FANDOM: The Thirteenth Floor
SUMMARY: Ashton makes a friend. Whitney gets a job.
He’s not there to keep his head down. Any other young man, hired by the most prestigious hotel in the city, might simply thank his lucky stars and then hope to be forgotten. After all, every junior employee makes mistakes he hopes his superiors will never notice. There are plenty of ways he could simply disappear from sight and mind: smoking with Charlie the cleaning boy out next to the garbage bins; shining glasses in silent contemplation; taking a sudden and intimate interest in the arrangement of bottles. He’s been that man often enough – ignored, pushed aside, scared to raise the issue of his own existence. This time around, Jerry Ashton has no interest in becoming invisible.
Brock, the head bartender, has little idea what to make of him: this tall monster of a man, with unnaturally blond hair, and a talent for making the perfect martini. It would be easier for him if Ashton really could just fade away into the background, there only to obey orders and be polite to customers. Instead, Ashton has been behaving like he’s in charge, that the whole dance hall – that the whole hotel – is his domain alone. He’s spent days just watching everyone, every man, woman, and child who works in the hotel, making apparently casual conversation on the points that interest him. Not everyone is so unhappy with his presence as Brock.
Maggie, queen of whores, flirts with him at the bar, as he lights her cigarettes and plays along. Her body doesn’t interest him, but her knowledge is something he needs to win. She could blackmail every wealthy man in the state if she had the intelligence, and as cunning a nature as she thinks she has. In truth, Ashton suspects, the hotel picked her up young, having saved her from a fate even worse than this one, and that she therefore owes them her silence. Even so, her stories make him laugh. She’s not such a bitch as her contemporaries on the street.
“I heard of a place to rent,” she tells him one afternoon, as he leans on the bar and deals out a game of solitaire. “Ratty, but cheap. Maybe your style?”
“Oh yes,” he mutters, concentrating more on the cards than her conversation. “A roof over my head and rats – what is that, bed and breakfast?” Telling anyone that he was looking for a place to live was a mistake, a chink in his armour, and now everyone is trying to get into his debt by helping him out. Fortunately no one knows where he sleeps now. He hopes no one ever will.
Maggie chuckles, and knocks her cigarette ash onto his cards to get his attention. “There’s always the third floor.”
The third floor, domain of prostitutes and their clients, is somewhere he has set foot regularly in the past few days. His knuckles still bear the bruises inflicted by the jaws of the whores’ rowdier clients. Brock had obviously thought it would be a laugh to send him to do a pimp’s work. He should be too old for brawls, but fortunately the fights on the third floor are brief and one-sided. Quite apart from his height and physical strength, the offending customers are usually the worse for having consumed too many of his fine alcoholic beverages at an earlier hour.
Ashton tips the dirt from his cards with a slight frown. “That’s definitely not my style.”
“Well, what is?” Maggie, a true businesswoman, seems determined to give him the hard sell. “I can usually find someone for everyone.”
There hasn’t been anyone for him in a while, not since he left his old places of employment in search of a higher society delivery system for sex and booze. He’s been pondering how much he can risk in this new job, how far he can push the management. Obviously they require someone with a rather low moral threshold, but just how low is the question. He’s already seen Brock regard him with some disgust, perhaps having guessed that the pretty dancer girls on display are far from his new apprentice’s sexual fantasies. But they hired him, even having seen his hair and the rings, and in the past he’s never been lonely for long.
The sound of chairs clattering against the meticulously polished wooden floor makes him look up from his cards to see one of the waiters being verbally attacked by Gene, the perfectionist maitre d’. It seems as if the young man had inadvertently backed into a stack, and the whole lot had toppled down. Although Charlie simply shrugs to himself and hurries to erase the resultant scuff marks from his perfect floor, Gene has a tendency to take these things more personally.
Ashton watches the waiter’s attempts to apologise with a smile. He had been like that once: slim, eager, with dark hair falling forward into his eyes unless he plastered it back with gel and a firm brush. He had spent more than his fair share of time apologising as well. He turns back to Maggie, finding her looking at him knowingly. “Maybe he’s more your style?”
“Why would you say that?” His attention lost, he stacks up the cards and stashes them behind the bar.
Maggie leans forward, conspiratorially. “His name’s Karl. Used to deal blackjack and do other favours out of a dump in Hollywood. Pretty little thing, isn’t he?”
Against his better judgement, Ashton’s eyes stray back to the young waiter, as he picks up the chairs from the floor, still being berated by Gene. Pretty? He’s certainly striking. Not quite handsome – maybe a broken nose in his past – but not the effeminate type either. Ashton can’t stand the attentions of those degenerate weaklings. “Couldn’t really say,” he mutters to Maggie, and takes off to deal with a paying customer further down the bar. He can imagine her delight at having finally figured out his weakness for beautiful young men. At least she won’t be pressing any more promiscuous cigarette girls on him.
Unfortunately, it’s a quiet midweek afternoon, and there’s little to take his mind off the subject once it’s been introduced. The customers are bored types, trying to avoid their wives and their jobs, looking to bitch and whine about both to the bartender. Ashton does his job, listens to every last hard luck story, and lets his thoughts drift to the idea of that dark-haired boy releasing some of his tension.
Ordinarily he might simply make do with the fantasy, had circumstance not given him both a certain tendency towards reckless behaviour, and an empty bar at the moment he sees the young waiter duck into the restroom. Ashton takes out a cigarette from his steel case, lights it, and walks casually over to the door. Another man, a customer, leaves just as he reaches it, and Ashton slips inside before the door closes. At the other end of the room, standing at a urinal, is Karl, the waiter. No one else is in sight. Ashton smiles to himself, nudges the door open a few inches, and hangs out the cleaning sign. That should buy him all the time he needs. He stands back, takes a drag on his cigarette, and waits for Karl to notice him.
It doesn’t take long. “You got a problem?” the waiter asks, glancing over his shoulder.
“I want to know how much,” Ashton tells him.
Karl turns his attention to zipping up his pants. “How much for what?” When he turns around, to go to the exit, Ashton is already there, blocking his way.
“I’ve heard you do certain… favours?”
“I don’t do that anymore,” Karl says, although his tone is far from indignant. Instead, his eyes wander all over Ashton’s body.
Ashton touches two fingers of his free hand to Karl’s chin, making him look up and meet the bartender’s eyes. “How much?” he repeats clearly.
Karl grins, and it’s the grin of every tart and street boy Ashton has ever known. “For you?” His fingers, deft and probing, stroke down the waistcoat covering Ashton’s chest. “I’ll do it just to see if you’re as big as I hope you are.” When Ashton only laughs, those fingers stray down to his crotch, and gently squeeze his balls. “Maybe somewhere more… comfortable?”
“No,” Ashton says firmly. “Here. And quickly.” The bathroom wall may be tiled and hard and cold as he braces himself against it, but it’s better than the ignominy of a trip to the third floor, and far more exciting. He doesn’t want to be discovered, but the threat itself is erotic.
He lets Karl undo his fly, and free his already hard cock from his underwear. Karl’s hands are soft and warm, and linger too long, caressing him. The feeling is good, but he doesn’t have the time for foreplay. “Quickly,” he reminds the younger man.
There’s a little disappointment in Karl’s eyes as he kneels down and takes Ashton in his mouth, but not too much. He’s obviously as aroused as Ashton is, rubbing himself through the material of his waiter’s uniform as he sucks on Ashton’s cock. The feeling is overpowering, and Ashton has to grip onto the edge of the sink nearby in order to stay on his feet. He’s had many of these brief, anonymous, illicit blowjobs, in the backdoors and alleyways of the city, but Karl knows his business.
Ashton rocks his hips, thrusting into Karl’s hot, wet mouth, being driven quickly to the brink of orgasm, but doing his best not to utter a sound. It’s not for the sake of remaining undiscovered: Karl himself is moaning softly in pleasure and appreciation. He just can’t let anyone – least of all a mere waiter – touch him that deeply.
Even with his best attempts at restraint, he comes with a long, sighing breath, as the tension drains out of him and Karl’s tongue licks him clean. It takes a moment for any sense of urgency to return to the situation. Then Karl, breathless and smiling from his own climax, looks up at him and says, “Good?”
Ashton studies his face for a moment, as he does up his fly and tries to control his own, still too rapid, breathing. He reaches out a hand and pulls Karl up from the floor, leaving a rolled-up dollar bill in his hand. “Not bad,” he says, and heads for the door, throwing away the cleaning sign.
The rest of the afternoon goes by in a flash, anaesthetised by the remains of saliva and semen he imagines he can still feel beneath his trousers. It’s in the evening, when the band arrives, and the dancers prepare for their show, that he pours two shot glasses of vodka and beckons over the waiter again.
