He looked at his daughter Joan, his darling daughter, lying on the floor, shaking her head for him not to go. Then he looked back up at Olga Pastukova.
“You’re sure? It has to be me?”
Olga Pastukova nodded.
“Alright. I’ll come. But, all throughout, you have my word that I won’t fucking like it.”
– ‘Hope Has A Sailor’s Tongue’, Derek Merriman, in The Tilleton Weird Reader: Volume 3
‘Gyfu’A thin, average-looking man in a houndstooth jacket, white shirt and khaki pants sat by the window of room 212 at the Hanson. All of the windows were drawn before he got there; he insisted over the phone. He asked for all of his soda in cans, and insisted that no room service call for him or ever deliver any meals at all, not even anything complimentary, until his guests arrived. He cut the concierge off when she was about to ask about said complimentary pampering; this was his twelfth visit to the hotel in as much as eight months, not like he could tell. He only stayed for some days at a time, but it was always the Hanson. And always 212.
Out past the windows lay the Tilleton port. The best view of the bay, and all the lights and business between him and it, was from this window; 211 faced the opposite direction, and try as it might, 213 couldn’t really touch it. Closing into the evening, like right now, he loved to look out of the large glass windows and see its lights mingle with the rouge-tinged clouds. He preferred that, if he was going to travel any real distance out of his hometown just for a job, he should at least pay for a decent view. A motel was enough as a momentary place to sleep. He was already in Tilleton for one day – a Carmelite day, forty hours, more than enough cause for jetlag after covering so many private clients in the Earth Caribbean. He was expecting, unfortunately, to be there at least two days and one night more. So, the view was enough.
He sighed. This was just the meeting, after all. He could have done most of this over the phone, or not at all. But he was here. It was imperative that he appeared punctually and this meeting occurred without a hitch. He had to see it himself. To know it was done.
He squinted out of the window. It felt less magnificent this time around. Less sprawling and joyous.
It felt more like dozens of eyes were up at him, judging.
It goes without saying that a man of his talents is not so much paranoid as he is aware. That awareness has kept him alive for this long. That awareness has also ensured that he was the best and longest running man in his craft, the one whose name uttered in shadow had been granted a level of trust. When people see it in an online forum, they can think of at least one story they’ve heard. In it, lots of random passersby have possibly lost property, or suffered painfully, or even died. But it always ends with someone getting something they want. And people only die a few times.
He let the curtain hang down, stepping away from the window and toward the edge of the queen size bed. His rendezvous was due any moment now. He would have to prepare his presentation.
His phone began to vibrate on the bedside table, rattling the small ceramic vase beside it, its plastic bamboo shoot trembling. He picked it up and put it to his ear, the phone automatically answering the call.
The voice on the other end was light, almost childish. “Good evening. I figure you’re the person I’m supposed to talk to?”
“Well, since we’re off…” Darren put his palms flat on the table. “One more, for the road? I haven’t had a drink since I got here.”
“That’s because you got here late, friend,” Rebecca rebutted.
“Come on.” He smirked. “I know I’m late to the party, but you guys got to know each other already. I’ve been trying to find this place for a half hour; can’t I at least get a moment to sip some sauce and chill?”
“Then I hope whatever you’re feeling for comes in a bottle, at least,” Kevin said. “It’s getting far too late anyway. We’ll have to head up soon enough. I’ll be damned if we lose this because you got lost in town.”
“Ey, barkeep!” Darren shouted, spinning around to see if he got someone’s attention. “One shot o’ tequila. Immediately.”
A man in a dark blue shirt looked up from a nearby table and squinted at him in annoyance. “Uh huh,” he grunted, heading up to the counter; Darren got up to follow, and the others joined him, reaching into wallets and purses to pay for what they already had. He downed his shot instantly, then reached into the left inside pocket of his blazer for a money clip and pulled out a twenty-vinemark bill.
“See? Now we’re all ready to face the world!” he said eagerly, gesturing for them to head out.
Kevin started toward the door. “You’re one of those guys who’s proud to say he’s hyper, aren’t you?”
Darren nodded. “Why, is that a bad thing?”
