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“I’ll betcha a dollar.”
“I’ll betcha five dollars.”
“You don’t have five dollars.”
“I have unsuspected and untapped resources. Ten.”
“It’s silly. And it isn’t so.” And if it is, I don't want to know.
Geoffrey snorted. “Says you.”
She sighed. “Okay. Ten dollars.”
“And a kiss.”
She sighed again, then smiled. “And if I lose I get two kisses?”
“Hardy-har. Ten dollars and a kiss says that the majority of the folks staying here “’tain’t natural,” as my mom used to say.”
Sarah looked up from the desk around the lobby. It was deserted – not as typical as one might expect in a hotel at 1 a.m., since this was (her protests notwithstanding) not the most normal of establishments. And with the recent brouhaha, of late concluded in the expectedly esoteric fashion of the place, one might have expected more folks sleepless and about (or, of course, nothing but smoking rubble, but, instead, the lobby looked its usual way, Antique Shop Moderne, well-lit, a damped fire still putting out the faint aroma of apple wood and oak ... but, at this hour, empty.
“I could get fired, you know.”
Geoffrey sat in the big wooden chair next to the desk, swung around to face her. No matter how familiar she looked to him, he never tired of seeing her face. “Nobody would fire you.”
“You don’t know the management as well as I do.”
“Nor do I want to.”
“Okay, so who judges ‘natural’?”
“Conflict of interest.”
“You don’t want a kiss?”
“I don’t want to lose ten bucks. I still have a very large student loan and some rather – insistent debt-holders.”
“Who aren’t current residents here.”
“That’s the bet.”
“Okay, pull out the list.”
Sarah opened the large ledger on the desk.
“Hey, why not use the computer?”
“I transcribe everything from there to here.”
“After all the work we put into entering the data in?”
“First off, the thing’s a piece of crap, pardon my French.
He smirked. “Not likely.”
She ignored him. “Second off, the management prefers hardcopy.”
“In brown ink?”
Sarah looked uncomfortable. “Um. Yeah.”
“Okay. So, how many are staying here?”
“Right this moment? Ninety-four, in sixty different rooms.”
Geoffrey looked surprised. “That many?”
“Or that few. I’ve seen the number down to just two – I’m not counting permanent staff here, just guests – and as high as –” She thought of a gaming convention a few years back. Talk about unnatural … “— three hundred and twelve.”
“I didn’t think we had that many rooms.”
“We don’t. Ordinarily. The Germelshausen Wing was here then.”
“Oh, right. Okay … so, looking down the list – you know all these folk?”
“Well, I didn’t check them all in, but, yeah, the boss expects me to keep track of that sort of thing.”
“Because it’s my job.”
“Unnatural,” Geoffrey whispered.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Okay. First off, we have the Hamiltons, in Room 47. Nice couple. Perfectly normal. In town for the Apple Festival. We –”
“Why don’t we ever enter anything from the orchard –”
“You don't want to know.”
“Who are these?”
“These two. I can’t quite make out your handwriting – Edward, and … Jer – Jin – Jag –”
“Okay, I concede those two. Never mind. You don’t want to know. Now, in Room 12 –”
“What order are these things in?”
“So you can’t tell from this if a given room is open.”
“The computer knows. The Boss knows. I know, after I’ve looked at it.”
“Wow. Did that take much practice?”
“Just comes naturally. Now, in Room 12, we have a writer, Henrietta Jorgenson. She’s been there – since December. Scheduled to check out – um, okay, I’ll concede her, too.”
. . .
“Mr. Hendershot. He says here trying to avoid a government spies conspiring to keep him from telling the truth about the Roswell UFO landings.”
“Well, okay, that's a little screwy, but I won’t count that. And Room 19-Right?”
“A Mr. Smith, no address, no profession, a suitcase full of electronic equipment, and a car with Federal Government plates.”
. . .
“Okay, now in the Tinkerbell suite, we have the Bellou family – father, mother, three rug rats. Pretty well behaved.”
“The Tinkerbell suite? I don't recognize --”
“Well, it was the Faerie Queen suite, but we were getting some – odd reservations. So rather than repainting Mr. Ouzley’s murals of the Court, we just renamed the room. Added some wind-up alarm clocks, too, for the tick-tick-tick. The kids love it.”
“Owzley – now he –”
“—is no longer a resident here, so he doesn’t count. Nor do the Bellous.”
“Only in Room 329, and they don’t count as residents, either. If Graymalkin here –”
The one-eyed cat purred loudly on cue from under the desk.
