Across the table, tears shone in Martie’s eyes.
Dusty had to pause and take a deep breath before continuing. “Skeet, you will look back into your childhood and find that time when you believed in the future, when you were full of dreams and hopes. You will believe in the future again. You will believe in yourself. You will have hope, Skeet, and you will never, never again lose hope.”
Skeet staring into infinity. Fig riveted. Good Valet watching somberly. Martie blotting her eyes on the sleeve of her blouse.
Dusty put thumb to middle finger.
Hesitated. Thinking of all the things that might go wrong, and wondering about the unintended consequences of good intentions.
Skeet’s eyes slipped shut, and he slumped in his chair, sound asleep. His chin came to rest on his chest.
Overwhelmed by the responsibility that he’d just assumed, Dusty got up from the table, stood indecisively for a moment, and then went into the kitchen. At the sink, he twisted the COLD faucet, cupped his hands under the flow, and repeatedly splashed his face with water.
Manic came to him. “It’ll be all right, baby.”
The water might have concealed his tears, but he couldn’t hide the emotion that wrenched his voice. “What if somehow I’ve screwed him up worse than he was?”
“You haven’t,” she said with conviction.
He shook his head. “You can’t know. The mind is so delicate. One of the big things wrong with this world is.. . so many people want to screw with other people’s minds, and they cause so much damage. So much damage. You can’t know about this, neither of us can.”
“I can know,” she insisted gently, putting one hand to his damp face. “Because what you just did in there was done out of pure love, pure perfect love for your brother, and nothing bad can ever come of that.”
“Yeah. And the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
“So is the road to Heaven, don’t you think?”
Shuddering, swallowing a hard lump in his throat, he put an even deeper fear into words: “I’m afraid of what might happen if it works.. . but even more afraid that it won’t work. How crazy is that? What if I snap my fingers, and who wakes up is the old Skeet, still full of self-loathing, still confused, still the poor sweet feeb? This is his last chance, and I want so much to believe it’s going to work, but what if I snap my fingers, and it turns out his last chance was no chance at all? What then, Manic?”
The strength in her voice lifted him, as always she lifted him:
“Then at least you tried.”
Dusty looked toward the dining area, at the back of Skeet’s head, his hair rumpled and uncombed. The scrawny neck, the frail shoulders.
“Come on,” Manic said softly. “Give him a new life.”
Dusty turned off the running water.
He tore a few paper towels from a roll and blotted his face.
He wadded the towels and dropped them in the trash can.
He rubbed his hands together, as if he might be able to massage the tremors out of them.
Clickety-click, claws on linoleum: Inquisitive Valet padded into the kitchen. Dusty stroked the dog’s golden head.
Finally he followed Manic back to the dinette table, and they sat once more with Fig and Skeet.
Thumb to middle finger again.
Come the magic now, good or bad, hope or despair, joy or misery, meaning or emptiness, life or death: snap.
Skeet opened his eyes, raised his head, sat up straighter in his chair, looked around at those assembled, and said, “Well, when do we start?”
He had no memory of the session.
“Typical,” Fig pronounced, nodding his head vigorously.
“Skeet?” Dusty said.
The kid turned to him.
Taking a deep breath, then speaking the name as an exhalation, Dusty said, “Dr. Yen Lo.”
Skeet cocked his head. “Huh?”
“Dr. Yen Lo.”
Martie gave it a try: “Dr. Yen Lo.”
And then Fig: “Dr. Yen Lo.”
Skeet surveyed the expectant faces around him, including that of the dog, who had stood up with his forepaws on the table. “What is this, a riddle, a quiz or something? Was this Lo some guy in history? I was never any good at history.”
“Well,” said Fig.
“Clear cascades,” Dusty said.
Baffled, Skeet said, “Sounds like a dish-washing soap.”
At least the first part of the plan had worked. Skeet was no longer programmed, no longer controllable.
Only the passage of time would prove, however, whether or not Dusty’s second goal had also been achieved: Skeet’s liberation from his tortured past.
Dusty pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. To Skeet, he said, “Get up.”
“Come on, bro, get up.”
