Out of the ShadowsA Story by Hecate
Another short story I did for class. Set in the 1920s.
The late afternoon breeze stirred the leaves of the poplars, brushing them against the limestone steps. Todd kicked at one as he walked up, breath escaping him in a rush heavy with annoyance. Work. No matter how beautiful the place was - no matter that they called it, unofficially, the Eighth Wonder of the World - the West Baden Springs Hotel was still work and he would rather be anywhere else. He wasn’t sure what he’d rather do, he only knew that he wished it was far from there. He took up his place, lounging beside the counter in the lobby, sagging against the wall, palms flat against the rough wallpaper. His dark green eyes watched the people pass, visitors for the stores, guests, other workers, an endless stream. He could tell when one wasn’t from around West Baden Springs. Everyone knew everyone, but that aside, the attitudes were mildly different. Chicago folks were the easiest to spot. They always had that air of urgency, as though each moment was a race against time to take what they could, and Todd supposed it was born from the city itself, and the wild animal mentality of being surrounded by gangs and Chicago’s particular brand of typewriters day in and day out. He wondered if their ears ever stopped ringing with the sound.
The man who stepped up to the counter a moment later was from Chicago. Todd didn’t have to ask - he fancied he could almost smell the gunpowder on him. Todd was barely listening as the man, Alexander Hughes, paid for his room. Like every time and every day before, he took the man’s two large suitcases and started towards room 207, on the second floor, just off the mezzanine. Though the glass lift was convenient, he made for the stairs - it may have been fancy, but it was too cramped for a sixteen-year-old, a grown man, and two suitcases; the marble was firm beneath his feet as he balanced the cases. The thump of the slightly worn cases against his calves made him grit his teeth, but it was only one floor and soon enough he stepped out into the mezzanine. He paused, catching his breath for a moment, ignoring the women writing their letters that would be sent back to homes they were hardly ever in. He didn’t even spare a glance to the windows and the view of the grounds and the city beyond that. Everything was too familiar to matter.
He spared no glance, likewise, to the inner windows, facing the atrium, hailed Wonder, passing it easily as he started for the hallway. The guest however, paused, stopping to look through the glass, taking in the sheer magnitude and scale. Six stories high before the dome began and the dome itself being six hundred feet in circumference and two hundred feet in diameter - so they’d said. The floor was laid out like a Pompeian court, the marble statues standing elegantly on their pedestals, the gold trim around the conclave walls enhancing the feel of luxury, the plush green couches and chairs - accentuated by the green carpetway - as well. As there was no event today, no circus or convention, the floor merely had couches spaced about, at the bases of the statues, potted plants adding to the exotic effect. Todd stopped a few paces ahead, looking back and trying to keep the exasperation from his face.
“Mr. Hughes, sir?” he asked dutifully, though the fingers of his left, hidden hand, were drumming on the handle of the suitcase. “Your room is just down the hall, here. . .”
It was surprising, how little effect the words seemed to have on the awestruck man. Hughes didn’t move and it was a long moment before he spoke: “You don’t look at it anymore, do you?”
Todd’s forehead creased lightly as he frowned. “Look at what?”
“The hotel.” He smiled crookedly.
“I guess not,” he answered, voice slow, finally looking out the inner windows. When had he first seen the atrium? It seemed like it’d always been there; after all, Todd had been born in 1910, and the hotel had been built about eight years before that. “Is it all that unreal?”
The look that Hughes gave him - slightly amused, almost patronizing - rankled the boy a little. “Well, we have the Tribune Tower, several grand theaters, but this. . . There’s something special in this one, too. We don’t have anything quite like this.”
Todd supposed he’d just been there too long then; he flicked the wrist of his free hand absently at the inner windows. “You came here for it, then?”
“No, just passing through,” Hughes said. “I was doing research down in St. Louis for an article. Touchy subject.”
He shrugged his shoulder, the cases bumping against his leg again. He was well used to subjects that were beyond him. “Your room’s this way.”
