When you stop and think about it, life has a strange momentum all of its own, doesn’t it? During the time you’re trying to get something started, whether that be a career, a commitment, or even a hobby, it feels like an uphill battle. It's exhausting. It's not fun. But if you have enough willpower, you can finally crest that hill and give it one final push, and then it’ll be rolling down the mountain side, and instead of propelling it, you’re just trying to keep up.
That’s what I think about when I reminisce about our fifth episode, “Hotel California”. We had completed our trials by fire: the cohabitation, the methodology behind the research, the deadliness of our subject matter. One we had arrived at Bethesda, that large rock with “Creepy America” painted on the side was barreling down the summit. All that was left to do was chase after it and see where it led.
“So I’m going to meet you back here at nine, right?” Zoey asked as I got out of the car.
It was a solution to the problem we had been discussing since Hurricane. We had two needy children, “Faces of America” and “Creepy America”, and both were demanding our attention in ever increasing volumes. Particularly problematic was the research portion; for “Faces”, we had to spend a good deal of time on foot tracking down people who were worth interviewing, and ever since realizing that all our previous research topics were bogus, we had to do that for “Creepy America” too.
After shooting around various ideas, we decided that the best solution was just to split it up. Zoey could spend her time looking around for interviewees. I would ask around town to see if I could find inklings of the bizarre and strange. Neither one of us would advance past that point; Zoey still wanted a cameraman and it’d just be stupid for me to go exploring the dark on my own. But this way, we cut in half the time it took to do one thing.
Hence the question. Zoey was dropping me off at the “Ritzman” hotel that was just outside the boundaries of the town. My plan was to spend some time chatting with both the local staff and some of the out-of-towners, seeing if I could find anything worth investigating. After that, I’d read up on the potential leads online. We only had one car, though (minus the R.V., which wasn’t the easiest to maneuver around), so Zoey was dropping me off and catching up later.
“Yeah. By that point I should have two or three things ready to follow up on.” As I got out, I cradled my laptop and a small hand-held camera. Zoey was still a little upset that I didn’t capture her heroic rescue from the blood curse on film, so she had bought two tiny camcorders and insisted that we have them on our person at all times, just in case.
Zoey gave a little snort and rolled her eyes.
I looked at her. “What?”
“No offense Liam, but finding topics requires talking to people, and that’s not always something you’re good at.”
“I can talk to people.” I could feel my face going red.
“Alright, how ‘bought we put a bet on it?” She leaned out of the doorway and offered her hand in my direction. “Five dollars says I can find twice as many people to interview as you’ll find episode topics.”
I stared at the hand for a second. Zoey and I made these bets often, but I rarely won them. The safe decision would be to simply say no.
But then, as always, pride won out.
I grabbed the hand and shook it. “Fine.”
She smiled. “Right. See you at nine to collect my five dollars.” She grabbed the car door and shut it, driving away before I could respond.
“Your five dollars…” I grumbled. I shook my head and ascended the stairs to the hotel.
The Ritzman hotel was a grand place. The entirety of the building was decorated in rich earth tones; green carpet the color of pine needles covered the floors and stairs while dark brown woods formed the walls and various railings. The lobby was huge and spacious, with tall doors opened to show the rooms inside. Ballrooms, gift shops, what looked like a restaurant, and a bar.
“Can’t talk to people” I muttered as I made my way into the bar. “I can talk plenty fine.”
Inside was much the same as the lobby. The bar was a deep chestnut color. Various tables, booths, and even a pool table sat in the large area. I looked around the room, saw a man in a navy blue suit bent over a drink, and sat down next to him.
He glanced over to me for just a second, then turned back to his drink.
I nodded at him. “Um, hello.”
He gave me another sideways look, then nodded at me.
“So, uh, how are you?”
There was some kind of grunt as he turned to his drink.
“Well, that’s… good to hear. You a local or…?”
He fully turned around to look me in the eye. “Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m here to drink, not to socialize. This trip has been stressful enough.”
“Alright, fine, but do you mind if I asked you one question?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Have you seen anything strange around here?”
He stared at me for a second, picked up his drink, and walked away to another corner of the room, sitting down in a booth as far away from me as possible.
Maybe Zoey had a point.
“Well, that went over as well as a lead balloon.”
I turned towards the sound of the unfamiliar voice. It was a guy, not much older than me, dressed in a vest and tie. He grinned at me. “Want something to ease the sting?”
I started to say no, then sighed. “Rum and Coke?”
I fished out my wallet and handed him the little card.
He studied it, then began filling a glass. “Indiana? Safe to say you’re not from around here.”
I took the drink and downed a mouthful. “On a road trip, actually.”
“No. We got an R.V.”
“Me and my…” I stopped for a moment to find the words “...business partner.”
“And the plot thickens. What kind of business requires a road trip in an R.V.?”
I took another swig. “We’re doing a webshow, ‘Creepy America’. Going from state to state, trying to find weird or strange things to investigate.”
“So is it like an educational thing? Going to spots of historic murders, famous cemeteries, that sort of thing?”
“Kind of. But we’re looking for paranormal stuff.”
He gave a slow nod. “Ghost hunting.”
“That, and other stuff. Urban legends, supposed witches…” I racked my brain trying to think of other topics we covered. “...cursed paintings...”
“So kind of like that ‘Supernatural Hunters’ show on cable.”
“Yeah, exactly! Except we’re legitimate.”
“Isn’t that what they all say?” he asked with a laugh.
I could feel my face getting red again. “So, you’re, uh, pretty good at talking to people, huh?”
He shrugged. “Comes with the territory. Some people, like suit over there, just want a quiet place to drink, but most people expect their glass to come with a complimentary conversation. And you got to make those people happy, because those are the people who tip.”
