“The list you were on-the United Network for Organ Sharing.”
“Yeah. That’s right.”
“How long did you wait for a heart, Mr. Perry?”
If she pointed the pistol away from him or if she started to get up from the armchair, or if she was distracted for any reason, he might be able to throw himself off the chair, overturn the table, spill the lamps, and in the flare of flames and chaos somehow avoid being shot. The scene played in his mind, admittedly a Hollywood moment of stuntman choreography, but it might work, just might, because there were moments when life imitated movies. He had to play along with her, keep her talking, and hope she gave him an opportunity.
“Dr. Gupta-he gave me a year to live. A year at the most. But I might have been dead in six months, even less. They didn’t find a match for almost four months.”
“Some people wait a year, two years,” she said. “Many never find a match. You had a perfect match…in one month.”
“No. Four. Four months.”
“One month after coming under Dr. Hobb’s care.”
“Because Dr. Hobb is an exceptional surgeon with a worldwide reputation, licensed to practice in several countries. He can get his patients on the list of the International Network for Organ Sharing.”
Her pale-green eyes widened as if he had told her something she did not know, information that she must now factor into the equation. “The International Network for Organ Sharing.” She nodded thoughtfully, as if absorbing this news, but then her eyes narrowed. “There is no such list, Mr. Perry.”
“Of course there is. I was on it. Your sister was on it. After her accident, they matched us, and Dr. Hobb got the call.”
She rose from the armchair, but because the pistol remained trained on Ryan, he had no clear chance to get from the recliner to the coffee table.
“What accident do you refer to?” she asked.
“The car crash. Her head trauma.”
In the flat, uninflected voice of someone in a trance, Violet said, “Lily was in a car crash.”
Her celadon eyes were hard and cold and glazed. She moved slowly around the coffee table, diminutive but no less the predatory tiger.
“Listen…things happen,” Ryan said. “They just happen. It’s nobody’s fault.”
“Things happen,” she said flatly. “Nobody’s fault.”
“If maybe?” she asked, pausing by the fireplace.
“If maybe you were driving, you can’t blame yourself.”
“You think I was driving.”
Anything he said could be the wrong thing to say, but silence might itself inspire her to shoot him.
“I don’t know. I just thought maybe that explains…explains the intensity of your feelings. Explains why…we’re here like this.”
If eyes revealed intentions, hers told him that he was a dead man. Her stare felt as sharp as shards of porcelain, shatters of her insane rage borne on her gaze.
“I was not driving, Mr. Perry, because there was no accident. No car crash, no head trauma, no international list. Fully alive, perfectly healthy, Lily was matched to you and then put to death so you could have her heart.”
Shaking his battered head made the throbbing pains swell stronger, striking up an internal sound like the repeated hard plucking of the bottom-note string on a bass fiddle, and fired off sharper pangs by the quiverful. Yet he shook his head, shook it, denying what Violet had said.
“Why did you fly to Shanghai for a transplant, Mr. Perry? Why all the way to Shanghai?”
“That’s where the car crash happened. She was on life support, brain-dead, they kept her alive until I could get there with Dr. Hobb and his surgical team.”
“Do you know what Falun Gong is, Mr. Perry?”
He shook his head. He didn’t know. She made it sound like he should, but he didn’t.
“Falun Gong is a spiritual practice expressed through certain exercises and meditations.”
“I never heard of it. Why should I?”
“It was founded in 1992 and banned in 1999 after ten thousand Falun Gong practitioners silently protested the government’s arrest and beating of many people in the city of Tianjin.”
Shaking his head not only exacerbated the pain but also cast his thoughts into a junkshop jumble, as an earthquake dumps the orderly contents of supermarket shelves onto the floor in a seismic potluck. Yet he continually shook his head, as though he didn’t want either the pain to stop or his thoughts to clear.
“A spiritual life is not an approved life. Half the people in my country’s labor-camp prisons are Falun Gong,” she continued. “They are beaten, worked to death, and tortured.”
Judging by the sound of her voice, Violet had moved around the La-Z-Boy, in back of him. He raised his head, and though his vision brightened and dimmed somewhat with the ebb and flow of the pain, he could see well enough to confirm that she was not in the part of the room that lay before him.
