Although I never saw her blood drawn nor the lion at its feast, I’ll never be able to purge her screams from my memory.
Perhaps the seamstress, under the knife of the Gray Pigs, had sounded like this, or the walled-up children in the basement of that house in Savannah.
Another voice roared—not that of the lion—half in anguish and half in rage.
Glancing back, I saw Datura’s flashlight, knocked this way and that by thrashing cat and prey.
Farther away, from the south end of the building, beyond black columns that might have marked the peri-style of Hell, another light approached, in the possession of a hulking shadowy shape. Andre.
Datura’s screaming stopped.
Andre’s flashlight swept across her and found the timely lion. If he had a gun, he didn’t use it.
Respectfully cutting a wide berth around the cat and its kill, Andre kept coming. I suspected he would never stop coming. Runaway locomotives have gravity on their side.
My trembling light drew the giant more certainly than psychic magnetism could have done, but if I switched it off, I would be all but blinded.
Although he was still at some distance and though I was not the master marksman of my age, I squeezed off a shot, then another and a third.
He had a gun. He returned my fire.
As would have been anyone’s, his aim was better than mine. One slug ricocheted off a column to my left, and another round whistled past my head so close that I could hear it cutting the air separate from the boom and echo of the shot itself.
Trading fire, I would get my candle snuffed, so I ran, crouching and weaving.
The stairwell door was missing. I plunged through, raced down.
Past the landing, on the second flight, I realized that he would expect me to exit at the ground floor and that in those hallways and spaces, all familiar to him, he would catch me, for he was strong and fast and not as stupid as he looked.
Hearing him enter the stairwell, realizing that he had closed the gap between us even faster than I had feared he might, I kicked open the door at the ground floor but didn’t go through it. Instead, I swept the light across the next set of down-bound stairs to be sure they weren’t obstructed, then switched it off and descended in the dark.
Having been kicked open, the ground-floor door rebounded shut with a crash. As I reached the lower landing, sliding my hand along the railing for guidance, and continued blindly into territory that I had not scouted, I heard Andre slam out of the stairwell, into the ground floor.
I kept moving. I’d bought some time, but he wouldn’t be fooled for long.
RISKING LIGHT WHEN I REACHED THE BASEMENT level, I found more stairs but hesitated to follow them. A sub-basement would be likely to present me with a dead end.
Shuddering, I remembered her story of the lingering spirit of the Gestapo torturer haunting that sous-sol in Paris. Datura’s silken voice: I felt Gessel’s hands all over me—eager, bold, demanding. He entered me.
Choosing the basement, I expected to find a parking garage or loading docks at which deliveries had been made. In either case, there would be exits.
I’d had enough of the Panamint. I preferred to take my chances in the open, in the storm.
Doors lined both sides of a long concrete-walled corridor with a vinyl-tile floor. Neither fire nor smoke had touched this area.
Because the doors were white but not paneled, I checked out a few of the rooms as I passed them. They were empty. Either offices or storerooms, they had been cleaned out after the disaster because what they contained evidently had not been damaged either by fire or water.
The acrid stink of the fire’s aftermath had not penetrated here. I had been breathing that miasma for so many hours that clean air felt astringent in my nostrils, in my lungs, almost abrasive in its comparative purity.
An intersection of corridors presented me with three choices. After the briefest hesitation, I hurried to the right, hoping that the door at the farther end would lead to the elusive parking garage.
Just as I reached the termination of this passage, I heard Andre crash through the steel door from the north stairs, back in the first hallway.
At once, I doused my flashlight. I opened the door in front of me, stepped across the threshold, and closed myself into this unknown space.
My light revealed a set of metal service stairs with rubberized treads. They led only down.
The door had no lock.
Andre might conduct a thorough search of this area. Instead he might follow his instinct elsewhere.
I could wait to see what he did, hope to shoot him before he shot me if he yanked open this door. Or I could follow the stairs.
Glad that I had snared the pistol from midair, but not daring to take it as a sign that my destiny was survival, I hurried down into the sub-basement, which such a short time ago I had tried to avoid.
Two landings and three quick flights brought me 360 degrees around to a vestibule and a formidable-looking door. Emblazoned on that barrier were several warnings; the most prominent promised HIGH VOLTAGE in big red letters. A stern admonition restricted access to authorized personnel.
