Hotel 25 – affectionately known as The Two and Five by its regular guests – was a squat boutique hotel hidden in a forested peninsula on the south coast, some extra distance from the nearest town. Run by the discerning hostess Cate Howard, its seclusion, luxury and superb cuisine made it a favourite for romantics, anniversaries, affairs and participants in any manner of love tryst. Although hidden from the road by a grove of dense and windblown vegetation, every bedroom commanded a prized view of the ocean above hollowed sandstone cliffs and a secret cove below.
The combination of understated elegance and Cate’s absolute discretion meant the Hotel enjoyed a strong base of loyal guests from all walks of life, who paid happily for the accommodation of both their persons and their proclivities. Known as the Headmistress to many of her regulars (to her wry amusement), she never had to advertise, never had passersby (the Hotel had no sign or street number about the two conifers that were the only indicators of its entrance) and the rare guests to arrive by themselves were there to meet up with a lover (or lovers, as the case may be).
Which is why the arrival of Mr Ed Novare and his hatbox raised a delicately painted eyebrow on the Headmistress’ otherwise wrinkle free brow.
“Booking for Ed Novare,” he said, not looking at Cate.
He placed the hatbox carefully on the Welcome Table, his left hand remaining firmly upon it. Behind him stood a small suitcase with its handle raised, like an obedient automaton. The hatbox was fashioned in dark tanned leather, with a brass lock. A number of her customers – not all of them women – brought hatboxes with them, usually as nostalgia for old school indulgence, but none guarded them so particularly.
She observed him. Novare. He didn’t look Latin, but one never judged. Many amongst her regulars had aliases. A crumpled trench coat – not that unusual for some of her guests – but no tie, and scuffed loafers beneath old navy chinos. He wore a hounds-tooth flat cap, which Cate thought was unoriginal, from which a gaggle of mousy hair struggled to escape. His features were unremarkable – a three day stubble, a nondescript nose and expressionless brown eyes. His eyebrows needed serious trimming. When he spoke his lips barely moved.
Cate said, “Welcome to Hotel 25, Mr Novare. It’s your first time with us.”
“It’s all pre-paid, and so you are free to enjoy our facilities. There’s a lounge on the ground floor, or you can use the in-room rest areas if you would prefer. Alcohol is free at the bar or in-room, likewise meals. It’s all included. Your room is number six, on the third floor. Lifts are just to the left. Ah, I see young Albert has just parked your car. He’ll give you a hand with your luggage.”
Albert, a young attendant in black livery, handed Novare his car keys. “Garage number six, sir. Let me help you with your luggage.”
When Albert approached the hatbox Novare scowled at him. “I’m good. Just these two. I can manage on my own.”
“As you wish, sir.”
For the first time he looked directly at Cate. “This is my hatbox,” he said. “It contains important business. I’m in the replacement industry. Head hunting, I think you know what I mean.”
Cate smiled demurely. “We have excellent staff here, Mr Novare, very hard working and extremely trustworthy. So I am sorry to advise I doubt we will need the services of a recruitment agent, but I trust you will enjoy your time with us anyway. You will find the staff will look after all your needs, but please, don’t hesitate to ask for any special favour we can assist you with.”
Novare lifted the hat box off the table and looked at Cate again. “Favours, yes. I think favours will be in order.” Then he dragged his little suitcase across to the lift, the hatbox held out to one side like a talisman.
Cate observed his retreat with a guarded eye. She kept a careful vigil over her Hotel’s reputation and the security of its guests.
She had come to the hotel by personal ambition. Success in a TV cooking show afforded her the initial capital to renovate the formerly derelict woodcutter’s estate, and she had, with admirable perseverance, built up the Hotel to a point where she could take a not infrequent midweek break “to do a spot of shopping” as she called it, from which she always returned in an animated state, with boxes and bags containing a fresh wardrobe of elegant frocks, hats, stockings and shoes. Her staff were well paid, and loyal to a tee, and enjoyed relaxed but polite contact with the guests. They never interfered in the guests’ activities, but were always in attendance if a special need arose, be it in-room dining, a hire car, an umbrella or advice on the best sort of gin to mix with the range of tonic waters they offered at the bar.
