Christmas at the Hilbert Astoria
by Sam Schreiber
“You’ll have to forgive the delay,” the concierge told Nick, smiling conspiratorially over the Talathello marble counter. “It’s our busiest time of the year.”
The hospitality program punctuated the nonsensical assertion with a knowing wink.
“Can’t imagine that joke ever gets old,” Nick said, tucking his hands into his red flannel overcoat and rocking on the heels of his black workman’s boots. The concierge’s static-gray face went blank for a moment as more sober-minded algorithms kicked in.
Booking a room at the Hilbert Astoria was, by definition, always possible. But booking the right room could be a slippery proposition. The Vice Regent of Svartalfheim had spent a month waiting for the palatial suite he’d demanded, or so Nick had heard.
Nick’s own requirements, while nowhere near as extravagant, were exacting in their own way. Though of course he hadn’t been a guest at the Hilbert since before his face had been splashed across Coca-Cola’s 1933 advertising campaign. Nick suspected things had changed since then.
“The existence of your suite has been successfully theorized, sir,” the concierge said a moment later. “If you would give us, say, another hour?”
Nick stroked his beard, nine inches long and goose feather white for the season, and fought the urge to snap at the prim application. No point heaping abuse on the staff, least of all when they were collections of ones and zeroes.
“Bar still where it used to be?” Nick nodded to the non-Euclidean lobby.
“I can only assume so, sir.”
The concierge flickered out of existence as Nick descended into the cheerfully lit topological nightmare. A pair of mechanical gypsum spiders in bellhop uniforms scuttled off with his bags before disappearing over the lobby’s horizon.
Just as Nick remembered, the Hilbert’s bar was a brass and varnish affair, corkscrewing into space with only the odd nebula or galaxy punctuating the blackness beyond the skylight. The bartenders wore vintage red vests and mixed cocktails in classic metal shakers. One in particular gave Nick a pointed look as she polished the glass stein between her paws.
“Christ, Madeline,” Nick deposited himself on the barstool in front of her and turned up his fleece collar. “You couldn’t wait until they set me up in my room?”
Detective Ohk Madeline arched a thick blue eyebrow at Nick and drew in her wings. At just over four feet, she was tall for her kind. Hunched over the bar atop a stool of her own, she appeared more menacing than the Hilbert’s management probably cared for. But as priorities went, Nick imagined that was low on the Agency’s list.
“You want I should have loitered out on Bleecker Street?” she asked rhetorically, a closed-lipped smile on her simian lips. “I’ve been waiting for you all day.”
“Sorry about that,” Nick said, then added: “It’s my busiest time of the year.”
Madeline snorted, put the stein aside, and set an antique tumbler in front of Nick.
“Italian stinger? Or are you back on the Brandy Alexanders?”
“Something brown and neat, if you’re pouring.”
“Don’t tell me you’re off sweets.” Madeline’s smile went lopsided.
“Better yet, why don’t you just tell me what I’m doing here,” Nick said. “I’d like to think we had a good thing going, keeping Agency consultation a strictly off-season business.”
Madeline casually scanned for interlopers, but for a bar that spanned the width of a galaxy, it was a slow night. She slid a manila dossier to Nick.
“You can see for yourself our perp’s the creative type,” Madeline said as he thumbed through the folder. Glossy photographs of corpses in unlikely positions were paper-clipped to the Agency’s trademark stationery. At a glance, Nick could see each victim had been dispatched brutally and idiosyncratically. One man’s flesh had been pinned to the ceiling of his foyer with what looked to be every stick of furniture in his home. A family of four had been stuffed, contortionist-like, into a broom closet that had then proceeded to catch fire.
“Not good,” Nick said.
“No,” Madeline agreed. “But you notice anything about where this keeps happening?”
Nick squinted at the dossier. One scene in New York. Another in Rio de Janeiro. Two in a casino resort in the Dreamless Realm and another in an office park orbiting Tau Ceti. Unrelated at first blush. But comprehension dawned on Nick quickly enough. The locations did have one thing in common.
