Jennie Dobson prided herself on not being one of those people that hotel owners and employees dreaded. Her Auntie Jean had owned a guest house for many years, and had plenty to say on the subject of “people who complain for the sake of it”. She was a reasonable person, and had no problem at all about legitimate grievances and requests. Many people came back year after year. But that wasn’t the kind of thing she meant. She had sold the guest house five years ago now, and more than once had said to Jennie that although she was an enthusiastic “silver surfer” she winced sometimes at some of the 1-star reviews on Social Media, and said, “I wish they’d at least realise it’s not remotely original to say they wish they could do a no-star review”. 

    But Auntie Jean was also no pushover and neither was Jennie, and there was a distinct difference between complaining for the sake of it and having very good reason to. With no disrespect at all to Auntie Jean and the Mirador (which had won prizes) Carton Grange was no little seaside guest house either. It fancied itself a Country House Hotel, with prices to match, though admittedly she’d got a special offer for the Halloween Murder Weekend.

    It had started well. The receptionist, Jacinth, had been very charming and welcoming without being obsequious, and Jennie’s room, if a little smaller than she had expected, was comfortable and furnished in tasteful shades of burgundy and grey with a comfortable bed (she had already done a test-bounce) and armchair, decent light for reading, and a more than sufficient supply of coffee with a kettle that didn’t take forever and a day to boil. They had made a nod to Halloween, but, as with the reception area, had not gone over the top. She could use or not use the pumpkin shaped electric tealights as she chose, and you had to look at the window twice to see if it really was a tasteful ghost or just a diaphanous lace curtain.   She even told herself it was a good omen that she had Room 32 – her Grandma had lived at No 32 Barton Drive.  Carlton Grange had decided to acknowledge Halloween, but not to let it eclipse their own special event that weekend.

    Though she was a keen devotee of murder mysteries on page and screen, it was the first time Jennie had participated in such an event herself. To tell the truth she had never quite got over the “Murder in the Dark” game they’d played in her Girl Guide group when she was twelve and though she knew perfectly well that she was only holding asparagus spears, they still felt horribly like fingers, and she had screamed. To this day she didn’t know whether it was the memory of being scared or of the disdain of her peers that haunted her most.

    But it was time to get over such things. 

    Like most hotels, Carlton Grange provided its guests with a brochure. Jennie had never been able to resist hitherto unread printed matter of any kind, and she read it, curled up the comfortable maroon and grey armchair, sipping a coffee, and watching the early sunset of late October. At first it seemed to be the usual stuff – a picture of the hotel in slightly soft focus on the front cover; the times meals were served and requests to let the staff know if there were any dietary needs, and a (very) potted history of the hotel preceded by an (even more) potted history of its life in pre-hotel days. 

    The issues began on Page 4. Jennie had no issues with being reminded it was a non-smoking establishment (she didn’t smoke anyway) or that breakages must be reported. Auntie Jean had similar “reminders” though worded rather less grandiosely. But Jennie read on. “We are in no way, shape, or form, responsible for anything untoward or injurious that may happen to any guest staying at Carlton Grange. Any attempt to further such cases, or any comments posted in print or electronic media, will be dealt with in the most severe terms and lead to counter-action taken against the complainant or their representative. We would draw your attention to the fact that those who have pursued such actions have been heavily fined and even faced prison terms.”

    Well, she didn’t like the sound of that one little bit. And it wasn’t even small print – it was a larger font than the rest of the brochure. She supposed some would say that was more honest, but she had more than a sneaking suspicion she might already have fallen into the trap of agreeing to something similar that was in positively minuscule print.

    As her workmates at the Tourist Office would have testified, Jennie was one of those people who was easy-going and tolerant, but had her “triggers” and could lull you into a sense of false security. I don’t like the tone of this, she thought, I don’t like the tone of it one little bit. Heaven forbid such a thing should happen but if I break my leg on a broken stair or get food poisoning because they haven’t got decent hygiene standards, then I’m most certainly not going to keep my mouth shut about it. And this is – well, vaguely menacing!

    Still, it was touch and go. But in the end, determinedly, she trudged (carefully!) down the broad staircase leading from the corridor on the first floor to the reception area, clutching the offending article.

    Apparently they had changed shifts for the evening, and Jacinth wasn’t there, but another charming, slightly older lady, whose name badge proclaimed she was called Felicity. In passing, Jennie wondered if they employed people who sounded as if they should have been on the lacrosse team in a school story on principle. 

    “How can I help you, Ms Dobson?” Felicity asked. Jennie wondered in passing how she was so sure of her name, but supposed she had signed the book and she seemed to be the only guest who had arrived so far. Maybe Carlton Grange had fallen on hard times – well, all the more cause not to have things like that in the brochure! All the same, she felt vaguely embarrassed as she told Felicity about her displeasure with the brochure. Felicity listened with that cocked-head air of attention that is generally more appealing in a spaniel than a human, but seemed entirely genuine, and when she spoke, her voice was soothing and apologetic. “I don’t blame you one little bit. I wouldn’t be happy if I found something like that in a brochure in my hotel room, either. It’s only a formality, but the way it’s worded – it’s way out of order and we’re going to get them changed. We want you to feel happy and comfortable here, in every sense.” Come to think of it, there was something vaguely spaniel-like about Felicity, with her shoulder length brown hair neatly restrained by a tortoiseshell clasp on either side and her earnest expression. But Jennie was mollified, and almost before she’d realised it, she’d said she’d much prefer to be called Jennie, and had accepted a voucher for a bottle of wine of her choice at dinner. A whole bottle, Jennie thought – do they think I’m an alcoholic or something? But she didn’t intend refusing – after all, it wouldn’t be polite!

