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Authors: R. Scott Bakker

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Neuropath

BOOK: Neuropath
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Scott Bakker is the author of

The Darkness That Comes Before,

The Warrior Prophet and

The Thousandfold Thought

, a trilogy that
Publisher's Weekly
calls 'a work of unforgettable power'.

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.

N E U R O P A T H

R. Scott Bakker

An Orion paperback

First published in Great Britain in 2008 by Orion Books Ltd

This paperback edition published in 2009 by Orion Books Ltd,

Orion House, 5 Upper St Martin's Lane,
London WC2H 9EA

An Hachette UK company

13579 10 8642

Copyright © R. Scott Bakker 2008

The right of R. Scott Bakker to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

All characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978-0-7528-8279-6

Typeset at The Spartan Press Ltd, Lymington, Hants

Printed and bound at CPI Mackays, Chatham, Kent ME5 8td

The Orion Publishing Group's policy is to use papers that are natural, renewable and recyclable products and made from wood grown in sustainable forests. The logging and manufacturing processes are expected to conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin.

www.orionbooks.co.uk

Contents

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

AUTHOR'S NOTE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

AUTHOR'S AFTERWORD

 

To my Fall 2003 Popular Culture class.

For remaining honest in the face of complexity, and humble in the shadow of mystery.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This book was born out of a bet with my wife, Sharron, whose sharp eye and loving skepticism have shaped the story at every turn. If a book this dark could have godfathers, they would be my brother, Bryan Bakker, who held the rope as I crawled down the rabbit hole, my agent, Chris Lotts, who despite the Argument insisted on asking 'But why?' at every damn turn, and Gary Wassner, who taught me, among so many other things, that complicated fathers were the best fathers of all.

Those who have been instrumental in finessing the book include Jon Wood at Orion Books, Barbara Berson at Penguin Canada, Roger Eichorn, Frank Cameron, Chris O'Brien, and Chris Viger at the University of Western Ontario, who was gracious enough to let me attend his graduate seminar in the spring of 2006.

Among the innumerable friends and acquaintances who have left their mark, I should mention Karl Schroeder, Rick O'Brien, Lisa Rusal, Brian Ribeiro at the University of Tennessee, Nandita Biswas at the University of Western Ontario, Nick Smith at the University of New Hampshire, Danielle Gagne at Alfred University, and the painfully erudite members of my reading group, especially Whitney Hoth, who prefers 19th-century literature for a reason—good or bad nobody seems to know.

Thanks to you all.

AUTHOR'S NOTE

The following story is based on actual trends in neuro-science, psychology, and cognitive science. Despite all the controversies (and there are many), one fact has managed to rise above the fray: we are not what we think we are.

From whence did Dante take the materials for his hell but from our actual world? And a very proper hell he was able to make of it.

SCHOPENHAUER

You should know better.

After all, you're watching it on the news: the diagonally parked cruisers, the milling officials who glance and scowl in your direction. You see the cordons, the lengths of sagging tape, and without thinking you know that
there,
on the far side, lies something horrific, the residue of something too wicked for general consumption. There, you understand, is the crime scene
.

A place where human meat turns chill.

'The Chiropractor,' the newsmodel says, 'continues to terrorize New Yorkers.'

You shudder when you hear that, because you are a New Yorker. The image flickers to Mrs Alvarez, the generic neighbor, who weeps at the loss of someone so special, so beautiful. She looks like a good woman, so you empathize. You do the mental math, calculating the distance between Mrs Alvarez and your house, and you think of calling a friend. Didn't you go to a restaurant just around the corner from there?

You look at the phone lying next to your keys on the kitchenette. You want to call
someone,
but you curl your feet into your hands instead, run your thumbs over the polish on your toes
.

The poor girl, you think. You scowl, trying to envisage the horrific truth behind the NYPD spokesperson and her facade of euphemisms. Multiple lacerations. Blunt force trauma. But there is more. There has to be a twist to make things twisted. The stuff about the spine—that's just to juice the ratings, surely. What about the other stuff? The sex stuff. After all, it isn't just the murder, it's the
aim.

The poor girl, you think, pressing your knees tight. Just like you, she had secrets, tender secrets, that vicious others wanted to know. You glimpse images, nude and rude and wet. You taste something metallic. You smell the goat of unwashed groins. For an instant, you hear her
scream…

Troubled, your gaze drifts from the screen to the thumb petting your toes. You decide your feet look cute.

I agree.

You wonder if it's something about the male species. It really wouldn't surprise you. Your last boyfriend was sick—not
sick
sick, but sick enough—always trying to talk you into gagging on his you-know-what. And the one before that, well, we best not go down that road
.

You blink, run two fingers down your temple and cheek in a way that would make your father recall your mother. Your eyes—vultures that they are—come circling back to the coverage. The detective to the left of the spokesperson, you decide, brings home copies of the crime scene photos. He has that grizzled look.

Like meat plucked too late from the fire.

You chuckle and sigh, feeling warm, safe, and lonely
. This is stupid,
you decide. You change the channel, move to the make-me-laugh section of the store
.

That's when you hear the tapping at your window.

You become very still.

There's no code, no tempo or beat, only the arrhythmia of things waving in the wind.

Only me.

You mute the television, try to peer through your lovely reflection, but end up reviewing your appearance instead. You stand, bronze in the lamplight, breathless with indecision. Your spine arches.

You come to the edge of the fishbowl.

CHAPTER 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
Weight-Watchers
, 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. Pair-bonding. 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 luv-luv-luvw—'

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 work day—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 fold-out or something similarly stupid—but decided against it.

The Advil was in the kitchen.

His place was old, one of the original farmhouses 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 so, 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 donuts 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 barrelled into the kitchen. She was thin and willowy in her Donna Duck pyjamas, 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 out 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 up from the nether regions 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 whatever. 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 bandaid 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 pyjama-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 curve-ball 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 his 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.

'Teeeezus 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 eco-protestors liked to sling tar across. He looked like a blond Sears catalogue model in his three-piece. Thomas glimpsed Mia mouth
Fuck off and die
as he pulled out 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.

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