They were called the Speed Dragons. Jeramey first laid eyes on them in the lobby of the Columbus Hotel, four smug guys in nearly identical Affliction t-shirts dragging their gear across the polished floor. They made a beeline for Chess, her boyfriend, who lounged with Jeramey's guitars on a leatherette ottoman, and the band members engaged him in conversation for several minutes before Chess finally shook his head and pointed to Jeramey standing in line at the front desk, like it was just then occurring to him that they were looking for her. Jeramey felt a stab of irrational hatred for the Speed Dragons as they gazed at her, blank. But she was forced to turn away, her attention pulled into this new indignity.
"No, there's been a mistake. I'm supposed to be in the penthouse suite, with the view of the river," she said, shaking her head at the room keys in their little paper sleeve. The wedding planner told her it had all been arranged. "It was all supposed to be arranged."
The desk clerk nodded. "We've had the tiniest change of plans," she said, then dropped her voice to an unapologetic whisper. "We have some very high profile guests in the hotel this weekend."
Jeramey considered. So no one recognized her here--fine, even though she still looked as good as the girl in that white miniskirt on the cover of Touch and Go. Or, at least, that girl's slightly older sister. More or less. But that was beside the point. She could feel her personal equity receding, like soil erosion of the spirit. As it was, she'd already compromised by flying coach. There isn't a first class on a Chautauqua Airlines regional commuter flight, the wedding planner had told her, getting a little snippy. It's only for two hours. Is it that big of a deal? But Jeramey was the one who had to buy Chess three bloody marys on the plane just to make him shut up about it. Nine dollars each, and she could smell the cheap vodka from two seats away. It was getting to be a bit much to endure, even for ten grand.
Now the Speed Dragons were heading her way. Jeramey didn't need to meet them in order to distill this band down into their essence: there would be a Brad among them, and a Wesley or a Corbin, a weekday-afternoon radio DJ and an ad agency project manager. The quiet-looking one in the fedora would be the only real musician of the group but he would avoid any kind of direct attention, terrified that someone would discover his terrible secret--bald at age twenty-eight. The wedding planner had passed along their LP so that Jeramey could learn the songs in preparation, but she hadn't. "Listen," she said to the hotel clerk, wanting to be done with it before the Speed Dragons knew all about her business. "Forget it. The seventeenth is fine."
"It's a lovely room," the clerk said. "Great views of the insurance building!"
After the wedding, Doug Beavers rode the sad little shuttle back to the hotel and fumed. It was almost funny, how some smug assholes just think they're the center of the universe, but others, even though it hurts to admit it, actually are--they somehow know everyone that you know, they've already been anywhere you could hope to go, they even turn up at your cousin's stepdaughter's wedding and charm the pantyhose off every woman there. Bennett Langdon was one of those assholes. It transcended coincidence. It was just the way things were. Beavers bet Langdon had a private driver to take him to the reception. No way a guy with that much cash would ride on a shuttle bus, with its stained grey-brown seats and sticky floor and vague chemical blueberry deodorizer in the air which gave the impression that someone had, recently, peed inside the vehicle.
At least Langdon had come to the wedding alone. "I bet he didn't give get an and guest," his cousin murmured sympathetically when they both discovered the horror, that Langdon was some peripheral friend of the groom's family. It would have been undeniably worse if he'd turned up at Beavers' cousin's stepdaughter's wedding with Celia Beavers on his arm. This was not out of the question--it had only been a year earlier that the whole affair went down, his plain, good-hearted wife and the cap-toothed charmer who taught the six-session self-actualization seminar that Beavers himself had paid for Celia to attend. It was hardly a fair fight; Langdon, silver-tongued devil of the self-help aisle, versus Doug Beavers, Weeble-shaped middle manager. The affair was long over by now, but the divorce was forever and Beavers was the type to hold a grudge.
"I really wish you could just relax and have a good time," his cousin said when he stalked back to the table with a plate piled high with bacon-wrapped water chestnuts.
