Cut Off


by John Dennehy


Davis Williams jerked awake when the cab halted at a stoplight. His paunch jiggled in his lap. A desperate part of town. Glancing around, he took in the seedy nightlife, revelers headed to and from bars, maybe venturing to a sex dungeon.

The cab eased ahead. Pedestrian traffic dissipated. Dark buildings towered over empty, narrow streets. Everything appeared a ghostly silhouette. A last minute meeting, his plane had landed after midnight. Hotel windows were black voids. Shadows cast darkness over the roadway, enveloping any illumination from the streetlamps.

He longed for the late trip to end. Davis adjusted his thick glasses and ran a hand over his bald pate. This part of the city was creepy, nothing like the posh accommodations he typically experienced. Tired and groggy, he wanted to lie in bed, even if the hotel didn’t measure up to his standards.

Slowing down, the cab eased to the curb. “Here we are,” the cabbie said.

Davis looked out the window in disbelief. The hotel lingered on a desolate corner like a building marked to be condemned. He didn’t spot the entrance. “You sure this is it?”

“Mighty certain. Been here a thousand times, if I been once.”

“Where’s the door?”

“Right there,” the cabbie said, pointing.

Light reflected from around the corner, casting a scant glow upon the sidewalk. An awning protruded from the other side of the building, the edge within view now that the cabbie pointed it out.

“Just around the corner, eh?”

“Just around the corner,” the cabbie repeated.

Davis wondered why the cabbie hadn’t just pulled up front, instead of dropping him off by a godforsaken alley. “What do I owe you?”

“Let’s call it forty dollars.”

Davis shook his head. The cabbie was playing him on the fare, but it was too late to argue. He handed over fifty bucks. “Here you go.”

“You need a receipt?”

“Forget it.”

He climbed out of the cab. Humid air swept over him. Davis grabbed his travel bag off the floor boards, and then reached in for his suit coat and briefcase.

The cabbie smiled kindly, then sped away from the curb as soon as the door closed. Davis slid the suit jacket on and extended the handle of the travel bag. He glanced up at the decrepit building.

Stucco siding was chipped and dark water stains ran from the windows. Curtains on the lower floors were left open, the light colored backing bunched up, signaling vacancy. Perhaps one of the few hotels in the city with occupancy, due to conventions and college graduations; the lodgings appeared atrocious. A dive that insulted him.

Davis trundled toward the door, as a rage welled up inside him. He wanted to call someone and scream, or send a threatening email, but there wasn’t anyone back at the office to intimidate. Nobody to fire. They were all home comfortably in bed.

***

Entering the lobby, he found it nicer than expected, with slate floors and a large seating area. The owners of the hotel had renovated in recent years. A motif of the hacienda ran throughout the downstairs; it carried into the adjacent rooms. Chairs and tables were big and clunky. Wrought-iron balustrades cordoned off the dining area.

He headed directly for the reception desk. The clacking of his heels, and wheels on the travel bag, rolling across the floor, made the only sounds. Burnt coffee was redolent throughout the lobby.

Davis reached reception and found nobody behind it. A bell sat on the counter. He noticed a sign taped in front of it. Patrons were instructed to ring the bell if no one was behind the counter. What a rinky-dink operation, he thought.

He looked to see if there was a backroom beyond the counter. A door left askew seemed to lead to a small storage room. Not a peep emanated from the little room. Davis knew that he was alone. After a long trip, and arriving in the early morning, he didn’t want to be delayed.

Simmering with rage, he reluctantly rang the bell.

This was going to be a long wait. Such a cheap hotel, likely short on staff, and whoever worked the front desk had obviously left to field a customer issue. Probably up on the tenth floor. He could be left standing there for half an hour. Davis scanned the lobby and contemplated taking a seat while waiting for service.

He plucked the bell again, and then headed toward the sofa. Merely getting a few steps, he heard high heels click on the stone floor.

A middle-aged African-American woman smiled pleasantly at him. He forced a smile and nodded. She hurried around to the other side of the counter. “Staying with us tonight?” she said. “My name is Clara.”

Davis stepped to the counter. “A few nights,” he grumbled.

“Long trip, I take it.”

She was clearly trying to make up for his gruff, antisocial behavior. But it wasn’t just the trip that had him out of sorts; Davis wasn’t one for small talk. “You could say that,” he said, pulling out his wallet.

“What’s your name?”

“Davis Williams.”

