By E.D. Watson
A man’s hand in a black leather glove inserts itself between the elevator doors, and suddenly Andromeda is cornered. Terror turns her to stone. She can’t lunge at the panel of buttons or pull the fire alarm. This is it, she thinks. The doors hesitate, and shudder back open. The hour is late; nobody knows she’s here at the Bradbury Hotel. Except for Ham, who has found her at last: the gloves are to hide his prints.
But when the door opens all the way, the gloved hand isn’t Ham’s. It’s attached to the arm of a hotel guest, a thin and red-lipped man wearing an overcoat in spite of the oppressive Louisiana heat. He boards the elevator, and Andromeda concentrates on the illuminated orange numbers as the car inches upward. The man scrutinizes her openly. Without being touched or spoken to, she feels herself interrogated, her pockets rifled.
“What are you staring at?” she finally asks. He doesn’t look away. At the sixth floor she exits and he stays on the elevator though he can go no higher—which means he’s passed his floor.
“Creep,” she says. As the door slides shut, his red mouth divides in a smile.
At the end of the hall, she checks over both shoulders before sliding her key into the door of room 612. Inside, she unties her apron and lets it drop.
Then she notices the mini-bar.
It wasn’t in the room this morning, when she’d left. Its contents glitter like treasure: emerald bottles of wine, foil-wrapped wheels of cheese, packets of crackers in gold cellophane. The mini-bar is stocked the way they do them for the best guests, which Andromeda is not. Between the bottles of wine is a note on folded hotel stationery. The print is blocky and peculiar, like the handwriting of someone to whom literacy came late. It reads: I can keep a secret.
She stuffs the note back between the bottles and quickly changes out of her uniform. Somebody knows she’s here. She pins up her hair, pulls a hat low on her head, and slips back out of the room.
Gil’s Gree-Z Spoon is tucked between a pawn shop and a convenience store, just under the Crescent City Connection Bridge, a ten-minute walk from Algiers’ Bradbury Hotel. Andromeda went there for the first time this morning, drawn by a sign in the window offering “Bottomless Coffee” for a dollar. The price was right, but Andromeda could’ve sworn the coffee was nothing but heated Mississippi River water, thick with sludge. This morning, there’d been a table full of cops; Andromeda needs someplace safe to sit down and think. At this hour, she can’t think of anywhere else to go.
Loops of faded Mardi Gras beads swish from the door’s handle when she pushes it open. The same fat man from this morning—Gil?—stands behind the counter with a fly swatter in each hand. He sets one of them down long enough to pour her a cup of coffee and bump a menu against her elbow, at which Andromeda shakes her head.
“You work at the Bradbury,” he says. Andromeda is taken aback. “I recognized your uniform this morning,” he explains.
“You know a girl there named Andromeda?” He moves the swatters in slow, separate circles, a fat, fly-killing ninja.
Andromeda narrows her eyes. “What department?”
“All I know, she work there. Seem like you’d remember if you knew someone with a name like that.”
“It’s a big hotel. Lotta people,” she says. It’s a lie. The Bradbury has a total staff of fourteen. The fat man brings one of the swatters down onto the counter but misses, and the fly takes to the air.
“Alright,” he says.
She concentrates on keeping her hands from trembling as she lifts her cup. The coffee smells like exhaust and tastes like burned toast. She stays and drinks four cups, forcing herself to act nonchalant, resisting the urge to question the fat man about this Andromeda and whoever’s been asking around about her. Besides, she knows it’s Ham. She knows he’s trying to find her even though she told him in the letter, “There’s nothing you can say or do to change my mind.”
Maybe she should tell someone. If he finds her he’s going to kill her. He’s the type; on some level she’s always known it.
Which doesn’t explain the mini-bar and the note. It wasn’t his handwriting, and it’s not his style, either. What Ham would do is strangle her in the elevator. Probably have his way with her first, or maybe after.
There’s a saying, something about the enemy you know being less dangerous than the one you haven’t met, but this isn’t the case with Ham. So even though it doesn’t seem safe to go back to the hotel, Andromeda has forty-four dollars to her name, and nobody she can call. Payday is more than a week away. She could go to a shelter, but she’s heard the women’s shelters around here are nothing more than brothels: protection at a price. Going back to the Bradbury is her only option.