“Not really. I mean, it can be, but only with annoying people. Besides, I’m too curious, and I hear too many good stories.”
I sat up and leaned over. “Hear anything strange, or spooky?”
“Sorry friend.” He smiled and shook his head. “Nothing that would work for your show. The only thing we got is Crazy Sims, but he’s just regular crazy.”
He picked up a glass from behind the counter and started drying it. “Stevie Sims, room 405. He was a little-time rock-and-roller back in the 70s, before he lost his mind and became convinced that the Eagles were Satanists and their songs were secret warnings.”
“I think I’ve heard other people say that. It doesn’t sound too crazy.”
“Yeah, but that’s where most people stop. Sims was convinced that the Eagles knew he was onto them, and had summoned demons to stop him from letting the world know. The band ended up finding him locked in his hotel bathroom, screaming about ‘the Captain’ or something. They managed to talk him out, but he was never really the same. Gave up on his music, on his life. Spent all his time trying to piece together the ‘conspiracy’. Rarely ate or slept, that’s how obsessed he was.”
He put down his glass and sighed, picking up another one. “Everyone wanted to have him institutionalized somewhere, but they couldn’t. Stevie just didn’t want to go. They tried to force him through court, but they couldn’t prove he was a danger to himself and/or others. The manager here was an old friend, so he let him stay here for free. He’s been here for about forty years now. Sad, when you think about it.”
I sat there in silence, my drink forgotten. After a bit, I asked “Do you think I could see him?”
It took a while, but I finally convinced the silver-haired manager to let me visit him. When I did, he handed me an ancient brass key.
“You can’t miss the door. It’s the only key without a card reader” he told me. “When you see him, please try to be calm about it. He’s easily spooked.”
Unlike the other floors, which had door after door after door, the fourth floor only had five. That meant that the fourth floor was where all the penthouses are located. He must have been a really good friend.
405 was at the end. Like the others, it was shut with a large set of double doors, but they were in poorer shape than the rest. Large scrape marks ran down the wood. Some of the edges of were splintered and broken. The room itself was nestled at the end of the hallway, and the wall lights had trouble penetrating the corners, not so much that it was hard to see, but just enough to shade the doors to a light black and give them an ominous weight, like an oversized headstone standing at the edge of a cliff.
I knocked on the door. “Mr. Sims?”
I knocked louder. “Mr. Sims? Is it alright if I come in? I want to talk to you.”
I put my ear up to the door. I could hear footsteps, and talking, but the words were unintelligible.
I turned on my camera and held it up to my eye. I put the key in the lock, heard a loud ‘click’, and slowly pushed the door open. “Mr. Sims?”
There were papers everywhere. On the walls. On the ceiling. On the floors, blotting out the carpet. Some had faces, photos, maps. Others were covered in tiny, neat text, and more still were just large, black symbols, the kind you would find in an alchemist’s notebook. Whatever furniture was there, a couch, an end table of some kind, was drowned in the flood of information.
Pacing from one side and back, one side and back, was a man in a white shirt and dirty jeans. His hair was a mess and his eyes were wild. Even though the doors were in full view of the room, and he walked in front of me close enough to touch, he acted like I wasn’t there, just muttering and kicking up papers.
I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but the wild, frantic look in his eye, the kind of look you would find on a wild animal trapped in a cage, told me everything I needed to know.
I silently closed the door.
By the time Zoey made it back to the Ritzman, it was close to 9:30. I didn’t notice; I had my laptop open and was in the middle of reading something.
She flopped down next to me and gave a long, loud sigh. “Words can not express how much I miss West Virginia. I swear, everyone here treated me like I killed their dog or something. Not a single person was interested in the interview. Not one!”
I didn’t respond, still engrossed in the text.
She glanced over to me and smirked. “Buuut… if I remember my sixth grade math, two times zero is zero, so I think you owe me five dollars.” She held out her hand.
I still didn’t say anything.
“Hey!” she shouted, “earth to Liam! Hello?”
“Did you know that there’s a rumor online that a group of Satanists bought an abandoned church and converted it into a Satanic temple and christened it the ‘Hotel California’, and a lot of people think that’s where Don Heley got the inspiration for the song?” I asked without pausing for breath.
Zoey blinked. “What?”
“In fact, one of the most persistent urban legends is that in the picture on the inside of the album label, the figure on the balcony is Anton LeVay, the founder of modern Satanism, who started his cult in California.”
Zoey continued to stare at me, then her face changed into an expression of recognition. “Liam, you can’t just make up a topic to win the bet.”
“I’m not!” I said. I told her about Stevie Sims, his obsession with the Hotel California, and what I saw in his room, then I showed her the recording I had captured of the crazed Sims pacing in his room.
She watched, then shrugged her shoulders. “Doesn’t look like you found anything to me.”
“What?” I protested.
“Look at him.” She pointed to Sims on the screen. “He’s just plain old nuts! I should know, we had to commit my uncle.”
A thought occurred to me. “So, with the painting, is that why…”
“Yes” she interrupted.
I paused for a second as I processed this. “Alright. But you told me to find a topic to investigate. That was the bet.”
“A topic worth investigating.”
“Fine then,” she declared, “how about we double the bet? Ten dollars says Sims isn’t haunted by anything except unbalanced brain chemicals.”
Without even thinking about the odds Sims was right or wrong, I stuck out my hand. “Deal.”
We shook, and thus started the Sims investigation.
We spent that night researching, Zoey looking up information on Sims and me continuing to dive into the rumors around the Eagles’ hit song. There wasn’t much on him; Sims was the bassist for a band called “The Velvet Keys”, but the band broke up after his incident, a little under two years after they were founded. Past that point, the information online was eclipsed by a motown band of the same name, which really drove home the point about how obscure they really were.
