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Forever Odd

Forever Odd

Page 26


Although he was still at some distance and though I was not the master marksman of my age, I squeezed off a shot, then another and a third.


He had a gun. He returned my fire.


As would have been anyone’s, his aim was better than mine. One slug ricocheted off a column to my left, and another round whistled past my head so close that I could hear it cutting the air separate from the boom and echo of the shot itself.


Trading fire, I would get my candle snuffed, so I ran, crouching and weaving.


The stairwell door was missing. I plunged through, raced down.


Past the landing, on the second flight, I realized that he would expect me to exit at the ground floor and that in those hallways and spaces, all familiar to him, he would catch me, for he was strong and fast and not as stupid as he looked.


Hearing him enter the stairwell, realizing that he had closed the gap between us even faster than I had feared he might, I kicked open the door at the ground floor but didn’t go through it. Instead, I swept the light across the next set of down-bound stairs to be sure they weren’t obstructed, then switched it off and descended in the dark.


Having been kicked open, the ground-floor door rebounded shut with a crash. As I reached the lower landing, sliding my hand along the railing for guidance, and continued blindly into territory that I had not scouted, I heard Andre slam out of the stairwell, into the ground floor.


I kept moving. I’d bought some time, but he wouldn’t be fooled for long.


FIFTY-THREE


RISKING LIGHT WHEN I REACHED THE BASEMENT LEVEL, I found more stairs but hesitated to follow them. A sub-basement would be likely to present me with a dead end.


Shuddering, I remembered her story of the lingering spirit of the Gestapo torturer haunting that sous-sol in Paris. Datura’s silken voice: I felt Gessel’s hands all over me—eager, bold, demanding. He entered me.


Choosing the basement, I expected to find a parking garage or loading docks at which deliveries had been made. In either case, there would be exits.


I’d had enough of the Panamint. I preferred to take my chances in the open, in the storm.


Doors lined both sides of a long concrete-walled corridor with a vinyl-tile floor. Neither fire nor smoke had touched this area.


Because the doors were white but not paneled, I checked out a few of the rooms as I passed them. They were empty. Either offices or storerooms, they had been cleaned out after the disaster because what they contained evidently had not been damaged either by fire or water.


The acrid stink of the fire’s aftermath had not penetrated here. I had been breathing that miasma for so many hours that clean air felt astringent in my nostrils, in my lungs, almost abrasive in its comparative purity.


An intersection of corridors presented me with three choices. After the briefest hesitation, I hurried to the right, hoping that the door at the farther end would lead to the elusive parking garage.


Just as I reached the termination of this passage, I heard Andre crash through the steel door from the north stairs, back in the first hallway.


At once, I doused my flashlight. I opened the door in front of me, stepped across the threshold, and closed myself into this unknown space.


My light revealed a set of metal service stairs with rubberized treads. They led only down.


The door had no lock.


Andre might conduct a thorough search of this area. Instead he might follow his instinct elsewhere.


I could wait to see what he did, hope to shoot him before he shot me if he yanked open this door. Or I could follow the stairs.


Glad that I had snared the pistol from midair, but not daring to take it as a sign that my destiny was survival, I hurried down into the sub-basement, which such a short time ago I had tried to avoid.


Two landings and three quick flights brought me 360 degrees around to a vestibule and a formidable-looking door. Emblazoned on that barrier were several warnings; the most prominent promised high voltage in big red letters. A stern admonition restricted access to authorized personnel.


I authorized myself to enter, opened the door, and from the threshold explored with my flashlight. Eight concrete steps led down five feet, into a sunken electrical vault, a thick-walled concrete bunker approximately fifteen by twenty feet.


On a raised pad in the center, as on an island, stood a tower of equipment. Perhaps some of these things were transformers, perhaps a time machine for all I knew.


At the far end of the chamber, a three-foot-diameter tunnel, at floor level, bored away into darkness. Evidently, the vault needed to be a subterranean bunker in the event that equipment exploded, as transformers sometimes did. But in case of a plumbing break or other sudden flood, the drain would be able to carry away a high volume of water.


Having avoided the main stairs into the sub-basement, I had taken these, which served only the vault. Now I had come to the dead end that I had feared.


From the instant the lion attacked, I’d weighed options at each turn in my flight, calculating probabilities. In my panic, I had not listened to the still, small voice that is my sixth sense.


Nothing is more dangerous for me than to forget that I am a man both of reason and supernatural perception. When I function in only one mode or the other, I am denying half myself, half my potential.


To a lesser extent with other people than with me, this is true of everyone.


Dead end.


Nevertheless, I went through the vault door and eased it shut. I checked for a lock, doubting there would be one, and had my doubt confirmed.


I hurried down the concrete stairs, all the way into the pit, and around the tower of equipment.


Probing with the flashlight, I saw that the tunnel sloped and gradually curved away to the left, out of sight. The walls were dry and clean enough. I wouldn’t leave a trail.


If Andre entered this chamber, he would surely peer into the drain. But if I managed to get out of sight, beyond the curve, he would not press the search that far. He would think that I had given him the slip farther back.


Three feet of diameter did not allow me to proceed in a stoop. I had to crawl into the drain.


I tucked Datura’s pistol under my belt, in the small of my back, and got moving.


The shielding curve lay about twenty feet from the entrance. With no need for the flashlight, I switched it off, inserted it in the spelunker’s cuff, and crawled on my hands and knees into the darkness.


Half a minute later, near the bend in the tunnel, I stretched out full length and turned on my side. I directed the flashlight back the way that I had come, studying the floor.


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A few smudges of soot on the concrete marked my progress, but from such spoor alone no one would be able to deduce that I had passed this way. Those traces could have been there for years. Water stains patterned the concrete, too, and they helped to camouflage the soot.


In the dark again, returning to my hands and knees, I finished rounding the gradual turn. When I should have been out of sight of the vault, I continued another ten feet, fifteen, just to be sure before stopping.


I sat crosswise to the tunnel, my back against the curve, and waited.


After a minute, I remembered that old movie serial about the secret civilization under the surface of the earth. Maybe somewhere along this route lay a subterranean city with women in horned hats, an evil emperor, and mutants. Fine. None of that could be as bad as what I’d left behind in the Panamint.


Suddenly creeping through my memory of the movie came Kali, who didn’t belong in that scenario; Kali, lips painted with blood, tongue lolling. She wasn’t carrying the noose, the skull-topped staff, the sword, or the severed head. Her hands were empty, the better to touch me, to fondle me, to pull my face forcefully toward her for a kiss.


Alone, without either a campfire or marshmallows, I was telling ghost stories to myself. You might think that my life inoculates me against being scared by mere ghost stories, but you would be wrong.


Living every day with proof that the afterlife is real, I can’t take refuge in unleavened reason, can’t say But ghosts don’t really exist. Not knowing the full nature of what comes after this world, but knowing for certain that something does, my imagination spins into vortexes darker than any yours has ever visited.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure you’ve got a fabulously dark, twisted, and perhaps even deeply sick imagination. I’m not trying to devalue the dementedness of your imagination and do not mean to diminish your pride in it.


Sitting in that tunnel, spooking myself, I banished Kali not only from the role that she had given herself in that movie serial, but banished her entirely from my mind. I concentrated on the iguanas tricked up to pass for dinosaurs and on the dwarfs in leather chaps or whatever they had been wearing.


Instead of Kali, within seconds Datura crept into my thoughts, torn by the lion but nonetheless amorous. She was crawling toward me along the tunnel right now.


I couldn’t hear her breathing, of course, because the dead do not breathe.


She wanted to sit in my lap and wriggle her bottom and share her blood with me.


The dead don’t talk. But it was easy to believe that Datura might be the sole exception to the rule. Surely even death could not silence that garrulous goddess. She would heave herself upon me, sit on my lap, wriggle her bottom, press her dripping hand to my lips, and say Want to taste me, boyfriend!‘


Very little of that mind movie was enough to make me want to switch on the flashlight.


If Andre had intended to check out the electrical vault, he would have done so by this time. He had gone elsewhere. With both his mistress and Robert dead, the giant would blow this place in the car that they had stashed on the property.


In a few hours, I could dare to venture back into the hotel and from there to the interstate.


As I touched my thumb to the flashlight switch, before I pressed it, light bloomed beyond the curve that I had recently transited, and I heard Andre at the mouth of the tunnel.


FIFTY-FOUR


ONE GOOD THING ABOUT REVERSE PSYCHIC MAGNETISM is that I can never be lost. Drop me into the middle of a jungle, without a map or a compass, and I’ll draw my searchers to me. You’ll never find my face on a milk carton: Have you seen this boy? If I live long enough to develop Alzheimer’s and wander away from my care facility, pretty soon all the nurses and patients will be wandering after me, compelled in my wake.


Watching the light play around the first length of the tunnel, past the curve, I warned myself that I was indulging in another ghost story, spooking myself for no good reason. I should not assume that Andre sensed where I had gone.


If I sat tight, he would decide there were more likely places that I might have taken refuge, and he would go away to search them. He hadn’t entered the drain. He was a big man; he would make a lot of noise, crawling in that cramped tunnel.


He surprised me by firing a shot.


In that confined space, the concussion seemed bad enough to make my ears bleed. The report—a loud bang but also like the hard toll of an immense bell—rang with such vibrato, I swore that I could feel sympathetic tremors racing through the haversian canals of my bones. The bang and the toll chased each other through the drain, and the echoes that followed were higher pitched, like the terrifying shrieks of incoming rockets.


The noise so disoriented me that the tiny chips of concrete, peppering my left cheek and neck, mystified me for a moment. Then I understood: ricochet.


I rolled flat, facedown, minimizing my exposure, and frantically wriggled deeper into the tunnel, scissoring my legs like a lizard and pulling myself forward with my arms, because if I rose onto my hands and knees, I would for sure take a round in the buttocks or the back of the head.


I could live with one butt cheek—just sit at a slant for the rest of my life, not worry about how baggy the seat of my blue jeans looked, get used to the nickname Halfass—but I couldn’t live with my brains blown out. Ozzie would say that I often made such poor use of the brain I had that, if worse came to worst, I might in fact be able to get along without it, but I didn’t want to try.


Andre fired another shot.


My head was still ringing from the first blast, so this one didn’t seem as loud, though my ears ached as if sound of this volume had substance and, passing through them, strained their dimensions.


In the instant required for the initial crash of the shot to be followed by the shrieking echo, the slug would have ricocheted past me. As scary as the noise might be, it signified that my luck held. If a bullet found me, the shock of impact would effectively deafen me to the gunfire.


Skittering like a salamander, away from his light, I knew that darkness offered no protection. He couldn’t see his target, anyway, and relied on luck to wound me. In these circumstances, with curved concrete walls conducive to multiple ricochets of the same slug, his odds of nailing me were better than his chances -would have been at any game in the casino.


He squeezed off a third shot. What pity I’d once had for him— and I think there might have been a little—was so over.


I couldn’t guess how often a bullet would have to glance off a wall until its wounding power had been sapped. Salamandering proved exhausting, and I had no confidence that I would be able to reach a safe distance before my luck changed.


A draft suddenly sucked at me from the darkness to my left, and I instinctively scrambled toward it. Another storm drain. This one, a feeder line to the first, also about three feet in diameter, sloped slightly upward.


A fourth shot slammed through the tunnel I had departed. All but certainly beyond the reach of ricochet, I returned to my hands and knees and crawled forward.


Soon the angle of incline increased, then increased again, and ascent became more difficult minute by minute. I grew frustrated that my pace should slow so much with the rising grade, but finally I accepted the cruel fact of my diminished capacity and counseled myself not to push my body to collapse. I wasn’t twenty anymore.


Numerous shots rang out, but I did not keep count of them after my buttocks were no longer at risk. In time I realized that he had ceased firing.


At the top of its slope, the branch I traveled opened into a twelve-foot-square chamber that I explored with my flashlight. It appeared to be a catch basin.


Water poured in from three smaller pipes at the top of the room. Any driftwood or trash carried by these streams sank to the bottom of the space, to be cleaned out by maintenance crews from time to time.


Three exit drains, including the one by which I had arrived, were set at different levels in different walls, none near the floor where the flotsam would be allowed to accumulate. Water already was flowing out of the catch basin through the lowest of these.


With the storm raging, the level within the chamber would rise inexorably toward my observation post, which was in the middle of the three outflow lines. I needed to transfer to the highest of the exit drains and continue my journey by that route.


A series of ledges encircling the chamber would make it possible for me to stay out of the debris in the catch basin and get across to the farther side. I would just need to take my time and be careful.

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