Scheduled for Demolition
by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson
The Downtown Hotel was scheduled for demolition. It had been abandoned now for a couple of years, and most of the windows had been broken.
Since I was in the city at the time and had nothing better to do for a few hours, I figured I’d check it out before the contractors showed up with their cranes and drills to break it down. I got my camera ready, drove downtown, parked somewhere convenient and had a look.
The hotel was quite large by our standards: a rather ugly glass and concrete monolith built in 1960 or thereabouts. It had eight floors, counting the penthouse and the ground floor. It was probably the height of style back in the day, but now it was just one of many unornamented box-fetish edifices that were way too common.
I had to climb the fence around it to get in. That was relatively easy, although I haven’t made it a habit to climb such things for over a decade now. Some might say I’m too old for stuff like this, but man’s got to have some fun.
And yes, for those wondering, the hotel is really named “The Downtown Hotel.” I used to think it had no history to speak of, apart from the usual hotel stuff. Sure, it housed guests from beyond the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, but seemingly nobody important.
Gorbachev didn’t stay there, nor anyone else I can name or you would likely know of. Just whatever party members that showed up, officially or not. I guess the CIA had the place tapped pretty thoroughly.
The ground floor was completely barren of all but paint. Some junkies and homeless men had got in and explored it before me. I snapped a couple pictures of it.
The elevator was open. The elevator was in the shaft but not worth the bother, since the power was off. Of course it would be; the building was condemned.
The stairs to the upper floor were wide and ornate, with wrought iron railings made in patterns somehow ill-fitting the fashionable sixties look of the place in general. The stairs themselves wound around a pillar up to the upper floor that used to house the dining area. Some might say “restaurant,” but it was for residents only.
The dining hall was cleared of all furniture, of course, apart from some stuff in a corner that I guess belonged to a bum that was not there at the moment.
I shot a few pictures of that too, while trying to imagine some obscure foreign dignitaries milling about, probably being spied on by the CIA.
I met a guy once who claimed to be a signal operator or something of the sort. A skittish, weird man, incredibly wary of everything he said. Told me he might get court-martialed if he said the wrong thing. Said he’d seen a lot of top-secret stuff. He did leer at the hotel, as if he was a little afraid of it. Maybe he thought snipers were hidden there, ready to take pot-shots at him.
I walked through the entire floor, just looking. The kitchen was of a small interest, since the ovens were still there. Huge, stainless steel monsters. Gas-fuelled. I don’t see that sort of thing a lot.
I figured maybe I could find something interesting in some of the rooms, so I went to the stairs again, and headed up.
The stairs from the dining area weren’t the ornate spiral affair from the lobby, but a more businesslike stairwell of the sort you invariably see in hotels, or any large building. Wide enough for three people, but barren and austere. The graffiti was almost an improvement.
The doors to the hallway had come off and were lying on the floor. I went into the hall and checked almost all the rooms. Of course they were empty, except for three or four where no one had bothered to remove the bed frames. The reason was obvious once I looked closer. They were broken.
The amenities were still in place in most cases, although more than a couple of rooms had a broken sink or toilet.
I got a shot of the hallway and one of the most representative rooms. The view from them was pretty decent too, so I snapped a couple of photos out the window.
Then I headed for the penthouse. The top floor of the building had always interested me, as it was, by all appearances, raised. I have pointed this out to a few people, but they seem to not understand me when I point this out. I always figured that either the ceiling in the floor below was real high, or there was a lot of soundproofing between it and the penthouse.
When I looked at it before I went in, I could see that an entire row of windows right below the penthouse had escaped destruction for some reason, and I wanted to know why.
Up I went, level by level, to the seventh floor. As expected, the last leg was noticeably longer than the rest, but I left that one for the time being while I checked out the next to top floor.
It was just like the others below it in every way. I went in anyway and had a look around, if only to catch my breath and check out the view from there, which had improved somewhat. I thought I heard some kids nearby. They seemed to be in the penthouse, playing around. No matter. They were just kids, not dangerous.
The doors had been removed from that room, too, and I walked into what had been a huge living room, with the remains of a bar at the end. I acknowledged the existence of the three boys who were trying to open the elevator shaft. They nodded to me, and we proceeded to ignore each other.
As expected the view was amazing. But I had expected more from the place. It was like just another empty dining hall. So after taking a few pictures, I went and checked what the boys were doing.
They had opened the elevator shaft and were peering down. When I asked, they told me they were looking for the secret level.
“The secret level?”
They told me this fairytale from a friend of a friend had from an uncle who used to work for the government. There was a secret level between the penthouse and the seventh floor.
They showed me the rope they were meaning to use to get down to it. It was genuine rock-climbing rope. They even had some of those clamps they use to attach ropes to iron eyes and rings and whatnot.
Fascinated, I helped them tie the rope around one of the support pillars. They dropped the rope down the shaft, and the first of them slowly climbed down. Not very far, mind you. As it turned out, the secret floor was no fairytale; it was real. The boy used his hands to force open the elevator door on the next level below. Floor 7½.
Soon we all went down there. This floor differed a bit from the floors below. For one, the ceiling was very low. I actually had to bow my head so as to not rub against it. But it wasn’t as dark as one might have expected: it did have windows. They were pillbox-like slits, compared to the windows on the lower levels but large enough to let in quite a bit of light.
The hallway itself was quite dark but not blacked-out, because the doors were all open and let in enough light to make the kids’ flashlights unnecessary.
We found a strange layout. This level did not seem like a series of hotel rooms in any way. The area next to the elevator looked like a small kitchen: there were cupboards and a coffeemaker of a very ancient model, a desk and three chairs.
