In an elevator awash with blood, a man lies murdered. But who is the killer? And what is the role of the enigmatic Swedish woman, whose identity is shrouded in mystery?
Find out here.
After a year in the crafting, I recently published my third in the series of short Hotel Stories.
Its title is The Swedish Woman.
Hailed by early readers as maybe the funniest of the Hotel Stories so far, The Swedish Woman features a galaxy of extraordinary characters – from the 100% untainted-by-corruption-of-any-kind Minister of Justice and the charming but elderly Irish gentleman in search of female company who may or may not have only six months to live; through the brilliant, unpredictable and occasionally homicidal hotel manager Ms N and her beautiful but naive ally, Tatiana; to the mysterious Swedish woman herself.
Who is she, and what is she doing in the hotel?
By way of a taster, here is the first part of the story. Enjoy.
The following is an excerpt from “The Swedish Woman”.
The Swedish Woman (excerpt)
‘I am sorry, sir. But this is a five-star hotel. I cannot arrange services of this kind.’
‘Tatiana, my darling. Sweetheart. It’s not for me that I am asking. It is for my own dear father. He is eighty-seven years old. He only has six months to live, the poor sweet man. And here he is having come all the way from Ireland to join me and a select group of our friends to celebrate his birthday in style, courtesy of your boss and my good friend the Hotel Manager. Are you sure you cannot be finding someone for him, now?’
Secretly I am impressed to hear that this man and his father are friends of Ms N, the Manager and acting General Manager of this hotel, who is also my boss. But the rules are clear. I have no trouble answering because I know that Ms N would say the same.
‘I am sorry, sir. I cannot help you.’
‘Tatiana, sweetheart. You may be sorry. But just imagine how my poor, dear father will feel. Here he is, having flown all the way from Ireland for a weekend of fun. And now you tell me: no fun. Please, Tatiana, show mercy!’
The man at the reception is middle-aged and fit, and has green eyes. He wears a tailored grey suit, an open-necked shirt and a cologne which drifts across the counter, reminding me of the fields of herbs which cloak the mountain uplands around my poor village far from the historic capital of our beautiful country. When he talks about his father from Ireland, and when he says show mercy, he smiles so kindly that I want to help him.
But of course I cannot.
‘Would you like to speak to the Hotel Manager?’ I say. ‘Perhaps she can help you.’
I am fibbing when I say this. I know that Ms N will not help the man with a kindly smile, however green his eyes and fragrant his cologne, to obtain the kind of service which he says he wants to obtain as a birthday treat for his elderly father in our hotel. Ms N is strict about such things. But I am thinking that perhaps Ms N can suggest some other birthday treat.
I am looking over the man’s shoulder as I am speaking, because four men and two women are waiting behind him to be served at my reception counter. Three of the men are wearing long white thawb robes, and keffiyeh head-dresses held in place with agals. I recognise these items because we receive many Arab visitors to our hotel and some of them wear traditional dress. I can see no sign of their janbiya ceremonial daggers and I am guessing that our security team will have asked them to check in any weapons of this kind when they are passing through our full body scanner at the entrance.
The fourth man who is waiting is tall and grey-haired and I recognise him at once as an important customer named Mr Matt Miller. Ms N has told me to treat Mr Matt Miller with special care and attention and to call her the minute he appears. Mr Matt Miller is accompanied by a woman who looks as if she might perhaps be of South-East Asian origin but whose booking details, which I have memorised this morning, give her name as Mrs Matt Miller.
Behind Mrs Matt Miller is another woman. This woman has wild, frizzy hair and no make-up and is wearing a green out-door jacket as if perhaps she has spent the day trekking in the rugged and windswept mountains of our beautiful but not yet economically advanced country.
Actually, the woman in the green out-door jacket is not exactly waiting to be served. When she entered the hotel a few moments earlier she stopped dead and gazed around our lobby, with its thirty-metre water feature and its sushi bar with a Michelin star, as if perhaps she is not taking such things for granted like most of our guests, but finds them remarkable.
I am pleased that the woman has stopped to look at the lobby because this means that she is no longer my problem, unlike the man with the fragrant cologne and the green eyes and the kindly smile, and the three gentlemen in Arab dress, and Mr and Mrs Matt Miller, all of whom are now at the counter.
‘One moment, please, ladies and gentlemen,’ I say. I pick up the telephone and call Ms N. ‘Please come,’ I say. Then I terminate the call.
‘The Hotel Manager will speak to you in a moment,’ I say to the Irish gentleman. ‘Please take a seat in the Lobby Bar.’
I turn to the first of the gentlemen in keffiyehs. ‘Welcome to our hotel, sir. Good choice. Do you have a reservation?’
