Page 46

He had, for instance, permitted Susan Jagger to be aware of the se**n that he left in her. He could have instructed her to remain oblivious of this distasteful evidence, and she would have blocked it from her mind. By allowing her awareness and by suggesting that she direct her suspicion at her estranged husband, the doctor had established powerful character dynamics, the consequences of which he could not predict. Indeed, this had led to the near thing with the videotape, which was the last development that he could have imagined.

Among other traps in this game was The Manchurian Candidate. He had given the paperback to Martie, instructing her to forget from whom she had received it. He implanted the notion that during each of Susan’s sessions, Martie was reading a little of the novel, though she was actually reading none at all, and he inadequately supported this suggestion by seeding in her a few sentences of an improbably general nature, which she could use to describe the story if Susan or anyone else asked her about it. If Martie’s feeble, wooden description of the book had puzzled Susan, perhaps she might have delved into it, discovering connections to her real-life dilemma. Martie herself was not strictly forbidden from reading the novel, only discouraged from doing so, and eventually she might overcome that discouragement when Ahriman least expected. Instead, for whatever reason, Mr. Rhodes had gone fishing in this fiction.

Where does fiction end and reality begin? That is the essence of the game.

As the doctor circled the big table, wondering whether Crockett or Capone would be victorious, his black ninja pajamas rustled with silken sibilance. Rattle-rattle, the dice in the cup.

If asked, the interior designers would say that the theme was contemporary bistro, Italian modern. They wouldn’t be lying, or necessarily disingenuous, but their answer would be beside the point. All this glossy dark wood and black marble, all these sleek polished surfaces, the vulviform amber-onyx sconces, the long back-bar mural of a Rousseau-like jungle with vegetation more lush than any in reality and with mysterious feline eyes peering from between rain-jeweled leaves—all this spoke to one theme and one theme only: sex.

Half the place was a restaurant, the other half a bar, connected by a massive archway flanked by mahogany columns on marble plinths. This early in the evening, with workers just getting out of offices, the bar was crowded with affluent young singles on the prowl more aggressively than any jungle cats, but the dining room wasn’t yet busy

The hostess seated Dusty and Martie in a booth with such high backs on its leather seats that it was virtually a private space, open on only one side to the room.

Martie was uneasy about being in such a public place, chancing utter mortification if she were stricken by an all-stops-pulled panic attack. She drew strength from the fact that her recent seizures, since leaving Dr. Ahriman’s office, had been comparatively mild and of brief duration.

In spite of the risk of humiliation, she would rather eat here than in the shelter of her kitchen. She was reluctant to go home, where the untidied wreckage in the garage would remind her of her demented, manic determination to rid her house of potential weapons.

More daunting than the garage or other reminders of her loss of control, the answering machine waited in her study. On it, as sure as Halloween came in October, was a message from Susan, dating to the previous evening.

Duty and honor would not permit Martie to erase the tape without hearing it, nor was she able to allow herself to delegate that grim responsibility to Dusty. She owed Susan this personal attention.

Before she would be able to listen to that beloved voice and be prepared to bear the greater guilt that it would surely induce, she needed to polish up her courage. And wash down some fortitude.

As law-abiding citizens, they followed Lieutenant Bizmet’s advice: a bottle of Heineken for Dusty, Sierra Nevada for Martie.

With her first chug of beer, she chased a Valium, in spite of the warning on the pharmacy bottle, which cautioned about mixing benzodiazepines and alcohol.

Live hard, die young. Or die young anyway. Those seemed to be the choices facing them.

“If only I’d called her back last night,” Martie said.

“You weren’t in any condition to call her. You couldn’t have helped her anyway.”

“Maybe, if I’d heard it in her voice, I could have gotten help for her.”

“It wouldn’t have been in her voice. Not what you mean, not some worse note of depression, not suicidal despair.”

“We’ll never know,” she said bleakly.

“I know, all right,” Dusty insisted. “You wouldn’t have heard suicidal despair because she didn’t commit suicide.”

Ness was already dead, an early casualty, a devastation to the defenders of the Alamo!

The noble lawman had been killed by a paper clip.

The doctor removed the little plastic cadaver from the board.

To determine which game piece in which army would open fire next, and to decide what weapon would be used, Ahriman employed a complex formula with calculations that derived from the roll of the dice and a blind draw from a deck of playing cards.

