The flashlight seemed problematic. Holding the ladder with my right hand, I used my left to switch off the beam.
How unsettling: to climb into perfect darkness. In the most primitive foundations of the mind, at the level of race memory or even deeper, lay the expectation that any ascent should be toward light. Rising higher, higher into unrelenting blackness proved to be disorienting.
I estimated eighteen feet of height for the first story, twelve feet per story thereafter. I guessed there were twenty-four rungs in twelve feet.
By that measure, I had climbed two stories when a protracted rumble passed through the shaft. I thought Earthquake, and I froze on the ladder, held fast, expecting plummeting masonry and further destruction.
When the shaft did not shake, when the cables did not sing with vibrations, I realized that the rumble was a long peal of thunder. Although still distant, it sounded closer than it had been earlier.
Hand over hand, foot after foot, climbing again, I wondered how I would get Danny down from his high prison, assuming that I would be able to free him. If armed sentries had been posted on the stairs, we could not escape the hotel by either of those routes. Considering his deformities and his physical uncertainty, he could not descend on this ladder.
One thing at a time. First, find him. Second, free him.
Thinking too far ahead might paralyze me, especially if every strategy that I considered led inevitably to the need to kill one or all of our adversaries. The determination to kill did not come easily to me, not even when survival depended on it, not even when my target was unarguably evil.
You don’t get James Bond with me. I’m even less bloodthirsty than Miss Moneypenny.
At what must have been the fifth floor, I encountered an open set of elevator doors, the first since I had entered the shaft on the lobby level. The gap revealed itself as a dark-gray rectangle in an otherwise pitch landscape.
The alcove beyond the retracted doors would open onto a fifth-floor hall. Along that corridor, the doors to some guest rooms would be standing open; others would have been broken down by firemen or would have burned away. The windows in those rooms, which had not been boarded over to keep out trespassers, as on the ground floor, admitted light to the public hall; and meager rays filtered from there into the alcove.
Intuition told me that I had not climbed high enough. The low voice of faraway thunder spoke again when I was between the seventh and eighth floors. Just past the ninth floor, I wondered how many bodachs had swarmed the hotel prior to the catastrophe.
A bodach is a mythical beast of the British Isles, a sly thing that comes down chimneys during the night to carry away naughty children.
In addition to the lingering dead, I occasionally see menacing spirits that I call bodachs. That’s not what they are, but I need to call them something, and that name seems to fit.
A young English boy, the only person I have known who shared my gift, called them bodachs in my presence. Minutes after he had used that word, he was crushed to death by a runaway truck.
I never speak of the bodachs when they are near. I pretend not to see them, do not react to them either with curiosity or fear. I suspect that if they knew I see them, there would be a runaway truck for me.
These creatures are utterly black and without features, so thin they can slip through a crack in a door, or enter by a keyhole. They have no more substance than shadows.
They are soundless in movement, often slinking like cats, though cats as big as men. Sometimes they run semi-erect and seem to be half man, half dog.
I have written about them before, in my first manuscript. I will not spend many words on them here.
They are not human spirits, and they do not belong here. Their natural realm, I suspect, is a place of eternal darkness and much screaming.
Their presence always signifies an oncoming event with a high body count—like the shootings at the mall last August. A single murder, like that of Dr. Jessup, does not draw them forth from wherever they dwell. They thrill only to natural disasters and to human violence on an operatic scale.
In the hours before the quake and the fire, they surely swarmed the casino and the hotel by the hundreds, in frenzied anticipation of the impending misery, pain, and death, which is their favorite three-course meal.
Two deaths in this case—Dr. Jessup and the snaky man—elicited no bodach interest. Their continued absence suggested that whatever showdown lay ahead might not result in a bloodbath.
Nevertheless, as I climbed, my churning imagination populated the lightless shaft with bodachs that, like cockroaches, crawled the walls, fleet and quivering.
AT THE NEXT SET OF RETRACTED ELEVATOR doors, on the twelfth floor, I knew in a certain-to-the-bones way that I had climbed past the stairwell guards. In fact, I sensed that I had arrived at the level on which the kidnappers were holding Danny.
The muscles of my arms and legs burned, not because the climb had been physically demanding, but because I had ascended in a state of extreme and constant tension. Even my jaws ached because I’d been grinding my teeth.
I preferred not to transition from the shaft to the elevator alcove in darkness. But I dared risk using the light only briefly, to locate the first of the recessed handholds and footholds that allowed transfer from the service ladder to the doorway.
I switched on the flashlight, quickly studied the situation, and switched it off.
Although I had repeatedly blotted them on my jeans, my hands were slippery with sweat.
No matter how ready I may be to join Stormy in service, I do not have nerves of steel. If I’d been wearing boots instead of sneakers, I would have quaked in them.
I reached into the thwarting gloom, located the first of the recessed handgrips, which was like an in-wall holder for a roll of toilet paper, but three times as wide. I clutched it with my right hand, hesitated as I was overcome with nostalgia for the griddle and the grill and the deep-fryer, then grabbed it with my left hand, as well, and stepped off the ladder.
For a moment I hung from my arms, by my sweaty hands, toeing the wall in search of the footholds. When it seemed that I would never find them, I found them.
Having left the ladder, the act of leaving the ladder now struck me as folly.
The top of the elevator cab was in the sub-basement, thirteen floors below. Thirteen stories is a long fall in any lighting condition, but the prospect of plunging that far in inky darkness struck me as especially terrifying.
Lacking a safety harness, I also did not have a sturdy tether to snap to the handhold. Or a parachute. I had committed myself to total freestyle.
Among other items in my rucksack were Kleenex, a couple of coconut-raisin protein bars, and foil packets of lemon-scented moist towelettes. My packing priorities had seemed entirely sensible at the time.
If I plummeted thirteen floors onto the roof of the elevator cab, at least I would be able to blow my nose, have a last snack, and scrub my hands, thereby avoiding the indignity of dying with snotty nostrils and sticky fingers.
By the time that I had fumbled sideways from the ladder to the open doorway and had swung across the threshold into the elevator alcove, the compelling nature of psychic magnetism, the irresistible insistence of it had been forcefully impressed upon me, although not for the first time.
I leaned against a wall, relieved not to have a yawning void at my back, waiting for my clammy palms to stop perspiring, for my heart to cease hammering. Repeatedly I flexed and extended my left arm to work a mild cramp out of the biceps.
Beyond the shadow-cloaked alcove, there appeared to be sources of watery-gray light both from north and from south along the public hallway.
No voices. If I could judge by her performance on the phone, the mystery woman was a talker. She liked the sound of herself.
When I eased to the open end of the alcove and peered cautiously around the corner, I saw a long, deserted hall. Here and there, open doorways on both sides admitted d
aylight from guest rooms, as I had expected.
The I-shaped hotel featured a shorter hall with more rooms at each end of the main corridor. The guarded stairs that I had chosen to avoid were in those secondary wings.
Left or right would have been a choice to ponder for any other searcher, but not for me. Less equivocal here than it had been in the storm drains, my sixth sense drew me to the right, south.
From the foundation to the highest level, the floors of the hotel were steel-reinforced concrete. The fire had not been intense enough to buckle let alone collapse them.
Consequently, the flames had worked upward through the structure by way of plumbing and electrical chases. Only about sixty percent of those internal pathways had been fully fireproofed and sprinklered as specified by the construction documents.
This resulted in a hopscotch pattern of destruction. Some floors were virtually gutted, while others fared far better.
The twelfth story had suffered extensive smoke and water damage, but I encountered nothing eaten by flames, nothing scorched. Carpet matted with soot and filth. Wallpaper stained, peeling. A few glass shades had been shaken loose of ceiling lights; sharp shards required wariness.
A Mojave vulture evidently had swooped in through one shattered window or another and had not been able to find its way out. In its frantic search, it had broken a wing against a wall or a door frame. Now its macabre carcass, having half rotted before it desiccated in the dry heat, lay with tattered pinions spread in the center of the corridor.
Although the twelfth floor might be in good shape by comparison to other levels of the hotel, you wouldn’t want to check in for your next vacation.
I moved cautiously from open room to open room, scouting each from its threshold. None was occupied.
The furniture violently redistributed by the quake, tipped on its side, jammed the same end of each room, where the power of the temblor had thrown it. Everything was soiled and sagging and not worth the effort to salvage.
Beyond those windows that were broken out or that were free of soot, the lowering sky revealed a metastasis of storm clouds, healthy blue holding only in the south, and even there succumbing.
The closed doors didn’t concern me. I would be warned by a rasp of rusted knob and a screech of corroded hinges if one began to open. Besides, these were neither white nor paneled, as were the mortal doors of my dream.
Halfway between the elevator alcove and the intersection with the next corridor, I came to a closed door that I was not able to pass. Tarnished metal numbers identified it as Room 1242. As though guided by a puppet master whose strings were invisible, my right hand reached for the knob.
I restrained myself long enough to rest my head against the jamb and listen. Nothing.
Listening at a door is always a waste of time. You listen and listen, and when you feel confident that the way ahead is safe, you open the door, whereupon some guy with BORN TO DIE tattooed on his forehead shoves a monster revolver in your face. It’s almost as reliable as the three laws of thermodynamics.
When I eased open the door, I encountered no tattooed thug, which meant that gravity would soon fail and that bears would henceforth leave the woods to toilet in public lavatories.