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In fact, she was holding those shoes, one in each hand, standing in her stocking feet. He felt stupid for having ruined his Italian wing tips.


He hadn’t known what vehicle she drove, but now he did. A white Rolls-Royce.


While he’(l been having so much fun following the deadhead dicks, this delusional woman had followed him, expecting to catch him in a conspiratorial meeting with Keanu Reeves. His shortsightedness mortified him.


All these startling realizations flew through the doctor’s mind in perhaps two seconds. In the third, he raised the pistol and fired one of the rounds that he’d been saving for the dog.


Maybe he was foiled by the wind or the distance, or the angle, or the shock that shook him at the sight of her, but whatever the cause, he missed.


She ran. Away from the low bluff. Out of sight.


Regretting the necessity to leave without killing the dog and without harvesting souvenirs from the two men, the doctor raced after his Keanuphobic patient. He was eager to administer a complete and final cure for her condition.


Raced proved not to be an apt description of his pace once he reached the foot of the embankment. The sandy incline, carved by erosion, had no shore grass to bind it. Ascending it was trickier than his descent had been. The sand shifted treacherously under his feet. He sank in as deep as his ankles, and by the time he reached the top, he was almost reduced to crawling.


His suit was a mess.


The Keanuphobe was far ahead of Ahriman, as fleet as a gazelle, but at least she had no weapons except one high-heeled pump in each hand. If he could catch her, he would make good use of the one round left in the Millennium, and if somehow he missed even at point-blank range, he could rely on his greater size and strength to pummel her into submission and then choke the life out of her.


The problem was catching her. When she reached the hard surface of the parking lot, she picked up speed, while Dr. Ahriman was still slogging forward through sucking sand. The gap between them began to widen, and he regretted eating the third and fourth chocolate-coconut cookies.


The white Rolls-Royce was parked near the top of the approach road, facing toward the lot. She reached it and got in behind the wheel just as the doctor slapped shoe leather against blacktop.


The engine caught with a roar.


He was still at least sixty yards from her.


The dark headlights suddenly blazed.


Fifty yards.


She shifted into reverse. The tires barked against the pavement as she jammed her foot down on the accelerator.


The doctor stopped, raised the Millennium, gripped it in both hands, and assumed a perfect isosceles shooting stance: facing her squarely with head and torso, right leg quartering back for balance, left knee flexed slightly, no bend whatsoever at the waist.


The distance was too great. The Rolls was receding. Then she was gone over the brow of the hill, reversing toward Pacific Coast Highway, out of sight. No point in taking the shot.


Time is of the essence, said Anonymous, possibly the most quoted poet in history, and this was truer now for the doctor than ever it had been. Backward, turn backward, 0 Time, in your flight, wrote Elizabeth Akers Allen, and Ahriman fervently wished that he possessed a magical watch that could turn this trick, because Delmore Schwartz had never written a truer word than Time is the fire in which we burn, and the doctor dreaded burning, though the electric chair was not the instrument of capital punishment in the state of California. Time, a maniac scattering dust, wrote Tennyson, and the doctor feared his own dust being scattered, though he knew that he must calm himself and embrace the attitude of Edward Young, who had written defy the tooth of time. Sara Teasdale advised Time is a kind friend, but she hadn’t known what the hell she was talking about, and The bards sublime whose distant footsteps echo through the corridors of Time wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which had absolutely no application to the current crisis, but the doctor was a genius, preposterously well educated, and distraught, so all these thoughts, and countless more, machine-gunned through his mind as he ran to the El Camino, started the engine, and drove out of the parking lot.


By the time Ahriman reached the Pacific Coast Highway, the Rolls-Royce was gone.


The rich ditz and her clam-dull husband lived in nearby Newport Coast, but she might not go directly home. Indeed, if her phobia had progressed to a more serious condition than he’d previously realized, to some form of paranoid psychosis, she might be reluctant to return home ever again, for fear that Keanu or one of his henchmen—such as her own pistol-packing psychiatrist—would be waiting there to do her harm.


Even if he’d thought she was headed home, Ahriman wouldn’t have pursued her there. She and her husband were certain to have a lot of household staff, each one a potential witness, and considerable security.


