Under the circumstances, that assurance seemed to mock him.
When he entered the lock code in the illuminated keypad, SECURE changed to ACCESS. After a hesitation, he opened the foot-square steel door.
The safe had contained four thousand dollars in cash, to be used in an emergency, two expensive watches, and a pair of diamond links for French cuffs, which he never wore. None of those items had been touched.
Also in the safe had been a small, hinged jewelry-display box containing the $85,000 engagement ring, already sized to Samantha’s hand, that he had not been able to persuade her to accept. The box remained, and when Ryan opened it, the ring sparkled.
The previous night, he had also stowed the candy hearts in this safe. The ribbon-tied cellophane bag and all that it contained were gone.
This he had seen but not registered when, minutes before, he had been frantic to retrieve the pistol.
What he had not noticed earlier, but now discovered, was that the box of 9-mm cartridges had also been taken. He did not need to sort through the contents of the small compartment. The box could not be buried under the other items: They were follies and small; the box was full of mortality, big and heavy.
Ryan could not at first understand why an intruder, finding the safe, would take the bullets but not the delivery system, leaving him with ten rounds for defense.
Yes. Well. Of course.
He ejected the magazine from the pistol. The ten cartridges had been removed from it, as well.
Believing as he did in the necessity of action, Ryan had plunged into a search for an intruder, racing from room to room, tearing open doors, armed with a useless weapon, discovering no one to shoot, but now he had been pride-shot and humiliated by the metaphoric bullet of his adversary’s mockery.
A seven-digit access number opened the safe’s programming to Ryan. He deleted his former lock combination and entered a new one based on a date important to him but meaningless to anyone else.
He suspected this was wasted effort. He alone had possessed the previous code, but someone had violated the safe anyway.
To open the panel that concealed the safe, he had used a hidden switch incorporated into the rheostat that controlled the closet lighting.
Although the trim plate that covered the junction box appeared to be fixed to the wall with two screws, they were only screw heads. They had no function except deception.
The control stick slid up for brighter, down for dimmer. When the stick was all the way at the top of the slot, you could press up on the trim plate, moving it one click at a time on the hidden track to which it was attached. The combination that caused the panel to slide open, revealing the safe, was three clicks up, two clicks back, and two clicks up.
The pressure required to move the trim plate was sufficient that this secret function could not be accidentally discovered by a maid cleaning the closet.
A local alarm company, vetted and recommended by Wilson Mott, had installed both this small safe and a concealed walk-in model on the ground floor. They were bonded, with a long history of reliable service, and Ryan doubted that one of their employees was tormenting him.
Tormenting seemed to be the operative word, for if the immediate intention had been to harm him, he would already be dead.
Torment was a form of violence, however, and anyone who enjoyed inflicting it might be expected to move from psychological torment to physical, even to murder.
He put the useless pistol in the safe. In addition to removing the ammunition, the intruder might have tampered with the weapon. Ryan did not know enough about guns to trust his examination of the 9-mm to reveal any subtle but critical damage that had been done to it.
Before he bought another box of cartridges, reloaded, and tested the pistol, he would have it examined by someone with the experience to certify its reliability. He didn’t know if a tricked-up gun could explode in his hand when he pulled the trigger, but he wasn’t going to find out the hard way.
Alternately, he could purchase a new pistol. The law required a waiting period for a handgun, however, and Ryan suspected that his tormentor had an agenda and a timetable that would bring them to a brink before the waiting period had passed.
As he closed the safe and watched the concealing panel slide into place, he realized that if the intruder had known about this wall safe, another secret of the house had most likely also been compromised.
In the bedroom once more, he plucked an electronic key from the nightstand drawer. He went to a six-foot-by-six-foot painting that was mounted tight to the south wall, and held the blunt end of the key to one of the eyes of a tiger in the painting. Behind that very spot, a lock-code reader triggered the release of the bolts that held in place the painting and the portion of the wall to which it was attached.
Most houses of this size and complexity featured a panic room in which the owners could take refuge in the event of a home-invasion robbery or a similar crisis. This one measured twelve by sixteen feet.
The door that was a painting swung inward. Ryan stepped over the raised threshold, into a fireproof space formed of poured-in-place concrete, lined with quarter-inch steel plate, and upholstered in the highest-quality soundproofing.
A land-line separate from the house phone system, dedicated electric service unrelated to the rest of the estate, dedicated incoming fresh-air and air-exhaust lines made the panic room self-sustaining. Invaders could cut the house services-or in a siege situation, they could be cut by authorities-and this haven would still function.
Packaged food, bottled water, a corner toilet, a backup chemical toilet, and other supplies would support those who took shelter here for several days. Two chairs and a bed were also provided.
On the bed lay the cellophane bag of candy hearts.
In slippers, with a bathrobe over his pajamas, turning on lights as he went, Ryan hurried down four flights of stairs to the bottom floor of the house, directly to the service hall at the end of which lay the laundry room.
One of the storage rooms off that hall, the one that interested him now, always remained locked, but he possessed a key. In a corner of this room stood a wide, tall, black metal cabinet, also locked, which for convenience could be opened with the same key.
In the cabinet were racked recorders that stored on magnetic disks the observations of the estate security cameras. Twenty cameras kept watch on the exterior of the house and the grounds. Seven others maintained surveillance of the interior hallways and the penthouse landing, though no cameras intruded into any rooms.
He switched on a monitor that presented him with a menu from which he selected with a remote control. He was most interested in the camera that covered the penthouse landing, because it recorded everyone who, either by staircase or elevator, arrived in this area en route to the door of the master suite.
After he had specified the camera, the menu instructed him to enter the date, the hour, and the minute from which he wanted to begin viewing. He chose this date, this hour, thirty minutes earlier.
The twenty-by-fourteen-foot landing outside the master suite appeared on the screen. The date was noted on the lower left side. On the lower right, a digital clock kept a running count of the hour, minute, and second.
Intently focused on the recording, Ryan fast-forwarded to review in fifteen minutes the next thirty minutes’ worth of images.
Near the beginning, he watched himself come off the stairs and proceed to the master-suite door, carrying Samantha’s book, on his way to bed.
To conserve storage space, the camera didn’t record fluid video but took a snapshot every half second. On screen, Ryan moved like a figure in an animation sequence drawn on stacks of flippable cards.
Earlier, when he entered the bedroom, he had first checked the bed to see if a second gift awaited. Finding nothing on his pillow, he had spent some time brushing his teeth, preparing for the night.
Now, minute after minute, the camera failed to show anyone entering the locked master suite after him.
Here was proof that when he had gone into the suite, an intruder must have been there already, in the retreat off the bedroom.
While Ryan had gotten ready for bed, the unknown-but now soon to be seen-giver of gifts had placed the pendant and left the suite, somehow locking the blind deadbolt upon exiting.
But the video failed to support that theory. No one came out of the master suite until Ryan himself appeared again, this time wearing a bathrobe over his pajamas, hurrying to the stairs and ultimately to this room in which he now studied the security recording.
His search of the suite, following the discovery of the heart pendant, had been thorough. He had not missed any place where even a small child could have hidden.
Now he accessed the recording made by the camera that covered the third-floor deck outside the master-suite retreat, and studied the same time period. A single deck lamp provided enough light for the night-vision camera to present a picture nearly as bright as one taken during the day. No one departed by that door or by one of those two windows, either.
When he reviewed the recording of the other master-level deck, he saw no one come out of the door or out of the windows that opened directly off the bedroom.
No one had left the suite, but no one had been there when he searched every niche of the place.
Judging by the evidence, the gold pendant must have materialized magically on the pillow.
What appeared to be magical, however, must be always and only an ordinary event rendered enigmatic by the lack of one crucial fact.
Ryan racked his brain to think of what that fact might be, but both reason and imagination failed him.
Frustrated, about to switch off the monitor, he decided to have a look at the recordings made at twilight, the previous day, on the south lawn, when he had been reading in the solarium and had discovered he was under observation. Two cameras covered that area.
The system stored all of these recordings for thirty days, then dumped them unless otherwise instructed.
The first camera, mounted on the house, provided approximately the view that Ryan would have had from his armchair. It presented now the clotted gray goose-down sky, the drizzle, the solemn trees, the slithering fog, the saturated yard across which the hooded trespasser had glided.
