Dusty nodded. “These are only things she’s afraid of doing—not anything she could do. Not her, not Martie.”
“Like hell I couldn’t,” she said from behind a veil of fingers.
When Closterman had gone, Dusty moved the reflex hammer and the ballpoint beyond Martie’s reach. “Feel better?”
Between her fingers, she had seen his act of consideration. “This is mortifying.”
“Can I hold your hand?”
A hesitation. Then: “Okay.”
When Closterman returned, having phoned in a prescription for Valium to their usual pharmacy, he had two individually packaged samples of the drug. He opened one sample and gave it to Martie with a paper cup full of water.
“Martie,” said Closterman, “I truly believe the tests are going to rule out any intracranial mass—neoplastic, cystic, inflammatory, and gummatous. A lot of us, we get an unusual headache that takes a while to go away—we right away think, at least in the back of our mind, it must be a tumor. But brain tumors aren’t that common.”
“This isn’t a headache,” she reminded him.
“Exactly. And headaches are a prime symptom of brain tumors. As is a retinal condition called choked disk, which I didn’t find when I examined your eyes. You mentioned vomiting and nausea. If you were vomiting without nausea, then we’d have a classic symptom. From what you told me, you don’t actually have hallucinations—”
“Just these unpalatable thoughts, grotesque images in your head, but you don’t mistake them for things really happening. What I see is anxiety of a high order. So when all is said and done, though we have a lot of physiological conditions to eliminate first. . . Well, I suspect I’ll need to recommend a therapist.”
“We already know one,” Martie said.
“He’s supposed to be one of the best,” Dusty said. “Maybe you’ve heard of him. A psychiatrist. Dr. Mark Ahriman.”
Although Roy Closterman’s round face couldn’t produce the sharp angles of a suitably disapproving frown, it smoothed at once into a perfectly inscrutable expression that could be read no more easily than alien hieroglyphics from another galaxy. “Yes, Ahriman, he has a fine reputation. And his books, of course. Where did you get the recommendation? I imagine his patient list is full.”
“He’s been treating a friend of mine,” Martie said.
“May I ask for what condition?”
“A terrible thing.”
“It’s changed her life.”
“How’s she doing?”
Martie said, “Dr. Ahriman thinks she’s nearing a breakthrough.”
“Good news,” Closterman said.
The sun-leathered skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled, and his lips tweaked up to precisely the same degree at both sides of his mouth, but this was not the broad and winning smile of which he was capable. In fact, it was hardly a smile at all, just a variation of his inscrutable look, reminiscent of the smile on a statue of Buddha: benign but conveying more mystery than mirth.
Still tweaked and crinkled, he said, “But if you find that Dr. Ahriman isn’t taking on new patients, I know a wonderful therapist, a compassionate and quite brilliant woman, who I’m sure would see you.” He picked up Martie’s file and the pen with which she could have put out his eye. “First, before there’s any talk of therapy, let’s get those tests done. They’re expecting you at the hospital, and the various departments have promised to squeeze you into their schedules as if you were an emergency-room admission, no appointments needed. I’ll have all the results by Friday, and then we can decide what’s next. By the time you dress and get next door, that Valium will have kicked in. If you need another one before you can get the prescription filled, you’ve got the second sample. Any questions?”
Why don’t you like Mark Abriman? Dusty wondered.
He didn’t ask the question. Considering his distrust of most academics and experts—two labels Ahriman no doubt wore with pride— and considering his respect for Dr. Closterman, Dusty found his reticence inexplicable. Nevertheless, the question remained glued between his tongue and the roof of his mouth.
Minutes later, as he and Martie were crossing the quadrangle from the office tower to the hospital, Dusty realized that his reluctance to pose the question, though strange, was less puzzling than his failure to inform Dr. Closterman that he had already phoned Ahriman’s office to seek an appointment later this same day and was awaiting a callback.
Hard skreaks from overhead drew his attention. Thin gray clouds like bolts of dirty linen had been flung across the azure sky, and three fat black crows wheeled through the air, jinking now and then as if plucking fibers from that raveled, rotting mist to build nests in graveyards.
