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“There’s the Midnight Motel on the right,” I said.
Jen slowed and turned into the parking lot of an inexpensive motel in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. “It doesn’t look too bad.” She drove around the building.
I studied the rows of cars parked along the building and against the back wall. Most looked, if not expensive or fancy, at least not like pieces of junk. That’s all my untrained eyes could determine. We’d driven in on a street filled with strip malls, used car lots, and several “adults only” clubs. Not exactly a neighborhood mentioned in tourism brochures.
“You’d think both business travelers and tourists would be out and about during the day. It’s not like we passed a lot of hot destinations in walking distance.”
“Hey, don’t turn down a free vacation.”
Vacation was stretching it. We were there to work, but we didn’t have private investigator licenses, because that took three years of training under someone licensed. Unfortunately, the murders we’d already solved didn’t count. In fact, they were working against us, since the PIs Jen had approached about bringing us on as trainees seemed resentful of our success. Unless we moved to a state with looser licensing laws, we might never be official.
For this job, Jen had agreed to free rooms and a modest “consulting fee,” which we could claim was for offering marketing advice. Since the client wanted to sell the motel but suspected something illegal was going on there, “Stop this illegal thing” would be reasonable marketing advice. Plus, we’d get some detective experience and a break from the monotony of everyday life. My sister was looking for meaning and purpose now that her teen kids didn’t need her so much. Personally, I craved the adrenaline jolt. I’d spent thirty years covering wars and natural disasters. If I didn’t put my life in danger at least twice a month, I might get bored.
“I suppose tourists could be resting before dinner, and some people could live here.” I’d often lived in hotels as an international journalist, and frankly, this one looked good in comparison to some of the places I’d stayed. People with temporary postings or those who couldn’t afford a security deposit, in addition to first month’s rent, might live in a motel.
Jen parked. I swung my feet out of the car, got my shoulder bag across my body and my cane in my hand, and finally squeezed between vehicles to join Jen behind the car. The two-story building had an opening nearby that brought us to a large courtyard formed by the rectangular motel. The second-story rooms had balconies, and the ground-floor rooms had an equivalent space marked off by a low railing, with a small table and two chairs outside each room. The motel probably advertised the four-by-six-foot spaces as individual patios. Each long side held about ten rooms, with another four along the back between two corner corridors that led to the parking lot.
One cement sidewalk went in a straight line past the rooms. Another made gentle curves through the grass around a pool, which was not Olympic-size but was pretty large for a motel—wide enough for four lanes and long enough to get a couple dozen strokes in if you were swimming laps. It was surrounded by a five-foot-tall metal fence to keep out the neighborhood riffraff. Then we passed a cement patio covered by a blue twenty-by-twenty shade sail. The cloth provided shade over half a dozen lounge chairs and some small tables.
This actually looked like a decent place for a discount family vacation. The kids could swim, and the parents could keep an eye on them from their patio or balcony, drinks in hand. A group could gather under the shade sail with take-out food and have a little pool party. The white paint with turquoise trim and small palm trees in planters gave the place the vibe of a sixties Los Angeles vacation spot. Not that I’d been to Los Angeles on a family vacation in the sixties, but I occasionally watched movies.
We found the lobby roughly opposite where we’d parked. The automatic door opened with a blast of cool air, refreshing on this May afternoon with temperatures over ninety degrees. The woman behind the counter flicked one glance at us when the doors opened and went back to whatever she was doing on her computer. We stood at the counter, waiting for half a minute without her acknowledging us.
Jen glanced at me, eyebrows raised. The poor customer service wasn’t a good sign for the new owner, but not necessarily a clue to the problem worrying him.
Finally, Jen said, “Is Nathan in?”
The woman looked up, unsmiling, and studied Jen. Before she spoke, faint sounds came from the half-open door of the office behind the counter. A man appeared in the doorway. His mouth smiled, although his eyes looked tired and sad. “Jen! Please come on back.”
