“Police on the second-floor,” says a security-man with a French accent, after Jenny shows him a key.
I swallow, hoping he won’t notice that the key goes to the room where the police are. “Is that so?”
“Nothing to worry about, I am sure,” he says bowing us up the grand stairs. “Would you like for us to send up some ice?”
“Ice?” I’m surprised by the question.
“For your eye, sir.”
“Oh. No, thank you. You from around here?”
“No sir,” he glances at Jenny, “I am from Saigon. Have a good stay, sir.”
The stairs are all burnished teak, smelling of incense, wood polish, and distant fruit. A glass door at the top reveals an ornate hall and inch-thick carpet the color of blood.
I nod to the security-man and chase Jenny up into silence. The second-floor corridor is wide enough to pull a rickshaw down, extending left and right a half a hundred yards. Copper numbers on the doors all start with 2. It smells like carpet and perfume and the air is as still as a tomb.
I stop at Jenny’s shoulder. Her eyes fix on a flickering bulb in an ornate glass sconce. Engulfing silence leaves only the high whine of the one dying bulb. Nestled in the shadows of gardens and gates, it’s like the city has ceased to exist.
There aren’t even any birds.
A pipe bumps in the ceiling, and a sound like rain or a gurgling river rushes from the hall’s end, passing over our heads and fading down the wall. Is there another floor above this one? I can’t remember.
We walk, our footsteps nearly silent on the rich carpet.
“Nice place,” I try, but the words stick and I end up clearing my throat.
Jenny glances at me, then pauses at an intersection I didn’t realize we’d reached. The hall she looks down is dark and long. The only illumination comes from a two meter window at its far end, flooding white daylight that fails to entirely penetrate the interior shadows.
“That’s the one,” Jenny whispers so quietly I have to lean toward her to hear. “The door with the guard.”
Squinting down the hall, it still takes me a moment to see what she means.
Halfway to the windows and hidden in gloom, a stiff-backed officer in a green uniform stands with his back to the wall and a bamboo cane propped in his elbow. He’s facing the hall’s opposite wall, and stands so still I took him for decoration.
Jenny grabs my elbow and starts walking. I let my aching legs get the better of me, dragging at her arm and slowing us down. Gives us plenty of time to gander at the officer. He’s shorter than either of us. His uniform pants are a local style that gives the impression of a diaper. As we draw closer, he still hasn’t looked our way. A slanted hat with a wide brim hides his features.
Something clicks in the wall like a clock: maybe a pipe. Our footfalls on the thick carpet are the only other sound. We stroll past the policeman and I turn my head to give him a nod.
His face is missing. There’s nothing in its place but a depthless black hole.
Mechanically, I turn my attention back to the window at the hall’s end and force myself to keep walking. My bladder makes a bid to dump its ballast, but I keep it under constraint. I can feel the empty face boring into the back of my head. Can he see? Is he watching?
Jenny tugs at my arm.
“What?” She asks.
I clear my throat. Her green eyes search my face. Her smell has a cypress quality.
“Um. Just…” I try clearing my throat a second time and then let go of her arm to turn around to face the officer again.
“Excuse me sir?” I put on my diplomacy smile.
He continues staring at the wall opposite with all the animation of a statue.
“Excuse me?” I try again, hobbling closer. My smile hurts.
When I’m about two yards away his head turns like a cannon to point the empty pit at me. It’s not a mask or like he’s got clay over his features. It’s more like looking into a well, or an underwater sinkhole. I’m standing on the edge of a long drop. All I need to do is lean forward and those dark waters will swallow me.
The thing in a policeman’s clothes turns my way and takes a small step. No sound comes from it, but it leans forward from the shoulders and I can’t look away. Dizziness spins the rest of the hall out of sight. Black depths uncurl from a dark tunnel too deep to see. There’s nothing down there. My footing slides away. I want to backpedal across shifting carpet, to turn and run, but there’s no choice left. I’m airborne. The world tilts. I’m falling.
Jenny has my elbow. I’m turned by her tugging and the green lapel of the police uniform swims into view only inches away. Black and green shimmer under the jacket – like light on feted water. I shove at the lapel and the creature staggers. We’re both out of balance for a weird, silent moment. A bamboo baton falls to the carpet. Among the colors, that sick purple makes a target by its ear.
It reaches for me with both hands.
With a strangled shout I swing for its head, for the purple mark.
The crunch of bone breaking is muffled by thick carpets and thicker curtains, followed by the sound of its body hitting the floor like a sack of sand. Colors worm out of it like grubs leaving a log that’s been knocked open – greens, browns and reds, but all of them sick and rotten. The blood-colored carpet speckles with wet.
I take a step back and reach for something to hold on to. Jenny’s not there and I almost fall. Catching myself on a wall hanging, I turn to see her white face, eyes wide and mouth open, looking back and forth between me and the body with a breathy mix of surprise and fear.
“You- is he dead?” she squeaks.
I focus on my breath. Deep breaths, slow breaths are the ticket. I close my eyes and count my hands and feet. They total to four. Here I am. I don’t know what that was, but here I am.
“What was that? What did you just do?” she asks, as she fumbles in her purse.
