Authors: Alan Russell
Kate, Janet and Melvin were madly scribbling down notes. Am found himself taking a deep breath. It wasn’t easy, he decided,
organizing chaos. It went against his every instinct. He felt like a watchmaker smashing a watch.
“And I,” he said, “will be conspiring with engineering about how best to put their two meeting rooms out of commission.”
It wasn’t uncommon for all fourteen of the Hotel meeting rooms to be used on the same day. Accidents and acts of God had happened
before when all of them had functions scheduled. Am had faced up to the consequences of broken pipes, gas leaks, fires, storms,
vandalism, and earthquake damage, had been forced to find alternate space for the meetings by utilizing restaurant space,
converting connecting suites into meeting space, and on one occasion raising a big top. He had done whatever was possible
to keep the show going.
“Janet and Kate, you’ll need to make it appear that every other meeting room is being used. Put some bogus names on the reader
board, then have them set up and arrange for staff to sit in them. Tell the Swap Meat how sorry you are, but say that you
have no alternative meeting space. Act helpless and apologetic. Tell them these things happen. And keep saying, ‘Have a nice
“Oh,” he said, remembering. “No toilet paper in any of the rooms. None at all. Explain there’s a temporary shortage.”
Kate’s eyes were actually dry. There was a glimmer of a smile on her face. And Janet looked hopeful. Melvin appeared the happiest
of all. There was a Rudolph glow to his nose. What was being proposed wasn’t illegal, but it was
terrain he was quite familiar with.
“How soon,” asked Janet, “before the accidents occur in their meeting rooms?”
“About as quick,” said Am, “as you can say,
Cotton Gibbons had a lot of rules in his life, one of them being that he never talked with management unless absolutely necessary.
The maintenance man (he thought the term “engineer” much too highfalutin, and would be damned before he followed the suggested
personnel—no, human-resources—guidelines, which suggested maids be called housekeepers, dishwashers be referred to as stewards,
and front-desk clerks be called guest service agents) didn’t trust anyone who wore a tie, figuring that a tool belt was the
only proper adornment to any wardrobe. It wasn’t that Cotton was a friend to the masses; truth to tell, he was generally surly
to all. But he had decided, after ten years of avoiding talking with Am, that they should now be friends. It was not a friendship
which Am actively cultivated. Cotton’s sudden congeniality was promoted by what he perceived as Am’s “raw deal.” The line
between offering sympathy and voicing self-pity can sometimes be a thin one, and it was a line that Cotton often crossed over.
Am’s demotion fit well into Cotton’s perception of the universe, where the non-tool-users in ties tried to screw over the
oppressed. That the new chieftains were Japanese was probably the greatest thing that could have ever happened to Cotton.
They were the culmination of his finger pointing, the visible demons to his grasping theories. There was a new bumper sticker
on Cotton’s three-quarter-ton Chevy pickup:
STOP THE WHALE KILLERS
BOY-COTT JAPANESE GOODS
. It was not a bumper sticker in keeping with the others plastered to the vehicle, most of which had been supplied by the
NRA and John Birch Society, nor was the conservation message easily squared with Cotton’s rifle rack. “I was going to get
a bumper sticker that said, ‘Buy American,’ “ he confessed to Am, “but I didn’t think that would piss
was the ownership, and anyone vaguely resembling the ownership. There were many orientals on the Hotel staff, including Koreans,
Filipinos, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodians, countries that historically have little love for Japan. That didn’t make a
difference to Cotton. To him,
were all the same. Am tried to explain that most oriental cultures were very different, and that he might as well try lumping
Americans with Bulgarians as Koreans with Japanese.
“They’re all the same,” Cotton had repeated.
Am remembered a joke, one he hoped had a didactic theme. “Two men at a bar,” he said. “Mr. Chang and Mr. Steinberg, the one
oriental, the other Jewish.
“Mr. Steinberg is clearly bothered. He starts muttering to himself, and gets angrier and angrier. After chugging down a few
drinks, he comes to a decision. Raising himself from his barstool, he walks over to Mr. Chang, punches him in the face, and
knocks him to the floor.
“Wagging his finger in Mr. Chang’s face, Mr. Steinberg righteously announced: ‘That’s for Pearl Harbor.’
