Pete Novak eased his six-foot, hundred-and-eighty-four-pound frame through the revolving entrance door of the Hotel Tilden and saw a girl in a platinum mink coat walking toward the reception desk. Beside her a bellhop struggled with three gray leather bags. The girl was an ash blonde and Novak could catch the scent of light perfume following in her wake. From her gray-gloved hand a gray leather leash slanted down to the collar of a toy Skye terrier. The girl walked with her head thrown back, her heels making subdued clicking sounds on the marble floor of the lobby. What little of her legs could be seen looked promising. The terrier stopped short, braced his paws and yipped protestingly. The girl looked down at him and Novak saw that her eyes were as gray as the furs she wore. As the leash around her wrist. As the luggage Jimmy Grant was wrestling with. Novak sniffed her perfume once more, patted a small package in his side pocket, grinned and decided to stick around.
Novak took out a cigarette, lighted it and watched her register. The clerk flattened his palms on the marble counter, stood on tiptoes and peered over at the terrier. He said something to the girl and Novak saw her frown. He decided to move closer.
The girl was saying, "...but I can’t possibly stay without Toby. Can’t you make an exception just this once?"
"No, ma’am," the clerk said firmly. "No animals at the Tilden. Not even a canary."
Novak grinned and said, "Not even a bedbug, miss."
Her head moved quickly to one side, and cool gray eyes appraised him. Her red lips were full and even, her nose straight and her cheekbones high. The gray eyes were almond-shaped, as though at some time, generations back, Indian blood had entered the family strain. Her tawny skin supported the thought.
He glanced down at the registration card and saw that she had written: Paula Norton, Muncie, Ind. The Mr. and Mrs. boxes had been x-ed out. That made her a Miss. For the record.
Slowly and with an edge her voice articulated, "I guess there’s one in every hotel."
Ash blonde hair swirled as she turned away. To the clerk she snapped, "We were talking about my dog."
The clerk started to sputter but Novak cut in. "Let’s put him up at Dr. Robinson’s, Miss Norton. The doc’s got a fine place not two blocks away—just a short walk—in case you miss Toby and want to run over and visit him."
Her head turned again. She smiled and said dryly. "Now it comes to me. You’re a shill for a dog hospital."
The clerk bent toward her stiffly. "Our Mr. Novak, Miss Norton. House Security Service."
Novak took off his hat and fingered the brim. "Also Assistant Personnel Manager, Miss Norton."
Her lips twisted. "Another way of saying house dick."
"Yeah," Novak said indifferently. "Personnel hires them and I fire them. That way we keep all the work in the same office. Efficient."
"I’m sure I wouldn’t know," she said coolly, "never having worked in a hotel." Bending over, she scooped up the Skye and deposited it in Novak’s arms. "Here," she said, "you take care of him, Mr. Novak—since you’re such a close friend of Dr. Robinson’s." Then she turned, jerked her head at the bellhop and glided across the lobby toward the elevator. Jimmy Grant stared at Novak, snickered, and picked up her bags. The desk clerk hurried around the far side of the counter and gave the room key to the bellboy. Elevator doors opened, Miss Norton entered and Jimmy followed. Novak frowned. The clerk came back and the nails of his right hand made a scaly sound against the palm. In a nervous voice he said, "You’ve been warned about taking liberties with the guests."
Novak sighed. "True, Percy. Only too true. But with guests of Miss Norton’s special qualifications I’m a habitual offender; try as I may to resist, it’s hopeless." Gathering the terrier into a small furry bundle, he pressed it on the clerk. "Be a good fellow and call Doc Robinson, huh? Let’s give our guests a little service."
Then he turned, brushed Skye hair from his arms, smoothed his tie and walked around the end of the reception counter toward a door marked Personnel.
He tossed his hat at a stand in the corner, pulled off his coat and opened the Venetian blinds. Gray light from K Street filtered into his office. Novak lighted the lamp on his desk, sucked a lungful of smoke from his cigarette, butted it. Then he pulled a small envelope from his coat pocket, laid it on his desk and sat down. One hand pressed the intercom button and he spoke to the Tilden’s chief engineer.
"Mike, Pete Novak. You got a mech working for you named MacDonald—plumbing and air conditioning. Well, tell him to scoot up and see me. Yeah, he’s off at eight, but this can’t wait. If he asks what’s up tell him it’s about his family. Okay."
Snapping off the intercom Novak unsnapped the butt strap of his shoulder holster and drew out a snub-nose .38. He laid it on his desk near the brown envelope. Squinting in the semi-dark of his office he turned slowly in his chair until he faced the window. Early spring in Washington with fog and light drizzles. The sound of tires on wet paving, the muffled honking of horns through gray, heavy air. The Girl in Gray, Novak thought. Then he heard a noise and turned.
