Dusty felt the need to sit down. Martie was shaky, too. But they had come here with a sense of urgency, and it might be a mortal mistake to lose it now. “What were you doing in Keviar vests?”
“Good thing you didn’t want them for New Mexico,” said Skeet. “Me and Fig—” A quick, guilty glance at his mother. “Fig and I figured we might as well make ourselves useful, so we decided to tail Dr. Ahrirnan.”
“We followed him in Fig’s truck—”
“Which I made them park in the garage,” said Claudette. “I do not wish that vehicle to be seen in my driveway.”
“It’s a cool truck,” Skeet said. “Anyway, we put on vests just to be safe, and we followed him, and somehow he turned the tables on us. We thought we lost him, and we were out on the beach, trying to make contact with one of the mother ships, and he just walked up and shot us both four times.”
“Good God,” Martie said.
Dusty was trembling, overcome by more emotions then he could name or sort out. Nevertheless, he noticed that Skeet’s eyes were brighter and clearer than they had been since that celebratory day, over fifteen years ago, when the two of them had packaged a box of dog droppings and mailed it off to Holden Caulfield, the elder, after Claudette had thrown him out in favor of Derek.
“He was wearing a ski mask, so we couldn’t positively identify him to the police. We didn’t even go to the police. Didn’t seem like we’d get anywhere with them. But we knew it was him, all right. He didn’t fool us.” Skeet was beaming, as if they had pulled one over on the psychiatrist. “He shoots Fig twice, then me four times, and it’s like being slammed in the gut with a hammer, knocks all the breath out of me, and I’m almost unconscious, too, and I want to suck air, but I don’t because even with the wind howling, he might hear me and know I’m not really dead. Fig’s playing dead, too. So then before he turns back to Fig and shoots him two more times, the guy says to me, ‘Your mother’s a whore, and your father’s a fraud, and your stepfather—he’s got shit for brains.’”
Icily, Claudette said, “I’ve never even met this purveyor of poppsych drivel.”
“Then both me and Fig, Fig and I, we knew Ahriman went away in a hurry, but we laid there, ‘cause we were scared. And for a while we couldn’t move. Like we were stunned. You know? And then when we could move, we came here to find out why he thinks Mother’s a whore.”
“Have you been to a hospital?” Martie worried.
“Nah, I’m fine,” Skeet said, finally lowering his sweater.
“You could have a cracked rib, internal injuries.”
“I’ve made the same argument,” Claudette said, “to no avail. You know what Holden’s like, Sherwood. He’s always had more enthusiasm than common sense.”
“It’s still a good idea to go to a hospital, be examined while the injuries are visible,” Dusty advised Skeet. “That’s admissible evidence if we’re ever able to get this shithead into court.”
“Bastard,” Claudette admonished, “or sonofabitch. Either is adequate, Sherwood. Pointless vulgarities don’t impress me. If you think shithead will shock me, better think again. But in this house we’ve never thought William Burroughs is literature, and we’re not going to start thinking so now.”
“I love your mother,” Martie told Dusty.
Claudette’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly.
“How was New Mexico?” Skeet asked.
“A land of enchantment,” Dusty said.
At the end of the hall, the swinging door to the kitchen swung, and through it came Derek Lampton. He approached with his shoulders back, spine ramrod-straight, chest out, and although his bearing was military, he nevertheless seemed to slink toward them.
Skeet and Dusty had secretly called him Lizard virtually from the day he arrived, but Lampton was more accurately a mink of a man, compact and sleek and sinuous, hair as thick and shiny as fur, with the quick, black, watchful eyes of something that would raid a chicken coop the moment the farmer’s back was turned. His hands, neither of which he offered to Dusty or Martie, featured slender fingers with wider than normal webbing and with slightly pointy nails, like clever paws. The mink is a member of the weasel family.
“Has someone died and are we having a reading of the will?” Lampton asked, which was his idea of humor and the closest thing to a greeting he would ever offer.
He looked Martie up and down, his attention lingering on the swell of her br**sts against her sweater, as he always forthrightly examined attractive women. When at last he met her eyes, he bared his small, sharp, white-white teeth. This passed for his smile—and perhaps even for what he believed to be a seductive smile.
“Sherwood and Martine actually were in New Mexico,” Claudette told her husband.
“Really?” Lampton said, raising his eyebrows.
“I told you,” Skeet said.
“That’s true,” Lampton confirmed, addressing Dusty rather than Skeet. “He told us, but with such flamboyant detail, we assumed that it was less reality than just one of his dissociative fantasies.”
“I don’t have dissociative fantasies,” Skeet objected, managing to put some iron in his voice, although he couldn’t meet Lampton’s eyes—and instead stared at the floor when he raised his objection.
“Now, Holden, don’t be defensive,” Lampton soothed. “I’m not judging you when I mention your dissociative fantasies, any more than I would be judging Dusty if I were to mention his pathological aversion to authority.”
“I don’t have a pathological aversion to authority,” Dusty said, angry with himself for feeling the need to respond, striving to keep his voice calm, even friendly. “I have a legitimate aversion to the notion that a bunch of elitists should tell everyone else what to do and what to think. I have an aversion to self-appointed experts.”
“Sherwood,” said Claudette, “you don’t advance your argument whatsoever when you use unintentional oxymorons like self-appointed experts.”
With a remarkably straight face and measured tone, Martie said, “Actually, Claudette, it wasn’t an oxymoron. It was a metonymy in which he was substituting self-appointed for the more vulgar if more accurate arrogant as**ole experts.”
If he’d ever had the slightest doubt that he would love Martie forever, Dusty knew now that they would be bonded through eternity.
As if she had not heard her daughter-in-law, Claudette said to Skeet, “Derek is absolutely correct, Holden, as to both issues. He wasn’t judging you. He’s not that kind of person. And you do, of course, have dissociative fantasies. Until you acknowledge your condition, you’re never going to heal.”
Getting across the threshold, although difficult, was always less of a challenge than moving beyond the foyer.
“Holden has stopped taking his medications,” Derek Lampton told Dusty, while his gaze slid down and lingered again on the shape of Martie’s breasts.
“You had me on seven prescriptions,” Skeet said. “By the time I took all of them in the morning, I didn’t have room for breakfast.”
“You will never be able to realize your potential,” Claudette admonished, “until you acknowledge your condition and address it.”
“I think he should have stopped taking his medications a long time ago,” Dusty said.
Looking up from Martie’s breasts, Lampton said, “Holden’s recovery isn’t facilitated when he’s confused by uneducated advice.”
“His father facilitated his recovery until he was nine, and you’ve facilitated it since.” Dusty forced a smile and a light tone that he knew fooled no one. “And so far all I’ve seen is a lot of facilitating and no recovery.”
Brightening, Skeet said, “Mother, did you know my father’s name isn’t really Holden Caulfield? It was Sam Farner before he had it legally changed.”
Claudette’s eyes pinched. “You’re fantasizing again, Holden.”
“No, it’s true. I’ve got the proof at home. Maybe that’s what Ahriman meant, after he shot me, when he called him a fraud.”
Claudette pointed a finger at Dusty. “You encourage him to go off his medications, and this is where it leads.” To Skeet, she said, “This Ahriman person called me a whore. Am I to assume, Holden, you think that word fits me as well as you think fraud fits your father?”
Dusty’s head was filled with that ominous buzzing that usually didn’t afflict him until he had been in this house for at least half an hour. Desperate to get back to the urgent issue, he said, “Derek, why would Mark Ahriman harbor such animosity toward you?”
“Because I’ve exposed him for what he is.”
“And what is he?”
“And when did you expose him?”
“Every chance I get,” Lampton said, his mink eyes gleaming with dark glee.
Moving to her husband’s side, slipping an arm around his waist, giving him a playful hug, Claudette said, “When foolish men like this Mark Ahriman get stung by my Derek’s wit, they don’t forget it.”
“How?” Martie pressed. “How did you expose him?”
“Analytical essays in two of the better journals,” Lampton said, “putting his empty theories and his jejune prose under a spotlight.”
“I was appalled by how many psychologists were beginning to take him seriously. The man’s not an intellectual. He’s the worst kind of poseur.”
“And that’s it?” Martie asked. “A couple of essays?”
