Although plagued by the creepy feeling of being watched, though visibility was so poor that I couldn’t dismiss these heebie-jeebies as groundless, I avoided using the flashlight while in the corridor. Andre and Datura had guns; the light would make of me an easy target.
Inside each room that I explored, once I closed the door behind me, I felt safe enough to resort to the flashlight. I had searched some of these spaces previously, when I’d been looking for a hidey-hole in which to stash Danny. I had not found in them what I wanted then; and I didn’t find what I needed now.
Deep down, in that coziest corner of the heart, where a belief in miracles abides even in the darkest hours, I expected to stumble upon some long-dead hotel guest’s suitcase in which would be packed a loaded pistol. Although a handgun would have been acceptable, I preferred to discover a freight elevator isolated from the bank of public lifts, or a roomy dumbwaiter leading to the kitchen on the ground floor.
Eventually I discovered a service closet about ten feet deep and fourteen wide. Cleaning supplies, bars of guest soap, and spare lightbulbs stocked the shelves. Vacuum sweepers, buckets, and mops were tumbled on the floor.
The sprinkler system that had failed elsewhere appeared to have overperformed here, or perhaps a water line had burst. Part of the ceiling had collapsed; and swags of Sheetrock, obviously once waterlogged, drooped into the room around the edges of the void.
I quickly inventoried the items on the shelves. Bleach, ammonia, and other common household products can be combined in ways that produce explosives, anesthetics, blistering agents, smoke bombs, and poison gases. Unfortunately, I didn’t know any of those formulas.
Considering that I frequently find myself in a patch of trouble and that I’m not by nature a walking machine of death, I should be more diligent about educating myself in the arts of destruction and assassination. The Internet provides a wealth of such information for the earnest autodidact. And these days, serious universities offer courses if not entire programs in the philosophy of anarchy and its practical application.
When it comes to this kind of self-improvement, I admit to being a slacker. I’d rather perfect my pancake batter than commit to memory recipes for sixteen varieties of nerve gas. I’d rather read an Ozzie Boone novel than spend hours practicing one-thrust heart punctures with a dagger and a CPR dummy. I never claimed to be perfect.
A trapdoor caught my attention in that portion of the service-room ceiling that had not collapsed from water damage. When I yanked on a dangling rope handle, the heavy-duty spring closure creaked, groaned, but opened, and a segmented ladder unfolded from the back of the door.
When I climbed to the top, the flashlight revealed a four-to-five-foot-high crawlspace between the twelfth and thirteenth floors. Here lay a maze of copper and PVC pipes, electrical conduits, duct work, and equipment related to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.
I could explore that space or go back down the ladder and drink a bleach-and-ammonia cocktail.
Because I didn’t have any slices of fresh lime, I climbed into the crawlspace, pulled up the ladder, and closed the trap behind me.
LEGEND CLAIMS THAT ALL AFRICAN ELEPHANTS, as they realize they are dying, proceed to the same burial ground, still undiscovered by man, deep in a primeval jungle, where lies a mountain of bones and ivory.
Between the twelfth and thirteenth floors of the Panamint Resort and Spa, I discovered a graveyard equivalent to the elephant burial ground—for rats. I didn’t encounter one live specimen, but I found at least a hundred that had left this world for eternal cheese.
They had died mostly in clusters of three and four, although I found one pile of perhaps twenty. I suspected they had suffocated in the smoke that had filled this space on the night of the catastrophe. After five years, nothing remained of them but skulls, bones, a few scraps of fur, and an occasional fossilized tail.
Until this discovery, I would never have imagined that I had within me the sensitivity to find something melancholy about piles of rat carcasses. The abrupt termination of their busy scurrying lives, the collapse of all their whisker-twitching dreams of room-service leftovers, the premature end to their cozy mutual grooming sessions and warm nights of frantic copulation were sad considerations. This rat graveyard, no less than an elephant burial ground, spoke to the transitory nature of all things.
I mean, I didn’t weep over their fate. I didn’t even get a lump in my throat. Having most of my life been a fan of Mr. Mickey Mouse, however, I was understandably affected by this ratty apocalypse.
Smoke residue filmed most surfaces, though I saw little evidence of direct fire damage. Flames had leapfrogged stories, traveling by way of improperly constructed mechanical chases, and had spared this crawlspace as they had spared the twelfth floor.
At four and a half feet, this between-floor realm didn’t force me to crawl. I wandered through it in a crouch, at first not certain what I hoped to find, but eventually arriving at the realization that vertical chases, which allowed fire to ascend through the structure, might also allow me to descend.
