Dusty had never before seen his mother cast off her icy veil and reveal her sexual nature, and he hoped that he would never see anything like this again. What aroused her was not ideas themselves, but the idea that ideas were power. Power was her true aphrodisiac; not the na*ed power of generals and politicians and prize-fighters, or even the raw power of serial killers, but the power of those who shaped the minds of generals, politicians, ministers, teachers, lawyers, filmmakers. The power of manipulation. In her flared nostrils and glittering eyes, he saw now an eroticism as cold as that of the trapdoor spider and the whip-tailed skink.
“You still don’t get it,” Martie seethed. “In defense of Dare to Be Your Own Best Friend, you burned down our house. It might as well have been you, you directly. In defense of Dare to Be Your Own Best Friend, you shot Skeet and Fig. You think what they say happened last night is a dissociative fantasy, but it’s real, Claudette. Those bruises are real, the bullets were real. Your stupid, stupid, stupid idea of what constitutes debate, your idea that harassment is the same as reasoned discussion—that’s what influenced the finger that pulled the trigger. How’s that for shaping society, huh? Maybe you’re ready to die for Derek’s vivid, solid, rigorously composed, psychologically profound narcissistic bullshit, but I’m not!”
From his post at the window, Fig said, “Lexus.”
Claudette hadn’t breathed fire yet, though she was full of it. “How easy it evidently is to make ignorant, specious arguments when you’ve never had a college course in logic. If Ahriman burns down houses and shoots people, then he’s a maniac, a psychopath, and Derek is right to go after him any way he can. Indeed, if what you say is true, it’s courageous to go after him.”
Daring to be his own best friend, Lampton said, “I always sensed a sociopath worldview in his writing. I always suspected there was risk in opposing him, but one takes risks if one cares.”
“Oh, yes,” Martie said, “let’s call the Pentagon at once and have them get a Medal of Honor ready for you. For valor on the field of academic battle, bravery at the computer keyboard with courageous use of false names and invalid E-mail addresses.”
“You are not welcome in my house,” said Claudette.
“Lexus in the driveway,” Fig said.
“So what if there’s a hundred fu**ing Lexuses in the driveway?” Claudette demanded, never taking her eyes off Martie. “Every idiot in this pretentious neighborhood has a Lexus or a Mercedes.”
“Parking,” said Fig.
Martie and Dusty joined Fig at the window.
The driver’s door of the Lexus opened, and a tall, handsome, dark-haired man got out of the car. Eric Jagger.
“Oh, God,” Martie said.
Through Susan, Ahriman had gotten at Martie. With or without the benefit of a college course in logic, Dusty was able to add this particular two-plus-two.
Eric reached back into the car to get something that he had left on the seat.
Through Susan, Ahriman had also gotten at Eric, programming him and instructing him to separate from his wife, thereby leaving Susan alone and more vulnerable, more accessible any time the psychiatrist was in the mood to have her. And now there was something else Ahriman wanted from Eric, something a little more strenuous than moving out of his wife’s house.
“Hacksaw,” Fig said.
“Autopsy saw,” Dusty corrected.
“With cranial blades,” Martie added.
“Gun,” said Fig.
And here came Eric.
Death was as stylish as anyone now: gone, the black carriage drawn by black horses, traded in on a silver Lexus. Gone, the black robe with the melodramatic hood: instead, tasseled loafers, black slacks, a Jhane Barnes sweater.
The Keviar body armor was in the pickup, and the pickup was in the garage, so Skeet and Fig were as unprotected as everyone else, and this time the gunman would be taking head shots, anyway.
“Gun?” Lampton said when Martie asked. “You mean here?”
“No, of course not, don’t be ridiculous,” Claudette said, as if spoiling for another argument even now, “we don’t have a gun.”
“Then too bad you don’t have a really lethal idea, “ Martie said.
Dusty grabbed Lampton by the arm. “The back-porch roof. You can get onto it through Junior’s room or the master bedroom.”
Blinking in confusion, nose twitching as if trying to catch a scent that would explain the precise nature of the danger, the mink man said, “But why—”
“Hurry!” Dusty said. “All of you. Go, go. Onto the porch roof, down to the lawn, down to the beach, and hide out at one of the neighbors’ houses.”
Junior was the first through the study doorway, out and gone in a sprint, apparently not in fact prepared to immerse himself in anything more than the idea of death.
