Whether moving or standing in place, head tipped back and gazing at the nimbuses of candlelight pulsing on the ceiling, she talked and taunted.
“There’s a woman in San Francisco who levitates when she chants. Only the select are invited to observe her on the solstices or All Saints’ Eve. But I’m sure you’ve been there, and know her name.”
“We’ve never met,” I assured her.
“There’s a fine house in Savannah, inherited by a special young woman, willed to her by an uncle, who also left to her a diary in which he described murdering nineteen children and burying them in his basement. He knew that she would understand and not disclose his crimes to the authorities even though he was dead. You’ve no doubt visited more than once.”
“I don’t travel,” I said.
“I’ve been invited several times. If the planets are properly aligned and the guests are of the right caliber, you can hear the voices of the dead speaking from their graves in the floor and walls. Lost children pleading for their lives, as if they don’t know they’re dead, crying for release. It’s a riveting experience, as you well know.”
Andre stood and Robert sat, eyes on the storm in the first case, on the candles in the second, perhaps mesmerized by Datura’s singular voice. Neither had yet spoken a word. They were unusually silent men, and uncannily still.
She came to my chair, leaned toward me, and extracted a pendant from her ample cleavage: a teardrop stone, red, perhaps a ruby, as large as a peach pit.
“I have captured thirty in this,” she said.
“You told me on the phone. Thirty…thirty something in an amulet.”
“You know what I said. Thirty ti bon ange.”
“I imagine that took a while, collecting thirty.”
“You can see them in there,” she said, holding the stone close to my eyes. “Others can’t, but I’m sure you can.”
“They’re cute little things,” I said.
“Your pretense of ignorance would be convincing to most people, but you don’t fool me. With thirty, I am invincible.”
“You said before. I’m sure being invincible is comforting.”
“I need one more ti bon ange, and this one must be special. It must be yours.”
“As you know, there are two ways I can collect it,” she said, tucking the stone between her breasts again. She poured more wine. “I can take it from you through a water ritual. That is the painless method of extraction.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“Or Andre and Robert can force you to swallow the stone. Then I can gut you like a fish and take it from your steaming stomach as you die.”
If her two horses had heard what she proposed, they were not surprised by it. They remained as still as coiled snakes.
Picking up the glass of wine, moving toward the roses, she said, “If you show me ghosts, I’ll take your ti bon ange the painless way. But if you insist on playing ignorant, this is going to be a very bad day for you. You’re going to know agony of a degree that few men ever experience.”
THE WORLD HAS GONE MAD. YOU MIGHT have argued against that contention twenty years ago, but if you argue it in our time, you only prove that you, too, live in delusion.
In an asylum world, the likes of Datura rise to the top, the crème de la crème of the insane. They rise not by merit but by the force of their will.
When social forces press for the rejection of age-old Truth, then those who reject it will seek meaning in their own truth. These truths will rarely be Truth at all; they will be only collections of personal preferences and prejudices.
The less depth a belief system has, the greater the fervency with which its adherents embrace it. The most vociferous, the most fanatical are those whose cobbled faith is founded on the shakiest grounds.
I would humbly suggest that collecting someone’s ti bon ange—whatever that might be—by forcing him to swallow a gemstone, then eviscerating him and collecting the stone from his stomach, is proof that you are fanatical, mentally unsteady, no longer operating within classic Western philosophy, and not suitable to be a contestant in the Miss America Pageant.
Of course, because it was my stomach threatened by the sexy eviscerator, you might feel that I am biased in this analysis. It’s always easy to charge prejudice when it’s the other guy who’s being disemboweled.
Datura had found her truth in a mishmash of occultisms. Her beauty, her fierce will to power, and her ruthlessness drew to her others, like Andre and Robert, whose secondary truth was her weird system of magical thinking and whose primary truth was Datura herself.
As I watched the woman restlessly circle the room, I wondered how many of the employees in her business operations—the on-line porn store, the phone-sex operation—had gradually been replaced with true believers. Other employees, with empty hearts, might have been converted.
I wondered how many men like these two she could call upon to murder in her name. I suspected that although they were strange, they were not unique.
What must the women be like who were their gender’s equivalents of Andre and Robert? You wouldn’t want to leave your children with them if they ran a daycare center.
If an opportunity arose for me to escape, disarm the package of explosives, get Danny out of this place, and finger Datura for the police, I would be hated by the fanatics devoted to her. If that circle proved to be small, it might quickly fragment. They would find other belief systems or settle back into their natural nihilism, and soon I would mean nothing to them.
If on the other hand her cash-gushing enterprises served as the fountainhead of a cult, I would have to take more precautions than just relocating to a new apartment and changing my name to Odd Smith.
As if energized by the swords of lightning ripping through the sky, Datura pulled a fistful of long-stemmed red roses from one of the vases and gestured with them, lashing the air, as she shared her supernatural experiences.
“In Paris, in the sous-sol of a building that occupying Germans used as a police headquarters after the fall of France, a Gestapo officer named Gessel raped many young women in the process of his interrogations, whipped them, too, and killed some for pleasure.”
Crimson petals flew from the roses as she emphasized Gessel’s brutality.
“One of his most desperate victims fought back—bit his throat, tore open his carotid artery. Gessel died there in his own abattoir, which he haunts to this day.”
An entire tattered bloom broke from its stem and landed in my lap. Startled, I brushed it to the floor as though it had been a tarantula.
“At the invitation of the current owner of that building,” said Datura, “I’ve visited that sous-sol, which is actually a sub-basement two floors below the street. If a woman disrobes there and offers herself…I felt Gessel’s hands all over me—eager, bold, demanding. He entered me. But I couldn’t see him. I had been promised I would see him, a full-blown apparition.”
In sudden anger, she threw down the roses and ground one of the blooms under her heel.
“I wanted to see Gessel. I could feel him. Powerful. Demanding. His everlasting rage. But I couldn’t see him. That last best proof, seeing, eludes me.”
Drawing quick shallow breaths, face flushed, not because the violent gestures taxed her but because her anger excited her, she approached Robert, who sat across the table from me, and held out her right hand to him.
He brought her palm to his mouth. For a moment I thought that he was kissing her hand, a strangely gentle moment for a pair of savages like them.
His subtle sucking sounds belied his tender manner.
At the window, Andre turned from the storm that thus far had entranced him. Dancing candlelight brightened his face but did not soften its hard features.
Like a mountain moving, he came to the table. He stood beside Robert’s chair.
When Datura had gripped the three long-stemmed roses in her fist, thorns had punct
ured her palm. She revealed no pain when she had lashed the air, but now she bled.
Robert might have contented himself at her wounds until no taste remained. From him issued a murmur of deep satisfaction.
As disturbing as this was, I doubted it was the “need” of which she had spoken. That would be a worse thing than this.
With an expression of perverse noblesse oblige, the would-be goddess denied Robert further favor and offered communion to Andre.
I tried to focus on the window and the spectacle of the storm, but I could not keep my gaze averted from the chilling tableau across the table.
The giant lowered his mouth into the cup of her hand. He lapped like a kitten, not seeking sustenance, surely, but craving something more than blood, something unknown and unholy.
As Cheval Andre accepted his mistress’s grace, Cheval Robert watched intently. Yearning tortured his face.
More than once since I’d entered Room 1203, the scent of Cleo-May had grown so sweet that it became repellent. Now it thickened to such a degree that it began to sicken me.
As I strove to repress my nausea, I had an impression that I don’t mean should be taken literally, that was metaphoric but no less disturbing:
During this blood-sharing ritual, Datura no longer seemed to be a woman, no longer a sexually distinct creature of either gender, but a member of some mono-clinous species that harbored both sexes in the same individual, and almost insectile. I expected that if lightning backlighted her, I would see her body as a mimicry of human form within which quivered a many-legged entity.
She withdrew her hand from Andre, and he relinquished it with reluctance. When she turned her back on him, however, he returned obediently to the window, once more placed his hands flat upon the glass, and gazed into the storm.
Robert’s attention focused again on the table candles. His face settled into placidity, but his eyes were lively with reflections of the flames.
Datura redirected her attention to me. For a moment she stared as if she did not remember who I was. Then she smiled.
She picked up her wineglass and came to me.
If I had realized that she intended to sit in my lap, I would have exploded to my feet as she rounded the table. By the time her intention became clear, she had already settled.
Feathering against my face, her warm breath smelled of wine.
“Have you seen an advantage yet that you can seize?”
“I want you to drink with me,” she said, holding the wineglass to my lips.
SHE HELD THE WINE IN THE HAND THAT HAD been pricked by thorns, the hand upon which the two men had suckled.
A new wave of nausea washed through me, and I pulled my head back from the coolness of the glass rim against my lips.
“Drink with me,” she repeated, her smoky voice alluring under even these circumstances.
“I don’t want any,” I told her.