For an indication of just how preoccupied I was on the short walk back from the clifftop I think I need only say that by the time I got back to the hotel I scarcely even noticed that dinner had started without me. The cocktail lounge was all but deserted and from the edge of the terrace I had a fine view into the dining room where I could see Michael and Henry James already tucking into their starters. I suppose there was nothing to stop me from going right in and joining them but James looked like he was still in full flow (to the extent that even Michael’s normally patient expression had slightly glazed over) and I felt rather too distracted for company just at the moment.
So I remained out on the terrace for a while, pacing back and forth while I turned my concerns over in my mind. As I continued to worry over the situations of Ella and Henry James I found myself gradually setting my own predicament alongside those of our fellow guests. After all, hadn’t Michael and I planned on staying no more than a day or two and how long had it now been since we first arrived at the Midnight Hotel? Was it really just a combination of bad luck and lethargy that held us here longer than intended or could there possibly be something deeper to it than that?
Before long certain growls of impatience from my stomach began to disrupt these speculations. I still felt too distracted to contemplate joining the throng in the dining room but it occurred to me there might be a waiter lurking in the cocktail lounge who might be persuaded to provide me with a sandwich instead. I was just heading through the door when I came upon Maia coming in the opposite direction. As usual she came bowling through which such irresistible force that I felt compelled to take evasive action, taking a few steps backwards onto the terrace in order to avoid a head-on collision.
“Natasha!” cried out Maia, slowing to a halt somewhat in the fashion of a majestic ocean liner performing a manoeuvre. “What are you doing out here? You’re missing dinner.”
“I went for a walk along the clifftop and sort of lost track of time,” I confessed.
“It’s certainly a beautiful evening for a stroll,” conceded Maia, “but I thought you far too sensible a girl to let a lovely view keep you from a good meal.”
Just then my stomach gave out another low growl as if to acknowledge her point but I ignored it. “I bumped into Ella while I was out taking my walk,” I told Maia instead. “We had rather an interesting chat.”
Was there just the briefest look of discomfort that flitted across Maia’s face at this revelation? If there was it would take a keener eye than mine to be sure for it was swiftly dismissed. “Ella?” returned Maia casually. “Ah, now there’s a girl of a very different stripe. Away with the fairies, dare I say it, most of the time.”
“She certainly had a rather odd tale to relate about a boat she saw from up there one evening,” I continued. “She thinks it was sent as a signal and now she seems prepared to spend every spare hour up on that clifftop, waiting for its return.”
“Like I say, away with the fairies,” remarked Maia lightly. And she made a move as though to continue on her way.
But I was determined to stand my ground and even shifted a little to be sure I blocked her way. I’d already noticed that Maia had a way of slipping innocuously away just as questions were raised but for once I was determined to pin her down. “Ella suggested it was you who told her to believe in this signal,” I added. “Told her she should stay and wait for the return of this boat she barely glimpsed.”
Maia made a loose dismissive gesture, as if to reiterate her ‘away with the fairies’ point.
“Just like you told Henry James to stay here instead of continuing on with Patrick to help him try and find his friend.”
Maia absorbed my accusatory glare and reflected back a look of pure innocence. “I’m sorry, I don’t quite see what you’re getting at,” she replied smoothly. “I like my guests to stay as long as they possibly can – there’s no mystery about that.”
“There’s something more to it than that,” I insisted. “You seem to have some need to manipulate people into staying here longer than they should.”
“Now you’re just being silly,” said Maia. “Are you sure you haven’t had too much sun?”
“It’s subtle, I’ll give you that,” I continued, determined to press on now that I’d finally got my suspicions out into the open. “Like the way you never seem to be able to find that plan of the hotel we so desperately need. I can’t really believe that your office is as big as all that.”
“Not big perhaps but sadly very untidy,” said Maia.
“What I can’t quite figure out is just what you get from stopping us all from leaving,” I said sharply.
For once Maia didn’t try to swat away the accusation with a glib remark or a casual gesture but fixed me with a plaintive gaze. “Is it really so wrong for me to want to keep my guests safe?” she demanded.
I can’t deny there was something in the way she said this that sent a shiver down my spine. “Safe from what exactly?”
“It’s a dangerous landscape out there,” remarked Maia. “You must have learnt that by now.”
I shifted uncomfortably under the unexpected intensity of her gaze but somehow managed to respond with something approaching a light shrug. “It’s not so bad,” I insisted.
