“Pass. Martie, do you know what this novel is about?”
“Sure. It’s a thriller.”
“But a thriller about what?”
“Entertaining plot, colorful characters. I’m enjoying it.”
“And what’s it about?”
She stared at the paperback, chewing the candy more slowly. “Well, you know thrillers. Run, jump, chase, shoot, run some more.”
In Dusty’s hands, the book seemed to grow cold. Heavier. Its texture began to change, too: The colorful cover seemed slicker than before. As if it weren’t just a book. More than a book. A talisman, too, that might at any moment work its witchery and send him plunging through a magical doorway into a dragon-infested alternate reality of the type Skeet liked to read about. Or maybe the talisman already had performed that trick, without him realizing that he’d stepped out of one world and into another. Here there be dragons.
“Martie, I don’t think you’ve read a sentence of this book. Or even opened it.”
Holding a chocolate between thumb and forefinger, poised to pop it into her mouth, she said, “I told you, it’s a real thriller. The writing’s good. The plot is entertaining, and the characters are colorful. I’m. . . enjoying. . . it.”
Dusty saw that she recognized the singsong quality in her voice. Her mouth was open, but the chocolate morsel remained unpopped. Her eyes widened as if with surprise.
Holding the book up, back cover turned to her, he said, “It’s about brainwashing, Martie. Even the sales copy makes that clear.”
Her expression, better than any words she could have spoken, revealed that the subject of the novel was news to her.
“It takes place during and a few years after the Korean War,” he told her.
The circlet of chocolate was beginning to get tacky between her fingers, so she slipped it into her mouth.
“It’s about this guy,” Dusty said, “this soldier, Raymond Shaw, who has—”
“I’m listening,” she said.
Dusty’s attention was on the book when Martie interrupted him, and when he looked up, he saw that a placid, detached expression had claimed her face. Her mouth hung open. He saw the chocolate lozenge on her tongue.
“Yeah,” she said thickly, not bothering to close her mouth, the candy quivering on her tongue.
Here was the episode with Skeet at New Life Clinic, repeating with Martie.
“Oh, shit,” he said.
She blinked, closed her mouth, tongued the candy into her left cheek, and said, “What’s wrong?”
She was back with him, no longer detached, eyes clear.
“Where did you go?” he asked.
“Here. Just now.”
She cocked her head. “I really think you need a hit of sugar.”
“Why did you say ‘I’m listening’?”
“I didn’t say it.”
Dusty looked through the windshield and saw no obsidian castle with red-eyed fiends manning its saw-toothed battlements, no dragons devouring knights. Just the breeze-swept parking lot, the world as he knew it, though it was less knowable than it had once seemed.
“I was telling you about the book,” he reminded her. “Do you remember the last thing I said about it?”
“Dusty, what on earth—”
She sighed. “Well, you said it’s about this guy, this soldier—”
“And then you said, ‘Oh, shit.’ That’s all.”
He was getting creeped out just holding the book. He put it on the dashboard. “You don’t remember the name of the soldier?”
“You didn’t tell me.”
“Yes, I did. And then.. . you were gone. Last night you told me you feel like you’re missing bits of time. Well, you’ve got a few seconds missing right here.”
She looked disbelieving. “I don’t feel it.”
“Raymond Shaw,” he said.
Detached again. Eyes out of focus. But not as profoundly in a trance as Skeet had been.
Suppose the name activates the subject. Suppose the haiku then makes the subconscious accessible for instruction.
“Clear cascades,” Dusty said, because it was the only haiku with which he was familiar.
Her eyes were glazed, but they didn’t jiggle like Skeet’s.
She hadn’t responded to these lines last night, when she’d been falling asleep; and she wasn’t going to respond to them now. Her trigger was Raymond Shaw, not Dr. Yen Lo, and her haiku was different from Skeet’s.
Nevertheless, he said, “Into the waves scatter.”
She blinked. “Scatter what?”
“You were gone again.”
Regarding him dubiously, she said, “Then who kept my seat warm?”
