Denis Meikle

Born: 1947 | Birthplace: Glasgow | Educated: Alleyn's School | Spouse: Jane | Children: Sarah, James | Resident: East Sussex

This 'Stories' section is a work in progress. Content is added on a continual basis.


formerly 'The Hotel on Helle Street'

ALL that George King knew about his latest posting was the name of it, the location, the fact that he had been assigned there as a relief manager after the accidental death of the incumbent, the approximate duration of his period of tenure, and what the company's sales brochure told him about the Pemberton Hotel.
      The Pemberton was a turreted Gothic mansion dating from the Age of Enlightenment (the house was originally completed in 1793), which had been built on the whim of a wealthy Frieslander named Christiaan Van Drücken. The eccentric dutchman had allegedly invited the young John Nash to contribute to its design, and the result was an exotic blend of classical European and oriental styles. The ground floor was encumbered with flying buttresses; the vestibule was graced by pillars on either side; the whole was garnished by a profusion of rococo flourishes and obtrusive examples of Gothic excess - gargoyles and spires vied for pride of place on the upper levels. The original house was four storeys; a fifth, consisting of three penthouse suites, was added around the end of the last century. Van Drücken travelled widely and lived in the house only occasionally, and his heirs subsequently sold the property and returned home to the Netherlands. ‘This imposing residence looks over Dorrington's famous Helle Street, and stands today as a luxury hotel, owned and managed by Country Comforts Plc. Included among its facilities are tennis courts, billiards room, jacuzzi,’ and so on, ran the rest of the blurb. The hotel sounded (and looked, if the pictures that accompanied the piece were anything to go by - which was not always the case) most splendid, and King was pleased to be alotted some time in an establishment steeped in history and reeking of past glories. This was one site which he had not yet had occasion to visit, and it promised a welcome relief from the tile-and-marble glitz of many of the company's recent acquisitions. Though quite why it was called the Pemberton remained a mystery.
      The hotel was certainly imposing. When the taxicab which had carried King from the station finally turned up the gravel driveway, his eyes were met by a building of cathedral-like proportions, every bit as striking as the brochure had led him to expect. The cab slewed to a careless halt directly in front of the stone steps, and he alighted to face two massive oak doors, laid open to reveal a cask-conditioned interior of rosewood and rich tapestries; he could smell the ambience of log-fire and well-preserved antiquity before he had even set foot in the place. He took care of the cab, adjusted the lie of his coat, and strode into reception, invigorated by the prospect of what lay before him.
      It was dusk before King managed to settle down to the beginnings of the routine that he envisaged for the days and weeks ahead. After the usual introductions, he had spent a pleasant morning familiarising himself with the ways of the Pemberton and basking in the delightful atmosphere of his new surroundings; he had spent a less pleasant afternoon attending to the reams of paper that it required him to read and digest. Stephen Bentow, one of two assistant managers at the hotel, had given him a breakdown of guests currently in residence and bookings that were expected in the weeks ahead; he had also been briefed on the various extramural activities which were to take place over the same period - numerous seminars, an anniversary dinner on the Friday, and two receptions on each of the following Saturdays. By five o'clock, he had toured the facilities and the grounds, and met most of the staff; by six, he had approved the rotas, held a meeting of key personnel to ascertain if there were any areas of immediate concern, and checked on the security arrangements. It was during this last that he had first encountered the lift.
      It was an old wooden affair, with no door - only a folding iron gate to secure the passage of anyone brave enough to entrust to it - and it was tucked away in the nether reaches of the basement kitchens.
      King had turned to a young commis-chef, currently struggling to prepare a sauce bearnaise.
      ‘Is this thing still in use?’
      The young man had appeared eager to please, within limits. ‘I've only been here a month. Don't recall ever seeing anybody use it, though - it's locked, isn't it?’ His eyes had directed King to a stout padlock fastened onto a length of chain feeding through the trellis-gate to a fixing on the adjacent wall. He had stared inside: the lift was barely large enough for a single occupant, and it would possibly have served as a 'dumb waiter' at some time in the past, he felt - it certainly seemed to date from a century or so ago. On examining the curious contraption, he had noted an inscription which had been etched into the wooden beam above the iron gate. It was not framed in any conventional configuration of letters or numerals, but in symbols of some sort.
      ‘What about these?’ King had enquired again.
      This response had been less congenial. ‘Beats me,’ the young man said, as a clatter of saucepans indicated a more pressing concern.
      King knew from experience that discretion was the better part of discipline when dinner was near. ‘As you say, it's locked anyway,’ he had concluded, and retired from the culinary field of battle.   
      With the coming of the dark autumn evening and the increase in activity that was now perceptible as guests in residence made their way to the restaurant and newer arrivals queued at the reception desk, King completely forgot about the old lift. He had not yet found time to check any of the upper floors, and had decided to leave that task to the following day. He planned to return to the paperwork in his office for an hour or two, do 'the rounds,' and then finish off with a light supper before turning in. On his way through Page 170 reception, King thought to linger awhile and observe the extent of the traffic. No sooner had he clasped his hands behind his back than he was subject to a sharp tap on the shoulder.
      ‘You must be the 'locum',’ boomed a voice.
      King turned around to face his assailant, who had weilded a rolled-up newspaper. He was a man of middling years and medium build, wearing a broad grin.
      ‘Er, yes - George King. How do you do, Mister-?’
      ‘Hatcher,’ said the other, shoving the weapon back into the pocket of his coat. ‘I knew 'Duggie' well. Bad business...Bad for business, too, I would imagine.’ The reference was to Roger Dugdale, King's predecessor.
      King thought it best to refrain from much comment in that direction for the time being. ‘Very sad. My job is to restore continuity - business as usual, you might say.’ He paused before responding further, to determine if there was another purpose to the intrusion.
      Hatcher gave the impression of being a man of some breeding, with greying but well-trimmed hair, laundered white shirt, and lodge tie. He exuded the signs of rude health, an expensive after-shave emanated from him, and a suit the colour of his hair could be seen beneath his unbuttoned coat. It was a coat of conspicuous pedigree, and tailored in Saville Row if he was any judge of such things, King observed. ‘I can tell by the 'cut of your jib' that you're a career johnnie,’ Hatcher pursued, in a mockery of home counties idiom. ‘Duggie was the same. Mind you, in this game you have to be, don't you? - Not the job for a family man, eh?’
      King smiled and nodded. ‘Will you be staying with us long, Mister Hatcher?’
      ‘Only a week this time, I think. But I'm a regular of 'yours.' I come here as often as events dictate.’
      'Circumstances permit,' King had silently thought to correct...but whatever, the information was imparted in a tone of voice which seemed designed to ensure that the standard of service to which Hatcher was accustomed would naturally be maintained under the new management; a point that was not lost on the listener. ‘I'm certain the hotel will do everything it can to make your stay a pleasant one,’ he confirmed.
      Hatcher appeared satisfied. ‘I'm sure it will,’ he beamed, and headed off towards the stairs.
      King's gazed followed idly behind him, but it was soon distracted by a conspiratorial huddle taking place to one side of the reception desk. Bentow and a waiter, whose name escaped him, were conversing in hushed tones and appeared to be troubled. King caught Bentow's eye, and strode over to join them. ‘Problem?’ he asked.
      The waiter departed without saying a word, but his assistant was more welcoming of the intrusion. ‘Problem with one of the rooms, yes. Third floor. I was informed of a crack in the bathroom ceiling; ingress of water or something. I sent our maintenance man up there.’
      King nodded his approval. ‘And-?’
