This story takes place in the year: 1962
In Asteré, they say, at the intersection of Rue de Mélange and Route de Dabo, there stands the very best hotel in all Alsace-Lorraine; it is far from the most luxurious, and neither is it considered to be most affordable, nor even exceptionally serviceable, save in one aspect—just above the reception desk, there hangs a particular telephone. If one were to make a request of the staff—one spoken with very particular words—the receptionist would reach for this particular telephone, and relay this particular request unto the switchboard operator, something quite particular would happen. Mere minutes after this particular request is made, there would arrive a particular lady of the night—the most beautiful and alluring dame in all Alsace-Lorraine, who has never once failed to fulfill the most intimate of fancies confessed unto her by her clientele, departing from them only when they wish for something other than her company. And to request such a particular bedfellow, one must remember a particular German phrase: Ich wünsche mir, was dem gegeben wurde, der es mir gesagt hat.
These were the words—or rather, a summary of the words—which Renault imparted to me before I took the taxicab to Strasbourg. I cannot begin this account without introducing the minor character of this Renault Jourdain, for it was from him that I first heard of the secluded little town of Asteré, and only he ever informed me of the hotel and its clandestine complements.
When Renault told me of these things, I was initially indifferent, having been prior subjected to countless disquisitions which all tended toward libertine topics; subtle, suggestive tones were woven into his regular speech, and he had a rather unabashed habit of swaying conversation into the realm of obscenity. His age, though I never learned it, I judged to be just beneath middle-years. Despite this, he seemed to have the spunk of an adolescent, and the humor of one at that. When first I met him, he—wearing a scally cap, scarf, and striped sweater, snickering wickedly after every sentence and stroking the hairs of his mustache prudently—seemed overly comical in his outward Frenchness, so much so that I suspected to beguile me with the front of a perfect stereotype, presuming me to be nothing more than another witless exchange student from America. Though that I may have been, I had lived in Europe for quite some years by then; my father had died in the war while I was still an infant, and only three years after its end, my mother decided that we leave New York and move back to Belgium to live next door to her parents in Brussels. When I explained this to Renault, however, the act was not dropped—rather, it seemed to have been exacerbated.
Renault was ever a jester, seldom ever fully serious in his mien and abrasive in his incessant teasing, which, as I have said, was often vulgar in nature. He was never too provocative at once, and for that, he maintained an endurable aura which was sometimes comparable to charm. The patrons with which we had the most contact with were, of course, women—whether or not they were married or mothers, or even whether or not they were joined by the presences of the persons who made them so—he, totally unfazed, spoke to them with the same unremitting sexuality threaded throughout his otherwise polite discourse. And, quite to my unending bewilderment, he never seemed to impress upon any of them that he was anything less than genteel or sociable. Perhaps it was his sharp wits, or perhaps it was his flattery; I will never know for sure. Despite his inordinate personality, Renault was an excellent worker and a very approachable superior at that. If it was not his charm that subdued our patrons, it was the sheer scrupulousness of our labor that pleased them utterly. He had a very meticulous eye for the slightest shades of colors—a very quaint attribute to have, especially given that his left eye was somewhat lazy, as if never quite aligned with his right—and by all rights should have made a profession as a painter. By that, of course, I mean a real painter—one that paints solemn-faced portraits, melancholy market-streets, and similar vistas—as opposed to the painter of houses that he was. His thoroughness and uncanny ability to judge the consistency of a layer of paint upon a plaster wall in any light made our service a favorite of many and never were we short of employment. In fact, I must conjecture that—though the topic of painting did not often penetrate beyond the necessary day-to-day discussions of our business, as his libido always did—his ultimate focus was almost entirely upon the simple act of painting, rather than pursuing any real, sexual exploits.
I must expound further why I propose this. Renault was unrelenting in his prying of me, peppering me with taunts and jeers, or even at times sarcastic admiration only to tempt me to divulge some undisclosed amorous encounters from my past, or to laugh at the lack thereof. Whenever he did so, I told him the truth—which often incurred the latter, and yet more prying, as if he did not believe me. Suffice to say, I was initially repulsed by his behavior, and even moreso unnerved, as he was somewhere close to twice my age, and could have only been motivated to say such things either out of immaturity or divergent perversion. There were instances in which we sat atop vermillion-shingled roofs, clad in our paint-stained pale overalls, and he would catcall down to the various young madames that passed upon the street below us, regardless of how little attention they ever gave him. Other times, I would be painting in another room when he, shouting in a terrible frenzy, would summon me outside post-haste, and I, anticipating the matter to be urgent and serious, would come rushing to his aid, only to see him leaning against a fence, peering over the toothy brink of it at some neighboring lady reposing in the sunlight; he would then whisperingly remark on her more prominent features and generally goad me to climb over the fence and speak to her—an invitation which I always refused.
It was when I realized that Renault never actually acted upon this wanton banter of his that I finally felt at ease working for him. His prying eventually subsided, as I truly had little at all to regale him with, and I became accustomed to his constant ribaldry. Gradually, I met his remarks with vulgar comments of my own, not out of any desire on my own behalf, but only to stave off his needling. I was, however, admittedly very lonely, having remained in correspondence with only a few friends from university, so I was compelled to initiate friendly conversation with Renault in the only way that I knew how—by talking about the things which he so frequently talked about.
I was quite surprised to discover that Renault was, in fact, quite shy to speak of his own amorous pursuits. He was unmarried, of course, throughout the time that I knew him, but the man was clearly experienced in such things, as only a man of his age could be. I supposed for long that his aversion to recounting his past derived from a sour divorce, or perhaps that he may have even been a widower, so I was careful not to broach sensitive inquiries in that regard. I did, however, press him to disclose his most recent coups, but still, he remained mostly reticent. One day, when we went to lunch at a café just a block down from the house that we were painting, I decided to raise the subject once again. Renault had eaten quickly, as the main course of his meal was a bent cigarette, which he drew from so deeply that it seemed he meant to whittle it down to a butt before we were back on the clock—so, with the question already pregnant in my mind, I asked him:
“Renny, for all your flirtatiousness and Peeping-Tom mischief, you don’t seem particularly inclined toward any lady at all; in fact, I’d say that you would rather paint houses than actually date a woman—unless, of course, you’re hiding an excess of mademoiselles from me, keeping their company all to yourself, you sneaky git.”
At this, Renault grinned, the seam of his lips to spread across his cheek, where there then issued a soft popping noise from his under his ear—his jaw had a habit of dislocating sometimes, and after he had fixed it back into place with a firm tug, he plucked the cigarette from his mouth, about to speak. But to my surprise, he momentarily faltered, gaze lost upon the ground and actually blushing—something which I had never seen him do.
“Eempossible,” he said with his extraordinarily heavy accent, proceeding to speak in English in spite of it, as he often did with me—for even though I spoke French fluently, he was persistent to practice his second language me. “I am too old for such liaisons—not like you.” I could not help but chuckle when he told me this. His mannerisms had become increasingly amusing to me the more I became acquainted with the great irony of his personality, and many times I laughed at things that he said merely because it was he who said them. “What—that’s it, then? You’d rather whitewash a fence than get into bed with a woman?” I teased him.
Now, quite abruptly, Renault’s blush disappeared, replaced by a start colorlessness in his cheeks and a hollow sort of dread in his eyes. He continued to stare very intently at the ground, his cigarette no longer twitching with a lusty breath. I was shocked at the sudden change which had washed over his demeanor and wondered whether I had accidentally succeeded in dampening his spirits.
“Non, monsieur; my brush is a jealous mistress, you see—I shall wet no other.” His response confused me utterly, but as I said, I had been well habituated to his strangely poetic and suggestive speech by then, so after a moment, I thought of it as little more than another vulgar remark.
It was not many days after this incident that I had to confront Renault with the sour news of my imminent resignation. He was disappointed by it, but not altogether surprised; moreover, he was curious as to why I had to. I admitted to him that while my employment under him paid handsomely and covered the expenses of my housing and necessities, I could scarcely save enough to enroll in university once again. My mother was quite upset when she found out that I had dropped out due to the sums which she sent me not being enough to pay tuition beyond my first two years. However, her brother—my uncle—had recently married and bought a big three-storied house in Strasbourg, and they, not yet having children, had acquiesced to let me board there free of charge until I had worked to save enough to go back to school. Renault was very understanding and bid me an uncommonly sincere adieu.
He met me one last time, the morning before I left Reims. I was sitting on a bench at a street corner, suitcases packed and waiting for a taxicab when he strolled along, still wearing his paint-stained overalls, evidently looking for me. When he found me, he took a seat on the bench beside me and offered me a cigarette. I declined, as I had often done before, yet still, Renault seemed to ignore the fact that I was not a habitual smoker. And we sat there, weirdly melancholy for a short while, listening to the chirping of the birds and the beeping of traffic as it passed us by. Finally, he piped up.
“Strasbourg, you said, hmm? Ah, that route passes by Asteré, non?” Of course, I told him I was unsure, as I was unfamiliar with the name Asteré; thusly he proceeded to tell me the great rumor of it, the very same which I have already supplied at the beginning of this account.
I could write countless pages more about Renault and all his queer ways, but my story has very little to do with him from this point onward; that was the last I ever saw of him. After he told me this, I gave him a half-hearted nod and stepped into a taxicab which had just pulled up to the street corner. As soon as the taxicab had set off, nearly everything which Renault had just told me about Asteré had been forgotten, and I was not even sure if I would really miss the man. I finally remembered Asteré when the taxicab had just passed out of Nancy. I asked the cabbie if he had ever heard of a place called Asteré, wondering whether we had somehow already passed it by then. He told me he had, but he did not remember if he had ever stopped there, nor did he know anything at all about it other than the fact it was a very small town situated in the woodland hills just before arriving in Strasbourg, across the highway from the natural park. Being very bored of the stretches of dull, static highway and the all-too-familiar vistas of urban streets monotonously lined with identical townhouses, I nagged the cabbie to take the scenic route through the hills when we approached them. The cabbie seemed to welcome the idea, as he was likely even more unenthused with the common roads as I was, and naturally, he offered to drive us through Asteré, since it had been the object of my inquisition. I agreed, anticipating only the probable extension of my fee, and thought no more of it.
