Proctor's unnerving dreamy smile had faded and brightened and faded. Now it vanished. 'Just before they shut down my labs and tried to eliminate me, I'd developed a new generation of nanobots.'
'New and improved,' Lantern said, 'like new Coke or like adding a new color to the M&M spectrum.'
'Yes, much improved,' Proctor agreed, either missing his host's sarcasm or choosing to ignore it. 'I've worked the bugs out of it. As I've proved with you, Dylan, with you, Ms. Jackson. And with you, as well, Shepherd? With you, as well?'
Shep stood with his head bowed, saying nothing.
'I'm eager to hear what the effects have been with all of you,' said Lincoln Proctor, finding his smile once more. 'This time the quality of the subjects is what it should always have been. You are much better clay. Working with those criminal personalities, disaster was inevitable. I should've understood that from the start. My fault. My stupidity. But now, how have you been lifted up? I'm desperately interested to hear. What has been the effect?'
Instead of answering Proctor, Jilly said to Parish Lantern, 'And how do you fit into this? Were you one of his investors?'
'I'm neither a billionaire nor an idiot,' Lantern assured her. 'I had him on my program a few times because I thought he was an entertaining egomaniacal nutball.'
Proctor's smile froze. If glares could have scorched, Proctor would have reduced Parish Lantern to a cinder as readily as the late Manuel had apparently done to others.
Lantern said, 'I was never rude to him or let on what I thought of this insanity of forced evolution of the human brain. That's not my style. If a guest is a genius, I let him win friends and influence people on his own, and if he's a lunatic, I'm happy to let him make a fool of himself without my assistance.'
Although color flooded into Proctor's face at this offense, he looked no healthier. He rose from the chair and pointed the pistol at Lantern instead of at Dylan. 'I've always thought you were a man of vision. That's why I came to you first, with the new generation. And this is how I'm repaid?'
Parish Lantern sipped the last of the Chardonnay in his glass, savored it, swallowed. Ignoring Proctor, he spoke to Dylan and Jilly: 'I'd never met the good doctor face to face. I'd always interviewed him live by telephone. He showed up on my doorstep five days ago, and I was too polite to kick his ass into the street. He said he wished to discuss something of importance that would serve as a segment for my show. I was kind enough to invite him into my study for a brief meeting. He repaid this kindness with chloroform and a hideous... horse syringe.'
'We're familiar with it,' Dylan said.
Putting aside his empty wineglass, Lantern rose from his chair. 'Then he left me with the warning that his partners, half crazed with the prospect of litigation, were intent on killing him and anyone he injected, so I'd better not try to report him to the police. Within hours I was going through some terrifying changes. Precognition was the first curse.'
'We call them curses, too,' Jilly said.
'By Wednesday, I began to foresee some of what would happen here today. That our Frankenstein would return to learn how I was doing, to receive my praise, my gratitude. The clueless fool expected me to feel indebted to him, to receive him as a hero and shelter him here.'
Proctor's faded-denim eyes were as hard and icy as on the night that he had killed Dylan's mother in 1992. 'I'm a man of many faults, grievous faults. But I've never been gratuitously insulting to people who have meant well toward me. I can't understand your attitude.'
'When I told him I'd foreseen your visit here on this same day,' Lantern continued, 'he became terribly excited. He expected all of us to kneel and kiss his ring.'
'You knew we'd come here even before he'd connected with us in Arizona and given us the injections,' Jilly marveled.
'Yes, even though I didn't quite know who you were at first. I can't easily explain to you how all this could be,' Lantern acknowledged. 'But there's a certain harmony to things—'
'The round and round of all that is,' Jilly said.
Parish Lantern raised his eyebrows. 'Yes. That's one way to put it. There are things that might happen, things that must happen, and by feeling the round and round of all that is, you can know at least a little of what will occur. If you're cursed with vision, that is.'
'Cake,' said Shepherd.
'In a little while, lad. First, we have to decide what we must do with this reeking bag of shit.'
'Poopoo, kaka, crap.'
'Yes, lad,' said the maven of planetary pole shifts and alien conspiracies, 'all that, too,' and he moved toward Lincoln Proctor.
The scientist thrust the gun more aggressively at Lantern. 'You stay away from me.'
'I told you that precognition was the extent of my new talents,' Lantern said as he continued to cross the living room toward Proctor, 'but I lied.'
