By the Light of the Moon Page 14


On the other hand, the operative phrase was as far as he knew. Under the influence of the injected stuff, he might discover himself driven to commit heinous acts of which he would previously have been incapable. Theft might be the least of the crimes from which he would be powerless to turn away.


He thought of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the inner beast released and sent roaming.


From the moment he had succumbed to the urgent need to drive west, his fear had been sharp, but also it had been sheathed in a blunting thickness of compulsion and confusion. Now he wondered if the substance circulating in him might be the chemical equivalent of a demon saddling his soul and digging spurs into his heart. He shuddered, and an icy blade of fear flayed his nerves and caused the skin to prickle with dread on his arms and on the nape of his neck.


Again, not far away, he heard the soft brass ring of keys on keys. Hinges creaked, perhaps those of a door.


At the back of the house, light bloomed behind daisy-patterned curtains at the ground-floor windows.


He didn't know what to do, and then he did: He touched the handle on the driver's door of the Buick. Cascades of sparks whirled across his vision, phantom fireflies in flight behind his eyes.


Inside his head, he heard a fizzing-crackling electrical sound, the same as he had heard earlier in the Expedition, when he'd touched the button that bore the cartoon toad's grinning face. Some kind of seizure afflicted him, frightening but fortunately less severe than full convulsions, and as his tongue vibrated against the roof of his mouth, he heard himself make that queer, half-mechanical sound again. 'Hunnn-na-na-na-na-na-na-na!'


This episode proved to be briefer than the first, and when he attempted to quell the stutter, he at once fell silent, instead of having to let it run its course, as had been the case previously.


With the final na, he was on the move again. Quietly, quietly through the carport, around the corner of the house.


Shallower than the veranda at the front of the house, the back porch also featured plainer posts. The steps were concrete instead of brick.


When his hand enfolded the knob on the back door, fireflies flew inside his head, but this bright swarm numbered fewer than the two that had flown in advance of it. The accompanying electric crackle sounded less cataclysmic than before. Clenching his teeth, pressing his tongue firmly against the roof of his mouth, he avoided making any sound this time.


The lock was not engaged. The knob turned when he tried it, and the door opened when he pushed inward.


Dylan O'Conner crossed a threshold that was not his to cross, entered uninvited, appalled by this bold trespass, yet compelled to proceed.


The plump, white-haired woman in the kitchen wore a candy-striped uniform. She looked weary and troubled, different from the fresh and cheerful Mrs. Santa Claus that she'd been when, a couple hours ago, she had taken his order for burgers and had fixed the toad pin to his shirt.


A large white bag of takeout, discount dinner from her job, stood on the counter near the cooktop. This potpourri of grease and onion and cheese and charbroiled meat had already flooded the room with a delicious melange of aromas.


She stood beside the kitchen table, her once-pink face fading toward gray, captured by an expression between worry and despair. She stared down at an arrangement of objects on the Formica tabletop, a still life unlike any that the old masters had ever painted: two empty cans of Budweiser, one upright, one on its side, both partly crushed; a scattered collection of pills and capsules, many white, some pink, a few green giants; an ashtray containing two roaches – not the kind that had ever crawled or nested under the warm motor of a refrigerator, but the butt ends of two marijuana joints.


The woman didn't hear Dylan enter, didn't glimpse the movement of the door from the corner of her eye, and for a moment she remained unaware of him. When she realized that she had a visitor, she shifted her gaze from the table to his face, but she seemed to have been too numbed by the tableau on the Formica to be immediately surprised or alarmed by his unexpected arrival.


He saw her alive, dead, alive, dead, and the faint cold fear that thrilled through his veins thickened into terror.


15


Dylan crossing in front of the Expedition, through the headlight beams, his yellow-and-blue shirt as bright as any afternoon on Maui, might have vanished before Jilly's eyes, stepping out of this world into an alternate reality, and she would have been surprised but not astonished. The hazardous return drive to town had been a high-speed journey squarely into the Twilight Zone, and after her vision in the desert and the river of spirit doves, she might not be capable of astonishment again this side of the grave.


When Dylan didn't vanish in front of the truck, when he reached the brick walkway and started toward the house, Jilly turned her head to look at Shepherd in the backseat.


She caught him watching her. They locked stares. His green eyes widened at the shock of contact, and then he closed them.


'You stay here, Shep.'


He didn't answer.


'Don't move out of that seat. We'll be right back.'


Under his pale lids, his eyes twitched, twitched.


When Jilly glanced toward the house, she saw Dylan angling from the brick walk toward the driveway.


Leaning across the console, she doused the headlights. Switched off the engine. Plucked the keys from the ignition.


'Did you hear me, Shep?'


His shuttered eyes appeared to be full of dreams, marked by more REM than those of a sleeping man thrashed by nightmares.


'Don't move, stay here, don't move, we'll be right back,' she counseled as she opened the passenger's door and swiveled on her seat, keeping her legs up to spare Fred from injury.


Olives littered the sidewalk and squished underfoot, as though recently the neighbors had gathered here for an outdoor martini party but had discarded their cocktail garnishes instead of eating them.


Dylan followed the driveway into the layered tarps of shadow that draped the sedan in the carport, though he remained in sight.


A breath of breeze as dry as stirred gin with a single drop of vermouth inspired a subtle silken rustle from the olive trees. Over this seductive swish, Jilly heard Hunnn-na-na-na-na-na-na-na!


His eerie stutter spiraled down her cochleae to the bottom of her ears and seemed to leap from there into her spine, vibrating from vertebra to vertebra, shaking shivers from her.


With the utterance of the final syllable, Dylan disappeared toward the back of the carport.


Making olive paste underfoot as she crossed the public sidewalk, shuffling through the grass to clean her shoes, Jilly hurried toward the place where he'd been just before darkness swallowed him.


* * *


Her face plump and sweet, ideal for Christmas cards, was in the next instant drawn, bleak, fit for Halloween. In a quiver of shadow cast by something invisible, her white and glossy hair became tangled and matted with blood, but in a shimmer of light that had no apparent source, red tangles smoothed and clarified again into white glossy locks. A face pale pink under snowy hair withered into grainy gray when framed by clotted curls and snarls. Her eyes met Dylan's with bewilderment, but then shocked wide and filled with cold mortality – and yet an instant later were alert, aware, startled once more.


Dylan saw her alive, dead, alive, dead, one image rising out of the other, briefly asserting its reality, then submerging in its antithesis. He didn't know beyond doubt what this hideous apparition meant, if in fact it meant anything at all, but he glanced at his hands, expecting them to appear alternately clean and filthy with the woman's blood. When the vision of violence did not involve his hands, his innards nevertheless remained a clenched mass of dread, and he raised his eyes to her face once more, half convinced that whatever power had driven him to this place would eventually use him as the instrument of her death.


'Cheeseburgers, French fries, apple pies, and vanilla shakes,' she said, proving either that he had been memorable during his brief visit to the takeout counter or that her powers of recollection were formidable.


Instead of answering her, Dylan found himself stepping to the kitchen table and picking up one of the empty cans of Budweiser. The fireflies flew again within the bone cave of his skull, but he heard far less of the fizz-and-crackle of arcing electrical current than he had heard before, and behind his clenched teeth, not one convulsive spasm plagued his tongue.


'Get out of the house,' he advised the woman. 'You're not safe here. Hurry, go, now.' Whether she went or stayed, he didn't know, because even as he spoke, he dropped the beer can on the table and at once turned from her. He didn't look back. Could not.


He hadn't yet come to the end of this bizarre journey begun in the Expedition and continued here on foot. Beyond the kitchen, past an open door, lay a plank-floored hallway softened by a threadbare, rose-patterned runner. His sense of urgency renewed, Dylan was drawn forward toward some dark destination.


* * *


Reaching the carport, Jilly peered back toward the Expedition, where the streetlamps, filtered through olive branches, revealed Shepherd in silhouette, in the backseat where he had been told to stay.


Past the Buick, out of the carport, she hurried to the rear of the house, stirring up a cloud of pale moths when she brushed against a camellia bush with blooms as full and red as maidens' hearts.


The back door stood open. A rectangle of outfalling kitchen light revealed a porch floor painted pearl-gray and remarkably free of dust for the porch of a house in a desert town.


Even under these extraordinary circumstances, she might have halted at the threshold, might have politely rapped knuckles against the jamb of the open door. The sight of the familiar white-haired woman in the kitchen, lifting the receiver of a wall-mounted phone, alarmed and emboldened Jilly, however, and she stepped off the porch, onto the freshly polished yellow-and-green basket-weave linoleum.


