"Max," Christine said, "your evening dinner prices are outrageous."
"I don't set them, Miss Francis. Sometimes I wish I did."
"You haven't been crowded lately?"
"Some nights," the head waiter replied, "I feel like I'm Livingstone waiting for Stanley. I'll tell you, Miss Francis, people are getting smarter. They know that hotels like this have one central kitchen, and whichever of our restaurants they eat in, they'll get the same kind of food, cooked the same way by the same chefs. So why not sit where prices are lower, even if the service isn't as fancy?"
"I've a friend," Christine said, "who likes dining-room service - an elderly gentleman named Mr. Wells. We'll be in for dinner tonight. I want you to make sure that his bin is light, though not so small that he'll notice. The difference you can put on my account."
The head waiter chuckled. "Say! You are the kind of girl I'd like to know myself."
She retorted, "With you I wouldn't do it, Max. Everybody knows you're one of the two wealthiest people in the hotel."
"Who's supposed to be the other?"
"Isn't it Herbie Chandler?"
"You do me no favor in linking my name with that one." "But you'll take care of Mr. Wells?"
"Miss Francis, when we present his bill he'll think he ate in the automat."
She hung up, laughing, aware that Max would handle the situation with tact and good sense.
With incredulous, seething anger, Peter McDermott read Ogilvie's memo, slowly, for the second time.
The memo had been waiting on his desk when he returned from the brief meeting with Warren Trent.
Dated and time-stamped last night, it had presumably been left in Ogilvie's office for collection with this morning's interoffice mail.
Equally clear was that both the timing and method of delivery were planned so that when he received the memo it would be impossible to take any action - at least for the time being - concerning its contents.
Mr. P. McDermott
The undersigned begs to report I am taking four days leave commencing immediately. From the seven that is due, for personal urgent reasons.
W. Finegan, dep. chief house officer, is advised concerning robbery, steps taken, etc. etc. Also can act with all other matters.
Undersigned will return to duty Monday next.
T. L. Ogilvie
Chief House Officer.
Peter remembered indignantly that it was less than twenty-four hours since Ogilvie conceded that a professional hotel thief was most likely operating within the St. Gregory. At the time, Peter had urged the house officer to move into the hotel for a few days, a suggestion the fat man had rejected. Even then, Ogilvie must have known of his intention to leave within a few hours, but had kept silent. Why? Obviously, because he realized Peter would object strongly, and he had no stomach for argument and perhaps delay.
The memo said "personal urgent reasons." Well, Peter theorized, that much was probably true. Even Ogilvie, despite his vaunted intimacy with Warren Trent, would realize that his absence at this time, without warning, would precipitate a major showdown on return.
But what kind of personal reason was involved? Clearly nothing straightforward, to be brought out in the open and discussed. Or it would not have been handled this way. Hotel business notwithstanding, a genuine personal crisis of an employee would be dealt with sympathetically. It always was.
So it had to be something else which Ogilvie could not disclose.
Even that, Peter thought, was no concern of his except to the extent that it obstructed efficient running of the hotel. Since it did, however, he was entitled to be curious. He decided he would make an effort to learn where the chief house officer had gone and why.
He buzzed for Flora, holding up the memo as she came in.
She made a doleful face. "I read it. I thought you'd be annoyed."
"If you can," Peter said, "I want you to find out where he is. Try his home telephone, then any other places we happen to know about. Find out if anyone's seen him today or if he's expected. Leave messages. If you locate Ogilvie, I'll talk to him myself."
Flora wrote on her note pad.
"Another thing - call the garage. I happened to be walking by the hotel last night. Our Mend drove out around one o'clock - in a Jaguar. It's possible he told someone where he was going."
When Flora left, he sent for the deputy chief house officer, Finegan, a gaunt, slow-speaking New Englander who deliberated before answering Peter's impatient questions.
No, he had no idea where Mr. Ogilvie had gone. It was only late yesterday that Finegan was informed by his superior that he would be in charge for the next few days. Yes, last night there had been continuous patrols through the hotel, but no suspicious activity was observed. Nor was there any report this morning of illicit entry into rooms. No, there had been no further word from the New Orleans police department. Yes, Finegan would personally follow up with the police as Mr. McDermott suggested. Certainly, if Finegan heard from Mr. Ogilvie, Mr. McDermott would be informed at once.
Peter dismissed Finegan. At the moment there was nothing more to be done, though Peter's anger with Ogilvie was still intense.
It had not moderated a few minutes later when Flora announced on the office intercom, "Miss Marsha Preyscott on line two."
"Tell her I'm busy, I'll call later." Peter checked himself. "Never mind, I'll talk."
He picked up the telephone. Marsha's voice said brightly, "I heard that."
Irritably he resolved to remind Flora that the telephone "hold" button should be down when the intercom was open. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's a low-grade morning in contrast to a great night before."
