Saturday, July 16, 2016

Penthouse Suite 3643

Alex Brumbaugh could literally feel a grin creeping across his face as he rolled through the scenario in his head—frame by beautifully, vindictive frame. First, he would ambush Michael Finch near the water cooler. Alex would forego the usual morning pleasantries, and instead help himself to a handful of Michael’s shirt collar while administering an incapacitating head-butt. With his co-worker folded neatly on the floor, Alex would sidestep him as casually as a gardener navigates a smoldering pile of compost. By now, the temporary receptionist, Alicia, would have shrieked and bolted for the cover of the ladies room. Poor girl would never see the leg-sweep coming until she was spiting carpet fuzz and barrel rolling toward the unforgiving steel of ‘file cabinet row’. 
Alex fully intended to use the chaos of confusion to his advantage. Harried workers scrambling in and out of cubicles would provide cover as he moved down the hallway with purpose—destination, last door on the right, the over-sized and elaborate dwelling space of Johnny Flynn, one of middle managements’ most pathetic offerings. He’d begin the final assault by stapling Johnny to his burgundy, Italian-leather, high-backed office-chair. With the threat of interference neutralized, Alex would smash the glass and rip the samurai sword from the display case. He would swirl the weapon overhead until he connected fully with the fury of the blade. Fueled by a steady rush of adrenaline he’d drive forward engaging the target until the once pampered bonsai tree became nothing more than a pile of splinters. For the finale, he’d slap his boss across the face with an open hand, on the way to retrieving a letter opener. In a full frontal assault Alex would drive the opener, handle deep, into the electronic brain of Johnny’s Keurig Elite while screaming, “Coffee anyone!”
“Next time they’ll think twice before recommending Las Vegas as the ultimate vacation destination”, Alex muttered.
The woman standing next to him at the luggage carousel shot a sideways glance. He countered with a sheepish grin, as an insurance policy in case he had verbalized more of the scenario playing in his head than intended.
No matter how dismal this trip turned out to be, the portly, forty-three year old CPA would return to the office his customary half-hour early, and from there it would be business as boring usual. Alex wasn’t capable of delivering a head-butt, or a leg-sweep, and he considered blades of any kind a special brand of dangerous. During the Winter Olympics Alex would flip the channel or leave the room at the first mention of figure skating. His friends would say, “You’re being foolish, Alex. It’s all about lace, glitter, and graceful dance.” But Alex knew the awful truth. On any given day someone could lose their balance or grip—and then what—bloody, severed, torsos spinning across the ice, entrails chasing behind them. Only in the gruesome aftermath of high definition would anyone come to their senses. Then, in a multi-national consensus of twenty-three different languages, the stunned announcers would declare, “Sure wish we’d left the room with Alex—what a visionary!”     
Alex Brumbaugh III lived in a hermitically sealed world consisting primarily of glass office buildings, stuffy clientele, horrendously late nights, and microwavable meals. His version of living on the edge was when he mixed up meal plans and ate Thursday’s Salisbury steak on Tuesday. Alex operated in the shadows of lesser things. Instead of clawing his way nearer the limelight, rather sadly, he chose to settle there and eventually setting the bar unrealistically low became a way of life. His only expectation for the ‘city that never sleeps’, was to avoid the dubious distinction of being the first to cause her to slumber.
The woman standing next to him reached for her carry-on and found a new waiting spot. Despite a cushion of several bodies between them, she continued to swivel her head. Alex supposed the nervous glances were an attempt to locate the nearest security officer. “Fantastic”, Alex thought, “Ten minutes on the ground and I’m being escorted off to have my cavities searched by some rent-a-cop with extraordinarily large hands.”      
He glanced back at the carousel and saw an opportunity for escape. Alex gathered his bag and settled into the middle of a pack of travelers heading toward the exit, breaking only from the anonymity of the group when he spotted an available cab waiting just beyond the sliding glass door. 
An electric circus played on either side of the boulevard and well into the height of a midnight sky. Miniature cyclones of neon light penetrated deep into the blanket of night before colliding and melting into a warm glow. Sparks and splinters of light cascaded down, content to have been seen in their finest moment before drowning in the pools of elaborate fountains. Alex cracked the window and a symphony of sound flowed through. An enticing din of life and laughter filled the empty space between the commanding booms of cannons. Sometimes even a tiny slice of life is too much for a man with a brittle soul.
Suddenly his focus became the thin pane of glass separating him from the chaos of the strip. Alex recognized the jittering in his belly, and feared a full-blown panic attack waited for him in the next block. He closed his eyes, and tried to forget all he’d seen.