By the time Jilly surprised her, the woman had pressed 9, pressed 1, on the telephone keypad. Jilly took the receiver from her grasp, and hung up before the second 1 could be entered.


If the police had been summoned, eventually the men in the black Suburbans would have followed.


No longer the cheerful purveyor of fast food and have-a-nice-day sentiments, wearied by a long day's work, haggard by worry, confused by the events of the past minute, this Disneyesque grandmother wrung her hands as though to squeeze the nervous tremors from them. With a note of amazed recognition, she said, 'You. Chicken sandwich, French fries, root beer.'


'Big man, Hawaiian shirt?' Jilly inquired.


The woman nodded. 'He said I wasn't safe here.'


'Not safe why?'


'He said get out of the house now.'


'Where did he go?'


Although well wrung, her hand remained sodden with tremors as she pointed shakily toward the open door to the downstairs hallway, where soft rose-colored light glowed at the far end, past a gauntlet of shadows.


* * *


Walking on roses, green leaves, and thorns, he passed openings arched like the entrances to arbors, with dark rooms beyond, where anything might be growing in the gloom. One room to the right and two on his left worried him, even though he was drawn to none of them and could most likely assume that his compulsion to keep moving meant the danger still lay ahead rather than to either side.


He had no doubt that something dangerous waited to be met. The mysterious attractant that had pulled him through the Arizona night would not prove to be a pot of gold, nor would this house likely ever lie at the end of any rainbow.


Toad pin to car door to beer can, he had followed a trail of strange energy left behind by the white-haired woman's touch.


Marjorie. Just now he knew she was Marjorie, though her uniform had not featured a name tag.


Toad pin to kitchen, he had been seeking Marjorie, for in the invisible residue that her touch left on inanimate objects, he had read the pattern of her destiny. He had felt the broken threads in the tapestry of her fate and had somehow known that they would be broken here, this night.


From the half-crushed beer can onward, he stalked a new quarry. Unknowingly, Marjorie had been prey when she'd entered her home; and Dylan sought her would-be killer.


Having arrived at even this half-formed understanding of the nature of the looming confrontation, he realized that pressing onward was an act of reckless valor, if not evidence of insanity, but yet he was not able to retreat a single step. He was constrained to proceed by the same unknown and overmastering power that had forced him to turn back from the promise of New Mexico and to drive westward at speeds in excess of a hundred miles per hour.


The hallway led to a modest front foyer, where a blown-glass lamp under a rose silk shade stood on a small table with a delicate carved fretwork skirt. This was the sole source of light beyond the kitchen, and it barely illuminated the rising staircase as far as the landing.


When Dylan put one hand on the newel post at the bottom of the stairs, he experienced again the predator's psychic spoor, the same that he had found upon the beer can, as clear to him as a fugitive's unique scent is unmistakable to a bloodhound. The character of these traces was different from the quality of those Marjorie had left on the toad pin and the car door, for in these he sensed a malignancy, as though they had been laid down by a spirit that passed this way on cloven hooves.


He took his hand off the newel cap and stared for a moment at the polished curve of darkly stained poplar, searching for evidence of any residue of either a physical or a supernatural nature, but finding none. His fingerprints and palm print overlaid those of the beer drinker, and though not one loop or arch or whorl could be seen by the unassisted eye, police-lab technicians would later be able to make visible – with fixative chemicals, powder, and oblique light – irrefutable proof that he'd once been here.


The certainty that fingerprints exist – all but invisible and yet sufficiently recoverable to convict a man of any crime from theft to murder – provided an analogy that allowed Dylan more easily to believe that with their very touch, people might leave behind something more peculiar but every bit as real as natural oils impressed with the patterns of skin ridges.


The rose-decorated runner up the center of the stairs appeared to be as worn as the similar carpet in the lower hall. The pattern here looked bolder, featuring fewer flowers and more brambles, as though to signify that station by station in this journey, Dylan's task was growing thornier.


Ascending although reason could present no argument to ascend, he slid his right hand along the banister. Lingering traces of the malevolent entity flared against his palm and sparked against his fingertips, but fireflies no longer swarmed through his head. The internal electrical sizzle had been silenced as completely as his convulsing tongue had been stilled by the time that he'd touched the beer can in the kitchen. He had adjusted to this uncanny experience, and neither his mind nor his body any longer offered resistance to these currents of supernatural sensation.

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