A Hotel California Night
Part One
By: Linda M. Sauve

Anastasia Conner rolled the driver-side window down all the way and delighted in the cool breeze that entered the car as they sped down the deserted desert highway. Although it was minutes before midnight, it was still ninety degrees outside, and her brother's very old car had no functioning air conditioning. At least the wind created by the vehicle as it sliced through the night circulated the air within and blew away some of the smell of marijuana and alcohol that wafted forward from the back seat. The stench had been lingering in the smothering air for the last hundred miles since her brother had decided he had to light up, yet again.

Looking into the rearview mirror, Ana focused on her brother's reflection and shook her head. She had been bailing Nicholas out of trouble for as long as she could remember and this time, like so many times before, she swore was the last. Lifting her long ebony braid off the back of her neck with one hand to allow the air to cool her warm skin, she glanced at her brother in the mirror again. "Unbelievable," she thought with disdain. "Here he is, on his way to court-appointed rehabilitation in the Mojave Desert—rehab that I managed to fast-talk the judge into ordering, and he's passed out, drunk on tequila, and stoned out of his mind. Leaving me to drive through the night to get him to the rehabilitation center—an out in the middle of nowhere rehabilitation center—by the court-ordered date. Un-freaking-believable!"

Facing a long, lonely night behind the wheel, Ana flicked the dial turning on the car's radio, and started searching for a station but found only static. After a few unsuccessful minutes, she bounced her palm off the steering wheel and turned off the radio, resolved to spend the night in silence. "Damn him, anyway," she thought angrily, "the least Nicholas could have done was stay awake, let alone remain sober."

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Ana drove on through the empty Southern California desert, the long hours passing without seeing another living soul. The monotony of the scenery and the gentle humming of the tires on asphalt were just lulling her to sleep, her head slowly dropping to her chest, when the engine began to sputter and knock.

Instantly awake, Ana's eyes frantically searched the instrument panel, trying to determine the trouble. After a few moments, the noises from the engine ceased—as did the engine itself—and the car began to slow down, coasting to a stop at the top of a hill. Glancing at the useless and dark idiot lights again, she was unable to figure out what was wrong with the engine. Then Ana looked out the windshield and noticed some lights up ahead in the distance.

Not wanting to sleep the rest of the night in the car and walk the desert road during the hot part of the day, Ana released her seatbelt, turned on the dome light, and turned to face her drooling brother.

"Nich," she said softly, not wanting to startle him. "Nich. Wake up." When her brother didn't even grumble or twitch, she yelled, her voice echoing in the small car, "Nicholas, you horse's ass, WAKE UP!" Receiving only a sigh and a change of position in response, the usually even-tempered woman began to get upset. Looking around the front seat, she chuckled when her eyes came to rest on a half-full bottle of water. Grabbing the plastic container, Anna removed the lid, thankful she had purchased the wide-mouth bottle, and leaning over the back seat, yelled, "WAKE UP, NICHOLAS, DAMN YOU!" as she upended the bottle, pouring the warm liquid on his face.

Nicholas sat up suddenly, sputtering and spitting water out of his mouth, "Hey, what the fu…"

"Don't even say it," Ana cut off his tirade mid-word, raising her hand and pointing her index finger at her younger brother. "Say it, and I swear, I'll leave your ass sitting here, all alone in the middle of nowhere, with a warrant out for your arrest for failing to appear for your rehab."

"Geez, Ana, chill," Nicholas began, climbing into the front passenger seat. "What the hell did you wake me up for?" he inquired and looked out the window. "And why did you stop here?"

"I didn't stop," Ana said, opening the driver's door and leaning out into the cooler night air. "Your damn twenty-six-year-old P.O.S. did."

He pushed in the cigarette lighter and tapped a cigarette from a crumpled pack he had pulled from his jean pocket before saying, "It's probably out of gas."

Nicholas was shifting the cigarette from the left side of his mouth to the right and back, waiting for the lighter to pop. Anastasia said, "No, I already checked that; the gauge is on 'Full.' Guess again."

He lit the cigarette and took a long drag, then, leaning back against the headrest, said, "It's busted. The damn thing always shows the tank as full." Smoke puffed from his mouth as he spoke.

Ana turned her head to stare at her brother in disbelief. "And you didn't think that was something I needed to know BEFORE we started this little road trip?" Without another word, she grabbed her shoulder bag from the dashboard, got out of the car, slammed the door, and started walking toward the lights, hoping to find people and a phone there.

Staggering out of the car, Nicholas jogged a few steps to catch up. "So, where are we going?"

She pointed her finger at the vague outline of a building, barely visible on the graying horizon. "I don't know where you're going, but I'm going there. Maybe they have a phone I could use, or maybe someone there wouldn't mind giving me a ride into town."

The pair walked in silence for a few minutes before Nicholas began complaining about everything: from the cops that arrested him for the use of a controlled substance and the judge at his trial to the rising temperature as the sky began to lighten on the horizon. Unable to stand listening to him another moment, Ana sped up and was soon walking half a dozen steps ahead of him and could no longer hear his endless ranting.

