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Authors: Alan Russell

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BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
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Reaching into his shirt pocket, Hiroshi pulled out one of his business cards. The importance of the transaction Sharon had
only recently explained to Am. “There is a ritual to
meishi,”
she said, “the exchange of calling cards. You are supposed to accept the card and look at it, and make some comment. You
don’t just take a card and stick it in your wallet. That’s an insult. You’re giving the person your backside, and not the
attention they deserve.”

The card was outstretched toward him, hanging there like an executioner’s ax, a reminder of his misplaced intentions. Am accepted
the card, offered a nod that was close to a bow, and then dug out his wallet. Maybe he had an old business card. That’s how
he could save face. His heart was pounding, and his throat was tight. He had resented having to get bilingual business cards,
English on the one side, Japanese on the other, and walked around the security hut muttering, “This is still the U.S.A., isn’t
it?” The land of the free, and the brave. And the foolish.

There were no old cards, only plenty of the new. He had to play the cards, bluff it out. Am handed Hiroshi a card, English
side up, his title of safety and security director clearly displayed. But Yamada wasn’t content with only the English version.
He turned the card over.

Good job, Ikkyu-san, thought Am. This time you just pissed into the wind.

The Fat Innkeeper did a double-take. So much for the stereotype of orientals being inscrutable. He stared at the card, his
eyes wide, then looked back to Am.

“So,” he said, “you are a samurai?”

It had seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Until Sharon’s lecture, Am hadn’t known that the Japanese collected
business cards as boys did baseball cards, hadn’t been aware of their importance. Like most impetuous acts, he hadn’t thought
ahead, had neglected to consider what he would do when asked for a business card from someone who was Japanese. He thought
of trying to explain to Hiroshi that it had taken all of his willpower not to identify himself as House Dick on the English
side of the card, but figured something would be lost in that translation. Like his job.

“Yes,” Am finally said. “I am a samurai.”

The Fat Innkeeper didn’t respond right away. He regarded Am for several moments, then finally gave the tiniest of nods, turned,
and began to walk away.

Am let out a lot of silent air. Why hadn’t he made it easier on himself and just announced he was the son of God? To the Japanese,
samurais are icons. The warrior myth is not one they take lightly. Samurai films are their westerns, and their shrines. Japanese
executives often take up swordplay and archery, sports drawn from the samurai tradition. Some consider the samurai mentality
to be a major part of the Japanese psyche.

He breathed deeply, took in a lot of whale, and gagged slightly. What a night.

A wave surprised him. Sometimes sets are that way, a dozen anemic waves and then suddenly one or two big breaks. This wave
broke at his knee level, and then pushed forward. When it receded, it left behind hundreds, no, thousands, of grunion.

In the moonlight, the grunion spun their fantasy for an audience of one. The females buried themselves in the sand, their
tails down. There was wriggling, and dancing, and flashing of silver. It was better than advertised, better than Grunion Fun!

A minute later, and the vision had passed. Another wave had come in, and the grunion had ridden off with it. With their departure,
Am hurried off. He was afraid if he stayed, Ahab’s leg would be the next thing to turn up on the beach.

Chapter Three

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
whispered Am. He didn’t bother with the English translation—Who is to guard the guards themselves?—but instead stealthily
slid a key into a lock and opened the door to the Hotel’s main spa.

The spa attendants were gone, which was just as Am had expected and wanted. He was tired of smelling like the catch of the
day, and needed a break from the whale duties. Am figured he had earned a hot shower, a whirlpool, a steam-bath, and a massage
on one of the vibrating tables, to be followed by a wallow in the spa’s lotions and potions and powders. The whale predicament
had officially been handed over to legal representatives from the city of San Diego. Saved from sushi, but not the sharks.
That didn’t mean the problem had been taken care of, far from it, but now the Hotel could point to the city and self-righteously
say, “It’s their job.”

“Am, this is Central, do you copy?”

The voice came booming out of Am’s walkie-talkie. Damn. Why hadn’t he been smart enough to turn the thing off? “Central” was
Fred, the dispatcher from security, a retired carpenter who had seen entirely too many episodes of “Rescue 911.” Fred described
fender benders like the downing of the
Hindenburg.

