by James Leonard & M. Foard
I'm writing this story down though I know no one will believe it. Some day my pleasant but obscure life will be over, and if I have a legacy (there certainly won't be a fortune left), it is the one chance I got to peek into a reality unknown to most of the human race. My boss didn't believe it. I was a cocky young writer at the time. Since I got out of the army I'd done some investigative journalism of which I was proud. Working for a daily newspaper was my bread and butter, but my ambition was to write fiction. I'd written enough to be a member of a writers' club, and had been chosen to represent our club at a mystery writers' convention in a medium-sized beachfront city.
The sky was overcast as I pulled Bessie, my old Ford, off the main state highway onto the business route. A little glimmer behind the clouds showed the sun getting low in the sky. My plan was to find the cheapest hotel in town and then locate a reasonably priced restaurant.
I cruised down the business route, a strip of hotels, motels and restaurants that followed a row of dunes next to the beach. I knew the convention hall was not far up the road. Neon signs were beginning to light up as sundown approached. "No Vacancy. No Vacancy. No Vacancy." The tourists were staying on later this year, as the summer weather had continued into the fall.
Finally I spotted an old weather-beaten sign on the left. "Pelican Inn - V CA CY". The hotel looked seedy and uncared- for, but there was one car in the drive. A lighted window led me to the office.
The balding, sloppily-dressed man sitting behind the desk gave me the bored glance of someone who'd seen customers coming and going for years. "You have a room available?" I asked. "Your sign says 'Vacancy'."
"No," he muttered. "We're filled up. Gotta remind Tommy to fix the sign."
I hesitated. "Do you know any place I could try?" "Just go on down the road here. Maybe you'll find somethin'." He turned back to his television set. Outside I passed a tall, impossibly thin man lazily attending to some yard work. That must be Tommy. Suddenly I realized what was bothering me about the place. "Excuse me," I called out my window, "but the desk clerk said this hotel is full. I was wondering why there is only one car here." He looked up blankly. "Oh, they go out to dinner in the evening."
There was an open window on the second floor. As the wind blew the curtains a little, I was startled to see some odd- looking skinny trees. "Got a resident plant lover? It looks like a jungle in there," I said smiling. Tommy did not smile. I thanked him and pulled back onto the highway. Down the road a little, a flashing neon sign pointed out a crowded diner - Pete's - and I remembered I was hungry.
Maybe it was because the waitresses, a plump blonde and a middle-aged brunette, confirmed that all the hotels were full, and I was too tired and lazy to look elsewhere; or maybe my recent preoccupation with detective stories made me inquisitive - but I knew, as I downed the last of my roast- beef-and-mashed-potatoes-with-gravy, that I was going back to the Pelican Inn. On the one hand, if they had vacant rooms, I, as a traveler, felt entitled to one; on the other hand, there was a mystery here to be unraveled, and I couldn't resist it.
I waited another hour, chatting with the old-timers at the counter and stretching out my coffee and apple pie. It was dark now, and surely many of the alleged guests would be back from dinner. I started up Bessie and drove back to the Pelican Inn.
From the front the hotel looked just as deserted as ever, with the lone car in the drive. I eased quietly into the back parking lot. No one there; but just then a pair of headlights turned into the front drive. I shut off my lights quickly and watched. The light from the office window illuminated three men and a woman. The men wore well-tailored suits and hats of a foreign design. Two of them were young, and the third a little older. The woman wore business clothes - a dark blue suit with straight skirt, her hair tucked under her hat. All had an air of quiet dignity and unusual seriousness that filled me with curiosity about them.
I waited a while as they disappeared into the office. Then I crept up slowly, feeling like a B movie detective. Through the window I saw the older man leaning against the counter, talking with the desk clerk. After a few minutes, I strolled casually in.
". . . Five more days." As I entered the room, the talking stopped and everyone looked at me expectantly. I hadn't planned what to do next.
"I . . . uh . . . couldn't find a vacancy in the whole town," I explained. "I saw there weren't many cars here, so I came back to see if you had a room."
In the uncomfortable silence that followed, I tried to get a look at the strangers. But each time I sneaked a glance at one of them, I was met by a direct stare right into my eyes. Something was unusual about them, but I wasn't sure what. My heart was beating wildly for no apparent reason. I had a queasy feeling in the gut.
"No," answered the desk clerk, "we're still full." I hesitated for a moment, trying to think of something to say next.
"It is hard to be without a room for the night," said the woman in an accent I couldn't place.
"Oh, let him stay," said the older man. "I just changed rooms. He can have the room I left."
"All right, if you say so," the desk clerk agreed. He handed me a key. "Room 276."
The Pelican Inn had been maintained over the years, but showed signs of aging. The carpets were worn. The curtains were faded. I had a strange feeling of excitement as I took my luggage and radio up to my room and settled in for the night.
Though I was tired from driving I was unable to sleep. The silence bothered me. My radio gave me nothing but static and a broadcast in a language I couldn't recognize. I heard the sound of scurrying feet, as if there were small animals in the building - mice? I wondered about the plant room down the hall; went down and tried the door but couldn't get in. Were all the rooms on this floor filled with exotic plants? I still had not seen or heard a single soul in the hotel other than Tommy, the desk clerk and the four foreigners.
They were the strangest people I'd ever met. They seemed emotionless, and yet they had been kind. Now that I was away from their magnetic influence, I recalled the strangeness more than the kindness. Their almost expressionless faces did not seem human. They talked and moved in a stilted way as if they were actors following a script. Could they be foreign spies? Were they assassins? Could they have had some sinister intention in offering me a room? Why did the desk clerk follow their orders if they were only guests?
I slept fitfully, waking from time to time from dreams in which the strangers called me, spoke to me, chased me down endless hallways.
Around 3 a.m. something woke me. I looked around the dimly lit room, wondering what it was. Nothing moved but the curtains slightly rustling in the ocean breeze. Then I heard a car door slam, a low murmur of voices, a feminine giggle. I peered out my window.
Down in the parking lot were the two younger men with two waitresses I'd seen at the diner. Strange, I thought, they don't seem like the type who would ask waitresses out. In contrast to their previous demeanor, the men now behaved raucously, punctuating the air with loud guffaws. Something made me wonder if they were always acting.
One of the men looked up toward my window, and, I thought, directly at me. I retreated and went back to bed, but not to sleep.
Soon a deep stillness descended on the hotel. I felt transfixed in my bed, motionless yet wide awake. I don't know how long I sat there, my body vibrating in rhythm with a pulsation I'd never noticed before: the gentle breathing of inanimate objects. I seemed to melt into the bed, lying there for an eternal moment, with no desire to move or occupy myself with my usual mental chatter. Finally, I don't know when, I fell asleep.
I awoke late, and had to rush to make it to the convention. The aliveness and peace I'd felt that night remained with me throughout the next day.
After a full day of talking and listening to writers, I'd had enough mental stimulation. I stopped at a local bar for a few beers. This was the section of downtown near the bus station and the seamier side of life was in evidence. The characters that wandered by were either pathetic or sinister, and watching them I wondered about the future of the human race. Then my thoughts turned to the Pelican Inn, and guess who walked in.
No one else seemed to notice them, but to me the entrance of the strangers turned the place upside down. They had that air of mystery about them, as if they were casing the joint (for what?). They split up, the two younger men sitting by the window, the older one choosing a secluded corner, and the woman strode calmly over to the bar. She ordered a drink with an air of quiet authority, and I could see she was turning a few heads. Though she still wore that prim businesswoman's outfit, at close range I could see how attractive she was. She turned, looking directly into my eyes, and walked over to me.
"I love you, darling." She had an accent I couldn't quite place, and spoke stiffly. She reminded me of the foreign prostitutes I'd encountered when I was stationed in France - as if she'd learned just enough English to make her pitch. "Sorry, honey," I said. "You'd do better peddling it downtown." She hesitated, puzzled, then moved away. That old deserted hotel, I thought, and those three men. What are they up to? Maybe I'd only end up with a sore head and a missing wallet in the morning - but maybe there was something worse . . .
I was up late that night, trying to write. There was a knock at the door. That'll be Tommy bringing the towels, I thought.
It wasn't Tommy.
"I want to come in, darling." Again the strange accent, the oddly stilted voice. It's a set-up, I thought, glancing down the hall. But I didn't feel threatened.
She had looked cool and distant before; now as my eyes met hers, she became soft, alluring. "No," I said weakly. She gazed deeply into my eyes. My defenses melted, and I fell into a kind of blissful amnesia. It seemed useless to make trivial conversation - what's your name, where are you from, etc. Before long we were making love, and I was completely under her spell . . .
She came back the next night, and the next. I was spending my days with the mystery writers and my nights with a mystery. I kept asking her about herself, and could get only vague answers. She said she and her friends were botanists doing plant experiments, but that was only after I asked her about the plants. One peculiarity was that she always wore something on her head. Once I reached up to stroke her hair, and she pushed my hand away quickly. "Oh, don't touch my head, darling, it's too sensitive."
She always came to me in the dark, so I never saw her body. Her skin felt cool, almost reptilian, but when she lay next to me she would heat up until I felt I was in bed with a furnace. She always slipped away in the night. I never saw her sleep.
The story continues...
by: James Leonard & M. Foard
© 1995, 1996, 2002 James Leonard & M. Foard
artwork © 1995, 1996, 2002, James Leonard
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