I said, “This world is lost forever. There’s nothing here for you but desire, frustration, sadness.”
I said, “You know now that part of you is immortal and that your life had meaning. To discover that meaning, embrace what comes next.”
And to another, I said, “You think you don’t deserve mercy, but mercy is yours if you’ll put aside your fear.”
As one by one I spoke to the seven, an eighth spirit appeared. A tall, broad brick of a man, he had deep-set eyes, blunt features, and buzz-cut hair. He stared at me over the heads of the others, his gaze the color of bile and no less bitter.
To the young black man who fussed ceaselessly and with apparent embarrassment at his fine clothes, I said, “Truly evil people aren’t given the license to linger. The fact that you’ve been here so long since death means you don’t have any reason to fear what comes next.”
As I turned from one of the encircling dead to the next, the newcomer prowled beyond the perimeter of the group, keeping my face in sight. His mood appeared to darken as he listened to me.
“You think what I’m telling you is bullshit. Maybe it is. I haven’t been across. How can I know what waits on the other side?”
Their eyes were lustrous pools of longing, and I hoped they recognized in me not pity, but sympathy.
“The grace and beauty of this world enchant me. But it’s all broken. I want to see the version we didn’t screw up. Don’t you?”
Finally, I said, “The girl I love…she thought we might have three lives, not two. She called this first life boot camp.”
I paused. I had no choice. For a moment, I belonged more to their purgatory than I did to this world, in the sense that words failed me.
Eventually I continued: “She said we’re in boot camp to learn, to fail or succeed of our own free will. Then we move on to a second life, which she called service.”
The red-haired man, whose cheerful smile was belied by anguished eyes, came to me and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Her name is Bronwen, but she prefers to be called Stormy. In service, Stormy said, we have fantastic adventures in some cosmic campaign, some wondrous undertaking. Our reward comes in our third life, and that one lasts forever.”
Reduced to silence again, I could not meet their stares with the confidence I owed them, and so I closed my eyes and in memory saw Stormy, who gave me strength, as she had always done.
Eyes closed, I said, “She is a kick-ass kind of girl, who not only knows what she wants, but what she should want, which makes all the difference. When you meet her in service, you’ll know her, sure enough. You’ll know her, and you’ll love her.”
After a further silence, when I opened my eyes and turned in a circle, probing with my flashlight, four of the initial seven were gone: the young black man, the cocktail waitress, the pretty blonde, and the red-haired man.
I can’t be sure if they moved Beyond or merely elsewhere.
The big man with the buzz-cut looked angrier than ever. His shoulders were hunched, as if under a burden of rage, and his hands curled into fists.
He stalked away into the burned-out room, and though he had no physical substance that could affect this world, gray ashes rose in shimmering shapes around him, and settled to the floor again in his wake. Lightweight debris—scorched playing cards, splintery scraps of wood—trembled as he passed. A five-dollar casino chip stood on edge, spun, wobbled, fell flat once more, and heat-yellowed dice rattled on the floor.
He had poltergeist potential, and I was glad to see him go.
A DAMAGED FIRE DOOR HUNG OPEN AND askew on two of three hinges. The stainless-steel threshold reflected the flashlight in those few places where it was not crusted with dark material.
If memory served me well, people had been trampled to death in this doorway when the crowd of gamblers stampeded for the exits. No horror came over me at that recollection, only a deeper sadness.
Beyond the door, patinaed by smoke and water, spalling from the effects of efflorescing lime, looking as if they had been transported from an ancient temple of a long-forgotten faith, thirty flights of wide concrete emergency stairs led to the north end of the sixteenth floor. Perhaps two additional flights ascended all the way to the roof of the hotel.
I climbed only halfway to the first landing before I halted, cocked my head, and listened. I don’t believe a sound had alarmed me. No tick, no click, no whisper stepped down to me from higher floors.
Perhaps a scent alerted me. Compared to other spaces in the devastated structure, the stairwell smelled less of chemicals and hardly at all of char. This cooler, limy air was clean enough to allow the recognition of an odor as exotic as—but different from—those of the fire’s aftermath.
The faint essence I could not identify was musky, mushroomy. But it also had a quality of fresh raw meat, by which I don’t mean a bloody stink, but that subtle smell you get from a butcher’s case, where ready flesh is presented.
For a reason I could not define, into my mind’s eye came the dead face of the man I had fished from the storm drain. Mottled gray skin. Eyes rolled back in a blind white gaze.
The fine hairs on the nape of my neck quivered as if the air had been charged by the advancing storm.
I switched off the flashlight and stood in absolute, monster’s-gonna-get-you blackness.
Because the stairs were enclosed by concrete walls, the sharp turn at each landing provided an effective baffle to light. A sentry one floor above, or at most two, might have noticed the radiant bloom below, but no light could have transferred, angle after angle, to any higher floors.
After a minute, when I hadn’t heard the rustle of clothing or the scrape of a shoe on concrete, when no scaly tongue had licked my face, I backed cautiously out of the stairwell, across the threshold. I retreated into the casino before switching on the flashlight.
A few minutes later, I located the south stairs. Here the door still hung from all its hinges, but it stood open like the first.
Shuttering the lens of the flash with my fingers, to reduce its reach, I ventured across the threshold.
This silence, like that in the north stairwell, had an expectant quality, as though I might not be the only listening presence. Here, too, after a moment, I detected that subtle and disturbing smell that had discouraged me from ascending at the other end of the building.
As before, into my mind came the dead face of
the man who had Tasered me: eyes protuberant and white, mouth open wide and tongue swallowed.
On the basis of a bad feeling and a smell, real or imagined, I decided that the emergency stairs were under observation. I could not use them.
Yet my sixth sense told me that Danny lay imprisoned somewhere high above. He (the magnet) waited, and I (the magnetized), in some strange power’s employ, was drawn upward with an insistence that I could not ignore.
OFF THE MAIN LOBBY, I LOCATED AN ALCOVE with ten elevators, five on each side. Eight sets of doors were closed, though I’m sure I could have pried them open.
The last two sets of doors on the right were fully retracted. In the first of these openings, an empty cab waited, its floor a foot below the floor of the alcove. The second offered only a void.
Leaning into the shaft, I played the flashlight up and down, over guide rails and cables. The missing cab lay two floors below, in the sub-basement.
To the right, the wall featured a service ladder. It receded to the very top of the building.
After raiding my backpack for a spelunker’s flashlight strap, I fitted the handle of the light in the tight collar, and secured the Velcro fastener around my right forearm. Like a telescopic sight on a shotgun barrel, the light surmounted my arm, the beam spearing across the back of my hand and out past my fingertips into the dark.
With both hands free, I was able to get a grip on a rung and swing off the alcove threshold. I mounted the ladder.
After ascending several rungs, I paused to savor the odors in the shaft. I didn’t detect the scent that had warned me off both the north and the south stairs.
The shaft was resonant, however; it would amplify every sound. If the wrong set of doors stood open above, and if someone was near that alcove, he would hear me coming.
I needed to climb as silently as possible, which meant not so fast that I began to breathe hard with the exertion.