We hurried off in different directions, Michael to go and collect Felicity and whisk her out of the hotel on their ‘date’ while I scurried up to my little room on the fifth floor. Once inside I retrieved the dour grey maid’s uniform I had liberated from the locker room the previous day and set about putting it on. I was still in the middle of dressing when I heard a second muffled explosion echo around the hotel. Realising there wasn’t much time to lose, I tucked my hair beneath the rather ridiculous little cap, slipped on my shoes and headed down the stairs.
Despite my hurry I couldn’t resist pausing on the second floor landing to take a good look at the scene of chaos that was developing along the corridor. The small devices we had left in the bathrooms of Suites 205 and 210 had caused just the disturbance we had aimed for. The current occupants of those suites, looking alternately flustered and angry, stood amongst a sea of neighbouring guests whose curiosity had drawn them out of their rooms to see what was happening. The hotel manager had now joined the concierge in trying to reassure their anxious patrons whilst a small army of maids and maintenance staff bustled about, trying to clean up the mess. As I continued on down the stairs I passed two security guards hurrying up to add their burly presence to the effort to maintain order.
Down in the lobby a sort of uneasy calm reigned. The troubles on the second floor had permeated down so far only in the form of a vague sense of disquiet that infected the guests as they passed to and fro, leaving them with a strange sense that something, somewhere was not quite right, without knowing precisely what it was. The deputy manager had been installed in the centre of the lobby with the intention of providing a soothing presence but his forced smile occasionally let slip the haunted look of a man who had had much to deal with in the last couple of days and couldn’t help but worry where the next blow might fall.
Reaching the foot of the stairs I immediately spotted Sid, dressed in the distinctive red jacket I had purloined for him and now stationed as one of the two men guarding the Dirwali rubies display. Whatever excuse he had concocted for relieving the regular guard of his duties (your mother/child/wife has fallen ill/had an accident/run off with your neighbour) had clearly been readily accepted as his fellow guard stood stoically alongside him without the slightest hint of suspicion. I managed to exchange a discreet nod with Sid as I passed by on my way to the storeroom where I collected a mop and bucket.
Returning to the lobby I lurked as inconspicuously as I could around the rear exit while I looked for my cue to launch into the next stage of the plan. I didn’t have long to wait.
The incoming tide was clearly having the desired effect within Sid and Michael’s carefully constructed tunnel for the dark patch I had observed on the carpet earlier had now developed into a fully-fledged puddle. What was more, it was a puddle that was spreading rapidly. Narrow channels of shallow water were edging out in every direction and when a well-dressed couple exited the lift they blindly walked right into the middle of the wettest section of floor. The screech of the woman as she looked down and contemplated her sodden shoes could be heard right across the lobby.
“Is something the matter madame?” the deputy manager hurried over to ask with a due sense of dread.
“Something the matter!” exclaimed the guest, doing an agitated little dance that sent droplets of water flying in all directions. “Just look at my shoes!”
I hung back where I was for a moment or two to allow the drama to develop a little further. The couple continued to complain in loud, shrill voices in that way that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in the service industries, that way of certain people who refuse to believe in accidents and somehow contrive to take anything untoward that occurs in their lives, no matter how innocuous, as a personal insult. The poor deputy manager could only make futile efforts at interjecting a few words of apology into their unceasing stream of outrage whilst looking vainly around for some explanation of where the water might have come from. When I finally judged the moment was particularly ripe I strode over towards them.
“Of course the hotel will be glad to repair or, if necessary, replace your damaged shoes,” the deputy manager was earnestly reassuring the guests as I approached. “We’re truly sorry to have spoiled your evening.” He paused and gazed around. “I just don’t understand where all this water has come from,” he added helplessly, throwing his eyes up to the ceiling in search of a leak that might account for the disaster.
Finding nothing, he dropped his gaze back to ground level. At which point I stepped into his eye line. “What do you want?” he snapped impatiently at me.
“Housekeeping sir,” I introduced myself, holding up my mop and bucket by way of corroboration. “Somebody reported a spillage in the lobby.”
I was obliged to hold my breath whilst the deputy manager looked at me blankly for a moment. I was painfully aware that our paths had already crossed upon my first arrival at the hotel. If he recognised me from that encounter as Felicity’s maid it could throw a major spanner in the works as he might wonder what exactly I was now doing masquerading as a member of the hotel housekeeping staff.
Fortunately, maids’ faces tend to blur interchangeably to men in his position and he was no more likely to remember me from our brief earlier exchange than he was to know the names and faces of all the minor members of his cleaning staff. “Ah yes,” he replied distractedly. “Well, you can see for yourself what we’ve got here.” He gestured despairingly at the spreading water. “See what you can do to clean it up.”
I nodded smartly and set to with my mop. The complaining went on for some time behind me before the deputy manager was finally able to usher the offended couple back into the lift in order to return to their room for a change of footwear with his most abject apologies for the inconvenience still ringing in their ears. If he turned back to the lobby hoping that the mysterious deluge might have miraculously ebbed away he was to be sorely disappointed.
