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Human Places, Inhuman Monsters

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Thorin Oakenshield thought: Officious prick.

   Smaug stood 6’8 and when he moved it was with the elegant speed that seems to be in the exclusive domain of all tall chiselled men. The part in his ginger hair was exact and gelled delicately, his red suit was extravagant yet comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems (and your money) to, that suit said to a paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: this had better be good, you. There was a carnation in the lapel, sprayed gold from the look of it. As he listened to Smaug speak, Thorin admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk, under any circumstances.

   Smaug had asked a question he hadn’t caught. That was bad; Smaug was the type of man who would hoard mistakes like that away in a mental pile for later consideration.

“I’m sorry?”

“I asked you, Mr Oakenshield, if you would be bringing your nephews with you?”

Thorin nodded.

   Smaug glanced down at the file in front of him. “Fili and Kili. Aren’t they a little intimidated by the idea?”

   “They’re extraordinary young boys.”

   “The youngest, Kili, you’d say he’s ‘extraordinary’ at his age?” Smaug asked, in a tone that skimmed the edges of doubt.

   Thorin smiled, a pleasantly parental smile, “I like to think so, I suppose.” He absently picked at a stray thread on the thigh of his charity-shop-esque trousers. “He’s quite self-reliant for a five-year-old”

   No returning smile from Smaug. He slipped Thorin’s application back into a file. The file went into a shiny mahogany drawer. The desk top was now completely bare except for a blotter, a telephone, a lamp and a basket.

   Smaug stood up and moved to the file cabinet in the corner with a strange kind of languid grace. “Step around the desk, if you will, Mr Oakenshield”

   The towering man spoke to him now, about his duties surrounding and within the hotel. All the time Thorin nodded his head politically, glad to get this over with so he could go and collect the boys from school. He glanced sneakily at his watch, trying his best to stay interested in the conversation.

   “Of course you wouldn’t allow your nephews up into the attic under any circumstances.

   “No” Thorin said quickly, flashing a polite smile. Did this bothersome little prick actually think he would allow his boys to goof around in a rattrap attic full of junk furniture and god knows what else?

   Smaug obnoxiously continued listing, in detail, the plans of the hotel, showing Thorin pressed, white maps of the hotel’s interior.

Could you at least spare the sales talk?  

But he kept quiet. He needed this job.

   “Now, the basement” said Smaug, “in here is the boiler, I’m sure that Radagast will show you around there” He frowned impressively, perhaps to show that as the manager, he did not concern himself with such mundane aspects of Erebor’s operation as the boiler and the plumbing.

  After a while of this, Smaug turned smoothly to face Thorin and said in a mild voice “I don’t believe you care much for me, Mr Oakenshield. I don’t care. Certainly your feelings toward me play no part in my own belief that you are not right for the job. We employ one hundred and ten people full time at this establishment; one for every room of the hotel, you might say. I don’t think many of them like me and I suspect many of them think I’m a bit of a dragon. They would be correct in their judgement of my character. I have to be a bit of a dragon to run this hotel in the manner it deserves. 

   He looked at Thorin for comment, and Thorin flashed a nervous smile.

   Smaug said: “Are you aware, Mr Oakenshield, of the Erebor’s history?” When Thorin shook his head he continued, “During our first winter I hired a family instead of a single man, there was a tragedy. A horrible tragedy”

   Smaug looked at Thorin coolly and appraisingly.

   “I made a mistake in hiring him. I admit it freely. The man was a drunk”

   Thorin felt a slow hot grimace stretch across his face. “Is that it? I’m surprised Bilbo didn’t tell you. I’ve retired”

  “Yes, Mr Baggins told me you no longer drink. He also told me about your last job…your last position of trust shall we say? You were teaching science in a Gondor prep school. You lost your temper, I don’t believe I need to be more specific than that. But I do believe that the previous case has a bearing, and that is why I have brought up the matter of your…uh, previous history into the conversation.”

   Thorin bristled

   “The previous care-taker, he had a wife and two daughters. I had reservations, the main ones being the harshness of the winter season and the fact that the family would be cut off from the outside world for five of six months. I reasoned much as Mr Baggins seems to have done in your case. Solitude can be damaging in itself. Better for the man to have his family with him. I suspect what happened came as a result of too much cheap whiskey, which had been laid in generous supply, unbeknownst to me, and a curious condition which the old-timers call cabin fever. Do you know the term?” Smaug offered a thin, patronising smile, ready to explain as soon as Thorin admitted his ignorance, and Thorin was happy to respond quickly and crisply.

   “It’s a slang term for the claustrophobic reaction that can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time. The feeling of claustrophobia is externalised as dislike for the people you happen to be shut in with. In extreme cases it can result in hallucinations and violence – murder has been done over such minor things as a burned meal or an argument about whose turn it is to do the dishes.

   Smaug looked rather nonplussed, which did Thorin a world of good. Then he nodded.

   “He killed them, Mr Oakenshield, and then committed suicide. He murdered the little girls with a hatchet, his wife with a shotgun, and himself the same way. His leg was broken, undoubtedly so drunk he fell downstairs. 

   “That was your mistake,” Thorin said. “A stupid man is more prone to cabin fever. He gets bored. When the snow comes, there’s nothing to do but watch the TV or play solitaire and cheat when he can’t get all the aces out. Nothing to do but bitch at his wife and nag at the kids, so he drinks. It gets hard to sleep because there’s nothing to hear, so he drinks. He wakes up with a hangover. He get edgy, he drinks.  Maybe the telephone goes out and the TV aerial blows down, he drinks. Then there’s nothing to do but think and cheat at solitaire, and drink.  So he gets edgier and edgier. He drinks. Finally…boom, boom, boom.”