I looked at the cupboards. There were some cups in there, all marked with the hotel logo. Right across the hall was a long room, reminiscent of something out of a war movie like Full Metal Jacket or the like. A row of neat but dusty beds were lined against the wall, with no partition in between. Definitely a sleeping area of some kind.
There were three doors into the room, which was of a width comparable to the ordinary hotel rooms below, but much longer. I snapped several pictures of this.
At the end was a large shower room that also contained a washbowl and a couple of partitioned toilets. That was quite strange as well, because the low roof forced people to sit under the showerheads in order to bathe.
The room only got weirder. I noticed that not only was there no door in the doorway, there never had been one, by the looks of it. No hinges, no latches, nothing. That was a headscratcher.
On the other side, we found a weird sort of bedroom. The floor was smooth and set lower than the hallway, with drains at the outer wall. The bed had chains on it, to attach someone to it. The mattress was missing.
There were chains on each of the side walls. One set of chains lay against the bare wall with nothing else near it. The other set of chains hung above what looked like a shallow wash basin or an odd-looking urinal.
In an alcove, on a raised, carpeted platform, stood a very old radio. It was huge, of the wooden kind, with legs on it. It was the kind you adjust to which city you want to listen to.
On top of it was a weird apparatus, which looked home-made to me. It was electric and still plugged into the same socket as the radio. I wondered for a few seconds what its purpose was. It was a couple of electric lighters, obviously taken from the doors of an old American luxury car and fitted together side by side into a box rigged to work on household electricity. Took me a few seconds to remember how much they used to smoke some ten or fifteen years ago. Come to think of it, the smell of tobacco could still be detected in the air.
Of course I took lots of pictures. I figured the papers would pay good money for this stuff, what I figured was some kind of S&M dungeon for who knows whom.
There were three rooms of this sort, not quite identical, but similar enough. The one nearest the elevator had what appeared to be a huge garbage chute on the wall, which I figured would have run parallel with the elevator. Next to it was parked a wheeled, stainless steel table or bed. It looked like an autopsy table on wheels.
The last room on the floor was an office. The door was at the end of the hall, directly opposite the elevator. It occupied the corner, on the wall opposite the showers. It had some shelves with documents in them, which we got into and leafed through for a while.
I didn’t do much but glance over them then, and I sort of regret that now, but I stole one folder and made off with it. It did give some hints about this place.
Having shot almost three hundred pictures, I put the camera in my pocket, said goodbye to the boys, and climbed out of the elevator shaft.
A couple days later, I downloaded the images to my computer at home. This is where things got strange.
I finished downloading the images, unplugged the camera and shut it off. Then I opened the new folder and clicked on the first image. It opened up as usual in the picture viewer. The first images were normal. The outside of the building, the foyer, reception, starwell, the dining hall; all dilapidated and not very well lit. The pictures looked like the inside of any other abandoned office building. The hotel rooms all looked like one another, and might have been interchangeable. The penthouse looked almost industrial in its decay.
The first image from floor 7½ should have been a warning, but I was just browsing and didn’t notice. The second gave me a slightly funny feeling. Then, on the third, I was more than a little startled. I leafed back a couple images and shook off the feeling.
A virus. Had to be a virus. Then I noticed it was on the first picture as well, in the distance. In the hallway, slightly obscured by dark and half-hidden behind one of the boys who just had to be in the way at the time.
A head. On top of a body. Who was that? There was nobody there at the time. And we definitely would have noticed that one. It looked to be a woman of a small stature, dark haired with a sort of bob-cut.
On the second image she was closer, but now behind two boys, who clearly didn’t notice her. On the third image, her face obscured all else. Her pale, round face, almost expressionless, slightly pained. Her eyes were red.
Startling as all hell, so suddenly as she had appeared there. Was she transparent? This couldn’t be a double exposure, not on a digital camera.
There were five or six images of the coffee room. They had nothing odd on them, but the long sleeping quarter was full of activity. All the beds were occupied in the pictures, but they had been unoccupied when I was there. By women. The occupants varied in size; some looked caucasian but, oddly, many were of East Asian phenotype. I guessed Chinese. They were lying, sitting, standing, all gaunt by the beds. Completely naked, the lot of them. Some scarred in various places, others not.
The showers were full of them, sitting, staring blankly, looking like nothing more than a bunch of dolls placed there, sans clothes and forgotten. Those blank, spaced-out expressions...
The rooms on the other side of the hall were equally occupied. The first image was, thankfully, not bad. A woman was balled up on the sink thing, her back all dotted with burns from the electric lighters.
The rest showed that the mattresses might have to have been changed every time the bed was used. Power tools had been involved. The offal would need to be hosed off. Hence the drainage.
I closed the picture viewer. Looked at the camera. There it sat, inert. I turned off the computer.
I still had the file I had filched in the hotel. I checked it out. It was a cargo manifesto. I looked at the date. 1979, May to December. Before my time. They had come, sometimes one at a time, sometimes as many as four. They were noted by name. Strange names. The obviously Russian names stuck out, as they were few. In most cases the spelling looked odd, off somehow; that was no way to spell a name. I did some checking later and found they were Vietnamese.
Those with Russian names came from the USSR, the rest came from China. After each name was written in all capitals: EXPUNGED. Every name had space under it, where a name was written in different handwritings. Sometimes the names were foreign, sometimes not. I knew some. I knew most, in fact. They were all dead now, but I knew of them. How come they were signing their names in this book?
I could guess.
I looked at the camera again.
I wondered what the media would make of this all? What historians would think. But alas...
As I sit here writing this, it pains me to say that when I was on my way to deliver this all to someone worthy, my car was broken into and the evidence stolen. No, no major government conspiracy. Just some idiot drug addict. The camera seems forever lost, and the cargo manifesto found its way into the duck pond.
No one noticed a thing when the Downtown Hotel was demolished.
Copyright © 2015 by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson