Sunday, June 12, 2016

Room 118, Part Three

I drove back to the motel again with my mind in a gray smoky fog. The clouds overhead were assembling for a storm.
            I knew what I was doing. And why it was a bad—a very bad—idea. But I couldn’t think of a reason not to do it. Bridget Simon wanted me. In the back of my mind, I knew that I was supposed to be trying to find out what had happened to Willard Dorn, but I couldn’t quite remember why that was so important.
            So I parked in front of room 118. And then I stared at the door for ten minutes.
            Finally I fished my cell phone from my pocket. Rachel didn’t pick up. I pictured her red hair and hazelnut eyes as I mumbled the motel’s address. “So, uh, if you don’t hear from me in half an hour, go home and listen to my answering machine. Then . . . I don’t know. Just, whatever you do, don’t go into room 118. I love—uh, I love my job. ‘Bye.”
            Love my job? Even with half my brain shut down, I knew how stupid that sounded. Rachel would probably delete the message and change her number right away.
            I locked the car and made my way to the door. My legs felt weak. So did my hand as I knocked. I waited, breathing hard. Maybe she wouldn’t answer. Maybe . . .
            The door opened.
            I leaned forward, frightened again. I couldn’t see anyone holding the knob inside. Then a husky voice whisper echoed through the doorway. “Well? Come on in.”
            The maid had been halfway through cleaning room 118 when she ran away, but now it was immaculate—almost luxurious for a motel room. It felt bigger, as if the walls had been pushed back to make more space. The lemon scent of disinfectant was gone, replaced by a thick and musky aroma that reminded me of jungle movies. The picture on the wall was different—not a print, but a real painting of a dark forest with the moon rising over it.
            Bridget Simon lay on the bed.
            At least she looked like Bridget. Her face had the same narrow angles, and her lips were still thin and dark. But in the few minutes since I’d seen her at the bar she seemed to have aged 50 years or more. And she was—how to put this? Bigger. She looked like she’d have trouble getting up from the mattress without help. She wore a long black dress now, not the silk blouse and gray slacks. She looked like a widow in a 19th-century novel—Ahab’s wife, waiting for a husband who’d never return.
            But the same turquoise necklace dangled at her chest.
            “Hello, Tom.” She smiled up at me. “What’s the matter? Are you disappointed or something?”
            I shut the door and heard it click. “How did you get here so fast?”
            “I was always with you.” She stretched. “You just didn’t see me. Open the wine.”
            A bottle of white wine stood in an ice bucket on the sink in the back of the room. “You look—different.”
            “I’m 118 years old.” Bridget pushed her body up from the mattress and perched on the edge of the bed. “In a few months I’ll move to room 119. This place has almost 200 rooms, so I should be okay for a long time.”
            I peeled the foil down the neck of the wine bottle. “As long as you keep bringing people here.” Apparently she wasn’t in complete control of my mind. Or my mouth. “Is that it? You stay alive by—what? Feeding off people?”
            “I’m not a vampire.” She twisted her ring. “I just want to stay alive.”
            “So did Willard Dorn.” I plunged the corkscrew down into the bottle.
            “He was cheating on his wife, wasn’t he? That’s a sin.” She licked her lower lip. “You know about sin, don’t you, Tom?”
            More than most people. I nodded, my shoulders tight as I tugged the cork free. “I just do my job.”
            Bridget laughed. “It’s no sin to want to live a long time, is it?” She sat forward, arching her shoulders as if they ached from arthritis. “Every second counts, Tom. If you were going to die . . .” She leaned forward, her eyes narrow and fierce. “Wouldn’t you offer anything for one more second? Beg and plead and lie and weep?”
            I leaned back against the sink. Yeah, I’d fight for as long as I could. Minutes, seconds, one breath . . .
            “How many?” My voice was raspy. “Dorn—and the woman? And the man before that? How long has this been going on?”
            Bridget laughed. “I bought this place in 1992. I was 94 years old. Before that . . .” She closed her eyes for a moment. “Other places. Houses where I could rent a room. A hotel in Milwaukee, where I had an entire floor to myself. Vegas was good for a while, but there was too much competition.”
            Bridget ran a hand over the rose pattern of the duvet on the bed. “His name was Robert Cleve. He was young and handsome, and I thought . . . I was ready. For whatever he wanted to do. I thought we were going to make love.”
            Her face flushed with memories. “It was just a ratty hotel room in New York, 1920 or 1921. He was kissing me, holding me, moaning and gasping like he couldn’t wait.” She giggled. Then her face turned cold. “Then suddenly he was old and gray. He was dying. For real. He grabbed my arms, cursing in a language I didn’t know. The thing . . .” She shook her head. “It didn’t work anymore—the thing he was trying to do. He was too old—a thousand years, he said. So he told me how to do it. And then he was dead.” She laughed again. “Not just dead. Gone. Ashes and dust. Not even bones. Just the tools.”
            Tools. “And you used them?”
            “Oh yeah.” She leaned back on the bed. “The same night. I know, I didn’t need to do it right then, I was still young. For real. But I had to try it. And when it was over, I felt . . . strong. Powerful.” She rubbed her arms. “Sexy.”
            Bridget stood up. “Come on, Tom. You know how this is going to end. Don’t worry, I’ll always remember you. I remember all of them.”
            I couldn’t move. Was this what happened to Dorn? I thought about his wife’s voice on the phone. Angry, anguished—even if he’d been cheating on her, or trying to, did he deserve to die that way? Did Elizabeth Dorn deserve to live with this?
            But it didn’t matter. My mouth was still working, but my muscles were limp. I watched Bridget Simon step forward, her thin lips curled in a hungry grin. “Just relax, Tom. It’ll all be over soon.” She opened her mouth for a kiss.
            I looked past her at the door. But I couldn’t move.
            Then my cell phone buzzed in my pocket.
            The tone somehow broke the spell, at least for a moment. Bridget Simon jerked back. I staggered back against the sink. “Just a minute,” I gasped. “Just one minute, I have to—”
            I looked at the phone. Rachel.
            “Hello?” My voice was hoarse. “This is—”