"I'll bet the first thing hotel managers learn is to make fast recoveries like that."
"Some may. But this is me."
He sensed her hesitate. Then she said, "Was it all great - the evening?"
"'All of it!
"Good! Then I'm ready to keep my promise."
"My impression was you had."
"No," Marsha said, "I promised some New Orleans history. We could start this afternoon."
He was about to say no; that it was impossible to leave the hotel, then realized he wanted to go. Why not? He seldom took the two full days off duty he was entitled to each week and lately had worked plenty of extra hours as well. A brief absence could easily be managed.
"All right," he said. "Let's see how many centuries we can cover between two o'clock and four."
Twice during the twenty-minute prayer session before breakfast in his suite, Curtis O'Keefe found his thoughts wandering. It was a familiar sign of restlessness for which he apologized briefly to God, though not belaboring the point since an instinct to be ever moving on was a part of the hotel magnate's nature, and presumably divinely shaped.
It was a relief, however, to remember that this was his final day in New Orleans. He would leave for New York tonight and Italy tomorrow. The destination there, for himself and Dodo, was the Naples - O'Keefe Hotel.
Besides the change of scene, it would be satisfying to be in one of his own houses once more. Curtis O'Keefe had never understood the point, which his critics made, that it was possible to travel around the world, staying at O'Keefe Hotels without ever leaving the U.S.A. Despite his attachment to foreign travel, he liked familiar things about him - American decor, with only minor concessions to local color; American plumbing; American food and - most of the time American people. O'Keefe establishments provided them all.
Nor was it important that a week from now he would be as impatient to leave Italy as he was, at this moment, to depart from New Orleans. There were plenty of places within his own empire - the Taj Mahal O'Keefe, O'Keefe Lisbon, Adelaide O'Keefe, O'Keefe Copenhagen, and others - where a visit from the panjandrum, although nowadays not essential to the chain's efficient running, would stimulate business as a cathedral's might quicken from the sojourn of a pope.
Later, of course, he would return to New Orleans, probably in a month or two when the St. Gregory - by then the O'Keefe-St. Gregory - was overhauled and molded to the conformity of an O'Keefe hotel. His arrival for the inaugural ceremonies would be triumphal, with fanfare, a civic welcome and coverage by press, radio, and television. As usual on such occasions, he would bring a retinue of celebrities, including Hollywood stars, not difficult to recruit for a lavish free-loading junket.
Thinking about it, Curtis O'Keefe was impatient for these things to happen soon. He was also mildly frustrated at not having received, so far, Warren Trent's official acceptance of the proffered terms of two nights earlier.
It was now mid-morning of Thursday. The noon deadline agreed to was less than ninety minutes away. Obviously, for reasons of his own, the St. Gregory's proprietor intended to wait until the last possible moment before acceptance.
O'Keefe prowled restlessly around the suite. Half an hour earlier Dodo had left on a shopping expedition for which he had given her several hundred dollars in large bills. Her purchases, he suggested, should include some lightweight clothes since Naples was likely to be even hotter than New Orleans, and there would be no time for shopping in New York. Dodo thanked him appreciatively, as she always did, though strangely without the glowing enthusiasm she had shown yesterday during their boat trip around the harbor which cost a mere six dollars. Women, he thought, were perplexing creatures.
He stopped at a window, looking out, when across the living room the telephone rang. He reached it in half a dozen strides.
He expected to hear the voice of Warren Trent. Instead, an operator announced that the call was long distance. A moment later the nasal Californian drawl of Hank Lemnitzer came on the line.
"That you, Mr. O'Keefe?"
"Yes, it is." Irrationally, Curtis O'Keefe wished that his West Coast representative had not found it necessary to telephone twice within twenty-four hours.
"Got some great news for you."
"What kind of news?"
"I inked a deal for Dodo."
"I thought I made it clear yesterday that I insist on something special for Miss Lash."
"How special can you get, Mr. O'Keefe? This is the greatest; a real break. Dodo's a lucky kid."
"Walt Curzon's shooting a remake of You Can't Take It With You.
Remember? - we put money in his pot."
"Yesterday I found out Walt needed a girl to play the old Ann Miller role. It's a good supporting part. Fits Dodo like a tight brassiere."
Curtis O'Keefe wished peevishly once again that Lemnitzer would be subtler in his choice of words.
"I assume there'll be a screen test."
"Then how do we know Curzon will agree to the casting?"
"Are you kidding? Don't underrate your influence, Mr. O'Keefe. Dodo's in.
Besides, I've lined up Sandra Straughan to work with her. You know Sandra?"
"Yes." O'Keefe was well aware of Sandra Straughan. She had a reputation as one of filmdom's most accomplished dramatic coaches. Among other achievements, she possessed a remarkable record of accepting unknown girls with influential sponsors and shaping them into box office princesses.