"Oh, I'm having a great time," Beavers said. Langdon was currently holding court near the wedding cake with two of the bridesmaids, who were giggling behind their wrist corsages. "I just want to keep my eye on him. No surprises.”
"But Dougie, he probably doesn't even know you're here."
"Then it's even more important to know where he is," Beavers said. He set down the hors d'oeuvres plate and headed in the direction of the bar.
"....penthouse," he heard Langdon say to the women. "It's got an incredible view."
So it was not the worst performance of her career. No, that honor would have to go to the gig in Berlin when her bass player puked on one of the tube amps and shorted out the entire sound system. But it was, quite frankly, a close call. The Speed Dragons played angsty garage-rock versions of "The Electric Slide" and "Butterfly Kisses" while Jeramey faked along. If not for the weed that Chess had procured from a bellhop, she would have been in tears. As it was, she wondered how many more times she'd be able to play "Infinity" without her head exploding. "Sweet forever sugar," she sang as the newly-wedded couple swirled around the ballroom during their first dance, "infinity sky." This was the whole reason she was here--the rich, dim, Midwestern bride having always dreamed of dancing to the tune played live, by Jeramey Jones herself, at her wedding. It was a wildly inappropriate choice, nothing but a heroin-soaked ballad about, well, heroin, but the masses, with their endless capability to misunderstand, had turned it into a mainstream love song, rocketing Jeramey out of the indie punk world and into the spotlight for a moment in time. The moment had since passed--long since passed--but the song endured.
"I just can't even tell you," the bride gushed at her afterwards. "Having you here, omigod! I want you to stay all night!"
"Totally!" Jeramey said, accepting a clammy hug before departing immediately.
She sought refuge in the lobby bar, where two bourbons filled in the cracks left by the mediocre weed. She sat against the wall and half watched a silent baseball game on a television mounted to the wall and willed no one to speak to her, but she was only midway through the second drink when a large, oniony presence appeared to her right.
"Don't I know you from somewhere?" the guy asked with a blast of gimlet breath.
Jeramey looked at him. He was fat and fiftyish, sloppily buttoned into an odd grey tux, the bow tie of which dangled from one shoulder like it was trying to get away from him. He had hair the color of nothing and pale grey eyes that seemed to have trouble focusing.
"You're not famous or something, are you?"
"No, I was just at that wedding," Jeramey said.
"Which side," her new friend said. "Bride or groom?"
"Yeah? Me too. My cousin's--"
"Can I just watch the ball game, please?"
At this, the guy laughed way too hard. "The ball game?"
"Yeah," Jeramey said. "I want to watch the ball game."
"Okay, Abner Doubleday, who's playing?"
"For the love of God," Jeramey muttered. She slid off the bar stool and tossed a crumpled tip next to her half-empty glass.
"For such a baseball fan, you're a pretty poor sport," the guy said. He spun around on his stool and grabbed her ass.
Jeramey bristled but walked away without looking back. "Ohio fucking sucks," she announced as she exited the bar, to a few mutters of agreement and one whooping cheer.
Chess was sitting on the bed with the bellhop when she walked into the room. "Wow, are you her?" the bellhop said.
"Yup, this is Jeramey Jones, 1997's Best New Artist nominee," Chess said in a fake-announcer voice. He held a smoldering joint with one hand and sifted through a pile of minibar snacks with the other.
"1998," Jeramey said, shooting him the finger. "If you set the sprinklers off, I'll kill you."
"Don't worry," the bellhop said. He was a lanky kid with reddish hair buzzed into a fade. "We got it covered." He pointed up at the smoke detector, which was shrouded with a dripping wet washcloth. He offered her the weed, but Jeramey shook her head.
"I'm exhausted," she said. "Can we wrap up this party?"
"It's only nine-thirty," Chess said.
