“Are you done?”
“Not quite. After all these years of putting up with this crap, I’ve earned the right to finish what I have to say. I know your worst secrets, Mother, all the worst. I’ve suffered for them, we all have, and we’re going to suffer more—”
Clawing at his hand, drawing two thin tracks of blood with her fingernails, wrenching loose of him, she said, “If Dominique hadn’t been a Down’s baby, and if I hadn’t spared her that half life she would’ve led, and if she were alive here and now, wouldn’t that be worse? Wouldn’t that be infinitely worse?”
The sense she made diminished as the volume of her voice rose, and Dusty had no idea what she meant.
Junior moved closer to his mother’s side. They stood hand in hand, drawing a strange strength from each other.
Pointing toward the dead man sprawled in the foyer below, a gesture that seemed to have no connection to her words, she said, “Down’s was at least an obvious condition. What if she’d seemed normal but then.. . all grown up, what if she’d been just like her father?”
Dominique’s father, Claudette’s first husband, had been more than twenty years her senior, a psychologist named Lief Reissler, a cold fish with pale eyes and a pencil mustache, who had thankfully played no role in either Dusty’s or Skeet’s life. A cold fish, yes, but not the monster that her question implied he was.
Before Dusty could express his bafflement, Claudette clarified. After three days of shocks that he’d thought had forever inoculated him against surprise, she rocked him with eight words: “What if she’d been just like Mark Ahriman?” The rest was superfluous: “You say he burns down houses, he shoots people, he’s a sociopath, and this crazy man who’s dead downstairs is somehow associated with him. So would you want his child for your half sister?”
She raised Junior’s hand and kissed it, as though to say that she was especially glad that she had spared him the problem of this difficult sister.
When Dusty had claimed to know her worst secrets, all the worst, she assumed he’d been referring to more than the fact that the sudden infant death syndrome that claimed Dominique had truly been ruthless suffocation.
Now, because of his reaction and Martie’s, Claudette realized this revelation need never have been made, but instead of retreating into silence, she tried to explain.
“Lief was infertile. We were never going to be able to have children. I was twenty-one, and Lief was forty-four, and he could have been the perfect father, with his tremendous knowledge, all his insights, his theories of emotional development. Lief had a brilliant child-rearing philosophy.”
Yes, they all had their child-rearing philosophies, their deep insights, and their abiding interest in social engineering. Medicate to educate, and all that.
“Mark Ahriman was just seventeen, but he’d started college soon after his thirteenth birthday, and he’d already earned a doctorate by the time I met him. He was a prodigy’s prodigy, and everyone at the university was in awe of him. A genius almost beyond measure. He was no one’s idea of a perfect father. He was a snooty Hollywood brat. But the genes.”
“Did he know the child was his?”
“Yes. Why not? None of us was that conventional.”
The buzzing in Dusty’s head, which was the accompanying theme music for any visit to this house, had settled into a more ominous tone than usual. “When Dominique was born with Down’s... how did you handle that, Mother?”
She stared at the blood on his hand, which she had drawn with her fingernails, and when she raised her eyes to meet his, she said only, “You know how I handled it.”
Once more, she lifted Junior’s hand to her lips and kissed his knuckles, this time as if to say that all her problems with damaged children had been worth enduring now that she had been given him.
Dusty said, “I meant, not how did you handle Dominique. How did you handle the news of her condition? If I know you, Ahriman got his ear bent almost off. I’ll bet you dished out more humiliation to him than a snotty Hollywood brat is used to.”
“Nothing like that has ever showed up in my family,” she said, confirming that Ahriman must have been the target of her full fury.
Martie could contain herself no longer. “So thirty-two years ago, you humiliate him, you kill his child—”
“He was glad when he heard she was dead.”
“I’m sure he was, knowing him like I do now. But just the same, you humiliate him back then. And all these years later, the man who gave you Junior, this golden boy—”
Junior actually smiled, as if Martie were coming on to him.
