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Warren the 13th tiptoed across the roof of the Warren Hotel, and the old slate tiles clattered like bones. A crisp autumn wind snapped at his back, threatening to knock him off balance, but he kept going. A fall from the top of an eight-story building was the least of his worries. He had a chimney to repair.
The ravens screeched a warning from inside the smoke shaft but Warren peered down anyway. As usual, the chimney was clogged with newspapers, fabric scraps, twigs, branches, and other debris. Six black birds stared back, huddled together in a makeshift nest.
“Go on now!” Warren shouted.
The ravens didn’t budge.
“There are plenty of nice trees around here. Shoo!”
But the ravens did not “shoo.” They seemed to be pretending that Warren was invisible.
“I guess we’ll have to do this the hard way,” he said with a sigh.
Warren had performed this chore dozens of times. At least once or twice a month, he climbed up to the roof and cleared the nest from the chimney before it caused the entire hotel to fill with smoke. But this morning the ravens seemed particularly stubborn. Winter was coming, and they needed a cozy place to ride out the cold weather.
“What if I poured water on you?” Warren asked. “How would you like that?”
The birds knew he was bluffing. One snapped its beak, but the rest went right on dozing. So Warren creeped over to the ridge of the roof where a crooked weathervane stood. He unscrewed the sharp metal post and poked it inside the chimney. “I’ll use force if I have to,” he said with determination. “Get out of there or else!”
The ravens didn’t even ruffle a feather. They knew Warren was too nice to hit a bird with a weathervane.
It was clear Warren had only one option left. “If you don’t leave now,” he said with as much menace as he could muster, “I’ll go get Aunt Annaconda and then you’ll have to deal with her.”
The ravens exploded from the chimney, squawking and scattering feathers as they rose into the sky. They had been around the hotel long enough to know all about Annaconda, and no one–not even a raven–dared to test her patience.
Warren watched until the birds were nothing but dark specks against the dawn’s pale sky. He hated to frighten them, but they’d left him no choice. His gaze lowered and he looked out from his spot high above the ground. The view was nothing special.
The Warren Hotel was the only building for miles; perched miserably on a hill in a bleak gray countryside, it was ringed by a forest of equally bleak and withered trees. You could walk for hours in every direction without finding anything interesting.
But Warren wasn’t looking at the depressing view. He was looking beyond it, past the horizon, to where the rest of the world existed. He imagined cities and jungles, seaports and deserts, landscapes he knew only from books. All places he would love to visit . . . were it not for the fact that he was twelve years old and heir to his family’s hotel, where he worked as the sole bellhop, handyman, exterminator, room-service valet, and all-around errand boy. Warren the 13th had spent his whole life at the hotel, just as his father and eleven other Warrens had before him.
With a sigh, he returned to the grim task of chimney cleaning. Soon his hands were black with soot. He yanked out dozens of sticks and branches and a handful of stranger, more unexpected objects: a lady’s lace bonnet, a rusty nail file, a pie pan, even a bag of marbles he recognized as his own. Warren was trying to figure out how the ravens could have retrieved a bag of marbles from the desk drawer in his attic room when a low growling noise caught his attention.
Warren squinted into the early-morning fog. To his astonishment, he saw movement in the forest. Concealed by a canopy of spindly branches, a large dark shape was weaving through the trees. The woods around the hotel teemed with bears and wild boars, but this shape was larger than any animal. It growled again, and Warren’s heart gave a leap. This was no ordinary creature.
It was an automobile!
He hadn’t seen an automobile since the last guest exited the Warren Hotel, vowing never to return. Five long years had passed without a single customer. Warren’s eyes grew large as the automobile crested the hill. At last, someone was coming to stay with them!
The car passed through the once-grand iron gates and slowed to a stop at the front doors of the Warren Hotel. And that’s precisely when Warren remembered it was his job to greet new arrivals and help withtheir bags.
