The secret stairway was still there. I was kind of hoping it wouldn’t be, but I was used to not getting what I hoped for.
I thought about Lane Sanford, and how she’d ended up with such an inconvenient room. I wondered if Chris had given her this room for some reason. I was no longer sure what to make of it.
If Chris had made plans to help Lane against his homicidal brother, it made sense that he’d want an escape plan, including a lot of money. I remembered the little pictures Chris had drawn in his journal, the photo of Waikiki Beach on his mirror. Perhaps he still believed he could convince Lane to go with him. In time, he could get her to love him. A surfer’s happily-ever-after. Pretty simplistic. But I couldn’t blame him for holding out hopes for Lane. As near as I could tell, she and Alex Huff were the only ones who’d ever given Chris a chance at a clean slate. Chris had messed things up pretty bad.
I took a deep breath and headed into the stairwell. This time I went down instead of up.
I almost fell through on the third step. It cracked as I put my weight on it and I flailed out, catching something with my hand that turned out to be a large nail. The metal bit into my palm. I could feel it bleeding, but I didn’t want to look. One more souvenir I’d have from my honeymoon—a tetanus shot. I examined the remaining steps with my flashlight and found that they were in pretty bad shape.
I tested each one. Five steps down, two of them broke with a light kick. Finally, I managed to half walk, half wall-climb my way to the bottom, which was still covered in an inch or so of salt water. Unfortunately, there was another secret door. It opened into a closet, which opened into room 102. I didn’t have to look around very long to see the place had been converted for use by a valued member of the hotel family. The assassin Calavera.
“Come in here,” I told Garrett.
He didn’t look too happy about it. I’d ripped down the plastic and boards, and removed the blockade of furniture inside the door, but the floor was still tough to navigate with a wheelchair. Besides, Garrett knew I wouldn’t have asked him to come down here unless I wanted him to see something important and unwelcome.
“Look around,” I told him. “What do you notice?”
I tried not to sound harsh. At least I think I kept my tone pretty cool. But Garrett winced like I was beating him up.
“Some of Alex’s old stuff,” he said. “His board. His fishing gear. That’s the poster I got him in Frisco.”
I resisted the urge to correct him. Nobody who’d ever lived in San Francisco called it Frisco any more than natives called San Antonio San Antone. There was something improper about it, like calling your mother Toots.
“What else?” I asked him.
“The power is off,” I said. “You can open it.”
He looked confused by this statement, but he wheeled over and did as I suggested. Inside was no food. Only chemicals. Bricks of plastic explosives. Coils of copper wire. A selection of pipes and timing devices.
“A bomb maker’s supply cabinet,” I told him. “Notice the security system?”
“What?” Garrett looked dazed.
“The light,” I said. “Look at the refrigerator light.”
He stared at the green metal orb where the light should’ve been. “That looks like a grenade.”
“It is,” I said. “Old drug dealer’s trick. You put a lightbulb cap on the grenade, stick the filaments inside. When the door opens, the electric current hits the explosives. Anyone who comes snooping and doesn’t know to unplug the refrigerator first—”
“I almost didn’t unplug it. It occurred to me when my hand was on the handle.”
He looked at me like I was a ghost. “Tres, there’s no way Alex…This can’t be his stuff.”
I didn’t bother to argue. The room spoke for itself.
Garrett picked up something from the workbench. A red plastic guitar pick. It sat there amid timing fuses and pliers and a pile of firing caps. “Alex couldn’t kill people.”
“He was in the army.”
“He was a cook.”
“Not where he started.” I handed him some papers I’d found in the file cabinet—army transcripts. “He had demolition training, but he was transferred out.”
Garrett looked up blankly. “Transferred…why?”
“I don’t know. But he had the skills to make bombs.”
“He made fricking fireworks!”
“A good cover for getting some of the supplies he needed.”
Garrett shook his head. “No way. I can’t buy it.”
I’d expected denial. I didn’t push him. There was nothing I could say that was more convincing than just being here, in the place where Alex had fashioned his IEDs.
“Look, little bro.” Garrett’s voice was ragged. “Alex is a victim here. He’s missing, remember? He’s—he’s probably been murdered.”
“Or he made it look that way.”
“Come on! Can you see Alex blowing people up? Or shooting a lawman in the chest? Or hitting his own manager on the back of the head?”
He waved the guitar pick as if it were weightier evidence than all the bomb-making equipment.
“Garrett, Alex went out of his way to barricade this room. He lied about the ceiling collapsing. He knew what was in here. He had to. He was making bombs.”
“What do you want me to say? You want me to turn on my last goddamn friend?”
