“Great. Now maybe Dusty will be able to sleep at night.”
“How is Dusty?”
“Even sweeter than Valet.”
“You get a man who’s more lovable than a golden retriever.” Susan sighed. “And I marry a selfish pig.”
“Earlier, you were defending Eric.”
“He’s a swine.”
“That’s my line.”
“And I thank you for it.”
Outside, a wolfish wind growled, scratched on the windows, and raised mournful howls to the eaves.
Martie said, “Why the change of heart?”
“The root of my agoraphobia might lie in problems between Eric and me, going back a couple years, things I’ve been in denial about.”
“Is that what Dr. Ahriman says?”
“He doesn’t really direct me toward ideas like that. He just makes it possible for me to. . . figure it out.”
Martie played a queen of clubs. “You never mentioned problems between you and Eric. Not until he wasn’t able to handle.. . this.”
“But I guess we had them.”
Martie frowned. “You guess?”
“Well, there’s no guessing. We had a problem.”
“Pinochle,” Martie said, taking the last trick. “What problem?”
Martie was stunned. Real sisters could be no closer than she and Susan. Although they both had too much self-respect to share intimate details of their sex lives, they never kept big secrets from each other, yet she’d never before heard of this woman.
“The creep was cheating on you?” Martie asked.
“A discovery like that, all of a sudden, it makes you feel so vulnerable,” Susan said, but without the emotion the words implied, as though quoting a psychology textbook. “And that’s what agoraphobia is about—an overwhelming, crippling feeling of vulnerability.”
“You never even hinted at this.”
Susan shrugged. “Maybe I was too ashamed.”
“Ashamed? What would you have to be ashamed about?”
“Oh, I don’t know.. . .“ She looked puzzled and finally said, “Why would I feel ashamed?”
To Martie it appeared, amazingly, as though Susan were thinking this through for the first time, right here, right now.
“Well. . . I guess maybe because. . . because I wasn’t enough for him, not good enough in bed for him.”
Martie gaped at her. “Who am I talking to? You’re gorgeous, Sooz, you’re erotic, you have a healthy sex drive—”
“Or maybe I wasn’t there for him emotionally, wasn’t supportive enough?”
Pushing the cards aside without totaling the points, Martie said, “I don’t believe what I’m hearing.”
“I’m not perfect, Martie. Far from it.” A sorrow, quiet but as heavy and gray as lead, pressed her voice thin. She lowered her eyes, as though embarrassed. “I failed him somehow.”
Her contrition seemed profoundly inappropriate, and her words angered Martie. “You give him everything—your body, your mind, your heart, your life—and you give it in that totally over-the-top, all-or-nothing, passionate Susan Jagger trademark style. Then he cheats on you, and you blame yourself?”
Frowning, turning an empty beer bottle around and around in her slender hands, gazing at it as though it were a talisman that might, with sufficient handling, magically provide full understanding, Susan said, “Maybe you’ve just put your finger on it, Martie. Maybe the trademark Susan Jagger style just. . . smothered him.”
“Smothered him? Give me a break.”
“No, maybe it did. Maybe—”
“What’s with all these maybes?” Martie asked. “Why are you inventing a series of excuses for the pig? What was his excuse?”
Hard shatters of rain made tuneless music against the windowpanes, and from a distance came the ominous, rhythmic booming of storm waves hammering the shore.
“What was his excuse?” Martie pressed.
Susan turned the beer bottle more slowly than before, and now slower still, and when at last she stopped turning it altogether, she was frowning in evident confusion.
Martie said, “Susan? What was his excuse?”
Putting the bottle aside, gazing at her hands as she folded them on the table, Susan said, “His excuse? Well. . . I don’t know.”
“We’re all the way down the rabbit hole and at the tea party,” Martie declared, exasperated. “What do you mean you don’t know? Honey, you catch him having an affair, and you don’t want to know why?”
Susan shifted uneasily in her chair. “We didn’t talk about it much.”
“Are you serious? That isn’t you, girlfriend. You’re no milquetoast.”
Susan spoke more slowly than usual, with a thickness of tone like that in the voice of a freshly roused sleeper who was not yet fully awake: “Well, we talked about it a little, you know, and this could be the cause of my agoraphobia, but we didn’t talk the dirty details.”
