Mr. Harrison Noir Short Fiction By John Litweiler

Mr. Harrison: Noir Short Fiction By John Litweiler

John Litweiler, author of Mr. Harrison, has previously published The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 and the biography Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life.

*****

The man didn’t look like trouble. Medium-tall, in a brown suit, tanned, with a small pot belly, he came with no reservation, like most of the few people who came to the Centre Plaza Hotel. James, the desk clerk, straightened up, slipped the sports section of the newspaper under the counter, and gave the man a registration card. “This seems like a quiet place to spend the night,” the man said.

“It is,” James said. “Not many people know about us.” Ten stories tall, the hotel was an anonymous building in a permanent shadow downtown, dwarfed by the skyscrapers around it.

“I like that,” the man said. He picked up the pen, hesitated, then signed the card Daniel Harrison, a Seattle address. “I don’t want to be bothered. If anyone calls for me, I’m not here, if you know what I mean.”

James knew. He often hid from people himself. He gave the man room 803, which had a boring view of the bland office building across the street, mainly its shaded eighth-floor windows. Arthur, the bellman, picked up Mr. Harrison’s only suitcase and the two went up to 803. Arthur returned to the front desk, surprised: “He tipped me five dollars.”

“He doesn’t look the type,” James said.  Mr. Harrison didn’t appear drunk and big spenders and convention-goers avoided the Centre Plaza. It was belligerently uninviting, with lobby walls and ceiling painted a soulless off-white and no furniture. The only lobby decoration was an elderly, framed black-and-white reproduction of an 1893 city map.  James had never been in any of the hotel rooms but he took for granted they were like chambers in tombs.

“He doesn’t look the type,” James said.  Mr. Harrison didn’t appear drunk and big spenders and convention-goers avoided the Centre Plaza.

It was a little after six by then. James and Arthur were the hotel’s entire staff until midnight. Arthur had been a numbers runner for years, until the state lottery killed the numbers racket.  He was long past retirement age and had arthritis pains in his legs. He and James had mostly exhausted conversation not long after James had taken the job a couple months earlier. So Arthur spent most of his evenings out of James’ sight, at the bell stand back by the elevators, where he had a tiny TV to watch and a Bible to read. James figured if a clerk, say himself, was ever held up, Arthur would never know till afterwards.

As James was finishing the sports section, he heard a little rustle and then a frightened sound that might have been “Hello” but probably wasn’t.  It was the hotel’s only full-time resident Mrs. Chumley, who didn’t look at him. The little woman scurried across the narrow lobby to her favorite spot in the big front window, where she huddled on the sill to watch the few passing commuters on their ways to the train station, in the twilight.

“How are you, Mrs. Chumley?” James said. No reply, as usual.  He returned to his newspaper and only glanced now and then across the lobby at the gray-haired woman in the shabby, old, blueish-grayish faded coat as she stared out at the nearly deserted street. He was only halfway through the help wanted ads before she scurried back to the stairway, by the elevators, without looking at him as she passed the desk. After that, nobody came to the bleak lobby.

Evenings at the Centre Plaza Hotel gave James the creeps. He had vivid memories of being held up twice – pistol-whipped, the second time – at the last hotel where he’d worked, a far busier place than this one. Nobody else checked in or out during the evening of Mr. Harrison’s arrival.

Two of the six people who had rooms at the hotel came in. They had their keys with them, and they went up without stopping to talk with James. He had his little transistor radio on very softly.  Ms. Bedford, the owner’s secretary and the hotel’s de facto manager, had banned playing it at the front desk, and if she came back to work some more in the evening, he could turn it off before she’d hear it.

He stepped to the back office. There were two big cardboard boxes full of pornography and conspiracy magazines on the table, remnants of a deadbeat hotel guest who’d left in a hurry. James picked up a Beware! and went back to the front desk. Leafing through the magazine helped take his mind off himself and off the morguelike hotel and off the dope fiends and other predators who roamed the city streets at night and who might take a fancy to hold up a hotel.

There were two big cardboard boxes full of pornography and conspiracy magazines on the table, remnants of a deadbeat hotel guest who’d left in a hurry.