I found out more about the song, but it was disappointing. The Eagles’ rumored involvement with Satanism was false, as well as the appearance of LeVay (it was a random woman hired for the shoot). As for the ‘Hotel California’ itself, the notion about it being about a Satanist church was proven wrong, as was the rumor about it being about mental hospital, a drug rehab facility, an inn run by cannibals, and, somehow, cancer.
I kept my fingers crossed that our interview with Sims would go better.
We got to the Ritzman bright and early the next morning and made our way back up to room 405. Camera ready and rolling, Zoey knocked loudly on the door.
“Mr. Sims?” she called out.
There was no response.
She knocked again and called out louder. “Mr. Sims, this is Zoey Hammersham. I wanted to know if we could talk to you about the Hotel California.”
The door slammed open and Sims stared down at us, dressed in the same clothes I had seen him in yesterday. His black hair was pointed every which way, like an overgrown thorn thicket, and his face was as pale as snow. The wild look in his eyes was only increased.
“Who sent you here?” he almost screamed. “The Captain? The Night Man? Sherry? It’s Sherry, isn’t it?”
Zoey held her hands up in a show of peace. “Mr. Sims, please calm down. We heard your story from the barkeep downstairs and we wanted to ask you some questions.”
“The Miller kid.” His shoulders slumped. “So that’s it. You’ve come to see the freak.”
“Not at all. We want to hear your side of the story, if you’d let us. Set the record straight.”
“Sure, so you can pump me full of drugs? Spout psuedo-babble at me and tell me that the only demons are in my head?” He started to shut the door, but Zoey placed her hand on it. Not forcing it open, not a display of aggression, just a firm instance of one more chance.
“Mr. Sims,” she said, “if you really want us to leave, we’ll leave. But I urge you to consider talking to us. You’ll find we’re a lot more open minded than most.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Whatever makes you think you could possibly understand what I went through?”
“Well, I recently got cursed by a blood spell. And I had to rescue him from inside a painting” she said, jerking a thumb over at me.
He lingered on the door for a moment; I think he was scanning our faces for any sign of dishonesty or mocking. When he didn’t find any, he opened it wide and gestured inside. “I guess you’d better come in.”
It was much as I remembered it. The earthen tones the hotel was decorated in were buried under oceans of paper, tacked onto walls, taped onto cabinets, sprawled across beds and other furniture. Everything from book pages to crudely draw magic symbols littered the walls. Signs that someone had been living there, like dirty dishes and cast-off clothes, existed, but had also gotten buried in the paper, as if the daily implements of existence were less essential than this amalgamation of insanity.
As it to reinforce my thought, Sims gathered up a pile of papers on three wooden dining chairs and carefully placed them into three piles on the floor under the table. Zoey sat down while I tried to find open floor space to set the tripod up.
“Is it alright if we record this conversation?” she asked.
He fidgeted in his seat. “What’s it going to be used for?”
“We run a web show called “Creepy America”, where we investigate stories like yours. Depending on how things go, we’d like to do an episode on your experience.”
“So you’re going to interrogate me?”
“Far from it. We just want you to tell your story, the way you know it, and the way you’re comfortable with. I’m going to ask as few questions as possible. Any research into whether you’re right or wrong is going to happen outside this room.” She turned to me behind the camera and I gave a thumbs up.
He sighed, nodded, and then began to speak. What follows are his words, as best as I can remember them:
The Velvet Keys were Dougie’s baby, no question about that. I don’t think any of us would have gotten involved if it weren’t for him. I mean, we could all play, but none of us were particularly serious about it. I only tried to learn to impress girls, and I chose bass guitar because it was the cheapest option at the pawn shop. But Dougie wanted to go places. Yeah we were shit, he told us, but everything on the radio was shit, so what was stopping us from becoming rich and famous shit? Man had a way with words.
We’d been playing for about two years, local dive bars and an album that only our friends and family bought, when Dougie told us that he’d managed to twist the arm of his dad’s friend into giving us a spot at the L.A. Spotlight Music Fest. Looking back, it wasn’t a great gig; the pay was peanuts and the role was patronizing at best. I think we were supposed to be playing on some side stage with a bunch of other indie bands so that there was something to do besides the big acts that people had obviously came to see. But to a bunch of college kids from Reno, this was the biggest thing to ever happen in our lives.
Problem was, we didn’t have enough space. James had to beg his girlfriend to let us take her van, and that could only fit our equipment and three out of four of us. We spent a whole night over at his garage, trying every configuration we could think of to Tertis some more space, but it was simply impossible. I volunteered to drive myself there. I was the only other one with a reliable car and besides, I enjoyed driving, especially through those long, cool desert nights, when all the stars are out and you can see for miles and miles and miles. Plus I could take some extra equipment with me, so the plan got a pretty quick yes.
I left about three hours after I was supposed to, lost track of time strutting my new-found ‘musician’ label to a few chicks, so by the time I was on the road it was late. When I hit Willow Springs, the sun was already setting.
I’m not sure when I smelled it. Past Willow Springs, obviously, but how far past, I don’t know. That sweeter-than-a-skunk smell of marijuana. Soon as it hit my nose, though, hit me like a freight train. My eyes started drooping, and I started nodding off. Woke up riding the shoulder at one point. That’s when I knew I had to stop. It wasn’t really a big deal. The gig wasn’t happening ‘til tomorrow night, and it was an eight hour trip, so I knew I was probably going to have to stop at some point.