She would let nothing tamper with her Hotel.
Over the next two days, Novare took his meals in a corner of the dining room but otherwise sat in one of the capacious green sofas in the lounge room, staring at his iPhone, and always accompanied by the leather hatbox. Occasionally he would look up and regard other guests who had ventured out of their rooms to neck in the garden, or to luxuriate on the sofa beside the fireplace. He spoke to no-one. In quiet moments, when Cate was within eyesight, he shot her furtive glances which she registered but otherwise ignored. Some of her guests had been more conspicuous in their behaviour, and she was very adept at declining any advance while keeping the guest on side.
Indeed most of her customers at one stage or another speculated as to Cate’s own romantic passions. No-one ever appeared at the Hotel, and she never gave an indication of what she looked for in relationships. Over glasses of Krug they would concoct fanciful possibilities – that she visited her lesbian lover on her shopping trips, that she and Albert shared a special bond, or that she had a bevy of regular lovers who she summoned on a whim for her pleasure. But Cate revealed nothing about herself, other than a constant and professionally commanding demeanour.
Novare wore the same outfit all the time, although he had at least removed his coat. A plain white shirt hugged his torso a bit too closely. He drank alcohol fitfully, taking a bottle of spirits and a crystal tumbler back to his sofa and rapidly scoffing two or three drams in rapid succession, neat. Cate surmised he was summoning the courage to make his move; she had found that when underpinned by alcohol whatever quest it was inevitably failed. Strange little man.
His intended move came on the morning of the third day, not long after breakfast had been cleared from the sparse group of guests who had ventured down the staircase. Most guests, for their own reasons, preferred to remain in their rooms, so spacious and indulgent were they that only a few people appeared downstairs for breakfast. Cate was at the Welcome Table near the base of the grand stair case, surrounded by stacks of luggage to be taken, either to the rooms of the newly arrived, or to the cars of the about to depart. Albert was busy running to and fro in the carpeted entranceway, lugging cases and parking cars.
Novare appeared before her, standing stiffly upright. He placed the hatbox on one of the luggage piles. She noticed his hand trembling slightly. He had pushed his cap back, and it looked like his head had popped its bonnet. Beneath it, Cate observed a scruffy bald patch, ringed by a mat of unkempt hair, like a tonsured monk.
“Mr Novare, how can I help you?”
Novare sucked in air through his yellow teeth. “It’s Cate, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Cate Howard, yes,” she replied and then called after her assistant. “Albert, these are for room eight. They sent their bags ahead and want everything set up for when they arrive at eleven. They’ll go straight up.” She turned to the computer on the Welcome Table.
“Cate,” said Novare’s voice.
“Yes, Mr Novare. Cate.” She leaned across the Welcome Table to assert her presence.
“Why not Anne?” said Novare.
“Cate is the name I was given,” she replied. “I had a school mate called Anne many years ago, but we were not friends.”
“Cate,” said Novare, a bit limply.
Cate fronted him with her most rigorous gaze. “Mr Novare, I don’t know what you intend here, but as you can see I am a little preoccupied at the moment. I’d be only too happy to continue this discourse at a more convenient time.”
Novare took a step back just as a couple came bounding down the polished mahogany staircase to where Cate was standing. The woman was a petite blonde, in runners and red peplum skirt, her hair bouncing in damp curls about her tanned face. The man was considerably older, in business shirt and slacks, a red mark just visible on his neck beneath silver hair.
“Oh Cate,” the woman said. “We’ve had such a fabulous time, as always. Haven’t we Ronny?” She turned to the man and ostentatiously fondled his groin, pouting her scarlet lips at him. The man grinned and stepped forward to take Cate’s hands in his.
