Read an Excerpt
Beatriz found herself in a cozy room outfitted as a hotel lobby. An electric fan on the reception desk quietly pushed the warm air around. Three sofas the size of rowboats crowded in on an empty stone fireplace, competing for space with a side table and floor lamp.
A staircase with an ornate wooden banister rose into darkness. The muffled ticking of a clock upstairs was the only sound aside from the soft whirring of the fan.
“I am Borges,” said the man, “and this is my inn. You may try the telephone there on the desk, but getting a connection is difficult. And sometimes there is an echo. Often there is . . . an echo.” He paused, seemingly lost in thought, then said, “Dial nine first.” “Thank you very much. My name is Beatriz.” She dialed Uncle M’s number. It rang faintly, but there was no answer.
That’s funny, she thought. His voice mail should have picked up. She set the receiver down and wondered what she should do next.
The old man was reaching out to touch his fingertips to the surface of a mirror on the wall next to the desk. With frightening precision, his sightless eyes stared directly into hers in the glass, and she thought for a moment that he could see. But his gaze drifted away, and he said, “Have they cleaned this? Are there spots?” “It looks fine to me,” she said. “No one answered.” There was an awkward silence.
“Well, we had better find you a room,” said Borges, sighing. “It’s almost eleven, and you are far from home.” “How do you know? How do you know I’m far from home?” “Everyone who comes here is far from home. We’re quite the outpost.” “Is that New York across the river?” “New York? No, certainly not New York.
I’m sorry. But let’s talk tomorrow. It’s late, and I must close up for the night. Let me get you settled in.” He felt for the rack of keys and unhooked one.
“Fortunately, we have a number of unoccupied rooms.” He gave a little laugh.
“I’ll put you in number 26. It is already made up. Forgive me if I don’t show you up. . . . It’s getting hard for me to take the stairs.” He clicked a wall switch, and warm yellow light cascaded down from the upper floor. “There are sandwiches and milk by the bed. The bath is at the end of the hall. We’ll try the telephone again in the morning.” Beatriz stuck out her tongue at him as he spoke, but he didn’t react. He really was blind. She watched him turn and shuffle off toward the back, down two steps into a darkened lounge. She thought he was going to bump into another mirror at the far end, but he turned aside just in time. With the click of a door latch, she was alone.
It was a relief leaving the gloom of the lobby, coming up into the bright, soft light upstairs. She had never before stayed by herself in a hotel, though her uncle’s apartment building felt like one, and she had often been very much alone there. This place seemed more like someone’s home. Still, she felt rather grown up, holding the key and looking for her room.
She found herself in a hall with dark blue carpeting (No katydids, thank goodness), six or seven rooms going off on either side, and a grandfather clock ticking quietly near the end.
None of the rooms had numbers.
I can’t try them all—I’ll wake everybody up!
The feeling of being grown up dissolved into mild panic. There must be a system. It’s the second floor, so they all start with 2, I suppose. And if the room by the stairs is number 20, let’s see . . . the one next to the other end—that must be the bathroom at the end—that would be 27. Unless they start on the other side, or alternate across the hall, in which case . . . In which case, I’m just going to have to try one. She pushed the key as quietly as she could into the lock of one of the doors and attempted to turn it.
It didn’t work.
Something bright caught her eye. Mirrors faced each other on both sides of the hall, hung between the doors, and she noticed that the reflection of one of the doors had a big brass numeral 23 right in the middle of it. Well, that’s a help, she thought, turning to the door.
But there was no number. She touched the wood. It was smooth, dark, and bare. She looked in the mirror again. There was the number—backward of course, but right in the middle of the door.
Looking in the mirror on the opposite wall, she discovered that the door facing number 23 was marked 26.
Okay. At least there was a system, though not of the usual sort. Now the key turned, and the door swung quietly inward. She felt along the wall inside and found the light switch.
The room was small, painted white, with a pleasantly old-faashioned quilt- covered bed, two side tables, and a flip-front desk—the kind her uncle called a secretary. There was a door that looked as though it ought to lead to a closet, and a window hidden behind pale blue curtains.
The side table closest to her hhhhhad on it a plate with two sandwiches, a small pitcher of milk, and an empty glass. She sat on the bed and looked at the sandwiches. Cucumber and mayonnaise on white toast. Still warm! She bit into one, a little nervously at first, then wolfed the whole thing down. Usually, she thought, you end up writhing around on the floor and dying ten minutes later. In stories, anyway.
