Note: This is the safe, clean-edited version! Let me know if you want the original draft.
Rain slicked the asphalt with the pitter-patter of droplets falling from on high. Breath came out like cigarette smoke in the brisk December air. Colt Peters rushed up three flights of stairs to the fourth floor of the Hilton after arriving at the O’Hare Airport, breathlessly knocking on the door of room 412. The door swung open and Peters barely had a moment to gasp before he was swiftly kicked in the solar plexus. Doubled over, trying to catch his breath, Peters was staring frantically into the ground when he heard it – the metallic click of a gun being cocked. Before he had the chance to look up and say, “Wait,” the lights went out as his memory bled into the hallway floor. As he lay there, watching the strides of two black boots furthering themselves from him, he writhed before falling into a meaningful stillness.
The flag waved in the corner of her eye as David shut the window.
“It’s getting a little warm in here, how about I slip into something a bit more…appropriate?”
He acquiesced, “as they all do,” she thought, striding into the towel-furnished bathroom. She drew a breath as a hand was immediately placed over her mouth when she closed the door. Panicking, she thrashed out, but soon her efforts fell dead as the pressure from the rear naked choke stole her breath. Jorge laid the unconscious body on the floor and drew his pistol. He slowly opened the door and saw his target standing by the window. He raised his hand and rested his finger on the trigger, when he heard him say,
“I’m having doubts about this meeting that I’m going to be having.”
The trigger was yanked back and the phone was dropped on the ground.
Monica coughed slightly as she prepared the food for the hotel’s continental breakfast. The eggs were all labeled fresh for the next day’s omelets, and the deli meats were waiting to be sliced and trimmed. She sighed as she pulled out a knife and a whetstone, placing the blade flat against the stone block and running it against. The dry scrape of the blade cut the otherwise tranquil air, giving her goose bumps as the vibration rippled through her hand. She was always the hardest working of the staff, staying after hours to tend to the little things that kept a kitchen running successfully. And yet she never got a promotion. Her passion for cooking was the only thing keeping her here, as she was convinced that this was going to contribute to her future aspirations working as an actual chef, maybe even owning her own restaurant.
Once the knife was deemed sufficiently sharp, Monica laid it down on the cutting board. She ran through a mental list of objectives: wash the bell peppers and red onions, cut the vegetables, prepare the deli meat, then wash up. The bagels were all freshly bought to ensure that no molding happened, and the eggs were all fresh and ready to be cooked for the next day’s meals. As she turned, she gasped, and the peal of a clattering knife rang out through the kitchen.
Smoke drifted nonchalantly from Brown’s cigarette, filling up the closed room and giving it a murky haze. The stubble he had from not shaving for the past two weeks itched, and it filled his ears with the sharp, penetrating bristling when he scratched it thoughtfully. Born James Lloyd, he introduced himself as Brown professionally because of a nickname he earned from years prior remarking on his uniquely brown eyes. It was these eyes that he had so much faith in, the capacity to see and understand and comprehend beyond the regular person’s ability. Brown believed in the power of observation, claiming that not all people could do it because even those who see and notice the details do not always understand the nuances to those details.
He used the butt of his dying cigarette to light a new one, then he promptly stubbed the old cigarette in a simple stone ashtray. He took a gradual drag and waited until he felt the throbbing at his temples before exhaling. On days like this, he would do nothing but slowly go through a pack of cigarettes with his legs propped up on his desk, simply watching the smoke pass into invisibility. The smoke moved independent of the surroundings, forming white-grey pathways that vanished in two moments; the ephemeral quality appealed greatly to Brown. He didn’t smoke for the kick that the nicotine provided, and he certainly wasn’t addicted to smoking. He corroded his lungs willingly for the chance to catch a glance at the patterns smoke made for him.
With a dry cough that he knew would eventually be a rattling borne in his lungs, Brown got up to his feet. He had gotten a text message. “Today isn’t going to be one of those days,” he sighed. He dropped to the floor and churned out forty push-ups, with cigarette dangling from his lips, and got to his feet. He was a smoker, but he wasn’t going to let his smoking get in the way of his health without a fight. He grabbed his brown Carhartt and walked out, locking the door behind him.
