Javi is short for Javier. Javier is short for Has the Perfect Scam.
He hasn’t told anybody about it yet.
Especially not the hotels.
It’s not the kind of thing you get rich with—one fancy watch or a pair of earrings doesn’t exactly pay the rent—but it is the kind of thing that’s good enough for a smile at three in the morning. It is the kind of thing that’s good enough when your dying friend Tran just cashed in his retirement. When Tran’s flush he’s a pawnshop, will buy whatever trinket you bring him, pretty much, so long as it’s got a story, is guaranteed hot, and when he’s flush with retirement savings and dying—which is always, lately—he’s not all that concerned with making sure both columns of the ledger even out. It’s like, as he’s being lowered into the grave, he’s pulling all the shiny things to him he can.
How could Javi not want to help him out with that? If stolen trinkets will give Tran a little break from dying, fascinate him in a way that’s not an “ordeal” or a “battle,” just let him be his old self for half a moment—this won’t even really be stealing. It’ll just be helping a friend out. Reminding him who he is. Who both of them are: still the same two punks in the last stall of the far bathroom in junior high, buying junk the seventh graders pilfered from their own houses, then selling that junk to the ninth graders, who had the cash for stray pills, bottles with a drink or two left. Once word got out, they’d graduated to shoes still in the box, bikes that hadn’t been chained up, copies of house keys, and tests, and what they got from all these transactions wasn’t money, but suspensions and expulsions, which translated into cred, made them street, which they wore proudly, like the most inky black hoodie, their hands thrust deep into the kangaroo pocket, which could be holding anything.
So, selling Tran a fancy watch or a pair of cufflinks now, years after they’d graduated to other things, it won’t be about the cufflinks or the watch. It’ll be about “remember when.”
It’ll be about how they’re still them, they’re still the same, the world hasn’t touched them. They’re still pure, and the world is still out there, just waiting to get scammed.
And, if you’re pure, then how can you be dying, right?
What Javi leaned forward to announce over the battle-scarred coffee table was that he was going for another case, his treat this time—the good stuff, something dark, with dots over the letters maybe. If he said he was going out to scam a hotel, he’d be a half hour getting out the door.
“Be sure to take Mercer, yeah?” Tran said from the depths of the couch, lifting his bottle in farewell, like toasting Javi out into the night.
Mercer cuts through the neighborhood to get up to strip mall-land, is the safest, most cop-free way to get to the gas station where they can still buy afterhours. What Tran was saying was for Javi not to get pulled over again, not get arrested again, not have to serve weekends at county anymore.
Standing in the doorway, Javi’d looked at Tran a moment too long. Not with his own eyes, but with the eyes he’s pretty sure he had at twelve years old. To the twelve-year-olds they’d been, Tran, sitting on the couch in this grungy living room, baggies and bottles all around him, he had made it, man. Both of them had. This was the life.
And maybe it is.
That’s the part that hurts, Javi suspects. Even more than Tran almost being dead.
But you can hold a thing like that off with the right stolen watch, the right pair of cufflinks—cufflinks will be best, really, because what kind of shirt do you even need to wear them with, right? Stealing them will be stealing the most extra, useless thing, will prove that it’s about the act itself, not what you get. The scam is what’s holy, never mind what you get with it. What’s important is getting away with it.
Because cigarettes are important for the scam, Javi saves his last one. Now he’s leaned back by the hotel’s parking lot door—the one he can’t open without a keycard, sure, but also the one that won’t announce to the front desk clerk that he’s just strolling in off the street.
Also important is that he’s left his socks and shoes on the front seat of his rat-trap Accord. And that he’s mussed his hair all up, as if nicotine levitated him out of bed, delivered him down to this lonely stoop.
Just when he doesn’t think the cigarette’s going to be long enough, that he’s going to have to resuscitate one from the ashtray, an older couple in cocktail party get-up staggers in from the parking lot, swipes their way through the door.
Javi catches it right before it closes, and even if they see him, so what? You can’t smoke in the rooms, so this, as far as they know, is what he’s been reduced to. It’s hard to remember your key at three in the morning, your fingers shaking from withdrawal.
This is Step One.
Step Two is ducking into the first stairwell—because of fire regulations, there’s nearly always one immediately past the door—jogging up three landings, then one more, for luck. In Javi’s hand already is change for the vending machine. Because there are cameras, because you have to think there are cameras, he zones out, zombies his eyes down to match the late hour, and follows the quarters in his hands.
The vending machine nook is right at the crotch of the two wings of the hotel.
To try to shake what Tran said out of his head—no, to try to shake Mercer out of his head, he pushes the grossest of the six buttons: iced tea. The kind that’s been sitting in a bottle for months, what his dad used to call “dead tea.”
The idea is that gagging down a drink or two will wash Mercer down as well.
It is the most cop-free route to beer, but it hasn’t always been cop-free.
Right at the end of Javi and Tran’s low-stakes junior high fencing operation, a house-job had gone bad. “House-job” was cool-kid code for B&E. “Smash and grab,” ripped straight from television, was a good one too, but there’s nothing to sell smash-and-grabbers, except maybe bandannas to hide their faces. And everybody’s already got those. For a house-job, though, well. If you can erase the “breaking” part, then the “entering” gets a lot quieter, doesn’t it?
That had been Javi’s pitch, selling house keys out the bathroom down by metal shop.
Nobody was supposed to get hurt.
At worst, some CDs might disappear. Or a wallet, if somebody’d left it out. Because all you take on a job like that is what’s been left in the living room. You never go down the hall, to the bedrooms.
Or, you’re not supposed to.
What neither Javi nor Tran had banked on, though, was it being the last link in the chain. They’d assumed they were selling the keys to the actual breakers and enterers. One of those breakers and enterers, though, he turned out not to want to get his own hands dirty. He resold the key, probably at a markup.
Trick was—Javi and Tran had been upfront about this—this set of keys they had for sale, they weren’t like the rest of the keys. The rest had been copied from hide-a-keys ferreted up from fake rocks and behind shutters, that kind of stuff—a seventh grader doesn’t sell their own house key, they sell their neighbors’ keys.
This set, though, it had just been in the parking lot. Car keys, two of what looked like house keys, and a whole slew of little nothing-keys. They probably opened a lot of stuff, sure, but finding those doors, that was going to be the impossible part of the job.
It was why they were only asking five dollars for the set.
Easy money, guilt-free.
Until something went bad.
The reason Javi and Tran thought they might be involved was that the newspaper accounts said there were no signs of forced entry.
At three in the morning on a Tuesday night, someone or someones had crept into each bedroom of Lisa K’s family, and opened their throats. Even her infant brother, just born, who couldn’t have even understood what was happening.
Lisa K was in Javi and Tran’s pre-Algebra.
Or, she had been.
The only reason she made it through was that she’d crept out her window that night, to drink warm beer down at the old drive-in with the rest of the eighth graders.
Once, coming up Mercer on a beer run not long after graduation, Javi had seen Lisa K. He was pretty sure it was her, anyway. It had been years, but she’d always had a way of standing. It was like she’d just been punched in the gut. Like she was waiting for the next punch.
According to everybody, she’d been married twice and was a mom once by then. What she was doing was smoking cigarettes by the storm drain in front of her old house, and throwing her butts out onto Mercer. Her heels were slung over her shoulder. Her makeup had been smeared into raccoon eyes. And she’d watched Javi coast pass. She’d watched him like she knew.
He hadn’t stopped.
He hadn’t told Tran.
Back then, Tran was going to live forever.
Back then, Javi hadn’t even thought of Lisa K’s family for years.
For the next couple years, though, he couldn’t stop thinking about it, even up to driving the long way around Mercer. The way that, as it turned out, had cops that were watching for cars bouncing off the dividing line, finally edging over half a tire width.
Javi, standing in the hotel’s bright hallway, tries to wash all that gone with the bitter dead tea.
It almost makes him throw up.
Just a stupid street, he tells himself. And: It wasn’t us anyway.
Under that is what he doesn’t give voice to, what he can’t even start to mutter, even in the privacy of his head: that what’s happening to Tran now, the corruption eating him away from the inside, it started in the eighth grade, in the bathroom all the way down by metal shop. For five dollars.