“— hunted more and warmed my feet less, not even there. Though I’d rather have warm feet.”
“That’s because you don’t do room service.”
Something flickered in her eyes. “Damned straight.”
. . .
“No, it should count as only one.”
“Then it should count as only one for purposes of the overall percentage.”
“Mr. Hogue in Room 47 is a perfectly normal salesman, in town for a convention and staying a few days extra.”
“And Mr. Hogue in Room 49 …”
“... is him from … somewhere else. Or somewhen. Or something like that. It’s … complicated. But he’s a normal salesman, in town for a convention, and staying a few days extra, too.”
“But one of them sells carpet cleaning supplies and spot removers, and the other one sells something quite different. And they’re two different residents, but the same person, but not really. So I should actually get credit for two.”
“But they’re both normal. I talked with one of them last night about the menu, and I ran into the other one in the Vermillion Room this morning. He was reading some science fiction about --”
“But they can’t both be normal at the same time. So two.”
. . .
“Mr. and Mrs. Connelly, Room 49.”
“His fourth visit, her third. They met here, you know. Perfectly normal.”
“He’s kind of weird.”
“Eccentric is not unnatural. Father Jasper’s interesting take on liturgical garb notwithstanding. But we already covered him. He was the one --”
“Did I mention how he –”
“I don’t want to know.”
. . .
“So are we in agreement on the Lucians?”
“Happy couple, in love, open, honest, dedicated … yeah, definitely unnatural.”
“Geoffrey!” She punched him in the arm. She was stronger than she looked.
. . .
“Okay, the Aa—”
“They’re not guests.”
“But they’re not staff, and sometimes they’re here and sometimes they come and go.”
“They are both, as the Boss puts it, 'uninvited and unpaying.'”
“Do they register here at the desk?”
She hesitated before answering, then sighed. “Yes.”
“Did you just say aha again?”
“It was my cry of victory.” She looked at him. “Well, it was! Aha!”
“Cherchez la femme!”
“Stick with the aha.”
“Well, anyway, that’s three for my side.”
“You have a side?”
“Well, in favor of my assertion, then.”
She shook her head. “Okay. But it’s one.”
“Excuse me, with the one again?” He raised an eyebrow.
“They always check in as a ‘party of one,’ whichever one checks in. And their room has a single twin bed.”
“I’ve already admitted it’s unnatural.”
“Letting three into a single? That’s awfully kindly of the boss. If I were running this place –”
She smiled at him. “They’re currently in room 67B. If you’d like to go tell them –”
“Hell, no!” Geoffrey cut her off, backing away slightly. “Once I had to bring them a – well, never mind, I’d rather not. I agree with one.”
. . .
“Ms. Donally seems to be okay. One for your column.”
She shook her head. “Are you kidding? Have you seen her chest?”
“Um – will you hit me again if I say yes?”
"It depends on how enthusiastically you say it."
"Yes?" he whispered, hunching down, stuttering slightly as he did. "What's wrong with --"
“Definitely unnatural. I’ll give you her, but you have to give me Dr. Harcourt in B-25.”
Geoffrey sat back up. “He parades around in a jester’s costume up and down the hall.”
“Hell of a lot more natural than Ms. Donally’s boobs. Or, for that matter, her nose.”
. . .
“He howls at the moon.”
“He turns into a dog and howls at the moon!”
“But he’s housetrained. That has to count for something.”
. . .
“Mrs. Bascombe in the North Turret.”
“Perfectly natural, except for the bluing in her hair.”
“She called me a long-haired lazy hippy last week.”
“Well, your hair is getting a little long.”
. . .
Geoffrey put down the Osatosoft coffee mug. It had been left behind by a former guest (which begged the question of who brought their own coffee mugs on trips, Geoffrey thought, but never mind that). “So what’s the tally?”
Sarah sighed. Two hours and several heated arguments with Geoffrey hadn’t made the evening –morning now, definitely – any more pleasant. “Of the ninety-four guests at the L’Ensign –”
Geoffrey made a noise. Sarah ignored it.
“— some 53% might be deemed by some –”
Geoffrey snorted again, more loudly. Sarah ignored that as well.
“— as, in some way, ‘unnatural.’”
“And you owe me ten bucks.”
She glanced down at her engagement ring. “I can’t remember – is this a community property state?”
He grinned at her. “Doesn’t matter if I’ve spent it on a consumable product before then. Maybe I’ll buy a nice bottle of Riesling and split it with you next time I cook. Assuming the world doesn’t end before th— what?”
