new years eve was always one of mortimer's favorite nights operating the elevator of the hotel st crispian.
the flow of people that he could talk to, coming and going to parties, some of them in rooms rented just for the parties, was continuous.
mortimer's only regret was that they came and went so quickly, and there was such a constant rush, that he did not have time to properly chat up the people he was meeting for the first time.
of course he prided himself on never forgetting a face and always knowing when he was meeting someone for the first time.
but even on new years there was an occasional lull, and there was just one such around ten thirty, with all the parties in full swing, and mortimer was seated on his little stool outside the open elevator when two familiar figures - permanent tenants of the hotel - approached from the direction of the prince hal room.
fred flynn, the science fiction writer, was supporting - virtually dragging - harold p sternhagen the pulp writer down the corridor. it was obvious to mortimer that both were six sheets to the wind, and that mr sternhagen was so far gone that he was not going to make it to midnight to welcome in the new year.
"come on. mort," fred called, "help me out here!"
mortimer looked around. no one was approaching the elevator. he got up and hurried down to the pair.
just as he reached them harold went completely slack. mortimer was just able to grab him before he slipped from fred's grasp and fell to the floor. he was now dead weight and mortimer had a hard time holding him up even with fred's help.
"jeez, mister flynn, maybe you shouldn't have tried to carry him by yourself."
"that damn farmer brown was going to help me, but then he disappeared." fred looked like he was about to pass out himself.
"all right," mortimer answered. "we only have a little further to go. come on - heave!"
together they dragged harold to the elevator with the toes of his brown shoes scraping against the floor. just as they reached the door they were overtaken, by jake the bellhop carrying a large tray heaped with drinks and sandwiches and hors d'oeuvres.
carefully balancing the large tray in both hands, jake stepped around mortimer and fred and their burden, and into the elevator.
"for christ's sake, mort, what are you doing? leave that bum and get me up to the sixth floor."
with a final heave mortimer and fred got harold's limp carcass into the elevator.
"fourth floor," fred gasped. "fourth floor."
"no, mort," jake insisted. "get me to the sixth floor first. this thing weighs a ton and it's slipping and sliding. then you can take care of him."
"sure, jake." mortimer started to close the elevator door. "no problem." out of the corner of his eye he could see fred starting to slide down the wall.
"hold it!" another figure had appeared.
it was mr bernstein the hotel manager himself. he was carrying a tray with two champagne bottles in buckets of ice. he stepped around the half closed door and stood beside mortimer as jake backed up.
"tenth floor, mort," mr bernstein announced. "this is for miss wilde's party. and try to land there smoothly for once, without too many stops and starts, all right?" he glanced over at the slumped forms of harold sternhagen and fred flynn with a look of disgust.
"sure thing , mr bernstein." jeez, thought mortimer, why is everybody so grouchy? it's new years, the holiday season, a time for celebration.
"and then down to the sixth floor, mort," jake repeated.
"right, jake, i got you." mortimer gripped his lever and the elevator began its ascent.
outside, as the door had closed, farmer brown had suddenly rushed up.
he stood for a few seconds watching the overhead indicator. he straightened his tie.
"i guess they didn't need me after all, " he announced to the empty corridor. "but they can't say i didn't try."
mortimer brought the elevator to a stop at the tenth floor with a single jarring thud.
fred flynn's now unconscious body lurched toward jake, who was as far back in the corner as he could get, holding on to his tray with both hands for dear life.
gritting his teeth, mr bernstein stepped off the elevator with the two bottles of champagne. the door to hyacinth wilde's suite was open. mortimer could hear the sounds of the three piece jazz band he had carried up earlier, and also the booming - and now drunken - laughter of the playwright agnus strongbow, whom he had also carried up earlier, and the screeching laughter of the new sensation miss - "
"come on, mort, the night is not getting any younger," jake insisted. "but take your time, let me down easy. on the sixth floor."
"i heard you the first ten times." they descended to the sixth floor and mortimer opened the door for jake, who carefully stepped past fred and harold.
