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“What? What’re you talking about? They’re trying to hustle him out of here right now.”


Ahriman turned to look at the living room and the open door to the bedroom. He half expected to see several young women, perhaps members of a fan club, lowering the nearly na*ed and semicatatonic actor out of a window, with the intention of imprisoning him and making him their love slave.


No abductors. No movie star.


Turning to the nurse again, he said, “Who are you talking about?”


“Chupaflor,” she said. “The little hummingbird. Holden Caulfield.”


Martie descended the stairs, supporting Skeet.


The kid was so pale and frail that in his pajamas and white blanket, he might have been a ghost haunting the back ways of New Life. A feeble ghost. He doddered down the stairs, weak-kneed, unsure of his balance, and with every step he took, the trailing blanket threatened to snare his feet and trip him.


Lugging the suitcase, Dusty followed Martie and Skeet, edging sideways down the steps, covering their backs by keeping a lookout for Ahriman above them in the stairwell. He had drawn the .45 Colt out of his jacket pocket.


Gunning down a prominent psychiatrist wouldn’t ensure him a hallowed place in the Heroes Hall of Fame, alongside Smilin’ Bob Woodhouse. Instead of being feted at testimonial dinners, he’d be standing in a prison chow line.


In spite of all they had learned about Dr. Ahriman and all they had deduced, the bitter truth was that they didn’t have any proof that he was guilty of either any illegal or even unethical acts. The tape from the answering machine, with Susan’s message, was the closest thing to admissible evidence that they possessed, but in it she accused the psychiatrist of nothing more than being a bastard. If Susan had somehow videotaped Ahriman, as claimed, that video was gone.


Skeet was taking the steps as a toddler would negotiate them. He lowered his right foot to the next tread, then put his left foot beside it, hesitated a moment to contemplate his subsequent move, and repeated the procedure.


They reached the landing, and still there was no pursuit from above. Dusty waited here, covering the upper flight of steps, while Martie and the kid continued toward the door below.


If Ahriman entered the stairwell at the second floor and saw them in flight, he would know they were on to him, a danger to him, and so Dusty would have to shoot him on sight. Because if Ahriman had time to say Viola Narvilly and then followed the name with the heron haiku, the psychiatrist would control the pistol even though it was still in Dusty’s hand. Thereafter, anything might happen.


Alarmed but too experienced a performer to allow his concern to show, the doctor backed Nurse Hernandez out of 246 and into the hall as he assured her that Dustin and Martine Rhodes would make no rash decisions endangering Skeet’s rehabilitation. “Mrs. Rhodes, in fact, recently became a patient of mine, and I know she has full confidence in the care we’re giving her brother-in-law.”


“They had some story about chupaflor’s mother being ill—”


“Well, that would be a shame.”


“—but it sounded like so much refried beans, if you ask me. And considering the potential liability to the clinic—”


“Yes, yes, well, I’m sure I can straighten this out.”


After firmly pulling shut the door to 246, Dr. Ahriman walked down the hall to Room 250, shadowed by Jasmine Hernandez. He refused to hurry because haste would indicate that in fact he considered this matter more important than he pretended it was.


He was glad that he’d taken the time to remove his coat and roll up his shirtsleeves. This working-Joe touch and his manly forearms supported the aura of confidence and competence he wished to project.


The only life in 250 was the false life on the television. The bed was disarranged, dresser drawers open and empty, a clinic-issued bathrobe rumpled on the floor, and the patient gone.


“Please go ask Nurse Ganguss if she saw them leave by the front stairs or elevator,” the doctor instructed Jasmine Hernandez.


Because Nurse Hernandez wasn’t programmed, because she was in possession of her free will and far too much of it, she started to argue: “But there can’t have been enough time for them to—”


“Only one of us is needed to check the back stairs,” the doctor interrupted. “Now please see Nurse Ganguss.”


Scowling so fiercely that no one would have disputed her if she claimed to be a transsexual reincarnation of Pancho Villa, Jasmine Hernandez turned from him and stalked toward the nurses’ station.


At the back stairs, Ahriman opened the door, stepped into the upper landing, listened, heard nothing, and leaped down the stairs two at a time, his heavy footfalls slapping off the concrete walls, echoing and re-echoing over one another, until by the time he came to the bottom of the second flight, he seemed to have left a wildly applauding audience behind him.


The ground-floor hallway was deserted.


