A large ornate rug filled the floor, stretching up to the reception desk. The walls were covered with pictures of famous people who had stayed there, none of whom I recognised. A large stair case started next to the reception desk and rose up the back wall to the rooms above. Off the side of the main hall was a small dining area and bar and behind the reception desk was another room I assumed was the office. I guessed the place had looked nice once. Now, empty beer cans littered the floor and reception desk, stacked as though someone had tried and failed to turn it into a fortress. The smell of stale beer bulldozed my nostrils. Behind the beer cans on the reception desk was a large heap of clothes. They moved.
“What’s that Crumbs?” I asked looking at the desk. Crumbs, who couldn’t see over the reception desk, wandered around the side and gave them a sharp jab.
“Mrmfrss,” they said.
“It’s alive sir!” Crumbs said, backing away and reaching for his machete.
“Relax Crumbs,” I said stepping towards the counter. “I think it’s the manager.”
“Oh, then it’s just Bernie and Sheila sir.” Crumbs said, his face spreading into a grin of relief.
I looked at the bundle of clothes, large enough only to cover one human. I gingerly lifted a flap of fabric to reveal a large, bald black head. The familiar sinking feeling I had at the Winston mansion echoed around my stomach. This wasn’t going to be easy. I had to ask.
“Crumbs, there’s only one man under there. Where’s Sheila?”
Crumbs just grinned wildly.
I closed my eyes and sighed, “Well, here goes nothing.”
A small bell was half hidden beneath a small pile of empty beer cans. I brushed them onto the floor with a clatter that echoed around the entrance hall. Beneath the bell was a sign in scrawled handwriting that seemed to be blotched with tears:
Ring for Attention
Will someone please ring for attention?
I rang for attention. The sound that shook the walls and sent the empty cans cascading to the floor around me wasn’t a bell. It was an earthquake. A deep rumbling bellowed through the hotel floors. The man under the rags screamed, toppling off his chair to the floor. Crumbs attempted a dive for cover under a nearby chair but tripped over his dress and crashed headlong into a pile of empty beer cans. It was chaos. The hotel owner tried furiously to untangle himself from the rags he’d been sleeping in, while Crumbs’ high pitched sobs echoed round the room. I walked over to Crumbs and hoisted him up out of the wreckage. He looked at me, his eyes welling with tears, and wiped his nose on the hem of his dress.
“Thanks sir,” he sniffed.
“Don’t mention it.”
Behind the reception desk, muffled grunts emanated from the bundle of rags thrashing and twisting on the ground. I bent down, grabbed the hem and yanked it away, leaving a large muscle-bound man in grubby trousers, braces and a shirt in desperate need of darning, looking thoroughly bemused on the floor.
“Ouch,” He said.
“Like pulling a cloth from a table,” I said, adding under my breath, “A very large table.”
“What’s with the bell Bernie? It scared me to death!” Crumbs asked. I was confused. Where was Sheila?
He struggled to clamber back up onto the chair, still looking bewildered. His face was heavily bearded, with eyes that echoed the amount of beer consumed around the room. He wiped his face with a hand the size of a large plate and looked around the room as though no one was in it.
“Someone rang the bell?” He slurred in a deep rumble, not unlike the bell.
“Yes, I did.” I said, waving my hand in front of his face. “Why in god’s name was it so loud?”
He blinked erratically and his eyes swam into focus, noticing us for the first time. He jumped and then hiccupped and then burped, his face wide with surprise at all three.
“Who are you?” He asked me. His head swung around to Crumbs. “Crumbs? What are you doing here?”
“Hi Bernie,” Crumbs grinned. “This is Mr. Parker.”
He turned towards me and hiccupped again, sending a fresh wave of beer breath into my face.
“Charmed,” I said. “So, what’s with the bell?”
“Well, no one has rung the bell in so long. I thought possibly I had been missing people while I’d been cleaning the rooms and things. Thought maybe if I made it louder...” he let the sentence tail off, his eyes drooping in sadness.
“You thought it was the bell that was making people not want to stay here?” I asked looking around at the devastation.
“Very funny,” Bernie scowled. He turned to Crumbs again, “You brought this guy here just to make wise cracks?”
