SEBASTIAN AND THE MURDER MYSTERY by Ste Whitehouse
Sebastian has been asked to discover who murdered a man on the 47th floor of a hotel when the room was locked from within. The hotels owner and three other guests all appear to have something to hide.
Le Petite was waiting, his door open.
“I guess I’m next,” he said flatly. He was a tall, lanky man who had once been bigger; his clothes hung desolately on his angular frame. His eyes were the pale blue of a winter’s morning and held a suggestion of sadness and discomfort. He wore overalls over a white Tee and faded jeans. His room was in stark contrast to everyone else’s; a splash of vivid colours scattered like a second rate Pollock across canvases that were strewn everywhere. On the walls, and windows; resting on and against furniture; piled in spare corners. Some held the impression of vague shapes; figures or faces; a Monroe or a Winehouse. Others appeared to be landscapes; shattered and burnt landscapes from the hell that was of his own making. None of it inspired Sebastian.
He slouched into a free chair and spoke, his voice thick with insolence. “I was here, painting as always, my door shut. I heard a bang; THE shot and came out. Smith was just leaving his room and Hilt hers. We crossed the corridor to Annie’s who was just coming out of her own room and came to Spellers. His door was shut, locked; and we tried to get in. Couldn’t. The rest of the help arrived, as unhelpful as always, and someone suggested we bring that thing up from downstairs. It finally broke the lock and we found him there; dead.” He finally looked up at Sebastian a faraway look in his eyes as if he were already planning what to do when he had left. “Is that precise enough for you?”
“So you know who Miss Smith is?”
“It was easy enough to figure out. We’ve both been staying here months. Things slip after a while. You get to see the real person underneath.”
“Do you mind if I search your room? The correct answer is yes.”
He nodded and the bot quickly slipped nimble ‘fingers’ through Le Petite’s drawers of underwear and socks. His room, despite the avant-garde decoration, was laid out similar to the other three, including the empty half closet in what was generally the living space. Sebastian was unsure what to do next. They had all had time to ‘fix’ their accounts and although none sounded that rehearsed it all felt a little too smooth.
Despite that there was still a mystery. A locked room murder with four of the suspects alone in their rooms but visible almost immediately after the sound of the gunshot. No one would’ve been able to make it back to their room even Miss Smith and anyhow; how was the door locked from the inside if the murderer left?
Sebastian thanked Le Petite and started to leave, stopping at the door and turning to ask him. “So what did Speller have on you?”
He stared for a minute and the mechanoid thought that he was not going to answer when the thin man suddenly answered. “He found out that I actually like women.”
Sebastian had to literally process that sentence and finally repeated it back to him asking. “What do you mean?”
“Speller found out that I sleep exclusively with women”
“For god’s sake man!” He exploded in exasperation. “I’m one of the fathers of the gay-Pollock movement. We set our stall out on an expression of our sexuality and art. Our work comes from our inclinations and predilections; an art that transcends mere talent and wrenches your very being into a force dominated by who you make love too.”
He was almost shouting. “I was one of its founders; men looked up to me as a guide, a beacon of hope in a dangerous world. Some hated gays and our art became a mirror held up to reflect their ugliness and contemptible behaviour.”
Sebastian looked around at the canvases. He could see a LOT of ugliness but he just wasn’t sure it ‘reflected the soul’ of anyone but the artist.
“So you started a gay artistic movement but weren’t actually gay?” Sebastian asked.
“The ignominy of it all. I had merely mentioned the idea one night at a drinking establishment a number of us frequented and the next thing I knew a major movement had coalesced and the whole of B’jing was abuzz. It stretched almost the length of Ah’kis. I tried other forms but it was the only way I could display my genius; no other gallery would exhibit my culturally relevant canvases.”
“And Speller knew?”
“He was a vile man, with vile.... passions. Truly despicable. But I did not, could not murder a man in cold blood.” He stared with a combination of despair and anger but with nothing else to say.
Sebastian met Sonia outside and she smiled timidly, pushing back a strand of red hair behind an ear. She told him that she was on her way to Mrs Hilt’s to serve supper. He followed the young woman.
A rasping voice echoed from within the room. “Is that you girl? For The Builders sake come on in; a woman could starve in the time it takes you lot to get up here.”
Sonia gingerly pushed the door opened and Sebastian had a sense that this wasn’t the first foul mood Hilt had displayed.