    “I’m glad of a chance to talk to you about dinner, anyway,” Felicity said, “We’ve had a phone call to say that a group booking we have will be late – their coach has broken down. They probably won’t be here for a couple of hours – would you prefer to wait, or to have dinner at the usual time?”

    “At the usual time, please,” Jennie said, at once hoping she didn’t seem greedy or anti-social. But she was undeniably hungry and though she knew, of course, this was a “shared experience” spending a couple of hours with her new book had a decided appeal.

    There was no kind of dress code at Carlton Grange, and certainly no “requirement” to dress for dinner, but of her own volition, Jennie changed out of the comfortable trousers and sweater she had worn for the journey and into a pretty “wool handle” (as they had said on the shopping channel she bought it from) dark blue dress, putting a soft grey shrug round her shoulders and changing her boots for a pair of silver-grey pumps. She combed her hair and after unsuccessfully trying to construct a “messy up-do”, let it hang round her shoulders. It was oddly gratifying when Felicity exclaimed, “What a lovely colour, and it suits you so well!” Jennie had half-wondered if the restaurant would be empty save for herself, but there were what she presumed to be a couple of businessmen, not participating in the Murder Experience, at another table. The restaurant too paid homage to Halloween but in subtle ways, a floaty curtain, a rather benign looking witch suspended from the ceiling. It was all very tasteful.

    Meals were included (originally drinks hadn’t been!) and Jennie ordered consomme, grilled salmon, with a honey glaze, new potatoes, and broccoli spears. She toyed with proving a point to herself by having asparagus, but why risk spoiling the evening? The waiter, Anton, couldn’t have been more helpful, and advised a wine without making a song and dance about it. He knew his stuff. It was a crisp, tangy Riesling that set off the fish beautifully and had just a hint of sweetness. Goodness, I’m starting to sound like a label, she thought, chuckling. Things really were looking up. The food was simple but delicious, the wine slipped down very pleasantly, and though she knew some would have disagreed, she liked the chamber music playing softly in the background. Though Jennie wouldn’t have gone so far as to boast that she had a good head for drink, she generally did and was surprised that quite a light wine was making her feel rather more relaxed after a couple of glasses. But she didn’t mind. It was an agreeable sensation and she was sure there was no risk at all of making a fool of herself. She almost wished someone would say the murder experience had been cancelled, but no, she was still quite looking forward to it. 

    She felt full, but they had got the portions just right. Goldilocks portions, not too much, not too little. And yes, the plates weren’t too big and weren’t too small. Anton didn’t hover, but appeared almost as if by magic when her plates were ready to take away. “Would you like a pudding?” he asked. Oh, she liked that word “pudding”! Somehow it was much better than “sweet” or “dessert” and a million times better than “afters”.  Her Grandma had always called it “Pudding”. Hadn’t she had a cat called that, too? A plump Persian with his own special cushion. “We do a very tasty chocolate mousse,” he said. Oh yes! That was perfect. It was as if he had read her mind before she had even thought the thought. Something with the rich and bittersweet taste of chocolate, but not too heavy, not stodgy. It seemed almost sacri – sacro – oh, what was that bloody word – it seemed really, really wrong to even call it by the same name as those little plastic preservative ridden pots in the chiller at the supermarket. There was probably some alcohol in it, and as she’d drunk so much wine already – but she felt fine.

    When Anton suggested in his polite, friendly, unobtrusive way that she might like to take the rest of her her wine upstairs with her it seemed like an eminently sensible idea. She was only sipping it, she told herself, while she watched that TV show that was really very, very interesting, even though she wasn’t entirely sure what it was about.

    I need a lie down, she thought, and it was as if another Jennie had detached itself from her and was warning her that this situation wasn’t right at all, and that perhaps she should stay awake, but Jennie on the bed was tired, and now she did feel dizzy, but it wasn’t that nasty, gut-churning dizziness that made you feel nauseated and think that last glass of wine had been a very, very bad idea. And the bed was just right, too, and she was sure there had never been a wolf sleeping on it, or – no, wait, that wasn’t Goldilocks, was it? But Grandma was there now, too, and at first Jennie was delighted, they’d always been so close, but then, in a horrible split second that lasted an eternity she was seized with a panic that shot through the fuzziness, and she screamed (but nobody else in the room would have heard her) “Help me, Grandma! Help me!”

    Out on the forecourt of the Carlton Grange Hotel, a coach pulled up, turning a neat arc, wheels crunching on the gravel, arriving at exactly the time it was supposed to. The passengers climbed out, stretching their arms and legs the way people always do when they get off a coach, the way people do when they’ve been sleeping, and probably some of them had been sleeping, but now they were curious and excited (though of course some of them would claim to be blasé and say that their wife/husband had talked them into coming – it wasn’t t heir thing at all). Felicity came out to greet them, and as their cases were unloaded from the hold of the coach (which, by the way, was also maroon and grey, but it was probably a coincidence) she led the way inside saying, “Welcome to our Murder at the Grange experience, all of you! My name’s Felicity. I’ll take you to your rooms, and I’m sure you’d like to freshen up and have a bite to eat. But after that I’m afraid there’s work for you to do!” She gave a wry smile. “There’s a mystery to solve here. A body has been found in Room 32 – a young woman who signed into the Register as Jennie. She appears to have been poisoned.”

    Felicity knocked at the door of Room 32 – but then she laughed, the sort of laugh you do in such circumstances, a touch nervous and shame-faced, but realising that not laughing at the absurdity of a situation did no good either. “Force of habit, knocking. There’s no need to, is there?”

    No, there was no need at all. Jennie couldn’t hear her!

October 30, 2019 08:53

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