White House

By Rick Norwood

"The name...the name in...in the movie. Same name as in the movie White House." And then he died in my arms.

His name was Alfonso Orozco and he was a Mexican, but he had lived for years here in Amsterdam. I did not know him well. From time to time he would sell me a hot tip to a story. All he asked was the price of a drink. He had been up to my room maybe three times in the past three years.

I gently laid his head on the carpet. The door to my room was still open. A couple of steps took me out into the hall. The blank doors of the other five rooms on this floor faced me, spaced around a hall almost as small as an American walk-in closet. There was bright wet blood all over the beige carpet. Alfonso's wound had still been pumping blood when he died. Whoever stabbed him couldn't have gone far.

Less than two minutes had passed since he banged on my door and, when I opened it, fell into my arms. The indicator light showed me that the elevator was on the first floor. It was a slow elevator, and I was on the fifth floor, the top floor. I ran to the stairway, jumping to avoid the blood, looked down, and listened. The stairs led in only one direction, down. I couldn't hear anything. The stairs were not carpeted; anyone going down them would make a clatter.

I ran down one flight and opened the door — the hall looked identical to the one above, except for the absence of blood. There was nobody there. I ran to the bottom of the stairwell, and opened the door to the tiny lobby.

There was a pretty girl behind the counter, blonde, early twenties. I make it a point to remember names. "Julie. Has anybody come through here in the last five minutes."

"No, Mr. White." Like everybody in Amsterdam, Julie spoke better English than most Americans.

"Call the police," I said. "There's been a murder."

Julie laughed. Then looked puzzled. It took her a while to realize that I wasn't kidding. "You're serious," she said.

"Call the police. I'm going back up to my room."

Marilyn, my sometime girl friend, was waiting in the room. She was sitting on the tiny double bed, her legs curled up off the floor. Her face was so white it scared me.

Still trying not to step in the blood, I went into the bathroom and wet a washrag. I climbed up onto the bed with Marilyn, put an arm around her, and began to bathe her face with water. Is that what you're supposed to do to a person in shock? How should I know? Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. It was the best I could think of at the time.

It wasn't long before I heard the squeaky see-saw noise of a European siren, nothing at all like an American police car's yodel, and far less often heard.

The policeman spoke excellent English, of course. He was dressed in an inexpensive business suit. When he saw Alfonso's body, he turned almost as white as Marilyn. I gave him our passports, and told him what little I knew. He didn't ask many questions. He said a few words into his cell phone, apologized for the "unfortunate incident," and stood around with his hands clasped behind his back, waiting for somebody with more authority to arrive.

* * *

None of the policemen ever said any of the things they say in movies. They never told us not to leave town. They never asked us what we were doing in Amsterdam or if we had any reason to want to kill Alfonso. I had blood all over my clothes, but if they suspected me of the murder, they never let on.

I told them that I was a reporter for the International Herald Tribune. I told them all I know about Alfonso, which wasn't much. I explained how I had run into the hall, looking for the killer. How I had run down the stairs. I explained to them the obvious, that the killer must still be in the hotel, that he probably had a room here, that he probably was in one of the rooms on this very floor. They nodded, as if they appreciated my insights, and said very little. I told them Alfonso's last words.

This seemed to interest them a bit. "Was Alfonso a big fan of the cinema?" one of them asked.

"I don't know. We never talked about movies. He seemed to spend most of his evenings drinking."

"Do you know of an American film called 'White House'?"

"No. I don't think there is one. The only movie about the White House I can think of is Independence Day, where the White House blows up."

An American would have smiled at that reference. The police officer frowned slightly. The Dutch don't approve of blowing things up.

* * *

The policemen were gone. The body was gone. There was still blood on the carpet, but I had to get out of the bloody clothes I was wearing. I got into the tiny shower fully dressed, and stood under ice cold water. The pain felt good. I took off my bloody clothes one at a time, and squeezed pink liquid out of them until the water ran clear. I tried to wash the blood off my shoes, but I feared they were ruined. Damn. They were the only pair of shoes I had.

After I had gotten off as much of the blood I could, I turned on the hot water and steamed. After a few minutes Marilyn, naked, crowded into the tiny shower with me. We hugged and kissed a little, for mutual comfort. We got water all over the bathroom floor. All too soon, the hot water ran out, and I thought longingly of American motels, with big fluffy towels and unlimited hot water, which cost less than I was paying for this tiny room.

