The flight to Newark and our connection through to Aspen were smooth and uneventful. I passed the time by reading my notes for the meeting, again, napping, having the occasional nip, and talking to Thomas when he was in the mood. His knowledge of classical music was extensive, and he could name the most influential mathematicians since the dawn of time.
Rhythm and numbers were important to Thomas. For what could have been mistaken for geeky wisdom, was also an obsessive coping strategy for maintaining order in his life. A piece of music was a dynamic framework that allowed his thoughts to move, and with numbers there was always a definitive answer to a problem, even if nobody knew what it was.
By the time our plane touched down on the tarmac in the early evening, it had been the longest I had ever spent with Thomas in one sitting. The small plane maneuvered slowly to the gate through the dark airport. The roars of the engine had dulled to a low whine, and swallowing one last time restored equilibrium to my ears. I lifted the window shade and saw the yellow lights in the terminal and clusters of street lights in the distance, twinkling in the night.
A light snow drifted lazily down, and I could see the dark gray runways between large snow piles. A person in a thick luminescent yellow coat waved two bright orange lights to guide the plane towards the terminal. I didn’t envy them their job. It would’ve been my luck to pause and scratch my butt for a second in the dark and be run-over by a plane.
Thomas’ head appeared over my shoulder. “Just like home really, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “We’re in another country.”
“Well, it’s dark and snowing.”
I nodded. “Yes, I suppose people all over the world have night and weather in common.”
The seatbelt sign was still on, but people were on their feet and rustling around in the overhead compartments.
“Have you put everything away?”
Thomas patted his puffer jacket. “Yes, everything’s in my pockets.”
I checked my own pockets and my bag for what felt like the millionth time. I was terrified that I had left something crucial behind, like my passport or wallet.
Once we were off the plane it was a relief to see our suitcases slide down the baggage retrieval and rotate around the carousel. We heaved them up and onto the floor, and I glanced around for the exit. Just like after a night of heavy drinking, I was anxious to see the word ‘taxi’ somewhere, anywhere.
I pulled my case in the direction that most of the passengers were heading, although it soon became apparent that Thomas wasn’t with me. He was standing by the carousel, watching it go around.
I retraced my steps. “Thomas? Come on man, we need go.”
Thomas didn’t reply.
I then saw a look on his face that his father had warned me about. Without waiting, I grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the exit.
“What are you doing? Get off!” he yelled, digging his heels in.
“You can’t ride the carousel, Thomas,” I said, hoping that Thomas’ shouting had not alerted security. “We need to get to our hotel.”
“I wasn’t going to ride the carousel,” he whined. “I just wanted to see how long it takes to rotate all the way around.”
I sighed. “Go on then.”
Thomas grinned and hurled his case back onto the carousel as a marker, and began to count. I wondered which was shorter, the time it took for one complete rotation, or my patience.
When we left the airport into the bitter Colorado evening, Thomas requested that we hold hands. I didn’t object. Anything to bring him comfort, and to be honest, at this point it was nice to know that he was on the other end of my arm.
We trekked through the snow, our coat collars high, and pulled our cases through the powdery white dust-like snow to the taxi rank. A driver glimpsed us in his rearview mirror and hopped out to help us with our cases into the boot. He had a thick red and black coat and was wearing a black hat with furry ear flaps. He had our cases inside in no time at all, and Thomas and I jumped into the back of the white taxi.
The driver looked at us through the rearview mirror. “Where you heading?”
“The Alpine Lodge,” I answered from memory. “You know it?”
The driver chuckled and pulled out into the traffic. “Yeah, I know it. Popular with tourists.”
Thomas slid his thick black headphones out from inside his jacket and clipped them over his head. He then leaned forward and put his head on the back of the driver’s seat.
I could see through the windshield, with the aid of the taxi’s headlights, that the cars in front were spraying up snow and icy slush from the road, although the snow had now stopped falling. “Busy night?” I asked.
“The usual,” the driver replied. He picked up a cup of Starbucks coffee from a cup holder and gulped down a mouthful. “This time of year is busy for our little mountain town.”
“For the skiing?”
I saw his brown eyes flash up in the mirror. “Yep,” he stated. “Is that why you’re here?”
“Kind of,” I said. “Mainly for business, though. Meeting a client.” The words were alien coming out of my mouth.
