I wasn’t sure if I had seen a grown man throw a bigger fit than the one Marlene’s security guard threw, but I was definitely happy to be inside The Carson and away from his white-hot glare. Marlene seemed absolutely thrilled and I felt the eyes drawn to us as she flounced through the ornate lobby. The carpet was a deep red with a black criss-cross pattern. Numerous couches were scattered throughout, paired with mahogany tables. On the far side of the room was a large fireplace with a crackling fire that sent a gorgeous glow into the room. The elevators were to the right of the long, dark front desk with engraved gold plaques marking each person. I walked up to the one marked ‘Current Guests’.
“Hi,” I said, smiling at the young, slightly pimply man. His hair was greasy and slicked backed but his black coat and red button up made him look a little more professional.
“Hello,” he responded, his eyes flicking toward Marlene.
“James,” I said and his eyes focused back to me. His name badge stuck out on his chest but people always tended to be surprised when you used their name. “I really need your help. My cousin and I think my brother is in some trouble. He took some money from her dad and disappeared. We really don’t want to get the police involved so is there any way you could just tell us what room he’s in so we can just talk to him?”
He looked skeptical, though the mention of police had wrinkled his forehead.
Marlene leaned forward.
“I would be really grateful,” she said, batting her eyelashes. She put her hand over his and he glanced down and then around the area. No one else was paying us much attention except for a few college aged guys staring at Marlene near the check-in desk.
She pulled her hand back to her side of the counter, and I saw a green bill sticking up between his clenched fingers. He quickly slipped his hand off the counter and into his pocket, his eyes darting to every other employee and then up towards a security camera by the elevator.
“What’s his name?” he asked in a hurried whisper, leaning over his keyboard.
“Francis,” I said. I hoped he hadn’t been smart enough to give a fake name.
“His last name?” he asked, annoyed.
“His last name is Matthews but I think he’s using something else. I called earlier and no one is going by that,” I lied smoothly. Marlene glanced at me, her mouth quirked to the side. She probably thought I was holding out information on her rather than making it up on the fly and I tried to smile encouragingly at her.
“There’s two Francis’s here,” he said and scrawled the names and room numbers onto a sheet of paper that he slid over to us as if this was a high stakes deal.
“Thanks, James,” I said and pocketed it casually as if all he did was give us a restaurant recommendation. Marlene was bouncing again, rocking on the balls of her feet with a big smile.
“You wouldn’t happen to want to give us the keys, would you?” she asked, a green bill poking between her fingers again.
His eyes widened and I recognized the deer in headlights look.
“Nevermind,” I said sweetly and looped my arm through Marlene’s, yanking her away.
“Hey,” she said, stumbling over her own feet. “He might have caved.”
“He might have called security. You’ve got to learn how to push people. Money can only get you so far before self-preservation kicks in.” I steered her to the elevator and pressed the up button. She wasn’t content waiting though and strained against my arm, leaning over to look at the other people in the area. She smiled and gave a small wave to the boys still watching us.
“Lighten up, Asena,” she said as the elevator doors opened and an older man squeezed past us into the lobby.
I dropped her arm as the doors closed and pressed the button for the fourth floor.
“I’m plenty light. You need to get a bit more serious.” I had been impressed by the show in my office, but as the elevator rose so did my feeling that bringing her was a terrible idea.
“I know being a private investigator is this big serious job and all, but c’mon, when’s the last time you let loose?” I stared at the numbers as they counted up, ignoring her.
“When’s the last time you had a day off?”
I bit my lip and groaned as her eyes widened.
“You’re a workaholic,” she said matter-of-factly.
“No,” I retorted as the elevator dinged and the doors opened. “I own a new business, it takes a lot of time and effort.” I stepped out on the landing and glanced down the hallway both ways. I was looking for Room 401 and the sign to my left listed it.
I took long strides down the richly carpeted hallway, happy to put even a small bit of distance between us. This place was nice, with dark trim and honey gold walls. I couldn’t afford a night in this place, let alone a week, which was about how long Francis had been hiding out here.
“Workaholic,” she said in a sing-song voice, following after me.
“Quiet,” I snapped as we loomed in front of Francis’ door. I wasn’t sure exactly of my plan. Danny had told me he was short, skinny, and had a bunch of messy black hair. I was hoping that the wrong Francis was built like a wrestler, with bright blonde hair, and someone I could make giraffe jokes about. Otherwise this could be awkward.
I knocked, listening for movement within. Marlene was back to bouncing on the balls of her feet and I wanted to make her sit still, but I was too jittery myself. I had done this kind of thing before. In fact, it was pretty commonplace. But I didn’t usually have a jumping bean civilian next to me, in the possible line of fire, who also happened to be my client.
This was a terrible idea.
“Why isn’t he answering?” Marlene whispered. “Should we say housekeeping or something?”
“We’re not in some bad cop film,” I retorted, knocking again. I was hoping he would be home at midday, since he seemed to like to frequent the bars at night.