I knew he was about Jen’s age, so forty-eight or forty-nine, a year or two younger than me. He looked older, with a drooping face like a hound dog’s, thick glasses, and strands of hair trying vainly to cover his bald pate. I often found bald men sexy and couldn’t understand why some men tried so hard to hold on to the remnants of their hair instead of shaving off the rest of it. Though, granted, I didn’t think shaving his head would make Nathan sexy to me.
We went around the counter, eliciting an offended look from the woman, and into his office. He closed the door behind us and offered a hand. “And your sister. I remember you. I’ll try not to call you Kitty.” He chuckled.
I didn’t. “Kate will do.” I’d grown up as Kitty, but changed to Kate in college, feeling that it was more suitable for a serious journalist. A lot of things had been strange and even unpleasant about returning to my childhood home in Arizona, but reuniting with people who still wanted to call me Kitty might be the most annoying. And that was coming from someone who’d recently had a man fall to his death in front of her, not to mention a Taser and several guns pointed her way. Facing a gun was merely scary. Hearing the name “Kitty” gave me a weird time-warp feeling, like I’d never left Arizona and my thirty years overseas had never happened. The past year might not have been my best ever, but that didn’t mean I wanted to be a—shudder—teenager again. I might be living in my childhood home with my father and dating one of the cutest boys I knew in high school—and, come to think of it, dealing with irregular periods and occasional acne due to perimenopause . . .
Huh. Maybe fifty is the new fifteen.
We sat down in the cramped office. Jen pulled out her notebook and pen.
“Why don’t you explain the situation from the beginning?” I said.
Jen had gotten the basic story on the phone, but I wanted to hear it for myself and watch his face while he told it. The fact that he was our client didn’t ensure he’d be honest or tell us everything we needed to know. His expressions might give clues to where we needed to ask follow-up questions or double-check his information.
He shifted some items around on his desk and finally began. “I inherited this place from my father recently—he died almost a month ago. Dad and I weren’t close. We had a falling-out years ago, so I never worked here. To be honest, I doubt he would have left the motel to me by choice, but he didn’t leave a will. So here we are.” He smiled with his lips closed.
I glanced at Jen’s writing to make sure she’d noted the lack of a will. Plenty of people died without one, either because they never got around to it, or because they had a subconscious superstition that acknowledging the potential of death would hasten that death. On the other hand, hidden wills were a staple of the Nancy Drew stories I’d read growing up. Not that I’m claiming those were the embodiment of realism, but “we don’t have his will” was different from “he never made a will.”
Nathan sighed. “My father was fading mentally these last few years. It didn’t get to the point where we could insist he give up the business and go into memory care, not without his permission. Because of our estrangement, if I’d attempted to get control of his business or finances, he would have seen that as a threat.”
I nodded. Our mother was in an Alzheimer’s unit. She hadn’t shown too many signs of paranoia, but the disease affected people in different ways. I also noticed he was using I and we almost interchangeably. Jen had said Nathan was divorced, so who was the other person or people?
“How did you know about his mental state?” I asked.
“My sister visits every few years. She let me know what she thought, but didn’t feel she had the right to insist he move. She lives in Montana, so she couldn’t stay here to take care of things herself.”
“With no will, the motel must’ve gone to both of you as his closest relatives. Any other siblings?”
“Our other brother passed some years back.” He pushed his glasses up his nose. “My sister and I are both owners, but her husband is disabled and she babysits her grandchildren two days a week. We decided I would take over management here until we can sell the place. I don’t have the skills or interest to run a motel.”
Jen looked up from her notebook. “You haven’t put it up for sale yet.”
“No.” He glanced at the closed door. “I’d like to sell as quickly as possible, but we need—we want—to get a good price.”
Want or need? Did he have money troubles?