      ‘That was before lunch,’ Bentow continued, a touch of hesitation creeping into his voice. ‘From what I can gather, it seems that nothing was done.’
      ‘What does the maintenance man have to say?’ King urged with a sympathetic smile.
      The hesitation was more pronounced. ‘I'm afraid we haven't been able to contact him,’ Bentow said.
      King's smile evaporated. ‘Find him, I take it you mean, since he would seem to have been contactable in the room to which you sent him.’
      Bentow faltered. ‘Find him, yes - I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation. But we haven't been able to find him...yet.’
      ‘And our guest has been left high and dry. Or high and not so dry, by all accounts.’
      ‘I was just going up there.’
      King held out his arm, barring Bentow's escape to the lift. ‘You have better things to do. I'll go. It'll give me an opportunity to take a look around.’
      ‘Room 56, third floor - name of Wycherley,’ Bentow advised, before King thought to ask.
      King smiled once more. ‘Thankyou, Stephen. If you should happen to come across Mister--?’
      ‘--in the meanwhile, perhaps you'll be good enough to let me know.’
King knocked purposefully on the door of Room 56. Before venturing to deal with the problem, he had found out from the girl in reception that Mrs Wycherley was a well-to-do widow who had checked into the Pemberton six months ago, and had been there ever since. The door was opened without delay, and he quickly introduced himself to the diminutive but regal lady of advancing years who had answered it. He was ushered through to the bathroom and the source of the trouble.
      A pair of step-ladders stood idle in the centre of the floor, blocking further ingress to the room - a bag of tools lay open and abandoned beneath them, squatting on top of what appeared to be a mound of broken plaster and a puddle of something sticky. There was a thin film of white dust covering the pile-carpet in the immediate vicinity. King's gaze drifted towards the ceiling, and the reason for the ladders having been positioned thus. Directly above the ladders, and perilously close to the light fitment, was a hole of around a foot in diameter. From the slight swelling in the surrounding plaster, it looked to have been caused by pressure from above; then again, it might just as easily have been caused by that section of the ceiling which had become detached in the first place. He was no expert when it came to plumbing, King silently conceded - the expert in that department was nowhere to be found.
      King returned his attention to Mrs Wycherley, who had stood quietly behind him throughout, eith her hands clasped in front of her in an attitude of supplication. She smiled sweetly, indicating a willingness to respond to the questions which she evidently felt were about to come her way. ‘I see that someone has been attending to this?’ King opened, somewhat tritely.
      ‘Mister Prentiss,’ Mrs Wycherley verified. ‘A very nice man - very efficient man, usually.’
      ‘Perhaps...he's had to go out for some materials,’ King offered. He cast a concerned glance at the debris that was cluttering up the bathroom floor.
      ‘That's what I thought--’ said Mrs Wycherley.
      ‘Ah..’ King nodded.
      ‘--Yesterday,’ Mrs Wycherley finished.
      King looked blank. ‘Yesterday..?’
      ‘Yes. I didn't want to jump the gun,’ the occupant of the room went on. ‘I didn't want to get the poor man in trouble needlessly. He came up last evening, just as I was going down to dinner. He assured me that he would have a repair effected by the time I returned. But this is how things have remained since then.’
      ‘You've heard nothing more from him?’
      Mrs Wycherley shook her head.
      ‘And you haven't seen him since?’
      The motion was repeated.
      ‘Well I really must apologise for--’
      Mrs Wycherley crooked her porcelain head demurely. ‘No need. I wonder if something's happened to him,’ she suggested, raising her eyebrows.
      ‘That's most understanding,’ King said, pointedly refraining from further comment. He mounted the ladder, climbing a couple of steps to take a closer look at the hole. Peering into the cavity which was exposed between the ceiling and the floor above, he could just make out a pin-prick of light; it was pallid and indistinct, but he could see small particles of dust swirling around in the faint beam. ‘It appears there might be a problem on the next floor as well,’ he notioned at length. ‘But it should be easy to trace.’
      King descended the steps again and wiped the dust from his jacket. ‘I'll attend to this at once,’ he said with authority, and turned to leave.
      ‘If you could just move those step-ladders..’
      King feigned an embarrassed gesture, commented to the effect that they must have represented something of an obstacle to the smooth-running of madam's ablutions, and snapped them shut. He leaned them against the wall. ‘I hope Mister Prentiss won't want to return the way he seems to have left,’ he quipped in doing so.
      ‘I can't imagine it, can you?’ Mrs Wycherley said, giving out with a small laugh.
      King exited Room 56 and walked briskly to the end of the corridor, intent on pursuing the mysterious hole - as well as the mysterious disappearance of Prentiss - to the floor above. Each floor was connected by an open staircase at either end, and adjacent to the one on the right of the building, there was also a lift. King had used the stairs on his way to Mrs Wycherley. This time, he decided to use the lift. He swung back the iron gate and stepped inside, automatically lifting his finger up to the control panel. But there was no button marked 4; three floors only were indicated, plus ground.
      King saw no option but to make for the stairs. He turned out of the lift into the stairwell. But in place of the expected flight to the floor above, he was faced with a heavy fire-door. A notice made it plain that the fourth floor could be reached by a stairway behind this door, but the door was of the self-closing type and was consequently shut. King gave it a firm pull. It stayed closed. He twisted the handle and tried again. The door was clearly locked. It seemed that the fourth floor had been hermetically sealed from the rest of the building, which added another dimension to the mounting problems. King was annoyed by this breach of safety regulations, and made off down the stairs.
      ‘The fourth floor is closed for renovation,’ King was informed at the reception desk. ‘I think it's to do with fire regulations. There should be another means of escape at the rear of the building.’
      ‘So the floor is unoccupied,’ King confirmed.
      ‘As far as I know,’ said the girl at the desk. ‘It only affects three suites.’
      ‘Three very expensive suites,’ King countered.
      The receptionist lowered her gaze.
      King pondered the situation for a moment. ‘Do you have a key to the fire-door?’
      In the pause, the girl thought to mention an issue which seemed to her to be of more moment than the state of repair of the fourth floor. At this new enquiry, she stopped herself and glanced towards the key-rack on the wall beside the desk. The space in question was vacant. ‘It doesn't seem to be here - Mister Prentiss must have it,’ she said without thinking.
      ‘I don't suppose you have the slightest idea where Mister Prentiss might be?’ King asked.
      The girl shook her head.
      King rapped his fingers on the desk in agitation. Without realising it, he had begun to shake his head as well. ‘Isn't there an old lift in the kitchen that goes to the fourth floor?’ the girl queried, in an effort to restore equilibrium. She leaned across the desk to make sure that he had heard her. ‘You could try that, Mister King...if you want to go up there.’
      ‘The one that's locked, you mean?’ King asked, in such a way that any reply was redundant.
      ‘Oh dear.’ The receptionist giggled nervously.
      King remained expressionless. He indicated to the register. ‘You'd better arrange for Mrs Wycherley to be given another room until I can sort this out,’ he said. ‘We seem to have mislaid our maintenance man.’
      The girl attempted to make light of the situation. ‘I expect he'll turn up,’ she said, staring towards the hotel's main entrance as if she might be about to catch sight of the elusive Mister Prentiss - or simply in the hope that someone else might require her attention. She was saved from further awkward cross-questioning by the recollection of her previous problem. ‘I almost forgot: we need someone to 'man' the bar, Mister King - Trevor called to say that he couldn't make it this evening.’
      King's jaw sagged. He gave a loud sigh. ‘I'll do it,’ he said, resigned to the fact that this was not the time for recriminations; he prided himself on being the 'hands-on' type, so the solution to this crisis was easier to come by. He slipped off his jacket and strode across to his office to procure the bunch of keys which would allow him access to the bar.