Crumbs grinned. I was about to apologise and ask about the real reason he’d had no customers when his face suddenly went blank. His eyes slowly focused on me, his face spreading into a cheeky grin as his gaze leered me up and down. He fluttered his eyelashes and leant forward, squeezing his arms together suggestively as though displaying an ample bosom.
“Hey sugar,” he said in an unnervingly high pitched voice.
“Oh no,” I said.
“Hey Sheila,” Crumbs chirped, grinning wildly.
“What brings a handsome man like you to a dive like this?” Sheila said, walking fingers strong enough to crush a rock across the desk and onto my hand. I quickly pulled it away and jammed it into my pocket. What a time to have run out of smokes.
“Ooh, a shy one,” she giggled, a high pitched squeak.
“Sheila,” Crumbs said, trying to peer over the counter next to me. “You couldn’t rustle us up some of your goat sandwiches could you?”
The big hotel owner leant over the desk.
“Crumbly Wumbly!” She screeched, clapping her hands together. “Of course! Give me a minute. Don’t you go anywhere!” She put a finger to the tip of my nose and then scurried off into the kitchen with the grace of a bulldozer.
As soon as she was out of sight I rounded on Crumbs, who hopped out of arms reach grinning.
“You didn’t think to warn me that Sheila is Bernie’s sex crazed alter ego?” I growled.
“I thought I did, sir,” Crumbs giggled. “She makes the best Goat sandwiches!”
“I’m going to get manhandled in my sleep.” I breathed, pulling my coat around me.
“There’s worse ways to spend an evening, sir.” Crumbs said grinning, hopping further away out of my reach.
“Goat sandwiches coming up dears!”
Sheila thudded back into the room carrying two plates, doing her best to be alluring by swaying her considerable hips from side to side. I put down the can I was about to throw at Crumbs and took a plate from Sheila, avoiding her attempt to lean over and kiss my hand. Crumbs gratefully took his plate and promptly sat cross legged on the floor, tearing at the unappealing sandwich with indecent pleasure.
“Mfanks Feila,” he said, spitting bread and goat onto the floor.
“Anytime for you my Wumbly Crumbly!”
She sat down behind the reception desk, one leg crossed over the other, and dropped her chin onto her interlinked fingers watching me intently. There was nothing for it. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I slowly picked up the sandwich, my instincts fighting every moment. I took a bite, as Sheila bit her lip seductively in turn. Suddenly her face went blank, refocusing after a few seconds as a confused Bernie looked at us.
“She didn’t make one for me did she? Miserable, good for nothing…” he trailed off into indistinct mutterings.
I tried and failed to swallow without tasting, cursing his timing.
“Have mine,” I said. “I don’t think Goat agrees with me.”
He looked at it hungrily and took it without hesitation, despite the chunk missing.
“Can’t make them yourself?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said with a mouthful of sandwich, “The crazy wench won’t tell me the recipe. Believe me I’ve tried.”
I shook my head. Trying to forget the taste of goat I looked around, leaving the others to their sandwiches. I kicked my way through the beer cans like leaves on an autumn path and ran a finger down the banister, leaving a clean streak through the thick dust. No one had been here for weeks.
“Why no customers Bernie?” I called from across the room.
He put down the half maimed sandwich and looked up with deep sorrow in his face.
“It’s these damn murders,” he growled. “Ever since Savage’s boy was killed there’s been less and less people coming to stay. They’re too scared to come out of their homes. Even if they did they wouldn’t come here if you paid them.”
“Why not?” I asked.
He simply pointed through towards the dining room. Curious, Crumbs stood up and followed me to the entrance. We both gasped. The room was immaculate, despite a thick layer of dust. The small bar occupying the right hand wall was fully stocked with spirits, the glasses neatly stacked. There were ten tables in the room, all with candles, table cloths, placemats and cutlery. The only thing detracting from the picture, and the reason we both gasped, was the large bloodstain on the ceiling. This was where the two policemen were killed.
“Oh,” I said.
“Right,” Bernie replied. He’d moved from the reception desk to join us at the door. “You think that’s good for business? The poor old dear whose cereal the blood dripped into almost had a heart attack. The place emptied before I could blink.”
