When she walks into the hotel I know three things: she is beautiful, I am in love with her and she is too young to die.
Usually, I try not to get involved with the decisions our clients have made. I'm just a hotel clerk, not a karmic angel, and if someone wants to kill themselves then my job is just to get a positive ID, check that they're good for the cleaning bond, and give them a key. But this time, on the spot, I make a decision: I'm going to try to save her life.
Her biometrics check out. She is Slimolina Endorarella House, aged twenty-four, just old enough to be legal for our kind of establishment, and he is John Morgan Mandroheim, aged sixty-four. She is in her pink party dress mode, complete with an absurdly large teddy bear with soft brown fluffy hair, whereas he is in his conservative business conference rigout. It annoys me that he seems to have no problems with the suitcase he is toting, which is large and looks extremely heavy.
"We've reserved the Guillotine Room," he says. "So I see, sir," I say.
The Guillotine Room, that is the place which gives me nightmares. The biosensors were down one day and I had to go in to see if the client had left the hotel or whether he was inside. Well, he was inside, all right, headless, his lopped-off hands scattered to either side of the blade.
It's a big industrial machine, the guillotine, and you lie down, take hold of the controls and throw the switch, and, blam, that's it.
And the result is garbage. That's what got me about the corpse I walked in on. It was so totally ugly, no sense of pose or poise or arrangement, just garbage. I think fewer people would kill themselves if they knew just how bad they'd look when dead.
Anyway, I can't let that happen to my adored and darling Slimolina, she of the china face, the fine blonde hair, I just can't. I've got to save her. Somehow, I've got to communicate the fact that killing yourself is a bad thing.
"Is there a problem?" says Mr Mandroheim.
"Bank's a little slow confirming the credit rating, sir," I say. "Won't be a moment."
And then I see Godfried Dormant, our regular nut, coming in through the front door. It's only 7.40 pm. I'm only forty minutes into my twelve-hour solo shift, and here he is. He'll be on us before I can figure out how to get through to Slimolina. I'm almost out of time here. How do I make contact?
"Hope there's not a bomb in the bear," I say to Slimolina.
"No," she says, with a flushed and happy laugh that sounds a bit drunk. "But Teddy will kill twice before we're done. Twice? No, three times. There are three of them."
"Slim," says Mr Mandroheim, paternal and dominant, not angry but definitely in charge, warning Slim to keep her pretty mouth shut. "Credit checks out, son? The key, thanks."
No choice. I hand over the card key and they're on their way, him lugging the suitcase because this bare bones establishment doesn't run to anything as fancy as a bellboy, and I'm face to face with Godfried, the last person I want to see right now.
"You want to check in?" I say. "The Exhaust Room is free. Turn on the big engine and the next stop is Heaven Central. Or somewhere."
I can't believe I've just gone and done that. Invited him to kill himself, I mean. It's not my style. And, on top of that, it's technically illegal. If he wants to make an issue of it, I could lose my job. And then I'd be vulnerable to ending up you-know-where. But Godfried doesn't notice my blunder. That's the thing about nuts: they run on rails. They don't deviate.
"Have you thought about it?" says Godfried, picking up our conversation exactly where we left it, perhaps a week ago.
"How can I help you, sir?" I say, play-acting the role of hotel clerk, and pretending I don't recognize this conversation.
"No, you haven't thought about it, have you?" says Godfried. "Your responsibility to the living. Killing people is okay with you. You're a virtuous young Nazi, that's what you are."
No, I'm not, I'm a scaredy cat hiding from the draft and the Bad Place by holding onto this job, which I was lucky enough to get in a lottery run by the Social Hygiene Department.
"You've got nothing to say for yourself, have you?" says Godfried.
"I can give you some of our literature if you'd like, sir."
I have the pamphlets if he wants. I've read them myself, and they make sense. Sort of. Sometimes. I mean, the tragic story of the young husband who was innocently bopping along the street when a suicide plunged down on him from forty-seven storeys up, putting him in hospital and leaving him paralyzed for life. That gives me a rationale for my job.
Then there was the guy who tried to use his apartment's gas supply to make an explosive exit, but survived the blast, which killed twenty-four of his innocent neighbors. And the train driver stories! You're driving a train, someone jumps in front of you, you can't stop the machine. It's mechanically impossible. But you're still left with the guilt of having killed someone.
