Authors: Nita Prose
“I’m not sure that pillows and messiness are the details Charlotte’s after here, Molly,” Mr. Preston says. “I think she’s looking for details that might suggest foul play.”
“That’s right,” Charlotte adds. “Such as the pills. You said the pills were Giselle’s. Did you touch them? Were they labeled?”
“No, I didn’t touch them. Not that day at least. And the container wasn’t labeled. I knew they were Giselle’s because she’d often take them in my presence when I was cleaning the suite. Plus, I often saw the bottle in the bathroom. She called them her ‘benz friends’ or her ‘chill pills.’ I believe ‘benz’ is a medicine of some sort? She did not seem ill to me—well, not in the physical sense. But some illnesses are a lot like maids—omnipresent but almost imperceptible.”
Charlotte looks up from her pad. “So true,” she says. “Benz is short for benzodiazepine. It’s an anti-anxiety and depression med. Small white pills?”
“A lovely shade of robin’s-egg blue, actually.”
“Huh,” says Charlotte. “So it was a street drug, not a prescription. Dad, did you ever talk to Giselle? Ever see any odd behavior from her?”
“Odd behavior?” he says, taking a sip of tea. “Odd behavior is par for the course when you’re a hotel doorman at the Regency Grand. It was clear that she and Mr. Black were often on the outs. On the day that Mr. Black died, she left in a hurry and was crying. A week before, same thing, but that was after a visit from Victoria, Mr. Black’s daughter, and his ex-wife, the first Mrs. Black.”
“I remember that day,” I say. “Mrs. Black—the first—held the elevator door open for me, but her daughter told me to take the service elevator instead. Giselle told me Victoria disliked her. Perhaps that’s why Giselle was crying that day, Mr. Preston.”
“Tears and high drama were a rather regular occurrence for Giselle,” Mr. Preston says. “I suppose that’s not surprising when you consider the man she married. Far be it from me to wish a man ill, but I was not sad to see that man’s life come to an early end.”
“Why’s that?” Charlotte asks.
“You work a door like the Regency Grand for as long as I have, and you can read people in a single glance. He was no gentleman, not to the new Mrs. Black or to the former Mrs. Black. Mark my words, that man was a bad one.”
“A bad egg?” I ask.
“A stinking, rotten egg,” Mr. Preston confirms.
“Did he have any obvious enemies, Dad? Anyone who might have wanted him conveniently dispatched?”
“Oh, I’m sure he did. I was one of them. But there were others. First off, there were the women—the
women. When the Mrs. Blacks, new or old, were not around, there were…how should I call them…young female callers?”
“Dad, just say sex workers.”
“I would call them that if I knew for sure that’s what they were, but I never actually saw money exchange hands. Or the other part.” Mr. Preston coughs and looks at me. “Sorry, Molly. This is all quite dreadful.”
“It is,” I say. “But I can corroborate that. Giselle told me that Mr. Black was engaging in extramarital relations. With more than one woman too. It hurt Giselle. Understandably.”
“She told you that?” Charlotte asks. “Did you tell anyone else?”
“I most certainly did not,” I say. I adjust the top button of my blouse. “Discretion is our motto. Invisible customer service is our goal.”
Charlotte looks at her father.
“Mr. Snow’s edict for hotel employees,” he explains. “He’s the hotel manager and self-proclaimed Grand Vizier of hotel hospitality and hygiene. But I’m starting to wonder if his Mr. Clean act is all just a clever front.”
“Molly,” Charlotte says. “Can you tell me anything that might help me understand the drug and weapons charges against you?”
“I can shed some light, I hope. Giselle and I were more than just maid and guest. She trusted me. She shared her secrets with me. She was my friend.” I look to Mr. Preston, fearing I’m disappointing him since I
crossed a guest-employee boundary. But he doesn’t look upset, just concerned.
“Giselle came to my house the day after Mr. Black died. I didn’t tell the police about that. I figured it was a private visit in my own home and therefore none of their concern. She was very upset. And she needed a favor from me. I obliged.”
“Oh dear,” says Mr. Preston.
“Dad,” Charlotte says. Then to me, “What did she ask you to do?”
“To remove the handgun she’d hidden in the suite. In the bathroom fan.”
Charlotte and Mr. Preston exchange another look, one I’m all too familiar with—they understand something that I don’t.
“But there weren’t any gunshots heard, or even reports of wounds on Mr. Black’s body,” Mr. Preston says.
“No, not according to any news feeds I’ve seen,” Charlotte replies.
“Asphyxiated,” I say. “That’s what Detective Stark said.”
