I shiver as I step naked from the cab. My eyes glance this way and that, taking in the sight of the town’s snow-covered square. The whiteness is refreshing. It’s just the blank canvas I need to fix myself. A new home, for a new me.
Well, old me, really. I’m going back to basics. No web of contacts available at the touch of a button, not a single car to get me around in, no houses stuffed full of disguises. There’s not even a shirt on my back. It’s just me and my tricks. I hope.
It’s been too long since I lost my ability to perform the simplest deception, and nothing has restarted my skills. Right now, I can’t even trick candy from a baby.
The metaphor rolls oddly around my mind, the Americanism harsh against my thoughts. But that’s what I’ve got to get used to from now on. I’ve left good old England behind and removed any temptation to walk into a former accomplice’s business and ask for help. I’m alone in unfamiliar territory. I have to, want to, do this properly.
For a very long time, I’ve steered clear of America. Too many of the other gods have been tempted by the glitzy lights of the land of the free and the brave. That’s not to say I’m a stranger to this side of the pond. I’ve never been near this Springfield, though. That’s what makes it the ideal location. There’s not a mortal I know for miles, and I would bet the rest of the gods never bother coming anywhere near here. Which suits me fine. I don’t need any of them getting in the way while I sort myself out. They don’t need to know what’s happened to me. I’ve reached out to one of them already, but I’m not ready to deal with the rest. Well, not at least until I’m firing on all cylinders.
“Here, fella, don’t you want your clothes?” the cabbie asks, breaking into my thoughts. I shake my head, not bothered about finding a lie to let him know he can keep them. Not that they would fit him, but he might make a few quid — dollars — from them. “Suit yourself.” He whacks the stick behind his steering wheel to Drive and floors it. No doubt there’s another fare waiting for him. Someone who won’t pay upfront and strip themselves naked in the back of his cab. Although amazingly, he didn’t bat an eye as I did. Maybe this town has more going on than I anticipated.
I look around again, taking in the many cafes, restaurants, and bars that line the town’s centre. The bright lights turn the occupants into silhouettes, and it’s difficult to know what’s going on in the dark January morning. It’s even harder to work out where to start, which mark to go after.
A cold chill runs up my spine, invoking a shudder from me. A couple of people dash past wrapped up in thick jackets, scarves, and hats. I’m not sure they really notice me as the wind whips up and flings sleet around. I shake and remember how exposed I am out here in the elements. Instinctively, both hands drop down and cup my godhood. I’ve got to protect what’s important, right?
It’s a cheap crack, and it falls flat in my mind. It is another reminder of what I’ve lost. I hated the voices that rattled around my head for so long. Yet I had grown accustomed to them and having someone, something, to bounce off felt oddly reassuring. Okay, they duped me and took away the love of my life. They made me murder her. But in some strange way, they were part of me. They are gone, though, like everything else, and I have to focus. I’m in genuine trouble, and if today doesn’t restart my power, I don’t know what will.
Maybe I should move on, be someone different. Ensure I never hurt anyone else like I did my beautiful Lily, but I’m not prepared to stop being who I am. I would have given it all up for her, but she’s gone. In the last few weeks, I’ve accepted there’s no changing that. I can’t bring her back as much as I want to. If I sit and stew on it, I’ll drink my way through eternity, and something tells me one or more of the immortals will eventually take it upon themselves to try and save me. I don’t want that. I’m not a charity case. This is my problem, and it’s time I took responsibility for it. I have to start by conning my way out of this situation I’ve found myself in.
I breathe deeply and then slowly cast my eyes over each building. Quickly, I realise I’m coming up with nothing. The failures I’ve had recently in drinking establishments nag at me. I couldn’t even pull a scam on a drunk, and that was when I was clothed and looking respectable.
“What am I going to do?” I ask out loud, a hint of panic creeping into my voice. My eyes are moving quickly from one venue to the next. Bar, sandwich shop, diner, hotel, club. “Wait, hotel?” I backtrack and stare at the building that towers above the others. “Where else would you be likely to find a naked man?” I ask myself.
An idea glimmers in my mind, a thought trying to form itself into a plan, but I can’t quite get hold of it. I know, though, that this is my best option. I cross the square at a trot, just dodging a shopper, who gives me a very angry stare. I try to grin, but the cold is settling into my features, and it’s hard to stop my teeth from chattering.
I slip past the entrance to the hotel in the hope that one of the staff is hanging out at the back of the building with the door wedged open. Surely I can convince someone I’m a guest who got lost looking for the ice machine. Can’t I?
To my annoyance, I find one fire escape that is closed tight. Damn the health-conscious Americans. A few years ago, you would have always found someone grabbing a quick smoke. I suppose I could wait around and hope someone comes out soon, but how easy is it going to be to convince them I got lost and stood outside the back of the hotel for ages? If I was a guest, even a naked one, I’d eventually suck it up and go in the front door. I guess I could do that. But what then? What do I do? Try and swindle a room? I’ll still be naked in a strange town.
No, I need to think beyond this moment. If this is my new home, then I need to sort myself out. I need a house, a bank account, a job. Well, at least some sort of cover for who I am. However, I’m going to have nothing if I don’t get some clothes and money. I need to function in the short term so I can look to the future and towards settling here.