For some reasons clear and others not, Dusty thought of Poe, of a bad-news raven perched above a doorway. Although Martie, in a Valium lull, held his hand with none of her previous reluctance, Dusty thought also of Poe’s lost maiden, Lenore, and he wondered if the skreak of the crow, translated into the tongue of the raven, might be “nevermore.”
In the hematology lab, while Martie sat watching her blood slowly fill a series of tubes, she chatted with the technician, a young Vietnamese American, Kenny Phan, who had gotten the needle into her vein quickly and without a sting.
“I cause much less discomfort than a vampire,” Kenny said with an infectious grin, “and usually have sweeter breath.”
Dusty would have watched with normal interest had this been his blood being drawn, but he was squeamish at the sight of Martie’s.
Sensitive to his discomfort, she asked that he use the moment to get Susan Jagger on his cell phone.
He placed the call and waited through twelve rings. When Susan didn’t answer, he pressed end and asked Martie for the number.
“You know the number.”
“Maybe I entered it wrong.”
He keyed it in again, reciting it aloud, and when he pressed the final number, Martie said, “That’s it.”
This time he waited through sixteen rings before terminating the call. “She isn’t there.”
“But she must be there. She’s never anywhere else—unless she’s with me.”
“Maybe she’s in the shower.”
“No answering machine?”
“No. I’ll try later.”
Mellowed by the Valium, Martie looked thoughtful, perhaps even concerned, but not worried.
Replacing a full tube of blood with the final empty vial, Kenny Phan said, “One more for my personal collection.”
Martie laughed, this time without an underlying tremor of any darker emotion.
In spite of the circumstances, Dusty felt as though normal life might be within their grasp again, much easier to rediscover than he had imagined in the grimmer moments of the past fourteen hours.
As Kenny Phan was applying a small, purple Barney the Dinosaur adhesive bandage to the needle puncture, Dusty’s cell phone rang. Jennifer, Dr. Ahriman’s secretary, was calling to confirm that the psychiatrist would be able to rearrange his afternoon schedule to see them at one-thirty.
“That’s a bit of luck,” Martie said with evident relief when Dusty gave her the news.
Dusty, too, was relieved—curiously so, considering that if Martie’s problem was psychological, the prognosis for a quick and full recovery might be less reassuring than if the malady had an entirely physical cause. He had never met Dr. Mark Ahriman, and yet a warm sense of security, a comforting flame, had been lit in him by the call from the psychiatrist’s secretary—which was also a curious and surprising reaction.
If the problem wasn’t medical, Ahriman would know what to do. He would be able to uncover the roots of Martie’s anxiety.
Dusty’s reluctance to put his trust entirely in experts of any kind was borderline pathological, and he was the first to admit as much. He was somewhat dismayed with himself for being so eager to hope that Dr. Ahriman, with all his degrees and his best-selling books and his exalted reputation, would possess a nearly magical ability to set things right.
Evidently he was more like the average sucker than he had wanted to believe he could be. When everything he cared most about—Martie and their life together—was at risk, and when his own knowledge and common sense were inadequate to solve the problem, then in his abject fear, he turned to the experts not merely with a pragmatic degree of hope but also with something uncomfortably close to faith.
All right, okay. So what? If he could just have Martie back in charge of herself as she had been, healthy and happy, he would humble himself before anyone, anytime, anywhere.
Still all in black but with purple Barney on her arm, Martie left the hematology lab hand-in-hand with Dusty. An MRI scan was next.
The corridors smelled of floor wax, disinfectant, and a faint underlying scent of illness.
A nurse and an orderly approached, rolling a gurney on which lay a young woman no older than Martie. She was connected to an IV drip. Compresses had been applied to her face; they were spotted with fresh blood. One of her eyes was visible: open, gray-green, and glazed with shock.
Dusty looked away, feeling that he had violated this stranger’s privacy, and he tightened his hold on Martie’s hand, superstitiously certain that in this injured woman’s glassy stare was more bad luck poised to jump, quick as a blink, from her to him.
Tweaked and crinkled, the inscrutable smile of Closterman rose Cheshire-like in Dusty’s memory.
From dreamless sleep, the doctor woke late, refreshed and looking forward to the day.
In the fully equipped gym that was part of the master suite, he completed two full circuits on the weight-training machines and half an hour on a reclining, stationary bicycle.