"Seriously?" She flopped onto the edge of the bed. The room was beige and claustrophobic. It had an anonymous quality to it, like a shared cubicle at the phone company. "I think time is messed up in Ohio. It's stuck or something."
"Tell me about it," the bellhop said. He unscrewed the cap on a tiny bottle of Bailey's and chugged it.
Jeramey lay down on the edge of the bed and selected a whiskey bottle from the pile, drinking it without sitting up. Then she rolled off the bed and went to the window. "Great views of the insurance building!" she muttered. The building in question was a concrete void with a blinking radio antenna on the top. "Hey," she said finally. "You don't have keys to the penthouse suite, do you?"
"This has to be the worst idea ever," the bellhop whispered as they padded single-file off the eighteenth-floor elevator. "But I'm just high enough to go along with it."
"I just want to see the view," Jeramey whispered back. She steadied herself on the wall with one palm. The night was getting silvery, like she was viewing herself through a window streaked with liquid diamonds.
"Do you think the mini bar has better shit up here?" Chess asked.
"What, like tiny bottles of Cristal?"
"That would be awesome," the bellhop said. "Okay, this is it."
They stood in front of the door. It looked pretty ordinary. The bellhop rapped sharply on it with a knuckle and called out, "Room service!"
"Room service," the bellhop said again, knocking louder this time.
He turned to Jeramey and gave her an impish smile. She decided that she'd sleep with him, if it came up.
"Let's do it," she said.
The bellhop inserted a plastic key card into the slot and pushed the door open slowly. Jeramey practically heard angels singing. The room was at least twice the size of hers, decorated in plush navy blue instead of beige, with a whole separate living room area and kitchenette. Chess made a beeline for the mini bar. "Shit, there's macadamia nuts in this one," he said.
Jeramey headed for the window but froze just after she crossed into the bedroom. The room was not, as it turned out, empty.
"Fuck," Jeramey said.
A dark, lumpy shape was snoring quietly from the bed.
"Oh, man, we need to get out of here," the bellhop said from behind her.
But the window, with its view of the river, was right there, just a few feet away. Jeramey darted
towards it and parted the curtains, but it was too dark to see anything other than the ghost of her own reflection.
"Okay," Jeramey whispered. "We can go."
As she crept back past the snoring lump, it stirred and emitted an oniony belch. "Wait a minute," she said, turning back. She squinted in the thick darkness at the man's face. "No fucking way," she said. Of all the high profile guests in the hotel, this asshole from the bar was the one who took her room?
"Come on, let's go," the bellhop whined.
Jeramey held up a hand. She wished she had a Sharpie--the man's dumb, doughy face was just begging for a freehanded mustache. He twitched and rolled to the side, his jacket flopping open. Jeramey saw the bulky square of a wallet peeking out of the pocket.
Doug Beavers had a problem. More accurately, he had several problems, but with varying degrees of urgency.
One: his head felt like a malfunctioning tilt-a-whirl
Two: his mouth tasted like onions
Three: his pants were spattered with Bennett Langdon's blood
Things had gone bad pretty fast. He'd sat in the bar for a long time, drinking overpriced gimlets and working up a stormy rage over Langdon and the bridesmaids. Somewhere in there he decided that it was his moral obligation to intervene--those nubile, satin-sheathed maidens needed protection! Langdon was a predator. But when Beavers got up to the top floor of the hotel, Langdon had opened the door with a quizzical smile and it was clear he was still alone. It was also clear that he had no idea who Beavers was, which somehow made it all worse.
"I, uh," Beavers stammered, losing his nerve within two seconds, "I went to one of your seminars. Last year."
Langdon had just loved the sound of that and invited Beavers in for a drink.
Which was more or less the last thing Doug Beavers needed.
But halfway into that drink, Langdon disappeared into the bedroom and reported that he had to get ready to meet up with a young lady he'd met at the wedding. "Women at weddings are just so game," he called. "Are you getting lucky tonight, my man?"
That was enough for Beavers. A tingling in his chest traveled down his arm and into his fist.
