At the sight of him, Martie let the gun slip from her hands.
They met at the bottom of the kiva stairs and held each other.
He anchored her. The world could not dissolve or spin away with him in it, for he seemed eternal, as everlasting as mountains. Perhaps this was an illusion, too, as were the mountains, but she clung to it.
Long after twilight, hitching their pants up over full bellies, prying stubborn wads of mulch from their teeth with toothpicks, Skeet and his florid friend hurried out of Green Acres directly to their environmentally disastrous vehicle, which fired up with a wheeze of burnt oil that the doctor swore he could smell even inside his closed El Camino.
A minute later, Jennifer exited the restaurant, too, as glossy and robust as a young horse, revitalized by the feed bag. She did a few stretching exercises, working out the kinks in her rump, stifles, gaskins, hocks, and fetlocks. Then she set out for home, at an easy canter instead of a racewalk, her mane bobbing and her pretty head no doubt filled with dreamy thoughts of fresh straw bedding free of stable mice and a good crisp apple just before sleep.
As tireless as they were witless, the detectives gave pursuit, their task complicated by the filly’s slower pace and the darkness.
Although even Skeet and his pal might soon realize that this woman had no rendezvous to keep with the doctor and that their true quarry had long ago given them the slip, Ahriman risked not following them. Once more, he skipped ahead, this time to the street in front of the apartment complex in which Jennifer lived. He parked beneath the spreading limbs of a coral tree large enough to serve as a guest house for the Swiss Family Robinson, protected here from the glow of nearby streetlamps.
In other circumstances, Martie and Dusty would have turned to the police, but this time they gave that option little consideration.
Remembering Bernardo Pastore’s patched face and the frustration the rancher had met, at every turn, when trying to find justice for his murdered son and self-accused dead wife, Dusty shuddered at the prospect of bringing the police back here. Mere facts would probably not convince them that the Bellon-Tockland Institute, in its stirring quest for world peace, was in the habit of employing hit men.
What meaningful investigation had been conducted into five-year-old Valerie-Marie Padilla’s supposed suicide? None. Who had been punished? No one.
Carl Glyson falsely accused, swiftly convicted, stabbed to death in prison. His wife, Tern, dead of shame, according to Zina. What justice for them?
And Susan Jagger. Dead by her own hand, yes, but her hand had not been under her control.
Convincing the police of all this, even the honest ones—which included the large majority—would be difficult if not impossible. And among them, the few corrupt would labor tirelessly to ensure the burial of the truth and the punishment of the innocent.
With a powerful six-battery flashlight that they found in the BMW, they searched the nearby ruins and quickly located the ancient well of which the two gunmen had spoken. This seemed to be a largely natural shaft in soft volcanic rock, widened by hand and fortified with masonry, surrounded by a low stone wall, but with no sheltering roof.
The big flashlight couldn’t reveal the bottom of the well. Snow spiraled down, glowing like swarms of moths in the beam, disappearing into darkness, and a faint dank odor wafted upward.
Together, Dusty and Martie dragged Zachary’s corpse to the well, tipped it over the low wall, and listened to it ricochet from side to side of the irregular shaft. Bones cracked almost as loud as gunfire, and the dead man plummeted so long that Dusty wondered if the bottom would ever be struck.
When the body hit, it landed with neither a splash nor a thud, sending up instead a sound that had the character of both. Perhaps the water below was not as pure as it had been in ancient days, now thickened by centuries of sediment and perhaps by the grisly remains of others dumped here on previous nights.
Following the slap of impact, a wet and eerie churning arose, as though something that lived below were feeding or perhaps merely examining the dead man, striving to identify him by a braille-like reading of his face and body. More likely, the corpse had disturbed pockets of noxious gas trapped in the viscous soup, which now roiled, bubbled, burst.
For Dusty this was a little piece of Hell on earth, and for Martie, as well, judging by the ghastly look on her face. A precinct of Hell just outside Santa Fe. And the work before them was the work of the damned.
Bringing the second cadaver to the well taxed both him and her, though not solely because of the physical effort involved. The one named Kevin had spilled more blood than Zachary, seemingly most of his six or seven liters, and not all of it had yet frozen to his skin and clothes. He stank, too, apparently having been incontinent in his final throes. Heavy, sticky, as stubborn in death as in his dying, he was a difficult package to move.
Worse, however, was the sight of him, first in the questing beam of the flashlight, slumped against the kiva wall, and then as they half carried and half dragged him through the headlights. His beard of blood, his red-stained teeth and red mustache, his skin gray under a white freckling of snow. In his glazed eyes was fixed such a pure and piercing expression of terror that in the moment of his exit from this world, he must have glimpsed the face of Death himself, bending close to kiss—and then beyond the empty sockets of the Reaper’s bony face, some unspeakable eternity.
The work of the damned, and still more to do.
Laboring in grim silence, neither of them dared to speak a word. If they were to speak of what they were doing, this essential work would become impossible. They would be forced to turn away from it in horror.
They dumped Kevin down the well, and when he hit bottom with an even more solid sound than his partner had raised, the impact was followed by more of that hideous churning. Dusty’s imagination gave him the ghoulish spectacle of Zachary and Kevin being greeted below by their previous victims, nightmare figures in various stages of decomposition yet animated by vengeance.
Though much of New Mexico is parched on the surface, underlying the state is a reservoir so vast that only a tiny fraction of it has been explored. This secret sea is fed by subterranean rivers carrying water out of both the high plains of the central United States and the Rocky Mountains. The wonders of the Carlsbad Caverns were shaped by the ceaseless action of these waters flowing through fractures in soluble limestone; and there are doubtless undiscovered networks of caverns large enough to shelter cities. If ghost ships plied this secret sea, crewed by the restless dead, these two new recruits might pass eternity as rowers in an oar-propelled galley or as seamen tending the rotting sails of a moldering galleon driven by a phantom wind, under skies of stone, to unknown ports beneath Albuquerque, Portales, Alamogordo, and Las Cruces.
An ocean lay below, but no water could be found aboveground to wash the blood from their hands. They scooped up snow and scrubbed. And still more snow and still more scrubbing, until their freezing fingers ached, until their skin was red from the friction, and then until their skin was white from the cold, and yet more snow and more and harder scrubbing, harder, harder, striving not merely to cleanse but also to purify.
With a sudden sense of madness looming, Dusty looked up from his throbbing hands and saw Martie kneeling, bent forward, her face greasy with revulsion, her black hair mostly concealed under a lacy white mantilla. She was scouring her hands with hard-packed snow half turned to prickly ice, scrubbing so ferociously that she would soon begin to bleed.
He seized her wrists, gently forced her to drop the ice-crusted lumps of snow, and said, “Enough.”
She nodded. In a voice shaky with horror and with gratitude, she said, “I’d scrub all night if I could scrub away the past hour.”
“I know,” he said. “I know.”
In fifty minutes—or nearly two episodes of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, if measured by the clock of classic radio—Jennifer cantered home, ready to be cooled down and blanketed.
Her shy pacers, Skeet and the blushing man, arrived close behind her. They actually drove into the apartment-complex parking lot and stopped to watch Jennifer disappear into her building.
From his dark post beneath the spreading coral tree, the doctor watched the watchers, and allowed himself to take some quiet pride in his all-but-inhuman patience. A good gamesman must know when to make his moves and when to wait, though waiting may sometimes put his very sanity to the test.
Evidently, Martie and Dusty had recklessly entrusted Skeet to the care of the blushing man. Patience, therefore, would be rewarded with two kills and the game prize.
By now he knew these two detectives well enough to predict with confidence that even they would be too bored and frustrated to resume their surveillance and would now at last admit to having screwed up. Besides, stuffed with rhubarb goulash and sweet-potato gumbo, these boys were feeling dull and sluggish, yearning for all the comforts of home: well-stained reclining chairs with pop-up footrests and the absolute dumbest sitcoms that the vasty, humming, puffing, cranking, thrumming, thermonuclear American entertainment industry knew how to provide.
Then, when they were comparatively isolated, feeling snug and secure, the doctor would strike. He only hoped that Martie and Dusty might live to identify the remains and to grieve.
To Dr. Ahriman’s mild surprise, the man with the Mount Palomar eyeglasses got out of the pickup, went around to the back, and coaxed a dog out of the camper shell. This was a possible complication that would require an adjustment to his strategy.
The man led the dog to a grassy area in the apartment-complex landscaping. After much sniffing and several tentative starts, the canine completed his business.
Ahriman recognized the dog. Dusty and Martie’s sweet-tempered and timid retriever. What was the name? Varney? Volley? Vomit? Valet.
No adjustment to his strategy would be necessary, after all. Oh, yes, a small change. He would have to save one bullet for the dog.
