The night passed with relative ease, with lots of coffee and conversation, all of which Tina and John took in stride. John begged off in the early hours, succumbing to the exertions of the day by falling asleep on the couch and snoring loudly. After Tina chased him to their bedroom, she rejoined Chloe in the kitchen, where they set up a veritable tea factory on the breakfast table.
“I think I should warn you of some of the customs that take place when you stay here,” Tina said as she poured another cup of coffee for Chloe, who then doctored it up with plenty of cream and sugar. They’d finished off the canapes and snacks leftover from the meeting and were delving into some frozen treats. Chloe was more than refreshed by this time and nowhere near sleepy, even though the deeper hours of the morning had been the hardest to get through.
“You mean there’s more to it than greeting everyone at the Tavern all at once, daring to drink Terry under the table, eating Jack under the table, and drooling over Maximus?” Chloe laughed.
“Much, much more,” Tina laughed as well. “You doing all right?”
“Oh, yeah! I think the caffeine is starting to take place of my blood,” Chloe joked and it was true: she was feeling much better. Clean clothes, good food, and friendly cheer had done wonders to wipe away the stress. Tina’s stories about her days as a crime scene tech, as well as gossip of the latest movies and the foibles of entertainers kept her brain from realizing it was three in the morning.
They also indulged in a vice that had bonded Tina and Chloe early on in their friendship: cigars. This was a leftover of her college days when the revival of big band swing and zoot suits and lindy hop contests had also introduced her to tobacco. While Chloe had always eschewed cigarettes, there was something luxurious and cathartic about taking in the smoke of pure cured leaves and then letting it escape to the heavens like a vaporous prayer. To smoke a cigar was to defy nanny-state scolds and hectoring elitists. To her regret, Chloe realized that the ones she had packed to bring to the Point were still in the bottom of the ravine, probably lost forever, but news of a richly stocked humidor at the Tavern, plus some samplings that Tina and John had on hand, made the quest to stay awake much easier.
“So, what are the customs you haven’t mentioned before?” she asked after she lit one of her favorite labels, a La Fluor Dominicana Cameroon, and paused to let the fragrant smoke wrap around her. “I’m not going to have to climb a greased pole or endure some kind of Aussie level of hazing, am I?”
“Oh, nothing like that at all!” Tina replied. Her choice was a Tatiana Groovy Blue. It punctuated the LFD’s smoke with a fruity wisp. “It’s just everyone will be bending over backwards to make sure you feel at home, especially when they hear about what happened. But we also have a few niceties that are part of the package when you stay at the Hotel, like a kitchenette with a full sized refrigerator, and breakfast delivered every morning. That’s when you’ll meet Jeff Mitchell. He’s a sweetheart and will do anything for you. He does this for all the visitors. And of course, everyone will want to meet you at the Tavern…”
Chloe took in a long breath, feeling her pulse go up a bit – she liked meeting new people, but the thought of a crowded bar with loud music, loud voices, smoke, alcohol was more than enough to set off latent social anxiety. Plus, she could sense that Tina was tip-toeing around a topic she didn’t really want to bring up.
“Of course, you don’t have to come to the tavern at all, if you don’t want to,” her friend added with a smile. “There are lots of other places to go if watching everyone get rowdy is not your thing.”
“Gimme the goods, sister,” Chloe demanded in her best noir voice.
“Now why do I suddenly think we need to swipe Alex’s fedora and go looking for the Maltese Falcon?” Tina laughed. “Well, I think I’ve mentioned to you that no one here has ever actually been…wait, that’s not true. It’s just that…some of the characters…well, you know this: Russell didn’t always play the good guy…”
Chloe nodded her head. She had an idea what the subject matter was now. She’d heard Tina complain of him often enough.
“I’m ready for SID,” she said.
“You’re a dear, Chloe, but I hate to tell you: no one is ever ready for SID,” Tina replied, patting her hand. “I certainly wasn’t, and I’d prepared myself specifically for his obnoxious, psychopathic, violent…well, anyway, at one point or another, he’s going to go out of his way to corner you and see what you’re made of. Don’t let him frighten you…”
“I thought you said he was involved with someone?”
