Ernest turned to the ‘Pans & Scans’ in the People magazine he had swiped from the break room. No tits there either, but Rachel Dolan’s body was smoking. God, if she was standing naked in front of his bed-
A pair of suited men in sunglasses entered through the double doors. Nothing new there. Suited men had been coming in and out of the hotel all weekend, all stinking of money he’d never have. He thought they’d all left by now.
Ernest flipped to a clothing ad. Quite the set on her, but he could see her ribs, and that was always disgus-
Ernest glanced up. The two men were standing at the desk. “Yeah?” he said.
“We require information about your guests.”
“What? What’s this all about?”
“Room 117 received a phone call today. We need to know who’s in that room.”
Ernest squinted at him. “What are you? FBI? C’mon, show some ID.”
The other guy answered, “Sir, all we’re requesting is some information.”
“Yeah, tell me another one. C’mon, I watch CSI. Unless you show me some kind of search warrant or something…”
“We don’t need a search warrant to request information.”
“Then why should I tell you anything?” Ernest said.
“This is a matter of importance for national security.”
“You know how many cops are always sniffing around this place?” Ernest asked. “They scare the guests, they push the staff around, they threaten to get us fired. So either show me some badges, a warrant, or a major credit card.”
“Sir,” the first man took off his sunglasses. “Perhaps I have not made myself clear. I am not with the FBI, the CIA, or any other government organization. But I do know about your rights. I know that you have the right to remain silent. And the right to an attorney, which you will be using when you are arrested for impeding a congressionally-sanctioned investigation. You also have the right to be charged with aiding and abetting a criminal by not turning over your guest records, punishable by a maximum sentence of twenty-five years imprisonment. Do you understand your rights?”
Ernest frowned, his bottom lip curled, but he nodded.
“Now, let’s talk about our rights. We have the right, if you refuse to help us, to obtain a search warrant because of our status as enforcers of a company certified for Security & Defense. Then we will have the right to examine every square inch of this place, to seize every record and piece of equipment, and charge you with every unlawful activity we can find, likely sending this hotel into bankruptcy with all the fines and reparations. Or, we can avoid all that, and you tell us who’s staying in one room. And we leave. How does that sound?”
Ernest glared at them for a moment, then brought out his keyboard. “Which room did you say?”
“Room 117,” the agent said.
A minute passed. “This might take a while. The Internet connections are all loaded with spyware from all the guests downloading porn. You said room one-seventeen, right?” Ernest said.
He clicked around. “This says there’s no one staying there right now.”
“Sir, I will remind you that under the Interior Security Act, falsifying information to a security or defense firm-“
“I’m not falsifying nothing. Look, you can see.” He turned the monitor toward them. “Available rooms. 117. Right there. Last time that room was occupied was Friday.”
“Sir, we know there was a call routed to that room, and it was answered. The call length was five minutes and thirty-eight seconds. If no one’s staying there, then who picked up the phone?”
Ernest stared at the computer, trying to figure it out. “Dammit. I bet I know what happened. There was something wrong with the keycards this weekend. Some spyware thing. Right when all those salesman started coming in. None of the cards were working, and everyone started bitching, so the IT guy reset the system. I bet all the old keys didn’t get erased.”
“Could someone enter that room illegally?”
Ernest opened the locked door in the bottom drawer and grabbed his master keycard. “Miriam,” he called back to the cracked-open door. “Watch the front for a minute, I have to go to a guest’s room.”
“Kay,” came a muffled response.
Ernest walked around the front desk and joined the two of them. “Follow me,” he said.
He took them down the hall to room 117. There was a DND sign hanging off the doorknob, which shouldn’t have been if the room was empty. Ernest knocked. “Hello? Is anyone in there?”
One agent put a hand on the door. “Don’t knock. Just enter.”
“Now,” the other one said.
Ernest inserted the keycard in the slot, waited for it to turn green, and shoved the door open. The first agent burst in, and the other guarded the doorway..
The room hadn’t been cleaned, but it had been straightened up. The bathroom had no scent of industrial cleaners. The agents scoured the room, looking in the bathroom, under the bed, in the closet.