The corridor was mildly chilly - nothing more than a nip before the inevitable bite of winter - and Todd just wanted to get the man to his room and go back down to the desk, where it was slightly warmer with all the people milling about. He led the older man down the corridor a way, past three doors, stopping at the third, on the right side. He forced his spine a little straighter and sighed, setting down the cases and producing a brass key to unlock the door. So routine by now. He moved the cases to just inside the door.
“Welcome to the West Baden Springs Hotel, please enjoy your stay.” As he repeated the old worn phrase, he felt like a parrot who could only say one thing. Now gimme a damn cracker.
Hughes smiled a little, tipping his head toward Todd in thanks. “Why, thank you.” He stepped in, slipping a few neatly folded bills into Todd’s hand before closing the door behind himself, leaving Todd in the chilly corridor, fuming at all the talk of the hotel.
Well, at least this one tipped. . .
With heavy footsteps, he made his way down the staircase, and dragged himself back to the desk to wait for the next guest to repeat the entire process again. And again. And again. His thoughts were, once more, beginning to spiral down to the general malaise that plagued his hours at the hotel - until a hand roughly grabbed the back of his neck, sending immediate shivers up his spine.
“Cody!” he said, half hissing, half whining as he reached a hand back to bat the other boy away. “Lay off!”
The other boy laughed, slipping away to stand in front of Todd with a triumphant grin as bright as the buttons on his own bellhop uniform. “Geez, what’s got you in such a state?” He shook his head, still smirking. “Don’t go castin’ a kitten on me now.”
Todd rolled his eyes. “Oh dry up.” Well, at least he didn’t have to stand there alone. He leaned against the wall again, letting his head fall back with a thump and a sigh. “. . .How’re you?”
“Copacetic,” Cody said as he leaned against the wall beside him, fishing in his pocket for a crumpled pack of Old Gold; he tapped one out and held it between his lips as he fumbled for the lighter he always kept in his pocket. “So, what is it? Gotta be somethin’.”
A dinner cart clanged somewhere beyond the atrium entrance to their left, echoing off the curved walls, and Todd glanced over his shoulder, despite the fact that it was a commonplace sound in the hotel. At Cody’s question, he lifted a shoulder and let it fall again. “Dunno.” Another clatter from the atrium. Then: “What do you think ‘bout the hotel?”
The question seemed to surprise the other boy and his eyebrows rose to show it. “About the hotel?” His eyelids lowered slightly as he thought. “It’s a swanky joint. Guess it ain’t so bad. Take it ya don’t feel the same?”
“Maybe. You really think it’s actually all that unreal?”
Cody laughed. “If they say it is. Old boy, we’re jus’ livin’ in its shadow. The whole valley is.” He gestured out to the lobby, the debutants and Joe Brookses wandering to and fro, visiting the shops, going in and out to Hygeia Spring, to the billiards and bowling and pony track in their dresses and suits, new hairstyles - necklaces and feather boas for the debs, hats and neckties for the Joe Brookses. High hats, all of them. “See ‘em? They get to bask in the camera-lights; we get to slave in the shadows. This joint’s their playground. Them an’ the gangsters.”
Todd could hardly disagree.
Every day was the same at the hotel. Every day was just a shadow of the day before, and a premonition of the next. The next morning garnered a groan when Todd clocked in at five for another day of ferrying the wealthy to their rooms, feeling like a pack mule. There were two suitcases already waiting by the check-in desk and Mr. Koch, the manager, hardly allowed Todd a moment to readjust to the rhythm of the hotel before he was ordered to take them up. Early check-ins, fourth floor, room 405, by the stairs. The mere thought of dragging the two cases up four flights of stairs was taxing. For once, he’d simply use the lift, he decided. He stepped in, pulling the suitcases after him, muttering under his breath about the treatment of bellhops. The halls were empty when he reached the fourth floor and he dragged the bags out.