The hills of Alsace-Lorraine are, in my own meager opinion, the most beautiful countryside which can be found in all France. It is impossible for one not to gaze out at the abundantly green environs and lose themselves in the lazily-curving slopes of the verdant horizon which brushed against a cloud-mottled sky with a wistful heart, nor to refrain from imagining one’s self wandering down the winding little paths which adjoined wattle-and-daub cottages with hedges and mossy brick walls. It is a place where terra-cotta roofs surfaced from valleys of conifers that were glazed in the early evening light, and where the mellow shade of the trees formed nostalgic fringes around clean, rolling fields of flowers and grass. The hills embodied such a hearty, natural, and endlessly fascinating vista that, from the moment the taxicab entered them, I kept my forehead pressed against the cool passenger window, placidly agog at all that passed me by, and thinking very little of the time as it elapsed into a starry night.
I hardly noticed when the cabbie announced that we had entered Asteré town. Roused from my dormant state of reverie, I peeled my face away from the window and glanced around, trying to determine what sort of place it was. Most of what I saw consisted of silhouetted woodland, as we were very deep in the trees by then, and the distant lights of hillside cottages, peeking just over their drooping canopies. Here, also, we passed a few industrial buildings, lit vaguely by the streetlamps and appearing oddly Americanized in their construction, before arriving slowly at a block bordered on both sides by sidewalks and a few old-fashioned shops and warehouses. The cabbie gestured up ahead to the inky shape of a singularly large building, introducing it to me simply as being a hotel.
Immediately upon hearing the word hotel, my thoughts were flooded with the memory of exactly what Renault had told me earlier that day, and so suddenly overwhelmed by a thoughtless intrigue was I that I prompted the cabbie to stop in front of it, intending only to get a closer look. After rounding the corner, he did so, and, presuming that I meant to stay the night there, relayed the fee of that day’s drive. A bit startled, I resolved quickly that I would, indeed, check in to the hotel, as Asteré was apparently only a short distance from Strasbourg, and with my early departure that morning, I had a day to spare. So, I paid the cabbie, thanked him, and stepped out of the taxicab with my suitcase.
It was only when the taxicab drove away that I severely questioned my choice of actions. I had, unwittingly, allowed my subconscious curiosity for Renault’s parting rumor to take me here, my enchantment with the countryside taking precedence over considering whether or not I really wanted to spend the night in such a place, or whether or not Renault was really telling me the truth. The actuality of the clandestine service, which he attested the hotel could provide, had remained a minor detail in mind until the moment I was standing before it.
That night was so dark that I could scarcely determine the extent of the hotel, but the hazy glow of lights behind curtained windows outlined its enshrouded measures. In those few places where the dim streetlamps shone against it, I discerned the lay of limestone brickwork that was somewhat greenish with age and hewn with a kind of roughness that denoted chateau-like antiquity in its establishment. From what I could tell, the hotel was wedged between a warehouse and a shadowy woodland—its front and right sides having been bracketed by two streets, which I presumed to be Rue de Mélange and Route de Dabo, just as Renault had told me. Across the street from the hotel was a scattering of lesser buildings, all similarly steep-roofed like cottages, but as they were somewhat retracted from the sidewalk and the streetlamps, and had very few lights of their own, I could only guess at what they might have been. The wooded hills rose all around, encompassing the little town of Asteré with a lofty perimeter of gloomy shapes. Overhead, the stars were uniquely numerous, as only they could be in a corner of the world as dark as this.
I was struck by two conflicting impressions: The first was that, in such an insignificant, sleepy, and old-fashioned place as this, the very thought of the visitation of some promiscuous persons seemed utterly ridiculous, as it appeared more inclined toward being frequented by the elderly, or anyone else who lived socially secluded lives in those hills. The second was that there was, indeed, something tangibly different about this town than any other which I had passed through that day, as if it’s very façade of inconspicuous, old-world modesty served to hide activities which were, as Renault had said, of a scandalous nature. Both these impressions weighed equally in my mind, culminating in a sense of unease.
Having nothing else to do, however, I opened the door of the hotel and entered. My only fanfare was the faint ticking of a clock, which broke silences which seemed to last longer than a mere second. It hung over a wide reception desk, where sat a haggard old librarian of a lady; she did not even lift her head to acknowledge my presence. I was somewhat perturbed to approach her, as I was very young at the time, and only then did I realize I was rather unfamiliar with the process of booking a room, as I had never done so unattended. For some reason, I feared that I had arrived too late, or that I would find that walk-in accommodations were not accepted there. With the briefest revelation of what sort of person the hotel receptionist appeared to be, I had all but banished Renault’s rumor from my expectations, as now more than ever it showed itself to be a bothersome trick played at my expense. I almost had a mind to go back outside and check the street signs to confirm that this was the very same hotel, but I did not act upon it.
After a moment of hesitation, I plucked up my courage and made my way over to the reception desk. The hotel lobby itself was quite vast, and uncannily empty as if meant to receive whole scores of people at a time, yet a quaint stagnation hung over everything there, which led me to presume without much evidence besides that the guests of this hotel were few and far in between. Of any other notable details within that lobby, I observed not, for in my march over to the reception desk, I kept my gaze bashfully low. I hardly even dared to look at the old receptionist when I asked her for a room, as the act felt akin to waking her from a deep and well-overdue slumber. Our conversation was minimal as handed over my down-payment and signature, and as she, blasé in tone, gave me the key and number to my room—she told me it was upstairs, at the very end of the hall. But I did not heed much of what she said, for in my sunken staring I noticed that, upon the reception desk, there sat a very particular telephone. It was a strange, antique device, the model of which I had never seen before, and immediately the particular German phrase which Renault had recited to me surged within my mind.
I do not know how, but I remembered it quite well, even though I scarcely understood a word of German. Dare I say it out loud? Perhaps it actually meant something obscene, by which I would be promptly escorted out of the hotel. But why would it be? Did Renault’s trickery know no bounds? He was something of a bully, to be certain, but never had I known him to be a liar or a deceiver, even at his very worst. What if it was true? Ever since departing from Reims, I had never seriously considered summoning this fabled lady of the night, yet the mere mention of it had poisoned me with an uncharacteristic desire which only now fully revealed itself—one which I could not determine whether it had derived from the queerness of the mystery surrounding the rumor, or some inert desperation not to be so drearily alone, or so intimately inexperienced as I was. I had actually made up my mind just then to recite the particular German phrase to the old lady, telling myself that it was only to prove Renault to be a fibber—but when I opened my mouth again, I could not force the words off the end of my tongue. I stood there for a moment too long, unable to even explain why I did so.
Readily, I stole away from the old lady. I hurried through a door on the right side of the lobby with my gaze still fixated upon the floor before I had even considered the directions which she had given me. When I looked up, I saw no stairs. Rather. I found that I had witlessly entered a parlor that was adjacent to the stair-room but did not directly adjoin it as the lobby did. Feeling too embarrassed to simply walk back out into the lobby and admit my doltish carelessness, I resolved to stay in that parlor for a little while, staying out of sight of the receptionist so that it seemed as if my retreat had been intentional as if I meant to do something before I retired to my room. Still, I cursed myself for doing so, and for being unable to muster up the confidence to pronounce the particular German phrase.
It was then that I actually took a moment to survey the interior of the hotel. All of the walls within that parlor, and those which I could see of the lobby through the open doorway, were all dressed in a wallpaper of simple, vertical blue and beige stripes, which, though not visibly sullied, conveyed an air of squalor, and were somewhat uncomfortable even to regard. Dim, whiskey-tinted lamps punctuated this abysmal pattern in certain places, mounted at odd intevals across the walls and shining enough to illuminate the whole space of the parlor and the lobby, yet only so much that the atmosphere still felt murky and uncertain. Within that parlor were an array of couches, tables, and bookshelves, which were sparsely furnished with books that were as obsolete in their titles as they were in their dull, blank bindings. Nevertheless, I pretended to take interest in perusing them, deciding which one would be seen in my hand when I eventually reentered the lobby. I could still hear the deliberate ticking of the clock above the reception desk, irritating me with its measurement of the slowness of time.
Suddenly, there was a light outside the parlor window—an automobile had arrived at the hotel. After just a moment, I heard its door open and shut, and its headlights flashed by and disappeared. There followed the sound of the front door of the hotel opening, and of someone strolling steadily inside. I glanced sidelong through the parlor doorway, careful not to remove myself too erratically from the bookshelf but maneuvering just enough to catch a glimpse of the new guest. Briefly, he passed in and out of my clear view; he wore formal attire, carried a suitcase, and was evidently a younger man, as he strode with purpose, but otherwise, there was nothing remarkable about him. Quaintly, however, when I restrained my breath to eavesdrop, I realized that he was addressing the receptionist in full English, and with a distinctly American accent at that. But then, abruptly, his language changed—not to French, but to German. To my immense shock, he recited—word for word—the same particular phrase which Renault had told me. There was no immediate response from the receptionist. Rather, there was a faint rustling, as of that particular telephone being picked up, and then a low whisper, which sounded equivocally German, and could not have been, I determined, anything other than a repetition of the phrase. I then listened to the creaking of the russet floorboards as the new guest walked away from the reception desk and into the stair-room. It was a long time before I exhaled again. Stealthily, I retracted from the bookshelf and installed myself on one of the couches, taking with me a book whose title I did not even bother to note, and opening it indiscriminately to a page somewhere in the middle. From here, I had a much better view of the reception desk, but I was careful not to ogle too long in that direction.
I sat with my face behind the book, feeling sickly anxious, though I could not trace the reason why. Certainly, Renault had told the truth about the particular German phrase, but was I really to expect the most beautiful and alluring dame in all Alsace-Lorraine to enter that hotel in a matter of mere minutes to service the gentleman that called upon her? I had heard of secret requests that could be made of hotel staff before, but the final portion of the rumor reeked of exaggeration. Beauty is not so exact—it is subjective, is it not? Yes, perhaps a prostitute would come—that was not unheard of at all—but she could not be all that, could she? Renault had a way of talking over-indulgently of women, flatteringly and fantastically; surely, this was the same case here.
