“Are you there, Martie?”
“Martie, what am I going to do?”
Martie’s voice trembled with compassion, with anguish for her friend, but also with fear for herself and fear of herself. “Sooz, this is spooky shit, this is weirder than hoodoo.” A cold brine of sweat drenched her as thoroughly as if she had just stepped out of the sea. Klick-klick. Her arm, shoulder, and neck ached so intensely that tears flooded her eyes. “Listen, I’ve got to wrap my brain around this a little while before I can advise you what to do, before I can figure out how I can help.”
“It’s all true.”
“I know it’s true, Sooz.”
She was frantic to be off the telephone. She must get away from the drawer, get away from the scissors that waited in it, because she couldn’t escape from the violent potential within herself.
“It’s happening,” Susan insisted.
“I know it is. You’ve convinced me. That’s why I’ve got to mull it over. Because it’s so strange. We’ve got to be careful, be sure we do the right thing.”
“I’m afraid. I’m so alone here.”
“You aren’t alone,” Martie promised, her voice beginning to break apart, not just quaverous anymore, but quaking and cracking. “I won’t let you be alone. I’ll call you back.”
“I’ll think about this, think it through—”
“—if anything happens—”
“—figure out what’s best—”
“—if anything happens to me—”
“—and I’ll call you back—”
“—call you back soon.”
She racked the wall phone, although at first she couldn’t release it. Her grip was locked around the handset. When finally she was able to let go, her hand remained cupped, holding fast to a phantom phone.
Releasing the drawer, Martie winced as cramps spasmed through her right hand. Like a clay mold, the soft interdigital pads at the base of her fingers had taken a clear impression of the drawer handle, and the metacarpals ached as if the red groove in her flesh were reflected in the bone beneath.
She backed away from the drawer until she bumped against the refrigerator. Inside the fridge, bottles rattled softly against one another.
One of them was a half-empty bottle of Chardonnay, left over from dinner the previous night. A wine bottle is thick, especially at the bottom, which features a sediment-collecting, concave punt. Solid. Blunt. Effective. She could swing it like a club, crack someone's skull with it.
A broken wine bottle could be a particularly devastating weapon. Hold it by the neck, jagged points thrust forward. Rake it down some unsuspecting person’s face, jam it into his throat.
Slamming doors could have been no louder than the crash of her heart resonating through her body.
“Urine doesn’t lie,” said Dr. Donklin.
From his sentinel post near the door, Valet raised his head and twitched his ears as if in agreement.
Skeet, who was now hooked to an electrocardiograph, remained in a sleep so deep that it appeared to be cryogenic suspension.
Dusty watched the tracery of green light spiking across the readout-window on the heart monitor. His brother’s pulse was slow but steady, no arrhythmia.
New Life Clinic was neither a hospital nor a diagnostic lab. Nevertheless, because of the self-destructiveness and cleverness of its patients, it had the sophisticated equipment required to provide rapid analysis of bodily fluids for the presence of drugs.
Earlier, Skeet’s initial blood samples, taken upon admission, had revealed the recipe for the chemical cocktail with which he had started his day: methamphetamine, cocaine, DMT. Meth and coke were stimulants. Dimethyltryptamine—DMT—was a synthetic hallucinogen, similar to psilocybin, which itself was an alkaloid crystal derived from the mushroom Psilocybe mexicana. This constituted a breakfast with a lot more punch than oatmeal and orange juice.
Analysis of the latest blood sample, drawn while Skeet lay in a comalike slumber, had not yet been completed; however, the urine sample, acquired by catheter, indicated that no new drugs had been introduced into his system and, moreover, that his body had largely metabolized the methamphetamine, cocaine, and DMT For the time being, at least, he would be seeing no more of the angel of death who had induced him to leap off the Sorensons’ roof.
“We’ll get the same data from the second blood samples,” Donklin predicted. “Because it’s true, urine doesn’t lie. Or in laymen’s terms. . . there’s truth in a tinkle. Pee-pee can’t prevaricate.”
Dusty wondered if the physician’s bedside manner had been so irreverent when he’d had his own practice or if irreverence had come upon him after retirement, when he’d taken this for-hire position at New Life. In either case, it was refreshing.
The urine sample had also been analyzed for urethral casts, albumin, and sugar. The results failed to support a diagnosis of either diabetic or uremic coma.
