Page 42


When the mister was gone, the doctor went to the missus and stood studying her. Succulent, indeed.


He dropped to one knee beside the couch, kissed each of her closed eyes, and said, “My pork chop.”


This, of course, had no effect, but it gave the doctor a laugh.


Another kiss to each eye. “Princess.”


She woke but was still in the mind chapel, not yet permitted full consciousness.


At Ahriman’s instruction, she returned to the armchair in which she had been sitting earlier.


Settling into his chair, he said, “Martie, through the rest of the afternoon and early evening, you will feel somewhat more at peace than you have been during the past twenty-four hours. Your auto-phobia hasn’t disappeared, but it has relented a bit. For a while, you’ll be troubled only by a low-grade uneasiness, a sense of fragility, and brief spells of sharper fear at the rate of about one an hour, each only a minute or two in duration. But later, at about. . . oh, at about nine o’clock, you will experience your worst panic attack yet. It’ll begin in the usual way, escalate as before—but suddenly through your mind will pass the dead and tortured people we studied together, all the stabbed and shot and mutilated bodies, the decomposing cadavers, and you’ll become convinced, against all reason, that you personally are responsible for what happened to them, that your hands committed all this torture and murder. Your hands. Your hands. Tell me if you understand what I have said.”


“My hands.”


“I leave the details of your big moment to you. You’ve certainly got the raw materials for it.”


“I understand.”


Sizzling passion eyes. Simmer in broth of eros. My juicy pork chop.


Haiku with culinary metaphor. This was nothing the masters of Japanese verse were likely to endorse, but although the doctor respected the demandingly formal structures of haiku, he was enough of a free spirit to make his own rules from time to time.


Dusty was reading about Dr. Yen Lo and the team of dedicated Communist mind-control specialists who were screwing with the brains of the hapless American soldiers, when suddenly he exclaimed, “What the hell is this,” referring to the paperback that he was holding in his hands.


He nearly pitched The Manchurian Candidate across the waiting room, but checked himself. Instead, he dropped it on the little table next to his chair, shaking his right hand as though the book had burnt him.


He sprang to his feet and stood looking down at the damn thing. He was no less shocked and spooked than he would have been if an evil sorcerer’s curse had transformed the novel into a rattlesnake.


When he dared to look away from the book, he glanced at the door to Dr. Ahriman’s office. Closed. It looked as though it had been closed since time immemorial. As formidable as a stone monolith.


The squeak of the lever-action handle, the click of the latch: He had clearly heard both those sounds. Embarrassment, alarm, shame, a sense of danger. Inexplicably, those feelings and more had crackled through him as quick as an electric arc snapping across a tiny gap in a circuit: Don’t be caught reading this! Reflexively, he had tossed the book on the table, and because its shiny cover was slippery, it had sailed right off the granite top. The door had done its pop-sigh vacuum thing, and he had started to shoot to his feet as the book hit the floor with a plop, and then... and then the novel was back in his hand, and he was reading, sitting in his chair, as if the squeak-click-pop-sigh-plop moment of alarm had never happened. Maybe his entire life, from birth to death,


was on a videotape up there in kingdom come, where one of the celestial editors had rewound it a few seconds, to the moment immediately before the sounds of the door had alarmed him, erasing all those events from his past but forgetting to erase his memory of them. Apparently, an apprentice editor with a lot to learn.


Magic. Dusty recalled the fantasy novels in Skeet’s apartment. Wizards, warlocks, necromancers, sorcerers, spellcasters. This was the kind of experience that made you believe in magic—or question your sanity.


He reached for the book on the table, where he had dropped it— for the second time?—and then he hesitated. He poked the book with one finger, but it didn’t hiss or open an eye and wink at him.


He picked it up, turned it wonderingly in his hands, and then riffled the pages across his thumb.


That sound reminded him of a deck of cards being snap-shuffled, which reminded him, in turn, that the brainwashed American soldier in the novel, the one programmed to be an assassin, was activated when handed a pack of cards and asked Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire? To be effective, the question had to be asked in exactly those words. The guy then played solitaire until he turned up the queen of diamonds, whereupon his subconscious mind became accessible to his controller, making him ready to receive his instructions.


