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I think that the Pink Ridge Inn is taking applications for maintenance engineers. Our last maintenance man, Mirza, was a large man with a serious face. Though he always seemed quite focused on hard work, he was actually a friendly guy. Whenever I saw him early on Monday mornings, I would ask what he did over the weekend.

“I watch basketball,” was always his answer, along with “and drink brandy.”

He had a slight temper, but he was usually docile. I became fast friends with him. Mirza was in his mid-thirties and had emigrated from Bosnia 11 years ago to the United States, bringing with him his son, Bilal (now Bill). Bilal was in his early twenties and had worked Front Desk at the Pink Ridge Inn through college until he graduated and found a career in graphic design. Mirza was proud of his son as he was becoming successful: a good job, a fiancé, and he would soon be moving out into his first place after marriage. Moving out of your parents’ home before you were married, Mirza explained to me, is considered an insult to the parents in his culture. I asked about Mirza’s wife, but he solemnly mentioned that she had passed. Given his age and the timeframe of his immigration, I always quietly wondered about Mirza’s involvement in the Bosnian War. He would have been a young man around that time, but I never had the courage to ask. Some things were private matters. My manager, Justin, claimed to have spoken with Mirza on a few occasions and gotten some pretty grim stories. Work camps, sleeping in trees to prevent being attacked by stray dogs at night, even that Mirza was lined up before a firing squad and nearly executed because his captors had mixed up his identification.

“One time,” Justin said, “he told me a story that he made me promise to never tell Bill.” I was intrigued, but once again, did not pursue. I didn’t want to pry into a past that I would not understand. Despite this, Mirza and I became pals and would always tip each other off if we were heading out back for a smoke break. He called everyone “brother” and was a huge fan of the Pacers. Most of all, though, he was a top-notch worker. He would have maintenance projects that should have taken weeks done in a couple days. He knew every pipe, every valve, every circuit, every slab of drywall at the Pink Ridge Inn. We joked that he would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when a fuse blew. He was an honest man and a dedicated worker that moved his son to America and made a life for him. But he was still proud of his homeland, wearing soccer league jackets that read “Bosna i Hercegovina” and had the blue and yellow flag hung from the rearview of his Honda Accent. Twice a year he took his vacation time to return to Bosnia for a week to visit his family.

Two weeks ago, we had a group check in a block of rooms on the third floor. They were engineers that worked with communications of some sort. The exact nature of their work was hard to flesh out, as the whole lot of them were an assortment of Europeans. And though they all spoke a fair volume of English, it was heavily blurred with their varying accents.

Nonetheless, they were a generally jolly group of guys that never caused much of a fuss, so long as they received their housekeeping and there was coffee made when they headed off to work in the early mornings.

Maurizio was Italian and bald. He wore sunglasses 90% of the day, even when they were leaving for work before sunrise. There was Arseny, the older Russian man who didn’t talk much, but was supremely polite when he did. My favorite was a plump Greek by the name of Spiros who would hang out by the desk in the evenings and attempt at cracking jokes and making small talk with whoever was working, no matter how much they did or did not understand what he meant. He was always smiling, though, and had a contagious laugh that was high-pitched and raspy. There were three others, but their names and ethnicities escape me. They were the quieter ones and stuck mostly to their rooms. In addition, these engineers checked in and out often, sometimes leaving for a week or two only to come back for another month of work. A few had left and not returned, but it was mostly the same crew rotating in and out.

One morning the whole crew of them were in the lobby, flipping through the newspapers and nibbling on muffins. Mirza often came about half our early, around 6:30 am, carrying his tote bag filled with whatever tools he had decided to bring in or take home the night before. Morning time was when Mirza was in his best mood, usually whistling when he came strolling in the front doors.

