Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Expect the Unexpected
The roller bag had seen better days. To say it had made the journey of a few too many flights would have been a polite way to put it. Duct tape bound a long seam down the back. A corner was held together in the same manner. Wire kept the handle attached. There had been a small mishap with the wire this morning. Tissue paper was wrapped around his thumb. Though there hadn’t been much bleeding, the sight of it had made him woozy.
He was reflecting on the color of blood while approaching the hotel entry. Dragging the bag up the stairs, each step was slammed into. The last step proved too much. The bag gave up a wheel. He watched it bounce down the steps. It came to rest in the middle of the drive. Leaving the wheel behind would be littering. That would not do. It must be properly disposed of. The thought was a reflex. Perhaps an inner need at neatness that managed to escape the clutter. He discovered the bag would no longer stand up unattended. It was laid beside the walkway while he went to fetch the wheel.
While at his retrieval task, a woman topped the steps at the lot’s far end. She looked around briefly before proceeding, as if inventorying the vehicles parked there. She strode the distance, distracted by purpose, unaware she was being observed. Thierry was fascinated by the intensity of focus she projected. Though her movement was stiff, there was a grace to it. The thought came to him that she might catch him watching. He couldn’t endure that. The possibility made him nervous. He returned quickly up the stairs to his bag. Fiddling with it took over all his attention. It was dragged at first, but that didn’t work so well. He carried it the rest of the way to the door, where a moment of indecision occurred. The door did not swing out automatically. To manage the latch, the bag had to be put down. As he turned, the woman was there. Naturally, he would have held the door open for her, as that’s the kind of man he was. However, she was moving so fast that before he could get his thoughts organized, she was through the door. She had greeted him with a Thank You, and kept on. He reached for his bag and followed. But not quick enough: the closing door caught the bag. The handle was left in his hand, no longer attached. No worries. He was practical. The bag had a second handle. He lifted at it gingerly, testing if it would take the weight. This one looked ready to join the other, now in his pocket with the recaptured wheel.
Before the front desk, the lobby was empty, but for the quick walking woman and another behind the counter. Their informal chit-chat ran out as he walked up. The tag on her blouse read, Mireille. He looked up to see her looking at him expectantly.
She said, “And this is your man? Your reservation is for two, then?”
The woman turned. She looked confused, as though seeing Thierry for the first time. There was a pause as her eyes sought focus and brain lagged behind. The distracted look: she was cloud-watching, not participating. That was a state he understood. There was instant sympathy for her. He smiled. That induced a response; however, the gears were stubborn to engage. There followed no smile in reply. Instead, she coldly turned away, and said, “No. No. Single booking.”
Mireille’s gaze was back upon him. She said, “A colleague will be with you in a moment, Monsieur.”
As if by a conjuring trick, said colleague appeared. She first looked at the state of his bag, then reviewed the state of him. Only then, a robotic smile flashed briefly across her bland face. “Please, Monsieur. I can help you here.” She indicated for him to step over before her. He complied.
“You have a booking with us?”
“Good morning. Yes. I do.”
Fingers began dancing across the keyboard. She stopped and looked at him. “Name, Monsieur?”
He read her nameplate, Chantal.
A thought flashed across her face. “Thierry?”
“That’s fine, Monsieur. May I see your ID card, please.”
By reflex, he reached for his wallet.
She continued, “So I can get your information entered.”
Handing her the card, he said, “It should all be in the booking.”
“Yes. I’m sure.” Setting the card beside the keyboard, her fingers resumed their flight, until they froze. “Your ID lists you from Lyon. Is that correct?”
“Yeah,” he said unsure.
“I see. Hmm…”—more fingers—“However, the booking lists Paris.”
“Oh, right. My residence is in Lyon. I keep a flat in Paris.”
She looked at him, studying his eyes. Her attention made him nervous, as though he was being investigated.
She asked, “You are alone with this booking, I see.”
“Yes. It is just me for the stay.” He added, nervously, “It was a nice drive this morning, lovely weather. Though, I found the way a bit treacherous.”
