I noticed the magician when he slipped in behind the last person to enter the golden-walled elevator, and I sucked in a breath. I held it, half-subconsciously, as if it would make me invisible to him. It did not. I started feeling thudding of my heart as soon as he started turning to people, one at a time, handing them scraps of paper, touching their hands. I exhaled when he turned to me and handed me a scrap of paper too. He grinned and told me what I was supposed to do the next time he called upon me.
When he turned away, my gaze began to dart around the tiny box in which we were all trapped, looking for a way, any way, out. I glanced up. I glanced at the large tall man whom I could easily hide behind, if he weren’t so far away. I saw no way out, and so I took a deep breath and braced myself for when the magician’s attention would once again return to me.
The Hotel Gloaming insisted on entertaining its guests every moment, all the time, anywhere, anytime. Even if I were on vacation, I’m certain I would not have appreciated being constantly bombarded with the opportunity for some new and exciting activity. Magic shows, a miniature water park, a holographic light show on the roof, tap-dancing wait staff, a personalized gift each night on my pillow. The hotel was actually designed for someone like me. Someone who didn’t have time to explore the city outside. Someone who had come to town for business, but who would probably like to enjoy herself and get her money’s worth out of the travel costs.
I’d booked a room at the hotel because that’s where the conference was being held. I hadn’t looked into the hotel beyond the room layouts page.
It was only two days into my visit, and one day into the conference, when that magician stepped onto the elevator. It was always some kind of gimmick with the elevators (magicians, virtual environments, or a miniature orchestra). I couldn’t just ignore him. He was making us a part of his act. The other people on the elevator went along with it. But I’d had enough. I couldn’t say why. It was a mild thing compared to the rest of the hotel’s razzle-dazzle.
I noticed that the elevator was one of those kind that opened on two sides. I was furthest from the door where I’d gotten on, but right next to the opposite door. When that opposite door opened on one of the floors to let a member of the housekeeping staff get on, I saw my chance for escape, and took it.
I slipped out of the elevator and moved quickly down the hallway, dodging another housekeeping cart, leaping over room service trays left outside of doors, avoiding looking at the monitors arrayed on the hallway walls advertising attractions and amenities, and searching for another elevator bank. I was sure they had at least one basic elevator bank on each floor, where a person could ride in peace, on elevators whose only entertainment was nonintrusive music playing so softly that I could barely hear it over the rustling of my own clothes.
I swept through the hallway, turning, and scanning for an alternative elevator bank until I found one. But it had some kind of interactive virtual something going on with the controls, and I had no idea how to work those gesture screens.
So I thought, Fine, it’s the stairs for me. I could use some exercise. No problem.
I would have maybe a dozen floors to climb and I was supremely out of shape. But I could just take it slow. So I started looking for the entrance to the stairwell.
I spotted an arrow marked “stairs” pointing down a hallway. I went through a plain-looking door at the end of that hallway. I ended up in a large room with stadium seating. It was one of the hotel’s three theaters. I hesitated when I saw there was activity. No active play or show, but preparations or rehearsals or something. I started down the stairs toward the stage, deciding I might as well ask someone. After all, every staffer there was supposed to be up for helping any guest.
But as I made my way down, I spotted an exit sign that also indicated stairs. Now that I knew where I was headed, I didn’t want to getting roped into anything that was going on or would be going on in that theater and on that stage. So I sidled down the stairs. No one seemed to notice me. And I exited that door I’d spotted.
I ended up in a room where I immediately knew I didn’t belong.
Everyone around me was hustling and bustling, and they all wore those dark lavender hotel staff uniforms. The first thing I saw was a counter and people handling clothes behind the counter. It felt like the front desk of a dry cleaners. And it seemed like peak business time. I was jostled around by people coming in with tickets and claiming clothes, and others rushing forward with clothes to turn in. Despite all that, I started feeling my anxiety wane. Confused by my own feelings, I looked around and started walking through the crowd of people. No one was noticing me or even acknowledging my presence.
I walked further along and spotted shelves and aisles stocked with hotel supplies. It wasn’t just a room. The space looked as if it might take up half the floor. It must have been the hotel’s main supplies and storage warehouse. And also the laundry room.
