'Didn't hear of you, sir. I don't know who you are. I just...' Words that had come without volition now failed him on command. After a hesitation, he realized that he would have to tell a piece of the truth, reveal part of his secret, if they were to proceed. 'You see, sir, I have these moments of... intuition.'
'Don't count on it at the poker table.'
'Not just intuition. I mean... I know things when there's no way to know. I feel, I know, and... I make connections.'
'Some sort of spiritist, you're sayin'?'
'You're a diviner, soothsayer, psychic – that sort of thing?'
'Maybe,' Dylan said. 'It's just this weirdness that's happened to me lately. I don't make money at it.'
Those worn features that seemed incapable of a smile might have formed one, although it was drawn lightly, as with a feather on the weathered sandstone of his face, and was so short-lived that it might have been only the tic of a wince. 'If what I'm hearin' is your usual pitch, I'm amazed you don't have to pay folks to listen.'
'You think you've come to the end of whatever road you've been following.' Once more Dylan was unaware of what he would say before he said it. 'You think you've failed. But maybe you haven't.'
'Maybe she's near right now.'
'I don't know, sir. That just came to me. But whoever she is, you know who I mean.'
That analytic squint fixed Dylan once more, this time with a certain merciless quality like the piercing scrutiny of a police detective. 'Step back a piece. Give me room to get out.'
As the old man exited the big Mercury SUV, Dylan surveyed the night for Jilly and Shep. They had ventured a few feet farther from the restaurant since he'd last seen them, but only far enough for Jilly to retrieve the copy of Great Expectations that Dylan had dropped. She stood at Shepherd's side, watchful, in the wound-tight posture of one who wondered if this time, too, there would be knives.
He looked out toward the street, as well. No black Suburbans. Nonetheless, he sensed they had stayed too long in Safford.
'Name's Ben Tanner.'
When Dylan looked away from Shep and Jilly, he discovered the old man offering one worn and callused hand.
He hesitated, concerned that a handshake would expose him to a supercharged version of the bleak loneliness and the despondency that he had sensed in Tanner's psychic imprint, emotion a thousand times more intense by direct contact than what he'd experienced by exposure to the spoor, so powerful that it would knock him to his knees.
He couldn't remember if he had touched Marjorie when he'd found her standing beside the pill-littered kitchen table, but he didn't believe he had. And Kenny? After administering baseball-bat justice, Dylan demanded handcuff and padlock keys from the pants-wetting knife maniac; however, after producing the keys from a shirt pocket, Kenny had given them to Jilly. To the best of Dylan's recollection, he had not touched the vicious little coward.
No strategy to avoid Tanner's hand would leave their fragile rapport undamaged, so Dylan shook it – and discovered that what he had felt so poignantly in the man's latent psychic imprint could not be felt in equal measure, or at all, in the man himself. The mechanism of his sixth sense was no less mysterious than the source of it.
'Come down from Wyoming near a month ago,' Tanner said, 'with some leads, but they had no more substance than gnat piss.'
Dylan reached past Tanner to touch the handle on the driver's door.
'Been rattlin' from one end of Arizona to the other, and now I'm on my way home, where maybe I should've stayed.'
In the psychic trace, Dylan felt again the geography of a burnt-out soul, that continent of ashes, that despondent world of soundless solitude he had encountered when, hand to door, he had left the restaurant.
Although he had not consciously framed the question, Dylan heard himself asking, 'How long has your wife been dead?'
The reappearance of the intimidating squint suggested that the old man still suspected a con, but the pertinence of the question lent Dylan some credibility. 'Emily's been gone eight years,' Tanner said in the matter-of-fact tone with which men of his generation felt obliged to conceal their tenderest emotions, but in spite of the squint, those azurite eyes betrayed the drowning depth of his grief.
To have known by some form of clairvoyance that this stranger's wife was dead, to have known it rather than merely to have suspected it, to know intimately the devastation that this death had wrought in Tanner, made Dylan feel like a brazen intruder exploring the most private spaces of a victim's house, like a sneak who picked the locks on diaries and read the secrets of others. This repugnant aspect of his uncanny talent far outweighed the exhilaration he had felt after the successful confrontation at Marjorie's house, but he couldn't suppress these revelations, which rose into his awareness like water bubbling at a wellhead.
