BY KATHI NIDD
This story was previously self-published in The Ottawa Story Spinners’ yearly anthology BLACK LAKE CHRONICLES VOLUME III. Copyright is held by the author.
JEANNIE HURLED her suitcase up on the bed and kicked off her high heels so they flung in a perfect loop before landing on the carpet. Her feet ached from some unexpected walking through Toronto’s Pearson airport upon her arrival. After a long day of flight delays and irate people, she was eager to strip off her business suit, order room service and relax. Rubbing her shoulders with her fingers, she glanced around the familiar hotel room, smiling to herself that Brad at the front desk had always gone out of his way to ensure she had one of the suite rooms with the extra-large desk and king bed. Although this week’s room was on the 17th floor and last week’s had been on the 11th, it made no difference since every carpet, bedspread and detail of the décor was identical. After a year and a half of coming to this hotel every second week, she could find her way around the rooms in the dark, and occasionally laughed that it was more familiar than her own apartment.
Jeannie had earned the official title of assistant director of marketing at the Delaney Ad Agency but over the years she’d also earned the unofficial title of the Bay Street closer, having captured the business of two of the largest national banks in the past two years. This week, Jeannie was in Toronto to try for a third, a smaller investment firm and tomorrow was make or break day.
She ordered her dinner without looking at the menu; a glass of Pinot Grigio, the Caesar salad with sliced chicken and a bottle of sparkling water with lemon. Knowing it would be about 30 minutes before the tray arrived, she convinced herself to stay in her skirt and blouse since, even though it felt like home, answering hotel room service in her pajamas still seemed a bit of a stretch. She unpacked quickly, then propped herself up on the mound of pillows. Scanning the TV stations, she searched for a distraction to lull her mind off the meetings she had scheduled the next day.
Her eyes wandered to the window and she marvelled at the rate at which the dusk turned the skyline from mere buildings to warm pinpoints of light against a black tapestry. The CN tower glowed against a few wispy clouds, watching over the city below. Jeannie looked towards the new condominium building across the street, a contemporary display of glass on glass. She tried to recall how long it had been since the building had been just a construction zone. It seemed like overnight it had come alive with tenants. Each time she stayed at the hotel, more and more of the units appeared occupied. Tonight, it seemed as though every residence was alive and awake.
Each window of glass stacked like a block above the one below, like framed portraits of someone’s life. Jeannie smiled to herself and walked towards the window, recalling a comment she’d made to a colleague a few weeks earlier. “This hotel can turn a person into a peeping Tom.” She’d laughed as they discussed how close the proximity of the new condo was to the hotel — the tenants apparently oblivious to the fact that their homes were so easily observed and lit up like an aquarium.
She watched the unknowing suspects for a few moments. A lady a floor below and to the left was preparing dinner on a white counter against red cabinetry, while two windows over a young man sat at a table staring at a computer screen. Jeannie noticed that three of the windows, all in a row, had their televisions in the same location and laughed at the fact that it seemed all three were tuned in to the same show, the colours changing and flickering in unison. Reaching again for her own remote, she scanned the channels until she found which program it was, comparing the flashing of reds and blues against her own TV screen. It seemed they were all watching the latest reality show. Jeannie wondered if she should start watching it too, since everyone else seemed to like it.
Feeling a bit guilty, she reached up to close the innermost sheer curtains, leaving the thick floral drapes open. It was then she saw the man.
About two floors above her and a few windows to the right he stood close to the window facing her. He was too far to make out features but she saw that he was tall and average build with dark brown hair. He was leaning with his right hand slightly bent. Jeannie assumed he was doing exactly what she was, admiring the city skyline, and perhaps reciprocating her actions with curiosity for the lives of the hotel guests. Seeing him forced her into reality — she felt exposed and suddenly even guiltier for peeping into other people’s lives. She closed the thick drapes and returned to her bed to watch TV.
A couple of hours later, wine drank, food eaten, Jeannie washed up for bed and walked past the window. To say goodnight to the city and, more importantly, to check on the impending forecast of overnight rain, she opened the drapes. The rain had not yet begun and she hoped that it would hold off so she could walk to the client’s office in the morning. Jeannie looked up to the window where the man had been earlier and gasped. He was still there, standing still, in his blue sweater, mesmerized by whatever he was looking at and, given the angle of his pose, what he was looking at was Jeannie.
Uneasiness infiltrated her. She looked away and back again, hoping she was mistaken, but he remained still staring towards her window. She closed the blinds again and, this time, sealed a minor gap in them shut with a huge paper clip she had in her briefcase. Her mind wavered back and forth between logic and worry. This man was far away in another building. The hotel entrance was key card activated. The hotel staff was alert and friendly and would notice a stranger coming in. Her room was also locked by the key card and the dead bolt. Unless this man knew which windows corresponded to which room numbers, there was no way he could find her. Besides, she reasoned, he was just a man, looking out over the city. This was the same thing she’d been doing. Taking one last glance at the locks on the door, Jeannie crawled into bed, turned off the light and wrapped herself in the warm covers.
The sound of the alarm chiming on her phone rattled Jeannie from deep dreams. As she scurried about getting ready for her morning meetings, her mind was a medley of the upcoming topics and how to reel in the customer to buy the advertising campaign she had designed. There was little room for thoughts of the strange man. She smiled to herself when she saw the paper clip affixed to the blinds and recalled her strong emotions from the night before. Forcefully, she removed the clip and opened the blinds with both hands, her confidence abounding. She counted over to the window where the man had been. She stared in frustration. The weather forecast had been wrong. There was no rain but instead a beautiful spring morning with bright sunshine that reflected at a perfect angle off the man’s window, leaving Jeannie completely blind to what was inside. She shrugged her shoulders and stepped back, completely reassured he was not there, although she had no way of knowing. She picked up her purse and briefcase, slipped on her heels and headed out to face the world.
