'By the light of the moon,' Shep repeated, but this time with his gaze fixed on the floor. His whisper had fallen to a murmur, and with what sounded like grief, his voice broke more than once on those six words.

Shep seldom spoke, and when he did, he never spouted gibberish, even if sometimes it seemed to be gibberish as surely as cheddar was a cheese. Within his every utterance lay motive and meaning to be discerned, although when he was at his most enigmatic, his message could not always be understood, in part because Dylan lacked the patience and the wisdom to solve the puzzle of the boy's words. In this case, his urgent and fiercely felt emotion suggested that what he meant to communicate was unusually important, at least to him.

'Look at me, Shep. We need to talk. Can we talk, Shepherd?'

Shep shook his head, perhaps in denial of what he seemed to see on the motel-room floor, in denial of whatever vision had brought tears to his eyes, or perhaps in answer to his brother's question.

Dylan put one hand under Shepherd's chin, gently lifted the boy's head. 'What's wrong?'

Maybe Shep read the fine print on his brother's soul, but even eye to eye, Dylan glimpsed nothing in Shepherd but mysteries more difficult to decipher than ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

As his eyes clarified behind waning tears, the boy said, 'Moon, orb of night, lunar lamp, green cheese, heavenly lantern, ghostly galleon, bright wanderer—'

This familiar behavior, which might be a genuine obsession with synonyms or which might be just another technique to avoid meaningful communication, still occasionally annoyed Dylan, even after all these years. Now, with the unidentified golden serum circulating through his body and with the promise of ruthless assassins riding this way on the warm desert breeze, annoyance quickly swelled into irritation, exasperation.

'—silvery globe, harvest lamp, sovereign mistress of the true melancholy.'

Keeping one hand under his brother's chin, tenderly insisting upon attention, Dylan said, 'What's that last one – Shakespeare? Don't give me Shakespeare, Shep. Give me some real feedback. What's wrong? Hurry now, help me here. What's this about the moon? Why're you upset? What can I do to make you feel better?'

Having exhausted his supply of synonyms and metaphors for the moon, Shep turned next to the subject of light, speaking with an insistence that implied a greater meaning in these words than they otherwise seemed to possess: 'Light, illumination, radiance, ray, brightness, brilliance, beam, gleam, God's eldest daughter—'

'Stop it, Shep,' Dylan said firmly but not harshly. 'Don't talk at me. Talk to me.'

Shep made no effort to turn away from his brother. Instead, he simply closed his eyes, putting an end to any hope that eye contact would lead to useful communication. '—effulgence, refulgence, blaze, glint, glimmer—'

'Help me,' Dylan pleaded. 'Pack up your puzzle.'

'—shine, luster, sheen—'

Dylan looked down at Shep's stocking feet. 'Put on your shoes for me, kiddo.'

'—incandescence, candescence, afterglow—'

'Pack your puzzle, put on your shoes.' With Shepherd, patient repetition sometimes encouraged him to act. 'Puzzle, shoes. Puzzle, shoes.'

'—luminousness, luminosity, fulgor, flash,' Shep continued, his eyes jiggling behind his lids as though he were fast asleep and dreaming.

One suitcase stood near the foot of the bed, and the other lay open on top of the dresser. Dylan closed the open bag, picked up both pieces of luggage, and went to the door. 'Hey, Shep. Puzzle, shoes. Puzzle, shoes.'

Standing where his brother had left him, Shep chanted, 'Sparkle, twinkle, scintillation—'

Before frustration could build to head-exploding pressure, Dylan opened the door, carried the suitcases outside. The night continued to be as warm as a toaster oven, as parched as a burnt crust.

A dry drizzle of yellow lamplight fell on the largely empty parking lot, soaked into the pavement, was absorbed as efficiently by the blacktop as light might be captured by the heavy gravity of a black hole in space. Broad blades of sharp-edged shadows lent the night a quality of guillotine expectancy, but Dylan could see that the motel grounds did not yet seethe with the squads of promised pistol-packing killers.

His white Ford Expedition was parked nearby. Bolted to the roof, a watertight container held artist's supplies as well as finished paintings that he had offered for sale at a recent art festival in Tucson (where five pieces had sold) and would offer also in Santa Fe and at similar events thereafter.

As he opened the tailgate and quickly loaded the suitcases into the SUV, he looked left and right, and behind himself, leery of being assaulted again, as though crazed physicians armed with enormous syringes full of stuff could be expected to travel in packs as surely as did coyotes in desert canyons, wolves in forests primeval, and personal-injury attorneys at any prospect of product liability.

