The House Guest

an excerpt

Chapter One

"Hey, buddy! That's the last of it."

Zach stalled, nearly dropping the box he carried in both arms. He grimaced under the weight as he shuffled the last few meters and set it down atop a pile of others. Then he turned to the speaker.

"Great. Thanks." He expected the man to leave. When he didn't, Zach experienced a rush of dread. "It should all be paid. I did a bank transfer last week." His thoughts leaped to his empty wallet. Shit. What if they wanted more money? He'd be gutted if he had to call his parents for help on the first day.

"Yeah, yeah, you're all paid up," the man said. Zach's relief must have shown on his face, because the man--was it Bill?--gave a sympathetic smile. "I just need a signature."

Zach took the clipboard, scanned the page, and signed on the dotted line. Bill--the paperwork confirmed Zach's memory was in working order--slipped the pen back beneath the clip, then tore off the bottom copy of the form, passing it to Zach.

"All the best. Watch if you shift those boxes; some of them are bloody heavy."

Zach saw Bill and his partner out, then surveyed the chaos left in their wake. There were removal boxes everywhere--some half-unpacked, most as yet unopened. The realisation he still had to sort through them all saw Zach's already depleted energy levels slump even further. He needed a coffee. The caffeine boost would see him ready to tackle this disaster zone.

He meandered to the kitchen, where he'd deposited the cooler bag. His mother was a gem when it came to this sort of thing. When she'd suggested he take provisions, he'd laughed. However, she'd shaken her head and informed him it would be a tiring day and he'd be grateful for a snack, ready and waiting, when he needed one. He'd accepted the offer to keep her happy, but it turned out she had been right.

He unzipped the bag, pulled out the thermal flask, and unscrewed the lid. He poured a generous serving of coffee into the lid and took a tentative sip. It wasn't too hot, so he downed the rest and filled a second cup.

The doorbell rang and he hurried to answer. A grin spread across his face when he saw who--and what--it was. He gestured the deliverymen in and indicated where they should set down the package. There was another round of paperwork to sign and then he was alone once more.

Zach was bursting with enthusiasm; although, he wasn't certain if that was due to the delivery or the coffee. Probably the delivery, he decided as he eyed the well-packaged bulk that stood against the far wall. He wondered where his scissors were. He glanced at the boxes spread about him, but even the rough labels on the sides weren't enough to reveal in which one he'd packed them. Then he froze and shook his head at his idiocy.

He reached into his back pocket and retrieved his penknife. It was small and wouldn't be as efficient as the scissors, but it would get the job done. He set to work with the blade, sawing through tape and foam and cardboard until, at last, the item beneath was revealed. Pushing the detritus out of the way, he stepped back to admire his purchase.

When he first saw it in the antique shop window two weeks ago, he knew he had to have it. His tastes were usually far more modern, but something about this piece had called to him. So much so, he'd barely haggled and agreed to pay only five pounds less than the price on the label. It had blown his budget--he'd have to wait until next month to purchase a television--but, seeing it now, Zach remained convinced it was worth that minor inconvenience.

The cabinet was made of pine, stained to look like oak, and stood about a meter high. The dealer had it listed as a small sideboard, but Zach intended to use it as a television stand--once he'd saved enough to get one. Two doors opened to reveal a hollow interior with one shelf, where he would store his DVDs, and above that were two small drawers, where he could keep remote controls and any other odds and ends. It was only now, as he observed it against the beige wall, that he noticed the lock.

The drawer on the left, unlike its fellow, was fastened with a small tarnished padlock--an old one from the looks of it. In the gloom of the shop, it had been invisible, but in the bright lounge, it stood out against the lighter wood. Zach gave the drawer a gentle tug. The padlock creaked but held fast. He frowned and stared at it for a moment, considering his options. But then he shook his head and turned away. There was still so much unpacking to do; the lock would have to wait for now.

It was the sensible course of action. Even so, Zach's gaze strayed to the cabinet many times throughout the day, his imagination ripe with reasons for the lock, and what secrets the drawer might hold.