He glanced over to see the other guest was looking at him and had been listening. Mireille was deeply into her terminal, fingers dancing. That their eyes met was a shock, and he quickly looked back at Chantal, who had also been watching him. Her face remained inscrutable.
After letting him suffer an awkward pause trapped within her eyes, a smirk crept in—briefly, and then it was gone.
She said, “The forecast for the week is for fine weather to remain. That is typical for us this time of year.”
He again became distracted, this time by Mireille, who now was looking at him. The attention almost brought upon a panic: did Benoît have a joke with him about the booking? Were these three women in on it?
Mireille came over and said, “Excuse me, Chantal?”
“Is the gentleman’s booking for the third floor, west?”
Flying fingers. “Why yes, it is.” Realization came to her. “Oh,” she said, and looked up questioningly from the screen.
“It’s OK. I will handle this. Could you see to the matter we were discussing earlier, please? We will be in need of the arrangement after all.”
She looked flatly at Thierry while saying, “Certainly,”—the robotic smile returned—“I will see to it right away,” and then disappeared behind a partition.
“Right.” She smiled.
The encounter was bewildering. This was not an enjoyable state he presently found himself in. The sparkle in her eye was not comforting. He felt a crack beginning to form—the edges pulling apart.
“Madame,” she said, gesturing at the woman, “if you please?”
The woman kept at her handy. Oblivious to the non-virtual world.
“Madame?” No response. “Séverine!”
That got her attention. She looked up before her. No one was there. She looked at Thierry, who smiled, embarrassed.
Mireille said, “If you please?” and gestured for her to come over. “Thank you, so I can explain this just the one time.”
“I’m sorry. Conversation with the boss,” Séverine said, indicating the handy. Text lines were scrolling. “Is there a delay with my room? I can wait in the restaurant if it is not ready.”
“No. No. There is an issue with your booking. With both of your bookings, as a matter of fact.”
Thierry sighed, relieved the issue was with the room, and not with him.
Séverine stood against the counter. “What do you mean?” she asked flatly. “My booking was made some time back. It was confirmed then. And, it was confirmed yesterday”—pause—“for today.”
This woman made him feel small, Thierry decided.
Mireille’s smile did not waiver. “That was correct. Your booking was reconfirmed yesterday; however, that was in the morning. If you had called in the evening, you would have been informed of the issue that had occurred. You could have saved the trip from—”
“Paris. I drove here from Paris.”
“Right. You could have saved yourself the trip.”
Thierry shrank smaller.
“A water pipe burst last night. As a result, the entire floor is closed for repair. We had made an effort to contact the effected guests. Seems you both were unavailable for our call. Sorry.”
“Ah…” was all Séverine could manage, before being distracted. Her handy buzzed with another message. The third since standing there. She looked at the screen for a moment. Thierry and Mireille watched her, anticipating her attention’s return.
“Hah!” She blew out the sound sarcastically, then looked at Mireille. “Sorry. That wasn’t directed at you. Work. Can you put me in another room? I don’t really care as long as the wi-fi is good. I’m happy to wait if a room isn’t ready yet.”
Mireille looked to Thierry, and said, “See, that’s just the problem. The season is well underway. It is our busy time. There just isn’t the bed inventory for this area—we are remote, and the crowds. Perhaps you noticed how full the parking was? This hotel has a reputation for enthusiasts.” She took a breath. “No. I am sorry. All the other rooms are booked.”
“I see. Another hotel?”
“I would be more than happy to refer you if there was the possibility, but there just isn’t.”
Thierry asked, with a cracking voice, “Tomorrow?”
Both the women looked at him astonished, as if discovering he had just appeared out of thin air.
“No. Sorry. All booked through the entire week, including tomorrow.”
“Oh,” he said, deflating further. “But what is there to be done? Would there be staff housing perhaps? Not that we are staff, but I wouldn’t mind pretending.” He looked at Séverine. “It could be fun, don’t you think?”