“Course not.” He grinned anxiously. “Not at all.”
In the car, Rebecca couldn’t help but notice that Adrienne’s phone made her anxious. It had rung six times since she arrived at the bar, not counting the time it just vibrated in her bag. She made up her mind that this wasn’t worth asking about – she wasn’t about to go prying in anyone’s business – but it registered regardless. She wasn’t sure if she was concerned or annoyed, but a part of her brain twitched as Adrienne twitched, as if her fidgeting shook the whole back seat. Rebecca rested her left elbow on the door and tried to ignore it.
Darren yawned and checked his own phone. “The Hanson Arms, Daly Avenue.”
“Yes, Darren,” Kevin said, “we know.”
“Says here it’s a-”
“Half hour drive – we know.” He sighed. “Not like the app knows what it’s doing, anyway – it’s adjusting for traffic, but this isn’t nearly as bad as the navigator thinks. We can be there in fifteen, ten.”
Darren dropped his phone onto his lap and rubbed his hands eagerly. “I can’t wait. We’re probably going to be the first people this side of Cordon County to actually feast our eyes upon Merriman’s last masterpiece.”
“Last?” Adrienne looked up from her phone now, one eyebrow raised. “As in… no more?”
“Well, duh.” Darren stretched, looking back from the front passenger seat. “This is one of those, like, marketing fumbles publishers make when they absolutely positively can’t get another book out of the guy. Like, not just because he ‘retired’ or went on some eight-month alcohol bender. This is squarely in ‘the author’s probably dead’ territory, I’d reckon.”
Adrienne let out a gasp that sounded more like a squeak. Then, she squinted at him. “That’s dumb. Like, conspiracy-theory-level foolish.”
“So… it’s more believable that he, or his publisher, hated the book so much that someone else made a thousand copies of it and started selling them for four figures in private chatrooms?”
“Well, it makes more sense.” She locked her phone and put it away in her purse. “Not that they hate it – that this is some kind of gimmick. A stunt to drum up more attention for the book.”
“So why would it matter to us to get it now? And… why are we meeting a man the internet insists is a hardened criminal?”
Adrienne paused, contemplating the question. “I don’t know. It just… wouldn’t make sense for us to not know what’s going on with Merriman. I mean, he’s one of Carmel’s most outstanding writers – and our news can’t get enough of reminding Earth that Carmel makes just as many talented, functioning people as they do. If he passed, it would be news. It would be… better for the book, even. As morbid as that sounds.”
Rebecca chimed in soon after. “Besides, neither theory answers how the book exists in the first place, or how we’re getting it. If the publisher didn’t want it out, whoever had one would have put it in a torrent database by now. Someone has copies. What we can only presume are ARCs of the original manuscript. Warts and all, even. Right off a desk. And is handing them out hard-copy. That’s what we’re paying top dollar for – the chance to see those warts.”
“Come now, children,” Kevin said. “Let’s not have this debate in the car, or so help me, I’ll turn it around.”
“Oh, come on, Kev…”
“Kev?” Darren was obviously beginning to get on his nerves a little. Rebecca was the only other person who noticed.
“We’re just having a harmless conversation. But I’m sure you’ve been wondering too. Why all this trouble for a book? Not just for us to have it – I’ve played a couple alternate reality games in my life, I know all about traveling cross-country just to answer a call in a phone booth. Why all this to make it?”
Kevin turned back to the road, pretending to ignore the question. But it gnawed at him too. This wasn’t some stunt. Stunts don’t rely on strangers making meetings with confirmed real-life art fences with trails of blood behind them. This was… the word ‘mistake’ came to mind as a descriptor. He strained to find another, but the word he found seemed to get bolder in his head. Mistake. MISTAKE.
“Anyway,” Kevin replied, “I don’t need to have this conversation now. We’re about to get our hands on one. Idle speculation won’t do us any favours. “
Darren leaned back in his seat roughly. Rebecca winced as he nudged her knees. “Alright, I’ll shut up now,” Darren said, and she whispered softly, “Thank you, Jesus.”
Adrienne jumped again, glanced down at the phone in her lap, and then sighed.
