The old lady walked toward the kitchen. Jimmy lent into Connie’s ear and whispered. “It’s like my gran’s old house. And she’s dead.”
Connie coughed. It was dusty. The old lady stood over the range in the kitchen a little distance away. She spied the two still almost rooted to the spot and, surprised, dropped the spatula she was wielding and came back out, hurriedly.
“How did I forget my manners? I’m so sorry,” she said quickly, stuttering a little.
“It’s fine,” Jimmy said coolly.
“It’s been so long, you know, these times, it’s hard to get by. Sometimes I go by for weeks without a single, living, soul here,” she fanned herself, but then lucidity took hold again. “Mrs. Janice Chaldean, owner and landlady of this house.”
“Great,” Connie said, “it’s nice to meet you. Connie Wilkes and this,” she gestured to Jimmy.
“Jim-” Jimmy started. He quickly caught Mrs. Chaldean’s eyes. Suddenly the informal name seemed inappropriate. “James Herbert. James John Herbert.”
“A pleasure,” Mrs. Chaldean cooed. She gestured a side table just inside the doorway. “Please sign the register and take a seat in the dining room. Second door on the left. I expect you’re cold and hungry.”
“How much for a room for the night, before we…” Jimmy started. He met Mrs. Chaldean’s gaze. It was surprisingly laced with ice.
“Don’t worry, dear. Just make yourself at home.”
She disappeared into the kitchen, humming. A sliding glass door scraped shut, and Mrs. Chaldean became a blur in the patterned glass.
Connie moved to the register first. The book was laid open, just over halfway through, though the pages were old, yellowed paper that felt rough on her fingers. The last guests had checked in four months ago. Jimmy turned the book toward him. He turned back the pages. Six months, eight months, two years. The gap between guests was sporadic but lengthy. Signatures populated the in column – Ash, Harris, a guy called Culver – with nothing but dashes in the out.
“How does she keep a place like this going?” he asked curtly. He glanced quickly to the patterned glass door. Just the scent of a meat pie coming from underneath the door, carried by wisps of steam. “This can’t be everyone who’s ever stayed.”
“I mean, maybe she’s just a bit behind on her books?”
“Somehow I doubt she accepts cards. She asked us to sign the register quick as.” Jimmy eyed Connie suspiciously. “I don’t get a good vibe. I’m, like, warm but I’m cold. Cold, cold… cold.”
Connie gave a glance to the translucent glass at the end of the corridor. “Enough. It’ll do for the night, right?”
Jimmy nodded in forced acquiescence. He watched Connie’s hand move toward the closed, solid door of the front room. He took an involuntary sharp breath. “No, don’t.”
“I want to sit down. Even your gran’s house had a sitting room.” Connie grasped the knob. Her hand pulled away instantly, instinctively, and her heart leapt as she and Jimmy heard the chair scrape on the floor in the kitchen, and the door cracked open.
“Come this way, dears,” Mrs. Chaldean called, her gaze deftly swiping from Jimmy to Connie to Jimmy again. “Dinner’s served. Meat pie and mashed potatoes.”
“What meat?” Connie asked. Mrs. Chaldean paused in the doorway to the kitchen. She smiled slowly.
“Just meat pie, dear. Good, home-cooked meat.”
The young travellers looked at each other, their eyes bulging. Mrs. Chaldean stood still.
“Before the pie gets cold, my loves.” She gestured kindly further into the house, toward the kitchen. “Please, this way.”
They followed, their suspicion trumped by their hunger. The smell of the cooked pie, carried by steam, was overpowering and salivating.
The meal was a simple, brief affair around in a cramped back room, facing a wall with single pane windows around a set of French doors. They rattled lazily, caught by the cool wind that stalked the house. Jimmy ate methodically, while Connie was more ravenous. Mrs. Chaldean sat at the head of the table, eating her portion quietly.
“Enjoying, dears?” she asked with a saccharine voice.