But nothing happened, so she ate the other sandwich and then examined the room. Dust bunnies under the bed. Coat hangers and extra blankets in the closet. In the secretary was a large volume from an encyclopedia. ANDREA DORIA through- ANTLER. There must be an awful lot of books in that set. There was also a pen, and stationery printed at the top with a picture of an open book and the words “The Library, Crescent City.” Then her heart nearly stopped. For there, in one of the pigeonholes in the secretary, lay a framed black-and-white photograph of her mother and father posed next to each other in front of the entrance to Borges’s inn. They were smiling, but they looked rigid and uncomfortable. It had to have been taken several years ago, since they looked quite a bit younger than now. She picked it up and stared at it. Tears trickled down her cheeks, dropping onto the glass.
“How can they . . . ? Where . . . ?” A familiar feeling returned to her chest: an aching pain, the physical need to be with them. She sobbed and looked up at the ceiling. All the feelings that she had put on hold during her adventure flooded back. How did this picture get here? Where were they?
Nearly blinded by tears, she stumbled to the door and down the stairs, clutching the picture, tripping on the steps leading to the lounge. Trying to compose herself, she knocked on the door the old man had gone through.
No answer. She tried to keep her mouth from grimacing, tried to keep her tears in check.
She knocked again. “Excuse me!” Still no answer.
She turned the knob. The door led to a darkened restaurant dining room. Glowing white tablecloths seemed to float above the floor in the moonlight. The wall on the right was all windows, overlooking the glittering river. At the far end of the room, the hotel proprietor sat at one of the window tables, his back to her. He might have been asleep or lost in thought, except that he was drumming his fingers on the table and humming softly.
“Excuse me, sir.” She went over to him.
“I was in the room and I found this picture. . . . It’s my mother and father and they’re missing and that was why I came to stay with my uncle—until we find them—and I need to know where they are, where you got this. Please.” She couldn’t hold back her tears anymore.
He said nothing. He didn’t seem to have heard her.
“Please. PLEASE!” She swiped at the tears. The old man turned toward her.
“Photograph?” He cleared his throat. “Photograph? They are so . . .
so unreal.” He shook his head. “In the end, they’re just paper. Just pieces of paper.” “Can you please help me?” “Yes, yes, of course. I will try. Let me see if we can find something.” He stood up wearily and, with a gesture indicating that she should follow him, walked to the back of the dining room and through swinging silver doors into the kitchen. Rows of hanging stainless steel pots gleamed faintly in the darkness. A computer screen glowed green next to a small desk.
“Please sit down. And type in, oh, I suppose, ‘photograph in the rooms.’ That would be a good place to start.” Beatriz tapped out the words and pressed ENTER. The display went blank for a moment, and then a long list began slowly scrolling down the screen. As far as she could tell, it was largely composed of random words and phrases. There were occasional coherent entries: “Egyptian Tombs in Cross Section” and “Collisions at Sea, 1700–1750,” for example, and “Jim’s Fortieth Birthday,” “Cheeses of Bavaria,” and “Health Cults in 19th-Century Saratoga.” Before she had time to wonder whether her mother and father had ever been to Bavaria, “Recent Guests at The Library, Crescent City” appeared.
She tracked it with the cursor and clicked on it.
Three photographs came up on the screen: an empty room that looked like the one she was staying in; a very thick hardcover book half submerged in murky water; and the interior of another room, similar to the first. The computer flashed a message at the bottom of the screen: “Click HERE for more detail.” “Did you find something? It’s in such disarray. . . . I’m not well suited as a librarian anymore.” He pointed to his eyes.
“I’m not sure. It looks like the room upstairs. And a book.” She clicked on HERE.
The machine prompted: “Enter last name, first name, middle initial.” “It’s asking me to enter a name. What should I do?” “Type in your name, I suppose.” Immediately after she did this, the screen filled completely with text—an enormous number of words, scrolling slowly down what seemed an infinitely long page. This time nearly everything was recognizable. It was a jumble of personal facts, quotes, letters, anecdotes: her grandma’s note to her on her tenth birthday, grocery lists, poems, transcriptions of telephone calls. There were frequent mentions of herself, her mother, and her father. She wanted to stop everything and rewind it, to go back to that life, to the world she had so taken for granted before the events of the past two weeks. Or at least keep the words on the page from disappearing. She clicked all over the screen, but the words continued moving up and out of view. “How do I stop it?” “Stop it? Stop it? You can’t stop it, my dear. It’s Time. It’s the past, falling away . . . falling into darkness. . . .” She glared at him. What was he talking about? Why he did have a picture of her parents? Why did his computer have so much personal information about her family?
She looked back at the screen, which was now blank except for a blinking cursor and the words “Click HERE for next entry.” The next entry turned out to be a picture of an unfamiliar housecat grooming itself.