I continued to mop diligently but as the tide was not due to turn for another thirty minutes the water continued to rise. In places the puddle was now ankle deep and kept on spreading. For a while the deputy manager busied himself with personally steering passing guests around the worst of the water, where necessary pressing the receptionist and the bellboy into action as supplementary lifeguards. Then he roped Sid and his fellow security guard into an attempt to shift various items of lobby furniture in an effort to cordon off the growing lake.
But it was all in vain. Whatever the frock-coated Canute tried he could not turn back the tide. He was still standing in the middle of the pool frantically waving at the bellboy to steer away yet more incoming guests at the same time as he tried to direct the receptionist and security guards into forming a breakwater of sofas and armchairs when another muffled explosion sounded somewhere on the floors up above. Everyone instinctively paused in their actions and looked uncertainly up the stairs. The noise of the blast soon died away and once again the hotel settled back into an uneasy calm. But it seemed that this latest unexpected incident was the final straw as far as the deputy manager was concerned.
“That’s it! This is hopeless!” he declared, turning his gaze back to the unstoppable flood all around him. “I’m sealing off the entire lobby until further notice. Nobody is to come in or out until I say so. You there!” He turned towards the lift where a liftboy was stationed just inside the elevator door, glumly watching as the rising tide stole ever closer. “The elevator is to stop on the first floor,” the deputy manager instructed him. “You’ll have to direct everyone to get out there and go down the rear stairs. Understand?”
The liftboy, glad to be out of it, nodded swiftly before shutting the elevator doors and hurriedly retreating up to the safety of the first floor.
“You!” The deputy manager turned his attention to the bellboy. “Station yourself on the first floor landing and make sure nobody comes down the main stairs. Everybody is to use the rear staircase until further notice. Got it?”
The bellboy likewise beat a hasty retreat before the deputy manager finally turned to the receptionist. “I want men stationed at the front and rear entrances. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is to enter this lobby until I say so.”
The receptionist looked as anxious as anyone to get out of the sinking lobby but there was a brief delay as he was obliged to wonder aloud where he might acquire the necessary men for this task. With the troubles on the second floor and the dinner hour in full swing the hotel’s manpower was being stretched decidedly thin. As the receptionist diffidently noted, he couldn’t possibly be expected to cover both the front and rear entrance at the same time.
“Alright, you take the front entrance,” the deputy manager retorted irritably. “And you can take the rear,” he added, swinging his gaze round to where Sid and the second security guard where still busy manhandling a sofa. “I’m quite sure we don’t need more than one man to guard an empty lobby.”
I felt a moment of tension as Sid and his fellow guard looked at one another, uncertain which of them had been directed to which duty. After a second’s hesitation Sid shrugged and said to his companion in a voice of studied lightness, “You go, if you like. I’ll carry on here.”
Thankfully the second guard seemed only too happy with this arrangement and gladly let go of the sofa and sloshed away towards the rear entrance whilst the receptionist disappeared towards the front.
Which now left only myself, Sid and the deputy manager standing in the water-logged lobby. The deputy manager breathed an audible sigh of relief and gazed unhappily around at the ever-expanding edges of the pool of water. “Well then, now that we have a bit of peace and quiet,” he announced, as much to himself as to anyone else, “perhaps we can figure out where the hell all this water is coming from.”
Sadly, the peace and quiet he required was not to last long. He had spent barely a minute sloshing around, peering ineffectually at parts of the sodden floor, when a bellboy came rushing down the grand staircase, calling out, “Excuse me sir.”
I think it’s fair to say this interruption did not go down well. “Get out!” he yelled, whirling around in fury. “I said nobody was to use those stairs!”
The deputy manager fixed the bellboy with such a furious glare it would have sent a grizzly bear scurrying back to the safety of its cave. However, bellboys are made of sterner stuff and though he reeled slightly he held firm. “I’m sorry sir,” he returned, holding his ground on the third step, “but there was another of those explosions coming from Room 418. You must have heard it.”
“And what does the guest expect me to do about it?” retorted the deputy manager wearily.
“The guest doesn’t know about it yet,” said the bellboy. “They seem to have gone out for dinner.”
“Then what are you bothering me for?” demanded the deputy manager. “Maintenance can sort it out when they’re finished on the second floor. I’m busy.”
“Excuse me sir but there are other guests on the fourth floor who heard the explosion and they’re getting a bit anxious,” the bellboy persisted. “There’s a rumour going around that the hotel is under attack.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised…” muttered the deputy manager irritably.
“The manager can’t leave the second floor so he asked me to get you to go up,” continued the bellboy, undeterred. “He thought maybe if you could use your passkey to check over Suite 418 it might calm the other guests.”
The deputy manager stood and glared at the bellboy with increasing fury for a moment or so before his rage suddenly subsided and his shoulders slumped in weary acquiescence. “Fine, let’s go and take a look, shall we?” he said. He started towards the staircase and had his foot on the first step before he seemed to remember Sid and me. He turned around. “See what you can do here while I’m gone,” he instructed in a tone that didn’t hold out much hope of success. “And don’t let anyone into the lobby until I return.”
