This was one of those moments when I wished that I had striven harder to overcome my deep-seated aversion to guns.
On the other hand, when you shoot at people who also have guns, they tend to shoot back. This invariably complicates matters.
If you don’t shoot first and aim well, maybe it’s better not to have firearms. In an ugly situation like this, people who have heavy weaponry tend to feel superior to people who don’t; they feel smug, and when they’re smug, they underestimate their opponents. An unarmed man, of necessity, will be quicker of wit—more aware, more feral and more ferocious—than the gunman who relies on his weapon to think for him. Therefore, being unarmed can be an advantage.
In retrospect, that line of reasoning is patently absurd. Even at the time, I knew it was stupid, but I pursued it anyway, because I needed to talk myself out of that alcove and into action.
The leaf in the moonlit water, sharing its essence with the pool, sinking deep and carried on a lazy current that pulls, pulls, pulls…
I stepped out of the alcove, into the corridor. I turned left, proceeded north.
Some tough, violent phone-sex babe, crazy as a mad cow, gets it in her addled head that she’s got to kidnap Danny so she can use him to force me to reveal my closely guarded secrets. But why does Dr. Jessup have to die, and in such a brutal fashion? Just because he was there?
This phone-sex babe, this nut case, has three guys—now two—who apparently are willing to commit any crime necessary to help her get what she wants. There’s no bank to be robbed, no armored car to be held up, no illegal drugs to be sold. She’s not after money; she’s after true ghost stories, icy fingers up and down her spine, so there’s no loot for the other members of her gang to share. Their reason for putting their lives and freedom on the line for her at first seems puzzling if not mysterious.
Of course even nonhomicidal guys often think with the little head instead of with the big head that has a brain in it. And the annals of crime are replete with cases in which dim-bulb men in the thrall of bad women did the most vicious and idiotic things solely for sex.
If Datura looked as sultry as she sounded on the phone, she would find it easy to manipulate certain men. Her kind of guy would have more testosterone than white blood cells in his veins, would lack a sense of right and wrong, would have a taste for excitement, would savor every cruelty he performed, and would have no capacity to think about tomorrow.
Putting together her entourage, she would not have encountered a shortage of candidates. The news seemed to be full of such cold-blooded men these days.
Dr. Wilbur Jessup had died not just because he was in the way, but also because killing him had been fun to these people, a release, a lark. Rebellion in its purest form.
In the elevator alcove, I had found it hard to believe that she could have put such a crew together. While walking a mere hundred feet of hotel corridor, I had come to find them inevitable.
Dealing with these kinds of people, I would need every advantage that my gift could provide.
Door after door, whether open or closed, failed to entice me, until I stopped finally at 1203, which stood ajar.
MOST OF THE FURNITURE HAD BEEN REMOVED from Room 1203. Only a pair of nightstands, a round wood table, and four captain’s chairs remained.
Some cleaning had occurred. Although the space was far from immaculate, it looked more accommodating than any place I’d seen previously in the ruined hotel.
The pending storm had dimmed the day, but fat candles in red and amber glass containers provided light. Six were arranged precisely on the floor in each corner of the room. Six more stood on the table.
The pulse and flicker of candlelight might have been cheerful in other circumstances. Here it seemed cheerless. Menacing. Occult.
Scented, the candles produced a fragrance that masked the bitter malodor of long-settled smoke. The air smelled sweet rather than flowery. I had never breathed anything quite like it before.
White sheets had been tucked and pinned to the upholstery of the captain’s chairs, to provide clean seating.
The nightstands flanked the big view window. On each stood a large black vase, and in each vase were two or three dozen red roses that either had no scent or could not compete with the candles.
She enjoyed drama and glamour, and she carried her creature comforts with her even into the wilds. Like a European princess visiting Africa in the century of colonialism, having a picnic on a Persian carpet unrolled on the veldt.
Gazing out the window, her back to me as I entered the room, stood a woman in tight black toreador pants and a black blouse. Five feet five. Thick, glossy blond hair so pale it looked almost white, cut short but not in a manly style.
I said, “I’m almost three hours ahead of sundown.”