She was too exhausted and too miserable to hide her anger. “What is going on here? Who put that picture in my room?” “Now, now. Please calm down. It could have been anyone. . . . So many pass through here. Let’s think about it in the morning, when you can look at it in the light. Perhaps there’s writing on the back? We’ll see, we’ll see. I really must be getting to bed.” She held the photo up in the dim light but could see nothing.
Back in her room, she slid the picture out of its frame to see if there was anything written on the back. Nothing.
And on the front, just the image, the flesh tones faintly hand-tinted—something she hadn’t noticed before. She slipped it back into the frame.
What was that book doing, the one in the picture on the computer? Floating? Books don’t float—do they? And what about the photographs of the two rooms?
She stared at the forced smiles frozen on her parents’ faces. Her eyes ached and her head hurt. She lay back on the bed, holding the picture close to her chest. There were no more tears left, but she sobbed silently until she finally fell asleep.
The path wound through birch and madrone, live oak and bay trees. Moss and ferns covered the forest floor—what she could see of it, since the daylight was fading. Birds twittered softly, putting one another to bed, and an occasional soft crunch in the underbrush signaled a small animal making its way out into the night.
She had always liked walking alone in the woods in Iowa, and although she had no idea how she’d come to be here—wherever here was—in some ways she felt more at home in this forest than she did in New York’s Central Park, where there were always so many people.
She was as social as the next person, but there was something basic and comforting about being away from everybody, about being by yourself in the woods. Your problems were somewhere else, and here it was just you and the birds and the trees and the ferns. Unless, of course, you got stung by a bee.
In the fading light, she had to concentrate on following the path to avoid the roots and stones poking up out of the hard brown dirt, so she didn’t notice right away that someone or something was walking behind her. And when she did, she tried to convince herself it was just the echo of her own footsteps—until she heard a twig crack. She turned to face the sound, ready to yell at whatever it was—or run.
You have no doubt seen pictures of the famous black figure of Death. He carries a scythe, his face is hidden by a hood, and he’s a skeleton beneath his robes. Imagine how you’d feel if you actually met him, walking alone in a strange forest at nightfall. Beatriz was too terrified to move—and too terrified to speak.
“Why, hello there.” The voice was friendly. Not what she expected. “Please don’t be alarmed at my appearance. It’s a costume. I’ve learned that people expect a certain dramatic touch.” He sighed. “But yes, I am Death. The Grim Reaper. Your Eternal Reward. Whatever.” There was a rotting smell in the air, like bad breath or very strong cheese.
It made Beatriz feel faint.
“Have I . . . that is . . .” “No, no! Goodness, no! You haven’t ‘passed on.’ It’s not yet ‘your time.’ This is a purely casual encounter.” “But where am I?” she asked. “Hmm. You know, I really couldn’t say.
We’re just coming out of a forest here and into some hills. . . . I used to be a real whiz at places, but I’ve forgotten so much since I got this satellite positioning gizmo. When it’s working correctly, it’s supposed to tell you your exact latitude and longitude, right down to the meter.” He held up a device that looked like a cell phone, clicked it, then brought it up under his hood for a closer look. “But these cheap batteries . . .” An unsettling thought came to Beatriz.
“We are still on Earth, though, right?” “Oh, yes.” He looked around hesitantly.
“At least, I think so.” It was now almost dark, and the robed figure took a flashlight out of his sleeve and shone it ahead of them, indicating that they should keep walking. They went on side by side, Beatriz wondering what he would do if she tried to excuse herself so she could find the hallway and go back to Uncle M’s. But after a few nervous glances at the black robe and the silvery blade of the scythe, she decided to keep quiet for the time being.
The birds had settled down, but chirping insects, joined by dozens of peeping frogs, made the warm night air feel happy and friendly. A moon (it looked like Earth’s moon) peered over the edge of the forest, and soon rose high enough to make the flashlight unnecessary.
Thousands of stars twinkled above them in a big black sky. Beatriz tried to make out the Big Dipper, or Orion, but there were so many stars, and the ones she was looking for either were not there or were lost in the bright ocean of light that spread across the sky.
Now the path took them through low, grassy hills dotted with live oaks and their velvety brown shadows. Behind them, the forest was a thick, dark blanket. “Well,” said her companion meaningfully, “I have a confession to make.” Beatriz stopped, somewhat alarmed.
“Nothing to get worked up about. I exaggerated a little bit in saying this was a casual encounter. True, it’s unofficial, but I did ask that wood imp in your uncle’s apartment to mention that the top floor might be worth exploring.” “Is this about my parents?” Although frightened, Beatriz was hopeful that he might know something about their disappearance.
“Well . . . yes and no.” He paused.
“What do you mean?” She wished she could see his face underneath that hood. Or maybe not.