The only weapons were a paper clip fired from a rubber band and a marble shot with a snap of the thumb. Of course, these two simple devices could symbolize many dreadful deaths: by arrow, by gun, by cannonade, by bowie knife, by a hatchet in the face.

Regrettably, it was not in the nature of plastic-toy figures to commit suicide, and it would be an unconscionable insult to America and its people to suggest that men like Davy Crockett and Eliot Ness were even capable of considering self-destruction. These board games, therefore, lacked that intriguing dimension.

In the bigger game, where plastic was flesh and blood was real, another suicide would have to be engineered soon. Skeet had to go.

Initially, when the doctor had conceived this game, he believed that Holden “Skeet” Caulfield would be the star player, neck deep in the slaughter, come the final bloodbath. His face first on all the news programs. His screwy name immortalized in criminal legend, as infamous as Charles Manson.

Perhaps because his brain had been scorched with so many drugs since childhood, Skeet proved to be a poor subject for programming. His powers of concentration—even when in a hypnotic state!—were not good, and he had difficulty subconsciously retaining the rudimentary code lines of his psychological conditioning. Instead of the usual three programming sessions, the doctor had needed to devote six to Skeet, and subsequently the need had arisen for a few shorter— but unprecedented—repair sessions in which deteriorating aspects of his program were reinstalled.

Occasionally, Skeet even surrendered himself for control after hearing only Dr. Yen Lo, the activating name, and Ahriman didn’t need to lead him through the haiku. The security risk posed by this easy access was intolerable.

Sooner rather than later, Skeet would have to take a paper clip, figuratively speaking. He should have died Tuesday morning. Later this evening, for sure.

The dice tumbled to a nine. The deck of cards gave up a queen of diamonds.

Swiftly calculating, Ahriman determined that the next shot would come from a figure positioned at the southwest corner of the Alamo roof: one of Eliot Ness’ loyal subordinates. No doubt, the grieving G-man would be hot for vengeance. His weapon was a marble, which had greater lethal potential than a mere paper clip, and with the benefit of his high vantage point, he might be able to deliver extreme woe to the surrounding Mexican soldiers and to the gangland scumbags who would rue the day they agreed to do Al Capone’s dirty work.

“She didn’t commit suicide,” Dusty repeated, speaking softly, leaning forward conspiratorially in the booth, even though the roar of voices from the bar prevented anyone from eavesdropping.

The certainty in his voice left Martie speechless. Slashed wrists. No indications of a struggle. A suicide note in Susan’s handwriting. The determination of self-destruction was irrefutable.

Dusty held up his right hand, and with each point he made, he let a finger spring from his clenched fist. “One—yesterday at New Life, Skeet was activated by the name Dr Yen Lo and then together we stumbled to the haiku that allowed me to access his subconscious for programming.”

“Programming,” she said doubtfully. “This is still so hard to believe.”

“Programming is how I see it. He was waiting for instructions. Missions, he called them. Two—when I became frustrated with him and told him he should give me a break and just go to sleep, he went out instantly. He obeyed what seemed like an impossible order. I mean, how can you drop off to sleep in a blink, at will? Three—earlier yesterday, when he was going to jump off the roof, he said someone had told him to jump.”

“Yeah, the angel of death.”

“Granted, he was whacked on something. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some truth in what he said. Four—in The Manchurian Candidate, the brainwashed soldier is capable of committing murder on the direction of his controller, then forgetting every detail of what he’s done, but, get this, he’ll also follow instructions to kill himself if necessary.”

“It’s just a thriller.”

“Yeah, I know. The writing’s good. The plot is entertaining, and the characters are colorful. You’re enjoying it.”

Because she had no answer to that, Martie drank more beer.

General Santa Anna was dead, and history was being rewritten. Al Capone must now assume command of the combined forces of Mexico and the Chicago underworld.

The goody-two-shoes bunch defending the Alamo had better not start celebrating just yet. Santa Anna was a formidable strategist; but Capone had him beat for sheer ruthlessness.

Once, the real Capone, not this plastic figure, had tortured a snitch with a hand drill. He locked the guy’s head in a machine-shop vice, and with henchmen holding the turncoat’s arms and legs, old Al had personally cranked the drill handle, driving a diamond-tipped bit through the terrified man’s forehead.

Once, the doctor had killed a woman with a drill, but it had been a Black & Decker power model.

