'—aurora borealis, aurora polaris, starlight—'
Seeing the focus of Jilly's attention, the giant said, 'This is my brother, Shep.'
'—candlepower, foot-candle, luminous flux—'
'Pleased to meet you, Shep,' she said, not because she was in fact pleased to meet him, but because she didn't know what else to say, never having been in precisely this situation before.
'—light quantum, photon, bougie decimale,' said Shep without meeting her eyes, and continued rattling out a meaningless series of words as Jilly and the older brother conversed.
He didn't look like a Dylan. He looked like a Bruno or a Samson, or a Gentle Ben.
'Shep has a condition,' Dylan explained. 'Harmless. Don't worry. He's just... not normal.'
'Well, who is these days?' Jilly said. 'Normality hasn't been attainable since maybe 1953.' Woozy, she leaned against one of the posts that supported the walkway cover. 'Gotta call the cops.'
'You said "smiley bastard."'
'Said it twice.'
'What smiley bastard?' he asked with such urgency that you would have thought the missing Cadillac had been his, not hers.
'The smiley, peanut-eating, needle-poking, car-stealing bastard, that's what bastard.'
'Something's on your arm.'
Curiously, she expected to see the beetle resurrected. 'Oh. A Band-Aid.'
'A bunny,' he said, his broad face cinching with worry.
'No, a Band-Aid.'
'Bunny,' he insisted. 'The son of a bitch gave you a bunny, and I got a dancing dog.'
The walkway was well enough lighted for her to see that both she and Dylan sported children's Band-Aids: a colorful capering rabbit on hers, a jubilant puppy on his.
She heard Shep say, 'Lumen, candle-hour, lumen-hour,' before she tuned him out again.
'I have to call the cops,' she remembered.
Dylan's voice, thus far earnest, grew more earnest still, and quite grave, as well: 'No, no. We don't want cops. Didn't he tell you how it is?'
'The lunatic doctor.'
'Your needle-poking bastard.'
'He was a doctor? I thought he was a salesman.'
'Why would you think he was a salesman?'
Jilly frowned. 'I'm not sure now.'
'Obviously, he's some sort of lunatic doctor.'
'Why's he knocking around a motel, attacking people and stealing Coupe DeVilles? Why isn't he just killing patients in HMOs like he's supposed to?'
'Are you all right?' Dylan asked, peering more closely at her. 'You don't look well.'
'I almost puked, then I didn't, then I almost did again, but then I didn't. It's the anesthetic.'
'Maybe chloroform. The lunatic salesman.' She shook her head. 'No, you're right, he must be a doctor. Salesmen don't administer anesthetics.'
'He just clubbed me on the head.'
'Now that sounds more like a salesman. I gotta call the cops.'
'That's not an option. Didn't he tell you professional killers are coming?'
'I'm glad they're not amateurs. If you have to be killed, you might as well be killed efficiently. Anyway, you believe him? He's a thug and a car thief.'
'I think he was telling the truth about this.'
'He's a lying sack of excrement,' she insisted.
Shep said, 'Lucence, refulgency, facula,' or at least that's what it sounded like, although Jilly wasn't entirely sure that those collections of syllables were actually words.
Dylan shifted his attention from Jilly to something beyond her, and when she heard the roar of engines, she turned in search of the source.
Past the parking lot lay a street. An embankment flanked the far side of the street, and atop that long slope, the interstate highway followed the east-to-west trail of the moon. Traveling at a reckless speed, three SUVs descended the arc of an exit ramp.
'—light, illumination, radiance, ray—'
'Shep, I think you've started repeating yourself,' Dylan noted, though he remained riveted on the SUVs.
The three vehicles were identical black Chevrolet Suburbans. As darkly tinted as Darth Vader's face shield, the windows concealed the occupants.
'—brightness, brilliance, beam, gleam—'
Without even a token application of brakes, the first Suburban exploded past the stop sign at the bottom of the exit ramp and angled across the heretofore quiet street. This was the north side of the motel, and the entrance to the parking lot lay toward the front of the enterprise, to the east. At the stop sign, the driver had shown no respect for the uniform highway-safety code; now, with gusto, he demonstrated a lack of patience with traditional roadway design. The Suburban jumped the curb, churned through a ten-foot-wide landscaping zone, spitting behind it a spray of dirt and masticated masses of flowering lantana, briefly took flight off another curb, made a hard four-tire landing in the parking lot, about sixty feet from Jilly, executed a sliding turn at the cost of considerable rubber, and raced west toward the back of the motel.
