“Are you ok? What happened in there? Can I do anything to help?”
Angry young man shook his head, unable to talk.
No, I’m not ok? No you can’t help? Which was it?
The light ticked back down through the numbers as the elevator descended. Otis pondered with a worried frown, and no-longer-angry-young man tried to collect himself.
As they reached the bottom floor, Otis tried one more time, in his discomfort falling back on one of his stock phrases: “Just let me know if there’s anything you can need.”
The youth looked up at Otis, vaguely confused, but slightly more collected.
“What I need.” he muttered and then barked a hard cynical laugh, before shuffling out the door.
Otis glanced at his watch. He was surprised to discover it was still not even 6:30 yet, and hurried to let the youth out who left without a word. As he was preparing to shut the door four men hurried up to the door with urgent exclamations for Otis to hold the door.
“I’m sorry gentlemen, we’re not quite open. Do you have an appointment?”
Appraising them: smart expensive suits, briefcases for three of them, laptop bag for the fourth. Polished shoes, hair meticulously coiffed, and yet all with a sense of disarray about them. Nothing specific, just a sense of excitement, of disorder and slight chaos among them. In response to Otis’ query they looked at each other and deferred to the one with the laptop.
“Well, I’m not sure we exactly have an appointment, but he did say come anytime. He did say we’d know the moment we needed him and that we were to come at that time, not a moment earlier or later.”
Otis knew before he asked. On this strange day, it could only be one strange person they could be referring to in this strange way, “Tenth floor, gentlemen?”
All four of them looked relieved.
“Oh yes. He is here then?”
“Indeed he is. Will all four of you be coming up then?” Otis let them in and lead them toward the elevator.
“Oh, yes. He said it had to be all four. All four of us together or not at all, he said. And not a moment earlier, or later. Only when the moment came.”
Otis never minded asking questions of clients when he felt it could help his job, and right now, it felt like any information about what exactly the tenth floor man did would help his job. Still, a direct question should be reserved for tenth-floor man himself, so Otis tried only a gentle probe “And the moment has now come?”
The men laughed and looked at each other, “Oh yes, the moment has definitely come, wouldn’t you say Arthur?”
The man called Arthur laughed and nodded, “oh, yes, definitely so,” looking to one of the other four, “don’t you think Malcolm?”
Malcolm in turn nodded, laughed and agreed with a quick head nod. The fourth man laughed as well, and lifted his briefcase slightly, as if showing it to the others, which seemed only to increase the laughter and excitement.
Otis didn’t laugh. Otis’s head was spinning. He felt unusually out of the loop, out of control. Whoever Tenth floor man was, he was certainly not dragging his feet. He had no lack of clients. Mrs. Jenkins, the young man, this strange foursome who were to come “not a moment earlier, and not a moment later.” And it wasn’t yet even 6:30.
As the elevator began it’s ascent for the fourth time that morning to a floor never before visited, Otis pushed the intercom button for Tenth Floor man. “Sir, four gentlemen are on their way up to see you.”
“–or gentlemen? I’m not expecting them. What are their names, Ot-?”
Otis blinked in surprise. Was he now no longer even asking for names? Would he ever get his bearings back?
“Gentlemen, I apologize for not introducing myself. I am Otis and I’m here to make your trip up and down these hallowed halls as pleasant as possible.”
“Quite all right Otis” The laptop man leaned forward and pushed the intercom himself.
“It’s us, Merloh (Tenth floor man’s name! Pronounced like mur low. Was it Merlow? Merlot? was he named after a wine?) Roger and the team. You said come whenever.”
“–deed. Come on up boys. I’ve been expecting you”
Boys? Did he really just call them boys? and didn’t he just say he wasn’t expecting them?
Otis nodded, “We’re here gentlemen, I hope everything goes well for you this morning.”
Roger spoke, “Oh, I’ve no doubt. He’s an amazing gentleman, this Merlot. Always has exactly what we need. But then I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that.”
Otis nodded, feeling slightly guilty for feigning an awareness he didn’t have, but feeling even more frustrated for not having information he ardently wished to have.
Otis let “Roger and the team” off and waited a moment to see if Mrs. Jenkins of the fainting spell, was perhaps coming back down, but no one showed up. The men moved off down the unfinished hallway and Otis began to return the elevator to the ground floor.
For the next half hour, Otis had no more strange visitors, just his usual early arrivals. He kept up his normal conversation, treated them no differently than ever, but inside the events of the morning swirled through his head in a dizzying array. He tried to make sense of everything he’d seen, tried to discover what the nature of Merlot’s business was, and to see through the mystery of the lipstick case, the brief case or the head case who was the young man.
As he pondered over those thirty minutes, he decided that he could not effectively do his job if he didn’t know more. After all, he was not merely a button pusher, he was the guide for those who entered, shepherding where and when they needed. He prepared people for what to expect, and how could he do that when he was so much out of the loop? He was a little worried to, for example for Mrs Jenkins. By the time Merlot buzzed him on the intercom, he had decided that it was time for a chat with the strange tenth-floor man. It was more than mere curiosity, he needed to know.
“Yes sir. Should I be expecting another visitor?”
“No Otis, I believe it’s time for your appointment.”
Otis was speechless.
“My appointment, sir? I have no appointment.”
Merlot laughed in that pleasant way he had, “Perhaps not, but you do need something, do you not? and I have what you need. It is what I do after all, so you, Otis, are my next visitor. I believe you know the way.”