by David Ellis (winner of the short story category)
C H A P T E R 1 – DEATH AND SURPRISES
My phone buzzed. Again.
I didn’t reach for it. I was still staring in disbelief at the computer screen in front of me, reading the same three sentences over and over as if somehow they would change if I squinted at them just right.
Dear [FirstName LastName], we regret to inform you that the position provisionally offered is no longer available. In accordance with state law, we remind you that you are ineligible to submit a complaint in this matter. We wish you the best in your continuing job hunt. Sincerely… blah blah blah.
Unbelievable. After over a year of struggle I’d finally had a decent interview, made it to the second round, the third, and finally been offered a job. It was nothing fancy — junior marketing consultant — but it was a job, and it was in Chicago, a city rife with opportunities. But now, just before my big move, the job was gone and they couldn’t even be bothered to get my name right.
FirstName LastName, indeed. I’m Poppy Knott, thank you very much.
I had everything packed, ready to begin life afresh. At that very moment I was sitting on one large, taped-up cardboard box, while my laptop perched atop two more stacked boxes, acting as a makeshift table.
I’d have to start telling people some time, right? Informing them that the job I’d been so excited about had evaporated, and now I was just a loser with nothing but three overstuffed cardboard boxes.
No time like the present.
“Hi, Mom. I lost it.”
“Hello, dear. Lost what? Did you check your boxes?”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or sigh.
“I lost the job, Mom. They rescinded the offer. No explanation given or required on their part.”
“Oh!” A pause. “Good!”
I sprang to my feet, phone pressed hard against my ear.
“Good, dear. I just got some interesting news and I really think—”
“Mom! I lost the job! The job I went to all those interviews for? The job that was my first step on the career ladder? The job that I’ve been excited about for weeks? The reason that all my stuff is in boxes…”
“Yes, yes, you said that. It’s lucky your stuff is in boxes already!”
“And why, pray tell, might that be?”
“Because you’re going to Spain, honey!”
My mother makes me say what a lot. She has that effect on people. If we all have special gifts — which Mom assures me we do — hers is the ability to elicit confusion in anyone who has a conversation with her. I’m not sure what my gift is, but I think it might be survivingliving-with-my-Mom.
“Is the signal bad? Can you hear me? Hello?”
“The signal is fine, Mother, but you’re not making any sense.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. After living with her most of my life I had become nearly immune. Mom has the annoying habit of conducting approximately fifty percent of a conversation in her imag‐ ination, and then believing that you were party to her daydreaming. Her friends found it quirky and endearing. I did not. Spain was a new one though.
“Your Great Aunt Millicent passed away, and I thought it would be nice if you went over and, you know, dealt with it.”
I cocked my head to the side as if some hidden knowledge would drop out of the phone into my head and everything would make sense again.
“Your great aunt, she—”
“What great aunt? What are you talking about?”
There was a brief pause on the other end of the phone.
“Did I never tell you about her?”
Her voice had a vague accusatory undertone as if it was my fault that she’d never shared this with me.
“But surely I told you about the summers I spent there, as a child? Swimming in the sea, cakes in the garden, ice creams in the sun?”
I shook my head.
“Are you shaking your head?” asked Mom down the phone.
Oops. Perhaps I inherited just a smidgen of my mother’s ditziness.
“Yeah. You neglected to mention any of that in the last quarter century we lived together, Mom. I’ve never heard of this great aunt or any of your idyllic childhood vacations in Spain.”
“No? It must have slipped my mind. Anyway, it turns out she’s passed, and we’re the next of kin. You’ll be a dear and sort it all out for me, won’t you?”
“I… don’t know how to do that?”
I was supposed to be mad at losing my job before it even started. Instead, I felt much as you would if you took a wrong turning on the way to the supermarket and found yourself driving through Beijing.
“Oh, there’ll be a lawyer or something. And I’m sure there’ll be someone there to help you, in the guesthouse.”
“You know, like I just told you. The guesthouse. Or was it a hotel? Where I spent my summers as a child.”
“You didn’t… I mean… I can’t afford to go to Spain. I need a job, and I need to save and—”
“You worry about money too much, dear.”
