Page 49


Manic stood well back from the desk, near the door, as though the distance would insulate her somewhat from the emotional impact of Susan’s voice.


Here, too, was a sheepskin pillow for Valet, but he remained with his mistress, as though he knew she would need consolation.


Dusty pushed messages. The tape rewound, then played.


The first message was the one Dusty had left when he called her the previous evening from the parking lot at New Life.


“Scarlett, it’s me. Rhett. Just calling to say I do give a damn, after all. ..


The second was a call from Susan, the one that must have come in just after Martie had fallen asleep the first time, from sheer exhaustion and a little Scotch, before she woke from a nightmare and raided the medicine cabinet for a sleep aid.


“It’s me. What’s wrong? You okay? You think I’m nuts? It’s all right if ‘you do. Call me.”


Martie had retreated two steps, into the doorway, as if driven backward by the sound of her dead friend’s voice. Her face was white, but the hands with which she covered it were whiter still.


Valet sat before her, gazing up, his ears perked, head cocked, hoping canine cuteness could counter grief.


The third message was also from Susan, received at 3:20 in the morning; it must have come in when Dusty was washing his hands in the bathroom and when Martie was “sleeping the perfect sleep of the innocent,” as the television commercials for the patent medicine guaranteed.


“Martie, it’s me. Martie, are you there?”


Susan paused on the tape, waiting for someone to pick up, and in the doorway Martie groaned. Remorsefully, bitterly, she said, “Yes,” and the meaning was clear in that one word: Yes, I was here; yes, I might have been able to help; yes, I failed you.


“Listen, if you ‘re there, for God’s sake, pick up.”


In the next pause, Martie lowered her hands from her face and stared with horror at the answering machine.


Dusty knew what she expected to hear next, for it was the same thing that he expected. Suicidal talk. A plea for support, for the counsel of a friend, for reassurance.


“It isn’t Eric, Martie. It’s Ahriman. It’s Ahriman. I’ve got the bastard on videotape. The bastard—after the good deal begot on his house. Martie, please, please call me. I need help.”


Dusty stopped the tape before the machine moved forward to the fourth message.


The house seemed to roll with a temblor, as though continental plates were colliding deep under the California coast, but this was strictly an earthquake of the mind.


Dusty looked at Martie.


Such eyes, her eyes. Shock waves had cracked even the hard grief that had made them a more intense blue than usual. Now, in her eyes was something that he’d never seen in anyone’s eyes before, a quality he couldn’t adequately name.


He heard himself say, “She must’ve been a little crazy there at the end. I mean, what sense does that make? What videotape? Dr. Ahriman is—”


“—a great psychiatrist. He’s—”


“—deeply committed to—”


“—his patients.”


That faint thereminlike music, eerie and tuneless, played in the concert hail inside Dusty’s skull: not music, actually, but the psyche’s equivalent of an acute ringing in the ears, tinnitus of the mind. It was caused by what hundred-dollar-an-hour psychologists call cognitive dissonance: simultaneously holding diametrically opposed convictions about the same subject. The subject in this instance was Mark Ahriman. Dusty was awash in cognitive dissonance because he believed Ahriman was a great psychiatrist and now also a rapist, believed Ahriman was a doctor deeply committed to the welfare of his patients and now also a murderer, compassionate therapist and cruel manipulator.


“It can’t be true,” he said.


“It can’t,” she agreed.


“But the haiku.”


“The mahogany forest in my dream.”


“His office is paneled in mahogany.”


“And has a west-facing window,” she said.


“It’s crazy.”


“Even if it could be him—why us?”


“I know why you,” Dusty said darkly. “For the same reason as Susan. But why me?”


"Why skeet?"


Of the last two messages on the tape, the first had come in at nine o’clock this morning, the second at four o’clock this afternoon, and both were from Martie’s mother. The first was brief; Sabrina was just calling to chat.


The second message was longer, full of concern, because Martie worked at home and usually returned her mother’s calls in an hour or two; the lack of a quick response gave Sabrina cause for apocalyptic speculations. Also unspoken in the rambling message—but clear to anyone familiar with Sabrina’s skills of indirect expression—was the ardent hope that (1) Martie was at an appointment with a divorce attorney, (2) Dusty had proved to be a drunk and was now being checked into a clinic to dry out, (3) Dusty had proved to be a philanderer and was now in the hospital recuperating from a beating—a severe beating—administered by another woman’s husband, or (4) Dusty, the drunk, was drying out in a clinic after being beaten—severely-—by another woman’s husband, and Manic was at the divorce attorney’s office.


