The flight over was relatively short and uneventful. Several hours surrounded by free booze and attentive air hosts wasn’t a bad way to waste the day, especially when I wasn’t the one paying for it. When checking in I had noticed that my ticket was one way, here’s hoping that it’s to keep my stay open ended rather than dead ended. From the travel guides I found in the airport bookstore I managed to find out some interesting facts about the Hotel Midgar. My initial thoughts were correct, the hotel is owned and run by a large group of investors who have strong ties to various Norse cults. Almost every major Norse deity was represented in this odd but somehow sustainable business arrangement. It was probably no coincidence that Midgar was the name for the mortal realm that sat upon the world tree, Yggdrasil. Central to the Norse mythos, Yggdrasil held the high worlds such as Valhalla in it’s branches, and the roots curled around the lower realms of Niefilhelm, or Hel as it has become known. Midgar, or Earth, sat in the middle governed by the will of the gods surrounding it. I was thinking to myself that it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to know that somehow this hotel centred around the tree mythos when my black cab pulled up in front of the hotel.
A gigantic marble tree wove its way up and around the facades of the seven story building, something quite out of place in the metropolis of London. High relief stonework brought the tree to life as it’s branches stretched out under window sills and balconies. The roots sat above the footpath giving the impression they ran deep down into the earth and beyond. The cab driver piled my lone pathetic suitcase onto the side walk and gave a very English nod before leaving me to stand looking up at the strange edifice before me. A crowd of young Londoners passed between me and the hotel, breaking the spell momentarily with their random conversation filling my ears. Shaking my head to clear my thoughts of gods and impending doom, I collected my case and headed under the bright red awning that sported the same gold logo as the matches I had in my pocket.
The doorman opened up the oak lined glass doors and ushered me inside with a friendly smile and a nod. I was too taken aback by the grandiose space before me to thank the doorman properly as I wandered through and into the lobby. If the hotel business ever took a slump you could repurpose this entire area into a used marble warehouse. All the internal walls, desks, and features were made a of a very expensive looking rose marble. A small but grandiose fountain made of a slightly lighter marble bubbled away in the far corner. Directly ahead of me sat a rather large staircase that filled most of the reception area, plush red carpeting covered the dark wooden steps leading upwards. The staircase split left and right to cover both sides of the hotel about half way up the wall, contrasting strongly against the marble walls. Red and gold lifts were tucked under the wings, they were obviously a later addition to the rest of the building but they didn’t stand out at all. Anywhere else I’d say a golden lift would be too much, but here they fit in perfectly. I must have been standing in the middle of the entrance for a while as a staff member called out to me.
‘Sir? Excuse me, sir?’
I turned to face them at reception and smiled. The bewildered look on my face must have been unexpected as it caused the woman jumped slightly. I tried to rectify the awkwardness by smiling more and swiftly crossing the space to the reception desk. The receptionist’s maroon hotel uniform hugged her frame, offsetting her short, bottle blond hair.
‘James Carol.’ I said, nervously smoothing out my thinning black hair and putting on what little charms I had left. She seemed rather unfazed and slipped into helpful receptionist mode, almost like I was just another customer. I pretended like my ego hadn’t taken a small hit and eventually remembered why I was here, asking if there was a room waiting for me. My employers had apparently spared no expense and put me up in the cheapest room the hotel had to offer, which I could tell from just the name: ‘the deluxe suite’.
A bellboy appeared as the receptionist handed over the keys and wished me a happy stay. I almost laughed at her but took the pleasantry anyway, thanking her for the trouble. Things have a way of not quite working out in my favour but she wasn’t to know. I followed the young man with my bag over to the stairs, passing over yet another gold ‘M’, this time inlaid into the light marble floor. I had a split second to notice the restaurant and bar that sat to the right of the entrance, making a mental note to visit there the first chance I got. While the room was cheep it wasn’t particularly close, three flights of stairs later and I was giving the bellboy the only tip I had, ‘watch out for redheads, kid.’ I quickly made myself at home by throwing my suitcase and overcoat in the corner and headed down to the bar. So focused on my post flight task I almost didn’t notice the Manila folder sitting on the small desk under the window before I left. I let the door click closed as I made my way back into the room. There was a single white business card atop the folder, with the now familiar volknut embossed on the card in a simple black and white pattern. I turned it over but it was blank on the reverse, cute. Putting the card aside I opened up the folder and began to look over its contents.
