(If you aren’t caught up in the series, don’t blame me if you accidentally read a spoiler.)
In the circle of light cast by my desk lamp, my pencil waltzed across the stage. The little lead figures it drew into constrained rows along the page of my ledger book were both elegant and tidy, much like a governess or a schoolteacher or a hotel proprietor might make them.
I was all three, of course, but not at the same time. I had been many things in my twenty-two years, but keeping up with the budget of my tiny hotel in the middle of Idyllwild, California was the task of the moment. With a frown, I rubbed out the last number and replaced it with a smaller one. The arithmetic told me I needed to bring in more guests per month if I wanted to keep drinking the fancy English tea.
I danced my pencil across the top of the page beneath its little spotlight and doodled, “Miss Loveda Brown.”
When all was said and done, my name smacked of humble spinsterhood, not royalty, despite a marriage that had ended as swiftly as it occurred and fortunes won and lost. All that really mattered at this point in my life was a hot cup of creamy black tea and a plate of thick, buttered toast. The rest was in the crisp pine air of the mountain I called home.
Glancing up from my desk, I looked past the dark lobby, out through the plate glass window into the night. The moon cast a glow onto the open dirt road beyond my wooden veranda. I couldn’t see the tops of the pine trees that lined the other side of the road without getting up and stepping closer, but their impenetrable wall of darkness made the moonlight between us seem like something I could reach out and hold in my hand if I tried.
The cat reclined along the window sill, his black silhouette filling over half of it, stretched to double his normal length, because he could. Only his head, held aloft and frozen right down to his whiskers, proved that he was on high alert. The tip of his tail twitched. An ear flicked.
A quick look to my right showed only darkness. The door to the kitchen no longer had a sliver of light glowing from beneath it. Karine, my cook, had gone to bed. Hattie, the maid, had retired before her. Only the gray tabby cat and I were awake, and I was glad for his company, although he seldom returned the sentiment.
The cat swiveled his head in my direction, and slowly, the hair along his back rose.
“Spoon, you’re wrong,” I said, pointing my pencil at him. “Our guests left yesterday.”
His eyes reflected the light from my desk lamp and he gathered his long body together in the window, lifting slowly onto his feet.
“If you’re lodging a complaint with the management,” I said, keeping my voice steady, “we’re closed.”
Nonetheless, I stood up and turned around, taking in the dim room. To my left was the door to my bedroom next to an ash-filled summer fireplace. Turning right, I looked past the kitchen door, then the closed and dark dining room door, to the foot of the staircase that ran up behind my desk to the second-floor guest rooms. With my back to the cat in the window, I peered up the stairway into the dark. I’d told Spoon the truth. It was Wednesday, and we were vacant.
I glanced back at the cat hunched up on the sill, tail doubled in size, staring at the top of the staircase.
A faint scraping sound came from the tiny upstairs hall. I held my breath and waited for it to repeat, trying to identify it. Summer evenings in Idyllwild usually brought relief from the daytime warmth, and I kept the two upstairs windows open to refresh the place overnight. The windows opened into our front guest rooms, and I kept their doors open to entice the coolness to circulate into the hotel. The other three guest rooms did not have windows, and I kept those doors shut.
“It’s a mouse,” I said to Spoon. “Or a squirrel climbed in through a window.” I didn’t tell him my third thought, because a raccoon in the hotel was too chaotic to contemplate. Our cat would have attacked it on principle. Either way, I realized with a frown, I was going to have to go find out. Hattie had cleaned those rooms, and I couldn’t let an animal undo her work.
“Coming?” I asked the cat with a clear challenge in my voice. The cat remained frozen, ready to bolt.
I shook my head and moved from behind my desk to the foot of the stairs and took a minute to stretch. There. Another sound. Soft rolling. Tiny clinks. Something was upstairs, shifting items around in one of the rooms in furtive little moves. My hand instinctively went to my stomach, but the niggling I usually felt during foreboding moments was absent.
I considered my options.
My Colt revolver was tucked under my pillow. I kept a Winchester rifle under my bed. The real question was whether whatever was upstairs had opposable thumbs and criminal aspirations. I shrugged. Impossible. The oak tree that grew outside the hotel spread its massive boughs in front of half the building, but keeping those windows open was safe. The lobby window and my own tiny bedroom window lay beneath it, and I hadn’t noticed anything.
It had to be a critter.
I made it up to the staircase landing before I stopped short. From the second open door at the end of the hallway on the right, a head popped out. In the dim light that reached us, a human face observed my bewilderment with a twisted frown. Although it was too shadowy to recognize the person, the long stringy hair hanging from her head and the sigh that escaped and drifted down the hall betrayed her.