My mind was buzzing again. Three of the murder victims had been at this hotel, Rupert Winston and the two policemen. I was starting to connect the dots.
“What happened?” I asked, playing innocent.
“Like you don’t know,” he grunted. “Everyone in this rotten place knows. Those two cops from the city came looking for clues on the murders and next minute they were skinned alive in my hotel!”
“Do you remember a couple that came in two weeks before, stayed overnight?”
Bernie didn’t look happy. The injustice of it all seemed to be flooding back to him. Crumbs, bored of the conversation, was sat cross legged on the floor trying to fix some empty beer cans together into a necklace.
“Lots of couples come here,” he said, distracted. “How am I supposed to remember them all?”
“The woman was blonde,” I said and, before he could scoff, I added, “with a heavily scarred face.”
His eyes snapped up to mine.
“Yeah I remember them!” He paused, fighting for the memory through the beer. “Not a happy couple at all those two. They spent most of the time arguing. You could hear them from down here, yelling and screaming. When they came down to breakfast in the morning they didn’t say a word to each other. Ate and left, just like that.” He clicked his fingers. Then as an afterthought said, “The man was a bit odd though.”
“In what way?”
“Well,” he said, much more cheerful now he had a story to tell that didn’t remind him of his misfortune. “It was the woman that seemed to do most of the shouting. He just sat and sulked, or pleaded with her to stop yelling. Must’ve been from some money though, what he was wearing.”
“What was he wearing?
“A purple sort of turban and a pink dressing gown. Reeked of nobility, he did.”
“Do you remember what room they stayed in? I’d like to have a look.”
“Why?” He asked, a puzzled frown on his face.
“He was murdered not long ago. I’m trying to find out why.”
The puzzled look remained until he connected the dots. I could almost see the gears turning. Then, his eyes widened in shock.
“No, it can’t be. He wasn’t…Was he…the Governor’s son?”
I nodded. Suddenly I wished I hadn’t. A high pitched howl rang through the hall as he slammed his huge hands to his face. Crumbs, who’d curled up on my feet to sleep, woke with a start, sending his necklace of beer cans across the wooden floor with a clatter.
“Now I’ll never get any business! If people find out he stayed here, they’ll never come again!” He grabbed the hem of my coat and stuck his tear streaked face into mine. “You won’t tell anyone will you?”
I pushed him off and straightened out my coat.
“With your record I wont be around long enough to tell anyone.”
He wailed even louder and slapped his hands back to his face.
“Relax,” I said gingerly patting him on the shoulder. “The best places are those with a past. When this is over you’ll pull the people in from all over…even from the city.”
He peered at me between his fingers, “Really?”
“Sure. I can see it now – The Sprawl City Hotel – Site of the Famous Silver Tooth Murders.”
I waved my hand through the air for effect. It worked. His hands dropped and his eyes followed my hand with a dreamy expression.
“Even from the city…” he muttered staring into space.
“You bet,” I said.
Crumbs gave a loud yawn.
“You got any rooms for us Bernie?” He asked, after failing to fix his necklace.
“Rooms?” He looked confused again. “You want to stay the night? After everything you’ve heard?”
“Yes we do Bernie,” I said. I should’ve noticed it but I didn’t. His eyes went blank and I said it before I could stop myself, “Let’s go upstairs.”
“I thought you’d never ask sugar,” Sheila said, fluttering her eyelashes and coming closer.
“Hey Sheila,” Crumbs said through another yawn saving me from the bone crunching hug I was about to receive.
“Oh Crumbly Wumbly you look tired. Come on, let’s get you to bed.” She took his hand and looked around the room. “Tch, I tell you, when my husband learns to clean instead of cry the customers will flood in. Never mind these murders!”
I stopped, mouth open. “Husband?”
“Only half the time sugar,” she said lifting up a finger with a thick gold ring on it and, winking, added, “and what he don’t know, won’t hurt him.”
“Right where the wife’s always wanted to be,” I muttered.
“What room would you like my little Wumbly Crumbly? The usual?”
“Please Sheila,” he said grinning.
They set off upstairs, Sheila leading him by the hand. I followed, my head reeling. At the top of the staircase was a small hallway with different passageways and staircases leading in every direction. She headed down one with Crumbs and beckoned me to follow, shaking her ample bottom as she went.