“You lousy sl...” She saw the bot and stopped. “Oh. It’s you. Sebastian? Come in; come in. Never mind the girl.” She eyed Sonia. “Maid, get my supper immediately.” The old woman tried a rare smile and failed spectacularly. “The help. Ha! Should be called the hindrance. Still what have you learnt so far?”
He was about to speak when Sonia rolled a service cart stacked with cold meats, fruit and beans. Suddenly he understood the purpose of the half closets in each room and also the how of the mystery.
“I’m sorry. Just a stray thought. I need to ask you some questions about this morning.”
“I’ve spoken to you already,” she said obviously annoyed.
“You were in your room I believe?”
“Yes. We all seem to remain in our rooms more and more these days; as if our very presence in each other’s company has begun to offend our sensibilities. It was close to twelve, I remember thinking that soon one of these people,” She indicated Sonia. “Would serve lunch. I heard a shot and came out where I saw Mr Smith and Mr Le Petite both ahead of me. All three of us rushed towards the sound and Miss Smith exited her own room ahead of us. She told us that Mr Speller had closed the door and when we tried it we found the door locked.”
“Mr Speller was a journalist.” Sebastian said slowly.
“So? He rented the room just like they all do.”
“This place appears less a hotel and more a halfway house.”
“Our guests stay as long as they wish; or as long as their coin remains.”
“He had stayed here on and off for the past decade or so. His coin is ALWAYS good.” She looked at him in exacerbation. “Now could I possibly have some privacy while I eat?”
He left with Sonia and asked her to take him to the staff areas. As they used the stairs he asked her some questions. “I believe you were the maid that morning?”
She nodded in agreement. “Yes; I am the.... maid every day. I cleaned their rooms and took away their breakfast dishes earlier.”
“Cleaning the corridors, ensuring that the guests’ needs are catered for.” She looked uncomfortable he didn’t ask the question he wanted too but instead asked. “How many staff are allowed up there on the guest floor?”
“A handful at most. Me, Cyl occasionally; a chef if one of the guests wishes some special meal later that day.”
“Cyril Made. Another cleaner.”
“Husband?” Sebastian asked.
“No. We are both cleaners, maids. It is our name and description.”
Sebastian then understood that what he had heard as Made was in fact Maid. He asked. “There was a child seen running from Spellers room.”
Sonia looked horrified. “Oh no! That’s Danni. She’s just.... she’s not even ten yet. We’re teaching her the workings of the hotel. How to serve and clean and even cook. She is so good at all of it really. A true servant,” she said proudly.
They reached the lower floor and two things hit Sebastian at once; the noise and the heat. People were rushing along narrow aisles between cookers and work benches; carrying dishes, food, scraps, waste. Chopping and slicing; dicing and crushing while all around them the ovens gave off a pernicious heat that sapped your strength. The sheer number of people was astounding. Did the five of them living above, or four now, really need dozens of staff?
Along one wall a row of mattresses’ lay; the odd personal item sitting incongruously alongside. Another wall held a row of industrial sized washing machines which today added to the bedlam. Soap and cooking smells mixed alarmingly
“Is it always like this?” he asked in a loud scream.
Sonia smiled and nodded. “It rarely stops. The chef has to rise early to prepare bread and the washers and dryers run most of the night.”
“Why don’t you leave?”
Sonia held up her arm. The ceramic almost translucent bracelet clung to her skin. “They can track us anywhere with these. We all have one. Even the children.”
“Eleven; ranging from five months to fifteen.” She noticed Sebastian glancing around and added. “There’s an annex where we try to teach them as much as we can. We have some books. I can write well enough. We take it in turn to nurse the babies.”
Sebastian looked around at the cramped, noisy, smelly, inhuman conditions and made a snap decision that Kassi would have been proud of. He pointed to the shafts that rose up towards the ceiling. “And those are the dumb waiters to each of the rooms above?”
A look of alarm crossed her face as she said yes.
“I’ll need to speak with Danni.” If anything Sonia’s face became even more horrified. “Don’t worry will be easy with her. It’s just that she was the last person to see Speller alive.”
Somehow that did not calm the young woman but she was used to taking orders and crossed over the room to one of the beds. Even before the child looked up Sebastian knew that she would have red hair like her mother.
“Your daughter.” It wasn’t a question.
Sonia nodded wide eyed in fear.
The child looked dirty like she was a street urchin from some Dickensian paperback with eyes similar to Sonia’s but holding less pain.
“Danni. This is the machine I told you about. He wants to speak with you. Is that alright?” The child looked suddenly anxious but nodded silently.
“Is there a room with less noise?”
