He saw the notepad on the vanity by the sink, the neat lines of handwriting, and suddenly his leaping heart was pumping as much terror as blood, not a terror of the poor dead woman in the tub, not a cheap horror-movie scare, but icy fear of what this meant for him and Martie and Skeet. He saw through this tableau at once, intuited had imagined, vulnerable to one another, vulnerable each to himself, in a way and to a degree that almost justified Martie’s autophobia.
Before he had read more than a few words of the note, he heard Martie call his name, heard her coming out of the bedroom into the hail. He turned at once and moved forward, blocking her. “No.”
As though she saw everything in his eyes that he had seen in the bathroom, she said, “Oh, God. Oh, tell me no, tell me not her.”
She tried to push past him, but he held her and forced her back toward the living room. “You don’t want a good-bye like this.”
Something tore in her, which he had seen torn only once before, at the deathbed in the hospital, on the night her father had conceded victory to the cancer, rending her into limp rags of emotion, so that she could walk no more easily than a rag doll could walk, could stand no more erectly than the straw-stuffed rags of a scarecrow could ever stand without its props.
Half carried to the living-room sofa, Martie dropped there, in tears. She clawed a needlepoint pillow from an arrangement of them, and hugged it against her chest, hugged it fiercely, as though with the pillow she were trying to staunch her hemorrhaging heart.
While the wind pretended to mourn, Dusty called 911, though the emergency here had ended long hours ago.
With the blustery afternoon huffing at their backs, preceded by the fumes of wintergreen breath mints masking the reek of a garlic-rich lunch, two uniformed officers arrived first.
The mood in the apartment—set by Martie’s quiet grieving, by Dusty’s murmured sympathy, by the spirit voices of the haunting wind—had thus far allowed for the unreasonable thread of fragile hope that holds the heart together in the immediate aftermath of death. Dusty was aware of it in himself, in spite of what he’d seen: the crazy, desperate, so dimly burning, yet not quickly extinguished, pitiable desire to believe that an awful mistake has been made, that the deceased isn’t deceased, but merely unconscious or in a coma, or sleeping, and that she will wake up and walk into the room and wonder what their glum faces signify. He had seen Susan's greenish pallor, the darkening of the flesh along her throat, her bloated face, the purge fluid; and yet a tiny irrational inner voice argued that maybe he had seen only shadows, tricks of light, which he’d misinterpreted. In Martie, who had not viewed the corpse, this faint mad hope must inevitably have had a stronger grip than in Dusty.
The cops put an end to hope merely by their presence. They were polite, soft-spoken, professional, but they were also big men, tall and solid, and by their size alone they imposed a hard reality that crowded out false hope. Their slanguage between themselves— “D.B.” meaning dead body, “a probable 10—56” for a case of apparent suicide—pinned down the certainty of death with words, and the crackle of messages issuing from the transceiver clipped to one of their utility belts was the eerie voice of fate, unintelligible but unignorable.
Two additional uniformed officers arrived, followed closely by a pair of plainclothes detectives, and in the wake of the detectives were a man and a woman from the medical examiner’s office. As the first two men had robbed the moment of hope, this larger group quite unintentionally stole from death its mystery and special dignity, by approaching it as an accountant approaches ledgers, with a workaday respect for routine and a seen-it-all detachment.
The cops had a lot of questions but fewer than Dusty expected, largely because the circumstances of the scene and the condition of the body provided nearly unimpeachable support for a determination of suicide. The declaration of the deceased, on four pages of the notepad, was explicit as to motivation yet contained enough emotion—and enough instances of the particular incoherence of despair—to appear authentic.
Manic identified the handwriting as Susan’s. Comparisons with an unmailed letter from Susan to her mother and with samples from her address book all but eliminated any possibility of forgery. If the investigation raised any suspicion of homicide, a handwriting expert would provide an analysis.
Martie was also singularly qualified to confirm, as claimed in the suicide note, that Susan Jagger had been suffering from severe agoraphobia for sixteen months, that her career had been destroyed, that her marriage had fallen apart, and that she was enduring bouts of depression. Her protests that Susan was nevertheless far from suicidal sounded, even to Dusty, like nothing more than sad attempts to protect a good friend’s reputation and to prevent Susan's memory from being tarnished.