I don’t have an answer. His skull looks like it’s been stepped on by an elephant. You can’t break a skull with a fist. Skulls are stronger than fists. My fingers tingle, but my hand isn’t hurt.
His part-crushed face is that of a young local man, but sunken, hollow-cheeked and pale, with bloated lips dark from bruising and eyes crusted over with white gunk. Whoever he was, he was very ill.
The pipes rush, but no other sound comes. No footfalls. No voices behind the door. Nothing.
“Let’s not gander,” Jenny says, trying her key in the lock. “If we’re quick, if there’s no one else inside we can-”
She stops talking as the door swings open.
A dozen people fill the room.
They’re clothed in everything from silk suits to homespun skirts. Some crouch, some sit, some are on all fours, one in a white tie and tails stands on the table-top and another in a police outfit crouches on the kitchen counter. All have their heads down as though trying to see through the earth’s crust.
On the floor in the midst of them lays Mitts, his huge bulk stiff and his face purpled over with the bloating of death. He looks like he froze to death in the midst of a fit; his back arches so sharply off the carpet you could use him as a footbridge, and his fingers clutch, stuck in contortions like twigs of hawthorn.
All the population of the silent tableau sway gently except for David’s corpse. The body might be the least creepy thing in the room. The other people, in their weird postures and fancy clothing, stand as still and silent as bamboo in a gentle wind.
All of their faces are sinkholes of dark.
The key slips from Jenny’s hand, hitting the carpet with a barely audibly jingle.
One by one they lift those empty, hollow heads toward us.
“Heh heh,” says Jenny, a sound that isn’t a laugh. Then she bolts.
I don’t wait to follow.
My aching legs turn traitor and Jenny easily outdistances me down the wide hall. She heads to a door labeled “garden stairs” and vanishes through it. The patter of many running feet on the carpet is the only sign I’m being chased.
Then a red wave overtakes me – intangible mist laden with a fierce and pressing fear. I know what red means.
With a rush of adrenaline my legs take wind and patterned wallpaper flies by. I hit the door at full tilt and barrel through to reveal a half-stair down and at the first landing Jenny, crouched, her gun in her hand.
“Down!” she shouts as the door rebounds and slams behind me.
I fling myself face first down the stairs and tumble, grateful for the thick carpet. Her gun barks to make my ears ring. Stars and spinning wheels fill my head as I hit the wall next to her. Sparing only a glance for the door through which we came, I roll to my feet and grab her, throwing her ahead of me down the next flight of stairs. She fired one shot and there’s one bullet hole – right through the doorknob.
Someone hammers on the door and the echoes chase us.
The ground-floor landing has two doors, one to inside the other out into a courtyard. We take the out door while Jenny shoves the gun back in her purse.
“They’re not chasing,” she says, as we slow to a walk across a cobbled veranda.
The cobbles end in two steps down to a green sward, dotted with palm trees, flowers, and a few afternoon perambulators. Their heads turn, rubbernecking our way. We round the nearest corner we can find and keep to a fast walk, headed for the front of the building.
“Dammit,” I pant. “Dammit and knavery and what the hell?”
My legs are rubber, but I can make it. Rickshaws and taxis wait out front. Have to hail one before they call down to the front desk.
We reach the turnabout unmolested and Jenny jogs ahead, waving at a rickshaw runner, who comes our way. She climbs in and then turns impatiently for me, with her eyes darting back toward the front door.
“Come on, shake a leg!” she hisses, then to the runner, “Screw!”
He looks confused, but reads her waving hand as a request to start jogging. Swearing under my breath, I manage at last to catch up. The runner slows down and then Jenny grabs my elbow to help me into the seat next to her.
‘Double speed,’ I tell him, ‘triple pay. We’re late for a party.’
He nods and speeds up a little.
I let my legs hang over the side, massaging aching shins as a chorus of bruises and strained muscles sings an ugly harmony. Fading adrenaline makes my head swim under the pressure of the red sunlight’s heat. My teeth ache.
Jenny chews her fingernails and watches over her shoulder. She hisses. Her fingers close on my sleeve.
A fan of running bodies spreads among the monkeys on the hotel lawn.
Then the Mandarin Oriental falls out of sight behind buildings and brush, and a chorus of monkey screaming fades with each passing step.
“What are they doing?” she moans. “What were they doing in there?”
“I don’t know! Did you see their faces?” I ask.
“What about their faces?” Monkey screams merge with city noise. Jenny snaps shut her purse.
“You didn’t see? They were-“ I stop myself. The runner can hear us, and he speaks at least a little English. Besides, if she didn’t see, then there’s no use letting her know I’m crazier than she thinks.
“They might be along right behind us,” I tell her, trying to sound encouraging, like I’m talking about friends we’ll be meeting at the opera.
“Yo,” she replies, then to the runner, “hey, turn here.”
He complies, and then asks, “Where go?”
“The opera house,” I tell him.
“Opera?” he looks confused.
“Yeah. You’ve got one of those right?”
“He means the theatre,” says Jenny, leaning forward.
“Royal theater?” he asks.
“Perfect,” I say.
Jenny stares straight ahead. “What did we just see? What have we got to show?”