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As he pored through the computer-assisted designs for Hobbits and Ores and other creatures, the doctor realized one reason why he was able to compose routinely better haiku about Martie than he’d been able to write when Susan and other women were his inspiration. He and Martie shared this gaming interest. She liked the power of being the game master, as did he. At least this one aspect of her mind resonated in sympathy with his.

He wondered if, in time, he might discover other attitudes and passions they shared. Once they were past the current regrettable ferment in their relationship, how ironic it would be to learn that they were fated to have a more complex future together than he had ever envisioned, distracted as he had been by Susan’s exceptional beauty and by Martie’s family connections.

The sweet sentimentalist in Ahriman delighted at the thought of falling in love or at least in something like it. Although his life was full and his habits long established, he would not be averse to the complication of romance.

Proceeding from desktop to desk drawers, he felt now less like a detective than like a naughty lover leafing through his darling’s diary in search of the most guarded secrets of her heart.

In a bank of three drawers, he found nothing to interest either a detective or a lover. In the wide but shallow center drawer, however, among rulers and pencils and erasers and the like, he came upon a microcassette on which SUSAN had been printed in red letters.

He felt what a gifted Gypsy might feel when tipping a mess of tea leaves on a plate and glimpsing a particularly ominous fate in the soggy patterns: a chill that turned the pia mater of his spine into a membrane of ice.

He searched the remaining drawers for a tape recorder that would accept the microcassette. Martie didn’t have one.

When he saw the answering machine on one corner of the desk, he realized what he held in his hand.

The aluminum awning, vibrating in the wind, had the guttural growl of a living beast, as though in the night something hungry waited for Dusty to open the trailer door.

“If the weather forecasts can be believed, the rest of the week is going to be a mess,” he told Fig. “Don’t even try to go out to the Sorenson job. Just look after Skeet and Valet for me.”

“Till when?” Fig asked.

“I don’t know. Depends on what we find out there. Probably be back the day after tomorrow, Friday. But maybe Saturday.”

“We’ll keep ourselves entertained,” Fig promised.

“We’ll play some cards,” Skeet said.

“And monitor shortwave frequencies for alien code bursts,” Fig said, in what was for him the equivalent of an oration.

“Listen to talk radio, I bet,” Skeet predicted.

“Hey,” Fig said to Skeet, “you want to blow up a courthouse?”

Martie said, “Whoa.”

“Joke,” said Fig, with an owlish wink.

“Bad one,” she advised.

Outside, as Dusty and Martie descended the steps and crossed the small porch, the wind tore at them, and all the way to the car, large dead-brown magnolia leaves scuttled like rats at their feet.

Behind them, out of the open door of the trailer came a piercing and pathetic whine from Valet, as though canine precognition told him that he would never see them again.

The indicator window on the answering machine showed two waiting messages. Dr. Ahriman decided to listen to these before reviewing the cassette labeled SUSAN.

The first call was from Martie’s mother. She sounded frantic to find out what was wrong, to learn why her previous calls had not been returned.

The second voice on the tape was that of a woman who identified herself as an airline ticket agent. “Mr Rhodes, I neglected to ask for the expiration date on your credit card. If you get this message, would you please call me back with the information? She provided an 800 number. “But if I don’t hear from you, your two tickets to Santa Fe will still be waiting for you in the morning.”

Dr. Ahriman marveled at their having focused so quickly on the central importance of his New Mexico days. Martie and Dusty seemed to be supernatural adversaries. . . until he realized that the Santa Fe connection must have been made for them by Saint Clostennan.

Nevertheless, the doctor’s slow and steady pulse, which even during the commission of murder was seldom elevated by more than ten beats per minute, accelerated upon the receipt of this news regarding the Rhodeses’ travel plans.

With an athlete’s intimate awareness of his body, ever sensitive to the maintenance of good health, the doctor sat down again, took several deep breaths, and then consulted his wristwatch to time his pulse. Usually, when he was seated, his rate ranged between sixty and sixty-two beats per minute, because he was in exceptional condition. Now, he counted seventy, a full eight-point elevation, and with no dead woman handy to credit for it.

In the car, as Dusty went in search of a hotel near the airport, Martie at last phoned her mother.