He pushed through a door into the receiving room at the back of the building. Nobody here.


One more door, this opening to the alleyway.


As Ahriman stepped outside, the wind rattled the lid on one of the Dumpsters and seemed to blow a red Saturn past him.


Behind the wheel was Dustin Rhodes. He glanced at the doctor. Fright and too much knowledge were written across the house-painter’s face.


The dope-withered, snot-nosed, useless little shit of a brother was in the backseat. He waved.


Taillights dwindling like those of a spaceship going to warp speed, the Saturn rocketed recklessly into the night.


The doctor hoped the car would slam into a Dumpster behind one of the buildings along the alleyway, hoped it would spin out of control and tumble and explode into flames. He hoped that Dusty and Martie and Skeet would be burned alive, their carcasses reduced to scorched bones and charred hunks of smoking meat, and then he hoped that out of the sky would come a great flock of big mutant crows that would settle into the blasted ruins of the Saturn and tear at the cooked flesh of the deceased, tear and tear and rip and rend, until not an edible scrap remained.


None of that happened.


The car traveled two blocks before turning left at a corner, onto a main street.


Long after the Saturn was out of sight, the doctor stood in the middle of the alleyway, staring into its wake.


The wind buffeted him. He welcomed its cold blasts, as though it might blow the confusion out of him and clear his head.


In the outgoing waiting room earlier in the day, Dusty had been reading The Manchurian Candidate, which the doctor had planted with Martie as a wild card that, if ever played, would add an acceptable measure of excitement to this game. Reading the thriller, Rhodes would experience little frissons of fear too piercing to be explained by the tale itself, especially when he found the name Viola Narvilly, and he would recognize odd connections to the events in his own life. The book would start him thinking, wondering.


Nevertheless, the possibility that the Condon novel alone would spur Dusty to make great leaps of logic, leading to his understanding of the doctor’s true nature and real agenda, was so remote that there was a far greater likelihood of astronauts discovering a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise on Mars, with Elvis chowing down in a corner booth. And he could see no—underscore that: no—chance whatsoever that the housepainter could have deduced all this in one afternoon.


Consequently, there must be other wild cards that the doctor himself had not stacked in the deck, that had been dealt by fate.


One of them would be Skeet. Skeet, with a brain so addled by drugs that he hadn’t been entirely programmable.


Concerned about the apprentice painter’s reliability, Ahriman had come here this evening expressly to establish a suicide scenario in Skeet’s sub-subconscious and then send the wasted wretch toddling off to self-destruct before dawn. Now he would need a new strategy.


What other wild cards in addition to Skeet? Unquestionably, others had been played. However much Dusty and Martie knew-and their knowledge might not be quite as complete as it seemed-they had not put together a major portion of the puzzle with just the book and Skeet.


This unexpected development didn’t appeal to Ahriman’s sporting spirit. He enjoyed some risk in his games, but only manageable risk.


He was a gamester, not a gambler. He preferred the architecture of rules to the jungle of luck.


61


The trailer park huddled defensively in the high wind as though anticipating one of the tornadoes that always found such places and scattered them across blasted landscapes for the wicked delectation of television cameras. Fortunately, twisters were rare, weak, and short-lived in California. The residents of this park would not have to endure the practiced compassion of reporters torn between thrilling to a big story of destruction and admitting to what drams of human empathy had survived their years in service of the evening news.


The streets were laid out in a grid, one exactly like the next. The hundreds of mobile homes on concrete-block foundations were more alike than not.


Nevertheless, Dusty had no difficulty recognizing Foster “Fig” Newton’s place when he saw it. This community was wired for cable television, and Fig’s was the only trailer with a small satellite dish on its roof.


Actually, three satellite receivers were mounted on Fig’s roof, silhouetted against the low night sky that was painted a sour yellowblack by the upwash of the suburban light pollution. Each dish was a different size from the others. One was aimed toward the southern heavens, one toward the northern; both were stationary. The third, mounted on a complex gimbal joint, tilted and swiveled ceaselessly, as if plucking tasty bits of elusive data from the ether in much the way that a nighthawk snatches flying insects out of the air.


In addition to the satellite dishes, exotic antennae prickled from the roof: four- and five-foot spikes, each featuring a different number of stubby crossbars; a double helix of copper ribbons; an item resembling an inverted, denuded metal Christmas tree standing on its point, with all branch ends aimed toward the sky; and something else like a horned Viking helmet balanced on a six-foot pole.