The police had searched my room for the murder weapon, of course. It had taken them less than five minutes. They did not find anything.

* * *

I was out of the shower and half dressed before I even thought of calling in the story. I'm not a crime reporter. I came to Europe after college mostly to get away from America. I'm Black, but was adopted at birth by White parents, whose name also happened to be White. They named me Malcolm White. "After Malcolm X?" everybody asks. Mom and Dad never said. Anyway, in America everybody, Black or White, makes a big deal about the color of my skin. It isn't a big deal to me. Amsterdam is color blind. I like it here.

An old buddy from college was a junior editor at the Trib. He encouraged me to write a few pieces. I figured writing would be a good way to support myself while I decided what I wanted to do with my life. That was twenty years ago.

I write features and human interest stuff, mostly the kind of thing tourists like to read. I wrote a couple of stories about the last Star Wars movie, and I consider myself a fan of the movies, but I never heard of a film titled White House. I thought there was a movie called "Murder in the White House," but when I looked it up on the Internet Movie Data Base, much later, it turned out to be called Murder at 1600. That's the address of the White House — 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Did 1600 mean anything? The six rooms on this floor were numbered 501 (my room, to the right as you get out of elevator) through 506. Nothing there.

In any case, there was no sense in being silly. Poor Alfonso knew he was dying. He wasn't trying to leave a clue. He was trying to tell me a name — a name he evidently couldn't quite remember. Looking back, I could think of half a dozen times where Alfonso had given me a tip but couldn't remember someone's name, or where he got the name wrong. American names in particular seemed to give him trouble. So, the poor bastard is dying, and he knows who killed him, but he can't remember the name. But he knows it's the name of someone in a movie — a character or an actor. And the name of the movie is White House.

Only there isn't any movie named White House. I looked that up on the imdb, of course. There are a whole bunch of movies with the words "White House" in them, but none of them anything Alfonso was likely to have seen. There was an American TV special called "The White House." Again, nothing a Mexican living in Amsterdam was likely to know anything about.

The thing I kept coming back to was that Alfonso wasn't trying to be obscure. He was trying to tell me a name, and he was trying to tell it to me as clearly and plainly as possible.

Naturally, I couldn't leave it alone.

* * *

Julie at the front desk was glad to help.

There was a good chance that the murderer had a room on my floor — the fifth floor. That was the simplest explanation. He had stabbed Alfonso in the corridor — the hall — whatever you want to call it, and then just stepped back into his own room and closed the door. By the time the police got around to questioning him, he would have cleaned himself up and disposed of the knife. Of course, it was possible that the murderer had a room on one of the lower floors, but that seemed much less likely. I hadn't seen any blood in the stairwell, except what I had left there when I ran down the stairs.

There were four other people on my floor, plus one empty room. I'll tell you about them one at a time, but first, the empty room, Room 506. Julie and I looked it over together. There was nothing there. Earlier, the police had also inspected it, also with Julie looking on. Nothing. The door, like all of the doors in this hotel, is always locked, and can only be opened with a key.

* * *

Four suspects. It took me 24 hours to screw up my courage, but I finally decided to talk to them. They had already been questioned by the police, of course, but I was a newspaper reporter, which gave my questions at least the pretense of legitimacy. Not that this kind of story was anything I was likely to be able to sell to the Trib. Murder is not their cup of tea.

It was six o'clock in the evening when I knocked on the door of room 502. Nobody answered. I imagined myself knocking on all the doors and finding nobody home. Then I could quit this foolishness and let the police solve the crime. Or not, as the case may be.

I knocked on the door of Room 503, one of two rooms across from the elevator. The occupant, James Alden, was at home, and invited me in. His room had windows — mine didn't — and I could hear the trolleys going by in the street below. I explained about being a reporter, and he seemed to like the idea of seeing his name in the paper.

He was a big man, a Brit, in Amsterdam on holiday — a sex holiday I suspected, though he didn't say. It's legal in Amsterdam. He would only be here for a few more days. He didn't particularly care for Americans. "Rather too much money, and no taste," was how he described us. He made fun of my American accent.