There was a big ol’ billboard on the side of the road. “Hotel California, next exit”. Seemed as good a place as any. I wish I would’ve kept driving, but part of me knows that no matter what I did, I would have ended up there. That Hotel marked me, somehow. From the minute I smelled it, I was stuck in its clutches.
The place looked exactly the same as it did on that goddamn album cover, and I don’t care what anyone says about that place in Mexico. This was the spitting image of that photo: Medeterranian swooping arches made with white plaster, the style of a Spanish Mission house. It even had the neon blue sign. I’d heard the song, of course, but hadn’t seen the album. Part of me thought it was real neat, staying at the place with a name that was sung about on the radio. Romantic, I guess is the word. I told myself that I would have to ask the manager if this was the same one.
I pulled into the parking lot, only car there, and there was a set of old fashioned clock-bells ringing out nine. Once I parked, I got out and there was this woman standing in the entrance, prettiest thing I’d ever seen. Luscious full auburn hair. Emerald green eyes. Perfectly curved, soft and sexy. No, not sexy. Beautiful. She wasn’t created in that fake Playboy way, with too much makeup and bits that obviously defy gravity. She was real. It was a Louvre sculpture came to life, like every woman in the world was a pale attempt to imitate her. I’m not making sense, am I? Nevermind, you get the idea.
She had her back turned to me, but she turned around as soon as my foot hit the first step. “Stevie,” she said, “you’re here. Finally!” I wanted to ask what she meant, but I couldn’t. I felt drugged. Like my body was disconnected from my mind. And the weirdest part was I didn’t care. It was like a dream. You don’t question it, you just go along for the ride.
I climbed, no, floated up those steps. She took me in a warm, loving embrace, lips passionately caressing mine, dancing with our tongues. By the time it was finished, I had regained enough of my senses to talk again.
“Who… who are you?” I asked.
She laughed. “Stevie, you joker. Don’t tell me you don’t remember your Sherry.”
She took my hand and began to lead me back deeper into the hotel. It was decorated exactly as you’d expect it to: white-washed walls, interior balconies, gold and black carpets lit with warm yellow light bulbs. As she practically skipped me inside, we passed this older black guy, tail end of middle age with thinning short hair and the barest hints of wrinkles around his eyes, with this grey suit behind the reception desk, staring as we went.
I stopped. “Don’t we have to check in?”
She giggled. The sound was intoxicating. “It’s all been arranged for, Stevie. Don’t you remember?”
As she said it, the receptionist took out an old-fashioned key and handed it to me. “Room 102, the honeymoon suite.”
I stared at him in disbelief as Sherry swung my hand back and forth like an impatient child. I turned to her, smiled, and the two of us raced to the room. It was a giant, over the top thing. The furniture was done in pink fur of some kind. The ceiling was covered entirely in big mirrors. The whole place was the size of a small apartment, and at the end was a massive, heart shaped bed, one Sherry draped herself over and beckoned to me to.
(At this point, Sims became visibly uncomfortable.)
Look, I don’t think I need to spell out every detail, okay? I think you can figure out what happened. I can say it was amazing, the best in my life. I had one or two exploits of my own. I was no dewy eyed virgin when I walked in. But somehow, those memories paled in comparison to what I was experiencing now. It made those nights feel like empty times spent alone, pleasuring myself.
(The discomfort returned to his face, and it took him a few moments to begin speaking again.)
I spent three days there. I knew that my bandmates were back waiting for me, that they’d be pissed if they learned that I bailed on them to hang around in this roadside motel. I didn’t care, though. More than that, it wasn’t important. I knew it, I remembered it, but it didn’t feel as real as the hotel. Thinking back on the gig was like thinking back on a dream: sure, it had seemed urgent in the moment, but now that I was awake, I realized it didn’t matter.
It was always sunset, though. The first morning, I thought I had woken up before dawn, but nope. Just eternal sunset, right at the moment of pastel pink and purple skies. Never changing. Time passed just fine. You could tell by the church bell ringing out the hours, and your body didn’t seem to care. You got hungry and tired at the right times, so the perception of the day passed like it should. It was just frozen at a moment of beauty.
Over the course of the next few days, Sherry introduced me to the “regulars”, as she called them. There was Mr. Barrows, the receptionist that I met the first day, as well as Junior, his son who worked there as a janitor/maintenance guy. He looked identical to his dad, ‘cept he was younger and wore a blue jumpsuit. And minus the thinning hair and wrinkles, obviously.
Then there was Bradley, this chiseled Fabio-looking guy with this long black mane of hair and bronze skin who was really friendly with Sherry. They didn’t quite tell me that they’d been together before I got there, but they weren’t exactly hiding it either. When I confronted Bradley about it, he’d just grin and say “don’t worry about it, all I was doing was keeping her warm for you.” That answer only made me madder, but soon Sherry would be on me, draped over me, kissing me, and I’d forget everything except how much I loved her smell and the warmth of her touch.
There was another couple there, Julie and Jared. Jared was a lot like Bradley, muscles and whatnot, ‘cept his skin was paler and his brown hair was cut shorter. Not short, just shorter than full-on main. Julie was this blond haired, blue eyed beauty that was almost as gorgeous as Sherry. Almost. They spent all their time together, kissing and holding hands, but they kept making remarks that it wasn’t serious, they were just passing the time while they were waiting for someone else. Waiting like Sherry had for me. I didn’t like the implication, and I liked it even less that, out of everyone else in the Hotel, these were the people Sherry seemed to enjoy the company of the most. But I could never be mad for long, because soon her attention would turn back to me and the world would fade away.