When he returned to the motel room, he found Shep where he had left him: standing in his stocking feet, eyes closed, exhibiting his annoyingly impressive vocabulary. '—fluorescence, phosphorescence, bioluminescence—'

Dylan hurried to the desk, broke apart the finished portion of the jigsaw, and scooped double handfuls of Shinto temple and cherry trees into the waiting box. He preferred to save time by leaving the puzzle, but he felt certain that Shep would refuse to go without it.

Shepherd surely heard and recognized the distinctive sound of pasteboard pieces being tumbled together in a pile of soft rubble. Ordinarily, he would have moved at once to protect his unfinished project, but not this time. Eyes closed, he continued urgently to recite the many names and forms of light:'—lightning, fulmination, flying flame, firebolt, oak-cleaving thunderbolts—'

Fitting the lid on the box, Dylan turned away from the desk and briefly considered his brother's shoes. Rockport walkers, just like Dylan's, but a few sizes smaller. Too much time would be required to get the kid to sit on the edge of the bed, to work his feet into the shoes, and to tie the laces. Dylan snatched them off the floor and placed them atop the puzzle box.

'—candlelight, rushlight, lamplight, torchlight—'

The point of injection in Dylan's left arm began to feel hot, and it itched. He resisted tearing off the cartoon-dog Band-Aid and scratching the puncture wound, because he feared that the colorful bandage concealed awful proof that the substance in the syringe had been worse than dope, worse than a mere toxic chemical, worse than any known disease. Under the little rectangle of gauze might wait a tiny but growing patch of squirming orange fungus or a black rash, or the first evidence that his skin had begun metamorphosing into green scales as he underwent a conversion from man to reptile. In full X-Files paranoia, he didn't have the courage to discover the reason for the itch.

'—firelight, gaslight, foxfire, fata morgana—'

Burdened with puzzle box and sibling footgear, Dylan hurried past Shep to the bathroom. He hadn't yet unpacked their toothbrushes and shaving gear, but he'd left a plastic pharmacy bottle, containing a prescription antihistamine, on the counter beside the sink. Right now, allergies were the least of his problems; however, even if he were being eaten alive by a vile orange fungus and simultaneously morphing into a reptile, while also being hunted by vicious killers, a runny nose and a sinus headache were complications best avoided.

'—chemiluminescence, crystalloluminescence, counterglow, Gegenschein—'

Returning from the bathroom, Dylan said hopefully, 'Let's go, Shep. Go, now, come on, move.'

'—violet ray, ultraviolet ray—'

'This is serious, Shep.'

'—infrared ray—'

'We're in trouble here, Shep.'

'—actinic ray—'

'Don't make me be mean,' Dylan pleaded.

'—daylight, dayshine—'

'Please don't make me be mean.'

'—sunshine, sunbeam—'


'Hickdead,' Jilly said again to the closed door, and then maybe she called a brief time-out, because the next thing she knew, she was no longer in the tilting-turning bed, but lay facedown on the floor. For an instant she couldn't remember the nature of this place, but then she gagged on a dirty-carpet stench that made it impossible to hope that she had checked into the presidential suite at the Ritz-Carlton.

After heroically rising to her hands and knees, she crawled away from the treacherous bed. When she realized that the telephone stood on the nightstand, she executed a 180-degree turn and crawled back the way she had come.

She reached up, fumbled at the travel clock, and then pulled the phone off the nightstand. It came easily, trailing a severed cord. Evidently, the peanut lover had cut it to prevent her from making a quick call to the cops.

Jilly considered crying out for help, but she worried that her assailant, if still in the vicinity, might be the first to respond. She didn't want another injection, didn't want to be quieted by a kick in the head, and didn't want to have to listen to any more of his droning monologue.

By focusing her attention and by bringing all her Amazonian strength to bear, she managed to lever herself off the floor and sit on the edge of the bed. This was a fine thing. She smiled, suddenly suffused with pride. Baby could sit up by herself.

Emboldened by this success, Jilly attempted to rise to her feet. She swayed on the way up, pressing her left hand against the nightstand to steady herself, but although she sagged slightly at the knees, she didn't collapse. Another fine thing. Baby could stand upright, as erect as any primate and more fully erect than some.

Best of all, she hadn't puked, as earlier she'd been sure she would. She no longer felt nauseated, just... peculiar.

