by Mike Lipinski
He was only a “peeper,” but he had his pride. Lousy pay, though he could keep anything he found. That word he’d always considered a euphemism for stealing. He never closed his eyes to opportunities, the hotel teemed with suckers of every description. But the lobby was not very busy at this moment. As he wandered past the front desk he lifted a lazy index finger in vaguely the clerk’s direction, and managed a grin through his seriously chewed cigar, which rarely left his mouth.
Two days ago, “Peeper Jones,” as he was known around the hotel, had “found” a wallet stuck between two cushions of a couch. It belonged to someone called Rick Britton, the identity card revealed. Jones tore it up and pocketed the three hundred odd dollars that was in the wallet, and he’d kept the wallet because it was rawhide.
Peeper stopped at the big mirror outside the tailor’s to look at himself. He wanted to make sure he was respectable, in appearance anyway. He knew he was a bad penny, but he’d got away with it all these years, what was the point of changing? Change was bad, his old man had told him. No good could come it.
He looked all right. The mirror never lied. Which was good because he liked himself in the reflection. It seemed to him as if he could almost step through the glass and into this other world, a world beyond space and time that didn’t judge him, and where his sins would be swept clean.
“You’re in fine form today!” a female voice near him chirped.
She had caught him posturing in front of the mirror. Instead of deemphasizing his rotund shape, the silly man would blow his stomach out as if it were his proudest possession.
The woman, the head cashier with an unforgiving eye, a restless one that, like a Cyclops’ single lens, took everything in. It was noted down, not on paper, but in her head. She kept these secrets until there was a need to use them, to further her own stature and to gain the confidence of the management in her abilities and to give her even more authority. Always on the lookout for infractions – anything that might incriminate someone down the road – she filed them away for the future.
Peeper knew this, and he knew – or suspected – that the Cyclops was aware of his shenanigans.
Her real name was Miss Patricia Hammer. She was about forty, thin and aggressive, not very attractive in any normal sense. She carried a great many heavy keys attached to her belt, and the jangling of the metal objects as she stalked along added something like an extra symbol of her power. Her voice and her keys were her chief weapons. Her surname seemed appropriate, and when she talked everyone listened.
Jones had strived to avoid her at every possible turn. She had eyed him with especial distrust. He felt sure that she suspected him of stealing the money out of Rick Britton’s wallet. He believed she even suspected him of having kept the wallet; on one occasion he had unwisely taken it out while paying for a sandwich at the delicatessen down the street. He had caught her staring through the shop’s window, with such a hostile glare as to send a sharp pain through his body. He was crushed.
He’d hidden the wallet in his room, locked inside a metal cash box. The money, too. It wouldn’t do to start spending it, with his salary. They’d wonder where it came from. No, no. After that one close shave, he had become even more reclusive and watched his back every second. There would be no more of those “finds” till he had shaken the bitch off his tail. And he thought he had a plan, too, which might destroy her credibility. He began watching her, now, very closely, and it was easier for him as his territory as the house dick included the entire hotel, all six floors of it. He could go anywhere, and she couldn’t.
She supervised the night auditors from 4 O’clock till midnight, when she ended her shift. Then you could hear the auditors’ adding machines for the rest of the night. You’d hear an occasional voice raised above the clatter of keys; the auditors never stopped.
Jones had often thought himself lucky that he didn’t have that job. It seemed like the worst kind of drudgery. He had it way better than that, and as he sat in one of the plush armchairs in the main lobby listening to the odd rhythm of the keys in the background, he’d begun to hatch a plan that could nail that woman, but good.
He waited. Promptly at 3:30, The Hammer arrived. Always swinging through the revolving doors like a dervish, she pushed her way through any obstructive foot traffic in the lobby, and in a clear voice filled with cheerful venom, announced her apologies to any unfortunate bystanders who might be in her way. Her clarion call was unmistakable. Glancing toward the front desk, Peeper noticed with satisfaction how the clerks behind the counter visibly cringed. As they were all men, they laid their complaints at the foot of the god that ruled over hotels, to strike her dead. Peeper ducked behind his paper to observe Patricia Hammer gliding now across the patterned carpet of the lobby, making great strides in her high-heel platform shoes, a veritable dynamo of energy and spite. She wore a two-piece suit, and balanced seemingly precariously on her head was a hat, but it looked like a saucer with a flowered garden on top.
Jones felt her pass by, even though she was more than ten yards away from him. Her passage was marked by a small eddy, which carried a pungent perfume that obliterated any competing odors. By the time she reached the front desk, her presence was a matter of record, a clear demarcation that the second part of the day was going to be a lot different, and probably unpleasant in the extreme, for some.
