They stayed that night with Martie’s mother, who set out home-baked bread and homemade vegetable soup for them, and by the time they returned to the hospital Saturday morning, Skeet’s condition was upgraded from critical to serious.
How big the story would eventually become in the national news was foreshadowed by the fact that two TV crews and three print journalists were already camped out at the hospital, waiting for Martie and Dusty to appear.
Armed with a warrant, the police required three days to conduct a thorough search of Mark Ahriman’s vast house. Initially, nothing stranger turned up than the psychiatrist’s enormous collection of toys, and halfway through the first day, the investigation seemed as though it might founder.
The sprawling mansion featured an elaborate automated-house system. Police officers with specialized computer knowledge cracked the privacy code, which previously ensured that only Ahriman enjoyed full access to every aspect of the system; soon they discovered the existence of six hidden safes of various sizes.
Once combinations were decoded, the first safe—in the lace-wood study—proved to contain only financial records.
The second, in the sitting room of the master suite, was larger and held five handguns, two fully automatic machine pistols, and an Uzi carbine. None were registered to Mark Ahriman, and none could be traced to any licensed gun dealer.
The third safe was a small box cleverly concealed in the master bedroom fireplace. Therein, police discovered yet another handgun, a ten-shot Taurus PT-111 Millennium with an empty magazine, which appeared to have been fired recently.
Of greater interest both to criminologists and to film buffs was the second item in this box: a vacuum-sealed jar containing two human eyes in a chemical fixative. A gummed label on the lid bore a neatly hand-printed haiku.
Father’s eyes, my jar
Hollywood’s great king of tears.
The media squall became a media storm.
Dusty and Martie could no longer stay at Sabrina’s house, which was for days thereafter under siege by newsmen.
On the third day, the police found a trove of videotapes stored in a vault that was not included in the list of safes known to the house computer. A contractor had come forward to report that he had bootlegged this bit of construction for Dr. Ahriman subsequent to the psychiatrist’s purchase of the house. The tapes were the doctor’s prized mementos, the record of his most dangerous games, including the candid video of Susan and her tormentor, shot from the potted ming tree in her bedroom.
The media storm became a media hurricane.
Ned Motherwell ran the business, while Martie and Dusty lived for a while with a series of friends, staying one step ahead of the microphones and cameras.
The only story that displaced the Ahriman extravaganza from the top of the nightly news was the insane attack on the President of the United States at a Bel Air fund-raiser, and the subsequent shooting to death of the megastar assailant by those outraged Secret Service agents who weren’t otherwise occupied with recovering and preserving the nose. Within twenty-four hours, when the discovery was made that the megastar had known Mark Ahriman and had in fact recently been a patient at a drug-rehab clinic partly owned by Ahriman, the media hurricane became the storm of the century.
Eventually, the storm blew itself out, because it is in the character of these strange times that any outrage, regardless of its unprecedented dimensions and horror, is inevitably followed by another outrage more novel and more shocking still.
By late spring, Skeet was finished with physical rehabilitation and fleshed out as he had not been in years. The lady in pink, at her instigation and without threat of suit, settled upon Skeet the sum of one and three-quarter-million dollars, after taxes, and with his health restored, he decided to take a few months off from housepainting to travel and consider his options.
Together, Skeet and Fig Newton had planned an itinerary that would take them first to Roswell, New Mexico, and thereafter to other points of interest on the UFO trail. Now that Skeet’s driving privileges had been restored, he and Fig would be able to spell each other at the wheel of Skeet’s new motor home.
Because the pink lady contended that she had been brainwashed by Mark Ahriman and subjected to sexual depravities, she resorted to a plea of self-defense. Skeet, she claimed, had unfortunately gotten in the way of her first shot. After furious debate and tumult in the district attorney’s office, she was charged with manslaughter and released on bail. By summer, the smart money was betting that she would never stand trial. If indeed she were hauled into court, what jury of her peers would ever find her guilty after her moving appearance on the talk show of all talk shows, at the end of which Oprah had embraced her and said, “You are an inspiration, girl,” while an entire audience had wept uncontrollably.
Derek Lampton, the younger, was a hero for a week and appeared on the national news, giving archery demonstrations. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Junior said, “An astronaut,” which seemed not in the least childish, for he was a straight 4.0 student with a flair for the sciences and already a student pilot.
By midsummer, the Bellon-Tockland Institute in Santa Fe had been cleared of any involvement with Mark Ahriman’s bizarre experiments in mind control. The belief that he had worked at the institute or had been associated with it in any way was disproved beyond contention. “He was a sociopath,” noted the institute’s director, “and a pathetic narcissist, a pop-psych lightweight who wanted to legitimize himself by claiming to be involved with this prestigious institution and its great work for world peace.” Although the nature of the institute’s research was described in various ways by the media, no reportage from that in The New York Times to that in the National Enquirer could make it comprehensible.
Martie canceled her contract to design a new video game based on The Lord of the Rings. She still loved Tolkien, but she felt the need to do something real. Dusty offered her a job painting houses, and she took him up on it for a while. The work was real enough to leave a delicious ache in her muscles, and it gave her time to think.
The surgery on the president’s nose was successful.
Ned Motherwell sold three haiku to a literary magazine.
The two lottery tickets were losers.
