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Authors: Alan Russell

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BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
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“What happened after the door was opened?” asked Am.

“It was all a blur,” said Jack. “It was clear Dr. Kingsbury was in distress. We ran to his side. Your man asked me if I knew
CPR. He barely gave me time to nod, said ‘Do it,’ then ran to the phone.

“I was trying to remember exactly what to do. You always wonder if you’ll be able to respond to an emergency. The situation
confirmed what I suspected: When the going gets tough, don’t count on me. It was Dr. Kingsbury who reached for me, not I for
him. He could barely say the words. I wish I could duplicate his force of will during his last moments. Dying, he told me,
‘Be positive.’”

“You’re sure of that?” asked Marisa. “Couldn’t he have said something else, something similar?”

“He said, ‘Be positive,’ “ said Jack.

Jack’s words were spoken with a firmness that surprised Am. The man looked like a dreamer, but when the occasion called for
it, he could be adamant.

“He died right after saying those words,” said Jack. “I saw his life force leave him.”

“Was he happy at his end?” asked Am.

“Happy?” The question evidently surprised Jack. He had to think about it. “Not particularly.”

“And yet he said, ‘Be positive.’“

“Yes.”

“So he’s telling you something uplifting,” said Am, “and yet he himself was…”

“… not smiling beatifically,” admitted Jack. “But given his situation, I’d say his schizophrenic message was justified. Part
of him was dancing with angels, while another part couldn’t have been very happy that he was about to die a murder victim.”

Am and Marisa exchanged glances. “Murder?” she asked.

“That’s what the police think,” said Jack, “even if they haven’t come out and admitted it.”

“And what do you think?” asked Marisa.

“I don’t know. But now I hope he was murdered.”

“Why is that?”

“One way or another he’s dead, and I’d hate to think I’ve been asked the same questions over and over for no reason.”

“Why did Dr. Kingsbury want to talk to you?” asked Am.

“He wanted to hear about my near-death experience. He was interviewing lots of us.”

“How many?”

“I couldn’t tell you. I only know he had us scheduled every half hour. UNDER helped him coordinate his interview times.”

“Was there a posted schedule of those interview times?”

“I think so. In my case, I was told to be at his room at eight-thirty, and I was. I should have listened to Mother, and made
it a point to be socially late. Then I would have missed all the unpleasantness.”

“Tell me about your near-death,” said Am.

“Do you really want to hear about it?” Jack asked, sounding somewhat pleased.

He didn’t need much convincing. His was a poor-little-rich-boy story, as told with popular psychological jargon. Am and Marisa
heard about his low self-esteem, his dysfunctional family, and the “destructive dynamics” in his life. Jack decided to end
his life by mixing alcohol and barbiturates. He did it right, he said, making a cocktail that should have killed him “three
times over.”

“I was clinically dead a couple of times,” he said. “No heartbeat, no respiration. And I vividly remember passing over to
the other side.

“I didn’t have any form. No one does over there. I was this… ball… of consciousness. There were others around me, little beacons,
little points of light. It was all very orderly, very beautiful, the kind of harmony that I’ve always wanted, but has always
eluded me. My entire life I’ve tried to belong, and for once I felt I fit in. The only problem was, I had to die.

“I felt myself going forward. It was almost like a dance. But then my music stopped and I found my way barred. I remember
suddenly encountering this force, this, for want of a better word, sun. And that great light asked me a question: ‘Why are
you here?’ It wasn’t something I could hide from, nor could I answer. I felt ashamed because I knew I shouldn’t be there.
It was like I had cheated. Then I was asked a second question: ‘What have you done?’ And I didn’t have a good answer to give.
Don’t get me wrong: it didn’t feel like I was on trial, or that I would suffer for not having accumulated enough good-guy
stories, but it was more like I was being told I should have had that answer before killing myself. It became quite clear
to me that I had violated some time-frame agreement, and that I had to go back to the other side.

“That was three years ago. Sometimes I feel like the redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge. I don’t know if I’ve saved any Tiny Tims,
but since my near-death experience I’ve changed. I’m not so introspective as I was. I’ve tried to look outside of myself.
I suppose I’ve become one of those do-gooders I used to disdain, using my money to help the community, and my time to work
for causes other than my own.