Confident that she could stand without supportive furniture and that she would remember how to walk as soon as she tried, Jilly made her way from the bed to the door in a parabolic arc that compensated for the movement of the floor, which rolled lazily like the deck of a ship in mild seas.

The doorknob presented a mechanical challenge, but after she fumbled the door open and navigated the threshold, she found the warm night to be surprisingly more invigorating than the cool motel room. The thirsting desert air sucked moisture from her, and along with the moisture went some of her wooziness.

She turned right, toward the motel office, which lay at the end of a distressingly long and complicated series of covered walkways that seemed to have been patterned after any laboratory's rat maze.

Within a few steps, she realized that her Coupe DeVille had vanished. She had parked the car twenty feet from her room; but it no longer stood where she recalled leaving it. Empty blacktop.

She weaved toward the vacant parking slot, squinting at the pavement as though she expected to discover an explanation for the vehicle's disappearance: perhaps a concise but considerate memo – IOU one beloved, midnight-blue Cadillac Coupe DeVille, fully loaded.

Instead she found an unopened bag of peanuts, evidently dropped by the smiling salesman-who-wasn't-a-salesman, and a dead but still formidable beetle the size and shape of half an avocado. The insect lay on its glossy shell, six stiff legs sticking straight in the air, eliciting a far less emotional response from Jilly than would have a kitten or puppy in the same condition.

Harboring little interest in entomology, she left the bristling beetle untouched, but she stooped to pluck the bag of peanuts from the pavement. Having read her share of Agatha Christie mysteries, she had been convinced instantly upon spotting the peanuts that here lay a valuable clue for which the police would be grateful.

When she rose to her full height once more, she realized that the warm dry air had not purged her of the lingering effects of the anesthetic as completely as she'd thought. As a whirl of dizziness came and passed, she wondered if she had been mistaken about where she'd parked the Coupe DeVille. Perhaps it had been twenty feet to the left of her motel room instead of to the right.

She peered in that direction and saw a white Ford Expedition, just twelve or fifteen feet away. The Cadillac might be parked on the far side of the SUV.

Stepping over the beetle, she returned to the covered walkway. She approached the Expedition, realizing that she was headed in the direction of the vending-machine alcove where she would find more of the root beer that had gotten her in all this trouble in the first place.

When she passed the SUV and didn't find her Coupe DeVille, she became aware of two people hurrying toward her. She said, 'The smiley bastard stole my car,' before she realized what an odd couple she had encountered.

The first guy – tall, as solid as an NFL linebacker – carried a box approximately the size of a pizza container with a pair of shoes balanced on top. In spite of his intimidating size, he didn't seem the least threatening, perhaps because he had a bearish quality. Not a rip-your-guts-out grizzly bear, but a burly Disney bear of the gosh-how-did-I-get-my-butt-stuck-in-this-tire-swing variety. He wore rumpled khaki pants, a yellow-and-blue Hawaiian shirt, and a wide-eyed worried expression that suggested he'd recently robbed a hive of honey and expected to be hunted down by a swarm of angry bees.

With him came a smaller and younger man – maybe five feet nine or ten, about 160 pounds – in blue jeans and a white T-shirt featuring a portrait of Wile E. Coyote, the hapless predator of the Road Runner cartoons. Shoeless, he accompanied the larger man with reluctance; his right sock appeared to be snugly fitted, but his loose left sock flapped with each step.

Although the Wile E. fan shuffled along with his arms dangling limply at his sides, offering no resistance, Jilly assumed he would have preferred not to go with the bearish man, because he was being pulled by his left ear. At first she thought she heard him protesting this indignity. When the pair drew closer and she could hear the younger guy more clearly, however, she couldn't construe his words as a protest.

'—electroluminescence, cathode luminescence—'

The bearish one halted in front of Jilly, bringing the smaller man to a stop as well. In a voice much deeper – but no less gentle – than that of Pooh, of Pooh Corners, he said, 'Excuse me, ma'am, I didn't hear what you said.'

Head tilted under the influence of the hand that gripped his left ear, the younger man kept talking, though perhaps not either to his burly keeper or to Jilly: '—nimbus, aureola, halo, corona, parhelion—'

She couldn't be certain whether this encounter was in reality as peculiar as it seemed to be or whether the lingering anesthetic might be distorting her perceptions. The prudent side of her argued for silence and for a sprint toward the motel office, away from these strangers, but the prudent side of her had hardly more substance than a shadow, so she repeated herself: 'The smiley bastard stole my car.'