“Nine rounds left,” said the voice of the lilies. “Eight to wound and one to finish.”
By whatever office Ismay held in death, she had revealed the simple truth. Ryan saw now that he had turned that truth inside out, twisted and knotted it, until he made a mare’s-nest of it. Instead of wonder, he reacted with suspicion. He saw dark conspiracy where he should have seen grace. He reasoned his way to explanations that required sinister poisoners, hallucinogenics slipped into his food, conniving employees, a whole world turned mysteriously against him. Only one conspirator had existed: He had conspired against himself to avoid facing the reality of a deeply layered world and eternity.
Looking up at Violet, he said, “The taproot of violence is the hatred of truth.”
Dead Lily’s living twin shot Ryan high on the left side, just under the shoulder blade.
He was still of this room but not entirely, in part transported and removed from his pain, his body so weak that it no longer had the capacity to share with him the symptoms of its suffering. But this time he entertained no illusion that anyone had secretly slipped drugs to him.
“Ismay gave me…one last chance. The bells.”
He met Violet’s eyes because he felt he owed her the right to see life fade from his.
“Bells?” she said.
“Months before the transplant. Ismay said, if I heard bells…come for her. I didn’t.”
“Ismay. Who is she?”
Lacking both the strength and the clarity of mind to explain, he said merely, “My guardian.”
“I rang the bells,” Violet said.
He did not understand.
“In the old days, they left some churches standing. Only to hold events in them that would mock their purpose.”
“The day Lily died, I got a message to her. Said…I’d be with her in spirit. I’d ring the bells to testify.”
Ryan recalled the ominous tolling, tolling, tolling. And the terrible feeling that he had made a grave mistake of which the bells were warning him.
“Told her I’d ring bells to promise justice,” Violet continued. “Told her, when she heard the bells, to know she’ll live forever in my heart.”
Although afraid of death, Ryan did not think he could take much more of life. He assured her, “It’s all right. It’s justice.”
While talking, she had lowered the pistol. She raised it again.
He said, “Fulfill the promise of the bells.”
She shot him high on the right side, under the shoulder blade.
Jolted by the shot, ripped, with the stink of blood now seeming to him like the lovely scent of sacrifice, he saw shadows throughout the room moving toward him.
Little more than an hour earlier, at the airport, before Cathy Sienna had boarded her limo for Los Angeles, she had hugged Ryan fiercely and had whispered in his ear four words no one had ever said to him before. Now for the first time in his life, he spoke those same words to another, with a humility and a sincerity that he was grateful to find within himself: “I’ll pray for you.”
Because he had one foot outside of time, Ryan could no longer accurately gauge the passage of seconds, but it seemed to him that Violet regarded him for a full minute or more between shots. He was summoning the strength to reassure her again when she turned away from him and fired at one of the posters.
Six shots remained in the magazine, and she used them on dead celebrities, on Chairman Mao, on the lava lamp, which burst brightly.
Without another look at Ryan, she walked out of the room and left him to die.
Whether he was weak from loss of blood or loss of motive, Ryan made no attempt to move from the La-Z-Boy, where he curled like a dog seeking sleep, both legs drawn up, his head resting upon one arm of the chair.
When the lava lamp had exploded, one of the two table lamps was knocked over and extinguished by flying debris. Now largely lit by candles and by two wicks floating in pools of scented oil, the room, though little damaged, seemed strangely like a ruin brightened only by the last residual flames of a great fire.
Whether long after Violet had gone or immediately in her wake-Ryan could not be certain-a hunched and scampering figure entered, muttering worriedly, cursing angrily. It hovered over him, touching and poking, its breath sour enough to be the exhalations of a troll that ate whatever might wander under its bridge, and then it went to a tall sapphire-blue cabinet painted with stars and moons.
When the figure had been bent over him, Ryan hadn’t been able to focus his failing vision; but from a distance, he now identified his father.
The cabinet of stars and moons featured doors on top and drawers below. Jimmy pulled out one of the drawers and emptied its contents onto the floor.
“All right, I know, all right.”
Carrying the drawer, he hustled back to Ryan. Reflected oil-lamp light made lanterns of his eyes.
