As he stood watching the hotel, the boy detective felt all of the energy that had been rising in him across the day suddenly dissipate. It was as if water freed from behind one dam had raced and immediately arrived at another. A hotel is a constantly policed zone, where no young person can ever loiter anywhere at ease. The boy detective would be always having to move on.
He entered the building. “Good afternoon,” he called politely to the reception staff as he hastened after Ellen. He approved of the carpets, which were so plush that they cushioned his footsteps and drank up their sound.
Ellen had vanished for good somewhere on the first floor. The boy detective was left standing in a lonely labyrinth of numbered doors. The silence in these corridors was as dense as a liquid and it was also very busy, swarming with numerous, almost-heard sounds. The boy detective strained to fathom its nothingness.
He had located the CCTV cameras in the ceiling and he had soon pinpointed a blind spot. Here, he sketched out a rudimentary but serviceable floorplan in his notebook. Afterwards, his hands dropped to his sides and he waited.
For a long time he stood there motionlessly. Were it not for the occasional shedding of a thick blink, one might have thought him a whimsical fibreglass statue. He could have hung on that silence forever but there was finally a tiny, amazingly precise noise within its density and Ellen’s door had opened.
She was coming down the corridor towards the boy detective. He stood back and gawped at her, an expression that always made him appear much younger than he was. On passing, she smiled absently at him. Once she was gone, the boy detective ran to the nearest, street-facing window and he waited to see if she would leave the hotel. She didn’t. She must have instead descended to the bar. Sure enough, when the boy detective went to peep around the entrance to this facility, he observed Ellen sitting on a bar stool with her hands in her lap. She was nodding forcefully as the barman regaled her with chatter that was as breezy and impersonal as the air conditioning.
Over the following week, the boy detective watched Ellen from several discreet points in and around the hotel. He familiarised himself with her daily routine and the hours that she kept.
Eventually, Ellen was returning from a listless afternoon on Princes Street, with a clunky, oversized cardboard bag swinging from each hand, when she found her access to the hotel blocked. An Indian or at least a brown-skinned family – a stout mother and a gang of gaggling children – were taking occupancy of a taxi. Such a debate was ensuing that they might have been trying to buy it.
The driver wanted to secure their suitcases in the boot but the mother was adamant that they should all go where she could see them. Once she had consented to climb inside, the girl in her arms – a squirming tot with mischief stamped all over her diabolical face – looked directly over her mother’s shoulder at Ellen. She gave a broad laugh and then flung the toy that she was holding in scorn. It landed at Ellen’s feet. Ellen was too surprised to react – the contempt on the little girl’s face had astonished her. The taxi had swung out into the road before Ellen could collect her wits, set down her shopping bags, and scoop up the toy.
It was a dumpy, somewhat solemn-looking owl. It was white with brown speckles and about the size of a standard teddy bear. It had fluffed fur but its eyes, eyelids, and beak were all moulded out of an unpleasant plastic that felt vaguely like horn. Ellen tipped the owl over and on its base was a small tag that read OWLET.
The owlet was now hers. She had not snatched at anything that could help to identify the taxi again. When she inquired at the reception, they were unable to assist her. No Indian family had been staying at the hotel. Later, Ellen wondered whether the lady worked there, with her children loitering on the premises during her shift. After all, hadn’t there been an Indian boy hanging around rather awkwardly in the corridors last week? She would ask one of the housekeepers – maybe the Indian lady was from an agency and the reception staff never kept abreast of who was coming and going.
She placed the owlet on the convenience shelf behind the headboard of their bed. Dr Hwangbo had seen it but it had occasioned no remark from him. In fact, he had understood immediately that this was not merely a toy but a recording device. The owlet was the latest in child-monitoring technology; it so resembled an ordinary toy that children never suspected that there were cameras built into its eyes and a mic inside its beak. It was implanted with tracking equipment and you could stream live footage from its eyes on anything with an internet connection.
Before Ellen drank the drugs that she always requested these days, drugs that left her largely insensible, Dr Hwangbo repositioned the owlet so that it had a full view over their bed.