This was the sum of his exercise regimen, three times a week, yet he was as fit as he had been twenty years ago, with a thirty-two-inch waist and a physique that women liked. He credited his genes and the fact that he had the good sense not to let stress accumulate.
Before showering, he used the telephone intercom to call the kitchen and ask Nella Hawthorne to prepare breakfast. Twenty minutes later, hair damp, smelling faintly of a spice-scented skin lotion, wearing a red silk robe, he returned to the bedroom and retrieved his breakfast from the electric dumbwaiter.
On the antique sterling-silver tray were a carafe of freshly squeezed orange juice kept cold in a small silver bucket full of ice, two chocolate croissants, a bowl of strawberries accompanied by supplies of brown sugar and heavy cream, an orange-almond muffin with a half cup of whipped butter on the side, a slice of coconut pound cake with lemon marmalade, and a generous serving of french-fried pecans sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon for nibbling between other treats.
Though forty-eight, the doctor boasted the metabolism of a ten-year-old boy on methamphetamines.
He ate at the brushed-steel and zebrawood desk where a few hours ago he had studied his father’s disembodied eyes.
The jar of formaldehyde was still here. He had not returned it to the safe before retiring for the night.
Some mornings, he switched on the television to watch the news with his breakfast; however, none of the anchormen or anchor-women, regardless of the channel, had eyes as intriguing as those of Josh Ahriman, dead now for twenty years.
The strawberries were as ripe and flavorful as any the doctor had ever eaten. The croissants were sublime.
Dad’s gaze settled languishingly upon the morning feast.
A formidable prodigy, the doctor had completed all his education and opened his psychiatric practice while still in his twenties, but though learning had come easily to him, well-heeled patients had not, in spite of his Hollywood connections through his father. Although the film-business elite loudly proclaimed their egalitarianism, many harbored a prejudice against youth in psychiatry, and they were not ready to lie down on the couch of a twenty-something therapist. To be fair, the doctor had looked much younger than his age— still did—and could have passed for eighteen when he hung out his shingle. Nevertheless, in the movie biz, where the sight of someone wearing his heart on his sleeve was more commonly encountered than the name of even the most spectacularly successful fashion designer of the moment, Ahriman had been frustrated to find himself a victim of such hypocrisy.
His father had continued to provide generous support, but the doctor had been increasingly reluctant to accept his old man’s largesse. How embarrassing it was to be dependent at twenty-eight, especially considering his considerable academic achievements. Besides, as open as Josh Ahriman’s wallet had been, the allowance that he provided was not sufficient for the doctor to live in the style he desired or to finance research he wished to conduct.
Only child and sole heir, he killed his father with a massive dose of ultra short-acting thiobarbital combined with paraldehyde, injected into a pair of delicious chocolate-covered marzipan petits fours, for which the old man had a weakness. Before torching the house to destroy the mutilated body, the doctor performed a partial dissection of Dad’s face, searching for the source of his tears.
Josh Ahriman was a spectacularly successful writer, director, and producer—a genuine triple threat—whose work ranged from simple love stories to patriotic tales of courage under fire. Diverse as these films were, they had one thing in common: Audiences the world over were reduced to tears by them. Some critics—though by no means all—labeled them sentimental hogwash, but the paying public flocked to the theaters, and Dad picked up two Oscars—one for directing, one for writing—before his untimely death at fifty-one.
His movies were box-office gold because the sentiment in them was sincere. Although he had the requisite ruthlessness and duplicity to succeed big-time in Hollywood, Dad also possessed a sensitive soul and such a tender heart that he was one of the championship criers of his time. He wept at funerals even when the deceased was someone for whose death he had often and fervently prayed. He wept unashamedly at weddings, at anniversary celebrations, at divorce proceedings, at bar mitzvahs, at birthday parties, at political rallies, at cockfights, on Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July and Labor Day—and most copiously, bitterly, on the anniversary of his mother’s death, when he remembered it.
Here was a man who knew all the secrets of tears. How to wring them from sweet grandmothers and labor racketeers alike. How to move beautiful women with them. How to use them to purge himself of grief, pain, disappointment, stress. Even his moments of joy were heightened and made more exquisite with the spice of tears.
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