by Minka Kent
She’s a pariah with a killer past. Her bid to escape it is nothing short of terrifying in a heart-pounding novel of suspense by Washington Post and Wall Street Journal bestselling author Minka Kent.
Afton Teachout has been an outcast in her small town for twenty years—ever since she was accused of murdering her mother’s lover in a blackout fit of rage. That is, if one believes the malicious lies.
Living with her grandmother, working a hotel night shift, and relying on pills to get a day’s sleep, Afton is due a little luck. It comes in the form of an unexpected financial windfall. With her newfound wealth, Afton sets a secret plan in motion to help her only friend, Sydney, flee a toxic husband. But the best intentions soon spin out of control.
Afton is getting unsettling calls from a restricted number, and someone has been lingering outside her home. As Sydney’s troubled marriage comes into focus, so does Afton’s past. Her second chance—for herself and for Sydney—isn’t what she dreamed of at all. In fact, it’s becoming a nightmare.
Amazon – https://mybook.to/AfterDarkMK
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Her eyes follow me—Millicent’s. It’s what I’ve named the sour-faced lady in the Victorian-era oil painting across from the hotel check-in desk. Most nights it’s nothing but the two of us, the hourly chimes of the antique grandfather clock, and the occasional guest tromping off the elevator in their pajamas to tell me the ice machine on the second floor is screeching again.
I pace from one side of my desk to the other, tracking old Millie’s beady gaze as she tracks me back.
Working nights does this to a person. I’m always finding novel ways to entertain myself during these quiet, never-ending hours when the rest of the world is asleep. Sometimes it’s crossword puzzles and sudoku. Other times it’s library books and laughably horrible attempts at sketching. We’re allowed to do anything that doesn’t involve being on our phones—understandably. While this isn’t the classiest hotel in the area, it’s the oldest and best preserved. We can’t tarnish our reputation with a night clerk who can’t be bothered to look up from her dead-eyed Reddit scrolling to properly greet a guest.
Outside, the wind howls, creating whiteout sheets of snow that obscure my view of the parking lot. The forecast is calling for seven to nine inches tonight, which means we’ll likely get half of that, but hey—at least the grocery stores will get to clear out their old milk and bread inventory.
It never fails . . . some people grow up with these kinds of winters their whole lives, but one day of higher-than-usual snowfall and the next thing you know, every store shelf in a thirty-mile radius is empty and there are lines twenty cars deep at every corner gas station.
Sometimes I think people enjoy panicking. It’s exciting. Not exciting-good, but exciting in a way that it gives them something new and novel to worry about; a break from their usual first-world problems.
Watching the snow pile up by the minute, I make a mental note to shovel the front walk when I get home later this morning, and I smile when I think about how excited Gram’s going to be to wake up to this. Despite my grandmother having spent the last two decades indoors, nothing brings her more joy than a crisp blanket of alabaster snow. She’ll stare out the window for hours, just watching it in a trancelike state.
I like to think it brings her peace . . . or maybe it reminds her of happier times.
Sometimes I imagine Gram as a little girl, laughing and making snow angels with her friends, unencumbered by life’s complexities and blissfully unaware of the cards she’ll be dealt one day in the distant future.
The speakers in the ceiling play a cliché Frank Sinatra song that’s been covered to death by every crooner wannabe who’s ever lived. The hotel owner insists we play “classic” music 24-7, and while it gets old not being able to choose the songs that haunt my every working minute, at least it’s better than hanging out alone in silence.
The Grantwell Hotel has been a mainstay in Shelter Rock since the beginning of time—or at least 1904, when it was built across from the courthouse on the square. A few people have died here over the years—natural causes, but locals like to claim it’s haunted. Years back, some TV network came and did an overnight show here. They brought all kinds of gadgets with them as well as a psychic medium. I refused to watch the episode when it aired. I’ve never given much credence to the whole haunted hotel legend. If there’s one thing Shelter Rock folks are skilled at, it’s spreading lies and believing rumors.
The grandfather clock next to Millicent reads 3:14 AM. I’m less than halfway through my shift, but this is the time of night I start to get a little stir-crazy. Making a move for the bottom desk drawer, I make a sly effort to check my phone for any texts. The bartender I’ve been seeing should be getting off work by now, though Thursday nights tend to be busier for him, requiring extra cleanup. Sometimes he messages me on his way home, sometimes not. Since we’re taking things slow, we’ve yet to establish those kinds of expectations. I hold my breath, tell myself not to get my hopes up, and exhale my disappointment.
