A flurry of snow sneaks in while the door is open and, when it’s closed, falls to the doormat at the feet of a slight, balding man in his fifties. He places his brown leather valise on the floor with a dull “clunk,” rubs his hands together and shudders.
From behind the reception desk, William, in his mid-twenties, takes in the scene without moving, a pencil poised above a crossword. The man looks over and gives William a pleasant smile. The young man drops his pencil and hurries out from behind the desk.
“Good evening, good evening! Welcome!”
“Good evening, or rather, very bad evening!”
William forces a laugh. “Indeed.”
The man begins to take off his heavy overcoat, William skipping behind him to help.
“Do you have any vacancies?” asks the man, who shudders again. “Only, the light is off at the entrance.”
“Ah yes. I’m afraid that’s been on the blink for, well, quite a few weeks. We’re going to fix it when the weather improves.”
“I see. So, do you have any vacancies?”
“Yes, yes. Come and sit by the fire. We’ll get you signed in later.”
William shows the man to an armchair next to the fireplace. A welcoming fire is crackling away in the grate.
“So what brings you out on such a filthy night?”
“I was coming back from visiting a patient.” He nods towards the valise, which he places beside the armchair. “I thought I could get home, but then the snow … Do you have many guests? It’s a bit out of the way. I only came across it because I lost my way, and then I nearly didn’t see the sign.”
“We actually don’t have any guests at the moment—apart from you, of course. We’re aiming it more at summer business.”
“I see. And you say ‘we’ …”
“Me and my part—”
As if on cue, a door next to the reception desk opens and a woman of the same age as William enters and stops, surprised at the presence of a stranger. William gets up.
“Speak of the devil. Catherine, this is Doctor … I’m sorry.”
“… Kelly. And this is Catherine. We’re partners … in the business.”
Catherine shakes hands with Dr. Kelly.
“How do you do?”
“Would you like a cup of tea, Dr. Kelly?” William asks.
“That would be nice.”
“Catherine. Do you think you could …?”
“I’ve just made a pot. I’ll bring it in.”
Catherine turns and exits through the same door. William and Dr. Kelly sit.
“We met at University. Finished last summer and we were a bit lost—you know, what to do with our degrees and all that? But we saw this place advertised and …”
“It must have a lot of potential, I suppose.”
“Oh it has that all right.” William smiles. “A lot of potential.”
The door opens again and Catherine comes back in, carrying a tray with a teapot and cups. She places it on the low table in the middle of the three armchairs set up around the fire.
“So, Dr. Kelly,” William continues. “You say you were on your way home. Won’t your wife be worried?”
“Oh, I’m not married. No one to worry about me.”
William exchanges the briefest of glances with Catherine.
“But where are my manners? I’m sure you must be famished. We’ll make you some sandwiches.”
“Oh, don’t bother on my account.”
“Not at all. I’d quite like something myself. Catherine? Will you help me?”
The two go through the door into what is a small kitchen behind the reception area. William whispers as he starts gathering things to make the sandwiches.
Catherine begins to cut a block of cheese into slices, whispering back.
“He is. Look at that.”
She holds up her hand.
“Trembling with excitement.”
“Okay, but let’s do it right this time. We almost blew it with the other one—I think you got too excited.”
“It wasn’t me that let go of her arms!” Catherine points the knife at William.
“All right, but let’s focus on now. Who’s going to do it? You did her, so by rights it should be me.”
“Heads or tails?” Catherine already has a coin out, tosses it, catches it, palms it onto the back of her hand and waits.
“That’s not fair! It should … oh, all right. Heads.”
Catherine uncovers the coin. It’s tails.
“Dammit!” William stomps his foot on the tiled kitchen floor.
“Bad luck. But I tell you what. I’ll let you decide how I do it.”
William thinks about it and nods, setting about the sandwiches as he mulls over the possibilities. When the sandwiches are done and on the tray ready to go out, he leans into Catherine.
“We wait until he’s in bed, keep an eye on him through the mirror, make sure he’s asleep. Then we burst in, put the fear of God up him, wrap him in the bedclothes—he doesn’t look like he’ll put up much of a fight—and drag him down here. The fire might come in handy.”
Catherine smiles and puts an arm round William’s shoulder.
“And we can toss a coin again to decide how to finish him off.”
“Ha! I like it! Let’s go.”
William pushes through the door and holds it open as Catherine carries the tray in.
Dr. Kelly is sitting in the same spot, leafing through a magazine that he’s found.
“Very sorry, Dr. Kelly. Here they are.” Catherine puts the tray down next to the teapot.
“Not a problem. I wasn’t really very hungry, you know.”
“How can we hope to run a successful hotel if we can’t … see to the guests properly,” William says, handing a plate to Dr. Kelly and giving Catherine a surreptitious wink.
Dr. Kelly takes a sandwich and William and Catherine take some for themselves. As the two tuck into the sandwiches and wash them down with tea, Dr. Kelly holds up the magazine and shows them an article.
“I was reading this while you were gone. It’s fascinating. All about chance.”
“What about it, Dr. Kelly?”
“Well, one thing … you know the lottery? Do you know what the probability is of winning?”
“A million to one?”
“More. It says here to imagine walking out of your house, going up to the first person you meet and asking their name.”
He pauses and gives each of his hosts a long look.
“What do you think the probability is that they have the same name as you?”
“Virtually imposh—” William stops, a sudden look of befuddlement crossing his face.
Dr. Kelly smiles and nods, apparently satisfied.
“Uh-huh. And what about you … Catherine, isn’t it?”
Catherine looks at him and opens her mouth, but no sound comes out.
“No? Well, according to the article, that’s how likely you are to win the lottery.”
Dr. Kelly stands and stretches. The two young people eye him nervously but do not move.
“Now, I suppose you’ll be wondering what’s happening to you. Let me explain.”
He picks up the tray of sandwiches, carries it to the reception counter and returns.
“What you have coursing through your veins right now is a neuromuscular blocking agent. Yes—I put it in the tea while you were in the kitchen, sorry. Basically, you’re well on the way to becoming completely paralyzed.”
He bends, picks up his valise and places it on the low table between them.
“Surgeons use it during operations so that they don’t have muscles twitching about while they’re cutting—which, I’m sure you’ll agree, could be troublesome. Without a general anaesthetic you remain conscious, of course. You just can’t move a muscle, literally.”
William and Catherine manage to turn their heads just enough to look at each other. Recognizing the terror in each other’s eyes, they start to moan and make gurgling noises.
“Shush, shush. Now don’t be silly.”
Dr. Kelly goes to them and gently turns their heads back to face him.
“But returning to the article. I did find it interesting. As I said, I was coming back from seeing another patient.” Smiling, he emphasizes the last word, giving it a new and gruesome connotation. “And the snow … well, I wasn’t expecting that. And once it got heavy and I was afraid I’d be stranded, I wasn’t expecting to find a haven like this, in the middle of nowhere. The probability question we were talking about? Of winning the lottery? I imagine the same goes for bad luck, wouldn’t you say? And it does appear that you’ve won … I suppose you could call it ‘the bad luck lottery’.”
Chuckling gently to himself, he opens his valise and begins to take out instruments, carefully lining them up on the table: a scalpel, tongs, a saw, a surgical hammer. He picks up the scalpel and inspects it. Wide-eyed, William and Catherine resume their moaning and gurgling.
“Anyway, that’s enough talk. Let’s get started, shall we?”
Taking his time and smiling pleasantly, he points the scalpel at William and Catherine in turn. Slowly. Deliberately.
“Eeny. Meeny. Miny. Moe. …”