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“You must think I’m insane,” she said.


“Precisely the opposite. We’ve identified you as one of those in the pods who have begun to question the validity of this virtual reality. A potential rebel. And we want to help set you free.”


Though she said not a word, she was panting softly, like a toy poodle or some other little rag mop of a dog contemplating a mental image of a biscuit treat.


If she was already a functional paranoid, as he suspected, this scenario the doctor had laid out for her would have enormous appeal. The world must suddenly seem less confusing to her. Previously she had sensed enemies on all sides, with numerous, often inexplicable, and frequently conflicting motives, whereas now she had one enemy to focus upon: the giant, evil, world-dominating computer and its drone machines. Her obsession with Keanu—first based on love, then based on fear—had often baffled and distressed her, because it seemed so bizarre to vest so much importance in someone who was only an actor; but now she might come to understand that he wasn’t just a movie star but also The One, the chosen who would save humanity from machines, the hero of heroes, and therefore worthy of her intense interest. As a paranoid, she was convinced that reality as the mass of humanity accepted it was a sham, that the truth was stranger and more fearsome than the false reality that most people accepted, and now the doctor was confirming her suspicions. He was offering paranoia with a logical format and a comforting sense of order, which ought to be irresistible.


Finally she said, “Your implication seems to be that K-K-Keanu is my friend, my ally. But I know now he’s... dangerous.”


“You once loved him.”


“Yes, well, then I saw the truth.”


“No,” the doctor assured her. “Your original feelings toward The One were perceptive. Your instinctive sense that he is special and worthy of adoration is true and right. Your subsequent fear of him was implanted in you by the evil computer, which wants to keep you productive in your battery pod.”


Listening to himself, to the compassion and the sincerity in his voice, the doctor was beginning to feel like a raving lunatic.


She retreated into silence once more. But she didn’t hang up.


Ahriman gave her all the time she needed to brood. He must not appear to be selling this concept to her.


While he waited, he thought about what he would like for dinner. About ordering a new Ermenegildo Zegna suit. About clever uses for the bag of poop. About the thrill of pulling the trigger. About Capone’s surprising triumph at the Alamo.


“I’m going to need time to consider this,” she said at last.


“Of course.”


“Don’t try to find me.”


“Go anywhere you want in the virtual reality of the matrix,” Ahriman said, “and in reality you’re still suspended in the same battery pod.”


After a moment of reflection, she said, “I suppose that’s true.”


Sensing that she was beginning to embrace the scenario he had put before her, the doctor took one daring step: “I have been given the authority to tell you that The One does not consider you to be just another potential rebel recruit.”


A breathless silence was followed by more of the soft, shallow, rag-mop-dog panting, though this time the sound was different, with a subtle erotic quality.


Then she said, “Keanu has a personal interest in me?”


She hadn’t stuttered on the actor’s name.


Interpreting this as a sign of progress, the doctor carefully crafted his reply: “I’ve said everything on this subject that I’m authorized to say. By all means, take the night to think about what we’ve discussed. I’ll make myself available in the office all day tomorrow, whenever you’re ready to call me.”


“If I call you,” she said.


“If,” he agreed.


She terminated the call.


“Rich bitch ditz nitwit,” the doctor said, as he put down his phone. “And that’s my professional diagnosis.”


He was confident that she would call him and that he would be able to maneuver her into a face-to-face meeting. Then program her.


After a few rocky moments, the lord of memory was secure in his throne once more.


Before calling Nelia Hawthorne to order dinner, Ahriman reviewed his E-mail and discovered two encrypted messages from the institute in New Mexico. He put them through decryption and then, after reading them, permanently burned each off his hard disk.


The first had come in this morning and was an acknowledgment of the communication that he’d sent the previous evening. Mr. and Mrs. Dustin Rhodes would be under continuous observation from the moment they stepped off the airplane at Santa Fe Municipal. Prior to their arrival, their rental car had been fitted with a transponder to allow electronic tracking. Curly, in maintenance, wanted Ahriman to know that he and his new fiancée had originally decided to start dating after discovering a mutual enthusiasm for Learn to Love Yourself


The second message had come in only a few hours ago and was terse. Throughout the day, Mr. and Mrs. Rhodes had been aggressively questioning people involved in the Glyson and Pastore cases, and they had been receiving support from those they interviewed. Thus, they would be staying in the Santa Fe area forever or until the universe collapsed into a nugget of matter the size of a pea, whichever came first.


