She put down the magnifying glass. She could do nothing about Honell, but at least she could deal with the spider. She snatched two Kleenex from a box atop her supply cabinet, and in one swift movement she swept up the spinner and its web, crushing both.
She threw the wad of tissues in the waste can.
Though she usually captured a spider when possible and kindly returned it to the outdoors, she had no compunction about the way she had dealt with this one. Indeed, if Honell had been present at that moment, when his hateful attack was still so fresh in her mind, she might have been tempted to deal with him in some manner as quick and violent as the treatment she had accorded the spider.
She returned to her stool, regarded the unfinished canvas, and was suddenly certain what refinements it required. She opened tubes of paint and set out her brushes. That wasn't the first time she had been motivated by an unjust blow or a puerile insult, and she wondered how many artists of all kinds had produced their best work with the determination to rub it in the faces of the naysayers who had tried to undercut or belittle them.
When Lindsey had been at work on the painting for ten or fifteen minutes, she was stricken by an unsettling thought which brought her back to the worries that had preoccupied her before the arrival of the mail and Arts American. Honell and the spider were not the only creatures who had invaded her home uninvited. The unknown killer in sunglasses also had invaded it, in a way, by feedback through the mysterious link between him and Hatch. And what if he was as aware of Hatch as Hatch was of him? He might find a way to track Hatch down and invade their home for real, with the intention of doing far more harm than either the spider or Honell could ever accomplish.
Previously, Hatch had visited Jonas Nyebern in his office at Orange County General, but that Tuesday his appointment was at the medical building off Jamboree Road, where the physician operated his private practice.
The waiting room was remarkable, not for its short-nap gray carpet and standard-issue furniture, but for the artwork on its walls. Hatch was surprised and impressed by a collection of high-quality antique oil paintings portraying religious scenes of a Catholic nature: the passion of St. Jude, the Crucifixion, the Holy Mother, the Annunciation, the Resurrection, and much more.
The most curious thing was not that the collection was worth considerable money. After all, Nyebern was an extremely successful cardiovascular surgeon who came from a family of more than average resources. But it was odd that a member of the medical profession, which had taken an increasingly agnostic public posture throughout the last few decades, should choose religious art of any kind for his office walls, let alone such obvious denominational art that might offend non-Catholics or nonbelievers.
When the nurse escorted Hatch out of the waiting room, he discovered the collection continued along the hallways serving the entire suite. He found it peculiar to see a fine oil of Jesus' agony in Gethsemane hung to the left of a stainless-steel and white-enamel scale, and beside a chart listing ideal weight according to height, age, and sex.
After weighing in and having his blood pressure and pulse taken, he waited for Nyebern in a small private room, sitting on the end of an examination table that was covered by a continuous roll of sanitary paper. On one wall hung an eye chart and an exquisite depiction of the Ascension in which the artist's skill with light was so great that the scene became three-dimensional and the figures therein seemed almost alive.
Nyebern kept him waiting only a minute or two, and entered with a broad smile. As they shook hands, the physician said, “I won't draw out the suspense, Hatch. The tests all came in negative. You've got a clean bill of health.”
Those words were not as welcome as they ought to have been. Hatch had been hoping for some finding that would point the way to an understanding of his nightmares and his mystical connection with the man who had killed the blond punker. But the verdict did not in the least surprise him. He had suspected that the answers he sought were not going to be that easy to find.
“So your nightmares are only that,” Nyebern said, “and nothing more—just nightmares.”
Hatch had not told him about the vision of the gunshot blonde who had later been found dead, for real, on the freeway. As he had made clear to Lindsey, he was not going to set himself up to become a headline again, at least not unless he saw enough of the killer to identify him to the police, more than he'd glimpsed in the mirror last night, in which case he would have no choice but to face the media spotlight.
“No cranial pressure,” Nyebern said, “no chemicoelectrical imbalance, no sign of a shift in the location of the pineal gland—which can sometimes lead to severe nightmares and even waking hallucinations …” He went over the tests one by one, methodical as usual.