I was looking through the day’s arrivals, more out of curiosity than necessity as I was a half hour away from clocking out. I looked up when I heard Mirza’s whistling cut off abruptly. He was standing there in his salmon-colored t-shirt and khaki slacks, arms hanging at his side with toolbag in one hand, and his face frozen with a look of something I could hardly perceive. Shock? Disgust? Fear? There was a darkness in his eyes. His mouth hung agape. It was as if he had just seen a monster. He was staring shamelessly at one of the European engineers—one of the quiet ones whose name I had not learned.

“You okay, Mirza?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said slowly. He started walking around to the office, “yeah, it’s good, brother.” He grabbed the leaflets of work orders that hung in the office and disappeared off to his duties. The engineering group eventually filed out of the lobby and into the world and I followed soon after, more than ready to get home to my bed.

A few days passed and I was just starting my night audit shift when Arseny, the older Russian, stopped by the desk. Arseny had not checked out since the group arrived and, maybe cause of his age, I started to assume that he was in charge of the group. “Andrew,” he said in his thick accent, “did Boro Popovic check in tonight? He was to arrive, but he did not answer his call.”

I clicked to the guest listing on the computer, but didn’t see him. I opened the arrivals list and saw that his reservation was still there. “It looks like he hasn’t come in yet.” “Strange,” Arseny said. “His plane landed at 3:00. 3:00 in this afternoon.” “Maybe it got delayed?” I offered.

“No, no. I look up the flight this evening. It left from Serbia on time, it land in Chicago on time. It should arrive in Indianapolis on time also, no?” Though his grammar was broken, his logic was flawless. He slapped his palm on the desk lightly. “You call me if you see him, yeah?”

I told him that I would. The rest of the night passed uneventfully. The next morning, Mirza was in early once more, but he did not stop by the office. Instead, he headed straight for the boiler room with his toolbag swinging in hand. I thought nothing of it; Mirza is a busy man. Right before 7:00, I heard him moving around back in the laundry room, so I went to make chit-chat. He was standing in front of the utility sink, washing off some of his tools under the hot water. The sink was awash with dust and oily flecks of paint, but then I noticed currents of red slipping down the drain.

“Is that blood?” I asked.

“Eh, yeah, brother,” Mirza said nonchalantly. “I cut myself a little. Is okay, buddy, is not a deep cut.”

“Hey, it happens. Got plans for this weekend?” I asked.

“In two days I leave for Bosnia, go to visit my family,” he said. “Buy my Aura Gold cigarettes. I will bring you a pack.” Mirza loved sharing his culture with me once he found out that I was interested. He brought me Bosnian brandy, authentic food, little trinkets and so on.

“Sure thing, buddy.” I said.

Well, I promised Arseny that I would let him know if I saw Boro, and I still will. Once all the reports are filled out and I am feeling a little better. I am physically ill right now. Too many months at the Pink Ridge Inn have got me wound up like a yo-yo and this may be the last straw. I really, really, really need to find a new job.

You see, early this morning I started receiving calls from guests saying that their water smelled funny, that they felt itchy or slimy after they got out of the shower, that the coffee tasted off. There wasn’t much that I could do, so I waited until 7:00 when Justin, my manager, came in and we went to investigate. We tried calling Mirza, but he was somewhere over the Atlantic and could not answer. We checked the boilers: nothing wrong there. But then we peeled open the lid of the large water softener unit that housed the hundreds of pounds of salt that was needed to condition the water for the hotel. Justin pushed his hand down into the pile of coarse rock salts and sloshed them around his wrist. He looked up at me with wide eyes, then began to claw aside the salt, digging down.

Six inches below the surface of the salt, we found the Serbian's body. His eyes were frozen in terror. His mouth hung open, but the whole orifice was filled and sealed shut with dried tile mortar. We started to dig down deeper. His hair had fallen out and his face, his neck, arms and bare chest were heavily scarred with acid burns. Empty bottles of oven degreaser and toilet bowl cleaner, along with bleach and lye, sat at the base of the water softener drum. And there, carved into his forehead, was a bloody word that we could not translate, in the Cyrillic alphabet: Шкорпиони

Fiction


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