The package consisted of several black and white photographs from what looked to be a surveillance camera. The main focus of which matched the very rough description of the woman I was after. The two tone photos highlighted her hair colouring, marking the stark divide between black and white down the centre of her head. I collected the photos and discarded the folder, walking over towards the standing lamp I shuffled through the collection. For every new angle shown there was a matching close-up of her face. Half blurred, I had trouble making out distinct features, but there was enough to help me pick her out of a line up. She looked young, probably early to mid twenties but it was hard to say from the grainy images. Her slight facial features, while beautiful in their own right, were not as remarkable as her eyes. One close up showed her looking almost directly at the camera and I had to adjust the lighting several times to make sure it wasn’t just an affectation from the poor quality. Pitch black eyes looked directly into the lens, only the slightest hint of grainy white encircled the outer iris. I stood bewitched by her dark stare, taking in the subtle hints of make-up that accented the details of her face. Even in the monochrome world of the photos she suited the black lipstick and eye-shadow. The soft fall of hair around her shoulders framed a perfect face and completed the package. I shook my head. I was going to have to be careful and not get too caught up in this. Falling for a dead girl was bad enough. Falling for a dead girl who escaped from Hel was just asking for a world of hurt.
I was about to put the photos away when something caught my eye. In one of the widest shots I saw something familiar. Holding the photo up the light I let my eyes relax and then I recognised it. Part of the gold ‘M’ embedded on the floor of the lobby below. She had been here. I doubt she was still here otherwise my client would have done the job himself and saved a few grand. I understood now about starting at the beginning. This is where they lost track of her and it was up to me to follow the scent. The hotel bar was my best starting point, for no other reason than being the closest bar I knew of and I was on my way there anyway. I took a choice photo from the pile and discarded the rest on the desk in a messy heap before walking out of the room.
I took my time going down the stairs, pacing myself this time around. I would have to investigate the lifts on the way back and see if they stopped on my floor or if the staff here just hated me for some reason. It was getting near dark outside and the hotel bar, slash restaurant was just starting to get busy with holiday makers and after work suits milling around. I managed to secure a stool between a tired looking accountant and middle-aged couple from the Americas. The polar opposites offering an interesting beginning to the evening. When asked I ordered an old fashioned and watched the bartender work their magic. Soon the whiskey filled glass was in front of me and the first of my many expense account purchases was made. As I took a tentative sip of my drink I scanned the room, trying not to be too obvious.
The far side of the bar was lined with booths butting up hard against the windowless wall, while a sea of tables filled the spaces between the bar and the half height windows that lined the street side. Most of the tables had been taken by noisy groups of people discussing the day’s events and laughing obnoxiously. From my stool I watched other guests descend the grand staircase and pile out of the lifts as they headed out looking for what London’s night-life had to offer. The less adventurous opting to eat in the hotel restaurant. Instinctively I searched their faces just in case my missing woman happened to return. It was a long shot but sometimes the gods work in your favour. Not often mind you, but it’s been known to happen. All the people coming in now were much too old to be my target so I gave up and returned to finish my drink.
I held the cherry stem back with my finger as I let the cold whiskey fill my pallet. The ice had diluted the whiskey and helped bring out the slightest flavours of pear and vanilla. My body knew that this was not my normal rot-gut spirits and sent a shiver of delight down my spine as I finished the drink. I waved over the bartender and brought out the photo from my pocket.
