Without looking up from his left ankle, I said, Phone sex?
After a hesitation, he said, I wanted to know what it was like to talk about it, you know, with a girl. A girl who didn’t know what I look like.
I took longer cutting the tape than was required, keeping my head down, giving him time.
He said, I have some money of my own. He designs web sites. I pay the bills for my phone. Dad didn’t see the nine-hundred-number charges.
Having freed his ankle, I busied myself cleaning the tape-gummed blade of the knife on my jeans. I couldn’t cut the bonds around his chest because the same loops held the bomb level and in place.
For a couple minutes, he continued, it was exciting. But then pretty soon it seemed gross. Ugly. His voice quavered. You probably think I’m a pervert.
I think you’re human. I like that in a friend.
He took a deep breath and went on: It seemed gross… and then stupid. So I asked the girl, could we just talk, not about sex, about other things, anything. She said sure, that was all right.
Phone-sex services charge by the minute. Danny could have held forth for hours about the qualities of various laundry soaps, and she would have pretended to be enthralled.
We chatted half an hour, just about things we like and don’t like—you know, books, movies, food. It was wonderful, Odd. I can’t explain how wonderful it was, the glow I got from it. It was just… it was so nice.
I wouldn’t have thought that the word nice could break my heart, but it almost did.
That particular service will let you make an appointment with a girl you like. I mean for another conversation.
This was Datura.
Yes. The second time I talked to her, I found out she has this real fascination with the supernatural, ghosts and stuff.
I folded shut the knife and returned it to my backpack.
She’s read like a thousand books on the subject, visited lots of haunted houses. She’s into all kinds of paranormal phenomena.
I went around behind his chair and knelt on the floor.
What’re you doing? he asked nervously.
Nothing. Relax. I’m just studying the situation. Tell me about Datura.
This is the hardest part, Odd.
I know. It’s okay.
His voice grew even softer: Well… the third time I called her, pretty much the only thing we talked about was supernatural stuff— from the Bermuda Triangle to spontaneous human combustion to the ghosts that supposedly haunt the White House. I don’t know… I don’t know why I wanted so bad to impress her.
I am no expert on bomb-making. I had encountered only one other in my life—the previous August, in the same incident that involved the mall shootings.
I mean, Danny said, she was just this girl who talked filthy to men for money. But it was important to me that she liked me, maybe even thought I was a little cool. So I told her I had a friend who could see ghosts.
I closed my eyes.
I didn’t use your name at first, and at first she didn’t really believe me. But the stories I told her about you were so detailed and so unusual, she began to realize they were true.
The bomb at the mall had been a truck packed with hundreds of kilos of explosives. The detonator had been a crude device.
Our talks got to be so much fun. Then the sweetest thing. It seemed so sweet. She started calling me on her own time. It didn’t cost me anything anymore.
I opened my eyes and gazed at the package on the back of Danny’s chair. This was a lot more sophisticated than the truck bomb at the mall. It was meant to challenge me.
We didn’t always get around to talking about you, Danny said. I realize now, she was clever. She didn’t want to be obvious.
Careful not to disturb the carpenter’s level, I traced a coiled red wire with one finger, and then a straighter yellow wire. Then green.
But after a while, Danny continued, I didn’t have any more to tell her about you… except the thing at the mall last year. That was such a big story nationwide, all over the newspapers and TV so then she knew your name.
Black wire, blue wire, white wire, red again… Neither the sight of them nor the feel of them against my fingertip engaged my sixth sense.
I’m so sorry, Odd. So damn sorry. I sold you out.
I said, Not for money. For love. That’s different.
I don’t love her.
All right. Not love. For the hope of love.
Frustrated by the indecipherable wiring of the bomb, I went around to the front of the chair.
Danny rubbed his right wrist, around which the duct tape had been drawn so tight that it had left angry red impressions in his skin.
For the hope of love, I repeated. What friend wouldn’t cut you a little slack in a case like that?
Tears welled in his eyes.
Listen, I said, you and I weren’t meant to have our tickets punched in a cheesy casino resort. If fate says we’ve got to croak in a hotel, then we’ll rent a suite someplace that rates five stars. You okay?
