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From the ruins, he extracted the narrow magnetic tape and the two tiny hubs around which it was spooled. They didn’t even fill the palm of his hand: so much danger compressed into such a small object.

Downstairs, in the living room, Ahriman opened the damper in the fireplace flue. He placed the tape and two plastic hubs atop one of the ceramic logs.

From his suit coat, he withdrew a slim Cartier cigarette lighter of elegant design and superb craftsmanship.

He had carried a lighter since he was eleven years old, first one that he had stolen from his father and then, later, this better model. The doctor didn’t smoke, but there was always the possibility that he would want to set something on fire.

When he was thirteen, already in his first year of college, he had torched his mother. If he hadn’t been carrying a lighter in his pocket when the need of one arose, his life might have changed much for the worse on that grim day thirty-five years ago.

Although his mother was supposed to be skiing—this was at their vacation house in Vail, during the Christmas holiday—she walked in on him while he was preparing a cat for live dissection. He had only just anesthetized the cat, using chloroform that he concocted from common household cleaning fluids, had used strapping tape to secure its paws to the plastic tarp that would serve as an autopsy table, had taped its mouth shut to muffle its cries when it woke, and had laid out the set of surgical tools he had acquired from the medical-supply company that offered a discount to premed students at the university. Then. . . hello, Mom. Often he didn’t see her for months at a time, when she was on location with a film, or when she went on one of the gunless safaris she so enjoyed, but now suddenly she felt guilty about leaving him alone while she went skiing with her girl pals, and she decided they needed to spend an afternoon in some damn bonding activity or another. What lousy timing.

He could see that his mother knew at once what had happened to his cousin Heather’s puppy at Thanksgiving, and perhaps she intuited the truth behind the disappearance of the four-year-old son of their estate manager a year previous. His mother was self-involved, the typical thirty-something actress who framed her magazine covers and decorated her bedroom with them, but she was not stupid.

As quick-thinking as always, young Ahriman plucked the stopper from the chloroform bottle and splashed her photogenic face with the contents. This gave him time to free the cat, put away the tarp and surgical kit, extinguish the pilot lights in the kitchen range, turn the gas on, set his mother ablaze while she still lay unconscious, grab the cat, and run for it.

The explosion rocked Vail and echoed like thunder through the snowy mountains, triggering a few avalanches too minor to have any entertainment value. The ten-room redwood chalet, shattered into kindling, burned furiously.

When firemen found young Ahriman sitting in the snow a hundred feet from the pyre, clutching the cat that he had saved from the blast, the boy was in such a state of shock that at first he could not speak and was even too dazed to cry. “I saved the cat,” he told them eventually, in a stricken voice that haunted them for years after, “but I couldn’t save my mom. I couldn’t save my mom.”

Later, they identified his mother’s body with the help of dental records. The small mound of remains, once cremated, didn’t even half fill the memorial jar. (He knew; he looked.) Her graveside service was attended by the royalty of Hollywood, and that noisy honor guard of celebrity funerals—press helicopters—circled overhead.

He had missed seeing new movies starring his mother, because she’d been smart about scripts and usually made only good pictures, but he had not missed his mother herself, as he knew she would not have much missed him, had their fates been reversed. She loved animals and was a staunch champion of all the causes related to them; children just didn’t resonate with her as deeply as did anything with four feet. On the big screen, she could stir your heart, plunge it into despair or fill it with joy; this talent didn’t extend to real life.

Two terrible fires, fifteen years apart, had made an orphan of the doctor (if you didn’t know about the poisoned petits fours): the first a freak accident, for which the manufacturer of the gas range paid dearly, the second set by the drunken, lust-crazed, homicidal handyman, Earl Ventnor, who had finally died in prison two years ago, stabbed by another inmate during a brawl.

Now, as Ahriman thumbed the striker wheel on the old flint-style lighter and ignited the answering-machine tape in the fireplace, he meditated upon the fact that fire had played such a central role in both his life and Martie’s, her father having been the most-decorated fireman in the history of the state. Here was yet another thing they shared.

Sad. After these latest developments, he would probably not be able to allow their relationship to evolve. He had so looked forward to the possibility that he and this lovely, game-loving woman might one day be something special to each other.

