Page 41


“Tell me what’s wrong, Martie.”


Her voice was barely louder than a breath: “Such pain.”


“You’re in pain?”


“Her.”


“Tell me who.”


As more tears welled and shimmered in her eyes, she pointed to the rearranged young girl in the photograph.


Puzzled, Ahriman said, “It’s just a photograph.”


“Of a real person,” she murmured.


“She’s been dead a long time.”


“She was alive once.”


Martie’s lacrimal glands were evidently fine specimens. Her lacrimal sacs emptied into the lacrimal lakes, which reached flood stage, and two more droplets sluiced a little misery out of her eyes.


Ahriman was reminded of Susan’s final tear, squeezed out in the last minute of her life. Dying, of course, must be a stressful experience, even when one perishes quietly in a state of extreme personality submersion. Martie was not dying. Yet, these tears.


“You didn’t know this girl,” the doctor persisted.


Barely a whisper: “No.”


“She might have deserved this.”


“No.”


“She might have been a teenage prostitute.” Softly, bleakly: “Doesn’t matter.”


“Perhaps she was a murderer herself.”


“She’s me.”


“What does that mean?” he asked.


“What does that mean?” she parroted.


“You say that she is you. Explain.”


“It can’t be explained.” “Then it’s meaningless.” “It can only be known.”


“It can only be known,” he repeated scornfully.


“Yes.”


“Is this a riddle, maybe a Zen koan or something?” “Is it?” she asked.


“Girls,” he said impatiently. Martie said nothing.


The doctor closed the book, studied her profile for a moment, and then said, “Look at me.”


She turned her head to face him.


“Be still,” he said. “I want to taste.”


Ahriman pressed his lips to each of her welling eyes. A little tongue work, too.


“Salty,” he said, “but something else. A subtle something quite intriguing.”


He required another sip. A spasm of REM caused her eye to quiver erotically against his tongue.


Sitting back from her again, Ahriman said, “Astringent but not bitter.”


Girl’s face shiny damp. All the sorrow of the world. Yet such bright beauty.


Daring to believe that those three lines were the beginning of yet another haiku worth committing to paper, the doctor tucked the verses away in his mind to be polished later.


As if the heat of Ahriman’s lips had withered Martie’s lacrimal apparatus, her eyes grew dry once more.


“You’re going to be a lot more fun than I thought,” Ahriman said.


“You’ll require considerable finesse, but the extra effort ought to be worthwhile. Like all the best toys, the art of your form—your mind and heart—at least equals the thrill of your function. Now I want you to be calm, perfectly calm, detached, observant, obedient.”


“I understand.”


He opened the textbook again.


With the doctor’s patient guidance, dry-eyed this time, Martie studied the crime-scene photograph of the dismembered girl, whose parts had been creatively rearranged. He instructed her to imagine what it would be like to commit this atrocity herself, to glory in the reeking wet reality of what she saw here on the glossy page. To be certain Martie involved all five of her senses in this exercise, Ahriman employed his medical knowledge, his personal experience, and his well-conditioned imagination to assist her with many details of color, texture, and stench.


Then other pages. Other photographs. Fresh corpses but also bodies in various stages of decomposition.


Blink.


Blink.


Finally he returned the two heavy volumes to the bookshelves.


He had spent fifteen minutes too long with Martie, but he had taken considerable satisfaction in refining her appreciation for death. Sometimes the doctor thought he might have been a first-rate teacher, costumed in tweed suits, suspenders, bow ties; and he knew he would have enjoyed working with children.


He instructed Martie to lie on her back, on the couch, and close her eyes. “I’m going to bring Dusty in here now, but you will not hear a word of what either of us says. You will not open your eyes until I tell you to do so. You will go away now into a soundless, lightless place, into a deep sleep, from which you will awake back in the mind chapel only when I kiss your eyes and call you princess.”


After waiting a minute, the doctor timed the pulse in Martie’s left wrist. Slow, thick, steady. Fifty-two beats per minute.


Now on to Mr. Rhodes, housepainter, college dropout, closet intellectual, soon to be infamous from sea to shining sea, unwitting instrument of vengeance.


The novel was about brainwashing, which Dusty realized within a page or two of encountering Dr. Yen Lo.