The switchboard buzzed. It was 803. Mr. Harrison said, “Did you send somebody up to my room?”

“No,” James said. “Nobody’s asked for you. Were you expecting someone?”

“Who came to my door, then?”

“I don’t know. What did they say to you?”

“She didn’t say anything. I heard a noise against my door. When I went to look, I saw a woman running to the stairway and then the stairway door closing after her.”

“I’ll ask the bellman to go up and have a look.”

“Do that,” Mr. Harrison said. “I don’t appreciate snoops. If somebody’s going to bother me here, I’ll find another hotel.”

James summoned Arthur, who said, “Sounds like Mrs. Chumley’s making her rounds,” and went up to 803.

Later, after Arthur had come back down, Mr. Harrison rang the front desk again. “Tell me about your Mrs. Chumley.”

“She’s an elderly lady who lives here alone. She doesn’t seem to have much to do with herself, and sometimes she goes around the hotel listening at people’s doors.” Mr. Harrison wasn’t the first hotel guest to catch her peeping.

“Your bellman called her a crazy old lady.”

“She’s maybe a little senile, but she’s really harmless.”

“Would you ring her room for me?”

James did. Mrs. Chumley was in by then. In fact, Mrs. Chumley and Mr. Harrison had a conversation. It was almost unprecedented to have one guest at the Centre Plaza telephone another guest. What was more unusual was that lonely Mrs. Chumley actually had a conversation with someone.

Something else unusual happened later on that evening. Mr. Harrison came downstairs, leaned on the front desk, and began conversing with James. He said, “You’re right, Mrs. Chumley doesn’t get much excitement.”

“Not much excitement to be had here,” James said. With someone to talk to for a change, James opened up. Most people would have been bored with his description of the Centre Plaza’s unique qualities, which ranged from the crepuscular to the nocturnal.

Mr. Harrison wasn’t bored. “This hotel doesn’t look like much from the outside. The way it’s set back from the street, I’ll bet thousands of people go past it each day and don’t even know it’s here. How does it stay in business?” he asked.

“The owner doesn’t care if it loses money. This block is going to be redeveloped in a year or two and he’s going to make a fortune when he sells this property.”

“How many people work here?”

James described the small staff and added, “Arthur works here to get away from his wife. She nags him at home.”

“How come you work here?”

“I’m looking for another job,” James admitted. He didn’t like talking about himself. At 29 he was a failure in life, in love, in work. He didn’t have any real hope of finding a better job. He lived alone in a single room. Most late nights after work, at home, he watched TV and more often than not drank pints of cheap fortified wine. He’d sometimes considered suicide. He worked at low-paying jobs like this one, he promised himself, in order to – and here was the only part he mentioned to Mr. Harrison – try  to save money to go back to the university full time. The conversation was mostly James answering Mr. Harrison’s questions. It was the longest he had ever talked with anyone in the hotel. Afterwards he was sorry that Mr. Harrison would check out the next day.

The next day Mr. Harrison didn’t check out. On the contrary, he rented room 803 by the week. He came downstairs that night to visit with James again. “I found out I’ve got a lot more to do here in town than I expected,” he said. “I’d like you to screen my calls for me. If somebody calls up and asks for me, don’t tell them I’m staying at this hotel. Get their name first and then say you’ll look in the registry to see if I’m here. Then ring me and tell me who’s calling.” He passed James a ten-dollar bill, the first tip James had ever gotten at the Centre Plaza, and said, “Thanks for your cooperation.”

In the days to come Mr. Harrison became, if not exactly gregarious, at least uncommonly sociable for a Centre Plaza guest. He found one reason or another to tip each of the hotel clerks. He told the maid to not clean his room. When she protested that Ms. Bedford insisted on the daily cleaning of all occupied rooms, he tipped the maid to stay out. He sometimes made long distance calls, but to Dallas, never to Seattle. He came down to the lobby to pay after each call, so no phone numbers and charges ever appeared on his bill.

