THE HOTEL ROOM MURDER


By J. P. Seewald



The first day in my law office, the phone rang only twice — a wrong number and someone soliciting for charity. Eventually, I got sick of sitting at my desk and staring at the ugly wallpaper and worn-out carpeting. At five p.m., I walked over to Finnegan's Bar where Happy Hour includes free food. A bunch of lawyers hung out there and I did a little networking since the place is like a San Francisco version of Cheers.

I passed out my card to a few people who looked like businessmen and hoped for the best. One guy in particular gave me the once over. He wore a blazer with some sort of monogram insignia on it, looked about forty with a receding hairline and watery blue eyes.

"William Sanderson, Esquire?"

"That's me." I offered to shake the man's hands but he held back. Maybe he was a germophobe. Lots of those around.

"You're a criminal defense attorney?" he said.

"That I am," I replied, although it was unnecessary since he was staring at my card.

"Well, I think I might be needing the services of a lawyer."

Needless to say, I became interested fast. "Why don't we take a back corner booth," I said indicating the last booth in the rear of the establishment which afforded considerable privacy. Then I settled myself into the gunfighter's seat. "So what's your problem?"

The man cleared his throat. "I'm a hotel clerk at the Warington off Union Square." I knew the place all right, very classy. "Not too long ago, a man died in one of our rooms. At first, it looked like he died of natural causes, but then the police found out he was some sort of international arms dealer. It made them suspicious. Long story short, they believe he was murdered. The thing is the room was locked from the inside, no visible signs of forced entry either. I've been questioned twice. I get the vibe that they think I had something to do with it since I was the one who issued the room key. I'm afraid they're going to call me back again for a formal statement. I want a lawyer with me."

I studied the man carefully. I consider myself a fairly good judge of people. He sounded straight and honest, but you never know. Appearances can be deceiving.

"You have any kind of criminal record?"

The guy's eyes opened wide. "I've never done anything illegal in my life, unless you count a couple of parking tickets. Never needed any kind of lawyer before except for the closing on my condo."

"Okay, suppose I look into this matter for you? We can go over to my office right now and draw up an agreement. You pay me a retainer and we'll be in business."

He looked hesitant.

"My rates are very reasonable," I told him. Actually, I was willing to work for practically nothing since this was my first gig working on my own. But he didn't have to know that.

Anyhow, that seemed to clinch the deal. I managed to sign my first client. I was elated. I found out that his name was Henry Randall. As we talked back at my office, he gave me the essential details of his life. He was a quiet, nondescript man who lived alone. No pets, no dependents. Strictly a law-abiding citizen. I did my best not to yawn in his face.

"I'll talk to the police first thing tomorrow morning," I promised.

Randall looked alarmed. "Is that wise?"

"I'm only going to see what I can find out without creating a stir," I reassured my first and only client.




The next morning, I visited the Investigations Bureau and found out that Inspector James Morgan of the Personal Crimes Division was leading the homicide investigation. I'd caught a lucky break. Jim and I had gone to high school together. He'd joined the Marine Corps out of high school while I went into the army. We'd even played football on the same team, although he was two years ahead of me.

I asked for him directly and found him drinking coffee out of a plastic cup. I reminded him of who I was just in case he'd forgotten — which it seemed he had. I explained why I was interested in the case. He invited me to sit down.

"Want a cup of what passes for coffee around here?"

I declined.

"This case is kind of puzzling," my old schoolmate said.

"In what respect?"

Jim eyed me sharply. He looked like a cop with his cropped sandy hair dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt, conservative sports jacket and black slacks, and of course, he was carrying.

"Let's talk about your client," Jim said. "He acted nervous and that made us suspicious."

"He's not used to cops," I said.

"Bill, this is a high profile case. We got all kinds of feds sticking their noses in around here. Your guy issued the vic the room key. Maybe he made a couple of keys and slipped one to the hit team that whacked Gaboud. If so, he might cooperate and give us some info. We could help arrange a nice deal for him."

"Sure," I said, "if he'd done it — which he did not."

Jim frowned at me. "Sorry, pal, I'm not convinced."

"Any chance I could see the room in question?"

"It's a crime scene. You're not authorized."

"But you are. Couldn't you take me?"

Jim frowned at me. "All right," he said. "When you see it though, you'll realize you better talk with your client and tell him to come clean with us."




The hotel had an impressive lobby. It was one of the newer ones. Jim led me to the bank of elevators at the Warington and pressed the button that took us up to the twentieth floor with no hesitation whatever.