When she signals Gil for the check, he rings her up for fifty cents.
“Discount,” he says, “for folks who work in the neighborhood.” She leaves a dollar on the counter and doesn’t say goodbye.
Room 612 of the Bradbury Hotel is a storage room, but this wasn’t always the case. In the 1860s, when the hotel was built, room 612 was the grand suite. Eventually though, a roof leak caused the room’s ceiling to fall in and it went unrepaired. By that time, the Bradbury was no longer the kind of place whose guests could or would pay extra for a grand suite. Now, the spacious quarters are crammed with a jumble of extra tables and broken chairs. The corner window overlooking the Mississippi is obscured by a stack of unused mattresses. Andromeda knows the room well; she’s the hotel’s Head Housekeeper—and for the last twenty-four hours, she’s also been secretly living in the storage room.
The first night she was most surprised by the sounds of the hotel—the elephant-moans of its ancient plumbing, the susurrus of late-night TV behind the doors, the buzz of loose windowpanes at the blast of a ship’s horn—sounds that she never hears over the roar over her vacuum cleaner and the hum of the laundry machines. Tonight there is another sound: the whine of her stomach, burning with Gil’s coffee. In an effort to conserve her meager funds, she hasn’t eaten since yesterday morning, when she left Ham. She eyes the mini-bar and considers. To eat the food inside is to consent to something—but to what and with whom? If she can sneak down to the hotel pantry in the morning and restock the mini-bar, then perhaps no one will ever know she’s partaken of the offering.
Of course it will mean stealing from her employers. She’s already squatting—an offense sure to get her fired, whatever her reasons. As she unwraps the foil on a round of cheese, she thinks: one day on my own and already a low-down criminal. She promises herself that, come payday, she’ll leave twenty bucks in the register before she skips town.
She just hopes she can hang onto her job that long. Andromeda doesn’t have any enemies here, but neither does she have friends. It’s every man for himself at the Bradbury; the only alliances are political. If she’s discovered, she’ll be dismissed—and then what? Jobs are hard to come by, especially in Algiers. Especially for a homeless chick.
She opens a wine bottle and drinks deeply. It may be the last good thing she tastes for a while.
The next day is Andromeda’s day off, but it is too risky to stay in 612 because Myrtle or Bai Ling, the other housekeepers, might come in for a spare duvet or a bolster pillow, and catch her in the act of hiding out. Andromeda leaves the room before any of the other staff arrive, but wears her uniform anyway—she can always say she’s pulling overtime if anyone sees her in the halls. Downstairs, she lets herself into the pantry and fills her apron pockets with wine and cheese to restock the mini-bar in her room. As she hurries back upstairs, she tries to keep the bottles from clinking. The stairwell is poorly lit, so she doesn’t notice the strange man from the elevator gaining on her from below until he is suddenly on the landing with her.
She recognizes him with a start, and he offers her another smile. His eyes are the dark gold of clean motor oil. He speaks with an accent, nodding slightly at her bulging pockets.
“You enjoy the mini-bar I think, yes?”
Before she can think of a reply, he continues upstairs, and exits the stairwell at the fifth floor.
Andromeda stands motionless on the stairs for a few seconds before bolting back down to the pantry, emptying her apron of contraband, and fleeing the hotel.
On the dawn ferry across the river to New Orleans, Andromeda chooses a seat inside, away from the edges of the boat and the churning water. She is going to the art museum. If she can make it there, she’ll be safe within the protection offered priceless works of art: men with guns and radios, a bank of security cameras. And it’s free to get in.
But she is too early and the museum hasn’t opened. She follows a sign around the side of the building to the sculpture garden, and finds it ungated. Across the lawn, an enormous bronze spider crouches in the shadow of a towering oak, and Andromeda hurries to take refuge beneath its legs. She waits, and after seeing nobody else in the garden for some time, she creeps in wonderment from beneath the spider, toward a two-story safety pin, lodged in the earth.
Long after the museum opens, Andromeda remains outside, moving among the sculptures, touching them, walking around and beneath them when possible. It’s over ninety degrees, and under the long coat she wears to hide her Bradbury uniform, patches of perspiration spread and merge. But she is in a kind of reverie. Only when she begins to feel lightheaded does she notice that it is mid-day, and hurries inside.
