“You’re talking about Ahriman,” Dusty clarified for the tape.
“Dr. Mark Ahriman,” Pastore confirmed. “Standing there like he knew what was coming, like he had tickets to the killings, a front-row seat. He looked at me. What I saw in those eyes, I can’t put into words. But if I’ve done more bad than good in my life, and if there’s a place where we have to account for all we’ve done in this world, then I’ve no doubt I’ll see eyes like that again.” He was silent awhile, staring at the window that was now empty of everything but the austere light. “Then I fell.”
Down, lying with the undamaged half of his face to the floor, vision swimming in and out, he had seen his wife kill herself and fall inches beyond his reach.
“Calm, so strangely calm. As if she didn’t know what she was doing. No hesitation, no tears.”
Bleeding, nauseous with pain, Bernardo Pastore had washed in and out of consciousness, minute by minute, but during each spell of awareness, he had dragged himself toward the telephone on the nightstand.
“I could hear coyotes outside, far away in the night at first, but then closer and closer. I didn’t know if Ahriman was still at the window, but I suspected he was gone, and I was afraid that the coyotes, drawn by the scent of blood, might come through the window screen. They’re shy creatures alone. . . but not in a pack.”
He reached the phone, pulled it down onto the floor, and called for help, barely able to torture half-comprehensible words out of his swollen throat and shattered face.
“And then I waited, figuring I’d be dead before anyone got here. And that would have been all right. Maybe that would have been best. With Fiona and Dion gone, I didn’t care much about living. Only two things made me want to hang on. Dr. Ahriman’s involvement had to be uncovered, understood. I wanted justice. And second... though I was ready to die, I didn’t want coyotes feeding on me and my family as if we were no different from chased-down rabbits.”
Judging by how loud their cries became, the pack of coyotes had gathered under the window. Forepaws clawing at the sill. Snarling muzzles pressed against the screen.
As Pastore had grown weaker and his mind had become increasingly muddled, he had begun to believe that these were not coyotes seeking entrance, but creatures previously unknown to New Mexico, having come out of Elsewhere, through a door in the night itself. Brethren to Ahriman, with even stranger eyes than the doctor’s. Pressing at the screen not because they were eager to feed on warm flesh, but drawn instead by a hunger for three fading souls.
The doctor’s sole patient of the day was the thirty-two-year-old wife of a man who had made half a billion dollars in Internet-stock IPOs in just four years.
Although she was an attractive woman, he had not accepted her as a patient because of her looks. He had no sexual interest in her, because by the time she came to him, she was already as neurotic as a lab rat tortured for months by continuous changes in its maze and by randomly administered electric shocks. Ahriman was aroused only by women who came to him whole and healthy, with everything to lose.
The vast wealth of the patient was not a consideration, either. Because he had never experienced a shortage of wealth himself, the doctor harbored nothing but contempt for those who were motivated by money. The finest work was always done for the sheer pleasure of it.
The husband had harried the wife into Ahriman’s care not so much because her condition concerned him as because he intended to run for the United States Senate. He believed that his political career would be jeopardized by a spouse given to eccentric outbursts bordering on lunacy, which was probably an unrealistic concern, considering that such outbursts had been for many years a staple of both politicians and their spouses, across the entire political spectrum, resulting in little negative consequences at the polls. Besides, the husband was as boring as a dead toad and unelectable in his own right.
The doctor had accepted her as a patient strictly because her condition interested him. This woman was steadily working herself into a unique phobia that might supply him with interesting material for future games. He was also likely to use her case in his next book, which would concern obsessions and phobias, and which he had tentatively titled Fear Not for I Am with You, though of course he would change her name to protect her privacy.
The would-be senator's wife had for some time been increasingly obsessed with an actor, Keanu Reeves. She assembled dozens of thick scrapbooks devoted to photographs of Keanu, articles about Keanu, and reviews of Keanu’s films. No critic was half as familiar with this actor’s filmography as she was, for in the comfort of her forty-seat home theater, on a full-size screen, she had watched each of his movies a minimum of twenty times and had once spent forty-eight hours watching Speed over and over, until she had at last passed out from a lack of sleep and a surfeit of Dennis Hopper. Not long ago she had purchased a two-hundred-thousand-dollar Cartier heart-shaped pendant, gold and diamonds, on the back of which she ordered engraved the words I Krave Keanu.