I laughed. Not a happy, amused chuckle, but the bitter laugh of someone who’s received one too many red-stamped, last-chance missives.
“Much as I’d love to ignore money, Mom, grocery stores, landlords and utility companies are all pretty keen on receiving it.”
“There’ll be plenty of money. The guesthouse must be worth a fortune. I’ll give you something to tide you over, and then we’ll split the inheritance. Deal?”
“I…” …didn’t have any particular reason to say no. I didn’t have a boyfriend. My job had disappeared. And I’d been planning to move anyway. But Spain?
“Good. We’ll book you a ticket for tomorrow. I’ll dig out your passports.”
“You said passport, right?”
“Passports, dear. It’ll be much simpler if you use your European one.” My what now? Still perched on the edge of one of my boxes, I listened while Mom explained everything.
C H A P T E R 2 – THE FORTUNATE HOTEL
It wasn’t Spain. At least, it wasn’t Spain, Spain. Not the bustling capital city of Madrid. Not the beautiful coastal city of Barcelona with its famous cathedrals and museums. Not Valencia, Bilbao nor Seville. I had often daydreamed about taking a tour around Europe, and was somewhat familiar with the major sights. But it turned out that Great Aunt Millicent had lived in a part of Spain that I, as an American Midwesterner, had never even heard of: The Canary Islands. Tenerife, to be exact.
One of seven inhabited Spanish islands in the Atlantic, off the North West coast of Africa, the archipelago of the Canaries had been Spanish for centuries, and a stopping off point on their voyages of conquest and trade with the New World. But they had entirely escaped my notice until I found myself on the largest of them. Two days after I lost the job I never even started, I stood on the threshold of an old colonial house. A plaque read The Fortunate Hotel.
At my feet I had a single suitcase — my boxes had gone to Mom’s — and from my shoulders hung a small backpack.
I pushed the door open and stepped inside the old, stone building. The walls in the entranceway were painted white stone, and ahead of me I could see a courtyard filled with bright, flowering plants and bushes. Before the courtyard was a small desk on the right, above which hung a sign reading Reception. There was not a hint of life to be seen.
I walked to the reception desk. No one was there. Behind it was a half-open door, and on it a plaque that read Manager. I peered inside.
The manager’s office was a busy room, lined with bookshelves on one side stuffed with binders, folders and files stacked tightly above rows of ancient-looking tomes. The only exception was the shelf closest to the door, the contents of which seemed to have been stacked up on the large wooden desk which dominated the centre of the room.
On the desk were stacks of folders and books from the shelf, some old building plans, and a massive journal that appeared to be used to record bookings. There was no sign of a computer.
“Hello?” I asked fruitlessly.
There was a distant bang from elsewhere in the hotel. I stepped back out of the office and stood in front of the reception desk.
“Hello?” I called again, rather more optimistically. The bang had sounded like life, of a sort.
Slow footsteps began to head my way. Each pair of audible steps was followed by the loud rapping of a cane smacking against the tiled floor.
Finally, a broad shouldered, silver-haired, gentleman of a certain age strode into view. That certain age being at least seventy-five years old.
“Wing Commander Bright!” he barked at me.
“Bright. That’s my name. What do you want?”
He ran his eyes over me much like you would when sizing up a horse. I crossed my arms in front of me and hoped he wouldn’t decide I needed to be put down. He looked like the sort of man who might have a rifle to hand, just in case.
“I’m here about my great aunt. Her name was Millicent Knott, and I believe she—“
“Ah! You’re the girl! Poppy!”
I smiled at him in relief. Mom had kept her word and told them I was coming. I still didn’t have much of an idea of how things were going to proceed. I’d never dealt with a death in the US, let alone abroad. On the flight over, my uneasy sleep had been filled with distressing dreams of Spanish bureaucrats waving sheafs of paper menacingly at me.
“That’s right. Poppy Knott. And I’m—”
“Here to find her, what?”
“Here to find her, I said. We haven’t had breakfast in four days!” He smacked his cane on the ground in consternation. “Four days!”
I bit my lip. What had Mom gotten me into this time?