“Someone was in here,” the first one said.
The other nodded. “No signs of break-in.”
“Secure the surrounding area. He must be around.” The first agent asked Ernest, “How does your security system work?”
“The, the, uh, central system, I guess, is controlled from the computer. The card reader replaces the security code for the door…”
The second agent peeked into the hallway. He looked left–no one. He looked right.
A boy in a dirty white shirt was walking down the hall, holding a bucket of ice. He stopped when he saw him.
“Oh shit,” he said.
“Oh, shit,” Rion said and dropped the bucket.
“Freeze!” the man in the doorway shouted.
Rion didn’t. He spun around and ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction. Footsteps banged behind him, meaning he was being pursued. He didn’t stop to look who.
Damn, what a time to get caught. He knew they’d find out eventually, but this was just when he was about to get his journey back on track.
A mother and her son, both in swimsuits and dripping with water, pulled open the door to the stairwell as Rion leapt in. Rion barreled past them, shoving them against the wall.
“Sorry,” Rion called back. He pushed open the door to the outside.
Rion squinted in the bright day. It was hot and muggy in the parking lot. He followed the pavement to the street.
He skidded to a stop in front of the crosswalk, looking for a place to hide. There was a parking garage across the street, but there were four lanes of cars to cross.
He stepped off the curb, looking for a gap in traffic. There was none, but he didn’t have time to be safe. He could NOT get arrested. They might link him to the grisly incident last night.
He jumped into traffic as a red compact rocketed by. A purple corvette followed close behind.
Rion heard an ear-splitting screech to the right. A small car slid to a rough stop, bumping into him. Rion froze, scared at how close that was. The car’s horn blared. Rion covered his ears.
Behind him, the man in the suit approached the sidewalk where he had just been, and had a cell phone to his ear. A second man ran to catch up.
The occupant of the car cursed at him. The others blasted their horns, drowning him out, but traffic had stopped. Rion ran across and reached the sidewalk.
Traffic resumed. Shoving other pedestrians aside, he ran to the parking garage’s foyer. The elevator door was already opened so he jumped in. He pressed the first button he saw–25 and waited an eternity for the doors to close.
He expected his pursuers to jump in and stop the doors from closing, but they didn’t. He was safe. But the elevator wasn’t moving.
Rion pressed the button again. It didn’t light up and neither did any others. A red LED display above the buttons flashed ‘INSERT KEYCODE’. There was a keypad below that.
He smiled. Little thing like keycodes couldn’t stop him. He put his hand on top of it and focused.
A fifty-year-old man has a two-hundred pound woman pressed up against the elevator wall, with her skirt up above her waist and grunting-
Rion lifted his hand off the pad like it was scorched.
What the hell was that? Why did it show him that? Yuck.
That wasn’t the keycode. It wasn’t even helpful. He tried again. No image this time, but he felt a surge of needles behind his eyes.
He couldn’t let the promise of pain get in the way. Touching the electronic card reader below the keypad, he tried again.
A man delivering flowers sticks his card in the slot. Then whistles as the car carries him up.
What? What did that have to do with anything? Was he supposed to find the man with the flowers to get the keycode? What kind of visions were these?
Desperate, he dragged his hand from the top of the panel to the bottom, sensing the whole time. It felt like dragging his head through lava. He couldn’t even concentrate on what he was looking for.
The elevator door opened again. A man in a suit stood in front of him.
They both froze for an instant, staring quizzically at each other.
Rion opened his mouth wide and screamed.
The man drew back like he’d been shot. He pinwheeled his arms across the foyer and collapsed on his butt next to a planter.
If Rion wasn’t in a hurry, he would have laughed. Instead, he hopped out and found a glorious STAIRS sign to the right. He slammed into the crossbar with all his might. It opened onto a dimly lit stairwell.
The stairs went up ten flights and ended at another heavy door, opening to an ochre cavern of cars and vans. Panting and sweating, Rion ran down the slope. If there was a way out for vehicles, there must have been one for humans. But all he could see were concrete walls and pillars.
“How the hell do you get out of here?” he said as he whirled his head around. If he hadn’t climbed ten flights, he would have thought he was underground.
