There are pockets within the city where even the hacks don’t travel. Requests for passage to such places are sometimes met with laughter, oftentimes with the threat of violence, but always—always—refusal of fare. It would seem that even madmen have moments of clarity, wherein common sense cannot be denied. If only the same were true of the driver who delivered the blonde to The Bethany Hotel.
It’s safe to say the meter wasn’t running when the cab pulled curbside. Odds are, it had never been started, no matter how long the ride. No mere tip could have justified the journey, and in all likelihood, no money ever changed hands. How the passenger paid—assuming she did—was unclear, but a full five minutes passed before she launched her umbrella and stepped out into the rain, during which time the transaction could have easily occurred.
Of course, one could also attribute the same five minutes to second thoughts. Like many others before her, she might not have fully understood what she was doing when she provided the driver with the address, believing that nothing could be as bad as the stories she’d heard. Maybe her courage waned in view of the power outage that had been caused by the storm. It was one thing to see The Bethany by daylight…
In the end, it didn’t matter. By stepping out onto the sidewalk, she made her choice, much like the cabbie made his, only seconds later. As soon as the door shut behind her, he was back in traffic, his OFF DUTY illuminated until such time as he returned to civilization. If she had wanted him to stay, to wait for her return, then she was out of luck.
For all intents and purposes, the blonde was on her own.
To her credit, she seemed unfazed. Her step was measured, no hesitation. She knew she was being watched, just as she knew there were few times in her life when she wasn’t. Under the awning, she took a moment to shake out her umbrella and read the bronze plaque near the building’s entrance, the gist of which was that The Bethany Hotel was originally built in 1889. Though the name went up with the walls, there had been other structures with the same purpose in this location for many years prior, housing those of questionable character by the hour, by the day, and by the week.
The oversized double doors were known to swell with moisture and stick but they offered smooth action for her, a series of candles inside guiding her forward into the lobby with the promise of a romantic encounter ahead. At her left, the main desk stood unoccupied, while a large waiting room opened up before her. Inside this room, the cast of a scaled-down and impromptu production of 12 Angry Men was gathered around a folding card table where two fossils were locked in a life or death game of checkers. Though they worked hard at feigning interest in the outcome, it was clear that once the rain let up, the lot of them would scatter, hoping the clouds remained for cover.
To a man, they did their damnedest to ignore her, in much the same way as a pride of lions ignore a gazelle in their midst. Temporarily.
At the players’ feet, a teenaged kid with the early makings of a mustache sat Indian-style, his finger buried halfway up his nose. He periodically removed it to inspect his findings. Behind him, a burly man in a sleeveless leather vest leaned against a wall, showcasing his self-inflicted tattoos. He twirled a sizeable knife in his hands, carving up the occasional smoke ring blown by a rail-thin, one-armed man to his immediate left. Even a keen eye could have missed the midget curled up sleeping, or pretending to sleep, under the table, his little legs kicking as they carried him through some dream. One last individual sat away from the others in a high backed chair. The newspaper held in front of him hid his face, though it was doubtful he was reading it, given the limited light.
Somehow, the sight of these men garnered no visible reaction from the blonde. That was a good thing, whether she knew it or not. If she had so much as flinched, they would have sensed her weakness and eaten her alive, right there on the spot. Thirty seconds later, alibis would be agreed upon and there would be no sign she’d ever darkened their doorstep. Instead, they waited and continued to act like they weren’t watching.
The irony of her surroundings couldn’t have been lost on the woman. Beneath her heels, the pattern on the floor—alternating tiles of light and dark—mirrored the old men’s checkerboard. With The Bethany’s roomers clad mostly in shadows, and the blonde in her belted, white raincoat, it was clear that the makings of more than one standoff were present in the hotel lobby that afternoon.
Just as the young kid came up a winner, popping his fingertip into his mouth, the blonde turned her attention to her right, to the elevator. It was a caged affair, ancient and rickety, and yet still dependent upon electricity. Should her business take place above the ground floor, she’d need to find an alternate way to get there. By the time she cast a look around the rest of the lobby, the old-timer at the card table’s left was shooting his thumb back over his shoulder, indicating a pitch-black maw behind him. The stairs.
Truth be told, there could have been anything or anyone waiting inside the darkness, yet she appeared undeterred. Her umbrella leaving a spotted trail behind her, the blonde moved toward the doorway, only stopping when the same hand that had given her directions now clamped upon her wrist. In the flickering light, the old man looked like one more mound of half-melted wax, the last of his hair having slid down to fringe the dome of his head, his heavy jowls drooping to meet his chest.
Without a word, he offered the woman a squat, well-used candle, its flame already threatened by the liquid pooling in the hollow at its top. She accepted it, also saying nothing, the look on her face indicating that her thanks would be letting him keep his teeth. By way of response, the old man relinquished his hold on her and returned to the only game he still had a chance at winning.
It wasn’t until she entered the stairwell that the absence of air conditioning in the building became noticeable. By the second flight, it started to take its toll. Her clothing stuck to her, and she was forced to awkwardly unbuckle the belt on her coat with one hand while trying to avoid dripping candle wax on the other.
Four flights up, she ditched her umbrella and kicked off her shoes.
On the sixth floor, the blonde paused for a split second, unmoving. It wasn’t until the tenth floor that her suspicions became evident as she cocked her head at an angle, listening for something. She was clearly of a mind that she was being followed. And she was right. When the sign for the twelfth floor appeared, she slowed again, casting the candle all around to verify that she was indeed alone.
After climbing one more set of stairs, the blonde stopped on the landing, the door ahead of her marked 14. To its immediate right was a sign that read THIS WAY TO THE 12TH FLOOR, an arrow pointing downward. To the left of the door was a similar sign, its arrow leading up to what it deemed to be the 15th FLOOR. No thirteenth floor. It seemed that even at The Bethany, superstition had its place.
For the first time since her arrival, the blonde’s forward movement was tentative. She laid her palm flat against the door, as if checking for heat. Then she pressed her ear to the surface. Satisfied that nothing was out of the ordinary, she balled her hand into a fist and released a deeply held breath before knocking.
The response was immediate. From the opposite side of the door came a double knock, and there in the muggy stairwell, the blonde watched as the 4 in the number 14 shuddered and slipped out of focus. She dropped her shoes and rubbed her eyes, but by the time she took her hand away, everything was clear again, and the number was no longer a 4.
Turning the knob, the blonde took her first step through the open doorway and onto the thirteenth floor.