She hurled more abuse at the cocktail waitress, in language far more vile than she’d used thus far, and both of the Coleman lanterns pulsed, pulsed, as though in sympathy with the lightning that might at the same moment have been ripping through the sky outside.
Stalking, turning, stalking, circling, as if caged, as though frustrated beyond tolerance by his confinement, Buzz-cut banged his fists together hard enough to fracture knuckle against knuckle if he had been a material presence, but not even making a sound in his spirit form.
He could have swung those fists at me, but they would have had no effect. No spirit can harm a living person by direct touch. This world belongs to us, not to them.
If an earthbound soul is sufficiently debased, however, if the anger and envy and spite and stubborn rebellion that characterized him in life should ripen into blackest spiritual malignancy during the days when he lingers between worlds, he will be able to vent the power of his demonic rage on inanimate objects.
To the cocktail waitress whom she couldn’t see and never would, Datura said with pitiless persistence, “You know what I think, what I’d bet, Maryann? In that shabby nursing home at night, some scummy guy on the staff sneaks in your sister’s room, Bonnie’s room, and rapes her.”
Past rage, approaching fury, Buzz-cut threw back his head and screamed, but the sound was trapped with him in the realm between here and Elsewhere.
“She’s helpless,” Datura said, her voice as venomous as the contents of a rattlesnake’s poison sacs. “Bonnie would be afraid to tell anyone because the rapist never talks, and she doesn’t know his name, and she can’t see, so she’s afraid they won’t believe her.”
Buzz-cut tore at the air with his hands, as though trying to claw his way back through the veil that separated him from the world of the living.
“So Bonnie has to endure anything he does to her, but when she’s enduring, she thinks of you, thinks because of you, she was where she was when the quake destroyed her life, and she thinks about how you, her sister, aren’t there for her now, and never were.”
Listening to herself, her own most appreciative audience, Datura thrived on her viciousness. After each hateful rant, she seemed to thrill to the discovery of a deeper vileness in herself.
The malignant mass beneath the mask of beauty now rose all but fully into view. Her flushed and twisted features were no longer the stuff of adolescent boys’ dreams, but of madhouses and of prisons for the criminally insane.
I tensed, sensing that a forceful demonstration of the spirit’s fury was almost upon us.
Inspired by Datura, energized, Buzz-cut thrashed spastically, as if he were lashed by a hundred whips or tormented by jolt after jolt of electricity. He threw his arms out, palms spread, like an enraptured preacher of an expressive sect, exhorting a congregation to be penitent.
From his big hands pulsed concentric rings of power. They were visible to me, but only by their effects would they be visible to my hostess and her men.
Rattles, clicks, creaks, and pings arose from the piles of ruined slot machines, and the two blackjack-table stools began to dance in place. Here and there across the casino, small funnels of whirling ashes spun up from the floor.
“What’s happening?” Datura asked.
“They’re about to appear,” I told her, though every spirit other than Buzz-cut had disappeared. “All of them. At last, you’ll see.”
Poltergeists are as impersonal as hurricanes. They cannot aim themselves or cause precise effects. They are blind, thrashing power, and can harm human beings only by indirection. If furiously flung debris brains you, however, the effect is no less devastating than a well-swung club to the head.
Broken slabs of plaster ceiling ornamentation levitated out of the craps table into which they had fallen during the earthquake, and exploded at us.
I dodged, Datura ducked, and the missiles flew past us, over us, crashing into columns and walls behind us.
Buzz-cut flung bolts of power from his hands, and when he let out another silent scream, concentric circles of energy poured from his open mouth.
More and larger funnels of gray ashes and soot and scraps of charred wood spun up from the floor, while chips and clods of plaster shook down from the ceiling, while lashing down from above as well were loose wires and electrical conduits, while a battered blackjack table tumbled across the room as if blown by a wind that otherwise we could not feel, while a fire-scorched wheel of fortune spun by in a blur of losing numbers, while a pair of metal crutches stilted past as if in search of the dead gambler who had once needed them, and while an eerie screeching came out of the gloom and rapidly swelled both in volume and in pitch.
In this furiously escalating chaos, a chunk of plaster weighing perhaps fifteen pounds struck Robert in the chest, knocking him backward and off his feet.
As the thug went down, the mysterious screaming thing appeared out of the darker reaches of the casino, proving to be a half-melted life-size bronze statue of an Indian chief on a horse, spinning with alarming rotational velocity, the base shrieking against the concrete floor, from which nearly all carpeting had been burned, scouring away debris, striking sprays of white and orange sparks.
With Robert still falling, with Datura and Andre riveted by the approaching, whirling, shrieking bronze, I seized the moment, stepped to the nearest Coleman lantern, snared it, and threw it at the second lamp.
In spite of my lack of practice at bowling, I scored a strike. Lantern met lantern with a crash and a brief bloom of light, and then we were in darkness relieved only by the sparks showering from the spinning horse and rider.
ONCE A POLTERGEIST AS POWERFUL AS BUZZ-CUT has committed itself to a violent release of pent-up fury, it will with rare exception rage out of control until it exhausts itself—much like the usual incoherent-rap-star-going-postal at the annual Vibe Awards. In this case, the storming spirit might give me another minute of cover, as long as two or three.
In the dark, in the rattle-clatter-bang-shriek, I stayed low, scuttling, anxious to avoid being knocked unconscious or decapitated by flying debris. I squinted, too, because enough chips and splinters of this and that were spinning through the air to make me wish that I’d brought an ophthalmologist with me.
As well as I could in such blinding dark, I tried to follow a straight line. My goal: a gallery of demolished shops beyond the casino, through which we had passed on our way here from the north stairs of the hotel.
Encountering piles of rubble, I went around some, over others, keeping on the move. I felt my way with both hands, but cautiously lest I clamber across debris bristling with nails and sharp metal edges.
I spat ashes, spat unidentifiable bits of debris, plucked away fuzzy twirls of fluffy stuff that tickled my ears. I sneezed without worrying that I could be tracked by sound through the poltergeist cacophony.
Too soon, I grew concerned that I had strayed off course, that it was not possible to remain oriented in pitch blackness. I quickly became convinced that I would bump into a voluptuous form in the dark, and that it would say Why, if it isn’t my new boyfriend, my little odd one.
That stopped me.
I unclipped the flashlight from my belt. But I hesitated to use it, even just long enough to sweep my surroundings and reorient myself.
Datura and her needy boys probably had not relied solely on the Coleman lanterns. Most likely they would have a flashlight or even three. If not, then Andre would let her set his hair on fire and use him as a walking torch.
When Buzz-cut ran out of steam, when the merry band of three could stop hu
gging the floor and dared to raise their heads, they would expect to find me in their immediate area. With flashlights, in this gloom, they would need a minute or two, maybe longer, to realize that I was neither dead nor alive in the mess of poltergeist-tossed trash.
If I used my light now, they might see the sweep of it and know that I was already escaping. I didn’t want to draw their notice sooner than necessary. I needed every precious minute of lead time that I could get.
A hand touched my face.
I screamed like a little girl but couldn’t make a sound, and thus avoided humiliating myself.
Fingers pressed gently to my lips, as if to warn me against the cry that I had tried and failed to make. A delicate hand, that of a woman.
Only three women had been in the casino this time. Two of them were five years dead.
The would-be goddess, even if invincible by virtue of having thirty thingumadoodles in an amulet, even if destined to live one thousand years by virtue of playing host to a banana-loving serpent, could not see in the dark. She had no sixth sense. She could not have found me without a flashlight.
The hand slipped from my lips to my chin, my cheek. Then she touched my left shoulder, traced the line of my arm, and took my hand.
Perhaps because I want the dead to feel warm, they are that way to me, and this hand in mine also felt indescribably cleaner than had the well-manicured hand of the phone-sex heiress. Clean and honest, strong but gentle. I wanted to believe that this was Maryann Morris, the cocktail waitress.
Giving her my trust, after having paused no longer than ten seconds in the drowning dark, I allowed her to be my pilot fish.
With Buzz-cut noisily working off his frustrations in the gloom behind us, we hurried forward much faster than I had been able to progress on my own, bypassing obstacles instead of clambering over them, never hesitating in fear of falling. The ghost could see as well without light as with.