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“And he’s so sweet,” Nurse Ganguss added.

The younger woman, Nurse Kyla Woosten, wasn’t impressed by the patient in Room 246, but clearly she had an interest in Dr. Ahriman himself. Whenever the doctor had occasion to talk with her, Nurse Woosten performed the same repertoire of tricks with her tongue. Pretending to be unaware of what she was doing—but, in fact, with more calculation than a Cray supercomputer could accomplish in one full day of operation—she frequently licked her lips to moisten them: long, slow, sensuous licks. When considering a point that Ahriman made, the vixen sometimes stuck her tongue out, biting on the tip of it, as if to do so assisted thoughtful contemplation.

Yes, here came the tongue, questing into the right corner of her lips, perhaps seeking a sweet crumb lodged in that ripe and tender crease. Now her lips parted in surprise, tongue fluttering against the roof of her mouth. Again, the moistening of the lips.

Nurse Woosten was pretty, but the doctor wasn’t interested in her. For one thing, he had a policy against brainwashing business employees. Although a mind-controlled workforce, throughout his various enterprises, would eliminate demands for increased wages and fringe benefits, the possible complications were not worth risking.

He might have made an exception of Nurse Woosten, because her tongue fascinated him. It was a perky, pink little thing. He would have liked to do something inventive with it. Regrettably, in a time when body piercing for cosmetic purposes was no longer shocking, when ears and eyebrows and nostrils and lips and navels and even tongues were regularly drilled and fitted with baubles, the doctor couldn’t have done much to Woosten’s tongue that, upon waking, she would have deemed horrifying or even objectionable.

Sometimes he found it frustrating to be a sadist in an age when self-mutilation was all the rage.

So, on to Room 246 and his star patient.

The doctor was the principal investor in New Life Clinic, but he didn’t regularly treat patients here. Generally speaking, people with drug problems didn’t interest him; they were so industriously wrecking their lives that any additional misery he could inflict on them would be merely filigree atop filigree.

Currently, his only patient at New Life was in 246. Of course, he also had a particular interest in Dustin Rhodes’ brother, down the hall in 250, but he was not one of Skeet’s official physicians; his consultation in that case was strictly off the record.

When he entered 246, which was a two-room suite with full bath, he found the famous actor in the living room, standing on his head, palms flat on the floor, heels and buttocks against a wall, watching television upside down.

“Mark? What’re you doing here at this hour?” the actor asked, holding his yoga position—or whatever it was.

“I was in the building for another patient. Thought I’d stop by and see how you’re doing.”

The doctor had lied to Nurses Ganguss and Woosten when he had said that the actor had phoned him, threatening to check out of the clinic in the morning. Ahriman’s real purpose was to be here when the midnight shift arrived, so he could program Skeet after the too-diligent Nurse Hernandez went home. The actor was his cover. After a couple hours in 246, the few minutes that he spent with Skeet would seem like an incidental matter, and any staff who noticed the visit would not find it remarkable.

The actor said, “I spend about an hour a day in this position. Good for brain circulation. It’d be nice to have a second, smaller TV that I could turn upside down when I needed to.”

Glancing at the sitcom on the screen, Ahriman said, “If that’s the stuff you watch, it's probably better upside down.”

“No one likes critics, Mark.”

“Don Adriano de Armado.”

“I’m listening,” said the actor, quivering briefly but able to maintain his headstand.

For the name to activate this subject, the doctor had chosen a character from Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare.

The upside-down actor, who collected twenty million dollars plus points for starring in a film, had accepted little education of any kind during his thirty-odd years, and had received no formal training in his profession. When he read a screenplay, he often didn’t read anything except his own lines, and frogs were likely to fly before he ever read Shakespeare. Unless the legitimate theater was one day turned over to the management of chimps and baboons, there was no chance whatsoever that he would be cast in anything by the Bard of Avon, and so no danger that he would hear the name Don Adriano de Armado other than directly from the doctor himself.

Ahriman put the actor through his personal, enabling haiku.

As Martie finished tying the laces of Skeet’s athletic shoes, Jasmine Hernandez said, “If you’re checking him out of here, I’ll need you to sign a release of liability.”

“We’re bringing him back tomorrow,” Martie said, rising to her feet and encouraging Skeet to stand up from the edge of the bed.