Charlotte’s mouth falls open. “Good to know,” she says and scribbles something on her yellow pad. “So the gun wasn’t the murder weapon. Did you return it to Giselle?”
“I didn’t get the chance. I hid it in my vacuum cleaner, expecting to give it to her later. Then at lunch, I left the hotel.”
“That’s right,” says Mr. Preston. “I saw you rushing out the doors and was wondering where you were off to in such a hurry.”
I look down at the cup in my lap. Something niggles at my conscience; the dragon in my belly stirs. “I found Mr. Black’s wedding ring,” I say. “And I pawned it. I know that was wrong. It’s just been very hard on my own to make ends meet financially. My gran. She’d be so ashamed of me.” I can’t bear to look up at either of them. Instead, I just stare into the black hole of my teacup.
“Dear girl,” Mr. Preston says. “Your gran understood money troubles better than most. Believe me, I know that much about her and a whole lot more. It’s my understanding that she left you some savings, after she passed?”
“Gone,” I say. “Frittered away.” I can’t explain about Wilbur and the Fabergé. There’s only so much shame I can confess to at once.
“So you pawned the ring and then went back to work?” Charlotte asks.
“And the police were waiting for you when you came back?”
Mr. Preston steps in. “That’s correct, Charlotte. I was there. Couldn’t do a damn thing to stop it either, though I tried.”
Charlotte shifts her weight in the chair, crosses her legs. “What about the drug charges? Do you understand how those came about?”
“There were traces of cocaine on my maid’s trolley. I have no idea how that’s even possible. I promised Gran long ago that I’d never in my life touch a drug. Now I fear I’ve broken my promise.”
“Dear girl,” Mr. Preston says. “I’m sure she didn’t mean it literally.”
“Let’s go back to the gun,” Charlotte says. “How did the police find it in your vacuum cleaner?”
And here’s where I must confess the pieces that I’ve put together myself since my arrest. “Rodney,” I say, choking on the two syllables, barely able to spit them up and eject them from my mouth.
“I was wondering when his name would pop up,” Mr. Preston says.
“When the police talked to me yesterday, I was afraid. Very afraid. I went straight home and called Rodney.”
“He’s the bartender at the Social,” Mr. Preston adds for Charlotte’s benefit. “Smarmy cretin. Write that down.”
It hurts to hear Mr. Preston say it. “I called Rodney,” I say. “I didn’t know what else to do. He’s been a loyal friend to me, maybe even a little bit more than a friend. I told him about the police questioning me, about Giselle and the gun in my vacuum cleaner, and about the ring I’d found and pawned.”
“Let me guess. Rodney said he’d be all too happy to help a nice girl like you,” says Mr. Preston.
“Something to that effect,” I say. “But Detective Stark said it was Cheryl, my supervisor, who followed me to the pawn shop. Maybe she’s
the culprit in all of this? She’s definitely untrustworthy. The stories I could tell you.”
“My dear Molly,” Mr. Preston says with a sigh. “Rodney used Cheryl to tip off the police. Can you see that? He likely used the gun and the ring in your possession to divert suspicion away from himself and toward you. He may very well be connected to the cocaine found on your cart. And to the murder of Mr. Black.”
I know Gran would be displeased, but my shoulders slump even more. I can barely keep myself upright. “Do you think that perhaps Rodney and Giselle are in cahoots?” I ask.
Mr. Preston nods slowly.
“I see,” I say.
“I’m sorry, Molly. I tried to warn you about Rodney,” he says.
“You did, Mr. Preston. You can add the ‘I told you so.’ I deserve it.”
“You do not deserve it,” he replies. “We all have our blind spots.”
He stands and walks over to Gran’s curio cabinet. He looks at the photo of my mother, then puts it down. He picks up the photo of Gran and me at the Olive Garden. He smiles, then returns to his seat on the sofa.
“Dad, what exactly did you see at the hotel that made you suspicious of illegal activity? Do you think there’s actual drug-running happening at the Regency Grand?”
“No,” I say definitively before he can answer. “The Regency Grand is a clean establishment. Mr. Snow wouldn’t have it any other way. The only other issue is Juan Manuel.”
“Juan Manuel Morales, the dishwasher?” Mr. Preston asks.
“Yes,” I reply. “I certainly wouldn’t tell tales under ordinary circumstances, but these are far from ordinary circumstances.”
“Go on,” Charlotte says.
Mr. Preston leans forward, adjusting himself around the sofa’s pointier springs.
