Neuropath, Chapter One (Excerpt)

The following is the first chapter in R. Scott Bakker’s book Neuropath, out now from Tor Books. For the cover copy:

Tom’s life is not what it once was. His marriage to the beautiful Nora is on the rocks and he now sees his two young children only on her say-so. His best friend Neil has moved to California to teach neurology. He has one success—a book on human psychology. Tom wiles away the time trying to teach bored grad students. But that all changes when Neil comes back into his life. For it seems that Tom’s best friend was working for the National Security Agency, cracking the minds of suspected terrorists. Now it is Neil himself who has cracked and gone AWOL—what’s more, he has left behind evidence that he has been employing his unique skills on civilians, obsessed with the idea that he can control the human brain….

 

* * *

To my fall 2003 Popular Culture class.
For being honest in the face of complexity,
and for remaining humble in
the shadow of mystery.

Author’s Note:

What follows is a fictional story based on actual trends and discoveries in neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science. Though things have not yet become quite so disturbing, at least this much is clear: we are not what we think we are.

* * *

The grace that saves us from psychiatric diagnosis is nothing more than the sheer good fortune that millions of others happen to share our delusion.
—CORDELIA FINE, A Mind of Its Own

* * * 

ONE

August 17th, 6:05 a.m.

Love dies hard.

Two years they had been divorced, and still he dreamed about her… Nora. As slender as an intake of breath, shining with the light of all those admiring eyes. It had been her day—her day first—and Thomas had made it his own by giving it to her wholly.

The music thumped. The floor swayed with smiles and grand and flabby gestures. The grandfather from North Carolina, shaking his hands like Sunday revival. The cousins from California, wowing the women with their MTV moves. The aunt from WeightWatchers, striking this or that Cosmopolitan pose. The spectators laughed and cheered, continually glanced at the little illuminated screens they held in their palms. Catching his wind at the bar, Thomas watched them all. He beamed as his best man, Neil, broke clear of the fracas to join him. He looked like an actor, Thomas thought, dark- eyed and erratic, like Montgomery Clift celebrating the world’s end.

“Welcome!” Neil cried in a tone meant to cut through the jubilation.

“Welcome to Disney World, old buddy!”

Thomas nodded the way people do when friends say inappropriate things, a kind of reflex affirmation, chin here, eyes over there. He could never leave things alone, Neil. That was what made him Neil, Thomas supposed—what made him extraordinary.

“Give it a rest,” he said.

Neil threw his hands out, as if gesturing to everything in all directions. C’mon. You see it as clearly as I do. Courtship. Pairbonding. Reproduction…” He grinned in a manner that was at once festive and conspiratorial. No man living, it seemed to Thomas, could put so much contradiction into his smile. “This is all just part of the program, Goodbook.”

“Neil…”

“You don’t have an answer, do you?”

Thomas saw Nora making her way toward them, laughing at an uncle’s one- liner, clutching old hands. She had always been beautiful, but now with the pomp and attention she seemed something impossible, ethereal, a vision who would shed her gown for him and only him. He turned to scowl at his friend, to tell him that she—she—was his answer.

His new conclusion.

“Time to grow up, don’t you think? Time to put the Argument behind us.”

“Sure,” Neil said. “Time to sleep.”

Nora danced between them, staggered Thomas by swinging from his arm.

“You guys are freaks!” she cried. She could always tell when they were talking shop, and always knew how to draw them back to the rough ground of more sensible souls. He held her in the rocking way of drunken lovers, laughing so hard he couldn’t speak. Another Tom and Nora giggle session. At parties, people would always comment how only they seemed to get each other’s jokes. Isn’t that what it meant? “Getting” somebody?

They were just on the same drugs, Neil would say.

“Can’t you feel it?” she cried, rolling her eyes out to the drunken yonder. “All these people love us, Tommy! All these people luvluvluvvv—”

The alarm clock crowed as remorseless as a reversing garbage truck. Thomas Bible swatted at it, squinted at the spears of sunlight. He felt like a scrap of something drawn from a forgotten pocket: too crumpled for too long to ever be smoothed. He was hungover—well and truly. Running his tongue over his teeth, he winced at the taste.