As he listened, Hatch realized that he always remembered the physician as being older than he actually was. Jonas Nyebern had a grayness about him, and a gravity, that left the impression of advanced age. Tall and lanky, he hunched his shoulders and stooped slightly to de-emphasize his height, resulting in a posture more like that of an elderly man than of someone his true age, which was fifty. At times there was about him, as well, an air of sadness, as if he had known great tragedy.
When he finished going over the tests, Nyebern looked up and smiled again. It was a warm smile, but that air of sadness clung to him in spite of it. “The problem isn't physical, Hatch.”
“Is it possible you could have missed something?”
“Possible, I suppose, but very unlikely. We—”
“An extremely minor piece of brain damage, a few hundred cells, might not show up on your tests yet have a serious effect.”
“As I said, very unlikely. I think we can safely assume that this is strictly an emotional problem, a perfectly understandable consequence of the trauma you've been through. Let's try a little standard therapy.”
“Do you have a problem with that?”
Except, Hatch thought, it won't work. This isn't an emotional problem. This is real.
“I know a good man, first-rate, you'll like him,” Nyebern said, taking a pen from the breast pocket of his white smock and writing the name of the psychotherapist on the blank top sheet of a prescription pad. “I'll discuss your case with him and tell him you'll be calling. Is that all right?”
“Yeah. Sure. That's fine.”
He wished he could tell Nyebern the whole story. But then he would definitely sound as if he needed therapy. Reluctantly he faced the realization that neither a medical doctor nor a psychotherapist could help him. His ailment was too strange to respond to standard treatments of any kind. Maybe what he needed was a witch doctor. Or an exorcist. He did almost feel as if the black-clad killer in sunglasses was a demon testing his defenses to determine whether to attempt possessing him.
They chatted a couple of minutes about things non-medical.
Then as Hatch was getting up to go, he pointed to the painting of the Ascension. “Beautiful piece.”
“Thank you. It is exceptional, isn't it?”
“Early eighteenth century?”
“Right again,” Nyebern said. “You know religious art?”
“Not all that well. But I think the whole collection is Italian from the same period.”
“That it is. Another piece, maybe two, and I'll call it complete.”
“Odd to see it here,” Hatch said, stepping closer to the painting beside the eye chart.
“Yes, I know what you mean,” Nybern said, “but I don't have enough wall space for all this at home. There, I'm putting together a collection of modern religious art.”
“Is there any?”
“Not much. Religious subject matter isn't fashionable these days among the really talented artists. The bulk of it is done by hacks. But here and there … someone with genuine talent is seeking enlightenment along the old paths, painting these subjects with a contemporary eye. I'll move the modern collection here when I finish this one and dispose of it.”
Hatch turned away from the painting and regarded the doctor with professional interest. “You're planning to sell?”
“Oh, no,” the physician said, returning his pen to his breast pocket. His hand, with the long elegant fingers that one expected of a surgeon, lingered at the pocket, as if he were pledging the truth of what he was saying. “I'll donate it. This will be the sixth collection of religious art I've put together over the past twenty years, then given away.”
Because he could roughly estimate the value of the artwork he had seen on the walls of the medical suite, Hatch was astonished by the degree of philanthropy indicated by Nyebern's simple statement. “Who's the fortunate recipient?”
“Well, usually a Catholic university, but on two occasions another Church institution,” Nyebern said.
The surgeon was staring at the depiction of the Ascension, a distant gaze in his eyes, as if he were seeing something beyond the painting, beyond the wall on which it hung, and beyond the farthest horizon. His hand still lingered over his breast pocket.
“Very generous of you,” Hatch said.
“It's not an act of generosity.” Nyebern's faraway voice now matched the look in his eyes. “It's an act of atonement.”
That statement begged for a question in response, although Hatch felt that asking it was an intrusion of the physician's privacy. “Atonement for what?”
Still staring at the painting, Nyebern said, “I never talk about it.”
“I don't mean to pry. I just thought—”
“Maybe it would do me good to talk about it. Do you think it might?”
Hatch did not answer—partly because he didn't believe the doctor was actually listening to him anyway.
“Atonement,” Nyebern said again. “At first… atonement for being the son of my father. Later … for being the father of my son.”
