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Task completed, she folded the hand towel into perfectly aligned thirds and draped it on a brushed-brass bar beside another hand towel that was folded and hung in precisely the same manner. The doctor valued neatness.


When he saw the folded white cotton panties on the hamper lid, he had almost instructed her to toss them in with the other laundry, but instinct had led him to question her about them. When he learned that they had been set aside to provide a DNA sample to the police, he was shocked.


Girls. Devious. Cunning. More than once, when the doctor was a boy, girls had taunted him into pushing them down a flight of porch steps or shoving them into a thorny rosebush, whereupon they had always run to the nearest adults, claiming that the assault had been unprovoked, that it had been pure meanness. Here, now, these decades later, more treachery.


He could have instructed her to wash the panties in the sink, but he decided that prudence required him to take them when he left, remove them from the apartment altogether.


The doctor wasn’t an expert on the latest forensic techniques of practical homicide investigation, but he was reasonably sure that latent fingerprints on human skin lasted only a few hours or less. They could be lifted with the use of lasers and other sophisticated equipment, but he knew simpler procedures might also be effective. Kromekote cards or unexposed Polaroid film, pressed firmly to the skin, will transfer the incriminating print; when the card or film is dusted with black powder, a mirror image of the latent print appears and must then be reversed through photography. Magnetic powder applied with a Magna Brush directly to the skin is acceptable in a pinch, and the iodine-silver transfer method is an alternative if a fuming gun and silver sheets are close at hand.


He didn’t expect Susan’s body to be found for five or six hours, perhaps much longer. By then, the early stages of decomposition would have eradicated all the latent prints on her skin.


Nevertheless, he had touched virtually every plane and curve of her body—and often. To be a winner at these games, one had to play with energetic enthusiasm but also with a detailed knowledge of the rules and with a talent for strategy.


He suggested that Susan draw a hot bath. Then step by step he walked her through the remaining minutes of her life.


While the tub was filling, she got a safety razor from one of the vanity drawers. She had used it to shave her legs; but now it would serve a more serious purpose.


She twisted open the razor and extracted the single-edge blade. She put the blade on the flat rim of the bathtub.


She undressed for the bath. Naked, she didn’t look broken, and Ahriman wished he could keep her.


Waiting for further instruction, Susan stood beside the bathtub, watching the water gush out of the faucet.


Studying her reflection in the mirror, Ahriman took pride in her tranquility. Intellectually, she was aware that she would soon be dead, but because of the excellent work he’d done with her, she lacked the capacity for genuine and spontaneous emotional response while in this state of total personality submersion.


The doctor regretted that the time inevitably came when each of his acquisitions must be discarded and allowed to go the way of all flesh.


He wished he could preserve each of them in perfect condition and set aside a few rooms of his house to a display of them, just as he currently dedicated space to his Corgi model cars, die-cast banks, playsets, and other enthusiasms. What a delight it would be to walk among them at will, these women and men who had been both his cat’s-paws and his companions over the years. With his own engraving kit, he could lovingly prepare brass plaques featuring their names, vital statistics, and dates of acquisition—just as he did for items in his other collections. His videotapes were splendid mementos, but they were all motion in two dimensions, providing none of the depth or the satisfying tactility that physically preserved playthings could offer.


The problem was rot. The doctor was a perfectionist who would not add an item to one of his collections unless it was in mint or near-mint condition. Not for him the merely excellent or very good example. Because no known form of preservation, from mummification to state-of-the-art embalming, could meet his high standards, he would of necessity continue to rely on his videotapes when overcome by a nostalgic and sentimental mood.


Now, he sent Susan to the dining room to retrieve the notepad on which she had written her farewell to life. She returned with it and placed it on the freshly polished tile top of the vanity, next to the sink, where it would be found simultaneously with her cadaver.


The bath was ready. She turned off both faucets.


She added scented salts to the water.


The doctor was surprised, because he had not instructed her to spice the bath. Evidently, she always did so before stepping into the tub, and this act was essentially a conditioned reflex that required no volitional thinking. Interesting.


Writhing vines of steam, rising from the water, now bloomed with the faint fragrance of roses.


Sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, careful not to touch anything with his hands, Ahriman instructed Susan to enter the bath, to sit, and to bathe herself with special thoroughness. There was no longer any danger that a laser, Kromekote card, Magna Brush, or fuming gun could turn up incriminating fingerprints on her skin. He was counting on the action of her bath to flush out and disperse all of his semen, as well.


No doubt, in the bedroom and elsewhere in the apartment, he had left behind hairs and fibers from his clothing that could be gathered in a police-lab vacuum. Without good fingerprints, however, or other direct evidence that could put him on a list of suspects, they would not be able to trace these scraps of evidence back to him.


Besides, because he had taken such pains to present the police with a convincing tableau and a solid motivation for suicide, they were not likely to pursue even a cursory homicide investigation.


He would have liked to watch Susan bathe a while longer, for she was an enchanting sight; however, he was weary, sleepy. Furthermore, he wanted to leave the apartment well before dawn, when there was only a small chance of encountering witnesses.


“Susan, please pick up the razor blade.”


For a moment, the steel blade stuck to the wet rim of the tub. Then she got it between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand.


The doctor preferred flamboyant destruction. Easily bored, he saw no thrill in a poisoned cup of tea, in a simple hangman’s noose— or, in this case, in the severance of a radial artery or two. The real fun was in shotguns, large-caliber handguns, axes, chain saws, and explosives.


Her pistol had interested him. But a gunshot would wake the retirees downstairs, even if they had gone to bed martini-sotted, as usual.


Disappointed but determined not to surrender to his taste for the theatrical, Ahriman told Susan how to grip the blade, precisely where to cut on her left wrist, and how hard to press. Before the mortal slice, she scored her flesh lightly, and then lightly again, producing the hesitation marks that the police were accustomed to seeing in more than half of such suicides. Then, with no expression on her face and with only pure green beauty in her eyes, she made a third cut, much deeper than the first two.


Because some tendon damage was unavoidably sustained in addition to the severing of the radial artery, she couldn’t hold the blade as firmly in her left hand as she had held it in her right. The wound in her right wrist was comparatively shallow and bled less heartily than the wound in her left; but that, too, would be consistent with police expectations.


She dropped the blade. Lowered her arms into the water.


“Thank you,” he said.


“You’re welcome.”


The doctor waited with her for the end. He could have walked out, confident that in this obedient state, even unchaperoned, she would sit calmly in the tub until she died. Already in this game, however, fate had thrown him a couple of change-up pitches, and he was going to remain alert for another.


Far less steam arose from the water now, and attar of roses was not the only scent it carried anymore.


Yearning for greater drama, Ahriman considered bringing Susan out of the mind chapel and up a flight or two of stairs, nearer to full consciousness, where she could better appreciate her plight. Although he could control her at higher levels of awareness, there was a slim but real chance that an involuntary cry of terror or despair would escape her, just loud enough to wake pensioners and parakeets downstairs.


He waited.


The bathwater grew darker as it cooled, though the color that Susan lent to it was hot.


She sat in silence, no more touched by emotion than the tub that contained her, and the doctor was, therefore, shocked to see a single tear track down her face.


He leaned forward, disbelieving, certain that it must be mere water or perspiration.


When the drop had descended the length of her face, another—


larger than the first, enormous—welled from the same eye, and there could be no question that this was the genuine article.


Here was more entertainment than he had expected. Fascinated, he monitored the descent of the tear over the elegant swell of her high cheekbone, into the pocket of her cheek, to the corner of her ripe mouth, and then toward the line of her jaw, where it arrived diminished but large enough to quiver like a pendulous jewel.


This second tear was not followed by a third. The dry lips of Death had kissed away the excess moisture in her eyes.


When Susan’s mouth sagged open, as though with awe, the second—and last—tear trembled and fell from her delicate jaw into the bathwater, with the faintest detectable plink like a note struck from the highest octave on a piano keyboard rooms and rooms away.


Green eyes growing gray. Rosy skin borrows color.. . from the razor blade.


He rather liked that one.


Leaving the lights on, of course, Ahriman picked up her soiled underwear from the hamper lid and stepped out of the bathroom, into the bedroom, where he retrieved the videotape.


In the living room, he paused to enjoy the subtle scent of citrus potpourri seeping from the ceramic jars. He had always meant to ask Susan where she’d purchased this particular melange, so that he could acquire some for his own home. Too late.