We both nodded smartly and watched him trudge wearily up the stairs after the bellboy. For a moment after their footsteps had faded away neither Sid nor I moved. The complete silence that had now fallen over the usually bustling lobby seemed like an unlikely spell that the slightest movement might break. “We did it,” murmured Sid, gazing around in wonder. “We bloody did it.”
“So we did,” I murmured in reply.
Then Sid suddenly turned to me and winked. “Well, don’t just stand there girl! This won’t last long. We’d better get cracking.”
Snapping into action, I helped him drag Michael’s suitcase out from behind the concierge’s desk and we set it down on one of the sofas. Sid had the combination lock open in an instant and he flung the lid open. Inside was a large black velvet bag which he passed to me. Underneath were several pieces of machinery which he swiftly and smoothly fitted together to form a specialist glass-cutting drill.
“Right then, you keep an eye out while I get to work,” said Sid, carrying the drill over to the jewellery display.
I felt desperately exposed, standing awkwardly in the middle of the lobby, eyes flicking anxiously from one side to another, whilst Sid wielded his drill against one of the glass walls of the cabinet. It seemed like an age before the gentle buzz of the machine came to a sudden stop and Sid called out in a hushed voice, “C’mon girl, in you go!”
Still carrying the black velvet bag I walked over to where Sid was standing proudly by a hole he had neatly cut low down in one side of the cabinet. As I contemplated squeezing my way through the narrow gap I was assailed by a moment of doubt. “Are you sure this is okay?” I said nervously to Sid.
“Of course,” insisted Sid. “Look, that water is an inch deep in there.”
It was true that looking down it appeared the tide had forced its way up here too, covering the floor of the cabinet, like the rest of the lobby, with a layer of cold, clear water. If Sid’s theory was correct this would be sufficient to disable the underfloor alarm system and I could slip in and out without a sound. But supposing Sid had miscalculated? Supposing the alarm system was more robust than he thought and, though flooded, the pressure mechanism still activated once I stepped inside? I had a vision of myself standing dumbly inside the glass box, clutching my velvet bag, as alarms sounded wildly all over the hotel. Even with everything else going on the hotel’s security forces could hardly fail to react in such an event.
“Go on, what are you waiting for?” Sid hissed urgently.
I gave the waterlogged floor another doubtful glance but it felt like we had come too far to back out now. Taking a deep breath and offering up a silent prayer to whatever patron saint concerned him or herself with the fate of jewel thieves, I ducked down and squeezed my way through the gap. I hastily sloshed my way on my hands and knees into the centre of the cabinet and stood abruptly upright. There was not a peep from the alarm system.
I turned slowly around, gazing at the jewels which surrounded me. Up close the blood red colour of the rubies was more luminous than I could have ever imagined. The light didn’t so much reflect off them, as radiate from within, as though each stone held something precious and magical inside. It suddenly seemed not just understandable that someone might kill for them but perfectly natural. These stones were alive, I realised, and any moment now they would begin speaking to me, whispering secrets I had always longed to hear…
“Natasha!” hissed Sid, rapping gently on the cabinet wall. “This is no time for day-dreaming. Let’s go!”
The sound of his voice cut into my reveries and with a shake of my head I was able to cast aside the spell and began hastily shovelling the jewels into the velvet bag. I grasped necklaces and bracelets, grabbed tiaras and diadems and shovelled up rings, earrings and brooches. In less than two minutes every stand and case within the four glass walls stood empty and I shoved the bulging black bag through the hole and scrambled out after it.
By this time Sid had already disassembled the drill and slid the pieces back away inside the suitcase. He tipped over my bucket, spilling out all my diligently mopped up water, and held it out to me. “In here,” he ordered and I tucked the bag of jewels into the empty bucket.
“Right then, steady as she goes,” Sid urged. “We’re just a couple of regular hotel staff going about our business. Nothing to get excited about.”
It took every ounce of self-control I had to maintain a steady pace as we strolled casually out of the lobby, Sid carrying the suitcase and me clutching my bucket. We walked lightly yet purposefully past the security guard still busy directing guests away from the lobby’s rear entrance, exited the hotel via the dining room and turned left across the terrace.
Every step of the way I expected a shout or cry of alarm, a firm hand on my shoulder or a figure in uniform to loom ominously up before me. But nobody said a word as we circled around the back of the hotel and slipped along an alley running behind the casino next door. There were hardly any cars in the casino car park at this hour so we had little difficult in spotting the anonymous dark saloon parked in the shade of a palm tree. Walking straight up to the rear of the car, Sid popped open the boot and we dropped the suitcase and bucket inside before slipping into the back seat.
Felicity turned slowly around in the passenger seat. “Everything alright?” she asked in a voice that betrayed just a hint of the nerves with which she must have been awaiting our arrival.
Sid smiled broadly. “Everything went just fine.”
“Then I think we may go,” said Felicity with a light sigh of satisfaction. “Not too fast Michael, if you please.”
Michael calmly turned the key in the ignition, slipped the car into gear and drove smoothly out of the car park, carrying the four of us and our virtually priceless haul of jewellery away from the Hotel Majestic.
To be continued…