“If the new blood workup doesn’t tell us anything,” Dr. Donklin said, “we’ll probably want to transfer him to a hospital.”
Inside the refrigerator, against which Martie leaned, the clink of glass against glass gradually subsided.
The pain in her cramped hands wrung tears from her. With the sleeves of her blouse, she blotted her eyes, but her vision remained blurred.
Her hands were hooked, as if she were clawing at an adversary— or at a crumbling ledge. Seen through a salty veil, they might have been the menacing hands of a demon in a dream.
With the image of a jaggedly broken wine bottle still vivid in her mind’s eye, she remained so frightened of her potential for violence, of her unconscious intentions, that she was paralyzed.
Action. Her father’s admonition. Hope lies in action. But she didn’t have the clarity of mind to consider, analyze, and then judiciously choose the right and most effective action.
She acted anyway, because if she didn’t do something, she would lie on the floor, curl into a ball like a pill bug, and remain there until Dusty came home. By the time he arrived, she might have turned in upon herself so tightly that she’d never be able to uncurl.
So, now, with pale resolve, push away from the refrigerator. Cross the kitchen. To the cabinet from which she’d retreated only moments ago.
Fingers hooking around the handle. Klick-klick. Pulling open the drawer. The gleaming scissors.
Martie almost faltered. Almost lost her shaky conviction when she saw the shiny blades.
Action. All the way out of the cabinet with the damn drawer. All the way out. Heavier than she expected.
Or perhaps the drawer wasn’t in fact as heavy as it seemed, was heavy only because, for Martie, the scissors possessed more than mere physical weight. Psychological weight, moral weight, the weight of malevolent purpose residing within the steel.
Now to the open back door. The trash can.
She tipped the drawer away from herself, intending to let the contents spill into the can. The sliding scissors rattled against other objects, and the sound so alarmed Martie that she dropped the drawer itself into the trash, along with everything it contained.
When Tom Wong brought the results of the latest blood-sample analysis to Skeet’s room, Dr. Donklin’s prediction was fulfilled. The mystery of Skeet’s condition remained unsolved.
The kid hadn’t ingested drugs of any kind within the past few hours. Residual traces of this morning’s indulgence were barely detectable.
His white-blood-cell count, which was normal, and his lack of fever didn’t support the theory that he might be afflicted by an acute meningeal infection. Or any infection whatsoever.
If the problem were food poisoning, specifically botulism, the coma would have been preceded by vomiting and stomach pain, and most likely by diarrhea, as well. Skeet hadn’t suffered from any of those complaints.
Although clear symptoms of apoplexy were not apparent, the grave possibilities of cerebral hemorrhage, embolism, and thrombosis must be reconsidered.
“This isn’t a rehab case, anymore,” Dr. Donklin decided. “Where do you prefer we transfer him?”
Dusty said, “Hoag Hospital, if they have an open bed.”
“Something’s happening here,” Tom Wong noted, drawing their attention to the electrocardiograph.
Because the annoying audio module on the EKG was switched off, neither Dusty nor Donklin had noticed that Skeet’s pulse rate had increased. The tracery of green light and the digital readout indicated that it was up from a low of forty-six beats per minute to fifty-four.
Suddenly yawning, stretching, Skeet opened his eyes.
His heart rate, now up to sixty beats per minute, was still rising.
Skeet blinked at Tom Wong, at Dr. Donklin, and at Dusty. “Hey, we havin’ a party or something?”
The open bottle of Chardonnay, two bottles of Chablis that were unopened: into the trash can.
In the laundry room, hideous weapons. A bottle of blinding, suffocating ammonia. Bleach. A lye-based drain cleaner. All of it into the trash.
She remembered the matches. In a kitchen cabinet. In a tall tin container that had once held biscotti. Several books of paper matches. Boxes of short wooden matches. A bundle of matches with ten-inch sticks, used to light the floating wicks in long-necked glass oil lamps.
If a person were capable of raking a broken wine bottle across an innocent victim’s face, if a person were dangerous enough to have no compunction about plunging a car key into a loved one’s eye, then setting fire to him—or to an entire house—would pose no significant moral hurdle.
Martie dropped the unopened container of matches into the trash can, and the contents made a raspy sound like a rattlesnake issuing a warning.
A quick trip to the living room. So much to do, so much to do. The gas fireplace featured a set of realistic-looking ceramic logs. A battery-fired butane match lay on the hearth.
Returning to the open kitchen door, dropping the butane match into the trash can on the back porch, Martie was troubled by the possibility that she had turned on the gas in the fireplace. She had no reason to turn it on, and she had no memory of having done so, but she didn’t trust herself.
Didn’t dare trust herself.
With the valve cranked wide open, a mortal flood of natural gas would escape in a minute or two. Any spark might set off an explosion powerful enough to destroy the house.
To the living room again. Like a frantic character in a video game. Ricocheting from peril to peril.
No rotten-egg odor.
No hiss of escaping gas.
The geared shank of the valve protruded from the wall beside the hearth. A key chuck was required to turn it, and the brass key lay on the mantel.
Relieved, Martie left the room. By the time she returned to the kitchen, however, she was once more concerned that in the grip of a fugue, she had keyed on the gas after satisfying herself that it was off.
This was ridiculous. She couldn’t spend the rest of her life bouncing in and out of the living room, ceaselessly checking on the fireplace. She didn’t suffer from fugues, amnesiac phases, didn’t commit acts of sabotage while blacked out.
For reasons she could not grasp, Martie thought of the second waiting room at Dr. Ahriman’s offices, where she had read part of a novel during Susan’s therapy session. A fine place to read. No windows. No annoying background music. No distractions.
A windowless room. And yet hadn’t she stood at an enormous window, watching the gray rain sweep along the coast?
No, that had been a scene in the paperback novel.
“It’s a real thriller,” she said aloud, though she was alone. “The writing’s good. The plot is entertaining. The characters are colorful. I’m enjoying it.”
Now, here in the disordered kitchen, she remained troubled by a perception of time lost. She sensed an ominous gap in her day, during which something terrible had happened.
Consulting her wristwatch, she was surprised to see that the hour had grown so late—5: 12 P.M. The day had dissolved and washed away with the rain.
She didn’t know when she had first gone into the living room to inspect the fireplace. Perhaps a minute ago. Perhaps two or four or ten minutes ago.
Early-winter night breathed at the open door to the back porch. She couldn’t recall if darkness had pressed against the living-room windows when she had been in there. If a gap existed in her day, it must have been in that room, at the fireplace.
Martie raced toward the front of the house, and the territory through which she passed was familiar yet different from what it had been this morning. No space was quite rectangular or precisely square anymore; each was fluid—now almost triangular, now hexagonal, and now curved, or otherwise curiously proportioned. Ceilings that had been flat appeared to be subtly pitched. She could have sworn that the floor canted under her, as if it were the deck of a tacking ship. The powerful anxiety that warped her mental processes also at times seemed to bend the physical world into strange shapes, although she knew that this surreal plasticity was imaginary.
In the living room: no hiss of escaping gas. No odor.
The key lay on the mantel. She didn’t touch it. Gaze fixed on that shiny brass item, Martie retreated from the fireplace, carefully backing between the armchairs and the sofa, out of the room.
When she reached the hall, she glanced at her watch. Five-thirteen. One minute had passed. No lost time. No fugue.
In the kitchen, shaking uncontrollably, she consulted her watch again. Still 5:13. She was all right. She hadn’t blacked out. She couldn’t have returned to the living room in a fugue and switched on the gas. One number changed before her eyes—5: 14.
In his note, Dusty had promised to be home by five o’clock. He was overdue. Dusty was usually prompt. He kept his promises.
“God, please,” she said, shocked by the pathetic tone of her voice, by the wretched tremor that distorted her words, “bring him home. God, please, please, help me, please bring him home now.”
When Dusty returned, he would drive his van into the garage, park it beside her Saturn.
No good. The garage was a dangerous place. Uncounted sharp tools were stored out there, deadly machinery, poisonous substances, flammable fluids.
She would stay in the kitchen, wait for him here. Nothing would happen to him in the garage if she weren’t out there when he arrived. Sharp tools, poisons, flammables—they were not dangerous. Martie herself was the real danger, the only threat.
From the garage, he would come directly into the kitchen. She must be sure that she had stripped from this room everything that might serve as a weapon.