In spite of the danger in which they found themselves or perhaps because of it, in spite of their grief or because of it, Martie and Dusty made love. Their slow, easy coupling was as much affirmation as sex: an affirmation of life, of their love for each other, and of their faith in the future.
For sweet minutes, no fear troubled them, no demons of the mind or demons of the world, nor did the hotel room seem either small or stifling, as before. For the duration of these silken rhythms, there was no blurring of the line between fact and fiction, between reality and fantasy, because reality was reduced to their two bodies and the tenderness they shared.
At home, in his lacewood-paneled study, the doctor sat in his ergonomic ostrich-skin chair, touched one of the many buttons inset in an extractable writing slide, and watched as his computer rose out of the top of the desk. The lift mechanism purred softly.
He composed a message, warning of Martine and Dustin Rhodes’s travel plans, providing detailed descriptions, and requesting, as a personal courtesy, that they be kept under surveillance from the moment they landed in New Mexico. If their investigation proved fruitless, they were to be allowed to return to California. If they obtained any information damaging to the doctor, he preferred to have them killed there in the Land of Enchantment, as the natives called it, to save him the trouble of disposing of them when they returned here to the Golden State. If termination in New Mexico was deemed necessary, then the couple should first be persuaded to reveal the whereabouts of Mr. Rhodes’s brother, Skeet Caulfield.
As Ahriman reviewed his message to be sure it was clear, he was not optimistic that he’d ever again see either Dusty or Martie alive, and yet he was not entirely without hope. They had been astonishingly resourceful thus far, but he had to believe that a mere house-painter and a girl video-game designer would have their limits.
If they exhibited little talent for playing detectives, perhaps when they returned to California, Ahriman would be able to engineer a meeting with them. He could access them, interrogate them to learn what they knew about his true nature, and rehabilitate them, removing all memories that would either inhibit their continued obedience or diminish their programmed admiration for him.
If that could be done, the game would be salvaged.
He could have asked the operatives in New Mexico to abduct the couple and put them, one at a time, on the telephone with him, which would allow him to access, interrogate, and rehabilitate them long-distance. Unfortunately, this would make his friends privy to his private game, and he didn’t want them to know anything about his strategies, motivations, and personal pleasures.
Currently, he and the fellowship of puppeteers in New Mexico had an ideal relationship, mutually beneficial. Twenty years ago, Dr. Ahriman had developed the effective formula of combined drugs that induced a programmable state of mind, and he had continually refined it ever since. He also had written the bible on programming techniques, from which others did not deviate to this day. A handful of men—and two women—could perform these miracles of control, but the doctor was without peer in the fellowship. He was the puppeteer of puppeteers, and when they had a particularly difficult or delicate job, they came to him. He never denied them, never charged them—but did receive reimbursement of all travel expenses, a generous per diem dining allowance when on the road, and a small but thoughtful gift of some personal item (lambskin driving gloves, lapis lazuli cuff links, a necktie hand-painted by the uncannily gifted children of a Tibetan orphanage for the mystic deal) every Christmas.
Three or four times a year, at their request, he flew to Albany or to Little Rock, to Hialeah or to Des Moines, or to Falls Church, more often than not to places he would otherwise never have seen, costumed to pass unnoticed by the locals, traveling under such false names as Jim Shaitan, Bill Sammael, and Jack Apollyon. There, with a staff at his command, he conducted programming sessions—usually on one or two subjects—over three to five days, before winging home to the balmy shores of the Pacific. In compensation and as recognition of his unique status, Ahriman was the only member of the fellowship permitted by their overseers to apply his skills to private projects.
One of the other psychologists in the project—a young, goateed German American whose unfortunate surname was Fugger—had attempted to presume this fringe benefit for himself, but he had been caught. In front of the other programmers, as an object lesson, Fugger was dismembered and fed in pieces to a pit full of thrashing crocodiles.
Because Dr. Ahriman was not prohibited from private enterprises, he had not received an invitation and had learned of the disciplinary action only after the fact. He had lived his life in such a way that he had few regrets, but he sorely wished that he could have attended Fugger’s going-out party.
Now, at the onyx-topped desk in his lacewood-paneled study, the doctor added two lines to his message, to report that the actor had been fully programmed as requested and that the presidential nose was soon to receive wall-to-wall media coverage for at least a week, complete with learned analyses by the usual experts as well as by a few leading nasologists.
