The tunnels I had thus far traveled had been claustrophobic for a man my size. Given his bulk, Andre would find them intolerable. He would rely on a ricochet having wounded or killed me. He would not follow.
I squirmed out of the drain, into the catch basin, onto a ledge. When I looked down the slope I had just mastered, I saw a light in the distance. He grunted as he doggedly ascended.
I LIKED THE IDEA OF WITHDRAWING DATURA’S PISTOL from under my belt and firing down on Andre as he crawled toward me in the tunnel. Payback.
The only thing better would have been a shotgun, or maybe a flamethrower, like the one with which Sigourney Weaver torched the bugs in Aliens. A vat of boiling oil, bigger than the one Charles Laughton, as the hunchback, poured down on the Parisian rabble from the heights of Notre Dame would have been cool, too.
Datura and her acolytes had left me less willing than usual to turn the other cheek. They had lowered my threshold of anger and raised my tolerance for violence.
Here was a perfect illustration of why you must always choose carefully the people with whom you hang out.
Poised on a six-inch ledge, my back to the murky pool, holding with one hand to the lip of the drain, I could not have a taste of revenge without putting myself at too much risk. If I tried to fire Datura’s pistol at Andre, the recoil would surely upset my precarious balance, and I would fall backward into the catch basin.
I did not know how deep the water might be, but more to the point, I didn’t know what junk lay just below the surface. The way my luck had been waxing and waning lately, mostly waning, I would fall onto the broken hardwood handle of a shovel, splintered and sharp enough to put an end to Dracula, or the rusted tines of a pitchfork, or a couple of spear-point iron fence staves, or maybe a collection of Japanese samurai swords.
Unharmed by the single shot that I had gotten off, Andre would reach the top of the drain and see me impaled in the catch basin. I would discover that, brutish as he appeared to be, he possessed a jolly laugh. As I died, he would speak his first word, in Datura’s voice: Loser.
So I left the gun at the small of my back and made my way around the ledge to the farther side of the room, where the highest of the exit drains lay an inch or two above my head, four feet higher than the one from which I had just extracted myself.
The dirty water cascading out of the high inflow pipes kicked up spray when it met the pool, splashing my jeans to mid thigh. But I couldn’t get any filthier or hardly any more miserable.
As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I tried to reel it back because it seemed like a challenge to the universe. No doubt inside of ten minutes, I would be astonishingly filthier and immensely more miserable than I was at that moment.
I reached overhead, got a two-hand grip on the lip of the new drain, toed the wall, muscled myself up and in.
Ensconced in this new warren, I considered waiting until Andre appeared at the mouth of the tunnel that I had left, and shooting him from my elevated position. For a guy -who had been so reluctant even to handle firearms earlier this same day, I had developed an unseemly eagerness to pump my enemies full of lead.
The flaw in my plan immediately became clear to me. Andre had a gun of his own. He would be cautious about leaving that lower tunnel, and when I fired at him, he would fire back.
All of these concrete walls, more ricochets, more earsplitting noise…
I didn’t have sufficient ammunition to keep him pinned down until the water rose into his drain and forced him to retreat. The best thing I could do was keep moving.
The tunnel into which I had climbed would be the last of the three outflow drains to take water. In an ordinary storm, it would probably remain dry, but not in this deluge. The level of the pool below rose visibly, minute by minute.
Happily, this new tunnel was of greater diameter than the previous one, perhaps four feet. I would not have to crawl. I could proceed at a stoop and make good time.
I didn’t know where that progress would take me, but I was game for a change of scenery.
As I gathered myself off the floor and into the aforementioned stoop, a shrill twittering arose in the chamber behind me. Andre didn’t strike me as a guy who would twitter, and at once I knew the source of the cries: bats.
HAIL IN THE DESERT IS A RARITY, BUT ONCE IN A WHILE, a Mojave storm can deliver an icy pelting to the land.
If hail had fallen outside, then as soon as I felt boils forming on my neck and face, I could be certain that God had chosen to amuse Himself by restaging the ten plagues of Egypt upon my beleaguered person.
I don’t think that bats were one of the Biblical plagues, though they should have been. If memory serves me, instead of bats, frogs terrorized Egypt.
Large numbers of angry frogs won’t get your blood pumping half as fast as will a horde of incensed flying rodents. This truth calls into question the deity’s skill as a dramatist.
