Focusing on the shining needle, Dylan stopped resisting. A sour sweat lathered his face. Exhaling explosively, inhaling with force, he snorted like a well-run horse. His skull had begun to throb once more, particularly where he'd been struck, and also across the breadth of his forehead. Resistance was futile, debilitating, and just plain stupid. Since he couldn't avoid being injected, he might as well accept the malicious medicine man's claim that the substance in the syringe wasn't lethal, might as well endure the inevitable, remain alert for an advantage (assuming consciousness was an option after the injection), and seek help later.
'That's better, son. Smartest thing is just to get it over with. It won't even sting as much as a flu vaccination. You can trust me.'
You can trust me.
They were so far into surreal territory that Dylan half expected the room's furniture to soften and distort like objects in a painting by Salvador Dali.
Still wearing a dreamy smile, the stranger expertly guided the needle into the vein, at once slipped loose the knot in the rubber tubing, and kept the promise of a painless violation.
The tip of the thumb reddened as it put pressure on the plunger.
Stringing together as unlikely a series of words as Dylan had ever heard, Doc said, 'I'm injecting you with my life's work.'
In the transparent barrel of the syringe, the dark stopper began to move slowly from the top toward the tip, forcing the golden fluid into the needle.
'You probably wonder what this stuff will do to you.'
Stop calling it STUFF! Dylan would have demanded if his mouth hadn't been crammed full of unidentified laundry.
'Impossible to say what it'll do, exactly.'
Although the needle might have been of ordinary size, Dylan realized that at least regarding the dimensions of the syringe barrel, his imagination hadn't been playing tricks with him, after all. It was enormous. Fearsomely huge. On that clear plastic tube, the black scale markings indicated a capacity of 18 cc, a dosage more likely to be prescribed by a zoo veterinarian whose patients topped six hundred pounds.
'The stuff's psychotropic.'
That word was big – exotic, too – but Dylan suspected that if he could think clearly, he would know what it meant. His stretched jaws ached, however, and the soaked ball of cloth in his mouth leaked a sour stream of saliva that threatened to plunge him into fits of choking, and his lips burned under the tape, and greater fear flooded through him as he watched the mysterious fluid draining into his arm, and he was seriously annoyed by Shep's compulsive waving even though he remained aware of it only from the corner of one eye. Under these circumstances, clear thinking was not easily achieved. Ricocheting through his mind, the word psychotropic remained as smooth and shiny and impenetrable as a steel bearing caroming from peg to rail, to bumper, to flipper in the flashing maze of a pinball machine.
'It does something different to everyone.' A sharp but perverse scientific curiosity prickled Doc's voice, as disturbing to Dylan as finding shards of glass in honey. Although this man looked the part of a caring country physician, he had the bedside manner of Victor von Frankenstein. 'The effect is without exception interesting, frequently astonishing, and sometimes positive.'
Interesting, astonishing, sometimes positive: This didn't sound like a life's work equal to that of Jonas Salk. Doc seemed to belong more comfortably in the mad-malevolent-megalomaniacal-Nazi-scientist tradition.
The last cc of fluid disappeared from the barrel of the syringe into the needle, into Dylan.
He expected to feel a burning in the vein, a terrible chemical heat that would spread rapidly throughout his circulatory system, but the fire didn't come. Nor did a chill shiver through him. He expected to experience vivid hallucinations, to be driven mad by a crawling sensation that suggested spiders squirming across the tender surface of his brain, to hear phantom voices echoing inside his skull, to be afflicted by either convulsions or violent muscle spasms, or by painful cramps, or by incontinence, to be overcome by either nausea or giddiness, to grow hair on the palms of his hands, to watch the room reel as his eyes spun like pinwheels, but the injection had no noticeable effect – except perhaps to make his fevered imagination register a few degrees higher on the thermometer of the unlikely.
Doc withdrew the needle.
A single bead of blood appeared at the point of the puncture.
'One of two should pay the debt,' Doc muttered not to Dylan, but to himself, an observation that seemed to make no sense. He moved behind Dylan, out of sight.
The crimson pearl quivered in the crook of Dylan's left arm, as though pulsing in sympathy with the racing heart that had once harried it to the farthest capillary and from which it was now and forever estranged. He wished that he could reabsorb it, suck it back through the needle wound, because he feared that in the coming nasty struggle for survival, he would need every drop of healthy blood that he could muster if he hoped to prevail against whatever threat had been injected.
