She hit the deck at the sound of footsteps on the front stairs. The ratty shag carpet pressed into her right cheek. She tried to breathe without sound, kept her eyes fixed on the living room's wide picture windows. At least she'd drawn the curtains. Though the material looked far too filmy with the early morning sunlight slanting through it. A shadow sprang across the drapes. It angled over both windows as her neighbor leaned past the porch railing and attempted to peer inside.
"Chloe!" Doreen's voice penetrated straight through the front door. Her shadow shifted and craned to see into the house. She knocked and waited and called again, "Chloe?"
Chloe's eye flickered from the windows to the front door. It wasn't locked. She groaned, pressing her face into the carpet to cover the sound. She had less than half an hour to get to work. Any conversation with her neighbor would require at least twice that. She considered crawling toward the bedroom, but that would necessitate crossing the living room. Chloe didn't trust those curtains, nor did she relish the idea of being discovered doing a belly crawl across her carpet. She held her breath and willed the woman to go away.
Guilt assailed her. Doreen was a good neighbor if a bit long winded. She probably wasted more time cowering inside her trailer than she would if she just answered the door. Still, experience or reflexes told her not to move. Her conscience told her she was acting ridiculous.
Doreen knocked again. Chloe's car waited in the driveway, a dead giveaway. She'd have to answer the door, say she'd been in the bathroom and hadn't heard the first knock.
Before she caved completely, however, the shadow fell away from the curtains, and Chloe heard her porch echo Doreen's retreat. She rolled onto her back and sighed, extended her wrist into the air and eyed her watch. Eighteen minutes.
The drive took fifteen at legal speeds. If she waited two for Doreen to cross the pasture, she'd have a minute to straighten her hair and bolt for the car. She closed her eyes, sighed again, and tried to rationalize her infantile behavior. It's just stress, she thought. I'm not completely losing my mind.
By the time she made the run for her vehicle, she'd convinced herself that spending the early hours before work lying prone in one's entryway just might be a perfectly normal symptom of the end of the tourist season. She took a deep breath and slid behind the wheel, checking her watch again as she closed the car door. Fourteen minutes--Chloe winced.
She'd be unemployed soon enough as it was. The morning air already smelled like winter. The heavy mustiness of fall had taken on a sharpness that could no longer be ignored. The tinge of frost lingered on its edges. As she turned over the engine in her 1978 Dasher, Chloe began the mental list of things to prepare or finish before the snow flew.
Make an appointment to get studs on the car. Check. Stack wood. She took the corner onto Cayuse Rd. too wide and was forced to correct quickly. Keep your mind on driving, she thought, check. But the promise of snow and solitude made concentration difficult.
The turn of weather should have worried her. Her hours had already been dwindling. She'd be out of a job within weeks. Still, the scent of the frozen months ahead made her smile. She hummed along with the radio, pushed the thought of her waning cash flow to the background and checked her hair in the rear view mirror.
The optimism toward winter was one of the traits that still labeled her an outsider. The real locals mourned the cold months and the loss of business, jobs and wherewithal that came, unavoidably, with them. When the snow flew, the tourists, who provided the sole economy in the valley, disappeared as quickly as the leaves on the little aspens.
Along with a lull in fortune and a drastic increase in unemployment claims; however, the heavy winters brought serenity. These long months of blissful, snowed-in quiet had lured Chloe to the valley in the first place. Unlike the locals, she'd never been a creature of seasons. She could navigate lines, and traffic, and cities that never slowed down, but Chloe preferred the valley. She'd lost her taste for city life.
She turned onto Main Street and headed into what they loosely called "downtown." The shack-like buildings housed the few determined businesses that attempted to support the locals year round and maybe even turn a dollar or two in the process. The feed store did all right, though not quite as well as the two bars.
Chloe checked the Dasher's gas gauge as she passed the Chevron. She could just squeak by to work, but would need to fill up on the return trip. As she drove, the buildings gave way to clusters of aspen, which soon blended into mammoth stands of ponderosa pine.
The heart of the valley centered around its three large lakes. It was the water, and the sport it provided, that brought the tourists, the resorts, the hotels and the business that carried the area's lifeline four to six months out of the year.
She passed Glass Lake, the smallest of the trio. It lay still and mirror like, as its name suggested, ringed with the thick reedy growths that made it a perfect bass habitat. Glass Lake served the fishermen. The county had zoned against building around it in a brilliant flash of forethought some years ago, leaving the pristine, treed shores to shade the reeds.
The zoning didn't extend across the street; however, and the opposite side of the little highway sported a string of resorts ranging from quaint to seedy. All catered to the bass men, and their small gift shops boasted gear, bait, staple groceries and a few chintzy souvenirs.