Instead, the doctor tore off his ski mask and drove to his own house as fast as he dared.


71


On the way home, no more poetic observations about time tumbled out of Mark Ahriman’s overturned memory chest, but during the first half of the ten-minute journey, he foamed at the mouth with vicious obscenities—all aimed at the Keanuphobe, as if she could hear—and with vivid oaths to humiliate, brutalize, mutilate, and dismember her in imaginative ways. This fit was adolescent and not worthy of him, which he realized, but he needed to vent.


During the second half of the trip, he pondered when or whether she would call the police to report the two murders. Paranoid, she might suspect that the nefarious Keanu controlled every police agency from the local cops to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in which case she would keep silent or at least take time to mull and fret over whether to approach the authorities.


She might go away for a while, even flee the country and hide until she had puzzled out a strategy. With half a billion bucks to draw upon, she could go far and be difficult to find.


The thought of her possible vanishment alarmed him, and an icy sweat oozed out of the nape of his neck. His friends in high places could easily help him conceal his links to any number of outrageous crimes committed by others who were under his control; but it was a very different thing, and a lot iffier, to expect them to protect him from the consequences of murders committed by his own hand, which was one reason he hadn’t taken such risks in twenty years. The sweat from the nape of his neck was now trickling down his spine.


A man of sublime confidence, he had never felt anything remotely like this before. He realized that he had better quickly get a grip on himself.


He was the lord of memory, the father of lies, and he could meet any challenge. Okay, all right, a few things had gone wrong lately, but a little adversity now and then was a welcome spice.


By the time he drove into his labyrinthine underground garage, he was filly in control of himself once again.


He got out of the El Camino and looked with dismay at all the sand smeared on the upholstery and mashed into the carpeting.


Sand or soil of any kind was admissible evidence in a criminal trial. The scientific-investigation division of any competent police department would be able to compare the composition, grain size, and other aspects of this sand with a sample of sand taken from the scene of the murders—and make a match.


Leaving the keys in the ignition, Ahriman salvaged only two items from the El Camino. The knotted blue plastic bag of Valet’s best work. The Green Acres sack half full of cookies. These he carefully set aside on the flamed-granite floor of the garage.


Quickly, the doctor pried off his ruined shoes, stripped off his socks and pants, and shrugged out of his suit coat, piling the garments on the floor. He put his wallet, the mini-9mm, and the shoulder holster aside with the two bags. The sand-crusted necktie and white shirt came off next and were added to the pile, although he salvaged the 24-karat tie chain.


Amazingly, considerable sand had even caked in his underwear. Consequently, he completely disrobed and committed his T-shirt and briefs to the heap of discards.


The doctor used his belt to cinch the garments together in a neat bundle. He placed it on the car seat.


An annoyance of sand, rather than a significant quantity, was stuck in his body hair. With his hands, he brushed himself off as best he could.


Naked except for his wristwatch, carrying the few items that he had salvaged, he entered the lowest floor of the house and took the elevator up to the third-floor master suite.


Using the Crestron touch panel, he opened the secret safe in the fireplace. He put the Taurus PT-l 11 Millennium in the small padded box with the jar containing his father’s eyes, and after consideration, he added the blue bag.


This was only temporary storage for the incriminating handgun, until he had a day or two to decide how to dispose of it permanently. The poop he might need as early as the morning.


After donning a lime-green silk robe with black silk lapels and a black sash, Ahriman phoned downstairs to the house manager’s apartment and asked Cedrick Hawthorne to come to the master suite sitting room at once.


When Cedric arrived moments later, Ahriman accessed him with the name of a suspicious butler from an old Dorothy Sayers mystery novel and then took him through his enabling haiku.


The doctor had a policy against programming employees in his businesses, but in the interest of absolute privacy; he felt that it was vital to have such total control over the two key personnel on his household staff. He did not, of course, use his power to take undue advantage of them. They were paid well, provided with superb health-care and retirement plans, and given adequate vacation—although he had implanted in each of them an iron restriction against exploiting their kitchen rights to poach upon supplies of his favorite nibbles.


