“Yeah. Just now. I’m gonna buy it.”


“Edelbrock two-carb manifold? That right?”


“Yeah. You should hear it.”


“What’s it stand on?” Ryan asked.


“Nineteen-sixty Imperials. Fifteen-inch.”


“Chopped?”


“Four inches.”


“That must give it a cool windshield profile.”


“Very cool,” Forry confirmed.


“You gonna work on it?”


“I’ve got some ideas.”


“I think I’d like to have a ‘32 deuce coupe,” Ryan said.


“Five-window?”


“Maybe a three-window highboy.”


“I’ll help you find it. We’ll scout some shows.”


“I’d like that.”


“Me too.”


They sat in silence for a moment.


The examination room had a white acoustic-tile ceiling, pale-blue walls, a gray vinyl-tile floor.


On one wall hung a print of a painting by Childe Hassam. Titled The White Dory, Gloucester, it was dated 1895.


On pale water, in a white boat sat a fair woman. She wore a long white skirt, a pleated and ruffled pink blouse, and a straw boater.


Delicate, desirable, she would have been a handsome wife in those days when marriages lasted a lifetime. Ryan was overcome with a strange yearning to have known her, to have heard her voice, to have tasted her kiss, but she was lost somewhere in time, as he might soon be, as well.


“Shit,” he said.


Forry said, “Ditto.”


SIX


Dr. Samar Gupta had a round brown face and eyes the color of molasses. His voice was lilting, his diction precise, his slender hands impeccably manicured.


After reviewing the echocardiogram and examining Ryan, Gupta explained how a myocardial biopsy was performed. He made use of a large poster of the cardiovascular system.


Confronted with a colorful depiction of the interior of the human heart, Ryan found his mind escaping to the painting of the woman in the white dory, in Forry Stafford’s examination room.


Dr. Gupta seemed unnaturally calm, every movement efficient, every gesture economical. His resting pulse was probably a measured fifty beats per minute. Ryan envied the physician’s serenity and his health.


“Please be at the hospital admissions desk at six o’clock tomorrow morning,” the cardiologist said. “Do not eat or drink anything after midnight.”


Ryan said, “I don’t like sedation, the loss of control.”


“You’ll be given a mild sedative to relax you, but you’ll remain awake to follow instructions during the procedure.”


“The risks…”


“Are as I explained. But none of my biopsies has ever involved…complications.”


Ryan was surprised to hear himself say, “I trust your skill, Dr. Gupta, but I’m still afraid.”


In business, Ryan had never expressed uncertainty, let alone fear. He allowed no one to see any weakness in him.


“From the day we’re born, Ryan, we should all be afraid, but not of dying.”


In the plush backseat of the Mercedes S608, on the way home, Ryan realized that he did not understand the cardiologist’s last comment.


From the day we’re born, Ryan, we should all be afraid, but not of dying.


In the office, in the moment, the words had seemed wise and appropriate. But Ryan’s fear and his desire to quell it had led him to hear that statement as a reassurance, when in fact it was not.


Now the physician’s words seemed mysterious, even cryptic, and disturbing.


Behind the wheel of the sedan, Lee Ting glanced repeatedly at the rearview mirror. Ryan pretended not to notice his houseman’s concern.


Lee could not know which of the many physicians Ryan had visited in Dr. Gupta’s building, and he remained too discreet to ask. Yet he was an acutely perceptive man who sensed his employer’s solemnity.


In the west, the phoenix palms and the rooftops were gilded with sunlight. The attenuated shadows of those trees and buildings, of lampposts and pedestrians, reached eastward, as if the entire coast yearned for nightfall.


On those rare occasions when Lee previously served as chauffeur, he had driven sedately, as if he were decades older than his years and part of some royal procession. This time, he exceeded speed limits with the rest of the traffic and crossed intersections on the yellow light.


He seemed to know that his employer needed the comfort of home, refuge.


SEVEN


En route from Dr. Gupta’s office, Ryan called Kay Ting and placed an order for dinner that would require her to go to his favorite restaurant to get takeout.


Later, using the elevator, the Tings brought a dining-service cart to the third-floor sitting room that was part of the master suite. They put up the leaves to expand the cart into a table and smoothed out the white tablecloth.


