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Authors: Nita Prose

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BOOK: The Maid
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It was also unlike Giselle to forget to tip me.

We’re all entitled to a bad day now and again,
I heard Gran say in my head.
But when they are all bad days, with no pleasant ones, then it’s time to reconsider things.

I moved on to Mr. and Mrs. Chen’s room a few doors down. Cheryl was just about to enter.

“I was going to take the dirty sheets downstairs for you, as a favor,” she said.

“That’s quite all right, I’ve got it,” I replied, pushing past her with my trolley. “But thank you for your kindness.” I buzzed through, allowing the door to shut abruptly on her scowling face.

On the pillow in the Chens’ bedroom was a crisp twenty-dollar bill. For me. An acknowledgment of my work, of my existence, of my need.

“That’s kindness, Cheryl,” I said out loud as I folded the twenty and tucked it into my pocket. As I cleaned, I fantasized about all the things I would do—spray bleach in her face, strangle her with a bathrobe tie, push her off the balcony—if ever I caught Cheryl red-handed, stealing tips from one of my rooms.

I hear footsteps coming down the hallway toward Mr. Snow’s office, where I remain obediently seated in one of Mr. Snow’s squeaky maroon high-backed leather chairs. I don’t know how long I’ve been here—it feels like more than one hundred and twenty minutes—and while I’ve tried my best to distract myself with thoughts and recollections, my nerves are increasingly frayed. Mr. Snow steps in. “Molly, thank you for waiting. You’ve been very patient.”

It’s only then that I realize there is someone behind him, a figure in dark blue. The figure steps forward. It’s a police officer, a female. She’s large, imposing, with broad athletic shoulders. There’s something about her eyes that I do not like. I’m used to people looking past me, around me, but this officer, she looks right at me—dare I say
through
me?—in a deeply unsettling manner. The teacup in my hand is stone cold. My hands are cold too.

“Molly, this is Detective Stark. Detective, this is Molly Gray. She’s the one who found Mr. Black.”

I’m not sure what the protocol is for greeting a detective. I’ve received training from Mr. Snow on how to greet businessmen, heads of state, and Instagram stars, but never did he mention what to do in the case of
detectives. I must resort to my own ingenuity and my memories of
Columbo
.

I stand, then realize the teacup is still in my hand. I shuffle over to Mr. Snow’s mahogany desk, where I’m about to place it down, but there is no coaster. I spot the coasters on the other side of the room on a shelf filled with sumptuous, leather-bound volumes that would be laborious to clean but also quite satisfying. I take one coaster, return to Mr. Snow’s desk, place it down, square it to the desk’s corner, and then set my rose-ornamented cup upon it, careful not to spill so much as a drop of the cold tea.

“There,” I say. Then I approach the detective and meet her discerning eye. “Detective,” I say, just as they do on television. I perform a somewhat curtsy by placing one foot behind the other and nodding my head curtly.

The detective glances at Mr. Snow then back at me.

“What an awful day for you,” the detective says. Her voice is not without warmth, I don’t think.

“Oh, it wasn’t all awful,” I say. “I’ve just been running through it in my mind. It was actually mostly pleasant, until approximately three o’clock.”

The detective looks at Mr. Snow again.

“Shock,” he says. “She’s in shock.”

Perhaps Mr. Snow is correct. The next thought I have suddenly seems most urgent to articulate out loud. “Mr. Snow, thank you so much for the cup of tea and the lovely shortbread biscuit. Did you bring them? Or did someone else? I truly enjoyed both. May I ask, what brand is the shortbread?”

Mr. Snow clears his throat. Then he says, “Those are made in our own kitchens, Molly. I would be happy to bring you more another time. But right now, it’s important to discuss something else. Right now, Detective Stark has a few questions for you, seeing as how you were first on the scene of Mr. Black’s…of his…”

“Death bed,” I say, helpfully.

Mr. Snow looks down at his well-polished shoes.

The detective crosses her arms. I do believe her eyes are drilling into mine in a meaningful way, yet I’m not sure what that meaning is exactly. If Gran were here, I would ask her. But she is not here. She will never be here again.

“Molly,” Mr. Snow says. “You’re not in trouble in any way. But the detective would like to talk to you as a witness. Perhaps there are details you noticed about the scene or about the day that would be helpful to the investigation.”

“The investigation,” I say. “Do you presume to know how Mr. Black died?” I ask.

Detective Stark clears her throat. “I presume nothing at this point.”

“How very sensible,” I say. “So you don’t think that Mr. Black was murdered?”