Jimmy hummed, happier. “It’s very good.” He reached toward a dirty salt-shaker in the centre of the table. Gasping, Mrs. Chaldean snatched it quickly away.
“No!” she quickly gasped. Her hand grabbed the shaker. “Er, have this.” She passed the clearer salt shaker down from the countertop.
“Not like any steak pie I’ve ever tasted,” Connie commented. Her cutlery chinked and she mopped her face with a piece of paper towel from a roll on the table. “What kind of meat was it, did you say?”
Mrs. Chaldean’s face went cold. “I didn’t.” She quickly smiled, almost wryly, the expression cracking across her face. “Special recipe. Chaldean’s best. But don’t tell anyone!” The landlady cackled but caught herself. “Are you finished? I see two clear plates. Let me show you to your room.”
Jimmy nodded, exchanging a glance with Connie. They pushed their plates again and got up. Connie picked up her plate and Jimmy’s. The old woman batted her away. “No, don’t be silly. Come!”
Connie led, following the old woman up a creaky staircase. Jimmy followed, taking the first step and pausing. He turned on the step, a wide, wedge-shaped piece of worn carpet. He looked to the door that Connie had rattled. He inhaled slowly.
“Come on!” Connie called, lazily from upstairs. “Jimmy!”
He shook his head free from the trance-like sensation that even gazing for a moment at the door had brought about. He followed the staircase up to a dimly lit landing. Mrs. Chaldean stood next to a doorway that was ajar.
“Here you are, dear. I’m sure you’ll find the room sufficient.”
“Thanks,” Jimmy murmured, sidling through the doorway. He looked around to see Connie sitting on the edge of the bed.
“I must ask,” the landlady said, “as part of how I run my house that you refrain from… defiling the bed with sordid acts, where possible. I usually don’t entertain couples but, alas, I couldn’t say no to two such nice-seeming people, now, could I?”
Jimmy nodded slightly.
Mrs. Chaldean smiled. “Very well, my loves. Sleep well.”
The door clicked resolutely. Padded feet led away from the door, down the stairs. Jimmy turned to Connie. “Hey.”
“Hey,” she said, rolling her shoulders. The dim light flickered on her taut skin.
He looked to the foot of an old dresser, the stain on the wood so dark it was nearly jet-black. Their heavy bags were perched next to it. “Did you bring the bags up?”
Jimmy huffed, then yawned. The bed looked plush and, as he sat on it, he felt the springs of the mattress gently soften. Kicking off his shoes, he swung his legs around and onto the bed. He looked over, into Connie’s eyes.
“So,” he began, feeling an itch that he couldn’t scratch developing somewhere deep inside him.
Connie hummed. She stared lazily at the ceiling. Artex, cresting in waves around a plaster rose, from which hung a dainty lampshade. The bulb was out. Two bedside lamps on hefty painted tables, once white, now creamed with age, glowed. A strange warmth, enchanting and intoxicating, seemed to come from the wall behind the bed. Jimmy shifted first, unbuckling his jeans with a tinkle that was extinguished by the heap of denim hitting the floor. The bed creaked and groaned subtly, with a metallic ring. Jimmy looked over the headboard and found the radiator. Its heat was wild and inviting, coming off the surface in a constant wave. “You’re going to get us told off,” Connie giggled quietly.
“Only if she catches us,” Jimmy growled back.
Lowering himself down, he resumed a conventional position on the bed and looked over. Connie was there, exuding a special kind of heat herself. She was now completely naked, her skin matte.
She rolled slowly over. “We gonna…” she ventured, flicking her hair. It was subtle movement that made Jimmy gasp, revealing her flesh in the glowing light.
“Yeah,” he said, not looking at her eyes, instead drawing his gaze slowly down, past her breasts, to her navel and lower.
She smiled wickedly. With a motion of her hips, the slight moistness between her thighs was open for Jimmy to explore. She murmured as his hand ventured forth. It was a subtle, deliberate motion that steadily quickened, eliciting sharp gasps of breath from Connie. The bed heaved and sighed as she moved on top of him, and there was a regularity of the motion, the spring’s metallic whine and a low, happy moan coming and going, the pace slowly picking up and increasing.
