Standing at the desk, Beth Simpson was filling out a sudoku puzzle. Somehow, she’d managed to get herself snowed in with the less than dozen people who were here for the now cancelled Organic conference. Normally, she’d have finished her overnight shift and been relieved the next morning. Instead, she was greeted by an email from her manager saying no one was able to get there and her work for Lancelot Properties Management was truly appreciated. She was going to appreciate the overtime in her paycheck when she got it.
Normally, there wasn’t a lot going on at The Elk Creek Inn this time of year. This conference was something to break up the monotony of the Winter, but also meant the staff was focused to helping the conference once it started, until then, it was a ghost town. She and the bartender, Glenn, were the only staff at the hotel.
The sound of someone marching down the stairs caught her attention. It was a distinct sound you learned from working the front desk. The way footsteps could signal if someone was casually walking through, or marching because they were mad. These were not casual footfalls, so she looked up and did her best to smile.
It was Dr. Jefferson, she remembered him because he’d been kinder than most when he’d checked in. He looked frustrated, but wasn’t marching towards the front desk, it was towards the bar.
Her eyes dropped back to her Sudoku. There were games on her phone she could have been playing, but any of them worthwhile required internet service, which was no longer available. She hadn’t enough time to fill in another square before another set of footsteps caught her attention, this time they were casual, but she could hear them approaching the front desk. She looked up. It was Mike Hamilton’s smiling face which greeted her.
“I’m just about out of towels, would you mind sending more to my room?” He asked,
It seemed odd he’d have burned through his towels so quickly, but why should she care.
“Of course Mr. Hamilton, room #212 right?”
“You got it!” He said, winking and shooting her a finger gun as he walked to the bar.
“Over – under, do you think we get out of this snow before the conference was supposed to end anyway?” Mike asked Charlie, slapping him on the shoulder.
Charlie had been talking with Dr. Jefferson, who glanced at Mike and excused himself to sit somewhere else.
“People keep leaving when I join the table,” Mike observed, taking a seat next to Charlie.
“A more self-aware man would think there was a reason for that,” Charlie commented, sipping his drink. He’d ordered a Jack and Coke, it’s hard to beat the classics.
“Screw being self-aware, I’d rather focus on important things. Like if we’ve been able to acquire that elevator in Iowa we put an offer on.”
“No internet,” Charlie reminded him, “I haven’t heard anything new from anyone for the last three hours.”
“Stupid storm.” Mike muttered into his drink. “This conference is going to end up costing us more than it ever has in the past, and what for? To get glares from the Donaldson’s and the cold shoulder from the South.”
“You could think of it like a spiritual retreat,” Charlie suggested, “Disconnecting from technology and news as a way of purging your soul.”
The look Mike replied with said exactly what he thought of that idea.
“Look, I say we make the best of it.” Charlie insisted,
“So you can try to make time with Julie?” Mike suggested with a conspiratorial smirk,
Charlie reddened and Mike laughed.
“She’s an attractive woman,” Mike said, “Perfectly natural you’d have a little crush on her, but I’d forget it if I were you. What’s the chances something would work out anyway?”
“Pretty slim,” Charlie agreed, sipping his Jack and Coke.
“I just don’t want to see you get hurt,” Mike added sympathetically.
Before Charlie could reply, things went black.
In the year and a half Beth had been working at the Elk Creek Inn, she’d never heard anything like the small stampede which made it’s way to the front desk at that moment. Phones of various sizes and dimensions were being used as flashlights, shining at her like dozens of interrogators demanding answers she didn’t have.
“The power is out,” she said, stating the obvious.
“Are we going to freeze to death?” Asked a female voice,
“No, nobody will freeze to death if they stay inside.” Beth replied, trying to keep things calm.
“Glenn will check the generators. We’ll have enough power to keep the heat and sewer system, but besides that…” Her voice trailed away.
“Until the fuel runs out,” Someone observed bitterly.
“I’ve got candles and matches. Some electric lanterns too.” Beth added hastily.
Using her phone’s flashlight, she opened a closet she’d never expected to see the inside of again after her training day. Inside were the essentials in case of an emergency, electric lanterns, candles, matches, first aid kits, even a pistol.
Silently, she thanked God there were as few people there as there were. If the hotel had been full and the power went out… It would have been a level of chaos she didn’t want to imagine. The lanterns, candles and matches were distributed to everyone there.
“Just stay calm everyone, imagine the story we’ll have to share when we live through this.” Julie insisted,
“If we live through this,” muttered MacKenzie darkly.
“Positive attitudes people, positive attitudes.” Julie said,
“I’m beginning to become very positive of something,” Bob whispered to Walter Donaldson,
“What?” Walt whispered back,
“We’re not getting home early.”
It had been a restless night for Bob. His room was the one adjoining Mike Hamilton’s. Why in the entire hotel, most of it empty, he’d gotten stuck next to the man he had no idea. It would have made more sense if Charlie McCoy had been booked next to his boss, but no, Bob got to be the one next door. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but the noise was becoming irritating enough he was about to do something. When you’re on the road enough, you get used to a certain level of noise, but listening to the sounds of passion on the other side of the wall was a different matter.
He didn’t know who was in there with Mike, but this had gone too far for his patience. Rolling out of bed, he marched next door and knocked. The sounds stopped, and Mike opened the door. “Can I help you?” He asked in a strained politeness, a hint of a slur to his speech.
“I don’t care what you’re doing or who you’re doing it with, but you’re making an awful racket and that’s where I draw the line.” Bob explained,
Mike nodded, “Of course, of course. We’ll try to be quieter.” He promised, holding a finger to his lips.
