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He rephrased the question as a command: “Tell me what you’re worried about.”


When she hesitated, he repeated the command, and she said, “The video.”


35


Valet’s hackles smoothed. He stopped growling. He became his familiar, tail-wagging, affectionate self, insisted upon a cuddle, and then returned to his bed, where he dozed off as though he had never been bothered.


Bound hand and foot at her insistence, even more profoundly subdued by three sleeping pills, Martie was unnervingly still and silent. A few times, Dusty raised his head from the pillow and leaned close to her, worried until he heard her faint respiration.


Although he expected to lie awake all night, and therefore left his nightstand lamp aglow, eventually he slept.


A dream stirred his sleep, blending dread and absurdity into a strange narrative that was disturbing yet nonsensical.


He is lying in bed, atop the covers, fully dressed except for his shoes. Valet is not present. Across the room, Martie sits in the lotus position on the dog's big sheepskin pillow, utterly still, eyes closed, fingers laced in her lap, as though lost in meditation.


He and Martie are alone in the room, and yet he is talking to someone else. He can feel his lips and tongue moving, and although he can hear his own voice reverberating—deep, hollow, fuzzy—in the bones of his skull, he cannot quite make out a single word of what he is saying. The pauses in his speech indicate that be is engaged in a conversation, not a monologue, but he can hear no other voice, not a murmur, not a whisper


Beyond the window, the night is slashed by lightning, but no thunder protests the wound, and no rain drizzles on the roof The only sound arises when a large bird flies past the window, so close that one of its wings brushes the glass, and it squawks. Although the creature appears and vanishes in an instant, Dusty somehow knows that it is a heron, and the cry it makes seems to travel in a circle through the night, fading and then growing louder, again faint but then near once more.


He becomes aware of an intravenous needle in his left arm. A plastic tube loops from the needle to a clear plastic bag, which is plump with glucose and dangling from a pharmacy-style floor lamp that serves as a makeshift IV rack.


Again the storm flashes and the huge heron passes the window in the pulsing glare, its shriek traveling into the darkness behind the lightning.


The right sleeve of Dusty’s shirt is rolled higher than the left, because his blood pressure is being taken; the pressure cuff of a sphygmomanometer wraps his upper arm. Black rubber tubing extends from the cuff to the inflation bulb, which floats in midair like an object in zero gravity. Strangely, as if in the grip of an unseen hand, the bulb is being rhythmically compressed and released, while the pressure cuff tightens on his arm. If a third person is in the room, this nameless visitor must have mastered the magic of invisibility.


When lightning flares again, it is born and comes to ground in the bedroom, not in the night beyond the window. Many-legged, nimble, slowed from the speed of light to the speed of a cat, the bolt hisses out of the ceiling as it usually sizzles from a cloud, springs to a metal picture frame, from there to the television, and finally to the floor lamp that serves as an IV rack, spitting sparks as it gnashes its bright teeth against the brass.


Immediately behind the leaping lightning swoops the big heron, having entered the bedroom through a dosed window or a solid wall, its swordlike bill cracking wide as it shrieks. It's huge, at least three feet, head to foot: prehistoric-looking, with its pterodactyl glare. Shadows of wings wash the walls, fluttering feathery forms in the flickering light.


Leading its shadow, the bird darts toward Dusty, and he knows it will stand upon his chest and pluck out his eyes. His arms feel as if they are strapped to the bed, although the right is restrained only by the pressure cuff and the left is weighed down by nothing but the bracing board that prevents him from bending his elbow while the needle is in the vein. Nevertheless, be lies immobile, defenseless, as the bird shrieks toward him.


When lightning arcs from television to floor lamp, the dear-plastic glucose bag glows like the gauzy sac in a pressurized gas lantern, and a hot rain of brassy sparks—which ought to set the bedclothes afire but does not—showers upon Dusty. The shadow of the descending heron shatters into as many black fragments as there are sparks, and when the clouds of bright and dark mites swarm dazzlingly together, Dusty closes his eyes in terror and confusion.


He is assured, perhaps by the invisible visitor, that he need not be afraid, hut when he opens his eyes, he sees a fearsome thing hanging over him. The bird has been impossibly condensed, crushed—twisted—squeezed, until it now fits inside the bulging glucose bag. In spite of this compression, the heron remains recognizable—though it resembles a bird painted by some half-baked Picasso wanna-be with a taste for the macabre. Worse, it is somehow still alive and shrieking, a/though its shrill cries are muted by the clear walls of its plastic prison. It tries to squirm inside the bag, tries to break free with sharp beak and talons, cannot, and rolls one bleak black eye, glaring down at Dusty with demonic intensity.


