These days, simple white cotton. An assertion of her innocence. A refusal to be degraded or soiled, regardless of what he did to her.
Dusty was worried about Martie’s sudden torpor. She pleaded bone-deep weariness, but judging by her demeanor, she was succumbing less to exhaustion than to profound depression.
She moved sluggishly, not with the loose-limbed awkwardness of exhaustion, but with the grim and determined plodding of one who labored under a crushing burden. Her face was tight, pinched at the corners of the mouth and eyes, rather than slack with fatigue.
Martie was only a half step down the ladder from fanaticism when it came to dental hygiene, but this evening she didn’t want to bother brushing her teeth. In three years of marriage, this was a first.
On every night in Dusty’s memory, Martie washed her face and applied a moisturizing lotion. Brushed her hair. Not this time.
Forgoing her nightly rituals, she went to bed fully dressed.
When Dusty realized she was not going to take off her clothes, he untied her laces and removed her shoes. Her socks. Skinned off her jeans. She didn’t resist, but she didn’t cooperate, either.
Getting Martie out of her blouse was too difficult, especially as she lay on her side, knees drawn up, arms crossed on her breasts. Leaving her partially dressed, Dusty pulled the covers over her shoulders, smoothed her hair back from her face, kissed her brow.
Her eyelids drooped, but in her eyes was something more stark and sharp-edged than weariness.
“Don’t leave me,” she said thickly.
“Don’t trust me.”
“But I do.”
“Promise me. Don’t sleep.”
“Because I might kill you in your sleep,” she said, and closed her eyes, which seemed to change from cornflower-blue to cyanine and then to purple madder just as her eyelids slipped shut.
He stood watching her, frightened not by her warning, not for himself, but for her.
She mumbled, “Susan.”
“What about her?”
“Just remembered. Didn’t tell you about Susan. Strange stuff. Supposed to call her.”
“You can call her in the morning.”
“What sort of friend am I?” she muttered.
“She’ll understand. Just rest now. Just rest.”
In seconds, Martie appeared to be asleep, lips parted, breathing through her mouth. The pinched lines of anxiety were gone from the corners of her eyes.
Twenty minutes later, Dusty was sitting up in bed, combing back through the tangled story that Martie had told him, trying to pull the burs out and smooth it into a fully intelligible narrative, when the telephone rang. In the interest of uninterrupted sleep, they kept the ringer switched off in the bedroom, and what he heard now was the phone in Martie’s office down the hall; the answering machine picked up after the second ring.
He assumed Susan was calling, though it might have been Skeet or one of the staff at New Life. Ordinarily, he would have gone to Martie’s office to monitor the incoming message, but he didn’t want her to wake up while he was out of the room and discover that he had broken his promise to remain with her. Skeet was safe in good hands, and whatever “strange stuff” was going on with Susan, it couldn’t be any stranger or more important than what had transpired right here this evening. It could wait until morning.
Dusty turned his attention once more to what Martie had told him of her day. As he worried at each bizarre event and quirky detail, he was overcome by the peculiar conviction that what had happened to his wife was somehow associated with what happened to his brother. He sensed parallel oddities in both events, though the precise nature of the connections eluded him. Undeniably, this was the strangest day of his life, and instinct told him that Skeet and Martie had not unraveled simultaneously by mere coincidence.
In one corner of the room, Valet was curled on his bed, a large sheepskin-covered pillow, but he remained awake. He lay with his chin propped on one paw, intently watching his mistress sleeping in the golden lamplight.
Because Martie had never failed to keep a commitment and thus had banked a lot of moral capital, Susan didn’t feel aggrieved when the promised phone call failed to come in by eleven o’clock; however, she was uneasy. She placed her own call, got an answering machine, and grew worried.
No doubt Martie had been rocked and mystified by Susan’s claim of a phantom rap**t to whom locked doors were no impediment. She’d asked to be given some time to think. But Martie wasn’t prone either to waffle or to be unnecessarily diplomatic. By now she would have arrived at some considered advice—or would have called to say she needed more convincing if she were to believe this tall, tall story.
“It’s me,” Susan told the answering machine. “What’s wrong? You okay? You think I’m nuts? It’s all right if you do. Call me.”
