Representations of Kali always show her naked, brazen. In that particular idol called a jagrata, she is gaunt and very tall. From her open mouth protrudes a long tongue, and she bares two fangs. She radiates a terrible beauty, perversely appealing.
Every two floors, I passed through another crawlspace. At each of these interruptions, I could have gotten off the ladder, then on it once more; instead, I found myself switching to the rope, using the knots as grips, swinging back to the ladder when it reappeared.
Given my lightheadedness and incipient nausea, using the rope struck me as reckless. I used it anyway.
In her temple representations, Kali holds a noose in one hand, a staff topped by a skull in another. In her third, she holds a sword; in her fourth, a severed head.
I thought I heard movement below me. I paused, but then told myself that the noise had been only the echo of my breathing, and I continued down.
Painted numbers on the wall identified each floor as I went by it, even when no passable opening existed at that level. As I reached the second floor, my right foot dipped into something wet and cold.
When I dared to direct my light below, I found that the bottom of the shaft was filled with stagnant black water and debris. I could go no farther by this route.
I climbed to the crawlspace between the second and third floors and exited the vertical chase.
If rats had perished at this level, they died not by suffocation but by hungry mouths of fire that spat out not even charred bones. The flames had been so intense, they left behind an absolute black soot that absorbed the beam of the flashlight and gave back no reflection.
Twisted, buckled, melted, mercurial metal shapes, which had once been heating-and-cooling equipment, formed a bewildering landscape that no mere drinking binge or jalapeno pizza could have inspired in a nightmare. The soot that coated everything—here a film, there an inch deep—was not powdery, not dry, but greasy.
Weaving around and climbing over these amorphous and slippery obstacles proved treacherous. In places, the floor felt as if it had bowed, suggesting that the heat at the height of the blaze had been so terrible that rebar embedded inside the concrete had begun to melt and had almost failed.
The air here was more foul than in the shaft, bitter, almost rancid, yet seemed thin, as if I were at some great altitude. The singular texture of the soot gave me intolerable ideas about the source of it, and I tried to think instead about the iguanasaurs, but saw Datura in my mind’s eye, Datura with a necklace of human skulls.
I crawled on hands and knees, slithered on my belly, squeezed through a heat-smoothed sphincter of metal in a blast-blown bulkhead of rubble, and thought of Orpheus in Hell.
In the Greek myth, Orpheus goes to Hell to seek Eurydice, his wife, who has gone there upon her death. He charms Hades and wins permission to take her out of the realm of damnation.
I could not be Orpheus, however, because Stormy Llewellyn, my Eurydice, had not gone to Hell, but to a far better place, which she so well deserved. If this was Hell and if I had come here on a rescue mission, the soul that I struggled to save must be my own.
As I began to conclude that the trapdoor between this crawlspace and the second level of the hotel must have been plated over with twisted and melted metal, I almost fell through a hole in the floor. Beyond that hole, my light played across the skeletal walls of what might have once been a supply room.
The trapdoor and ladder were gone, reduced to ashes. Relieved, I dropped into the space below, landed on my feet, stumbled, but kept my balance.
I stepped between the twisted steel studs of a missing wall, into the main corridor. Only one floor above ground level, I should be able to escape the hotel without resorting to the guarded stairs.
The first thing my flashlight fell upon were tracks that looked like those I had seen when I first entered the Panamint. They had made me think sabertooth.
The second thing the light revealed were human footprints, which led within a few steps to Datura, who switched on her flashlight the moment that mine found her.
WHAT A BITCH. AND I MEAN THAT IN EVERY sense of the phrase.
“Hey, boyfriend,” Datura said.
In addition to a flashlight, she held a pistol.
She said, “I was at the bottom of the north stairs, having some wine, staying loose, waiting to feel the power, you know, your power, drawing me, the way Danny the Geek said it could.”
“Don’t talk,” I pleaded. “Just shoot me.”
Ignoring my interruption, she continued: “I got bored. I get bored easy. Earlier, I noticed these big cat prints in the ashes at the foot of the stairs. They’re on the stairs, too. So I decided to follow them.”
The fire had raged with special ferocity in this part of the hotel. Most of the inner walls had burned away, leaving a vast and gloomy space, the ceiling supported by red-steel columns encased in concrete. Over the years, ashes and dust had continued to settle, laying a smooth, lush carpet, over which my saber-toothed tiger had recently been wandering this way and that.
“The beast has been all over t
his place,” she said. “I got so interested in the way it went in circles and meandered back on itself, I completely forgot about you. Completely forgot. And that’s just when I heard you coming and switched off my flashlight. Mondo cool, boyfriend. I thought I was following the cat, but I was being drawn to you when I least expected. You are one strange dude, you know that?”
“I know that,” I admitted.
“Is there really a cat, or were the prints made by a phantom you conjured up to lead me here?”
“There’s really a cat,” I assured her.
I was very tired. And dirty. I wanted to be done with this, go home, and take a bath.
Approximately twelve feet separated us. If we had been a few feet closer, I might have tried to rush her, duck in under her arm and take the gun away from her.
If I could keep her talking, an opportunity to turn the tables might arise. Fortunately, keeping her talking would require no more effort on my part than would breathing.
“I knew this prince from Nigeria,” Datura said, “he claimed to be an isangoma, said he could change into a panther after midnight.”
“Why not at ten o’clock?”
“I don’t think he really could. I think he was lying because he wanted to screw me.”
“You don’t have to worry about that with me,” I said.
“This must be a phantom cat, some sort of eidolon. Why would a real cat be prowling around in this smelly dump?”
I said, “Close to the western summit of Kilimanjaro, around nineteen thousand feet, there’s the dried, frozen carcass of a leopard.”
“The mountain in Africa?”
I quoted, “‘No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.’”
She frowned. “I don’t get it. What’s the mystery? He’s a mean damn leopard, he can go anywhere he wants.”
“It’s a line from ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro.’”
Gesturing with the gun, she expressed her impatience.