The last two people didn’t have names, just titles. The first was this large man called “The Captain.” He was almost seven feet tall and close to three hundred pounds of pure muscle stuffed into a white navy uniform. Not sculpted muscle, like the Fabios, but wiry, tough muscle, the kind that comes not from vanity but from necessity. He had these wild blonde sideburns and this crazy mustache and beard. I wasn’t quite sure what he was doing there; the guests seemed to treat him like staff and the staff seemed to treat him like a guest. He didn’t seem to have a preference one way or the other.
The last guy, the one I liked the least, was the Night Man. He was almost as tall as the Captain and just as heavy, but with fat instead. He wore this filthy long black coat and, swear to heaven, an actual wood peg leg on his right leg. It made him wobble when he walked. He only seemed to show up during the evening and at night, when he’d walk up and down the halls with a flashlight. I guess he was their version of a security guard. But he did his best to stay out of our hair. If he walked into a room someone was in, he’d just nod and leave the same way he came in.
There were more too. Lots of guests. There was this old guy in a tweed suit and a fat hispanic man. More I didn’t care to pay attention to. I barely looked at the regulars, all my eyes had room for was Sherry, and when we weren’t in our rooms, enjoying each other privately, we were out together, talking to others or drinking or just slow dancing in the evening light to music none of us could ever see the source to, none of us caring. Most guests joined into these dances.
Once, when I had just completed a long dance with Sherry, I turned to the Captain and shouted for wine. He gave a hearty laugh and said something along the lines of “We haven’t had that kind of enthusiasm here since ‘69, at least”, and my memory of the song came back, as well as a feeling of unease. I tried to ask about it, but Sherry kissed me and my mind returned to it’s blissfully drunken state.
On the third day, as my body was telling me that time had slipped close to night, I was lying with Sherry on the bed, pleasantly exhausted, drunk on the feeling of us, together. “I can see why no one seems to leave here,” I gasped between breaths, “nobody would ever want to.”
Sherry sat up, and for the first time… ever , I saw sadness in her eyes. “They want to leave,” she whispered. “We all want to.”
I turned to her. “Why don’t you?”
“We all have a vice, and we chose to sell our souls to feed it. But that bill doesn’t come due until we check out.” She stood up and dressed herself. “Follow me, Stevie. It’s time for you to see something.”
I got dressed and followed her out to the hallway, down a passageway we’d never gone down before, to a large ballroom. It was dimly lit. I could barely make out the faces of Barrows and Bradely, faces filled with dread, and I could see the silent silhouettes of all the other guests, but what drew my eye more was the large mass in the middle of the room. I couldn’t understand the shape, all I could figure out was that it was moving slightly. Breathing.
Barrows reached out to it and grabbed the large cloth covering it. He ripped it to one side, filling the room with a “swoosh”, and underneath was a pig. A boar, more like, but even that’s not quite right. It was massive. It had to be six feet long, snout to tail, and it was so heavy I didn’t understand how the table under it didn’t just give way. The hair was a black tangle, rough as ropes. The eyes were a dull sheen of red. Its limbs were tied to each other with thick bindings, keeping it from moving, reducing it to the panicked fidgets I had seen earlier. And panicked it was. I could see the pure terror in its eyes.
Barrows withdrew a long, thin knife. Everyone else soon did the same and, without a word, they all stepped up to the boar. Bradely. The tweed man. Even Sherry. And with a stone cold silence, they raised the knives and begun to plunge them over and over into the animal. Without ceremony, without discipline, this was the movements of unthinking frenzy as the droplets of blood flew all over the rooms, getting on the walls, the lights, their faces. In no time at all the whole place was red and the boar let forth a gutteral squeal, and through the animal sound I could hear one word…
The spell of the Hotel California broke for me. I was terrified. What was I doing here? How had I spent three whole days here? Who were these people? Why? I saw more and more blood fly, it was dripping out of Sherry’s hair, and I wanted to vomit. I ran out of that room, down the hallway, back to the lobby, back outside. As I did, I passed that damned Night Man, leaning on the doorframe, laughing as he did so. I bolted to my car, it was still the only one in the lot, how was it the only one in the lot with so many people staying there? And he laughed and called out to me:
“You checking out, Stevie? Then run, flee if you must. But remember, just because you checked out, doesn’t mean you can leave.”
Sims stopped narrating. Beads of sweat had formed on his brow. “I think I’d like to stop there. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.”
Zoey nodded, and we left.
“Yeah, yeah…” Zoey said, talking into her cell phone. “What was that?... No, of course not. Is it going to be used in an ongoing production, is that okay?... Well of course you’re going to be credited… All right, thanks man! Talk to you later.” She hung up the phone. “That was a classmate of mine. One of his projects was a music video for ‘Hotel California’. It doesn’t match Sims’ story perfectly, but it’s close enough to edit around.”
I raised an eyebrow as I twirled more sesame noodles out of my Chinese take out box. “So… sounds like we’re doing an episode on this one, huh?”
Zoey nodded and returned to her own food. “It might end up shorter than the others, but I’m not letting that story go to waste.”
“Which would mean I won the bet.”
She scoffed. “Nice try. You re-anted on the idea that Sim’s story was real, remember?”
I frowned. “So you’re planning to do an episode on something you don’t think is real?”
“Why not?” She shrugged. “Nobody thinks any of this is real anyway, remember? And it’s not like we have evidence to the contrary.”
“But we’re supposed to be educating people.”
She gave me a confused look. “I don’t remember agreeing to that, but…” her expression changed to a smirk, “does this mean that someone’s conceding the bet early?”
“Fat chance” I said. We stop talking for a few moments, using the time to scarf down some more noodles, before I spoke up again. “You know, for someone who doesn’t believe him, you sure seemed to win him over really quick.”
