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Martie frowned. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever.”

“I hate what I’ve become. This frightened, quivering thing I’ve become.”

Martie’s eyes clouded with tears of pity. She blinked furiously to clear her vision.

From off the cold Pacific, waves of black clouds washed across the sky, as though the tide of night were turning and would drown this bleak new day. Virtually all the oncoming traffic, northbound on Pacific Coast Highway, approached behind headlights that silvered the wet blacktop.

Martie’s perception of unnatural menace had passed. The rainy day no longer seemed in the least strange. In fact, the world was so achingly beautiful, so right in every detail, that although she was no longer afraid of anything in it, she was terribly afraid of losing it.

Despairing, Susan said, “Martie, can you remember me. . . the way I used to be?”

“Yes. Vividly.”

“I can’t. Some days I can’t remember me any other way but how I am now. I’m scared, Martie. Not just of going outside, out of the house. I’m scared of. . . all the years ahead.”

“We’ll get through this together,” Martie assured her, “and there’ll be a lot of good years.”

Massive phoenix palms lined the entrance road to Fashion Island, Newport Beach’s premier shopping and business center. In the wind, the trees, like agitated lions preparing to roar, shook their great green manes.

Dr. Mark Ahriman’s suite of offices was on the fourteenth floor of one of the tall buildings that surrounded the sprawling, low-rise shopping plaza. Getting Susan from the parking lot to the lobby and then across what seemed like acres of polished granite into an elevator was not as arduous a trek as Frodo’s journey from the peaceful Shire to the land called Mordor, there to destroy the Great Ring of Power—but Martie was nonetheless relieved when the doors slid shut and the cab purred upward.

“Almost safe,” Susan murmured, gaze fixed on the indicator board inset in the transom above the doors, watching the light move from number to number, toward 14, where sanctuary waited.

Though entirely enclosed and alone with Martie, Susan never felt secure in the elevator. Consequently, Martie kept one arm around her, aware that from Susan’s troubled point of view, the fourteenth-floor elevator alcove and the corridors beyond it—even the psychiatrist’s waiting room—were also hostile territories harboring uncountable threats. Every public space, regardless of how small and sheltered, was an open space in the sense that anyone could enter at any time. She felt safe only in two places: in her home on the peninsula—and in Dr. Ahriman’s private office, where even the dramatic panoramic view of the coastline did not alarm her.

“Almost safe,” Susan repeated as the elevator doors slid open at the fourteenth floor.

Curiously, Martie thought of Frodo again, from The Lord of the Rings. Frodo in the tunnel that was a secret entrance to the evil land of Mordor. Frodo confronting the guardian of the tunnel, the spiderlike monster Shelob. Frodo stung by the beast, apparently dead, but actually paralyzed and set aside to be devoured later.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” Susan whispered urgently. For the first time since leaving her apartment, she was eager to proceed.

Inexplicably, Martie wanted to pull her friend back into the elevator, descend to the lobby, and return to the car.

Once more she sensed a disquieting strangeness in the mundane scene around her, as if this were not the ordinary elevator alcove that it appeared to be, but was in fact the tunnel where Frodo and his companion Sam Gamgee had confronted the great pulsing, many-eyed spider.

Responding to a sound behind her, she turned with dread, half expecting to see Shelob looming. The elevator door was rolling shut. Nothing more than that.

In her imagination, a membrane between dimensions had ruptured, and the world of Tolkien was seeping inexorably into Newport Beach. Maybe she had been working too long and too hard on the video-game adaptation. In her obsession with doing honor to The Lord of the Rings, and in her mental exhaustion, was she confusing reality and fantasy?

No. Not that. The truth was something less fantastic but equally strange.

Then Martie caught a glimpse of herself in the glass panel that covered a wall niche containing an emergency fire hose. Immediately, she turned away, rattled by the razor-sharp anxiety in her face. Her features appeared jagged, with deep slashes for laugh lines, a mouth like a scar; her eyes were wounds. This unflattering expression was not what made her look away. Something else. Worse. Something to which she couldn’t quite put a name.

What’s happening to me?

“Let’s go,” Susan said more insistently than before. “Martie, what’s wrong? Let’s go.”

Reluctantly, Martie accompanied Susan out of the alcove. They turned left into the corridor.