I authorized myself to enter, opened the door, and from the threshold explored with my flashlight. Eight concrete steps led down five feet, into a sunken electrical vault, a thick-walled concrete bunker approximately fifteen by twenty feet.
On a raised pad in the center, as on an island, stood a tower of equipment. Perhaps some of these things were transformers, perhaps a time machine for all I knew.
At the far end of the chamber, a three-foot-diameter tunnel, at floor level, bored away into darkness. Evidently, the vault needed to be a subterranean bunker in the event that equipment exploded, as transformers sometimes did. But in case of a plumbing break or other sudden flood, the drain would be able to carry away a high volume of water.
Having avoided the main stairs into the sub-basement, I had taken these, which served only the vault. Now I had come to the dead end that I had feared.
From the instant the lion attacked, I’d weighed options at each turn in my flight, calculating probabilities. In my panic, I had not listened to the still, small voice that is my sixth sense.
Nothing is more dangerous for me than to forget that I am a man both of reason and supernatural perception. When I function in only one mode or the other, I am denying half myself, half my potential.
To a lesser extent with other people than with me, this is true of everyone.
Nevertheless, I went through the vault door and eased it shut. I checked for a lock, doubting there would be one, and had my doubt confirmed.
I hurried down the concrete stairs, all the way into the pit, and around the tower of equipment.
Probing with the flashlight, I saw that the tunnel sloped and gradually curved away to the left, out of sight. The walls were dry and clean enough. I wouldn’t leave a trail.
If Andre entered this chamber, he would surely peer into the drain. But if I managed to get out of sight, beyond the curve, he would not press the search that far. He would think that I had given him the slip farther back.
Three feet of diameter did not allow me to proceed in a stoop. I had to crawl into the drain.
I tucked Datura’s pistol under my belt, in the small of my back, and got moving.
The shielding curve lay about twenty feet from the entrance. With no need for the flashlight, I switched it off, inserted it in the spelunker’s cuff, and crawled on my hands and knees into the darkness.
Half a minute later, near the bend in the tunnel, I stretched out full length and turned on my side. I directed the flashlight back the way that I had come, studying the floor.
A few smudges o
f soot on the concrete marked my progress, but from such spoor alone no one would be able to deduce that I had passed this way. Those traces could have been there for years. Water stains patterned the concrete, too, and they helped to camouflage the soot.
In the dark again, returning to my hands and knees, I finished rounding the gradual turn. When I should have been out of sight of the vault, I continued another ten feet, fifteen, just to be sure before stopping.
I sat crosswise to the tunnel, my back against the curve, and waited.
After a minute, I remembered that old movie serial about the secret civilization under the surface of the earth. Maybe somewhere along this route lay a subterranean city with women in horned hats, an evil emperor, and mutants. Fine. None of that could be as bad as what I’d left behind in the Panamint.
Suddenly creeping through my memory of the movie came Kali, who didn’t belong in that scenario; Kali, lips painted with blood, tongue lolling. She wasn’t carrying the noose, the skull-topped staff, the sword, or the severed head. Her hands were empty, the better to touch me, to fondle me, to pull my face forcefully toward her for a kiss.
Alone, without either a campfire or marshmallows, I was telling ghost stories to myself. You might think that my life inoculates me against being scared by mere ghost stories, but you would be wrong.
Living every day with proof that the afterlife is real, I can’t take refuge in unleavened reason, can’t say But ghosts don’t really exist. Not knowing the full nature of what comes after this world, but knowing for certain that something does, my imagination spins into vortexes darker than any yours has ever visited.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure you’ve got a fabulously dark, twisted, and perhaps even deeply sick imagination. I’m not trying to devalue the dementedness of your imagination and do not mean to diminish your pride in it.
Sitting in that tunnel, spooking myself, I banished Kali not only from the role that she had given herself in that movie serial, but banished her entirely from my mind. I concentrated on the iguanas tricked up to pass for dinosaurs and on the dwarfs in leather chaps or whatever they had been wearing.
Instead of Kali, within seconds Datura crept into my thoughts, torn by the lion but nonetheless amorous. She was crawling toward me along the tunnel right now.