He paused next to the door to catch his breath for a moment, get used to the mode of thinking that got him through the day. He was readjusting the cuffs on his uniform when he first noticed the hushed mutterings from the other side of the door. With accordance to hotel policy, he knew he shouldn’t eavesdrop . . . and yet, he found himself inching closer, leaning in a little, his fingertips just barely brushing the door to steady himself. Two voices - one with a sharp sound, older than Todd, cockier, confident. Still, the other voice in the room was deeper, steady and calm and most likely older. He furrowed his brow as he strained his ears; it was difficult to hear them, and if the hall hadn’t been entirely silent, he would have missed them entirely.
“ - Quiet-like, yea. I follah ya. . . .I’ll make sure no one’ll hear.”
Footsteps and the deeper voice growing clearer, if not louder - someone moved closer to the door. “Good. It has to be quiet.”
“S**t, I know.”
“If it reaches Chicago - ”
“I ain’t a stupid rube - I know how ta do tha job.”
The words muttered in hushed whispers slipped into Todd’s ears and registered a moment later; his eyes widened. Where they talking about what he thought they were. . .? His throat was dry and he swallowed to try to loosen the knot that had formed in it.
“You know where to go after?” The older man again, seemingly unphased by his companion’s irritation.
A resigned sigh. “Here, and Monon depot tomorrah. Mornin’ train.”
The door creaked suddenly and it took a moment for Todd to connect that he’d made the noise. He hurriedly stepped back, picking up the cases almost clumsily and straightening. The door opened a moment later, and the man who looked out at him was calm -
He’s almost ice cold, Todd thought briefly before forcing his lips to turn up, as though he hadn’t heard a thing. “Your cases.”
The man, neatly dressed in a suit and waistcoat, a silver chain dangling from his pocket - a pocket watch, not a garrote, Todd reassured himself - and a crisp collar and navy tie. His somewhat graying hair was swept back and slicked, face sharp, eyes sharper yet. He nodded, stepping back and opening the door wider.
“If you could just set them at the foot of the bed. . .”
“Of course.” Against his better judgment, Todd stepped in, past the man; the bed was only a few feet away and he hoped to God that the man wouldn’t shut the door on him. His palms were beginning to sweat, the case handles slick; they half slipped from his hands as he set them at the foot of the nearest of the two beds. He kept his eyes down, but he caught sight of the other man’s white and black wingtips; he spared a moment’s glance. The other man was thinner, high, sharp cheekbones and an amused grin, standing just in front of the armchair in the corner, as though he’d been sitting moments before; his dark blue-grey eyes were fixed on the six-teen-year old from beneath the shadow of his slightly spiky rust-brown hair.
At the door, the older man nodded in approval and Todd straightened, feeling both pairs of eyes on him. Returning the nod, he started back towards the door. Six feet, five feet, four feet to the door.
Todd froze in place, the tension in his shoulders making them shake lightly, though not enough to be seen. “Yes?”
It was the younger man this time; he stepped forward, one hand dipping into his pocket - Todd was suddenly sure it was going to come up with a gun.
“Here,” he said, pulling his hand from his pocket as he drew within arm’s length. A moment later, he pressed his hand to Todd’s slipping a crumpled wad of cash into his palm. “Your tip.”
“Oh.” His eyes dropped from the man’s face to his hand and the bills. “Thanks you, sir.”
The man’s grin widened. “Nah, thanks for bringin’ up th’cases.”
Cold, numb surreality was melting into his stomach now. “Just my job. I have to go now. . .”
“Of course.” The older man held the door a little wider, shooting a stern glance to his companion.
Todd didn’t bother to stay, or contemplate the silent messages between the two men - he just walked out, forcing himself to keep his gait as normal as he could, like before. Thoughts racing, he took the stairs two at a time, feeling the blood pulsing through his veins and beating a drum in his ears. Those men. . . He had to tell someone -
The impact sent Todd, as well the other man he’d run into, stumbling back and out into the third floor corridor. Judging by the amount of foul curses spewed and hissed at him, Todd had a fair idea of who he’d hit. Relief flooded him, but only enough to take the edge off the numb shock. Cody was collecting the cases he’d dropped, straightening his uniform, and hadn’t looked up.