“Let me give you a little background—how things function in my line of work. First of all, it’s very bureaucratic. It wasn’t that way ‘in the Beginning,’ when they set things up, but rules have a way of breeding more rules—they’re worse than rabbits. For every person I take in, there are a dozen forms to fill out. Names to be entered in registries, notifications of final destination made—the regulations book is as thick as a Bible.
“So when someone throws a wrench into the works, there’s a lot of explaining to do. A lot of extra paperwork for yours truly.” “What do you mean, ‘throws a wrench’?
Did my parents . . .” He ignored her question and began walking again. “Unfortunately, there are also very strict confidentiality rules.” She stood looking at him for a moment, then ran to catch up. “I can’t tell you much,” he continued.
“The Big Guy doesn’t like the general public to know about the inner workings.
Shrouds things in mystery. Claims it keeps people on their toes.” “But what about my mom and dad? What did you mean by it’s ‘yes and no’ about them? You have to tell me if they’re—if they’re . . .” “Well, the ‘no’ part means I can’t really tell you much.” “And the ‘yes’?” “The ‘yes’?” He sounded pained. “The ‘yes’ . . .” His voice trailed off.
“Are they alive?” She touched his sleeve but immediately pulled her hand back. His robe was freezing cold, quite a shock on a warm summer’s evening. “Are they here?” “Lovely night, isn’t it?” said her companion. Then, after a pause, “Let me just say I know that your parents—and you, for that matter—are not the sort of people who go around throwing wrenches into things. But there are others who do. And if I don’t want to spend the better part of Eternity filling out wrongful death certificates and illegal otherworldly transfer filings, some of those others—one very clever one, in particular, who has managed to turn the regulations to her advantage—need to be dealt with. I could nab her in a minute,” he glanced at his scythe, “if she weren’t such a slippery character. She’s made it bloody complicated, pardon the expression. Your typical death row appeal is like a stroll in the park in comparison.” “I see.” Beatriz didn’t.
“So—I’m asking for a little unofficial help.” “From me?” “Yes,” he said.
“It is about my parents—right?” “Just look at that lovely moon.” Beatriz let her frustration get the better of her fear. “How can I help if you won’t tell me what’s going on? What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to I go?” “First off, you can’t hang around me much longer. You’ll start to grow moss on your face, and your toes’ll turn gray. (You don’t want to know what happens after that.) You’re going to have to figure a lot of it out on your own, because I cannot be perceived as being involved. I’m bending the rules just by talking to you.” “Rules? What rules?” “I’ll try to keep an eye on you, though my schedule’s awfully hectic, what with the Middle East and all. But if you can manage to help me, you may possibly help yourself, too. No guarantees. Not even I know . . .” “What?” “Hush. I’ve said too much.” As he said this, a faint flash of sheet lightning lit the sky behind the distant hills, and a low roll of thunder followed a few seconds later. “He’s omnipresent. When He’s paying attention.” They walked on in silence.
“Look, there’s light up there, just around the bend,” said Death. “Let’s see if we can’t get you a room for the night.” The path curved around the base of one last hill, and Beatriz paused for a moment on the other side to admire a dramatically changed view. Below them, a quarter mile or so down a gentle grassy slope dotted with fireflies, a great river spread out across the landscape, black except where a bright blade of moonlight fell across it. And just ahead, the path joined a one-lane dirt road that wound its way down to a little village at the water’s edge. The lights of a city twinkled on the far side of the river near the horizon.
“How beautiful!” Beatriz said. A gentle breeze cooled her face as she watched water flow through the slice of moonlight.
“Yes . . . lovely,” said Death. “And so fraught with metaphor.” Following the road, which eventually turned into a paved street, they soon found themselves flanked by darkened houses, widely spaced, with neatly trimmed lawns and hedges between. They passed a hardware store and a bank, and stopped in front of a small hotel: brown-shingled, two stories high, with four windows across the front on each floor. A white sign hung over a door in the middle of the ground floor.
THE LIBRARY—RESTAURANT & LODGINGS was painted in elegant black script. There was just one light on, in a window next to the door, and the place seemed deserted.
She turned to the robed figure to say, “It doesn’t look like anyone’s still up,” but he was gone. A nasty smell lingered in the air.
She wrinkled her nose and knocked softly. Holding her breath, she could hear nothing but the steady drip of water from a garden faucet nearby. She knocked again.
The porch light came on, and after a few seconds the door swung inward. A distinguished- looking older man with a large nose, thinning gray hair, and beautiful white eyebrows asked, “Who’s there?” He stared over her shoulder, and she realized he was blind.
“I wonder if I could use your phone. I need to call my uncle.” The man smiled mysteriously and said, “You must be quite lost, my dear, to be wandering around here at this time of night. But come in, come in. The night air is rank with the smell of death.” “Yes . . . I know.”