"you want me to wait for you?" mortimer asked jake.
jake hesitated. "yeah, why don't you? then you can me take back down and then you can do what you want with these clowns."
"maybe you can help me with these guys."
"are you kidding?. they'll be ten more orders waiting for me down in the bar."
mortimer watched as jake headed down the corridor of the sixth floor. he shook fred's shoulder, trying to get him halfway awake.
he hoped nobody would ring while he waited for jake. but it was better to wait for him, because who knew how long it would take him to get mister flynn and mister sternhagen into their rooms. and jake would be all over him if he had to wait for him here on the sixth floor.
the same kind of thing had happened last year, or maybe two years ago, except then it hadn't been mr sternhagen and mr flynn - it had been lord wolverington and miss charlton.
he guessed one new year's was just like the next.
and then it hit him...
there was no new year!
mortimer had already figured out that there was no "real world" outside of manhattan, that brooklyn and china and paris and all those places were just an illusion.
now he realized an even truer fact... that there was no "time". all that stuff they told you in school about "history" and the "past" and the "future" was just a lot of bunk and an illusion, just like england and brazil and staten island.
this was it... this was all there was or ever would be... the same things happening over and over, a little bit changed maybe, but that was just to pull the wool over people's eyes. it was really just the same thing over and over like a broken record.
and that hotel up past central park, where julius caesar and joan of arc and hitler and babe ruth and amelia earhart and all the other people who "died" or "disappeared" were staying and probably playing poker and bridge all day ... not only were they all there, they would be back.
maybe next year. maybe next year instead of helping fred flynn and harold p sternhagen off the elevator he would be helping judge crater and napoleon...
and the year after that lou gehrig and carole lombard...
and the year after that and the year after that... because they were all coming back...
later, after mortimer had gotten mr sternhagen and mr flynn to their rooms and after the long night and his shift were over, he went back up to mr flynn's room.
he could see a light under the door so he knocked and mr flynn let him in.
mr flynn gave mortimer a cup of coffee and made one for himself and listened respectfully as mortimer outlined his new theory.
"i like it, mort, i like it. i think you are really on to something there..."
fred sipped his coffee. it needs work, he thought, but i think al johnson at smashing wonder tales might take it
mortimer and jake headed down morton street toward bleecker street.
jake was not as interested in mortimer's theory as fred flynn had been. he yawned several times listening to it.
"so what you are telling me, mort, is that you can predict the future, is that right?"
"sort of. but not exactly."
"not exactly. that's not much use, is it? i mean, if you want to put a few dollars on something."
they walked along. dawn was breaking.
"let me ask you this, mort."
"are the yankees going to win the world series again this year?"
"absolutely." mortimer stared straight ahead. "i guarantee it."
roland usually worked the midnight shift, but as usual on christmas eve and new years eve, he obligingly arranged to work the desk so that the regular clerks could take off. the quiet of christmas eve was similar to what he was used to on the graveyard shift, and he enjoyed the bustle of new years as a welcome change of pace.
in a couple of hours nolan, who resided in the hotel, would head uptown to spend christmas eve and christmas day with his wife and daughters. he was not exactly excited about it, but he did not really mind it all that much either. after all, it was only once a year.
this year he found he was even looking forward to it a little bit. i must be getting soft, he thought.
he just hoped there would not be too many priests on hand. maybe none! no, that was too much to hope for. but the married daughters would be dropping in with their husbands and children, so he could talk to them and mostly avoid the priests .
nolan heard somebody approaching behind him. he looked over his shoulder.
miss charlton sat down in the chair nearest nolan. "merry christmas, mister nolan."
"merry christmas to you, miss charlton." nolan took a cigar out of his breast pocket and began to light it. not that the smoke would drive miss charlton away. he just needed it.
"i do hope," miss charlton announced, "that we do not have any unpleasantness this christmas eve like we did last."
had there been any unpleasantness last year? she might be remembering something at christmas thirty years ago. "i hope so too, miss charlton," he replied.
