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The Pleasure Palace
There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death. Proverbs 14:12 NLT
As they neared the cluster of buildings, they saw an airport immediately adjacent. A commercial jet came in for a landing, and another plane was ready for take-off.
"The Gatherer said these flights come in all day, every day," Leif commented as they watched. "Let's move closer."
They left the road and walked across a field. A high, chain-link fence circled the airport, with coiled razor wire along the top. A bright light was positioned every 200 feet along the perimeter.
At the fence, they watched as people exited the plane and boarded shuttles that would take them to the Palace. Leif estimated at least 300 men and women got off. The plane taxied to a fueling station. Soon more shuttles came from the Palace loaded with another 300 people returning to Back. At the same time, another plane landed. Leif looked at his watch. He estimated no more than an hour between arrivals. The Gatherer had told them the average stay was four to eight hours. That meant this cluster alone had to have thousands of rooms to handle the volume. And who knew how many clusters there were.
Two jeeps bore down on them, with armed men pointing weapons.
"Stay where you are! Don't move!" one of them barked out as they screeched to a halt. The three were engulfed in glaring headlights and swirling dust. "Why are you off the road?"
"We only wanted to look. This is our first time here," Leif said. The leader looked at them intently.
"We don't allow road traffic over here. What’s your business?"
Looking and sounding as hopeless as he could, Leif mumbled they were here to apply for work at the Palace.
"Okay, but get back on the road and don't do this again," the leader warned. He and his men watched as the three walked back toward the road, then roared off. This was their first encounter with a goon squad, but Leif had a sinking feeling it wouldn't be their last.
Once back on the road they turned their attention to the Palace. Three huge high-rise buildings were close together, with a dining hall and room service building in the middle. Each high-rise was nothing but bedrooms. The Gatherer had told them each room consisted of a bed, a hot tub, and one entire wall that was a video screen. Each “guest” could choose any number of things from a “menu” to please him or her. And, of course, a "pleasure partner" could be chosen from the Palace's extensive "inventory."
On top of the middle building was the largest sign any of them had ever seen. The lit head of a court jester, lewd expression on his face and one eyebrow arched, winked one eye. Wink on...wink off...wink on...wink off.
It was like a beacon, guiding the shuttles to their destination.
"How appropriate," Isabella said. "Death is inviting them to what is promised as life but is actually death. And it is one big joke to him."
They left the main road and took the road leading to the middle building. The shuttle area in front of the building was brightly lit and bustled with activity as shuttles came and went. As excited as the guests appeared, Leif had sympathy for them. At one time, he too had been excited by the enticements offered by things not from the Source. Only after he came to the Source had he been set free.
"How sad," Kamiko remarked.
They knew they couldn't remain there much longer without attracting another goon squad.
"I have a plan," Leif told them. "We’ll go to the employees’ quarters and try to get to know some of them. Maybe we can find one of them who has access to the employee records. That’s the quickest way to find Devan. Otherwise we would have to go to each of the Palaces and look for him. And who knows how many Palaces are in this forsaken land?"
They made their way to the back. The employees’ quarters were rows of squalid dormitories, dimly lit. This was home to the thousands required to keep the guests happy. But none of the employees they watched go in and out of the dormitories looked happy. The uniforms differed, but the expressions of hopelessness did not. There were kitchen staff and maintenance crew and maids. Then there were the ones that had to be the pleasure partners, many wearing garish, fantasy outfits. They looked the saddest cases. Their faces were totally devoid of any emotion, and for good reason. They had to endure shifts of what had to be hell, completely at the whim of the guests.
Leif, Isabella and Kamiko vainly searched for Devan while the employees came and went.
"This is too hit-or-miss," Leif said. "Let's see if we can find a common area where they congregate."
Sure enough, they found a smoking area which contained approximately fifty employees. Pretending to be new arrivals seeking employment, the three mingled with the employees for the next several days. Soon they had become well enough acquainted with some of them to ask them questions.
"Success," Kamiko informed Leif and Isabella. "I found a girl who works in payroll. Not only for this Palace but for all the Palaces. I think she can be bribed. These employees are hooked on drugs. They spend every penny on them."
"How else could you survive here?" asked Isabella.
"Good job, Kamiko," said Leif. "Let's give it a try."
The girl was happy to oblige. They told her Devan's name and in a couple of days she had with her a printout.
"I couldn't find a ‘Devan R. Richards,’” she said, “but I printed a listing of those whose first name is ‘Devan.’ Many of the employees don't use their real last name but tend to stick with their real first name."
"Good job," Leif told her as they looked through the names.
"That one!" shouted Kamiko. "Forrester. Devan's mother's maiden name was Forrester. I'll bet that's him."
"He's our best bet," agreed Leif. "I don't see anything else. We'll start with him and work through the rest if need be. Let's hope he's the one."
They paid off the girl and decided to leave immediately before she could attract attention by flashing extra money around. “Devan Forrester” was employed at a different Palace so they would need to travel another couple of days. They were glad to leave but knew the next Palace would be just as bad.
"That went pretty well," Leif noted as they walked away.
They had a lighter step as they walked. They had more confidence now that they had a little success under their belt. They hadn't been discovered, and had hopefully found where Devan was. Things were looking up. Isabella responds differently, Leif thought. She seems more content, more the way she used to be. She even gave him a little smile when their eyes happened to meet. Leif liked that. He smiled back.
They wouldn't have been so happy if they knew what lay just around the corner.