“Unless you were the one who hid her? Is that your game, Missy?”
I shook my head. For the last few days the whole world had been working in conspiracy with the sole goal of confusing me, and it didn’t show any signs of stopping.
“I was told she died. I’m here to…” I put my palms out face up in front of me. “…deal with it all.”
“Dead? She’s not dead.” He scrunched up his face. “Is she?”
“That’s what my mother said. That’s why I’m here. I’m Millicent’s great-grand-niece and I was told she was dead and that’s why I’ve come.”
“That’s right. You’re Lola’s daughter! She used to summer here, apparently. Wonderful time. Ice cream in the garden, cakes in the sea…”
“You know my mother?”
“Of course. We all do. Milly was always talking about her. You, too.” He leaned in toward me, a disapproving look on his face. “Why’d it take you so long to come visit, hmm?”
A short time later, with my head spinning more from the turn of events than the jet lag, I found myself sitting in a wicker armchair in the courtyard, a hot cup of tea in front of me. Wing Commander Bright sat opposite me, while beside him was a sleepy Spanish man.
“This here’s Pepe, the assistant manager.”
I held out my hand toward him. Lethargically, he took it, and then bent his head over to kiss it.
“Enchanted,” he said, following it up quickly with a long yawn. He slumped back into his chair and continued to slowly blink to himself as if he might just drop off to sleep again. Bright had roused Pepe from inside where he’d apparently been taking a nap.
Another man, this one middle-aged, appeared from the gloomy inside of the building, looked at us curiously, and began to make his way over.
“Vhat is happening?” he asked in a concerned, thick German accent.
“Fritz! Come join us!” said Bright to the other man who was clearly already planning to do just that.
The newcomer loomed over me, as if examining some as yet unidentified flotsam on a beach.
“Ahh! Poppy, ja?”
“That’s right. Nice to meet you.”
“Dr. Fritz Werner. Will you be the new manageress?”
He sat himself down in another wicker chair while he spoke.
“What?” I asked for the thousandth time.
Bright shook his head. “No, Fritz, you don’t understand. She’s here to find Millicent.” He turned back toward me. “Aren’t you?”
“I thought she was dead. But if you’re all sure she’s not, then I suppose I had better try and find her. But I’m rather confused. How do you all know her so well? And me? Aren’t you just guests in the hotel?”
“Just guests?” asked Fritz to Bright. Wing Commander Bright let out a harumphing sound. “We are not just guests. We occupy the first floor.”
I blinked. I had no idea what he meant.
“Not the second floor, ja?”
That didn’t exactly clarify things. I looked toward Pepe, but he had lost his battle to keep his eyes open and had fallen asleep in his chair. I was going to fight this one alone.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. What do you mean by the first floor?”
Fritz and Bright exchanged confused glances, before the older man’s eyes went wide.
“Ah! You’re American! Of course! No wonder you’re confused. You see, what we call the first floor, you call the second floor. So, to put it in your words, we stay on the second floor, not the third. Do you see?”
I took a big gulp of hot tea before responding.
“But what does that mean?” The men exchanged another look. “Don’t you know anything about the Fortunate?”
“I don’t think she does, ja?”
“I’ve never heard of it! I didn’t even know I had an Aunt Milly! I don’t know anything about anything. Please, can you stop speaking in riddles?”
The two men sat back in their chairs with a start, clearly surprised by my little outburst. Perhaps the jet lag was getting to me.
“Fine. I’ll pretend you know nothing. The guests on the first floor are long termers. The regulars, as it were. Whereas the second floor is for short term guests.” Bright leaned forward and hissed, “Holiday makers!”
“So that’s why you know Aunt Milly so well? How long have you been here?”
“Eighteen years,” said Bright.
“You’ve been staying here eighteen years?”
“Yes. I came for a week, but the weather was so agreeable I decided to stay the whole winter. But the climate was so mild, I didn’t really notice the seasons fly by. It’s easy enough to do. Before I knew it, I’d become a long-termer.” He clapped his hands together. “And pow! Eighteen years!” He glanced up toward the sky high above. “Or is it nineteen…”
“I spend just four months a year here,” offered Fritz, “but I’ve been doing so for seventeen years now.”
