Page 62


As he approached and passed the truck, Dr. Ahriman pretended to be looking for an address, as if utterly unaware of being tailed. Two quick leftward glances were sufficient to take a great deal of the mystery out of this game. At the corner, he actually stopped, got out of the Mercedes, and went to the street sign, where he stood peering up at the name and the block numbers, scratching his head and consulting an imaginary address on an imaginary piece of paper in his hand, as though someone had given him incorrect information.


When he returned to his car and drove away, he poked until he saw the beige pickup fall in behind him once more. He didn’t want to lose them.


But for the shared browsing at the toy shop this morning, the driver was still a stranger to him; however, the driver was not alone in the truck. Boggling in surprise and then quickly turning his head away when he saw Ahriman’s Mercedes, Skeet Caulfield had been riding in the passenger’s seat.


While Dusty and Martie were digging into the doctor’s past in New Mexico, Skeet was playing detective, too. This was undoubtedly his own half-baked idea, because his brother was too smart to have put him up to it.


The blushing man with the Mount Palomar spectacles was probably one of Skeet’s dope-smoking, dope-swilling, dope-shooting buddies. Sherlock Holmes and Watson played by Cheech and Chong.


Regardless of what happened to Dusty and Martie in New Mexico, Skeet was the biggest loose end. Getting rid of the cheese-headed doper had been a priority for two days, since the doctor had sent him toddling away to jump off a roof.


Now, relieved of the need to locate Skeet, Dr. Ahriman must only drive considerately, keeping the boy in tow, until he had time to assess the situation and to settle upon the best strategy to take advantage of this fortuitous development. The game was on.


Martie followed Chase Glyson’s Navigator into the parking lot of a roadhouse a few miles past the city line, where a giant dancing cowboy was depicted in mid sashay with a giant cowgirl, outlined in neon but unlit now, with a few hours remaining till the music and the drinking started. They parked facing away from the building, looking toward the highway.


Chase left his SUV and settled into the back of the rental Ford. “That, over there, is the Bellon-Tockland Institute.”


The institute occupied approximately twenty acres in the middle of a much larger tract of undeveloped sage. It was surrounded by an eight-foot-high, stacked-stone wall.


The building looming beyond the wall had been inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, in particular by his most famous house, Fallingwater. Except that this was Fallingwater without the water, and it was overscaled in violation—perhaps even in contempt—of Wright’s belief that every structure must be in harmony with the land on which it rested. This massive stone-and-stucco pile, two hundred thousand square feet if it was an inch, didn’t hug the stark desert contours; it seemed to explode from them, more an act of violence than a work of architecture. This was what one of Wright’s works might look like if reinterpreted by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect.


“A bit Goth,” Dusty said.


“What do they do in there?” Martie asked. “Plan the end of the world?”


Chase wasn’t reassuring. “Probably, yeah. I’ve never been able to make sense of what they say they do, but maybe you’re not as dense as me. Research, they say, research that leads to. . .“ Now he quoted from something he must have read: “‘Applying the latest discoveries in psychology and psychopharmacology to design more equitable and stable structural models for government, business, culture, and for society as a whole, which will contribute to a clean environment, a more reliable system of justice, the fulfillment of human potential, and world peace—’”


“And, at long last, the end of that nasty old rock-’n’-roll,” Dusty added scornfully.


“Brainwashing,” Martie declared.


“Well,” said Chase, “I guess I wouldn’t argue with you on that— or on much of anything you chose to say. Might even have a crashed alien spaceship in there, for all I know.”


“I’d rather it was aliens, even nasty ones with a taste for human livers,” Dusty said. “That wouldn’t scare me half as much as Big Brother.”


“Oh, this isn’t a government shop,” Chase Glyson assured him. “At least there’s not a visible connection.”


“Then who are they?”


“The institute was originally capitalized by twenty-two major universities and six big-bucks private foundations from all over the country, and they’re the ones who keep it running year after year, along with some large grants from major corporations.”


“Universities?” Martie frowned. “That disappoints the raving paranoid in me. Big Professor isn’t as spooky as Big Brother.”


“You wouldn’t feel that way if you’d spent more time with Lizard Lampton,” Dusty said.


“Lizard Lampton?” Chase asked.


“Dr. Derek Lampton. My stepfather.”


“Considering that they’re working for world peace,” Chase said, “it’s a damn tightly guarded place.”


Less than fifty yards to the north, cars entering the institute had to stop at a formidable-looking gate next to a guardhouse. Three uniformed men attended to each visitor as he came to the head of the line, and one of them even circled each vehicle with an angled mirror on a pole, to inspect the undercarriage.


“Looking for what?” Dusty wondered. “Stowaways, bombs?”


“Maybe both. Heavy electronic security, too, probably better than out at Los Alamos.”


“Maybe that’s not saying much,” Dusty noted, “since the Chinese waltzed out of Los Alamos with all our nuclear secrets.”


Martie said, “Judging by all this security, we don’t need to worry about the Chinese making off with our peace secrets.”


“Ahriman was deep into this place,” Chase said. “He had his own practice in town, but this was his real work. And when strings had to be pulled to save his ass, after the Pastore killings, these were the people pulling them.”


Martie didn’t get it. “But if they aren’t government types, how can they make cops and district attorneys and everyone else dance to their tune?”


“Lots of money, for one thing. And connections. Just because they aren’t government doesn’t mean they don’t have influence in all branches of the government. . . and the police, and the media. These guys are more connected than the Mafia but with a whole lot better image.”


“Creating world peace instead of peddling dope, counterfeiting CDs, and loan-sharking.”


“Exactly. And if you think about it, they’ve got a better setup than if they were government. No congressional oversight committees.


No humbug politicians to answer to. Just some good guys, doing good stuff, for a good tomorrow, which makes it unlikely anyone would take a really close look at them. Hell, whatever they’re doing in that place, I’m sure most of them believe they’re good guys saving the world.”


“But you don’t.”


“Because of what Ahriman did to my folks and because he was in so tight with this place. But most people around here, they don’t think about the institute. It’s not important to them. Or if they do think about it, they just have this sort of fuzzy-warm feeling.”


“Who are Bellon and Tockland?” Martie asked.


“Kornell Bellon, Nathaniel Tockland. Two bigwigs in the world of psychology, professors once. The place was their idea. Bellon died a few years ago. Tockland’s seventy-nine, retired, married to this knockout-looking, smart, funny lady—a rich heiress, too!—about fifty years younger. If you met the two of them, you’d never in this life figure out what she sees in him, because he's as humorless and dull and ugly as he is old.”


Martie’s eyes met Dusty’s. “Haiku.”


“Or something like.”


Chase said, “Anyway, I thought you ought to see this. Because somehow, I don’t know, but somehow it explains Antiman. And it gives you a better idea what you’re up against.”


In spite of its Wrightian influence, the institute nevertheless looked as though it would be better suited to its environment if it were situated high in the Carpathians, just down the road from the castle of Baron von Frankenstein, wreathed ever in mists and struck with regularity by great bolts of lightning that sustained rather than damaged it.


Following a fine lunch, Dr. Ahriman had intended to swing by the Rhodeses’ residence and have a look at what the fire had wrought. Now that Skeet and the reincarnation of Inspector Clouseau were on his tail, taking that scenic route seemed unwise.


Anyway, his day was not entirely given to leisure, and he did have a patient scheduled this afternoon. He drove directly, though sedately, to his offices in Fashion Island.


He pretended to be unaware of the pickup as it parked in the same lot, two rows back from his Mercedes.


His suite on the fourteenth floor was ocean-facing, but he went first to the offices of an ear-nose-and-throat specialist on the east side of the building. The waiting room featured windows that looked down on the parking lot.


The receptionist, busy with typing, never looked up as Ahriman went to the window, no doubt assuming he was just another patient who would have to wait with the rest of the runny-nosed, red-eyed, raspy-throated, forlorn bunch sitting in uncomfortable chairs and reading ancient, bacteria-infested magazines.


He spotted his Mercedes and quickly located the beige pickup with the white camper shell. The intrepid duo had gotten out of the truck. They were stretching their legs, rolling their shoulders, getting a breath of fresh air, obviously prepared to wait until their quarry reappeared.


Good.


