This is Part 1 of my new fortnightly serial. Stick around to find out what happens next!

Part 1: Interview

“So,” said Janet Ling, “I guess those are the skills I could use to work here at Hotel Fulcrum.” She coughed. “I do have a variety of them.”

“I see,” said her interviewer, Mr. James L. Smith, Hotel Manager. (The glossy black name-plaque with the gold scrolling was difficult to ignore.) He examined the resume that lay on the mahogany desk before him.

The silence stretched. Things weren’t going well. Being a server at a hotel shouldn’t be a difficult job, so the interview should have been a breeze. But Janet wasn’t comfortable, and she  kept forgetting things, from her carefully prepared answers to her favourite books (and why did they need to know that?). She didn’t know what was throwing her off — perhaps the unexpected grandeur of the place, or the strawberry-lavender concoction that was stinking up the room, or something in Mr. Smith’s attitude that suggested he was much, much better than her and not impressed at all.

“So Miss Ling. Why do you want to work here?”

Janet took a breath. This she had prepared for. “I just moved back to the area for the summer, with my parents. So it’s convenient for me. And I admire your dedication in bringing tourists to this area. I grew up here and I think it’s underrated.” She leaned back, satisfied with her answer.

Manager Smith, however, leaned forward and frowned. “That’s not a real answer.”

Janet blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“That’s an answer you prepared in advance in order to make yourself sound good. I want your real answer. Why do you want to work here?”

Janet had been trying not to think of the man as a skeleton, but that really was the best way to describe him – bony, pale, dark sunken eyes, and thinning grey hair. It didn’t help that the room was only lit by two desk lamps, which cast a soft glow on the rich brown wood but left everything else coated in shadows. It was probably an intimidation tactic, one she was determined to ignore. “I meant what I said.”

“About moving back home from the summer and needing something to kill time, maybe. You’re an accounting student just finished with your second year. You’ve listed your hobbies as travel and adventure, but you’ve never been outside the country. You did work at a cafe, but mostly your great achievements lie in the academic sphere — top marks for math and music in high school, high distinctions in many of your units at university.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand why that’s relevant.” Janet resisted the urge to rub her temples. The smell in this room was giving her a headache.

“Exactly. Nothing you’ve done points to your identifying with our culture and our mission. I doubt you approve of anything we do. You don’t even like the scents we use.”

“What? I didn’t say that.”

“You were thinking it, very loudly. Well, Miss Ling? Why did you apply to work here?”

“Fine.” This guy had obviously made up his mind about her. She had nothing to lose. “The truth? I’m back with my parents for nearly three months and I want something that takes me out of the house as much as possible. I’m bored. My best friend is travelling this summer, which I would really like to do only I don’t have the money for it. So here I am. Satisfied?”

“But why us, in particular? You could apply at any restaurant, any cafe, any shop.”

“And maybe I have. You know people apply to several places when they’re looking for jobs?” Lay off the sarcasm, damn it.

Smith shifted some papers on his desk. ”Only you haven’t, not really. We’re your first choice. You applied for some yesterday, but only because you thought this wasn’t going to work out.”

“That’s not true,” she lied. How the hell could he know that?

“It would surprise you what we know, Miss Ling. We’re rather well-connected. Will you finally answer the question?”

“There’s a mystery about this place.” She hadn’t meant to say that.

“Explain.”

“Well. This is an industrial area. There’s no reason for a hotel to be here. A motel, maybe, but not an upper-class looking hotel with red carpets and marble floors. You aren’t even near any public transport.”

“So we failed the location test.”

“But you’ve been here as long as I remember. If you were just a pokey hotel whose owners didn’t know how important location was, then you should have been out of business before I started high school. But you’re not. You’re still here, and I’ve driven past and seen cars here. Your guests could be staying on the coast, ten minutes away. And I looked up your prices. You guys are ridiculously expensive. Way more expensive than the ones at the foreshore. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to stay here.” She heard what she was saying and stopped in horror.

“And you want to know why we’re still in business.”

Janet knew she should try to walk this back, try and spin this as her admiration of their business acumen, so much she could learn here, but instead said, “I know you have a secret. I want to know what it is.” What the hell? It was like she wasn’t in control.

“What would you do with that information?” He looked amused. “Are you trying to be an investigative reporter? Going to write an article for the local paper?”

“No, nothing like that. I just want to know.”

“Did it ever occur to you to walk in and ask? In fact, you could have picked up the phone. Nothing easier. No need to go through all this rigmarole”

“Would you have answered?”

“No, Miss Ling, and I’m afraid I can’t answer now. Are there any other questions you have for me?”

Janet shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.

“In that case, I think we’re done here. Thank you for your time. We’ll be in touch.”

Sure you will. At least this would make a good story. Janet couldn’t wait to tell Angela how badly she had stuffed this up.

***

“You told them what?!” Angela shrieked.

“Don’t yell like that! I nearly went into the other lane.” Janet steadied her grip on the steering wheel.

“Sorry, but seriously, you said you didn’t know how they could stay open? You went to an interview and basically said their business was impossible!”

“Yeah, I don’t know what made me say that. I think he was provoking me deliberately.” Janet didn’t add that she had felt an odd compulsion to say what was on her mind.

“Maybe it was a test to see if you could keep your cool. I mean, you’ll probably have to deal with annoying people working in a hotel.”

“Doesn’t really explain why they offered me the job.”

“Wait, they did what?”

“I saw the email just before I left. They say if I want to I can start next week.” She shrugged. “Must not be anyone else who wants the job. I doubt they’d hire me if they weren’t desperate.”

“Or they value honesty above all things. It’s this exit, by the way.”

“I know, I saw the sign.” It was hard to miss. A large icon of a plane and an arrow. Perth International Airport — this way. She turned. “You better post a whole bunch of photos.”

“Of course. Real bummer you can’t come.”

“Next time.”

“When you’ve saved up all your money from this job.” Angela frowned. “If you’re taking the job.”

“Why wouldn’t I take the job?”

“Janet, it sounds a bit dodgy. Like you said, they look real fancy but they’re in the wrong area. Maybe there’s something shady going on.”

“Probably, yeah.”

“What if it’s something like drugs? Or a Mafia hangout.”

Janet snorted. “You watch too many crime dramas. No way someone would want to set up some Mafia thing in Kwinana.”

“I’m serious, Janet. You need to be careful.”

“Seriously?” Janet let out a laugh. “You’re going to Europe by yourself and telling me to be careful?”

“I’m with a tour group, remember? Sightseeing is fun and all but there’s no point taking unnecessary risks. But you could end up getting used as a drug mule or something.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“Promise me you’ll be careful.”

“I’ll keep my eyes open. You take care too.”

“Of course.”

Janet declined a coffee but helped Angela with her bags until she reached security. As Janet drove home, she mulled over Angela’s warning. Her friend was prone to drama and exaggeration, but after that interview, she was sure there was more to Hotel Fulcrum.

They knew why she was there now, though, and had still offered her the job. Which meant either there was no secret, not a really bad one, anyway. Or it was so deeply hidden they were confident she’d never find it. Or maybe they thought they had scared her off.

Well, shows what they know. The first thing she did when she got home was open up her email to accept the job.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed it, you can read Part 2 here