The water drips in the rust-colored sink at the other end of the room. I had assumed that the restroom would be enclosed, but the toilet and sink are part of an open floor plan. That’s marketing speak for too blasted cheap to build walls for privacy. I could have chosen a better hotel, but this one was at just the right price, and is the perfect location downtown.
Of course, the female and her one-hour guest next door are making enough noise for the whole building. But he’ll be gone soon enough, and perhaps the noise will subside to that less than the traffic outside.
I’ll be able to focus on the sorting the photographs then. While they’re making noise, I can’t concentrate. Maybe some fresh air and a midnight stroll will help. It’ll at least pass the time until lover-john is done with his taxi ride next door.
I work down the stairwell, past the two drunks sleeping off their latest bottle — one curled up at each landing. When I open the door to the main alley, the stench of garbage and rotting grease assault me from the nearby dumpsters. Ah, life in the city. I can’t wait to get back to my apartment in my mediocre neighborhood where the most colorful occupant is Mrs. Connelly, whose baking attempts keep setting off the building fire alarms.
The chill of the October air tingles on my neck as it brushes past. I should have grabbed my coat. I console myself that at this point in my journey its closer to Roldopho’s All-Night Deli than to my room for the jacket. I tuck my chin down and pick up my gait.
“Welcome, Mr. Houdini.” Rodolpho calls as I enter. He’s a short, round Arabic man. His greasy t-shirt and jeans seem out of place against his perfectly-white apron. As if he did his cooking without the apron, wearing the covering only for show. My name is Rick Jenkins, but Rodolpho started calling me Harry Houdini after seeing me talk my way out of a parking ticket in front of his shop while on my first stake-out here. “You talk your way out of anything, Houdini,” he had cheered.
I nod in recognition to him. “I think I’ll have a steak and rye. Go easy on the mustard.” I point at an over-sized demonstration photo pasted on the deli counter.
“That good choice, Houdini. But you going to grow horns, you keep eating beef. Where variety? How about turkey on wheat? It midnight special.”
“I left variety and desire for turkey in my other pants.”
“But you bring cash, yes?” He smiles wide, stretching his goatee under his broad nose. “No leave that in your other pants?”
“Don’t worry. I brought cash.”
“Then steak you get. Heart attack ten years from now,” he waves his hands in the air, still smiling. “… not my problem.”
I watch as he masterfully puts together the sandwich, pulling slices of tomato and assorted other toppings from cracked, square, plastic containers.
This little joint reminds me of me. The tiles on the floor were mismatched like my suit, and the florescent lights flicker like most of my ideas barely able to illuminate this small shop. But this was the perfect place and the perfect time. There was no doubt that I could avoid all of my subjects here. No, they wouldn’t grace these grime-laden doors. Yet, this hotel and eatery were only two blocks from Mr. Little’s fifth-avenue office suite. Easy and convenient, but not necessarily cheap.
This location provided excellent opportunity to get close and take pictures of his extra-marital bliss at the office for his soon-to-be-very wealthy wife. After she delivered the photos I had taken earlier today to her attorney, they would undoubtedly work together to relieve the poor man of over half of his CEO salary.
But I’m not quite done yet. I took several very sensitive photographs of Mr. Little and his twenty-six-year-old brunette secretary today. How foolish could two people be? Just because you work on the twenty-second floor, doesn’t mean that you can expect privacy. After all, a person with a good telescopic lens on the twenty-eighth floor of a neighboring building can see right in. I could see the bald bodyguard standing just outside his office through another window. The guard stood perfectly still, like an over-built mannequin wrapped in a too-tight Armani suit.
Mr. Little and his secretary were both completely dressed from the waist up, but in the throws of wild disregard between the waist and the knees. Her legs wrapped tight around his bare backside. And while I could probably sell these photographs to various press outlets, I think I can get better offers locally.
That’s why I frequent this sleezy motel instead of packing my camera and heading straight to Mrs. Little’s plush Verdonia Avenue condo. The locale provides quick access to many very wealthy offices for morning appointments, but doesn’t impact my budget much for an overnight stay while I sort the evidence into the appropriate piles.
I plan my usual routine of intercepting the wealthy client’s husband tomorrow as he makes his way to his corner glassed-in office. Should he be interested in buying these photographs — and they usually are — I would be forced to sell Mrs. Little the remaining, pre-sorted mundane photographs of him working tirelessly at his desk, making new plans for his firm’s latest construction project.