This discovery startled him almost as much as seeing the name from Skeet’s notepad. He didn’t fumble the book this time, kept his place, but muttered, “Son of a bitch.”


At the kid’s apartment, Dusty had searched without success for evidence of cult membership. No tracts or pamphlets. No religious vestments or icons. Not one caged chicken clucking worriedly as it awaited sacrifice. Now, when Dusty hadn’t even been thinking about Skeet’s troubles, here came the mysterious Chinese physician, popping up from Condon’s novel, revealing himself to be an expert in the science and art of brainwashing.


Dusty didn’t believe in coincidence. Life was a tapestry with patterns to be discerned if you looked for them. This book didn’t just happen to be the one Martie had been carrying around for months. It had been made available to them because it contained a clue to the truth of this insane situation. He would have given his left testicle— or, with more alacrity, all the money in their checking account—to know who had ensured The Manchurian Candidate would be here, now, when needed. Although Dusty believed in a universe intelligently designed, he had difficulty crediting God with working miraculously through a paperback thriller rather than a burning bush or the more traditional and flashier signs in the sky. Okay, so it wasn’t God, wasn’t coincidence, and therefore must be someone of flesh and bone.


Dusty heard himself speaking aloud, as though he were imitating an owl, and he silenced himself with the realization that he knew too little to answer his question.


In Condon’s novel, which was set during and after the Korean War, Dr. Yen Lo had brainwashed some American soldiers, turning one of them into a robotic killer who remained unaware of what had been done to him. Back home, acclaimed a hero, the soldier would lead a normal life—until, activated by a game of simple solitaire and then instructed, he became an obedient assassin.


But the Korean War had ended in 1953, and this thriller had been published in 1959, long before Dusty had been born. Neither the young soldier nor Dr. Yen Lo was real. There was no apparent reason why a connection should exist between this novel and Dusty, Martie, and Skeet with his haiku rules.


He could only read further, in search of revelation.


After he had shot through several more pages, Dusty heard the lever-action handle squeak against its escutcheon on the other side of the door to Ahriman’s office, heard the click of the latch, and suddenly felt that he must let no one catch him reading this book. He was abruptly, inexplicably nervous, and when the door seal broke with the pop and sigh of a violated vacuum, he tossed the paperback aside with alarm, as though he were about to be caught reading vile pornography or, worse, one of the numerous pompous tomes pumped out by his father and stepfathers.


The book slid across the small end table beside his chair, off the edge, and hit the floor with a plop just as the heavy door opened and Dr. Ahriman appeared. Unaccountably flushed, Dusty was getting to his feet even as the paperback was still falling, and he coughed to cover the plop.


Flustered, he heard himself say, “Doctor, is Martie—Did it go— ‘Will she—”


“Viola Narvilly,” the doctor said.


“I’m listening.”


50


After they went through the enabling litany of Dusty’s personal haiku, Dr. Ahriman escorted him into the office and led him directly to the armchair in which Martie had been seated earlier. She slept upon the couch, and Dusty didn’t glance at her.


Ahriman sat in the facing armchair and studied his subject for a minute. The man had a slightly detached attitude, but he responded immediately to the doctor’s voice. His passive expression was nothing stranger than the looks one saw on the faces of motorists caught in the boredom of bumper-to-bumper, rush-hour traffic.


Dustin Rhodes was a relatively new acquisition in the Ahriman collection. He had been fully controlled by the doctor less than two months.


Martie herself, operating under the doctor’s guidance, on three occasions had served to her husband the meticulously blended dose of drugs required to slip him into the twilight sleep that allowed him to be effectively programmed: Rohypnol; phencyclidine; Valium; and a substance known—although only to a few cognoscenti—as Santa Fe #46. Because Dusty always had dessert with dinner, the first dose had come in a slice of peanut butter pie; the second, two nights later, lent neither flavor nor odor to a bowl of crème brulée with a crown of toasted coconut curls; the third, three nights after the second, would have been undetectable to a bloodhound, tucked away in an ice-cream sundae topped with fudge sauce, maraschino cherries, almonds, and chopped dates.


The man knew how to eat. As regarded culinary preferences, at least, the doctor felt a certain kinship with him.


