Murder with Reservations - Chapter 1

Elaine Viets: A mystery for every mood



Chapter 1

The young couple looked like inept burglars sneaking through the lobby of Sybil’s Full Moon Hotel in Fort Lauderdale. They were both dressed in black, which made them stand out against the white marble. At their wedding two days ago, they’d been slim, golden and graceful, trailing ribbons and rose petals through the hotel.

Now they moved with the awkward stiffness of amateur actors trying to look natural. The bride’s black crop top exposed a midsection sliding from sexy to sloppy fat. The groom’s black T-shirt and Bermudas failed the test for cool. They were boxy rather than baggy. He looked like a Grand Rapids priest on vacation.

The honeymooners avoided the brown plastic grocery bag swinging between them, carefully ignoring it as it bumped and scraped their legs. That screamed, “Look at me.” They stashed the bag behind a potted palm while they waited for the elevator.

“Red alert,” Sondra at the front desk said into her walkie-talkie. She was calling Denise, the head housekeeper. “The honeymoon couple just passed with a suspicious grocery bag. They’re getting out on the third floor.”

“I’ll check them out,” Denise said. She was stocking her cleaning cart with sheets and towels in the housekeeping room.

Denise turned to her coworker, Helen Hawthorne. “We’ve caught the honeymooners red-handed. I’m going to investigate. You stand by as a witness. I’m rolling.”

Rhonda, the third hotel maid, squawked almost as loud as the walkie-talkie. “I’m coming, too. This affects my life.” Rhonda, stick-thin and excitable, ran around the cart like a dog yapping at a car.

“Quiet, please,” Denise said.

Rhonda shut up at this stately squashing.

A woman of substance, Denise and her cart rolled down the hall with slow deliberation. Helen followed. Rhonda skittered at the rear, skinny body rigid with rage, red hair flying. She looked like an electric floor mop.

As the bridal couple stepped out of the elevator, Denise moved majestically past them, bumping the groom with her massive cart. The grocery bag slipped to the floor. Cans and bottles clattered on the carpet. The young woman flushed scarlet. The young man stuttered apologies, even though the accident was Denise’s fault.

“Here, let me help,” Denise said, reaching for a bouncing bottle.

“And me.” Helen corralled a rolling can and stuffed it back in the grocery bag. Rhonda folded her skinny frame to pick up a brown plastic container.

Once everything was back in the bag, the young couple ran for their room. Denise waited for the slam of their deadbolt. Then her cart rumbled solemnly back to the housekeeping room.

Rhonda and Helen crowded inside the room. Rhonda’s pale face was set with furious determination. “If you think I’m –” she said.

“Shush,” Denise said. “I have to make my report to the front desk.”

The walkie-talkie squawked like an angry parrot. Denise talked through the static: “Sondra, I saw two cans of whipped cream, two squeeze bottles of Hershey’s syrup and no evidence of ice cream.”

“Suspicions confirmed,” Sondra said through the electric crackle.

Rhonda started wailing like a storm siren. “Oh, no. I’m not cleaning whipped cream and chocolate out of their Jacuzzi.” Angry brown freckles stood out on her pasty face. “The whipped cream alone took me a solid hour. I had to climb inside the tub to clean it. I’m calling in sick tomorrow.”

“The honey on the sheets was bad enough,” Helen said. “Sticky stuff put me off my breakfast toast. How many more nights are the food lovers here?”

“A whole week,” Denise said. “Maybe now that they know we know, they won’t use the whipped cream and chocolate.”

“They’ll use it,” Rhonda said. “Once a couple gets on the sauce, they won’t stop.”

“At least they’ve stayed clear of the produce,” Denise said. She reminded Helen of a vegetable goddess. Her broad bosom was twin cabbages, her tight white hair was a cauliflower, and her powerful arms were blue-ribbon zucchini.

“Maybe they’ll have a fight,” Helen said hopefully.

“Hah,” Rhonda said. “Those types never do. They just bring in weirder and grosser stuff, and we have to clean it up. And they never tip.”

“If you want your job, you’ll be here tomorrow at eight-thirty,” Denise said.

The head housekeeper silenced any further discussion with a glare. Her massive arms maneuvered the cart out the door. “Helen and Rhonda, take the third floor. Cheryl will work the second floor, and I’ll do one.”

“I hate three,” Rhonda said, when Denise had trundled out of earshot. “It’s the hottest and dirtiest floor in the hotel.”

“And we’re the newest workers,” Helen said.

“After two years, I’m entitled to some consideration,” Rhonda said. She yanked their cleaning cart so hard it smacked the door frame. “Denise saves the best jobs for herself. She cleans the lobby and the free breakfast room. They’re easy.”

“I don’t think mashed bananas in the carpet are any easier to clean up than whipped cream in the Jacuzzi,” Helen said. “The lobby’s white marble and glass show every scuff and fingerprint, and people leave disgusting things in the fountain. They’re supposed to make a wish and throw in money, not half-eaten candy bars.”

“You missed the kid who threw in his baby brother and wished he’d drown. Sondra had to leap the front desk and do a lifeguard rescue in the lobby. Ruined her good blouse.”

The memory of Sondra’s loss cheered Rhonda. The woman ran on resentment. She was an odd creature with a round white face like a cocktail onion. Her vibrant red hair seemed to suck the color out of the rest of her. Helen thought she was plain, but she saw men stare at Rhonda. They found something about her bony body compelling.

“We’re not going to get anything done standing around yammering,” Rhonda said. “Might as well get started.”

“What’s the room count today?” Helen said.

“Full house,” Rhonda said, checking her sheet. “All twenty rooms on this floor are occupied: seventeen queens, two kings, and the honeymoon suite.” Thirty-seven beds and a foldout couch, twenty refrigerators, twenty-one toilets, twenty tubs, and the dreaded Jacuzzi. Sixty-five mirrors and sixty wastebaskets. Twenty carpets to vacuum and twenty-one bathroom floors to mop.

“Check-outs versus stay-overs?” Helen asked.

That was the crucial question. After the guests checked out, the rooms required a deep cleaning. Even the insides of the drawers were dusted. For stay-overs, the maids scrubbed the bathrooms, made the beds, and emptied the wastebaskets. If they were lucky, guests piled suitcases, clothes and papers on all the furniture, and it couldn’t be dusted. More stay-overs meant a shorter cleaning day.

“Six stay-overs,” Rhonda said.

Fourteen check-outs. A long day. More sore muscles. Helen had worked at the hotel one week and she was just beginning to get over the back pain and muscle aches. She still winced when she had to kneel at the tub or reach for a mop. Cleaning hotel rooms required backbreaking amounts of bending, stooping and lifting. After her first day, Helen went home at three-thirty in the afternoon and curled up with a heating pad and a bottle of Motrin. She woke up at seven the next morning, feeling like she’d been stomped in an alley.

Helen figured she was combining work with working out. She wouldn’t have to waste time exercising when she got home. She’d have more time to sit by the pool and drink.

“Our first room is a stay-over,” Rhonda said. She maneuvered the cart so it blocked the door, then knocked. “Hello? Anyone home?” Rhonda pounded and shouted until Helen thought she overdid it.

“I’m not taking any chances,” Rhonda said between shouts. “Not since I surprised that naked geezer getting out of the shower. He was too deaf to hear me knock.”

“Ever see any flashers?” Helen asked.

“All the time,” Rhonda said. “It’s always the guys with the little weenies. A man with something worth seeing never shows it.”

Satisfied that the room was empty, Rhonda opened the door with her passkey card. The room looked like an explosion at a rummage sale. Dirty clothes and smelly shoes littered the floor. Shirts and shorts spilled out of suitcases. Hamburger bags and drink cups cluttered the dresser. Something crunched under Helen’s foot.

“What’s that?” Helen asked. She was afraid to look.

“Cheerios,” Rhonda said. “Usually means there’s a baby in the room. People with little kids are big slobs.”

“Is that a diaper on the bedspread?” Helen said.

“Yep. A dirty one. People use those spreads for diaper-changing stations, among other things.” Rhonda pulled off the bedspread and piled it with the clean pillows.

“Yuck,” Helen said. “Shouldn’t we throw the spread in the wash?”

“No. Our bedspreads get cleaned every two weeks.”

Helen’s stomach lurched.

“Hey, we’re better than most hotels,” Rhonda said. “But I’d sooner sleep in a Dumpster than on a hotel spread.”

“Why didn’t they put the diaper in the wastebasket?” Helen said.

“That’s on top of the TV to keep it away from the baby.”

“Well, I’m glad this room is a mess,” Helen said. “There’s less for us to clean. We can’t dust around all that junk. How do you want to divide the work?”

“I’ll make the beds. You take the bathroom.”