The man who came through the door was as big as Novak, and he wore blue coveralls with Hotel Tilden stitched across the chest. His hair was light blonde and curly. He wore round, steel-rimmed glasses and there were squint lines across his forehead and at the corners of his eyes. He said, "I’m MacDonald. You want to see me?"
Novak indicated a chair. When MacDonald settled uneasily into it, Novak said, "Ask me why you’re here, Murky."
MacDonald’s eyes narrowed. "You tell me, copper. What’s the rap?" His eyes flickered toward the envelope, the blue steel revolver.
Novak leaned forward, laid his arms on the desk and said softly, "This hotel chain’s run by a bunch of humanitarians, Murky. Either that or there’s a labor shortage I haven’t heard about. Your application came in, I checked the files and found you’d done a dipsey. For me that disqualified you, but the management hired you anyway, on the basis that you wouldn’t have contact with the public."
MacDonald’s face was working. "It was a rib-up," he husked. "They give me a two-specker on a rib-up."
"Can the excuses," Novak said. "The boarding schools are bulging with guys who got a bum rap—to hear them tell it. But, passing over your last sorrowful tale brings me to a theft that took place here at the Tilden only two weeks ago. A lady from Cleveland, Murky. A blonde divorcee silly enough to stuff some jewels in a desk drawer and waltz down to dinner. Next day when she looked for the dazzlers, guess what? Some were missing." His left hand lifted the brown envelope and spilled the contents on the desk. Light flashed from a jeweled bracelet, two rings and a sparkling brooch. "Finders keepers?" he said in a smooth, needling voice.
MacDonald’s face was the color of bleached bone. His right hand clawed at the throat of his coverall. He half-rose from the chair.
Novak shook his head disgustedly. "Not even half-smart, Murky. The gal put in a beef about her air conditioning and the record shows you were the mech who went up to fix it—while she was having her mountain trout and vin rose." He sighed, shifted in his chair and his ring hand moved an inch closer to the butt of his .38. "Tell me I needed a search warrant to shake down your room, Murky. Tell me you don’t have a glimmer how the loot got taped behind your bureau." His throat made an unpleasant sound. "On your way, punk. No pink slip for you. Just out. And park the monkey suit in the locker room. It’s hotel property."
MacDonald was standing, hands clenching and unclenching. He looked like a sick man. "Give me a break," he whispered.
Novak said, "You got it, Murky. And give me a prayer of thanks tonight. If I turned you in it’d be a tenner this time. And you got kids. As it stands, the dame’ll get the jewels back and be forever grateful. If you’ve got an ounce of sense you’ll feel the same. Raus!"
MacDonald turned, groped like a sleepwalker toward the door. It opened, sounds from the lobby drifted through, the moving body blocked the light and then the door closed.
Novak’s face twisted into a wry grimace. After a while he got up, patted the .38 back into the shoulder holster and went over to a file safe. He turned the dial combination until a drawer opened and then he went back, returned the jewelry to the envelope, licked the flap, sealed it, and dropped it inside the drawer. Then he opened another drawer, one with employee record cards, and made a notation on one. The file banged shut.
Outside it was darker now. Novak pulled out a key chain and unlocked a low drawer in his metal desk. He fumbled for a moment and pulled out a pint bottle of Irish whisky. Uncapping it he swallowed an ounce, rolled it around his tongue and let it drain slowly down his throat. He swallowed another ounce, sighed and replaced the bottle. Then he locked the drawer. Mockingly he announced: "Employees will not drink alcoholic beverages while on duty," wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his shirt and opened the door of a small bathroom. Clicking on the electric razor he buzzed his face lightly. It was a face that looked as if it had seen its share of trouble. Broad forehead, nose laced with fine scars of plastic repair, a lateral scar just under his right eye that could have been made by a slammed hockey puck of brass knuckles; heavy, dark-brown eyebrows over deep-set brown eyes; brown hair streaked with silver; and white teeth that were even only because they had been broken, ground down and capped. The hand that guided the razor showed flat, powerful fingers with knuckles enlarged by violent impact, broad nails trimmed short and square.
His hand tested the side of his face for stubble, then clicked the razor off. When he had washed he began to hum a disconnected tune, went into his office and pulled on his coat. Novak liked the feel of the finished worsted; it had been a two-hundred-dollar suit marked down on an off-season sale three years before. The few suits he had were of good quality and tailoring. His brown, pebble-grain brogues had cost close to forty dollars six years ago. He had a matching pair in black for hotel reception work, patent leathers for black-tie hotel parties and a pair of suede chukka boots for off-duty wear. Novak was a man who traveled light but what little he carried was as good as he could buy.
