“Is that a bullet hole in the hem of his jacket?” I hear one of the party people whisper behind me.
My hand reaches instinctively for the hem, and the party revelers break out in hysterical laughter. I feel duped. How do they know about the desert and the bullets? How can they possibly know my dreams? My mind swims with the probabilities as Mandolin shuts the door on their cruel snickering. I somehow get the impression that he is involved with their little conspiracy, but he looks up at me with that disarming smile of his and takes me by the arm and whispers intimately, “This way, Dad.”
I’m not Mandolin’s father. I’m not even his friend. What have I gotten myself into? I catch a glimpse of some shadow in front of me, and with a rise in my pulse my eyes target the end of the hallway. It’s him, the top hat man in the big dark cloak! He has a hooked nose! With his jangling set of keys he locks his door and heads up a flight of stairs at the end of the hallway.
“Come on, the room I have for you is this way.”
“Where does that stairway go?”
“Oh, up to the next floor.”
I push Mandolin’s hand off of me and pursue the shadow up a flight of stairs down the hall. People are beginning to appear where none had been before, all dressed in evening wear as if they were headed to a banquet or some wedding. I push past them all as they gasp at the sight of me.
What am I, some kind of freak? Now I’m off chasing shadows.
“Hey! Where are you going?” Mandolin calls after me. I can hear his footfalls following me up the stairs.
The sixth floor is crowded with hotel guests waiting for the elevator. I strain for a look past as I push my way through the group. At last the elevator doors open and workmen appear, carrying ladders and buckets of tools, paint brushes, sanders, and scrapers. The party guests squeal and mumble their displeasure, and the crowd disperses making my passage more difficult.
“Look out.” I say.
A workman with a ladder swings to get a look at me and knocks some poor woman unconscious. Her male companion bends down and the crowd gathers around like ants at a feeding frenzy.
“Doris!” The man calls. “Somebody call the nurse!”
“Oh, hold on. I’ll be right back.” I hear Mandolin say behind me.
But all this is going on behind me, and I pay no attention to it. My senses are drawn forward in search of the mysterious man in the top hat!
Suddenly he appears at the end of the hallway, moving slowly and purposefully towards me. He passes in front of a light. How strange that no features appear as he crosses in front of the light. What kind of ghost is this to be merely a two dimensional black shape? The light flickers and goes out as he passes. What powers he must possess to command the cover of dark whenever a light hits him.
“Hey! What are you doing?” Mandolin shouts.
“Don’t you see him?”
Mandolin seems befuddled. “See what?” His eyes are directed in the same direction as mine, but he doesn’t see the shadow man. Lucky Mandolin – if there is a thread of good in him it is this inability to see dark things.
The workmen are coming past, and taking spots up and down the hall. They’re laying their tarps down and setting up for major work.
My shadow man is lost in a crowd of guests emerging from the center stairway. I rush after him and mount the downward stairs that lead off around a massive wall. The light from a huge arched window beams diffusely down on the stairway. The people are too crowding. I can’t get past. The shadow man moves effortlessly through the people. I want to catch him, to look at him, to see his face, to capture his hooked nose, to see what eyes must be there, and what intelligence possesses those eyes. But the tuxedoes and the party dresses push me back. A forest of them grows around me so they are all I can see. I push down, past the light of the window, shoving bodies out of the way. And finally I break through the crowd. I reach the open stairway around the curved massive wall and look down a darkening stretch of stairs. He is somewhere, indistinguishable from the inky stillness down there.
Mandolin reappears above my shoulder. He touches me there. “Are you alright?” He asks.
But in my breathless condition I am reminded of my desert adventure, and feel the full weight of that fatigue pounding down on me as if it really happened.
“Come on. We gotta get on the elevator.”
Another alarm seizes me. I feel about my breast pocket and my jacket. My book, Paradise Lost? Where is my book? Christ, I lost it in the desert. I’ve got to get back to the desert.
“Now what’s wrong?” Mandolin wants to know.
“My book… I…” And it dawns on me. “I must’ve left it back in the other room.”
“Oh, you want me to get it for you?’
“No, I can’t do that.” I mutter helplessly. “Look, I need some rest and quiet…”
Mandolin cuts me off, “You look famished. You really should eat. You should head downstairs with the rest of the guests.”
Where downstairs? Upstairs, downstairs, who can tell in this place? I check my watch. “It’s just twelve.” I say, exasperated.
“That’s right, dinner time! And after dinner we’ve got events. This place really comes alive.”
“No. Thank you. I just want to sit down a minute.”
It feels nice to sit down, even on the stairs. It’s cool from the draft of air calling me from the darkness below. I’m not in a stuffy room with freaky monsters lurking about. I stare down the dark stairway and rest quietly. My rushed breathing subsides.
“I gotta go.” Mandolin says apologetically.
