Dusty couldn’t sit still, either. Getting to his feet, he said, “I’ve had two beers this evening, but if your offer still stands. . .“
“Help yourself,” Roy Closterman said. “Talking about Dr. Mark Ahriman doesn’t promote sobriety.”
Tossing the paper towels in the trash can, Martie said, “So this witness saw him there—what came of that?”
“Nothing. The witness wasn’t believed. And the rumored affair couldn’t be proved. Besides, there was absolutely no doubt at all that Mrs. Pastore pulled the trigger. All the forensic evidence in the world. But the Pastores were well-liked, and a lot of people believed that Ahriman was in the background of the tragedy somehow.”
Returning to the table with his beer, Dusty said, “So he didn’t like the atmosphere in Santa Fe anymore, and he moved to Scottsdale.”
“Where more bad things happened to more good people,” Closterman said, stirring the meatballs and sausage in the pot of sauce. “I’ve got a file on all this. I’ll give it to you before you leave.”
“With all this ammunition,” Dusty said, “you must’ve been able to get him off the Ornwahl case.”
Roy Closterman returned to a seat at the table again, and so did Martie. The doctor said, “No.”
Surprised, Dusty said, “But surely the other preschool case was enough, by itself, to—”
“I never used it.”
The physician’s deeply tanned face darkened further with anger, grew stormy and empurpled under the sun-browned surface.
Closterman cleared his throat and continued: “Someone discovered I was phoning around to people in Santa Fe and Scottsdale, asking about Ahriman. One evening, I came home from the office, and two men were here in the kitchen, sitting where the two of you are sitting. Dark suits, ties, well-groomed. But they were strangers—and when I turned around to get the hell out of the house, there was a third one behind me.”
Of all the places Dusty had expected to follow Closterman, this wasn’t on the list of itineraries. He didn’t want to go here, because it seemed to be a highway to hopelessness for him and Martie.
If Dr. Ahriman was their enemy, he was enemy enough. Only in the Bible could David win against Goliath. Only in the movies did the little guy have a chance against leviathan.
“Ahriman uses cheap muscle?” Martie asked, either because she hadn’t quite leaped to the understanding that Dusty had reached—or because she didn’t want to believe it.
“Nothing cheap about them. They’ve got good retirement plans, excellent medical coverage, full dental, and the use of a plain-Jane sedan during working hours. Anyway, they’d brought a videotape, and they played it for me on the TV in the den. On the tape was this young boy who’s a patient of mine. His morn and dad are my patients, too, and close friends. Dear friends.”
The physician had to stop. He was choking on rage and outrage. His hand was clamped so tight to his beer that it seemed the bottle would burst in his fist.
Then: “The boy is nine years old, a really good kid. Tears are streaming down his face in the videotape. He’s telling someone off-camera about how he’s been sexually molested, since the age of six, by his doctor. By me. I have never touched this boy in that way, never would, never could. But he’s very convincing, emotional, and graphic. Anyone who knows him would know that he couldn’t be acting, couldn’t sell a lie like this. He’s too naive to be this duplicitous. He believes all of it, every word of it. In his mind, it happened, these vile things I’m supposed to have done to him.”
“The boy was a patient of Ahriman’s,” Dusty guessed.
“No. These three suits who have no damn right to be in my house, these well-tailored thugs, they tell me the boy’s mother was Ahriman’s patient. I didn’t know. I’ve no idea what she was seeing him for.”
“Through the mother,” Martie said, “Ahriman got his hands on the boy.”
“And worked him somehow, with hypnotic suggestion or something, implanting these false memories.”
“It’s more than hypnotic suggestion,” Dusty said. “I don’t know what it is, but it goes a lot deeper than that.”
After resorting to his beer, Roy Closterman said, “The bastards told me.. . on the tape, the boy was in a trance. When fully conscious, he wouldn’t be able to remember these false memories, these dreadful things he was saying about me. He would never dream about them or be troubled by them on a subconscious level, either. They would have no effect on his psychology, his life. But the false memories would still be buried in what they called his sub subconscious, repressed, ready to gush out of him if he were ever instructed to remember them. They promised to give him that instruction if I tried to make trouble for Mark Ahriman in regard to the Ornwahl Preschool case or in any other matter. Then they left with the videotape.”
