~ 2 ~

Clara must have drifted off in spite of her misgivings, for when she next stirred Malcolm was out of bed and fully dressed.

‘Rise and shine, Clara,’ he greeted. ‘Rise and shine.’

He grinned at her before checking his hair in the mirror.

‘I didn’t want to wake you,’ he added.

Clara crawled from under the duvet, and adjusted her pillows so she could lean against the headboard.

‘I couldn’t sleep.’

Standing at the foot of the bed, Malcolm’s lips twitched in amusement.

‘You seemed to be sleeping when I woke up.’

‘Well, before that, I couldn’t sleep.’

Clara scratched at her forehead.

‘You old folk always wake early.’

That took the smile off his face.

‘What time is it anyway?’

Malcolm clasped his hands behind his back and delivered a small bow.

‘We have all the time in the world.’

‘And in reality?’

Clara groaned as he named the hour.

‘Still plenty of time,’ Malcolm said, ‘before they stop serving breakfast.’

Clara stuck out her tongue, and poked two fingers towards the back of her throat.

‘Oh it won’t be that bad,’ Malcolm said. ‘Old Brice hasn’t enough hair left on his head to let any fall into the scrambled eggs.’

Clara wrinkled her nose.

‘Well I’ll risk it,’ she said, ‘but if it’s the last meal we ever eat, I’m holding you responsible.’

Dragging herself from the bed, Clara lifted her clothes and retreated to the en-suite. Then she shut the door behind her. There were other mornings she might leave the door ajar as a subtle invite for Malcolm to join her in the shower. But not this morning.

This morning she wanted the water to wash away the psychic grime that had seeped into her consciousness overnight. Working the soap into a lather, Clara tried to cleanse herself of all recollection of her bad dream.

In truth she remembered little about it. All she remembered was the sound; a high, relentless siren wailing through the darkness. It had started low and distant, as if rising from the depth of a cave, and then risen in intensity and pitch until it was all she could hear. The noise had rung so loudly, it seemed like it was within her skull.

It was the sound, she had no doubt, of Bridgelands Cross itself. The last sound that poor girl heard before she’d thrown herself off the cliff. Clara hoped she never heard it again; not in her sleep, and certainly not outside of a dream.

Content that the only sound she could hear was the running water, she threw her head back and ran her fingers through her hair. It had been a novel idea of Malcolm’s to bring her here.

He’d taken her to plenty of places before. In the early days of their courtship, it sometimes felt like they were working their way through a tick-list of exotic locations. In Paris they’d ascended the Eiffel Tower, where Clara feared for a fleeting moment that a premature marriage proposal could be imminent. In Italy she’d had her photo taken while pretending to stop the Leaning Tower of Pisa from falling. They’d even spent the previous summer picking fruit in Cyprus, where Malcolm had been the oldest member of their team by some margin.

And now Bridgelands Cross. She’d had a sense of unease from the moment they’d reached the forests on the outskirts of the village. The entry road was bordered by trees whose lowest branches entwined so thickly that their car may as well have been passing through a tunnel. It reminded Clara of a ghost train accelerating into a haunted house, and she’d never much liked the ghost train.

She’d heard apocryphal stories as a child about ghost trains returning to their starting point minus the passengers who’d embarked on the ride. Even as a child, she’d known those stories weren’t true. Arriving in Bridgelands Cross, however, Clara started to wonder. Even when the road emerged on the other side of the trees, it had felt like a journey most people took only one way.

It was an impression the sight of the Forest View Lodge did nothing to abate.

From the outside, the hotel was a curious hybrid of period architecture and cheap modernity. Clara first assumed it to be a spacious Victorian house converted into a bed and breakfast. Then she realised that the nondescript rectangular construction behind it was not a separate building, but a hastily tacked-on extension.

This extra wing provided two low-ceilinged floors capable of housing more guests than was ever likely to be necessary in a village this small. Someone had obviously once expected an influx of visitors and set about accommodating them; seemingly overnight and, if the design was anything to go by, without the help of an architect.

The hotel’s insides proved no less foreboding, the empty lobby adorned with fading carpet and peeling wallpaper. Sometime after they rang the bell, an elderly and painfully thin man had emerged from the room behind reception. This, they’d learned, was Brice Hagstrom. He and his wife, Aileen, owned the place.

Old Brice had looked at them longer than was comfortable, studying them rather than merely observing. Clara had seen similar looks on strangers’ faces before. The age gap between her and Malcolm was enough to be immediately noticeable, although not so great to be entirely inappropriate. Yet, as the hotelier handed over the keys, she’d suspected his distrust ran deeper than mere prurience.

She and Malcolm immediately identified Brice as crazy, with Malcolm deciding he also knew where the bodies are buried. Clara didn’t want to know what horror lay in the room behind reception, though she wouldn’t be at all surprised to find a skeleton dressed as the hotelier’s long-deceased mother.

Clara shivered at the thought, then shivered again as her shower ran cold. She turned the water off and waited a few seconds before switching it on again. Having let it run, she tested the water with her hand. It was still cold. Reluctantly, she thrust her head back under its stream and rinsed the last lather of shampoo from her hair.

