Imperial Hotel ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Nothing so jarring as the ringing of the phone at midnight. Fitzie Garston reached for it before she was fully awake and overturned the lamp and knocked her glasses to the floor where they dodged handily underneath the chest of drawers. She would have to get the yardstick to fish them out.
“Yes?” she said when she had managed to get the receiver over her ear, a little too loud and too eager.
“Mother?” a faraway voice said.
“Nobody calls me that anymore.”
“Who is this?” she asked. “Do you know what time it is?”
“I go by the name Lewis now.”
“I know you were asleep and I’m sorry to startle you this way but I need your help.”
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I’m downtown. Right here in the city.”
“Well, why don’t you come home, then, and…”
“I can’t come home. That’s the problem.”
“I can’t explain fully now, but I’m being held prisoner in a way.”
“Who’s holding you prisoner?”
“They’re not exactly holding me prisoner, but they’re keeping me here until they get something I have.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a package that I left at your house one day when I stopped by and you were gone.”
“You mean you were here when I was out and I didn’t even know it?”
“I still have the key, mother. Remember?”
“Oh, yes. The key.”
“Are you listening to me? Are you hearing what I’m saying?”
“After we hang up, go into my old room. Go to my old beat-up desk and open the bottom drawer on the right. Have you got that?”
“Bottom drawer on the right.”
“Underneath some old books and things in the drawer is a small, square package wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. I need you to bring it to me as soon as you can.”
“Do you mean now? Tonight?”
“I’m really sorry to have to ask you to do this, but I’m afraid there’s no other way.”
“What’s in the package?”
“I can’t tell you now, except to say that it’s terribly important.”
“I think I should call the police.”
“No! Don’t do that! That’s the worst thing you could do right now.”
“You don’t want to know. Just believe me when I say it’s better not to get the police involved.”
“You’re in some kind of trouble, aren’t you?”
“Brilliant deduction, mother.”
“I wish your father were here. He would know what to do.”
“Get dressed, get the package out of the drawer in my room and bring it to me. After this is all over, we’ll have a nice visit and I’ll explain the whole thing.”
“All right, Lloyd.”
“My name is Lewis now. Try to remember that. And don’t drive your car down here.”
“It can be traced and, besides, you’re not familiar with the streets in this part of the city and you’ll get lost. That’s the last thing we need right now.”
“I could take the bus.”
“Buses stop running at midnight. I think the only thing for you to do is to call a cab. That’s better than the bus anyway, isn’t it? More comfortable?”
“I suppose so.”
“You won’t fail me now, will you?”
“No, I’ll do what you ask. It’s just that…”
“I don’t like going out by myself this time of night.”
“Don’t be a goose, mother. The cab driver will be with you the whole time. Just tell him to bring you to the Imperial Hotel at the corner of Ninth and Dominion. Will you remember that?”
“Ninth and Dominion.”
“That’s the slums, isn’t it? The poor part of the city they used to call Skid Row?”
“You’ll be fine mother, believe me. You’ll be back home in less than an hour and back in bed. I’ll come around tomorrow and we’ll talk the whole thing over.”
“Now when you get to the hotel, come up the stairs to room three-twelve. I don’t think the night clerk will give you any trouble, but if he does tell him you’re delivering a package.”
“Dominion Hotel, Ninth and Imperial, room three-twelve.”
“No, mother! The Imperial Hotel at Ninth and Dominion! Go get a pencil and some paper and write it down.”
“I don’t need to write it down. I’ll remember.”
“Are you sure?”
“And don’t let yourself be distracted. I’m counting on you.”
When she hung up the phone, she kept repeating the words I’m counting on you over and over in her head. He had counted on her so many times before and she had always come through for him, but wasn’t it terribly unfair that she had never been able to count on him for anything?
He had always been a difficult boy. Always in some trouble or other. Not like anybody else in the family. Suspensions from school for fighting and stealing. Finished high school in juvenile detention. After school, in and out of jail. His mother and father didn’t know what to do with him. He blamed her for Lloyd being the way he was; she coddled him too much, he claimed. She had two children die before Lloyd was born. When Lloyd came along, she wanted to make sure he had every advantage that a mother could give him. She wanted the world to love him as much as she did. She spoiled him, gave him money, always bought him anything in the world he wanted, put him above every other consideration. And what good did any of it do? She was a failure as a mother. In her more despairing moments, she believed she would have been better off if he had died, too. Still, though, she was his mother, and she would do whatever she needed to do to help him.
In the long intervals that she didn’t hear from Lloyd, she subscribed to the no-news-is-good-news theory. He would be all right, she said. He just needed to grow up, and when he did he would be the kind of son she always wanted him to be. He would come back home and live with her. She would cook and clean for him and make his life as comfortable and secure as she knew how. And when it was time for her to leave the world he would be there to see to things, to call up the funeral home, to mourn for her and to see that she was placed in the grave alongside his father. And on the other side of her grave was a grave waiting for him to claim as his own when the time came, if only he wanted it.
After dressing herself in dark-colored, going-downtown-after-midnight clothing, she went into Lloyd’s room and retrieved the package from the desk drawer. She placed it in a brown canvas book bag to make it easier to carry and went downstairs and called a cab, which arrived in less than five minutes.
Sitting in the back seat of the cab, she paid little attention to the labyrinth of dark streets, and in a few minutes the cab pulled up in front of the Imperial Hotel at Ninth and Dominion. She paid the driver and got out and the cab sped away. As easy as if she did it all the time.
The lobby of the hotel was deserted. She slipped past the desk clerk, who seemed not to notice her, and went silently up the stairs to the third floor. She found room three-twelve and knocked.
“Who is it?” a voice called from behind the door.
“Is Lloyd Garston here?” she said.