“Which one would you like sugar?” She asked.
“What are my options?”
“The honeymoon sweet is always a favourite.” She giggled, putting her finger to her heavily bearded mouth.
“Pass,” I said.
“Oh you are too cute!” She cried. “Well if you want to play hard to get. I’ll show you our most popular rooms. They’re all in this hallway.”
We stopped at an archway entrance to a long, dark corridor with a sign at the top – ‘Luxury Suites.’ The walls were stained with damp, the red carpet with brown marks I didn’t want to inspect too closely and a distinct smell of sweat lingered in the stifling, hot air.
“If this is luxury I’d hate to see the budget rooms,” I whispered.
“This one was always fully booked,” Sheila said. “We were taking orders till March before…you know.”
She led us to the first door, shaped like a gigantic Edam complete with red wax. She seized the mini Edam door knob and pushed open the door.
“The Cheese Room,” she announced with a flourish.
The smell of cheese hit me like a bat to the head, making it spin. I stared. The whole room was made from various types of cheese, with wooden signs nailed to every piece of furniture. There was the Cheddar Bed, a grand four poster with curtains made out of sheets of cheddar cheese complete with a mattress that looked as comfy as a night in a tumble dryer. Next to that were the Cannon Bert Chair and the Feta Kettle. The cushions and pillows were made out of a blue cheese mould. My stomach churned.
“Cheese doesn’t really agree with me,” I said hastily closing the door.
“Ooh a tricky customer!” Sheila squealed, “I know just what to do with you.”
She grabbed me by the hand, crushing my fingers.
“People love this one!”
She led me to a rivet-peppered door made out of thick metal with a small porthole in the front and a huge rotating handle with four spokes. She grabbed the heavy handles and spun them like they were made out of paper. The door swung open with a screech, revealing a small air-lock chamber with an identical metal door blocking the hotel room. A diving suit with a spherical metal head and long breathing tube hung on the wall.
“The Deep Sea Diving Room!” She declared.
I stepped gingerly into the chamber and looked through the porthole into the room. The room was indeed underwater, explaining the block I’d seen pumping water out of a window into the pond below. The bed, again a four poster, was built into the wreckage of a small galleon, the mattress made out of seaweed. Live fish were swimming happily around, including a large hammerhead shark.
“People sleep in this?”
“Oh yes,” she giggled again, winking. “Much more than sleeping.”
She wiggled her large posterior again. Fighting lots of images I didn’t want to be seeing, I hurried out of the anti-lock chamber and asked to see the next room.
“Ah, Crumbly Wumbly! Your room next! Wumbly Crumbly?”
He wasn’t with us. I span round searching the darkness. Nothing. I rushed back along the corridor to find him curled up outside the cheese room fast asleep. Sighing, I picked him up under my arm and carried him down the corridor. As Sheila rushed up to us saying how worried she’d been, I realised I’d been worried too. Maybe the psychopathic gnome was growing on me. Maybe it was just the cheese.
“Come on sugar,” Sheila was saying. “His room’s this way. Let’s get the little guy to bed.”
The next room on was separated by an innocent looking oak door with a slit in the top at eye-level. Sheila knocked with a massive fist on the wood. I watched the slit on the door. Nothing. A deep voice rumbled next to me.
“Those bloody Knights!” Bernie yelled banging harder on the door.
The slit opened a fraction and a bleary, bloodshot eye peered out at us.
“Pathword pleath,” the voice slurred in a drunken lisp.
“The password is let me in or you’ll find yourself spending a night in the underwater room without a suit!”
There was a pause, then…“Very good thir.”
There was a hasty scrambling at the locks and the door swung open to,
“The Medieval Room,” Bernie announced with considerably less flourishing.
The room was cold, dark grey stone. Weapons of various sizes hung around the room, slits in the walls sent bursts of cold sharp air into the room, and two men dressed in full suits of armour slept, unaware of our entry; one by the door he had just opened and another at a desk in the corner. Like the reception area, the floor was covered with more beer cans than at a Salini wedding reception. Bernie ushered us into the room and slammed the door hard behind him. Both the Knights woke up with a start, stammering their apologies.
