Sunday, June 12, 2016

Room 118, Part Two

The next morning I worked other cases from my apartment—I don’t have an office—but I spent some time checking out the motel. Built in the 1980s, it was currently owned by a company called B. Simon LLC, B. Simon, president. Property taxes paid, a few police reports about drunk and disorderly guests and parties, but nothing suspicious.
            Bridget Simon didn’t call. I wasn’t surprised.
            I had an appointment downtown at 2:00. After that was over I drove back up to Rogers Park through the afternoon rain. I found the bar, parked, and ran inside.
            I don’t spend a lot of time in bars by myself. They’re convenient places to meet clients and friends, but otherwise I go to coffee houses more often when I need to be alone. This place was dark and quiet, with tables and a few wide booths and a long half-polished counter. Posters on the walls showed loyalty to every sports team in Chicago, professional, college, even the local high schools. The White Sox game played on the TV. Two men muttered to each other as a new pitcher warmed up.
            The bartender was a young black woman with dreadlocks and a Chicago Blackhawks jersey. I ordered a Heineken. She asked if I wanted to see a menu.
            “Actually, I was wondering if you were working here yesterday.” I gave her my business card. “This is me.”
            She looked at the printing, then turned it over as if she expected something more on the back. “Huh. Tom Jurgen, private detective? I’m Maura. Hey, you carry a gun?”
            “Just my lethal wit.” I reached into my jacket for a photo of Dorn that his wife had given me. “Was this guy here yesterday?”
            Again she looked at the image and then turned the picture over to check out the back. Then she flipped it up again and leaned down. “I think so. Wait—” Her head jerked up. “Am I getting anyone into trouble?”
            I hesitated. “I can’t say for sure. But not him. I just wondered if you saw him talking to anyone.”
            Maura peered at the photo again. “Well, it was maybe 3:30 or 4:00, and it gets kind of busy around then with people getting off work. I think . . .” She pushed the picture back at me. “Okay, there was this woman here. White woman, black hair pulled back tight, you know? A big blue necklace. I’ve seen her before. They talked for a while. Didn’t seem like he was hitting on her, he didn’t even buy her a drink. They talked for a while, and then he paid and left.”
            “What happened to her?”
            “I’m sure she paid, because I don’t let anyone get out of here without paying.” She grinned. “But I don’t remember really. Sorry.”
            “No problem.” I got out my wallet.
            “So what is it?” Maura leaned forward. “Fugitive from justice? Cheating husband? Runaway wife? Or daughter?”
            “One of those.” I dropped some money on the bar. “Thanks.”
So I drove back to the motel. Bridget Simon still hadn’t called me, and I wanted to talk to Kaleb about that. But when I pulled into the lot, I saw the door to room 118 was open. A maid’s cart was parked in front of it.
            I checked the time: 3:07. A little late to be cleaning rooms, but obviously 118 was special. And if maids could go in, they probably didn’t die, or else turnover at the motel would be a major management problem.
            So I took a deep breath and checked to make sure I had my Taser in my jacket, and then I locked up and walked to the door of room 118. “Hello?”
            The maid was an Asian woman in her fifties in a white uniform. She dropped the towel she was using to wipe down the dresser and planted a hand on her hip. “This isn’t your room. I’m working here.”
            “Sorry.” I stayed in the doorway, ready to make a run for it. “Who lives here?”
            “I’m not allowed to talk about the guests.” She reached down for her towel. “Now get out.”
            I glanced around the room. It looked like a standard motel room—king-size bed, flat-screen TV, cheap dressers, two awkward chairs around a small circular desk, plus a mirror on one wall and a cheesy print of a nature scene on the other. A sink and bathroom at the back. The lemon scented cleaning fluid reminded me of a hospital room.
            I stood my ground, even though my heart was pounding. “A man came in here last night, and then he died. I just want to know—”
            But the maid leaned back against the dresser, clutching her towel in both hands. She said something in her own language, and then she crossed herself. “Again?”
            Oh, no. “What do you mean, again?”
            She sagged down onto the bed. Freshly made up—or not slept in. The spread was a pattern with birds and trees and a wide blue border. Wrapping her arms around her chest, the maid started rocking back and forth, chanting a soft prayer.
            I forced myself into the room and closed the door. Sometimes waiting is the best strategy.
            After a minute or so, she sat up and wiped her eyes with her hands. “I have to quit,” she murmured. “I can’t take this anymore.”
            “What’s your name?”
            She blinked, as if she’d forgotten I was there. “Inez.”
            “Inez, what happened?”
            “There was a woman.” Inez looked at the floor. “About a month ago. I found her here.” She pointed at the pillows. “I called Al, and he told me he’d take care of it. I don’t know what happened to her.”
            Inez stood up and glanced up at the ceiling, like she was afraid someone was listening in. Then she gulped. “You can’t tell anyone. But there was another man. About six months ago, when I started here. I thought he was just sleeping. I left, and I told Al about it. But I always wondered . . .”
            I wanted to grab for the doorknob and get out. But my instinct to ask questions overcame my fear. “Did they have any wounds? Blood? Were they dressed? Did it look like a fight?”
            “N-no.” Inez walked around in a tight circle, nervous. “The woman, she was dressed. On top of the bed. The man, he was in that chair.” She pointed. “Like he was passed out or something. I didn’t stay. I just—left.”
            “Let’s get out of here.” I don’t have psychic powers like Rachel, but I had a bad feeling about this room. “And find a new job.”
            “That’s right.” The maid beat me to the door. “Tell them I quit.”

Nelle smiled as I stalked through the lobby. “Hi! Nice to see you again!”
            “Yeah.” I wanted to tell her she should quit too. “Is Al in?”
            “Just a minute, let me . . .” She lifted her phone.
            Like I said, I’m not very brave, but sometimes I get too pissed off to worry. Rachel hates that. But I headed to Kaleb’s office and pounded on the door. “Hello?”
            “Hey, wait!” Nelle ran out from behind the counter.
            The door opened. “You?” Kaleb pushed his chair back, ready to run.
            “I’m sorry, Al.” Nelle was right behind me. “He just walked in and—”
            “It’s okay, Nelle.” Kaleb glared at me. “I already told you, I don’t know anything about—”
            “How many people have died in room 118?” As a reporter I’d learned to always start out with the toughest question.
            Kaleb’s face went blank. “I don’t . . . I told you to talk to Bridget. I don’t know anything.” He clenched his hands. “Really. I just work for her.”
            “Your boss hasn’t called me.” I took a deep breath. I hoped the maid was far away. Even though I doubted she’d list Kaleb as a reference.
            “Bridget’s busy!” He ran a hand through his sparse gray hair. “I gave her your number, but I don’t—wait, what did you say?”
            “I’m a detective. I ask questions.” I sat down, catching my breath. Interviews don’t go well when both people are yelling. “So let’s just talk. Tell me your side of it. I don’t have to spread this around on your Yelp profile. I just want to know what’s going on.”
            He was trying to think of a response when the phone on his metal desk rang. Kaleb jumped, as if it never rang. Then he looked at me and picked it up. “Al Kaleb, manager.”
            A few moments of listening. Then he held the phone across the desk. “For you. It’s her.”
            How did—? Never mind. It was her hotel. I took the receiver. “Tom Jurgen.”
            The voice was female and husky.  “This is Bridget Simon. Why are you bothering my employees?”
            Finally. I swallowed. “I’d rather bother you directly. Can we meet?”           
            She sighed. “I suppose we’d better. Come to room 118.”
            Oh no. “How about someplace neutral? That room seems to have a bad reputation.”
            Kaleb stiffened, as if he expected lighting to strike me dead through the phone. But Bridget Simon answered with a soft laugh. “Fine. Meet me at the bar down the road. I think you know the one.” And she hung up.
            I handed the phone back. “Thank you.”
            “Don’t piss her off.” He set it down gently and stared at it, avoiding my eyes.
            I stood up. “Does she live in room 118?”
            He shook his head. “I don’t know where she really lives.”
So I went back to the bar. Rain spattered on my windshield and the street. Before going in, I called my answering machine at home and left a detailed message about where I was and who I was meeting, and why. I do that often. Just in case.
            The baseball game was still on, or maybe the Cubs were playing now.  More people were seated around the bar, watching and chatting and drinking beers. Maura was still working. She glanced up when I came in, then tilted her head toward the back of the room. “That’s her,” she whispered.
            “Thanks.” I ordered another beer and left her another good tip.
            The woman had long black hair twisted into a tight ponytail. Her face was long and bony—a high forehead, narrow cheeks, and thin dark lips. She wore a pink silk blouse unbuttoned far enough to display a turquoise necklace dangling against a red bra. A glass of white wine stood in the center of the table.
            “Bridget Simon?”
            She could have been in thirty-something, but something about her upright posture made her look closer to my age, mid-forties. Or maybe even older. A cougar.
            “Sit down, Tom.” She rubbed her thumb against a red stone on a ring around her middle finger and smiled at me.
            I suddenly felt sweat running down my neck. “Thanks for meeting with me.” I dropped into the booth and set my beer on the table. 
             She brushed a drop of wine running down her chin. “What can I do for you, Tom?”
            For a moment I had trouble remembering why I was here. I gulped my beer. My hand shook as I showed her the photo of Dorn. “Do you know him?”
            She studied the picture, then looked at me like she was comparing the two of us. “I met him here yesterday for a drink. We talked.” Her necklace jiggled as she shrugged her shoulders. “Then he left.” She sat back and twisted the ring on her finger. “Are you married, Tom?”
            I shivered. “Once.” It had lasted two years in my twenties, when I was still a reporter. She got tired of the long days and late nights, and the tales of monsters at the end.
            Why was I telling her anything? I tried to focus. The picture of Dorn looked up at both of us. “He went to room 118 at your motel. Later last night he died.”
            “Oh.” She smiled again. “You were following him, then.”
            My throat was dry. “His wife thought he was cheating on her.” I swallowed some more beer without tasting it. The bottle was almost empty.
            “Maybe we should discuss this privately.” She leaned back and fastened her blouse, but pulled the necklace with the turquoise stone out to hang over her chest.  “Why don’t you meet me in room 118?”
            Room 118. Where three people had died. Maybe more.
             “Sure,” I heard my voice say. “I’ll be right there.” 

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