How swift... how secretly the shadow of the night comes on... the pull of dark velvet overcurtains extinguishing the luminosity of day and replacing it with a caliginous dishonesty that was so appropriate for the District of Columbia at this time of night. At any time, really, though it took night for the inverse lustre to really shine through.
Despite the austere reputation that the city had grown for itself there was always an underbelly of ill-repute that hung beneath the political capitol of the United States. Even senators had to have their midnight calls and their whispered women. Speakeasies had existed even in the illustrious city, after all. Prohibition had never really taken full root, in Washington D.C., even at the apex of legislative support.
Some people preferred the dirtier side of things- some people pretended that the dregs of the capitol did not exist, though they did. It made it so much easier to forget about it all. After all- who wanted to remember the city in such a dark light? No, better to sweep it under the rug and wait for morning light to remove such unsightly maculations.
Tess found herself before the arranged place- the hotel arranged as her temporary home for at least the next few days, until arrangements might be made with her employers- until she acquired more money to pay for something more expensive. The taxi released the woman, collected his fee and then sped into the night- leaving the archaeology student standing before the rather unremarkable and intimidating Veldt Inn. The message is unmistakably clear, even to one so inexperienced as Tess is at the moment.
If you are lost, leave now. If you were looking for the seedier part of the D.C., you've found it.
Rumours circulated about the sort of dark goings-on in this area; the better sort of people like to pretend that this whole area doesn't exist. The neighborhood had a restless, vertiginous feel, made all the more uncanny by the fact that the narrow streets are utterly deserted, even at this time of night- at such an hour of expected revelry. The only sound breaking the eerie stillness seemed to come from behind a heavy scarlet-painted door three-quarters of the way down the alley, on a street so unimportant that it clearly did not even merit a name of its own.
Sloppy letters, written above, mark it as the destination she has come all this way for. Tess's very own home away from home- The Veldt.
At first the door, made of a heavy wood lacquered with several coats of chipped paint in several shades of dark red, would not budge. Should she try to enter, she would need to throw her weight against it for some time before finally, as though she had at last put pressure in the correct place, the door would swing open- silently, despite the effort required.
By the time her eyes had become accustomed to the dim light, she'd notice that the walls were painted in the same cracked layers of red paint as the door, the only light coming from candles set in niches into the wall. The room was roughly triangularly shaped, with the base of the triangle being the wall with the door. The room tapered down to a point, with a bar positioned in the very apex of the triangle.
Behind the bar stood a youngish man, about seventeen, bald head emblazoned with an elaborate tattoo of a lizard, mouth covered with some sort of black markings. He looked up attentively at the stranger's approach, waiting to hear what she might have to say. Listening, intently- for what explanation the gazelle might have for her presence in the realm of lions.
It was in such places as this that Tess was glad for the company of her pistol. It was an appendage that she had developed the habit of assuming as soon as she left Canadian soil, although previous trips abroad had been to far more exotic locations than Washington, DC. Still, it was a comfort to her as she approached the lacquered door, carrying her suitcase that held most of her worldly possessions.
The general atmosphere and the resistance of the door combined eloquently to declare to her that she was not welcome here. Nevertheless, Tess persisted, as she had always done. Certainly, walking into places where she was not welcome was in no way new to the woman, who had made a side career out of penetrating the �old boys� club of academia, and more specifically archaeology, and then thriving there.
Once inside this odd place, purported to be an Inn, Tess gazed around with cool blue eyes, taking in the surroundings. The woman herself was dressed for travel, wearing khaki slacks and belt, and an ivory cotton shirt, with khaki pin-stripes. It made for a smart enough outfit, but allowed her to wear loafers for comfort, as well as her brown leather jacket for warmth. Her choice of function before form had always disconcerted her mother, but then conventionality had little to do with Tessalee Robinson.
�Good evening,� Tess greeted the young man with a polite but cool smile, as she reached the bar. �My name is Miss Robinson. I believe I�m expected.�
The young man behind the counter did not smile- indeed, his face did quite seem as though it were incapable of being anything but stoic- and only nodded at the woman's words, reaching behind him casually and tossing a small silver key, bound to a tag with the numeral thirteen written on it, upon the desk before him- hand resting easily over the thing as if Tess might try to steal it without paying, first. "You have room thirteen." The simple words, spoken in a kind of monotonous deadpan that was at the same time disturbing. Those black markings on his lips were revealed to resemble spiderwebs- as if his mouth had gone so long without proper maintenance that insects had taken residence there.