There’s no text waiting for me.
No social media push notifications.
Not even a spam email.
It’s only when I’m placing my phone back in my bag that my fingers graze a crumpled piece of white paper slightly thicker than a store receipt. Peeling off the spearmint gum stuck to the back, I unfold the Missouri Lottery ticket I forgot I’d purchased last week.
The other day, I overheard one of our guests claiming the jackpot winner purchased their ticket at the Qwik Star on Newmont Road here in town—coincidentally the same place I purchased mine. The gas station happened to be all out of my go-to crossword scratchers when I stopped to fill up my tank that night. It was payday. I was feeling unusually lucky. And I didn’t want to leave the cash register empty-handed.
I shake the mouse on my computer, pull up an incognito Chrome browser, and search up the winning numbers.
And lastly . . .
Comparing the numbers on the screen to the numbers on my wrinkled ticket, I choke on my spit when I realize they’re a perfect match.
There’s no way . . .
I double-check them again, this time reading them out loud, slowly and carefully.
“Thirty-six . . . sixteen . . . forty-seven . . . fifty-four . . . seven.” I swallow. “Twenty-one.”
Once again, the numbers are a dead match.
My skin flushes, hot then electric, as I check the numbers a third time.
Then a fourth.
This can’t be real.
These kinds of things don’t happen to people like me.
“Hello?” A woman with heavy-lidded bloodshot eyes smacks her thick hand on the counter bell in front of me. Yanking off her snow-covered cap, she shakes the thick flakes onto the glossy marble floor, where they melt the instant they hit.
Shoving my bag out of sight, I draw a startled breath.
I hadn’t heard her come in.
“I was worried you were asleep for a second,” she says with a sideways glance. “Need to check in. Reservation’s under Mortimer . . . Sherryl Mortimer. Sherryl with an S, two Rs, and a Y. S-H-E-R-R-Y-L. Mortimer is spelled how it sounds.”
I close out of my incognito browser and pull up our main system, which is asking me to sign in again. Despite being on the clock for hours, I haven’t checked anyone in since well before midnight. That’s the best thing about working the night shift at a boutique hotel: it requires minimal face-to-face exchanges. It isn’t that I’m lazy; it’s that most people around here prefer not to have to interact with me.
Can’t say the feeling isn’t mutual.
My name and likeness are notorious in Shelter Rock. Everyone knows what happened twenty years ago—or rather, everyone thinks they know. Regardless, their minds are made up. I’m a pariah. An outcast. A girl who “went crazy and killed her mother’s boyfriend in a blackout fit of rage.”
In the end, they couldn’t prove my innocence beyond reasonable doubt. I was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and willful injury, but my public defender managed to put together a convincing self-defense story line. We even found a psychiatrist willing to state that in her educated opinion, she believes that I suffered from a dissociative episode and that I wasn’t aware of what I was doing nor did I have memory of it. That combined with a well-documented history of psychiatric care, rage-fueled blackouts, and my tender age of seventeen at the time, and the judge took pity on me, giving me a deferred twenty-five-year sentence barring successful completion of five years of supervised probation.
Shelter Rock locals were outraged at my perceived “slap on the wrist.”
If it weren’t for my grandma Bea, I’d have left this town years ago, much like my mother did the second her name was dragged through the mud. She left us in the dust, going as far as to blame me for ruining her life.
She’ll come back from time to time, usually when she needs money and only because she knows Gram will give it to her out of pity. That gravy train isn’t going to last forever, though. I suspect one day, when Gram is gone for good, Mom will stop coming around.
Her woeful lies and manipulations might work on her own mother, but she knows they won’t work on me. That, and I owe her nothing. She abandoned me in my time of need. In my eyes, the mother I knew and loved died right along with Mr. Carson that day.
“Sorry. Give me one second here.” My fingers tremble as I type her last name into the booking system, only to come up with nothing. “Hmm. Would it be under another name?”
I’m here, but I’m not. The vibration of my voice hums against my throat and my tongue and my lips, but it’s as if someone else is speaking.