Arriving at his suite, the doctor asked his secretary, Jennifer, if she had enjoyed her sandwich of tofu cheese and bean sprouts on rye crackers, which was her Thursday lunch. When he was assured that it had been delicious—she was a health-food nut, no doubt born with less than half the usual number of taste buds—he spent a few minutes pretending to be interested in the nutritional imperative of taking huge regular supplements of ginko biloba, and then closeted himself in his office.


He phoned Cedric Hawthorne, his house manager, and requested that the least conspicuous car in his street-rod collection—a 1959 Chevrolet El Camino—be left in the parking lot of the building next door to the one in which the doctor had his offices. The keys were to be placed in a magnetic box under the right rear fender. Cedric’s wife could follow in another car and return him to the house.


“Oh, and bring a ski mask,” the doctor added. “Leave it under the driver's seat.”


Cedric did not ask why a ski mask was wanted. It was not his job to pose questions. He was too well trained for that. Very well trained. “Yes, certainly, sir, one ski mask.”


The doctor already had a handgun.


He had arrived at a strategy.


The game pieces were now all in place.


Soon, playtime.


66


The ranch house featured time-worn Mexican-paver floors and ceilings of exposed vigas separating inlays of aspen latillas. In the main rooms, aromatic fires—subtly scented by pine cones and by a few cedar splits—crackled in sensuously sculpted adobe fireplaces. Except for the upholstered armchairs and sofas, the tables and chairs and cabinets were mostly WPA-era pieces, reminiscent of Stickley furniture, and everywhere underfoot were fine Navajo rugs—except in the room where the deaths had occurred.


No fire burned here. All but one piece of the furniture had been removed and sold. The floor was bare.


Thin gray light pierced the curtainless window, and a chill radiated from the walls. Now and then, in her peripheral vision, Martie thought she saw the gray light bend around something, as if strangely deflected by the soundless passage of a nearly transparent figure, but when she looked directly, nothing was there; the light was hard and unbent. And yet, here, it was easy to believe in unseen presences.


In the center of the room stood a wooden chair with a spindle back, no padding on the flat seat. Perhaps it had been selected for the degree of discomfort that it ensured. Some monks believed that the ability to focus for meditation and prayer was diminished by comfort.


“I sit here a few times each week,” said Bernardo Pastore, “for ten or fifteen minutes usually. . . but sometimes for hours.”


His voice was thick and slightly slurred. Words were marbles in his mouth, but he patiently polished them and got them out.


Dusty held the tape recorder with the built-in microphone turned toward the rancher, to be sure that his awkward speech was clearly captured.


The right half of Bernardo Pastore’s rebuilt face was incapable of expression, the nerves irreparably damaged. His right jaw and part of his chin had been put back together with metal plates, wire, surgical screws, silicone parts, and bone grafts. The result was reasonably functional but not an aesthetic triumph.


“For the first year,” Bernardo said, “I spent a lot of time in that chair just trying to understand how such a thing could be, how it could happen.”


When he had hurried into this room in response to the gunfire that had killed his sleeping son, Bernardo had been hit by two rounds fired at close range by his wife, Fiona. The first had torn through his right shoulder, and the second had shattered his jaw.


“After a while there seemed to be no sense trying to understand. If it wasn’t black magic, it was as good as. These days, I sit here just thinking about them, letting them know I love them, letting her know I don’t blame her, that I know what she did was as big a mys tery to her as it is to me. ‘Cause I think that’s true. It must be true.”


His survival, surgeons claimed, was against all odds. The high-powered round that shattered his jaw had been miraculously deflected upward and back by the mandible, had traveled along the mastoid, and had exited his face above the zygomatic arch, without damaging the external carotid artery in the temple, which would have led to death long before medical assistance arrived.


“She loved Dion as much as I did, and all those accusations she made in her note, the things she said I’d done to her and Dion, they were untrue. And even if I’d done those things, and even if she had been suicidal, she wasn’t the kind of woman to kill a child, her own child or any other.”


Hit twice, Pastore had staggered to a tall chest of drawers near the window, which had been open to the summer night.


“And there he was, standing just outside, looking in at us, and the most godawful expression on his face. Grinning, he was, and his face all sweaty with excitement. His eyes shining.”

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