Page 69 of Hotel


Ten minutes ago, when he realized that the lights at Canal and City Park Avenue had failed, he radioed the information in, parked his motorcycle, and took over the intersection. He hoped that the street lighting repair crew would take its time in coming.


From the opposite side of the avenue, Clancy saw the gray Ford sedan slow and stop. Taking his time, he strolled across. Keycase was seated, motionless, as when the car stopped.

Clancy surveyed the offside rear wheel which was resting on its rim.

"Flat tire?"

Keycase nodded. If Clancy had been more observant, he would have noticed that the knuckle joints of the hands on the steering wheel were white.

Keycase, through a veil of bitter self-recrimination, was remembering the single, simple factor his painstaking plans had overlooked. The spare tire and jack were in the trunk. To reach them, he must open the trunk, revealing the far coats, the silver bowl, the salver and the suitcases.

He waited, sweating. The policeman showed no sign of moving.

"Guess you'll have to change the wheel, eh?"

Again Keycase nodded. He calculated. He could do it fast. Three minutes at the most. Jack! Wheel wrench! Spin the nuts! Wheel off! The spare on! Fasten! Throw wheel, jack and wrench on the back seat! Slam the trunk closed! He could be away. On the Expressway. If only the cop would go.

Behind the Ford, other cars were slowing, some having to stop before easing into the center lane. One pulled out too soon. Behind him, rubber squealed. A horn blasted in protest. The cop leaned forward, resting his arms on the door beside Keycase.

"Gets busy around here."

Keycase swallowed. "Yes."

The cop straightened up, opening the door. "Ought to start things moving."

Keycase drew the keys from the ignition. Slowly, he stepped down to the road. He forced a smile. "It's all right, officer. I can handle it."

Keycase waited, holding his breath as the cop surveyed the intersection.

Clancy said good naturedly, "I'll give you a hand."

An impulse seized Keycase to abandon the car and run. He dismissed it as hopeless. With resignation, he inserted the key and opened the trunk.

Scarcely a minute later, he had the jack in place, wheel nuts were loosened, and he was raising the rear bumper. The suitcases, fur coats and silver were heaped to one side in the trunk. As he worked, Keycase could see the cop contemplating the collection. Incredibly, so far, he had said nothing.

What Keycase could not know was that Clancy's reasoning process took time to function.

Clancy leaned down and fingered one of the coats.

"Bit hot for these." The city's shade temperature for the past ten days had hovered around ninety-five.

"My wife . . . sometimes feels the cold."

Wheel nuts were off, the old wheel free. With a single movement, Keycase opened the rear car door and flung the wheel inside.

The cop craned around the trunk lid, inspecting the car's interior.

"Little lady not with you, eh?"

"I . . . I'm picking her up."

Keycase's hands strove frantically to release the spare wheel. The locknut was stiff. He broke a finger nail and skinned his fingers freeing it.

Ignoring the hurt, he hefted the wheel from the trunk.

"Looks kind of funny, all this stuff."

Keycase froze. He dare not move. He had come to Golgotha. Intuition told him why.

Fate had presented him a chance, and he had thrown it away. It mattered not that the decision had been solely in his mind. Fate had been kind, but Keycase had spurned the kindness. Now, in anger, fate had turned its back.

Terror struck as he remembered what, a few minutes earlier, he had so readily forgotten - the awful price of one more conviction; the long imprisonment lasting, perhaps, for the remainder of his life. Freedom had never seemed more precious. The Expressway, so close, seemed half a world away.

At last Keycase knew what the omens of the past day and a half had really meant. They had offered him release, a chance for a new and decent life, an escape to tomorrow. If he had only known.

Instead, he had misread the portents. With arrogance and vanity, he had interpreted fate's kindness as his own invincibility. He had made his decision. This was the result. Now it was too late.

Was it? Was it ever too late - at least for hope? Keycase closed his eyes.

He vowed - with a deep resolve which, given the opportunity, he knew he would keep - that if, through merest chance, he should escape this moment, he would never again, in all his life, do one more dishonest thing.

Keycase opened his eyes. The cop was walking to another car whose driver had stopped to ask directions.

With movements swifter than he believed possible, Keycase thrust the wheel on, replaced the nuts and released the jack which he threw into the trunk. Even now, instinctively as a good mechanic should, Keycase gave the wheel nuts an extra tightening when the wheel was on the ground. He had the trunk repacked when the cop returned.

Clancy nodded approvingly, his earlier thought forgotten. "All finished, eh?"

Keycase slammed the trunk lid down. For the first time, Motor Patrolman Clancy saw the Michigan license plate.

Michigan. Green on white. In the depths of Clancy's brain, memory stirred.

Had it been today, yesterday, the day before? ... His platoon commander, on parade, reading the latest bulletins aloud ... Something about green and white ...

Clancy wished he could remember. There were so many bulletins - wanted men, missing persons, cars, robberies. Every day the bright, eager youngsters on the force scribbled swiftly in their notebooks, memorizing, getting the information down. Clancy tried. He always had. But inevitably, the lieutenant's brisk voice, the slowness of his own handwriting, left him far behind. Green and white. He wished he could remember.

Clancy pointed to the plate. "Michigan, eh?"

Keycase nodded. He waited numbly. There was just so much that the human spirit could absorb.

"Water Wonderland." Clancy read aloud the legend on the plate. "I hear you got some swell fishing."

"Yes ... there is."

"Like to get there one day. Fisherman myself."

From behind, an impatient horn. Clancy held the car door open. He seemed to remember he was a policeman. "Let's get this lane clear." Green and white.

The errant thought still bothered him.

The motor started. Keycase drove forward. Clancy watched him go. With precision, neither too fast nor too slow, his resolve steadfast, Keycase nosed the car on the Expressway ramp.

Green and white. Clancy shook his head and returned to directing traffic.

Not for nothing had he been called the dumbest cop on the force, bar none.

17

From Tulane Avenue, the sky-blue and white police ambulance, its distinctive blue light flashing, swung into the emergency entrance driveway of Charity Hospital. The ambulance stopped. Swiftly its doors were opened.

The stretcher bearing Dodo was lifted out, then, with practiced speed, wheeled by attendants through a doorway marked ADMISSION OUTPATIENTS WHITE.

Curtis O'Keefe followed close behind, almost running to keep up.

An attendant in the lead called, "Emergency! Make way!" A busy press of people in the admitting and discharge lobby fell back to let the small procession pass. Curious eyes followed its progress. Most were on the white, waxen mask of Dodo's face.

Swinging doors marked ACCIDENT ROOM opened to meet the stretcher. Inside were nurses, doctors, activity, other stretchers. A male attendant barred Curtis O'Keefe's way. "Wait here, please."

O'Keefe protested, "I want to know .."

A nurse, going in, stopped briefly. "Everything possible will be done.

A doctor will talk to you as soon as he can." She continued inside. The swinging doors closed.

Curtis O'Keefe remained facing the doors. His eyes were misted, his heart despairing.

Less than half an hour ago, after Dodo's leavetaking, he had paced the suite living room, his thoughts confused and troubled. Instinct told him that something had gone from his life that he might never find again.

Logic mocked him. Others before Dodo had come and gone. He had survived their departure. The notion that this time might be different was absurd.

Even so, he had been tempted to follow Dodo, perhaps to delay their separation for a few hours, and in that time to weigh his feelings once again. Rationality won out. He remained where he was.

A few minutes later he had heard the sirens. At first he had been unconcerned. Then, conscious of their growing number and apparent convergence on the hotel, he had gone to the window of his suite. The activity below made him decide to go down. He went as he was - in shirtsleeves, without putting on a coat.

On the twelfth-floor landing, as he waited for an elevator, disquieting sounds had drifted up. After almost five minutes, when an elevator failed to come and other guests were milling on the landing, O'Keefe decided to use the emergency stairs. As he went down, he discovered others had had the same idea. Near the lower floors, the sounds becoming clearer, he employed his athlete's training to increase his speed.

In the lobby he learned from excited spectators the essential facts of what had occurred. It was then he prayed with intensity that Dodo had left the hotel before the accident. A moment later he saw her carried, unconscious, from the elevator shaft.

The yellow dress he had admired, her hair, her limbs, were a mess of blood. The look of death was on her face.

In that instant, with searing, blinding insight, Curtis O'Keefe discovered the truth he had shielded from himself so long. He loved her.

Dearly, ardently, with a devotion beyond human reckoning. Too late, he knew that in letting Dodo go, he had made the greatest single error of his life.

He reflected on it now, bitterly, surveying the accident room doors. They opened briefly as a nurse came out. When he approached her, she shook her head and hurried on.

He had a sense of helplessness. There was so little he could do. But what he could, he would.

Turning away, he strode through the hospital. In busy lobbies and corridors, he breasted crowds, followed signboards and arrows to his objective. He opened doors marked PRIVATE, ignored protesting secretaries. He stopped before the Director's desk.

The Director rose angrily from his chair. When Curtis O'Keefe identified himself, the anger lessened.

Fifteen minutes later the Director emerged from the accident room accompanied by a slight, quietly spoken man whom he introduced as Dr. Beauclaire. The doctor and O'Keefe shook hands.

"I understand that you are a friend of the young lady - I believe, Miss Lash."

"How is she, Doctor?"

"Her condition is critical. We are doing everything we can. But I must tell you there is a strong possibility she may not live."

O'Keefe stood silent, grieving.

The doctor continued, "She has a serious head wound which appears superficially to be a depressed skull fracture. There is a likelihood that fragments of bone may have entered the brain. We shall know better after X rays."

The Director explained, "The patient is being resuscitated first."

The doctor nodded. "We have transfusions going. She lost a good deal of blood. And treatment has begun for shock."

"How long .."

"Resuscitation will be at least another hour. Then, if X rays confirm the diagnosis, it will be necessary to operate immediately.

Is the next-of-kin in New Orleans?"

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