If he had been on the phone five or ten minutes instead of a few seconds, however, he couldn’t possibly have been speaking with anyone in the Times subscription-sales operation. What the hell would they have talked about for so long? Typefaces? The cost of newsprint? Johannes Gutenberg—What a cool guy!—and the invention of movable type? The tremendous effectiveness of the Times as a puppy-training aid in Valet’s early days, its singular convenience, its remarkable absorbency, its admirable service as an environment-friendly and fully biodegradable poop wrap?
During the minutes that Valet had settled down to nap at the connecting door to the garage, Dusty either had been on the phone with someone other than a Times salesperson or had been on the phone only a few seconds and had been engaged in some other task the rest of the time.
A task that he could not remember.
Impossible. Not me, too.
Ants with urgent purpose, busy bustling multitudes, seemed to be swarming up his legs, down his arms, across his back, and although he knew that no ants had invaded the bed, that what he felt was the nerve endings in his skin responding to the sudden dimpling from a case of universal gooseflesh, he brushed at his arms and at the back of his neck, as if to cast off an army of six-legged soldiers.
Unable to sit still, he got quietly to his feet, but he couldn’t stand still, either, and so he paced, but here and there the floor squeaked under the carpet, and he could not pace quietly, so he eased into bed again and sat motionless, after all. His skin was cool and antless now. But things were crawling along the surface convolutions of his brain: a new and unwelcome sense of vulnerability, an X Files perception that unknown presences, strange and hostile, had entered his life.
Tear-damp flush of face, white cotton so sweetly curved, bare knees together. Susan was sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting.
Ahriman sat across the room from her, in an armchair upholstered with peach-colored moire silk. He was in no hurry to have her.
Even as a young boy, he had understood that the cheapest toy was fundamentally like one of his father’s expensive antique automobiles. As much pleasure could be taken from the leisurely study of it—from the appreciation of its lines and fine details—as from its use. In fact, to truly possess a plaything, to be a worthy master of it, one must understand the art of its form, not merely the thrill of its function.
The art of Susan Jagger’s form was twofold: physical, of course, and psychological. Her face and body were exceptionally beautiful. But there was beauty in her mind, too—in her personality and in her intellect.
As a toy, she also had a twofold function, and the first was sexual. Tonight and for a few more nights, Ahriman would use her savagely and at length.
Her second function was to suffer and die well. As a plaything, she had already given him considerable delight with her courageous if hopeless battle to overcome agoraphobia, her anguish and despair as rich as marzipan. Her brave determination to keep her sense of humor and to win back her life was pathetic and therefore delectable. Soon he would enhance and complicate her phobia, sending her into a swift and irreversible decline, and then he would enjoy the final— and sharpest—thrill that she was capable of providing.
Now she sat tearful and timid, conflicted by the prospect of imagined incest, repulsed and yet full of a sick sweet yearning, as programmed. Trembling.
From time to time, her eyes jiggled, the telltale REM that marked the deepest state of personality submersion. It distracted the doctor and compromised her beauty.
Susan already knew the roles they were playing tonight, knew what was expected of her in this erotic scenario, so Ahriman brought her closer to the surface, though nowhere near to full consciousness. Just far enough to put an end to the spasms of rapid eye movement.
“Susan, I want you to move out of the chapel now,” he said, referring to that imaginary place in her deepest subconscious where he had taken her for instruction. “Come out and move up the stairs, but not too far, one flight, where a little more light filters down. There, right there.”
Her eyes were like clear ponds made murky by the reflections of gray clouds on their surfaces, suddenly touched by a few faint beams of sunshine, and now revealing greater depths.
“What you’re wearing still appeals to me,” he said. “White cotton. The simplicity.” Several visits ago, he had instructed her to dress for bed in this fashion until he suggested something different; the look excited him. “The innocence. Purity. Like a child, yet so incredibly ripe.”
The roses in her cheeks blossomed brighter, and she lowered her eyes demurely. Tears of shame, like beads of dew, quivered on the petals of the blush.
She actually saw her father when she dared to look at the doctor. Such was the power of suggestion when Ahriman spoke to her one-on-one in the deep sanctity of that mind chapel.