I glanced around, and spotted a wall with number plaques mounted near the ceiling that seemed to indicate a range of floors. The plaques looked old-fashioned and worn, like one of those “thanks for your 20 years of service” plaques. So I thought and hoped that the plaques indicated an elevator bank, with each elevator going only to the designated floors, for better efficiency. But when I walked closer, I saw no elevators.
Instead, the bottom half of the wall was arrayed with rows and columns of little doors with knobs in the middle. It reminded me of a safety deposit box room in a bank, or the PO boxes at a post office. There were people crowded and lined up for those boxes too. They were opening the boxes, taking things out. I noticed that the boxes each had numbers associated with them. Hotel room numbers, I assumed. Only they weren’t in any numerical order. This was the only area where I saw guests. I was curious whether or not I’d be able to find my own room number, but I kept moving along.
Several hotel staffers were stationed behind another counter I saw, against another wall, a bit shorter than the laundry counter. Behind that counter was curtain covering a small room. Several people were handing over tickets to the staffers, exchanging those tickets for items.
Gift return? I thought. Or maybe it was the hotel’s lost and found.
I’d lost sight of any doors leading out of the place, so I approached the counter and waited till someone addressed me. But they were all so busy that none of them glanced my way. They would only look at those who held tickets.
So I tried a firm but polite, “Excuse me. I seem to be lost.”
Still no one responded.
I started asking questions about how to get back to my room. I got no response. It was as if I was being actively ignored.
I ended up finding my way back to the door I’d come through. I exited back into the theater. I exited the theater and found a dining room preparing for a murder-mystery themed dinner, and I eventually found myself on an elevator with a live choir. They didn’t make me sing, so I tolerated them until I got back to my floor at last. Back to my room.
“You look troubled.”
I snapped out of my daze and realized I was just standing there in the lobby, staring at a poster but not really looking at it. I turned to the familiar voice. I smiled. “Benny, good morning.”
The older man strolled toward me, only lightly tapping his cane to the floor. He barely needed it. It seemed to be more of a style thing with him.
I’d met Benny when I first arrived at the hotel. He was coming back from some activity at the same time I was going up to my room for the first time. We had small talk, and I mentioned that I planned on having dinner in my room. Benny said he’d be dining alone in one of the hotel’s restaurants, so if I wanted some company, I should join him. I politely declined, but when he mentioned that he’d treat me to his favorite dessert, and that it was chocolate, I changed my “no” to “maybe.”
I’d gotten in early enough that several hours after working on my laptop and having only tea from the fancy machine in my room, I actually craved some fresh air. And I went down and had dinner with Benny. The one and only person I’d met and connected with at the hotel was not a conference attendee, but a retiree, who was enjoying his fifty-seventh stay at the hotel. And only the second stay after his beloved wife, Marian, had passed. I hadn’t expected to run into him again.
“Breakfast?” Benny offered. “Or are you off to an early session?”
There was a conference session I could have attended. But I’d gotten up later than I’d planned. And I actually was hungry. And Benny was right. I’d been feeling uneasy, but as soon as I saw him, some of that unease turned to eagerness. Benny might have some answers to the questions that were still puzzling me about my adventure of the previous night, stumbling into that warehouse area, the hotel’s nexus, as I’d come to think of it.
Over blueberry pancakes and sausage medallions, I told him all about it.
“Before you ran into me, I asked the concierge,” I said. “He just told me that the area is off limits to guests. He confirmed that the hotel has a combination laundromat, mail room, and supplies area. He apologized that none of the staff noticed me there and escorted me back to my room. He said they were probably so engrossed in their work of keeping the hotel running smoothly that they didn’t do what they typically did, notice a guest. I told him it was actually kind of nice not to be noticed. He thought that was strange.”
Benny chuckled. “He’s right. You are strange.”
I frowned in mock offense. “He didn’t say I was strange. Just my notions.”
“All right. Go on.”