“I’m serious. You were gone. Like Skeet but different. Just the name, just Dr. Yen Lo, and he got loosey-goosey, babbling about the rules, upset with me because I wasn’t operating him correctly. But you’re tighter, you just wait for the right thing to be said, and then if I don’t have the verse to open you for instruction, you snap right out of it.”
She looked at him as though he were addled.
“I’m not addled,” he insisted.
“You’re definitely weirder than when I married you. What’s this stuff about Skeet?”
“Something bizarre happened at New Life yesterday. I haven’t had a chance to tell you about it.”
“Here’s your chance.”
He shook his head. “Later. Let’s settle this first, prove to you what’s happening. Do you have any candy in your mouth?”
“In my mouth?”
“Yeah. Did you finish that last piece you took, or is some of it still in your mouth?”
She slipped the half-dissolved chocolate morsel out of the pocket of her cheek, showed it to him on the tip of her tongue, and then tucked it away again. Holding the half-finished roll of candy toward him, she said, “But wouldn’t you prefer an unused piece?”
Taking the roll from her, he said, “Swallow the candy.”
“Sometimes I like to let it melt.”
“You can let the next one melt,” he said impatiently. “Come on, come on, swallow it.”
“No, I’m irritable by nature,” he said, peeling a chocolate from the roll. “Have you swallowed?”
She swallowed theatrically.
“No candy in your mouth?” he pressed. “It’s gone? All of it?”
“Yeah, yeah. But what does this have to do with—”
“Raymond Shaw,” Dusty said.
Eyes drifting out of focus, a subtle slackness pulling down on her face, mouth open expectantly, she waited for the haiku that he didn’t know.
Instead of poetry, Dusty gave her candy, slipping the chocolate lozenge between her open lips, past her teeth, onto her tongue, which didn’t even twitch when the treat touched it.
Even as Dusty leaned away from her, Martie blinked, started to finish the sentence that Dusty had interrupted with the name Raymond Shaw—and became aware of the candy in her mouth.
For her, this moment was equivalent to Dusty’s finding the book in his hand again, magically, the instant after dropping it on the waiting-room floor. He had almost thrown the paperback across the room, in shock, before he’d checked himself. Martie wasn’t able to check herself: She gasped with surprise, choked, coughed, and ejected the candy with immeasurably more force than a Pez dispenser, scoring a direct hit on his forehead.
“I thought you liked to let them melt,” he said.
As he wiped the candy off his forehead with a Kleenex, Dusty said, “You were gone for a few seconds.”
“I was gone,” she agreed, a tremor in her voice.
Her post-therapy glow was fading. She scrubbed nervously at her mouth with the back of her hand, pulled down the sun visor to examine her face in the small mirror, at once recoiled from her reflection, and flipped the visor up again. She shrank back in the seat.
“Skeet,” she reminded him.
As succinctly as possible, Dusty told her about the plunge off the Sorensons’ roof, the pages from the notepad in Skeet’s kitchen, the episode at New Life, and his recent realization that he himself was experiencing at least brief periods of missing time. “Blackouts, fugues, whatever you want to call them.”
“You, me, and Skeet,” she said. She glanced at the paperback on the dashboard. “But. . . brainwashing?”
He was acutely aware of how outlandish his theory seemed, but the events of the past twenty-four hours lent it credibility, though without diminishing the absurdity factor. “Maybe, yeah. Something's happened to us. Something’s. . . been done to us.”
He checked his wristwatch. “We better go. Have to meet Ned.”
“What’s Ned got to do with this?”
Starting the engine, Dusty said, “Nothing. I asked him to get some things for me.”
As Dusty backed the car out of the parking slot, Martie said, “Back to the big question. Why us? Why is this happening to us?”
“Okay, I know what you’re thinking. A housepainter, a video-game designer, and poor Skeet the feeb. Who would have anything to gain by messing with our minds, controlling us?”
Plucking the paperback off the dashboard, she said, “Why do they brainwash the guy in this story?”