Todd grabbed his arm, tugging at the sleeve for attention, given that he was too breathless at the moment to speak.
“What? What are - oh. Todd.” Cody slouched a bit more, dropping the straight back and puffed chest he tended to adopt while on duty. “What is it?”
“The fellas - in room 407 - I heard ‘em!”
He raised a brow, crossing his arms over his chest. “Heard ‘em . . . what?”
“Talkin’. ‘Bout killin’ someone, I think!”
There was no response for a long moment - then Cody laughed. “Bull! Why do ya think that?” He set the cases down for a moment, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops and leaning forward a little.
Todd’s feet were moving now, one side of the hall floor to the other, caged by the salmon-colored walls. “They were talking, one told the other it had to be quiet. Something about news not getting to Chicago. And - ”
“Bushwa,” said Cody, cutting him off with a roll of his eyes. “Look, they were prob’ly talking ‘bout some screw up of theirs. As to being quiet. . . Well, two men sharin’ a room. . . Maybe they’re three-letter men?”
That gave Todd pause and his nose wrinkled. “Well. . .” Something still didn’t seem to fit, despite that it was a possibility. “I still think - ”
“ - Well, I think you’re just jumpin’ to conclusions. You always had a wild imagination anyway. And besides, it isn’t really our business. We jus’ take up the suitcases.”
Something turned uneasily in his stomach, but Todd had to concede that Cody was probably right. After all, he did fantasize about Chicago, about the thrill of a car chase in the middle of the night and the smell of alcohol and cigarettes and gun smoke. It had a tendency to make him see subterfuge where there was none. He glanced back up the stairs, feeling the creep of something nearing disappointment, even as his heart continued to beat too fast in his chest.
Like the day before, the air was chilly when Todd pushed open the heavy wooden doors that led into the main lobby, and crossed the floor to the front office hotel desk. Yet, something was different today. Some of the guests looked a little miffed, not necessarily unheard of, but combined with the feeling that seemed to be seeping from the walls . . . something was different this time. He frowned as he caught sight of a man he knew to be a cop from the city. Something was itching in the back of his mind, some sense of déjà vu. He’d hardly reached the desk when Cody hissed to him from the stairs, failing to be discreet as he waved the other boy over, bracing himself against the wall with the other.
“What’s goin’ on?” Todd asked once he was close enough.
Cody shook his head, his skin almost white beneath the freckles on his cheeks and nose. “S**t, you. . . You were right,” he said lowly with wide eyes. “The man in room 207 - cleanin’ found ‘im shot dead this mornin’! Right through the center of ‘is forehead!”
The itch had migrated down to his spine and turned to ice water now. Todd blinked once, twice; his jaw worked but no sound emerged for a long moment. His hands were limp at his sides. “What?”
“Yea, maid screamed fit to wake the whole floor.” Cody’s words were coming in a jumble now, his eyes flitting about the floor’s green and white tiled fleur-de-lis and flower mosaic pattern. “Was prob’ly those two guys - in room 405 - that you told me ‘bout yesterday. They prob’ly did it last night - the next room mentioned somthin’ about a pop sound - ” He stopped suddenly and Todd was left with his head reeling from the abrupt pause; Cody’s wide eyes were fixed on Todd’s face now. “You gotta tell the police.”
That did the trick to startle Todd from his momentary state of shock. “What?!” He put up his hands, taking a step back and shaking his head. “Me? Why me? Why don’t you?”
“Cause I didn’t hear it, you did.” Cody grabbed Todd’s hand and started back up the stairs to the mezzanine, dragging the other boy with him.
Something flared at that, be it indignant anger or disbelief that Cody chose to believe him now. He jerked his arm out of Cody’s grasp, forehead wrinkled and mouth twisted into a frown. He stumbled back a step at the loss of force and caught himself on the stairwell wall.
