Blackness envelops me, cold and still. I am the nib of a pen, drowning in ink, floating at the edge of oblivion. Almost formless. Just more than a concept, a physical thought. Suddenly, a noise, a shriek, reverberates around my cocoon, wrenching me from the precipice. Again, the high pitched knife slashes through the darkness like a switchblade made of fluorescent light. Blinding white.
I blink my eyes open. Feels like the knife is jammed in behind them and I squint hard trying to dislodge it. Beside me is a half empty bottle of scotch. Muscle memory sets in without hesitation and, before I know it’s happening, the cap is off and I’m taking my first slug of the day (surely not the last of the night). The knife melts slightly. Another few and it’ll have dissolved back to ink.
I take inventory from my position on the floor. I’m still fully clothed, disheveled. My head’s pounding like a Catholic schoolgirl at Mardi Gras, the bottle cradled in my arms must have an empty brother someplace. Bed’s still made, guess I didn’t make it that far. Last night really did a number on me. Was I celebrating or commiserating? Is it Wednesday already?
The room is dank, stains like stalagmites (or is it stalactites?) run up the walls and down from the ceiling in a rainbow of orange and brown. Blinds are down but they’re busted up enough for me to tell it’s still night time outside. Neon light pours in through the cracks, rotating red, green, blue, flashing white; lights the room up like a Christmas tree in February.
I check for my phone but it ain’t in my pockets, just a key with the number eight engraved into it. I look through the ruin of my jacket crumpled up beside me like a dead animal. It ain’t in there either. It’s a piece of shit burner anyway, who cares? Wallet’s nowhere to be seen either. No cash anyway. No cards either, fuck giving my money to those snivelling bankers. My investigator’s license is gonna be a pain to replace though if it doesn’t turn up. It’ll show up.
My ankle piece is still there. I eject the cylinder. Please, God, don’t tell me I used this last night, last thing I need is another wrongful discharge on my sheet. Still loaded, six little brass buddies glinting up at me, unspent. Owe you one, JC.
The room feels familiar somehow, though I can’t place it. I’ve stayed in my share of downtown shitholes before, but this one doesn’t fit. There’s something off about it, like one of those staircase paintings where the lines don’t match up; up is down, inside out.
Sounds like someone is playing drums in the next room over. The rhythmic thumping of bass shakes the wall, a fine mist of stucco jostles free from a crack near the ceiling and sprinkles onto the unused bed. The thumping grows, the drummer losing rhythm. Another shriek, this one muffled by the wall. I bolt up to my feet, piece in hand. The shrieking grows with the thumping, each intensifying the other, reaching a climax. Sounds like an animal in there trying to shake itself loose from a cage. The moans of a deeper voice rise and mix into the screams.
Five gunshots in the hall. Fired in rapid succession. So close to my door the hinges seem fit to burst with the percussion of it. Three more. I’m frozen in place.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP IN THERE!” a man’s voice, big, a colossus. “PEOPLE AH TRYNA FUCKEN SLEEP, YA ANIMALS!”
One more gunshot, no, a cannon blast. I hear it crack the door to the next room. Stucco rains down as the crack in my wall is blasted into a chasm. The couple behind the wall have fallen silent. No encore.
I creep to my door, quiet as a kid trying to catch a glimpse of Santa, lean into the peephole. A mass moves down the hall away from me, a mountain of a man the width of the corridor, blocking out the wavering lights above him as he goes. He slams his bowling ball sized fist into the wall as he goes, another shotgun blast, punches straight through the rotting drywall to a scream.
“YOU SHUT YOUR FUCKEN MOUTH TOO!”
The hulk wrenches his fist from the wall, stalks to the end of the hall and disappears into the room beside the elevator. The door slams, dusting the hall.
I can hear the voices next door more clearly now. Light pours through the crack at the border of the wall and ceiling. I go to it. A man and a woman, hushed tones.
“Come on baby,” the man’s voice, pleading. “I didn’t even finish. Just a little longer. Please.”
“I told you before,” the woman, young, teasing. “You can’t fuck me that hawd or he’s gonna come bust the door down and tear you in half.”
Movement. Bed springs creak.
“I know baby, I’m sorry. You’re just so fuckin’ beautiful, you’re a goddess. I just lose myself when we make love. I can’t control myself when I’m inside you.”
