The surging sluice spat me out of the four-foot drain into one of the immense flood-control tunnels that I had speculated might double, in the Last War, as an underground highway for the transport of intercontinental ballistic missiles out of Fort Kraken to farther points of the Maravilla Valley.
I wondered if the tunnel had remained lighted ever since I’d thrown the switch after coming down from the service shed near the Blue Moon Cafe. I felt as if weeks had passed since then, not mere hours.
Here, the velocity of the flood was not as breakneck as it had been in the smaller and far more steeply sloped drain. I could tread the moving water and stay afloat as I was flushed into the middle of the passage and borne along.
A little experimentation quickly proved, however, that I could not swim crosswise to the swift current. I wouldn’t be able to reach the elevated walkway that I had followed eastward in pursuit of Danny and his captors.
Then I realized that the walkway had vanished below the water when the previous stream had swelled into this mighty Mississippi. Were I able to reach the side of the tunnel by heroic effort and the grace of a miracle, I would not be able to escape the river.
If ultimately the flood-control system delivered the storm run-off to a vast subterranean lake, I would be washed onto those shores. Robinson Crusoe without sunshine and coconuts.
Such a lake might lack shores. It might be embraced instead by sheer stone walls so smoothed by eons of trickling condensation that they could not be climbed.
And if a shore existed, it would not be hospitable. With no possible source of light, I would be a blind man in a barren Hades, spared death by starvation only if I died instead by stumbling into an abyss and breaking my neck in the fall.
At that bleak moment, I thought I would die underground. And within the hour, I did.
Treading water, keeping my head above even this less turbulent flow, was a cruel test of my stamina. I wasn’t certain that I would last the miles that lay ahead before the lake. Drowning would spare me from starvation.
Meager hope unexpectedly came in the form of a depth marker situated in the center of the watercourse. I was swept straight toward the six-inch-square white post, which rose nearly to the twelve-foot-high ceiling.
As in the power of the current I began to slide past this slender refuge, I hooked one arm around the post. I snared it with one leg, as well. If I stayed on the upstream side, with the post between my legs, the insistent current at my back would help to keep me in place.
Earlier in the day, when I had towed the snaky man’s corpse away from this post or another like it, to the elevated walkway, the depth of the flow had been inches shy of two feet. Now it lapped north of the five-foot mark.
Thus safely anchored, I leaned my forehead against the post for a while, catching my breath. I listened to my heart and marveled that I was alive.
After several minutes, when I closed my eyes, that mental turning, that slow dizzy sweep signifying a pending swoon into sleep, alarmed me, and my lids snapped open. If I fell asleep, I would lose my grip and be swept away once more.
I would be in this fix for a while. With the service walkway underwater, no maintenance crew would venture here. No one would see me clinging to the pole and mount a rescue.
If I held fast, however, the water level would fall when the storm passed. Eventually the service walkway would reappear out of the tide. The stream would become shallow enough to ford, as it had been before.
To keep my mind occupied, I maintained a mental inventory of the flotsam that bobbed past. A palm frond. A blue tennis ball. A bicycle tire.
For a little while I thought about working at Tire World, about being part of the tire life, working around the fine smell of rubber, and that made me happy.
A yellow lawn-chair cushion. The green lid of a picnic cooler. A length of two-by-six with a rusty spike bristling from it. A dead rattlesnake.
The dead snake alerted me to the possibility of a live snake in the flood. For that matter, if a sizable chunk of lumber, like that two-by-six, propelled by the brisk current, knocked hard against my spine, it might do some damage.
I began glancing over my shoulder from time to time, surveying the oncoming debris. Maybe the snake had been a warning sign. Because of it, I spotted Andre upstream, before he was on top of me.
EVIL NEVER DIES. IT JUST CHANGES FACES.
Of this face, I’d seen enough, too much, and when I spotted the giant, I thought for an instant—and fondly hoped—that only a corpse pursued me.
But he was alive, all right, and friskier than I. Too impatient for the swift current to bring him to the depth marker, he flailed, splashed, determined to swim toward me.
I had nowhere to go but up.
My muscles ached. My back throbbed. My wet hands on the wet post seemed certain to fail me.
Fortunately, the inch and foot lines that measured the depth were not merely indicated with black paint on the white background, but were also notched into the wood. These features served as grip points, toe-holds, shallow but better than nothing.
