Returning to his home in Newport Coast well in advance of his appointment with Dr. Samar Gupta on Tuesday was not an option. Following Lee and Kay Ting’s whispering in the kitchen, he had felt-and still would feel-under surveillance in his own house.
Las Vegas offered him nothing more than games of chance. Already he was in a game with the highest possible stakes, and neither craps nor blackjack, nor baccarat, could distract him from the knowledge that his life was on the line.
So Denver in the early morning.
As he had taken lunch in his hotel room, so he took dinner. He had no appetite, but he ate.
Not surprisingly, that night he dreamed. He might have expected cadavers, preserved or not, in his dreams, but they did not appear.
His nightmares were not of people or other bogeymen, but of landscapes and architecture, including but not limited to that city in the sea.
He walked a valley road toward a palace on a slope. The valley had once been green. Now seared grass, withered flowers, and blighted trees flanked a river in which flowed a turgid mass of black water, ashes, and debris. Palace windows once filled with golden light were strangely red, alive with capering shadows, and the closer he drew to the open door, the more terrified he became of what hideous throng might rush out of it and fall upon him.
After the valley, he appeared on the shore of a wild lake bound with black rock and trees that towered all around. The grinning moon in the black sky was a snarling moon on the black water. Poisonous waves lapped at the stones on which he stood, and something rose in the center of the lake, some behemoth beyond measuring, from which sloughed the inky water and with it the wriggling moon.
In the morning, while he showered, while he breakfasted, while he flew to Denver in the corporate jet, images from the nightmares rose frequently in his mind. He felt as though these were places he had visited years before, not in sleep but when awake, for they were too real to be figments of a dream, too detailed, too evocative, too intimately felt.
He wondered again if not only his body was failing him but also his mind. Perhaps the inadequate function of his heart resulted in diminished circulation, with detrimental consequences to the brain.
The hotel rated five stars. The windows of the presidential suite-the only accommodations available on short notice-looked out across a serrated skyline of glass-and-steel towers.
In the west, great forested mountains thrust toward greater clouds: Andes of cumulus congestus, on which ascended Himalayas of cumulonimbus, so the weight of the celestial architecture, if it should collapse, appeared great enough to sunder the earth below.
Waiting for Ryan in the suite’s cozy library were a computer and sufficient linked equipment to allow him to conduct an exhaustive study of the photo of dead Teresa. Beside the keyboard stood a box of cookies from Denver’s best bakery. Wilson Mott always delivered.
The photographic-analysis software included a well-executed tutorial. Although Ryan had made a fortune from the Internet and had a gift for both software comprehension and design, he experimented most of the morning before he was comfortable with the program.
By noon, he needed a break. Having feasted on cookies, he wanted no lunch. But a pleasure drive appealed to him, and he wished he had his Ford Woodie Wagon or one of his other customized classics.
Perhaps his heart condition warranted a chauffeur, but he wanted to cruise alone. En route from Vegas, his pilot had called ahead to have the hotel book for Ryan a rental SUV to be available 24/7.
The black Cadillac Escalade had every comfort and convenience. He could cruise randomly through the city and not worry about getting hopelessly lost, because when he was ready to return to the hotel, the vehicle’s navigation system would tell him the way.
Although he had been to Denver twice before, he never ventured farther than the convention center and immediate environs. Now he wanted to see more of the city.
Sunday traffic was light. Within half an hour, he came upon a small park that occupied two or three acres at the most. It lay adjacent to an old brick church.
What inspired him to curb the Escalade and go exploring on foot were the aspens-or so he thought. In their autumn dress, the trees were a golden spectacle made more flamboyant by their contrast with the mantled sky.
The park offered no playground or war memorial, only winding brick paths strewn with fallen leaves and an occasional bench on which to sit and contemplate the glory of nature.
On this mild afternoon, the first snowfall seemed still weeks away.
While galleons of clouds sailed eastward at high altitude, the world was becalmed at ground level. Yet even in this stillness, the aspens trembled, as they always did.
Walking, he paused frequently to listen to the whisper of the trees, a sound he had always loved. The aspens were so sensitive to air movement because their leafstalks were only narrow ribbons and were set at right angles to the hanging leaf-blades.
