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I didn’t have sufficient ammunition to keep him pinned down until the water rose into his drain and forced him to retreat. The best thing I could do was keep moving.

The tunnel into which I had climbed would be the last of the three outflow drains to take water. In an ordinary storm, it would probably remain dry, but not in this deluge. The level of the pool below rose visibly, minute by minute.

Happily, this new tunnel was of greater diameter than the previous one, perhaps four feet. I would not have to crawl. I could proceed at a stoop and make good time.

I didn’t know where that progress would take me, but I was game for a change of scenery.

As I gathered myself off the floor and into the aforementioned stoop, a shrill twittering arose in the chamber behind me. Andre didn’t strike me as a guy who would twitter, and at once I knew the source of the cries: bats.


HAIL IN THE DESERT IS A RARITY, BUT ONCE in a while, a Mojave storm can deliver an icy pelting to the land.

If hail had fallen outside, then as soon as I felt boils forming on my neck and face, I could be certain that God had chosen to amuse Himself by restaging the ten plagues of Egypt upon my beleaguered person.

I don’t think that bats were one of the Biblical plagues, though they should have been. If memory serves me, instead of bats, frogs terrorized Egypt.

Large numbers of angry frogs won’t get your blood pumping half as fast as will a horde of incensed flying rodents. This truth calls into question the deity’s skill as a dramatist.

When the frogs died, they bred lice, which was the third plague. This from the same Creator who painted the sky blood-red over Sodom and Gomorrah, rained fire and brimstone on the cities, overthrew every habitation in which their people tried to hide, and broke every building stone as though it were an egg.

Circling the catch basin on the ledge and levering myself into the highest tunnel, I had not pointed the light directly overhead. Evidently a multitude of leathery-winged sleepers had depended from the ceiling, quietly dreaming.

I don’t know what I did to disturb them, if anything. Night had fallen not long ago. Perhaps this was the usual time at which they woke, stretched their wings, and flew off to snare themselves in little girls’ hair.

As one, they raised their shrill voices. In that instant, even as I finished rising into a stoop, I dropped flat, and folded my arms over my head.

They departed their man-made cave by the highest of the out-flow drains. This route would never entirely fill with water and would always offer at least a partially unobstructed exit.

If I’d been asked to estimate the size of their community as they passed over me, I would have said “thousands.” To the same question an hour later, I would have replied “hundreds.” In truth, they numbered fewer than one hundred, perhaps only fifty or sixty.

Reflected off the curved concrete walls, the rustle of their wings sounded like crackling cellophane, the way movie sound-effects specialists used to rumple the stuff to imitate all-devouring fire. They didn’t stir up much of a breeze, hardly an eddy, but brought an ammonial odor, which they carried away with them.

A few fluttered against my arms, with which I protected my head and face, brushed like feathers across the backs of my hands, which should have made it easy to imagine that they were only birds, but which instead brought to mind swarming insects—cockroaches, centipedes, locusts—so I had bats for real and bugs in the mind. Locusts had been the eighth of Egypt’s ten plagues.


Having read somewhere that a quarter of any colony of bats is infected with the virus, I waited to be bitten viciously, repeatedly. I didn’t sustain a single nip.

Although none of them bit me, a couple crapped on me in passing, sort of like a casual insult. The universe had heard and accepted my challenge: I was now filthier and more miserable than I had been ten minutes previously.

I rose into a stoop again and followed the descending drain away from the catch basin. Somewhere ahead, and not too far, I would find a manhole or another kind of exit from the system. Two hundred yards, I assured myself, three hundred at most.

Between here and there, of course, would be the Minotaur. The Minotaur fed on human flesh. “Yeah,” I muttered aloud, “but only the flesh of virgins.” Then I remembered that I was a virgin.

The flashlight revealed a Y in the tunnel, immediately ahead. The branch to the left continued to descend. The passage to the right fed the one I’d been following from the catch basin, and because it rose, I figured it would lead me closer to the surface and to a way out.

I had gone only twenty or thirty yards when, of course, I heard the bats returning. They had soared out into the night, discovered a tempest raging, and had fled at once back to their cozy subterranean haven.

Because I doubted that I would escape a second confrontation unbitten, I reversed directions with an agility born of panic and ran, hunched like a troll. Returning to the down-bound tunnel, I went to the right, away from the catch basin, and hoped the bats would remember their address.

When their frenzied flapping crescendoed and then diminished behind me, I came to a halt and, gasping, leaned against the wall.

Maybe Andre would be on the ledge, crossing from the lowest drain to the highest, when the bats returned. Maybe they would frighten him, and he would fall into the catch basin, skewering himself on those samurai swords.

That fantasy brought a brief glow to my heart, but only brief because I couldn’t believe that Andre would be afraid of bats. Or afraid of anything.

An ominous sound arose that I had not heard before, a rough rumbling, as if an enormous slab of granite was being dragged across another slab. It seemed to be coming from between me and the catch basin.

Usually this meant that a secret door in a solid-stone wall would roll open, allowing the evil emperor to make a grand entrance in knee-high boots and a cape.

Hesitantly, I moved back toward the Y, cocking my head one way, then the other, trying to determine the source of the sound.

The rumble grew louder. Now I perceived it as less like stone sliding over stone than like friction between iron and rock.

When I pressed a hand to the wall of the tunnel, I could feel vibrations passing through the concrete.

I ruled out an earthquake, which would have produced jolts a

nd lurches instead of this prolonged grinding sound and consistent level of shaking.

The rumbling stopped.

Under my hand, vibrations were no longer coursing through the concrete.

A rushing sound. A sudden draft as something pushed air out of the nearby ascending branch, stirring my hair.

Somewhere a sluice gate had opened.

The air had been displaced by a surge of water. A torrent exploded out of the ascending branch, knocked me off my feet, and swept me down into the dark bowels of the flood-control system.


TOSSED, TURNED, TUMBLED, SPUN, I SPIRALED along the tunnel like a bullet along a rifle barrel.

At first the flashlight, strapped to my left arm, revealed the undulant gray tide, lent glitter to the spray, brightened the dirty foam. But the spelunker’s cuff failed, peeled away from my arm, and took the light with it.

Down through the blackness, bulleting, I wrapped my arms around myself, tried to keep my legs together. With limbs flailing, I’d be more likely to break a wrist, an ankle, an elbow, by knocking against the wall.

I tried to stay on my back, face up, rocketing along with the fatalism of an Olympic bobsledder whistling down a luge chute, but the torrent repeatedly, insistently rolled me, pushing my face under the flow. I fought for breath, jackknifing my body to reorient it, gasping when I got my head above the flux.

I swallowed water, broke through the surface, gagged and coughed and desperately inhaled the wet air. Considering my helplessness in its embrace, this modest flow might as well have been Niagara sweeping me toward its killing cataracts.

How long the aquatic torture continued, I can’t say, but having been physically taxed before entering this flume ride, I grew tired. Very tired. My limbs became heavy, and my neck stiffened from the strain of the constant struggle to keep my head above water. My back ached, I seemed to have wrenched my left shoulder, and with each effort to find air, my reserves of strength diminished until I was perilously close to complete exhaustion.

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