A piercing cry rang out amid the sleeping hotel guests, as nearly everyone was awakened by a horrifically shrill screaming. An elderly woman in a shower cap and bathrobe discovered the lifeless body of Colt Peters somewhat spread-eagled on the floor. Lights began flooding the hallway as doors opened, revealing inquisitive faces peering in morbid curiosity at the source of the screaming. Gasps of mortification echoed as lights began illuminating the grisly scene. The pool of blood that had coagulated effectively formed a misshapen halo around Peters’s head, creating a gruesomely beatific image. The whispered speculations began to divorce the silence from the shock.
“Oh my God, what happened to him?”
“It looks like he got a bullet put through his head.”
“When did this happen?”
“Who did this?”
“I can’t believe no one saw the person who did this.”
“We should get some help from the front desk, the police will probably need to get involved.”
And it went on and on. By the time the police arrived, the majority of the guests lodging in the hotel had returned to the peace and security of their individual rooms. Only the old lady and two young men still stood around the body. The officer on hand, Officer Murray, took one look at the body and sighed, muttering under his breath about a recent spike in crime within the past few days. Some other policemen that were called to the scene also found David Conway and Paula Martinez dead in the same hotel after house cleaning went in and found their bodies on the floor of their room. Suddenly, gunshots rang out amidst the contemplative stillness. Officer Murray rushed to the window of the room and peered down from the fourth floor before immediately ducking as a bullet shattered the very window he was looking out of. From his brief glance, he estimated about four men who looked like they were with a gang of some kind, as they fired away at the hotel with Berettas.
“Someone get backup to stop those guys from putting more dead bodies in our hands!”
Monica woke up with a yawn, realizing that she forgot how rejuvenating a good night’s sleep was worth. After having her nerves rattled by Jorge, one of her kitchen aides, she was immediately grateful for the reprieve that he granted her by finishing the kitchen prep. Countless nights spent alone preparing the food for the next day left her entirely victim to his unexpected appearing. However, a smile swiftly replaced the expression of fear on her face as she heard him offer to help her with finishing up the kitchen preparations. He picked up the knife and ran it under hot water, then winked at Monica and told her she deserved to sleep in.
She jumped out of bed, and looked out the window when the sound of a gun rang out from the street. From the eighth floor, it sounded about as loud as popcorn popped, but it still sent Monica ducking for cover. She dialed Jorge, and after three rings, he picked up.
“Jorge, do you know what the hell is going on outside?”
“I just woke up, late shift remember?” He sounded playful.
“There are thugs taking potshots at the hotel, and the cops are flooding in.”
There was a pause at the other line. Then,
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much. It’s probably just someone that got hit or something by one of those stupid idiots outside, and the police are here to take ‘em to the hospital.”
“Mmm. Alright then. See you downstairs in a bit, yeah?”
“You got it.”
“See you then.”
As soon as he came on the scene, he knew what a situation he walked into. Thugs sat on the curb in handcuffs as he noted the tattoos on their forearms. Same place, same icon – a black palm with spikes protruding from the wrist. He noted it was a group of four twenty-something year-olds, two Latinos and two blacks. Looking away with disgust, he immediately noted the few shattered windows, one on the fourth floor and a few on the second floor.
Brown lit a cigarette and strolled into the hotel lobby, looking at his watch as he waited for the elevator door to open. Once the familiar ding signaled that the door was open, he looked up and saw a police officer leaving.
“What’s the situation like?”
“It’s just dead bodies and crap all over the place.”
“There’s actual excrement covering the walls?”
“Christ no, it’s just a figure of talking.”
“You mean a figure of speech.”
“Yeah, whatever. Listen buddy, I’ve had a long day, I can’t be bothered with following your snooty grammar rules.”
Brown rolled his eyes and thought, “And this is what the American people pay taxes for, a bunch of ignorant, ill-educated bullies.” He pushed the button for the fourth floor, as he got a text from Murray telling him to get over there as soon as he could.
Upon exiting the elevator to the fourth floor, Brown noticed a foul stench in the air – the unmistakable stench of decay. He heard a commotion at the far end of the hall, and proceeded to walk along, taking a moment to note that the door to the stairwell was open.
“Thank God you’re here, Brown.”
“You trying to get in shape, Murray? Why the hell would you take the stairs?”
“What? I took the elevator.”
“Huh. Alright then, fill me in.”
“Alright, so basically, Mrs. Warren,” said Murray, nodding at the elderly woman, “found this man laying on the floor, murdered. A bunch of the people in living on this floor woke up ‘cause she was screaming bloody murder when she left her room to get some water. Eventually, they all left when they were told the cops were on the way. I figure none of them really wants to get involved too much, knowing that they could be suspects.”
Brown quickly scanned the corpse, looking for anything that might provide useful. He noted the bullet placed directly in the middle of his forehead. The blood spilled from his forehead and pooled around his head, “like a bloody saint, the poor guy,” he thought. Brown searched Peters’s pockets and was not disappointed. He procured his wallet, an identification badge of some sort, and a miniature notepad.
“So he hasn’t been touched yet, Murray?”
“No way. I knew you wanted to see him just as he died before anything else happened, so I made sure of that.”
“Why is his arm crooked like that? It looks like he was about to open his jacket pocket or something.”
Brown pried his arm open only slightly, as the effects of rigor mortis had evidently taken hold of Peters. He reached into the jacket, feeling around for a pocket or a firearm of some sort that Peters might have been reaching for before being shot. His fingers deftly felt out the object in question: a paper that had been creased from numerous folds. On the paper, Brown deciphered the scrawled message that read: “Corruption lead…Room 412…Sylvester Cobb.”
Monica and Jorge worked foodservice for the greater part of the morning, with Jorge working the omelets and her replenishing the stock of food they had. It seemed like a lot of people in business suits were dining today; perhaps there was some kind of special convention today? Monica merely enjoyed how formal the conversation was, and how casual of an atmosphere it was today. The dining hall was filled with the small talk of men who were self-important and felt the need to show others how important they were.
She watched as businessman after businessman lined up to order what they wanted inside their omelet. Jokingly, she asked a lone character about what they were all here for, and why he was drinking from a flask at breakfast. The man winked at her, and said that it would help him digest the omelet better, and then he told her about a business meeting they were having for a company that specialized in harnessing non-renewable resources in ways that were much more efficient than the current methods. Her eyes glazed over slightly as he started going into technical terms before he flashed her a pearly smile and asked her about how her day was going. Not expecting this business-clad man to care about how she was doing, she warmly proceeded to tell him that things were busy as usual, but that it was a nice surprise seeing so many business suits in one place. Eventually, the rest of the businessmen strolled over and provided an opportunity to leave for Monica, as she had to attend to the restocking of the food items.
After Monica came from the back of the kitchen to set out refills off yogurt, cereal, and milk among other things, she noticed a few of the patrons that were sitting together grimacing and rubbing their stomachs. “Strange,” she thought, “no one else seems to be uncomfortable.” No sooner had she thought that than one of the businessmen fell back from his chair, unconscious. Before Monica could react, more of them lost consciousness and slumped against their chairs. Her bewildered eyes met the terrified eyes of the lone businessmen, who ran out, presumably to call for police. She told Jorge to call for help, and Jorge quickly pulled out his phone, saying that he knew someone who worked in the police force and that he might be at the hotel already.
“Looks like our guy was a journalist of some kind.”
“Oh yeah, how do you figure?”
“Take a look at his wallet and his ID. He works for an independent newspaper. Judging by this scrawled letter, he was meeting someone here for a very important reason. I say very important because he was the one taking the stairs up, and in a hurry.”
“What? It could’ve been anyone, don’t be stupid.”
“But not everyone has ink smudges from working with newspapers on their left hand, which were found on the left side of the stairwell, most likely from him pushing against it to maintain balance as he rushed up the stairs.”
“Damn you’re good.”
“There’s nothing special about someone who just uses what he’s given.”
After Brown waited for his phone to boot up results, he found that Sylvester Cobb was the CEO of a non-renewable energy harnessing company. Upon searching deeper, he discovered that he was living in the hotel today, along with numerous other shareholders, and they were having a convention today to decide the future of the company.