He sat hunched for several moments, trying to muster the peace-of-stomach he’d need for the long lurch to the bathroom. Fucking dreams. Why, after all these years, would he dream of his wedding reception? It wasn’t so much the images he resented as the happiness.

He was too old for this shit, especially on a workday—no, even worse, a work-and-kid day. He could already hear Nora’s rebuke, her voice cross and her eyes jubilant: “What’s this I hear…”

The bathroom reeked of whiskey, but at least the toilet lid was down. He flushed without looking, then sat down in the tub and turned on the shower. The embalming water felt good, so much so he actually stood to wash his hair.

Afterward, he pulled on a robe and trundled downstairs, shushing his dog, an affable black Lab named Bartender. He collected the whiskey tumblers and beer bottles on his way through the living room and thought about checking in on the den, but the partially closed door buzzed with awkwardness. Just inside the door, a pair of blue jeans lay crumpled across the carpet, legs pulled inside out. He considered barging in and committing some petty act of vengeance—bellowing like a drill sergeant or jumping up and down on the foldout or something similarly stupid—but decided against it.

The Advil was in the kitchen.

His place was old, one of the original farm houses built long before the rest of the surrounding subdivision. Creaky hardwood floors. Tall ceilings. Smallish rooms. No garage. A concrete porch just big enough for two Mormons. “Cozy,” the real estate agent had said. “Claustrophobic,” Nora had continually complained.

Even still, Thomas had grown to love the place. Over the years he had invested quite a bit of time and money in renovations—enough to make the Century 21 guy right. The kitchen, especially, with its period fixtures and porcelain-rimmed walls, radiated character and homeliness. In the morning sunlight, everything gleamed. The chairs cast ribbed shadows across the tile floor.

Now if only Nora hadn’t taken all the plants.

By the time he started the coffeemaker he was feeling much better—almost human. The power of routine, he supposed. Even half-poisoned, the old brain appreciated routine.

The previous night had been nothing if not crazy.

He wolfed down a couple of stale Krispy Kreme doughnuts with his coffee, hoping to settle his stomach. After sitting for several minutes listening to the fridge hum, he pulled himself to the granite counter and began preparing breakfast. He knew the kids were awake before he heard them. Bart always clicked out of the kitchen and bounded upstairs moments before the muffled cries began. Like all Labs, he adored his tormentors.

“No!” Thomas heard his daughter, Ripley, shriek. Tumbling footsteps along the hallways, then, “No-no-no- no!” all the way down the stairs.

“Dad!” the eight-year-old cried as she barreled into the kitchen. She was thin and willowy in her Donna Duck pajamas, with a pixie face and her grandmother’s long, raven- black hair. She swung into her seat with the strange combination of concentration and abandon that characterized everything she did. “Frankie showed me his you-know-what again!”

Thomas blinked. He’d always been an advocate of early childhood sex education, but he could see why most parents were keen to keep the genie in the bottle for as long as possible. Shame was a lazy parent’s way of teaching discretion. Or so he told himself.

She made a face. “His thing, Daddy. His”—she screwed up her face as if to give the official word an official female expression—“peeenis.”

Thomas could only stare in horror. Dammit, Tom, he could hear Nora say. They need their own rooms. How many times… He called upstairs, wincing at the volume of his own voice. “Frankie! Do you remember what we said about your morning—” He caught himself, looked askance at Ripley. “Your morning… you- know…”

Frankie’s petulant “Yes” floated down from the nethers of the house. He sounded crestfallen.

“Keep your pecker in your pants, son. Please.”

Of course Ripley had been watching closely. “Pecker, Daddy? Eeww!”

Thomas grabbed the bridge of his nose and sighed. Nora was going to kill him.

No shame, he told himself. The world was lesson enough. Ripley was already fretting over what clothes to wear, talking about how L’Oreal was better than CoverGirl was better than what ever. Soon they would wince at photographs of themselves, at the sound of their voices on the answering machine, at the rust spots on the rockers of their car, and so on, and so on. Soon they would be good little consumers, buying this or that Band- Aid for their innumerable little shames.

Not if he could help it.