She neither twitched with surprise nor turned to me. Continuing to stare at the gathering storm, she said, “So you’re not a complete disappointment after all.”
In person, her voice was no less bewitching, no less erotic than it had been on the phone.
“Odd Thomas, do you know who was the greatest conjurer in history, who summoned spirits and used them better than anyone ever?”
I took a guess: “You?”
“Moses,” she said. “He knew the secret names of God, with which he could conquer Pharaoh and divide the sea.”
“Moses the conjurer. That must have been a freaky Sunday school you went to.”
“Red candles in red glasses,” she said.
“You camp out in style,” I acknowledged.
“What do they achieve—red candles in red glasses?”
I said, “Light?”
“Victory,” she corrected. “Yellow candles in yellow glasses—what do they achieve?”
“It’s got to be the right answer this time. Light?”
By keeping her back to me, she meant to draw me to the window by the power of her mystery and will.
Determined not to play her game, I said, “Victory and money. Well, there’s my problem. I always burn white candles.”
She said, “White candles in clear glasses achieve peace. I never use them.”
Although I had no intention of bending to her will and joining her at the window, I did move toward the table, which stood between us. In addition to the candles, several objects lay there, one of which appeared to be a remote control.
“Always, I sleep with salt between my mattress and my sheet,” she said, “and over my bed hangs a spray of five-finger grass.”
“I don’t sleep much these days,” I said, “but then I’ve heard that’s true of everyone when they get old.”
Finally she turned from the window to look at me.
Stunning. In myth, the succubus is a demon in exquisite female form, and has sex with men to steal their souls. Datura had the face and body ideal for such a demon’s purpose.
Her posture and attitude were those of a woman confident that her looks transfixed.
I could admire her as I might admire a perfectly proportioned bronze statue of any subject—woman or wolf, or whidding horse—but a bronze lacking the ineffable quality that fires passions in the heart. In sculpture, that quality is the difference between craft and art. In a woman, it is the difference between mere erotic power and beauty that enchants a man, that humbles him.
Beauty that steals the heart is often imperfect, suggests grace and kindness, and inspires tenderness more than it incites lust.
Her blue stare, by its directness and intensity, was meant to promise ecstasy and utter satiation, but it was too sharp to excite, less like a metaphoric arrow through the heart than like a whittling knife testing the hardness of the material to be carved.
“The candles smell nice,” I said, to prove that I was neither dry-mouthed nor stiffened into speechlessness.
“Are you really so ignorant o
f these things, Odd Thomas, or are you so much more than the simple soul you appear to be?”
“Ignorant,” I assured her. “Not just of five-finger grass and Cleo-May. I’m ignorant of lots of things, entire broad areas of human knowledge. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.”
She was holding a glass of red wine. As she raised it to her full lips and took a slow sip, savored the taste, and swallowed, she stared at me across the table.
“The candles are scented with Cleo-May,” she said. “The scent of Cleo-May compels men to love and obey she who lights the candles.” She indicated a bottle of wine and another glass on the table. “Will you join me in a drink?”
“That’s hospitable of you. But I better keep a clear head.”
If the Mona Lisa’s smile had been the same as Datura’s, no one would ever have heard of that painting. “Yes, I think you better.”
“Is that the remote control to trigger the explosives?”
Only her frozen smile revealed her surprise. “Did you and Danny have a nice reunion?”
“It’s got two buttons. The remote.”
“The black one detonates. The white one disarms the bomb.”
The device lay closer to her than to me. If I rushed to the table, she would seize the remote first.
I’m not the kind of guy who punches women. I might have made an exception in her case.
I was restrained by the suspicion that she would slide a knife in my guts even as I cocked my fist to throw the punch.
Also, I feared that, in a flush of perversity, she would press the black button.
“Did Danny tell you much about me?” she asked.
Deciding to play to her vanity, I said, “How does a woman who has so much going for her wind up selling phone sex?”
“I made some porn films,” she said. “Good money. But they use up women fast in that racket. So I met this guy who owned an on-line porn store and a phone-sex operation that’re like faucets you open and cash pours out. I married him. He died. I own the business now.”
“You married him, he died, you’re rich.”
“Things happen for me. They always have.”