He ran the scene beginning prior to the onset of twilight, and watched as the watery light drained from the day. Night came, but the intruder did not.
Disbelieving, having fast-forwarded through the recording, Ryan watched it again, but in real time, which seemed interminable. Sky, rain, trees, fog, inconstant light fading to darkness-but no visitor either ominous or otherwise.
The second south-lawn camera was mounted on a limb of an Indian laurel, covering some of the same ground from a different angle. The three deodar cedars, from the shadows of which the hooded figure had made its second appearance, were central to this view.
Through the fading light, into darkfall, no phantom glided forth from beneath the majestic drooping boughs of the cedars.
The previous evening, damn it, he had seen something. He had not merely hallucinated the figure. It was neither a trick of rain and fog nor a reflection on the window glass of some palm or fern in the solarium. He’d seen someone in a hooded raincoat, maybe a woman, moving and wet and real.
The watcher in the rain was as real as the candy hearts, as real as the gold heart pendant that lay now…
On the nightstand. Yes. After holding it by the chain and seeing the inscription, he put it on the nightstand. Later, after finding the cellophane bag of candy in the panic room, he had put that on the nightstand, as well.
Ryan switched off the monitor, locked the cabinet, left the storage room, locked the door, and returned to the master suite, overcome by a grim expectation.
On the nightstand stood only the lamp and the clock. The bag of candy and the pendant were gone.
A frantic but exhaustive search of the master suite turned up neither item.
When, last of all, he opened the safe with the new combination that he had recently programmed, the pendant and candy hearts were not in there, either. And like the ammunition before it, the pistol had been taken.
Because the master suite was not secure, Ryan could not assume that he would be safe when sleeping.
He considered spending the night in one of the guest quarters or bedding down in an unlikely place, such as the laundry. But if he was not safe in this third-floor redoubt, no haven existed anywhere within these walls.
Briefly he considered decamping to a hotel, but indignation at these violations of his privacy swiftly swelled into a righteous anger. He had not lived through a heart transplant only to run like a frightened child from a tormentor whose pranks were sophisticated in execution but insipid in concept, the kind of psycho-movie crap that made teenage girls scream in terror and delight.
Denied a gun, he went into the retreat to choose a knife.
The under-counter refrigerator contained not only soft drinks and bottled water, but also items on which he sometimes snacked: a variety of cheeses, a few pieces of fresh fruit.
A drawer in the bar cabinet contained utensils, including flatware and knives. There were a paring knife to peel the fruit, a standard kitchen knife with an eight-inch blade, and a more pointed knife with a serrated edge.
He chose the kitchen knife and returned with it to the bedroom. He placed it under the pillow beside his, on which Samantha had not rested her head in a long time.
Reclining against his mound of pillows, he switched on the TV but pressed MUTE. He watched a sitcom that was no funnier silent than it would have been with sound.
His mind relentlessly circled a disturbing corollary. If people were conspiring to torment and possibly to harm him now, then the conspiracy he had suspected before his transplant, which eventually he had pretty much dismissed as imaginary, had almost surely been real.
An element of that conspiracy had been the possibility that his cardiomyopathy had been the consequence of poisoning. So if he had been poisoned then, he should assume that he would be poisoned again, that his new heart would be destroyed like his first.
If that was true, he probably had been poisoned already. Trusting his new staff, he had eaten and drunk what they served.
He wondered how long after poisoning the heart-muscle damage manifested.
Of course the staff might be innocent. If some stranger could come and go from the house at will, undetected, the ingredients of Ryan’s meals might have been poisoned without the involvement of the Amorys or their assistants.
An alternative assumption and corollary demanded consideration. If the perceived conspiracy and poisoning before his transplant had been imagined, then the current incidents might be imagined, too.
Indeed, he had nothing-not the raincoat-hooded presence on video, not the pendant, not the candy-to prove that any of these recent, taunting incidents had occurred.
Before his transplant, he had been on three medications that Dr. Gupta prescribed. Post-surgery, he took twenty-eight. If a drug or combination of drugs could, as a side effect, induce paranoid delusions and hallucinations, he was at greater risk now than he’d been a year previous.