He winced as the hotel intercom sputtered to life–its tinny sound echoing inside the chimney shaft–with his uncle Rupert’s panicked voice ringing through the static:
He had to get to the lobby right away! Warren considered using the chimney as a shortcut, but eight stories was a long way down. Instead, he leapt off the side of the roof, grabbed a rain gutter with one hand, and swung through a window in the attic. He landed with a thump, sprinkling soot all over the small bed and desk that crowded his tiny room.
Warren used to sleep in one of the large bedrooms on the hotel’s second floor, but Aunt Annaconda didn't like having children around and wanted him out of her way. She banished him to the hotel’s topmost floor, eight floors away from the lobby where Warren did most of his work.
Dashing to a spot on the floor of his room, Warren raised a trap door, climbed down a wooden ladder, and landed with a thump inside the eighth-floor hallway. He picked himself up and ran to the main stairwell, his mind abuzz with possibilities. Who was this mystery guest? And why had this person come to his hotel?
Things had been much different when Warren was little. Back then, the hotel was booked months in advance. Grand automobiles paraded along the driveway all night long; guests arrived in style–men wearing tuxedos and top hats, ladies bedecked in gowns and jewels and pearls. A dozen bellhops in crisp matching uniforms greeted each new arrival, transferring luggage to polished brass carts while butlers swept by with trays of lemonade and cookies. In those days, the hotel had an enormous staff devoted to keeping everything in tip-top shape. Hedges were clipped, carpets were vacuumed, furniture was dusted, and wallpaper was scrubbed. A troop of maids stretched fresh linens across soft mattresses, and tall vases of fresh flowers brightened every corner.
But that was long ago, when Warren the 12th was still in charge. He died when Warren the 13th was just seven, too young to take over such a big hotel. Instead, his uncle Rupert had stepped in to fill the job. Unfortunately, Rupert was lazy and disliked work, which meant that things went downhill fast. The staff quit. The lawns became overrun with weeds. Guests cut their vacations short, then stopped coming altogether. Within a year most of the rooms were vacant, and they had remained so ever since.
Now the hotel looked more like a haunted house than a vacation destination. Once-shiny windowpanes were cracked or broken; shutters hung crookedly, and the whole building was in desperate need of paint. The interior wasn’t much better. Faded wallpaper was peeling at the seams. Faucets dripped, hinges creaked, floorboards squeaked. No one had used the game room or the tearoom or any of the other common rooms in ages. The pool table was covered in dust. The furniture was shrouded beneath musty old sheets, turning tables and chairs into squat little ghosts.
Again Uncle Rupert’s voice wailed through the intercom, jolting Warren from his daydreams. He set aside his memories and ran even faster down the winding staircase, leaping over the one-hundred-and-third step (since it was, in fact, missing) and narrowly avoiding the hotel snail lurching across the fourth-floor landing. He descended the last two flights by sliding along the bannister and then skidded, breathless, onto the chipped checkerboard marble floor of the lobby.
Uncle Rupert stood near a window, peering through the curtains and slicking back his hair. “Th-there’s a car in the driveway!” he sputtered.
Warren joined him at the window and peeked outside. A uniformed driver was unloading a small red satchel from the trunk of the car, but the passenger remained seated inside, a dark shape silhouetted against the backseat window.
“It’s probably a guest,” Warren said.
“But what’s a guest doing here?” Rupert exclaimed. “No one comes to this hotel! Not in years! Just look at this place!”
Indeed, as with the rest of the hotel, time had taken its toll on the lobby. Sunshine seemed unable to penetrate the room; the only source of light was a tarnished chandelier that clung to the ceiling like an insect. It flickered and buzzed as if it might sputter out at any moment. Underneath sat a faded red velvet couch, its surface encrusted with a thick layer of dust–except for a large round area in the shape of Rupert’s torso (he often napped there).
“It’s not so bad,” Warren said cheerfully. “I can dust the lobby this afternoon. Everything will look as good as new!”
Rupert stared helplessly at the wall of keys hanging behind the reception desk.
“Which bedroom is best? I’ve never been inside them!”