'—effulgence, refulgence, blaze—'
The second Suburban followed the first, and the third pursued the second, chopping up additional servings of lantana salad. But once in the parking lot, the second turned east instead of continuing to pursue the first, and sped toward the front of the motel. The third streaked straight toward Jilly, Dylan, and Shep.
Just when Jilly thought the oncoming SUV might run them down, as she was deciding whether to dive to the left or to the right, as she considered again the possibility that she might puke, the third driver proved to be as flamboyant a showman as the first two. The Suburban braked so hard that it nearly stood on its nose. Upon its roof, a rack of four motorized spotlights, previously dark, suddenly blazed, swiveled, tilted, took perfect aim, and shed enough wattage on its quarry to bake the marrow in their bones.
'—luminosity, fulgor, flash—'
Jilly felt as though she were standing not before a mere earthly vehicle, but in the awesome presence of an extraterrestrial vessel, being body-scanned, mind-sucked, and soul-searched by data-gathering rays that, in six seconds flat, would count the exact number of atoms in her body, review her entire lifetime of memories beginning with her reluctant exit from her mother's birth canal, and issue a printed chastisement for the deplorably frayed condition of her underwear.
After a moment, the spots switched off, and ghost lights like luminous jellyfish swam before her eyes. Even if she hadn't been dazzled, she wouldn't have been able to get a glimpse of the driver or of anyone else in the Suburban. The windshield appeared not merely to be tinted, but also to be composed of an exotic material that, while perfectly transparent to those within the SUV, appeared from the outside to be as impenetrable to light as absolute-black granite.
Because Jilly, Dylan, and Shep were not the quarry of this search – not yet – the Suburban turned away from them. The driver stomped on the accelerator, and the vehicle shot eastward, toward the front of the motel, once more following the second SUV which had already rounded the corner of the building with a shriek of tires and had vanished from sight.
Shep fell silent.
Referring to the lunatic doctor who had warned that violent men would follow in his wake, Dylan said, 'Maybe he wasn't a lying sack of excrement, after all.'
These were extraordinary times, peopled by ranting maniacs in love with violence and with a violent god, infested with apologists for wickedness, who blamed victims for their suffering and excused murderers in the name of justice. These were times still hammered by the Utopian schemes that had nearly destroyed civilization in the previous century, ideological wrecking balls that swung through the early years of this new millennium with diminishing force but with sufficient residual power to demolish the hopes of multitudes if sane men and women weren't vigilant. Dylan O'Conner understood this turbulent age too well, yet he remained profoundly optimistic, for in every moment of every day, in the best works of humanity as in every baroque detail of nature, he saw beauty that lifted his spirit, and everywhere he perceived vast architectures and subtle details that convinced him the world was a place of deep design as surely as were his own paintings. This combination of realistic assessment, faith, common sense, and enduring hope ensured that the events of his time seldom surprised him, rarely struck terror in him, and never reduced him to despair.
Consequently, when he discovered that Jillian Jackson's friend and traveling companion, Fred, was a member of the stonecrop family of succulents, native to southern Africa, Dylan was only mildly surprised, not in the least terrified, and encouraged rather than despondent. Dealing with any other Fred, not a plant, would almost certainly have entailed more inconvenience and greater complications than would coping with the little green guy in the glazed terra-cotta pot.
Mindful of the three black Suburbans circling the motel, a trio of hungry sharks cruising a sea of asphalt, Jilly hurriedly packed her toiletries. Dylan loaded her train case and her single suitcase in his Expedition, through the tailgate.
Commotion of any kind always distressed poor Shepherd, and when anxious, he could be at his most unpredictable. Now, cooperative when cooperation might have been least expected from him, the boy climbed docilely into the SUV. He sat beside the canvas tote bag that contained a variety of items to occupy him during long road trips, on those occasions when he grew bored after hours of staring into empty space or studying his thumbs. Because Jilly insisted that she would hold Fred on her lap, Shep had the backseat to himself, a solitude that would moderate his anxiety.