The programming had been conducted in the Rhodeses’ bedroom: Dusty on the bed, Martie sitting cross-legged and out of the way on the big sheepskin pillow in the corner, a floor lamp serving as an W rack. All had gone well.


The dog wanted to be a problem but was too sweet and obedient to do more than growl and sulk. They shut him away in Martie’s study with a bowl of water, a yellow Booda duck with a squeaking tummy, and a Nylabone.


Now, after a seizure of REM passed out of Dusty’s eyes, Dr. Ahriman said, “This won’t take long, but my instructions today are very important.”


“Yes, sir.”


“Martie will return here for an appointment on Friday, the day after tomorrow, and you will arrange your schedule to be able to bring her. Tell me if this is clear.”


“Yes. Clear.”


“Now. You surprised me yesterday—all your heroics at the Sorensons’ house. That was not according to my plan. In the future, if you are present when your brother Skeet attempts suicide, you will not interfere. You may make some effort to talk him out of it, but you’ll do nothing but talk, and in the end you will allow Skeet to destroy himself. Tell me if you understand.”


“I understand.”


“When he does destroy himself, you will be utterly devastated. And angry. Oh, enraged. You will give yourself completely to your emotions. You’ll know at whom to direct your rage, because the name will be there in the suicide note. We’ll discuss this further on Friday.”


“Yes, sir.”


Always one to find time for some fun, even when he had a busy schedule, the doctor glanced at Martie on the couch, and then turned his attention to Dusty. “Your wife is succulent, don’t you think?”


“Do I?”


“Whether you do or not, I think she is a succulent piece.”


Dusty’s eyes were primarily gray, but with blue striations that made them unique. As a boy, Ahriman had been a marble collector, with many sacks of fine glass shooters, and he had owned three that had been similar to, but not as lustrous as, Dusty’s eyes. Martie found her husband’s eyes particularly beautiful, which was why the doctor had gotten such a kick out of implanting the suggestion that her autophobia would really begin to get a grip on her when she had a sudden vision of sticking a key into one of those beloved eyes.


“On this subject,” Ahriman said, “no more curt answers. Let’s have a genuine discussion of your wife’s succulence.”


Dusty’s gaze was fixed not on Ahriman, but on a point in the air midway between them, as he said with no inflection whatsoever, as flatly as a machine might speak, “Succulent, I guess, meaning juicy.”


“Exactly,” the doctor confirmed.


“Grapes are juicy. Strawberries. Oranges. Good pork chops are succulent,” said Dusty. “But the word isn’t. . . accurately descriptive of a person.”


Smiling with delight, Ahriman said, “Oh, really—not accurately descriptive? Be careful, housepainter. Your genes are showing. What if! were a cannibal?”


Unable, in this state, to answer a question with anything but a request for further information, Dusty asked, “Are you a cannibal?”


“If I were a cannibal, I might be accurately descriptive when calling your tasty wife succulent. Enlighten me with your opinion of that, Mr. Dustin Penn Rhodes.”


Dusty’s emotionless tone of voice remained unchanged, but now it seemed drily pedantic, much to the doctor’s amusement. “From a cannibalistic point of view, the word works.”


“I’m afraid that under all your blue-collar earthiness lurks a droning professor.”


Dusty said nothing, but his eyes jiggled with REM.


“Well, though I’m no cannibal,” said Ahriman, “I think your wife is succulent. From now on, in fact, I’ll have a new pet name for her. She’ll be my little pork chop.”


The doctor concluded the session with the usual instructions not to retain any conscious or any accessible subconscious memory of what had transpired between them. Then: “You will return to the outgoing waiting room, Dusty. Pick up the book that you were reading and sit where you were sitting before. Find the point in the text where you were interrupted. Then, in your mind, you’ll leave the chapel where you are now. As you close the chapel door, all recollection of what happened from the moment I stepped out of my office, just after you heard the click of the latch, until you wake from your current state, will have been erased. Then, counting slowly to ten, you’ll ascend the stairs from the chapel. When you reach ten, you will regain full consciousness—and continue reading.”


“I understand.”


“Have a good afternoon, Dusty.”


“Thank you.”


“You’re welcome.”


Dusty rose from his armchair and crossed the office, not once glancing at his wife upon the couch.

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