He retrieved his Mercedes from the garage and drove home.


The clear sky presented more birds, more often, than seemed normal. Flocks were strung out in strange formations, a calligraphy of crows in which some meaning might be read if only he knew the language in which it was composed.


At a red traffic light, when he glanced at the silver Lexus in the adjacent lane, he discovered the driver staring at him: a fortysomething man, face hard and expressionless. They locked eyes, and the stranger’s intensity caused Ryan to look away first.


Two blocks later, at another red light, a young man behind the wheel of a chopped and customized Ford pickup was talking on a hands-free cell phone. Fitted to the guy’s ear, the phone stirred in Ryan a memory from an old science-fiction movie: an alien parasite, riding and controlling its human host.


The pickup driver glanced at Ryan, looked immediately away, but a moment later glanced furtively at him once more; and his lips moved faster, as if Ryan were the subject of his phone conversation.


Miles farther, when Ryan turned off Pacific Coast Highway onto Newport Coast Road, he glanced repeatedly in the rearview mirror, looking for the silver Lexus and the chopped Ford pickup.


At home, staircase to hallway to room after room, Ryan did not encounter Lee or Kay Ting, or Lee’s assistant, Donnie, or Kay’s assistant, Renata.


He heard fading footsteps on a limestone floor, a door close in another room. A distant voice and a single response were both unintelligible.


In the kitchen, he swiftly prepared an early lunch. He avoided fresh foods and containers that were already open, in favor of items in vacuum-sealed cans and jars.


A salad of button mushrooms, artichoke hearts, yellow beets, garbanzo beans, and white asparagus was enlivened with Italian dressing from a previously untapped bottle and by grated Parmesan from a new can that he opened after inspecting it for tampering.


He put the salad on a tray with a sealed package of imported panettone and utensils. After a hesitation, he added a wineglass and a half bottle of Far Niente Chardonnay.


As he carried the tray to his office in the west wing of the main floor, he saw no one, though a vacuum cleaner started in a far chamber.


None of the rooms featured security cameras, but the hallways had them. A video record of hallway traffic was stored on DVDs to be reviewed only in the event that the house was invaded by burglars or victimized by a sneak thief.


No one monitored the hallway cameras in real time. Nevertheless, Ryan felt watched.


ELEVEN


In his home office, Ryan ate at his desk, gazing out of the big windows at the swimming pool in the foreground, at the sea in the distance.


The phone rang: his most private line, a number possessed by a handful of people. The caller-ID window told him it was Samantha.


“Hey, Winky, you still aging gracefully?”


“Well, I haven’t grown any hair in my ears yet.”


“That’s a good sign.”


“And I haven’t developed man breasts.”


“You paint an irresistible portrait of yourself. Listen, I’m sorry about Wednesday night.”


“What about Wednesday night?”


“I brought the whole evening down, talking about Teresa, pulling her feeding tube, the starvation thing.”


“You never bring me down, Sam.”


“You’re sweet. But I want to make it up to you. Come over for dinner tonight. I’ll make saltimbocca alla romana.”


“I love your saltimbocca.”


“With polenta.”


“This is a lot of work.”


“Caponata to start.”


He had no reason to distrust her.


“Why don’t we eat out?” he suggested. “Then there’s no cleanup.”


“I’ll do the cleaning up.”


He loved her. She loved him. She was a good cook. He was succumbing to irrational fear.


“It’s so much work,” he said. “I heard about this great new restaurant.”


“What’s the name?”


The great new restaurant was a lie. He would have to find one. He said, “I want to surprise you.”


“Is something wrong?”


“I’m just in a going-out mood. I want to try this new place.”


They talked about what she should wear, what time he would pick her up.


“Love you,” she said.


“Love you,” he echoed, and disconnected.


He had eaten no more than a third of his lunch, but he had lost his appetite.


With a glass of Far Niente, he went outside, crossed the patio, and stood watching satiny ribbons of sunlight shimmer through the variegated-blue Italian-glass tiles that lined the swimming pool.


He became aware that he was fingering the bandage on his neck.


As Gypsies read tea leaves and palms, some shaman would read those tissue samples and tell him his fate.


The mental image of a Gypsy by candlelight led him to think of stories in which a lock of a man’s hair was used by a practitioner of black magic to cast a curse upon him.


