He hesitated to place the call. But intuition told him that he was snared in an extraordinary web of deceit, and that he needed more help than physicians could supply. He keyed in the seven digits.


When Mott answered, sounding as crisp and alert as he did at any more reasonable hour of the day, Ryan identified himself but neither mentioned the five names on his list nor suggested further background research on the Tings, as he had intended. Instead, he said something that so surprised him, he rendered himself speechless after the first sentence that he spoke.


“I want you to find a woman named Rebecca Reach.”


EIGHT


Rebecca Reach. Samantha’s mother.


Ryan had learned only the previous evening, at dinner with Sam, that her mother was alive. For a year, she had allowed him to think that Rebecca had died.


No, that was unfair. Samantha had not misled him. He had assumed Rebecca was dead merely from what little Samantha said of her.


Evidently mother and daughter were so estranged that they did not speak and likely never would. She is dead. To me, Samantha had said.


He could understand why, after Rebecca had pulled the plug on disabled Teresa, Samantha had wanted to close a door on the memories of her lost twin sister and on her mother, whom she felt had betrayed them.


“Do you have anything besides the name?” asked Wilson Mott.


“Las Vegas,” Ryan said. “Rebecca Reach apparently lives in an apartment in Las Vegas.”


“Is that R-e-a-c-h?”


“Yes.”


“What’s the context, Mr. Perry?”


“I’d rather not say.”


“What discovery might you be hoping for?”


“I’m hoping for nothing. Just a general background on the woman. And an address. A phone number.”


“I assume you do not want us to speak to her directly.”


“That’s right. Discretion, please.”


“Perhaps by five o’clock tomorrow,” Mott said.


“Five o’clock will be fine. I’m busy in the morning and early afternoon, anyway.”


Ryan hung up, not sure if what he had done was intuitively brilliant or stupid. He did not know what he expected to learn that would have any application to his current crisis.


All he knew was that he had acted now as often he had done in business, trusting in hunches based on reason. His instincts had made him rich.


If Samantha learned of this, she might think he was unacceptably suspicious, even faithless. With luck, she would never have to know what he had done.


Ryan returned to bed. He tuned the TV to a classic film, Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, then switched off the bedside lamp.


Reclining against a pile of feather pillows, he watched the movie without seeing it.


He had never asked Wilson Mott to run a background check on Samantha. Generally, he reserved such investigations for potential employees.


Besides, she had come to him on assignment for a major magazine, a writer of experience and some critical reputation. He had seen no reason to vet her further when her bona fides proved to be in order and when she had been likely to spend no more than a few hours with him.


Over the years, he had dealt with uncountable people in the media. They were mostly harmless, occasionally armed but then with nothing more dangerous than a bias that justified, in their minds, misquoting him.


If something about Rebecca Reach eventually raised suspicions, however, Mott might have to conduct a deep background investigation on Samantha.


Ryan was disappointed-not in Sam, for there was yet no reason to reconsider her, but in himself. He loved being with her. He loved her. He did not want to believe that his judgment in this instance had been poor, that he had failed to see she was someone other than who she appeared to be.


Worse, he was dismayed by how quickly his fear led him to doubt her. Until this day, the only crises with which he had dealt were business problems-capital shortfalls, delayed product roll-outs, hostile-takeover bids. Now he faced an existential threat, and his justifiable fear of incapacitation and death had coiled into a viper-eyed paranoia that looked less to the weakness of his flesh than to the possibility of enemies with agendas.


Disconcerted if not embarrassed to be so enthralled by fear, he considered calling Wilson Mott to cancel the background workup on Rebecca Reach.


But Forry Stafford had raised the possibility of poisoning. If that was a potential cause of Ryan’s condition, prudence required him to consider it.


He did not touch the phone.


After a while, he switched off the TV.


He could not sleep. In a few hours, the cardiologist, Samar Gupta, would pluck three tiny pieces of tissue from Ryan’s heart. His life depended on what those samples revealed. If the diagnosis was not good, he would have plenty of time to sleep; he would have eternity.


Out of the darkness and morbid silence issued a faint tapping at a new window, muffled by draperies; this window or that-he could not tell which.


When he raised his head to listen, the insistent moth or the flying beetle, or the hand in the lambskin glove, ceased to rap.