Dusty said, “Condon’s book is fiction, sure, but you get a sense that the psychological-control techniques described in it are based on sound research, that what he proposes as fiction was pretty much possible even at that time. And Martie, the book is set almost fifty years in the past. Before we had jet airliners.”

“Before we went to the moon.”

“Yeah. Before we had cell phones, microwave ovens, and fat-free potato chips with a diarrhea warning on the bag. Just imagine what specialists in mind control might be able to do now, with unlimited resources and no conscience.” He paused for Heineken. Then:

“Five—Dr. Ahriman said it was incredible that both you and Susan should be stricken with such extreme phobias. He—”

“You know, he’s probably right that mine is related to Susan’s, that it comes from my sense of failure to help her, from my—”

Dusty shook his head and folded his fingers into a fist again. “Or your phobia and hers were implanted, programmed into you as part of an experiment or for some other reason that makes no danm sense.”

“But Dr. Ahriman never even suggested—”

Impatiently, Dusty said, “He’s a great psychiatrist, okay, and he’s committed to his patients. But he’s conditioned by education and experience to look for psychological cause and effect, for some trauma in your past that caused your condition. Maybe that’s why Susan didn’t seem to be making much progress, because there isn’t any trauma to blame. And, Martie, if they can program you to fear yourself, to have all these violent visions, to do the things you did at the house yesterday. . . what else could they make you do?”

Maybe it was the beer. Maybe it was the Valium. Maybe it was even Dusty’s logic. Whatever the reason, Martie found his argument increasingly compelling.

Her name was Viveca Scofield. She was a starlet slut, twenty-five years younger than the doctor’s father, even three years younger than the doctor himself, who at that time was twenty-eight. While playing the second lead in the old man’s latest film, she had used all her considerable wiles to set him up for marriage.

Even if the doctor hadn’t yearned to escape his dad’s shadow and make a name for himself, he would have had to deal with Viveca before she became Mrs. Josh Ahriman and either schemed to control the family fortune or squandered it.

As savvy as Dad was in the ways of Hollywood, as talented as he was at screwing associates and browbeating even the most vicious and psychotic studio bosses, he was also a widower of fifteen years and the champion crier of his time, as vulnerable in some ways as he was imperviously armored in others. Viveca would have married him, found a way to drive him to an early death, eaten his liver with chopped onions the night before the funeral, and then cast his son out of the mansion with nothing but a used Mercedes and a token monthly stipend.

In the interest of justice, therefore, the doctor was prepared to eliminate Viveca on the same night that he killed his father. He prepared a second syringe of the ultrashort-acting thiobarbital and paraldehyde, intending to inject it into something she might eat or directly into the starlet herself.

When the great director lay dead in the library, felled by the poisoned petits fours, but before surgery had been performed on his lacrimal apparatus, the doctor had gone in search of Viveca and had found her in his father’s bed. A bobinga-wood crack pipe and other drug paraphernalia littered the nightstand, and a book of poetry was on the rumpled sheets beside her. The starlet was snoring like a bear that had gorged on late-season berries half fermented on the vine, spit bubbles swelling and popping on her lips.

She was as na*ed as nature had made her, and because nature had obviously been in a lascivious mood at the time, the young doctor got all sorts of hot ideas. A lot of money was at stake here, however, and money was power, and power was better than sex.

Earlier in the day, during a private moment, he and Viveca had gotten into an ugly little argument that ended when she coyly noted that she had never seen him well up with emotion the way his father did so routinely. “We’re alike, you and me,” she said. “Your father got his share of tears and yours, while I used up all of mine by the time I was eight. We’re both bone-dry. Now, the problem for you, boy doctor, is that you’ve still got some little withered lump of a heart, but I don’t have any heart at all. So if you try to turn your old man against me, I’ll castrate you and have you singing show tunes, soprano, for my dinner entertainment every night.”

The memory of this threat gave the doctor an idea better than sex.

He went to the far end of the three-acre estate, to the lavishly equipped tool room and woodworking shop housed in the building that also contained, upstairs, the apartments of the couple that managed the estate, Mr. and Mrs. Haufbrock, and the handymangroundskeeper, Earl Ventnor. The Haufbrocks were away on a one-week vacation, and Earl was no doubt passed out after his nightly patriotic effort to ensure that the American brewing industry would not be driven into bankruptcy by competition from foreign beers.