She responded quickly, “No, I don’t.” A moment later, she realized the ambiguity just spoken to this stranger; clarity was required. “I do think that it would not be fun.”
She managed an awkward smile to him. He returned the smile, and grew just a tiny bit in stature.
Mireille, “It wouldn’t matter. Staff rooms are in short supply. Many of them double up. Some even triple.”
“Well, that must be fun,” Séverine said, with a slightly sarcastic tone.
“I haven’t heard any complaints.”
“Perhaps not. The spa provides certain attractive benefits.”
The two women stared. Each sized the other up: one smiling, one not.
Thierry returned to shrinking. It was a thing he had confidence in being good at.
Chantal interrupted, returning from behind the partition. Mireille stepped back. They spoke quietly. As the conversation proceeded, Mireille nodded several times.
In the end, she said, “Thank you,” and the other departed without a further word.
Mireille looked from the one to the other. “We could have a solution, if you are in agreement.”
Séverine, “I’m fine. Let’s go with it.”
“If you both are in agreement.”
“What do you mean?”
“A room has become available. Chantal told me that she had just now spoken by phone with the Sheikh concerning canceling his reservation. He apologized for the late notice and required that the hotel bill him for the full stay and all the arranged amenities.”
As neither spoke, she continued, “How about that for luck? A unique opportunity has presented itself: the most grand suite we have to offer. To apologize for the inconvenience the hotel has caused by not being able to fulfill your bookings, I would be happy to put you both in this suite, if you wouldn’t mind sharing. It has a fully stocked kitchen. A living room. A beautifully designed bath. And, it has two bedrooms. By the way, the view is to die for. I love to go there when it is free to get away while I do paperwork,”—they were silent—“or just to sit and reflect. Mind you, time permitting, of course.”
“Well, what do you think? The Sheikh had arranged with the chief for their meals. All is paid. So rather than it go to waste, I’ll include that too.”
Thierry, “Your offer is satisfactory. I’m good with that.”
Séverine, “This is covered by the prepayment made with my booking? No extra bill? No surprise?”
“Well, I won’t promise on the no surprise, but I will say there will be no cost for either of you. The hotel will cover all the expense.”
“I’m in, then.”
“Would you like to see the suite first?”
“No. That won’t be necessary.”—her handy vibrated again, she glanced at it—“I need to get on-line. Is there wi-fi?”
“Oh, yes. Of course. The suite has its own router. You can connect with ethernet directly into the hotel’s network, if you prefer.”
“Fine. I would like to go up now. There are some things I have to attend to. It has gotten a bit nuts.” The handy had her attention again. “Aagh…” she said, stepping aside to respond to the text.
Mireille made the room key cards. Thierry watched her movements; a warm smile flashed at him. The sincerity had him feeling better; however, in the back of his mind a worry crept in that perhaps a mistake had been made. He chanced a quick sidelong glance at Séverine, whose eyes flashed in response to an arriving text. She banged out a response volley.
“Here you two go. The room is 512, top floor. Signs will direct you,” Mireille said, handing a card to him. Séverine was engrossed in a virtual conversation with her handy; a card was placed on the counter before her.
“I’ll have your bags brought up. If you could direct the porter to your room choice in the suite, please? He will see you are installed. The lift is to your left.”
The porter had since arrived with a baggage cart. Their bags were loaded onboard.
Séverine looked up. Confused, she asked, “What? Where’s the lift?”
There was a curious look in Mireille’s eyes, as though she had been recalling a joke heard the night before. She watched Séverine before replying, “To your left, if you please,” and motioned the direction.
“Thank you,” Séverine said, vacantly. Taking the key card, she started off for the lift, where the porter awaited.
Thierry remained at the counter watching Séverine walk stiffly off. He turned to Mireille, who said “I hope you enjoy your stay with us, Monsieur.”
She flashed a smile. “If you hurry for the lift?”
“That’s OK. I’d rather use the stairs. I’m feeling a bit stagnant after the long drive.”