Hatch didn't see how either thing could be a sin, but he waited, certain that the physician would explain. He was beginning to feel like that party-goer in the old Coleridge poem, waylaid by the distraught Ancient Mariner who had a tale of terror that he was driven to impart to others lest, by keeping it to himself, he lose what little sanity he still retained.
Gazing unblinking at the painting, Nyebern said, “When I was only seven, my father suffered a psychotic breakdown. He shot and killed my mother and my brother. He wounded my sister and me, left us for dead, then killed himself.”
“Jesus, I'm sorry,” Hatch said, and he thought of his own father's bottomless well of anger. “I'm very sorry, Doctor.” But he still did not understand the failure or sin for which Nyebern felt the need to atone.
“Certain psychoses may sometimes have a genetic cause. When I saw signs of sociopathic behavior in my son, even at an early age, I should have known what was coming, should've prevented it somehow. But I couldn't face the truth. Too painful. Then two years ago, when he was eighteen, he stabbed his sister to death—”
“—then his mother,” Nyebern said.
Hatch started to put a hand on the doctor's arm, then pulled back when he sensed that Nyebern's pain could never be eased and that his wound was beyond healing by any medication as simple as consolation. Although he was speaking of an intensely personal tragedy, the physician plainly was not seeking sympathy or the intimacy of friendship from Hatch. Suddenly he seemed almost frighteningly self-contained. He was talking about the tragedy because the time had come to take it out of his personal darkness to examine it again, and he would have spoken of it to anyone who had been in that place at that time instead of Hatch—or perhaps to the empty air itself if no one at all had been present.
“And when they were dead,” Nyebern said, “Jeremy took the same knife into the garage, a butcher knife, secured it by the handle in the vise on my workbench, stood on a stool, and fell forward, impaling himself on the blade. He bled to death.”
The physician's right hand was still at his breast pocket, but he no longer seemed like a man pledging the truth of what he said. Instead, he reminded Hatch of a painting of Christ with the Sacred Heart revealed, the slender hand of divine grace pointing to that symbol of sacrifice and promise of eternity.
At last Nyebern looked away from the Ascension and met Hatch's eyes. “Some say evil is just the consequences of our actions, no more than a result of our will. But I believe it's that—and much more. I believe evil is a very real force, an energy quite apart from us, a presence in the world. Is that what you believe, Hatch?”
“Yes,” Hatch said at once, and somewhat to his surprise.
Nyebern looked down at the prescription pad in his left hand.
He took his right hand away from his breast pocket, tore the top sheet off the pad, and gave it to Hatch. “His name's Foster. Dr. Gabriel Foster. I'm sure he'll be able to help you.”
“Thanks,” Hatch said numbly.
Nyebern opened the door of the examination room and gestured for Hatch to precede him.
In the hallway, the physician said, “Hatch?”
Hatch stopped and looked back at him.
“Sorry,” Nyebern said.
“For explaining why I donate the paintings.”
Hatch nodded. “Well, I asked, didn't I?”
“But I could have been much briefer.”
“I could have just said—maybe I think the only way for me to get into Heaven is to buy my way.”
Outside, in the sun-splashed parking lot, Hatch sat in his car for a long time, watching a wasp that hovered over the red hood as if it thought it had found an enormous rose.
The conversation in Nyebern's office had seemed strangely like a dream, and Hatch felt as if he were still rising out of sleep. He sensed that the tragedy of Jonas Nyebern's death-haunted life had a direct bearing on his own current problems, but although he reached for the connection, he could not grasp it.
The wasp swayed to the left, to the right, but faced steadily toward the windshield as though it could see him in the car and was mysteriously drawn to him. Repeatedly, it darted at the glass, bounced off, and resumed its hovering. Tap, hover, tap, hover, tap-tap, hover. It was a very determined wasp. He wondered if it was one of those species that possessed a single stinger that broke off in the target, resulting in the subsequent death of the wasp. Tap, hover, tap, hover, tap-tap-tap. If it was one of those species, did it fully understand what reward it would earn by its persistence? Tap, hover, tap-tap-tap.