Sunday, June 12, 2016

Room 118, Part One

Elizabeth Dorn peered through a thin screen in her porch door. “Mr. Jurgen? And—who is this?” She blinked suspiciously at Rachel through her thick glasses. Her eyes were streaked with red behind the lenses.
            Elizabeth Dorn was my client. And her husband was dead.
            “I’m sorry to bother you, Mrs. Dorn. This is Rachel. She’s my—associate.” Rachel’s more than that, but this wasn’t the right time to go into our complicated relationship. “May we talk?”
            “Of course.” Her feet wobbled on the floor as she led us inside.
            The walls inside her home were crammed with pictures. Children, grandchildren—and her husband, Willard Dorn. In the living room a stack of newspapers sat on the floor next to a big chair, as if waiting to be read by someone who wasn’t coming home.
             “Would you like some tea? Or I can . . .” Mrs. Dorn sank into a chair and lit a cigarette. Her black hair was streaked with gray, and her fingers trembled as she dropped her lighter on the table. “Is this about my bill? I thought you’d just mail it to me.”
            “I will.” A few hours of surveillance wouldn’t add up to much, but she struck me as the kind of person who wouldn’t want anyone to say she couldn’t pay her bills. “But I owe you a report.”
            “You didn’t have to come here for that.” She tapped her cigarette against an ashtray, irritated. “What else is there to say?”
            I took a deep breath. “You might want to hear this.”

* * *
So for once I had a typical private eye assignment. No crazed vampires, angry ghosts, supernatural brain parasites, or demons from other dimensions. Just get a few pictures of a cheating husband. For me—Tom Jurgen, ex-reporter, now a private detective—this was a trip to the zoo.
            Willard Dorn—male, fifties, white, with receding hair and a thick belly—pulled a bronze BMW out of his garage in Rogers Park, just south of Evanston, at 3:20 on an overcast Friday afternoon. He turned west, glanced at his side mirror, and hit the gas.
            I followed in my Honda. Tailing him through the mean streets of Rogers Park didn’t exactly require the skills of a Fast and Furious driver. Dorn drove the speed limit, paused for the first stop sign, and didn’t try to beat any yellow lights as he drove. After twelve blocks and a few turns, he parked in front of a neighborhood bar and got out with a slam.
            I hit the brakes. Dorn walked quickly to the bar’s entrance as if impatient for his first drink. I clicked some pictures of him with my digital Minolta. Not my cell phone—it didn’t have the distance, and clients aren’t impressed by blurry photos. Then I wedged my Honda between an SUV and an Audi, trying to stay focused on the door and not bashing any fenders.
            A young couple strolled out of the tavern, holding hands. They smiled and kissed. Love? Or just happy hour? Two guys in thick work boots walked up and stood outside smoking cigarettes before going in. I listened to NPR and began wishing for a beer.
            After forty-five minutes Dorn came back outside. He was alone. He got behind the wheel of the BMW, sat behind the wheel for a few minutes doing nothing, and then started up.
            A few minutes later Dorn parked in a motel lot straight that could have could from a catalog named “Seedy Rendezvous Locations.” He climbed out, a little less steady on his feet now, and knocked on room 118.
            I grabbed the Minolta and started taking pictures again.
            Dorn had his back to me as the door opened, so he didn’t notice my car in the middle of the lot. I couldn’t see the person or persons inside, but I managed a few fast, clear pictures with half of Dorn’s face visible before he disappeared inside.
            I backed into a space and made sure I had shots of his car, license plate visible, in front of the motel room door. Then I waited. How long would they be? A quick tryst, or a long afternoon delight? I tried not to picture the festivities on the sheets. I was just glad private eyes no longer had to burst in and get photos of the act itself. Photos of the motel should be enough for my client and any lawyer she hired.
            I made a note of the time and then turned on the radio again, getting the weather and traffic reports. Rain expected, a tie-up on the Kennedy, and—
            The door opened abruptly. Maybe seven minutes had passed. Surprised, I grabbed the camera and started clicking.
            Dorn stumbled toward his BMW as if he’d managed to very drunk or very high in a very short time. I got pictures of him fumbling with his keys and then sitting behind the wheel motionless, head bowed forward on the steering wheel.
            Finally he sat back and started up. The car lurched back, stopped, and then crawled toward the driveway exit, where it hesitated for close to three minutes before making a tentative right-hand turn.
            I followed, trying to hang back so he wouldn’t spot me, but Dorn drove slower than the speed limit and waited at a stop sign for another three minutes before suddenly speeding through.
            Fortunately Dorn got home safely. I watched him lumber from the car to his door, drop his keys, and then ring the bell for his wife—my client—to let him in.
            Huh. Maybe the alcohol from the bar hadn’t hit him all at once. Or maybe he’d had a few more drinks—or something else—in the room.
            Not my problem, though. I only had to print out the photos and write up the report. Easy work. 

