"The Caretakers" by David Nickle is a strange tale about a group of people called to a meeting with their intimidating boss. The newest member of their organization is not so sure she wants to even be there.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|File size:||671 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By David Nickle, Greg Ruth
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 David Nickle
All rights reserved.
The meeting with Miss Erish started earlier than scheduled, in a room other than the one arranged. That meant they were all late, even Evelyn Simmons, who had flown in the day before and, unable to properly sleep owing to the time difference, risen long before the dawn.
She lingered in her room barely an hour, then took an elevator down to the lobby. It was empty but for the night manager, who dutifully inquired as to her needs and then left her to herself, to wander restlessly from chair to bench to sofa in the cold and quiet predawn.
Evelyn pored over emails, sent texts to her still-sleeping daughter back in the home time zone. Eventually, she watched the sunrise through the glass walls fronting on the parking lot as she chewed on a bagel from the continental breakfast table, slathered with most of a bubble packet of peanut butter and a dollop of strawberry jam. It had snowed the night before, and the dawn light made bright orange rinds of the frosted car hoods.
Unbeknownst to her or any of the others, the meeting had commenced at that moment, in its new room and on its new schedule, absent nearly all of them. By the time she sorted that out and arrived ten minutes early, reckoned against her understanding of the schedule, it was too late.
The skin of Evelyn's forearms contracted in premonitory gooseflesh as she opened the double doors to the meeting room on the fifth floor, and she shivered as cold air from within washed over her. The room was empty but for its furnishings: eight black leather chairs, a conference table, and a dry-erase board, fringed with half-erased pictographs. The middle of it contained a note, written at some length in the cramped, antiquely cursive hand that Evelyn had come to recognize.
The note was accusatory: the tone was not as angry as it might have been, but nevertheless quite clearly disappointed. Evelyn stepped out of the room, and checked her email. But there was nothing, certainly no indication as yet of a rescheduling. She had not yet finished keying in a text message to the rest of the group when Leslie Hunter — of course it was Leslie Hunter — stepped off the elevator. He had cropped his hair short to his skull and gained some weight around his middle since the last time.
"Morning, Evie," he said. "We the first?"
Evelyn started to explain about the rescheduling but Leslie shouldered past her into the room before she could finish. He read the note himself, shaking his head as he went.
"I should have known," he said, "when I saw the note on the door."
Evelyn had wondered that too when she read that first message taped to the door of the Cumberland Suite, where they were to have met: this one not handwritten but printed on hotel stationery, advising of the relocation.
What else had changed?
"Well, it's too late," she said.
"Any rescheduling email? A text?" Leslie didn't bother with his phone but motioned to hers, which dangled in her hand at her side. "A call?"
Evelyn shook her head no.
He rocked back on the balls of his feet and forward again, rolling his shoulders and puffing his cheeks — as though bracing himself or readying for a sprint.
"Nothing to be done," she said.
Leslie swallowed and nodded.
"Didn't see you at the bar last night," he said.
"I got in late. Went straight to bed."
"And woke up at four, am I right? Evie, Evie, Evie." Leslie stepped nearer, touched her forearm. His hand was warm. Was it damp also? Or was she the one sweating? "You have to power through the jet lag. Just stay up as late as you can when you get in. Only way."
And that was as close as they got to the nut of it before Andrea Retson and Bill Allen and the new one — email@example.com was the only name that Evelyn knew her as — got off the elevator in a group. Leslie told them what had happened and pointed to the board, but no one wanted to go inside to examine it.
"What the fuck?" firstname.lastname@example.org was a thin slip of a girl, with black hair grown past her shoulders and swooping down over her left eye ... her right eye, peering out in a sleepy drawl of indifference. She'd underdressed, Evelyn thought, showing up at her first meeting in a loose off-the-shoulder sweater and black tights, dirty white winter boots with a ruffle of faux fur. The cursing didn't aid the cause any better. "I'm supposed to read minds?"
"Nothing to be done," said Evelyn.
"Well, fuck," said the girl, and kicked at the carpet with one boot, a gesture that recalled the manner of a horse.
Because no one else would, Evelyn went into the meeting room, found the marker where it had been dropped on the floor, and used the cloth on the back of it to erase the note. She flicked the lights off, and without looking back, slipped out the door and pulled it shut.
At the elevator, they each of them checked their phones again to see if there were a message indicating how to proceed, then tucked the devices in purses and pockets when it was clear none had yet arrived.
"We shouldn't go far," said Andrea.
"Where would we go?" said Bill.
They made their way down to the hotel's bar. It overlooked the river, which was not entirely frozen over, and a freeway on the far side. The bar was closed, so Andrea stepped away to arrange for coffee service.
Evelyn's phone chirped from her purse, and she checked it. Her daughter had texted her back, finally. STOP, it read. Evelyn slipped the phone back into her purse.
"Any news?" asked Leslie, and Evelyn said, "Nothing."
Andrea returned, empty-handed and flustered.