I explain everything. How Juan Manuel’s work permit expired some time ago, how he has nowhere to live, and how Rodney secretly lets him
stay overnight in empty hotel rooms. I explain the overnight bags I drop off, and how I clean up after Juan Manuel and his friends every morning.
“I’ll admit,” I say, “I really don’t know how so much dust can be tracked into a room in just one night.”
Charlotte puts her pen down on her pad and addresses her father. “Wow, Dad. What a fine establishment you work at.”
as they say in France,” I add.
Mr. Preston has his head in his hands and is shaking it back and forth. “I should have known,” he says. “The burn marks on Juan Manuel’s arms, the way he avoided me whenever I asked how he was doing.”
It’s only then that the jigsaw pieces connect in my mind. Rodney’s behemoth friends, the dust, the parcels and overnight bags. The traces of cocaine on my trolley.
“Oh my lord,” I say. “Juan Manuel. He’s being abused and coerced.”
“He’s being forced to cut drugs every night in the hotel,” Mr. Preston says. “And he’s not the only one being used. They’ve been using you, too, Molly.”
I try to swallow the enormous lump that has formed in my throat.
I see it all clearly, all of it. “I haven’t only been working as a maid, have I?” I ask.
“I’m afraid not,” Charlotte replies. “I’m sorry to say it, Molly, but you’ve also been working as a mule.”
Charlotte is on the phone having a quiet conversation with someone from her office. Mr. Preston is using the washroom. I’m pacing the living room. I stop at the window and open it a crack in a futile attempt to get some fresh air. Attached to our exterior wall, an empty bird feeder swings in the breeze. Gran and I used to watch birds from this window. We’d admire them for hours as they gobbled bread crumbs we’d leave out. We gave each little bird a name—Sir Chirpsalot, Lady Wingdamere, and the Earl of Beak. But when Mr. Rosso complained about the noise, we stopped our feeding. The birds flew away and never returned. Oh, to be a bird.
As I stare out the window, I catch little snippets of Charlotte’s conversation—“background check on Rodney Stiles,” “firearms registry for the name Giselle Black,” “inspection records for the Regency Grand Hotel.”
Mr. Preston emerges from the washroom. “No Juan Manuel?” he asks.
“Not yet,” I reply.
About an hour ago, Charlotte and Mr. Preston decided to contact Juan Manuel. I was very unsure about dragging him into my mess.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Charlotte said. “For many reasons.”
“He holds the missing pieces,” Mr. Preston added. “He’s the only one who might be able to shed light on this fiasco—if we can convince him to talk.”
“Won’t he be afraid?” I asked. “I have reason to believe that his family has been threatened. And so has he.” I can’t bear to even mention the other part—the burn marks.
“Yes,” said Charlotte. “Who wouldn’t be scared? But he’ll have a new choice today that he didn’t have before.”
“What choice?” I asked.
“Between us and them,” Mr. Preston replied.
Mr. Preston wasted little time after that. He called someone in the hotel kitchen who called someone else who discreetly checked the staff directory and handed over Juan Manuel’s direct cell number, which all of us hastily stored in our phones.
I waited nervously as Mr. Preston dialed his number. What if he turned out to be yet another disappointment, another person who wasn’t who I thought they were?
“Juan Manuel?” Mr. Preston said. “Yes, that’s right…”
I couldn’t hear Juan Manuel’s responses, but I pictured his puzzled face as he tried to figure out why Mr. Preston was calling.
“I believe you’re in some serious danger,” Mr. Preston explained. He went on to say that his daughter was a lawyer and that he knew Juan Manuel had been coerced at the hotel.
There was a short pause as Juan Manuel spoke.
“I understand,” Mr. Preston said. “We don’t want you hurt, and we don’t want your family hurt either. You should also know that Molly’s in trouble as well…. Yes, that’s right…. She’s been framed for Mr. Black’s murder,” Mr. Preston said.
Another short pause, a bit more back and forth, and then, “Thank you…Yes…Certainly, we can explain everything in detail. And please know, we’d never do anything to…Yes, of course. All decisions will be up to you…. I’ll text you the address. See you soon.”
It’s now been over an hour, and Juan Manuel is still not here. All of this waiting and anticipating is having a most deleterious effect on my
nerves. To calm myself, I think about what a difference it makes having Mr. Preston and Charlotte on my side. Yesterday, I was alone. This apartment felt bleak and hollow. All of its color and vibrancy drained away the day Gran died. But now it’s alive again, revitalized. I look at the feeder outside the window. Perhaps later I will scrounge for crumbs and fill it, no matter what Mr. Rosso says.