If a hotel is the place where you expect to find a naked person, what can I get from it? Not money. Most bookings are made online, so they won’t hold much cash on the premises.I could make a complaint, but I bet they’ll refer me to some set of terms and conditions. They certainly won’t have a pile of clothes to offer me.
I try to imagine the inside. A reception staffed by one person, with access to an office. They’ll have stationery and a computer, but not much beyond that. There might be people in the foyer, but they won’t help me. They’ll look to the employee. Who probably won’t be that embarrassed. They’ve probably seen a naked guest before. They’ll take it in their stride, not like other businesses.
A light goes off in my head, then another. I look out on the square again, scanning for something. I spot the deli, a small one but part of some franchise I’m unfamiliar with. My mind whirls and ideas slowly condense into a plan, a tricky, deceitful proposal. A tingle runs up my back, and this time I don’t think it’s the cold. I think I’m there. The question now is can I execute my plan. I scurry round into the hotel, trying to look as miserable as I can, even though I’m both anxious and excited.
The revolving door easily sails around, and I step into the lobby. I’m now grateful that there is no one else there. There’s no sign of any employee and no guests waiting in the chairs set up along the wall. Quickly, I cross to the wood-paneled desk, overjoyed that it’s set up as an old-fashioned establishment. Behind the work surface is a large frame, numbers and keys dangling from each little box. I scan the numbers, noting the ones that are missing.
“Can I help you?” The high-pitched voice squawks from the door to the side of the desk. I take in the greasy youth, done up in what looks like a bellboy’s outfit. His name badge tells me I should address him as Eugene. He is clearly annoyed that he’s faced with the prospect of work, especially as it’s something that’s not straightforward.
“I should bloody well think so, don’t you?” I snap. “That mad customer of yours has kicked me out of their room and kept all my clothes. I need you to do something about it.”
“Wooo.” Eugene holds up his hands, obviously not ready to take responsibility for the situation. “It’s quite clear that we don’t get involved in the business of our guests. It’s in our terms and conditions.”
“Can’t you just go and get my clothes back?” He is shaking his head before I finish.
“That’s not my job. Whatever your problem is with— Wait, which room is this?”
“Forty-two,” I say, already having selected at random from the missing keys.
“Like I say, whatever your problem is with Mr. Anderson, it’s got nothing to do with me.”
“Then what do you suggest I do?”
“I don’t know.” I throw my hands up in despair. I pace back and forth, then turn and head towards the seats that line the wall. “What are you doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“You can’t sit there!”
“It’s for people to wait for guests.” I hitch up an enquiring eyebrow, and Eugene stammers. “You’re not waiting, are you?”
“What else am I meant to do?” My backside slowly lowers towards the grubby red material. His hands shot up and out.
“Isn’t there someone you can call?” My eyes travel down my naked body and slowly come back up. He proffers the old desk phone, the wire between base and handset slowly rocking back and forth.
“Do you think I know any numbers that are saved on my phone?” Eugene slowly lowers the receiver and looks thoughtful. I inch lower, and immediately he’s on the move.
“Look, why don’t you come into the office. You can wait there. I’ll go and see if I can get your stuff back for you.” I nod my thanks, keeping the delight from my face. I’m doing it. I am conning him exactly the way I wanted to. He shows me into the pokey space, and I’m almost giddy with what I see. A laptop sits on the paper-strewn desk. A noticeboard is hung on the wall above it, notes and reminders filling its surface. Clipboards sway from screws that have been drilled into the plaster below the board. In the corner, a clunky old photocopier hums quietly, wires taped along the wall before they snake into the computer. I move towards the one swivel chair, again ready to sit. My new friend tenses and I try to sound like I’m helping him.
“I don’t suppose you’ve got something I can wear while I wait?” Eugene huffs and puffs, his eyes working around the space. “What about that?” I nod towards the white, fluffy dressing gown hanging off the back of the door. He shifts nervously.
“Louise uses that when it gets cold.” I shake a little as if to remind him of my predicament. “But I suppose we can pop it down to housekeeping later.” He passes it across, and I pull it tight. Then Eugene glares at me. “Just sit still and wait. Don’t touch anything, and you know I’m not guaranteeing anything here. If he says no, there’s nothing more I can do. It is in the terms and conditions, you know.” I slowly sit, nodding my head solemnly.
The second he’s gone, I spin to the laptop and hit the button to stir it from its slumber. Surprisingly, it blares to life quickly, the screen demanding a password. I tentatively push the paperwork around on the desk, shifting through bookings and bills. There’s little there to help me, so I look to the noticeboard. I’m hoping for a hint, a clue that gives me an insight into the people who work here and what the magic word might be. I’m thinking about birthdays, kids, pets, but I don’t need to go to all the effort. Pinned at the bottom of the corkboard is a post-it that exclaims in large letters Laptop password: Piper2019.
My fingers fly across the keyboard, and the laptop grants me access to its programmes. I access what I need, and then the copier, which is also a printer, whirls into life. It emits a heavy whine, and a few sheets fly out. I collect the papers together, liberate one of the clipboards, pull the dressing gown closer to my frame, and head for the exit. I afford myself a grin. I’ve got this far, and I’m ready to try and trick my way to so much more. I just hope I can keep going.