“As you wish. The stairs are around to the right. If there is anything you lack, toiletries or otherwise, please don’t hesitate to contact the front desk. We are here to see to the comfort of your stay. All is discrete.”
“Thank you, Mireille. You are most kind.”
“As you say, Monsieur, ah, Thierry.” There was an honest warmth in her body language now—a friendly flirtation.
A composite image appeared superimposed upon her, an inspiration. She seemed to recognize what was going on in his head, and nodded at him with pursed lips. Communication accomplished, he chuckled, “Around to the right, you said?”
“Until later, then? Au revoir.”
“Au revoir, Thierry.”
He glanced at the closed lift doors, and started for the stairs.
Mireille pretended to busy herself with gathering papers, but her attention was on the man. He wandered in review of the room’s vaulted interior, almost walking into a stuffed chair. He excused himself to it, and proceeded on.
Chantal returned to the desk. She asked, “You got them into the room?”
Mireille had been looking at the corner where Thierry had just disappeared behind.“Hmm? Oh, yes.”
“A Sheikh? Really? I could barely keep from laughing at the absurdity. Your sister and her machinations.”
“She is the grand schemer. That is for sure.”
“I don’t understand why you go along with it.”
“You don’t know my sister. Believe me when I say, it is easier that way.”
There had been no small talk in the lift. The porter had pushed the button. The doors opened on the fifth floor, which was the top. Séverine stepped out, but was unsure of the way.
“To the left, Mademoiselle.”
“Ah, OK.” She started walking. Looking at the key card, it was blank. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t know the room number.”
“Keep going. At the end of the hall, stop. The door there, that’s yours.”
The carpet had a pattern of long lines. She followed them. As instructed, she stopped at the end. The number on the door was 512. She spoke the number aloud while inserting the card. The light flashed from red to green as the door lock clicked open. She pushed at the door and went into the room, not holding it for the porter. His hand shot out to hold the way while the cart wheeled in.
The entryway was a foyer. It led into the sitting room and the adjoining kitchen. There were three doors. Two were bedrooms, the third was the bath.
She was already in the kitchen, pouring a glass of water from a bottle.
“If Mademoiselle would be so kind as to choose a room, I will install your bag.”
“Either one. I don’t have a preference.”
“As you wish. On the left then?”
“Fine,” she mumbled, falling back into her handy.
“Shall I unpack your bag into the armoire?”
She looked up sharply, and said too loudly, “No!” Catching herself, she adjusted her voice, “No. Thank you. I will do that.”
“As Mademoiselle wishes,” he said, calmly, and rolled her bag off to the bedroom. Once back, he looked at Thierry’s sad bag, considering the missing handle and three wheels. The remaining handle looked doggy. The duct tape repairs would have brought a grin to most; however, he was a professional—there wasn’t even a head shake. His face remained neutral; the grin was reserved for later. Deciding to be cautious, he carried the bag into the other bedroom in his arms.
Returning to the door, Séverine met him there. In her hand was a single bill, of a large denomination. The generous tip was acknowledged in his eye. She feigned to hand it to him, pulling her hand back at the last moment.
“A question, Señor.”
“I was right, you are not French. How is it you knew the room number and that the bags were for separate rooms?”
Looking at the floor, he said, “It is my job to be aware of such things.”
Séverine didn’t say anything to fill the pause; it grew, which drew more explanation from him.
“Mademoiselle spoke it at the desk. I listen, but always discretely.”
“My privacy is important.” Handing him the bill, “This is so you understand the value I place on it.”
“I understand, Mademoiselle. Thank you.”
He pushed the cart out into the hallway and pulled the door quietly shut.
Thierry encountered the porter waiting for the lift. Wishing the man a good day, he offered a tip.
“Thank you, Monsieur; however, Mademoiselle has already provided the gratuity. As Mademoiselle had indicated, I have installed the Monsieur’s bag in the suite's room on the right. Mademoiselle is in the other.”
The lift arrived; he pushed the cart forward. “I wish you a good day as well, Monsieur.”