“I told him that I noticed no one seemed to be helping the guests who were getting things out of their…storage boxes or mail boxes. And I described that wall with the little doors. He said that had nothing to do with mail delivery. It used to be a locker bank for guests from when the hotel was first built. But now that guests have safes in their rooms, those lockers aren’t used except by employees. And the reason the numbers are all out of order? A whimsy of the guy who built the hotel.” I frowned again, in confusion this time. “But the people getting stuff out of the lockers or lockboxes, whatever those are, they didn’t seem like employees. They seemed like guests.”
“Did you speak to any of them?”
“I didn’t think to. I was curious, but I was also tired. I mostly just wanted to find an elevator without any bells and whistles.”
“Did you get a picture of those lockboxes?”
I shook my head.
Benny chuckled again.
“What?” I asked, my brows still creased.
“All the stuff this place has to offer. Rides, shows, complimentary haircuts and facials…you even tasted the legendary dusky chocolate soufflé, and yet, the one thing that you’ve been excited about in the two days I’ve known you is an oversized storage closet.” He suddenly threw back his head and laughed aloud.
A few people glanced our way. I threw up my hands and shook my head. I waited for him to finish laughing.
“Maybe as a longtime patron of the hotel,” I said, “you would have some insight into those lockboxes that the staff does not.”
“Sorry to disappoint, but what you’re describing doesn’t sound familiar.”
I leaned toward him. “Okay, then. Want to come check out a part of your hotel that even you have never seen before?”
Benny waved a hand. “I’m not interested in seeing all the inner workings of the hotel. The point is to see all the stuff they want you to see. This entire hotel is one big magic trick, one big illusion.” He pointed to one of the wandering magicians who was moving from table to table doing close-up magic tricks.
“Fair enough,” I said, digging back into my pancakes. “If you change your mind, I plan on retracing my steps and going back there during lunch, ask a few more questions.”
“On second thought, you’ve been nice enough to join me. I should return the favor at least this one time.”
“I’d love the company.”
Benny reached for his coffee. “What if they kick us out?”
“Then I’ll probably drag you to that little art gallery they’ve got on the seventh floor.”
“We’ll probably end up there anyway. I doubt there’ll be much to see in your old storage closet.”
Lunch time, and Benny was as good as his word. He joined me at the same elevator bank where I’d escaped being roped into an impromptu magic act the night before.
Once I’d been to a place, I usually had no problem finding it again. I followed the same path I had the night before. I found that same dining room (where Benny said he’d had a fight with his wife one year and so they’d never returned to it). I found that same theater (where Benny said they’d seen a few mediocre acts, and so they’d never returned to it either). And I found that same unmarked side door.
Again, there were people on and around the stage, trying different configurations of set dressing it seemed. They didn’t look our way.
“Quick, before they cry ‘halt’,” Benny whispered.
I opened the door a crack and slipped inside, holding it open, so Benny could do the same.
We turned, and I gasped.
The place was completely empty. It was the same space, or it looked like the same space. One large floor with two counters. Behind the larger counter were machines that looked like industrial washers and dryers, and those conveyer systems for hanging clothes on to move them to the front counter. All of the machines were currently silent. Behind the other counter was a curtained room. The area was dim save for some ambient safety lighting.
“Maybe we can swipe some extra rolls of toilet paper,” Benny joked as he peered down one of the aisles stocked with supplies.
I moved toward the bank of lockboxes.
“This place looks familiar,” Benny said. He glanced around. “Or maybe not. I don’t know. It feels familiar. Well, at least we figured out what it is.”
I turned to him and found him pointing to a sign above the counter where I’d seen people exchanging tickets for items.
The sign read “Hotel Gloaming: Lost and Found.”
That counter had given me a lost-and-found vibe, but I hadn’t noticed that sign before.
“I don’t understand where everyone is,” I said, stepping toward the bank of lockboxes. I tried to open or two, but they wouldn’t budge. “Hey,” I said, when I spotted a box labeled “1443.” That was my room. It too wouldn’t open. I noticed the keyhole at the top of each box, and wondered if any of the hotel staff were wandering around with a giant bunch of keys.
“I do,” Benny said.