Arriving at the Expedition with the pot in both hands, for the first time appearing free of the lingering effects of anesthesia, the woman had second thoughts about getting into a vehicle with two men whom she'd met only minutes ago. 'For all I know, you could be a serial killer,' she told Dylan as he held open the front passenger's door for her and Fred.
'I'm not a serial killer,' he assured her.
'That's exactly what a serial killer would say.'
'It's exactly what an innocent man would say, too.'
'Yes, but it's exactly what a serial killer would say.'
'Come on, get in the truck,' he said impatiently.
Reacting sharply to his tone, she said, 'You're not the boss of me.'
'I didn't say I was the boss of you.'
'Nobody in my family's been bossed in any recent century.'
'Then I guess your real last name must be Rockefeller. Now will you please get in the truck?'
'I'm not sure I should.'
'You remember those three Suburbans that looked like something the Terminator might drive?'
'They weren't interested in us, after all.'
'They will be soon,' he predicted. 'Get in the truck.'
'"Get in the truck, get in the truck." The way you say it is so totally serial killer.'
Frustrated, Dylan demanded, 'Do serial killers generally travel with their disabled brothers? Don't you think that would get in the way of doing a lot of grisly work with chain saws and power tools?'
'Maybe he's a serial killer, too.'
From the backseat, Shep peered at them: head cocked, wide-eyed, blinking in bewilderment, looking less like a psychopath than like a big puppy waiting to be driven to the park for a session of Frisbee.
'Serial killers don't always look crazy-violent,' Jilly said. 'They're cunning. Anyway, even if you're not a killer, you might be a rapist.'
'You're a wonderfully cordial woman, aren't you?' Dylan said sourly.
'Well, you might be a rapist. How would I know?'
'I'm not a rapist.'
'That's just what a rap**t would say.'
'For God's sake, I'm not a rapist, I'm an artist.'
'They aren't mutually exclusive.'
'Listen, lady, you approached me for help. Not the other way around. How do I know what you are?'
'One thing for sure, you know I'm not a rapist. That's not anything men have to worry about, is it?'
Nervously surveying the night, expecting the black Suburbans to reappear with a roar at any moment, Dylan said, 'I'm not a serial killer, a rapist, a kidnapper, bank robber, mugger, pickpocket, cat burglar, embezzler, counterfeiter, shoplifter, or jaywalker! I've had two speeding tickets, paid a fine on an overdue library book last year, kept a quarter and two dimes I found in a pay phone instead of returning them to the telephone company, wore wide neckties for a while after skinny ones were in fashion, and once in a park I was accused of not picking up my dog's crap when it wasn't even my dog, when in point of fact I didn't even have a dog! Now you can get in this truck and we can scram, or you can stand here dithering about whether I do or whether I don't look like Charles Manson on a bad-hair day, but with or without you, I am getting out of Dodge City before those stunt drivers come back and the bullets start to fly.'
'You're amazingly articulate for an artist.'
He gaped at her. 'What's that supposed to mean?'
'I've just always found artists far more visually than verbally oriented.'
'Yeah, well, I'm plenty verbal.'
'Suspiciously so for an artist.'
'What, you still think I'm Jack the Ripper?'
'Where's the proof you aren't?'
'And a rapist?'
'Unlike me, you could be,' she observed.
'So I'm a raping, killing itinerant artist.'
'Is that a confession?'
'What do you do – drum up business for psychiatrists? You go around all the time making people crazy so the shrinks will always have business?'
'I'm a comedian,' she declared.
'You're amazingly unfunny for a comedian.'
She bristled as obviously as a porcupine. 'You've never seen me perform.'
'I'd rather eat nails.'
'Judging by your teeth, you've eaten enough to build a house.'
He flinched from the insult. 'That's unfair. I've got nice teeth.'
'You're a heckler. Anything's fair with hecklers. Hecklers are lower than worms.'
'Get out of my truck,' he demanded.
'I'm not in your truck.'
'Then get into it so I can drag you out.'