Several minutes afterward, little Frankie shuffled across the tiles, squinting against the sunlight. Thomas was relieved to see his Silver Surfer pajama- bottoms intact. The four- year- old rubbed his puffy eyes, flapping his elbows as he did so. Though impish and compact, Frankie exaggerated all of his movements— even his facial expressions. He waved more than he needed to wave, stepped more than he needed to step; he even sat more than he needed to sit. He took up a lot of room for such a little kid, spatially as well as emotionally.

Ripley regarded him, her expression one of glum boredom. “Nobody needs to see that,” she said, pointing at his crotch.

Thomas cracked another egg, smiled ruefully.

“So?” Frankie replied.

“So it’s weird. Showing your thing to your sister is weird. Ugh! It’s sick.”

“Is not sick. Daddy said it’s healthy. Right, Daddy?”

“Yes…” Thomas began, then grimaced, shaking his head. “I mean no… And yes.”

What was the problem? Hadn’t he taught a graduate seminar on child sexuality at Columbia? Didn’t he know the “developmentally correct” swing for most every curveball a kid could throw? He held up both hands and stood over the table, trying to appear both stern and clinical. His children, however, had forgotten him. Mouths half full of toast, they bickered with the obstinate whininess that characterized so much of their communication.

“Come on. Listen up, guys. Please.”

They were both chattering at the same time now. “No, you!” “No, you!” Christ Almighty, his head hurt.

“Listen up, jerks!” he cried. “The old man has had a rough night.”

Ripley chortled. “You got drunk with Uncle Cass last night, didn’t you?”

“Can we wake him, Daddy?” Frankie asked. “Can we wake him, please?”

What was it with the apprehension? Just a bad night, he told himself. I’ll sort it all out this afternoon.

“No. Leave him be. Listen up! As I was saying, the old man has had a rough night. The old man needs his kids to cut him some slack.”

They both watched him, at once wary and amused. They knew what he was, the clever little fiends. He was a Hapless Dad. When they angered him, they simply pretended he was shamming until it seemed he was shamming. Manipulative little buggers.

Thomas took a deep breath. “I said, the old man needs his kids to cut him some slack.”

They shared a momentary glance, as though to make sure they were both on the same mischievous page, then began laughing.

“Serve oos owr breakfust, wench!” Frankie cried, mimicking some movie they’d watched not so long ago. It had become their Breakfast Joke.

With this, Thomas was undone. He conceded defeat by ruffling their hair and kissing their heads.

“Don’t say ‘wench,’ ” he murmured.

Then he got back to breakfast—like a good wench, he supposed. He’d forgotten how much he loved weekday mornings with his children.

Even when hungover.

 

 

 

Normally he saw Franklin and Ripley only on weekends, as per his custody agreement. But Nora had asked if he would take them for the week: some bullshit about a trip to San Francisco. Ordinarily taking the kids wouldn’t have been a problem, but Nora had unerringly caught him at the worst time possible: the run- up to the new school year, when the kids had scaled the stir-crazy summit of their summer holidays and when he was up to his eyeballs with committee and course prep work for the upcoming semester. Thank God Mia, his neighbor, had agreed to help out.

Mia’s real name was Emilio, but everyone called him Mia, either because his last name was Farrow, or because of his days as a drag queen. He was a great guy: an amateur Marxist and a professional homosexual—self-described. He was a technical writer for JDS Uniphase and usually worked out of his home. Though he constantly made noise about despising kids, he was positively maudlin when it came to Frankie and Ripley. He complained about them the way diehard sports fans complained about their team’s winning streaks: as though offering proof of humility to fickle gods. Thomas suspected that Mia’s love of the kids was nothing short of parental, which was to say, indistinguishable from pride.

Running late, Thomas hustled the kids across the lawn. The neighborhood was young enough to sport winding lanes and a bewildering variety of trees, but too old to suffer the super-sized Legoland look. They found Mia standing on his porch arguing with his partner, Bill Mack. Mia had dark, Marine- cropped hair, and a face that shouted zero body fat. His build might have been described as slight were it not for the obvious strength of his shoulders and arms. The man was built like an acrobat.

