Accelerating the pace of resolution, Shep worked the jigsaw ambidextrously, keeping two pieces in play at all times. His right hand and his left swooped over and under each other, fluttered across the pile of loose pieces in the box, flew sparrow-quick to blue sky or cherry trees, or to unfinished corners of the temple roof, and back again to the box, as if in a frenzy of nest-building.
'Doodle-deedle-doodle,' Shep said.
If past experience was a reliable guide, Shep would repeat this bit of nonsense hundreds or even thousands of times, for at least the next half-hour and perhaps until he fell asleep nearer to dawn than to midnight.
In less dangerous times – which fortunately included virtually all of his life to date, until he'd encountered the lunatic with the syringe – Dylan had occasionally endured these fits of repetition by playing a rhyming game with whatever concatenation of meaningless syllables currently obsessed his brother.
I'd like to eat a noodle, Dylan thought.
And not just one lonely noodle—
But the whole kit and caboodle.
Bound to a chair, full of stuff, sought by assassins: This was not the time for rhyme. This was a time for clear thinking. This was a time for an ingenious plan and effective action. The moment had come to seize the pocketknife somehow, some way, and to do amazing, wonderfully clever, knock-your-socks-off things with it.
Let's bake a noodle strudel.
In his inimitable green and silent way, Fred thanked Jillian for the plant food that she gave him and for the carefully measured drink with which she slaked his thirsty roots.
Secure in his handsome pot, the little guy spread his branches in the soft glow of the desk lamp. He brought a measure of grace to a motel room furnished in violently clashing colors that might have been interpreted as a furious interior designer's loud statement of rebellion against nature's harmonious palette. In the morning, she would move him into the bathroom while she showered; he reveled in the steam.
'I'm thinking of using a lot more of you in the act,' Jilly informed him. 'I've cooked up some new bits we can do together.'
During her performance, she usually brought Fred onstage for her final eight minutes, set him on a tall stool, and introduced him to the audience as her latest beau and as the only one she had ever dated who neither embarrassed her in public nor tried to make her feel inadequate about one aspect or another of her anatomy. Perching on a stool beside him, she discussed modern romance, and Fred made the perfect straight man. He gave new meaning to the term deadpan reaction, and the audience loved him.
'Don't worry,' Jilly said. 'I won't put you in goofy-looking pots or insult your dignity in any way.'
Whether cactus or sedum, no other succulent plant could have radiated trust more powerfully than did Fred.
With her significant other having been fed and watered and made to feel appreciated, Jilly slung her purse over her shoulder, grabbed the empty plastic ice bucket, and left the room to get ice and to feed quarters to the nearest soda-vending machine. Lately, she'd been in the grip of a root-beer jones. Although she preferred diet soda, she would drink regular when that was the only form of root beer that she could find: two bottles, sometimes three a night. If she had no choice but the fully sugared variety, then she would eat nothing but dry toast for breakfast, to compensate for the indulgence.
Fat asses plagued the women in her family, by which she wasn't referring to the men they married. Her mother, her mother's sisters, and her cousins all had fetchingly tight buns when they were in their teens, or even in their twenties, but sooner rather than later, each of them looked as if she had shoved a pair of pumpkins down the back of her pants. They rarely gained weight in the thighs or the stomach, only in the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus, resulting in what her mother jokingly referred to as the gluteus muchomega. This curse was not passed down from generation to generation on the Jackson side of the family, but on the Armstrong side – the maternal side – along with male-pattern baldness and a sense of humor.
Only Aunt Gloria, now forty-eight, had escaped being afflicted with the Armstrong ass past thirty. Sometimes Gloria attributed her enduringly lean posterior to the fact that she had made a novena to the Blessed Virgin three times each year since the age of nine, when she'd first become aware that sudden colossal butt expansion might lie in her future; at other times, she thought that maybe a periodic flirtation with bulimia had something to do with the fact that she could still sit on a bicycle seat without requiring the services of a proctologist to dismount.
Jilly, too, was a believer, but she'd never made a novena in the hope of petitioning for a merciful exemption from gluteus muchomega. Her reticence in this matter arose not because she doubted that such a petition would be effective, but only because she was incapable of raising the issue of her butt in a spiritual conversation with the Holy Mother.