      The Pemberton Lounge could be approached by one of two routes: directly through the reception area for its guests, or via a maze of cellars that lurked under much of the ground floor of the hotel for staff. King opted for the cellar-way, figuring that he might take note of the stock and check on the readiness of the barrels and kegs as he went. A few minutes of assessment later, and he completed his passage and climbed the tiny flight of steps leading into the service area.
      ‘Hello!’ said a voice as he appeared. ‘You have to be a jack-of-all-trades in this game then?’
      It was Hatcher, ensconced on a stool at one end of the small bar. Spread in an untidy arc around his glass were a cigar-case, a lighter, a paperback book as thick as a block of timber, and a platter of assorted crisps, nuts, and gherkins, and King was quick to realise that he had set up shop for the rest of the evening.
      ‘Yes indeed - I'm your steward for tonight,’ King acknowledged with a tight grin. He nodded to the waiter who had stood in for 'Trevor' to show that he could now return to his proper post, and addressed Hatcher again. ‘You have to be ready to turn your hand to anything, as you say. Well - almost anything; I can't cook.’
      ‘That's okay,’ Hatcher riposted, rapid-fire. ‘I've already eaten.’
      King pointed to the man's empty glass. ‘Can I get you something?’
      Hatcher ordered a large brandy. ‘Join me?’ he said, at the request for his room number.
      King intuitively declined, but since no one other than the man at the bar seemed to require his attention at present, he accepted the offer of conversation which he took to be implicit in Hatcher's invitation. ‘What's your line of business then, Mister Hatcher?’
      Hatcher grabbed a handful of nuts. ‘Me? I'm...what you might call semi-retired. I travel about a bit - see 'the world,' that sort of thing.’
      ‘Here, or abroad?’ King advanced.
      ‘Here - and abroad. Just came back from the Amazon basin, as a matter of fact. Nice country. Too damn hot. Too damn many bugs for my liking.’
      King maintained his air of cool, but it had begun to occur to him that his new-found companion might be a man of some considerable means and therefore not one to be treated lightly. ‘So...what was your line?’ he tried again, a little more deferentially.
      Hatcher's gaze fixed on the platter of snacks. His mouth curled up in a dismissive gesture and he began to shuttle some peanuts around the sides of the plate in a distracted fashion. ‘Buying and selling, I suppose,’ he said. ‘Property mainly, but I've dabbled in most things - I've made my money.’ He looked up at that and smiled, raised his eyebrows and his glass, downed what remained of his drink, and gestured for a refill.
      The tactic seemed to King to signal an end to his line of enquiry, and when he had replenished the glass, Hatcher flipped open what looked like a snuff-box, took a pinch of whatever was within, and sprinkled it on the brandy. King's curiosity was piqued. ‘That's a new one on me,’ he remarked, when Hatcher observed him watching the procedure.
      ‘A little thing I picked up in Manicore - gives it a bit of a kick,’ Hatcher said with a wink. ‘You should try it.’
      King grimaced, and laughed off the suggestion. He was finding it difficult to tell when Hatcher was being serious. ‘Maybe later,’ he said.
      It turned out to be a quiet night for the bar, and as the evening wore on, King was increasingly drawn to seek an exchange of views with the solitary Hatcher. He had already 'pegged' the man as a bit of a storyteller; he had ‘been there, seen it, done it,’ and there was no topic of conversation about which he was unable to pass a comment, express an opinion, or appear to be anything less than fully informed. Despite this, his company was not uninteresting; to the contrary, King found himself amused and fascinated by Hatcher's stock of tall tales, repertoire of anecdotes, and quite formidable knowledge of history and architecture. His companion also managed to remain impressively clear-headed (no mean feat given the quantity of brandy that he was consuming), and this fact alone was enough to distinquish the encounter from many of a similar nature which King had been forced to endure in the past. He was eventually moved to consider if Hatcher's abilities in this direction might not have something to do with the obscure little 'livener' which he had used to tickle his cup.
      Hatcher produced a cigar from the breast pocket of his blazer, fiddled with the tip for a time, rolled and fellated it between pouting lips, then finally clenched it in his teeth. King obliged him with a light.
      ‘You interested in hotels, George?’ Hatcher asked, qualifying the ambiguity by adding, ‘Hotels themselves, I mean. The buildings; the histories...The inventory of comings and goings, so to speak.’
      King prickled a little at the familiarity, but he felt duty-bound to take his seat before the new platform of pontification. ‘If you spend your life in them, you can hardly fail to be interested. Though I'm no expert,’ he replied, obliging Hatcher with the opportunity which he had seemed to be angling for.
      ‘Take this one, for instance,’ Hatcher began. ‘The man who built it, Van DrÜcken, came from Friesland--’
      The company brochure flashed into King's mind. He prepared himself for a long haul.
      ‘--The Netherlands. Home of the cattle.’
      King nodded, a little too impatiently. ‘They have their seamier sides, of course. 'Comings and goings' is right. You wouldn't believe--’
      ‘He was a distiller by trade.’ Hatcher gestured to his glass. ‘Brandy, as a matter of fact...and something of an anglophile, by all accounts. And he was mad crazy eccentric when it came to his taste in houses. But that was par-for-the-course in those days - I'm talking 1790 or thereabouts.’
      ‘Yes, I' something to that effect,’ King interjected, irritated by the sleight.
      ‘So you know all about it then?’ Hatcher returned. A little testily, King considered. ‘Not all about it - no,’ he corrected.
      ‘Only what it says in the sales brochure,’ Hatcher suggested, pointedly.
      King squirmed. ‘I--’
      Hatcher was already nodding. ‘The Pemberton is the most wonderful example of architectural insanity in the whole of this county.’ He suddenly became animated; his eyes directed King towards features of the house which the walls around them kept hidden from less penetrating view. ‘The windows with their pointed arches and ogival hoods, their crockets and finials. Those absurd turrets on the west wing; the pinnacles and buttresses; the old stable (now your Martlet restaurant) with its clock and Gothic cupola housing the clock-bell. All of those were part of the original Van DrÜcken house. It's been added to and enlarged over the years with the various changes of use; the original house had only three floors. I say 'only,' but that represented a magnificent edifice even by the standards of the late 1700s: a real Gothic folly if ever there was one - and designed to be every bit as extravagantly ostentatious as Walpole's Strawberry Hill or Beckford's Fonthill Abbey--’ Hatcher broke off.
      Surprise at the passion of Hatcher's attachment to the Pemberton had written itself on King's face. For a brief moment, the two stared at one another. ‘No wonder you keep coming back,’ King said at length, puncturing the silence.
      ‘It shows, doesn't it?’ Hatcher concurred, a trace of the inner man revealed along with it. ‘I've tried to buy this place more than once - no doubt I'll be trying again one of these days.’ His eyes fastened on King's. ‘It has a charm all of its own.’
      ‘Buy..? - This place?’ King blurted out.
      Hatcher puffed on his cigar, but barely raised his eyes from a reprise of his peanut-doodling. ‘Sure. I've always fancied being the owner of a hotel. Then I could stay here for free.’ He followed this with a guffaw.
      King eyed his inscrutable companion in an attempt to ascertain whether Hatcher was just a fantasist, or a very wealthy customer indeed. ‘The Pemberton is part of Country Comforts - something of a player in the leisure industry, I think you'd agree.’
      ‘Country Comforts PLC,’ Hatcher qualified.
      ‘That's right, they went 'public' three years ago. I wasn't aware that they wanted to hive off any part of the business.’
      ‘Only this part,’ Hatcher said with authority.