“So that’s just great,” Mia was saying. “Fanfuckingtastic, Bill.” He turned and smiled guilelessly at the Bibles assembled on the steps below. “Hi, kids,” he said. “You got here just in time to say bye-bye to the prick.”

“Hi, William,” Thomas said carefully to Bill. The previous month Bill had decided he wanted to be called William—the name had more “cultural capital,” he had said.

“Jeeeezus Christ,” Mia snorted, his inflection somewhere between Alabama wife-beater and California gay. “Why not just call him Willy?”

“ ’ee’s goot a wee willie,” Frankie cried out in his Scottish accent.

Another movieism.

Mia laughed aloud.

“Why hello, Thomas,” Bill replied sunnily. “And how are the Bibles doing?”

“Dad’s hungover and Frankie showed me his pecker,” Ripley said.

Bill’s smile was pure Mona Lisa. “Same ol’, same ol’, huh?” He crinkled his nose. “I think that’s my cue…” Sidling between the Bibles, he walked to his old-model Toyota SUV— one of the ones ecoprotestors liked to sling tar across. He looked like a blond Sears cata log model in his three- piece. Thomas glimpsed Mia mouth Fuck off and die as Bill pulled out of the driveway.

For as long as he’d known them, Bill and Mia had done all the things statistically doomed couples typically do. They made faces while the other was talking—a frightfully good indicator of impending relationship meltdown. They described each other in unrelentingly negative terms. They even smacked each other around now and again. And yet somehow they managed to thrive, let alone survive. They had certainly outlasted the Bibles.

“Nothing too serious?” Thomas said, checking as much as asking. Over the years he’d helped the two of them sort out several near- fatal communication breakdowns, usually by talking one of them back from the brink without the other knowing. Guerrilla therapy, he called it.

“I’ll be fine, professor. Gay men love assholes, remember? Pardon my French.”

“Daddy speaks French, too,” Ripley said.

“I’m sure he does, honey.” Mia nodded at the black minivan parked next to Thomas’s Acura. He raised his eyebrows. “Company, professor? L’amore, perhaps?”

Smirking, Thomas closed his eyes and shook his head. Mia was hopelessly nosy.

“No. Nothing like that.”

 

 

 

Thomas was a creature of habit.

Over the years since he and Nora had moved to the burbs, the hour- long commute into Manhattan on the MTA Metro-North had become a reprieve of sorts. Thomas liked the packed anonymity of it all. The literary types could boo-hoo all they wanted about the “lonely postindustrial crowd,” but there was something to be said for the privacy of vacant and indifferent faces. Countless millions of people all herded into queues, all possessing lives of extraordinary richness, and most with sense enough not to share them with strangers.

It seemed a miracle.

Thomas imagined some grad student somewhere had published a paper on the topic. Some grad student somewhere had published a paper on everything. Now that the big game had been hunted to extinction, all the little mysteries found themselves in the academic crosshairs, all the things that made humans human.

Usually Thomas read the New York Times—the ink-and-paper version—on the trip into Manhattan, but sometimes, like today, he simply stared at the passing Hudson and dozed. No river, he was certain, had been the object of more absent contemplation than the Hudson.

He had much to think about. Frankie’s incestuous exhibitionism

was the least of his concerns.

He glanced at the front page of his neighbor’s Times and saw the

headlines he’d expected.

 

EU SAYS U.S. AID PACKAGE “NOT ENOUGH”

DEATH TOLL COULD TOP 50,000 RUS SIAN OFFICIALS SAY

 

And of course,

 

THE “CHIROPRACTOR” STRIKES AGAIN:

 

SPINELESS CORPSE FOUND IN BROOKLYN

 

He found himself peering, trying to read the hazy squares of text beneath. The only words he could make out were “vertebrae” and “eviscerated.” He blinked and squeezed his eyes, then cursed himself for giving in to his morbid curiosity. Thousands of years ago, when people still lived in small communities, paying attention to random acts of violence actually paid reproductive dividends. That’s why human brains were hardwired to pay attention to them.

But now? It was little more than an indulgence. Candy for a Stone Age mind.

He thought about the previous night instead.

He was just screwing with me… Wasn’t he?

