“Yeah? Why didn’t they just walk up to me and say, ‘Hey, lady, some people we know are screwing with your brain, planting auto-phobia in your head and lots more stuff you don’t even know about yet, for reasons you couldn’t even imagine, and we just don’t like it much.’
“Well, let’s say it is some secret government agency, and inside the agency there’s this small faction that’s morally opposed to the project—”
“Opposed to Operation Brainwash Dusty, Skeet, and Martie.”
“Yeah. But they can’t come to us publicly.”
“Why?” she persisted.
“Because they’d be killed. Or maybe it’s just that they’re afraid of being fired and losing their pensions.”
“Morally opposed but not to the extent of losing their pensions. That part sounds creepily real. But the rest of it. . . So they slip me this book. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Then for some reason they seem to program me not to read it.”
Dusty braked to a stop in a backup at a red traffic light. “A little lame, huh?”
“A lot lame.”
They were on a bridge that spanned the channel between Newport Harbor and its back bay. Under the sunless sky, the broad expanse of water was dark gray-green, though not black, with hatching drawn on it by the breeze above and the currents below, so that it looked scaly, like the hide of a fearsome slumbering reptile out of the Jurassic Period.
“But there’s something that isn’t lame,” Martie said, “not in the least lame. Something that’s happening to Susan.”
A grimness in her voice drew Dusty’s attention from the harbor. “What about Susan?”
“She’s missing periods of time, too. Not little pieces, either. Big blocks of time. Whole nights.”
The Valium veil in her eyes had been gradually lifting, that welcome but artificial calm giving way to anxiety once more. At Dr.
Ahriman’s office, the unnatural paleness left her, replaced by peachy color, but now shadows were gathering in the tender skin under her eyes, as though her face were darkening in sympathy with the slowly waning winter afternoon.
Beyond the farther end of the bridge, the red signal changed to green. The traffic began to move.
Martie told him about Susan’s phantom rapist.
Dusty had been worried. He had been frightened. Now a feeling worse than worry or fear wrapped his heart.
Sometimes, when he woke in the abyss of night and lay listening to Martie’s sweet soft breathing, a mortal dread—more terrible than simple fear—crept into him. After one too many glasses of wine at dinner, too much cream sauce, and perhaps a bitter clove of garlic, his mind was as sour as his stomach, and he contemplated the silence of the predawn world without his usual appreciation for the beauty of stillness, hearing no peace in it, hearing instead the threat of the void. In spite of the faith that was his rock through most of his life, a worm of doubt chewed at his heart on these hushed nights, and he wondered if all that he and Martie had together was this one life, and nothing beyond it but a darkness that allowed no memory and was empty even of loneliness. He didn’t want until-death-do-you-part, didn’t want anything short of forever, and when a despairing inner voice suggested that forever was a fraud, he always reached out in the night to touch Martie in her sleep. His intention was not to wake her, only to feel in her what she invariably contained and what was detectable to even his lightest touch: her given grace, her immortality and the promise of his own.
Now, as he listened to Martie recount Susan’s story, Dusty was an apple to the worm of doubt again. Everything that was happening to all of them seemed unreal, meaningless, a glimpse into the chaos underlying life. He was overcome by a feeling that the end, when it arrived, would be only the end, not also a beginning, and he sensed that it was coming fast, too, a cruel and brutal death toward which they were hurtling blindly.
When Martie finished, Dusty handed his cell phone to her. “Try Susan again.”
She placed the call. The number rang and rang. And rang.
“Let’s go see if the retirees downstairs know where she’s gone,” Martie suggested. “It’s not far.”
Ned will be waiting for us. As soon as I pick up what he’s got for me, we’ll go to Susan’s. But for sure, it can’t be Eric creeping around there at night.”
“Because whoever is doing this to her, he’s one of them behind what’s happening to you, me, Skeet.”
“Yeah. And Eric, hell, he’s an investment adviser, a numbers cruncher, not a mind-control wizard.”
Martie keyed Susan’s number in again. She pressed the phone tightly to her ear. Her face was pinched by the strain of wishing fervently for an answer.