She had practiced bulimia for two miserable days, when she was thirteen, before deciding that daily volitional vomiting was worse than living two thirds of your life in stretchable ski pants, with a quiet fear of narrow doorways. Now she pinned all her hopes on dry toast for breakfast and wizardly advances in plastic surgery.
The ice and vending machines were in an alcove off the covered walkway that served her room, no more than fifty feet from her door. A faint breeze, coming off the desert, was too hot to cool the night and so dry that she half expected her lips to parch and split with an audible crackle; hissing faintly, this current of air seemed to serpentine along the covered passage as if it, too, were searching for something with which to wet its scaly lips.
En route, Jilly encountered a rumpled, kindly-looking man who, apparently returning from the automated oasis, had just purchased a can of Coke and three bags of peanuts. His eyes were the faded blue of a Sonoran or a Mojave sky in August, when even Heaven can't hold its color against the intense bleaching light, but he wasn't native to the region, for his round face was pink, not cancerously tan, seamed by excess weight and by time rather than by the merciless Southwest sun.
Although his eyes didn't focus on Jilly, and though he wore the distracted half-smile of someone lost in a jungle of complex but pleasant thoughts, the man spoke as he approached her: 'If I'm dead an hour from now, I'd sure regret not having eaten a lot of peanuts before the lights went out. I love peanuts.'
This statement was peculiar at best, and Jilly was a young woman of sufficient experience to know that in contemporary America you should not reply to strangers who, unbidden, revealed their fears of mortality and their preferred deathbed snacks. Maybe you were dealing with a blighted soul who had been made eccentric by the stresses of modern life. More likely, however, you were being confronted by a drug-blasted psychopath who wanted to carve a crack pipe from your femur and use your skin as the cloth for a decorative cozy to cover his favorite beheading ax. Nevertheless, perhaps because the guy appeared so harmless, or maybe because Jilly herself was a tad wiggy after too long a period during which all her conversation had been conducted with a jade plant, she replied: 'For me, it's root beer. When my time is up, I want to cross a River Styx of pure root beer.'
Failing to acknowledge her response, he drifted serenely past, surprisingly light on his feet for a man his size, gliding almost as smoothly as an ice skater, his locomotion in sync with his half-loco smile.
She watched him walk away until she was convinced that he was nothing worse than another weary soul who'd been wandering too long through the lonely immensity of the Southwest deserts – perhaps a tired salesman assigned to a territory so vast that it tested his stamina – dazed by the daunting distances between destinations, by sun-silvered highways that seemed to go on forever.
She knew how he might feel. Part of her unique stage shtick, her comedic ID, was to present herself as a true Southwest chick, a sand-sucking cactuskicker who ate a bowl of jalapeno peppers every morning for breakfast, who hung out in country-music bars with guys named Tex and Dusty, who was a full sun-ripened woman but also tough enough to grab a rattlesnake if it dared to hiss at her, crack it like a whip, and snap its brains out through its eye sockets. She booked dates in clubs all across the country, but she spent a significant part of her time in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, staying in touch with the culture that had shaped her, keeping her shtick sharp, refining her material in front of boot-stompin' audiences that would relate to every righteous observation with whoops of approval but would likewise hoot her off the stage if she tried to pass off ketchup as salsa or if she went show-biz phony on them. Driving between these gigs was part of remaining a real and true sandsucker, and although she loved the barren badlands and the sweeping vistas of silver sage, she understood how the daunting emptiness of the desert could leave you smiling as vacuously as a sock puppet, and set you to talking of death and peanuts to an imaginary friend.
In the refreshments alcove, the vending machines offered three brands of diet cola, two brands of diet lemon-lime soda, and diet Orange Crush, but in the matter of root beer, her choice was between abstinence or the sugar-packed, big-ass-makin' real stuff. She pumped quarters with the abandon of a gambling grandma feeding a hot slot machine, and as three cans clattered one at a time into the delivery tray, she murmured a Hail Mary prayer, not with a physiology-related request attached, but just to store up a little goodwill in Heaven.
Carrying three cans of soda and a plastic bucket brimming with ice cubes, she made the short trip back to her room. She'd left the door ajar in anticipation of having full hands upon her return.
As soon as she opened a root beer, she'd have to call her mom in Los Angeles, have a good long mother-daughter gab about the curse of the family ass, new material for the act, who'd been shot recently in the neighborhood, whether the cutting from Fred was continuing to thrive under Mom's good care, whether Clone Fred was as cute as Fred the First....
Shouldering inside, the first thing that she noticed was Fred, of course, who was a breath of Zen serenity in the colorful chaos of the clown-closet decor. And then on the desk, in the shade of Fred, she spotted the can of Coke, beaded with icy condensation, and the three bags of peanuts.
A fraction of an instant later, she saw the open black satchel on the bed. The smiling salesman had been carrying it. Probably his sample case.
Snake-cracking, sand-striding, Southwest Amazons need to be both mentally and physically quick to cope with romance-minded honky-tonk cowboys, both those who are loaded with Lone Star and those who are inexplicably sober. Jilly could fend off the most persistent cowpoke Casanova as fast and forcefully as she could dance Western swing, and her collection of swing-dance trophies filled a display case.
Nevertheless, although she understood the danger when she'd been in the motel room shy of two seconds, she couldn't react fast enough to save herself from the salesman. He came from behind her, locking one arm around her neck, pressing a rag over her face. The soft cloth stank of chloroform or ether, or perhaps of nitrous oxide. Not being a connoisseur of anesthetics, Jilly failed to identify the variety and the vintage.
She told herself Don't breathe, and knew that she should stamp hard on one of his feet, should drive an elbow into his gut, but her initial gasp of surprise, in the instant when the rag covered mouth and nose, undid her. When she tried to move her right foot, it was wobbly and seemed to be coming loose at the ankle, and she couldn't remember where her elbows were located or how they worked. Instead of not breathing, she breathed in again to clear her head, and this time she filled her lungs with the essence of darkness, as though she were a drowning swimmer, sinking, sinking....
Was a name I gave my poodle.
On a flute my dog could tootle.
Dylan O'Conner's game had long been an effective defense against being driven into a screaming fit by his brother's occasional spells of monotonous chanting. In the current crisis, however, if he was not able to shut out Shep's voice, he would not be able to stay focused on the challenge posed by his bonds. He would still be taped to this chair, chewing on a cotton cud, when the nameless assassins arrived with the intention of testing his blood for the presence of stuff and then chopping him into bite-size carrion for the delectation of desert vultures.
As his fluttering hands rapidly constructed the two-dimensional temple, Shep said, 'Doodle-deedle-doodle.'
Dylan concentrated on his predicament.
The size of the rag in his mouth – a soggy wad large enough to make his entire face ache from the strain of containing it – prevented him from working his jaws as aggressively as he would have liked. Nevertheless, by persistently flexing his facial muscles, he loosened the strips of tape, which slowly began to peel up at the ends and to unravel like a mummy's wrappings.
He drew his tongue out from under the gag, contracted it behind that ball of cloth, and strove to press the foreign material out of his mouth. The extruding rag put pressure on the half-undone tape, which caused twinges of mild pain when, at a few points, the adhesive strips separated from his lips with a tiny prize of skin.
Like a giant human-moth hybrid regurgitating a disagreeable dinner in a low-budget horror movie, he steadily expelled the vile cloth, which slid wetly over his chin, onto his chest. Looking down, he recognized the saliva-soaked ejecta: one of his nearly knee-length white athletic socks, which Doc apparently had found in a suitcase. At least it had been a clean sock.
Half the tape had fallen away, but two strips remained, one dangling from each corner of his mouth, like catfish whiskers. He twitched his lips, shook his head, but the drooping lengths of tape clung fast.
At last he could shout for help, but he kept silent. Whoever came to free him would want to know what had happened, and some concerned citizen would call the police, who would arrive before Dylan could throw his gear – and Shep – into the SUV and hit the road. If killers were coming, any delay could be deadly.
Point in pine, gleaming brightly, the pocketknife awaited use.
He leaned forward, lowered his head, and clamped the rubber-coated handle of the knife in his teeth. Got a firm grip. Carefully worked the little instrument back and forth, widening the wound in the arm of the chair until he freed the blade.
Dylan once more sat up straight in the chair, biting on the handle of the pocketknife, staring cross-eyed at the point, on which a star of light twinkled. He was armed now, but he didn't feel particularly dangerous.