The light in the museum is bright and cool, fishbowl light. Andromeda splashes some water on her face in the ladies’ room, then finds a bench in a room full of modern art. There are two entrances, so if Ham comes in one door, she has an escape.
An hour passes. The paintings in the room don’t hold her attention; she doesn’t understand them and there are undemocratic velvet cordons beneath each one. From where she sits, the paintings are meaningless blurs.
“I thought I might find you here,” says a voice behind her. She turns and sees the strange man from the hotel. “I saw you early, in the sculpture garden,” he continues. “I wanted to speak to you but you were too far away, and then I lost sight of you. I thought if I found you again it would be here, with Kandinsky.”
He gestures with his chin to the painting across from them.
He sits beside her on the bench. “You have a Russian sensibility about you. Something tragic, but not flagrant.”
His lips are so red in the center they look as though he’s been eating candy.
She looks at the painting. “It’s just some circles,” she says. “Nothing tragic about that. Who are you, anyway?”
“My name is Gustav,” he says. “I work at the Bradbury.”
“You must think I’m real stupid.”
“I didn’t say I was an employee; I said I worked there.”
She thinks for a minute, and then a sly understanding spreads across her face. “A pimp,” she says. “Sorry, not interested.”
“Certainly not,” he says. “I am conducting an investigation. No one can know.”
“Then why are you talking to me? My tragic Russian eyes?”
“You sneak around the hotel with your pockets full of wine. You’re in the halls after everyone has gone. You have access to places I cannot go. I need your help.”
She wonders: IRS? FBI? “Why should I? If you know about all that, then you must know I’m squatting. I stand to lose my job if I get caught helping you.”
“You are someone with a secret; I can keep a secret. Or not.”
She sits for a minute considering the blackness surrounding Kandinsky’s circles. “So it’s like that,” she says.
“Unfortunately, coercion is the only tool at my disposal. Persuasion, I think, would be more pleasant?”
“What makes you so sure I’d be persuaded?”
“A hunch. That is all.” He stands. “I will leave instructions for you. No one must see us together at the hotel.” He turns to leave and then stops and touches her lightly on the shoulder. “By the way,” he says, “No one is following you.” Then he is gone.
Andromeda sits frozen on the bench in disbelief, struggling to comprehend his final statement. Had he meant that Ham was out looking for her but was “persuaded” to stop? Anyone who could do that was no one to be trifled with.
She decides the man probably isn’t from the IRS.
When she returns to her room at the Bradbury, she finds a sandwich and a peach inside the mini-bar. As she eats, she weighs her choices, which seem to be cooperate, or cooperate. At least he’s thoughtful: in addition to the food, there’s a small jar of bath salts on the edge of the tub. After the sandwich is gone, she turns out all the lights in the room in case there’s a camera or something, strips off her clothes, and stoppers the tub. Lavender-scented steam climbs the darkened air as she bites into the peach.
But that night she has another nightmare about the woman with the black eye. This time the woman is on the floor of Ham and Andromeda’s kitchen, digging through the trash. The woman is naked and her body is smeared with tomato sauce and brown juice from the garbage, and Andromeda feels like puking. She wakes, gripped by nausea. It takes several seconds to recall where she is, and why. She turns on the lamp and removes an orange pill bottle out of her purse. Inside is a crumpled cigarette butt. Holding the bottle to the light, she tips it from side to side, remembering.
Sometimes after work Ham went to Live Sex Acts on Bourbon Street, which Andromeda hated because then he came home rock-hard and full of ideas. That must have been where he’d found the woman. She already had one breast hanging out of her shirt when she’d crawled into the bed where Andromeda was sleeping. Andromeda woke to the sound of her low laughter and the clink of Ham’s belt buckle.
“I brought you a present, Little Girl,” he’d said. Andromeda had leapt from the bed, clutching a pillow to herself in terror and outrage. The woman belched softly. When Andromeda refused to participate, Ham banished her to the sofa where she spent the next few hours listening to the woman being made to bark like a dog, and the moist sounds of flesh against flesh.
