When he was thirteen, a child prodigy already in his first year of college, he realized that psychology offered him an ideal career. Those who claimed to understand the secrets of the mind were regarded with respect bordering on reverence, much as priests must have been in prior centuries, when belief in the soul was as widespread as the current belief in the id and the ego. Upon a psychologist's claim of authority, laymen at once accorded it to him.
Most people regarded psychology as a science. Some called it a soft science, but those making such a distinction grew fewer by the year.
In the hard sciences—like physics and chemistry—a hypothesis was proposed to guide inquiry into a group of phenomena. Thereafter, if a large enough body of research by many scientists supported the propositions of that hypothesis, it might become a general theory. In time, if a theory proved universally effective in thousands of experiments, it might become a law.
Some psychologists strove to hold their field to this standard of proof. Ahriman pitied them. They operated under the illusion that their authority and their power were linked to the discovery of timeless truths, when in reality, truth was an annoying constraint on authority and power.
Psychology, in Ahriman’s view, was an appealing field because you needed only to compile a series of subjective observations, find the proper prism through which to view a set of statistics, and then you could leap over the hypothesis and the theory, declaring the discovery of a law of human behavior.
Science was tedium, work. To young Ahriman, psychology clearly was play, and people were the toys.
He always pretended to share his colleagues’ outrage when their work was denigrated as soft science, but in fact he thought of it as liquid science, even gaseous, which was the very quality that he cherished about it. The power of the scientist, who must work with hard facts, was limited by those facts; but within psychology was the power of superstition, which could shape the world more completely than electricity, antibiotics, and hydrogen bombs.
Having entered college at thirteen, he acquired his doctorate of psychology by his seventeenth birthday. Because a psychiatrist is even more widely admired and highly esteemed than a psychologist, and because the greater authority of the tide would facilitate the games that he wished to play, Ahriman added a medical degree and other necessary credentials to his résumé.
Considering that medical school requires so much real science, he thought that it would be tedious, but on the contrary, it proved to be great fun. After all, a good medical education involved much blood and viscera; he had numerous opportunities to witness suffering and grievous pain, and wherever suffering and pain flourished, there was no shortage of tears.
When he was a little boy, he was as filled with wonder at the sight of tears as other children were affected by rainbows, starry skies, and fireflies. Upon achieving puberty, he discovered that the mere sight of tears, more than hard-core pornography, enflamed his libido.
He himself had never cried.
Now fully dressed, the doctor stood at the foot of Susan’s bed and studied her tear-stained face. Desolate pools, her eyes. Her spirit floated in them, almost drowned. The objective of his game was to finish the drowning. Not this night. But soon.
“Tell mc your age,” he said.
“Twelve,” she replied in the voice of a schoolgirl.
“You will now come forward in time, Susan. You are thirteen... fourteen. . . fifteen. . . sixteen. Tell me your age.”
“You are now seventeen. . . eighteen. . .
He brought her all the way forward to the present, to the hour and minute on the bedside clock, and then he instructed her to get dressed.
Her nightclothes were scattered on the floor. She retrieved them with the slow, deliberate movements of anyone in a trance.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, as she drew the white cotton panties up her slender legs, Susan suddenly bent forward as though she’d taken a blow in the solar plexus, breath exploding from her. She inhaled with a shudder, and then spat in disgust and horror, saliva glistening like snail trails on her thighs, and spat again, as though she were desperate to rid herself of an intolerable taste. Spitting led to gagging, and between these wretched sounds were two words that she wrenched from herself at great cost—”Daddy, why, Daddy, why?”—because although she no longer believed that she was twelve years old, she remained convinced that her beloved father had brutally raped her.
To the doctor, this final unexpected spasm of grief and shame was lagniappe, a little dinner mint of suffering, a chocolate truffle after cognac. He stood before her, breathing deeply of the faint but astringent, briny fragrance arising from her cascade of tears.
When he placed a hand paternally upon her head, Susan flinched from his touch, and Daddy, why? deteriorated into a soft and wordless wail. This muffled ululation reminded him of the eerie puling of distant coyotes in a warm desert night even farther in the past than Minette Luckland impaled on the spear of Diana out there in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Just beyond the glow of Santa Fe, New Mexico, lies a horse ranch: a fine adobe house, stables, riding rings, fenced meadows mottled with sweet bunchgrass, all surrounded by chaparral in which rabbits tremble by the thousands and coyotes hunt at night in packs. One summer evening two decades before anyone has yet begun to ponder the approaching dawn of a new millennium, the rancher’s lovely wife, Fiona Pastore, answers the phone and listens to three lines of haiku, a poem by Buson. She knows the doctor socially—and also because her ten-year-old son, Dion, is his patient, whom he has been endeavoring to cure of a severe stutter On a score of occasions, Fiona has engaged in sex with the doctor, often of such depravity that she has suffered bouts of depression afterward, even though all memory of their trysts has been scrubbed from her mind. She poses no danger to the doctor, but he is finished with her physically and is ready now to proceed to the final phase of their relationship.
Remotely activated by haiku, Fiona receives her fatal instructions without protest, proceeds directly to her husband's study, and writes a brief but poignant suicide note accusing her innocent spouse of an imaginative list of atrocities. Note finished, she unlocks a gun cabinet in the same room and removes a six-shot .45 Colt built on a Seville frame, which is a lot of gun for a woman only five feet four, 110 pounds, but she can handle it. She is a girl of the Southwest, born and raised; she has shot at game and targets for more than half her thirty years. She loads the piece with 325-grain, .44 Keith bullets and proceeds to her son's bedroom.
Dion's window is open for ventilation, screened against desert insects, and when Fiona switches on a lamp, the doctor is afforded the equivalent of a fifty-yard-line view. Ordinarily, he is unable to be present during these episodes of ultimate control, because he does not wish to risk incriminating himself— although he has friends in places high enough to all but ensure his exoneration. This time, however, circumstances are idea/for his attendance, and he is unable to resist. The ranch, although not isolated, is reasonably remote. The ranch manager and his wife, both employees of the Pastores, are on vacation, visiting family in Pecos, Texas, during the lively annual cantaloupe festival, and the other three ranch hands do not live on site. Ahriman placed his call to Fiona from a car phone, only a quarter of a mile from the house, whereafter he traveled on foot to Dion's window, arriving only a minute before the woman entered the bedroom and clicked on the lamp.
The sleeping boy never wakes, which is a disappointment to the doctor, who almost speaks through the fine-mesh screen, like a priest assigning penance in a confessional, to instruct Fiona to rouse her son. He hesitates, and she does not, dispatching the dreaming child with two rounds. The husband, Bernardo, arrives at a run, shouting in alarm, and his wife squeezes off another pair of shots. He is lean and tan, one of those weather-beaten Westerners whose sun-cured skin and heat-tempered bones give them an air of imperviousness, but instead of bouncing off his hide, of course, the bullets punch him with terrible force. He staggers, slams into a tall chest of drawers, and hangs desperately on to it, his shattered jaw askew. Bernardo's lampblack eyes reveal that surprise has hit him harder than either of the .44 slugs. His stare grows wider when, through the window screen, he sees the visiting doctor Black under lampblack, a lightless eternity, in his startled eyes. A tooth or bit of bone falls from his crumbling jaw: He sags and follows that white morsel to the floor
Ahriman finds the show to be even more entertaining than he had anticipated, and if he has ever doubted the wisdom of his career choice, he knows that he will never do so again. Because certain hungers are not easily sated, he wants to amplify these thrills, crank up the volume, so to speak, by bringing Fiona at least part of the way out of her more-than-trance-not-quite-fugue state into a higher level of consciousness. Currently her personality is so firmly repressed that she is not emotionally aware of what she has done and has, therefore, no visible reaction to the carnage. If she could be released from control just enough to understand, to feel—then her agony would bring a singular storm of tears, a tide on which the doctor could sail to places he has never been before.
Ahriman hesitates, but for good reason. Released from bondage enough to realize the enormity of her crimes, the woman might behave unpredictably, might slip her fetters altogether and resist being bobbled again. He is sure that in the worst case, he will be able to reestablish control using vocal commands within a minute, but only seconds are required for her to turn toward the open window and fire one round point-blank. Potential injuries can be incurred in any game or playground sport: skinned knees, abraded knuckles, contusions, the occasional minor cut, now and then a perfectly good tooth knocked loose in a tumble. As far as the doctor is concerned, however, the mere possibility of taking a bullet in the face is enough to drain all the fun out of this frolic. He does not speak, leaving the woman to finish this Grand Guignol puppet show in a state of benightedness.