‘Haven’t seen her around recently have you?’ I said, chewing on the cherry. He took the photo and looked at it. His uniform was the same as the receptionist I met before, I would have thought it impractical for tending bar but he seemed to be doing ok. His young face looked at me and shook his head.
‘I’ve been away the last week or so, Lauren might know though.’ He said handing back the photo. I pocketed it again and asked where I’d find Lauren at this time of night. He ran a hand through his short blond tipped hair.
‘She’s on dinner service this week, you’ll probably catch her soon. That’s her area over there.’ He said indicating towards the line of mostly unoccupied booths at the far side of the bar.
‘Thanks.’ I said sliding a sly fiver across the bar. I ordered another drink and made my way over to one of the free booths and settled in for the evening.
My drink sat on a Midgar branded coaster and sweated while I glanced over the dinner menu. I hadn’t eaten since the morning, if you didn’t count airline food. A wide range of simple English pub food filled the menu, a solid staple if you enjoy bland and hot chips. I eventually settled on cottage pie and let my attention wander over to the window while I waited for my waitress to appear. The sky was dark outside, with the days starting to get shorter and shorter. A moon existed out there somewhere but it was too hidden by clouds to do much good. People walked up and down the still busy street, covering their expensive dresses and smart suit jackets with heavy coats and scarves. I wondered to myself about what someone from Hel would be wearing, as they hid back among the living. The surveillance photos only showed solid black blurs below her neckline so it was hard to tell. Had fashioned changed much since she died? When exactly did she die? Good questions that might lead me somewhere. I made a mental note to ask my employer the next chance I got. Soon, my wandering mind was brought back by the arrival of my waitress.
‘Would you like to hear today’s specials, sir?’ She asked in a pleasant, south London accent. I cast a lazy eye over her and was once again met with the standard burgundy uniform of the hotel. While uniforms by their very nature generally didn’t give much room for individuality this waitress had taken it upon herself to push the bounds. A size too small around the bust, the golden buttons strained to restrain her modest chest. It took most of my will to keep my eyes above her name tag.
‘I’m fine this evening, Lauren. Just a cottage pie and some help if you can?’ I flashed my least threatening smile at her, but to be honest it wasn’t my strong suit. To her own, she smiled sweetly back jotting down my order.
‘Cottage pie and what did you need help with, sir? I can get the concierge if you want?’
I showed her the photo and asked if she’d seen the woman in it. I watched the expression on her face as she studied it. There was a hint of recognition in her eyes as she handed back the photo and said, ‘Yeah, she was here a few nights ago. Poor thing was starving like you wouldn’t believe. Ordered almost the entire menu, just wanting to taste everything.’ She shook her head. ‘She tried to pay with some weird gold coin and I had to get the manager.’
I nodded as I pocketed the photo. ‘What happened to her?’
‘She talked with the manager for a while, I thought he was just going to call the police but in the end he took the coin and told us to give her whatever she wanted. It was strange but Bobby,’ she indicated to the bartender I spoke with earlier, ‘he said it happens from time to time. Strange people wandering in to the restaurant trying to pay with weird coins and things. Management always picks up the tab. He said one time a guy wandered in here half naked and ranting in some weird language. Took three bellboys to restrain him, apparently. Glad I wasn’t on that shift.’ She stood looking at me quizzically. ‘Why did you want to know? She your daughter or something?’
Ouch. Daughter. I suppose I’m not getting any younger but give a guy a chance.
‘Something like that.’ I said, trying to hide the snark. ‘She’s missing and I’m trying to find her. Any clue where she went?’
‘I think the manager gave her a room for the night but I never saw her after that, she must have left early the next morning.’ She shrugged.
‘Any chance I could talk to the manager?’ I asked.
‘He’s pretty busy in his office, doesn’t like to be disturbed unless it’s important, you know?’ She glanced towards the kitchen doors, I was holding her up too much.