“Do it yourself!”
Cody stopped, turning on heel to stare at him. “What? You have to tell them!”
“Oh, like I wanted to yesterday?” he said, tone low and dry, nose wrinkled and shoulders tense. “Go do it yourself. It’s none of my business.”
After a moment more of shocked disbelief, Cody simply grabbed the other boy’s hand again and turned to drag him up the stairs, ignoring the immediate protests. Todd unsuccessfully attempted to wring his hand from Cody’s grip but to no avail and he didn’t dare to dig his heels into the carpet and make more of a scene. Across the way, he could see at least two reporters being pushed back by hotel security, and a few clusters of guests whispering to each other behind hands, throwing sidelong glances of distaste at the corridor, where what had been Alexander Hughes’s room was. Cody, however, wouldn’t be stopped and pulled the guard - a rather tall man - down by the collar to whisper in his ear, ignoring that Todd was still tugging to free his hand. The guard nodded once and stepped aside to let them through. Todd chewed his lip, seething and trying to hide it.
“Cody,” he hissed, yanking on his hand to stop the other boy. “We shouldn’t be here. We’ll just be in the way.”
“Pipe down. This is important!”
A moment later, Todd found himself shoved in front of the door, in the exact spot he’d stood in two days previous with the man who was now laying sprawled, dead, inside the room. Todd could make out the town’s mortician, at least two more cops, and Mr. Koch crowded around something - he assumed the body. It was a moment before they were noticed, and it was a cop who saw him first.
“You,” said the cop. “What are you doing here? Go back down - ”
Cody never let him finish. “But sir, he knows something!”
The whole demeanor of the cop changed instantly with that. “Is that so? What is it?”
It was defiance that sealed Todd’s throat then, though he gave no other indication. His eyes flicked from the cop back to the mortician and Mr. Koch, the dark stains he could just make out on the carpet. Camera lights would be flashing on it before long, he realized, turning to look at the reporters hovering at the entrance to the mezzanine. No one would know he’d helped the police, though. No one would care, in the end. He would simply be labeled the hotel worker - and soon enough the word worker would be dropped as well. What was the point of saying anything?
“The guy . . . the dead guy was a journalist,” he heard himself say before he even decided to.
Nodding, the cop jotted it down on a small notepad he pulled from his inner coat pocket. “Yes. Is there anything else?”
Todd could feel Cody’s eyes burning holes in his back. “No, sir. I just thought that might help.”
The cop’s eyes narrowed. “Oh. Well. We knew that already, but thank you.” His voice was cold and clipped now, instead of the coaxing tone he’d used moments before; they’d wasted his precious time. “Now, if you’d please go back to your duties. . .”
“Yes sir,” said Todd, bobbing his head and turning on heal to duck under the guard’s arm and head for the stairs. He finally knew what he wanted to do; he could feel the thrill flooding his veins. He could hear Cody yelling at him, though the other boy didn’t follow him past the guard - presumably staying to tell the cop the truth. Todd didn’t care.
Let Cody think what he would of Todd’s sin of omission. It didn’t matter. Todd’s shoes clacked against the mosaic floor as he made for the doors, shouldering roughly through them and ignoring the startled protests of a cluster of guests he nearly ran into. The wind hit his face a moment later as he charged down the stone steps - no time to find a ride. He only had ten minutes to reach the train station, to change his life. His feet hit the brick front drive hard and he didn’t stop. He could see the depot ahead, at the end of the long way and pushed himself to run faster.
He could see it all - his future. Day in and day out, cases, guests - he’d end up like the old men who tended the sunken gardens, the janitors. Nothing would ever change; it would be as if the same day was reoccurring in different colors - it could hardly be considered living. He had a nice home, good parents he supposed, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted more of that intoxicating thrill, and he couldn’t get it in West Baden Springs.
