by John Grayson Heide
Albert scooted sideways to make room for the short, swarthy man who slipped inside the hotel’s 37th floor portal mere seconds before the elevator doors closed with a gentle whoosh. Albert didn’t mind. He’d learned to share his whole life.
“Going down?” He offered the useless remark with the customary tilt of his head, signifying his midwestern-born invitation to talk.
“You bet it is,” the man growled into the corner.
The elevator whined, the cage shook and gravity got a little lighter. A lower number lit up above the doors. Despite the other man’s furtive lack of eye contact and, after what Albert considered the polite number of seconds had passed, he released some pent-up vacation exuberance. “I just got into town,” he said into the echoless chamber.
The man looked over his shoulder and sized up his temporary roommate like a snake studies a mouse. In one motion, the man spun to face Albert, in his hand a gun. “Give me your wallet, quick!”
Albert’s smile refused to yield. He tilted his head sideways. “What?”
“You heard me. Give it. Now!” The man jabbed the gun forward.
Albert raised his hands. “Well, I guess so. I could give it to you. You mean right now? Here?”
“Yes, goddamn it! I forgot to make an appointment. Give it or I swear I’ll shoot you.” The man’s dark eyes blazed with urgency.
“Well, okay. You know, this is mine. You know...” Albert’s voice trailed off, but his hand was already on his back pocket. “All right. All right,” Albert muttered the words and proffered the bulging leather lump toward the man.
In an instant the wallet disappeared in a calculated swipe just as the elevator bounced to a stop and the doors started to open. “Not a word, or you and somebody else gets it. Understand?” the man snarled over his shoulder. He stepped in front of the open doors making himself as imposing as a 5-foot 5-inch human can be. “No room. No room,” he repeated as a couple with a four-year old in tow abruptly stopped in their tracks, puzzlement on their faces.
The woman frowned and glanced to Albert, who had scrunched his rather large bulk into the back corner with a pasted-on smile. As the doors finally slid closed, the thirty-something woman tugged at her mate’s sleeve with an urgency that implied ‘Something’s wrong.’
The descent resumed, and the man nodded and cooed toward Albert. “That was good, dude. Nobody got hurt.” Albert noticed a damaged front tooth. “A few more floors down, I get out of here and down the fire stairs. Gone before you even hit the lobby! Ha! Then you get to whine to the cops for a few hours. It’s gonna do you no good. I’m too smart. You wouldn’t know now would you? Your fancy outfit and all.” The man eyed Albert’s poly-blend slacks and Walmart aloha shirt that hadn’t been laundered yet. Albert shrugged.
Without a hint of warning, the elevator shuddered and jerked to a halt mid-floor between 28 and 27. The lights dimmed for a couple of seconds, then went out. A single emergency bulb in the ceiling blinked on, and the two bewildered men stood anchored in place, illuminated like pasty mannequins in the pale light.
“What the hell?” the man screamed.
“Yeah... what’s this hell?” a wide-eyed Albert squeaked.
“Stay back. You hear me?” Desperation in his voice, the robber waved the gun while punching every button on the panel.
“Yeah, yeah. Okay there, buddy. It’s okay. I’m sure this contraption will get going real soon, and you can run away like you said. No problem. Just don’t shoot me, all right?” Albert lowered his volume: “Please.”
“Shut the hell up. You don’t do nothing, I don’t shoot you. Got it? Unbelievable. No way this is happening!” The man again slammed the panel buttons hard with the heel of his hand. After a full minute with nothing changed, the man eased up and only probed the buttons with his listless gun barrel. “Just my luck,” he grunted and slid his back down to the floor beside the uncooperative knobs.
A tense silence between them dominated the tiny space, punctuated only by the sound of a gun barrel tapping a bare palm. Both men merely glanced at each other as the minutes passed.
“Mind if I sit?” Albert shifted to his other foot.
The man scanned him, grunted and motioned the gun toward the floor.
“Thanks.” Albert leaned down, extended his arm, swung his butt to the tiles and brought his knees up to his chest. “Ever since that Chevy rolled over my foot, I can’t stand on it for too long. It’s been three years, but it still aches a bit.”
“Shut up. I gotta think.”
Albert nodded. More moments of silence.