Detective Stark’s eyes open wide. “Well, it’s more likely he died of a heart attack,” she says. “There’s petechial hemorrhaging around his eyes consistent with cardiac arrest.”

“Petechial hemorrhaging?” Mr. Snow asks.

“Tiny bruises around the eyes. Happens during a heart attack, but it can also mean…other things. At this point, we don’t know anything for sure. We’ll be doing a thorough investigation to rule out foul play.”

This puts me in mind of a very funny joke that Gran used to tell: What do you call a poor rendition of
Hamlet
performed by chickens? Fowl play.

I smile at the recollection.

“Molly,” says Mr. Snow. “Do you realize the gravity of this situation?” His eyebrows knit together, and then I realize what I’ve done, how my smile has been misinterpreted.

“My apologies, sir,” I explain. “I was thinking of a joke.”

The detective uncrosses her arms and places both hands squarely on her hips. Again, she stares at me in that way of hers. “I’d like to bring you to the station, Molly,” she says. “To take your witness statement.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” I say. “I haven’t completed my shift and Mr. Snow counts on me to do my fair share as a maid.”

“Oh, that’s quite all right, Molly,” Mr. Snow says. “This is an
exceptional circumstance, and I do insist that you help Detective Stark. We will remunerate you for your full shift, so don’t worry about that.”

It’s a relief to hear this. Given the current state of my finances, I simply can’t afford to lose wages.

“That’s very good of you, Mr. Snow,” I say. Then another thought occurs to me. “So I’m not in any trouble, is that correct?”

“No,” says Mr. Snow. “Isn’t that right, Detective?”

“No, not at all. We just need to know what you saw today, what you noticed, especially at the scene.”

“You mean in Mr. Black’s suite?”

“Yes.”

“When I found him dead.”

“Uh, yes.”

“I see. Where shall I take my soiled teacup, Mr. Snow? I’m happy to return it to the kitchen. ‘Never leave a mess to be discovered by a guest.’ ”

I’m quoting from Mr. Snow’s most recent professional-development seminar, but alas, he doesn’t acknowledge my witty rejoinder.

“Don’t worry about the cup. I’ll take care of it,” he says.

And with that, the detective leads the way, ushering me out of Mr. Snow’s office, through the illustrious front lobby of the Regency Grand Hotel and out the service door.

I am in the police station. It feels odd not to be either at the Regency Grand or at home in Gran’s apartment. I have trouble calling it “my apartment,” but I suppose it’s mine now. Mine and mine alone for as long as I can manage to pay the rent.

Now here I am in a place I’ve never been before, a place I certainly never expected to be in today—a small, white, cinder-block room with only two chairs, a table, and a camera in the upper-left corner, blinking a red light at me. The fluorescent illumination in here is too sharp and blinding. While I have a great appreciation of bright white in décor and clothing, this style choice is definitely not working. White only works when a room is clean. And make no mistake: this room is far from clean.

Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard: I see dirt where others don’t. The stains on the wall where a black briefcase likely grazed it, the coffee rings on the white table in front of me, two round, brown
o
’s. The gray thumbprints smeared around the doorknob, the geometric treads left on the floor from an officer’s wet boots.

Detective Stark left me here just a few moments ago. Our car ride over was pleasant enough. She let me sit in the front of the car, which I appreciated. I’m no criminal, thank you very much, so there’s no need
to treat me like one. She tried to make small talk during the drive. I’m not good at small talk.

“So how long have you worked at the Regency Grand?” she asked.

“It’s now approximately four years, thirteen weeks, and five days. I may be off by a day, but no more. I could tell you exactly if you have a calendar.”

“Not necessary.” She shook her head slowly for a few seconds, which I took to mean I’d offered too much information. Mr. Snow taught me “KISS,” which isn’t what you think. It stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. To be clear, he wasn’t calling me stupid. He was suggesting that sometimes I overexplain, which I’ve learned can be annoying to others.

When we reached the station, Detective Stark greeted the receptionist, which was rather good of her. I do appreciate when so-called superiors properly greet their employees—
No one is too high or too low for common courtesy,
Gran would say.

Once we were in the station, the detective led me to this small room at the back.

“Can I get you anything before we begin our chat? How about a cup of coffee?”

“Tea?” I asked.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Now she’s back with a Styrofoam cup in her hand. “Sorry, there’s no tea to be had in this cop shop. I brought you some water instead.”

A Styrofoam cup. I detest Styrofoam. The way it squeaks. The way dirt clings to it. The way even the slightest nick with a fingernail leaves a permanent scar, but I know to be polite. I won’t make a fuss.

“Thank you,” I say.