“Any of the rooms will be fine,” Warren said. “I clean and vacuum them every week, just to be safe. I always knew this day would come!”
With a whoosh, the lobby doors swung open and a tall thin figure strode inside. The visitor was dressed all in black, except for white bandages wrapped around a strangely narrow head. Even more surprising, the guest had no luggage of any kind–only the small red satchel. Warren could hear delicate glass objects clinking inside.
Rupert gaped at the strange figure.
Warren gave a slight bow. “W-w-welcome to the Warren Hotel, sir!”
The greeting was met with silence.
“We’re delighted to have you. My name is Warren. What’s yours?”
The guest did not reply.
“Where are you visiting from?”
Still more silence.
“Have you come far?”
Somewhere in the distance, a cricket chirped.
The visitor reached into the folds of a long black topcoat and produced a card with a sharp fwip! Warren tried to accept the offering, but the guest held it just out of reach. Warren could see it was engraved with the image of a four-poster bed.
“You’d like a room with a bed!” Warren exclaimed. “Of course! We’ll get you set up right away!” He looked meaningfully to Uncle Rupert, who continued to stare at the newcomer. “All I need is a room key . . . Uncle Rupert?”
Rupert finally snapped out of his trance. “Yes, yes, of course! Right away!” He turned to the rack of keys, still overwhelmed by the selection, while Warren attempted to take the stranger’s luggage. “I’ll be happy to carry your bag to your room. The elevator doesn’t work, I’m afraid.”
The guest yanked the satchel back as though Warren were diseased.
“Sorry,” Warren said, shrinking away.
“Here we go!” Rupert chimed in, holding up a mottled brass key on a tattered cord. “The key to your suite. It has a lovely view! And the room number is printed directly on the surface, in case you get lost in our beautiful corridors!”
Warren eyed his uncle skeptically. It was a stretch to call any of the corridors in the hotel “beautiful,” or any of the rooms a “suite,” and certainly none of them had what could be considered a “lovely view.” But he held his tongue as the new guest reached out a bandaged hand and snatched away the key.
Warren followed the stranger up the creaking stairway. If he couldn’t carry the bag, he would at least show his new guest to the room. But the visitor whirled around and–fwip!–produced another card, this one bearing a large red “X.”
Warren took that to mean “Leave me alone,” so he gave an awkward bow and retreated to the lobby.
“I wonder if he’ll expect breakfast,” Warren said.
“Odd sort of fellow,” Rupert muttered. “Didn’t even give us a name.”
Paleface, Warren decided as he imagined what might be hidden beneath all those bandages. Wounds? Scars? A third eye? An upside-down nose? Whatever it was, it had to be something pretty horrible. Why else would a person have a face wrapped in gauze? The sound of boot heels clicking upon tile broke Warren’s reverie. He turned to see his aunt Annaconda striding into the lobby. Where Uncle Rupert was short and chubby, his new wife was exactly the opposite: tall, elegant, and slender. Her long black hair was pulled tightly into a bun that resembled a viper coiled atop her head.
“Am I hearing things?” she inquired. “Or was there an automobile in the driveway?”
“My beautiful queen! My love!” Rupert exclaimed, his cheeks glowing with adoration. “You are not mistaken. We do indeed have a new guest! A wonderful fellow! He arrived just moments ago.”
“Is that so?” Annaconda crooned. She scratched Rupert under his chin as though he were a cat. Rupert’s face flamed fire-engine red and a purring sound escaped his fleshy lips. Warren tried not to gag. “I’m sorry to have missed him.”
Warren's uncle Rupert had married his aunt Annaconda a mere four months earlier, and they still acted very much like newlyweds. They had exchanged letters for half a year before finally meeting in person. Rupert was so enchanted, he proposed almost immediately.
“Oh, darling,” Rupert said, heaving a long sigh. “You are too good to me.”
“No, you’re too good to me,” Annaconda insisted.
"I'm the lucky one..." said Rupert. “Ever since you entered my life, I’ve felt like a new man!”