Letting the clinic blanket slip off his shoulders, the kid rose from the chair. He looked like a stick-and-straw scarecrow wearing a fat man’s pajamas.
Dusty put his arms around his brother and held him very tight, very tight, and when at last he could speak, he said, “Before we go, I’ll give you some money for vanilla Yoo-hoo, okay?”
The wheel of luck was turning. Two seats on United, out of John Wayne International Airport, to Santa Fe by way of Denver, were available on an early-morning flight. Using a credit card, Dusty secured the tickets from the phone in Fig Newton’s kitchen.
“Gun?” Fig asked, a few minutes later, as Dusty and Martie were at the front door, preparing to leave brother and dog in his care.
“What about it?” Dusty asked.
“Think you will,” Fig disagreed.
“Please tell me you don’t have an arsenal big enough to start a war,” Martie said, clearly wondering if Foster Newton was something more troubling than a mere eccentric.
“Don’t,” Fig assured her.
“Anyway, I’ve got this,” Dusty said, drawing the customized .45 Colt Commander from his jacket.
“Flying, aren’t you?” Fig said.
“I’m not going to try to carry it on the plane. I’ll pack it in one of our suitcases.”
“Might get random scanned,” Fig warned.
“Even if the baggage isn’t carry-on?”
“Even on short-haul flights?”
“Even,” Fig insisted.
“It’s all these terrorist events recently. Everyone’s nervous, and the FAA's issued some new crisis rules,” Skeet explained.
Dusty and Martie regarded him with no less astonishment than they would have shown if he had suddenly opened a third eye in the center of his forehead. Subscribing to the philosophical contention that reality sucks, Skeet never read a newspaper, never tuned in to television or radio news.
Recognizing the source of their amazement, Skeet shrugged and said, “Well, anyway, that’s what I overheard one dealer telling another.”
“Dealer?” Martie asked. “Like in drug dealer?”
“Not blackjack. I don’t gamble.”
“Drug dealers sit around talking current events?”
“I think this impacted their courier business. They were ticked off about it.”
To Fig, Dusty said, “So how random is random scanning? One bag in ten? One in five?”
“Maybe some flights, five percent.”
“Maybe others, a hundred percent.”
Looking at the pistol in his hand, Dusty said, “It’s a legal gun— but I don’t have a permit to carry.”
“And crossing state lines,” Fig warned.
“Even worse, huh?”
“Not better.” Winking one owlish eye, he added: “But I have something.”
Fig disappeared into back rooms of the trailer but returned only a minute later, carrying a box. From the box, he extracted a gleaming toy truck. With a swipe of one hand, he spun the wheels. “Vrooooom! Transport.”
From black sky, black wind. Black, the windows of the house. Does wind live within?
On the back porch of the Rhodeses’ miniature Victorian, which
Ahriman found too precious for his taste, he hesitated at the door, listening to the maraca rhythms of the shaken trees in the night, and to the black-wind haiku in his mind, pleased with himself.
When he’d first come here to conduct programming sessions with Dusty, a couple months ago, he had acquired one of the Rhodeses’ spare house keys, just as he had kept a key to Susan’s apartment. Now he stepped inside and quietly closed the door behind him.
If the wind lived here, it wasn’t home. This blackness was warm and still. No one else was in residence, either, not even the golden retriever.
Accustomed to a royal right of passage in the homes of those whom he ruled, he boldly switched on the kitchen lights.
He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he was confident that he would recognize it when he saw it.
Almost at once, a discovery. A padded mailing envelope, torn open, discarded on the dinette table. His attention was snared by the return address on the label: Dr. Roy Closterman.
Because of Ahriman’s spectacular success both in his practice and with his books, because he had inherited considerable wealth and was a figure of envy, because he did not suffer fools well, because he was more disposed to feel contempt rather than admiration for others in the healing community, whose self-congratulatory codes of ethics and dogmatic views he found suffocating, and for a number of other reasons, he made few friends but more than a few enemies among fellow physicians in every specialty. Consequently, he would have been surprised if the Rhodeses’ internist had not been one of those harboring a negative opinion of him. That they were patients of the self-beatified Saint Closterman, therefore, was only marginally more troublesome than if they had consulted one of the other doctors to whom Ahriman disdainfully referred as pokers-and-prodders.