"You're going to go to Hell," says Godfried, starting to escalate into his ranting number, and I wonder whether to call the cops now or let him wind himself up a little more.
If I do call the cops, it's better to have Godfried at the screaming stage. At least, that's my theory, though the cops are actually very good at removing troublemakers, even the quiet ones. Before I started this job I would never have called the cops for any reason, but it's become routine. Your neighborly friends, the police. I never thought I would have started to think like that, but I have.
I'm debating it when Mr Hoglinson rolls in, full of smiles in a way that makes him seem a little drunk, although I happen to know he's a teetotaler.
"The Noose Room, I think," he says.
"Certainly, sir," I say.
And because he's been here so many times before, it's a ten second transaction, and Mr Hoglinson has his card key, and Godfried is asking if he has time to talk, and Mr Hoglinson says yes, and they end up walking off to the vending machine area.
Because of the nature of my job, I don't get to meet a large number of repeat customers, but Mr Hoglinson is one of the few. He's strange in more ways than one, but the strangest, for my money, is that he likes to talk to nuts.
Mr Hoglinson has talked to me so often that I know, by rote, what he will tell Godfried. About how he constructed his elaborate fantasy suicide, complete with a ritual involving hot coffee and exquisite chocolates. And about how, when he actually came to the moment, he realized that he didn't want to kill himself at all. Rather, what he wanted was simply to step free from the overwhelming pressures of his life for a few hours. So now he comes here not to do the act but to perform the ritual.
The problem is (as Mr Hoglinson has told me) that we do not come cheap. The addictive attraction of the ritual is starting to become a source of financial stress, and Mr Hoglinson may face the day when he has to break the habit. Or (more exactly, I think, though he has never said this) say goodbye to us forever then go ahead and kill himself.
Suicide rituals? I would advise against them. Try pumping iron instead, and see what that does for you.
I look up and there she is, my beloved, my Slimolina, complete with teddy bear. And I'm overcome with job and guilt. Joy, because I still have a chance to save the darling one. Guilt, because I'd already written the mission off as hopeless. Just as well I figured out how to dodge the draft, because I'd be hopeless on a battlefield.
"Ms House," I say. "What can I do for you?"
"He's hopeless," says Slimolina, with an indulgent smile. "He forgot the diapers. We absolutely must have the diapers."
"Diapers?" I say.
"For Teddy," says Slimolina.
I'm confused. Diapers for Teddy? Now that's weird. And this job, well, it doesn't do as much as you might think to prepare you for the weird. Most suicides, both those who go ahead and do it and those who think again, they're not weird. Rather, they're totally normal. Your average law-abiding citizen with a death wish.
"There's a supermarket two minutes down the road," I say. "They might have what you need."
"Oh, but we can't go out," says Slimolina. "The watchers have closed in."
"Watchers?" I say, my sense of confusion increasing.
"In the pay of the wicked witch of Endor," says Slimolina. Then giggles. "His wife, I mean. If they saw us buying diapers then that would be evidence."
I'm lost, but she doesn't explain. Instead, she puts money on the counter.
"Go buy for us," she says. "Please."
"Sorry," I say. "My job. Maybe a taxi driver?"
"You can't trust taxi drivers," says Slimolina. "They talk. I'll leave the money here. If you can help us, call the room, any time."
Then she's hurrying off, ardent for something. Which is strange, because suicidal people aren't like that. They may be emotionally flat, or confused, or hairtrigger anxious, or angry to a frightening degree, but they're certainly not happily enthusiastic.
I can't quite figure out what's going on here, but I get the feeling that Slimolina does not think she's going to die, and it occurs to me that maybe Mr Mandroheim is planning the perfect murder. Maybe he's enticed her into the Guillotine Room with the promise of kinky games, and maybe his plan is to trigger the guillotine at a strategic moment, and it's goodbye to a girl pet who has perhaps become tiresome.
It's a workable hypothesis. A murder disguised as a suicide pact, with the guy changing his mind after the woman makes a messy exit. What should I do? Call the cops?
As I'm thinking about it, I hear approaching sirens, and suddenly the cops are here to evacuate us to check out a bomb threat. And I know, right off, that my darling Slimolina has called in the threat. Either her or her Mr Mandroheim.
All the guests are evacuated except for the guy who checked into the Slab Room before I came on shift. He's now lying beneath a slab of polished basalt which weighs ten metric tons, and he won't be going anywhere until a professional cleaning crew shows up tomorrow to remove the splintered ooze of his remains.