Am picked up his walkie-talkie. “Unless Jonah is giving a press conference on the beach,” he said, “I’d suggest you call Stephenson.”

Fred sounded even more excited than usual. “We have a code red, Am! We need you ASAP up to room 374. Do you copy?”

“On my way,” said Am.

“Ten-four,” said Fred, sounding not a little deflated. He continually coached Am to respond, “I read you,” or “Over and out,”
or “That’s a ten-four,” and would have preferred Am reiterating the room number with a “That’s a three-Thomas, seven-Sam,
four-Frank,” but try as he might, Am still couldn’t bring himself to speak that way.

Code red, he thought. What the hell was a code red? That was one of the things he should know. After five months in his new
post he thought he had that rainbow chart down, but damned if he wasn’t mentally color-blind at the moment. The colors were
representative of situations, codes that allowed security to communicate without the guests, or anyone, monitoring, knowing
what they were talking about. Code red. Was that a fire? No, that was code orange. A noisy drunk? No, that fell under the
disturbance category, a code blue. Red was, was… Am’s brain cells were derailed by the squishing sound of his footfalls, and
his skin being rubbed raw by the wet and chafing pants. If he didn’t get out of the wet clothes soon, his whole body was going
to be a code red.

Maybe there should be a new code, Am thought, code gray—a gray whale on the beach. The thought must have eased up his subconscious,
as suddenly he remembered what code red signified. “Color me stupid,” he said aloud. Code red meant that a call had been made
to the paramedics, and that someone was in need of medical attention. He started running faster, the squishing sounds dogging
him.

There were at least fifty people crowded inside room 374, all of them blocking his way. Am knew that announcing he was hotel
security wouldn’t exactly bring a Moses-like parting of the crowd. The public has about as much respect for a house dick as
they do crossing guards. Am circumvented that by acting like an impatient plainclothesman, his method acting based on the
time he had interrupted a cop at his coffee and learned that was about as advisable as taking a bone from a strange dog. With
a grim expression, and a loud, flat voice, Am announced that a pathway for the paramedics had to be cleared. He was pleased
with the crowd’s quick response, though he was unsure whether it was his posing, his words, or his smell that opened the passage.
Or maybe, he decided after a look, everyone had just seen enough of the corpse.

Two Hotel employees were still trying to revive the dead man, but Am figured they’d have a better chance with the whale. When
someone’s dying or dead, that’s not the best time to gauge an age, but Am estimated the victim was about sixty. His guesswork
came between the CPR efforts. It didn’t appear that rigor mortis had yet set in. The man’s features were contorted, his struggle
to live still apparent on his face. His eyes, even behind thick-rimmed glasses, were bulging. The glasses reminded Am of barnacles
still holding on.

“I’d call it a deathbed conversion,” said a pipe-smoking man standing near to Am, his voice conversational.

“No doubt about it,” replied a woman with a red hat that was as loud as her voice.

From Am’s rather limited experience, he had found that death brings a quiet to a room. It was generally a time for reflection.
But those gathered seemed to think it was time for a party.

A very tall man raised his arms, flapped them slowly up and down. “His gravity is turned off now. Do you remember that?”

“Do I?” said a very wrinkled, very small, woman. “It was like being unshackled.”

A bearded man smiled. “‘Be positive.’ What fine last words. The great skeptic has spoken.”

“Be positive,” repeated most of those in the room.

A woman with Bette Davis’s voice, but alas, not her eyes, asked, “And that’s all he said, Jack?”

Heads turned, and Am followed their direction. Jack was seated in a chair, taking more stock of the ocean view than the goings-on
in the room. Standing next to him was T.K. Washington, one of the Hotel desk clerks. T.K. was an aspiring comic, and hardly
a bastion of propriety, but even he looked shocked at the cavalier attitudes of those in the room. He caught Am’s eyes and
shook his head.

“What?” Jack was awakening to the question. He smiled, a gentle smile. Jack looked like a poet. Not a good poet, but one of
those people who while away their time hanging around coffeehouses and occasionally, but only very occasionally, scribbling
around the edges of a piece of paper. Jack was about thirty, blond and blue-eyed, but he didn’t so much exude Nordic stock
as he did white bread.

“She asked,” said the old woman, “if the only thing that Doubting Thomas said was, ‘Be positive.’”

“That was it,” said Jack. “He was on the ground, and I went to him. He could barely get those words out. And then he died.”

He said it as if the dying part were a happy ending. Judging from the little noises of his listeners, they agreed.

The arrival of the paramedics interrupted Jack’s storytelling, but not the festivities. “Ah, the belated cavalry,” said the
woman in the red hat.

“A day late and a dollar short,” said Prince Albert in the Can.

“You needn’t bother,” advised Bette Davis, not meanly, but more as a matter-of-fact observation to the uniformed figures rushing
by her.

“I remember watching the paramedics work on me,” said the bearded man.

“So do I,” said the tall man.

At least, thought Am, the big guy wasn’t flapping his arms anymore.

“They worked so hard. I thought it would be wrong to leave with their putting in so much effort. But everything was such a
glorious show.”

The words sounded wistful, spoken as you would of a first love.

“Thank God you arrived,” said Helen Dunning, giving up her breathing station to one of the paramedics. Helen was the manager
on duty that night, and it showed. Her forehead was soaked with perspiration, and her long, sandy-blond hair clung to her
head as if she had just showered. Helen’s makeup was gone, but even had it been in place it wouldn’t have masked the look
of loathing she gave to the crowd.

In her hand she held the plastic resuscitator tube she had tried to breathe life through. Helen looked at the object blankly,
then, without really thinking, tossed it high over her shoulder. Several people vied to catch it.

Am wasn’t one of them. He shouldered his way through the crowd and reached her side. “Hey, are you okay?”

“I’m just giving them the bridal bouquet,” she said, her voice somewhere between weepy and hysterical.

Am put an arm around Helen, and moved her away from both the living and the dead. “What happened?” he asked.

She took a few moments to swallow and focus. “A guest called the operator from an elevator. Apparently him,” she said, pointing
to Jack. “He said he needed someone to come up right away to Dr. Kingsbury’s room, said he thought he was having a seizure
or something.

“I told T.K. to run up to the room and check out the situation, and the next thing I know T.K. is calling me and saying that
we’ve got a man dying. I could deal with that, or I thought I could, but what really unsettled me was this group. Macario
from maintenance was nearby, so I grabbed him. He was doing heart massage, and I was doing mouth-to-mouth, and all the while
these people kept wandering in. This man’s death seemed to be an excuse for a party. A few of them even had the nerve to call
their friends and tell them to come over. Armchair quarterbacks are one thing, but these are armchair morticians. Some of
them told me to relax, that he was dead already. Others were more blunt. One man said my ‘huffing and puffing’ was disturbing
the vortex. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all ghouls.”

Her accusation was loud, but with all the conversations going on, no one seemed to notice. “Let’s go outside,” said Am. “Get
a breath of fresh air.”

Helen didn’t argue, let herself be led through the room. Out in the hallway she took several deep breaths. Some color started
returning to her face. “It’s not going to be a happy ending for him, is it?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” said Am.

Long sigh. “I think I need some coffee, or something.”

“You want company?”

“No. Thanks, though. But stop by later, okay? We’ll need to compare notes before writing up our reports.”

There would certainly be enough of those, thought Am. “Will do,” he said, offering her a last comforting hug.

Helen walked away, albeit a little unsteadily. When she turned the corner, Am started back to the room. He needed statements,
and witnesses. It was time to take control of the situation. A clatter of wheels and a shouted “Step aside” made Am jump out
of the way of the gurney. The elevator, he thought, kicking himself as he ran after the paramedics. He should have positioned
someone to hold the elevator doors open for them. But his guilt, and his running, proved unnecessary. A familiar figure was
already holding the elevator doors. When the gurney was safely inside, the doorman gave up his post and started slowly walking
toward Am. It was the walk of an old west sheriff ready for a showdown. There was no love lost between Am and Detective McHugh
of the San Diego Police Department. McHugh considered Am the worst kind of amateur sleuth—a lucky one.

BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
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ads

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