“Stawp,” the woman says, purring.
“Please, baby, just a little longer,” the man. “I promise I’ll be quiet. Please.”
More movement, bed springs and shuffling.
“Sorry, sweetheart. You know Mama won’t like it. You wanna go again, you gotta pay.”
“You know money ain’t no thing with me, gorgeous,” the man says. I hear him pulling on his pants, the clink of a belt buckle. “Tell Maw I’ll be back with her money soon. I love you, baby, you know that? You’re my goddess, my Aphrodite.”
The young woman giggles. A kiss. Movement across the room, towards the splintered door. I move back to the peephole. A skinny man creeps from the opening, shirtless, balding. His unzipped pants held up with one hand, a bundle of clothes and shoes held in the other. A slender hand floats after him, painted nails, creaseless. He takes the hand, pants falling around his knees, and kisses it. He whispers something and the hand drifts back into the room, the door softly closing after it. The man gathers up his pants again, scuttles down the hall and into a room on the adjacent side.
Soft humming seeps through the crack, carried on the light like a mother’s song for her child. I’m drawn to it, someone pulled the plug and I’m spiraling down to the hole, powerless. I climb onto the bed, put my hands up against the wall and look inside the adjoining room.
She dances about inside, bathed in pink light, half humming, half singing her lilting melody, bedsheet wrapping whirling behind her like a bride’s veil. I can see why that chump was so enamoured. She is incredible. Mature yet breezy, self-assured in her own beauty. She bounces off the balls of her doll’s feet as she goes, golden hair flowing with every flick of her neck. She doesn’t just move, she glides. I can almost taste her. Long dormant feelings stir down south.
She settles beside her mirror, like the ones the showgirls use backstage, all framed in bare bulbs, half red, half white, staining the cracked room rose. She gazes at herself, sighs, a smile lifting the corners of her cherry blossom lips, she seems lost in her own eyes, sinking with me. Be with me, my love.
“Tell me I’m beautiful,” she says, softly.
I gaze on.
“I’m tawkin’ t’ you, big boy.”
I notice her eyes have flitted onto the reflection of mine, just barely visible through the slit in the wall. The spell is broken. I snap my head to the left.
“Uh, sorry, ma’am,” I manage. “I just heard some kind of commotion, thought I’d see if you fine folks needed assistance.”
“No commotion here, just business.” She giggles.
“Mind if I ask who that refrigerator making matchsticks outta your door was?”
“Oh, don’t mind Larry,” she smiles. “He’s kinda hot headed. You hear anything else from in there, big boy?”
For once in my life I’m lost for words.
“You know, the first one’s always free,” she says, rising.
She’s moving towards the crack, now. I hear the bed springs moan. She sighs into the hole in the wall, it’s like she’s right here in the room with me. I feel her breath on my neck, rattling my entire nervous system.
“After that, you’ll love me,” she says, whispering now. “You won’t be able to get enough.”
I don’t move. Fumble for the third finger on my left hand.
“Perhaps you already love me…” she says. “Perhaps you already need me.” And she groans in ecstasy.
I wrench myself out of her grasp.
“Sorry to be a bother ma’am,” I say, beat cop again, pre-disgrace. “Just let me know if you need anything.”
She laughs at that, loud and cackling.
“Oh I shall, officer,” she says. “Likewise.”
I step down off the bed, hear her move back towards the mirror and set herself down, humming softly once more.
What was that? What kind of hellhole have I crawled into this time?
I go to the window and look outside, try to get my bearings. The city is awash with lights, rain pelting the glass and smearing the neon into a glowing kaleidoscope. I back away. Time to check out.
I whisk my jacket off the floor, put it on. Check around the room for anything I might have missed. Nothing but a defiled old bible on the bedside table, looks like someone used it as an ashtray. I got my vices but smoking ain’t one, thank God. In the bathroom I find the long lost twin of my morning pick-me-up, drained. Guess that explains the migraine. Case closed. I straighten up my shirt as best I can, give up fast. Wrinkled as a nun’s you-know-what.
I make for the door. It won’t budge. That lug Larry must have a ten ton fist. I put my shoulder into it, try again, foot against the frame. It comes loose, almost sends me sprawling through the window and into sweet oblivion. Not today. I head out, pull the door closed and slide the key home. Number eight. Locked.