“Oh come now, there’s no need to put a brave face on it,” said Maia, slipping easily back into that smooth style of hers. “The imagination is full of darkness and dangers. Why shouldn’t you cling to a safe haven when you find one? Why continue to put yourself through it?”
“I came to this landscape to find someone,” I retorted. “I’m not going to give up that easily.”
“So many of you people from the real world come to the landscape in search of something,” said Maia in a tone that seemed somehow wistful yet menacing at the same time. “It’s sad to think how often you end up losing something instead.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I said suspiciously, feeling a repeat of that uncomfortable chill.
“Oh, nothing much,” returned Maia airily. “Only that you shouldn’t be so quick to disregard the comforts of somewhere you can feel truly safe and secure. Both Henry and Ella have come to understand that. Why shouldn’t you?”
“Because…” I began but Maia was warming to her theme. Once she wound herself up to one of her big speeches she was incredibly difficult to interrupt.
“And it’s not as though there isn’t plenty here to keep you occupied,” she swept on. “Samson tells me you’re turning into quite the cricketer these days. Of course, the way he tells it that’s entirely down to his coaching but that’s men for you, isn’t it?”
“And you don’t need to worry much on your friend’s account either,” continued Maia, allowing her gaze to drift momentarily over in the direction of the dining room. “Michael and Mr James seem to have become such firm friends lately. It’s so nice to see poor Henry has finally found someone to share his thoughts with. It’s not good for anyone to allow themselves to become too solitary, don’t you think?”
There was something quite hypnotic about Maia once she got going like this. Her conversation ran like a river that appeared smooth on the surface but concealed a strong undertow that pulled you in directions you never intended to travel.
“And I’m sure I told you that I heard from Nils and Jenni just a few days ago. Jenni tells me that they’ve picked up a whole box of early disco classics at an old flea market they visited. That should be just the thing to get everyone up on the dancefloor, don’t you think?”
“Well…” I could feel the current dragging me further and further out.
“They promised me next weekend for the next beach party. Or the weekend after at the very latest. You’ll stay for that at least, won’t you? You don’t want to miss the party.”
Now, when she finally paused and let her words hang in the warm night air, I found myself automatically responding with a light nod of agreement. And for just a moment I really did think that surely she was right. Why wouldn’t I want to stick around for another great party on the beach, in the meantime enjoying the friendly games of cricket that stretched out through the sunny afternoons? And who was I to drag Michael away from the opportunity to spend a bit more time with one of his heroes? What difference could it possibly make if we stuck around for just another week or two?
Maia fixed me with an indulgent smile. “I’m so glad,” she said simply and began to move away, clearly feeling that her work here was done.
I’m not quite sure where it came from or exactly what it was meant to signify but as she strode off somewhere deep inside me a note of alarm rang out.
“No!” I abruptly exclaimed just before she could get away. “I’m sorry but I really can’t stay.”
There was a flash of something between disappointment and anger on Maia’s expression as she was forced to turn back but even now it was swiftly smoothed out into an expression of benign concern.
“Ah now, there’s no hurry…” she began.
“I’m afraid there is,” I returned. “We’ve been here far too long as it is.”
“I’m afraid I really don’t know just when I’ll be able to dig out that hotel plan for you,” said Maia, smoothly switching tack again. “There’s just so much going on right now.”
“Then we’ll just have to find the missing room without it,” I retorted, Maia’s calm dismissal only serving to stir up a sense of stubborn resistance within me. “This hotel isn’t all that big.”
Maia hesitated for just a second, gazing at me intently as she apparently weighed up just how seriously to take this threat. But then she relaxed again into her customary smile. “Well, of course, you’re welcome to try,” she said, her tone clearly conveying that she very much doubted we would succeed.
“And if not, we’ll leave without it,” I added, almost taking myself by surprise as much as Maia. “There are plenty of other rooms on that list for us to go at. Maybe, in the long run, one solitary room out of a total of 273 won’t make all that much difference.”
It was a gamble, there was no doubt about it, but I was filled now with a sense that we had to get away from the Midnight Hotel at all costs. Maia, who had been on the point of walking away once again, paused and looked at me closely.
“Look, I don’t know exactly what you’ve got going on here and I don’t suppose I ever will,” I told her earnestly. “But I came to this landscape to find Sturridge and I won’t do that if I stay here, playing cricket and planning parties. Whatever dangers there are out there they won’t stop me from trying to save my friend.”
“And there’s nothing I can say that will make you change your mind?” asked Maia.
