Authors: Alan Russell
City crews were on the scene trying to figure out what to do with thirty tons of putrefying mammal. Apparently they didn’t
have the kind of equipment that could just raise up the whale and haul it away. The word was that some vivisection was going
to be necessary. The sight of a whale being butchered on the beach would undoubtedly stir up the guest hornet nest once again.
Despite the smell, the beach was crowded with the curious. There was a lot of picture taking going on, Lilliputians excited
by the presence of the whale. The park and recreation department had sequestered off the area around the whale. Yellow “Do
Not Cross” tape was rapidly becoming a part of the Hotel colors. Am hoped the Hotel prankster wouldn’t get it into his mind
to paint a white outline of the whale in the sand after it was removed.
The boardwalk was crowded, something that usually only happened during the summer. There was gridlock along the beach wall
closest to the whale. Among the spectators was a familiar face, and a familiar tail. Wallace Talbot was out for a walk with
his black cocker spaniel Cinder. For more than half a century Wallace had lived at the Hotel. He acted like a character out
of the silent films, was famous for his courtly gestures and fanciful ways. Wallace was wearing a colorful ascot, a French
beret, and a white poplin suit. On another man the clothes might have looked foppish, but it was an outfit Wallace wore well.
Between man and dog, and trying to avoid being tripped up by the leash, was an attentive woman Am assumed was an artist. More
and more painters were now seeking Wallace out. He must be gratified, thought Am, that his art was finally being recognized
on a national, if not international, level. Most of Wallace’s canvases featured the vistas of the La Jolla Strand. He had
done more than a thousand paintings of the area, but the octogenarian claimed he had “barely scratched the surface of its
possibilities.” Am hoped a dead whale wasn’t going to emerge from his brush anytime soon.
Am worked his way forward to say hello. As he drew nearer, he began to reevaluate his assumption that the woman was an artist.
The sketchpad and brush he had thought she was holding turned out to be a pen and memo book. A purse was hanging from one
shoulder, and a small tape recorder from the other.
Reporter, Am thought. Probably doing a story on Wallace Talbot. But on the odd chance she wasn’t…
Am started to turn away, but Wallace espied him. “Holden,” he yelled. “Don’t be shy.” To make sure of his capture, Wallace
released Cinder. She went to Am straightaway, trained by the many treats he had brought her over the years. Even though his
hands were empty, she was still glad to see him. She settled her head between his fingers, confident of a good scratching.
With his usual theatrical air, Wallace motioned with his arms in grand sweeps while making introductions. “Holden Caulfield,”
he said, “also known by the enigmatic first name of Am, I’d like you to meet Marisa Donnelly.”
Am was used to Wallace calling him Holden, after
The Catcher in the Rye’s
Holden Caulfield. Salinger’s character had obviously impressed Wallace, for he always gave the name special emphasis, as
if it were a title. As far as Am was concerned, it was significantly better than
“Pleased to meet you,” said Am, shaking her hand. Marisa was not the kind of woman Am usually ran away from. She was about
thirty, had a smooth olive complexion, raven hair, and large green eyes. Her eyebrows were dark and thick, her hair long and
slightly wavy. Marisa’s white and shapely teeth, set off by rose gums, should have been used to promote some toothpaste, that,
or her all-too-brief smile could have been the basis for a lot of UN accords.
“Holden is the Hotel’s glue,” explained Wallace. “Every great hotel needs its magic, and Holden is the magician that makes
“Security director,” said Marisa, reading his name tag.
“Catcher in the rye,” announced Wallace.
“Formerly assistant general manager of the Hotel,” explained Am, “but currently assigned to the safety and security department.”
It wasn’t that Am felt he had to apologize for his job, or at least not exactly. But some people assume you are what you work.
“Marisa is a reporter with the
“Formerly an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,” she said.
Am felt better. He wasn’t the only one explaining.
“She’s out here doing a story on our unexpected visitor,” explained Wallace.
“Actually,” she said, “I’m here on two stories. Since I was already at the Hotel covering the UNDER convention, I was told
to write a sidebar piece on the whale.”
For a moment, Am almost asked her if she had written the story on Dr. Kingsbury’s death. He had assumed that most of the information
had come from the obituary on file. You know you’ve made it, he thought ruefully, when newspapers already have your obituary
written up. None of the newspaper stories had even hinted that Kingsbury’s death could have resulted from anything other than
natural causes. That was the way McHugh wanted it, and Am as well. Reporters would only cloud the investigative waters.
“So,” she said, “for the record, how have your guests been reacting to the whale?”
Am lied. He said that they had been very understanding, had been good sports about the whole thing. Why, said Am, one guest
had commented that this would be some whale of a tale to tell all of his friends.
Marisa clicked off her tape recorder. “Am,” she said, “must be short for Am-nesia. I just came from the front desk. There
were people there asking for refunds and reduction in rates. It looked like there were droves of early checkouts, and there
was one man even threatening to sue. And everybody, I mean everybody, wanted to move to another room.”
“Really?” said Am.
“Not going to help me win my Pulitzer, are you?”
Am tilted his head toward the unmoving mountain of whale. “Unless you can prove that whale’s Moby Dick,” he said, “I wouldn’t
start working on any acceptance speech.”
“Maybe the autopsy will show something.”
Was Am imagining it, or was there a double meaning in her tone? And was she watching him closely to gauge his reaction, or
was that just a friendly glance?
“Sorry to dash any hopes,” said Wallace, “but as both of you surely know, the White Whale was a sperm whale, whereas this
one has already been identified as a gray whale.”
“Better luck with your next investigative story,” said Am.
“Oh,” she said sweetly, sizing him up for a final harpoon, “I haven’t given up on this one yet.”
Anyone who has worked in hotels for a few years wouldn’t have much trouble leaving the business to set up shop as an experienced
psychic. Being a good reader of the human trade is an important part of the hotel craft. Much in the way a doctor examines
patients, so does hotel staff observe guests, the body human announcing itself in various ways to both professions. In a glance,
an adept clerk can often anticipate a skipper, a complainer, or a midnight party. They can sense friend or foe, and all the
gray areas between, their call usually based on their five senses, though those outside the business would swear such prognosticating
to be a product of their sixth sense.
Often, hotel employees can’t even tell you why they anticipated a certain behavior, especially as they work in a business
where there are no givens, where appearances deceive as often as they enlighten. “When a man tries to hide the fact that he’s
got a limp,” one hotel veteran had told Am, “that limp will show up in other places.” Am had learned how one guest with paint-splattered
pants and a threadbare sweater had turned out to own most of Oklahoma City, while another guest, decked out with an Armani
suit, and the trappings of a Rolex watch, Louis Vuitton luggage, and most of Fort Knox around his neck, was a cabdriver with
a lot of debts. The revelations confirmed what Am had intuitively suspected. Gilbert and Sullivan created the lyrics, but
the hotel business is often testament to them: “Things are seldom what they seem, Skim milk masquerades as cream.” The consummate
hotel professional has to see beyond appearance. Kingsbury, thought Am. Skim, or cream, or in between?
Detective McHugh had the resources of the San Diego Police Department behind him. He had the trace evidence team, and the
forensics lab. He had local, state, and national computer banks. He had a team of investigators. Am had a hotel bill. To an
experienced translator, though, hotel charges can be the Rosetta stone to a guest’s soul.
Kingsbury had stayed at the Hotel for three nights, had died before he could spend his fourth night there. He had managed
to dine at all four of the Hotel’s restaurants, an indication that the doctor enjoyed trying new dining spots (that, or he
hadn’t been impressed enough with any of the Hotel eateries to want to dine in the same restaurant twice). His meals were
for amounts that made Am believe the doctor had not eaten alone, something he’d have to check on.
The doctor’s Hotel bill was relatively debit-free. He had availed himself of few of the Hotel’s temptations, hadn’t played
tennis, or used the pitch and putt course, or charged in any of the Hotel’s shops with the exception of the sundry store,
and there for only a minimal purchase of four dollars and twenty-six cents. Kingsbury had taken no tours. He hadn’t participated
in aerobics, dance lessons, or jazzercize, hadn’t had any facials, massages, or body wraps.