The moment that I least expected it, the front door of the hotel opened again. There had been no noise of an automobile parking and driving off outside, yet now I listened to the resounding clicks of high-heeled shoes across the lobby floor. For just a moment, there appeared before the reception desk a very tall woman dressed in a sable-skin tight dress and a floral cap, but she was also adorned also with a very garish, flowing, furry scarf, which nearly shrouded her entire figure, and as she was turned away from me, I could make no better observation of her than this. The receptionist simply croaked out a room number, which she, upon hearing it, swaggered straightaway without a word unto the very same stair-room where I had last heard the footsteps of the other guest.
Suffice to say, I was astounded by the suave appearance of this dame, but I had witnessed so little of her still to lend credibility to the entirety of Renault’s rumor. I knew that I should not follow her, but my own room was at the top of the very same stair, so I resolved to linger a moment longer in the parlor to avoid any suspicion from the receptionist. Inwardly, I planned only to retire to my room, but my focus upon even this next course of action was repeatedly intruded upon by urges to get up from the couch then and stalk after this lady of the night, only to catch another glimpse of her before she inevitably disappeared into the other guest’s room. These impulses only subsided when I, still sitting motionless upon the couch, realized that I had likely already missed the chance to do so. Where had these sudden passions come from? Had Renault’s mischievous antics somehow rubbed off on me, after all the days that I had spent working beside him?
It was the bothersome ticking of the clock that finally compelled me to pry myself up from the couch. Taking up my suitcase in one hand, and clutching the book in the other, I headed back out into the lobby, careful not to look in the direction of the receptionist as I turned into the stair-room. Resuming my downward gaze, I mounted the stairs, which ascended half a floor before turning left to ascend to the second floor. The walls of the stair-room were continuously striped and dimly-lit, but the pervasiveness of this combination did not occur to me until I arrived at the second floor, and stared down the dusky extent of an entire corridor decorated in the same, tacky, crudely carnival-like wallpaper. I clutched my suitcase close and reluctantly strode forth.
I was midway down the length of the corridor when I heard noises—noises of giggling, flirtatious teasing, and moans of delighted surprise. Already I regretted leaving the parlor, but when I reached the end of the corridor, regret flourished anew in me, for I saw that upon the doorknob of the very next room beside my own, there was draped a loosened tie. Hurriedly, I produced my room key and unlocked the door, slipping inside and closing it shut behind me as instantaneously as I had done so.
I tossed my suitcase and the book onto the bed, looking with disgust at the blue-and-beige striped confines of my new suite. It was after a moment of stillness that I realized that I could, quite clearly, still hear the utterances of ecstasy beyond the wall adjoining the next room, even if the sounds were somewhat more muffled here than in the corridor. Now, a sense of frustration welled up within me—frustration at the indiscreetness of these two nocturnal lovers, frustration at the old woman for booking them beside me, and most of all, frustration at myself for not having spat out that confounded German phrase when I had the chance, for not only would I have been relieved of these tortuous noises, but because it would have been I making them, so passionately and carefree as they did then. I paced around the little suite, clamming my ears shut with my palms and growing more impatient every time I uncovered them—for whenever I did so, I was only met with a heightened continuation of the debaucherous ruckus. I could not fathom how they were still going at it after all that time. I wanted desperately to make a complaint to the receptionist, or even to knock at the door of the adjacent room and reprimand the couple themselves; I even scolded myself every moment that I had not the audacity to storm out of my suite and do one or both of those things, yet I was convinced that such efforts would be of little.
It was amidst this terrible, awkward inconvenience that a reprieve came to me in the form of a little cupboard door under a desk in the corner of the room, which was evidently left halfway open and bedraped with a little towelette by the hotel staff. Upon a single glance toward it, I recognized that it contained a copious supply of compliments, most all of them being bottles of red Austrian wine. Desperately, I fell to my knees and reached into the cupboard, groping for the first bottle which I could touch. Wrenching one out, I bit off the cork and slumped against an empty wardrobe next to the desk, downing the contents of the bottle with a thirst that was not altogether bodily. I was, of course, well-acquainted with strong drink by that age, as it had been my fancy throughout my two years at university and my nectar while I painted houses with Renault, so it did not take long before I had quaffed the first bottle dry and reached for a second. The more intoxicated I became, the less the noises of the other room penetrated my ears, and slowly, in my drunkenness, I resigned myself to that miserable night, content that I would, at the very least, sleep through most of it, and hopefully remember none of it.
I cannot say how I awoke, only that upon some drowsy blinking of my eyes, and a high-tilted swig of wine, I suddenly realized that I was no longer asleep—if I was at all. I sensed very strongly that things were different—though I knew not at once what they were. Dazed, I glanced about at the empty wine bottles around me and felt wetness around my shirt collar. I realized that I had not managed to crawl into bed, or even to douse the lights of my suite, for I was still on the floor, reclined against the wardrobe. As my eyes wavered all about the space of the room, the sight of the loathsome striped walls splashed some recollection of last night’s misery upon my mind, sobering me somewhat. Even as I recalled the events of yesterday, I struggled to actually believe them—that I had, upon a whim, booked a room at this hotel, merely for the sake of discovering of some vague rumor which Renault had imparted me with. What had I been thinking? In that drowsy, still-drunken state, my thoughts were far from clear, but I had at least been afforded the counter-perspectives which came with an early wakening.
As prior events played out in my memory, those of arrivals of the other guest and the lady eventually surfaced as well. It was then that the realization struck me—their abhorrent exclamations had ceased at last. The whole world—or at least it seemed—was now totally quiet. Presuming the morning to be upon me already, I clung to the desk in the corner of my room, heaving myself up onto it and intending to clean myself up before I checked out to hail another taxicab. But when I peered over the desk, I subsequently gazed out the window that was just above it and saw that the sky was ever starry and black with night. I was astounded, and moreover exasperated at this discovery—surely, I had slept longer than that. Or had I? Perhaps my slumber had really lasted no more than an hour or two. My God, what time was it, then? My forehead throbbed with a splitting ache as I steadied myself upon my feet, using the bedpost now like a crutch and shielding my eyes from the ceiling lamp. I was immensely hungover—that much was certain—but no night of drinking in all my university days had ever left me in such a state. It was not my sickest state, though quite sick I was; however, there was a pervasive dizziness which washed over me with my every motion, and I felt increasingly disassociated with the space of the suite I was in, finding it more and more unfamiliar the longer I regarded it.
There was a mirror on the wall beside the wardrobe. I ogled at myself reflected in it, unsurprised that I looked as haggard as I felt. I slapped myself, blinked, and straightened my stained shirt collar, hoping that having a more respectable appearance would bring on a shred of sobriety, and clarity as to what I should do now that I was awake. Strangely, I was not sleepy in the slightest, though this daze of mine was ever unfaltering. I figured then that stepping out of the hotel for a breath of fresh air could alleviate my hangover, and after a moment of thoughtless lingering, I resolved to do just that. Opening the door, I staggered out into the corridor, becoming belatedly aware of how heavy my footfalls were upon the creaking floorboards. I stared once more down the length of the corridor. I was startled by how much darker it appeared to be than I had remembered it; it was if the bulbs of the wall-mounted lamps had burnt themselves bleary over the short time that I was asleep, or perhaps it was merely that I was viewing the corridor from the other end so that the farthest extent of it seemed to be sucked down into the gloomy void that was the stair-room beyond it. Shaking off the small apprehension which had infected me, I started down the corridor, hovering close to the wall as I did so, for the new and uncertain spaciousness of that place was relatively more difficult to navigate in my drunken state. I had only achieved a couple of strides before my groping hand grazed the dim frame of the door of the adjacent suite, which—to my surprise—actually opened just a crack from my slightest touch. I froze at once, and my eyes darted down to the doorknob. The tie was still draped around it.
Immediately, those prior impulses from hours ago swelled within me, superseding any regret or self-disparagements which I may have felt for my curiosity for the lady of the night. Here and now was my opportunity to catch a better glimpse of her—to behold her beauty and measure it for myself, and perhaps she would even take secret notice of me, acknowledging my beckoning eyes and following me back to my own suite—there, I could determine the very end of Renault’s rumor, doing so until I wished for something other than her company. Certainly, there was no harm in starting with as little as looking.
This ridiculous sugar-rush of a fancy was rapidly smothered by the notion that the door had been left unlocked merely because the lady had already departed from the hotel. Still, I dallied, part of me racking my reasoning for some proof to believe that was not so, but this rationalization only served to uncover the likelier reality: the other guest was alone, probably asleep, and even in a state of nature; if the two lovers had made as much use of the hotel compliments as I had, he was sure to be very drunk as well, and nothing good could come from taking the risk of rousing him, much less seeing him at all. Slowly, I retracted my hand from the door and shuffled past it.
I was still consumed by the dilemma of the open door, fighting with these absurd urges as I came to the end of the hall and descended the stairs, my thoughts only catching up to my gait with the dizziness of those striped walls, which spurned in me the memory of the hotel receptionist. I sensed—moreso than in retrospect than at the time—that there was something horrible about her, and though I had formerly avoided her out of embarrassment, now I simply loathed the idea of being within eyesight of her. I stopped midway down the second flight of stairs, hunching my head to peer lower through the doorway into the lobby, where the reception desk was in clear view. I had hoped that I could sneak outside while she was turned away, but I was astonished and relieved to find that she was no longer at the desk at all. Deliberately, I crept out into the lobby and found it even more desolate than before, as the old lady was entirely absent from there.
The clock, however, had not vanished with her. Louder it ticked, and even longer was it drawn out. Approaching it now with a reason to accept its tiresome presence, I gazed up at it now with the intention of reading it and discerning just how much time had passed since my arrival at the hotel. But upon doing so, my mind drew a blank answer. Firstly, I remembered then that I had not read the clock on my way in, nor had I referred to any time at all save daylight since my departure from Reims. Secondly, the time on the clock here read exactly midnight, and in spite of its incessant ticking, it never advanced beyond this, even as I stood before it, patiently waiting for it to do so. Soon, I became even more riled by it than I ever was before. What good is a broken clock if all it does is make itself an annoyance? Adequately offended, I tore away from the reception desk and headed for the front door of the hotel, wrenching it open and stepping out onto the sidewalk for my much-needed outside inhalations.
