All Accounted For at the Hooray for Hollywood Motel
by Eleanor Cawood Jones
Published in Florida Happens: Tales of Mystery, Mayhem, and Suspense in the Sunshine State
The 2018 Bouchercon Anthology
Three Rooms Press
Mona, lingering over a third cup of coffee, flipped through her collection of vintage postcards while the all-consuming sound of crunching cereal across the table grated increasingly on her nerves.
She took a sip of lukewarm coffee, gritted her teeth, and reminded herself of her husband’s many good qualities—of which turning mealtime into crunchtime was not one. Things were easier when she had to dash off her to accounting job. In those days, there was never time for another cup of coffee, much less prolonged crunching noises.
Rodney looked up from the Racing Times. “Mmmm?” At least he wasn’t speaking with his mouth full.
“I wonder if this motel is still around?” She held up a ’50s postcard with a modestly clad bathing beauty posing in front of a diamond-shaped, brightly painted sign advertising the Hooray for Hollywood Motel. In the photo, an appealing, pink-painted building featuring a bright blue swimming pool practically beckoned vacationers. A single-story structure in a horseshoe shape provided easy access to drive in and unload luggage. The fine print mentioned another pool in the back of the motel, as well as an onsite restaurant. Nothing about ocean front, but Mona knew the area well enough to know the motel would be right between the coastal road A1A and highway 95 in the heart of Hollywood, Florida.
Rodney perked up. “Alexa, phone number for Hooray for Hollywood Motel in Hollywood, Florida.”
Mona shuddered, once again, at having to share her vintage, mid-century kitchen with Alexa the interloper. But Rodney had retired two years before her and had spent his spare time acquiring gadgets, of which this conversational internet talkie was the latest.
Rodney pushed a piece of paper across to her. “Here’s the phone number. You ready for a trip?”
On the day she retired six months before, Mona had sworn she was going to do nothing but enjoy sitting at home, taking walks in the neighborhood, and reading books. Which, for the first four months, had been paradise. Now she was getting restless, and Rodney knew it. He was always ready to go at the drop of a hat, and had even acquired a tiny, vintage, twin-axle Airstream trailer. It was shiny and always waiting in the driveway of their split-level Ohio home. He was dying for a chance to hook it to their big Buick sedan and take off for parts unexplored.
Rodney’s brown eyes twinkled at her over his newspaper. “There’s a little racetrack ’round Hollywood, you know. I could take you out for a few two-dollar bets.” It was their inside joke, that they derived just as much excitement over picking a two-dollar winning horse as they would have wagering much more. They’d figured that out more years ago than Mona cared to count, when they stopped by Gulfstream Park during their Florida honeymoon. They’d had so much fun they stuck around for an extra three days at a little family motel just south of Hollywood, spending days at the beach and nights at Gulfstream, enjoying the lavish buffet suppers between modest bets. They’d been sad when they found out the motel was torn down a few years after their trip. And though they’d been to Florida several times since, that early trip lived on in Mona’s memory as the best of the lot. It would be fun to re-create it.
Besides, that twinkle in Rodney’s eye reminded her why she’d fallen for him in the first place; it might be the perfect time to take a late-in-life second honeymoon. They were a childless couple and, with no work commitments, they could stay as long as they liked, maybe even all winter long.
She smiled back at Rodney and put down her coffee cup. Her spirits lifted as she picked up the new, much-loathed, bells-and-whistles cell phone her husband had presented to her the day after she retired, and dialed the Hooray for Hollywood Motel.
“What?” rasped the other end of the phone.
Taken aback, Mona held her hand away from her ear and looked at the phone as if she could see what she presumed was the grumpiest man in the world on the other end. A gnome, maybe. Or a goblin, perhaps?
“Any vacancies the week after next?” She picked a date at random.
“Got two prime rooms open starting November sixth.” He sounded a bit more cheerful, and about a thousand years old. “How long you stayin’?”
