The Pontalba Lounge was on the hotel's main floor, accessible from the lobby through double swing doors ornamented in leather and bronze.
Inside, three carpeted steps led down to an L-shaped area containing tables and booths with comfortable, upholstered seating.
Unlike most cocktail lounges, the Pontalba was brightly lighted. This meant that patrons could observe each other as well as the bar itself, which extended across the junction of the L. In front of the bar were a half-dozen padded stools for unaccompanied drinkers who could, if they chose, pivot their seats around to survey the field.
it was twenty-five minutes before noon when Warren Trent entered from the lobby. The lounge was quiet, with only a youth and a girl in one of the booths and two men with lapel convention badges talking in low voices at a table nearby. The usual press of lunchtime drinkers would begin arriving in another fifteen minutes, after which the opportunity to speak quietly to anyone would be gone. But ten minutes, the hotel proprietor reasoned, should be sufficient for what he had come to do.
Observing him, a waiter hurried forward but was waved away. Tom Earlshore, Warren Trent observed, was behind the bar with his back to the room and intent upon a tabloid newspaper he had spread out on the cash register.
Warren Trent walked stiffly across and occupied one of the bar stools. He could see now that what the elderly bartender was studying was a Racing Form.
He said, "Is that the way you've been using my money?"
Earlshore wheeled, his expression startled. It changed to mild surprise, then apparent pleasure as he realized the identity of his visitor.
"Why, Mr. Trent, you sure give a fellow the jumps." Tom Earlshore deftly folded the Racing Form, stuffing it into a rear pants pocket. Beneath his domed bald head, with its Santa Claus fringe of white hair, the seamed leathery face creased into a smile. Warren Trent wondered why he had never before suspected it was an ingratiating smile.
"It's been a long time since we've seen you in here, Mr. Trent. Too long."
"You're not complaining, are you?"
Earlshore hesitated. "Well, no."
Or I should have thought that being left alone has given you a lot of opportunities."
A fleeting shadow of doubt crossed the head barman's face. He laughed as if to reassure himself. "You always liked your little joke, Mr. Trent. Oh, while you're in there's something I've got to show you. Been meaning to come in to your office, but never got around to it." Earlshore opened a drawer beneath the bar and took out an envelope from which he extracted a colored snapshot. "This is one of Derek - that's my third grandchild. Healthy young tyke - like his mother, thanks to what you did for her a long time ago. Ethel - that's my daughter, you remember - often asks after you; always sends her best wishes, same as the rest of us at home." He put the photograph on the bar.
Warren Trent picked it up and deliberately, without looking down, handed it back.
Tom Earlshore said uncomfortably, "Is anything wrong, Mr. Trent?" When there was no answer: "Can I mix you something?"
About to refuse, he changed his mind. "A Ramos gin fizz.
"Yessir! Coming right up!" Tom Earlshore reached swiftly for the ingredients. It had always been a pleasure to watch him at work.
Sometimes in the past, when Warren Trent entertained guests in his suite, he would have Tom come up to handle drinks, mostly because his bartending was a performance which matched the quality of his potions. He had an organized economy of movement and the swift dexterity of a juggler. He exercised his skin now, placing the drink before the hotel proprietor with a final flourish.
Warren Trent sipped and nodded.
Earlshore asked, "It's all right?"
"Yes," Warren Trent said. "It's as good as any you've ever made." His eyes met Earlshore's. "I'm glad of that because it's the last drink you'll ever mix in my hotel."
The uneasiness had changed to apprehension. Earlshore's tongue touched his lips nervously. "You don't mean that, Mr. Trent. You couldn't mean it."
Ignoring the remark, the hotel proprietor pushed his glass away. "Why did you do it, Tom? Of all people why did it have to be you?"
"I swear to God I don't know .."
"Don't con me, Tom. You've done that long enough."
"I tell you, Mr. Trent ...
"Stop lying!" The snapped command cut sharply through the quietness.
Within the lounge the peaceful hum of conversation stopped. Watching the alarm in the barman's shifting eyes ~ Warren Trent guessed that behind him heads were turning. He was conscious of a rising anger he had intended to control.
Earlshore swallowed. "Please, Mr. Trent. I've worked here thirty years.
You've never talked to me like this." His voice was barely audible.
From the inside jacket pocket where he had placed it earlier, Warren Trent produced the O'Keefe investigators' report. He turned two pages and folded back a third, covering a portion with his hand, He instructed,
Earlshore fumbled with glasses and put them on. His hands were trembling.
He read a few lines then stopped. He looked up. There was no denial now.
Only the instinctive fear of a cornered animal.
"You can't prove anything."
Warren Trent slammed his hand upon the surface of the bar. Uncaring of his own raised voice, he let his rage erupt. "If I choose to, I can. Make no mistake of that. You've cheated and you've stolen, and like all cheats and thieves you've left a trail behind you."
In an agony of apprehension Tom Earlshore sweated. It was as if suddenly, with explosive violence, his world which he had believed secure had split apart. For more years than he could remember he had defrauded his employer - to a point where he had long ago become convinced of his own invulnerability. In his worst forebodings he had never believed this day could come. Now he wondered fearfully if the hotel owner had any idea how large the accumulated loot had been.
Warren Trent's forefinger stabbed the document between them on the bar.
"These people smelled out the corruption because they didn't make the mistake - my mistake - of trusting you, believing you a friend." Momentarily emotion stopped him. He continued, "But if I dug, I'd find evidence.
There's plenty more besides what's here. Isn't there?"
Abjectly Tom Earlshore nodded.
"Well, you needn't worry; I don't intend to prosecute. If I did, I'd feel I was destroying something of myself."
A flicker of relief crossed the elderly barman's face; he tried, as quickly, to conceal it. He pleaded, "I swear if you'll give me another chance it'll never happen again." "You mean that now you've been caught - after years of thievery and deceit - you'll kindly stop stealing."
"It'll be hard for me, Mr. Trent - to get another job at my time. I've a family . . ."
Warren Trent said quietly, "Yes, Tom. I remember that."
Earlshore had the grace to blush. He said awkwardly, "The money I earned here - this job by itself was never enough. There were always bills; things for the children. . ."
"And the bookmakers, Tom. Let's not forget them. The bookmakers were always after you, weren't they? - wanting to be paid." It was a random shot but Earlshore's silence showed it had found a target.
Warren Trent said brusquely, "There's been enough said. Now get out of the hotel and don't ever come here again."
More people were entering the Pontalba Lounge now, coming in through the doorway from the lobby. The hum of conversation had resumed, its volume rising. A young assistant bartender had arrived behind the bar and was dispensing drinks which waiters were collecting. He studiedly avoided looking at his employer and former superior.
Tom Earlshore blinked. Unbelievingly he protested, "The lunchtime trade
. . ."
"It's no concern of yours. You don't work here any more."
Slowly, as the inevitability penetrated, the ex-head barman's expression changed. His earlier mask of deference slipped away. A twisted grin took its place as he declared, "All right, I'll go. But you won't be far behind, Mr. High-and-Mighty Trent, because you're getting thrown out too, and everybody around here knows it."
"Just what do they know?"
Earlshore's eyes gleamed. "They know you're a useless, washed-up old half-wit who couldn't manage the inside of a paper bag, never mind a hotel. It's the reason you'll lose this place for dead damned sure, and when you do I'm one of a good many who'll laugh their guts out." He hesitated, breathing heavily, his mind weighing the consequences of caution and recklessness. The urge to retaliate won out.
"For more years'n I remember, you acted like you owned everybody in this place. Well, maybe you did pay a few more cents in wages than some others, and hand out bits of charity the way you did to me, making like Jesus Christ and Moses rolled in one. But you didn't fool any of us. You paid the wages to keep out the unions, and the charity made you feel great, so people knew it was more for you than for them. That's when they laughed at you, and took care of themselves the way I did. Believe me, there's been plenty going on - stuff you'll never learn about." Earlshore stopped, his face revealing a suspicion he had gone too far.
Behind them the lounge was filling rapidly. Alongside, two of the adjoining bar stools were already occupied. To a growing tempo of sound Warren Trent drummed his fingers thoughtfully upon the leather-topped bar. Strangely, the anger of a few moments ago had left him. In its place was a steely resolution - to hesitate no longer about the second step he had considered earlier.
He raised his eyes to the man who, for thirty years, he believed he had known, but never had. "Tom, you'll not know the why or how, but the last thing you've done for me has been a favor. Now go - before I change my mind about sending you to jail."
Tom Earlshore turned and, looking neither to right nor left, walked out.
Passing through the lobby on his way to the Carondelet Street door, Warren Trent coldly avoided glances from employees who observed him. He was in no mood for pleasantries, having learned this morning that betrayal wore a smile and cordiality could be a sheathing for contempt. The remark that he had been laughed at for his attempts to treat employees well had cut deeply - the more, because it had a ring of truth. Well, he thought; wait a day or two. We'll see who's laughing then.
As he reached the busy, sunlit street outside, a uniformed doorman saw him and stepped forward deferentially. Warren Trent instructed, "Get me a taxi." He had intended to walk a block or two, but a twinge of sciatica, knifing sharply as he came down the hotel steps, made him change his mind.
The doorman blew a whistle and from the press of traffic a cab nosed to the curb. Warren Trent climbed in stiffly, the man holding the door open, then touching his cap respectfully as he slammed it closed. The respect was another empty gesture, Warren Trent supposed. From now on, he knew, he would look suspiciously on a good many things he once accepted at face value.
The cab pulled away, and aware of the driver's scrutiny through the rear-view mirror, he instructed, "Just drive me a few blocks. I want a telephone."
The man said, "Lotsa those in the hotel, boss."
"Never mind that. Take me to a pay phone." He felt disinclined to explain that the call he was about to make was far too secret to risk the use of any hotel line.