Dusty followed the boy, pulling the wheeled office chair away from Lampton’s desk and then pushing it ahead of him, racing down the hall to the top of the stairs, while the rest of them hurried off in the opposite direction.
No, not all of them. Here was Skeet, sweet but useless. “What can I do?”
“Damn it, kid, just get out!”
“Help me with this,” Martie said.
She hadn’t fled, either. She was at a six-foot-long Sheraton sideboard that stood along the wide hallway, opposite the head of the stairs. With a sweep of her arm, she cleared off a vase and an arrangement of silver candlesticks, which shattered and rattled to the floor. Evidently, she had figured out what Dusty intended to do with the office chair, but she was of the opinion that higher-caliber ammunition was needed.
Together, after moving the chair aside, the three of them dragged the sideboard away from the wall and stood it on one end at the head of the stairs.
“Now make him go,” Dusty urged her. His voice was hoarse with terror, worse now than it had been when they had finished the slomo roll in the rental car outside Santa Fe, because at least then he’d had the comfort of knowing, as the gunmen descended the slope after them, that Martie had the Colt Commander, whereas now he had nothing but a damn sideboard.
Martie grabbed Skeet by the arm, and he tried to resist, but she was the stronger of the two.
Downstairs, a tattoo of automatic gunfire shattered the leaded glass in the front door, cracked off pieces of wood, too, and chopped into the walls of the foyer.
Dusty dropped onto the hall floor, behind the upended sideboard, looking past it down the long single flight of stairs.
The investment adviser slammed through the splintered door and stormed into the house as though a master’s in business administration from Harvard now required courses in ass-kicking and heavy weaponry. He put the autopsy saw on the foyer table, gripped the machine pistol in both hands, and turned in a hundred-eighty-degree arc, spraying bullets into the downstairs rooms on three sides of him.
This was an extended magazine, probably thirty-three rounds, but it wasn’t a magic well of cartridges, so at the end of Eric’s arc, the gun ran dry.
Spare magazines were tucked under his belt. He fumbled with the pistol, trying to eject the spent magazine.
He couldn’t be allowed to search the lower floor first, because when he went into the kitchen, he might see people dropping off the back-porch roof or fleeing across the backyard toward the beach.
Gunfire seemed to be still thundering through the house, but Dusty knew the inner workings of his ears were just vibrating in the aftermath, so he shouted, “Ben Marco!”
Eric looked up at the top of the stairs, but he didn’t freeze or get that telltale glazed look. He continued fumbling with the pistol, which was clearly unfamiliar to him.
“Bobby Lembeck!” Dusty shouted.
The spent magazine clattered to the foyer floor.
In this case, maybe the activating name didn’t come from The Manchurian Candidate. Maybe it came from The Godfather or Rosemary’s Baby, or from The House at Pooh Corner, for all he knew, but he didn’t have time to sample the last fifty years of popular fiction in search of the right character. “Johnny Iselin!”
After shoving another magazine into the machine pistol, Eric locked it in place with a hard whack from the palm of his hand.
Eric squeezed off a burst of eight or ten rounds, which tore through the solid cherry-wood top of the sideboard—pock, pock, pock, too many pocks to count—cracked through the drawers, smashed out of the bottom, and thudded into the hallway wall behind Dusty, passing over his head and leaving a wake of splinters to rain over him. High-velocity rounds, jacketed in something way harder than he wanted to think about, and maybe with Teflon tips.
“Jocelyn Jordan!” Dusty shouted into the jarring silence that throbbed through his head following the skull-ringing peals of the gunshots. He had read a sizable piece of the novel, and he had skimmed the whole thing, looking for names, in particular for the one that would activate him. He remembered them all. His eidetic memory was the one gift with which he’d been born into this world, that and the common sense that had driven him to be a housepainter instead of a mover and shaker in the world of Big Ideas, but Condon’s novel was chocked full of characters, major and minor—as minor as Viola Narvilly, who didn’t even appear until past page 300—and he might not have time to run through the entire cast before Eric blew his head off. “Alan Melvin!”
Holding his fire, Eric climbed the steps.
Dusty could hear him coming.
Climbing fast, unfazed by the Sheraton-sideboard deadfall that loomed over him. Coming like a robot. Which was pretty much what he was, in fact: a living robot, a meat machine.
“Ellie Iselin!” Dusty shouted, and he was simultaneously half mad with fear and yet aware of what a ludicrous exit this would be, blown to kingdom come while shouting out names like a frantic quiz-show contestant trying to beat a countdown clock. “Nora Lemmon!”