‘Don’t suppose you could tell him there was a guy out here trying to pay with one of those funny coins, could you?’ I smiled, hoping if not charm, pity would get me what I wanted. She said she’d see what she could do and walked off nervously. There were always other ways to talk to the manager, none as polite as asking though, and it never hurt to ask. I turned back to the window and finished the rest of my drink. I rolled the cherry around in my mouth, savouring the bitter sweet flavour as I waited for my meal to arrive.
A soft, smooth jazz piped its way through the hidden speakers around the restaurant in vain, barely audible over the growing chatter of the patrons. I took the time to think about the surrealness of my day. This morning I was staking out a cheating partner and a few hours later I was in London, looking for a walking corpse. It never occurred to me to ask if she was technically alive now. One would assume she was but these things can be complicated. If I didn’t find her in time maybe she turns into a pumpkin, or a pile of ashes? I’d have to find out more about this, never hurts to be over prepared in this job. As I sat thinking I felt myself drift off, ever so slightly. A combination of the booze and the remnants of the flight, my body decided that now was a good a time as any to rest.
I had only just started to nod off when I was jerked awake by the sound of the manager approaching. I sat back with a start as a tired looking man shuffled into the booth seat opposite me. His large frame pushing uncomfortably against the fixed table edge till he adjusted himself with an awkward grunt. Appearance wise, if he had a drink in his hand we could almost be related. Tired eyes looked at me with a ‘here we go again’ stare.
‘Laura, the waitress’ he clarified, ‘said you had problems paying, you another new arrival? You don’t look much like the usual first timers we get, you’ve already got the right clothes for one. A little out of date and in need of an iron, but we can fix that.’
I looked down at my clothes, suddenly feeling more judged than usual. The manager rubbed his forehead, already looking exhausted at the idea of having to get a new visitor sorted. As his arm came down I noticed a badge on his jacket, familiar gold lettering told me his name was Nick and that he was the Associate Manager for Hotel Midgar. I decided to give Nick a break.
‘I’m not a new visitor.’ The news surprised him a little. ‘I’m actually looking for one though, I asked young Laura to help me out a little.’
I could actually see his face change from surprise to annoyance. Both were very similar the latter producing more wrinkles on his face. He shot an angry look over at poor Laura, who looked confused and slightly scared.
‘Don’t blame the kid I can be quite persuasive when pushed.’
‘You’re lucky, she’s new. The others know better and would have asked you to leave.’ He looked defeated but still annoyed. ‘Since I’m here now, who are you after?’
‘I’m looking for her.’ I said, handing over the photo. ‘Laura said she came in the other night and you spoke to her.’ Nick took a far too long look at the photo, I could practically see the dirty old man gears working under his scalp. I should know, I have the same thoughts every time I looked at the bloody thing.
‘You know her?’ I prodded. ‘I just want to talk to her, that’s all.’ Nick looked up at me placing the photo on the table. His eyes wanted to talk but his brain was holding him back. I could see pain flash across his brow as he dabbed at it with a purple handkerchief.
‘Look,’ he eventually said. ‘I’m not supposed to talk about it. The big bosses have rules you know. I could lose my job.’ His voice had dropped to a hushed whisper as he looked around nervously. Nick had basically screamed out to me that he was going to spill, he just needed some reassuring and hel, who didn’t these days?
‘It’s fine Nick, I’m working for the good guys here.’ I nodded upwards hoping to semi bluff my way through the conversation. ‘She’s not where they want her to be and I have to bring her back. You don’t want to get in the way of that do you?’ I hoped the fear of being in the wrong outweighed his fear of talking. As the saying goes, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Story of my life at least. My prodding was breaking him down and I had one last card to play.
‘Nick.’ I said bringing his focus back to me. ‘Do you know where she’s from? The land of mists. Somehow she ended up here and you gave her room, board, and probably clothes to help her disappear.’ The last accusation did it. He lent in close, his heavy frame leaning over the small table. I moved in as close as I dared.
