The old grandfather clock, invisible in the darkened dining room, whirred and clunked through its gears just before chiming eleven times.
As the last tone faded, the innkeeper heard a creak.
This was not the groan of the country house settling. For 42 years, the murmurs and sighs of the aged walls and floors had woven themselves into the innkeeper’s consciousness. She knew those noises as intimately as she knew the pops and clicks of her bones.
No, this was the squeak of one Early American floorboard being pushed against another. The kind of push that could only come from a footstep.
Betsy looked up from her secretary desk and toward the north end of the house. The Butternut Room, she thought. That had to be the source of the squeak. She raised an eyebrow and stared into the hallway, as though her sight could penetrate the darkness, see through two floors and into the Butternut Room. She had closed that entire third floor five years ago, after Albert had died, feeling the strain of hosting a fully booked bed and breakfast alone. The Victorian chairs and four-poster beds in the Pecan, Walnut and Chestnut rooms now sat shrouded in sheets and shadows.
“Bit of a mystery we have here, Frannie,” she said to her Jack Russell who had cocked her head at the creak. “Stay - I’ll be right back.”
Frannie turned in her bed and lay down as Betsy made a final note in the reservation book, smoothed her skirt and began her trek up the stairs.
The two-hundred-year-old steps were narrow and uneven. Betsy’s 80-year-old knees creaked like the stairs. Sconces along the walls offered little light and heavy shadows darkened her path. But never one to be dissuaded from her purpose, she made meticulous progress, eventually facing the oak door with the hand-painted sign that read “Butternut Room” with the swirls and flourishes of fine calligraphy.
She worked the key into the lock and pushed the door open. The light from the hall cast just enough of a glow for Betsy to see the outlines of the covered furniture. She took a few steps inside and looked around. Aside from a mustiness permeating the room, nothing seemed amiss. Betsy sniffed again, wondering if she had caught a wisp of cigarette smoke, but dismissed it as stale air. She closed the door and began her descent to the first floor.
Had Betsy spent a bit longer studying the room, had she taken three more steps inside, she may have noticed the sheet covering a set of antique Dutch fireplace tools had slipped to the side. Had she inspected more closely, she may have realized the fire iron was missing. And had she then turned around, she may have seen a man hidden behind the open door, clutching the iron and poised to strike.
That was Thursday.
On Monday, after saying goodbye to the weekend guests, Betsy started her weekly routine. She was on the second floor, stripping beds and gathering towels for the cleaning woman. Frannie trotted behind her. Moving from the Willow Room to the Sycamore Room, Betsy hummed and considered what she would say at her book club that evening. That’s when she heard a thud and a crash.
This time, she didn’t take even a second to contemplate the ceiling. She dropped the bedspread, hiked her skirt up above her ankles and climbed the stairs as quickly as she dared. Even in the brightest of mornings, the staircase remained dark.
She heard groaning behind the door of the Butternut Room and fumbled for the key. Pushing the door open, it took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. The curtains remained drawn and the window faced the mountainside, keeping the room in shadow. A man writhed on the floor near the fireplace and Betsy saw the stand for the fireplace tools knocked on its side.
“I’m dying….I’m dying,” the man moaned.
Betsy took in the scene before saying,
“Sir! Can you tell me what’s wrong?”
He held up his left hand. The thumb was covered in blood which ran down his wrist and stained the cuffs of his denim shirt.
Betsy raised an eyebrow.
“Is that your only injury?”
He moaned something that sounded like “Yes.”
“For heaven’s sake,” Betsy said, grabbing the sheet that had covered the fireplace tools. “Sit up and give me your hand. Mind you don’t get blood on the chairs or bed.”
“I’m dying,” the man groaned again.
“My good fellow, you are not. You have cut your thumb and it is bleeding because that’s what thumbs do. Sit up. We’ll stop the blood and clean you up.”
“I can’t look at my blood. It makes me dizzy,” he mumbled.
“Well, I never heard of such a thing,” said Betsy. “Look here. You will sit up and give me your hand. Otherwise, I will have to call an ambulance, but we’re so far out of town, it will take at least 30 minutes to get here.”
The threat of the ambulance seemed to strike the man and he sat up immediately. Eyes averted from the blood, he leaned against the hearth and offered his injured hand to Betsy. She pulled a small accent chair to him and sat on it, putting on the reading glasses that hung on a chain around her neck. She studied the wound, wrapped it with a portion of a sheet and applied pressure.
“It’s just a scratch. I daresay you’ll need stitches, but you’ll live. How did you do this?”
“I was trying to cut an apple and my knife slipped.”
Betsy noted a slight drawl in his voice that sounded local to the mountain folk. Still obscured in the shadows, she could only see he had a scraggly beard that reached down to his chest, long hair tied back in a ponytail and a hook-shaped nose.
She released his hand and peered at the wound.
“It’s stopped bleeding. Come downstairs and we’ll clean it and dress it. Then you can tell me who you are and why you’re in the Butternut Room.”
He rose to his feet and Betsy could see he was long and angular.
“That’s ok ma’am. I’ll just be on my way.”
“Nonsense. You’ll come with me. That cut will get infected.”
The man stiffened at the order and tightened his fingers around his knife. But his legs were wobbly and head still reeling from the blood, so he followed her downstairs.
Betsy directed him to the sink, heated a kettle of water on the stove and put a plate of cookies on the table. She inspected the wound by the window, for the morning light hadn’t reached this part of the house yet.
“You should get someone to look at that. You may need stitches.”
“No doctors,” he mumbled.
Betsy studied him, her brown eyes intent on his face as he looked down at the floor. She guessed he was in his 40s but moved as though held together with rusty nails. Something tugged at her memory.
“Do we know each other?”
“Well, sit. Have some tea and cookies. Now, tell me your name.”
“Lu- it’s Luke,” he said in a way that told Betsy it wasn’t his real name.
“Have you been living in that room?”
He nodded, not meeting her eyes.
“For how long?”
“ ‘bout a year.”
“A year? How did you manage that?”
He mumbled into his tea.
“Luke,” she stated, enunciating the “k”. “You must look people in the eye and speak clearly. Now tell me. How did you get into my house and stay hidden for an entire year? That is quite remarkable.”
He looked at her. Despite layers of dark circles under his eyes, red rims around them, webs of wrinkles and bushy brows, his pale irises were intense, almost glass-like. That familiarity nudged her again.
“I used the window. Climbed up the tree, over to the roof and into the room. You didn’t lock it.” He paused. “You should’ve locked it.” He stared directly at her, almost challenging.
Then Betsy knew. She’d seen that stare in newspaper photos, on the local news. She’d seen those same eyes in his father. Everyone knew everyone else in this town.
“Luther Beck,” she said.
He didn’t speak, but a stiffening of his shoulders told her she was right.
It had been over twenty years ago when four people in the local Bags Family Grocery had been murdered. Two shot and two stabbed, putting their one-stoplight mountain town on the map. It didn’t take police long to track down the local kid with pale eyes who had been dating one of the victims. Luther’s trial ended as quickly as a trial can with an easy conviction and consecutive life sentences. Of course Betsy remembered the tragedy. It had been such a shock to the town. But the inn was humming back then, fully booked every weekend. Two teenage daughters kept their days full and one week blurred into the next. Luther Beck faded into the town’s history.
Then six years ago, he resurfaced in the headlines. Tunneled out of prison and to freedom. A manhunt ensued, and then faded as other more pressing cases took priority.
But now that Betsy connected the face with the memory, the pieces fell into place.
“Your father knew where you were hiding,” she said.
“In them mountains,” he said, gesturing behind him.
“He heard that I was closing up the third floor,” she continued. One person’s business was everybody’s business in that town. “So you waited for the right time and moved in.” She paused, looking over her glasses at him. “Well, you certainly were quiet and neat.”
“You’re gonna call the cops,” His words were hard and brittle.
Betsy held his gaze.
A soft clicking on the floor made both of them turn. Frannie trotted into the room, short tail beating back and forth. She was smiling as only dogs can and stood on her hind legs, placing her paws on Luther’s shin. For the first time he smiled and reached down to stroke her.
“Hi there, little girl.”
Betsy watched him scoop her easily into his lap.
“Frannie knows you. She barks at every stranger.”
“We spent a lotta time together. When you were out, I’d come down and old Frannie was always happy to see me. You forgot to fill her water dish a bunch of times.” He nodded over at Frannie’s bowls. Betsy tried to see this self-confessed murderer moving through her house, sitting with her dog, for over a year. His eyes softened as he murmured to Frannie and she nestled into his lap, rubbing her nose on his thigh.
“No,” she said.
“No, what?” he asked.
“No, I will not call the police. You may stay on as a handyman. Fences need repairing, bushes need trimming. I will pay you a small wage. You will stay away from the guests. You will not draw attention to yourself. Should you violate any one of these conditions, I will turn you in. Is that clear?”
Luther stared at her.
“Mr. Beck. Is that clear?”
“Why would you do that?”
Betsy stood up from the table.
“Everyone deserves a second chance.”