The man in Arab dress tells me in not bad English that he and his colleagues are here for the World Anti-Corruption Forum, which is opening in the Sapphire Ballroom of our hotel the following morning. When I begin to check them in, I see a note on the computer system from Ms N, telling me to be helpful to this group of gentlemen, especially if they should ask to go anywhere in particular in the hotel, or if they have special seating needs in the restaurant or Lobby Bar.
I am guessing that these gentlemen must be very rich indeed, and probably also very fussy.
The note from Ms N is an unusual one, so I look with interest at the first gentleman in Arab clothing, who I now see has dark eyes and cute dimples. He returns the hotel pen to me with a word of thanks when he has finished signing his name, unlike many guests who put the hotel pen in their pocket, or drop it on the floor, or simply leave it lying on the counter so I can put it away.
I like it when customers treat hotel staff as if they are human beings.
While I am admiring the dimples and the manners of the gentleman in Arab clothing, Mr Matt Miller says to me in a loud voice:
‘Do you know who I am?’
Of course when Mr Matt Miller is saying this I am struggling to stop myself laughing because every hotel worker knows the story about the air stewardess dealing with a self-important customer who asks this same question. In reply, the stewardess turns on her public address system and asks all the other passengers if anyone knows who the self-important customer is, because he seems to have forgotten.
Usually in this story the self-important customer is a man. I do not know why this is.
Luckily I am a highly trained hospitality industry professional, so I do not laugh but instead turn to the grey-haired customer and his wife and smile my famous thousand-watt smile. ‘Mr and Mrs Miller. Welcome to our hotel. Good choice. I will be delighted to deal with you as soon as I have finished with these three gentlemen.’
Mr Matt Miller says nothing but nods his head as if to acknowledge what I have said. His wife, assuming that the woman is his wife and not a woman who bizarrely has exactly the same name as him, also says nothing. In fact, she does not even change her expression, which is one of surprise bordering on shock, or possibly fear, as if she has heard a horrifying piece of news.
I wonder if she is perhaps like one of the rich but sad women we see often in our beautiful but not yet economically advanced country who cannot move her face too much because of plastic surgery. But I cannot imagine that even the worst cosmetic surgeon in the world would leave any customer with a face so shocked, or possibly frightened, as that of Mrs Matt Miller.
As I complete the registration of the three men wearing thawbs and keffiyehs and agals I hear a commotion in the Lobby Bar. I am only now noticing that although the area to which I have sent the man with the green eyes and the kindly smile and the fragrant cologne is packed with people, he has easily found a seat at the centre of the crowd and is talking to two of his neighbours. I turn to look for the source of the noise and realise that half of all the people in the Lobby Bar, several of whom seem to have had at least one drink and are mostly dressed in clothes at the “casual” end of the “smart casual” look to which our hotel chain hopes its guests will aspire, must be celebrating the birthday of the eighty-seven-year old Irish gentleman who is the father of the customer with the green eyes and the kindly smile and the fragrant cologne.
All of this group have risen to their feet and are shouting and cheering.
The other half of the customers in the Lobby Bar are not shouting and cheering. These people are mostly heavy-set men wearing dark suits or leather jackets, who include some of the most successful and richest businessmen in our beautiful but not yet economically advanced country. One of these gentlemen has recently become our Minister of Justice, helped by the fact that our wholly uncensored newspapers and television channels, many of which he owns, have reported definitively that he is 100% untainted by corruption of any kind.
I am guessing that the group of gentlemen in dark suits or leather jackets is also booked into the hotel to attend the Anti-Corruption Forum, since these people, including our untainted-by-corruption-of-any-kind Minister of Justice, are amongst the greatest experts in corruption in the world, let alone in our beautiful but not yet economically advanced country.
The second group look at the first, noisy group like adults watching the antics of badly-behaved but simple children and continue to sip the glasses of Dom Perignon drink which are sitting in ice-buckets between their tables.
Then I see why the people who are celebrating the elderly gentleman’s birthday are shouting and cheering. Ms N, the Hotel Manager and my boss, has entered the lobby and is heading our way.
Ms N’s high heels click a message of power and control. She is wearing a dark jacket and skirt and a black stretch top and as she passes the Lobby Bar she turns slightly towards the group of less-smart-than-casually dressed people of whom several have had at least one drink. She smiles in greeting before continuing to the reception counter and stretching out her hand to Mr Matt Miller.
‘Matthew. Mrs Miller,’ she says. ‘Welcome to our hotel. I hope we will ensure you have an unforgettable stay.’
‘Why, hello there,’ Mr Matt Miller replies. ‘How wonderful to see you, and how fabulous to see your hotel. I guess the whole chain has a lot to learn from the famous Ms N.’