Jim pointed to two rooms, one facing the other. "The hit team rented the room opposite where Gaboud was staying. We have them on surveillance cameras. But it's clear these people were heavily disguised. Gaboud was also shadowed."

Jim used a key card and we entered the murder room. "The hit team went to some effort to make Gaboud's death look natural. His body was stretched out on the bed over there. No clothes on the dead man, bottle of heart medication on the bedside table. No bruises on the corpse. No obvious signs of a fight or struggle. They made it look as if he died of a heart attack in his sleep. Gaboud was a heavy, middle-aged man so the explanation wouldn't be difficult to accept."

"So what made you think otherwise?"

Jim rubbed his chin. "The room seemed just a little too neat. Then we identified the corpse and warning bells went off. The M.E.'s department examined Gaboud's corpse and found an injection mark on his thigh. Toxicology tests showed he'd been dosed with succinylcholine, a paralyzing drug. There were also marks on the headboard as if he'd fought and signs that the killers smothered him with a pillow."

"Nasty," I said. "Guess this guy had some serious enemies."

"Looks that way," Jim agreed. "We never found the shirt or pants surveillance tapes show Gaboud was wearing when he entered the room. We think the killers took the clothing with them because it might have been torn in a struggle. The weirdest part of all is that the door was left locked from the inside."

I stared at Jim. "So how could they get out?"

"Well that's where your client comes into the picture. We think he might know. But he's holding back on us and that makes him suspect." Jim's eyes narrowed.

"I think you're wrong about that," I said.

Jim placed his arm on my shoulder. "Pal, there's one thing I've learned dealing with criminals. They lie — and so do their lawyers. Yep, lawyers are great liars."

I decided to play it cool and not act offended. "I believe Randall's telling the truth."

"Great, then you won't mind bringing him into my office tomorrow," Jim said.




We met with Jim Morgan and his Captain the following morning. Randall grumbled that he feared being fired for taking too much time off from work. No one bothered to comment. A police stenographer was in the room ready to immortalize Randall's statement.

"Mr. Randall," Jim began, "we think you might be able to help us figure out how the killers got into the victim's room."

Randall sat up straight in his chair and looked over at me.

"My client had nothing whatever to do with the murder. He wishes to go on record categorically denying any involvement," I said.

Jim and his superior exchanged looks that I couldn't read.

"All right," Jim said. "Mr. Randall, can you think of any way the killers could get out of the hotel room and lock it from the inside. We've checked: no one could get out through the window. It's twenty floors up. There's no adjoining room. We're talking about an ultra modern hotel room with state of the art security. Any ideas? We need your expertise."

Randall turned to me again. I gave him a nod. He cleared his throat. "Locks that use key cards work the opposite from what you might expect. The key only programs the lock. When a clerk like myself makes a key for one night, the magnetic strip records certain things: the room number, now, the expiration date, and the total number of keys for that room and date.

"When the hotel guest places the key in the lock, it overrides all previous keys except Masters. This means that even if the killers managed to get a key that was good for a month, the first time another key is made and slipped into that lock, theirs would prove useless.

"As far as slipping in a credit card, the way the door frames and bolts are designed, there's no way to do that. The angle of the door frame is too sharp to get a card in, and the bolt isn't like one for a house. Our hotel doors have a flat lever that will stop a card before it reaches the bolt but will still fold out of the way when the door closes. The only reliable ways to enter a room repeatedly is to get hold of the master keys carried by the housekeepers or maintenance guys, or to get hold of the override box and operating code. However, the master keys don't get taken home. They're in a lock box in the manager's office. If one goes missing, all the master keys are redone and the old ones deactivated. If they lifted one from the housekeeper it would be noticed quickly."

The two policemen frowned at each other.

"What about the override box?" Jim asked.

"It's an interesting gadget. Has a number pad and a cord that plugs into the bottom of the door lock. You plug the box in, hit the code and the door opens. It does this even if the deadbolt is turned from the inside or the batteries in the lock are dead. It hardly ever gets used."

"Where's it kept?" Jim asked, looking very interested.

"In the manager's office."

"Details?" Jim pressed. He had the tenacity of a pit bull.

"It's in a box of its own. I guess if the killers got hold of the box and the code to use it, they could have access to every room in the hotel."

"How easy would that be?"

Randall shrugged. "I don't know exactly. I doubt anyone's looked at ours in the last year. As long as the box it comes in is still in the closet in the office, no one would bother to check it unless they needed it. Since the override box gets used so infrequently, the code to work it is written on the inside of the box."

"So that's a real possibility."

"Well, yes, I guess so," Randall admitted.

"What about the pass key?"

