At last he was second in line. He squared his shoulders and pulled at the lower edges of his black double-breasted suitcoat to erase the travel wrinkles. The applicant ahead of him exploded the words, “Nuts! I’ll leave town first. I just came from the Phony-Plaza. You can take that squirrel-cage and--”
“Next!” the employment agent called sadly. Sextus Rollo Forsyte moved up and sat in the oak chair before the oak desk and faced the oak-featured man with the jobs.
“Forsyte is the name,” Sextus reminded. The man riffled through the application cards.
“Yes. Indeed. Lucky you came back. I have a fine position for you, Mr. Forsyte. Right in your line.” He held out a blue slip. “The general manager’s position is open at the Mahoney-Plaza. Six hundred a month, board and room. Now if you will...”
Sextus staggered from the employment office stunned.
He could handle the job, all right. As he’d said on the application form, in his forty years he had managed half a dozen large hotels. But they were handing him this plum without comment on his failure to fill in the spaces marked: COMPLETE REFERENCES (names and addresses).
He shrugged. They did a lot of things different in California. The most he had hoped for was a waiter’s job or maybe a short order cook in a fry joint. But if they wanted to ignore the hotel associations’ black list, he wouldn’t argue.
Sextus Forsyte craved anonymity with the passion that most men seek fame and glory. Beneath his suave, mature exterior beat the shrinking heart of a perennial hermit whose delight was an adventure book and a bottle of whiskey.
His recent employer had not objected to his fondness for reading nor solitude, but his appetite for liquor had revealed itself in a series of unfortunate crises which plague the life of any hotel executive.
Yes, Sextus Forsyte had sought his solitude in that remotest of all places, the large city hotel. His career of smiling at strange faces, welcoming famous people and snapping crisp commands to assistant managers had provided the near-perfect isolation from normal society. To the transient eye he was the poised, gregarious greeter. Actually he lived in a deep well of introversion. Of course, this was no affair of the succession of boards of directors who had uttered the harsh charges of “dipsomania” and fired him. But then boards of directors are never notable for their sympathy or understanding.
And finally word got around the eastern seaboard about Sextus. “A competent man, yes. Drinks on the job. Wouldn’t have him as a busboy.”
Worse than the mere prospect of unemployment was the notoriety. Coldly sober, Sextus had fled panic-stricken to the west coast, vaguely determined to become a beach-comber or an oyster-fisherman or whatever they did out there.
He stared now at the blue slip and turned in to a florist shop. He broke his last five-dollar bill to buy a pink carnation for his buttonhole then headed down the sunny walk to the hotel. It was a fine December morning in the little beach town, such as only Florida and California can advertise. He breathed the salt air and turned an appreciative ear to the gentle wash of the Pacific surf. He felt so good he might even take a little breakfast before his first drink of whiskey of the day.
At the bus depot he traded his baggage checks for two old, but fine leather, two-suiters. Then he taxied the remaining two blocks to the Mahoney-Plaza.
He paused at the entrance, stepped from under the marquis and looked up mystified. The frontage indicated a rather small hostelry to pay such munificent salary to its general manager. Only five stories high, it was squeezed in by low office buildings on either side like an ancient, narrow-chested old man.
He handed his bags to a bell-hop and stepped into a spacious lobby. It was decorated with fine furniture, thick carpets and throngs of expensively undressed people.
The boy put his bags down before a remarkably long room-desk manned by three white-suited clerks, but Sextus touched his arm. “Just take them up to the manager’s suite, please.” The boy eyed him from carnation to dusty shoes.
“Right off a park bench. It figures, though.” He got a key from the desk clerk, picked up the bags again and they started for the elevator alcove.
Sextus’ practiced eye vacuumed details from the lobby, the well-swept carpets, freshly emptied sand-jars and the modern elevators. The place seemed well-ordered and enjoying convention-magnitude business.