“What I most want,” he said, “is to be able to better answer those questions the next time around.”

Funny, thought Am. Both he and Marisa were operating under a similar motivation. They wanted to be able to better answer a
few questions also.

Chapter Eighteen

Cotton Gibbons was used to letting his hands think for him. His tinkering was the way he put matters right in his world. He
enjoyed getting lost in the mechanics of a situation and solving problems. What he didn’t like were human intrusions. People
weren’t logical like machines. Grudgingly, he made some limited attempts at working within social conventions, but had about
as much finesse as the proverbial bull in a china shop. Imagine his happiness, then, when asked to put two meeting rooms out
of service.

He was almost finished fixing the scuppers. The work had gone more slowly than usual, the result of his wandering mind. It
was atypical for Cotton not to be absorbed by the problem at hand, but those meeting rooms had kept intruding into his thoughts,
short-circuiting his usually sure fingers. Maybe it was because Cotton wasn’t in the habit of looking forward to something.
He hadn’t even felt this good the month before when he’d had tickets to the tractor pull and truck show at the stadium.

Too bad I couldn’t just go and blow up the rooms with the perverts in them, he thought. They’ll all go to hell anyway. The
vision of fire and brimstone and the eternal torment of the sex maniacs inspired Cotton. He had just about settled on initiating
a water leak in one of the meeting rooms, and giving off the appearance of a collapsing roof in the other, when he suddenly
decided those solutions weren’t good enough. They weren’t quite—artistic enough. This was something that had to be done right.
It needed the proper touches.

For the first time in his life, Cotton almost felt like an artist. Weren’t those artsy types always yapping about their influences
and motivations? He wasn’t going to just take out the meeting rooms. No, he was going to make a personal statement.

He considered his palette, and the frenzied fuckers he was going to neuter. He was going to cut them off—at their knees at
least. Cotton thought about fire and brimstone again. He’d been raised on visions of the Old Testament God. It would serve
the bastards right, he thought, if those deviants got a taste of hell. He could be the right hand of God. He could hand out—what
did they call it?—poetic justice.

The brimstone would be easy. Back in the shop were some compounds and acids full of sulfur. Rotten eggs had nothing on that
stuff. Whenever he used even a dab he was always forced to listen to the comments. Why, once Chief Horton had been nosing
around where Cotton was working and got a whiff of the acid. “Cotton,” the Chief had said, “I’ve heard tell every man loves
the smell of his own farts, but even someone as ornery as you couldn’t be partial to this stench.” Cotton hadn’t said anything.
He’d just ladled on the sulfuric acid, far more than was called for, and that had cleared that damn smart-assed Chief from
the room. Cotton had always thought of the Chief as being more management than not anyway, and hadn’t been sorry when he had
up and quit.

The brimstone would be easy, but what about the fire? He could play it safe, he supposed, and light a match under one of the
sprinkler heads. That would soak the room. But that wasn’t good enough. That was—common. There had to be something better,
a fire with meaning, a punishment that fit the crime of those hot, lusting, sweaty, impassioned bodies.

Cotton had to wipe his face. He’d forgotten himself, almost smashed the scupper to pieces. He took a few deep breaths, tried
to finish the work at hand. But his mind kept wandering back to his art project.

Am had told him about how one of the meeting rooms had been turned into an orgy room. These are the kind of people who’d spit
on the flag, thought Cotton. Or worse, he considered, shuddering at his brief vision of Old Glory being caught up in some
carnal escapades. They were the sorts who just wanted to scratch their itch, and they didn’t care who did the scratching.
Why, Am had said they had a whole bunch of sex toys on display, stuff that would have even made that Marquis de Sade fellow
blush. There were whips, and chains, and clamps, and costumes, and things that buzzed, and hummed, and gyrated.

Electrical things, thought Cotton.

Things that could potentially short out, and spark.

He could make it look as if their lustful contraptions had betrayed them. He could make sure all their gizmos and perverted
materials were ruined. He could rain on their sexual parade.