Valet was escorted back to the camper shell, and the blushing man returned to the cab of the pickup.
The doctor prepared for a leisurely pursuit, but the truck didn’t move.
After a minute, Skeet appeared. Carrying a flashlight and an unidentifiable blue something, he searched the area where the dog had recently toileted.
Skeet located the prize. The blue something was a plastic bag. He made the collection, twisted the neck of the bag, tied a double knot, and delivered a deposit to the decorative redwood trash can that stood near the pickup.
Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Caulfield. Although your son is a shiftless, dope-smoking, coke-snorting, pill-popping, delusional, addle-brained fool with less common sense than a carp, he stands one rung up the ladder of social responsibility from those who don’t scoop the poop.
The pickup drove out of the apartment parking lot, drove past the El Camino, and headed east.
Because the street was long and straight, with at least five blocks of visibility, and because the pickup was poking along, the doctor surrendered to an impish impulse. He bolted out of the El Camino, hurried to the redwood trash can, snatched up the blue bag, returned to his vehicle, and gave chase before the truck was out of sight.
During his background interrogatories with Skeet, which were part of the programming sessions, the doctor had learned about the prank once played on Holden Caulfield the Elder. When Skeet and Dusty’s mother had tossed out Skeet’s father in favor of Dr. Derek Lampton, the mad psychiatrist, the brothers had joyously collected dog droppings from all over the neighborhood and had mailed them anonymously to the great professor of literature.
Although Dr. Ahriman didn’t yet know quite what he would do with Valet’s product, he was certain that with some thought he would put it to amusing use. It would add a fragrant grace note of symbolic meaning to one of the many deaths soon to come.
He had put the blue bag on the floor in front of the passenger’s seat. The knotted plastic was surprisingly effective: No hint of an unpleasant smell escaped it.
Now, confident that his skills of surveillance would render him all but invisible to Valet’s toileting team, the doctor settled in behind the pickup. Into the adventure-filled night he went, with five of the nine chocolate-coconut cookies still to be eaten and all ten bullets as yet unused.
Physically exhausted, mentally numb, emotionally fragile, Martie got through the next hour by telling herself that the necessary tasks immediately ahead of them were just housekeeping. They were simply putting things in order, tidying. She disliked housekeeping, but she always felt better for having done it.
They dropped both machine pistols down the well.
Though it was unlikely that the bodies would be found, Martie wanted to dispose of the .45 Colt, too, because the slugs in both dead men could be matched to the pistol. Perhaps someone at the institute knew where their bad boys had intended to dump her and Dusty, and maybe they would look here for their own when Kevin and Zachary failed to report back. She wasn’t taking any chances.
She couldn’t drop the Colt down the well, lest it be found with the corpses and traced to Dusty. Between here and Santa Fe were miles of desolate land in which the pistol would stay lost forever.
Not a lot of blood was smeared across the front seat of the BMW, but it posed a problem. From the tool well in the trunk, Dusty retrieved two utility rags. He used one cloth and a handful of melted snow to clean the upholstery as much as possible.
Martie kept the second rag for later use.
On the floor in front of the passenger’s seat, she discovered the tape recorder. Here, too, was her purse with what remained in it— including the minicassettes that they had used to record Chase Glyson and Bernardo Pastore.
Evidently, either Zachary or Kevin had made a quick search for the tapes while Martie had sat on the ground near the overturned car, gasping for breath and teary-eyed from the gasoline fumes. No doubt the cassettes would have been dropped down the well.
No wind had yet risen. Although the snow was not being driven in blinding sheets, visibility was poor, and they weren’t confident of finding their way back from the haunted ruins to the ranch road.
The route was clear, however, because the flanking sagebrush and cactus defined the unpaved track. Less than two inches of snow had fallen, and none of it had drifted to block or obscure the path out. With winter tires and snow chains, the BMW was undaunted by the bad weather.
They returned along the ranch road to the spot where the rental Ford had hit the spike strip and rolled. Guided by the flashlight, on foot, they descended the gently sloping wall of the swale.
The overturned car was tipped forward, allowing the trunk to be opened just far enough for Dusty to extract the two suitcases. He and Martie each carried a bag up the slippery slope, abandoning Fig’s toy truck and the few items from Martie’s purse that were scattered inside the wreck; the interior of the car still reeked of gasoline, and neither of them wanted to tempt fate.