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Authors: Alan Russell

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BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
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“I heard your talk…”

“… it was wonderful,” said Am.

“… today. You mentioned how your near-death experience taught you many things. What was the most important thing it taught
you?”

Angela directed her answer to Am. “To not be afraid of death,” she said. “It is hard to imagine how liberating that notion
is. Knowing that there is life after death gave me a freedom I never had before.”

“I noticed in your speech you never referred to the afterlife as ‘heaven.’“

“I didn’t call it ‘hell’ either. Death brings us to another plane. It sounds like a cliché, but that place is a far, far better
place than the one we now occupy.”

“That sounds like an endorsement for death.”

“It’s an endorsement for life, for how we should occupy this time, but don’t. I was able to see what is truly important, and
what isn’t.”

“What is important?”

“Love. Not romantic love per se, not that I knock such…”

Another smile for Am.

“… but more of the philosophy of love as a guiding light. That’s what we are on this planet for. Everything else, seen from
a distance, is trivial. We make living complicated, but it should be simple.”

“One of the criticisms of the near-death movement is that it is
too
simplistic,” said Marisa. “Critics say it is just another
version of the great carrot at the end of the stick, the reward in the next world.”

“Critics and cynics will be with us always.”

“Some of those so-called critics and cynics have gone so far as to say the near-death philosophy is an endorsement to suicide.
They claim it makes death attractive.”

Angela shook her head. Vigorously. “That’s nonsense. Many of the survivors of near-death experiences were specifically told
it was not their time, that they had to go back, even when they didn’t want to. Death is not a pie in the sky. It is not something
to which we can dictate terms.”

“The late Dr. Kingsbury said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the near-death experience couldn’t be accounted for by chemicals
given off by the body during extreme trauma. He was also of the opinion that the near-death experience is now a self-fulfilling
prophecy, that those on the threshold of death have certain expectations about what will occur because of what he termed the
‘propaganda’ of your movement.”

“But in the end,” said Angela, “Dr. Kingsbury became our Paul vis-à-vis his Saul of Tarsus conversion. He saw the light. Dying,
he said, ‘Be positive.’ His last words succinctly sum up our movement. I regret that he didn’t live, so as to tell all of
us his experiences. I think it not inaccurate, though, to state that his was a deathbed conversion.”

“Do you think…”

“I’m sorry,” interrupted Angela, patting the tiny hourglass with her thin index finger. There were no grains of sand left.
“Our time is up.”

Marisa opened her mouth, but the speaker for the dead repeated the same words, pronounced them this time with a finality that
went beyond ending a conversation: “Our time is up.”

Chapter Sixteen

“I wanted to tell her,” said Marisa, “that I had just had a near-hourglass experience. I wanted to turn that damn thing over
and say, ‘Look! We can keep talking. It’s a miracle’”

“You saw how a television crew was already lined up outside,” Am said, feeling the need to defend Angela, “and another was
forming behind it.”

Marisa did a cow imitation, complete with an outstretched neck and long-drawn-out moooo. “That makes me part of a media cattle
call. You would think the press wouldn’t buy into that. But over the next day or two Lady Death will be splashed all over
the local news. There will be bigger lines at her book signings than at the Saint Vincent de Paul food line.”

“Psychological needs of the community transcending economic needs,” intoned Am. “Sounds like a good story to me. She’s apparently
striking a chord…”

“She’s not Lazarus.”

“She’s also not your usual tour guide.”

“You’re right. What kind of tour guide only gives a ten-minute talk? And from that I’m supposed to fluff a major article.”

“You could always excerpt from her book.”

“That would mean reading it, which I am not going to do.”

“Then how does your story get written?”

“I’ll quote from her speech. And besides, there’s always the introduction to journalism question of ‘where.’ Her suite was
made for hyperbole. It’s not exactly a Kmart showroom, is it?”

“Not quite,” said Am. “And you only saw the sitting room. Behind doors number two and three were the real prizes.”

“Tell me.”