Peeper wasn’t about to become one of them. In the past, he had avoided conflict with her by…well, avoiding her. In his capacity as the hotel dick, he was free to move anywhere, the entire place with its twelve stories, and he had access to any of its four hundred rooms. He had the master key, though nobody knew it. He had acquired it secretly, and he was one up on The Hammer, whose keys only unlocked rooms and various closets over which she had dominion, which was Accounting and, by some weird conjunction of circumstances she also oversaw Housekeeping. She was fond of bossing the maids around and spitting out pithy phrases in English which they couldn’t understand, as they were mostly Mexican. Occasionally, just to throw a monkey wrench into the already tense atmosphere, she’d utter some jarring Spanish that was equally incomprehensible to them.
Jones folded his paper attentively, right at the creases, into squares which he pocketed just as carefully into his suit. It was time to go make his rounds. His break was over, such as it was. He’d eaten a corned beef sandwich from the delicatessen next door, and it was beginning to repeat on him. He stood up, raising his arms and stretching. His suit coat rode up a little over his bulging waist, despite having had his clothes tailored especially for him. He felt the weight of his Colt .38 under his armpit, in its leather holster. He didn’t mind if people saw him armed. It acted as a deterrent against thieves and grifters who might be contemplating mayhem at the Belmont Hotel.
The general manager, who took a hand in everyday operations, appeared, scowling at Peeper, and approached him. He was a peevish little man with the personality of a worm. He was upset at his exposing the gun so blatantly, but as always Peeper just smiled at him and gave him a resounding slap on the back. The little man went reeling and shook his finger at him.
The dick laughed, as he always did, and Mr Flores was humiliated, but there was nothing he could do about it, because the detective had been a fixture for twenty five years. A foggy photograph of Peeper Jones hung on a wall down a corridor leading to toilets, depicting a younger man, with a short haircut and looking slim. His smile was devious. As Flores went through to the kitchens, passing the picture on the way, he grimaced to himself and felt something like shame every time he was snubbed. He wished piously that there was something he could do to get rid of him, if only there was a way.
At six O’clock, Patricia came out of her office, lighting a cigarette as she buzzed past the front desk from her office, a small door that led to her inner sanctum. Jones had been up and down several floors – he usually started at the top and worked down, but today he had started from the lobby, walking up the stairs to the second floor. He tried to get as much exercise as he could. Somewhere in the back of his mind was the thought that if he didn’t, he might die. He was forty six, over two hundred and fifty pounds, and looked disheveled, neglecting his hair; his suit was spotted with cigar ash, which he brushed off every so often. Sometimes he worried about death. Right now, though, he was talking to the front desk clerk who had just started his shift, which went to 2 a.m. He was a young fellow, with a full head of blond hair. Peeper liked him because he shared his private feelings about his boss. He liked to listen to the young man tell him what he would like to do to the woman, if he had the opportunity. Peeper was laughing at something he’d just said, as the object of derision flew by, barely noting his presence except as an aside.
“What’s happening, Peeper? You don’t look too busy!”
Peeper smiled at her, keeping his eyes on her as she disappeared around a central pillar. When she reappeared, Jones could see her heading for the elevators. The blond kid watched as well, a little smirk playing on his face.
“Don’t worry,” Jones told him. “I’m gonna fix her.”
He walked away in Hammer’s wake, her perfume carried on the air behind her like some kind of insecticide. He pictured flowers wilting as she passed, and hotel guests passing out, a veritable Pepe Le Pew.
He stopped at the elevator that was still ascending; the pointer above the shut doors told him she had reached the eleventh floor. He knew where she was going. He had drawn some conclusions about her behavior which he knew would be explosive.
He took the elevator to the twelfth floor, then walked down a flight. He pulled open the door from the stairway, cautiously, peering through the crack to the corridor on the eleventh floor. There was no one about, so he stepped out and found himself near 11F. There were six room on each floor, starting a A. He’d seen the other woman slip into room C, to the right of the elevators. It had occurred on one of his usual tours through the hotel, seeing another woman with The Hammer. He was getting excited, the expectation of finding his nemesis in a state she could never defend.
Peeper found himself outside room 11C. Barely allowing himself to breathe, he moved a little closer to the door, his ear straining for anything inside the room. He heard them, two voices. Two women. He knew he had them now.
He shifted again, close enough to place his ear against the door. He listened intently for a moment, but then unaccountably found himself falling forward.
At first, he couldn’t figure out what was happening. His arms flew out instinctively against the fall, because for some reason the door he’d been leaning on, had swung open and gravity pulled him forward, his big stomach acting as a cushion when he fell.
He found himself lying face down on the carpet. His face hurt from being scraped, and the fall had left him breathless. What had just happened?