When the angry exchange in the living room escalated, ten-year-old Shep's fleet hands dropped to the table, each with an unplaced piece of the puzzle. He looked toward the open door.
'Oh,' Dylan said, as a chilling realization came to him. 'Oh, buddy, no, no.'
'What?' Jilly asked. 'What's wrong?'
At the table, younger Shep put down the puzzle pieces and got up from his chair.
'The poor damn kid. He saw,' Dylan said miserably. 'We never knew he saw.'
Here on the evening of February 12, 1992, ten-year-old Shepherd O'Conner rounded the dining-room table, shuffling toward the door to the living room.
Twenty-year-old Shepherd stepped forward, reached out, tried to stop his younger self from going farther. His hands passed through that Shepherd of a far February as if through a spirit, without the slightest hindering effect.
Staring at his hands, the older Shep said, 'Shep is brave,' in a voice that shook with fear. 'Shep is brave.' He seemed not to be speaking admiringly of ten-year-old Shepherd O'Conner, but to be encouraging himself to face the horror that he knew lay ahead.
'Fold us out of here,' Dylan persisted.
Shepherd made eye contact, and even though he was eye to eye with his brother, not with a stranger, this intimacy always cost him. Tonight, in these circumstances, the cost was especially high. His gaze revealed a terrible vulnerability, a sensitivity for which he didn't possess the usual compensating human armor: ego, self-esteem, an instinct for psychological self-preservation. 'Come. Come see.'
'Come see. You have to see.'
The younger Shepherd stepped out of the dining room, into the living room.
Breaking eye contact with Dylan, the older Shepherd insisted, 'Shep is brave, brave,' and trailed after himself, man-child in the wake of child, out of the dining room, the inky puddles under his feet moving with him as he shuffled off the Persian carpet onto the blond maple tongue-and-groove floor.
Dylan followed, Jilly followed, into the living room as it had been on February 12,1992.
Younger Shepherd stopped two steps past the doorway, but older Shepherd walked around him and deeper into the momentous scene.
The sight of his mother, Blair, not yet dead and therefore seeming to be once more alive, rocked Dylan worse even than he had expected it would. Barbed-wire grief fenced his heart, which seemed to swell to test itself upon the sharpest points.
Blair O'Conner had been forty-four, so young.
He remembered her as gentle, as kind, as patient, with a beauty of the mind equal to her lovely face.
Here, now, however, she revealed her fiery side: green eyes by anger brightened, face by anger sharpened, stalking back and forth as she talked, with a mother-panther threat in every movement, in every pause.
She had never been angry without good cause, and never this angry in Dylan's experience.
The man who'd struck these sparks of anger from her flinty sense of right and wrong stood at one of the living-room windows, his back to her, to all of them gathered here from this time and from across time.
Her ghostly audience unseen, not yet even aware of ten-year-old Shep watching from just this side of the dining-room doorway, Blair said, 'I told you they don't exist. And even if they did exist, I'd never give them to you.'
'And if they did exist, who would you give them to?' the man at the window asked, turning to face her.
Slimmer in 1992 than in 2002, with more hair than he would have in a decade, Lincoln Proctor, alias Frankenstein, was nonetheless at once recognizable.
Jilly had once described it as an 'evil-dreamy smile,' and so it appeared to Dylan now. The man's faded-denim eyes had earlier seemed to be the lusterless lamps of a meek soul, but on this second encounter, he saw windows of ice looking out from a cold kingdom.
His mother had known Proctor. Proctor had been in their house all those years ago.
This discovery shocked Dylan so profoundly that for a moment he forgot to what dark resolution this encounter must progress, and he stood in semiparalytic fascination, a rapt listener.
'Damn it, the diskettes don't exist!' his mother declared. 'Jack never mentioned any such thing. There's no point discussing this.'
Jack had been Dylan's father, dead now fifteen years, dead five years on the February night of this confrontation.
'He took delivery of them the day he died,' said Proctor. 'You wouldn't have known.'
'If they ever existed,' Blair said, 'which I doubt, then they're gone with Jack.'
'If they did exist,' Proctor pressed, 'would you give them to the unfortunate investors who lost money—'
'Don't prettify it. You cheated them out of their money. People who trusted Jack, trusted you – and you swindled it from them. Set up companies for projects you never intended to develop, funneled the money out of them into your stupid robot research—'
'Nanobots. And it's not stupid. I'm not proud of swindling people, you know. I'm ashamed of it. But nanomachine research takes a lot more money than anyone wants to invest in it. I had to find additional sources of funds. There were—'
Defiant, Dylan's mother said, 'If I had these diskettes you're talking about, I'd have given them to the police. And there's your proof that Jack never had them, either. If he'd had that kind of evidence, he would never have killed himself. He'd have seen some hope. He'd have gone to the authorities, fought for the investors.'
Proctor nodded, smiled. 'Not the kind of man you expected to swallow a bottle of pills and suck an exhaust hose, was he?'
Some fire went out of Blair O'Conner, doused by emotions more raw than anger. 'He was depressed. Not just over his own losses. He felt he'd failed the good people who relied on him. Friends, family. He was despondent....' Belatedly she read a more ominous meaning in Proctor's question. Her eyes widened. 'What're you saying?'
From inside his leather coat, Proctor drew a pistol.
Jilly gripped Dylan's arm. 'What is this?'
Numbly, he said, 'We thought an intruder killed her, a stranger. Some passing psychopath just off the highway. It was never solved.'
For a moment Dylan's mother and Proctor regarded each other in silence, as she absorbed the truth of her husband's death.
Then Proctor said, 'Jack was my size. I'm a thinker, not a fighter. I admit I'm a coward in that regard. But I thought I might overcome him with surprise and chloroform, and I did.'
At the mention of chloroform, Jilly's hand tightened on Dylan's arm.
'Then while he was unconscious, gastric intubation was an easy matter. All I needed was a laryngoscope to be sure I got the tube down the esophagus, not the trachea. Flushed the Nembutal capsules down with water, straight into the stomach. Pulled out the tube, kept him sedated with chloroform till the Nembutal overdose kicked in.'
Dylan's shock gave way to anger, but not entirely a personal anger arising from what this monstrous man had done to their family. Indignation was a part of it, too, a wrath directed not merely at Lincoln Proctor but at evil itself, at the fact of its existence. All of humanity might be fallen from grace, but far too many among humankind eagerly embraced darkness, sowed the earth with cruelty and fed on the misery of others, falling farther still, down and down, thrilled by the plummet.
'I assure you,' Proctor told Blair O'Conner, 'your husband felt no pain. Though he was unconscious, I took great care not to force the intubation.'
Dylan had felt this way on finding Travis chained to that bed on Eucalyptus Avenue: sympathy for all the victims of violence and a pure poignant rage on their behalf. Storming through him were emotions no less overblown than those of the characters in an opera, which he found as strange as anything else that had happened to him, as strange as his new sixth sense, as strange as being folded.
'I'm not at all a good man,' Proctor said, indulging in the smarmy self-deprecation that had been his style the previous night, when he injected Dylan. 'Not a good man by any standard. I know my faults, and I've got plenty. But as bad as I am, I'm not capable of inflicting pain thoughtlessly or when it isn't absolutely necessary.'
As though Jilly shared Dylan's operatic wrath and painfully affecting pity for the weak, the victimized, she went to the older Shepherd, on whom her compassion could have an effect not possible on the untouchable boy of this earlier era. She put an arm around Shep, gently turned him away from Lincoln Proctor, from his mother, so that he would not witness again what he had seen ten years ago.
'By the time I rigged the hose from the exhaust pipe,' Proctor said, 'Jack was so deeply asleep that he never knew he was dying. He had no sense of suffocation, no fear. I regret what I did, it eats at me, even though I had no choice, no option. Anyway, I feel better that I've had the chance to let you know your husband didn't abandon you and your children, after all. I regret misleading you till now.'
To Proctor's self-justification and to the realization that her own death was imminent, Blair O'Conner reacted with a defiance that stirred Dylan. 'You're a parasite,' she told Proctor, 'a stinking ugly worm of a man.'
Nodding as he slowly crossed the room toward her, Proctor said, 'I'm all that and worse. I have no scruples, no morals. One thing and one alone matters to me. My work, my science, my vision. I'm a sick and despicable man, but I have a mission and I will see it through.'
Although the past would surely remain immutable, as unchangeable as the iron hearts of madmen, Dylan found himself moving between his mother and Proctor, with the irrational hope that the gods of time would in this one instance relax their cruel laws and allow him to stop the bullet that had ten years ago killed Blair O'Conner.
'When I took those diskettes off Jack's body,' Proctor said, 'I didn't know he'd been given two sets. I thought I had them all. I've only recently learned differently. The set I took from him – he had intended to turn those over to the authorities. The others must be here. If they'd been found, I'd already be in jail, wouldn't I?'
'I don't have them,' Blair insisted.
His back to his mother, Dylan faced Proctor and the muzzle of the handgun.
Proctor looked through him, unaware that a visitor through time stood in his way. 'Five years is a long time. But in Jack's line of work, tax-law considerations are damn important.'
Trembling with emotion, Dylan approached Proctor. Reached out. Put his right hand on the pistol.
'The federal statute of limitations in tax matters,' Proctor said, 'is seven years.'
Dylan could feel the shape of the handgun. The chill of steel.
Clearly, Proctor failed to sense any pressure from Dylan's hand upon the weapon. 'Jack would have been in the habit of saving all his records at least that long. If ever they're found, I'm through.'
When Dylan tried to close his hand around the pistol, to pull it from the killer's grip, his fingers passed through the steel and folded into an empty fist.
'You're not a stupid woman, Mrs. O'Conner. You know about the seven years. You've kept his business records. I'm sure that's where the diskettes will be. You might not have realized they existed. But now that you do... you'll search them out, and you'll go to the police with them. I wish this... this unpleasantness weren't necessary.'
In a fit of useless fury, Dylan swung his clenched fist at Proctor – and saw it pass, with an ink-black comet's tail, through the bastard's face, without eliciting so much as a flinch.
'I'd have preferred your assistance,' Proctor said, 'but I can conduct the search myself. I'd have had to kill you either way. This is a vicious, wicked thing I'm doing, a terrible thing, and if there were a Hell, I'd deserve eternal pain, eternal torture.'
'Don't hurt my son.' Blair O'Conner spoke calmly, refusing to beg or cower before her murderer, aware that she couldn't humiliate herself enough to win his mercy, making her argument for Shepherd's life in a level voice, with logic instead of emotion. 'He's autistic. He doesn't know who you are. He couldn't be a witness against you even if he knew your name. He can barely communicate.'
Sluggish with dread, Dylan backed away from Proctor, toward his mother, desperately assuring himself that somehow he would have more influence on the trajectory of the bullet if he was nearer to her.
Proctor said, 'I know about Shepherd. What a burden he must've been all these years.'
'He's never been a burden,' Blair O'Conner said in a voice as tight as a garroting wire. 'You don't know anything.'
'I'm unscrupulous and brutal when I need to be, but I'm not needlessly cruel.' Proctor glanced at ten-year-old Shepherd. 'He's no threat to me.'
'Oh, my God,' Dylan's mother said, for she had been standing with her back to Shepherd and had not realized until now that he'd abandoned his puzzle and that he waited just this side of the doorway to the dining room. 'Don't. Don't do it in front of the boy. Don't make him watch... this.'
'He won't be shattered, Mrs. O'Conner. It'll roll right off him, don't you think?'
'No. Nothing rolls off him. He's not you.'
'After all, he's got the emotional capacity of – what? – a toad?' Proctor asked, disproving his contention that he was never needlessly cruel.
'He's gentle,' Blair said. 'He's sweet. So special.' These words were not aimed at Proctor. They were a good-bye to her afflicted son. 'In his own way, he sparkles.'
'As much sparkle as mud,' Proctor said ruefully, as though he possessed the emotional capacity to be saddened by Shep's condition. 'But I promise you this – when I've achieved what I know I surely will achieve one day, when I stand in the company of Nobel laureates and dine with kings, I won't forget your damaged boy. My work will make it possible to transform him from a toad into an intellectual titan.'
'You pompous ass,' Blair O'Conner said bitterly. 'You're no scientist. You're a monster. Science shines light into darkness. But you are the darkness. Monster. You do your work by the light of the moon.'
Almost as though watching from a distance, Dylan saw himself raise one arm, saw himself hold up one hand as if to stop not just the bullet but also the merciless march of time.
The crack! of the shot was louder than he had expected it to be, as loud as Heaven splitting open to bring forth judgment on the Day.