For two years or so after the destruction of the resort, the tribe had paid for a roving security patrol 24/7. As the suits and countersuits proliferated and the likelihood grew that the property might be surrendered to creditors—much to the creditors’ horror—the patrols had become an expense it no longer made sense to incur.
With the hotel open before me, with a breeze churning itself into a wind at my back, with a storm coming and Danny at risk, I nevertheless hesitated to cross the threshold. I am not as fragile as Danny Jessup, neither physically nor emotionally, yet everyone has a breaking point.
I delayed not because of the people or the other living menaces that lurked in the ruined resort. I was given pause, instead, by the thought of the lingering dead who might still haunt its soot-stained spaces.
INSIDE THE REAR DOORS OF THE HOTEL LAY what might have been a secondary lobby illuminated only by ashen light that sifted through the gap in the plywood barrier.
My shadow before me, a gray ghost, was visible from its legs to its neck. Its head became one with the murk, as though it were cast by a decapitated man.
I switched on a flashlight and swept the walls. The fire itself had not raged here, but smoke stains mottled everything.
At first the presence of furniture—sofas, armchairs—surprised me, as it seemed they should have been salvaged. Then I realized that their grungy condition resulted not simply from smoke and from five years of abandonment, but also from having been saturated by fire hoses, which had left their stuffing sodden and their frames badly warped.
Even five years after the tragedy, the air smelled of char, of scorched metal, of melted plastics, of fried insulation. Underlying that miasma were other smells less astringent but also less pleasing, which perhaps were best left unanalyzed.
Footprints patterned the carpet of soot, ashes, dust, and sand. Danny’s unique tracks were not among them.
On closer inspection, I saw that none of the tread patterns of the shoes appeared crisp. They had been smoothed by drafts, softened by later siftings of ashes and dust.
These prints had been made weeks if not months ago. My quarry had not entered by this route.
A set or perhaps two sets of paw prints looked fresh. Maybe the Panamints of a hundred years ago—close to nature and unfamiliar with the roulette wheel—could have read these impressions at a glance.
With nothing of the tracker in my heritage and nothing in my fry-cook training applicable to the problem, I had to rely not on knowledge but on imagination to summon a creature to fit those tracks. My mind leapt directly to an image of a saber-toothed tiger, though that species had been extinct over ten thousand years.
In the unlikely event that a single immortal saber-tooth had survived millennia beyond all others of his species, I supposed I could escape intact from a confrontation. After all, I had thus far survived Terrible Chester.
To the left of this lobby had been a coffee shop with a view of the hotel pool. A partial collapse of the ceiling, just beyond the entrance to the restaurant, presented extreme geometries of Sheetrock and two-by-fours.
To the right, a wide hallway led into darkness that a flashlight could not entirely relieve, into silence. Bronze letters fixed to the wall above the entrance to that passage promised REST ROOMS, CONFERENCE ROOMS, LADY LUCK BALLROOM.
Luckless people had died in the ballroom. A massive chandelier, suspended not from a red-steel beam as the construction drawings had required, but from a wooden beam, had fallen on the crowd, crushing and skewering those under it, when the initial shock of the quake had cracked some four-by-sixes as though they were balsa wood.
I crossed the littered lobby, weaving through the sagging sofas and the overturned armchairs, and departed by a third route, another wide hall that evidently led toward the front of the hotel. The tracks of the saber-tooth also proceeded in that direction.
Belatedly, I thought of the satellite phone. I took it from my pocket, switched off the ringer, and set it to vibrate instead. If the seeker of miracles called me again, and if I happened to be close to her position in the hotel, I didn’t want the phone to reveal my presence.
I’d never visited this place during the years that it had been a thriving enterprise. When it is within my power to do so, when the dead are making no demands on me, I seek serenity, not excitement. The turn of the cards and the roll of the dice offer me no chance to win freedom from the destiny that my gift imposes upon me.
My unfamiliarity with the resort, combined with the damage wrought by the earthquake and the fire, presented me with a man-made wilderness: hallways and rooms no longer always clearly defined due to the collapse of partitions, a maze of passages and spaces, here barren and bleak, here chaotic and threatening, revealed only in wedges defined by the flashlight beam.