As I stood there, leaning against the grungy, castle-brick wall of the hotel, sucking in the cool air with as much voracity as Renault often had in drawing from his cigarettes, a portion of clarity mercifully returned to me. Where was that old bat of a receptionist, anyway? Some service she was! And as I looked out upon the empty street in front of the hotel, the finer details of the events surrounding my arrival resurfaced in my memory. The other guest had arrived in an automobile, of course—likely a taxicab, just as I had—but where had the prostitute come from? There was no flashing of headlights to herald her ingress, and she had done so in a matter of minutes, just like Renault had told me she would. Surely, she had to live and work quite locally, then; yet still it was a queer thought to think a person such as her could do so to a suitable degree in a sleepy, secluded place such as this.
My inner inquiries were suddenly interrupted by a singularly exhilarating series of thoughts. If this mysterious dame did, indeed, live very close by, and if she was quite finished with the other guest at the hotel—what was to stop me from requesting her service now? I still remembered the particular German phrase well enough. But then there was the inconvenience of the missing receptionist. Where the devil had she gone to? Did nobody at all tend the reception desk at so late an hour? Surely, the very fact that the hotel catered to the clandestine service meant that it could be requested, no matter the time of night. If not, then why even bother to do so at all? Perhaps, even though the telephone was currently unattended, the line was still very much open to reception.
This notion led straightaway unto another: why not just try to relay the particular German phrase to the switchboard myself? After all, that was what the old woman had done upon the request of the other guest. How hard could it be?
As quickly as I had come outside, I rushed back into the lobby, anxiously hoping that the horrible old receptionist had not returned to her post to betide my tongue with her nerve-wracking presence. Still, the lobby was utterly empty. Composing myself with this observation, I strutted toward the reception desk with greater discretion and glancing about one last time to ensure my privacy, reached for the particular telephone.
It was then that I discovered why, exactly, it had seemed so strange and antique to me when first I glimpsed it—there was simply no dial. In fact, there appeared to be no buttons on it at all—only the two wires which connected the telephone to the housing, and the housing to the wall. Perplexed, I raised the telephone to my ear, not really expecting to hear anything at all. But I did. There was a faint, static, grinding sort of crackling emanating from it, which first I assumed to have been my own mistaken hearing of the clock which was close to it—but between its drawn-out ticks, I heard it still, and knew that the line must have been active. “Eh, hello?” I muttered, much too quietly.
There was no response. So, mustering my voice, I tried again—this time reciting the particular German phrase, which somehow still lingered in my memory.
“Ich wünsche mir, was dem gegeben wurde, der es mir gesagt hat.”
I waited. Still, there was no reply. Gradually, I was struck by how ridiculous this all was, and how stupid I must have been for believing Renault. Had I somehow imagined overhearing the other guest and the receptionist recite this phrase? Certainly, I did, and the lady of the night had arrived as proof of it. Why, then, did I not receive a response? Or was one not even necessary for such a request as this? I kept the telephone pressed against my ear, letting its soft ambiance drown out the ticking of the clock as I mulled over these things. But it was at that moment that my eye caught sight of something quite strange.
Here I must delineate the greater layout of the hotel, or at least as much of is as I could know for certain, from my brief glimpses of its exterior to what minimal space of its interior I had set foot in. From the outside, the hotel appeared to be a very broad, rectangular building of two floors in height. However, it is more accurately described as being shaped like a box—the front side of was the lobby, with parlors and the stair-rooms comprising the adjoining it at each corner, and its sides were the wings of the hotel where the actual suites were located, spread out along both sides of the corridors. Now, in the middle of this box stood a cross-like inner-structure, bridging each of the sides to one center and creating four small, grassy, triangular courtyards that were open to the air. I could determine this much because, against the back wall of the lobby, behind the reception desk, there was a door which led unto this central structure, and on each side of this door were windows, which provided clear views of two of the little courtyards on either side. And from my perspective then, I glanced diagonally out of one of these windows at the inner side of the right wing of the hotel—at the opposite side and end of the corridor from my own room. Wide, tall windows of the inner suites overlooked these courtyards, brightening the brickwork of the central structure with the light that shone from them, and it was one such window that held my attention. For within the frame of this window stood the silhouetted figure of a man, watching me.
There was something singularly striking about this figure, though initially, I knew not what. Though I could scarcely discern his features, I determined him to be a man by his frame, and that he was, indeed, facing me directly. These presumptions were soon challenged by the realization that he was wholly unclothed, yet his genitalia were unclear. Certainly, a person of such bulk could not have been a woman. Additionally, there was something quaint about the proportions of his head, as if he was decreased in some way, or lacking some crucial human element, though I could not for the life of me decide what it was. He did not simply stand there and watch me, but raised his fingers to the glass of the window-pane, shakily tapping it up and down very lightly with his fingertips; this intrigued me most of all, but when I noticed there was something residual in his touch, my startlement transformed into sheer dread. Little streaks of a dark color were left by his every tapping, even dribbling down the length of the window in some places, and as I looked on, I noticed that some substance dripped from the very mouth of the man.
Before I even knew what to make of it all, the naked man turned and hobbled away from the window, leaving only these tiny, dark spots upon the window as proof of his being there. The telephone fell out of my hand, clattering against the desktop. Whatever was I to make of this? That was not blood smeared upon the window, was it? With that sort of inexplicable, erratic behavior, what else could it have been? But naturally, rationalizations followed. Perhaps it was merely the strange, discordant motions of an elderly person which I just witnessed, whose atrophy of mind and body could explain this sort of behavior. Somehow, though, this reasoning was not sufficient enough to banish the dread which I felt then. On the contrary, my nervousness gradually maximized.
Perhaps there was, indeed, something terribly wrong with this person. Should I try to notify the hotel staff? How could I, when they were, to my knowledge, as few as the old woman who had sat at the reception desk—and even she was still nowhere to be accounted for? Perhaps it was best ignored, lest guilt and anxiety should consume me.
Eventually, I remembered that I had dropped the phone. Prudently, I snatched it up off the desktop and replaced it, careful to nudge it back into exactly the same spot I had found it so that there would be no suspicion if the receptionist ever came back to the desk. I reflected upon my recital of the particular German phrase in the phone and wondered with unease whether or not I had actually succeeded in summoning the dame back to the hotel. Something about the mere sight of the figure in the suite window had sapped my enthusiasm out of the prospect of her accompaniment that night and rather transformed it into a visitation to dread. Suppose the old woman returned to the reception desk and saw the prostitute either coming or going through the lobby a second time—would she not be suspicious of who might have used the telephone unpermitted? What did it matter—was I somehow otherwise in danger? Surely, there was something poisonous about this place.
I could not think clearly while the clock still ticked overhead. Quickly, I decided to retreat straightaway to my suite—perhaps if ever the prostitute walked into an empty lobby, she would simply leave on her own accord. Why was I fleeing from this dame, when just moments ago I had longed so desperately for her? I did not know, and I thought little more of it when I ascended the stairs once more and halted before the corridor. Only then did it occur to me that I shared this corridor not only with the other new guest but also with the naked man from the window. In fact, if my estimation was correct, he was in the suite just to the left of the stairs when mounting them. My initial reaction was to continue onward, staying awry of the door to that room as I did so, but simultaneously I felt compelled to instead draw near to it if only to confirm to myself that nothing was the matter. The latter I did, promising myself I would only linger briefly, and upon doing so, I, very quietly, pressed my ear against the door, straining to hear.
I discerned nothing at first. But then there developed a dull, monotonous, and continuous sound—the sound of fingertips, lightly tapping against things, dreadfully drumming against the walls and even the very door which I inclined my ear to. I retracted at once, rearing back a pace from the door with somewhat less discreetness in my footfall than I had anticipated, resulting in a very audible creaking of the floorboards. Though it may have been because of my renewed distance from the door, it almost seemed as if the tapping sounds had not faded, but rather ceased as immediately as I did so—as if the man on the other side had acknowledged my presence just after I had acknowledged his. I gulped, fixating my eyes upon the doorknob, expecting it to twist at any moment. But it never did.
Finally, I managed the courage to turn myself away from the door, and proceeded down the corridor, very careful with the weight of my gait as I did so. Of course, I passed the tie-draped door of the other guest, still cracked slightly ajar, just as I had left it. As I remembered him, I thought of him in a new light, now—he was, after all, an American like myself, one who was obviously well-aware of the clandestine service of the hotel, and those two things alone should have made us acquaintances, not rivals to argue over the rights to some French prostitute. But would he realize that? Truly, at that moment, I wished that there was someone unto whom I could confide my waxing feelings of concern and unease at that hotel, and the missing receptionist, and the naked man at the window. But were these things alone sufficient of even the remotest justification of my anxiety? I would certainly be scoffed at for being the young, inexperienced, and impressionable person that I was. What good would that be?
However, as I stepped back into my own suite, and surveyed the mess of empty bottles and puddles of wine upon the floor, a new, bolder perspective dawned on me. The inconsiderate bastard had driven me to drink away that miserable night and stolen away my chance at a liaison with that lady of the night—even if now I no longer wanted her. He owed me an explanation. Nobody here actually knew that I had ever intended to request the prostitute, and to that end, I could confront him, demanding that he would confess to me exactly what sort of things were going on at this accursed hotel upon the threat of his illegal dealings, as well as those of the hotel staff’s, being reported to the police. Such threats would be surely be reinforced by the mere fact that I knew about the particular German phrase—perhaps I would seem to know more than I actually did.
So, after a moment of pacing around the room, churning my anxiety until it boiled into testy self-righteousness, I marched back out into the corridor and over to the cracked door of the adjacent suite. Still somewhat nagged by petty nervousness, I cautiously laid my hand on the tie-draped doorknob, and deliberately pushed it farther open. I let the murky light of the corridor behind me slowly spread across the room, illuminating everything save that which fell under my own shadow. As I expected, the suite was identical to my own, save that the arrangement of everything was mirrored. When the hazy luminescence washed over the bed, I almost expected to see the beady reflections of a pair of eyes peering back at me with a drowsy, squinting scowl from out the sheets, but much to my surprise, the bed appeared to be vacant. I tarried in the doorway for a moment, a bit dumbfounded at the fact that nobody at all was in there. He had to be here, somewhere—why else was his tie still draped over the doorknob? Surely, he could not have left so early in the night and simply forgotten it—could he? Had I really gotten so worked up over a misplaced article of clothing?
