Billie doesn’t want to ask, but eventually she does. “Who are you?”
“Call me Eloise,” Conrad Linthor says.
“Sorry?” Billie imagines that they are no longer in the hotel at all. The corridor they are currently navigating slopes gently downward. Maybe they will end up on the shores of a subterranean lake, or in a dungeon, or in Narnia, or King Nermal’s Chamber, or even Keokuk, Iowa. It’s a small world after all.
“You know, Eloise. The girl who lives in the Plaza? Has a pet turtle named Skipperdee?”
He waits, like Billie’s supposed to know what he’s talking about. When she doesn’t say anything, he says, “Never mind. It’s just this book—a classic of modern children’s literature, actually—about a girl who lives in the Plaza. Which is a hotel. A bit nicer than this one, maybe, but never mind. I live here.”
He keeps on talking. They keep on walking.
Billie’s hangover is a special effect. Conrad Linthor is going on and on about superheroes. His father is an agent. Apparently superheroes have agents. Represents all of the big guys. Knows everyone. Agoraphobic. Never leaves the hotel. Everyone comes to him. Big banquet tomorrow night, for his biggest client. Tyrannosaurus Hex. Hex is retiring. Going to go live in the mountains and breed tarantula wasps. Conrad Linthor’s father is throwing a party for Hex. Everyone will be there.
Billie’s legs are noodles. The ends of her hair are poison needles. Her tongue is a bristly sponge, and her eyes are bags of bleach.
There’s a clattering that splits Billie’s brain. Two wheeled carts come round the next corner like comets, followed at arm’s length by hurtling busboys. They sail down the corridor at top speed. Conrad Linthor and Billie flatten themselves against the wall. “You have to move fast,” Conrad explains. “Or else the food gets cold. Guests complain.”
Around that corner, enormous doors, still swinging. Big enough to birth a Greyhound bus bound for Keokuk. A behemoth. Billie passes through the doors onto the far shores of what is, of course, a hotel kitchen. Far away, miles, it seems to Billie, there are clouds of vapor and vague figures moving through them. Clanging noises, people yelling, the thick, sweet smell of caramelized onions, onions that will never make anyone cry again. Other savory reeks.
Conrad Linthor steers Billie to a marble-topped table. Copper whisks, mixing bowls, dinged pots hang down on hooks.
Billie feels she ought to say something. “You must have a lot of money,” she contributes. “To live in a hotel.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” Conrad Linthor says. “Sit down. I’ll be back.”
Billie climbs, slowly and carefully, up a laddery stool and lays her poor head down on the dusty, funereal slab. (It’s actually a pastry station, the dust is flour, but Billie is mentally in a bad place.) Paul Zell, Paul Zell. She stares at the tiled wall. Billie’s heart has a crack in it. Her head is made of radiation. The Starbucks espresso she forced down has burnt a thousand pinprick holes in Billie’s wretched stomach.
Conrad Linthor comes back too soon. He says, “This is her.”
There’s a guy with him. Skinny, with serious acne scars. Big shoulders. Funny little paper hat and a stained apron. “Ernesto, Billie,” Conrad says. “Billie, Ernesto.”
“How old did you say?” Ernesto says. He folds his arms, as if Billie is a bad cut of meat Conrad Linthor is trying to pass off as prime rib.
“She came to the city because of some pervert she met online?”
“In a MMORPG,” Conrad says.
“He isn’t a pervert,” Billie says. “He thought I was my sister. I was pretending to be my sister. She’s in her thirties.”
“What’s your guess?” Conrad asks Ernesto. “Superhero or dentist?”
“One more time,” Billie says. “I’m not here to audition for anything. And do I look like a dentist?”
“You look like trouble,” Ernesto says. “Here. Drink this.” He hands her a glass full of something slimy and green.
“What’s in it?” Billie says.
“Wheat grass,” Ernesto says. “And other stuff. Secret recipe. Hold your nose and drink it down.”
“Yuck,” Billie says. (I won’t even try to describe the taste of Ernesto’s hangover cure. Except, I will never drink again.) “Ew, yuck. Yuck, yuck, yuck.”
“Keep holding your nose,” Ernesto advises Billie. To Conrad: “They met online?”
“Yeah,” Billie says. “In FarAway.”
“Yeah, I know that game. Dentist,” Ernesto says. “For sure.”
“Except,” Conrad says, “it gets better. It wasn’t just a game. Inside this game, they were playing a game. They were playing chess.”
“Ohhhh,” Ernesto says. Now he’s grinning. They both are. “Oh as in superher-oh.”
“Superhero,” Conrad says. They high-five each other. “The only question is who.”
“What was the alibi again?” Ernesto asks Billie, “The name this dude gave?”
“Paul Zell?” Billie says. “Wait, you think Paul Zell is a superhero? No way. He does tech support for a nonprofit. Something involving endangered species.”
Conrad Linthor and Ernesto exchange another look. “Superhero for sure,” Ernesto says.
Ernesto says, “Or supervillain. All those freaks are into chess. It’s like a disease.”
“No way,” Billie says again.
Conrad Linthor says, “Because there’s no chance Paul Zell would have lied to you about anything. Because the two of you were being completely and totally honest with each other.” Which shuts Billie up.
Conrad Linthor says, “I just can’t get this picture out of my head. This superhero going out and buying a ring. And there you are. This fifteen-year-old girl.” He laughs. He nudges Billie as if to say, I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing near you.
“And there I was,” Billie says. “Sitting at the table waiting for him. Like the biggest idiot in the world.”
Ernesto has to gasp for air he is laughing so hard.
Billie says, “I guess it’s kind of funny. In a horrible way.”
“So, anyway,” Conrad says. “Since Billie’s into chess, I thought we ought to show her your project. Have they set up the banquet room yet?”
Ernesto stops laughing, holds his right hand out, like he’s stopping traffic. “Hey, man. Maybe later? I’ve got prep. I’m salad station tonight. You know?”
“Ernesto’s an artist,” Conrad says. “I keep telling him he needs to make some appointments, take a portfolio downtown. My dad says people would pay serious bucks for what Ernesto does.”
Billie isn’t really paying attention to this conversation. She’s thinking about Paul Zell. How could you be a superhero, Paul Zell? Can you miss something that big? A secret as big as that? Sure, she thinks. Probably you can miss it by a mile.
“I make things out of butter,” Ernesto says. “It’s no big deal. Like, sure, someone’s going to pay me a million bucks for some thing I carved out of butter.”
“It’s a statement,” Conrad Linthor says, “an artistic statement about the world we live in.”
“We live in a world made out of butter,” Ernesto says. “Doesn’t seem like much of a statement to me. You any good at chess?”
“What?” Billie says.
“Chess. You any good?”
“I’m not bad,” Billie says. “You know, it’s just for fun. Paul Zell’s really good.”
“So he wins most of the time?” Ernesto says.
“Yeah,” Billie says. She thinks about it. “Wait, no. I guess I win more.”
“You gonna be a superhero when you grow up? Because those guys are way into chess.”
Conrad Linthor says, “It’s like the homicidal triangle. Like setting fires, hurting small animals, and wetting the bed means a kid may grow up to be a sociopath. For superheroes, it’s chess. Weird coincidences, that’s another one. For example, you’re always in the wrong place at the right time. Plus you have an ability of some kind.”
“I don’t have an ability,” Billie says. “Not even one of those really pointless ones like always knowing the right time, or whether it’s going to rain.”
“Your power might develop later on,” Conrad Linthor says.
“Well, okay. But it might, anyway,” Conrad Linthor. “It’s why I noticed you in the first place. Probably. You stick out. She sticks out, right?”
“I guess,” Ernesto says. He gives her that appraising a cut of meat look again. Then nods. “Sure. She sticks out. You stick out.”
“I stick out,” Billie says. “I stick out like what?”
“Even Aliss noticed,” Conrad says. “She thought you were here to audition, remember?”
Ernesto says, “Oh, yeah. Because Aliss is such a fine judge of character.”
“Shut up, Ernesto,” Conrad says. “Look, Billie. It’s not a bad thing, okay? Some people, you can just tell. So maybe you’re just some girl. But maybe you can do something that you don’t even know about yet.”
“You sound like my guidance counselor,” Billie says. “Like my sister. Why do people always try to tell you that life gets better? Like life has a bad cold. Like, here I am, and where is my sister right now? She drove my dad up to Peoria. To St. Francis, because he has pancreatic cancer. And that’s the only reason I’m here, because my dad’s dying, and so nobody is even going to notice that I’m gone. Lucky me, right?”
Ernesto and Conrad Linthor are both staring at her.
“I’m a superhero,” Billie says. “Or a sidekick. Whatever you say. Paul Zell is a superhero, too. Everybody’s a superhero. The world is made of butter. I don’t even know what that means.”