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“Look, Tony, just get outta town. Let things settle down. I’ve got connections in Iliad, they’ll rent you a place to lie low.”
A phonograph played jazz music, adding a modern ambiance to the otherwise rustic lobby. Tony shook his head and leaned over the hotel counter, slipping a twenty over to the clerk, then wiped the sweat from his forehead, “I ain’t got no choice at the moment. Jim, just do me this one favor. Sign me in under some made up name for a week. That should give me the couple of days I need to get everything in order and pay Big Al the large ones I owe ‘im.”
“Just this once,” Jim scanned the nearly vacant lobby, suspiciously eyeing an intoxicated young couple that loudly staggered through the door. He couldn’t get a good look at the male’s face before the two embraced in a long and drawn out kiss, “I’ll give you the room ain’t no one want to stay in. They say it smells, and some people just walk out in the middle of the night when ain’t no one around.”
“Perfect,” Tony retrieved his small, soft tan leather suitcase. “I won’t forget this.”
“Better not!” Jim tossed him a key, before writing a name down on a ledger, trying to keep his gaze off the curvy dame melting into the embrace of her lover.
Tony took the stairs. His heart pounded with the fear that somewhere out there Big Al’s boys were ransacking his apartment trying to find their query. The old Cirque do Luxe hotel was far enough on the outskirts of Chicago to hide him for a little bit. By the time he reached floor six, his heart calmed to a normal pace. Taking a deep breath, Tony stepped through the door on the stairwell and entered a hallway bearing a brown carpet with jagged diamond-shaped patterns amidst even darker stains of old booze and muddy shoes. His muscles froze at the ding of an elevator followed by laughing. He relaxed again ever so slightly at the sight of the young couple from downstairs stepping off. The woman glanced at him from under her blonde curls and cloche hat before following her lover to the opposite end of the hall. Tony paid them no more attention and stopped in front of his door: Room 616.
A tingling filtered down Tony’s spine as he entered the room and flicked on a light switch. Paranoia took hold, so he quickly shut the door and bolted it from the inside. Here was home… at least for a couple days. It smelled of cigar smoke and some other sweet odor that he could not quite place. Water stains drew circles of dark brown on the ceiling and the wall paper bubbled and rippled in certain places. It wasn’t the Ritz, but it was safety. Tony set his suitcase down on the edge of the bed and undid the buttons of his collar and cuffs, hoping to relieve himself of the humidity that permeated the atmosphere. Soaked in nervous perspiration, Tony pulled on the brass cord under a ceiling fan with gilded edges to get some air. As the blades spun to life, a low gurgling sound filled the air making the bubbles in the wall paper vaguely shudder.
Tony almost fell over at the sound of the sink’s faucet creaking and the shower curtain flying open.
“Huh… hello?” Tony hesitated on his way to the open bathroom door. “Who’s there?”
When no one replied, he reached a hand around the corner and flipped on a buzzing white light. Still no one… nothing there… not a thing out of place.
Tony flinched at the sound. To be so shook up by a simple knock was stupid, he knew that, but too often he heard the stories of some poor sucker being hunted down by Big Al’s goons even in the remotest of places. Sensing danger, he looked through the peep hole first, only to find the young couple from earlier. The man’s face was hidden by his fedora, but the woman looked up at the hole and blew a kiss.
“Hey buddy, we saw you enter,” the man called through. “My lady friend and I were lookin’ for an ice bucket. Think you can do us a solid?”
“Sure,” Tony grimaced and undid the bolt, “Just don’t…”
He opened the door no more than a crack when the man with the fedora kicked it in, knocking Tony off his feet. Before he could stagger back up, the blonde put the barrel of a pistol to his forehead, “Hang right there, sweetie. Al sends his regards.”
Her male counterpart took a set of handcuffs from his pocket and dragged Tony over to the bed’s headboard, locking his right wrist to it. In the faded light overhead, Tony spotted a jagged scar extending from the man’s left lip up to the corner of his eye.
“You’re the Shark,” Tony stumbled over his words as his heart quickened to a feverish pace again. “Al’s muscle, right? Hey, I got the money… just…”
“Outta time, an’ outta excuses. Good God, you had to find the one room that feels like the tropics…” the blonde patted him on the head on her way to the bathroom. “Shark, baby. How’s my make-up?”
