“Not for a while,” said the orderly, which meant not until the loss of Sassy hurt a little less than it hurt now.
On the ground floor, in the recreation room adjacent to the lobby, a dozen patients, at tables in groups of four, were playing cards. Their conversation and easy laughter, the click of shuffling decks, and the mellow strains of an old Glenn Miller swing tune on the radio contributed to such a cozy mood that you might have thought this was a gathering of friends at a country club, a church hall, or a private home, instead of a physically shaky and psychologically desperate collection of middle-class and upper-middle-class crack smokers, snow blowers, crank freaks, cross-top poppers, acid-heads, cactus eaters, and shit spikers with Swiss-cheese veins.
At a desk next to the front door, a guard was posted to ensure that upon the premature departure of a headstrong patient, family members and officers of the court would be phoned depending upon the notification requirements of each case.
During the current shift, the security station was manned by a fiftyish man dressed in khakis, a light-blue shirt, a red tie, and a navy-blue blazer. His name tag identified him as WALLY CLARK, and he was reading a romance novel. Pudgy. dimpled, well-scrubbed, smelling faintly of a spice-scented aftershave, with the kind blue eyes of a sincere pastor and a smile just sweet enough—but not too sweet—to replace the vermouth in a not-too-dry martini, Wally was every Hollywood casting director’s ideal choice for the star’s favorite uncle, mentor, dedicated teacher, beloved father, or guardian angel.
“I was here the last time your brother stayed with us,” Wally Clark said, leaning forward in his chair to pet Valet. “I didn’t expect he’d be back. Wish he wasn’t. He’s a good-hearted boy.”
“Used to come down here to play some backgammon with me. Don’t you worry, Mr. Rhodes. Your brother, deep inside, he’s got the right stuff. He’ll fly straight out of here this time, and stay straight.”
Outside, the night was cool and damp, although not unpleasant. The woolen clouds unraveled, revealing a silver moon skating serenely across the lake of the sky, before quickly knitting up again.
Shallow puddles remained in the parking lot, and Valet weaved to the limits of his leash to prance through each of them.
When Dusty reached the van, he looked back at the haciendastyle clinic. With queen palms whispering lullabies in the sleepy breeze, with bougainvillea entwining the columns of the loggias and draping like bedclothes in graceful swags across the arches, this might have been the home of Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams.
Yet Dusty was unable to peel off a clinging suspicion that there was another, darker reality beneath the picturesque surface: a place of ceaseless activity, of secret scurrying and scheming, a nest, a hive, in which a nightmare colony labored to some hideous purpose.
Tom Wong, Dr. Donklin, Jasmine Hernandez, Wally Clark, and all the staff at New Life appeared to be smart, professional, dedicated, and compassionate. Nothing in their behavior or demeanor gave Dusty the slightest reason to question their motives.
Perhaps what bothered him was that they were all too perfect to be real. If one New Life employee had been slow on the uptake or sloppy, rude or disorganized, Dusty might have been free of this peculiar new distrust of the clinic.
Of course, the unusual competence, commitment, and friendliness of the staff meant only that New Life was well managed. Evidently, the head of personnel had a gift for hiring and nurturing first-rate employees. The happy consequences should have inspired gratitude in Dusty, not a paranoid perception of conspiracy.
Yet something felt wrong. He worried that Skeet was not safe here. The longer he stared at the clinic, the stronger his suspicion grew Frustratingly, the reason for it continued to elude him.
The spring-action clippers with the long blades and the battery-powered hedge trimmer were so wicked-looking that Martie was not satisfied merely to throw them away. She would not feel safe until they were reduced to useless scrap.
Larger garden tools were stored neatly in a tall cabinet. Rake, leaf rake, shovel, hoe. Sledgehammer.
She put the hedge trimmer on the concrete floor, where Dusty would park his van when he came home, and she swung the sledge at it. Under the impact of the large blunt hammerhead, the trimmer shrieked as though it were a living thing, but Martie judged the damage to be insufficient. She hefted the hammer and swung it again, then a third time, a fourth.
Pieces of plastic from the shattered handle, a couple screws, and other debris rattled off nearby cabinets, pinged off the Saturn. With each loud blow, the garage windows vibrated in their frames and chips of concrete exploded out of the floor.
All this shrapnel peppered Martie’s face. She recognized the danger to her eyes, but she didn’t dare pause to search for safety goggles. Much work remained to be done, and at any moment, the big garage door might rumble upward, announcing Dusty’s arrival.
