“She’s making this worse for me,” Jimmy said to Ryan. “Bitch won’t let me have a joint. Make her let me have one.”
“I don’t set the rules here, Dad.”
“It’s your house, isn’t it?”
“Dad, go with Bamping.”
“Go with what?”
“Bamping. That’s his name. Go with him now.”
“What kind of name is Bamping?”
“Don’t do this anymore, Dad.”
“When they bought your company, did they buy your balls?”
“Yes, they did, Dad. They bought them. Now go with him.”
“This sucks. This whole situation sucks.”
“It’s no tangerine dream, that’s for sure,” Ryan said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means something, all right. Wise-ass.”
At last Jimmy allowed Bamping to escort him back the hall to the bedroom. A door closed.
“Very carefully,” Violet said, “take off your jacket.”
“I’m not carrying a weapon.”
“Very carefully,” she repeated.
He took off the jacket and draped it over the sofa, where she could examine it if she wished. At her command, he took off his shirt and placed that beside his jacket, and then he turned in a circle with his arms extended like the wings of a bird.
Satisfied that he wasn’t armed, she pointed to a La-Z-Boy recliner and said, “Sit there.”
Obeying, Ryan said, “Funny.”
“You are amused?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s funny how the warriors of the Greatest Generation and washouts of the next both like their La-Z-Boys.”
He did not recline but sat straight up, leaning forward.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
She kept at a distance from him, not willing to get as near as she had been to Jimmy. “Were you running away?”
“I thought about it,” he admitted.
“I didn’t expect you to come here.”
“If I didn’t, you would have killed him.”
“I guess you still might.”
“I might,” she said. “I will certainly kill you.”
“Maybe I didn’t come alone.”
“You came in a limousine, which is parked a block away. There is only the driver. He is in the car, listening to very bad music and reading an obscene magazine.”
Although Ryan’s fear was not diminished, a peculiar calm came over him, as well. He wanted not a single day more that was alike to the days of the past sixteen months. He had been saved from certain death, but he had lost Samantha, he had lost a sense of purpose, and he had lost the capacity for pure joy. His lifelong conviction that the future was worth the travails of the day, while not broken, had been shaken. He had arrived at a lever-point moment. Here he must pivot to a better future or give up the game.
“If you’re going to kill me,” he said, “may I have the courtesy of knowing fully why?”
The bamboo shades, dropped to sills, were dimly backlit by the overcast day but admitted no light to the living room or to the dining room that lay beyond a wide archway. Illumination came from two table lamps turned low, from the luminous shapes everchanging in a lava lamp, from three candles glimmering in colored glasses on the fireplace mantel, and from two glass vessels on the coffee table, in which floating wicks burned scented oils.
More than light, shadows shaped the room, smoothing every sharp corner into a radius, layering velvet folds of faux draperies over flat surfaces, and conspiring with the pulsating candlelight to suggest that the ceiling had an undulant form.
The woman roamed ceaselessly through orderless patterns of pale light and masking shadow, through shimmering nimbuses and quivering penumbras. Her languid movements might have seemed lethargic to some, but not to Ryan, who saw in her the measured restlessness and the lethal power of a tiger.
“Who is this?” she asked, pointing with the pistol to a poster.
“Country Joe and the Fish,” Ryan said.
“I don’t see fish.”
“It’s the name of the band. They changed the world.”
“How did they change the world?”
“I don’t know. That’s what my father told me.”
Lamplight uplit her face and, with illusory powder and mascara, painted her features into a stark kabuki mask.
“What is the stink?” she asked.
“Scented candles, scented oils.”
“The other odor, under that.”
“You’re probably smelling the pot.”
“Yeah. The smoke saturates things. That’s why he burns scented candles, to mask it.”
“Why does he smoke pot?”
“I don’t know. Because he always has.”
“He is addicted?”
“They say it’s not addictive.”
“Doesn’t marijuana make you mellow?”
“I don’t use it. I don’t know. That’s what they say.”
“He isn’t mellow,” she said.
“No. He never has been.”
Dressed in black slacks, black sweater, and black jacket, she was a shadow moving through shadows. For the most part, the various lamps and candles confirmed her presence only as their light found her hands and her face. Whatever the denomination of the light that paid on her skin, it was given back as gold.
Ryan knew he should be alert for an opportunity to rush her and struggle for the weapon. Often, she pointed the gun away from him and seemed to be distracted by Jimmy’s nostalgic collection.
He suspected, however, that her distraction was more apparent than real, that any opening he saw was only an opportunity to be gut-shot.
Indicating another poster, she asked, “Who is this?”
“Another band. The Grateful Dead. They changed the world.”
“How did they change it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Dad can tell you.”
“I know where your mother lives, but I have not met her yet.”
“You’re in for a treat,” Ryan said.
“Is she like him?”
“Like but different. With her it’s alcohol and men, especially men who like alcohol.”
“I am thinking about killing all three of you.”
Ryan said nothing.
At another poster, she said, “Who is this?”
“Jim Morrison and the Doors.”
“Did they change the world?”
“That’s what I hear.”
As Violet moved past him into the portion of the room that lay behind his La-Z-Boy, Ryan turned his head and started to turn in his seat to follow her.
“Face forward,” she said, pointing the pistol at the bridge of his nose.
He did as he was told.
“If you turn your head to look back, I will shoot you. The people in these posters-where are they now?”
“I don’t know. A lot of them are dead.”
“So the world changed them,” she said.
He could barely hear her soft steps. She must have picked up something to have a look at it, for it knocked slightly against a table when she put it down.
In the lengthening silence, he searched his mind for a question or a comment that would begin to give him some control of their conversation.
From so close that her voice startled him, from just behind his right ear, she said, “I told your father my name. Do you know the name of my sister?”
The difference of intonation between the statement and the question was the difference between an emotionless declaration and the apparently innocent but entrapping query of a police detective. Her last eight words were a bottled accusation, and the wrong reply would pull the stopper, releasing her anger.
After a hesitation that he realized might be dangerous, he said, “Yes. Her name was Lily.”
“How did you learn her name? Did you deduce it from my flowers, from something that I said?”
“No. I asked the family for it, and for a photo, which is how I know you’re identical twins.”
“You were given a photo by the family?”
“But I am the family.”
“Well, I guess it came from your parents.”
“Liar,” she said.
She slammed the side of his head with what might have been the butt of the pistol, and blood burst from his crushed ear.
As he tried to push up from the chair, the next blow landed on the top of his skull, so swiftly delivered after the first that the agony in his ear had just begun to bloom.
A scintillation of pain followed the natural sutures between the frontal bone of his skull and the two parietals. Behind his eyes, which had squinched shut with the pain, he saw the squiggly line of those sutures picked out in the darkness by sputters of coppery sparks.
Defensively, frantically, he clasped the top of his head with his hands, so the third blow cracked his fingers. He cried out, or thought he did, but even if he screamed, the fourth blow cut it short, and knocked him unconscious.
He regained consciousness in stages defined by an increasing tolerance for light. At first, rising from oblivion, he found the oil lamps unendurably bright, their flames so sharp that it seemed each flicker lacerated his eyes. He didn’t know where he was or to whom the lamps belonged, and his head was such a mass of pain that he could not think of the words to ask that the wicks be snuffed. He sank back into senselessness, returned, sank again, and by degrees adapted to light and recovered his memory.
When he knew who he was and where and in what circumstances, he raised his chin from his breast and focused on Violet, who sat in an armchair, across the coffee table from him.
“Do you know your name?” she asked.
He could hear her clearly with his left ear, but her words came to his right as though water flooded the canal. Perhaps the torn ear was only pooled with blood and he was not to any degree deaf.
“Do you know your name?” she asked again.
His answer cracked unspoken in his dry throat. He worked up some saliva, swallowed, and said shakily, “Yes.”
“What is your name?”
He sensed that she possessed the skill to administer a pistol-whipping without risking a concussion, but that she lost control this time and was concerned that she would be able to have less fun with him than she originally intended.
“What is the date?”
He thought for a moment, remembered, told her.
From ear to ear and nose to nape, his head ached, not in a way that mere aspirin could address. In addition to the ache were more intense paroxysms, recurring and receding waves radiating from the right side around to the back of the skull, and trailing these stronger tides of pain were quick but even sharper pangs, six and eight and ten at a time, tattooing a line from his right temple, across the orbit of that eye, and down the bridge of his nose.
When he lifted his left hand off the arm of the chair, intending to put it to his head, he inhaled with a hiss through clenched teeth, because it seemed that broken glass must be embedded in his knuckles.
The index finger was bent immovably at an unnatural angle, and the little finger appeared to have been crushed beyond repair. His hand dripped blood, and the leather upholstery glistered with a slickness of it.
Half of Violet’s face lay in soft shadows, half shone gold in lamplight, but both celadon eyes were bright with interest.
“Once more I ask-who gave you a photograph of Lily?”
“Supposedly the family. It came through my surgeon.”
“When did you receive the photo?”
“Yes. And I saw she was your twin.”
“And then you fled to Denver.”
“First to Las Vegas. Then to Denver.”
He could not explain Ismay Clemm to himself, let alone to this woman. He said, “You cut me in the parking lot. You invaded my house and covered every trace of how you got in and out. You screwed with the security recordings, opened blind deadbolts-“
“Electromagnets can open blind deadbolts. Did it seem like sorcery?”
“I was scared. I had to go somewhere you couldn’t find me, somewhere I could think.”
“What thoughts did you have in Denver to bring you home again?”
He shook his head, and that was a mistake. A liquid pain sloshed through his cranium.
When the agony passed, he said, “There’s no way to put it into words. You wouldn’t understand.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” he repeated.
Ryan began to contemplate using the coffee table to turn this situation around. The two glass vessels, if overturned and shattered, might splash burning oil not only on the floor and furniture but also on Violet.
She said, “I didn’t expect you to come here.”
“Yeah. You already said.”
“I thought you would let me kill your father.”
“I didn’t come here just for him.”
“What else did you come here for?”
He did not answer. He didn’t have to answer everything. She would eventually kill him whether he replied to all her questions or not.
Violet said, “Do you wonder who I am-besides being her sister?”
“I’m pretty sure you’re not a schoolteacher.”
“What does that mean?”
“A schoolteacher like she was.”
“Lily was not a schoolteacher.”
Because space had been allowed for the La-Z-Boy to expand to its full length as a recliner, the chair stood farther from the coffee table than Ryan would have liked. If he had been closer, he could have thrust out his legs, kicking the table, tumbling the lamps to shatter on the floor.
“Lily was a seamstress.”
“Why would they lie about what she did?” he asked.
Instead of answering the question, Violet said, “I am a security agent. Government security. But different from the FBI, the CIA. Oh, very different, Mr. Perry. You have never heard of this bureau, and you never will.”
“Yes. Essentially. Your bad luck to take the heart of someone with a sister capable of taking it back.”
“I didn’t take anything. You feel the way you feel. I understand why you might feel that way. I really do. But I was on a recipient list, and she was on a donor list, and we matched. If not me, someone else.”