Tucking my backpack in among the earthquake-pitched furniture where it was unlikely to be found, I said, I know why they brought you here, of all places. If she thinks somehow I can conjure spirits, she figures a bunch of them have to be hanging around this joint. But why through the flood-control tunnels?
She’s beyond psychotic, Odd. It never came across on the phone, or maybe I didn’t want to hear it when I was… romancing her. Damn. That’s pathetic. Anyway, she’s a weird kind of crazy, delusional but not stupid, a real hard-nosed nutty bitch. She wanted to bring me to the Panamint by an unusual route, something that would be a serious test of your psychic magnetism, prove to her it was real. And there’s something else going on with her…
His hesitation told me that this something else would not be a cheerful revelation, such as that Datura had taken up gospel singing or that she had baked my favorite cake.
She wants you to show her ghosts. She thinks you can summon them, make them speak. I never told her anything like that, it’s just what she insists on believing. But she wants something else, too. I don’t know why… He thought about it, shook his head. But I get the feeling she wants to kill you.
I seem to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Danny, last night in the alley behind the Blue Moon Cafe—someone fired a shotgun.
One of her guys. The one you found dead.
Who was he shooting at?
Me. They were careless for a moment as we were getting out of the van. I tried to make a break for the street. The shotgun was a warning to stop.
He wiped his eyes with one hand. Three of the fingers, once having been broken, were larger than they should have been and misshapen by excess bone.
I shouldn’t have stopped, he said. I should’ve kept running. All they could have done was shoot me in the back. Then we wouldn’t be here.
I went to him and poked the yellow lightning bolt on the front of his black T-shirt. No more of that. You keep swimming in that direction, soon you’ll find yourself drowning in self-pity. That isn’t you, Danny.
Shaking his head, he said, What a mess.
Self-pity isn’t you, and it never has been. We’re a couple of tough little virgin geeks, and don’t you forget it.
He couldn’t suppress a smile, though it was tremulous and came with a fresh welling of tears. I still have my Martian-brain-eating-centipede card.
Are we sentimental fools, or what?
That crack about Demi Moore was funny, he said.
I know. Listen, I’m going out there to have a look around. After I’m gone, you might think you can just tip over your chair and set off the bomb.
His evasive eyes revealed that self-sacrifice had indeed crossed his mind.
You might think blowing yourself into pâté would get me off the hook, then I’d call Wyatt Porter for help, but you’d be way wrong, I assured him. I’d feel more obligated than ever to get all three of them myself. I wouldn’t leave this place until I did. You understand that, Danny?
What a mess.
Besides, you’ve got to live for your dad. Don’t you think so?
He sighed, nodded. Yeah.
You’ve got to live for your dad. That’s your job now.
Danny said, He’s a good man.
Picking up the flashlight, I said, If Datura checks on you before I get back, she’ll see your arms and legs have been freed. That’s all right. Just tell her I’m here.
What’re you going to do now?
I shrugged. You know me. I make it up as I go along.
STEPPING OUT OF ROOM 1242 AND PULLING THE DOOR shut behind me, I glanced left and right along the corridor. Still deserted. Silent.
That sounded like a name not given but instead chosen. She had been born Mary or Heather, or something equally common, and she had taken Datura later. It was an exotic word with some meaning that she was amused to apply to herself.
I visualized my mind as a pool of dark water in moonlight, her name as a leaf. I imagined the leaf settling upon the water, floating for a moment. Saturated, the leaf sank. Currents moved it around the pool, deeper, deeper.
In seconds, I felt drawn north toward—and beyond—the elevator alcove in which I had arrived earlier by way of the shaft ladder. If the woman waited on this floor, she was in a room distant from 1242.
Perhaps she didn’t keep Danny with her because she, too, had sensed in him a potential for self-destruction that gave her second thoughts about having strapped him to a bomb that he could choose to detonate.
Although I could have allowed myself to be drawn to Datura right away, I wasn’t urgently compelled to locate her. She was Medusa, with a voice—instead of eyes—that could turn men to stone, but for the moment I was content to be a man of weary, aching, and fallible flesh.
Ideally, I would find some way to disable Datura and the two men with her—and gain possession of the remote control that could trigger the explosives. When they were no longer a threat, I could call Chief Porter.
My chances of overpowering three dangerous people, especially if all of them had guns, were not much better than the odds that the dead gamblers in the burned-out casino could win their lives back with a roll of the fire-yellowed dice.
Other than ignoring my convincing premonition that calling in the police would be the certain death of Danny, the only alternative to disabling the kidnappers was to disable the bomb. I had less desire to fiddle with that complex detonator than I had to French-kiss a rattlesnake.
Nevertheless, I had to prepare for the possibility that events would lead me inevitably to precisely that fiddling. And if I freed Danny, we would still have to get out of the Panamint.
Not agile to begin with, exhausted by the trek from Pico Mundo, he would not be able to move fast. On a good day, in peak form, my brittle-boned friend was not surefooted enough to dare to rush down a flight of stairs.
To get to the ground floor of this hotel, he would be required to descend twenty-two flights. Then he would have to make his way through treacherous rubble-strewn public areas—while three homicidal psychopaths pursued us.
Throw in a few dumb, manipulative, scantily clad women, add a few even dumber but hunky guys, include the requirement to eat a bowl of live worms, and we pretty much had the premise for a new reality-TV show.
I quickly searched several rooms along the south end of the main corridor, looking for a place where Danny could hide in the unlikely event that I proved able to separate him from the explosives.
If I didn’t have to worry about keeping him on the move with gunmen chasing us down, and if he was beyond easy discovery, I would be better able to deal with our enemies. With Danny in hiding, I might even feel that circumstances had changed sufficiently to make it safe to bring in Chief Porter.
Unfortunately, one hotel room is pretty much like another, and they don’t offer any challenges to a determined searcher. Datura and her thugs would breeze through them as quickly as I did and would be aware of the same possible hiding places as those that caught my attention.
Briefly I considered artfully rearranging a jumble of quake-tossed furniture and decorative items to create a hollow in which Danny could be tucked out of sight. An unstable mound of chairs and beds and nightstands was likely to shift noisily when I tried to reconfigure it, drawing unwanted attention before I could complete the job.
In the fourth room, I glanced out a window and saw that the land had grown darker, shadowed by a warship fleet of iron clouds that had expanded their dominion to three-quarters of the sky. The landscape flickered as if with muzzle flashes, and a cannonade, still distant but closer than before, shook the day.
Remembering the eerie quality of the thunder that earlier had echoed down through the elevator shaft, I turned from the window.
The corridor was still deserted. I hurried north, passing Room 1242, and returned to the alcove.
Nine of the ten sets of stainless-steel lift doors were shut. For safety, to facilitate rescue, they would have been designed in such a way that they could be forced open manually in the event of a loss of power from both the public-utility company and the backup generators.
They had been closed for five years. Smoke had probably corroded and gummed their mechanisms.
I started on the right-hand bank. The first pair of doors were ajar. I wedged my fingers in the one-inch gap and tried to pull the doors apart. The one on the right moved a little; initially, the other resisted, but then slid aside with a raspy noise that wouldn’t have traveled far.
Even in the dim gray light, I had to pry the doors apart only four inches to discern that no cab waited beyond. It was at another floor.
Sixteen stories, ten elevators: The mathematics allowed that none of them had come to a stop on the twelfth floor. All nine sets of doors might conceal empty shafts.
Perhaps, when power was lost, the elevators were programmed to descend on backup batteries to the lobby. If that was the case, my hope was that this safety mechanism had failed—just as others in the hotel had failed.
When I let go of the doors, they eased back into the position in which I had found them.
The second set were closed tighter than the first. The leading edges were bull-nosed, however, to facilitate prying in an emergency. Shuddering in their tracks, they opened with a creaking that made me nervous.
These doors remained apart when I released them. To avoid leaving evidence of my search, I pressed them shut again, eliciting more shudders, more creaking.
I had left clear images of my hands in the grime that filmed the stainless steel. From a pocket I withdrew a Kleenex and brushed lightly to obscure the prints, feather them out of existence, without leaving a too-clean patch that might raise suspicion.
The third pair of doors would not budge.
Behind the fourth set, which opened quietly, I found a waiting cab. I pushed the doors fully apart, hesitated, then stepped into the lift.