A young couple was resting in the bar area, the woman laughing luxuriously with a cigarette in her hand, dressed in reds and garish purples, looking for all the world like a sultry minx. Her red hair was cut short, a fedora slung to one side. Her companion was jacketed in black leather, hair balded and ears pierced more than once. His eyes seemed pools of black- like those of a shark, though it might have just been the dimness of the space. The sweet melodies of The Empress of the Blues played, the smell of cigarette smoke and alcohol filling the space.
"It's the last one on the left. You can't miss it." He indicated a hall at the opposite end of the room - lit only by the glow of a red EXIT sign, the carpet that sickly color of red that completely covered the walls. Depictions of tall African savannah grasses lined the space- and had probably earned the place its name, though they were almost imperceptible against the glaring scarlet.
The man held out his hand, to request the payment owed to him. "That'll be eight dollars, miss." A cheap establishment, really- but perhaps it was a fair rate, considering the atmosphere and foreboding.
This place was coming close to the exoticism of some of the places Tess had stayed when her professors had been trying to convince her that archaeological expeditions were not for �ladies�. The added touch of her room number was most amusing, and oddly reminiscent of something her classmates would have cooked up. Her expression unchanging, despite her inward amusement, Tess paid the man.
�Thanks,� she replied with automatic politeness, as she relieved him of her room key. Then she turned and followed the fellow�s directions, keeping both her eyes and ears open. A feeling of foreboding was not something to be ignored. This was certainly shaping up to be an interesting start to a new year, she thought to herself, as she hauled her suitcase up the hallway.
He smiled as the payment was doled out- a rather fair sum, all things considered- a curious expression on a man whose face was so foreboding. Those black markings danced as he counted the money to himself- tattoo slithering as the muscles in the deskman's skull flexed- perhaps gathering all their power to perform the simple enumeration. The music changed subtly to some kind of new and up-tempo bebop. Perhaps it was Dizzy Gilespie himself, on that trumpet- playing soulfully and without regard for rhythm. Was that, then, Charlie Parker, wailing away into his alto saxaphone? Definitely not for dancing, the music was still beautiful in and of itself- seductive and at the same time warning. The couple cast only a cursory glance in Tess's direction as the music shifted, as if also wondering why she would dare enter a place such as this when she was clearly so unwelcome.
Lions, as always, could smell fear- and the running gazelle was the prime target. Perhaps intimidation, then, served its own purpose here.
The room door slid open with much greater ease than the main entrance had- the handle simple polished brass that seemed to take on its own sweltering scintillation in the dim red lighting. Inside, the space was simple and poorly accomodated- small and furnished with only a single bed and a small bedside table- a single couch set to one side, along with a rather worn-looking radio. There was a light in one of the corners of the space, though the glow of the city streets in and of itself filtered in through the slightly open window- gossamer curtains doing little to restrain either the muted sounds of uptown festivities or the luminosity of what was doubtless the red-light district.
As the light was switched on, the interior would be further exposed. The same frescoes along the outside walls entreated here as well- the depictions definitely recognizable as savannah. Everything was either that odd shade of crimson or else painted with whites and browns. Simple decor, to be sure- but there was a kind of quiet elegance and a sense of resistance to being disturbed. A small note rested on the bedside table, weighted down by the pen that had doubtless been used to compose it.
Nothing else within the room stood out, to immediate inspection.
Leaving the deskman behind to count the money, a task that would doubtless occupy him for several minutes, Tess was curious to discover what awaited her in her temporary sanctuary. Sparten was fine, as long as it was clean and the bed was reasonably comfortable. Once she got the door opened, a pleasantly straightforward enterprise in comparison to the exterior door, the woman gazed about the room, giving it a visual once-over.
Spying the note, Tess determined to have a look at it once she was comfortably inside. Habit when traveling caused her to check under the bed before she secured the door and set her case on the couch and turned to the note. One never knew what might be lurking about; a prankster classmate, an iguana, or some other unwelcome surprise. Although these were unlikely in this setting, habit was habit and Tess checked without questioning herself as to its necessity.