When the sun came up, the woman came out of the bedroom in a pair of Andromeda’s panties. Ham’s snoring could be heard all the way in the kitchen. Andromeda sat at the table, stirring a cup of coffee without drinking it. The woman had a black eye. She lit a cigarette and sat down across from Andromeda. They stared at each other without speaking while the woman smoked. Finally, she stubbed out her cigarette in the sugar bowl and left. Andromeda scooped the butt into a pill bottle, which she’s been carrying around ever since, like a talisman. Occasionally she takes it out and examines it, smells it, licks up some of the grains of sugar—to remind herself that it really happened, and why she can’t live with Ham anymore.
She’d met him on a bus to New Orleans when she was eighteen, running away from home.
“Running away?” he’d asked. “Isn’t that what little girls do?” He was thirty then, sitting like a god in the back of the bus wearing Ray-Bans and cowboy boots. She fell in love with him the first time he laid a hand on her but knew no pleasure with him. He never called her anything but “Little Girl.”
He’d been her first and only lover, but she knew there wasn’t supposed to be blood every time. As for the other things—the handcuffs, the way he’d put his hands around her throat until the room was filled with greenish watery light—maybe all that was just a matter of taste. She’d tried to keep up, and when she couldn’t, she’d tried to be open-minded. A couple of times she’d tried to leave, but Ham just laughed. “Try it,” he’d said, “and I will kill you all the way.” His eyes had blazed with unholy light and Andromeda believed.
In the morning, Andromeda assigns herself the lobby, and when old Hetty from the front desk toddles off to the ladies’ with a magazine, Andromeda scrolls through the computer until she finds the only guest who hasn’t checked out: Gustav Kruskin, room 504. According to the hotel’s records, he’s been at the Bradbury for three days.
A throat clears behind her. “What are you doing? You aren’t supposed to be messing on the computer.”
She turns, and there’s old pot-bellied Hetty with her wrists on her hips, scowling.
“Just double-checking the check-outs,” Andromeda tells her.
“Didn’t I make you girls a printout?”
“Yes’m. But there’s this one room, seems like the guy’s been there for a while.”
“It’s none of your business who our guests are or how long they stay. Your job is to clean their rooms.”
Andromeda stiffens. “Excuse me, but I am head of housekeeping. That room was scheduled for a carpet cleaning two days ago. I’m just trying to find out what’s going on.”
Hetty snorts. “Alls I know is he’s gonna be here awhile, so find yourself some other carpet to clean, honey.”
There was a time when the Bradbury had gleamed from the west bank of the Mississippi, a gem in Algiers’ tiara back when the city had been New Orleans’ pretty sister. A plaque near the front door commemorates the famous gangsters and starlets who once signed the register; now varnish flakes from the antiques, and rust freckles the pressed-tin ceiling. The Bradbury has been rotting in the shadow of the Crescent City Connection ever since the bridge was built. Now, because of its low rates and proximity to the expressway, most Bradbury guests are overnighters.
After Andromeda’s cleaned everything she can think to clean in the lobby, she’s wrangling her cart through the service door when she looks up and sees Gustav exiting the hotel. He doesn’t look in her direction or try to catch her eye, but she senses that he is aware of her and that some secret communication has passed between them. But for rest of the day, she neither sees him nor receives any instructions, though when she returns to her room she finds food and an assortment of gifts: a tube of expensive, poppy-colored lipstick, an iPod with music already loaded. The gifts are strangely personal, and yet the presumptions are also correct—the lipstick looks good, the Rachmaninov astounds her.
There is no sign of Ham. Whenever she thinks she sees him—which is about nine times a day—it turns out to be someone else. He hasn’t tried to call or text. Maybe he doesn’t care that she’s gone, she thinks.
But Andromeda knows the pressure of his teeth and his grip. He’s not a man who lets things go. He loves her, in his way. Sometimes he told her so, if he thought she was asleep. It only happened after he’d been on a dirty website or if he’d been drinking. Then he’d curl up behind her in a fit of contrition and pour all manner of tenderness into her ear. She’d learned to mimic the eye movements and shallow breath of a sleeping person, just to hear him say those words.