When the frogs died, they bred lice, which was the third plague. This from the same Creator who painted the sky blood-red over Sodom and Gomorrah, rained fire and brimstone on the cities, overthrew every habitation in which their people tried to hide, and broke every building stone as though it were an egg.
Circling the catch basin on the ledge and levering myself into the highest tunnel, I had not pointed the light directly overhead. Evidently a multitude of leathery-winged sleepers had depended from the ceiling, quietly dreaming.
I don’t know what I did to disturb them, if anything. Night had fallen not long ago. Perhaps this was the usual time at which they woke, stretched their wings, and flew off to snare themselves in little girls’ hair.
As one, they raised their shrill voices. In that instant, even as I finished rising into a stoop, I dropped flat, and folded my arms over my head.
They departed their man-made cave by the highest of the outflow drains. This route would never entirely fill with water and would always offer at least a partially unobstructed exit.
If I’d been asked to estimate the size of their community as they passed over me, I would have said thousands. To the same question an hour later, I would have replied hundreds. In truth, they numbered fewer than one hundred, perhaps only fifty or sixty.
Reflected off the curved concrete walls, the rustle of their wings sounded like crackling cellophane, the way movie sound-effects specialists used to rumple the stuff to imitate all-devouring fire. They didn’t stir up much of a breeze, hardly an eddy, but brought an ammonial odor, which they carried away with them.
A few fluttered against my arms, with which I protected my head and face, brushed like feathers across the backs of my hands, which should have made it easy to imagine that they were only birds, but which instead brought to mind swarming insects—cockroaches, centipedes, locusts—so I had bats for real and bugs in the mind. Locusts had been the eighth of Egypt’s ten plagues.
Having read somewhere that a quarter of any colony of bats is infected with the virus, I waited to be bitten viciously, repeatedly. I didn’t sustain a single nip.
Although none of them bit me, a couple crapped on me in passing, sort of like a casual insult. The universe had heard and accepted my challenge: I was now filthier and more miserable than I had been ten minutes previously.
I rose into a stoop again and followed the descending drain away from the catch basin. Somewhere ahead, and not too far, I would find a manhole or another kind of exit from the system. Two hundred yards, I assured myself, three hundred at most.
Between here and there, of course, would be the Minotaur. The Minotaur fed on human flesh. Yeah, I muttered aloud, but only the flesh of virgins. Then I remembered that I was a virgin.
The flashlight revealed a Y in the tunnel, immediately ahead. The branch to the left continued to descend. The passage to the right fed the one I’d been following from the catch basin, and because it rose, I figured it would lead me closer to the surface and to a way out.
I had gone only twenty or thirty yards when, of course, I heard the bats returning. They had soared out into the night, discovered a tempest raging, and had fled at once back to their cozy subterranean haven.
Because I doubted that I would escape a second confrontation unbitten, I reversed directions with an agility born of panic and ran, hunched like a troll. Returning to the down-bound tunnel, I went to the right, away from the catch basin, and hoped the bats would remember their address.
When their frenzied flapping crescendoed and then diminished behind me, I came to a halt and, gasping, leaned against the wall.
Maybe Andre would be on the ledge, crossing from the lowest drain to the highest, when the bats returned. Maybe they would frighten him, and he would fall into the catch basin, skewering himself on those samurai swords.
That fantasy brought a brief glow to my heart, but only brief because I couldn’t believe that Andre would be afraid of bats. Or afraid of anything.
An ominous sound arose that I had not heard before, a rough rumbling, as if an enormous slab of granite was being dragged across another slab. It seemed to be coming from between me and the catch basin.
Usually this meant that a secret door in a solid-stone wall would roll open, allowing the evil emperor to make a grand entrance in knee-high boots and a cape.
Hesitantly, I moved back toward the Y, cocking my head one way, then the other, trying to determine the source of the sound.
The rumble grew louder. Now I perceived it as less like stone sliding over stone than like friction between iron and rock.
When I pressed a hand to the wall of the tunnel, I could feel vibrations passing through the concrete.
I ruled out an earthquake, which would have produced jolts and lurches instead of this prolonged grinding sound and consistent level of shaking.
The rumbling stopped.
Under my hand, vibrations were no longer coursing through the concrete.
A rushing sound. A sudden draft as something pushed air out of the nearby ascending branch, stirring my hair.
Somewhere a sluice gate had opened.
The air had been displaced by a surge of water. A torrent exploded out of the ascending branch, knocked me off my feet, and swept me down into the dark bowels of the flood-control system.
TOSSED, TURNED, TUMBLED, SPUN, I SPIRALED ALONG the tunnel like a bullet along a rifle barrel.
At first the flashlight, strapped to my left arm, revealed the undulant gray tide, lent glitter to the spray, brightened the dirty foam. But the spelunker’s cuff failed, peeled away from my arm, and took the light with it.
Down through the blackness, bulleting, I wrapped my arms around myself, tried to keep my legs together. With limbs flailing, I’d be more likely to break a wrist, an ankle, an elbow, by knocking against the wall.
I tried to stay on my back, face up, rocketing along with the fatalism of an Olympic bobsledder whistling down a luge chute, but the torrent repeatedly, insistently rolled me, pushing my face under the flow. I fought for breath, jackknifing my body to reorient it, gasping when I got my head above the flux.
I swallowed water, broke through the surface, gagged and coughed and desperately inhaled the wet air. Considering my helplessness in its embrace, this modest flow might as well have been Niagara sweeping me toward its killing cataracts.
How long the aquatic torture continued, I can’t say, but having been physically taxed before entering this flume ride, I grew tired. Very tired. My limbs became heavy, and my neck stiffened from the strain of the constant struggle to keep my head above water. My back ached, I seemed to have wrenched my left shoulder, and with each effort to find air, my reserves of strength diminished until I was perilously close to complete exhaustion. Light.
The surging sluice spat me out of the four-foot drain into one of the immense flood-control tunnels that I had speculated might double, in the Last War, as an underground highway for the transport of intercontinental ballistic missiles out of Fort Kraken to farther points of the Maravilla Valley.
I wondered if the tunnel had remained lighted ever since I’d thrown the switch after coming down from the service shed near the Blue Moon Cafe. I felt as if weeks had passed since then, not mere hours.
Here, the velocity of the flood was not as breakneck as it had been in the smaller and far more steeply sloped drain. I could tread the moving water and stay afloat as I was flushed into the middle of the passage and borne along.
A little experimentation quickly proved, however, that I could not swim crosswise to the swift current. I wouldn’t be able to reach the elevated walkway that I had followed eastward in pursuit of Danny and his captors.
Then I realized that the walkway had vanished below the water when the previous stream had swelled into this mighty Mississippi. Were I able to reach the side of the tunnel by heroic effort and the grace of a miracle, I would not be able to escape the river.
If ultimately the flood-control system delivered the storm runoff to a vast subterranean lake, I would be washed onto those shores. Robinson Crusoe without sunshine and coconuts.
Such a lake might lack shores. It might be embraced instead by sheer stone walls so smoothed by eons of trickling condensation that they could not be climbed.
And if a shore existed, it would not be hospitable. With no possible source of light, I would be a blind man in a barren Hades, spared death by starvation only if I died instead by stumbling into an abyss and breaking my neck in the fall.
At that bleak moment, I thought I would die underground. And within the hour, I did.
Treading water, keeping my head above even this less turbulent flow, was a cruel test of my stamina. I wasn’t certain that I would last the miles that lay ahead before the lake. Drowning would spare me from starvation.
Meager hope unexpectedly came in the form of a depth marker situated in the center of the watercourse. I was swept straight toward the six-inch-square white post, which rose nearly to the twelve-foot-high ceiling.
As in the power of the current I began to slide past this slender refuge, I hooked one arm around the post. I snared it with one leg, as well. If I stayed on the upstream side, with the post between my legs, the insistent current at my back would help to keep me in place.
Earlier in the day, when I had towed the snaky man’s corpse away from this post or another like it, to the elevated walkway, the depth of the flow had been inches shy of two feet. Now it lapped north of the five-foot mark.
Thus safely anchored, I leaned my forehead against the post for a while, catching my breath. I listened to my heart and marveled that I was alive.
After several minutes, when I closed my eyes, that mental turning, that slow dizzy sweep signifying a pending swoon into sleep, alarmed me, and my lids snapped open. If I fell asleep, I would lose my grip and be swept away once more.
I would be in this fix for a while. With the service walkway underwater, no maintenance crew would venture here. No one would see me clinging to the pole and mount a rescue.