Page 52

“—in the east.”

“I am the east.”

Fully accessed, waiting to be operated, Martie stared through Dusty, as though be were the invisible presence now, not Ahriman.

Shaken by Martie’s placid, dull-eyed expression and the total obedience that it implied, Dusty turned away from her. His heart was pumping like a hard-driven piston, mind spinning like a flywheel.

She was unthinkably vulnerable now. If he gave her the wrong instruction, phrased it in such words that an entirely unintended second meaning could be derived from it, she might respond in ways he couldn’t anticipate. The potential to do great psychological damage, inadvertently, seemed fearfully real.

When he had told Skeet to go to sleep, Dusty hadn’t specified what length of time the nap should occupy. Skeet had been unwakable for more than an hour; however, there seemed to be no reason why he might not have slept for days, weeks, months, or for the rest of his life, kept alive by machines in the expectation of an awakening that would never occur.

Before Dusty gave even the simplest instruction to Martie, he needed to think it through carefully. The wording must be as unambiguous as possible.

In addition to being concerned about causing unintended harm, he was troubled by the degree of control he had over Martie, as she sat patiently awaiting his direction. He loved this woman more than he loved life, but no one should be able to exercise absolute power over another human being, regardless of how pure his intentions might be. Anger was less poisonous to the soul than was greed, greed less toxic than envy, and envy only a fraction as corrupting as power.

Dead pine needles, like I Ching sticks, scattered across the windshield, forming continuously changing patterns, but if they were foretelling the future, Dusty wasn’t able to read their predictions.

He gazed into his wife’s eyes, which jiggled briefly, as Skeet’s eyes had done. “Martie, I want you to listen carefully to me.”

“I’m listening.”

“I want you to tell me where you are now.”

“In our car.”

“Physically, yes. That’s exactly where you are. But it seems to me that mentally you are somewhere else. I would like to know where that other place is.”

“I’m in the mind chapel,” she said.

Dusty had no idea what she meant by this, but he didn’t have the time or presence of mind to explore her statement further just now. He was going to have to risk proceeding with nothing more than that term, mind chapel.

“When I hold my fingers in front of your face and snap them, you will fall into a deep and peaceful sleep. When I snap them a second time, you will wake from that sleep and you will also return from the mind chapel where you are now. You will be fully conscious again. . . and your panic attack will be over. Do you understand?”

“Do I understand?”

A fine sweat prickled along his hairline. He wiped his brow with one hand. “Tell me whether or not you understand.”

“I understand.”

He raised his right hand, thumb and middle finger pressed tightly together, but then he hesitated, restrained by doubt. “Repeat my instructions.”

She repeated them word for word.

Doubt still hobbled him, but he couldn’t sit here through the night, fingers poised to snap, hoping for confidence. He searched his deep troves of memory for all that he had learned about these control techniques from observing Skeet and from all the apparently correct deductions he had made based on so many little clues. He could find no fault with his plan—except that it was based more on ignorance than on understanding. In case he screwed up and put Martie in a coma forever, he left her with three whispered words to carry into that darkness and hold there with her—”I love you”—and then he snapped his fingers.

Martie slumped in her seat, instantly asleep, the back of her skull bouncing once against the headrest, and then her head tipped forward, chin to chest, raven wings of hair spreading to shield her face from him.

His lungs seemed to cinch shut like drawstring purses, so he had to make an effort to pay out his breath, and with the exhalation, he snapped his fingers again.

She sat up in her seat, awake, alert, that faraway gaze no longer in her eyes, and looked around in surprise. “What the hell?”

One instant she was gasping in blind panic, clawing-pushing her way out of the Saturn—and the next instant she was calm, and the car door was closed. The carnival of death that had pitched its tents inside her head, with all its spiked priests and decomposing corpses, was abruptly gone, as though blown away on the night wind.

She looked at him, and he saw that she understood. “You.”

“I didn’t think I had a choice. That was going to be one mean mother of an attack.”

“I feel. . clean.”

From the back, Valet leaned forward between the front seats, rolling his eyes fearfully and seeking reassurance.

Petting the dog, Martie said, “Clean. Can it be over?”

“Not that easily,” Dusty guessed. “Maybe with some thought and care. . . maybe we can undo what’s been done to us. But first—”

“First,” she said, buckling into her safety harness, “let’s get Skeet out of that place.”