“ ‘But I’m not Japanese,’ shouted Mr. Chang. ‘I’m Chinese.’
“ ‘Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese,’ said Mr. Steinberg. ‘What’s the difference? You’re all the same.’
“Mr. Steinberg turns around and walks back to his end of the bar. Picking himself up, Mr. Chang once more sits at the bar,
but this time he’s the one muttering to himself. He orders a few drinks, and with each one becomes angrier and angrier. Finally,
he walks across the bar, faces Mr. Steinberg, and decks him with a single punch.
“Standing over him, Mr. Chang said, ‘That’s for the
“ ‘What do you mean?’ asked Mr. Steinberg. ‘It was an iceberg that sank the
“ ‘Iceberg, Weinberg, Steinberg,’ “ said Mr. Chang. ‘What difference does it make? You’re all alike.’“
Cotton was a little slow to laugh. By Am’s reckoning about two weeks slow and counting. Rednecks, he thought, they’re all
Am heard Cotton before he saw him, his grumbling preceding him. They had agreed to meet at the Seal Wishing Well. There were
three wishing wells on the property, one of many multiple landmarks at the Hotel that had confused and averted many a rendezvous.
“Painted whore,” mumbled Cotton. “Heart of dry rot.”
Cotton’s terms of endearment were addressed to the Hotel, the same Hotel that was generally referred to as a “Grande Dame,”
or a “Stately Queen.” By the nature of their job, the engineering department usually sees the Hotel at its worst. Cotton took
the physical failings of the Hotel as a personal affront, as if he were being personally spited.
“Problem?” asked Am.
“Problem? Nothing more than the fucking Hotel’s falling down.”
Cotton had studied under Chicken Little. He was thin and tall, around fifty and a long way from mellow. His hair was still
more black than gray. He didn’t have a red neck, but he did have plenty of nose and ear hair that, to Am’s knowledge, had
never been harvested.
“Got some lighting that Edison must have put in that’s gone bad.”
Chronologically, Cotton wasn’t off the mark by much.
“And got some clogged scuppers that I’d like to drop a couple of depth charges on.”
Scuppers. One of those magical words that the engineering department could talk about for hours on end. There was a general
fascination over such inanimate objects that Am thought bordered on the ridiculous. Scuppers. It was a subject Am needed to
nip in the bud.
“I need your help,” he said.
Cotton looked disinterested. Engineering hears “help” yelled more frequently than a 911 operator.
“It has to be done on the sly.”
Things were sounding better, judging by Cotton’s expression.
“I need you to take out two meeting rooms: the Neptune Room and Sea Horse Hall.”
“Take out?” asked Cotton.
It sounded like a hit. “With extreme prejudice,” said Am, intoning CIA emphasis.
Am offered Cotton the background, and the reasons why the rooms had to be temporarily put out of service. Cotton didn’t need
the reasons—he needed to be restrained.
“It has to look like an accident,” Am cautioned, “and you can’t cause any injuries. And no real damage, nothing that we can’t
fix up in a day or two.”
“Leave it to me,” said Cotton, a look of rapture on his face.
“ ‘Never make a toil of pleasure,’ “ quoted Am, “ ‘as Billy Ban said when he dug his wife’s grave only three feet deep.’“
Cotton suddenly looked serious. Am figured it was his talk of graves.
“Scuppers,” he announced. “First I’ll take care of them, then I’ll get on to the other.”
Cotton left a happy man. Am wasn’t quite so cheerful. Maybe there was a Mrs. Billy Ban in Kingsbury’s life, someone not only
glad to dig his grave, but motivated enough to kill him. Am needed to know those kinds of things, and felt a sense of failure
that most of the morning had passed without his having been able to delve into the doctor’s death. He had been waylaid by
a pretender to the throne, a decomposing whale, and an impending orgy.
Scuppers, Am thought. Given the alternatives, maybe he could understand their attraction after all.
The ideal bellman is a Boy Scout grown up, but still in search of merit badges. Jimmy Mazzelli had never been a Boy Scout,
nor was he an ideal bellman (or even “bell captain”—his preferred and self-appointed title).