“Jesus,” he breathed, and grasped her hips.
“J…,” she moaned, her ecstasy degrading his name to a single letter, a single syllable. It was longer the next time. “Jay…”
Propped up above her on his arms, rhythmically extending his pleasure into hers, Jimmy felt the sweat tingle on his skin. The mattress wailed, as did Connie, the speed steadily increasing, trumpeting toward a crescendo of emotion and effort –
The sound snapped through the air like an explosion. Jimmy stopped dead. Connie panted.
“The hell?!” he breathed, his chest heaving.
The sound came again. Jimmy hovered silently mid-thrust. Once more…
Closer. Nearer to the room. Naked, Jimmy slid from under and inside Connie and the bed, leaving dampened linen in a rough pattern. Connie heaved the covers up. Jimmy swiftly pulled on his discarded underwear.
“Go outside. See what it was. What was that?”
Perturbed, Jimmy opened the door. He poked a head out into the corridor. Nothing. Not a light on anywhere. The corridor was deserted. He walked further upward. Doors beckoned. The floorboards creaked, the sound of the flexing wood muffled by the carpeting.
“He… hello?” Jimmy rasped, his voice unable to break free of whisper. “Mrs. Chaldean?”
A handful of steps led down to another landing. The corridor turned sharply to the left. Jimmy padded along. His ears prickled. From what seemed like a distance came heaves of effort. Wet sighs. But the corridor couldn’t go on forever. He turned on his bare feet.
“Jesus!” he gasped loudly. The door behind him flung open. He saw what he thought was another man, hunched over the basin in the aged bathroom. The door crashed shut. Jimmy yelped and stumbled forward. He saw another door and just reached for the handle, not caring where it led. He didn’t want to stay here. Jumping through the doorway, he pulled the door closed, tight.
Jimmy’s heart pounded. The strong smell of disinfectants and cleaning products filled his sinuses. Then the wet, slimy feeling of tendrils on the floor. On his bare feet. The moisture ran cold. Sighing, but trying not to breathe, Jimmy rolled his eyes. He was hiding in the utility room.
Outside, a door opened, this time slowly. Carefully. A moment passed. Then it closed again, equally carefully. A metallic sigh came, then the air moved out of the way.
THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!
Murmurs, incomprehensible, filtered through. Jimmy quivered. He took a breath involuntarily. He immediately realised his mistake.
Falling, he pushed against the thin wooden cupboard door. The ball-latch barely held it closed on its own; his weight quickly overwhelmed the worn mechanism. With a clatter Jimmy was splayed on the hallway, surrounded by brushes and dusters.
The lights came on. Footsteps approached a door, right at the end of the hall. Two flower-embroidered slippers appeared, affixed to withered legs.
“Mr. Herbert, whatever is the matter?!” Mrs. Chaldean gasped. “What were you doing in there?”
She fussed over. Jimmy picked himself up. “It was, er… nothing. Did you not hear any noises?”
“Noises?!” the old lady said. She shook her head. “Good gracious, no. Quiet as a button, this house. Were you looking for the bathroom? It’s this door here…” her hand approached the handle of the door Jimmy had run from. The image of the man over the sink, the yellowed enamel flashing crimson, flared in the young man’s mind.
“No! God!” Jimmy yelled. He looked to the floor sheepishly, avoiding Mrs. Chaldean’s confused gaze. “Er, no, thank you.”
Mrs. Chaldean put a hand on his chin. Slowly she pushed his head up with a subtle but strong movement. “Best be off to bed with you, then. Long days bring about tricks of the mind. Though please, Mr. Herbert, can you please not climb into my cleaning cupboard again?”
“I… I’ll not do that. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she said sweetly. Very sweetly. “You remember where your room is, yes?”
She nodded at him with a piercing look that penetrated the dust mote-laden air. “Goodnight then, James Herbert.”