“He was just STARING at you?” Mandi’s huge blue eyes grew even larger as she leaned across the counter to pass Jeannie a glass of wine. It was 7 pm and Jeannie’s long day of sales meetings were finally done. The day had gone well; the customer was just a few signatures away from securing Jeannie’s company to roll out their internet, TV and print ads in preparation for next year’s RRSP season. With a celebratory feeling in the air, Jeannie had retreated to the hotel lounge, her home away from home, to shoot the breeze with Mandi, the weeknight bartender.
Jeannie nodded. “Well, I don’t know if he was staring at ME. I mean, how could I tell across the way like that. For all I know he thought I was staring at him. It just seemed weird that he was there hours later when I looked out again.”
“What about today?”
“This morning I couldn’t see for the sun. I think if he’d still been there I’d have totally freaked out. But I don’t know — I couldn’t see.” She grabbed a handful of cocktail nuts and popped them into her mouth one by one. “I’m sure he wasn’t,” she said.
Mandi pulled a receipt out of the computer and placed it inside a vinyl folder, passing it with a charismatic smile to the two businessmen at the end of the bar. Then she returned to Jeannie without missing a step in the conversation. Jeannie smiled as she watched the men watch Mandi, who was completely unaware of her magnetic personality and classic beauty.
“And tonight?” asked Mandi.
“I haven’t gone up yet,” Jeannie said, patting her briefcase to point out that she’d just come in.
“Well, we’ve got to go check” Mandi’s eyes again flickered with intrigue. “If he’s still there we need to do something! We can’t have people staring at our guests.” Mandi’s loyalty to the hotel and her guests was unparalleled. Always going the extra mile and believing that every action she took led to the success of the large hotel chain. “If he’s still there, we can call Earl up. I’m sure he’s on tonight.”
“I don’t think we need a security guard yet.” Jeannie sipped her wine feeling as though she’d overreacted the night before and was now regretting even mentioning it. “I’ll go up and see. I’m sure he won’t be there.”
They continued chatting about Mandi’s long line of boyfriends and Jeannie felt herself unwinding as Mandi tidied up the bar from the after-work crowd and tended to a few newcomers. Mandi switched the music from modern pop to smooth jazz and dimmed the lights as the mood of the lounge gradually moved through the stages of an evening. Eventually Jeannie signed her bill and came around the bar to give Mandi a hug after Mandi brought up the topic of the man again.
“Don’t worry.” Jeannie squeezed her tight, amazed at how close she had become to the hotel staff over the years.
Mandi grabbed a napkin from the bar and wrote a number on it. “It’s just the room service number. I know it’s on your phone but just in case you need it quick — call it and it rings right here.” She tapped the phone. “I’m here till 11 and I want to know right away if he’s there!”
Jeannie took the napkin and left the bar.
Her room was exactly as she had left it with the lovely exception of the maid having made her bed and tidied up her bathroom. Over the years on the road Jeannie had learned to subconsciously memorize certain things — that she’d left her sneakers under the desk and one was askew and her travel receipts were scattered on the desk – just a subliminal way of noticing whether or not hotel staff or anyone else had touched her things.
She sat down at the desk and booted up her computer for some final emails she had to send. The window was to her right and she looked over her shoulder at it, debating between the pending relief of looking out and not seeing the man versus the pending doom of him still being there. It felt better not knowing. She signed in to her email and began drafting a summary of today’s meeting for her boss, occasionally denying the overwhelming sensation of being watched. After sending the email, she stood and lifted her eyes towards his window. He watched.
“Earl’s on his way!” Mandi stated as she plummeted through the door towards the window. “This is crazy. Oh my God. Has he moved at all?” She pressed her body against the glass as though it would improve her view.
“No,” Jeannie said “And he’s wearing the same blue sweater as yesterday, I think.”
Just then Earl, the solidly built, no-nonsense security guard rapped at the door and then entered. Assessing the situation, he stood at the window, blocking the two women instinctively with his block like stance.
“Did you get the binoculars?” Mandi asked at the exact moment he pulled them from inside his coat.
Earl peered through the binoculars and no one spoke. After a few moments, he turned to pass them to Mandi, a small smirk on his face.
“What is it?” Jeannie asked as Mandi looked through them. Giggling, she handed them to Jeannie “It’s a cardboard cut-out!”
Jeannie and Mandi laughed loudly as they took turns gazing at the mysterious man cut-out. Through the binoculars they could easily make out the details of the blue sweatered man including the sign behind him.
“He’s part of that condo ad,” Earl said, afraid to laugh in front of the guest and potentially ruin his authority. “I remember now, him and a cut-out lady used to be in the condo lobby while they were selling the place. The condo owners must be using that unit for storage.”
Amused, Jeannie thanked Earl, releasing him to exit, as she and Mandi sat down on the couch, relieved and laughing at the absurdity of their fear. They wondered if any other guests were going through the same fear of the peeping piece of cardboard.
“No wonder he never changes his clothes!” Mandi exploded as the humour of the situation grew.
Eventually Mandi left so her friend could finish her work and pack for her morning flight. Chuckling to herself, Jeannie walked back towards the window.
“Goodnight Cut-out man!” she said aloud towards his window. It was then she noticed the cut-out had been moved, and in its place a tall, dark-haired man in a blue sweater nodded towards her.