Henry Cauville arrived in Tortus Bay in the middle of an inauspicious downpour, on a night when the clouds hung dark and heavy over the quaint seaside village. Save for those incessant sheets of rain and the bright moon which made the red-tiled rooftops gleam like glass, he thought the entire scene might have been ripped directly from a postcard. Not that a single postcard had ever been produced for the Bay.
“Never driven anyone this far before,” the driver said. Up until that moment, he had been a pleasant and silent presence in the taxi.
“Appreciate it,” Henry said, leaning forward to press a couple bills into the driver’s palm.
He grunted appreciatively. “Wasn’t a sign. Did you notice that?”
“Maybe we missed it in the rain.”
Henry bid his farewell, slung the top of his coat over his head, and stepped out into the storm. It was a windless sort of affair, where every fat rain-drop fell straight down and splashed back upward before joining the ubiquitous puddle that covered the entirety of the sidewalk. He was immediately soaked. The taxi wasted no time zipping off down the road, leaving him alone on the lonely intersection.
Regardless of what the driver said, the storefronts themselves weren’t shy about signage. Henry spun in place, spotting First Community Bank, Pale Moon Buffet, Off the Edges, and finally: Welcome to the Tortoise Shell Inn! He raced down the block toward that grey brick building, feeling water soak into his socks as he went, and burst through a heavy wooden door alongside a veritable waterfall of rain. He closed the door behind himself as quick as he was able, but thick rivulets of water were already streaking across the finely polished wood floor of the hotel atrium.
“I’m sorry,” he said, but needn’t have. There was nobody else in the room. A desk covered in pamphlets and placards dominated the small space, behind which a flight of stairs led up to the guest rooms. In the corner there was an alcove that led to something called the Hell on a Shell Bar. Henry took a moment to shrug off his hopelessly sodden jacket and hang it on one of the vacant pegs on the wall before he ventured toward the desk. There was no bell. “Hello?” he called instead.
His response came quickly. A portly man somewhere in his late forties bustled through the alcove, spotted his visitor, and put on a warm smile. He was wearing a colorful apron over an untucked black button-up shirt. “You must be Henry!”
The man surged forward and took Henry’s hand in his own, vigorously shaking it a few times more than was perhaps entirely normal. “Jamal Neath,” he said. “Welcome to Tortus Bay!”
“Glad to be here. Sorry about the water.”
Jamal waved him off. “What mops were made for.” He positioned himself behind the desk and began to peruse through a yellow legal pad, eyebrows furrowed.
“I’m a day early,” Henry offered.
He paused, flipped a page backward, and nodded. “You’ll have to forgive me—whole village is out of sorts. There was a funeral today.”
“Was it someone you knew?”
Jamal set the pad down, then started rummaging through a drawer. “Everyone knew him. I suppose that’s how it works, if you take my meaning.”
Henry didn’t. He thought there was something strange in Jamal’s voice when he said that, but he couldn’t place what it was. “I understand if you won’t have room for me until tomorrow.”
That made Jamal bark with laughter. He found what he was looking for in the desk, and held out a novelty keychain onto which two rusted silver keys were attached. “I think we’ll manage to squeeze you in. Little one’s for your room, big one’s for the back door—which I’ll show you in a moment. Luggage?”
“Just the backpack,” Henry said, rolling his shoulders. He examined the keychain, which was a cumbersome, garish piece of bright green plastic with the name of hotel printed on it, and smiled despite himself.
“Got a question?”
“T-o-r-t-u-s Bay, spelled like that, yet this is the Tortoise Shell Inn.”
Jamal smiled back, and indicated that he should follow him up the stairs. “Little bit of local flavor there,” he said. “We got plenty of that, you’ll learn soon enough. Word is that once upon a time we were called Tortoise Bay, before one of our illustrious Mayors decided that he didn’t like the name very much. On account of there being no tortoises here, you understand. But they say that the locals were mighty attached to the name, having lived their entire lives with it, and a compromise had to be reached.”
Henry trailed behind the animated hotel owner, vaguely aware that he was dripping water all the way up the carpeted stairs and down the long adjoining hallway. “Same pronunciation, less false advertising.”
“So the story goes.” Jamal stopped outside of the last door in the hall, which had a brass number Five hanging above the lock. “Is that what you’re here to write about?”
“You’re a journalist, aren’t you?”
“No,” Henry said. He was taken aback, until he remembered the questionnaire that the hotel required for online booking. “I was a copy editor for an organization that published scientific materials. Informational pamphlets for national parks and advertisements for museums, that sort of thing.”
“Of course.” Jamal swung number five open to reveal a modest room. It was appointed with a squishy single bed, an empty bookcase, a corner table with two sturdy chairs, and a large bathroom complete with mint-green shower tiles and an assortment of single-use toothpastes and hair products. No television, no phone, and no standard Bible in the nightstand. “So what is it that brings you here, then?”
Such was the disarming nature of their conversation that Henry briefly forgot the lie he’d prepared, and told the man the truth instead. “I don’t know.”
At that, Jamal winked, and made to take his leave. “I imagine you’ll be wanting to change out of those wet clothes. Come down to the bar whenever you’re ready. First drink’s always on the house.”
Henry gingerly stripped off his clothes, setting them on the back of a chair to dry. He began with his socks, then his jeans, his sweater, and finally he fought back a grimace as he peeled his shirt away from the wound on his left shoulder. It was a small, neat hole in the flesh, red and inflamed for hours spent chafing against cloth. He sighed. It would have to be bandaged again.