      ‘The Pemberton, you mean?’ King pressed.
      Hatcher's expression was that of someone who knows more than they are letting on. He glanced fleetingly at King then returned his gaze to the bar. ‘Don't look so shocked, George,’ he soothed. ‘Your livelihood isn't at stake. You're only a relief, aren't you?’
      ‘For the moment...yes.’ King said, abandoning any further pretense at neutrality. ‘But there's always the possibility that--’
      ‘Oh, I see,’ said Hatcher, knowingly. ‘You thought that after a trial period, let's say, they might decide they already had a replacement for Dugdale. That it?’
      King recovered his composure. ‘It's always a part of the equation.’
      ‘You could do worse,’ Hatcher offered limply.
      Unspoken thoughts hung in the air around both men. King thought to head off further conflict by returning to the history of the Pemberton, instead of its future. ‘You say there were only three floors originally?’
      The tactic rescued Hatcher from his reverie. ‘Mmm? Three, that's right. The fourth floor; the roof-garden; the winged gargoyles that preside over that part of the hotel - all owe their existence to the influence of the Gothic revival; the floor was added around 1900, by the then-owner, Arthur Ames Pemberton, an M.P. who made his fortune in import and export.’
      ‘Aah-!’ King exclaimed. ‘So that's where the name originated.’
      ‘Indeed. I'm sorry to say,’ Hatcher retorted. ‘The Member for Welborne East was a rogue and a philanderer, who had a taste for the exotic. His 'pursuits' cost him his career, bankrupted him, and he died intestate. When war came, the house remained unsold and consequently it fell into disrepair. It was eventually inherited by the local authority who passed it on to a charitable trust. They couldn't afford the upkeep and it was then sold on to what would become a whole army of wannabee hoteliers who, between them - bless their hearts - restored it to the condition you see it in today.’
      ‘There's still some work to be done, I understand; the fourth-floor suites are under renovation.’
      Hatcher smiled indulgently. ‘The God-loft has been 'under renovation' for as long as I've been coming here - and I've been coming for a good ten years.’
      ‘Seems strange that Country Comforts would--’
      ‘PLC,’ Hatcher reminded.
      ‘Country Comforts PLC...I'm surprised they'd allow three perfectly good suites to go begging.’
      Hatcher responded with a vigorous nod of the head. ‘I don't know what the problem is up there. But there's something. Something to do with the layout.’
      ‘How did Country Comforts acquire the place?’
      Hatcher was matter-of-fact. ‘Van DrÜcken owned the whole village - this was a manor-house. But he wouldn't live in it. I don't know why. After him, nobody kept it long. It's always been sold at a knock-down price. Your lot bought it for a song. Superstition's a funny thing, George; when Van DrÜcken left the country for good, his last act was to rename the main road out there.’
      King was beginning to tire of the history lesson, but he maintained his stance of polite interest. ‘Helle Street? - What was it before?’
      ‘It was the Old Pentworth Road before.’
      Hatcher's command of the minutiae of local history was certainly impressive, King conceded. He decided at last to move away from the question-and-answer routine, which was only exacerbating his disadvantage. ‘I prefer things to have a bit more of a modern ring to them. The name's not much better now: Helle Street - smacks of ye olde village inn to me,’ he said, emphasising the 'e.'
      ‘Oh, it's not Old English,’ came back the fount of all wisdom. ‘It's Old Frisian - Friesland, remember? It means Hell.’
      King stared in blank amazement. ‘This hotel is on Hell Street?’
      ‘Exactly,’ chortled the other. ‘See what I mean? - A charm all of its own.’
      At this, the elderly couple who had been ensconced at a table on the far side of the room got up to leave. Since they had represented King's only other customers for much of the evening, he decided that the moment had come to close the bar.
      Hatcher was clearly in no mood to retire just yet, but King explained that he could still have a drink in the lounge, or in his room if he preferred; he bowed to the inevitable and took himself off towards the lounge, muttering something about reading his book.
      It was while King was locking the bar door, using the set of keys which he had collected from his office, that it suddenly occurred to him that one of them might belong to the padlock on the old lift. Not being one to leave till tomorrow what could be done today, even with only fifteen minutes of that day remaining, he scurried to the kitchens to check them out.
      The hubbub of industry which had filled the air on King's previous visit to the kitchens had long ceased; the last of the staff had left and the place was empty. Only the jangling of keys in King's hand disturbed the silence, as the echo ricocheted around the corridors of stainless steel.
      King came to a halt in front of the lift, glanced briefly at the curious sign above the gate, and grabbed hold of the padlock. One by one, he tried out the keys; with the fifth, the lock was sprung! He prised the open padlock from the chain, which fell against the wall. As it did so, something else came untangled along with it. When he examined the lock, there appeared to be several strands of fine cotton wrapped around it - so fine that they might just have been the remains of a spider-web - and whatever was attached to them was now lying between the padlock and the palm of his hand. He turned it over to see, and in his palm was a mound of tiny bones, like those of some new-born bird or rodent, and intermingled with the fragments were insect-husks and three items of a more liquid and disgusting familiarity. The collation seemed to have been encased in a cocoon of sorts before being crushed by the pressure of his hand.
      As soon as King identified the unwholesome nature of the additional fastening, he cast it from him with a shudder and wiped his hand clean. He turned to face his prize with a sense of achievement. The fourth floor was now open to him; he could find out for himself what all the fuss was about.
      King pulled the iron gate aside, stepped into the lift, and closed it behind him again. To his right, was the control panel - there were no buttons, only a lever in a sliding socket, situated midway between two points marked 'up' and 'down.' For all he knew, the device was no longer be connected to the power supply: the padlock may have been there in place of an 'out of order' sign. He clicked on the light-switch next to the panel, and a bulb was illuminated in the ceiling. There was current, it seemed. King seized the moment and pushed the lever hard 'up.' The lift suddenly jolted into life and began to ascend. King was caught off-balance. He slammed the lever back again and steadied himself, pausing to catch his breath.
      In less than five seconds, the lift had risen more than five feet off the ground. If it failed to restart, and King had to clamber free of the contraption, there was barely be enough room between the floor of the lift and the top of the hatchway for him to squeeze through. He eased the lever upwards with more caution.
      The mechanism shuddered, and the lift began a more leisurely ascent. King soothed his anxiety with a deep breath. A moment later, and he had brought it to a halt on the first floor.
      This time, the hatch opened onto a bare ante-room. There was a connecting door straight ahead, but nothing to indicate that there was purpose to the annexe beyond the loading and unloading of this lift. King ratcheted the lever once more.
      On the second and third floors, the story was much the same. On each occasion, the lift docked into a bare ante-room and King found himself at odds to figure out exactly where this lift was situated in relation to the layout of the hotel as he thought he understood it. Yet situated it had to be, and he settled for a reconnoitre of the top floors in the morning, with special emphasis attached to establishing the exact whereabouts of these exit points.
      Confusion about his location was incidental to the real purpose of the excursion, and King's goal was now within his reach. Gently, he eased the lever to 'up.'
      King hardly had time to register his shock before the lift came to a grinding halt of its own accord. The fourth floor was in complete darkness.
      The tiny lightbulb which illuminated the lift made only a marginal impression on the impenetrable gloom in the room that lay on the other side of the hatchway. If it was a room. King felt for his jacket pocket and the lighter which was carried for the convenience of guests who smoked. He rolled the thumb-wheel, held the lighter at arm's length, and flicked - a jet of flame shot into the dark, revealing the same scene as before: there was a small ante-room, bare but for a door at the far side. King lowered the flame and wrenched aside the gate. He stepped out of the lift and into the room.