"Any suspicious characters hanging around here tonight?" says Sergeant Burke, who has got to know me pretty well in the months since I started this job.
"Godfried Dormant was making a nuisance of himself earlier," I say, promptly.
And I have the satisfaction of seeing the said Godfried Dormant arrested and taken away for interrogation. He'll complain to management, I guess, but, given that he never checks in, who cares?
So, anyway, while the dogs and the robot probes check through the hotel, I join the guests who are milling around outside, and I see Slimolina with her Mr Mandroheim, both of them still fully dressed, and she looks at me and flashes me a big smile, and I know it's my go signal.
Two minutes on foot. And two minutes back. If this feeds back to management, I'm jobless, and the next step is the draft. But I take the risk.
Although it's not far, on my return at first I think that everyone has gone back inside. I have a moment of sheer panic. All I can see is the blank gray sheetrock of the building's facade reaching up to the big red neon sign which says "GRAND TERMINUS SUICIDE HOTEL." They've gone inside. I'll be found out for sure, because someone always wants to check out after an incident like this.
Then I see that our guests have gathered across the road, where one of the new traveling coffee shop vans has pulled up, and I join them. I hope to get close to Slimolina, but Sergeant Burke intercepts me. He has a few questions about our guests, which I answer, in most cases honestly. Recently, the government has taken a "get tough" line on bomb scare calls, and I know Sergeant Burke will have to file a report which at least looks good.
Then at last we're given the all clear and we go back inside, and, as expected, half our guests leave. No refunds that's our policy. A few grumbles about that.
How many would have killed themselves if not for the bomb scare? There's no telling. Some nights we have no fatalities at all. Other nights, one hundred percent. It's erratic. Maybe someone's writing a thesis on it.
Impatiently, I wait for Slimolina to show up at the front desk to see what success I had. But she doesn't show. Two full hours go by, with nothing happening but the arrival of two sour, anxious kids, neither of them older than twenty, maximum. She's pregnant, I guess, or he's been drafted, or maybe a combination of both. They think their worlds are ending in ruin, and they don't realize their situation is totally survivable. Anyway, the kids try to check in, but the guy's ID shows him as being thirty-four years old, which is impossible. Even though the biometrics check out, the boy, at least, is using fake ID, and I call the cops.
This is kind of worrying: someone with fake ID which cheats the biometrics. For months, the government has been telling us that the rumors are untrue. But, given that the rumors are true, my job could be getting a lot more difficult.
Five minutes after the cops have taken away a pair of protesting kids, Slimolina finally puts in her appearance. She looks tired, and there are lines of strain on her face. She looks older than twenty-four. How much older? I don't know. But this night is aging her.
"Did you get them?" she asks, impatiently, dispensing with any preliminaries.
"They didn't have any," I say. "Only some, uh, adult incontinence pants."
"Let me see," she says. "Well, they'll do, I think. Teddy's about that size. Keep the change, and thank you."
I wait for a thank you smile but there is no smile. She's right out of smiles. She's turning to go, and I'm trying to come up with the right words, and right then, at the worst possible moment, the traveling salesman guy shows up, Mr Gray, puffing up to the front desk, his angry face red (I think he has a problem with high blood pressure), and launching into his complaint even before I've properly registered his arrival.
"Screaming!" he says. "The guy keeps screaming, I'm trying to sleep!"
"In pain?" I say, wondering if we've got an embarrassing Code Seven on our hands.
And already Slimolina has gone. How fast that woman vanished!
"No, not pain," says Mr Gray, who pays our premiums so he can be sure of a good night's sleep, with no raucous hotel parties going on next door. "Ranting, more like it. On the phone."
So I go with Mr Gray (there's no option) and, as we head along the corridor to his room on the fifth floor, I hear it, a huge voice raving at someone on the phone.
"I'll do it, Mavis, I really will! I'll stick my head in and I'll pull the trigger, and that's it! You sign those papers and fax me the proof or I'll do it, I really will."
Mr Blortstlom. Again. Who has booked himself the Shotgun Room. (Worried about messing up the gunshot and ending up a vegetable? Our technical solution will solve your worries. You can pull the trigger with peace of mind, in the sure certainty that you're going to be most thoroughly dead.)
I hammer on the door and tell Mr Blortstlom he's leaving the hotel, now. He doesn't want to, however, and Mr Gray is gracious enough to accept an apology from him, so the issue gets smoothed over.