She threw the hedge clippers on the floor. She pounded them ferociously, until the spring popped out and the handles came apart.
Then a spading fork. Pounding and pounding it until the wooden handle was smashed into splinters. Until the tines were bent and squashed together in a useless tangle.
The sledgehammer was a three-pound rather than a five-pound model. Nevertheless, strength and balance were required to wield it with the desired devastating effect. Sweating, gasping for breath, mouth dry, throat hot, Martie repeatedly swung the hammer high and drove it down smoothly, with calculated rhythm.
She would suffer in the morning; every muscle in her shoulders and arms would ache, but right now the sledge felt so glorious in her hands that she didn’t care about the pain to come. A sweet current of power flowed through her, a gratifying sense of being in control for the first time all day. Each solid thud of the hammerhead thrilled her; the hard reverberation of the impact, traveling up the long handle, into her hands, along her arms, into her shoulders and neck, was deeply satisfying, almost erotic. She sucked air with each upswing, grunted when she drove the hammer down, issued a wordless little cry of pleasure each time that something bent or cracked under the pummeling weight—
—until abruptly she heard herself and realized that she sounded more animal than human.
Panting, still gripping the hammer in both hands, Martie turned from the ruined tools and caught sight of her reflection in a side window of the Saturn. Her shoulders were hunched, head thrust forward and cocked at a weird angle, like that of a condemned murderess who had been reprieved but deformed when a hangman’s noose had snapped. Her dark hair was tangled and bristling as though she’d received an electric shock. Dementia carved her face into that of a hag, and a wild thing glared from behind her eyes.
Crazily, she recalled an illustration in a storybook she’d treasured as a child: an evil troll under an old stone bridge, bent over a glowing forge, working with hammer and tongs to make chains and shackles for his victims.
What would she have done to Dusty if he had arrived at the very moment when her frenzied hammering had been at a peak—or, for that matter, if he arrived now?
With a shudder of revulsion, she dropped the hammer.
Having expected to be away from home past feeding time, Dusty had brought Valet’s dinner in a Ziploc bag: two cups of dry lamb-and-rice kibble. He poured it into a plastic bowl and put the bowl on the pavement beside the van.
“Sorry about the lousy ambience,” he apologized.
If the clinic parking lot had been a lush meadow or a penthouse, Valet would have approached his dinner with no greater pleasure than he showed now. Like all of his kind, he had no pretensions.
Dogs possessed so many admirable qualities, in fact, that Dusty sometimes wondered if God had created this world expressly for them above all other creatures. Human beings might have been put here as an afterthought, to ensure that dogs would have companions to prepare their meals, to groom them, to tell them they were cute, and to rub their bellies.
While Valet made quick work of the kibble, Dusty fished his cell phone from under the driver’s seat and called home. On the third ring, the answering machine responded.
Assuming that Martie was screening calls, he said, “Scarlett, it’s me. Rhett. Just calling to say I do give a damn, after all.”
She didn’t pick up.
“Martie, are you there?” He waited. Then, stretching the message to give her time to get to the study—and the answering machine—from anywhere in the house, he said: “Sorry I’m running late. Hell of a day. I’ll be there in half an hour, we’ll go out for dinner. Somewhere we can’t afford. I’m sick of always being so damn responsible. Choose something extravagant. Maybe even a place where the food comes on real plates instead of in Styrofoam containers. We’ll take a bank loan if we have to.”
Either she hadn’t heard the phone or she wasn’t home.
Valet had finished his kibble. He used his tongue to imitate an airplane propeller, making 360-degree sweeps of his chops and muzzle, collecting crumbs.
When traveling with the dog, Dusty carried bottled water. He poured a few ounces into the blue dish.
After Valet finished drinking, they walked the dimly lighted lawns that embraced three sides of New Life Clinic. This stroll was ostensibly for the purpose of giving the dog a chance to do his post-dinner dump, but it also provided Dusty with an opportunity to examine more closely the rambling structure.
Even if the clinic were less legitimate than it appeared to be, Dusty had no idea where he should look for clues to its true nature. There would be no hidden door to the vast subterranean headquarters of a flamboyant James Bond-style villain. Nor could he expect to discover the soulless personal servant of Count Dracula clandestinely transferring the undead nobleman’s coffin from a horse-drawn lorry into the basement of the building. This was southern California in the dazzling new millennium, and it was, therefore, full of far stranger creatures than Goldfinger and vampires—though currently none appeared to be lurking in this neighborhood.