“No, I’m the lucky one,” Annaconda said, throwing her arms wide and twirling. “You’re my sweet handsome prince, and you brought me to this wonderful fairy-tale castle!”
Warren couldn’t bear to listen to any more of their lovey-dovey talk. He tried to slink off without being noticed, but his aunt called after him. “Warren, dear, I hope you showed our esteemed guest to his room?” Annaconda smiled, causing the wrinkles around her eyes to flare like spider legs.
“He didn’t want my help.”
“He rejected you? Oh, my poor dear Warren, I hope you’re not disappointed!” Annaconda said. “You’re a peculiar-looking child, it’s true, but that’s no reason for adults to treat you poorly!”
She spoke so sweetly that Uncle Rupert didn’t even notice the insult buried in her words. Warren ignored them. He knew he had a few strange features: a toadlike face, gray skin, crooked teeth. But he was proud of his beautiful hair–every one of his ancestors had a luxurious full-bodied head of hair–and he thought it offset the worst of his flaws.
“There’s some soot in my bedroom that needs sweeping,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me.”
“But of course, darling!” Annaconda said. “I know how much you enjoy your chores. I’d be loath to prevent you from doing them.”
As Warren climbed the stairs, he could hear his uncle chuckling. “Such an odd lad. What kind of boy enjoys cleaning? He certainly didn’t get that from me!”
His aunt laughed. “Of course not, my love! You’re far too princely for chores.” Warren sighed. Uncle Rupert wasn’t princely–he was just plain lazy. He never bothered to fix anything or clean anything or do anything that resembled labor of any kind. Warren knew that his father, Warren the 12th, would be so disappointed in Uncle Rupert. Warren the 12th always used to say that hard work built character.
Warren climbed the stairwell to the third-floor broom closet and opened the door. He sprang back in surprise. Waiting inside was Aunt Annaconda!
“Took you long enough!” she hissed, thrusting a broom into his hands.
“How did you–” Warren started to ask how his aunt had reached the third floor without passing him on the staircase but then thought better of it. She was always disappearing and reappearing unexpectedly. It was just one of her many mysterious qualities.
Annaconda stepped forward, towering over her diminutive nephew. Her gnarled hands were fixed squarely on her bony hips, which jutted out against the fabric of her dress. Gone was the smiling mask she wore in front of her husband; now her dark eyes glittered dangerously and her long face stretched into a deep snarl.
“Tell me,” she hissed. “Where is this mystery guest? What’s his room number?”
“I don’t know,” Warren said, cowering beneath her wrathful gaze. “Uncle Rupert gave him the key. I didn’t see where he went.”
“What did he look like? What did he say?”
“He was tall and thin . . . and he wore all black. Except for his face, which was covered with white bandages. He didn’t talk, except with picture cards, and he carried a red bag.”
“What about the All-Seeing Eye?” Annaconda asked. “Did he mention the All-Seeing Eye?”
“He didn’t say a word,” Warren said. “I think he’s just a traveler passing through.”
“He’s here for the Eye,” she whispered. “He must be! Why else would anyone come to this dreadful place? He’s looking for the Eye, and he’s planning to steal it for himself!”
Warren had heard plenty about the All-Seeing Eye, a mysterious treasure hidden inside the hotel–or so Annaconda believed. Within days of marrying Rupert, his aunt began asking about it. Warren knew the Eye was a legend, just like the giant insects that supposedly roamed the forest or the ghosts that reportedly haunted the hedge maze.
“I don’t think he’s here for the All-Seeing Eye,” Warren said.
“You are a child and you don’t know anything,” Annaconda replied dismissively. “Next time you see this mystery guest, I want you to find me right away. Do you understand?”
“I do,” Warren said.
“Then close the door and leave me be.”
“Leave you here? In the closet?”
"I said, close the door!"
Warren shut the closet door. He suspected that if he opened it again, Annaconda would be gone. But he was too scared to look.
Instead, he took the broom and climbed the stairs to the attic.