“Brown, I think we got some more stuff to deal with. Apparently, a bunch of suits just died in the dining area. And a couple was found dead in another room.”
“Hm. I probably know why the suits are dead. Let’s look at the couple first.”
They took the stairs down to the second floor, where the dead couple was found. Brown again scanned the room. A dead man, identified as David Conway by some lingering policemen, lay still near the window; blood crimsoned his blue dress shirt until a large splotch of violet covered his chest. His phone lay on the ground not too far from his hand, and he looked through the messages. Looking around more, Brown found a lifeless female on the ground. More specifically, she was a Latina, about five foot five, seemed to be attractive save for the fact that her dead eyes still bulged. Choked to death, the poor girl. He also noted a mark on her forearm. Turning it over, a look of surprise and recognition flitted across his face. It was a black palm with spikes protruding from the wrist.
“We gotta get to those thugs sitting outside.”
As Officer Jenkins arrived at the scene, he was talking to Jorge about something. They both looked grimly stern, and the lone businessman was there with them, looking anguished and shaken by what transpired.
“Officer Jenkins here, I’m sorry about this whole situation, Miss…?”
“Monica, just call me Monica. What are you going to do about this Officer?”
“Well, at this point, there’s nothing we can do. We just need to wait for more facts to occur. But if I were you, I would get back to your room and rest. You’ve had a long day, ma’am.”
“Are you sure that would be okay? I’d like to help in any way I can.”
“Oh, you’ve helped more than enough, I think.”
“What do you mean by – “
“I’m saying that unless you care about that chef career of yours, staying here will only implicate you as a potential suspect, so if you know what’s good for you, you’d go back to your room and wait until someone tells you everything is resolved.”
Monica looked in surprise at the concealed threat she just heard. What exactly was going on here? Why wasn’t Jorge being told the same thing? She decided that she would follow the man’s advice, not wanting to tarnish her résumé, but something still didn’t feel right about it all. She immediately began taking the stairs up to her room on the first floor, but nearly ran headfirst into two men rushing down the stairs.
“Oh man, I’m sorry miss.”
She was staring at a man with stubble that had probably taken a week or two to grow, with disheveled hair that somehow still fell in place at all the right places, and these stunning light brown eyes that were a shade of polished walnut. She stumbled all over her words, and his tired smile made him even more alluring to her.
“You a chef, by any chance?”
“Yes, how did you – “
“You haven’t, uh, changed out of your chef’s apron.
Embarrassed, she quickly took it off and folded it absentmindedly.
“But, you can help us if you work here. Were you there when a bunch of suits apparently just died?”
“Oh! Yes, I was. I was told by a police officer that I should leave so that I don’t become an accessory to the crime.”
Brown raised his eyebrows at this.
“You wouldn’t mind coming with us would you? We’re about to solve all the problems in this godforsaken hotel.”
How could she say no?
The three of them now, with Officer Murray looking incredibly confused, and Monica, well, looking at Brown, headed outside towards a group of gangsters still seated on the curb. Brown addressed one of them, and motioned for him to walk over to him.
“So, what’d he promise you? Money? Or better yet, protection? Is that it?”
“You coppers won’t understand. You’re just another pig.”
“You know that your homegirl was killed right?”
“Say what? You did not just say that.”
Overcome with emotion, the thug quivered with violent rage.
“Nobody can protect us. Only we got each other’s backs. When the going gets rough, we ride with each other, we would die for each other. That’s why we decided to shoot up the place a bit, make our crew known, you know? But we just thought that if we could also get help from the cops, we could make it safely selling drugs in the underground without being worried.”
“I get all of that, but why was she involved with a businessman?”
“They said that they needed to borrow her to stop some guy from voting in some convention, then we would be safe. You should know about that kinda stuff white boy, it’s corporate stuff.”
Brown sighed with understanding, then thanked him for letting him know all that he knew.
“C’mon you two. It’ll all be over soon.”
The three of them now walked to the dining area, where they found Officer Jenkins, the businessman, and Jorge together.
“I thought you three stooges would be smarter than this, staying here to get caught.”