My mind is locked on that lottery ticket.
“It’s the only one I’ve got, so no.” Resting her plump elbow against the counter ledge, the guest gives me an incredulous sigh. Peeling her purse off her shoulder, she plops it down with a careless thud. A tube of cherry ChapStick, a used tissue, and an empty water bottle topple out. She doesn’t attempt to retrieve them—only digs farther into the bottomless abyss of her trashed-out purse and produces a shiny new iPhone. Her thick fingers tap in a six-digit pass code before she all but shoves the thing in my face. “I booked this place less than an hour ago over the phone. See here? I called them fifty-eight minutes ago. Maybe your system hasn’t updated?”
The blue-white headlights of an idling SUV outside shine aggressively into the double front doors, the bulbs casting an electric haze far too intense for three o’clock in the morning.
“I called the main 800 number on your website. Spoke to someone with an accent. Sounded like they were in a call center or something? They could hardly understand me.” She rolls her eyes then pauses, as if she’s waiting for me to commiserate on the frustrations of overseas call centers.
“We usually receive our reservations in real time.” I type her last name into the system once more, verifying the spelling. Chewing the inner corner of my lip, I add, “I’m so sorry, but I’m still not seeing anything.”
“I don’t believe you, but okay,” she says with a puff of breath.
I’m not a liar, would never lie about something like this, and being accused of lying has been a trigger for me my entire adult life. Not to mention, what would it benefit me to tell her she’s not in my system?
My blood runs hot, but I force a smile that implies I’m on your side, Sherryl with an S, two Rs, and a Y . . .
“Okay, well, do your job and give us a room then.” She shoves the spilled contents back into her bag along with her phone, which she chucks carelessly into the mishmash of miscellany. “Two queen beds and a pullout sofa or rollaway.”
My jaw clenches as she speaks to me as if I’m less than.
I get enough of this kind of treatment from the locals, I don’t need to get it from Sherryl.
My fingertips tremble as I tap the keys, but not because I’m scared.
A lifetime ago, something like this would have put me into a reactional tailspin or even a blackout. Fortunately for Sherryl, I’m on enough medications to take the edge off and prevent me from doing something I might regret.
Still, my vision flashes red and the lobby feels twenty degrees warmer than before, and it’s not because the heat kicked on again.
The sensation running through me is uncomfortable and unsettling, but I push through it.
No one wins when I get reactional.
“Of course. Let me see what I can find here.” I inject my voice with a customer-service-worthy tone, force another stiff smile, and steal a glimpse at the wrinkled paper beside me, desperate for a chance to check the numbers again. Disbelief invades my thoughts, though my excitement is still live-wire hot. Between this and Sherryl, it’s almost too much to process. Nevertheless, I persevere. “Unfortunately the only rooms I have available tonight are standard king rooms. And all our rollaway beds are spoken for. All I have left are two infant cribs.”
Sherryl chuffs before straightening her slumped posture. “We have five people, none of whom are babies. That’s not going to work.”
“I can put you in two separate king rooms?” I bite my tongue to keep from reminding her we’re not the Hilton. At this point, she’s lucky we have anything. “How does that sound?”
“Are they adjoining?” she asks. I catch a whiff of her stale breath from across the counter—old coffee and Fritos, if I had to guess.
“Unfortunately not.” I debate telling her there’s a leadership conference in town this weekend, hence the reason we are almost at capacity, but something tells me she wouldn’t care. “Again, I’m so sorry.”
If there’s anything I’ve learned in my years of hotel clerking, it’s to always apologize for everything, even if it’s not my fault. Ironically that’s been one of the main themes of my life—apologizing for things I had nothing to do with. At this point, it’s second nature to me.
“Oh, for the love of Pete.” Her arms fall like dead weights. “We’ve been on the road ten straight hours. Is there anyone who hasn’t checked in yet? Maybe we could have their room?”
Seeing how it’s three o’clock in the morning, everyone with standing reservations has already arrived and checked in. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t bump a reservation that’s been secured with a credit card. The system won’t let me override those. Even if the rooms are empty, they’re technically paid for, so I can’t double-book them.
My patience is growing paper thin by the second, and my fists rest clenched beside my keyboard.