When they were finished playing tonight, he would instruct her to forget all that had happened from the moment he phoned until he left her apartment. She would recall neither his visit nor this fantasy of incest.
If he chose to do so, however, Ahriman could concoct for Susan a detailed history of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Many hours would be required to weave that lurid narrative through the tapestry of her real memories, but thereafter he could instruct her to believe in her lifelong victimization and gradually to “recover” those repressed traumas during her therapy sessions.
If her belief drove her to report her father to the police, and if they asked her to submit to a lie-detector test, she would respond to each question with unwavering conviction and precisely the correct shadings of emotion. Her respiration, blood pressure, pulse, and her galvanic skin response would convince any polygraph examiner that she was telling the truth, because she would be convinced that her vile accusations were indeed factual in every detail.
Ahriman had no intention of toying with her in that fashion. He had enjoyed that game with other subjects; but it bored him now.
“Look at me, Susan.”
She raised her head. Her eyes met his, and the doctor recalled a bit of verse by e. e. cummings: In your eyes there lives / a green egyptian noise.
“Next time,” he said, “I’ll bring my camcorder, and we’ll make another videotape. Do you remember the first one I shot of you?”
Susan shook her head.
“That’s because I’ve forbidden you to remember. You so debased yourself that any memory of it might have left you suicidal. I wasn’t ready for you to be suicidal yet.”
Her gaze slid away from him. She stared at the miniature ming tree in the pot atop the Biedermeier pedestal.
He said, “One more tape to remember you by. Next time. I’ve been giving my imagination a workout. You’ll be a very dirty girl next time, Susie. It’ll make the first tape look like Disney.”
Keeping a video record of his most outrageous puppetry was not wise. He stored this incriminating evidence—currently totaling 121 tapes—in a locked and well-hidden vault, although if the wrong people suspected its existence, they would tear his house apart board by board, stone by stone, until they found his archives.
He took the risk because he was at heart a sentimentalist, with a nostalgic yearning for days past, old friends, discarded toys.
Life is a train ride, and at the many stations along the route, people important to us debark, never to get aboard again, until by the end of our journey, we sit in a passenger car where most of the seats are empty. This truth saddens the doctor no less than it does other men and women who are given to reflection—although his sorrow is undeniably of a quality different from theirs.
“Look at me, Susan.”
She continued to stare at the potted plant on the pedestal.
“Don’t be willful. Look at your father now.”
Her tearful gaze flowed away from the lacy ming tree, and upon it she floated a plea to be allowed at least some small measure of dignity, which Dr. Ahriman noted, enjoyed, and disregarded.
Undoubtedly, one evening long after Susan Jagger is dead, the nostalgic doctor will think fondly of her, and will be overcome by a wistful desire to hear her musical voice again, to see her lovely face, to relive the many good times they had together. This is his weakness.
He will indulge himself, on that evening, by resorting to his video archives. He’ll be warmed and gladdened to see Susan engaged in acts so sordid, so squalid, that they transform her almost as dramatically as a lycanthrope is transformed in the fullness of the moon. In these wallows of obscenity, her radiant beauty dims sufficiently to allow the doctor to see clearly the essential animal that lives within her, the pre evolutionary beast, groveling and yet cunning, fearful and yet fearsome, darkling in her heart.
Besides, even if he did not get so much pleasure from reviewing these home movies, he would maintain his videotape archives, because he is by nature an indefatigable collector. Room after room in his rambling house is dedicated to displays of the toys that he has so tirelessly acquired over the years: armies of toy soldiers; charming hand-painted, cast-iron cars; coin-operated mechanical banks; plastic playsets with thousands of miniature figures, from Roman gladiators to astronauts.
“Get up, girl.”
She rose from the bed.
Slowly she turned, slowly for his examination.
“Oh, yes,” he said, “I want more of you on tape for posterity. And perhaps a little blood next time, a minor bit of self-mutilation. In fact, bodily fluids in general could be the theme. Very messy, very degenerate. That should be fun. I’m sure that you agree.”
Again, she favored the ming tree over his eyes, but this was a passive disobedience, for she looked at him again when commanded to do so.
“If you think that will be fun, tell me so,” he insisted.
“Yes, Daddy. Fun.”
He instructed her to get on her knees, and she settled to the floor.
