The game could be played to its end within the next few hours. He knew where Martie and Dusty would go from here. All the principal figures would be in the same place, vulnerable to a strategist as nimble as the doctor.
We’re going to find out what you have against Derek Lampton. And when we’ve figured out your motivation, that’ll be another nail in your coffin.
What hopeless naIfs they were. After all that they had endured, they still believed in a world as ordered as any in a mystery novel. Clues, evidence, proof, and truth wouldn’t avail them in this matter. This game was driven by more fundamental powers.
Hoping the Keanuphobe wouldn’t call during his brief absence, the doctor holstered the .380 Beretta, took the elevator down to the ground floor, left the building, crossed Newport Center Drive to one of the restaurants in the nearby shopping-and-entertainment complex, and used a public telephone to place a call to the same number that he had used on Wednesday night, when he’d needed to arrange a fire.
The number was busy. He had to try it four times before at last it rang.
“Ed Mavole,” said the doctor.
After proceeding through the lines of the enabling haiku, the doctor said, “Tell me whether or not you’re alone.”
“Leave home. Take plenty of pocket change with you. Go directly to a pay phone where you’ll have at least a little privacy. Fifteen minutes from now, call this number.” He recited the direct line in his office, which didn’t go through Jennifer. “Tell me whether or not you understand.”
Ahriman conveyed the subject from the mind chapel up to full consciousness on the count of ten, whereupon he said, “Sorry, wrong number,” and hung up.
Returning directly to his fourteenth-floor suite, the doctor was circumspect upon entering the reception lounge, lest the Keanuphobe be waiting there with a spike-heeled shoe in each hand.
Jennifer looked up from her desk, beyond the reception window, and waved perkily.
He waved but hurried to his office before she could launch into an enthusiastic harangue about the health benefits of eating five ounces of liquefied pine bark every day.
At his desk once more, he slipped the Beretta out of his holster and put it within easy reach.
He plucked a fresh bottle of black cherry soda from the office refrigerator and used it to wash down another cookie. He needed a blast of sugar.
He was in action again. He had gotten through a rocky moment or two, but the crisis had only invigorated him. Ever the optimist, he knew that another spectacular win was only hours away, and he was excited.
Now and then, people asked the doctor how he managed to keep his youthful looks, his youthful figure, and such a high energy level day after day, through a busy life. His answer was always the same:
What kept him young was his sense of fun.
When the phone rang, it was necessary to activate and access the subject once more: “Ed Mavole.”
Following the haiku, Dr. Ahriman said, “You will go directly to a self-storage yard in Anaheim.” He provided the address of the facility, the number of the unit that he had rented with false ID, and the combination of the lock on the door. “Among other things in the storage unit, you will find two Glock 18 machine pistols and several spare thirty-three-round magazines. Take one of the pistols and four magazines ought to be enough.”
Regrettably, with five rather than three people to subdue at the house in Malibu, and with only one person to subdue them instead of two, it would not be possible to take control of the residence quietly enough to be able, thereafter, to dismember all the victims and compose ironic tableaux according to the original game plan. So much gunfire would be required that police would arrive quickly and interrupt the work: Cops had a notoriously poor sense of both fun and irony.
Perhaps, however, there would be enough time to transform Derek Lampton Sr. into the object of ridicule that he deserved to be.
“Other than the pistol and the four magazines, the only items you’ll take from the storage unit are an autopsy saw and a cranial blade. No, better take two blades, in case one snaps.”
Attention to detail.
He described these tools to be sure no mistakes were made, and then he gave directions to Derek Lampton’s place in Malibu.
“Kill everyone you find at the house.” He listed the people he expected to be present. “But if there are others—visiting neighbors, a meter reader, whoever—kill them, too. Enter forcefully, moving quickly from room to room, chasing them down if they flee, and waste no time. Then before the police arrive, you will remove the top of Dr. Derek Lampton’s skull with the cranial saw.” He described the technique by which this could be best accomplished. “Now tell me whether or not you understand.”
“You will remove the brain and set it aside. Repeat, please.”
“Remove the brain and set it aside.”
The doctor gazed wistfully at the blue bag on his desk. There was no way, on a timely basis and beyond the eyes of witnesses, to rendezvous with this programmed killer and pass along Valet’s useful product. “There is something you must put in the empty skull. If the Lamptons have a dog, you might find what you need, but if not, you’ll have to produce it yourself.” He gave his final instructions, including a suicide directive.
“I’ve given you very important work, and I’m convinced you will perform it impeccably.”
When he hung up the phone, Ahriman wished that he had been able to program the pustulant Lampton family themselves—the insufferable Derek, his slut of a wife, and their deranged son—and use them as puppets. Unfortunately, they were too aware of him and were sure to regard him with suspicion; he stood little or no chance of getting close enough to them to administer the requisite drugs and to conduct three long programming sessions.
Nevertheless, he was ebullient. Triumph was within reach.
Black cherry soda. Dead fool out in Malibu. Learn to love yourself.
Perfection. The doctor raised a toast to his poetic genius.
On Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard, this house would have looked like the place that was central to the American Dream, the place you crossed over the river and went through the woods to reach on a cool Thanksgiving dawn, the place where Santa Claus seemed to be real even to adults on a snowy Christmas morning, the quintessential house for the idealized grandmother. Although a perfect house—and indeed a faultless grandmother—had never existed in real life, this nation of passionate sentimentalists believed this was the way grandmothers’ houses universally ought to be. Slate roof with a widow’s walk. Silvered cedar-shingle siding. Window frames and shutters glossy with white marine-finish paint. A deep porch with white wicker rocking chairs and a bench swing, and a manicured yard with foot-high white picket fences surrounding each lush flower bed. On Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard, in a certain moment of the past, you might have found Norman Rockwell sitting at an easel in the front yard, painting two adorable children as they chased a goose with a red ribbon tied in a half-finished bow around its neck, while a happy dog frolicked in the background.
Here in Malibu, even in the middle of a coastal winter, on a low bluff above the Pacific, with steps leading down to the beach, with palm trees aplenty, the house looked misplaced. Beautiful, graceful, well designed, and well constructed, but misplaced nonetheless. If anyone’s grandmother lived herein, she would have had electric-blue
fingernails, bleached-blond hair, lips sensuously recontoured with injections of collagen, and surgically enlarged breasts. The house was a shining fiction, harboring darker truths within, and the sight of it on this visit—only the fifth Dusty had paid since leaving almost twelve years ago, at the age of eighteen—affected him as it always had before, sending a chill through his heart rather than up his spine.
The house, of course, was not to blame. It was only a house.
Nevertheless, after he and Martie parked in the driveway, as they were ascending the front-porch steps, he said, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol.”
He dared not think about their little house in Corona Del Mar. If it was really burned to the ground, as Ahriman had claimed, Dusty wasn’t ready to deal with the emotional impact. A house is just a house, sure, and property is replaceable, but if you have lived well and loved in a house, if you have made good memories there, then you can’t help but grieve over the loss of it.
He dared not think, either, about Skeet and Fig. If Ahriman was telling the truth, if he had killed them, both this world and Dusty’s heart were darker places than they had been yesterday, and they were certain to remain darker for the rest of his life. The possible loss of his troubled but much-loved brother had left him half numb, as he might have expected, but he was a little surprised at how profoundly disturbed he was, as well, by the thought of Fig’s death; the quietly diligent painter had been peculiar indeed, but also kind and good-natured, and the hole he left in Dusty’s life was the size and the shape of an odd but meaningful friendship.
His mother, Claudette, answered the bell, and as always Dusty was startled and disarmed by her beauty. At fifty-two, she could pass for thirty-five; and at thirty-five she’d had the power to rivet everyone in a crowded room merely by entering, a power that she no doubt would still have at eighty-five. His father, her second of four husbands, once said, “Since birth, Claudette has looked good enough to eat. Every day the world looks on her, and its mouth waters.” This was so correct and so succinct that it was probably something Trevor, his father, had read somewhere rather than anything he had thought himself, and though it seemed at first crude, it was not, and it was true. Trevor hadn’t been commenting on her sexuality. He had meant beauty as a thing apart from sexual desire, beauty as an ideal, beauty so striking that it spoke to the soul. Women and men, babies and centenarians alike, were drawn to Claudette, wanted to be near her, and deep in their eyes when they gazed at her was something like pure hope and something like rapture, but different and mysterious. The love so many brought to her was love unearned—and unreciprocated. Her eyes were similar to Dusty’s, gray-blue, but with less blue than his; and in them he had never seen what any son longs to see in his mother’s eyes, nor had he ever seen a reason to believe that she wanted or would accept the love that—more as a boy than now, but still now—he would have lavished on her.
“Sherwood,” she said, offering neither a kiss nor a welcoming hand, “do all young people come unannounced these days?”
“Mother, you know my name’s not Sherwood—”
“Sherwood Penn Rhodes. It’s on your birth certificate.”
“You know perfectly well that I had it legally changed—”
“Yes, when you were eighteen, rebellious, and even more foolish than you are now,” she said.
“Dusty is what all my friends called me since I was a kid.”
“Your friends were always the class losers, Sherwood. You’ve always associated with the wrong type, so routinely it almost seems willful. Dustin Rhodes. What were you thinking? How could we keep a straight face, introducing you to cultured people as Dusty Rhodes?”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
“Hello, Claudette,” Martie said, having been ignored thus far.
“Dear,” Claudette said, “please use your good influence with the boy and insist he revert to a grown-up name.”
Martie smiled. “I like Dusty—the name and the boy.”
“Martine,” Claudette said. “That’s a real person’s name, dear.”
“I like people to call me Martie.”
“I know, yes. How unfortunate. You’re not setting a very good example for Sherwood.”
“Dustin,” Dusty insisted.
“Not in my house,” Claudette demurred.
Always, upon arrival here, no matter how much time had passed since his previous visit, Dusty was greeted in this distant fashion, not routinely with a debate about his name, sometimes with lengthy comments on his blue-collar dress or his unstylish haircut, or with probing queries about whether he had yet pursued “real” work or was still painting houses. Once, she kept him on the porch, discussing the political crisis in China, for at least five minutes, though it had seemed like an hour. She always eventually invited him inside, but he was never sure that she would let him cross the threshold.
Skeet had once been enormously excited when he’d seen a movie about angels, with Nicholas Cage starring as one of the winged. The premise of the film was that guardian angels aren’t permitted to know romantic love or other strong feelings; they must remain strictly intellectual beings in order to serve humanity without becoming too emotionally involved. To Skeet, this explained their mother, whose beauty even the angels might envy, but who could be cooler than a pitcher of unsweetened lemonade in midsummer.
Finally, having extracted whatever psychic toll she sought from these delays, Claudette stepped back, inviting them in without word or gesture. “One son shows up with a. . . guest at almost midnight, the other with a wife, and neither calls first. I know both took classes in manners and deportment, but apparently the money was wasted.”
Dusty assumed that the other son was Junior, who was fifteen and lived here, but when he and Martie stepped past Claudette, Skeet bounded down the stairs to greet them. He appeared to be paler than when they had last seen him, thinner as well, with darker circles under his eyes, but he was alive.
When Dusty hugged him, Skeet said, “Ouch, ouch, ouch,” and then said it again when he hugged Martie.
Astonished, Dusty said, “We thought you were—”
“We were told,” Martie said, “that you were—”
Before either of them could finish the thought, Skeet hiked up his pullover and his undershirt, eliciting a wince of distaste from his mother, and displayed his bare torso. “Bullet wounds!” he announced with amazement and a curious pride.
Four wicked bruises with ugly dark centers and overlapping aureoles marked his wasted chest and stomach.
Relieved to see Skeet alive, joyous, but puzzled, Dusty said, “Bullet wounds?”
“Well,” Skeet amended, “they would have been bullet wounds if me and Fig—”
“Fig and I,” his mother corrected.
“Yeah, if Fig and I hadn’t been wearing Keviar vests.”