A shock of pain shoots through my head—an invisible bullet of tension, anger, and frustration.
This woman needs to piss or get off the pot.
“I’m sorry, but at this time, the only option is to place your group in two separate, nonadjoining rooms.” I maintain eye contact and my professional disposition, though it’s unbearably difficult to do when she’s standing here shooting daggers my way.
“No. No, that’s unacceptable. That’s not going to work for us.” She clucks her tongue and points her shaky glare on my computer screen, hunching over the counter to see for herself, once again implying that I’m a liar. “You’re going to have to come up with a different option.”
There’s an unspoken “or else” lingering in the silence between us, all but broadcasting across her forehead.
“There’s another hotel across town. The Staybridge. You could try them?” They’re our biggest competitor in Shelter Rock and I wouldn’t normally send them business, but Sherryl needs to be their problem tonight or else I might have a problem . . .
She sniffs, shaking her head. “I’m not driving clear across town.”
“It’s only a few miles from here. Straight shot down Grove Avenue, then right off First Street, past the fire station and on the left. Can’t miss it.” Grabbing a pen and paper, I write down the name and address, sliding it toward her. “Safe travels.”
She refuses the handwritten directions, her head cocked sideways as if she’s wondering if I’m being cordial, condescending, or both.
“Let me get this straight. You messed up my reservation, and now you expect me to get back in my car and drive somewhere else?” she asks. “What kind of bullshit backward customer service is this?”
Like a junkyard dog with a bone, Sherryl isn’t going to go down without a fight.
I draw in a long, slow breath, lips sealed to keep from reminding her I didn’t mess up her reservation—among other things.
“This is absolutely absurd. Is there a night manager I can speak to?” She rises on her toes, making a show of peering over my shoulder and into the dark office behind me.
“You’re looking at her.” It isn’t true. Not technically. But I’m the closest she’s going to get this time of night. “Again, safe travels, Ms. Mortimer.”
I slide the paper even closer to her, attempting to tamp down any hint of smugness that’s surely radiating off me in waves at this point.
Sherryl’s bloviating confidence deflates as she swipes her overflowing leather bag off the counter ledge, knocking over a rack of brochures in the process—a mess she doesn’t inconvenience herself with picking up.
The sheet floats to the floor, landing in a puddle of melted brown snow.
“I’ll be emailing corporate as soon as I’m back home.” She rubs her baggy eyes, leaving smudges of black eyeliner in the process. “They need to know how unhelpful the management is here.”
I remain composed as she grabs her overstuffed suitcase, storms outside, and peels out of the parking lot.
Screw that woman.
And screw her for not believing me.
The molten sensation flooding me the past few minutes dissipates, taking the tension in my head and jaw along with it.
I return to my wrinkled ticket.
Pulling the winning numbers up on the computer again, I compare them side by side, pressing the pad of my finger against each number on the paper before matching it to its corresponding number on the screen.
And lastly, 21.
Clamping my hand across my mouth, I exhale through my fingers and accept the fact that this is real.
I’ve never won a single thing in my life, and now the universe is dumping $33 million in my lap.
Chuckling at my stupid luck, I bring up another incognito browser to search for a lottery winnings calculator. I’m seconds from finding out how much I’d get after taxes when a pair of blinding headlights careens into a thirty-minute parking spot outside. Through the blinding snow, it appears to be a dark SUV, much like the one Sherryl was driving, and it’s parked at a slight angle, like the driver was either careless, drunk, or in a hurry.
If it’s a Shelter Rock local, it’s likely all three.
The headlights flash dark and the driver’s-side door swings open before slamming shut, but between the sheets of snow clouding the view, I can’t determine who it is. All I can do is cross my fingers that Sherryl with an S, two Rs, and a Y isn’t back for round two.
When the lobby doors slide open a few seconds later, it isn’t Sherryl at all.
It isn’t even a woman.
A man in gray joggers, white sneakers, a black wool peacoat, and a navy-blue Yankees cap strolls in. He jangles a set of keys in his hand before twirling them around one finger and shoving them in his pocket. Whistling, he makes his way to the elevator, keeping his head down and avoiding eye contact. The knit scarf around his neck obscures the lower half of his head, but there’s something familiar about him, something I can’t place.
