- Published: 21 May 2019
- ISBN: 9780552174879
- Imprint: Corgi
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $22.99
An Unwanted Guest
Friday, 4:45 pm
The road curves and twists unexpectedly as it leads higher and deeper into the Catskill Mountains, as if the further you get from civilization, the more uncertain the path. The shadows are deepening, the weather worsening. The Hudson River is there, appearing and disappearing from view. The forest that rises on either side of the road has a lurking quality, as if it might swallow you whole; it is the forest of fairy tales. The softly falling snow, however, lends it all a certain postcard charm.
Gwen Delaney grips the steering wheel tightly and squints through the windscreen. She’s more one for grim fairy tales than picture postcards. The light is going; it will soon be dark. The snow coming down makes driving more difficult, more tiring. The flakes hit the glass in such profusion that she feels as though she’s stuck in some kind of relentless video game. And the road is definitely becoming more slippery. She’s grateful that she has good tyres on her little Fiat. Everything is turning into a white blur; it’s hard to tell where the road ends and the ditch begins. She’ll be glad when they get there. She’s beginning to wish they’d chosen an inn a little less remote; this one is miles from anywhere.
Riley Shuter is silent in the passenger seat beside her, a ball of quiet tension; it’s impossible not to pick up on it. Just being with her in the small car puts Gwen on edge. She hopes she hasn’t made a mistake bringing her up here.
The whole point of this little escape, Gwen thinks, is to get Riley to relax a little, to take her mind off things. Gwen bites her lip and stares hard at the road ahead. She’s a city girl, born and bred; she’s not used to country driving. It gets so dark up here. She’s becoming anxious now – the drive has taken longer than planned. They shouldn’t have stopped for coffee at that cute little antique place along the way.
She’s not sure what she expected, suggesting this weekend getaway, other than a change of scenery, a chance to spend some quiet time together, with nothing to remind Riley that her life is in ruins. Perhaps that was naive.
Gwen has her own baggage, less recent, and she, too, carries it with her everywhere she goes. But she’s decided she’s going to put that behind her for this weekend at least. A small luxury hotel deep in the country, good food, no internet, pristine nature – it’s exactly what they both need.
Riley watches nervously out of the car window, peering into the shadowy woods, trying not to imagine someone jumping in front of their car at any second, waving them down. She clenches her hands into fists inside the pockets of her down jacket. She reminds herself that she’s not in Afghanistan any more. She’s home, safe, in New York State. Nothing bad can happen to her here.
Her career has changed her. Seeing what she has seen, Riley is so different that she hardly recognizes herself any more. She glances furtively at Gwen. They’d been close once. She’s not even sure why she agreed to come with her to this faraway country inn. She watches Gwen concentrating fiercely on the winding road up the slippery incline, heading into the mountains.
‘Are you okay?’ she asks suddenly.
‘Me?’ Gwen says. ‘Yeah, I’m fine. We should be there soon.’
In journalism school, when they were both at NYU, Gwen had been the steady, pragmatic one. But Riley was ambitious – she wanted to be where it was happening. Gwen had no taste for adventure. She’d always preferred books, and quiet. Out of journalism school, unable to find a decent job at a newspaper, Gwen had quickly parlayed her skills into a good corporate communications position and had never seemed to regret it. But Riley had headed to the war zones. And she’d managed to keep it together for a long time.
Why does she do this? Why does she keep thinking about it? She can feel herself starting to come apart. She tries to slow her breathing, the way she’s been taught. To stop the images from coming back, from taking over.
David Paley parks his car in the shovelled parking area to the right of the hotel. He gets out of the car and stretches. The weather made the drive from New York City longer than expected, and now his muscles are stiff – a reminder that he’s not quite as young as he used to be. Before grabbing his overnight bag from the back seat of his Mercedes, he stands for a moment in the thickly falling snow, looking at Mitchell’s Inn.
It’s a three-storey, graceful- looking structure of red brick and gingerbread trim, encircled by nearby forest. The front of the small hotel is open to view, with what must be a rather grand lawn underneath all the snow. Tall evergreens and mature trees bereft of leaves but draped in white seem to encroach on the building from a short distance away. In the front, an enormous tree in the middle of the lawn extends its thick branches in every direction. All is covered in a pure, muffling white snow. It feels quiet here, peaceful, and he feels his shoulders begin to relax.
There are large, rectangular windows spaced regularly across all three floors. Wide steps lead up to a wooden porch and double front doors decorated with boughs of evergreens. Although it is still daylight – barely – the lamps on either side of the doors are lit, and soft yellow light also spills from the windows on the ground floor, giving the building a warm, welcoming appearance. David stands still, willing the stresses of the day – and the week, and the years – to recede as the snow falls gently on his hair and tickles his lips. He feels like he’s walking into an earlier, more gracious, more innocent time.
