By the time Dusty and Martie reached the foyer, clambered around the body and the overturned sideboard, and reached the front porch, with Lampton and Claudette shouting behind them, Dusty could hear sirens in the distance.
They cleared the driveway, turned south on the highway, and went more than a mile before they saw the first black-and-white racing north toward the Lampton house.
Neck deep and sinking.
In his fourteenth-floor office, the doctor worked on his current book, polishing an amusing anecdote about a phobic patient whose fear of food had caused her to drop from one hundred forty pounds to just eighty-six, where she’d hovered near death for many days before he discovered the key to her condition and cured her with no time to spare. Her entire story wasn’t amusing, of course, but rather dark and dramatic, just the right stuff to ensure him a long segment on Dateline, with the grateful patient, when the time came to promote; however, here and there in the gloom were bright moments of humor and even one knee-slapping hilarity.
He wasn’t able to concentrate on his work as intensely as usual, because his mind kept straying to Malibu. After calculating the time Eric would need to visit the self-storage yard and drive all the way to the Lamptons’ house, he decided that the first shot would be fired at approximately a quarter to one, perhaps as late as one o’clock.
He was also distracted, although not much, by thoughts of the Keanuphobe, who had not yet phoned. He wasn’t concerned. She would call soon. Few people were more reliable than obsessives and phobics.
The .380 Beretta lay on the near-right corner of his desktop, within easy reach.
He did not expect that the Keanuphobe would rappel down from the roof and crash through his aerie window, carrying a submachine gun and lobbing grenades, but he didn’t underestimate her, either. Over the years, the toughest women he’d ever encountered were attired in stylish but conservative St. John knit suits and Ferragamo shoes. Many of them had been the wives of long-married, older studio heads and power agents; they looked as Brahmin as any Boston dowager whose family tree had roots deep under Plymouth Rock, were refined and aristocratic—but nevertheless would eat your heart for lunch, with your kidneys in a mousse on the side, accompanied by a glass of fine Merlot.
Able to order in from a deli that believed in the righteousness of mayonnaise, butter solids, and animal fat in all forms, the doctor was content to have lunch at his desk. He ate with the blue bag near his plate, its neck crimped and angled jauntily. He wasn’t offended by the knowledge of its contents, because it was a cheerful reminder of the condition in which Derek Lampton’s body would be found by the police.
By one-fifteen, lunch finished, he had cleared his desk of deli plates and wrappings, but he had not resumed composing the bulimia anecdote for his book. On his Corinthian-leather blotter with faux-ivory inlays, the blue bag stood alone.
Regrettably, he could not enjoy Lampton’s humiliation firsthand, and unless one of the sleazier tabloids did its job well, he wasn’t likely to see even one satisfying picture. Photographs of uncapped skulls stuffed full of ordure were not rushed into print by The New York Times or even by USA Today.
Fortunately, the doctor had a good imagination. With the blue bag before him for inspiration, he had no trouble painting the most vivid and entertaining mind pictures.
By one-thirty, he assumed Eric Jagger had completed the shooting and was busy—perhaps nearly finished—with the amateur craniotomy. When he closed his eyes, the doctor could hear the rhythmic rasp of the cranial blade. Considering the density of bone mass in Lampton’s skull, sending a spare blade had been a wise decision. In the event that the Lamptons didn’t have a dog, he hoped Eric’s dietary regimen included a high-fiber cereal every morning.
His greatest regret was that he had not been able to play out his original game plan, in which Dusty, Skeet, and Martie would have tortured and killed Claudette and the two Dereks. Before committing suicide, Dusty, Skeet, and Martie would have written a long statement accusing the elder Derek and his wife of horrendous physical abuse of Skeet and Dusty when they were children, and of repeated Rohypnol-facilitated rapes of Martie and of Susan Jagger, whom Ahriman might even have chosen to include as part of the killing team if she hadn’t gotten clever with a video camera. The death toll would have been seven, plus housekeepers and visiting neighbors, if any, which was by Ahriman’s calculations the minimum magnitude of slaughter necessary to attract the attention of the national media—although with Derek’s reputation as a pop-psych guru, seven deaths would receive as much coverage as a bomb blast that killed two hundred but that produced no celebrity among the casualties.