I clamped the post with my knees and pushed myself with my thigh muscles even as I clawed upward, hand over hand. I slipped back, dug my toes in, clamped my knees, tried again, moved up an inch, another inch, two more, desperate for every one of them.
When Andre collided with the post, I felt the impact and glanced down. His features were as broad and blunt as a club. His eyes were edge weapons, sharp with homicidal fury.
With one hand, he reached for me. He had long arms. His fingers brushed the bottom of my right shoe.
I pulled my legs up. Afraid of slipping back and into his hands, measuring progress by the numbered notches, I inchwormed until my head bumped the ceiling.
When I glanced down again, I saw that even with my legs drawn up as far as they would go, so that I clamped the post fiercely with my thighs, I was only about ten inches beyond his reach.
He hooked his thick blunt fingers into the notched marks with some difficulty. He struggled to pull himself out of the water.
The top of the depth marker had a finial, like that on a newel post at the head of a staircase. With my left hand, I gripped that knob and held on as poor King Kong had held on to the dirigible-mooring mast at the top of the Empire State Building.
The analogy didn’t quite work because Kong was below me on the post. Maybe that made me Fay Wray. The big ape did seem to have an unnatural passion for me.
My legs had slipped. I felt Andre paw at my shoe. Furiously, I kicked his hand, kicked, and drew my legs up again.
Remembering Datura’s pistol under my belt, at the small of my back, I reached for it with my right hand. I had lost it along the way.
While I fumbled for the missing handgun, the brute surged up the post and seized my left ankle.
I kicked and thrashed, but he held tight. In fact, he took a risk, let go of the post, and gripped my ankle with both hands.
His great weight dragged on me so pitilessly that my hip should have dislocated. I heard a shout of pain and rage, then again, but did not realize until the second time that the shout came from me.
The finial at the top of the depth marker had not been carved from the end of the post. The ornament had been made separately and applied.
It broke loose in my hand.
Together, Andre and I fell into the flood tide.
AS WE FELL, I SLIPPED OUT OF HIS GRASP.
I hit the water with sufficient force to go under, touch bottom. The powerful current rolled me, spun me, and I burst to the surface, coughing and sputtering.
Cheval Andre, the bull, the stallion, floated directly ahead of me, fifteen feet away, facing me. Pitted against the punishing surge, he was not able to swim to the rendezvous with death that he clearly desired.
His burning fury, his seething hatred, his lust for violence were so consuming that he would exhau
st himself beyond recovery to have vengeance, and did not care that he would drown, too, after drowning me.
Aside from Datura’s cheap physical appeal, I could not account for any quality in her that should elicit the absolute commitment of body, mind, and heart from any man, let alone from one who seemed to have no slightest capacity for sentimentality. Could this hard brute love beauty so much that he would die for it, even when it truly was skin deep and corrupted, even when she who possessed it had been mad, narcissistic, and manipulative?
We were pawns of the flood, which spun us, lifted us, dropped us, dunked us, and bore us along at maybe thirty miles an hour, maybe faster. Sometimes we closed to within six feet of each other. Never were we farther apart than twenty.
We passed the place at which I had entered these tunnels earlier in the day, and raced onward.
I began to worry that we would sweep out of the lighted length of the tunnel, into darkness, and I feared plunging blindly into the subterranean lake less than I feared not being able to keep Andre in sight. If I was destined to drown, let the flood itself claim me. I didn’t want to die at his hands.
Ahead, flush to the circumference of the great tunnel, a pair of steel gates together formed a circle. They resembled a portcullis in that they featured both horizontal and vertical bars.
Between the crossed members of this grating, the openings were four inches square. The gate served as a final filter of the flood-borne debris.
A marked quickening of the water suggested that a falls lay not far ahead, and the lake no doubt waited below those cascades. Beyond the gates, impenetrable blackness promised an abyss.
The river brought Andre to the gate first, and I slammed against it a couple of seconds later, six feet to his right.
Upon impact, he clawed over the clog of trash at the base of the gate, and pulled himself onto it.
Stunned, I wanted only to cling there, rest, but because I knew that he would come for me, I clambered over the trash, too, and onto the gate. We hung motionless for but a moment, like a spider and its prey upon a web.
He crabbed sideways along the steel grid. He didn’t appear to be breathing half as hard as I was.
I would have preferred to retreat, but I could move only two or three feet away from him before I encountered the wall.