Actually, what Mr Blortstlom doesn't realize is that he's playing a dangerous game, one that may very well end up with him leaving this place in a body bag. He thinks he's just terrorizing his wife, but the problem with promising to kill yourself is that it's really easy to talk yourself into doing exactly that.
So we're all smoothed down and settled, and the hotel is at peace, and I find myself walking toward the Guillotine Room, though I have no idea what I'll do when I arrive there.
Just as I get there, there's a scream. From inside the Guillotine Room. Slimolina's scream. A wrenched sound of shocked agony. The scream is hauled out of her as if it's been wrenched from her bowels, red and bloody, on a huge fishhook.
I can only imagine
Well, at first I can't imagine. A scream like that? I've never heard anything like it. And then an image forms. Slimolina, cut in half at the waist. Her amputated forward half finding the strength for that one rending scream. It's a really horrific thought, but I can't shake it.
Anyway, the bad news is that I've arrived too late. Something irreversible has happened. That scream was not the kind of thing you kiss better and comfort with a smile. So I go back to the front desk and I wait in what is now the silence of night.
Then nothing happens for the longest time until, at 5.15 am, Slimolina and Mr Mandroheim come down to check out. I'm surprised that they're alive. And I'm surprised that they're checking out at this absurdly early hour.
"Sir," I say, "you had a suitcase."
"The cleaning bond takes care of that kind of thing," says Mr Mandroheim. "Doesn't it?"
"Yes, sir," I say.
"Get us a cab, would you?" says Slimolina, tired and snappish.
As I phone for the cab, I take stock of Slimolina, and I realize three things. One is that she is no longer young. She has aged somehow, becoming more like thirty-four than twenty-four. The other is that she is no longer beautiful. She has hardened in an unpleasant way, becoming something barbed, rigorous, not nice to be near. And the third thing I realize is that I am no longer in love with her.
The cab comes and Slimolina and Mr Mandroheim leave and I go up to the room. It's standard practice. You check to see if the guests have trashed the place.
What I find is a guillotined bear. It's been sliced in half. And there are other things sliced in half, too. On one of the two twin beds. They're photographs, speckled with blood. I don't know where the blood came from. Maybe from the suitcase, which I lying in a collapsed huddle in the corner, evidently one of these new high-tech "empty and compress" models.
The photos show a woman who had trophy wife looks some years back but who is no longer top model quality. At a guess, she's Mr Mandroheim's wife. And there are photos of two children, aged maybe four or five.
And I remember what Slimolina said when she checked in, something about Teddy planning on killing three people. And I know these three people are dead. The wife and the two kids. I don't know how I know it, but I do.
Tonight, something unspeakable happened in this hotel. And, for the very first time since I started this job, I find myself conscious of being in the presence of evil.
I log the room for Ms Mavis to look at when she gets in later today. She's our professional on the cleaning front. She'll assess the blood damage and figure out how much we should charge our transient guests. Not much, I guess. Not nearly as much as they should be paying.
Back at the front desk, I get out the application forms. They're long and complicated, but they're already filled in. All they need is my signature. I sign, and I put them into the government's preaddressed envelope, and I seal the envelope. All I need to do now is mail them, which I'll do at the train station on the way home.
I've had these forms for days now. Hesitating. Unable to make up my mind. From hotel clerk to executioner. It's a move up, undoubtedly. But who wants to be an executioner? It won't play well at parties, to start with. "My job? Oh, I kill people, professionally, for the state."
However, tonight has soured me against the human race. I'm tired of watching them blunder their way to their own terminations, too often doubtful, hesitant, not sure what they really want. I want to take a more active role. I want to get in there and kill someone. Yeah, Slimolina, maybe I could start with you.
The photos are still in the room. Evidence of something. And I know who phoned in the false bomb alarm. I can't prove anything, but my accusation would be sufficient for an arrest. Arrested this morning, while she's still shattered, Slimolina would break under interrogation. I think.
I phone the cops and try to get through to Sergeant Burke, but he's gone off duty. However, I have his private cellphone number. He told me to phone him if I ever had anything "good". I ring him and give him a quick rundown.
"Mandroheim," he says. The name seems to mean something to him. "Yeah, this could be interesting. Feed me the ID data and I'll get onto it."
And by that time Charley has shown up, and it's time for me to go home and get a proper rest, which, by this time, I really feel truly entitled to.