Just over an hour later, the hotel was shrouded in a graveyard-like silence. At first I was surprised by how absolute the quiet was, but then I reminded myself that there was only one other room rented and the manager was probably the only staff member who remained overnight. I had volunteered to look for any other entrances that Travis’s killer might have used, which was why I was quietly walking down the dimly lit corridor on the second floor. The floorboards under the ancient red carpet creaked every two or three steps I took, so I was attempting to balance out my weight. There were thirty rooms in the hotel and I didn’t know where the other guests were, so I didn’t want to take the chance of disturbing them and adding yet another complication.
As it turned out, finding an alternative entrance didn’t prove too difficult. At intervals along the corridor, there were more of the quaint hand-lettered signs like the one I had seen in the foyer. On each of these signs was printed ‘FIRE EXIT’, above a neat arrow pointing in the direction of the end of the corridor. With a minimum of creaking, I reached the end of the corridor, which tailed off in an L-shape heading to the left. Another sign prompted me to go round the corner, where I found a roughly-painted steel door, which was identified as the fire exit by another hand-lettered sign. On the right of the door was a key in a glass case, which read ‘Break glass in case of fire’. In common with the rest of the hotel, the door was showing its age. There were traces of rust around the edges, and a few years’ worth of cobwebs had accumulated around the handle. Clearly they hadn’t had too many fires at the Halfway Hotel. I guessed that nobody had been round this corner in years, and that evidently included the maid.
I was just pondering whether someone could have got through the door without disturbing the cobwebs when the lights around me went out, and I was left alone in the darkness with only the soft desert winds whistling through the rust at the bottom of the fire-door for company.
I fumbled around in my pockets for my lighter, a chrome-plated Zippo that I had acquired some years before. I don’t smoke, but it’s sometimes useful to have the ability to create heat or, in this case, light. Whenever anyone asks why I would carry a lighter when I don’t smoke, I always reply ‘because I like to burn stuff.’ That usually gets a laugh; or a worried expression, depending on your sense of humor; but in fact I’m only half-joking. When I’m waiting around for something or somebody, I actually do like to burn things - beer labels in an ashtray at a bar, dry grass by the road - it helps me think. Hey, I never said I was normal.
I located the Zippo and flicked the gas on. The flame cast slightly threatening shadows and made the corner I was in feel much smaller. Like a coffin. Feeling a shiver down my spine, I turned around and was relieved to see there was nobody lurking behind me. I started back towards the corridor and the others. I’d have to tell them I’d been unsuccessful - no one had been through that fire door in years, maybe decades. I stopped in mid-stride as, my sense of hearing enhanced by the darkness, I picked up a sound from beyond the fire door. I turned around again, flicked the lid shut on the Zippo and listened.
I heard slow, cautious footsteps, ascending what, by the sound of it, was an exterior metal stairway. I reached to my belt for Frank’s gun. I looked up at the door key in its glass case, which I could just make out now that my eyes were adjusting to the dark. I thought about getting the key, using it to open the door, maybe getting the drop on whoever it was, but quickly rejected the idea. The breaking glass would alert them, and if that didn’t, I was betting that using the key to unlock a door that had been sealed since the dawn of time certainly would. It was too late now anyway. I could hear someone right outside the door, breathing heavily. I held my own breath as I heard fumbling sounds followed by a tinny scraping coming from the lock. I squeezed the butt of Frank’s gun. Its dead metal weight was comforting.
A few seconds of scraping. Then I heard the lock catch, followed by a loud creak as the door was pushed open an inch, and a curse from whoever was doing the pushing. There was a pause, and I took my chance, grabbing the edge of the door with my left hand and yanking it open, startling the figure outside so badly that he fell back against the railing and almost toppled over.
“Sorry, we’re closed,” I said, before realizing that the face I was about to put a bullet in looked strangely familiar. “Stan?”
Stan brought his arms down from shielding his face, and his expression of panic lingered a second before he was able to compose his features. “Johnny? What the hell?”
Our mutual surprise was raised another notch when, without warning, the lights came back on.