Sabrina was distraught and in full fluster. For minutes, she refused to believe that Martie was not injured or maimed, that she was not the victim of a traffic accident, a drive-by shooting, fire, lightning, a disgruntled postal employee, or that horrid flesh-eating bacteria that was in the news again.

As she listened to this rant, Martie was filled with a special tenderness that only her mother could evoke.

Sabrina loved her sole child with a crazy intensity that would have made Martie a hopeless neurotic by the age of eleven, if she had not been so determinedly independent almost from the day that she took her first steps. But this world harbored worse things than crazy love. Crazy hate. Oh, lots of that. And just plain crazy, in abundance.

Sabrina loved Smilin’ Bob no less than she loved her daughter. The loss of him, when he was only fifty-three, had made her more protective of Martie than ever. The probability of her husband and her daughter both dying young, of separate causes, might be as low as the chances of the earth being destroyed by an asteroid impact before morning, but cold statistics and insurance-company actuarial tables offered no consolation to a wounded and wary heart.

Martie, therefore, wasn’t going to say a word to her mother about mind control, haiku, the Leaf Man, the priest with the spike through his head, severed ears, or the trip to Santa Fe. Given this overload of weird news, Sabrina’s anxiety would explode into hysteria.

She wasn’t going to tell her mother about Susan Jagger, either, partly because she didn’t trust herself to talk about the loss of her friend without breaking down, but also because Sabrina had loved Susan almost like a daughter. This was news that she had to deliver in person, holding her mother’s hand, both to give emotional support and to receive it.

To explain her failure to return her mother’s calls on a timely basis, Martie told her all about Skeet’s attempted suicide and his voluntary commitment to New Life Clinic. Of course, these events had all occurred the previous morning, Tuesday, which didn’t explain Martie’s behavior on Wednesday, but she fudged the story to make it sound as if Skeet had taken the plunge from the Sorensons’ roof one day and entered the clinic the next, implying two days of turmoil.

Sabrina’s reaction was only partly what Martie had expected— and surprisingly emotional. She didn’t know Skeet all that well; and she had never expressed a desire to know him better. To Martie’s mother, poor Skeet was no less dangerous than any machine-gun-toting member of Columbia’s Medellin drug cartel, a violent and evil figure who wanted to pin down children on school playgrounds and forcibly inject he**in into their veins. Yet here, now, tears and sobs, worried questions about his injuries, his prospects, and more tears.

“This is what I’ve been afraid of, this is what eats at me all the time,” Sabrina said. “I knew this was coming, it was bound to happen, and now here it is, and the next time it might not turn out so well. The next time Dusty might go off the roof, break his neck and be paralyzed for life, or die. And then what? I begged you not to marry a housepainter, to find a man with more ambition, someone who will have a nice office, who will sit at a desk, who won’t fall off roofs all the time, won’t even have a chance to fall off roofs.”


“I lived with this worry all my life, with your father. Your father and fire. Always fire and burning buildings and things blowing up and things maybe collapsing on him. All my married life I dreaded him going to work, panicked when I heard a fire siren, couldn’t look at the news on TV because when they showed some breaking news story about a big fire, I’d think maybe he was there. And he was hurt, time and again. And maybe his cancer had something to do with breathing so much smoke at fires. All those toxins in the air at a big fire. And now you’ve got a husband with roofs like I had one with fires. Roofs and ladders, always falling, and you’ll never know any peace.”

This worried, heartfelt speech left Martie stunned and wordless.

On the other end of the line, Sabrina was crying.

Apparently sensing a mother-daughter moment of unusual import and assuming that it must have negative consequences for him, Dusty glanced away from the traffic ahead and whispered, “Now what?”

Finally Martie said, “Mom, you’ve never said a word about this before. You—”

“A fireman’s wife doesn’t talk about it, doesn’t nag him about it or worry aloud,” Sabrina said. “Never, not ever, my God, because if you talk about it, that’s when it happens. A fireman’s wife has to be strong, has to be positive, has to give him support, swallow her fear, and smile. But it’s always in her heart, this dread, and now you go and marry a man who’s on ladders all the time and running around roofs and falling off, when you could have found someone who worked at a desk and couldn’t fall off worse than a chair.”