“He is…her name is Tanya. You’ll like her…and she’s worked wonders with him. She wasn’t able to make tonight because of a conference, but you should be able to meet her if you stay for the festivities…you will stay, won’t you? Fortunately, while she stays at the Point, SID behaves himself. But he has a knack for sniffing out the vulnerable…and first-timers are usually very vulnerable. I’ve been here since 2000, Chloe, and it took me a long time to come to grips with him and his little games. Even when I thought I had it altogether and I’d been made a partial-Keeper, I was like, I can do this. I can make him behave, but I still often felt like it was out of reach. But I think that when my mother died, something, you know, something snapped in me and I was like, I’m done knowing he’s always pushing and pushing to get things his way, thinking I’ll just let him slide.”
She shook her head. “He knows better now. He knows the games with me are well over. Until I reached that point, though, poor John and others had to run interference. No, I shouldn’t say poor John or poor Bud. The Boyz took great delight in fending off SID. If I hadn’t seen it become a way for them to let off steam, and if Tanya hadn’t said something, who knows what would have happened to him. Not that I care…but you get my drift. I’m sorry to say, Chloe: short of barricading him in a basement somewhere, or putting him back in the Box, or stranding him on a desert island, I can’t say you won’t ever run into SID. But I’ll give you Tanya’s number, so if he just can’t resist being his usual predatory self…”
“He won’t try to kill me, will he?” Chloe asked.
“No, that’s the great thing, or in SID’s case the terrible thing, about the Point: in spite of all the natures of the Boyz and their histories and their constant search for trouble, none of them can kill each other, and especially not kill any visitors to the Point. If any of them try to hurt a Connection or a visitor, they freeze up, or lose interest or something that pretty much brings that sort of thing to a screeching halt.”
“Well that’s a relief…I think….”
“I’ll leave it up to you to decide if falling in love with several of the Boyz all at once isn’t more dangerous than having a questionable conversation with a cybernetic psychopath.”
Chloe pursed her lips, but said nothing in reply. It wouldn’t do any good to repeat what she had said to John about finding a connection. She planned on being too busy exploring every niche and crannock of the place, not to mention take advantage of the “world-class and deeply international” library. If she made a few more friendships, that was fine…
I must still be in high school emotionally, she mused silently. The rush of electricity I felt with…him… was solely because of the trauma. They were all just being concerned, but you…well, if Hitler were nice to you, you’d get a crush on him…
Proof that Tina wasn’t going to give up on romance came out in her next sentence. Chloe hid a sigh behind the last exhale of cigar smoke and crushed her stub into the ashtray. Whatever she thought of potential boyfriends, or any need to flex her (minimal) powers of attraction, she wasn’t the type to “take on one and all.” Too much energy went into a relationship of any kind for her to be licentious in practice.
“I only hope you don’t go through what I did with John and Maximus…”
The culmination of that story coincided with the appearance of the sun’s rim on the eastern horizon, and Chloe took another shower, repacked her things, and went back downstairs, ready to move on to the next step. Her appointment with Dr. Anthony was later on, in the afternoon, and Tina’s description of the rooms at the Hotels had her longing to sink into some pillows and forget for a little bit.
“We’ll keep you busy until it’s time to go over to the clinic,” John said as they loaded up the mule once more. Tina climbed into the back seat with Chloe so she could play tour guide and give her a narrated introduction to the Point.
The sandy path that ran from Gull Cottage turned into an asphalt lane lined with tall arching shade trees, ran past wide meadows and woods, then through an open prairie where landing strips cut through the grass. At their apex stood a long hangar and control tower. Tina spoke of Lachlan Curry, from a movie Chloe had yet to see, “For The Moment,” and the active air port that he and some of his Brothers ran. Several variations of airplane models sat parked, ready to be taken up into the blue. Passing that, the lane rolled through hills and onto a campus where several buildings marked a more complex establishment. Chloe knew even before Tina named it that it was the famed Library of Princeton and “home” of Dr. John Nash.
“It’s actually…” Chloe hedged, disappointment in her tone.
“Not as big as I had imagined. Kind of like the Alamo, right?” Chloe laughed, referring to the San Antonio visit and her friends’ astonishment at how tiny and inconsequential the Alamo chapel looked compared to the more modern buildings around it.
