Page 32


“I should just beat your stupid face so hard you’ll be ugly forever.”


Deep under his spell, Susan remained serene. A spasm of REM seized her for a few seconds, but it was unrelated to his threat.


Discretion and restraint were now essential. Ahriman dared not strike her. Her death, if properly staged, was unlikely to generate a homicide investigation. Bruised and battered, however, she would not be a credible suicide.


“I don’t like you anymore, Susie. I don’t like you at all.”


She was silent, because she hadn’t been instructed to reply.


“I assume that you haven’t yet called the police. Tell me if that’s correct.”


“That’s correct.”


“Have you spoken to anyone about that videotape on the TV?”


“Have I?”


Cautioning himself that her response was not defiant, that this was only how she was programmed to reply to questions when she was far down in the mind chapel, the doctor lowered his fist and slowly unclenched it. “Tell me, yes or no, if you have spoken to anyone about that videotape on the TV”


Relieved, he took her by the arm and led her to the bed. “Sit down, girl.”


She sat on the edge of the bed, knees pressed together, hands folded in her lap.


For a few minutes the doctor quizzed her, phrasing his questions as statements and commands, until he understood why she had set the trap with the camcorder. She had been after evidence against Eric, not against her psychiatrist.


Although her memory was erased after each of their assignations, Susan was certain to suspect that she had been sexually used, and if the doctor did not choose to sponge up and take with him every drop of sweat and passion that he produced, Susan was also certain to find evidence to support her suspicion. Ahriman chose not to be obsessive about postcoital cleanup, because that would diminish the thrill of power and compromise the pleasing illusion that his awesome control was absolute. There would be little fun in either a food fight or bloody murder if, afterward, one were required to wash the walls and mop the floor.


He was an adventurer, after all, not a housekeeper.


He had numerous techniques with which to mitigate or misdirect Susan’s suspicion. For one thing, he could have suggested to her that upon waking she would simply ignore all signs of physical abuse, be unaware of even the most obvious evidence of intercourse.


In a more playful mood, the doctor could have implanted in her the conviction that she was being visited by a yellow-eyed spawn of the brimstone pit determined to breed with her and bring forth the Antichrist. By seeding dreamlike memories of an evil night-lover with a coarse leathery body, sulfurous breath, and a forked black tongue, he literally could have made her life a living Hell.


Ahriman had played that tune with others, strumming the harp of superstition, inducing severe cases of demonophobia—the fear of demons and devils—that had shattered his patients’ lives. He had found such sport highly entertaining, but only for a while. This phobia could be more poisonous than others, often advancing swiftly to a complete mental decline and outright insanity. In the long run, therefore, Ahriman found it to be less than fully satisfying, because the tears of the mad, who were detached from their suffering, were not as invigorating as the tears of the sane, who still believed that they had a hope of recovery.


From his many other options, the doctor had chosen to direct Susan’s suspicion toward her estranged husband. This current game, for which he’d mentally composed a particularly bloody and intricate scenario, was meant to end in a storm of violence that would make nationwide news. The precise details of the final inning were constantly being revised in the doctor’s mind, although Eric might be either a significant perpetrator or a victim.


By encouraging Susan to focus her suspicion on Eric and then forbidding her to confront him, Ahriman had crafted a clockspring of psychological tension. Week by week, the spring wound tighter, until Susan could barely contain the tremendous emotional energy coiled in it. Consequently, desperate to relieve that tension, she had sought proof of her estranged husband’s guilt, sufficient evidence to make it possible for her to go directly to the police and avoid the forbidden confrontation with Eric himself.


Ordinarily, this situation would not have arisen, because the doctor never toyed with anyone as long as he had played with Susan Jagger. He had begun to drug and condition her a year and a half ago, for God’s sake, and she had been his patient for sixteen months. Usually he grew bored in six months, sometimes in as few as two or three. Then either he cured the patient, stripping away the phobia or the obsession that he’d implanted in the first place, thereby adding to his singular reputation as a therapist—or he devised a death colorful enough to be satisfying to a gamesman of his experience. Bewitched by Susan’s exceptional beauty, he had dallied far too long, allowing her stress to build, until she was driven to this act of entrapment.


Girls. They were always trouble, sooner or later.


Rising from the edge of the bed, Ahriman ordered Susan to stand, as well, and she obeyed.


