Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Room 613

I loathe Las Vegas. I don’t fear it, I loathe it. Everything that is crapulent about the human condition is glorified, sanctified and beatified there. So, on the odd occasions when I have to go there on business, and I tell friends or colleagues where I am off to, they say things like “Oh you lucky dog” or “Nice work if you can get it” and I snarl politely. For me it is a long flight ending in a series of jet lagged meetings, punctuated by sleepless Nevada nights sitting up in bed watching reruns of Friends. The casinos are obscene, row after row of black-jack and crap tables, armies of robotic croupiers and acre upon acre of slots. The shows are bland beyond belief, even the Cirque du Soleil shows while being incredibly inventive and visually dazzling have all the emotional heart of a parking meter. The answer to survival in Vegas is to bring a lot of good books and a complete set of Mozart Piano Concertos on CD and lock yourself in your hotel room and pretend that you are in Berlin, though I have found that ordering room service in German doesn’t work. None of the above however has anything to do with the story that I am about to tell.

Some years ago a Las Vegas production of a musical that I was involved with was mooted. It was a heavy mechanical show and the Vegas version would require substantial building works and hydraulic plant installation. I was sent out by the London producers to referee a series of meetings between our creative team, the casino owners, who were promoting the show, and the local building contractors. My flight, in business, was pleasant enough, and. I was booked into the hotel attached to the casino, which for legal reasons I shall refer to as the ‘Miracle’. The hotel was one of the oldest in Vegas dating as far back as the 1970s but regular refurbishment had kept it near the top of the pile and the foyer was a triumph of excess over taste. I checked into room 614 and was escorted there by a smart young bell-hop who I duly over-tipped after he had shown me how to open the minibar and how to operate the TV. Unlike New York where hotel rooms come in two sizes, matchbox and shoe box, Vegas rooms tend to be more expansive and this one was no exception, with room to swing several cats. There was a vast double bed, a black marbled bathroom, a walk in wardrobe and the whole was furnished in surprisingly good taste. Next to the wardrobe was a door that was locked which presumably led to the adjoining room and could be unlocked in order to create a suite. The early morning sun streamed through the window and if I craned my neck I could just glimpse ‘The Strip’ though the gap between the Miracle and the Bellagio.

In the interests of ‘hitting the tarmac running’ I had taken a flight that got me into Vegas early in the morning and I had just enough time for a bath and breakfast before heading out to my first meeting. All present lived up to their stereotypes, the casino management looked like hit-men for the mob, the local contractors were all called Chuck and were enormously overweight and the UK creative team were all as camp as camp can be. Musical affairs occupied me all day and in the evening I had dinner with the Miracle’s General Manager, Mike Fiorelli. Mike was a relative newcomer to Vegas having moved there only five years before but had developed an almost obsessive interest in the history of the city. Somewhat tentatively, bearing in mind his surname, I asked him about the relationship between the Mafia and Vegas in general and The Miracle in particular. He chuckled. “Ted, that’s all in the past. These days Vegas is cleaner than Disneyland, everything’s corporate now, Warner, Time Life, Sony, and to keep us all on the straight and narrow the FBI and IRS have dozens if not hundreds of undercover agents in all the casinos. Frankly Ted we can’t blow our noses here without someone in Washington knowing.” Then he gave a wry smile “But it wasn’t always like this” and he told me a little about the origins of the Miracle. The original owner was a local man, Mortimer Woodford, whose family had been in the area long before Vegas as a gambling haven was even a twinkle in a mobster’s eye. They had made a lot of money selling plots of land to the casino developers and during the explosive expansion of the city during the 1970s Woodford decided that rather than selling land to others he would build his own casino, the Miracle. He was determined to outspend the competition and flew in architects and designers from Europe, Dior designed the staff liveries, the theatre was to be the largest in town but as construction started Woodford’s arrogance fuelled resentments from the other casinos, nearly all of whom were controlled by East Coast Mafia families. He began to be beset by difficulties, niggling at first, construction problems, union disputes and vandalism but as he soldiered on planning and licensing issues reared their head and he became bogged down in a string of long drawn out and expensive legal disputes.
‘Eventually’ said Mike ‘he ran out of time and money. Despite a lot of public statements that he was going to complete the Miracle ‘Come Hell or high water’ he had to sell out to Danny de Santos, a big player among the East coast families.” Apparently there was a meeting on site, Woodford had only built up to the sixth of thirty floors by that point, where de Santos forced him to sign over all rights to the Miracle. A bitter Woodford left Vegas never to be seen again. At that point Mike said we both had an early start and he went home and I headed back to my room.