Ned Motherwell’s pride was an ‘82 Chevy Camaro: unpainted but with a periodically reapplied coat of flat-gray primer, chopped, fitted with frenched headlights, stripped of brightwork except for a pair of fat chrome tailpipes. Parked in the southeast corner of the shopping-center lot where they had arranged to meet, it looked like a getaway car. As Dusty parked two spaces away, Ned climbed out of the Camaro, and though it was by no definition a subcompact, there seemed to be a lot more of Ned than there was vehicle. He towered over the low, customized car as he closed the door. Although the day was cool and the afternoon fading, he wore only white khakis and a white T-shirt, as usual. If the Camaro ever broke down, he appeared to be capable of carrying it to the garage.
The trees along the periphery of the lot trembled in the wind, and little funnels of dust and litter spun across the pavement, but Ned appeared unaffected by—and even unaware of—the turbulence.
When Dusty lowered his window, Ned looked in past him, smiled, and said, “Hey, Martie.”
“Sorry to hear you’re not feeling well.”
“I’ll live, they say.”
On the phone from Ahriman’s waiting room, Dusty had said that Martie was ill and didn’t feel well enough to go into a pharmacy or a bookstore, and that he didn’t want to leave her alone in the car.
“It’s hard enough working for this guy,” Ned told Martie, “so I imagine how sick you must get living with him. No offense, boss.”
Ned passed a small bag from the pharmacy through the window. It contained the prescription for Valium that Dr. Closterman had phoned in earlier. He also had a larger bag from the bookstore.
“If you’d asked me this morning what haiku is,” Ned said, “I’d have told you it’s some kind of martial art like tae kwon do. But it’s all these chopped poems.”
“Chopped?” Dusty asked, peering into the bag.
“Like my car,” Ned said. “Cut down, streamlined. They’re kind of cool. Bought one book for myself.”
Dusty saw seven collections of haiku in the bag. “So many.”
“They’ve got this long shelf full of the stuff,” Ned said. “For such a little thing, haiku’s big.”
“I’ll cut you a check for all this tomorrow.”
“No hurry. Used my credit card. Won’t come due for a while.”
Dusty passed Martie’s house key through the window to Ned. “Are you sure you’ve got time to take care of Valet?”
“I’m on for it. But I don’t know dogs.”
“Not much to know.” Dusty told him where to find the kibble. “Give him two cups. Then he’ll expect a walk, but just let him into the backyard again for ten minutes, and he’ll do the right thing.”
“Then he’ll be okay in the house alone?”
“As long as he’s got a full water dish and the TV remote, he’ll be happy.”
“My mom is a cat woman,” Ned said. “Not the Catwoman, like in Batman, but she always has a kitty-cat.”
Hearing big Ned say kitty-cat was akin to seeing an NFL fullback break into ballet steps and execute a perfect entrechat.
“Once, a neighbor poisoned an orange tabby my mom really loved. Mrs. Jingles. That was the cat’s name, not the neighbor’s.”
“What kind of person would poison a cat?” Dusty commiserated.
“He was running a crystal-meth lab out of the rental next door,” Ned said. “Piece of human garbage. I broke both his legs, called 911, pretending I was him, said I fell down the stairs, needed help. They sent an ambulance, saw the meth lab, busted his operation.”
“You broke the legs of a drug thug?” Martie said. “Isn’t that risky?”
“Not really. Couple nights later, one of his pals takes a shot at me, but he’s so whacked on speed he misses. I broke both his arms, put him in his car, pushed it over an embankment. Called 911, said I was him, cried for help. They found dirty money and drugs in the car trunk, fixed his arms, and put him away for ten years.”
“All this for a cat?” Dusty wondered.
“Mrs. Jingles was a nice cat. Plus she was my mom’s.”
Martie said, “I feel Valet’s in good hands.”
Smiling, nodding, Ned said, “I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to your puppy.”
On the peninsula, on Balboa Boulevard, a few blocks from Susan’s place, Martie was paging through a haiku collection when she gasped, dropped the book, and huddled forward in the seat, her body clenched as though in pain. “Pull over. Pull over now, hurry, pull over.”
Not pain, fear. That she would seize the wheel. Swing the car into oncoming traffic. The by now familiar the-monster-lurks-in-me blues.
In summer, with the beach crowds, Dusty would probably have had to cruise through an hour-long panic attack to find a parking place. January allowed a quick move to the curb.