I flicked the light switch, wincing at the new brightness. The blankets and pillows were a mess, scattered and stretched across the bed and the floor around it in the messiest way imaginable, but sure enough, the suite was unoccupied. I sauntered farther inside, glancing bewilderedly about for clues as to why it was. There certainly seemed to be no token of the dame’s ever having been there. There was not even a sign of the suitcase which I had very distinctly remembered the other guest bringing into the hotel. Upon checking the cupboard under the desk, I saw that the compliments had, indeed, been sampled, but nowhere close to the extent which I had done so. They had been neatly replaced and corked to boot. I stood in the middle of the room, not sure if my paranoia had driven me toward unraveling a mystery, or toward making a complete fool of myself. Having already persisted this far, however, I decided it best to at least apply my best efforts, as much as my still dazed mind would allow.
I searched the sheets for signs of drenching—they were, of course, for which reason I decided to keep my hands off such evidence. None of it was blood, as if of a struggle, and for that reason, I nearly dropped my impromptu investigation right then and there. There was something quite curious about the way in which the blankets were tossed aside—which, I presumed, no degree of carousing could account for. Specifically, there was certain, strange curvature in one of the blankets upon the floor before the empty wardrobe, looking as if it had been tugged neatly to one side and against the wall, even as the other end of it touched the front of the wardrobe. You see, there was a space between the blanket and the wardrobe, but the way in which the blanket was stretched made it seem as if there had not always been a space. Reluctantly, I lowered myself to my knees and pressed my ear against the floor of the empty space to peer underneath the wardrobe. And I tell you this—though it did so by the slightest hair, the legs of the wardrobe floated above the floor.
I readjusted myself several times, examining each leg of the wardrobe individually only to be certain that my observation was correct. Indeed, the weight of the wardrobe did not rest upon the floor—rather, it was affixed to the wall behind it. Now, for whatever reason would it need to be? I determined at once that the wardrobe had to have shifted in order to tug the blanket in such a way that it would leave a strangely matching space, but how could it be pushed when it was affixed to the wall? To this, there was only one answer—behind the wardrobe laid a mechanism that allowed it to move aside, one that was quite similar to a sliding door.
I seized the sides of the wardrobe at once, palms perspiring at my discovery. And for a moment, I was enthralled, as when I forced the wardrobe to one side, it actually shifted in the way that I expected it to—but only by the slightest degree. Disappointed that it seemed to have been locked in place, I then inspected the wall behind the wardrobe, looking for the seam of a door frame, yet with the dimness of the light, I could scarcely make one out. Surely, I was on to something, was I not? Frantically, I rushed out into the corridor and back into my room, intrigued to scrutinize my own wardrobe. It floated above the floor in an identical fashion, and when I shoved against it, it likewise budged ever so slightly in the same direction—yet it too was unyielding. Far too invested to simply give up now, I, thinking quickly, placed myself directly in the doorway of my suite, leaning in and out the corridor, estimating with my eyes the extent of my room and comparing it with the space from there to the door of the adjacent suite. I even stepped out and measured the distance with my own gait, and discovered that, between the walls of the two rooms, there was an unaccounted space of at least one whole meter in width.
I rushed back into the other guest’s suite and set to lightly rapping against the wall between the rooms with my fist, rapidly tapping in a shaky, searching sort of manner that was not wholly removed from that demonstrated by the naked man in the window from earlier. I had painted enough houses in my career to distinguish the sound of hollowness behind walls; in doing so now, I was met with exactly the sort of empty echoes that I expected. Undoubtedly, there were hidden rooms between these suites, even if I could not then prove it.
As I shuffled down the length of the wall from the wardrobe, drumming the wall with the soft side of my fist, I soon reached the mirror. It was also oddly affixed to the wall—not hung, but plastered against it, even so, that the vile, blue-and-beige striped wallpaper peeled around its edges. Surely, then, it covered an opening. Immediately, the thought of shattering the mirror came to mind. I was hesitant at first, afraid of the clamor it would cause if I did so, as well as the bill I would have if I were caught doing so. But how could the hotel bill me when its great scandal had been revealed? Oh, to hell with it—it was not even my suite! Who would even know for certain that I had done it?
Rapidly, I searched the room for something small, heavy, and sturdy by which I could break the mirror. The actualization of my plan came in the form of a little wooden stool, which had been tucked underneath the desk. Snatching it up, I gripped its legs tightly with both hands and reared back, angling myself toward the mirror. Then, with all my might, I swung the stool against the mirror, splitting it in one square stroke. I continued to pummel the mirror with the stool until the jagged cracks multiplied, and the pieces fell one-by-one to the floor on their own. Lightly, I knocked away the remaining fragments, noticing only then that substance of the mirror was quite uncommon—there was not a backside to the mirror, of course, but the glass itself was wholly transparent from one side.
I peered into the dark space beyond the toothy maw of the shattered mirror. What I first realized was that, from there, I could see into my own suite, which light of which laid beyond a certain window which was identical to the shape of my mirror, yet did not let any light into that narrow between-room. Evidently, my mirror was a one-way window as well. The between-room was quite rudimentary—sheets of insulation laid bare between skeleton frames, and the space was entirely empty. Leaning, I gazed down at the far end of the between-room and realized that I was looking at the back of my wardrobe; just as I had suspected, it was affixed to a mechanism which allowed it to shift open or lock close from the other side. I noticed also a small hatch in the floor, the door of which was left ajar. Beyond it, I glimpsed the dull outline of yet another one-way window. Just below this between-room, on the first floor, there was yet another between-room, situated between two suites, exactly as it was here.
I backed away from the broken mirror, dizzy with shock at my discovery. Countless notions flooded my mind, theorizing at what purposes these between-rooms could serve. Was this merely a way of hiding prostitutes in the event of a police inspection? Or was something more sinister afoot? Perhaps the other guest had not left on his own volition—perhaps he had been kidnapped, sedated by that treacherous lady of the night, and dragged unconscious into the between-room, beyond the shifting wardrobe. But where had he been taken to after that? Why had they taken him at all? Why had they not stolen me away as well?
I remembered then that, when I passed out, I had done so slouched against the wardrobe in my suite. Had I, in my drunkenness, been delivered from such a fate? If not for that, these kidnappers could have easily shanghaied me as well; surely, they must have witnessed me in my state of total sedation through the one-way window. Fear rose from the pit of my stomach and traveled to the very fringes of my sinews. My God, I could have easily been as good as dead! What was I to do?
Well, I decided I had seen enough. My bedeviled curiosity had brought me close enough to the brink of uncertain peril. I would notify the police of my discovery and leave the scene straightaway, so as not to tempt these kidnappers any further with my continued presence. If they were watching me while I slept, then surely, they could be watching me even now by means of one-way windows and between-rooms of which I had yet no knowledge, waiting to pounce upon me while my back was turned. I hastened back out into the corridor and over to the stairs, intent upon making it back to the telephone in the lobby before the receptionist returned to her desk. But as I did so, I passed the suite to the side of the stairs—the same suite which faced that inner courtyard, and the same in which I had witnessed the naked man—and saw that its door was now wide open. I did not see anyone in the room as I elapsed it, nor did I dare even enter it to find out, as the mere sight of the open door spurred me to quicken my pace away from it. I wrung my hands as I trudged down the stairs, feeling very weak in my knees and hoping very much that I would not be met by him, or the receptionist, or even the lady of the night in the lobby.
To my great relief, the lobby was as empty as it was before. However, upon rushing over to the reception desk, I was horrified by a sudden recollection—the particular telephone there had no dial or buttons at all. How had I been so stupid to forget that? No use could come of it at all. With that, I resolved to simply vamoose the establishment. I scampered over to the front door of the hotel and dashed out into the cool, starry night.
I wish that my tale ended there. Of course, I had a half a mind to keep running, following the road until I stumbled across a window with a light in it, where I could explain to some startled occupant my predicament, and also to acquire a real telephone and make my report to the police. But I felt as I did so, I could be easily chased by these unknown kidnappers, who, I felt, were very close at my heels even then. And this was the countryside, after all—not everyone had telephones, as evidenced by the fewness of the pylons which were erected in those parts. The notion dawned on me then that perhaps the most direct escape from Asteré was not definite to be the wisest. I would not return to the hotel—that much was certain, but the starry night over that little town imbued the streets with an oppressive, uncertain wan, which I dared not delve into very far. There had to be a better way.
It occurred to me then that it might be best to follow any telephone wires rather than to rove the road without a clear direction. Certainly, I could perceive a few pylons thereabouts from the light of the streetlamps, all strung up with about a dozen cables that were nigh indistinguishable from one another. Of these, however, the only one which I could be sure was a telephone wire was one which extended from the hotel itself. There must have been telephones inside of the other shady buildings across the street, but their windows were dark and their doors undoubtedly locked, and I was reluctant to resort to vandalism. Therefore, I stalked up and down the face of the hotel, searching the height of its walls for the slender silhouette of a telephone wire. This proved to be no simple task, as much of the hotel’s exterior had been swallowed by the nightly wan, and only the little light shown from the windows and the streetlamps aided me in this.
It was not long before I located a certain pylon that rose from the sidewalk, somewhat smothered in the shadows between the hotel and the warehouse to the side of it. Coming beneath it, I examined it more closely, and indeed, there were a few wires which stretched out from it and unto the exterior of the hotel, vanishing into a little crevice in the brickwork. I took a step back and circled around the pylon, head craned back and regarding it from all sides, attempting to determine which direction next the wires of the pylon extended, but even this baffled me—there appeared not to be a single cable connecting this pylon with the others on that street, nor did any wires follow the street at all. I finally discovered the missing wires when I placed myself a little distance down the narrow alley between the hotel and the warehouse, realizing then that they led away in that same direction, away from the street. Perplexed, and feeling a slight resurgence of anxiety, I maundered a few paces farther down this gloomy little alleyway, using only the stars of the sky to discern the shape of the shadowed wire overhead as I followed it deeper and deeper into the dark.