“Crawl to me, Susan.”
Like a gear-driven figure on a mechanical bank, as though she had a coin gripped in her teeth and were following a rigorous track toward a deposit slot, she approached the armchair, face painted with realistic tears, a superb example of her kind, an acquisition that would delight any collector.
The Moment When Dusty Had Noticed the Napping Dog bad been scissored from the earlier Moment When the Kitchen Phone Had Rung, and no matter how many times he replayed the scene in his mind, he could not tie together those severed threads of his day. One moment the dog stood, tail wagging, and the next moment the dog was waking from a short sleep. Missing minutes. Spent talking to whom? Doing what?
He was replaying the episode yet again, concentrating on the dark hole between when he’d picked up the phone and when he’d put it down, striving to bridge the memory gap, when beside him on the bed, Martie began to groan in her sleep.
“Easy. It’s okay. Easy now,” he whispered, lightly placing a hand on her shoulder, trying to gentle her out of the nightmare and into untroubled sleep again, much as he had done for Valet earlier.
She would not be gentled. As her groans became whimpers, she shuddered, kicking feebly at the entangling sheets, and as whimpers skirled into shrill cries, she thrashed, abruptly sat up, flung off the bedclothes, and shot to her feet, no longer squealing in terror, but choking, gagging thickly, on the queasy verge of regurgitation, vigorously scrubbing at her mouth with both hands, as though repulsed by something on the menu in a dream feast.
Up and moving almost as explosively as Martie, Dusty started around the bed, aware of Valet alert beyond her.
She swung toward him: “Stay away from me!”
Such emotion rushed through her voice that Dusty halted, and the dog began to shake, the hair standing straight up along the length of his withers.
Still wiping at her mouth, Martie looked at her hands, as if she expected to see them gloved in fresh blood—and perhaps not her own. “Oh, God, oh, my God.”
Dusty moved toward her, and again she ordered him to stay away, no less fiercely than before. “You can’t trust me, you can’t get near me, don’t think you can.”
“It was only a nightmare.”
“This is the nightmare.”
Convulsively, she bent forward, gagging on the memory of the dream, then letting out a miserable groan of disgust and anguish.
Despite her warning, Dusty went to her, and when he touched her, she recoiled violently, shoving him away. “Don’t trust me! Don’t, for Christ’s sake, don’t.”
Rather than step around him, she scrambled monkeylike across the disheveled bed, bounded off the other side, and hurried into the adjoining bathroom.
A short sharp bleat escaped the dog, a plucked-wire sound that twanged through Dusty and struck in him a fear that he had not known before.
Seeing her like this a second time was more terrifying than the first episode. Once could be an aberration. Twice was a pattern. In patterns could be seen the future.
He went after Martie and found her at the bathroom sink. The cold water gushed into the basin. The door of the medicine cabinet, which had been open, was swinging shut of its own accord.
“It must’ve been worse than usual this time,” he said.
“It wasn’t the same one, nothing as pleasant as the Leaf Man,” she said, but clearly she had no intention of elaborating.
She popped the cap off a bottle of an effective nonprescription sleeping aid that they rarely used. A slurry of blue caplets spilled into her cupped left hand.
At first, Dusty thought she was intending to overdose, which was ridiculous, because even a full bottle probably wouldn’t kill her— and, anyway, she must know that he would knock them out of her hand before she could swallow so many.
But then she let most of the pills rattle back into the bottle. Three were left on her palm.
“Two’s the maximum dosage,” he said.
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about the maximum dosage. I want to be out cold. I’ve got to sleep, got to rest, but I’m not going to go through another dream like that, not another one like that.”
Her black hair was damp with sweat and tangled like the crowning snakes of whatever Gorgon she had encountered in her dream. The pills were to vanquish monsters.
Water slopped into the drinking glass, and she chased the three caplets with a long swallow.
At her side, Dusty didn’t interfere. Three pills didn’t warrant paramedics and a stomach pump, and if she was a little groggy in the morning, she might be somewhat less anxious, as well.
He saw no point in suggesting that deeper slumber might not be as dreamless as she expected. Even if she slept in the scaly arms of nightmares, she would be more rested in the morning than if she didn’t sleep at all.