The hallway feels hostile. No-man’s land in the war between the eight rooms jutting off at absurd angles. I take a moment, compose myself, then creep like a beggar towards the elevator. Don’t wanna wake Larry.
On the handle of door number five hangs a Do Not Disturb sign, a Please Make Up Room sign tucked behind it. Make your mind up, fella. I reach the elevator. Almost out. Press the button with the arrow facing my feet. A dull click, then silence. I press it again, harder. Nothing. I press the arrow pointing at my chin and hold my ear to the thick steel doors. Nothing stirs in the shaft.
Gotta be some kind of stairwell here, even rundown fleapit hellholes got fire safety standards to adhere to, including the ones built during the war. Whadya know, the door to my left has a little metal engraving of a flight of stairs. Bingo. I twist the handle and push but the door resists. Larry’s howitzer hands haven’t buckled this one too, surely. I push again, this time with my shoulder. Nothing. I check the door, no key hole, no safety release. Nothing. I hammer the button to the elevator, all in vain.
Defeated, I traipse back up the hall towards my room. Better call downstairs and ask them to send someone up to let me out.
Gentle sobbing from my right as I pass door three. It’s open just a crack. How had I missed that before? The poor soul sniffles in the darkness, I consider walking past all the same, not that I got somewhere pressing to be. But, as per usual, my conscience gets the better of me and I go to the door. Maybe I’m just nosey.
“Hey, buddy,” I say into the dark. “You alright in there?”
I’m answered with snuffling.
“It’s OK, pal, I ain’t here to make fun. Just havin’ a human moment.”
“You fucked her, didn’t you?” a small voice says from the bowels of the room.
“Who would that be then, friend?”
“Va-le-ry.” The voice heaves the name out in three great sobs.
“You mean the dame in room seven?” I say. “Gotta tell you, friendo, I ain’t in for that kinda action. I’m a married man.” In the eyes of God, at least.
I hear something move in the gloom, a shape starts taking form.
“Yuh… you mean it?”
“Cross my heart.”
The shape crawls into the sliver of light cutting the room in half from the doorway. A small man, greased back black hair and thick-rimmed glasses. His skin almost looks green in this light, as stained as the vest and y-fronts he’s wearing.
“You a cop?” he says, eyeing me up and down.
“Used to be,” I say. Why lie? “Just a P.I. now.”
The man’s eyes glint like wet pebbles at this.
“Then you can help me?” he says, moving closer to the door.
I take a step back into the hall.
“That depends on what you need help with there, fella.”
“It’s that bastard, Cavendish,” he hisses the name, “in room four. He’s trying to take her away from me. My sweet Valery.” He starts sobbing again.
“Not sure how I can help ya there, buddy.”
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” he says, fixing me with a forlorn glare. “Isn’t she?”
“She’s certainly a looker,” I say. Well, she is.
“You’ll see to him for me?” he says. “To that bastard Cavendish?”
“Still not sure of what you’re asking me here, pal, but I think you got the wrong guy.”
“I want him DEAD! I WANT THEM BOTH DEAD!” The little man springs lightning fast to the doorway, grips the frame and flings it wide open. I stumble backwards into the hallway.
I hear a thud from down the hall towards the elevator, some great weight hitting mangled carpet.
“Shush, you buffoon,” I say, bringing my finger to my mouth. “You’ll wake that freak down the hall!”
“I DON’T GIVE A FUCK!” he screeches. “IF SHE WON’T HAVE ME, SHE WON’T HAVE ANYONE!”
The corridor rumbles, gathering thunder. An earthquake cascading out from the room marked with the shadow of a long lost number one. A great roar bellows from inside.
I rip myself from the little man’s gravity, bolt for my door. The little man is in the hallway now, wailing at the top of his lungs, tears streaming down his wretched face.
I reach for the key. Fuck, which pocket is it in?
The door to room one blasts open, shatters into a million splinters which fly like shrapnel into the hallway. The little man has stopped shrieking. He stands rooted to the spot, facing away from me at doom lurching down the hall towards him. I find the key. Slide it home. Fling the door open as a cacophony breaks loose; unintelligible roars mingled with blood curdling screams to the beat of flesh being slammed against wood, plaster, glass. I slam the door behind me. Draw my piece and leap away from the door, the compact revolver feeling absurd as I aim it at the door from my place between the wall and the floor. Twenty shots from this pea-shooter wouldn’t be enough to take that monster down. I got six.
