Having by now eaten in excess of five thousand bananas, she might understandably have lost her taste for them—particularly if she had done the math relating to her remaining obligation. With 974 years to live (as a serpent, small s), she had approximately 710,000 more bananas in her future.
I find it so much easier being a Catholic. Especially one who doesn’t get to church every week.
So much about Datura was foolish, even pitiable, but her fatuity and ignorance made her no less dangerous. Throughout history, fools and their followers, willfully ignorant but in love with themselves and with power, have murdered millions.
When she had consumed the banana and calmed the spirit of the snake entwined through her ribs, we were ready to visit the casino.
A squirming against my groin startled me, and I thrust my hand into my pocket before realizing that I felt only Terri Stambaugh’s satellite phone.
Having seen, Datura said, “What have you got there?”
I had no choice but to reveal it. “Just my phone. I had it set to vibrate instead of ring. It surprised me.”
“Is it vibrating still?”
“Yes.” I held it in the palm of my hand, and we stared at it for a moment, until the caller hung up. “It stopped.”
“I’d forgotten your phone,” she said. “I don’t think we should leave it with you.”
I had no choice but to give it to her.
She took it into the bathroom and slammed it into a hard countertop. Slammed it again.
When she returned, she smiled and said, “We were at the movies once, and this dork took two phone calls during the film. Later we followed him, and Andre broke both his legs with a baseball bat.”
This proved that even the most evil people could occasionally have a socially responsible impulse.
“Let’s go,” she said.
I had entered Room 1203 with a flashlight. I left with it, too—switched off, clipped to my belt—and no one objected.
Carrying a Coleman lantern, Robert led the way to the nearest stairs and descended at the front of our procession. Andre came last with the second lantern.
Between those big somber men, Datura and I followed the wide stairs, not one behind the other, single file, but side by side at her insistence.
Down the first flight to the landing at the eleventh floor, I heard a steady menacing hiss. I half convinced myself that this must be the voice of the serpent spirit that she claimed to carry within her. Then I realized it was the sound of the burning gas in the saclike wicks of the lamps.
On the second flight, she took my hand. I might have pulled free of her grip in revulsion if I hadn’t thought her capable of ordering Andre to lop my hand off at the wrist as punishment for the insult.
More than fear, however, encouraged me to accept her touch. She did not seize my hand boldly, but took it hesitantly, almost shyly, and then held it firmly as a child might in anticipation of a spooky adventure.
I would not have bet on the proposition that this demented and corrupted woman harbored within her any wisp of the innocent child that she once must have been. Yet the quality of submissive trust with which she inserted her hand in mine and the shiver that passed through her at the prospect of what lay ahead suggested childlike vulnerability.
In the eldritch light, which cast about her an aura that seemed almost supernatural, she looked at me, her eyes adance with wonder. This was not the usual Medusa stare; it lacked her characteristic cold hunger and calculation.
Likewise, her grin was without mockery or menace, but expressed a natural and wholesome delight in conspiratorial feats of daring.
I warned myself against the danger of compassion in this case. How easy it would be to imagine the traumas of childhood that might have deformed her into the moral monster she had become, and then to convince myself that those traumas could be balanced—and their effects reversed—by sufficient acts of kindness.
She might not have been formed by trauma. She might have been born this way, without an empathy gene and other essentials. In that case, she would interpret any kindness as weakness. Among predatory beasts, any display of weakness is an invitation to attack.
Besides, even if trauma shaped her, that didn’t excuse what had been done to Dr. Jessup.
I remembered a naturalist who, having come to despise humanity and to despair of it, set out to make a documentary about the moral superiority of animals, particularly of bears. He saw in them not only a harmonious relationship with nature that humankind could not achieve, but also a playfulness beyond human capacity, a dignity, a compassion for other animals, and even a mystical quality that he found moving, humbling. A bear ate him.
Long before I could precipitate a fog of self-delusion equal to that of the devoured naturalist, in fact by the time we had descended only three flights of stairs, Datura herself brought me sharply to my senses by launching into another of her charming anecdotes. She liked the sound of her own voice so much that she could not allow the good impression, made by her smile and silence, to stand for long.
“In Port-au-Prince, if you are invited under the protection of a respected juju adept, it’s possible to attend a ceremony of one of the forbidden secret societies shunned by most voodooists. In my case, it was the Couchon Gris, the ‘Gray Pigs.’ Everyone on the island lives in terror of them, and in the more rural areas, they rule the night.”
I suspected that the Gray Pigs would prove to have little in common with, say, the Salvation Army.
“From time to time, the Couchon Gris perform a human sacrifice—and sample the flesh. Visitors may only observe. The sacrifice is made on a massive black stone hanging on two thick chains suspended from a great iron bar embedded in the walls near the ceiling.”
Her hand tightened in mine as she recalled this horror.
“The person being sacrificed is killed with a knife through the heart, and in that instant, the chains begin to sing. The gros bon ange flies at once from this world, but the ti bon ange, restrained by the ceremony, can only travel up and down the chains.”
My hand grew damp and chill.
I knew she must feel the change.
The faint, disturbing scent that I had smelled earlier, when I’d considered climbing these stairs, arose again. Musky, mushroomy, and strangely suggestive of raw meat.
As before, I flashed back to the dead face of the man whom I had hauled out of the water in the storm drain.
“When you listen closely to the singing chains,” Datura continued, “you realize it isn’t just the sound of twisting links grinding against one another. There’s a voice expressing in the chains, a wail of fear and despair, a wordless urgent pleading.”
Wordlessly, urgently, I pleaded with her to shut up.
“This anguished voice continues as long as the Couchon Gris continue to sample the flesh on the altar, usually half an hour. When they’re done, the chains immediately stop singing because the ti bon ange dissipates, to be absorbed in equal measure by all those who tasted the sacrifice.”
We were three flights from the ground floor, and I wanted to hear no more of this. Yet it seemed to me that if this story was true—and I believed that it was—the victim deserved the dignity of an identity, and should not be spoken of as if he or she were but a fattened calf.
“Who?” I asked, my voice thin.
“The sacrifice. Who was it that night?”
“A Haitian girl. About eighteen. Not all that pretty. A homely thing. Someone said she had been a seamstress.”
My right hand grew too weak to maintain a grip, and I let go of Datura with relief.
She smiled at me, amused, this woman who was physical perfection by almost any standard, whose beauty—icy or not—would turn heads wherever she went.
And I thought of a line from Shakespeare: O, what may man within him hide, though angel on the outward side!
Little Ozzie, my literary mentor, who despairs that I am not more well read in the classics, would have
been proud to hear that a line from the immortal bard had come to me, in fully accurate quotation and appropriate to the moment.
He would also have lectured me on the stupidity of my continued aversion to firearms in light of the fact that I had chosen to put myself in the company of people whose idea of holiday fun was to book tickets not to a Broadway play but to a human sacrifice.
As we descended the final flight, Datura said: “The experience was fascinating. The voice in those chains had the identical tonal qualities of the voice of the little seamstress when she lay not yet dead on that black stone.”
“Did she have a name?”
“Did she have a name?” I repeated.
“I’m sure she did. One of those funny Haitian names. I never heard it. The thing is, her ti bon ange didn’t materialize in any way. I want to see. But there was nothing to see. That part was disappointing. I want to see.”
Each time that she said I want to see, she sounded like a pouting child.
“You won’t disappoint me, will you, Odd Thomas?”
We reached the ground floor, and Robert continued to lead the way, holding his lantern higher than he had on the stairs.
En route to the casino, I remained alert to the topography of the rubble and the burned-out spaces, committing them to memory as best I could.
IN THE WINDOWLESS CASINO, THE PLEASANT-LOOKING man with receding hair sat at one of the two remaining blackjack tables, where I had first seen him, where for five years he had been waiting to be dealt another hand.
He smiled at me and nodded—but regarded Datura and her boys with a frown.
At my request, Andre and Robert put the Coleman lanterns on the floor, about twenty feet apart. I asked for a couple of adjustments—bring that one a foot this way, move the other one six inches to the left—as if the precise placement of the lamps was essential to some ritual that I intended to perform. This was all for Datura’s benefit, to help convince her that there was a process about which she needed to be patient.