Without the need to skulk, therefore, the doctor selected a Black & Decker power drill from the collection of tools. He had the presence of mind also to take a twenty-foot, orange extension cord.
In his father’s bedroom once more, he plugged the extension cord into a wall outlet, plugged the drill into the extension cord, and thus equipped, climbed onto the bed with Viveca, straddling her but remaining on his knees. She was so doped that she snored through all his preparations, and he had to shout her name repeatedly to wake her. When she finally came around, blinking stupidly, she smiled up at him, as if she believed he was someone other than who he was, as if she thought the power drill was an elaborate new Swedish vibrator.
Thanks to the superb instruction provided by the Harvard Medical School, the doctor was able to position the half-inch steel bit with pinpoint accuracy. To the confused and smiling Viveca, he said, “If you don’t have a heart, something else must be in there, and the best way to identify it is take a core sample.”
The shriek of the powerful little Black & Decker motor brought her out of her drug stupor. By then, however, the drilling operation was under way and in fact nearly completed.
After taking time just to appreciate the loveliness of Viveca being dead, the doctor noticed the book of poetry that lay open on the sheets. A whorl of blood soiled both exposed pages, but in a pristine circle of white paper in the middle of the crimson stain were three lines of verse.
This phantasm of falling petals vanishes into moon and flowers...
He did not know then that the poem was a haiku, that it had been written by Okyo in 1890, that it was about the poet’s own impending death, and that, like many haiku, it didn’t translate into English with the ideal five-seven-five syllable pattern in which it was composed in the original Japanese.
What he did know was that this tiny poem moved him unexpectedly, profoundly, as he’d never been moved before. The verse expressed, as Ahriman himself could never express it, his heretofore half-repressed and formless sense of his mortality. Okyo’s three lines brought him instantly and poignantly in touch with the terrible sad truth that he, too, was destined eventually to die. He, too, was a phantasm, as fragile as any flower, one day to drop like wilting petals.
As he knelt on the bed and held the book of haiku in both hands, reading those three lines over and over again, having forgotten the drill-pierced starlet whom he still straddled, the doctor felt his chest tighten and his throat thicken with emotion at the prospect of his eventual demise. How short life is! How unjust is death! How insignificant are we all! How cruel the universe.
So powerfully did these thoughts course through his mind, the doctor was sure he must be crying. Holding the book with only his left hand, he raised his right to his dry cheeks, then to his eyes, but he was tearless. He was convinced, however, that he’d been close to tears, and he knew now that he possessed the capacity to weep if ever he experienced anything sad enough to tap his salty well.
This realization pleased him because it meant that he had more in common with his father than he had supposed, and because it proved he wasn’t like Viveca Scofield, as she had claimed. Perhaps she had no tears, but his were stored away and waiting.
She had also been wrong about not having a heart. She had one, all right. Of course, it was no longer beating.
The doctor climbed off Viveca, leaving her like an unfinished woodshop project, Black & Decker embedded, and for a long while he sat on the edge of the bed, poring through the book of haiku. Here, in this unlikely place and time, he discovered his artistic side.
When he could finally pry himself away from the book, he brought Dad’s body upstairs, placed it on the bed, wiped the smears of dark chocolate off its mouth, dissected the great director’s fine lacrimal apparatus, and collected the famous eyes. He tapped into Viveca for a few ounces of blood, gathered six pair of her thong-style panties from the dresser drawer—she was a live-in fiancée—and broke off one of her acrylic fingernails.
When he used a master key to let himself into Earl Ventnor’s apartment, he found a crude replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa constructed out of empty Budweiser cans on the living-room coffee table. The handyman, rather than leaning, lay in full collapse on the sofa, snoring almost as loudly as Viveca had been snoring, while Rock Hudson romanced Doris Day in an old movie on television.
Where does fiction end and reality begin? That is the essence of the game. Hudson romancing Day; Earl in a fit of drunken lust, raping the helpless starlet and committing a brutal double homicide— we believe what is easy to believe, whether fiction or fact.
The young doctor shook some of Viveca’s blood on the pants and shirt of the sleeping handyman. He used the last of it to soak one pair of the thong panties. He carefully wrapped the broken-off fingernail in the blood-soaked underwear, then put all six pair of panties in the bottom drawer of Earl’s bedroom dresser.
When Ahriman left the apartment, Earl was still sleeping deeply. The sirens would eventually wake him.