Mr Matt Miller of course has used Ms N’s full name, but I have removed it here because Ms N is a modest person who does not like me to write and publish stories which highlight her fabulous qualities.
Mr Matt Miller’s voice is so warm that I am surprised to see that he has not shaken the hand Ms N is holding out towards him. In fact, he has not moved at all. He is much taller than Ms N, who even in her high heels is what we call in the hotel industry petite, and while he is speaking he seems to strain to stand up as straight as he can, in order to look down on Ms N from the greatest possible height.
‘Yes, we do have a lot to learn from the famous Ms N,’ Mr Matt Miller continues. ‘For example, I am grateful to you for breaking off whatever important task you were doing in order to come and meet me. I noticed you had laid a trap with Tatiana here, although frankly I should have thought it would have been a courtesy to greet me at the door. In fact, I should have thought it would be strongly in your interests to do so, since as your regional director my decisions, and my evaluations of your performance, may powerfully influence your future career.’
Mr Matt Miller’s voice is not so warm now. ‘Speaking of evaluations,’ he says, ‘I note that your reception is understaffed; and that the only girl on duty, young Tatiana, can barely speak English and seems to think the main part of her job is to cream her panties while she flirts with the male guests she is checking in while ignoring those waiting to be served. I notice also that you have packed the hotel with a group of your friends who are no doubt enjoying our chums’n’cousins staff discounts, lowering the tone of the lobby, depressing profits and eroding the experience of the full-rate customers who have taken the trouble to dress in proper business attire. With the World Anti-Corruption Forum starting tomorrow, you and every other hotel in this armpit of a capital city will have full occupancy. So your chums’n’cousins are enjoying their discounts at the cost of higher-rate bona fide customers who would boost your hotel’s prestige and bottom line.
‘Finally,’ Mr Matt Miller concludes, ‘I could not help hearing Tatiana being approached by a guest to help him organise a prostitute. Although she declined to help, I noted that she asked him to discuss the matter further with you as if, perhaps, you might be able to resolve the issue.’ He glances briefly at his wife, whose facial expression is still one of surprise bordering on shock. ‘I have no idea if Mrs Miller is going to enjoy her stay in your hotel and I do not much care. But I can tell you that you have made a bad start with me.’
Mr Matt Miller looks down at Ms N and raises his eyebrows, as if to say what do you say to that, or perhaps eat that, bitch.
Ms N looks back at Mr Matt Miller. She does not seem upset at his comments, but has an inquisitive expression on her face, as if she is figuring out how to solve some problem. Perhaps Mr Miller is the problem.
‘Thank you, Matthew, for your perceptive insights,’ she says. ‘I know of course that it is for me to learn at the feet of the master. And I am delighted to meet your wife.’
Ms N stretches out her hand towards Mrs Matt Miller. Unlike her husband, Mrs Matt Miller shakes Ms N’s hand. When she looks at Ms N’s inquisitive expression, Mrs Matt Miller’s mouth twists for a moment away from its expression of shock and, perhaps, fear, and a small smile of joy transforms her face. I am thinking that perhaps no-one has smiled at Mrs Matt Miller, or even acknowledged her existence, for many years. When she smiles she is looking maybe twenty years younger than with her shocked or frightened face, which I now realise is caused not by bad plastic surgery but by her husband, Mr Matt Miller.
‘Tatiana,’ Ms N says, ‘please could you check in the lady in the green Barbour, who I think you will find has a Swedish passport and will be staying in one of our deluxe sixteenth-floor Platinum Megastar Suites with lounge access. I will introduce Mr and Mrs Matt Miller to some of our honoured guests in the Lobby Bar. I may also give him a short tour of our back of house, as he is a senior colleague from HQ who has a keen interest in how we run our hotel.’
Ms N leads Mr and Mrs Matt Miller towards the Lobby Bar. I see that she is introducing Mr Matt Miller to several of the heavy-set men wearing dark suits or leather jackets, including our untainted-by-corruption-of-any-kind Minister of Justice. Perhaps she is trying to show Mr Matt Miller the type of senior and well-connected guests who are staying in our hotel.
If I am honest, I am a little surprised that Ms N is introducing Mr Matt Miller to the gentlemen in the dark suits or leather jackets because neither they nor our untainted-by-corruption-of-any-kind Minister of Justice seem very pleased to meet him. Indeed, they are looking as if they would like him to drop down dead at the first opportunity, although of course he does not do this.
Then I see that Ms N is introducing Mr Matt Miller to some of her chums’n’cousins, some of whom have had at least one drink.
This also is surprising to me, because I have already heard Mr Matt Miller criticising the presence of Ms N’s personal friends in the hotel, as well as the special services requested by the gentleman with the fragrant cologne and the green eyes and the kindly smile.
But I do not have much time to analyse the interaction of Mr Matt Miller with the guests in the Lobby Bar because the wild-haired woman in the green out-door jacket has finally made it to the reception counter and is holding out her ID.
It is, as Ms N has forecast, a Swedish passport.
This is unusual because in our beautiful but not yet economically advanced country we do not receive many tourists, or indeed visitors of any kind, from Sweden. The fact that Ms N could identify the nationality of the wild-haired woman in the green out-door jacket therefore makes me think that our guest must either be someone well-known to Ms N, or famous, or both. But I do not recognise her.
I look her in the eye and smile my famous thousand kilowatt smile and take her passport and say Welcome to our hotel and good choice but her only response is to reach into an inside pocket of her green out-door jacket, which I now see carries the label of a well-known British brand, and pull out a rabbit.
‘Could you ask the chef to prepare this for me?’ she says.
They are the first words she has spoken.
I peer at the rabbit and at the woman. The rabbit is dead and is looking at me with glassy, disapproving eyes. The woman is looking at me too, in a distracted and slightly absent way, as if she does not think she needs to say anything more to me and is perhaps waiting for me to deal with the rabbit. I wonder if I have perhaps misheard her amidst all the noise in the lobby but when I consider this, I realise that all the noise in the lobby has ceased and it is now as quiet as a church.
The lobby is so quiet that I wonder for a moment if perhaps the two groups of guests in the Lobby Bar have somehow silently left the building. But when I glance in that direction I see that the group of heavy-set men in dark suits or leather jackets and the formerly cheerful group of Ms N’s chums’n’cousins have not moved. In fact, they are standing around Mr Matt Miller, staring at him with what I can recognise even at this distance as undiluted rage.
Even the gentleman with the fragrant cologne and the green eyes and the kindly smile, who up to now I have thought of as a sophisticated and gentle person, is looking at Mr Matt Miller as if he would like personally to wring his neck.
Mrs Matt Miller is once again looking shocked, or maybe frightened, and twenty years older than when she was talking to Ms N.
I conclude from this that Mr Matt Miller has been saying some things which have not made him popular with the people in the Lobby Bar.
Indeed, since Mr Matt Miller seems to take pleasure in saying things which upset people, I am more puzzled than ever that Ms N has been introducing him to her friends and other guests.
But I am even more surprised when I see what Ms N is doing next. She is leaving the Lobby Bar and is heading with Mr and Mrs Matt Miller towards the back of house area.
In fact, Ms N is taking them towards the kitchen.
When I see this I feel worried on behalf of Mr Matt Miller because I fear that in the kitchen he may meet Kyoko, our Japanese sushi chef, who has a collection of ultra-sharp Chroma knives and is famous for her violent temper. Kyoko has reacted strongly on occasions in the past when someone has said to her something she perceives as being less than 100% polite. The likelihood of a conflict between Kyoko and Mr Matt Miller seems high.
The thought of Kyoko and her knives reminds me of the rabbit, which is still looking at me with its glassy, disapproving eyes, and of the woman in the green out-door jacket, who fortunately does not seem to be in any more of a hurry than the rabbit.
I take the rabbit in one hand and the passport in the other in order to process the check-in, although if I am honest I do not need the rabbit for this.
While I am checking the Swedish woman in I ask her if she would like the rabbit prepared in any particular way. She says ‘however you like, my darling,’ with a faint smile which, although perhaps lacking the intensity of my own thousand-watt version, has an old-world charm which makes me want to help her. When I take a photocopy of her passport I scan the details for any clue about who she might be; but the name means nothing to me and I can detect no hint of her occupation, or why she might be in our hotel. The only clue is that the passport itself is old and battered, as if the Swedish woman has perhaps travelled a great deal.
I summon a bell-boy and tell him to escort her to the Platinum Megastar Suite on the 16th floor.
When the bell-boy leads the way to the elevators, I notice that the Swedish woman does not follow. Instead, she takes a meandering route. She examines the art on the wall; the thirty-metre water feature; and the menu of our one-star Michelin restaurant. The result is that she arrives at the elevator fully two minutes after the bell-boy.
For reasons I do not fully understand, this behaviour makes me happy.
It is as if the Swedish woman knows how to enjoy things other people take for granted.
By the time the Swedish woman is reaching the elevator, I notice that the noise in the lobby is picking up again. The increase in noise reminds me that Ms N has taken Mr and Mrs Matt Miller to the kitchen to meet Kyoko, with her ultra-sharp Chroma knives; and for a moment I am concerned.
But as soon as I have this thought I put it from my mind. Mr and Mrs Matt Miller are with Ms N. Ms N must know what she is doing; in fact, she must have a plan.
Ms N is good at solving problems. One day, I would like to be like her.