A man stood on the beach smoking a cigarette, staring out at the choppy sea.
She had seen him before, at the train station. Then he had been distracted by his phone, his half-empty duffle bag hanging limply on his shoulder like an afterthought. Even then, she found him intriguing, with his unruly hair catching the wind as if threatening a rebellion. He had seemed impatient then, angry almost, and had nearly collided with a large woman and her shopping bags.
Half-hidden behind the thick curtains, she watched him. His shoulders were relaxed, and he held the cigarette at his side, allowing the ash to build before taking a quick drag. He was watching the waves, she supposed, but there was something languid about his movements, as if he would wait out the storm threatening to blow ashore.
Her sister Sarah wasn’t impressed. “Be careful. You don’t know anything about him.”
“I know that he’s good looking,” Maggie said to the phone propped up on a pillow as she painted her toenails. “And he’s a smoker.”
“Oh, he’s a smoker. Like that’s something to recommend him.”
“I’m in Europe. Everyone smokes.”
“Seriously Mags. He could be a serial killer or something. And remember, you specifically said you didn’t want to meet a new guy while you were gone.”
As if she needed to be reminded of what she had run away from. Maggie rolled her eyes. “Seriously,” she repeated. “Maybe he’s different.”
“You said that about Greg, and look how that turned out.”
Just then lightning flashed outside Maggie’s window, and with the boom came flickering lights. “Damn, it looks like a big storm is starting to hit. I should let you go.”
When she hung up, she stepped back to the window, but the man was gone.
“You alone? Why don’t you join us?”
The man was about fifty, and was seated at the next table with a blonde woman Maggie could only assume was his wife. While he wore the male tourist uniform—khakis and a pale blue Guayabera shirt with a stain near the third buttonhole, she was wearing a turquoise dress that set off her long curls and her immaculate red manicure.
One of the shutters outside her window had been banging all night, keeping Maggie from getting a good night’s sleep. All she wanted was a few moments in peace with her coffee. She was about to decline when the woman turned and flashed her the most sincere smile she had ever seen.
“Please do,” the woman said, her tone almost begging. “Ever since we left the cruise I’ve had only Hank for company, and I’m craving another voice at the table.” She held out her hand. “I’m Amanda.”
Stumbling over a proper response, Maggie climbed from her chair. “Um, thanks. I’m Margaret, but everyone calls me — ”
“Meg, am I right? You look like a Meg. Come, sit next to me.” Amanda pulled out the chair beside her.
Maggie wanted to correct her, but she hesitated, opening up a breach in the conversation large enough for Hank to park. “Whoowee, that was some storm last night,” Hank said. “Did you hear it? Damn near blew the building right into the ocean.”
“Of course she did. No one could have slept through that.” Amanda said with a sigh, as if to imply her own sleeplessness. More brightly, she offered an alternate question. “So Meg, what brings you to this quaint little beach town?”
The woman seemed familiar, like she was on TV or something. As Maggie tried to puzzle where she had seen her before, she blurted out, “bad breakup. My friends thought I needed a change of pace.”
“I can’t believe someone let a gal like you get away.” Hank said with a chuckle as he slathered jam on his croissant. “Didn’t know what he had, I guess?”
“Actually, I dumped him,” Maggie said.
“Of course you did,” Amanda said. “Good for you.” Maggie thought she saw the woman’s eyes dart to Hank, but it was so fast she couldn’t tell for sure if it meant what she thought it did. “Will you be here long?”
Maggie shook her head. “Just for a few days, and then I fly home.”
“And where’s that?” Hank asked.
Maggie nodded thanks to the waiter who brought a cappuccino, and she took a stalling sip. She really didn’t feel comfortable telling her whole life story to these people. No, specifically not to him. He seemed a little too eager. “You were on that cruise ship?” She had seen it docked the day she arrived—it had been impossible to miss, as it seemed larger than the entire town.
“We were, but it was simply too claustrophobic,” Amanda said. “I told Hank he had two choices: find a hotel here or go home on his own.”