I glanced at him. He was peering at that sign. “We need to return in the gloaming.”
“Twilight. Dusk. It’s when the deliveries are made.”
I frowned. “What deliveries?”
Benny answered only with a smile and a tilt of his head that made his left eye twinkle like the crystals in the chandeliers above us.
“Come on,” he said, gesturing to the exit with a tip of his head. “We’ll return. In the meantime, let’s have some lunch, and I’ll tell you where we are, or where I think we are.”
“If a hotel is old enough it’s got stories,” Benny started. “Scandals happen in the hotel. People start their lives, or end their lives, in the hotel. Ghosts wander the halls. But also, history is made in the hotel. And if a hotel is as old as the Gloaming is, even if it started its life out as an ordinary waystation for visitors and guests just passing through, it turns into something extraordinary.”
I sipped my cola as we sat in the corner booth of a diner down the street from the hotel.
“All that razzle-dazzle they’ve got going on to entertain the guests…it’s also meant to distract them—us—from the lingering imprints of bygone times.”
I narrowed my eyes and tried to decipher his meaning. “Are you saying that the hotel is haunted?”
Benny waved a hand. “Well yes, but that’s not the strange part.”
“It’s not?” I gulped.
“Unless something has changed over the past year, none of the ghosts at this particular hotel are anything worth worrying about.” He sighed. “A part of me did hope to see Marian, last year when I came.”
I couldn’t think of any good words of comfort, so I said nothing.
“I don’t know what would happen if we were to stand in that chamber in the moments that day turned to night. But I’m of the mind that some things in this world are unknowable to the human mind, and should stay that way.” He pointed a fork to the sky to emphasize his point.
“What is it?” I asked. “What is that chamber?”
“It’s the lost and found.”
I blinked. “Okay, but…in what way is it strange? Why was it full of people last night, and totally empty today? I mean, if it had been a party I’d stumbled onto, I would think that the chamber was just not being used today. Or if it was only open certain hours, I would see a sign, or the concierge would have said something. I mean, there are logical explanations that I can think of, but…”
“But your gut tells you something else is going on.”
“It felt different in that room. Different from the rest of the hotel. I can’t say how.” I thought for a second, then laughed. “Other than the whole ignoring me thing that everyone was doing.”
Benny’s gray eyebrows perked up. “Oh yes, that’s right. You said everyone ignored you. I wonder what would have happened if you’d tapped someone on the shoulder.”
“I usually refrain from touching people, especially when their backs are turned to me.”
“But no one walked through you?”
I shook my head. “I felt all the coats and the elbows as people walked by.”
“So, why did the concierge tell me it was just a storage room?”
“I don’t know. Throwing you off the trail, perhaps. Confirming for you that it was just a boring hotel maintenance room, and not some exciting adventure. Back in the day, the staffers were chattier about hotel legends. I’ve heard so many stories about all the hotels that Marian and I stayed at over the years, I’d forgotten this one, until we were actually in that room. The Gloaming’s first attraction. The Lost and Found.”
“Each guest was told that there was some long-lost item in the lockbox marked with their room number. If the guest could hunt down the key, they could open the box, and find again something that was lost. Hunting down the key required the guest to play one of the games that the hotel was hoping to popularize. The games were meant to be the real attraction.”
“What kind of game did they have the guests play?”
“Nothing fancy at first. Just riddle games. Thought puzzles. Then they made little gauntlets and obstacle courses.”
“And, when people won?”
“The hotel couldn’t really make good on their promise of the lost and found,” Benny continued. “So it was said they hired an actress to stay there, and play the game. She found the key, opened her box, and found a packet of letters from a former lover. Quite the story. All of it, faked. The hotel would occasionally allow someone to find a key. Usually they would have found out enough about that particular guest to put something worthwhile in the lockbox.
“Then one day, they had a mysterious pair of guests. A couple. A count and countess from a small European country. The countess played the game and lost. The stories say she was a good sport about it. But the count insisted that his wife could not have lost. The manager managed to calm the count, and that was that. But months later, another couple came to visit. And the wife played the game. And she won. And she opened her lockbox to find a trinket inside. A childhood toy that she had lost when her family moved. The hotel made a big to-do about it every time a guest found something that was once lost. They expected the woman to react the way all of the finders reacted. Surprised, stunned, touched, and completed convinced.”