As Chloe neared Crane Lake, her purse buzzed. Here a spotting of hotels interrupted the fishing resorts. The farm-raised trout composed only part of the draw to the largest of the three lakes. Water sports and swimming brought the whole family along, and the businesses shifted to reflect the need. Chloe noted that the put-put course had already boarded up for the season as she retrieved her flip phone and answered the call.
"Hi, Chloe?" Doreen nearly shouted into the phone.
"Hey, Doreen." Chloe cringed. "How's things this morning?"
"There was a spaceship right over your house last night."
"Really?" She tried to sound intrigued. Doreen took her abductions seriously, and the comment was standard fare from her. Unfortunately, beyond "really" Chloe was out of ideas. Thank god she'd avoided the pre-work visit.
"It hovered right above the chimney, I think I managed to catch a picture before it disappeared," Doreen said.
"That's great." Chloe dug her nails into one palm to keep the humor from her tone. Doreen was a nice lady and a good neighbor if you didn't mind the occasional odd hours alien alert. "I'd love to see it."
"I'll get it developed today. Maybe we can do lunch?"
"How about coffee after lunch? I'm on my way to work."
"No way. They're still filling up rooms?"
"I figure we have about three more weeks." Chloe smiled. This Doreen had trouble believing.
"Wow, have you filed yet?" Doreen asked.
"I'm hoping to avoid it, maybe convince Brenda to throw me a few winter hours."
"Ha! You'd better file soon, there's a waiting period. You know what it's like last minute."
"Yeah, but I've got a month's expenses tucked away at least," Chloe said.
"I don't know how you do it." Doreen sighed. "I'm tightening my belt by January no matter what I try. Anyway, sweetie, I'll let you go."
"See you around two?"
"I'll put the coffee on. Have a good day at work."
"Yeah, right. Thanks Doreen. Bye." Chloe flipped the phone closed and tucked it blindly back into her purse. She smiled and shook her head. "Spaceship," she said.
The road wound sharply between the last two lakes. The short miles between were devoid of structures, and the forest reclaimed the roadside for a time.
Deep, long Paradise Lake, the last and most popular of the three, favored the high-end crowds. The swimming beaches that ringed it were only interrupted by the condos, hotels and the summer homes that took up every buildable inch of lakefront. The result was ugly--a sprawl of urbanity clustered around a surface that would have been still were it not for the jet skis, speed boats, water skiers, and windsurfers.
She pulled off the highway and turned up River's Run. The narrow two-laner ran alongside the Ruby River, the respectable waterway that fed into Paradise Lake. She held her ancient vehicle to 35 miles per hour and checked the clock on the dash. She was pushing it, but should get to work within a few minutes of nine o' clock.
The hotel lay just inside the tree line, well suited to its surroundings and tucked right up on the river itself. Constructed of logs, the weathered walls of the building fit into the forest like a comfortable shoe. It belonged here.
The freshly painted sign that read "River's Edge Lodge" stood right next to the road, and a gravel parking lot spread from it in a wide arc between the lobby and the front railing that ran along the rooms. Chloe pulled the Dasher onto the gravel with a bump and slid into a spot next to Old Red, Margaret's well-used Ford pickup.
Margaret herself hovered behind the railing, watering the soon-to-be-fading hanging baskets of colorful annuals. The door behind her, room 104, stood ajar, and the maid's cart waited just inside. "You're late," she said with a wink as Chloe got out of her car.
"Yeah, by three minutes, slave driver." Chloe slipped behind Red's bumper, which sported a faded sticker stating, "If it's Tourist Season, why can't we SHOOT them?" and headed for the lobby. "How's it look?"
"Three stay-overs and ten check-outs."
"Wow. Not bad for October."
"Already started down here. I can catch the last two between phone calls. You hit the upper decks and we should be outta here on time."
Chloe nodded and leapt up the two wide steps to the lobby door. Margaret had been the hotel manager for ten years. She caught a room or two in her spare time when there was a full house, and Chloe appreciated it. This late in the season, most of the part-timers were long since sent to the unemployment line.
Margaret was fun to work with, laid back, and had a good work ethic. Unfortunately she also had serious seniority on Chloe and would, no doubt, be her one obstacle to getting any winter hours. Still, she figured it was better to lose time to a friend than the new girl.
The rustic lobby boasted a long front desk made from a half-log, split along the grain and varnished to a high sheen. Margaret perched behind it when she wasn't helping clean rooms. The book on the counter top, its black, three-ring binding cracked with use, lay open to today, and the thin pages showed a box for each of the hotel's 30 rooms.