Dusty’s suspicion was difficult to sustain in the face of the unrelenting ordinariness of the clinic grounds. The grass was well manicured, the earth still slightly squishy from the recent rain. The shrubs were neatly trimmed. The night shadows were only shadows.
Although Valet was easily spooked, he was so comfortable here that he completed his toilet without any nervous hesitation—and did it in the amber glow of a landscape lamp, which allowed his master to pick up easily after him.
The fully loaded, conspicuous blue bag gave Dusty an excuse to explore the alleyway behind the clinic, where no grass bordered the pavement. As he located a small trash Dumpster and deposited the bag, he surveyed this more humble aspect of the building: delivery and service entrances, utilities boxes, a second small Dumpster.
Neither he nor his four-legged Dr. Watson discovered anything amiss in the backstreet—although beside the second Dumpster, the dog found a grease-stained Big Mac container that he would have enjoyed sniffing and licking for six or seven hours.
Retreating from the alley, passing once more across the lawn along the south side of the clinic, Dusty glanced up at Skeet’s room— and saw a man standing at the window. Backlit by a single well-shaded lamp, he was a featureless silhouette.
Though the angle was deceiving, the guy seemed too tall and too broad-shouldered to be Skeet or Dr. Donklin. Tom Wong was gone for the night, but he, too, was a different physical type from this man.
Dusty could discern nothing of the stranger’s face, not even the vague glint of his eyes. Nevertheless, he was sure the man was watching him.
As though he were in a staring contest with a ghost, Dusty gazed up at the window until, with the ectoplasmic fluidity of a haunting spirit, the dark form turned away from the glass and drifted out of sight.
Dusty considered hurrying to his brother’s room to learn the identity of the watcher. Almost certainly, however, the man would prove to be a staff member. Or another patient, visiting Skeet.
On the other hand, if this nagging suspicion were merited, rather than being mere paranoia, if the man at the window were up to no good, he would not hang around now that Dusty had seen him. No doubt he was already gone.
Common sense argued against suspicion. Skeet had no money, no prospects, no power. There was nothing to be gotten from him that would motivate anyone to engineer an elaborate conspiracy
Besides, an enemy—in the unlikely event that gentle Skeet had one—would realize the futility of engaging in elaborate schemes to torment and destroy the kid. Left to his own devices, Skeet would torture himself more ruthlessly than could the most cruel dungeon master, and he would diligently pursue his own destruction.
Maybe this wasn’t even Skeet’s room. Dusty had been sure it was the kid’s window when he first looked up. But... perhaps Skeet’s window was to the left of this one.
Dusty sighed. The ever sympathetic Valet sighed as well.
“Your old man’s losin’ it,” Dusty said.
He was eager to go home to Martie, to walk out of the insanity of this day and return to reality.
Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her husband forty whacks.
That bastardized line of verse swung back and forth through Martie’s mind, repeatedly cleaving her train of thought, so she had to struggle to remain focused.
The workbench in the garage featured a vise. After bracing the ax with a block, Martie cranked the jaws shut until they tightened on the handle.
She was able to pick up a pistol-grip hacksaw only with great effort. It was a dangerous instrument, but less fearsome than the ax, which must be destroyed. Later, she’d wreck the hacksaw, too.
Using the saw, she attacked the wooden handle at the neck. The cast-steel head would still be deadly once it had been severed, but the ax, intact, was far more lethal than either of its parts.
Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her husband forty whacks.
The hacksaw blade torqued, bound in the ax handle, stuttered loose, torqued again, and made a sloppy kerf in the hard wood. She threw it on the floor.
In the tool collection were two carpenter’s saws. One was a rip-saw, for cutting with the grain of the wood, the other a crosscut saw, but Martie didn’t know which was which. Hesitantly, she tried one, then the other, and both frustrated her.
When the job was neatly done, she gave him another forty-one.
Among the power tools was a hand-held reciprocating saw with a blade so fierce that she required all the courage she could muster to plug it in, pick it up, and switch it on. Initially the teeth stuttered with little effect across the oak, and the saw vibrated violently, but when Martie bore down, the blade buzzed through the wood, and the severed ax head, with handle stump, fell onto the workbench.
She switched off the saw and set it aside. Opened the jaws of the vice. Freed the ax handle. Threw it on the floor.