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Authors: Alan Russell

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BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
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That’s what a fat innkeeper is, an invertebrate that lives in a U-shaped burrow, but not alone. The innkeeper shares his lodge
with other guests (“symbionts” was Richard’s preferred term), including some species of pea crab, small bivalves, and different
species of worms and goby fish.

The convivial innkeeper sees to the needs of its guests (“commensals,” Richard was quick to tell anyone, was the better word)
through its fussy eating habits. The twenty-inch worm sports a ring of mucus glands around the top of its trunk, glands it
expands against the side of the burrow. A mucus net is sent out that filters out tiny organisms and particles flowing through
its den. As the filter fills, the worm moves forward and devours the bag and its contents—or some of them. The larger detrital
matter, and whatever other food the innkeeper eschews, passes down the line to its tenants.

Richard had called and told Am about his fat-innkeeper revelation, then had supplied him with articles, pictures, drawings,
and assorted miscellaneous information about
Urechis caupo. Am
had made a few copies for his co-workers, and then watched everything snowball. The most popular off-duty staff shirt featured
a fat innkeeper sitting contentedly in its burrow. Even the perennial Hotel California softball team had changed its name.
Now they were the Urechis Caupos, with their nickname “the worms.” The new name hadn’t helped the team. They were still in
last place.

Somehow it heartened Am to think that out in the ocean there were invertebrates essentially practicing his own trade. It allowed
him the kind of connection that mystics would have ascribed as demonstrating the universality in all nature, but all the same,
Am wished he had never heard of the fat innkeeper. Everyone attributed the naming to him. Court jesters (let alone the palace
guard) know better than to dub their rulers “stinky,” or “slimy,” or worst of all—“wormy.” That was essentially what Am had
done. He had figured (or more likely, hoped) Hiroshi’s nickname would be short-lived, but now it was part of the Hotel nomenclature.
Sometimes nicknames do stick—like his own. His real name was Ian, but that had been in another life, before hotels. Now he
was Am, an abbreviation of the assistant manager he had once been.

The door opened and the Fat Innkeeper (“Mr. Yamada, dammit,” Am reminded himself) entered the room, followed by Takei, Matsuda,
and Fujimoto. Contrary to popular opinion, the three men really didn’t look that much alike (Sharon said most Japanese were
convinced all Americans looked alike, so apparently it’s a universal prejudice), even though all of them were roughly the
same age, around forty-five, and wore the same dark suits and red ties. Takei, in charge of daily operations, was the thinnest
of the lot, his face almost skeletal. Matsuda was the numbers man, the chief financial officer who supervised the Hotel finances.
He had more gray hairs than the others, and a nose that was big by Japanese standards. Fujimoto oversaw the food-and-beverage
operations, and was the sportiest of the three. Am suspected he sometimes moussed his hair, and on a few occasions he’d even
been spotted wearing paisley ties.

Am jumped to his feet, and walked toward the men. He hadn’t expected all of the Japanese bigwigs to be meeting with him, but
he wasn’t totally surprised either. The Three Musketeers might have coined the phrase, “One for all, and all for one,” but
the Japanese live it. The Fat Innkeeper made the introductions. The Hotel has more than a thousand employees, so it wasn’t
too surprising that Am had never talked with Matsuda or Fujimoto. Takei was another story, if not a more pleasant one. Am
thought the man more termite than human, so great was his love for paper. Takei was always asking for reports and contingency
plans from security. Am admired his diligence, but he was tired of reinventing the wheel. Takei loved minutiae, seemed delighted
to come up with more “what ifs” than Rod Serling. He had planned for countless disasters. Sharon said there were several reasons
for this: the Japanese pursuit of perfection; their need for a sense of control; and, most of all, the almost instinctive
Japanese fear that there is trouble waiting around the corner. It is as if they always expect, she said, the worst. Takei
had wanted to see earthquake plans, and fire-safety procedures. They’d gone over how to deal with bomb threats and power failures.
About the only thing they hadn’t put down on paper was what to do in the event of a murder. Welcome to America.

The Fat Innkeeper announced the Japanese names first, then he offered up Am’s name and his position. With the timing of a
veteran performer, and the accompaniment of a slight smile, Hiroshi then added, “He is also the Hotel samurai.”

