This is the second part of my fortnightly serial. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

Part 2: First Shift

Hotel Fulcrum was a square brick building, four stories high, roof tiled in white. No balconies — no view. No valet attendant, just a square car park, almost empty. On the other side of the car park was a petrol station. Nothing special. Nothing out of the ordinary.

As Janet walked through the doors, she marvelled again at the contrast between the hotel’s plain exterior and its grandiose interior. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The floor was white marble, except for where it had been covered by rich red and gold carpet. Maybe it wasn’t quite the Ritz, but it certainly beat most hotels she’d been to. 

The receptionist sitting at the counter was dressed in a white blouse and grey skirt, and her hair and skin were white. She seemed completely absorbed in whatever was on her computer. 

Janet cleared her throat. “Excuse me. I’m Janet Ling.”

The receptionist did not look up. “I’m sorry. All our rooms are full.”

“Right, but I’m not here for a room. I’m Janet Ling? Starting here as a room server? They told me to report to the front desk.” She tried to inject certainty into her voice. “I’d like to see Manager Smith.”

The receptionist frowned slightly but her eyes remained on the screen. “Did you come in through the front door?”

“Yes. Was I not supposed to?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t have any rooms available.”

“Did you here anything I said? I’m not looking for a room!”

Finally the receptionist looked at Janet. “Oh. You’re the new girl.”

“Yeah, the new girl. Where do I go?

“You stay here.” The receptionist’s eyes went back to the screen.

“What, all night?“ 

“Ah, Miss Ling!” Heels clacked on marble and Janet turned. The speaker was a dark haired woman dressed in a charcoal suit. 

“I am so sorry,” she said as she approached. “You must come this way.” She nodded to the receptionist. “Thank you, Felicia.” Then she took Janet by the arm and led her through a door to the right of the counter. Janet fought the instinct to wrench her arm away. “You must excuse her. Dear Felicia is one of those people who simply must follow procedure. Doesn’t know what to do if there isn’t a routine, or some rules to follow.”

“Surely you have a procedure for new workers.”

“Well. Not during the busy period. There are a few events on this summer, see, and we’ve had a bit of an upheaval with staff. I’m Hela, by the way.” With this, she finally let go of Janet’s arm.

“Nice to meet you. Are we going to meet Mr. Smith?”

“No, he’s very busy tonight. We’re just going to get you started with some easy duties, get you settled in.”

“Do I get a tour?”

“Not tonight. People will be tripping over us. We’re going to the kitchens.”

Janet prided herself on having a good sense of direction and a fantastic memory, but as they walked down identical looking dusty corridors, turning corner after corner, going down steps just to go up steps again, she was sure she would never be able to find her way out. Maybe that was the idea. 

It didn’t help that Hela walked briskly, and talked at about the same speed. “Now the ground floor has a restaurant and bar, only for hotel guests, mind, that’s in the East Wing. Then there are some function rooms and meeting rooms in the West Wing. This section here is mostly for storage and us staff, but there are a few rooms for those guests who need to be on the ground floor for whatever reason. Interestingly enough, when this place was first built it was only the ground floor, the basement and upper floors were added in later. That’s important because —“

Janet broke in. ”Are we walking in circles?”

“Of course not. What makes you think that?”

“I swear we just made four right turns.”

“Firstly, that would make a square, not a circle. Secondly, this is an old building, and it’s been renovated a few times. New walls, walls taken down, that sort of thing. It’s a bit of a maze now.” 

Janet sighed with relief as they passed a lift. She had begun to think the place only had stairs, which would be difficult if they wanted her to climb four floors multiple times a night. “So where are we going?”

“Here.” Hela pushed open a set of double doors. “The kitchen.”

Janet frowned. “This is the kitchen?” It was the same size as her own kitchen at home, meaning it was tiny. There was a sink, a dishwasher, a fridge, sets of shelves, but no actual cooking equipment. The linoleum floor had an ugly pattern of black thorny vines.

“This is part of the kitchen.” Hela gestured towards the counter that jutted out of one wall. Above the counter was a flap in the wall. “The main kitchen is through there, and some of the orders will get passed out here so we can take them to guests.”

“So, the room service goes through here?”

“Special requests only. Most of the room servers will use the main kitchen entrance, which I’ll be showing you later. All the dirty glasses will come through here though.” She gestured at the sink and pulled open the dishwasher to reveal two trays of just cleaned glasses. “Really, it’s the room of dirty glasses.” 

“And tonight you want me to…”

Hela passed Janet a cloth. “Stay here and polish glasses.”

“I thought I was supposed to be a server.”

“You are. This is one of the things we get servers to do.”

“What about, you know, serving people?” 

“We’ll get to that. Look, I’m sorry, this is just bad timing. We’ve had a whole bunch of new guests coming through and some of them—“ she grimaced. “Tomorrow, I promise, we’ll give you the full induction. You’ll like it.” Hela pulled her phone from her pocket. “Oh, no.”

“What is it?”

“The penthouse guest. Just arrived today with all his servants, has been running us ragged the minute he stepped through the door. Just a moment.” Hela leaned over the counter, pushed the flap open, and yelled something incomprehensible. Janet strained her ears and thought she heard a muffled reply.

“What did he ask for?”

Hela eyed her a moment before answering. “Steak. Rare steak.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad.”

