Now all the walls and the ceiling were painted glossy black, and these surfaces soaked up the light, so the room seemed dark even with three hundred watts’ worth of lamps aglow. The iron-pipe headboard of the bed was black, and the sheets and spread on it were black, too. The desk and chair were black, as were the bookshelves. The natural-finish maple floor, so lovely through much of the rest of the house, had been painted black. The only color in the room was provided by the spines of the books on the black shelves, and by a pair of full-size flags stapled to the ceiling: the red field, white circle, and black swastika of the flag that Adolph Hitler had attempted to plant across the globe, and the hammer-and-sickle flag of the former Soviet Union. Four years ago, sports histories, sports biographies, books about archery, and science-fiction novels had crowded the shelves. Those had been replaced by books about Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, the Soviet gulags, the Ku Klux Klan, Jack the Ripper, several modern real-life serial killers, and a few mad bombers.
Junior himself was dressed in white sneakers, white socks, tan chinos, and a white shirt. He was lying on the bed, reading a book that featured a pile of decomposing human bodies on the dust jacket, and because of the high contrast between the boy and the black-satin bedclothes, he appeared to be levitating like a yogi.
“Hey, bro, how’re you doing?” Dusty asked awkwardly. He never knew what to say to his half brother, as they were largely strangers. He had left home—fled—twelve years ago, when Junior was only three.
“Do I look dead yet?” Junior asked sullenly.
Actually, the boy appeared to be magnificently alive, too alive for this world, as though he were supercharged with a spectral energy pumped into him from a wall socket in the Beyond, so that he glowed. He hadn’t been cursed with any of his father’s slippery mink looks; Fate had decided to lavish his mother’s genes on him, to bless him with a perfect form and perfect features, as had been given to none of her other children. If one day he ever decided to ascend to a stage, take a microphone in his hand, and sing, regardless of whether his voice was good or merely adequate, he would be bigger than Elvis and the Beatles and Ricky Martin combined, and both young women and young men would scream and weep and throw themselves at the stage, and a significant percentage of them would be pleased, if asked, to cut themselves and offer blood.
“What’s this?” Dusty wondered, indicating the black room and the flags on the ceiling.
“What’s it look like?” Junior asked.
“Goth sucks. It’s for children.”
“Looks like you’re practicing for death,” Martie said.
“Closer,” Junior said.
“What’s the point of that?”
Junior put his book aside. “What’s the point of anything else?”
“Because we all die, you mean?”
“It’s why we’re here,” Junior said. “To think about it. To watch it happen to other people. To prepare for it. And then to do it and be gone.”
“What’s this?” Dusty asked again, but this time he directed the question to his stepfather.
“Most adolescent boys, like Derek here, go through a period of intense fascination with death, and each of them thinks he has deeper thoughts about the subject than anyone before him has had,” Lampton said, talking about his son as though Junior couldn’t hear. When Dusty and Skeet had lived under his thumb, he’d done the same with them, talking about them as though they were interesting lab animals who didn’t understand a word of what he was saying. “Sex and death. They’re the big issues in adolescence. Both boys and girls, but most especially boys, are obsessive about both subjects. Periodically they go through phases that are borderline psychotic.
It’s a matter of hormonal imbalance, and the best thing to do is let them indulge the obsession, because nature will correct the imbalance soon enough.”
“Well, gee, I don’t remember being obsessed with death,” Martie said.
“You were,” Lampton said, as though he’d known her as a child, “but you sublimated it into other interests—Barbie dolls, makeup.”
“Makeup is a sublimation of a death obsession?”
“How obvious can it be?” Lampton said with pedantic smugness. “The purpose of makeup is to defy the degradations of time, and time is just a synonym for death.”
“I’m still struggling with Barbie dolls,” Dusty said.
“Think about it,” Lampton urged. “What is a doll but an image of a corpse? Unmoving, unbreathing, stiff, lifeless. Little girls playing with dolls are playing with corpses—and learning not to fear death excessively.”
“I remember being obsessed with sex,” Dusty admitted, “but—”
“Sex is a lie,” Junior said. “Sex is denial. People turn to sex to avoid facing the truth that life is about death. It’s not about creation. It’s about dying.”