“Take that drink now?” Madeline said, pouring Hennessy and Galliano into Nick’s tumbler without waiting for an answer.
“You’re sure they’re here,” Nick said.
“Sure? No,” Madeline shook her head. “But it’s awfully hard to explain otherwise. Forty-seven murders, all within a block or so of an entrance to the Hilbert? It just makes sense—there’s a killer hiding out somewhere in a hotel with infinite rooms. Cheers.”
“And that’s why you called me,” Nick said, nudging the tumbler away with the side of his hand. He’d be damned if he’d accept anything Madeline was offering, now that he knew what she was asking. “I’m not here for a consult, am I? You need me to find them for you. You need me to look.”
Madeline lifted her wings, then allowed them to shrug.
“Well. Not much of a mystery which list they’re on, is it?”
“I don’t do that anymore,” Nick spat. “Not for you, not for anyone. You shouldn’t have brought me here.”
“You do. You will,” Madeline said, helping herself to Nick’s Italian stinger. “Whoever they are, it’s nothing like we’ve seen before at the Agency. Don’t even know if they are a ‘they’ and not a ‘them’ or an ‘it.’ But if it’s a cult, a homunculus, a rogue AI, well, that just raises more questions than it answers. This,” Madeline poked the dossier with a furry gray finger. “Is exactly why you’re in our rolodex.”
“No one uses a rolodex anymore, Madeline.”
Nick raised a finger to object, then gave up and silently cursed Madeline. He added another for the Agency she’d rode in on. But she wasn’t wrong. A promise was a promise, even when it contravened subsequent promises Nick was forced to admit he’d only ever really made to himself.
Besides, this wasn’t the very worst thing they could ask of him, all things considered. Nick didn’t know what he would do when the Agency demanded that, but the thought of it made his soul clench.
The rotary phone next to Madeline rang, and the Hilbert concierge materialized behind the bar.
“Your room—” the figure held out a bronze key on a leather lanyard, but Nick waved it off.
“I’m not staying.”
The concierge let out a squeak of protest.
“Nick—” Madeline started, taking the key from the concierge.
“Let’s just get this over with,” he said, rising from the stool. “I’ve got places to be.”
* * *
Managing large and small sets of infinities was of course the heart of the Hilbert Astoria’s business model. Always room for N+1 more. In theory, the hotel’s ledger would have at least been a place to start. In practice, the identities of its guests were ensconced by the impenetrably weak laws of preposterously large numbers.
“At least until it’s time to pay the bill,” Nick grumbled. The concierge dithered between a respectful chuckle and an elaborate explanation, unsure of which response would pacify him.
“You wouldn’t be here if it was that simple,” Madeline said, as the concierge’s ledger flipped closed, then disappeared altogether.
Nick glowered at the winged monkey as he buttoned his coat and slipped on a pair of white thermal gloves. Time dilation was a horrifically endothermic affair, enough to chill even someone of Nick’s molecular structure down to the bone.
“Anything else I should know before things get jangly?”
“In case the shit hits the fan,” Madeline fished in her vest for a moment, then withdrew a familiar gold cap, creased where it had been pressed against her furry chest.
Nick did his best not to look dumbstruck. He’d known well enough what imagined universe Madeline had escaped from before joining up with the Agency. But he’d never imagined she’d have snuck something this powerful out with her.
“How . . . ?”
Madeline lifted her upper lip to give him a glimpse of her teeth. “Think long and hard before you use that, Nick.”
“. . . right.” Nick pocketed the gold cap and slapped his gloved hands together. No point putting this off any longer.
Madeline stepped back, giving him the space she knew he would need. The already-distorted shape of the lobby lurched inward as Nick stretched cosmic muscles he’d left dormant for the better part of a century. Condensation frosted around dust particles, forming tiny latticeworks of ice crystals.
“Fuck me sideways,” Nick conceded to the universe before shooting forward. Powdery ice gusted behind him, rushing to fill the hole he left in reality.
The Hilbert Astoria’s tessellated carpet undulated beneath him as he whipped down hallway after hallway. He couldn’t see through walls precisely, but the afterimages of the millions upon millions of suites Nick entered reformed themselves into a dizzying god’s eye view of the hotel, spreading out from the lobby, floor by floor.
Here a trillion guests supine before their flatscreen TVs. Here another quadrillion with morsels of room service midway to their mouths. Here a teeming multitude copulating against every conceivable surface, including ceilings and wardrobes. Here a suite barely the circumference of a hydrogen atom, here one the diameter of a solar system playing host to a pair of intelligent neutron stars on their honeymoon.
That one took Nick nearly a full second to make his way across. He had to be careful to stick to the perimeter, using the traction of his boots to keep from floating away. Without a sleigh and a team of reindeer to fly him back, he would have been more or less stranded while the two celestial bodies frolicked in joyful jets of ultraviolet radiation. At least until the front desk sent someone to pull him out.
Not that he’d been in any real danger. Each and every body, celestial or otherwise, was a statue, frozen in time. Their numbers, however, were becoming—it was all effervescent effluence washing over his consciousness. Which, elastic though it was, could only withstand so much stimuli, before scrambling like egg poured too quickly into hot cream.
Nick skidded to a stop. A million or so probabilistic iterations of himself in the near future recognized their situation, swore, and fizzled into nothingness. Nick experienced the little deaths obliquely, like his ears popping on an airplane. He ignored it.
Something was wrong.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about the room at first glance. The furnishings were more or less identical to those in an infinite number of other suites. The lighting, air, and temperature were all within the range one might expect. It took Nick nearly a picosecond to put his finger on the problem.
The room was empty.
Which was, of course, impossible. There were no empty rooms at the Hilbert Astoria. There were occupied rooms and there were rooms that did not exist yet. That was the fundamental law of the place.
But if there had been someone, anyone, anything in the room, Nick would have known. It was as essential to who he was as his ability to bend time and space past reason. He saw you when you were sleeping, and so forth.
Still, he reflected as time and space coiled around his body, it was hard to shake the feeling that he was being watched.
Nick scowled, certain there was something he was overlooking. The suite couldn’t be empty by accident. There was will here. Calculation. Something meant to be swept under the rug.
Icicles began to form on the brass doorknob, the mirrors, the spout and handles of the sink in the bathroom. If Nick stayed for much longer, he would destroy the suite completely, unless he allowed the temporal energies holding him in place to dissipate. Which would mean starting over again.
The empty room was something to bring up to Madeline when he had the chance, Nick decided. Worth investigating later, if he found nothing this time around. He grimaced and allowed the condensed spacetime to snap back, propelling him deeper into the bowels of the Hilbert.
Delivering parcels to a billion or so households in the space of a night was a child’s play compared to this. Which was, Nick reflected, almost certainly the point. His abilities had been bestowed on him for reasons he didn’t understand by powers he could neither fully embrace nor reject outright. It was one thing to be born and bred of converging mortal mythologies—minor gods, monsters, beings like Ohk Madeline—but quite another to be what Nick was. And if he was sure of anything, it was that his existence was no accident. That for all he was capable of perceiving, he walked a path shaped by others. Which was exactly the sort of thing the Agency was known for. Not for the first time, he considered the irony of their name.
If he’d let his thoughts a moment longer, he would have missed it. Nick whirled to a stop in a room about a light week down the hall from the empty suite.
The minotaur stood in a three-piece mulberry suit, the collar of his lilac shirt unbuttoned and his jaw hanging open in rage. Scrambling away from him on the floor was a girl in a black shift dress and white platinum pumps, a look of terror on her face. The minotaur was pointing at her with one hand while the other was balled into a fist. It wasn’t what Nick had been expecting to find. But it was the closest thing to a crime scene he’d come across.
Nick absorbed the dilation of reality as a nauseating body blow, but recovered fast enough to place a forbidding palm against the minotaur’s chest as time resumed its normal flow.
“—thief!” The minotaur finished the sentence he’d started before Nick had entered the room, only to find his progress halted.