He started into the first elevator, but the operator warned, “To Wing ‘A’ only!” with such a question in his voice that Sextus looked back for his bellman. That person, a sandy-haired stripling of some five-feet-four, was trying to wave him on with his head.
“Not that one,” he said impatiently. “Over here. Wing ‘H’.” Then Sextus noticed there were five elevators on either side of the alcove. Each was plainly marked with a letter, running from “A” through “J”. This was a new wrinkle. Elevators were a mode of strictly vertical transportation, meaning, as a safe generality, that they travelled in parallel routes. Why, then, differentiate for separate wings when they were all grouped together in the first place?
And, incidentally, why ten elevators for a 200 or so room hotel, anyway?
They rode to the fourth floor in one-level leaps, stopping to unload several guests on each floor. The upper floor hall was of modest length, running fore and aft of the long, narrow building, as he had first sized it up. Where were all the wings--the wings with the separate elevators?
The boy let him into the light, airy apartment, dropped his bags in the middle of the floor and started out abruptly. Sextus called him back.
“Yeah, what’ll it be--Chief?” His voice was derisive.
“How many rooms do we have here, fellow?”
“Twenny-six hunnerd and all full for the season, so if you’ll just leggo of me--”
“Don’t you enjoy your work here?”
“I detest it. Go ahead, fire me, chum. I’m lookin’ for an excuse to clear out.”
“Very well, you have one. Check out with the captain.” Sextus couldn’t tolerate discourteous familiarity. Friendly familiarity was bad enough, but the “chum” did it.
The boy banged the door behind him.
Sextus opened his bag. From it he extracted a fifth of whiskey which he took to the tiled bathroom. He stripped the cellophane from a drinking glass, poured it half-full of the amber liquor and drained it.
He was in the shower when the phone rang. He dripped to the night stand with the patience of one who has soaked many a rug and discovered that they don’t stain. “Forsyte here!” he answered.
“The new manager? Well, this is Jackson, bell-captain. Whadda you mean canning Jerry? I’m down to twelve skippers and you start out by firing one of my fastest boys!”
“The boy was sarcastic and insolent. Take it up with the service manager. Anyway, how many bellmen do you need to run this cracker-box? Twelve is about eight too many.”
There was a brief silence, then: “In the first place I am your service manager, or all you got at the present. In the second damned place, you tell me where I can lay my hands on ten more boys before you go canning any more. I’m rehiring Jerry as of now!” He banged the receiver in Sextus’ ear.
Unperturbed, Sextus finished his shower, dressed in a lighter weight suit and picked up the phone. The house switchboard apparently was jammed. It took a full minute to get an operator. “Forsyte here. Your new manager, that is. Instruct all department heads to be in my office in seven minutes. General conference.”
Another short nip at the bottle served nicely to quiet a small hunger pang. He went in search of his office. He found it on the mezzanine, suitably lavish, clean and well-furnished.
He adjusted the fragrant carnation on his lapel in the large wall mirror, not entirely displeased with what it reflected. Except for the suitcase wrinkles in his morning coat, he should pass inspection. His thinning hair, square jaw and wide-set eyes radiated a quiet dignity. The slight pink of his cheeks and nose was a bit more prominent than he liked. He should have had some breakfast.
The phone rang and he let it. He was not yet ready to assume his duties. But as time passed and none of his staff appeared, the ring became more significant. He gave in.
“Sorry, Mr. Forsyte,” it was the operator, “but none of your staff can join you just now. They send their regrets.”
“Regrets?” Sextus said icily. “Did you explain who called this meeting, young lady?”
Her voice dropped the synthetic sweetness and became a throaty rasp.
“Look, Buster, we’re short-handed enough without you should call meetings at eleven A. M. Plug the hole in your head. It’s suckin’ air.” He broke the connection. The place was busy, he’d grant, but this was rank insubordination. His whole staff! Everyone seemed keyed to the boingg! point.