Lampton smiled down on his son as though he might burst his shirt buttons with pride. “Derek here has chosen to immerse himself in death for a while, in order to put the fear of it behind him much sooner than most people ever do. It’s a legitimate technique for self-forced maturation.”
“I haven’t put it behind me,” Martie noted.
“You see?” Lampton said, as if she had made his point for him. “Last year, it was sex, as it always is with fourteen-year-old boys. Next year—sex again, once he’s done immersing himself in this.”
Dusty suspected that after a year of living in this black room, obsessing on death, Junior might be the lead item on the evening news one night, and not because he had won a spelling bee.
To the boy, Lampton said, “Dusty and Martie are interested in our guerrilla operation against Mark Ahriman.”
“That creep,” Junior said. “You want to whack him some more?”
“Why don’t we?” Lampton said, rubbing his hands together.
Junior rolled off the bed, onto his feet, stretched, and then headed out of the room. As he passed Martie, he said, “Nice tits.”
Beaming after him, Lampton said, “You see? Already, he’s moving out of this phase of death obsession, even though he doesn’t entirely recognize it yet.”
In the past, Dusty and Martie had felt like kidnapping the boy, hiding out with him in some far place, and raising him themselves, to give him a chance at a normal life. A glance at Martie confirmed that she, like Dusty, still felt like hiding out, although perhaps from Junior rather than with him anymore.
They followed the boy into Lampton’s upstairs study, where Skeet and Claudette were waiting with Foster Newton.
Fig was standing by the window, peering out at the front yard and the driveway.
“Hey, Fig,” Dusty said.
He turned. “Hey.”
“Are you okay?” Martie worried.
Fig nicked up his shirt to show them his chest and belly, which were neither as pale nor as slim as Skeet’s, and which were darkened by a different but equally ugly pattern of bruises from the impact of four slugs that had been stopped by Keviar body armor.
“This is a very trying morning,” said Claudette, grimacing with distaste.
“I’m okay,” Fig assured her, missing the point.
“You saved our lives,” Martie told him. “Fire truck?”
“And he saved mine, too,” Skeet said. Fig shook his head. “Kevlar.”
The boy was sitting at his father’s desk, before the computer.
Lampton stood behind Junior, watching over his shoulder. “Here we go.”
Dusty and Martie crowded close and saw that Junior was composing a scathing and well-written mini-review of Learn to Love Yourself
“Where we’re going with this,” Lampton said, “is the reader’s review page on the Amazon.com site. We’ve written and posted over a hundred and fifty denunciations of Learn to Love Yourself using different names and E-mail addresses.”
Appalled, Dusty flashed to the memory of the inhuman viciousness in Ahriman’s face and eyes when they had confronted him in his office a short while ago. “Whose names and E-mail addresses?” he asked, wondering what vengeance the psychiatrist might have extracted from these unsuspecting and innocent people.
“Don’t worry,” Lampton said, “when we use real names, we choose brain-dead types who don’t read much. They aren’t likely to visit Amazon and see any of this.”
“Anyway,” Junior said, “most of the time we just make up names and E-mail addresses, which is even better.”
“You can do that?” Martie wondered.
“The Net is liquid,” Junior said.
Trying to puzzle out the full meaning of that statement, Dusty said, “It’s difficult to separate fiction from reality.”
“It’s better than that. Fiction and reality don’t matter. It’s all the same, one river.”
“Then how do you find the truth about anything?”
Junior shrugged. “Who cares? What matters isn’t what’s true. it’s what works.”
“I’m sure on Amazon’s site, half the rave reviews of Ahriman’s idiotic book were written by Ahriman himself,” Lampton said. “I know some novelists who do more of this stuff than spend time writing. All we’re trying to achieve here is to redress the imbalance.”
“Did you post your own raves about Dare to Be Your Own Best Friend?” Martie asked.
“Me? No, no,” Lampton assured her. “If the book is solid, the book takes care of itself.”
Yeah, right. For hours, for days, those clever mink paws had no doubt pounded out self-praise at such a blistering pace that the keyboard had locked up repeatedly.
