“She died in the fall, Wanda June?”
“No, no, son, they did some powerful surgery on her, and she had brain swelling bad for a time, didn’t know who she was, but she came around, she had fortitude and the Lord. No memory of the convenient stepladder or the convenient concrete, but she was getting back all the rest of herself, she got to be Ismay again. She was in a rehab hospital, working on some left-arm paralysis, which she was nearly shed of, when she was slammed by a convenient massive heart attack, while poor Alvin was visiting her with some friend of his, them alone in the room with Ismay and the door shut, and that was just one convenience too many for Ismay, God bless and keep her.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Wanda June. I can hear in your voice how close you were to her.” He asked the most important question: “When did Ismay die?”
“It was three years ago this past Christmas Eve. Alvin, he was bringing her a gift, this beautiful silk scarf, which I guess was so beautiful it gave her a heart attack, which is comforting to think that beauty was what did her in, ’cause it wouldn’t have been anyway convenient if the heart attack didn’t happen and somebody then had to strangle her accidentally with the scarf.”
If Wanda June Siedel could be believed, Ismay Clemm had died twenty-one months prior to the myocardial biopsy during which Ryan had met her.
He sat listening to the angry yellow wind, the gears of his mind having ground to a halt on the thought-obstructing fact that had just been thrown into them.
Wanda June didn’t need encouragement to continue: “Ismay, she met Alvin on a Christian Internet site, which right there is some contradiction, the Internet being the devil’s playground. If Ismay hadn’t gone on the Internet, she wouldn’t ever met Alvin, she would still be out there in Denver with her sister, which means she and me never would have been friends, but I’d rather never known her than her be dead before her time.”
“Denver,” Ryan said.
“That’s where she was born, lived as a girl, and then married to Reggie. She moved here to Newport, to Costa Mesa actually, she was forty-seven, because Alvin had a job here, such as it was, and so she got on with the hospital.”
“And her sister-she’s still alive?”
“The sister, Ismena, she didn’t marry Alvin, she doesn’t do e-mail let alone Internet, so she’s still not fallen off a stepladder or swallowed a silk scarf or anything, she’s doing fine, she’s a sweetheart like Ismay.”
Reason might have returned to the universe. If there was a sister, an explanation might exist that would comport with the world of laws and logic with which Ryan was comfortable.
“So you’ve stayed in touch with Ismena,” he said.
“Ismena Moon, that’s the maiden name, Alvin was a Clemm. Ismena and me write each other, talk on the phone some.”
“She still lives in Denver?”
“She does, she lives in the very house Ismay and Reggie owned, bought it away from Ismay once Ismay up and married the supposedly Christian Alvin, not that it’s my place to question anyone’s faith, stepladder or no stepladder.”
“Wanda June, what did Kyra Whipset tell you about me?”
“Didn’t even talk to her. She just knew somebody who knew me and knew I was friends with Ismay. They said you’d been impressed by her or something, would I call you.”
“As I said earlier, Ismay was very kind to me at a terrible time in my life. I wanted to…to repay that kindness. But I didn’t know she had passed on.”
“Son, I would love to hear that story, her kindness, what she did for you, put it in my Ismay-memory book.”
“I’ll tell you sometime, Wanda June. I promise. But right now, I was hoping you might put me in touch with her sister, Ismena.”
“Ismena misses Ismay so terrible, she would enjoy a polite young man like you with something good to say about the late lamented. I’ll give you her number.”
In the Mercedes sedan, on the return trip to the airport, George Zane drove, Cathy Sienna rode shotgun, and Ryan slouched in the back, slowly shuffling again and again through the photographs of the three women-Teresa, Lily, Ismay-each of them having been one half of a set of identical twins, each of them with a living sister.
According to Samantha, good stories had deep texture. They acquired texture in numerous ways. The texture of character faults and virtues, of intentions contrasted with actions, of personal philosophy shaped by backstory, of mannerisms and habits, of contrasts and contradictions, of mundanities and eccentricities, of points of view and styles of speech. The texture of vivid visual images, of smells that came off the page, of sounds that resonated in the mind’s ear, of metaphor and simile. She could list dozens of sources for narrative texture. Ryan couldn’t remember them all.