As he rested on a bench, he realized that he could not recall when he had ever before heard aspens whispering or how he knew the design of their leafstalks was what gave them an unceasing voice.
His initial sight of the park had strummed a sympathetic chord in him. Upon first walking among the trees, he had felt an affection for them that was entirely familiar.
Now, on this bench under a canopy of shiny yellow leaves, the affection ripened into a more intense sentiment, into a tender-hearted yearning that was nostalgic in character. Inexplicably, though he had never been here before, he felt that he had sat beneath these very trees many times, in all seasons and weather.
Wood warblers, soon to migrate south, sang in the whispering trees, sweet high clear notes: swee-swee-swee-ti-ti-ti-swee.
Ryan did not know where he had learned these birds were wood warblers, but suddenly their song moved him from a curious nostalgic yearning to full-blown deja vu. Today was not his first experience of this park.
The certainty that he had been here before, not just once but often, became so electrifying that it brought him off the bench, to his feet, so pierced by a sense of unnatural forces at work that his scalp prickled and the hairs quivered on the nape of his neck, and a chill traced the contours of his spinal column with the specificity of a diligent physiology professor using a laser pointer.
Although the church had interested him only as backdrop, Ryan turned toward it with the conviction that, on some occasion now forgotten, he had been inside of the place. Earlier, he had not been near enough to the church to see its name, but somehow he knew that the denomination was Roman Catholic.
The day remained mild, yet he grew steadily colder. He slipped his hands into his jacket pockets as he crossed the park to the church.
Because they had been swept clean for the morning services, the concrete steps of St. Gemma’s were brightened by only a few aspen leaves. The last Mass of the day had been offered, and the church stood quiet now.
Hesitating at the bottom of the steps, Ryan knew the crucifix above the altar would be of carved wood, that the crown of thorns on Christ’s head would be gilded, likewise the nails in His hands and feet. Behind the cross, a gilded oval. And radiating from the oval, carved and gilded rays of holy light.
He climbed the steps.
At the door, he almost turned away.
Shadows gathered in the narthex, fewer in the nave, where daylight pressed colorfully through the stained-glass windows and where some altar lights remained aglow.
In every detail, the impressive crucifix proved to be as he had foreseen it.
Alone in the church, he stood in the center aisle, transfixed, trembling like the quaking aspens in the park.
Ryan remained certain that he had never been here before, and he was not a Catholic. Yet he was overcome by the sense of comfort that one feels in well-loved places.
This comfort did not warm him, however, and did not calm him, but compelled him to retreat.
Outside, on the steps, he needed a minute to regain control of his ragged breathing.
In the park once more, on a bench to which his wobbly legs had barely carried him, he used his cell phone to call Wilson Mott’s most private number.
After speaking with Mott, he expected to sit there for a while, because he was not yet calm or fit to drive. But the brilliance of the aspens, the black iron lampposts with crackle-glass panes, the wrought-iron bench painted glossy black, and the herringbone brick walkway filled him with yearning for a past he could not recall, indeed for a past that he had never lived.
The weirdness of it all became too much for him, and he left the park at something less than a run but more than a walk.
After Ryan entered the name of his hotel in the Escalade’s navigator, the mellifluous voice of a patient young woman guided him successfully through Denver in spite of a few missed turns.
In the library of the presidential suite, high above Denver, Ryan Perry worked obsessively on the digitized photo of dead Teresa.
The photographic-analysis package provided numerous tools with which he could enhance the cadaver’s eyes, enlarging and clarifying the scene reflected in those glassy surfaces. Some of the techniques could be used in combination. And when the zone of interest was so enlarged that it lost resolution, the computer was able to clone the pixels until density and definition had been restored to the image.
Nevertheless, by 7:05 Sunday evening, when Wilson Mott’s agent arrived, Ryan had not been able to make anything of the patterns of light and shadow in those optic reflections.
Earlier, just before leaving the park, when he had called Mott to request the services of a trusted and discreet phlebotomist, he had been told that the nearest such medical technician that could be tapped for the job was George Zane, who had not yet returned from Las Vegas to the security company’s offices in Los Angeles. Before signing on with Mott, Zane had been a U.S. Army Medical Corpsman, administering first aid on the battlefields of Iraq.