A team of aggressive investigators, turned loose by the White House and currently probing into the varied activities of certain overreaching bureaucrats in the Commerce Department, would no doubt be reined in within twenty-four hours of the reattachment of the chief executive’s proboscis, and the government could get back to the business of the people.
Always a politician himself, the doctor added a few personal notes: a happy-birthday greeting to one of the other programmers; a query as to the health of the project director’s oldest child, who had been ill with a particularly severe case of the flu; and hearty congratulations to Curly, in maintenance, whose girlfriend had accepted his proposal of marriage.
He sent the document to the institute in Santa Fe, via E-mail, using an unbreakable encryption program not available to the general public, one that had been designed for the exclusive use of the fellowship and its support staff.
What a day.
Such highs, such lows.
To lift his spirits and to reward himself for remaining so calm and focused in the face of adversity, the doctor went to the kitchen and constructed a large cherry ice-cream soda. He also gave himself a plate of Milano cookies by Pepperidge Farm, which had been one of his mother’s favorites, too.
Banshees of wind shrieking down out of the sky, goblin cries of sirens cycling upward, trees caught between and tossing-roaring in torment, ragged scarves of orange sparks winding through the tresses of the palms and Indian laurels: This was Halloween in January or any day in Hell. Now more second-story windows exploded, shards of glass glittering with reflections of fire and plinking onto the frontporch roof like an unmelodious piano passage in a symphony of destruction.
Fire engines and emergency vehicles choked the narrow street,
mars lights and spotlights revolving and blazing, departmental radios burning with dispatchers’ voices that crackled like flames. Python colonies of hoses serpentined across the wet pavement, as if charmed forth by the rhythmic throbbing of the pumpers.
The Rhodes residence had been fully engulfed by the time the first engine company arrived, and because houses in this neighborhood stood so close together, the firemen’s initial efforts were directed toward watering down neighbors’ roofs and the surrounding trees to prevent the flames from spreading structure to structure. With that disaster narrowly averted, the deluge gun atop the largest pumper was brought to bear on the Victorian.
The house, with all its ornamental millwork, was bright in its wreaths of fire, but beneath the flames, the colorful San Francisco-style paint job was already scorched away, replaced by soot and char. The front wall buckled, shattering the last window. The main roof sagged. The porch roof collapsed. All the hoses were trained on the place at last, but the fire seemed to relish the water, sucking it down, unquenched.
When a large section of the main roof dropped out of sight into the fiery interior, a cry of dismay arose from a knot of neighbors gathered across the street. Sudden masses of dark smoke billowed forth and, stampeded by the wind, galloped westward like a herd of nightmare horses.
Martie was being carried through a raging fire, and the strong arms cradling her were those of her father, Smilin’ Bob Woodhouse. He was dressed in working gear: helmet with unit and badge numbers on the front-piece, turnout coat with reflective safety stripes, fireproof gloves. His fire-boots crunched through smoldering rubble as he bore her purposefully toward safety.
“But, Daddy, you’re dead, “ Martie said, and Smilin’ Bob said, “Well, I’m dead and I’m not, Miss M., but since when does being dead mean I wouldn’t be there for you?”
Flames encircled them, sometimes lambent and transparent, other times seeming to be as solid as stone, as though this were not merely a place being destroyed by fire, but a place constructed of fire, the Parthenon of the fire god himself massive columns and lintels and archways of fire, mosaic floors of intricate flame patterns, vaulted ceilings of fire, room after room of eternal conflagrations, through which they passed in search of an exit that seemed not to exist.
Yet Martie felt safe in the cradle other father’s arms, holding on to him, with her left arm around his shoulders, certain he would carry her out of this place sooner or later—until, glancing behind them, she saw their pursuer. The Leaf Man followed, and though the very substance of him was ablaze, he wasn’t diminished by the flames that fed on him. If anything, he appeared to grow both larger and stronger, because the fire wasn’t his enemy; it was the source of his strength. As he drew closer to them, shedding sparkling leaves and veils of ashes, he reached out with both hands for Smilin ‘Bob and for the firefighter’s daughter, clawing the hot air before her face. She began to shake and to sob with terror even in her father’s arms, sobbing, sobbing. Closer, closer, the dark eyeholes and the hungry black maw, ragged-leaf lips and teeth of fire, closer, closer, and now she could hear the Leaf Man's autumn voice, as cold and prickly as a field of thistles under a full October moon: “I want to taste. I want to taste your tears—”
She was out of sleep in an instant and up from the bed, awake and alert, yet her face was as hot as if she were still surrounded by fire, and she could smell the faint scent of smoke.
