Because it was the off season, the clerk (and owner) of the Clary Hotel was surprised to hear that a lone man, about forty or so, with only one suitcase, wished to know the weekly rates. It was early Thursday morning in mid October. The front lobby was still bathed in bright sunlight.
The clerk's name was Jack Clary. He had worked at the Clary Hotel all his life. He had run around in this very building as a little boy. His father and mother ran the hotel when it was called the Hotel Columbia, and after he and his wife inherited it, he renamed it the Clary Hotel. He maintained it mostly by himself-painting, woodworking, window washing, plumbing, repairing the heating and air conditioning, and installing a new floor in the lobby-and although he almost never rented more than a few rooms on weekends in the off season, there were always plenty of tourists in the summer, even with the decline of the town's fortunes. He worked very hard in the summer, and so did his wife-the hotel's only chef and maid-but during the winter months, when the tourist season was officially over, he always felt quite successfully retired, even though he was not yet fifty years old. He stood behind the counter in his hotel and stared into the face of this man who wanted to know the weekly rates.
"What you want to know that for?"
"I'll be staying for a while." The man put down the suitcase, put his hands on the counter. Clary noticed they were clean, the fingernails neatly trimmed.
"Have you been here before?" He turned the book around, so the man could sign it.
"Used to bring my family here every year."
"A long time ago?"
"You might say," the stranger said. He signed the book with a steady hand. His face was thin and long. His hair was thick and came to a perfect widow's peak in the middle of his forehead. It was cut close, but not so close that it wouldn't drape over his brow if he let it. He wore a long gray coat, too heavy for the weather, open down the front. A black scarf draped around his neck.
The name he wrote in the register was David Caldwell.
"It's a different place now," Clary said, studying the name.
"Yes, I guess it is."
"Well, Mr. Caldwell," Clary said. "I certainly hope you weren't expecting . . ." He didn't finish the sentence.
"Nothing. You can see it ain't too lively now."
Caldwell turned the book around again. "A key?" he said.
"Sure." Clary got the key off the wall behind the office door.
As he was handing the key to him, Caldwell said, "And those rates?"
"Well, I don't know. Long as I've been here, nobody stayed over a couple weeks."
"I don't really know how long I'm going to be here. I'm looking for a place. But the county keeps you on a pretty restricted expense account. I can't afford to pay you daily rates." He held the key up, read the number on it.
"Let's see. If you did that it'd be . . ."
"I can't do that. It would be too much. But perhaps . . ."
"At the daily rate that'd be close to four hundred a week."
"I'll give you two hundred."
"You wouldn't have anybody here, it looks like. For sure nobody else'll be here come winter."
"I'm offering two hundred you wouldn't have, then."
"I'm not arguing," Clary said. "It sounds fine to me."
Caldwell almost smiled, picked up his bag and turned for the stairs across the lobby.
"You say the county's paying for it?"
"You some sort of inspector or something?"
"No. I'm visiting on behalf of the county."
The stranger put both bags down at his feet. "And I'm meeting someone, too."
"What's the county got to do with . . ."
"You got a problem here, right?"
"What kind of problem?"
"There ain't none."
"Well, that's why I'm here. I'm the sheriff of Dahlgren County. I came down here to see about setting up an office for a deputy or two."
"You don't say."
"That's right." He leaned down and picked up the bags. "I may be moving down here myself," he groaned with the weight. "Who knows?"
"What we need is a whole police force."
"What I'm going to set up will be better than that. Trust me."
"Oh, I trust you. But you never had to deal with Cecil Edwards."
"Cecil Edwards. He's the problem you mentioned."
Caldwell was silent, but he didn't look away.
"Just the other day he pulled a gun on the fellow that runs the gas station out at the highway."
"Really?" Caldwell was still holding the bags.
"Fellow named McDole runs that place."
Caldwell hefted the bags to get a better grip and started moving toward the elevators across the lobby. Clary came around the counter and took one of the bags, a heavy garment case with a long strap. He draped the bag over his arm.
"I don't suppose you heard that name?"
"What name," Caldwell said, a little winded.
"Can't say I have."
"I thought maybe he went ahead and lodged a complaint. He was mad enough, I thought he might go ahead and do it." Clary put the strap over his shoulder and hoisted the bag as they walked along. "We got a jail, you know."
"Nobody's used it in years. Not since they outlawed gambling," Clary huffed.
"I went by it," Caldwell said. "It's still standing." When they were a short distance from the elevator, Clary stopped and set his bag down, leaning over to let the strap fall off his shoulder.
"Want me to get that?" said Caldwell.
"No. I got it." He put the strap over his other shoulder and lifted the bag again. "Did you say you were meeting someone here?"
"My son," Caldwell said. He was already in front of the elevator when Clary put his bag down next to the door.
"That thing's a bit heavy."
"It's got clothes, boots, some books, a gun and lots of ammo in it," Caldwell said, smiling. "I can take it from here."
They both stood there, watching the door. The stranger pushed the button again.
"It's a wonder that folks do that," Clary said. "Ain't it?"
"I do the same thing. I push the button, it lights and then I wait a little while and if the thing doesn't come I push it again."
"Oh," Caldwell said, still smiling. "Yes. I do that, too."
"You just did it," Clary laughed, and then he was conscious of how loud he had been, and was suddenly embarrassed. He felt awkward and too friendly and as though he had been fawning over this man who hadn't even really told him his name.
The elevator door opened and he helped Caldwell put his bags in, then he stepped back and watched as the door closed. Caldwell didn't look at him, and neither of them said anything. He went back to the counter and studied the name written neatly on the white page of the hotel register. "David Caldwell," he said out loud. "Well. This is just the right time and place for you, Mr. Sheriff Caldwell." He closed the book, went back into his office and got a bottle out of the lower right hand drawer of his desk.
"Chivas," he said. "God bless you."
Copyright © 2005 by Robert Bausch
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