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Authors: Alan Russell

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BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
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Am responded defensively. “I was looking out for the Hotel’s best interests.”

“You were lying,” she said.

Am didn’t like her words, but she was right. If you can’t be honest about a dead whale, then what can you be honest about?
He thought of offering several excuses, but didn’t. “I’m sorry,” he said.

His apology surprised her. She regarded him with new interest. It’s been a while, he thought, since anyone’s looked me over
like that.

“One hundred and eighty-two pounds,” he said.

“Huh?”

“That’s what I weigh. I haven’t been appraised by such gimlet eyes since going up against the weight guesser at the Del Mar
Fair.”

“I’m trying to weigh more than pounds.”

“I hope you have better luck than he did.”

“Oh?”

“He made the mistake of assuming I was lighter than I am.”

Am didn’t tell her that the prize he had won cost the carny barker less than the price of his guess, that the booth was set
up as a no-win situation for the consumer. Maybe she already knew.

“For the record,” he said, “many of our guests have felt discommoded by the whale.”

“You’re saying there’s something rotten at the Hotel California?” she asked.

She offered Shakespeare, and her undertone. He wanted more than her cryptic dance. “I said what I said,” allowed Am, “which
is more than you have.”

The prodding worked. “I’ve heard,” she said, “that Thomas Kingsbury’s death is suspicious.”

The silver lining, he supposed, was that she didn’t know about the Swap Meat. “I can’t comment on that,” he said.

“I didn’t think you would.”

He noticed she said
would
instead of
could.
He also noticed she was walking away. Am studied her escaping form; in it, he saw a professional threat and a personal interest.
For a moment he weighed the situation, and then he followed her. When he caught up with her he asked, “Is that how you end
all of your conversations?”

“I’m late,” she said.

“Sure you’re not the one doing the evading this time?”

“No,” said Marisa, “I’m doing my job. Part of which is to cover today’s featured speaker.”

It was the other part of her job, the one she wasn’t elaborating upon, that interested him.

“Detective McHugh is in charge of the investigation,” Am offered.

“As if that wasn’t obvious hours ago,” she said. “He and a few of his shadows have been nosing around none too unobtrusively.
If they wanted to keep things under wraps, they haven’t done a very good job of it.”

“I’m worried about a premature newspaper article,” he said.

“I’m worried about a dated newspaper article.”

That settled, they walked into Halcyon Hall. It was one of the largest of the Hotel meeting rooms, could accommodate up to
five hundred people. Almost that many were already assembled.

“Damn,” said Marisa, “we’ll probably have to sit in the front row.”

The stage was right on top of the seats, which meant that the front rows had the same limited appeal as up-close movie-house
seating. Am followed Marisa down an aisle. He noticed a few familiar faces, placed them with the Kingsbury room the night
before, and belatedly remembered that Marisa was covering the UNDER Convention. One of her predictions, at least, proved to
be only too correct. They ended up in the front row. Observing the speaker would require their chins to occupy that space
usually reserved for their noses.

“All right,” said Marisa, speaking in a voice only he could hear. “I won’t run any story until the autopsy is concluded. In
turn, I expect complete cooperation from you.”

“What kind of cooperation?”

“For starters, access to any and all Hotel information.”

Violation of privacy, he thought. The cardinal sin in the hotel business. Not to mention transgressing an Amendment or two.

“Go on.”

“And free run of the property. With your master key, and my curiosity, we can go far.”

Maybe as far as San Quentin Penitentiary, he thought. Am didn’t get a chance to answer her demands and end their partnership
even before it began. The lights in the room dimmed. Music started to play, softly at first, then louder. Am tried to place
the music, then remembered: it was Brahms’
German Requiem.

The curtains opened. Spotlights played down on the podium. A figure walked up to the microphone. Or did she glide? She was
wearing white, had on a gossamer gown that, kitelike, unfurled around her. Her complexion was whiter than her outfit, her
cheeks that faintest of pinks, only hinting at a coming spring. Her hair was a blond that was almost white, her eyebrows a
fine translucent sand.

The
Requiem
played on.

“Who is that?” asked Am.