“Sorry thir, just dropped off for a minute.”
“Deepest apologies,” the second Knight boomed, then upon seeing us his eyes widened as far as the lids would let them. “Ah, I do not believe we’ve met.”
He staggered over and stretched his hand out to Bernie, who slapped his helmet with a heavy hand.
“I’ve employed you ever since Sheila came up with the rotten idea for themed rooms you overpaid pair of tin buckets!”
“Ah Bernie, always a pleasure,” the Knight muttered from the floor before adding hopefully. “We thought we heard Sheila coming down the hall?”
“Yeah well, Sheila has gone to bed and she won’t be coming to fall soft on you two again.”
“Pithy,” the Knight by the door whispered feebly.
Bernie spun round and began slapping both Knights hard on the helmets screaming, “Up! Up! The pair of you! We have a guest, which means you have a job to do!”
“They’re part of the room?” I asked perplexed as the Knights stood up, mustering as much dignity as they could manage.
“For all your duelling needth,” the smaller Knight lisped.
“What is your preferred weapon sir?” The large Knight boomed at me, drawing his sword and waving it around vigorously until he buried it deep into a post on the bed. Bernie put a large hand to his forehead and breathed frustration out through his nose.
“Oh it’s not me staying here. It’s Crumbs.” I nodded to indicate the man asleep under my arm. I walked over to the bed and put him on top of the mattress. I hadn’t noticed both Knights run to the wardrobe in the corner of the room and shut themselves in.
“What the…?” I asked.
“Thir, you promised never again!” The little Knight whispered from the crack in the wardrobe.
“Yeah well, business is slow. We need all the money we can get!”
“Why are you hiding in the wardrobe?” I called to them.
“SSsssssssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” They whispered in unison. “Don’t wake him up!”
“Come on Mr. Parker,” Bernie said. “Let’s leave them to it and I’ll show you to your room.”
Perplexed, I followed Bernie to the door. As we left Bernie nudged a nearby lamp off its stand. It smashed to the floor, the noise reverberating around the room. Crumbs’ eyes blinked and opened. He looked around, seeing the room and the weapons and his eyes lit up.
“Oh, you bath…” The Knight began from the wardrobe before the door shut behind us.
We walked down the hallway, making it five steps before the door to the medieval room flew open and both Knights hurtled away from it and down the corridor screaming, closely followed by Crumbs brandishing his machete and grinning manically.
“Come back and duel me! Cowards!”
As they disappeared around the corner Bernie turned to me with a satisfied smile.
“Just one last room to show you in the luxury suite and it’s our special horror themed room!”
My heart sank. Just what I needed.
“No one has spent a whole night in this room to date,” he continued. “We even offer a special prize to anyone who can last till dawn.”
“What’s the prize?” I asked.
“A years worth of free Goat sandwiches made especially by Sheila!”
“Let’s hope I don’t make it,” I muttered as Bernie turned back down the corridor.
We stopped at the very end of the hallway. The door was covered in fake cobwebs and a large sign read above the door – Only the Brave May Enter Here.
“You should have that sign above the hotel.” I said. Bernie scowled.
“You won’t be making wise cracks after you’ve been in there for an hour.”
Bernie tiptoed towards the door for dramatic effect and carefully put the key in the lock, turning it with exaggerated effort. The door swung open.
“The City Room,” Bernie announce in his best scary voice.
My jaw dropped. It was a plush city hotel room, with a luxury four poster, ornate cupboards and wardrobes and a sparkling tiled bathroom. My own apartment in the city wasn’t this nice. I walked in and looked around. Bernie stayed at the door.
“This room was made with the worst the city has to offer: tiles, laminate flooring and…flowers!” He shuddered, his eyes landing on the bouquet of fresh flowers on the window ledge.
“It’s revolting,” I lied. I stuck my hands in my pockets and whistled, unable to believe my luck when my hand met the scrunched up hotel receipt. “Ah, I just remembered I wanted to see the room where Mr. Winston stayed?”
“You’re in it,” Bernie said in a stony voice.