He did, and she started taking notes, scribbling as they walked. Am described the Italian marble-top desks, the Austrian-made
Bakalowits chandeliers, the oversized down duvets, the Bugatti furniture, the four-poster honeymoon bed mounted with brocades
and silk and English chintz, and the classical statuary and custom art. He also clued her into the “hidden” features of the
suite, the custom-made three-inch soundproof doors, the hand-woven two-inch-thick carpeting, the air-conditioning that didn’t
give off the usual recycled air but instead provided fresh-chilled, the specially created potpourri placed in secreted caches
around the room, the individual thermostat console at bedside, and even the two touch-control fireplaces.

“Magic Fingers?” asked Marisa.

“Sorry,” said Am.

She mugged her disappointment.

“But there is an in-room spa,” he said, “with twelve jet sprays. And a propensity for eating panty hose.”

Marisa gave him a quizzical look.

“Last week engineering had to tear the spa up,” explained Am. “Somehow a pair of panty hose ended up clogging one of the pipes.
That, I’m sure, was a story in itself. A major part of this business is overcoming monkey wrenches, nylon and otherwise. Since
the suite was promised for the night, a whole crew worked furiously to get it fixed. That’s the problem with a unique accommodation,
when another room just won’t do. It’s difficult enough to keep up any hotel room even when you have interchangeable parts,
when the beds and bureaus and tables can be switched around between the rooms, and there are replacements waiting in storage.
But one-of-a-kind rooms are a different undertaking altogether. They require incredible preventative maintenance. TQM is a
religion at all great properties.”

“TQM?”

“Total Quality Management,” translated Am. “It used to be QA, which is Quality Assurance, but I think someone figured out
that three letters sound more official than two. It all translates to having systems in place which try and ensure guest satisfaction.
At the Bristol Hotel in Paris they don’t disinfect the toilet seats, they remove them, scrape them, and revarnish them prior
to the arrival of every new guest. And before a guest checks into the Ritz in Paris, at least half a dozen employees verify
the room is letter-perfect, with inspections not only by room checkers and management, but electricians, plumbers and painters.

“A few hotels have even gone so far as to decide that the best the world has to offer isn’t good enough for them. London’s
Savoy Hotel decided to manufacture its own beds, reputed to be the most comfortable on the planet. The Savoy considers their
investment in beds—a rather sizable one—to be in their own best interests. As any hotel employee can tell you, a guest that
has failed to have a good night’s sleep is about as happy as a bear denied hibernation.”

They entered the main lobby. It always looked familiar to visitors, perhaps because it had been featured in dozens of movies.
Hollywood thought the Hotel’s lobby the embodiment of what a grand old lobby should look like, and for once Am agreed with
Tinseltown’s taste. The ceiling was high, not the thirty-story atriums so popular these days, but high enough to house a respectable
basketball court. There were murals painted on the ceiling, most created by depression-era artists. Short on funds, the artists
hadn’t been short on vision. Faux gold leaf abounded, the fool’s gold designs about the only things in the lobby short on
bona fides. The lobby had been built with the integrity of another time, erected long before earthquake standards and building
safety regulations were put on the books, but not before artisans knew how to create an enduring edifice.

The front desk was quiet, a rare occasion. A solitary guest was being helped by T.K. “Check-in hour is officially at three
o’clock,” he announced, “but let’s see what I can do for you, Mr. Gordon.”

Am didn’t like T.K.’s all-too-cheery tone. It was his show-time voice. The aspiring comic was always trying out new material
at the front desk. He’d been warned on several occasions that he would be trying out his material at the unemployment office
if he went too far, but T.K. was irrepressible.

“Let me guess, Mr. Gordon,” said T.K., flashing his white teeth in a wide smile. “You want a room with a view.”

Mr. Gordon smiled back. He was more bald than not, about sixty, had the genial, self-assured countenance of someone who had
never been forced to scratch too hard for a living. He was, Am had to admit, the perfect dupe.

“Yes,” said the guest. “That’s exactly what my wife and I want. A room with a view.”

T.K. nodded. He reached below the counter, pulled out a book, then slapped it down with a resounding thump. “That’ll be six
ninety-five.”

Mr. Gordon was clearly confused. “What do you mean?”

“E.M. Forster,” said T.K., raising up the novel for Mr. Gordon to see. “His greatest book.
A Room with a View.
As I’m sure you know, it’s considered a modern classic.”

