I sprang “Datura” on him again.
At once he said, “Liar.”
“Our intuition brings us to the same conclusion,” I told him.
“White detonates,” I said, putting my thumb lightly on the black button.
Being Odd Thomas is frequently interesting but nowhere near as much fun as being Harry Potter. If I were Harry, with a pinch of this and a smidgin of that and a muttered incantation, I would have tossed together a don’t-explode-in-my-face charm, and everything would have turned out just fine.
Instead, I pushed the black button, and everything seemed to turn out just fine.
“What happened?” Danny asked.
“Didn’t you hear the boom? Listen close—you still might.”
I hooked my fingers through the wires, tightened my hand into a fist, and ripped that colorful mare’s-nest out of the device.
The small version of a carpenter’s level tipped on its side, and the bubble slipped into the blast zone.
“I’m not dead,” Danny said.
I went to the furniture that had been stacked haphazardly by the earthquake and retrieved my backpack from the crevice in which I had tucked it less than an hour ago.
From the backpack, I withdrew the fishing knife and cut the last of the duct tape that bound Danny to the chair.
The kilo of explosives fell to the floor with a thud no louder than would have been produced by a brick of modeling clay. Boom-plastic can be detonated only by an electrical charge.
As Danny got up from the chair, I dropped the knife into the backpack. I switched off the flashlight and clipped it to my belt once more.
Freed of the obligation to puzzle out the meaning of the bomb wires, my subconscious was counting off the elapsing seconds since I had fled the casino, and being a total nag about the situation: Hurry, hurry, hurry.
AS THOUGH WAR HAD BROKEN OUT BETWEEN Heaven and Earth, another extended barrage of lightning blasted the desert, making pools of glass in the sand somewhere. Thunder cracked so hard that my teeth vibrated as if I were absorbing chords from the massive speakers at a death-metal concert, and bustling rat battalions of rain blew in through the broken window.
Looking at the tempest, Danny blurted, “Holy crap.”
I said, “Some irresponsible bastard killed a blacksnake and hung it in a tree.”
After handing my backpack to him and grabbing the shotgun, I stepped onto the threshold of the open door and checked the corridor. The furies had not yet arrived.
Close behind me, Danny said, “My legs are on fire after the walk out from Pico Mundo, and my hip’s like full of knives. I don’t know how long I’ll hold up.”
“We aren’t going far. Once we get across the rope bridge and through the room of a thousand spears, it’s a piece of cake. Just be as fast as you can.”
He couldn’t be fast. His usual rolling gait was emphasized as his right leg repeatedly buckled under him, and though he had never been a complainer, he hissed in pain with nearly every step.
Had I planned to take him directly out of the Panamint, we would not have gotten far before the harpy and the ogres caught up with us and dragged us down.
I led him north along the hall to the elevator alcove and was relieved when we ducked out of sight into it.
Although I hated to put down the shotgun, though I wished I’d had time to have it biologically attached to my right arm and wired directly into my central nervous system, I leaned it against the wall.
As I began to pry at the lift doors that I had scoped out earlier, Danny whispered, “What—you’re going to pitch me down a shaft so it looks like an accident, then my Martian-brain-eating-centipede card will be all yours?”
Doors open, I risked a quick sweep of the flashlight to show him the empty cab. “No light, heat, or running water, but no Datura, either.”
“We’re going to hide here?”
“You are going to hide here,” I said. “I’m going to distract and mislead.”
“They’ll find me in twelve seconds.”
“No, they won’t stop to think that the doors could’ve been pried open. And they won’t expect us to try to hide this close to where they were keeping you.”
“Because it’s stupid.”
“And they won’t expect us to be stupid.”
“Why don’t we both hide in there?”
“Because that would be stupid.”
“Both eggs in one basket.”
I said, “You’re getting a feel for this, compadre.”
In my backpack were three additional half-liter bottles of water. I kept one and passed the others to him.
Squinting in the dim light, he said, “Evian.”
“If you’d like to think so.”
I gave both of the coconut-raisin power bars to him. “You could last three or four days if you had to.”
“You’ll be back before then.”
“If I can elude them for a few hours, they’ll think the plan is to buy you time to get away at your pace. They’ll start to sweat that you’re bringing the cops, and they’ll blow this place.”
He accepted from me several foil-wrapped packets. “What are these?”
“Moist towelettes. If I don’t come back, I’m dead. Wait two days to be sure it’s safe. Then pry open the doors and get yourself out to the interstate.”
He entered the elevator, gingerly tested its stability. “What about—how do I pee?”
“In the empty water bottles.”
“You think of everything.”
“Yeah, but then I won’t reuse them. Be dead quiet, Danny. Because if you’re not quiet, you’re dead.”
“You’ve saved my life, Odd.”
I gave him one of my two flashlights and advised him not to use it in the elevator. Light might leak out. He needed to save it for the stairwells in the event that he had to leave by himself.
As I pushed shut the doors, closing him in, Danny said, “I’ve decided I don’t wish I were you, after all.”
“I didn’t know identity theft had ever crossed your mind.”
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered through the narrowing gap. “I’m so damn sorry.”
“Friends forever,” I told him, which was a thing we said for a while when we were ten or eleven. “Friends forever.”
PAST ROOM 1242 WITH ITS UNEXPLODED bomb, from the main corridor to the secondary, wearing the backpack, toting the shotgun, I schemed to survive. The desire to ensure that Datura rotted in prison had given me a stronger will to live than I’d had in six months.
I expected that they would split up and return to the twelfth floor by the north and south staircases, to cut me off before I could shepherd Danny out. If I could descend just two or three stories, to the tenth or ninth level, and let them pass by me, I might be able to slip back onto the stairs behind them and race all the way down, out, and away—to return in but an hour or two with the police.
When I had first walked into Room 120
3 and had spoken to Datura as she’d stood at the window, she had known without having to ask that I must have gotten around the staircases by using an elevator shaft. No other route could have brought me to the twelfth floor.
Consequently, although they would know that I couldn’t get Danny down by that route, they would at least listen at the shafts now and then for sounds of movement. I couldn’t use that trick again.
Arriving at the entry to the south stairs, I found the door half open. I eased through, onto the landing.
Not a sound rose from lower flights. I crept down step to step—four, five—and paused to listen. The silence held.
The alien smell, musk-mushrooms-meat, eddied no thicker here than it had earlier, perhaps thinner, but no less off-putting.
The flesh on the nape of my neck did the crawly thing that it does so well. Some people say this is God’s warning that the devil is near, but I’ve noticed I also experience it when someone serves me Brussels sprouts.
Whatever the precise source of the odor, it must have arisen from the toxic stew left over from the fire, which was why I’d never encountered it prior to the Panamint. It was a product of a singular event, but it wasn’t otherworldly. Any scientist could have analyzed it, tracked down its origin, and provided me with a molecular recipe.
I had never encountered a supernatural entity that signaled its presence with this smell. People smell, not ghosts. Yet the nape of my neck continued to do its thing even in the absence of Brussels sprouts.
Impatiently counseling myself that nothing threatening crouched in the stairwell, I quickly went down another step in the dark, and another, loath to use my flashlight and thereby reveal my presence in case Datura or one of her horses was somewhere below me.
I reached the midfloor landing, descended two more steps—and saw a pale glow blossom on the wall at the eleventh level.
Someone coming up. He could be only a floor or two below me, because light didn’t travel well around 180-degree turns.
I considered racing ahead in the hope that I could reach the eleventh floor and spring rabbit-quick out of the stairwell before the climber turned onto a new flight and saw me. But that door might be corroded shut and incapable of being opened. Or might shriek like a banshee on rusted hinges.