“Headmistress, you are the consummate host,” he said and added with a nod to his partner, “As always. You make Vee and me very happy.” Then he leant in to Cate and whispered, “This is for Albert’s education fund,” and secreted a healthy roll of banknotes in her palm.
“Huh,” said the woman. “He never gives me any of that, but I give him plenty in kind!”
Cate stood school ma’amly at the Welcome Table, wearing a smile of warmth and gratitude. “It’s always a pleasure to see you both. I believe you’re booked in for … six weeks’ time? V and R, the black room, correct? Number seven.”
“Oh goody, we’ve been wanting to try that for ages,” said the woman, as Albert bundled their luggage on to a trolley.
Novare was still there after they left, staring at Cate as a pair of gentlemen descended the staircase together, smiling. One was slight in build, with a shock of peroxide blond hair; he was dressed in form fitting black jeans and shirt. His companion was larger, and sported a shiny bald pate and lavish beard; he wore blue denim and a magenta silk shirt beneath a seasoned suede jacket.
“Gentlemen,” said Cate, “How was the room this time?”
“Lovely and black,” said the blond man.
“Fabulous,” echoed his partner, beaming.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” said Cate. She crossed her hands in front of her and looked at them with mock curiosity. “And now tell me again, which one of you is Tiny and which Mr Large?”
The men laughed at their familiar joke. Cate said, “Albert’s getting your car. What’s on for this afternoon, if it is not a secret?”
Tiny answered. “We thought we might head into town for a spot of lunch, and do a bit of promenading.”
“Well you might want to roll down your cuffs a bit,” said Cate, “if you need to keep things discreet.”
“No,” said Mr Large, “we think it’s time we opened up a bit.” Tiny grinned up at him. Cate said,
“Love, like truth, will always out. We all want our true selves to be discovered.”
“Maybe that’s what that psycho guy in the papers is doing with his notes and stuff,” said Tiny.
“Who’s that?” asked Cate.
“You know, the serial killer over in Perth and Adelaide, who’s been murdering people and then decapitating them, and then mixing up the heads and the bodies. It’s really sick.”
“It’s all over the media,” said Mr Large.
“I’ve not seen it,” said Cate. “We like our seclusion out here.”
“And he’s been leaving notes like ‘Charles Roy’ and ‘Mary McQueen’ and ‘Jean-Baptiste’ on his victims. They’re all plays on famous people who were beheaded,” said Tiny.
“Maybe with those notes he wants to be discovered. It’s a cry for help,” said Mr Large.
“A very anguished cry,” said his partner.
“Anguished indeed,” said Cate, and for the first time ever, a slight shiver could be seen rippling through her frame as she looked at her computer. “Best leave all that in other states. We have you down for … next fortnight.”
“Same bat time, same bat place,” said Tiny, and grinned. He reached over to give Cate a farewell peck on the cheek and she felt a fattened envelope fall into her hand. “For the Victoria and Albert fund,” he whispered.
Cate watched them make their way out and then turned her gaze to Novare who was still there.
“So, Mr Novare, later today, yes? Say three o’clock?”
Novare shook his finger at her in a gesture of feeble menace. “I know your game, Cate Howard. I know your game.”
“Mr Novare, my only game, as you call it, is to run a discreet hotel where people can relax away from the pressures of life, and love can thrive and be free. And if people get carried away sometimes they have a safe haven to do so. I have no secrets. Some of my guests may, but I do not. If you know something about me which I do not, then I will be pleased to be appraised of it. All the more so if I am the legatee of some hitherto unknown and generous benefactor.” At that she cut a wry smile. “But we must leave it to 3pm, if that suits, understood?”
Novare turned on his heels and headed back to the living room with driven steps.
But he returned immediately he had left, his face purple with rage.
“My hatbox! My hatbox!”
“What is it, Mr Novare?” asked Cate.
“My hatbox is missing!”
“But isn’t it with you?”
“Of course not, it’s missing!” His faced was strained now, and Cate regarded him critically, to gauge the extent of his temper.