Each time he returned his head to the pillow, silence ensued but was not sustained. Sooner or later came a bump and a bump and a bump-bump-bump: muffled, toneless, dull, dead, and flat.


He could have gone to the windows, one at a time, and pulled open the draperies to catch the noisemaker in the act. Instead, he told himself that the muted tapping was imagined, and he turned his mind away from it, toward the more intimate and troubling rhythms of his heart.


He recognized a certain cowardice in this denial. He sensed that on some level he knew who tapped for his attention, and knew that to pull back the draperies and confront this visitor would be the end of him.


NINE


The moon was down, the sky still dark that Friday morning when Ryan set out for the hospital. The urban glow obscured many stars, but to the west, the sea and shore were one and black and vast.


In spite of the fact that he might have a seizure while behind the wheel, he risked driving. He preferred that Lee Ting not know he was undergoing a myocardial biopsy.


He told himself that he didn’t want people who worked for him or who were otherwise close to him to worry. But in fact he did not want to give an enemy, if one existed, the satisfaction-and advantage-of knowing that he was weakened and vulnerable.


As he walked alone through the hospital parking garage, where the sorcerous-sour yellow light polished the carapaces of the cars into iridescent beetle shells, he had the eerie feeling that he was home and sleeping, that this place and the test to come were all moments of a dream within a dream.


From the out-patient admitting desk, an orderly showed him the way to the cardiac diagnostics laboratory.


The head cardiology nurse, Kyra Whipset, could not have been more lean if she had eaten nothing whatsoever but celery and had run half a marathon every day. She had so little body fat that even in high-buoyancy saltwater, she would sink like a dropped anchor.


After ascertaining that Ryan had eaten nothing after midnight, Nurse Whipset provided a sedative and water in a small paper cup.


“This won’t put you to sleep,” she said. “It’ll just relax you.”


A second nurse, Ismay Clemm-an older, pleasantly plump black woman-had green eyes in which the striations were like the bevels in a pair of intricately cut emeralds. Those eyes would have been striking in any face; they were especially arresting because of the contrast with her smooth dark skin.


While Nurse Whipset sat at a corner desk to make an entry in Ryan’s file, Ismay watched him take the sedative. “You okay, child?”


“Not really,” he said, crushing the empty paper cup in his fist.




“This is nothin’,” she assured him as he dropped the cup in a waste can. “I’m here. I’m watchin’ over you. You’ll be just fine.”



By contrast with Nurse Whipset’s ascetic tautness, Ismay’s abundance, which included a musical voice that conveyed caring as effortlessly as it would a tune, comforted Ryan.


“Well, you are taking three pieces of my heart,” he said.


“Tiny pieces, honey. I suspect you’ve taken far bigger pieces from the tender hearts of a few sweet girls. And they’re all still livin’, aren’t they?”


In an adjacent prep room, he stripped to his undershorts, stepped into a pair of disposable slippers, and wrapped himself in a thin, pale-green, collarless robe with short sleeves.


Back in the diagnostics laboratory, Dr. Gupta had arrived, as had the radiologist.


The examination table was more comfortable than Ryan expected. Samar Gupta explained that comfort was necessary because during this procedure, a patient must lie on his back, very still, for at least an hour, in some cases perhaps for two hours or more.


Suspended over the table, a fluoroscope would instantly project moving x-ray images on a fluorescent screen.


As the cardiologist, assisted by Nurse Whipset, prepared for the procedure, Ismay Clemm monitored Ryan’s pulse. “You’re doing fine, child.”


The sedative began to take effect, and he felt calmer, although wide awake.


Kyra Whipset scrubbed Ryan’s neck and painted a portion of it with iodine.


After applying a topical anesthetic to steal the sting from the needle, Dr. Gupta administered a local anesthetic by injection to the same area.


Soon Ryan could feel nothing when the physician tested the nerve response in his neck.


He closed his eyes while something with an astringent smell was swabbed on his numb flesh.


Describing his actions aloud, Dr. Gupta made a small incision in Ryan’s jugular vein and introduced a thin, highly flexible catheter.


Ryan opened his eyes and watched the fluoroscope as it followed the tedious progress of the catheter, which the cardiologist threaded carefully into his heart, guided by the image on the screen.


He wondered what would happen if in the midst of this procedure he suffered a seizure as he had on the surfboard, his heart abruptly hammering two or three hundred beats a minute. He decided not to ask.


“How are you doing?” Dr. Gupta inquired.


“Fine. I don’t feel anything.”


“Just relax. We’re making excellent progress.”


Ryan realized that Ismay Clemm was quietly reporting on his heart rhythm, which evidently had become slightly unstable upon the introduction of the catheter.


Maybe this was normal, maybe not, but the instability passed.


And the beat goes on.


Once the primary catheter was in place, Dr. Gupta inserted into it a second catheter, a bioptome, with tiny jaws at its tip.


Ryan had lost all sense of time. He might have been on the table a few minutes or an hour.


His legs ached. In spite of the sedative, the muscles in his calves were tense. His right hand had tightened into a fist; he opened it, as if hoping to receive another’s hand, a gift.


Long he lay there, wondering, fearing.


The jaws of the bioptome bit.


Inhaling with a hiss through clenched teeth, Ryan didn’t think that he imagined the quick painful pinch, but perhaps he was reacting to the brief frantic stutter of his heart on the fluorescent screen.


Dr. Gupta retrieved the first sample of Ryan’s cardiac muscle.


Nurse Clemm said, “Don’t hold your breath, honey.”


Exhaling, Ryan realized that he expected to die during the procedure.


TEN


In just seventy minutes the biopsy had been completed and the incision repaired with stitches.


The power of the sedative was at its peak, and because Ryan had endured a sleepless night, the drug affected him more strongly than anticipated. Dr. Gupta encouraged Ryan to lie on the narrow bed in the prep room and rest awhile, until he felt fully alert and capable of driving.


The room was windowless. The overhead fluorescent panels were off, and only a fixture in a soffit above the small sink provided light.


The dark ceiling and shadow-hung walls inspired claustrophobia. Thoughts of caskets and the conqueror worm oppressed him, but the phobic moment quickly passed.


Relief that the procedure had gone well and exhaustion were tranquilizing. Ryan did not expect to sleep, but he slept.


To a discordant melody, he walked a dream road along a valley toward a palace high on a slope. Through the red-litten windows he could see vast forms that moved fantastically, and his heart began to pound, to boom, until it beat away that vision and harried in another.


A wild lake, bound all around with black rocks and tall pines, was lovely in its loneliness. Then the inky water rose in a series of small waves that lapped the shore where he stood, and he knew the lake was a pool of poison. Its gulf would be his grave.


Between these brief dreams and others, he half woke and always found Ismay Clemm at his bedside in the dimly lighted room, once taking his pulse, once with her hand to his forehead, sometimes just watching him, her dark face so shadowed that her oddly lit green eyes seemed to be disembodied.


A few times she spoke to him, and on the first occasion, she murmured, “You hear him, don’t you, child?”


Ryan had insufficient strength to ask of whom she spoke.


The nurse answered her own question: “Yes, you hear him.”


Later, between dreams, she said, “You must not listen, child.”


And later still: “If you hear the iron bells, you come to me.”


When he woke more than an hour after lying down, Ryan was alone.


The one light, the many shadows, and the sparely appointed prep room seemed less real to him than either the palace with windows full of red light or the black lake, or the other places in his dreams.


To confirm that he was awake and that the memory of the biopsy was real, he raised one hand to the small bandage on his neck, which covered the jugular wound, the stitches.


He rose, took off the robe, and dressed in his street clothes.


When Ryan entered the adjacent diagnostics lab, Ismay Clemm was nowhere to be seen. Dr. Gupta and the radiologist had gone, as well.


Nurse Whipset asked if he was all right.


He felt unreal, weightless and drifting, as if he were a ghost, an apparition that she mistook for flesh and blood.


Of course, she wasn’t asking if he felt emotionally sound, only if the sedative had worn off. He answered in the affirmative.


She informed him that the analysis of the biopsy specimens would be expedited. In the interest of greater accuracy and the collection of more precise information, however, Dr. Gupta had ordered the most detailed analysis; he didn’t expect to have the report until Tuesday.


Initially, Ryan intended to ask where he could find Ismay Clemm. He had wanted to ask her what she meant by the strange things she said to him during the brief periods when he had been half-awake.


Now, in the sterile brightness of the diagnostics lab, he was not certain that she had actually spoken to him. She might as easily have been merely a presence in his dreams.

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