“Why,” said Marisa, “that’s Lady Death, of course.”

Chapter Fifteen

“I am the speaker for the dead,” she said.

The music had stopped. Halcyon Hall was preternaturally quiet. The apparition, the Angel of Death, had everyone’s attention.
And she knew it.

“I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death,” she said. “I have seen into that great beyond, and Chief Seattle
was right: There is no death. There is only a change of worlds.

“I will tell you about the other world.”

She did. Eloquently, beautifully, even passionately. She spoke of the world where, medically dead, she had journeyed. She
talked of following a great white light, described the surreal landscapes she had encountered, and remembered her disappointment
in being told by an unseen force that it “was not her time to die.” It was clear that many in the audience were recalling
their similar near-death experiences as she spoke. The more she talked, the more the crowd responded. She worked the room
better than a revival-meeting preacher.

Her name wasn’t Eurydice. She had lived, died, and now lived again as Angela Holliday. There was an ethereal quality to her,
perhaps because of her fair complexion, perhaps because the lighting didn’t give her a shadow so much as a nimbus.

“After almost dying,” she said, “many of us were told that our being alive was a miracle. But I say that miracles are merely
a point of view. On any given day, we experience thousands of miracles, but we rarely acknowledge them. Our vision has become
jaded. We don’t pause to exult in creation, and we run from introspection. We have forgotten what life is, and we are afraid
to speak of death.

“In fact,” she stage-whispered, “when we talk about death we are supposed to whisper, or better yet, not even talk about it.
But that is not why we have gathered here. We have come to talk of death. For those who have been where I have, you will understand
when I say that I embrace death, for it gave me new life. I embrace death, for it embraced me, and showed me immortality.”

She walked across the stage, stood directly above Am and Marisa. Her closeness gave off a heat. Am wasn’t sure whether it
was all the lights, or just her light. “We are used to viewing death from a distance. Maybe you were like me. You had this
tremendous experience, and you wanted to talk about it, but no one wanted to hear. ‘Get on with your life,’ your family and
friends said, as if by saying those words they could put this thing behind you.

“But I didn’t want to forget. I wanted to remember, and explore what had occurred. I took a journey and I came back changed.
Life and death are not the same to me anymore.

“I am the speaker for the dead. I tell my story, and I tell yours.”

The greatest applause is total silence. Angela Holliday had that applause. She bowed, deeply, and then she left the stage.
She was gone for half a minute before the clapping started. It was the kind of ovation that built over the minutes, but Lady
Death didn’t return for a curtain call.

“Let’s go,” said Marisa.

She awoke Am from his reverie and motioned for him to come along. He decided she was the kind of person who never stayed for
the last few innings of a baseball game, who skipped out during the seventh-inning stretch. The idea of a stretch suddenly
appealed to him. Am rolled his neck a few times, tried to work out the kinks caused by having to stare upward at Angela. The
speaker had, he admitted to himself, transfixed him.

“We’re going to be late,” said Marisa.

“For what?”

“My interview. Heaven can wait, but from what I’ve heard, Angela Holliday can’t.”

“You’re interviewing Angela Holliday?”

His excited tone annoyed her, even if she wasn’t sure why. “If you can call ten minutes an interview. That’s all I could wangle
out of her manager. After Lady Death boots us out, I figure we can get right to work on the Kingsbury stuff.”

“Imagine that,” said Am, “we’re going to get our own mini-tour of the Pearly Gates.”

“This isn’t Saint Peter we’re talking about,” said Marisa. “And the only tour we’ll be getting is a few parceled seconds of
her national book tour. It’s been dubbed the Eulogy Tour. Some eulogy. Word is they gave her a half million dollar advance
for her book.”

“What’s the name of her book?”

“Speaker for the Dead.
Love those cheery titles.”

By earthly standards, the Crown Jewel Suite was about as close to heaven as most mortals ever get. The room had housed seven
presidents, two emperors, four queens, three kings, a bevy of lesser royalty, and enough Hollywood stars to fill up a minor
constellation or two. It rented for three thousand dollars a night. A curator didn’t come with the room, but should have.

The Crown Jewel Suite had long been the showpiece of the Hotel’s interior designers, each trying to outdo the last. Most hotel
managers remind designers that function should be just as important as aesthetics, a lecture usually listened to carefully,
then invariably ignored. In the case of the Crown Jewel Suite, function ranked right behind whether to offer waxed or plain
dental floss (it was decided that both should be in the amenity pack). The room was made up of one-of-a-kind pieces. One enthusiastic
designer had said after decorating the largest of its three bathrooms, “I see not the loo, but the Louvre.” For what it was
worth, his toilet did make it into a number of tabletop magazines.

Mr. Hubert, a rather flamboyant gay man, had been the Hotel’s primary interior designer for the past dozen years. He was a
truly gifted artist, but he did have his quirky side. One of his claims to fame was that for a time he had managed to put
a color motif to all seven of the Hotel floors. “The guest,” he had insisted, “can have the color he wants.” During the short-lived
“lollipop era” (thirteen months), there were only a dozen documented requests for a floor on the basis of color. Mr. Hubert
had also tried to have the Hotel carpets changed four times a year. “They should reflect the seasons,” he had lectured to
the owners. When reminded that San Diego doesn’t really have seasons, Mr. Hubert supposedly replied, “It is our duty to remember
that the rest of the world does.”

One of Mr. Hubert’s favorite laments was “I am handcuffed by the museum mentality of this place.” By that he meant the historical
status of the Hotel prohibited him from tinkering with it very much. He derided all the “sacred-cow rooms,” areas that had
been the same for so long that their longevity alone dictated they could not be touched. Because guest rooms weren’t sacrosanct,
Mr. Hubert worked on them with abandon. His latest motif was “the five-senses appeal.” Engineering, which had the onus of
fixing anything wrong with the guest rooms, called Mr. Hubert’s designs the “no-sense appeal.”

Marisa knocked on the entry door to the Crown Jewel Suite. Am expected an attendant would do the answering, a man with small
eyes and big shoulders, but it was Angela Holliday who opened her own door. She had changed clothes, was wearing jeans, a
peach button-down cotton shirt, and sandals. She didn’t need white wings, Am decided.

Introductions were made (Am found himself identified as “with the Hotel”), and Angela led them into the suite. She casually
motioned to the wet bar and said, “Help yourself to anything you want.” There was a lot they could have helped themselves
to, including the requisite fruit basket, chocolates, cheese and crackers, and a fully stocked bar, but they politely declined
and waited for her to sit down.

Angela chose the white leather sofa (“the next white sofa that goes in this Hotel,” executive housekeeper Barbara Terry had
been heard to say, “will be made of Mr. Hubert’s hide”), was easily able to position her feet under her backside in that contortion
which some women describe as being comfortable. From her shirt pocket she pulled out a tiny hourglass. Or maybe it was a ten-minute
glass. She placed it down on the coffee table that separated her from her interviewers, the kind of coffee table that shouldn’t
be adorned by magazines (a bleached mahogany with beveled glass and inlaid turquoise). The hourglass granules began to fall.

“I’m sorry to have so little time to spare,” she said, “but I think you’ll find that most of your questions can be answered
by reading my book.”

She pointed to a stack of books on the coffee table. “Please. One for each of you. They’re autographed.”

Marisa didn’t seem inclined to reach for a book, so Am took two and said thank you for both of them. The cover was mostly
black, save for an ethereal, if apparently female, orator. Behind this speaker were dark, spectral masses, distinguished through
the glow of their eyes. Marisa opted to open her notepad instead of the book. Her questions started without preamble, and
were answered in the same manner. Am thought the Q and A was like watching a professional tennis match, his head moving back
and forth while following the hurried interview format. Marisa covered the background first, took down the shortened life
(death?) and times of Angela Holliday, then tried to ask a few questions that went beyond a PR profile.

“Do you like being called the Angel of Death?” she asked.

“I don’t appreciate the sensationalistic aspects of the name,” she said, “but it’s a nickname I can live with.”

Am laughed, and received an answering smile. Marisa either didn’t think her response funny, or was too hard-pressed for time
to chuckle.

BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
7.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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