Only three of the ground floor rooms had occupants. Margaret could easily handle that and the phones, especially at this point in the season when they seldom rang.
The third floor had four check-outs and two stay-overs. The stay-overs would be quick, and Chloe made a fast decision to hit that floor first and work her way down. Each room had a scribbled license number and vehicle make in the appropriate box. She scanned the stay-overs and looked out the lobby's window.
The parking lot showed only two vehicles aside from the Dasher and Red, and neither matched her third floor rooms. Perfection. She slipped into the closet-sized office behind the desk and pulled her half-apron off its hook. She tied the faded strings around her waist and eyed her figure in the long mirror behind the door.
The front door's strand of jingle bells chimed Margaret's entrance. Chloe snorted at her reflection and left the office.
"What?" Margaret asked.
"Stop the presses." Margaret flipped through the book, her elbows resting on the wide counter.
"Gee, thanks," Chloe said.
"Hey, you've got the hair and a nice figure," Margaret said.
Chloe's hand touched her dark hair absently. She kept it all one length, apart from the bangs, just brushing her shoulders. It was the one feature she really took pride in. Still, she considered her tiny, 5'4" frame to be a liability.
"No chest whatsoever," Margaret continued.
"Hang on," Chloe said, slouching self-consciously. She'd never quite attained the C cup her mother had promised during puberty. "Let's leave my chest out of this."
"You brought it up," Margaret said. "Don't shoot the messenger."
Defeated, Chloe sighed and stuffed a fresh notepad into the left pocket of the apron. There would be no point in a retort. She'd learned not to encourage Margaret once the conversation turned toward the degenerate.
"I'll start at the top," she said.
Rooms 305 and 307 housed her stay-overs and would be the best place to begin. She headed out the door and up the staircase. The third floor maid closet opened to her key, and she pulled the complaining metal cart from inside the doorway.
Giving it a once over, she chucked more paper towels, Kleenex and a stack of folded, white, fluffy bath towels into the cart. Then she refilled the soaps, shampoos and shower caps. Grabbing a spray bottle of Windex and a twin filled with all-purpose cleaner, she tucked the triggers over the cart's rail and pushed the entire mess away from the closet.
The wheels squeaked lazily as she rolled it up to 305. The hanging baskets on this floor had already been watered, and she ducked inward to avoid the dripping overflow. Rapping on the door just below the brass numbers, she called cheerfully, "Housekeeping."
She listened for any movement or response. When only silence answered, she used her key in the lock and pushed the door wide. She smiled to herself as she stepped in past the bathroom door. The room looked as though it hadn't been used. Towels folded and re-shelved, bed made, a real type A personality at work. The suitcase lay closed at the foot of the bed. It looked, not surprisingly, expensive. The caramel leather clashed horribly with the teal, Sante Fe print comforter on the single queen.
With a stay-over, Chloe wouldn't have to re-make the bed or even bring in new towels unless requested. She moved to check the soaps and refill the toiletries around the sink, but as she turned, the curtains over the sliding glass door fluttered.
Cleans his own room and forgets to shut the slider, she thought. Chuckling, she moved around the end of the bed. Maybe he likes fresh air. But with that luggage and the watch sitting on the bedside table, it would be safer to lock the sliders and risk a complaint.
Before she reached them; however, another item caught her attention. On the small corner table, underneath the driftwood lamp with its faux leather shade, sat a pyramid. Its metal surface gleamed with a bronzed sheen. About eight inches high, the four visible sides were completely covered with symbols etched or inlaid into the surface.
Chloe recognized none of them. Her sum esoteric knowledge came from watching the occasional X-files re-run and her less than serious conversations with Doreen. Something about the pyramid, however, seemed out of place in a rustic, mountain valley hotel room.
It's probably an antique, she thought, imagining her compulsively clean guest as an archaeologist--no a museum curator. Archaeologists get too dirty. Fairly well preserved, maybe it's a replica, or a reproduction, she wondered.
She fought against the compulsion to touch it. Then, moving slowly, she reached her fingers toward the deeply designed metal. Before her skin made contact; however, the flutter of curtains drew her vision upwards once more. Remembering the open door, she expected a gust of wind a great deal more than the figure in the doorway.
Her chest squeezed at the unexpected surprise. A tall woman stood, one arm holding aside the curtain, just inside the room. She stared at Chloe with wide, almond eyes.
"Oh god," Chloe said. "I'm so sorry, I thought you'd gone." The woman said nothing, but her head tilted to one side, and Chloe saw the gaze dart toward the odd pyramid. Chloe felt like she'd been caught naked. She continued to stammer, backing toward the door and her cart. "I knocked. You must not have heard from outside. I'll just come back later."
God, she hated it when this happened. She knew she'd called loud enough to be heard from the balcony. She swallowed the urge to mutter and retreated across the threshold, silently blaming the woman for her indiscretion. The latter simply turned without speaking and stepped back out onto through the slider.
"Shit," Chloe said, once the door was shut. "Stupid, stupid, stupid." She pushed the cart onward, stopped in front of 307, but hesitated before knocking. Her hands were shaking. "Margaret?"
"Yeah." The sound of Margaret's rough voice floated up from below. Chloe leaned over the railing to see a lined face smiling up at her.
"Is there coffee made?"
"Come on down, I'll meet you inside."
They squeezed into the back office and sipped out of permanently stained mugs. Margaret leaned half out the square window and took a drag off of her Marlboro.
"It's too cold to smoke outside," she said defensively.
"I'm saying nothing." Chloe blinked wide-eyed at her. "I walked in on Mrs. 305."
"Who?" Margaret leaned back in, leaving her cigarette arm dangling over the window sill. The roar of the river spilled in around them.
"The woman in 305. Car's gone, knocked, shouted, went in, somebody's in there. Husband must have gone out alone."
"Sure it wasn't 307?" Margaret asked.
"305's a single. One guy, seriously cute, looks like a suit."
"Hmmm. Well maybe he got lucky down at Lazy Jake's last night." Chloe grinned over her mug. "Somebody's in there."
"Hmmm." Margaret winked and leaned back out for another drag. "No doubt. Was she pretty?"
"Yeah. She looked, ethnic."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"I don't know." Chloe struggled for a proper description. "Exotic? Foreign? Anyway, she was pretty."
"Hmmm. Figures." Margaret crushed her cigarette against the outside of the building.
"One of these days, Brenda's going to see your little char marks out there," Chloe teased her.
"Yeah, like she'd take her fat ass out back for a walk." Margaret pulled the window shut and picked up her coffee. "Better get back to it, eh?"
"God, I haven't even started."
It was nearly eleven when Chloe finished the third floor and locked the cart back in its closet. She descended the stairs to the second, and was nearly bowled over by Margaret, dashing up two steps at a time.
"Holy crap, woman, are you trying to kill me?"
"Chloe," Margaret said, huffing for breath. "He's in the office!" Her tone and the over-animated expression of conspiracy on her face indicated that Chloe should immediately understand what she was talking about.
"He's back, 305. Slip down and check him out."
"Why? For the love of god, Margaret, he's a guest," Chloe whispered, praying Margaret would follow her lead. "What's the big deal?"
From below them, the muffled "ting" of the service bell chimed.
"Margaret, get down there!"
"I'll go down, and you think of a reason to come on in."
"No. I'm not..." But Margaret's broad backside already retreated down the stairs. "I'm not going," Chloe finished to herself. Unlocking the closet on this landing, she resisted the urge to peek once over the railing. "Christ, how good looking could he be?" She remembered the tidy room and the odd woman at the curtain. Just some suit on vacation, but then, she had a weakness for suits.
The woman hadn't left room 305. Chloe had kept a casual watch on the landing as she finished the rooms around it. Truth be told, she should go and ask if they'd need towels or service today.
Instead, she dove into stocking the cart for the last four rooms. Finish this floor in time and off to coffee with my loony neighbor, she thought. Not such a bad plan for the day. She wheeled the cart to the far end of the building, intending to distance herself from Margaret and the office.
She was stripping the sheets in 209 when a gentle rap echoed from the open door. Assuming that Margaret had brought her more juicy details on the Adonis upstairs, Chloe remained bent over the queen bed and peered under one arm in the sound's direction.
"Yeah?" she said. Half upside-down, her hair fell abruptly across her face, blinding her, but not before she caught a glimpse of a pair of well tailored slacks and the flash of highly polished leather. "Shit."
She flipped her hair aside and stood upright in one motion. The man in the doorway smiled a sideways, sly smile that did little to put her any more at ease. The slacks and belt were topped by a rich blue button-up shirt that looked more accustomed to a tie.
The man himself appeared exactly as she'd expected. Tall, broad, with the build that suggested office life had only slightly softened the physique--he was definitely a suit. He had dark hair and lively blue eyes. No doubt why he bought the shirt, the cynic in her whispered.
He had a pleasant face, lined with more years than hers, but kind and confident enough to be charismatic. Despite Margaret's reaction, he wasn't the cover model she'd expected. But then, Margaret had less experience with suits and was subject to the effect of expensive clothing and an aura of power. He would seem very, very attractive, if one didn't know better.
