Dr. Closterman didn’t live on one of the interior streets, but along the waterfront. They parked near the end of Marine Avenue and, with Valet, walked out to the paved promenade that surrounded the island and that was separated from the harbor by a low seawall.
Before they found Closterman’s house, one hour to the minute after her previous seizure, Martie was hit by a wave of autophobia. This was another endurable assault, as low-key as the previous three, but she couldn’t walk under the influence of it, couldn’t even stand.
They sat on the seawall, waiting for the attack to pass.
Valet was patient, neither cringing nor venturing forth to sniff out a potential friend when a man walked past with a Dalmatian.
The tide was coming in. Wind chopped the usually calm harbor, slapping wavelets against the concrete seawall, and the reflected lights of the harborside houses wriggled across the rippled water.
Sailing yachts and motor vessels, moored at the private docks, wallowed in their berths, groaning and creaking. Halyards and metal fittings clinked against steel masts.
When Martie’s seizure passed quickly, she said, “I saw a dead priest with a railroad spike in his forehead. Briefly, thank God, not like earlier today when I couldn’t clear my head of crap like that. But where does this stuff come from?”
“Someone put it there.” Against the counsel of the insistent inner voice, Dusty said, “Abriman put it there.”
With her unanswered question blown out across the harbor, they set out again in search of Dr. Closterman.
None of the houses on the island was higher than three stories, and charming bungalows huddled next to huge showplaces. Closterman lived in a cozy-looking two-story with gables, decorative shutters, and window boxes filled with English primrose.
When he answered the door, the barefoot physician was wearing tan cotton pants, with his belly slung over the waistband, and a T-shirt advertising Hobie surfboards.
At his side was a black Labrador with big, inquisitive eyes.
“Charlotte,” Dr. Closterman said by way of introduction.
Valet was usually shy around other dogs, but let off his leash, he immediately went nose-to-nose with Charlotte, tail wagging. They circled each other, sniffing, whereafter the Labrador raced across the foyer and up the stairs, and Valet bounded wildly after her.
“It’s all right,” Roy Closterman said. “They can’t knock over anything that hasn’t been knocked over before.”
The physician offered to take their coats, but they held on to them because Dusty was carrying the Colt in one pocket.
In the kitchen, from a large pot of spaghetti sauce rose the mouthwatering fragrance of cooking meatballs and sausages.
Closterman offered a drink to Dusty, coffee to Martie—”unless you’ve taken no more Valium”—and poured coffees at their request.
They sat at the highly polished pine table while the physician seeded and sliced several plump yellow peppers.
“I was going to feel you out a little bit,” Closterman said, “before deciding how frank to be with you. But I’ve decided, what the hell, no reason to be coy. I admired your father immensely, Martie, and if you’re anything like him, which I believe you are, then I know I can rely on your discretion.”
“Ahriman,” Closterman said, “is a narcissistic as**ole. That’s not opinion. It’s such a provable fact, they should be required by law to include it in the author’s bio on his book jackets.”
He glanced up from the peppers to see if he had shocked them— and smiled when he saw they were not recoiling. With his white hair, jowls, extra chins, dewlaps, and smile, he was a beardless Santa.
“Have you read any of his books?” he asked.
“No,” Dusty said. “Just glanced at the one you sent.”
“Worse than the usual pop-psych shit. Learn to Love Yourself Mark Ahriman never had to learn to love Mark Ahriman. He’s been infatuated with himself since birth. Read the book, you’ll see.”
“Do you think he’s capable of creating personality disorders in his patients?” Martie asked.
“Capable? It wouldn’t surprise me if half of what he cures are conditions he created in the first place.”
The implications of that response were, to Dusty, breathtaking. “We think Martie’s friend, the one we mentioned this morning—”
“Her name was Susan Jagger,” Martie said. “I’ve known her since we were ten. She killed herself last night.”
Martie shocked the physician as the physician had not succeeded in shocking them. He put down the knife and turned away from the yellow peppers, wiping his hands on a small towel. “Your friend.”
“We found her body this afternoon,” Dusty elaborated.
Closterman sat at the table and took one of Martie’s hands in both of his. “And you thought she was getting better.”