'But debt payment isn't perfume,' Doc said, reappearing with a Band-Aid from which he stripped the wrapper as he talked. 'It won't mask the stink of treachery, will it? Will anything?'
Although once more speaking directly to Dylan, the man seemed to talk in riddles. His solemn words required somber delivery, yet his tone remained light; the half-whimsical sleepwalker smile continued to play across his features, waxing and waning and waxing again, much as the glow of a candle might flux and flutter under the influence of every subtle current in the air.
'Remorse has gnawed at me so long that my heart's eaten away. I feel empty.'
Functioning remarkably well without a heart, the empty man peeled the two protective papers off the Band-Aid tape and applied the patch to the point of the injection.
'I want to be repentant for what I did. There's no real peace without repentance. Do you understand?'
Although Dylan didn't understand anything this lunatic said, he nodded out of a concern that failure to agree would trigger a psychotic outburst involving not a hypodermic needle but a hatchet.
The man's voice remained soft, but a bleach of anguish at last purged all the color from it, even as – eerily – the smile endured: 'I want to be repentant, to reject entirely the terrible thing I did, and I want to be able to honestly say that I wouldn't do it again if I had my life to live over. But remorse is as far as I'm able to go. I would do it again, given a second chance, do it again and spend another fifteen years racked by guilt.'
The single drop of blood soaked into the gauze, leaving a dark circle visible through the vented covering. This particular Band-Aid, marketed for children, came decorated with a capering and grinning cartoon dog that failed either to lift Dylan's spirits or to distract his attention from his booboo.
'I've got too much pride to be contrite. There's the problem. Oh, I know my flaws, I know them well, but that doesn't mean I can fix them. Too late for that. Too late, too late.'
After dropping the Band-Aid wrappings in the small waste can by the desk, Doc fished in a pants pocket and withdrew a knife.
Although ordinarily Dylan wouldn't have used the word weapon to describe a mere pocketknife, no less menacing noun would be adequate in this instance. You didn't need either a dagger or a machete to cut a throat and sever a carotid artery. A simple pocketknife would do the job.
Doc changed the subject from unspecified past sins to more urgent matters. 'They want to kill me and destroy all my work.'
With a thumbnail, he pried the stubby blade out of the handle.
The smile finally sank out of sight in the doughy pool of his face, and a frown slowly surfaced. 'A net is closing around me right this minute.'
Dylan figured that with the net would come a significant dose of Thorazine, a straitjacket, and cautious men in white uniforms.
Lamplight glinted off the polished-steel penknife blade.
'There's no way out for me, but damn if I'll let them destroy a life's work. Stealing it is one thing. I could accept that. I've done it myself, after all. But they want to erase everything that I've achieved. As if I never existed.'
Scowling, Doc wrapped his fist around the handle of the little knife and drove the blade into the arm of the chair, a fraction of an inch from his captive's left hand.
This didn't have a beneficial effect on Dylan. The shock of fright that jumped through him was of such high voltage that the resultant muscle spasm lifted at least three legs of the chair off the floor and might even have levitated it entirely for a fraction of a second.
'They'll be here in half an hour, maybe less,' Doc warned. 'I'm going to make a run for it, but there's no point kidding myself. The bastards will probably get me. And when they find even just one empty syringe, they'll seal off this town and test everybody in it, one by one, till they learn who's carrying the stuff. Which is you. You're a carrier.'
He bent down, lowering his face close to Dylan's. His breath smelled of beer and peanuts.
'You better take what I'm telling you to heart, son. If you're in the quarantine zone, they'll find you, all right, and when they find you, they'll kill you. A smart fella like you ought to be able to figure out how to use that pocketknife and get himself loose in ten minutes, which gives you a chance to save yourself and gives me a chance to be long gone before you can get your hands on me.'
Shreds of the red skins from peanuts and pale bits of nut meat mortared the spaces between Doc's teeth, but evidence of his madness could not be found as easily as could proof of his recent snack. His faded-denim eyes brimmed with nothing more identifiable than sorrow.