The Fat Innkeeper explained further in Japanese. Paranoia is always quick to surface when you’re being discussed in a language
you don’t understand. When he finished, no one was laughing. Not that Am ever expected belly laughter out of this group, but
the silence weighed in as more oppressive than usual. The only noise was from Takei. Almost so as not to be noticed, he was
sucking air through his teeth. Am had been warned that such inhalation was the Japanese equivalent of a Bronx cheer, though
in their usual understated way.

“Your business cards,” said Takei at last, “are open to misinterpretation.”

That was about as straightforwardly censurious as the Japanese were ever likely to get. When in doubt, Sharon had told him,
without end. But Am wasn’t about to play Uriah Heep for anyone.

“I will discard the old cards immediately,” he said, “and have new ones made up at my own expense.”

And I’ll try to suppress the suddenly very strong urge, thought Am, to have the new cards announce myself as a proctologist
in Japanese.

It wasn’t
but no one objected to his solution. Am waited for the other men to find their seats, Sharon’s words again in his ears: “Sometimes
they play a form of musical chairs. They know who belongs in the seat of honor, but there’s often a hierarchical infighting
for the other chairs.”

Am’s mother had taught him to say please and thank you. He knew to excuse himself after inadvertently belching, kept his nails
clean, and closed his mouth when he chewed. Am was good about cleaning up after himself, and the sermon of his youth had been,
“Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.” He didn’t spit in public, and didn’t even much spit in private. Having
been able to impart those behaviors onto him, Am’s mother had reckoned herself a success. Mom hadn’t prepared him to be Japanese.

He took the last seat. The meeting didn’t begin with a call to business, or an agenda. The Fat Innkeeper commented about the
heavy fog, and Am found himself explaining about the coastal marine layer. It was something, Am figured, that Hiroshi was
already acquainted with. The Japanese way was scripted; he had only to remember his part. An American owner probably would
have asked, “What the hell happened in room three seven four?” Hiroshi would get to the same question, but not without the
proper sacrament. What Am feared, though, was that they might talk to cross-purposes. Sometimes even the Japanese didn’t understand
one another, losing their way among the etiquette.

The talk of fog was winding down. Am wondered if it was time to bring up the death of Dr. Kingsbury. It was tiring to have
to think before speaking, definitely not in keeping with the American way.

“In this country,” said Am, “every year the hotel industry puts up guests for more than a billion room nights.”

Am let the figure sink in. “By the odds of probability alone,” he said, “sometimes bad things happen.”

First the Fat Innkeeper nodded, then the other three dark heads followed. They had found that all-important point of agreement.
“Tell us about the bad thing that happened,” said Hiroshi.

They heard about Kingsbury, and his death, and McHugh’s suspicions that he might have been murdered. “The detective had received
a call from Dr. Kingsbury the day before he died,” said Am. “They set up a meeting for eight o’clock tonight. Although Kingsbury
wouldn’t detail the specifics of their proposed get-together, he did tell McHugh that a fraud was being perpetrated, and that
he had uncovered enough incriminating information to warrant a police investigation.

“McHugh tried to get him to say more over the phone, but Kingsbury prevailed upon him for a face-to-face. The detective got
the feeling that the doctor might have been fishing, seeing if he really did have a crime the police would be interested in
pursuing. McHugh sensed that Kingsbury wanted the police involved for the sake of a public forum. That’s one thing the good
doctor always excelled at—getting publicity.”

“Dr. Kings-bur-y,” said the Fat Innkeeper, stretching out his name to three words. “I have heard of him.”

“He was also known as Tommy Gunn the Magician,” said Am, rhyming the name with his stage profession. “Kingsbury studied magic
and illusion to learn the tricks of the trade, to get an understanding of just how people could be fooled. It was his life’s
work to expose the charlatans and reveal their staged miracles.

“Kingsbury was staying at the Hotel as part of the UNDER convention, a gathering of those who have had near-death experiences.
Supposedly, he was skeptical of the ‘proof’ of life after death that these near-death groups have been circulating.”

“What kind of proof?” asked Hiroshi.

“Many who have almost died claim similar experiences. Most remember leaving their bodies and traveling toward a bright light.
Some say they talked with friends and relatives on what they call ‘the other side.’ Many reminisce about the overwhelming
peace they perceived when they were clinically dead, and claim that anyone who has had a near-death experience no longer fears

“You have not told us how this doctor magician died,” said Takei.

Am sensed the other man’s hostility, even if his animosity wasn’t exactly manifested in word or deed. Maybe Takei didn’t like
the idea of a
lecturing them. Maybe it grated against him that Am had once been in charge of many of his own duties.

“That’s because neither I, nor the authorities, yet know,” said Am. “Detective McHugh said that Kingsbury’s death looked suspicious,
and he’s seen a lot more bodies than I ever have. The autopsy will tell us if he’s right.”

“So, all this alarm might be unnecessary?” Takei’s question wasn’t a question.

“That’s right. Even Kingsbury’s dying words seem to support a natural death. Some of the UNDER people now believe he joined
their movement at the end,
publicly endorsed their cause.

“His last words were ‘Be positive.’ That goes hand in hand with the near-death experience.”

The men were silent, lost in contemplation of Kingsbury’s last words. Norma had told Am that Thomas Edison’s final utterance
was “It is very beautiful over there.” She said she had seen that beauty. The only last words Am knew were those of Eugene
O’Neill as he expired in Boston’s Shelton Hotel: “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room—and God damn it—died in a hotel
room.” Am had half a mind to usurp O’Neill’s words on his own deathbed.

“It is fortunate,” said Takei, “that we have a samurai to deal with this situation. You know
of course?”

Am wondered if it was a form of martial arts. The Fat Innkeeper decided to interpret.
is the way of the warrior, of the samurai. It is a manner of living, of acting, of being.
is a discipline, a code of bravery. It is a way, and a truth, and an inner guide.”

sounds like bullshit, thought Am.

“But no samurai,” said Hiroshi with that little half-Buddha smile of his, “however noble and determined, has ever conquered

“I don’t intend to be the first,” said Am. “But I do intend to get better acquainted.”

Chapter Seven

It is against the nature of most men to accept the fact that they are not qualified to do something. Prop a beer in their
hands, steer the conversation in the right direction, and before long they’ll wax eloquent on the finer points of brain surgery,
battlefield tactics, nuclear engineering, coaching a football team, and the most elementary task of all, how to run the country.
The wonderful thing about being an armchair quarterback is that you’re not called to go out on the field. So just how, thought
Am, had he managed to get himself in the middle of a very visible situation in which he had absolutely no idea how to proceed?
It wouldn’t do to tell the Fat Innkeeper and his cronies that he was content to let the police handle the investigation. He
could just see Takei raising a damning eyebrow at that one. To concede without trying wouldn’t be the samurai way.

Am’s ruminating was taking place in his own bathtub. Hot water, he thought, seemed to be his proper medium that day. Am eased
his shoulders and neck farther into the water. His tub wasn’t nearly as large as those in the Hotel spa. It wasn’t filled
with milk and/or herbs, and there wasn’t an attendant waiting to offer the requisite pampering (a bathing session one copywriter
had alliteratively labeled as the “electrolyte enrapturement experience”). But for all the Hotel’s touting of their “ultimate
liquid escape,” they didn’t, to Am’s knowledge, offer a rubber ducky. The yellow duck was placidly floating, stirred by the
small waves of Am’s movements. It was alone in the water tonight. Am had opted not to bring out the floating whale that usually
accompanied it.

He reached for the duck, and squeezed. The resulting quack sounded somewhat waterlogged. Certified in lifesaving techniques,
Am worked on the victim, draining water out of the duck. Along its underside he felt raised ridges and investigated what was
there: “Made in Japan.”

“My geisha house and welcome to it,” he said, then tossed the duck aside. It quacked, much more assertively this time, on
impact with the floor. That, or it laughed.

Am sank even farther into the tub, imagined himself an alligator with only eyes and nose clearing the liquid. The warm water
took away some of the harder edges of the day, but he couldn’t drift very far from his concerns. A guest had died at his Hotel.
He wanted McHugh to be wrong, hoped the autopsy would prove Kingsbury’s death was the result of natural causes, but his instincts
told him that was wishful thinking.

BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
10.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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