* * *
Even unknown intruders and a perception of impending violence could not long stifle the white-haired woman's natural amiableness, which had no doubt been enhanced with motivational steroids during training provided by the fast-food franchise for which she worked. Worry twitched into a fragile smile, and she offered one hand to be shaken even though it was doing a fine job of shaking itself. 'I'm Marjorie, dear. What's your name?'
Jilly would have gone into the downstairs hall in search of Dylan if her only responsibility had been Shepherd, but Dylan had left her with a second, this woman. She didn't want to leave Shep alone in the SUV much longer, and if she left Marjorie alone within reach of a telephone, more small-town cops would be milling around this place than you'd find at a Mayberry RFD convention.
Besides, Dylan had told Marjorie to get out of the house because she wasn't safe here, but the old girl seemed to have lived nearly seventy years while remaining a naif incapable of recognizing peril even when the wickedly gleaming edge of it was descending toward her neck. If Jilly didn't get her out of here, Marjorie might remain in the kitchen, vaguely concerned but not alarmed, even if a plague of ravenous locusts swarmed out of the pantry and gouts of molten lava erupted from the sink drain.
'I'm Marjorie,' she repeated, her fragile smile trembling like a crescent of froth that might dissolve back into the pool of worry that had flooded her features. Still extending her hand, she clearly expected a name in return – a name that she would give to the cops later when, inevitably, she eventually summoned them.
Putting an arm around Marjorie's shoulders, encouraging her toward the back door, Jilly said, 'Sweetie, you can just call me Chicken-sandwich-French-fries-root-beer. 'Chicky' for short.'
* * *
Each further contact with the spoor on the banister suggested that the person whose trail Dylan followed was more malevolent than the previous trace had revealed. By the time that he turned at the landing and climbed the second flight into the gloom at the top of the stairs, he understood that in the upper rooms waited an adversary who could be vanquished not by a mere artist lacking any firsthand experience of violence, but by no less than a dragon slayer.
Hardly more than a minute ago, downstairs, when he had seen the woman alive but also as she might eventually appear in the aftermath of murder, he had felt undiluted terror for the first time slither into him. Now it tightened its serpent coils around his spine.
'Please,' Dylan whispered, as though he still believed that he stood here in the iron control of – and at the mercy of – an unknown external force. 'Please,' he repeated, as though it were not becoming manifestly clear that this sixth sense had been conferred upon him – or cursed upon him – by whatever elixir the syringe contained, and as though it were not equally clear that he continued on this dangerous course utterly without coercion. His whispered please could rightly be directed toward no one but himself. He was driven by motives that he could not understand, but they were nonetheless his motives and his alone.
He could turn and leave. He knew the choice was his to make. Also he understood that the way down and out of this house would be easier than the path ahead.
When he realized that he was indeed in full control of himself, a remarkable calm settled through him with the rare grace of windless snow layering smooth contours over a racked landscape. He stopped shaking. When his clenched teeth relaxed, his jaw muscles stopped twitching. His sense of urgency subsided, and his heartbeat grew slower and less forceful until he thought that his cardiac muscle might not explode, after all. Unwinding from his spine, the serpent of cold terror bit its tail and swallowed itself entirely.
He stood at the head of the stairs, at the brink of the dark hall, knowing that he could turn back, knowing that he would instead go forward, but not knowing why, and for the moment not needing to know. By his own assessment, he was not a courageous man, not born to travel battlefields or to police mean streets. He admired heroism, but he didn't expect it of himself. Although his motivation here remained a mystery, he understood himself well enough to be sure that selflessness wasn't a factor; he would go forward because intuitively he sensed that to retreat would not be in his best interests. Because he couldn't yet consciously process all the strange information gathered by his uncannily heightened perceptions, logic led him to rely on his instincts more than might ordinarily have been prudent.
Rose light climbed the trellis of the stairs only as far as the lower landing. The dark bowers before Dylan were brightened only – and barely – by the glow of a lamp behind a door that had been left half an inch ajar on the right side of the hall.
As best he could discern, three rooms lay upstairs: the lamplit chamber at the end, a nearer door also on the right, and a single room on the left.
When Dylan took three steps to the first door on the right, fear crept upon him once more: a manageable anxiety, the judicious apprehension of a fireman or a cop, not the burden of terror under which he'd labored from the kitchen, along the lower hall, to the top of the stairs.