T.K. offered the book to the guest. Mr. Gordon looked uneasy, even a bit afraid. “I thought we were talking about a room with…”

By his own admission, T.K. was “half chameleon, and half African-American.” When the comedic situation called for it, he was
good at exploiting white guilt. T.K. wasn’t smiling, was the picture of someone trying to puzzle out an unusual situation
himself. Mr. Gordon decided he didn’t want to offend. He took the proffered book, thumbed a few pages.

“How much did you say?” he asked.

“Six…”

“Complimentary,” interjected Am.

T.K. didn’t miss a beat. He hadn’t noticed Am’s approach to the desk, but had been busted by him enough times to know his
routine was at an end.

“That’s right,” said T.K. “It’s our May special. We offer a room with a view with
A Room with a View.”

“Well,” said Mr. Gordon, “that’s mighty nice of you.”

Am motioned for another desk clerk. He requested, and received, a copy of the entire UNDER convention room block. There were
over 150 rooms registered to the group. Why couldn’t we be a normal hotel? thought Am. Why did we attract the swingers and
the near dead, and not the Shriners? With Marisa looking over his shoulder, Am ran his finger down the names. He looked for
and found the name of Jack Baldwin, the witness to Dr. Kingsbury’s last words and last breath.

From a house phone at the front desk, Am dialed Baldwin’s room. While waiting for an answer, he explained to Marisa that he
had interviewed the staff the night before, “including E.M. Forster’s mouthpiece” (T.K. pretended not to hear), but Baldwin
had been the only one near enough to identify Kingsbury’s last words.

Almost ready to hang up, Am was surprised by a late pickup. “Hello, Mr. Baldwin? My name is Am Caulfield. I’m the security
director at the Hotel, and I was wondering if I could come up and talk with you about last night.”

Am waited out a rather lengthy response. “I’m sorry the police haven’t given you time to do even that, Mr. Baldwin,” he said,
“but I can assure you I’ll only be a minute or two.”

There was another long pause. “Which book signing is that, Mr. Baldwin?”

Shorter wait, quicker answer: “Well, believe it or not, I have her book right in my hands. It’s autographed, and I’d be glad
to present it to you free of charge. That’s right. Thank you. I’ll be right up.”

Am and Marisa started to walk away, but then Am remembered something and walked back to the desk. He held out his hand pointedly
to T.K.

“What?” protested the clerk.

“I thought you’d join me in our ‘giving-books-to-guests’ campaign,” Am said.

Am continued to hold out his hand. Reluctantly, T.K. reached under the counter and pulled out another copy of
A Room with a View.

“How’d you know?” asked T.K.

“It’s human nature to repeat novel jokes,” said Am.

Chapter Seventeen

“It’s not very nice of me to say so,” said Jack, “but I’m beginning to wish the poor man had just expired quietly.”

Am apologized for his troubles. In the hotel industry, apologizing is as natural as breathing. Marisa didn’t say anything.
Am had introduced her as being “from the union.” He didn’t elaborate that she was from the
Union-Tribune.

“Can we go over the scenario just one more time?” Am asked.

Jack ran a hand through his thinning blond hair. He was tired, and proceeded with obvious reluctance. “I had an appointment
with the doctor,” he said, his voice weary. “I knocked on his door. There were sounds from inside…”

“What kind of sounds?” asked Marisa.

“A man’s voice, accompanied by thumping and thrashing sounds. Instinctively, I knew something was wrong. A heart attack, I
figured, or an epileptic seizure. I considered trying to pound the door down, but I figured that would only get me a dislocated
shoulder, so I attacked it instead with my fist, knocking very loudly.

“When there was still no answer, I started running down the hall. I searched for a maid, or anyone who could get me in the
room, but no one was around. The elevator was open, so I jumped inside. My original plan was to ride down to the front desk,
but I had sense enough to use the telephone in the elevator. The switchboard operator told me she’d send someone up immediately.”

“Did you go right back to the room?” asked Marisa.

“Yes.”

“On your way there,” she asked, “did you encounter anyone?”

“No. The first person I saw was the man from your staff. He almost beat me to the room.”

BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
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