“Face forward,” she commanded. “Do not turn.”
Ryan did not think that she would shoot him in the back of the head. She would first want to hurt him more, and when the time came to finish it, she would want him to be staring down the muzzle of the gun when she squeezed the trigger.
“Lily was Falun Gong. A poor, sweet dreamer of a girl. My twin but nothing like me. My mind is darker, and my heart.”
As if she knew what he had thought, Violet pressed the muzzle of the pistol to the back of his skull, which forced him to stop shaking his head.
“Oh, God, don’t. You’re making a mistake.”
The round muzzle seemed to imprint a third eye in the back of his head, for when he closed the pair with which he had been born, he could see down the barrel to the bullet.
“Lily was a seamstress living on subsistence wages, seeking something to brighten and give meaning to her existence. Falun Gong.”
On his face, on his hands, on the chair, his spilled blood issued a faint odor that perhaps only he could smell, and nausea threatened.
She said, “They arrested Lily two years ago. I spent a year trying to get her freed, trying so cautiously, so surreptitiously.”
His darkness yawed like the deck of a ship, and he opened his eyes, fixing his stare on the armchair where previously she had been seated, forcing stillness on the room to stave off nausea.
“Forced labor, beatings, torture, rape-not all the Falun Gong prisoners are subjected to those things. Some are kept in good health to be harvested.”
A sob escaped Ryan, and he struggled to control himself, for he intuited that instead of earning sympathy for him, his tears would inspire only a murderous contempt. His best hope was steadiness, the exercise of restraint, and an appeal to reason.
“I never heard of Falun Gong,” he insisted. “Never.”
“There is a hospital in Shanghai that exists for two purposes only. First for certain…experiments. Second, to provide transplant procedures for exalted state officials in ill health and for wealthy foreigners who can meet the very high cost.”
To his surprise, the woman stepped into view again on his left side. She had pressed the muzzle so hard against the back of his skull that he felt the impression of it even after the pistol had been taken away.
“I learned three days before your surgery that Lily had been transferred from the labor camp to that hospital.”
She held the pistol in a two-hand grip, five feet from him, aimed at his throat but no doubt allowing for the barrel to pull up with the shot, to shatter his teeth with the bullet and to punch out the back of his head.
“My sweet Lily’s kidneys were needed by two comrades, her liver by another, corneas by a fourth, and her heart by some lord of the Internet, one of the hundred most eligible bachelors.”
He learned now a new thing: Fear could take such a grip on a man’s emotions that he could experience no other sentiment, on his intellect that he could think of nothing but dying, on his spirit that he could not hope, on his body that he could suddenly not feel the pain of terrible wounds, but could feel only terror with every fiber of his being.
“I didn’t know,” he groaned, but the words came from him without premeditation, like a chant or litany that had been repeated on ten thousand other occasions and was now, with thought denied him, the only thing he knew how to say.
“You knew,” she insisted.
“I swear I didn’t.” More litany. “I swear I didn’t. I swear I didn’t. I couldn’t have done this if I’d known.”
“Dr. Hobb brings patients from around the world. Over the years, a hundred sixty of Dr. Hobb’s patients have been matched in a month or less. Dr. Hobb knows.”
“Maybe he does, I can’t speak for him, I can’t defend him. But I didn’t know.”
“They say so many have been harvested that where their bodies are buried, the ground grows red bamboo. Groves of red bamboo.”
“I didn’t know.”
She lowered the muzzle from his face, and the sound-suppressor on the pistol allowed only a soft and surprisingly biological sound when she shot him in the left foot.
Terror could not anesthetize against a bullet wound, at least not entirely, and it could not staunch the blood. But the wound proved less debilitating than Ryan would have imagined, producing not violent and thrilling throes of pain, not agony, but suffering of a kind that cleared his fogged thinking, that broke him out instantly in a head-to-foot sweat even as a chill settled through his stomach and his bowels, racking him with shudders that rattled his teeth.
He didn’t scream because he didn’t have the wind for it, but the woman said, “If you scream, I’ll make you stop the hard way, and then what follows will be even worse for you than it would have been.”