Now, this alley, though long and murky, was quite clear of any obstacles, and of course, it was punctuated in several places by the dusky lights of the hotel, which shone from the windows of the vacant suites of the left wing. I felt myself being watched as I passed them—knowing well that, in any one of them, behind their one-way mirrors, someone could be keeping an eye on me even then. I wanted desperately to quicken my pace but following the wire in such darkness was a very slow and tedious process that could not be rushed without error.
I was about midway down this alley when I stopped, head still craned back in trying to ascertain that the wire still stretched forward. It was at that moment that my ears were met by a very faint and familiar sound—the sound of tapping. I whirled around, only to behold there behind me, blackened against the light of the streetlamps from whence I had come, was the figure of the same naked man which I had witnessed inside the suite in the hotel—whose door was left ajar last I saw it. His arms were outstretched to both sides—one groping the wall of the warehouse, and the other dragging along the first-floor window of the hotel. And as he strode forth into that whiskey-colored glow, I saw that his fingers were still residual with that dark substance, and even worse—his whole body glistened with an oily luster, as if wettened from head to foot. I was so startled by his manifestation that I could immediately conform to any response whatsoever. For a long moment, I merely stood there, staring agape at the naked man, letting him inch closer and closer toward me, his fingers shaking with a mounting vigor the nearer he got. I tried to force some utterance out of my throat, but much like during my experience with trying to recite the particular German phrase to the receptionist, my tongue became suddenly dry, and I choked with unintelligible enunciations, trying in vain to ask this person who he was and what was the matter, and desperately wishing to tell him not to come any closer.
Upon the slightest, broken whimper escape my lips, the naked man became motionless at once, tapping the walls no longer—he had heard me, now. What was it with him? Was he blind, or just poor of sight? Had he only just now realized that I was present before him? But then there issued an awful sound, so dreadful and abhorrent that these questions were doused from my mind at once. This sound was something similar to my own pathetic attempts of speaking up, but hoarser, stronger, and even angrily impassioned in tone; this voice gurgled and choked several times before breaking into a bizarre, unworldly howl, piercing the relative silence of the night. Shuddering, I stared back at him, immobilized by pure shock.
What was I doing by waiting here? Was I hoping for some rationalization to come to mind—that I would figure out that the frightening appearance and unexplainable behavior of the naked man before me was the result of some physical or mental atrophy, and that I had simply misunderstood what I had observed? Was I really this naïve? That was no man before me, though once it may have been—that was a murderous monster, and the substance which covered him could be nothing other than blood. And this blood was that same blood of the other guest who had gone missing from the adjacent suite—how had I not realized this sooner? My God, how my drunken stupor had warped my reasoning! I knew at once that I needed to run.
Before I had even made the conscious decision, I twisted away and bolted down the remaining length of the alley and into the skirt of the woods behind the hotel. Even as I fled, I heard rapid footfalls behind me, increasing to a desperate velocity which matched my own, and with them came frantic shrieks and freakish, guttural cries which left little room for my imagination to guess at just how close this monster was behind me. More terrified now than ever, I renewed my vigor, sprinting doubly fast as I tore through the woods. I barely knew what was ahead of me as the woods here were utterly back with the night, only keeping myself from stumbling by the violent swiping of my arms at the indiscernible boughs and brushes before me. I knew that in plunging this deeply into the trees, I was bound to lose myself, but what mattered to me then was only that I lost my monstrous pursuant.
I had nearly forgotten my plan to follow the telephone wire when, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, I burst out of the woods and into a grassy field. Startled, I slowed in my pace and listened. There was no longer the sound of breaking boughs or rustling brushes behind me. Perhaps I had escaped from the monster—or, at least for the time being.
Still stumbling forth, I surveyed this new place that I had found myself. The field that I jogged through composed a single, lonely clearing in the murky reaches of the woods, so vast that it was impossible to determine whether it was really as isolated from civilization as it looked. Most prominent was the shadowy shape of a great, bulky barn, which sat on the crest of a low hill and seeming like the slumberous silhouette of some immense folkish beast. And the view of the night sky here was even more vast than it had been above the hotel, reaching from horizon to verdant horizon, so incomprehensibly full of stars—it may have been a beautiful sight under different circumstances. But I took notice of this because I noticed that, upon looking up at the sky, the stars which hung over the between the woods behind me and the barn before me appeared to have been divided by a long, black line—as of a wire stretched over the field. I soon realized that it was, indeed, a wire—but was it the same that extended from the hotel? I goaded myself onward, never stopping, and deciding that it would be better to examine the wire once I had laid low in the barn for a while, to be certain that the monster did not find me again.
When I arrived at the barn, I did not have to ask myself how I would go about entering it—for so dilapidated was it that I slipped myself through a crevice between two rotten planks, which once constituted a portion of the exterior wall. Clearly, it had been long abandoned to this state. The interior of the barn was not as dark as I had surmised it to be, though this may have been due to the adjustment of my eyes to the nightly wan after my chase through the trees. The degree of decay in that barn was even more evident once I was actually inside it, as still I could gaze up and descry many little stars blinking between the cracks in the walls and the roof. Despite this, the interior of the barn was uncommonly partitioned into lesser, ramshackle rooms rather than the openness which is usually associated with them. Cautiously, I made my way from room to room, staggering over botched bales of hay and discarded implements, shuffling through uneven gaps in the walls which may or may not have been doors at some point in time.
Among the tools scattered across the ground, my foot collided with one that felt exceptionally weighty. Glancing down, I saw that I had nearly tripped over a sledgehammer. For the first time that night, I felt the need for a weapon to defend myself, as indeed, I urgently required one—this sledgehammer would certainly suffice. I scooped it up from the ground, shaking the dirt and the strands of hay off its shaft, feeling the weight of it in my grasp. Though still I trembled with the shock of my encounter with the monster, holding the sledgehammer imbued me with a sense of confidence. Could I not meet this monster head-on now that I was equipped to defend myself? How perilous was he, really? He was, after all, blind—or so he seemed. He may have slain the other hotel guest while he was sedated, but I was sobering quickly, and well aware of his tricks. Would he really follow me all the way out to this barn just to slay me? I had outmaneuvered it in those woods; surely, even if it did find me, I would prove to be the more capable combatant.
My waxing self-confidence was suspended by the shrill echo of a wooden plank splitting, somewhere in the gloomy recesses of that barn. Standing at attention, I clutched the sledgehammer close to my chest and receded away from any crevices in the walls of the room I was currently in, watching them all with an acute eye. More echoes of creaking, snapping, and shuffling followed. As I remained still and listened, it became clear to me where the sounds were coming from—this was enough to determine that they were approaching me, and doing so along much the same path through the barn that I had forged. And with these sounds were mixed those unmistakable wheezes, wails, and that terrible tapping, which traveled through the wooden beams of the whole barn and thrilled me with agonizing anticipation. Soon, I had decided through which gap the monster would rear its strange, dripping, and reduced head, and with creeping footfalls, I drew near to it, sledgehammer raised readily over my shoulder.
The very moment I detected movement I swung the sledgehammer with all the strength that I had left. Its heavy head pulled me forth, striking very fiercely against something which was solid, but not entirely so. There issued a terrible, ferocious scream, and the distinctive, sickening sound of flesh tearing and bones splitting. Not tarrying for even an instant, I drew back the sledgehammer and swung it again and again, inflicting increasingly audible blows upon the monster with every strike, unrelenting at the heightened noise until it had floundered to the ground in a heap. Still, I persisted, standing over it now and raising high over my head, intent upon dealing the final blow. Yet as I brought the sledgehammer down one last time, its bulky head caught quite unexpectedly on something flexible overhead, that I had previously overlooked, and with the sudden sensing of it, I fumbled, accidentally dropping the sledgehammer. This small error disoriented me greatly, sending me into a panic—frantically, I searched they hay-speckled ground for the sledgehammer, desperate to have it in my grasp again before the monster recuperated.
However, once I found the sledgehammer again, I realized there was no reason to be in such a hurry. The form of the monster was amort before me, glistening anew in blood that was certainly its own, and breathing no more. In the dark, I could hardly make out its features—even less so now that it had certainly been bludgeoned beyond recognition. But at that moment, I was not very concerned with its appearance at all. The monster was defeated, and that was all that mattered. Panting wide-eyed, I lowered the sledgehammer, aghast at what I had just accomplished. There was blood all over my clothes.
Gradually, I collected myself. Despite my victory, I was still very much lost. I remembered my plan to follow the telephone wire about the same instant which I actually saw it—the wire itself was what had caught my sledgehammer and caused me to fumble. It not only extended unto this barn, but it was apparently woven through it, passing right through that very gap where I had slain the monster. This revelation caused me to pause in bewilderment. What was a telephone wire doing in a ramshackle barn like this? As odd as it was, I resolved again to follow it.
Turning from whence I had come, I continued in the opposite direction, taking the sledgehammer with me as a trailed after the wire into a room further inside the barn than the last. I then noticed how lazily the wire seemed to have been strung—drooping from support beams and winding through cracks in the woodwork and strange altitudes, betraying the peculiar fact that it could not have been arranged this way prior to the barn’s dilapidation. I mulled over this observation but did not have the opportunity to consider it for long before it led me to a strikingly dark doorway. Here the wire disappeared into the wan beyond it, hovering much lower to the ground than it had before—but not quite touching it.
I followed it onward, presuming the door only to lead me into another similarly decrepit room, or even out of the barn itself. Instead, I was surprised by a depression in the floor, which creaked under my belated footfall. I caught myself upon the doorway before I stumbled. Were these stairs before me now? I took another step, only to confirm that indeed, I was now descending a flight of stairs. I kept moving, gripping the telephone wire now, as it was my only point of reference in this enshrouded, underground place. I became increasingly astounded as I went, expecting my every next step to be that which ended the stairs, but for long it never did. Finally, a distant light materialized before me, and the floor felt horizontal again. I crept forth and somehow found myself in a corridor with whiskey-colored lamps hanging from walls of blue-and-beige striped wallpaper.
