The recoil rocked me. He took the buckshot like the truck he was, and did not drop his handgun, and I pumped a round into the chamber and fired again, and the glass doors behind him dissolved because I must have pulled high or wide, so I pumped and fired a third time, and he staggered backward through the gap where the sliding doors had been.
Although he had still not dropped his weapon, he had not used it, either, and I doubted that a fourth shot was necessary. At least two of the first three rounds had hit him square and hard.
But I rushed toward him, hot to be done with this, almost as if the gun controlled me and wanted to be fully spent. The fourth round blew him off the balcony.
Only as I stepped to the shattered doors did I see what rain and perspective had previously concealed from me. The outermost third of the balcony must have broken away in the earthquake five years ago, taking with it the railing.
If any life had remained in him after three hits out of four rounds, a twelve-story fall would have taken it.
KILLING ROBERT LEFT ME WEAK IN THE KNEES and light in the head, but it did not nauseate me as I had half expected that it would. He was, after all, Cheval Robert, not a good husband or a kind father, or a pillar of his community.
Furthermore, I had the feeling that he had wanted me to do what I had done. He seemed to have embraced death as if it was a mercy.
As I backed away from the balcony doors and a sudden squall of rain that burst through them, I heard Datura screaming from some distant point of the twelfth floor. Her voice swelled like a siren as she approached at a run.
If I sprinted for the stairs, I would surely be caught in the hall before I reached them. She and Andre would be armed; and it defied reason to suppose that they would be afflicted with Robert’s indecision.
I traded the living room of the suite for the bedroom to the right of the entry door. This place was darker than the previous room because the windows were smaller and because the rotting draperies had not fallen off their rods.
I didn’t expect to find a hiding place. I just needed to buy time to reload.
Mindful of the shotgun fire that had drawn their attention, they would enter the living room cautiously. Most likely they would first lay down a volley of suppressing fire.
By the time one of them dared to explore this adjoining room, I would be ready for them. Or as ready as I would ever be. I had only four more shells, not an arsenal.
If luck was on my side, they didn’t know where Robert’s part of the search had led him—if he had been searching. They couldn’t pinpoint, by the sound alone, precisely from where the shots had come.
Should they decide to search all the rooms along the secondary hallway, an opportunity might yet arise for me to get off the twelfth floor.
Much closer now, but not from within the suite, perhaps from the intersection of corridors, Datura shouted my name. She wasn’t calling me out for a milkshake at the local soda fountain, but she sounded more excited than pissed.
The shotgun barrel, breech, and receiver were warm from the recent firing.
Leaning against a wall, shuddering as I remembered Robert plunging backward off the balcony, I plucked the first of the spare rounds from a pocket of my jeans. I fumbled in the shadows, clumsy at the unfamiliar task, trying to insert the shell into the breech.
“Can you hear me, Odd Thomas?” Datura shouted. “Can you hear me, boyfriend?”
The breech continued to defeat me, would not take the shell, and my hands began to shake, making the task more difficult.
“Was that shit what it seemed to be?” she shouted. “Was that a poltergeist, boyfriend?”
The standoff with Robert had prickled my face with sweat. The sound of Datura’s voice turned the sweat to ice.
“That was so wild, that really totally kicked!” she declared, still out in the hallway somewhere.
Deciding to load the breech last, I tried to insert the shell through what I believed to be the loading gate of the three-round magazine.
My fingers were sweaty, trembling. The shell slipped out of my grasp. I felt it bounce off my right shoe.
“Did you trick me, Odd Thomas?” she asked. “Did you get me to crank up old Maryann until she blew?”
She didn’t know about Buzz-cut. There was some justice in letting her think that the spirit of a merely pretty-but-not-pretty-enough cocktail waitress had gotten the best of her.
Squatting in the dark, feeling the floor around me, I feared that the shell had rolled beyond discovery and that I would have to use the flashlight to locate it. I needed all four rounds. When I found it in mere seconds, I almost let out a groan of relief.
“I want a repeat performance!” she shouted.
Remaining in a squat, the shotgun propped across my thighs, I tried again to load the magazine, turning the shell first one way, then the other, but the loading gate, if it was the loading gate, wouldn’t receive the round.
The task seemed simple, a lot easier than flipping eggs over-easy without breaking the yolks, but evidently it wasn’t so simple that someone unfamiliar with the weapon could load it in the dark. I needed light.
“Let’s crank up the dumb dead bitch again!”
At the window, I eased aside the rotting drapery.
“But this time, I’m keeping you on a leash, boyfriend.”
An hour or two of light remained in the afternoon, but the filter of the storm cast false twilight across the drenched desert. I could still see well enough to examine the gun.
I fished another shell from another pocket. Tried it. No good.
I put it on the window sill, tried a third. In the grip of absolute denial, I tried a fourth.
“You and Danny the Geek aren’t getting out of here. You hear me? There is no way out.”
The ammunition I had found on the bathroom counter, beside the sink, had evidently been for another weapon.
For all intents and purposes, this couldn’t be considered a shotgun anymore. It had become just a fancy club.
I was up the famous creek not only without a paddle but also without a boat.
I USED TO THINK THAT I MIGHT ONE DAY like to work in the retail tire business. I spent some time hanging around Tire World, out near the Green Moon Mall, on Green Moon Road, and everyone there seemed to be relaxed and happy.
In the tire life, at the end of the work day, you don’t have to wonder if you’ve accomplished anything meaningful. You’ve taken in people with bad rubber, and you’ve sent them rolling away on fine new wheels.
Americans thrive on mobility and feel shrunken in spirit when they do not have it. Providing tires is not only good commerce but also soothes troubled souls.
Although selling tires does not involve a lot of hard bargaining, as do real-estate transactions and deals brokered with international arms merchants, I am concerned that I might find the sales end of the business too emotionally draining. If the supernatural aspect of my life involved nothing more stressful than daily interaction with Elvis, tire sales would make sense, but as you’ve seen, the favorite son of Memphis isn’t the half of it.
Before I went to the Panamint, I figured that eventually I would return to work for Terri Stambaugh. If the griddle proved too taxing on my nerves, on top of everything else that was perpetually cooking with me, I might succumb to the lure of the tire life, working not sales but installation.
That stormy day in the desert, however, much changed for me. We must have our goals, our dreams, and we must strive for them. We are not gods, however; we do not have the power to shape every aspect of the future. And the road the world makes for us is one that teaches humility if we are willing to learn.
Standing in a moldering room in a ruined hotel, contemplating a useless shotgun, listening to a murderous madwoman assure me that my fate was hers to decide, having given away both my coconut-raisin power bars, I felt humbled, all right. Maybe not as humbled as Wile E. Coyote when he finds himself flattened und
er the same boulder with which he intended to crush the Road Runner, but pretty humble.
She shouted, “You know why there’s no way out, boyfriend?”
I didn’t inquire, confident that she would tell me.
“Because I know about you. I know all about you. I know that it works both ways.”