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He closed the door, locked it, and looked toward the telephone, which was when the strange thing happened. He and Martie began to talk at once, over and through each other.


“Martie, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way—”


“I have all the faith in the world in Dr. Closterman—”


“—but I think we really should consider—”


“—but it might take days for test results—”


“—getting a second opinion—”


“—and as much as I hate the idea—”


“—not from another medical doctor—”


“—I think I need to be evaluated—”


“—but from a therapist—”


“—by a psychiatrist—” “—who treats anxiety disorders—” “—with the right experience—”


“—someone like—” “—I’m thinking maybe—” “—Dr. Ahriman.” “—Dr. Ahriman.”


They spoke the name in unison—and gaped at each other in the ensuing silence.


Then Martie said, “I guess we’ve been married too long.”


“Much longer, and we’ll start to look like each other.”


“I’m not nuts, Dusty.”


“I know you’re not.”


“But give him a call.”


He went to the phone and obtained Ahriman’s office number from the information operator. He left a request for an appointment on the doctor’s voice mail and recited his cell-phone number.


43


At Skeet’s apartment, the bedroom was as barren of decoration and as starkly furnished as any monk’s cell.


Having backed into a corner to limit her options if a murderous impulse seized her, Martie stood with her arms crossed over her chest and her hands clamped tightly under her biceps. “Why didn’t you tell me last night? Poor Skeet’s back in rehab and you don’t tell me till now?”


“You had enough on your mind,” Dusty said as he searched under the neatly folded clothes in the bottom drawer of a dresser so plain it might have been crafted by a strict religious order that thought Shaker furniture was sinfully ornate.


“What’re you looking for—his stash?”


“No. If there’s any of that left, it’ll take hours to find it. I’m looking for. . . well, I don’t know what I’m looking for.”


“We’ve got to be at Dr. Closterman’s office in forty minutes.”


“Plenty of time,” Dusty said, elevating his search to a higher drawer.


“Did he show up at work stoned?”


“Yeah. He jumped off the Sorensons’ roof.”


“My God! How bad was he hurt?”


“Not at all.”


“Not at all”


“It’s a long story,” Dusty said, opening the top drawer on the dresser. He wasn’t going to tell her that he had gone off the roof with Skeet, not while she was in her current condition.


“What are you hiding from me?” she demanded.


“I’m not hiding anything.” “What are you keeping from me?”


“Martie, let’s not play games with semantics, okay?”


“At times like this, it couldn’t be clearer that you are the son of Trevor Penn Rhodes.”


Closing the last dresser drawer, he said, “That was low. I’m not keeping anything from you.”


“What are you protecting me from?”


“I guess what I’m hunting for,” he said, instead of answering her question, “is evidence that Skeet’s mixed up in some cult.”


Because he’d already searched the single nightstand and under the bed, Dusty stepped into the adjoining bathroom, which was small, clean, and completely white. He opened the medicine cabinet and quickly sorted through the contents.


From the bedroom, in an anxious and accusatory tone, Martie said, “You don’t know what I might be doing out here.”


“Looking for an ax?”


“Bastard.”


“We’ve been down that road.”


“Yeah, but it’s a long one.”


When he came out of the bathroom, he saw that she was shaking and as pale as—though prettier than—something that lived under a rock. “You okay?”


“What do you mean—cult?”


Though she cringed when he approached her, he took her by the arm, drew her out of the corner, and led her into the living room. “Skeet said he jumped off the roof because an angel of death told him he should.”


“That’s just the drugs talking.”


“Maybe. But you know how those cults operate—the brainwashing and all.”


“What’re you talking about?”


“Brainwashing.”


In the living room, she backed into another corner and clamped her hands in her armpits again. “Brainwashing?”


“Rub-a-dub, cerebrum in a tub.”


The living room contained only a sofa, an armchair, a coffee table, an end table, two lamps, and a set of shelves on which were stored both books and magazines. Dusty cocked his head to scan the titles on the spines of the books.