“I get the sense something is wrong,” Nathan said. “The night clerk seems to run everything. The other desk clerks defer to him. It’s pretty obvious none of them are happy about my presence. I’ve had trouble getting any information or help understanding the finances.”
“I guess they might be unhappy about having a new owner,” I said. “Especially if they were loyal to your father and knew about the estrangement. Still, then, you’d think they’d want the place sold as quickly as possible.”
“The night clerk, Brian Gilford, said he’d arrange a buyer. I suspect he wants it himself, but I can’t imagine he’d be able to pay what the place is worth. I’ve wondered if they’re trying to hide the finances, so I won’t know the value, hoping I’ll sell for less than it’s worth.”
“That sounds like a problem for a lawyer or accountant, not a private detective,” I said.
“Tell us about the other things,” Jen instructed.
Nathan glanced at the closed door again. “Let’s take a tour.”
We went out of the office. The desk clerk’s body mostly blocked the computer screen, but I saw a corner shift color, as if she’d quickly changed what was on display. She might be playing solitaire or watching cat videos instead of working, but she could be trying to hide something more important.
Nathan paused beside her. “Danica, please give the ladies the keys for the room reserved under Jen Young. Would you believe Jen and I knew each other in high school?” He chuckled awkwardly. “Back in the Stone Age, before you were even born.”
I glanced over as I went around the counter and caught the clerk rolling her eyes. Nathan’s attempt to explain why we’d asked for him had sounded stiff in its attempt to be lighthearted, but maybe he was always awkward around the staff. Danica’s response didn’t suggest he’d set off any alarms.
She tapped at the computer, stuck some key cards in a machine, and handed them over. “Room one-oh-seven. Enjoy your stay,” she said woodenly.
We left the lobby. Nathan glanced at my cane. “You’re on the ground floor. We do have an elevator to the second floor, but it’s slow.” He gestured to the elevator across from the lobby before leading the way along the path that wound through the courtyard.
I was at the point I could manage short distances without the cane, and we had stairs in the house I shared with my dad. Still, I wasn’t going to demand a second-floor room just for the exercise. Room 107 was halfway down one of the long sides of the rectangular motel, which made it a good spot for keeping an eye on things.
Jen used the card to open the door. We all stepped into a room that had a queen bed, a small, round table with two padded chairs, and a dresser/desk combo with a TV on one end.
Nathan sat on the end of the bed. “I doubt Danica would hear us in my office, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I’ve been perfectly civil to her, and she looks at me like she hates me. I find it hard to believe my father would have inspired that kind of loyalty.”
Danica might have something to hide. On the other hand, she might interpret Nathan’s awkward attempts at friendliness as flirting and be trying to warn him to back off. Or she might simply be very poorly suited to a customer service position.
Jen took one of the chairs and got her notebook ready, while I poked around the room. In the back was a surprisingly spacious bathroom. An alcove beside the bathroom held a mini fridge. Everything looked to be in decent condition and quite clean. Not bad, though a dull place to spend much time. Well, we’d just have to entertain ourselves by sneaking around the place, spying on everyone.
“You said on the phone you were worried about illegal activities at the motel,” Jen prodded.
Nathan ran a hand through his sparse hair. “Given my father’s recent mental state, it would have been easy for someone to take advantage of him.”
“Do you suspect someone is embezzling?” I asked.
Nathan shook his head. “I had an accountant audit the books, and as near as we can tell, everything adds up. The occupancy is slightly lower than average, but that seems reasonable, given the location and lack of amenities other than the pool. Things are in good repair, and the rooms were updated only five years ago, but my father didn’t advertise much, and this isn’t the prime location it was when the motel was built. Also, the cleaning women occupy some of the rooms, so those aren’t available for guests. I have no idea if that’s common or not, but it’s certainly a nice bonus for them.”
That seemed odd. Would the cleaning staff really prefer to live in a motel room instead of a place of their choice? Did none of them have family?
“Do they get rooms in addition to wages or instead?” I asked.