Shark’s reply was interrupted by a ruffling in the closet followed by the same gurgling as before.
“You meeting someone?” the thug narrowed his eyes, the jagged scar wrinkling in just slightly.
Tony shook his head, fearing to say anything further.
Sticking the key to the cuffs in his pocket, Shark drew a pistol and advanced to the two paneled closet doors.
“He got company?” Shark’s accomplice asked as she dabbed at her face in the mirror.
Shark paid her no attention and leveled the pistol at the center of the closet, then thrust the doors open, almost tearing it from its track on the ceiling. Nothing. Not a thing but wire hangers on a cheap white beam. Shark turned his back and shrugged, “Lousy damn hotel. Walls are so thin that…”
A low rumble came from behind him, stopping him in his place to watch the bubbles in the wall paper ripple again. Quicker than Tony’s eyes could see, something latched onto Shark’s jacket collar. For a brief moment he could have sworn it was a bent piece of wire hanger. The second Shark felt the presence behind him, he tried swiveling around, but some force knocked him off balance and he fell to the floor, sending the gun tumbling across the floor. He gave a startled shout and more wire hangers wrapped around his ankles.
“Holy shit…” Tony skid as far away from the scene as he could and cowered where the bed frame met the wall.
“Teresa!” Shark shouted as one second he felt his body drag across the floor toward the closet, and the next the doors slammed shut along their track.
Gun drawn, Teresa tripped out of the bathroom, “Where is he? What did you do with him, you bastard?”
“I… I didn’t…” was all Tony could stammer, and instead pointed to the closet doors.
She followed his gesture and slowly advanced in the direction of her partner, eyes straight ahead with both hands wrapped around the pistol. A movement came from above, garnering Tony’s attention. With growing horror he watched as the brass cord under the ceiling fan stretched downward on its own.
“Ih… it… the… the…”
“Shut up!” she scolded and paused just long enough for the cord to reach her neckline. Without giving her a chance to resist, the brass chain whipped around her jugular and tightened. Teresa’s eyes bulged as she dropped the weapon and grabbed at the chain. Tony watched helplessly as the ceiling fan spun around with increasing speed, its gilded edges making the fixture appear more like a plane’s propeller. The chain pulled its query upward as Teresa’s hands stretched out uselessly. An even deeper fear took hold the closer her face came to the rotating blades. She managed to utter a gurgled desperate scream a mere second before the spinning blades hit skin.
Tony shielded his eyes and listened to the squishing whiz of the fan as it impossibly sliced through hair, flesh, and muscle. Flecks of liquid sprayed against the right side of his face, followed by the warm sensation of piss running down his pant leg. A few seconds later it was over, and the cord, just as inexplicably, loosened and dropped the faceless body to the floor.
“God… oh God… for fuck’s sake… what the Hell is going on?” Tony cautiously opened his eyes and crawled toward her dropped gun, but found it just out of reach. “This isn’t real… it can’t be real… it can’t be…”
He paused after feeling a slight burning sensation around the wrist bound by the cuff. Liquid dripped down his elbow, causing Tony to look back around. He opened and closed his mouth in silent screams, but his throat muscles locked tight in the throws of fright. Skin from his hand melted away exposing muscle and bone. Around him, Teresa’s blood soaked into the floor and ceiling, then disappeared. The sweet odor grew more pronounced as Tony watched first the flesh of Teresa’s body melt into the carpet, followed by her muscle, hair, and bones. All the while, the bubbles under the wall paper moved up vertically as others were created alongside an increasingly loud gurgling and lurching sound. Each time a bubble reached the ceiling, the air in the pocket escaped, sending out more of the permeating acrid sour stench. Tony tried desperately to stand, but the tingling and burning feeling had made it to his legs, which sloshed with the same fleshy melt of his wrist. Gripped in the throes of fear, his neck muscles clenched so tight that he was unable to scream as bit by bit Tony felt his body melt away in a slow digestion within the belly of the beast.
“Housekeeping,” a voice said after a knock on the door. The maid waited a moment, then unlocked the door and stepped through. Curiously, the guests were missing, but three sets of clothes lay folded neatly on the floor beside two guns, and a pair of handcuffs still clung to the bed frame.
Credit: Benjamin Krause