Her disbelief gave way to anger and to a sense of betrayal so intense that she spat out a series of expletives, in a bitter voice unlike her own, as if she suffered from Tourette’s syndrome.
On the tape, the doctor moved out of frame to the armchair.
He orders her to crawl to him, and crawl she does.
Watching this record of her humiliation was almost more than Susan could bear, but she did not press stop, because watching fed her anger, and that was good right now. Anger gave her strength, empowered her after sixteen months of feeling powerless.
She fast-forwarded until she and the doctor returned to the frame. They were na*ed now.
Grim-faced, using the fast-forward button several times, she watched a series of depravities interspersed with periods of ordinary sex that seemed, by comparison, as innocent as teenagers necking.
How he could effect this control of her, how he could erase such shocking events from her mind—these mysteries seemed as deep as the origins of the universe and the meaning of life. She was overcome by a feeling of unreality, as though nothing in the world was what it appeared to be, all of it just an elaborate stage setting and the people merely players.
This trash on the TV was real, however, as real as the stains in the underwear that she had left on the hamper lid in the bathroom.
Leaving the tape running, she turned away from the television and went to the phone. She keyed in two digits—9, 1—but not the second 1.
If she called the police, she would have to open the door to let them into the apartment. They might want her to go with them somewhere, to make a full statement, or to a hospital emergency room to be examined for indications of rape that later would be useful evidence in court.
Although strong with anger, she was not nearly strong enough to overcome her agoraphobia. The mere thought of going outside was enough to bring the familiar panic back into her heart.
She would do what was necessary, go where they wanted, as often as they wanted. She would do anything she was required to do if it would put the sick son of a bitch Ahriman behind bars for a long, long time.
The prospect of going outside with strangers, however, was too distressing to contemplate, even if those strangers were policemen. She needed the support of a friend, someone she trusted with her life, because going outside felt as close to death as anything but dying itself.
She called Martie and got the answering machine. She knew their phone didn’t ring through to their bedroom at night, but one of them might be awakened by the ringing down the hall, might go to Martie’s office out of curiosity, to see who was phoning at this ungodly hour.
After the beep, Susan said, “Martie, it’s me. Martie, are you there?” She paused. “Listen, if you’re there, for God’s sake, pickup.” Nothing. “It isn’t Eric, Martie. It’s Ahriman. It’s Ahriman. I’ve got the bastard on videotape. The bastard—after the good deal he got on his house. Martie, please, please, call me. I need help.”
Suddenly sick to her stomach again, she hung up.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Susan clenched her teeth and put one cold hand on the nape of her neck, the other on her abdomen. The spasm of nausea passed.
She glanced at the television—and looked at once away.
Staring at the phone, willing it to ring, she said, “Martie, please. Call me. Now, now.”
The half glass of wine had been sitting untouched for hours. She drained it.
She pulled open the top drawer in her nightstand and withdrew the pistol that she kept for protection.
As far as she knew, Ahriman never visited her twice in one night. As far as she knew.
She suddenly realized the absurdity of something she had said to Martie’s answering machine: The bastard—after the good deal he got on his house. She had sold Mark Ahriman his current residence eighteen months ago, two months before the onset of her agoraphobia. She represented the seller, and the doctor walked in during an open house, and he asked her to represent him as well. She’d done a damn good job looking after the interests of buyer and seller, but it was admittedly a stretch to expect that if her client was a seriously demented sociopathic rapist, he would cut her a little slack because she had been an ethical Realtor.
She started to laugh, choked on the laugh, sought refuge in the wine, realized none was left, and put down the empty glass in favor of the handgun. “Martie, please. Call, call.”
The telephone rang.
She set the gun aside and snatched up the phone.
“Yeah,” she said.
Before she could say more, a man said, “Ben Marco.”
Having rebuilt the dream in his memory, Dusty walked through it as though touring a museum, leisurely contemplating each Gothic image. Heron at the window, heron in the room. Silent strikes of lambent lightning in a thunderless, rainless storm. Brass tree with glucose fruit. Martie meditating.
Studying the nightmare, Dusty was increasingly convinced that a monstrous truth was concealed in it, like a scorpion waiting in the smallest container in a stack of Chinese boxes. This particular stack contained a lot of boxes, however, many of them tricky to open, and the truth remained hidden, poised to sting.
Eventually, frustrated, he got out of bed and went to the bathroom. Martie was sleeping so soundly, was cuffed and hobbled so securely by Dusty’s neckties, that she was unlikely either to wake up or to leave the room while he was away from her side.
A few minutes later, as he was washing his hands at the bathroom sink, Dusty was visited by a revelation. It was not a sudden insight into the meaning of the dream, but an answer to a question over which he’d been puzzling earlier, before Martie had awakened and demanded to be tied hand and foot.
Clear cascades. Into the waves scatter Blue pine needles.
The pine needles were missions, Skeet had said.
Trying to make sense of this, Dusty had made a mental list of synonyms for mission, but nothing he’d come up with had furthered his understanding. Task. Work. Chore. Job. Calling. Vocation. Career Church.
Now, as he held his hands under the hot water, rinsing the soap from them, another series of words poured into his mind. Errand. Charge. Assignment. Instructions.
Dusty stood at this sink almost as Skeet had stood with his hands under the near-scalding water in the bathroom at New Life, brooding about the word instructions.
The fine hairs on the back of his neck suddenly felt as stiff as tightly stretched piano wires, and a reverberant chill like a silent glissando shivered down the keys of his spine.
The name Dr. Yen Lo, when spoken to Skeet, had elicited a formal reply: I’m listening. Thereafter, he’d answered questions only with questions.
Skeet, do you know where you are?
Where am I?
So you don’t know?
Can’t you look around?
Is this an Abbott and Costello routine?
Skeet had answered questions only with questions of his own, as if seeking to be told what he should think or do, but he had responded to statements as though they were commands, and to actual commands as though they came directly from the lips of God. When, in frustration, Dusty had said, Ab, give me a break and go to sleep, his brother had fallen instantly unconscious.
Skeet had referred to the haiku as “the rules,” and Dusty later had thought of the poem as a mechanism of some kind, a simple device with a powerful effect, the verbal equivalent of a nail gun, though he had not been quite sure what he meant by that.
Now, as he continued to explore the ramifications of the word instructions, he realized that the haiku might better be defined not as a mechanism, not as a device, but as a computer operating system, the software that allows the instructions to be received, understood, and followed.
And what the hell was the logical deduction to be drawn from the haiku-as-software hypothesis? That Skeet was. . . programmed?
As Dusty shut off the water, he thought he heard the faint ringing of a phone.
Dripping hands raised as though he were a surgeon fresh from a scrub sink, he stepped out of the bathroom, into the bedroom, and listened. The house was silent.
If a call had come in, it would have been picked up after the second ring by the answering machine in Martie’s office.
Most likely, he had imagined the ringing. No one ever called them at this hour. Nevertheless, he ought to check it out before he returned to bed.
In the bathroom once more, drying his hands on a towel, he turned the word programmed over and over in his mind, considering all the ramifications of it.
Staring into the mirror, Dusty saw not his reflection but a replay of the strange events in Skeet’s room at New Life Clinic.
Then his memory wound time backward to the previous morning, to the roof of the Sorensons’ house.
Skeet claimed to have seen the Other Side. An angel of death had shown him what waited beyond this world, and the kid had liked what he’d seen. Then the angel had instructed him to jump. Skeet’s very word: Instructed.
That icy glissando again, along Dusty’s spine. Another of the Chinese boxes had been opened, though yet another box lay inside it. Each box smaller than the last. Perhaps not many layers of the puzzle were left to be resolved. He could almost hear the scorpion scuttle: the sound of a nasty truth waiting to sting when the last lid was lifted.
The soft shush of surf, conspiratorial fog cover his return.
Dew on the gray steps. Snail on the second wet tread. Crushed hard underfoot.
Ascending, the doctor whispered into his cell phone: “The winter storm—”
Susan Jagger said, “The storm is you.”
“—hid in the bamboo grove—”
“The grove is me.”
“—and quieted away.”
“In the quiet, I will learn what is wanted.”
Arriving at the landing outside her door, he said, “Let me in.”
“Quickly,” he said, and then terminated the call and pocketed the phone.
He glanced worriedly toward the deserted boardwalk.
Hanging in the fog, cascades of dead-still palm fronds, like cold dark fireworks.
With a rattle and scrape, the bracing chair was removed from under the doorknob in the kitchen. The first dead bolt. The second. The clatter of the security chain being disengaged.
When Susan greeted him demurely, without a word but with an obedient half bow, as though she were a geisha, Ahriman stepped inside. He waited while she closed the door again and engaged one of the locks, and then he instructed her to lead him to her bedroom.
Across the kitchen, through the dining room and living room, along the short hall to the bedroom, he said, “I think you’ve been a bad girl, Susan. I don’t know how you could scheme against me, why it would even occur to you to do such a thing, but I’m pretty sure that’s what you’ve done.”
Earlier, every time she had looked away from him, she had turned her eyes toward the potted ming tree. And each time, before her gaze was drawn to that bit of greenery, Ahriman had first made reference either to the videotape he’d shot of her or to the tape he intended to shoot on his next visit. When she appeared to be tense and racked by worry, he directed her to reveal the source of her anxiety, and when she said simply, The video, he made the obvious assumption. Obvious and perhaps wrong. His suspicion had been aroused, almost too late, by the fact that she always looked toward the ming tree: not at the floor, as might be expected when bowed by shame, and not at the bed where so much of her humiliation had occurred, but always at the ming tree.
Now, following her into the bedroom, he said, “I want to see what’s in that pot, under the ivy.”
Dutifully, she led him toward the Biedermeier pedestal, but the doctor stopped short when he saw what was playing on the TV.
“I’ll be damned,” he said.
He would have been damned, in fact, if he had not recognized the cause of his suspicion, if he had finally driven home and gone to bed without returning here.
“Come to me,” he said.
As Susan approached, the doctor made fists of his hands. He wanted to punch her pretty face.
Girls. They were all alike.
As a boy, he’d seen no use for them, had wanted nothing to do with them. Girls had made him sick with all their coy manipulations. The best thing about them was that he could make them cry without much effort—all those beautiful, salty tears—but then they always ran to their mothers or fathers to tattle. He was good at defending himself against their hysterical accusations; adults tended to find him charming and convincing. He had soon realized, however, that he
must learn discretion and not let his thirst for tears control him the way that a taste for coc**ne controlled more than a few people in the Hollywood crowd with which his father worked.
Eventually, victimized by his hormones, he discovered that he needed girls for more than their tears. He learned, too, how easily a handsome lad like him could play games that put girls’ hearts in his hands, allowing him to wring more tears from them through calculated romance and betrayal than, as a younger boy, he had ever gotten from them by pinching, poking, boxing ears, and pushing them into mud puddles.
Decades of torturing them emotionally had not, however, made them any more appealing to him than they had been when he was just a preschooler dropping caterpillars down their blouses. Girls still annoyed more than charmed him, left him feeling vaguely ill after he had indulged with them, and the fact that he was also fascinated by them only made him resent them more. Worse, sex was never enough for them; they wanted you to father their children. The marrow crawled in his bones at the thought of being anyone’s father. He had once nearly fallen into that trap, but fate had favored his escape. You couldn’t trust children. They were inside your defenses, and when you least expected it, they could kill you and steal your wealth. The doctor knew all about such treachery. And if you fathered a daughter, the mother and child would surely conspire against you at every turn. In the doctor’s view, all other men belonged to a breed different from—and far inferior to—his own, but girls were another species entirely, not merely another breed; girls were alien and ultimately unknowable.
When Susan stopped before him, the doctor raised one fist.
She appeared free of fear. Her personality was now so deeply repressed that she was unable to exhibit emotion until instructed to do so.
“I should beat your face in.”
Although he heard the boyish petulance in his voice, he wasn’t embarrassed by it. The doctor was sufficiently self-aware to realize that during these games of control, he was undergoing personality regression, descending the ladder of years. This descent was not mortifying or troubling in the least; indeed, it was essential if he were to enjoy the moment in its fullness. As an adult of broad experience, he was jaded; but as a boy, he still had a delightfully raw sense of wonder, was still thrilled by every nuance of the imaginative abuse of power.