“Yeah,” Dusty said, still jamming clothes into the suitcase, “we just want to take him to see Mom, and then he’ll be back.”

“You’ll still have to sign a release,” Nurse Hernandez insisted.

“Dusty,” Skeet warned, “you better never let Claudette hear you call her Mom instead of Claudette. She’ll bust your ass for sure.”

“He attempted suicide only yesterday,” Nurse Hernandez reminded them. “The clinic can’t take any responsibility for his discharge in this condition.”

“We absolve the clinic. We take full responsibility,” Martie assured her.

“Then I’ll get the release form.”

Martie stepped in front of the nurse, leaving Skeet to wobble on the uncertain support of his own two legs. “Why don’t you help us get him ready? Then the four of us can go up to the nurses’ station together and sign the release.”

Eyes narrowing, Jasmine Hernandez said, “What’s going on here?”

“We’re in a hurry, that’s all.”

“Yeah? Then I’ll get that release real quick,” Nurse Hernandez replied, pushing past Martie. At the door, she pointed at Skeet, and ordered: “Don’t you go anywhere until I come back, chupaflor.”

“Sure, okay,” Skeet promised. “But could you hurry? Claudette’s really sick, and I don’t want to miss anything.”

The doctor instructed the actor to get off his head and then to sit on the sofa.

Ever the exhibitionist, the heartthrob was wearing only a pair of black bikini briefs. He was as fit as a sixteen-year-old, lean and well-muscled, in spite of his formidable list of self-destructive habits.

He crossed the room with the lithe grace of a ballet dancer. Indeed, although his personality was deeply repressed and although, in this state, he was hardly more self-aware than a turnip, he moved as if performing. Evidently, his conviction that he was at all times being watched and adored by admirers was not an attitude that he had acquired as fame had corrupted him; it was a conviction rooted in his very genes.

While the actor waited, Dr. Ahriman took off his suit coat and rolled up his shirtsleeves. He checked his reflection in a mirror above a sideboard. Perfect. His forearms were powerful, thatched with hair, manly without being Neanderthalian. When he left this room at midnight and strolled down the hall to Caulfield’s room, he would sling his coat over his shoulder, the very picture of a weary. hardworking, deeply committed, and sexy man of medicine.

Ahriman drew a chair to the sofa and sat facing the actor. “Be calm.”

“I am calm.”

Jiggle, jiggle, the blue eyes that made Nurse Ganguss weak.

This prince of the box office had come to Ahriman the younger rather than to any other therapist because of the doctor’s Hollywood pedigree. Ahriman the elder, Josh, had been dead of petits-fours poisoning when this lad had still been failing math, history, and assorted other courses in junior high school, so the two had never worked together. But the actor reasoned that if the great director had won two Oscars, then the son of the great director must be the best psychiatrist in the world. “Except, maybe, for Freud,” he had told the doctor, “but he’s way over there in Europe somewhere, and I can’t be flying back and forth all the time for sessions.”

After Robert Downey Jr. was finally sent to prison for a long stay, this hunk of marketable meat had worried that he, too, might be caught by “fascist drug-enforcement agents.” While he was loath to change his lifestyle to please the forces of repression, he was even less enthusiastic about sharing a prison cell with a homicidal maniac who had a seventeen-inch neck and no gender preferences.

Although Ahriman regularly turned away patients with serious drug problems, he had taken on this one. The actor moved in elite social circles, where he could make rare mischief with a singularly high entertainment value for the doctor. Indeed, already, utilizing the actor, an extraordinary game was being prepared for play, one that would have profound national and international consequences.

“I have some important instructions for you,” Ahriman said.

Someone rapped urgently on the door to the suite.

Martie was trying to get Skeet into a bathrobe, but he was resisting.

“Honey,” she said, “it’s chilly tonight. You can’t go outside in just these thin pajamas.”

“This robe sucks,” Skeet protested. “They provided it here. It’s not mine, Martie. It’s all nubbly with fuzz balls, and I hate the stripes.”

In his prime, before drugs wasted him, the kid had drawn women the way the scent of raw beef brought Valet running. In those days, he’d been a good dresser, the male bird in full plumage. Even now, in his ruin, Skeet’s sartorial good taste occasionally resurfaced, although Martie didn’t understand why it had to surface now.

