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On closer inspection, I saw that the lock cylinder was not only old but cheap. The collar did not feature a guard ring. This offered a level of security half a step up from a padlock.

During the walk here from the Grille, I had paused in Memorial Park to take a pair of sturdy locking tongs from my backpack. Now I withdrew them from under my belt and used them to rip the lock cylinder out of the door.

That was a noisy business, but it lasted no more than half a minute. Boldly, as if I belonged there, I went inside, found a light switch, and closed the doors behind me.

The shed contained a rack of tools, but primarily it served as a vestibule from which to gain access to the network of storm drains under Pico Mundo. Wide spiral stairs led down.

On the twisting staircase, picking out the perforated metal treads with my flashlight, I was reminded of the back stairs at the Jessup house. For a moment, it seemed that I had been swept into some dark game in which I had already once circled the board and had been brought by the roll of the dice to another dangerous descent.

I didn’t turn on the stair lights because I didn’t know if perhaps the same switch activated service lamps in the storm drains, which would announce my presence sooner than necessary.

I counted the steps, calculating eight inches for each riser. I descended over fifty feet, much deeper than I expected.

At the bottom, a door. The half-inch-diameter latch bolt could be operated from either side.

I thumbed off the flashlight.

Although I expected the bolt to scrape, the hinges to creak, instead the door opened without protest. It was remarkably heavy but smooth in action.

Blind and breathless, listening for a hostile presence, I heard nothing. When I had heard enough of it, I felt sufficiently safe to use the flashlight again.

Beyond the threshold lay a corridor that led to my right: twelve feet long, five feet wide, a low ceiling. Following it, I discovered that it was an L, with an eight-foot short arm. Here stood another heavy door with a bolt action that worked from both sides.

This arrangement of access to the storm drains was more elaborate than I had imagined—and seemed unnecessarily complicated.

Again I doused the flashlight. Again the door eased open with not a sound.

In the absolute darkness, I listened and heard a faint silken sinuous sound. My mind’s eye conjured an immense serpent slithering through the gloom.

Then I recognized the whisper of easy-flowing water as it slid without turbulence along the smooth walls of the conduit.

I switched on the flashlight, crossed the threshold. Immediately beyond lay a two-foot-wide concrete walkway, which seemed to lead to infinity both to my left and to my right.

A foot and a half below the walkway, gray water, perhaps taking much of its color by reflection from the concrete walls of the drain, swept past not in a churning rush but in a stately flow. The beam of the flashlight stitched silver filigrees across the gently undulating surface.

Based on the arc of the walls, I estimated that the water in the center of the channel measured, at its deepest, eighteen inches. Next to the walkway, it would plumb at less than a foot.

The storm drain appeared to be approximately twelve feet in diameter, a massive artery in the body of the desert. It bored away toward some distant dark heart.

I’d been concerned that switching on the service lamps in this maze would alert Simon that I was coming. But a flashlight would pinpoint me for anyone waiting in the darkness ahead.

Taking the only logical alternative to feeling my way in the dark, I retreated through the stairwell door and found a pair of switches. The nearest one brightened the drain.

Returning to the walkway, I saw that sandwiches of glass and wire protected lamps embedded in the ceiling of the tunnel at thirty-foot intervals. They did not shed the equivalent of daylight in this deep realm; repetitive bat-wings of shadow scalloped the walls, but visibility proved good enough.

Although this was a storm drain, not a sewer, I had expected a foul smell if not a full stink. The cool air had a dank scent, but it wasn’t offensive, and had that almost appealing limy smell common to concrete places.

Most of the year, these passages carried no water. They dried out and therefore did not support lingering molds of any kind.

I considered the moving water for a moment. We’d not had rain in five days. This couldn’t be the last runoff from the heights in the eastern part of the county. The desert isn’t that slow to drain.

The clouds crawling down the northeast sky when I’d left Terri’s place might have been the outrunners of a storming horde still hours distant.

You might wonder why a desert county would need flood-control tunnels as elaborate as these. The answer has two parts, one involving climate and terrain, the other geopolitics.

Although we have little rain in Maravilla County, when storms come, they are frequently fierce deluges. Large parts of the desert are less sand than shale, less shale than rock, with little soil or vegetation to absorb a downpour or to slow the runoff from higher elevations.

Flash floods can turn low-lying desert areas into vast lakes. Without aggressive diversion of storm runoff, a significant portion of Pico Mundo would be at risk.

We can go a year without a monster storm that makes us think nervously of Noah—and then have five the next year.

Nevertheless, flood control in desert towns usually consists of a network of concrete V ditches, weather-carved arroyos, and culverts feeding either a natural dry riverbed or one engineered to carry water away from human habitations. If not for the fact that Fort Kraken, a major air-force base, backed up to Pico Mundo, we would be served by an equally low-tech and imperfect system.

For six decades, Fort Kraken had been one of the nation’s most vital military resources. The flood-control system that benefited Pico Mundo had been constructed largely to ensure that the runways and the vast facilities of the base were protected from Mother Nature in her most thunderous moods.

Some believe that under Kraken lies a deep-rock command-and-control complex that was designed to ride out nuclear strikes by the former Soviet Union and to serve as a governmental center for the reconstruction of the southwestern United States subsequent to an atomic war.

Following the end of the Cold War, Fort Kraken was downsized but not decommissioned as were many other military bases. Some say that because a chance exists that we may one day face an aggressive China armed with thousands of nuclear missiles, this hidden facility is maintained in readiness.

Rumors have it that these tunnels serve clandestine functions in addition to flood control. Maybe they disguise the venting of that deep-rock complex. Maybe some of them double as secret entrances.

All this may be true or it may be the equivalent of the urban legend that claims pet alligators, flushed down toilets when they were babies and grown to full adulthood, live in the New York City sewer system, feeding on rats and unwary sanitation workers.

One of the people who believe all or part of the Kraken story is Horton Barks, publisher of the Maravilla County Times. Mr. Barks also claims that twenty years ago, while hiking in the Oregon woods, he had a pleasant dinner of trail mix and canned sausages with Big Foot.

Being the person I am, with the experiences I’ve had, I tend to believe him about the Sasquatch.

Now, in search of Danny Jessup, trusting to my unique intuition, I turned right and followed the service walkway upstream, through ordered patterns of shadow and light, toward one kind of storm or another.


A BOBBING TENNIS BALL, A PLASTIC BAG pulsing as if it were a jellyfish, a playing card—the ten of diamonds—a gardening glove, a cluster of red petals that might have been cyclamen: Every object on the gray tide was luminous with mysterious meaning. Or so it all seemed to me, for I had fallen into a mood for meaning.

Because this water poured into the flood-control system not from Pico Mundo but from a storm far to the east, it carried less flotsa

m than it would later if the volume increased and the downpour washed in from city streets.

Tributary tunnels fed the one in which I walked. Some were dry, but others added to the flow. Many were about two feet in diameter, although several loomed as large as this passage by which I had entered.

At each intersection, the walkway ended but resumed on the farther side. At the first ford, I considered taking off my shoes and rolling up my jeans. Barefoot, I might step on something sharp in the water—a concern that kept me shod.

My new white sneakers were at once a mess. Terrible Chester might as well have peed on them.

Mile by mile, as I moved eastward, barely aware of the gradual incline, I found the subterranean structure increasingly impressive. The pleasurable curiosity that arises from exploration gradually matured into admiration for the architects, engineers, and skilled tradesmen who had conceived and executed this project.

Admiration began to ripen into something almost like wonder.

The complex of tunnels proved to be immense. Of those large enough to provide human passage, some were lighted, but others were dark. Those that were illuminated either dwindled away as if to infinity or curved gracefully out of sight.

I saw no terminations, only the openings to new branches.