 

 

 

Thomas emerged from the oily humidity of the subway onto Broadway and 116th. He leaned against the railing, overcome with what his father had always called “jelly belly.” Fucking shooters. Why had he agreed to do shooters? The New York march of cars and people soothed him for some reason.

Columbia was surprisingly busy, given the school year had yet to begin. Dozens of students sat on the steps along the Low Plaza, cradling books and coffees and the ubiquitous palmtops. Thomas always enjoyed the walk to Schermerhorn Hall: the cobbled courtyards and bricked gardens, the contrast of grass and old stone, the humble academic grandeur. He passed through the shadow of St. Paul’s Chapel, and it seemed he could feel the morning cool radiating from its hunched walls. For all its logistical drawbacks, Schermerhorn was an ideal home for the psychology department. Apparently Columbia’s designers had a yen for interior spaces, enclaves within enclaves. It seemed proper that the Schermerhorn should be hidden, just as it seemed proper that it should be old, the stone leached, the walls settling on uncertain foundations—a place built by men who could still take the soul seriously.

Perhaps because he was hungover, Thomas found himself pausing before the entrance, gazing at the latter half of the inscription above.

 

SPEAK TO THE EARTH AND IT SHALL TEACH THEE

 

A laudable commandment, he supposed. But what if humanity had no stomach for the lesson?

 

 

He ducked his head into the psychology department office to check his mail.

“Oh, Professor Bible,” he heard Suzanne, the head administrative assistant, call.

Hanging sideways in the doorway, he smiled at her. “Make it quick, Suzy; I’m feeling woozy.”

She grimaced and nodded toward three suits, two women and one man, loitering outside the department head’s office door. They seemed to be watching him with peculiar interest.

“Can I help you?” Thomas asked. Their scrutiny felt vaguely offensive.

The dark-haired woman stepped forward and held out her hand. “Professor Bible? Thomas Bible?” she asked.

Thomas didn’t reply, convinced that she already knew who he was. Something about their demeanor said they had glossy photos in their breast pockets, and dossiers in their palmtops.

“I’m Shelley Atta,” she continued after an awkward moment. “This is Samantha Logan and Dan Gerard.” Logan was tall, blond, and implausibly attractive. Despite the crisp professionalism of her suit, something about her demeanor spoke of tongue studs and ankle tattoos. With blue eyes and Gallic brown hair, Gerard had the look of a washed- out football captain: packed with low-density muscle, indifferent to the faint mustard stains on his lapel. The kind of guy who made monkey faces when he peed. They seemed an unlikely pair.

“Is there someplace private where we might speak?” Atta asked.

“Preferably someplace with a BD player,” Logan added.

“What’s this about?” Thomas asked.

Shelley Atta’s eyes narrowed in irritation. She had a dense frame that could seem matronly or imposing, depending on her expression. She suddenly seemed imposing. “We’re with the FBI, Professor Bible… As I said, is there someplace private where we can talk?”

“My office will have to do,” Thomas said, turning on his heel like the busy man he was.

 

 

He demanded and studied their identification on the way to his office. He felt like a moron afterward. They certainly looked at him as if he were a moron.

Thomas distrusted “law enforcement” in all its multifarious guises, for many small reasons. A cop with the NYPD had been his neighbor once—a total asshole. Narcissism. Borderline personality disorder. You name it. Then there was the shakedown he had experienced driving through backwoods Georgia years back. Somehow the local sheriff had clocked his crippled Volkswagen—which could manage what? sixty-four or sixty-five floored?—doing ninety-seven. He still remembered the way the man had leaned into his window: like he was hungry and Thomas had his Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But the big reason was that he knew how frail people were. It was his job, studying all the things people would rather not know about themselves. He knew how quickly and how thoroughly positions of power could distort them. He knew the behavioral consequences of such distortion, and he knew how often innocents suffered as a result.

Thomas unlocked the door and ushered the three agents into the papery silence of the cubicle that was his office. Unlike some of his colleagues, he had never made a “home” of his office. He had no comfy chairs for graduate groupies, no prints of Nietz sche, Skinner, or Che Guevara, just books and sticky- notes. The agents scanned his shelves. The attractive blonde ran an appreciative finger down the spine of his first and only published work, Through the Brain Darkly. Agent Atta seemed to be looking for evidence of pornography or drug use. Either Dan Gerard was a restless man, or he was distressed by the chaos. A mild OCD, perhaps?