“Not by itself, but he’s been ordering something different every hour. You should get to work. Those glasses aren’t going to dry by themselves.”

“Aren’t they?”

“Well, if they do dry by themselves, you’ll have to clean the watermarks off them. Get wiping.”

Janet started wiping. “So why is it so busy?”

“Holiday season.” Hela tapped at her phone. 

“Did they all come in by taxi or something? The carpark didn’t look very full.”

“I’m afraid I didn’t quiz every guest as to their mode of transport.” Hela’s voice had turned to ice.

Oh dear. Janet turned her full attention to the glasses.

When the dish for the penthouse guest came, Hela quickly covered it and yelled out the door for a runner. Janet was surprised to find someone came quickly, but it turned out this room wasn’t as isolated as she thought. Several times someone came in with a tray of dirty glasses, or to take away the clean ones. “From the bar,” Hela explained.

“Seems inconvenient to have to wash the glasses in a separate room to the bar,” Janet remarked.

“They have a place to wash glasses there as well. We’re dealing with the overflow.”

Several times more, too, the penthouse guest delivered orders that Hela covered and sent runners for. The rest of the time, Hela stood and alternated her gaze between her phone and Janet. Janet wiped glasses and wracked her brains for something she could say to break the uncomfortable silence.

“So you must be important,” she finally ventured, “if all the special requests come through you.”

Hela raised perfectly shaped brows.  “And?”

“Well, I just wondered why you were spending the night just standing here watching me wipe glasses. Aren’t there more important things to take care of?”

“I’m training you, aren’t I?”

“That’s important, is it?” 

“Mr. Smith tells me I should keep a close eye on you.”

“Oh? Did he mention why?” Had he told her about the interview?

“I think it had something to do with something you said during the interview. What was it? Oh yes. ‘I know you have a secret. I want to find out what it is.’ You said that, didn’t you?”

Damn. “I … regret saying that.”

“Why not? Isn’t it true?”

There wasn’t much point in denying it. “It’s not the only reason I’m here. I mean, I also wanted to earn money and have something to do over the holidays.”

“So you’re bored. Is that the only reason you’re here?”

“I’m sorry, is this a second interview?”

Hela smiled. ”The truth is there is a secret.”

Janet nearly dropped a glass. “What?”

“And we fully intend to tell you. But there’s no point in your working here if that’s the only reason you are here. I want to know you also want to help our guests.”

“I mean, of course.” Janet couldn’t quite tell if Hela was serious or not. “That’s what I’m doing now.”

“I don’t mean just doing your job. I mean doing everything in your power to make sure the guests are happy and that everything flows smoothly.”

“Sure, I can do that. Just give me a chance and —“

The door was flung open. “Hela, you have to come to the lobby! There’s a —“

Hela glared at the boy and nodded towards Janet. “Oh,” said the boy. “Sorry. Hello. Hela, could you please come to the lobby for a moment?”

“Naturally. You,” Hela pointed to Janet. “Stay here.”

“Sure, no worries.”

Hela let the door swing shut. Janet went back to wiping glasses, although now her mind was all in a whirl. Had Hela just been teasing her? 

Just then, a covered dish was passed through from the kitchen.

“Um, is that for the penthouse?” Janet called through. The sounds from the kitchen were muffled — they had been all night — but she though she heard a yes.

Janet eyed the plate. Penthouse guest, Hela had said, and it sounded like whoever-it-was was fairly fussy. Hela wouldn’t want to come back to face that, surely. While Janet wasn’t sure how to get back to the lobby, getting to the penthouse should simply be a matter of taking the lift to the top floor. The lift was on this corridor. It should be fine.

She knew it was a bad idea. She took the plate anyway. It was warm in her hands as she pushed through the doors and went down the corridor.

The lift wasn’t there. 

Odd. Janet was sure they passed one, right as they turned. Perhaps it was just around the corner. She walked around the corner

It wasn’t there either.

Maybe better to get back to the kitchen. Then she could pretend she’d never left.

She turned back to the kitchen and went through the doors. 

“What the hell…?” It opened into another corridor. The plate was hot in her hands.

Janet knew she’d had the right door. She never got lost! She went out and tried the door next to it. Another corridor. 

She stood still and steadied her breath. There was a distant sound of voices. The kitchen still had to be near, right? The people there would help her out. The plate was somehow getting hotter the longer she held it. She had to put it down soon.

The voices seemed to be coming from the right, so Janet turned right. This corridor seemed endless, although the voices were getting louder. Janet paused. Were those screams?

Janet knew about the fight or flight response. What she realised in that moment was that there was also a response to hearing screams in one’s vicinity: run towards or run away. For a moment she teetered between the two, then ran towards the screams. She pushed through the doors without knocking, without looking, and her feet slipped.

A hand grabbed her jacket. Janet’s eyes were fixed on the abyss before her. A great hole had opened up, and all she looked down, down, until the blackness ended in a distant red glow, who knew how far below. The plate fell from her hands and tumbled out of sight.

She was pulled back from the brink, and looked up to see chandeliers. Was this the lobby?

“I thought I told you to stay where you were.” Hela let go of Janet’s jacket with a sigh. “What are we going to do with you?”

Thanks for reading! If you want to keep going, Part 3 is here.