This conversation had grown so deeply strange that Martie sensed a hidden and perilous truth in it, an elusive insight that would suddenly explain all of this troubled woman’s problems, if only she could grasp it.
Susan’s statements were simultaneously outrageous and vague. Disturbingly vague.
“What was this woman’s name?” Martie asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Good God. Eric didn’t tell you?”
Finally Susan raised her head. Her eyes were unfocused, as though she were staring at someone other than Martie, in another place and time. “Eric?”
Susan had spoken the name with such puzzlement that Martie turned in her chair to survey the room behind her, expecting to find that Eric had silently entered. He wasn’t there.
“Yeah, Sooz, remember old Eric? Hubby. Adulterer. Swine.”
“I didn’t . .
Now Susan’s voice faded to a whisper, and her face was eerily devoid of expression, as inanimate as the face of a doll. “I didn’t learn about this from Eric.”
“Then who told you?”
The wind dropped, not shrieking anymore. But its cold whispering and sly cooing knotted the nerves more effectively than had its voice at full bleat.
“Sooz? Who told you Eric was screwing around?”
Susan’s flawless skin was no longer the color of peaches and cream, but as pale and translucent as skimmed milk. A single drop of perspiration appeared at her hairline.
Reaching across the table, Martie held one hand in front of her friend’s face.
Susan apparently didn’t see it. She stared through the hand.
“Who?” Martie gently insisted.
Suddenly, numerous beads of sweat were strung across Susan’s brow. Her hands had been folded on the table, but now they were fiercely clenched, the skin stretched tight and white across the knuckles, the fingernails of her right hand digging hard into the flesh of her left.
Ghost spiders crawled along the back of Martie’s neck and crept down the staircase of her spine.
“Who told you Eric was screwing around?”
Still staring at some specter, Susan tried to speak but could not get a word out. Her mouth turned soft, trembled, as though she were about to break into tears.
Susan seemed to have been silenced by a phantom hand. The sense of another presence in the room was so powerful that Martie wanted to turn again and look behind her; but no one would be there.
Her hand was still raised in front of Susan. She snapped her fingers.
Susan twitched, blinked. She looked at the cards that Martie had pushed aside, and incredibly she smiled. “Whipped my ass good. You want another beer?”
Her demeanor had changed in an instant.
Martie said, “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Who told you Eric was screwing around?”
“Oh, Martie, this is too boring.”
“I don’t find it boring. You—”
“I won’t talk about this,” Susan said with airy dismissiveness, rather than with anger or embarrassment, either of which would have seemed more appropriate. She waved one hand as if she were chasing off a bothersome fly. “I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“Good grief, Sooz, you can’t drop a bombshell like that and then just—,’
“I’m in a good mood. I don’t want to spoil it. Let’s talk Martha Stewart crap or gossip, or something frivolous.” She sprang up from her chair almost girlishly. On the way into the kitchen, she said, “What was your decision on that beer?”
This was one of those days when being sober didn’t have a lot of appeal, but Martie declined a second Tsingtao anyway.
In the kitchen, Susan began singing “New Attitude,” Patti LaBelle’s classic tune. Her voice was good, and she sang with buoyant conviction, especially when the lyrics claimed I’m in control, my worries are few.
Even if Martie had known nothing about Susan Jagger, she was sure that nevertheless she would have detected a note of falseness in this apparently cheerful singing. When she thought of how Susan had looked only minutes ago—in that trancelike state, unable to speak, skin as pale as a death mask, brow beaded with sweat, eyes focused on a distant time or place, hands clawing at each other—this abrupt transition from catatonia to exuberance was eerie.
In the kitchen, Susan sang, “‘Feelin’ good from my head to my shoes,’ "
Maybe the shoes part. Not the head.
Dusty never failed to be surprised by Skeet’s apartment. The three small rooms and bath were almost obsessively well ordered and scrupulously clean. Skeet was such a shambling wreck, physically and psychologically, that Dusty always expected to find this place in chaos.
While his master packed two bags with clothes and toiletries, Valet toured the rooms, sniffing the floors and furniture, enjoying the pungent aromas of waxes and polishes and cleaning fluids that were different from the brands used in the Rhodeses’ home.
