Seeing not the usual cold calculation in Datura’s eyes, nor the childlike wonder that had briefly brightened them as we had descended the stairs from the twelfth floor, seeing instead a bitterness and a meanness that emphasized the new feral quality in her face, I felt no less nauseated than when, with blood-smeared hand, she had pressed the wineglass to my lips.
“The lingering dead are vulnerable,” I warned her. “We owe them the truth, only the truth, but we have to be careful to comfort them and encourage them onward by what we say and how we say it.”
Listening to myself, I realized the futility of urging Datura to act with compassion.
Directly addressing the spirit whom she could not see, Datura said, “Your sister Bonnie is alive.”
Hope brightened the late Maryann Morris’s face, and I could see that she readied herself for joy.
Datura continued: “Her spine was snapped when a ton-and-a-half ballroom chandelier fell on her. Crushed the shit out of her. Her eyes were punctured, ruined—”
“What’re you doing? Don’t do this,” I pleaded.
“Now Bonnie’s paralyzed from the neck down, and blind. She lives on the government dole in a cheap nursing home where she’ll probably die from neglected bedsores.”
I wanted to shut her up even if I had to hit her, and maybe half the reason I wanted to shut her up was because it would give me an excuse to hit her.
As though attuned to my desire, Andre and Robert stared at me, tense with the expectation of action.
Although the chance to knock her flat would have been worth the beating the thugs would have administered to me, I reminded myself that I had come here for Danny. The cocktail waitress was dead, but my friend with brittle bones had a chance to live. His survival must be my focus.
Addressing the spirit she could not see, Datura said, “Your other sister, Nora, was burned over eighty percent of her body, but she survived. Three fingers on her left hand were burned completely away. So were her hair and many of her facial features, Maryann. One ear. Her lips. Her nose. Seared away, gone.”
Grief so tortured the cocktail waitress that I could not bear to look at her, because I could do nothing to comfort her in the face of this vicious assault.
Breathing rapidly, shallowly, Datura had allowed the wolf in her bones to rise into her heart. Words were her teeth and cruelty her claws.
“Your Nora has had thirty-six operations with more to come—skin grafts, facial reconstruction, painful and tedious. And still she’s hideous.”
“You’re making this up,” I interrupted.
“Like hell I am. She’s hideous. She rarely goes out, and when she does, she wears a hat and ties a scarf across her sickening face to avoid frightening children.”
Such aggressive gleefulness in the administration of emotional pain, such inexplicable bitterness revealed Datura’s perfect face to be not just a contrast to her nature but in fact a mask. The longer she assailed the cocktail waitress, the less opaque the mask became, and you could begin to see the suggestion of an underlying malignancy so ugly that, were the mask to be stripped suddenly away, a face would be revealed that would make Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera look lamb-sweet, lamb-gentle.
“You, Maryann, you got away easy by comparison. Your pain is over. You can go on from here any damn time you choose. But because your sisters were where they were, when they were, their suffering is going to continue for years and years, for all the rest of their miserable lives.”
The intensity of misbegotten guilt that Datura strove to foster would keep this tortured spirit chained to these burned-out ruins, to this bleak plot of land, for another decade, or century. And for no purpose but to attempt to agitate the poor soul into a visible manifestation.
“Do I piss you off, Maryann? Do you hate me for revealing the helpless, broken things your sisters have become?”
To Datura, I said, “This is disgusting, despicable, and it won’t work. It’s all for nothing.”
“I know what I’m doing, baby. I always know exactly what I’m doing.”
“She isn’t like you,” I persisted. “She doesn’t hate, so you can’t enrage her.”
“Everyone hates,” she said, and warned me off with a murderous look that dropped the temperature of my blood. “Hate makes the world go ’round. Especially for girls like Maryann. They’re the best of all haters.”
“What would you know about girls like her?” I asked scornfully, angrily. And answered my question: “Nothing. You know nothing about women like her.”
Andre took one step away from his lantern, and Robert glowered at me.
Relentless, Datura said, “I’ve seen your picture in newspapers, Maryann. Oh, yes, I did my research before I came here. I know the faces of so many who died in this place, because if I meet them—when I meet them through my new boyfriend here, my little odd one—I want the encounters to be memorable.”
The tall broad brick of a man with buzz-cut hair and deep-set bile-green eyes had appeared, but I’d been so distracted by Datura’s unconscionable badgering of the cocktail waitress that I had not been aware of this spirit’s belated arrival. I saw him now as he abruptly loomed closer to us.
“I’ve seen your picture, Maryann,” Datura repeated. “You were a pretty girl but not a beauty. Just pretty enough for men to use you, but not pretty enough to be able to use them to get what you wanted.”
No more than ten feet from us, the eighth spirit of the casino appeared to be as angry as he had been when I had seen him earlier. Jaws clenched. Hands fisted.
“Just pretty isn’t good enough,” Datura continued. “Prettiness fades quickly. If you had lived, your life would have been nothing but cocktail waitressing and disappointment.”
Buzz-cut came closer, now three feet behind the stricken spirit of Maryann Morris.
“You had high hopes when you came to this job,” Datura said, “but it was a dead end, and soon you knew you were already a failure. Women like you turn to their sisters, to their friends, and make a life that way. But you…you even failed your sisters, didn’t you?”
One of the Coleman lanterns brightened markedly, dimmed, and brightened again, causing shadows to fly away, leap close, and fly away once more.
Andre and Robert somberly considered the lamp, looked at each other, and then surveyed the room, puzzled.
“FAILED YOUR SISTERS,” DATURA REPEATED, “your paralyzed, blind, disfigured sisters. And if that isn’t true, if I’m full of crap, then let me see you, Maryann. Show yourself, confront me, let me see you the way the fire ruined you. Show me, and scare me off.”
Although I would never have been able to conjure these spirits into a sufficiently material state for Datura to have seen them, I had hoped that Buzz-cut, with his high poltergeist potential, would provide a spectacle that would not only entertain my captors but also distract them so completely that I might get away.
The problem had been how to fuel his already simmering anger into the fiery rage needed to power poltergeist phenomena. Now it seemed that Datura would solve that problem for me.
“You weren’t there for your sisters,” she taunted. “Not before the quake, not during, not after, not ever.”
Although the cocktail waitress only buried her face in her hands and endured the poisonous accusations, Buzz-cut glared at Datura, his expression heating from a simmering to a boiling anger.
He and Maryann Morris were bonded by untimely death as well as by their inability to move on, but I can’t know that his mood grew darker because he took offense on behalf of the cocktail waitress. I don’t believe these stranded spirits feel any sense of community. They see one another, but each is fundamentally alone.
More likely, Datura’s viciousness resonated with this man, excited him, and amplified his existing anger.
“The fifth spirit has arrived,” I told her. “Conditions are perfect now.”
“Then do it,” she said sharply. “Conjure them right here, right now
. Let me see.”
God forgive me, to save myself and Danny, I said, “What you’re doing is helpful. It’s…I don’t know…it’s emotionalizing them or something.”
“I told you I always know exactly what I’m doing. Don’t ever doubt me, baby.”
“Just keep hammering at her, and with my help, in a few minutes, you’ll not just see Maryann but all of them.”