“How long have you been working here?”
Karl studies the glass, and downs it in one, as if he’s careful not to actually taste the contents. “Not long. Hope I’m going to get out soon, too. Going to be an actor.”
“Everyone’s going to be an actor.” Ashton refills the glass. “What’s your name?”
“A Polack?” Ashton grins. “Did they teach you oral sex in church?”
Karl sticks out his tongue. “Maybe they did.”
Ashton pushes the glass back towards him. “Jerry Ashton,” he says.
“A pleasure.” Karl swallows the liquid – another swift gulp – and tosses a dollar bill on the bar. “Thanks for the drinks, Jerry. Not bad at all.”
Ashton watches him leave, going to serve the city’s aristocracy and spend another evening being tormented by Gene. His own plans for the night are painfully similar. He gathers up the glasses, and drinks his own shot of vodka. The dollar is stuffed in his pocket. Hopefully soon he’ll have the opportunity to let it change hands again.
He hasn’t been in Los Angeles for four years, but it doesn’t feel like a homecoming. Duffle bag slung over his shoulder, return ticket in his back pocket, he knows he’s only a tourist for a day. He can’t even pretend to be one of those smooth business-class frequent flyers, zipping between cities to schmooze and do deals. He’s still wearing the same ripped jeans and hooded sweater he’s been wearing off and on for a week. His knees are still scabbed over from the last time he took a fall from his skateboard. He doesn’t even own a suit.
Whitney gets into a cab and passes Douglas Hall’s business card to the driver. He knows the Fullercorp building: it’s stood in the same spot since he was a teenager, a glittering tower of glass and marble, a hallowed chamber. He even met Hannon Fuller once, when he was fifteen and Mrs. Bradley had to force him into a shirt and tie in order to attend a technology conference. But things in the city tend to change, and he doesn’t trust his ability to give directions anymore.
Hall didn’t give him a particular time for the meeting – probably expects him to sit in the lobby for hours, flipping through well-thumbed copies of The Economist, or whatever other painfully cultured reading material Fuller provides. Whitney had thought of making a few stops first: maybe calling some friends, maybe shooting hoops in his old neighbourhood, maybe even visiting his mother. But his mother can wait until this evening. Before then, he won’t have any answers for her.
The cabbie drops him off outside Fullercorp, the lobby fronted with glass. Whitney walks up to the security guard on duty, a powerful-looking black man in a dark blue uniform. “Um, I’m supposed to meet with Douglas Hall?”
“Name?” The guard is already scanning the list of approved visitors, obviously expecting that Whitney is just a punk kid hoping for a glimpse of secret technology.
“Uh, Jason Whitney.”
The guard looks up, disappointed, and thumbs an intercom button. “Mr. Hall, Mr. Whitney is here.”
“I’ll be right down,” Hall’s smooth, confident tones crackle over the intercom.
Whitney exchanges a look with the guard. “I’ll… wait over here…” He wanders around the lobby, finding nothing more than stone walls to hold his interest. Dumping his bag on the floor between his feet, he leans back against one of the walls and imagines that some terrible mistake has been made. No doubt, when Hall had returned to LA the previous day, he had told Fuller of the strange, long-haired boy he had found in Boston, and the two men had agreed that they had made a mistake. They need someone older, someone with more experience and fashion sense and social graces. Well, he thinks, at least he got a plane ticket out of the deal.
“Jason?” It’s Hall, clad in one of his designer suits, hand outstretched. “Good to see you. How was the flight?”
Whitney shakes his hand, and picks up his bag, slinging it over his shoulder. “Um, it was okay. And, uh, everyone calls me Whitney.”
“Good man.” Hall claps a hand to his shoulder. “Hannon’s waiting for us upstairs.”
Whitney follows him to the elevator, as Hall thumbs one of the buttons for a high floor. “Hannon Fuller wants to see me?”
“Sure. I thought we went over this?” Hall glances at him, and smiles. “Don’t look so nervous, Whit. You already got the job, if you want it.”
“If I want it?” Now there must be a catch. No one, least of all Hannon Fuller, offers a job to a kid fresh out of college without an interview. Not unless the job involves the computing equivalent of mucking out toilets or sweeping the floors.
