Chapter 4 - The Concierge / by Jim Lounsbury

“So I guess all we really need from the two of you today is to rest and stay out of the way,” Finnian’s father smiled ruefully at his sons. “And please be careful. It’s an old place – things are broken and worn and potentially dangerous. I assume I don’t have to tell you, Finn,” he nodded his head towards Finnian’s foot, which was propped up on an old chair, “that that fourth floor is off-limits until the roof is officially inspected and repaired. The floor is safe, but parts of the roof have fallen in and more could fall in at any time. Okay?”

“Jack, darling, can you please help your brother out when he needs it today? We will be very busy clearing out the apartment and unpacking boxes.” Their mother smiled tiredly at the two boys. Neither of them spoke. They did not want to argue with their mother, but Finnian had absolutely no intention of letting Jack anywhere near him today. There was still a nagging thought -  perhaps more of a memory than a thought – of Jack throwing the knife that had hit him in the foot. They had argued about it so constantly since he had arrived home from the hospital that Jack was now refusing to speak to him at all and Finnian had never been more content to be ignored in his life. They glowered at each other.

“Right. Okay, then.” James sighed. “I’ll get started on those boxes.”

“And I’ll start on cleaning the apartment.” His mother smiled. “Should be fun.”

His parents wandered off to begin their day and Jack stood to walk out of the hotel foyer and up the curved staircase. Finnian watched them all leave and took a moment to feel sorry for himself. The one thing he had really been looking forward to, in this old hotel, had been exploring it. He wanted to look in every room, see what had been left behind, what was left in the cupboards and the kitchens and under the beds. And now he was stuck here with a garish red cast on his leg and a set of aluminium crutches that not only made a ringing noise in the empty halls – giving away his location, but had already started to hurt his underarms when he used them. Everyone else was bustling and he had to be still. He remembered the row of knives, some of them so ancient and beautiful. If there was treasure to be found, Jack would find it first. There were footsteps above him and a few puffs of plaster dust sprinkled from the ceiling, became trapped in a ray of sunlight sneaking past an old velvet curtain and pointed a beam of smoky light towards the staircase. He bit his lip. It was just a few stairs. Even if he was slow, it couldn’t be that hard. He used the crutches to pull himself to his feet and began the step and swing that he had practiced with the physiotherapist at the hospital. “But what if someone attacks me while I have the crutches? I’m a sitting duck,” he had complained. The nurse had snorted at this but Arun, the young physio therapist had leaned closer and whispered to him, “Lean on your good leg and swing with the crutch. They are weighted so they make a pretty good weapon.” Finnian had smiled and nodded and when they had reached the end of the hall and Arun was happy with his progress, they had checked that the nurse was engrossed by her phone and then practiced a few swings of the crutch. Finnian gripped the silicone handles now, remembering the move. If Jack tried to push him over or… or something else was here, at least he would stand a chance. The image of a another boy on crutches came into his head again. His mother had told him that it was a just an anaesthetic dream, but Finnian remained unconvinced by this.  He swung his way around the piles of old furniture, ignoring the dark arched doorway that lead to the restaurant and basement, and began the slow ascent of the giant staircase.

It was going to be slow. Each step required concentration if he didn’t want to topple backwards or bang his foot on the next step. He had to lift and pull each time, using his hands to push himself upwards. The palms of his hands were aching by the tenth step and by the thirtieth, as he pushed himself onto the second floor of the apartment, they were all he could think about. He paused to shake them out and glanced around the chaos that was the second floor of the hotel. He had been there before – once, when they had first looked through the hotel. There was a huge open ballroom on one side of the building with mirrored tiles from floor to ceiling and huge windows that looked down onto a beach. The ballroom had been cleaned out already and the floors were clean and sanded, waiting for his father to lacquer them. It was a beautiful room and as the light spilled in from the windows, most of which were curtainless, it split into shards and bounced back and forth between the mirrored wall and an old, dusty chandelier that hung in the middle of the room. His mother had told him that people would want to be married in that room and he had been dubious. Now – he could see her vision. At least a little. There were still several windows missing, their panes replaced by panels of wood, and there were some tiles that were cracked and a few patches in the ceiling where the plaster had fallen to reveal the wooden slats and wiring above. The other half of the second floor was a large apartment which had been the home of the original owner and would now be theirs. It still resembled a hotel more than a regular house – with rooms coming off a long hallway  - but the rooms were big and each one had its own bathroom and Finnian thought it might actually be quite a cool place to live. Other than the creepiness that came with a lack of electricity in most of it. His father had rigged electrical cords up the elevator shaft to provide power to the lamps in the main rooms and to the kitchen, but for many of the rooms the only light was daylight and it came from a large window at the end of the hall. It reached bravely into the rooms but never quite hit all of the corners. His mother was currently using a long extension cord to vacuum the dust out of the rooms.

When he finally felt his hands could handle another set of stairs he began the next set up to the third floor. The staircase wound around in an arc behind the elevator – stairs, then a short flat landing, then more stairs. The windows back there, behind the elevator, were completely boarded up and the stairs were dimly lit. Finnian tripped twice, catching himself once with his crutches and once with his hand. By the time he reached the third floor he was in a terrible mood, sore, tired and angry. He was going to be doing this all summer, climbing up and down the stairs with his crutches, unable to go to the beach or explore the hotel. He sat down on the floor, his foot out in front of him and allowed himself a moment of misery. The sheer overwhelming endlessness of it nearly made him cry. Nearly. A noise drifting down from the fourth floor piqued his attention and distraction him from his self-pity. It was supposed to be completely empty up there, unsafe and roped off until the roofers could come and fix. And yet, it really did sound like footsteps up there. Gentle, rhythmic footsteps along the hallway above his head. It might be Jack. He certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Jack had ignored his father’s edict and gone to explore the roof. He looked down the hall of the third floor where he sat – just a long row of dark, opened doors. It should be identical upstairs. He could take a quick look. Carefully. He snorted a small laugh to himself– surely the worst had already happened? There was another sound above him. More footsteps. A long, low whistling sound. There was definitely someone up there.

Finnian began the arduous trip up the third flight of stairs, this time in near darkness. The windows to the stairwell on this level were all broken and covered with wooden panels. All except a small square panel of stained red glass at the very top of the windows, which allowed only and eerie glow across the top stair. His hands still hurt, but he felt a little less uncoordinated. His feet had begun to know how to swing and leap in time with the crutches and it felt more like a rhythm than a precarious dance with death. These stairs creaked more, were softer under his feet. There was a dampness in the air as he ascended that caught in his throat – a murky forest-like scent of mushrooms and dead leaves. The whistling was louder now, a low sharp noise shredding the air. He tried to be quieter, keeping the movement of his crutches smooth and the footstep of his good foot light. There were a dozen good reasons why he shouldn’t be up here but something about the noises was so compelling he couldn’t stop himself. He took the final hop onto the fourth floor and looking around.

It was in great shape but it wasn’t the derelict wreck his father had described. The corridor was clear and the roof was intact, at least where he could see it. The rooms to his left and right were door-less and open, empty of any furniture and spilling the scent of bird poop. To his right was another of the old iron spiral staircases like the one into the basement. This one, however, went up through the ceiling and out onto the roof. The base of it was covered in debris and leaves and possibly, by the smell of it, a dead pigeon. Finnian decided today was not the day to attempt a roof exploration. He made his way into the long hall and tried to pinpoint the noises he had heard. They had seemed to come from the end, near the windows and as he looked down the corridor he was sure that he could also see a light in one of the rooms. The window at the end was intact and there was enough light to see all of the doorways – six on each side. He tried to be silent. The footsteps started again, clear human steps across a room. The whistling stopped. There was a gentle clatter than sounded almost like a cup or a plate. He moved as quickly as his foot allowed. The rooms on either side were dark, silent and empty. Part way down the hall he looked into a room and seemed more brightly lit than the others and realised that this was the room where the roof had fallen in. It was small hole, but he could see the bright sun through it. Hardly the dangerous catastrophe his father had mentioned. He smiled. He was going to come up and have a better look at that later.