Rats. Helen hated cleaning bathrooms. Half the human race wasn’t housebroken, and people shed worse than long-haired dogs. This bathtub was a hairy horror. Wet towels turned the floor into a swamp. Helen picked them up by the corners and prayed the brown stains were makeup. She didn’t have much time to brood. Helen and Rhonda had exactly eighteen minutes to finish each room.

The next room was a check-out. The smell of sweat and smoke slugged them when they walked in the door. Cigarette-butt mountains overflowed the ashtrays. Helen counted eighteen beer cans tossed near the wastebasket. Two made it into the can.

“A male smoker,” Rhonda said. “The worst kind of slob.”

“How do you know it’s a guy?” Helen said.

“Look at the john. I swear I’m going to paint targets on the toilets. Oh, man. This is so disgusting.”

“What?” Helen asked.

“The guy ate peanuts and threw the shells on the floor. Peanut shells take forever to vacuum out of the carpet. You know, I can understand people thinking, ‘I’m on vacation and I’m going to enjoy myself.’ So they behave like total slobs and wreck the room. But if they’re going to indulge, at least tip. Some women leave a couple of bucks for the privilege of throwing their towels on the floor. But men expect to be picked up after. Men are pigs.”

“The men in this hotel are,” Helen said. She didn’t think Phil was a pig, but this was no time to praise her nearly perfect boyfriend. Rhonda wanted to rant. Helen didn’t mind. A raging Rhonda cleaned faster. The two women had the room done in eighteen minutes flat, peanut shells and all.

They spent the next two hours companionably cleaning and complaining, until they were in the zone. That’s when they moved through the rooms, swift and wordless, creating their own tidy ballet. Rhonda did the beds. Helen did the bathrooms. Rhonda dusted. Helen cleaned the mirrors. Rhonda vacuumed. Helen mopped. The room was done and they were on to the next one.

By two o’clock, they had three rooms to go. One was a check-out. One was occupied. The last was 323, the hotel’s most notorious room. Whenever anything went wrong, it was always in 323. This was the room with the loud parties. Wives caught unfaithful husbands and started bitch-slapping battles in 323. People did drugs and threesomes in that room. One man killed himself with pain pills.

Some staffers thought the room was jinxed. Others believed the problem was the location. Room 323 was near the back exit to the parking lot, so guests thought they could sneak in and out. But the security cameras caught them lugging in giant coolers or hiding little Baggies, smuggling in old hookers or underage girls. The guests in 323 were drunk, loud, rude – or all three.

Room 323 was a smoking room, and even on a quiet day it was the dirtiest of all.

“Wonder what’s waiting for us today,” Rhonda said.

“It can’t be any worse than the dirty diaper on the bedspread,” Helen said.

“Trust me, it can,” Rhonda said.

Before they could find out, there was a walkie-talkie squawk from Sondra at the front desk. “The woman in 223 says there’s water running down her walls,” she said.

“Did you say water on the walls?” Rhonda shook the walkie-talkie, in case it had garbled the words.

“You heard right,” Sondra said. “She thinks it’s coming from the room upstairs.”

“That would be 323,” Rhonda said.

“Of course it would,” Sondra said.

“I’ll look into it,” Rhonda said, with a martyred sigh.

She knocked and pounded louder than ever on room 323, but the only response was silence. This wasn’t a peaceful quiet. It felt ominous. But Helen knew the room’s deadly reputation.

Rhonda snicked open the door with her key card. They heard the running water the same time as it sloshed over their shoes in an icy wave. Cold water was roaring into the bathtub full force and rushing over the tub’s sides in a manmade Niagra. The bathroom floor was flooded.

Rhonda waded into the bathroom. “Look at this,” she moaned, as she turned off the faucet. “We’ll be in here till midnight.”

Helen sloshed past the disaster area into the dimly lit bedroom. At first, she wondered why someone had left a pile of pillows and a Persian lamb stole on the unmade bed. Then she realized she was looking at acres of white, doughy skin. A broad back and broader bottom were carpeted with curly black hair. The hair wandered down the backs of the meaty thighs and across the upper arms. There were little hairy outbreaks on the fingers and toes.

A naked man was lying facedown on the bed.

“Not another suicide!” Rhonda shrieked like a lost soul. “I can’t take it.”

Rhonda’s screeches jabbed at Helen like a rusty knife. The maid had turned into a creature from a horror movie. Her pale face was corpse white and her long red hair looked like a curtain of blood.

Rhonda couldn’t stop screaming, but her frantic shrieks did not wake this man. Helen didn’t think anything would.