The advocate for Ahriman, in the corridors of Dusty’s mind, had wandered to far reaches, its voice fainter than before and no longer convincing.
Martie said, “You have any guesses who those three men were?”
“Doesn’t matter much to me exactly which institution’s name is printed on their paycheck,” Roy Clostennan said. “I know what they smelled like.”
“Authority;” Dusty said.
“Reeked of it,” the physician confirmed.
Evidently, right now, Martie didn’t fear her violent potential as much as she feared that of others, because she put her hand over Dusty’s and gripped him tightly.
Panting and the pad of dog paws sounded in the hail. Valet and Charlotte returned to the kitchen, played out and grinning.
Behind them came footsteps, and a stocky, affable-looking man in a Hawaiian shirt and calf-length shorts entered the kitchen. He was carrying a manila envelope in his left hand.
“This is Brian,” Roy Closterman said, and made introductions.
After they shook hands, Brian gave the envelope to Dusty. “Here’s the Ahriman file that Roy put together.”
“But you didn’t get it from us,” the physician cautioned. “And you don’t need to bring it back.”
“In fact,” said Brian, “we don’t want it back, ever.”
“Brian,” Roy Closterman said, “show them your ear.”
Pushing his longish blond hair back from the left side of his head, Brian twisted, pulled, lifted, and detached his ear.
“Prosthetic,” Roy Closterman explained. “When the three suits left that night, I went upstairs and found Brian unconscious. His ear was severed—and the wound sutured with professional expertise. They had put it down the garbage disposal, so it couldn’t be sewn back on.”
“Real sweethearts,” Brian said, pretending to fan his face with his ear, exhibiting a macabre je ne sais quoi that made Dusty smile in spite of the circumstances.
“Brian and I have been together more than twenty-four years,” the doctor said.
“More than twenty-five,” Brian amended. “Roy, you’re hopeless about anniversaries.”
“They didn’t need to hurt him,” the physician said. “The video of the boy was enough, more than enough. They just did it to drive the point home.”
“It worked with me,” Brian said, reattaching his prosthetic ear.
“And,” Roy Closterman said, “maybe now you can understand how the threat of the boy had extra punch. Because of me and Brian, our life together, some people would more easily credit accusations about child molestation. But I swear to God, if I ever felt any temptation along those lines, any yearnings for a child, I’d take a knife to my own throat.”
“If I didn’t slit it first,” Brian said.
With Brian’s entrance, Closterman’s throttled rage had slowly subsided, and the stormy clotted coloration under his tan had faded. Now some of that darkness gathered in his face again. “I don’t much love myself for backing down. The Ornwahl family was ruined, and all but certainly were innocent. If it was just me against Mark Ahriman, I’d have battled it out no matter what the cost. But these people who crawl out from under their rocks to protect him. . - I just don’t understand that. And what I don’t understand, I can’t fight.”
“Maybe we can’t fight it, either,” Dusty said.
“Maybe not,” Closterman agreed. “And you’ll notice I avoided asking you exactly what might’ve happened to your friend Susan and what your own problems with Ahriman are. Because, frankly, there’s only so much I want to know. It’s cowardly of me, I guess. I never thought of myself as a coward until this, until Ahriman, but I know now that I’ve got my breaking point.”
Hugging him, Martie said, “We all do. And you’re no coward, Doc. You’re a dear, brave man.”
“I tell him,” Brian said, “but to me, he never listens”
Holding Martie very tightly for a moment, the physician said, “You’re going to need all your father’s heart and all his guts.”
“She’s got them,” Dusty said.
This was the strangest moment of camaraderie that Dusty had ever known: the four of them so dissimilar in so many ways, and yet bonded as though they were the last human beings left on the planet after colonization by extraterrestrials.
“May we set two more places for dinner?” Brian wondered.
“Thanks,” Dusty said, “but we’ve eaten. And we’ve got a lot to do before the night’s out.”
Martie clipped Valet to his leash, and the two dogs sniffed crotches in a last good-bye.