“You make it sound like I needed to trick him. He’s just a person. I think he knows I don’t believe him, but he was tired of being ridiculed and judged, and I let him know I wasn’t going to do either. That’s what won him over. Besides…” Zoey’s voice became softer, “even if it is all fake, the terror he feels is real.”
I didn’t know how to respond, so I let the statement hang in the air as we finished our food.
Stevie must have been waiting for us the next morning because Zoey barely knocked once before the door flew open and he beckoned us inside. He paced around the room as I set up the camera, and once I was finished, he turned away from the chair he had been sitting in last time and faced the window, one of the few places that didn’t seem to be covered in papers. As he spoke, he stared out at the pines and the river beneath him.
“I don’t remember what happened after I left that parking lot. Fugue state, the shrinks called it. All I know is that the next thing I remember, I was in a dark room, on the floor, in my underwear, clutching my head and rocking back and forth. James was on the other side, I couldn’t quite make out the words, but he was pleading with me. For what I couldn’t tell, but the desperation in his voice was real enough. When I opened the door, he hugged me, then led me to the medics outside.
“They wrapped me in a blanket and took me to the hospital. Medically, there was nothing wrong with me, but I told them my story, everything that happened at the Hotel California, and so I was diagnosed as crazy. They kept me there for a few days, attached to my hospital bed, but after they realized that I wasn’t going to try to steal any sharp things and stab ‘em where they weren’t supposed to, they let me go. Everyone came and visited me, my friends, my folks, the band members. I expected them to be angry at me, especially Dougie, but they all just stood next to my bed and looked worried. Like I had some kind of terminal cancer. Guess I really freaked them out.
“For a while, everything seemed fine. Life went back to normal. But then it started bleeding back. First, on the highway. If I was driving out in the desert, especially at sunset, I would see the signs. ‘Hotel California, next exit’. I ignored them, of course, and then I started seeing the building in the distance. When I ignored that as well, I started seeing them again. I’d be out on the street, and the Captain would be in the middle of a crowd waiting to cross, staring at me, or I’d see Sherry, dining alone at an outdoor cafe, giving me a melancholy smile and disappearing when my line of sight was blocked, or, worst of all, I’d awaken at night to see the Night Man standing over my bed, laughing as the shadows made him fade away from view, leaving me alone again. It only added to my newfound insomnia, because at night, I would hear whispers, soft but all around me, telling me ‘Hotel California… such a lovely place… many a room here, Stevie… the master chamber is free, just for you…’
“My parents paraded my in front of an army of shrinks, but it did no good. They told me I had schizoaffective disorder, prescribed drugs that did nothing, and told me to ease back into life. Shows how much an expert knows, huh? My problem wasn’t insanity, no, I was sane. Reality was insane. I was dealing with the supernatural and that was the problem that needed to be fixed. So I researched on my own. Didn’t do jackshit. Kept running into the same horse crap: the Eagles are Satanist, the Hotel is a desecrated church, LaVey is there. I hated that one in particular. I watched an interview with LaVey, man wouldn’t know magic if it shrunk him and fed him to a house cat.”
At this point, Stevie turned around and faced us, the wild look in his eye bordering on full on madness. “Why can’t anyone see the truth? The Eagles weren’t in on it. They weren’t helping the Hotel. They were trying to warn us. They wanted us to stay away! But there’s something large and all seeing out there, keeping the truth hidden, keeping each and every one of us in the dark, swallowing up any information about the Hotel and what it really is. So they had to hide it, disguise it like a song. The perfect cover, and the perfect way to spread the news.”
Stevie walked over to one of the cabinets, ripped off a piece of paper, and handed it to Zoey. It was a large drawing of a logo: a capital ‘A’ with what looked like large eagle wings.
“Everytime I get close to something real,” he said, jabbing a finger at the paper, “this blocks me. It replaces information. It appears next to corrupted files. Redacted, deleted, lost, error retrieving file, every time walking hand in hand with that damnable ‘A’.”
Zoey stared at the paper, then slowly put it down. “How did you come to end up here, Mr. Sims?”
He returned to his window. “I noticed a pattern to the bleeding. It was worse near places that were similar to it. Out on the road, in the desert, at sunset, was the worst. But if I was in a city, during the daytime, inside an office building, well it hardly ever happened. I figured that I should move as far away from the desert as possible, so I told my parents that I was moving to New England and I wasn’t coming back. They were all for it. Honestly, I think they just wanted me gone by then. Luckily, my dad had an old war buddy there, a guy who used to be a pretty good friend of the family ‘til he moved away to run a hotel, and he said he would be happy to help me out until I got on my feet.” His face became an intense shade of scarlet. “I… never really moved out.”
“It helped, for a while. But two, three years ago, the bleeding started again. I can see the neon blue of the hotel above the trees when I try to go to sleep. I see Sherry in the elevators sometimes. I see the Night Man in the halls. I hear the voices when everything else in my room is silent and dark. And I need to figure out how they escaped it! The Eagles made it out. The Hotel never snatched them. Or maybe it did, but they’ve found a truce, a way to live a life without its shadow hanging over them. I need to figure it out, because I can feel that I don’t have much time left. The bill is due and they won’t wait much longer.”
“Schizoaffective disorder,” Zoey read from her laptop, “is primarily characterized by a combination of psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, and mood conditions, such as prolonged mania and/or depression. Such symptoms could include physical restlessness, such as pacing and frenzied research, intense periods of hopelessness, series of dream-like hallucinations about a hotel in the desert, and beliefs like the idea that the Eagles are communicating via song lyrics to him to warn about said hotel.” Zoey really loved to hammer the point home when she won an argument.