Sonia led them to a stairwell at the corner of the kitchen. She waited as they went down a few steps and sat beside each other as though they were friends.
Sebastian waited for his ears to work again and then asked. “You saw Mr Speller this morning.”
Danni’s eyes were wide with that look young children everywhere get when real life intrudes into their lives. Sebastian noticed she wore a name badge, some old plastic thing from before the war with the name of the Hilt Tower Hotel emblazed upon it and a crest of some sort. The name said Daniel.
“That’s an odd badge.”
The girl shrugged and said. “It was given to me when I was born. You just get given the next one or the one of someone you’re replacing.”
“Replacing?” That didn’t sound good.
“Y’know. If someone’s died and they bring in someone new. They’re given the name. Billy, he’s my friend although he’s two years and seven months older than me, he says that my name is a boy’s name but I can beat him so he doesn’t say that anymore. It’s not a boy’s name is it mister?”
“Nah! Danni’s a girl’s name; he’s just winding you up.”
The girl smiled and they sat in silence for a little longer.
“So,” he finally said. “Mr Speller?”
Danni looked miserable obviously remembering something unpleasant.
“He was not nice.” She almost sobbed. “He was mean to the adults but he tried to be friendly to me. He used to tell me I was special and he wanted to show me a picture of a pony. He always.... held my hands.... and.... stuff. BUT I didn’t really like it.” Her voice trailed off into silence her eyes wide with tears.
“And your mother knew about this?”
An emphatic nod as Danni bit into her bottom lip. “I was quiet and she asked and I said that Mr Speller had said that I was pretty and that he had told me not to tell anyone because I was so pretty and then mom got soooo angry and said ‘not again’ and stormed off to see him.” She rushed it all out in one sentence.
“That was this morning?” Sebastian asked tentatively.
“No.” Danni shook her head in an exaggerated fashion. “That was the day before.”
“So what happened this morning?” He looked directly at the girl and spoke as softly as he could manage considering. “You’re not in trouble Danni; neither is your mom. I just want to know what happened in his room.” Sebastian wasn’t too sure that he did want to know.
“Billy said Mr Speller had some cherry cola and he wanted to share one with me.” She looked down. “I didn’t think mom would mind so I went. He.... he said I was pretty again and touched my.... I didn’t feel good but I really wanted a cherry cola. He said I smelt good which was funny ‘cuz I hadn’t washed that morning and mom was angry with me for that.” She looked up her eyes full of tears. “I mean that it was funny odd, not funny ha ha.”
“When did your mom...?”
“Right then. She was pis.... angry and she shouted at me to leave and called Mr Speller a ‘dis-gus-ting old man’ and that ‘once was enough.’ I ran out as mom slammed the door shut behind me and came down here. Next thing I know is that everyone’s talking about him getting shot and we all run up the stairs to his room. Mom was behind me and she held me tight whispering that what happened there should be ‘our secret’; but that’s what he said; Right!?”
“Some secrets are worth hiding Danni and some aren’t. Your mom’s right on this one. No one else is to know okay?”
She nodded and he let her return to her Sonia. He understood why and how. All that he needed to do was just tidy things up. Dot the T’s and cross the I’s so to speak. He went back into the kitchen come washroom come bedroom and asked around. Everyone told him a variation on a theme; they either heard the shot or heard someone else who had heard the shot. As a group they made their way upstairs and yes Sonia was with them bringing up the rear.
Sebastian checked the layout of the floors. The main room, the kitchen come everything else including the kitchen sink, held the six shafts leading to the four guests, Hilt’s room and an open lounge/bar opposite her room close to Spellers and Annie Clarabelle Dawson’s rooms. If everyone was turned to the stairs leading to the guests their backs would be to the dumb waiters.
When he had arrived Sebastian had become blinded by the old woman’s prejudices. This was a murder and they needed someone capable of murder; someone obviously their equal. In truth it was sheer luck that had created the situation and not intelligent cunning. But the ‘guest’s’ did not see the staff, could not even recall their names. To them the staff were just moving objects no more useful than a troll in the field.
“You know,” Sonia said as she stepped close to me. It wasn’t a question.
“You went to protect your daughter from a predator.” Sebastian looked up into her eyes and understood much more. “A predator that had struck before many times.”
She looked away and he could barely hear her voice. “He liked little girls. I was barely little older than Danni when he...”
“You sent her out. He argued. Lunch had just been sent up, that was why you were there, and you grabbed a knife. He pulled out a gun but he was old and slow. You struggled; he fell. You ran the knife into his hand and then you picked up the gun.”