Bristling with these data-gathering devices, the trailer might have been a spaceworthy extraterrestrial ship crudely disguised as a mobile home: the sort of thing that callers were always reporting on the talk-radio programs that Fig favored.


Dusty, Martie, Skeet, and Valet gathered on an eight-foot-square porch covered by an aluminum awning that might, after takeoff, deploy as a solar sail. Dusty knocked on the door when he couldn’t find a bell push.


Clutching his blanket-cloak, which flapped and billowed in the wind, Skeet resembled a figure from a fantasy novel, following the trail of a fugitive sorcerer, exhausted by adventure, long harried by goblins. Raising his voice to compete with the wind, he said, “Are you really certain Claudette’s not sick?”


“We’re certain. She’s not,” Martie assured him.


Turning to Dusty, the kid said, “But you told me she was sick.”


“It was a lie, something to get you out of the clinic.”


Disappointed, Skeet said, “I truly thought she was sick.”


“You wouldn’t really want her to be ill,” Martie said.


“Not dying, necessarily. Cramps and puking would be enough.”


The porch light came on.


“And bad diarrhea,” Skeet amended.


Dusty had a sense of being studied through the fish-eye lens in the door.


After a moment, the door opened. Standing on the threshold, Fig blinked behind his thick spectacles. His gray eyes were made huge by the magnifying lenses, brimming with the sorrow that never left them even when Fig laughed. “Hey.”


“Fig,” Dusty said, “I’m sorry to bother you at home, and this late, but I didn’t know where else to go.”


“Sure,” Fig said, stepping back to let them in.


“Do you mind the dog?” Dusty asked.


Martie led Skeet up the steps. Valet and Dusty followed.


As Fig shut the door, Dusty said, “We’ve got big trouble, Fig. I might have gone to Ned, but he’d probably strangle Skeet sooner or later, so I—”


“Sit?” Fig asked, leading them to a dinette table.


As the three of them accepted the invitation, pulling chairs up to the table, and as the dog crawled under it, Martie said, “We might’ve gone to my mother, too, but she would just—”


“Juice?” Fig asked.


“Juice?” Dusty echoed.


“Orange, prune, or grape,” Fig elaborated.


“Do you have any coffee?” Dusty asked.


“Nope.”


“Orange,” Dusty decided. “Thanks.”


“Grape would be nice,” Martie said.


“You have any vanilla Yoo-hoo?” Skeet asked.


“Nope.”


“Grape.”


Fig went to the refrigerator in the adjoining kitchen.


On the radio, as Fig poured the juice, people were talking about “active and inactive alien DNA grafted to the human genetic structure” and worrying about “whether the purpose of current Earth colonization by aliens is enslavement of the human race, elevation of the human race to a higher condition, or the simple harvesting of human organs to make sweetbreads for extraterrestrial dinner tables.”


Martie raised her eyebrows as if to ask Dusty, is this going to work?


Surveying the trailer, nodding, smiling, Skeet said, “I like this place. It’s got a nice hum.”


After Nurse Hernandez was sent home with a promise of a full night's pay for two hours less work than she had been contracted to provide, after Nurse Ganguss was repeatedly assured that there was nothing their movie-star patient required at the moment, and after Nurse Woosten found a few new excuses to display the gymnastic abilities of her sprightly pink tongue, Dr. Ahriman returned to his unfinished business in room 246.


The actor was in bed, where he’d been told to wait, lying atop the covers in his black bikini briefs. He stared at the ceiling with as much emotion as he had brought to any of the roles in his string of colossal hit pictures.


Sitting on the edge of the bed, the doctor said, “Tell me where you are now, not physically but mentally.”


“I’m in the chapel.”


“Good.”


During a previous visit, Ahriman had instructed the actor never again to use heroin, cocaine, marijuana, or other illegal substances. Contrary to what the doctor had told Nurses Ganguss and Woosten, this man was now effectively cured of all drug addictions.


Neither compassion nor a sense of professional responsibility had motivated Dr. Ahriman to free the patient from these destructive habits. Simply, this man was more useful sober than stoned.


The movie star would soon be used in a dangerous game that would have enormous historical consequences; therefore, when the time came for him to be put into play, there must be no possibility that he’d be parked in a jail cell, awaiting bail for narcotics possession. He must remain free and ready for his appointment with destiny.

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