At the front door, Dusty said, “Dr. Closterman—”
“Thank you. Roy, I can’t say that Martie and I would be in less of a mess right now if I had trusted my instincts and stopped calling myself paranoid, but we’d be maybe half a step ahead of where we are now.,,
“Paranoia,” Brian said, “is the clearest sign of mental health in this new millennium.”
Dusty said, “So. . . as paranoid as it sounds. . . I have a brother who’s in drug rehab. It’s his third time. The last two have been at the same facility. And last night, when I left him there, I had a disturbing reaction to the place, this paranoid feeling. .
“What’s the facility?” Roy asked.
“New Life Clinic. Do you know it?”
“In Irvine. Yes. Ahriman is one of the owners.”
Remembering the tall and imperial silhouette at Skeet’s window, Dusty said, “Yeah. That would’ve surprised me yesterday. . . but not today.”
After the warmth of the Closterman house, the January night seemed to have a colder, sharper edge. Skirling wind skimmed a foamy scruff off the surface of the harbor and flung it across the island promenade.
Valet pranced at the limit of his leash, and his masters hurried after him.
No moon. No stars. No certainty that dawn would come, and no eagerness to see what might arrive with it.
With no dimming of the lights or raising of the curtain to alert Martie that it was show time, with no previews of coming attractions to prepare her, dead priests with spiked heads and other mind movies of an apparently worse nature suddenly flickered across a screen in the multiplex cinema that occupied the most haunted neighborhood of her head. She cried out and jerked in her car seat, as if she’d felt a sleek theater rat, fat on spilled popcorn and Milk Duds, scampering across her feet.
Not a measured descent into panic this time, not a slow slide down a long chute of fear: Martie plunged in midsentence out of a conversation about Skeet and into a deep pit swarming with terrors. One gasp, two quick hard grunts, and then, already, the screaming. She tried to bend forward but was hampered by her safety harness. The entangling straps terrified her as much as her visions, perhaps because many of the monstrosities in her mind were restrained by chains, ropes, shackles, spikes through their heads, nails through their palms. She clawed with both hands at the nylon belts, but with no apparent recollection of the nature of the device that was hindering her, too desperately frightened to remember the buckle release.
They were traveling a wide avenue in light traffic, and Dusty angled across lanes to the curb. He stopped with a shriek of brakes on a carpet of dead evergreen needles, under an enormous stone pine at war with the wind.
When he tried to help Martie get out of the safety harness, she recoiled, thrashing more strenuously and even more ineffectively against the belts, while also swatting at him and trying to make him keep his distance. Nevertheless, he managed to find the release and disengage the buckle.
For a moment she fought the snaring straps, but then she slipped out of them and allowed them to retract. With this little freedom came no surcease, and her escalating panic drew squeals of sympathy from Valet in the backseat, until the fabric of her cries shredded into convulsive retching.
This time she had a full stomach, and when she bent forward in her misery, her dry heaves almost became wet. Choking down her gorge with a shudder of revulsion, she clawed at the door handle, trying to get out of the car.
Maybe she wanted to escape the car only to avoid soiling it if she brought up her dinner, but maybe once out, she would try to flee, not merely from the inescapable spook show in her head, but from Dusty and the possibility that she would turn on him in a fury. He couldn’t allow her to leave, because in her panic she might dash into traffic and be run down.
Martie cracked open the door, and the militant wind at once attacked. Barrages of chilly air blasted through the gap, and her hair tossed like a flag.
“Raymond Shaw,” Dusty said.
Because the wind’s artillery keened across the edges of the door with a whistle like incoming mortar, boomed and boomed unrelentingly, and because her own fearful cries were loud, Martie didn’t hear the name. She pushed the door open wider.
“Raymond Shaw!” Dusty shouted.
She was half turned away from him in her seat, and he couldn’t hear her say I’m listening, but he knew she must have spoken those words, because she froze and fell silent, waiting for haiku.
Quickly reaching across her, he pulled the door shut.
In the comparative quiet, before Martie could blink and shake off this reverie and plunge back into her panic attack, Dusty put a hand under her chin, turned her face toward him, and said, “Blown from the west—”
“You are the west and the western wind.”
“—fallen leaves gather—”
“The leaves are your instructions.”