“I was only thinking of what he would do to Danni. It was too late for me but she has her life; even here in hell.”
“You took the gun and realising that the corridor was out of the question you used the dumb waiter to lower yourself back into the kitchen where you could follow everyone else upstairs.”
“I threw the gun away on my way to find you. I just couldn’t believe my luck. She sent me.”
“Okay here’s what we need to do.”
Sebastian entered the lounge to find all four ‘guests’ there, each sitting or standing as far away from the others as could be; a centrifugal force keeping them apart. Hilt bustled over demanding to know why they had been kept waiting. The impertinence of it all; he was a machine, a thing and didn’t things just jump to their beat?
The mechanoid said nothing settling instead at the centre of the room. He waited until all four realised that it was better to let him speak than babble on amongst themselves. He resisted the urge to begin by saying ‘we are gathered here today’ and instead went straight into his prepared speech.
“You hired me to come here and discover who amongst you killed Tomas Speller. Who this person is and why they perpetrated such a crime. I can tell you that the person who committed this act resided within the hotel.” The four began to glance warily at each other suspicion in all their eyes.
“I can also tell you something each and every one of you already knew. That Speller was a man with grotesque tastes and that each and every one of you colluded to allow him continual access to his crimes.” Miss Smith loudly proclaimed her innocence but he could see it in her face; the knowledge of the man and his acts over the years and more. That same look echoed in every face.
“You all allowed him to continue. Fed him in fact with fresh young girls. The staff are very vocal on that. You Mrs Hilt encouraged only the youngest of travellers to stay, using Miss Smith and Mr Le Petite even to ‘encourage’ them to stay. Mr Smith here supplied you with the means to keep your ‘staff’ in line with the use of nerve-line bracelets able to not only track a suspect but create pain greater than most trained soldiers can take. Your staff had little defence against such tactics.” Hilt and Smith gave him murderous looks but Sebastian continued.
“So is it any surprise that Spellers choices in life became so indicative of his death?”
“The staff!” Hilt snarled. “One of them killed him. Which one? Which one of the little brats did this?”
“Are now there is the rub. Yes one member of your staff did indeed finish Speller but which one?”
“You know or you wouldn’t be putting us through this pointlessness,” Le Petite said sharply.
Sebastian said grimly. “Yes I know who did it. And I’ve decided to tell you on only one condition.”
“CONDITION! YOU HAVE A CONDITION! Tell us. Tell us now!” Hilt screamed her face contorted in rage.
“Take it or leave it. That’s my offer.”
“Oh for god’s sake what is this bloody condition?” The young actress said bitterly.
“Simple. Tell me the name of a member of your staff, with a good description of them—just so you can’t cheat and run off any number of names—and I’ll give you the name of the person you want.”
There was silence.
“A name?” Smith senior asked curiously.
“With a description.” Sebastian wished he could smile. “Come now. Who brings you your meals; or cooks for you; or cleans your rooms? You make sure they only use the names from the badges of dead employees so who is who?”
“Candy?” asked Le Petite. “Or was it Cindy?”
“Anne?” Clarabelle?” Hilt said.
“You stupid bitch,” exclaimed Miss Smith. “That’s me!”
“Mark. John. Luke. Matthew,” Smith stuttered.
“Oh for god’s sake why not John, Paul, George and Ringo?” Miss Smith retorted.
Sebastian began to walk away.
“Wait! Where are you going? You have to tell us,” Hilt cried out.
“If you actually knew your staff, and treated them as staff then I wouldn’t have been needed.”
“It doesn’t matter,” snarled Smith. “We can make them talk when you’re gone.” He laughed and Le Petite joined in whinnying like a horse.
“Oh. Didn’t I say? I hacked your little charm bracelets while you were all waiting here for me. They are useless. All of your staff have already left.” He walked to the lift and waited for it to arrive. Hilt came out looking disorientated, her world turned upside down.
“You bastard!” she cried.
“Not from where I stand,” the bot replied.
The doors open and Sebastian took the car back down to the ground. Tina had left along with the rest of the staff. He had played for time allowing them to leave but Sonia was waiting in the lobby with Danni.
“Mrs Hilt gave me some coin for you. She wasn’t sure whether you would need paying up front. Here.” She went to give him a small bag of but he declined.
“No. You and Danni, and the rest, need it more than I do. Take it.”
They left to join the others and Sebastian began his long walk back to Kassi. He needed a good wash.