Javi makes himself swallow another drink.
And, yes, like always, he’d checked the back floorboard of the Accord before climbing in.
That’s just rational.
A baby can hide anywhere. Especially one with a slit-open throat. Babies whose heads Pez-dispenser back can wriggle back into even the tightest floorboard, the slightest shadow, so that when you look back, it’s straight down into a neck stump, which is a ragged little window into that baby’s last moments in the crib, a gloved hand over its mouth to keep from waking the next family member, one door down the hallway.
Without thinking, Javi lifts the tea to his mouth a third time, and, because of cameras, because you have to complete motions you start, because he has to sell this, Javi raises it to his mouth, sloshes a drink of the deadness in.
Right on cue then, a door ahead of him swings back.
Javi keeps the bottle up for camouflage—not interested in you, in y’all, just this—slows down like he’s slowing to try not to spill.
Not like he’s watching.
Not like he’s clocking.
Just like he would have called ahead for it if he could have, it’s the couple that stumbled in from the cocktail party, left the door swinging for him. This was just coming back to the room to freshen up, it looks like. Or restock. Now it’s out on the town again, to the next place, and the next. They’re doing it up right, Javi thinks. Nice clothes. Arms hooked together, because two drunk people equal one standing person.
Javi gives them space, logs “422” as he passes, only looking over once.
He makes sure to get to the elevators late enough that they won’t try to hold the doors. Couples at this hour need elevators to themselves. And skulkers like Javi, they need their faces not remembered.
If he’s careful, they probably won’t even miss anything until the morning. And, loaded like they are, will they even raise a fuss?
So far, three hotels in: no.
Acting for the cameras again, Javi slaps his front pockets, his rear pockets, then looks down the hall, to 422, trusting that whatever security monitor he’s on, it’s cycled a couple of times during his walk—enough to break continuity.
422, it might actually be his room, right?
He leans that way like he’s falling, and then knocks lightly on the door.
Now for the hard part, the part he won’t be able to explain if Security walks up on him.
He twists the cap back onto the powdery tea, chocks it under his arm, and cracks his wallet open like really digging deep for a keycard. Because he’s butterfingers, he of course “drops” the whole affair—except for the driver’s license.
While gathering and sorting, he does the hard part: slides his driver’s license as far as he can under the door, into the blackness.
He got the idea one night in a different hotel, a room he’d rented. He’d been able to see feet-shadows in the hall, and that reminded him of Tran’s big brother’s stories from his one year of college. In the dorm, the big joke was to fill a record sleeve with shaving cream, then push the open slit of that record-sleeve mouth under someone’s door and jump on it, spraying all that shaving cream into the room.
But it didn’t have to be just shaving cream.
Javi stands a moment, organizing his wallet, and then, his shoulders exaggerating his frustration for the cameras, he makes his way back down to the elevators, only stopping to cut through the vending nook, to ditch his wallet and keys on top of the snack machine, way back in the lint and dust, where nobody’s reached for months.
On the ride down to the lobby, he forgets again, takes another drink of the tea.
It leaves his mouth not wanting to touch itself.
At the front desk, he sets the plastic bottle down first, to show how the droplets are still condensing on the clear plastic. It’s that fresh.
“Let me guess,” the clerk says, going off Javi’s mussed hair, bare feet.
“I know you can’t burn me another key without ID,” Javi leads off.
“Wallet’s in the room?”
Javi tips the tea up, says as if proud of it, “I did remember to bring the quarters, right?”
“It’s 422,” Javi says—this is the second tricky part, the part you have to fast-forward past for this all to work— “but my wife, she’s sleeping. I don’t want to call, or knock. Yesterday Security was able to—”
“Last night,” Javi says, breaking eye contact like this has been a recurring problem in his life. “I even got extra keys burned when I—” But he interrupts himself: “That one guy, he let me in, then I got my ID, showed him. It was all good.”
“Dan, you mean?”
Javi shrugs like he probably should know the name, but . . . ?
“I’ll send him up,” the clerk says, keying his walkie open.