Quickly finishing her shower, Clara wrapped her hair in a towel, then dried herself with another coarse sheet. Once dry, she dressed in the en-suite and returned to the bedroom, leaving the damp towel on the bathroom floor. If her untidiness bothered Malcolm, he was welcome to pick it up himself.

Sitting down in front of the mirror, she unfastened the towel on her head and started to comb her hair. Clara liked the way her hair looked when it was wet. It was naturally as vibrant as the flame of a summer bonfire but, when wet, it turned a deeper shade of red. Like smouldering lava, Clara thought, or a fresh-slit vein.

Although the sunlight was now filtering through the net curtains, Clara left the lamp’s bulb burning as she applied her make-up. Its filament highlighted the compacted dust in the corners of the dresser. Clara had stayed in countless hotels with Malcolm, and this one was a far cry from the decadent resorts he’d once tried to seduce her with. Their room might be large, and the window’s forest view was certainly preferable to overlooking a car-park, but this was where the luxury ended.

They were housed in the old part of the building, and a thin line of black spores crept along the window frame. If the wooden furniture adorning the room was antique, it was only due to the amount of time that had passed since its purchase.

‘You sure know how to spoil a girl,’ she said to Malcolm.

Standing in the en-suite’s doorway, he held up the towel she’d discarded.

‘You know I wouldn’t take you here on holiday.’

‘Oh really?’ Clara asked. ‘So why did you bring me here?’

‘I have business here,’ Malcolm said. ‘Big important business.’

Clara rolled her eyes.

‘Yes, your mystery business. What the hell kind of business goes on here anyway?’

Side-stepping her question, Malcolm gestured toward the en-suite.

‘Have you finished in there?’

Clara pulled a face and pointed to her still-wet hair.

‘What do you think?’

‘I think you’re getting quicker with your morning shower,’ Malcolm said. ‘Must be getting the art-form down to a tee.’

‘If only,’ Clara replied. ‘The water ran cold.’

‘It did?’

Malcolm sounded genuinely surprised to hear about the fault.

‘I’ll get the caretaker to take a look after breakfast.’

‘You think this place has a caretaker?’

Malcolm sighed deeply.

‘Oh Clara,’ he said. ‘It’s not that bad.’

Still dragging the comb through her hair, Clara addressed Malcolm’s reflection in the mirror.

‘Isn’t it?’ she asked. ‘This place gives me the creeps.’

She’d hoped to elicit some response from her partner, though he just smiled in a way Clara found impossible to decipher.

‘Doesn’t it creep you out too?’

‘The hotel?’

‘The hotel, yes, but not just the hotel – this whole place.’

Malcolm chuckled.

‘How can the whole place give you the creeps?’ he asked. ‘You haven’t even seen it yet.’

‘I’ve seen as much as I want to see,’ Clara replied. ‘And what I’ve seen gives me the creeps.’

She could hear Malcolm tutting behind her. He was pretending he wasn’t annoyed, even though he was at least a little bit annoyed.

‘You might come to like the place,’ he said, ‘if you give it a chance.’

‘We’ve only just arrived and already there’s a dead body washed up,’ Clara replied. ‘How much more of a chance does the place need?’

‘An unfortunate accident,’ Malcolm said. ‘The poor woman was probably blown over by the storm.’

Clara set her brush down.

‘Why would anyone walk along the cliffs in the middle of a storm?’

‘Maybe she was lost.’

‘More likely she realised where she was and threw herself over.’

Malcolm laughed.

‘Oh Clara.’

He had come up behind her now. Leaning in, he kissed the side of her neck. Clara closed her eyes, as his chin nuzzled against the top of her shoulder. It felt good, but it was a sensation that didn’t last. Opening her eyes, she saw Malcolm fiddling with his mobile.

‘Can you get a signal on yours?’

There was a frustration in his voice that hadn’t been there earlier.

‘Charge ran down last night.’

‘That’s too bad,’ Malcolm muttered. ‘There must be a phone in reception.’

Clara grinned.

Must be?’ she asked. ‘The place hasn’t quite adapted to running water.’

‘Okay,’ Malcolm said. ‘There should be a telephone in reception.’

He was trying to make light of the situation, but Clara could still hear the annoyance in his voice.

‘Well, why don’t you go down and find out,’ she said, ‘while I finish off here?’

Abandoning any hope of getting a signal, Malcolm shoved his phone in his pocket.

‘After all,’ Clara added. ‘I wouldn’t want to keep you from your business.’

She widened her eyes.

‘Whatever that might be.’

Malcolm smiled, although this time his smile was hollow. He’d also failed to offer any clue to the nature of his business. Clara had no doubt, though, that the phone call he needed to make was part of it.

‘Good luck,’ she called as Malcolm left the room.

However, until she knew why he’d brought her here, Clara’s support would remain as feigned as Malcolm’s smile.

Follow: Clara / Malcolm

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