The depot was thankfully not as busy as usual, only a few scattered groups here and there, so it didn’t take him long to spot the two men. He was panting, heaving in great gulps of air but he couldn’t wait. Swallowing back his attempts to recapture his breath, he started across the floor towards them, stomach twisting in knots with unease. They didn’t do anything before . . . why should they now? They didn’t notice him, not at first. It was the younger one that finally saw him; he nudged his companion in the side, flicking his blue-grey eyes to the staggering bellhop. The older man turned as well, frowning as he caught sight of the boy as well.
“Yes?” The man’s voice was just as cool and clipped as it had been the day before.
Todd shook his head, still unable to speak as he’d yet to catch his breath. He could feel those blue-grey eyes on him, curious and interested. After a moment, he straightened a bit, looking at the pair. “I. . .” He swallowed. “I want to go with you.”
The two men shared a glance.
Again, it was the elder who spoke. “Why?”
“I know what you did,” Todd said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “I want to come.”
“Why?” The younger one, this time; he’d set down the two suitcases he’d been carrying.
“Elijah,” said the other, eyes snapping to the younger man and narrowing in warning. He looked back to Todd. “Why should we trust you?”
It was a decent question and Todd paused. “Because I could’a told the cops.” The thrill again; blackmailing hitmen was a risky game, but it was time for a change. He was sick and tired of knowing what would happen the next day, of being safe and so bored.
“Indeed.” Despite how the older man’s jaw clenched at the news, there was no other change in his manner.
Beside him the younger man, Elijah, was looking the boy over, an almost thoughtful expression on his face and one hand on his hip. “Y’know, Silas . . . he could be useful.” At the other man’s questioning look, he sighed, gesturing absently at Todd. “Well, a new face! An’ ain’t no one gonna expect a kid.”
“I can lie real well,” Todd added quickly; he could hear the train whistle now and he glanced over at the far end of the depot and back.
Still, some reluctance was playing about the corners of Silas’ mouth and in his eyes. His arms were crossed over the chest of his neatly tailored suit. “I doubt we could afford his inexperience.”
“S**t, Silas,” said Elijah, snorting softly, “I didn’t know from nothin’ when ya took me on, an’ I turned out fine. Why nah give ‘im a chance?”
Todd could feel his breath catch in his throat and nearly choke him, but he kept silent and still, as though moving would somehow affect the decision. From the corner of his eye, he could see the train pull in with a sluggish pace, belching white steam as its wheels groaned and clattered against the tracks and it slowed to a shuddering stop. The entire station seemed to be holding it’s breath as well now.
Silas’s brown eyes were cold and it wasn’t until the conductor began to call that he stirred. “I don’t know why you want so badly to come,” he said, “But we’ll take you for as long as you can be of use.”
Though they were spoken quietly, calmly, the words crashed into Todd’s ears with all the triumph of trumpets and he released his breath in relief. A grin split his face a moment later. “I just - ”
“Come. We can’t be late.” Silas turned, heading towards the train.
Elijah snorted again, but this time there was a small smirk at the corner of his mouth when Todd looked over. “Congrats, kid. Better get on ‘fore he leaves us behind.”
Todd nodded seriously, but couldn’t lose the grin; he bent to grab the suitcases. However, Elijah batted his hands away, chuckling. This time, it was a train ticket that he pressed into Todd’s palm.
“I’ll get it,” he said. “Go get on; I’ll be on soon as I get anathah ticket.”
This was really happening then, he realized. He was going to get on the train with the two men he didn’t know, going to a place he’d never been, for no good reason - most would say he was insane. He disagreed - this was an adventure. He glanced at the hotel in the distance, then at the train. There was a moment of hesitation before Todd nodded again, turning and bolting after Silas and out of the shadow of the grand hotel’s train depot.
© 2012 Hecate
AboutI'm a university student, originally from the States, studying in Finland (and now back in a different part of the States). I have a love for the 1920s, as well as some forms of gothic fiction. I ad.. more..