Page 34

On the vast flatlands below these hills, although most of the county’s multitudes were still asleep, millions of lights glimmered even at this hour. View windows admitted just enough ambient light for the doctor to make his way with catlike surety, and he found the golden glow appealing.

Standing at a huge sheet of glass in the dark, basking in the incoming radiance, gazing at this urban sprawl that lay before him like the biggest playset in the world, he knew how God would feel, looking down on Creation, if there had been a god. The doctor was a player, not a believer.

Sipping cherry Coke, he roamed room to room, along passage-ways and galleries. The huge house was a labyrinth in more ways than one, but eventually he returned to the living room.

Here, more than eighteen months ago, he acquired Susan. On the day that escrow closed, he had met her here to receive the house keys and the thick operating manual for the computerized systems. She was surprised to find him with two champagne flutes and a chilled bottle of Dom Perignon. From the day they’d met, the doctor had been careful never to suggest that his interest in her went beyond her real-estate expertise; even with champagne in hand, he had struck a note of such erotic indifference that she didn’t feel she, a married woman, was being romanced. Indeed, from the moment he’d met her and decided to have her, he had scattered hints, like breadcrumbs to a pigeon, that he was gay. Because he was so happy with his spectacular new house and because she wasn’t displeased by the fat commission she’d earned, she saw no harm in celebrating with a glass of champagne—although hers was, of course, spiked.

Here in the wake of her death, conflicting emotions bedeviled Ahriman. He regretted the loss of Susan, all but swooned to the tug of a sweet sentimentality, but also felt wronged, betrayed. In spite of all the great good times they’d had together, she would still have ruined him if she’d had the chance.

At last he resolved his inner conflict, because he realized that she was just a girl like other girls, that she hadn’t deserved all the time and attention he had lavished on her. To brood about her now would be to concede that she’d had a power over him no one else had ever exercised.

He was the collector, not her. He possessed things; they did not possess him.

“I’m glad you’re dead,” he said aloud in the dark living room. “I’m glad you’re dead, you stupid girl. I hope the razor hurt.”

After vocalizing his anger, he felt ever so much better. Oh, really, a thousand percent.

Although Cedric and Nella Hawthorne, the couple who managed the estate, were currently in residence, Ahriman was not concerned about being overheard. The Hawthornes were surely abed in their three-room apartment in the servants’ wing. And regardless of what they might see or hear, he need not be concerned that they would ever remember anything that would endanger him.

“I hope it hurt,” he repeated.

Then he took the elevator up to the next floor and followed the hallway to the master-bedroom suite.

He brushed his teeth, flossed meticulously, and dressed in black silk pajamas.

Nella had turned down the bed. White Pratesi sheets with black piping. Plenty of plump pillows.

As usual, on his nightstand was a Lalique bowl full of candy bars, two each of his six favorite brands. He wished he hadn’t brushed his teeth.

Before turning in, he used the bedside Crestron touch-screen to access the automated-house program. With this control panel, he could operate lights throughout the residence, air-conditioning and heating room by room, the security system, landscape-surveillance cameras, pool and spa heaters, and numerous other systems and devices.

He entered his personal code to access a vault page that listed six wall safes of various sizes distributed throughout the residence. He touched master bedroom on the screen, and the image of a keypad replaced the list of locations.

When he keyed in a seven-digit number, a pneumatically driven section of granite on the face of the fireplace slid aside, revealing a small, embedded steel safe. Ahriman entered the combination on the keypad, and across the room, the lock released with an audible click.

He went to the fireplace, opened the twelve-inch-square steel door, and removed the contents from the safe box, which was lined with quilted padding. A one-quart jar.

He put the jar on a brushed-steel and zebrawood desk and sat down to study its contents.

After a few minutes, he could no longer resist the siren call of the candy bowl. He pondered the contents of the Lalique container and finally selected a Hershey’s bar with almonds.

He would not brush his teeth again. Falling asleep with the taste of chocolate in his mouth was a sinful pleasure. Sometimes he was a bad boy.

Sitting at the desk again, Ahriman savored the candy, making it last, while he thoughtfully studied the jar. Although he didn’t hurry through the snack, he had gained not a scintilla of new insight from his father’s eyes by the time he finished the final crumbs of chocolate.

Hazel, they were, but with a milky film over the irises. The whites were no longer white, but pale yellow faintly marbled with pastel green. They were suspended in formaldehyde, in the vacuumsealed jar, sometimes peering through the curved glass with a wistful expression and sometimes with what seemed to be unbearable sorrow.

Ahriman had been studying these eyes all his life, both when they had been seated in his father’s skull and after they had been cut out. They held secrets that he wished to know, but they were, as ever, all but impossible to read.


Due to the lingering effects of three caplets of the sleep aid, Martie appeared to be unable to work herself into a state of panic, even after she was freed from the neckties, out of bed, and on her feet.

Her hands trembled almost nonstop, however, and she became alarmed when Dusty got too close to her. She still believed that she might suddenly claw out his eyes, chew off his nose, bite off his lips, and have a thoroughly unconventional breakfast.

Undressing to shower she had an agreeably heavy-eyed, pouty look, which Dusty found appealing as he watched her from a distance that she deemed just barely safe. “Very erotic, smoldering. With that look, you could make a guy run barefoot across a tack-covered football field.”

“I don’t feel erotic,” she said, her voice husky. She pouted without calculation but with powerful effect. “I feel like birdshit.”


“Not me.”


Skinning out of her underwear, she said, “I don’t want to go the way of the cat.”

“No,” he said, “I meant your choice of words. So you feel like birdshit—why in particular bird?”

She yawned. “Is that what I said?”


“I don’t know. Maybe because I feel like I’ve dropped a long way and splattered all over everything.”

She didn’t want to be alone to shower.

Dusty watched from the bathroom doorway while Martie spread the bath mat, opened the door of the shower stall, and adjusted the water. When she stepped into the stall, he moved into the room and sat on the closed lid of the toilet.

As Martie began to soap herself, Dusty said, “We’ve been married three years, but I feel like I’m at a peep show.”

A bar of soap, a squeeze bottle of shampoo, and a tube of cream conditioner were objects so lacking in lethal potential that she was able to finish bathing without being seized by terror.

Dusty got the hair dryer out of a vanity drawer, plugged it in for her, and then retreated to the doorway once more.

Martie balked at using the hair dryer. “I’ll just towel it a little and let it dry naturally.”

“Then it’ll just fizz up, and you’ll hate the way it looks, and you’ll bitch all day.”

“I don’t bitch.”

“Well, you certainly don’t whine.”

“Damn right I don’t.”

“Complain?” he suggested.

“All right. I’ll admit to that.”

“You’ll complain all day. Why don’t you want to use the hair dryer? It’s not dangerous.”

“I don’t know. It sort of looks like a gun.”

“It’s not a gun.”

“I didn’t claim any of this was rational.”

“I promise if you turn it up to maximum power and try to blow-dry me to death, I won’t stand still for it.”


“You knew that when you married me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“Calling you a bastard.”

He shrugged. “Hey, call me anything you want, as long as you don’t kill me.”

Gas flames weren’t as blue as her eyes when anger brightened them. “That’s not funny.”

“I refuse to be afraid of you.”

“You’ve got to be,” she said plaintively.


“You stupid, stupid. . . man.”

“Man. Ow. The ultimate insult. Listen, if you ever call me a man again.. . I don’t know, it could mean we’re through.”

She glared at him, finally reached for the hair dryer, but then snatched her hand back. She tried again, recoiled again, and began to shake not with fear as much as with frustration and quiet anguish.

Dusty was afraid she might cry. Last night, the sight of her in tears had knotted his guts.

Approaching her, he said, “Let me do it.”

She shrank from him. “Stay away.”

He plucked a towel off the rack and offered it to her. “Do you agree this wouldn’t be any homicidal maniac’s weapon of choice?”

Her gaze actually traveled the length of the towel as though she were warily calculating its murderous potential.

“Grip it in both hands,” he explained. “Pull it taut, hold it tight, concentrate and keep your grip on it. As long as your hands are occupied, you can’t hurt me.”

