Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Photo Credit: Joshua Tabti/Flickr (CC-by)
“I’ve told you a thousand times to clean up, Edward. We’re a hotel, not a train station. The lobby must be spotless. Spotless! Is that clear?”
It was true. Justine had told me many times. Maybe not a thousand but probably not that far off.
“Keep it pristine.”
That’s what we called her. Justine with her perfect hair, perfect nails and perfect uniform. She wasn’t even the manager, although none of us doubted that it’s where she saw herself.
We just saw her as a pain in the ass. I was responsible for the lobby and reception, Sophie had the first floor, Elaine the second, and Roger was maintenance. Justine was on his case even more than ours.
“Quick, quick, Roger! I haven’t got all day!”
The girls got hassled too.
“How complicated can it be?” she’d say, wiping a critical finger along a window ledge or shelf.
“God, why doesn’t she get promoted or get a new job,” Elaine whined one lunchtime.
“There’s no use complaining about it. She’s been here for fifteen years. I’ve told you before, I doubt she’ll leave now.”
That was Sophie. She’d been here as long as Justine and probably knew the hotel even better than she did.
Roger smoked in silence.
“Nothing to add, Roger?” I asked.
“I wish she’d die,” he muttered.
“I say, that’s a bit harsh,” Sophie said.
Roger shrugged and lit another cigarette.
None of us knew much about Roger. A man of few words and many cigarettes.
And me. I was one of us too. Only here for the summer, but that didn’t make any difference to Justine, who was particularly obsessed with the lobby entrance.
“It’s the window of the hotel,” she said, squinting at the floor, bending down slightly to see everything in a different light. “You know, the eyes are the windows to the soul, and the lobby is the window to the hotel’s soul.”
I liked how she tried to make being a maniac about cleanliness poetic.
All of this would make some sense if we were talking about a classy hotel somewhere, but we weren’t. The only reason we had any business at all wasn’t because of our spotless lobby, but the fact that we were the only hotel around. All the tired tourists who’d spent the last five hours in the car with the air con cranked up knew if they didn’t stop here they’d have to drive another couple of hours before coming across another place to stay.
Did the fact the hotel was clean help? Sure it did. But if the lobby really was the window to the hotel’s soul, most people would keep on driving.
This particular day the hotel wasn’t very busy. The weather wasn’t too hot, driving conditions were good and people just kept on, trying to get home rather than stop yet again. Sophie was the first to notice it.
“Have you seen Justine, Ed?”
“Nope.” I glanced at my watch. “Maybe she’s ill?” I flashed Sophie my crossed fingers and she laughed.
“It’s odd. She’s never late.”
“What? You think she’s been kidnapped or something? Too much CSI, Sophie.”
She smiled but still looked worried.
“Look, maybe she had car trouble. Or she’s ill. She’s only half an hour late. There’s a multitude of reasons to be late.”
She nodded and walked over to the elevator.
“Can you text me when she arrives? You better clean that up before she arrives too.” She pointed at the lobby floor.
Some bastard had traipsed mud straight across the lobby sometime during the night and Justine would kill me if it was still there when she arrived.
I took out the vacuum cleaner and started passing it backwards and forwards. This was a mistake as the mud wasn’t quite dry yet and just smeared and stuck to the vacuum cleaner. Dark reddish smears ran across the lobby.
“Dammit.” Now I’d need to clean the cleaner too.
I put the vacuum cleaner to one side and fetched a mop and bucket.
A few swishes of the mop later and most of the mud was gone. I squinted at the floor, and bent down slightly, trying to see it through Justine’s eyes. I didn’t especially care about doing a good job, but I did like an easy life and cleanliness meant no Justine on my back.
There was still some streaks of mud across the hall.
I went out back to the cleaning cupboard and had a look at the products we had.
*Industrial floor cleaner.*
That could be the bottle for me. I had a look at the label.
Removes all stains from wooden and tiled floors. Mud, oil, even blood!
Well, if that didn’t work, nothing would!
I went back into the lobby and started cleaning. Thank God there was still no sign of Justine. I scrubbed and scrubbed and then passed over the wood with the floor polisher.
I looked at the floor again. Squinted. Bent down.
“Damn, now that’s what I call pristine.”
I turned around.
It was Roger. He was smoking as usual. He went to tap the ash on my floor.