“Who else is here?”
“There are no holiday makers. Pepe cancelled all the bookings when Milly went missing. You can’t run a hotel without a manger.”
“Or breakfast! Ja?”
“And the long termers?”
“There’s the Armstrongs, Mr Mawcett, Ms Kim and Ms Kim, and Lilly. But they’re all off on jaunts and trips I’m afraid. It’s just us here today.”
“And you’re sure Aunt Milly is just missing?”
“We’re not sure of anything,” said Bright. “All we know is one minute she was here, and the next she was gone.”
“And no breakfast! You’ll do it tomorrow, ja?”
“We’ll see. But perhaps you could answer just a few more questions for me…?”
C H A P T E R 3 – THE SEARCH BEGINS…
An hour later I had a brief respite as I lay back on a large, white-sheeted bed on the second floor of the hotel. One of the holiday maker rooms. The windows and shutters were open, and a cool Atlantic breeze gently drifted in, bringing with it the cheerful chatter of birdsong and the sweet scents of brightly colored flowers which grew in window boxes outside.
After further prodding and riddle solving I’d ascertained more information from Wing Commander Bright and Dr. Fritz Werner.
The hotel was only very small and lightly staffed. There was Pepe the assistant manager and part time waiter, handyman, and concierge. A chef who prepared the evening meals — the hotel did not offer lunches — and a full-time housekeeper who had been on her after‐ noon break when I arrived. Lording over them all, was my great aunt Millicent — or Milly as they called her — who also took on the role of breakfast chef each morning.
With Milly missing, the hotel’s operations had come to a screeching halt. Through a skilled display of teamwork featuring some astonishing displays of miscommunication, word had managed to reach my mother that the Fortunate Hotel was in dire straits. Along the way the message had become confused, and now instead of the funeral attire I’d packed, I perhaps needed a detective hat instead.
After a brief rest, I pushed myself up from the bed and exited the light and airy room that was to be mine for the next few days. It was time to get to work.
The building was structured around the central, open-air court‐ yard in which I had sat and chatted earlier. On each of the top two floors were internal wrap-around gallery-style balconies, leading off of which were the guest rooms. On the ground floor was the restau‐ rant, bar, lounge, manager’s office and my aunt’s private apartment.
I walked down the wide, wooden staircase which connected the levels. My first port of call was back to the manager’s office, behind the reception desk.
It looked just as overstuffed as when I peered in earlier.
I clapped my hands together.
“Let’s get started.”
Startled, I span around to see Pepe. Unlike earlier, he was now shiny-eyed and positively bursting with energy. He was dressed in black trousers and shoes, and a white shirt. He bounced up and down and rubbed his hands together.
“Señorita, we must find your aunt. Without her the hotel will close. No more job! Thirty years I work here. We must find her!”
“Where do we start then, Pepe? Is there anywhere she might have gone? Did she have any hobbies? Was she planning a trip anywhere?”
Before he answered, Pepe hurried around the desk and pulled out an ancient looking leather-covered chair from behind it.
“Please, sit, sit, sit.”
Pepe hurried around to the front of the desk and pulled a fold-up chair from against the wall and situated it in front of the desk for himself.
A little self-conscious, but not wanting to rock the boat, I went and sat behind the desk. I sunk down lower than I expected, and the chair was a lot more comfortable than it had first appeared. I put my hands in front of me on the desk and couldn’t help but smile. All of a sudden I felt important.
I could see Milly’s big appointment book in front of me with all the guests stays detailed. Several had lines carefully drawn through them, presumably by Pepe. Elsewhere on the desk was a myriad of other papers and notes, from what looked like plans of the building to order lists for the restaurant and a to-do list of odds and ends that needed fixing and repairing around the hotel, as well as the contents of the emptied bookshelf.
“Yes, she had hobbies — many. But none that could make her disappear. Trips? Sometimes, but not this week. She just disappeared.” He slapped his hands together with a cracking clap. “Poof! Gone!”
“Who was the last to see her?”
“I do not know. But it happened on Monday afternoon. After lunch, I spoke to her in here about the week’s guests then I went for my siesta. That evening — she was gone!”