Standing over her dead family, Fiona Pastore calmly puts the barrel of the Colt in her mouth and, regrettably tearless, destroys herself She falls so softly, but the hard clatter of steel coldly resonates: The gun in her hand, snagged on her trigger finger, raps the pine bed rail.
With the toy broken and the thrill of its function no longer to be enjoyed, the doctor stands at the window for a while, studying the art of her form for the last time. This is not as pleasurable as it once was, what with the back of her head gone, but the exit wound is turned away from him, and the distortion of her facial bone structure is surprisingly slight.
The unearthly cries of coyotes have shivered the air since the doctor first arrived at the ranch house, but until now they have been hunting through the chaparral a couple miles to the east. A change of pitch, a new excitement in their puling, alerts the doctor to the fact that they are drawing nearer If the scent of blood travels well and quickly on the desert air, these prairie wolves may soon gather beneath the screened window to bay for the dead.
Throughout Indian folklore, the trickiest creature of all is named Coyote, and Ahriman sees no amusement value in matching wits with a pack of them, He walks quickly but does not run toward his Jaguar, which is parked a quarter mile to the north.
The night bouquet features the silicate scent of sand, the oily musk of mesquite, and a faint iron smell the source of which he can’t identify.
As the doctor reaches the car, the coyotes fall silent, having caught a whiff of some new spoor that makes them cautious, and no doubt the cause of their caution is Abriman himself In the sudden hush, a sound above makes him look up.
Rare albino bats, calligraphy on the sky, sealed by the full moon. High looping white wings, faint buzz of fleeing insects: The killing is quiet.
The doctor watches, rapt. The world is one great playing field, the sport is killing, and the sole objective is to stay in the game.
Carrying moonlight on their pale wings, the freak bats recede, vanishing into the night, and as Ahriman opens the car door, coyotes begin to wail again. They are close enough to include him in the chorus if he wished to raise his voice.
By the time he pulls shut the door and starts the engine, six coyotes— eight, ten—appear out of the brush and gather on the grave/ed lane in front of the car, their eyes fiery with reflections of the headlights. As Ahriman drives forward, loose stones crunching together under the tires, the pack divides and moves ahead along both shoulders of the narrow lane, as though they are the outrunners of a Praetorian guard, escorting the Jaguar A hundred yards later, when the car turns west, where the high city rises in the distance, the slouching beasts break away from it and continue toward the ranch house, still in the game, as is the doctor
As is the doctor.
Although Susan Jagger’s soft quaverous cries of grief and shame were a tonic, and though the memories of the Pastore family that her tortured voice had resurrected were refreshing, Dr. Ahriman was not a young man now, as he’d been in his New Mexico days, and he needed to get at least a few hours of sound sleep. The day ahead would require vigor and an especially clear mind, because Martine and Dustin Rhodes would become far bigger players in this complex game than they had been thus far. Consequently, he ordered Susan to overcome her emotions and finish getting dressed.
When she was in her panties and T-shirt once more, he said, “Get to your feet.”
“You are a vision, daughter. I wish I could’ve gotten you on video tonight instead of next time. Those sweet tears. Why, Daddy? Why? That was particularly poignant. I won’t ever forget that. You’ve given me another albino-bats moment.”
Her attention had shifted from him.
He followed her gaze to the ming tree in the bronze pot atop the Biedermeier pedestal.
“Horticulture,” he said approvingly, “is a therapeutic pastime for an agoraphobic. Ornamental plants allow you to remain in touch with the natural world beyond these walls. But when I’m talking to you, I expect your attention to remain on me.”
She looked at him again. She was no longer weeping. The last of her tears were drying on her face.
An oddness about her, subtle and indefinable, nagged at the doctor. The levelness of her stare. The way her lips were pressed together, mouth pinched at the corners. Here was a tension unrelated to her humiliation and shame.
“Spider mites,” he said.
He thought he saw worry crawling through her eyes.
“They’re hell on a ming tree, spider mites.”
Unmistakably, what spun across her face was a web of worry, but surely not about the health of her houseplants.
Sensing trouble, Ahriman made an effort to clear the postcoital haze from his mind and concentrate on Susan. “What are you worried about?”
“What am I worried about?” she asked.