“Come on, man. Gimme a break.” I pushed the bucket of dirty water over to him and he tapped the ash inside.
“Don’t let Justine see you smoking here. You know it drives her crazy.”
“Yeah, well, the feeling’s mutual.” He glanced around. “She not here yet?”
“Nope. Sophie’s worried.”
“Sophie’s always worried.” He dropped the cigarette butt in the bucket. “Let me know if she turns up.”
He wandered off, leaving dusty footprints behind him.
I passed quickly behind him with the floor polisher.
The rest of the day passed by and still no Justine. Sophie called the manager and told him Justine hadn’t come into work.
“I’m just worried. It’s not like her. In all the time we’ve worked together she’s not been late. Not once!”
He tried calling her at home but there was no answer. He finally called the police and they went to her house. Still no Justine. That’s when they came to the hotel and started asking questions.
There were two officers. I got a young guy who looked about the same age as me. My mother always said that you knew you were getting old when the policemen started looking young. Jeez, I was only 22 and I was already thinking that.
“Have a seat, Edward. Can I call you Edward?” he said.
“So, when did you last see Justine?” His pen hovered above his notepad.
“Last night. When my shift ended.”
“And what time was that?”
“Around nine p.m., I guess.”
“You’re not sure?”
“Well, my shift ends at nine p.m., but then usually I leave a little later than that. You know, the time to put everything away.”
“Sure. And you didn’t see Justine leave?”
“No, but then I never do. She always leaves after me.”
“Okay. Is she popular here?” He glanced up at me.
“You’ve already spoken to the others, no?”
“She’s not the most popular. She’s a ball-breaker.”
I laughed. “That’s her. That’s why the lobby’s so clean. Windows to the soul of the hotel.”
“She says that?”
“All the time.”
He asked me some more questions about her routine, my routine, my colleagues.
“Do you really think something’s happened to her?” I asked.
I shrugged. “I really don’t know. It just seems a bit crazy.”
“All these things seem crazy until they happen. Then they don’t seem quite so crazy.” He stood up. “Thanks for your time. This is the number where we can reach you?”
I got up and left the office and went back into the lobby. There was a guest waiting at reception. Seeing as no one was there, I checked them in and got their keys sorted out.
“Don’t you have someone to help with my bag?” the woman asked.
I looked around for Roger, but he was still in with the police.
“Sure. I’ll help you myself.” I smiled a big cheesy grin. All my grins were cheesy—it was why Justine didn’t want me working directly with the guests.
“Try sincerity, Edward!”
“This is it.”
“Well, just stop smiling then.” She’d turned on her heel and walked away.
I put my cheesy grin away and took the woman’s bags. God only knows what she had in there but they weighed a ton. I almost joked that she had a dead body in there, but seeing the circumstances I thought it better to say nothing.
I took her up to the second floor. Elaine was up there.
“Room 215?” I asked.
She led us down there and opened up the door.
“Ma’am,” she said, holding the door open.
I put her suitcase down with a thud. Elaine looked at me and I shrugged.
“Thank you. That’ll be all,” said the woman. Not even a tip.
Elaine closed the door behind us.
“Bit of a pain, huh?” she asked. “Who does that remind you of?”
“Have the police spoken to you yet?” I asked.
Elaine nodded. “Same as you. I didn’t see her after my shift ended.”
“It’s weird though, isn’t it? What do you think happened?”
“God knows. Maybe she was having a torrid affair that none of us knew about.”
“Edward, I don’t know! But, come on. Outside of here we know next to nothing about each other. Do you know where I live, or if I’m married? Have I got kids?”
“Don’t worry. I know nothing about you either except that you’re a student. And that’s fine. All I’m saying is that we could all have secrets or a dark side and we probably wouldn’t know.”
“Until something like this happens.”
We both stood in silence for a moment.
“So what’s your secret, Elaine?” I asked.
“Well now, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret.” She pressed the elevator button for me. The doors slid open. “Back to the lobby with you, Edward.”
And so Elaine had a mysterious side. Who would have guessed? Certainly not me.
When I got back to the lobby, Roger was just leaving the office. He nodded at me as he passed.
The police officers were talking to each other and looking at Roger.
“Do we have any news?” I asked. “I’m not trying to inject myself into an investigation, you know. I know you guys watch out for that. I’d just like Justine to turn up.”
“Well, you’ll know when we do,” one of them said.
And that’s what happened.
Three hours later Justine’s car turned up but still no Justine. The police came back and started talking about a timeline and alibis. All of us were suspects as we were all at work when she went missing, and we weren’t together. It was hard to find out exactly where she had been as she regularly went all over the hotel.
I saw Sophie in the corridor.
“They think it’s one of us!” she whispered, spitting out the words.
“Maybe it is.”
“Edward! How can you even say that?”
“Come on. We were all the last people to see her. And none of us were her greatest fan.”
“Well, I didn’t do it,” she said, looking around her as if someone might be listening.
“I don’t think they’ve bugged the place yet, Sophie.”
She glared at me and walked away.
The police were hovering around the lobby, bending and squinting at the floor.
“Can I help?” I asked.
“This floor is spotless,” one of them said.
“Yes, sir. Justine’s very particular about that. She says it’s the window to the hotel.”
“Does she now?” He kept looking at the floor.
“Did you clean it when you arrived this morning?”
“Of course. It’s always the first thing I do. Plus someone had left mud all over the floor.”
He stood up, and gave a quick glance at his partner.
“Yes. I had footprints right across the lobby. A real pain in the ass to get out.”
“I’ll bet,” he muttered.
The day continued quietly until the afternoon when Sophie came rushing in.
“Have you heard? They’re questioning Roger and Elaine. Again!”
“Maybe they just had some other questions.”
“No, no. It looked like they wanted to arrest them. Maybe they just don’t have enough evidence for the time being.”
“Like I said before, Sophie—too much CSI.”
At the same time, it did look like the police knew something. There was an urgency to them that hadn’t been there before.
I glanced over at the office and could just see Elaine shaking her head.
“We could all have secrets.”
Wasn’t that what she’d said to me? So what was her secret? Maybe she bumped off Justine. I certainly wouldn’t blame her, although it seemed a bit of an extreme reaction. At the same time, I knew I could get out of here at the end of the summer. Elaine didn’t.
And what about Roger? He was kind of suspicious, but then we all could be.
I sighed. This is why I wasn’t a police officer and they were.
“Not my job, man,” I said to myself.
The police kept them in there for a couple of hours. I sat at the lobby, checking in a few people, watching them as they scuffed my floor, cursing each one of them.
Once everyone had gone I took out the floor polisher again.
It chummed across the floor, making my arms judder.
I was engrossed in the cleaning when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Edward?” It was one of the policemen. “Can you come with us for a moment?”
“Sure. Can I just finish up here?”
“No, leave it.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be of a concern to her. You know we found her car.”
“There was an awful lot of blood inside. It’s Justine’s.”
“Just leave the machine.”
I followed the officers, Sophie peering out the office door at me.
“She’s going to say I did it now,” I said.
“No one said she was dead.” They were both looking at me.
“What? You just basically said it. Two minutes ago!” I started feeling a little scared. I didn’t want to be a patsy.
“Have a seat, Edward. We need to talk to you about the lobby. The mud this morning.”
“You’re sure it was just mud?”
“What else would it be?”
“Could it have been something else?”
“What? Like dog crap?”
He gave a slight smile.
“We’re thinking more along the lines of blood.”
I thought back to the smears.
“We have a theory that Roger and Elaine killed Justine. We found her body in the garden behind the hotel. She’d been hit with an axe and then buried. We found her blood in one of the rooms and some blood on the fire escape stairs. There would have been mud on their shoes. But blood as well. The footprints would tie at least one of them to the crime scene. Otherwise we don’t have much.”
“I guess it could have been blood as well. It didn’t cross my mind. It was just hard to get rid of.”
“Can you show us what you used to clean up?”
“Sure.” We left the office and went to the store room. I showed them the bottle.
“Shit,” one of them said. “That’ll have destroyed everything.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You didn’t know, Edward.”
The police gathered their things and left. I guess to try and find a plan B.
We all watched them go.
“The one time you manage to clean the lobby well. Nice job.” She walked away.
“Yeah, nice job, Ed,” Roger said, winking at me.
Elaine took Roger’s hand and smiled at him.
English writer and English trainer living in Lyon, France. Likes cats, cinema, reading and running. Has been previously published in TCLJ and has a story called “The Barber” in an anthology. Email: tkenway[at]gmail.com