She clears her throat and sits in the chair across from mine. She has a yellow note pad and a Bic pen, the top chewed. I will my mind not to think about the universe of bacteria dwelling on the top of that pen. She puts her pad down on the table, the pen beside it. She leans back and looks at me in that penetrating way of hers.

“You’re not in any trouble, Molly,” she says. “I just want you to know that.”

“I’m well aware,” I say.

The yellow pad is askew, approximately forty-seven degrees off from being square with the corner of the table. Before I can stop them, my hands move to rectify this untidiness, shifting the pad so it’s parallel with the table. The pen is also askew, but there is no power on Earth great enough to make me touch it.

Detective Stark watches me, her head cocked to one side. This may be uncharitable, but she looks like a large dog listening for sounds in the forest. Eventually, she speaks.

“It seems to me that Mr. Snow might be right about you, that you’re in shock. It’s common for people in shock to have trouble expressing their emotions. I’ve seen it before.”

Detective Stark does not know me at all. I suppose Mr. Snow didn’t tell her much about me either. She thinks my behavior is peculiar, that I’m out of sorts because I found Mr. Black dead in his bed. And while it was shocking and I am out of sorts, I’m feeling much better now than I was a few hours ago, and I’m most certain that I’m behaving quite normally indeed.

What I really want is to go home, to make myself a proper cup of tea, and perhaps text Rodney about the day’s events in the hopes that he might console me in some way or offer himself for a date. If that doesn’t transpire, not all is lost. I might take a nice bath and read an Agatha Christie novel—Gran has so many of them, all of which I’ve read more than once.

I decide not to share any of these thoughts. Instead, I agree with Detective Stark insofar as I can without complete deception. “Detective,” I say, “you may be right that I am in shock, and I’m sorry if you think I’m not quite myself.”

“It’s perfectly understandable,” she says, and her lips lift into a smile—at least, I think it’s a smile? I can rarely be certain.

“I’d like to ask you what you saw when you entered the Blacks’ suite this afternoon. Did you see anything out of place or unusual?”

During each and every shift, I encounter a panoply of things that are “out of place” or “unusual”—and not just in the Black suite. Today, I
found a curtain rod ripped from its hinges in a room on the third floor, a contraband hot plate left in plain sight on a bathroom counter on the fourth floor, and six very giggly ladies trying to hide air mattresses under a bed in a room meant for two guests only. I did my due diligence and reported all of these infractions—and more—to Mr. Snow.

“Your devotion to the high standards of the Regency Grand knows no bounds,” Mr. Snow said, but he did not smile. His lips remained a perfect horizontal line.

“Thank you,” I replied, feeling quite good about my report.

I consider what it is the detective really wants to know and what I’m prepared to divulge.

“Detective,” I say, “the Black suite was in its usual state of disarray when I entered this afternoon. There wasn’t much out of the ordinary, except the pills on the bedside table.”

I offer this up on purpose, because it’s a detail that even the most nitwitted investigator would have noticed at the scene. What I don’t want to discuss are the other things—the robe on the floor, the safe being open, the missing money, the flight itinerary, Giselle’s purse being gone the second time I went into the room. And what I saw in that mirror in Mr. Black’s bedroom.

I’ve watched enough murder mysteries to know who the prime suspects tend to be. Wives often top the list, and the last thing I want is to cast any doubt on Giselle. She’s blameless in all of this, and she’s my friend. I’m worried for her.

“We’re looking into those pills,” the detective says.

“They’re Giselle’s,” I say, despite myself. I cannot believe her name popped right out of my mouth. Perhaps I really am in shock, because my thoughts and my mouth aren’t working in tandem the way they usually do.

“How do you know the pills are Giselle’s?” the detective asks, never looking up from the pad she writes on. “The container wasn’t labeled.”

“I know because I handle all of Giselle’s toiletries. I line them up when I clean the bathroom. I like to organize them from tallest to
smallest, though I’ll sometimes ascertain first if a guest prefers a different method of organization.”

“A different method.”

“Yes, such as makeup products, medicines, feminine-hygiene products…”

Detective Stark’s mouth opens slightly.

“Or shaving implements, moisturizers, hair tonics. Do you see?”

She is silent for too long. She’s looking at me like I’m the idiot when clearly she’s the one unable to grasp my very simple logic. The truth is that I know the pills are Giselle’s because I’ve seen her pop them into her mouth several times while I’ve been in her room. I even asked about them once.

“These?” she said. “They calm me down when I freak out. Want one?”

I politely declined. Drugs are for pain management only, and I’m acutely aware of what can happen when they’re abused.

The detective carries on with her questions. “When you arrived in the Blacks’ room, did you go straight to the bedroom?”

“No,” I say. “That would be against protocols. First, I announced my arrival, thinking that perhaps someone was in the suite. As it turns out, I was one hundred percent correct on that assumption.”

The detective looks at me and says nothing.

I wait. “You didn’t write that down,” I say.

“Write what down?”

“What I just said.”

She gives me an unreadable look, then picks up her
plume de peste
and jots down my words, smacking the pen against the pad when she’s done. “So then what?” she asks.

“Well,” I say, “when no one answered, I ventured into the sitting room, which was quite untidy. I wanted to clean it up, but first I thought it right to look around the rest of the suite. I walked into the bedroom and found Mr. Black in bed, as though he were resting.”

Her chewed pen cap wags at me menacingly as she scratches down my words. “Go on,” she prompts.

I explain how I approached Mr. Black’s bedside, checked for breath, for a pulse, but found none, how I called down to Reception for help. I tell her all of it, up to a point.

She writes furiously now, occasionally pausing to look at me, putting that germ factory of a pen in her mouth as she does so.

“Tell me something, do you know Mr. Black very well? Have you ever had conversations with him, beyond just about cleaning their suite?”

“No,” I reply. “Mr. Black was always aloof. He drank a lot and did not seem partial to me at all, so I stayed clear of him as much as possible.”

“And Giselle Black?” the detective asked.

I thought of Giselle, of all the times we’d conversed, of the intimacies shared, hers and mine. That’s how a friendship is built, one small truth at a time.

I thought back to the very first time, many months ago, when I met Giselle. I’d cleaned the Blacks’ suite many times before, but I’d never actually met Giselle. It was in the morning, probably around nine-thirty, when I knocked on the door and Giselle let me in. She was wearing a soft pink dressing gown made of satin or silk. Her dark hair cascaded onto her shoulders in perfect waves. She reminded me of the starlets in the old black-and-white movies that Gran and I used to watch together in the evenings. And yet there was something very contemporary about Giselle as well, like she bridged two worlds.

She invited me in and I thanked her, rolling my trolley in behind me.

“I’m Giselle Black,” she said, offering me her hand.

I didn’t know what to do. Most guests avoid touching maids, especially our hands. They associate us with other people’s grime—never their own. But not Giselle. She was different; she was always different. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fond of her.

I quickly wiped my hands on a fresh towel from my trolley and then reached out to shake her hand. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance,” I said.

“And your name?” she asked.

Again, I was flummoxed. Guests rarely asked my name. “Molly,” I mumbled, then curtsied.

“Molly the Maid!” she roared. “That’s hilarious!”

“Indeed, madame,” I replied, looking down at my shoes.

“Oh, I’m no ‘madame,’ ” she said. “Haven’t been for a long time. Call me Giselle. Sorry you have to clean this shithole every day. We’re a bit of a mess, me and Charles. But it’s nice to open the door and find everything all fresh after you’ve been here. It’s like being reborn every single day.”

My work had been noticed, acknowledged, appreciated. For a moment, I wasn’t invisible.

“I’m at your service…Giselle,” I said.

She smiled then, a fulsome smile that reached all the way to her feline green eyes.

I felt the blood rush to my cheeks. I had no idea what to do next, what to say. It’s not every day that I engage in a real conversation with a guest of such stature. It’s also not every day that a guest acknowledges my existence.

I picked up my feather duster and was about to begin my work, but Giselle kept the conversation going.

“Tell me, Molly,” she said. “What’s it like being a maid, cleaning up after people like me every day?”

No guest had ever asked me this. How to respond was not a subject covered in any of Mr. Snow’s comprehensive professional development sessions on service decorum.

“It’s hard work,” I said. “But I find it pleasing to leave a room pristine and to slip out and disappear without a trace.”

Giselle took a seat on the divan. She twirled a lock of her chestnut mane between her fingers. “That sounds incredible,” she said. “To be invisible, to disappear like that. I have no privacy, no life. Everywhere I go, I have cameras in my face. And my husband’s a tyrant. I always thought being the wife of a rich husband would solve all of my problems, but that’s not how it turned out. That’s not how it is at all.”

I was speechless. What was the appropriate response? I had no time to figure that out, because Giselle started talking again. “Basically, Molly, what I’m saying is, my life sucks.”

She got up from the divan, went to the minibar, and grabbed a small bottle of Bombay gin, which she poured into a tumbler. She returned to the divan with her drink and plopped back down.

BOOK: The Maid
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