Authors: Michael P. Kube-McDowell
Tags: #Science Fiction
Michael P. Kube-McDowell
Marin Paul, for legwork in Boston; Doug Houseman, for lending his expertise and pieces of his library; L. P. Feist-Deich, for legwork in Philadelphia and a thousand clippings; my father, for sharing his memories and fielding odd questions at odd hours; Marc Satterwhite, for scouting Bloomington; the staff of the State Library of Michigan, for eternal patience. Any errors or amendments of the facts are my responsibility, not theirs.
For Elinor Mavor and Melissa Singer,
who opened doors
And for Russ Galen,
who now guards them
I pray Heaven to Bestow The Best of Blessings on This House and All that shall hereafter Inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under this Roof.
—President John Adams
You think that if we are victorious, I shall not know when to stop. You are wrong. I shall know.
—Josef Stalin to Anthony Eden, 1941
Little enough good news, Walter Endicott thought as he skimmed the headlines of the Philadelphia Bulletin he had just purchased in the hotel shop. Little enough to make me want to avoid newspapers these days.
The King of Egypt in Washington, begging President Humphrey for more American aid to prop up his tottering regime. A third outbreak of the mysterious waterborne flu in Chicago, two hundred hospitalized. Another lynching in Mississippi—that made three this week, or was it four? And the Indians’ losing streak had stretched to six, with hated Detroit threatening to lock up the league crown by Labor Day.
A bell chimed and the door to the elevator behind Endicott opened. Moving toward it, he tucked the paper under his arm and dropped the change from its purchase into a pocket of his tan overcoat. As he entered the car, the elevator guard offered a quiet “Good evening, sir.”
“Six,” Endicott said, settling against the back railing.
At least in the smaller circle of his life there was order. The streets outside were quiet, the police much in evidence, enough so that he had felt comfortable walking the few blocks to the restaurant. Bookbinder’s had lived up to its reputation; the dinner of stuffed crab and boiled shrimp was enjoyable despite having been taken alone. And the old Bellevue Stratford was well air-conditioned against the August heat, which was almost as important as its staff being accommodating about his needs.
Endicott nodded to the guard as he left the elevator. There was no urgency in Endicott’s pace as he walked down the well-lit hallway, feeling for the key among the change in the pocket of his tailored button-fly slacks. He had that comfortable full-bellied feeling and nearly an hour to enjoy it before the woman would arrive. One appetite sated, another just starting to build.
Letting himself into his room, Endicott dropped the newspaper on the cherrywood dresser and the overcoat on the foot of the bed—already turned down by the maid, he noted approvingly. There would be no interruptions.
He brushed his teeth with a brisk efficiency, splashed hot water on his face and rubbed the oils away. As he dried his hands, he studied the reflection in the mirror. He carried a dozen pounds more than he had as a twenty-one-year-old Navy enlistee, but he carried them well. The close-cropped hair was almost pure white now, but still thick and full, the hairline showing no signs of receding. His features were clean and masculine, his wrinkles few.
I look my age, he thought. Forty-six. No reason I should want to look any different.
He stood in the bathroom doorway for a long moment, his hands steepled and pressed against his mouth, as he considered carefully whether there were any further preparations to make. The contents of the small black case tucked between the bed and nightstand—there was no reason to hide them any longer. The woman would have been told what he expected.
But neither was there any reason to lay them out like some ten-year-old displaying a prized collection of shells and stones. When he had need of something from the bag, he would have the woman retrieve it. That was the best way, always.
Opening the dressing table drawer, Endicott emptied his pockets change, keys, the little ivory-handled pocketknife—into the wooden tray therein. At the last moment, he added his jeweled wedding band to the collection. It came off easily; removing it was a practiced motion.
One final preparation. Extracting two hundred-dollar bills from his wallet, Endicott tucked one into his vest pocket, the other into a hip pocket. Now he was ready for the game. The money was part of the ritual, part of the pleasure of power. What will you do for this? For this? Find it and it’s yours—
He coaxed music—a Schumann symphony, pleasant enough and undemanding—from the radio in the sitting room and settled in a comfortable chair. The newspaper was within reach, but he let it lie undisturbed and allowed himself to wonder briefly what she would be like.
It was important that she not be too slender. The underfed, coltish look which was so fashionable offered Endicott little. Such were too fragile, too boyish. The essential feminine character, the blossoming of female sensuality, required a softer roundness in hip and breast, Rubenesque, callipygian. Such women moved well, in and out of bed. Such women knew how to give, and accept, the fullest range of pleasures their bodies offered.
With luck, he was waiting for a woman of that kind.
Endicott reached for the newspaper and opened it to the business section. The agate type of the market listings offered happier news than the front page—four of his five major investments were up for the week.
Packard Motors was the only dog, down on reports that its new line-leading Atlantic was languishing on dealer floors. Wags were already calling it the Packard Titanic, and predicting that within six months the company would be too weak to fight off a takeover. Wolves with names like Ford and Leyland were already circling.
