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58

It was just a horrible night for Brandon Camberbridge. His hotel, his beloved hotel, under siege, full of strangers, mercenaries. Nell not here to console him, and the big cheese over there in cottage one acting as though he blamed Brandon for something. Blamed Brandon! For what? For loving the hotel?

He couldnt follow his normal routine tonight, he just couldnt. Normally, he was out and about, everywhere in the hotel, smiling, greeting, nodding, encouraging the staff, beaming on the beauties of his paradise, circulating all night as the great hotel sailed like a wonderful ship through the darkness, himself out and about until his bedtime at four in the morning, like the captain of the wonderful ship, walking the decks, feeling the great hum of it, alive beneath his feet.

But not tonight. He couldnt stand to be out there tonight, the tension, the strange faces of the imported security people, the knowledge that the big cheese was brooding in cottage one, festering in cottage one.

No, no, Brandon couldnt walk the deck of his great ship tonight; the hotel had to sail without him, while he sat here in his office, the control center of it all, waiting for disaster to strike.

For a while, hed phoned security every now and then, just to check in, but at 11:30 Wylie Branch had come on the line and had been extremely sarcastic: Let my boys do their job, he suggested. Anything you need to know, theyll be in touch. They got your number, believe me.

So for the last four and a half hours hed just been here, listening to a local news radio station, trying to go over old paperwork, waiting for the phone to ring. Whats happening? Has the war started? Has the disaster struck?

Four A . M . Time to go to bed, though Brandon seriously doubted hed get much sleep tonight. Still, he ought at least try to maintain his normal schedule; it wouldnt help anybody if he were to come down with a bug tomorrow, would it? So, at 4:00 A . M . exactly, he switched off the news stationgrateful that hed heard no news at all about the Gaietyand left his office.

Brandons managerial office suite was directly behind the check-in desk, but his primary route in and out was via a short corridor to a door that opened onto the public space around the corner from the main desk, between that and the coffee shop, and facing the glass doors out to the pool area. Coming out here tonight, he wasnt surprised to see no one in the coffee shop or walking by; 4:00 A . M . on a Monday night was always very slow. But he ought at least look in once on the guests in the casino, just to reassure himself with a faint echo of his normal routine, so thats the direction he turned.

There was no one visible at the desk, but that was also normal. No guests would be checking in at this hour, and if anyone did have a question they could press the bell on the desk and the young woman from the office behind it would step promptly out to be of service.

Brandon walked on by, and saw no one at all at the slot machines, which was slightly unusual. Slot players have more staying power than any other human beings on the planet. Reflecting on that, he walked on by, just peripherally registering the fact that two players were there, crumpled on the floor in front of machines, cardboard cups of coins spilling from their limp hands, when his attention was drawn horribly to the sight of four people unconscious at a blackjack table.

Good God! The dealer and three players, all sprawled on the half-moon-shaped table, dead to the world. And beyond them, another table, three more sleepers.

Brandon stared. He couldnt believe his eyes. People were sleeping on the crap tables! They were sleeping on the floor! They were sleeping

Were they sleeping? Or were they ...

Poison! Thoughts of botulism, death from his own kitchens, scrambled in Brandons brain as he hurried forward to the nearest table. Oh, please be alive! Please be alive!

They were alive. Their arms were warm. Several of them were snoring. They were alive, they were merely asleep.

Wake up, Brandon said, and prodded the nearest dealer, a heavyset middle-aged man, who kept right on sleeping. Wake up, Brandon insisted. Whats going on here?

But the man would not wake up. Brandon stared around, and it occurred to him he could see none of his guards, none of the security people, not a uniform in sight. Where were they all? Whats happened to everybody?

Along the wall to the right of the blackjack tables was a plain unmarked doorway, leading to a curved hall with walls papered the same dull green as this part of the casino, and a floor with the same dull red carpeting, the hall angling away out of sight, featureless, uninviting. This hall led to the dayroom, as it was called, which was a small private place where security people could take their breaks. Coffee and tea and pastries were available in there, and chairs and sofas for the guards to sit on, put their feet up, rest from the hours of standing around that was the main ingredient of their jobs. Bewildered, growing frightened, apprehensive of what he might find, Brandon crossed to this doorway, hurried along the curving hall, and came into a room full of sleeping guards, sprawled in furniture and on the floor all over the room. And every one of them lashed wrist and ankle with duct tape.

Oh, my God! Brandon cried, and off to the right a guard in the security uniform, who had been seated with his back to the entrance, stood up and turned around and said, Well, hello, there.

Brandon thought he would faint. He thought hed have a heart attack, or at least a humiliating accident in his underwear. He didnt know which element was the more bewildering and the more terrifying: the pistol that was being pointed at him; the gas mask on the guards face; or the muffled metallic sound when the guard spoke, the voice coming through that horrible mask, the mask like a parody of an elephants head, gross and inhuman.

I Brandon said. Uh he said. His hands moved, accomplishing nothing.

A second guardno, a second interloper, in a guards uniformalso stood and pointed his gun and his gas mask at Brandon. Room for one more, he said, and he had the same muffled metallic voice as the first one.

Brandon said, Whats happening? What are you doing?

The first gas mask turned to the second gas mask and said, You notice how they all ask that? I would of thought it was obvious what was happening, but they all wanna know.

There were rest rooms beyond the coffeemaker, and from the mens room now came a third man in security uniform and gas mask, who looked at Brandon and then at his friends and said, What have we got here? (These were the three whod recently dealt with the staff in the security offices.)

Brandon thought, Not in my hotel. You cant destroy my hotel, whatever the big cheese may think. This isnt a toy! I have to be strong, he thought, I have to get my wits about me, I must establish authority here. He said, his voice quavering only slightly, I am the hotel manager. I am Brandon Camberbridge, and you are

Thats nice, the first one said. Thats a nice name. Come sit down here.

I demand, Brandon said, to know

The second one said, Brandon Camberbridge.

Brandon blinked at him, at that horrible gas mask. What?

Sit down or Ill shoot your knee. (He said that to everybody.)

I must argue with them, Brandon thought, I must protest, but even while thinking that, he was nevertheless moving forward, unwillingly but obediently placing himself in the chair indicated, unwillingly but obediently allowing them to tie his wrists and his ankles with duct tape.

See you later, one of them said.

Where are you going? Brandon demanded, with increasing hysteria. You arent going to burn it down, are you? Why are you wearing those things on your face?

They laughed, fuzzy metallic horrible laughs, and one of them leaned forward close enough for Brandon to read the Air Force markings on the boxlike thing at the bottom of the hose-snout on the front of the mask. Its the latest style, said that nasty twangy voice, like a robot singing a country song.

They all laughed again, and headed for the doorway. Pleasant dreams, one of them said, and then they were gone.

Pleasant dreams? Was that supposed to be funny, some sort of sadistic comedy? Did they really think hed be able to sleep? Here? Under these circumstances?

Wide-eyed, Brandon stared around at the sleeping guards. Sleeping. Gas masks.

Oh.

It turned out he could hold his breath for under three minutes.


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