Jimmy assumed his job was a license to hustle. He ran the Hotel football pools (“administrative fees” five percent), and was
willing to take any bets on the side. Jimmy made it a point to stick his nose into everything going on at the Hotel, figuring
it was to his advantage to keep up on all that was going on. In that way, and that way alone, he was like the Japanese, who
firmly believe that information is power.
So just what information, Am wondered, was Jimmy passing on to Marisa Donnelly?
He moved closer to hear their conversation, but didn’t even get within listening range before being noticed. Jimmy was the
ultimate survivalist. One moment he was talking and combing his long, slicked-back hair, and the next he was running off,
comb in hand, as if he were the anchorman on a baton relay team.
There are certain professions that cause a momentary reflection, even nervousness, to the average citizenry. The sudden appearance
of law-enforcement officers, the IRS, the clergy, and the Fourth Estate tend to make even the upright take stock of their
failings. The presence of Marisa Donnelly made Am think about the nearness of the Neptune Room. She was less than a hundred
paces away from her sexposé.
Marisa approached Am. “Tit for tat,” she announced. Or had she said, “Tit for tattle?”
Regardless, she had said tit. Dammit, he thought, she knows about the impending group grope. “It’s being taken care of,” said
Her full, dark brows furrowed and became one. “What’s being taken care of?”
Then again… “Uh, the whale.”
“The big story of the day, right?”
She had used that same intonation earlier in the morning, a slight mocking that announced
knew that wasn’t the real truth. He shrugged, not yet willing to play along.
“It’s not even the first whale to make headlines in La Jolla,” she said somewhat imperiously.
La Jolla, often touted as “the American Riviera,” is a coastal enclave for the wealthy. It is the kind of city where even
the local McDonald’s takes on airs (the village wouldn’t allow a McDonald’s, but they did allow a boutique McSnacks). In La
Jolla, whales do not make headlines nearly as often as fat cats.
“There was another beached whale here?” he asked.
“Not exactly. In 1918 a fishing boat was perched off the La Jolla kelp beds. The boat bumped into something, and then there
was an explosion. It rained whale. The victims made it sound like a Texas gusher, except in this case it was rancid oil and
blubber that poured down onto the deck of their boat. The smell, they said, made everyone sick. When the fishing party docked
their boat, the stink cleared the pier.
“The exploding whale was the talk of San Diego. There was only one possible explanation for what had happened. During the
first World War, a schooner had been commissioned to hunt whales around San Diego. There was a national shortage of fats and
oils, so whales were targeted to give their lives to the cause. To expedite the slaughter, the schooner’s harpoons were rigged
up with bombs that were supposed to detonate on impact. Thousands of whales were taken in that way.”
“But one got away.”
Marisa nodded. “They figured the harpoon must have eventually killed the whale. It likely drifted into the kelp beds, where
it became entwined. The bomb finally went off when the fishing boat jarred the whale.”
“Score one for the whales,” said Am.
“Now two,” she said.
Am offered a wry smile. He was tempted to blow the dust off one of his old whale song LPs and ask Marisa if she wanted to
come over and listen to it. He was even willing to bet she had a few of the same albums.
“Most people don’t know it,” she said, “but there was a time when the gray whales used to come to San Diego Bay to do their
breeding. They say the bay was full of whales, that is, until whale hunting became a way of life around here. For over thirty
years, from the 1850s to the 1880s, whaling was a San Diego industry. On Point Loma and North Island, whales were regularly
towed in, butchered, and boiled.”
Am had always thought of American whaling as something that had taken place in the Atlantic, something that was distinctly
eastern. Maybe, he hoped, if the whales weren’t bothered for a few more decades, they’d start using San Diego Bay as their
nursery once again.
“Is San Diego’s whaling history going to be in your story?” he asked.
“You’ll make a lot of people feel guilty,” he said.
“That’s the point of most good stories,” she said.
He heard the double meaning in her tone again. “Somehow,” he said, “I don’t think you and Jimmy Mazzelli were talking about
He didn’t say anything for several seconds, and neither did she. “I’m investigating some rumors that are going around,” Marisa
“If you couldn’t give me an honest answer about how your guests felt about the beached whale, I don’t figure you as a reliable