Staring at the hearts, more than a hundred of them, he decided not to taste one.
He returned them to the bag, twisted shut the cellophane, and tied the ribbon tight.
The first anniversary of his transplant certainly must be the occasion for the gift, but he couldn’t interpret the subtext of the two-word sentiment. He should not discount that the candy might have been given in all innocence and with good will.
Raising his gaze from the insistent red messages, he stared at himself in the mirror. He could not read his face.
Ryan sat in bed, reading until he finished Samantha’s novel for the second time, shortly after two o’clock in the morning. He had not intended to stay up so late.
For a few minutes, he stared at the author’s photo on the back of the book jacket. No camera could do her justice.
Putting the book aside, he leaned against the mounded pillows.
In the three months immediately after the transplant, the side effects of his twenty-eight medications stressed him and, in a couple of instances, considerably worried him. But dosages were adjusted, a few drugs were replaced with others, and thereafter his recovery went so well that Dr. Hobb called him “my super-patient.”
At the one-year mark, no signs of organ rejection had appeared: no unexplained weakness, no fatigue, no fever, no chill or dizziness, no diarrhea or vomiting.
Myocardial biopsy remained the gold standard for identifying rejection. Twice in the past year, as an outpatient, Ryan submitted to the procedure. Both times, the pathologist found no indication of rejection in the tissue samples.
For exercise, he did a lot of walking, uncounted miles. In recent months, he began riding a stationary bike, as well, and lifting light weights.
He was trim, and he felt fit.
Judging by the evidence, he belonged to the fortunate and small minority in whom a stranger’s heart might be received with negative consequences hardly greater than those of a blood transfusion. The most significant medical danger he faced was increased susceptibility to disease because of the immunosuppressant drugs he relied upon.
Yet he had been waiting for the turn, the change of tides, the rotation of the current light into an unknown dark. The events that had led up to the transplant seemed to be unfinished business.
Now came the candy hearts with their simple message, which was nonetheless cryptic for its simplicity. And the figure on the south lawn, in the rain.
He dimmed the bedside lamp. Even after a year of comparative normalcy, he preferred not to sleep in absolute darkness.
Two decks served the master suite. The doors to both were three inches thick, with steel cores and two deadbolts. With the perimeter alarm set, they could not be opened without triggering a siren.
The main stairs ascended from the second floor to the penthouse landing, which was also served by the elevator. The door between that landing and the master suite was secured on this side by a blind deadbolt that had no keyway on the farther side.
Consequently, if intruders were secreted inside the house when the perimeter alarm was activated for the night, they could not gain entrance to the master suite.
In a hidden safe in his walk-in closet, Ryan had stored a 9-millimeter pistol and a box of ammunition. This evening, before bed, he loaded the pistol. It now lay in the half-open nightstand drawer.
He could make a good case against himself to the effect that his fears of conspiracy during the months leading to his transplant were not the result of mental confusion related to diminished circulation, were not caused by the side effects of prescription drugs, but were attributable to an unfortunate lifelong tendency to suspicion. When at an early age you learned not to trust your parents, distrust could become a key element of your life philosophy.
And if that self-indictment was the full truth of things, he needed to resist another descent into paranoia. Perhaps a first step in that resistance ought to be returning the pistol to the safe at once, not in the morning.
He left it in the nightstand drawer.
No unexplained rapping arose. Lying on his right side, ear to the pillow, Ryan heard the slow steady beating of his good heart.
In time he slept, and did not dream.
He woke in the late morning and, by intercom, advised Mrs. Amory that he would be taking lunch at one o’clock in the solarium.
After he showered, shaved, and dressed, he put both the pistol and the bag of candy hearts in the concealed safe.
The storm had passed the previous evening. But a new front was rolling in from the northwest, with rain expected by midafternoon.
When Penelope brought his lunch to the table in the solarium, Ryan asked if she had left candy on his pillow the evening before, though he did not describe the hearts.
In spite of whatever talent she might have for exaggerating her Englishness without once breaking character, she did not seem like a woman who could lie without a score of tics and other tells giving her away. She appeared confused by the question and then as baffled as was Ryan that someone should think it proper etiquette to treat him like a hotel guest in his own home.
After lunch, when she returned to clear the table, she said that she had mentioned the candy to Jordana and to Winston and that she was quite sure neither of them had been the party responsible for this perhaps well-meant but inexcusable occurrence. She had not spoken to Winston’s assistant, Ricardo, as he had been off work the previous day and could not have been responsible.
A service representative with the firm that maintained their heating-cooling system had been in-house and had changed filters on the third floor. And a repairman had worked on the under-counter refrigerator in the master-bedroom retreat. Mrs. Amory wished to know if she should contact them and ascertain if either had been the culprit.
The intensity of her gray-eyed stare and a certain set to her mouth suggested that she regarded this incident as a challenge to her authority and as a personal affront for which she would be pleased to pursue the miscreant to the gates of Hell, if necessary, and give him an upbraiding that he would find worse than the tortures that awaited him in the flames of damnation.
“It’s commendable of you,” Ryan said placatingly, “to be so committed to finding an explanation. But it’s not all that important, Penelope. Let’s not take this out of house. Someone must have meant it as a joke, that’s all.”
“You can rest assured, I’ll keep my eye on those gentlemen when next they’re on the premises,” she said.
“I have no doubt of it,” he said. “No doubt at all.”
Alone in the solarium, he returned to his favorite armchair and opened Samantha’s book to begin a third reading.
Rain began to fall at a quarter past two. As on the previous day, Nature was in an indolent mood, and the sky shed a languid drizzle.
From time to time, Ryan interrupted his reading to sweep the south lawn with his gaze.
He glanced up from the novel less often than he intended. Had the hooded figure returned, it could have watched him for half an hour or longer without his being aware of its presence.
The story, the characters, the prose still enchanted him, but from this third reading, he sought something more than any other work of fiction could have given him. Being in the story was being with Samantha, hearing her voice, which to him counted as both a joy and a sadness.
He also hoped to gain an understanding of why things were the way they were between them. Having completed the book the very day she learned of his transplant, Sam could not have written any part of it with the intention of explaining their estrangement to him, and anyway people didn’t write entire novels to each other in the place of a letter or a phone chat. Yet on his first reading, in only three chapters, he had sensed that this book had something to reveal to him that would explain their current relationship.
Throughout, the novel sang with Samantha’s voice, glowed with her grace, and reflected her sensibilities, but it also contained many scenes that Ryan would not have thought she could write, that sounded like Samantha…but like Samantha as she might have been if some of the experiences that shaped her life had never happened.
This made him feel that he had never fully known her. If he was to make things right between them, rounding out his understanding of Sam was a necessary first step, and the view into her heart provided by this novel seemed certain to help him.
Prior to twilight, Ryan put down the book to survey the lawn, the trees, and the south wall of the estate, on which bougainvillea flourished, providing a thorny obstacle to a quick exit by any intruder. No watcher in the wet.
He got up from the armchair, leaving the floor lamp lit to imply that he had stepped away for only a moment.
At a window near a corner of the room, from between a pair of queen palms lush enough to shade him from the high ceiling lights, he studied the sodden landscape.
Whoever the woman might be, Ryan doubted she would return so soon to prowl the grounds, for she knew that she had been seen on her first visit. Yet stranger things had happened.
Beyond the rain, behind the clouds, the gentle hand of twilight dimmed the sky, and night soon threw the switch to black. The hooded figure did not appear.
After dinner, when Ryan retired to the third floor, he locked the door with the blind deadbolt. With some trepidation, he went directly from the suite foyer into the bedroom.
The bedspread had been removed, and the covers had been turned down, as they should have been. But nothing had been left on his stack of pillows.
As peculiar as the gift of candy hearts seemed, nevertheless Ryan felt foolish for expecting that it might represent the beginning of a new series of mysterious incidents that would send him spiraling into a whirlpool of irrationality like the one in which he had found himself more than a year ago. All of that bizarreness had proved to be coincidence that had seemed substantive only because of the effect on his thinking of poorly oxygenated blood and subsequently because of the side effects of medications.
He checked the two doors to the decks. Each featured a standard deadbolt lock operated from inside by a thumbturn and from outside by a key, and each also had a blind deadbolt with a thumbturn on the inside but nothing to mark its existence on the outside. Both locks on both doors were engaged.
After brushing his teeth, toileting, and changing into pajamas, Ryan considered taking the pistol from the safe. Counseling himself to maintain perspective and not to let his imagination overrule his reason, he returned unarmed to the bedroom.
On his pillow lay a piece of jewelry, a gold heart pendant on a gold chain.
In the closet, Ryan pressed a hidden switch. A panel slid aside, revealing the eighteen-inch-square steel face of the wall safe.
Using the lighted keypad, he hurriedly entered the lock code. When the liquid-crystal display announced ACCESS, he opened the safe, snatched up the 9-millimeter pistol, closed the door, and stood for a moment thinking, the weapon gripped in both hands, muzzle pointed at the ceiling.
The checked grip felt rough against his palm. The weapon seemed too light for an instrument of mortal consequences.
He did not want to kill anyone, but he had not survived this far to die easily.
Barefoot, in pajamas, he left the closet, crossed the bedroom, and entered the retreat. He flipped up the light switch with one elbow as he crossed the threshold.
The amboina-wood Art Deco desk. Bookshelves. Entertainment center. Small bar with an under-counter refrigerator.
At the door to the first deck, he found the blind deadbolt still engaged from the inside. No one had left by this exit.
Two windows provided a view of the deck. He drew up the pleated shades on the first, then on the second, half expecting a pale and hooded face at the glass, a milky-eyed stare, a wicked grin, whoever had been circling toward him around the black lake. No presence awaited him, and both windows were locked from inside.
Off the retreat lay a windowless half bath. No one in there. His reflection in the mirror, his mouth pressed in a flat grim line, his eyes wild. The gun so huge.
Returning to the bedroom, at the door to the second deck, he found the blind deadbolt engaged. No one had departed by this exit, either.
Three windows, one inoperable. The other two locked. A gust of wind, a shatter of rain against the glass caused his heart to jump.
Nowhere to hide except under the bed. Although no one but an anorexic model could slip under a low-profile king-size job with sideboards, Ryan dropped to his knees anyway and peered into that space, where because of the superb housecleaning he found not even a ball of dust.
The foyer. The main door. Blind deadbolt locked.
Bathroom. A large open space. The marble floor cold under his bare feet. Nothing moved but Ryan’s nervous reflections. A door led to a water closet, another to a walk-in linen storage. No one in either space.
His expansive personal closet had no open shelves, only drawers for folded items. Hanging clothes were behind cabinet doors.
By pushing the suits and shirts aside on the rods, a grown man could have hidden in any of a dozen different compartments. Ryan opened all the doors but confronted no intruder.
To have left the pendant on the pillow after Ryan had locked himself in the suite for the night, someone must have been in there with him. Yet no one remained; and no exit had been opened.
He returned to his bed, holding the pistol at his side, and stood staring at the pendant.
A patter like a pack of scurrying rats in the attic. He looked up. Not rats, rain. On the slate roof, rain.
If anyone had come into the suite from a deck, through a door or a window, they would have dripped on the carpet. Ryan would have felt the moisture under his bare feet.
No one had been here. Someone had been here. Unreason.
As if the pendant were bewitched and to touch it would ensure the transmission of a curse, Ryan hesitated to pick it up. But curiosity kills more than cats.
As it lay on the pillow, the gold heart revealed a single side, softly burnished. In his hand, dangling from the chain, the other side came into view. Two words, engraved: BE MINE.
The pendant was not a locket. He was relieved that it was not a locket. If it had been a locket, it would have contained something that he would not have wanted to see.
As he wondered at those words, recalling the tiny candy hearts, a memory troubled him: the open wall safe as, in the grip of fear, he had snatched up the pistol.
Belatedly, what Ryan had seen in the safe registered with him. He stood listening to the rain rats and felt Fate gnawing at his bones.
If what he recalled was true, the normalcy of the past year was a trapdoor with a corroded spring, and the coils of the spring just now abruptly cracked and failed.
In denial of the memory, dropping the pendant on the nightstand, clutching the pistol, he returned to the closet, not hurriedly but at a death-row pace.
The sliding panel remained open, the safe revealed. When he slammed the door after grabbing the gun, the lock had automatically engaged. On the status display glowed the word SECURE.
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