“So what’s this about?” Thomas asked again.

“We should watch the BD first,” Shelley said, producing a silvery disk.

Thomas’s stomach tightened. They were purposefully denying him context, anything that might prepare him for what he was about to see. They were going to be watching him closely, he knew, looking for small, telltale cues in his reaction…

Just what in the hell was going on?

The FBI, here in his office. Surreal. He suddenly relaxed, even smiled as he turned on his computer. The kids were going to freak when he told them about this. “The FBI, Daddy? No way!”

It must be some kind of mix- up.

They waited for Windows to load—always an awkward moment, it seemed to Thomas, even when alone.

“Bible,” he heard Agent Gerard say behind him. “What kind of name is that?”

He was trying to rattle him, Thomas supposed, using oblique antagonism to make it more difficult for him to conceal any potentially incriminating reaction. But they had no idea just how hung-over Thomas was. He doubted a muzzle- flash next to his ear could make him jump.

Thomas turned in his swivel and looked Gerard dead in the eyes. “Grab those chairs,” he said, motioning to the far side of his office. “We should all sit.”

Agent Gerard glanced nervously at Agent Atta, then did as he was told. One down. Two to go.

Thomas dropped the BD in the tray. They were all sitting now. The screen was black.

“Do those work?” Agent Atta asked, pointing at his desktop speakers. Thomas clicked through a couple different windows.

“YOU LIKE THAT?” blared from the speakers.

The voice sounded male, but it was electronically distorted—deep, as though gurgling through a synthesizer’s version of the ocean bottom. Thomas’s skin pimpled. What was this?

“What are you doing?” A female voice, breathless and undistorted. She sounded confused, as if she wanted to be terrified but…

“DO. YOU. LIKE?”

“Nnnngha… Oh God, yesssss.”

But was too aroused.

There was a tussle of lights on the screen, then Thomas saw a home video shot of a woman’s torso. She was sitting in some kind of black leather chair, and wearing a patterned-pink shift so soaked in water or sweat that it clung to her like a semi-translucent condom. She was panting like a dog, her back arched, her nipples hard. Her face remained off camera.

“YES… YOU LIKE,” the rumbling voice declared. Whoever was speaking, Thomas realized, was also holding the videocam.

“What… Wha- what are you doing?”

“MAKING AN ARGUMENT.”

“Oh, Jeeeeesussss…”

The camera dipped, and Thomas glimpsed her naked thighs swaying. She seemed to be grinding her hips, but nothing was touching her. Nothing he could see.

“MAKING LOVE.”

“Mmmm… Mmmm,” the faceless woman moaned, her voice curiously childlike.

“MORE?”

The camera jerked upward, and Thomas saw her face. She was bleach-blond, with the pouty-lipped harem beauty of a Hollywood starlet. Her right cheek was thrust against her shoulder. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused, her lips pulled into a pained O.

“Pleeeeaaase,” she gasped.

Her body stiffened. Her face slackened. For a moment, her lips hitched into an Elvis curl. Then she started writhing in ecstasy. Gasps became howls, and for a mad moment, she shrieked, until the tendon- baring intensity strangled the possibility of sound. She convulsed, jerked to the plucking of inner strings.

Then suddenly she was back, whimpering, “Oh-my-gawd-oh-my-gawd—”

“AGAIN?”

“Oh-please-yes!” Swallow, then, “Yes-yes-yes-yes!” with every quick breath.

Then she was coming again, and the camera jerked yet farther up.

Thomas exploded from his chair. “Are you fucking kidding me!”

The woman’s braincase had been sawed open. A flea-circus of pins and wires formed a scaffold over the convoluted neural tissue. Lobes glistened in the light.

“Calm down, Mr. Bible,” Agent Atta said.

Thomas clutched his scalp, fairly yanked his hair. “Do you realize I could fucking sue you for showing me this…this… What the fuck is this?”

“WOULD YOU LIKE THE CONTROLS?”

“The BD arrived by mail in Quantico, Virginia, the day before yesterday.”

