By the Light of the Moon Read online
This book is dedicated to Linda Borland and Elaine Peterson for their hard work, their kindnesses, and their reliability. And, of course, for catching me in that once-a-year mistake that, if not drawn to my attention, would mar my record of perfection. And for discreetly concealing from me that the real reason they stay around is to ensure that Ms. Trixie receives all the belly rubs that she deserves.
And at his prow the pilot held
within his hands his freight of lives, eyes
wide open, full of moonlight.
—Night Flight, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Life has no meaning except in terms
—Faith and History, Reinhold Niebuhr
Now take my hand and hold it tight.
I will not fail you here tonight,
For failing you, I fail myself
And place my soul upon a shelf
In Hell's library without light.
I will not fail you here tonight.
—The Book of Counted Sorrows
* * *
Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he'd never before imagined, Dylan O'Conner left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted fast-food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake.
The expired day lay buried in the earth, in the asphalt. Unseen but felt, its ghost haunted the Arizona night: a hot spirit rising lazily from every inch of ground that Dylan crossed.
Here at the end of town that served travelers from the nearby interstate, formidable batteries of colorful electric signs warred for customers. In spite of this bright battle, however, an impressive sea of stars gleamed from horizon to horizon, for the air was clear and dry. A westbound moon, as round as a ship's wheel, plied the starry ocean.
The vastness above appeared clean and full of promise, but the world at ground level looked dusty, weary. Rather than being combed by a single wind, the night was plaited with many breezes, each with an individual quality of whispery speech and a unique scent. Redolent of desert grit, of cactus pollen, of diesel fumes, of hot blacktop, the air curdled as Dylan drew near to the restaurant, thickened with the aroma of long-used deep-fryer oil, with hamburger grease smoking on a griddle, with fried-onion vapors nearly as thick as blackdamp.
If he hadn't been in a town unfamiliar to him, if he hadn't been tired after a day on the road, and if his younger brother, Shepherd, hadn't been in a puzzling mood, Dylan would have sought a restaurant with healthier fare. Shep wasn't currently able to cope in public, however, and when in this condition, he refused to eat anything but comfort food with a high fat content.
The restaurant was brighter inside than out. Most surfaces were white, and in spite of the well-greased air, the establishment looked antiseptic.
Contemporary culture fit Dylan O'Conner only about as well as a three-fingered glove, and here was one more place where the tailoring pinched: He believed that a burger joint ought to look like a joint, not like a surgery, not like a nursery with pictures of clowns and funny animals on the walls, not like a bamboo pavilion on a tropical island, not like a glossy plastic replica of a 1950s diner that never actually existed. If you were going to eat charred cow smothered in cheese, with a side order of potato strips made as crisp as ancient papyrus by immersion in boiling oil, and if you were going to wash it all down with either satisfying quantities of icy beer or a milkshake containing the caloric equivalent of an entire roasted pig, then this fabulous consumption ought to occur in an ambience that virtually screamed guilty pleasure, if not sin. The lighting should be low and warm. Surfaces should be dark – preferably old mahogany, tarnished brass, wine-colored upholstery. Music should be provided to soothe the carnivore: not the music that made your gorge rise in an elevator because it was played by musicians steeped in Prozac, but tunes that were as sensuous as the food – perhaps early rock and roll or big-band swing, or good country music about temptation and remorse and beloved dogs.
Nevertheless, he crossed the ceramic-tile floor to a stainless-steel counter, where he placed his takeout order with a plump woman whose white hair, well-scrubbed look, and candy-striped uniform made her a dead ringer for Mrs. Santa Claus. He half expected to see an elf peek out of her shirt pocket.
In distant days, counters in fast-food outlets had been manned largely by teenagers. In recent years, however, a significant number of teens considered such work to be beneath them, which opened the door to retirees looking to supplement their social-security checks.
Mrs. Santa Claus called Dylan 'dear,' delivered his order in two white paper bags, and reached across the counter to pin a promotional button to his shirt. The button featured the slogan FRIES NOT FLIES and the grinning green face of a cartoon toad whose conversion from the traditional diet of his warty species to such taste treats as half-pound bacon cheeseburgers was chronicled in the company's current advertising campaign.
Here was that three-fingered glove again: Dylan didn't understand why he should be expected to weigh the endorsement of a cartoon toad or a sports star – or a Nobel laureate, for that matter – when deciding what to eat for dinner. Furthermore, he didn't understand why an advertisement assuring him that the restaurant's French fries were tastier than house flies should charm him. Their fries better have a superior flavor to a bagful of insects.
He withheld his antitoad opinion also because lately he had begun to realize that he was allowing himself to be annoyed by too many inconsequential things. If he didn't mellow out, he would sour into a world-class curmudgeon by the age of thirty-five. He smiled at Mrs. Claus and thanked her, lest otherwise he ensure an anthracite Christmas.
Outside, under the fat moon, crossing the three-lane highway to the motel, carrying paper bags full of fragrant cholesterol in a variety of formats, Dylan reminded himself of some of the many things for which he should be thankful. Good health. Nice teeth. Great hair. Youth. He was twenty-nine. He possessed a measure of artistic talent and had work that he found both meaningful and enjoyable. Although he was in no danger of getting rich, he sold his paintings often enough to cover expenses and to bank a little money every month. He had no disfiguring facial scars, no persistent fungus problem, no troublesome evil twin, no spells of amnesia from which he awoke with bloody hands, no inflamed hangnails.
And he had Shepherd. Simultaneously a blessing and a curse, Shep in his best moments made Dylan glad to be alive and happy to be his brother.
Under a red neon MOTEL sign where Dylan's traveling shadow painted a purer black upon the neon-rouged blacktop, and then when he passed squat sago palms and spiky cactuses and other hardy desert landscaping, and also while he followed the concrete walkways that served the motel, and certainly when he passed the humming and softly clinking soda-vending machines, lost in thought, brooding about the soft chains of family commitment – he was stalked. So stealthy was the approach that the stalker must have matched him step for step, breath for breath. At the door to his room, clutching bags of food, fumbling with his key, he heard too late a betraying scrape of shoe leather. Dylan turned his head, rolled his eyes, glimpsed a looming moon-pale face, and sensed as much as saw the dark blur of something arcing down toward his skull.
Strangely, he didn't feel the blow and wasn't aware of falling. He heard the paper bags crackle, smelled onions, smelled warm cheese, smelled pickle chips, realized that he was facedown on the concrete, and hoped that he hadn't spilled Shep's milkshake. Then he dreamed a little dream of dancing French fries.
Jillian Jackson had a