“Thank you,” Thierry said. He walked to the end of the hallway, to room 512.
Standing before the door, the first thought was to knock. But he wasn’t sure, which left him paralyzed deciding the pros and cons. While the reasoning was circling upon itself, the door swung open wide.
“Oh! It’s you! Come in. I’m about to start a call and was going to put out the Do Not Disturb on the door.” She handed him the door sign. “Here. Hang this.” She turned away, but turned right back. “I’m Séverine.”
He took in air to speak.
“And you are Thierry, correct?” Her hand jutted out. He looked at it before shaking the acquaintance.
She walked away while talking into the handy. Entering the room on the left, the bedroom door closed behind her.
He was alone at the open door, sign still in hand. It was hung on the knob. The bathroom was before him. He entered to relieve himself. It had been awhile since the last potty break on the road. There had been some cramping. It felt good to relax. Flushing, he was sure to put the seat down. The lid was closed as well, just for good measure. First impressions were important.
Walking through the kitchen, a bottle of water was taken from the refrigerator. It was ice cold, and that hurt his head. He went out on the balcony, curious to explore the view. Mireille had said the view was to die for. It was expansive, with the mountain ridge peaks rising above and the glacier valley far below. He turned to take the panorama into his inner eye. Returning to the deck, there was a hot tub in the corner, numerous lounge chairs were scattered about in arrangement. He splashed at the water in the tub. It was hot. Quite inviting. The sore muscles from the drive and life’s little stresses sung to him, pleading, “Please!”
Séverine was behind a panoramic window pacing the room, plugged in. A laptop screen with uncountable open windows was on the desk. She hadn’t seen him. He waved again, indicating the hot tub, with a thumbs up. Still, no attention. There was a shower for washing off beside the tub. Thinking for a moment about appropriate tub attire before an unknown woman, a bathing suit was hit upon. He went back inside. He would shower in the bathroom first and do a good job of it. Several days had passed since his last wash.
The call had ended as abruptly as it had started. Disaster averted, they will probably leave her in peace for at least a short while, if not longer. Leaving her room, the bathroom door was found closed, as before. She was so distractedly deep in her head that it took several steps into the room before she was aware that Thierry was there. He was using the shower. The water was off while soaping his hair. His eyes were shut against the stream of suds. His presence stopped her in a shock. Furthering the confusion, she briefly saw a woman behind him. Looking at her, the woman stepped behind Thierry and was no longer visible. However, in the foggy mirror Séverine saw movement of two forms. Looking directly at the shower, however, only Thierry was there. From a second look at the mirror, she realized the shape in it was only his. Movement brought her back directly to him. But her attention wasn’t so much on his continued shampoo massage, but on his nudity. The motion was hypnotizing; it took several breaths before she was again aware. The reaction startled her. Suddenly, she left, closing the door less quietly than intended. “Georgette? Is that you?” she heard him ask.
She stood in the kitchen, with a view down the hall—waiting. The handy had buzzed several times, but it was ignored. Thierry emerged from the bathroom and went into his room without closing the door. Disappointingly, he had been wearing a robe. She put the empty espresso cup down. It had been a pretense prop for the minutes waited. She went into the bathroom to investigate. Each closet was opened. Linen, towels, robes were found; however, all proved empty of the woman. His toiletries were in disarray by the sink. She stifled the urge to put them away, in order, tall to short, arranged by function. While this thought was struggled with, Thierry came in.
“Oh! Séverine, right? I didn’t realize you were in here. Sorry about leaving my stuff on the counter. I came back to clean all that up. Please excuse the mess. Shall I come back later after you are done? This is a lovely shower, by the way. You will really enjoy it. I did.”
Before she could say that she wasn’t going to take a shower, as she hadn’t the time, he left, pulling the door shut. An open window blew a slight breeze into the room. The steam had mostly evaporated off the mirror. She glanced at his shampoo and conditioner on the rack in the shower. Going over to them, each was picked up, its brand reviewed.