“The thing is, I love him, Mom.”

“I know you do, dear,” her mother sobbed. “It's just terrible.”

“This is why you’ve been on my case about Dusty since forever?”

“I haven’t been on your case, dear. I’ve been on your team.”

“It felt like my case. Mom.. . can I infer from this you might actually sort of, kind of, at least a little bit like Dusty?”

Dusty was so startled to hear this question that his hands slipped on the steering wheel and the Saturn almost swerved out of its lane in traffic.

“He’s a sweet boy,” Sabrina said, as if Martie were still in junior high and dating adolescents. “He’s very sweet and smart and polite, and I know why you love him. But he’s going to fall off a roof and kill himself one day, and that’s going to ruin your whole life. You’ll never get over it. Your heart will die with him.”

“Why didn’t you just say this long ago, instead of all the sniping about everything he did?”

“I wasn’t sniping, dear. I was trying to express my concern. I couldn’t talk about him falling off a roof, not directly. Never, my God, when you talk about it, that’s when it happens. And here we are, talking about it! Now he’s going to fall off a roof, and it’ll be my fault.”

“Mom, that’s irrational. It won’t happen.”

“It’s already happened,” Sabrina said. “And now it’ll happen again. Firemen and fires. Painters and roofs.”

Holding the phone between herself and Dusty, so that her mother could hear both of them, Martie said, “How many house-painters have you known, people who work for you, others in the trade who haven’t?”

“Fifty? Sixty? I don’t know. At least that.”

“And how many have fallen off roofs?”

“Aside from me and Skeet?”

“Aside from you and Skeet.”

“One that I know of. He broke a leg.”

Putting the phone to her ear again, Martie said, “You hear that, Mom? One. Broke his leg.”

“One that he knows of” Sabrina said. “One, and now he’s next.”

“He already fell off a roof. Chances of any one painter falling off a roof twice in his lifetime must be millions to one.”

“His first fall didn’t count,” Sabrina said. “He was trying to save his brother. It wasn’t an accident. The accident is still waiting to happen.”

“Mom, I love you tons, but you’re a little nuts.”

“I know, dear. All those years of worrying. And you’re going to end up a little nuts, too.”

“We’ll be busy the next couple days, Mom. Don’t pass a kidney stone if I fail to return one of your calls right away, okay? We’re not going to fall off any roofs.”

“Let me talk to Dusty.”

Martie passed the phone to him.

He looked wary, but he accepted it. “Hi, Sabrina. Yeah. Well, you know. Uh-huh. Sure. No, I won’t. No, I won’t. No, I promise I won’t. That’s true, isn’t it? Huh? Oh, no, I never did take it seriously. Don’t beat up on yourself. Well, I love you too, Sabrina. Huh? Sure. Mom. I love you, too, Mom.”

He passed the phone back to Martie, and she pressed end.

They were both silent, and then Martie said, “Who would have thought—a mother-and-child reunion in the midst of all this crap.”

Funny, how hope raises its lovely head when least expected, a flower in a wasteland.

Dusty said, “You lied to her, babe.”

She knew he wasn’t referring to her reconstruction of the time frame of Skeet’s leap and hospitalization, nor to her leaving out the news about Susan and the rest of the mess they were in.

Nodding, she said, “Yeah, I told her we weren’t going to fall off any roofs—and, hell, every one of us falls off a roof sooner or later.”

“Unless we’re going to be the first to live forever.”

“If we are, then we’d better get a whole lot more serious about our retirement fund.”

Martie was terrified of losing him. Like her mother, she could not bring herself to put the fear into words, lest what she dreaded would come to pass.

New Mexico was the state where the high plains met the Rockies, the roof of the American Southwest, and Santa Fe was a city built at a high altitude, nearly one and a half miles above sea level: a long way to fall.

On the answering-machine microcassette labeled SUSAN, only one of the five messages was important, but listening to it, the doctor felt his heartbeat accelerate once more.

Another wild card.

When he had reviewed the two messages from Martie’s mother that followed Susan’s bombshell, he erased the tape.

Once it was erased, he took the cassette out of the machine, dropped it on the floor, and stomped it underfoot until the plastic casing was well crushed.