“Bigger on the inside,” Tina said with a laugh at the Dr. Who/TARDIS reference. “And there is an actual basement,” she added.
“Well, I’ll stay away from it, then, if Pee Wee Herman is there,” Chloe replied with a grin. “The bookshelves must be endless.”
“In the outside world, this building isn’t even the main library for the university,” John said. “It’s actually for a small college affiliated with Princeton.”
“You’ll love it, Chloe! I’ve gone exploring, oh, I don’t know how many times,” Tina said. “I’m always finding something new.”
John turned and flashed a big smile at Chloe. “So she says. I think she just gets lost.” Tina play-swatted him.
“Nash is with Karen,” Tina went on as they turned the corner and entered a labyrinth of pathways and parks, “and he doesn’t hang out there as much as he used to, but you’ll probably run into him eventually…”
When they finally pulled up to the front steps of the Hotel, Chloe was wordless with awe. The building was several stories high, all of carved gray stone, soaring columns with elaborate capitals, balconies and windows accented with curling iron embellishments. Through a huge brass revolving door, she found the lobby to be a long hall, several stories high, with numerous arches and alcoves, much of it in white marble and white wood, festooned with red Persian carpets and tall mirrors. It was segmented by a multitude of couches, wingback chairs, and tables in velvety grays and silver, arranged in small intimate collections, and each area outlined by silver and glass consoles and large ceramic containers fitted with fringed palms and topiaries. Chandeliers, glittering and bright, hung over it all as a final homage to Old World elegance.
No one was at the front desk so Tina handled the initial check-in details, sent for porters to bring up Chloe’s suitcases, and then it was upstairs to the fifth floor. When the door to her room opened, Chloe had to catch her breath, stunned by what she found.
It could not have been larger than a small one bedroom apartment, with a small living space and kitchenette off to one side, and a door leading to a bedroom near the arching French doors that led onto a balcony overlooking the Hotel grounds. However, the colors and design of decor were vastly different than the classical lines of the Hotel itself. Switchback tendrils were carved into the borders of deep-stained wood panels and a back-lit stained glass panel of a garden, Tiffany-style, rose above a carved fireplace mantle. A shawl of silk Chinoiserie and tassels was draped across the back of an overstuffed couch, a likewise-comfy armchair, and a single Tiffany lamp glowed on a console. The kitchenette, Tina pointed out, had all the modern appliances and necessities for those times she might like to fix her own dinner. The bedroom made Chloe gasp: a dark carved mahogany bed fitted out in deep teal bedding and cream colored net curtains, with a matching armoire in the same curling, lashing lines of art nouveau design. The bathroom felt more like a conservatory of personal grooming than a mere room of private ablutions. The deep garden tub, multi-headed shower, and marble topped vanity sat beneath a domed ceiling, also of paneled stained glass. Soft, dusky, saturated colors filled all the rooms, and the walls of the bedroom revealed muted fairy tale scenes.
“I have to say, you have quite the imagination,” Tina remarked as they settled into the furniture in the seating area.
“What do you mean?” Chloe asked, surprised by the remark. “I have nothing to do with this.”
“I think you must! Our guest rooms are usually decorated differently, but here…I think the Point was expecting you! And I knew you liked art nouveau, but wow!”
“All the rooms aren’t like this?”
“Just yours, hon.”
“But that’s…impossible! I didn’t have any of this on my mind when I decided to come here…and how…how could anyone know, besides you? Tell me you told someone to set this up.”
“Nope, dear. It’s all you. The Point picks up on these things, I guess. I thought it was kind of weird and wild when I first came, but my room ended up being exactly the way I would have decorated it if I’d had I unlimited resources. Of course, I think our tastes differ.”
“Are you serious?” Chloe gasped, the pit of her stomach tightening at the idea that some unseen entity could read her mind and guess what would appeal to her innermost desires. A flash of the pebble and Pippin’s face came to mind, as if the suggestion were connected, but Chloe dismissed it, reminded herself of the conversations she’d had with Tina before. The Point had a way of doing things, she’d been told…
“As death,” Tina said, smiling benevolently at her. “I envy you: getting to experience the Point for the first time. This is what I live for. So, what do you think?”
“I’ve died and gone to heaven!”