Gazing thoughtfully at the paperback, Dusty let the edges of the pages fan across his thumb again.


He sat down, still thoughtful. Still thumbing the pages.


What he had here wasn’t magic. What he had here was another bit of missing time, only a few seconds, shorter even than his moment on the phone in the kitchen, the previous day.


Shorter?


Was it really?


He consulted his wristwatch. Maybe not shorter. He couldn’t be sure, because he hadn’t checked the time since reading the first words of the novel. Maybe he had been zoned out for a few seconds or maybe for ten minutes, even longer.


Missing time.


What sense did this make?


None.


Energized by gut instinct, mind spinning along a trail of logic twister than the human intestinal tract, he couldn’t concentrate on Condon’s novel right now. He crossed the room to the coat rack and tucked the book in his own jacket rather than in Martie’s.


From another jacket pocket, he withdrew his phone.


Instead of activating the brainwashed, programmed person with a precisely worded question—Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?—why not activate him with a name? Dr. Yen Lo.


Instead of the deep subconscious becoming accessible to the controller upon the appearance of the queen of diamonds.. . why not access it by the recitation of a few lines of poetry? Haiku.


Pacing, Dusty entered Ned Motherwell’s mobile number.


Ned answered on the fifth ring. He was still at the Sorensons’ house. “Couldn’t paint today, still damp from the rain, but we’ve done a lot of prep work. Hell, Fig and I have gotten more done today, just us, than we get done in two days with that hopeless little turd hanging around, smacked on one kind of dope or another.”


“Skeet’s doing fine,” Dusty said. “Thanks for asking.”


“I hope wherever you took him, they’re kicking his skinny ass around the clock.”


“Absolutely. I checked him into Our Lady of the Ass-Kickers Hospital.”


“There ought to be such a place.”


“I’m sure if Straight Edgers take over the church, there’ll be one in every town. Listen, Ned, can you let Fig close up the job today while you do something for me?”


“Sure. Fig isn’t a dope-sucking, self-destructive, walking scrotum. Fig is reliable.”


“Has he seen Big Foot recently?”


“If he ever said he did, I’d believe him.”


“Me, too,” Dusty admitted.


He told Ned Motherwell what he needed to have done, and they agreed on when and where to meet.


After terminating the call, Dusty clipped the phone to his belt. He checked his watch. Almost three o’clock. He sat down again.


Two minutes later, hunched forward in his chair, forearms on his thighs, hands clasped between his knees, staring at the black granite floor, Dusty was thinking so hard that the wax should have been blown out of his ears with the velocity of bullets. When the lever- action handle squeaked and the latch clicked, he twitched but didn’t explode to his feet.


Martie came out of the office first, smiling prettily, and Dusty rose to greet her, smiling less prettily, and Dr. Ahriman entered the waiting room behind her, smiling paternally, and maybe Dusty smiled a little more prettily when he saw the psychiatrist, because the man virtually radiated competence and compassion and confidence and all sorts of good stuff.


“Excellent session,” Dr. Ahriman assured Dusty. “We’re already making progress. I believe Martie is going to respond brilliantly to therapy, I really do.”


“Thank God,” Dusty said, getting Martie’s jacket from the rack “Not to say there won’t be difficult times ahead,” the doctor cautioned. “Perhaps even worse panic attacks than any heretofore. This is, after all, a rare and challenging phobia. But whatever short-term setbacks there may be, I’m absolutely sure that in the long term there will be a complete cure.”


“Long term?” Dusty asked, but not worriedly, because no one could be worried in the presence of the doctor’s confident smile.


“Not more than a few months,” Dr. Ahriman said, “perhaps much more quickly. These things have clocks of their own, and we can’t set them. But there’s every reason to be optimistic. I’m not even going to consider a medication component at this time, just therapy for a week or two, and then see where we are.”


Dusty almost mentioned the prescription for Valium that Dr. Closterman had issued, but Martie spoke first.


Shrugging into her black leather jacket as Dusty held it for her, she said, “Honey, I feel pretty good. Really much, much better. I really do.”


“Friday morning. Ten o’clock appointment,” Dr. Ahriman reminded them.


“We’ll be here,” Dusty assured him.


Smiling, nodding, Ahriman said, “I’m certain you will.”


