Haunted Passages: “Business Travelers,” a short story by Bernard Reed

 

FOSTER WAS IN TOWN AGAIN. We took a cab together and had a late lunch in an empty little restaurant, after meeting in the lobby of the La— Hotel when my shift there was over. It was his second visit that month. He was staying in a hotel called the Gw—, a swanky new one that had just opened, and he told me about its amenities, its decor, the size of the room and the view he had on the 19th floor. I asked him again what he did for work. His job description was a patchwork of corporate patois: he advanced solutions, he diversified models. Last week he was in Munich, before that Dubai. Once in a while he got lucky and was sent to Southern California, or the south of France. He never talked about the work, but he always talked about the places. He bought cocaine on the streets in Lisbon, he said, and in Buenos Aires you could order a steak and bottle of wine for twelve bucks in a crowded restaurant at midnight. Like his occupation, his dispatches from far and away had a plasticky sheen to them, like a travel guide written by a team of people. And he always loved coming to Chicago. I imagined that very soon he would start slapping me on the back when he saw me.
Finishing lunch, we continued our conversation while walking together in the direction of his hotel. It must have been four in the afternoon and there was a thunderstorm taking its time approaching. The sky was gunmetal. Foster said he wanted to beat the weather. We crossed a bridge into downtown with the train scraping overhead, and then descended onto the promenade that went along the river, below street level. By that time it was already spitting rain. On the street above us, rush hour roared and guttered, but on the promenade it was just the two of us. In the frothing clouds a tiny airplane was crawling like an insect. The whipcrack chill of October was at its most adolescent incalculability, and our raincoat lapels flapped in our faces. Foster had his umbrella at the ready. But we were in no hurry. As we came around the riverwalk’s curve, the hotel where I worked came into vision. It was a tall black landmark in the International style, cut dramatically against the dazzle of the skyscrapers surrounding it. Yellow lights like dripping honey were already appearing on its surface.
In the river, water clapped its thick palms on the concrete bulwark. As always, Foster was interested in my job, and he encouraged me when I spoke about it. He was especially curious about anything bizarre that happened, with the excuse that as a person who spent much of their time in hotels, he had a strong fascination with the element of transitoriness, empty spaces and rooms, strangers and anonymity.
“Actually something unexplainable did happen there, quite recently in fact,” I told him.
“Unexplainable, as in supernatural,” he replied, as if I’d asked him a question.