Well, although the game had been played with less grace than he would have preferred, he took satisfaction in winning. With no way to take possession of Derek Lampton’s brain, perhaps he would have the blue bag vacuum-sealed in Lucite as a symbolic trophy.
Although Skeet’s thought processes had grown clearer and more efficient during the past two drug-free days, he still didn’t have the mental acuity needed to manage a nuclear power plant or even to be trusted to sweep the floors of one. Fortunately, he was aware of this, and he intended to think carefully through each step of his attack on Dr. Ahriman during his drive from Malibu to Newport Beach.
He was also an emotional mess, frequently breaking into tears, even sobbing. Operating a motor vehicle with badly blurred vision was particularly dangerous along the Pacific Coast Highway during the rainy season, because sudden massive mudslides and dislodged boulders the size of semitrucks tumbling onto the roadway required drivers to have the reflexes of a wired cat. Worse, the early-afternoon traffic on the freeway was southbound at eighty miles per hour, in spite of a legal limit of sixty-five, and uncontrollable sobbing at that speed could have cataclysmic consequences.
His chest and belly were sore from the impact of four Keviararrested bullets. Painful cramps twisted his stomach, unrelated to the bruising, born of stress and fear. He had a migraine, which he always had after seeing his mother, whether or not anyone was shot with a crossbow during the visit.
His heartache, however, was worse than any of the physical pains that he suffered. Dusty and Martie’s house was gone, and he felt as if his own house had been burned to the ground. They were the best people in the world, Martie and Dusty, the best. They didn’t deserve such trouble. Their terrific little house gone in flames, Susan dead, Eric dead, living in fear.
More heartache assailed him when he thought of himself as a baby, his mother standing over him with a pillow in her hands, his own beautiful mother. When Dusty called her on it, she didn’t even deny that she’d been going to kill him. He knew he was a total screwup as an adult, had been a screwup as a kid, but now it seemed to him that he must have been such an obvious screwup-waiting-tohappen even as an infant that his own mother had felt justified in smothering him while he slept in his crib.
He didn’t want- to be such a screwup. He wanted to do the right thing, and he wanted to do well, to have his brother, Dusty, be proud of him, but he always lost his way without realizing he was losing it. He also realized he caused Dusty a lot of heartache, too, which made him feel worse.
With chest pain, belly pain, serial stomach cramps, migraine, heartache, blurred vision, and eighty-mile-per-hour traffic to keep him distracted, worried as well because his driver's license had been revoked years ago, he arrived in Newport Beach, in the parking lot behind Ahriman’s office building, shortly before three o’clock in the afternoon, without having carefully thought out any step of his attack on Dr. Ahriman.
“I’m a total screwup,” he said.
Screwup that he was, the chances that he would make it across the parking lot, up to the fourteenth floor, into Ahriman’s office, and successfully execute the bastard were too small to be calculated. Like trying to weigh the hair on a flea’s ass.
He did have one thing going for him. If he defied all the odds and managed to shoot the psychiatrist, he would probably not go to prison for the rest of his life, as Dusty or Martie surely would if either of them pulled the trigger. Considering his colorful record of rehab, a foot-tall stack of unflattering psychiatric evaluations, and his history of pathological meekness rather than violence, Skeet would probably end up in a mental institution, with a hope of being released one day, supposing that there was anything left of him after another fifteen years of massive drug therapy.
The pistol had a long magazine, but he was still able to tuck it under his belt and cover it with his sweater. Fortunately, the sweater was meant to be baggy; it was even baggier than intended, because he had bought it years ago, and after his continued weight loss, it was now two sizes too large.
He got out of the Lexus, remembering to take the keys with him. If he left them in the ignition, someone might steal the car, perhaps making him an accessory to grand theft auto. When his name was all over the newspapers and people were looking at him being arrested on TV, he didn’t want them thinking that he was the type of person to be involved in car theft. He’d never stolen a penny in his life.
The sky was blue. The day was mild. There was no wind, and he was grateful for the calm, because he felt as if a stiff breeze might have blown him away.
He walked back and forth in front of the car, staring down at his sweater, cocking his head to one side and then the other, trying to detect the outline of the pistol from various angles. The weapon was completely concealed.
Hot tears welled again, just as he was ready to march into the building and do the deed, and so he walked back and forth, blotting his eyes on the sleeves of his sweater. A security guard was likely to be posted in the lobby. Skeet realized that a gaunt, gray-faced man in clothes two sizes too large for him, sobbing his eyes out, was likely to arouse suspicion.
One row in front of where Skeet had parked the Lexus and a few spaces to the north, a woman got out of a white Rolls-Royce and stood beside it, staring openly at him. His eyes were now dry enough to allow him to see that she was a nice-looking blond lady, very neat, in a pink knit suit, obviously a successful person and good citizen. She didn’t appear to be the rude type who would stand and stare at a perfect stranger, so he figured he must look as suspicious as if he were wearing bandoliers of ammunition and openly carrying an assault rifle.
If this lady in the pink suit found him alarming, the security guard would probably spray him with Mace, shock him with a Taser, and club him to the floor the moment he walked through the door into the lobby. He was going to screw up again.
He couldn’t bear the thought of failing Dusty and Martie, the only people who had ever loved him, really loved him, in his entire life. If he couldn’t do this for them, he might as well pull the gun out from under his sweater and shoot himself in the head right now.
He was no more capable of suicide than he was capable of theft. Well, except for jumping off the Sorensons’ roof on Tuesday. From what he understood, however, that might not have been his own idea.
Under the scrutiny of the lady in pink, pretending not to notice her, trying to appear far too happy and too pleased with life to be a crazed gunman, whistling “What a Wonderful World,” because it was the first thing that came to his mind, he crossed the parking lot to the office building and went inside, never looking back.
The doctor was not accustomed to having his schedule imposed by others, and he grew increasingly annoyed with the Keanuphobe for not calling sooner rather than later. He had no doubt she would respond to the evil-computer fantasy he had provided to her; her obsession allowed no other course of action. Apparently, however, the twit was without a shred of courtesy, without appreciation for the value of other people’s time: the typical nouveau-riche clod.
Unable to concentrate on writing but unable to leave his office and go play, he contented himself with making haiku out of the humble material before him.
My little blue bag. My Beretta, seven rounds. Should I shoot the shit? That was ghastly. Seventeen syllables, yes, and technically adequate in every regard. Nonetheless, he had never seen a better example of why technical adequacy was not the explanation for William Shakespeare's immortality.
My gun, seven shots. My little Keanuphobe. Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill. Equally ghastly but more satisfying.
The security guard, twice Skeet’s size and wearing clothes that fit him, sat behind the counter at the information station. He was reading a book, and he never glanced up.
Skeet checked the directory to locate Ahriman’s office, went to the elevators, pressed the call button, and stared straight ahead at the doors. He figured that the guard, a highly trained professional, would immediately sense anyone staring worriedly at him.
One of the elevators arrived swiftly. Three birdlike elderly women and three tall handsome Sikhs in turbans exited the cab; the two groups headed in different directions.
Already stressed out and fearful, Skeet was rattled by the sight of the old ladies and the Sikhs. As he had learned from Fig during the previous thirty-six hours, the numbers three and six were somehow key to understanding why extraterrestrials were secretly on Earth, and here was three twice and six once. Not a good omen.
Two people followed Skeet onto the elevator. A United Parcel Service deliveryman wheeled in a hand truck on which were stacked three boxes. Behind him came the woman in the pink suit.
Skeet had pushed the button for the fourteenth floor. The UPS man tapped the button for the ninth floor. The lady in pink didn’t press anything.
Entering the building, Dusty at once spotted Skeet getting into an elevator at the farther end of the lobby. Martie saw him, too.
He wanted to shout at his brother, but a guard sat nearby, and the last thing they needed was to attract the attention of building security.
They hurried without running. The cab doors slid shut before they were halfway across the lobby.
None of the other three elevators was at the ground floor. Two were ascending, two descending. Of the two headed down, the nearest was at the fifth floor.
“Stairs?” Martie asked.
“Fourteen floors. No.” He pointed to the indicator board, as the elevator on the fifth floor moved down to the fourth. “This'll be faster.”
The deliveryman got off at the ninth floor, and when the doors slid shut, the lady in pink pushed the stop button.
“You’re not dead,” she said.
“You were shot four times in the chest last night on the beach, but here you are.”
Skeet was amazed. “You were there?”
“As I’m sure you know.”
“No, really, I didn’t see you there.”
“Why aren’t you dead?”