In the hands of a voodooist, three moist pieces of a man’s heart-more intimate and therefore more powerful than a few strands of hair-might be used to destroy him in ways singularly horrific.


When a centipedal chill climbed his spine, when his heart accelerated, when a thin sweat prickled along his hairline, Ryan chastised himself for surrendering to unreason. A warrantless suspicion about Sam had metastasized into superstitious nonsense.


He went back into his office and phoned Samantha. “On second thought, I’d rather have your saltimbocca.”


“What changed your mind?”


“I don’t want to share you with a gaggle of envious men.”


“What gaggle?”


“The waiter, the busboy, and every man in the restaurant who would be lucky enough to lay eyes on you.”


“Sometimes, Winky, you walk a thin line between being a true romantic and a bullshit artist.”


“I’m only speaking from the heart.”


“Well, sweetie, if you’re going to do more of that this evening, bring a shovel. I don’t have one.”



She hung up, and before Ryan could lower the handset from his ear, he heard what might have been a brief, stifled laugh.


Although Sam had disconnected, the dial tone did not return. Ryan listened to the faint hollow hiss of an open line.


“Who’s there?” he asked.


No one answered.


The house phone was a digital hybrid system with ten lines, plus intercom and doorbell functions. None of the phone lines was shared, and no other phones in the house could eavesdrop on a line that was in use.


He waited for another telltale sound, like guarded breathing or a background noise in the room where the listener sat, but he was not rewarded. He had nothing more than an impression of someone out there in the ether, a hostile presence that might or might not be real.


At last he returned the handset to the cradle.


By four o’clock Friday afternoon, sooner than promised, Wilson Mott provided by e-mail a background report on Samantha’s mother.


As soon as Ryan had a printout, he sent the e-mail to trash, and at once deleted it from trash to ensure no one could retrieve it. He sat on a lounge chair by the pool to read Mott’s findings.


Rebecca Lorraine Reach, fifty-six, lived in a Las Vegas apartment complex called the Oasis. She was employed as a blackjack dealer at one of the classier casinos.


By means most likely questionable, Mott had obtained the current photo of Rebecca on file with the Nevada Gaming Control Board. She looked no older than forty-and remarkably like her daughter.


She owned a white Ford Explorer. Her driving record was clean.


She had never been a party to a criminal or civil action in Nevada. Her credit report indicated a responsible borrowing history.


According to a neighbor, Amy Crocker, Rebecca rarely socialized with other tenants at the Oasis, had a “my-poop-don’t-smell attitude,” never spoke of having a daughter, either dead or alive, and was in a romantic relationship with a man named Spencer Barghest.


Mott reported that Barghest had been indicted twice for murder, in Texas, and twice had been judged innocent. As a noted right-to-die activist, he had been present at scores of assisted suicides. There was reason to believe that some of those whom he had assisted were not terminally-or even chronically-ill, and that the signatures on their requests for surcease from suffering were forged.


Ryan had no idea how an assisted suicide was effectuated. Maybe Barghest supplied an overdose of sedatives, which would be a painless poison but a kind of poison nonetheless.


Mott’s report included a photo of Spencer Barghest. He had an ideal face for a stand-up comic: agreeable but rubbery features, a knowing yet ingratiating grin, and a shock of white hair cut in a punkish bristle that looked amusing on a fiftysomething guy.


Because he might be critically ill, Ryan was troubled to find only three degrees of separation between himself and a man who would be pleased to grant him eternal peace whether he wanted it or not.


This, however, did not confirm his intuitive sense that Sam’s mother-and perhaps Samantha herself-was linked to his sudden health problems.


Life was often marked by synchronicities, surprising connections that seemed to be meaningful. But coincidence was only coincidence.


Barghest might be a nasty piece of work, but there was nothing sinister in his relationship with Rebecca, nothing relating to Ryan.


In his current state of mind, he had to guard against a tendency toward paranoia. Such a regrettable inclination had already led him to order Mott’s report on Samantha’s mother.


Rebecca had turned out to be an ordinary person leading an unremarkable existence. Ryan’s suspicion had been irrational.


Now that he thought about it, the presence of Spencer Barghest in Rebecca Reach’s life was not surprising. It didn’t even qualify as a coincidence, let alone a suspicious one.