The psychic spoor of his quarry contaminated the doorknob. He nearly withdrew his hand, but intuition – his new best friend – urged him to proceed.
A faint rasp of the latch, a whisper of dry hinges. A frosted-glass window lustrous with the cadmium-yellow glow of a streetlamp, veined by the shadow of an olive branch, allowed enough light to reveal a deserted bathroom.
He proceeded to the second room on the right, where a blade of brighter light cut through the half-inch crack between the door and jamb. Both instinct and reason prevented him from putting his eye to that narrow space, lest the metaphorical blade be joined by a real knife that would blind him for his spying.
When he cupped his hand around this doorknob, Dylan knew that he had found the lair of the sick soul he sought, for the spoor was a hundredfold more potent than what he'd encountered thus far. The psychic trace left by his quarry wriggled like a centipede against his palm, squirmed, writhed, and he knew that beyond this door lay a colony of Hell established on the wrong side of death.
Crossing the threshold at the back door, Marjorie remembered her take-out dinner, which she'd left behind, and she wanted to return to the kitchen to fetch the bag 'while the cheeseburger is still warm.'
With the patience of a giant bird or other costumed teacher from Sesame Street defining a new word for a child whose ability to focus had been atomized by an overdose of Ritalin, Jilly kept the woman on the move by explaining that a warm cheeseburger would be no comfort if she was dead.
Apparently, Dylan had given Marjorie only a vague warning, had not specified that the four-burner gas oven was about to explode, had not predicted that an earthquake would at any moment shake her house into one of those piles of smoking rubble that the gleeful vultures of the media found so picturesque. Nevertheless, in light of recent events, Jilly took his premonition seriously, regardless of its lack of specificity.
Using happy talk and cunning psychology that Big Bird would have heartily endorsed, Jilly coddled Marjorie through the door, onto the back porch, to the head of the steps that led down to the back lawn.
At that point the older woman applied her impressive weight to a squinching maneuver with her feet, creating suction between the tread on her rubber-soled shoes and the glossy paint on the porch floor. This clever trick made her as immovable as Hercules had ever been when, sentenced to be drawn and quartered, he had proved himself the equal of two teams of torturing horses.
'Chicky,' the woman said to Jilly, choosing not to address her by her full fast-food name, 'does he know about the knives?'
'He's not my fella, Marj. Don't make assumptions like that. He's not my type. What knives?'
'Kenny likes knives.'
'Kenny junior, not his father.'
'Kids,' Jilly commiserated, still urging the woman to move.
'Kenny senior's in a prison in Peru.'
'Bummer,' Jilly said, referring both to Kenny senior's Peruvian incarceration and to her own inability to tumble Marjorie down the porch stairs.
'Kenny junior, he's my oldest grandson. Nineteen.'
'And he likes knives, huh?'
'He collects them. Very pretty knives, some of them.'
'That sounds swell, Marj.'
'I'm afraid he's back on the drugs again.'
'Knives and drugs, huh?' Jilly said, trying to rock the woman to break the shoe suction and get her moving.
'I don't know what to do. I don't. He gets crazy on the drugs sometimes.'
'Crazy, drugs, knives,' Jilly said, talking the pieces of the Kenny puzzle into place, glancing nervously toward the kitchen door that stood open behind them.
'He's going to have a breakdown sooner or later,' Marj worried. 'He's going to go over the edge someday.'
'Sweetie,' Jilly said, 'I think today's the day.'
* * *
Not just a single centipede but a nest of them, writhing knots of centipedes, seemed to squirm against the palm of Dylan's hand.
He didn't release the knob in revulsion because simultaneously he sensed the appealing traces of another and better personality layered with the spoor of the sick soul. He received impressions of a shining but anxious heart whose refuge, curiously, was in the same place as the dragon's lair.
Cautiously he pushed open the door.
A large bedroom had been partitioned exactly at the midpoint as clearly as though a line had been painted across the floor, up the left-hand wall, across the ceiling, and down the right-hand wall. The division had been effected not with any boundary markers, however, but by the dramatic contrast between the interests and the characters of the two residents who shared these lodgings.