Mona negotiated a room and price to stay for a week, hung up, and turned her thoughts to packing while Rodney grinned at her across the table. She thought about buying a bathing suit and spared a moment to recall wistfully the size she wore on their honeymoon. But no matter. That charmer across the table (now thankfully cereal free) seemed to like her okay like she was.
* * *
Mona was glad to pull up at last at the Hooray for Hollywood Motel. So the sign wasn’t as brightly painted as on her vintage postcard. If she looked close enough, it might even be peeling. But the glass-fronted lobby was still intact, the building still flamingo pink, and even the round swimming pool in the middle of the horseshoe shaped structure looked clean.
She stood and stretched in the gorgeous sunshine while Rodney backed the Airstream trailer into a parking place and unhitched the Buick, which he backed into the spot next to it. Not a lot of cars, but it was midday on a weekend and probably most tourists were on the beach or at the racetrack. They’d spent the night at a slightly grubby roadside inn outside Atlanta on the way down, and she couldn’t wait to get into their room for a quick change of clothes, then maybe some lunch.
She walked into the lobby and came face to face with the gnome behind the desk, and was certain before he even opened his mouth this was the same Grumplestiltskin she’d spoken to on the phone. He humphed at her, looking up from an oversized laptop atop a beat-up, paper-strewn desk he’d placed behind the check-in counter. He struggled up from his chair and lurched over to meet her. They were the same height, just over five feet, and she decided she’d underestimated his age at a thousand. He had to be a thousand and one if he was a day.
“The Johnstons from Ohio,” she said cheerfully, tucking a loose strand of her newly highlighted hair behind one ear. “We’re here for—”
“Yeah, yeah.” The gnome waved a knarled hand in the air. “Only folks from Ohio I’m expecting today.” He shoved a sheet of paper at her. “Sign here, list the license plate. And that’ll be an extra twenty-five dollars for the trailer for the week, since you’re taking up two parking places.”
Mona raised one eyebrow and opened her mouth to make a retort about the number of spaces currently available in the parking lot, but felt Rodney’s hand gently pressing into the middle of her back.
“That’ll be fine,” Rodney boomed cheerfully. “We’ll just get unpacked and grab a bite at the restaurant.” He looked around. “Where is the restaurant, by the way?”
The gnome grinned at him, perfect dentures gleaming in the light. “Don’t know that there’s been a restaurant here in this building since about the mid-’70s, now’s I think about it. We turned that area into the bingo hall and meeting room. Used to have lots of political meetings and book clubs there in betweenst the bingo games. Of course that was before the bingo got ruled illegal for us, and I guess the politicians and ladies who read moved on to bigger pastures.” He gestured behind them to a glass-fronted room filled with tables and chairs. It looked lonely and unused. In fact, the whole motel had an air of disuse.
Mona studied him. He was wearing a pair of neatly creased blue jeans, a pressed sport short, and a clean pair of white sneakers. What was left of his snowy white hair was parted neatly in the middle of his head. Down, but not out, she decided.
“I’m afraid we’re at a disadvantage.” Rodney was bringing out his best retired public affairs officer voice. “We’re Rodney and Mona. And you are?”
The gnome sized Rodney up and decided to break out a few manners of his own. “Well, I’m Harvey, aren’t I? Harvey Sebastian. Florida born and bred and welcome to the Sunshine State.” He pushed the slip of paper toward Rodney, along with a pen. “Sign here and we’ll put you in a room on the back side, away from the road. Just walk around behind to room 107 and that’s yours for the week. Anything you don’t find, you call me. I’m the owner. Maid service too, now you mention it.” He turned around to search a drawer in the old desk, looking for their key, Mona assumed.
She saw a familiar box on the gnome’s—Harvey’s—desk. “Oh, look!” she said before she could stop herself. “Fasten software! That’s the best home accounting program around. How do you like it?”