He will try not to think about work for an entire forty-eight hours. Everyone, no matter how busy, needs to recharge once in a while, even – perhaps especially – a top criminal attorney. It’s rare for him to be able to fit in any downtime at all, much less an entire weekend. He’s determined to enjoy it.
Friday, 5:00 pm
Lauren Day glances at the man next to her, Ian Beeton. He’s driving his car expertly in rather challenging conditions, and making it all look easy. He has a disarming smile, and he turns it on her now. She smiles back. He’s nice-looking, too, tall and spare, but it’s the smile that first attracted her to him, his laid-back charm that makes him so appealing. Lauren rummages through her handbag for her lipstick. She finds it – a nice shade of red that brightens her face – and applies it carefully while looking in the mirror on the visor in front of her. The car skids a bit and she stops what she’s doing, but Ian straightens the vehicle skilfully. The road winds more steeply now, and the car has an increasing tendency to swerve as it loses traction.
‘Getting slippery,’ she says.
‘No worries. Nothing I can’t handle,’ he says and grins at her. She smiles back. She likes his self-confidence, too.
‘ Whoa – what’s that?’ she says suddenly. There’s a dark shape in front of them to the right. It’s a dull day, and with the snow falling so heavily it’s hard to see, but it looks like there’s a car in the ditch.
She stares keenly out of the window as they pass the vehicle, and Ian looks for somewhere to stop. ‘I think there’s someone in that car,’ she says.
‘Why don’t they have the hazard lights on?’ he mutters. He pulls over slowly to the side of the road, careful not to slide off the road himself. Lauren gets out of the warmth of the car
and plunges into several inches of virgin snow, which immediately falls inside her boots, stinging her ankles. She can hear Ian getting out of the car, too, slamming the door.
‘Hey!’ she cries down to the motionless car. The driver’s door opens slowly.
Lauren clambers down the incline carefully, sliding as she goes. The ground is uneven and she finds it hard to keep her balance. She reaches the car and grabs on to the door with her left hand for support as she peers into the front seat. ‘You okay?’ she asks.
The driver is a woman close to her own age – around thirty. She appears a bit shaken up, but the windscreen isn’t cracked and she’s wearing a seat belt. Lauren looks beyond the driver to the woman in the passenger seat. Her face is pale and sweating, and she’s staring straight ahead, as if Lauren isn’t even there. She looks like she’s had a dreadful shock.
The driver glances quickly at her companion, and then turns back to Lauren gratefully. ‘Yes, we’re fine. We went off the road just a few minutes ago. We were wondering what to do next. Lucky for us you came along.’
Lauren feels Ian come up behind her and peer over her shoulder at the two women inside the car. He smiles his charming smile at them. ‘Looks like you’re going to need a tow.’
‘Great,’ the driver says.
‘Where you headed?’ Lauren asks.
‘Mitchell’s Inn,’ she answers.
‘Well, isn’t that lucky,’ Ian says. ‘That’s where we’re going, too. Although I don’t think there’s much else out here. Why don’t we give you a lift, and you can arrange from the hotel for someone to come and get your car out?’
The woman smiles with relief and nods. She’s obviously glad to be rescued. Lauren doesn’t blame her. You could freeze to death out here all by yourself. But the woman with her doesn’t react. She seems to be in her own world.
‘You have any bags?’ Lauren asks.
‘Yes, in the back.’ The driver gets out of the car and struggles through the deep snow to the back of the vehicle. Her passenger now seems to snap out of her trance and gets out on the other side. The driver opens the boot as the woman appears beside her. They each grab an overnight bag.
Ian reaches down and offers all three women a hand up to the road. Even with help, it’s an awkward climb.
‘Thanks so much,’ the driver says. ‘My name is Gwen, and this is Riley.’
‘I’m Lauren and this is Ian,’ she says. ‘Let’s get in the car. It’s so cold.’ She casts a furtive glance at the woman named Riley, who hasn’t said a word. She wonders what’s up with her. Something about her definitely seems off.
There are many expensive houses here in Brecken Hill, an enclave on the edge of Aylesford, in the Hudson Valley.
On this hot August night, Tom Krupp parks his car – a leased Lexus – in the driveway of his handsome two-storey home.
The snow has fallen heavily, relentlessly, for two days now, and shows no sign of letting up.
Starbursts blink from streetlights like they’re sharing a secret as I wake to find myself slumped in the back of a cab, without any recollection of how I got here, or where I’m going.
I stare down at the young man who stands below me ankle-deep in the mud of the banks of the Thames.
The first three men came stumbling into town shortly after ten a.m., babbling of dark shapes and eerie screams and their missing buddy Scott and their other buddy Tim, who set out from their campsite before dawn to get help.
Inside Laura's head, Deidre spoke. The trouble with you, Laura, she said, is that you make bad choices.
The boy gasped for breath, hair in his mouth, before the next wave slammed him back against the bottom. He tumbled, the fizz of bubbles around him.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.