Now, Ryan stretched out on a bed in the master bedroom, with a towel under his arm, while Zane performed a venesection and drew 40 milliliters of blood into eight 5-milliliter vials.
“I want to be tested for every known poison,” Ryan said.
“Not just those that are known to cause cardiac hypertrophy.”
“We’ve located a cooperative lab right here in Denver and two blood specialists who’ll work through the night on it. You don’t want to know their fee.”
“I don’t care about their fee,” Ryan assured Zane.
One of the best things about having serious wealth was that if you knew the right service providers-like Wilson Mott-you could get what you wanted, when you wanted it. And no matter how eccentric the request, no one raised an eyebrow, and everyone treated you with the utmost respect, at least to your face.
“I want to be tested for drugs, too. Including-no, especially-for hallucinogenics and for drugs that might cause hallucinations or delusions as a side effect.”
“Yes, sir,” said Zane, setting aside the fourth vial, “Mr. Mott has informed me of all that.”
With the knots of scar tissue on his bald head, with his intense purple-black eyes, with his wide nostrils flaring wider as though the scent of blood excited him, George Zane should have been a disturbing figure. Instead, he was a calming presence.
“You’re very good with the needle, George.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Didn’t sting at all. And you have a good bedside manner.”
“Because of the army.”
“I didn’t realize they taught bedside manner in the army.”
“The battlefield teaches it. The suffering you see. You want to be gentle.”
“I never served in the military.”
“Well, in the military or not, we all go to war every day. Two more syringes, sir.”
As Zane removed the blood-filled barrel from the cannula and attached an empty one, Ryan said, “You probably think I’m some kind of paranoid.”
“No, sir. There’s evil in the world, all right. Being aware of it makes you a realist, not a paranoid.”
“The idea that someone’s poisoning me or drugging me…”
“You wouldn’t be the first. The enemy isn’t always on the other end of a gun or a bomb. Sometimes he’s very close. Sometimes he looks like us, which makes him almost invisible, and that’s when he’s most dangerous.”
Ryan had also instructed Wilson Mott to obtain a prescription sleeping drug and send it along with Zane. He wanted a medication of sufficient strength not merely to prevent the wide-eyed, twitchy-legged, mind-racing, fully-wired insomnia that made him manic enough to try to ride a shark, but one also potent enough to submerge him so deep in sleep that he would not dream.
After Zane left with the blood, Ryan ordered a room-service dinner so heavy that the consumption of it should have sedated him as effectively as a cocktail of barbiturates.
Following dinner, he consulted the dosage instructions on the pill bottle, took two capsules instead of the one recommended, and washed them down with a glass of milk.
In bed, he used the remote to surf the ocean of entertainment options offered by the satellite-TV service to which the hotel subscribed. On a classic-movie channel, he found a women-in-prison movie so magnificently tedious that perhaps he would not have needed the prescription sedative.
A silent dark, a vague awareness of a tangled sheet, and then a quiet dark, only the rhythmic interior sounds of heart contractions and arterial rush, as black as a moonless lake, as a raven’s wings, darkness there and nothing more, merely this and nothing more…
And then a flickering dream framed in a rectangle, surrounded by blackness.
A man and woman spoke, the male voice familiar, and there was music and a sense of urgency, and gunfire.
The dream flickered because Ryan blinked his eyes, and it was framed in a rectangle because it was not a dream, not the women-in-prison movie, either, but whatever the classic-movie channel deemed classic at this hour.
Glowing numerals on the bedside clock read 2:36. He had been asleep four hours, maybe five.
He wanted more, needed more, fumbled for the remote, found it, extinguished the rectangle of colorful images, silenced the guns, silenced the music, silenced the woman, silenced William Holden.
As the remote slipped out of his slackening hand, as he sank into the solace of oblivion, he realized that the movie he had just switched off was the same one to which he had regained consciousness on Thursday morning, after the terrible attack Wednesday night that had driven him to his internist, Forry Stafford.
Waking Thursday morning on his bedroom floor, curled in the fetal position, eyes crusted shut, mouth dry and sour, he had become convinced that the unknown William Holden film on the TV had special meaning for him, that in it was a message to be deciphered, a warning about his future.