'Anniversary?' Dylan asked, relying on deduction rather than on clairvoyance.
'As if you didn't already know,' said Lynette. 'Our third. Now who put you up to this, and what's next?'
Surprise froze her smile when Dylan briefly touched the stem of her wineglass to reacquaint himself with her psychic imprint.
He felt again the unique trace that had been on the passenger's door of the Pontiac, and in his mind another connection occurred with the ca-chunk of coupling railroad cars. 'I believe your mother told you that she was adopted, told you as much as she knew.'
The mention of her mother thawed Lynette's smile. 'Yes.'
'Which was nothing more than her adopted parents knew – that she'd been given up by a couple somewhere in Wyoming.'
'Wyoming. That's right.'
Dylan said, 'She tried to find her real parents, but she didn't have enough money or time to keep at it.'
'You knew my mother?'
Fully dissolve a heavy concentration of sugar in an ordinary bowl of water, suspend a string in this mixture, and in the morning you will find that rock-sugar crystals have formed upon the string. Dylan seemed to have lowered a long mental string into some pool of psychic energy, and the facts of Lynette's life crystallized on it much faster than sugar would separate from water.
'She died two years ago this August,' he continued.
'The cancer took her,' Tom confirmed.
Lynette said, 'Forty-eight is too young to go.'
Repulsed by the continued invasion of this young woman's heart, but unable to restrain himself, Dylan felt her still-sharp anguish at the loss of her beloved mother, and he read her secrets as they crystallized on his mental string: 'The night your mom died, the next-to-last thing she said to you was, "Lynnie, someday you should go lookin' for your roots. Finish what I started. We can better figure where we're goin' if we know where we come from."'
Astonished that he could be privy to the exact words her mother had spoken, Lynette began to rise, but at once sat down, reached for her wine, perhaps remembered that he had put his fingers to the stem of the glass, and left the drink untouched. 'Who... who are you?'
'There in the hospital, the night she died, the last thing she ever said to you was... "Lynnie, I hope this won't count against me wherever I'm goin' from here, but as much as I love God, I love you more."'
By reciting those words, he wielded an emotional sledgehammer. When he saw Lynette's tears, he was appalled that he had broken her pretty anniversary mood and had knocked her into memories unsuitable for celebration.
Yet he knew why he'd swung so hard. He had needed to establish his bona fides before introducing Ben Tanner, ensuring that Lynette and the old man would more immediately connect, thereby allowing Dylan to finish his work and to slip away as quickly as possible.
Although Tanner had hung back until now, he'd been near enough to hear that his dream of a father-daughter reunion would not become a reality in this life, but also that another unexpected miracle was here occurring. Having taken off his Stetson, he turned it nervously in his hands as he came forward.
When Dylan saw that the old man's legs were shaking and that his joints seemed about to fail him, he pulled out one of the two unused chairs at the table. As Tanner put his hat aside and sat down, Dylan said, 'Lynette, while your mom hoped one day to find her blood kin, they were looking for her, too. I'd like you to meet your grandfather – your mother's father, Ben Tanner.'
The old man and the young woman stared wonderingly at each other with matching azurite-blue eyes.
While Lynette was silenced by her astonishment, Ben Tanner produced a snapshot that he had evidently fished out of his wallet while standing behind Dylan. He slid the photo across the table to his granddaughter. 'This is my Emily, your grandma, when she was almost as young as you. It breaks my heart she couldn't live to see you're the image of her.'
'Tom,' Dylan said to Lynette's husband, 'I see there's but an inch of wine left in that bottle. We're going to need something more to celebrate, and I'd be pleased if you'd let me buy this one.'
Bewildered by what had happened, Tom nodded, smiled uncertainly. 'Uh, sure. That's nice of you.'
'I'll be right back,' Dylan said, with no intention of keeping that promise.
He went to the cashier's station by the front door, where the hostess had just paid out change to a departing customer, a florid-faced man with the listing walk of one who had drunk more of his dinner than he had chewed.
'I know you're not serving dinner any longer,' Dylan said to the hostess. 'But can I still send a bottle of wine to Tom and Lynette over there?'
'Certainly. The kitchen's closed, but the bar's open for another two hours.'
She knew what they had ordered, a moderately priced Merlot. Dylan mentally added a tip for the waitress, put cash on the counter.