In the nearby gardening shed, where the lawn mowers were stored, the doctor found a five-gallon can of gasoline. He carried it into the main house and upstairs to his father’s bedroom.
After bagging his own blood-spotted garments, quickly washing up, and changing into fresh clothes, he soaked the bodies in the gasoline, dropped the empty can on the bed, and lit the pyre.
The doctor had been staying the week at his father’s vacation house in Palm Springs and had driven back to Bel Air this afternoon only to tend to these urgent family matters. With his work done, he returned to the desert.
In spite of the many lovely and valuable antiques that might burn if the fire department didn’t respond quickly enough, Ahriman took with him oniy the bag full of his bloody clothes, the book of haiku, and his dad’s eyes in a jar filled with a temporary fixative solution. Little more than an hour and a half later, in Palm Springs, he burned the incriminating clothes in the fireplace along with a few aromatic cedar splits and later mixed the ashes into the mulch in the little rose garden beyond the swimming pool. As risky as it was to keep the eyes and the slim volume of poetry, he was too sentimental to dispose of them.
He stayed up all night to watch a dusk-to-dawn marathon of old Bela Lugosi movies, ate an entire quart of Rocky-Road ice cream and a big bag of potato chips, swilled down all the root beer and cream soda he wanted, and caught a desert beetle in a big glass jar and tortured it with a match, His personal philosophy had been enriched immensely by Okyo’s three lines of haiku, and he had taken the poet’s teaching to heart: Life is short, we all die, so you better grab all the fun you can get.
Dinner was served with a second round of beers. Having had no breakfast and only a small vanilla milk shake for lunch, Martie was famished. Nevertheless, she felt as if having an appetite, so soon after finding Susan dead, was a betrayal of her friend. Life went on, and even as you grieved, you had a capacity for pleasure, too, as wrong as that might seem. Pleasure was possible in the midst of an abiding fear, as well, for she relished every bite of her jumbo prawns even as she listened to her husband reason his way toward an understanding of the doom hanging over them.
Fingers sprang from Dusty’s fist once again: “Six—if Susan could be programmed to submit to repeated sexual abuse and have memories of those events scrubbed from her mind, if she could be instructed to submit to rape, then what couldn’t she be made to do? Seven—she began to suspect what was happening, even though she had no proof, and maybe just that little suspicion was enough to alarm her controllers. Eight—she shared her suspicions with you, and they knew it, and they worried that she might share them with someone they didn’t control, so that meant she had to be terminated.”
“How would they know?”
“Maybe her phone was tapped. Maybe a lot of things. But if they decided to terminate her and instructed her to commit suicide, and she obeyed because she was programmed, then that’s not really suicide. Not morally, maybe not even legally. That’s murder.”
“But what can we do about it?”
Eating steak, he considered her question for a while. Then: “Hell if I know—yet. Because we can’t prove anything.”
“If they could just call her up and make her commit suicide, behind her locked doors. . . what do we do the next time our telephone rings?” Martie wondered.
They locked eyes, chewing the question, food forgotten. Finally he said, “We don’t answer it.”
“That’s not a practical long-term solution.”
“Frankly, Martie, if we don’t figure this out real fast, I don’t think we’re going to be here long term.”
She thought of Susan in the bathtub, even though she had never seen the body, and two hands strummed her heartstrings—the hot fingers of grief and the cold of fear. “No, not long,” she agreed. “But just how do we figure it out? Where do we start?”
“Only one thing I can think of. Haiku.”
“Gesundheit,” he said, the dear thing, and opened the bookstore bag that he had brought into the restaurant. He sorted through the seven books that Ned had purchased, passed one across the table to Martie, and selected another for himself. “Judging by the jacket copy, these are some of the classic poets of the form. We’ll try them first— and hope. There’s probably so much contemporary stuff, we could be searching for weeks if we don’t find it in the classics.”
“What’re we looking for?”
“A poem that gives you a shiver.”
“Like when I was thirteen, reading Rod Stewart lyrics?”
“Good God, no. I’m going to try to forget I even heard that. I mean the kind of shiver you got when you read that name in The Manchurian Candidate.”
She could speak the name without being affected by it the way she would be if she heard it spoken by someone else: “Raymond Shaw. There, I just shivered when I said it.”
“Look for a haiku that does the same thing to you.”
“And then what?”