'You and Emily started looking for the girl twelve years ago,' Dylan said, though he didn't know to what girl he referred or yet grasp the nature of their search.
Grief made way for surprise. 'How do you know these things?'
'I said "girl," but she'd have been thirty-eight even then.'
'Fifty now,' Tanner confirmed. For a moment he seemed to be more amazed by the number of lost decades than by the knowledge that Dylan had acquired by divination: 'Fifty. My God, where does a life go?'
Releasing the door handle, Dylan was drawn away from the Mercury by an unknown but more powerful attractant, and once again he was on the move. Almost as an afterthought, he called back to Tanner, 'This way,' as though he had a clue as to where he might be going.
Prudence no doubt counseled the old man to climb in his truck and lock the doors, but his heart was involved now, and prudence had little influence with him. Hurrying at Dylan's side, he said, 'We figured we'd find her sooner than later. Then we learned the system was dead-set against us.'
A swooping shadow, a thrum overhead. Dylan looked up in time to see a desert bat snare a moth in midflight, the killing silhouetted against a tall parking-lot lamp. This sight would not have chilled him on another night, but chilled him now.
An SUV in the street. Not a Suburban. But cruising past slowly. Dylan watched until it passed out of sight.
The bloodhound of intuition led him across the parking lot to a ten-year-old Pontiac. He touched the driver's door, and every nerve end in his hand received the psychic spoor.
'You were twenty,' Dylan said, 'Emily just seventeen, when the girl came along.'
'We had no money, no prospects.'
'Emily's parents had died young, and yours were... useless.'
'You know what you can't know,' Tanner marveled. 'That's exactly how it was. No family to back us up.'
When the faintly fizzing trace on the driver's door did not electrify Dylan, he moved around the Pontiac to the passenger's side.
At his heels, the old man said, 'Still, we'd have kept her no matter how hard things got. But then in Emily's eighth month—'
'A snowy night,' Dylan said. 'You were in a pickup truck.'
'No match for a semi.'
'Both your legs were broken.'
'Broke my back, too, and internal injuries.'
'No health insurance.'
'Not a dime. And I was a year gettin' back on my feet.'
At the front door on the passenger's side, Dylan found an imprint different from the one on the driver's door.
'Broke our hearts to give that baby up, but we prayed it was the best thing for her.'
Dylan detected a sympathetic resonance between the psychic trace of this unknown person and that of Ben Tanner.
'By God, you're the true thing,' the old man said, abandoning his skepticism more quickly than Dylan would have thought possible. Songless for so long, hope – that feathered thing perched in his soul – was singing again to Ben Tanner. 'You're real.'
No matter what might come, Dylan remained compelled to follow this incident to its inevitable conclusion. He could no more easily turn away than a rainstorm could reverse course and pour upward from the puddled earth into the wrung-out thunderheads from which it had fallen. Nevertheless, he was loath to raise the old man's hopes, for he couldn't foresee the end point. He couldn't guarantee that the father-and-child reunion that seemed miraculously in process was, in fact, destined to occur this night – or ever.
'You're real,' Tanner repeated, this time with a disquieting reverence.
Dylan's hand tightened around the Pontiac door handle, and in his mind a connection occurred with the solid ca-chunk of railroad cars coupling. 'Dead man's trail,' he murmured, not sure what he meant, but not thrilled by the sound of it. He turned from the car toward the restaurant. 'There's an answer here, if you want it.'
Seizing Dylan by the arm, halting him, Tanner said, 'You mean the girl? In there? Where I just was?'
'I don't know, Ben. It doesn't work that way with me. No clear visions. No final answers till I reach the end. It's like a chain, and I go link by link, not knowing what the last link is until I've got it.'
Choosing to ignore the warning implicit in Dylan's words, the old man said wonderingly, 'I wasn't actually looking for her here. Not in this town, this place. Pulled off the road, came for dinner, that's all.'
'Ben, listen, I said there's an answer here, but I don't know if the answer is the girl herself. Be prepared for that.'
The old man had taken his first taste of hope not a minute ago, and already he was drunk with it. 'Well, like you said, if this isn't the last link, you'll find the next one, and the one after that.'