He decided to mull it over breakfast. The spacious, well-appointed coffee-shop served his juice gelid and his coffee hot, his egg tender and his toast crisp. The bit of tension vanished as he ate with relish. He signed the check with his tight, little introverted signature.
Now for a quick inspection tour to see just how rough things really were. He told the boy on the service elevator, “To the bottom.” His stomach writhed as the cage plummeted four floors below the street level. The kitchens, laundry, warehouse, baggage-room, switchboard room, ice-plant and personnel spaces sprawled through an acre of underground levels. They boiled with sweating men and dishevelled women engaged in the intricate business of housing, feeding, clothing, liquoring and catering to a small city under one roof. Then he remembered how small the quarters were upstairs.
How could they house enough guests to justify all this?
Returning to his office he called the employment bureau. “Mr. Crowson? Forsyte here! I’m at the hotel.”
“Oh dear, what’s wrong now?”
“You didn’t tell me to whom I should report. This, ah, is my first experience with employment agencies. Usually there is a board of directors.”
“Is that all?” Crowson sighed audibly. “You are in full charge, I assure you. Our little interview was quite satisfactory. I have certified you to your bookkeeping department, and you may draw upon your salary after a week. Anything else?”
“Where may I reach the owner or the chairman in an emergency?”
“The owner is a Dr. Bradford who is in Hanford, Washington. Top secret government work. He may not be contacted until he returns. Sorry, that’s all I can tell you. Getting on all right, Mr. Forsyte?” he asked with obvious reluctance.
Sextus cut off. Two lights on the intercom were blinking at him. One call was from the kitchen. The first chef had just heaved a cleaver at the steward, and the head salad girl was in hysterics.
Sextus said he’d be right down. The second call was from the chief house-detective. He had caught a bell-hop peddling marijuana to the waitresses. What was the manager’s new policy? Sextus told him to hold the boy in the locker room for him. Then one of the room clerks rang to say that Gary Gable, the movie star, was raising hell in the lobby because he couldn’t get the bridal suite and demanded to see the manager.
Sextus smiled. These things were the routine of running a large hotel. He stopped at the bar for a quick one and then started for the kitchen.
The day passed pleasantly enough, and he looked forward to retiring to his quiet rooms upstairs. He thought to get some intelligent answers from his assistant manager when he walked in promptly at five P. M., but he turned out to be a university student from Southern Cal, working days on his master’s degree in business administration and nights at the hotel. No wonder he hadn’t been promoted. Not that he wasn’t bright--just not experienced.
Sextus formally offered his hand and introduced himself. The lad said,
“I’m Horace Smith the phone is ringing excuse me.” He snatched the phone with a harried look.
Somehow the phone never stopped ringing. Sextus gave up and retired to dress for dinner. He finished his fifth of whiskey and descended to the hotel’s swank Oceania Room, where he made himself known to the maitre d’hotel. That frenzied little moustachioed person sniffed Sextus’ breath and seated him behind a potted palm.
Discreetly avoiding the wine list, Sextus dined well, noting several movie stars and other vip’s in the crowded dining room. He couldn’t escape the illusion that he was dining at the Ambassador or the Waldorf Astoria--instead of in a five-story rat-trap. Where did they all come from?
As he awaited the elevator, he was approached by the bell-captain. “Mr. Forsyte?” Sextus nodded stiffly. “Here’s an envelope Mr. Patterson left for you. He was the last G. M. Incidentally, sorry I was a little rough on the phone, but you can see our situation here. Understaffed and overcrowded. It gets thick, real thick, brother.”
Sextus felt his belly muscles tighten. “Confusion is never improved by discourtesy or insubordination,” he said coldly.
At that moment a bellman rushed up to the rebuffed captain who was regarding Sextus with a restrained loathing. “The guy in C332 keeps screaming for his beer, but the service elevator to ‘C’ vector keeps dumping me off in ‘F’.”