“Damn it! I knew this would happen! Something always happens.” The man spit the words out and slapped his knee.
Albert’s eyes grew wide. “Wow. I never thought this would happen. Nothing ever happens around me.”
“Well, a stuck elevator in the middle of a robbery is happening, dummy!”
“Yeah, okay. You’re right.” Albert answered in just above a whisper. “What are you going to do?”
“What am I supposed to do? I’m going to write my congressman. I’m going to call for pizza!” The man paused, threw his arms apart, cocked his head to the side and continued in a conspiratorially drenched tone, “First of all, if you must know, I fancy myself as a man that thinks outside the box.”
Albert looked around the cramped enclosure. “Seems that would be impossible right now.”
The man glared at Albert but fell silent, the only sound in the elevator, an incessant insect-like buzzing. More minutes passed. Albert pointed at the tattoos on the backs of both of the other man’s hands. “Who are Francine and Ellie?” he ventured.
“My wife. Ex-wife to be exact, and my daughter.” The man extended his hands and studied them. “Better days,” he announced in a somber tone. “Ellie’s already ten now. Can you believe it?” The man shook his head as if watching his favored team go down in defeat.
The relentless buzz of the light dominated the enclosure and minutes passed. Albert motioned toward the top of the elevator panel. “Did you try that emergency call button at the top up there?”
The man jumped up, never taking his eyes off of Albert. The gun came out again, the barrel pointed squarely at his captive. He scanned the upper panel and uttered a grunt when he spied the red-lettered knob. He reached up but paused with a wavering finger an inch from the button. “Is this like an intercom or something? Are they going to want to talk to me?”
“Albert shrugged. “I don’t know. This being an older hotel, maybe.”
The man spun around, fury in his voice: “That stupid couple with their damn kid on the 35th... They’re probably ratting on me right now to the hotel stiffs.” With no room to pace, he rocked back and forth on his feet, then drilled Albert with his eyes. “You gotta do it. You call ’em.”
“Me? You want me to be our spokesman?” There was a faint hint of pride in the question. Albert angled himself back upright, careful to keep his 6-foot 4-inch frame as far away as possible from his diminutive captor.
“You tell them everything’s fine,” the man directed.
“Everything’s fine,” Albert repeated.
“Tell them there’s no robbery going on.”
“Everything’s fine, and there’s no robbery going on.” Albert nodded. Another silence ensued. The man waited. Albert glanced around the small enclosure, “Maybe, I’m thinking, that I shouldn’t mention robbery. What do you think? Things aren’t really that fine either. It’s been over an hour now and we have heard nothing from them. The button may not work anyway.”
The harsh light in the elevator was just enough for the two men to lock eyes. “Forget the damn button,” the man at last announced. “They’ll be waiting for me either way.” His backside slid to the floor again. “I’m screwed.”
Albert let his frame slide down as well. They positioned themselves opposite with legs outstretched. Albert checked his watch.
“The cops around here know me. I’m a regular star on their security cameras,” the man sighed. After a long silence, he resumed in a small voice, “My old lady used to work this place. Not hooking!” he barked and glared at Albert. “She did clean-up maid stuff,” the man emphasized with a wave of the gun. “I was drunk one night and, because she had a key to get in, I took advantage and stole a bunch of crap. They fired her and threw me in jail. That was the beginning of the end for us.”
“Oh, that’s kind of sad,” Albert offered.
“Yeah, kind of sad,” the man smacked his lips. “Yeah, yeah. Must seem that way to you. Fat ass living it up in Vegas. Probably got kids already in college.”
Albert took a deep breath and swiped his forehead. “Yes, you’re right, my ass is fat. I feel bad about that but, hey, I’m well past 50 now, so what do you do?” He held up one hand gesturing a complete surrender to aging. “Kids? I wish. Doris and I tried for ten years. Just didn’t happen. Then she left. Didn’t say why. I still got the auto repair shop though.”
“Your wife just left?”
“Yeah, she wrote a note. Said she wanted a new life.” Albert sighed, “We never did talk much.”
“Hey, man, that’s first class wrong. At least my wife screamed and yelled at me. I knew exactly what the deal was and how I was showing up and not showing up. What your wife did, that’s just not right.” He paused. “What the hell you doing in Vegas, anyway? Oh, don’t tell me, I get it.” The man sneered and shook his head. “What happens here, stays here. Right?
