Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Night Watchman At Harpo Studios

Oprah Winfrey is leaving Chicago, it's been said. There's a reason why she's moving away from the eerie sights and sounds of Harpo Studios---

 People would try to hide after hours, that was human nature. Seth made his rounds carefully, thoroughly, probing every room, every corner, every stairwell and bathroom stall. They'd want to hide and then break into her office, maybe take a souvenir. Not on his watch they wouldn't.

At the end of the corridor, Seth could hear people walking. Not one or two, but a whole crowd, sounding just like the folks who came for the taping. A sort of shuffling, a lazy stroll when the mob moved as a unit into the studio. By the time he reached the place where he thought he heard footsteps, there was nothing but the quiet of the empty building.

Too nervous, he told himself. Too worked up about doing a perfect job, and maybe a little concerned about screwing up just one time and losing the best position he'd ever get. He'd been a bouncer at the nightclub where the folks stampeded in a blind panic and those poor women got the life squeezed out of them at the bottom of the stairs. No, he'd never work as a bouncer again. The way the cops and the paramedics had to peel the bodies apart, all twined together like tangled branches. Night watchman suited him fine.

A little girl giggled. Seth heard her, clear as if she were laughing in his ear. When he turned to see who was playing a joke, he saw nothing more than the shadows cast by the safety lights. Couldn't have been a child, he realized. It was just the building settling, an old board creaking. It was real old, this building, used to be an armory long ago. Over one hundred years ago, at least. Old buildings made a lot of noise, same as old people did.

Aware of movement over his shoulder, Seth spun around to see if he had an intruder on his hands. A woman in grey crossed the hall at the far end, heading towards the boss's office. He took off at a fast clip, ready to demand an I.D. Then they'd know he was on the job, nothing getting by Seth Lewis.

"Ms. Winfrey," he called to the woman. It was her, he was certain, putting in a late night, getting ready for the next week's round of taping. "That you, Ms. Winfrey?"

The lady in grey had disappeared before he could round the corner, but Seth's ears picked up her mournful wailing. Steadman must have broken up with her, to bring on that kind of sorrow, or that school in Africa had bigger problems than anyone knew.

He followed the sound of weeping to the green room and threw open the door. The room was filled with bodies, lined up so tight that a person could scarcely get a step between them. They were covered with sheets, but their shoes were exposed, rows of shoes on the feet of men and women and children. Old-fashioned shoes, the kind that buttoned.

Was this some kind of joke? A prank played on the new guy? A musty smell, the stink of the Chicago River, was a miasma that mingled with the eerie gloom that was broken only by his flashlight's beam.

"This is Harpo Studios," Seth said. They had the means to rig up a scene from some cheap Hollywood horror picture.

A picture crashed to the floor behind him and Seth spun on heels, heart pumping so fast it threatened to gallop out of his chest. The flashlight swung around, spraying sparkles across the carpet where the shards of glass had scattered. Except for the rattle of air bellowing out of the night watchman's lungs, the hallway was strangely quiet.

With his breath catching in his throat, Seth took one look at the broken picture. The montage featured an old photograph of the Eastland, a lake steamer that had tipped over in the Chicago River not long after the Titanic sunk. Whole families, hundreds of people, had been trapped below deck and drowned, almost all of them employees of Western Electric headed over to Michigan for a company picnic. Spread around the center photo were newspaper articles that described the horrible day, accompanied by pictures taken by press photographers or maybe the County Coroner, chilling images of bodies that had been pulled from the river and brought to the armory. Hundreds of dead, all lined up in a makeshift morgue.

Harpo Studios was the makeshift morgue. Seth's lips mouthed the words that clattered in his skull. The victims, taken out of the water, cold and lifeless,, had waited here to be claimed. The anonymous bodies, in neat rows, waited to be identified.

A howling rose up behind him, the voices of the dead screaming, as they had screamed while the Chicago River swept over their heads. The hallway was thick with people, but not human beings, just the shadows of people, drifting, moving. Through the wall, into the green room.

The woman in gray was at his side, he saw tears shining on her face but her features were fuzzy. Seth reached out, to touch her and tell her the joke was over, but his hand went right through her.

Overhead lights flickered and then went out. The door of the green room slammed shut. Seth ran and never looked back.

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