“You’re the only good thing I have,” he’d tell her. “Don’t you ever leave me, Little Girl.” Something must have happened to him. He would never just let her walk away.
The next day she trundles her cart to the door of room 504, takes a deep breath, and knocks. “Housekeeping,” she says. There is no response from within. She knocks and announces herself a second time and when there is still no response, she slides her maid’s key into the lock and lets herself into Gustav’s room.
The room is so clean she has to double-check her printout to make sure it is still registered. Only after she confirms Gustav’s name on her clipboard does she notice the small, latched suitcase on the luggage rack. A crumpled pair of hand-washed socks droops from the towel bar in the bathroom. Otherwise there’s no indication that the room has been used. She puts the socks into her apron pocket and leaves without touching anything else.
That evening Andromeda is stuffing sheets into the drier when Gustav is suddenly there, rapping his knuckles lightly against a shelving unit stocked with detergent.
“You are head of housekeeping, no?”
Andromeda stands and pushes her wrist against her damp forehead. She nods. The laundry room is balmy and bleach-scented, and its atmosphere burns her eyes.
“Today my room was not freshened and I was not brought clean towels,” he says.
She understands at once: he is requesting a meeting.
“Also, I seem to be missing a pair of socks,” he says.
“I’ll ask around, and bring you some towels in a bit.” Then, just in case anyone happens to be listening, she adds, “What room are you in, sir?”
The pity in his smile surprises and offends her. She replays it over and over in her mind until it becomes a look of scorn and she is seething with rage. She decides to make him wait several hours for his “towels.”
She doesn’t feel ready to see him, in fact, until she’s had a bath, changed clothes, and dashed the poppy lipstick across her mouth. These things will give her, if not an advantage, then at least confidence. She inspects her backside in the mirror, then her face: too skinny, and dark circles under her eyes. But it’s what she’s got.
Outside the door to room 504 she stands with a stack of towels and the man’s socks, neatly folded. Fabric softener and a spin in the tumble drier have redeemed the socks from too many hand washings—they look almost new. From them, she thought she’d learn something about the man who wore them, but he remains a cipher.
When she knocks, he opens the door immediately, as though he’d been standing on the other side, waiting.
“Your towels,” she says. “And your socks. Bai Ling took them. She thought you might appreciate having them laundered.”
He lifts the toe of one sock and rolls it between his thumb and forefinger.
“One of the other maids.”
“That was very kind. Please thank her for me.” His hand is on the doorknob, holding the door open. She sets the towels down and waits for him to pull it closed, to shut her inside and pin her against the wall, to tell her where to go and what to do, something, anything. He looks at her for a long moment and his eyes move all over her face, but his hand holds the door open. “Good night,” he says. She walks past him and into the hall without looking at him, and as she passes, the air between them crackles like an electric fence.
Back in her room she is confused and angry. It isn’t as if she’s going to hang around here for the rest of her life, waiting for the chance to help him. Come payday, she’s on the next bus out of here. Or maybe in two paydays—she needs to sit down with a pencil and paper and do some math—but either way she’s a short-timer so if he wants her help, he’d better hurry up.
She is listening to Rachmaninov on the iPod and doesn’t hear him knocking. The reason she goes to the door is because she notices breaks in the band of light beneath it: feet. Before she even peeks through the spyhole, the hair on the back of her neck is prickling. She puts her hand on the door and feels the pulse of his knuckles against the wood. He could just come right in—he’s got a key—but he knocks, he knocks, and this is why she lets him in.
Or maybe it’s the Rachmaninov. As soon as she opens the door his mouth is at her throat, kissing her—but he is careful not to dislodge the earbuds from her ears. Among the room’s jumble of broken and haphazardly stacked antiques they grasp and twine themselves together. Indeed, the room’s unconventional arrangement coaxes inventiveness. They hang between the legs of upturned tables; they test the bounce of a mattress-lined wall. They are like creatures from the sculpture garden, brought to life. At first, he is a gargoyle; she is all contour and mass. But then he is the spider, long-fingered and deft, and she dissolves. He does things with his fingers that she never knew fingers could do. He paints circles of color inside her—a Big Bang of blue and pink and yellow and red.
“Kandinsky!” she yelps, “Kandinsky!”