            “Tom Jurgen, yeah! What the hell is going on?” Rachel sounded furious. “You can’t just leave a message like that and think everything’s fine! I’m coming up there! Don’t do anything until I get there! This is me, by the way.” She hung up.
            I looked at Rachel’s image vanish from my phone, and my brain seemed to clear. What the hell? I remembered where I was—and why I had to get out of there.
            “Now let’s finish this.” Bridget stepped toward me again.
            I slipped the phone back into my pocket. “Go to hell.” I reached back, caught the ice bucket, and hurled it at her face.
            Ice scattered over the floor. The bucket hit her stomach, and she doubled over, gasping in shock and pain.
            I darted forward, holding the corkscrew as a weapon.
            Bridget tried to stand up. I swung the corkscrew in her face and grabbed for her blue necklace. Hoping it was one of the “tools” Cleve had given her, not just her favorite piece of jewelry.
            The chain broke, and I had the necklace in my trembling fingers. I ran for the door. Get outside, get to the car, get—
            “Stop!” Bridget’s voice froze me.
            I froze. I wasn’t paralyzed, exactly. Just sluggish and foggy. Like before. Like the few times in college I’d puffed a joint, and the few dozen times working in newspapers when I’d joined my friends at the bar and then didn’t remember getting home. I leaned against the door, breathing hard. Come on, come on . . .
            I managed to look over my shoulder. Bridget was upright again, walking around the bed.
            “Stay still, Tom. You won’t feel a thing.” She held her hand up, twisting the ring with the blood red jewel on her finger.
            She clamped hand on my arm, and I could feel the stone down through my jacket and shirt to my skin. I didn’t feel any calmer. I was going to die. I couldn’t fight it.
            I swallowed as Bridget reached out for the necklace.
            The necklace. In my hand. Not hers.
            I tightened my fist as hard as I could. I didn’t know how it worked. Or if it would work for me. But it was the only thing I could think of. One more second . . .
            So I kissed her.
            My lips locked on hers. And not in a romantic way. Her mouth was hot, like a dragon’s breath, but my tongue felt cold, as if I’d swallowed an ice cube the size of a baseball. The two forces seemed to fight, one trying to overpower the other, until I felt a blast of hot air down my throat and her lips felt like icicles on mine.
            Bridget pounded at my chest. Then the seal between our lips broke, and she staggered back, gasping. “No,” she moaned. “Nooo . . .”
            I straightened up, in control of my body and brain again. I felt—stronger. As if I could run a mile without pushing a sweat, then hit the weight room and bench press 120 pounds.
            I knew what I’d done. And I hated it. But Bridget would have done the same to me.
            She dropped down on the bed, trying to catch her breath. The room had shrunk back to its normal size and appearance again. I stuffed the necklace in my jacket, then bent down to pull the ring from her finger. It didn’t come off smoothly. She yelped as I yanked it free and pushed it down next to the necklace.
            “Give it back to me!”  Bridget glared at me, her eyes filled with fire. “It’s not yours! You can’t—oh God, oh God . . .”
            She rolled over on the duvet, moaning. She looked even older now than before—the skin loose around her face, her hair thin and scraggly. Was this what she really was at her real age? What would happen to her now?
            What would happen to me?
            “Please . . .” She held out her hand. “Give it to me. I’m . . . this is my life! Please!”
            I couldn’t. Part of me wanted to give her another chance, only so I wouldn’t have to think that I was killing her. But she’d taken Dorn’s life, and those other people. I couldn’t put that power back into her hands.
            I’ve seen humans and demons die. Maybe some of them deserved it. But I’d never wanted to be the one to pull the switch.
            I stood with my back the door, watching her body grow older, smaller, until the bones pushed against her skin. “I’m sorry.”
            “You—you son of a bitch.” Bridget closed her eyes. “Remember what I said. In the end, you’ll do anything. For just one more second of life.”
            She was still breathing when I left. But I didn’t think she was going to last for much longer.
Rachel jumped up from my kitchen table when I got home. “What happened? I had to do a u-turn on Lake Shore Drive! What’s going on? What—” She blinked her hazelnut eyes at me. “You look . . . different.”
            I shrugged. “I’m apparently younger.”
            “Oh, yeah?” Her eyebrows rose as she looked me up and down. “We’ll have to check that out, tiger.”
            “Later.” I dumped the necklace and ring on the table and tossed my jacket over the sofa. “We need to destroy these. Right now.”
            She cocked her head as if appraising their value. “How come?”
            “Before I’m tempted to use them.”
            She put her hand on the necklace. Then she quickly jerked it back, as if the magic inside had burned her. “Right. I’ll get the hammer.”
            The neighbors probably wondered what we were doing, but in half an hour the necklace was hammered to bits, the ring was flattened, and the red jewel was sitting inside a glass of water because Rachel thought that would defuse some of its power.
            I told her the story as we performed the demolition. “So you stole all the years she stole?”
            “I don’t know.” My arm ached from the pounding. Turquoise is harder to shatter than it looks. Already I felt tired—as if the effects were wearing off. Maybe you had to wear the necklace to stay young. Or maybe I’d just had an adrenalin rush from the kiss.
            I didn’t actually tell Rachel about kissing Bridget Simon. No point in looking for trouble.
            “So what do we do with this now?” I looked at the remains on the table. “Dump it in Lake Michigan?”
            She started scraping the shards into a Tupperware container from my cupboard. “Don’t worry. I have a friend who can get rid of it.”
            “Is this the guy with the yacht?” Always inviting Rachel out on the water, hoping to see her in a bikini.
            “Who?” She shook her head. “Nah, Josh got indicted for insider trading. Or something. This is Lisanne. She goes canoeing. In Wisconsin. She can dump all this stuff in a river in the middle of nowhere, one mile at a time.”
            I felt better. “Let’s just get rid of it soon.”
            “It’ll be a fun trip.” She kissed my forehead. “Just the three of us. Camping and fishing and . . . other stuff.”
            That sounded good. But then I remembered something else I had to do.