Nice choice, she thought. These were better quality than what she had brought.
Talking aloud, “I will have a shower. I do feel grimy.” Smelling at her hair, “Still smells of subway.” She sniffed at the conditioner and something stirred within. By the hamper she stepped out of her clothes. That brought her before the window. It was a great pane of glass providing a floor to ceiling portal view of the gulf before the mountain. A gust of wind pushed through the open section. The air felt thick and warm with the high mountain smell of nature. More stirring occurred. From the glass shower one could contemplate the view. There was also a deck before the window. If Thierry was out there, he could see in here—see her nakedness. The thought of a stranger watching did not bother her. That was strange, the lack of embarrassing emotion. She wondered for a moment at that thought before it faded.
Turning a knob for the water provided a surprise. The rain shower head had been selected. It doused her with lovely warm water. The surprise relaxed just as the warm ran to icy cold. Inside, she shrieked. The other knob was frantically turned, which brought the temperature directly up to stinging too-hot. A bit more cold brought it to right at first, then she decided the sting was what was needed. It was brought up higher than before. Tension melted with its flow. Thierry had been right, she concluded—raising her regard of the man. A seed of intrigue had been planted. As it was contemplated, steam moisture rolled across the room, to mix in swirls with the air from outside. The chill of the fresh air on her hot skin tingled with the water.
She lost herself, disappearing into the sensation. The shampooing had been done; it had a lovely scent. Now the conditioner was applied. It would remain on for a while—be absorbed deeply into the hair. The rain shower head had been switched to the massage head. The pulses had been worked long against her back and shoulders, where the work-stress was stored. Other areas of the body had been explored as well. One area in particular was being long visited. She had leaned her forehead into the tile wall with an arm overhead for support of the now unsteady legs.
A sensation had rolled along through uncounted moments until a semi-awareness began to surface. She prepared to open an eye to see if there was an audience on the other side of the window. A fantasy flashed of what the observer might be doing just then, if they too shared this rapturous moment. The view out the window was only lovely mountainscape. A moment of disappointment flashed. But before it could be explored, a movement reflection in the glass wall of the shower had her attention. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the outline of a woman who moved towards the vanity. Séverine gasped and turned quickly to face the intruder. Nobody was there.
“Right. Now I am fantasizing about women. Release the fetters and one’s subconscious mind plays games. Disrupting my routines is bound to open me to the strange. What do you expect? It has been work, work, work for far too long.”
From the corner of her eye, she saw the nude woman at the vanity, standing still, facing the mirror. When Séverine looked at the woman directly, there was only herself reflected, in the shower; the pulse head directed water against her thigh. Looking down at the splashing water, the woman again appeared in the periphery.
Séverine tried to comprehend the moment by just perceiving it, without analysis. The nude woman was reviewing herself. Fingers were pulled through long brown hair. Her skin was tan and tautly fit. Finished fluffing at her hair, a drawer was opened and then another. A bottle of perfume was retrieved. Séverine recognized it. A dab was rubbed into her wrists, then wiped across her chest. More drawer rummaging produced a lipstick. It was twisted open in review, a deep red. It had been a birthday gift from a colleague. Séverine didn’t wear much makeup. What she did wear was subtle. The red was much too bold for her tastes. She hadn’t remembered bringing it, but it was in the drawer, somehow. The woman seemed to approve and proceeded to apply the color. It brought an instant intensity to her face that required Séverine to look directly at her. She, of course, disappeared until Séverine looked away.
The woman kissed her lips upon a tissue. She smiled at the mirror and adjusted herself. Turning, her eyes found Séverine, pulling her in, demanding to be looked at directly. Manic. Vision receded, becoming as though from the bottom of a well looking up at this woman, whose face peered down glowing with a wild intensity. A grin formed, showing her teeth. The room returned. The woman laughed cruelly. She turned in a pirouette and was gone.
Sensation returned. It took the form of a chill which shook through Séverine, as if the water had turned icy. The coldness wasn’t upon her skin. It came from her core.
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