The underside of the bed revealed nothing other than an extra pillow for the bed and a simple ironing board and iron. There were a few spiderwebs thereunder, but nothing so scary as Tess might intially have imagined. While the mood might be uninviting, there were not exactly monsters lurking about every turn, plotting diablerie with every passing second. Only the simple decor and the vague sense of distant celebration. Settling her things down, the room was comfortable if not precisely what one might expect out of a Washington D.C. Hotel.
The note was on a simple pad of paper- not so different from that which a secretary or journalist might use to jot notes during a meeting, but the script was anything but chickenscratch- a long flowing style that was simultaneously overembellished and fanciful. The language, similarly, was clean and distinct- to the point without being garish.
Professor J. Carraba, of George Washington University, poignantly wrote: Ms. Tessalee Robinson,
It has recently come to my attention that you will be attending our prestigious campus for the purposes of studying archaeology, a truly grand endeavor at this point in time. There are many active projects, all of them different and each interesting. It has been quite some time since we've had a woman graduate student to work with and we look forward to your contributions. Pardon my forwardness in sending this note to you, but I intend to arrange a meeting for you, if you do not mind, for January 2nd, at 12:00 pm in the Student Activities Building on campus. Once there we can discuss new sleeping arrangements, perhaps on-campus, as- having seen the place you are forced to say- I cannot believe that your former colleagues would book such an establishment as residence, however temporary.
Some things to consider before the meeting are what sort of research you are interested in pursuing, what your travel arrangements will be, whether you intend to live on campus or off, and whether or not you feel that city life is up for you. We only offer these considerations because the post you are to occupy is one that has attracted some interest. If you are not going to be happy here, there are other applicants that can be selected. Your happiness should be placed above all else, after all- and perhaps a year off might be the ideal escape for a young woman such as yourself. Perhaps some time to start a family to grant you stability in the world.
If you can, phone my secretary at 4238136, to confirm our meeting. It is most urgent that you do so- I am a busy man, and have so much scheduled for that day that I fear you will be lost in the shuffle otherwise. I do look forward to meeting you. Your professors have showered you with nothing but praise. If I were you, I would thank them for their kind words-- this post is a most prestigious one that is not handed out to any random soul. It is an honor.
Regards, Johan Carraba
Tess cringed at the patronizing tone that always managed to creep into the tone of any communication with men on the subject of her profession, at least until they knew her well, and sometimes even then. With a sigh, she tossed the note back onto the nightstand, and then removed her hat and jacket, laying the jacket on the arm of the couch and setting the hat on her suitcase.
Well, there certainly won�t be anyone in his office at this time of day, Tess thought, plunking down onto the bed. And probably not tomorrow either�
Just how was she to get a message through to confirm the appointment before January 2nd, with the celebrations of the New Year in between? That was a bit of a dilemma. That, and locating a phone. Well, there would be no harm in trying tomorrow anyway.
Tess took up the note again and copied the phone number and the man�s name onto a separate piece of paper on the pad. Then she tore off the paper and put it into her purse. If she was not successful tomorrow, then she would call first thing on the 2nd. Either way, Tess had no intention of passing on the meeting or the post!
After a day of travelling, the last thing that the woman was interested in was a celebration at midnight.
Still, a little celebratory music wouldn't go amiss, she mused, moving to check out the old radio, before she considered the Professor's questions.
The stations came in clearly here, the station initially tuned to was a nice and modern jazz station that played things like classical bop, and avoided ancient things like gypsy jazz. The rhythms were not exactly danceable, divorced entirely from such conventionalities, but were rather raw expressions of emotion. There was the occasional swing song played, on that station, much more danceable and up-tempo than the other songs, and with no less enthusiasm.
The songs were lilting, tonight, alternately celebratory and tragic. It was the typical mood for the new year- regret that so much time had passed with so little change and excitement over what was yet to come. The mood was rather tiring, though, seducing the young woman toward sleep unless she deigned to get up and do something about her slumbering disposition. After all, what more was there to do this night? It could scarcely have been later than 8:30, if that, and the weariness from travel was likely setting in.
Then again, there was a city ripe for exploration... who was to say that Tess need sleep, if she didn't wish to? Being rested might help her explore tomorrow, but it was December 31st, and festiveness filled the air.
The station was just what she had in mind. Something to help her get into the mood to venture out, or to convince her that sleep was more to the point. At the moment, she was uncertain, still feeling the excitement of arriving in a new city, but feeling the effects of travel.
