‘Ricardo! Double scotch.’
Richard waited for his face to neutralize before turning round.
‘No problem, Mr Collins.’
He poured the drink carefully and passed it over. Collins took a long, theatrical sip and slammed the glass down. He loosened his tie and settled into the bar stool with a sigh.
‘It’ll go on my tab, right?’
‘As usual, Mr Collins.’ As least it was somebody else’s problem to make sure he paid the tab.
Did nobody else need a drink at 3am? The lobby was lifeless except for the security guard and the night receptionist, who were having a murmured conversation. The phone rang and she hurried back to the front desk, the click of her heels echoing in the empty space. Cheap facsimiles of pop songs played on the sound system and the air was heavy with the smell of soap, starched laundry and air freshener. Richard felt slow and stupid and trapped, as if he were moving through treacle.
‘You’ll never guess what happened to me today.’ Collins leaned forward conspiratorially, breathing stale alcohol and tobacco into his face. ‘Just made the biggest deal of my life, that’s all!’
‘That’s great, Mr Collins. Something to celebrate.’ He wiped down the countertop. This is why bartenders in old Western movies always do this, he thought dreamily. It takes your mind off talking to blowhards like Collins.
‘Six figure deal this time.’
‘That’s great,’ Richard repeated.
‘I called my brother to tell him the news. Poor guy probably hasn’t made as much his entire career. He just assumed I’d be thinking of retirement now, but I told him no. I’d miss the adrenaline of the chase. It’s like hunting, a man needs to…’
A cleaning lady appeared from somewhere and walked past the bar, interrupting the philosophy lesson. Collins kept talking as he reached out a hand snakily, instinctively, and gently touched her buttock as she went by. She stiffened slightly but kept walking. Richard caught her eye but she shook her head at him. He opened up the register and rearranged the bills, his hands shaking slightly.
‘Could I get a vodka tonic when you’re ready?’ A woman’s voice made him jump. She had a Queen’s accent, like his mom.
‘Of course, ma’am. Sorry I didn’t see you there.’
‘No problem.’ The woman was mid-40’s and spoke quietly. She didn’t seem like the type to be drinking alone at a hotel bar at 3am.
‘Actually, make it a double.’
‘Bad day, darlin’?’ said Collins. Where had the Clint Eastwood accent come from?
‘Not my best,’ said the woman. She downed half the glass. She hesitated, staring into the clear liquid, then decided she might as well say it. ‘My divorce was finalized today.’
Collins put on a show of gallant disbelief. ‘No! Really? Your husband must have been mad to let you go.’ He raised his glass in a kind of faux-salute.
‘It’s not just me he’s left,’ she said, opening and closing the clasp of her pink purse. ‘He’s walked out on our two kids as well.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am,’ said Richard.
She managed a smile. ‘Thank you. How old are you anyway? Are you even old enough to be working behind the bar?’
’I’m 21, ma’am.’
‘Still a baby. And stop calling me ma’am, it makes me feel old. My name is Alice.’
‘All right, m…all right, Alice. I’m Richard.’
‘Are you in college, Richard?’
‘Yeah. Community college. My mom can’t afford to help me too much with tuition.’ She opened her eyes wider, nodding.
‘My parents got divorced too. When I was 10. My dad doesn’t help out much.’ Shut up, shut up! Why was he still talking? She wouldn’t want to hear this today of all days.
‘That’s rough,’ she said. ‘My ex is still visiting the kids every weekend, so far…’
‘That’s the right way to do it,’ said Collins, leaning forward into her line of sight. ‘My ex-wife, she’s a different story. Done nothing but turn my kids against me…’ He changed direction with a clanking of gears and pasted on a smile. ‘I’m Steve, by the way.’ He took her hand with one of those gentle ‘for the ladies’ handshakes. Richard’s girlfriend would have rolled her eyes, but Alice didn’t seem to mind.
‘Why are you in town, Steve?’ asked Alice.
‘For business, darlin’. I was just telling Ricardo here that I’ve just signed the biggest deal of my life.’ His face was getting redder by the second and little beads of sweat were appearing on his forehead. He loosened his tie again. ‘Six figure deal.’
‘Congratulations. Somebody should be having a good day.’ She held up her drink and they clinked glasses. She drained the last mouthful.
‘Another one, please, Richard.’ He hesitated but she was nowhere near the point where he could refuse service. Unfortunately. He took his time pouring it. It was intimate with just the three of them at the bar. He felt himself being pulled in, complicit.
‘What kind of business are you in, Steve?’ she asked. He would be interested to hear the answer – despite their cozy chats Collins has never explained exactly what he did.
‘Importing, exporting…various things,’ said Collins. Had he just stolen that from James Bond movies?
‘My youngest is talking about majoring in business at college,’ said Alice. ‘He’s just turned 16.’
‘He can’t go wrong with that,’ said Steve wisely. Richard almost snorted. He didn’t even know the kid.
Alice took another long drink.
‘I’m just heading to the ladies’ room.’ She left her drink on the bar but took her purse, still fiddling with the clasp. She was tottering slightly on her heels. The vodka apparently hadn’t been her first drink of the evening either. Steve watched her walk away, then turned to Richard.
‘Well, what do you think?’
‘Think of what?’
‘Of Alice! I think I’m gonna get lucky tonight!’ He laughed as if they were two frat-boys at a kegger. Richard squeezed the dishcloth harder.