By a route that I could not have retraced, I entered the burned-out casino.
Casinos have no windows, no clocks. The masters of the games want their customers to forget the passage of time, to lay down just one more bet, and then one more. Cavernous, larger than a football field, the room was too long for my light to find the farther end.
One corner of the casino had suffered partial collapse. Otherwise, the immense chamber remained structurally intact.
Hundreds of broken slot machines were tumbled on the floor. Others stood in long rows, as they had before the quake, half-melted but at attention, like ranks of war machines, robot soldiers halted in their march when a blast of radiation had fried their circuits.
Most of the games and pit-boss stations had been reduced to charred debris. A couple of scorched craps tables remained, filled with blackened chunks of plaster ornamentation that had fallen from the ceiling.
Amidst the charred and splintered rubble, two damaged blackjack games stood upright. A pair of stools waited at one of those games, as though the devil and his date had been playing when the fire broke out, had wished not to be distracted from their cards, commanding respect from the flames.
Instead of the devil, a pleasant-looking man with receding hair perched on a stool. He had been sitting in the dark until my light found him. His arms rested on the padded rim of the crescent-shaped table, as if he were waiting for a dealer to shuffle the deck.
This did not appear to be the kind of man who would collaborate in murder and assist with a kidnapping. Fiftyish, pale, with a full mouth and a dimpled chin, he might have been a librarian or a small-town pharmacist.
As I approached and he looked up, I could not be certain of his status. I knew that he was a spirit only when I saw him register surprise as he realized that I could see him.
On the day of the disaster, perhaps he had been brained by falling debris. Or burned alive.
He did not reveal to me the true condition of his corpse at the time he died, a courtesy for which I was grateful.
Peripheral movement in the shadows snared my attention. From out of the darkness came the lingering dead.
STEPPING INTO THE LIGHT BEFORE ME, A pretty young blonde in a blue-and-yellow cocktail dress revealed immodest decolletage. She smiled, but at once her smile faltered.
From my right came an old woman with a long face, eyes vacant of hope. She reached out to me, then frowned at her hand, withdrew it, lowered her head, as if she thought, for whatever reason, that I would find her repellent.
From my left appeared a short, red-headed, cheerful-looking man whose anguished eyes belied his amused smile.
I turned, revealing others with my flashlight. A cocktail waitress in her Indian-princess uniform. A casino guard with a gun on his hip.
A young black man dressed in cutting-edge fashion ceaselessly fingered his silk shirt, his jacket, the jade pendant that hung from his neck, as though in death he was embarrassed to have been so fashion-conscious in life.
Counting the player at the blackjack table, seven appeared to me. I couldn’t know if all had perished in the casino or if some had died elsewhere in the hotel. Pe
rhaps they were the only ghosts haunting the Panamint, perhaps not.
One hundred and eighty-two people had perished here. Most would have moved on the moment they expired. At least, for my sake, I hoped that was true.
Most commonly, spirits who have dwelled this long in a self-imposed state of purgatory will manifest in a mood of melancholy or anxiety. These seven conformed to that rule.
Yearning draws them to me. I am not always certain for what it is they yearn, though I think most of them desire resolution, the courage to let go of this world and to discover what comes next.
Fear inhibits them from doing what they must. Fear and regret, and love for those they leave behind.
Because I can see them, I bridge life and death, and they hope I can open for them the door they are afraid to open for themselves. Because I am who I am—a California boy who looks like surfers looked in Beach Blanket Bingo, half a century ago, less coiffed and even less threatening than Frankie Avalon—I inspire their trust.
I’m afraid that I have less to offer them than they believe I do. What counsel I give them is as shallow as Ozzie pretends his wisdom is.
That I will touch them, embrace them, seems always to be a comfort for which they’re grateful. They embrace me in return. And touch my face. And kiss my hands.
Their melancholy drains me. Their need exhausts me. I am wrung by pity. Sometimes it seems that to exit this world, they must go through my heart, leaving it scarred and sore.
Moving now from one to the other, I told each of them what I intuited he or she needed to hear.