From time to time during the summer, Martie and Dusty visited three cemeteries, where Valet loved to explore among the stones. In the first, they brought flowers to Smilin’ Bob. In the second, they brought flowers to Susan and Eric Jagger. In the third, they brought flowers to Dominique, the half sister whom Dusty had never known.
Claudette claimed to have lost the only picture ever taken of her infant daughter. Perhaps that was true. Or perhaps she didn’t want Dusty to have it.
Each time that Dusty described Dominique’s sweet, gentle face as he recalled it from that photograph, Martie wondered if that baby, allowed to live, might have redeemed Claudette. By providing care and protection for one so innocent, perhaps Claudette would have found herself transformed, taught the meaning of compassion and humility. Though it was difficult to imagine that a Down’s child, conceived by the unholy union of Ahriman and Dusty’s mother, could be a blessing in disguise, the universe was full of even stranger patterns that seemed, when considered in detail, to have meaning.
In late July, in its one hundredth week on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, Learn to Love Yourself was still riding high at the number five position.
In early August, Skeet and Fig called from Oregon, where they had taken a photograph of Big Foot, which they were sending along by express mail.
The photo was blurry but intriguing.
By late summer, Martie decided to keep the inheritance that had been granted to her by Susan Jagger’s will. After liquidation of the assets, including the sale of the house on Balboa Peninsula, the sum was substantial. Initially, she had not wanted a penny; it felt like blood money. Then she realized that she could use it to realize the dream that she had cherished as a child, wind back the clock and take the road in life from which she had turned away for all the wrong reasons. Susan would never have the chance to wind back the clock and be the violinist that she had dreamed of being when she was a girl, so it seemed real and true to Martie that from this gift born of death should come a life set right.
Because Martie was a diligent student, not too many years passed before they celebrated her graduation from veterinary school and the near-simultaneous opening of her animal hospital and rescue shelter for abused cats and dogs. Not much was left of the inheritance, but not much was needed. With luck, her veterinary practice would pay for the rescue operation, with enough left over to bring as much home as Dusty cleared from painting houses.
The party was held at their home in Corona Del Mar, which had been rebuilt years ago on the ashes of the old. The new place was identical in every detail to the lost house, including the paint job that Sabrina, though mellow these days, still found “clownlike.”
From Dusty’s family, only Skeet was invited. He came with his wife, Jasmine, and their three-year-old boy, Foster, whom everyone called Chupaflor.
Fig and his wife, Primrose, who was Jasmine’s older sister, brought lots of copies of the latest brochure from the enterprise that Fig and Skeet had launched together. Strange Phenomena Tours was prospering. If you wanted to follow Big Foot’s trail, see the actual sites of the most famous alien abductions in the continental United States, stay in a series of haunted houses, or track Elvis in his peripatetic wanderings across this great country since his supposed death, Strange Phenomena Tours was the only travel agency with the packages that would satisfy your curiosity.
Ned Motherwell came with his girlfriend, Spike, bringing signed copies of his latest book of haiku. As he said, there wasn’t a lot of money in poetry, certainly not enough to be able to stop painting houses for a living, but there was satisfaction in it. Besides, in his daily work, he found his inspiration: The new book was titled Ladders and Brushes.
Luanne Farner, Skeet’s newfound grandmother, whom he had met while on the road with Fig a few years before, traveled all the way from Cascade, Colorado, bringing homemade banana-nut bread. She was a delightful lady, but the best thing was that no one could identify anything about her that was remotely similar to her son, Sam Farner, née Holden Caulfield, the elder.
Roy Closterman and Brian came with their black lab, Charlotte, and there were other dogs aplenty. Three Dog Bakery treats were provided for the four-legged set, and Valet was a generous host, even with the carob biscuits.
Chase and Zina Glyson flew in from Santa Fe, bringing a ristra of red chiles and other Southwest treasures. The ruined reputations of Chase’s mother and father had been restored, and by now not one former student of the Little Jackrabbit School still clung to false memories of abuse.
Late that night, when the guests were gone, the three members of the Rhodes family, with their eight legs and one tail, snuggled in the king-size bed. In recognition of his advanced age, Valet had at last been granted limited furniture privileges, bed being within the limits.
Martie was lying on her back, and Valet was draped across her feet, and she could feel the noble throb of his great heart against her ankles. Dusty lay on his side, close to her, and she was aware of the slow, steady rhythm of his heart, as well.
He kissed her shoulder, and in the silken warm darkness, she said, “If only this could last forever.”
“I’ve got everything I could ever have hoped for, minus one dear friend and a father. But you know what?”
“I love my life not because it’s a dream, but because it’s so real. All our friends, what we do, where we are. . . all so real. Am I making any sense?”
“Plenty,” he assured her.
That night she dreamed of Smilin’ Bob. He was wearing his black turnout coat with the two reflective stripes, but he was not striding through fire. They were walking together in a hillside meadow, under a blue summer sky. He said he was proud of her, and she apologized for not being so very brave as he had been. He insisted that she was brave in all the ways that counted, and that nothing could please him more than the knowledge that for years to come, her good strong hands would bring comfort and healing to the most innocent of this world.
When she woke from this dream in the middle of the night, the presence that she felt, in the darkness, was just as real as Valet snoring, just as real as Dusty at her side.