheless, he crossed the ceramic-tile floor to a stainless-steel counter, where he placed his takeout order with a plump woman whose white hair, well-scrubbed look, and candy-striped uniform made her a dead ringer for Mrs. Santa Claus. He half expected to see an elf peek out of her shirt pocket.

  In distant days, counters in fast-food outlets had been manned largely by teenagers. In recent years, however, a significant number of teens considered such work to be beneath them, which opened the door to retirees looking to supplement their social-security checks.

  Mrs. Santa Claus called Dylan 'dear,' delivered his order in two white paper bags, and reached across the counter to pin a promotional button to his shirt. The button featured the slogan FRIES NOT FLIES and the grinning green face of a cartoon toad whose conversion from the traditional diet of his warty species to such taste treats as half-pound bacon cheeseburgers was chronicled in the company's current advertising campaign.

  Here was that three-fingered glove again: Dylan didn't understand why he should be expected to weigh the endorsement of a cartoon toad or a sports star – or a Nobel laureate, for that matter – when deciding what to eat for dinner. Furthermore, he didn't understand why an advertisement assuring him that the restaurant's French fries were tastier than house flies should charm him. Their fries better have a superior flavor to a bagful of insects.

  He withheld his antitoad opinion also because lately he had begun to realize that he was allowing himself to be annoyed by too many inconsequential things. If he didn't mellow out, he would sour into a world-class curmudgeon by the age of thirty-five. He smiled at Mrs. Claus and thanked her, lest otherwise he ensure an anthracite Christmas.

  Outside, under the fat moon, crossing the three-lane highway to the motel, carrying paper bags full of fragrant cholesterol in a variety of formats, Dylan reminded himself of some of the many things for which he should be thankful. Good health. Nice teeth. Great hair. Youth. He was twenty-nine. He possessed a measure of artistic talent and had work that he found both meaningful and enjoyable. Although he was in no danger of getting rich, he sold his paintings often enough to cover expenses and to bank a little money every month. He had no disfiguring facial scars, no persistent fungus problem, no troublesome evil twin, no spells of amnesia from which he awoke with bloody hands, no inflamed hangnails.

  And he had Shepherd. Simultaneously a blessing and a curse, Shep in his best moments made Dylan glad to be alive and happy to be his brother.

  Under a red neon MOTEL sign where Dylan's traveling shadow painted a purer black upon the neon-rouged blacktop, and then when he passed squat sago palms and spiky cactuses and other hardy desert landscaping, and also while he followed the concrete walkways that served the motel, and certainly when he passed the humming and softly clinking soda-vending machines, lost in thought, brooding about the soft chains of family commitment – he was stalked. So stealthy was the approach that the stalker must have matched him step for step, breath for breath. At the door to his room, clutching bags of food, fumbling with his key, he heard too late a betraying scrape of shoe leather. Dylan turned his head, rolled his eyes, glimpsed a looming moon-pale face, and sensed as much as saw the dark blur of something arcing down toward his skull.

  Strangely, he didn't feel the blow and wasn't aware of falling. He heard the paper bags crackle, smelled onions, smelled warm cheese, smelled pickle chips, realized that he was facedown on the concrete, and hoped that he hadn't spilled Shep's milkshake. Then he dreamed a little dream of dancing French fries.

  2

  Jillian Jackson had a pet jad
e plant, and she treated it always with tender concern. She fed it a carefully calculated and measured mix of nutrients, watered it judiciously, and regularly misted its fleshy, oval-shaped, thumb-size leaves to wash off dust and maintain its glossy green beauty.

  That Friday night, while traveling from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Phoenix, Arizona, where she had a three-night gig the following week, Jilly did all the driving because Fred had neither a license to drive nor the necessary appendages to operate a motor vehicle. Fred was the jade plant.

  Jilly's midnight-blue 1956 Cadillac Coupe DeVille was the love of her life, which Fred understood and graciously accepted, but her little Crassula argentea (Fred's birth name) remained a close second in her affections. She had purchased him when he'd been just a sprig with four stubby branches and sixteen thick rubbery leaves. Although he had been housed in a tacky three-inch-diameter black plastic pot and should have looked tiny and forlorn, he'd instead appeared plucky and determined from the moment that she'd first seen him. Under her loving care, he had grown into a beautiful specimen about a foot in height and eighteen inches in diameter. He thrived now in a twelve-inch glazed terra-cotta pot; including soil and container, he weighed twelve pounds.

  Jilly had crafted a firm foam pillow, a ramped version of the doughnutlike seat provided to patients following hemorrhoid surgery, which prevented the bottom of the pot from scarring the passenger's-seat upholstery and which provided Fred with a level ride. The Coupe DeVille had not come with seat belts in 1956, and Jilly had not come with one, either, when she'd been born in 1977; but she'd had simple lap belts added to the car for herself and for Fred. Snug in his custom pillow, with his pot belted to the seat, he was as safe as any jade plant could hope to be while hurtling across the New Mexico badlands at speeds in excess of eighty miles per hour.

  Sitting below the windows, Fred couldn't appreciate the desert scenery, but Jilly painted word pictures for him when from time to time they encountered a stunning vista.

  She enjoyed exercising her descriptive powers. If she failed to parlay the current series of bookings in seedy cocktail lounges and second-rate comedy clubs into a career as a star comedian, her backup plan was to become a best-selling novelist.