I raised my brows. “But she didn’t?”
“She didn’t, and do you know why?”
I shook my head. “Tell me.”
“That woman—that couple—was in disguise.”
I clapped a hand to the table. “The count and countess.”
“Indeed. It was them.”
“A sting operation.”
Benny nodded. “And the countess denounced the hotel for fraud. Not just for cheating guests of the premium money they spent to stay there, but for preying on precious memories. And for claiming powers they did not have.” Benny paused a moment and peered at me. “Powers that the hotel owner thought were not actually real. But they were real. The countess knew this, because she had such powers.”
I sat back with a quiet gasp.
“She lay a curse on the hotel,” Benny said. “A curse she spoke in only five plain words. ‘May your claims be realized.’”
Benny too sat back. “It doesn’t sound so bad. But what it meant was that the hotel would thereafter be compelled to fulfill all of the claims it made—all of which were made on behalf of the guest. Our comfort. Our entertainment. And most of all, the promise of that lost and found. The irony is, her curse actually made the hotel more popular. But it put a strain on the hotel too. The monetary costs of all the fancy food and entertainment. And there was a cost for the lost and found too.”
Benny expression seemed to darken. “The hotel owner’s young child wandered off one day and got lost. Before a day of searching went by, the owner had already sent word to that countess, begging her to lift the curse, or at least to take his son’s place as the one who was lost.”
Benny’s expression softened. I didn’t think it would do that unless the child ended up being saved.
“It worked,” I said.
Benny nodded. “The father went out into the wild, looking for his son. Before another day passed, the boy was found, cold and scared, but alive. He’d spend several weeks in hospital fighting off an infection, but he’d survive. As for his father…he was never found.”
“And the curse?”
“Continued. Nothing or no one ever got lost again in the hotel. People only ever found, and they only ever found things, lost objects. Only now, there was no trick. The things people found were real lost items from their past. The hotel stopped advertising the lost and found though, out of respect for their former owner, the man who was lost. When his son grew old enough to take over the business, he shut down that part of the hotel. But it didn’t work. Things started appearing in the lockboxes that were assigned to each room. He even tried moving the room number plaques around to confuse the curse—that’s’ why they’re really out of order. But it didn’t work.”
My eyes widened. “I must have seen a dozen people going into those boxes last night, and that was just in the ten or so minutes I was there. Is that the curse at work? The hotel has to give them something? How did those guests find out about the lockboxes? Why hasn’t anyone said anything?”
“Unless…do you think it was ghosts I was seeing? No one’s clothes looked old-fashioned. Or maybe I just didn’t notice.”
“Do you still want to go back? Now that you know you’d be in the middle of a curse?”
I could barely focus on the conference sessions I attended that day. I just kept glancing around at all the posters and ads for hotel services and amenities.
May your claims be realized.
Not the most threatening-sounding curse. It didn’t sound like a curse at all. But if that curse was real, it was no wonder that the staff was so good at fulfilling all the hotel’s promises.
When I returned to my room after dinner, I found gifts, as expected, a bag with a selection of brownies from a nearby bakery and a black velvet box on my pillow with a bejeweled bracelet inside (it wasn’t real, but it was beautiful, and I decided to keep it, after confirming that there wouldn’t be an extra charge on my bill, despite the note inside saying it was complimentary).
But most interesting, exciting, and troubling all at the same time, was that there was a small tray next to the television with a single object lying on it. A key. An antique-looking key.
I stared at the key and started thinking about Benny’s story.
“It can’t be,” I whispered to myself, as I picked up the key.
I made a room-to-room call to Benny, not expecting him to be there. He was always out and about in the hotel, doing something. But he answered. He’d retired after dinner, to rest before our excursion.
I told him what I’d found in my room.
“You too, huh?” Benny said.
He’d found a similar key on a tray in his room.
I usually felt cold in the hotel’s hallways. But I wiped away the perspiration at my temples as I walked down to meet Benny. He looked a lot less frazzled than I felt. We nodded to each other and made our way to the old lost and found.
This time, there was a show that had just started in the theater we needed to access. The usher was reluctant to let anyone in so as not to disturb the spectators who were already seated. She told us we could wait for the next show. But Benny persuaded her with his special guest status. I held Benny’s hand to guide him down the stairs slowly. I felt for the door.
The show on stage was actually one I’d been curious about seeing. A play. I ignored it, and opened the unmarked side door as quietly as I could. A bright light shone through the crack in the door. I gasped and quickly jumped through, pulling Benny behind me.
The door closed behind us, and we stood in a chamber that was very different from the one we’d seen earlier that day. But very familiar to the one I’d seen the previous night.
It was hustling and bustling again. We dodged hotel staffers as they went about their work, rolling carts of supplies, folding and ironing clothes, working the washers and dryers, rushing into and out of that curtained room. Through the curtain, I saw suitcases, and shelves full of odd items.
Benny and I made our way to the bank of lockboxes. The crowd there was thinner that night. Only a few people went up to open their boxes. And I tried to see if I could recognize the people—my fellow hotel guests. I didn’t recognize anyone. I tried to spy what they pulled out of their boxes. One of them pulled out a long cardboard box marked with several overseas stamps. Another pulled out something that was small enough to be hidden away in a pocket before I could glimpse it. And someone else pulled out a huge leather-bound book whose pages were gilded. She held the book in both hands and looked up at me and grinned as she passed.
“Found something good?” I asked.
She only nodded, as her eyes began to glisten.
I quickly looked away.
“Which one of us should go first?” Benny asked.
“You. Knowing my luck, I’m going to find the other half of every broken pair of socks I’ve ever owned.”
Without hesitation, Benny swept forward. He found his room number, inserted and turned the key, opened his door, and pulled something out.
He turned to me, grinning, his thumb and forefinger holding what he’d found.
It was a ring. A thin silver band hammered into an ornate vine-like pattern at the setting. And that setting contained a round polished stone the dark green color of a forest leaf.
Benny explained that it was the first piece of jewelry he ever bought for Marian. It was a raw emerald. Her birthstone. It was her favorite gift. He’d put it on her before she was buried, forgetting that she’d wanted to pass it on to their daughter.
I grinned. “Benny, that’s wonderful.” Then I sighed. “I will definitely not find anything nearly as precious.” I hesitated. “Maybe I should leave it be.”
Benny rapped my knee—gently—with the bottom of his cane. “You must be joking.”
“It’s not as if I’ve earned this. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t even play any game.” I took a breath and stared at the lockbox assigned to room 1443. “Anyway, I can’t think of any object that I’ve lost that I really want back.” I turned to Benny. “And the hotel only does objects, right?”
Benny shrugged. “You’re here. Might as well see what’s in there.”
“I just hope it’s not that journal I kept when I was fourteen, where I wrote all my future dreams,” I said as I inserted the key and turned it. I stopped.
In a sudden flash of insight, it occurred to me that maybe this was all a game from the beginning, from the moment I shared an elevator ride with Benny. Maybe it was all part of the hotel experience. Maybe I hadn’t stumbled onto the lost and found, but been subtly guided there. No wonder no one stopped me from entering the old lost and found. Maybe Benny had been waiting for the right time to reveal the hotel’s backstory about the countess and the curse. Maybe they couldn’t let a guest like me just come and attend a conference and leave with no more a spectacular experience than figuring out how to work the tea machine in my room. Maybe they had to give me a worthy experience.
Maybe there was some truth to that curse.
I shook my head, trying to throw off the barrage of thoughts. I turned to Benny again, and I just asked.
“Benny, you are a guest here, right?”
Benny raised a brow. He smiled and flourished his hands, his cane hanging in the crook of his elbow. “When you think about it, aren’t we all guests?”
I returned my attention to the lockbox, the hubbub of the laundry machines and the rolling carts and the clicking footsteps all fading away.
I opened the door and peered inside.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel