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Authors: Alan Russell

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BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
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Bradford wished he had a fire extinguisher. He would have loved to have sprayed it on the caterwauling tub of lard. Who did
he think he was, Chubby Checker? He tried to shout for silence, but the man was making too much noise to hear him. Bradford
was tempted to kick him right in his jiggling stomach, but restrained the urge. There were four of them, but every second
the music continued made those odds less and less daunting.

The song ended moments before the brawl would have occurred. Bradford didn’t trust himself to move. Cleo weakly clapped. There
were others who were more appreciative. Applause could be heard from next door, along with ribald yelling.

In a voice meant to freeze, wither, frostbite, and kill, Bradford asked, “What was that?”

“ ‘Light My Fire,’ “ said Ray. “The Doors did it, and Jose Feliciano, and—”

“That is not what I meant,” he said. “What you just did was not mariachi music.” Just what it was, Bradford’s voice insinuated,
was a bit lower than dog doo.

Artistic pride surfaced. “I don’t like to limit our art form, man. We take lots of request.”

“Silence being the most frequent of them, I’m sure.”

Jimmy was right, thought Ray. This guy was a jerk. He looked at his watch and said, “If that’s what you want to hear for the
next five minutes…”

They weren’t going to get away that easily, Bradford decided. He had paid for them, and they were going to play. He would
even choose for them. “You will play ‘La Bamba,’” he demanded.

Ray looked at his fellow troupers, then shook his head. “We don’t know that one.”

“You don’t….” started Bradford, then realized the man was putting him on, trying to get him mad.

“How about ‘Guantanamera’?”

“Don’t know that one either.”

“Guantanamera” is the ultimate staple of Mexican mariachi. Not hearing it performed during any given set would be a modern
miracle. But Bradford wasn’t going to lose face and insist.

With heavy sarcasm, he asked, “Do you know any songs besides ‘Light My Fire’?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, then by all means, grace us with one of them.”

The band had known all along what their second song was going to be. They had more than a passing familiarity with it. That’s
what happens when you need cash and you’re willing to perform at bachelor parties. They really didn’t have the right instruments,
but they played anyway. Loudly.

It took a few seconds for Bradford to name that tune. Gypsy Rose Lee probably could have named it in one note. Among universally
recognized songs, it has few peers. The mariachis played “Stripper.” When played correctly, there is an almost comic element
to the tune, an exaggerated musical bump and grind. For once, the band caught that moment, the mariachis hitting just the
right inflection and rhythm.

The door flung open. Ray had left it open for Jimmy, but it wasn’t the bellman who walked inside. It was Missy. When she entered
she was fully clothed. That wasn’t the way she left.

As the mariachis played, Missy shimmied and shook and disrobed. She performed directly in front of Bradford, popping buttons
to the notes, shaking her dark hair in his face, offering him zippers and clasps and her person. He sat there unmoving, but
very watchful. The band played on with increasingly more exuberant notes. This was better than having panty hose thrown down
on them from the balcony, much better. Their playing, and Missy, brought the party from next door into the room, a raucous,
clapping crowd. The room was soon overflowing with swingers. Cleo turned to ask Bradford to do something, and saw his mesmerized
face. Salome had never had such a rapt onlooker.

Missy was down to her briefs. A slight pull and her bra was off, a little tug and her undies were on her finger. Velcro, thought
Bradford, but that wasn’t all he thought. His intense gaze didn’t go unnoticed. Standing in front of him, Missy twirled her
bra around one finger, and her underwear around the other. The majorette act ended when she deposited her underclothing on
top of Bradford’s head, covering his eyes.

Everyone except Cleo laughed. Bradford removed his undergarment blindfold, and looked around at the laughing crowd. How did
all these people get in my room? he thought.

“You owe us twenty bucks, man,” said Ray.

Bradford was too confused to argue. A naked Missy was helping herself to a glass of champagne. She had, he observed, worked
up a slight sweat. He handed the twenty to Ray, who didn’t even try and hit him for a tip. Jimmy had already given him an
extra twenty-five bucks.

Where was Cleopatra? Bradford looked around and saw her talking to that damn bellman. She was crying. Naturally. And now she
was following the bellman out of the room.