“Maybe we should go check the other guy out?” she suggested.
“Maybe,” I answered with a frown. My gut was telling me to stay here, but I had no clue how to get in. I glared at the card reader. Fifteen years ago, my nimble little child’s fingers could have picked this lock in seconds but everything was electronic now. It made my line of work so much more difficult.
“Asena, do you know something I don’t? You obviously held out on his last name, is there something else you’re not telling me?” She leaned against the door, a pout on her lips, and it swung forward. She barreled into the room, catching herself on the edge of the hallway table.
I followed her in quickly, noting the tape that was over the handle, allowing it to be opened and shut without the key. The door was heavy enough not to open easily, but Marlene’s bony frame had enough weight apparently.
“Get back here,” I said, trying to steady her. She was still tripping over her own feet with red hair spilling everywhere while I scanned the room to make sure we were safe.
It was a gorgeous room, with modern furniture, a whole wall of windows looking out on the city, and even a fireplace, though no fire was lit. It’s beauty made the fact that it was completely trashed even more jarring. It was littered with old take out containers, dirty clothes, and garbage everywhere.
“What a pig,” Marlene said, straightening up and looking around. I motioned frantically for her to be quiet. We certainly didn’t want our thief finding us in the middle of his room.
I dug my toes into the carpet, taking a few steps forward with my ears strained. Marlene was right behind me. I swiveled around, my head whipping back and forth. No way was she coming into the lion’s den.
Her mouth was set in a firm line as she stared me down. I pointed out the open door and she crossed her arms, shaking her head. I whipped back around, making sure nothing had moved and no one had popped out of any of the closed doors before turning back.
Wait for me, I mouthed, trying to scooch her out the door. She dug her heels in and I raised my eyebrows.
The click of a door opening down the hall made my mind up though and I let her step past me and silently closed the door. I couldn’t afford to have neighbors questioning what we were doing or worse, raising an alarm. I stuck a finger to my lips and tried once more to tell her to stay put in the front entry.
She strode forward and I groaned inwardly. I jumped in front of her, watching my step and landing on the balls of my feet. Thankfully the carpet was thick and Marlene walked with a grace I hadn’t yet seen before.
I scanned the living room, peeking behind the couch and doing my best to not step on any of the garbage strewn everywhere. When I was sure no one was there, I tiptoed over to what I guessed was the bathroom door.
I twisted the handle slowly and silently. Marlene mimed checking her watch and rolled her eyes at me. I ducked down. A lesson I had learned when I first started breaking into places was that you should always peek around a corner or door from a lower vantage point. Most people expect someone coming from higher above.
It might be the bathroom, but I was pretty sure it was the same size as my apartment. A large Jacuzzi tub took up a whole section in the back. A walk-in waterfall shower stood next to it, red tiles encasing the whole thing except for a ring of Caribbean blue ones near the top.
Towels and dirty clothes were heaped in a pile next to the counter. The hotel-provided shampoo bottles were oozing onto the floor. I couldn’t believe someone this sloppy had pulled off a job like the Pembrook jewel heist.
Marlene sniffed in disgust and I clamped my hands together so I didn’t stick one over her mouth. She shrugged in apology and backed out.
I shut the door, taking care not to make any noise. It seemed I was too slow for Marlene though and before I had a chance to even put a hand out, she had pushed open the bedroom door and strode in. I lunged towards her, hoping to put myself between her and anyone inside. She gasped and I searched for the threat, hands up.
No one was charging me, no one was standing surprised, and no one was in the bed. I calmed a bit, lowering my hands now that I was sure there was no immediate danger.
I looked back at Marlene, who was looking a bit pale and still had her hand clamped over her mouth. I followed her panic-stricken eyes and saw him. Francis was laying on the ground next to the four poster bed, only his shoulders and head visible. His eyes were wide-open, glazed over. He was pale, which made the spittle coming from the side of his mouth almost impossible to see. But he was unmistakably dead.
Marlene didn’t seem to be able to tear her eyes away from the body but she had lowered her hand a bit. She took a hesitant step forward and I snagged her forearm, stopping her. Something seemed to snap when I touched her and she tore her gaze from the gruesome sight. Her eyes began to rove around the room. She took in the large bed, wardrobe, and dresser, but landed on the desk only feet from her. Everything was a mess in here as well, trash and dirty clothes mixed together. But this desk was a different kind of mess. The Pembrook family jewels were scattered on the table, along with a bit of cash and a black bag I was guessing it had all been shoved in at one point.
“We should call the police,” I said, letting go of her arm.
Feeling the freedom, she darted forward, snagging the ruby locket in the middle of the pile. “Marlene,” I hissed. Her fingerprints would already be on all those jewels, but she was interfering with a crime scene. Not that I had too many qualms about it except that if anyone should interfere, it should be me. I was a professional.
She swung the locket on her pointer finger, scrutinizing at it as if verifying it was real.
“Now we can call the police,” she said, slipping it into her pocket.