The farther reaches of the vast chamber remained dark, but the center had enough light for my purpose.
Sixty-four died in the casino, Datura told me. The heat was so intense in some areas that even bones burned.
The patient blackjack player remained the only spirit in sight. The others would come eventually, as many as lingered this side of death.
Baby, look at those melted slot machines. Casinos, they’re always advertising they have hot slots, but this time they weren’t bullshitting.
Of the eight spirits who had been here previously, only one might serve my purpose.
They found the remains of this old lady. The quake tipped over a bank of slot machines, trapped her under them.
I didn’t want to hear Datura’s grisly details. By now, I knew there was no way that I could dissuade her from providing them, and vividly.
Her remains were so twisted up with melted metal and plastic, the coroner couldn’t completely extract them.
Under the time-mellowed rankness of char and sulfur and myriad toxic residues, I detected the half-fungal, half-fleshy odor from the stairwell. Elusive but not imagined, it swelled and faded breath by breath.
The coroner thought the old bitch should be cremated, since the job was already half done, and since that was the only way to separate her from the melted machine.
Out of shadows came the elderly lady with the long face and the vacant eyes. Perhaps she had been the one trapped under the bank of one-armed bandits.
But her family—they didn’t want cremation, they wanted a traditional burial.
From the corner of my eye, I detected movement, turned, and discovered the cocktail waitress in the Indian-princess uniform. I was saddened to see her. I had thought—and hoped—that she might have moved on at last.
So the casket contained part of the slot machine that the hag had been fused with. Is that nuts or what?
Here came the uniformed guard, walking a little bit like John Wayne, one hand on the gun at his hip.
Are any of them here? Datura asked.
I don’t see anything.
Right now they’re only manifesting to me.
So show me.
There should be one more. I have to wait until they’re all gathered.
That’s just the way it is.
Don’t screw with me, she warned.
You’ll get what you want, I assured her.
Although Datura’s customary self-possession had given way to an evident excitement, to a twitchy anticipation, Andre and Robert exhibited all the enthusiasm of a pair of boulders. Each stood by his lantern, waiting.
Andre stared off into the gloom beyond the lamplight. He did not seem to be looking at anything in this universe. His features were slack. His eyes seldom blinked. The only emotion that he’d exhibited thus far had been when he had suckled at her thorn-pricked hand, and even then he had not revealed an ability to emote any greater than that of the average oak stump.
While Andre seemed perpetually anchored in placid waters, Robert occasionally revealed, by a fleeting expression or a furtive glance, that he rode a marginally more active inner sea. Now his hands had his complete attention as he used the fingernails of his left to clean under the fingernails of his right, slowly, meticulously, as though he would be content to spend hours at the task.
At first I had decided that both were on the stupid side of dumb, but I had begun to rethink that judgment. I couldn’t believe that their interior lives were rich in intellectual pursuit and philosophical contemplation, but I did suspect that they were more formidable, mentally, than they appeared to be.
Perhaps they had been with Datura for enough years and through enough ghost hunts that the prospect of supernatural experiences no longer interested them. Even the most exotic excursions can become tedious through repetition.
And after years of listening to her all but constant chatter, they could be excused for taking refuge in silence, for creating redoubts of inner quietude to which they could retreat, letting her ceaseless crazy talk wash over them.
All right, you’re waiting for a fifth spirit, she said, plucking at my T-shirt. But tell me about those that are here already. Where are they? Who are they?
To placate her and to avoid worrying that the dead man I most needed to see might not put in an appearance, I described the player at the blackjack table, his kind face, full mouth and dimpled chin.
So he’s manifesting the way that he was before the fire? she asked.
When you conjure him for me, I want to see him both ways— as he was in life, and what the fire did to him.
All right, I agreed, because she would never be persuaded that I lacked the power to compel such revelations.
All of them, I want to see what it did to them. Their wounds, their suffering.
Who else? she asked.
One by one, I pointed to where they stood: the elderly woman, the guard, the cocktail waitress.
Datura found only the waitress intriguing. You said she was a brunette. Is that right—or is her hair black?
Peering more closely at the apparition, which moved toward me in response to my interest, I said, Black. Raven hair.
I know about her. There’s a story about her, Datura said with an avidness that made me uneasy.
Now focusing on Datura, the young waitress came closer still, to within a few feet of us.
Squinting, trying to see the spirit, but staring to one side of it, Datura asked, Why does she linger?
I don’t know. The dead don’t talk to me. When I command them to be visible to you, maybe you’ll be able to get them to speak.
I scanned the casino shadows, searching for the lurking form of the tall, broad man with buzz-cut hair. Still no sign of him, and he was my only hope.
Speaking of the cocktail waitress, Datura said, Ask if her name was…Maryann Morris.
Surprised, the waitress moved closer and put a hand on Datura’s arm, a contact that went unnoticed, for only I can feel the touch of the dead.
It must be Maryann, I said. She reacted to the name.
Where is she?
Directly in front of you, within arm’s reach.
In the manner of a domesticated creature reverting to a wilder state, Datura’s delicate nostrils flared, her eyes shone with feral excitement, and her lips pulled back from her white-white teeth as if in anticipation of blood sport.
I know why Maryann can’t move on, Datura said. There was a story about her in the news accounts. She had two sisters. Both of them worked here.
She’s nodding, I told Datura, and at once wished that I had not facilitated this encounter.
I’ll bet Maryann doesn’t know what happened to her sisters, whether they lived or died. She doesn’t want to move on until she knows what happened to them.
The apprehensive expression on the spirit’s face, which was not entirely without a fragile hope, revealed that Datura had intuited the reason Maryann lingered. Reluctant to encourage her, I didn’t confirm the accuracy of her insight.
She needed no encouragement from me. One sister was a waitress working the ballroom that night.
The Lady Luck Ballroom. The collapsed ceiling. The crushing, skewering weight of the massive chandelier.
The other sister worked as a hostess in the main restaurant, Datura said. Maryann had used her contacts to get jobs for them.
If that was true, the cocktail waitress might feel responsible for her sisters having been in the Panamint when the quake struck. Hearing that they had survived, she would most likely feel free to shake off the chains that bound her to this world, these ruins.
Even if her sisters had died, the sad truth was likely to release her from her self-imposed purgatory. Although her sense of guilt might increase, that would be trumped by her hope of a reunion with her loved ones in the next world.
Seeing not the usual cold calculation in Datura’s eyes, nor the childlike wonder that had briefly brightened them as we had descended the stairs from the twelfth floor, seeing instead a bitterness and a meanness that emphasized the new feral quality in her face, I felt no less nauseated than when, with blood-smeared hand, she had pressed the wineglass to my lips.
The lingering dead are vulnerable, I warned her. We owe them the truth, only the truth, but we have to be careful to comfort them and encourage them onward by what we say and how we say it.
Listening to myself, I realized the futility of urging Datura to act with compassion.
Directly addressing the spirit whom she could not see, Datura said, Your sister Bonnie is alive.
Hope brightened the late Maryann Morris’s face, and I could see that she readied herself for joy.
Datura continued: Her spine was snapped when a ton-and-a-half ballroom chandelier fell on her. Crushed the shit out of her. Her eyes were punctured, ruined—
What’re you doing? Don’t do this, I pleaded.
Now Bonnie’s paralyzed from the neck down, and blind. She lives on the government dole in a cheap nursing home where she’ll probably die from neglected bedsores.
I wanted to shut her up even if I had to hit her, and maybe half the reason I wanted to shut her up was because it would give me an excuse to hit her.
As though attuned to my desire, Andre and Robert stared at me, tense with the expectation of action.
Although the chance to knock her flat would have been worth the beating the thugs would have administered to me, I reminded myself that I had come here for Danny. The cocktail waitress was dead, but my friend with brittle bones had a chance to live. His survival must be my focus.
Addressing the spirit she could not see, Datura said, Your other sister, Nora, was burned over eighty percent of her body, but she survived. Three fingers on her left hand were burned completely away. So were her hair and many of her facial features, Maryann. One ear. Her lips. Her nose. Seared away, gone.
Grief so tortured the cocktail waitress that I could not bear to look at her, because I could do nothing to comfort her in the face of this vicious assault.
Breathing rapidly, shallowly, Datura had allowed the wolf in her bones to rise into her heart. Words were her teeth and cruelty her claws.
Your Nora has had thirty-six operations with more to come— skin grafts, facial reconstruction, painful and tedious. And still she’s hideous.
You’re making this up, I interrupted.
Like hell I am. She’s hideous. She rarely goes out, and when she does, she wears a hat and ties a scarf across her sickening face to avoid frightening children.
Such aggressive gleefulness in the administration of emotional pain, such inexplicable bitterness revealed Datura’s perfect face to be not just a contrast to her nature but in fact a mask. The longer she assailed the cocktail waitress, the less opaque the mask became, and you could begin to see the suggestion of an underlying malignancy so ugly that, were the mask to be stripped suddenly away, a face would be revealed that would make Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera look lamb-sweet, lamb-gentle.
You, Maryann, you got away easy by comparison. Your pain is over. You can go on from here any damn time you choose. But because your sisters were where they were, when they were, their suffering is going to continue for years and years, for all the rest of their miserable lives.
The intensity of misbegotten guilt that Datura strove to foster would keep this tortured spirit chained to these burned-out ruins, to this bleak plot of land, for another decade, or century. And for no purpose but to attempt to agitate the poor soul into a visible manifestation.
Do I piss you off, Maryann? Do you hate me for revealing the helpless, broken things your sisters have become?
To Datura, I said, This is disgusting, despicable, and it won’t work. It’s all for nothing.
I know what I’m doing, baby. I always know exactly what I’m doing.
She isn’t like you, I persisted. She doesn’t hate, so you can’t enrage her.
Everyone hates, she said, and warned me off with a murderous look that dropped the temperature of my blood. Hate makes the world go ‘round. Especially for girls like Maryann. They’re the best of all haters.
What would you know about girls like her? I asked scornfully, angrily. And answered my question: Nothing. You know nothing about women like her.
Andre took one step away from his lantern, and Robert glowered at me.
Relentless, Datura said, I’ve seen your picture in newspapers, Maryann. Oh, yes, I did my research before I came here. I know the faces of so many who died in this place, because if I meet them—when I meet them through my new boyfriend here, my little odd one—I want the encounters to be memorable.
The tall broad brick of a man with buzz-cut hair and deep-set bile-green eyes had appeared, but I’d been so distracted by Datura’s unconscionable badgering of the cocktail waitress that I had not been aware of this spirit’s belated arrival. I saw him now as he abruptly loomed closer to us.
I’ve seen your picture, Maryann, Datura repeated. You were a pretty girl but not a beauty. Just pretty enough for men to use you, but not pretty enough to be able to use them to get what you wanted.
No more than ten feet from us, the eighth spirit of the casino appeared to be as angry as he had been when I had seen him earlier. Jaws clenched. Hands fisted.
Just pretty isn’t good enough, Datura continued. Prettiness fades quickly. If you had lived, your life would have been nothing but cocktail waitressing and disappointment.
Buzz-cut came closer, now three feet behind the stricken spirit of Maryann Morris.
You had high hopes when you came to this job, Datura said, but it was a dead end, and soon you knew you were already a failure. Women like you turn to their sisters, to their friends, and make a life that way. But you…you even failed your sisters, didn’t you?
One of the Coleman lanterns brightened markedly, dimmed, and brightened again, causing shadows to fly away, leap close, and fly away once more.
Andre and Robert somberly considered the lamp, looked at each other, and then surveyed the room, puzzled.
FAILED YOUR SISTERS, DATURA REPEATED, YOUR paralyzed, blind, disfigured sisters. And if that isn’t true, if I’m full of crap, then let me see you, Maryann. Show yourself, confront me, let me see you the way the fire ruined you. Show me, and scare me off.
Although I would never have been able to conjure these spirits into a sufficiently material state for Datura to have seen them, I had hoped that Buzz-cut, with his high poltergeist potential, would provide a spectacle that would not only entertain my captors but also distract them so completely that I might get away.
The problem had been how to fuel his already simmering anger into the fiery rage needed to power poltergeist phenomena. Now it seemed that Datura would solve that problem for me.
You weren’t there for your sisters, she taunted. Not before the quake, not during, not after, not ever.
Although the cocktail waitress only buried her face in her hands and endured the poisonous accusations, Buzz-cut glared at Datura, his expression heating from a simmering to a boiling anger.