Presented for Ryan’s pleasure were three dishes of homemade ice cream-dark chocolate, black cherry, and limoncello-each nestled in a larger bowl of cracked ice. There were also servings of flourless chocolate cake, a lemon tart, a peanut-butter tart, strawberries in sour cream with a pot of brown sugar, a selection of exotic cookies, and bottles of root beer in an ice bucket.


Because Ryan allowed himself dessert only once or twice a week, the Tings were curious about this uncharacteristic indulgence.


He pretended to be celebrating the conclusion of a particularly rewarding business deal, but he knew they did not believe him. The arrayed sweets suggested the last meal of a condemned man who, though thirty-four, had never finished growing up.


Eating alone, sitting at the wheeled table, Ryan sampled a series of old movies on the big-screen plasma TV. He sought comedies, but none of them struck him as funny.


Calories no longer mattered, or cholesterol, and at first this indulgence without guilt was so novel that he enjoyed himself. Soon, however, the adolescent smorgasbord grew cloying, too rich.


To thumb his nose at Death, he ate more than he wanted. The root beer began to seem like syrup.



He wheeled the cart out of the master suite, left it in the hall, and used the intercom to tell Kay that he had finished.


Earlier, the Tings turned down the bed and plumped the pillows.


When Ryan put on pajamas and slipped between the sheets, insomnia tormented him. If fear of death had not kept him awake, the tides of sugar in his blood would have made him restless.


Barefoot, hoping to walk off his anxiety, he went roaming through the house.


Beyond the large windows lay the luminous panorama of Orange County’s many cities on the vast flats below. The ambient glow was sufficient to allow him to navigate the house without switching on a lamp.


Shortly before midnight, lights in a back hall led him to the large butler’s pantry, where china and glassware were stored in mahogany cabinets. He heard voices in the adjacent kitchen.


Although additional members of the household staff were at work during the day, the Tings were the only live-ins. Yet Ryan could not at once identify the speakers as Lee and Kay, because they conversed quietly, almost whispering.


Usually, the Tings would be in bed at this hour. Their workday began at eight o’clock in the morning.


Although throughout his life Ryan had not once been troubled by superstition, he was now overcome by a sense of the uncanny. He felt suddenly that his house hid secrets, that within these rooms were realms unknown, and that for his well-being, he must learn all that was being concealed from him.


Putting his left ear to the crack between the jamb and the swinging door, he strained to hear what was being said.


The spacious kitchen had been designed to function for caterers when large parties required the preparation of elaborate buffets. The low voices softly reverberated off the extensive granite countertops and off the many stainless-steel appliances.


Risking discovery, he eased the door open an inch. The voices did not become recognizable, nor did the murmurs and whispers resolve from sibilant sounds into words.


Ryan did, however, additionally hear the quiet clink and ping of dishes, which seemed curious. Lee and Kay would have washed the dinnerware hours ago, and if they had wanted a late snack, they would have prepared it in the kitchenette that was part of their private suite.


He heard also a peculiar grinding noise, soft and rhythmic. This was not an everyday sound, but vaguely familiar and-for reasons he could not define-sinister.


Gradually his eavesdropping began to seem foolish. The only thing sinister in his house was his imagination, which had been dizzied and led into dark byways by the specter of his mortality.


Nevertheless, when he thought to press the swinging door inward and learn the identity of those in the kitchen, fear swelled in him. His heart abruptly clopped as hard as hooves on stone, and so fast that all Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might have been approaching.


He eased the door shut, backed away from it.


With his right hand over his heart and his left hand against a cabinet to steady himself, he waited for another seizure to sweep his legs out from under him and leave him helpless on the floor.


The butler’s pantry went dark around him.


Ryan might have thought he’d gone blind, except for the lights in the hallway, beyond the open door by which he had entered.


Past the closed swinging door, lights had been extinguished in the kitchen. A wall switch in that room also controlled the pantry.


Now the hallway fell into darkness.


The windowless pantry could not have been blacker if it had been a padded silk-lined clamshell of mortuary bronze.


Able to hear nothing above the noise of his treacherous heart, Ryan became convinced that someone approached, someone whose vision was as keen in this perfect gloom as was the vision of a cat prowling in moonlight. He waited for a hand to be laid on his shoulder, or for a stranger’s cold fingers to be pressed against his lips.


