The once warm, idyllic air turned chill and robbed the earth of its vibrance as the yellow taxi arrived at the Hotel Imperial. The hotel resided on the edge of the scenic resort town of Riders Bay, a town which had lost its luster years ago. The overcast sky accentuated the scent of dew permeating the thinning air. Soon, it seemed, the air would thin until there was nothing left to breathe.
“There’s supposed to be clear skies all weekend long,” the driver said, turning around to face his female passenger as the taxi screeched to a halt. “Hell, it looks to me like a storm’s brewing.”
The woman peered at the greyed sky, pondering all she would soon wrought. She slyly grinned paying the fare. “I shouldn’t be here longer than the weekend,” she said in her posh British accent.
She scanned the exterior of the hotel standing aside the taxi while the driver took her bags from the trunk. The nearby, overgrown shrubbery browned from inattentiveness just as the paint on the hotel faded, and the walkway cracked. A raise of her eyebrows betrayed an awareness of the lack of care the old building received. The hotel would not be fit for her, but thougth it would have to do as she moved into the lobby.
The woman brushed aside her long, wavy, blonde hair letting it cascade down the middle of her back as she strode up to the concierge desk. Her stilettos clacked on the scuffed black and white tile floor of the hotel lobby, echoing in the empty space. She slowly consumed the bellhop with her eyes, absorbed as he was with his smartphone, before he sprung up to help with her bags.
The concierge, transfixed by her rather large novel, didn’t realize she had company. The woman read the girl’s name tag: Mary.
The blonde cleared her throat. Mary put down her steamy romance with the tattered cover, yellowing pages, and a “used” tag from the local library. She straightened up and put on a bright smile. The woman knew she would be one of only a few guests during the offseason and this worked to her advantage.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” the girl asked politely.
“I hate being called ma’am. The name’s Sloane.”
“Okay, Miss Sloane–”
“No, no, my dear.” Sloane waved off the receptionist’s words as she fluttered her lush eyelashes. “We’re friends now. Please Mary, it’s Sloane. Just Sloane.”
“Okay, Sloane. How can I–”
“You see I’m quite late, aren’t I?”
“Yes. Check-in was two hours past.”
“No, no. I mean to say, I should have arrived at a sooner date as to confirm.”
“Um, confirm what, Miss– I mean, Sloane?”
“Should I tell you?” Sloane bit her lip nervously. “Well, seeing as how we are basically old friends now, Mary,”—Sloane rested her hand softly onto the girl’s as she whispered—“I’ll tell you. But I must warn you, it is a great deal of gossip. Okay?”
Mary nodded, uncertain.
“It all began when my ex-boyfriend’s sister’s ex-husband’s other stepson from a previous marriage was in trouble. You see, I was very fond of the lad as he was growing up. Then he was accepted to attend university. He was the very first in his family, and it was the only opportunity to leave the small backward coal-mining town. The whole town hadn’t even accepted the concept of singing or dancing. Quite backward.”
Sloane pursed her lips as Mary leaned in. “Really?” she asked, intrigued.
Sloane leaned forward as well. “Oh, yes. But the poor young man was not of money, and no one else would pay. So, I put it upon myself to give him the money for his studies. I wanted to be of as much assistance as I could. I wired him the money every month for a year, until eventually I received a very disturbing call in the dead of night while out on safari, hunting ivory poachers.”
“What was the call about?” Mary asked, breathlessly.
“I’ll tell you. The young man had been mugged. All of his money and all the school books needed were stolen. He was severely beaten in the attack. He would have died had it not been for a monastery of Buddhists who took it upon themselves to heal him. I flew eight thousand and a half miles to be with him and help him recover. I asked why the monks hadn’t helped him during the assault, and they said it was because they were strictly non-violent.”
“What the hell do they think about people getting beat up right in front of them?” Mary said exacerbated. “I can’t believe it. Then what happened?”
Sloane did all she could to suppress a slight smile. How effortless it had been to bring this quaint young woman into her grasp. Now, though, the time came to reel her in with the emotional gut punch. She eyed the paperback resting under Mary’s clasped hands.
“Together, he and I stayed at the monastery as he recovered. While there, I learned two very important things about myself. One, I found religion and the ancient teachings of Karma. I learned the importance of paying kind acts forward.”
Mary nodded. “I completely agree with that. I so believe in helping those in need.”
“And the second thing?” she asked.
“That I was desperately in love with that young man. He was fifteen years my junior, but we didn’t care. Age was nothing to us but a number. We furiously made love at the monastery over the next six months.”
Mary clutched her heavy novel, tearing small pieces off the pages. Her teeth chattered anxiously, and her eyes grew wide. Sloane took the girl’s fingers into both of her hands to save the book.
“That is, until he left. Nigel, that’s his name, was so vibrant, if you know what I mean. So strong. I realized I wasn’t helping him, he was helping me.”
“Where did he go? Why did he leave?” Mary’s eyes glistened with unshed tears.
“He’s here. In Riders Bay. It turns out he lied to me and the monks about why he was attacked. He wasn’t being mugged, you see. He owed the mob for a gambling debt.”
“He lost all of your money gambling?” Mary’s eyes widened.
“Poker, to be precise.”
“How could he betray you like that?”
“You see, it isn’t what you think.”
“What was it?”
“He was gambling to pay for his best friend’s roommates’ mother’s cancer treatment. They didn’t have the money, so they thought they could gamble for it. Illegally, of course. The mob is after him for the rest of it now.”
“Oh, my God. But he’s the love of your life.”
“I know. I’d do anything for my dearest, Nelson.”
“I thought you said his name was Nigel?”
“It is. Nigel Nelson.”
“Then what?” Mary asked, shaking off her last comment.
“I told the mob boss, Big Columbo, I’d pay the money in a month. That was three months ago.”
“How much money?”
“Five hundred thousand dollars.”
“Oh, my God.”
“I know.” Sloane cast her eyes at their still-clutched hands. “I’m – excuse my French – totally fucked.”
Sloane looked up, straight into Mary’s eyes. “And that’s the other reason I’m here. To get the money.”
“From where? From who? From Nigel Nelson?”
“No, from Nathan.”
“Who’s Nathan?” Mary’s grip tightened on Sloane’s hand.
“Nathan Nelson. Nigel Nelson’s illegitimate brother from their mother’s second marital affair with Nolan Nelson.”
“Nigel took the name of his mother’s side-piece?”
“No. They were both named Nelson. They were all cousins.”
“Oh, my God.”
“I know. So tragic.”
“So, Nathan has the money?”
“And he’s in town with Nigel?’
“No, Nathan inherited the money from Nolan, and Nathan wants to pay Nigel with Nolan’s money.”
“I see. I think. This all seems really fantastic. I don’t know about any of this.” Mary’s grip loosened and she pulled her hands away. Sloane gripped the girl’s fingers just tight enough to convince her not to walk away.
“I understand your hesitance to believe a formerly complete stranger, but I am indeed in danger. I so desperately need your help, Mary.”
“What do you mean?”
“All this time we’ve been talking, I feel we’ve become sisters.”
“I get that. I’m told I’m very approachable.” She leaned back toward Sloane.
“I need you, my sweet.”
“Aw. I’m your sweet?”
“That’s what I called my late sister, when she was still alive.”
“What happened to her?”
“She was killed by her ex-husband.”
“Oh, my God. Nigel killed her?”
“No. Nathaniel did it. Nigel Nelson’s best friend from grammar school.”
“You do catch on.”
“How can I help?”
“I need a place to stay. Somewhere off the books. If the mob knows I’m here, they will kill me.”
“Say no more. I’ll leave work right away. You can stay at my house until we figure this out.”
Sloane’s eyes darted back and forth at the unexpected detour in her plan. Before she could lose control of the situation, she gripped Mary’s hands tighter.
“No, we can’t. I knew you’d say that because you’re very maternal. I could tell just by looking at you. I have to protect you, which means we can never be seen near each other. In fact, we can never even speak to one another again. It’s for your own protection. I have to protect you. I won’t fail you the way I failed my mother who died in a terrible potato extraction accident.”
“Oh, my God.”
“I know. You can stay here.”
“Yes, of course.”
“I haven’t any money. Not right now, anyway.”
“Say no more.” Mary typed on the computer. “I can put you in–”
“The Presidential Suite, if it’s available. I want to have a lot of space to hide just in case the mob come looking. You know, room to room.”
“I know.” Sloane looked down and bit her bottom lip.
“Yes, of course. The Presidential Suite.” Mary looked over to the bellhop. “Robbie, take Sloane’s bags to the top suite, and keep it quiet.”
“Yeah, okay,” Robbie said nervously, having heard the entire conversation.
Sloane nodded in appreciation. “Thank you. Again, remember, we may never see or even speak to each other again. I must keep you safe.”
The blonde held up Mary’s hand to her cheek. They both teared up as they said their final goodbyes.
“I’ll always keep you safe, my sweet,” Mary said.
“Thank you. I’ll always remember you.”
Sloane walked away one tentative step at a time, extending her arm until she and Mary had to let go. She moved a few steps to the elevator Robbie held when she turned back and returned to Mary.
“Yes, my sweet?” Mary asked eagerly.
“The room key.”