Every day or two he came to the front desk and visited with James. He read a lot of newspapers. At the public library?  James had seldom seen him with a newspaper.  He liked to talk about places he’d seen in America and Mexico, to describe them to James, and about sports, a subject about which he and James could safely hold different opinions. He was interested in articles about people who got rich selling things, other who were arrested for confidence scams, others who managed big corporate takeovers. He once made James laugh by asking, “Do you invest in stocks?” He was friendly, he smiled easily, but he never joked and he never talked at all about himself.

James looked forward to his visits. They were a break in the alternate fear and boredom of working nights at the Centre Plaza. One day James asked, “What kind of business are you in?”

Mr. Harrison just smiled and said, “I can’t tell you about the work I’m doing here, not yet, anyway. I have to be very discreet – that’s why I appreciate your screening my telephone calls. Some day I hope to tell you about it – by then, it might even get in the news, too.” As he left the front desk that night he said, “Please don’t tell anyone what I told you tonight, that I’m in the city on confidential business or that it might be important business. Don’t even repeat it to Arthur.”

Mr. Harrison had struck up a friendship with Mrs. Chumley, and there was a change in her. Mousy and grey-faced as ever, she now managed to summon up the nerve to exchange a few words about the weather with James now and then. “That Mr. Harrison is such a nice man. He’s so interested in everything.” And as if amused, “Do you know, I think he drinks a little.”

And Arthur smelled faintly of whiskey the night he told James, “That 803, Harrison, is a nice fellow. Hope he stays awhile.” By then Mr. Harrison had been at the Centre Plaza Hotel over two weeks.

He never received phone calls while James was on duty, even though he tipped James each week for screening calls. He hadn’t shaved since the day he checked in – he was obviously growing a beard. One night he and James were at the front desk looking idly out at the deserted street, where a few scraps of paper were blowing around. Mr. Harrison asked casually, “Do you have a gun back there in your desk?”

“No. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I had it.”

“This part of the city gets pretty isolated after dark. What would you do if someone came in off the street and held you up?”

“Nobody’s ever tried it.” James did not like to admit that he was terrified of a holdup .He said, “I suppose I’d give him the money and then call the police as soon as he left.” When he’d been held up at the previous hotel, he’d called the police. They’d never caught the holdup men.

Mr. Harrison frowned. “That’s not very good. Some of these gang members and dope addicts running around these days’d take a shot at you just for a thrill. I always take a gun with me at night.”

It occurred to James that he didn’t remember Mr. Harrison ever going out at night. He said, “I’ll bet you don’t have it with you now.” From his jacket pocket Mr. Harrison produced a flat gun. James knew nothing about handguns and wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be impressed. “Is it loaded?”

“It sure is, and I know how to use it. I had to once, and it saved my life. I will again if I have to.” He put the gun back in his pocket.

“What happened?”

Mr. Harrison didn’t answer that. Instead he said, “You ought to get a gun for your hotel guests’ safety, even if you aren’t worried about yourself.”

The subject was closed, just like Mr. Harrison always simply cut off any talk that ever began to get intimate. A few nights later James again braved the question, “What happened the time you had to use a gun to protect yourself?

“I don’t like to talk about it, and I hope you don’t mention it to anybody else.” That was that.

That happened on a Tuesday. On Thursday James, at the switchboard, took a call for a Henry Taylor, who was staying at the Centre Plaza, according to the caller. James replied that no Henry Taylor was staying there nor did any Henry Taylor have a reservation or recently check out. An hour after dark that night, when the downtown streets were quiet as death, two men entered the hotel.

They strode fast across the lobby with the casual assurance of men whose innate brutality had gotten them anything they’d ever wanted. Their looks were grim. They swept the lobby with their eyes as they advanced. Holdup, James immediately thought. The black-suited one, tall and wide across the chest – to James, he looked like a walking brick building – said, “Is Henry Taylor staying here?”

“No…”

“How about George Williams? Or Williamson?”

“Same guy, he just uses different names,” said his partner, a lean curly-haired one who kept swiveling his head to look alternately at James and at the front door.

“I can’t help you. There’s nobody by those names here.”

Black-suit said, “This guy uses aliases – pseudonyms, if you know what I mean. I want to look at your registrations.”