Kingsbury had managed, though, in his short stay, to visit three of the six Hotel lounges, one of them on two occasions. He
had made seven long-distance calls, and dialed up four local numbers. He had sent three faxes, and received two in return.
And he had watched one in-room movie. Which one? Am tapped out his query. Unless requested by the guests, the movie names
were not printed on the final bill, just the charges for them. There was a reason for that, a reason that appeared on the
screen. The doctor had taken time from his scientific inquiries to watch
Tea for Three,
one of the soft-porn offerings currently available to the guests.
He had been busy, thought Am. Dining, drinking, interviewing, attending the conference, getting and receiving faxes, making
calls, and even taking in a prurient picture. And dying.
The Hotel’s property-management system allowed Am a lot of fingertip information, but he wasn’t content to try and divine
everything from a video-display terminal. He preferred looking at the paper charges, the more scribbles and ketchup stains,
the better. Before the advent of computers, Am had often read just such tea leaves to decipher signatures, or figure out where
the charge belonged. He called up the accounting department and asked for Ward Ankeney, the controller. Ward claimed he had
been at the Hotel “since the cigar box and pencil ledger-entry days.” Like Am, he knew there were times when the computer
couldn’t tell you everything. He didn’t question Am’s need to look at the charges, just said they would be available to him
by early afternoon.
Am’s phone rang. The display showed that Janet DeSilva was calling from sales and marketing. For a moment Am was tempted to
let his voice mail take a message. He had been given the rare privilege of a few undisturbed minutes at work, and was now
eager for a few more. Janet had taken over for Kim Yamamoto in sales several months earlier. Ironically Kim, who was third-generation
American Japanese, had said her departure was due in part to her not wanting to work for “old world Japanese.” Janet’s ascendancy
to sales and marketing director hadn’t been without its problems. Around the Hotel, Janet was getting to be known as “Dammit,
Janet.” Someone had taped a sign to her door which said,
Lack of Planning Does Not Constitute
Emergency.” Many “someones” had agreed with the short-lived editorial.
“We have a problem, Am.”
“What—did another whale wash up on the beach?”
“Worse,” she said.
“I’ll be right over.”
Being greeted by the sounds of someone sobbing isn’t the most welcoming of receptions. Kate Kennedy was at her desk making
fast work of a box of tissues. Janet was hovering nearby, ostensibly offering comfort to the crying woman, but from appearances
she didn’t trust her hands anywhere near Kate’s neck.
“Thanks for coming, Am,” said Janet.
There was a third figure in the office. Melvin Carrelis was carefully taking notes. The Hotel’s legal counsel met Am’s eyes
and nodded. Oh, God, Am thought. Whenever Melvin surfaced, it was never a happy occasion. He always wore his black suits as
if to accentuate that point. Even for a lawyer, Melvin seemed slippery. He was balding, but in denial, letting the rest of
his dark hair grow long. Melvin had a large nose that he liked to lead with. Whenever he talked, he moved his nose; forward,
side to side, thrusting, parrying. Am had once met Mrs. Carrelis at a party. She had told him, “When I married Melvin, I thought
he was a Greek god. Now I think he’s a goddamn Greek.” At the time of her pronouncement, Mrs. Carrelis wasn’t feeling any
“Kate,” said Janet, “why don’t you acquaint Am with the situation?”
Situation. Even Janet’s delicate phrasing made it sound like a disease. A communicable disease. Kate had been with the Hotel
for less than a year. She was a strawberry redhead several years removed from her sorority, but the weaning process was slow.
This was the first time Am had seen Kate without a smile, and without makeup, which had been swept away by her own flood.
Am had known she had freckles, but had never imagined she had so many.
Kate’s speech sounded vaguely Japanese. Am looked to Janet for a translation. “Kate made a mistake,” she said. “We all did.
A few months ago we revised some of the group contracts. In streamlining them, we omitted a few minor sections.”
“Omitted,” interjected Melvin, pressing his nose forward, “with the understanding that there would be an oral follow-through.”