Harvey looked at her and scratched his left eyebrow. “Well, the truth is, I’m used to being self-sufficient, but I’m having a little trouble getting it to work just perfectly. No background in computers, just hotel management, and the paperwork’s got a little beyond me. I thought this new-fangled software program would help, but I reckon I’m gonna have to hire me some help to get it set up, and that’ll be tough ’cause I’m not really a people person.”
No kidding, Mona thought.
Rodney finished filling out the form and, seeing what was coming, put his hand on his wife’s back and pressed again. Hard.
“But that’s what I do! Or at least I did until six months ago. I know all about accounting and software programs, both for home and business. I worked for a private financial consulting firm.” Mona felt a pang, remembering her old job fondly.
Rodney groaned softly. “We’re on vacation, honey.”
Harvey studied her. “So, you any good?”
Rodney removed his hand and gave up.
Mona felt her hackles rise. “I ran the office, dealt with clients, automated businesses, and saved everybody a ton of money along the way. Yes, I’d say I was good.”
Harvey made up his mind. “So maybe I give you a reduction in the price of the room and you give me a few lessons, then. What do you say, want to barter?”
“Even better,” Mona said, “you give us the room for free and I spend six hours a day helping you organize and set up. That desk looks a mess and I shudder to think how much paper you’ve got hiding in the back room. I can at least get you started.”
She heard Rodney sigh beside her and turned to him, smiling brightly. “But I need evenings off to watch sunset on the beach and hit the track at Gulfstream with my husband.”
And just like that, Mona had a job, free room and board, and a week’s worth of dates with the handsomest husband she knew. She reached over and squeezed Rodney’s hand and felt him squeeze back, which she knew meant he was fine with it all.
“I just didn’t realize how much you missed working,” he told her that night. “I knew you were worried you were retiring too soon, but I know you didn’t like the new boss much. I’m sorry if I pressured you to quit, honey.”
“I thought I was was ready, too,” Mona said. She unpacked a new pink dress printed with big blue flowers. Very Floridian, she thought, smoothing it on the hanger. “But it’s just a week, and I’ll have him set up right as rain. You’ll see. We get a free vacation, too.” Not that money was that tight, but they had talked all the way down about maybe pulling up stakes in Ohio and trying to afford a little place of their own in Florida. And with a little luck, they’d need their money to stretch through many more years together, with lots of sunsets and two-dollar bets in their future.
She smiled and turned to Rodney. “Need more coat hangers, dear?” He was still a snappy dresser, she thought fondly. He’d brought more clothes and shoes than she had.
* * *
A month later, they were relaxing at the pool behind their room, enjoying a couple of drinks topped with sliced pineapple. Rodney had set up a makeshift bar in their room and kept ice, lemons, and pineapples in the little refrigerator.
“Any closer to being done?” Rodney asked lazily.
Mona smiled at him and looked around their little slice of heaven. Their room wasn’t overly large, but it was all they needed. The pool was empty and sparkling in the sunlight, since Harvey had just finished his daily swim. It was the pool that had turned out to be the real gem. Surrounded by tall coconut palms, the water was shaded and a comfortable temperature. Just right for floating or swimming short laps. Even better, she, Rodney, and Harvey were the only ones allowed to use it. The other guests, what few there were, were relegated to rooms and the larger pool in front of the motel, by the highway.
“Well,” she replied slowly. “We’ve got all the bills automated. Everything comes right in and right out of Harvey’s business account now like clockwork, right on time. He just has to click a few buttons and remember a few simple passwords. He can use the software perfectly. We have it set up that all the room payments go direct to the checking account, too. In fact, he really doesn’t have to leave this place to do any banking at all, unless someone gives us cash. And Harvey isn’t big on reporting cash. He’s got a stash in a drawer in his room.”
Rodney looked at her in astonishment. He hadn’t missed the use of the words we and us. “And you’re okay with him not reporting cash?”
