Sandeep was emphatic. “The lock was broken. The burglars used a tool to pry it open.”
Joe was puzzled. “Just that one room, and no one was checked in?”
“Correct. Nothing was taken, not even the television.”
The handyman’s white truck had just pulled up at the Inn of the Valley when Joe arrived. The door would need serious work before people started arriving.
“Have you contacted the police?”
Sandeep shook his head. “We don’t want to make a fuss. A police car might be disturbing to the guests.”
Joe didn’t understand. The Ferris family made a point of being friendly with the police. He knew a couple of the city and state cops by name. Cal Lawrence dropped by frequently, although less often now that his sister Mary had married and moved to Denver.
“You know, I had a strange visit last night. I wonder if it could be related? Did you have some FBI agents come by?”
Sandeep didn’t know. They went to the office.
The Inn of the Valley was larger than the Railroad, but their office was positively cramped and spartan.
Sandeep’s father opened the sliding glass barrier that separated them from his bank-teller-like office. Joe got the impression that the glass was thick and shatterproof.
“Hello, Mr. Patel. I heard about your trouble last night. I was on night duty myself and I had a couple of strange visitors.”
“Yes. Did two men in black suits come by here? They asked about a Kenneth somebody?”
He frowned. “Yes. FBI men. They asked about a Kenneth Winston, but I had no one by that name, and so they left.”
Joe rubbed his forehead with a finger, trying to remember. “They wanted to check my register and look around.”
“Yes. I was happy to help and printed them a list from our computer.”
“From the previous night?”
“Yes. You think this was related to the damage?”
Joe shook his head. “I really don’t know. They just didn’t act like any policemen I knew. Maybe FBI are different; I don’t know. I didn’t give them a list, and when I suggested contacting the State Police, they backed off and left.”
He had an idea. “Mr. Patel, was there someone staying in the damaged room for the previous night, like on that list you gave them?”
Sandeep’s father rarely smiled, but the idea darkened his normally serious expression even more. “I will check.”
He tapped on the computer. From Joe’s viewpoint he couldn’t see anything.
“There was a Wilson family staying there that night.”
Joe nodded. “’Winston’, ‘Wilson’. I bet that’s it. You need to call the police and tell them about your break-in. I bet those men weren’t really FBI, and they’re using fake badges to get motel operators to help them.”
Mr. Patel hesitated a moment, and then said, “I’ll call my cousin.”
When he turned away and began talking some other language into the phone, Joe looked at Sandeep and they left.
Outside, he asked, “I didn’t know your family was related to other motel owners here in town.”
Sandeep nodded. “My father’s cousin and also another more remote cousin. They are the ones who helped my family get started in Las Vegas.”
“There sure are a lot of Indians in the motel business.”
Sandeep nodded. “Yes. Atithi devo bhavah. Hindu’s always make the best inn keepers.”
“Huh?” Joe seriously didn’t understand. Or agree.
“It’s a Hindu thing. Hindu scripture. Atithi devo bhavah. ‘Our guests are our gods.’”
Joe had been in their living quarters a couple of times, and had seen the little shrine in the hallway. He hadn’t asked about the little foot-tall idol of some a human-like character with the head of an elephant, but he suspected that maybe the Hindu meaning of ‘god’ wasn’t the same thing as he had learned in Sunday school.
Dad’s rule was clear. Never argue religion with a guest. They had Gideon Bibles in the rooms, and a couple of Mom’s decorations quoted scriptures. They had a list of local churches for guest reference. Be honest if the topic comes up, but never let yourself be sucked into an argument with a guest.
But was Sandeep really a guest?
Joe shook his head. “I don’t know about gods, but at least you’ve got a ghost of your own.”
“What do you mean?”
Joe smiled. “I mean the Inn of the Valley. Your place. We pride ourselves on being friendly to all our guests at the Railroad. That means talking to them. And we’ve heard about the ghost that haunts here since the 80’s at least.”
Sandeep leaned closer, his eyes wide.
Joe continued, “Yeah, we’ve had a few people show up very late, having left the Inn after being woken up by noises in the night. I don’t think it’s ever hurt anyone. Nothing to worry about.”
Sandeep shook his head side to side. “Oh, I’m not worried. I just want to know more. A ghost should be treated properly.”
“And it could be good for business, if you do it right.” Joe nodded towards downtown. “You know the Plaza even lists its ghost in the advertising pamphlets.”
“What’s wrong, Joe?”
Joe finished layering a slice of cheese on his sandwich and closed the refrigerator in the family kitchen.
“I don’t know, Dad. Something Sandeep said just bugged me.”