The quantity of equipment amazed me. Because the thermostat in every hotel room can be set independently of that in every other, each room is heated and cooled by its own fan-coil unit. Each fan-coil is connected to branch lines from the four-pipe system that circulates super-chilled and superheated water throughout the building. These units, served by pumps and humidifiers and drain-overflow basins, created a geometric labyrinth that reminded me of the machinery-encrusted surfaces of one of those massive spaceships in Star Wars, through the canyons of which starfighters do battle with one another.
Instead of starfighters, I saw spiders and vast webs as complex as the spiral patterns of galaxies, an occasional empty soda can left behind by repairmen, here and there a fast-food sandwich container licked clean long ago, and more rats, before at last I located one of the chases that might be my way out of the Panamint.
The five-foot-square shaft, lined with metal-skinned fireboard, continued four stories above my position. Below, it dwindled into darkness that my flashlight could not fully probe.
Such a roomy chimney would have been a vertical superhighway, easily accommodating me, if not for all the pipes and conduits that lined three and a half of its walls. Bolted to the one otherwise clear section of wall, a ladder offered not just rungs, but four-inch-wide treads that provided surer footing.
This chute did not lie near the elevator shafts. If Datura or Andre listened at that location, they would not hear me as I made my way down this vertical chase.
Additional handholds and steel rings to receive the snap links of safety tethers bristled from among the pipes and conduits on the other three walls.
Fixed at the top of the building, a half-inch-diameter nylon line, of the type employed by mountain climbers, hung loose down the center of the shaft. Massive knots, spaced at one-foot intervals, could serve as handholds. This appeared to have been replaced after the fire, perhaps by rescue workers.
I deduced, perhaps incorrectly, that if in spite of the generous steps of the ladder and the ubiquitous anchor points for tethers, you took a plunge, the plumb-bobbed rope was a lifeline to be seized in free fall.
Although I had fewer monkey genes than these conditions implied were necessary to transit the service well, I saw no alternative but to make use of it. Otherwise, I could wait for the mothership to beam me up—and one day be discovered here, all bones and jeans, in the rat graveyard.
The beam of my flashlight had dimmed. I replaced the batteries with spares from my backpack.
Using the spelunker’s Velcro cuff, I fixed the light to my left forearm.
I put the folded fishing knife in one of my pockets.
I drank half of the bottle of water that I hadn’t left with Danny, and I wondered how he was doing. The shotgun fire would have scared him. He probably thought I was dead.
Maybe I was, and I just didn’t know it yet.
idered whether I needed to pee. I didn’t.
Unable to find any further reasons to delay, leaving my backpack behind, I went into the vertical chase.
ON A HIGH-NUMBER CABLE CHANNEL THAT I think is called Crap That Nobody Else Will Show TV, I once saw an ancient movie serial about these adventurers who descend to the center of the earth and discover an underground civilization. It’s an evil empire, of course.
The emperor resembles Ming the Merciless from those old Flash Gordon festivals of hokum, and he intends to make war on the surface world and take it over as soon as he develops the right death ray. Or when his immense fingernails grow long enough to be appropriate for the ruler of an entire planet, whichever comes first.
This underworld is populated by the usual thugs and knaves, but also by two or three kinds of mutants, women in horned hats, and of course dinosaurs. This film masterwork was made decades before the invention of computer animation, and the dinosaurs were not even stop-motion clay models but iguanas. Rubber appliances were glued to the iguanas to make them appear scarier and more like dinosaurs, but they just looked like embarrassed iguanas.
Descending the vertical chase, careful step by careful step, I reran the plot of that old serial in my mind, striving to focus on the absurd mustache of the emperor, on the particular race of mutants that looked suspiciously like dwarfs outfitted with rubber-snake headgear and leather pantaloons, on remembered bits of the hero’s dialogue marked by a wit that crackled like cream cheese, and on those campily amusing iguanasaurs.
My mind kept drifting to Datura, that dependable spike through the foot: to Datura, to reverse psychic magnetism, to how unpleasant it would be when she disemboweled me and fished her amulet out of my stomach. Not good.
The air in the service well proved not to be as savory as the soot-scented, toxin-laced air in the rest of the hotel. Stale, dank, alternately sulfurous and mildewy, it gathered substance as I went down into the hotel, until it seemed thick enough to drink.
From time to time, horizontal chases entered the well, and in some instances, drafts flowed from them. These cool currents smelled different from but no better than the shaft air.
Twice I began to gag. Both times I had to pause to repress the urge to heave.
The stink, the claustrophobic dimensions of this chimney, the trace chemicals and mold spores in the air combined to make me feel lightheaded by the time I had descended only four floors.
Although I knew that my imagination was running away with me, I wondered if a couple of dead bodies—human, not rat—might lie at the bottom of the shaft, undiscovered by the rescue crews and post-fire search teams, reposing in a slime of decomposition.
The deeper I went, the more determined I became not to direct the flashlight downward, for fear of what I would see at the bottom: not just the tumbled dead, but a grinning figure standing atop them.