He glanced back at the corner table, where Tom, Lynette, and Ben were intensely engaged in conversation. Good. None of them would see him leave.
Shouldering through the door, stepping outside, he discovered that Jilly had moved the Expedition from the parking lot, as he had requested. The SUV stood in the street, at the curb, half a block north.
Angling in that direction, he encountered the florid-faced man who had left the restaurant ahead of him. The guy apparently had some difficulty remembering where he'd parked his car or perhaps even what car he'd been driving. Then he focused on a silver Corvette and made for it with the hunched shoulders and the head-down determination of a bull spotting a matador with unfurled cape. He didn't charge as fast as a bull, however, nor as directly, but tacked left and right, left and right, like a sailor changing the course of his vessel by a series of maneuvers, singing a slurred and semicoherent version of the Beatles' 'Yesterday.'
Fumbling in the pockets of his sport coat, the drunk found his car keys but dropped a wad of currency. Oblivious of the money on the blacktop behind him, he blundered on.
'Mister, you lost something,' Dylan said. 'Hey, fella, you're gonna want this.'
In the melancholy mood of 'Yesterday,' singing mushily of his many troubles, the drunk did not respond to Dylan, but weaved toward the Corvette with the newfound key held at arm's length ahead of him, as though it were a dowsing rod without which he would be unable to find his way across the last ten feet of pavement to his vehicle.
Picking up the wad of cash – Dylan felt a cold slippery twisting serpent in his hand, smelled something goatish and rank, heard an internal buzzing as of angry wasps. At once he knew that the drunken fool lurching toward the Corvette – Lucas something, Lucas Croaker or Crocker – was more despicable than a drunk, more sinister than a mere fool.
Even drunk and stumbling, this Lucas Crocker should be feared. After casting aside the wad of cash saturated in repulsive spoor, Dylan rushed him from behind, with no further warning.
Crocker looked flabby in his loose-fitting slacks and jacket, but he was as solid as a whiskey keg, which in fact he smelled like. Body-checked forcefully, he slammed against the Corvette hard enough to rock it, and slobbered a final word of Beatles' lyrics against the glass even as he broke the driver's-side window with his face.
Most men would have gone down, stayed down, but Crocker roared in rage and reared back with such Brahman power that he appeared to have been invigorated by the rib-cracking impact with the sports car. He pistoned his arms, jabbed with his elbows, thrashed, bucked, and rolled his meaty shoulders like a rodeo beast casting off a flyweight rider.
Far from flyweight, Dylan was nonetheless cast off. He staggered backward, almost fell, but stayed on his feet, and wished that he had kept the baseball bat.
Nose broken, face cracked in a crimson grin, Crocker rounded on his adversary with diabolic delight, as though stimulated by the prospect of having his teeth knocked out, excited by the certainty of greater pain, as if this were just the kind of entertainment that he preferred. He charged.
The advantage of size would not have been enough to spare Dylan ruinous injury, and perhaps the advantage of sobriety wouldn't have been enough, either; but size and sobriety and raw anger gave him a precious edge. When Crocker charged with drunken enthusiasm, Dylan lured the man by making a come-on gesture, stepped aside almost too late, and kicked him in the knee.
Crocker sprawled, rapped the pavement with his forehead, and found it less accommodating than a car window. Nevertheless, his fighting spirit proved less breakable than his face, and he pushed at once onto his hands and knees.
Dylan drew courage from the volcanic anger that he'd first felt upon seeing the beaten boy shackled to the bed in that room divided between books and knives. The world was full of victims, too many victims and too few defenders of them. The hideous images that had passed into him from the wad of cash, sharp images of Lucas Crocker's singular depravity and cruelty, still ricocheted through his mind, like destructive radioactive particles. The righteous anger that flooded Dylan washed before it all fear regarding his own safety.
For a painter of idyllic nature scenes, for an artist with a peaceful heart, he could deliver a remarkably vicious kick, place it with the accuracy of any mob enforcer, and follow it with another. Sickened by this violence, he nonetheless remained committed to it without compunction.
As Crocker's broken ribs tested how resistant his lungs were to puncture, as his smashed fingers fattened into unclenchable sausages, as his rapidly swelling lips transformed his fierce grin into the goofy smile of a stocking doll, the drunk evidently decided that he'd had enough fun for one evening. He stopped trying to get to his feet, collapsed onto his side, rolled onto his back, lay gasping, groaning.