Besides, Martie’s emotional self-reproach, voiced not so much to the police or to Dusty as to herself, made it clear that she was convinced this was suicide. She blamed herself for not being here when Susan needed her, for not calling Susan the previous evening and, perhaps, interrupting her with the razor blade in hand.
Before the authorities arrived, Dusty and Martie had agreed not to mention Susan’s story of a ghostly night visitor who left behind a very unghostly tablespoon or two of biological evidence. Martie thought this tale would only convince the police that Susan was unstable, even flaky; further damaging her reputation.
She also worried that broaching this sensitive subject would lead to questions requiring the revelation of her autophobia. She was loath to expose herself to their gimlet-eyed interrogation and cold psychologizing. She hadn’t harmed Susan, but if she began to expound on her conviction that she had an exceptional potential for violence, the detectives would put a pin in their determination of suicide and would bulldog her for hours until they were certain that her fear of self was as irrational as it seemed to be. And if the stress of all this brought on another panic attack while they were present to witness it, the cops might even decide that she was a danger to herself and to others, committing her against her will to a psychiatric ward for seventy-two hours, which was within their authority.
“I couldn’t tolerate being in a place like that,” Manic had told Dusty before the first police arrived. “Locked up. Watched. I couldn’t handle it.”
“Won’t happen,” he had promised.
He shared her reasons for wanting to keep quiet about Susan’s phantom rapist, but he had another reason, too, which he hadn’t yet disclosed to her. He was convinced, as Martie only wished she were, that Susan had not killed herself, at least not with volition or with awareness of what she was doing. If he revealed this to the police, however, and even made a failed attempt to convince them that here was an extraordinary case involving faceless conspirators and wildly effective techniques of mind control, then he and Martie would be dead, one way or another, before the week was out.
And this was already Wednesday.
Since discovering Dr. Yen Lo in that novel, and especially since discovering the paperback magically returned to his shaky hands after it fell onto the waiting-room floor, Dusty had been burdened by a rapidly growing sense of danger. A clock was ticking. He couldn’t see the clock, couldn’t hear it, but he could feel the reverberation of each hard tick in his bones. Time was running out for him and for Martie. Indeed, with the weight of his fear now grown so great, he was concerned that the cops would detect his anxiety, misunderstand it, and grow suspicious.
Susan’s mother, who lived in Arizona with a new husband, was notified by telephone, as was her father, who lived in Santa Barbara with a new wife. Both were on their way. After the case detective, Lieutenant Bizmet, had quizzed Martie as to the seriousness of the estrangement between Susan and her husband, he called Eric, too, got an answering machine, and left his name, rank, and number, but not any news.
Bizmet, a formidable bulk with buzz-cut blond hair and a stare as direct as a drill bit, was telling Dusty that they were no longer needed here, when Martie was hit by a spasm of autophobia.
Dusty recognized the signs of the seizure. The sudden alarm in her eyes. The pinched expression. Her face a whiter shade of pale.
She dropped to the sofa from which she had just risen, bent forward, hugging herself and rocking, as she had done in the car earlier, shuddering and gasping for breath.
This time, in the company of cops, he wasn’t able to talk her down with reminiscences of their dating days. He could only stand by helplessly, praying that this would not escalate into an all-out panic attack.
To Dusty’s surprise, Lieutenant Bizmet mistook Martie’s auto-phobic misery for another seizure of grief. He stood looking down at her with evident dismay, awkwardly spoke a few consoling words, and cast a sympathetic expression at Dusty.
Some of the other cops glanced at Martie and then returned to their various tasks and conversations, their bloodhound instinct failing to catch the scent.
“Does she drink?” Bizmet asked Dusty.
“Does she what?” he replied, so tense that he was at first unable to puzzle out the meaning of the word drink, as though it were Swahili. “Oh, drink, yes, a little. Why?”
“Take her to a nice bar, pour a few into her, blur the edge off her nerves.”
“Good advice,” Dusty agreed.
“But not you,” Bizmet amended with a scowl.
Heart leaping, Dusty said, “What?”
“A few drinks for her but just one for you if you’re driving.”
“Sure, of course. Never had a citation. Don’t ever want one.”
Martie rocked, shook, gasped, and had the presence of mind to throw in a few stifled sobs of grief. She shook off the seizure in a minute or two, as she’d done in the car on the way here.
With Bizmet’s thanks and sympathies, after only one hour in the apartment, they were on their way into a day grown dark.