I looked at my own screen in disappointment. Every lead in the Hotel California had wound up bust and there was no more trails to follow. I hated to admit it, but she was right.
I sighed and handed her the ten bucks.
She grinned, but it soon faded after she pocketed the money.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“Look, I know that we’re just here to film stuff and all, and we really don’t know him all that well…” she fiddled with the end of her hair, “but maybe we should try to convince Sims to check in somewhere.”
“He hasn’t agreed to it before” I pointed out.
“I know, but maybe we can. We can at least try, and after seeing how tortured he is by all of this, we have to at least try. I don’t think I could just walk away knowing that he’ll forever live in that fear and agony and I did nothing to help.”
“You’re really worried about the guy, aren’t you?”
She didn’t say anything, but the expression on her face said it all.
I nodded. “Alright. But we’re leaving tomorrow night. If he says no, we can’t wait around forever to change his mind.”
A smile returned to her face. “Thanks.”
“So what’s your plan?” I asked as we stepped out of the elevator and onto the fourth floor.
“I dunno… I don’t think reason will work with him” she said. “Probably just ask him if he wants this to stop and try to convince him that getting help is the best way to do that.”
“So what am I here for?”
“Emotional support. Help if he gets… violent.”
“Violent?” I stared at her as we continued to walk down the hall.
I felt a sudden solid mass hit my side; I had accidentally ran into a kid in a blue jumpsuit, carrying janitor supplies. I turned around to him and gave him a quick “Sorry!”
He shook his head and muttered something about tagalongs.
“I don’t think he will” Zoey continued. “But it never hurts to be sure.”
We were now in front of Sim’s room, the dark door somehow darker and more ominous as it stood in front of the gold and black carpet. Zoey knocked on it loudly. “Mr. Sims? It’s Zoey again. I wanted to talk to you about something.”
I took out my little camcorder and turned it on. As I made sure it was recording, I noticed the little geometric patterns in the carpet, repeating patterns over and over again. It reminded me of the some of the mosque patterns you would see in a Medeterranian…
“Zoey,” I called out, “what color are the carpets here?”
She turned to me, confused. “What does it matter? They’re gree…” she looked down at the gold and black carpet and stopped. Her eyes went wide.
I moved past her, put in the key into the door lock, and opened it wide. Inside was the same it had been, except the papers were everywhere. The ones on the walls had been ripped off. Those sitting on the floor were no longer organized into neat piles. It was like a twister had blown through.
Sims was nowhere to be found.
Zoey strode into the room. “Sims? Mr. Sims, are you in here?”
I moved in behind her. The room was silent and motionless, save for the fluttering of the occasional paper moved by the warm night air coming from the window. I looked out at it, then gasped and grabbed Zoey shoulder. “Look…”
The pine trees were gone. The river was too. In its place was a flat desert landscape, drenched in sunset, the long horizon painted with pinks and purples.
There was a sudden terrified scream behind us. It was the voice of Sims, coming from outside the room. And outside the room was no longer the Ritzman. The walls were white and rough with uneven spreadings of plaster. The enclosed hallway was replaced with an iron wrought banister separating the ledge from the open space. There was the sickly smell of something sweet wafting through the air and the light was a warm gold.
Sims screamed again, and Zoey ran for the open door. “Wait!” I yelled. “We don’t know what’s over there!” She ignored me and barreled into the hallway and I followed after her. She turned a corner and ran down a staircase, taking the steps two at a time, exiting into the lobby of this place. Couches and chairs were scattered about, a receptionist counter with a wood paneled background lay empty to one side, and neon blue letters painted onto a large sign confirmed what I already knew:
“Welcome to the Hotel California!”
“Tagalongs, or are you planning on checking in?” a voice behind me questioned. I turned around to see a man with long, full black hair and toned bronze muscles sitting on one of the couches, lit cigarette in hand.
“Bradley?” I guessed.
“Where’s Sims?” I asked.
He pointed a finger down a hallway lined with doors. “Took off that way. Thinks he can run, I guess. Poor bastard. I liked him. He treated Sherry right. Not everyone does.”
“C’mon. If we’re gonna save him, let’s do it quickly.” I moved towards where he pointed. Zoey didn’t follow; she was still staring at Bradley. I noticed that there was a small amount of drool leaking out of the corner of her mouth.
Sims screamed again, and Zoey snapped back to reality. She rushed with me down the hallway. The very last door at the end was open and we darted into it.
Inside was a hotel room, a small foyer leading to a long room with a couch and TV on one side and a bed on the other. Sims was backed up into the far corner, his eyes bulging in fear. An older black man in a grey suit was standing at the other end of the room. Near him, on the couch, was a pale white guy in a polo who was shifting his gaze between Sims and the other man in bewilderment.
“Mr. Sims,” the black man said, “I’m going to have to ask you to calm down. Please, you’re disturbing the guest.”
“LEAVE ME ALONE!” Sims screamed.
Zoey moved past the man and stood in front of Sims, arms outstretched wide. I made my way next to her. I had no idea what she was planning to do, but I wasn’t going to let her do it alone.
The man, Mr. Barrows, I remembered from the story, raised an eyebrow at her. “Ma’am, please step aside.”
She shook her head. “I’m not going to let you do anything to him.”
“This man has a bill to pay, forty years overdue.” As Mr. Barrows spoke, two more men entered the room: a large, grizzled man with blonde hair in a navy uniform and a fat man with a greasy black overcoat and a fat wooden leg.
Barrows nodded to the blonde man. “Captain, thank you for assisting.”
“No problem” he responded. “Who are these two?”
“Tagalongs, from the looks of it. They don’t appear to be marked by the Hotel. They are protesting us collecting Mr. Sims.”