‘Look, I didn’t know she was from…’ he pointed downwards. ‘My orders are to give anyone crossing through somewhere to sleep, clothes if they need them, and anything else they might want. Some take a while to adjust and I have to call in our other staff to help out. They’ve been here a while you know, blend in really well and are good at helping others adjust.’
I nodded at the blond behind the bar. ‘He one of them?’ I asked, curiously. Nick shook his head and almost laughed.
‘No, no. He’s just a normal kid. The others are around, you’d never know who though. They’re constantly moving as well. A new employee will turn up and say he’s here to cover such and such’s shift and I just have to accept it.’ He shook his head in amazement.
‘What about her?’ I tapped the photo on the table. ‘What help did you offer her?’
‘She was… interesting.’ He said staring at the black and white woman. ‘Said she’d been here before, but not for a very long time judging by the Roman coins she tried to pay with. I let her eat her fill and gave her the room, 333. Always the same room for the special guests.’ He shrugged not getting the significance of the number. Three threes are nine. Nine being the number of worlds the world tree Yggdrasil holds in it’s branches and roots. It also happened to be the room I was staying in, obviously my employer had planned it this way. That or it was a happy accident and the world once again turns.
‘What did she do after? Did she say where she was going?’ I asked. Nick thought for a moment. His brow had stopped sweating, obviously spilling his guts had a calming effect on the man. A shine of recognition passed across his face.
‘She asked for a map. Lot of maps. World, local, European, the lot. Said she was looking for something, wouldn’t tell me what though. I did get to see one of the maps the next day though at breakfast. She’d drawn all over it in weird symbols but I couldn’t read them at all. Looked like those inscribed on the tree on the outside of the hotel though, like capital letters with bit’s missing.’
I put two and two together and guessed he was talking about Norse runes. Makes sense. She must have been in Niflihelm a long time to write in native runes though. The young lady was older than she looked. I had one more question to ask before cutting Nick lose.
‘She give a name by any chance?’
Nick smiled. ‘Helen.’ He said.
‘That it?’ I asked and he nodded. Not much to go on, plenty of Helens out and about these days. I was hoping for an easy name to track down, find a long lost relative try and get some insight. I’d have to do this the hard way and start hitting the streets, showing her photo around till I got a hit. Luckily a two tone hairstyle might stick in people’s memories more than a regular blond or brunette.
‘Thanks Nick. You’ve been a great help.’ I shook his slightly moist hand and watched him awkwardly squeeze out of the booth. Before he left, Nick asked, ‘You’ll tell upstairs that I helped you right? I don’t want to lose my job over this.’
I reassured him that I’d tell them everything and he’d be a hero. He seemed pleased at this and trotted off back to his office somewhere. In a moment of rare sympathy I silently hoped Nick would be ok, but quickly dismissed the sentiment when my meal arrived. The smell of warm potato and cheese filled my nose and I salivated. I ordered another drink, scotch straight up and started in on my first proper meal of the day.
The rest of dinner passed without excitement and I retired back to my room, full and a little drunk. I managed to open my door before all but collapsing on the spot. My legs had become numb under me and it took all my strength to crawl out of the doorway, the door shutting automatically as my useless foot cleared the frame. My vision blurred and my ears rang as I tried to roll onto my back, which was a mistake, once I had rolled over I was useless. My arms lay numb beside me as I searched the hazy room with my eyes, trying to call out for help. I could feel sleep overcoming me, slowly at first then quicker, running along the back of my eyes, forcing the lids closed. I struggled to keep them open them but eventually I succumbed to the pull. I tried to curse my luck but it came out in gargles. The last thing I heard before the world went black was the faint ruffle of feathers in the distance. My world spun down into blackness and my mind became a wash of nothing, not even dream. What a way to go, I thought to myself, and I didn’t even get paid.
The sharp call of a raven echoed and bounced around my spiralling head, and I was lost to the void.