Instead of answering, he divided his attention between his dinner and his book. In just a few minutes, he said, “Here! It doesn’t chill my spine, but I sure am familiar with it. ‘Clear cascades... into the waves scatter. . . blue pine needles.’”
According to the book, the verse was written by Matsuo Basho, who lived from 1644 to 1694.
Because haiku were so short, it was possible to speed through a great many of them in ten minutes, and Martie made the next big discovery before she was half finished with her scampi. “Got it. Written by Yosa Buson, a hundred years after your Basho. ‘Blown from the west. . . fallen leaves gather.. . in the east.’”
“I’m still shivering.”
Dusty took the book from her and read the lines to himself. The connection didn’t escape him. “Fallen leaves.”
“My repetitive dream,” she said. Her scalp prickled as if she could even now hear the Leaf Man shambling toward her through the tropical forest.
So many dead: Sixteen hundred had perished in 1836, and hundreds more had been blown away on this January evening, at the whim of the dice and the playing cards. And still the battle raged so savagely.
While he played The Untouchables at the Alamo, the doctor worked out the details of Holden “Skeet” Caulfield’s termination. Skeet must go before dawn, but one more death, in the midst of all this carnage, was of little import.
Snake eyes were rolled and the ace of spades was drawn on the same turn, which by the doctor’s complex rules meant that the supreme commander of each army must turn traitor and flee to the other side. Now Colonel James Bowie, gravely ill with typhoid and pneumonia, was leading the Mexican Army, while Mr. Al Capone was fighting for the independence of the Texas Territory.
Skeet must not commit suicide on New Life property. Ahriman was a semi-silent partner in the clinic, with a substantial investment to protect. Although there was no need to worry that either Dustin or Martie would file a liability claim, some relative that the doctor didn’t control, maybe a second cousin who had spent the last thirty years in a hut in Tibet and hadn’t even met Skeet, would come riding in with a malpractice attorney and lodge a suit five minutes after the little dope fiend was stuck in the ground. Then an idiot jury—the only kind that seemed to be impaneled these days—would award the Tibetan cousin a billion dollars. No, Skeet would have to walk out of New Life, willfully, heedlessly, against the advice of his doctors—and then off himself elsewhere.
A marble, fired by one of the Alamo heroes, ricocheted around the landscape and took out an amazing nine Mexican soldiers and two of Capone’s capos that hadn’t defected to the Texans with him.
Saint Antonio of Valero, for whom the Franciscan priests had named the mission around which the great fortress of the Alamo was built, would have wept at this seemingly endless, grievous loss of life in the shadow of his church—except that he was dead and finished with weeping long before 1836. Most likely, he would have been dismayed, as well, to know that Al Capone was proving to be a better defender of this sacred ground than Davy Crockett.
The private nurse watching over Skeet on the evening shift was Jasmine Hernandez, she of the red sneakers and green laces, who was unfortunately professional and incorruptible. The doctor had neither the time nor the interest to put Nurse Hernandez through a complete schedule of programming just to be able to render her blind and deaf to the instructions he needed to give to Skeet. Therefore, he would have to wait until her shift ended. The nurse who came on at midnight was a lazy twit who’d happily park his butt in the employee lounge, watching the Tonight show and sucking on a Coke, while Ahriman had a powwow with Dustin’s pathetic half-brother.
He didn’t want to chance instructing Skeet in suicide over the phone. The miserable junior Caulfield was such an iffy subject for programming that it was necessary to put him through the drill faceto-face.
Paper clip. Ping. Disaster. Colonel Bowie is down. Colonel Bowie is down! The Mexican Army is now leaderless. Capone gloats.
Lovely, the forest, deep and cool. The huge trees are crowded so close together that their smooth, red-brown, polished trunks blend into one encircling wall of wood. Martie somehow knows that they are mahogany trees, although she has never seen one before. She must be in a South American jungle, where mahoganies flourish, but she can’t recall making the travel arrangements or packing her bags.
She hopes that she brought enough clothes, remembered the travel iron, and included a wide selection of antivenin, especially the last of those items, because even now a snake has sunk its fangs into her left arm. Fang, singular. The serpent appears to have only one fang, and the tooth is quite peculiar, as silvery and slender as a needle. The snake has a thin, transparent body and hangs from a silver tree with no leaves and one branch, but you expect exotic reptiles and flora in the Amazon.