   “Whereas a more educated man, such as yourself?”

   “The kids and I like to read. Kili has colouring books, and his radio. I plan to teach him to read, and I also want to teach him to snowshoe. Come to think of it, I don’t think Fili’s ever learnt either. Oh yes, we can keep busy and out of each other’s way once the TV goes on the fritz” He paused. “And Bilbo was telling the truth when he told you I no longer drink. I did once and it got to be serious. But I haven’t had one drink in the last fourteen months. I don’t intent to bring any alcohol up here.” And he meant it.

   Smaug nodded solemnly. “All right. I’ll accept then, since I have little choice. Well, perhaps you’ll do. Now I’ll turn you over to Radagast, he’ll take you through the basement and around the grounds. Unless you have any further questions?”

“No” Thorin said. “None at all.”

Smaug stood. “I hope there are no hard feelings, Mr Oakenshield. There is nothing personal in the things I have said to you. I only want what’s best for the Erebor. It’s a great hotel. I want it to stay that way.” And again he smiled that thin smile that made it look as if the skin was pulled too tightly over his face.

   “No. No hard feelings at all.” Thorin flashed a smile. 

   But as he walked out of Smaug’s pristine office he thought. There were hard feelings. All kinds of them.  

   

Chapter Text

 

   It took all of 45 minutes for Radagast to introduce Thorin to the ins and outs of the hotel. Radagast was a strange little man but certainly not un-friendly, Thorin decided. He had a way of making absolute nonsense sound exactly like common sense, a trait which Thorin greatly admired as he felt that he himself always did quite the opposite. He supposed that this was why he had never made a very good teacher, he had a habit of waffling on about things or simply not knowing quite how to phrase them, even when he knew exactly what he was talking about. Although being drunk at work the majority of the time probably didn’t help the matter.

   Better to cut thoughts like that at the roots.

   Turning his full attention to the grey haired man beside him, Thorin attempted to tune in on what the grounds keeper had been saying.

“Now the thing about the boiler is that if you don’t check the temperature at least three times a day, things can get a little messy”

“What do you mean?”

   In answer to this Radagast simply used his hands to mime an explosion. Thorin got the message.

“Okay so what do I do if the boiler is over-heating?”

   Radagast thought for a moment

“Come on I’ll show you, we’re near the boiler room anyway”

    Thorin glanced down at his watch unsure, he was already late to pick up the boys. But he supposed they would be alright for a little while longer.

   When the two arrived at a huge metal door Radagast explained that the key needed to enter was the seventeenth key on his groundskeeper belt. Not for the first time that day Thorin wondered how he would manage to keep track of all of the keys he would need to do his job come the winter.

   Unlocking the door Radagast stepped in first, groping on the wall for the light switch for a second before finding it and pressing it on. It took a few moments for Thorin to even realise the light had been turned on at all as it was so dim. Indeed the flickering light bulb looked as if it might not have much life in it. He mentally noted that changing the bulb would be one of his first jobs during his stay.

   In the corner of the room sat a huge old-fashioned boiler, through the cobwebs he could make out an old thermometer which kept track of the internal and external temperatures of the machine, and a small release valve further down which Thorin assumed was to relieve the pressure inside the boiler, therefore cooling it down and putting an end to any impending danger. Radagast explained that the valve had to be released first thing in the morning, just after his lunch, and then again right before he went to bed at night.

“As long as you do that you’ll be alight” the bearded man smiled crookedly

   Thorin offered a nervous but genuine smile in return.

   After going through a couple of the other significantly less important pieces of equipment in the boiler room, Thorin told his apologetically that he had to rush as he had yet to pick his nephews up from school.                       

   Clumsily locking the door behind him as he left, Radagast agreed that Thorin had seen everything he needed to be set for the winter.

   They hastily said their goodbyes once they arrived in the main lobby, Radagast wishing him good luck before scurrying off to the staff room for a cup of coffee and ‘a smoke’, though what exactly he would be smoking Thorin wasn’t entirely certain.

  He took a moment to soak in the splendour of the room as he had only passed through it briefly on his way to visit Smaug. Things were pretty slow at this time of day so there were only the odd few people milling around. Thorin felt distinctly out of place in his charity shop suit as he looked around at the magnificent fireplace, sleek counters and plush sofas. Descending the solid stone steps to the front car park, he decided that he would have to buy some nicer clothes with his wages after the winter.

   As he arrived at his busted up car something over the bonnet caught his eye. A little way across from him was a great hedge cut into curious shapes – almost like animals, and through it Thorin thought that he could make out a set of swings and a tunnel. Funny, he thought to himself, Radagast hadn’t mentioned a play area when he was giving him an overview of the grounds. Regardless, it made him smile to think that Kili would have a place to run around and play until the snow got too heavy to venture outside.

   Getting into the car Thorin fiddled hastily with the ignition and flicked on the radio. Once the engine properly started up he began to back out of the hotel parking space, looking behind him to ensure that he didn’t hit anything.

   As he drove out of the car park he noticed that the hedge creatures (animals?) were directly visible in his rear-view mirror. He laughed to himself that it seemed as if the warg-styled hedge was looking directly at him.

   He tried the whole way home not to think about how he was sure the hedge had been facing the opposite direction before.