Succinctly, he instructed Cedric to drive the El Camino to the nearest Goodwill collection station and deposit the bundle of sand-filled clothes. From there, Cedric would top off the fuel tank and cruise directly to Tijuana, Mexico, just across the border from San Diego. In one of Tijuana’s more dangerous neighborhoods, if the valuable vehicle were not first stolen out from under him, he would park it with the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition to ensure its disappearance. He would walk to the nearest major hotel, arrange for a rental car, and drive back to Newport Beach well before morning. (As it was not yet 8:00 P.M., the doctor estimated that Cedric should be able to return by 3:00 A.M.) In Orange County once more, he would turn the rental car in at the airport and hire a cab to bring him home. Thereupon, he would go to bed, sleep two hours, and wake rested, with no recollection of having gone anywhere.


Some of these arrangements would be tricky, considering the late hour when he would arrive in Mexico, but with five thousand dollars packed in a money belt—which Ahriman provided—he should be able to get done what was necessary. And cash left less of a trail.


“I understand,” Cedric said.


“I hope I see you alive again, Cedric.”


“Thank you, sir.”


After Cedric departed, the doctor phoned downstairs to Nella Hawthorne and asked her to come at once to the master-suite sitting room from which her husband had just been dispatched on a Mexican adventure.


‘When Nella arrived, Ahriman accessed her with the name of the scheming head housekeeper of Manderley, the mansion in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. He instructed her to sweep the garage clear of every trace of sand, to dig a deep hole in one of the backyard planting beds, and to bury the sweeper bag therein. When these tasks were completed, she was to forget that she had performed them.


“Then return to your quarters and await further instructions,” Ahriman directed.


“I understand.”


With Cedric on his way to Mexico and with Nella busily occupied, the doctor went down one floor to his lacewood-paneled office. His computer required only seven seconds to rise out of the desktop on its electric lift, but he tapped his fingers impatiently as he waited for it to lock into place and switch on.


Networked with his office computer, he was able to access his patient records and call up the Keanuphobe’s telephone number. She had given two: home and mobile.


Less than forty minutes had passed since her hasty exit from the beach parking lot.


Although he regretted having to call her from his home phone, time was of the essence—as well as the fire in which we burn—and he couldn’t worry about leaving an evidence trail. He tried the mobile number.


He recognized her voice when she answered on the fourth ring:


“Hello?”


Apparently, as he suspected, she was in a state of paranoid perplexion, driving around aimlessly as she tried to decide what to do about what she’d witnessed.


Oh, how he wished she were programmed.


This would be a delicate conversation. While instructing the Hawthornes and dealing with sundry other matters, he’d been thinking furiously about how best to approach her. As far as he could see, there was but a single strategy that might work.


“Hello?” she repeated.


“You know who this is,” he said.


She didn’t reply, because she recognized his voice. “Have you spoken to anyone about. .. the incident?” “Not yet.”


“Good.”


“But I will. Don’t you think I won’t.”


Remaining calm, the doctor asked: “Did you see The Matrix?” The question was unnecessary, as he already knew that she had seen every Keanu Reeves film at least twenty times in the privacy of her forty-seat home theater.


“Of course, I saw it,” she said. “How could you even ask the question if you were listening to me in the office? But you were probably woolgathering, as usual.”


“It’s not just a movie.”


“Then what is it?”


“Reality,” the doctor said, imbuing that single word with as much ominousness as his considerable acting talent made possible.


She was silent.


“As in the movie, this is not the beginning of a new millennium, as you think. It’s actually the year 2300.. . and humanity has been enslaved for centuries.”


Although she said nothing, she was drawing shallower, faster breaths, a reliable physiological indicator of paranoid fantasizing.


“And, as in the movie,” he continued, “this world you think is real—is not real. It’s nothing but an illusion, a deception, a virtual reality, a stunningly detailed matrix created by an evil computer to keep you docile.”


Her silence seemed thoughtful rather than hostile, and her soft rapid breathing continued to encourage the doctor.


“In truth, you and billions of other human beings, all but a few rebels, are kept in pods, fed intravenously, wired to the computer to provide it with your bioelectric power, and fed the fantasy of this matrix.”


She said nothing.


He waited.


She outwaited him.


Finally he said, “Those two that you saw. . . on the beach tonight. They weren’t men. They were machines, policing the matrix, just like in the movie.”

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