Perhaps remembering Manuel the firestarter, Proctor fired point-blank at his adversary, but Lantern didn't flinch from the sound of the shot, let alone from the impact of the slug. As if the round had ricocheted off their host's chest, it lodged – with a crack! – in the living-room ceiling.
Desperately, Proctor fired twice more as Lantern approached him, and these two rounds were also deflected into the ceiling, forming a perfect triangular grouping with the first slug.
Dylan had become so accustomed to miracles that he observed this dazzling performance in a state better described as amazement, short of genuine awe.
For Parish Lantern, taking the gun from the stunned scientist's hand required no struggle. Proctor's eyes swam as if he'd been pole-axed, but he didn't collapse.
Dylan, Jilly, and shuffling Shep moved to Lantern's side, like a jury gathering to pass judgment.
'He's got another full syringe,' Lantern said. 'If he likes what the new generation of nanogunk has done to us, he intends to work up the courage to inject himself. You think that's a good idea, Dylan?'
'What about you, Jilly? Do you think that's a good idea?'
'Hell, no,' she said. 'He's definitely not better clay. It'll be Manuel all over again.'
'You ungrateful bitch,' said Proctor.
When Dylan took a step toward Proctor, reaching for him, Jilly grabbed a fistful of his shirt. 'I've been called worse.'
'Any ideas about how we deal with him?' Lantern asked.
'We don't dare turn him over to the police,' said Jilly.
'Or his business partners,' Dylan added.
'You are admirably persistent, lad. But first we deal with him, and then we have the cake.'
'Ice,' said Shep, and folded here to there.
All the way back in the kitchen of the house on the lonely coast well north of Santa Barbara, when peering into the refrigerator, Shep might not have been expressing a desire for a cold drink, but might have had a prescient awareness of their final encounter with Lincoln Proctor. In fact, Jilly remembered now that Shepherd didn't like ice in his soft drinks.
Where's all the ice? he'd asked, trying to identify a landscape of which he'd had a foretelling glimpse.
North Pole has a lot of ice, Jilly had told him.
And it sure did.
Under a lowering sky that appeared to be as hard as the lid of an iron kettle, from horizon to horizon, somber white plains receded into a semitwilight and a gray haze. The only points of elevation were the jagged pressure ridges, and the slabs of ice – some as large as caskets, some bigger than entire funeral homes – that had cracked out of the icecap and stood on end like grave markers in some strange alien cemetery.
Cold, Shepherd had said.
And it sure was.
They weren't dressed for the top of the world, and even though the infamous polar winds had gone to bed, the air bit with wolfish teeth. The shock of the abrupt temperature change tripped Jilly's heart into painful stutters and nearly dropped her to her knees.
Clearly stunned to find himself out of Lake Tahoe and in this hostile realm of grim adventure stories and Christmas legends, Parish Lantern nevertheless adjusted with remarkable aplomb. 'Impressive.'
Only Proctor reeled in panic, staggering in a circle, flailing his arms as though this panorama of ice were an illusion that he could tear away to reveal Tahoe in its warm green summer. He might have been trying to scream, but the leeching cold stole most of his voice and left him with only a shrill wheeze.
'Shepherd,' Jilly said, discovering that the cold air burned in her throat and made her lungs ache, 'why here?'
'Cake,' said Shepherd.
As the biting cold steadily chewed Proctor's panic into numb bewilderment, Parish Lantern pulled Dylan and Jilly into a tight huddle with Shep, sharing body heat, their heads touching, their faces bathed in one another's warm exhalations. 'This is killing cold. We can't take much of it.'
'Why here?' Dylan asked Shep.
'I think the lad means we leave the bastard here, then go have our cake.'
'Can't,' Dylan said.
'Can,' said Shep.
'No,' Jilly said. 'It's not the right thing to do.'
Lantern expressed no surprise to hear her say such a thing, and she knew he must share their nanomachine-engineered compulsion to do what was right. His usually commanding voice quaked from the cold: 'But if we did it, a lot of problems would be solved. There'd be no body for the police to find.'
'No risk of him leading his business partners to us,' Jilly said.
'No chance of him getting his hands on a syringe for himself,' Dylan added.
'He wouldn't suffer long,' Lantern argued. 'In ten minutes, he'd be too numb to feel pain. It's almost merciful.'
