Mahoney lay on the murphy bed with a wet washcloth over his eyes. Operating entirely by touch, he fumbled for the glass at his bedside table and brought it to his lips, sloshing bourbon on his unfastened collar in the process.
“So the pillar turned into a recess?” Chick Henshaw said. He sat at the card table Mahoney used in the dining room/den, ashing into a juice glass. “Sounds simple enough. A guy makes somethin’ round, halfway through he dents it in. Nothing to lose your lunch over.”
“No, it wasn’t like that. It was…it was just both at the same time. In and out. If you could have seen it—”
“Yeah, yeah.” The studio chair creaked as Chick rearranged himself. He had helped himself to some of the deli chicken in the ice box, the smack of him chewing made Mahoney nauseous. “I getcha. I was at one of those sideshows a while back with my girl, Gertie. We see one of those human knots, you know, and the way he was all pretzeled up didn’t seem possible.”
The door slammed and Dooley stalked in. “Chick, quit boring the detective with your love life. Mahoney? I’ve got the paper.”
Mahoney eased his feet off the bed and slowly sat up, keeping the washcloth to his eyes until the very last minute. As the wet cloth fell from his eyes it disclosed Dooley, shirtsleeves rolled up past the elbow and tie askew. He held an accordion-fold pamphlet printed on sickly green paper.
Mahoney gestured. “That it?”
Dooley pulled back a little. “You shouldn’t go there.”
“But I’m going.”
Dooley sighed. “Stubborn ass.”
“I got no choice, Dooley.”
“Yeah, if he don’t go, who will look after the kids?” Chick said through a mouthful.
Dooley glanced back. “Hush.” To Mahoney he said, “look, I’ve got guys for this. Gimme a day or two to arrange something. This place is bad news. Why you need in there so badly anyway?”
Mahoney glanced beyond him to Chick. “Hey, check the drawer there for me, the one second from the right?”
Chick opened it with a rattle of silverware.
“What’s in there?”
Chick took out a small slip of paper. “The yellow sign.”
Mahoney looked back at Dooley. “I’m going in. I can’t quit because it won’t quit me.”
Dooley hissed air over his teeth. “Hell. Take this, I’m on a union break.”
He thrust the pamphlet at Mahoney and stalked over to the window, lighting up one of his hat-band cigarettes.
The pamphlet read “THE OCULUS INSTITUTE” in lettering only slightly more welcoming than barbed wire. A crown of laurel leaves graced the front page. Mahoney sniffed. Laurel wreath. Brotherhood of leaves. Ha. So much for academic wit.
The pamphlet spoke as if singling him out as a misunderstood genius. The institute knew how society had failed him, how the disorder he struggled with was the fault not of him but the people around him. He needed to swim with like-minded individuals to recover. He needed the Oculus Institute.
Mahoney lowered the pamphlet. “Guys, I think I might be the second coming of Isaac Newton.”
Chick snort-chuckled. Dooley smoked irritably, not bothering to make sure the smoke successfully reached the slit of the kitchen’s hopper window.
Mahoney sped through the rest. It was rote, offering tennis courts and Olympic-sized swimming pools in the same breath as operating rooms and shock therapy. Basically a cush hamper to dump your unsightly relatives in until such time as they were ready again for polite society. The pamphlet was signed by one Thurgood Orroft, MD.
“And what do we know about the good Dr. Orroft?”
“Well, for starters he isn’t an MD.” Dooley flicked the ash off his cig with a pinky. “He isn’t M-anything. He’s what you might call a guru. They let him put that on the pamphlet because he’s got rich friends in the right places. I looked into this guy, Mahoney. He’s scary. You remember that senator’s daughter, the one who tried to stop a trolley with her mind and ended up smeared down seventh street?”
Mahoney nodded. The throb in his head was dulling, but it was being replaced with a general tension all over his body. He took another slug.
“He was her ‘therapeutic consultant’. Same with that Olympic diver who aerated his wife with buckshot. Or that chessmaster who took a knife to his handlers to see if they were real people or life-sized chess pieces. All graduates of the same laughing academy.” Dooley drifted over to the bed. “Look, whatever I can say to convince you this is a bad idea, I’ll use it. Religion, money, anything. I’ve been in the same room as killers and dictators and this guy scares white into my hair. Say you’ll wait. Say you won’t go in. What fare are you getting that’s worth all the trouble?”
Mahoney squeezed his eyes shut. “Nothing you’d understand. I just…I have to. It has to be me, and it has to be there.”
Dooley growled through his nose, stamping the life out of his latest cigarette. “All right, Mahoney. All right.”
Like all good supervillain lairs, the Oculus Institute sat atop a seaside cliff. Mahoney, his hair slicked to the side with borrowed pomade and wearing a suit he’d only worn once before, to a funeral, drove a dummy car up the front drive. There was no gate, an oddity in such a place. Mahoney tried to contain his sense of foreboding as he drove past thick cypress hedges and up to the front of the white stone building.
A female attendant was waiting for him. The uniform for the place was the same green as the pamphlet. The girl’s set came with a headdress that brought to mind Red Cross nurses from the war. Her eyes were at half-mast, her unsmiling face held no makeup.
“Mr. French?” Her voice was flat.
Mahoney tried to smile like someone else and ended up thrusting his chin out awkwardly. “That’s me, Harold French. Friends call me Harry.”
