The noise of the buzzer near the entrance forced him out of bed. He was accustomed to the sound and his robe hung within easy reach. After putting it on, he walked the few feet to the front door and opened it to an attractive woman with hair perfectly coifed and surrounded by the perfume of lavender and cigarettes.
Rarely before had he felt this uncomfortable checking in a guest. “Good evening.” He pulled the tie of his robe tightly around him, then took in a deep breath. She didn’t seem to notice.
The woman fumbled with the purse hanging at her side. “You have a vacancy, right? The sign…”
“Of course. How many nights?”
“Oh, only one, thank you.” At the reception desk, her shallow laugh sounded of tinkling glass as her eyes fixed on the paper he handed her to complete.
He reached for the key from the board behind him. “This is one of our nicest rooms. Very secure.”
When she looked up from the page, the puffiness beneath her eyes that he’d barely detected before came into view in the muted light. Her smile illuminated her face and momentarily disguised her fatigue.
He looked at the paper, then reached over with the key in his hand. “Miss Crane. Have a good night.”
“And you do the same.” She took the key. “Thank you.”
As she walked away, he thought of how his life revolved around that hotel entrance ever since his father’s death. Even if the buzzer rang during the night, which was rarely the case, he rose early, tended the flowers in front—even though the garden fell under the responsibility of the handyman—then settled in with a cup of tea behind the heavy mahogany reception for the rest of the day.
And so it was that morning. With the thin local paper laid out in front of him, he took in the smell of oiled wood and waited for what the day would bring. That morning, she would be dressing perhaps. She might still be sleeping, as it was only 10am. Not every room was as well maintained as her room that he reserved for special guests, for those who showed respect, who treated him kindly. The room was not intended for the cranky salesman who came through twice a month on the way to Montford, or the old crone who visited her daughter in nearby Oak Grove.
The phone rang. Her voice on the other line quivered. “Can I have the room one more night?”
“I’ll come by later this morning with the payment. This room seems so…safe. I appreciate it. Bye.”
“Take your time, Miss Crane.”
The door slammed just as he hung up the phone.
“What needs fixin’ today, Mr. B?” A man in ill-fitting overalls sauntered in, a slash of white paint forever marring his red right cheek.
From behind the desk, Mr. B glanced at the newspaper articles. “3E has a dripping faucet. Take a look at the begonias in the side yard. And make sure that Miss Crane’s room, 2F, is in satisfactory order, please.” He did not look up. He suspected that the man would not make it to the end of his assigned duties, as usual.
At midnight, just as every night, Mr. B made his way back to the house behind the hotel. This ritual was something he’d never ignore, even though it left him drained and sometimes unable to sleep afterward. But she had to be attended to, her needs met. A little food, some conversation, a listening ear. An ear to hear the antique words and accusations that had never dissipated even after almost a decade of their hovering in the air, hiding in the cracks of the walls, and nestling beneath the cushion of the sofa from where she judged him.
When he was through with the visit, her command to him was clear. His last thought was of the old crone and the salesman, why he’d never bothered to dispense with them in this way. But she had never spoken of the crone. She had never judged the disheveled and unkempt salesman. Only Miss Crane.
He stumbled down the pathway with the question why playing over and over in his head, clutching her gift in his hand, the gift she had given up to him from the sheath of her ribs to take care of it once and for all. To end his lust for the guest in 2F.
When he reached her room, he took out the key from his pocket, opened the door, and heard the shower going full blast. He stepped inside. “Do it, Norman!” he heard the voice hiss in his ear as he pulled back the curtain. “Do it once more for your mother.”
Her words, the last sound he heard.
* * * * *
The police detective knelt down and reached over to turn off the water in the shower with his handkerchief, pessimistic that he’d get any prints anyway. “Two knives, huh? All the blood’s on the knife in the tub.” He looked over at the back of the head of curly hair of the person face down on the floor between the bathroom and hotel bedroom.
He picked the knife up carefully. Some blood still streaked across the blade. “Guess it’s hers.” He pointed to the lifeless old woman, her hair slightly askew, the second knife lying on the floor not far from her hand. “Who found her?”
The second detective surveyed his notes. “Handyman.”
“Did he see anyone?”
“Not this morning. Said that the last guest–someone named ‘Crane’–left sometime in the night but he never got a good look at her. Didn’t get a plate number off her car either.” The first detective pointed to the dead woman. “And he’d never seen this one before.”
The second detective scratched his head with his pencil. “Miss Crane must have gotten away safe. There’s no way a woman did this–bring in the handyman for questioning. One thing’s for sure, we won’t be seeing grandma again.” He punched a cigarette between his lips before they both went about finishing their routine and grisly duties.