It took me forty minutes to get to South Kensington underground station and then a further ten minutes to stroll from the station to the Hotel. Understandably, I felt out of place as I wandered past the cast iron railings on one side and the herd of Mercedes, BMW’s and Jaguars on the other. It was just starting to spit with rain as I trotted up to the ostentatious arches that marked the entrance to the Hotel, and the sky was brewing dark thunderous clouds.
A union flag flapped in the excitable midday wind above the door, giving off an air of Old Empire, or rather, it suggested that this was a place where people find it comforting to perpetuate the myth of the Old ‘Glorious’ Empire. It made me feel uneasy. The same uneasiness I used to feel during Church sermons, when my God fearing mother had forced me to attend.
The door man gave me a disapproving up and down glance as I turned towards the gilded doors, but years of training forced him to step back slightly and open the door for me with a gracious smile. I ignored him as I stepped through into the lobby.
My long coat and battered hat, compared to the glamour and sheer wealth of the room that confronted me, made me look like the lowest and loneliest down and out that there possibly could be. I wandered, as causally as my get-up would allow, and placed my crumpled hat onto the polished mahogany of the front desk. The young concierge looked at me with disdain.
“The kitchen doesn’t give out scraps at lunch time, come back after ten, sir, and please go round the back.” He said mechanically, and was about to turn away from me when I flashed my badge and ID at him. I let a soft oozing smile slide like treacle over my face.
“Were you working the front desk on Monday?” I growled in my usual gritty tone, his expression shifting from indignant to nervous within moments and I watched as his fingers twisted and twitched against the signing in book on his desk. He was avoiding my stare now, his eyes following an invisible fly over the front desk.
“Yes, what is this about? If it’s a complaint, sir, you need to talk to the manager.”
“How long have you been working for the hotel?” I asked, trying to lessen my growl, unsuccessfully.
“I’ve been working here for two years, trying to raise the money to go to university in America,” I nodded slowly as if he were confirming what I already knew. “It costs a fortune to study out there, but it’s gotta be more fun than staying in this dank pit.”
I glanced around at the wealth dripping off the walls. The gold lamps, the old oak tables, and exquisite soft sofas. Dank certainly wasn’t a word I’d use about this place. Sickening maybe, but not dank. The young man caught my glance and shrugged slightly.
“I don’t live here mate,” he said leaning in, slightly conspiratorially, his eyes now scanning the horizon for his floor manager, “I just work here, and not for as much as you might think. I’m sick of it, you know? I stand here, being polite to people who earn more money in one year than I will in my whole life.” His voice started to raise a little, causing a few of the near by guests to glance politely over. “I cater to their every whim, make sure everything is perfect for them, and then I have to skulk back to my terraced house, which I have to share with three guys I don’t know. I don’t even have a lounge or a TV. I have a bed; that’s it. It’s not fair you know? It’s just not right.” The few gentlemen within earshot were now openly staring at us, and the concierge faltered in his rant, I used the much needed pause to get us back on track. I had a feeling he was, inadvisably, trying to placate himself before I’d even mentioned why I was here. He wasn’t a criminal, he didn’t have a criminals mind. He was an opportunist, perhaps for moralistic reasons but most likely that was just the excuse he was telling himself. He’d tried to steal a rich man’s possessions in a moment of weakness; weakness that we all have.
He was inexperience and stupid and, if I didn’t catch him, before long the police would get wind of it, or even worse, the hotel management. These rich hotel’s protected their reputation in inventive ways that made Guantanamo Bay sound like a holiday resort. I watched the boy fidget for a few moments and tried to summon up some pity, but none was forthcoming. Sure, all of us have the desire sometimes, we all have the weakness, but if you give in to it you have to accepted the consequences.
“Could I just ask, how do you handle valuables from guests?” He visibly stiffened and pulled himself back, away from me.
“Our valuables storage? Well it depends what it is. We have case and baggage storage, and storage lockers with unique keys for extremely valuable items, like jewellery and that sort of stuff. There is a surcharge for that service though.”
“two hundred a night.” I let out a slight whistle.
“So how does your baggage storage system work? Say, if I wanted to put my hat in it, how would it work?” He shifted a little uneasily and then let out a long slow breath, like a prop forward getting ready to defend a five yard scrum. He really wasn’t very good at playing the innocent man.
“Well I’d take your hat, and get you to sign here.” He opened a book that had a list of names, times and items. I let my eyes scan the names as quickly as possible but Reginald’s wasn’t there. The times only seemed to cover today, and there were already around fifteen items logged on the page. “Once you’ve signed, I take them through that door.” Said the boy waving his arm at the door behind the front desk. “There is a second locked door that leads into a small square room. I put the hat in there. The door locks automatically behind me as I leave.”
“Who has a key?”
“The person on duty at the front desk and the manager.”
“And is there only one door to the room?”
“Yes, and you can only get to it through this door here.” He pointed at the door behind him again.
“How many people check in cases everyday?”
“It depends, usually close to a hundred. We have a lot of gentleman come here for lunch or evening drinks and they often lodge their briefcase with us.”
“I see, so you spend a lot of time going to and from the room?”
“Yes, usually every other guest I need to deal with wants to lodge something with us.”
“Is there any chance I could see the sign in book for Monday?”
“Not from me. My manager would have to allow that.”
“Do you remember a Mr Reginald Charvis? He’s a large gentleman, he would have lodged a case with you on Monday, probably around midday.” His eyes flickered and he shifted from foot to foot nervously. I didn’t let him answer. “What time do you finish your shift?” The young man behind the desk stared at me for a few moments, his eyes wavering in the face of my own unnerving look.
“Nine pm” he finally replied, glancing away as he said it.
“Thank you very much. You’ve been very helpful.” I gave him a little grin and, slapping my hat back onto my head, I wandered out the door. The doorman, having pulled the door open for me, stepped outside behind me, presumably in an effort to make sure I left the premises and didn’t hang outside upsetting the ‘real’ people.
“Sorry, I forgot to ask the charming boy on the desk when his shift finishes, he promised to take me out for a drink.” The doorman looked sceptically at me, “I suppose I could just come around at four and wait,” I paused to let the idea sink in, “if you don’t know.”
“No one wants you hanging around here for an hour” He barked at me bitterly.
“Five o’clock it is then.” I smiled sweetly at him but he just glared back, disgust turning up the edges of his lips.
“Now piss off” he growled in a very low tone so as no one else could hear it. I felt my fist clench tight as the doorman sneered at me, but I forced myself to turn away and trot down the street. I hated being made to feel this small and out of place, but I couldn’t afford a night in the cells this time. It turns out my pride has a price, and it’s around two thousand pounds. I cursed myself as I walked down the street, trying to push my thoughts back to the job at hand.
My plan was simple. I’d go back to my employer and explain that I knew where the case was and that I’d have it for him by tomorrow. I’d arrange the pick up, and might be able to negotiate a little spending money to get something classy to eat for tonight. I’d then come back here for five and follow our hapless class warrior back from work and he’d lead me right to where he’d stashed the list. Easy money.
Despite my optimism though, there were a few little things that troubled me; a few tiny pieces that didn’t quite fit into the overall picture. Firstly, how did the young fellow get the list out of the locked case without smashing the lock? Secondly, how did he then get the list and sheets of papers out of the hotel? And thirdly, and probably most importantly, why did he do it in the first place? Why this innocuous looking case given to him by a flustered fat man, as opposed to one of the other, more obviously valuable, cases. There was an itch in the back of my head, a tiny little nagging doubt that things might not be a simple as they looked.