The front desk called me just after midnight, as I was making my rounds of the back of the hotel. It had been almost an hour since the shift change at 11:00, so the back entrances should all have been locked, but in a large hotel with literally thousands of doors that should be locked, there are always a few that some fool or other has forgotten to secure. As soon as I got the call, I stopped what I was doing and made my way back to the front of the hotel, anyway.
When I arrived at the front desk, I found two policemen I had known for years. Technically, they were plainclothes detectives who had been to the hotel many times over the years, working a variety of cases.
"What's up, guys?" I asked. Both of the detectives turned reluctantly from the front desk, where they had been harassing Cindy, the overly-endowed desk clerk.
"We're here to talk to one of your guests, one 'Dan House'," said Jack Wright, the taller of the two policemen. I had known Jack for years, and we had always gotten along well, which meant that he occasionally would do me favors while I occasionally comped him a room for the night. I knew better than to ask the man why he needed a hotel room when he had a house—complete with a wife and a dog—in town.
"According to Cindy, he's been in room 1404 for two days, but he's not answering the phone. Housekeeping says there has been a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the door ever since he got here. The only person who has seen him has been the room maid." Added his partner, Jeff Brown.
Jack took one last look towards Cindy, then turned to me and said, "Cindy says he asked for that room when he checked in. Can you let us into the room?"
"Sure," I answered. As we slowly rode up in the elevator, the two policemen explained that House had just been let out of the state prison in Huntsville the week before, and had failed to meet with his parole officer.
"Normally, this wouldn't be a matter that we would get involved with, but this case is a little different," explained Wright. "We've been watching him for the last eight years. He was convicted of armed robbery, but the stolen loot was never recovered. As a matter of fact, House was arrested here in this hotel shortly after the robbery."
"What did he steal?"
"Diamonds: The Zales Jewelry Company used to keep its distribution center here in Houston; House and a woman held the center up and made off with $4 million in diamonds. House was offered all sorts of deals, but would never give us the name of his accomplice or the location of the jewels, so he served the whole eight-year sentence."
After what seemed like an interminable delay, the elevator doors opened, and the three of us made our way down the hall to 1404. "You say he was arrested here, in this hotel?" I asked.
"Yes. According to our notes, he was arrested in this very room," answered Brown.
"Eight years ago was before my time. I only came here five years ago, after The Shanghai Hotel chain bought it. They shut the place down for a month and repainted everything, then hired a new staff." As we neared the end of the hall, I pointed to one of the many Oriental charms hanging over a fire escape to ward off bad luck.
I knocked on the door. One of the first things you learn in the hotel business is to always knock on the door before you enter. I've lost track of the times I've walked into "empty" rooms and found people—a few of whom had been both larger and meaner than me. Using my pass key, I opened the door and stepped back to let the policemen enter first. That's another thing I had learned in the hotel business: Never hurry to trouble: it might still be there when you got there.
As I followed the two men into the room, I knew from the wet smell of copper what we were going to find. Both of the policemen pulled their sidearms from under their sports coats, and Brown, who had entered after Wright, turned right to check the bathroom while his partner went into the room and checked behind the beds.
I moved forward slowly, surveying the room. It was going to take a lot more than just housekeeping to fix this room. The mattresses had been cut open, along with the upholstered chair in the corner. Pictures had been pulled off the walls and every drawer had been pulled out of the combination dresser and desk. In over a dozen places, the sheetrock walls had large, gaping holes. However, all of this just barely registered, as it was hard for me to take my eyes off of the dead man slumped in the chair in the middle of the room.
A slight, frail man was dressed only in his underwear, with his arms securely fastened to the arms of the straight-back wooden chair, and his ankles just as securely fastened to the front legs of the chair. A pillow lay next to his feet, a small feather protruding from a hole in the center. It looked like all the air had been let out of an inflatable dummy; the man looked really dead—like two days' dead. But what really drew my eyes was the neat hole in his forehead that was black-edged, with a trickle of blood down one side of his pale face and neck, staining the tee-shirt and shorts. The blood was already dried, but the metallic smell filled the room.
Both officers came into the room and stood beside me as they holstered their weapons. "Is that House?" I asked.
"Probably," answered Wright. "Unofficially, it looks like him. It also looks like someone was looking for something in here. This room has been torn apart."
"Whoever killed him must have wanted the diamonds. Do you think he hid them in this room eight years ago, and was killed when he came back for them?" asked his partner.
"Probably," answered Wright. "But we'll probably never know for sure. We could never figure out who his partner was eight years ago, and we are unlikely to figure it out now."
I stepped forward, carefully looking away from the body of the dead man to look Wright in the face.
"Actually, I'm pretty sure I know who did it," I said. Now I had both the cops' full attention. "If the only person to see him since he checked in is the maid..."
"Right," said Wright. "She's the only one with opportunity—that we know of. But why?"
"No one but the maid has reported seeing him since he checked in. The 'Do Not Disturb' sign has been on the door for two days, so it stands to figure that the only one who could have killed him was the maid. I'm betting that we'll find out that she is the missing accomplice. House probably never gave her the share she had earned, and she knew he had been captured before he had a chance to fence the diamonds, so she probably figured out that he had hidden them here. I think we’ll find she got a job here in the hotel just so she could wait for him to return for them."
Wright looked at Brown for a second, then Wright nodded at his partner and Brown hurriedly left the room, probably looking for a phone to use that wasn't in the middle of a crime scene.
Wright stood in the room for a second, then turned to look at the destroyed walls.
"If House hid the diamonds before he was captured, why did he trash the room?"
"I don't think he did," I answered. "That was probably his accomplice. After waiting for eight years for her share of the gems, she probably grabbed House as soon as he checked into the room. She wouldn't want to give him a second chance to run away with the diamonds."
"But, why wouldn't he tell her where the diamonds were? She obviously had a gun, and he must have known it was only a matter of time before she would find them. This room isn't big enough to have that many hiding places."
"Oh. I think he probably told her everything. Not to be unkind to a dead man, but he doesn't look like the type to die with his secret untold."
"If he told, why is the room trashed? For that matter, why kill House after he told her where the diamonds were located? She could have left him taped to the chair, walked out, and avoided a murder rap."
I looked into the bathroom and surveyed the damage there. It looked like most of the destruction had been centered around the wall separating the bathroom from the bedroom. "Well, I don't think she ever found the gems, and she probably killed House because she thought he was holding out on her. The pity is that the diamonds never were in this room."
"No?" asked the Wright.
"Close. I expect we'll find the diamonds within the hour. I kind of feel sorry for House—he probably thought about those diamonds every single day for eight long years. Four million dollars is pretty good pay for eight years work. Kind of a shame."
"Do you think some maintenance guy got them years ago?" asked the policeman.
"No, I think they are still right where he left them," I answered. "What he didn't know was that the hotel sold to that Chinese corporation a few years ago. They didn't really remodel, just painted and changed a few things. They were a very superstitious lot, so besides putting lucky emblems in the elevator and over a few doors, they also renumbered the top five floors for good luck. We're on what used to be the thirteenth floor."
Suddenly, Wright looked up at the ceiling and asked, "You mean…those diamonds are ten feet over our head?"
"Yep," I said. "It turns out the thirteenth floor really is bad luck."