Mona shrugged. “I’m his accounting consultant, not his conscience. No higher ups to report to and, frankly, he’s not bringing in a whole lot of income. When his parents were alive and he was their manager, they brought in a pretty penny and it’s all salted away in checking and savings accounts. He’s not a big believer in the stock market so it’s all pretty simple, cut and dry. Besides, he uses the cash to pay for the paper delivery, milkman, and grocery deliveries. He just leaves it out on the front desk for them.”
Rodney grinned at her. “You’ve mellowed out, Mona. And I kind of feel like we’ve slipped back into a simpler time. Imagine getting fresh milk delivered every other day, and all the cottage cheese and yogurt you could want.” He paused. “You have any desire to head back up north any time soon? We may have some banking of our own to do, sort the mail from the post office, that kind of thing. And is Norma tired of watering the plants yet?”
Mona stretched luxuriously. “No hurry if you’re not. I took a little personal time to set up all our accounts to pay automatically last week, and Norma doesn’t have enough to do so she doesn’t mind at all taking care of the plants and making sure the pipes don’t freeze.” She hesitated. “Any chance you’re good with having our mail forwarded down here for a little while, too?”
Rodney thought about it. “I like it,” he said slowly. He gestured around them. “Feels right. And, hey, maybe semi-retirement isn’t so bad, is it? Not with a free room, six or seven restaurants with buffets and a strip of Florida beach within walking distance, and all the swimming and relaxation we could want. No, I’m okay with stretching this out. Just take the time you need to help Harvey get all set up. In fact, maybe take a little more time than you need.”
“Glad you think so.” Mona stretched again and Rodney could see she was losing weight. The swimming and sunshine suited her. “I’ve got Harvey paying me a small retainer now. And I’m starting to talk to him about maybe doing some marketing, opening back up the restaurant and meeting room, maybe a few extra staff to help him spruce up the rooms so he doesn’t have to do it all, once the people start coming. In fact, since he found out you’re a PR man, he seems interested in seeing what you can do to help out in those areas.”
She squinted at him, watching him take that in.
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
And a week later Rodney had placed fliers in the local grocery stores and churches advertising free space for book clubs and Bible studies, with snacks, tea, coffee, and soft drinks for purchase. He’d cleaned and repaired old tables and chairs and set them up with attractive tablecloths from the dollar store on the next block. He’d turned the Airstream trailer into a working toolshed and a place to store odds and ends, so the meeting area didn’t look cluttered. He was also planning to turn a corner of the meeting area into a small gift shop carrying hats, Hooray for Hollywood Motel shirts, flip flops, notecards, and magazines. Mona had it set up so he could run credit card purchases straight through his cell phone into Harvey’s account.
She’d set Rodney up with a small retainer, too, automatically transferred from one of Harvey’s accounts straight into his, regular as clockwork.
And two more months went by before everything changed abruptly. It was the day after Harvey had been talking to Mona about changing his will, and the milkman had dropped an entire glass quart of milk all over the front stoop outside the open front door, sending a crashing sound of breaking glass to interrupt the conversation just when, she told Rodney later, it was starting to get good.
Because Harvey was starting to see results. Reservations were coming in. Three book clubs and a women’s Bible study group had booked the meeting room on a regular basis. Harvey was beginning to see a second life come into the beloved vintage motel his parents and built and run successfully, and he was thinking they might make perfect permanent caretakers, as he put it. They hardly saw him. He was admittedly a hermit, and liked nothing more than to hang out in his room with his several hundred cable channels, cook dinner on his hotplate, and go for the daily swims he credited for his long life and good health. Mona had taken to spending day hours at the front desk, and had a knack for customer service.
And just when it was all going so well, Mona got up for an early morning swim one weekend day after a violent rainstorm the night before, and saw an alarming sight in the pool. “Rodney, come quick! It’s Harvey!” Rodney came rushing out of the room, took one look at Harvey floating face down, and jumped into the pool with his clothes on. He splashed through a few floating coconuts into the deep end and pulled Harvey’s motionless body to the side, where Mona helped pull it over the edge.