Was I back in the hotel again? How could this be? No, I could not be—this place was far away and well underground, and there were many differences between this corridor and that of the hotel wing. Certainly, this one was much longer, and the lamps were even dimmer; the doors which lined the sides were dissimilar also, appearing here less like those that belonged to suites and more like those that belonged to prison cells with their dull, metallic bracings. Nevertheless, I presumed that they were all no less locked. And the telephone wire stretched on and on—on unto the shadowy end of the corridor. If this was not the hotel, then, where was I? Why did this corridor appear so similar?
Soon, it became apparent by the drooping angle of the telephone wire that I was approaching the end of it. Amidst the haziness of that corridor, I saw that it led to a compartment between two doors. And in this compartment, I found a particular, antique little telephone, which was familiarly without a dial. So, that was it, then? There was no switchboard for this wire—it never even connected any number at all, and all calls made by the receptionist from the hotel were merely received by the same telephone which I now stood before. Whatever for? Who answered this phone, and why? I dared not remove it from its housing as I had done with the other, staring at it in dizzy confusion.
Suddenly, I heard a muffled voice—one that could have only belonged to a man. Expecting it to have come from the telephone itself, I quickly backed away from it, but then I recognized that it was not muffled by the wire, but by the obstruction of the nearby walls. I remained motionless as the voice rang through that corridor, growing clearer as its volume heightened. And I realized that it was speaking perfect English with a distinctly American accent.
“What can be done to help someone like you, sir? Hmm? Unremitting urges are apt to fester with deviant desires, but monasticism’s no solution—why, I say, that’s just as contrary to the natural state, isn’t it? That’s what the moralists can’t understand—it’s Morton’s Fork, there’s no doing away with it, nor should there be. No, it simply requires adjustment toward a nondestructive end, you see. Individuals such as yourself who have been blessed with excessive sexuality should be perceived as opportunities in the field of physiology, not as obstacles. Why cannot we have lusts for life, the way we do for the opposite sex? You’re headed down a destructive road, sir—a road which too many have thoughtlessly lost themselves in, and we must—if we are to be ethically-minded—commit our efforts toward a remedy. I must ask you not to fear lobotomy; its harshest critics most commonly derive their views from investigations into its early development rather than from recent advancements—that is to say, our own methods, which, I can assure you, are tried and true. Oh, we don’t use drills here, sir—only particular, amendable dislocations in conjuncture with sensory stimuli. But you must understand, sir, we limit anesthesia only to when it is most necessary; it is unwise to fill the head with chemicals, lest unwanted side effects ensue. Whatever you experience now shall only contribute to your betterment, so if you please, sir—cooperate with us. How about that? Hmm?”
So overwhelmed was I by this senseless, dreadful drivel that I remained petrified, staring ahead into the darkness of the corridor ahead, from whence it seemed to emanate. I scarcely knew how to even begin processing all that I heard—had I heard the voice correctly? I could not have distinguished every word accurately through the muffling of them, could I? The speaker was too well-spoken and far too American to be in a place like this—I mused for a moment that I could have been listening to a recorded message, or perhaps some strange radio or television program. But then, almost as if cued by the conclusion of the speech, there whirred to life the cyclical sound of some machinery, rousing me somewhat from my daze of thought. What this machinery was, I could not fathom, as it—grinding, shrieking, and whistling—was wholly unlike any motor or electrical equipment I had ever know. And amidst the great cacophony that it caused, there echoed a somewhat separate noise, one that was not altogether disparate from a human scream—though, as the longer I listened, the less sure I was of what it may have been. Moreover, I became increasingly convinced that this machinery was, indeed, located somewhere physically ahead of me, rather than artificially transmitted, for I could feel its echoes ring through the corridor. And I knew at once that the speaker must have been just as present and real.
Here, also, in retrospect, I wish that I had retreated, never to learn the truth of things—as indeed, these sounds inflicted my core with immeasurable alarm, compelling me to turn and flee. But still, I felt the weight of the sledgehammer in my hands. Had I not slain the monster that these kidnappers had let loose upon me? Had I not discovered their decrepit lair? What contemptuousness they must have to suppose that I could be so easily frightened away! And who, exactly, was this speaker addressing? Was it some poor soul shanghaied from the hotel—that same American guest who had booked the suite adjacent to mine? Slowly, my fear succumbed to imbittered resolve. I could not just leave. Whoever this speaker was—this perverted, arrogant, treacherous scoundrel—he would be put to an end because whatever it was he had almost gotten away with doing to me.
I started forth with a much more purposeful stride; yet, as I penetrated the darker extent of that corridor, I felt my faux courage deteriorate beneath an onslaught of doubts—reasonless doubts, much the same as those which had plagued me all throughout the night, urging me to run away rather than to dig in and fight. Though I managed to stave off these notions by the time I had achieved the end of the corridor, my pace had suffered from them, waning to a fearful plodding. My pulses hammered within me, almost as if seized by the very raucousness of the muffled machinery.
However, it was in going forward that I actually discerned more light, for there appeared a bend in the walls which led farther down—much in the same manner as the stair-room in the hotel. I expected stairs before me now, and when I extended my foot forward—indeed, they were. Why was this place so damnably similar to the hotel? What trick was it playing at? I rounded the corner and came before a door lit by a single wall-mounted lamp. I reached out to the door. Suddenly, the droning machinery stopped. The air was utterly silent.
Somehow, the cessation of the machinery caused me more reluctance than the prior-seeming endlessness of it. I stood there, one hand clutching the doorknob, the other grasping the sledgehammer, dangling it behind my legs. I waited, anticipating some other noise from beyond the door, but none came. Was it then safe to proceed, or not? I knew not what to think at all. I decided upon opening the door slowly and silently—no more than a crack. Even though this had been my intention, when I twisted the knob, prying the door ajar, I found myself unconsciously opening it wider and wider, until there was more than enough space for me to walk through. I did so, wholly agape at what I saw. I do not know what I had previously expected—but what awaited me was certainly beyond my imagination.
The dimensions of the room that I had stepped into were uncertain, save that the space of it was at least the height of two or three floors. For overhead, upon all sides were rows of windows, arranged diagonally downward, as if meant to observe something below—something that was before me now. And these windows were alight with the electric lamps of little rooms beyond them, though from my low angle I could scarcely discern what was in them. There was, however, the form of a man in one of them, though his guise was too hazy with the dimness and the distance to make out his features. The room that I had stepped into itself was simultaneously murky with shadows and brilliantly ashine with countless, teal-tinted fluorescent bulbs—for these lights did not illuminate the walls, nor the floor, nor the ceiling, but only a certain lifted platform in the center of the room.
In that shimmering light upon the platform, I could discern the bulk shape of an unnaturally large and metallic table, which had beneath it a bizarre pivoting mechanism, allowing it to sit at a slight slant. There may have been similar objects beyond this table, somewhat indeterminable in their shadowy shapes, but I thought little of them. There was clearly something humanoid upon that table, though I could not determine its features, for it was wholly shrouded in a milk-white tarpaulin; however, I quickly noticed that it was stained with splotches of crimson where it covered the head, and where it folded between the legs. This body beneath the tarpaulin I initially took to be amort, yet I saw that, ever so subtly, the cloth creased with the waxing and waning of a breast still drawing breath. I felt as if I had walked out of the hotel and right into the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein. The sheer terrible, hollow, phantastical quality of that room had shocked me beyond rational thought; perhaps for that reason, I strode forth into it.
Or perhaps it was the sight of the man who stood beside the table on the podium that drew me near. I had expected a loathsome character—someone who, upon the mere sight of him, would fill me with all the disgust and exasperation which those confounded blue-and-beige striped walls had struck me with, someone who was palpably sadistic, ghoulish, utterly insane, and the very spitting image of some mad scientist or demon-doctor—but he appeared to be anything but this. There stood a man—quite hefty in frame, as if his girth had only been exceeded by his stature and musculature—who wore a blood-stained surgical apron over a russet three-piece suit. His squarish face, however, was quite removed; his hair was cut short and combed, and his cheeks and chin were clean-shaven, leaving a smallish, bushy mustache on his upper lip. His jaw was rigid, and his lips were creased with the faintest hint of laugh-lines. And his eyes—my God, I had never looked into eyes so piercing as his. It was if they did not belong on a person who was built so broad and boorish as he. They were eyes of analyzing—narrow, but unblinking, and somehow unrelenting in their gaze.
His eyes were fiercely set upon me the very moment I stepped into the room, and as soon as they were, I felt that they had been locked on me even before I had entered the room—as if he could see right through it. He continued to stand beside the table unflinching, even as I anxiously approached. There was a long, agonizing period of stiff silence between us before I had worked up the daring to break eye contact to regard the scalpel that was clutched in his fist. I noticed that his hand trembled; however, it did not tremble with dread at my coming, but rather with a mounting ire.
“Well? Do you have something you’d like to say? Hmm?” barked the man, who, by his accent, was plainly the same American speaker from before. “Go on, then—we’re waiting.”
The sudden splitting of the silence in the air caused the sledgehammer in my hand to feel significantly lighter than it was, and that my grip had somehow loosened. My mouth was already agape; I wanted to yell—to shout vehemently at the man before me, cursing and condemning him—but once again, I found myself unable to immediately muster my voice. A scraping of words, much weaker and frightened in tone, escaped me, even when I had scarcely conceived them.
“What are you doing? Why are you doing this?”
Slowly, a shadowy scowl descended over the piercing eyes of the American.
“I owe you no explanation.”
Deliberately, his voice transformed into a seething hiss.
“If you’ve come here to make a statement, then out with it! Hmm?”
I had spoken without intention, and now I knew not how to answer for myself. At last, I choked out something reminiscent of what I really meant to say—though I did so only after I had realized I did not know how to respond at all.
“You’re evil. My God, you’re villains!”
I quickly came to fear the trepidation which I heard in my own voice—the same which tugged at my throat, welling in it with a repulsive taste. I watched the recognition of this faltering incense his eyes, widening them with the sight of a savory opportunity.