He feels trapped, too, lying here helpless under the pendant bird: he with the weakness of one crucified, it with the dark energy of an ornament fashioned for a Satanist's mock Christmas tree. Then the heron dissolves into a bloody brown slush, and the clear fluid in the intravenous line begins to cloud as the substance of the bird seeps out of the bag and downward, downward. Watching this filthy murk contaminate the tube inch by inch, Dusty screams, but he makes no sound. Paralyzed, drawing great draughts of air but as silently as one struggling to breathe in a vacuum, he tries to lift his right hand and tear out the IV, tries to cast himself’ off the bed, cannot, and he rolls his eyes, straining to see the last inch of the tube as the toxin reaches the needle.


A terrible flash of inner heat, as though lightning arcs through his veins and arteries, is followed by a shriek when the bird enters his blood. He feels it surging up his median basilic vein, through biceps and into torso, and almost at once an intolerable fluttering arises within his heart, the busy twitching-pecking-fluffing of something making a nest.


Still in the lotus position on Valet’s sheepskin pillow, Martie opens her eyes. They are not blue, as before, but as black as her hair No whites at all:


Each socket is filled with a single, smooth, wet, convex blackness. Avian eyes are generally round, and these are almond-shaped like those of a human being, but they are the eyes of the heron nonetheless.


“Welcome,” she says.


Dusty snapped awake, so clearheaded the instant he opened his eyes that he didn’t cry out or sit up in bed to orient himself. He lay very still, on his back, staring at the ceiling.


His nightstand lamp was aglow, as he had left it. The floor lamp was beside the reading chair, where it belonged; it had not been pressed into service as an IV stand.


His heart didn’t flutter. It pounded. As far as he could tell, his heart was still his private domain, where nothing roosted except his own hopes, anxieties, loves, and prejudices.


Valet snored softly.


Beside Dusty, Martie enjoyed the deep slumber of a good woman—albeit goodness was in this case assisted by three doses of sleep-inducing antihistamines.


While the dream remained fresh, he walked around it in his mind, considering it from a variety of perspectives. He tried to apply the lesson he had long ago learned from the pencil drawing of a forest primeval that morphed into an image of a Gothic metropolis when it was approached without preconceptions.


Ordinarily, he didn’t analyze his dreams.


Freud, however, had been convinced that fishy expressions of the subconscious could be seined from dreams to provide a banquet for a psychoanalyst. Dr. Derek Lampton, Dusty’s stepfather, fourth of Claudette’s four husbands, also cast his lines into that same sea and regularly reeled in strange, squishy hypotheses that he force-fed to his patients without regard for the possibility that they might be poisonous.


Because Freud and Lizard Lampton had faith in dreams, Dusty had never taken them seriously. Now he was loath to admit there might be meaning in this one, and yet he sensed a morsel of truth in it. Finding one scrap of clean fact in that heap of trash, however, was going to be a Herculean task.


if his exceptional eidetic and audile memory preserved all the details of dreams as well as it stored away real experiences, then at least he could be sure that if he sorted through the refuse of this nightmare carefully enough, he would eventually find any shiny truth that might await discovery like a piece of heirloom silverware accidentally thrown out with the dinner garbage.


36


“The video,” Susan repeated, in response to Ahriman’s inquiry, and once more she looked away from him, toward the ming tree.


Surprised, the doctor smiled. “You’re still such a modest girl, considering the things you’ve done. Relax, dear. I’ve made only one tape of you—a ninety-minute astonishment, I will admit—and there’ll be just one more, next time we meet. Nobody but me gets to see my little home movies. They will never be broadcast on CNN or NBC, I assure you. Although the Nielson ratings would be through the roof, don’t you think?”


Susan continued to stare at the potted ming tree, but now the doctor understood why she was able to look away from him even though he had commanded her to stand eye-to-eye. Shame was a powerful force, from which she drew the strength for this one small rebellion. We all commit acts that shame us, and with varying degrees of difficulty, we reach accommodation with ourselves, forming pearls of guilt around each offending bit of moral grit. Guilt, unlike shame, can be nearly as soothing as virtue, because the jagged edges of the thing that it encapsulates can no longer be felt, and the guilt itself becomes the object of our interest. Susan could have made a necklace from all the moments of shame to which Ahriman had subjected her but because she was aware of the videotape record, she was not able to form her little pearls of guilt and thus smooth the shame away.