‘Is that a good idea? She just got divorced today…’
The smile dropped off Collins’ face as if it has fallen off a cliff. He leaned forward. ‘You little pussy,’ he hissed. ‘Your fucking snowflake generation couldn’t score if…’
‘If you swear at me again, I’ll call security.’ Richard’s voice sounded calmer than he expected but his heart was slamming hard. His body itched to back away from the twist on Collins’ face. But he was trapped behind the bar, as usual. Finally Collins relaxed and coughed out an awkward laugh.
‘Sorry Ricardo. Just the drink talking. I’m fine when I’m sober but when I have a few drinks… it’s all talk anyway. I don’t have a violent bone in my body…We’re still buds, right?’
‘As much as we ever were, Mr Collins.’
‘Good guy.’ There was an awkward pause that Richard didn’t bother to fill.
‘How old do you think Alice is?’ Collins asked eventually.
‘I’m not sure.’ Richard shrugged. ‘In her forties, I guess.’
‘Hmmmm. Usually I prefer thirties but…she isn’t bad for her age, is she?’
Was he supposed to believe that Collins regularly got women in their thirties? He must have been over 50 and looked every day of it. Alice arrived back from the bathroom, saving him from having to answer. She toppled onto the barstool with a giggle and a polite little hiccup.
‘Miss me, boys?’ she asked.
The flirtation was fragile, askew, like a mask hanging off her face. Like a wound.
Collins smelt the blood a mile off. He whispered something in her ear, his mouth wet against her gold stud earring, then inched his paw up her leg under her business-suit skirt. She froze. Too fast, thought Richard. He’s blown it. But then she leaned into him, resting her hand on his arm. She still wore her wedding and engagement rings, and the thin gold band with the princess-cut diamond seemed tiny and delicate on Collin’s meaty arm. Richard looked away. A tired-looking older man pushed through the hotel door and headed straight for the bar.
‘Coffee, please,’ he said. ‘I’m beat. Would you believe I landed at nine and I’m only getting here now?’
Richard forced himself to concentrate on the new customer’s story about the nightmare he’d had at the airport…lost bags, hire car mix-up, the whole package. Finally Alice and Collins finished their drinks and stood up in a clatter of glasses. Her purse dropped to the floor and she stooped to pick it up, nearly falling over in the process. Collins managed to drop his briefcase next and it flew open, spilling sheafs of paper all over the floor. They got down on their hands and knees and started gathering them up clumsily, scrunching and creasing them into the case, laughing at each other before eventually giving up and closing the lid with a few papers still poking out. The receptionist at the front desk glanced over at the noise. The coffee-drinker shifted on his stool and caught Richard’s eye.
She was old enough to be his mother. He couldn’t tell her what to do. He couldn’t do anything.
They started walking unsteadily toward the elevator. Alice turned back suddenly and blew Richard a kiss.
‘It was lovely meeting you,’ she said. Collins winked at him. He put his arm round Alice and led her into the elevator. The door closed on them.
Twenty minutes later, Richard and the coffee drinker looked up at the sound of heavy running footsteps. Max, head of hotel security, flew past the bar.
‘Incident in room 204.’ 204. Collin’s room. Shit. Without stopping to think Richard took off after him. He got into the elevator just before the door closed. Max stared at him in surprise.
‘I want to check on Alice. I was serving her and Collins drinks earlier…’
Max was quick on the uptake. ‘As long as you don’t get in the way.’
Richard nodded. ‘Thanks, Max.’
The elevator spilled them out and Richard barreled down the corridor to room 204, overtaking Max, who was built more for intimidation than speed. His heart slammed against his chest and there was a sick taste at the back of his throat. He grabbed the door handle and pushed. Locked. He banged on the door in desperation.
‘Everybody all right in there?’ Silence.
‘Hurry up, Max,’ he shouted. ‘Where the fuck are you?’
Finally Max appeared. He was breathing hard.
‘Open the door, quick!’
‘Stand back. I have to go in first. I’m responsible for your safety as well.’ Max took a master key from his pocket and opened the door a crack.
‘Hello! Security! Is everything all right in here?’ Still no answer.
Max pushed the door open wide and Richard peered around him. His heart jerked in his chest. Alice was sitting on the bed, shaking, clutching a robe around her. Her fingers were white at the knuckles from gripping the fabric and there was blood on her lip. Were those red marks on her neck? Richard ducked round Max and ran over to her. She collapsed against him.
‘Are you all right, ma’am?’ asked Max. He was in detached, professional mode.
‘I think so…’ Her voice was hoarse. Richard hugged her close to him. His breathing was stabilizing now that he knew Alice was safe. Collins, he wasn’t particularly concerned about.
Max cast his eyes over the room with pursed lips. A broken vase of flowers oozed water into the luxury carpet. Alice’s purse lay upside down on the floor, again. Keys and loose change and little bottles of make-up and tissues with smears of red lipstick littered the room. An atmosphere of violence was trickling away and dissipating, leaving a kind of sick weariness.
Alice was shaking. Her body was freezing. Richard rubbed her arms, trying to warm her up. Why the fuck hadn’t he been able to think of some excuse to keep her at the bar longer? Fucking idiot.
Max walked around the bed and stopped suddenly.
‘Richard, get over here,’ he said abruptly.
He disentangled himself. ‘I’ll be right back,’ he said. Alice didn’t answer. She pulled the robe around herself more tightly.
He forced himself to look. He could imagine it before he saw it. Collins was lying on the floor in his underwear. Blood was trickling from his head onto the carpet, shockingly red and human against the cool beige fabric. His fleshy body was still.
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