The Key of Lost Things
1 Holy Cats!
Doors don’t always lead where you think they will. When you live in a hotel full of enchanted doorways, you have to get used to your life being a little . . . weird.
For instance, this morning I walked through a door in New York that took me directly into a bakery in Germany, where I picked up some spaetzle for a woman whose grandmother used to make it. Then I ferried a lovey-dovey couple from Venice, Italy, to Buñol, Spain, so that they could attend a festival where people throw tomatoes at one another. After that I took a door from South Africa to a pink-sanded beach in Indonesia, where I ate grilled bananas with dark chocolate syrup and worked on my most recent assignment: a list of awards to give my hotel staff at the end of the summer—things like Tidiest Bellhop, and Most Likely to Crack a Joke with Guests, or Most Creative Use of Binding.
But the door before me now—the one I do not want to go through—leads to cats. Lots and lots of cats. And I’m the one who has to fix the situation.
I swallow hard and ease open the door.
“I came back from dinner, and there they were,” a guest with pouty lips tells me. Her neck drips with pearls, and her earrings cast rainbows against her brown skin. “Where could they have come from?”
When I took this job, no one said anything about animal control. If they had, I’d have told them about the time when my aunt’s cat peed in my suitcase. And yet, here I am somewhere in South America on the twentieth floor of the Hotel, faced with more cats than I’ve ever seen in one place. They’re all over. Sharpening their claws on the king-size bed, drinking from the bronze fixture of the bathroom sink, climbing the complimentary bathrobes like pirates swinging from the rigging.
One of the cats is licking at a playing card that’s stuck to its back with the magic glue that comes from a source of power everyone here calls “the binding.” All the cats have playing cards like this one attached to their fur, and those cards tell me exactly who sent these felines to terrorize the guests of The Hotel Between.
Nico. He’s the one with all the tricks. It was his cards that first lured me into the Hotel seven months ago, and now he’s using them once again to send me a message. Only, I can’t quite figure out what the message is.
A yellow-striped tabby with a three of hearts scurries past, followed by three others. I reach to grab the last one, but it wriggles free and races down the hall. Ugh. It’s hard enough being Concierge-in-Training without having to deal with Nico’s endless pranks. This isn’t the first—malfunctioning equipment, missing
furniture, minor changes to the decorations—but this clue finally drives home who’s responsible.
I ask the guest to step back into the hall and shut the door on the shrieking cat den, but not before the seven of spades squeezes past, tail whisking back and forth as the cat chases down the hall after the first escapees. That’s one more we’re going to have to track down, and quickly, preferably before the Maid Service finds out.
“We’ll have your room cleaned up as soon as possible, madam,” I say, flattening the vest under my coat. A concierge must be dignified at all times, or so the Old Man keeps telling me. Of course, I’m anything but dignified. “Until we get your room in order, may I invite you to dine at our finest restaurant, the Four Corners? Complimentary, of course—order anything you like.”
“Did you not hear me?” the woman says with a pointed stare. “I just had dinner. I don’t want to have dinner again.”
I wish the Hotel would invite some nice people for once. Seems it only ever invites those it wants to change. Then again, I guess that’s kind of the point—changing the hearts of the world, one vacationer at a time. . . .
“Maybe you’d like to take advantage of our spa service instead? The stones are bound to volcanic pumice, so they’re always toasty.”
She groans. “Why am I speaking with a child? I’d like to talk to your supervisor.”
I squish my lips together to hold back my tongue. That’s the third time today that someone’s called me a child. I’m almost
thirteen—definitely not a child anymore. “I am the supervisor, ma’am. I can handle whatever needs you have on my own.”
“No wonder this place is falling apart.”
I clench my fists behind my back. Keep it under control, Cam. You can handle this. “You’re welcome to lodge a complaint when you check out. We take guest feedback very seriously.”
