Room At The Inn
(Jeff Resnick Mystery #3)
By L.L. Bartlett
Publisher: Polaris Press
Jeff Resnick is definitely out of his element when he and Maggie take a working vacation at a quaint Vermont inn. For most people, the chance to spend time with a beautiful woman in a romantic, isolated setting would be a plus, but the moment Jeff crosses the Sugar Maple Inn’s threshold, his sixth sense warns him that someone is about to meet a violent death.
His anxiety intensifies when he travels on one of the local roads and he is nearly overwhelmed by feelings of impending doom. Ultimately, Jeff can only find respite in his brother Richard’s presence and it is only after one of the inn’s guests is murdered that Richard reluctantly becomes a third wheel on Jeff and Maggie’s trip. With their own lives at stake, Jeff, Maggie, and Richard must use all their wits and skill to bring a ruthless killer to justice. And if they don’t, one of them might just become the next victim.
My gaze traveled to the large sign along the road, which announced the Triple-A sanctioned Sugar Maple Inn. True to its brochure, a towering Sugar Maple tree stood to one side of the place. In another couple of weeks it would be a magnificent example of Vermont’s famous fall colors.
Built into a hillside, the inn’s weathered, shingled exterior looked charming, if a little unkempt thanks to the surrounding, overgrown shrubs. Not quite a Tyrolean ski lodge, Maggie had called its gabled roof and pine green shutters on each window “quaint.”
Eventually a burgundy Dodge Caravan pulled up the gravel driveway with a woman at the wheel. She got out of the van and hurried toward us. “Maggie!”
“Susan?” Maggie sounded uncertain.
With an unexciting name like Susan Dawson, I’d expected a nondescript woman, not the tall, lithe redhead with elegantly lacquered nails and a perfect body. She wasn’t beautiful, but she knew how to accentuate her personal positives.
She gave Maggie a perfunctory hug, then turned to me. “You must be Jeff,” Susan said, shoving her hand in my direction. Her grip was as strong as any man’s, and I was relieved when it wasn’t accompanied by a flash of insight I sometimes get when I meet someone.
“Sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived.”
“There seems to be some kind of mix-up,” I said. “The girl inside said we didn’t have a room. She suggested we try somewhere else.”
Susan frowned. “Nadine’s new. But don’t worry; I’ve got everything ready for you. You’re going to love the Sugar Maple, and you’ll have the most intimate room in the Inn. Come on inside.”
We followed her into the cool interior.
“This is the living room. We have five public areas available for guests,” she said, which sounded suspiciously like a rehearsed speech. “This is a totally non-smoking inn. Please remember that this is our home, and we ask that you discourage friends from just dropping by. The front door is locked at midnight, but you can arrange for a key if you plan to stay out later.”
“Was there ever a murder here?” I asked.
Startled, Susan blinked at me.
Maggie’s glare was the visual equivalent of a kick under the table. “He means a ghost. Are there any ghosts at the inn? It could be the article’s focal point.”
“Oh, yeah,” I agreed. “A ghost.”
“No,” Susan said, her eyes flashing, “we don’t have a ghost.”
One of the guests, a handsome older woman with salt-and-pepper hair, in beige slacks and a vibrant pink print blouse, ambled into the living room. She sat on one of the matching loveseats in front of the fireplace and grabbed a magazine from the cocktail table. Her arrival gave me a chance to break into Susan’s spiel.
“Have you decided what rooms you’d like to feature? Or we—”
“Why don’t we talk about this elsewhere,” Susan interrupted me, then motioned us to a side door marked PRIVATE. “Nadine, there’re groceries in the van. Please take them down to the kitchen,” she said, without waiting for a reply.
Beyond the door was the Dawson’s residence, a combination office-attached apartment. A file cabinet and desk crowded their living space. The sterile room had none of the country charm we’d found in the lobby. Susan ushered us to sit at the worn Formica kitchen table. She could have at least offered us a cold drink.
“When can you start?” asked the hardened businesswoman.
“Tomorrow,” I said, suddenly realizing how tired I was from the long drive.
Her lips grew tight. “Zack’s not going to be happy about that.”
“What did you and your husband have in mind?” Maggie asked, her tone indicating she was open to negotiation—while I was not.
“There’s still time before check-in. You can take the pictures of the bedrooms today, and—”
“Today?” I interrupted.
“Is that a problem?”
“Yes. It’ll take hours to set up the lights.”
“Doesn’t your camera have a flash?”
She didn’t have a clue what photographing interiors involved. Hell, I wasn’t really sure I did.
“The magazine expects professional quality photos. It takes time to get everything just right,” I said.
“But I’m booked solid for the weekend. I can’t ask the guests to move out of their rooms while you—”
“Then I don’t see how we can do it,” I said. I didn’t like her attitude and was already willing to say good-bye and hit the road for home.
Susan’s eyes narrowed. “What’s this all about, Maggie? You said you could help me.”
“Without good pictures—” Maggie began, but I tuned out her explanation, waiting for an opportunity to speak.
“Let me guess. You went into hock to refurbish the place, you’re having problems filling the rooms on a regular basis, and now the bank is breathing down your neck, right?”
Susan’s gaze was icy. “Exactly.”
“If we photographed one bedroom, we could concentrate on the other public areas. Is that acceptable?” Maggie asked.
Susan didn’t look happy. “I suppose.”
“Is your best room available in the next couple of days?”
“Ms. Marshall will be checking out Monday morning, but I’ve got another couple checking in later that afternoon.”
“What’s the time frame?” I asked.
“Check out is at eleven. New guests check in at three.”
“How long does it take to make up a room? Ten or twenty minutes?” I asked.