“I can’t let you do that.” James realized his voice was shaking.

Curly-hair glared at James, but the big one had his story ready. In a mildly exasperated tone he said, “See, this guy we’re hunting for knows something about a crime…”

“It was a murder,” his colleague said softly, and his glare and the casualness of his manner implied James’s insignificance.

“Look, we’re working for a lawyer. If we can’t get a statement from Henry Taylor, or whatever he calls himself, somebody innocent might go to jail. How about it?”

James inhaled and said, “No, I got to see some I.D. first.”

Black-suit held out a twenty-dollar bill between two fingers. “My I.D.’s in my other suit. This is for your trouble.”

James hesitated, but the big man was already moving to the wooden gate by the desk and looking for the latch. James opened the gate and the man walked without hesitation to the rack of registration cards. If he’d made a threatening move, there was nothing James could have done to defend himself.  Curly-hair took a few steps down the hall, then came back. “What’s down there?” he asked James.

“Elevators and the bell stand,” James said. Arthur apparently was nowhere nearby just then. James had always expected Arthur would be sure to be absent if trouble came.

Black-suit was picking up each card in the rack and reading it. “Not many people in this place,” he said to his partner, who now had both hands on the counter and his eyes on James. The big man compared some of the cards to the handwriting he had on a sheet of paper, and he lingered a moment on Daniel Harrison 803’s card. “Try George Wilson,” said the smaller man.

“Not here,” said the big one, and to James, “What do you do with the old cards when people check out?” There was a stack of old registration cards, held together by a rubber band, under the counter. James reached for it.

The smaller man shot an arm across the desk; James stepped back, from reflex. “It’s all right,” Black-suit said, and Curly-hair relaxed. The big man had the rubber band off and was slowly flipping through the cards on top, the cards for recent weeks’ checkouts. Then he laid the stack on the desk. To James he said, “Thanks for your trouble, mister.”

As they left Curly-hair gave a last look at James and said, “We might be back.” When they were gone, James’s shirt was stuck to him with sweat.

He was still shaky when Mr. Harrison came down that night to pay the next week’s rent, in cash, as usual. Mr. Harrison was interested in James’s description of the two men. “A lawyer, huh? I wish I could have seen them myself. That poor guy they’re hunting for better watch out. See what I mean about your needing a gun here?”

James couldn’t see how a gun would have helped with the two men. Black-suit could have taken a gun away from him and shot him. But Mr. Harrison was pleased about something, and he gave James an extra ten-dollar tip. He also said, “Be sure to tell me if you ever see those guys again.”

In the days that followed, Mr. Harrison stayed close to the hotel. He stopped going out in the daytime. In fact, he seldom left his room. He didn’t come to the front desk as often, there was less to talk about and more silence from him. His sun tan had faded and most of his lower face was covered by an untrimmed black beard. He must have been on a diet, because his pot belly was disappearing. He ordered out for food sometimes and Arthur brought it to his room. Arthur also brought him a newspaper and a half-pint or a pint of whiskey each day, and once a week he gave Arthur a ten-dollar tip to pass along to James.

But Mrs. Chumley still called Mr. Harrison on the phone sometimes. James started to notice a pattern the evening a polite, white-haired, late-middle-aged man in a gray suit, white shirt, necktie, hat, and a sullen, vicious-looking boy in torn blue jeans and a stained leather jacket checked into a room. Like most guests of the City Centre Hotel, the gentleman paid cash instead of using a credit card. A few minutes later, Mrs. Chumley called Mr. Harrison. An hour after that, the boy walked out. Soon thereafter the gentleman checked out and Mrs. Chumley called Mr. Harrison again. That same evening two frequent guests arrived, a man with a briefcase and a woman he referred to as his secretary. They also paid cash and took their usual room, where they said they were going to work undisturbed. A bit later Mrs. Chumley called Mr. Harrison. As usual the man and his secretary checked out after an hour, and right after that Mrs. Chumley called Mr. Harrison again.