Hank leaned forward as if to share a dark secret. “She said they had a terrible wine selection.”
“Can you imagine? A ship for thousands, and not a decent bottle of wine on the whole boat,” Amanda replied, allowing her husband’s sarcasm to wither, unchallenged. “It was unacceptable.”
He leaned back and folded his hands behind his head with a sigh. It was an old argument they were simply rehearsing for Maggie’s benefit. “Honey, you know you’re not supposed to drink on that medicine.”
“Hank, I’m a grown woman, thank you very much, and I need my wine. You know cheap wine gives me a headache, and then I don’t want to leave my room.” Her blue eyes were dazzling as she turned to Maggie. “I bet Meg here understands—don’t you?”
Maggie nodded out of politeness, though in truth, she didn’t understand at all. Who would get off a cruise just because of the wine selection? She started to speak but again Hank cut her off.
“You know what, I think I’m done with breakfast. Why don’t you stay here with your new friend? I’m going to head up to the room.”
“Don’t mind him,” Amanda explained as Hank strolled out of the dining area. “He hates to be away from his laptop for more than fifteen minutes.”
“Okay…” Maggie’s eyes strayed to the seat she had abandoned and wished she hadn’t ever accepted the couple’s invitation. As Amanda picked at her scrambled eggs, she asked the woman, “you seem familiar. Are you an actress, or…?”
Oh heavens, no. I’m just the ‘trophy wife’.” She didn’t try to hide her disdain. “One moment you think you’ve found true love, and then you wake up to discover you’re just an accessory and a bank account. No, Hank’s the one you might recognize, what with all of his startups making the news. What was that last one? Doggie diapers or something? I can’t remember.” She dabbed her mouth with the napkin. “So Meg, what do you do?”
Meg started to explain when Amanda’s phone buzzed, and she started texting someone rapid-fire.
When the conversation appeared complete, Amanda reached for her purse. “I hate to leave you like this, but I can’t let him ruin the first vacation I’ve had in five years. Excuse me.”
Maggie finished her coffee and glanced out the front window. She had hoped to walk along the rocky beach, but the sky looked ominous. So she jogged back upstairs to get her umbrella and jacket. As she looked for the key to her door, she heard angry voices. Before she could get inside, Hank burst from a room across the hallway, muttering to himself. Without seeming to recognize her, pushed past her to reach the stairs.
The fight felt a little too familiar. Maggie went into her room and sat on the bed, feeling a little queasy. Rather than head back out, she checked her email for a few minutes. Then she pulled her hair back into a ponytail and headed back out.
That’s when the man she had been watching the night before suddenly exited the elevator.
He gave her a polite nod and a smile and then turned towards Hank and Amanda’s room. He knocked and as Maggie watched, she heard Amanda greet him before he went inside.
Maggie just stood there. Her handsome stranger and… Amanda? The woman was attractive and well-groomed, to be sure, but she had to be at least 15 years his senior, and married, with her husband not far away.
No wonder he had looked forlorn the night before. He must have tried to meet up with the woman but Hank had gotten in the way.
Trying to put Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome out of her mind, Maggie spent the morning at a museum. Eventually, though, her lack of sleep caught up with her, and she found a taxi back to her hotel.
Due to a roadblock, he had to drop her off half a block away. As she walked around the corner to reach the hotel entrance, she nearly collided with a police officer backlit by the emergency vehicles and their strobing lights.
The officer waved her back with words she didn’t understand. His uniform sagged on his narrow, bony shoulders and he looked like he wasn’t even out of high school.
“What’s going on?” There were a lot of people milling about in the roadway, and the scene was grave. “Was there a fire?” As she rattled off her nervous questions, she forgot that he might not speak English.
“Ma’am, back, please.”
“I can’t. That’s where I’m staying,” she said as she pointed towards the hotel. “All my stuff is there.”
He pushed the air in front of him. “Back.”
“But where am I supposed to go?”
He just made the same gesture again, and Maggie raised her arms out to the sides in frustration.