Reactivated, he was on his feet in a second, aimed like a surface to air missile towards his enemy. He threw the punch before he even realized he was in the bedroom, and what a punch it was: a glorious right hook that connected with Langdon's jaw just as he turned away from the bathroom mirror, looking alarmed. Airborne for a second, Langdon tumbled backwards into the shower, sputtering blood. Beavers moved in for the coup de grace with a primal yell: a kick to the chin. It sounded awful, an unnatural wrenching of bone and skin. Langdon went instantly slack-eyed and still.
Wigging out, Beavers backed out of the bathroom and sat on the bed. But there was blood on the mirror, on the sink, and it turned his stomach. Did that really happen? He peered back into the bathroom--yes, it had. He pulled the door closed. Now he did need that drink. He went for the liquor bottle with both hands.
A few hours later, he'd came to on the bed, a sharp line of sunlight from the windows across his torso. He sat up halfway and rubbed his face. A plastic room key was stuck to his cheekbone in a slick of gummy dried drool. At first it felt like a dream, until he realized that dreams, no matter how vivid, don't actually bleed on you. A glance at the clock revealed that it was ten in the morning. He had to piss, but there was no way he was opening that bathroom door. He looked through the peephole into the hallway and saw a housekeeping cart three doors down. "Motherfucker," he said
He flung open the closet and flipped through the items hanging there, settling on a pair of flat-front khakis. He dropped his own bloody pants and pulled Langdon's on--or tried to, a plan that might have worked eighty pounds ago, but not now. Beavers clutched his infuriatingly large belly and kicked the pants back into the closet.
The housekeeping cart was now two doors away.
He had no choice but to pull on the fluffy terrycloth bathrobe hanging on a hook on the back of the bathroom door. It smelled like hotel and Langdon's obnoxious Old Spice, but it did, at least, fit.
Beavers grabbed his room key off the bed and darted out into the hallway, his bloody pants tucked under his arm like a football.
But down on the tenth floor, he inserted the room key into the slot and was met with a blinking red light. He inserted the key again and again, not understanding. The key on the bed must have been Langdon's, he realized--his own key was in his wallet, which was--
Which had formerly been in his jacket pocket, but was no more. The wallet, he concluded, had to be back in Langdon's room. Beavers banged his head on his own locked room door, cursing the day he ever filled out the little RSVP card for his cousin's stepdaughter's wedding in the first place. He tried shouldering the door open, the way you see hero spies do it in the movies. He tried jamming Langdon's key in and out of the lock in the hopes of confusing the electronic gatekeeper into submission. Eventually he just headed back to the elevator and hit the UP arrow, but when the doors slid open, two uniformed cops blinked out at him.
"I, uh," he mumbled. There was no way he could go back up to the room now. "Sorry, I was going down."
Jeramey woke up devastatingly hungover. The inside of her mouth tasted like campfire and Cheetos. She was fully clothed, her head resting on the bellhop's stomach. Chess was spread-eagled on the floor, the bedspread tangled around him. She had a vague memory of buying round after round of drinks for everyone in the lobby bar, using Abner Doubleday's American Express. This explained the hangover, but not the Cheetos. She closed her eyes again.
When she woke the second time, it was afternoon. She moved to the floor and smoked half a joint with Chess while the bellhop took a shower. "What the hell should we do here all day?" she said. "Our flight isn't until five."
Chess waggled the joint at her. "Isn't this entertainment enough?"
Jeramey took a drag. Back in the Touch and Go days, the morning after a gig had held a wild, raw
magic, her fingers sore, her voice hoarse. Champagne for breakfast. Although she knew it was impossible, she couldn't remember ever being hungover on that tour. "Yeah, I guess," she said.
The bathroom door slammed open then. "You guys," the bellboy said.
Jeramey turned. He was brandishing his cell phone.
"There's a dead guy upstairs."
Jeramey didn't understand at first. "What?"
"In the penthouse! There's cops everywhere."