Lampton’s pointy teeth flashed. The corners of his eyes crinkled. Although this was an expression of mirth, he looked as though he had just spotted a mouse that he intended to snare and rip to bits. “Oh, lawdy, Miss Claudy, they don’t understand what it means to be on the receiving end of a Lampton blitz, do they?”
“I think I do,” Skeet said, but neither his mother nor his stepfather appeared to hear him.
As if Lampton had been witty or naughty, or both, Claudette let out a brief girlish giggle, as full of genuine humor as the rattle of a diamondback.
“Oh, lawdy, Miss Claudy,” Lampton repeated, doing a jive wiggle and snapping his fingers, as if he thought he was making with the latest of street vernacular. “Essays in two journals. Some quite clever guerrilla warfare. And a parody of his style for ‘Bookend,’ the last page in The New York Times Book Review—”
“Wickedly funny,” Claudette assured them.
“—plus I reviewed his latest for a major syndicate, and the review ended up in seventy-eight newspapers nationwide. I have all the clippings. Can you believe that dreadful book has been on the Times list for seventy-eight weeks?”
“You mean Learn to Love Yourself?” Martie asked.
“Pop-psych slush,” Lampton declared. “It’s probably done more damage to the American psyche than any book published in a decade.”
“Seventy-eight weeks,” Dusty said. “Is that a long time to be on the list?”
“For a book in this category, it’s forever,” said Lampton
“How long was your last book on the list?”
Suddenly taking the high road, Lampton said, “I really don’t count. Popular success isn’t the issue. The quality of the work is the issue, how much impact it has on society, how many people it helps.”
“Seems to me it was twelve or fourteen weeks,” Dusty said.
“Oh, no, it was more than that,” Lampton said.
Squirming with the need to have his accomplishment properly reported, but now in a trap of his own devising, Lampton looked at Claudette for help, and she said, “Twenty-two weeks it was on the list. Derek never cares about these things, but I do. I’m proud of him. Twenty-two weeks is a very good run, very good indeed for a work of substance.”
“Well, there you have the problem, of course,” Lampton lamented. “Pop-psych slush will always do better than solid work. It might not help anyone worth a damn, but it’s easy to read.”
“And the American public,” Claudette said, “is as lazy and as poorly educated as it is in need of sound psychological counseling.”
Looking at Martie, Dusty said, “We’re talking about Derek’s Dare to Be Your Own Best Friend.”
“I couldn’t get through it,” Skeet said.
“You’re certainly bright enough to,” Claudette told him. “But when you don’t take your medication, your learning disability roars right back, and you can’t read your name. ‘Medicate to educate.’”
Glancing toward the living room, Dusty wondered what percentage of visitors ever made it farther than the foyer.
Skeet found a little more courage. “I don’t have any trouble reading my fantasy novels, with or without medication.”
“Your fantasy novels,” said Lampton, “are part of the problem, Holden, not part of the cure.”
“What about the guerrilla warfare?” Dusty asked.
Everyone regarded him with puzzlement.
“You said you used some clever guerrilla warfare against Mark Ahriman,” Dusty reminded Lampton.
That coop-raiding, mouse-ripping smile again. “Come on, I’ll show you!”
Lampton led them upstairs.
Valet was waiting in the second-floor hail, apparently because he had been too intimidated by the war zone in the foyer.
Martie and Dusty paused to cuddle him, to scratch under his chin, to rub behind his ears, and in return he lashed them with tongue and tail.
If he’d had a choice, Dusty would have preferred to sit on the floor and spend the rest of the day with Valet. Other than Skeet’s hug—Ouch, ouch, ouch/—the dog’s welcome was the only real and true moment Dusty had experienced since ringing the doorbell.
Lampton rapped on a door farther along the hail. Glancing back at Dusty and Martie, he said, “Come on, come on.”
Claudette and Skeet went into a room on the opposite side of the hall: Lampton’s study.
Although no one had spoken an invitation that Dusty could hear, Lampton opened the door on which he’d knocked, and when they caught up to him, they crossed the threshold after him.
This was Junior’s bedroom. Dusty hadn’t been here in about four years, since Derek Lampton Jr. was eleven. Back then, the decor had been sports-related. Posters of basketball and soccer stars.
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