Murray and Monica both looked at Brown in surprise, but noting the cold steel reflected in his gaze, they figured he saw something that they didn’t.
“What is this guy talking about? What’s this all about huh, Murray?”
“Just shut up, Jenkins, and listen to him talk.”
Looking over at the businessman, Brown said, “Sylvester Cobb, I presume?”
A flicker of anger shadowed his face, then he nodded.
“Murray, why don’t you put these three in cuffs while I explain it all?”
“Don’t you dare touch me with those cuffs, Murray.”
At this, Murray drew his pistol. “Why don’t you ever shut up, Jenkins? If you talk again, I’ll blow your head off before you even get a chance to hear the end of this fairytale.”
As Murray put the three of them in cuffs, Brown began unraveling the story.
“There’s a business convention to be had in the Hilton. The topic? The direction of your,” nodding at Cobb, “company. However, a shareholder by the name of David Conway didn’t exactly agree with you did he? And, judging by his texts with some other males, presumably all these murdered fellows here, they sided more with him than they did with you, didn’t they? Because they knew you were going to just corrupt the company some more.”
“So what? You’re saying that I killed them all? That’s absurd, I have a reputation to attend to, unlike some of us.”
Ignoring the snide remark, Brown continued.
“I didn’t say it was just you; you had help. Our foul-mouthed pal over here helped you. The two of you sent out a false lead to exposing the corruption within the company, exciting young Colt Peters, who believed that this was the lead his independent newspaper needed to get credibility. Then, Mr. Jenkins proceeded to blast his head off before he even had a chance to take notes. The bullet left in the poor fellow’s skull matches the standard issue ammunition that the cops around here use: Winchester Silvertip Hollows. And my pal Murray hasn’t fired a damn shot since getting here. Fast forward to two floors below, on the second floor. At around the same time, judging by the extent to which rigor mortis had claimed their bodies, this fellow,” gesturing at Jorge, “was hiding in the bathroom. He easily swiped the card keys to get in, then waited for Mr. Conway to come in. What he wasn’t expecting was the girl to be there too, and that’s why he pulled the gun. After choking the life out of the poor girl, the chef’s assistant had no way to kill Conway without drawing attention to himself, so he just shot him in cold blood. After doing that, he wasn’t finished; he still had to poison something in the kitchen.”
At this, he turned to Monica, saying, “This is the part that I haven’t quite figured out yet; were you there at all last night or early this morning when the food was prepared? Is there anything out of the ordinary that was done to the food? Because it has to be poison, I just want to know how it was administered.”
“Hm…well, Jorge did cover for my shift last night in preparing the food. Maybe that’s when?”
Brown looked at Jorge, who steeled himself to meet his gaze unflinchingly.
“So? How’d you do it then? If you cooperate, you might get less time on your sentence. Either way, you’re wanted for the murder of at least ten people.”
Jorge sighed, and whispered, “The salt.”
Brown walked over to the saltshakers at the tables, and as he slowly wafted the smell towards his nose, he smelled the faint scent of bitter almonds.
“Cyanide. A concentrated dose that laced the salt. All of them used it. All of them except for Mr. Cobb here, who, by living, has condemned himself. And if that fact alone isn’t enough to send him to get punked in the cells, the fact that he was still here with two of the other murderers in the aftermath is pretty damning evidence to me. Take ‘em away, Murray.”
The three men were escorted into the police vehicle waiting outside, along with the four gang members, and as Murray shut the door, he merely shook his head in wonder at Brown.
“How do you do it? You are still the best in the business, man.”
Brown offered an obliging smile, then sighed, saying,” Even the best of us can’t stop these people from ruining the world we live in. It’s up to me, you, her, all of us to try our best to stand against them. But even if he gets tried in court, the most he’ll get is a slap on the damn wrist. These people are like cigarette smoke, brother, that’s one thing I know from smoking. The more you see it, the more you realize that it can’t be contained, and yet, the more you try to make the smoke stay, the more you realize that it’s just giving you cancer. And that’s it. You can’t ever stop thinking about it, wanting to make it stop, but it just screws you over in the end. And they’re screwing society the same way. We fight the fights we think we can win, but the war’s already over. This world’s a dump and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.”