In the daylight from the unboarded windows, Garrett’s beard looked grayer than usual. His shirt was pale blue with a fading parrot on it, a remembrance of Buffett concerts past. He looked exhausted and defeated, but he’d still taken the time this morning to comb his hair, the same way he’d done on the Fourth of July, so many years ago, hoping to impress a girl.
“We need to find Alex,” I said. “He was ready to surrender before this weekend. He started negotiating with the marshals, anyway. We need to convince him to give up.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you, little bro?”
“Yeah, Garrett. It’s been a hell of an enjoyable weekend. Exactly the honeymoon I had in mind.”
He wheeled himself over to the refrigerator and stared at the equipment inside.
In the silence, I heard something in the hall—a wet floor-board creaking. I tensed, looking around for something to use as a weapon, but there was nothing except my flashlight and several pounds of high-grade explosives. I opted for the flashlight.
I peeked outside. There was no one in the hall, yet I caught a scent that wasn’t salt water or mildew or even death. It was the faint amber scent that might have been Benjamin Lindy’s cologne.
When I came back into the workroom, Garrett had unscrewed the grenade and was holding it in his lap.
“Where is he?” Garrett asked.
“Alex. If he’s hiding, we have to find him. Where is he?”
I thought about Benjamin Lindy, and what he might have overheard if he’d been eavesdropping. I thought about where a man could go on an island this size in the middle of a hurricane.
“I think,” I said, “it’s high time we visited the lighthouse.”
Calavera checked his watch. Only minutes left now.
His things were safely stashed away. He would retrieve the money later, after the storm had passed. Then he would disappear for good.
What would the police think? They would have little to go on. They would scratch their heads about Alex Huff’s fate, but eventually they would drop the case. They would accept the easy answer, because it meant less work.
No one would escape to contradict his story. He would make sure of that.
He looked at the last candy skull in his hand.
He had never meant it to be a calling card. The skull was a tribute, left at his early kills to remind himself of a dying child—a lone eleven-year-old girl.
It had been only one of many atrocities he’d seen in the army. Why this one stuck with him, he didn’t know. He came into the hut just as his comrades had finished their business. They slashed the girl’s throat to silence her. The killer turned to face him, his eyes glazed. The blade of his knife glistened red. Calavera watched the girl die. He saw the light go out of her eyes. Her family was already dead. No one would grieve for her or even know what had happened.
And Calavera said nothing. He walked out of the hut and carried on, checking for weapon caches.
But he memorized the faces of the attackers. Within a week, all three of them had died. Freak accidents: the first blown apart by a land mine where no land mine should’ve been; another burned alive by an incendiary bomb; the third the victim of a defective grenade. Afterward, before his division left the area, Calavera went back to the location of that hut—now a smoking pile of ruins—and placed an offering to the girl: a few cookies, a wilted flower, a candy skull.
Her death kept things in proportion for him. If an innocent like her could die senselessly, why should he feel guilt? Why not take the money of the wicked to kill the wicked?
Even so, he had tried to stop. He had thought the days of Calavera were behind him, until New Year’s Eve.
Now it was different. He had to kill indiscriminately to protect the only thing he cared about.
It isn’t too late, he thought. I could stop it now. I could warn them.
He threw the candy skull into the corner. There would be no tributes today. This was about survival.
He made sure his gun was loaded. Then he went out to complete his plans.
On our way out we passed the dining room, which is why I saw Jose with the bodies.
“Wait for me,” I told Garrett.
“Why?” Then he saw what I saw, and he didn’t look too anxious to follow.
In the dining room, Jose had laid out the two dead bodies on tables, each wrapped in white linen. I could tell which corpse was Chris Stowall. He was frozen in the fetal position. The other, Longoria, I would’ve been able to recognize from the smell. A day of death had mingled unpleasantly with his regular Old Spice.
Jose stared at the two men the way he might study a dinner setting, wondering whether he’d put the salad forks on the correct side.
“You moved them,” I said. I have a talent for stating the obvious.
“Everyone was packing, señor. It seemed to me if we leave…”
He didn’t finish the thought, but I got it. The dead have to leave, too.
When the police finally got here, they were going to have a forensics hissy fit. The bodies had been moved so many times. Yet Jose’s feelings seemed sensible, somehow. He was tidying up. Looking out for the guests. Even Longoria deserved some measure of final respect. Or maybe I’d just been spending too much time in this damn hotel.
There was a jangling sound from the kitchen, and Imelda appeared in the doorway, flipping through a big ring of keys. “Jose, I can’t—”
She stopped when she saw me. Her eyes were pink from crying. The keys in her hand looked like the same set Jose had used the night before, to let me look through the office.
“It’s all right, mi amor,” Jose assured her. “I’m almost ready.”