“His name is Lloyd but he goes by the name Lewis.”
The door opened suddenly with a creak of hinges, startling her. A man whose face she could barely see in the dim light faced her. “Who did you say you’re looking for?” he asked.
“His name is Lloyd but he says he goes by the name of Lewis now.”
“It’s her,” the man said over his shoulder to someone else in the room.
“Let her in,” a deep voice said.
She found herself in a shabbily neat room with two large beds and two windows. One of the windows was open, a curtain billowing in the wind. Over to the right was a round table with chairs. A man sat alone at the table smoking a cigarette. He was middle-aged, balding, a small moustache.
“Come in,” he said, motioning for her to sit at the table.
“Is Lloyd here?” she asked.
“I don’t know no Lloyd,” he said.
“Lewis, then. Is Lewis here?”
“Well, he’s on the premises, but he ain’t in the room, as you can see.”
“I’m his mother. I have a package that he says is very important to him.”
“Do you know what’s in the package?”
“What if I was to tell you there’s nothing in the package but some useless papers?”
“I don’t understand.”
He laughed and stubbed out his cigarette, lit another one. “Would you like a drink?” he asked.
“I’d like a drink of water,” she said.
“Get the lady a glass of water,” he said to the man who had opened the door. “And make sure the glass is clean!”
When he brought her the water, she sat in the chair at the table and took a long time drinking it, stalling somehow, as if she might put off something terrible that she believed was going to happen.
“I want to see him,” she said.
“Not so fast!” the man at the table said. “You’ll see him. You just have to be patient.”
“I brought the package that he says he has to have and I want to give it to him myself.”
“All right. All right.”
He went to a phone between the two beds and picked up the receiver. “Bring him down,” he said.
In a couple of minutes the door opened and Lewis came into the room, accompanied by a very young man with a gun. Lewis’s hands were tied, but the young man untied them, keeping the gun in view all the time.
“Hello, mother,” Lewis said.
“Lloyd!” she said, standing up and taking a step toward him. “What is this all about?”
“I’m sorry to drag you into this,” Lewis said, “but I had no other choice.”
“You look terrible.”
“I know. I’ve been through a bad time.”
“Why? What’s the matter?”
“This bum owes me a bundle of money is what’s the matter,” the man at the table said with a smile.
“Why do you own him money?” she asked Lewis.
“It seems that our little friend was bitten by the gambling bug and his luck hasn’t been so very good lately.”
“Yeah, you know. Cards and dog racing and stuff like that.”
“Oh, Lloyd!” she said. “Is there any vice you haven’t been lured into?”
“My name is Lewis now. I told you that on the phone. I never liked the name Lloyd. It never did fit me.”
She took the package out of the bag and set it on the table. “I brought you this,” she said. “I hope it’s what you need to get yourself out of the trouble you’re in.”
“Thanks, mother, but I’m afraid it’s just a prop.”
“A prop? What do you mean?”
“The package isn’t anything. It was just an excuse to get you to come down here.”
“Why did you need an excuse?”
“It was my idea,” the man at the table said. “What mother wouldn’t come to the aid of her child? Calling after midnight, when you know the old lady is sure to be asleep, was just a little extra touch to make it more dramatic, if you know what I mean.”
She sat back down in the chair, beginning to see the picture. “How much?” she asked.
“Altogether about a hundred and ten thousand,” the man at the table said. “It’s really more than that, but I’m giving the kid a break since me and him are such great pals.”
“We were never pals,” Lewis said with a sneer.
“You expect me to pay the money,” she said.
“Lewis said he was sure you had the dough and would pay it willingly to save his life.”
“I’m sorry, mother,” Lewis said. “There was just no other place I could look to for that kind of money.”
“What if I don’t pay it?” she asked.
“Then this is the last time you see your son.”
“You kill people over a hundred and ten thousand dollars?”
“When it’s that much we do. If it was less—say a few thousand—we’d just rough him up, maybe break a couple of bones, and throw him in a ditch.”
“I’m going to the police.”
“And it wouldn’t do you a bit of good.”
“What if he gave you part of the money now and the rest later?”
“I’ve already tried that, mother,” Lewis said.
“We don’t work that way,” the man at the table said. “We get all of our money that’s owed to us and we get it all in one lump.”
“That seems terribly unfair.”
“We’ll give you a couple of days to raise the money. We’re not animals. Mortgage your house or do whatever you have to do. And in the meantime we’ll keep Lewis here with us where he’s safe.”
“I don’t want you to do it, mother,” Lewis said.
“I know I’ve been nothing but trouble all my life and I don’t want to go on this way. I don’t mind dying. I deserve it.”
“I’ll pay it,” she said.
“I knew you would,” the man at the table said, “or I don’t know nothing about human nature.”
“Please don’t pay it, mother!” Lewis said. “Just get yourself a cab and go home and forget about me!”
“I’ll have the money for you within forty-eight ours,” she said to the man at the table. “Just tell me where you want it delivered.”
“No!” Lewis said.
He grabbed the gun that the young man was holding and pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger. The concussion knocked him over against the wall.
The man at the table stood up, knocking over the chair he was sitting in, and ran out of the room as though escaping a fire. The other two men, the man who had opened the door and the young man with the gun, ran out after him. The young man first picked up the gun where it had landed after Lewis shot himself.
She was alone in the room with her son. She knelt beside him and cradled his head in her arms, not minding the blood.
“I’m glad,” he said. “This is the best thing that could happen.”
“Don’t try to talk, Lloyd” she said. “An ambulance will be here in no time and you’ll be all right.”
“No, no, no,” he said. “Not Lloyd. Lewis. I need you to remember that.”
“What’s money compared to your own child?” she said, but she knew he had stopped breathing and didn’t hear.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp