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He was curious to know how this unlikely pair, the housepainter and the video-game designer, had survived New Mexico. Indeed, he had five hundred questions if he had one; he could have spent the entire day quizzing them about how they had puzzled out so much about him even with the few wild cards that had fallen in their favor.

As important as attention to detail was, however, one must also remember to keep one’s eye on the prize. The prize in this case was the successful completion of the most important game of the doctor’s career. Although originally he had intended to play with Martie for a while before using her and Dusty in Malibu, he was no longer willing to wait months, weeks, or even an extra hour for his final satisfaction.

Ultimately, in spite of their cleverness, Martie and Dusty were nothing but two plebs, two common little people desperately striving to rise above their social class, which is what all the plebs wanted even if they would never admit it, two earnest scrabblers with dreams far bigger than their ability to fulfill them. No doubt some of the details of their pathetic sleuthing would be amusing, but in the end, their escapades would be only slightly less witless than the doings of Detective Skeet and his nameless pal. They were interesting not for who they were but solely for how they could be controlled.

Before the Keanuphobe called or showed up to complicate matters, Ahriman needed to instruct Dusty and Martie, wind them up and send them off on the killing spree that would be the final inning of this game.

“Martie, Dusty, I am addressing both of you now. I will instruct you simultaneously to save time. Is this understood?”

“Is it understood?” Martie asked, even as Dusty asked, “Is it?”

“Tell me whether or not you understand what I’ve told you.”

“I understand,” they said simultaneously.

Leaning forward in his chair, savoring this moment, downright giddy with delight, not even regretting that now he would not have the chance to boff Martie a few times, the doctor said, “Later today you are going to take a drive out to Malibu—”

“Malibu. . .“ Martie murmured.

“Yes, that’s right. Malibu. You know the address. The two of you are going out to visit Dusty’s mother, Claudette, and her husband— that greedy, grasping, self-aggrandizing little shit, Dr. Derek Lampton.”

“I understand,” Dusty said.

“Yes, I’m sure you do,” Ahriman said, amused, “since you had to live under the same roof with the reeking little pisspot. Now, when you get to Malibu, if either Claudette or Dickhead Derek is out somewhere on an errand, you must wait until both are home.”

The doctor realized that by heaping this ridicule on Lampton, he was indulging in adolescent name-calling. But, ah, what a sweet release it was.

With increasing excitement, he said, “You must wait, in fact, until their son is home, too, your venomous little half brother Derek junior—who is, by the way, as much of a suppurating pimple on the ass of humanity as his old man. Jackoff Junior will probably be there when you arrive, because he’s home-schooled, as you know. Your syphilitic stepfather has his own ass-wipe theories about education, some of which I suppose he shoved down your throat, too, and Skeet's. Anyway, they must all be present before you act. You will disable all of them but not kill them immediately. You will mutilate and dismember them in the following order: Claudette first, then Junior, then Derek shit-for-brains Lampton himself. He must be last, so he can watch everything you do to Claudette and Junior. Wednesday, Martie, I showed you a photograph of a girl whose dismembered body had been rearranged by her killer in a particularly clever fashion, and I asked you to focus particularly on that tableau. Once you’ve cut her apart, you and Dusty are going to rearrange Claudette in the same fashion, with but one variation, involving her eyes—”

He halted, realizing that in his excitement he had gotten ahead of himself. He paused to take a deep breath and then a long swallow of black cherry soda.

“Excuse me. Sorry. I’ve got to back up a moment. Before you go to Malibu, you’ll stop at a self-storage unit in Anaheim to pick up a satchel full of surgical instruments. And an autopsy saw with spare blades—including a few excellent cranial blades that’ll open any skull, even one as dense as Derek’s. I’ve also left a pair of Glock machine pistols and spare magazines. .

Involving her eyes.

Those three words from his instructions cycled back through the doctor’s mind, and for a moment he didn’t understand why.

Involving her eyes.

Abruptly he stood up from his chair, pushing it backward, out of his way. “Martie, look at me.”

After a hesitation, the woman raised her bowed head and her downcast eyes.

Swiveling to the husband, Ahriman said, “Dusty, why have you been looking at Martie all this time?”

“Why have I been looking at Martie?” Dusty replied, correctly answering a question with a question, as he was required to do in this deep programmed state.

“Dusty, look at me. Look directly at me.” Dusty turned his gaze from his wife to Ahriman. Martie was staring down at her hands once more. “Martie!” the doctor commanded. Obediently, she met his eyes again.

Ahriman stared at Martie, studying her eyes, then turned to Dusty, turned from one to the other, one to the other, one to the other, until he said, more shakily than he would have liked, “No REM. No jiggle.”

“No shit,” Dusty said, getting to his feet.

Their attitude changed. Gone, the glazed expressions. Gone, the air of obedience.

Rapid eye movement couldn’t be faked convincingly, so they hadn’t tried.

Rising from her chair, Martie said, “What are you? What sort of disgusting, pathetic thing are you?”

The doctor did not like the tone of her voice, did not like it at all. The loathing. The contempt. People did not speak to him in this fashion. Such disrespect was intolerable.

He tried to reestablish control: “Raymond Shaw.”

“Kiss my ass,” she said.

Dusty began to circle the desk.

Sensing a potential for violence, the doctor drew the .380 Beretta from his shoulder holster.

The sight of the gun stopped them.

“You can’t have been deprogrammed,” Ahriman insisted. “You can’t have been.”

“Why?” Martie asked. “Because it’s never happened before?”

“What do you have against Derek Lampton?” Dusty demanded.

People didn’t demand things of the doctor. Not more than once, anyway. He wanted to shoot this stupid, stupid, cheaply dressed, nobody, nothing housepainter right between the eyes, blow his face off, blow his brains out.

A shooting here, of course, would have unpleasant repercussions. Police with their endless questions. Reporters. Stains that might never come out of the Persian rug.

For a moment he suspected treachery at the institute: “Who reprogrammed you?”

“Martie did it for me,” Dusty claimed.

“And Dusty freed me.”

Ahriman shook his head. “You’re lying. This isn’t possible. You’re both lying.”

The doctor heard a note of panic in his voice and was ashamed. He reminded himself that he was Mark Ahriman, only son of the great director, greater in his own field than Dad had been in Hollywood, a puppeteer, not a puppet.

“We know a lot about you,” Martie said.

“And we’re going to find out more,” Dusty promised. “Every ugly little detail.”

Detail. That word again. Which last night had seemed to be an omen and not a good one.

Convinced they had been activated and accessed, he had told them too much. Now they had an advantage, and they might eventually find a way to use it effectively. Game point to the opposition.

“We’re going to find out what you have against Derek Lampton,” Dusty vowed. “And when we’ve figured out your motivation, that’ll be another nail in your coffin.”

“Please,” the doctor said, wincing with pretended pain. “Don’t torture me with clichés. If you’re going to try to intimidate me, have the courtesy to go away for a while, acquire a better education, improve your vocabulary, and come back with some fresh metaphors.”

That was better. He had slipped out of character for a moment. His was a demanding role, complex, intellectual, and richly nuanced. Of the actors who had won Oscars for starring in Dad’s tearjerkers, none could have settled into this part as deeply and successfully as had the doctor. A rare departure from character was understandable, but once again he was the lord of memory.

Now, in response to their pathetic attempt at intimidation, he gave them a lesson in the real thing: “While you’re embarked on this crusade to bring me to justice, you might need to move in with dear old Mom for a while. Your quaint little house burned to the ground Wednesday night.”

The poor dumb children were bewildered for a moment, not sure if what he had said was true or if it was a lie, and if it was a lie, they couldn’t puzzle out a purpose in the deceit.

“Your marvelous collection of thrift-shop furniture—all gone, I’m afraid. And the damning tape recording you mentioned earlier, the message from Susan—gone, too. The tragedy of fire. Insurance can never replace things with sentimental value, can it?”

They believed now. The stunned expression of the displaced, the dispossessed.

While they were emotionally reeling, the doctor hit them hard again. “The goggle-eyed idiot you left Skeet with. What’s his name?”

They glanced at each other, and then Dusty said, “Fig.”

The doctor frowned. “Fig?”

“Foster Newton.”