When the doctor retreated to his inner office and closed the heavy door, a measure of warmth went out of the waiting room. A little chill came in from somewhere.


“He’s really a great psychiatrist,” Martie said.


Zipping up his jacket, Dusty said, “He’s deeply committed to his patients,” and though he was smiling and still felt good, some cranky part of him wondered how he knew Ahriman was committed to anything more than collecting his fees.


Opening the door to the fourteenth-floor corridor, Martie said, “He’ll make this trouble go away. I feel good about him.”


In the long corridor, heading toward the elevator, Dusty said, “Who uses the word heretofore?”


“What do you mean?”


“He used it. Dr. Ahriman. Heretofore.”


“Did he? Well, it’s a word, isn’t it?”


“But how often do you ever hear it? I mean outside a lawyer’s office or a courtroom.”


“What’s your point?”


Frowning, Dusty said, “I don’t know.”


In the elevator alcove, when she pushed the call button, Martie said, “Heretofore, you have generally made sense, but not now.”


“It’s a pompous word.”


“No, it’s not.”


“In everyday conversation it is,” he insisted. “It’s something my old man would say. Trevor Penn Rhodes. Or Skeet’s old man. Or either of her other two elitist-bastard husbands.”


“You’re ranting, which you’ve seldom done heretofore. What’s your point?”


He sighed. “I guess I don’t have one.”


On the way down to the ground floor, Dusty’s stomach dropped out of him, as though they were in an express elevator to Hell.


Crossing the lobby, he seemed to be decompressing after a dive into a deep ocean trench, or adjusting to gravity after living in a space shuttle for a week. Coming out of a dream.


As they approached the doors, Martie took his arm, and he said, “I’m sorry, Martie. I’m just feeling. . . weird.”


“That’s okay. You were weird when I married you.”


51


Unlike Dr. Ahriman’s fourteenth-floor suite, the parking lot offered no view of the nearby Pacific. Dusty couldn’t see whether the ocean was as ominously dark now as it had appeared to be from the psychiatrist's office.


The sky was sludge, but it didn’t press down with full doomsday weight as before, and within the works of man, he could no longer see the future wreckage from pending cataclysms.


The breeze was promoting itself to a wind, busily sweeping dead leaves and a few small scraps of litter across the pavement.


In the car, Martie had a nervous edge to her, although it was only a fraction as sharp as it had been this morning. Still in a post-therapy glow, she rummaged through the glove box, found a roll of chocolate candies, and popped them into her mouth one at a time, chewing each with relish. Evidently she had no concern that she would have to give them back later, in a panic attack, if she found herself bent forward, retching uncontrollably.


Declining a chocolate when Martie offered it, Dusty withdrew the paperback from his jacket pocket and said, “Where did you get this?”


She glanced at the book and shrugged. “Picked it up somewhere.”


“Did you buy it?”


“Bookstores don’t give the things away, you know.”


“Which bookstore?”


Frowning, she said, “What’s this about?”


“I’ll explain. But first I need to know. Which store? Barnes and Noble? Borders? Book Carnival, where you buy mysteries?”


Chewing chocolate, she studied the paperback for a long moment, and a bemused look came over her. “I don’t know.”


“Well, it’s not as if you buy a hundred books a week from twenty different stores,” he said impatiently.


“Yeah, okay, but I never claimed to have your memory. Don’t you remember where I got it?”


“I must not have been with you.”


Martie put down the roll of candies and took the paperback from him. She didn’t open the book or even fan the pages with her thumb, as he might have expected, but she held it in both hands, staring at the title, held it very tightly, as though trying to squeeze out its origins as she might squeeze juice from an orange.


“I better go back to the hospital, get a test for early-onset Alzheimer’s,” she finally said, returning the book to Dusty and picking up the chocolates.


“Maybe it was a gift,” he suggested.


“From whom?”


“That’s what I’m asking.”


“No. If it was a gift, I’d remember.”


“When you examined the book just now, why didn’t you open it?”


“Open it? There’s nothing in it that’ll tell me where I bought it.” She held out the half-depleted roll of candy. “Here. You’re a little irritable. Maybe you’re hypoglycemic. Pump in some sugar.”

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