“Hello, Elizabeth,” I said. “It’s been a while.”
I waited for my heart rate to slow down, wondering why she held still instead of retreating, as she usually did. Elizabeth wasn’t any friendlier than Spoon, but like him, she felt territorial about the hotel sometimes, this room in particular. A lifetime ago, it used to be hers.
Finally, she pulled her head back into the room and I crept down the hall to stand in the doorway. Elizabeth was backlit by the moonlight coming through the window. Squatting on her haunches, she cast a silhouette that would have made anyone run away. Her baggy pants and ragged shirt lent an ambiguous air to a physique that I knew to be hard and lithe from years of living in the wilderness. She scraped a dirty, ragged fingernail along the carpet next to her calloused bare feet. For her, climbing trees was easy.
A large patch of bald scarring extended from above her left eye around to behind her ear, leaving only a partial head full of thick red hair hanging in long, matted strands. It gave the woman her local nickname.
It also reminded everyone that she was as wild as the Indians who had partially scalped her in her youth. Red was the only one left of her family. They’d come to Idyllwild some twenty years ago and built this place as their home. Later, it had been converted into a hotel, and now I maintained it while Red paid random visits to her old room. She never came when we had guests, and she never appeared during daylight hours.
And I never called her Red.
Elizabeth was tense. I could sense it in the way she partially stood and moved across the room. Crouching down beside the baseboard, she dropped something with a rattle, and I realized she was making sounds deliberately. If she didn’t want to be seen, she knew how to be stealthy. Many times, the only way I knew she’d been in the room was from two dirty footprints on the window sill. She wanted my attention. Why?
I reached out and flicked the light on. Swiftly, Elizabeth turned and put out her hands as if to block the exposure of her square, deeply tanned, weather-lined face, twisted in irritation. She was almost twice my age, but when she opened her startling blue eyes to look at me, they held the confusion of a lost child.
I waited, but she didn’t leap for the open window. She ignored the jar of buttons at her feet where she’d taken them from the little hiding place beneath the floorboards. She wrapped her strong, thin arms around herself and frowned at me.
“He’s gone.” My statement was useless, and even as I uttered it. How I could make her understand that what she was looking for might be gone for good? I could see the rows of tiny white crescent scars on her arms where they extended from the green plaid shirt. Elizabeth was no stranger to pain and preferred isolation, but the touchstone in her world was missing.
She regarded me carefully. I wondered if the look in my eyes mirrored hers. Whether the tone in my voice conveyed the emotion that I kept hidden, even from myself, on most days.
Elizabeth didn’t speak. So far as anyone could tell, her guttural words came in spurts that sounded like a cross between Creole and some unfamiliar Indian dialect. She leaned forward slightly, as if she were seeking a way to decipher mine.
“I know his horse is in the corral here, instead of home,” I barged on. “And his place has been empty for weeks.” I indulged my feelings for one more breath. “I know you feel lost. You counted on him. And he left you.”
I closed my eyes and pulled myself together. Letting out a sigh, I looked at her. “You have to get used to the idea that he might not come back at all. You don’t have to be afraid.” I tried to put confidence into my voice. “We are going to be fine. Mack and the sheriff are always nearby, and we’ve all agreed to look after you.”
Elizabeth was already backing toward the window.
“If you’ll let us,” I finished.
She straddled the window sill and gave me one last speculative glance before turning to fling herself off the ledge into the oak tree. I rushed to the window to watch her descent and leaned out far enough to see her cross the dirt road and vanish into the tree line on the other side.
The road to my left disappeared around a bend that wasn’t visible from my high view through the tree branches, but I could follow it to my right, past the post office next door, past the blacksmith shop next to it, and stretched beyond the final fourth small building where Mack, our regional deputy, slept blissfully unaware that I’d witnessed a break-in.
There was no further sign of her.
I came back into the guest room and knelt beside the hiding space. The floorboard remained open, displaying Elizabeth’s little treasures. She kept a mason jar filled with buttons. A wide, blue satin hat ribbon lay crumpled up with a scrap of lace. On top of them sat an empty silver money-clip set with a large, rough turquoise.
Elizabeth liked to collect things, but she didn’t like to hold still. She wandered Idyllwild’s mountain for miles in every direction and called it home. During the long summer months, we all did. It was part of the charm that lured guests up from the desert and coastal valleys and paid our bills.
As I slid the board closed, something brushed over my ankle, and I spun around with a muffled shriek.
Spoon stiffly retreated, and with his ears flat, gave me an insulted look.
“See?” I asked. “No raccoons.”
I stood up as Spoon turned his back on me and marched from the room.
Hands on my hips, I gave the room another quick surveillance and nodded.
There was nothing to be afraid of.