The weight of his heart insisted that he sit on the floor. His knees buckled, and he slid down the face of a cabinet, the drawer pulls gouging his back.


Minutes passed during which the riot in his breast failed to accelerate into full-blown anarchy, and in fact gradually a normal beat was reestablished, a measured rhythm.


His weakness abated, and with the return of his strength, his fear soured into humiliation.


The drawer pulls became handholds by which Ryan drew himself to his feet. He felt his way through the clinging darkness to the swinging door.


There he listened to the kitchen. No murmurs, no whispers, no clink or ping, no soft but ominous grinding noise.


He passed through the door, eased it shut, and stood with his back to it.


To his right, above the primary sinks and the flanking counters, were windows facing west. The glow of the Newport Beach lowlands and the moon above the sea defined the panes.


He dared the light switch and found that he was alone.


In addition to the door to the pantry, the big kitchen had three other exits: the first to a patio, the second to the breakfast room, and the last to the back hall. The breakfast room also offered a door to the patio and another to the hallway.


Surely, the voices had been those of Lee and Kay. They had been engaged on some mundane task, unaware that he was in the butler’s pantry.


But with Ryan supposedly asleep in his bedroom one floor above and at the farther end of the big house, why had the Tings been whispering?


At each end of the kitchen, as at other points throughout the house, Crestron panels were embedded in the wall. He touched one, and the screen brightened. From this, he could control the lighting, the through-house audio, the heating and cooling, and other systems.


He selected the security display and saw that according to established routine, the Tings had engaged the perimeter alarm. No intruders could have entered the house without triggering a siren and a recorded voice identifying the breach point.


Twenty exterior cameras provided views of the grounds. He cycled through them. Although the night-vision technology offered different clarity from camera to camera, depending on ambient light conditions, he saw no prowlers on his property, no motion other than the darting paleness of an occasional moth.


He returned to the master suite, but not to bed. In an alcove, off the sitting room where he had taken dinner, stood an amboina-wood Art Deco desk, circa 1928. He sat there, but not to work.


Lee and Kay Ting had been employed here two years. They were talented, dedicated, and reliable.


Their backgrounds had been thoroughly investigated by Wilson Mott, a former homicide detective, now a security consultant, to whom Ryan turned for all matters that were not directly related to his company, Be2Do.


Yet Forry Stafford had said something that replayed in memory: Scarring of the endocardium, amyloidosis, poisoning…


With every repetition, Forry’s remembered voice seemed to place a more ominous emphasis on the word poisoning, even though he had not considered it a possibility in Ryan’s case.


For a man who had been healthy all his life, not just healthy but vigorous, sudden serious heart disease seemed to require an explanation beyond the genetic disposition or the malfunctioning of his body. A life of struggle and arduous competition had taught him that in this world were people whose motives were suspect and whose methods were unscrupulous.


Poison.


A soft paradiddle drew his attention to the west window. The noise ceased the moment that he turned his head to seek the source.


The steely light of the scimitar moon failed to reveal what had tapped the glass. Most likely the visitor had been only a moth or some other nocturnal insect.


He turned his attention to his hands, which were fisted on the desk. Earlier, during the seizure, his heart had felt as if it were tightly held in a cruel fist.


Again, a noise arose at the window, less a sound of something tapping, more the soft insistent rapping of knuckles sheathed in a lambskin glove.


He was on the third floor. No balcony lay beyond this window, nothing but a sheer fall to the lawn. No one could be at those moonlit panes, seeking his attention.


The condition of his heart had affected his mind, rattling his usual confidence. Even something as harmless as a moth could set a quiet fear fluttering through him.


He refused to look again at the window, for to do so seemed to invite a thousand fears to follow. His resistance was rewarded, and the faint tap turned feeble, faded into a persistent silence.


Poison.


His thoughts turned from imagined threats to real ones, to those people he had known, in business, whose greed and envy and ambition had led them to embrace immoral methods.


Ryan had earned his fortune without sharp practice, honestly. Nevertheless, he had made enemies. Some people did not like to lose, even if they lost by their own faults and miscalculations.


After much thought, he made a list of five names.


Among the phone numbers he had for Wilson Mott was a special cell to which the detective responded personally, regardless of the day or hour. Only two or three of Mott’s wealthiest clients possessed the number. Ryan had never abused it.

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