“Nothing,” I said.
“So you’ll find your friend, no matter what the cost?” said Maia.
“No matter what the cost,” I insisted.
“Because there’s always a cost. You understand that, don’t you?” Maia added almost sorrowfully.
I looked straight back at her. “Like I said, whatever is out there I’ll deal with it,” I told her firmly.
There was another pause, the longest yet.
“Then I wish you luck,” she finally offered in a voice marked with just a hint of regret.
“Thank-you,” I said simply, not trusting myself to say anything further.
“I only ask,” added Maia just before I could turn to leave, “that whatever happens to you on your journey you should always remember that Midnight is a refuge. Some day it might help you to know that.”
And before I could respond to this enigmatic pronouncement she walked away with a sorrowful smile, disappearing into the shadows.
Having finally secured the sandwich necessary to quell my unhappy belly, I went straight up to my room that night without speaking to anyone further. When I awoke the following morning I discovered a large brown envelope had been pushed beneath my door at some point during the night. I opened it to find a detailed plan of the Midnight Hotel inside with every room from basement to attic clearly marked. It seemed that in the end Maia had been sincere about finally wishing us luck in our hunt for Sturridge. It was time to get the job done and get out of there. It only remained for me to convince Michael of that fact.
I called on him before breakfast and while he finished shaving I sat on his bed and told him where I had got to the night before, carefully detailing my encounters first with Ella, and then with Maia, as truthfully as I possibly could. I was aware as I talked that it was an account that still seemed far from complete – I still had nothing much in the way of evidence for my suspicions that Maia was trying to prevent guests from leaving her hotel, nor any clear motive for her doing so. I didn’t even have a particularly clear understanding of what exactly had led to her change of heart over the hotel plan.
But Michael listened patiently nonetheless and when I had finished he put down his towel and picked up the large brown envelope. “So these are the plans, are they?” he asked.
“Then there shouldn’t be anything left to stop us from finding that room,” said Michael, thoughtfully examining the contents of the envelope.
I took a deep breath. “Look, I know you’ve got pretty chummy with Henry James…”
“Don’t worry about that,” replied Michael, still looking at the plans. “You’re right. We ought to get on and find this room.”
“Don’t tell me he’s even starting to bore you with all those endless sentences?” I said with a teasing smile.
Michael looked up with a smile of his own. “Not quite. But we have been here long enough. Henry can stay on as long as he likes but we’ve got a job to do.”
I smiled a rather relieved smile as Michael handed me back the plans. “Time to get down to work then?” I suggested.
Michael slipped his watch onto his wrist and his sunglasses in his pocket. “Absolutely. Time to get down to work.”
With the hotel plans as our guide it didn’t take us long to finally track down the elusive missing room. We located the errant door just after lunch, tucked away alongside a broom cupboard on the lower ground floor. We managed to borrow a small axe from the gardener and pretty soon there was one less set of co-ordinates flashing on the inter-dimensional travel drive.
By mid-afternoon I was sitting on the front steps of the hotel, waiting for Michael to finish saying his goodbyes. “Did you find him?” I asked when he finally emerged from the lobby.
Michael nodded. “He was just getting ready to take a walk across the headland.”
“What did he say when you told him you were leaving?” I asked as I stood up. “Did he try and stop you?”
Michael shook his head. “Actually, I didn’t say anything about us going.”
“Why not?” I asked. “If you needed a bit more time…”
“No, it’s fine,” replied Michael. “But I realised I probably couldn’t explain it to him in a way that he’d understand. So it seemed better just to walk away.”
“Well, if you say so.”
“How about you?” said Michael as we began a slow walk down the driveway. “Did you talk to Maia?”
“I couldn’t find her anywhere,” I told him. “In the end it was Gennaro who checked us out.”
“You managed to settle up okay then?” checked Michael.
“Fine. Gennaro said we were down on the books as having already paid.”
“That’s strange,” mused Michael. “We haven’t given them anything, have we?”
“Not that I know of but Gennaro was adamant. He insisted the only thing that Maia would want from us was a promise that we would return one day.”
Michael pulled up sharply and turned to me with a concerned expression. “Did you give her a promise?” he asked.
“I said we’d think about it.”
We both automatically turned and gazed for a moment at the Midnight Hotel shimmering in the heat of the afternoon.
“I think that’s probably best,” concluded Michael before we both turned again and went on our way.
Travels Through An Imaginary Landscape will continue shortly…