“Does she usually go anywhere in the evenings?”
“On Mondays? Never!”
“Had she said anything out of the ordinary? Was there anything different about your conversation that Monday?”
Pepe leaned back, and then looked up toward the ceiling as if recalling something from very long ago.
“She asked me about the history of the building again. She has lived here for forty years, so of course she knows a lot. She already knew it belonged to an Irish merchant originally, but she suddenly asked about the details of his trading. In the past she was only inter‐ ested in the previous occupants lifestyles — how the rooms were used, notable guests, typical days. She was never concerned about the Irish merchant’s work before.”
I glanced around the room. It had the heavy, cool, air of a building far older than anything that existed in rural Indiana where I was from.
“When was it built?”
This house — or hotel, as it was now — was older than my whole country.
“What did you tell her?”
“I do not know much about the merchant. I believe he traded mostly in wines, but otherwise—” He gave another shrug.
“What did she say to that?”
“She said thank you Pepe, and she smiled, and left.”
“And you didn’t see her again?”
“No. I went for my siesta, and when I awoke — poof.”
“Thank you, Pepe. Do you think you could find Bright and Fritz for me? Perhaps they could tell me more.”
“They are drinking in the lounge. I shall fetch them.”
The two men’s arrival was preceded by the sound of ice clinking in glasses. When they arrived, there was a slight red tinge to both of their faces. Each of them was clutching a tall glass which I took to be filled with gin and tonic.
“Any luck?” asked Bright as he entered. He wasn’t using a cane this time. It seemed his drink had provided him with some fortification.
Pepe quickly pulled up another chair and urged Fritz and Bright to sit down.
“Messiest place in the hotel, ja?” said Fritz, staring at the desk in apparent disappointment.
Bright’s brow creased in frown as he gave the room his own examination.
“It’s not usually. Milly runs a tight ship.”
“Did either of you see Milly on Monday afternoon, after Pepe left for his nap?”
The two men frowned at each other.
“Nein. I mean, no, I did not see her. On Monday afternoons I walk. Always. I was not present in the hotel.”
“I was,” said Bright. “I popped in to tot up up my account. Every fortnight I settle up what I owe. Wasn’t in here but two minutes.”
“Did she seem okay? Was there anything strange about her that day?”
Bright sipped at his drink, then nodded toward the desk.
“She asked me something about Malmsey wine.”
“Ahh! Vino de Malvasia!”
We all turned to look at Pepe, who was standing in front of the bookcase.
“It is one of our treasures!”
“Don’t like it,” said Bright. “That’s what I told her.” He turned to Pepe. “No offense. Gin for me, old boy. Gin and port.”
“Was there anything else?”
“I asked what she was doing.” He pointed at the mess on the desk. “Said she was having a clean up. I told her it looked like she’d blown up a grenade.”
“She laughed, I paid up, and left. Last I saw of her.”
I leaned back in the chair, one hand against my chin. I stared ahead vacantly, eyes resting on the desktop. The two guests in front of me slowly sipped their drinks in contemplative silence. Pepe had his hands clasped together in front of him, while he slowly bounced up and down with nervous energy.
The three of them had spent over a third of a century in this building between them.
I had spent less than two hours.
I was seeing it with fresh eyes.
That was probably what allowed me to figure it out.
“I think I might know where she went…”
C H A P T E R 4 – …AND ENDS IN TRAGEDY
The four of us all stood, crowding around the desk. The plans had been sitting there the whole time, but it was only when I was leaning back in the chair that their significance occurred to me.
“…you see?” I jabbed my finger. “Right there is a staircase.”
We all peered to where the staircase was supposed to be. It was exactly where the cleared bookshelf was situated.
Pepe got there first, and in a moment he was running his hands around the inside of the empty shelf.
Silent as you please, the bookshelf swung toward us on some silent, hidden mechanism. On the other side was revealed a staircase.
“Nineteen years!” said Bright. “Nineteen years and she never told me about this cellar!”
“I don’t think she knew, ja?”
“She must have gone down there, what?”
“And got trapped, ja?”
