I couldn’t hear her breathing, of course, because the dead do not breathe.
She wanted to sit in my lap and wriggle her bottom and share her blood with me.
The dead don’t talk. But it was easy to believe that Datura might be the sole exception to the rule. Surely even death could not silence that garrulous goddess. She would heave herself upon me, sit on my lap, wriggle her bottom, press her dripping hand to my lips, and say Want to taste me, boyfriend?
Very little of that mind movie was enough to make me want to switch on the flashlight.
If Andre had intended to check out the electrical vault, he would have done so by this time. He had gone elsewhere. With both his mistress and Robert dead, the giant would blow this place in the car that they had stashed on the property.
In a few hours, I could dare to venture back into the hotel and from there to the interstate.
As I touched my thumb to the flashlight switch, before I pressed it, light bloomed beyond the curve that I had recently transited, and I heard Andre at the mouth of the tunnel.
ONE GOOD THING ABOUT REVERSE PSYCHIC magnetism is that I can never be lost. Drop me into the middle of a jungle, without a map or a compass, and I’ll draw my searchers to me. You’ll never find my face on a milk carton: Have you seen this boy? If I live long enough to develop Alzheimer’s and wander away from my care facility, pretty soon all the nurses and patients will be wandering after me, compelled in my wake.
Watching the light play around the first length of the tunnel, past the curve, I warned myself that I was indulging in another ghost story, spooking myself for no good reason. I should not assume that Andre sensed where I had gone.
If I sat tight, he would decide there were more likely places that I might have taken refuge, and he would go away to search them. He hadn’t entered the drain. He was a big man; he would make a lot of noise, crawling in that cramped tunnel.
He surprised me by firing a shot.
In that confined space, the concussion seemed bad enough to make my ears bleed. The report—a loud bang but also like the hard toll of an immense bell—rang with such vibrato, I swore that I could feel sympathetic tremors racing through the haversian canals of my bones. The bang and the toll chased each other through the drain, and the echoes that followed were higher pitched, like the terrifying shrieks of incoming rockets.
The noise so disoriented me that the tiny chips of concrete, peppering my left cheek and neck, mystified me for a moment. Then I understood: ricochet.
I rolled flat, facedown, minimizing my exposure, and frantically wriggled deeper into the tunnel, scissoring my legs like a lizard and pulling myself forward with my arms, because if I rose onto my hands and knees, I would for sure take a round in the buttocks or the back of the head.
I could live with one butt cheek—just sit at a slant for the rest of my life, not worry about how baggy the seat of my blue jeans looked, get used to the nickname Halfass—but I couldn’t live with my brains blown out. Ozzie would say that I often made such poor use of the brain I had that, if worse came to worst, I might in fact be able to get along without it, but I didn’t want to try.
Andre fired another shot.
My head was still ringing from the first blast, so this one didn’t seem as loud, though my ears ached as if sound of this volume had substance and, passing through them, strained their dimensions.
In the instant required for the initial crash of the shot to be followed by the shrieking echo, the slug would have ricocheted past me. As scary as the noise might be, it signified that my luck held. If a bullet found me, the shock of impact would effectively deafen me to the gunfire.
Skittering like a salamander, away from his light, I knew that darkness offered no protection. He couldn’t see his target, anyway, and relied on luck to wound me. In these circumstances, with curved concrete walls conducive to multiple ricochets of the same slug, his odds of nailing me were better than his chances would have been at any game in the casino.
He squeezed off a third shot. What pity I’d once had for him—and I think there might have been a little—was so over.
I couldn’t guess how often a bullet would have to glance off a wall until its wounding power had been sapped. Salamandering proved exhausting, and I had no confidence that I would be able to reach a safe distance before my luck changed.
A draft suddenly sucked at me from the darkness to my left, and I instinctively scrambled toward it. Another storm drain. This one, a feeder line to the first, also about three feet in diameter, sloped slightly upward.
A fourth shot slammed through the tunnel I had departed. All but certainly beyond the reach of ricochet, I returned to my hands and knees and crawled forward.