Breathing hard but unhurt, Dylan surveyed the parking lot. He and Crocker were alone. He was pretty sure that no traffic had passed in the street during the altercation. No one had seen.
His luck wouldn't hold much longer.
The keys to the Corvette gleamed on the pavement near the car. Dylan confiscated them.
He returned to the bloodied, gasping man and noticed a phone clipped to his belt.
In Crocker's boiled-ham face, cunning little pig eyes watched for an easy opportunity.
'Give me your phone,' Dylan said.
When Crocker made no move to obey, Dylan stepped on his broken hand, pinning the swollen fingers to the blacktop.
Cursing, Crocker used his good hand to detach the phone from his belt. He held it out, eyes wet with pain but as cunning as before.
'Slide it across the pavement,' Dylan directed. 'Over there.'
When Crocker did as instructed, Dylan stepped off his injured hand without doing further damage.
Spinning, the telephone came to rest about a foot from the wad of currency. Dylan went to the phone, plucked it off the blacktop, but left the money untouched.
Spitting out broken teeth or window glass along with words as mushy as his smashed lips, Crocker asked, 'You aren't robbing me?'
'I only steal long-distance minutes. You can keep your money, but you're going to get one hell of a phone bill.'
Having been sobered by pain, Crocker was now bleary-eyed only with bewilderment. 'Who are you?'
'Everybody's been asking me that same question tonight. I guess I'll have to come up with a name that resonates.'
Half a block north, Jilly stood beside the Expedition, watching. Perhaps, if she'd seen Dylan getting his ass kicked, she would have come to his aid with a can of insecticide or aerosol cheese.
Hurrying toward the SUV, Dylan glanced back, but Lucas Crocker made no attempt to get up. Maybe the guy had passed out. Maybe he had noticed the bats feeding greedily on the moths in the lamplight: That spectacle would appeal to him. It might even be the kind of thing he found inspiring.
By the time Dylan reached the Expedition, Jilly had returned to the front passenger's seat. He got in and shut his door.
Her psychic trace upon the steering wheel felt pleasant, rather like immersing work-sore hands in warm water enhanced with curative salts. Then he became aware of her anxiety. As if a live electrical wire had been dropped into the hand bath. With an act of will, he tuned out all those vibrations, good and bad.
'What the hell happened back there?' Jilly asked.
Handing the phone to her, he said, 'Get me the police.'
'I thought we didn't want them.'
'Now we do.'
Headlights appeared in the street behind them. Another slow-moving SUV. Maybe the same one that had earlier drifted by well below the speed limit. Maybe not. Dylan watched it pass. The driver didn't appear to be interested in them. A true professional, of course, would conceal his interest well.
In the backseat, Shepherd had returned to Great Expectations. He seemed remarkably calm.
The restaurant fronted on Federal Highway 70, the route that Dylan wanted. He headed northwest.
After using the telephone keypad, Jilly listened, then said, 'Guess the town's too small for nine-one-one service.' She keyed in the number for directory assistance, asked for the police, and passed the phone back to Dylan.
Succinctly, he told the police operator about Lucas Crocker, half drunk and fully thrashed, waiting for an ambulance in the restaurant parking lot.
'May I have your name?' she asked.
'That's not important.'
'I'm required to ask your name—'
'And so you have.'
'Sir, if you were a witness to this assault—'
'I committed the assault,' Dylan said.
Law-enforcement routine seldom took a strange turn here in the sleepy heart of the desert. The unsettled operator was reduced to repeating his statement as a question. 'You committed the assault?'
'Yes, ma'am. Now, when you send that ambulance for Crocker, send an officer, too.'
'You're going to wait for our unit?'
'No, ma'am. But before the night's out, you'll arrest Crocker.'
'Isn't Mr. Crocker the victim?'
'He's my victim, yes. But he's a perpetrator in his own right. I know you're thinking it's me you'll want to be arresting, but trust me, it's Crocker. You also need to send another patrol car—'
'Sir, filing a false police report is—'
'I'm not a hoaxer, ma'am. I'm guilty of assault, phone theft, breaking a car window with a man's face – but I'm not into pranks.'
'With a man's face?'
'I didn't have a hammer. Listen, you also need to send a second patrol car and an ambulance to the Crocker residence out on... Fallon Hill Road. I don't see a house number, but as small as this town is, you probably know the place.'