I must have made the mistake of sitting down on the bed for a moment, because I woke fully dressed with cramp in my left leg and a mouth like sandpaper. I looked at the clock, it was a little after midnight which meant that I had only slept for about an hour. I felt exhausted but my body clock was nagging me to wake up and I went to a run a bath. As I came out of the bathroom I noticed that the room, without daylight, seemed much smaller than it had in the morning. I went to the window and tried to look down at the Strip, always a good view at night, but try as I might I couldn’t lean far enough to see past the adjoining building, which was strange because I had been able to in the morning. I gave up and turned on the TV, and there was the Friends episode about Phoebe’s aunt’s funeral so I took a drink from the mini-bar and settled down for a long night. After a while I became aware of thuds and bangs from the room next door, it sounded as though whoever was in there was moving furniture about. Occasionally I heard voices raised in argument, two men, maybe three perhaps. Out of pure nosiness I went to the communicating door and listened but the voices were too muffled for me to make anything out. If I had thought that I was going to get any sleep I might have rung down to Reception to complain but as it was I turned up the volume on the TV and eventually did doze off.

As I left my room to go down to breakfast in the morning the door of 612 (there was no 613) opened and a short blonde woman emerged, she wore a badge that said ‘ Realtors of the USA (South-West) – Tammy Verbanek’. She was wearing a pink tracksuit made from a material that might well have been a spin off from the Space Programme.
“You were busy last night” I said cheerfully, “were you changing the whole room round?”
Her eyes narrowed.
“I was busy trying to get some sleep while you and your drunken buddies were throwing stuff about!”
“I was in bed. Watching Friends.”
“Who was making all that ruckus then?”
I don’t know. It must have been from above or below I guess.” She eyed me suspiciously. “Going to breakfast?” I continued breezily.
“Sure” she said and as we walked along to the elevators she told me that she was from Tucson, Arizona, and that she was her company’s top earning realtor (which means estate agent for those of us brought up in the home counties) and that that had won her the right to attend this annual wing-ding in Vegas.
The restaurant, themed in Hollywood classical Greek style, was nearly deserted and Tammy, obviously a gregarious type, suggested that we sit down together. Over breakfast she told me about her life in Tucson, about her husband Duane, who had just been laid off from the tyre company where he had been a supervisor for twenty years, about her two kids, one at college and the other in the 6th grade and about her church, Americans have the ability to talk about their religion in a way that would make a C of E vicar cringe. I rather took to Tammy, like most Americans she remained cheerfully positive whatever the problems were that confronted her. Towards the end of our breakfast together she lowered her voice and asked “Did you hear screaming last night? I’m sure I heard screaming and it was a man screaming not a woman”.
“No” I replied “but I fell asleep at some point. Are sure it wasn’t on TV?”
“It didn’t sound like it. It came from your room. It didn’t sound as if someone was acting. You can tell you know”.
I assured Tammy that I hadn’t been torturing anyone in the night and we went our separate ways, she to her gung-ho realtors convention and I to a series of visits to contractors’ workshops. I finished off the day having a delicious Mexican dinner with the owner of a local prop shop and he joined me for a couple of nightcaps in the hotel bar. So it was very late when I got out of the elevator on the 6th floor and started the long trek along the deserted corridor towards my room. At the far end a door, on the same side of the corridor as my room, opened and for a moment the wall opposite was lit by brilliant light coming from the room, a man emerged and closed the door behind him. He turned and headed towards me, he was tall, dark and more formally dressed than is the norm in Vegas these days in a dark suit with a rather dated hat, the sort of hat that Spencer Tracy wore in Bad Day at Black Rock. He strode determinedly on, looking straight ahead. Had the corridors at the Miracle not possessed generous Vegas proportions he would have walked right over me, as it was I was able to move out of his way. He looked neither right nor left and appeared not to notice me as he pressed on towards the elevators. The door at the end of the corridor opened again and again there was a blast of light as a man very similar to the one that had just passed me came out and shut the door behind him. He had the same determined stride as his predecessor, in fact as the distance between us closed it became clear to me that he was absolutely identical to the first man. At this point I must confess to the reader that on the night in question I was decidedly drunk. We had been drinking Margeritas all evening and it doesn’t take many of them to addle my brains so I assumed in a good naturedly drunk way that I had just seen a pair of identical twins leaving a room near mine and at that moment that didn’t seem surprising, this was Las Vegas after all. There was something unnerving however about the way that that neither of them had acknowledged my presence with so much as the flicker of an eye.