“First timer, huh?” The cab driver smiled from the rear-view mirror.
“Yep” Alex replied with his eyelids still clinched.
“A few words to the wise” The cabbie offered. “Stick to the strip; it’s well-lit and heavily policed. Don’t get too drunk and take to the streets. Just like any large city, people do get robbed and killed. Definitely avoid making eye contact with the ‘Flippers’, unless you’re into that sort of thing. Oh….and welcome to Vegas, buddy!”
Alex did not intend to wander far from his hotel and as a rule didn’t drink alcohol. “What’s a flipper?” he asked.
“Generally Hispanics, illegals for the most part, paid under the table to advertise for strip clubs and escort services—it’s not legal to verbally advertise prostitution so they click or flip the cards to get your attention and do their best to shove a card or two in your hand. It’s a real shame that every day thousands of cards and flyers end up tossed onto the streets and sidewalks. If you don’t see flippers, Vegas ain’t open for business! And we all know she don’t sleep”, the cab driver laughed.
The cab slowed in front of the hotel and the prospect of leaving the flimsy-windowed sanctuary became real. Alex lost his grip on the reigns of his imagination, and doing a hard double take at the rear-view mirror did nothing to change the fact the driver had morphed into a helicopter pilot. The penetrating stare into the back seat screamed, “Like it or not I’m maneuvering this aircraft into a hovering position.” Suddenly Alex became expendable, just another fresh-faced and naïve soldier about to be dumped into a jungle of sensory overload. Better to suck up his fears and jump voluntarily rather than try and recover from a combat boot to the middle of his back.
Alex fished in his pocket and passed some cash to the driver. He glanced at the ID badge hanging from the mirror. “Thanks for the advice, Mario, and keep the change.”
Via a deep breath, Alex summoned the courage to fling open the door to a place he’d already decided would swallow him up. Rather quickly, he waved off the bellhop’s assistance, perhaps too quickly as the gaps between the brick pavers made it impossible to keep a wheeled bag upright. Alex righted the carrier several times. He recalled how ridiculous his neighbor looked each morning as she waved nervously to him while pretending to be in control of the Great Dane that walked her up and down the block. He considered grabbing the handle and just carrying it, but if the bag were too heavy, the foolish move would only compound the embarrassment. He glanced in the direction of the bellhop and offered the same nervous wave as the dog walker back home. The gentleman leaned against one of the columns as if the engineer had penciled him into the blueprints. His arms were decidedly crossed, and he unfolded them only occasionally to draw angrily on his cigarette. Alex lunged forward and attempted a higher rate of speed. This time when the bag rolled, it carried a significant amount of momentum. The swift rotation of the handle tweaked Alex’s wrist hard enough that he squealed. It wasn’t at all a manly noise, like the grunt of a wide receiver as he absorbs the energy of a hard pass in his belly. It was more reminiscent of a high-heeled woman climbing for the sky when a mouse scampers into the open. Even as Alex contemplated blaming a squeaky wheel on his bag, the blaring of an automobile horn only inches from his backside frightened him so badly that he screeched again. This time the sound rebounded against the overhang and the echo lingered.
“You’re gonna get your stupid-self killed”, shrieked the doorman.
He brushed Alex aside to reach for the door handle of the Mercedes SL 550 convertible. Saddling up to the owner he spoke in a hushed voice, but not nearly soft enough that Alex couldn’t hear.
“That buffoon didn’t scratch the bumper did he? I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Dellheimer. Let me get your door. I’ll see to it your bags are delivered to your suite a.s.a.p.”
Alex glared steadily at the back of the bellhop’s head. He pictured himself unleashing the flurry of angry and vile words swirling in his mouth, but opted to swallow the poisonous sentiment instead. Alex had simply been out-classed and no amount of bellyaching would change that. The driver of the murder-mobile faced-up as sleek and polished as the automobile he commanded. His features were sharp and precise; attractive, Alex supposed, or rich enough to warrant the company of a beautiful female dangling from his right arm. A high-powered businessman, no doubt—the kind of creature having no purpose in life if someone removed the cell phone attached to the side of his head. Presently, he barked into the device in short, angry bursts, as though he treated everyone with the same amount of disrespect. His poor mother, Alex thought. He only hoped that by now, she had grown too hard of hearing to realize his grumbling, and too feeble minded to recall the disappointment of how her son conducted himself.  
Alex directed his attention to his bag. Gripping the handle, he gritted his teeth and visualized the receiver taking the quarterback’s pass in his gut.
“Hey you…walking away; I think this call is for you!” The businessman yelled out. 
Alex turned to find the phone extended in his direction. 
“Yeah, it seems Mr. Rogers has a gig on dancing with the stars and he needs his outfit back!”
Red-faced and deflated, Alex wheeled around before the chorus of laughter reached a crescendo. He gripped the handle with both hands, fingers interlocked as if they were around the businessman’s throat, crushing his windpipe. Alex navigated the revolving door without incident, but when the spinning cylinder spit him onto the marble tile, his left knee buckled, causing him to stumble noticeably. The bellhop watched him falter and took the opportunity to overtake him, singing quietly between snickers as he passed, “Won’t you be my neighbor.” The driver and his companion strolled past as well. When the couple broke off towards the elevator, Alex cleared his throat.
“Excuse me, Sir, may I ask what cologne you’re wearing. The aroma seems quite familiar.”
At the prompting of his companion, the man reluctantly broke stride and turned back. Following an extended sigh and a heavy roll of his eyes, the stranger offered to answer.
“It’s Clive Christian, 1872. And I suspect you’re bluffing about the familiarity because I suppose the management of any establishment selling such an exquisite and rare fragrance would have better sense than to hire the likes of you, unless they had floors that needed sweeping.” 
Alex feigned a puzzled expression. “Hmmm…I’d have sworn it smelled like the south end of a north bound skunk, and as for rarity, I supposed you might find it along most any rural highway in North America. My mistake entirely. Carry on smartly, good Sir. Or in your case, do the best that you can.”
As the elevator door opened he yanked the woman’s arm—a subtle form of punishment for coercing him to stop in the first place. Before the door closed, she glanced at her suitor as to avoid his watchful eye. While he pressed the button for their floor, she delivered a faint smile, an approving wink, and an almost imperceptible wave of her free hand—all of them directed at Alex.
Alex’s sweater pulsed visibly with every ragged beat of his heart. He couldn’t remember having ever insulted anyone so directly, nor could he recall such a deserving and smarmy recipient. But most remarkably, a mesmerizingly beautiful woman had acknowledged him. Filled with the hope of promise, Alex puffed his chest, grabbed his bag, and marched to take his place in line.        
He received a room assignment and as he signed the paperwork, felt a hand settle on his shoulder. Thoughts of the gentleman coming back for revenge gripped him. He braced in anticipation of the kidney punch that would plunge halfway through him at any second. Instead, he felt a tickle on his ear, followed closely by a whisper.
“In light of the absolutely dreadful encounter with my boyfriend, I’d like to buy you a drink. After you’re settled, of course. You’ll find me in the piano bar.”
A double kidney punch would have proved less embarrassment. The hotel attendant overheard the invitation and offered an exaggerated wink. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, Sir.”
Thoughts were arriving at blinding speed as Alex unpacked his bag; his mind like a wood-chipper stuck in overdrive. It absolutely had to be a setup; six drooling goons waiting in a dark corner of the piano bar, sitting around afterwards grinning and picking their teeth with his remains. Maybe the delicious young woman served as bait for a larger operation, feeding naïve men drinks until the abductors arrived to usher them into an unmarked van that would transport them deep into the desert where merciless torturing took place. She appeared too sophisticated to dance with poles for a living, and too soft to collect the souls of men for sport. Outside of a beauty pageant on television, Alex had never encountered a woman so stomach-churningly exquisite and poised. While Alex was pigtails and braces, this woman had been carved from ivory and polished with a fine cloth. He paused in front of the mirror, scolding the reflection, as he often wrestled with himself. “It’s one drink…I’m going.”
Alex lingered at the entrance until his eyes adjusted to the lower level of light. He stared hard into the three corners visible from the door, scanning for gangly shadows. Five people total in the entire place, including a bartender in a tuxedo. On the far side of the bar where it made a ninety-degree turn, a pair of empty martini glasses marked her seat. She spotted Alex, offered the same faint smile, and summoned him with a very slow and seductive retraction and extension of her index finger.
“Whatever he wants put it on my tab, please.”
“All night, Miss Lundquist, or just one drink for the gentleman?”
She smiled broader and deeper as she made eye contact with Alex, “More than one, if he’ll have my company that long.”
Initially, Alex found speaking or looking directly at her a most difficult proposition, but each time he threatened to go she provided more incentive to stay. An innocent touch of his hand over another drink, leaning forward so that her dress drooped in the front, and giggling the first time she caught him looking. She invited him to dance; Alex refused. The first time due to insecurity, but the second and third because he learned to play the game of give and take more wisely. Alex traded a dance for allowing Lola, if that was her name, to guide his hand gently to places it had never been. They drank and laughed, and laughed and drank, until the two required chairs with backs. For the first time in his life, Alex felt like a man, and in her short amount of years, Lola finally felt heard. She shared a story of discontent, of abuse, and eventually a longing for escape. There, in the dim light of a piano bar, the two concocted a plan as evil as the gin coursing through their veins.