They had left a light on in the bath and left the door ajar, so the claustrophobic hotel room would not be blind-dark. Martie could see well enough to know that the air was clear; there was no haze of smoke.
The faint but pungent smell was still with her, however, and she began to fear that the hotel was on fire, the scent—if not the smoke itself—seeping under the door from the hallway.
Dusty was asleep, and she was about to wake him, when she became aware of the man standing in the gloom. He was at the farthest remove from the pale wedge of bathroom light.
Martie couldn’t see his face clearly, but there was no mistaking the shape of his fire helmet. Or the luminous safety stripes on his turnout coat.
A trick of shadows. Surely, surely. Yet.. . no. This wasn’t mere illusion.
She was certain that she was wide-awake, as certain as she had ever been about anything in her life. And yet he stood there, only ten or twelve feet away, having carried her out of the nightmare of seething fire.
The dream world and the world in which this hotel room existed suddenly seemed equally valid, parts of the same reality, separated by a veil even thinner than the curtain of sleep. Here was truth, pure and piercing, as we are seldom given the chance to glimpse it, and Martie was breathless, transfixed by awareness.
She wanted to go to him but was restrained by a curious sense of propriety, by an innate understanding that his world was his and her world hers, that this temporary intersection of the two worlds was an ephemeral condition, a grace that she must not abuse.
In his shadows, the fireman—and also watchman—appeared to nod approvingly at her restraint. She thought she saw the luminosity of teeth revealed in the crescent of a familiar and beloved smile.
She returned to bed, head propped on two pillows, and pulled the covers to her chin. Her face was no longer hot, and the scent of smoke was gone.
The nightstand clock showed 3:35 in the morning. She doubted that she would be able to sleep any more.
Wonderingly, she looked toward those special shadows, and still he was there.
She smiled and nodded and closed her eyes, and when in a little while she heard the distinctive squeak of his rubber fireboots and the rustle of his turnout coat, she didn’t open her eyes. Nor did she open them when she felt the asbestos fireglove touch her head, nor when he smoothed her hair against the pillow.
Although Martie had expected to lie restless for the remainder of the night, a particularly peaceful sleep overcame her, until she stirred again more than an hour later, in the predawn stillness, just minutes before the wake-up call was due from the hotel operator.
She could no longer detect even the faintest trace of the scent of smoke, and no visitor stood watch in the satiny shadows. She was living in one world again, her world, so familiar, fearsome, and yet full of promise.
She couldn’t prove to anyone else what had been real in the night and what had not, but to her own satisfaction, the truth was clear.
As the bedside phone rang with their wake-up call, she knew that she would never see Smilin’ Bob again in this world, but she wondered how soon she would see him in his, whether in fifty years or sometime tomorrow.
High deserts seldom offer warmth in winter, and on Thursday morning at the Santa Fe Municipal Airport, the plane brought Martie and Dusty down into cold dry air, to a pale land as windless now as the surface of the moon.
They had carried both small pieces of luggage onto the flight, after the bag with the toy fire engine had passed inspection at the security gate in Orange County. With no need to visit the baggage carousel, they went directly to the car-rental agency.
Getting into the two-door Ford, Martie inhaled an orange grove’s worth of citrus-scented air freshener. Yet the fragrance could not entirely mask the underlying noxiousness of stale cigarette smoke.
On Cerrillos Road, as Dusty drove into the city, Martie removed the brass screws from the bottom of the fire truck. She extracted the felt shoe bag from the truck, and the pistol from the shoe bag.
“You want to carry?” she asked Dusty.
“No, you go ahead.”
Dusty had ordered the supertuned Springfield Armory Champion, a version of the Colt Commander produced by Springfield’s custom shop, with numerous aftermarket parts. Featuring a beveled magazine well, a throated barrel, a lowered and flared ejection port, a Novak low-mount combat sight, a polished feed ramp, a polished extractor and ejector, and an A-i style trigger tuned to a 4.5-pound pull, the seven-shot pistol was lightweight, compact, and easy to control.