So Mrs. Chumley was reporting to Mr. Harrison when people checked in and out of the hotel. Around James, though, she reverted to her old silent skittishness. One day when she came to the lobby he asked her if she knew whether Mr. Harrison was sick or something. The question startled her, like all remarks directed to her startled her. “He sleeps a lot,” she said, then decided she was talking too much and went to huddle in the front window.

By this time James was certain that Mr. Harrison wasn’t actually in the city on business. It was Arthur who said what James was thinking: “Mr. Harrison’s hiding out from somebody. Remember those two guys you told me about who said they were working for a lawyer? He probably knows who they were. They were probably after him.” It excited James and made him feel a little righteous, to think that in his way he was helping to protect a fugitive from gangster vengeance.

The overnight man at the hotel quit and moved out of his room. James didn’t like Stan, the replacement. Stan was arrogant, a racist, a whiner who volunteered complaints about the job, the hotel, the stupid government, the people he encountered in the city – he made James eager to get the hell out of the hotel promptly each midnight. On the second night Stan came to work he made a joke about Mrs. Chumley to James, who thought of himself as one of her protectors. On Stan’s fourth night he said, “I saw that Harrison in 803 again last night. Did he ever tip you money to screen his phone calls?” James said yes. Stan said, “He’s up to something. I’d like to know what.”

The next day James saw a photo of Henry Taylor. At least twice a week, sometimes more often, a national hotel security association mailed envelopes with FBI posters, fliers, and lists of people wanted by police departments around the country. Henry Taylor’s photo was in that day’s envelope. The photo looked a lot like Mr. Harrison when he’d first checked in, except maybe with a fuller face and light hair. Henry Taylor was wanted for questioning about a murder in Fort Worth, Texas. He’d done time for fraud and had been arrested but released on two mail fraud and forgery charges; he used the aliases George Wilson and Williams. Daniel Harrison was not one of his aliases, according to the poster.

James remembered the time Mr. Harrison had said he’d used a gun to save his own life. But the man in the photo could have been somebody else. James usually posted the security association’s notices on the wall in the back office. He was sure if Stan saw the photo of Henry Taylor, he’d connect it with Mr. Harrison. It was after eleven o’clock that James made up his mind about what to do, and rang Mr. Harrison’s room. “There’s an FBI poster here about a man named Henry Taylor, from Texas. Would you like to see it?”

“A Henry Taylor from Texas, huh?” A silence, then, “Yeah, I’ll come down.”

When Mr. Harrison arrived he was wearing glasses and his hair was long; blue jeans and a black shirt completed a remarkable transformation. The smell of whiskey was strong on him. He said, “Anybody else see this poster?”

“No, I opened the envelope myself tonight.”

Mr. Harrison read the poster slowly, twice. “This isn’t true. You can tell it isn’t true. This Henry Taylor never hurt anybody. Look at those things he was busted for. None of them was a violent crime. Did you notice the name of the guy it says he wiped out?”

James hadn’t noticed.

“Maybe it didn’t get in the news around here, but out west it was on TV and in the newspapers. The guy who got killed was a gangster and he got snuffed in a gang war. Confidence men like this Henry Taylor person don’t have anything to do with gangs. They work alone. They don’t threaten or coerce people, either. They meet people who give them money voluntarily. Let me buy this poster from you.”

James took the twenty-dollar bill. “Thanks, partner,” Mr. Harrison said. It was a commitment: James was accepting that Mr. Harrison was Henry Taylor. As soon as Mr. Harrison left the lobby, James began doubting himself. He told himself that he’d shown Mr. Harrison the Henry Taylor poster out of a friendly impulse. James wasn’t used to having friends, he wasn’t used to how friends treated each other. Even so, he realized that letting Mr. Harrison buy the poster removed their relationship, however distant, from the realm of friendship. Obviously, Mr. Harrison had either evaded his questions or lied to him. James resented his own naivete. For a few moments he thought of calling Mr. Harrison and asking for the poster back. He didn’t simply because he needed the twenty dollars.

By the next afternoon he was back in his more romantic frame of mind, thinking that at worst surely Mr. Harrison was simply a con man of some sort. Shortly after James arrived at work at four o’clock two policemen came in and went to the front desk. One asked James, “Ever see this man?” He held out a color photo that looked much like the FBI photo of Henry Taylor. James hesitated, then said, “I don’t think so.” When Arthur said positively, “I never saw him before,” James realized that Arthur was committed to Mr. Harrison.