Satisfied, Bob went back to his room and settled into bed again. Things had become much quieter. Only the faintest sounds still carried through the wall, but not enough to disturb his sleep or overpower his audiobook. Before he could drift to sleep, they started up again, and if he wasn’t mistaken they were even louder this time.
Groaning, Bob threw on a t-shirt and jeans. Mike Hamilton didn’t care about him or his night’s sleep, so he’d find somewhere else to drop his head.
MacKenzie was shocked the blizzard was still going. Although without the weather report, either by phone, internet, television, or even newspaper, she had no idea of how long they thought it would even last now. It was as if she had been trapped in the past, effectively forced into a world the pioneers had once braved to settle out this far from the Eastern Anglo-civilization. At least they had heat and functional indoor plumbing, thank God. Outhouses had never appealed to her, and that was experience this conference didn’t need. Things had been bad enough all ready. They’d come to the conference excited, this was supposed to be the event where she and her father rebooted Harvest Markets and reminded the collective industry why they were one the oldest and most trustworthy brokers in the business. Now, things had taken a different turn. Better to take the opportunities where you could find them.
“Enjoying the coffee?” Bob asked MacKenzie,
“It’s good,” she replied, offering a smile. They were sitting near the fireplace in the lobby, enjoying the fact there was plenty of wood to add extra heat.
“It was a handy thing Dr. Jefferson travels with that French press. Although, it would have been nicer if it was a larger pot to make at a time. Imagine the man must not drink a lot of coffee himself.”
“The coffee makes the morning easier.” Agreed a new man walking up. He was dark skinned, with an easy smile and a cowboy twinkle. He hadn’t been around much the past few days, not long to linger in a group.
“Hank, how are you baring up?” MacKenzie asked with a smile,
“Grateful we don’t live in teepees anymore.” He replied with a laugh.
Hank Flying-Hawk was from the Spirit Lake Nation, there to give a session on Native Land management practices of history, how they were incorporating them today and building regenerative landscapes on the Spirit Lake Reservation. By MacKenzie’s appraisal, he was also cute to look at.
“If you’d like a cup I’m sure we could get some more coffee,” Bob offered.
“Not much of a coffee drinker,” Hank admitted, dropping in a chair near the large fireplace. “Although this is the time of year I wish I was.”
“Have you ever seen a blizzard like this before?” MacKenzie asked,
“No, but my father has. He’d tell me stories about how as a boy he’d nearly frozen feeding the livestock on our farm. But he could have been exaggerating.”
“Parents can do that.” MacKenzie agreed.
“Good morning,” Dr. Jefferson greeted everyone, he was wearing several layers by now. The minimal heat being generated by the furnace had been noticeable to everyone, but he found it nearly intolerable. Joining the group near the fireplace, he melted his hands by near the flames.
“When I get back home,” he announced, “I’m staying in the South until August.”
“Has anyone seen Julie yet?” Hank asked, “I wanted to ask her about the room fees, given the conference is cancelled.”
Everyone turned from one to another. No one had seen her since last night.
“Did you father get any sleep last night?” Dr. Jefferson asked, changing the topic. “He was still tipping back the bottle when I’d called it a night.”
“I checked on him this morning, he was there then.” MacKenzie said with a shrug.
“I barely got a wink last night,” Bob volunteered, yawning,
“What kept you up, excitement for the trade show to start?” Dr. Jefferson teased with a chuckle.
“Well, it was…” Bob trailed off, glancing at MacKenzie. It wasn’t his place to say anything. “Just a rough one I guess.” He finished.
Dropping the dumbbells, Charlie took a deep breath and then a sip of water. The gym at the Elk had been a pleasant surprise when they’d first come here two years ago. Management must have thought at some point there was value for visiting hunters to keep up with a body building regiment. Barbells, dumbells, cable machines, they had everything needed for a quality gym. Whatever the cause, he was going to take advantage of it. Besides, when it got this cold he might as well generate his own heat.
Finishing his sixty second rest, he picked the dumbbells back up and resumed his flat chest press. Feeling the stretch each time the weights reached their peak and slowly dropping them again.
“Nice reps!” Julie said, clapping as the entered the room.
Charlie tried not to glance over at her, focusing on the lift.
“Can you do one more?” She asked,
Taking a deep breath, he managed to push out one more rep. Coming to the bottom he dropped the weights on the floor and took another deep breath.
“Very impressive,” Julie complimented,
“Thanks,” he replied, catching his breath. “What are you doing here?”
“Thought I’d get a little time in on the treadmill since there’s nothing else to do now.” She said with a sigh.
For the first time this weekend, there were truly alone together. The question Charlie had, that he wanted to ask, was at the tip of his tongue. Before he could say it, their peaceful moment was shattered by the sound of a skull splitting scream.
A woman’s shriek echoed throughout the lobby and down the halls. Drawing everyone within earshot to the source of the noise, they converged on room #212.
Bob and Hank were the first to get there, but stopped the moment they entered.
Charlie pushed past the two of them to see what was going on. Standing in front of the bed was Beth, girl from the front desk. Her hands covering her face and breathing heavily. A pile of towels were scattered around her feet where they had dropped.
It wasn’t a pleasant scene. The blankets twisted and thrown, sheets crumbled and stained. The oder in the room was metallic, but sterile in only the way cold places could. The blood wasn’t flowing. It had already seeped as far forward as it would, across the bedding and carpet. On the bed, lifeless and pale as the snow outside, the neck slit across, was the body of Mike Hamilton.
We hope you enjoyed part two of The Cancelled Conference. Check back next Friday for the third installment.