She waited a few seconds, then hung up.
Most likely, Martie would not have suggested a course of action with more potential for success than the camcorder sting, so Susan went forward with her preparations.
She placed a half-full glass of wine on the nightstand, not to be drunk, but as a prop.
She settled into bed with a book, sitting up against a pile of pillows. She was too nervous to read.
For a while she watched an old movie on TV, Dark Passage, but she couldn’t concentrate on the story. Her mind wandered down darker and more frightening alleyways than any that Bogart and Bacall had ever traveled.
Although Susan was preternaturally alert, she recalled other nights when apparent insomnia had abruptly given way to unnaturally deep sleep—and to victimization. If she was secretly being drugged, she couldn’t predict when the chemicals might kick in, and she did not want to wake up to discover that she had been violated and that she had failed to activate the camcorder.
At midnight, she went to the Biedermeier pedestal, slipped one finger into the ivy under the little ming tree, started the videotape rolling, and returned to bed. If she was still awake at one o’clock, she would rewind the cassette and start recording from the beginning, and again at two and three o’clock, so in the event that she slept, there would be less of a chance that the tape would run out before the creep entered the room.
She switched off the television, the better to support the fell-asleep-while-reading scenario, but also because it might mask sounds arising elsewhere in the apartment.
After less than a minute of silence, as she was about to pick up the book, the telephone rang. Assuming that Martie was calling, Susan answered. “Hello?”
“This is Ben Marco.”
As though Ben Marco were a magic mason whose very voice could conjure stone and mortar, sudden walls of granite seemed to enclose Susan’s heart, confining it, pressing upon auricles and ventricles. Even as her heart rapped frantically against its prison, her mind opened as if it were a house from which the roof had been torn away by a cyclone; suddenly as wispy as dust and cobwebs, her thoughts dispersed on an updraft, and into her head, from the black infinity above, sifted a whispering darkness, an irresistible Presence that glided, as invisible and cold as a haunting spirit, first through the attic of her mind and then down, down into deeper regions.
“I’m listening,” Susan told Ben Marco.
At once her racing heart began to settle, and in her blood, the insectile twitching of fear subsided.
And now the rides.
He said, “The winter storm—”
“The storm is you,” she replied.
“—hid in the bamboo grove—”
“The grove is me.”
“—and quieted away.”
“In the quiet, I will learn what is wanted,” Susan said.
The Winter storm hid in the bamboo grove and quieted away.
With the litany of the rules completed, Susan Jagger was awash in a sea of quiet: the apartment profoundly silent around her, all hushed within her, as soundless as the lifeless void must have been only an instant before Creation, when God had not yet said, Let there be light.
When the winter storm spoke again, his soft deep voice seemed not to come from the telephone but from within Susan. “Tell me where you are.”
“I believe you’re alone. Tell me if I’m correct.”
“Let me in.”
Susan put down the phone, got out of bed, and hurried through the dark apartment.
In spite of her quickened pace, her heartbeat continued to grow slower: strong, steady, calm.
In the kitchen, the only light was green and pale, issuing from the numerals on the digital clocks in the microwave and in the oven. The inky shadows didn’t hinder her. For too many months, this small apartment had been her world; and she was as intimately familiar with it as if she’d been raised here blind since birth.
A chair was wedged firmly under the doorknob. She removed it and slid it aside, and the wooden legs squeaked faintly on the tile floor.
The slide bolt at the end of the brass security chain rasped out of the slot in the latch plate. When she let go, the links rattled against the door casing.
She disengaged the first dead bolt. The second.
She opened the door.
A storm he was, and wintry, too, waiting on the landing at the head of the stairs, quiet now but filled with the rage of hurricanes, a fury usually well hidden from the world but always churning in him, revealed in his most private moments, and as he crossed the threshold into the kitchen, forcing her backward, shoving the door shut behind him, he clamped one strong hand around her slender throat.
The left and right common carotid arteries, providing the principal blood supply to the neck and head, arise directly from the aorta, which itself arises from the upper surface of the left ventricle. Having so recently departed the heart, the blood surging through both vessels is particularly rich in oxygen and is driven with force.
