God, she hated hallways. This one stretched to her left and right like a pea-green ocean, dimly lit with art deco moons. Velvet Daniels hugged her mink closer and wished she didn’t feel so vulnerable out here, so obvious.
I could leave, she thought, and wondered why the hell she was so jumpy. She shook her head and took a quick look at her cheat sheet, discreetly tucked in her eelskin purse.
Burt Everard Marshall. Trojans. Scented banana oil. Likes baby blue. Prefers rich and bossy.
She sucked in a deep breath and gave three sharp commanding raps on the wood.
He was pretty much what she’d expected—over-weight, middle-aged, sallow with exhaustion. Bruised bags under eyes that glittered with panic.
“Hello,” he began, and from the terror on his face she realized he couldn’t figure out what else to say. She put one hand flat against the door and pushed it wide open, swept him aside with it. Walked into the room and gave it her best unforgiving glare.
“What a dump,” she said, and thought of imitating Bette Davis too late. “Next time, try to get someplace decent. And don’t keep me waiting.”
“Hey, that’s great, you’re—you’re in character, aren’t you—” He licked his thick lips and swung the door indecisively back and forth. The breeze ruffled her hair. She raised her eyebrows at him.
“Are you going to invite anybody else in?” she asked, and nodded toward the open door. He shut it and stood where he was, fooling nervously with his tie. Velvet resisted the urge to sigh. “Well, don’t just stand there, take my coat.”
“Ah! Okay.” He managed to touch her while he slid the mink from her shoulders, and his fingers felt hot and damp. Shower, she reminded herself, as she always did at these moments. A nice long hot shower. “Okay, okay.”
He hung the coat up and looked panicked again. She lost the battle and sighed.
“Money,” she reminded him. He snatched out a thick, bumpy-looking wallet and fanned twenties out on the dresser
with shaking fingers. The twenties looked real enough at a distance, and he was too much of a geek to cheat. Having delivered the date money, Burt looked panicked again.
“A drink? Do you think you can spare a drink?”
“Ah. Sure.” Burt was going to be stupid, but biddable. She sat down on the edge of the bed and watched him rattle glasses and pour Scotch from tiny hotel bottles. He kept giving her little flicking glances that ricocheted away from her stare.
Velvet took off her shoes and curled up on the bed, legs demurely covered by her dress.
“You look …” Burt hesitated, flipping through a mental thesaurus. “Beautiful.”
She took the Scotch he held out, and smiled. It was her professional smile. Burt was going to be a lot of work.
“So do you,” she purred. “Here. Have a seat. My name’s Velvet, Burt.”
“I’m Burt,” he blurted, and blushed bright red.
He was sweating heavily, dark wet rings under his arms and trickles sliding down his face to drip on his collar. She made sure her smile stayed professional and put several underlines on her mental note to shower. Poor man. If it was such an ordeal for him, why did he do it?
His sweat smelled different than she was used to. Acrid. Was he sick? She didn’t like the thought of fucking a sick man, though she’d probably done it often enough. Thank god for rubbers.
Enough foreplay, she thought, and, sipping her Scotch, slowly unbuttoned her silk blouse while he watched. Revealed the baby-blue bra. It had a front hook on it, and she popped it to let the blouse and bra slide slowly down her arms and off, a wave of silk and lace. The air-conditioning felt damp and cold on her skin, like nervous fingers.
She leaned back against the pillows and dribbled a little Scotch on her nipples.
“Lick it off,” she commanded. Jesus, he was red. Gasping for air. He started to lean forward to obey her, then sat up and pulled at his tie.
“Can’t,” he croaked, and fumbled with his shirt buttons. She leaned forward again, genuinely spooked now, as his glass fell out of his hand and tumbled slowly to the carpet, spilling a Scotch rain.
Oh, god, he was going to croak on her. She’d always been afraid of that, had asked Ming what to do, but Ming said it never happened, just in the movies, and now here he was croaking right in front of her—
He clawed at his shirt. She caught a single horrified glimpse of his eyes and they were red, as if they’d filled up with blood. His face was the color of bricks.
“Burt?” she managed to gasp, and smelled something cooking.
His shirt burst into flame. White flame. She felt herself moving and knew that she was crawling away from him, but she couldn’t stop watching, and the shirt was melting into his skin and burning; she saw polyester blisters sizzle and explode on his skin, raw red muscle peel away and turn lacy black. His chest was burning. His arms. His back.
Water, she thought blankly. I’d better get some water.
She didn’t remember going in the bathroom, but when she blinked again, she was standing on cold tile in front of the sink. Burt was making noises, awful sounds like creaking bedsprings. Water. She turned the tap on and stared in panic at the gushing stream. Jesus God, what kind of freak scene was this? There was one cup, goddamnit, just one wrapped in plastic. She grabbed for it and ripped the shrink-wrap off and the thing came apart in her hands in sharp plastic shards, and from the other room Burt was making those sounds.
“I’m coming!” she yelled, and picked up the ice bucket.
The smoke alarm exploded into a scream, drilled into her head like a white-hot needle and pushed at her in waves on her skin. She put her hands over her ears but that didn’t help; her throat hurt and she realized she was screaming, too, but she couldn’t hear it over the alarm.
I have to get out of here, she thought very clearly. I’ll get the goddamn water and I’m gone. He’ll be all right, the ambulance is on the way.
The ice bucket was too big to fit under the faucet in the sink. Too big for the toilet—no, too small. She ripped the shower curtain away from the tub and stood there panting and clawing at the faucets until a thick stream of water gushed into the ice bucket.
Her chest hurt. She braced herself against the cold tile wall and saw stars.
Right about the time the bucket was halfway full, a cold nasty spray of rusty water came out of the ceiling and drenched her hair. She dropped the bucket and looked up in utter shock at the whirling silver sprinkler.
Okay, okay, it was all over now. She could just get the hell out, he was going to be okay. The sprinklers were on. It couldn’t possibly be as bad as it had looked, everybody thought these things were worse than they really were—
She came around the corner into a thin horrible cloud of smoke, and through it she saw the white fire flicker and die on the thing that lay in a tarry mess of melted carpet.
His eyes were white, like boiled eggs. They leaked.
The alarm hiccuped and stopped. There was some other sound, something high and thin—
Velvet put both hands over her mouth to stop screaming. Her ears felt bruised and full of blood.
She stuffed the bra in her purse and threw the blouse over her shoulders, stuffed her feet into her shoes, wrapped the mink around her. Poor little drowned-rat mink.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she kept whispering, and found her Scotch glass. It was half full; she gagged the liquor down and wiped the glass with the bedspread. She hesitated over the cash on the dresser, then grabbed the wet bills and shoved them into her panty hose. They felt cold and slimy and used.
She thought that he moved, one strange little twitch out of the corner of her eye as she opened the door. No. He couldn’t have.
Jesus. Jesus, she hated hallways.
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