The little bell on the Halfway Hotel’s reception desk was louder than it looked. When there was no response after a few seconds, I leaned over the desk and peered through the open door beyond that led into the office. There didn’t seem to be anyone in there, so I turned around and leant back on the desk to have a look around. The reception area was quite roomy. The Art Deco style gave the place a preserved 1930s feeling. Judging by the yellowing wallpaper and well-worn carpeting, that was the last time it had been decorated. There was another doorway to the side with a neatly hand-lettered sign that read ‘To All Rooms’.
Across the room, adjacent to the main entrance, was a small bar. A redhead in a light blue sundress was perched on a stool, looking right at me. I looked away instinctively, the way people do when they’re gazing around aimlessly and happen to make eye contact, but when I glanced back again, she was still looking. The redhead took a sip from whatever she was drinking and her eyes smiled.
I heard an impatient cough from behind me. Turning around, I found myself facing a heavy set man in his late forties. What was left of his hair was graying, and he sported a creased Hawaiian shirt tucked into too-tight khakis. A grimy name tag was pinned to his breast pocket. It said Bill, Manager, but going by his expression, it might as well have said Don’t Ask.
He snapped open his reservation book, and I noticed that there was only one other entry on the page, even though it had space to take bookings for the whole week. It looked as though there wouldn’t be too many other guests to witness our stay, which suited me fine. “You want a room?” he enquired bluntly
“Good guess.” I smiled amiably. No reaction. “Yeah, I want a room - one with a bathroom.”
The manager began to write in his reservation book and then paused: “You’re English, right?”
“Something like that.”
He nodded, as if this explained everything and looked back down at his book: “Name?”
“How long’ll you be staying?”
“That’ll be forty five dollars,” said the manager, turning to take a key from the board on the wall. “Upfront.”
I slid my wallet out of my back pocket and paid him. He took the money and handed over the key, eyeing me with an equal mix of suspicion and distaste. I asked him if he knew anything about the cops down the road, trying to sound like I was just making conversation.
“Don’t know nothin’ about that.”
Immediately, a lighter and more pleasant voice piped in:
“I heard somebody got killed.”
I turned around to check that the girl at the bar was addressing me.
“Yeah? You’re kidding,” I said, walking over to the bar and pocketing my room key.
“I was just talking to someone who said somebody got shot at Jake’s... that’s the barbers.”
“What happened?” I asked, marveling at the speed information can travel through a small-town grapevine.
The girl finished her drink before answering: “I don’t know, Steve - the guy I heard it from - just ran like hell and called the Sheriff when he heard the shots.”
“Maybe somebody didn’t like their haircut,” I shrugged. “Hey, can I get you another drink?”
“Sure,” she said, “but just a grape juice, I’m working in an hour. I’m Midnight, by the way.”
The girl made a good-natured grimace. “Yeah I know. If I ever meet my mom we’re gonna have words about that. I sound like I should be a porn star.”
“I was going to say superhero,” I said, reaching a hand out. “John. John Park.” I don’t know why I gave her my real name. I suppose I just thought it was safe enough, since she wasn’t going to be writing it down in a logbook. Maybe it was more than just that.
I nodded at the bartender, who had sauntered over at the sound of a fresh customer.
“Another of these and a beer?”
He gave me a bottle of a brand I’d never heard of. ‘Simarro’ or something. It wasn’t the best beer I’d ever had, but it was cold at least, and in this heat I wasn’t complaining.
“This guy bothering you, Middy?” the bartender said with a mock-suspicious look at me.
Midnight kept a straight face “I’ll let you know when you can toss him out, Tom.”
“Just gimme a shout then.” he winked at her and disappeared into the back.
The fresh drink didn’t have a straw, so Midnight shook off the old one and deposited it in the new glass. She took a quarter-glass sip right away. “Nice accent. Where you from?”
“Scotland,” I replied, getting ready to elaborate.
Midnight giggled. “I know that. I meant which part?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, grinning sheepishly. “Glasgow.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Scotland. It looks like a beautiful country... so green.”
“It’s green for a reason; you’d get pretty tired of the rain after a couple of weeks. That’s why I came over here.”
She asked me what had really brought me to the States and I told her about how I’d come over a couple of years ago to visit a friend, and ended up finding a lucrative line of work and staying. I neglected to mention certain details, such as the highly illegal nature of the work, the fact that my friend was currently doing a twenty stretch, and the fact that I was still extremely wanted in Boston. I decided that the conversation was getting a little too focused on me and steered it back towards her.
“How about you? You live around here?”
“Just on the outskirts of town,” she answered, gazing out of the door and to the south. “It’s a pretty quiet place. A little boring, actually, if you want the truth.”
“Yeah, I can see that, I mean it’s nearly five o’ clock and you’ve only had the one homicide.”
Midnight laughed guiltily, giving me a mild punch on the arm as I finished my beer. I thought about getting another one. The sound of somebody leaning on the horn outside reminded me that Tony and Travis were still waiting in the car. Regretfully, I got up from my stool.
“Anyway, I better go get my friends. They’re not too patient,” I said, envisioning Travis kneecapping me for keeping him waiting.
“Nice talking to you,” she smiled. “Maybe I’ll see you around town.”
“That’d be nice. Well, good afternoon Midnight.”
I turned and walked over to the revolving door, wishing wholeheartedly that I had left Travis in Phoenix.