His friends would not be able to prevent him from falling under suspicion, however, or be able to protect him from sensationalistic speculations in the media. He would become a celebrity of sorts. That was not acceptable. Fame would cramp his style.
When he accepted the bottle of Tsingtao from Susan, he thanked her, and she said, “You’re welcome.”
Regardless of the circumstances, the doctor believed that good manners should be observed. Civilization is the greatest game of all, a wonderfully elaborate communal tournament in which one must play well in order to have the license to pursue secret pleasures; mastering its rules—manners, etiquette—is essential to successful gamesmanship.
Politely, Susan followed him to the door, where he paused to communicate his final instructions for the night. “Assure me that you’re listening, Susan.”
“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.
“After I leave, you will close the kitchen door, engage all the locks, and wedge the chair under the knob, just as it was. You will return to bed, lie down, switch off the lamp, and close your eyes. Then, in your mind, you will leave the chapel where you are now. When you close the chapel door behind you, all recollection of what has happened from the moment you picked up the telephone and heard my voice until you wake in bed will have been erased—every sound, every image, every detail, every nuance will vanish from your memory, never to be recovered. Then, counting to ten, you will ascend the stairs, and when you reach ten, you will regain full consciousness. When you open your eyes, you will believe you have awakened from a refreshing sleep. If you understand all that I’ve said, please tell me so.”
“Good night, Susan.”
“Good night,” she said, opening the door for him.
He stepped out onto the landing and whispered, “Thank you.”
She softly closed the door.
Like an invading armada that meant to steal all memory of the world from those sleeping in their cozy homes, galleons of heavy fog sailed in from the sea, plundering all color first, then detail, depth, and shape.
From the other side of the door came the sound of the security chain sliding into the latch-plate slot.
The first dead bolt snapped shut, followed a moment later by the second.
Smiling, nodding with satisfaction, the doctor drank a little beer and stared at the steps in front of him, waiting. Glistening dewdrops, cold on the gray rubber treads: tears on a dead face.
The back rail of the maple chair rapped once against the other side of the door as Susan wedged it under the knob.
Now she would be padding barefoot back to bed.
Without need of the handrail, as nimble as a boy, Dr. Ahriman went down the steep stairs, turning up the collar of his coat as he descended.
The bricks on the front patio were wet and as dark as blood. As far as he could discern in the fog, the boardwalk beyond the patio appeared to be deserted.
The gate in the white picket fence squeaked. In this earthbound cloud bank, the sound was muffled, too slight even to prick the ears of a cat on guard for mice.
Departing, the doctor averted his face from the house. He had been equally discreet upon arrival.
No lights had shone at the windows earlier. None were visible now. The retirees renting the lower two floors were no doubt snug under their blankets, as oblivious as their parakeets dozing in covered cages.
Nevertheless, Ahriman took sensible precautions. He was the lord of memory, but not everyone was susceptible to his mind-clouding power.
Its voice muted by the dense mist, the lazy surf crumbling to shore was less a sound than a vibration, less heard than felt as a tingle in the chilly air.
Palm trees hung limp. Condensation dripped from the points of every blade of every frond, like clear venom from the tongues of serpents.
He paused to look up at the fog-veiled crowns of the palms, suddenly uneasy for reasons he could not identify. After a moment, puzzled, he took another swallow of beer and continued along the boardwalk.
His Mercedes was two blocks away. He encountered no one en route.
Parked under a huge, dripping Indian laurel, the black sedan plinked, tinked, and tatted like an out-of-tune xylophone.
In the car, as he was about to start the engine, Ahriman paused again, still uneasy, brought closer to the source of his uneasiness by the tuneless music of water droplets snapping steel. Finishing the beer, he stared out at the massive overhanging canopy of the laurel, as if revelation awaited him in the complex patterns of those branches.
When revelation didn’t come, he started the car and drove west on Balboa Boulevard, toward the head of the peninsula.
At three o’clock in the morning, traffic was light. He saw only three moving vehicles in the first two miles, their headlights ringed by fuzzy aureoles in the fog. One was a police car, heading down the peninsula, in no hurry.