As she stood there, needing answers the police officer couldn’t give her, a couple of women joined her. Their t-shirts and tennis shoes marked them as Americans, and their silver hair suggested they might be retirees on holiday.
“You’re staying at Blue Goose, too?” one of the women asked. She had on a Ramones shirt and her hair was cut in an asymmetrical style. Maggie wanted to adopt her immediately.
When she nodded, the other woman, with more conservative short curls, but also with a leather jacket and biker boots, shook her head. “I hear there are reporters swarming the scene, from what someone else in the hotel was just telling me.”
The first woman nodded. “I overheard some of the police talking. It sounded like she was dead when she hit the patio.”
The second, in the leather jacket, said, “it’s a good thing you took those language lessons before we left home.”
“Wait, who’s dead?” Maggie asked, and glanced at each in turn. “What are you talking about?
“You hadn’t heard? It was one of the hotel guests. That woman who used to be a model or something, Jenn—what’s her name?”
“Nancy, you know I don’t pay attention to celebrity crap,” Jenn replied. Then she turned to Maggie. “But you might have seen her. Blonde hair with her roots showing, tits out to here — ” she gestured with her hands.
“Jenn! Don’t be so rude.”
“Hey, you know, I call it as I see it. Anyway, they found her in the courtyard. Looked like she fell off her balcony.”
“You’ve seen that husband of hers,” Nancy said more to Jenn than Maggie. “Bragging, leering, showing off. If it had been me, I’d have jumped.”
“You know, he could have pushed her. Just sayin’.”
“Given how much she’s worth, he’d make a ton if they don’t arrest him,
“Wait,” Maggie said, breaking up their banter. “If they’re the people I think you mean, I just had breakfast with both of them this morning. You’re saying Amanda’s dead?”
“Yeah. From what another couple told us, they found her laid out on the bricks.” Just then a young female cop started to walk past them. “Let me see if I can get any more info.” She stepped over and spoke a few halting words to the officer. Then some money changed hands and the officer started half-speaking, half-pantomiming to her.
“That Nancy of mine, she always gets the story,” Jenn said proudly. “Let’s see what she found out.”
Nancy wasn’t smiling now, and her face had a haunted look. “It’s not good. They’re thinking she was murdered.”
“You know the Croatian word for murder?” Maggie asked.
“No, but she said she used,” she paused and mimed hammering a nail, “which I interpreted to mean she had been hit in the head with a hammer.”
Maggie took a deep breath. She had seen Hank leave and then not a few minutes later, that handsome man had gone inside, as if he had been waiting for the coast to clear. Was he the person Amanda had been texting? “How long ago did this happen?”
“It was a while ago. Maybe this morning?”
“Wow.” The implications made Maggie feel dizzy. “I never would have expected that.”
“It is quite shocking,” Jenn said. “Probably that husband of hers.”
“I don’t know — I saw him leave.” Maggie wasn’t sure what to think, but it seemed pretty clear Hank didn’t do it.
“Well, who knows. Hey listen—since we can’t go in for now, Nance and I were going to find something to drink, if you’d like to join us. Looks like you might need it.”
Maggie and her new friends stumbled back to the hotel after nightfall. There was a lot she didn’t want to know or remember and strong drinks accomplished that goal.
They bid her farewell in the hotel lobby, but then Maggie realized she had left her key in her room, so she headed over to the front desk for a spare. She kept looking over her shoulder, worried that the man might be hanging around, and she was the only witness — the only one who had seen him go into Amanda’s room. Tonight there were a half-dozen men lingering about that could have been him, and even as tipsy as she was, each time she spotted someone who could be him, she could feel her heart racing.
As she waited for her turn at the counter, that’s when she saw him. Close to the front doors, he was talking to a couple of police officers. The conversation seemed friendly enough — there were no handcuffs. So they didn’t know? She glanced back at the desk. Hurry, she whispered to herself. She needed to get to her room.
When she got her key, she ran to the elevator, and when she got on she breathed a sigh of relief as the doors started to close. Then someone cried out, “wait!”
It was him.
Maggie couldn’t breathe. She stared straight ahead at the silver doors. Maybe she could become invisible
It didn’t work. He smiled as he turned to her. It was totally a serial killer smile. “You enjoying your time here?” he asked.
She felt like a trapped rabbit. “Sure.” Her eyes drifted to the light announcing the floors. Why was it taking so long?
“I’ve seen you around a few times. How long are you staying?”
Come on, elevator. “Oh look, sorry, this is my floor.” As soon as the doors opened, she bolted and ran straight down the hallway, her room key tight in her palm.
All night she was too afraid to leave her room. What if he found her? He already knew which floor her room was on.
She knew she should tell the police, but she didn’t know his name, and she didn’t speak the language. And she was afraid if she got involved, she wouldn’t be able to go home on time.
The winds had picked up overnight and the banging shutter once again kept her awake, so when she got up she called the front desk and asked if someone could take a look at it.
When she opened the door, instead of a handyman, it was — him. Dark curls, dark eyes, and a cigarette, and he was standing right outside her door.
And he was holding a hammer.
As soon as it registered, she screamed. and tried to slam the door shut, but he caught it with his palm. As he pushed it open, she ran across the room and grabbed her phone. “Please don’t hurt me.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked, holding the cigarette between his fingers. “I’m just — ”
“Is that what you said to Amanda?” she cried out. Maggie ran to the far side of the bed looking for something she could use to protect herself.
“You didn’t even know her name? I bet you’re not even the real handyman either.” She had always heard that most serial killers were charming, which was how they got their victims to let them in. How could she be so stupid?
“You’re right. His kid’s sick so he took the day off.” He took a step forward. “But you’ve seen me around the hotel?”
“I didn’t tell anyone that I saw you. No one ever has to know.” She took one step backward, and then another. Then she was up against the french doors to the balcony. He had cornered her, just like he had cornered Amanda. He had seen to everything.
He raked his hand through his hair. “Miss, I’m just here to fix the shutter. Who do you think I am?”
“You were there, talking to the police.”
He sighed and rolled his head back. “Of course I was talking to them. It’s my hotel. And if someone gets injured, I have to make a statement.”
Maggie blinked. That didn’t make any sense. “What do you mean, you had to make a statement?”
“Didn’t you hear? A woman fell from her balcony when she was trying to fix another loose shutter, and she broke her leg. Good thing it was just on the second floor or it could have been worse. But because she’s some famous singer, when they were doing the investigation, they closed the roads to keep the media out. And now I’m going around to make sure no one else gets hurt.”
“So no one died?”
He laughed. “Where in the world did you get that idea?”
Maggie suddenly realized Nancy’s skill with languages left a lot to be desired, and her face flushed in embarrassment. She released the breath she was holding, and dropped to the corner of the bed. “It’s a long story. So you’re really just here to fix the shutter?”
“I am, but — ” he grinned. “To make up for any misunderstanding, I’d love to take you out to lunch when I’m done.”
That made her smile. “Okay, but there’s just one thing.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Which is?”
“I don’t really like smokers.”
I wrote this for SWAP52Club’s 4th weekly writing exercise, which was to take two words and a genre more or less randomly assigned. My words were “nagging” and “smoker” and my genre was suspense. I don’t really write suspense so I struggled quite a bit, and I’m not sure I really nailed it in the end, but it was a good exercise. Because I ran out of time, it’s also pretty rough — I am trying to write these stories within a week, so you get it as-is.
If you read it and have any feedback to share—good or bad—I’d love to hear from you.
Jackie Dana is a freelance writer, editor, and novelist based in St. Louis. Although she has eclectic interests, her focus is on articles designed to help people find their way through an uncertain world. She published her first novel in 2015. In addition to writing, Jackie might be brewing herbal potions or reading a great YA novel. For her latest articles and other tantalizing goodness, be sure to subscribe to her mailing list.