'All the way to the last link,' Dylan agreed, recalling the relentlessness of the compulsion that had driven him to Eucalyptus Avenue. 'But—'
'You'll find my girl, I know you will, I know.' Tanner didn't seem to be the type who could flip from despair to joy in a manic moment, but perhaps the prospect of resolving fifty years of regret and remorse was sufficiently exhilarating to effect an immediate emotional transformation even in a stoic heart. 'You're an answer to prayers.'
In truth, Dylan might have been at least mildly enthusiastic about playing hero twice in one night, but his enthusiasm curdled when he realized how devastated Ben Tanner would be if this chase didn't have a storybook ending.
Gently, he broke the old man's grip on his arm and continued toward the restaurant. Since there was no turning back, he wanted to finish this as quickly as possible and put an end to the suspense.
Jinking bats, now three in number, frolicked in their aerial feast, and the paper-fragile exoskeleton of each doomed moth made a faint but audible crunch when snapped in those rodent teeth: entire death announcements in crisp strokes of exclamatory punctuation.
If Dylan had believed in omens, these lamplit bats would have warranted a pause for consideration. And if they were an omen, they certainly didn't portend success in the search for Ben Tanner's girl.
Dead man's trail.
The words returned to him, but he still didn't know what he ought to infer from them.
If a chance existed that the old man's long-lost daughter would be found inside the restaurant, then perhaps it was equally likely that she was dead and that who waited to be discovered instead at the end of this particular chain was the physician who had attended her during her final hours or the priest who'd given her last rites. No less possible: She might not merely have died; she might have been murdered, and at dinner this evening might be the policeman who had found her body. Or the man who had murdered her.
With the buoyant Ben at his side, Dylan paused when he reached Jilly and Shep, but made no introductions, offered no explanations. He handed his keys to Jilly, leaned close, and said, 'Get Shep belted in. Get out of the parking lot. Wait for me half a block that way.' He pointed. 'Keep the engine running.'
Events in the restaurant, whether they proved to be good or bad, might cause sufficient commotion to ensure that the employees and the customers would be interested enough in Dylan to watch him through the big front windows when he left. The SUV must not be near enough for anyone to read the license plates or to discern clearly the make and model of the vehicle.
To her credit, Jilly asked no questions. She understood that in his stuff-driven condition, Dylan couldn't do other than what he was impelled to do. She accepted the keys, and she said to Shep, 'Come on, sweetie, let's go.'
'Listen to her,' Dylan told his brother. 'Do what she says,' and he led Ben Tanner into the restaurant.
The hostess said, 'I'm sorry, but we're no longer seating for dinner.' Then she recognized them. 'Oh. Forget something?'
'Saw an old friend,' Dylan lied, and headed into the dining area with the confidence that although he didn't know where he was going, he would arrive at where he needed to be.
The couple sat at a corner table. They appeared to be in their middle to late twenties.
Too young to be Ben Tanner's daughter, the woman looked up as Dylan approached her without hesitation. A pretty, fresh-faced, sun-browned brunette, she had eyes that were a singular shade of blue.
'Excuse me for interrupting,' Dylan said, 'but do the words dead man's trail mean anything to you?'
Smiling uncertainly but as though prepared to be delighted, the woman glanced at her companion. 'What's this, Tom?'
Tom shrugged. 'A setup for some joke, I guess, but it's not my joke, I swear.'
Turning her attention to Dylan once more, the woman said, 'Dead Man's Trail is a desert back road 'tween here and San Simon. Just dirt and tire-snapped rattlesnakes. It's where me and Tom first met.'
'Lynette was changing a flat tire when I saw her,' Tom said. 'Helped her tighten the lugs, and the next thing I knew, she used some hoodoo or other to make me propose marriage.'
Smiling affectionately at Tom, Lynette said, 'I cast a spell on you, all right, but the purpose was to turn you into a warty toad and make you hop away forever. And here you are instead. That'll teach me not to slack off on my spellcastin' practice.'
On the table, two small gifts, as yet unwrapped, and a bottle of wine indicated a special evening. Although Lynette's simple dress appeared inexpensive, the care with which she had done her makeup and brushed her hair suggested she'd worn her best. The aging Pontiac in the parking lot further supported the conclusion that an evening as fancy as this must be a rare treat for them.