Soon the angle of incline increased, then increased again, and ascent became more difficult minute by minute. I grew frustrated that my pace should slow so much with the rising grade, but finally I accepted the cruel fact of my diminished capacity and counseled myself not to push my body to collapse. I wasn’t twenty anymore.
Numerous shots rang out, but I did not keep count of them after my buttocks were no longer at risk. In time I realized that he had ceased firing.
At the top of its slope, the branch I traveled opened into a twelve-foot-square chamber that I explored with my flashlight. It appeared to be a catch basin.
Water poured in from three smaller pipes at the top of the room. Any driftwood or trash carried by these streams sank to the bottom of the space, to be cleaned out by maintenance crews from time to time.
Three exit drains, including the one by which I had arrived, were set at different levels in different walls, none near the floor where the flotsam would be allowed to accumulate. Water already was flowing out of the catch basin through the lowest of these.
With the storm raging, the level within the chamber would rise inexorably toward my observation post, which was in the middle of the three outflow lines. I needed to transfer to the highest of the exit drains and continue my journey by that route.
A series of ledges encircling the chamber would make it possible for me to stay out of the debris in the catch basin and get across to the farther side. I would just need to take my time and be careful.
The tunnels I had thus far traveled had been claustrophobic for a man my size. Given his bulk, Andre would find them intolerable. He would rely on a ricochet having wounded or killed me. He would not follow.
I squirmed out of the drain, into the catch basin, onto a ledge. When I looked down the slope I had just mastered, I saw a light in the distance. He grunted as he doggedly ascended.
I LIKED THE IDEA OF WITHDRAWING DATURA’S pistol from under my belt and firing down on Andre as he crawled toward me in the tunnel. Payback.
The only thing better would have been a shotgun, or maybe a flamethrower, like the one with which Sigourney Weaver torched the bugs in Aliens. A vat of boiling oil, bigger than the one Charles Laughton, as the hunchback, poured down on the Parisian rabble from the heights of Notre Dame would have been cool, too.
Datura and her acolytes had left me less willing than usual to turn the other cheek. They had lowered my threshold of anger and raised my tolerance for violence.
Here was a perfect illustration of why you must always choose carefully the people with whom you hang out.
Poised on a six-inch ledge, my back to the murky pool, holding with one hand to the lip of the drain, I could not have a taste of revenge without putting myself at too much risk. If I tried to fire Datura’s pistol at Andre, the recoil would surely upset my precarious balance, and I would fall backward into the catch basin.
I did not know how deep the water might be, but more to the point, I didn’t know what junk lay just below the surface. The way my luck had been waxing and waning lately, mostly waning, I would fall onto the broken hardwood handle of a shovel, splintered and sharp enough to put an end to Dracula, or the rusted tines of a pitchfork, or a couple of spear-point ir
on fence staves, or maybe a collection of Japanese samurai swords.
Unharmed by the single shot that I had gotten off, Andre would reach the top of the drain and see me impaled in the catch basin. I would discover that, brutish as he appeared to be, he possessed a jolly laugh. As I died, he would speak his first word, in Datura’s voice: Loser.
So I left the gun at the small of my back and made my way around the ledge to the farther side of the room, where the highest of the exit drains lay an inch or two above my head, four feet higher than the one from which I had just extracted myself.
The dirty water cascading out of the high inflow pipes kicked up spray when it met the pool, splashing my jeans to mid thigh. But I couldn’t get any filthier or hardly any more miserable.
As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I tried to reel it back because it seemed like a challenge to the universe. No doubt inside of ten minutes, I would be astonishingly filthier and immensely more miserable than I was at that moment.
I reached overhead, got a two-hand grip on the lip of the new drain, toed the wall, muscled myself up and in.
Ensconced in this new warren, I considered waiting until Andre appeared at the mouth of the tunnel that I had left, and shooting him from my elevated position. For a guy who had been so reluctant even to handle firearms earlier this same day, I had developed an unseemly eagerness to pump my enemies full of lead.
The flaw in my plan immediately became clear to me. Andre had a gun of his own. He would be cautious about leaving that lower tunnel, and when I fired at him, he would fire back.
All of these concrete walls, more ricochets, more earsplitting noise…