I already knew he was going to say it. I knew as I looked down onto the bed and saw the two white outlines and the blood stain on the floor. I knew as clear as the city sky that the policemen had been killed in the same room Rupert Winston had stayed with the scarred blonde. My head was spinning again.
“You said no one had stayed in this room all night?” I asked.
“But you also said that Mr. Winston and his blonde friend were at breakfast in the morning.”
“Yes that’s right. There was so much shouting going on they were upsetting everyone else. We asked them to move to a room on another corridor where no other guests were staying.”
“They didn’t leave of their own accord?”
“Not at all. In fact, if we hadn’t asked them to move I would’ve bet the hotel that they’d be the first to make it through.”
I stared in to space for a while turning this over in my head and wondering if it was a clue. I noticed Bernie watching me apprehensively.
“We have a lot of other rooms if you’d rather not stay in this one.”
“I’ll take it Bernie, thanks,” I said.
“On your head be it. Good luck!” He closed the door and scurried off down the hall.
I went to the bathroom and washed my face, took off my coat and hat and sat down on the bed. The room was immaculate if you ignored the white outlines and the bloodstain. I ran my hands over my face and through my hair. I’d been in the Sprawl a day and I was in a tangle of webs so deep I didn’t know if I’d ever get out. I tried to run over the things I’d seen and heard in my head but there were too many strings. A traitorous city mayor posing as Prince Savage, a scared karaoke judge estranged from her family and a hotel owner with a split personality who happened to be his wife. The only suspect I had was a blonde with a scarred face and the only lead, a murder victim in the middle of it all; Rupert Winston. He’d known someone was after him. Whether he’d known the blonde was involved, I didn’t know, but he’d been onto something. That hotel receipt was left for a reason. Now, in a dangerous world I didn’t know, I was following a trail left by a man whose father slept in a cot. I was in trouble.
I got up and explored the cupboards, finding to my surprise a fully stocked mini bar, with – I couldn’t believe my eyes – cigarettes. I tore open the pack, jammed the orange tip into my mouth and sucked the smoke back with indecent pleasure. It was a bad habit, I knew, but when I was this far in the dark, it was my only friend. I laid on the bed, puffing smoke rings into the air.
Later, as I was watched the embers die away in the ash tray, I played the events of the day over in my head. I could see the scar on Silver’s face and his vivid green eyes. I could see Maureen Gusset bumping into the cupboards and I could smell the loin tingling perfume of Sylvia Winston. There were so many people involved any one of them could have been the killer. The motives all lead back to the Silver Teeth. The priceless treasure stolen from the Klacks who’d had it made illegally in the city, a reminder of it left at the scene of every crime. A treasure as valuable as that lost in the Sprawl was an accident waiting to happen, and like the city folk at the Sapphire Corale had warned, it had led to another gang war.
My eyes were unfocused, gazing up into the canopy of the four poster bed, until I noticed it. Right in the corner of the fabric was a small tear that had been re-sewn. It was almost imperceptible. I knelt up and began picking at with my nails until I had released a strand of thread and tugged at it. The fabric pulled away and a small object fell into my hand. A ring. The ring was identical to the Winston heirloom, except instead of a large W on the top, there was an H – Herbert. This was Herbert Winton’s ring, the Governor that went missing. There was no doubt in my mind that Rupert had left this. I laid back down on the bed, twirling it in my fingers. Had he left it for someone to find or so he could come back and get it another time. My guess was the latter. Perhaps he’d meant to go into hiding once he’d finished his trail and re-emerge when the killer had been found. Did Rupert Winston know where the treasure was? Why leave this ring?
The questions about Rupert’s involvement turned over in my head until slowly they morphed to blurred images of unknown faces and mutilated corpses.
A body sawn in half vertically rippled in my vision. It had the head of Crumbs who was crying,
“The Silver Teeth, The Silver Teeth,” in an eerie voice.
The image rippled again and Silver’s face loomed over me, the silver tooth twinkling round his neck.
“She always knew what it meant to be a Savage,” it said, followed by a high pitched cackle.
The door to my room slammed and I woke up suddenly to find a figure shrouded in shadow looming over me, holding an enormous knife in one hand and a hand-saw in the other, both glinting dangerously in the moonlight. The knife swept through the night towards my neck.