“After this,” Junior promised, “we’ll show you what we can do with various Ahriman-related sites on the Web.”
“Derek is enormously clever with the computer,” boasted Derek the Elder. “We go all over the Web after Ahriman, all over. No security wall, no program architecture is too much for him.”
Turning away from the computer, Dusty said, “I think we’ve seen enough.”
Gripping Dusty’s right arm with both hands, Martie pulled him aside. Her expression, as ghastly as it was, could be no more horrified than his own face. She said, “When Susan was representing Ahriman’s house, before it was Ahriman’s house, she was the agent for the original owner, and she wanted me to see the place. Spectacular house, but very imposing, like a stage set for Gotterdammerung. Had to see it, she said. So I met her there. It was the day she first showed it to Ahriman, the day she met him. I arrived when she was finishing the tour with him. I met him that day, too. The three of us. . . talked a little.”
“Oh, Jesus. Can you remember? . .
“I’m trying. But, I don’t know. Maybe the subject of his book came up. Seventy-eight weeks on the best-seller list now. So back then it would have been fairly new. Eighteen months ago. And if I realized what kind of book it was. . . maybe I mentioned Derek.”
Trying to pad the sharp points of the piercing conclusion toward which Martie was hurtling, Dusty said, “Miss M., stop right now. Stop what you’re thinking. Ahriman would’ve gone after Susan anyway. As beautiful as she was, he had her in his sights before you came into the picture.”
Lampton had turned away from the computer to listen. “You’ve actually met this pop-psych putz?”
Confronting Derek senior, fixing him with a glare that would have turned him to ice if there had been blood in his veins, Martie said, “We’re all dead because of you.”
Waiting to hear the punch line of what he assumed must be a joke, Lampton skinned his lips back from his nippy little teeth.
Martie said, “Dead because of your childish competitiveness.”
Like a radiant Valkyrie flying to the assistance of her wounded warrior, Claudette came to Lampton’s side. “There is nothing in the least childish about it. You don’t understand the academic world, Martine. You don’t understand intellectuals.”
“Don’t I?” Martie bristled.
Dusty heard so much loathing in Don’t I? that he was glad Martie was no longer in possession of the .45 Colt.
“Competition among men like Derek,” said Claudette, “isn’t about egos or self-interest. It’s about ideas. Ideas that shape society, the world, the future. For those ideas to be tested and tempered and readied for implementation, they have to survive challenges, debate of all types, in all arenas.”
“Like Amazon.com reader reviews,” Martie said scathingly.
Claudette was undaunted. “The battle of ideas is a very real war, not a childish competition, as you’re trying to paint it.”
Valet backed out of the room and stood watching from the hail.
Joining Dusty and Martie, though careful to stand behind them, Skeet found the courage to say, “Martie’s right.”
“When you’re off your medications,” Lampton told him, “your judgment isn’t good enough to make you a welcome ally, Holden.”
“I welcome him,” Dusty disagreed.
With her teeth into this issue, Claudette was more emotional than Dusty had ever seen her. “You think life is video games and movies and fashion and football and gardening, and whatever the hell else fills your days, but life is about ideas. People like Derek, people with ideas, shape the world. They shape government, religion, society, every tiniest aspect of our culture. Most people are drones by choice, spending their days in trivialities, absorbed with piffle, living their lives without ever realizing that Derek, people like Derek, have made this society and rule them by the power of ideas.”
Here, in this ugly confrontation with Claudette, which for Dusty and surely for Skeet, as well, was rapidly growing into a showdown of mythic proportions, Martie was their paladin, lance raised and eye to eye with the dragon. Skeet had moved directly behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders, and Dusty was half tempted to move behind Skeet for additional protection.
“Daring to be your own best friend,” Martie said, “and learning to love yourself—these are ideas that shape?”
“There’s no comparison between my book and Ahriman’s,” Lampton objected, but after his wife’s vigorous defense, he sounded as though he were pouting.
Moving half in front of Lampton, as if to physically defend her beleaguered man, but also to press her butt against him, Claudette insisted: “Derek writes vivid, solid, psychologically profound work. Rigorously composed ideas. Ahriman spews out pop-psych vomit.”
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