“Well, certainly not, but it’s easy enough to speculate evil intentions. In the housekeeping office we decided it must have been a romantic encounter called off abruptly, but I think that only partially explains how we found the room, and the mysterious disappearance of a guest. Let’s see, it must have been a month ago.”
We were passing under a bridge. I turned my head to see Foster gazing at me intently, almost fixated.
“The guest was a woman, who arrived in the afternoon. It was a rainy day, much like it’s about to be here. I never saw her, although I did speak to her on the phone. At the front desk they said she was attractive and severe, in her forties, dressed like a professional. She was carrying a small rolling suitcase. The luggage was only suitable for a single night, which was all that she had booked. She called me in housekeeping very shortly after she checked in, to request that turndown services for the evening be postponed for several hours, until eleven. As always, I made a note of it in the computer, and didn’t think of it again until later; my job is of course primarily administrative.
“Anyway, she wasn’t in her room for long. One of the girls at the reception desk says she saw the woman leave again almost immediately, evidently in a rush to get to an appointment or meeting. She was gone for several hours and then returned, going straight back up to her room. As far as we’ve determined, that was the last time she was seen in the lobby. No one remembers noticing her any time after that. I might add that the La— is currently in its off-season, and our staff are trained to be highly perceptive not only of the coming and going of guests, but also their faces, and their reasons for visiting the city. The hospitality we offer is considered luxury, and we attract important business from around the world. To deliver such quality service requires a certain omnipotence on the part of the personnel as a whole.
“The last hotel employee to see her was a young man in room service. She called for what appeared to be a relatively early dinner, consisting of a bowl of soup and a salad. As well as that she ordered a bottle of wine. When the service attendant offered to uncork it for her, she at first seemed mildly perplexed, and then told him that she’d forgotten to request a second glass. The young man went back downstairs to retrieve another glass and brought it up to her. He says that she was courteous to him and gave him a generous tip. As I said, that was the last time that an employee saw her.
“The second glass is an important detail, since it implies that she was expecting someone to join her in the room. People are always entering and exiting the lobby, biding time and asking questions at the desk. It’s also the case that in reception there different shifts, usually staggering each other by several hours, so that between the afternoon and evening there might be four or five different people there at different times. In any case no one saw anyone enter or leave who might have been going up to the woman’s room. Although to be sure it’s certainly possible that someone did. We did consider looking at the security cameras, but housekeeping isn’t permitted access to that footage unless we’re accompanied by upper management and the police.”
The sky was getting darker, and the noisy chomps of a helicopter briefly disrupted my speaking. We continued walking at a casual strut that would bring us eventually back up onto the gray street between the gray buildings. A few people had appeared on the riverwalk, many yards ahead. Foster’s hands were thrust into his pockets and he gazed straight ahead, waiting for me to keep speaking once the helicopter had sliced away. Across the water, the black obelisk of the La— had gotten closer and was looming over us.
“However, there was a visitor, because later on when we were examining the room, I noticed that there was red wine residue gathered on the bottom of both the wine glasses.”
“There was a someone else in the room,” Foster repeated.
“Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. What was unusual about all this was not that the woman might have had another person join her for a bottle of wine. Actually that would have been quite commonplace, and is not itself much of a mystery. Unless the woman was deliberately interested in placing a red herring, we can assume that two people shared the bottle of wine, which, by the way, was empty. The soup and salad were also gone.
“I suppose I should come to the gist. A member of the turndown crew arrived in the room at eleven o’clock, as the woman had requested. The maid alerted my office right away and asked that I and another housekeeping administrator come up to the room. By that time I was preparing to leave, my shift was over and I was no longer on the clock. But my colleague said that the maid who’d called him sounded startled, even frightened. My curiosity was aroused, and I didn’t want to leave before seeing what was wrong. We went up to the floor where the maid had summoned us and found her standing outside the door. She was a recent hire, which might explain why she was so quick so call a manager rather than come to her own conclusion about what to do. I say ‘come to her own conclusion’ as if there was a puzzle to be solved, or as if how we found the room, on its face, did not present an immediate response. But it was immediately evident why the maid had been alarmed.