      King left the lift-gate open in case a gremlin in the works should cause it to return below and leave him stranded on his dark plateau. He held the lighter aloft and tried to accustom his eyes to the murk that swirled between the makeshift torch and the self-contained glow that was emanating from the lift. He had not known what to expect of his destination, but he had never expected it to be pitch black! He had operated on the assumption that communal areas would still be illuminated, as they were in the rest of the building; that this floor would be controlled by the same timers and master-switches as anywhere else. How wrong he had turned out to be.
      King snapped the lighter shut for a moment to see if his pupils had dilated sufficiently. He was aware of a slight improvement: he could now make out the door at the other side of the room with just as much clarity as he had with the lighter to aid him. He walked carefully towards the door and twisted the handle, half expecting it to be locked.
      The door swung slowly inwards, ushering in a faint beam of lime-green light.
      King winced. His nostrils were assailed by a rank odour that approximated the pungent smell of dead fish. He turned back into the less rarified atmosphere of the ante-room to counter the sudden feeling of nausea. When he had better acclimatised himself to the foetid air by more shallow breathing, he ventured into the corridor.
      King could see immediately that Hatcher was right - it had been some time since this floor was subject to human occupation, either by guests or workmen: dust and debris littered the floor, and the abundance of cobwebs festooning every wall was testament to a long period of enclosure. He found it difficult to comprehend that the venerable and lovingly restored mansion to which he had already grown attached could also house the dereliction which met his eyes.
      The corridor went off to King's left, then turned sharp right. He picked his way carefully among the bits and pieces of wood, plaster, and off-cuts of wire which were strewn in his path and peeked around the corner. A second, longer corridor stretched off into the dark.
      Off this second corridor to his right, King could now make out the door to what was probably the first of the three suites which occupied this floor. There was a dirt-caked window to his left - which accounted for the faint light he had encountered when opening the door of the ante-room - and another some distance away. Despite these, he was unable to see exactly where this corridor came to an end. According to the assumption he had made about the layout of the floor, the corridor in which he stood would run parallel to the front of the hotel; the windows should therefore face out towards Helle Street. He scraped some of the film off the nearest window-pane with the side of his hand, squinting into the peep-hole to check his bearings.
      King could clearly see the embrasures that capped the wall at the front of the building. Between them and the window was a walkway that went around the perimeter to the roof-garden at the rear. It was as he suspected: this window overlooked Dorrington.
      Curious, then, that he should be unable to see the town, King puzzled - no lights, no roads, no houses.
      The state of the window-pane did little to improve King's vision, but as he continued to peer through the glass, he soon discerned the cause of the anomaly.
      Just beyond the battlements was a dense fog, which had blotted everything from view. It swirled yellow and incandescent (due to the reflection of the street-lamps below, he presumed) though to add another curiosity, it seemed not to be encroaching on the building, but to be standing off from it - as if the fog and the hotel were divisible from one another, like oil and water.
      King blinked his eyes and looked away...That came down fast, he said distractedly, as his thoughts turned back to the business in hand.
      King studied the corridor again. It seemed longer than it ought to be, given what he had earlier observed of the hotel's facade - he was still unable to make out anything at the far end. The detritus that littered the floor continued in unbroken disarray up to and past the other window, so he decided not to venture any further; fortunately for him, he had already calculated that the problem in 56 lay beneath one of the rooms in the suite that was closest to hand, the door of which fell within easier reach.
      ‘This should be the one,’ King confirmed aloud as he negotiated his way along the passage and reached for the door-handle. Before his hand could make contact, he froze, and his heart pumped ice-water into his veins..
      He had heard a laugh from inside the room - not an ordinary laugh, but a kind of a cackle: an uncontrolled outburst of gibbering that had cut through the darkness before dying away almost as soon as it had begun.
      On the instant, he held his breathing in check and stood there listening. A deafening silence had followed on from the sound, as if all around him had been shaken into a terrified awareness by the peculiar resonance in the voice. A wave of apprehension swept through him; he pulled his hand away from the door and retreated a pace or two. He was still listening for a repetition of that chilling laugh - or for any other sound from within the room - but none came. He remained poised between heaven and hell: should he knock on the door, or stop while he was ahead and come back another time? In daylight...and preferably with reinforcements.
      King was annoyed at his own impotence, and he was now beginning to feel silly as well. He wondered if the occupant of the room had heard him approach; if not, he could leave and pretend that nothing had occurred. What on earth was he thinking? - The occupant of the room? - This floor was deserted! He had heard a noise, that was all; he thought it had sounded like a voice. But had it sounded like a voice? He was replaying the noise in his head. The fact that there had been no recurrence in the seconds which had ticked by since he first heard it was starting to play tricks on his mind. It was more likely to have been the 'sound' of the building, he concluded, or some unclean denizen of the upper reaches making its presence felt. A rat could be the culprit. And probably be responsible for the damage to Room 56, as well. Then again, maybe he imagined that he had heard something in the eerie darkness that engulfed this segregated sector of the hotel. There could be a dozen different reasons, and all of them perfectly mundane. Now he was no longer sure that he had even heard anything at all.
      King straightened, composed himself as well as he could, and once again reached for the--
      A high-pitched screech of demented laughter echoed from inside the room. This time, it seemed to come from right behind the door.
      Instinct made King run for the lift.
      He jumped inside, slammed the gate shut, and threw the lever to 'down.' There was a momentary pause before the lift stirred itself to action; a long, loud silence that tweaked his hearing to its most acute...Was that a door opening-?
      The lift descended suddenly. At speed.
      King collapsed against the wall with relief.
‘There's someone up there...’
      Hatcher tilted his head forward, and squinted over the rim of the bifocals that were perched on the end of his nose. ‘George! - I'm sorry?’
      ‘There's someone up there,’ King repeated.
      Hatcher nodded, uncertainly. He laid his newspaper aside and removed his glasses.
      ‘On the fourth floor - in one of the empty suites. Living rough, I imagine. A vagrant. Or a drug addict. A burglar for all I know - biding his time before 'casing the joint.' That's the term they use, isn't it? In this place! - Can you imagine?’ King was still agitated. He hovered in front of Hatcher, his actions and expression alternating between outrage and bemusement; his fingers tapped on the glass containing the large brandy that he had just requisitioned courtesy of the night porter.
      Hatcher affected a patient smile. ‘I'm afraid that I don't quite understand.’
      ‘Of course you don't...Of course you don't,’ King blurted, by way of an apology. ‘May I?’ He indicated to a chair that was situated opposite Hatcher's grandstand seat in front of the fire. Hatcher waved him in and put down his coffee-cup.
      ‘We had a problem in one of the rooms on the third floor. A hole in the ceiling. The source of the problem appeared to originate on the fourth floor. I went up to investigate - and very nearly got myself mugged by some lunatic lying in wait up there!’
      Hatcher nodded, more sagely this time. ‘I see. And you think he may have made this...hole in an attempt to access the room below?’
      King shrugged his shoulders. ‘Why not? I read the papers. Most of the so-called petty theft is undertaken to feed a drug-habit, is it not? From the sound of him, he was certainly high on something.’
      ‘You saw him?’
      ‘Saw him? - No. Heard him...Oh yes.’
      ‘Would you like something in that?’ Hatcher asked, pointing to King's glass.
      King was taken off guard. ‘Do excuse me - I don't normally drink on-- You mean? No, I don't think so. No, I'll just stick with-- Oh, well...why not, eh?’
      Hatcher had already produced the snuff-box and was tendering a pinch of its mysterious contents in King's direction. He sprinkled it into the glass.