“They turn him into an assassin who can never be traced back to the people who control him.”
“You, me, and Skeet—assassins?”
“Until he shot John Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald was at least as big a nobody as we are.”
“True. And Sirhan Sirhan. And John Hinckley.”
Whether or not the sea would prove to be heavily marbled with black when eventually he saw it, Dusty was aware of a new downshift in his mood, now that the comforting ambience of the psychiatrist’s office was far behind him. At the exit from the parking lot, when he came to the cashier’s kiosk with its striped crossbar blocking the lane, the little building seemed to house a threat, as though it were a guard post at some remote, godforsaken border crossing high in the Balkans, where uniformed thugs with machine guns routinely robbed and sometimes murdered travelers. The cashier was a pleasant woman—thirtyish, pretty, somewhat chubby, with a butterfly barrette in her hair—but Dusty had the paranoid feeling that she was someone other than whom she appeared to be. When the crossbar rose and he drove out of the lot, half the cars passing in the street seemed likely to harbor surveillance teams assigned to track him
On Newport Center Drive, the wind-shaken rows of towering palm trees tossed their fronds, as if warning Dusty off the route that he was driving.
Martie said, “Okay, if something like this was done to us—who did it?”
“In The Manchurian Candidate, it’s the Soviets, the Chinese, and the North Koreans.”
“The Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore,” she noted. “Somehow, I can’t see the three of us being the instruments of an elaborate conspiracy of Asian totalitarians.”
“In the movies, it would probably be extraterrestrials.”
“Great,” she said sarcastically. “Let’s call Fig Newton and tap into his vast store of knowledge on the subject.”
“Or some giant corporation bent on turning us all into mindless, robotic consumers.”
“I’m halfway there without their help,” she said.
“A secret government agency, scheming politicians, Big Brother.”
“That one’s a little too real for comfort. But again—why us?”
“If it wasn’t us, it would have to be somebody else.”
“I know,” Dusty said, smoldering with more frustration than a monastery full of celibates.
From the shadowy regions of his mind, another answer teased him, glimmering dully but not bright enough for him to get a clear look at it. Indeed, every time he went into the shadows after it, the thought slipped away altogether.
He remembered the drawing of the forest that became a city when his preconceived perception of it changed. Here was another situation where he couldn’t see the city for the trees.
He recalled, as well, the dream of the lightning and the heron. The inflation bulb of the sphygmomanometer had floated in midair, being compressed and released by an invisible hand. In that dream with him and Martie, there had been a third presence as transparent as a ghost.
That presence was their tormentor, whether an extraterrestrial or an agent of Big Brother, or someone else. Dusty suspected that if he were indeed operating according to some hypnotically implanted program, then his programmers had hobbled him with the suggestion that if he ever became suspicious, his suspicion would not fall on them but on a host of other suspects both probable and improbable, such as aliens and government agents. His enemy might cross his path at any moment but be as effectively invisible in real life as he was in the nightmare of the shrieking heron.
As Dusty turned right onto Pacific Coast Highway, Martie opened The Manchurian Candidate and scanned the first sentence in it, which contained the name that had triggered her mini-blackout. Dusty saw a chill shiver through her when she read it, but she didn’t switch into that detached, anticipatory state.
Then she spoke it aloud, “Raymond Shaw,” with no more serious effect than another brief shiver.
“Maybe it doesn’t work on you properly when you read it or say it yourself,” he suggested, “only when someone says it to you.”
“Or maybe just by knowing the name, I’ve taken away its power over me.”
“Raymond Shaw,” he said.
When Martie returned to full consciousness after about ten seconds, Dusty said, “Welcome back. And so much for that theory.”
Scowling at the book, she said, “We should take it home and burn it.”
“No point doing that. There are clues in it. Secrets. Whoever put the book into your hands—and I tend to think you didn’t just go out and buy it—whoever they are, they must be working the other side of the street from the people who programmed us. They want us to wise up to what’s happening to us. And the book is a key. They gave you a key to unlock all this.”