“He’ll leave the high rollers room between 4:00 and 4:30am. I need him to find the two of us in bed together. I’m offering that to you, Alex, but either way we have to give the appearance. I assure you he’ll be completely soused. Might knock over some furniture, but that will support our story. Vince will definitely come after you first, especially after you insulted him at the elevators.”
Lola reached in a sequin-covered purse and flashed a stainless revolver. “But that’s when I take him out for good. Let him hit you once or twice, that’s all I’m asking, so that the self-defense story is plausible.” Lola offered a glance at a large roll of hundred dollar bills. “I’ll pay for any medical expenses, in addition to a hundred grand for your trouble.”
Lola saw the hesitation building in Alex’s eyes. She took his face in her hands and drew him close.
“I really do want to make love to you, Alex. You’re genuine and sweet, and I’ve never been with anyone like that. Your first time should be something you always remember, and I can promise you that!” Lola giggled.
Alex’s head dipped without the support of Lola’s hands, bobbing several times before settling a few degrees lower than it began. Lola tossed a wad of cash on the bar and helped guide Alex in the direction of the elevator. He tried to protest, but the alcohol gobbled up the majority of his words, leaving only incoherent syllables dribbling down his chin.
He remembered lying naked on the bed, his head resting on an unbelievably plush pillow. When he opened his eyes again, locks of long blonde hair blocked off his peripheral view. The close proximity and effects of alcohol had robbed him of the ability to distinguish the subtle contour of Lola’s features, but he could see them fresh in his mind. He felt the heat of her body where it touched his. Her ample breasts were making impressions in his chest, burrowing dangerously close to his heart. Her voice arrived soft and undecided as she requested permission to make his parts function again. Alex managed a nod, or maybe his head slipped on the silk pillowcase, but in either case, Lola inched back down his frame and breathed life into him again.
Alex regretted his inability to play a greater role. When Lola placed her knees outside of his, he couldn’t stop himself from unpacking the bundle of guilt he dragged into the bedroom, but the moment she rested her palms on his chest and lowered into position; the indulgence of guilty pleasures swept him away. As if consumed by a rhythmic song playing in her head, Lola rocked and swayed. Stanza after stanza, layer by layer, she peeled away every misgiving like an anemic fog bending to the will of the sun.  
Lola had rolled from his chest an hour earlier and was sleeping in a fetal position facing the wall. When he awoke, Alex had a vague recollection of the plan; a plan he would have run a hundred miles an hour away from if not for the alcohol and her charisma. The alarm clock showed 3:30 am. Alex had time to slip on his clothes and head back to his room. Even as he scraped against one side of the hallway then the other, he reasoned with his unreasonable self, that in no shape or form should he be responsible for Lola. Just as the elevator chimed, Alex blurted out loud. “I owe the lovely Lola absolutely nothing.”  
Alex’s heart raced as he heard the door open and close again. The beating in his head turned moments into millenniums. The instant the black leather jacket moved through the opening Alex squeezed off the first round. His foot slipped from the edge of the Jacuzzi tub where he’d been perched, but he hopped quickly onto the tile and kicked open the bathroom door. The bullet struck Vince in the back, just above his right shoulder blade. Alex observed Lola sitting upright in bed, her mouth dropped open in horror. Alex turned back to Vince, his arm whipping the air, stretching to reach the edge of the bed. Alex thrust the gun at arm’s length, cocked his head and winced as he yanked the trigger. His second attempt sent a scorching round of lead squarely through the back of the victim’s head. 
The room began to spin horizontally, then at a forty-five. Alex stumbled backwards until he contacted the wall; his knees gave way and he slid to the floor. Lola snagged her purse from the nightstand and leapt to his side. Between frantic sobs, she scolded him, “Alex…..sweet Alex….what have you done? This wasn’t the plan at all!”    
She steadied the trembling of his hands long enough to pry his fingers from the grip. Lola wiped the weapon down with a towel and jammed it into her purse.  

Despite Lola nearly pulling his arm out of the socket, Alex couldn’t will himself to move. With his good arm, he motioned for her to leave without him—eventually she did. He heard her tiny footsteps rushing down the hallway, each of them carrying her further from danger. Free from the obligation of protection, Alex fell into a deep stare, studying the steady stream of warm blood leaking from Vince’s forehead, swirling and pooling, before it seeped into the snow-white carpet of penthouse suite 3643.