Sarah was crying, looking down at the ledger, tears dripping on the entries there (but not, he noticed with a corner of his mind, making the ink run). He stared at her a moment, until she drew a raggedy breath and looked at him and said, “Doesn’t it bother you?”
“Um …” He considered. “Doesn’t what bother me?”
“This!” She gestured at the talley sheet. “This!” She put her hand on the ledger. “All this!” She waved around at the deserted hotel lobby. It was still quiet, except for a faint buzz from the neon sign, a distant clatter from the kitchen staff getting their start for the day, and a rumbling in the heating ducts that made it sound like the stuffed kudu head over the front door was suffering from indigestion.
“Uh –” He knew what answer she was looking for, but didn’t know why. “No. It’s – well, it’s kind of creepy sometimes, but sometimes it’s kind of neat. And –” He gestured toward her. “There are some distinct compensations.”
“‘’Tain’t natural,’ isn’t that the way you described it? Unnatural. Abnormal. How –” She stopped. Took a deep breath. Wiped her face. Her voice was calm, but still trembled. “How can – we hope, for us, to have a normal life? A – happy life? Here?”
He cocked his head, hesitated a moment. Then, “We could leave.”
She shook her head, a quick, violent jerk. “I can’t. I have a – well, a contract. And – the Boss needs me. And –” She trailed off. “Personal reasons. I have ties here. Maybe someday – sometimes I just want – but ...”
She trailed off, and he shrugged. They’d had the conversation before. “You’ve got your own mysteries.” Her eyes got a little wider. “Which doesn’t mean they’re unnatural, I'm not saying that. But – well, hell, who’s to say what’s normal or natural or anything? I mean, I’ve got an uncle who was convinced Apple Computers was actually a reference to the Garden of Eden and so the Macintosh was an evil plot.”
The video terminal at the desk made an error beep, but neither of them noticed.
“So was that unnatural? If I told you he used to sneak holy water out of Our Lady of Sorrows and sprinkle it surreptitiously on the display machines at the local Apple store, would that be unnatural? When does it become unnatural?”
Sarah smiled. “When the Satanic cult behind the Steve Jobs takes him away and sacrifices him to their Dark Lord.”
He snorted. “Strange things happen, Sarah. Maybe here a bit more than other places. Or maybe here they’re just easier to see. Maybe if you scratch anywhere, if you look at any group of people’s lives, or look at the tenants of any hotel, you’d find ‘unnatural’ stuff like this there, too.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Well, maybe not as flashy or – whatever this place is. But –” He got up, sat on the desk in front of her, took her hands. “Look, I love you. That’s the most magical thing I’ve ever experienced in my life, more than people who turn into dogs, or ladies in an orchard, or the Aarons, or the Boss, or a ghost ship?, or that mural in the Blue Room, or –”
“I get the idea.”
“No, you don’t. It’s just that, angels, devils, aliens and fairies and all, what matters most to me is what we have between the two of us. That’s what defines what’s magical to me, and what’s natural. And I expect that’s going to be – hell, has been – as weird as anything else we could tally up.”
Sarah looked at him, long and hard. She had a lot better idea of what the Inn was like than he did, but – maybe – “I want to believe you, Geoff. I really do.”
“Then do. Believe it. Belief and disbelief seem to be pretty important around here.”
She laughed a little, then put on a smile, wiping her eyes again. “Okay.” If she had any reservations, she kept them to herself, or maybe from herself as well.
He smiled, too, sincerely as far as she could tell. That was part of what she loved about him. “Great. Hey, I got some champagne in my mini-fridge, and leftover pecan pie from the kitchen. Let me go grab it and bring it back.”
“Silly. I’m on duty.”
He glanced at the clock over the fireplace. “You go off in an hour and half. Maria won’t tell, the Boss doesn’t get up before 9, and Ed will have emptied the trash by then and bussed the glasses. Besides, I’ll betcha ten bucks we don’t get another guest check-in until Maria’s shift. And I have ten bucks now, too.”
She considered, then chuckled, waving him away. “Sure.”
“Okay. I’ll be right back.” He leaned over, kissed her, then trotted off toward the back hall.
And now, she thought, is when Cthulhu reaches out of the shadows and grabs him and I never see him again.
As if on cue, there was a cry, and a thump.
She stood, staring, mouth open. No. Please, no. It isn’t –
Geoff popped his head around the corner. “No problem, just tripped on that loose bit of Persian carpet here. I’ll get it fixed this afternoon. See ya in a sec.”
She closed her mouth. Nodded mutely. Smiled a small smile.
Which got larger after he left.
Maybe there was something to that belief thing after all.
-- Dave Hill