I pull the pad and pen from my pocket, lick the pen tip to infuse it with my binding, and write out a royal-treatment voucher for the spa. As a source of magic, the binding works itself out in many ways, but they all involve connections—the gluing of two objects together, the invisible bonds that link people, the rules that hold everything safely in place. Signing my name to the page with my own binding in this way seals the message, like a contract. It’s an agreement that links me to the magic that runs this place—and that agreement must be followed, or else we risk breaking those bonds. And violating the treaty we’ve made with the magics of the world is something none of us ever wants to do.
“Our masseuse will take good care of you,” I tell her as I hand her the voucher and start down the hall.
Fifty-two cards in a normal deck. That means there are probably fifty-two cats that Nico has loosed on the Hotel. As long as he didn’t include jokers—
“Wait,” the woman calls. “Where are you going?”
I turn to face her. “I have five more guests experiencing the same issue, and reports of cats all over the Hotel.” I give her one last bow. “Good evening, madam. I hope you find your destination.”
• • •
The next few guests aren’t any happier to find their rooms overrun by squatters of the feline kind. I thought people loved cats? After all, tons of folks spend hours and hours watching videos of them online. Though, I guess it’s a little different when cats take over the vacation of your dreams.
A small gray calico marked with the queen of clubs galumphs past me down the sixth-floor hall.
“Grab her!” Sev yells as he stumbles behind the cat, struggling to keep his bag over his shoulder.
The queen rounds the corner, and I dash to follow.
We pass under a wooden arch, and my ears pop as the décor changes, teal-and-white floor tile giving way to plush green carpet with amber swirls. Nearby, a timber-framed window displays a grand view of the Swiss Alps, topped with snow like the frosting on the mini Bundt cakes served in the dining hall. The air inside is thick and dry despite the cold landscape outside, and there’s a slight rotten smell coming from one of the nearby vents. One more thing I’ll have to check on once I’ve taken care of this problem.
The cat sprints through another arch and down a set of ancient-looking stone stairs.
“Is that one of the cats from 2332?” I shout as Sev rounds the corner behind me.
He pulls up next to me, huffing and wiping a bead of sweat from his dark brow. “Yes,” he says in a thick Russian accent. “Guest
found me in the hall and asked what to do about that rat-chasing koshka. The rest escaped when he opened the door.”
“We have to catch them all,” I tell him.
“Like Pokémon.” Sev laughs. “I am the very best.”
We race through the next arch, out of the humid hallway and into the cool stairwell beyond.
The Hotel Between isn’t like other hotels. Normal hotels exist only in one place—you drive there, or fly, and stay until it’s time to go home. Ours is more like a hodgepodge of places from all over the world stitched together by magic. Each arch Sev and I pass through takes us from one spot on the globe to another. Which, when I think about it, means we’re literally chasing this dumb cat across the world.
Kinda like last year, when I first joined the Hotel in search of my dad. I found him—I’ll find these cats, too.
“That way!” Sev yells as we draw up to a Y-junction that connects to corridors in New Zealand and Taiwan. We take the left arch into a hall decorated with watercolor landscapes of tiny people and enormous hills, paintings framed by twisting, snakelike dragons, and scrolls etched with fancy Chinese letters.
I rush up to the corner and peek around the ornamented pillar into the hall beyond. The cat’s still trotting away, but I smile. “It’s a dead end,” I whisper, noting the solid, arched wall at the far side.
Sev leans his head against the wall. “We need a plan.”
Plans. Something I’m good at. As long as I can control all the pieces, my plans typically come together. Unfortunately, so do Nico’s.
I shirk out of my tailcoat and hand it to Sev. “I’ll scare it back this way. You catch it when it hits the corner.”
Sev steels his jaw. “I will be ready.”
“Don’t worry,” I say, as much to myself as to him. “I’ve got everything under control.” I give him an encouraging clap on the shoulder—the way Nico used to do to me—and race through the arch into the next hall.
But it’s empty. The corridor is quiet, dark, undisturbed.
Sev steps out behind me and scratches his cheek. “Odd. Are you sure it came down here?”