“That leaves us less than four hours.”
“Why is that a problem?”
“While I set up the lights, Maggie will dress the room—” I started.
“Dress the room?”
“We might need to rearrange furniture and borrow props from other rooms,” Maggie explained.
“A real photo shoot would have a stylist,” I explained, trying to sound knowledgeable—and feeling like a con man. The sum total of my information had come from a Google search and a magazine article only days before. “The memory card in my camera holds about three-hundred exposures.”
“Why so many? I’ve never seen an article with more than five or six pictures.”
“We’ll want a number of variations on each shot, and while we can Photoshop the brightness and contrast, you want your basic exposure to be the best possible.”
“After you see the results, you might want to revamp your brochure, too,” Maggie put in, perhaps to get double use from my photography.
“All that costs money. Which we don’t have much of.”
“The girl out front said you were fully booked.”
“For the five rooms that are finished. We’ve got seven more in various states of renovation. We’d planned on having them done before the fall colors and the leaf peepers arrive, but we’ve had contractor and cash-flow problems. Besides, the guests object to the constant sounds of hammering and power saws.”
“We’ll do the best we can,” I offered, which apparently wasn’t going to be good enough for Susan.
“Let me show you the rest of the place,” she grumbled and gestured toward the door that led back to the inn.
She continued the grand tour of the public areas, oblivious to the fact we’d had a long drive and might be tired. All I wanted was to kick off my shoes, use the bathroom, and catch a few Zs before dinner.
The inn’s lower level was decorated in the same—although somewhat more restrained—country charm as the lobby above. Eight or ten tables were scattered throughout the large dining room. Two picture windows, one to the south and one to the east, overlooked the vast gardens outside. A professional coffeemaker, with a full pot, and a glass jar filled with homemade chocolate chip cookies beckoned guests.
The game room boasted a stately old pool table. Game boards decorated the walls, and shelves filled with books, puzzles, and a large-screen television could entertain bored guests. As we walked through the maze of rooms, Susan rolled out the rest of her canned speech.
“What time is dinner?” Maggie asked innocently.
“We only serve dinner during ski season,” Susan said.
Maggie gave me an uncertain glance, then looked back at our hostess. “I just assumed that since we weren’t here as guests—”
“There’re a lot of nice restaurants in town. We have a blackboard by the kitchen where guests rate them. Take a look before you go out tonight. Breakfast is served from eight until ten. You won’t go hungry,” she said.
As we hadn’t had lunch, and weren’t going to be offered dinner, I had my doubts. Our freebie weekend was beginning to look like an expensive venture. Would Susan present us with a bill when it came time to leave?
We followed her back to the cubbyhole where Nadine had given us the brush off. She grabbed a key from the desk drawer. “Follow those stairs to the second floor. You’re in number six. I’ll be here in the office if you need me.”
Guests had to haul their own bags. Maggie and I went out to the car and grabbed as much as we could carry for the first trip, leaving the bulk of the camera equipment in the trunk.
Susan wasn’t kidding when she said we’d have the most intimate room. Intimate as in small, and also one of the inn’s unfinished rooms, although the tiny bathroom did have a working sink and toilet. The shower stall was half-built—the tiles still in a box on the floor. Freshly spackled walls awaited a fresh coat of paint. Fine plaster dust coated the sink and edges of the room that someone’s hasty clean-up had missed. One battered, hard-backed chair sat next to the double bed, which was covered with a faded floral spread. The closet had no hangers. We’d have to live out of our suitcases.
Maggie held up well until we finished unloading our stuff. She looked around the tiny room and her eyes brimmed with tears.
“What wrong?” I asked.
“Everything. Susan’s welcome was anything but warm. We have to fend for our meals. This room is so small we can hardly turn around and—” she bounced on the mattress, “—the bed is uncomfortable.”
I sat beside her. She was right. The mattress felt like concrete. “So we’ll eat cheap.” I tried to sound lighthearted, like the whole thing was an adventure. I wiped away her tears and kissed her. “Of course, we could just go home.”
She sniffled. “Home?”
“If the town’s booked up we might have to drive another hour or two to find a room for the night, but it can be done.”
“I don’t want to go home. I promised the magazine a review of a Vermont inn. I can’t set up anything else before my deadline.”
“Okay,” I backed off, “it was just a thought. We’ll finish the work as soon as we can, and in the evenings we’ll take advantage of whatever the inn has to offer. Okay?”
“Okay.” She wiped her eyes, regaining her composure. “Susan’s attitude shouldn’t surprise me. She never knew how to be a real friend. After all these years, I hoped she would have mellowed.”
“Let’s try to enjoy the time we’re here. And if we don’t—we’ll be home in a couple of days anyway. We can stand just about anything for a couple of days, can’t we?”
Maggie nodded and I felt her tension ease, replaced by curiosity. “Why did you ask Susan about murder?”
“This place is giving off screwy vibes,” I admitted.
“It happened a long time ago, right?” She sounded hopeful.
“I don’t know.”
For a moment she looked worried, then her expression brightened. “I’m not going to think about it. Remember what happened at the antique store?”
Did I ever. Troubled by visions of death, I’d gone back to the store two or three times. Finally, the owner told me the history behind the chalice, a prop in a long-running production of Hamlet. The actors must’ve been truly gifted for those dark feelings to be so strong.
I looked at my watch. “We’d better get started. But first, let’s grab some cookies from the dining room.”
“Jeff?” Her voice stopped me. “I love you a lot.”
I leaned over to kiss her again. “I love you, too.” I hugged her and she held me tightly. “It’ll work out, Maggs. It will,” I assured her.
Then why didn’t I believe it?