Ryder squinted against the setting sun on the two-hundredth day of his hike. In the distance, a sign perched on the back of a swirling beast. He shaded his eyes. The working bulbs winked, no match against the late afternoon glare. Most of the sign’s letters were unlit, leaving “-he -D--gon --tel” as the only clues to its name.
He’d been lucky to hit the Mohave Desert at the beginning of spring before the scorching heat made it impossible for him to hike by day. The prospect of shelter, even if it was an abandoned hotel, tempted him; the temperature still dipped into the forties at night.
He dropped his head and followed the solid white highway line until his worn out shoes brought him to the empty parking lot of the Dragon Hotel—an appropriate name for an establishment on San Bernardino’s deserted stretch of Route 66. Orange, pink, and violet painted the western horizon as if competing against the hotel’s neon signage. Weeds pushed up through cracks in the pavement, and a thick layer of dirt covered every inch of the two-story structure.
Ryder shrugged his backpack higher on his shoulders and pushed at the revolving door. It slid easily at his touch. Cool Piñon-scented air greeted his sunburned face as he entered a lobby as grand as its exterior was derelict. An ornate chandelier supplied light to the dark curtained room. Red and gold brocade carpet peered from beneath plush couches and chairs.
“Welcome to The Dragon.” A man dressed in a crisp, gold trimmed suit tipped his hat. He stood behind a bare dark wood counter running the length of the room.
“Uh—hey.” Ryder’s parched throat turned his voice raspy. He swallowed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t expect . . .”
“Anyone to be here?” The man’s smile produced creases at the corners of his eyes. “We get that a lot. Would you like a room for tonight?”
Ryder jammed his fists in his empty pockets and shook his head. “Maybe I could fill my canteen before I go?” No way could he afford this place, but what he wouldn’t give for a warm meal, a shower, clean sheets, and maybe a foot massage.
“Be my guest.” The doorman gestured to a stainless steel water dispenser on the end of the long counter. How had he missed that? Droplets of condensate meandered down to the polished mahogany surface.
Ryder filled his canteen halfway with the gurgling water, took a good long drag, then topped it off. Stowing it in his pack, he moved toward the revolving doors. “Thanks.”
“Are you sure I can’t interest you in a room?”
Ryder gave the man a lopsided grin—the one his little sister Maddie said made him look like the Mona Lisa. “I wish I could, man, but there’s no way I could afford a place as nice as this.”
“You’re in luck, young sir. The first night is on us.”
“Really?” Ryder moved closer to the desk to read the man’s gold-plated nametag. “What’s the catch, Mr. Cipher? Is there a three night minimum or something?”
“Nothing like that.” The deskman pushed a leather ledger across the counter. “Management provides discounts to those who travel Route 66 from one end to the other. That’s you, if I’m not mistaken.”
“I’ve been walking since Chicago.”
“Impressive. We get so few like you these days.” The deskman stroked his dark mustache and goatee with thumb and forefinger. “Listen—everyone could use a free night stay once in a while. The only thing we ask is if you like it here, perhaps you’ll tell your friends about us. They say word of mouth is still the best advertising.”
This story was by an Eagle's song (I'll let you guess which one). I apologize for the teaser, but I can't post the full story because it's part of an anthology. At the time of this posting, the book is currently free on Amazon: Realmscapes anthology.
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