"it seems to me that every year there is a little less christmas spirit than the year before."
"that may well be," nolan agreed.
"at least it is snowing, so we shall have a white christmas at any rate."
where was wolverington ? where was farmer brown when nolan needed him? what was worse, listening to miss charlton, or to the priests?
nolan decided to finish his cigar, and if he were not rescued by then, make his excuses and head uptown early. mr bernstein the hotel manager had told him he could leave at any time. he would make the excuse to miss charlton that the snow was getting heavy - not that it would really have any effect on the subway he would take.
"where is lord wolverington tonight?," he asked miss charlton, just to be saying something. "is he indisposed?"
"indisposed? no, he got a head start on the holiday season and he is passed out, dead drunk. deader and drunker than any sailor he ever picked up on tenth avenue." miss charlton had obviously been enjoying some early christmas cheer herself.
nolan just nodded. then he heard another voice behind him. a lilting, accented voice.
"good evening, miss charlton. and good evening to you, sir. and as you say - merry christmas."
here was help indeed! it was one of the two young men from what nolan thought of as the "continental set" who occupied a couple of suites on the eighth floor. the russian one, one of two fine young fellows who had helped nolan out in the past.
a russian, but who had assured nolan in the most emphatic terms - not that nolan really cared - that he had no love for uncle joe stalin or the gang who ruled russia now.
serge - that was his name - took a seat on a couch facing the door and slightly angled away from miss charlton and nolan. he took a cigarette case out of his breast pocket.
"i was just telling mr nolan," miss charlton began, " that the christmas spirit seems to fade away a little every year."
serge finished lighting his cigarette. "ah, but everything fades away in america, does it not? americans do not live in the past." he exhaled some smoke and looked out at the snow. "in my country - in most countries - the past is more alive. and recalled more easily."
"you do not say so," miss charlton replied a little uncertainly.
"yes. this snow, it reminds me of another christmas eve i spent, it must have been five years ago. in some ways it seems yesterday, in others - five thousand lifetimes ago."
"oh. do go on." miss charlton, who knew when a man wanted to tell a story, replied in her most ladylike manner.
nolan did not know where serge was going with this, but it beat listening to miss charlton. he leaned back in his chair.
as the snow continued to fall outside, serge told his tale.
the war was over. in some ways, and according to the newspapers. universal peace had been proclaimed, and a new age of harmony which would last forever had begun.
but the erstwhile mountain bandit koba and his cronies still had a few loose ends to tie up.
including some very humble loose ends indeed, like myself.
i was in vladivostok, trying to get a boat to - to anywhere, really. preferably hawaii or san francisco, but anywhere occupied by the americans or even the british - or anywhere not directly controlled by koba - though one can never get completely out of his reach -
- "excuse me," miss charlton interrupted, "but who is this koba person? some sort of russian al capone?"
"he is the personage referred to by the new york times and the london times as marshal stalin."
"oh. please go on." -
it was christmas eve. and very cold. a dry snow was falling, and blowing in drifts in the streets.
i was seated at the bar of the little hotel whose hospitality i was enjoying. it was the cheapest hotel i could i could find, just close enough to the docks that i might seize an opportunity to board a suddenly available boat, yet not so close as to be constantly patrolled and searched by the police - by the various police including the military police.
i was the only person at the bar. the proprietor of the hotel, who also tended the bar when the mood suited him, was not present.
i did not care to stay in my room, on the third floor, which might have been very slightly warmer, as i felt trapped in it.
i should mention that it was not only on my account that i was fearful.
for i was carrying the star of the volga - one of the surviving jewels of the imperial family, which had been entrusted to me by the crown princess tatiana, who was herself somewhere in vladivostok or at least in the maritime province, though her exact whereabouts were deliberately withheld from myself.
this, of course, was an elementary precaution so that i would be unable to reveal her location to koba's agents even under the most extreme torture.
the star of the volga itself i had wrapped in a handkerchief in my side pants pocket.