“Isn’t it always with you?” she asked.
“It’s bloody missing I said. What don’t you understand about that?”
“It’s not in the living room?”
“No, not in the living room. I checked.”
Cate smiled. She had had numerous guests lose important things, and she found them and kept them secure for their return visit. “Perhaps you need what my mother used to call a mummy look,” she said.
“Listen woman,” Novare retorted, “I had it here and now it’s gone. You’ve bloody stolen it.”
Cate looked down her nose at him. His eyes seemed red as if he was about to cry, and his left hand twitched agitatedly. One of his feet had slipped out of a shoe and was crushing the canvas heel.
“Mr Novare, I’ll invite you to withdraw that statement. We steal nothing here. Never have and never will. Our clients demand trust and integrity and we give it to them. At the moment,” and she paused on the word moment, “you are a guest here, so are afforded the same courtesy.”
“Or you’ve bloody hidden it!”
“Not hidden, not stolen, not taken, Mr Novare.”
“Well where the bloody hell is it?” He swung around to look about the hallway and Welcome Table. A few suitcases remained and a suit bag hung on a rack.
“There were bags taken up to room eight,” said Cate. “I’ll have Albert check it for you when he gets back. He’s just picking up some guests from the station in town.” She smiled ingratiatingly at him and added, “Perhaps you can tell me what was in it, and we can work from there.”
Novare turned to her with a malevolent stare.
“You know damn well what was in there,” he said.
Cate returned his gaze with implacable fortitude. “Mr Novare, I have not the foggiest idea. Guests here at Hotel 25 bring all sorts of accoutrements with them, so you will understand if I am unfazed by the ways of the world. So perhaps if you let me in on your little secret, I can help you find your hatbox. ”
Novare stamped his foot loudly on the floor and shouted “You know!”
Suppressing a chuckle, Cate briefly looked out at the trees in the garden and then said,
“Mr Novare, why did you come here?”
Novare turned a full circle, his breath stiff and audible.
“To do business,” he said.
“What kind of business, Mr Novare, and with whom?”
“The kind what’s in the hatbox,” said Novare.
“And now you have misplaced it, you no longer have a bargaining chip, is that it?” said Cate.
“It’s not frggin’ displaced I tell you.”
“Don’t drag this out any longer than necessary, Mr Novare, it doesn’t become you. What were you going to ask for?”
Novare removed his cap, and rubbed a sweaty hand across his bald spot. Then he held the cap out in front of him with both hands, like a beggar.
“Money,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Money?” said Cate. “Like a commission for employment placement, that sort of thing? That’s what you said you did, am I right?”
“No,” exclaimed Novare, and swung an arm about the space they were in. “To cover up this. I know what you do, Cate Howard, I know what you do!” He waved his cap in her direction, as spittle emerged from his mouth.
“You mean blackmail, Mr Novare. You want to blackmail me for the licence I give my guests, is that it? Are you running an extortion racket?”
She stepped around the Welcome Table and stood tall over the squalid creature before her.
“Or are you a moralist, Mr Novare, someone who can’t stand the thought of others enjoying themselves, so you come and try for yourself and then demand money for it to stop. Is that it? Or perhaps you’re a long lost cousin no-one’s heard of come to claim a share of my business? Which is it, Mr Novare, what game are you playing?’
“I don’t give a shit about your pissy little guests. They can swing naked from the chandelier for all I care.”
“So blackmail it is,” said Cate and watched as Novare warmed himself momentarily with a pursed smile. “Then you will appreciate I have excellent relations with the police. Excellent relations. I pay my taxes and comply with all laws, and am fortunate enough to survive despite those obligations. I pay my very loyal staff handsomely and with what little profit I enjoy, I treat myself to an occasional trip to my favourite couturiers to enhance my wardrobe. So if you want to blackmail me, Mr Novare, you’ll find there is sod all to exploit and the long arm of the law to prevent you getting it. Now I think you’d better pack your bags and go.”