      ‘I assume this is...harmless, would you say?’
      ‘Perfectly,’ Hatcher said. ‘Drink it down - you'll feel a lot better.’
      King did as his companion asked and eased himself deeper into the comfortable armchair. ‘It was something of a shock, I can tell you. I'm not normally subject to nerves. Hotels can be creepy places; it's something you get used to...I'm getting over it now.’ He noticed that Hatcher was fixing him with that inscrutable stare. ‘Am I keeping you..? I do apologise--’
      ‘Not at all,’ Hatcher said. ‘I was wondering--’
      ‘Have you considered another possibility?’
      King was uncomprehending; he had begun to see the lighter side. ‘Like a former member of staff trapped up there for all time, you mean?’ He giggled to himself at the thought.
      ‘Something like that.’
      The giggling ceased. ‘You're not serious?’
      ‘You recall we were discussing the fact of Country Comforts wishing to dispose of the Pemberton?’
      King edged forward in his chair. ‘I do,’ he said, in a tone of confidentiality.
      ‘There is always the possibility that you may have inadvertently stumbled upon the reason.’
      King blinked. ‘I'm not sure that I follow--’
      ‘Empty floors. Weird noises. Bad atmospheres...You know the sort of thing.’
      ‘Are you saying that the Pemberton is--’
      Hatcher picked up his coffee-cup and idly began to examine it. ‘Let's just say that it's been bothersome,’ he said. ‘What with all the staffing problems and such, I thought they might have told you.’
      ‘I'd heard about the turnover of personnel,’ King said defensively. ‘And then, of course, there was Roger Dugdale's accident - which is how I come to find myself here. But the trade is notorious for its high--’
      ‘Poor old Duggie,’ Hatcher cut across. ‘And such a promising career ahead of him. What a way to go, eh?’
      ‘Falling from a window is a little unusual, I must admit,’ King said, ‘but hardly indicative of--’
      ‘I wasn't talking about the fall,’ Hatcher said.
      It was starting again, King thought. The infernal wink-wink nudge-nudge of arcane knowledge. His patience with Hatcher was wearing a bit thin. ‘How do you mean?’ he nevertheless felt obliged to respond.
      Hatcher's voice lowered to a whisper. ‘I'm talking about what happened to his eyes. He had no eyes when he was found...ripped clean out of their sockets. And then there were those strange puncture-marks..’
      ‘Eyes? - Puncture-marks? - You know these things as facts, do you?’ King queried, his credulity becoming noticeably strained.
      ‘I know they couldn't find them. His eyes, that is. The official line was that the impact had done it, but those who actually saw the body thought his injuries were the cause of the fall, rather than the result of it.’
      King's instinct was to denounce this nonsense and bring the deteriorating exchange to a close. He laughed out loud. ‘His eyes were torn out, so he fell off the balcony - is that it? Couldn't find the lift, I suppose.’ King shook his head: Roger Dugdale had been the victim of a freak accident; he had slipped and fallen to his death while trying to prise open a window on the fourth floor; his passing had been as simple and ignominious as that, he thought. He had had every intention of formulating a further rebuttal, but his mention of the lift had made him think again. ‘Why was he on the fourth floor?’ he suddenly found himself asking instead.
      ‘Seems he was looking for one of the hotel staff,’ Hatcher stated flatly.
      King's mouth opened and closed of its own accord. His thoughts were thrown into confusion. ‘You've turned as white as a sheet,’ his companion remarked. ‘Somebody walked over your grave?’ 
      ‘Coincidence..’ King offered, without conviction. He was driven by a sudden impulse. ‘You're obviously an expert on the Pemberton...there's something I'd like to show you; something you might be interested in. Can you spare me a few minutes?’
      Hatcher appeared intrigued. ‘Be my guest.’
      King brought Hatcher to his feet and proceeded to conduct him through the maze of corridors which led out to the kitchens. He stood him in front of the old lift. ‘What do you make of that?’ he asked, stabbing a finger towards the unintelligible legend which had been etched into the beam. ‘I thought there was something odd about this - a little local witchcraft, perhaps?’
      Hatcher took a moment to focus his eyes.
      King had started to warm to his joke at Hatcher's expense. ‘Curious, wouldn't you say? Those 'pictograms' (or whatever you'd call them), set in panels of colour: indigo, blue, red, silver, yellow - looks more art deco than Gothic revival to me,’ He turned to his victim.
      Hatcher was staring as if transfixed. ‘Ether - air - fire - water - earth,’ he announced, after a moment's silence. ‘Those are Tattva symbols...They represent the elemental gateway to the astral plain.’
      King was dumb-struck. ‘They mean something?’
      Hatcher looked quizzical. ‘Certainly - that's what you thought, isn't it?’
      ‘Yes...of course. I mean, not exactly. I mean, the possibility did occur but--’ King struggled in vain to recapture the high ground. ‘Anyway, that's why I wanted to show them to you..’ he capitulated finally.
      ‘Where does this lift go to?’ Hatcher asked.
      ‘The fourth floor.’
      ‘I thought as much. I'd hazard the guess that this particular eccentricity was Pemberton's work.’
      ‘So it seems. Among his other conceits, the member for Welborne East was a theosophist.’ Hatcher said, and paused. He lowered his gaze to the padlock, which King had attached to the chain on the wall. ‘It was rumoured that he was also a member of the Golden Dawn - a secret society dedicated to the study of occult texts, and the practise of ritual magic. They would attempt to conjure up... whatever it is that one conjures up.’
      ‘You're not serious?’
      Hatcher threw King a sideways glance. ‘Nothing to be concerned over. This particular 'gateway' is clearly not locked, and nor does it appear to be protected by a 'charm' of any kind - what practitioners of voodoo call an ouanga. So I'd say you were quite safe.’ The tone of Hatcher's remark was undercut by a mocking nudge in the direction of King's ribs.
      ‘What might this...ouanga have looked like?’ King asked, half-heartedly.
      ‘If you'd found one, I think you'd have no need to ask.’ Hatcher assured, and suggested they return to the cosier environs of the lounge.
      With Hatcher resettled in front of the fire, fresh coffee to hand and brandy on the way, King pressed for more revelations concerning the sign over the lift.
      ‘Are you seriously suggesting that Pemberton built that lift to transport himself to - where? - some other dimension?’
      ‘I'm only suggesting that he appears to have taken the ideas of the Golden Dawn seriously enough to try to put them into some kind of practise. First, the acolyte attains a state of grace, then he or she passes through a ritual gateway to another plane. Novel concept, don't you think?’
      ‘Was he on something, or what?’ King whistled.
      Hatcher grinned. ‘They all were, George...that was usually part-and-parcel.’
      ‘What happened to him?’
      ‘Old Arthur? - He threw himself off the top of the building..’
      ‘This building?’
      Hatcher nodded, still grinning.
      King whistled again. ‘..I'm not surprised.’
      ‘Though I've heard tell that he was dead before he hit the ground. Same with Duggie.’
      ‘You're not serious.’
      Two more brandies arrived via the night porter and Hatcher offered King his herbal 'additive.' This time, it was accepted without demur.
      ‘He had no face - Pemberton, that is. Sliced clean off. Not an easy thing to do...even in a fall from that height. I can't speak for your predecessor, though I do know that they had to fingerprint Duggie's body to make a positive I.D. I talk to a couple of the local--’
      ‘You're not--’ King held himself in check. He had come to realise that he was behaving like a parrot.