The din dies down, replaced by footsteps crunching through broken pieces of matter towards my door. A colossal beast outside scenting the air, breathing hard. A maneater. It comes right up to the door which buckles in its frame as the creature presses its bulk against it. Please hold. I aim the tiny pistol at the peephole. Six shots.
After what feels like an eternity, the hinges creak back almost to their former position, the bulging door recedes back out of the room. Thudding steps retracing the chaos they have wrought, back down the hall and into the doorless void beside the elevator.
I sigh and lower the hammer on my flacid piece.
“I’m sorry,” a voice says beside me, mouth full. “I thought you wuz gone and checked out.”
I almost jump out of my skin. On the other side of the room, peering across at me with wide eyes is a whale of a woman, folds of flesh pouring out around an acne ridden face. The eyes are dog dull, but harmless. She is sprawled out on the floor beside the gaping mini-fridge, crinkled wrappers strew around her, tin of cashew clutched in her great flabby mit.
“Who on God’s green Earth are you?” I say. “What are you doing?”
“I’m sorry,” the fat woman says, clearly ashamed. “I wuz just so hungry. I ain’t ate for hours! Heard you leavin’ and thought you wouldn’t miss it. I’m really sorry, mister.” At that she starts shoveling the cashews into her mouth, frenzied.
What kind of night is this? She’s too wretched to be mad at. Truly pitiable.
“It’s OK,” I say. “Look, just take what you want and get out, OK?”
“Oh, thank you, mister,” she says, cheeks wobbling as she smiles a mouthful of rotten teeth at me. “Lemme just load up ma skeeter and I’ll be outta yuh hair.”
She works fast, faster than any woman her size oughta be able, empties the mini-fridge, drawers and all, into the basket of the mobility scooter which sits on its axles behind her. Huffing as she goes, she hauls herself back into the seat and the damned scooter whirs to life, a low insect drone as it trundles past me towards the door. She smiles her thanks to me, a fistful of mini Snickers bars held to her mouth with one hand, the other guiding the beleaguered scooter through the door and away.
I retrieve the telephone off the floor. The fat lady must’ve knocked it down when she drove past. I press the button for reception. Wait.
“Hello, front desk,” a woman’s voice says, bright and professional. “How may I help?”
“Hello, yes,” I say. “I’m in room 8, upstairs, I think. I’d like to leave but the elevator’s out and the stairwell seems locked up.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the voice says, “we have no room 8. You must be mistaken.”
The thudding and groans in the room beside mine have started again. Rapture pours through the crack in the wall.
“What do you mean? I’m looking at my key now, number 8.”
The woman laughs, not unkindly. “Oh, you must have it sideways.”
“What are you talkin’ about?” I say.
The ecstacy from the room grows. All of a sudden I hear a rapid fire of knocks, the little man is outside.
“Get them!” he screams through the door. “Can’t you hear them!? She’s killing me!”
The couple continues fucking, like they don’t hear him at all.
Another voice joins the man at the door. “If you wanna look in, you gotta pay, little man,” she says, hearty.
“Listen,” I say into the receiver, “the people on this floor are lunatics! You gotta get me out of here before they tear each other apart!”
“Sir,” the voice on the other line says. “Those are not people. You must have done a real number on yourself this time.”
The mini-fridge flings open again. The fat lady stuffing her face with Oreos, staring at me with those sad dog eyes.
In the bed a junky, needle still in arm, plunger down. Out for the count.
I hear the door to the other room bust open.
“You fuckin’ BITCH!” the little man screams and shots ring out. Real shots this time.
“Oh, God,” I say into the phone. “The guy just shot someone. He just fuckin’ killed ‘em!”
“Sir,” the voice says, “please don’t be distressed. It’ll all be over soon.”
A whirlwind in the hallway. Screaming and begging. Pleading. Just a little more, Daddy, I ain’t got no place to go. Please. Don’t let em put me back down there. I can’t do nothin’, you just gotta hold on. We found her, naked in a dumpster on Fifth. The eyes were like that when we got here.
Evil. Evil lurks out there in the space beyond the black. Past oblivion, in the void. Don’t take me back there. Please. Let me stay.
A shriek, all at once, in unison, harmonised. The neon knife slices through my retina and I’m blinking again, trying to force out the pain.