Hall only shrugs, and leads him out when the elevator door opens onto a quiet blue-lit corridor. Whitney had expected Fullercorp to be bustling with activity, but so far he’s only seen Hall and the security guard. It reminds him of that book his father had read to him when he was a kid, of a genius in a chocolate factory, assisted only by bizarre-looking midgets. Maybe neither he nor Hall are midgets, but surely someone has to be doing the work?
Fuller’s office is, expectedly, huge. It’s even bigger than that of Whitney’s father, although the basic layout is similar. A large oak desk sits firmly in the back third of the room, and cabinets of awards line one wall, while books take up much of the rest of the wall space. Behind the desk, in a large leather chair, is Hannon Fuller himself. He doesn’t seem to have changed any in the past seven years: still clad in a tailored suit, with wise eyes and a kindly smile that reminds Whitney of his English grandfather. “Ah, Jason. A pleasure to meet you again.”
He’s out of his chair, and shaking Whitney’s hand like an old friend. Whitney, predictably, finds himself unable to say anything, least of all to correct Fuller about his name. Hall he can deal with – he met him on his own territory, after all, and Hall is neither very much older than him, nor a man revered as on the same level as Einstein. Hannon Fuller is a bona fide genius, and Whitney’s ability to speak to geniuses hasn’t improved any since he was a teenager. He senses Hall looking at him anxiously. “Um, yeah,” he forces himself to say.
That grandfatherly smile creeps over Fuller’s face again, crinkling the corners of his eyes. “Douglas, would you give us a few minutes, please?”
Hall’s gone without a sound, and Whitney finds himself standing in Fuller’s office, still with his bag on his shoulder, still feeling awkward. Fuller regards him with an expression of amusement before turning and gesturing to the empty chair in front of his desk. “Have a seat, Jason. How was your show yesterday? I would have attended myself, but I suspect you wouldn’t have appreciated the media interest.”
“Oh, um, it was good.” Whitney gingerly sits down, as if he’s fated to leave dirty marks on Fuller’s spotless furniture. “I, uh, I got a couple of job offers. Nothing, uh, nothing like this place, obviously but, um…” There was definitely a point to this sentence when he started it. “It’s nice to be asked,” he finishes lamely.
Fuller, fortunately, is still smiling. “You know, Jason, I remember you very well. You’re a little taller, perhaps, but…”
“I still act like I’m fifteen?” It’s not so much of a guess. His Californian surfer-boy charms might have been cute at an adult conference, but he suspects his lack of sophistication will stand out a mile next to Douglas Hall, and he’s not at all sure that he can change. He had enough of his father telling him to stand up straight and cut his hair and act like an adult long ago.
“But you still intrigue me,” Fuller corrects, picking up one of many manila folders from his desk. “First in your class. Several co-authored academic papers with some of the most brilliant minds in the world. Astonishing projects. And those job offers you thought were ‘nice’? Research positions at Microsoft, Apple, IBM. I heard even NASA were interested in you.”
That isn’t the half of it, and it’s likely that Fuller knows exactly what he’s omitted: visits months ago from men with badges rather than names. Whitney has been trying to forget them ever since they showed up at his apartment. It’s not that he isn’t a patriot. He just knows that he could never take the pressure. He could never live with getting people killed.
“So, Jason, why are you here?”
Whitney shifts in the chair. “Was that a rhetorical question?”
Fuller returns to his seat behind his desk, pauses, and steeples his fingers, picking his words carefully before he begins. “Let me be blunt. I have a new project on which I wish to begin work immediately. It will be highly experimental, and more secret than anything I have done before. It will be risky. It may very well never work, and be a waste of years of my life. However, I believe that I must try. In order to develop this project, I am attempting to assemble a team of people. The very best. You have already met Douglas. He knows computers, but his real talent is to manage people and finances. If you accept my proposal, he will be the one to go to for anything you need.”
“And I would be doing… what?” This is obviously where the toilet-cleaning comes in.
“I will supply you with the theory, with what I have, with the prototype I have designed,” Fuller explains. “Douglas will give you people and materials and money. However, you must do the work. The real work.”
He’s evaded the most obvious question for so long that it’s Whitney’s turn to be blunt. “What work?” he asks, leaning forward. “What’s the project?”
Fuller nods, understanding. “Douglas will take you to the project room. He will tell you everything you need to know. And we will speak again later. Perhaps, if you like the idea, we can meet for dinner.”
“Um…” Whitney’s mind is elsewhere. This all seems far too strange for a typical job interview. “That would be great.”
In the corridor, Hall is waiting, scribbling in his diary, glancing at his watch. “Time to give you the tour, I guess,” he says, and smiles as if awaiting the punchline of a joke. Whitney resolves that, if they end up in the bathroom, he’ll just have to dial 911 and find those guys in dark suits again. His future career might not be pictured in designer clothes, but it doesn’t include a plunger either.
Hall takes him back to the elevator, and hits the number 13, which ominously glows red at his touch. “Hannon thinks it’s funny,” he says as something of an explanation, but Whitney has no idea what he might think he’s explaining.
The elevator doors open out into a hallway of exactly the same colouring and lighting as the one several floors above them, although there seems to only be one other exit. Whitney follows as Hall swipes his security tag through some kind of sensor, which beeps, and releases the door. He expects some huge, buzzing room filled with people, mainframe systems, design sketches, something.
Whitney stares at the bare concrete walls and floor, stretching out for hundreds of meters in front of him. “What the hell?” There’s nothing there, not even a lick of paint or a single screw. Nothing.
“Hannon wouldn’t tell you what the job was?” Hall asks, observing his reaction. “This is the job. You get to build an entire world from scratch. Your specifications exactly.” He takes a slim, folded document from inside his jacket, and hands it to Whitney. “This is the theory. Hannon told me to show you this place, and let you read the idea. That’s all there is right now. You’re the missing part. If you say yes, then tomorrow we can start really doing something.”
“But, wait wait wait.” Whitney holds up his hands in protest. “Fuller said he had a prototype.”
Hall nods. “A computer model. But you need to read that first. If you don’t buy that, then we don’t want you to buy what’s basically just the same theory dressed up with some fancy graphics. But, believe me, it’ll work.”
“How do you know?” Flipping through the pages of the document, he can tell that Fuller’s theory is written at a level likely to be above Hall’s head. It’s almost above his head, but after four years of reading academic papers, he suspects that it’ll give up its secrets quickly enough.
Douglas Hall shrugs. “I know Hannon. Listen, you can’t take that out of the building, but I’ve been told to give you as much time as you need. My assistant Hilary will stop by every so often. If you need anything, she’ll get it for you. Coffee, a sandwich… When you’re done, I’m sure you can find your way back to Hannon’s office. If not, Hilary can take you.” He checks his watch again. “I have to go – got a meeting with some investors.”
“Right.” Whitney looks around the room again. It offers no answers.
“You seem like a decent guy, Whitney,” Hall says, clapping his shoulder for the second time. “I think we’d do okay working together. Hey… you shoot hoops?”
“Later, then,” Hall smiles, and leaves, the door clicking into place behind him.
Whitney looks at his own wristwatch. Eleven thirty. He should’ve called Charlotte from the airport, let her know that he’d landed in one piece. Then again, it might be better to call with the news that he had the job. He turns to the last page of the document: twenty-five densely printed sheets of paper, numbered, and stamped with a Fullercorp security notice. Probably very valuable in the wrong hands, but he has no intention of trying to steal it. He has too much respect for Fuller to do that, even if Fuller has been a pain in the ass the past few months, throwing lawsuits at his project team. The legal issues haven’t worried him too much. He knows that’s the way the game is played these days.
With a sigh, he sits down on the grey concrete floor, back against the wall next to the door, and props the document up against his legs. Normally he’d approach such an assignment with a pen and highlighter, but he suspects that Fuller might object to such a contamination of his precious theory.
It takes him an hour to read it, and another to make sure that he really has understood the thrust of Fuller’s argument, aided by the coffee and donuts brought by Hall’s assistant. When she returns, he asks for a notepad and a pen, even though she points out that he can’t take anything he writes out of the building. After that, he loses track of the time, filling page after page with lines of blue, left-handed scribble, and the occasional diagram. Some of the paper ends up as part of a pile of scrunched up balls he has thrown at the wall. The rest stares back at him, and gives him the answer he needs.
In Fuller’s office, he drops his notepad on that finely polished old oak desk, looks into those kindly eyes, and asks, “When do I start?”
Fuller reaches out a hand. “Welcome to the thirteenth floor, Jason.”
The thirteenth floor. He thinks that he understands Fuller’s joke, now. It may not exist, but he’s really looking forward to going there.
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