Bryan W. Conway
The phone rang and I frowned. I was exhausted. It was New Year’s Day 1993. Actually, it was New Year’s Morning, since it was 2:45 a.m. I knew the time because it displayed on the wall-mounted black digital phone along with the room number, 614.
This filled me with excitement, despite my drowsiness. It was a tentative excitement. It was the excitement of knowing I was about to make another good tip, mingled with the dread of having to enter that room again.
I was working a double on room service, and I had experienced a broad spectrum of customer types throughout my shifts. The polite older couple who over-tipped me for delivering champagne was amazing. The wasted college-aged zombies who ordered chicken fingers and tater tots who fired tots at me as I exited their room were not so amazing.
The people in 614 were the most memorable that night. Well, aside from the two women who ordered a pitcher of sangria at the Jacuzzi on the 10th floor and made out for a moment before the brunette signed for the order, drops of chlorinated water blurring the blue ink of her signature.
I did some serious soul-searching afterward. Was that brazen kiss an invitation? Should I have slipped back upstairs with another round of drinks on my own dime?
But it got busy and several hours passed before they crossed my mind again. By that time they were probably back in their room, grinding in the New Year together. Meanwhile, my midnight celebration was downing one of the whiskey shots that the bartender snuck to the kitchen staff behind the dumpster out back.
Intriguing customers like the hot tub girls were rare during my brief career at the Summit Regency Riverside hotel in Flint, Michigan. Flint was a dead-end Rust Belt city and generally not the backdrop for exciting social encounters. Most visitors were drab middle-aged businessmen working in the auto industry.
The fifteen-story glassy hotel stood out prominently along the gloomy Flint skyline as the tallest building. It was on Saginaw Street, across from the city college where I was taking classes.
Peter Smith was the name associated with room 614. He checked in on December 31st, with a checkout time of 11 a.m. on the 1st.
Mr. Smith had signed for four room service orders. Dinner at 615 p.m., vodka drinks at 9:45 p.m., two bottles of champagne at 11:40 p.m., and calamari with more drinks at 1:40 a.m. Now the phone was ringing with order number five.
“Good morning, you’ve reached room service at the Summit Regency. This is John speaking, how may I help you?”
My voice sounded gravelly from exhaustion. In addition to running room service orders, I had been waiting tables, bussing, running out food orders, and washing dishes.
“Four eggs Benedict. Bacon. Sausage. Pitcher of coffee. Pitcher of orange juice. Bottle of champagne, same kind. Room charge, thirty percent tip. Deliver at 9:45. Open the door. Leave the cart. Remove empty trays.”
Click. His voice was deep and thickly accented. He sounded Russian. His words were slurred from partying.
Mr. Smith didn’t look like a Mr. Smith. He had an Eastern European appearance to him. Tall, big-shouldered, receding black hair, pale skin, a crooked nose that looked oft broken, asymmetrical yellowing smoker’s teeth. Thirty-something, with a hint of crow’s feet and a paunch.
He wore an ill-fitting gray sports coat, a white turtleneck shirt, black pants, and black Oxford shoes. No belt. A thick gold chain with a cross hanging at his sternum. His outfit struck me as an attempt at cleaning up for a New Year’s Eve celebration. His normal getup was probably a sweatsuit and sneakers.
The dinner order last night was two fish and chips platters and two grilled salmon dinners. A whole key lime pie for dessert. Pitchers of cranberry juice, Coke, and ginger ale. He left a generous tip.
A young Asian woman answered the door. She was hot, wearing a tight blue dress and too much makeup. I figured she was a prostitute. Why else would a gorgeous woman dress like that just to spend New Year’s Eve in a hotel room with a shady guy? She was way out of his league.
Mr. Smith received the champagne at the door at 9:45 and allowed me to take a few steps in. His room featured two queen size beds. Most of the room was blocked from my view by the bathroom’s exterior wall. I could see the bottom edges of the beds; two sets of women’s bare legs were on the nearest bed, a man’s legs covered in gray slacks on the other. The television was blaring a sporting event, maybe soccer.
When I returned at 1:40 a.m. with more drinks, I heard trance music pumping outside of their room. Mr. Smith flung the door open, a crooked smile on his sweaty face. The air was thick with smoke.
The blue dress woman was dancing provocatively with her back turned to me, gazing at her reflection in the window. Another Asian woman in a black dress staggered as she struggled to pull a champagne bottle from an ice bucket. The guy in the gray slacks must have been in the bathroom.
A dish on the nightstand between the beds was cluttered with cigarette butts, a pipe, and a small pile of tannish-white powder. Behind the plate was a handgun. I pretended not to notice it. Drugs and firearms were not permitted in the hotel, but I didn't work for the hotel, I worked for the restaurant.
I returned to the room service station. The morning dragged, as there were no orders after Mr. Smith’s. I stole a short nap in the supply closet, curled up on a stack of paper towel packs.
I placed Mr. Smith’s order with the kitchen at 9:10 a.m. and began setting up the cart. I retrieved another cart; I would push two up, leave the one with their order, and use the other to remove the dirty dishes.
Thirty minutes later I picked up their order from the kitchen, putting stainless steel covers over the plates. I arranged the plates, pitchers, glasses, and silverware on the tray.
This was my final run of the shift. I was technically off at 9:30 a.m., but I would have been crazy not to take this last order up. It was easy money.
I awkwardly pushed the carts through the back door of the kitchen and into the hallway that led to the service elevator. I wheeled them in and pushed the 6th-floor button. It slowly lurched up, making an out-of-tune ding as it passed each floor.
Room 614 was two doors down from the elevator. As instructed, I let myself into the room with my key card without knocking.
I pushed the door open a little and paused. The room was dark and silent.
Opening the door wider, I used the cart to hold it ajar. The pungent smell of smoke hit me. Smoke and something else, like rotting food mingled with body odor. I fought the urge to pull the top of my shirt up over my nose.
The light from the hallway barely illuminated the room. I squinted and saw nothing. I pushed the cart in another foot. I saw a tray with dirty plates on the floor. I brought it into the hallway and placed it on the empty cart.
Returning inside, my eyes adjusted slightly and I saw a bare female leg dangling off the edge of the nearest bed. There was a dark smear on her pale outer thigh that had several thin trails leading down to her ankle. Beneath her foot was a dark stain forming on the tan-colored carpeting. Blood? My heart started racing.
“Mr. Smith?” I whispered hoarsely. The room was dead quiet.
I pushed the cart forward another foot forward, the door released, and I hustled out. I wheeled the cart as fast as I could back to the elevator.
Were the people in 614 dead? That had to be blood, but it was so difficult to see.
The elevators’ descent was impossibly slow. I began removing the covers from the dishes.
The first plate was empty. The second plate had a Moleskine notebook lying on top of the food scraps. It was made of black leather, expensive-looking, with a dull shine to it. Maybe 4 x 6 inches, a hundred pages thick. It had a piece of black elastic wrapped around it that kept it closed.
The third plate just had food scraps. I lifted the final cover and several rubber-banded stacks of money came tumbling out. A few fell onto the floor. I quickly picked them up and put them back on the plate, replacing the cover. The elevator chimed a higher note as it arrived at the restaurant level.
I pushed the cart into the hallway. Grabbing the notebook and the money plate, I fast-walked back to the room service area, my heart pounding. Entering the storage closet, I pulled the door closed and turned on the light.
I put the plate on a shelf and lifted the cover. I picked up a wad of cash and thumbed through the bills. All were Benjamins. Ten stacks of twenty bills. Twenty thousand dollars. My hands were shaking as I returned the cash to the plate.
I picked up the notebook, undoing the elastic. A thin piece of black fabric within served as a bookmark.
The bookmarked page had a handwritten address: 1970 Corunna Road. Beneath that: Alexander R. I recognized the handwriting as Mr. Smith’s.
I located a box of plastic to-go bags. I double-bagged and dumped the stacks of money in, along with the notebook. I pulled the handles together and tied them into a knot.
Were the people in 614 murdered? That was a reasonable question from one who was hiding in a closet with a notebook and money that was removed from the room. I should have reported it, but it was so much money. I was barely scraping by, and if they were dead, they wouldn't miss it.
But who killed them? Was the killer looking for this money? Where was he currently at?
I placed the bag on the cart, wheeled it to the dishwashing station, and unloaded it. I fast-walked to the employee lounge and put on my coat.
“John!” a voice boomed from behind me as I reached the kitchen exit. I jumped, spinning around. It was my manager, carrying a full to-go bag. He glanced down at my to-go bag for a moment.
Did you find anything unusual in room 614, John? Perhaps some dead bodies and cash?
“Hey, Bill,” I said nervously, reflexively maneuvering the bag behind me before I could stop myself.
He was a heavy man, balding, his blue dress shirt partially untucked, his red tie lopsided. Large sweat stains darkened his armpits.
“Listen, I know you've been working your ass off and want to get home. This is a little unorthodox, but can you run an order offsite for me?”
“Okay,” I said, although delivering an order was the last thing on Earth I wanted to do. I took the bag with my left hand, my non-money-bag hand.
“The address is on the receipt. Did you order something to-go?” he asked, pointing at my bag.
“No, I…just taking home a few belongings.”
“Next time use your own bag, those are not for personal use.”
I nodded, spun around, and fast-walked out to my blue Pontiac. After placing the bag on the passenger seat, I leaned over and read the receipt.
Order: 3 strawberry pies. 1970 Corunna Road.
My breath hitched for a moment. Pulling the notebook out of the bag, I looked at the address on the bookmarked page and gritted my teeth.
Realizing I was holding my breath, I exhaled slowly. Then I started the car and pulled out of the parking lot.