Six years ago, she had made the difficult decision to remove a feeding tube from her brain-damaged daughter. A weight of guilt might have settled on her-especially when Samantha strenuously disagreed with her decision.


To assuage the guilt, Rebecca might have pored through right-to-die literature, seeking philosophical justification for what she had done. She might even have joined an activist organization, and at one of its meetings might have encountered Spencer Barghest.


Because Samantha had been estranged from her mother since Teresa’s death, she probably didn’t even know that Barghest and Rebecca were an item.


Ashamed that he had entertained any doubts about Sam, Ryan got up from the poolside lounge chair and returned to his study.


He sat at his desk and switched on the paper shredder. For a long moment, he listened to its motor purring, its blades scissoring.


Finally he switched off the shredder. He put the report in a wall safe behind a sliding panel in the back of a built-in cabinet.


Fear had gotten its teeth so firmly into him that he could not easily pry it loose.


TWELVE


Over the years, the immense pepper tree had conformed around the second-story deck. Consequently, the feeling of being in a tree house was even greater here than when you looked out of the apartment windows.


Samantha had draped a red-checkered cloth over the patio table and had set out white dishes, flatware, and a red bowl of white roses.


Filtered through the tree, late golden sunlight showered her with a wealth of bright coins as she poured for Ryan a Cabernet Sauvignon that was beyond her budget, while he lied to her about the reason for the bandage on his neck.


Following a crimson sunset and purple twilight, she lit red candles in clear cups and served dinner as the stars came out, with a Connie Dover CD of Celtic music turned low.


Having allowed fear to raise doubts about Sam, having ordered a background report on her mother, Ryan initially expected to feel awkward in her company. In a sense, he had betrayed her trust.


He was at once, however, at ease with her. Her singular beauty did more to improve his mood than did the wine, and a dinner superbly prepared was less nourishing than the faultless golden smoothness of her skin.


After dinner, after they stacked the dishes in the sink, and over the last of the wine, she said, “Let’s go to bed, Winky.”


Suddenly Ryan was concerned that impotence might prove to be a symptom of his illness. He need not have worried.


In bed, in motion, he wondered briefly if lovemaking would stress his heart and trigger a seizure. He survived.


Cuddling afterward, his arm around Samantha and her head upon his chest, he said, “I’m such an idiot.”


She sighed. “Surely you didn’t just arrive at this realization.”


“No. The thought has occurred to me before.”


“So what happened recently to remind you?”


If he confessed his absurd suspicions, he would be forced to disclose his health concerns. He did not want to worry her until he had Dr. Gupta’s report and knew the full extent of his problem.


Instead, he said, “I threw out those sandals.”


“The pair recycled from old tires?”


“I was suckered by the planet-friendly name of the company-Green Footwear.”


“You’re gorgeous, Dotcom, but you’re still a geek.”


For a long while, they talked about nothing important, which sometimes can be the best kind of conversation.


Samantha drifted into sleep, a golden vision in the lamplight, and Ryan soon traded the soothing sight of her for dreams.


Dream changed fluidly into dream, until he was in a city in the sea, at the bottom of an abyss. Shrines and palaces and towers were lit by eerie light streaming up domes, up spires, up kingly halls, up fanes, up Babylon-like walls. He drifted through flooded streets, drowned in deep-sea silence…until he heard a bass throbbing full of melancholy menace. Although he knew the source of the sound, he dared not name it, for to name it would be to embrace it.


He woke in low light. The dread that weighed him down was not of an imminent threat but of some monumental peril he sensed coming in the weeks and months ahead, not the failure of his body but some worse and nameless jeopardy. His heart did not race, but each beat was like a heavy piston stroke in some great slow machine.


Although Samantha’s alluring scent clung to the sheets, she had risen from the bed while Ryan slept. He was alone in the room.


The digital clock on the nightstand read 11:24 P.M. He had been asleep less than an hour.


The light that came through the half-open door called to mind the strange glow in the submerged city of his dream.


He pulled on his khakis and, barefoot, went in search of Sam.


In the combination dining room and living room, beside an armchair, a bronze floorlamp with a beaded-glass shade provided a brandy-colored light, dappling the floor with bead gleam and bead shadow.

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