It was a dark and stormy night. The proprietor of The Swamp Cottage hurried in out of the rain and draped his yellow slicker over a chair in the lobby. The weather was getting worse; he doubted that any more guests would be arriving that night. Bud was headed towards the kitchen in search of some iced tea when the lights went out. He paused for a moment, waiting for the generators to kick in. They didn’t.
Trying to avoid the tables and chairs in the dining room, Bud made his way back towards the lobby. He knew there was a flashlight in one of the drawers behind the front desk. Lightning flashed and lit the room for a full second. Thunder rattled the windows. Bud reached the front desk and waited for more lightning to aid his search for the flashlight.
Suddenly a bloodcurdling scream pierced the night. A figure, barely visible in the darkness, stumbled through the door from the stairwell.
“Somebody, help me!” the woman shrieked. “I think he’s dead!”
Terror gripped Bud’s soul. He tried to calm the woman down while he felt around the last few drawers, but his words didn’t penetrate her hysteria.
“He was such a gentle, misunderstood soul! Why would someone do this? Why?” She began to sob.
Bud’s hand finally closed on the elusive flashlight. He flicked it on and hurried to the woman’s side. “Miss, you need to tell me what happened. Who’s dead?”
“Dustin. I’m sure it’s him.” She pushed Bud ahead of her towards the stairwell. “He’s on the floor in there.”
Bud pulled the door open and shone the flashlight ahead of him. The body lying crumpled at the bottom of the stairs was definitely the mysterious young man who had checked in earlier that day. Dustin McKyley. He’d said he was researching a story on teenage suicides. His dark demeanour had made Bud uneasy.
Bud bent down and checked for a pulse. He found none and stepped back away from the body.
The woman behind him shrieked again. “You can’t give up on him! We can still save him!” She fell to her knees beside the body and dropped her head to his chest.
Bud pulled her back. Her pale face came away crimson with blood. “We shouldn’t move him. We need to call the police.” He pulled her with him back to the front desk to place the call, but the phone line was dead.
Assessing the situation quickly, Bud realized that the other guests would need to know what was going on. Even to his untrained eye, it was obvious that Dustin had been murdered, and not knowing who or where the murderer was, Bud decided to gather his few guests together in one place. He sat the still-sobbing woman in the dining room, lit a few candles, and got her a napkin so she could wipe the blood off her face. Then he grabbed the registration log from the front desk, stepped carefully past Dustin’s body and went upstairs.
Three of the guests were huddled in the hall, chatting by the light of a candle. One more was curled up on the bed in her room. The last guest couldn’t be found.
Bud led the four patrons down the stairs, wishing he’d covered the body first. He blocked the view as best he could, shining the beam of the flashlight through the open doorway so everyone could see their way across the lobby to the dining room.
“Could somebody please tell me what’s going on?” a small, birdlike woman asked, once everyone was seated.
“I’ll tell you what’s going on!” Dustin’s friend wailed, flinging her dark hair behind her shoulder. “There’s been a murder!”
“Oh my!” the bird-woman chirped.
“I need some fresh air,” another woman said. “I can’t catch my breath.”
The only male guest in the room didn’t say anything. He just leaned over and banged his forehead on the table in front of him.
Bud tried to calm the group down. “We need to stick together until we’re able to contact the police. Is everyone okay here?”
The fourth woman pointed to Dustin’s friend, who was still crying uncontrollably. “I don’t think she’s doing very well, God love her.”
Just then, Bud heard a distant knocking. He followed the sound through the lobby towards the elevator. “Is someone there?”
A muffled voice called out through the elevator doors. “My name is Maxwell and I’m stuck inside this box.”
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