On the sidewalk, a few kids whistled past on in-line skates, looking for senior citizens to knock into nursing homes. Bicyclists pumped past on the left, on a quest for death by traffic.
No one showed any interest in Dusty and Martie. That might change if she started screaming again.
He considered how best to restrain her if she began to bash her head against the dashboard. There was no low-risk way to do it. In her panic, she would strenuously resist, try to wrench free, and he would inadvertently hurt her.
“I love you,” he said helplessly.
Then he began to talk to her, just talk quietly, as she rocked in her seat, gasped for breath, and groaned like a woman coping with early labor pains, her panic struggling to be born. He didn’t try to reason with her or coddle her with words, because she already knew how irrational this was. Instead, he talked about their first date.
It had been a fine disaster. He had raved about the restaurant, but in the six weeks since he’d last been there, the ownership had changed. The new chef evidently received his training at the Culinary Institute of Rural Iceland, because the food was cold and every dish had an undertaste of volcanic ash. The busboy spilled a glass of water on Dusty, and Dusty spilled a glass of water on Martie, and their waiter spilled a boat of cream sauce on himself. The fire in the kitchen, during dessert, was minor enough to be doused without the fire department, but major enough to require one busboy, one waiter, the maître d’, and the sous-chef (a large Samoan gentleman) to battle it with four extinguishers—though perhaps they required such an ocean of suppressant foam because they got more of it on one another than on the flames. After leaving the restaurant, starving, over a desperate make-good dinner at a coffee shop, Dusty and Martie had laughed so hard that they were bonded forever.
Neither of them was laughing now, but the bond was stronger than ever. Whether it was Dusty’s quiet talk, the lingering effects of Valium, or Dr. Ahriman’s influence, Martie didn’t descend into a full-fledged panic attack. Within two or three minutes, her fear diminished, and she sat up straight in her seat again.
“Better,” she said. “But I still feel like shit.”
“Birdshit,” he reminded her.
Although nearly an hour of daylight remained, more than half the passing cars, whether going up or down the peninsula, traveled behind headlights. The sludge moving slowly west to east across the sky was ushering in an early and protracted twilight.
Dusty switched on the lights and pulled into a gap in traffic.
“Thanks for that,” Martie said.
“I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Next time, just talk again. Your voice. It grounds me.”
He wondered how long it would be until he could hold her close, without her stiffening in fear, without that glitter of incipient panic in her eyes. How long, if ever?
The grumbling sea tried to shoulder its way out of the deeps and claim the continent, while the wind-coaxed beach spread sandy fingers across the promenade, stealing the pavement.
Three gulls clung to angled perches along the stair railing, sentinels on a sea watch, trying to decide whether to abandon the blustery shore for more-sheltered roosts inland.
As Martie and Dusty climbed the steep stairs to the third-floor landing, the birds took flight, one at a time, each of them surfing eastward on tumbling waves of air. Though gulls are never taciturn, not one of these let out a cry as it departed.
Martie knocked on the door, waited, and knocked again, but Susan didn’t answer.
She used her key to unlock the two dead bolts. She opened the door and called Susan’s name, twice, but received no response.
They scrubbed their shoes on the coarse mat and went inside, closing the door behind them and calling her name again, louder.
Gloom filled the kitchen, but lights were on in the dining room.
“Susan?” Martie repeated, but again she went unanswered.
The apartment was full of conversation, but all the voices were those of the wind talking to itself. Chattering against the cedar-shingled roof. Hooting and jubilant in the eaves. Whistling at any chink and whispering at every window.
Darkness in the living room, all the shades down, drapes drawn. Darkness in the hall, too, but light spilling out of the bedroom, where the door stood wide. A hard fluorescent glow in the bath, the door only half open.
Hesitant, calling for Susan again, Martie went into the bedroom.
Hand on the bathroom door, even before he began to push it open, Dusty knew. The fragrance of rose water unsuccessfully masked an odor that vast trellises of roses could not have defeated.
She was not Susan anymore. Facial swelling from bacterial gas, greening of the skin, eyes goggling from the pressure in the skull, purge fluid draining from nostrils and mouth, that grotesque lolling of the tongue that makes each of us a dog in death: Thanks to the accelerant factor of the hot water in which she had died, she was already reduced by nature’s tiniest civilizations to the stuff of nightmares.
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