Kevin insisted on doing all the talking. Rebecca silently objected to not having any input, but she didn’t feel like inputting at this point. She put her hands in her pockets, observing the lobby of the hotel with intense silence.
Darren whistled as he walked in, impressed by the stone walls of the interior, stretching beyond the side and back of the front counter and going right into the open dining space, where dozens of couples and business executives sat by round glass tables eating small portions of well-plated expensive food. “How much does a room in a hole like this go for?” he asked, not really in anyone’s direction. “Near four figures a night?”
Kevin stepped up to the concierge desk, drumming his fingers against the brown marble counter as he waited for the attendant to come off an intercom receiver on the wall and face him. The concierge caught his eye and signaled that it would only take a moment. After a few more hums of affirmation into the phone, he hung it up and turned to them. “Welcome to the Hanson, ladies and gentlemen. What can I do for you this evening?”
“We’re here to see a Mr. Muzzio? He said Room… Two-Twelve? He may have mentioned that he’d have guests around this hour.”
“Oh, yes…” He opened a ledger beneath the counter, flipping through pages slowly. “Uh… yep, says here he’s expecting a party of four for a meeting – you’re kinda late, I think? Darren James and company.”
Darren grinned at the two ladies, and Rebecca rolled her eyes.
“Yep, that’s us,” Kevin said with a soft sigh.
“Understood. He said I needn’t call him up when you guys get here, just that you should hurry on up and see him.” The concierge smiled warmly and shut the ledger. “Room service will be sending up some light refreshments at his request; anything special you guys would like?”
“Lotsa tequila,” Darren shouted, walking forward a bit.
Kevin turned to him and widened his eyes in annoyance, then faced the desk again. “Water and coffee will be fine. We doubt we’ll be here long enough for it to be ready, anyway.”
“Well, if it makes you feel better,” the concierge said, “our chefs try to be really quick about our preparation of water.” He chuckled a bit, first proud of his joke, then nervously as he noticed Kevin’s lack of response.
Kevin tapped the counter awkwardly. “Well, we’ll be heading up, then,” he said, stepping toward the elevator, and the three others followed.
“I for one thought that was at least a C-class joke,” Darren said as they entered the elevator, Adrienne lightly tapping the second floor button. “C-minus, maybe.”
“Good for you,” Rebecca said. “Maybe the both of you can open a comedy club when we’re done.”
The doors swung open again to pastel-pink walls along the walkway, with red accents below, and deep red carpet running the length of the floor. The room to the left wall from the elevator was Room 201, with all the others leading down the corridor.
“Well, time for the moment of truth.” Rebecca yawned and started ahead down the hallway. She tried not to seem overly tense. But she was. This was a bad idea. A terrible, terrible idea. At best, they all wasted money and time to get here. At worst, this was how people got kidnapped.
Adrienne fidgeted. The hallway was haunting, in its own way. Silent, dimly lit, with just the slow and creaking trolley of hotel room service being pushed toward them by a short and fair attendant who kept her head low. She parted the four of them with it, even, splitting them into even pairs of male on the left and female on the right, one front wheel nearly tripping Adrienne as they walked past. Rebecca caught her with both arms around her waist before she could fall over.
“Apologies,” the attendant murmured.
“No problem,” Adrienne said, straightening up quickly and anxiously. She glanced back at Rebecca. “Thanks.”
Rebecca nodded, letting go, her eye still idly on the attendant until she slipped into the elevator, headed downstairs.
Darren snapped his finger, making her jump. “We’re right over here,” he said, pointing at the door to 212. “Door’s already open, too—”
He pushed it open slowly, mouth open wide in shock. In the dark, he could barely make out the specifics. But he knew that the floor was sticky beneath the heels of his shoes, and that the white bedsheets were speckled with something dark. He saw an old man in a jacket slumped on the floor in the centre of the room, just beside the bed.
Kevin stepped behind him, reached across the inner wall for a light switch. Once he found one, the room springing with white awareness, he made to scream—and Darren caught his mouth just as suddenly.
Darren stared right at Rebecca. “We have a problem.”