Noor lay on her soft bed of leaves and grass, stretched luxuriously, and looked around. Gilbert was already asleep a few feet away. She felt rather than knew that Josh would be coming in the morning. Days and nights came and went, and when it was time, she sensed it. Her life now almost made her forget the terrible years when she had lived in a cage. She loved having the freedom to roam and climb for many miles. She also had a little pond that she dipped her feet into on hot days. Her love for Josh and their special bond would never diminish, but freedom was everything. Now she didn’t have to run and climb rocks only in her dreams. Her freedom was real. And with the rising sun, she would also have Josh. After a contented sigh, she closed her eyes and fell into a dreamless sleep.
Josh was in his Mustang, driving through Santa Barbara with the top down, when his phone rang. He picked it up. “Yes, my darling.”
“I’m on my way to the Island Hotel now. Where are you?”
“You’re outta control, that’s where I am.”
Rosemaria turned right on Wilshire Boulevard and headed west. “I’ll do a bit of unobtrusive looking around, and that’s it.”
“You know what will happen if you get fired.”
“What, besides I’ll have more time to cook for you?”
“God forbid. No, it would mean I’d have to write more inane commercial jingles to support us. That could make me a little grouchy.”
“Won’t happen, and I’m deeply hurt you said that about my cooking. Love you.” She clicked off her phone and pulled into the parking structure at the Island.
Rosemaria stood near the entrance of the hotel and surveyed the lobby. The hotel emitted waves of affluence that washed over her like warm tropical breezes. This was the life. The furnishings were luxurious: plush couches and chairs around stunning coffee tables with a deep, rich wood finish—probably cut from trees that grew in some endangered rain forest. But what did rich people care about such things? Money and air conditioning shielded them from the realities of global warming. She saw the bar where Maria had sat for a few minutes, waiting for an invitation that never came. She looked toward the back of the room and saw the hallway where she had gone to smoke a cigarette and never returned.
Rosemaria had to ask herself what she was doing there. What could she hope to discover that Osborne and Larry hadn’t? She had figured out her cover story and hoped no one would call her bluff. The young man at the front desk seemed friendly enough. She would give it a try. He saw her walking toward him and offered a friendly smile.
“Hello. May I help you?”
Rosemaria tried to be officious yet personable, but it was not easy to pull off. “I’m hoping you can. I was supposed to be at the fundraiser last weekend with my boss. I live here, but I had been in New York for a couple of days. My return flight to LA was canceled, so I missed the event.”
The man behind the desk was wondering what this had to do with him.
“I’m wondering if you can help me, Sy,” she said, reading his name tag. “Would you happen to know if you have any leftover material from the fundraiser—any leaflets, programs, list of attendees, that sort of thing? I’d like to go over the names to see if there might be any possible donors for our own work in South Central and Watts.” Using the plight of the disadvantaged for her own benefit seemed wrong, but she needed to appeal to this guy’s conscience. He came through.
“I totally understand. Yes, I believe the banquet manager still has the unused material. She usually throws it out to be recycled, but maybe she still has it in her office.” He pointed. “It’s right down the hallway behind me and to the left. Her name is Magda.” He laughed. “She likes to talk, so if you want to get out of here by dinnertime, just take what you need and go.”
A talkative witness? That was music to Rosemaria’s ears. She followed his directions and introduced herself to Magda, whom she found seated behind a desk, typing into a laptop. “Sy told me you might have some material left over from the fundraiser that I could have. Would that be possible?”
“And you are?”
“I work for a community organizer in Watts. My boss neglected to save any of the pamphlets and other information that might help us find donors. Would it be okay if I take some of the information with me?”
Magda, a shapely redhead with what sounded like a Russian accent, was surprised anybody would want that junk but was amenable. “Sure. I haven’t gotten around to taking it to the recycling bin yet. You’re welcome to it.” She showed Rosemaria the boxes of papers and booklets that sat on a small table in a corner. “Take what you want.”
Rosemaria started sifting through the material, taking out papers that looked interesting and making a pile on another tabletop. “It must have been quite an event, all those hundreds of politicians and rich people.” Oops, what a dumb thing to say. Everybody who comes to this hotel had to be rich. But Magda didn’t notice.
“Yeah, never saw so many billionaires and politicians together in one place. You hear every kind of con and pathetic story when you oversee the banquets. I don’t think they eat as much as they beg. That’s a politician’s life, I guess. They beg for money, and other people beg them for favors. Makes me glad I don’t have to deal with them on a daily basis. Our normal guests are usually very quiet and private.”
“I guess some people must get pretty aggravated when they don’t get what they want from the politicians. I mean, favors and such.”
“You mean like, I contributed to your campaign, so you better keep my coal plant open?”
“Yeah, like that.”
“Usually, what I hear is about bills. You vote for this or that, and I’ll ask my friend so-and-so to contribute to your election fund. But nobody gets really angry and makes threats or anything. I’ve never seen that.”
“Except somebody must have gotten angry at the poor girl who was killed.”
Magda’s face fell, and she shook her head sadly. “That was so awful. Nothing like that has ever happened here before. Who would do something so terrible to a young girl?”
“Must have been someone lurking in the alley. I can’t imagine a politician doing something like that.”
“Are you kidding? From what I’ve seen, those people have zero morals. They’d sell their souls to hang on to their power.” She suddenly realized that she’d said too much. “Don’t mind me. I tend to have strong opinions.” She smiled. “And right now, I need to get back to work.”
Rosemaria picked up her stack of material, put it all in her oversize bag, and thanked Magda profusely for her help. She waved goodbye and noticed Magda looking at her with a curious expression as she left.
She couldn’t exactly start interviewing maids and busboys as if she were still a cop, so that was out. Besides, she was sure the detectives would have interviewed them all by now. There was always the bartender. Maybe he had been here last weekend and seen something. She sat at the bar and ordered a wine spritzer knowing if this came back to Osborne, there would be hell to pay. The bartender, whose name tag said “Mel,” set her drink in front of her. She sipped it slowly as he watched her to see if she liked it.
“Very good. Thank you.”
“Are you staying here?” Not a come on. He was just being polite.
“No. I came by to pick up some material for my boss. He was at the fundraiser last weekend.”
The bartender acknowledged this without responding. He walked to the other end of the bar to wait on another customer, then moved back to her.
She continued. “My boss was horrified to hear a girl had been killed right outside the hotel. You can’t help but think that someone who was here acting like a normal person could have done it.”
“I felt worse. I had talked to her.”
Bingo. Hit the jackpot. Rosemaria was unfazed. “She looked so young, considering her—you know, what she did.” She sipped her wine and continued to look unconcerned.
The bartender added, “Yeah, she showed me some fake ID, but I only gave her a soda. She was way too young to be here looking for action.”
“I thought maybe she was here to meet someone. You know, maybe some rich guy had called an agency.”
“No. She was alone. Alone and totally lost. She didn’t say a word, just looked around like she was waiting for someone to rescue her. She was obviously in the wrong profession. I wish I could have done something for her.”
Rosemaria took out some bills and laid them on the bar.
“You’re a good guy, Mel. A really good guy.”
He gave her a two fingered salute and moved down the bar.
Rosemaria figured she had done as much as she could without getting into trouble and walked back to her car.
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