The girl said nothing. Mahoney realized she was waiting for him to get out of the car, so he scrambled.
“You are here of your own free will, yes?” Her diction was stilted, as if English wasn’t her first language and she had memorized her script by rote.
“Committing myself? Boy howdy. The office tells me—”
“You will be apprised of our going rates,” the girl continued smoothly as they crossed the threshold and into a very spartan hallway. It was as if someone had put a hotel front on a prison. The hall was unglamorous and identical to any number of buildings in the city, save for a series of canvases that hung the length of the hall. Mahoney tried to contain a rapidly blooming sense of unease as he walked past them. Even before he saw the cursive dash of “R.Rousseau” in the corner, he knew they were the late artist’s product by the sheer anarchy of the brushwork. These were cruder, possibly done early in his manic period. One canvas depicted an empty sidewalk that looked very much like the front of the Jackson Memorial hall. Another showed a bungalow crouched among weeds and creepers like a fleeing crab. Another showed a lonely house on a hill, Miss Bianchi’s mansion. Mahoney realized with a jolt that they were all places he had visited. He swung around to look at the others, got a glimpse of a lonely alley populated by an overturned trash can and an empty refrigerator turned on its side and used as a makeshift house, before the buzzer for the interior door sounded. The girl was through and gone before Mahoney realized he’d lagged, and skipped to catch up.
The girl strode down the hallway as if she ran on a greased track, smoothly and efficiently so her green smock didn’t so much as crease. There was art on the hallway walls in here, too, every three doors or so. All the same portrait. Unlike the front hall, this painting was done by an artist who seemed afraid of its subject, and not without reason. The subject of the painting, a man with thick-rim glasses and a glowing bald pate, seemed to stare through the canvas. His face was empty of human emotion in a way that made the air around the painting seem a few degrees colder. It was the kind of face that could watch an opera or an execution and be equally unmoved. A brass plate below the frame read: “our founder.”
“The pamphlet listed our facilities,” the girl spoke monotonously, indicating the doors that lined the hallway with a hand. None of them were marked. “We have much more than what is available at the surface level, of course. All will be revealed in time. But not before your test.”
Mahoney spoke up. “Ah yes, I brought the results of my last physical, three months ago. No need.”
The girl looked at him, and the look knew things. Mahoney slowed his pace. A sudden bolt back down the hallway was only stymied by the automatic door, which had closed on his heels.
“You will be tested,” she said flatly.
Mahoney hunkered down and tried to breathe calmly. When the hall t-boned, the girl went left. Mahoney ran right.
Of course, escape was all but impossible. The windows he had seen from the outside didn’t seem capable of opening, and he doubted the place had a laundry chute handy for sliding down. He jogged around another right turn and met with an identical stretch of hallway. Thurgood Orroft glared down at him. Maybe this was why the grounds were unfenced, the place was practically a fortress. Each patient suite a cloistered cell accessible only from the outside, soundproofed, with a drain in the floor for easy cleaning. He rounded another right turn at a slightly quicker pace. If he could only get his hands on something sharp, maybe he could take a prisoner and negotiate his way out.
Mahoney slowed, stopping in the middle of the immaculate hallway.
He had turned right three times. Jogged about the same distance the every time. By all rights, he should be back where he started.
Mahoney started to perspire.
Easing into a light jog, he vowed to turn left at the next junction. That never came. Instead, he was stuck jogging down a series of identical right turns. When he finally ran back into the girl, flanked by burly young men in green scrubs, it was almost a relief.
Mahoney crouched and put his hands on his knees, winded. “Mulligan?”
The girl blinked. The men surged from around her like a green river and converged on Mahoney. He was seized in several places and carted bodily off down the hall.
“Your test lies this way, Mr. Mahoney,” the girl said flatly, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Mahoney tried not to show shock. “Why are you calling me that?”
“We were told to expect you.” The girl stopped at a door identical to the ones around it and took out a large ring of keys. “Your vision test will be in this room.”
What lay behind the door was not a sterile white examination room as he’d expected, but a cold bare-stone interior about as homey as the face of the moon. Something he couldn’t call anything besides an altar sat in the middle of the room. A lens of thick, mottled green glass sat in a fork of carved soapstone, a strange sort of cradle just in front of it. Mahoney was given one blissful second of ignorance at its function before he was thrown, bodily, over it.
The girl watched with hooded eyes as they shackled his limbs beneath the cradle, leaving him lying prone on his stomach with his chin in a leather sling. The lens gleamed just before his face. The girl gave the glass a slight tilt, making all the shadows on the other side of it reverse. And suddenly he knew. He knew.
Mahoney fought. One of the wrist restraints pulled out of the stone after a few wrenches. This earned him a haymaker to the shoulder and a dizzying moment of pain. An orderly sat on his arm.
“We usually save the seeing glass for brothers of the leaves,” the girl continued, “they must graduate through several levels of mindfulness and discussion. Their minds widened before the glass helps them to truly see. You are the exception.”
Mahoney clenched his eyes shut and turned his head. A thick, muscular hand forced him to face forward. Two sets of fingers pried his eyelids open.
Above him, emotionless, pitiless, the girl stared down. Mahoney realized he hadn’t seen her blink the whole time he’d been here. His own eyes burned.
“Look into the glass Mahoney. It’s what you’re here for.”