Snapping shut the packed suitcase, Dusty said, “Let’s go.”

Improvising frantically, Martie tore the blanket off Skeet’s bed and draped it over his shoulders. “How’s this?”

“Sort of American Indian,” he said, pulling the blanket around himself. “I like it.”

She took Skeet by the arm and hustled him toward the door, where Dusty was waiting.

“Wait!” Skeet said, halting, turning. “The lottery tickets.” “What lottery tickets?”

“In the nightstand,” Dusty said. “Tucked in the Bible.”

“We can’t leave without them,” Skeet insisted.

In response to the rapping on the door, the doctor called out impatiently, “I am not to be disturbed here.”

A hesitation, and then more rapping.

To the actor, Ahriman said quietly, “Go into the bedroom, lie down on the bed, and wait for me.”

As though the direction he had just received was from a lover promising all the delights of the flesh, the actor rose from the sofa and glided out of the room. Each liquid step, each roll of the h*ps was sufficiently seductive to fill theater seats all over the world.

The rapping sounded a third time. “Dr. Ahriman? Dr. Ahriman?”

As he moved toward the door, the doctor decided that if this interruption was courtesy of Nurse Woosten, he would apply himself more diligently to the problem of what to do with her tongue.

Martie took the pair of lottery tickets out of the Bible and tried to give them to Skeet.

Clutching the blanket-cloak with his left hand, he waved away the tickets with his right. “No, no! If I touch them, they won’t be worth anything, all the luck will go out of them.”

As she thrust the tickets into one of her pockets, she heard someone farther down the hall calling for Dr. Ahriman.

When Ahriman opened the door to 246, he was even more dismayed to see Jasmine Hernandez than he would have been to see Nurse Wosten with pink tongue rampant.

Jasmine was an excellent RN, but she was too much like a few especially annoying girls the doctor had encountered in his boyhood and early adolescence, a breed of females that he referred to as The Knowers. They were the ones who mocked him with their eyes, with sly little looks and smug smiles that he caught in his peripheral vision as he turned away from them. The Knowers seemed to see through him, to understand him in ways he didn’t wish to be understood. Worse, he had the curious feeling that they knew something hilarious about him, as well, something he himself didn’t know, that he was a figure of fun to them due to qualities in himself he couldn’t recognize.

Since the age of sixteen or seventeen, when his previous gangly cuteness had begun to mature into devastating good looks, the doctor had rarely been troubled by The Knowers, who for the most part seemed to have lost their ability to see into him. Jasmine Hernandez was one of that breed, however, and though she had not yet been able to x-ray him, there were times when he was sure that she was going to blink in surprise and peer more closely, her eyes filling with that special mockery and the corner of her mouth turning up in the faintest smirk.

“Doctor, I’m sorry to disturb you, but when I told Nurse Ganguss what’s happening, and she said you were on the premises, I felt you ought to know.”

She was so forceful that the doctor backed up a couple steps, and she took this as an invitation to enter the room, which was not what he had intended.

“A patient is self-discharging,” Nurse Hernandez said, “and in my estimation, under peculiar circumstances.”

Skeet said, “Could I have my Yoo-hoo?”

Martie looked at him as if he had gone a little mad. Of course, when she thought about it, there was ample evidence that both of them were in possession of less than half their marbles, so she tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Your what?”

“His soda,” Dusty said from the doorway. “Grab it and let’s get out of here!”

“Someone called Ahriman,” Martie said. “He’s here.”

“I heard it, too,” Dusty assured her. “Get the damn soda quick.”

“Vanilla Yoo-hoo, or the chocolate for that matter,” Skeet said, as Martie rounded the bed and snatched the bottle off the nightstand, “isn’t a soda. It’s not carbonated. It’s more of a dessert beverage.”

Shoving the bottle of Yoo-hoo into Skeet’s right hand, Martie said, “Here’s your dessert beverage, honey. Now move your ass, or I’ll put a boot in it.”

Initially, in his confusion, the doctor assumed that Nurse Ganguss had mentioned to Nurse Hernandez that the actor was going to check himself out of the hospital and that this was the self-discharging patient about whom she was so exercised.

Since the whole story about the actor was a lie to cover the doctor's true purpose in coming to the clinic this evening, he said, “Don’t worry, Nurse Hernandez, he won’t be leaving, after all.”