The farther reaches of the vast chamber remained dark, but the center had enough light for my purpose.
“Sixty-four died in the casino,” Datura told me. “The heat was so intense in some areas that even bones burned.”
The patient blackjack player remained the only spirit in sight. The others would come eventually, as many as lingered this side of death.
“Baby, look at those melted slot machines. Casinos, they’re always advertising they have hot slots, but this time they weren’t bullshitting.”
Of the eight spirits who had been here previously, only one might serve my purpose.
“They found the remains of this old lady. The quake tipped over a bank of slot machines, trapped her under them.”
I didn’t want to hear Datura’s grisly details. By now, I knew there was no way that I could dissuade her from providing them, and vividly.
“Her remains were so twisted up with melted metal and plastic, the coroner couldn’t completely extract them.”
Under the time-mellowed rankness of char and sulfur and myriad toxic residues, I detected the half-fungal, half-fleshy odor from the stairwell. Elusive but not imagined, it swelled and faded breath by breath.
“The coroner thought the old bitch should be cremated, since the job was already half done, and since that was the only way to separate her from the melted machine.”
Out of shadows came the elderly lady with the long face and the vacant eyes. Perhaps she had been the one trapped under the bank of one-armed bandits.
“But her family—they didn’t want cremation, they wanted a traditional burial.”
From the corner of my eye, I detected movement, turned, and discovered the cocktail waitress in the Indian-princess uniform. I was saddened to see her. I had thought—and hoped—that she might have moved on at last.
“So the casket contained part of the slot machine that the hag had been fused with. Is that nuts or what?”
Here came the uniformed guard, walking a little bit like John Wayne, one hand on the gun at his hip.
“Are any of them here?” Datura asked.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Right now they’re only manifesting to me.”
“So show me.”
“There should be one more. I have to wait until they’re all gathered.”
“That’s just the way it is.”
“Don’t screw with me,” she warned.
“You’ll get what you want,” I assured her.
Although Datura’s customary self-possession had given way to an evident excitement, to a twitchy anticipation, Andre and Robert exhibited all the enthusiasm of a pair of boulders. Each stood by his lantern, waiting.
Andre stared off into the gloom beyond the lamplight. He did not seem to be looking at anything in this universe. His features were slack. His eyes seldom blinked. The only emotion that he’d exhibited thus far had been when he had suckled at her thorn-pricked hand, and even then he had not revealed an ability to emote any greater than that of the average oak stump.
While Andre seemed perpetually anchored in placid waters, Robert occasionally revealed, by a fleeting expression or a furtive glance, that he rode a marginally more active inner sea. Now his hands had his complete attention as he used the fingernails of his left to clean under the fingernails of his right, slowly, meticulously, as though he would be content to spend hours at the task.
At first I had decided that both were on the stupid side of dumb, but I had begun to rethink that judgment. I couldn’t believe that their interior lives were rich in intellectual pursuit and philosophical contemplation, but I did suspect that they were more formidable, mentally, than they appeared to be.
Perhaps they had been with Datura for enough years and through enough ghost hunts that the prospect of supernatural experiences no longer interested them. Even the most exotic excursions can become tedious through repetition.
And after years of listening to her all but constant chatter, they could be excused for taking refuge in silence, for creating redoubts of inner quietude to which they could retreat, letting her ceaseless crazy talk wash over them.
“All right, you’re waiting for a fifth spirit,” she said, plucking at my T-shirt. “But tell me about those that are here already. Where are they? Who are they?”
To placate her and to avoid worrying that the dead man I most needed to see might not put in an appearance, I described the player at the blackjack table, his kind face, full mouth and dimpled chin.
“So he’s manifesting the way that he was before the fire?” she asked.
“When you conjure him for me, I want to see him both ways—as he was in life, and what the fire did to him.”
“All right,” I agreed, because she would never be persuaded that I lacked the power to compel such revelations.
“All of them, I want to see what it did to them. Their wounds, their suffering.”
“Who else?” she asked.
One by one, I pointed to where they stood: the elderly woman, the guard, the cocktail waitress.
Datura found only the waitress intriguing. “You said she was a brunette. Is that right—or is her hair black?”
Peering more closely at the apparition, which moved toward me in response to my interest, I said, “Black. Raven hair.”
“I know about her. There’s a story about her,” Datura said with an avidness that made me uneasy.
Now focusing on Datura, the young waitress came closer still, to within a few feet of us.
Squinting, trying to see the spirit, but staring to one side of it, Datura asked, “Why does she linger?”
“I don’t know. The dead don’t talk
to me. When I command them to be visible to you, maybe you’ll be able to get them to speak.”
I scanned the casino shadows, searching for the lurking form of the tall, broad man with buzz-cut hair. Still no sign of him, and he was my only hope.
Speaking of the cocktail waitress, Datura said, “Ask if her name was…Maryann Morris.”
Surprised, the waitress moved closer and put a hand on Datura’s arm, a contact that went unnoticed, for only I can feel the touch of the dead.
“It must be Maryann,” I said. “She reacted to the name.”
“Where is she?”
“Directly in front of you, within arm’s reach.”
In the manner of a domesticated creature reverting to a wilder state, Datura’s delicate nostrils flared, her eyes shone with feral excitement, and her lips pulled back from her white-white teeth as if in anticipation of blood sport.
“I know why Maryann can’t move on,” Datura said. “There was a story about her in the news accounts. She had two sisters. Both of them worked here.”
“She’s nodding,” I told Datura, and at once wished that I had not facilitated this encounter.
“I’ll bet Maryann doesn’t know what happened to her sisters, whether they lived or died. She doesn’t want to move on until she knows what happened to them.”
The apprehensive expression on the spirit’s face, which was not entirely without a fragile hope, revealed that Datura had intuited the reason Maryann lingered. Reluctant to encourage her, I didn’t confirm the accuracy of her insight.
She needed no encouragement from me. “One sister was a waitress working the ballroom that night.”
The Lady Luck Ballroom. The collapsed ceiling. The crushing, skewering weight of the massive chandelier.
“The other sister worked as a hostess in the main restaurant,” Datura said. “Maryann had used her contacts to get jobs for them.”
If that was true, the cocktail waitress might feel responsible for her sisters having been in the Panamint when the quake struck. Hearing that they had survived, she would most likely feel free to shake off the chains that bound her to this world, these ruins.
Even if her sisters had died, the sad truth was likely to release her from her self-imposed purgatory. Although her sense of guilt might increase, that would be trumped by her hope of a reunion with her loved ones in the next world.