Nearly seven o’clock. He closed the blinds on the dark street, turned and peered across the dim office at his secretary’s empty desk. Mary had checked out at five, but his job knew no hours. At five o’clock he had been bluffing Murky’s landlady into letting him search the mechanic’s room for a mythical set of hotel keys. Maybe tonight some guy would pull a Dutchman and a frantic clerk would screech him down to the hotel before the cops arrived. Or a chippy would be entertaining gentleman callers at so much a head. Not at the Tilden, sister. Peddle it somewhere else. Hell, in a three-hundred-and-forty-room hotel anything could happen.
As he turned off the desk lamp he felt a chill creep through the office, A lonely place. At this hour very lonely. The Lost and Found Department, only you had to handle more than compacts and wallets and forgotten razors. Drunks too drunk to remember who they were or who rolled them, badger game couples, barroom hustlers, check artists, high-class panhandlers, con men, maids with larcenous fingers, pimping bellhops... Novak moistened his lips, grabbed his hat and jammed his hands into his pockets. A sweet job—like garbage collecting.
As he opened the door to the lobby he muttered to himself, "Well, you promised Mother you’d have a white-collar job," and closed the door quietly.
Novak’s heels clicked across lobby marble as he walked toward the hotel exit. Beside him Jimmy Grant materialized. "Gee, Pete, what a dish that Miss Norton, huh?"
"Sure is. Now get the gleam out of your eyes, sonny."
"New luggage, Pete. Had that store smell. And heavy. Boy, them bags musta had a dozen gold ingots apiece."
The hop shrugged. "Could be. No ring and not a society broad."
"She slipped me two bucks. Them’s that really got it don’t paper the streets with the stuff. Not this year."
Novak tapped his cheek lightly. "You might make an investigator at that."
Jimmy grinned. "Boy, did you look funny holding that pup she shoved at you. I didn’t hear no fast comeback, neither."
"There’s a time for throwaway dialogue and a time to hold silence. That’s life, kiddo." He moved on and out to the sidewalk. He turned down K Street, bought a Star from the kid on the corner and flagged a passing cab.
Between courses at the ristorante italiano out on New York Avenue he thumbed through the evening paper. Mama brought over a chianti bottle wrapped in straw and said, "I like you to try, Pete. Just offa the boat."
"I don’t go much for wine, Mama. Been kicked in the belly too much."
"Si, but this different." Uncorking it she filled a small glass, poured another for herself. It had the thin clear taste of good red house wine. Novak said so. Mama smiled. "Beats anything French, Pete. Here, you keep the bottle."
"Some other night, Mama."
"Okay." She corked it. "This your bottle, remember."
"And bring a girl." Her eyebrows furrowed. "Alla time you come alone. Why you never bring girl? Food not good enough?"
Novak managed a laugh. "Hell, it’s the best food in town. A girl? I had a girl once. Maybe once was enough."
Mama frowned. Her lips opened to say something but a waiter hurried up with a steaming plate of scaloppine. Novak tucked a napkin under his chin and started in. When he looked up again Mama was back at the cash register watching the bartender thoughtfully.
No movies he wanted to see, no fights in town. Not even an automobile show at the Armory. Too early in the year for open-air concerts at Watergate. Nothing to do but go back to his apartment and read, or clean his .38. As he walked along the sidewalk he decided he ought to return to the hotel and write a file memorandum on Murky MacDonald for circulation to the hotel protective association. Mary could cut a stencil and have it mailed by mid-morning. Then he could sleep late and to hell with the Tilden.
A legless bum was propped against a lamppost, formless as a battered trash can. Novak dropped a quarter in the reaching hand and passed on, setting his lips at the husky thanks. A hustler strolled furtively in the shadows, shiny patent-leather purse, a ruby glow tipping her cigarette. He shrugged her aside and walked on. From a bar came raucous laughter, the drone of a TV program turned up too loud, the stench of stale beer hugging the spring night.
At the corner he piled into a cab and rode back to the Tilden. Percy was still at the desk. When he saw Novak he waved his pen like a conductor’s baton and shrilled, "Thank goodness you’ve come, Mr. Novak. The most terrible thing has happened!"
Novak pushed back his hat. "Beetles in the flower shop, Percy?"
The clerk flushed and made a distracted gesture with one hand. "Please, Mr. Novak, this is no time for joking."
"For me it is," Novak said sourly. "I went off duty hours ago." He turned and scanned the lobby. "See? I’m not even here."
"Of course you’re here. And the guest in 515 needs your services. Oh, very badly. All of her jewels are missing."
Copyright © 1961 by E. Howard Hunt.