For the first time in his work career, Cotton abandoned a project, deserting the scuppers.

There were more important things to do.

Chapter Nineteen

“I have to go write my story.”

Marisa’s words were carefully neutral. Her three-hour partnership with Am was still tentative, with about as much trust between
them as a shaky deal entered into by union and management.

Am debated his response. A guarded answer probably would have been politic, but he thought it was time their relationship
either went beyond that, or finished itself. “All the world is queer but me and thee, dear,” he said, “and sometimes I think
thee is a little queer.”

“What?”

“Supposedly,” said Am, “those were the words of a long-married Quaker husband to his wife. It’s a quote that tells the human
story. Each of us is convinced of our inherent correctness, which means we automatically have doubts about everyone else.”

“Am I getting a course in bad psychology?”

“I’d prefer you label it bad philosophy. That’s what I majored in back in the Dark Ages.”

“The Hotel dick is a philosopher?”

“Enough of one to realize I’m neither a hotel dick, nor a philosopher. That said, I still want to know how Dr. Kingsbury died.
I know it sounds vaingloriously romantic, but I’m supposed to be the protector of the Hotel.”

“A wound to the Hotel’s reputation is a wound to you?”

She didn’t spare the sarcasm, but Am didn’t take offense. “I suppose so,” he said.

“The Hotel’s been around for over a century,” said Marisa. “Isn’t it presumptuous that you personally feel the need to protect
her honor?”

Am shrugged. “Others have done it before me,” he said. “I guess it’s my turn now.”

“Maybe your Dark Ages time frame is right,” said Marisa. “That was the age of chivalry, wasn’t it?”

Her tone was friendlier, but still perplexed. She couldn’t quite figure Am out. He looked like an aging surfer, but talked
like some kind of monk, or consecrated warrior. In much the same way she’d heard members of the San Diego military make pronouncements
about God and country, he spoke of man and Hotel. That shouldn’t have made her feel better about him, but somehow it did.

“I’ll be back in a few hours,” she said, “but I won’t return empty-handed. I assigned a researcher to do a computer search
on the doctor, so we’re going to have a pile of reading matter to get through. I hope your chivalry extends beyond banking
hours, Sir Hotel knight.”

“Fear not, fair lady,” said Am. “My reading glasses await you.”

“Don’t forget your magnifying glasses,” she said.

“Sooner would I forget my broadsword, lady, nay, my right arm.”

He bowed, managed his performance without a smile. She shook her head, then left. Their partnership, it appeared, was going
to last out the day. Both of them were not a little surprised at that.

Ward Ankeney liked to say that “figures lie, and liars figure.” Ward knew better than most. He was the Hotel controller.

In the days before secondhand smoke became an issue, Ward’s office had been a smoky den. He polluted with a vast collection
of pipes that he called “thinking tools.” Even though the state of California had mandated that all offices in workplaces
be smoke-free, Ward hadn’t given up on his pipes. He sucked on them just as furiously, but now left them unlit.

Ward’s display of pipes were hung as proudly as a hunter showing off a 14-point buck. They extended along a rack that took
up most of one wall, and were a variety of shapes, sizes and materials. When Ward was particularly confounded, he brought
out the largest of his
meerschaum
pipes, the one with the white bowl that could have held a floral centerpiece. Perhaps not coincidentally, there was a bear’s
face carved into the bowl. When Ward chewed on that pipe, serious business was at hand. The bear pipe meant do not disturb.
Am was glad to see that the bear was apparently hibernating; the controller was chewing rather benignly on one of his smaller
pipes.

The pipes were actually the smaller of Ward’s office displays. The rest of his walls were taken up with pictures and props
from his former vocation. Ward had been an actor, and from his notices, a good one. Then again, no actor has ever been known
to frame bad reviews.

“Hi, Am,” he said, punching away at a ten-key. “Be with you in just a minute.”

Am took the time to look more closely at the office scenery. Despite Ward’s investment in frames, most of the pictures, reviews,
posters and glossies had yellowed and faded. The thespian mementos had been a part of the office for as long as Am could remember.
Curious, he hunted down the most recent review; it was a quarter of a century old.

BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
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