Hand cupped around the front of Susan’s throat, fingers spread along the left side of her neck, the pad of his thumb pressed just under her jawbone and over her right carotid, Dr. Mark Ahriman held her thus for perhaps a minute, enjoying the strong, steady throb of her pulse. She was so wonderfully full of life.
If he’d wanted to strangle her to death, he could have done so without fear of resistance. In this altered state of consciousness, she would stand, docile and unprotesting, while he choked the life out of her. She would ease to her knees when she could no longer stand, and then fold quietly into a graceful mound on the floor as her heart stuttered to a stop, apologizing with her eyes for being unable to die on her feet and, therefore, requiring him to kneel with her as he finished the job.
In fact, while dying, Susan Jagger would favor Dr. Ahriman with whatever attitude and expression he requested. Childlike adoration. Erotic rapture. Impotent rage or even lamblike meekness with a glaze of bafflement, if either of those responses amused him.
He had no intention of killing her. Not here, not now—though soon.
When the time inevitably came, he wouldn’t act directly to snuff Susan, because he had great respect for the scientific-investigation division of virtually any contemporary American police agency. When wet work was required, he always used intermediaries to deliver the death blow, sparing himself the risk of suspicion.
Besides, his purest bliss came from clever manipulation, not directly from mutilation and murder. Pulling the trigger, shoving in the knife, twisting the wire garrote—none of that would thrill him as keenly as using someone to commit atrocities on his behalf.
Power is a sharper thrill than violence.
More precisely, his greatest delight arose not from the end effect of using power but from the process of using it. Manipulation. Control. The act of exerting absolute control, pulling strings and watching people perform as commanded, was so profoundly gratifying to the doctor that in his finest moments of puppeteering, plangent peals of pleasure shook through him like great gongs of sound shivering the cast bronze of massive cathedral bells.
Susan’s throat beneath his hand reminded him of a long-ago thrill, of another slender and graceful throat that had been torn by a pike, and with this memory came a tintinnabulation through the bone bells of his spine.
In Scottsdale, Arizona, stands a Palladian mansion in which a willowy young heiress named Minette Luckland pounds her mother’s skull to mush with a hammer and shortly thereafter shoots her father in the back of the head while he is eating a slice of crumb cake and watching a rerun of Seinfeld. Subsequently, she leaps from a second-floor gallery, free-falling eighteen feet, impaling herself on a spear held by a statue of Diana, goddess of the moon and the hunt, which stands on aflutedplinth in the center of the entry rotunda. The suicide note, indisputably written in Minette's own neat band, claims that she has been sexually abused since childhood by both parents—an outrageous slander that Dr Ahriman had suggested to her Around Diana’s bronze feet: spatters of blood like red plum-flower petals on white marble floor
Now, standing half na*ed in the shadowy kitchen, green eyes reflecting the faint green light of the digital clock in the nearby oven, Susan Jagger was even lovelier than the late Minette. Although her face and form were the stuff of an erotomaniac’s sweat-drenched dreams, Ahriman was less excited by her looks than by the knowledge
that in her lithe limbs and supple body was a lethal potential as great as that unleashed in Scottsdale so many years ago.
Her right carotid artery throbbed against the doctor’s thumb, her pulse slow and thick. Fifty-six beats per minute.
She was not afraid. She was calmly awaiting use, as though she were an unthinking tool—or, more accurately, a toy.
By using the trigger name Ben Marco and then by reciting the conditioning haiku, Ahriman had transferred her into an altered state of consciousness. A layman might have used the term hypnotic trance, which to a certain extent it was. A clinical psychologist would have diagnosed it as a fugue, which was closer to the truth.
Neither term was adequately defining.
Once Ahriman recited the haiku, Susan’s personality was more deeply and firmly repressed than if she were hypnotized. In this peculiar condition, she was no longer Susan Jagger in any meaningful sense, but a nonentity, a meat machine whose mind was a blank hard-drive waiting for whatever software Ahriman chose to install.
If she had been in a classic fugue state, which is a serious personality disassociation, she would have appeared to function almost normally, with a few eccentric behaviors but with far less detachment than she now exhibited.