Curling up on the end of the couch, one leg tucked under her, Tess gazed out of the window, considering the question that the professor had posed, but that she had been pondering for far longer: the direction of her research. Tess had a continuing suspicion that there were wonders to be discovered east of the Andes, perhaps along the Amazon, but she had no evidence to back a research proposal.
No, it would probably be best to pursue the broader angle and her passion, ancient religions. That could also lead to the opening she sought, while providing many other opportunities for study as well. Her dear Anglican mother might find this bent of hers shocking, Tess found the ancient rituals and mythologies fascinating, and the artefacts enthralling. There was her answer to that particular question of Professor Carraba.
As to the others, she would dearly love to inform the man of their complete irrelevance as far as he was concerned. Tess also longed to ask the man how many of the male students he asked these sorts of personal questions of, although she was quite confident that she knew the answer. The question of housing was purely a practical, economic consideration, and one to be decided after she had more information. She had lived in the city all her life, so that question was just foolish, although the professor may not have realized that. Still its patronizing tone was infuriating.
Swallowing that all-too-familiar reaction to such typical male Chauvinism, Tess ignored the words of the lines that followed as beneath her consideration, and stood up with a stretch. Perhaps a walk was not such a bad idea after all. She turned off the radio and then donned her jacket. Grabbing her purse and hat, and scooping up her room key, Tess left her small room, locking the door behind her. She carried her gun, of course, although she was unlikely to need it. This evening she was not looking for adventure, just a little exploration.
Approaching the desk, Tess decided to enquire about the availability of a phone for making calls. Now seemed as good a time as any to check that out.
The spiderwebbed man smiled, the gesture oddly haunting as a result of his disfiguring mutilation. He rarely seemed to emote, and when he did it was as if the skin was forced to stretch uncomfortably over his skeleton. It wasn't exactly an inhibitory affliction that he was possessed of, but there was definitely something less than appealing to the aesthetic senses about his numerous tattoos and generally stoic appearance. He might as well be a phantasm, so alien were his mannerisms and his appearance. The couple was there, too, now a bit more inebriated than they had perhaps previously been, though none of their contempt and mistrust had apparently been lost.
Why are you still here, gazelle? Do you not fear the lions? Do you not see the way they stride along the horizon?
Her query, of course, was regarded with amusement that seemed more to be humiliating than it was endearing. Those smug lips looked at her as if she were a fool for even asking- as if her presence along was cause for mirth or mockery.
"Of course the phone is available, if it's a local call. Isn't that the way all hotels are run?" That smile still evident, eyes boring holes with their dark intensity, like smoldering coals of pure schadenfreude. There was more here, than typical male-female prejudice... it was a contempt for outsiders, xenophobia with a diableric twist. "And you have to check with the receptionst on duty who- for most of your time here- will be me." At last the smile faded, and he looked intently at the woman.
"Why aren't you out celebrating? It seems a shame for a thing like yourself," here lascivious eyes darted down her person and lips were licked sensually, "to waste herself in a moldy old room when she could be out receiving what any virile youth desires." A bit inappropriate, to say the least- but it wasn't as if there were sexual harassment laws on the books. It wasn't as if she could simply abandon her post here- not on New Years Eve. All the hotels would doubtless be full to the brim.
Leaning forward a little, her hands on the desk to support her, Tess replied to the desk clerk in a tone almost equal to his own, �No, not all.� It made her sound like she had a vast knowledge of hotels, when, in fact, she had merely a sampling in a few places in various parts of the world.
The woman laughed inwardly as she continued to speak. She had played this game before.
�But, as it happens, I am just on my way out to� celebrate. Is the door locked at night, or will there be someone on the desk later?�
Tess did not really have any intention of being gone for long, or of finding the sort entertainment the teenaged male referred to, but then that was none of his business. In the eyes of a 22 year old woman, this guy was still a boy, no matter what he might think. To her mind, Tess had handled worse than the innuendo of a youth.
- 13: Author: Aenigma, PostPosted: Sat Mar 19, 2005 10:37 pm
"The door here is never locked." His tone was lethargically seductive- lazily wistful, as if he, too, had been at this impasse countless times. Although Tess might have assumed herself the more experienced and dominant of the two, the man's smile seemed to stand in opposition to his youth. "You might find it unwelcome, but there is never a blockage for fresh meat to enter." He licked his lips, falling into that grey area between deceptive hunger and lasciviousness. "Usually I tend to not like newcomers, but for you I think I could make a delightful exception."
