Kayleen walked across the lobby, conscious of the sound of her shoes on the marble floor. She tried not to glance around self-consciously, since what was there to look at? There hadn’t been anyone else here for weeks and the only other living creatures were the rats and mice— disgusting creatures who competed with her for food in the restaurant kitchen.
She sank into a plush chair by the fireplace and picked up a city guide from a mahogany table. She had leafed through this particular magazine dozens of times and the glossy images of boutiques, spas, and restaurants always left her agitated, wanting things that were gone.
Well, not all gone. She still had her pageant dresses and designer outfits hanging in her room upstairs. She was free to visit the stores in the magazine ads, if she was willing to take her chances and go looting. The hotel gift shop had provided her with some very nice jewelry and a couple of cute bikinis. But it had been the glamour Kayleen loved, not the fashions and trinkets themselves. She fed on admiration the way the rats now fed on the dead.
She set the magazine aside and looked around, willing herself to not be spooked by the shadows and the sound of vermin rustling in unseen places. She was used to people looking at her, envying her golden hair, topaz eyes, and pert little nose. Even alone, she couldn’t escape the feeling she was being observed, judged, and admired, even if only by the ghosts— and Kayleen was certain that with so many dead decomposing in their rooms, this place was haunted.
It was hard to stay with so many ghosts around, but where should she go instead? She wasn’t from around here—she and her mother had come to do a little shopping in stores too fancy for their small town. She knew no one, and before the broadcasts stopped and the electricity failed, the news had been full of warnings about violent gangs. Kayleen was only a mediocre student, but she wasn’t stupid. A girl with her looks needed protection.
Too bad there were no other young people at the hotel any more. They could’ve formed their own gang. But many of the kids left early in the pandemic, seeking aid for their parents, never to return. Others had struck out for home, hoping to avoid the roadblocks and praying they could find enough gasoline to get them where they needed to go. One boy, the hemophiliac son of a banker in town for a conference, had died. A girl about Kayleen’s age had shot herself after being raped by members of the Kevorkian gang when she went into the streets looking for a place to bury her parents.
It was better to stay at the hotel, even if it was full of rats and ghosts. But as Kayleen stood to go into the kitchen and check if there were any crackers left, a sound of shouts and footsteps at the entrance made her duck behind a column. On the other side of the doors was movement and color, broken up and distorted by panes of beveled glass.
She dashed for the spiral staircase, nearly tripping in her panic as she ran to the second floor. She dropped to her knees and peered through the balcony rails as a group of teenage boys burst through the front doors, tracking grime across her perfect marble floor. They milled about for a few minutes, gawking at the chandeliers, crystal, and gold leaf as if they had never seen such things before. Kayleen sniffed. They must be from a poor neighborhood. The one who appeared to be their leader was almost certainly lower class. Weren’t Mexicans supposed to stay in their barrios eating tortillas or something?
“Looks like no one’s been here yet.”
“Bar is stocked—we hit the jackpot, man.”
“Check the kitchen.”
At these last words, Kayleen sat a little straighter. How dare these low-lifes barge in here and take her food! But it was the leader’s next words that chilled her through.
“Check for bodies and squatters—every room up to the tenth floor. When it’s all clear, we’ll tell the girls and little ones it’s okay to move in.”
Kayleen scrambled to her feet and made a run for the nearest stairwell and her room on the fifth floor. She shut the door behind her and secured it with the manual bolt.
Would they really check every floor? It wouldn’t make much difference if they didn’t, since she had to come out sometime. What would they do to her when they found her? If they were like those horrible Kevorks, she didn't stand a chance. She needed status, fast.
She flipped through the clothes hanging in her closet and selected a spangled vermillion dress that pushed up her breasts and showed off every curve. Then she sat at the vanity mirror and with trembling hands, arranged her hair and began applying makeup. She was ready when she heard the hand on the doorknob and the kick of a boot against the door.
“Open up in there!”
For a moment, Kayleen hesitated. She could remain silent, let them think there was only a dead person in here. But she had heard the banging and stomping in the hallway. They might break down the door just to be sure. “I want to talk to your leader!”
On the other side of the door, a moment of startled silence. “Come on out. You can talk to him downstairs.”
“No. Make him come here.”
“No one makes Mundo do anything.”
Another voice interrupted, speaking in quiet tones so Kayleen couldn’t make out the words. Then footsteps stomped away and the quiet voice warned, “We’ll tell him. But don’t even think of trying something.”
Kayleen sat on the edge of the bed, toying with her rings as she took deep breaths to calm her racing heart. With only one weapon at her disposal, she had every intention of trying something, just not what those boys probably had in mind.
After what seemed like forever, there was another sound at the door, a knock this time, authoritative but respectful. “You wanted to see me?”
Kayleen stood up. “Are you in charge of this gang that’s taking over?”
“My name is Reymundo Guzman Morales, and yeah, I’m in charge. Open this door or I’ll break it down.”
With a silent prayer that she wouldn't find the gang leader too thoroughly revolting, Kayleen opened the door.
The young man was solidly built and had skin the color of a Starbucks latte. He was dressed in dirty fatigues, and he carried a semiautomatic in one hand and another at his hip. There was nothing unfriendly in his eyes, though, and Kayleen recognized the sudden light of appreciation as he looked her up and down. He might be leader of a dangerous gang, but he was still a man like any other.
Kayleen flashed him her best pageant contestant smile. “So are you guys moving in here for good? I’m the only person here, and I’ve been awful lonely.” She held his gaze, hoping he would understand and spare her the humiliation of spelling out her offer.
With the slow smile of a man receiving unexpectedly pleasant news, he put his gun away. “I think I can fix that for you.” He glanced over his shoulder and waved his gawking followers away. “Finish checking the rooms, guys. Me and this girl have some negotiating to do.”