Accepting the towel, she looked skeptical.

“No, really,” he said. “What could you do except snap my ass with it?”

“There’d be some satisfaction in that.”

“But there’s at least a fifty-percent chance I’d survive.” When she seemed hesitant, he said, “Besides, I’ve got the hair dryer. You try anything, I’ll give you a case of chapped lips you won’t forget.”

“I feel like such a schiump.”

“You’re not.”

From the doorway, Valet chuffed.

Dusty said, “The vote is two to one against schlumpdom.”

“Let’s get this over with,” she said grimly.

“Face the sink and keep your back to me if you think I’ll be safer that way.”

She faced the sink, but she closed her eyes rather than look at herself in the mirror.

Though the bathroom wasn’t cold, Martie’s bare back was stippled with gooseflesh.

With a brush, Dusty repeatedly pulled her thick, black, glorious hair through the gush of hot air from the blow-dryer, shaping it as he had seen her shape it before.

Ever since they’d been together, Dusty enjoyed watching Martie groom herself. Whether she was shampooing her hair, painting her nails, applying her makeup, or massaging suntan lotion into her skin, she approached the task with an easy, almost lazy, meticulousness that was catlike and wonderfully graceful. A lioness, confident of her appearance but not vain.

Always, Martie had seemed strong and resilient, and Dusty had never worried about what might happen to her if fate dealt him an early death while he was climbing across some high roof. Now, he worried—and his worrying felt to him like an insult to her, as if he pitied her, which he didn’t, couldn’t. She was still too Martie to elicit pity. Yet now she appeared alarmingly vulnerable, neck so slender, shoulders so fragile, the vertebrae linked with such delicacy in the spinal cleft of her back, and Dusty feared for this dear woman to an extent that he must never allow her to perceive.

As the great philosopher Skeet once put it, Love is hard.

Something strange happened in the kitchen. In fact, virtually everything that happened in the kitchen was strange, but the last thing, just before they left the house, was the strangest of all.

First: Martie was rigid in one of the dinette chairs, hands trapped under her thighs, actually sitting on her hands, as though they would seize anything within reach and hurl it at Dusty if they were not restrained.

Because she was having blood drawn and tests conducted, she was required to fast from nine o’clock the previous night until the doctor was finished with her later this morning.

She was upset about lingering in the kitchen while Valet wolfed his morning kibble and while Dusty drank a glass of milk and ate a doughnut, though not because she resented their freedom to indulge. “I know what’s in those drawers,” she said with anxiety evident in her voice, meaning knives and other sharp utensils.

Dusty winked lecherously. “I know what’s in your drawers, too.”

“Damn it, you better start taking this more seriously.”

“If I do, we might as well both kill ourselves now.”

Though her frown deepened, he knew she recognized the wisdom of what he’d said.

"There you stand, drinking whole milk, eating a glazed doughnut with cream filling. Looks like you’re already halfway to harakin.”

Finishing the milk, he said, “I figure the best way to live a normal—and probably long—life is to listen to everything the health Nazis say, then do exactly the opposite.”

“What if tomorrow they say cheeseburgers and french fries are the healthiest diet you can eat?”

“Then it’s tofu and alfalfa sprouts for me.”

Washing out the glass, he turned his back to her, and she said, “Hey,” sharply, and he faced her while he dried it, so she wouldn’t have a chance to sneak up on him and beat him to death with a can of pork and beans.

They were not going to be able to take Valet on his morning constitutional. Martie refused to stay here alone while Dusty went out with the dog. And if she accompanied them, she would no doubt be terrified of pushing Dusty in front of a truck and feeding Valet into some gardener’s portable woodchipper.

“There’s a pretty funny aspect to all this,” Dusty said.

“There’s nothing funny about it,” she grimly disagreed.

“We’re both probably right.”

He opened the back door and sent Valet out to spend the morning in the fenced backyard. The weather was cool but not chilly, and no rain was in the forecast. He put a full water dish on the porch and told the dog, “Poop where you want, and I’ll pick it up later, but don’t get the idea this is a new rule.”