In the texture, you began to see patterns. Some were patterns of plot, which you could think of as like the center lines on a highway and the guardrails at its extremes, there to be sure that you got to your destination without getting lost in byways of meaningless event. Others were patterns of the obvious theme, to give the story purpose that made it meaningful, in part just as the rules of construction for a sonnet gave it meaning, in part just as the truth of human suffering in a blues song made it worth singing.
The most difficult patterns of all to understand, the most intriguing, and usually the most ominous were those that arose from subtext, not from the surface theme but from the implicit meaning of the tale. The less you thought about those patterns, the more you understood them, for they were the patterns of primal truths, some of which the modern mind rejected on a conscious level.
Studying the photos of the three dead women, brooding about their living sisters, Ryan suspected that this pattern of twins, though seemingly the key to the plot, rose more from subtext and that the more intently he focused on it, the farther he traveled from the revelation he sought.
The yellow wind made pendulums of the traffic lights suspended over intersections, tore dead fronds off tall palm trees, harried tumbleweed out of vacant lots and along busy streets, buffeted the car, hissed at the windows, and in general made such an exhibition of its power that a pagan might have cast basketfuls of flower petals into it as an offering, to solicit exemption from the miseries of the coming storm.
Returning the photographs to the envelope, he said, “George, Cathy, I’m flying out to Denver from here. I don’t know that I’ll really need anyone with me, but there’s a longshot that I may have a security issue. I’d feel a lot more comfortable with someone who had a license to carry.”
“We’re both cool to carry in Colorado,” Zane said, “and Cathy has all the gun training that I have. Fact is, she may be the better shot.”
“I’ll lay twenty to one on that,” she said.
Ryan asked, “Are you up for Colorado, Cathy?”
“I only brought one change of clothes in my overnight bag.”
“That’s all you’ll need. We’ll be going back to California tomorrow.”
In truth, it didn’t seem likely that Ismena Moon, a fifty-eight-year-old woman described as a sweetheart, would prove to be a threat to Ryan’s physical safety.
He wanted someone with him more for company than protection. He had been something of a loner the past year, and solitude had taken its toll.
Denver in particular seemed to be a dangerous place for him to be alone. On his previous visit, he had arrived confused, as he would be arriving this time, and he had departed confounded, in a condition close to despair.
Besides, since he had first seen Cathy this afternoon in Spencer Barghest’s garage, Ryan had felt there was a question he wanted to ask her. Needed to ask her. A question of considerable importance. He just didn’t know what it might be. He sensed the question half-formed in the back of his mind. Perhaps it would fully coalesce in Denver.
Forty minutes out of Las Vegas, high over Utah, above the weather and bound for Colorado, Ryan excused himself and went to the lavatory.
He dropped to his knees and threw up in the toilet. He had developed a nervous stomach awaiting takeoff, and it had grown worse in flight.
At the sink, he rinsed out his mouth twice and washed his hands. He was struck by the paleness of his fingers, as white as bone.
When he looked at his face in the mirror, he found that it was paler than his hands, his lips without color.
Reluctantly he met his eyes and for some reason thought of Alvin Clemm and the convenient stepladder, the convenient concrete, the silk scarf and the convenient heart attack.
His legs grew weak, and he sat on the toilet. His hands were shaking. He clasped them, hoping one would steady the other.
He didn’t know when he had gotten up to wash his hands again. He found himself at the sink, scrubbing.
He was sitting on the toilet again when he heard a rapping, which quickened his heart until he realized this really was a hand upon a door.
“Are you all right?” asked Cathy Sienna.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Yes. I’m sorry.”
“A little airsickness,” he explained.
“Do you need anything?”
“Just a minute. Give me a minute.”
She went away.
Airsickness wasn’t the correct diagnosis. He was sick with fear about what he would find on the ground, in Denver, in the house of Ismena Moon, which had once been the house of Ismay.
Leaving stars behind, and moon, they descended through deep clouds, a white boil at the portholes, and then Denver appeared below, sparkling in the clear night air.
In flight, Ryan had phoned Ismena, telling her only that her late sister had done a kindness for him that he’d never forgotten and, as he was in Denver, he would like to stop by and find out more about Ismay. After Ismena welcomed their visit, Ryan had arranged for a Cadillac Escalade, which awaited them at the airport.
The January night was so bleak that his cold hands felt warm by comparison. His breath plumed from him, curls of vapor lingering for brief moments before deliquescing into the still air.
His stomach was settled, but not his nerves, and after they put their two small pieces of luggage in the back of the Escalade, he asked Cathy Sienna to drive. In the passenger seat, he read Ismena’s address from a notepad on which he had written it, and Cathy keyed it into the navigator.
She drove well, handling the big SUV as if she had put fifty thousand miles on it before this. Ryan suspected that she was good not merely with a gun and a car but also with just about any machine or tool, good with things because she preferred them to people.
The very act of driving brought a slight unconscious smile to her. Although she usually guarded her expressions closely, her face was not a mask at this moment, but relaxed as Ryan had not before seen it.
“Do I need to know who this woman is, why we’re here?” she asked.
He told her only about Ismay Clemm’s kindness to him during the myocardial biopsy-and then that he had this day learned the nurse had died twenty-one months before he met her.
Of the reactions he expected from Cathy, she exhibited none. The faint smile remained, and she kept her eyes on the road, as if he had said nothing more surprising than that, judging by the lowering sky, snow would soon fall.
“Twenty-one months. What do you make of that?” she asked.
“Ismena and Ismay are identical twins.”
“So you-what?-think it was Ismena at the biopsy?”
“But she was using Ismay’s name? Why would she?”
“That’s one thing I want to find out.”
“I guess you would.”
He waited for her to say something more. She drove in silence, and only spoke to say “Yes, ma’am,” each time the computerized voice of the navigation system gave her an instruction.
For her line of work, Cathy had been trained to listen carefully to what a client needed to tell her about his problems and to have no curiosity about any portion of his story that he failed to disclose. But her ability to feign disinterest in this case seemed almost superhuman.
As the navigator announced a final turn to the left coming in three hundred yards, Ryan recognized the park with the aspen trees and the church beside it.
“Pull over,” he said. “I know this place. If her house is just around the corner, we can walk from here.”
Their jackets were not heavy enough for the weather, but the air remained still, with no wind-chill factor. Hands in their pockets, they walked first into the park.
The aspens had shed their leaves for winter. The smooth bare limbs described pale geometries against the night sky.
A recent snow, not yet despoiled by children’s boots, mantled the grass, and the brick walkways wound like channels of dark water through the whiteness.
“I was here once,” he told Cathy, “sixteen months ago.”
She walked with him and waited.
“That time, I had the most powerful experience of deja vu. The air was as still then as now, but the aspens were whispering, as they always do when they’re leafed out. And I thought how much I’d always loved that sound-and then realized I’d never heard it before.”
A lamppost spilled light upon an iron bench. Icicles depended from the front skirt of the bench, and ice glazed the bricks directly under them.
“Sitting on this bench, I became convinced I’d sat here many times in the past, in all seasons and kinds of weather. And I felt the most powerful nostalgic sense of…of love for this place. Strange, don’t you think?”
Again surprising him, she said, “Not really.”
Ryan looked at her. Aware of his stare, she did not return it.
“Are you experiencing any of that now?” she asked, gazing up into the aspen architecture.
Shivering, Ryan surveyed the park. “No. It’s just a place this time.”
They walked to the front steps of St. Gemma’s Church, where a bronze lamp in the shape of a bell brightened the oak doors.
“I knew what the church would look like before I went inside. And when I went in…I felt I’d returned to a much-loved place.”
“Should we pay a visit?”
Although he knew he could not have been located and followed to Colorado so quickly, Ryan imagined that if he went into the church, he would find waiting for him the woman with the lilies and the knife, this time without the lilies.
“No,” he said. “It won’t feel special now. It’ll be like the park-just a place.”
His ear lobes began to sting with cold, his eyes watered, and the icy air had a faint ammonia scent that burned in his nostrils.
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