Closer consideration revealed that none of the books offered a serious program for either self-assessment or wise money management. They were about the mystical power of positive thinking, about wishing your way to success, about one arcane secret or another that guaranteed to revolutionize your finances and your life.
In essence, they were get-rich-quick books. They promised great prosperity with little work.
That Rebecca collected so many volumes of this nature suggested that she had drifted through the years on dreams of wealth. By now, at the age of fifty-six, disappointment and frustration might have left her bitter-and impatient.
None of these volumes would suggest that you marry your daughter off to a wealthy man and poison him to gain control of his fortune. Any illiterate person could conceive such a plan, without need for the inspiration of a book.
At once, Ryan regretted leaping to such an unkind conclusion. By suspecting Rebecca of such villainy, he was being unfair to Samantha.
Months ago, he proposed to Sam. If she were involved in a scheme to murder him for his money, she would have accepted his proposal on the spot. By now they would be husband and wife.
In one of the desk drawers, Ryan found eight magazines. On top of the stack was the issue of Vanity Fair that contained Samantha’s profile of him.
Each of the other seven magazines, published over a period of two years, contained an article by Samantha.
Sam might be estranged from her mother, but Rebecca apparently followed her daughter’s career with interest.
He paged through all the publications, searching for a letter, a note, a Post-it, anything that might prove that Sam had sent the magazines to her mother. His search was fruitless.
In the well-appointed bathroom and the large bedroom, he found nothing of interest. As regarded Rebecca if not her daughter, Ryan had already discovered enough to sharpen his distrust into mistrust.
Wilson Mott’s nameless operative waited in the foyer. After setting the door to latch behind them, she left the apartment with Ryan.
She surprised him by taking his hand and smiling as if they were lovers setting off for lunch and an afternoon adventure. Perhaps on the theory that no one would suspect them if they called attention to themselves, she chattered brightly about a movie she’d recently seen.
As they followed the public balcony that served the second floor and descended the open stairs to the courtyard, Ryan twice muttered a response. Both times she laughed with delight, as though he were the wittiest of conversationalists.
Both her voice and her laugh were musical, her eyes sparkling with an elfin sense of fun.
When they stepped through the copper-green front gate, out of the courtyard onto the public sidewalk in front of the Oasis, her voice lost all its music. The arc of humor in her ripe mouth went flatline, and her eyes were gravestone-gray once more.
She let go of him and blotted her palm on her skirt.
With chagrin, Ryan realized that his hand had been damp with sweat when she had taken hold of it.
“I’m parked in the next block,” she said. “George will take you back to your hotel.”
“What about Spencer Barghest?”
“He’s at home right now. We have reason to believe he’s going out tonight. We’ll take you into his place then.”
As Ryan watched her walk away from him, he wondered who she was when she wasn’t on the job for Wilson Mott. Might the cold gray gaze be most indicative of the real woman-or might the musical laugh and elfin eyes be the truth of her?
He was no longer confident that he could discover the essential truth of anyone.
He returned to the Mercedes sedan, where George Zane waited.
On the way back to the hotel, seen through the tinted windows, the world seemed to change subtly but continuously before Ryan’s weary eyes-flattened by sunlight, bent by shadow, every surface harder than he remembered it, every edge sharper-until it seemed that this was not the Earth to which he had been born.
From the hotel, using his cell rather than the disposable phone, Ryan Perry called Samantha because he had promised to do so in the few lines he had written on her kitchen notepad the previous night.
He was relieved to get her voice mail. He claimed to have flown to Denver on unexpected business and said he would be home Tuesday.
He also said he loved her, and it sounded like the truth to him.
Although he rarely drank wine before dinner, he ordered a half bottle of Lancaster Cabernet Sauvignon with his room-service lunch.
He had intended to visit the casino where Rebecca Reach worked as a blackjack dealer. He wanted to get a look at her in the flesh.
Although he hadn’t intended to play at her table, it now seemed unwise even to observe her from a distance. If she had read her daughter’s article in Vanity Fair, she had seen photos of Ryan.
Perhaps Rebecca remained in contact with her daughter, contrary to what Samantha had said, in which case she must not catch a glimpse of Ryan here when he claimed to be in Denver.
After lunch, he hung the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door. Relaxed by the wine, he stretched out fully clothed on the bed.
Hard desert light pressed at the edges of the closed draperies, but the room was cool, shadowy, narcoleptic.
He dreamed of the city under the sea. Lurid light streamed through the abyss, projecting tormented shadows across shrines, towers, palaces, up bowers of sculptured ivy and stone flowers.
Drifting along strangely lit yet dark streets, he moved less like a swimmer than like a ghost. Soon he realized he was following a spectral figure, a pale something or someone.
When his quarry glanced back, she was Ismay Clemm; the paleness was her nurse’s uniform. Ryan had an urgent question, though he could not remember it. Throughout his dream, he never drew close enough to Ismay for his voice to carry to her through the drowned streets.
Daylight was waning beyond the draperies when he woke. In a lake of darkness, the suite’s furniture loomed like gray islands.
Whether or not the soft insistent rapping had awakened him, Ryan heard it now. The disorientation that accompanied the sudden disembarkation from a dream slowly ebbed, until he identified the adjoining chamber as the source of the sound.
In the living room, he switched on a lamp, and the rapping drew him to the door. He put one eye to the lens that gave him a wide view of the public corridor, but no one stood out there.
Now that Ryan was fully awake, the tap-tap-tap seemed to come from a living-room window that offered an expansive view of the Las Vegas Strip.
At the horizon, the blood-drop sun pressed on jagged mountains, swelled, burst, and streamed red across the western heavens.
Here on the eleventh floor, nothing cast itself against the window except the blinking lights and throbbing neon of the casinos that, with nightfall, used luminous titillation and sham glamour to lure the moneyed herd in the street toward penury.
Turning from the window, Ryan heard the soft knock coming from a different direction. He followed it to the bathroom door, which he had left closed.
The door could only be latched from the inside. No one would be in there, knocking to be let out.
Hesitantly, with an increasing sense that he was in jeopardy, he stepped into the bathroom, switched on the light, and blinked in the dazzle of bright reflections.
A new hollow, sonorous quality to the sound suggested that it might be issuing from a drainpipe. After he opened the shower door and then bent to each of the two sinks, he still could not identify the source.
Drawn back into the bedroom, Ryan now thought the tap-tap-tap came from the big plasma-screen TV, although he had never switched it on.
You must not listen, child.
The sudden deterioration of his health had left him emotionally vulnerable. He began to wonder about his mental stability.
On the nightstand, the disposable cell phone rang.
When Ryan answered it, George Zane said, “The way is clear for your second visit. I’ll be out front in half an hour with the car.”
Ryan pressed END, put down the phone, and waited for the rapping sound to begin again.
The persistent silence didn’t quell his unfocused anxiety. He had not let anyone into the suite, yet he felt that he was no longer alone.
Resisting the irrational urge to search every corner and closet, he took a quick shower. When steam clouded the glass door, he wiped it away to maintain a clear view of the bathroom.
Dressed and ready for the night, he felt neither refreshed nor less concerned about the possible presence of another in the suite. Surrendering to paranoia, he searched closets, behind furniture.
He tried the sliding door to the balcony. Locked. No one was out there anyway.
In the spacious foyer, he glanced at his reflection in the mirror above the console. Although he half expected someone to appear in the suite behind him, no one did.
Spencer Barghest, indicted twice for murder in Texas and twice found innocent, lived in a middle-class neighborhood of single-story ranch houses.
After George Zane drove past the address to park half a block away and across the street from the Barghest residence, Ryan walked back to the house.
The warm night air was so dry that it would not support the fragrances of trees and flowering shrubs, only the generic alkaline scent of the desert upon which the city had encroached but over which it had not triumphed.
Landscape spotlights, fixed high in lacy melaleucas, cast on the front walkway leaf shadows so crisp they ought to have crunched underfoot.
Light glowed behind the curtained windows, and the nameless brunette with the soft mouth and the stony eyes greeted him before he could ring the bell.
Inside, as the woman closed the door behind them, Ryan said, “How long do I have?”
“Three or four hours at least. He’s out to dinner with Rebecca Reach.”
“They take that long for dinner?”
“Dinner and horizontal dancing at her place. According to our sources, Barghest is a Viagra cowboy. There’s not a day he doesn’t take a dose and ride.”
“Dr. Death is a Don Juan?”
“You’re giving him too much credit. He’s a slut.”
“What if they come back here?”
“They won’t. Maybe a few nut-case women find this decor arousing, but most don’t. Rebecca’s one who doesn’t.”
In the living room, she showed him what she meant. In addition to the expected furniture, there were two dead men, one dead woman, all naked.
Having read a newspaper story about exhibitions of cadaver art touring fine museums and galleries and universities nationwide, Ryan knew at once that these were not sculptures, not mere representations of dead people. They were painstakingly preserved corpses.
These dead had been treated with antibacterial solutions, drying agents, and numerous preservatives. Thereafter they were submerged in polyurethane, which sealed them in an airtight glaze that prevented decomposition, and were strapped to armatures supporting them in various postures.
One of the men apparently had died of a wasting disease; he was emaciated. His narrow lips were pinched tight. One eye closed, the other open, he appeared to have lacked the courage to turn his full gaze on approaching Death.
The second man looked healthy; the cause of his death was not evident. He seemed to be alive, except that the polyurethane made him glisten head to foot like a well-basted holiday turkey.
Evidently the middle-aged woman had died soon after a single mastectomy, because the lurid scars had not yet healed before she passed. As was true also of the men, her head had been shaved.
Her blue eyes fixed Ryan with a look of mortification and horror, as though she were aware of the atrocities to which she had been subjected after death.
When he could speak, Ryan asked: “The authorities know he has these?”
“Each…person in the collection either signed over his body to Barghest before death-or the family did so. He’s displayed them at various events.”
“The experts say no, none.”
“Certainly isn’t good for anyone’s mental health.”
“It’s all been adjudicated. Courts believe it’s legitimate art, a political statement, cultural anthropology, educational, hip, cool, fun.”
Squeamish not because he stood in the company of the dead but because he felt that their exploitation was an affront to human dignity, Ryan looked away from the three specimens.
“When do we start feeding Christians to the lions?” he wondered.
“Tickets go on sale next Wednesday.”
She returned to the foyer to allow him to tour the house alone.
A hallway led off the living room, and a fourth glistening cadaver stood at the end, bathed in light from an art spot.
This man must have perished in an accident or possibly as the consequence of a brutal beating. The left eye was swollen shut in his battered face, and the right was red with blood. A cheekbone had been crushed. The frontal bone of his skull had fractured into two plates, and one had slightly dislocated from the other.
Ryan wondered if the brain remained in the skull or if it had been removed. Likewise, the internal organs. He didn’t know every step taken in the preservation process.
Already, he had begun to adjust to this barbaric “art,” finding it no less offensive than before, but nevertheless letting curiosity and a kind of dark wonder armor him against pity and outrage.
He told himself that his response to these abominations was not apathy, not even indifference, but necessary stoicism. If he did not repress his sympathy for these men and women and his disgust at what had been done to their remains, he would not be able to continue with the necessary search that he had come here to conduct.
In the bedroom, an armature supported a dead woman in a seated position. Her suggestive posture and the intensity of her dead stare so disturbed Ryan that he made only the most cursory inspection of the room and the adjacent closet.
Barghest’s home office contained the sole significant discovery related to Ryan’s personal situation.
On a bookshelf, among more ordinary volumes, were two ring binders of high-quality eight-by-ten color photographs. Faces.
Every face was expressionless, and not a single pair of eyes regarded the camera or appeared to be focused on anything. These were the faces of dead people.
A clear-plastic sleeve protected each photo. Affixed to each sleeve, a small label offered what might have been a file number neatly printed by hand.
Ryan assumed that these people had requested Barghest-or their families had requested him-to assist their departure from this world by suicide or, in the case of the mentally incapacitated, by the administration of some lethal but untraceable substance.
The absence of names and dates of death suggested that Barghest thought the photographs might be incriminating in spite of society’s current tolerance for the kind of compassion that he so enjoyed administering.