“That’s what Dr. Ahriman told me yesterday.” Dusty said, “We have reason to think that Martie’s autophobia— as we now know it’s called—isn’t naturally occurring.”
“I went with Susan to his office twice a week for a year,” she explained. “And I’ve begun to discover. . . odd memory lapses.”
Sun-seared, windburnt, with permanent dashes of red in the corners, the doctor’s eyes were nevertheless more kind than damaged. He turned Martie’s hand over in his and studied her palm. “Here’s everything important I can tell you about the slick sonofabitch.”
He was interrupted when Charlotte raced into the kitchen with a ball in her mouth, Valet on her heels. The dogs slid on the tile floor and shot out of the room as pell-mell as they had entered.
Closterman said, “Toilet training aside, dogs can teach us more than we can teach them. Anyway, I do a little pro bono work. I’m no saint. Lots of doctors do more. My volunteer work involves abused children. I was battered as a child. Didn’t scar me. I could waste time hating the guilty. . . or leave them to the law and to God, and use my energy to help the innocent. Anyway. . . remember the Ornwahl case?”
The Ornwahl family had operated a popular preschool in Laguna Beach for over twenty years. Every opening in their classrooms led to heated competition among parents of potential enrollees.
Two years ago, the mother of a five-year-old preschooler filed a complaint with the police, accusing members of the Ornwahl family of sexually abusing her daughter, and claiming that other children had been used in group sex and satanic rituals. In the hysteria that ensued, other parents of Ornwahl students interpreted every oddity in their kids’ behavior as an alarming emotional reaction to abuse.
“I had no connections with the Ornwahls or with families whose children attended the school,” Roy Closterman said, “so I was asked to perform pro bono examinations of the kids for Child Protective Services and the D.A.’s office. They were getting pro bono work from a psychiatrist, too. He was interviewing Ornwahl preschoolers to determine if they could give convincing accounts of abuse.”
“Dr. Ahriman,” Martie guessed.
Roy Closterman got up from the table, fetched the coffeepot, and refreshed their cups.
“We had a meeting to coordinate various aspects of the medical side of the Ornwahl investigation. I instantly disliked Ahriman.”
A twinge of self-reproach caused Dusty to shift uneasily in his chair. That persistent inner voice shamed him for his disloyalty to the psychiatrist, for even listening to this negativity.
“And when he mentioned offhandedly that he was using hypnotic-regression therapy to help some kids revisit possible incidents of abuse,” Closterman said, “all my alarm bells went off.”
“Isn’t hypnosis an accepted therapeutic technique?” Martie asked, perhaps echoing her own inner counselor.
“Less and less so. A therapist without finesse can easily, unwittingly implant false memories. Any hypnotized subject is vulnerable. And if the therapist has an agenda and isn’t ethical. .
“Do you think Ahriman had an agenda in the Ornwahl case?”
Instead of answering the question, Closterman said, “Children are highly susceptible to suggestion, even without hypnosis. Study after study has shown they’ll ‘remember’ what they think a persuasive therapist wants them to remember. Interviewing them, you have to be very cautious to avoid leading their testimony. And any so-called repressed memories recovered from a child under hypnosis are virtually worthless.”
“You raised this issue with Ahriman?” Martie asked.
Resuming his work with the yellow peppers, Closterman said, “I raised it—and he was a condescending, arrogant prick. But smooth. He’s a good politician. Every concern I raised, he answered, and no one else in the investigation or the prosecution shared my concerns. Oh, the poor damn doomed Ornwahl family didn’t like it, but this was one of those cases when mass hysteria subverts due process.”
“Did your examinations of the children turn up any physical evidence of abuse?” Dusty asked.
“None. There’s not always physiological evidence of rape with older children. But these were preschoolers, small children. If some of the things claimed to’ve been done to them actually had been done, I’d almost certainly have found tissue damage, scarring, and chronic infections. Ahriman was turning up all these stories of satanic sex and torture—but I couldn’t find one scintilla of medical backup.”
Five members of the Ornwahl family had been indicted, and the preschool had nearly been torn apart in the search for clues.
“Then,” Closterman said, “I was approached by someone aware of my opinion of Ahriman. . . and told that before all this started, he’d been treating the sister of the woman who accused the Omwahls.”