"They won't bring it," she said. "The complimentary breakfast ended an hour ago. The bar doesn't open until three. Until then, they won't bring coffee."
"That's not very hospitable," said Bill.
"It seems deliberate," said Andrea.
"Why are we —"
"You know why." Andrea fell emphatically on the sofa and scowled at Bill.
"Excuse me a moment," said Evelyn, and rose.
In the restroom, she set herself in a stall and keyed in the passcode to her phone. The text from her daughter hung there on the screen
Evelyn considered that word and, with her thumbs, typed in a reply:
IN A TELEGRAM STOP WOULD JUST MEAN PUNCTUATION
Her thumb hovered over the SEND button as she considered deleting her reply and composing a new one. But in her consideration, she trembled, and her thumb brushed near enough, and just like that, the decision was made.
Evelyn stood and adjusted her skirt, slid the phone away in her purse. When she finally left the restroom, she found Leslie leaning against one wall of the narrow corridor.
"I thought we should talk," he said, his voice low. "About Amy."
"The new girl," he said, and Evelyn got it. email@example.com.
"Amy," she said. "What about her?"
"What do you mean?"
Leslie rested his hand on Evelyn's shoulder and drew her nearer so he could speak in her ear. "She's gone. Andrea went after her. Maybe she'll convince her to come back. But for now, she's gone."
It had happened very quickly. Amy — her name was Amy — had been gnawing on her thumbnail and, after a moment, began to breathe rather heavily, and as Leslie frowned and started to ask what was what, she'd stood up, shook her head violently so that hair spread to the side and for an instant revealed both her eyes. "Fuck this!" she shouted. And then she turned away from them and ran, across the lobby and out the front door into the snow.
"Andrea followed her, but I don't know how far she'll get," said Leslie. His hand moved to the nape of Evelyn's neck and slid down the flesh of her back. "She's not wearing boots. Not like Amy."
Evelyn took Leslie's hand, lifted it away, and Leslie sighed.
She let her fingers intertwine with his and drew him back down the hall in the direction of the bar.
"Not today?" asked Leslie, and Evelyn said, "Not now," and as they emerged into the bar, Leslie agreed: "Especially not now."
"Oh," whispered Evelyn.
Bill had not moved from his seat in one of the easy chairs. Miss Erish had positioned herself on the sofa at his right-hand side. She wore a dark green jacket over a snow-white blouse, a matching green skirt. Her hair was bound and tucked beneath a small red cap, from which descended a funereal-black spiderweb veil that provided only nominal concealment. Her skin gleamed in the low light, like carved mahogany: sanded, stained, and nearly as hard. She saw them immediately and with one hand waved them over.
"Mr. Allen was explaining to me about Miss Wilson's escape," she said, and motioned to the empty sofa alongside her. "You will sit."
Leslie sat at the far end — coward! — and so Evelyn sat between them. Miss Erish was scented with clove oil and cinnamon this morning, a favorite of hers. In her lap rested a tablet, screen glowing softly yellow around the edges of its burgundy folio. She patted Evelyn on the knee and returned her attention to Bill.
"She was frightened?"
"Yes," said Bill. "Or that was my impression."
"I wasn't here when she left," said Evelyn, as Miss Erish glanced her way.
"Well, no matter. Miss Retson shall fetch her."
"I'm sure she will," said Leslie.
"Do you want to know what I think?" Miss Erish looked to each of them, as though it were a question with more than one possible response. "I think that the Spheres have realigned."
"Have they?" said Bill. Leslie nodded.
"Don't all look so worried," continued Miss Erish. "They have not slipped. No no. The heavens will not tumble on us any more than the sea will rise to consume us. The realignment is a blessed adjustment. It is a return to order. But one might feel it, were one sensitive to the deeper movements."
Miss Erish paused, her mouth hanging expectantly. Evelyn was the one who asked.
"Do you believe that Amy — Miss Wilson might be sensitive in such a way?"
"It scarcely matters what I believe," said Miss Erish. Her hands settled on her tablet case. She opened it, and her fingertips made a clicking sound as she entered the passcode on the screen. An email then appeared ... one from firstname.lastname@example.org, but not one that Evelyn had seen before. Miss Erish didn't appear to mind, so Evelyn started to read it over her shoulder.
"You may read it aloud," said Miss Erish.
Evelyn nodded, and went back to the beginning.
"Dear Miss Erish," she read. "Thank you so very much for everything. I have just got internet up and running in the apartment (Amy had abbreviated to apt., and this is the first email that I am sending using it. I am looking out at a view on the Park, which I never thought I would see from my own place!!! It is so beautiful. Classes start in two days, so I have to finish unpacking. But I wanted to thank you Miss Erish. I could never have afforded this by myself. Love XO Amy."
"I was rereading that note just this morning," said Miss Erish, "as I waited. I had been looking forward to seeing Miss Wilson, you see. She had seemed grateful for all I have done for her."