The afternoon’s bluster had not faded with the early winter twilight. Its cool breath scented with Pacific brine and with the iodine in snarls of seaweed that lay withering on the nearby shore, the wind harried Dusty and Martie, huffing and squealing as though with accusations of cover-up and guilt.
In the chaotic rattle and click of clashing palm fronds, Dusty heard the half-masked, rhythmic ticking of a clock. He heard it, too, in their footsteps on the promenade, in the action of a three-foot-high decorative windmill that stood on the patio of one of the oceanfacing houses that they passed, and between each half of his two-part heartbeat. Time running out.
Davy Crockett was bravely defending the Alamo, but not solely with the support of his usual compatriots. This time Davy had the help of Eliot Ness and a considerable force of G-men.
One might expect that submachine guns, had they been available to the stalwart men at the Alamo, would have altered the historical outcome of that battle in 1836. After all, the Gatling gun, which was the first crude version of the machine gun, wouldn’t be invented for another twenty-six years. Indeed, automatic rifles weren’t in use, at that time, and the most-advanced weapons in the hands of the combatants were muzzle-loaders.
Unfortunately for the defenders of the Alamo, this time they were under siege by both Mexican soldiers and a bunch of ruthless Prohibition-era gangsters with submachine guns of their own. The combination of Al Capone’s vicious cunning and General Santa Anna’s talent for military strategy might be more than Crockett and Ness could handle.
The doctor briefly considered complicating this epic battle by introducing spacemen and futuristic weapons from his Galaxy Command collection. He resisted this childish temptation, because experience had taught him that the greater number of anachronistic elements he combined on a board, the less satisfying the game. To be engrossing, a play session required him to control his flamboyant imagination and stick strictly to a scenario with one clever but believable concept. Frontiersmen, Mexican soldiers, G-men, gangsters, and spacemen would be just too silly.
Dressed comfortably in black ninja-style pajamas with a scarlet silk belt, barefoot, the doctor slowly circled the board, craftily analyzing the positions of the opposing armies. As he reconnoitered, he rattled a pair of dice in a casting cup.
His immense game board was actually an eight-foot-square table that stood in the center of the room. These sixty-four square feet of terrain could be redesigned for each new game, using his large collection of custom-crafted topographical elements.
The big room, thirty feet square, otherwise contained only an armchair and a small table to hold a telephone and snacks.
Currently, the only illumination came from the downlights in the ceiling directly over the game board. The rest of the room lay in shadows.
All four walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling display shelves on which were stored hundreds of plastic playsets in their original boxes. Most of the boxes were in mint or near-mint condition, and none could be rated less than excellent. Each set contained all its original complement of figures, buildings, and accessories.
Ahrirnan acquired only Marx playsets, those produced by Louis Marx during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The miniature figures in these sets were wonderfully detailed, beautifully produced, and sold for hundreds—even thousands—of dollars on the rare-toy market. In addition to the Alamo and Untouchables sets, his collection included Adventures of Robin Hood, American Patrol, Armored Attack, Ben Hur, Battleground, Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, Fort Apache, Roy Rogers Rodeo Ranch, Tom Corbett Space Academy, and scores of others, many in duplicate and triplicate, which allowed him to populate the tabletop with a large cast of characters.
This evening, the doctor was in an exceptionally fine mood. The game on the board before him promised to be tremendous fun. Better yet, his other and far bigger game, being played in the world beyond this room, was getting more interesting by the hour.
Mr. Rhodes was reading The Manchurian Candidate. Most likely, Dustin would lack the imagination and the intellect to absorb all the clues in that novel and wouldn’t be able to build upon them enough to understand the web in which he was caught. His prospects of saving himself and his wife were still dismal, though better than they had been before he’d cracked open the book.
Only a hopeless narcissist, megalomaniac, or other psychotic would engage in any sport year after year, if he knew in advance that he would win every time. For the true—and well-balanced—games-man, an element of doubt, at least a soupcon of suspense, was required to make the game worth playing. He must test his skills and challenge chance, not to be fair to the other players—fairness was for fools—but to keep himself sharp and to ensure amusement.
Always, the doctor salted his scenarios with traps for himself. Often, the traps were not triggered, but the possibility of disaster, when it loomed, was invigorating and kept him nimble. He loved this impish aspect of himself, and he indulged it.