“Shouldn’t Ahriman have disclosed that connection?” Dusty asked.
“Absolutely. So I went to the D.A. The woman, it turns out, was the sister of the accuser, but Ahriman claimed he’d never been aware of their relationship.”
“You didn’t believe him?”
“No. But the D.A. did—and kept him on board. Because if they had admitted Ahriman was tainted, they couldn’t have used any of his interviews with the kids. In fact, any stories the children told him would have to be treated as coerced or even induced memories. They wouldn’t be worth spit in court. The prosecution’s case depended on unwavering belief in Ahriman’s integrity.”
“I don’t recall reading any of this in the papers,” Martie said.
“I’m getting to that,” Closterman promised.
His knife work at the cutting board grew less precise, more aggressive, as if he were not slicing just yellow peppers.
“My information was that Ahriman’s patient was often brought to his office by the sister, by the woman who had accused the Ornwahls.”
“Like I took Susan,” Martie noted.
“If that were true, then there was no way he couldn’t have met her at least once. But I didn’t have proof, just hearsay. Unless you want to be sued for defamation of character, you don’t go ranting in public about a man like Ahriman until you’ve got the evidence.”
Earlier in the day, in his office, Closterman had tried a frown, which hadn’t worked on his balloon-round features. Now anger overcame facial geometry, and a hard scowl fit where a frown had not.
“I didn’t know how to get that proof. I’m no doctor detective like on TV. But I thought. . . Well, let’s see if there’s anything in the bastard’s past. It did seem odd that he’d made big moves twice in his career. After more than ten years in Santa Fe, he’d jumped to Scottsdale, Arizona. And after seven years there, he came here to Newport. Generally speaking, successful doctors don’t throw over their practices and move to new cities on a whim.”
Closterman finished cutting the peppers into strips. He rinsed the knife, dried it, and put it away.
“I asked around the medical community, to see if anyone might know someone who practices in Santa Fe. This cardiologist friend of mine had a friend from med school who settled in Santa Fe, and he made introductions. Turns out this doctor in Santa Fe actually knew Ahriman when he was out there. . . and didn’t like him a damn bit more than I do. And then the kicker.. . there was a big sexual abuse case at a preschool out there, and Ahriman did the interviews of the children, like he did here. Questions were raised then, too, about his techniques.”
Dusty’s stomach had soured, and though he didn’t think that the coffee had anything to do with it, he pushed his cup aside.
“One of the children, a five-year-old girl, committed suicide as the trial was starting,” Roy Closterman said. “A five-year-old. Left a pathetic picture she’d drawn of a girl like her.. . kneeling before a na*ed man. The man was anatomically correct.”
“Dear God,” Martie said, pushing her chair back from the table. She started to get up, had nowhere to go, and sat down again.
Dusty wondered if the five-year-old girl’s body would flicker through Martie’s mind in grisly detail during her next panic attack.
“The case might as well have gone to jury right then, because the defendants were as good as cooked. The Santa Fe prosecutor obtained convictions across the board.”
The physician took a bottle of beer from the refrigerator and twisted off the cap.
“Bad things happen to good people when they’re around Dr. Mark Ahriman, but he always comes out looking like a savior. Until the Pastore murders in Santa Fe. Mrs. Pastore, perfectly nice woman, never known to have a bad word for anyone or a moment of instability in her life, suddenly loads a revolver and decides to kill her family. Starts by blowing away her ten-year-old son.”
This story fed Martie’s fear of her own violent potential, and now she had somewhere to go. She rose from the table, went to the sink, turned on the water, pumped liquid soap from a dispenser, and vigorously washed her hands.
Although Martie hadn’t said a word to Dr. Closterman, he didn’t appear to find her actions either forward or peculiar.
“The boy was a patient of Ahriman’s. He was a severe stutterer. There was some suspicion that Ahriman and the mother had been having an affair. And a witness placed Ahriman at the Pastore house the night of the murders. In fact, standing outside the house, watching the carnage through an open window.”
“Watching?” Martie said, pulling paper towels off a wall-mounted roll. “Just. . . watching?”
“As if it were a sporting event,” Roy Closterman said. “Like... he went there because he knew it was going to happen.”
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