At the kitchen door, fingers safely wrapped in Kleenex, he twisted the thumbturn on the only lock that she had engaged following his arrival. Outside, after quietly pulling the door shut, he used the spare key from the secretaire to engage both dead bolts.


He could do nothing about the security chain. This one detail should not make the authorities unduly suspicious.


The night and the fog, his conspirators, still waited for him, and the surf had grown louder since last he’d heard it, masking what little noise his shoes made on the rubber treads of the stairs.


Again, he reached his Mercedes without encountering anyone, and on the pleasant drive home, he found the streets only slightly busier than they had been forty-five minutes earlier.


His hilltop house stood on two acres in a gated community: a sprawling, futuristic, artful stack of square and rectangular forms, some in polished poured-in-place concrete and others clad in black granite, with floating decks, deep cantilevered roofs, bronze doors, and floor-to-ceiling windows so massive that birds were knocked unconscious against them not just one at a time but in flocks.


The place had been built by a young entrepreneur who had been made improbably rich from the IPO of his Internet retailing company. By the time it was completed, he had become enamored of Southwest architecture and had begun building a forty thousand-square-foot faux adobe pile in the pueblo style, somewhere in Arizona. He’d offered this residence for sale without moving into it.


The doctor parked in the eighteen-car subterranean garage and took the elevator up to the ground floor.


The rooms and hallways were of grand proportions, with polished black granite floors. The antique Persian rugs—in lustrous shades of teal, peach, jade, ruby—were exquisitely patinaed by lifetimes of wear; they seemed to float upon the black granite as if they were magic carpets in flight, the blackness beneath them not stone, but the deep abyss of night.


In corridors and major chambers, lights came on to preset scenes as he entered, triggered by motion sensors managed by thousand-year universal clocks. In smaller rooms, lamps answered to vocal commands.


The young internet billionaire had computerized all the house systems in obsessive detail. When he had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, no doubt he had been under the impression that Hal was the hero.


In his lacewood-paneled study, the doctor phoned his office and left a voice-mail message for his secretary, asking her to cancel and reschedule his ten- and eleven-o’clock appointments to next week. He would be in after lunch.


There were no patient sessions filled on the second half of his Wednesday calendar. He had left his afternoon open for Dustin and Martine Rhodes, who would call in the morning, desperate for help.


Eighteen months ago, the doctor had realized that Martie could be one of his key toy soldiers in a marvelous game more elaborate than any he had played heretofore. Eight months ago, he served his witches’ brew of drugs to her in coffee, with a chocolate biscotto on the side, and programmed her during three of Susan’s office visits, as Susan herself had long previously come under his thrall.


Since then, Martie had awaited use, unaware that she’d been added to Ahriman’s collection.


Tuesday morning, eighteen hours ago, when Martie came to the office with Susan, the doctor at last put her into play, escorting her down into her mind chapel, where he implanted the suggestion that she could not trust herself, that she was a grave danger to herself and others, a monster capable of extreme violence and unspeakable atrocities.


After he wound her up and sent her off with Susan Jagger, she must have had an interesting day. He looked forward to hearing the gaudy details.


He had not yet used Martie sexually. Although she was not as beautiful as Susan, she was quite attractive, and he looked forward to seeing just how completely and deliciously sordid she could be if she really tried. She was not yet in sufficient misery to have much erotic appeal for him.


Soon.


Now, he was in a dangerous mood—and knew it. The personality regression he underwent during intense play sessions didn’t reverse instantly upon conclusion of the games. Like a deep-sea diver rising through the fathoms at a measured pace to avoid the bends, Ahriman ascended toward full adulthood in decompressive stages. He was not entirely man or boy at the moment, but in emotional metamorphosis.


At the corner bar in his study, he poured a bottle of Coke—the classic formula—into a cut-crystal Tom Collins glass, added a thick squirt of cherry syrup and ice, stirring the concoction with a long-handled sterling-silver spoon. He tasted it and smiled. Better than Tsingtao.


Exhausted yet restless, he walked the house for a while, after instructing the computer to precede him neither with blazes of light nor with softly luminous preset scenes. He wanted darkness in those spaces that had a view, and a single lamp dimmed so far as to be nearly extinguished in those chambers that did not benefit from the nighttime panorama of Orange County.

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