The staircase was golden, and allowed for one way traffic only. Ascending, a sign said, and there was an arrow pointing up toward a platform bathed in light, from which the ascender would have to either jump into radiant emptiness, or stand forever. But neither Abigale nor Loomis were ascenders. Loomis turned away, holding a hand over his eyes to block the light.
“This isn’t what you said,” said Abigale, fingering two tiny, but bulging, plastic envelopes in her coat pocket, each containing the promise of an immaculate high. “You said that this was just a flophouse, that you had a room, that we could get high.”
“It wasn’t like this an hour ago,” Loomis said. “It was just bedbugs and bare lightbulbs.” He peeked through his fingers into the glare. “I’ve been flopping here for a year. This’s never happened before.”
The Hotel Copenhagen was actually more than a flophouse, but not much more. It had seen happier days in the age of zeppelins and flappers. The grand marble staircase had always been one of its best features, but now it had undergone a bizarre change and the rough couple stood in the ramshackle lobby made golden by it. Behind them were the bevelled glass doors that led out into rainy midnight.
“Well,” said Abigale, her voice rising, “it’s pissing out, and I’m starting to jones. I don’t wanna cook ‘n’ shoot this shit up in the rain, then trip all night in a back alley. You said you had a place. That’s why I came.”
“I do—I did—it’s on the third floor.”
“Then let’s take the elevator.”
“It’s busted,” said Loomis. “Has been since I moved in. We’ll have to take the stairs.”
“I ain’t going up there.”
Then they heard a ding. “What the fuck?”
Abigale grabbed Loomis by his collar and pulled him toward the sliding doors. When they slid open, the two of them saw a tall woman in a dark blue uniform with gold trim and matching pillbox hat sitting on a stool next to a panel of buttons. Her skin was white and her smartly done-up hair was black. Her lips, the colour of a bullet wound. The inside of the elevator had been transformed from its former ruined state into a plush chamber of oak and brass.
“Will that be down?” she said.
“Up,” said Abigale. She took a step forward, but Loomis held her back.
An overpowering reek was coming from the car. Loomis held his nose.
“Sorry for the Eau de Sulfur,” said the operator.
“Who are you?” Loomis said. “I’ve never seen you before and this elevator’s been busted since I arrived over a year ago.”
“Well then this is your lucky night, fella,” said the elevator operator. “Going down? The lower floors are very nice.”
“Up,” Abigale said again.
“There is no up.”
“Then the elevator’s still out of service,” Loomis said.
“Nope,” said the operator. “It’s working just fine.” She smiled like a reptile.
“We want the third floor,” Abigale said.
“Then take the stairs, if you like.”
“But the stairs lead up into some kind of blinding nothingness.” Loomis couldn’t believe what he’d just said.
“You’ll have to make up your minds,” said the operator. “Up or down, up or down.” She pulled a cigarette from her pocket, and lit it with the tip of her tongue.
“Maybe we should just go back out onto the sidewalk,” Abigale said. “We can wait for a few minutes, give this all a chance to reboot, and then come back in.”
“Won’t make a bit of difference.” The operator blew smoke out of her nostrils, dragonishly. “I’ll still be here when you come back.”
“And the staircase, too?” said Loomis.
“What’s this all about?”
“It’s about the smack, baby,” said the operator. “Round here, it’s always about the smack. Or in your case, the China-girl.”
Abigale felt a surge of panic. She rummaged in her coat pocket for the little envelopes that were so full moments ago, but found them empty and balled up. She took them out of her pocket, and stared at them in her fingers.
“Where is it?” She gasped.
“Gone,” the elevator operator said. “It’s so so gone and so are you. But I don’t blame you for being a little confused. Fentanyl’s some lethal shit.”
“I….” Loomis looked lost.
The operator said, “You don’t get it, right?”
Abigale stiffened suddenly. In an inner room somewhere in her head the movie of her life began threading through a projector, and onto a screen. Child abuse, the pain of blows. Penniless Christmases. The desert of her empty belly, a razor blade pain, the pale watercolour hurt of hunger. An abandoned little girl shivering in the cold and gloom of an empty house. Rape, dark doorways, alleys and empty eyes. Debauched street preachers. Hateful parents. Alienation. Running until there was nowhere else to go. Men with fists. Tweekers and boozers and cops with sticks. The roomless huddled against storefronts, injecting on the street. A show for all of the good people of the city to see. The rain that wouldn’t stop, the anguish and the filth. Finally, her gaunt colourless face in a mirror.
She’d bought the powder from a plump little fucker named Brian, who’d driven in from out of the neighbourhood, trying to look bad with his clean shaven dealer face, wearing his new jeans and high-tops. Then she’d tracked down Loomis, ready to exchange some of the shit for a room to get high in, out of the rain.
But some part of her plan had failed. She frantically pulled layers of sleeves away, up to her elbow. There was a spent syringe there. She watched it drop out of her vein onto the floor. Blood ran down her inner forearm, past the wrist like a river seen from space. Loomis looked at his arm and saw the same thing; he swatted it away like a fly.
“When?” she said. “I don’t remember….”
“When no longer applies. You were too impatient,” the operator said. “And you shot poison into your vein. A lot of that going round. Don’t worry, Brian and I will be meeting soon enough.”
Abigale let her arm fall at her side. A lone and final drop of blood dripped from a fingertip.
“So it’s you or the mysterious staircase,” she said. “I guess I know where your elevator goes.”
The operator smoked, and tapped a finger impatiently on her knee.
“Choice is a wicked thing,” Loomis said. “Not that I’ve had much experience with it. I never knew it could get so weird.”
“Okay all right, look,” said the elevator operator. She snuffed her cigarette out under a black suede pump. “Just take the damn stairs. The boss ain’t gonna like me telling you that, but you two chumps are depressing the hell outta me, so to speak. I hear it’s all sunshine and lollipops up there, if that helps—yada yada—no more wet clothes, no more burden of self, all of that kind of shit. I’ve seen some real pricks take those stairs, so why not you?”
“What if it’s a trick?” Loomis said.
“It can’t be worse than this lobby,” Abigale said, kicking her syringe into a corner. She saw the torrential rain through the glass doors. “Or out there.”
For the first time, Loomis saw graffiti etched into the plate over the elevator call button: No one here gets out alive. He took Abigale’s hand.
“Let’s go,” he said, and she went along.
The elevator operator shrugged, and watched them go.
They ascended the staircase and vanished into the light.
“Can’t win ’em all,” she said. Then she adjusted herself on the stool, produced a sandwich and an Elle Magazine out of nowhere, and took her lunch break.