It isn’t until he steps on board and turns around that I catch a glimpse of his eyes.
Our gazes catch in the seconds before the silver door wipes him from view.
“Drew?” I call out, trotting out from behind the front desk.
But it’s too late.
The display above the elevator shows him getting off on the fourth floor.
Returning to my station, I pull up a listing of all the reservations for that level—and none of them are under Drew Westfeldt’s name. In fact, I don’t recognize a single person on that roster.
If he had a fight with Sydney and she kicked him out of the house, the room would at least be registered to one of them.
Pulling up the security system software, I click on the hall cameras for the fourth floor and catch him knocking on room 437’s door. As soon as it opens, Drew disappears inside. Returning to the main software system, I search up that room and see that it’s registered to a guest by the name of Vanessa DeOliveira.
Never heard of her.
According to this, she checked in at nine PM—before my shift started, and she’s checking out later today.
I click back to the security camera footage, rewinding that clip and watching him walk down that hallway, knock on her door, and disappear inside all over again.
It’s amazing what some people will do after dark, when they think no one’s watching.
Gram says that’s when my mother would always get herself into trouble, though if you ask me, she did a fine job of getting herself into trouble during daylight, too.
Taking a seat, I lean back and wrap my head around what I saw. I’ve never been a fan of Drew. Even when we were teenagers, I knew Sydney was too good for him. But I could never tell her that. And I still can’t.
Things between us are . . . delicate.
Even if they weren’t, I don’t think she’d believe me.
No one wants to believe that the person they trust most in this world, the person they promised to love and cherish until their dying day, is capable of the ultimate betrayal.
I spend the next hour stewing and intermittently checking the cameras, waiting for Drew to come out so I can give him a proper greeting on his way to the parking lot. But four turns into five and five turns into six, and by the time the morning clerk arrives, I’m forced to go home without the privilege of calling Drew on the proverbial carpet.
Sydney doesn’t deserve this.
And Drew doesn’t deserve her.
Now I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Do I tell her? I’d want someone to tell me if it were the other way around . . .
Or do I let it play out and indefinitely ignore the heavy drag on my conscience every time I’m around them?
I drive in silence to the avocado-green bungalow on Wainwright Street where I’ve lived with my grandmother for the past twenty years. Knuckles white against the steering wheel, I ruminate on Drew’s audacity to cheat on Sydney. By the time I arrive, I’m so worked up from having fictional, one-sided conversations with the bastard in my head that I don’t even think about the lottery ticket until I’m pulling into the driveway.
My God—how could I forget?
They say money can’t buy happiness.
But I imagine it’s pretty good at making problems go away.
My ARC Review:
Afton was accused of murdering her best friend’s father 20 years ago. She doesn’t remember a thing, she had some sort of blackout and was put on medication. She still lives in the same small town, where she is treated as an outcast, working the night shift and running on pills to get by. Her best friend Sydney and Sydney’s mother believe Afton didn’t do it and basically take Afton under their wing as her own mother wants nothing to do with her.
Sydney herself is struggling, she and her childhood sweetheart Drew are struggling financially, she works 2 jobs as well as juggling looking after the kids and keeping her husband happy. But Afton has been a bit distant of late, she’s a bit worried about her.
Afton has been having some unexplained blackouts again and seems to be hallucinating, and she’s not quite sure what is real any more…..
This was a bit slow to start off with for me, but did pick up about halfway through. Not sure I would have waited if I had won the Lottery like Afton did! Anyway, there are some good twists and turns in this and I didn’t see the who dunnit coming at the end! An enjoyable suspense read.
About the author
Minka Kent has been crafting stories since before she could scribble her name. With a love of the literary dark and twisted, Minka cut her teeth on Goosebumps and Fear Street, graduated to Stephen King as a teenager, and now counts Gillian Flynn, Chevy Stevens, and Caroline Kepnes amongst her favorite authors and biggest influences. Minka has always been curious about good people who do bad things and loves to explore what happens when larger-than-life characters are placed in fascinating situations.
In her non-writing life, Minka is a thirty-something wife and mother who equally enjoys sunny and rainy days, loves freshly cut hydrangeas, hides behind oversized sunglasses, travels to warmer climates every chance she gets, and bakes sweet treats when the mood strikes (spoiler alert: it’s often).
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