This lovefest had suddenly turned sour, for reasons the patient herself didn’t understand. She began to suspect that Keanu had a dark side. That he had become aware of her interest in him and was not pleased. That he was hiring people to watch her. Then that he was watching her himself. When the telephone rang and the caller hung up without speaking, or when the caller said, Sorry, wrong number, she was convinced that it was Keanu. Once she had adored his face; now she became terrified of it. She destroyed all the scrapbooks and burned all the photographs of him in her bedroom, because she grew convinced that he could view her remotely through any picture of himself. Indeed, at the sight of his face, she was now stricken by a panic attack. She could no longer watch television, for fear of seeing an advertisement for his latest film. She dared not read most magazines, because she might turn a page and find Keanu watching her; even the sight of his name in print alarmed her, and her list of safe periodicals now included little more than Foreign Policy Journal and such medical publications as Advancements in Kidney Dialysis.
Dr. Ahriman knew that soon, as was the pattern in these cases, his patient would become convinced that Keanu Reeves was stalking her, following her everywhere she went, whereupon her phobia would be fully established. Thereafter, she would either stabilize and learn to live as restricted a life as Susan Jagger had lived under the influence of her agoraphobia, or she would descend into complete psychosis and perhaps require at least short-term care in a good institution.
Drug therapy offered hope to such patients, but the doctor did not intend to treat this one conventionally. Eventually, he would put her through three sessions of programming, not for the purpose of controlling her but simply to instruct her to be not afraid of Keanu. Thus, for his next book, he would have a great chapter about a miraculous cure, which he would attribute to his analytic skills and his therapeutic genius, concocting an elaborate story of therapy that he had, in fact, never performed.
He hadn’t yet begun to brainwash her, because her phobia needed more time to ripen. She needed to suffer more in order that her cure would make a better story and to ensure that her gratitude, after she was made whole again, would be boundless. Properly played, she might even consent to appear on Oprah with him when his book was published.
Now, sitting in the armchair across the low table from her, he listened to her fevered speculations about the Machiavellian scheming of Mr. Reeves, not bothering to take notes because a hidden recorder was capturing her monologue and his occasional prodding question.
Impish as ever, the doctor suddenly thought how fun it would have been if the actor now waiting to assault the president’s nose could have been Keanu himself. Imagine this patient’s terror when learning of the news, which would absolutely convince her that hers would have been the savaged nose had not fate put the nation’s chief executive in Keanu’s path before her.
Ah, well. If there was a sense of humor behind the workings of the universe, it wasn’t as acute as the doctor’s.
“Doctor, you’re not listening to me.”
“But I am,” he assured her.
“No, you were woolgathering, and I’m not paying these outrageous hourly rates so you can daydream,” she said sharply.
Although just five short years ago, this woman and her boring husband had been barely able to afford fries with their Big Macs, they had become as imperious and demanding as if they had been born into vast wealth.
Indeed, her Keanu madness and her pan-faced husband’s crazy need to seek validation at the ballot box resulted from the suddenness of their financial success, from a nagging guilt about having gained so much with so little effort, and from the unspoken fear that what had come so quickly could be quickly gone.
“You don’t have a patient conflict here, do you?” she asked with sudden worry.
“An unrevealed patient conflict? You don’t know K-K-Keanu, do you, Doctor?”
“No, no. Of course not.”
“Not to reveal a connection with him would be highly unethical. Highly. And how do I know you’re not capable of unethical conduct? What do I really know about you at all?”
Rather than draw the Taurus PT-ill Millennium from his shoulder holster and teach this nouveau-riche dirt a lesson in manners, the doctor switched on his considerable charm and sweet-talked her into continuing with her delusional ramblings.
A wall clock revealed less than half an hour until he could send her out into the Keanu-haunted world. Then he would be able to deal with Skeet Caulfield and the blushing man.
In places, the glaze on the Mexican payers had been worn away.