Zoey spread her feet a bit further apart, rooting her stance more firmly.
The Night Man shook his head. “Kid, get down from there before you get hurt.”
“Threaten me all you want, but I’m not leaving!” Zoey yelled back.
“The danger’s not from me” the Night Man said darkly. I felt a strange, hot breath on the back of my neck and I looked back.
Sims was gone, and in his place was a gigantic boar, with dark red skin and tangled black hair collected into stringy lumps on its spine. The crimson eyes held no recognition for me, or Zoey, or anyone else in the room.
I grabbed the back of Zoey’s shirt and dragged her to the side just as the thing charged. I held her hand and tried to run out of the room, but the fighting was right in front of us. The Night Man grabbed onto the beast’s mane and used it to hoist himself onto its back, riding the creature like a bull as it bucked and spun, slamming him into the walls and ceilings and he held on for dear life.
“Ya’ gonna help, ya bastard?” he bellowed at the Captain, and the Captain lunged into the thing, forcing it to rear back on its hind legs. The two of them grappled as the Night Man tried to wrap his arms around the boar’s throat.
The room was falling apart now. Chunks of ceiling fell onto the floor and a large hanging light crashed next to me. Zoey grasped at me and guided me under the bed with her, huddling in fear with me as we watched the battle play out.
The Night Man was wrapped around the creature’s neck in a bear hug, choking it. The boar’s staggering dance with the Captain was becoming weaker, and, with one final heave, the Captain shoved the creature backwards, causing it to fall. As it did, the Night Man swung around it with an impossible grace so that once it had landed on its back, he was lying on the thing’s stomach. He withdrew a length of rope from his pocket and handed one end to the Captain. The two wasted no time winding it around the creatures ankles and legs, binding it completely.
Zoey and I slowly got out from under the bed as the Night Man heaved the creature back upright. “I always knew Sims’d be an ornery one, but didn’t expect the bastard to be this mean!” he proclaimed with a chuckle. The boar writhed in fury, the ropes making the movements useless, but it only stopped when a woman walked in. A woman with auburn hair, perfect curves, a face of pure beauty and soft, inviting flesh.
She knelt down beside it and stroked its head. “Stevie, please don’t be upset. You knew this would happen. If you reject heaven, the only place to go is hell.” She stopped petting the creature and it began struggling again, but the Night Man grabbed a section of the rope and started to pull him along as Barrows guided the guest out, saying “I’m so sorry for the inconvenience, sir, we’ll get management to compensate you…”
The group of people turned to Zoey, who had her arm raised after them. “Please...”
Barrows arched an eyebrow at her. “Ma’am, this man has a debt to pay, and we fully intend to extract it. Now, if you wish to stay and lodge a formal complaint, you can always check in…”
Zoey lowered her arm and didn’t respond.
Barrows smiled. “Well then.” He and the others left the room, leaving us alone in the ruined space, with the furniture overturned and large broken chunks in the walls. An unearthly hush fell over everything, then there was a flickering of black, like a failing lightbulb, except it covered all our sight. When it stopped, we were back in Sim’s room at the Ritzman. The papers seem to have become even more scattered, but other than that, there was no trace that any of it had ever happened.
The Hotel California was gone.
We sat in the lobby all night, silent for hours and hours, too numb to even think. It was only when I saw the golden glow of the dawn begin to peak over the trees that my brain began to function again and a small voice told me that I had won the bet.
A louder and far more sane voice responded that the bet was the least important thing in the world right now.
“How are we going to explain what happened?” Zoey asked.
I withdrew the small paper I had taken from Sims’ room. “I don’t think we need to.”
Before she could respond, a man walked through the doors of the hotel, dressed in a black suit and tie with shiny mirror sunglasses on. “Where is the manager of this place?” he shouted.
The silver-haired manager appeared behind the desk. “Can I help you sir?”
The other man flashed some kind of badge quickly in front of the man. “Agent Thorn, with the parks department. You had a Steven Sims staying here, did you not?”
“I regret to inform you that he’s dead. We found his body in the woods a few miles away. It appears to be a suicide.”
“Oh god…” the manager seemed to buckle a bit.
“Bullshit!” Zoey exclaimed.
The agent turned to look at her. “Who the hell are you?!”
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Sorry agent, she’s just upset. We got pretty close to Sims the last couple of days and this is a shock.”
Zoey looked at me with confusion. “Liam…”
I slowly shook my head.
She stared at me, then stormed outside. I followed behind her, watching the agent track our movements until we had left.
She got in the car and slammed her door. I got in as well, minus the slam.
“What the hell was that?” she asked.
I handed her the paper and she unfolded it. Inside was the winged ‘A’ logo Sims had shown us. “I’ve been thinking about what Sims said. About something hiding the truth. And what we learned, and haven’t learned. There’s no information about ‘Worlds of Wonder’. Or the Iris Broadcasting Company. And the stuff we do hear about, ghost lights and dogmen, all turns out to be fake.”
She gave me a hard look. “But why stop me from telling the guy what really happened? He deserves to know.”
“Do you remember the cops from Three Rivers, with the pit?”
“When I called to ask about them, the operator just denied that any officers were dispatched to the scene. Acted like they never existed. But their uniforms were in there. Bloody. Whoever these people are, they’re powerful, and they’ll do anything to keep this secret.”
She looked away and stared at the windshield. “What are you saying? That we should stop the show?”
I shook my head. “Of course not. But we need to be careful about what we say and who we say it to.”
A moment of silence passed between us. “Do you think we’ll find out who they are?” Zoey asked.
“I don’t think we need to worry about that,” I replied. “I’m sure they’ll find us soon enough.”