From her corner, Martie said, “What’re you hiding from me?”


“There you go again.”


“You wouldn’t think he was mixed up in a cult—brainwashed, for God’s sake—just because of what he said about some angel of death.”


“There was an incident at the clinic.”


“New Life?”


“Yeah.”


“What incident?”


All the paperbacks on the shelves were fantasy novels. Tales of dragons, wizards, warlocks, and swashbuckling heroes in the land of long-ago or never-was. Not for the first time, Dusty was baffled by the kid’s genre of choice; after all, Skeet pretty much lived in a fantasy, anyway, and wouldn’t seem to need it for entertainment.


“What incident?” Martie repeated.


“Went into a trance.”


“What do you mean, a trance?”


“You know, like a magician, one of those stage hypnotists, casts on you and then makes you cluck like a chicken.”


“Skeet was clucking like a chicken?”


“No, it was more complicated than that.”


As Dusty continued along the shelves, the titles began to make him terribly sad. He realized that perhaps his brother sought refuge in these make-believe kingdoms because they were all cleaner, better, more-ordered fantasies than the one in which the kid lived. In these books, spells worked, friends were always true and brave, good and evil were sharply defined, good always won—and no one became drug-dependent and screwed up his life.


“Quacking like a duck, gobbling like a turkey?” Martie asked from her corner exile.


“What?”


“How was it more complicated, what Skeet did at the clinic?”


Quickly sorting through a stack of magazines, finding nothing published by any cult more nefarious than the Time-Warner media group, Dusty said, “I’ll tell you later. We don’t have time for it now.”


“You are exasperating.”


“It’s a gift,” he said, leaving the magazines and books for a quick look through the small kitchen.


“Don’t leave me alone here,” she pleaded.


“Then come along.”


“No was;” she said, obviously thinking about knives and meat forks and potato mashers. “No way. That’s a kitchen.”


"I’m not going to ask you to cook.”


The combination kitchen and dining area was open to the living room, all one big California floor plan, so Martie was in fact able to see him pulling open drawers and cabinet doors.


She was silent for half a minute, but when she spoke, her voice was shaky. “Dusty; I’m getting worse.”


“To me, babe, you just keep getting better and better.”


“I mean it. I’m serious. I’m on the edge here, and sliding fast.” Dusty wasn’t finding any cult paraphernalia among the pots and pans. No secret decoder rings. No pamphlets about Armageddon looming. No tracts about how to recognize the Antichrist if you run into him at the mall.


“What’re you doing in there?” Martie demanded.


“Stabbing myself through the heart, so you won’t have to.”


“You bastard.”


“Been there, done that,” he said, returning to the living room.


“You’re a cold man,” she complained. Her pale face squinched with anger. “I’m ice,” he agreed.


“You are. I mean it.” “Arctic.”


“You make me so angry.”


“You make me so happy,” he countered.


Squinch became startled realization, and her eyes widened as she said, “You’re my Martie.”


“That doesn’t sound like another insult.”


“And I’m your Susan.”


“Oh, this is no good. We’ll have to change all our monogrammed towels.”


“For a year, I’ve treated her like you’re treating me. Jollying her along, always needling her out of her self-pity, trying to keep her spirits up.”


“You’ve been a real bitch, huh?”


Martie laughed. Shaky, one tremble away from a sob, like those laughs in operas, when the tragic heroine pitches a soprano trill and lets it fall into a contralto quaver of despair. “I’ve been a bitch and a sarcastic wiseass, yeah, because I love her so much.”


Smiling, Dusty held out his right hand toward her. “We’ve got to be going.”


One step out of her corner, she stopped, unable to come farther. “Dusty; I don’t want to be Susan.”


“I know.”


“I don’t want to. . . fall that far down.”


“You won’t,” he promised.


“I’m scared.”