Then again, if he chose to pass on such a generous offer, I could sell his wife the photographs of him working tirelessly on top of his desk with the brunette. Either way, I think this may turn out to be quite a little venture again.
“Six-fifty, Mr. Houdini.” Rodolpho finishes by wrapping the sandwich in a plain white sheet of butcher’s paper, then shoving it in my direction. The register beeps as he presses buttons. The drawer ejects.
“Not a bad price.” I smile handing him a twenty. “Keep the change. I think tonight has been a very profitable night for me.”
The pudgy attendant stuffs the bill into the drawer and makes the proper change. He folds the bills into his apron pocket, then nods at a small round table with two chairs. “You eat here? Like always?”
“Sure. I have to wait for Hansel and Gretel to finish stuffing the witch into the oven.” I’m sure there was a euphemism in there somewhere, but really, I just like throwing him for a loop.
“You get drink, too. On the house for such good customer.” He hands me a large paper cup filled with ice. I stroll over to the soda fountain machine and fill the cup with root beer. I don’t need the caffeine if I am to get any sleep at all before sunrise.
He turns back toward the kitchen wiping his hands down the tail of his apron.
I take a large bite, thinking of the different angles I can approach Mr. Little with. Perhaps I can just come out and lay all my cards on the table, telling him I have incriminating photos of his encounter last night. Then again, if I play one card at a time, starting with the flirting, ending with photos of him banging away on top of his keyboard, I might be able to squeeze him for much more, raising the ante with each step.
Either way, the first bite of my sandwich tastes terrific. I can smell the fresh print of money on the surface of the bread as I weigh my options.
After half of the sandwich, I feel my stomach begin to turn sour. Maybe eating this late wasn’t my brightest idea. I look around. No one but myself and Rodolpho are in the shop. At two a.m., this is unusual. Most of the drunks should have wandered in for a late-night sobering snack by now.
“You okay, Houdini? You look green.”
“Yeah. I think I’m done with this.” I say, pushing myself away from the table.
“Here. I take you outside for air.” He smiles, gripping my arm. “You stand, and we take a walk, okay?”
“I’m not drunk, Rudel–Redol–… ” For some reason, I can’t seem to say his name. It had come much easier earlier.
“Come. Walk. You feel better with fresh air.” He helps me stand and escorts me outside into the brisk neon-lit air. The sidewalks were as empty as New York City gets, with several people brushing by. “See? Better?”
He was right. The air outside seems to have shocked my body into submission. I stand upright and take a deep breath. “Yeah. A little.”
But I have no sooner said it when my stomach mounts a minor revolt. Without warning, the recently-eaten sandwich makes a grand re-appearance. I double over as pain tears my intestines into pretzel twists.
“Come. A few feet more, Houdini.” Rodolpho tugs at my arm, nearly dragging me down the stidewalk, away from the acrid smell of my own puke.
“Yeah. Okay.” My world seems muted. Distant. Empty. I breathe heavily, trying to regain my composure. “Where are we going?”
“The river. We splash some water on face. It good for you. Refresh you. Come, come.”
I follow obediently. It does seem to be a logical course of action. After several seconds, I hear the lapping of water. The shine of tall sky-scrapers reflects off of the river running through a deep cement trough cut right under Seventh Avenue.
“How are we going to get down to the water?” I ask, my knees turning to mush. My mind seems to have done the same. I find it hard to hold a complete thought.
“What you say?”
“The water? How do we get there?”
“The water? Oh, easy. You wait here. Lean on bars.”
I obey again. Resting my elbows on the low railing, I feel another wave of nausea twisting just under my esophagus. The water below dances against the reflections, and I feel myself growing dizzy. I close my eyes and try to take deep calming breaths.
I feel like my body is lifting off the ground. I grip the handrail and prepare for another round of gushing.
“No no, Houdini. You let go. Just stand still.”
“Let go? Why?” I ask, but obey.
“Because you gonna jump.”
A strong hand grips my collar. I am forcibly turned a full one-eighty, staring directly into the eyes of a tall bald man in a fine Armani suit. I recognize him. Mr. Little’s bodyguard. Just behind him, Rodolpho counts a small stack of bills, a smile wide across his face.
I hear Rodolpho laugh as I am hoisted above the man’s head. “Yes. Very profitable night, tonight. Very profitable.”