The kitchen was an extension of the main room, and there the door stood open to the deck on which they had sat for dinner.
The candles were extinguished. Only faint moonlight glazed the air, and the branches of the old tree were tentacular in the gloom.
The mild air was slightly scented by the nearby sea, more generously by night-blooming jasmine.
Samantha was not on the deck. Stairs descended to the courtyard between the garage and the house.
Murmuring voices rose from below, leading Ryan away from the stairs to a railing. Looking down, he saw Samantha because a shaft of moonlight devalued her hair from gold to silver and caressed her pearl-white silk robe.
The second person stood in shadows, but from the timbre of the voice, Ryan knew this was a man.
He could not hear their words, and he could not discern their mood from the rhythms of their conversation.
As in the butler’s pantry the previous night, when he tried unsuccessfully to eavesdrop on a whispered discussion in the kitchen, he was overcome by a creeping unease, by a tantalizing suggestion of hidden dimensions and secret meanings in things that had heretofore seemed simple, clear, and fully understood.
From a tonal change in the voices, Ryan inferred that the pair below had reached the end of their discussion. Indeed, the man turned away from Samantha.
As the stranger moved, shadows at first clung to him, but then relented. The lunar glow was illuminating yet at the same time misty and mystifying, veiling as much as it revealed.
Tall, slim, moving with athletic confidence, the man crossed the moonshadow-mottled lawn toward the alleyway behind the garage, his hair white and punk-cut, as though he wore a jagged crown of ice.
Spencer Barghest, reputed lover of Rebecca Reach, compassionate and eager guide to the suicidal, was visible for only a brief moment. Moonlight shrank from him, and shadows took him in; the intervening limbs and leaves of the California pepper blocked him from further view.
Below, Samantha turned toward the steps.
Ryan backed barefoot off the deck and through the open door. He turned and hurried out of the kitchen, across the front room.
In the bedroom, he stripped off his khakis. He draped them over the arm of a chair, as they had been, and returned to bed.
Under the covers, he realized that he had not thought through this retreat, but had instinctively chosen to avoid confrontation. In retrospect, he was not sure that he had taken the wisest course.
Feigning sleep, he heard Samantha enter the bedroom, and heard the silken rustle of her robe discarded.
Under the covers once more, she said softly, “Ryan?” When he did not reply, she repeated his name.
If she believed that he was faking sleep, she might suspect that he had seen or heard something of the assignation under the pepper tree. Therefore, he said sleepily, “Hmmmm?”
She slid against him and took hold of what she wanted.
Under the circumstances, he did not believe that he could rise to the occasion. He was surprised-and dismayed-to discover desire trumped his concern that she was guilty of dissimulation if not duplicity.
The qualities he found most erotic in a woman were intelligence, wit, affection, and tenderness. Sam had all four and could not fake the first two, though Ryan now worried that her intelligence was of a kind that facilitated manipulation and fostered cunning. He wondered if in fact she loved him and wanted the best for him, or had all along been disingenuous.
Never before had he made love when his heart was a cauldron of such wretched feelings, when physical passion was detached from all of the gentler emotions. In fact, love might have had nothing to do with it.
When the moment had passed, Samantha kissed his brow, his chin, his throat. She whispered, “Good night, Winky,” and turned away from him, onto her side.
Soon her open-mouthed breathing indicated that she slept. Or pretended to sleep.
Ryan pressed two fingers to his throat to time his pulse. He marveled at the slow steady throb, which seemed to be yet another deception, the most intimate one so far: his body pretending to be in good health when actually it was in the process of failing him.
For an hour, he stared at the ceiling but in fact examined, with memory’s eye, a year of loving Samantha. He sought to recall any incident that, from his new perspective, suggested she had darker intentions than those he had attributed to her at the time.
Initially, none of her actions through the months seemed in the least deceitful. When Ryan considered those same moments a second time, however, shadows fell where shadows had not been before, and every memory was infused with an impression of hidden motives and of secret conspirators lurking just offstage.
No specific deceit occurred to him, no example of her possible duplicity prior to the last few days, yet a cold current of suspicion crawled along his nerves.
The tendency to paranoia that infected contemporary culture had always disquieted him. He was ashamed to be indulging in the self-delusion that troubled him in others. He had a few disturbing facts; but he was trying to manufacture others out of fevered fantasies.