“The lights were turned off, but it was very bright because the room was filled with candles. Thinking about it even now is enough to make me shudder. I said earlier that we eventually agreed that what we found must have been the setting for an amorous rendezvous that had been interrupted in the middle; but I should make it very clear that there was nothing romantic about the room’s ambiance. To elevate the mood for a lover it might be natural to lower the lights and set out a few candles to soften the shadows. There were so many candles, though, hundreds, on practically every surface, thick candles without holders and with hot wax dripping and drying. There were candles on the nightstand, the desk, the dresser, along the windowsill, even on the floor. The atmosphere in the room was not one of passion but of overwhelming uncanniness.”
“For a moment my colleague and I were dumbstruck, startled much as the maid must have been when she came into the room for turndown. The candles were all of various sizes and it appeared that they’d been burning for a while, due the amount of wax and also the smoky haze in the room. Many of them looked as though they might have come from a church. Once the surprise had settled, we quickly set about the grim task of blowing them all out to eliminate what was a clear violation of fire safety. What was also suddenly clear to us was that the woman staying in the room was not there. Guests are occasionally present for turndown, and the fact that she’d asked for assistance later than usual seems to confirm that she was expecting a visitor. But there was no one in the room.
“It took us almost ten minutes to extinguish every candle. They were even in the bathroom, on top of the toilet seat and on the sides of the bathtub. I must admit it was an eerie task. Meanwhile, other peculiarities came into focus, such as the empty wine bottle with two glasses, and the suitcase by the door, which was unopened and did not give the impression of having been unpacked.
“I hurried down to reception, where I asked about the woman staying in the room. They gave me her information and informed me that about half an hour earlier she had called the front desk to check out.
“At that moment, the situation grew increasingly more jarring, and took on a sense of the macabre. I asked the attendants if they’d seen the woman leaving, and they said she hadn’t. After getting an idea of what she looked like, given to us by a man in reception who had been there at the time she checked in earlier that day, my colleague and I looked in the hotel bar and the restaurant, but there was no one there who matched the description. When we went back up to her room, she had of course not returned, and the suitcase was still there. I instructed housekeeping to leave the room the way it was until the next morning, and for reception to keep a close eye out for anyone coming or going who might be the woman in question.
“The next day, we waited until the time required for checkout, despite the fact that the woman had apparently already done so. Then we reentered the room along with a maid in order to give it another inspection. It was as we’d left it, with candles all over the floor and the bathroom, and the untouched suitcase. That was when we began to formulate an answer to the mystery, and eventually settled on a botched romance, mostly because no other possibilities suggested themselves. That conclusion, however, is really not obvious at all, and still leaves many holes. The bed was perfectly made, although if it was an affair gone wrong, I suppose that’s not remarkable. The suitcase was never reported missing, and she did not come back for it. Another mystery is how she left the hotel. For guests, the only way in and out is through the lobby. Other service doors do exist, but they’re only accessible to the staff. Also, where the candles came from, and how were they brought up to the room? There were so many of them that it would have been difficult for her to do so, in so many large boxes or however, without reception offering assistance, or noticing at the very least.
“It’s not out of the ordinary for people to forget, or intentionally leave behind, small affects, hygienic supplies, even articles of clothing; but the abandoned suitcase was vexing. My colleague argued that it might point to something dangerous, foul play. In the end we agreed not to contact the police. The guest had checked out, which essentially removed her from our responsibility. After all, unexplainable things happen in hotels, and the truth is always stranger than we can imagine. In the end, it seems clear that two people came and went completely unnoticed, and that whatever engagements they had there were terminated in such a way that what they left behind was bizarre and chilling, and perfectly unaccountable. Perhaps it was a game, or an elaborate joke. For more than a week afterwards I was unsettled by the mystery and thought of no better conclusions to it than what I’ve already said.”
Rain pounded on the bridge. Underneath it we stood and looked at the lashing water, letting the spray dampen our shoulders.
“Extraordinary,” Foster said eventually. He started to ask a question and then stopped himself. In his face I couldn’t see any distinct impression. It seemed as though he was suddenly exhausted. “Where are you going now?”
“Home,” I said.
“Well, I shouldn’t be keeping you from getting out of this storm.”
We stepped into the downpour.

 

The lobby of the La— Hotel was cream-colored and not very tall, but with long windows that created a collage-like vista of the river, the bridges, the buildings and their lights. Across intimidating marble tiles, Barcelona chairs were geometrically arranged in a way that made them appear to have never been sat in. The reception desk was low to the ground; the darkness outside behind it enhanced the computer’s illuminated glow upon the smooth faces of the people working there, mimicking the recessed lighting that sank into the ceiling.
Rain had smeared the windows and blotted out the twilight and it was now an early nighttime. Guests came and went, clacking past the designer furniture, waiting for cabs and shaking their umbrellas out with the valets beneath the heat lamps. A dry, comforting shhhhh from the revolving door hushed the lobby’s general atmosphere, while beyond it the city was caressed by thunder. Lightning blinked on chrome surfaces. Wind hummed on the glass.
Into the citrusy light of the heat lamps, a man came from the dark. A valet nodded to him and waited for him to shake the water off his arms before holding open the door for him. The man came into the lobby and stood for a few seconds, perhaps still disoriented from a dash through the rain. At the reception desk a young man with a trimmed beard looked up briefly, prepared to make a greeting, but the man did not approach the desk and the receptionist looked back down again.
The man crossed the lobby. Although disheveled by the weather, he had about him the look of someone at home in an office. The gray suit was tailored without being stylish, and he was handsome but tired, his hair was slicked back. A subdued yellow necktie and a watch flashing on one wrist. Early thirties, ambitious. He did not stop at reception. Going around the bank of elevators he went through a dim hallway, where the floor changed from wide marble tiles to sleek floorboards, and came into the hotel bar, where he took a seat and appeared, as though it was a long time waiting, to come to a stop.
When the bartender asked him, the man ordered a soda water with a lime, which he paid for with several bills folded neatly in half. He snapped the lime’s spine and set it carefully on a cocktail napkin. After removing the plastic straw he lifted the glass to his lips and took a healthy sip, then set it down again and clasped his hands together on the bartop, staring straight ahead, eyes darting over the backlit silver and brown bottles. A gentle trance-like beat hovered in the air. On the wall a large television was glowing. It was the local news, there was danger in the suburbs. Just as the man focused on a story concerning a suicide-arson that had taken place in a modest ranch-style house, the story switched to commercials. Glancing away, he shriveled his brow. In front of him the bartender was polishing glasses and facing the other way.
When the bartender looked over again the man was gone. The ice was melting at the bottom of the glass, all alone.
On the second floor of the hotel, a door opened and the man stepped out of the stairwell. For a few moments he walked back and forth before realizing that there was nothing there but amenities, the gym and the business center and a long hallway marked with conference rooms. Without wasting any time he went back into the stairwell and climbed to the next floor.
The rooms began. In the hallway he stood and clenched his teeth, hunched his shoulders as he sucked tightly on his breath. The doors on either side of the corridor looked longer than natural. When he walked they moved past him quickly, almost streaking. The floor was chilly, it held the weight of the entire building. At the hallway’s end, a sharp right angle revealed a cul-de-sac of a half-dozen more doors leading to their invisible suites, and also another door, heavier and set-off, with a familiar zigzag emblem. A neat rectangular table set with boring lilies did nothing to improve the spaceship-like sterility of the carpet and walls. The man entered the stairway.
On the next floor, the table and lilies were copy-pasted from below. The man stared at them and rubbed his hands. He went down the hallway in reverse. By the elevator doors there was another mirror-image, another stairwell blandly lit to be identical and efficient. Behind him the door slipped into its latch with a smooth metal click.
Like this the man went up another floor, and another.
Each floor was the same, and each one added details that he had not noticed about the others: a gilt-framed mirror behind the lilies, the arabesque frills in yellow and purple along the edge of the carpet, the grainy texture of the slate-gray wallpaper. It might have been like standing in one place. Except he was looking for something, while outside the shell the lightning shook, muffled and fearsome.
He was looking for something. Down one corridor he walked, then ascended to the next, in a gait that had started as a regular clip but was now slowing to a nervous stroll. He was looking for something, he would eventually find it, the patches of rain on his jacket and pants were dry and replaced with the sting of sweat. It seemed the silent moment before a crisis. Up another floor, another, rising into the slippered quietude of the building’s bowels.
Sweat dribbled down the sides of his face, it laced it temples. For a moment he didn’t move, he swayed on his feet, his eyes bulged. Between floors a transformation had occurred. The light perhaps was dimmed, or his face paler; altitude seemed to take effect, intensifying the pressurization inside the structure. It no longer was a hotel. It was a movie set, or a cathedral, or a cave. The identical straight hallways took on the proportions of a labyrinth. With his shiny eyes the man was afraid that he had gotten lost. How many floors there were, how many he had left to travel. There were no windows, no way to gauge how high up he had gone, and so he might have instead gone downwards, into the ground. How many floors, and where he would go after that.
He came at last to his final floor. The hallway achieved at last its ultimate magnetism. Even though he could hardly breathe, he stayed calm. As the hallway breathed he moved through it like a fisheye lens, getting smaller and rounder. The doors trembled like plucked strings. A certain door untrembled, it sprang taut as leather, and he came to it and stood before it and tapped his knuckle on its woodgrain.
It opened. He entered.

 

 

Bernard Reed lives and writes in Chicago, where he is working towards an MFA at Roosevelt University. His writing has appeared in Every Day Fiction, The Ginger Collect, and Chronotope.

Image: travelandleisure.com

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