Relieved that the room lacked an observing cadaver, Ryan sat at the desk with both ring binders. He did not know why he should force himself to study so many faces of corpses, but intuition suggested that this ordeal would reward him.
Barghest’s trophies were of both sexes, young and old, and of all races. The word trophies surprised Ryan when it occurred to him, but after a dozen faces, no other term seemed as accurate.
In some instances, the subjects’ eyes appeared to have frozen open at the moment of death. Sometimes, however, small pieces of Scotch tape fixed the eyelids to the brows.
Ryan tried not to consider why open eyes were so important to Barghest. In a moment of uncanny perception, however, he knew the euthanasia activist savored each dead gaze with the insistence of a rap**t compelling his victim to meet his stare, that every photo had a quasi-pornographic purpose.
The album suddenly felt greasy, and he put it down.
He rolled the office chair back from the desk, leaned forward, and hung his head. Breathing through his mouth, he struggled to quell a rush of nausea.
His heart did not race, but each beat felt like a wave, a great swell breaking in his chest. The floor seemed to rise and fall, as if he were afloat, and a thin scree sounded like gulls crying in the distance, although he realized that he was listening to the faint whistle of his pinched breathing.
The internal waves rose in sets, in the way that real waves formed upon the sea, some larger than others, with pauses between. He knew that strokes of uneven force and the loss of rhythm could be a prelude to cardiac arrest.
He placed one hand on his chest, as though he could press calm upon his heart.
If Ryan died in this place, Wilson Mott’s agents might leave his body behind rather than risk explaining why he and they had been here. Found by Dr. Death, he might wind up as one more exhibit in the gallery of cadavers. Stripped naked, preserved, and glazed after being bent into a humiliating posture, he would ornament a currently vacant corner of the house, thereafter subject to Spencer Barghest’s attention and unholy touch.
Whether by an act of sheer will or by the grace of Fate, Ryan survived the episode and, after a couple of minutes, felt his heart reestablish rhythmic beats and measured force.
The dry, cool air in Barghest’s house was odorless but had a faint metallic taste. Counseling himself not to contemplate the source of that flavor, Ryan stopped breathing through his mouth.
He sat up straight in the office chair and rolled it to the desk once more. After a hesitation, he opened the first ring binder to the photograph that he’d been studying when nausea had overcome him.
Still operating on a hunch, he paged with grim determination through the first book of photos. His patience was at last rewarded when he saw the third face in the second binder.
Samantha. Her eyes were taped open, her full lips slightly parted, as if she had let out a sigh of satisfaction as the shutter of the camera caught her.
This was not Samantha, of course, but Teresa, her identical twin. Prior to death, she lingered in a vegetative state, abed for months following the auto accident, and the experience diminished her beauty. So pale, Teresa nevertheless remained lovely, and in fact her suffering gave her the ethereal radiance, the fragile otherworldly beauty of a martyr ascending to sainthood in an old-master painting.
Evidently, Barghest had known Rebecca six years ago. He must have been present at Teresa’s death.
By her own account, Samantha also had been at her sister’s bedside during those final hours. Yet she never mentioned Barghest.
She rarely spoke of her lost twin. But that was understandable and in no way suspicious. Surely the loss still hurt.
She had revealed the length of Teresa’s ordeal only a few nights earlier, under the strawberry trees. Previously she had allowed Ryan to think that her sister died either in the accident or shortly thereafter.
Again, Sam’s reticence was proof of nothing more than the pain that Teresa’s death still caused her.
In the photo, the dead woman’s head rested on a pillow. With care that suggested tenderness, her golden hair had been brushed and arranged flatteringly around her face.
In contrast to the hair, the tape holding open the sightless eyes was an affront, even a violation.
As loud and irregular as Ryan’s heart had been recently, so now it was to a similar degree quiet and steady, and the house was also quiet, and the night beyond the house, as if every soul in Las Vegas in the same instant fell into a deep sleep or turned to dust, as if every wheel stopped rotating and every noisy machine lost power, as if nocturnal birds could not use their wings or find their songs, as if all crawling things were seized by paralysis between creep and slither, and an absolute stillness befell the air, allowing no breeze or draft or eddy. Time froze in tickless clocks.
Whether the hush was real or imagined, so extraordinary was the moment that Ryan had the urge to shout and shatter the silence before the world permanently petrified.
He did not cry out, however, because he sensed meaning in this unmitigated muffle, a truth insisting on discovery.
The silence seemed to well from the photo in front of Ryan, to pool up from it and flood the world, as though dead Teresa’s face had the power to still Creation and to compel Ryan’s attention. His subconscious commanded: Observe, see, discover. In this image was something of terrible importance to him, a shocking revelation that he had thus far overlooked and that might save him.
He studied her dead stare, wondering if the twists of light and shadow reflected on her eyes would reveal the room in which she had died and the people in attendance at her passing, or something else that would explain his current, mortal circumstances.
Those reflections were too small. No amount of squinting could force them to resolve into intelligible images.
His gaze traveled down her lovely cheeks, along the exquisite slopes and curves of her nose, to her generous and perfectly formed mouth.
Her parted lips issued no breath, only silence, but he half expected to hear, with his mind’s ear, a few words that would explain his hypertrophic heart and reveal his future.
At the periphery of Ryan’s vision, movement startled him.
He looked up, expecting that one of the glazed cadavers had pulled free of its armature and had come for him.
The nameless brunette stepped into the study from the hallway, and her voice broke the spell of silence. “I don’t get creeped-out easily, but this place is getting to me.”
“Me too,” he said.
He slipped Teresa’s photo out of the plastic sleeve, set it aside, and closed the ring binder.
“He’ll miss it,” the brunette warned.
“Maybe he will. I don’t care. Let him wonder.”
Ryan returned both ring binders to the bookshelf where he had found them.
In the doorway, leaning against the jamb, arms folded across her breasts, she said, “We have a tail on them. They finished dinner. Now they’re back at her apartment.”
She must have been between thirty and thirty-five, but she had the air of someone older. She radiated a self-confidence that seemed to be wisdom more than pride.
“Would you let him?” Ryan wondered.
“Let him what?”
Her eyes were not gravestone granite, after all, but castle ramparts, and only a fool would try to storm her.
She said, “I’d shoot off his pecker.”
“I believe you would.”
“It’d be a service to humanity.”
Ryan wondered, “Why does Rebecca let him?”
“Something’s wrong with her.”
“And not just her. Half the world is in love with death.”
As if in quiet accusation, the brunette glanced at the photo of Teresa on the desk.
Ryan said, “That’s just evidence.”
“I don’t know yet.”
Earlier, he had searched the desk. He returned to the drawer that contained stationery and selected a nine-by-twelve envelope, into which he slipped the photograph.
“I’m done here,” he said.
They walked the house together, turning off lights, pretending not to listen for the footfalls of corpses in their wake.
In the foyer, at the security-system panel, she said, “The alarm was engaged when I got here. I have to reset it.”
As she keyed in a code that she had somehow learned, Ryan asked, “How did you disarm it without setting it off?”
“A few small tools and years of practice.”
The tools were evidently sufficiently compact to fit in her purse, for she carried no other bag.
Outside, she said, “Stay with me,” and after passing under the weeping boughs of the melaleucas, she headed south on the public sidewalk. “I’m parked a block and a half away.”
He knew that she didn’t need him at her side for protection any more than did the hulking George Zane.
In the absence of streetlamps and in the weakness of the moon, they cast no shadows.
Here, miles from the flash of the casinos, the sky offered a desolation of stars.
Like all Mojave settlements, regardless of size and history, this one seemed to have a tenuous existence. An ancient ocean had withdrawn millennia ago, leaving a vast sea of sand, but the desert was no more eternal than the waters before it, and the city markedly more ephemeral than the desert.
“Whatever’s wrong in your life,” she said, “it’s none of my business.”
Ryan did not disagree.
“The way Wilson Mott runs his operation, I’d be fired for saying one word more than I’ve just said.”
Curious about where this might be leading, Ryan assured her, “I’ve no reason to tell him anything you say.”
After a silence, she said, “You’re a haunted man.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“I’m not surprised by that.”
Across the street, Zane sat behind the wheel of the Mercedes. They passed him and kept going.
She said, “Not ghosts. You’re haunted by your own death.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, you’re waiting for the ax to fall.”
“If I were paranoid,” he said, “I’d wonder if Wilson Mott has been investigating me.”
“I’m just good at reading people.”
With a thrum, a presence passed overhead. Looking up at broad pale wings, Ryan thought it might have been an owl.
“The way I read you,” she continued, “you can’t figure out who.”
“Who’s going to kill you.”
Across the night, the monotonous song of cicadas sounded like razor blades stropping razor blades.
As they walked, she said, “When you’re trying to figure out who…you’ve got to keep in mind the roots of violence.”
He wondered if she had been a cop before she had gone to work for Mott.
“There are only five,” she said. “Lust, envy, anger, avarice, and vengeance.”
“Motives, you mean.”
Arriving at her car, she said, “It’s best to think of them as failings, not motives.”
Parking lights and the lazy engine noise of a coasting car rose behind them.
“More important than the roots,” she said, “is the taproot.”
She opened the driver’s door of the Honda and turned to stare solemnly at him.
“The taproot,” she said, “is always the killer’s ultimate and truest motivation.”
Among the numerous strange moments of the past four days, this conversation had begun to seem the strangest.
“And what is the taproot of violence?” Ryan asked.
“The hatred of truth.”
The coasting car behind them proved to be the Mercedes sedan. George Zane brought it to a stop in the street, parallel to but slightly forward of the Honda, leaving Ryan and the woman in moon haze and shadows.
She said, “In case you ever need to talk, I’m…Cathy Sienna.” She spelled the surname.
“Just this morning, you said you’d never tell me your true name.”
“I was wrong. One more thing, Mr. Perry…”
“The hatred of truth is a vice,” she said. “From it comes pride and an enthusiasm for disorder.”
The moonlight made silver coins of her gray eyes.
She said, “Moments ago, we were in the house of a man who has a fierce enthusiasm for disorder. Be careful. It can be contagious.”
Although Cathy reached for his hand, she did not shake it, but pressed it in both of her hands, more the affectionate gesture of a friend than the good-bye of a business associate.
Before he could think of anything to say, she got into her car, closed the door, and started the engine.
Ryan stood in the street, watching her drive away. Then he got into the backseat of the Mercedes.
“Return to the hotel, sir?” Zane asked.
In Ryan’s hands was the manila envelope that contained the photo of Teresa Reach, which he suspected might hold a clue that would save him.
To further study the photo, he needed to have it scanned at high resolution and examine it with the best image-enhancement software. He could do nothing more with it this night.
During the ride, Ryan’s thoughts repeatedly returned to Cathy Sienna, to the question of whether her concern was genuine.
In light of recent events, he wondered if her advice and further counsel would have been offered if he had not been a wealthy man.
In the Mercedes, Ryan made a few phone calls. By the time he reached his hotel, he felt comfortable about trusting the manila envelope to George Zane.
Although Wilson Mott’s primary offices were in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle, he had relationships with security firms in other cities, including Las Vegas. He had been able to arrange for the digital processing of Teresa’s photograph by reliable locals and for the acquisition of the software and hardware that would allow Ryan to study it better.
By 6:30 in the morning, when the corporate Learjet flew Ryan out of Vegas, Mott’s people would have delivered the Teresa package to his hotel suite in Denver.
Having told Samantha that he had been called to Denver on business, he now intended to go there. He did not know why.
This trip would not atone for the lie that he had told her or even make it less of a lie. And at this point, he had no intention of revealing his investigation of her mother and of Spencer Barghest, which was an omission-a calculated concealment-that counted as a far greater betrayal than the lie about his destination.