The House on the Hill
by Roger Ley
Other stories by Roger Ley
The hotel had been derelict for more than twenty years. Sited on a hillside at the edge of the Tyrolean mountain village, facing South into both the summer and the winter sun it should have been a goldmine for its owners, but over the years, things had gone wrong. Accidents, key staff leaving suddenly, outbreaks of food poisoning, plumbing and heating failures, had all contributed to its poor reputation and lack of bookings. Finally, the owners had declared bankruptcy, and abandoned it.
Now the hotel brooded on its hillside. Through smashed windows passers-by could see the walls sprayed with graffiti, the empty indoor swimming pool piled with rubbish. The unkempt garden was currently covered with eighteen inches of snow, as was the roof, icicles hung from the blocked gutters in stalactitic clusters.
It was a Friday afternoon when Conrad, the surveyor, drove up and parked his Audi TT in the hotel’s empty car park. He approached the front doors with the glove from his right-hand dangling from his mouth as he struggled to extract the hotel keys from the zipped pocket of his puffer jacket. Carrying his iPad and ultrasonic tape measure under his left arm, he unlocked the doors and made his way inside. There would still be enough light left to complete the initial survey for the new owner’s architect. He would only need a couple of hours to take the necessary measurements and make rough sketches.
Conrad had always been sensitive to ‘atmospheres,’ and as soon as he stepped over the threshold, he felt uncomfortable. Several times, as he walked around the upper floor, he heard small noises that made him look back over his shoulder, there was never anything to be seen but he became progressively more jumpy. He continued to take his measurements and sketch the layout but he worked more quickly. His final task was to inspect the first-floor sun balcony. Holding up his iPad he poked his head out of a broken picture window to take some photographs, but as he withdrew it a large piece of glass that had been attached to the upper part of the frame, fell and smashed onto the floor just in front of him, it had nearly decapitated him. He decided to leave immediately. Anyway, he had enough information to make a start on the formal drawings back at his office in Innsbruck, after the weekend.
Conrad made his second visit a week later, this time his task was to measure and sketch the ground floor. He was consulting his digital tape measure, and wasn’t paying full attention to his footing, when he stepped on a rotten patch of flooring and fell through up to his armpits, dangling above the water-filled cellar. As he struggled to clamber back up, he imagined lying in the cold stinking water, possibly with a broken leg. Nobody at the office would miss him until the next Monday as this was to be the last stop on his way home, and he lived alone. He would have died of hypothermia before they found him. The shock of his near miss unnerved him. He decided it was time to leave, he hurried down the corridor, locked the main doors as he left and drove away.
The hotel brooded on its hillside.
A week later, Conrad made his last visit. He expected it to be brief, there was no need to go inside, he just needed to measure the garden boundaries and the external dimensions of the main structure. He was working at the back of the building when he heard a faint sound above him and saw a flurry of snow as it drifted down in front of him. He looked up at just the right moment for the falling icicle, that had detached itself from the gutter two storeys above him, to plunge into his right eye, burst through the thin spheroid bone at the back of the socket, pass through the pulpy tissue of his brain, and stop as it struck the occipital plate at the back of his skull.
Conrad’s body locked rigidly, fingers extended, large muscles trembling. After a few seconds he fell forward, lay twitching in the snow and was eventually still. The icicle inside Conrad’s head slowly melted and dripped away. As there was a fresh fall of snow, the police didn’t find Conrad’s frozen body for several days.
In the morgue, after the body had thawed, the pathologist examined the wound. There was no evidence of shock effects to the tissue from the passage of a bullet, no cuts from a sharp-edged implement, say a knife or ice axe. In the end she could only state the cause of death as ‘penetration of the brain by a blunt object approximately 15mm in diameter.’ There was no evidence of foul play, no defensive wounds, no evidence of a struggle, no weapon and no suspects to interview. After a few weeks the police halted their investigations, the Coroner recorded Conrad’s death as ‘unnatural’ and released the body. His boss and a few workmates attended the sad little funeral, he had no close relatives.
The hotel continued to brood silently on its hillside.
Two weeks later, Conrad’s newly promoted deputy arrived at the hotel, intent on completing the survey. Oscar parked his Volkswagen in the car park, he didn’t think the measurements would take long, but by the time he’d finished, snow had started falling heavily so he decided to wait inside the hotel. He knew that the snow ploughs would drive through as soon as the snow stopped and, with luck, he’d be able to follow one back to the main road to Innsbruck.
He unlocked the front doors and stepped inside.