The driver chuckled. “Plenty of that, too.”
I could just about make out rows of fir trees speeding passed outside the window.
“You’re English?” the driver continued.
“Born and raised,” I replied, catching myself off guard with the tone of my patriotic fervor.
The car passed over a bridge and through a green light at some crossroads. There were suddenly lights everywhere from street lights and bar and shop windows. We pulled onto Main Street, and for the first time I noticed the car was on the right side of the road.
“I was in London once,” said the driver. “Many years ago. Saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.”
“That’s cool,” I replied, although I’m ashamed to say I had no idea what he was talking about. I did like the way he stressed ‘ham’, though, at the end of ’Buckingham.’
The taxi pulled into a semi-circular drop-off point in front of our hotel. We jumped out and the driver helped us unload our luggage from the car. I paid him, remembering to tip him, and watched him drive around the loop and exit into the traffic.
I put my arm around Thomas. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s get out of the cold and see if we can find something to eat.”
The wide-open foyer of the hotel was well-lit and we were immediately warm. The décor was a mix of old and darker tree-like wood, still gnarled in places, and polished contemporary pine wood. And everything was covered in sparkly green and red Christmas decorations. A huge Christmas tree with Santa and snowman shaped baubles stretched up to the ceiling by the check-in desk, and silver tinsel was wrapped around the large chandelier that hung above the broad staircase. Groups of people in brightly coloured ski jackets were also standing around talking, some still clutching their skis.
I kicked my shoes on the large bristly doormat to discard the snow and pulled my black suitcase over to the reception desk. The wheels clicked on the parquet flooring.
The receptionist was a short dark skinned lady, whose long black hair hung in cornrows down her back. She was wearing a black waistcoat over a white blouse with a golden name tag that read ‘Tamika.’ She smiled when we approached, and I put down the printouts with the booking information and our passports on the mahogany countertop.
We checked-in with minimum difficulty, but I kept my eye on Thomas. He had gone silent and appeared to be studying everyone and everything in the foyer.
The receptionist handed over our room keys. “How do we get to our room?” I asked.
Tamika pointed under an archway that led into a hallway with a long green carpet. “There’s an elevator through there that will take you to the second floor.”
“Brilliant,” I replied and picked up the handle to my case.
She smirked and returned to her computer. “You’re welcome.”
“Oh,” I said, remembering. “Has a Robert Myers checked-in or left me any messages.”
“Let me check,” she said, tapping some keys at her keyboard. “Oh, yes,” she read the screen. “He just wanted you to know he’s in room 215. That’s just down the hallway from you.”
I nodded. “Great, thanks.”
Thomas followed me through the archway and towards the lift, although it took him a moment to pull his gaze from Tamika’s chin. “There’s a bar on the other side,” he said. “And I think I caught the scent of burgers.”
I hit the lift button. “Burgers?” I considered. “Yeah, I could eat a good burger.”
“What room are we in?”
The doors opened and we stepped into the lift. “2-2-2,” I said. “Easy to remember.”
Thomas screwed up his face. The doors closed. “What’s wrong?” I asked, wondering if he was in pain.
“Aw,” he said, “that’s just one less than a prime number.”
The room was bigger than I expected and had two king sized beds with identical maroon and red bedding. I wheeled my case passed a huge flatscreen TV sitting on a dresser and tossed all of my bags onto the bed farthest from the door. There was a small dining area towards the back with a small table and four chairs, and a glass sliding door led onto a balcony.
I turned to Thomas, grinning. “We have a balcony, look!”
Thomas had his elbow up and was doing something to the door.
I frowned and stepped closer. “What the hell?” I exclaimed, noting a small screwdriver in his hand. The tip of Thomas’ tongue was clamped in his teeth and his wrist rotated back and forth.
“I don’t want anyone to know where we are,” he said, and he pulled a screw out from the door and put it in his pocket. The first ‘2’ fell upside down and Thomas worked to remove the remaining screw.
“We haven’t been here five minutes, and you’re already vandalizing the place.”
The final screw came out and he pocketed it along with the number. Thomas closed and locked the door. “Vandalizing the place?” he scoffed. “Just ensuring our safety. Now people will get confused when they see our room number.”
I wanted to point out any number of the things wrong with his reasoning, but I let it go. “Why do you have a screwdriver?” I asked. “Did that pass through customs?”