“Thank you thank you thank you,” Javi says, then, right as he’s pushing the up-button on the elevator, the clerk calls across: “Mr. Barnes?”
The clerk is holding up the tea.
Yes, yes, of course.
Javi takes another drink on the ride up. It’s bitter, and losing its chill. Still, Javi smiles into his chest.
This is so easy. How does everybody not do it?
He musses his hair again before stepping out of the elevator, then gets paranoid of cameras in the elevator. But Dan won’t be watching—in fact, Dan is waiting when Javi steps out on the fourth floor.
“Making rounds,” Dan explains, his posture somehow evoking twirling keys or a nightstick. He’s either Javi’s exact age, or a year older.
“Sorry for this,” Javi says, twisting the lid on the tea down.
“Happens all the time.”
“Bet you’ve got some stories,” Javi says on the way down to 422.
Dan just chuckles.
At the door, Javi crosses his lips with his index finger, nods inside, says, “Sleeping. I won’t turn the lights on.”
This is to keep Dan in the hall.
“You understand I’ve got to—” he says, his master keycard not yet cocked up to open the door.
“Oh, yeah, I get it,” Javi says, and rabbit-ears the front pockets of his jeans out, turns around and scoops his index fingers through his back pockets, to show empty they are, and even stretches his waistband out dangerously far, to show he doesn’t have a driver’s license secreted away on his person. He holds his arms up for a patdown, says, “Cavity search?”
Dan just looks at him. He’s not spinning anything imaginary on his finger anymore.
Javi rubs his hair to show nothing’s in there either.
Dan considers this, considers some more, then stabs a hand forward, touches the short sleeve of Javi’s left arm.
“You’re right-handed,” Dan says, the sleeve obviously empty. “You’d put it there.”
“Guess I would,” Javi says, as if following this train of thought.
Dan looks to the door, looks down the hall behind them—nothing—then reaches his decision, thumbs the card up from his shirt pocket, holds it up to show Javi how he’s trusting him, here.
“Just, shhh . . .” Javi says, keeping the idea of his wife alive. “I’ll be right back. Hold the door?”
Like that, then—because this is the only exit, because Javi is so caught if he tries to run—Dan keys the door open, holds it just wide enough for Javi to sidestep through.
“Let me just find it,” Javi whispers, and then he’s in, his bare right foot already finding the slick certainty of the driver’s license on the floor.
Still, he moves around, rattles the ice bucket and remote on the dresser.
Then he’s back.
He produces the license.
“Barnes?” Dan says, after reading Javi’s different last name.
Javi, pretending his wife is sleeping, steps out, still whispering. “Say what?” he says, careful to keep a socked foot in the door.
“Caleb said you were Barnes,” Dan says, waggling his walkie to show how Dan told him.
“She is,” Javi says. “Kept her own name, yeah?” As if this can possibly prove that, Javi passes his license across.
Dan compares the face on the license to Javi, then compares it again.
“Room’s in her name,” Javi says, using his guest-is-always-right voice. His it’s-three-in-the-morning voice. “Her work gives her that . . . what’s it—oh yeah, the corporate rate.”
All the same, he’s getting light on the balls of his feet, too. Maybe this particular scam has run its course. Maybe he’s about to be running, will be collecting his Accord tomorrow at lunch.
But Dan finally has no reasonable objection. He hands the license back, his eyes flicking down the hall already, like he has something pressing.
“Thank you,” Javi says, stepping back in, being gentle with the door. “Anything else?”
Dan starts to say something but Javi says it for him: “I’ll check with Caleb in the morning. He’s on until six, right?”
Dan nods once, slow, then again, twice, like talking himself into something. “Have a good night,” he says, saluting Javi by launching his walkie’s stubby antenna off his forehead.
Javi lifts the bottle of tea in farewell, eases the door shut, and, in case Dan the security man might be staking out the hall, he waits a full five minutes before turning on the light.
It takes a second to catch, the bulb in a lamp all the way in the far corner—aren’t they usually right above the door?—and then . . . . seriously?
The room is perfect.