“Feel like slowing down?” he offered, meeting the minotaur’s yellow eyes as the girl whimpered behind him. An angry john, a distraught professional, Nick quickly surmised. Nothing out of the ordinary in any hotel, let alone with infinite rooms. But it also fit the bill for at least a few prolific serial killers.
“—the fuck you come from?!” the minotaur demanded, slapping Nick’s hand away. It must have seemed as though Nick had popped into existence on a wave of blustery air.
“Before we get into that,” Nick started. “I’ve got some questions of my own that—”
“I want this animal detained!” The girl sobbed, interrupting Nick as she got to her feet. “He’s a thief!”
“Liar!” The minotaur pushed past Nick with one massive shoulder. “I’ll tear you limb from limb, you—!”
Whatever the minotaur meant to say next came out as a gurgle as the knot of his paisley tie caught his throat. Nick hauled him backward by the silk garment.
“Will you now?” He said, putting the larger creature in a hammerlock. “Been making a habit of that kind of thing lately, friend?”
The minotaur thrashed and bucked. He was strong enough to carry out some of the more gruesome acts from the photographs from the dossier, Nick noted. But Nick’s hold was unbreakable. The girl rushed past the two of them and mashed her hand against the phone at the bedside table. Almost immediately, the concierge materialized.
“Baroness!” It cried out with professional alarm. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“The mongrel stole from me!” she wailed.
“She’s lying,” the minotaur brayed. “I never touched your goddamn jewelry! You must have dropped it before we got here!”
“Wait,” Nick said, his eyes darting between the girl and the concierge. “Did you say baroness?”
“My brooch!” she said, clutching her bare shoulder. “The Eye of Hestavar! He must have taken it when . . . when . . .” she gestured helplessly as she tried and failed to explicate her theory on the matter.
Nick, on the other hand, could put two and two together.
“The Eye of Hestavar,” he said, loosening his hold on the minotaur. “That would make you . . . a member of the House of Malkavia, wouldn’t it?”
The girl did a double-take, obviously not expecting to be recognized. Then her face crumpled and she began letting out incoherent sobs. At least he hadn’t been completely off track in his initial assessment of the situation. He’d simply had the parties muddled.
“Mister Hartley,” the concierge said evenly, its voice cutting through the baroness’s crying. The minotaur’s eyes shifted to the floor. He looked more pinned by the program’s gaze than he must have felt in Nick’s grip moments earlier.
“You know this one, too?” Nick asked.
“The gentleman is not unknown at the Hilbert Astoria,” the concierge announced diplomatically. “Though it was the management’s understanding that he was to conduct his business in a more discreet fashion.”
Nick released Mister Hartley. The minotaur straightened his lapels guiltily.
“Please . . .” he offered in a meek rumble. “I didn’t do anything . . .”
The baroness let out a long sniff.
“I’m afraid that’s a matter for Sobek and Sons to decide for themselves,” the concierge said, arriving at a decision. “But we take accusations of this nature exceedingly seriously, Mister Hartley. I’m afraid your presence at the Hilbert Astoria is no longer tenable.”
Mister Hartley hung his head.
“Seems a little premature, don’t you think?” Nick protested mildly.
“The Baroness of Lessor Falls is a guest of reputable standing,” the concierge declared soothingly. “I assure you, sir, there is nothing premature about the matter.”
“And if the Eye of Hestavar turns up on a beach in Boca Raton next month? You know those things are sentient, don’t you?”
“. . . it wouldn’t . . .” the Baroness of Lessor Fall snuffled. “. . . in the family . . . nine generations!”
“That’s a weekend to a stone,” Nick said.
“Regardless,” the concierge said with finality. “There’s a degree of decorum our establishment demands of any outside contractors operating on our premises. Mister Hartley has failed to maintain it.”
“Does seem like a bit of a hothead,” Nick acknowledged, giving Hartley a once over. “Trouble is, he’s also a witness.”
Panic shimmered across the concierge’s face. Subtle, but recognizable enough to someone familiar with AIs of his caliber.
“Perhaps the matter could be discussed while the baroness is attended to?” it offered.