i was cautiously sipping the wretched drink in front of me. for who knew when the proprietor would return? - perhaps he was celebrating christmas with a fat wife and some bedraggled children - when the door opened.
not suddenly but slowly - with the instinctive and unconscious slowness of the conspirator and the secret agent.
a man entered.
i recognized him instantly.
he had been a fellow passenger on the trans-siberian railway, embarking at ulan-ude. he had taken slight pains to alter his appearance - wearing shabbier clothes, shaving off a bushy mustache, but he was obvious enough. he had been one of the few westerners on the train.
we both observed the formalities of the situation. he enquired where the proprietor was, and i politely speculated that, as it was christmas, he might not be back soon, and so forth.
he replied that he would wait, and took a seat at one of the little tables against the back wall.
there was nothing to be gained by waiting. my only slender hope was that whoever was waiting outside had not yet completely taken up their positions.
i stepped outside. sure enough, i saw a couple of tall figures at the end of the street - soldiers, no less, with rifles sling on their backs.
there was a narrow street on my right. i turned down it. i knew there was a church at the end of it, which, when i had passed it before, showed every sign of abandonment.
the street was totally unlit. fine snow blew in my face.
i fingered the handkerchief in my pocket with the star of the volga in it. should i throw it into the darkness, so that at least my fellow passenger and the soldiers might not retrieve it? my own cause seemed lost.
suddenly a small figure sprung out at me from the darkness and clutched at my coat.
it was a boy about eleven years old, dressed in rags - little more than a collection of scarves wrapped around every part of his body except his face.
"a kopeck, sir," he cried. " just a kopeck for a cold christmas night!"
i recognized him immediately as st alexei, the boy saint of russia.
i thrust the handkerchief and the star of the volga into his hand. i could hear boots clattering on the pavement behind me as the boy scurried off, toward the dark church.
one of the soldiers grabbed me. the other chased the boy.
the soldier shouted at me in a dialect i could barely understand. i shrugged at him and said nothing.
the man from the train joined us. there was no pretense that he was not ordering the soldiers about, and he questioned the soldier.
"you gave that boy something?" he asked me.
"he was a beggar. i gave him a kopeck."
he smiled. "begging is not allowed, comrade, in the workers' republics. surely you know that."
i smiled back. "but it is christmas time."
"yes, yes, to be sure," he replied.
meanwhile a truck had appeared at the end of the street from behind the church. more soldiers with rifles emptied out of it, and surrounded the church.
at a signal from the man from the train, the soldier searched me. he took my wallet. i had no weapon, not even a knife. then he shoved me toward the church.
we entered the church. the soldier now had his rifle prodding my back.
the soldiers from the truck were entering and milling about in the church. some of them with electric torches were directing the others, getting them to search along the walls and in niches were statues stood.
they had not yet found the boy.
my two companions shoved me along, toward the altar. words passed between them, and the soldier addressed the man as "colonel".
a single very small candle was burning at the altar. it had not been visible from the outside.
the colonel pointed to the candle. "did you light this?" he asked me.
"sir," i replied. "i assume you have been watching me for some time. when would i have lit this candle? you can see from its size it can not have been burning long."
he just stared at me. he nodded at the soldier and they directed me back toward the front door of the church.
as we passed the statues along the wall. i noticed a small one that was newer and cleaner looking than the others.
it was a statue of st alexei. neither the colonel nor the soldier were looking at it, and it winked at me as we passed.
we were back outside in the cold air.
"now, citizen," the colonel smiled at me again. "we can truly begin."
suddenly the church blazed with light, blinding all within it and outside it.
in the confusion i made my escape.
"so what happened to the jewel - the star?"
while serge was telling his tale, two more listeners had entered, and stood a few paces behind nolan's chair.
nolan, who had not noticed them because he had fallen half asleep, turned his head.
one of them he recognized. it was the pesty little girl who used to come into the hotel and try to get into rooms by passing out religious pamphlets - protestant pamphets. he had not seen her for a while - a year ?- but she did not look any different.
her companion was a black girl, over a head taller, maybe a couple of years older.
nolan laughed. "you!" he addressed pippi. "go on, both of you. be on your way!"