The covers on the bed aren’t rumpled from sitting on, to strap a shoe over a heel. The remote is still lined up under the television. The drawers are all closed. No suitcase on the luggage stand thing. Ice bucket bag still folded over the side of the bucket, the bucket not even out of place from when Javi jounced it for effect.
“What the hell?” Javi says out loud, looking fast back to the crack at the bottom of the door, to see if any foot shadows are listening.
It’s just him.
He steps into the bathroom to be sure he’s seeing what he’s seeing, and he is: the vanity is spotless. No curling iron, no brushes, no razor, no jewelry. Nothing.
Last time—the last three times—there’d been a watch, a tablet, and a little dixie cup of earrings. All stuff the cleaning staff would get blamed for.
Not this time, though.
Javi steps back into the room, studies it some more, daring it to reveal itself.
The couple had been in here. He saw them leaving, had to alter his trajectory down the hall to allow for them. To keep from crowding them.
And they hadn’t had any bags or jackets with them. And they were ready—they’d spent a couple of minutes primping, blow-drying, batting eyes in the mirror.
It’s spotless. Not a smudge. Not an overspray. Not a drop.
What kind of place is this? This some kind of next-level room that absorbs all insults, is forever prepped and polished?
Javi goes to the window, parts the curtains, looks down on the back parking lot.
It’s just the usual cars, the usual nobody at midnight.
“Call the front desk,” Javi says to himself, a joke.
It’s like those people, that couple, like they hadn’t even been real. Like he’d just dreamed them. Ghosts. And ghosts don’t have jewelry or watches, it doesn’t look like.
“Sorry, Tran,” Javi says then, and has his hand aimed at the doorknob when a pair of shadows step into the crack of light at the bottom of the door.
Javi stops, his breath caught in his throat.
And now the crack of light is solid again, unbroken.
Javi leans forward for the peephole, his heart hammering in his chest.
No one. Again.
Still, just in case, he twists the deadbolt, sets the heavy latch.
He sits on the corner of the bed, rumpling the bedcovers, kind of bouncing in place, trying to talk himself into whatever the next move is.
Because it’s there, he drinks the rest of the tea in three long gulps, lets the bottle bounce away on the carpet, watches it to make sure it doesn’t melt down into the nap, disappear.
The window, then.
He goes back, has to get a bead on his car—he has the stupid, stupid idea he’s going to be behind the wheel down there, already leaving.
The Accord is there.
Standing at the far side of the parking lot, where the asphalt gives away to trees.
What is that?
The cherry of a cigarette. Rising, burning hotter, then cocked over to the side, at shoulder-level.
How a girl smokes a cigarette.
And, though her face is hidden, she’s facing him.
She extends the glowing tip of her cigarette out before her, like indicating the first floor, and then ticks that distant red dot up once, for the second floor, then again for the third, and, finally, the fourth, right at Javi.
He nods like, yeah, he ran up three floors then one more, for luck. Only, when he looks over at the other wing of the hotel . . . there’s only three floors? Suddenly frantic, Javi pushes his head against the glass, to count the stacked windows in his wing, but can’t, can’t see enough.
He falls back breathing hard, telling himself it’s a maid just off work, probably talking on her phone and gesturing, waiting for her ride, telling himself the city’s full of people with cigarettes, that they’ve got to smoke them somewhere, that that isn’t Lisa K, that there are four floors in this wing of the hotel, and that’s when he hears it: a plastic whoosh, followed by a tap. Then another. Then a third time.
He stands, swallows hard, and, keeping his fingertips to the bed like the bed is going to be his escape route, like just maintaining contact with something of size can anchor him, he edges over to the sound, happening a fourth time now.
It’s the cards from his wallet. His wallet that’s down in the vending machine nook. The cards are being whisked under the door, are hitting the end of the dresser.
Javi looks up to the door in wonder, his eyes hot, about to spill.
“Who are you?” he says, too quiet for anyone but himself to make out.
The answer is a toilet flush that makes him flinch hard into the wall, and emit a sort of creak from his throat, a sound he didn’t know he could even make.
His eyes are hot now, about to spill.
And he’s shaking his head no.
After counting to ten once, and then again because the first time didn’t take, he leans over, looks fast into the bathroom. The empty bathroom.
He swallows, feels his way along the wall, pulls himself halfway onto the tile, careful to keep his other foot on the solid carpet of the hotel room.
There’s something bobbing in the toilet water.
A cigarette butt.
“No,” Javi says, because this can’t be happening. Whatever this even is.
When the lights flicker and sputter, he falls back into the corner under the wooden hangers, his arms hugging his knees to his chest, his teeth chattering.
When the curtains flutter like the air in the room has just changed, to accommodate the presence of something else, he opens his mouth to scream, but the only thing he pules up is warm, dead tea.
“No no no . . .” he says, pushing his back on the wall to stand, the hangers clattering at his shoulders, spilling down, a grey taste invading his—
Smoke. Cigarette smoke.
Javi shakes his head no, kind of crying but not like he ever has before, and, because getting busted by the hotel is better than being in this room for even one second more, because weekends at county are something he would pay for please, because he’s never going to let Tran buy anything from him ever again, for as long as either of them live, he paws for the doorknob, the deadbolt, the thick latch at eye-level.
The side of the door where all that should be is smooth.
Javi tilts his head up to keep whatever is in his throat in his throat.
Behind him then—and this straightens his spine—a baby mewls and sputters. He doesn’t have to look. It’s a sound he’s imagined for so many years already.
“I’m sorry,” he says, still refusing to look behind him, at the bed. Not because there might be a baby brother there, butterfly wings of red spreading out from its neck, soaking the sheets, but because looking back might mean seeing something. Looking back will make it real.
If he doesn’t see it, it’s still all in his head.
But the peephole, that tiny tunnel to the hall.
Javi risks a fast look, sees nothing—which is good, which is great—then, because it’s the only way out, he leans forward again for the peephole, sees . . . sees his own point of view, as he sits in the Accord. As he twists the key. But when he looks up into the rearview mirror, the glass in the peephole shifts him over to whiteness. At first, he thinks it’s the glare of seeing yourself in a dream, but then the whiteness develops hard, regular edges.
A hospital room.
He’s puddled in his bed, and the door is closing on its own, the lock twisting into place. Then the bathroom door. Then the blinds flutter down.
Javi shakes his head no, no, and just as a shape steps between him and Tran, the peephole shifts his view again.
He’s over his own shoulder now, walking down the hotel hallway without a care in the world. Because this scam, it’s money.
Step Two is sneaking his driver’s license under the door.
It catches under Javi’s foot.
He looks down to it then jams his eye back to the peephole, slams his open hand on the door, screaming to himself to look up, to listen, to hear.
When the peephole settles down from all the slamming, what’s there for Javi now is exactly what he was asking for, what he was begging for: he’s looking through the peephole, into this room.
This is what he would have seen, if he’d looked earlier, when he was here. Everything is lensed out and small and blurry.
There’s a figure, himself, caught in the upside-down fisheye of the peephole, still no doorknob or deadbolt to let him out.
And, behind him, on the ceiling he knows is his floor, the small refrigerator has just opened enough to roll the empty tea bottle under the foot of the bed. From inside the refrigerator, a long arm is reaching out to find the floor, its sleeve loose, cuff not snapped.
Then the other arm comes through. The one holding the knife.
Javi spins around before the head of this breaker-and-enterer can crest. Meaning he’s waiting when this face turns to him and smiles from the open refrigerator door—smiles around the set of keys it has bitten between its teeth. Lisa K’s keys.
“We didn’t—we didn’t know!” Javi says, pleads, wishes.
This thing’s face is . . . it’s like stretched-tight leather, like wet leather was stretched tight around a skull and left to dry. And then, once that leather was tight and crackly, that same knife it’s holding drifted up, slit one eye, another eye, and pulled across for the grinning mouth.
“Five dollars?” it says in exactly Javi’s own tone, once upon a bathroom stall, and now it’s pulling itself the rest of the way out, at which point Javi covers his eyes with his arms, and is still shaking his head no when the smooth warm hand touches his arm to peel it back, like opening this gift it’s being given.
“You’re not really here!” Javi says, his voice choked with tears. “You’re not really here!”
It doesn’t change anything.