The rat-stalking cat, as black as soot, moving as sinuously as smoke, looked up into the Saturn headlights, eyes flaring hot orange, and then vanished into burnt-out corners of the night.

Dusty parked next to a Dumpster, close to the building, leaving the alleyway unobstructed.

The dog watched them, nose pressed to a car window, his breath clouding one pane, as they walked quickly to the service entrance of New Life.

Although visiting hours had ended twenty minutes ago, they would most likely be permitted upstairs to see Skeet if they used the front door, especially if they announced that they had come to remove him from the clinic. That bold approach, however, would lead to a lot of discussion with the head shift nurse and with a physician if one were on duty, as well as to delays with paperwork.

Worse, Ahriman might have Skeet’s file flagged with a directive requiring his notification if the patient or the patient’s family requested a discharge. Dusty didn’t want to risk a face-to-face encounter with the psychiatrist, at least not yet.

Fortunately, the service door was unlocked. Beyond lay a small, dimly lighted, empty receiving room with a drain in the center of the concrete floor. The astringent scent of pine disinfectant masked but didn’t entirely conceal a sour odor, which was probably milk that had dripped from a punctured carton on delivery and then soaked into the porous concrete, but which smelled to Dusty like curdled blood or old puke, evidence of cruelty or crime. In this new millennium, when reality was so plastic, he could look at even this mundane space and imagine a secret abattoir where ritual sacrifices were practiced at the first midnight of each full moon.

He wasn’t sufficiently paranoid to believe that every member of the clinic staff was a mind-controlled minion of Dr. Ahriman, but he and Martie proceeded stealthily, as if in enemy territory.

Beyond the first room was a long hallway leading to a junction with another hall, and farther to a pair of doors that probably opened to the lobby. Offices, storerooms, and perhaps the kitchen lay left and right off the corridor.

No one was in sight, but two people, speaking a language other than English, perhaps an Asian tongue, conversed in the distance. Their voices were ethereal, as if they didn’t arise from one of the rooms ahead, but instead pierced a veil from a strange other-world.

Immediately to the right, outside the receiving room, Martie indicated a door labeled STAIRS, and in the best tradition of premillennium reality, stairs actually lay beyond it.

Wearing a simple charcoal-gray suit, a white shirt with the collar unbuttoned, and a blue-and-yellow striped tie loosened at the neck, forgoing a pocket square, having allowed the wind to disarrange his thick hair and then having combed it distractedly with his fingers upon stepping into the lobby at New Life, Mark Ahriman was costumed and coiffed for the role of a dedicated doctor whose evenings were not his own when patients needed him.

At the security station sat Wally Clark, pudgy and dimpled and pink-cheeked and smiling, looking as though he were waiting to be buried in a sand pit lined with hot coals, and served at a luau.

“Dr. Ahriman,” Wally inquired, as the doctor crossed the lobby with a black medical bag in hand, “no rest for the weary?”

“That should be ‘No rest for the wicked,’ “the doctor corrected.

Wally chuckled dutifully at this self-deprecatory witticism.

Smiling inwardly, imagining how quickly Wally would choke on that chuckle if presented with a certain jar containing two famous eyes, the doctor said, “But the rewards of healing far outweigh an occasional missed dinner.”

Admiringly, Wally said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if all doctors had your attitude, sir?”

“Oh, I’m sure most do,” Ahriman said generously as he pushed the elevator call button. “But I’ll agree, there’s nothing worse than a man of medicine who doesn’t care anymore, who’s just going through the motions. If the joy of this job ever leaves me, Wally, I hope I have the good sense to move on to other work.”

As the elevator doors slid open, Wally said, “Hope that day never comes. Your patients would miss you terribly, Doctor.”

“Well, if that’s so, then before I retire, I’ll just have to kill them all.”

Laughing, Wally said, “You tickle me, Dr. Ahriman.”

“Guard the door against barbarians, Wally,” he replied as he entered the elevator.

“You can count on me, sir.”

On the way up to the second floor, the doctor wished that the night were not cool. In warmer weather, he could have entered with his suit coat slung over one shoulder and his shirtsleeves rolled up; the desired image would thus have been better conveyed with less need of supporting dialogue.

If he had chosen screen acting as a career, he was confident he would have become not merely famous but internationally renowned. Awards would have been showered on him. Initially, there would have been petty talk of nepotism, but his talent eventually would have silenced the naysayers.

Having grown up in Hollywood’s highest circles and on studio lots, however, Ahriman could no longer see any romance in the movie industry, just as the son of any third-world dictator might grow up to be bored and impatient even with the spectacles in well-equipped torture chambers and with the pageantry of mass executions.

Besides, movie-star fame—and the loss of anonymity that went with it—allowed one to be sadistic only to film crews, to the high-priced call girls who serviced the kinkier members of the celluloid set, and to the young actresses dumb enough to allow themselves to be victimized. The doctor would never have been content with such easy pickings.

Ding. The elevator arrived at the second floor.

On the second floor, when Dusty and Martie cautiously ventured out of the back stairwell, their luck held. A hundred feet away, at the junction of the well-lighted main corridors, two women were at the nursing station, but neither happened to be looking toward the stairs. He led Martie to Skeet’s nearby quarters without being seen.

The room was illuminated only by the television. A flurry of cops-and-robbers action on the screen caused pale forms of light to writhe like spirits up the walls.

Skeet was sitting in bed, propped like a pasha against pillows, drinking through a straw from a bottle of vanilla Yoo-hoo. When he saw his visitors, he blew bubbles in his beverage as though tooting a horn, and he greeted them with delight.

While Martie went to the bed to give Skeet a hug and a kiss on the cheek, Dusty said a cheery good-evening to Jasmine Hernandez, the suicide-watch nurse on duty, and he opened the small closet.

When Dusty turned from the closet, Skeet’s suitcase in hand, Nurse Hernandez had risen from the armchair and was consulting the luminous numbers on her wristwatch. “Visiting hours are over.”

“Yes, that’s right, but we’re not visiting,” Dusty said.

“This is an emergency,” Martie said, as she coerced Skeet into putting down his Yoo-hoo and sitting on the edge of the bed.

“Illness in the family,” Dusty added.

“Who’s sick?” Skeet asked.

“Mom,” Dusty told him.

“Whose mom?” Skeet asked, clearly unable to believe what he had heard.

Claudette ill? Claudette, who had given him Holden Caulfield for a father and then Dr. Derek “Lizard” Lampton for a stepfather? That woman with the beauty and the cool indifference of a goddess? That paramour of third-rate academics? That muse to novelists who found no meaning in the written word and to hack psychologists who despised the human race? Claudette, the hard-nosed existentialist with her pure contempt for all rules and laws, for all definitions of reality that did not begin with her? How could this unmovable and apparently immortal creature fall victim to anything in this world?

“Our mom,” Dusty confirmed.

Skeet was already wearing socks, and Martie knelt beside the bed, jamming his feet into his sneakers.

“Martie,” the kid said, “I’m still in my pajamas.”

“No time to change here, honey. Your mom is really sick.”

With a note of bright wonder in his voice, Skeet said, “Really? “Claudette is really sick?”

Throwing Skeet’s clothes into the suitcase as fast as he could pull them out of the dresser drawers, Dusty said, “It hit her so suddenly.”

“What, a truck or something?” Skeet asked.

Jasmine Hernandez heard the note of almost-delight in Skeet’s voice, and she frowned. “Chupaflor, does this mean you’re self-discharging?”

Looking down at his pajama bottoms, Skeet said, with complete sincerity, “No, I’m clean.”

The doctor checked in at the station on the second floor to let the nurses know that neither he nor his patient in Room 246 were to be disturbed while in session.

“He called me, saying he intends to discharge himself in the morning, which would probably be the end of him. I’ve got to talk him out of it. He’s still in deep addiction. When he hits the streets, he’ll score he**in in an hour, and if I’m right about his psychopathology, he really wants to overdose and be done with it.”

“And him,” said Nurse Ganguss, “with everything to live for.”

She was in her thirties, attractive, and usually a consummate professional. With this patient, however, she was more like a horny schoolgirl than an RN, always on the brink of a swoon from cerebral anemia, insufficient circulation to the brain, as a consequence of so much of her blood flooding into her loins and genitalia.