“Almost five days,” said Pepe, quietly. “It’s a long time.” A long time.
He didn’t need to say any more. We all knew what he meant. Five days locked in a cellar without supplies meant death by thirst.
Using my phone’s flashlight, I pointed it inside. It revealed a short flight before the staircase turned and went back on itself.
“I’ll go down and look.”
“Let me put my gin down and I’ll come, too, what.”
“Give it here. I’ll hold the bookcase, so it doesn’t close on you, ja?”
Holding the light ahead of me, I went down the stairs, Bright and Pepe close behind.
When I turned and shone the light down the second flight of stairs, a stone-walled corridor was revealed before us.
“Milly?” asked Bright, voice elevated.
We kept going.
A few yards farther, and we passed from the corridor into a square room. Along one wall was another shelf, in the middle of which was a large barrel. From the end, a spout was slowly dripping dark liquid.
“Great Aunt Millicent?”
“It’s Wing Commander Bright! And Poppy! Are you down here?”
I shone my light around the room, and to our right another passageway was revealed.
Bright walked beside me as we walked between damp-looking stone walls. We emerged into another, larger room.
“Milly!” shouted Bright.
On the other side of the room was a large, high-backed wooden chair. Sitting on it, was an old lady, head slumped against her chest.
On the old woman’s lap sat a wooden mug, her old hands wrapped around it.
She was dead.
I knew it as soon as I saw her.
Of course she was.
Who could survive five days down in a cold cellar with no food? Bright hurried forward.
“Milly!” He shouted again.
Great Aunt Millicent’s head snapped up, as did her hand holding the wooden mug. It caught Bright under the chin.
“Oh!” shouted Bright as he staggered backward, toppling as he did so. I got there just in time to catch him.
“Great Aunt Millicent?” I asked, over Bright’s shoulder.
“Yesh? I… yesh?” The woman shook her head. “Would you like suh.. sho… some wine? There’sha barrel… in my cellar.”
Bright pulled himself together and stood up straight again, one hand rubbing at his chin.
“You’ve been down here the whole time? Are you okay?”
Milly reached down to her side and pulled up an old looking sack. While we looked on curiously, she pulled out a fistful of candles and a box of matches.
“Found some suh.. sh… supplies.” She raised her cup and pointed it back the way we came. “And some wine. For… shus… sustenp— food.”
“Wine for food, what? You are a trooper Milly! Come on. Let’s get you out of here.”
Sitting in the courtyard while we waited for an ambulance, Aunt Milly soaked up the warmth of the sun like a reptile, eyes closed against the brightness.
As best we could tell, she was in passable health, considering the circumstances. The bookcase door had closed behind her and locked her into the virtually soundproof cellar on that Monday afternoon.
Down in the cellar, she had initially used a flashlight, until its batteries failed and she turned to the candles she had discovered in her subterranean explorations. There was an old well in the cellar, and she had supplemented the water with wine from the old barrel we had found dripping away.
“That barrel would have been worth a fortune,” lamented Pepe.
“But now the seal has been broken it is next to worthless. It’s a tragedy!”
“Better than her dying down there, what?”
“Kept her energy up, ja?”
“I’m just glad she’s alive. I thought I travelled here for a funeral. This is a much happier ending than I was expecting.”
Fritz turned to look at me, eyes narrowed.
Bright shook his head at me.
“More like a beginning, what? She’s got to go to hospital to recuperate.”
Aunt Milly suddenly opened her eyes, and locked them on mine. The glassiness fading in an instant.
“You’ll have to take over for me while I recover, dear. Pepe will show you the ropes.”
“We take breakfast at eight a.m., ja?”
“Ja… I mean… okay?”
An orange-spotted lizard crept out from underneath a lavender bush and sat down beside Aunt Milly’s chair, soaking up the rays beside her.
I looked around the courtyard, and then up at the old, wood and stone structure above me.
It sure was a long way from Chicago.
But there were certainly worse places to end up.
“I pronounce you Acting Manager of The Fortunate Hotel.”
The corners of my mouth crept up into a stupid grin. Mom hadn’t done too badly this time after all.
David Ellis – email@example.com