When the elevator doors open we are confronted by Blix and Mandolin, looking like two cats which have just devoured their prey. Scattered round the lobby of the hotel are the entire force of FBI goons, Brutus, and Chef Black, all covered in dust and soot. With grim determination I lead Helen and the children across the floor as all eyes watch us and wait. Helen and I notice a brief case, identical to the one I just threw out the window, bulging on the floor by Mandolin’s leg. Mandolin is smiling facetiously, a merry twinkle in his eye.
Guests of the hotel are picking themselves up and rubbing their heads from the shock of the bomb blast. The fat man and the wrestling boys are still at their game of rug tumbling and cracker stuffing.
We make it as far as the door, I fear, but seems we’ve made it. Then the clerk, Mr. Blix, opens his terse mouth.
“I trust you found everything to your liking, Mr. J.”
“It was not, sir.” I rumble angrily, striding toward the door.
Blix takes my effrontery in gentlemanly stride. He maintains his perfect host composure. Host rule #2: even through your guest is an impertinent asshole, smile and be gracious.
“Still,” he begins with an I’ve-still-got-you-by-the-balls certainty, “there is the matter of your debt to be settled.”
“Now see here, Blix.” I retort, “You’ve conned me from the start. This whole affair has been nothing but a sham. But even so, I am willing to pay you whatever it takes. I don’t have any cash, but I’ve got credit, and I’m willing to pay you, whatever it takes…”
“Whatever it takes?”
“That’s what I said, whatever it takes. Helen, bring me the Visa.”
“I’m sorry, I would bring you the Visa, but Visa canceled our last card for late payments yesterday. I tried to tell you, but you were busy.”
I, of course, don’t know what to say.
“I’m an honorable man, Mr. Blix.”
Blix sighs with exasperation. “The riddle, Mr. J. Have you solved the riddle?”
“What riddle is that?”
“The riddle we’ve been feeding you all during this raging hormonal escapade of yours. You’ve been collecting pieces since you got your first room. The first two were easy. We gave them to you. They’re in your pockets.”
My hands rummage down and find wadded up bits of paper, the greeting card from room 431, the “bill” from the dining room, the scratch pad remnants from the game show. I hold them all in front of me.
It doesn’t make any sense.
“Yummy fouldignerin, hm-hm-hm-hm…”
Fouldignerin, fouldignerin… Something Helen said to me. When? Just moments ago… Before the bomb blast… Her words percolate up out of the dense fog in my brain, the percussion of the bomb still tossing my head like feathers in a pillow. I’m through floundering, John…
“FLOUNDERING! That’s it!”
“Evil lives in floundering love!”
As if a spell has been broken, the wrestling boys get up and pat each other on the back, and the fat man’s tongue comes untied.
“Floundering love…” He grumbles.
Blix’s smile dissolves the darkness I have witnessed so clearly.
“Mandolin walks past us with the Old Man’s keys and unlocks the heavy crystal doors. Helen smiles at me and takes my hand.
“Oh, there’s just one more item.” Blix interrupts. “Your book.” He holds it in his hands, my leather bound copy of Paradise Lost.
“That’s alright. You can keep it.” I tell him.
“Very well.” He smiles. “Have a nice day, Mr. J.” The old man turns away, thumbing through the book’s pages, lost in immeasurable words.
My friend from the clock tower, the old man who gave me comfort and aid, steps out of the crowd and take’s Helen gently by the hand.
“You have a good man here.” He says.
Helen looks startled. But I can tell by the way she looks at him she understands the truth in the old man’s words. Then she looks at me with a wise cracking smile and jokes, “He’s a crazy one.”
To which the old man replies, “And that is what you love most about him.” Helen’s face beams with understanding, and she glances sidelong knowingly at me. Her gaze is a light on my soul, restoring my confidence.
I turn to face Mandolin who is holding the door open for us with his little boy clown smile, his little bellman’s cap raked stylishly to one side.
“Headed out for a vacation are you, Mandy?”
“Vacation?” He exclaims. “Hell! I might retire.”
“Well, don’t spend it all in one place.” I warn him.
“Oh, I won’t, Pops, you can bet on that.”
Helen and I, and our two children walk hand in hand out of this dark place into a garden sparkling with morning birds and cherry blossoming trees, and catch the first clear rays of the day.