Susan took heart from her mantra—”almost safe, almost safe”— but Martie found no comfort in it.


As the wind stripped wet leaves off trees and as cataracts gushed along gutters toward half-clogged street drains, Dusty drove down through the Newport hills.

“I’m soaked. I’m cold,” Skeet complained.

“Me too. Fortunately, we’re high-order primates with lots of gadgets.” Dusty switched on the heater.

“I screwed up,” Skeet mumbled. “Who, you?”

“I always screw up.” “Everybody’s good at something.” “Are you angry with me?”

“Right now I’m sick to death of you,” Dusty said honestly.

“Do you hate me?”


Skeet sighed and slid down farther in his seat. In his boneless slump, as a faint steam rose off his clothes, he looked less like a man than like a pile of damp laundry. His chafed and swollen eyelids drooped shut. His mouth sagged open. He appeared to be asleep.

The sky pressed down, as gray-black as wet ashes and char. The rain wasn’t the usual glittering silver, but dark and dirty, as if nature were a scrubwoman wringing out a filthy mop.

Dusty drove east and south, out of Newport Beach, into the city of Irvine. He hoped that the New Life Clinic, a drug-and-alcohol-rehabilitation facility. would have an open bed.

Skeet had been in rehab twice before, once at New Life six months ago. He came out clean, sincerely intending to stay that way. After each course of therapy, however, he gradually slid backward.

Until now he’d never gotten low enough to try suicide. Perhaps, from this new depth, he’d realize that he was facing his last chance.

Without lifting his chin from his chest, Skeet said, “Sorry... back there on the roof. Sorry I forgot which one was your dad. Dr. Decon. It’s just that I’m so wrecked.”

“That’s okay. I’ve been trying to forget him most of my life.”

“You remember my dad, I’ll bet”

“Dr. Holden Caulfield, professor of literature.”

“He’s a real bastard,” Skeet said.

“They all are. She’s attracted to bastards.”

Skeet slowly raised his head, as though it were a massive weight elevated by a complex system of powerful hydraulic lifts. “Holden Caulfield’s not even his real name.”

Dusty braked at a red traffic signal and regarded Skeet with skepticism. The name, identical to that of the protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye, seemed too pat to have been an invention.

“He changed it legally when he was twenty-one,” Skeet said. “Sam Farner was his born name.”

“Is this stoned talk or true talk?”

“True,” Skeet said. “Old Sam’s dad was a career military man. Colonel Thomas Jackson Farner. His mom, Luanne, she taught nursery school. Old Sam had a falling-out with them—after the colonel and Luanne finished putting him through college and after old Sam got a scholarship toward his master’s degree. Otherwise, he might’ve waited to have his falling-out, until his folks ponied up more tuition.”

Dusty knew Skeet’s father—the false Holden Caulfield—and knew him far too well, because the pretentious bastard was his stepfather. Trevor Penn Rhodes, Dusty’s father, was the second of their mother’s four husbands, and Holden Sam Caulfield Farner was her third. From before Dusty’s fourth birthday until past his fourteenth, this self-styled blue blood had ruled their family with a lofty sense of divine right, and with enough authoritarian zeal and sociopathic ferocity to earn praise from Hannibal Lecter. “He said his mother had been a professor at Princeton, his father at Rutgers. All those stories . .

“Not biography,” Skeet insisted. “Just his cooked-up résumé.”

“Their tragic death in Chile? . .

“Another lie.” In Skeet’s bloodshot eyes was a fierce light that might have been vengeance. For a moment, the kid appeared not sad at all, not drawn and gaunt and ruined, but full of a wild and barely contained glee.

Dusty said, “He had such a tremendous disagreement with Colonel Farner that he wanted to change his name?”

“I guess he liked The Catcher in the Rye.”

Dusty was amazed. “Maybe he liked it, but did he understand it?” Which was a dumb question. Skeet’s father was as shallow as a petri dish, culturing one short-lived enthusiasm after another, most of them as destructive as salmonella. “Who would want to be Holden Caulfield?”

“Sam Earner, my good old dad. And I’ll bet it hasn’t hurt the bastard’s career at the university. In his line of work, that name makes him memorable.”

A horn sounded behind them. The traffic signal had changed from red to green.

Resuming the drive to New Life, Dusty said, “Where did you learn all this?”

“To begin with—on the Internet.” Skeet sat up straighter, and with his bony hands, he smoothed his damp hair back from his face. “First, I checked out the faculty emeritus at Rutgers, on their web-site. Everyone who’d ever taught there. Same at Princeton. No one with his parents’ names had been professors at either place. His invented parents, I mean.”

With an unmistakable note of pride in his voice, Skeet recounted the tortuous route he’d followed in his search for the simple truth about his father. The investigation had required concerted effort and considerable creative thought, not to mention sober logic.

Dusty marveled that this fragile kid, ravaged by life as well as by his own addictions and compulsions, had been able to focus sharply enough and long enough to get the job done.

“My old man’s old man, Colonel Earner—he’s long dead,” Skeet said. “But Luanne, his mother, she’s alive. She’s seventy-eight, lives out in Cascade, Colorado.”

“Your grandmother,” Dusty said.

“Didn’t know she existed till three weeks ago. Talked to her on the phone twice. She seems real sweet, Dusty. Broke her heart when her only kid cut them out of his life.”

“Why did he?”

“Political convictions. Don’t ask me what that means.”

“He changes convictions with his designer socks,” Dusty said. “It must have been something else.”

“Not according to Luanne.”

Pride of accomplishment, which had given Skeet the strength to sit up straighter and lift his chin off his chest, was no longer sufficient to sustain him. Gradually he slid down and retreated turtlelike into the steam, the wet smell, and the soggy folds of his loose rain-soaked clothes.

“You can’t afford all this again,” Skeet said as Dusty drove into the New Life Clinic parking lot.

“Don’t worry about it. I have two major jobs lined up. Besides, Martie’s designing all kinds of hideous deaths for Orcs and assorted monsters, and there’s serious bucks in that.”

“I don’t know if I can go through the program again.”

“You can. You jumped off a roof this morning. Hell, getting through rehab should be a piece of cake.”

The private clinic was in a building styled like the corporate headquarters for a prosperous chain of Mexican fast-food restaurants: a two-story hacienda with arched loggias on the first floor, covered balconies on the second, too precisely prettified with royal-purple bougainvillea, which had been meticulously hand-woven around columns and across archways. Perfection had been sought so aggressively that the result was a Disneyesque artificiality, as if everything from the grass to the roof were stamped out of plastic. Here, even the dirty rain had a tinsel glimmer.

Dusty parked at the curb near the entrance, in the zone reserved for patient admissions. He switched off the wipers, but didn’t kill the engine. “Have you told him what you’ve learned?”

“You mean good old Dad?” Skeet closed his eyes, shook his head. “No. It’s enough I know it myself.”

In truth, Skeet was afraid of Professor Caulfield, née Farner, no less now than when he’d been a boy—and perhaps with good reason.

“Cascade, Colorado,” Skeet said, pronouncing it as if it were a magical place, home to wizards and gryphons and unicorns.

"You want to go there, see your grandma?”

“Too far. Too hard,” Skeet said. “I can’t drive anymore.”

Because of numerous moving violations, he had lost his driver’s license. He rode to work each day with Fig Newton.

“Listen,” Dusty said, “you get through the program, and I’ll take you out there to Cascade to meet your grandma.”

Skeet opened his eyes. “Oh, man, that’s risky.”

“Hey, I’m not that bad a driver.”

“I mean, people let you down. Except you and Martie. And Dominique. She never let me down.”

Dominique was their half sister, born to their mother’s first husband. She’d been a Down’s baby and had died in infancy. Neither of them had ever known her, though sometimes Skeet visited her grave. The one who escaped, he called her.

“People always let you down,” he said, “and it’s not smart to expect too much.”

“You said she sounded sweet on the phone. And evidently your dad despises her, which is a good sign. Damn good. Besides, if she turns out to be the grandmother from Hell, I’ll be there with you, and I’ll break her legs.”

Skeet smiled. He stared wistfully through the rain-washed windshield, not at the immediate landscape but perhaps at an ideal portrait of Cascade, Colorado, which he’d already painted in his mind. “She said she loved me. Hasn’t met me, but said it anyway.”

“You’re her grandson,” Dusty said, switching off the engine.