Ordinarily, Dusty would have been annoyed in spite of himself, but this time, Sabrina’s lack of faith in him seemed inconsequential.


He rewound the tape to Susan’s key message. In every way, her words were harder to listen to the second time than they had been the first.


Susan dead, but now her voice.


Ahriman the healer, Ahriman the killer.


Cognitive dissonance.


The answering-machine tape was not the conclusive evidence they could have used, because Susan’s message had not been sufficiently specific. She had not accused the psychiatrist of rape—or, indeed, of anything other than being a bastard.


Nevertheless, the tape was evidence of a sort, and they needed to preserve it.


While Dusty extracted the microcassette, grabbed a red felt-tip pen from the desk, and printed SUSAN on the label, Martie inserted a fresh tape into the answering machine. He put the marked cassette in the shallow center drawer in the desk.


Martie looked wounded.


Susan dead. And now Dr. Ahriman, who had seemed to be such a reliable pillar in an uncertain world, apparently had become a trapdoor.


57


From the kitchen, Dusty phoned Roy Closterman’s office and got the physician’s exchange that handled after-hours calls. He claimed that Martie was having an allergic reaction to medication prescribed by the doctor. “We’ve got an emergency situation here.”


While his master and mistress sat at the kitchen table, waiting for a callback, Valet sprawled under the table, sighing to make it clear that they were wasting valuable time that could be better spent on tug-of-war or any game with a ball.


Dusty searched The Manchurian Candidate for a name that would give him a shiver like the one he’d gotten from the Basho verse about the heron. In Dr. Ahriman’s waiting room, he had read enough of the thriller to encounter most if not all of the leading characters, none of whose names made his skin crawl. Now, late in the book, scanning quickly, he found a walk-on character that did the trick: a second-rate opera singer, Viola Narvilly, which seemed to be a silly name for Ahriman—or whoever—to have chosen for such deadly purpose.


Now they read haiku to each other.


Dusty went first with the activating name. “Raymond Shaw.”


“I’m listening,” she said, detached, eyes glazed and yet alert.


“Blown from the west—”


“You are the west and the western wind.”


Suddenly Dusty was reluctant to proceed through all three lines of verse, because he didn’t know how to handle her if he succeeded in accessing her subconscious. Opened for instruction, she would surely be in a fragile state, vulnerable, and suggestions he made to her or questions he asked might have serious unintended consequences, cause unforeseeable psychological damage.


Besides, he didn’t know how to bring her out of her trance, to full consciousness, except by telling her to sleep it off, as Skeet had done. And Skeet, at New Life, slept so deeply that calling his name, shaking him, even administering smelling salts failed to rouse him; he came around at his own pace. If Dusty’s sense of time running out was perceptive rather than paranoid, they couldn’t take a chance that Martie would tumble into a narcoleptic quasi-coma from which he could not make her stir.


When Dusty didn’t proceed to the second line of the haiku, Martie blinked, and her rapt expression vanished as she returned to full awareness. “So?”


He told her. “But it would have worked. That’s clear. Now you try me—through just the first line of my verse.”


Unable to rely on memory, Martie resorted to the book of poetry.


He saw her open her mouth to speak——and then the retriever was pushing his burly head into Dusty’s lap, seeking to comfort or be comforted.


A fraction of a second ago, Valet had been slumped in a furry pile at Dusty’s feet.


No, not a fraction of one second. Ten or fifteen seconds had passed, maybe longer, a piece of time now lost to Dusty. Evidently, when Martie had used the activating name, Viola Narvilly, Dusty had responded—and the dog, sensing a wrongness in his master, had risen to investigate.


“That’s spooky,” Martie said, closing the poetry book, grimacing as she pushed it aside, as though it were a satanic bible. “The way you looked. . . zoned out.”


“I don’t even have any memory of you saying the name.”


“I said it, all right. And the first line of the poem, ‘Lightning gleams.’ And you said, ‘You are the lightning.’”


The phone rang.