  Even in dangerous times, most people dared to hope, but Jillian Jackson insisted upon hope, took as much sustenance from it as she took from food. Three years ago, when she'd been a waitress, sharing an apartment with three other young women to cut costs, eating only the two meals a day that she received gratis from the restaurant where she worked, before she landed her first job as a performer, her blood had been as rich with hope as with red cells, white cells, and platelets. Some people might have been daunted by such big dreams, but Jilly believed that hope and hard work could win everything she wanted.

  Everything except the right man.

  Now, through the waning afternoon, from Los Lunas to Socorro, to Las Cruces, during a long wait at the U.S. Customs Station east of Akela, where inspections of late were conducted with greater seriousness than they had been in more innocent days, Jilly thought about the men in her life. She'd had romantic relationships with only three, but those three were three too many. Onward to Lordsburg, north of the Pyramid Mountains, then to the town of Road Forks, New Mexico, and eventually across the state line, she brooded about the past, trying to understand where she'd gone wrong in each failed relationship.

  Although prepared to accept the blame for the implosion of every romance, second-guessing herself with the intense critical analysis of a bomb-squad cop deciding which of several wires ought to be cut to save the day, she finally concluded, not for the first time, that the fault resided less in herself than in those feckless men she'd trusted. They were betrayers. Deceivers. Given every benefit of the doubt, viewed through the rosiest of rose-colored lenses, they were nonetheless swine, three little pigs who exhibited all the worst porcine traits and none of the good ones. If the big bad wolf showed up at the door of their straw house, the neighbors would cheer him when he blew it down and would offer him the proper wine to accompany a pork-chop dinner.

  'I am a bitter, vengeful bitch,' Jilly declared.

  In his quiet way, sweet little Fred disagreed with her.

  'Will I ever meet a decent man?' she wondered.

  Though he possessed numerous fine qualities – patience, serenity, a habit of never complaining, an exceptional talent for listening and for quietly commiserating, a healthy root structure – Fred made no claim to clairvoyance. He couldn't know if Jilly would one day meet a decent man. In most matters, Fred trusted in destiny. Like other passive species lacking any means of locomotion, he had little choice but to rely on fate and hope for the best.

  'Of course I'll meet a decent man,' Jilly decided with a sudden resurgence of the hopefulness that usually characterized her. 'I'll meet dozens of decent men, scores of them, hundreds.' A melancholy sigh escaped her as she braked in response to a traffic backup in the westbound lanes of Interstate 10, immediately ahead of her. 'The question isn't whether I'll meet a truly decent man, but whether I'll recognize him if he doesn't arrive with a loud chorus of angels and a flashing halo that says GOOD GUY, GOOD GUY, GOOD GUY.'

  Jillian couldn't see Fred's smile, but she could feel it, sure enough.

  'Oh, face facts,' she groaned, 'when it comes to guys, I'm naive and easily misled.'

  When he heard the truth, Fred knew it. Wise Fred. The quiet with which he greeted Jilly's admission was far different from the quiet disagreement that he had expressed when she'd called herself a bitter, vengeful bitch.

  Traffic came to a full stop.

  Through a royal-purple twilight and past nightfall, they endured another long wait, this time at the Arizona Agricultural Inspection Station east of San Simon, which currently served state and federal law-enforcement agencies. In addition to Department of Agriculture officers, a few flinty-eyed plainclothes agents, on assignment from some less vegetable-oriented organization, evidently were searching for pests more destructive than fruit flies breeding in contraband oranges. In fact they grilled Jilly as if they believed a chador and a submachine gun were concealed under the car seat, and they studied Fred with wariness and skepticism, as though convinced that he was of Mideastern origin, held fanatical political views, and harbored evil intentions.

  Even these tough-looking men, who had reason to regard every traveler with suspicion, could not long mistake Fred for a villain. They stepped back and waved the Coupe DeVille through the checkpoint.

  As Jilly put up the power window and accelerated, she said, 'It's a good thing they didn't throw you in the slammer, Freddy. Our budget's too tight for bail money.'

  They drove a mile in silence.

  A ghost moon, like a faint ectoplasmic eye, had risen before sundown; and with the fall of night, its Cyclops stare brightened.

  'Maybe talking to a plant isn't just an eccentricity,' Jilly brooded. 'Maybe I'm a little off my nut.'

  North and south of the highway lay dark desolation. The cool lunar light could not burn away the stubborn gloom that befell the desert after sundown.

  'I'm sorry, Fred. That was a mean thing to say.'

  The little jade was proud but also forgiving. Of the three men with whom Jilly had explored the dysfunctional side of romance, none would have hesitated to turn even her most innocent expression of discontent against her; each would have used it to make her feel guilty and to portray himself as the long-suffering victim of her unreasonable expectations. Fred, bless him, never played those power games.

  For a while they rode in companionable silence, conserving a flagon of fuel by traveling in the high-suction slipstream of a speeding Peterbilt that, judging by the advertisement on its rear doors, was hauling ice-cream treats to hungry snackers west of New Mexico.

  When they came upon a town radiant with the signs of motels and service stations, Jilly exited the interstate. She tanked up from a self-serve pump at Union 76.

  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.'

  3

  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.

 
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