"The police came around asking questions, didn't they?" He had been out at the time — didn't come in until later. Yes, he had left his key at the desk. Yes, the girl at the desk could vouch for that.

Felix Gillie in Room 504 was a little man, neither young nor old, with slicked down black hair and bulging eyes. He spoke with a Hungarian accent. He was from Budapest (he pronounced it Buda-pesh). He was in business. Business brought him to Amsterdam. "And what is your business," I asked.

His answer was vague. "I buy things. Sometimes I sell things. I am, ha-ha, in business." He was the only one of the four who admitted knowing Alfonso. "I bought him a drink from time to time. We were not — intimate." He smiled too much.

Yes, he had been home when the murder took place, but he had not heard anything. He'd been watching television. Didn't know anything about it until the police knocked on his door.

What on earth was I doing? Did I expect the murder to confess? I should give this up, go back to my room, and ask Marilyn if she felt like going out to dinner. She was still shaken by the experience. So, I realized, was I. Knocking on strangers' doors — this was not the way I normally behaved.

When I got back out in the hall, a man was just sliding his card into the door of Room 502. Ah, well. The fates had decreed that I would question at least one more suspect.

Philippe Rambeau was a French Jew, about sixty years old. Tall, thin, slightly stooped with gray hair and a lean, intelligent face. His room contained so many books there was hardly room for him to fit in sideways. He had to move books onto the floor to offer me a chair. He had lived in this room for several years, paid a monthly rate.

He worked for Interpol and was investigating the recent rash of murders of homosexuals. Amsterdam has always been one of the most tolerant cities on earth, but just in the past couple of years, a number of homosexuals have been murdered here. "Shocking," he said, and you could tell that he was genuinely shocked. "Amsterdam is such a good place to live. But there is a darkness in the human heart." Early in the conversation he volunteered the information that he no longer believed in a God.

I stood in the hall for several minutes, arguing with myself. I finally decided that since I had talked to all but one of the suspects, I might as well finish the job. I knocked on the door of Room 505.

I was glad I did. Ingrid Peterson was gorgeous, tall and blonde, from Sweden. She looked like a movie star. She didn't seem to have any business in Amsterdam, but said she wasn't a tourist. She seemed to resent the suggestion. When I asked her what brought her to Amsterdam she just said, "I like it here."

I asked her where she had been last night at the time of the murder, and she said, "I went to bed early." She stretched herself as she said it, in a way that made a perfectly ordinary remark seem suggestive.

"I don't like the police," she volunteered. "I don't like people who ask too many questions."

I can take a hint.

* * *

That night Marilyn and I made love, and I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

When I woke up, I knew the name of the killer. It was only later that I put together the chain of reasoning that had led my subconscious mind to supply the name. And it was much, much later, during the trial, that I read in the newspaper the motive for the crime.

Alfonso had learned that someone had embezzled some money. He tried a little innocent blackmail. How could he guess that the person would fly into a frenzy and stab him — that was very unprofessional. All he was asking was the price of a few drinks.

When I told the police who done it, they were able to find proof. Bloodstains are not easy to wash out, and DNA is the best evidence.

Alfonso was Mexican. He thought in Spanish. I don't speak much Spanish, so when he talked to me, he had to translate his thoughts into English. His English wasn't bad, but it wasn't his first language. He knew the name of the person who stabbed him. He came to me for help. My room just happened to be right across the hall. And he tried to get the name out, but he couldn't remember it. Like so many people with bad memories for names, he had evidently tried to remember it by associating it with someone who had the same name, a name he knew well.

He probably saw the movie as a child, a movie everyone knows. And he told me the name of the movie, knowing that would give me the name of the killer. He made just one mistake. He translated the name of the movie from Spanish into English. In English, that came out White House, in Spanish, Casa Blanca — Casablanca, starring Bogart and Bergman. Ingrid Bergman.

Rick Norwood is a writer, editor, and mathematician. His stories and articles have appeared in The Sciences, The Wilson Quarterly, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He is the editor of Comics Revue, which reprints classic comic strips, and he reviews movies and television for www.sfsite.com. He teaches math at East Tennessee State University.

Norwood's character, Malcolm White, is also featured in the story "Heaven and Earth" (December, 2012) which was published by omdb! online.

Copyright 2013 Rick Norwood. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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