~ 3 ~

Clara waited until she heard Malcolm’s muffled footsteps descending the hotel’s stairs. Then she took her own phone from the dresser and switched it on. There was a brief pause before it came to life, her screen filling with details of unread messages and missed calls. Her signal, just like her battery, was fine. The messages she’d received were somewhat less so. She switched the phone off and dropped it into her handbag.

Simone, her sister, had been calling, relentlessly by the looks of it. Clara really didn’t want to talk to her. Among the messages there was possibly one from the phone company warning of increased charges now she was outside the reach of civilisation, but the rest were from bloody Simone.

She’d always been that way. Relentless. Even as a child, Simone had been like that. Determined, their parents called it. They said this with pride, as if determination was an intrinsically good thing. Clara wasn’t so sure. Throughout history, the most genocidal dictators had shown determination, and many of them had been less psychotically determined than her sister.

Two years younger than Simone, Clara had naturally looked up to her sister when they were children. Less naturally, she’d always been slightly afraid of her too. She remembered watching Simone piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, a seaside picture of a child on a donkey.

Simone had worked slowly and methodically, while Clara marvelled at her skill. She’d been too young then to have learnt the basic techniques Simone was using, like starting with the corners and edges, or assembling blocks of similar colour.

Holding the final piece in her hand, Simone saw there were still two gaps in the picture. Searching for the missing piece, she’d looked in the box and then on the floor, but found nothing.

‘It must be here.’

Her expression had been a child’s imitation of an adult. Then Simone stared at the table, as if trying to will the missing piece into existence.

‘It must be here.’

This time a chubby fist banged down upon the table. Her other fist soon joined it, her voice rising until she was screaming. Her face grew red, though her eyes remained clear. It was only when Simone thrust the jigsaw from the table that the crying started. Clara had begun crying too as shaped fragments of donkey, sand and sea hit her face.

By the time their mum reached the room, Simone was banging her head against the table, with her her fists clenched so tightly that her fingernails drew blood on her palms.

A child throwing a tantrum was nothing out of the ordinary, though Clara wondered why her parents never questioned the extremity of Simone’s outbursts. As she grew older, she’d started to notice that these outbursts never happened at school or at friends’ houses. Simone could always hold her anger until she was in the safety of her own home. For her part, Clara had still never admitted she’d taken the missing jigsaw piece and dropped it down a drain.

Simone hadn’t been calling Clara today to chastise her about the jigsaw, although the real reason for her calls was likely to be just as unwelcome. While her phone was switched off, however, Clara would be spared Simone’s latest ramblings. Picking up her handbag, she went to meet Malcolm.

The corridor outside the room was dim, although not dim enough to hide the threadbare nature of the carpet. Catching her foot on a loose section, Clara wondered how many injury claims had been filed by past guests. The owners probably disposed of the claimants during the night, she thought as she took the stairs down to reception. Set an awkward distance apart, their drop was too shallow to take in single steps, yet too deep to take two stairs at a time.

Once downstairs, she spotted Malcolm in a shadowed cove in the corner of the lobby. He’d managed to find the hotel’s payphone; an ancient piece of machinery that looked like it might have been used to relay field signals during the war. Clara doubted even Malcolm was old enough to remember when such contraptions were commonplace.

Deep in concentration as he dragged the centre-dialler digit by digit, Malcolm hadn’t seen her. Making the most of this unexpected advantage, Clara slipped past him to loiter where she could eavesdrop on his conversation.

She heard the dialler rotate back in place as Malcolm cleared his throat.

‘Malcolm Tennison calling for Ruth-Anne Crozier.’

Ruth-Anne Crozier. Malcolm had never mentioned her before. Nor had he ever told Clara his new business partner was female. Clara leaned forward to listen closer. If she had nothing to be jealous of, she might at least have something with which she could tease Malcolm.

‘Ruth,’ he said in his best telephone voice. ‘It’s Malcolm!’

His enthusiasm was so overdone it sounded like he’d surprised himself with his very existence. Clara tried hard to suppress her laughter.

‘Very well. Very well indeed. And you?’

An insincere chuckle.

‘If you left a voicemail, I’m afraid I haven’t been able to get a decent reception since I arrived.’

Wish I had the same problem with my phone, Clara thought.

‘The Forest View Lodge in Bridgelands Cross.’

Was it just Clara’s imagination, or had Malcolm sounded somewhat ashamed when he’d said that?

‘Well, one hates to be predictable,’ he sighed. ‘Besides, it turns out to be much, much closer to the sea.’

Bridgelands Cross might well be the near the sea, but Clara didn’t think there was any beach worth speaking of. Plenty of rocks, though, for the dead bodies to wash up on.

‘We wanted to be near the sea.’

If either of them wanted to be near the sea, this was the first Clara had heard of it. Maybe Malcolm planned to take her crabbing in the rockpools.

‘Oh?’

Clara had no idea why Malcolm sounded so surprised, though something had clearly caught him off guard.

‘Then I shall see you tomorrow.’

While he was trying to sound jolly, Clara could tell Malcolm wasn’t at all happy with what appeared to be a last-minute change of plan.

‘It will be my pleasure.’

Hearing the click as the handset was replaced, Clara stepped forward.

‘You found a phone then?’

‘One invented by dinosaurs,’ Malcolm said. ‘Anyway, how long have you been standing there?’

‘I just got down.’

‘Did you charge your mobile?’

Clara shook her head.

‘Well, get it charged,’ Malcolm replied. ‘We don’t want to be using this thing every time we need to reach the outside world.’

He patted his stomach.

‘It seems I have the day free after all,’ he added. ‘Now, after breakfast I thought I might take a stroll through our new neighbourhood and hoped you’d care to join me. What say you, fair maiden?’

‘Do I get a choice?’

Malcolm smiled.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t suppose you do.’

He was making light of the situation, but Clara knew Malcolm well enough to know when he was hiding something from her. And right now, she was certain he was hiding something.

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