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The blot of light on the wall brightened, grew larger. He was ascending fast. I heard footsteps.

I had the shotgun. In a confined space like the stairwell, even I couldn’t fail to score a solid hit.

Necessity had driven me to take the weapon, but I wasn’t keen to use it. The gun would be a last resort, not a first option.

Besides, the moment I pulled the trigger, they would know that I had not left the hotel. Then the hunt would be on with even greater intensity.

As quietly as possible, I backtracked. At the twelfth-floor landing, I kept ascending in the dark, intending to proceed to the thirteenth, but within three steps, I discovered a riser littered with rubble.

Unsure what lay above, afraid of stumbling and making too much noise if treacherous mounds of trash lay underfoot, worried that the way might be blocked altogether, I retreated three steps to the twelfth floor.

The light on the landing wall below swelled bright, the beam directly upon it. He must be only a flight and a half below; and he would see me when he made the turn.

I dodged through the half-open door, returning to the twelfth floor.

In the gray light, I saw that at the first two rooms, to my left and right, the doors were closed. I did not dare waste time trying them, in case they proved to be locked.

The second room on my right stood open. I slipped out of the hallway and took refuge behind the door.

I seemed to be in a suite. To both sides of this room, drowned daylight seeped through open connecting doors.

Directly across from the entrance that I had just used, two sliding glass doors provided access to a balcony. Silvery skeins of rain raveled past the high-rise, and wind softly rattled the doors in their tracks.

Out in the hallway, the climber—Andre or Robert—shoved the stairwell door all the way open as he came through. It banged against the stop.

Standing with my back pressed to the wall, holding my breath, I heard him pass my room. A moment later, the stair door rebounded from the stop and fell shut.

He would be heading for the main corridor and 1242, hoping to nail me there before I pressed the white button to free Danny—and instead blew both of us to bits.

I intended to give him ten seconds, fifteen, long enough to be sure he had left the secondary corridor. Then I would make a break for the stairwell.

Now that he was past me, I no longer needed to fear that anyone might be ascending. I could use the flashlight, plunge down two steps at a time, and be on the ground floor before he could return to the stairwell and hear me.

Two seconds later, from the main corridor, Datura shrieked a curse that would have brought a blush to the whore of Babylon.

She must have come up by the north stairs with her other best fella. Having arrived at Room 1242, she had discovered that Danny Jessup was neither strapped to the bomb nor splattered across the walls.


IN THE CASINO, DURING DATURA’S VERBAL assault on Maryann Morris, she had proved that her silky voice could be twisted into a garrote as cruel as any strangler’s cord.

Now, hiding behind the entry door, just inside the three-room suite, I listened to her curse me at alarming volume, sometimes using words that I had never realized could apply to a guy, and with each passing second, I felt less confident about my chances of escaping.

Mad-cow crazy she might be, and syphilitic, for all I knew, but Datura was also more than prettily packaged lunacy, more and worse than a homicidal porn merchant whose narcissism exceeded that of Narcissus himself. She seemed to be an elemental force, of no less power than earth, water, wind, and fire.

Into my mind sprang the name Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, dark side of the mother goddess, the only of their many gods who had conquered time. Four-armed, violent, insatiable, Kali devours all beings, and in temples where she’s worshipped, the usual idols present her with a necklace of human skulls, dancing on a corpse.

This metaphoric mental image, the dark gaunt form of savage Kali embodied in the lush blond Datura, instantly felt so right, so true, that my sense of reality seemed to shift, to deepen. Every detail of the shadowy hotel room, of the wreckage around me, of the strafing storm beyond the balcony doors came into sharper focus, and I felt that I might momentarily see even deeper than the molecular structure of it all.

Yet simultaneous with this new clarity, in everything within my view, I detected a transcendental mystery that I had never before perceived, a transforming revelation waiting to be accepted. A chill of a character not easily conveyed worked through me, an awe that felt more like reverence than like dread, although dread was a part of it.

You might think that I’m struggling to describe the heightened perception that frequently accompanies mortal jeopardy. I’ve been in mortal jeopardy often enough to know what that feels like, too, but this metaphysical incident was not the same.

Like all mystical experiences, I suppose, when the ineffable seems about to be made clear, the moment passes, no less ephemeral than a dream. But after passing, this one left me electrified, as if I had been zapped by a different kind of Taser, one designed to energize the mind and force it to confront a difficult truth.

The nasty truth before me was that Datura, for all her lunacy and ignorance and laughable eccentricities, was a more formidable adversary than I had acknowledged. When it came to committing extreme violence, she had as many eager hands as Kali, and my two hands were reluctant.

My plan had been either to bolt from the hotel and get help or, failing that, to elude this woman and her two enforcers long enough to convince them that I had in fact escaped and that they themselves ought to flee before I sent back the authorities. This was not a plan of action as much as it was a plan of avoidance.

Listening to Datura rant, apparently somewhere near the junction of the corridors—much too near for comfort—I realized that while rage might be an impediment to clear thinking in most people, for her it sharpened her cunning and her senses. Likewise, hatred.

Her talent for evil, especially for the vicious brand of it that once went by the name wickedness, was so great that she seemed to be possessed of uncanny gifts to rival my own. I might be persuaded that Datura could smell the blood of her enemy while it remained in his veins, and follow the scent to spill it.

Upon her arrival, I had put on hold my plan to make a break for the north stairs. Making a move while she lingered in the vicinity seemed suicidal.

Avoidance most likely would not be possible. Yet I wasn’t eager to hasten a confrontation.

In the light of my new and more fearsome perception of this disturbed woman, I began to steel myself for what survival might require of me.

I recalled another grim fact about the four-armed Hindu goddess that inspired me not to underestimate Datura. Kali entertained a thirst for horror so unquenchable that she had once decapitated herself in order to be able to drink her own blood as it spouted from her neck.

Being a goddess only in her own mind, Datura would not survive decapitation. But when I recalled her vile stories of the cries of murdered children in a Savannah basement and the sacrifice of a seamstress in Port-au-Prince, which had seemed so delectable to her in the telling, I couldn’t pretend that she was any less bloodthirsty than Kali.

And so I remained behind the door, in shadows that were often relieved by storm light, listening to her curse, then rant. Soon her voice softened to the degree that I could make out no words at all, but there was no mistaking the urgency of it, the insistent frenzied cadences of rage and hate and dark desire.

If Andre and Robert spoke—or dared to try—I didn’t hear their deeper voices. Only hers. In the degree of their obedience and self-effacement, I read the souls of two true believers, as ready to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid as any cultists had ever been.

When she fell silent, I suppose I should have been relieved, but instead I got that Brussels-sprouts feeling. Intensely.

I had slumped wearily against the wall. I stood straighter.

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In my two-hand grip, the shotgun, which had come to seem like nothing more than a tool, suddenly felt alive, slumbering but alive and aware, as guns had always felt to me before. As in the past, I worried that I would not be in control of the weapon when the crisis arrived.

Thank you, Mom.

When Datura ceased talking, I expected to hear movement, perhaps doors opening and closing, indications that they had begun a search. Only quiet followed.

The muffled hiss of rain spending itself against the balcony and the occasional grumble of thunder had been mere background noise. But as I listened intently for activity in the hallway, I resented the storm, as if it were Datura’s willing conspirator.

I tried to imagine what I would do in her circumstances, but the only rational answer seemed to be Get out. With Danny freed and both of us missing, she should want to strip her bank accounts bare and head at high speed for the border.

An ordinary psychopath bails when the going gets rough—but not Kali, eater of the dead.

They must have parked a vehicle or two at the hotel. After snatching Danny, they had returned here on foot, by a circuitous route, to test my psychic magnetism, but they had no reason to walk out, rather than ride, when the fun was over.

Maybe she had grown worried that if Danny and I reached the ground floor and got out of the Panamint, we would find their car, hot-wire it, and leave them stranded. If so, Andre or Robert—or Datura herself—might have gone down to disable the vehicle or to stand guard over it.

Rain. The ceaseless susurration of rain.

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