* * *

So I told Elizabeth Dorn the whole story. She listened silently. I couldn’t see much of her eyes behind her glasses, but she didn’t interrupt.
            When I finished she took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “So he didn’t—they didn’t—?”
            Of course. That was what mattered most to her, especially now. I shook my head. “No. That wasn’t what she was after.” Willard Dorn, on the other hand . . . No point in saying what he’d been looking for.
            She cleaned her glasses and lit a cigarette. “Well, okay.” She peered at Rachel. “Are you his girlfriend?”
            I froze. But Rachel laughed. “Yeah. I sort of am.”
            “Well, take good care of him.” She sat back in her chair and peered at me over the edge of her glasses. “He is sort of cute.”
            We left. Rachel held my arm as we walked to my Honda. “Are you all right?”
            “I guess.” My body still felt as if I was going through an adolescent growth spurt. I just wasn’t sure which way. “Thanks for coming with me. And for calling me back.”
            She punched my shoulder. “You love your job? Is that really what you said?”
            I rubbed my arm. “I had to say something so you’d know something was wrong.”
            “Well . . .” She swung around, and kissed me.
            For a moment I was afraid it would happen again—then I’d suck her life from her body. But her lips were warm—not hot—and I didn’t feel cold.
            “So.” We got into the car. “Thai food?”
            Rachel snapped her belt. “Anyplace that’s hot. And fast.”

# # #


  1. It's tough to be the PI who never gets a simple job. A cautionary tale of bars, seedy motels, and related nightlife. You never know what you'll meet after dark. An intriguing tale - where Tom gets to kiss the girls.

  2. Kissed the girl and made her die. After "Baby Don't Cry," I'm not sure he's actually been involved in killing a human. Not something he wants to do.