Ahriman was relieved that his colleagues could be depended upon to protect his interests, but he was dismayed that his current game—one of the most important of his life—would now have to be canceled and reconceived. He needed at least Skeet or Dusty, or Martie—and preferably two of them—to make it possible to play out his elaborate strategy, and now they were all dead or dying.


He hadn’t received confirmation of the executions in Santa Fe, but that would arrive soon, probably before he went to bed.


Well, he was still a player. As long as he remained a player, the outcome of any single contest was not of cataclysmic importance. As long as he was a player, there would always be another game, and by tomorrow he would have devised a new one.


Consoled, he phoned downstairs to Nella Hawthorne and ordered dinner: two chili dogs with chopped onions and cheddar cheese, a bag of potato chips, two bottles of root beer, and a slice of Black Forest cake.


When he returned upstairs to the master suite, he found that reliable Cedric had earlier gone to the car dealership and removed the morning purchases from the Mercedes; he had put them on the bedroom desk. The die-cast Johnny Lightning Custom Ferrari. The mint-condition Gunsmoke Dodge City playset by Marx.


He sat at the desk, opened the playset, and examined some of the small plastic figures. Lawmen and gunfighters. A dance-hall girl. The detail was superb, exciting to the imagination, as with virtually all of the late Louis Marx’s products.


The doctor admired people who approached their work, regardless of its nature, with attention to detail, as he himself always did. An old folk saying passed through his always busy, always fertile mind:


The devil is in the details. This tickled him perhaps more than it should have. He laughed and laughed.


Then he recalled a variation of the aphorism: God is in the details. Although the doctor was a player, not a believer, this thought stopped his laughter. For the second time this evening, and only for the second time in his life, an icy sweat oozed out of the nape of his neck.


Frowning, he thought back through the long, surprise-filled day, searching his memory for a crucial detail that he might heretofore have misunderstood or overlooked. Like the white Rolls-Royce in the Green Acres parking lot, which he had grossly misunderstood.


Ahriman went into the bathroom and repeatedly washed his hands, using a lot of liquid soap and scrubbing at them with a soft-bristled brush meant for cleaning under fingernails. He worked the bristles vigorously from fingertips to wrists, both sides of each hand, with particular attention to the knuckle creases.


The Keanuphobe was not likely to call the police and report that the doctor had killed two men on the beach, and it was unlikely that anyone else had seen him in the vicinity of the murders. If the cops suddenly showed up, however, he couldn’t afford to have any traces of gunpowder on his hands, which might show up in lab tests and prove that he had fired a weapon this evening.


He could think of no other detail that he needed to address.


After drying his hands, Ahriman returned to the desk in the bedroom, where he positioned Marshal Dillon and a badass gunslinger in a showdown.


“Bang, bang, bang,” he said, and with a flick of his finger, he snapped the dead marshal so hard that the figure bounced off the wall twenty feet away.


Marshals and gunmen. Shootouts in the western sun. Vultures always eat.


He felt better.


Dinner arrived.


Life was good.


So was death when you dealt it.


From the higher desert to the high desert, descending more than two thousand feet from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, Dusty covered sixty miles in ninety minutes. The intensity of the storm diminished with the altitude, but snow was falling steadily in the lower city, too.


They found a suitable motel and checked in, paying cash because by morning someone might be trying to track them through the use of their credit cards.


After putting their suitcases in the room, they drove the BMW about a mile and left it on a side street where it wasn’t likely to seem out of place or draw attention for days. Dusty had wanted to make this trip himself, while Martie remained in the warm motel room, but she refused to be separated from him.


Martie used the second utility cloth to wipe off the steering wheel, dashboard, door handles, and other surfaces that they might have touched.


Dusty didn’t leave the keys in the car. If it were stolen and cracked up by kids on a joyride, the cops would contact the BMW’s owners, and the institute would immediately shift their search to Albuquerque. He locked the car and dropped the keys through the grate on the nearest storm drain.


They walked back to the motel through the snow, hand in hand. The night was cold but not bitterly so, and the wind that had come to the higher desert was absent here.


The walk might have been fun, even romantic, on any night before this one. Now, Dusty associated snow with death, and he suspected that the two would be so closely linked in his mind for the rest of his life that he would prefer always to stay by the balmy California coast throughout the winter months.


At an all-night grocery, they purchased a loaf of white bread, a package of cheese, a jar of mustard, corn chips, and beer.


Moving along the aisles, making selections, engaged in what otherwise might have been a task that made him impatient, Dusty was so overcome with emotion, so thankful to be alive, so glad to have Martie at his side, that his legs grew weak, and gratitude almost drove him to his knees. He leaned against a shelf, pretending to read the label on a can of stew.


If others in the store saw him, they were probably fooled. Martie wasn’t deceived. She stood with him, one hand on the back of his neck, pretending to read the label with him, and in a whisper she said, “I love you so much, babe.”


Back in their room, he phoned an airline’s 800 number, seeking the earliest possible flight. He found available seats and used a credit card solely to reserve them, asking the agent not to run the purchase. “I prefer to pay cash when I pick them up tomorrow.”


They took very hot, long showers. The thin, miniature cakes of hotel soap had melted away by the time they finished.


Dusty discovered a skinned spot just behind his right ear. It was caked with blood. Perhaps he had taken a knock when the car rolled. He hadn’t even felt it until now.


Sitting in bed, using a bath towel for a tablecloth, they made cheese sandwiches. They had kept the cans of beer cold in a snow-filled wastebasket.


The sandwiches and the chips tasted neither good nor bad. It was just something to eat. Fuel to keep them going. The beer was to help them sleep, if they could.


Neither of them had talked much on the trip from Santa Fe, and neither of them said much now. In the years to come, should they be lucky enough to have years left instead of mere hours or days, they probably wouldn’t speak often or at length about what had happened in those Indian ruins. Life was too short to dwell on nightmares instead of dreams.


Too worn out to talk, they watched TV while they ate.


The television news was full of images of warplanes. Explosions in the night, somewhere half a world away.


On the advice of experts in international relations, the world’s most powerful alliance of nations was once again trying to bring two military factions to the bargaining table by bombing the crap out of civilian infrastructure. Bridges, hospitals, electric-power plants, video-rental stores, waterworks, churches, sandwich shops. Judging by the news, no one across the spectrum of politics or media, or in fact anywhere in the higher reaches of the social order, questioned the morality of the operation. The debate among the experts centered, instead, on how many millions of pounds of bombs in what type of high-tech packages would have to be dropped to bring about a popular uprising against the targeted government, thereby avoiding a full-fledged war.


“To the people who were in that fu**ing sandwich shop,” Martie said, “it’s already a war,”


Dusty turned off the TV


After they’d eaten—and finished two beers each—they got under the covers and lay in the dark, holding hands.


The previous night, sex had been an affirmation of life. Now it would seem like blasphemy. Closeness was all they needed, anyway.


After a while, Martie asked, “Is there a way out of this?”


“I don’t know,” he said honestly.


“These people at the institute . . whatever they’re doing, they didn’t really have any bone to pick with us before we came here. They went after us just to protect Ahriman.”


“But now there’s Zachary and Kevin.”


“They’ll probably take a practical view about that. I mean, for them, it’s a cost of doing business. We don’t have anything on them. We’re no real threat to them.”


“So?”


“So if Ahriman were dead . . . wouldn’t they leave us alone?”


“Maybe.”


Neither of them spoke for a while.


The night was so hushed that Dusty almost believed he could hear the snowflakes striking the ground outside.


“Could you kill him?” he finally asked.


She was a long time answering: “I don’t know. Could you? Just. . . in cold blood? Walk up to him and pull the trigger?”


“Maybe.”


She was silent for minutes, but he knew she wasn’t drawing near to sleep.


“No,” she said eventually. “I don’t think I could. Kill him, I mean. Him or anyone. Not again.”

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