Rion tripped. He didn’t want to run anymore–his legs were tired, his chest felt like it was going to explode, and his brain thumped like a tank engine. Maybe he could hide behind a car, but they were too spaced out for good cover.
Maybe he would give up. What could they do to him? He would be sheltered, and clothed. Maybe they would show mercy and help him.
Like Paul, the hotel manager, the people chasing him right now, and everyone else in the world had helped him.
A door slammed. Both men emerged from the door thirty feet behind him. One pointed, “There! Stop!”
“Shit,” Rion said.
Could he outrun them? How fast could they move? Rion looked back to see if they were gaining.
He collided with a Cadillac as it was backing out. The tail fin caught him in the gut.
He dropped to his knees, feeling waves of numbing pain. Red and white lights blurred in his eyes. Desperate to keep moving, Rion started crawling away on hands and knees.
The driver’s side door opened, and a craggy-looking man with long, dirty hair leaned out. “Dude, are you all right?”
Rion tried to stand up, but the car had taken everything out of him. He was dead now.
The craggy man looked up, and saw the two men in suits. “Dude, you need a ride?” he asked.
Rion paused a split second. “Yeah.”
“Get in. Hurry.” He opened his backseat door.
With renewed hope, Rion gathered the rest of his strength and jumped in. As his savior backed out, Rion pulled the door closed and collapsed on the seat with his head in his hands.
Tires screeched. The engine revved like a race car.
“Whoo! Take that, ya spooks,” the driver said. “Yee ha!”
If Rion didn’t keep his eyes shut, his brains were going to leak out from the pressure. Despite that, he could tell they were in the light. They were outside.
The driver said, “All right, how ya doing there, little man? It’s Moss, remember?”
Rion groaned like he was in labor.
“Where you going? Where can I take you?”
“DRUGS!” Rion screamed.
“Whoa, all right, there, guy. Don’t worry. I know just the place.”
Rion laid on the back seat, too sick to bother buckling his seat belt. The pain was so bad, he was ready to cry. It was all he could think about. It filled him like a balloon. Outside his realm of meaning, the car stopped and the driver got out.
Either he was hallucinating, or he was starting to lose control of his power. He was seeing bits of information he wasn’t thinking about. Somehow he knew the car was fifteen years old. A baby had been conceived in the back. The car had passed through Toledo, Ohio, and stopped at a McDonald’s. Someone spilled a bit of milkshake on the floor. There was a speed bump the driver ran over too fast that scraped the undercarriage and had caused a small leak in the drive train. The server at the McDonald’s barely spoke English. He had been in the country thirty days, and had a wife who liked-
From outside the car, he heard, “Hey, hey, Kinneburg! Can you spare a sec? Someone needs lookin’ at.”
Rion hoped they were hurrying. He tried to concentrate on multiplication tables or prime numbers, but the images kept replaying, like a song he couldn’t get out of his head.
“Moss? What’s going on?” A new voice. “Jesus, what the hell happened to him? Is he a junkie?”
“Don’t know. Don’t think so. He was running from some spooks.”
The door above Rion’s head opened. “Hey. Hey, kid, what’s your name?”
“Rion,” he said, keeping his hand over his eyes.
“Rion, whatcha got? Withdrawal?”
“Pain. Headache,” Rion said through gritted his teeth. “Need. Painkillers.”
“You sure? That’s it?”
Rion reached out and grabbed someone’s shirt.
An old man picks up the shirt from a Goodwill table. He pays five dollars for it. He gets it with a coffee maker. The shirt was given by someone named Darnell Johnson. Darnell plays flag football in the shirt. The football falls into a puddle of sewer run-off.
Someone unlatched Rion’s hand and said, “Okay, easy, scout. Here, take these.”
Rion opened his eyes and squinted in the light. The man in an old football shirt was handing him two gold-colored pills and a cup of water. Rion snatched them and popped them in his mouth. They tasted like sugar and spoons. He swallowed them before he gulped the water.
Rion forgot what happened next. Vaguely, he recalled his tired body being dragged out. With an arm around somebody, he was taken someplace shaded. And then he fell asleep.