Authors: Emily St. John Mandel
“What was unusual?” Raphael asked.
“Inquiring about guests like that. How would he even know who was checking in that night?”
“It’s not the worst thing for a houseman to take a look at the guest list, familiarize himself with the lay of the land. Just playing devil’s advocate.”
“Okay, sure, I’ll give you that. But then, the way he looked straight to that point on the glass when he walked in, straight at the potted plant. I just don’t think the philodendron was that obvious,” Walter said.
“It is obviously out of place, to my eye.”
“But is it the first thing you look at? Especially at night? You walk into the lobby from the side door, at night, you look past the double row of pillars, past the armchairs and the side tables, halfway down the glass wall…”
“He does clean the lobby,” Raphael said. “He’d know better than anyone where the potted plants go.”
“I’m not accusing him of anything, to be clear. It’s just something I noticed.”
“I understand. I’ll speak with him. Was there anything else?”
“Nothing. The rest of the shift was completely normal.”
The rest of the shift:
By four a.m., Leon Prevant was beginning to yawn. Paul was somewhere back in the heart of the house, mopping floors in the staff corridors. Walter had finished his report and gone through his checklist. He was gazing out into the lobby, trying not to think too much about the graffiti. (What does
Why don’t you swallow broken glass
signify, if not
I hope you die
?) Larry was standing by the door with his eyes half-open. Walter wanted to wander over and talk to him, but he knew Larry used the quiet hours to meditate, and that when his eyes were half-open, that meant he was counting breaths. Walter considered going to talk to Vincent, but it wouldn’t look right for the night manager to linger by the bar while a guest was present, so he settled for a leisurely inspection of the lobby. He straightened a framed photograph by the fireplace, ran a fingertip over the bookshelves to check for dust, adjusted the leaves of the philodendron so that they better covered the paper taped to the glass. He stepped out for a moment into the cool night air, listening for a boat that he knew was not yet en route.
At four-thirty Leon Prevant rose and drifted toward the elevator, yawning. Twenty minutes later, Jonathan Alkaitis arrived. Walter heard the boat long before it came into view, as always, the motor violently loud in the stillness of night, and then the lights on the stern swung over the water as the boat rounded the peninsula. Larry set off for the pier with a luggage trolley. Vincent put away the newspaper she’d been reading, adjusted her hair, reapplied lipstick, and took two quick shots of espresso. Walter put on his warmest professional smile as Jonathan Alkaitis walked in behind his luggage.
In later years Walter was interviewed three or four times about Jonathan Alkaitis, but the journalists always left disappointed. As a hotel manager, he told them, he lived and died by his discretion, but in truth there wasn’t much to tell. Alkaitis was interesting only in retrospect. He’d come to the Hotel Caiette with his wife, now deceased. He and his wife had fallen in love with the place, so when it’d come up for sale he’d bought the property, which he leased to the hotel’s management company. He lived in New York City and came to the hotel three or four times a year. He carried himself with the tedious confidence of all people with money, that breezy assumption that no serious harm could come to him. He was generically well dressed, tanned in the manner of people who spend time in tropical settings in the wintertime, reasonably but not spectacularly fit, unremarkable in every way. Nothing about him, in other words, suggested that he would die in prison.
The best suite had been set aside for him, as always. He was absurdly jet-lagged, he told Walter, and also quite hungry. Could an early breakfast be arranged? (Of course. For Alkaitis, anything could be arranged.) It was still dark outside, but day broke in the kitchen long before sunrise. The morning shift would be arriving by now.
“I’ll just take a seat at the bar,” Alkaitis said, and within minutes was deep in conversation with Vincent, who was, it seemed to Walter, at her brightest and most engaging, although he couldn’t quite make out what they were talking about.
Leon Prevant left the lobby at four-thirty a.m., climbed the stairs to his room, and crept into the bed, where his wife was sleeping. Marie didn’t wake up. He’d purposefully drunk one whiskey too many with the thought that this might make it possible to fall asleep, but it was as if the graffiti had opened a crack in the night, through which all his fears flooded in. If pressed he might have admitted to Marie that he was worried about money, but
wasn’t strong enough. Leon was afraid.
A colleague had told him this place was extraordinary, so he’d booked an extremely expensive room as an anniversary surprise for his wife. His colleague was right, he’d decided immediately. There were fishing and kayaking expeditions, guided hikes into wilderness, live music in the lobby, spectacular food, a wooded path that opened into a forest glade with an outdoor bar and lanterns hung from trees, a heated pool overlooking the tranquil waters of the sound.
“It’s heavenly,” Marie said on their first night.
“I’m inclined to agree.”
He’d sprung for a room with a hot tub on the terrace, and that first night they were out there for at least an hour, sipping champagne with a cool breeze in their faces, the sun setting over the water in a postcard kind of way. He kissed her and tried to convince himself to relax. But relaxation was difficult, because a week after he’d booked this extravagant room and told his wife about it, he’d begun to hear rumors of a pending merger.
Leon had survived two mergers and a reorganization, but when he heard the first whispers of this latest restructuring, he was struck by a certainty so strong that it felt like true knowledge: he was going to lose his job. He was fifty-eight years old. He was senior enough to be expensive, and close enough to retirement to be let go without weighing too heavily on anyone’s conscience. There was no part of his job that couldn’t be performed by younger executives who made less money than he did. Since hearing of the merger he’d lived whole hours without thinking about it, but the nights were harder than the days. He and Marie had just bought a house in South Florida, which they planned to rent out until he retired, with the idea of eventually fleeing New York winters and New York taxes. This seemed to him to be a new beginning, but they’d spent more money on the house than they’d meant to, he had never been very good at saving, and he was aware that he had much less in his retirement accounts than he should. It was six-thirty in the morning before he fell into a fitful sleep.
When Walter returned to the lobby the following evening, Leon Prevant was eating dinner at the bar with Jonathan Alkaitis. They’d met a little earlier, in what seemed at the time like a coincidental manner and seemed later like a trap. Leon had been at the bar, eating a salmon burger, alone because Marie was lying down upstairs with a headache. Alkaitis, who was drinking a pint of Guinness two stools down, struck up a conversation with the bartender and then expanded the conversation to include Leon. They were talking about Caiette, which, as it happened, Jonathan Alkaitis knew something about. “I actually own this property,” he said to Leon, almost apologetically. “It’s hard to get to, but that’s what I like about it.”
“I think I know what you mean,” Leon said. He was always looking for conversations, and it was a pleasure to think about something—anything!—other than financial insolvency and unemployment for a moment. “Do you own other hotels?”
“Just the one. I mostly work in finance.” Alkaitis had a couple of businesses in New York, he said, both of which involved investing other people’s money in the stock market for them. He wasn’t really taking on new clients these days, but he did on occasion make an exception.
The thing about Alkaitis,
a woman from Philadelphia wrote some years later, in a victim impact statement that she read aloud at Alkaitis’s sentencing hearing,
is he made you feel like you were joining a secret club.
There was truth in this, Leon had to admit, when he read the transcript, but the other part of the equation was the man himself. What Alkaitis had was presence. He had a voice made for late-night radio, warm and reassuring. He radiated calm. He was a man utterly without bluster, confident but not arrogant, quick to smile at jokes. A steady, low-key, intelligent person, much more interested in listening than in talking about himself. He had that trick—and it was a trick, Leon realized later—of appearing utterly indifferent to what anyone thought of him, and in so doing provoking the opposite anxiety in other people:
What does Alkaitis think of me?
Later, in the years that he spent replaying this particular evening, Leon remembered a certain desire to impress him.
“This is slightly embarrassing,” Alkaitis said that night, when they’d left the bar and retired to a quieter corner of the lobby to discuss investments, “but you said you’re in shipping, and I realized as you said it that I’ve only the dimmest idea of what that actually means.”
Leon smiled. “You’re not alone in that. It’s a largely invisible industry, but nearly everything you’ve ever bought traveled over the water.”
“My made-in-China headphones, and whatnot.”
“Sure, yes, there’s an obvious one, but I really mean almost everything. Everything on and around us. Your socks. Our shoes. My aftershave. This glass in my hand. I could keep going, but I’ll spare you.”
“I’m embarrassed to admit that I never thought about it,” Jonathan said.
“No one does. You go to the store, you buy a banana, you don’t think about the men who piloted the banana through the Panama Canal. Why would you?”
he told himself. He was aware of a weakness for rhapsodizing on his industry at excessive length. “I have colleagues who resent the general public’s ignorance of the industry, but I think the fact that you don’t have to think about it proves that the whole system works.”
“The banana arrives on schedule.” Jonathan sipped his drink. “You must develop a kind of sixth sense. Here you are in the world, surrounded by all these objects that arrived by ship. You ever find it distracting, thinking about all those shipping routes, all those points of origin?”
“You’re only the second person I’ve ever met who guessed that,” Leon said.
The other was a psychic, a college friend of Marie’s who’d come into Toronto from Santa Fe, back when Leon was still based in Toronto, and the three of them had had dinner downtown at Saint Tropez, Marie’s favorite restaurant in their Toronto years. The psychic—Clarissa, he remembered now—was friendly and warm. He liked her immediately. He had an impression that psychics must very often be exploited by their friends and passing acquaintances, an impression not dispelled by Marie’s reminiscences about all the times she’d asked Clarissa for free advice, so over the course of the evening Leon went elaborately out of his way to avoid asking her anything, until finally, over dessert, curiosity overtook him: Was it ever deafening, he asked her, being in a crowded room? Was it like being in a room filled with radios tuned to overlapping frequencies, a clamor of voices broadcasting the mundane or horrifying details of dozens of lives? Clarissa smiled. “It’s like this,” she said, gesturing at the room around them, “it’s like being in a crowded restaurant. You can tune in to the conversation at the next table, or you can let that become background noise. Like the way you see shipping,” she said, and this remained in memory as one of the most delightful conversations Leon had ever had, because he’d never talked with anyone about the way he could tune in and out of shipping, like turning a dial on a radio. When he glanced across the table at Marie, for example: he could see the woman he loved, or he could shift frequencies and see the dress made in the U.K., the shoes made in China, the Italian leather handbag, or shift even further and see the Neptune-Avramidis shipping routes lit up on the map: the dress via Westbound Trans-Atlantic Route 3, the shoes via either the Trans-Pacific Eastbound 7 or the Shanghai–Los Angeles Eastbound Express, etc. Or further still, into the kind of language he’d never speak aloud, not even to Marie: there are tens of thousands of ships at sea at any given moment and he liked to imagine each one as a point of light, converging into rivers of electric brilliance over the night oceans, flowing through the narrow channels of the Suez and Panama Canals, the Strait of Gibraltar, around the edges of continents and out into the oceans, an unceasing movement that drove countries, a secret world that he loved so much.
When Walter walked within earshot of Leon Prevant and Jonathan Alkaitis, some time later, the conversation had shifted from Leon’s work to Alkaitis’s, from shipping to investment strategies. Walter understood none of it. Finance wasn’t his world. He didn’t speak the language. Someone on the day shift had covered the graffiti on the glass with reflective tape, an odd silvery streak of mirror on the darkened window. Two American actors were eating dinner at the bar.
“He left his first wife for her,” Larry said, nodding at them.
“Oh?” said Walter, who could not possibly have cared less. Twenty years of working in high-end hotels had cured him of any interest in celebrity. “I wanted to ask you,” he said, “just between the two of us, does the new guy seem a little off to you?”
Larry glanced theatrically over his shoulder and around the lobby, but Paul was elsewhere, mopping the corridor behind Reception in the heart of the house.
“Maybe a little depressed, is all,” Larry said. “Not the most sparkling personality I’ve ever come across.”
“Did he ask you about arriving guests last night?”
“How’d you know? Yeah, asked me when Jonathan Alkaitis was arriving.”
“And you told him…?”
“Well, you know my eyesight’s not great, and I’d only just come on shift. So I told him I wasn’t completely sure, but I thought the guy drinking whiskey in the lobby was Alkaitis. Didn’t realize my mistake till later. Why?” Larry was a reasonably discreet man, but on the other hand, the staff lived together in the same building in the woods and gossip was a kind of black-market currency.
“I’ll tell you later.” Walter still didn’t understand the motive, as he walked back toward Reception, but there was no doubt in his mind that Paul had committed the act. He glanced around the lobby, but no one seemed to require his attention at that moment, so he slipped through the staff door behind the reception desk. Paul was cleaning the dark window at the end of the hall.
The night houseman stopped what he was doing, and in his expression, Walter knew that he’d been correct in his suspicions. Paul had a hunted look.
“Where’d you get the acid marker?” Walter asked. “Is that something you can just buy at a hardware store, or did you have to make it yourself?”
“What are you talking about?” But Paul was a terrible liar. His voice had gone up half an octave.
“Why did you want Jonathan Alkaitis to see that disgusting message?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“This place means something to me,” Walter said. “Seeing it defaced like that…” It was the
that bothered him the most, the utter vileness of the message on the glass, but he didn’t know how to explain this to Paul without opening a door into his personal life, and the thought of revealing anything remotely personal to this shiftless little creep was untenable. He couldn’t finish the sentence. He cleared his throat. “I’d like to give you an opportunity,” he said. “Pack up your things and leave on the first boat, and we don’t have to get the police involved.”
“I’m sorry.” Paul’s voice was a whisper. “I just—”
“You just thought you’d deface a hotel window, for the sake of delivering the most vicious, the most deranged—” Walter was sweating. “Why did you even do it?” But Paul had the furtive look of a boy searching for a plausible story, and Walter couldn’t stand to listen to another lie that night. “Look, just go,” he said. “I don’t care why you did it. I don’t want to look at you anymore. Put the cleaning supplies away, go back to your room, pack your bags, and tell Melissa that you want a ride to Grace Harbour as quickly as possible. If you’re still here at nine a.m., I’ll go to Raphael.”
“You don’t understand,” Paul said. “I’ve got all this debt—”
“If you needed the job that badly,” Walter said, “you probably shouldn’t have defaced the window.”
“You can’t even swallow broken glass.”
“I mean it’s actually physically impossible.”
“Seriously? That’s your defense?”
Paul flushed and looked away.
“Did you ever think of your sister in all of this?” Walter asked. “She got you the job interview here, didn’t she?”
“Vincent had nothing to do with this.”
“Are you going to leave? I’m in a generous mood and I don’t want to embarrass your sister, so I’m giving you a clean exit here, but if you’d prefer a criminal record, then by all means…”
“No, I’ll go.” Paul looked down at the cleaning supplies in his hands, as if unsure how they’d landed there. “I’m sorry.”
“You should go pack before I change my mind.”
“Thank you,” Paul said.