He winked and then returned to his work, apparently occupied for the moment-- though definitely not as occupied as he might like to have been, giving the way he continued to offer quick glances up at Tess and would doubtless admire her retreat from his vantage point behind the desk.
Tonight was a night for celebration, but one never knew what sorts one might encounter in a city like this. It might do well to head for an established party, rather than having fun on the streets.
Tess hid her amusement under a soft smile and made no attempt at a verbal reply. Instead she turned from the desk, her gaze lingering like a caress upon the fellow for whom she felt absolutely no attraction, even as she began to move toward the door. The game was fun, as far as it went, but she knew that she would quickly become bored with it, so there was no sense in prolonging it further.
As she walked out onto the street, Tess recalled that she still carried her pistol. Although she was not likely to need it, it was probably better to have it with her than to leave it in her room. With an inward shrug, the woman walked on, in the hope of finding a little live music and perhaps a drink.
The sound of a rather large celebration down the way might catch Tess's attention, still in the dark alley but closer to the nicer part of town than her present accomodations were located. It was not quite on the part of town that one could really consider 'good', nor was it in a part of town that one might term 'bad'. Rather, it was one of those delightful grey sections of life that are all too common and, more often than not, pleasant to revel in. The sounds of excited music and the swaying rhythms of a live band- a saxaphone, guitar, and piano from the sound of things- were the present accompaniment to the sultry voice of a rather soulful negro woman, all dolled up in silks and scarves. Diamonds hung from her ears and about her neck, and for all the world she looked like an ebon angel, trapped upon earth and lamenting her condition through the powerful song lyrics she belted out.
All this became visible to Tess as she rounded the corner; even if she did not intend to remain here, she would have to pass by this place to reach the better portion of town. The gathering was largely outdoor, though a stage had been erected against the side of one of the buildings, and there was apparently a small bar nearby that was catering to the demands for drink by the gathered throngs.
Sliding against one another with almost risque fluidity, the strangers were certainly exotic and enticing in their own quiet way, enrapturing and hypnotic in the way they danced and swayed. Tess might do better, perhaps, if she were to head uptown a bit more- but she could certainly do worse, by the same token.
The music sounded great. Tess paused to listen for a couple of minutes, enjoying from a distance. The sound was almost intoxicating in itself and the woman could not help but pick up the rhythm in her body.
Still, she was in the mood to explore, so she decided to give it a miss, at least for now, and continue on up the street toward the �better� part of the city.
I can always stop in on the way back to the hotel, Tess told herself, as she moved on.
No sooner had Tess turned to leave than she struck a rather distinguished fellow, mid-thirties from the looks of him, sending papers scattering about, and causing his suitcase to drop to the ground with a sickening crack. His hair just beginning to fade but not quite grey yet. He was in the in-between time, when youth still seems an option and old age is just a thing of the far future. Laughing and quaking with apology, the man began rattling off the typical mantra of sympathy and contrition that characterized those who were either suave or educated.
"I'm oh so sorry, miss, it won't happen again. It was an accident, I swear, I was just so caught up in work and trying to get in early. I've got this horrible deadline- January 1st, if you'll believe it- and I've just got to get this in and reviewed right now. The University is on a tight shift, and Johan's just going to -kill- me... and I'm rambling, aren't I?" He shook himself and began to gather the papers together, thrusting them under his arm as he went.
"Terribly sorry," were the muttered words from those lips as he focused upon his work.
Tess tried to catch herself, startled by the sudden impact. Then, as the poor man launched into his apology, she found herself fighting not to laugh. Instead, she did her best to assist him in gathering his papers.
�The fault is at least partially mine, sir,� she ventured, even as he continued speaking. Eventually, as he was laughing himself, she could not help but join the man. Then her attention was captured by two words: �University� and �Johan�.
�Excuse my boldness,� Tess interjected, ignoring the man�s comments about rambling, her blue eyes scanning his face as best she could in the limited light. �But would that be Professor Johan Carraba, at George Washington University that you spoke of?� She may have put two and two together and come up with five, but it was worth a shot.