Saturday, 5:45 a.m.
Morning comes slowly, the sun obscured by thick cloud. Overnight, the falling snow, so peaceful, has turned to sleet, coating everything in brittle ice, making the landscape even more dangerous to navigate. It seems everything is about to snap. Inside the inn, there’s a distinct chill in the air.
Lauren rises early, freezing, even with the warmth of Ian pressed up beside her. Her neck is stiff. She gets out of bed, shivering, and hurries to put warm clothes on, wondering why it’s so damn cold. She slips on jeans, a T‑shirt, a heavy sweater, warm socks. They hadn’t closed the drapes before they went to bed, and now she glances out the front window to the landscape below. Everything is covered in sparkling ice. It’s beautiful, as if the world is coated in diamonds. The branches of the huge tree in the front yard are bent, weighted down with ice. She sees where one of them has broken off; there’s a large, pale gash where it has been ripped from the trunk. The heavy limb lies broken in three separate pieces on the ground below.
She walks quietly into the bathroom, leaving the door open. She doesn’t want to turn on the light—she doesn’t want to wake Ian. It’s damn cold. She brushes her hair quickly. Her illuminated watch face says it’s just before six. She wonders what time the staff gets up and starts their day.
She glances back at Ian snoring in their bed, only his head showing above the covers. He won’t be up for a while. She opens the door quietly. It’s dark in the corridor; the lights in the wall sconces are out. She slips out and walks down the third‑floor hall to the main stairs in her thick socks. She doesn’t want to wake anyone. She turns toward the staircase to the lobby, wondering how long it will be before she can get a cup of coffee.
Saturday, 6:03 a.m.
Riley wakens suddenly, sitting up abruptly in bed, eyes wide open. She thinks she’s heard a scream—loud and piercing. Her heart is pounding, and she can feel the familiar adrenaline surging through her body. She glances quickly around the dim hotel room and remembers where she is. She turns to the other bed beside her, throwing aside the bedcovers, and is immediately accosted by the cold. Gwen is awake, too, and alert.
“What’s going on?” Gwen says. “I thought I heard something.”
“I don’t know. I heard it, too.”
For a moment they remain perfectly still, listening. They hear a woman’s voice, shouting.
Riley throws her legs over the bed and pulls on her robe against the chill, while Gwen scrambles to do the same, saying, “Wait for me.”
Riley grabs the key as the two of them slip out the door. The third‑floor corridor is unexpectedly dark, and they stop suddenly, disoriented. Riley remembers that she needs to talk to Gwen about last night, but now is not the time. She’s just grateful to have Gwen here with her. She doesn’t know what she would do if anything happened to Gwen.
“The power must be out,” Gwen says.
Riley and Gwen make their way to the grand staircase, barefoot. Holding on to the polished rail, they race down the stairs, as other footsteps can be heard running in the darkened hotel.
Then Riley stops abruptly. The dull light coming in through the front windows illuminates a ghastly sight below her. Dana lies sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, perfectly still, her limbs in an unnatural position beneath her navy satin robe. Her lovely, long dark hair spills all around her, but her face has an unmistakable pallor. She knows immediately that Dana is dead.
Lauren is kneeling on the floor beside her, leaning over her, her hand pressed against Dana’s neck, feeling for a pulse. She looks up at them, stricken. “I just found her.” Her voice is strained.
Riley continues slowly down the stairs until she is standing on the last step, right above the body. She can feel Gwen’s presence behind her, hears her broken sob.
“Was that you who screamed?” Riley asks.
Lauren nods, tearful.
Riley notices Bradley and his father, James, standing nearby. James is staring at the body of the dead woman at the bottom of his staircase, his face slack with shock. Bradley seems unable to look at Dana, staring at Lauren instead as she hovers over the body. Then James moves forward and reaches down hesitantly.
“She’s dead,” Lauren tells him.
He pulls his hand back, almost gratefully.
David hears the scream and jumps out of bed. He throws on a bathrobe, grabs his key, and leaves his room. At the top of the landing he pauses and looks down at the ragged little gathering below. He sees Dana—clearly dead—lying at the foot of the stairs in her bathrobe, Lauren beside her. Riley and Gwen have their backs to him. James is pale and Bradley looks suddenly much younger than he did last night. David hears a noise above him, glances up quickly, and sees Henry and Beverly coming behind him, also still in their pajamas, drawing their robes closed and tying them shut.
“What happened?” David says, hurrying down the stairs.
“We don’t know,” James says, his voice shaking. “It looks like she fell down the stairs.”
David comes closer.
“I couldn’t find a pulse,” Lauren says.
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David squats down and studies the body without touching it, a grimness taking hold of him. Finally he says, “She’s been dead for a while. She must have fallen in the middle of the night.” He wonders aloud, “Why would she have been out of her room?” He’s noted the terrible gash on the side of her head, the blood on the edge of the bottom step. He takes it all in with a practiced eye, and feels unaccountably weary.
“Dear God,” Beverly whispers. “That poor girl.”
