“You move in elite circles,” said the doctor. “In particular, I’m thinking of an event you’re scheduled to attend ten days from now, Saturday night of next week. Please describe the event to which I refer.”
“It’s a reception for the president,” the actor said.
“The President of the United States.”
In fact, the event was a major fund-raiser for the president’s political party, to be held at the Bel Air estate of a director who had earned more money, garnered more Oscars, and risked contracting a sexually transmitted disease with more would-be actresses than had even the late Josh Ahriman, King of Tears. Two hundred of Hollywood’s glitterati would pay twenty thousand dollars apiece for the privilege of fawning over this ultimate politico as they themselves were daily fawned over by everyone from famous talk-show hosts to riffraff in the streets. For their money, they would get, alternately throughout the evening, both an ego rush so tremendous it induced spontaneous orgasms and a deliciously perverse feeling that they were nothing more than servile pop-culture scum in the presence of greatness.
“Nothing whatsoever will deter you from attending this party for the president,” the doctor instructed.
“Illness, injury, earthquakes, nubile teenage fans of either sex— neither those distractions nor any others will prevent you from being on time for this event.”
“I believe that the president is a particular fan of yours.”
“On that evening, when you come face-to-face with the president, you’ll use your charm and manipulative skills to put him instantly at ease. Then, induce him to lean especially close, as if you intend to impart an irresistible bit of gossip about one of the most beautiful actresses present. When he is very close and most vulnerable, you will seize his head in both hands and bite off his nose.”
The trailer was indeed humming, as Skeet had noted, but Martie found the hum more annoying than nice. In fact, an auditory tapestry of electronic buzzes and purrs and sighs and tiny tweets wove through the air, some constant in tone and volume, others intermittent, still others oscillating. All of these sounds were quite soft, whispery, never shrill, and the combined effect was not dissimilar to sitting in a meadow on a summer night, surrounded by cicadas and crickets and other insect troubadours as they sang of bug romance. Maybe that was why the hum made Martie itchy and gave her the feeling that things were crawling up her legs.
Two walls of the living room, of which this dining area was an open extension, were lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves holding computer monitors and ordinary televisions, most aglow and streaming with pictures, numerical data, flow charts, and abstract patterns of shifting forms and colors that made no sense to Martie. Also on these shelves was a large quantity of mysterious equipment featuring oscilloscopes, radar-display units, gauges, light-snake tracking graphs, and digital readouts in six different colors.
When everyone had been served juice, Fig Newton sat at the table, too. Behind him was a wall papered with star charts, Northern and Southern Hemisphere skyscapes. He looked like a hillbilly cousin of Captain James Kirk, skippering a bargain-basement version of the starship Enterprise.
The mascot of the space command, Valet, lapped water from a bowl the captain had provided for him. Judging by his happy attitude, the dog was not bothered by the trailer’s hum.
Martie wondered if Fig’s perpetually flushed face and cherry-bright nose resulted from the radiation emitted by his collection of electronic gear, rather than from exposure to the sun during his day job as a housepainter.
“So?” Fig asked.
Dusty said, “Manic and I have to go to Santa Fe, and we need—”
“To be energized?”
“It’s an energy locus,” Fig said solemnly.
“What is? Santa Fe? What kind of energy locus?”
“Really? Well, no, we’re just going to talk to some people who might be witnesses in . . . a criminal case. We need somewhere for Skeet to stay for a couple days, where no one would think to look for him. If you could—”
“Gonna jump?” Fig asked Skeet.
“Off my roof.”
“No offense,” Skeet said, “but it’s not high enough.”
“No, nothing like that,” Skeet promised.
“Okay,” Fig said, sipping his prune juice.
This had been easier than Martie expected. She said, “We know it’s an imposition, Fig, but could you make room for Valet, too?”
“Yeah. He’s really a sweetheart, doesn’t bark, doesn’t bite, and he’s great company if—”
“In the house?” Fig asked.
“Oh, no, never.”
Martie locked eyes with Dusty, and apparently his conscience was as guilty as hers, because he said, “Fig, I’ve got to be really straight with you. I think there's going to be someone looking for Skeet, maybe more than one someone. I don’t believe they’re likely to show up here, but if they do.. . they’re dangerous.”
“Drugs?” Fig asked.
“No. It has nothing to do with that. It’s..
When Dusty hesitated, struggling to capsulize their bizarre plight in words that wouldn’t strain Fig’s credulity to the breaking point, Martie took over: “Crazy as this might sound, we’re caught up in some mind-control experiment, brainwashing, a conspiracy of some—”
“Aliens?” Fig asked.
“No, no. We—”
“No. This is—”
“Maybe,” Martie said.
“American Psychological Association?”
Martie was speechless, and Dusty said, “Where’d you come up with that one?”
“Only five possible suspects,” Fig said.
“Who’s the fifth?”
Leaning over the table, his pink pie-round face as close to an expression of solemnity as it could ever get, limpid gray eyes flooded with the sorrow over the human condition that was always with him, Fig said, “Bill Gates.”
“Good juice,” Skeet said.
The na*ed actor. Frivolous man of movies. Fame and infamy.
Dreadful. If beautiful women did not easily inspire the doctor to reach the heights of poetic composition, this thespian with his surgically sculpted nose and collagen-enhanced lips was not likely to be the subject of immortal haiku.
Rising from the edge of the bed, staring down into the placid face and the jiggling eyes, Ahriman said, “You will not chew the nose once you have bitten it off. You will at once spit it out in such a condition that it can be reattached by a team of first-rate surgeons. The intention here is not assassination and not permanent disfigurement. There are some people who wish to send the president a message—a warning, if you will—that he cannot ignore. You are simply the messenger. Tell me whether or not this is clear to you.”
“Repeat my instructions.”