Endicott shrugged off the news. He had kept the Packard stock largely out of sentiment. His father had worked for the firm in Connorsville for seventeen years and faithfully plowed a share of his earnings back into his employer, determined to build a family fortune. And the first car Endicott had bought when he turned in his Navy uniform in 1945 was an eight-year-old Packard 120 that looked like junk but kept running on love and mercifully little money for three more years.
Three long years, still vivid two decades later. Him pursuing a GI Bill diploma from Michigan State and Grace trying to make a home out of the awful Quonset-hut married housing on the East Lansing campus. The car had saved their sanity more than once, carrying them on innumerable weekend sojourns to the Lake Michigan shore. They had sold it, with regret, when he took that first real job in Cleveland. No car had ever meant more to him.
Especially not that dog of a Kaiser-Frazer we bought next
At that moment, the lights flickered once, then failed, plunging the suite into darkness. At the same instant there was a crackle of static from the radio, and the music died a dozen bars from the piece’s climax.
“What in hell—” Endicott exclaimed.
An eerie faint greenish glow marked the face of the alarm clock, which Endicott saw double, reflected in the dressing-table mirror. Except for that, the blackness was total and unrelieved. Frowning, he folded the newspaper as best he could, set it aside, and sat back in the chair to wait.
A minute passed, and the lights remained off. Annoyed, Endicott rose to his feet and felt his way to the phone, meaning to call the front desk. But the instrument was as inert as a child’s toy.
Moving like a caricature of the newly blind, Endicott found the door to the suite and cracked it open. He looked left, toward the elevators. His night vision was excellent, and yet he could see nothing, sense nothing. It was like looking into a vat of black paint.
He looked to the right. There was a faint glow at the end of the hallway, though the end seemed much farther away than he had remembered it being. The glow seemed to pulse and flicker. An emergency light with a sick battery, or the flashlight of a bellman, he thought. Or a fire.
Except there were no emergency lights in the halls, no side corridors where the bellman could be standing, no hint of smoke in the air. Closing the door behind him, Endicott started down the hallway, the fingertips of his right hand grazing the fabric wallcovering to guide his steps.
The glow did not grow perceptibly brighter as he neared it. He could not even be sure that he was getting closer. Nor did the source of the light reveal itself. It seemed as though the corridor itself was glowing, walls and floor and ceiling lit somehow from within with a light that blurred all detail into an undifferentiated halo. The strangeness of it slowed his steps, but curiosity drew him ever closer.
Then suddenly every square inch of his skin was seized by a crawling sensation, as though he were naked and had walked into a giant spiderweb. There was a resistance pushing back against him, and he strained to continue forward. A moment of tension, then the resistance broke and the sensation passed.
But when it did, Endicott found himself surrounded on all sides by the pulsing glow, now a dozen times brighter. The floor beneath his feet, the ceiling over his head, the walls on either side were all consumed with energy. In fact, it was impossible to say that walls and ceiling and floor still existed.
He spun around and looked back the way he had come. There was nothing to see but the omnipresent dazzle of light. What was behind him was what was before him. It was as though he had come through a doorway that no longer existed.
Endicott did not waste a moment wondering if what he was experiencing was real. His was an orderly world. He trusted it to behave, trusted his senses to be reliable and true. If what his senses told him about the world seemed inexplicable, it could only be because he did not yet know enough about what he was seeing.
Squinting and shielding his eyes with one hand, he reached out to his right. The wall was not there. But something was. He felt something liquid wrap around his fingertips and slide off, as though he were adrift in a canoe, his hand trailing in the water. He found the same phenomenon to his left.
Experimentally, he took a step. And another. And another. He was braced for resistance, prepared for the clammy-clingy feeling of the phantom spiderweb. In time—five hundred steps? a thousand?—he found both. Pushed forward, straining, struggling, against a force far more powerful than the one which had impeded his entry into this place. With steady pressure he broke through, and his next step carried him into a room his eyes embraced with relief.
But if he was still in the Bellevue Stratford, he had wandered into a section ordinarily closed to guests. It felt as though he were somewhere else entirely. The great room looked like a ballroom or dance floor, but it was cluttered with racks filled with cardboard boxes and huge wooden tables covered with dust.
He wondered if he were sick, if the seafood could have poisoned him enough to make him dizzy and disoriented. Clearly he had been wandering for some time. The power was back on. But more than that, it was morning, sunlight streaming in the eight closely spaced windows along the long wall to his right.
The evening’s pleasures were lost, but he had other reasons for being in Philadelphia, other appointments to keep. There was a stairway a few steps from where he stood, and he started down. The next level was small rooms, closed doors, and narrow corridors, none of it familiar. He continued his descent—three floors, five, nine.
He reached the ground floor a puzzled man. He could not be in the Bellevue Stratford. It was all wrong, the appointments too shabby, the darkness of the corridors a mark of decrepitude rather than taste. Just how far had he wandered in the dark?
At the end of the high-ceilinged main corridor, a street exit beckoned, and he headed in that direction. Outside, Endicott turned and looked back at the building from which he had just emerged.