"come on, pop," the black girl answered him. "it's christmas. have a little of the spirit."
pippi ignored nolan and addressed serge. "you're one of gwendolyn's friend's, are't you."
"i am indeed, miss."
"just tell gwendolyn pippi came by, and that i'm back - and, um, she knows where to find me. " she shot a glance at nolan. "and we'll be on our way."
serge stood up. "oh no, no, please come up to the apartment. i know gwendolyn will be delighted to see you. have some eggnog. and some chocolate cake - that i baked myself." to serge, the two girls looked no different from gwendolyn's classmates from miss churchill's school. to him, all americans were barbarians and peasants.
"thank you, sir." pippi looked over at nolan. he could tell she was barely restraining herself from sticking her tongue out at him. "this is my friend salome," pippi told serge. "we were - are - at school together."
"so what happened to the star?" salome, who had asked the question before, repeated it.
"oh," serge laughed, "that's another story. for another time."
"like next christmas."
"perhaps." serge smiled.
"and christmas," observed miss charlton, "comes but once a year."
nolan watched as serge, followed by the two girls, headed to the elevator.
he stood up. he might as well get going. but first, he would stop at the prince hal room and fortify himself with a rheingold.
but jerry has intuited that roselle intends to kill him.
after jerry had put his coat and hat on and gone out for a walk in the rain, roselle turned the lights off so that she could sit in the darkness, which she always preferred to the light.
chester and marlene yardwell were not due to arrive for a couple of hours.
roselle always did her best thinking in the dark.
what had jerry been so afraid of? he had seemed to be in a near panic.
could it be - roselle smiled at the thought - that he somehow suspected that roselle was planning to murder him?
that would be great fun if true. but, no, it was too good to be true.
maybe he was just losing his nerve. but about what? it wasn't like there was any real danger in any of the fun and pranks they had played so far.
the true explanation was likely the simplest one and the oldest one - that his nerves and brain had been rotted away by booze.
like most or all of his ancestors.
roselle had had some good pranks in mind - like perhaps murdering the yardwells - but it was obvious jerry just was not up to it.
she had decided to get rid of him just in time.
what a bore life was, if you couldn't spice it up a little.
roselle decided to have one drink - just one - well maybe two - before the yardwells arrived.
she got up and switched on a little lamp on a stand beside the bar. it gave her enough light to see what she was doing but left the room pleasantly dark and shadowed.
she had just reached into the bar and grasped the gin bottle when the phone rang.
who could that be? roselle wondered. surely not the yardwells already. maybe they were calling to say they couldn't come over.
the phone was conveniently right beside the bar. she picked it up.
"this is parker, mrs winfield." parker was one of the late shift doormen. his voice had the unmistakable note that doormens' voices had when they were announcing guests they were pretty certain the tenants would not wish to have sent up.
"there is a miss wilson here to see you, madam."
miss wilson? "i am not sure i know any miss wilsons. does she have a first name?"
roselle heard parker mumble something to the visitor.
"philomena wilson. she says she is - was - your old high school biology teacher."
roselle, who had attended a boarding school in luxembourg, did not have an old high school biology teacher named miss philomena wilson.
so it was somebody's idea of a gag. well, she had nothing better to do, so she would go along with it. she hoped "miss philomena wilson" approved of her selection of booze.
"send her up."
"certainly, madam." all trace of uncertainty or suspicion were gone from parker's voice.
jerry searched in his pockets for a piece of paper and something to write with. of course he did not have any.
“are you still there?” he asked pearl wilson.
“yeah, i’m here, mister.” jerry could barely hear the old woman’s voice on the other end of the long distance connection from pinkerville north carolina.
“hold on while i get something to write with. just hold on, all right? please.”
