Page 42 of Hotel


He was silent, not knowing what to say.


"It taught me some things. So did something else. You saw Anna tonight?"

"Yes.

"When she was seventeen she was forced to marry a man she'd met just once before. It was a kind of family contract, in those days they did that kind of thing."

Watching Marsha's face, he said, "Go on."

"The day before the wedding, Anna wept all night. But she was married just the same, and stayed married for forty-six years. Her husband died last year, they lived with us here. He was the kindest, sweetest man I've ever known. If ever there was a perfect marriage it belonged to them."

He hesitated, not wishing to score a debater's point, but objected, "Anna didn't follow her instinct. If she had, she'd not have married."

"I know. I'm simply saying there isn't any guaranteed way, and instinct can be as good a guide as any." There was a pause, then Marsha said, "I know I could make you love me, in time."

Absurdly, unexpectedly, he felt a sense of excitement. The idea was preposterous, of course; a romantic product of a girlish imagery. He, who had suffered from his own romantic notions in the past, was qualified to know. Yet was he? Was every situation an aftermath of what had gone before?

Was Marsha's proposal so fantastic really? He had a sudden, irrational conviction that what she said might well be true.

He wondered what the reaction of the absent Mark Preyscott would be.

"If you're thinking about my father"

Startled, he said, "How did you know?"

"Because I'm beginning to know you."

He breathed deeply, with a sense of inhaling rarefied air. "What about your father?"

"I expect he'd be worried to begin with, and he'd probably fly home in a hurry. I wouldn't mind that." Marsha smiled. "But he always listens to reason and I know I could convince him. Besides, he'd like you. I know the kind of people he admires most, and you're one."

"Well," he said, not knowing whether to be amused or serious, "at least that's a relief."

"There's something else. It isn't important to me, but it would be to him. You see, I know - and my father would too - that someday you'll be a big success with hotels, and maybe own your own. Not that I care about that.

It's you I want." She finished breathlessly.

"Marsha," Peter said gently, "I don't ... I simply don't know what to say."

There was a pause in which he could sense Marsha's confidence leave her.

It was as if, earlier, she had bolstered her self-assurance with a reserve of will, but now the reserve was gone and boldness with it. In a small, uncertain voice she said, "You think I've been silly. You'd better say so and get it over."

He assured her, "I don't believe you've been silly. If more people, including me, were honest like you.

"You mean you don't mind?"

"Far from minding, I'm moved and overwhelmed."

"Then don't say any more!" Marsha leaped to her feet, her hands held out toward him. He took them and stood facing her, their fingers interlaced.

She had a way, he realized, of bounding back after uncertainty, even if her doubts were only partially resolved. She urged him, "Just go away and think! Think, think, think! Especially about me.

He said - and meant it - "It will be difficult not to."

She put up her face to be kissed and he leaned toward her. He intended to brush her cheek, but she put up her lips to his and, as they touched, her arms wound tight around him. Dimly in his mind an alarm bell jangled. Her body pressed against him; the sense of contact was electric. Her slim fragrance was immediate and breathtaking. Her perfume filled his nostrils. It was impossible, at the moment, to think of Marsha as anything but a woman. He felt his body awaken excitedly, his senses swim. The alarm bell was silenced. He could remember only: Little Miss Preyscott ... would be fun ... for a man to be eaten up.

Resolutely, he forced himself away. Taking Marsha's hands gently, he told her, "I must go."

She came with him to the terrace. His hand caressed her hair. She whispered, "Peter, darling."

He went down the terrace steps, scarcely knowing they were there.

14

At 10:30 p.m., Ogilvie, the chief house officer, used a staff sub-basement tunnel to walk lumberingly from the main portion of the St. Gregory to the adjoining hotel garage.

He chose the tunnel instead of the more convenient main floor walkway for the same reason he had carefully picked the time - to be as inconspicuous as possible. At 10:30, guests taking their cars out for the evening had already done so, but it was too early yet for many to be returning. Nor, at that hour, were there likely to be new arrivals at the hotel, at least by road.

Ogilvie's original plan to drive the Duke and Duchess of Croydon's Jaguar north at one a.m. - now less than three hours away - had not changed. Before departure, however, the fat man had work to do and it was important that he be unobserved.

The materials for the work were in a paper bag he carried in his hand.

They represented an omission in the Duchess of Croydon's elaborate scheming. Ogilvie had been aware of the omission from the beginning, but preferred to keep his own counsel.

In the double fatality of Monday night, one of the Jaguar's headlights had been shattered. Additionally, because of the loss of the trim ring, now in possession of the police, the headlight mounting had been loosened. To drive the car in darkness as planned, the headlight would have to be replaced and its mounting repaired temporarily. Yet obviously it was too dangerous to take the car to a service garage in the city and equally out of the question to have the work done by the hotel's own mechanic.

Yesterday, also choosing a time when the garage was quiet, Ogilvie had inspected the car in its out-of-the-way stall behind a pillar. He had decided that if he could obtain the right type of headlight, he could effect a temporary repair himself.

He weighed the risk of buying a replacement headlight from New Orleans' solitary Jaguar dealer, and rejected the idea. Even though the police were not yet aware - so far as Ogilvie knew - of the make of the car they were seeking, they would know in a day or two when the shattered glass fragments were identified. If he bought a Jaguar headlight now, it might easily be remembered when inquiries were made, and the purchase traced. He had compromised by buying a standard, double-filament North American sealed-beam lamp at a self-serve auto parts store. His visual inspection had shown this might be usable. Now he was ready to try it.

Getting the lamp had been one more item in a tightly crammed day, which had left the chief house officer feeling both satisfaction and an edgy unease. He was also physically tired, a poor beginning to the long drive north which faced him. He consoled himself with remembering the twenty-five thousand dollars, ten thousand of which, as arranged, he had received this afternoon from the Duchess of Croydon. It had been a tense, cold scene, the Duchess tight-lipped and formal, Ogilvie, not caring, greedily stuffed the piled bills into a brief case. Beside them the Duke swayed drunkenly, blear-eyed, and scarcely aware of what was happening.

The thought of the money gave the fat man a pleasant glow. It was safely hidden now, with only two hundred dollars on his person - a precaution in case anything went wrong during the journey to come.

His contrasting unease had two causes. One was awareness of the consequences to himself if he failed to get the Jaguar clear of New Orleans and later Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The second was Peter McDermott's emphasis on the need for Ogilvie to remain close to the hotel.

The robbery last night, and the likelihood that a professional thief was at work in the St. Gregory, could not have occurred at a worse time.

Ogilvie had done as much as he could. He had advised the city police, and detectives had interviewed the robbed guest. Hotel staff, including the other house officers, had been alerted and Ogilvie's second-in-command had received instructions about what to do in various contingencies.

Nonetheless, Ogilvie was well aware that he should be on hand to direct operations personally. When his absence came to McDermott's attention, as it would tomorrow, there was bound to be a firstclass row. In the long run the row would not matter because McDermott and others like him would come and go while Ogilvie, for reasons known only to himself and Warren Trent, would still retain his job. But it would have the effect - which the chief house officer wanted to avoid above all else - of drawing attention to his movements in the next few days.

Only in one way had the robbery and its aftermath been useful. It provided a valid reason for a further visit to police headquarters where he inquired casually about progress of the hit-and-run investigation.

Police attention, he learned, was still concentrated on the case, with the entire force alert for any break. In this afternoon's "States Item" the police had issued a new appeal for the public to report any car with fender or headlight damage. It had been as well to have the information, but it also made the chances less of getting the Jaguar out of town without detection. Ogilvie sweated a little when he thought of it.

He had reached the end of the tunnel and was in the garage sub-basement.

The austerely lighted garage was quiet. Ogilvie hesitated, torn between going directly to the Croydons' car several floors above or to the garage office where the night checker was on duty. He decided it would be prudent to visit the office first.

Laboriously, breathing heavily, he climbed two flights of metal stairs. The checker, an elderly officious man named Kulgmer, was alone in his brightly lighted cubicle near the street entry - exit ramp. He put down an evening paper as the chief house officer came in.

"Wanted to let you know," Ogilvie said. "I'll be taking the Duke of Croydon's car out soon. It's stall 371. I'm doin' a favor for him."

Kulgmer frowned. "Don't know as I can let you do that, Mr. O. Not without proper authority."

Ogilvie produced the Duchess of Croydon's note, written this morning at his request. "I guess this is all the authority you'll need."

The night checker read the wording carefully, then turned the paper over.

"It seems all right."

The chief house officer put out a pudgy hand to take the note back.

Kulgmer shook his head. "I'll have to keep this. To cover me."

The fat man shrugged. He would have preferred to have the note, but to insist would raise an issue, emphasizing the incident, which otherwise might be forgotten. He motioned to the paper bag. "Just goin' up to leave this. I'll be takin' the car out, couple of hours from now."

"Suit yourself, Mr. O." The checker nodded, returning to his paper.

A few minutes later, approaching stall 371, Ogilvie glanced with apparent casualness around him. The lowceilinged, concrete parking area, about fifty per cent occupied by cars, was otherwise silent and deserted. The night-duty car jockeys were undoubtedly in their locker room on the main floor, taking advantage of the lull to nap or play cards. But it was necessary to work fast.

In the far corner, sheltered by the Jaguar and its partially screening pillar, Ogilvie emptied the paper bag of the headlight, a screwdriver, pliers, insulated wire, and black electrician's tape.

His fingers, for all their seeming awkwardness, moved with surprising dexterity. Using gloves to protect his hands, he removed the remnants of the shattered headlight. It took only a moment to discover that the replacement headlight would fit the Jaguar, but the electrical connections would not. He had anticipated this. Working swiftly, using the pliers, wire, and tape, he fashioned a rough but effective connection. With additional wire he secured the light in place, stuffing cardboard from his pockets into the gap left by the missing trim ring. He covered this with black tape, passing the tape through and securing it behind. It was a patch job which would be easily detectable in light, but adequate in darkness. It had taken almost fifteen minutes.

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