Unmoved by Nora Lemmon, Eric kept coming, and Dusty scrambled up from the floor, shoved the sideboard, and dove to his left, away from the top of the stairs, behind a sheltering wall, as another burst of gunfire smacked into the toppling mass of fine eighteenth-century cherry wood.
Eric grunted and cursed, but it was impossible to tell from the thunderous descent of the sideboard whether he had been hurt or carried to the foyer below. The stairs were wider than the upended antique, and he might have been able to dodge it.
Standing with his back to the hallway wall, next to the stairs, Dusty didn’t relish poking his head around the corner to have a look. In addition to never having attended a college class in logic, he’d never taken a class in magic, either, and he didn’t know how to catch bullets in his teeth.
And, dear God, even as the thudding-crashing-cracking-banging still rose from the staircase, here came Martie—who was supposed to be gone with the rest of them—pushing a wheeled, three-drawer filing cabinet along the hallway, having commandeered it from Lampton’s office.
Dusty glowered at her. What the hell was she thinking, anyway? That Eric would run Out of bullets before they ran out of furniture?
Seizing the filing cabinet, pushing Martie away, using the fourfoot-high stack of metal drawers as cover, Dusty moved to the head of the stairs again.
Eric had tumbled into the foyer with the sideboard. His left leg was pinned under it. He was still holding the machine pistol, and he fired toward the top of the stairs.
Ducking, Dusty heard the shots go wild. They slammed hard into the ceiling, and a few rounds twanged through ducts and pipes behind the plaster. Not even one ricocheted off the filing cabinet.
His heart was rattling in his chest as if several rounds were ricocheting from wall to wall of its chambers.
When he cautiously peered down into the foyer again, he saw that Eric had pulled his leg out from under the sideboard and was getting to his feet. Relentless as a robot, operating on programmed instructions rather than reason or emotion, the guy was nonetheless pissed.
“Eugenie Rose Cheyney!”
Not even limping, cursing fluently, Eric started toward the stairs. The filing cabinet wasn’t half as massive as the sideboard. He would be able to dodge it, pumping out rounds as he came.
Eric stopped at the foot of the stairs. The murderous glare melted off his face, and what replaced it was not the flat, grimly determined expression with which he had entered the house, but the glazed and slightly quizzical look that signified activation.
Ed Mavole was the name, all right, but Dusty was still lacking a haiku. According to Ned Motherwell, umpteen feet of shelves in the bookstore were devoted to haiku, so even if all the volumes Ned had bought were now near at hand—which they weren’t—the accessing lines might not be in them.
Down in the foyer, Eric twitched, blinked, and reacquainted himself with his murderous intentions.
“Ed Mavole,” Dusty said again, and once more Eric froze and said, “I’m listening.”
This wouldn’t be fun, but it ought to be doable. Keep using the magic name, snap Eric back into an activated state every time he came out of it, go straight down the stairs at him, snatch the gun from his hand, knock him ass over teakettle, clip him alongside the head with the butt of the gun, just hard enough to knock him unconscious without leaving him comatose for life, and then tie him up with whatever was at hand. Maybe when he regained consciousness, he would no longer be a robotic killer. Otherwise, they could keep him under restraint, buy all umpteen shelf feet of haiku, brew ten gallons of strong coffee, and read every verse to him until they got a response.
As Dusty rolled the filing cabinet aside, Martie said, “Oh, God, please, babe, don’t chance it,” and Eric twitched back to his killing glare.
Dusty descended the stairs fast. Eric was looking straight at him but didn’t seem to be able to work out the physics of what was about to happen. Before Dusty was a third of the way down, taking no chances, he shouted, “Ed Mavole,” and Eric Jagger replied, “I’m listening,” and then he was two-thirds of the way down, and he said, “Ed Mavole,” and as he reached Eric, the answer came in that same mellow voice, “I’m listening.” Looking straight into the muzzle, which seemed as big as any tunnel that he might drive through, Dusty closed one hand around the barrel, pushed it aside and out of his face, wrenched the gun from Eric’s slack hands, and at the same time drove his shoulder into the dazed man, knocking him to the floor.
Dusty fell, too, and rolled across broken glass and chunks of wood from the bullet-riddled front door, afraid he might accidentally discharge the pistol. He tumbled into the half-moon table that stood against the foyer wall, rapping his forehead hard against the sturdy stretcher bar that connected its three legs, but he didn’t shoot himself in the thigh, the groin, or anywhere else.
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