By this time I was near the end of the corridor and I glanced up at the door numbers to see how near. I was at 612, which was Tammy’s room, and my room 614 would be next and at that moment the door to 614 was flung open and for an instant I was caught in the blast of light that I had seen before and a man brushed past me closing the door. He set off down the corridor and I could see that he was dressed in exactly the same way as the other two and walked in the same distinctive way. I was about to shout after him “Hey that’s my room, what were you doing in there” when I was distracted by what I had just glimpsed through the open door. Firstly there had been the light, incredibly bright, not artificial, not theatrical but exterior noonday desert sun. secondly I had seen a man in shirt sleeves sitting on a straight backed wooden chair, there was a bucket and a hammer on the floor next to him. I had seen him only fleetingly and only in silhouette but I was sure that he was terrified. I stood undecided, stunned actually, something extraordinary was going on in my room, but then the number on the door caught my eye. It was 613 not 614, the man in the chair was next door and not in my room. After a couple of abortive attempts I managed to get my keycard into the lock of 614 and fell through the door and onto my bed. I lay there for a few seconds but then realised that if I didn’t get up immediately I would pass out so I managed to get undressed and went and sat under the shower. I turned the water to cold and stayed there until I could bear it no longer, I turned the water off and as I did so I could clearly hear screaming. As Tammy had said it was a man screaming and it was coming from next door. I pulled on the hotel issue bathrobe and went out into the corridor, the screams sounded even louder there. I scuttled past 613 and knocked on 614.
“Tammy! Are you OK ?”
The door opened instantly and she dragged me inside.
“Now you can hear it huh!” she said.
“Yes let’s call the front desk or security or something”.
She went to the phone.
“Hello we have a problem up here. Something terrible is happening in 613. We can hear screaming”
I hit the speakerphone button and added “someone is being killed next door. We need the police or security now!”
“OK. Is this Mrs Verbanek that I’m talking to? I can see that you are calling from 612 and you say the problem is in 613?” The man on the switchboard sounded reassuringly calm.
“Yes “I said “and I’m Mr Irwin from 614. The screams are definitely coming from 613, the room between us”
“OK folks security are on their way and will be there momentarily but I have a problem here in that there is no room 613, there are no ‘13s’ on any of the floors of this hotel or any other in Vegas. Gamblers are superstitious.”
“Go check again” whispered Tammy to me. I felt a rush of cowardice but could think of no plausible excuse for not going, so while Tammy held the door open, I quickly popped out into the corridor, dreading meeting another fedora hatted man, but no one emerged and I was able to confirm that the number on the door was indeed 613. As I turned back into Tammy’s room I saw two heavily built men hurrying along the corridor, the first to arrive introduced himself as Bill Stover, Deputy Head of Security at the Miracle. They joined us in 614 and we explained what we had heard and when.
“And the noises definitely came from 614 through there?” asked Bill gesturing at the inter-connecting door.
“No!” said Tammy “from 613 next door, Mr Irwin is in 614!”
“Pardon me Ma’am but there is no 613”
“Go check it out” said Tammy
We all trooped out into the corridor and Bill gazed at the number plate next door which clearly read 613. He started to talk into his radio “Hi I’m outside 613 ………….Yeah Yeah. I know but I’m standing outside 613. It’s kinda weird somebody must’ve been monkeying with the number plates.” He went on to explain what was going on and that he was going to enter 613. He asked us to withdraw up the corridor then standing slightly to the side of the door he knocked firmly. His sidekick, who I had noticed from his badge was named Isidore, stood on the other side with his hand on his gun. There was no reply to Steve’s first knock and he tried again saying loudly as his did “Hello this is hotel security please open the door”. He took out what I assumed was a master key card from his pocket and was then confounded to find that there was no key lock on the door nor indeed any sort of lock, just a door handle. He tried the handle, it didn’t budge, he gestured to Isidore, a fat free 18 stone, to kick the door in. Tammy and I stood 20 yards up the corridor and at that point I noticed that she was wearing a truly remarkable mauve quilted dressing gown and she noticed that I was drunk. “Are you drunk?” she asked.
“Yes. Does it show?”
“It certainly does” she replied with a frown of disapproval.
“Sorry” I said
“It’s OK” and she edged closer to me as Isidore launched himself at the door. He bounced back and fell to the floor, rubbing his ankle and gasping with pain. The door had not even vibrated under the impact of 18 stone Isidore.
“I’m calling a Code 3” said Steve into his radio.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Oh just that we get a duty manager and maintenance up here and we stand-by local law enforcement” He shushed Isidore who was using language that was making Tammy flinch. We all went back into her room and were joined a few minutes later by Mike Fiorelli and two men in orange overalls called Estevan and Julio who carried hefty tool boxes.
Mike nodded to me and then turned to Steve.
“What’s going on?”
“We have a 613 where we shouldn’t have a 613” said Steve and led Mike out into the corridor. I followed a few moments later and took Mike to one side and explained what I had seen.
“Are you drunk?” he asked when I had finished.
“Yes. Does it show?”
“Yes, but never mind. This is really weird.” He asked me to describe in detail the man or men that I had seen in the corridor and the man in the chair.
We went back into 612 and Mike pointed to the door that in theory connected with my room but must now connect with 613, “Do we have a key for this?” he asked Steve who examined the traditional keyhole and then shook his head. The men in orange went to work and in a few moments they had prised the door open. They revealed another door which they also forced revealing my room, embarrassingly strewn with dirty clothing, but there was no sign of 613, just an 18” concrete filled gap between the two rooms. The men in orange were then sent out into the corridor to force the door labelled 613 but came straight back looking confused.
“There’s no 613 sir” Estevan said. “Next door is 614.” Mike shook his head impatiently and shoved them out of his way as he went to look for himself. We all followed. Estevan was right, there was no 613. Mike looked at me. I said “You saw it didn’t you?”
He nodded, I looked at Steve and Isidore and they nodded. There was silence, there was no explanation that we could share. An elevator ‘dinged’ in the distance and a group of late night gamblers appeared at the end of the corridor. Mike shooed us all back into Tammy’s room. Was it my imagination but did her room seem bigger than it had a few moments before, I pulled back the curtain to see The Strip and beyond that the sun rising over the desert.
“Steve call down and let’s get these folks relocated to a couple of suites on the top floor.” Steve started to talk into his radio. Mike turned to Tammy and I. “Look I’m truly sorry that all this has happened though I’m not sure what exactly has happened here. I’ll get some people to help you move your stuff” Tammy had moved into the opening between the two rooms while he said this.
“Why is the gap between the rooms so big” she asked.
Good point, I thought, hotel walls can normally be measured in microns rather than inches.
“Are there services, air con or something running up there” I suggested.
“No” said Mike “all the services run up a central core”.
“What’s this? Come here Ted” Tammy was peering at the knobbly surface of the concrete that filled the gap between the two rooms
I moved next to her and looked where she was pointing.
“These are fingers aren’t they?”
There were four lumps that seemed to be finger shaped or at least the top joints of four fingers but I was about to dismiss them as lumps created in the rough concrete by chance when I noticed the unmistakeable shapes of fingernails. I reached forward and picked at one of them and a concrete encrusted nail broke away and fell to the floor revealing a yellowish larva of some sort in a dark brown cavity. Tammy shrieked and recoiled in disgust as the maggot wriggled its way free and dropped onto her slipper. A trickle of foul smelling black liquid followed and then I could see the top of a finger bone, a distal phalange to be exact, though I didn’t know that at the time, I just wanted to be sick. Suddenly we were surrounded by concerned hotel staff who more or less carried us bodily away from the horror in the concrete and whisked us upstairs to separate suites of absurd luxury. Mike arrived about twenty minutes later with a couple of Xeroxed photos in his hand.
“Is this the guy in 613, the guy in the chair?” he asked showing me a picture of a well built white haired man of about 60.
“I don’t know” I said “Could be but I only saw him in silhouette. Who is he?”
“Mortimer Woodford. Is this the guy in the corridor?” he said handing me the other picture.
“Yes! Absolutely! Unmistakable. That’s him. Who’s he?”
“Danny de Santos” replied Mike who was looking very tired.
“Shit! He was here tonight”.
“I don’t think so. Danny de Santos was shot dead in a bar in Hoboken New Jersey in 1984”.
We sat for a while not saying anything.
“Look Ted I don’t know what you think about all this…”
“I think Danny de Santos tortured Mortimer Woodford until he signed over the Miracle to him and then incorporated him in the building and somehow tonight we’ve or rather I’ve been shown that.”
“Yeah well whatever”. Mike looked uncomfortable “This doesn’t look great for the Casino Ted and I would be grateful if what happened tonight went no further”.
I considered for a moment. With a show about to open in the Miracle’s theatre it wasn’t in my interests to rock the boat and whatever I said or did wouldn’t help poor Mortimer Woodford entombed between rooms 612 and 614.
“OK Mike. No problem.” He looked immensely relieved as he left me to enjoy the remains of my stay in the Sammy Davis Suite.
On my return to the UK I kept an occasional watch on Las Vegas local news websites but nothing about Woodford or De Santos ever came up but I was surprised and delighted the following Christmas, and every Christmas since, to receive a vast Fortnum & Mason’s hamper with a card from ‘the Management & Staff of the Miracle Casino – Las Vegas’.
What of Tammy? I never saw her again after that moment when the maggot landed on her slipper but I did manage to trace her to her office in Tucson and I called her. She was polite but didn’t seem very pleased to hear from me and I think she didn’t care to be reminded of the events in Room 613, however she did hint in a roundabout way that the Casino had eased her financial worries both long and short term. So as the song goes “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas”.

Those of you who know anything about ghost stories will have realised by now that the above is a retelling of M R James classic story ‘Number 13’ set in a rural Danish inn and originally published in 1904. James’s ghost stories are absolutely the best and published in a collection called ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ which is still in print.

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