My phone buzzed at 8:30 that night. I was watching Game of Thrones with Rachel, my upstairs neighbor. She’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes. She’s my girlfriend, sort of (it’s complicated), and kind of psychic (even more complicated).
            I grabbed the phone while Rachel sighed and hit pause. “Hello? Tom Jurgen—”
            “What happened?” It was Elizabeth Dorn. My client. Her voice was an anguished whisper. “Where did he go? Did you follow him?”
            What the—? I waved to Rachel to turn the TV off. “Is something wrong?”
            She took a deep, ragged breath. “He’s dead.”
            My fingers felt numb around the phone. “I had no idea. I’m sorry.”
            “What is it?” For a psychic, Rachel’s not always the sensitive type—she hits my shoulder more than she hugs me—but she could tell from my voice that this wasn’t a telemarketing call.
            “Thank—” Mrs. Dorn seemed to choke on the automatic response. “Thank you.”           
            “What happened?” I echoed her question as Rachel stared at me. Maybe someone inside room 118 had shot Dorn and I didn’t see the wound? Or he’d taken an overdose of drugs? Or something worse?
            My client groaned, her throat hoarse. “He just walked inside and went upstairs to bed. He could barely take a step at a time. I thought he was just drunk. Then a half hour later I went to check on him. And . . .”
            She gasped for breath. “The paramedics couldn’t find anything. He wasn’t bleeding. They said it might be an overdose, but—God, Will didn’t do any drugs! He wasn’t stupid. He barely drank, except to go to bars and try to pick up girls. Or prostitutes.” She took a deep breath. “What did you see?”
            I looked at Rachel and tried to think of how to frame my complete lack of an explanation. “He drove to a bar near your house. Then he drove to a motel alone. He knocked on a door and went inside. He was in the room less than ten minutes.”
            I tried to think of anything more to report. “I didn’t see anyone else. When he came out, he seemed mildly drunk or high. He had trouble driving home. Other than that . . .” I shook my head. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
            “Fine.” The word was bitter with contempt. “Just send me your bill.”
            Elizabeth Dorn hung up. The silence felt as cold as the void between stars.
            “What is it?” Rachel picked up her beer and then set it back down. “Tom? Talk to me.”
            Jesus Christ. I set the phone down and picked up the beer I’d been drinking. “I missed something.”
            “Today’s case. It was supposed to be a normal tail job.” I told her the story.
            “Oh my god.” She grabbed her beer. “It’s not your fault. Is it? No, of course not.” She squeezed my hand. “What do you think happened?”
            “I don’t know.” Either something at the bar, or something in the motel room. I stood up. “I have to go.”
            “Wait a minute!” Rachel followed me to the kitchen as I put my half-empty beer into the refrigerator. “Where do you think you’re going? We’ve got two more episodes to watch!”
            I could go back to the bar, but chances were the shift would have changed—different bartenders and staff. So my only other choice was to check out the motel.
            I grabbed my jacket. “You watch. Just don’t give me any spoilers.”
            “Should I come with you?” She cocked a shoulder. “I could look at that room. See if there’s anything weird going on in there.”
            If there was anything dangerous inside room 118, I didn’t want Rachel anywhere near it. “You stay here. Or just go home when the show is over. I’ll be fine.”
            Rachel punched my shoulder. Hard. I like to think it’s how she tells me that she loves me. “Jerk. Be careful.”
            “Sure.” I just wanted to ask some questions.

The motel lobby was small and cramped—a registration desk, a shelf of folders touting local Chicago attractions like Navy Pier and the Museum of Science and Industry, and a soda machine with half of the selections glowing red for “empty.” The clerk behind the counter was a woman in her twenties—blond hair, thin shoulders, in a white shirt and a nametag that identified her as “Nelle.”
            Nelle looked up from her copy of People magazine as if I might be the only excitement she’d have all night. “Room?”
            “Actually, I’m interested in room 118.”
            She turned to her computer screen and pecked at the keys. “Huh. Well, it’s occupied. I can give you—”
            “Who’s in it?”
            She shook her head. “I can’t tell you that.”
            I didn’t think so. “Is there a manager around?”
            Nelle smiled, happy to pass me off to someone else. “Al’s here all the time. Let me call him.”
            Two minutes later a heavyset man emerged from an office. White with thin gray hair, jeans, and a frayed blue shirt with short sleeves. His nametag read “Al.”
            Al looked me over, obviously worried that I was a cop, or an angry husband, or some other kind of troublemaker. “Yeah? I’m the manager. Al Kaleb.”
            “Tom Jurgen. Can we talk about room 118?”
            A flicker passed over his five o’clock shadow. He waved an arm. “There’s my office.”
            It was small, like the lobby—a dented metal desk with a phone and a computer, along with two chairs and three tall filing cabinets, also metal, also dented. A framed photo of the motel itself hung on the wall behind the desk.
            Kaleb’s chair sank as he dropped into it. “What’s going on?”
            “I’m a private detective.” I gave him my card. “I watched a man go into room 118 this afternoon and come out less than 10 minutes later. Now he’s dead. Can you tell me who’s in there?”
            Kaleb flinched at the word “dead.” Like he’d been half-expecting it—and dreading it. “The owner keeps that room private.”
            “Is the owner there now?”
            He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
            “I can go to the police. A man’s dead.”
            Kaleb sighed, as if a visit from the police would be a relief. “I can have her call you.” He picked up my card.
            Her? I made a mental note to talk to myself about sexist assumptions. “What’s her name?”
            He looked at my card as if might electrocute him. “Bridget Simon.”

A slow rain was falling as I came out of the lobby. I looked at the cloudy sky for a few seconds, then turned and headed down the covered walkway that led to the first-floor rooms.
            I stopped in front of room 118. Did I dare? I put my hand on the door. Could I do this?
            Answer: No. I couldn’t make myself turn the knob, or knock. I stood on the cracked cement, breathing slowly. I’ve been accused of being a stubborn asshole, but no one’s ever mistaken me for a superhero.            
            Still, I forced myself to look and listen.
            No lights inside the heavy curtains that I could see. No music or TV when I pressed my ear to the door.
            Thunder growled in the sky. I backed away from the door.
            Yeah. I know. A superhero would have kicked the door down and charged inside. Or at least knocked. But I’m not Daredevil or Batman. Plus, Rachel would kill me if I did anything really stupid, and neither of them ever had to deal with Rachel in a rage.
            So I bravely went to my Honda and drove home.

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