If he could locate her and her husband, he could activate them, take them down to their mind chapels, and find out what else they had learned about him, whom they might have told. More likely than not, the damage could be undone, the game resumed and played to its end.

He had their cell-phone number but they knew he had it, and they were unlikely to answer it in their current paranoid state of mind. And he could activate only one at a time by phone, thereby immediately alerting the one who was listening. Too risky.

Finding them was the trick. They were running, alert and wary, and they would stay well hidden until they boarded the flight to New Mexico in the morning.

Approaching them in the airport, at the boarding gate, was out of the question. Even if they didn’t flee, he couldn’t activate, quiz, and instruct them in public.

Once in New Mexico, they were as good as dead.

When the audiotape began to burn, issuing a noxious stink, the doctor switched on the fireplace gas. Whoosh, and in two minutes, nothing was left of the tape but a sticky residue on the topmost of the ceramic logs.

He was in a mood, the doctor, and sadness was not the greater component of his mood.

All the fun had gone out of this game. He had put so much effort into it, so much strategy, but now it would most likely not be played out above the beaches of Malibu, as he had planned.

He wanted to burn down this house.

Spite was not his sole motivation, nor was his distaste for the decor. Without spending the better part of a day searching the place inch by inch, he couldn’t be sure that the microcassette with Susan’s accusations was the only evidence against him that Martie and Dusty had accumulated. He didn’t have a day to waste, and burning the house to the ground was the surest way to protect himself.

Granted, Susan’s message on the tape was insufficient to convict him, not even damning enough to get him indicted. He was, however, a man who never made bargains with the god of chance.

Torching the house himself was far too risky. Once the fire was set, someone might see him leaving—and be able to identify him one day in court.

He shut off the fireplace gas.

Room by room, as he left the house, he extinguished the lights.

On the back porch, he slipped his spare key under the doormat, where the next visitor would be instructed to look for it.

Before morning, he would torch the house, but by proxy rather than with his own hands. He had a candidate, programmed and easily reached by phone, who would commit this bit of arson when told to do so, but who would never remember striking the match.

The night remained wind-rattled.

On the walk to his car, which was parked three blocks away, the doctor tried to compose a wind haiku, without success.

Driving past the Rhodeses’ quaint Victorian, he imagined it in flames, and he searched his mind for a seventeen-syllable verse about fire, but the words eluded him.

Instead, he recalled the lines he had composed extemporaneously and so fluently when, on entering Martie’s office, he had seen the work piled on her desk.

Busy blue-eyed girl. Busy making Hobbit games. Death waits in Mordor.

He edited the work, updating it to reflect recent developments:

Busy blue-eyed girl. Busy playing detective. Death in Santa Fe.


Larger than San Quentin quarters, far different from the drab gray of prison decor, the colorful and overly patterned hotel room felt nonetheless like a cell. In the bath, the tub reminded Martie of Susan soaking in crimson water, though she had been spared the sight of her dead friend. All the windows were permanently sealed, and the pumped-in warm air, even with the thermostat dialed down to the lowest comfort zone, was suffocating. She felt isolated, hunted, all but cornered. Autophobia, which had been simmering at extremely low heat since nine o’clock, seemed about to be reborn as full-blown claustrophobia.

Action. Action, shaped by intelligence and a moral perspective, is the answer to most problems. So it is written on page 1 of the philosophy of Smilin’ Bob.

They were taking action, too, although only time would reveal if there was enough intelligence shaping it.

First, they pored through Roy Closterman’s file on Mark Ahriman, paying special attention to the information dealing with the Pastore murders and with the preschool case in New Mexico. From the Xeroxes of newspaper articles, they extracted names and made a list of those who had suffered and in whose suffering there might be both clues and damning testimony.

Finished with Closterman’s file, Dusty used Raymond Shaw and the leaf haiku to access Martie and return her to her mind chapel—though first he made a solemn promise to leave her psyche utterly unaltered, all her faults intact, which she found both amusing and touching.

As with Skeet, he carefully instructed her to forget everything that Raymond Shaw had ever said to her, to forget all the images of death that Shaw had implanted in her mind, to be free of the control program that Shaw had installed in her, and to be forever free from the autophobia. On a conscious level, she heard nothing of what he said, and later remembered nothing that happened after he spoke the activating name until— Snap, whereupon she woke and felt free and clean, as she had not felt in almost two days. Her old friend, hope, took up residence in her again. When tested, she did not respond to Raymond Shaw anymore.

In turn, Martie liberated Dusty after accessing him with Viola Narvilly and the heron haiku.

With a snap, he returned to her.

She was staring into his beautiful eyes when they cleared from the trance, and she understood the terrible sense of responsibility under which he had labored when accessing and instructing Skeet. How awesome and frightening it was to have had her husband so vulnerable before her, the innermost chambers of his mind presented to her for remodeling as she wished; how awesome, too, and humbling, to present her most fundamental self to him, to be so na*ed and helpless, with no defense except absolute trust.

When tested, he could not be accessed for control.

“Free,” he said.

“Better yet,” she said, “from now on, when I tell you to take out the garbage, you’ll really hop to it.”

His laughter was out of proportion to the joke.

As a declaration of independence, Martie flushed her Valium down the toilet.

Having been in high spirits when he’d left home earlier in the night, the doctor was driving his cherry-red Ferrari Testarossa, which was as low to the ground and as quick as a lizard, but it was too flashy to match his current mood. His Mercedes would also have been the wrong vehicle, too stately and ambassadorial for a guy in a down-and-dirty, throat-cutting frame of mind. One of his collection of street rods would have suited him better: in particular, the ‘63 black Buick Riviera with its chopped top, split grille, elliptical hood scoops, sectioned rear fenders, and other custom details, which looked like a demonic car that, in the movies, would drive itself on murderous missions, possessed and indestructible.

He stopped at a convenience store to make the call, because he didn’t want to use either his cell phone or his phone at home.

This land of the brave new millennium was one giant confessional booth, with listening priests of the secular church monitoring every conversation from behind concealing electronic screens. The doctor swept his house, his offices, and his vehicles for listening devices once each month, doing the work himself, with equipment he purchased for cash, because he trusted no one among the private-security firms that offered such services. A phone, however, could be monitored by an off-site tap; therefore, incriminating calls must always be made from telephones not listed in his name.

The pay phone outside the convenience store was racked on the wall. The wind would foil a directional microphone if a surveillance team was stalking the doctor, though he was confident no one was tailing him. If this phone was a known contact for drug dealers, there might be a passive tap recording every conversation, in which case voice analysis could eventually be used to incriminate Ahriman in a court of law; but this was a minor and unavoidable risk.

Although the doctor’s friends in high places could be counted on to ensure him against a successful prosecution for virtually any crime, he was nonetheless cautious. Indeed, it was the possibility of being monitored by these friends that motivated him to conduct an electronic sweep of his house each month, and he was more concerned about keeping them ignorant of his private games than he was worried about the police. The doctor himself would have sold out a friend without hesitation if he benefited sufficiently from the sale, and he assumed that any friend would do the same to him.

He keyed in a number, fed coins to the phone, cupped his hand around the mouthpiece to keep out the shriek of the wind, and when he got an answer on the third ring, he said, “Ed Mavole,” which was the name of a character in The Manchurian Candidate.

“I’m listening.”

They proceeded through the lines of the enabling haiku, after which the doctor said, “Tell me whether or not you are alone.”

“I’m alone.”

“I want you to go to Dusty and Martie's house in Corona Del Mar.” He checked his wristwatch. Nearly midnight. “I want you to go to their house at three o’clock in the morning, a little more than three hours from now. Tell me whether or not you understand.”

“I understand.”

“You will take with you five gallons of gasoline and a book of matches.”


“Please be discreet. Take every precaution against being seen.”


“You will enter by their back door. Under the doormat is a key that I have left for you.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Convinced that his subject wouldn’t have the technical knowledge necessary to commit a completely successful act of arson, wanting to be certain the house would be utterly destroyed, the doctor huddled against the pummeling wind and devoted five minutes to an explanation of how flammable liquids and highly combustible materials already on the premises could be best used to supplement the gasoline. Further, he enlightened his dutiful listener on the four crucial architectural details that could be used to serve an arsonist’s purposes.