Something he saw in my eyes, in my expression, made him frown, and he said, “What?”
“I won’t tell him,” I promised, and turned my attention to the bonds securing his right ankle to the leg of the chair.
“If I ever tell him, I’ll give back my Venusian-methane-slime-beast card.”
“You still have it?”
“I told you I’m a geek. Who is Datura?”
Danny took a deep breath, held it until I thought that he was going after a Guinness World Record, then let it out with two words: “Phone sex.”
I blinked at him, briefly confused. “Phone sex?”
Blushing, mortified, he said, “I’m sure this is a colossal surprise to you, but I’ve never done the real thing with a girl.”
“Not even with Demi Moore?”
“Bastard,” he hissed.
“Could you have passed up a shot like that?”
“No,” he admitted. “But being a virgin at twenty-one makes me the king of losers.”
“No way I’m gonna start calling you Your Highness. Anyway, a hundred years ago, guys like you and me would be called gentlemen. Funny what a big difference a century makes.”
“You?” he said. “Don’t try to tell me you are a member of the club. I’m inexperienced but I’m not naive.”
“Believe what you want,” I said, sawing the bonds at his left ankle, “but I’m a member in good standing.”
Danny knew that Stormy and I had been an item since we were sixteen, in high school. He didn’t know that we’d never made love.
As a child, she had been molested by an adoptive father. For a long time, she’d felt unclean.
She wanted to wait for marriage before we did the deed because she felt that by delaying our gratification, we would be purifying her past. She was determined that those bad memories of abuse would not haunt her in our bed.
Stormy had said sex between us should feel clean and right and wonderful. She wanted it to be sacred; and it would have been.
Then she died, and we never experienced that one bliss together, which was all right, because we experienced so many others. We packed a lifetime into four years.
Danny Jessup didn’t need to hear any details. They are my most private memories, and precious to me.
Without looking up from his left ankle, I said, “Phone sex?”
After a hesitation, he said, “I wanted to know what it was like to talk about it, you know, with a girl. A girl who didn’t know what I look like.”
I took longer cutting the tape than was required, keeping my head down, giving him time.
He said, “I have some money of my own.” He designs web sites. “I pay the bills for my phone. Dad didn’t see the nine-hundred-number charges.”
Having freed his ankle, I busied myself cleaning the tape-gummed blade of the knife on my jeans. I couldn’t cut the bonds around his chest because the same loops held the bomb level and in place.
“For a couple minutes,” he continued, “it was exciting. But then pretty soon it seemed gross. Ugly.” His voice quavered. “You probably think I’m a pervert.”
“I think you’re human. I like that in a friend.”
He took a deep breath and went on: “It seemed gross…and then stupid. So I asked the girl, could we just talk, not about sex, about other things, anything. She said sure, that was all right.”
Phone-sex services charge by the minute. Danny could have held forth for hours about the qualities of various laundry soaps, and she would have pretended to be enthralled.
“We chatted half an hour, just about things we like and don’t like—you know, books, movies, food. It was wonderful, Odd. I can’t explain how wonderful it was, the glow I got from it. It was just…it was so nice.”
I wouldn’t have thought that the word nice could break my heart, but it almost did.
“That particular service will let you make an appointment with a girl you like. I mean for another conversation.”
“This was Datura.”
“Yes. The second time I talked to her, I found out she has this real fascination with the supernatural, ghosts and stuff.”
I folded shut the knife and returned it to my backpack.
“She’s read like a thousand books on the subject, visited lots of haunted houses. She’s into all kinds of paranormal phenomena.”
I went around behind his chair and knelt on the floor.
“What’re you doing?” he asked nervously.
“Nothing. Relax. I’m just studying the situation. Tell me about Datura.”
“This is the hardest part, Odd.”
“I know. It’s okay.”
His voice grew even softer: “Well…the third time I called her, pretty much the only thing we talked about was supernatural stuff—from the Bermuda Triangle to spontaneous human combustion to the ghosts that supposedly haunt the White House. I don’t know…I don’t know why I wanted so bad to impress her.”
I am no expert on bomb-making. I had encountered only one other in my life—the previous August, in the same incident that involved the mall shootings.
“I mean,” Danny said, “she was just this girl who talked filthy to men for money. But it was important to me that she liked me, maybe even thought I was a little cool. So I told her I had a friend who could see ghosts.”
I closed my eyes.
“I didn’t use your name at first, and at first she didn’t really believe me. But the stories I told her about you were so detailed and so unusual, she began to realize they were true.”
The bomb at the mall had been a truck packed with hundreds of kilos of explosives. The detonator had been a crude device.
“Our talks got to be so much fun. Then the sweetest thing. It seemed so sweet. She started calling me on her own time. It didn’t cost me anything anymore.”
I opened my eyes and gazed at the package on the back of Danny’s chair. This was a lot more sophisticated than the truck bomb at the mall. It was meant to challenge me.
“We didn’t always get around to talking about you,” Danny said. “I realize now, she was clever. She didn’t want to be obvious.”
Careful not to disturb the carpenter’s level, I traced a coiled red wire with one finger, and then a straighter yellow wire. Then green.
“But after a while,” Danny continued, “I didn’t have any more to tell her about you…except the thing at the mall last year. That was such a big story nationwide, all over the newspapers and TV, so then she knew your name.”
Black wire, blue wire, white wire, red again…. Neither the sight of them nor the feel of them against my fingertip engaged my sixth sense.
“I’m so sorry, Odd. So damn sorry. I sold you out.”
I said, “Not for money. For love. That’s different.”
“I don’t love her.”
“All right. Not love. For the hope of love.”
Frustrated by the indecipherable wiring of the bomb, I went around to the front of the chair.
Danny rubbed his right wrist, around which the duct tape had been drawn so tight that it had left angry red impressions in his skin.
“For the hope of love,” I repeated. “What friend wouldn’t cut you a little slack in a case like that?”
Tears welled in his eyes.
“Listen,” I said, “you and I weren’t meant to have our tickets punched in a cheesy casino resort. If fate says we’ve got to croak in a hotel, then we’ll rent a suite someplace that rates five stars. You okay?”
Tucking my backpack in among the earthquake-pitched furniture where it was unlikely to be found, I said, “I know why they brought you here, of all places. If she thinks somehow I can conjure spirits, she figures a bunch of them have to be hanging around this joint. But why through the flood-control tunnels?”
“She’s beyond psychotic, Odd. It never came across on the phone, or maybe I didn’t want to hear it when I was…romancing her. Damn. That’s pathetic. A
nyway, she’s a weird kind of crazy, delusional but not stupid, a real hard-nosed nutty bitch. She wanted to bring me to the Panamint by an unusual route, something that would be a serious test of your psychic magnetism, prove to her it was real. And there’s something else going on with her….”