The hallway was narrow, much narrower than any architect in his right mind would have designed. Had the blonde stretched her arms straight out to her sides, she would have run the risk of rubbing her knuckles against the walls. Instead, she drew her elbows in tight and tested each new step before committing to it, as if the floor might give way at any moment.
The range of her candle wasn’t considerable, not that there was much to see. The walls were bare, uninterrupted by artwork or signage or doors. Within the center of her flickering halo, the blonde could make out nothing ahead as well as nothing behind. Even the door she had entered through had been swallowed up by the darkness. Still, she moved forward.
In time, her patience was rewarded as an object appeared on her left, a slight recess in the wall. Upon closer inspection, she discovered a door within, perhaps the only one of its kind. It wasn’t until she was directly in front of it that the single word printed on its frosted glass window became legible, but given the knowledge she’d shown in getting to it, she had to have been aware of what it would say.
With great care, the blonde placed her shoes back on her feet. Despite what she had seen of The Bethany thus far and the kind of individuals who called it home, it seemed she was still intent on making a good first impression on whoever resided on the other side of this door. Pushing her hair back behind one ear, she knocked.
There was no response, even when she tried again.
Her internal debate was reflected in her body language as she rolled her weight onto one hip. This was not a trip she would want to make twice, and yet the idea of waiting here in the hallway as claustrophobia settled in and her candle guttered out couldn’t have been appealing either. On a whim, she tried the knob and found that the door was unlocked.
Her candle entered the room long before she did, held at the end of an outstretched arm, the door left open behind her, presumably in case she had to make a hasty retreat. “Hello?” she asked, but there was no one inside to answer her. Her sigh—of relief or otherwise—was audible in the stillness, as was her gasp when a response came not from inside the room but from the doorway behind her.
Spinning around, the blonde sent hot candle wax hurling through the air. The outline of a man was visible for less than a second before the flame went out and complete darkness fell upon the two of them. If nothing else, her suspicion of being followed had been validated, but now her pursuer stood between her and any chance of escape. Not only that, but she’d been effectively blinded. Bereft of any weapon, the blonde held what remained of her candle overhead like a cudgel and strained to hear even the slightest of sounds.
It came in the form of the door swinging shut. There was inadequate time to process the implication before something brushed against her ankle. In response, she took a handful of steps backward until she ran into an immoveable object. From there, she raked the air with the candle, swinging it back and forth in the hopes of connecting with her attacker. If only her eyes would hurry up and adjust….
From her left came the sound of metal scraping against metal. It was followed by the strike of a lighter, and a tiny flame was born. It hovered in mid-air before floating away from her in order to illuminate its owner. The man stood at a safe distance, his free hand up and palm open. In the limited light, his features were hard but not unkind. He made an attempt at a smile—trying to set the woman at ease—, but it was an expression his face had long since forgotten, and he called a stop to it before it became awkward.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, the corners of his mouth dropping back to three and nine.
The blonde studied the man, as if unsure what to make of him. Judged solely by his face, most would guess his age as middle thirties. However, his bone white Caesar haircut and dated sense of fashion—a lightweight leather jacket over a dark turtleneck—better suited a man in his fifties. Neither estimate was exactly right, but she would have no way of knowing that. With her back literally against the wall, all she could do was tell him her reason for being there and hope for the best.
“I’m looking for Mr. Bridge. Do you know him?”
The man’s reaction was immediate, his posture relaxing, his open hand scratching at the back of his neck. “There is no Mr. Bridge.”
“That can’t be true. I was told—“
He didn’t wait for her to finish. “You were told wrong. Bridge is not a name.” The flame left a streak of light through the air as he moved past her, giving her a wide berth. He pulled a newspaper from under his arm and tossed it on top of an oversized desk at her right before taking a seat behind it. When he looked back up at her, there was recognition in the blonde’s eyes. She knew this man. He’d been the one not reading in the lobby. If she had taken it upon herself to look, she would have discovered his paper was nearly two weeks old. “It’s a job.”
Her follow-up was to the point. “And is it your job?”
Pulling a fresh candle from within a desk drawer, the man seemed to consider the question for a moment before answering, “For now.”
“Then what should I call you?”
“Let’s keep things informal.” He waved to an open chair opposite his while lighting the candle. A more sizable glow than the one produced by his lighter teased at the edges of the room, revealing that other than the desk and two chairs, the room was empty. “Drop the mister. Call me Bridge.”
“All right.” She eased into the seat, lowering her makeshift weapon until she was close enough to drop it onto the man’s newspaper. Her eyes never left his. “Bridge it is.”
It was the man’s first time seeing the blonde up close. He allowed a slow second to pass, during which time he took her all in. His first impression was that she was not as young as he’d thought, back when he’d first seen her in the lobby, but it was hardly a complaint. Though she might have seen better days, the woman seated before him was just on the downside of stunning, an hourglass figure topped off by long blonde waves of hair that fell past her shoulders. Her large blue eyes appeared to take in every detail of the world around her. There had most likely been a time in her life, not so long ago, when men had done or were willing to do bad deeds in her name. And gladly.
It was important he not get himself added to the list.
“What brings you to The Bethany?”
For the first time since her arrival, the blonde broke eye contact, and her baby blues dropped to inspect the hands that were worrying at the hem of her coat. It was a bad play on her part. He would have recognized the affectation even without the accompanying words. “I’m not sure.”
With a single finger, Bridge pushed his candle to the very edge of his desk, as close as he could get it to the woman without leaving his seat. As his eyes fell into shadow, hers grew more distinct. Leaning forward, he sought to explain his position to her in as succinct a fashion as he knew how.
“Look, I know you don’t know me from Adam. Just like I don’t know you. But let’s get something straight between us. I don’t have time for games. You’re on the thirteenth floor of a building that has no thirteenth floor.” Bridge licked the tips of his right thumb and forefinger and then held them near the flame. “You know goddamn well why you’re here, and you’ve got exactly three seconds to tell me before the lights go out and things get interesting.”
“I need your help,” she said, with a full two seconds left to spare.