What concerned him was a handwritten message that lay with the torn envelope. The note was on Closterman’s stationary, signed by him.
My receptionist passes your place on her way home, so I’ve asked her to drop this off I thought you might find Dr. Abriman's latest book of interest. Perhaps you’ve never read him.
Here was another wild card.
Dr. Ahriman folded the note and pocketed it.
The volume to which Closterman referred was not here. If it was truly the latest, then it must have been a hardcover copy of Learn to Love Yourself
The doctor was pleased to know that even his enemies contributed to his book royalties.
Nevertheless, when this crisis had been resolved, Ahriman would have to turn his attention to Saint Closterman. Some balance could be restored to the boyfriend’s head by clipping from it the remaining ear. From Closterman himself, perhaps the middle finger of the right hand could be removed, reducing his capacity to make vulgar gestures; a saint should not object to being relieved of a digit that had such obscene potential.
The fire truck—five inches wide, five inches high, and twelve inches long—was constructed of pressed metal. Nicely detailed, hand-painted, made in Holland by craftsmen with pride and flair, it would charm any child.
Sitting at the dining table, as his guests gathered around to watch, Fig used a tiny screwdriver with a quarter-inch head to remove eight brass screws, detaching the body of the truck from the base frame and wheels.
Inside the truck was a small felt bag of the type used to pack a pair of shoes in a suitcase to prevent rubbing.
“Gun,” Fig said.
Dusty gave the .45 Colt to him.
Fig wrapped the compact pistol in the shoe bag so it wouldn’t rattle, and he placed the bag inside the hollow body of the fire truck. If the weapon had been much larger, they would have needed a bigger truck.
“Spare magazine?” Fig asked.
“I don’t have one,” Dusty said.
Fig reattached the body of the truck to the base, taped the little screwdriver to the underside, and handed it to Dusty. “Let ‘em scan.”
“Lay it on its side in a suitcase, and it makes a recognizable toytruck silhouette on an X ray,” Martie said admiringly.
“There you go,” Fig said.
“They wouldn’t make anyone open a bag to inspect anything like that.”
“We could probably even take this in a carry-on,” Dusty said.
“Better?” Martie said. “Well, yeah, because sometimes airlines lose the luggage you don’t carry.”
Fig nodded. “Exactly.”
“You ever use this yourself?” Skeet asked.
“Never,” said Fig.
“Then why do you have it?”
“Just in case.”
Turning the fire truck over in his hands, Dusty said, “You’re a strange man, Foster Newton.”
“Thanks,” said Fig. “Kevlar body armor?”
“Bulletproof vests?” Dusty said.
“You have body armor?” Martie marveled.
Skeet said, “You ever needed it, Fig?”
“Not yet,” said Fig.
Martie shook her head. “Next you’ll be offering us an alien death-ray pistol.”
“Don’t have one,” Fig said with evident disappointment.
“We’ll skip the body armor,” Dusty said. “They might notice how bulked up we look going through airport security.”
“Might,” Fig agreed, taking him seriously.
The doctor found nothing more to engage him downstairs. Though he had a lively interest in the arts and interior design, he didn’t pause to admire even one painting, article of furniture, or objet d’art. The decor left him cold.
In the bedroom were signs of a hasty departure. Two dresser drawers weren’t closed. A closet door stood open. A sweater lay discarded on the floor.
On a closer inspection of the closet, he saw two matched pieces of luggage stored overhead on a shelf. Beside those two was an empty space where two smaller bags might have been shelved.
Another bedroom and bath provided no clues, and then he came to Martie’s office.
Busy blue-eyed girl. Busy making Hobbit games. Death waits in Mordor.
Across her large U-shaped work area were stacked books, maps of fantasy lands, sketches of characters, and other materials related to her project based on The Lord of the Rings. Ahriman took more time examining these items than was warranted, indulging his enthusiasm for anything to do with games.