“—the man who gives you this boy that Ahriman couldn’t give you, your husband, goes out of his way to mock Ahriman, to belittle him, to tear him apart in every public forum he can find, and even sabotages him with this petty crap on Amazon.com. And you didn’t put a stop to it?”
Claudette’s anger flared anew at Martie’s accusation of bad judgment. “I encouraged it. And why not. Mark Ahriman can’t make a book any better than he can make a baby. Why should he have more success than Derek? Why should he have anything at all?”
“You foolish woman.” Martie evidently chose this insult because she knew that it would sting Claudette worse than any other. “You foolish, ignorant woman.”
Skeet, alarmed by Martie’s directness, afraid for her, tried to draw her back.
Instead, Martie grasped his hand and held it tightly, just as Claudette held Junior’s. But she wasn’t taking strength from Skeet; she was giving it. “Stay cool, honey.” Pressing the attack, she said, “Claudette, you don’t have a clue what Ahriman is capable of doing. You don’t understand jack about him—his viciousness, his relentlessness.”
“Like hell you do! You opened the door to him and let him into all our lives, not just your own. He wouldn’t have looked twice at me if I hadn’t had a connection to you. If not for you, none of this would have happened to me, and I wouldn’t have had to do”—she looked miserably at Dusty, and he knew she was thinking of two dead men in New Mexico—”the things I’ve had to do.”
Claudette could be cowed neither by the virulence of an argument nor by the facts of it. “You make it sound as if it’s all about you. Like they say, shit happens. I’m sure you’ve heard that kind of talk in your circles before. Shit happens, Martie. It happens to all of us. It’s my house that was shot apart, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“Get used to it,” Martie countered. “Because Ahriman won’t stop with this. He’s going to send someone else, and someone else, and then ten more someone elses, people who’re strangers and people we’ve known and trusted all our lives, blindsiding us time after time, and he’s going to keep sending them until we’re all dead.”
“You aren’t even making any damn sense,” Claudette fumed.
“Enough! Shut up, shut up, all of you!” Derek stood downstairs in the foyer, near Eric’s body, shouting up at them. “Neighbors must not be home, ‘cause no one called the police till I just did. Before they get here, I’m telling you how it’s going to be. This is my house, and I’m telling you. I wiped the gun off. I put it back in his hand. Dusty, Martie, if you want to go against us, you do what you have to do, but then it’s warfare between us, and I’ll smear the two of you any way I can. You said your house burned down? I’ll tell them you gamble, you have debts, and you burned it down for the insurance.”
Staggered by this grotesque threat and yet not surprised, Dusty said, “Derek, for God’s sake, what good would that do any of us now?”
“It’ll muddy the waters,” Lampton said. “Confuse the cops. This guy was your friend’s husband, Martie? So I’ll tell the cops he came here to kill Dusty because Dusty was screwing with Susan.”
“You stupid bastard,” Martie said, “Susan’s dead. She—”
Claudette embraced the conspiracy: “Then I’ll say Eric confessed to killing Susan before he started shooting up this place, killed her because she was screwing Dusty. I’m warning you two, we’ll muddy these waters until they can’t even see my boy, let alone accuse him of murder, when all he did was save our lives.”
Dusty couldn’t recall having stepped through a looking glass or being sucked into a tornado full of dark magic, but here he was in a world where everything was upside down and backward, where lies were celebrated as truths, where truth was unwelcome and unrecognized.
“Come on, Claudette,” Lampton urged, motioning her downstairs. “Come on, Derek. The kitchen. Quick. We’ve got to talk before the police get here. Our stories have to match.”
The boy smirked at Dusty as he trailed his mother, still holding her hand, to the stairs and then down.
Dusty wheeled away from them and back down the hall to Fig, who had stood motionless through the storm.
“Wow,” Fig said.
“You understand Skeet better now?”
“Where’s Valet?” Dusty asked, because the dog was a link to reality, his own Toto, reminding him of a world where wicked witches were not real.
“Bed,” Fig advised, pointing toward the open door of the master-bedroom suite.
The Sheraton bed stood high enough off the floor for Valet to have squeezed under it. He was betrayed by his tail, which trailed beyond the bedspread.
