"Sure you wanna get out here?" the produce truck driver asked dubiously. "The place, uh, looks sort o' grand."
Ben Hawkins mentally translated grand as expensive. He almost smiled. But not quite. "No, I been here before. That 'Hotel Astoria' sign don't mean nothin'. It ain't fancy inside. If it ain't an out-an'-out whorehouse by now, it's headin' that way."
'Course, he reflected, I can't afford a room even in a dump like this. But if I spend the night in Damascus, I'll hole up in a doorway somewhere. Won't be the first time.
The driver, a lanky farmhand, took a closer look. "Huh. Even the sign's seen better days, now I think about it." Pulling up to the curb, he said kindly, "Careful gettin' out, now!"
Ben winced. It's obvious I seen better days, too. Aloud, he said, "Yeah. Thanks for the ride, mister."
"No problem. I been broke often enough myself."
Ben dropped his duffel bag out of the truck, then eased himself out after it. He couldn't hide his disability - couldn't stand quite straight, or hold his left arm in a natural position. But he was doing better than he had a few months ago, and he managed to get out without making any movements that would trigger pain.
Physical pain. The emotional pain associated with Damascus was like a noose tightening around his heart.
He'd actually enjoyed this past week. Being on his own, for however short a time.
The only way he could support himself now was as a carny freak, exhibiting his blue blood. He no longer had the strength required for manual labor - couldn't have risked performing it anyway, lest he strain himself and reopen wounds that had never completely healed. And with his poor education, he didn't consider himself qualified for any other type of work. The "knowledge" that had come with Belyakov's boon seemingly dealt only with Avataric matters, and was spotty even in that respect. It hadn't transformed him into a learned, sophisticated man.
So he'd swallowed his pride and settled for exhibiting himself as a freak, letting the rubes look on as he deliberately opened an edge of the wound in his belly and shed some blood. It was a wretched existence. But he'd finally saved up enough tip money that he could take two weeks off from Burrell's Carnival, and from the well-meaning but stifling attentions of Ruthie and Gabe. He was grateful that they'd accompanied him to Burrell's, Ruthie doubling as nurse and undemanding lover. But their constant fretting about his health only made him more anxious about it. Now he'd proved he could manage on his own. He'd been so successful at hitching rides that he'd even been able to buy simple meals, hadn't been reduced to begging.
But the euphoria, the hair-blowing-in-the-wind sense of freedom, had worn off as he neared his destination.
Why am I proud o' myself? Hell, these drivers have only been pickin' me up 'cause they feel sorry for the crip.
He'd pretty much accepted that Justin Crowe had a Dark Avatar son who'd brought him back to life. That could be reconciled with the prophecies that the Usher would be the last Avatar: in the most probable course of events, he could be destined ultimately to outlive both Ben and his own son. Ben's best chance of breaking that chain of destiny might have been to identify and kill the son first. But aside from the unfairness of his never having been given any hint that a complication like that would arise, how on God's green earth could the man he'd defeated and killed be in better physical shape than he was? Where was the justice in that?
He couldn't shake the suspicion that at least some of his misfortunes were punishment for his sins.
It was one of those sins that had brought him back to Damascus. He hadn't come to atone for it. If he'd done what he feared he had, no atonement was possible. But he needed to know. To understand what guilt he bore.
As he gazed up at the facade of the Hotel Astoria - haunted by memories, held back by fears - he never heard the farm truck pull away.
Images crowded into his mind. The office behind the registration desk, where he'd first glimpsed a "clerk" with long gray hair. The hotel desk clerk trying to bar his way, as he raced back after he'd realized who that gray-haired man was. The desk clerk staggering when he slugged him. His father's disfigured face.
He recalled the revulsion he'd felt on seeing that. Revulsion, and disgust, with a coward who'd do such a thing to himself to elude a pursuer. To keep Crowe from becomin' Prophet, he reflected, with a remorseful shake of his head. He understood that now. For my sake, not for his.
He saw himself healing a man who didn't want to be healed, yet submitted meekly to the son he loved. While Varlyn Stroud sought to bash the door in with an ax, ignoring the desk clerk's protests that he had a key...
I told myself I had to fix Scudder's face so Belyakov would be sure it was him. But was that the real reason?
I knew I'd be takin' most o' the life-force from the guy nearest the door. Was I tryin' to kill Stroud, healin' my pa for no damn reason but that?
Whether I was or wasn't, I shoulda known better than to do it with someone else as close as that desk clerk was.
I did know better.
That's the sin.
Stroud had evidently realized what was happening and backed off quickly, thrusting the confused desk clerk toward the door. Ben remembered hearing someone fall - not sink to his knees and crumple gently, but topple like a felled tree. When he and Scudder dashed out a few minutes later, Stroud was gone; a number of people who'd been farther away were dazedly getting to their feet. But the desk clerk lay flat on his face, motionless.
Ben hadn't dared pause in his flight. But since then - barring the unwelcome "respite" of a weeks-long coma - not a night had passed in which that last image hadn't wound a sinuous path through his dreams.
Now that he'd reached the hotel, he had no idea how to proceed. If the same desk clerk wasn't on duty - a possibility he scarcely dared let himself hope for - how could he find out whether the man was alive or dead? Would the present staff even know? And how could he explain his need to know? If he learned the man was dead, should he seek out his family? What if they'd been left destitute? He wouldn't be able to help them. Did he owe them an expression of grief, or would he merely be punishing himself, focusing on his need rather than theirs?
Well, standin' here all day ain't gonna accomplish nothin'.
Dragging his duffel bag (he wasn't able to sling it over his shoulder, light though it was), he made his way to the door and entered the lobby.
Then his knees buckled, and he thought he was about to faint.
The plain, round-faced, balding man behind the desk was the same one who'd been there before.