“Where I kept seeing bloodstains,” Bernardo Pastore explained. “While I was in the hospital, friends cleaned out the room, got rid of the furniture, everything. When I came back, there were no stains. . . but I kept seeing them anyway. For a year, I scrubbed a little every day. It wasn’t blood I was trying to get rid of. It was the grief. When I realized that, I finally stopped scrubbing.”
During his first few days in the intensive-care unit, he had struggled to survive, only intermittently conscious; his injuries and his badly swollen face had prevented him from speaking even when he was alert. By the time he had accused Ahriman, the psychiatrist had been able to establish a cover story, with witnesses.
Pastore stepped to the bedroom window and gazed out at the ranch. “I saw him right here. Right here, looking in. It wasn’t anything I dreamed after I was shot, like they tried to say.”
Moving to the rancher’s side, keeping the tape recorder close to him, Dusty said, “And no one believed you?”
“A few. But only one that mattered. A cop. He started working on Ahriman’s alibi, and maybe he was getting somewhere, because they cracked his knuckles hard. And shifted him to another case while they closed this one.”
“You think he’d talk to us?” Dusty asked.
“Yeah. After all this time, I suspect he would. I’ll call and tell him about you.”
“If you could set it up for this evening, that would be good. I think Chase Glyson’s going to keep us busy tomorrow with former students at Little Jackrabbit.”
“None of what you’re doing is going to matter,” Pastore said, and he might have been staring into the past or the future rather than at the ranch as it was now. “Ahriman’s untouchable somehow.”
Even in the gray light filtered through a skin of gray dust on the window, the thick keloid scars on the right side of Pastore’s face were angry red.
As if sensing Martie’s stare, the rancher glanced at her. “I’ll give you nightmares, ma’am.”
“Not me. I like your face, Mr. Pastore. There’s honesty in it. Besides, once a person’s met Mark Ahriman, there’s nothing else could ever give her nightmares.”
“That’s right enough, isn’t it?” Pastore said, turning his eyes once more to the waning afternoon.
Dusty switched off the recorder.
“They could remove most of these scars now,” Bernardo Pastore said. “And they wanted me to have more surgeries on the jaw, too. They promised they could smooth out the line. But what do I care how I look anymore?”
Neither Dusty nor Martie knew what to say to that. The rancher was no older than forty-five, with many years ahead of him, but no one could make him want those coming years, no one but he himself.
Jennifer lived within two miles of the office. In good weather and in bad, she walked to and from work, because walking was as much a part of her health regimen as tofu cheese, bean sprouts, and ginko biloba.
The doctor asked her to do him the favor of driving his car to the Mercedes dealership and leaving it for an oil change and tire rotation. “They’ll give you a lift home in their courtesy van.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” she said, “I’ll walk home from there.”
“But that’s probably nine miles.”
“What if it rains?”
“They’ve changed the forecast. Rain tomorrow, not today. But how will you get home?”
“I’m walking over to Barnes and Noble to browse, then meeting a friend for an early drink,” he lied. “He’ll take me home.” He consulted his wristwatch. “Close up early. . . in say about fifteen minutes. That way, even with a nine-mile walk, you’ll get home at the usual time. And take thirty dollars from petty cash, so you can stop at that place you like—Green Acres, is it?—for dinner if you want.”
“You’re the most considerate man,” she said.
Fifteen minutes would be enough time for Ahriman to leave this building by the front entrance, where the boys in the beige pickup could not see him, proceed to the building next door, and then to the parking lot behind it, where his 1959 Chevrolet El Camino would be waiting for him.
The riding rings and the paddocks were deserted, all the quarter horses warmly stabled in advance of the coming storm.
When Martie paused beside the rental car, the adobe ranch house didn’t appear quaint and romantic, as it had when she first arrived. As with so much of New Mexico’s architecture, this place had been magical, as if sprung from the desert by an act of sorcery; but now the patinaed earthen walls looked no more romantic than mud, and the house seemed not to be rising up, but settling down, slumped, melting into the earth from which it had been born, soon to vanish as though it had never existed, along with the people who had once known love and joy within its walls.
“What are we dealing with, I wonder?” Dusty said as Martie drove away from the ranch house. “What is Ahriman. . . in addition to what he appears to be?”