“So this is your fucking mail? What? You belong to the rape-of-the-month club or something?”

“As far as we can tell,” Shelley Atta said hesitantly, “the woman in the video was not sexually assaulted.”

“YOU ARE FREE,” the ocean-voice croaked. “YOU KNOW THIS? YOU MAY LEAVE ANY TIME YOU WISH.”

Thomas clicked pause. An image of the woman biting her lower lip froze on the screen. He found himself looking away, around the claustrophobic confines of his office. The air seemed thick with exhalations. Someone smelled like coleslaw.

“Tell us,” the other woman, Samantha, said, “do you know the whereabouts of—”

“No,” Thomas interrupted. “I’m not saying anything until you tell me what this is about. I’m a psychologist, remember? I’m familiar with informal interrogation tactics, and I refuse to cooperate until you stop playing games and tell me just what the fuck is going on.”

Agent Atta scowled at him. Agent Gerard stared blankly at the frozen screen.

“Let me tell you what we do know,” Samantha Logan said. “According to Biometrics, the woman is Cynthia Powski, or ‘Cream,’ a porn starlet from Escondido, California, who was reported missing last month. Our analysts assure us the images are real, and the neurosurgeons we’ve consulted insist the level of…manipulation depicted is quite possible. What you just witnessed is real, Professor Bible. As bizarre as it sounds, someone is abducting people and screwing with their brains.”

“People?” Thomas asked, his ears buzzing. “You mean this woman isn’t the first?”

Agent Logan nodded.

Suddenly Thomas understood. “You’re looking for a neurosurgeon…”

He thought of the previous night.

“According to our research,” Shelley Atta said, “you were roommates with Neil Cassidy at Princeton, weren’t you?”

“Of course I was— You think Neil did this?”

“We’re almost certain of it.”

Thomas waved his hands wide, as though warding away something with more momentum than his world could handle. “No. No. Look, you don’t know Neil. There’s simply no way he could have done this. No way.” Even as he spoke, he could see him, Neil, grinning in the porch light, his teeth Crest-commercial straight.

“And why do you say that, Professor?” Agent Logan asked.

“Because Neil is sane. When my life goes crazy, when I have difficulty distinguishing up from down, I call Neil—that’s how sane he is. Whoever’s doing this has suffered some kind of psychotic breakdown. Statistically, the chances of something like that happening to men my age is almost nil.”

“So you and Neil are close?” Agent Gerard said.

Numb nod.

“How close?” Agent Atta asked.

“Bum-buddy close. What fucking business is it of yours?” Thomas paused. He was letting his temper get the best of him—and letting these feds push his buttons. Think clear, he reminded himself. Think straight. But he couldn’t squeeze the writhing images of Cynthia Powski from his thoughts. He could still hear her moan, it seemed.

He could even smell her sweat.

“Look,” he continued evenly. “Your primary suspect is a very close friend of mine. And you know what? If we were talking about somebody I didn’t know, say the chief of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, I’d probably be more than willing to play this game with you. But I know how these things work. You’re fishing for something. It could be general information, or it could be something specific. The bottom line is that I have no way of knowing just what you’re fishing for, which means I have no way of knowing whether I’m helping my buddy or digging him a deeper hole.”

“You don’t trust us?” Agent Logan asked.

“Are you kidding me?”

“We’re the good guys, Professor Bible,” Agent Atta said.

“Sure you are. Do you have any idea just how bad people are at reasoning? It’s terrifying. Add to that the contradictory interests typically generated by hierarchies, like the FBI, where career-friendly decisions are so often at odds with truth-friendly decisions. Add to that the emergency repeal of the constitutional provisions guaranteeing due process—”

“It would be stupid to trust us,” Atta said, her tone tired and disgusted. “Irrational.”

“Exactly,” Thomas said flatly. “One might even say insane.”

* * *


R. Scott Bakker is the author of The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousdandfold Thought, a trilogy that Publishers Weekly calls “a work of unforgettable power.” He is also the author of The Judging Eye. He spent his childhood exploring the bluffs of Lake Erie’s north shore and his youth studying literature, languages, and philosophy. He now lives in London, Ontario, with his wife, Sharron, and their cat, Scully.

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