David looks up at the rest of them. Beverly has turned her face away, but Henry is staring solemnly at the body. David glances at Gwen—her face is tearstained, and her lower lip is trembling. He longs to comfort her, but he doesn’t. Riley’s staring at the dead woman as if she can’t tear her eyes away. He notices then that Matthew is missing.
“Someone has to tell Matthew,” he says, his heart sinking, knowing it will probably be him. He takes one more look at James and then at all the stricken faces now staring back at him as they remember Matthew. “I’ll do it.” Standing up, he adds, “We’d better call the police.”
“We can’t,” James says harshly. “The power’s out. And the phone. We can’t contact the police.”
“Then someone has to go get them,” David says.
“How?” Bradley asks. “Look outside. Everything is a sheet of ice.”
James shakes his head slowly. “The power lines must be down because of the ice storm. It’s hazardous out there. Nobody’s going anywhere.” He adds, his voice taking on an uncertain note, “It’s probably going to be a while before the police can get here.”
Candice’s alarm on her cell phone is set to go off promptly every morning at six thirty. She’s nothing if not disciplined. She is a light sleeper, however, and this morning, something wakes her before the alarm sounds. She’s not sure what. She hears footsteps running along the hall below her, raised voices.
She decides she’d better get up. Plus it’s goddamn cold. She flicks the light switch of the lamp on her bedside table, but it doesn’t go on. It’s very dark in the room. She crosses the floor, shivering in bare feet, to open the drapes to let in some light. She’s surprised by what she sees. Not the fluffy winter wonderland of last night— but the unleashed fury of an ice storm. Obviously the power is out. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. She wonders how much battery she’s got left in her laptop. Maybe five hours, max. This is a disaster! She needs to find out when the power’s going back on. She quickly pulls on some warm clothes and heads cautiously downstairs in the dark.
As she rounds the landing and sees down the stairs into the lobby she stops abruptly. There’s a cluster of people at the bottom of the stairs and they all glance up toward her. Every one of their faces is drawn and uneasy. And then she sees why. There’s a woman lying at the bottom of the stairs, so still that she is clearly dead. It’s Dana Hart. The attorney is standing over her, his face serious. There’s no sign of Matthew.
David has volunteered to break the terrible news to Matthew, who as far as they know is still up in his room. Properly speaking, he supposes that it’s the duty of the owner of the hotel to inform Matthew. But James doesn’t look up to the task. This is what David tells himself as he treads back up. James accompanies him, obviously grateful that the attorney has offered. The others remain behind, standing in place, dumbly watching their quiet progress up the stairs.
“Which room is it?” David asks.
“Room 201,” James tells him in a distraught voice.
They stop outside the door. David pauses, preparing himself. He listens for any sounds within. But he hears nothing. He lifts his hand and knocks firmly.
There’s no response. David glances at James, who appears even more anxious. David knocks again, harder this time. He’s beginning to think about having James go fetch the key when he hears movement within. Finally the door swings open and David is face‑to‑face with the man he met over cocktails the night before. David suddenly feels a terrible pity for him. Matthew still looks half asleep. He’s clumsily pulling on a bathrobe.
“Yes?” he says, obviously surprised to find them at his door. Then he glances over his shoulder at the bed he’s just gotten out of, as if he’s missing something. He turns back and looks David in the eye and it registers all at once. Matthew’s eyes sharpen. “What is it?” He looks from David, to the visibly upset James, and back to the attorney. “What’s happened? Where’s Dana?”
“I’m afraid there’s been an accident,” David says, in his professional voice.
“What?” Matthew is clearly alarmed now.
“I’m so sorry,” David says quietly.
“Has something happened to Dana?” Matthew’s voice is full of panic.
“She’s fallen down the stairs,” David says.
“Is she okay?” But his face has gone white.
David shakes his head somberly and says the dreaded words again. “I’m so sorry.”
Matthew gasps, “I don’t believe it!” He looks ghastly. “I want to see her!”
There’s nothing to be done. He must see her. David leads him down to the landing where he stops, respectfully. Dana lies below them like a broken doll, thrown across a room by a petulant child. Matthew sees her, cries out, and stumbles past him in his rush to get to his beloved.
“Don’t touch her,” David advises.
Matthew collapses beside her and begins to sob as the others step back. He ignores David’s warning and strokes her too‑pale face, runs his thumb along her bloodless lips, in disbelief. Then he buries his face in her neck, his shoulders heaving.
The others look away; it’s unbearable.
Finally, Matthew looks up. “How did this happen?” he cries, half crazed, at David, who has descended the stairs and has stopped above him on the second step. “Why would she even be out of our room?”
“You didn’t hear her go?” David asks.
Matthew shakes his head slowly in shock and misery. “No. I was asleep. I didn’t hear anything.” He covers his face with both hands and weeps wretchedly.
Bradley fetches a white sheet and they all stand by somberly as he and David settle it gently over Dana’s inert form.
Excerpted with permission from An Unwanted Guest © 2018 by Shari Lapena. Published by Pamela Dorman Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
For more heart-wrenching thrillers, check out Read it Forward’s list of the Most Chilling Thrillers of Summer 2018, which includes An Unwanted Guest.