I wave him off absently. “Yeah, yeah… You go…” Hoping he will disappear quickly. I hear his feet turn and his footfalls recede up the stairway back to the sixth floor. After a moment, I’m alone at last.
“Say, do you see a power outlet down there?”
I look up the stairs. An elderly workman wearing paint stained white overalls and work boots throws down a power chord. The end lands behind me. There happens to be a wall outlet there, so I plug it in for him. The workman starts up an electric saw that sends a shrill scream up and down the hallway. Thankfully he’s only testing it.
“Thanks!” He says.
“Sure,” I say, and stand up, thinking once again of my book. Where did I leave it? Oh yeah! Room 431…
I walk back up the stairs and pass through the workmen scraping and tearing away wallpaper. They set about the job industriously, and I wonder how anyone will get any sleep tonight. I find it odd, it being dinnertime at twelve o’clock. Mandolin says there aren’t any rooms, and yet they keep moving me into different rooms where sleep is next to impossible. I wonder for a minute why and what it all could be for. But the elevator is beckoning me, another group of workmen spill out. As I enter I hear them arrange their tools and set immediately to work.
Somehow I’ve gotten pushed back to the rear of the elevator. I’m surrounded by buckets of tools and a ladder that bars any movement within the small cabin. Three workmen are standing next to me.
“Press four please.” I order the stocky workman by the controls. I notice briefly, as he shifts his weight to the side that the numbers on the control panel are all out of order, and out of whack. The three is where the six should be, and the four is beneath the number two. In addition they are off center, or rotated awkwardly like scattered puzzle pieces in some conflagration of numeric order. The workman presses four and turns his face, which is etched with rivers and tributaries of his age and deeply rouged, and he looks at me with a twinkle in his eye and a silly alcoholic grin.
“Why all the fuss?” I ask, as if he could give me a straight answer. He just hiccups and swallows hard with an obnoxious belch that lets me know he has been drinking gin.
“Painters…” His sober partner deadpans. This is obviously a man with his wits about him as he scrutinizes the old man with a pair of chalky white hands and fingernails split and yellow and altogether revolting in a way that makes you sorry for such a person. But he has a presence in his eyes, a calmness and serenity, or perhaps it is only resignation. At any rate, this is just another day in a long continuum of days such as this. “Always hitting the sauce,” he says.
“Helps counter balance the fumes that toxify my blood,” the drunken painter gurgles in his defense.
“You’re blood could qualify as industrial waste.”
“But why all the fuss?” I query again.
“Changes, always changes…” My droll host tells me.
“O.B.” The drunk mutters and his face turns sad.
“O.B.?” I wonder aloud.
The workman with the tattered digits chuckles resignedly and snickers. “Mr. Livion’s always looking for ways to improve the ‘guest experience.’ He’s a real stickler for innovation.”
“Yesssirrr, a reeeaaaal schtickler…”
“Keep ‘em guessing,’ he says, ‘Never let ‘em pin you down.”
“Neeever let ‘em pin ye deeown!”
“Once you do that, you’re sunk!”
“O.B. Livion…” Strange name, I mutter.
“Owns everything, the whole Outland hotel is his. He keeps a long distance handle on things. They say he has a bunker out in no man’s desert, keeps a tab on everything with a telephone.”
“Yep. He’s real high tech! – [hic!]”
The bell rings, and the door opens. The drunk shuffles the ladder so I can exit. On the outside I receive another shock. The fourth floor is taken up with scaffolds and more workmen. There must be fifty or more, chipping paint, sanding or demolishing walls. An acetylene flair lights up the end of the hallway. My eyes lock in hope of seeing the strange dark figure, but my strange antagonist has gone elsewhere. Perhaps he left in anticipation of this disturbing mess.
“Where’s room 431?” I ask a dust mask, goggle fitted workman, busy grinding away on a metal hand rail. He points down the hall and I follow his direction. Working my way through the busy network of steel scaffold, I duck at the sound of heavy footfalls over my head, of workmen blasting away at the ceiling with a high pressure machine. Bits of paint and dust rain down on me, and I shield my eyes in hopes of finding my lost room. Finally I come to a gap in the scaffolds, and find the proper door.
The dusty brass door knob yields easily, and the door falls away. But instead of the room I left, a hallway extends some fifty feet away from me. This can’t be. The room was only twenty feet deep. They’ve built beyond the hotel’s exterior walls. How could they have built this so fast? In disbelief I step inside, and am met with the lonely sound of my leather clad foot striking a hard tile floor. The narrow hallway is lit with rectangular fluorescent overheads. The white walls are broken intermittently by brand new white doors. As I walk down I try each of them, but they are all locked. The end of the hall veers sharply to the right and leads me into more hallways. Where is room 431? I try all the doors to no avail. My book has to be in one of these rooms. But they’re all locked. I make several turns, moving further and further into a system of corridors. Perhaps they returned it to lost and found. Yes, that’s it. All I have to do is go downstairs and ask the Clerk if any of the workers brought my book to the front desk. Surely that’s what happened. He’ll know. But as I turn around and try to find my way out I get further and further locked in by halls and locked doors, until I come to a four way intersection and must pick a path. At the end of one of the corridors I see a window. Perhaps if I can get a glimpse outside, I might be able to figure out where I am, and then, maybe, I can find my way back from there.