The captain said, “Try riding to fourth on ‘C’ and then walk down a deck and come out through the linen room.”
“Can’t I just ride up the guest elevator, Jack?”
The captain stared at Sextus. “Our Mr. Forsyte wouldn’t approve. Now, move!”
He turned to Sextus and said acidly, “Just one of our little extra problems.” He moved off with a disgusted shake of his carefully barbered head.
The nature of the bell-captain’s special problem sounded interesting, but the details confused Sextus. Ride to four on “C”, walk down to three and out by the linen closet. Sounded like three-dimensional chess.
His cage arrived and he returned to his suite. He removed his shoes, stripped to the waist and sank gratefully into the soft bed, nestling the last bottle of his suitcase reserve in the crook of his bare arm.
He considered the sealed envelope marked: TO MY SUCCESSOR. URGENT MATTERS.
First he opened a fresh bottle and then the envelope. He flipped through the papers. There were some tax reports ready for signature, two union contracts up for renegotiation and an estimate on re-doing 520 rooms in vectors “B” and “F”. Vectors? Did they mean “Wings”?
The last paper was a personal letter, apparently addressed to him. Before he could begin it the phone at his bedside jangled. Operator said, “Would you take this, please, Mr. Forsyte? I dispatched a house man, but the guest is hysterical.”
Without awaiting his permission she cut in the woman. “Hello, manager? There’s a man in my bed!”
“What is your room number, madame?” Sextus asked with drowsy detachment.
“I’m in H-408,” she said, and on the “8” her voice ran up the scale in a quivering crescendo that launched Sextus briskly from his bed. H-408 was his floor and his wing, luckily. He tore out of the suite and down the hall without shirt or shoes.
The door stood ajar, and he pushed it open. In the middle of the floor, still gabbling into the phone, stood a lumpy, pallid woman about his own age, naked except for a pillow which she hugged fiercely to her navel. Her bleached hair was a frayed bird’s-nest.
In bed, decently clad in a pair of blue and white striped pajamas, was a rather distinguished, gray-haired gentleman of about fifty, leaning on one elbow and watching the woman with an expression of mild astonishment and interest. To Sextus’ practiced eye, the man was guilty of nothing.
The house detective arrived at that moment, but Sextus dismissed him with a wave of his hand. He went in alone.
“I’m the manager, madam,” he assured her. He noted that despite her excited wails, her eyes drooped half shut. A bottle of sleeping pills on the table was uncapped.
“Thizz man, thizz man, thizz man!” she kept repeating and pointing her elbow at the bed. The man in question raised his eyebrows and shook his head.
“Damndest sensation I ever felt,” he said. “I’m Johnathan P. Turner, attorney. Before I tell you my story, please check with the desk and verify that I was assigned this room.”
Sextus took the phone from the woman’s pudgy hand which darted to rescue the sagging pillow. The room-clerk reported that Mr. J. P. Turner was registered to room 408, but in “J” vector, not “H”.
Sextus’ eyes swept the room. It was an unexplainable mess. Two sets of luggage were jumbled on and around the baggage rack at the foot of the bed. Rinsed out nylons hung from the shower rod, but a man’s shaving kit occupied the shelf over the lavatory. Despairing of ever arriving at a sensible explanation, Sextus went to work.
Although hampered somewhat without his shirt, coat and tie, Sextus managed to get Turner and his belongings transferred peaceably to another room and the woman quieted down in bed with another sleeping pill.
Then Turner was allowed to tell his story. “I had turned in early and was lying there on my back reading the paper when suddenly I got the most messy feeling all through me. It was like--oh, hell, I can’t say it. Anyhow, in just about a second, something went thub!--and there she was in bed with me--naked!” he added with a shiver.
Sextus grasped at a straw. “How many did you have to drink this evening, Mr. Turner?”
The attorney squirmed uncomfortably. “Well, quite a few, maybe, but not enough to--”