Abel Ferris set down his calculator and waited.
It was mid-day. Anita had gone back to the school, and one of them ought to be taking a nap in preparation for the night shift. Joe would just as soon drop it. He took a bite of his sandwich.
“It’s not the Internet thing again, is it?”
“No. And by the way we lost another booking last night because of it.
“No, it was a Hindu thing he said. He implied that they’re better at the motel business than us, because they’re Hindu.”
Abel shook his head with a smile. “Broad statements. Just ignore it. We’re doing okay. We’ve got a higher rate of regular returnees than anyone else in town, and that’s saying something right there.”
Joe nodded. “He quoted some Hindu scripture at me.”
“And you could quote the Bible back at him, I’m sure—if you wanted to get into a religious argument with your buddy. Did you want to do that?”
“No.” Joe sighed, “I didn’t. Instead I told him about the Valley’s ghost.”
“Joe! You didn’t! That’s nothing more than rumor. Probably nothing more than noises in their pipes. What were you trying to do? Scare him?”
“No! Just... Sandeep was talking gods and so I changed the subject to ghosts.”
“Showing that you had as little respect for his beliefs as you do for idle rumors. Not good, Joe.”
He felt his face grow hot. “That’s not what I meant.”
“What does Sandeep think? That’s the point.”
Joe didn’t respond. Sandeep started the whole thing. He could tell the Patels a dozen things they were doing wrong. It was ridiculous to think that just because they were Hindu that they were automatically the best.
How many times had he heard guests compliment him about how friendly the Railroad was, and complain about those unfriendly foreigner motels?
He closed his eyes and let the urge to gripe pass over him. Dad wouldn’t like that either. Guests complained about lots of things. Don’t make more of it than it deserved.
“There’s something else, Dad.”
“Remember last night? Those two men looking for Kenneth Winston?”
“They said they were FBI, but I think they were fakes.”
He told his father about the break-in at the Valley, and his suspicions.
“And now that I think about it. Room 31 was really jumbled when I cleaned it up—much worse than any biker chick would do just staying the night.”
“Biker chick? You didn’t mention her.”
Joe waved his hands. “No. Not a biker chick. The mute girl. J Smith. She rode a motorcycle. That’s not the point. The room looked like it had been turned upside down and searched.”
“She searched 31?”
“Maybe it wasn’t her. She was gone early in the morning. Maybe the fake FBI guys ransacked the room after she left. She didn’t mention anything when I saw her later at the McDonalds.”
“You got the key back?”
He nodded and fished it out. Abel took it and pulled out pliers from a drawer to affix the plastic tag.
Joe watched him bend the metal hooks and prepare both room 31 keys.
“Maybe we should call the police. I almost did it last night.”
“Did the Patels report it?”
“I don’t think so. They seemed... reluctant.”
Abel nodded. “Joe, don’t judge them. I’ve heard some stories. Things you wouldn’t be proud of. We’ve got it easy. You’re Anglo/Hispanic, so’s most everyone else in this town. They’re the outsiders, and for some of them, this isn’t the first place they tried to settle. I know Patel’s cousin moved here because he was worried about his children. His first motel was vandalized several times by locals who didn’t like the ‘foreigners’ taking over the business.”
The office where Mr. Patel worked, protected behind glass, suddenly made a little more sense. Joe still thought it unfriendly, but if he had a history of being attacked....
“Should we make the call? I could describe the fake FBI men.”
Abel shook his head. “We haven’t been damaged, not really. Just be on the lookout for them.
“But for now, I’ve got to run some errands. I’ll need you to be available pretty much all the time, until your Granddad gets better and your Mom is home.”
Joe’s face showed his feelings on the subject. “I’d promised Mark I’d join the summer basketball league. They’ve opened the courts at the high school. He’s been expecting me all week.”
“I’m sorry, but you know your responsibilities here come first. I’ll do my best to give you some free time, but we’re tight for help, and there’s no way we can hire anyone.”
“Fine.” Joe sighed. “I’ll man the office.”
“Okay, but look out for those biker chicks.” Abel chuckled as he walked out.
Joe didn’t bother with the TV. Dad would take the night shift.
But as he waited, he thought about the FBI men.
He flipped through the Rolodex, and started calling the other motels.
His suspicion was correct. Those that knew him reported their own visits by the men in black suits. Two places had called the police. He wasn’t the only one who thought they were fakes.
About five, Joe saw J Smith drive by. She slowed to a crawl, but then drove on.
So, she was still in town, but she wasn’t staying at the Railroad. What was her story?