“They get paid minimum wage plus the free room. I believe all the women are from Mexico—at least, none of them seem to speak English.” Nathan grimaced. “I’m not sure about immigration status. To be honest, I haven’t wanted to ask. I have enough headaches. At the moment, I could plead ignorance, but once I know for certain, I won’t have that excuse. Please don’t tell me if you find out otherwise.”
I pulled out the desk chair, so I’d be able to see Nathan’s face clearly when sitting. “In that case, what do you believe is wrong that you do want to know?”
He spread his hands. “I don’t even know. It’s only that the people here seem so odd. The employees are secretive and rude. We have odd guests as well. Two men seem to live here full time.”
Jen glanced up. “Describe them, please.”
“In their thirties, I’d guess. They both have dark hair.”
“How do they dress?” she asked.
“Oh, I hardly notice.” He tipped his head back, as if the ceiling might hold the answer. “Um, slacks. Button-up shirts. Like they’re going to an office, but they don’t look like they’d work in an office. They’re both rather fit and tough looking. And they seem to sleep during the day. I’ve noticed they always have the ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs out, and the maids skip their rooms.”
“Fit, like boxers?” I asked. “Like runners?”
His glasses magnified his eyes as he blinked. “Lightweight boxers, maybe? Somehow, I feel like they train at a gym rather than doing physical labor. But they’re not huge, just . . .” He glanced down at his own pot belly below his narrow shoulders. “In good shape. Sometimes the men show up with three or four beautiful women, who stay here for a weekend.”
“In the same rooms as the men?” I asked.
“No. The women have their own rooms. At night, a limo picks them up. They dress like they’re going to a club, someplace loud with dancing.”
“Do you have a place like that near here?” I asked.
He looked around as if he might spot one in the room. “Not that I know of. The first time I saw several beautiful young women in short dresses, I thought they were here for a bachelorette party, or maybe a concert. But it’s every weekend.”
Young women who had enough time to hit the big city for parties every weekend would surely stay in a nicer place than this, though maybe it didn’t matter if they didn’t expect to spend much time in their rooms.
“Do the same women come every time?”
“No.” He frowned. “At least I don’t think so. They’re all the same type, though. Slender, but, um . . .” He cupped his hands to suggest large breasts. “Long hair, skimpy dresses. It didn’t seem right to study them too closely.” He was blushing and avoiding my gaze. Either he did study them closely and didn’t want to admit it, or he was truly horrified at the thought of being seen as a dirty old man.
Old man. Ha. He was younger than I was. But beautiful women in their twenties probably wouldn’t glance his way twice.
“Okay,” I said. “Anything else you think we should know? Anything that feels off?”
He thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. Now that I’ve said it all out loud, my concerns seem foolish. It’s mostly a feeling that something is wrong, but I admit I am entirely out of my depth here. I’d love to sell the place and put this all behind me, but I’m afraid . . .”
“What are you afraid of?” Jen asked gently.
“I guess I’m afraid that if something illegal is going on here, it will come out during the sale, and I’ll be blamed. Or the sale will fall through. Or a potential buyer will suspect something is wrong and back out. I want to make sure everything is aboveboard before I put the motel on the market.”
I could think of several explanations for what he’d seen, and not all of them were unsavory. But some were.
“We’ll find out.” I gave him a reassuring smile. “If it’s nothing, you’ll know. And if it’s something, we’ll figure out what to do about it.”
He smiled back. “Thank you. I’m glad to have you on my side.”
We were doing him a favor and he was doing us a favor. As far as I was concerned, I worked for the truth. If Nathan was right about illegal activity, he might not like what we found or the attention it got the motel from the police and press.
For Nathan’s sake, I hoped we found nothing worse than rude employees who resented the change of ownership. For Jen’s and my sake, I hoped we found something sordid and dramatic. Life had been a little dull lately.
End of Excerpt