Novare lurched towards her in a threatening posture, but his height was insufficient relative to hers to have any impact. She noticed a straggle of comb-over hair flailing about on his bald pate and said calmly,
“If it’s violence you want, be warned now. Albert might be slight in appearance, but he is very highly skilled.”
“But he’s not here now, is he?” said Novare. She could smell his breath and the vinegar of his body odour. She did not move. “You’re totally unprotected!”
“I am not without capacity,” she said.
Novare turned and strode into the hotel kitchens, returning with a large carving knife.
“Damn you woman, I’ll finish you off for the good of all!”
He ran towards her, the silver steel knife held high in the air. Cate fled to the French doors and slipped through them, slamming them on Novare’s hand as he took a swing atg her with the knife. He swore. She raced down the old sandstone staircase and across the lawn, past the idle garden lounges and umbrellas towards the bushes at the fringe of the hotel. She could hear him behind her.
She knew she had to act fast. She hoped the treacherous nature of the path down to the cove might trip him up and she could get the knife off him when he fell. If not, she knew the cove intimately, where the rocks were hidden and where it was safe to swim, and knew the sea would help her fend him off.
She skipped down the first uneven steps that began the descent to the cove. Familiar with their odd shapes and varied levels, she nimbly negotiated stones, tree roots and sudden drops in height. She was getting ahead of her pursuer, who could only manage the occasional curse as he lumbered down the uneven stones. She swung around a golden angophora and ran along a rock ridge, which she shimmied down on hands and bottom, landing in a clump of native ferns and flowers. She looked around to see Novare at the tree, in determined but sluggish pursuit. A rock flew past her shoulder and was absorbed with a mute crash by the bushes.
She found the track again and sped along it, skipping over mud puddles and emerald tufts of grass. She heard him call,
“You’ve got nowhere to go, bitch. It’s a dead end in the cove!”
She picked up her pace as the ground began to level, and headed out on to the wet sand of the cove. The sea was up, the grey waves thrashing on to the shoreline in a frenzy of whitewash; it dragged the large grains of sand and bits of shell up and down the incline at the foot of the cove. The sandstone cliffs rose in a massive arena of swirling gold and white seemingly in defiance of the sea. Honey comb patterns formed eaves above great vaults of rock that had been hollowed out by eons of wind and waves. Above ragged outcrops where the rock began to grey, a few wiry trees could be seen, clinging with shallow roots to fissures in the stone, like precarious spectators risking a fall to watch the contest between surf and stone.
Cate chose her place midway along the narrow strip of beach and turned to face the man who was chasing her. He hadn’t fallen on the track, but was now trundling with difficulty along the sand. Each step sank into the saturated grains and pebbles, but he was slowly coming closer. The knife winked in the daylight as he struggled. She smiled and felt the swirling waters of the foreshore around her feet, her shoes and skirt soaked in the moil. The wind flung her hair about her face, and the roar of the sea rebounded off the rock wall and echoed in her ears. She thought she detected the sound of police sirens wailing through the wind, but it may have been the sea air shrieking as it was sucked though clefts in the cliff face.
Novare stopped a little distance from her, and shouted,
“You’re finished, woman!” He was panting.
“You’re an amateur, Ed Novare,” Cate yelled back. “Or should I say Mr Newhead. You have no idea!”
Novare lunged at her clumsily and she watched as the knife swung towards her. In one deft leap she turned her back to his belly, bent into him past the blade and hauled him forward and over in a quick and forceful throw. His spine hit a sizable rock hidden beneath the water where she had been standing, and he cried out in pain. When he motioned to get up the water gushed over his face and sucked his hands into the sand. In the commotion the knife had become hers, and she dropped deadweight on to his stomach and plunged the steel into his ribs. The wind shredded his screams and the first wash of blood was caught in the swirl of waters. She withdrew the knife and plunged it back, scraping against the bone. He gargled as the pain and waves washed over him and she stabbed him repeatedly, up and down with her whole bodyweight, forcing herself upon him again and again, much like a lifesaver might performing CPR.
Then, with the knife in deep, she paused, as she felt with a gentle touch for the vibrations of her victim’s rapidly beating heart. She leaned forward as the waters swilled about them, her blade ready, and stared into his eyes. They were dulling now, cloudy like the sky above them, but a mote of sentience remained.
This was the moment she loved. This was her passion, the secret and intimate moments she shared with her victims. She gazed longingly at him, and watched adoringly as the tide splashed about his face, like a cream foam pillow. She loved how the dying succumbed, how they yearned for their death, like lovers yearn for their lovers. She loved the potency of their last breaths, their surrender, and the sweet look of resignation they gifted her as they ceded their souls to her pleasure.
And paltry though he was, Novare had put on a good show for her. His lips, paling now, lay open as if for a kiss, like the white lips of marble carved saints imploring the kiss of grace. She was tempted to kiss him and caress his tongue, distended in its reddened wallow. What an indulgence that would be! But she held back to watch ecstatically as his eyes faded to still when she pressed the blade in. His blood billowed out of him and turned the water scarlet, mixing in the swill of sand and grit and sea wash. It was as red as fish kill, and the foam at the water’s edge bubbled and rouged. It was sepulchral, she thought, death and cleansing and blood and lust all in one presentation. It was magnificent.
She stood up for a moment to survey her work. The body, bloodied and soaked, lay gently rocking in the thrall of the surge. The cliffs were still there, and the wind roared and the sky above applauded her triumph. Her clothes clung to her, soiled and soaked. The sound of sirens were clearer now, or perhaps it was the screaming in her head; she didn’t care to ponder. There was a job to be done.
“What shall I call you,” she said, as she knelt down again to begin the task of removing the head. She wiped the knife clean on her shirt before she started. I’ll need a new wardrobe, she thought. This one’s a complete mess. The kitchen staff kept their knives very sharp. The trachea and larynx were fairly easy. A little blood spilled from the jugular – that was largely emptied now that the heart had given up. Then she felt round the back of the neck for where the C3 and C4 vertebrae offered the best opening. Back in the day, the TV show had complimented her on her knife skills. The grind of steel on gristle was absorbed by the sound of the waves, and she rejoiced in how the water washed away the blood and loose bits of flesh – how clean it all was this time. There was less hair to hold on to though, and at times the head lolled back in a macabre and almost derisory manner. She wondered how best to carry it up the hill without a hatbox.
“Ms Howard! Ms Howard!” Voices came from the end of the beach. She looked up. Four policemen were making their way towards her. “Ms Howard, are you alright?” She turned to face them. Still kneeling, she held the knife in one hand and the head in the other. She was framed by the grey sea, the yellow sandstone and the haze of salt spray whirling in the wind.
“Geoffrey,” she said to the officer in front. “What brings you here?” The four men stopped. One of them suddenly turned and vomited into the water. Another just looked away with his hand covering his line of vision.
“We had a call from a guest here,” said the one called Geoffrey. “She said she’d found a hatbox mixed up in her luggage, with a head in it, from your hotel, and we thought – ”. He paused, and she could see him staring at her hands and their contents. “Cate, is that you?”
Cate stood up and let go of the head. It dropped with a splash into the shallows and lolled about in the wash. When the water receded, a crab came and pecked at it. She stood tall and proud above the body and said,
“He wanted to blackmail me, and chased me with the knife down here, so I took it from him.”
“But,” said Geoffrey, and pointed limply at the headless corpse in the water.
“I guess I got a little carried away,” said Cate, and relaxed her stance. “I was going to name him Anne Boleyn, after King Henry’s second wife, but he was too weak to bear a woman’s name.”
She looked at the small group of people staring back at her on the shoreline, the waters swilling about their feet. “I suppose I’ve been discovered, she said, and added, “You know, the irony is, I usually have a hatbox with me.”