Finished with the packing, Dusty checked the contents of the refrigerator, which appeared to have been stocked by a terminal anorexic. The only quart of milk was already three days past the freshness date stamped on the carton, and he poured it down the drain. He fed a half loaf of white bread to the garbage disposal, and followed it with the hideously mottled contents of an open package of bologna that looked as if it would soon grow hair and growl. Beer, soft drinks, and condiments accounted for everything else in the fridge; and all of it would still be fresh when Skeet came home.
On the counter next to the kitchen phone, Dusty found the only disorder in the apartment: a messy scattering of loose pages from a notepad. As he gathered them, he saw that the same name had been written on each piece of paper, sometimes only once, but more often three or four times. On fourteen sheets of paper, one—and only one—name appeared thirty-nine times: Dr Yen Lo. None of the fourteen pages featured a phone number or any additional message.
The handwriting was recognizably Skeet’s. On a few pages, the script was fluid and neat. On others, it appeared as if Skeet’s hand had been a little unsteady; furthermore, he had borne down hard with the pen, impressing the seven letters deep into the paper. Curiously, on fully half the pages, Dr Yen Lo was inscribed with such apparent emotion—and perhaps struggle—that some letters were virtually slashed onto the paper, gouging it.
A cheap ballpoint pen also lay on the counter. The transparent plastic casing had snapped in two. The flexible ink cartridge, which had popped out of the broken pen, was bent in the middle.
Frowning, Dusty swept the counter with his hand, gathering the pieces of the pen into a small pile.
He spent only a minute sorting the fourteen sheets from the notepad, putting the neatest sample of writing on top, the messiest on the bottom, ordering the other twelve in the most obvious fashion. There was an unmistakable progression in the deterioration of the handwriting. On the bottom page, the name appeared only once and was incomplete—Dr Ye—probably because the pen had broken at the start of the n.
The obvious deduction was that Skeet had become increasingly angry or distressed until finally he exerted such ferocious pressure on the pen that it snapped.
Distress, not anger.
Skeet didn’t have a problem with anger. Quite the opposite.
He was gentle by nature, and his temperament had been further cooked to the consistency of sweet pudding by the pharmacopoeia of behavior-modification drugs to which a fearsome series of clinical psychologists with aggressive-treatment philosophies had subjected him, with the enthusiastic encouragement of Skeet’s dear old dad, Dr. Holden Caulfield, alias Sam Farner. The kid’s sense of self was so faded by years of relentless chemical bleaching that it could not hold red anger in its fibers; the meanest offense, which would enrage the average man, drew from Skeet nothing more than a shrug and a fragile smile of resignation. The bitterness he felt toward his father, which was the closest to anger that he would ever come, had sustained him through his search for the truth of the professor’s origins, but it hadn’t been potent enough or enduring
enough to give him the strength to confront the phony bastard with his discoveries.
Dusty carefully folded the fourteen pages from the notepad, slipped them into a pocket of his jeans, and scooped the fragments of the pen off the counter. The ballpoint was inexpensive but not poorly made. The one-piece transparent plastic casing was rigid and strong. The pressure required to snap it like a dry twig would have been tremendous.
Skeet was incapable of the necessary rage, and it was difficult to imagine what could have caused him such extreme distress that he would have pressed down on the ballpoint with the requisite ferocity.
After a hesitation, Dusty threw the broken pen in the trash.
Valet stuck his snout in the waste can, sniffing to determine if the discarded item might be edible.
Dusty opened a drawer and withdrew a telephone directory, the Yellow Pages. He looked under PHYSICIANS for Dr. Yen Lo, but no such entry existed.
He tried PSYCHIATRISTS. Then PSYCHOLOGISTS. Then finally THERAPISTS. No luck.
While Susan put the pinochle deck and score pad away, Martie rinsed the lunch plates and the takeout cartons, trying not to look at the mezzaluna on the nearby cutting board.
Susan brought her fork into the kitchen. “You forgot this.”
Because Martie was already drying her hands, Susan washed the fork and put it away.
While Susan drank a second beer, Martie sat with her in the living room. Susan’s idea of background music was Glenn Gould on piano, playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations.