A faint mewl of wind, pleading at the balcony doors.
No sound alerted me. Instead, the threat revealed itself by that musky, mushroomy, cold-meat smell.
I GRIMACED AT THAT UNIQUE SUBTLE SMELL, which was not conducive to a healthy appetite. Then he must have taken a step or shifted his weight, because I heard the feeble but crisp crunch of a small bit of debris crushed underfoot.
Two-thirds open, the door afforded me a wedge of space in which to stand concealed between it and the wall. If my stalker pushed it wider, the door would rebound from me and reveal my presence.
The construction of many other buildings would have allowed the space between the back edge of the open door and the jamb to provide a narrow view of someone standing on the threshold. This casing was deeper than standard code required and the stop molding so thick that it occluded the gap.
Looking on the bright side, as I desperately needed to do at that point: If I could not see him, he could not see me.
Having encountered this disquieting smell only at various times in the staircases and on the second visit to the casino, I had not associated it with Andre and Robert. Now I realized that I could not have detected it within the candlelit walls of Room 1203, where I had also enjoyed their company, because the cloying fragrance of Cleo-May had effectively masked it.
Framed by the big sliding doors, to the north, an inverted tree of lightning caught fire, its trunk in the heavens and its branches shaking at the earth. A second tree overlaid the first, and a third overlaid the second: a brief-lived bright forest that burnt out even as it grew.
He stood in the doorway so long that I began to suspect that he knew not only of my presence but also of my exact position, and that he was toying with me.
Second by second, my nerves wound tighter than the rubber band on the propeller of a child’s balsa-wood airplane. I warned myself not to fly into rash action.
He might, after all, just go away. The fates are not always in a snotty mood. Sometimes a hurricane roars toward a vulnerable coast, then veers away from land.
No sooner had I been buoyed by that hopeful thought than he stepped off the threshold and ventured into the room, movement that I as much sensed as heard.
A pistol-grip shotgun is not, by definition, one that you fire with the stock butted against your shoulder. You hold it forward, but to the side.
Initially, the door still screened the searcher from me. When he moved farther into the space, I would need my cloak of invisibility, which I did not have with me because, unfortunately, I still wasn’t Harry Potter.
When Chief Porter had used a pistol-grip shotgun to save me from the loss of a leg and from emasculation-by-crocodile, the weapon had appeared to have a mean kick. The chief had stood with his feet wide apart, the left somewhat in front of the right, knees slightly bent, to absorb the recoil, and he had been visibly jolted by it.
Moving far enough into the room to reveal himself, Robert was not aware of me. By the time he stepped forward into my line of sight, I was well out of his.
Even if he turned his head to look sideways, his peripheral vision might not pick me up behind him. Should instinct warn him, however, the shadows in which I stood weren’t deep enough to blind him to me if he turned around.
The gloom didn’t reveal enough of his features to allow me to identify him by looks alone. He was big rather than massive, which ruled out Andre.
In the thrashing garden of the storm, more lightning put out roots, and the jarring crash of thunder was the sound of an entire forest felled.
He continued across the room, looking neither left nor right. I began to think that he had entered here not in search of me, but for some other reason.
Judging by his behavior, even more somnambulant than usual, he had been drawn by the call of the storm. He stopped in front of the balcony doors.
I dared to think that if this current escalation of the storm’s pyrotechnics continued for as much as a minute, distracting Robert and covering what sounds I made, I might be able to come out from hiding, slip quickly into the hall without alerting him, avoid this confrontation, and make that break for the stairs, after all.
As I eased forward, intending to peer around the entry door to be sure that Datura and Andre were searching elsewhere and that the hall was safe, an effect of the next barrage of thunderbolts stunned and arrested me. Each flare bounced off Robert and cast his ghostly reflection in the glass of the balcony doors. His face shone as pale as a Kabuki mask, but his eyes were even whiter, bright white with the reflected lightning.
I thought at once of the snaky man, fished from the flood tunnel, his eyes rolled far back in his head.
Three more flares repeatedly revealed a reflection with white eyes, and I stood immobilized by a marrow-freezing chill, even as Robert turned toward me.
DELIBERATELY, NOT WITH THE QUICK REFLEXES of violent intent, Robert turned toward me.
The inscrutable semaphore of the storm no longer brightened his face, but silhouetted him. The sky, one great galleon with a thousand black sails, signaled, signaled, as if to regain his attention, and thunder boomed.
Averted from the lightning, his eyes no longer shone a moonish white. Nevertheless…though his features were deeply shadowed, his gaze still seemed vaguely phosphorescent, as milky as that of a man blinded by cataracts.
Although I could not see him well enough to be certain, I felt that his eyes were turned back in his head, no color revealed. This might have been a shiver of imagination born of the chill that had seized me.
Having assumed the stance that I recalled Chief Porter taking, I brought the shotgun to bear on him, aiming low because the kick might pull the muzzle higher.
Regardless of the condition of Robert’s eyes, whether they were as white as hard-boiled eggs or the sullen bloodshot beryl-blue they had been earlier, I felt sure that he was not merely aware of my presence but that he could see me.
Yet his demeanor and his slump-shouldered posture suggested that the sight of me failed to shift him into psycho-killer gear. If not confused, he appeared to be at least distracted, and weary.
I began to think that he had not come in search of me, but had wandered in here either for another purpose or without any purpose. Having found me inadvertently, he stood as if in resentment of the need to resolve the confrontation.
Curiouser and curiouser: He let out
a long sigh of exhaustion, with a thin plaintive edge that seemed to express a sense of being harassed.
As far as I could recall, these were the first sounds that I had heard issue from his lips: a sigh, a plaint.
His inexplicable malaise and my disinclination to use the shotgun in the absence of a clear threat to my life had brought us to a bizarre impasse that, just two minutes ago, I could never have imagined.
A sudden sweat greased my brow. The situation was not tenable. Something had to give.
His arms hung at his sides. Lambent storm light licked the shape of a pistol or a revolver in his right hand.
When he first turned from the window, Robert could have whipped toward me, squeezing off shots, dropping and rolling as he fired to avoid the 12-gauge. I had no doubt that he was a practiced killer who knew the right moves. His chances of killing me would have been much better than my odds of wounding him.
The gun hung like an anchor at the end of his arm as he took two steps toward me, not in a threatening manner, but almost as though he wished to beseech me for something. These were heavy draft-horse steps that comported with the title, cheval, that Datura had given him.
I worried that Andre would come through the door next, with all the irresistible power of the locomotive of which he had initially reminded me.
Robert might then shake off his indecision—or whatever mood caused his inaction. The two could cut me down in a cross fire.
But I was not capable of blasting away at a man who didn’t at this moment seem inclined to shoot me.
Although he’d drawn closer, I could see his dissolute face no more clearly than before. Still I had the unnerving impression that his eyes were frosted panes.
From him came another sound, which at first I thought must be a mumbled question. But when it came again, it seemed more like a stifled cough.
At last the hand with the gun came up from his side.
My impression was that he raised the weapon not with lethal purpose, but unconsciously, almost as though he had forgotten that he held it. Given what I knew of him—his devotion to Datura, his taste for blood, his evident participation in the brutal murder of Dr. Jessup—I couldn’t wait for a clearer indication of his intent.