Rather than follow her customary preference for bright colors, Martie had gone to the dark side of her wardrobe. Black boots, black jeans, a black pullover, and a black leather jacket. She looked like a mourner at a biker’s funeral. In this stark outfit, she should have appeared to be tough, as hard and as formidable as night itself. Instead, she seemed as ephemeral as a shadow fading and shrinking under a relentless sun.


“I’m scared,” she repeated.


This was a time for truth, not for jollying, and Dusty said, “Yeah. Me, too.”


Overcoming the fear of her imagined homicidal potential, she took his hand. Hers was cold, but touching was progress.


“I’ve got to phone Susan,” she said. “She was expecting me to call last night.”


“We’ll phone her from the car.”


Out of the apartment, along the common hail, down the stairs, across the small foyer where Skeet had penciled the name FARNER under CAULFIELD on his mailbox label, and out of the building, Dusty felt Martie’s hand warming in his and dared to think he could save her.


A gardener early to work, was bundling hedge trimmings into a burlap tarpaulin. A handsome young Hispanic with eyes as dark as mole sauce, he smiled and nodded.


Lying on the lawn, near him, were a small pair of hand clippers and a large pair of two-hand shears.


At the sight of the blades, Martie let out a strangled cry. She wrenched her hand free of Dusty’s and ran, not toward those makeshift weapons but away from them, to the red Saturn that was parked at the curb.


“Disputa?” the gardener asked Dusty sympathetically, as if he himself had a regrettable amount of experience arguing with women.


“Infinidad,” Dusty replied as he hurried past, and he was all the way to the car before he realized he had meant to say enfermedad, meaning “illness,” but had instead said “infinity.”


The gardener stared after him, not frowning with puzzlement, but nodding solemnly, as though Dusty’s wrong word choice were in fact an indisputable profundity.


Thus are reputations for wisdom raised on foundations flimsier than those of castles built on air.


By the time Dusty got behind the wheel of the car, Martie was in the passenger’s seat, doubled over as far as the dashboard would allow, shuddering, groaning. Her thighs were pressed together, trapping her hands as though they itched with the desire to make mayhem.


When Dusty pulled his door shut, Martie said, “Is there anything sharp in the glove box?”


“I don’t know.”


“Is it locked?”


“I don’t know.”


“Lock it, for God’s sake.”


He locked it and then started the engine.


“Hurry;” she pleaded.


“All right.”


“But don’t drive too fast.”


“Okay.”


“But hurry.”


“Which is it?” he asked, pulling away from the curb.


“If you drive too fast, maybe I might try to grab the wheel, try to pull the car off the road, roll it, or plow us head-on into a truck.”


“Of course, you won’t.”


“I might,” she insisted. “I will. You don’t want to see what’s in my head, the pictures in my head.”


The residual effect of three caplets of sleep-aid medication was fading from her by the second, while Dusty’s heartburn from the cream-filled, glazed doughnut was steadily growing.


“Oh, God,” she groaned. “God, please, please, don’t let me see these things, don’t make me see them.”


Huddled forward in abject misery, apparently sickened by the violent images spurting unwanted through her mind, Martie gagged, and soon the gagging evolved into fierce spasms of retching that would have brought up her breakfast if she had eaten any.


The morning traffic on these surface streets was moderately heavy, and Dusty weaved from lane to lane, sometimes taking risks to wedge into a gap, ignoring the angry looks of other motorists and the occasional hard bark of a horn. Martie appeared to be on an emotional toboggan run, rocketing along slick ice, with a panic attack at the end of the chute. Dusty wanted to be as close to Dr. Closterman’s office as possible if she hit the wall and ricocheted into a crack-up like the one he had witnessed the previous night.


Although dry heaves racked her with greater force than ever; she achieved no relief, not merely because her stomach was empty; but because she needed to disgorge the undisgorgeable vomitous images churning in her mind. Perhaps her mouth flooded with saliva, as is usual during bouts of nausea, because more than once she spat on the floorboards.

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