In addition to a bed and nightstand, the nearer half of the room featured bookshelves stocked with paperbacks. Wall space remained for an eclectic collection of three posters. In the first, a 1966 A.C. Shelby Cobra convertible rocketed along a highway toward a dazzling red sunset; with its low profile, sensuously rounded lines, and a silver finish that reflected the Technicolor sky, this sports car was the embodiment of speed, joy, freedom. Beside the Cobra hung a solemn portrait of a grumpy-looking C. S. Lewis. The third was a poster of the famous photograph of U.S. Marines raising Old Glory at the summit of a battle-scarred hill on Iwo Jima.
Furnished with another bed and nightstand, the farther half of the room had no books, no posters. There, the walls served as display racks for a bristling collection of edge weapons. Thin poniards and wider daggers, dirks, stilettos, one saber, one scimitar, kukris and katars from India, a skean dhu from Scotland, a short-handled halberd, bayonets, falchions, bowies, yataghans... Many blades were etched with elaborate designs, handles ornately carved and painted, pommels and quillons sometimes plain but often elaborately decorated.
In the nearer half of the room stood a small desk. On it, neatly arranged, were a blotter, a pen set, a canister of pencils, a thick dictionary, and a scale model of the 1966 A. C. Shelby Cobra.
In the far zone, a work table held a plastic replica of a human skull and a collapsed stack of pornographic videos.
The nearer realm was dusted, swept, more elaborately appointed than a monk's cell but every bit as neat as any friar's habitat.
Disorder ruled in the far kingdom. The bedclothes were tangled. Dirty socks, discarded shoes, empty soda and beer cans, and crumpled candy wrappers littered the floor, the nightstand, and the shelf atop the headboard of the bed. Only the knives and other edge weapons had been arranged with care – if not with loving calculation – and judging by the mirror-bright gleam of every blade, much time had been devoted to their maintenance.
A pair of suitcases stood side by side in the center of the room, on the border between these rival encampments. A black cowboy hat with a green feather in the band was perched atop the luggage.
All this Dylan noted in one quick survey of the scene lasting but three or four seconds, much as he had long been accustomed to absorbing entire landscapes in vivid detail with an initial sweeping gaze, in order to assess at first glance, before his head overruled his heart, whether the subject merited the time and the energy that he would have to expend to paint it and to paint it well. The talent with which he'd been born included instant photographic perception, but he dramatically enhanced it with training, as he imagined that a gifted young cop consciously honed his natural skills of observation until he earned detective status.
As any good cop would have done, Dylan began and ended this initial sweep with the detail that most immediately and strikingly denned the scene: a boy of about thirteen sat in the nearest bed, wearing jeans and a New York City Fire Department T-shirt, shackled at the ankles, cruelly gagged, and handcuffed to the brass headboard.
* * *
Marj did her immovable-object shtick far better than Jilly could pull off her irresistible-force act. Still anchored to the porch at the top of the steps, she said worriedly, 'We've got to get him.'
Although Dylan wasn't her fella, Jilly didn't know how otherwise to refer to him, since she didn't want to use his real name in front of this woman and because she didn't know what food he had ordered earlier. 'Don't worry. My fella will get him, Marj.'
'I don't mean get Kenny,' Marj said with more distress than she had shown previously.
'Who do you mean?'
'Travis. I mean Travis. All he's got is books. Kenny has knives, but Travis has just his books.'
'Kenny's little brother. He's thirteen. Kenny has a breakdown, it'll be Travis who gets broke.'
'And Travis – he's in there with Kenny?'
'Must be. We've got to get him out.'
At the far end of the back porch from them, the kitchen door still stood open. Jilly didn't want to return to the house.
She didn't know why Dylan had come here at high speed, risking life and limb and increased insurance premiums, but she doubted that he'd been compelled by a belated need to thank Marj for her courteous service or by a desire to return the toad button so that it might be given to another customer who would better appreciate it. Based on what little information Jilly possessed and considering what an X-Files night this had become, the smart-money bet was that Mr. Dylan Something's-happening-to-me O'Conner had raced to this house to stop Kenny from doing a bad thing with his knife collection.
If a burst of psychic perception had led Dylan to Kenny of the Many Knives, whom he had apparently never met previously, then logic suggested that he would be aware of Travis, too. When he encountered a thirteen-year-old boy armed with a book, he wasn't going to mistake the kid for a doped-up nineteen-year-old knife maniac.