Portrait of a Hotel Photographer

Jeannette Fisher told a story when she sang. It wasn’t in the words of the song. It was in the way she tilted her head, stretched her neck, shifted her eyes. She welcomed you with a lift of her arms and dismissed you with a wave of her hand. I knew because I’d been photographing her in the Hawaiian Gardens Club at the Hotel How-Do-You-Do since the war ended. I’d seen the spell she cast over men.

Just before the midnight show, Jeannie glided into the Hawaiian Gardens Club in a red bird of paradise sarong dress with a halter neck. Her black hair was up, an orchid tucked behind her right ear. I watched her work the room. Laughing. Shaking hands. Making small talk. She stopped at a table not far from the stage and gave me the signal, a subtle glance that said she needed me to take a photograph.

From lunch to dinner, my primary job was arranging guests in the lobby for a souvenir photograph. Usually I took the picture in front of the gold-flecked tile mosaic of the swans. People liked the way the long necks came up behind them and appeared to peak over their shoulders. I made a buck commission off of each one of those; the hotel made three. The guests staying there could afford it. Sometimes I even got tips.

After hours, I did a little freelancing under Jeannie’s guidance.

I grabbed my camera and moved to the table where Jeannie laughed with a big wheel up from the city. Jimmy D’Agosta ran a solid business in the concrete industry. He supposedly poured the cement in the hotel’s expansion twenty years before Jeannie started singing there. Jimmy D gushed over her. He sat alone but the ermine wrap hanging on the back of the empty chair next to him said he wouldn’t be for long.

I got maybe a table away, raised my camera, when Jimmy D put up his hand.

“Sorry, pal, no pictures.”

A couple of his associates stood up at the bar. Jimmy D shook his head, waved his hand. The men sat down.

Jeannie slipped her arm around D’Agosta’s shoulders. “Come on, Jimmy, just one picture. For me. Before your wife gets back.” She gave him her precocious smile that wrinkled the bridge of her button nose. 

“My wife ain’t here.”

“Then who’s is this?” Jeannie stroked the ermine wrap.

“Not my wife’s.”

I caught the shift in Jeannie’s eyes. I knew what to do next.

The orchestra played a little introductory vamp. Jeannie stepped up on the stage. The crowd applauded.

Jimmy D’Agosta’s companion returned. He was right—she wasn’t his wife. She was barely old enough to vote.

Jeannie worried the line, held that first note so long time might have shattered in its wake.

Now…love…has found a way…to brighten our darkest day…’

Jeannie walked down to a table of four. Two couples. She leaned between the first pair and I snapped the picture.

My heart beats with yours…Sings our song behind closed doors…

She moved to the second couple. Sitting directly behind their table was the real subject of the picture.

Jimmy D’Agosta and the gal in the white ermine wrap.

Our plan always worked. Catch a mark out on the town without his wife, snap a picture of him and his guest, then sell him the negative but keep a print for future use. Sometimes it paid better than the lobby photo commission.

My flash lit up their faces just as Jimmy D tried to sneak a kiss. In the fading aftermath of the spent bulbs glow, Jimmy D’s men dragged me out the stage door.

Outside, one of the heavies smashed my camera while the other smashed my face. Jimmy D and the girl in the ermine wrap came out. I was pretty sure only one photograph from the night would wind up on the front page of the morning edition of the paper under the headline, ‘Hotel Photographer Found Dead’.

 Jimmy D’Agosta lifted my chin. “I told you no pictures, didn’t I? Maybe next time you’ll listen.”

“Maybe next time I will.” I think we both knew I was lying.


Keys to Success

Jake just wants to sit in front of his television. Ball game. Beer. Bratwurst in the microwave. He’s not asking much. Unwind after a grueling day of finding fasteners for old ladies and cutting keys for customers in one of the giant, box store hardwares dotting the grand ol’ USA.

Easy work. With benefits.

Customer comes in to have a key made. Hands it over to Jake. Jake asks how many. Usually the customer says one. Sometimes two. Doesn’t matter. Jake always puts in an extra blank. Sometimes the customer corrects him and Jake says something silly like, ‘Brain fart!’ Inevitably the customer laughs and tells Jake, ‘No problem, right?’

Occasionally Jake makes that extra key. He leaves it in the machine until the customer departs and then Jake pockets it. If they pay cash, he tosses it. But if they pay with plastic, he always asks for I.D. One look. Permanent spot in his photographic memory.

Jake’s a fortunate man. Never forgets a face. Card, that is. Easy to count the number at a blackjack table. When he goes out, he doesn’t need a GPS app to guide him to his destination. He knows every inch of every road because he’s either driven it or looked it up on Google maps. Street View has really been a benefit to his moonlighting.

Jake’s other job?

Quality control. He goes out and tests the extra key. No forced entry.

He knows from one look at the I.D. the affluence of the customer. His box store is right off a major Interstate. It brings in customers from all directions. Today he made keys for a lady who looked like she was ready to attend a garden party instead of meandering through the aisles looking for his small, tucked away workshop. The income per capita of her zip code alone is more than some third world countries. Combined. He’ll go there tonight. After the ballgame. After the beer. After the braut.