Alarmed when, with her tongue, she felt a skin of ice on her teeth, Jilly said, 'But if we did it, we'd be torn up by it for a long time to come, 'cause it's not the right thing.'
'Is,' Shep said.
'Buddy,' Dylan said, 'it's really not.'
'Let's take Proctor back with us, buddy.'
'Take us all back to Tahoe.'
Procter snared a fistful of Jilly's hair, jerked her head back, pulled her out of the huddle, and locked one arm around her neck.
She grabbed his arm, clawed his hand, realized he was going to tighten his chokehold until she couldn't breathe, until she blacked out. She had to get away from Proctor, get away fast, which meant folding.
Her screw-ups at the church were fresh in her mind. If the government had issued learners' permits for folding, she would have been required to have one. She didn't want to fold herself out of the choke-hold and discover that she'd left her head behind, but as her vision clouded, as darkness flooded in at the corners of her eyes, she went herethere, there being a few feet behind Proctor's back.
Arriving with her head on her shoulders where it belonged, she found herself in a perfect position to boot Proctor in the ass, which she'd wanted to do since she'd been in a chloroform haze the previous evening, in the motel.
Before Jilly could wind up to deliver a solid kick, Dylan body-checked the scientist. Proctor slipped, went down hard, and rapped his head on the ice. Curling into a fetal ball, shuddering with cold, he sought their mercy through his usual rap, wheezily declaring himself to be a weak man, a bad man, a wicked man.
Although her vision cleared, the arctic cold stung Jilly's eyes, drew a flood of tears, froze the tears on her lashes. 'Sweetie,' she said to Shepherd, 'we have to get out of here. Take us all back to Tahoe.'
Shep shuffled to Proctor, crouched at his side – and the two of them folded away.
'Buddy!' Dylan shouted, as if he could call his brother back.
The shout didn't echo across the vast iciness, but fell away into it as if into a muffling pillow.
'Now this worries me,' said Parish Lantern, stamping his feet to encourage circulation, hugging himself, surveying the icecap as though it held more terrors than any alternate reality inhabited by brain leeches.
The subzero air caused Dylan's sinuses to run, and a miniature icicle of nasal drippings formed from the rim of his left nostril.
Mere seconds after folding elsewhere, Shep returned, sans the scientist. 'Cake.'
'Where'd you take him, sweetie?'
'Somewhere else out here on the ice?'
Dylan said, 'He'll freeze to death, buddy.'
Jilly said, 'We've got to do the right thing, sweetie.'
'Not Shep,' said Shepherd.
'You too, sweetie. The right thing.'
Shepherd shook his head and said, 'Shep can be a little bad.'
'No, I don't think you can be, buddy. Not without a lot of torment later.'
'No cake?' Shep asked.
'It's not an issue of cake, sweetie.'
'Shep can be just a little bad.'
Jilly exchanged a look with Dylan. To Shep, she said, 'Can you be bad, sweetie?'
'Just a little.'
'Just a little?'
'Just a little.'
Lantern's eyelashes were crusted with frozen tears. His eyes streamed, but nevertheless Jilly could read the guilt in them when he said, 'A little would be useful. In fact sometimes, when the evil is big enough, the right thing to do is act decisively to end it.'
'Okay,' said Shep.
They shared a silence.
'Okay?' Shep asked.
'Thinking,' Dylan said.
Out of the still sky sifted snow. This was like no snow Jilly had ever seen before. Not fluffy flakes. Needle-sharp white granules, flecks of ice.
'Too much,' Shep said.
'Too much what, sweetie?'
'Too much what?'
'Thinking,' Shepherd said. Then he declared, 'Cold,' and folded them back to Tahoe, without Proctor.
Chocolate-cherry cake with dark chocolate icing, eaten while everyone stood around the island in the center of Parish Lantern's kitchen, was solace and reward, but to Jilly it also seemed to be the bread of a strange communion. They ate in silence, staring at their plates, all conforming to the table etiquette of Shepherd O'Conner.
This, she supposed, was as it should be.
The house proved to be even larger than it had appeared from the outside. When Parish escorted them into the expansive guest wing, to the two bedrooms that he had prepared for their use, she thought that he might have been able to accommodate a score of visitors on a moment's notice.