It started with a very good cup of coffee. Now most of you in this room are young enough to have spent most of their lives within walking distance of an espresso , but back when I started at the Royale, I, like so many others at the time, knew no better coffee than the generic drip-sludge they served at every diner you sad down in. But, fortunately or unfortunately for me, not three doors down from the doors of the Chelsea Royale was a genuine Italian coffeehouse. It was run by a pair of Brothers from Palermo who had come over nearly twenty years previous.
My first visit came very early morning, during a spot-check I was undertaking on the safety of the hotel's front windows, when the Royale's doorman, a tall man whom I had spoken to a few times before, called me away. We walked slowly, behind the street-sweepers, the twenty metres or so down to the coffee house, whose doorway was dwarfed by twin statues of Saint Rosalia. The doorman, sensing my trepidation, just smiled and bustled me inside.
Needless to say, my first taste of real espresso coffee was sublime. My mind, I'm happy to admit, was freely given over to the spicy persuasion of that wonderful bean. Not to get too poetic here in this environment of learning, but that morning I spent in the dark confines of that coffee house was one of the more fulfilling of my life. Or so I thought.
The doorman and I eventually emerged back onto the street. After the steam-cupped warmth of the coffeehouse, the wind seemed to bite with extra venom. I pulled my coat up around my cheeks and hurried back inside the hotel, fully forgetting to finish my spot-check of the front windows. And can I tell you right now, that is not the last mistake my caffeine-addled brain made that day.
The rest of the morning I had put aside for urgent paperwork, and some essential maintenance of some signs I had had printed up about fire exit rules. Thanks to my coffeehouse diversion, however, I was now running supremely late. I grabbed a banana from my lunchbox in the staff canteen fridge and set off for my office, where a fresh ream of paper and a new biro awaited me. To get from the canteen to my office—at this stage nothing more than a cubby hole in cleaning supplies storage area—I usually wended a long but unobtrusive path through the labyrinthine corridors that led from the canteen and through the service tunnels, but as I was so late, I had to cut through the lobby of the hotel. Checkouts were already underway, and as my mind buzzed with coffee echoes, I strode purposefully across the carpet, winding my way through scattered luggage and the old wingchairs that served as the lobby's waiting area. And I blame myself for another mistake here—trying to make up for lost time by cutting corners and being conspicuous in doing so. How quickly I had forgotten one of the cardinal tenets of the academy: When A Fire Safety Officer is Doing His Job Well, He Is Never Noticed.
I caught the eye of a middle-aged man in a dishevelled sports coat, who immediately looked up at me, as if it were I he had been waiting for all this time. Then he said the strangest thing:
"Three knocks are fine, four knocks define."
I stared at him a moment. "Excuse me?" I said.
The man repeated his cryptic sentence.
"I think you have me confused with someone," I told him. I reached for my laminated name tag in order to verify my identity but for some reason it wasn't clipped to my pocket as it usually was.
The man looked confused. "I was led to believe," he said cagily, "that I could meet with Mr Adams here at 9.05 AM in order to be escorted to his office for a private consultation."
I was about to explain to the man that I had never heard of a Mr Adams or his office when, thankfully, my training finally kicked in. I quickly assessed the situation as one of extreme interest. And when I say interest, as I'm sure you're all aware, I of course mean a situation that may require the ingenuity and deft thinking that only a Fire Security Officer.
"Of course," I said. "Unfortunately, Mr Adams has been briefly detained, and asked me to enquire if you would be so kind as to proceed directly to his office yourself." I tried to slow my breathing, which had become rather ragged. "I assume you know the way."
The man regarded me for a moment with en eyebrow cocked. "Ahem. Well, I'm sure Mr Adams is a busy man." He smoothed out a mountain range of wrinkles on his left trouser leg. "Of course I can find my own way." As soon as the man smiled, I knew I was on to something.