“That’s a nice name.” She glanced at the suit and tie, clacking at a keyboard. “You here in DC on business, I take it.”

He nodded, trying to cut off the discussion.

“Afraid I don’t have a reservation under that name. You want to hand me your license, so that I can check the spelling.”

She was smart, probably a college graduate; his name was simple. Davis grinded his teeth, angry; he worried that his assistant had botched the reservation. Then he thought about the open curtains and simmered down. There’s probably a room available.

“Your identification,” she repeated.

“Try the firm name… Williams & Johnston, LLP.”

“And you’re Williams… ” She said, impressed. “My, my… my. Where are you coming from?”

“New York. Just realized… they likely made the reservation under the firm.”

“Got it.” Clara smiled. “How many nights will you be spending with us?”

“Well, I’m hoping that it’s just the one. But I don’t know for sure.”

“We can put you down for three nights. And if you check out early, there isn’t a penalty,” she said, cheerfully. “How’s that?”

“That’s fine.”

Clara smiled again, handing over the paperwork. She had perfect teeth.

Davis forced another return smile. He tilted his head awkwardly and didn’t reveal his teeth when he grinned. His teeth were horrendous. Working long hours, he’d gone years without getting to the dentist.

“Which way to the elevator?” he said.

Clara pointed. “Right over there.”

He nodded and collected his things, and then turned and sadly lumbered away. Exhausted, he felt weighed down by his draping suit coat, briefcase, and the travel bag that he wheeled behind him.

Davis stepped around the corner and looked for a shiny elevator bank. Nothing stood out. Beyond the edge of the lobby was a dining area, closed and dark. He stopped and scratched his head.

A narrow elevator doorway lay before him. He shook his head and walked over. Pressing the button, he expected the doors to open. Nothing. Davis looked above the doors, but there wasn’t an indication of what floor it was on.

“Probably up near the top,” he muttered.

He waited impatiently. Just one elevator for the whole building, unbelievable. The longer he waited the more furious he grew.

Finally, he heard creaking from the elevator shaft. A ding, and the doors rattled open. He stepped inside, and set his briefcase down. Dark cherry paneling encased the elevator, gouged. Mirrors lined each wall at shoulder-height. The hotel was definitely dated.

He scanned for the floor buttons. They were only located on one side of the doors. Stepping over, he pressed for the sixth floor. The elevator trembled, and then began to ascend. Davis finally simmered down about the poor choice in reservation.

A slow climb, he glanced down, waiting.

The elevator had vinyl flooring, a cheap veneer meant to imitate slate found in the lobby. Edges were peeled back, worn and broken.

He reached the sixth floor, and the elevator dinged; doors shook open. Davis grabbed his briefcase and yanked on the travel bag. Wheels hung up on the distorted tile flooring. Fuming with anger, he paused, took a deep breath, and then pulled the travel bag. It came loose and tipped on its side.

Davis turned to right the bag. He fiddled and jerked on the handle, but couldn’t work at correcting the toppled luggage without a free hand. He huffed and set the briefcase down. As he righted the travel bag, the elevator doors closed.

He lunged for the doors, but they were small and closed fast.

The elevator descended. Davis grinded his teeth, and banged a fist on the wall. “This crappy hotel,” he bellowed. “Somebody’s going to pay!”

Davis went down and then back up.

The doors rattled opened and he stepped to the landing. Apparently, the renovation had not extended much beyond the lobby.  Davis turned down the hall. He found himself in a dilapidated housing project milieu. A ghetto.

Wallpaper peeled from the walls, and the hotel room doors were metal, dented. Brush strokes permanently streaked the doors and trim. He shook his head with disgust. Davis felt his heart race, fueled with anger and contempt.

He was pissed at his assistant for not making a better effort. And shuffling down the hallway, he began to grow incensed about even having to make this trip.

Davis found his room and fumbled with the card reader. He’d never seen one like it. The door took more than a moment to open. A moment too long.

***

Inside the room, he threw down his bags and plopped on the edge of his bed. Davis dug into a pocket and pulled out his phone. Someone was going to hear about this. And they were going to hear about it now.

Accessing his email, he caught a glimpse of the room. Horrendous. Two beds were squeezed into a small room, and the desk was jammed against the opposite wall. A television propped on the dresser looked ten years old.

He glanced around. No sofa to lounge upon, and he didn’t see a kitchen area. The room utterly amazed him. Davis set the phone on the bed and checked things out. He found a tiny closet and a door led to a bathroom with barely room to move about.

Scratching his head, he didn’t remember seeing a mini-bar. He wondered if the room even had one. “Blasted hotel,” he said, then trundled back to the room. Nestled by the desk, a mini-bar sat crammed into a corner.

Davis was delighted. He smiled with joy for the first time all day, perhaps weeks. He dug through it and found a few bottles of brandy. Just a little nightcap. He found a chunk of ice in a compartment in the mini-bar. He smashed it on the counter.

Cracking a few ice cubes into a glass, he then twisted open each bottle, and poured them all in. The drink looked divine. He sniffed the glass and took a long sip. Davis walked over to the bed and sat down.

Things were better now. He set the drink on the nightstand, then dialed for a wakeup call. Carla took a long time to answer, but it was clearly her on the phone. Davis never trusted wakeup services, so he decided to set the alarm clock.

The settings were bizarre. Nothing he’d ever encountered before. He didn’t know how to set the alarm on his phone. The more he fussed with the clock, the madder he got.

Still couldn’t get the alarm set.

A pulsating rage throbbed through his temples.

He snapped.

“That’s it!” He reached for the clock, grabbed it by the cord, and swung it around his head like a cowboy with a lasso. Then he pile-drove the clock into the floor.

Plastic exploded everywhere.

Davis paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. He reached for his drink and took a long gulp, staring in wonder at the heap on the floor.

A tinge of panic swept over him.

He began to hyperventilate, gasping for breath. What if they have me arrested for destruction of property? Davis listened for sounds at the door, trying to determine if someone was approaching from down the hall. He wondered if anyone heard the commotion.

Nobody saw me do it. The thought popped into his head. Relief. Davis took a long breath and figured he could tell them it fell off the table during the night. A restless night sleep he’d say. He took a deep breath, then glanced around for cameras, wondering if he could be caught in a lie. Davis shook his head. They wouldn’t put cameras in a hotel room.

The firm could pay for it. Take it from the savings they got on the discount hotel room. Davis snickered at the thought.

“Bill it to the client,” he said out loud. “Miscellaneous travel expense. Ha.”

He reached for the drink again. Sucked down what was left, then he picked up the cell phone, intent to let his disapproval be known.

Davis typed in the email address list for the Executive Committee. He had two assistants, one that had been with him for years, and the other seemed to be a constantly rotating position. The email was a tirade. He wanted her gone immediately.

“Have her pack up her stuff and get the hell out!” he wrote to the committee.

Then he railed off on them. Davis blamed their incompetence on hiring the girl in the first place. His name was on the door, so they better just take the licking, or chance being next. After hitting send, he put the phone down and took another belt from his glass. Nothing but water and ice cubes. He waddled over to the mini-bar and found a couple more bottles of brandy.

He grabbed more ice and emptied both bottles. Taking a long sip, he felt a slight buzz in his head. Davis glanced at the nightstand. No clock.

He picked up the cell phone and saw that it was 2:00 am.

The mobile in hand, he decided to send another email. Again he pulled up the Executive Committee email address. He never did the dirty work directly; it was beneath him to do so. Davis blamed his current circumstances on the attorney who had been handling the case.

He instructed them to cut off Brett Gleason from any further file assignments. Choke the bastard out. Gleason would be forced to scramble for work. He’d been servicing Davis’ clients for years, and so Gleason didn’t have much to fall back on of his own. He wouldn’t be able to sustain the hourly requirements for long. The man would be out on the street within six months. And no one could point directly to an altercation with Davis. That was the beauty of such an approach.

Everyone would think that Davis lost confidence in him after a trip to DC. Only the Executive Committee would know the truth. If the young attorney had listened to Davis in the first place, the client wouldn’t have demanded Davis to wing in and help work out a snag. Davis lectured the partners for years that they had to warm up to the clients, show that they brought added value to the equation. Sure, whenever the client wanted Davis to step in and save the day, it stroked his ego. He liked being the hero, but not at the expense of staying in substandard conditions. Gleason is out. Just doesn’t know it yet.

Davis gulped down the rest of the drink. Sitting alone, he snickered about the email that he’d just sent. Ruined another career. And there was nothing anyone could do about it. “Just like that Stuart Blackwood fellow,” he said, laughing.

The damn fool took it too hard, he thought.

He mused over Blackwood a little longer; the guy had tried to put on a seminar for Davis’ clients without asking permission. The gall of such an act had him steaming again. Glancing around the room, he took in the peeling wallpaper and water stained ceiling. Probably ended up in a place like this, he thought. Comforted by the young attorney’s demise, he cackled and shuffled to the mini-bar.

The refrigerator was out of brandy. Davis scratched his sides, thinking out the options. He could change over to a cheap Scotch, or head back down to the reception desk.

“The hell with it,” he said. “She’s not doing anything down there anyway.”

***

Turning, he snatched the keycard from the desk, and then headed for the door. A dingy hallway, he shook his head. “Never again,” he muttered.

The elevator dinged and the doors creaked open. He stepped inside with a large awkward bound. Lightheaded and a little giddy from the brandy, he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. First time he’d seen a genuine smile on his face in sometime. Boy he loved thinking about how he ruined Blackwood. Not too many people had that kind of power.

Davis shoved both hands into his baggy pants’ pockets. He peered down at his rotund belly, impatiently waiting for the rickety elevator to descend to the ground floor.

That’s when he noticed the puddle on the floor.

A pool of liquid circled around his expensive black shoes. He didn’t recall seeing it when stepping into the elevator.

Some fool has spilt a drink in here. Coffee.

He shook his head.

Another sign of a poorly maintained establishment.

Stepping out of the puddle, he waited anxiously for the elevator to reach the lobby. The blasted thing was extremely slow. Davis looked down and noticed the puddle had shifted over, spread, circling his shoes again. He had a mind to tell the woman at the front desk to get a mop and bucket and clean the place up.

Davis shuffled away from the dark puddle. Lifting a shoe, he bent and checked the leather sole for damage. The bottom was smeared, but his footwear remained intact. He shook his head again. Someone should get fired for this.

Setting his foot down, he realized the fluid had a crimson tint, like blood from a serious wound. The pool expanded around his feet again. Davis scanned the elevator. Somehow, the puddle had grown since he’d first seen it.

He glanced at the ceiling, searching for a drip. Nothing.

Then he checked himself over, looking for a wound. His shirt remained crisp and white, and he didn’t feel any pain.

After a moment, he realized that his legs were turning numb. Davis slid up a pant leg, and was horrified to see blood gushing around his pale shin. He jerked the pants up higher, and twisted around, searching for the source. A coal-black hand extended from a tear in the tiles; molten like tar, the hand wrapped around the back of his leg. The index finger burrowed into the soft spot behind his knee, worming its way around, as blood leaked from the hole in rivulets.

Somehow, he didn’t feel pain, only numbness. His head swirled. Terrified. His bowels let loose, and he was thankful to feel warm excrement run down his legs.

You’re not so proud, now. He heard the thought, but it wasn’t his.

Davis looked up and caught a reflection in the mirrors. The face staring back wasn’t old; no thick lenses covered the bald dome.

A younger man, dressed in a fine suit, stared back, sneering.

“Blackwood!” Davis bellowed.

The visage nodded. A snide grin remained on his face.

“This is where it happened?” Davis muttered. “An interview must have gone wrong… trouble with landing a new position.”

Another nod, but a tinge of regret slipped over the cockiness. Remorse. Davis took it for a sign of weakness. He could reason with this entity, talk his way out of the situation, live to fight another day.

“Never meant for something like that to happen,” Davis pled. “Honest, you’ve got to believe me.” He looked into the mirror hopefully.

The apparition grew stoic. A cold stare fixated on Davis, then the younger visage shook his head, and he said: “Too late for that now.”

“What?” Davis dropped to his knees blubbering, begging.

Another molten hand rose from the broken tile floor; it latched onto the other leg, and then the fingers of both hands clawed into his flesh. Peeling back raw meat, the hands began to pull, shucking Davis’ soul from his meat sack.

He screamed in agony, but nobody heard.

A moment later, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirrors. Davis stood in the elevator again; the pain had abated.

He’d been spared.

Blackwood had shown mercy.

Davis never granted it.

Then he realized… the view wasn’t of a reflection in a mirror, but rather as though seen through a window. Davis gazed upon his corporal form, staring in awe from the portals. The bald pate turned and stared into a mirror.

A familiar snide grin crossed its face.

The elevator dinged, and then the doors rattled open. Davis watched himself step away. Terrified, he pounded the mirrors, screaming for Blackwood. He felt trapped in a void, claustrophobic, sensing madness pinpricking at his sanity.