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Here as elsewhere, the earthquake five years ago had rearranged the furniture, shoving everything to one end of the space, stacking the bed on top of chairs, on top of a dresser. Search dogs would have been needed to certify that no victims, either alive or dead, had remained under the debris.

In this instance, a single chair had been retrieved from the scrap heap and placed in the quake-cleared half of the room. In the chair, secured to it by duct tape, sat Danny Jessup.


EYES CLOSED, PALE, UNMOVING, DANNY looked dead. Only the throb of a pulse in his temple and the tension in his jaw muscles revealed that he was alive, and in the grip of dread.

He resembles that actor, Robert Downey Jr., though without the edge of heroin-addict glamour that would give him true star quality in contemporary Hollywood.

Past the face, the resemblance to any actor drops to zero. Danny has a lot better brain than any movie star of the past few decades.

His left shoulder is somewhat misshapen from excess bone growth during the healing of a fracture. That arm twists unnaturally from shoulder to wrist, with the consequence that it doesn’t hang straight at his side, and the hand twists away from his body.

His left hip is deformed. The right leg is shorter than the other. The right tibia thickened and bowed as it healed from a break. His right ankle contains so much excess bone that he has only forty percent function in that joint.

Strapped to the hotel-room chair, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt with a yellow lightning bolt on the chest, he could have been a fairy-tale character. The handsome prince suffering under a witch’s spell. The love child of a forbidden romance between a princess and a kind troll.

I closed the door behind me before I said softly, “Wanna get out of here?”

His blue eyes opened, owlish with surprise. Fear made room for mortification, but he didn’t appear to be at all relieved.

“Odd,” he whispered, “you shouldn’t have come.”

Dropping the backpack, zipping it open, I whispered, “What am I gonna do? There was nothing good on TV.”

“I knew you’d come, but you shouldn’t, it’s hopeless.”

From the backpack, I withdrew a fishing knife, flipped the blade out of the handle. “Always the optimist.”

“Get out of here while you can. She’s crazier than a syphilitic suicide bomber with mad-cow disease.”

“I don’t know anybody else who says stuff like that. Can’t leave you here when you talk that good.”

His ankles were bound to the chair legs with numerous turns of duct tape. Bonds of tape wound around his chest, securing him to the back of the chair. In addition, his arms were taped to the arms of the chair at the wrists and at the crooks of the elbows.

I started sawing rapidly at the loops of tape that bound his left wrist.

“Odd, stop it, listen, even if you have time to cut me loose, I can’t stand up—”

“If your leg’s broken or something,” I interrupted, “I can carry you at least to a hiding place.”

“Nothing’s broken, that’s not it,” he said urgently, “but if I stand up, it’ll detonate.”

Although I finished freeing his left wrist, I said, “Detonate. That’s a word I like even less than decapitate.”

“Check out the back of the chair.”

I went around behind him to have a look. Being a guy who has seen a few movies as well as some weird action in real life, I at once recognized the kilo of plastic explosives held to the back of the chair by the same tape that bound Danny.

A battery, lots of colorful wires, an instrument that resembled a small version of a carpenter’s level (with the indicator bubble measuring a perfect horizontal plane), and other arcane paraphernalia suggested that whoever had put the bomb together had a flair for such work.

Danny said, “The instant I raise my ass off the chair—boom. If I try to walk with the chair and the level measures too far off the horizontal—boom.”

“We have a problem here,” I agreed.


IN WHISPERS, IN MURMURS, WITH BATED breath, sotto voce, in voce velata, softly we conducted the conversation, not solely because the syphilitic-suicide-bomber-mad-cow woman and her pals might hear us, but I think also because we superstitiously felt that the wrong word, spoken too loud, would trigger the bomb.

Stripping the spelunker’s strap off my arm and setting it aside with the flashlight, I said, “Where are they?”

“I don’t know. Odd, you have to get out of here.”

“Do they leave you by yourself for long periods?”

“They check in maybe once an hour. She was just here about fifteen minutes ago. Call Wyatt Porter.”

“This isn’t in his jurisdiction.”

So he’ll call Sheriff Amory.”

“If police get into this, you’ll die.”

“So who do you want to call—the sanitation department?”

“I just know you’ll die. The way I know things. Can this package be detonated whenever they want?”

“Yeah. She showed me a remote control. She said it would be as easy as changing TV channels.”

“Who is she?”

“Her name’s Datura. Two guys are with her. I don’t know their names. There was a third sonofabitch.”

“I found his body. What happened to him?”

“I didn’t see it. He was…strange. So are the other two.”

As I began to cut the tape on his left forearm, I said, “What’s her first name?”

“Datura. I don’t know her last. Odd, what’re you doing? I can’t get up from this chair.”

“You might as well be ready to get up in case the situation changes. Who is she?”

“Odd, she’ll kill you. She will. You’ve got to get out of here.”

“Not without you,” I said, sawing the tape that bound his right wrist to the chair.

Danny shook his head. “I don’t want you to die for me.”

“Then who am I gonna die for? Some total stranger? What sense does that make? Who is she?”

He let out a low sound of abject misery. “You’re gonna think I’m such a loser.”

“You’re not a loser. You’re a geek, I’m a geek, but we’re not losers.”

“You’re not a geek,” he said.

Cutting the second set of bonds on his right arm, I said, “I’m a fry cook when I’m working, and when I added a sweater vest to my wardrobe it was more change than I could handle. I see dead people, and I talk to Elvis, so don’t tell me I’m not a geek. Who is she?”

“Promise you won’t tell Dad.”

He wasn’t talking about Simon Makepeace, his biological father. He meant his stepfather. He didn’t know Dr. Jessup was dead.

This wasn’t the best time to tell him. He would be devastated. I needed him to be focused, and game.

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