Across the bridge to Pacific Coast Highway, glancing at the westernmost channel of the huge harbor to his right, where yachts loomed like ghost ships at docks and moorings in the mist, and then south along the coast, all the way into Corona Del Mar, he puzzled over the cause of his uneasiness, until he came to a stop at a red traffic light and found his attention drawn to a large California pepper tree, lacy and elegant, rising out of low cascades of red bougainvillea. He thought of the potted ming tree with the sprays of ivy at its base.
The ming tree. The ivy.
The traffic light changed to green.
So green, her eyes riveted on the ming tree.
The doctor’s mind raced, but he kept his foot hard on the brake pedal.
Only when the light turned yellow did he finally drive through the deserted intersection. He pulled to the curb in the next block, stopped, but didn’t switch off the engine.
An expert on the nature of memory, he now applied his knowledge to a meticulous search of his own recollections of events in Susan Jagger’s bedroom.
Waking in darkness, Susan Jagger thought she heard someone speak that number. Then she surprised herself by saying, “Ten.”
Tense, listening for movement, she wondered if she had spoken both numbers or whether her ten had been a reply.
A minute passed, another, with no sound but her low breathing, and then, when she held her breath, no sound at all. She was alone.
According to the glowing numbers on the digital clock, it was shortly after three in the morning. Apparently she had been asleep more than two hours.
Finally she sat up in bed and switched on the lamp.
The half-finished glass of wine. The book tumbled among the rumpled bedclothes. The blind-covered windows, the furniture—all as it should be. The ming tree.
She raised her hands to her face and smelled them. She sniffed her right forearm, as well, and then her left.
His scent. Unmistakable. Partly sweat, partly the lingering fragrance of his preferred soap. Perhaps he used a scented hand lotion, as well.
If she could trust her memory, this was not how Eric smelled. Yet she remained convinced that he, and no other, was her too-real incubus.
Even without the residual scent, she would have known that he had paid her a visit while she slept. A soreness here, a tenderness there. The faint ammonia odor of his semen.
When she threw back the covers and got out of bed, she felt his viscid essence continuing to seep from her, and she shuddered.
At the Biedermeier pedestal, she parted the concealing runners of ivy to reveal the camcorder under the ming tree. At most, the cassette could contain a few remaining feet of unused tape, but the camera was still recording.
She switched it off and extracted it from the pot.
Her curiosity and eagerness for justice were suddenly outweighed by her disgust. She put the camcorder on the nightstand and hurried into the bathroom.
Often, upon awakening to the discovery that she had been used, Susan’s disgust settled into nausea, and she purged herself, as if by emptying her stomach she could turn back the clock to just prior to dinner and, therefore, to a time hours before she had been violated. Now, however, the nausea passed when she reached the bathroom.
She wanted to take a long and extremely hot shower with lots of fragrant soap and shampoo, scrubbing herself vigorously with a loofah sponge. She was tempted, in fact, to shower first and watch the video later, because she felt dirtier than ever before, intolerably filthy, as though she were smeared with a vile grime she couldn’t see, acrawl with hordes of microscopic parasites.
The videotape first. The truth. Then the cleansing.
Although she was able to delay her shower, repulsion drove her to strip out of her clothes and wash her privates. She scrubbed her face, too, and then her hands, and she gargled with a mint-flavored mouthwash.
She tossed the T-shirt into the clothes hamper. The panties, with his odious ooze, she placed atop the closed lid of the hamper, because she didn’t intend to launder them.
If she had captured the intruder on videotape, she probably had all the evidence she needed to file rape charges. Preserving a se**n sample for DNA testing was nonetheless wise.
Her condition and demeanor on the tape would no doubt convince the authorities that she had been drugged—not a willing participant, but a victim. Yet when she called the police, she would ask them to take a blood sample from her as soon as possible, while traces of the drug remained in her system.
Once she knew the camcorder had worked, that the image was good, and that she had irrefutable proof against Eric, she would be tempted to phone him before ringing the cops. Not to accuse him. To ask why. Why this viciousness? Why this secretive scheming? Why would he jeopardize her life and sanity with some devil’s brew of narcotics? Why such hatred?
She wouldn’t make that call, however, because alerting him might be dangerous. It was forbidden.
Forbidden. What an odd thought.
She realized that she had used the same word with Martie. Maybe it was the right word, because what Eric had done to her was worse than abuse, seemed to be beyond mere unlawful behavior, felt almost like an act of sacrilege. Marriage vows are sacred, after all, or ought to be; therefore, these assaults were arguably profane, forbidden.
In the bedroom again, she dressed in a clean T-shirt and fresh panties. The thought of being na*ed while watching the hateful video was intolerable.
She sat on the edge of the bed and picked up the camera from the nightstand. She rewound the cassette.
The preview window on the camcorder provided a three-inch-square image. She saw herself returning to the bed after starting the tape, which she’d done a few minutes past midnight.
The single bedside lamp provided adequate—though not ideal— light for videotaping. Consequently, the clarity of the image on the small preview window was not good.
She ejected the cassette from the camcorder, put it in the VCR, and turned on the television. Holding the remote control in both hands, she sat on the foot of the bed and watched with fascination and apprehension.
She saw herself as she had been at midnight, returning to the bed after resetting the tape in the camcorder, saw herself get into bed and switch off the TV.
For a moment, she sits in bed, listening intently to the silent apartment. Then as she reaches for the book, the telephone rings.
Susan frowned. She had no recollection of having received a phone call.
She picks up the handset. “Hello?”
At best the videotape could provide her with only one side of the telephone conversation. Her distance from the camcorder ensured that some of her words were fuzzy, but what she heard made even less sense than she had expected.
Hurrying, she hangs up the phone, gets out of bed, and leaves the room.
From the moment she had taken the call, there had been subtle changes in her face and body language that she perceived but could not easily define. Subtle as those changes were, however, as she watched herself leaving this bedroom, she seemed to be watching a stranger.
She waited half a minute, and then fast-forwarded through the tape until she saw movement.
Shadowy forms in the hallway beyond the open bedroom door Then she herself returning. Behind her, a man moves out of the dark hail, across the threshold. Dr. Ahriman.
Astonishment left Susan breathless. Stiller than stone, colder, too, she was suddenly deaf to the audio portion of the tape, deaf to her own heartbeat, as well. She sat like a marble maiden sculpted for the focal point of a boxwood-hedge parterre in a formal garden, and here misplaced.
After a moment, astonishment spawned disbelief, and she inhaled sharply. She pressed the pause button on the remote control.
In the frozen image, she sat on the edge of the bed, rather as she was sitting now. Ahriman stood over her.
She pressed rewind, reversing herself and the doctor out of the room. Then she touched play and watched the shadows in the hallway resolve into people once more, half convinced that this time Eric would follow her across the threshold. Because Dr. Ahriman—his being here was impossible. He was ethical. Widely admired. So professional. Compassionate. Concerned. Simply impossible: here, like this. She would have been no more disbelieving if she had seen her own father on the tape, and less shocked if what followed her into the room had been a demonic incubus with horns sprouting from its forehead, eyes as yellow and radiant as those of a cat. Tall, self-assured, and hornless, here came Ahriman once more, puncturing disbelief.
Handsome as ever handsome in an actorly way, the doctor’s face was the stage for an expression she had never before seen on it. Not entirely raw lust, as might have been expected, although lust was a component. Not a mask of madness, though his chiseled features were ever so slightly misaligned, as if they were being distorted by some inner pressure that had only just begun to build. Studying his face, Susan at last recognized the attitude: smugness.
This wasn’t the prim-mouth, pinched-eye, cocked-head smugness of a moralizing preacher or of a temperance-sotted prude announcing his disdain for all those who drank, who smoked, and who ate a high-cholesterol diet. Here, instead, was the smirking superiority of an adolescent. Once he passed through the bedroom doorway, Ahriman had the lazy posture, the loose-limbed movements, and the cockiness of a schoolboy who believed that all adults were morons—and a shiny, hot-eyed stare of squirmy pubescent need.
This criminal and the psychiatrist whose office she attended twice each week were physically identical. The difference between them was entirely one of attitude. And yet the difference was so alarming that her heart rapped hard and fast.
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