Sterling McWilliams tapped the bell on the hotel counter and looked around. The ding of the bell echoed off the dingy walls and old tile floor. The Last Chance Hotel certainly was his last chance—his GPS showed no other hotel or motel for the next forty miles, and the windshield wipers of his small rental car couldn’t keep the water from obscuring his vision. No, he had to stay.
Sterling tapped the bell again, this time sharply. The longer the desk clerk kept him waiting, the less embarrassed he was about the puddle of rainwater he was leaving on the floor. Just because the hotel was his only option didn’t mean they could keep him waiting.
He crossed the worn, shabby couches in the lobby and looked down the corridor. Silence reigned, broken only by the patter of rain outside and the occasional clap of thunder. The carpet under his feet had probably looked great in 1983, but now had several worn patches and permanent stains. Each light fixture he saw had at least one light out, giving the lobby and hallway rather a spooky appearance.
“Can I help you?” The voice at the counter made him turn. Its owner as a petite young woman with dyed black hair and too much eye makeup. She had a black shirt on under her maroon hotel vest, and a nametag that read “Velma.”
“Yes, I’d like a room for the night,” Sterling said, crossing back to the counter.
“Just one night?” Velma turned to the computer, her dark eyes focused on the screen.
“Yes.” Sterling glanced down at the wet floor, reconsidering. Someone could slip on it and hurt themselves. “And I’m afraid I’ve carried some of the rain in with me.”
Velma didn’t glance up. “I’ll take care of it.” Her small hands flew across the keyboard so fast he almost couldn’t keep up. She asked for his ID, and he produced his driver’s license. “Do you prefer a ground floor room or upstairs?”
“It doesn’t matter.” He wouldn’t be there long enough to care. “Just something close so I don’t track water all over the place.”
“I’ll put you in room one eighteen,” Velma said. She pulled a hotel key card from the stack next to the computer and swiped it twice, then slid it into the pamphlet with his room number on it. “Here you go. Your room is down the hall to the left.”
“Thank you.” Sterling picked up his bag and walked across the lobby to the corridor. He stopped midway to remind her about the wet floor, but Velma had gone.
“Moves like a cat,” he muttered under his breath.
Room one eighteen had only one light, and smelled like it hadn’t been used since the carpet in the hallway was installed. He turned on the air conditioner, which rattled, and opened the window a crack, surprised to find bars placed on the outside.
Sterling removed his tie and jacket and dropped his suitcase on the spare bed. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked his messages. One was from his niece, Shelly, wishing him a happy Halloween. Sterling looked around. Well, certainly the atmosphere was right for Halloween, even if the holiday was nearly over. The clock on the night stand read eleven fifteen.
He tossed his phone onto the bed and sank down into the chair. With a sigh, he bent to slide off his shoes and socks but stopped at a knock on the door.
“Housekeeping,” the voice said.
Sterling got up and crossed the room to open the door. Velma stood there, holding two towels and a folded wash cloth. Her black fingernail polish contrasted sharply against the white towels.
“I figured you might need these,” she said.
Sterling accepted the offering. “Thank you.”
She nodded and walked away. When she turned, he noticed an ugly red slash across the back of her neck. It looked painful, though she didn’t seem bothered by it in the least.
Sterling shut the door and opened his bathroom to put the towels away. The shelf above the towel rack was empty. Either Velma did the cleaning herself or she had already been in one eighteen and knew it had no towels.
His stomach growled, but Sterling wasn’t about to go back into the pouring rain to find something to eat. He took a brief, hot shower using the little bottles of shampoo and body wash on the counter of the bathroom, then slipped into his shorts and climbed into bed. The pillow was lumpy, so he switched with the one on the other bed. It was almost completely flat, but at least wasn’t lumpy. Sterling folded it in half and rested his head on it.
Sterling had almost drifted to sleep before he remembered the window was still open. If the wind shifted, the rain would come right in through the open window. He groaned in protest as he got up to shut the window, then went back to bed and repositioned the pillow.
Sleep had almost claimed him again when he heard a horrifying shriek from outside. His eyes flew open and he rushed to the window. He could barely make anything out in the dim light from the streetlights, particularly through the rain, but he thought he could see figures moving around outside. The clock read midnight exactly. And did he hear laughter?
“Kids,” he muttered, annoyed. Some stupid kids out for Halloween pranks. He grabbed the hotel phone and hit the button marked “lobby.”
“Yes?” He could now recognize Velma’s voice.
“Could you do something about the kids out there?” Sterling asked. “I’m trying to sleep.”
“I’ve already called the police, sir.”
“Oh. Well, thank you.” Sterling hung up and went back to bed.
When he next opened his eyes, sunlight brightened the room. It didn’t look any better in the light than it had in the dark, unfortunately. Sterling checked his watch. It was already after eight, but he still had time to make his appointment. And he was eager to leave the Last Chance Hotel behind.
A tall, older man met him at the front desk when he checked out. “Was everything in order, sir?”
Sterling handed over his credit card. “Yes, thank you.” Privately he wondered if they’d ever refurbish the hotel, but knew it wasn’t up to the desk clerk. “Oh, and do you have a comment card? I’d like to complement the management on their night clerk. She was very efficient last night.”
“She?” The man’s face paled slightly. “I’m afraid neither of our female employees were on duty last night.”
“Her name tag read Velma,” Sterling said helpfully.
Whatever color was in the man’s face fled. “That’s impossible,” he choked out.
Sterling narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I’m afraid Velma was in a car accident on her way to work yesterday evening. Her car was forced under the trailer of a semi. She was decapitated.”
“Horrible,” Sterling breathed, remembering the ugly mark across the back of Velma’s neck. “But, I swear the girl last night had on a name tag that read Velma.”
“What did she look like?” the clerk asked.
“Short, bottled black hair, too much eye makeup.”
The clerk nodded. “Yes, that was her.” He handed Sterling’s card back with a shaking hand. “I guess she made it to work last night after all.”