“Ah. I see. Well, the Fig is dead. Shot four times in the gut and chest.”

Rattled, Dusty asked, “Where’s Skeet?”

“Dead, too. Also four shots in the gut and the chest. Skeet and the Fig. It was a nice two-for-one deal.”

When Dusty started around the desk again, Ahriman aimed the Beretta point-blank at his face, and Mat-tie seized her husband by the arm, halting him.

“Unfortunately,” the doctor said, “I wasn’t able to kill your dog. That would have been a fine dramatic touch, leading to such a nice reveal just now. An Old Yeller moment. But life isn’t as neatly structured as the movies.”

The doctor was back. If he could have jumped into the air and high-fived himself, he would have done so.

Great emotions boiled in the plebs, because like all their kind, they were driven far less by intellect than by raw emotion, but the Beretta required them to control themselves, and second by second, they were forced to come to terms with the hard realization that the pistol was not the doctor’s only weapon. If he was willing to confess to the killing of Skeet and the Fig, even here in the utter privacy of his sanctum sanctorum, then he must have no fear of being brought to trial for murder; he must be confident that he was untouchable. Reluctantly, bitterly, they were coming to the conclusion that no matter how vigorously they sought to defeat him, he would gun them down with his superior gamesmanship, with his superior intelligence, with his disregard for all rules other than his own, and with his exceptional talent for deception—which, in fact, made the handgun the least of his weapons.

After allowing them a moment for this truth to percolate down through their sadly porous gray matter, the doctor brought an end to the standoff. “I think you better go now. And I’ll give you some advice to make this game a bit fairer.”

“Game?” Martie said.

The contempt and revulsion in her voice couldn’t touch Ahriman any longer.

“What do you people want?” Dusty asked, his voice thick with emotion. “The institute. . . why?”

“Oh,” said the doctor, “surely you see that it’s useful from time to time to remove someone who obstructs important public policy. Or to control someone who can advance it. And sometimes . . . a bombing by some right-wing fanatic, or next week by a left-wing fanatic, or a dramatic mass murder by a lone gunman, or a spectacular train wreck or a disastrous oil spill.. . these things can generate enormous media coverage, focus the national attention on a particular issue, and drive legislation that will ensure a more stable society, that will allow us to avoid the extremes of the political spectrum.”

“People like you are going to save us from extremists?”

Ignoring her taunt, he said, “As for that advice I mentioned.

From now on, don’t sleep at the same time. Don’t be apart. Cover each other’s back. And remember that anyone on the street, anyone in a crowd, could belong to me.”

He could see they were loath to leave. Their hearts were racing, their minds in a tumult of anger and grief and shock, and they wanted a resolution right now, right here, as their kind always did, because they had no appreciation for long-term strategy. They were unable to reconcile their desperate need for immediate emotional catharsis with the cold fact of their powerless position.

“Go,” Ahriman said, gesturing to the door with the Beretta.

They went, because they had no other options.

Through the security-camera display on the computer screen, the doctor watched them cross the reception lounge and leave by the door to the public corridor.

Putting the Beretta on the desk rather than returning it to his shoulder holster, keeping it within easy reach, he sat down to brood over this latest development.

The doctor needed to know much more about how this pair of rubes discovered they were programmed and how they deprogrammed themselves. Their astounding self-liberation seemed to be less of an achievement than a flat-out miracle.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t likely to learn anything further unless he could drug them again, rebuild their mind chapels, and reload the program, which meant taking them through the tedious three-session process that he had gone through with each of them before. They were too wary now, alert to the thin line between reality and fantasy in the modern world, and unlikely to give him that chance, no matter how clever he was.

He would have to live with this mystery.

Stopping them from doing further damage was more important than learning the truth of how they had rescued themselves.

He had no great respect for truth, anyway. Truth was a squishy thing, amorphous, changing shape before your eyes. Ahriman had spent his entire life shaping truth as easily as a potter shapes a wad of clay into a vase of any desired form.

Power trumped truth any day. He couldn’t kill these people with the truth, but power properly applied could crush them and sweep them from the game board forever.

From his briefcase, he extracted the blue bag. He placed it in the center of his desk and stared at it for a minute or two.