The room at the end of the hallway, on the left was closed, the door not only intact, but freshly painted. On the door in bright yellow paint was the number 413. Finnian frowned. There weren’t thirteen rooms on this floor. Both the top levels of the hotel – levels three and four – had six rooms on each side of the corridor – twelve rooms. Twenty-four in total. The only other place to stay was their apartment on level two, which took the place of six rooms and the entirety of one side of the hotel on that floor. He turned and counted the dark doorways. There was six on each side – just as he had thought. And this one. He counted again. Every time he counted there seemed to be twelve. And then this one. He shook himself. Was he going crazy up here in the dark? Maybe it was the tablets his mother had given him this morning. Something to prevent infection and something to keep the pain under control. Maybe they also made you less able to count accurately. Music started into the room behind the door, a soft waltz and Finnian jumped back in surprise. One of his crutches slid across the wooden floor and hit the door hard. It sounded very much like a knock.

The music stopped. And then the footsteps started. He turned and looked towards the distant staircase – he had no hope of running away now. It would take him another five minutes to get there. His blood pounded. The door handle turned so slowly that he could hear his heart beat eight times before it actually opened. Swinging inwards smoothly as though it wasn’t nearly two hundred years old, the door opened into a brightly lit room and the dark, tall figure of a man nearly twice his height. The man’s pale face immediately darkened into a frown. “How did you get here? I thought I told you that you were not welcome… wait…” He leaned forward and looked at Finnian’s face closely. Finnian leaned as far back as his crutches would allow. “Oh, I do apologise. I thought you were someone else. It was the crutches, not the scent, I assure you. How lovely to have a guest. Would you like a cup of tea?”

Finnian took a breath to stop himself from passing out. “Uh… hello. Um… are you living here? In the hotel?”

The man ignored his question, stepped back and graciously ushered him into the hotel room. Finnian paused, but felt compelled to follow. After all, this man was living in his family’s hotel. He was literally living in their home. It was up to him to find out exactly what was going on. “Okay, I guess.” He tried to sound confident as he swung and hopped his way into the room.

It was an exquisitely decorated room. A little old fashioned for Finnian’s taste, but even he could tell that everything was of the highest quality and probably very expensive. The room had two windows because it was at the end of the wing of the hotel – a large one that looked out over the beach and another that looked over the city. Both were dressed with heavy velvet curtains that were pulled back by gold rope with heavy tassels. The wallpaper was similar to that in the restaurant and foyer of the hotel, a deep golden yellow with swirls of intricate leaves and vines twisting around each other, except that instead of being faded, torn and peeling – here it looked nearly new and there were threads of gold through it that caught in the light. He looked up at the golden glass light fitting.

“You have electricity.”

The man sounded surprised. “Of course. This hotel was one of the first places in Newcastle to have electricity.”

Finnian continued to look around the room. “I mean, the rest of the hotel doesn’t. It isn’t hooked up, or working properly.”

The man didn’t reply. The room was small, but it had a long dark-leather couch along the main wall, just under the window to the city. It was one of the couches with buttons holding the leather in place. There was no bed. Perhaps the man didn’t sleep here. Maybe he just… worked here? Finnian turned to look at him and found the man preparing him a cup of tea. He realised that this had been the whistling sound. A teapot. The man carefully poured steaming golden brown tea into a small china cup and then delicately placed a slice of lemon into it.

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“I don’t have milk I’m afraid. I only ever have lemon.”

“Oh. Okay. I don’t usually have tea, so I’m happy to try it with lemon.” Finnian moved towards the chair that he was being directed to and sat down. The man sat down across from him, and even when they were both seated, he seemed very tall. Not thin though. He wasn’t fat and he was extremely muscular, but he didn’t look thin. He looked – strong. That was word that came to Finnian’s mind. Strong.

“I haven’t had a visitor like you here in a very long time. What is your name?” The man took a delicate sip of tea.

Finnian sloshed tea on the saucer as he tried to pick it up. It was too hot to drink so he just held it up, in his hand, waiting for it to cool. “Finnian. My parents just bought the hotel. They are going to renovate it and turn it back into a hotel.”

The man smiled smoothly, “How lovely. Has it ever been anything else?”
“I don’t know. It looks like it has just been a wreck for a while now.” Finnian couldn’t think of the right word and he hoped the man was not offended.

The man chuckled and it was a friendly sound. “Yes. A wreck. That is what the last owners of the hotel did to this wonderful place. They wrecked it. I do hope they don’t interfere with your parents marvellous plan.”

“Oh – I think they are probably dead by now. It was a long time ago.” Finnian took a sip and burned his lip, tongue, mouth and throat. He coughed. “Could I please ask your name?”

“Oh, how horribly rude of me. I am Darius Ljosalfar, but please do just call me Darius. I know how tongue-twisting my family name can be. I am The Concierge.” He smiled.

“The Concierge. Like, of the hotel? You worked here? And you still live here?” Finnian gave up on the tea and put it back on the saucer.

“Oh, a concierge doesn’t work in a hotel, my friend. The concierge IS the hotel. I have always been here to look after the place and I will stay as long as the hotel continues to stand. It is manager and of course protector.” He finished the last of his tea before Finnian’s was even cool enough for a second sip.

“But… but…this place is very old.”

The man laughed. “And so, I guess, am I.”

Finnian frowned. Perhaps he was just crazy. Darius didn’t look that old at all. He was in that ageless phase of life that his parents were in. Somewhere between twenty-five and fifty where people all looked kind of the same. He had pale skin, but Finnian wasn’t sure if he was actually pale or just hadn’t seen the sun in a while. His hair was dark and thick, longish and slicked carefully back from his face. His face was very sharp. Well, it was well defined. Every feature seemed very carefully made. More… in focus… that other people’s. It didn’t make sense, but Finnian was sure how else to understand it. What he had originally though was a suit was actually a kind of short bathrobe made of velvet, with a belt at the waist and his shoes looked like leather slippers. He looked like someone from an old movie who might sit around smoking cigars or playing jazz on the piano.

Finnian took  in a long breath. There had been a lot of oddness since they had arrived at this hotel. The knife for a start. The boy in the basement. And then again at the hospital and now Darius. He wasn’t sure how much of it was real and how much was his mind totally falling apart. He decided the only way to stop himself from being terrified beyond sanity was to just go along with it for now. To just assume that yes, the Concierge of the hotel lived on the fourth floor and had somehow kept it in immaculate shape as the hotel fell apart around him. For a hundred years. He breathed out. “Do you know anything about the boy on the crutches?”

Darius went completely still. “The boy you say? You have seen a boy?”

“Yes. Did you think that I was him, when you opened the door?”

Darius still didn’t move. He looked at Finnian. And through him. “Well, I’m afraid I have an appointment very shortly and I can’t simply sit and have tea all day. It was very lovely to meet you Finnian and I look forward to seeing the new developments at the hotel.” He stood abruptly and walked to the door, opening it and gesturing a gentle but firm hand towards the hallway. “Be careful on those stairs. I believe the elevator is out of order again?”

“Oh. Okay. Sure. Yeah – it isn’t working.” Finnian grabbed his crutches and pulled himself upright, swinging towards the door and passed his enigmatic host. “Will I see you again?”

“Of course you will. Where would I be going? You are welcome for tea here anytime.” He watched Finnian hobble down the hallway and called after him. “The elevator. It is mechanically sound – it just short circuits. Should you replace the wires within the main circuit board on level one – it would work.”

He shut the door and Finnian found himself alone save for a single pigeon who seemed to have become stuck in the hallway and was walking towards him cooing mournfully. Finnian looked at the bird and sighed. At this point nothing was surprising. “Let’s see if we can get you out of here.”