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I explained: “That’s a short story by Ernest Hemingway.”

“The guy with the line of furniture? What’s Hemingway got to do with this?”

I shrugged. “I have a friend who’s always thrilled when I make a literary allusion. He thinks I could be a writer.”

“Are the two of you gay or something?” she asked.

“No. He’s hugely fat, and I’m supernaturally gifted, that’s all.”

“Boyfriend, sometimes you don’t make a lot of sense. Did you kill Robert?”

Except for our two swords of light, shining past each other, the second floor receded into unrelieved darkness. While I had been in the crawlspaces and the vertical chase, the last light had washed out of the winter day.

I didn’t mind dying, but this cavernous fire-blackened pit was an ugly place to do it.

“Did you kill Robert?” she repeated.

“He fell off a balcony.”

“Yeah, after you shot him.” She didn’t sound upset. In fact she regarded me with the calculation of a black widow spider deciding whether to take a mate. “You play clueless pretty well, but you’re for sure a mundunugu.”

“Something was wrong with Robert.”

She frowned. “I don’t know what it is. My needy boys don’t always stay with me as long as I’d like.”

“They don’t?”

“Except Andre. He’s a real bull, Andre is.”

“I thought he was a horse. Cheval Andre.”

“A total stallion,” she said. “Where’s Danny the Geek? I want him back. He’s a funny little monkey.”

“I cut his throat and pitched him down a shaft.”

My claim electrified her. Her nostrils flared, and a hard pulse appeared in her slender throat.

“If he didn’t die in the fall,” I told her, “he’s bled to death by now. Or drowned. The shaft’s got twenty or thirty feet of water at the bottom.”

“Why would you have done that?”

“He betrayed me. He told you my secrets.”

Datura licked her lips as though she had just finished eating a tasty dessert. “You’ve got as many layers as an onion, boyfriend.”

I had decided to play the we’re-two-of-a-kind-why-don’t-we-join-forces game, but another opportunity arose.

She said, “The Nigerian prince was full of shit, but I might believe you can become a panther after midnight.”

“It’s not a panther,” I said.

“Yeah? So what is it you become?”

“It’s not a saber-toothed tiger, either.”

“Do you become a leopard, like on Kilimanjaro?” she asked.

“It’s a mountain lion.”

The California mountain lion, one of the world’s most formidable predators, prefers to live in rugged mountains and forests, but it adapts well to rolling hills and low scrub.

Mountain lions thrive in the dense, almost lush scrub in the hills and canyons around Pico Mundo, and often they venture into adjoining territory that would be classified as true desert. A male mountain lion will claim as much as a hundred square miles as his hunting range, and he likes to roam.

In the mountains, he’ll feed on mule deer and bighorn sheep. In territory as barren as the Mojave, he will chase down coyotes, foxes, raccoons, rabbits, and rodents, and he will enjoy the variety.

“Males of the species average between one hundred thirty and one hundred fifty pounds,” I told her. “They prefer the cover of night for hunting.”

That look of wide-eyed girlish wonder—which I had first seen on our way to the casino with Doom and Gloom, and which was the only appealing and guileless expression that she possessed—overcame her again. “Are you gonna show me?”

I said, “Even in the daytime, if a mountain lion is on the move instead of resting, people rarely see it because it’s so quiet. It passes without detection.”

As excited as ever she had been at a human sacrifice, she said, “These paw prints—they’re yours, aren’t they?”

“Mountain lions are solitary and secretive.”

“Solitary and secretive, but you’re going to show me.” She had demanded miracles, fabulous impossible things, icy fingers up and down her spine. Now she thought that I would at last deliver. “You didn’t conjure these tracks to lead me here. You transformed…and made these tracks yourself.”

If Datura’s and my positions had been reversed, I would have been standing with my back to the mountain lion, oblivious as it stalked me.

As wrong as nature is—with its poisonous plants, predatory animals, earthquakes, and floods—sometimes it gets things right.


IMMENSE, THE PAWS, WITH WELL-DEFINED toes…Lowered so slowly, planted so gently that the carpet of ashes, as powdery as talcum, did not plume under them…

Beautiful coloration. Tawny, deepening to dark brown at the tip of the long tail. Also dark brown on the backs of the ears and on the sides of the nose.

If our positions had been reversed, Datura would have watched the approach of the mountain lion with cold-eyed amusement, darkly delighted by my cluelessness.

Although I tried to remain focused on the woman, my attention kept drifting to the cat, and I was not amused, but grimly fascinated and overcome by a growing sense of horror.

My life was hers to take or spare, and the only future I could count on was but a fraction of a second long, whatever time a bullet would take to travel from the muzzle of the pistol to me. Yet at the same time, her life lay in my hands, and it seemed that my silence in the matter of the stalking lion could not be entirely justified by the fact that I was literally under the gun.

If we rely upon the tao with which we’re born, we always know what is the right thing to do in any situation, the good thing not for our bank accounts or for ourselves, but for our souls. We are tempted from the tao by self-interest, by base emotions and passions.

I believe that I can honestly say I did not hate Datura, though I had reason to, but certainly I detested her. I found her repugnant in part because she emblematized the willful ignorance and narcissism that characterize our troubled times.

She deserved to be imprisoned. In my opinion, she had earned execution; and in extreme jeopardy, to save myself or Danny, I had the right—the obligation—to kill her.

Perhaps no one, however, deserves as hideous a death as being mauled and eaten alive by a wild beast.

Regardless of the circumstances, perhaps it is indefensible to allow such a fate to unfold to the point of inevitability when the potential victim, armed with a gun, could save herself if warned.

Every day we make our way through a moral forest, along pathways ever branching. Often we get lost.

When the array of paths before us is so perplexing that we can’t make a choice, or won’t, we can hope that we will be given a sign to guide us. A reliance on signs, however, can lead to the evasion of all moral obligations, and thus earn a terrible judgment.

If a leopard in the highest snows of Kilimanjaro, where nature would never have taken it, is understood by everyone as a sign, then the timely appearance of a hungry mountain lion in a burned-out casino-hotel should be as easy to understand as would be a holy voice from a burning bush.

This world is mysterious. Sometimes we perceive the mystery, and retreat in doubt, in fear. Sometimes we go with it.

I went with it.

Waiting for me to transform from my human state, an instant before discovering she was not after all invincible, Datura realized that something at her back enthralled me. She looked to see what it might be.

By turning, she invited the pounce, the jaws that bite, the claws that catch.

She screamed, and the ferocious impact of the lion knocked the pistol from her hand before she was able to aim or to squeeze the trigger.

In the spirit of mystery that defined the moment, the gun arced high toward me, and reaching up, I received it from the air with a casual grace.

Perhaps she was mortally torn already, beyond

rescue, but the unavoidable truth is that I held the gun, equivalent to a vorpal blade, yet did not slay the Jabberwock, and cannot claim to be a beamish boy. Ashes plumed around my feet as I sprinted toward the north end of the building, and the stairs.

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