In the small hours of the morning they are slumped together on the floor between an armoire and a chaise lounge, beneath their own private, starless sky, which is the massive hole in the ceiling. The skin on their elbows and knees is raw.
He is inward and silent, untranslatable thoughts flitting across his face. He’s a spy, she thinks. From the KGB. Does the KGB still exist?
“This has nothing to do with our earlier arrangement,” he says. She looks at him. “I want you to know. This happened because I like you. My body likes your body. It was beyond our control. What I need you to do for me—I hope you can keep it separate.”
Up close, she can see stubble on his cheeks, blue-black where it comes out at each pore. She looks away and ponders the gaping hole overhead. “Your name isn’t really Gustav, is it,” she says.
“This will be easiest for us both if you make up a story about me. Something for yourself. Something you like.”
“Why should I?” She struggles into a sitting position. “You can trust me.”
“I know,” he says. His brow is smudged with trouble.
He is gone when she wakes. At dawn she sneaks out of the service entrance and heads back to the Gree-Z Spoon. She hasn’t been there in days and now Gil is acting like she’s one of his regulars. Before she can order, he pours her a cup of the terrible coffee and sets a plate of fried eggs in front of her. Sepia-colored grease pools around the yolks.
“On the house,” he says. “Guy down there wanted scrambled, not fried.” He gestures to the end of the counter where an old man stabs his fork into his plate, comes up empty, stabs again. She shrugs and pierces a yolk with the corner of her toast.
She eats for a moment and then says, “So this Andromeda chick. I asked around.”
“Oh yeah?” He rubs oily circles onto the counter with a dirty towel.
“She used to work there. But she quit. Or something. ’Bout a week ago. Someone said she left town.”
Gil stops wiping but doesn’t look at her. Flies perform a ballet in a dingy shaft of sunlight. “Good,” he says. “That’s one smart, smart little girl.”
Andromeda nearly drops her fork at the phrase “little girl.” The flies careen through the spotlight, fleeing, chasing one another, scheming.
She swallows. Her voice comes out measured and cool. “Somebody after her?”
“Don’t make no difference,” he says, “if she gone.” He wanders back to his griddle, and Andromeda finishes her breakfast alone.
Back at the hotel, she clocks in and then races up to her room to see if Gustav has left any instructions. Fear electrifies her—the patterns in the carpet seem to shift beneath her feet. She reaches into her apron pocket for her key, and that’s when she realizes she doesn’t have it.
Gustav has it, he took it while she was naked and asleep. After the night they’d shared, maybe he’d changed his mind about implicating her. But why would he need her key if he has one of his own? Nothing makes sense. She’s planning to knock, hoping against hope that he’s inside, but when she rounds the corner she sees Bai Ling with her cart, poised to slide her key-card into the door of 612.
“What are you doing?” Andromeda calls out. She is still twenty feet away. Bai Ling jumps.
“Oh mercy, you scare me!”
“You’re scheduled for fourth floor today.”
“Lamp in four-twelve has bad cord. I look for another.”
“There aren’t any lamps. I just looked yesterday,” Andromeda says.
Bai Ling blinks once, her face as indecipherable as an empty plate, then she turns and heads back toward the service elevator.
It’s Myrtle’s day off, so Andromeda is able to use the extra maid’s key to clean rooms, but she finds herself lingering at windows, watching the sidewalks below. After her shift, she uses Myrtle’s card to let herself back into room 612. The room has been undisturbed since this morning: a twist of sheets across the mattress, her underwear wadded in the corner. The mini-bar has not been restocked and there is no little gift waiting for her. She tears the room apart searching, but deep inside she knows Gustav got what he came for and has no more use for her.
But like cockroaches, her hopes emerge as night falls. Any moment, she thinks, the door will open. He’ll come to return her key, but will linger. She’ll scoot over and pat the mattress and when she looks up he’ll be unbuttoning the cuffs of his sleeves. He’ll already be halfway across the room.
She wonders where Gustav is, tries picturing him in the rat-infested office, prying at a trap door. It’s strange to think of anything important hidden inside the Bradbury, and wonders what it could be. Maybe Gustav is from the CIA—in which case he can help her get away from Ham. He can set her up with a new identity and a little cash—isn’t that what they do? If he won’t go along with it, she’ll threaten to blow his whole operation. Two can play at that game.