"We're all grateful," said Bill, and both Leslie and Evelyn nodded and agreed until Miss Erish appeared satisfied. She shut the folio on her tablet, and as she did, it seemed to Evelyn as though the light dimmed throughout. It was, of course, coincidental, and Evelyn saw that as she looked up and over her shoulder. Clouds had moved in and brought more snow. It was falling fast enough that the freeway across the river was now only visible by the stream of headlights.
Miss Erish tucked the still-glowing tablet between her hip and the sofa cushion, folded her hands in her lap, and looked about brightly.
"Mr. Hunter," she said. "You've put on weight."
Leslie shifted and sat a little straighter — as though that might conceal the spread of his belly over his belt.
"I oughtn't be surprised," she said. "If you enjoy beer as much every night as you did the last, of course you'll fatten. It is like drinking cake."
Leslie's expression betrayed only the faintest breath of surprise for himself. Evelyn knew how unlikely it was that Miss Erish would have been here at the bar last night when the rest had arrived, and obviously Leslie hadn't noticed her either. But Miss Erish's senses were sharp, her intuition sharper; Evelyn wouldn't put it past her to have simply correctly surmised by a barely perceptible redness in Leslie's eyes, a hint of sourness on his breath.
"I'm worried about that weather," said Evelyn, and Miss Erish nodded in agreement.
"They oughtn't be out in it." Miss Erish turned the tablet in her lap. "They ought to be here."
"Why don't I call Andrea? See how she is?" said Evelyn.
Miss Erish looked down and made a dismissive flutter with one hand.
Evelyn stepped away and made for the lobby. Miss Erish didn't care for calls, in or out, during a meeting: it disrupted the foci as she put it. It was a dilution.
The lobby was scarcely busier now than it had been when Evelyn rose. In fact, it might have been busier at half past five than it was now. Even the concierge desk was empty. Evelyn pulled out her phone. There was another text from her daughter:
Evelyn let that sit while she scrolled through her contact directory and found Andrea's number.
She answered after four rings.
"We're all right."
"Hello to you too, Andrea. I'm glad to hear that. It looks awful outside. You caught up with Amy?"
"It is awful outside. Yes, we caught up. We're in a coffee shop down the promenade."
Evelyn told her about Miss Erish.
"It's pretty bad outside," said Andrea. "I think we better hole up here for a while."
Evelyn peered out the windows. Snow was drifting high in the parking lot, making shallow parabolae between the cars there. The sky was darkened to a necrotic purple. Even absent any other motivation for staying in their coffee shop, Andrea had a point.
"How is Amy?" she asked.
"She's ..." A pause, presumably while Andrea asked Amy how she was. "Amy is fine."
Evelyn doubted that and said so.
Andrea paused again, but this time, it was not to ask Amy a question. Evelyn could hear the sound of chair legs clattering along tile, and the shift in acoustics indicated that Andrea was on the move. When she spoke again, her tone had shifted too.
"Amy's not fine; of course she's not. She says she's not coming back."
"That's not good."
"No, it's not."
"Has she said why?"
"She says —" Andrea paused again for a second and whispered, "— she thinks Miss Erish is a vampire."
"Well not literally. But she ... she's got some metaphysical ideas."
"Would it help if I spoke with her?"
"What are you going to say?"
"I don't know," said Evelyn, "I'll have to listen to what she says first."
The concierge returned to the desk. He was an older gentleman, excessively thin, the dark flesh of his cheeks still soft, though. He met Evelyn's eye and offered a hesitant smile before his mouth pursed severely and he made to busy himself at his computer screen.
"This is Amy?" said Evelyn.
"Yeah. Hi, Evelyn. It's Evelyn, right?"
Evelyn let the silence stretch a few seconds. "Andrea tells me it's very bad out there."
"It's okay in here."
"Well, I hope you're drinking something hot."
"Do you think you can come back to the hotel soon?"
"I don't think so, no."
"I see. You have your things here. How will you get them?"
"I don't have much I'll miss. I've got my wallet. My phone. All the important shit."
Evelyn observed the inner cuticle on her left thumb as she spoke. It was ragged and red, as though she had been tearing at it with fingernails or chewing on it.
"Miss Erish is very sad not to see you. She asked me to read aloud the email you sent the day you moved into that lovely apartment. The one overlooking the park."
"How do you know about the apartment?"
"It was in the email you wrote. That Miss Erish had me read aloud to the others."
"Is she there now?"
"No." Evelyn looked around. The concierge remained at his post. The door to one of the elevators was just finishing closing. Evelyn couldn't tell who was inside as it began its ascent. "No, she's sitting with Mr. Allen and Mr. Hunter. I am in the lobby. It's just us."
"I believe you."
Amy's voice sounded very small and much younger than Evelyn knew her to be. She was not a child, not really, but she was inhabiting one, perhaps remembering those nights when she lay awake in a cold bed, with emptiness gnawing like a rat in her belly ... in a home where the only notion of escape was intertwined with death, where hope was death because that was how poverty was for a child ...
Excerpted from The Caretakers by David Nickle, Greg Ruth. Copyright © 2016 David Nickle. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
About the Author,