“Hey!”

She didn’t hear him. The mariachis weren’t playing, but everyone was talking. Who had invited the circus to his room? It was
like a Fellini movie was happening in front of him. No, worse. He had to fight through the crowd. Bradford wished he were
wearing blinders. Were those three people really…?

“Cleopatra!”

This time she did hear him. The bellman positioned himself between them. “Please don’t interfere, Mr. Beck,” he said. “It
was my sad duty to already have to make one citizen’s arrest.”

“You what?”

Jimmy tried to sound official. That was something new to him. “I warned both of you about the consequences of underage drinking.
Cleo confessed that she drank a glass of champagne. So I was forced to arrest her.”

Bradford looked around. What was next? Carrie Nation and a bunch of ax-wielders storming into the room? “You’ve got to be
kidding.”

Jimmy looked his sanctimonious best. “No, sir, I am not.”

“Get out of the way and let her go.”

Bradford’s cultured voice, that same voice he had worked on for so long, was gone. So was the country-club tan, replaced by
a red, angry face. Brad Beck wanted to hit somebody.

“Mr. Beck,” said Jimmy, “please don’t force me to involve you in this. I don’t think the courts would look kindly upon your
contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Cleo and I both thought it best that she, and she alone, pay the consequences.”

Brad took a deep breath. Damn it! This bellman with the New York accent was talking like a big-city shyster. And worse, he
was making sense. Couldn’t they revoke his broker’s license if he was convicted of a felony?

When in doubt, thought Bradford, speak in a universal language. “Can’t we be reasonable here?” he asked, reaching for his
wallet.

It pained Jimmy to tell him that they couldn’t be reasonable; it pained him very much when he saw the amount of the bribe
being offered. Almost, he succumbed. But he couldn’t, not with Cleo standing there. Jimmy wondered whether he was going soft
in the head.

Bradford was wondering the same thing. This wasn’t happening, was it? His intended very rich wife was being led away, all
but handcuffed. He should do something. What was that line about a fair maiden never being won by a faint heart? Maybe he
shouldn’t be hasty, though. If he popped the bellman, they could easily prove assault. And besides, it was Cleo they wanted,
not him. Bradford turned to her, offered his best sorrowful face, which looked truly pained. Her fortune—his fortune—kept
proving elusive. “Don’t say anything to them, dear, until you talk to a lawyer.”

It wasn’t what she expected. Cleo was hoping for a little more John Wayne. With tears in her eyes, she nodded. Jimmy started
to lead her off. She was going to jail. What would Daddy think? It was all so tragic. They had only walked about a dozen paces
when Cleo turned around. Her intention was to yell “I love you” to Bradford, but she never delivered those words. She saw
him being led away also—by that naked woman back into their room.

Chapter Thirty

Brother Howard’s appointments were being handled by a woman who identified herself as “Arielle, his assistant.” She wore Birkenstocks,
and her hair was braided with turquoise beads. The obligatory crystal dangled in front of her tie-dyed shirt. Though she spoke
New Age, she was only too familiar with the words VISA, MasterCard, and American Express. The Brother was in session, she
said, but could see them next. Their initial thirty-minute consultation would be two hundred dollars. Am silently handed over
his plastic, resisting the impulse to tell Arielle that they just wanted to talk to the dead, not have someone killed, but
when Arielle called in for a credit-card approval Am couldn’t contain himself any longer: “That’s not really necessary,” he
said. “A lot of dead people can vouch for me.”

“And apparently a few of the living,” she said, noting the approval code number. With a smile, Arielle directed them to an
anteroom, and wished them “peace.” It was almost enough, Am thought, to make him nostalgic for “Have a nice day.”

The waiting room was just off a suite. Marisa put her ear to the door to see if she could hear anything, but Am didn’t make
her eavesdropping easy. He paced the room, only stopping periodically to examine his credit-card voucher.

“You think you could turn this in as a newspaper expense?” he asked.

“You think you could turn it in as a hotel expense?” she asked back, pointedly repositioning her ear.

Am started pacing again. “I can try,” he said. “I can put it in as a miscellaneous security expenditure. Maybe accounting
won’t notice.”

“If it doesn’t fly,” she said, “I’ll go halvsies.”

“Two hundred dollars,” said Am. “How can he justify those prices? It’s not like there’s a Dead People’s Union. And the Teamsters
aren’t involved in transporting us to ‘the other realm.’ At least I don’t think they are.”

“It
is
a long-distance call,” said Marisa. She could hear voices in the other room, but couldn’t distinguish any words. Reluctantly,
she gave up, choosing to surrender in a comfortable chair. Am sat down next to her.

“Ever been to a séance?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “Why solicit spirits when you don’t have to? We already have the Hotel ghost.”

“Ghost?”

“His name’s Stan, not that we’re on a first-name basis.”

“Are you putting me on?”

He shook his head. “Most of the staff swear by him, and some of them swear at him, especially the women. Stan likes to show
off for ladies. He turns lights on and off, and opens doors. We’ve had these official-looking paranormal experts come out
and do studies, and they always go away reporting ‘unusual activity.’ Psychics and receptives are always saying they feel
Stan’s presence.”

“Maybe we should ask Brother Howard to get us in touch with Stan.”

“Dr. Kingsbury,” said Am, “is haunting me much more than Stan.”

“We’ll have to do something about that,” she said.

Am liked Marisa’s ambiguous tone. He had wondered if that special feeling between them would extend beyond their time in the
restaurant. Sometimes the magic is ephemeral, its life short-lived and dreamlike. Relationships, he thought, were about as
easy to explain as ghosts, and potentially as frightening.

“What are you smiling about?” she asked.

“Ghosts of the past,” he said.

They talked about the present instead, skating for the most part around anything personal, content to converse in anecdotes
and job-related stories. Their jobs were similar, Am insisted, in that both of them were in the communications business. Half
his time, he said, was spent acquainting staff with “situations.”

He told her about what wasn’t advertised on hotel
VACANCY
signs, how over ten thousand lawsuits were filed each year against U.S. hotels claiming negligent security, and how behind
those lawsuits were over ten thousand sad stories, and ruined vacations, and even destroyed lives. She heard in his words
the unsaid conviction of “Not at my Hotel,” and once again thought of him as the Old West sheriff, even though he was quick
to say that he was “no house dick, just a temporarily displaced hotel manager.”

His disclaimer notwithstanding, he told her about the crime-prevention program he had started at the Hotel, how he tried to
educate both guests and staff on safety, and how difficult it was to tread that thin line between making the inn secure without
making it into a stalag. But what he couldn’t teach, he said, was common sense. When guests physically went on vacation, their
minds followed. They walked around waving rolls of money, and thought nothing of wearing ten pounds of jewelry. They answered
the door without verifying who was there, and were careless with their keys. Criminals never need invitations, he averred,
but too many guests offered them anyway.

“The kids that used to call identifying themselves as being from the utility company and asking if your refrigerator was running
have grown up,” said Am. “The punch line is no longer, ‘Well, you better catch it before it runs out your door.’ It’s often
a gun.”

He explained how intruders often used house phones to call guest rooms, identifying themselves as being from the “front desk”
or “maintenance,” and stating that there was a problem in the room requiring their attention. The best locks didn’t help,
he said, when guests willingly let their assailants inside.

Guests weren’t the only ones scammed. In going through old complaint files Am had found a number of similarly written letters
from the same area in Canada. The letters detailed regretful dining experiences at the Hotel restaurants, with vivid descriptions
of waiters spilling wine, busboys dropping mustard, and wayward nails in chairs snagging and ruining clothes. They asked for,
and ultimately received, compensation. Their requests weren’t for an amount to make anyone suspicious. The claims were all
for fifty dollars or less, but they added up. On impulse, Am decided to check on the receipts tendered just to confirm the
establishments were legitimate. Someone’s home computer had apparently been very busy cranking out forms. None of the dry
cleaners, tailors, or clothiers had been, or were, in existence. That prompted Am to establish a new policy requiring restaurant
personnel to deal with the problem immediately, eliminating after-the-fact payments.

BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
8.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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