The actor repeated the instructions word for word, far more faithfully than he ever delivered the lines from one of his scripts.
“Although you will do no additional harm whatsoever to the president, all other attendees at this event will be fair game in your attempt to escape.”
“The shock of the assault will give you a chance to slip out of arm’s reach of Secret Service agents before they react.”
“But they will be on your heels in an instant. After that, do what you must. . . though you will not be taken alive. You may want to think of yourself as Indiana Jones surrounded by Nazi thugs and their evil minions. Be inventive in creating mayhem, using ordinary objects as weapons, swashbuckling your way through the house until you’re shot down.”
This nice bit of work with the actor was a contract job, which the doctor was obligated to accept from time to time. This was the price he paid to be permitted to employ his control techniques for personal entertainment, with little or no fear of imprisonment in the event that any of his games went awry.
If this had been one of his private amusements, the scenario would not have been this simple. In spite of the lack of complexity, however, this little game had a high fun factor.
After programming the actor to have no accessible memory of what transpired between them here this evening, Ahriman led him into the living room of the suite.
Originally, the doctor had intended to spend at least an hour dictating semicoherent psychotic rants while the actor entered them into his personal, handwritten journal as if they were his own dark fantasies. They had done this during a few previous sessions, and almost two hundred pages of feverish paranoid terror, bitter hatred, and doomsday prophecies—virtually all related to the President of the United States—filled the first half of the journal. The actor would remember writing none of this and would open the journal only when instructed to do so by his psychiatrist; however, following the assault on the presidential nose, once the prep had been gunned down, the authorities would discover this heinous document buried under the collection of souvenir panties that the movie star had talked off the legions of women whom he had seduced.
Now, troubled by the Rhodeses’ commando-style removal of Skeet from the clinic, Ahriman chose to skip dictation this time. The existing two hundred pages would be sufficiently convincing both to FBI agents and the nation’s tabloid readers.
Taking direction well, the actor rolled back into a headstand against the living-room wall opposite the television, as nimble as an adolescent gymnast twenty years his junior.
“Begin counting,” Ahriman said.
When the actor reached ten, he returned from the mind chapel to full consciousness. As far as he was aware, his psychiatrist had just now entered the room.
“Mark? What’re you doing here at this hour?”
“I was in the building for another patient. What’re you doing?”
“I spend about an hour a day in this position. Good for brain circulation.”
“The results are obvious.”
“They are, huh?” the movie star beamed, upside down.
Counseling himself to have patience, the doctor engaged in ten minutes of excruciatingly boring conversation regarding the huge box-office receipts pouring in from the actor’s current megahit, giving the subject something to remember from this visit. When finally he left Room 246, he knew far more than he cared to know about typical attendance patterns at mall theaters in the greater Chicago area.
The famous actor. He bites democracy’s nose. And the millions cheer.
Not great but much better. Work on that one.
With January wind blustering outside and fields of electronic crickets humming inside, Dusty activated Skeet with the name Dr. Yen Lo.
The kid sat up a little straighter at the table, his pale face becoming so expressionless that Dusty only now realized how subtly anguished it had been before. This observation sharpened the ever-present sorrow that he felt over the fact that his brother had been robbed, so young, of a full and purposeful life.
When they went through the haiku and Skeet’s three responses, Fig Newton said, “Exactly,” as if he knew about such psychological control mechanisms.
Minutes ago, in a hurried consultation in Fig’s library—a small bedroom filled with books about UFOs, alien abductions, spontaneous human combustion, cross-dimensional beings, and the Bermuda Triangle—Dusty had outlined for Manic the effects he hoped to achieve with Skeet. What he proposed seemed fraught with risk to Skeet’s already fragile psychological condition, and he worried that he would do more damage than good. To his surprise, Manic at once embraced his plan. He trusted her common sense more than he trusted the sun to rise in the east, so with her endorsement, he was prepared to take the awful responsibility for the consequences of his plan.
Now, with Skeet accessed and his eyes jiggling as they had jiggled at New Life Clinic, Dusty said, “Tell me if you can hear my voice, Skeet.”
“I can hear your voice.”
“Skeet. . . when I give you instructions, will you obey them?”
“Will I obey them?”
Reminding himself of everything he had learned in their previous session at the clinic, Dusty rephrased the question as a statement:
“Skeet, you will obey all instructions that I give you. Confirm or deny that this is true.”
“I am Dr. Yen Lo, Skeet.”
“And I am the clear cascades.”
“In the past, I have given you many instructions.”
“The blue pine needles,” Skeet said.
“That’s right. Now, Skeet, in a little while, I am going to snap my fingers. When that happens, you will fall into a restful sleep. Confirm or deny that you understand me so far.”
“And then I will snap my fingers a second time. On that second snap of my fingers, you will wake up, will become entirely conscious, but you will also forget forever all of my previous instructions to you. My control over you will come to an end. I—Dr. Yen Lo, the clear cascades—will never again be able to access you. Skeet, tell me whether or not you understand what I’ve said.”
Dusty sought Martie’s reassurance.
Not privy to their plan, Fig leaned forward over the table, rapt, his prune juice forgotten.
“Although you will forget all my previous instructions, Skeet, you will remember every word of what I am going to tell you now, and you will believe it, and you will act upon it for the rest of your life. Tell me whether you do or do not understand what I’ve just said.”
“Skeet, you will never again use illegal drugs. You will have no desire to use them. The only drugs you will use are those that may be prescribed for you by physicians in time of illness.”
“Skeet, from this moment forward, you will understand that you are basically a good man, no more or less flawed than other people. The negative things your father has said about you over all these years, the judgments your mother has passed on you, the criticisms that Derek Lampton has leveled against you—none of those things will affect you, hurt you, or limit you ever again.”