I feel overcharged and I can’t stay still, which is why I’m now pacing. If I were here by myself, I’d probably scour the floors or scrub the bathroom tiles, but I’m not by myself, not anymore. It’s altogether new and odd to have company. It’s also a great comfort.
Mr. Preston takes his seat on the sofa.
Charlotte ends her call.
Something is eating away at me, and I decide to voice it. “Don’t you think I should call R-Rodney?” I ask. His name trips me up again, but I spit it out. “Perhaps he can offer an explanation? Maybe he has nothing at all to do with the cocaine found on my trolley. It could have been Cheryl, couldn’t it? Or someone else? What if Rodney’s the one who can actually explain all of this?”
“Absolutely not,” says Charlotte. “I’ve just done a background check on Rodney. Rich family but kicked out at fifteen. Then in a group home. Then petty theft, assault, and various drug charges that never stuck, and a string of different addresses a mile long before landing himself in this city.”
“See, Molly? Calling that cretin is a bad idea,” Mr. Preston says as he smooths out Gran’s crocheted blanket on the sofa. “He’ll only lie.”
“And then he’ll disappear,” Charlotte adds.
“What about Giselle? She must know something that can help me. Or Mr. Snow?”
Before either of them can answer, there’s a knock at my door.
My breath catches in my throat. “What if it’s the police?” The room starts to undulate and I fear I won’t make it to the front door.
Charlotte rises from her seat. “You have a legal representative now. The police would have called me if they wanted to contact you.”
She comes to my side. “It’s okay,” she says, putting a reassuring hand
on my wrist. It works. I immediately feel a little bit calmer and the ripples in the floor solidify.
Mr. Preston appears on my other side. “You can do this, Molly,” he says. “Let’s open the door together.”
I take a deep breath and walk to the entryway. I open the door.
Juan Manuel is standing before me. He’s wearing a pressed polo shirt, tucked into his neat jeans. He’s carrying a white plastic takeout bag in one hand. His eyes are wide and his breath is ragged as though he climbed the stairs two by two.
“Hello, Molly,” he says. “I can’t believe it. I never, ever wanted trouble for you. If I could have—”
He stops midsentence. “Who are you?” he asks, looking past me to Charlotte.
She steps forward. “I’m Charlotte, Molly’s lawyer and Mr. Preston’s daughter. Please don’t be afraid. We have no intention of turning you in. And we know you’re in grave danger.”
“I’m in too deep,” he says. “So deep. I never chose this situation. They made me. They made Molly, too. It’s the same but different.”
“We’re both in trouble, Juan Manuel,” I say. “It is most serious.”
“Yes, I know,” he says.
Mr. Preston speaks up from behind me. “What’s in the bag?”
“Leftovers from the hotel,” Juan Manuel replies. “I had to make it look like I was leaving for an early dinner break. There are afternoon tea sandwiches in there. I know you like them, Mr. Preston.”
“Oh, I do. Thank you,” says Mr. Preston. “I’ll lay them out. We all need to stay fortified.”
Mr. Preston takes the bag and brings it to the kitchen.
Juan Manuel stands at the threshold without moving. Now that he’s not holding the bag, it’s easy to see that his hands are shaking. So are mine.
“Won’t you come in?” I say.
He takes two unsteady steps forward.
“I’m grateful that you’ve come, especially given your current
circumstances. I’m really hoping you’ll talk to me,” I say. “And to them. I need…help.”
“I know, Molly. We’re both in deep.”
“Yes. There are things that happened that I didn’t—”
“That you didn’t understand—until now.”
“Yes,” I say. I glance at his scarred forearms, then turn away.
He steps inside and looks around the apartment. “Wow,” he says. “This place. It reminds me of home.”
He takes his shoes off. “Where can I put my work shoes? Not very clean.”
“Oh, that’s very thoughtful,” I say. I step around him and open the closet. I take out a cloth. I’m about to wipe the bottoms of his shoes when he takes the cloth from me.
“No, no. My shoes. My job.”
I stand there not knowing what to do with myself as he carefully wipes his shoes, puts them in the closet, then folds the cloth neatly and tucks it away before closing the closet door.
“I must warn you that I’m not altogether myself. Everything has been very…shocking. And I don’t normally have visitors, so I’m not used to that either. I’m not very practiced at entertaining.”
“For the love of God, Molly,” Mr. Preston says from the kitchen. “Just relax and accept some help. Juan Manuel, perhaps you can assist me in the kitchen?”
Juan Manuel joins him, and I excuse myself to use the washroom. The truth is, I need a moment to collect myself. I stare into the mirror and breathe deeply. Juan Manuel is here and we’re both in danger. I look like I’m falling apart. There are black circles under my eyes, which are swollen and red. I’m tense and drawn. Like the bathroom tiles that surround me, my cracks are beginning to show. I splash some water on my face, dry it off, and then exit the bathroom, joining my guests in the living room.
Mr. Preston carries in Gran’s serving tray full of dainty cucumber sandwiches—crusts removed—mini-quiches and other delectable
leftovers. I smell the food and my stomach immediately begins to rumble. Mr. Preston puts the tray on the coffee table. Then he brings an additional chair from the kitchen for Juan Manuel. We all take our seats.
I can’t believe it. Here we are in Gran’s sitting room, all four of us. Mr. Preston and I are on the sofa, and in front of me are Charlotte and Juan Manuel. Pleasantries are exchanged, as if this were a friendly tea party, though we all know it is not. Charlotte’s asking about Juan Manuel’s family and how long he’s worked at the Regency Grand. Mr. Preston comments on what a reliable and hard worker he is. Juan Manuel looks down at his lap.
“I work hard, yes,” he says. “Too hard. But still, I have big problems.”
We have tiny plates on our laps filled with little sandwiches, which we are eating, me faster than anyone.
“Eat,” says Charlotte. “Both of you. This isn’t easy. You’ll need to stay strong.”
Juan Manuel leans forward.
“Here,” he says. “Try these.” He places two lovely finger sandwiches on my plate. “I made them.”
I pick up a sandwich and take a bite. It’s an exquisite taste, fluffy cream cheese and smoked salmon, with a burst of dill and lemon zest at the end. I’ve never tasted a sandwich more delicious in my life, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to follow Gran’s chewing imperative. It’s gone before I know it.
“Delightful,” I say. “Thank you.”
We are all silent for a moment, but if others feel uncomfortable I’m not aware. For a brief moment, despite the circumstances, I find myself feeling something I haven’t felt in so long, not since before Gran died. I feel…companionship. I feel…not entirely alone. Then I remember what brought everyone here in the first place, and the anxiety begins to churn again. I put my plate aside.
Charlotte does the same. She picks up the pad and pen by her chair. “Well, we’re all here for the same reason, so we better get started. Juan Manuel, I believe my father filled you in about Molly’s predicament? And I believe you yourself are in a very challenging situation.”
Juan Manuel shifts in his chair. “Yes,” he says. “I am.” His big brown eyes look into mine. “Molly,” he says, “I never wanted to see you involved in this, but when they brought you in, I didn’t know what to do. I hope you believe me.”
I swallow and consider his words. It takes me a moment to spot the difference—between a bold-faced lie and the truth. But then it sharpens and I can see it clearly in his face. What he’s saying is the truth. “Thank you, Juan Manuel. I believe you.”
“Tell her what you told me in the kitchen,” Mr. Preston suggests.
“You know how every night I stayed in a different room at the hotel? How you gave me a different keycard each night?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Mr. Rodney, he wasn’t telling you the whole story. It’s true, I don’t have an apartment anymore. And no work permit now either. When I did, everything was great. I sent money back home. It was needed, because after my dad died, there wasn’t enough. My family was so proud of me—‘You’re a good son,’ my mother said. ‘You work hard for us.’ I was so happy. I was doing things the right way.”
Juan Manuel pauses, swallows, then continues to speak. “But then, when I needed my work permit extended, Mr. Rodney said, ‘No problem.’ He introduced me to his lawyer friend. And that lawyer friend took a lot of my money, but in the end, no permit. I complained to Rodney and he said, ‘My lawyer guy can fix anything. You’ll have a new permit in a few days.’ He told me he’d make sure Mr. Snow didn’t find out. But then he said, ‘You have to help me, too, you know. You scratch my back, I scratch yours.’ I didn’t want to scratch his back. I wanted to go back home, to find another way. But I couldn’t go back home. I had no savings left.”
Juan Manuel goes silent.
“What exactly did Rodney make you do?” Charlotte asks.
“At night, after my shift in the kitchen, I’d sneak into whatever hotel room with the keycard Molly gave me. Molly, she’d leave my bag there for me, right?”
“Yes,” I say. “I did. Every night.”
“That bag, it was never mine. It was Mr. Rodney’s. His drugs were inside. Cocaine. And some other things too. He used to bring more drugs later in the night when no one else was around. And then he’d leave. All night, he made me work—sometimes alone, sometimes with Mr. Rodney’s men—and we’d prepare the cocaine for sale. I didn’t know nothing about these things before, I swear. But I learned. I had to learn. Fast.”