Luther accepted her deal and, over the next weeks, a weight seemed to lift. He walked with a purposeful stride. He began to speak of a future. Every so often, his mouth turned up in the faintest hint of a smile. Betsy watched him closely, noting that he moved carefully throughout the property, staying in the shadows, hovering on the edges.
The only hint of disagreement came over the curtains in the Butternut Room. Whenever Betsy entered to gather the bedclothes and towels for laundry, she opened them. Whenever Luther entered, even on the sunniest of days - especially on the sunniest of days - he closed them.
He joined her for supper most nights. They peeled and cut vegetables in a comfortable silence and discussed the next day’s chores. Luther always made sure Frannie had water in her bowl. Some evenings, they would sit together on the porch listening to the cicadas. On cooler nights, they would sit in front of the fire, leafing through newspapers and magazines.
Then, the trouble started.
One Tuesday morning, Luther came late to breakfast. Betsy had already cleaned the kitchen and was about to drive into town for groceries.
“You’re late,” she stated as Luther walked down the stairs. He didn’t respond. “Mr. Beck,” she began, but then stopped. His face was deathly pale and eyes red as though he’d been crying. “Are you unwell?”
“Headache,” he muttered.
His headache did not lift. Over the next weeks, he completed his chores, but he didn’t appear for meals. He said little to Betsy and even Frannie couldn’t tease a smile from him. His already lanky frame grew boney and face haggard.
One afternoon, Betsy sipped her tea in the living room and sat on the antique Chesterfield sofa waiting for Luther. When she heard him clomp onto the porch and open the screen door, she called.
“Mr. Beck, may I see you please?”
Luther appeared in the doorway.
“Have a seat,” she said, gesturing to the wingback chair.
He slouched in the chair, staring through her.
“Mr. Beck, something is going on with you. Can you tell me what it is?”
“You’re not. You’re not eating, you’re not speaking.”
“Mr. Beck, as astonished as I am to find myself saying this, I am concerned for your welfare. I cannot help you if you can’t tell me what’s going on.”
He stood up and walked out.
“Mr. Beck!” Betsy did not shout, but her voice stopped him. She stood up. “You were not dismissed.”
Luther stiffened and gripped the doorjamb until his knuckles turned white.
He whirled around and lunged toward her.
“You want to know what’s wrong? Well I’ll tell you, lady. Nightmares, Nightmares all day and all night. I can’t sleep, can’t even close my eyes because you know what I see when I do?”
“Blood. Blood everywhere. Dripping, oozing. The bodies...all four of them...and the others, just ….so much blood….so much damn blood.” He squeezed his head between his hands as though he could force the images out of it.
Betsy lay a hand on his arm and he pulled away as though he’d been shot.
She cleared her throat.
“You’ll have a decent supper tonight. Tomorrow we’ll find help for you.”
“No...no...no…” Head still between his hands, his voice changed as though he were speaking to someone else. “This all started with you...you and your help….your suppers and breakfasts….your money...your jobs…..your curtains...those goddamn curtains you keep opening…”
He looked up at her, face shadowed but eyes glittering with hatred.
“What do you mean?” asked Betsy. “It’s a new start. Did you plan on hiding in the dark forever?”
His voice turned low and hard.
“New start….second chances. What the hell? What in the goddamn hell, lady? That don’t exist, not for me. I never had none of these nightmares, none of this in my head ‘til you started on with all your talk about that shit.”
His face was just inches from hers, but she stood her ground.
“For heaven‘s sake, Mr. Beck. If you want to leave, then leave.”
A noise somewhere between a roar and a wail erupted from him and he grabbed her, squeezing both hands around her throat. She struggled to pull away but he was no match.
“Why’d you have to leave that window, unlocked, huh? Why’d you have to give me a job and food? Why didn’t you just leave me alone? Goddamn it lady. GODDAMN IT!”
She gurgled and tried to push him, but already the life was draining from her.
In the next instant, Frannie ran into the living room growling and barking with shrill yips.
Luther pushed Betsy away and onto the couch, panting. He stared at her a moment, choking on a strangled cry.
He tore out of the room and slammed through the screen door. Betsy could hear his footsteps racing across the porch.
Summoning the last of her strength, she crawled to the stairs and stumbled up to the Butternut Room. She pushed the door open into the dark and made her way to the window. Peering through the curtain, she had a clear view of the mountainside and spotted a dark speck along the treeline. She followed him until he disappeared in the shadows. He would not return. Of that, she was certain. Still, she reached up and locked the window. Then she drew back the curtains completely. Light flooded the room.