The microwave beeps.

Time’s up.

Jake stands to get his dinner and almost misses the news blurb on the TV.

“Police hunt serial burglar. Did the latest home invasion lead to murder?”

Jake looks back at the big screen. The media world has already moved on to skinny wines and chicken nuggets. He hits the rewind button on his remote. There is the house he hit several nights ago. Big, brick mansion. Sculpted lawn. Circular drive in the front. He took some baubles. Already fenced them downtown.

Shit.

He hits play.

“Police hunt serial burglar. Did the latest home invasion lead to murder?”

Rewind.

Play.

“Police hunt serial burglar. Did the latest home invasion lead to murder?”

Shit.

He didn’t even see anyone in the master bedroom. He was in and out. No forced entry because he used the key. He didn’t worry about pre-coded alarm systems. Fewer folk had those than most people realized. If he did unlock a door and it set off an alarm, he just ran. But it hadn’t happened in the three years he’d been running his midnight operation.

So what the hell happened at the last job?

The news won’t return until after the game. Jake surfs the web looking for the online report.

Female. Mid-forties. Blunt force trauma. Husband found her after attending ballgame with buddies. Window in back door smashed in. Intruder gained forced entry and killed victim when she confronted him. Several pieces of jewelry and twenty thousand in cash missing.

Jake took the jewels.

So who got the cash?

The master bed was empty.

He didn’t see anyone in the house.

Had the woman been dead the entire time he was there?

He kept the keys on a large ring. Souvenirs.

Not anymore.

He takes them off the ring and drives along different roads throwing individual keys off into the night.

But the jewels.

Fenced.

Aw, that guy won’t say anything. He’d be inviting trouble. Besides, he’s broken the pieces down by now. Melted the gold. Sold the diamonds.

Or so Jake wants to believe.

He drives until morning then calls in sick then waits for a knock that will probably never come.

Or so Jake wants to believe.


Crack the Bat

On March 24, 1984, Dave Bergman fouled off seven pitches in a row. The Tigers had two men on, two men out and it was the bottom of the eleventh inning. Bergman represented the winning run. Not just the go ahead run, the winning run. Finally, on the thirteenth pitch and after being at the plate for seven fucking minutes, Bergman blasted the ball into the upper deck at the old Tiger Stadium.

Thirteen pitches. Seven foul balls. Seven minutes. Swing the stick that many times in one long at bat and your arms begin to feel like mush.

But swing a bat a half a dozen times at a guy’s head while he’s curled up in a ball on the ground screaming for his mommy and you feel like a fucking giant, not a tiger.

I wasn’t landing the blows. I’m not that kind of guy. I get paid to send a message.

My mark came out of his favorite coffee shop, an oversized paper cup in one hand, his smart-phone in the other. One of those leather saddle bag cases was slung over a shoulder. His trench coat was open, his Martinized, white, work shirt coming untucked because it barely fit over his apple barrel belly. All I had to do was hook the handle end of the bat through his leather shoulder strap and pull him behind me into the alley. I jabbed the bastard in the stomach with the fat end of the bat. Doubled him over. The coffee spilled down his once clean shirt. The stain on his pants I was sure was piss.

“All right, all right, I don’t have all night,” I said. “I’ve got a game to get to.”

“Who are you?” he asked. He was on his back, a turtle with trembling paws facing down a predator.

“Oh, we don’t need to exchange names,” I said. “We’re never going to see each other again unless Leland contacts me and tells me you’re still fucking his wife.”

The turtle stopped moving. He lay there on his back, elbows resting on the hard pavement. His hands were raised and folded at the wrist.

“Leland knows?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“How long has he known?”

“Long enough to call me.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah. So unless you want me to use your head like a tee-ball stand, I suggest you end your little affair with the missus right now. No extra inning heroics. You pick yourself up, you catch a cab for home, and that’s it. Game over. Got it?”

He lay there for a moment staring up at the sky.

“She doesn’t love him.”

“Not my concern.”

The turtle held a hand up to me. Some guys. I held the fat end of the bat out to him. He grabbed it and I helped him to his feet.

“She’s going to leave him,” he said.

“I doubt that. The old guy’s got too much cash. Probably has an ironclad pre-nup.”

“She get’s everything if he dies.”

I looked him over. “You gonna kill him? Is she? You’re the first two the cops will look at.”

Turtle man got a curious look on his face. “You a cop?”

I held up the bat.

“Right. You do this for a living. And apparently play baseball in your spare time.”

“It handles some of my aggression.”

“What if we were to make a deal?”

I rabbit punched him in the throat with the bell of the bat. He started to double over, gasping. I held the bat against his throat and pinned him against the wall.

“You’re an idiot,” I told him. I pressed the bat against his neck until he swallowed his Adam’s apple. “All you had to do was walk away. But Leland said you wouldn’t and if you didn’t, well, there you go. You’re riding the pine.”

After Bergman’s homerun, Sparky Anderson said it was the greatest at bat he’d ever seen. A bat in the hands of the right guy can be a powerful weapon.

In mine, it can be downright deadly.