Rodney climbed out and held Mona back as she leaned over to start resuscitation. “Look at his head.”
Mona took one look and almost passed out on the concrete. A deep indentation in Harvey’s head told the story that any efforts at first aid would be pointless. She teared up. “I told him to get those coconuts off the trees. I knew they’d hurt someone with all that wind! Damn him. It was just one more thing he didn’t want to pay for, and he had plenty of money!”
Rodney reached out for her. “Let’s call the ambulance.”
She stiffened in his arms.
“What is it, Mona?”
She turned her tearstained face up to look at him. “Maybe not quite yet.”
“What in the world are you talking about?” Rodney was starting to get concerned. His wife had gone deadly calm.
“Do you really want everything to change?”
“Mona, you’re not making any sense. Let me get my cell phone and call emergency services.”
She clutched his arm. “Just hear me out. I’ve been happy here. Useful, happy, warm, comfortable. We’ve got this motel singing again. I know Harvey would want it to keep going. We call the ambulance, they take him away, we’re out of our room and out of jobs and out of what I’ve come to think of as home.” She sat back on her heels. “I don’t ever want to go back to Ohio, Rodney. Hollywood has become our home now.”
Rodney shook his head at her. “Nothing we can do about this. We’ll find another motel, or a little house somewhere down here. Not to worry.”
Mona spoke slowly, as she would to a five-year-old. “Where else would we find money to live for practically nothing, as long as we want? We’ve got people coming in, all the groups coming for the meeting room, we’ve applied for the liquor license to get the restaurant up and running again—and, Rodney, Harvey has enough money going into his accounts that with what’s already there, we can keep this place going for years. Years, Rodney.”
Rodney gave her a blank stare.
“Don’t you see, honey? I’ve got all his accounts automated. He doesn’t even need to do anything but push a few buttons every month. He doesn’t owe any debt or have any credit cards. I know all his security codes. He doesn’t even have to be here to run this place!”
Rodney considered that. It made sense. In some weird, frightening way, it was true. Harvey didn’t even need to be around for this place to grow and prosper. “What do you propose, Mona?” Then a frightening thing occurred to him. “You didn’t have anything to do with this, right? I mean, it was an accident, right? The coconut hit him while he was swimming, right?”
Mona was horrified. “Of course not! I’m just thinking what’s best, for Harvey, for us, for this motel. And I don’t think having him hauled off in an ambulance and this place sold or shut down or even knocked down by a developer is best for anyone.” She burst into tears. “How could you even think that?”
Rodney reached for her, pulled her to her feet. “I don’t know. I think I just panicked.” He wrapped her in his arms while Harvey lay at their feet. “Now come on with me.” He let her go and bent down to scoop up Harvey, cringing while he did it, but it had to be done. “And bring the coconuts from the pool, too. Just in case one of them has blood, or worse, on it.”
“Where are we going?” Mona couldn’t imagine.
“To the deep freeze in the restaurant, Mona. Until I can think of something else, anyway. I was thinking we could put him in the Airstream but that’s out front, and it’s too hot. So this is better. Now come on. You know the combination to the freezer door, right? You can go ahead of me and get the door, clear some space in the back behind the bags of ice. Oh, and get a blanket or a bedspread. We don’t want to leave any traces of Harvey in there once we figure out what to do.”
That night, Rodney began work on the rock garden he’d been planning to build in the back garden, near a little fountain he’d found while clearing some overgrown plants. If he got the fountain working, it would be a cool, shaded resting place for Harvey. The rocks would serve as a marker.
It would be perfect.
And while he worked, Mona sat at her desk, going over the accounting files and passwords to make sure everything was in good working order. It, too, was perfect. She must remember to tell Rodney never to change anything. She’d write down the passwords for him and teach him where everything was, just in case she got sick or something unexpected happened, but he must never change anything. Not a single inventory order, a single grocery list, a single deposit or withdrawal. In a sense, they had to become Harvey and adopt all his straightforward, dependable habits. Harvey wouldn’t be missed. Except, she had to admit to herself, she’d miss him a bit. He had a way of growing on you.
If only he’d gotten around to changing the will, formally hiring them as caretakers and permanent residents. She knew that was what he wanted and intended. And the more she told herself that, the more she believed it.
Surely they were doing the right thing. It was just what Harvey would have wanted, after all.
* * *
Business was booming a year later when Mona found out Rodney had doubled the milk order. She found out when the milkman came around asking if the order was right, since Harvey had never spent an extra cent on extra quarts of milk in his life. He wanted to talk to Harvey directly and Mona could only pawn him off for so long by saying Harvey was unwell and recuperating in his room.
She was furious at Rodney, who then sneaked back to the desk and changed the milk order back to the original amount, but by then Mona’s guard was up. The milkman had been back, bringing chicken soup for Harvey, and insisting his old acquaintance give him a call. Not that they’d ever been close, he told Mona, but he’d started thinking it over and was worried about the old geezer. The old geezer, he reminded Mona, who’d never changed his milk order once in the whole time he’d been delivering this route, or before. He’d checked.
Mona didn’t like the way the milkman looked at her and she told Rodney that night to start packing the Airstream. The next day they’d empty some bank accounts and be gone. She told him he’d be lucky if she didn’t leave him for being so stupid and cheating her out of her new home at the Hooray for Hollywood Motel.
“We’ll talk about it later, on the road or at the airport,” she told him. “I can’t believe an intelligent guy like you did something so stupid. You’ll be lucky if I don’t kill you myself.”
Rodney was practically in tears himself, and she relented a bit. “We didn’t kill Harvey, but even though we know he’d want us to go on running the motel, no one else will understand. They might call it theft. And if they find the rock garden, we’re really in trouble. I think we need to leave right away. And don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. We’re in this together.”
And while they were putting the last of their things in the Airstream, the police came. The milkman had come to report a route regular he hadn’t seen in some time. He’d explained about the milk order changing and all about how a new couple seemed to have taken over the motel. He told them he’d walked the grounds the night before and found what looked like a new garden in the back. Not a garden that was there when he was a kid and used to swim behind the motel, since his parents had been friends with Harvey back then.
A policeman without a lot to do on a lazy Florida morning decided the story was interesting, and stopped by the motel. He marched Mona and Rodney back inside and sat them behind the front desk, where they clung to each other.
Their Hollywood fantasy, which had seemed so harmless, would be over soon.
* * *
Very late the night before, the milkman had taken one of his empty milk bottles to a deserted beach south of Hollywood, unless you counted the few drunks and homeless sure to be snoozing nearby. He’d smashed the milk bottle on the rocks beside the ocean and thrown the larger pieces into the water. The tide would take the care of the rest. He’d washed the bottle at home, but you never know what DNA would stick around, and he couldn’t afford to keep it at home anymore while he decided what to do with it.
It had been a shame to have to do the old guy in, the childhood friend of his parents, but his mom had told him long ago Harvey was leaving him all the money he had in the world, and the motel, because there just wasn’t anyone else. Harvey had enjoyed the boy coming around when he was young, and even though they no longer had a relationship, he was sure the will was still the same, because Harvey was such a creature of habit.
When the new people came around and he’d overheard Harvey talking about making changes to the will, he knew he had to do something. It was easy enough to hit the old guy from behind while he was walking to the pool for his morning swim; even easier to toss a few coconuts into the water to make it look like a dreadful accident. Then, he’d waited.
His acting job at the police station had been superb. Concerned senior milkman worried about an old friend of his parents who he’d been prevented from seeing.
Sorry, Harvey, he thought. But what’s done is done, and no use crying over spilled milk.
# # #