“Very well, then. Is there something you intended to come from saying that?” he riddled me, too suddenly becalmed in tone. “What is it? What do you want to happen?”
I felt dizzy. I did not even know if I was breathing.
“I’m going to report you to the police,” I told him emptily.
For a protracted while, he stared at me, utterly unmoved—obviously unconvinced by my threat. Finally, he raised his brow.
“Is that so?”
For one fleeting, fearful moment, his eyes flickered away from mine, down to the sledgehammer which I had very poorly hidden behind my legs. He maintained his façade of placidity. “It would be quite unfortunate, I think, if the police were to find a dead man in a barn. It would also be quite unfortunate if they happened across a certain bloodied sledgehammer with your fingerprints on it. Hmm? What do you think?”
I shuddered. What did he mean? Had I really done that? Suddenly, recent memories became very distant in my mind, and I could not even begin to recall anything from that night. My mouth was drier than ever.
“But he was a monster,” I squeaked, remembering only a fragment of my prior inductions. “He attacked me.”
“Oh? Did he now?” the American scoffed, smiling with his lips, but not his eyes.
He glanced down at the human-shaped lump on the table beside him, fidgeting with the scalpel in his hand, pretending to muse for a moment.
“A likely story, especially given the fact that both his eyes had been removed. Well, we’ve got a telephone down here—a real telephone that’s connected to a switchboard—not the one you passed by in the corridor.”
He then looked back at me and cocked his head.
“Do you want me to go fetch it for you? I’ll let you use it—free-of-charge.”
Despite his words, there was nothing at all about his voice that indicated an invitation. The anger in his fist had since ascended to his chest, and he practically snarled with his every slow breath. I realized then that, as confused as I was, it was absolutely imperative that I challenge him—even though I did not feel like I quite knew why. I drew several choppy exhalations before I had enough to sputter forth the words:
“You took out his eyes, you bastard. You took out his eyes!”
“And his jaw. We kept them in a little jar. The brain’s more accessible with them out of the way, you know. But we’ve still got them—we were going to put them back in his head after we were done,” he told me, nodding toward the darkness behind him. “You want to see them? Hmm? No?”
At this point, I was utterly lost, doubting the authenticity of every syllable that came out of his mouth. I doubted my thoughts moreso, and for that reason, I remained silent.
“Tell me this—why don’t you trust us? We did such a fine job of rehabilitating your old friend Monsieur Jourdain, if I do say so myself. Don’t you agree?”
I blinked when I heard this. The name sounded familiar to me, but I knew that I could not acknowledge it—I dared not.
“But errors happen in any given medical procedure. The man you killed was experiencing a transitory psychological side effect of our operation, which was not quite concluded when he escaped us. We were keeping our eyes on him—we wouldn’t have let him get very far, and we wouldn’t have stood by if ever he harmed himself,” the American went on to explain, evidently very comfortable with my overwhelming puzzlement.
He then gestured vaguely to the floor between us.
“Why don’t you leave that sledgehammer here with us? Hmm? Let us clean up your mess.”
I found myself hardly able to register his words. I simply stood there, awestruck, still holding the sledgehammer by the slightest curvature of my fingers. “You can just drop it anywhere you’d like. Go on!” he goaded me, again flapping his hand toward the ground.
I felt lightheaded at once. I was so distracted by sounds of my own breathing and the pulsations of my beating heart that did not even notice the dark transition in the American’s tone.
“Put the sledgehammer down. Do it now!” he spat; his hand was much straighter as he directed me a third time.
He then glared straight into my eyes.
“Put it down.”
I gawked back at him as if his plain English had become somehow foreign to me. There was some notion of refusal deep within my subconscious, but I was helpless to decipher what it meant—if it meant anything at all.
Abruptly, there issued another voice from one side of me; it crackled as if duplicated by an electric speaker, and I presumed that it was the voice of the man looking down from the window overhead.
“Please—do as he says, yes?”
Unlike the American, this man’s voice was heavily accented and discordant in pronouncing English. Although I could not determine it at the time, in retrospect I think that the man must have been German. I saw that this German lifted his shadowy hand, and that in it was clutched the unmistakable shape of a smallish pistol; he pressed it flatly against the glass of the window instead of actually aiming it at me, as if merely to show me that he had it within his possession.
Shortly thereafter, I must have dropped the sledgehammer. I do not remember consciously doing so, but the American proceeded as if I had complied.
“Since you feel compelled to stay here, why don’t you take a seat,” he coaxed me, pointing to a chair that I had not previously noticed.
It was a diminutive, crude seat that had evidently been shoved unconcernedly into the corner of the room not far from the door by which I had entered. Slowly, with faltering steps, I made my way over to the chair and sat down in it. I did not know exactly why I had complied—I only knew that my legs felt very weak, and it had become excruciatingly uncomfortable to continue standing.
“Now, I asked you—what did you intend to happen by coming here?” the American repeated. “You haven’t asked for the telephone, so I presume you’ve changed your mind.”
At this point, I thought of myself as being nothing more than audient to this man, disassociating to such an extent that I did not even sense that I was there, in that place, at the present time. And I was helpless to break this horrible cycle, having banished every conceivable thought from my mind.
Quickly, the American pointed towards the spot of the ground where I must have dropped something.
“Did you think that you were going to kill me with that sledgehammer? Hmm? You did, didn’t you? So, tell me—why should I let you go?” he thundered at me, eyes wildly alight. “Convince me. Tell me why I shouldn’t put you up on this operating table as well.”
I cast a dazed glance toward the table, where still, the breast of the person beneath the tarpaulin swelled with slumberous exhalations.
“Oh—what’s that? Because you chose to spend your night boozing yourself to sleep instead of rolling in the hay with a harlot? Is that right?” the American grilled me, stooping somewhat away from the platform to loom over me.
He seemed to be waiting on something—something like a response. Eventually, however, having not received one, he raved on.
“Well then, I wonder why it was that you felt it necessary to recite a particular German phrase into the telephone at the reception desk. Do you have any idea what they mean? After all, you memorized the phrase—shouldn’t you know what exactly it was that you were requesting?” Out of nowhere, the particular German phrase flashed within my empty thoughts: Ich wünsche mir, was dem gegeben wurde, der es mir gesagt hat.
Where had I first heard this? What did it mean? Had I known it? After this brief dormancy of lucid consciousness, memories were finally fermenting in my mind again—but it was not a pleasant feeling.
“It seems to me that you had every intention of a clandestine liaison. Should I spare you from my procedure because you were too scared to carry it out? Oh, and you’re a cold-blooded murderer, sir! By all means, I should have you laid out and lobotomized, shouldn’t I? And you came all the way here. Do you feel no shame for yourself?” “Don’t be so harsh on him. He’s just a boy,” interjected the German, some semblance of pity detectable through his crackling speaker.
“I’m not finished yet,” the American snapped, whirling to face the man in the window overhead. He then turned back to leer down at me with a raised chin.
“Tell me, sir—unless you’re just too afraid to talk—why do you think it was that Monsieur Jourdain—or anyone else who has walked out of here after having been rehabilitated—does not hold a grudge against us? Oh, is it because we’ve damaged their psyche beyond the point of rational thought—is that right? No, sir, it’s because they’re grateful. It’s because we’ve done them a favor. If that wasn’t so, why did Monsieur Jourdain feel the need to recommend the clandestine services of the hotel to you? Was it because he’s been brainwashed, or something to that ridiculous effect—or did he see a man who, like himself, was in desperate need of a remedy? Hmm?”
“He’s losing blood—we need to get back to work,” the German interjected again, adopting a graver tonality.
“Just a moment more,” the American cooed, not removing his gaze from me this time. He then brought his hand to his collar, straightening his tie beneath his bloodied apron. “Well, sir, you have two options—you can either stay here and queue yourself for the next operation, or you can kindly leave. As I said, don’t bother with the sledgehammer or the body. We’ll take care of them. You will find your suitcase with your down-payment in the care of the old woman at the reception desk in the hotel lobby. A taxicab will come around six o’clock.” To this, I shakily nodded and pried myself up from the chair. Slowly, the American turned from me to face the form upon the table, but even then, I could not remove myself from the sense that he was still watching me. This feeling did not dissipate even as I stumbled out into the stair room and climbed back up to the corridor.
I shuffled only a few steps down the length of it before the slight of that hideous wallpaper met my gaze, all dusky and depraved in the dim light of the wall lamps. It was then that everything came back to me in totality—all my conscious thoughts, my fear, excitement, bitterness, desperation, disgust, and utter humiliation—all culminating in a sickening taste which boiled up from the pit of my stomach and rendered me on my knees. Convulsing, heaving, and weeping, I vomited on the floor of the corridor, drenching the floorboards with copious splashes of warm, red, Austrian wine. Thereafter, I crawled along, not altogether sure if I could force myself up on my feet again, but eventually, I did so.
Gradually, I maundered down the length of that corridor, ascended the other stairs, and reemerged inside the dilapidated barn. I followed the wire to find my way outside, but once I was, I needed not to follow it anymore, for the first light of dawn seeped over one starry hemisphere over that field, and even the trees were blue enough by then that I returned to the hotel without difficulty. I did not look at the receptionist as I retrieved my suitcase and money, and I tried in vain to cover the bloodstains on my clothes as stood outside and hailed a taxicab. I fell asleep somewhere along the short way to Strasbourg.
There is much of this tale I do not understand, but there is much more of it I wish I did not understand. There is nothing about it that I do not regret or recall without experiencing some residual anxiety. I feel as if I was not myself throughout that time, but perhaps that impression comes from a place of arrogance within me—to think that I am not capable of such shameful things. Certainly, haughtiness will only warp me to that state of mind once again. I am ashamed, also, to say that I never made a report to the police. For long, I feared what would happen to me. Occasionally, I remember Renault, only for that memory to be marred by the recollection of these terrible events; I know not whether to despise him or to pity him. Undoubtedly, he was not an unhappy man at all.
To my knowledge, the hotel is still very much in business, even to this day. And I must assume that its clandestine services have not been retracted. Even now, I cannot rightly say that they should be. After all, it is—and continues to be—the very best hotel in Alsace-Lorraine, and for some, perhaps, it is worth the stay when in Asteré.