He stood erect once more, stared at the pocketknife stuck in the arm of the chair, and sighed. 'They really aren't bad people. In their position, I'd kill you, too. There's only one bad man in all this, and that's me. I've no illusions about myself.'
He stepped behind the chair, out of sight. Judging by the sounds he made, Doc was gathering up his mad-scientist gear, shrugging into his suit coat, getting ready to split.
So you're driving to an arts festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where in previous years you've sold enough paintings to pay expenses and to bank a profit, and you stop for the night at a clean and respectable motel, subsequent to which you purchase a bagged dinner of such high caloric content that it will knock you into sleep as effectively as an overdose of Nembutal, because all you want is to spend a quiet evening putting your brain cells at risk watching the usual idiotic TV programs in the company of your puzzle-working brother, and then spend a restful night disturbed by as little cheeseburger-induced flatulence as possible, but the modern world has fallen apart to such an extent that you wind up taped to a chair, gagged, injected with God knows what hideous disease, targeted by unknown assassins... And yet your friends wonder why you're becoming a young curmudgeon.
From behind Dylan, as though he were as telepathic as he was crazy, Doc said, 'You're not infected. Not in the sense you think. No bacteria, no virus. What I've given to you... it can't be passed along to other people. Son, I assure you, if I weren't such a coward, I'd inject myself.'
That qualified assurance didn't improve Dylan's mood.
'I'm ashamed to say cowardice is another of my character flaws. I'm a genius, certainly, but I'm not a fit role model for anyone.'
The man's self-justification through self-deprecation had lost what little fizz it might at first have possessed.
'As I explained, the stuff produces a different effect in each subject. If it doesn't obliterate your personality or totally disrupt your capacity for linear thinking, or reduce your IQ by sixty points, there's a chance it'll do something to greatly enhance your life.'
On further consideration, this guy didn't have the bedside manner of Dr. Frankenstein. He had the bedside manner of Dr. Satan.
'If it enhances your life, then I'll have paid some reparations for what I've done. Hell's got a bed waiting for me, sure enough, but a successful result here would compensate at least a little for the worst crimes I've committed.'
On the motel-room door, the security chain rattled and the dead-bolt lock scraped steel against steel as Doc disengaged them.
'My life's work depends on you. It now is you. So stay alive if you can.'
The door opened. The door closed.
With less violence than on arrival, the maniac had departed.
At the desk, Shep no longer waved. He worked the jigsaw puzzle with both hands. Like a blind man before a Braille book, he seemed to read each piece of pasteboard with his sensitive fingertips, never glancing at any scrap of the picture for longer than a second or two, occasionally not even bothering to use his eyes, and with uncanny speed, he either placed each fragment of the image in the rapidly infilling mosaic or discarded it as not yet being of use.
Foolishly hoping that recognition of the desperate danger would transmit by some miraculous psychic bond between brothers, Dylan tried to shout 'Shepherd.' The soggy gag filtered the cry, soaked up most of the sound, and let through only a stifled bleat that didn't resemble his brother's name. Nevertheless, he shouted again, and a third time, a fourth, a fifth, counting on repetition to gain the kid's attention.
When Shep was in a communicative mood – which was less often than the frequency of sunrise but not as rare as the periodic visitation of Halley's comet – he could be so hyperverbal that you felt as if you were being hosed down with words, and just listening to him could be exhausting. More reliably, Shep would pass most of any day without seeming to be aware of Dylan. Like today. Like here and now. In a puzzle-working passion, all but oblivious of the motel room, living instead in the shadow of the Shinto temple half formed on the desk before him, breathing the freshness of the blossoming cherry trees under a cornflower-blue Japanese sky, he was half a world removed in just ten feet, too far away to hear his brother or to see Dylan's red-faced frustration, his clenched neck muscles, his throbbing temples, his beseeching eyes.
They were here together, but each alone.
The pocketknife waited, point buried in the arm of the chair, posing as formidable a challenge as the magic sword Excalibur locked in its sheath of stone. Unfortunately, King Arthur was not likely to be resurrected and dispatched to Arizona to assist Dylan with this extraction.
Unknown stuff currently circulated through his body, and at any moment sixty points might drop off his IQ, and faceless killers were coming.
His travel clock was digital and therefore silent, but he could hear ticking nonetheless. A treacherous clock, from the sound of it: counting off the precious seconds in double time.