Albert stared at the floor.
The man snorted, then continued in a softer voice. “Well, tell you the truth, that’s pretty much how I got here. But I didn’t have a home to go back to.” He swiped his mouth.
The man folded his arms across his chest and studied his captive. “My dad used to work on cars before he died. He helped me fix up my first car. Taught me a lot. We rebuilt the whole engine. Did body work. Everything.” The man’s eyes drifted off to the ceiling.
“Sounds like a good man,” Albert said. After a moment he added, “Where are your wife and daughter now?”
“They’re around. As a matter of fact... Hey what time is it?” the man gestured at Albert’s watch.
“Almost 4:30. We’ve been in here for about two hours.”
“I had until 5:00 to get the money to the courthouse.”
“What do you mean?” Albert shifted his weight and leaned a little closer.
“More of the same. Can’t do a goddamn thing right. In order to continue my visitation rights, I had until 5 o’clock today to pay up at least 500 bucks in back child support. I didn’t have the money. I tried, I really did, but... things didn’t work out.”
“Wow,” Albert began. “That’s sad.”
“You already said that.”
Without warning, the monotonous buzz stopped, and the main lights blinked back to life. Albert and the man jumped up and were momentarily put off balance when the elevator jerked down resuming the descent. They locked eyes and no words were spoken.
The man reached into his jacket pocket, produced Albert’s wallet and extended it forward. “Here, you might as well have this now.”
While still eyeing the pistol at the man’s side, Albert’s hand nibbled at the edge of the wallet, then snatched it back. “Thank you,” he said.
At a steady pace, the numbers above the wall counted down the impending fate. When it read “3”, Albert extended his hand. “Give me the gun,” he said in a calm even tone.
“What? No,” the man protested.
“No time, trust me. Give me the gun.”
The elevator light read “Lobby.” The elevator came to a standstill, and the doors parted. The man’s face was like ice, but his hand, behind his back, slipped the revolver, handle first, to Albert’s hand. “It’s not loaded,” he whispered.
“I figured as much,” Albert muttered while stuffing the gun under his shirt. Police, reporters covering the power outage, hotel staff and cheering bystanders pressed toward the doorway.
Before either of them could move, two policemen pushed their way to the front of the throng. Albert threw his big arm around the man. “Wow, buddy, we made it! So glad to see you folks,” Albert’s booming voice cut through the crowd’s chatter, his arm upraised in a universal sign of triumph.
Cameras clicked. The police paused. The press shouted questions at Albert and the wide-eyed man. Albert clutched him even closer to his side. “Folk’s, thanks very much, but right now we need fresh air.” Albert shoved aside a paramedic who stood ready to resuscitate any victims.
The police, sporting half-smiles, resumed their mission by blocking Albert’s path. “Hold it a minute, sir. We need to talk with your friend here.” They both peered up and down at the man now scrunched sideways against Albert. “And how are we today, Lenny? We got a report of let’s say, suspicious activity on the elevator. And then we check the hotel cameras and guess what?” The taller of the two policemen let the last words ooze out of his mouth like ominous syrup.
The man known as Lenny slumped, his cheeks puffed out as he exhaled in resignation. Albert stared down at the shrinking man, shored him up against his body and began with an even louder voice. “Ah, thanks, officers but, you see, we’re late and have to run along. I called him up to my room for a job interview. I need somebody with experience back in my auto repair shop, and Lenny’s father recommended him highly.”
With one arm, Albert bounced the much smaller man. “I do hope he accepts my job offer, but right now we have to go.”
Lenny glanced at the cops and around the crowd with the look of someone that had woken up in a different reality.
The police frowned at each other but stepped aside as Albert, still clutching an astonished Lenny, pushed forward and out the front doors of the hotel where he hustled over to a waiting taxi. Without hesitation, he opened the back door, shoved Lenny in and jumped in after him.
Lying sideways in the backseat, Lenny tried to say something, but Albert shushed him with an upheld finger and barked toward the driver. “To the courthouse. Quick!” Albert smiled at his new associate, then turned back to the driver. “Please.”
Copyright © 2019 by John Grayson Heide