Authors: Alan Russell
As the detective approached him, Am was sure that McHugh’s sky blue eyes were seeing too much: Am’s still wet shoes and trousers,
his unbuckled belt (damn, thought Am, I forgot to fasten it back in the spa), and his disheveled condition. McHugh had the
unhurried pace of a man who has been on the planet for a half a century, and seen enough not to be in a rush to see any more.
Behind Am came the sounds of laughter and convivial conversation. The closer the detective approached, the more his frown
intensified. He paused before continuing toward the room, stood next to Am and said, “Isn’t it a little early to be throwing
a wake, Caulfield?”
Then, seemingly puzzled, he sniffed the air, disdainfully snorted, and walked by.
Whenever anything unpleasant happens at a hotel, be it accident, injury, or even death, some manager somewhere has the undesirable
job of asking questions. Am knew the difficulties of such interrogations. Offering sympathy was important, but not to the
point of endorsing any liability on the part of the property. Though obtaining answers in the face of pain or grief is often
difficult, it is also necessary. It is amazing how frequently a story changes, especially after a consultation with a lawyer.
A guest that admitted to breaking his leg after tripping over his own feet suddenly remembers that the fall didn’t occur in
his room, but over a loose section of carpeting out in the hallway. Filling out an accident report and getting a signed statement
are often safeguards against a lawsuit.
This wasn’t the first time Am had encountered death at the Hotel. With seven hundred and twelve rooms, four restaurants, six
lounges, and fourteen meeting rooms, it wasn’t surprising that death sometimes called. But this was not like any other death
that Am remembered. There was no weeping, or gnashing of teeth. No one seemed particularly bothered, or even put on a pretense
of being mournful. Getting anyone to talk about the late Dr. Thomas Kingsbury was not a problem. Stopping them was more difficult.
Am had heard of Kingsbury. He was one of those figures who popped up every so often in a magazine like
or on some television interview. Kingsbury was a doctor and a scientist of not a little fame, but the general public knew
of him not so much for his own discoveries, but for his crusades into exposing the deceits of what he called “pseudo-science.”
Kingsbury did not believe in much. He doubted saints, but not sinners, and liked nothing better than debunking the paranormal.
The doctor had made a career of exposing bogus telepaths, evangelical healers, and mediums, and relished taking on what he
called “the modern witch-doctor establishments,” targets which ranged from tarot readers to government economists.
It wasn’t a vacation that had brought Kingsbury to the Hotel California. He had been attending the Union of Near-Death Experiences
Retreat (UNDER). Belatedly, he had something in common with its other attendees.
UNDER had officially welcomed Kingsbury’s scrutiny, had promised they would do all they could to facilitate his inquiries.
They were certain he could root around all he wanted and still not denigrate their collective experience. Lazarus wasn’t the
only one with a story to tell. They had been dead, all of them, and were convinced they had glimpsed their afterlife.
Kingsbury had sent lengthy medical questionnaires to all of the attendees of the UNDER conference, and had scheduled “post-mortem
interviews” with sixty of the conventioneers. The questionnaires had delved into physical histories, with emphasis on the
circumstances of their “deaths.” The medical questions stretched over a number of pages, “an inquiry,” one participant told
Am, “that was a good precursor to being a medical cadaver.”
The doctor had died halfway through the four-day conference. Although he had attended some of the workshops and heard some
of the talks, most of his time had been spent interviewing what he liked to call “zombies,” or “the undead.” Am had the feeling
he would have gotten along very well with Dr. Kingsbury.
“He was a funny guy,” said the Bette Davis voice, whose real name was Norma, “not what I expected. In the middle of a bunch
of serious questions he asked me, ‘Now, how many fairies do you think can dance on the head of a pin?’ And when we finished
up, he said, ‘Does anyone else in your family besides you suffer delusions, or visions?’ I kind of figured he’d be a stuffed
shirt, but he wasn’t.”
If you could forgive the anticlimax of Norma’s eyes (they were close-set and dishwater brown—the antithesis of Bette Davis’s),
she was rather attractive, an athletic-looking forty with a quick smile. “Do you think he was flirting with you?” asked Am.
“I would hope so,” she said, flashing a smile. “He mentioned to me in a very professional voice that there were tangible and
consistent changes with those who had had near-death experiences, changes that didn’t seem to be gender-related, except in
the preferred manner of dying. Men, he said, almost universally professed to wanting to go out with a bang, and I don’t mean
“And that’s not a female goal?”
“Not according to Dr. Kingsbury,” she said, being purposely ambiguous.
“So you thought his observation was inappropriate?”
“I didn’t say that,” said Norma. “I’m just saying he raised a flag. When men talk about sex, no matter what the guise, I think
there’s often an ulterior motive.”
Am didn’t know how he should respond. Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. “So,” he said, “at the risk of sounding like
a pickup line, just how did you die?”
She laughed. “The pickup line would have been: ‘Didn’t we meet once? Wasn’t it at Saint Peter’s gate?’“
“I’ll have to remember that.”
“Car accident,” she said.
How, wondered Am, had Kingsbury died? Heart attack, probably. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one interested in that question.
He could hear McHugh questioning several people, among them T.K. Why was the detective taking such an interest in this death?
And how was it that McHugh had arrived at the hotel so soon after Kingsbury’s death?
As if to emphasize that riddle, McHugh announced, “I want all nonessential personnel to clear the room.”
That’s the tone of voice, thought Am. That’s it exactly. The one that says, police business, goddammit.
“See you later,” said Norma.
“In this life, or the next?” asked Am.
The room rapidly cleared, leaving only McHugh, T.K., two uniformed officers, and Am. The detective offered Am a less-than-hospitable
side glance that clearly signaled he was not one of those considered essential to the case. For several seconds Am stood his
ground, time enough to realize he was in an untenable position. He couldn’t force McHugh to tell him anything, and he wasn’t
about to truckle. If the detective didn’t want him there, then he would have to gather information in a roundabout way. Slowly,
and with what he considered dignity, Am began his exit from the room. His departure didn’t go unnoticed.
“Do me a favor, Caulfield,” said McHugh, walking up to him.
Willing to be wooed, Am stopped to listen.
“I understand two of your staff tried to revive Kingsbury,” said the detective. “I’d like to talk to them.”
Gofer, thought Am. Glumly, he nodded.
“Oh, and Caulfield?” asked the detective. Am stopped in the hallway, just outside the door to the room. He looked at McHugh
with what he thought was the appropriate disinterest, but the detective, intent on applying some plastic coverlets to the
doorknobs, spoke to Am without even looking at him.
“The next time there’s a murder at this hotel,” he said, “do me a favor and secure the crime scene.”
“Murder?” asked Am, but he was too late. The door had already closed on him.
McHugh’s announcement was an effective attention-getter. Am wondered whether his remark was a hateful joke, a way for the
detective to get back at him by playing with his mind. If that was his intent, the ruse was an elaborate one. Room 374 had
been sealed off to all but SDPD with yellow crime-scene tape that prevented entry. The display was not a motif in keeping
with a five-star hotel, especially not The Hotel, which was always written in the uppercase, and pronounced the same way.
The Hotel had been around for more than a century. It epitomized Southern California class, if that wasn’t an oxymoron. Murder
at the Hotel was about as acceptable as franks and beans being offered as the nightly special in one of its restaurants. Maybe
with a French name, thought Am, you could get away with the franks and beans, but murder allowed no euphemisms.
Should he call the Fat Innkeeper? Am had been debating that for the half hour since room 374’s door had been closed to him.
He had delivered Helen Dunning and Macario Lopez to the room, and had almost asked McHugh to allow him participation in the
investigation, but pride had held back that request. Am had settled down the hallway within viewing range of the door, anxious
to hear the goings-on from T.K., Helen, or Macario as soon as they were released. It was a difficult wait because he couldn’t
do anything in the interim, not even share his worry.
Am started pacing again. At least he wasn’t squeaking anymore, even if his shoes and socks were still wet. It felt as if there
were something wet and gummy between his toes, but though he had probed with his fingers he hadn’t found anything other than
a matted sock. There was really no recourse but to take the damn sock off.
Leaning against a wall, Am removed first his shoes, and then his stocking. Massaging his toes was the highlight of his evening.
He didn’t want to put the sock back on immediately, especially in its wet state, but neither did he want to wring it out on
the carpeting. There wasn’t a bathroom nearby, but there was a terra-cotta ashtray not tea steps off. He hopped over, then
started squeezing the water out of the stocking. The droplets did a good job of making a puddle out of the Hotel imprimatur
minted into the fine sand.
His other foot demanded equal time, so Am repeated the process. His toes started to come to life again. If only he could discreetly
remove his underwear. Murder at the Hotel was bad enough. Facing it with wet underwear was next to unbearable.
“Am! Hey, Am!”
T.K.’s voice was unmistakable, catching Am between rubbing his toes and dreaming of a thorough scratching. Socks in one hand,
shoes in the other, Am felt like a hobo posing for some artistic brush. T.K. wasn’t the only witness to the spectacle; Helen
and Macario were also walking toward him.
His first impulse was to try and put his socks on while standing up, but he thought better of that. The Hotel was rife with
intimate sitting areas, benches usually sandwiched between a decorative urn on one side and a flower display on the other.
Am spotted one. It was just outside of room 374, but it was occupied. McHugh was sitting there watching him.
“Hey, Am,” said T.K. as he pulled up to him. “Big Brother figured you’d be waiting. He says he’d like to talk with you now.
That is if you’re done with your laundry.”
Am couldn’t be sure whether the line was T.K.’s or McHugh’s, but he didn’t appreciate it either way. Everyone was standing
around watching him with curiosity. There is nothing so difficult as putting on stockings while under inspection. Ask any
lover who has ever tried to make a graceful midnight retreat.
“Perhaps,” said Am, his sock unable to surmount his heel despite his exertions, “it would be better if I was to talk with
all of you a little later.”
The tone of his voice was such as to make them move along and not look back. McHugh was too far away to hear, but not to watch.
The more Am struggled with the sock, the more the detective shook his head.
The hell with it, thought Am. He stuffed the stockings into his pockets, then stepped into his shoes.
And found that damn piece of seaweed.
He didn’t pause, didn’t give McHugh the satisfaction of seeing his expression change. Shoes untied, he continued forward.
In the middle of the Fat Innkeeper’s office was a map of the earth. What was disconcerting about this map was that Japan implicitly
dominated the rest of the world. The Land of the Rising Sun was set center-stage, and larger than life, its dimensions not
drawn to scale with the rest of the planet. Am kept staring at the map. It was hard for him getting used to seeing the United
States positioned off to the side.
Guess I’ll have to orient myself, he thought.
Like any messenger with bad news, Am waited pensively. Mr. Takei had intercepted his call to the Fat Innkeeper. No one had
yet seen Takei smile. He was considered to be the power behind the throne, speaking for Hiroshi Yamada while directing policies
and work to be done. It was hard to see his eyes, hidden as they were behind his thick glasses. He was thin and pale, quite
the opposite of the Fat Innkeeper.
Am inwardly winced. That nickname was going to catch up with him. It wasn’t really his fault; it was Richard’s. It was dangerous
to have a friend like Richard. The man was entirely too smart, a research scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography,
who habitually applied marine nicknames to almost everyone. Most of the time the nicknames were only used by, and only made
sense to, Richard. Though Richard had bestowed hundreds of aquatic nicknames, the Fat Innkeeper was the first to catch on.
It was, Am supposed, an improvement on some of Yamada’s earlier nicknames. The staff had initially referred to him as “yo’
mama,” or “the fat Jap”; now, there was something almost nostalgic about those names. Ask a Hotel employee who Hiroshi Yamada
was, and you might draw a blank, but ask anyone on staff who was the Fat Innkeeper and they could tell you. Most could even
give you his scientific name:
Richard said the appellation had come to him almost like a burning bush (further interrogation revealed his inspiration arrived
shortly after his sixth gin and tonic). He had heard some of the Hotel gossip about Hiroshi, and when he had seen him on the
evening news, “everything clicked.” Archimedes yelled, “Eureka.” Richard yelled, “Urechis.” Archimedes was thinking about
gold; Richard was contemplating a sea worm.