By four a.m., Gustav still hasn’t put in an appearance. Dressed in her uniform, she takes the service elevator and lets herself into his room with Myrtle’s key, prepared to demand a new identity or at least the return of her maid’s key, but Gustav’s room is empty. The lights are out and the bed is made.
She finds a notepad in the desk drawer and writes: Need to see you right away, urgent! Before she can tear the page from the pad, a hand clamps her elbow. She smells his aftershave and the whole back side of her body softens, but instead of drawing her against him, he shakes her roughly.
“Get out of here.” The words cut into her like ground glass. She doesn’t move. “You think this is a game? I said get out,” he hisses.
She whirls, loosening her arm from his grasp and nearly knocking the lamp from the desk. He’s wearing pantyhose over his face. Beneath one arm is a bulging black case, like a computer bag.
“No, I don’t think this is a game. My life is in danger!”
“You don’t believe me? Well, tough guy, whatever hex you put on Ham has worn off. I got it on good authority that he’s been nosing around again, trying to find me. What you’ve got to understand is, normal threats don’t work on a guy like him.”
Gustav tugs the pantyhose from his head and his hair is going every which way like it had last night after they’d—
“Ham. Is your…ex?”
“Duh. The one trying to kill me. I want to go in the witness protection program.” He holds up one finger, turns on the T.V., and places his lips against her ear.
“I’m sorry, that will not be possible,” he whispers.
“I’ll blow your cover,” she whispers back. Her lip brushes his earlobe.
“I’m finished here. I leave in half an hour.”
This news sends a pang through her—a pang he must sense because two of his fingers find her thumb and squeeze it. “Take me with you,” she says.
“Please. I need some money and a new identity or he’s going to find me.”
“Listen,” Gustav says, taking her by the shoulders, “I would have seen him. Trust me.”
“He’s crafty. Compared to Ham, a rattlesnake is a house pet. Maybe you think nobody’d bother, but he is looking for me.”
An image of the woman with the black eye flashes into her mind, of the woman’s heavy breasts and cigarette-sucking mouth. Maybe she was with Ham right now.
Maybe she’d already moved in.
“He’s not—” Gustav stops. “He’s not going to find you,” he says. “Go back to your room. Leave the hotel as usual and have breakfast at Gil’s. I will leave something for you.”
He kisses her twice—hard, heavy kisses that lodge like bullets in her chest.
“My key,” she says.
“It’s in your pocket,” he tells her. And so it is.
Sleep deprived for two nights now, Andromeda lies on the bed, intending only to grab half an hour of shut-eye until it’s time for her to leave. But when she wakes, it’s seven-fifteen and outside sunshine is sliding along the levee like a searchlight. There’s still time, she thinks, forty-five minutes before her shift. Of course the morning crew will already be here, but if old Hetty’s watching T.V., maybe Andromeda can walk right out the front door.
She hurries from the room, and is simultaneously finger-combing her hair and digging sleep out of her eye when she rounds the corner and sees a cop at the end of the hall. He’s standing at the open door to room 603, writing something on a pad while a man in an undershirt gestures wildly. Both men look up when she rounds the corner. The cop lowers his pad.
“Where’d you come from?” he asks. Andromeda freezes. She eyes the elevator and then the stairs. “Hey, you!” the cop says. He’s shoving the pad into his belt. He’s already halfway down the hall.
They tell her he got away with close to ten thousand dollars in cash and valuables, but Andromeda thinks it was half that, tops—Bradbury guests aren’t exactly high-rollers. Because it was Saturday, forty rooms were full; thirty-two of them were robbed. The key-card system shows that Andromeda’s card was the one used to enter the rooms; they’ve been looking for her. She is brought to the station for questioning.
This is what he does, the cops tell her. There are two of them: a slab of beef with a salt-and-pepper-mustache, and a lady cop with her hair knotted severely at the base of her skull. Andromeda is seated in a folding chair in front of a metal desk. Slab-of-beef is on the desk, the lady cop on a chair; Bad Cop, Good Cop.
They say: it’s his M. O. to seduce the housekeepers.
“Though it’s a wonder,” Slab-of-beef says, “with a face like that.” The lady cop cuts him a look.
He’s wanted in six states and two countries, they tell her. He even has a nickname—The Bedbug. Andromeda makes a face. She’s not the first housekeeper this has happened to; she doesn’t need to feel embarrassed.
“He’s obviously very good at what he does,” the lady cop adds. There’s a hint of wistfulness in her voice.
Andromeda thinks: you have no idea.
They urge her to tell them everything; she tells them what they already know. She says, “I thought he was in the KGB,” and they snicker. Then she tells them about Ham, and how he’s trying to kill her. The cops exchange a glance. “Hammond Osborne on Teche?”
“We sent some guys out there this morning. Our officers were convinced he didn’t know your whereabouts. What makes you so sure you’re being stalked?”
“He could fool God if he wanted to. You don’t know him.”
“I see,” the lady cop says. “Well, we can register a formal complaint.”
Andromeda looks at her knees. “Was there anyone else?” she asks. “At the house? When you talked to Ham?”
“We’re not at liberty—” the lady cop says. At the same time, Slab-of-beef says, “Yeah.”
A stripper. Some boozy barfly. The woman with the black eye. Who she is doesn’t matter; the point is, Ham’s busy.
They decide Andromeda’s too stupid to have been an accomplice and let her go without pressing charges. She loses her job anyway. When she asks for her paycheck, the manager asks if she’s kidding. Bai Ling gets fired too. It turns out that she’s the one who’d been restocking Andromeda’s mini-bar. It had nothing to do with Gustav; Bai Ling knew about Andromeda’s homelessness the day she moved into the Bradbury and pitied her. The iPod and the lipstick had been Bai Ling’s. She finds Bai Ling on the curb outside the Bradbury with her arms wrapped around her knees. Child-sized with a child’s haircut, it’s impossible to tell how old she is except for a few threads of silver near her crown. She looks like a swift kick would send her hurtling down the street.
“C’mon,” Andromeda says, reaching down. “I’ll buy you a really terrible cup of coffee.” Bai Ling looks up and takes her hand.
At Gil’s she takes a table instead of her usual seat at the counter. Gil is wreathed in bacon smoke and doesn’t see her at first. She leaves Bai Ling at the table and goes to the counter.
When Gil sees her, he doesn’t say anything, he just hands her a couple of menus. Beneath them is a white paper sack. She stuffs the sack in the waistband of her pants, and hides it beneath her shirt. The menus she leaves with Bai Ling, and makes a beeline for the bathroom.
Inside, Andromeda examines the contents of the sack, which are the foundations of her new identity: one thousand dollars cash, a pair of scissors, and a packet of black hair dye. On the bag are written the words: Good luck.
When Andromeda returns, Bai Ling is making anguished faces about the coffee. “This tastes bad,” she says accusingly.
In the bus station bathroom she cuts her hair to a spiky fringe and dyes what’s left of it with the black dye. When she looks in the mirror, the change in her appearance gives her the uncomfortable feeling of having called someone by the wrong name. Gone is the limp, background-brown ponytail. The black-haired young woman in the mirror looks like a punk or a dike or an artist. She looks like someone who should have a nose ring, or a designer dress, or a pair of gold glitter roller-skates. Andromeda thinks: Bai Ling is going to trip when she sees this.
Bai Ling is in the waiting room, where they are both waiting on the five o’clock Western Express to California, where Bai Ling has a cousin with a restaurant. Their two suitcases are pinned fiercely between her knees against thieves, and she has reclaimed her iPod. Her eyes are closed and she nods in time to the music. She doesn’t notice when Andromeda comes out of the bathroom.
What Andromeda knows about Bai Ling she has learned in the last few hours: she’s thirty-eight, and Catholic. For the last year, she’s lived in a two-bedroom apartment with five other people. Her cousin is in San Francisco, which she says has everything New Orleans has except more Asian people, and for this reason is better. She thinks they can get jobs in the restaurant.
They have nothing in common but Rachmaninov.
Bai Ling doesn’t open her eyes when Andromeda sits down, but she removes one of the earbuds and holds it out to her. Andromeda accepts, and they listen together.