Dusty went around to the farther side of the bed, got down on the floor, lifted the spread, and said, “Got room in there for me?”
Valet whined as if inviting him under for a cuddle.
“They’d find us anyway,” Dusty assured him. “Come out of there, fella. Come here and let me rub your tummy.”
With coaxing, Valet crawled into the open, although he was too spooked to expose his belly even to those he trusted most.
Martie joined Dusty, sitting on the floor with the dog between them. “I’m reconsidering the whole idea of ever having a family. I think maybe this here is as good as it gets—you, me, and Valet.”
The dog seemed to agree.
Martie said, “Driving here, I didn’t think this mess could get any worse, and now look where we are. Neck deep and sinking. I’m numb, you know? I know what happened to Eric, but I don’t feel it yet.”
“Yeah. I’m beyond numb.”
“What are you going to do?”
Dusty shook his head. “I don’t know. What’s the use, though? I mean, the kid’s going to be a hero, right? No matter what I say. Or you. I can see it clear as I’ve ever seen anything. The truth won’t play well enough to be believed.”
“And what about Ahriman?”
“I’m scared, Martie.”
“Who’s going to believe us? It would have been hard enough to get anyone to listen to us before. . . this. But now, with the Lizard and Claudette willing to make up wild stories about us just to muddy the waters. . . If we start talking about brainwashing and programmed suicide, programmed killers . . . that’ll only make their lies about us ring more true.”
“And if someone did burn down our house—Ahriman or someone he sent—it’ll be obvious arson. What’s our alibi?”
Dusty blinked in surprise. “We were in New Mexico.”
He opened his mouth to speak—but closed it without a word.
“If we mention New Mexico, we’re going to get into the Ahriman stuff. And yeah, there’s some substantiation of it—all the things that happened to people out there a long time ago. But how do we get into all that and not risk. . . Zachary and Kevin?”
They stroked the dog in silence for a moment, and finally Dusty said, “I could kill him. I mean, last night, you asked me could I do it, and I said I didn’t know. But now I know.”
“I could do it, too,” she said.
“Kill him, and then it stops.”
“Assuming the institute doesn’t come after us.”
“You heard Ahriman in the office this morning. This wasn’t any part of that. This was personal. And now we know just how personal.”
“You kill him,” she said, “and you’ll spend the rest of your life in prison.”
“Definitely. Because no judge will allow a cockamamie defense like, ‘I killed him because he was a brainwashing fiend.’”
“Then they’ll put me away for ten years in an asylum. That’s better, anyway.”
“Not unless they put the two of us in the same asylum.”
Valet raised his head and looked at them as if to say three.
Someone was running in the upstairs hall, and it proved to be Fig Newton when he burst into the room, his glasses askew and his face more red than usual. “Skeet.”
“What about him?” Martie asked, thrusting to her feet.
Dusty was on his feet, too. “Damn it, Fig, enough telegraphy already. Talk!”
Nodding, Fig stretched himself: “Took the gun off the dead man. And one of the full magazines. Took the Lexus. Said none of you was safe until he did it.”
To Dusty, Martie said, “Tell the cops, let them stop him?”
“Tell them he’s on his way to shoot a prominent citizen, armed with a machine pistol? In a stolen car? Skeet’s as good as dead if we do that.”
“Then we have to get there ahead of him,” she said. “Fig, you watch out for Valet. There’re people around here might kill him just for the fun of it.”
“Don’t feel too safe myself,” Fig said.
“Do the others know where Skeet’s gone?”
“No. Don’t yet know he’s gone at all.”
“You tell them he popped pills earlier today and now suddenly got funny. Took the gun and said he was going up to Santa Barbara, settle with some people for selling him bad dope.”
“Doesn’t sound like Skeet. Too macho.”
“Lampton will love it. Helps muddy the waters.”
“What happens when I lie to cops?”
“You don’t say a word to the cops. You’re good at that. You just tell Lampton, and he’ll do the rest. And tell him we went after Skeet. To Santa Barbara.”
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