“I saw it.” I walk down the hall, tracing the bricks that curve overhead to form a kind of low tunnel. Gray doors are set into the walls every few feet. The ancient wood floor creaks with every step. The Hotel is full of old passages like this—forgotten branches that aren’t quite as impressive as the other halls. Most are hidden where only staff can access them. These doors are all locked and unbound, so . . .
“You must have been mistaken.” Sev tosses my tailcoat over his shoulder. “Maybe it went the other way.”
I know that cat came down this hall. I feel the doors, listening for the familiar hum of the binding, but find none. They’re just doors. Plain, locked doors in an empty hall.
“Oh no,” Sev says, leaning back around the corner that we just passed.
He crinkles his nose. “Beda ne prikhodit odna.”
“Trouble never comes alone,” I say, remembering the translation.
I join him to see two suited figures marching down the hall toward us. The first is my friend Rahki, dressed in her usual tailcoat, headscarf, and white gloves of the Maid Service. A frown creases her face—the seriousness of her expression a stark contrast to the playful purple cat-ear headphones hanging around her neck.
But it’s the woman behind her that I need to worry about. The Maid Commander pounds the carpet in heavy boots, burn-scarred brow chiseled into an intense scowl, silvery hair pulled back in the world’s tightest ponytail. Her sword hangs stiffly at her hip—the only weapon I’ve ever seen carried inside the Hotel.
“It’s him, isn’t it?” the Maid Commander booms in her gruff French accent. “Your little friend, playing endless games at the Hotel’s expense.”
I bristle at her calling Nico my “little friend,” but I don’t correct her. I’d rather face a world-killing asteroid than deal with the MC’s wrath.
“You don’t know it’s him,” I say.
Rahki crosses her arms. “The playing cards kinda give it away, don’t you think?”
I grip the wooden coin that hangs from my necklace. Despite having become one of my closest friends, Rahki still sides with the Maid Commander on all things Nico. It has something to do with the Maid Service’s contract, and their commitment to “Trust the Hotel, trust the mission, no matter what.” Never mind that Nico
is the one who put the Hotel’s enemies on the run, or the one who freed Sev and the others—even me—from the Competition’s control. The maids didn’t see what Nico did to stop Mr. Stripe. They don’t know that Nico almost gave up his own freedom to save us all.
The MC narrows her eyes at me. “I will find Nico Flores and make him pay for all these endless inconveniences,” she grumbles. I should nominate her for the Longest-Running Display of Anger award.
“It’s just pranks.”
“It is a declaration of war!” she exclaims. “He assaults the very mission of the Hotel, and anyone who threatens our mission must be stopped.”
I’m about to argue, but a look from Rahki warns me to keep quiet. For all her rule following, she knows how to handle the MC better than anyone else.
I straighten my shoulders. I have to remember to be dignified. “The Old Man says we should focus on what’s inside the Hotel, not what’s outside. He doesn’t believe Nico’s our enemy, and neither do I.”
The Maid Commander stares me down, resting a hand on the hilt of her sword.
Rahki glances back and forth between us. Sev shifts nervously.
Finally the MC huffs. “Rahki, please ensure that this disaster is handled properly. If Mr. Cameron won’t safeguard the Hotel against his friend,”—she casts me a side-eye—“then we must.”
She swivels on her heel and marches out of sight.
Sev releases a bottled breath. “That could have gone better.”
“She’s not going to quit until she’s found a way to punish Nico for everything that’s happened.” I sigh. “It’s like she has some sort of vendetta against him.”
“Good. He deserves it,” Rahki says, and starts down the hall, back the way we came.
“Where are you going?”
“To take care of this mess, like she said.” A mischievous smile forms on her lips as she turns back. “How about a contest? Guys versus girls. I bet we catch more cats than you do.”
There’s the Rahki that I like to see. “You’re on.”
But as she races down the hall to round up our strays and Sev chases after her to get ahead, I turn back to face the dead end hall. I know that cat was here. The queen of clubs—I didn’t imagine it. So where could it have gone?