Thomas tapped his nose. “It was in my suitcase.”
I rolled my eyes. “Look, I’m just going to shower and stick on some fresh clothes. Then we can go and get a beer and some food downstairs.”
I unlocked my case, flipped it open, and took out my tatty Nirvana t-shirt, some boxers, and my military green cargo pants. Thomas stood examining the metal ‘2’ that he’d removed from the door. I frowned and headed into the bathroom opposite my bed.
The pleasant buzz of being on vacation had already drained away and been replaced with guilt and anxiety, although somebody needed to feel those things because Thomas certainly didn’t.
I threw my clothes down by the side of the shower, and glanced back out through the doorway. “Thomas?”
He looked up at my chin.
“Don’t do anything else while I’m in the shower. You know, things with tools.”
“What about my fingers?” he asked, sarcastic. “Can I use those?”
I tilted my head back. “What do you plan on doing with them?”
He replied with the lacklustre of a depressed teenager. “Un-packing,” he spat.
“That’s fine,” I considered, and closed the door.
When I stepped out of the bathroom, toweling my hair dry, I was greeted by a high pitched screech. My shoulders hunched and I dropped the towel.
Thomas, who had changed into some jeans, was fiddling with a small black device that was standing on his bedside table. He yanked the plug out, which fortunately had an international converter on the end, and the noise stopped.
I sat down on my bed opposite Thomas. “What are you doing?”
“I thought it might work, but it’s still broken.”
“Is that your ocean noises thing?” He nodded, checking over the plug converter. “You brought it with you? Even though it doesn’t work?”
He wiped his forehead on his sleeve. “Thought it might.”
I stood up. “Come on, let’s go downstairs,” I said, sliding into my Doc Martens. I couldn’t handle anymore shenanigans until I had a full stomach and at least one pint of beer inside me.
Thomas stood, too, and put on his green puffer jacket.
“You don’t need your coat, mate. We’ll be inside.”
“Yeah, but just the sight of all that snow makes me feel cold.”
“Fine,” I said, not wanting to argue.
“Should we stop off and see Mr. Myers on the way down?” asked Thomas.
“Why?” I said, checking that I had the key in my pocket.
Thomas pulled the door open and stepped out into the hallway. “He might want to join us.”
“Ergh,” I whined. “Let’s wait. We’ve just got off the plane and we’re not due to meet him until Wednesday.” I closed the door and we headed down to the lift. “And besides, I’m not in the mood to talk about business right now.”
Thomas slid his hands into his trouser pockets. “Yeah, business sucks. Let’s go have a couple of beers instead.”
I noticed that Thomas was now in a good mood. There was a curious smile curling his lips and a glint in his eye as he gazed down at the green hallway carpet. I saw that he’d exchanged his boots for a pair of worn-out trainers. He nudged me, playfully with his elbow. I nudged him back.
We laughed, and then out of the blue Thomas ran a few steps ahead of me and knocked on Myers’ door. I hurried to catch up with him, mortified, and saw that the door was already open ajar. Thomas swiftly moved behind me and rested his chin on my shoulder.
“Thomas?” I asked. “You did just knock, right? You didn’t open this door?”
I could tell by the movement of his chin on my shoulder that he was shaking his head. I stared at the numbers, 2-1-5, and listened in fear for any movement. The room remained silent.
“Okay,” I whispered. “Let’s just close the door and move swiftly downstairs.”
Thomas reached around me and pushed the door open.
I wanted to yell at Thomas. I really did. But all I could do was stand there, transfixed in the entryway to Mr. Myers’ vacant hotel room.
“Okay,” I said, calm. “Let’s just back away, and get out of here.” I stepped backwards to put Thomas’ arms out of reach of the door.
But it was then that I saw it. And Thomas saw it, too. A pair of feet sticking out between the two king-sized beds.
To my horror, Thomas marched around me, and walked straight over to the feet. He looked down between the two beds and then stepped towards the head end of the body.
I inched forward towards the beds. Fear coursed down my spine and my blood had tuned to molten lead, slowing my steps. I gazed down and let out of a whimper. Thomas was checking the naked man’s pulse.
Thomas’ voice hit me from out of nowhere. “He’s dead.”
The toilet in the bathroom then flushed.