Ryan rose quietly from bed, and Samantha did not stir.
A window invited moonlight, which fell so lightly in this space that he could not have perceived the positions of the furniture if he had not been familiar with the room.
More than half blind, but with a blind man’s intuition, he found his clothes, dressed, and silently navigated the bedroom. Without a sound, he closed the door behind him.
Familiarity with the floor plan and dark-adapted eyes allowed him to reach the kitchen without a misstep or collision. He switched on the light above the sink.
On the notepad by the telephone, he left her a message: Sam, manic insomnia strikes again. Too jittery to lie still. Call you tomorrow. Love, Winky.
He drove home, where he packed a suitcase.
The great house was as silent as the vacuum between planets. Although he made only a few small noises, each seemed as loud as thunder.
He drove to a hotel, where no one on his house staff or in his private life would think to look for him.
In an anonymous room, on a too-soft bed, he slept so soundly for six hours that he did not dream. When he woke Saturday morning, he was in the fetal position in which he had gone to sleep.
His hands ached. Evidently, he had closed them into fists through most of the night.
Before ordering a room-service breakfast, Ryan made two phone calls. The first was to Wilson Mott, the detective. The second was to arrange to have one of Be2Do’s corporate jets fly him to Las Vegas.
Flensing knives of desert sun stripped the air to the bone, and the shimmers of heat rising off the airport Tarmac were as dry as the breath of a dead sea.
The Learjet and crew would stand by to return Ryan to southern California the following morning.
A black Mercedes sedan and chauffeur awaited him at the private-plane terminal. The driver introduced himself as George Zane, an employee of Wilson Mott’s security firm.
He wore a black suit, a white shirt, and a black tie. Instead of shoes, he wore boots, and the blunt toes looked as though they might be reinforced with steel caps.
Two knots of pale scar tissue marked his shaved head at the brink of his brow. Tall, muscular, with a thick neck, with wide nostrils and intense eyes as purple-black as plum skins, Zane looked as though his lineage included bull blood, suggesting that the scars on his skull resulted from the surgical removal of horns.
He was not only a driver but also a bodyguard, and more. After Zane stowed Ryan’s suitcase in the trunk, he opened a rear door of the sedan for him and presented him with a disposable cell phone.
“While you’re here,” Zane said, “make any calls with this. They can never be traced to you.”
Like a limousine, this customized sedan was equipped with a motorized privacy panel between the front seat and the back.
Through the tinted windows, Ryan gazed at the barren desert mountains in the distance until a maze of soaring hotels and casinos blocked the natural world from view.
At the hotel where Ryan would stay, Zane parked in a VIP zone. While Ryan waited in the car, the driver carried the suitcase inside.
When Zane returned, he opened a back door to give an electronic-key card to Ryan. “Room eleven hundred. It’s a suite. It’s registered to me. Your name appears nowhere, sir.”
As they pulled away from the hotel, the disposable cell phone rang, and Ryan answered it.
A woman said, “Are you ready to see Rebecca’s apartment?”
Rebecca Reach. Samantha’s mother.
“Yes,” said Ryan.
“It’s number thirty-four, on the second floor. I’m already inside.”
She terminated the call.
Away from the fabled Strip, Vegas was a parched suburban sprawl. Pale stucco houses reflected the bloodless Mojave sun, and many landscape schemes employed pebbles, rocks, cactuses, and succulents.
The palm fronds looked brittle. The olive trees appeared more gray than green.
Ribbons of heat, rising from vast parking lots, caused shopping malls to shimmer and shift shape like the underwater city in his troubling dream.
Sand, dry weeds, and litter choked tracts of undeveloped land.
The Oasis, an upscale two-story apartment complex, was a cream-colored structure with a roof of turquoise tiles. The privacy wall that concealed its large courtyard was inlaid with a caravan of ceramic Art Deco camels that matched the color of the roof.
Behind the apartments stood garages, as well as guest parking shaded by horizontal trellises festooned with purple bougainvillea.
Zane put down the privacy panel and both front windows before switching off the engine. “You best walk in alone. Be casual.”
After stepping out of the car, Ryan considered returning at once to it and calling off this questionable operation.
The memory of Spencer Barghest standing under the pepper tree with Samantha, his thatch of hair whiter than white in the moonlight, reminded Ryan of what he needed to know and why he needed to know it.
