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Maybe I shouldn’t have worried about footwear, snakes, and balance if I was destined to be killed by someone waiting behind a white paneled door. On the other hand, I didn’t want to rely on the theory that the repetitive dream was reliably predictive, because perhaps it had just been the consequence of too much fried food and spicy salsa.

Distant and celestial, a great door rolled open, rumbling in its tracks, and a breeze stirred the day again. When the faraway thunder faded, the air did not fall still as it had earlier, but continued to chase through the sparse vegetation, like a ghost pack of coyotes.

When I reached the top of the hill, I knew that my destination lay before me. Danny Jessup would be found here, captive.

In the distance lay the interstate. A four-lane approach road led from that highway to the plain below. At the end of the road stood the ruined casino and the blackened tower, where Death had gone to gamble and had, as always, won.


THEY WERE THE PANAMINT TRIBE, OF THE Shoshoni-Comanche family. These days we are told that throughout their history—like all the natives of this land prior to Columbus and the imposition of Italian cuisine on the continent—they had been peaceful, deeply spiritual, selfless, and unfailingly reverent toward nature.

The gambling industry—feeding on weakness and loss, indifferent to suffering, materialistic, insatiably greedy, smearing across nature some of the ugliest, gaudiest architecture in the history of human construction—was seen by Indian leaders as a perfect fit for them. The state of California agreed, granting to Native Americans a monopoly on casino gambling within its borders.

Concerned that the Great Spirit alone might not provide enough guidance to squeeze every possible drop of revenue out of their new enterprises, most tribes made deals with experienced gaming companies to manage their casinos. Cash rooms were established, games were set up and staffed, the doors were opened, and under the watchful eyes of the usual thugs, the river of money flowed.

The golden age of Indian wealth loomed, every Native American soon to be rich. But the flow did not reach as deeply or as quickly into the Indian population as expected.

Funny how that happens.

Addiction to gambling, impoverishment therefrom, and associated crime

rose in the community.

Not so funny how that happens.

On the plain below the hilltop where I stood, about a mile away, on tribal land, waited the Panamint Resort and Spa. Once it had been as glittering, as neon-splashed, as tacky as any facility of its kind, but its glory days were gone.

The sixteen-story hotel had all the grace of a high-rise prison. Five years ago, it had withstood an earthquake with minor damage, but it had failed to weather the subsequent fire. Most of its windows had been shattered by the temblor or had exploded from the heat as the rooms blazed. Great lapping tongues of smoke had licked black patterns across the walls.

The two-story casino, wrapping three sides of the tower, had collapsed at one corner. Cast in tinted concrete, a facade of mystic Indian symbols—many of which were not actual Indian symbols but New Age interpretations of Indian spiritualism as previously conceived by Hollywood film designers—had mostly torn away from the building and collapsed into the surrounding parking lot. A few vehicles remained, crushed and corroding under the debris.

Concerned that a sentinel with binoculars might be surveying the approaches, I retreated from the hilltop, hoping that I had not been spotted.

Within days of the resort disaster, many had predicted that, considering the money to be made, the place would be rebuilt within a year. Four years later, demolition of the burned-out hulk had not begun.

Contractors were accused of having cut corners in construction that weakened the structure. County building inspectors were brought up on charges of having accepted bribes; they in turn blew the whistle on corruption in the county board of supervisors.

So much blame could be widely assessed that a farrago of both legitimate and frivolous litigation, of battling public-relations firms, resulted in several bankruptcies, two suicides, uncounted divorces, and one sex-change operation.

Most of those Panamints who had made fortunes had been stripped of them by settlements or were hemorrhaging still to attorneys. Those who had never gotten wealthy but had become compulsive gamblers were inconvenienced by the need to travel farther to lose what little they had.

Currently, half the litigations await final resolution, and no one knows if the resort will rise like a phoenix. Even the right—some would say the obligation—to bulldoze the ruins has been frozen by a judge pending the fate of an appeal of a key court decision.

Staying below the crest, I traversed south until the rocky slope rolled into a declivity.

Numerous hills fold to form a crescent collar around the west, south, and east of the plain on which the ravaged resort stands, with flatlands and bustling interstate to the north. Among these folds, I followed a series of narrow divides that eventually widened into a dry wash, progressing east by a serpentine route forced upon me by the topography.

If Danny’s kidnappers had camped on one of the higher floors of the hotel, the better to keep a lookout, I needed to approach from an unexpected direction. I wanted to get as close to the property as possible before coming out in the open.

How the nameless woman knew that I would be able to follow them, how she knew that I would be compelled to follow, why she wanted me to follow, I couldn’t explain with certainty. Reason, however, led me to the inescapable suspicion that Danny had shared with her the secret of my gift.

Her cryptic conversation on the phone, her taunting, seemed designed to tease admissions from me. She sought confirmation of facts that she already knew.

A year ago, he had lost his mother to cancer. As his closest friend, I had been a companion in his grief—until my own loss in August.

He was not a man with many friends. His physical limitations, his appearance, and his acerbic wit limited his social opportunities.

When I had turned inward, giving myself entirely to my grief, and then to writing about the events of August, I had not comforted him any longer, not as generously as I should have done.

For consolation, he had his adoptive father. But Dr. Jessup had been grieving, too, and being a man of some ambition, had probably sought solace in his work.

Loneliness comes in two basic varieties. When it results from a desire for solitude, loneliness is a door we close against the world. When the world instead rejects us, loneliness is an open door, unused.

Someone had come through that door when Danny was at his most vulnerable. She had a smoky, silken voice.


IN A BELLY CRAWL, OUT OF THE DRY WASH, onto flat land, leaving the hills behind, I squirmed fast through bush sage three feet high, which gave me cover. My objective was a wall that separated the desert from the grounds of the resort.

Jackrabbits and a variety of rodents shelter from the sun and nibble leaves in just such vegetation. Where rabbits and rats went, snakes would follow, feeding.

Fortunately snakes are shy; not as shy as church mice, but shy enough. To warn them off, I made plenty of noise before slithering out of the wash and into the sage, and as I moved, I grunted and spat dirt and sneezed and, in general, produced enough noise to annoy all wildlife into relocating.

Assuming that my adversaries had camped high in the hotel, and considering that I was still a few hundred yards from that structure, what noise I made would not alert them.

If they happened to be looking in this direction, they would be scanning for movement. But the rustle of the bush sage would not draw special notice; the breeze out of the north had stiffened, shuddering all the scrub and weeds. Tumbleweed tumbled, and here and there a dust devil danced.

Having avoided the bite of snake, the sting of scorpion, the nip of spider, I reached the edge of the resort grounds. I got to my feet and leaned with my back against the wall.

I was covered in pale dust and in a powdery white substance acquired from the undersides of the sage leaves.

The unfortunate consequence of psychic magnetism is not only that it too often draws me into dangerous circumstances but also into dirty places. I’m perpetually behind in my laundry.

After brushing myself off, I followed the resort wall, which gradually curved northeast. On this side, exposed concrete block had been painted white; on the farther side, where paying customers had been able to see it, the eight-foot-high barrier had been plastered and painted pink.

Following the quake and the fire, tribal officials posted metal signs at hundred-foot intervals, sternly warning would-be trespassers of the dangers of the damaged structures beyond and of toxic residues they might contain. The Mojave sun had faded those warnings, but they remained readable.

Along the wall, on the grounds of the resort, were irregularly planted clusters of palm trees. Because they were not native to the Mojave and hadn’t been watered after the quake wrecked the landscape-irrigation system, they were dead.

Some of the fronds had fallen off; others hung as if limp; and the rest bristled, shaggy and brown. Nevertheless, I found a cluster that screened a portion of the wall from the hotel.

I jumped, got a handhold, clambered up, over, and dropped into a drift of debris from the palms, not as fluidly as those words imply, but with enough thrashing and elbow-knocking to prove beyond doubt that I couldn’t have descended from apes. I crouched behind the thick palm boles.

Beyond the ragged trees lay an enormous swimming pool crafted to imitate a natural rock formation. Man-made waterfalls doubled as water slides.

Nothing fell from the falls. The drained pool was half full of windblown debris.

If Danny’s captors were keeping a watch, they would most likely focus their attention to the west, the direction from which they themselves had come. They might also be monitoring the road that linked the resort and the interstate in the north.

The three of them could not guard four sides of the hotel. Furthermore, I doubted that each would go off alone to a separate post. At most, their vigilance encompassed two of the approaches.

Chances were that I could get from the palms to the building without being seen.

They would have more weapons than t

he shotgun, but I didn’t worry about taking a bullet. If they had wanted to kill me, I would not have been Tasered at the Jessup house; I would have been shot in the face.

Later, perhaps, they would be pleased to kill me. Now they wanted something else. Miracles. Amazements. Icy fingers. Fabulous impossible things.

So…get inside, scout the terrain, find out where they were holding Danny. Once I understood the situation, if I could not spring him without help, I’d have to call Wyatt Porter regardless of the fact that in this case my intuition equated police involvement with certain death.

I broke from the cover of the trees and raced across artificial-stone decking where once well-oiled sunbathers had drowsed on padded lounge chairs, prepping themselves for melanoma.

Instead of tropical rum drinks, an open-air tiki-style poolside bar offered formidable piles of bird droppings. These were produced by feathered presences that I could not see, but that I heard. The flock roosted on the crisscrossing lengths of imitation bamboo that supported the densely thatched roof of plastic palm fronds, and as I hurried past, they flapped and shrilled to warn me off.

By the time I rounded the pool and reached the back entrance to the hotel, I’d had a chance to draw a lesson from the unseen birds. Broken, burned, abandoned, wind-worn, sand-scoured, even if more structurally sound than not, the Panamint Resort and Spa no longer merited even a single star in the Michelin Guide; but it might have become the home to various desert fauna that found the place more hospitable than their usual holes in the ground.

In addition to the threat posed by the mystery woman and her two murderous male friends, I would need to be alert for predators that had no mobile phones.

The sliding glass doors at the back of the hotel, shattered in the quake, had been replaced with sheets of plywood to deny easy access to the morbidly curious. Stapled to these panels were plastic sleeves holding notices of the vigorous civil actions that would be taken against anyone caught on the premises.

The screws that held one of the sheets of plywood in place had been removed, and the panel had been laid aside. Judging by the sand and scraps of weeds that had drifted over the panel, it had not been taken down as recently as the past twenty-four hours, but weeks or months ago.

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