The police asked questions about whether Henry Taylor or George Williams or Wilson had stayed in the hotel. “We think he’s in town and we want to talk to him. If you ever see him, don’t confront him, but give me a call right away.”

“What’s he done?”

The cop doing the talking said, “We know he did time for swindling a retired couple out of their lives’ savings. He’s a real smoothie. After he got out of the joint he was running with a ring of swindlers in Texas. The police in Fort Worth think he murdered one of the other gang members over money. He’s probably dangerous.” He gave James a card with the detective bureau’s phone number.

The cops went to the hotel office. Ms. Bedford returned with them and asked James and Arthur the same questions they’d answered before. She then went to the back office and taped a new FBI poster of Henry Taylor to the wall, where the clerks, though not the hotel guests, would be sure to see it. After she and the police were gone Arthur sighed and said, “I better tell Mr. Harrison about this.” He sounded as sick as James felt.

When the shifts changed at midnight Stan looked long and hard at the Henry Taylor poster. He didn’t say anything. But he also watched closely as James counted the evening’s cash and he didn’t miss a move James made as he left. All the while, Stan’s smile was an accusation.

Stan ran off that night. Something extremely rare, for the Centre Plaza Hotel, had happened: Late guests showed up, of all things. Stan had checked them in, asked for their room rents in cash, in advance. Then he’d taken all the money out of the cash drawer – it had to be less than $700 – and left the hotel. James was relieved to hear about it the next day. Ms. Bedford was in and out of the lobby, bustling and bitching, snapping questions at James and Arthur as if they’d stolen the money themselves. She worked late into the evening. When a phone call came for the hotel manager James switched it to her even though it was after hours. When she finally left, wearing a fur coat and a martyred air, she said, “That call was from the police in Memphis.” She recounted the call to James.

As she talked he realized what he had to do. As soon as she was gone he rang Mr. Harrison. “Did you know the night auditor ripped off the hotel cash and ran away last night?”

“I heard about it.” Arthur or Mrs. Chumley must have told him.

“He was caught today in Memphis. He told the cops he could lead them to Henry Taylor if they’d make a deal with him.”

“Oh, yeah?”

It was presumptuous of James, but he was determined to be decisive for a change: “Mr. Harrison, you’d better move out of the hotel. Tonight.”

“Yeah. Thanks, pal.” A long silence, then, “First make this long distance call for me.”

It was to Dallas. It proved to be a long call. While he was on the line two men entered the lobby: the same two who had come looking for Henry Taylor five weeks earlier. They were just as menacing as before. They think I lied to them. They’re going to get me, James thought. They both glared at James; the big one was now wearing a gray suit. “We want a room with twin beds,” Curly-hair fairly spat out. They didn’t have suitcases.

“Sign in there,” James said, and hoped they didn’t hear the quaver in his voice. The big man didn’t hesitate, but scrawled an incomprehensible doodle on the registration card. As James got the key to a fifth floor room he was aware that both men were watching him as if he were an insect they’d like to crush. “It’s seventy  a night, in advance.”

“Hell,” Curly-hair said, but the big one forked over a hundred-dollar bill. They didn’t wait for change, but picked up the key and went directly back to the elevators. James heard the smaller man tell Arthur, “We can find it ourselves, Pop.”

As soon as James heard the elevator door close he broke into Mr. Harrison’s long distance call: “Those two guys who were hunting for Henry Taylor last month came back. They checked into room 510.”

“Thanks, partner. Now get off the line and let me finish my call.”

James waited. He tried to decipher the big man’s signature on the registration card. He looked out the window. He tried to read his newspaper. He tried to pay attention to the ball game on the radio. He heard every sound in the lobby amplified. He heard the sound of the wind outdoors and the nighttime creaks in the hotel building. Arthur came out to the front desk to wait with him, equally jumpy.