The window is large and curved at the top, with an ornate wood bridge supported by an “O”. A simple latch on the right opens easily, so I throw the window wide open. A cold gust of air hits me, tinged with a bit of rain. The sky outside is heavy with dark gray clouds. Thunder rumbles over the distant hills and echoes back. I stick my head out and look down. Fourth floor, nothing! There must be some mistake! I’m at least twelve stories above ground! I see an ornamental garden beyond the glass statuary outside the main foyer columned by a row of cypress trees extending down a footpath winding off into a wilderness. More trees dot the surrounding manicured lawns bordering seamlessly on undeveloped foothills that roll into the mountains.
“Damn elevator.” I mutter. Behind me, the hallway has gone dark so I can no longer see. I look out the window and begin examining the ledge. I think I can reach it with my foot, and it seems wide enough to walk on. But where will it take me? Down the way I see a gargoyle leaning over the precipice. His arched back is detailed with grotesque ridges and horns extending from his canine hips to a fierce brow and a rabid snarl with eyes wise and sharp and ever watchful. Beyond him another window is swung open. It’s not too far, I tell myself. At this point I do not take another look down, and soon find myself pivoting out the window, and lowering my left foot to the ledge.
Thinking about walking a ledge twenty plus stories over ground and doing it are two different things. This becomes abundantly clear as I am buffeted by wind. Even worse, as the wind is now carrying tiny drops of water that become larger and more frequent. A brilliant flash lights up the whole side of the building with a gigantic SNNAP, and a heinous explosion sounds with a shock wave which shortly very nearly causes me to take a head first plunge down the long impassive wall. My whole skeleton shudders climactically, and I instinctively move my head to counterbalance my weight. My whole body comes toward the wall, and allows me to maintain vertical hold.
I am now not far enough to want to continue to go forward, and too far out to turn back. I struggle in the grip of fear that has my limbs and joints frozen. My fingertips clasp spider-like to the porous mortar between the bricks. My heart pounds rabbit fast in my chest, and I can feel blood lurching at odd intervals throughout my extremities. Fighting against the slow dimming of my senses, I somehow will my body into motion, inching my left toe first along the ledge’s wall joint, and then pushing off with my right. This becomes routine as the rain continues to pelt me, and now assails me in sheets and torrents like sea spray off the bow of a ship from hurricane driven waves.
I’m feeling cold with the drenching down pour and particularly vulnerable as behind me there is no wall, just untold stories of open air. What inside me has made me do this? Where is my reason? I could have stumbled around in the dark for a half an hour or half a day, it wouldn’t have mattered. Eventually another way would have opened up, and I would have found my way back. Why did I have to pick this way, the most difficult, the most treacherous, the most life threatening? It’s a dark sense of adventure that forces a man to do what he knows can kill him.
My hand is searching the gargoyle’s hide for something to hold onto. I test one of the horns, and it breaks off with just a sample of my weight. My hands flail, and I launch backward, but catch myself at the last second as the ground begins an impotent rescue attempt.
Shaking, nauseous, and delirious, I swing with my right hand and huddle close to the back of the beast, and my sanity escapes over the ledge’s long drop and flits carelessly amid the long rows of falling rain and sky splitting columns of electricity. The torrent is fabulous and I feel strangely comforted by the violent summer storm at full tilt, unleashing its titanic passion against this building, against this demon, against me with my wet clothes and soggy shoes and heart tearing itself apart with fear. I’m somehow able to bear the fear, and to let it course over me like an ocean wave… for this moment the storm is so beautiful. It reminds me of something I once felt in a dream, where there was peace and home and everything seemed in place…
Gradually I slide my right foot down and ease myself onto the ledge on the other side of the gargoyle, and I am driven from my reverie by the rainy bombardment. An open window is not far off. I ease quietly along the edge, my eyes absolutely focused on the window. I try to breathe. I have to concentrate to keep my wits. The storm churns and thunder explodes, sending wave after wave of water down on me. I try to think of it as only a theatrical display, and allow my imagination to drift as it did on the gargoyle’s back. This inspiration propels me forward. My shoes are now so soaked through, and they bond coldly with the ledge beneath me as I slide inch by inch, and with gaining confidence, foot by foot along the brick and mortar joints, until my hand reaches the open window’s frame, and I cautiously pivot myself safely back inside.