Getting up from the table, Dusty nearly knocked his chair over, and as he snatched the handset off the wall phone, he wondered if his hello would be answered by Dr. Closterman or by someone else saying Viola Narvilly. Enslavement was always a touch tone away.


Closterman.


Dusty apologized for lying in order to ensure a timely callback. “There’s no allergic reaction, but there is an emergency, Doctor. This book you sent over. .


“Learn to Love Yourself” Closterman said.


“Yeah. Doctor, why did you send this to us?”


“I thought you ought to read it,” Closterman replied without any inflection that could be interpreted as either a positive or negative judgment of the book or its author.


“Doctor. . .“ Dusty hesitated, then plunged: “Oh, hell, there’s no way to sneak up on it. I think maybe we have a problem with Dr. Ahriman. A big problem.”


Even as he made the accusation, an inner voice argued with him. The psychiatrist, great and committed, had done nothing to earn this calumny, this disrespect. Dusty felt guilty, ungrateful, treacherous, irrational. And all those feelings scared him, because considering the circumstances, he had every reason to suspect the psychiatrist. The voice within, powerfully convincing, was not his voice, but that of an invisible presence, the same that pumped the inflation bulb of the sphygmomanometer in his dream, the same around which the fury of leaves formed in Martie’s nightmare, and now this presence walked the halls of his mind, invisible but not silent, urging him to trust Dr. Ahriman, to let go of this absurd suspicion, to trust and have faith.


Into Dusty’s silence, Clostennan cast a question: “Martie’s seen him already, hasn’t she?”


“This afternoon. But we think now. . . it goes back farther than that. Back months and months, when she was taking her friend to see him. Doctor, you’re going to think I’m crazy—”


“Not necessarily. But we shouldn’t talk about this any further on the phone. Can you come here?”


“Where’s here?”


“I live on Balboa Island.” Closterman gave him directions.


“We’ll be there soon. Can we bring a dog?”


“He can play with mine.”


When Dusty hung up the phone and turned to Martie, she said, “Maybe this isn’t the best thing to do.”


She was listening to an inner voice of her own.


“Maybe,” she said, “if we just call Dr. Ahriman and lay all this out for him. . . maybe he’ll be able to explain everything.”


The invisible walker of hallways in Dusty’s mind argued for the same course of action, almost word for word, as Manic suggested it.


She rose suddenly to her feet. “Oh, God, what the hell am I saying?”


Dusty’s face flushed, and he knew that if he looked in a mirror, he would see his cheeks ruddy. Shame burned in him, shame at his suspicion, at his failure to accord to Dr. Ahriman the well-earned trust and respect that the psychiatrist was due.


“Where we are here,” Dusty said shakily, “is in the middle of a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”


Valet had come out from under the table. He stood with his tail held low, his shoulders slumped, his head half bowed, in tune with their mood.


“Why are we taking the dog with us?” Manic asked.


“Because I don’t think we’ll be coming back here for a while. I don’t think we can risk it. Come on,” he said, crossing the kitchen toward the hallway. “Let’s throw some stuff in suitcases, clothes for a few days. And let’s do it fast.”


Minutes later, before closing his suitcase, Dusty took the compact, customized .45 Colt out of the nightstand drawer. He hesitated, decided not to put the weapon beyond easy reach, closed the suitcase without adding to its contents, and pulled from the closet a leather jacket with deep pockets.


He wondered if the gun could really provide protection.


If Mark Ahriman walked into the bedroom this very minute, the treacherous voice inside Dusty might delay him long enough for the psychiatrist to smile and say Viola Narvilly before the trigger could be squeezed.


Then would I suck on the pistol as if it were a Popsicle, and blow my brains out as obediently as Susan slashed her wrists?


Out of the bedroom, down the narrow stairs, with the retriever in the lead, with Martie lugging one suitcase, with Dusty carrying another, pausing to snare the books in the kitchen, and then to the Saturn in the driveway, they moved with a quickening sense that they must outrace the spreading shadow of a descending doom.


58


A low, arched bridge connected Balboa Island, in Newport Harbor, to the mainland. Marine Avenue, lined with restaurants and shops, was nearly deserted. Eucalyptus leaves and blades torn from palm fronds spiraled in man-size whirlwinds along the street, as though Martie’s dream of the mahogany woods were being re-created here.

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