“In a Lovely Place”
The Huntsman’s front desk was long, as strikingly horizontal as the façade outside was strikingly vertical. In similar contrast with the outside, which I believe I mentioned was bright and pink, the desk was topped with black marble.
Staff in dark green uniforms moved back and forth behind the desk, busy or trying to look it. A few guests were standing there, too, not being busy at all, but waiting for the opportunity. It was a curious dance of false activity and false idleness, like a Douvaix doll clock with stripped gears, the tiny carved figures just clicking, jerking, and vibrating as the gears inside spun on like everything was working just as it should.
They all looked very small, like dolls on the face of an antique clock, because the reception desk was stretched against the back wall of the lobby at the end of a long, gray-tiled promenade lined with column after column in dark green marble with a potted palm dutifully fronding in each gap until, in the distance, the two rows of plants looked like green caterpillars waiting stiffly alongside the guests.
The desk was so far away I almost turned around and went home. Just looking at at the journey made my feet hurt.
Beyond the columns to either side, plush chairs gathered around small low tables with marble tops matching the reception desk. They were all very elegant to have nobody using them, which nobody weren’t. Somewhere in the distance, to one side or the other, was the hotel bar where Ricky would not be buying me a martini. The ceiling was somewhere far overhead, but my neck was too lazy to do any work finding it.
On the far wall over the front desk was an enormous bas-relief sun, neat triangular rays etched into the marble and dressed up nicely in gold and silver. It had a face, just like the real sun might have if you could stare at it long enough. Specifically, it had a warm and friendly smile under hollow eyes half-hidden by suspiciously droopy eyelids. Despite the creepy incongruity, the brightness of it cheered me up.
I set out on my long odyssey toward the desk, counting plants as I passed them until I ran out of the numbers I had learned in school. When I finally arrived, I thought about asking what state I was in, and whether having my bags brought up from the car would incur customs fees.
I had second thoughts when the man behind the desk asked “May I help you?” He didn’t look like he could take a joke. His eyes were too far apart. His head was rather triangular and his mouth tiny, giving him a bug-like appearance. The green uniform didn’t help. I saved the joke for another occasion.
“Miss Corazón,” I said. “Room 112? She’s expecting me.”
Without moving his feet, the clerk turned and looked vaguely at a cork-board with cards pinned on it. Finding some satisfaction there, he spun back to me and said, “Mr. Finister?”
Good thing I hadn’t used a fake name. “That’s me.”
Only his mouth moved: “The porter will show you up.”
“That depends on the contest.”
He stared blankly at my face for a moment, as if I were a moth he was contemplating having for lunch. Then, he turned and blandly waved a porter over. I had been right about the jokes.
The elevator was large enough for a grand piano and an audience of four, but there were only three people in it: myself, the porter, and the elevator attendant. Unlike Paulo who ran the lift in my building, the Huntsman attendant was a girl. She was dressed more smartly than Paulo, a bit taller than him, lighter complexion, darker and longer hair, a more cheerful smile. And yet the same series of dull observations on the weather. It must have been a union standard.
As the elevator punch-board revealed, the Huntsman’s lobby was six stories high, the first six switches from the lobby being marked L-A, L-B, L-C, and so on. Below that were five switches prefixed by “G” which I assumed meant “ground” floors: G-E through G-A. Those were the relatively inexpensive rooms down the hill, where you could stay if you were merely an earl, a Sultan’s bastard, or a railroad tycoon whose trains didn’t cross a state line.
Above the lettered stops were floors 1 through 10, where the really choice rooms were. My prospective client was on the lowest of these floors, but she was still on one of them.
Wrapping up her boilerplate meteorological report, the elevator attendant showed all of her white little teeth and announced brightly, “Your floor, sir!” As we stepped out, the porter winked at her. Her smile was not moved by his flirtation, and stayed stiffly open as the doors stiffly closed.
Unlike the lobby, the corridor on the 1st floor had been built on a human scale. The carpet was scarlet, with a black swirly pattern. The walls were peach, with lights at regular intervals behind tortoiseshell shades that were open at the top, making the ceiling very bright. The porter started to lead the way down the hall when a noticeable breeze pushed back against us. I could smell the sea. Or fish.
He leaned to the side and peered down the corridor. “That’s the door to 112, sir. Open.”
I saw it. “I see it.” I dug a roll of bills from my jacket, pinched a single, but then paused. He hadn’t really done anything except stand beside me on an elevator and stare at the attendant’s dimples. But, what the hell. I’d dumped plenty of the Green Star money on booze and tobacco, hadn’t I? And, God knows the class of tony swanks and well-bred starch-collars who stayed at a place like the Huntsman were notoriously stingy tippers. You don’t get rich or stay rich by being generous. I flipped down to a sawbuck and put it in the porter’s outstretched hand.
“Sir, that … that’s a ten.” His eyes were wide, and he lifted them from the bill to my face like he was pulling a stick out of cold tar.
“Fold it so the number shows and put it in your breast pocket.”
He folded it as I told him, and pushed it all the way down in the pocket. I shook my head and punched the elevator call button.
“No, put it in your breast pocket so the number shows.” I winked and nudged my head toward the elevator. And its approaching attendant.
He mouthed “ah” and nodded enthusiastically. He fixed the bill high so the square gray “10” was dancing about an inch above the seam of his pocket, and smiled wide.
“Not quite so obvious, kid.” I tapped it down so the number was half-hidden, but still readable. “You gotta make it look accidental.”
“Thanks, mister!” He caught himself just as the elevator bell rang: “I mean, ‘sir’!”
I nodded and turned down the corridor. Don’t thank me too soon, kid; no guarantee it would work in her case. Men and women might each have their own little tendencies, sexual trends and conventions, but a trend is not a formula.
When I said that nobody would be on the balconies with the storm looming overhead, I had been wrong about nobody being on the balconies with the storm looming overhead.
I pressed the bell beside the door frame for Room 112, but I could already see her. Through the open door, across the white-and-red candy-striped upholstery of the sitting room, beyond the glass table and iron chairs of the dining area, through the glass outer doors (which had been fastened open) and the white linen drapes rolling in the breeze between them, beyond the blue-and-white tiles of the balcony itself, Miss Corazón was out there, gazing up into the gathering clouds.
Her arms were stiff at her sides, hands propped on the pink stone of the balcony wall. She seemed to be rocking back and forth, standing on one bare foot, the other foot lifted daintily with the tips of her toes brushing the floor. She was wearing a loose, white dress that barely covered her thighs and was trying to catch the wind and fly right off her. She had dark red hair, so dark red it almost wasn’t, and it was wrapped in a maroon ribbon, which kept it from flying around too much. Her skin was like bronze, and there wasn’t enough of it to look at.
Sunlight angled onto the balcony from some acute precinct of sky still clear of cloud, but directly beyond the girl and the balcony wall was nothing but roiling shadow.
She didn’t respond to the doorbell, or didn’t hear it. I stepped into the room. The wind picked up, and a few droplets appeared on the tall windows to either side of the open doors. My hat was in my hand, but I didn’t remember putting it there.
There was a rolling tray just inside the door. The plates were covered by silver bonnets, but I assumed from the state of the flatware and napkins that the remains of breakfast were underneath. I stepped around it and set my hat in a candy-striped chair.
“Excuse me, Miss?” I said, a bit louder. There was a flash in the distance. I started counting in my head: one hurdy-gurdy, two hurdy-gurdy. The sky growled, shaking the entire hotel. Two hurdy-gurdies away.
She had both her feet on the balcony tiles now, or at least the balls of them, leaning against the wall with her waist, her arms spread out in the shape of a Y. Another short sprinkle of rain rattled the windows. The flailing curtains had dark little dots on them.
I navigated through the sitting room, around the dining area, and stood at the open balcony door trying to keep the curtains from slapping at my pants. Beyond the girl, the sea was not visible. A wall of rain had already swallowed Seaside Avenue and was creeping through the Red Beach neighborhood. It was like a giant broom of mist, wielded by some impassive storm god, brushing the wild waters up over civilization.
I rapped my knuckles on the frame of the balcony door.
She turned, smiling. Her face was an irresistible vision of pure joy and beauty. It might have been her warm Chayana features or the strangely insistent rainstorms that had battered dry Costilla in recent days, but I was seized by an utterly irrational sense that I was in Rio de Cabra, a wild tropical cyclone bearing down on the jungly shore of the southern seas.
Déjà vu, I think they call it. I hadn’t been to Cabra in years, but I could almost smell the garlic, peppers, and roasting chickens that had come within a dime of convincing me to stay there forever. And the ladies of the south, dark skin, intense brown eyes, full lips—hell, full everything—and that strong yet elegant nose of the ancient Chayantec nobility.
But, it was just a job in Rio de Cabra, and I had come home to San Caniche like a good boy. And, this was just a job with Samantha Corazón. And, thought she fit the Chayan trope, her eyes were as grey as mine were blue. Time to come home to my professionalism.
She must have sensed the shift in my thoughts. Her mouth lost a dash of the joy, but none of the beauty. “Don’t you love a storm, Mr. Finister?”
I stepped out onto the balcony into a light spray of warning rain. “I’m more concerned whether the storm loves me.”
She lifted one eyebrow, and again I had a weird sense of undue familiarity. She turned to face the west again with a finality that said I had to join her at the wall if I wanted to talk. I did just that.
As I expected, the balconies spread below us were empty except here and there where hotel staff were gently laying potted plants on their sides to keep them from getting knocked over by the tempest. The storm arced around us in a broad sweep, arms to either side like the claws of a great crayfish lumbering out of the waters. The wind picked up a bit, the girl’s dress whipping against my thigh. That reminded me that it was also whipping against her thighs, a very unprofessional distraction, but I didn’t want to be too obvious about easing away.
“You left the door open for me?”
“No,” she said without looking. “I had the salmon omelet for breakfast, and wanted to let some air through.”
Ah, thus the fish scent in the corridor. “How did you know I was me?”
Now, she looked at me. Again with the cocked eyebrow.
“Your photo has been in all the papers, Mr. Green Star. Even in Chayan.”
“Huh. So I’m international now.”
She shrugged and looked off into the darkness. Red Beach had been swallowed whole by the storm, and the wall of rain was sweeping up the hill toward the hotel. The upper edge of the clouds hung over us and, as I tried to think of a witty way to get the conversation moving in the direction of a case, the sun ran scared and we fell under a gray half-shadow.
“I want you to find the man who stole my inheritance.”
That would do. “Your inheritance was stolen? You seem like you’re doing well without it.”
She dropped her lids one those sharp eyes. “I didn’t say I wanted you to recover my inheritance, Mr. Finister. I’ve been successful enough on my own without it.”
I am a golden-haired magnet for women made of grey steel. Thunder growled, as if to voice the storm’s concurrence.
“I would hope so. I don’t come cheap.”
She tilted her head with the confidence of a poker player who hadn’t yet revealed a killer ace. Then, she leveled off like she’d decided to hold it back. She cocked that damned eyebrow again. “I’ve made a little money in Chayan writing pulp rag stories about cheap detectives who don’t realize they’re cheap detectives.”
Was that tilt of the head her tell? How much did she plan to offer for the case? Was she really a successful Chayana writer, or was she just tweaking my professional ego.
Never take a player’s bait. Always turn the bluff. “I haven’t heard of you. I don’t read much fiction. I prefer to stick to harsh realities. Speaking of which, may I ask how old you are, Miss Corazón?”
“I’m old enough to hire you in the state of Costilla.” That meant at least seventeen. But, I wasn’t so concerned about the legality of her offer of employment. There are ways around that, some uncle who could sign on, or an older ‘friend’ whose acquaintance I arranged. I was more concerned about how cold the trail might be. The fewer the years the better.
“That’s good to know, Miss Coraz—”
“Stop.” Her lids dropped to a squint. “If we’re going to work together, let’s drop the Señor y Señorita. May I call you Marshall?”
“We’re not going to work together, Sam. I’m working, you’re paying. That’s how it goes.”
“So, you don’t need any of the information I’ve gathered so far?” She looked off into the storm, and shrugged with her shoulder and hip at the same time. “Suits me. You’ll get my General Cabayo when you find the man I’m looking for.”
This chica played hard. General Juan Cabayo’s pretty face was on the Chayano ten-grand note, worth about three thousand flag dollars. With Ricky casting doubt on my Green Star fee, moola like that dangling in my face was a bit much to resist. Imagine the cigars and whiskey sours it could buy. Or, I could take the General home and spend him on shots of primo tequila in a beach-side bar outside Cabra.
I stared until she looked back. Her grey eyes were half-closed and her face didn’t like me much. I nodded at her. She let her eyelids lift a bit.
“Alright,” I said, “… partner. But let’s establish some boundaries.”
She put an elbow on the balcony wall and waited. The wind spun her ribbon-bound hair. The white dress glued itself to the side of her body.
“First, if we’re both going to be poking around, we do it separately. We can share our scoop, but we each do our own scooping. I don’t get close to clients.” The distance between us seemed suddenly meager against my point. The wind reached inside the left side of my blazer and pulled it halfway across that distance, nearly bursting the buttons.
“I didn’t ask to tag along.” She cocked her eyebrow. I cocked mine right back at her.
“Sharing the scoop starts with you, since I just walked into the case today. You told my secretary you didn’t know the man you’re looking for, but you clearly know enough about him to think there’s a good chance of finding him, and finding him here in Costilla. So how about you cut the coy and stop parading your supposed General around and just share your scoop. The whole scoop, and nothing but the scoop.”
“Fair enough, if you want to be tough about it,” she said. “Marshall.”
The storm slapped us sideways, a solid wet smack on our cheeks that stung like a prize-fighter’s hook. Fancy palms fell like dominoes all around the balcony, fancy pastel pots cracking against the fancy blue tiles. We nearly tumbled with the plants. She grabbed my elbow. I put my arm around her waist. We ran for the balcony doors. The pink wall of the hotel was already soaked when we got there, and so were we.
We flew straight through the doors and came to a stop against the dining table, doubling over the glass top. We turned together and each grabbed a door. With a struggle and a bit of grunting, we shut them against each other. The drapes were closed in the frame and plastered against the glass outside.
We leaned back and caught our breath for a moment, the wind and rain pounding against the doors like a vice cop serving a warrant on a drug den. We looked at each other, gasping. Through the wet cloth of her dress, I saw more of her bronze skin than I ever thought I would. Or should. I shook my head clear and sought out my fedora to stare at, across the room, in a chair.
“Still love the storm?” I said.
She stopped panting long enough to sniff the air. “The fish smell is gone.”
I sneezed, and we both started laughing.