James said only, “I told Mr. Harrison they were here.”  He and Arthur waited in silence. It was clear to him that Arthur knew almost everything about Mr. Harrison that he knew, and probably some things about Mr. Harrison that James didn’t know. Neither knew enough. The switchboard light over 803 went out; James disconnected Mr. Harrison’s line.

Mrs. Chumley rang the front desk from her room. She was terrified. “They caught me in the hall! They dragged me to my room! They wouldn’t let me go! They were going to kill me!” She talked fast and loud. James couldn’t understand what else she was saying.

“I’ll call the police.”

“No! No!” she screamed. “Mr. Harrison said never call the police.”

“Do you want Arthur to come up to your room? Or shall I come up?” She was crying. James could make out, “I want Mr. Harrison.”

He connected her with 803; Mr. Harrison answered immediately. To Arthur, James said, “Those two tried to get Mrs. Chumley to lead them to Mr. Harrison.”

“Don’t call the police,” Arthur said. He left the desk and waddled back to the elevators. Mrs. Chumley’s phone call to Mr. Harrison didn’t last long. After it was over, James waited by the switchboard as the transistor radio played commercials.

“Come here,” Arthur called from the elevators.

James left the desk, went back to him. “The elevators are stuck,” Arthur said. “They were both on the eighth floor.”  Where Mr. Harrison’s room was. “He must have called both elevators up and propped the doors open.” But now one indicator arrow pointed to the eighth floor, the other to the fourth floor, where Mrs. Chumley lived. “See, Mr. Harrison must’ve gone down to her.”

And then the lower elevator moved up. Not far – it stopped at five. After it stayed there a minute James said, “Maybe those guys went to his room and then back to hers.” He didn’t speculate further. He said, “Hurry up,” and pressed the two elevator buttons. The elevator arrows did not move. The one on five and the one on eight were both stuck.

He walked back to the switchboard and rang Mrs. Chumley’s room. No answer. No answer in Mr. Harrison’s room, either. He returned to the elevators and said to Arthur, “You’d better take the stairway up there and see what’s wrong.”

Now Arthur cursed. “Go up there yourself, if you want to know so bad.” He turned his back on James and paced.

“Then watch the front desk for me.” Arthur made no move to the front. The stairway was next to the elevators. James was scared. But Arthur was watching James hesitate, would know if he backed off, chickened out. James tried to brave himself: I’ll just take a little look and come right back. He went to the stairway door. Before he could open it, Mr. Harrison burst through, carrying his suitcase. “Is Mrs. Chumley all right?” James said.

Mr. Harrison strode right ahead, said nothing until he got to the front desk. James followed and Arthur huffed along behind them. Mr. Harrison’s hair was long, his beard scraggly, he was pale and almost thin. He wore new black-rimmed glasses; his clothes were blue jeans and an army jacket. He set down the suitcase and laid the 803 room key on the desk. “Mrs. Chumley was upset when I last spoke with her, but I think she’s calmed down now.”

He was pulling out his wallet. “Here’s something for your help, men. I’ve never worked together with such helpful partners before this, and I couldn’t possibly have done all that I did here without your willing and voluntary and very generous cooperation.” As he spoke he set out a hundred-dollar bill each for James and Arthur. “I’m going to have vivid memories of our partnership for a long, long time.”

“You know it wasn’t any partnership,” James blurted.

Mr. Harrison had already started for the front door. “Do you think anybody’s going to believe that?” were his last words as he went out.

James was so confused and frightened that it took him a moment to notice a high, thin, keening sound. It was coming from somewhere in the back of the corridor to the elevators. Faint though it was, it was growing louder, becoming a cry. James dashed back; Arthur followed, fast as his legs could go. The elevators were still stuck. The sound was coming from the stairwell, but now it was a scream, full-voiced and hideous. Something was thumping against the heavy steel stairway door.

James opened the door. Mrs. Chumley staggered out, screaming, and collapsed on James. There was gore all over her dress, her hands, her arms, and then there was blood on James. As he held the panting, bawling woman, he recognized the small, flat gun that she carried. He took it from her. It was warm.

He did not have to see the two bodies on the fifth floor. He retched at just the thought of them.

*****

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