He arrived back to the hotel an hour later and walked into the lobby. He felt as if a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders, and a little bit light headed from the wine. Tomorrow would have its own problems, but he was determined to deal with them when they arose and not beforehand. He started towards the stairs but noticed a flurry of movement as he did so, and turned to see the hotelier moving some papers into a drawer. He nodded at him, and the little man returned a half smile and returned to his papers. Marlowe walked up the winding stair, and glanced at him as he rounded the corner just before moving out of sight. The little man was watching him but dropped his eyes back to the desk in an attempt at nonchalance as their gaze met.
The steps left Marlowe feeling even more light-headed, and he paused for a moment outside his room. He put the keycard into the door and moved the “Do Not Disturb” sign from the handle as he pulled the door open, and several things occurred to him at once as he did so.
The first of these was that the man at the desk had not asked him for the information papers again. The second was that he had not left the sign on the door handle earlier that evening. And finally he placed Gable’s tone of voice at the end of their call, in a moment of wine soaked realisation. It was resignation.
All these things coalesced in his head and his vision seemed to blur for a moment, then he blinked and raised his head to look at the man in his room.
The man sitting in one of the little chairs in the corner near the window. He looked to be about Marlowe’s age if not perhaps slightly older, with a shaved head and a long slender frame. He sat with one leg crossed over the other, and one hand on the curtains. In the other hand he held a pistol, which was pointed directly at Marlowe.
The bald man gestured to the door. Marlow stepped into the room and let it swing shut behind him. The man had moved the chairs, with one on the far side of the bed. He gestured at it.
“Sit down,” he said. It was not a command. His voice not unpleasant. Marlowe felt the wine fade slowly in his veins, replaced with a dull sense of knowing. The room seemed ever so slightly hazy to him, as if someone had been smoking.
He lowered himself into the chair and sat back into it. He breathed in and stretched his back, and let his hands rest lightly on the metal armrests. The two men looked at each other across the bed. The bald man seemed relaxed, and he was regarding Marlowe with an indifferent expression, almost polite, as if he were facing a bank teller or a cashier across a counter.
“How did you find me?” Marlowe asked. He heard his voice as if it were coming from someone else, and noted the conversational tone it had.
The man said nothing. His expression didn’t change. Marlowe sighed to himself, and shifted his weight in the chair. The wine was fading from his head, but he could feel it guiding his tongue as he spoke.
“I had a feeling today might be the day. Just a sense of something coming. Do you ever get that?”
The bald man said nothing, but his lips pursed slightly, to show that he had heard.
“I even called in. Did you know that?”
“It doesn’t matter what I know.” The man’s voice was toneless, indifferent, with no hint of an accent.
“No,” Marlowe agreed, then he laughed. “All these last few weeks, on the move. London, Portsmouth, Leiden, Hamburg. And then you get me in Paris. I was sure I’d be got coming over on the boat if I was going to be got. But it was a different feeling then. Not like tonight. Tonight I guess I didn’t believe it any longer.”
“That was your mistake then,” the man said.
“One of several.”
“Perhaps.” The man reached out and picked a thread from the knee of his jeans.
“That’s why I called in earlier. I wanted this to end.”
“What did they tell you?” the man said.
“The man I spoke to said that he said he would do his best. That he would do his best to end all this running around tonight.
“This is an end.”
“Yes.” He was starting to come back into his body now. The wine had faded from his mind now, and the room seemed a little clearer.
“What will you do now?” he asked.
“What would you do in my position?” the bald man said. Marlowe thought about it for a few moment, then raised his head and looked beyond the man and out the window, at the spire rising in the distance.
“Wait for the hour,” he said quietly. “For the bells.”
The bald man said nothing. Marlowe nodded to himself, running through the scenario in his mind, as he had done from the bald man’s perspective many times in the past.
“What about the maid?” he said.
“Arrangements have been made for a new boiler to be installed tomorrow. Two men will wheel it in in a box in the morning. They will bring it to this floor in the lift”
“And the box will be empty.” Marlowe sighed with satisfaction, and gave a half smile.
“Yes, the box will be empty. On the way in.”
“Will you be with them?”
“No. that is their job. And this, is my job.” The bald man spoke without a hint of emotion, with a steady tone. He was stating facts that he knew to be true, nothing more.
The two men looked at each other in silence. Marlow studied the man’s face. He had pale grey eyes, a thin line of a mouth, and a small straight nose. There was a thin line of dark stubble on his chin, and his hair on the sides of his head was buzzed down to the roots. He had an unremarkable face, one that would be passed over and forgotten in a crowd.
“How long have you been doing this?” Marlowe asked. The question felt ridiculous as it left his mouth, two old timers shooting the breeze, and he didn’t expect an answer.
“Long enough,” the man replied.
“I’ve been doing it for thirteen years.”
“That’s a lot of bodies.”
“Do you always converse in this way in these situations?” Marlowe asked.
The man shook his head.
“I don’t get questions,” he said. “And if I do, I don’t answer them. With you it is different however. You have sat on the side of the room I now sit. You know more than most about this situation.”
Marlowe nodded. “A lifetime ago now,” he said. “How long until the hour?”
The bald man checked his watch.
“Eight minutes,” he said. No more than three then, Marlowe thought to himself. The acceptance that had come over him earlier was back again, a calmness he had never expected.
The room fell silent again, and they could hear the slight hum of the lightbulb overhead. Shouts could be heard from the streets in the distance through the window, cries of night revellers.
“Do you want to know why we are here?” Marlowe said. The man shook his head.
“This is not confession,” he said. “When you sat where I sat, did you want to know why?”
“Sometimes,” Marlow said. “In the beginning I did. Not near the end.” He crossed his legs.
“I felt sure that it was over on the boat from England. I couldn’t risk a flight, but the boat was torture. Every person that stood near me on the deck made me nervous. All the places got like that, after a few days. But it was a different feeling then, even on the boat. Not like tonight. Tonight I didn’t believe it any longer. It just felt different. Even after calling it in tonight, I think it was just a way of taking my mind off it to enjoy a night in Paris. I knew deep down that it would come regardless.”
He was speaking to himself now more than the bald man, each word a realisation. And in the corner of his vision he saw the bald man uncross his legs and move his arm forward, and somewhere off in the distance he heard the deep reverberation, and it sounded familiar on a level he couldn’t place.
Several minutes later the hotelier heard footsteps coming slowly down the spiral staircase. He dropped his eyes as the bald man walked through the lobby, and past the desk into the night. He raised his head and stared out after him, then picked up his paper.