“Works for me,” Nick agreed, gesturing to the door. Hartley dithered for a moment, then followed Nick outside while the concierge knelt beside the baroness.
“It was our understanding the Agency was willing to investigate the . . . incidents . . . in an unobtrusive manner,” a second iteration of the concierge protested as the door closed on the sight of its twin consoling the girl.
“I’m sorry if I spilled the beans in front of the baroness,” Nick said. “But something tells me it’s the furthest thing from her mind.”
Hartley snuffed, but said nothing.
“And what is it Mister Hartley was meant to have witnessed?” the concierge asked.
“That’s between the Agency and Mister Hartley,” Nick said. “But you can appreciate how jeopardizing his livelihood might make him reluctant to talk to anyone about what he may have seen. Reluctant witnesses make investigations harder. And longer. And no one wants that, do they?”
The concierge’s silvery features froze for a moment as it processed the new information, then resumed its usual protocols.
“Consider yourself formally chastised,” it told Hartley before disappearing.
“So, what was I supposed to have witnessed?” Hartley said, massaging his throat pointedly. “And while we’re on the subject, who the fuck are you? What the fuck are you?”
“Thirsty,” Nick said. “You?”
* * *
“Twenty years,” Hartley said over his sweet grass Sazerac. The vulture head nebula floated leisurely overhead while he and Nick drank. “That’s how long I’ve been shuffling in and out of this place. And she’s the one in ‘reputable standing.’”
The minotaur let out a snort.
“Money talks,” Nick said neutrally.
“So,” Hartley said after a moment. “Guessing this isn’t you apologizing for almost costing me my job.”
“You would have lost your job if I hadn’t been there,” Nick said.
“I had it handled.”
“You called a member of the Malkavian royal family a liar and told her you’d rip her limb from limb.”
“It was a figure of speech,” Hartley sniffed. “But you didn’t answer my question. What’s on your mind?”
“Did you take the Eye of Hestavar?”
Hartley took a slow sip from his lowball. “Say I did. Then what?”
“Then nothing,” Nick said. “I just need to know, one way or the other.”
“Then no,” Hartley said. “I didn’t. I do all right for myself at Sobek and Sons. What the hell do I know about jewelry?”
“There are private collectors,” Nick said. “You must know people who know people.”
“No one who could pay enough. No one I’d trust, anyway.”
“Fair enough,” Nick said, allowing himself a slug of scotch. The narcotic warmth felt good on his frostbitten insides. He thought he’d remembered what it felt like, the aftereffects of bending time and space. But he’d never pushed himself as hard as he had tonight.
Or maybe he was just getting old.
“So what’s it to you, anyway?” Mister Hartley asked, finishing his Sazerac. “Why do you care?”
“Because if you didn’t take the stone and the Baroness of Lessor Falls didn’t lose it, that means it ran off,” Nick said, looking up at the stars contemplatively. “A stone like that stays still for a few hundred thousand years, it’ll have built up enough energy to find its way around the universe. Mess up someone’s day pretty badly if they try and stop it, too.”
“Why would it go and do that?” Hartley asked. “Seems like it’s got a pretty cushy situation.”
“You know, I was thinking the same thing,” Nick said. “Could be it went off to reproduce. It doesn’t happen that often, but sentient gemstones do make more sentient gemstones. And their larval stage is best measured in geological time, from what I understand. But what if that’s not it? What if it was scared?”
“What scares a goddamn rock?”
“I don’t know. But I’ve got a feeling the Eye of Hestavar knows something I don’t.”
“Think they’ll ever find it?”
“Probably,” Nick said. “Eventually. But if not, well . . . arrivederci, little buddy.” Nick raised a glass to the Eye of Hestavar, then met the minotaur’s eye. “One more thing. You’ve been here a while. You ever hear of an empty room at the Hilbert?”
Mister Hartley brayed, amused. “I’ve seen some truly inexplicable shit in twenty years. But that’s just nonsense.”
Copyright © 2020. Christmas at the Hilbert Astoria by Sam Schreiber