"I suppose a pickpocket could theoretically snatch it from the manager's pocket. He doesn't really use his much. The housekeepers use theirs about twenty times a day. They'd know right away if they were missing."

Jim nodded his head and looked pleased. "Okay, we'll check out the info you've given us. Might be a lead there."

Randall glanced over at me then licked his lips. "Detective, there's just one thing I should mention. None of that would explain how they locked the room from the inside."

Jim ran his hands over his cropped head, frustration evident on his face.

I had an idea and decided to offer it. "Since my client is present and he's something of an expert on the subject, why don't you show us the significant surveillance tapes? Maybe Mr. Randall might see something no one else has noticed."

Jim looked over at his boss who gave him a small nod. "Okay, why not?"

As they set up the video, I helped myself to a cup of cop coffee and nearly choked to death. Guess I wasn't macho enough to endure stuff that could be confused for furniture polish remover.

"Okay, we're set," Jim said. "We have footage of three men who were staying in the room across the hall entering Gaboud's room." He froze the frame. "See anything strange, Mr. Randall?"

My client narrowed his eyes and concentrated. Then he rose from his seat, his face coloring. "It's perfectly clear. The killers were filmed opening the door-lock with some sort of electronic gadget. They are not using a key card or any device I'm familiar with. But you can see it."

Sure enough, that was exactly what was happening on the screen. Jim took us through the rest of the footage. Gaboud had a bodyguard, a huge gorilla of a man, who left him at his door and then went down on an elevator. Problem was the room had become a death-trap with the killers waiting on the inside to ambush the arms dealer. I could only theorize but I was certain they grabbed him the moment he entered.

Then the surveillance camera showed the three men leaving the room sometime later using their electronic gadgets to lock the door and shoot the bolt from the outside to simulate a classic locked room mystery. Score one for tech wizardry. It was all done in a cold, calculated manner. A professional hit. No doubt about it. Each of the men was in disguise wearing dark glasses, beards, mustaches and baseball hats. There would be no easy way to recognize them.

"Thank you both," Jim said. "I think we've figured out the how. Now all we need is the who."

"High profile guy like Gaboud makes a lot of enemies," I observed.

"Guess we'll let the D.C. folks deal with that part of it," Jim said. He sounded relieved. So was I. My client was off the hook. I hoped all my work would go this smoothly.

My first private client shook my hand in appreciation and it felt very good.


J. P. Seewald has taught Creative Writing courses at both the high school and college level (Rutgers University). The author also taught Expository and Technical Writing at the college level and also worked as an academic librarian and an educational media specialist.

Currently the author has short stories in the anthologies: THE MYSTERY MEGAPACK, DREAMSPELL NIGHTMARES, PASSIONATE HEARTS, LOST ON ROUTE 66, THE MYSTERY OF THE GREEN MIST, TOUCHED BY WONDER (story nominated for a Nebula Award), CERN ZOO (Nemonymous 9), RUINS TERRA, RUINS METROPOLIS, CATS IN A DREAMSPELL, WRONG WORLD'S ONE MORE TIME, TWO OF A KIND AND OTHER STORIES OF THE PARANORMAL, WITH ARMS WIDE OPEN, YOUR DARKEST DREAMSPELL, ROMANCE OF MY DREAMS 2, HORROR, HUMOR, AND HEROES (Volume 3 - New Faces of Science Fiction), and PMS: POISON, MURDER AND SATISFACTION.

The author's mystery short stories have also appeared in: THE LONDON MYSTERY SELECTION in England, VERMONT INK, BLUE MURDER, PALACE OF REASON, ORCHARD PRESS MYSTERIES, MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE, WINTER MYSTERY ANTHOLOGY, THE GUMSHOE REVIEW and SLEUTHS IN CAHOOTS.

Eleven books of fiction have been published. The third of three mystery novels, THE TRUTH SLEUTH, was published in hardcover by Five Star/Gale May 18, 2011. The second novel in this series, was published in paperback by Harlequin Worldwide Mystery in February 2012. Five Star/Gale published a new mystery, DEATH LEGACY, March 21, 2012 as well. Harlequin Worldwide Mystery will be publishing both THE INFERNO COLLECTION and THE TRUTH SLEUTH in paperback editions at the beginning of 2013.

Additionally, short stories, poems, essays, reviews and articles have appeared in hundreds of publications such as: THE WRITER, THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, PEDESTAL, SURREAL, LIBRARY JOURNAL, AFTER DARK and PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.

J. P. Seewald has won multiple awards for fiction, poetry and plays.


Copyright 2012 J. P. Seewald. 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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