A short time later, as Anastasia was passing through an open gate in a large stone wall, Nicholas caught back up to her and as the sun rose over the horizon and told her, "Let me do all the talking, sis."

Ana continued walking without saying anything, and upon reaching the oak doors of a large Spanish Mission-style home, she waved her hand toward the entrance and said, "After you."

Nicholas knocked on the iron-studded oak as the first yellow rays of light shone into the desert valley, and a large silver bell in the tower above them began to ring. The siblings were looking around at the stark landscaping when the door opened silently behind them.

"Can I help you?" a voice whispered from the darkened interior. The raspy voice startled Ana, and sucking in a gasping breath, she turned towards the door, grabbing at her heart and expecting to see someone standing behind them. Nich and Ana stared into the darkness for a few moments before hearing the same whispery voice say a little louder, "Can I be of assistance?"

Ana looked at her brother expectantly and nodded her head toward the open door. Instead of speaking up, he just shook his head and jerked his head toward the door himself. With a weary sigh, she said, "Sorry to bother you so early, sir."

"It's not too early," the response came from within. "In truth, it is actually rather late for us," he chuckled. "We are creatures of the night around here."

Puzzled by the man's words, her eyes nervously searching the dark interior for the voice's source, Ana continued. "Our car broke down up the road, and we were wondering if we could use your phone to call for a tow truck."

"That is for the master to decide. Please, come in."

When they just stood there on the threshold, the voice came again, more insistently, "Please, come in."

Nicholas strode in without a backward glance. Anastasia was not as confident, and looking around once more, she took in the complete solitude of their isolated location. Turning back to the house, she heard the same whispery voice say, "Miss?" Without answering, she slowly took a step and crossed into the cool interior of the house.

They stood in the large foyer, their eyes adjusting to the dimness when the door closed behind them with a ring of finality. Ana and Nich started at the sound, then turned to face an old man standing by the door, previously hidden in the shadows. Looking at the man's appearance, Ana's fear was replaced with concern for the frail little man. Even in the minimal light, she was able to see the emaciated man's pale skin was thin as an onion's, while bruises in various stages of healing were speckled across the translucent flesh. His cloudy white, unseeing eyes staring straight through her, the man limped his way around the siblings and began shuffling down the hallway. "This way, please," he said softly over his shoulder.

Following him down a long windowless hallway, Ana said, "I apologize for our intrusion."

Turning his head slightly to the left, permitting his voice to drift back down the hall, the old man told her, "No trouble at all, my dear. We so rarely have guests here."

They came to a closed door at the end of the corridor, where the elderly man knocked and opened the door a few inches, then announced, "You have visitors, Master."

From deep within the room came the muffled reply, "Show our guests in, Jennings."

The servant opened the door and stepping away from the opening, then executed an awkwardly shaking bow and said, "After you."

Nicholas swaggered through in his usual arrogant nature, ignoring the small man holding the door open, while Anastasia paused at the door for a moment to smile at the old man and whisper, "Thank you, Mr. Jennings, for your help this morning." Once the pair was within the room, Jennings pulled the door closed, and they were left facing a seemingly empty room.

Ana looked around the candlelit room, taking in an impressive array of museum-quality furniture, while the surrounding walls were lined from floor to ceiling with a startling collection of books. Hearing someone clear their throat, she fixed her eyes on the outline of a man sitting behind a huge oak desk at the far end of the room. He was leaning back in a large leather wing-back chair, his hands steepled before him.

"Please, do come in," a deep voice called from the shadows. The honeyed tone seemed to echo in her mind, caressing its inner reaches and caused a shiver to run down Ana's spine, instantly putting her nerves on edge as her senses became acutely aware of the mysterious stranger. Slowly they began walking forward, carefully navigating around the chairs and small tables, which were topped with dark reading lamps. When the siblings were standing a few feet before the desk and Ana could just see his icy blue eyes watching them, the man asked, "To what do I owe this," he paused as his gaze raked over Ana's form, "pleasant surprise?"

Although she was still unnerved by the man sitting partially hidden in the shadows created by the heavy, burgundy velvet curtains and the wings of his chair, and sensing that her brother would not be speaking, Ana said, "I apologize for the intrusion so early this morning. I'm Anastasia Conner, and this is my brother, Nicholas."

"Anastasia," the man whispered, his eastern European accent turning her name into a caress. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance," he continued his deep, husky voice hinting of forbidden secrets. Then, as if added as an afterthought, he said, "Nicholas, likewise a joy."

Ana's jaw dropped slightly at the intimate way their host spoke her name, and she stared at him bewildered for a moment. When her brother turned to her and raised an eyebrow at her pause, she quickly stated their reason for appearing, unannounced, in his home, "Our car…" she began, but suddenly nervous under the man's intense observation, her voice faded off, and she began fidgeting like a small child on public display.

Seeming to notice her unease, the man rose from his seat and stood behind the desk, his hands resting gently on its smooth surface. Lifting his left hand to indicate the two smaller chairs positioned before him, he said, "You must be exhausted from walking. Please, have a seat."

To Be Continued…

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