"What?" Jeramey repeated, then it hit her. "Wait, no, that guy was passed out, not dead. What the fuck happened?"
"My friend says there's homicide detectives and everything," the bellhop said. "They're talking to everyone who tries to leave the hotel."
Jeramey dropped her head to her hands. It was certainly going to be hard to explain how she happened to be in possession of that American Express card last night. "Fucking Ohio," she said.
Still clutching his bloody pants football, Beavers lurked around the second floor mezzanine and watched from behind a pillar as a coroner's stretcher arrived and then departed with Langdon inside a rubber sack. When the lobby seemed to reach a momentary lull, he descended the stairs and tried to cross the polished floor with confidence. He imagined he was Bennett Langdon--look at me, I'm an asshole millionaire, I'm walking around a hotel in a bathrobe but it's okay because I fucked your wife. The effect of this was more unnerving than empowering. By the time he made it to the front desk, Beavers was shaking.
"Um, excuse me," he said timidly.
The clerk turned to him, wiping her eyes. She was clutching a balled-up tissue. She did not appear to notice his robe. "Sir?"
"I, uh," Beavers said, "I seem to have misplaced my room key. Can I get a new one? It's Douglas Beavers, room ten-sixteen."
The clerk nodded. "I just need to see your ID, Mr. Beavers." She wiped her nose. "We've had an incident in the hotel this morning, so we've been asked to be extra cautious."
"Cautious," Beavers repeated. "Well," he added, improvising, "as it turns out, my ID is in my room.
Which I cannot access."
The clerk considered this. Beavers smoothed the lapel of his bathrobe meaningfully.
"Of course, sir," the clerk said finally. She gave him a small smile. "You probably want to get out of that bathrobe," she added.
"Oh, yes," Beavers said.
Safely inside his own room, Beavers took a shower and contemplated his next move. The wallet must have been stuck between the cushions of the leatherette sofa or under the bed or somewhere else out of sight, since he hadn't seen it when he had been up there. And reason had it that the police hadn't seen it yet either, since their first stop after finding it would have no doubt been his room. He developed a new set of plans.
Plan A: Wait until the police were gone, and go back into Langdon's room for the wallet. They had to leave eventually, he figured, and it had been a couple hours already. He couldn't get very far without the wallet, given that he had an hour-long drive to get home to Springfield and his car was hovering on E.
Plan B: Live forever in room ten-sixteen.
He figured that he had a few dozen hotel nights' worth of available credit on the American Express he used to book the room. Well, maybe not quite that many, he realized as he ordered two twenty-dollar cheeseburgers and a beer from room service. He needed sustenance if he was going to stay sharp for his mission.
At some point during the day, it became imperative to Jeramey that they return the wallet. Though getting high in the middle of a crisis had never had any other effect on her, she started to get panicky and decided it was the fault of the wallet and not the weed.
"Look," she explained to Chess and the bellhop. They'd already missed their flight due to being too freaked out leave the hotel. There were cops talking to everyone in the lobby. "I used his card to buy I don't even know how much liquor last night. I need to get rid of it. What if they come here and do a search?"
"I think it was something like eighteen hundred dollars," the bellhop said, unhelpfully. Jeramey regretted that she ever considered sleeping with him.
Chess, suffering from sympathy paranoia, nodded along. "But we can't just dump it somewhere," he said. "Because as soon as they find it, they'll start trying to trace who dumped it, which makes the whole thing worse. Maybe we could destroy it."
Chess flicked the lighter.
Jeramey pointed at the smoke detector. "I don't think the washcloth trick will work if we set a wallet on fire."
"Maybe we could cut it apart," the bellhop suggested, "and flush it down the toilet."
After sending the bellhop out into the hotel for a pair of scissors, the three of them stood around the low-flow toilet as Jeramey cut an experimental corner off Doug Beavers' driver's license and let it fall into the bowl. She pressed the flusher and held her breath.