The sounds he made were sometimes low and choked-off, sometimes thin and tremulous and pathetic, but they would not carry beyond the walls of the house.
Instead of sliding to the floor, he withdrew into the commodious recliner, holding in his right hand the soft shoe that encased his wounded foot, because he found that gentle pressure eased the pain.
“After losing my Lily, I lived to find you.”
With that singular languid restlessness, Violet circled the room again, like some black bird that had flown in through an open door, a winged messenger of merciless intent, seeking now a permanent roost.
“I needed ten months to escape China. Three of us defected on a mission. Then two more months to get to this country, to study you and plan.”
Behind the brightness of his pain, a dark incoming tide washed through Ryan’s mind, rising above all the sea walls of his defenses, and from beneath his fear of death welled a worse fear that until now he had neither experienced nor imagined to exist.
“Hobb knew,” she said as she roamed.
And now all that Ryan could say was, “He didn’t tell me.”
“Of course he didn’t say, ‘Let’s go to Shanghai and tear open a perfectly healthy girl for you.’”
“If he didn’t tell me, how could I have known?” he pleaded, but the plea sounded weak to him. “How could I have known?”
“By what he implied.”
To this he could say nothing.
She would not relent: “And by what you inferred.”
The dark tide breaching his long-defended sea walls was a tide of truth.
She said, “By the implicit meaning of an international donor’s list, by the implicit meaning of only a one-month wait for a match, by the implicit meaning of the astronomical cost, by the implicit meaning of an emergency flight to Shanghai, by the implicit meaning of the thousand winks and nods you must have witnessed.”
The word shuddered from him: “Subtext.”
Actions had consequences. Having always understood this, he had largely lived by the rules in business and in his personal relationships.
The new and most devastating fear welling in him, which he had never known before in thirty-five years, was the fear that actions also had consequences beyond this life.
Her anger having given way to a calm determination to have justice, the woman approached him, with a grave and stern decorum.
“I was groomed to pass for American. To come here one day and form a secret cell.”
A note of profound resignation informed her voice, her green eyes seeming to be dreaming.
“My secret plan was to bring Lily, disappear into new identities and truly become Americans. Now this country is ruined for me. And China. And I have nowhere.”
She stared at him along the barrel of the gun.
Thick blood oozed slowly from the bullet hole in Ryan’s shoe, his broken left hand curled into a claw, his head ached as if it were held together by tightly pulled barbed wire, but none of his pains squeezed the tears out of him. They were pressed from him by the recognition of the willful blindness with which he had committed himself to Dr. Hobb, with which in fact he had led his entire life.
Less to Violet than to himself, in response to a confessional impulse, he said, “That night Samantha told me I had to be careful. ‘You especially,’ she said. ‘You, being you, have to be careful.’”
Violet asked, “The author?”
“She said I should just let it happen, I shouldn’t handle it, just accept, let it happen the way it should.”
Again his pain entirely receded, as previously it had been for a while suppressed by terror that crowded out all other feelings.
“My God, she knew what I was capable of. She knew when I didn’t. When I didn’t know, she knew…but loved me.”
This time terror, too, was extinguished with the pain, and he had the capacity for only one sentiment, which ruled his emotions, his intellect, his body, a feeling that was new to him but at once familiar: shame.
Ryan Perry had not known until this moment that something in him was broken.
The roots of violence included avarice. Greed.
He said, “My blind greed killed your sister.”
“Greed? You’ve got all the money in the world.”
“A greed for life.”
He had coveted her heart, any healthy heart, and had lied to himself, had hid himself from himself.
Violet looked at him along the barrel of the pistol.
Now, too late, he realized that sixteen months earlier, in the early hours of his crisis, he had been given an extraordinary grace, a chance to achieve the insight Samantha needed to see in him if they were to marry: an awareness that life and the world have subtext, implicit meaning, that this meaning has consequences. Ismay Clemm, a victim of her husband’s greed and of Spencer Barghest’s lust for death, had traveled farther than from Denver to California, to warn him away from one path and to lead him toward another. In urgent dreams, Ismay revealed to him three Hells, but he saw them only as three puzzles.