“You’ve really messed up my game,” he said, impatient with her now. “I’ll have to figure out a whole new ending.”


He could question her to discover when the camcorder scheme had first occurred to her, and could then follow through from that moment to the present, excising all related memories; in the end, however, she might be aware of odd gaps in her day. He could relatively easily erase a whole block of time from a subject’s memory and then fill the gap with false recollections that, though painted with a broad brush, were convincing in spite of their lack of detail. Comparatively, it was quite difficult to finesse out a single narrative thread from the broader weave of memory—like trying to strip out the fine veins of fat from a well-marbled filet mignon, while leaving the cut of meat intact. He could rectify the situation and remove from Susan’s mind all knowledge that he was her tormentor, but he didn’t have enough time, energy, or patience to do so.


“Susan, tell me where you keep the nearest pen and notepaper.”


“Beside the bed.”


“Get them, please.”


When he followed her around the bed, he saw the pistol on the nightstand.


She appeared to have no interest in the gun. She opened the nightstand drawer and withdrew a ballpoint pen and a lined notepad the size of a stenographer’s tablet. At the top of each page in the pad was her photograph, plus the logo and phone numbers of the real-estate company for which she had worked before agoraphobia had ended her career.


“Put the gun away, please,” he directed, with no fear whatsoever that she would use the weapon on him.


She placed the pistol in the nightstand and closed the drawer. Turning to Ahriman, she held out the pen and the notepad.


He said, “Bring them with you.”


“Where?”


“Follow me.”


The doctor led her to the dining room. There, he instructed her to switch on the chandelier and sit at the table.


40


Still staring into the bathroom mirror, reviewing yet again his rooftop conversation with Skeet, trying to marshal details that would lend credibility to his incredible theory that his brother had been programmed, Dusty realized that he was finished with sleep for the night. Mosquito swarms of questions buzzed through his mind, their bites more ruinous of sleep than pots of black coffee boiled to the thickness of molasses.


Who would have programmed Skeet? When? How? Where? For what possible purpose? And why Skeet, of all people: self-admitted feeb, druggie, sweet loser that he was?


The whole thing smelled-smacked-reeked of paranoia. Perhaps this crazy-ass theory would make sense in the world of paranormal talk radio, in which Fig Newton lived while painting houses—and in fact during most of his waking hours—in that unreal but widely cherished America where scheming extraterrestrials were busily crossbreeding with hapless human females, where transdimensional beings were reputed to be responsible for both global warming and outrageous credit-card interest rates, where the President of the United States had been secretly replaced by a look-alike android assembled in Bill Gates’s basement, where Elvis was alive and living on an elaborate space station built and operated by Walt Disney, whose brain had been transplanted into a host body that we now know as the rap star and movie titan, Will Smith. But the idea of a programmed Skeet didn’t make sense here, not here in the real world, where Elvis was thoroughly dead, where Disney was dead, too, and where the closest things to horny extraterrestrials were the aging cast of Star Trek on Viagra.


Dusty would have laughed off his harebrained theory. . . assuming that Skeet had not said he’d been instructed to take a header from the Sorensons’ roof, assuming the kid hadn’t dropped into that eerie trance at New Life Clinic, assuming all of them—Skeet, Martie, and Dusty himself—had not been missing bits of time from their day, and assuming their lives hadn’t abruptly fallen apart with such uncanny simultaneity and with the cataclysmic weirdness of a two-part X Files episode. If laughs were dollars, if chuckles were quarters, and if smiles were pennies, Dusty would at the moment be flat broke.


Are you lonesome tonight, Elvis, up there in orbit?


Certain that insomnia would be his companion until dawn, he decided to shave and shower while Martie was still deep in a drugged sleep. When she woke, if she was once more gripped by that grotesque fear of herself, she wouldn’t want him to let her out of his sight, for fear she would somehow wrench loose of her restraints and creep up on him with homicidal intent.


A few minutes later, smooth-cheeked, Dusty switched off his electric razor—and heard muffled cries of distress coming from the bedroom.


When he reached Martie’s side, he found her whimpering in her sleep, dreaming again. She strained at her bonds and murmured, “No, no, no, no.”


Stirred from dog fantasies no doubt full of tennis balls and bowls of kibble, Valet raised his head to crack a wide and toothy yawn worthy of a crocodile, but he did not growl.