      ‘The Golden Dawn had access to certain...materials which could induce visions in anyone willing to subject themselves to their influence. The poet Yeats succumbed on more than one occasion and his writings bear witness to what he saw. Whether they were visions, or a drawing aside of the veil of reality depends upon your point of view. Some members of the Order committed suicide after their experiences. Others gained wealth and fame.’
      ‘Sounds a bit like the Lottery,’ King ventured.
      Hatcher chuckled. ‘I suppose it does. And poor old Pemberton didn't have the winning numbers.’
      ‘Where do these...demons figure in all this?’
      ‘An astral gate is supposedly a doorway to another world. Other worlds have other inhabitants.’
      ‘What kind of... inhabitants?’
      ‘Who's to say? Sex figures highly in ritual magic. Succubi and incubi of some sort; monsters of seduction, crossing the bounds which separate the earthly from the divine in the most fundamental manner. Intercourse with the spirit world has a certain irony in an hotel, don't you think?’ A smirk accompanied the question.
      King was less comfortable with Hatcher's analogy. ‘You said Pemberton was a deviant - maybe that was what attracted him,’ he said prissily.
      ‘He was a lecher, certainly, so maybe he wanted to mate with them; he did with everything else.’
      ‘But why jump off a building?’ King asked.
      ‘Maybe they wanted to mate with him..’
      King gulped down his brandy as Hatcher gave in to a burst of involuntary laughter. ‘It's all nonsense, of course - though Duggie did confide to me more than once that he wanted to burn the place down. But what manager of a business hasn't said that from time to time?’
      ‘It's been an experience,’ King said, thinking it was time to bring the proceedings to a halt.
      ‘I bet that's what Pemberton said.’ A second burst of laughter followed the first.
      King looked pointedly at his watch, rose from the chair, and bade his mentor goodnight. Hatcher responded with a nod of the head and a tilt of his glass. Without saying another word, he returned to his newspaper.
      King walked to his office not really knowing what to make of it all. Hatcher had stirred something in him with his tales of black magic and voodoo; an exotic and intoxicating brew from a man steeped in intoxicants, if his regular nightcap was anything to go by. He began to weigh the evidence - on the one hand, an old hotel with an equity of eccentric owners and high running costs, a tendency to change hands at intervals, and a history of violent death among its inmates (if one suicide and one accident in a hundred years could conceivably be called a history!); on the other, a disused lift leading to an empty floor awash with gunge...On the face of it, there was no correlation between the two which the atmosphere of the place, the lateness of the hour, and the effects of a couple of large brandies did not engender. Hatcher had been regaling him with similar stories all evening; his own knowledge of the history of the Pemberton, such as it was, sprang from a single source; most damning of all - Hatcher had a vested interest in bad-mouthing the hotel. Did he not, by his own admission, see himself as the next Lord of the Manor?
      Any doubts which remained in King's mind belonged to whoever or whatever he had encountered on the fourth floor. But what did he encounter? - A voice, he felt at the time; a strange laughter. A tape recording perhaps. Anything was possible. Maybe Hatcher was playing a more cunning and dangerous game than he thought. He had been coming here for years, and he obviously knew the layout of the hotel like the back of his hand. He was clever - devious even? And he had been a confidant of Dugdale's. Could he have led him into a trap? Could he have pushed him? As for Van DrÜcken, Pemberton, and the rest...mere colour to add credibility. And as rumours increase, and legends grow, the building becomes unsaleable. Perfect. Some people will go to any lengths, and over any period of time, to pursue the things that they hold most dear. King was nodding to himself, recalling the long battle for control of Harrods. The difference with Hatcher was only a more inventive bag of dirty tricks. Well, he was not going to be fooled so easily - but if he was to fit into Roger Dugdale's vacant shoes on a permanent basis, he would have to make certain of his case. King looked out of the office-window over the expansive grounds. It was a clear and starlit night with a full moon high in the sky and not a trace of fog..
      There was a loud knock at the door.
      The door opened and Bentow appeared, clad in jeans and sweater. ‘You're up late, Stephen,’ King said.
      ‘I am now; the porter called me. We have a problem in 57.’ Bentow dropped casually into one of the pair of easy-chairs at the side of the room.
      ‘I've just been up there,’ Bentow continued. ‘Some kind of foul-smelling goo has started dripping down the walls in the bedroom.’
      King glanced over at Bentow and shook his head in dismay. ‘What have you done about it?’
      ‘Put the guest in another room - what else could I do? Prentiss won't be in till 7 or so.’
      ‘If he comes in.’
      Bentow frowned. ‘What makes you think he won't? In my time here, I've always found him a reliable sort--’
      ‘He couldn't be found him this evening.’
      Bentow shrugged off the charge. ‘A maintenance man needs to be given a degree of latitude, Mister King. I can call him out now, if you'd like?’
      King chose to ignore the plea of mitigation. ‘Who was in 57?’
      ‘Mrs Wycherley.’
      ‘O Lord..’ King pushed himself away from the desk and gave out with an exasperated sigh.
      ‘Would you like me to call him out?’ Bentow asked, more emphatically.
      King was shaking his head. ‘I'll see to Prentiss, first thing in the morning. As to our little problem in 57 - and 56 come to that! - I have a better idea. We'll go up there. Now. You and I.’
      ‘I can't see what that'll achieve. Whatever it is, it's coming down from above.’
      ‘That's what I meant. We'll take a look on four.’
      Bentow blanched, visibly. ‘How do we get up there? Prentiss has-- I...don't have a key,’ he stammered.
      King pointed to the bunch of keys on the desk. ‘I do.’ he said. ‘So you'd better find yourself a torch.’
      A new determination had prompted King into action at last. Since the prospect of respite from the problem of the fourth floor seemed unlikely unless someone took the necessary steps, he had decided to do just that. He would find the solution to the structural troubles, and put an end to the innuendo and rumour at the same time. Demons. Magical societies. Mangled corpses. Ectoplasmic ooze. Hell Street... It was all the work of a prankster, or an over-active imagination. Or it was a cunning ruse to mask the site of secret staff orgies - sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, and on the company's time! Spy-holes in bathrooms and bedrooms; sniggering in the corridors; practical jokes perpetrated on the very people who paid their wages. He was an old hand at the game, and he had come across it all before. Like as not, Prentiss was up there now. Copulating with one of the waitresses..
      King had seen a heavy spanner in the desk-drawer: makeshift protection in case of any intruders intent on petty theft. He stuffed it into his back pocket; better safe than sorry, he reasoned. He found Bentow clutching a torch and pacing the floor in reception. ‘Ready?’
      The assistant nodded, and they both walked through to the kitchens. As he passed, King cast a glance into the lounge. It was empty; Hatcher had obviously retired for the night. About time, he thought.
      ‘Where are we going--?’ Bentow had begun to ask as they arrived at the lift.
      King sprung the padlock and pulled open the gate, then he stood to one side to allow Bentow access. ‘This seems to be the express route,’ he declared. ‘I thought you might have known that.’
      ‘I thought the key was lost. I know Roger tried to find it; I guess he did in the end..’
King yanked the lever upwards, and the lift began to ascend. He glanced at Bentow; anxiety glinted in the younger man's eyes. The narrow confines of the cage had pressed them closely together, almost intimately so. He thought that he could sense Bentow shivering slightly - the lateness of the hour perhaps; the unusual nature of the circumstance in which he now found himself...Guilt? If anything, Bentow's palpable lack of appetite for the chase only increased his own; he stared straight ahead, firm in his desire to seek after the truth. There would be hell to pay if anyone was caught in flagrante in the upper reaches of the Pemberton at this ungodly hour. He breathed deeply of the musty air in the shaft. He could smell the apprehension in his companion, underneath the familiar aroma of day-old cologne. He watched him steel himself as they reached the third floor - before he was finally lost to view in the dark embrace of the fourth. King felt a thrill of expectancy; at the same time, he could sense the tension in Bentow. The lift ground to a shuddering halt and the two stood shoulder to shoulder, barely daring to breath.