Beyond the back gate lay a covered walkway to the courtyard, but the gate could be opened only with a tenant’s key. He had to walk around to the public entrance.
The wrought-iron front gate featured a palm-tree motif and had been finished to resemble the green patina of weathered copper.
At the center of the courtyard lay a large pool and spa with turquoise-tile coping. Faint fumes of chlorine trembled in the scorched air and seemed to vibrate in Ryan’s nostrils.
Sun-browned and oiled, a few residents lay on lounge chairs, courting melanoma. None looked toward him.
The deep deck that served the second-floor apartments formed the roof of a continuous veranda benefiting the first-floor units. Lush landscaping included queen palms of various heights, which did much to screen the three wings of the building from one another.
He climbed exterior stairs and found Apartment 34. The door stood ajar, and it opened wider as he approached.
Waiting for him in the foyer was an attractive brunette with a honeymoon mouth and funereal eyes the gray of gravestone granite.
She worked for Wilson Mott. Although entirely feminine, she gave the impression that she could protect whatever virtue she might still possess, and could leave any would-be assailant with impressions of her shoe heels in his face.
Closing the door behind Ryan, she said, “Rebecca is a day-shift dealer. She’s at the casino for hours yet.”
“Have you found anything unusual?”
“I haven’t looked, sir. I don’t know what you’re after. I’m just here to guard the door and get you out quickly in a pinch.”
“What’s your name?”
“If I told you, it wouldn’t be the truth.”
“What we’re doing here’s illegal. I prefer anonymity.”
From her manner, he inferred that she did not approve of this mission or of him. Of course, his life, not hers, was in jeopardy.
In Rebecca Reach’s absence, the air conditioner was set at seventy degrees, which suggested she did not live on a tight budget.
Ryan started his search in the kitchen, half expecting to find an array of poisons in the pantry.
Initially, roaming Rebecca Reach’s apartment, Ryan felt like a burglar, although he had no intention of stealing anything. A flush burned in his face and guilt increased the tempo of his heart.
By the time he finished with the kitchen, the dining area, and the living room, he decided he couldn’t afford shame or any strong emotion that might precipitate a seizure. He proceeded with clinical detachment.
From the decor, he deduced that Rebecca cared little for the pleasures of hearth and home. The minimal furnishings were in drab shades of beige and gray. Only one piece of art-an abstract nothing-hung in the living room, none in the dining area.
The lack of a single keepsake or souvenir implied that she was not a sentimental woman.
By the lack of dust, by the alphabetical arrangement of spices in the kitchen, by the precise placement of six accent pillows on the sofa, Ryan determined that Rebecca valued neatness and order. The evidence suggested she was a solemn person with an austere heart.
As Ryan stepped into the study, the disposable cell phone rang. No caller ID appeared on the screen.
When he said hello, no one replied, but after he said hello a second time, a woman began softly to hum a tune. He did not recognize the song, but her crooning was sweet, melodic.
“Who is this?” he asked.
The soft voice became softer, faded, faint but still felicitous, and faded further until it receded into silence.
With his free hand, he fingered the bandage on his neck, where a day previous the catheter had been inserted into his jugular.
Although the singer had not sung a word, perhaps subconsciously Ryan recognized the voice-or imagined that he did-because into his mind unbidden came the emerald-green eyes and the smooth dark face of Ismay Clemm, the nurse from the cardiac-diagnostics lab at the hospital.
After he had waited nearly a minute for the singer to find her voice again, he pressed END and returned the phone to a pants pocket.
In memory, he heard what Ismay had said to him as he had dozed on and off, recovering from the sedative: You hear him, don’t you, child? Yes, you hear him. You must not listen, child.
A deep misgiving overcame Ryan, and for a moment he almost fled the apartment. He did not belong there.
Inhaling deeply, exhaling slowly, he strove to steady his nerves.
He had come to Las Vegas to seek the truth of the threat against him, to determine if he had only nature to fear or, instead, a web of conspirators. His survival might depend on completing his inquiries.
Rebecca’s study proved to be as blandly furnished and impersonal as the other rooms. The top of her desk was bare.
About a hundred hardcover books filled a set of shelves. They were all nonfiction, concerned with self-improvement and investing.