The doctor commanded her to look at him, and after a hesitation, she once more shifted her attention from the ming tree to his eyes.


He instructed her to descend the steps of her subconscious, until she returned to the mind chapel, from which he had previously allowed her to ascend a short distance in order to enhance their play session.


When she was once more in that deep redoubt, her eyes jiggled briefly. Her personality had been filtered from her and set aside, as a chef would strain the solids out of beef broth to make bouillon, and now her mind was a pellucid liquid, waiting to be flavored according to Ahriman’s recipe.


He said, “You will forget your father was here tonight. Memories of his face where you should have seen mine, memories of his voice when you should have heard mine, are now dust, and less than dust, all blown away. I am your doctor, not your father. Tell me who I am, Susan.”


Her whispery voice seemed to echo from a subterranean room:


“Dr. Ahriman.”


“As always, of course, you will have absolutely no accessible memory of what happened between us, absolutely no accessible memory of my presence here tonight.”


In spite of his best efforts, somewhere memory survived, perhaps in an unknowable realm below the subconscious. Otherwise, she would not suffer shame at all, because no recollection of these depravities or those of other nights would remain. Her lingering shame was, in the doctor’s view, proof of a sub-subconscious—a level even beneath the id—where experience left an indelible mark. This deepest of all memory was, Ahriman believed, virtually inaccessible and of no danger to him; he needed only to wipe clean the slates of her conscious and subconscious to be safe.


Some would have wondered if this sub-subconscious might be the soul. The doctor was not one of them.


“If nevertheless you have any reason to feel that you have been sexually assaulted, any soreness or other clue, you will suspect no one other than your estranged husband, Eric. Tell me now whether or not you fully understand what I’ve just said.”


A spasm of REM accompanied her reply, as if the specified memories were being shaken out of her through her oscillating eyes: “I understand.”


“But you are strictly forbidden from confronting Eric with your suspicions."


“Forbidden. I understand.”


“Good.”


Ahriman yawned. Regardless of how much fun a play session had been, it was ultimately diminished by the need to clean up at the end, to put away the toys and straighten the room. Although he understood why neatness and order were absolute necessities, he begrudged the time spent on this put-away period as much now as he had when he was a boy.


“Please lead me to the kitchen,” he requested, yawning around his words.


Still graceful in spite of the crude use to which she had been put, Susan moved through the dark apartment with the fluid suppleness of a pale koi swimming in a midnight pond.


In the kitchen, as thirsty as any player would be after a long and demanding game, Ahriman said, “Tell me what beer you have?”


“Tsingtao.”


“Open one for me.”


She got a bottle from the refrigerator, fumbled in a drawer in the dark until she found an opener, and popped the cap off the beer.


While in this apartment, the doctor took care to touch as seldom as possible those surfaces on which fingerprints could be left.


He hadn’t yet decided if eventually Susan would self-destruct when he was finished with her. If he concluded that suicide would be sufficiently entertaining, then her long and depressing struggle to overcome agoraphobia would provide a convincing motive, and her handwritten farewell note would close the case without a rigorous investigation. More likely, she would be used in the bigger game with Martie and Dusty, culminating in mass murder in Malibu.


Other options included arranging to have Susan murdered by her estranged husband or even by her best friend. If Eric snuffed her, a homicide investigation would ensue—even if he phoned the cops from the scene, confessed, blew his own brains out, and fell dead beside his wife, with all the forensic evidence supporting the conclusion that an ugly domestic altercation was to blame. Then the Scientific Investigation Division would move in, with their pocket protectors and bad haircuts, seeking fingerprints with powders, iodines, silver nitrate solutions, ninhydrin solutions, cyanoacrylate fumes, even with methanol solution of rhodamine 6G and an argo ion laser. If Ahriman had inadvertently left a single print where these tedious but meticulous scientific types thought to look for it, his life would be changed, and not for the better.


His well-placed friends could ensure that he was not easily brought to trial. Evidence would disappear or be altered. Police detectives and prosecutors in the district attorney’s office would repeatedly screw up, and those obstructionists who tried to conduct a credible investigation would have their lives complicated and even ruined by all manner of troubles and tragedies that would appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with Dr. Ahriman.

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