“i ain’t going nowhere, mister. you’re paying for the call.”
jerry pushed open the door of the phone booth.
the waitress had her elbows on the counter and was deep in conversation with the fat woman in the pink sweater. their faces were close enough to kiss.
“excuse me,” jerry shouted. he turned red, realizing he had spoken too loudly.
the waitress turned slowly and looked at him.
“i am sorry, i shouldn’t have shouted,” jerry muttered. in another part of his brain, he wondered, how did i come to this pass, apologizing to such a creature.
the two women just stared at him.
“i need something to write with,” jerry continued. “a pencil, a scrap of paper, anything. it’s - it’s urgent.”
the waitress and the fat woman stared at him.
“please. you have to help me.”
the waitress straightened up. she looked at jerry as if he had asked her to recite the encyclopedia brittanica, or take all her clothes off.
“no problem, mister. i think i got just what you need here.”
the fat woman laughed. “you’re a very demanding sort , mister. first you want dimes, then you want something to write with.“ she laughed again and stirred her coffee with her spoon. “”maybe you should come more prepared. like a boy scout.”
“thank you,” jerry stammered to the waitress, who was fishing in the pockets of her apron. “i wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t urgent.”
“you should be thankful willa here is such a compliant person,” the fat woman told jerry. she kept stirring her coffee. “com-pli-ant. that’s a nice word, don’t you think?”
“yes, it is.”
roselle went out and waited by the elevator for “miss philomela wilson”.
the figure that emerged was tall, wearing a long ratty-looking black coat and a flat black hat with a long veil covering its face. it clutched an enormous black purse in two bony hands.
is it a man? roselle wondered.
“hello, miss wilson. it’s such a pleasure to see you again, after all these years.”
“and it is so wonderful to see you, dear,” “miss wilson” answered, in a high, fluttery voice.
“are you still there?” jerry asked pearl wilson when he was safely back in the phone booth. the waitress had given him a tiny stub of a pencil and a small square slip from an ordering pad.
“i’m here, mister. and i got whitey’s address and phone number right here for you.”
“thank you.” jerry hoped whitey was located somewhere nearby, and not too far up or down town.
“the address is - 44 jefferson st, apartment 6. you got that?”
jefferson st? “yes, i have it. is it just new york new york? or brooklyn, or -?”
“rochester! that’s not new york!”
“the hell it ain’t. he gets my mail there. “
“yes, yes, of course it is . my mistake. sorry. do you have the phone number?”
the rain had let up somewhat, but was still falling steadily.
parker was dozing slightly watching it.
he heard the elevator open behind him. he turned and was mildly surprised to see young mrs winstead emerge with her unlikely visitor, the high school biology teacher.
the biology teacher’s face was covered by her veil.
mrs winstead was carrying a large black umbrella, large enough for the two of them.
“i should be back shortly,” she told parker. but i have a couple of guests arriving around nine o’clock, a mr and mrs yardwell. if neither myself nor mr winstead is back by then, please let them up. the door to the apartment is unlocked.”
“certainly, madam.” how trusting these rich people were! some of them, anyway. either too trusting or suspicious of everything.
parker watched roselle and “miss philomela wilson” disappear into the rain.
“i’m sorry, sir, but your party is not answering.” the long distance operator in rochester new york told jerry.
“all right. thank you.” with a groan, jerry hung the phone up.
now what? he had whitey’s address. did he want to wait until tomorrow, or try to get to rochester tonight?
he was wide awake, and was not getting to sleep any time soon. he could take a cab down to the port authority and get a bus to rochester.
or maybe he could get a cab all the way to rochester. did he have enough cash on him to do that?
he left the phone booth. the fat woman in the pink sweater was gone. the waitress was alone behind the counter, with the bored expression back on her face.
jerry retrieced his hat and walked past her.
“you got my pencil?”
“oh, sorry.” jerry fished in his pocket.
“i must have left it in the booth.” he looked back at the booth.
the waitress shrugged. “that’s all right, i’ll get it.”
jerry put a couple of dollars on the counter. “here. for all your trouble.”