“And here is the mezzanine. Happy hour runs between five and six, Monday through Friday. Three dollar wells and half-price appetizers. You have to try the shrimp cocktail. It’s to die for.”
The new arrival looked about in wide-eyed wonder. He hadn’t known what exactly to expect, but it most certainly wasn’t … this.
“This way, please, sir,” the concierge prompted as he led the guest through the piano bar and into the landing beyond. The haunting bridge of the Doors’ classic People Are Strange followed them into the passageway.
“That is the best Jim Morrison impersonator I have ever seen,” Carl gushed as he cast one last look over his shoulder at the opulent parlor, squinting against the restless light that chased itself from one diamond-studded adornment to another.
“The gym is open 24 hours,” the concierge informed him upon stopping short, causing a distracted Carl to bump him. A pleasing combination of magnolia and sun tan lotion escaped the smart, white linen suit.
“Free weights, nautilus, cardio. We have spin classes from 9 to 10 AM, and combat pilates from five to six PM on weekdays,” the concierge continued.
“Combat pilates,” Carl echoed.
“Beats me,” the concierge chuckled in response to Carl’s raised eyebrow, “but the ladies love it.”
He looked in both directions before addressing Carl again in a theatrically hushed voice.
“Word has it the program was developed specifically for Jane Fonda. We’ve been told to expect her any day now.”
“I’m not really much of a workout guy, but the sauna looks incredible,” Carl admitted. “Mind showing me the theater room I read about in the check-in literature?”
“Fifth floor, right next to the all you can eat lobster buffet,” the concierge replied. “We’ll hit that right after the complimentary day spa on four. Peruvian mud wraps, deep tissue massage and the best exfoliating facials this side of heaven … if I may be so bold. If for no other reason, I recommend visiting for the eucalyptus water alone.”
He led Carl to a bank of elevators. There were no buttons to depress, but one arrived of its own accord, opening to reveal an all glass enclosure that looked out to a vast, watery panorama.
“Ah, Lake Styx. No matter how many times I see her, this view never gets old,” the concierge admired. “As I understand it, you have been upgraded to one of our waterfront suites.”
“Yes, isn’t she grand? Damming up the river has not only allowed us to power the entire facility, but also to host a bi-monthly regatta. Captain Hazelwood looks tough this season.”
He waited a beat before continuing, an amusing thought appearing to grip him.
“Damming the river of the damned, now how’s that for irony?”
“I must confess,” Carl said as the elevator closed and began its descent, “this is not at all what I thought it would be.”
The concierge chuckled.
“Expecting fire and brimstone, were you? We still offer that in the basic package, of course, but you left your mortal coil in style.”
“I don’t follow,” Carl confessed.
“You packed a golden parachute before jumping from your previous plane of existence,” the concierge expanded.
“Meaning …,” Carl pressed.
The elevator came to a stop.
“Meaning your Certified Distressed Property Specialist designation is in demand.”
Carl stared at his olive-skinned host, too confused to speak.
“What? Don’t look so surprised. The man downstairs got caught holding a few investments when the market went to … well … here in a hand basket. The cash flow properties in Boca and gold are about the only performers left in the portfolio. We are sitting on a massive shadow inventory of souls, thanks in no small part to a rather unfortunate dalliance with sub-prime candidates. Faded rock stars, former child stars, ice road truckers … suffice it to say we entered into a few too many binding agreements with less than reputable types. With the topsiders defaulting at a record clip, we don’t have nearly enough agents to get these toxic apparitions off our books. The boss sends his apologies for putting the bacon double cheeseburger on the menu at Wendy’s, but the massive coronary you suffered was entirely necessary. We need you.”
The doors dinged open to a blast of in-rushing sulfur smoke.
“Sorry about that,” the concierge apologized between coughs. “Seals in the boiler room need to be replaced. Gets in the shaft every time they run the pyrotechnics on nine.”
The pair stepped into a hazy corridor as the smoke dissipated. Carl squinted at the hunched figure that awaited under a red velvet bellhop’s cap. His luggage was strapped to the porter’s back.
“Just JC here, sir,” the porter mumbled.
“WHAT DID I TELL YOU ABOUT TALKING TO THE GUESTS, SLAVE?”
Carl jerked to look at the concierge, disconcerted by the wickedly sharp features that had arisen from his previously nondescript countenance. The impossibly bass-heavy admonition held none of the sing-songy patois that had lulled Carl into comfort with its easy cadence.
“My deepest apologies, master,” the porter whimpered into his patent leather shoes. “Please not the Ito again. Anything but the Ito.”
“I’ll deal with you later,” the concierge promised. Turning his attention back to Carl, the wicked point of his chin receded to its prior blunted state. The burning embers inside his silver eyes smoldered for a moment before winking out altogether.
“I beg your pardon, sir. You just can’t get good help these days,” he lamented, nodding in the direction of the sniveling porter.
“JC here will show you to your room now. We can finish the rest of the tour after you get settled. Please help yourself to the complimentary minibar. The tequila is superb, distilled directly from the liver of Jose Cuervo. It regenerates daily, so the shelves are always fully stocked.”
“Thank you for everything,” Carl responded, offering his hand.
“The pleasure has been all mine, sir,” the concierge assured him with a smile, engulfing Carl’s hand in his own. The dainty grip of the long, slender fingers did nothing to camouflage the crushing power of a tiger shark that lurked just beneath his good humor. He winked, turned on his heel and strode back inside the waiting elevator. A fresh blast of sulfur strafed the hallway as the doors closed and whisked him away to depths unknown.
When the air cleared, Carl was alone with the porter, who signaled him to follow. After a seemingly endless procession of twists and turns along the serpentine corridor, they stopped in front of a room.
The porter didn’t respond as he selected a key from a crowded ring and opened the ornate door.
Carl’s face wrinkled in confusion. There was no bed. In fact, there wasn’t a stick of furniture in the room save for an IKEA desk cluttered with ten open laptops. A massive chain was anchored to a steel plate in the floor beneath the accompanying chair. The other manacled end lay open.
“There must be some kind of mistake,” Carl objected.
The porter offered of rueful shake of his head.
“No mistake, sir. Take my advice and get started on those BPOs. You don’t want to make him angry.”
“But, but … but I’ve got reservations for the centaur ride in thirty minutes,” Carl stammered.
“And I’m still waiting for my ride in the white Bronco,” the porter retorted. “Just keep your head down, turn your reports in on time and don’t ask any questions. Make waves and he’ll pull your account.”
“If the account don’t fit, he must acquit,” the porter replied.
“What is that supposed to mean,” Carl demanded.
“You go back above ground.”
Carl shuddered as he recalled the nomadic months of wandering a barren wasteland in search of a profitable niche amidst the post-Apocalyptic Real Estate market. One thousand undead zombie listing agents crawling over every remaining equitable seller. He took a deep breath, shuffled to the desk and secured the shackle around his left ankle.
“I’m not going back to that hell.”