But the low water pressure wasn't even enough to make the plastic triangle flutter.
"Fucking conservation," she muttered.
She cut off a larger chunk and dropped that into the toilet too, but no dice. Finally she reached into the water and retrieved the driver's license pieces, shoving all of them back into the little plastic compartment.
"The police have to leave eventually, right?"
Chess nodded. "They do."
"No," the bellhop said. "No. That's an even worse idea than going in there in the first place."
Jeramey shrugged. There was no other way. The weed made her feel certain of this. "We're going to have to put it back in the room," she said.
Beavers conducted some light recon. First, he waited until evening fell, then crept down to the lobby to look for cops. Everything appeared normal again, though.
Phase one, check.
Then Beavers sat down on a leatherette ottoman and faced away from the desk as he dialed the hotel's main phone number from his cell.
"Good evening, Columbus Hotel, how can I help you?"
"Yes, uh, I'm in room, um, sixteen-ten," he said quietly, "and I've been burgled."
"You've been what?"
"I think I might have seen someone going into that poor man's room last night," he tried next. "Can you send the police down to talk to me? Ten--I mean, sixteen-ten."
There was a muffled pause. Beavers resisted the urge to look over his shoulder at the desk to see what was happening. "Sir, if you have information about the incident in the hotel, you should contact the police immediately. They're no longer in the hotel, but I can give you the investigator's phone number if you have a pen?"
"I'll call back when I can find a pen," Beavers said.
Phase two, check.
He rode the elevator up to the eighteenth floor, alone this time. Once the doors slid open, he cautiously stepped out and looked around. The hallway was deserted, and the only indicator that anything unusual had happened was a neon green seal over the frame of Langdon's door. These premises have been sealed by the Columbus Police Department. All persons are forbidden to enter unless authorized by the police or a public administrator. Beavers let out a short sigh and slit the seal with his Swiss army knife.
The room had a garbagey smell, but there was no time to contemplate it. He searched the sofa first--no wallet. Then he looked under the bed--no wallet there either. He went back to the door and retraced his steps: doorway, kitchenette, sofa, bedroom, bathroom. He retreated quickly from the bathroom after seeing all that blood again. Langdon's head, Beavers could practically swear, contained more blood than a normal head, Jesus Christ. He closed the bathroom door again and looked out at the room. He couldn't remember being in any of the other areas, but then again, he had quite a few unaccounted-for hours. He crossed to the window and drew open the curtains, and it was then that he heard the unmistakable click of a key being inserted into the door.
Jeramey screamed. "Oh my god, I thought you were dead."
Beavers screamed too. He got a little worried. Was he dead?
The bellhop screamed and ran out of the room.
Jeramey threw the wallet at the guy. "I don't know what is going on here, but I don't want anything to do with it."
"Where did you get this?" Beavers said.
"So no one died?" Jeramey said. She looked over her shoulder for explanation but the bellhop was gone.
"Well, I wouldn't say that, exactly," Beavers said.
They both spun around as the door opened again.
"There he is! The ghost!" the bellhop said.
Two cops followed him into the room. "Okay," one of them said. "Which one of you would like to explain?"
Beavers folded immediately. "It was an accident," he blubbered. "He fucked my wife and I just, I don't know, I went crazy for a second. And I thought I left my wallet in here, so I came back in to get it, but it turns out she had it, and I don't even know--"
"Who are you?" the cop said to Jeramey.
"Hey," the other cop said. "You're Jeramey Jones, right? Touch and Go?" He strummed a few notes on an air guitar. "That album defined my twenties."
"Wait, what?" Beavers said.
"Yeah, that's me," Jeramey said. She cocked her head at him and smiled. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the river beyond the window.
That view, just, wow.
Kristen Lepionka is the Shamus and Goldie Award-winning author of the Roxane Weary mystery series. Her debut, THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK, was also nominated for Anthony and Macavity Awards. Kristen grew up inside a public library and now lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her partner and two cats.