      ‘The torch,’ King whispered into Bentow's ear.
      Bentow flicked the switch. The small ante-room was illuminated in the criss-cross of dancing shadows which were thrown out by the gate of the lift. King released them from their captivity and they both stepped quietly into the room. The beam of the torch probed every crack and corner but discovered no feature of note other than what might be expected from a lengthy period of neglect and disuse. A shroud of dust hung over the entire area, and the heavy air was abrasive to the throat. The place was like a tomb which had been sealed for years; it had the same torpid atmosphere, the same aura of decay, the same qualities of emptiness and extinction.
      King examined the floor. He was able to trace the events of his previous excursion in his own footprints; here, he had cautiously embarked from the lift - there, he had returned to it in peremptory haste. But the dust held evidence of something else which had been intruded onto the room after his passing: a trail of scuff-marks now obliterated much of what went before, as if a heavy object had been forcibly manhandled in the direction of the lift in the interval. King searched the ground for signs of footprints in its wake, but he could see none. He made no mention of the matter to Bentow. Instead, he had urged him towards the door.
      By the time King's attention switched back to his assistant, Bentow was disappearing through the door and out to the corridor beyond with their illumination. The door closed behind him of its own accord, and King was once again engulfed in a sea of murk. His first thought was to cry out to his unthinking companion; instead, he fumbled for his lighter.
King could just see the light of the torch in the gap beneath the door. He was dimly aware of it receding down the corridor towards the window and the sharp turn to the right that led along to the suites. He seemed to sense Bentow's voice echoing in the gloom: ‘That's some fog out there - you can't see a damned thing.’ This was followed a moment later by the sound of a door opening. ‘Is this the one?’
      King toyed half-heartedly with the thumb-wheel of the lighter and made his way uncertainly to the door of the ante-room. Although he had never intended it before his assistant unilaterally decided to take the lead and go on without him, the delay in hastening to Bentow was now becoming deliberate. The unaccountable marks in the dust had triggered an involuntary flash of memory which overlaid another voice on Bentow's own: a strange laugh echoed in his mind behind the familiar and unsuspecting urgings of the young man who had just entered the first suite on the main corridor.
      King hesitated in igniting the lighter. He slowly opened the door and peered along the corridor. He could see no trace of a torch-light in the darkness; the only illumination was provided by the few isolated shafts of yellow irridescence which managed to gain entry through the less obscure parts of the window panes.
      The eerie quality of the light beckoned him to the window. King walked forward into the dancing beams and allowed his eyes to follow their trajectory back to the heavens. For a moment, he was almost unconscious of the pervading silence; instinctively, he had begun to think that it was telling its own story - Bentow seemed to be safe and, by now, probably exploring the intricacies of the plumbing in the suite in question. He stared at the vista that now presented itself for his inspection. The pale moon, sharp and clear, which he had left framed in the window of his office four floors below, was somehow transmuted at this height into an insubstantial aura; a nebulous glow which filled his entire field of view. As if whatever was there to be seen was utterly beyond the bounds of human vision.
      Strange atmospheres produce strange, unaccountable thoughts, King notioned, somewhat philosophically, and turned the corner to find his impatient assistant.   
      There was a noise further down the corridor.
      King stopped to listen. It sounded like something heavy was being dragged along the bare floor-boards.
      He peered into the darkness, but saw nothing.
      A sudden disturbance in the dust that carpeted the floor shot a cloud of particles into the rancid air, as if a door had opened and a blast of wind had gusted in; he could just make out the swirling vortex at the other end of the corridor in the faint light that was seeping through the dirt-choked windows situated halfway along. But no door had opened.
The dust formed into a ball that now extended from floor to ceiling and sent tendrils of accumulated grime spitling down the far walls. To King's straining eyes, it seemed to be generating some kind of internal energy and spreading itself outwards to fill the corridor with a film of yellow fog.
What is that..? he found himself wondering.
      The noise that King had heard was growing louder: it was a rhythmical whoosh, grating and purposeful. But he failed to make out any accompanying footfalls, which would have been a prerequisite of his initial analysis. Now it sounded like something dragging itself along the his direction.
      King felt an object by his right foot.
      He looked down to see what appeared to be a length of discarded pipe or piece of conduit, black and shiny. He kicked it aside.
      It snaked back against his ankle.
      He crouched to detach himself from it.
      It was pulpy... and pulsating. And on the underside were rows of pustulous orifices which contracted to his careless touch.
      King's heart leaped. He pulled his hand away with a yelp and immediately flung himself backwards into the corner between the corridors.
      ‘Bentow! - Bentow!’
      King stared transfixed at the thing on the floor. It had started to lash wildly back and forth and, as he was joined by a twin of the flesh.
      That was enough. King spun on his heels and dived into the ante-room, halting only when he was inside the waiting lift. He clasped the lever and plunged it down, cowering against the far wall.
      In the few seconds it took for the ancient machine to whirr into action, the corridor reverberated with a shriek of absolute terror and the door of the ante-room burst open with an eardrum-splitting crash--
      King went momentarily mad with fright.
      The lift plummeted downwards.
      Almost at once, a wild screeching broke out in the chamber above him:  a piercing cacophony of sound, which echoed around the lift-shaft for a nerve-shattering instant before subsiding into a babble of fury and frustration and becoming swallowed up in the clatter of the descent.
      By the time the lift reached the end of its travel and thudded to a bone-fracturing stop, King's mind had scrambled its natural defences to deal with the assault: he had already lost consciousness..
King woke feeling decidedly groggy. Maybe Hatcher had slipped him more of his 'Manicorean Mickey' than he had intended him to, he considered.
      He showered, dressed quickly and mechanically, and headed down the stairs to reception.
      The hotel was deserted. The doors were not open at this hour of the morning, and no staff had yet appeared at their posts.
      It did not seem to occur to King to weigh up the events of the previous evening. Or even to wonder what had become of Bentow - or how he had once more found himself in his own bed in his own room.
      He walked behind the reception desk and placed the register of guests in front of him. He had some purpose in mind, but the exact nature of his mission eluded him for the moment.
      King was soon conscious of footsteps approaching, but he felt no need to raise his eyes from the register and identify their creator by sight. Something told him whose they were.
‘The bathroom ceiling in 56 - It finally came in,’ Prentiss said. ‘Some time during the night, apparently. The problem was in the suite above. I've just fixed it; the guest was quite happy.’
      ‘Guest? - But I thought that suite was--’
      King flipped the register open to the appropriate page and scanned the room-numbers. His vision seemed to be more than a little blurred. He rubbed his eyes - the strain of his recent adventures, he thought fleetingly. What adventures were those..? But he found the entry he was looking for: an indecipherable scrawl was scratched across the page. ‘I'll pop up later and see him,’ King announced, automatically. ‘Just to make sure.’
      ‘I shouldn't worry,’ Prentiss said. ‘He was coming to see you anyway.’
      King was suddenly aware of himself staring at the register. He had the strangest feeling that what he was looking at was not what he was seeing. ‘And it's not a him,’ he heard Prentiss add, in a much odder tone of voice.
      ‘Not a him..?’ King raised his head and looked at the maintenance man. Prentiss was smiling. Bentow stood beside him, and around them swirled a thick pool of yellow fog.
      Why did both men seem to have six eyes-? And what were the black, tentacle-like appendages that were undulating out from where their arms should be--?