Martie rolled her head back and forth on her pillow, grimacing and softly groaning, like a feverish malaria patient wandering the land of delirium.


Dusty blotted her damp brow with a few Kleenex, smoothed her hair away from her face, and held her stylishly shackled hands until she quieted.


In which nightmare was she snared? The one that had plagued her on several other occasions over the past half year, involving the hulking figure composed of dead leaves? Or the new spook show from which she awakened earlier, choking and gagging and scrubbing at her mouth with both hands?


As Martie settled into silent sleep once more, Dusty wondered if her recurring dream of the Leaf Man might be as meaningful as his encounter with the lightning-chased heron had seemed to him.


She had described the nightmare to him months ago, the second or third time that she had suffered through it. Now he brought it forth from his vaultlike memory and examined it as he watched over her.


Though at first consideration, their dreams appeared to be utterly different from each other, analysis revealed disturbing similarities.


Increasingly mystified rather than enlightened, Dusty pondered the points of intersection, nightmare to nightmare.


He wondered if Skeet had been dreaming recently.


Still lying on his sheepskin pillow, Valet blew air out of his nostrils, one of those forceful but entirely voluntary quasi-sneezes with which he cleared his nose when preparing to seek the scent of rabbits on a morning walk. This time, with no rabbits in the house, it seemed to be a skeptical judgment of his master’s sudden new obsession with dreams.


“There’s something to it,” Dusty muttered.


Valet blew air again.


41


Restlessly circling the room, Ahriman composed a wonderfully poignant farewell to life, which Susan took down in her graceful handwriting. He knew exactly what to put in and what to leave out in order to convince even the most skeptical police detective that the note was authentic.


Handwriting analysis would, of course, leave little or no room for doubt, but the doctor was meticulous.


Composition under these circumstances was not easy. His mouth was sour with the lingering aftertaste of Tsingtao. Weary to the bone, eyes hot and grainy, mind fuzzy from lack of sleep, he mentally polished every sentence before dictating it.


He was distracted by Susan, as well. Perhaps because he would never possess her again, she seemed more beautiful to him than at any previous moment of their relationship.


Banners of gold hair. Egyptian-green firework eyes. Sad, this broken toy.


No. That was a lousy haiku. Embarrassing. It had seventeen syllables, all right, and in the ideal five-seven-five pattern, but not much else.


He could occasionally compose a reasonably good verse about a snail on a stair tread, crushed hard underfoot, and stuff like that, but when it came to writing lines to capture the look, the mood, the essence of a girl, any girl, then he floundered.


Some truth in his lousy haiku: She was broken, this once-fine toy. Although she still looked great, she was badly damaged, and he couldn’t simply fix her with a little glue, as he might have repaired a plastic figurine from a classic Marx playset like Roy Rogers Rodeo Ranch or Tom Corbett Space Academy.


Girls. They always let you down when you’re counting on them.


Filled with a strange mix of sentimental yearning and sullen resentment, Ahriman finished composing the suicide note. He stood over Susan to watch as she signed her name at the bottom.


Her long-fingered hands. The gracefully looping pen. Last words without tears.


Shit.


Leaving the notepad on the table for now, the doctor led Susan into the kitchen. At his request she produced a spare apartment key from the built-in secretaire where she sat to compose shopping lists and plan menus. He already had a key, but he hadn’t brought it with him. He pocketed this one, and they returned to the bedroom.


The videotape was still playing. At his direction, she used the remote to stop it; then she ejected it from the VCR and put it on the nightstand beside the empty wineglass.


“Tell me where you usually store the camcorder.”


Her eyes jiggled. Then her gaze steadied. “In a box on the top shelf of that closet,” she said, pointing.


“Please pack it up and put it away.”


She had to bring a two-step folding stool from the kitchen to complete the task.


Next, he instructed her to use a hand towel from the bathroom to wipe down the nightstands, the headboard of the bed, and anything else he might have touched while in the bedroom. He monitored her to ensure that she did a thorough job.


Because he was careful to avoid touching most surfaces in the apartment, Ahriman had little concern that his prints would be found anywhere but in Susan’s two most private chambers. When she finished in the bedroom, he stood in the doorway of the bathroom for about ten minutes, watching as she polished tile, glass, brass, and porcelain.

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