"Can I help you?" Chloe knew better. Realizing she'd unconsciously taken an aggressive stance, she dropped her hands from her hips and adopted her customer friendly smile.
"Yes. It's Miss."
"Sorry. The woman downstairs said you found someone in my room?" His tone was polite and curious, the voice lighter and younger than she'd expected.
"Yes. There was a woman. I assumed she was with you?"
"No. I don't recall ordering one." In an undeniably teasing tone, he added, "Is that on the room service menu?"
"I'm afraid not." Chloe couldn't decide between offense or humor, but his smile twisted even more to the side, and she was drawn toward the latter. "Have you checked your room?" she asked.
"A capital idea. If there was a woman in there, who knows what sort of trouble she might have caused." He winked at her, though his statement felt oddly serious. The "if" struck her as a doubt about her sincerity.
She followed him of her own accord and stepped gingerly up the stairs behind him. If she was certain of anything it was that there had been, and still should be, a woman in room 305.
Mr. Suit obviously held a different opinion. When they reached the door to 305, he eyed her questioningly, as if to say, "You're sure it was this room?"
She ignored him, discovering her hand had moved to her hip again in unwitting defiance. He shrugged and turned his key in the brass knob. The green plastic tag jangled with the motion. Chloe watched him push the door open and peek around the room.
"Hello?" He called in a playful voice. Was he mocking her? "Anyone ho..." He stopped mid-word and stiffened. Chloe couldn't see around him, but suspected she was about to be vindicated.
The woman was nowhere to be seen, however. Chloe watched him move directly to the sliders, did not miss the glance toward the pyramid, or the relief that touched his expression at the sight of it. The curtain still fluttered in the breeze winding its way up off of the river. He stood at the glass and examined the locking mechanism.
"You didn't leave the sliders open?" she asked.
"No. But I may not have locked them." His brow furrowed when he cocked his head back over his shoulder, but the grin bordered on goofy. "Brain like a sieve."
"Hmmm." Chloe said. The smile was impossible not to return. Yup, she thought, still susceptible to suits. This one was damn near adorable.
He turned back to the door, slid it back and forth on the tracking a couple of times, then stepped through the curtain and onto the balcony. Chloe glanced around the room for any sign of disorder or tampering. It looked as tidy and undisturbed as before. The pyramid sat exactly as it had on the short table.
"Miss Watson?" he called from outside.
"Yes?" She moved toward the curtain, dodging as he poked his head back through.
"Sorry." Gentle lines formed at the corners of his eyes when he smiled like that. "Do you think someone could have climbed up here? Or jumped from another balcony?" he asked.
"I doubt it, but it's not impossible." Chloe pointed behind him. "There's very little purchase against the building. If they came in that way, it was probably from a balcony to either side."
"It's a bit of a jump, but if you really wanted to get in here," he said. Chloe didn't miss him glancing at the pyramid again.
"Is there some reason that you know of why they might?" she asked.
"No." He flashed her the grin again. "Not when I'm not home."
"Jesus." She turned her head to hide her own grin. He was entertaining. "Mr... I'm sorry; I didn't get your name?"
"It's Drew," he said.
"Drew, would you like us to contact the police? I suspect we should report this."
"No. No harm's been done. What did she look like?"
"Excuse me?" Chloe watched him take a cursory inventory of the room's contents. Despite the fact, she was certain the pyramid on the low table had been his primary concern.
"The woman who made this death-defying leap to get into my room. What did she look like?"
"She was pretty. Exotic, but pretty. Come to think of it, I doubt she made any kind of jump in that dress."
"What sort of dress?" He looked up sharply, all traces of mirth gone.
"Loose, long--weird gray fabric. No way she could have managed those skirts and vaulted that distance." Chloe watched his face darken. It was only a flash, a second of recognition, but she caught it. He adopted the sideways smirk once more. It was a cover up. "Are you sure we shouldn't notify the authorities. If someone is breaking into rooms, I think my boss would rather."
"Go ahead," he said. "I don't think they'll be able to discover anything." He sounded uncertain. Did he think that was a good thing?
He was a bit of an odd bird, exactly like the managers she'd known over the years in so many ways, and in others indescribably different. He was cocky, over-confident, charismatic and undeniably smooth. But he also had a nervous edge to him, a sense of discomfort that made her question her original assessment.
"I'll have Margaret call the sheriff then," Chloe said. She turned and left him to continue examining his room, assuming he'd prefer to check his suitcase in private.
"Thank you, Miss Watson."
"It's Chloe," she said. He'd introduced himself by his first name, after all. Then, with a sudden burst of impropriety, she added, "Try to avoid any more mysterious visitors." His chuckle followed her out the door.