“Can’t let the sonofabitch cops find my stash.”
He released the false bottom of the drawer, plucked it out, threw it aside. Next he removed a four-inch-deep, rectangular metal lockbox of the kind in which small businesses secured their folding cash at the end of the day.
Fumbling with the lockbox latches, Jimmy said, “Minute, minute, minute.” From the metal box he took plastic bags of pot and hashish. “Gotta flush, then I’ll call.”
“Call then flush.”
“Too much shit going down here, too much shit. Can’t get caught with this stuff, too.”
“Dad. Please. Call.”
As Jimmy scuttled away through the baleful light, muttering to himself-“Gotta flush, gotta flush, gotta flush”-he was reminiscent of no one so much as Rumpelstiltskin, except more demented.
Ryan tried to get up from the chair. He passed out.
Approaching sirens woke him.
Jimmy was bent over the La-Z-Boy, pressing a rag to Ryan’s head.
“What’re you doing?”
“Gotta stop the bleeding.”
The damp rag smelled like dishwater, but Ryan didn’t have the strength to push it away. He spoke through it as it fluttered against his face: “Dad, listen.”
“They’re almost here.”
“Broke in wearing masks.”
“Like shit they did.”
“We never saw faces.”
“I saw their faces.”
The tail of the rag flicked into his mouth, and he spat it out. “They had…wrong address.”
“Be quiet. Keep your strength.”
“They wanted Curtis someone.”
“Shit they did. No Curtis here.”
“Shot me before they realized.”
As the sirens died, Jimmy said, “Pullin’ up in front.”
Rallying himself, Ryan grabbed the rag and tore it away from his face. “Listen. That’s the story.”
Confused, his father said, “We need a story?”
Ryan would not finger Violet and her two associates. He didn’t want the old man to do it, either.
“Deep shit, Dad. We need a story.”
“Masks, wrong address, Curtis someone,” Jimmy said.
“Can you do it?”
“Bullshit cops? Been doing it all my life.”
A moment later, paramedics were in the room.
So recently willing to die, Ryan was surprised, as the medics bent to him, how much he wanted to live.
Three years and five months after the release of her first novel, Samantha published her third. Lexington, Kentucky, at the end of her twenty-one-city publicity tour, was not a standard stop on authors’ promotional schedules. She had asked her publisher to include it after Atlanta, to bring her close to St. Christopher’s Ranch, which would give her an excuse to phone him.
She thought he might feel less comfortable agreeing to see her if she came across the country just for that purpose, and might be more relaxed if he thought she happened to be in the neighborhood. Two weeks earlier, when she called him, he seemed pleased to hear from her, and she secured an invitation without pressing for it.
That morning, she rented a car and drove deep into the Bluegrass region, taking back roads where she could, in no hurry, enchanted by the rolling rural landscape, the miles on miles of black plank fences, white plank fences, and limestone walls, beyond which magnificent Thoroughbreds grazed in pristine meadows.
St. Christopher’s Ranch sat on seventy acres. Its meadows were as lush as any in the area, and the horses at pasture were beautiful though not Thoroughbreds. The main house stood far back from the county route, at the end of a driveway overhung by ancient oaks.
Encircled by a deep veranda, this enormous but elegant Kentucky manor house, white with black trim, was shaded from the worst of the June sunshine by the largest willow trees that Sam had ever seen.
Both ramps and steps rose from walkways to the veranda. She took the wide steps.
This spacious porch was furnished with gliders and large padded wicker chairs, in one of which sat a tow-headed and freckled boy of about thirteen, tanned and barefoot, in blue-jean shorts and a DOGS ROCK T-shirt. He was reading a book and, because he had no arms, he turned the pages with his toes.
“Hey,” he said, looking up from his book, “you ever been told you sure are pretty?”
“Heard it a couple times,” she said.
“What’s your name?”
“With a name like that, a girl better be pretty. If I was ten years older, you’d be toast.”
“You ever been told you’re a terrible flirt?”
“Heard it a couple times,” he said, and grinned.
As instructed by phone, she went through a screen door into a front hall with a lovely old walnut floor. Here the ranch offices were situated in an atmosphere so relaxed, all the doors stood open.
Father Timothy was in his office, at his desk, where she had been told he would be when she arrived. Tall, stoop-shouldered, with a face weathered by sun and wind, he could have passed for any ranch hand or experienced horseman if he had not been in a monk’s habit.
“Because this is a dog-wash day, Binny had a lot to do this morning, and since he wasn’t sure exactly when you’d get here, he asked me to take you to him.”
“Binny,” she said.
“Oh, you wouldn’t know, we call him that around here. His name being well known, and him wanting a low profile. It’s just what we call him instead, for privacy’s sake.”
In her first novel, there had been a character nicknamed Binny.
Father Tim led her through the main house to what he called the park, which was rather like a quadrangle on a college campus. Three other houses, similar to the original manor house but newer, embraced this large paved area, which was shaded by a grove of oaks.
The park bustled with festive activities. Children in wheelchairs sat at low tables, working on all manner of craft projects. A group of ambulatory kids in karate pajamas took instruction in martial arts. A storybook hour was under way, with children seated on pillows, in a semicircle around an animated nun evoking a rabbit’s surprise and fright with flamboyant gestures. And everywhere dogs lazed or frolicked, golden retrievers and Labradors, all vigorous and well-groomed and happy.
“The brothers live in the expanded main house,” Father Timothy explained as Sam accompanied him through the oak-shaded park, “and the sisters have a convent farther back on the property. These three other houses are dormitories, but we need to build a fourth. We don’t segregate the children by types of disability, Down syndrome rooms with paraplegic, so they can learn to appreciate one another’s special strengths.”
St. Christopher’s accepted orphans and abandoned children with special needs of all kinds. The younger ones eventually might be adopted, but those over six, who were harder to place, most likely could expect to live at the ranch until they were adults.
The brothers’ several enterprises included the breeding and raising of show-quality dogs. Although this work produced a profit, the unsold dogs ranked as important as those who went on to show-prize glory or to happy homes, because these remained on the ranch and were not merely companions to the children but were also trained to socialize them and to help them learn confidence.
Beyond the park, wide paved pathways led to stables and riding rings, to more fenced pastures, to the convent, and to service buildings, one of which contained the on-site veterinary office and the dog-grooming facility.
Father Tim escorted Sam to the dog-wash, opened the door, and said, “I’ll not intrude upon your reunion. You’ll recognize Binny-as the kids say, if he had one more floppy ear, he would be just like the dogs.”
The big room included bath sinks, grooming tables, and dog dryers. One golden retriever sat in a dryer, gazing out mournfully, as if imprisoned. Ryan, assisted by a Down syndrome boy of about fifteen, administered astringent gel to the ears of a black Lab who had already been dried.
Not having noticed Samantha yet, Ryan said to the boy, “Find his collar there, Rudy, and take him back to Sister Josephine.”
Rudy said he would, then saw Sam and smiled. Ryan knew the meaning of the smile, and turned.
He wore rubber boots and a rubber apron over khakis and a green knit shirt. Sam had never seen him dressed with such disregard for style-nor had he ever looked more elegant.
Because she had not been sure how this would unfold, she was moved and happy to see that at the sight of her, his face brightened with unmistakable delight.
“There you are,” he said. “My God, there you are.”
The way he looked at her brought tears to her eyes, and seeing this, Ryan busied her with an introduction to Rudy and then to Ham, the Labrador who needed to be returned to Sister Josephine.
“Rudy here,” Ryan said, “is going to be a great dog groomer.” The boy ducked his head shyly. “He’s already pretty good except he doesn’t like the part where you have to express their anal glands.”
“Yuch,” the boy said.
As Rudy left with Ham, Ryan said, “Let me get out of this gear, wash up. We’ll have lunch. I made it. The lunch, I mean.” He shook his head. “You’re actually here. Don’t go anywhere. Let Tinker out of the dryer, she’s done. She’s mine. She’ll be going to lunch with us.”
The retriever was grateful to be paroled and doubly grateful for an ear massage and a chin scratch.
Ryan took off the apron, hung it up, took off the boots, laced on a pair of running shoes, and then scrubbed his hands and forearms at one of the long, deep dog-wash sinks.