Tom Jurgen’s plans for a romantic weekend with Rachel change dramatically when a ghostly spirit seeking vengeance for past crimes leads them on a search for a murderer.
Saturday, August 20, 2016
I rolled over and rubbed my eyes at the clock radio next to the four-poster bed. 3:37 a.m. Rachel snored next to me softly. I tried to relax. Nothing’s wrong, I told myself. Just a dream. Except for . . .
A woman stood at one of the posts. Watching us.
She wore a gray cloak with a hood that drooped down over her face. The starlight through the window made a silhouette of her shadowy body.
I sat up slowly, silently.
She took a step back from the bed. Her right arm rose up toward the ceiling, and then she jabbed a finger downward, as if pointing toward the center of the earth.
Then she vanished in the darkness like a bat gliding off into the night.
“Great,” I muttered. I wasn’t getting any more sleep tonight.
So here’s some background: I’m Tom Jurgen. I used to be a reporter until—well, it’s a long story. Nowadays I’m a private detective. Not exactly Philip Marlow, but not quite Andy Richter, P.I. either. Rachel and I had been sort-of dating for a little over a year, but this was the first time we’d gone away for a weekend together. I was sort of excited.
We were in a resort hotel in the middle of Wisconsin—the Arden. It offered hiking and horseback trails, swimming in a big pool and canoeing in a nearby lake, massage therapy, a long front porch wide enough to land an airplane on, and a gourmet kitchen that specialized in steaks, lobster, pork, and five different kinds of cheesecake. Rachel’s a vegetarian, but she ordered salmon, and she didn't get mad when I ate the sirloin. And she liked the cheesecake.
The website didn’t mention ghosts, though.
Rachel woke up with the sun streaming through the curtains. I was dozing in a chair next to the bed. “Uh, Tom? Come on, my morning breath isn’t that bad.”
“Huh?” I hadn’t expected to fall asleep. “Uh, no, just—something happened.”
She sat up, her short green nightgown drooping off one shoulder. “Like what?”
I pushed the chair back. “I saw a woman standing over the bed. Right here." I pointed at the post. "And then she disappeared.”
Most people would ask if I’d been dreaming. Or if I was just insane. But Rachel was psychic, at least a little. And she’d been involved in some of my weirder cases. The ones that attracted the supernatural.
“Yeah. I think I feel something too.” She rubbed her hazelnut eyes. Then she kicked the sheets and the flowered duvet back and swung her legs to the floor. “Christ, can’t we go anywhere without bumping into monsters?”
“She wasn’t a monster. Maybe a ghost. She didn’t seem threatening.”
“Whatever.” Rachel yawned and stretched. “I’m going to take a shower." She pulled her nightgown off and threw it on the floor. "You know, it looks there’s room in there for two.”
I was hungry, but breakfast could wait.
Some time later we went down to the dining room. As we partook of the late-breakfast buffet, I spotted the Arden’s manager. He’d welcomed us when we checked in last night. I picked up my empty coffee cup and walked over to the big urn next to the buffet.
“Good morning, Mr. Jurgen!” Rodney Haldane was a balding man in his sixties, and he’d told us he’d been working at the Arden for 38 years. “I hope your room is comfortable?”
I was impressed he remembered my name. “It’s perfect. I was wondering something, though . . .”
“Yes?” He smiled, eager to be of assistance.
“Are there ghosts in the hotel?”
His smile vanished as quickly as the woman last night. “No. Of course not. What—why do you ask?”
I shrugged. “I just heard a strange sound last night. Probably the wind.” I refilled my coffee from a big silver urn next to the French toast station.
Back at the table Rachel was pouring maple syrup over her waffles. “What did he say?”
“Of course there aren’t any ghosts.” I shook my head. “I think he’s lying. He could just be trying to protect this place’s reputation, but—”
“Excuse me, sah.” A server wandered by the table and took Rachel’s empty grapefruit bowl. The waiters at the hotel were all Jamaican, with musical accents and cheerful island smiles. This one looked about 20, with closed-shaved hair and broad shoulders. He over his shoulder glanced at Haldane and leaned down. “Did yah say ghost, sah?”
I nodded, keeping my voice low. “I thought I saw one in my room last night.”
The accent faded. “Hey, you talk to Ronnie. He’s the maitre d’ at dinner. He’s been here 50 years, he’ll tell you about ghosts.” Then he straightened up, and the accent returned: “Can I bring yah anything, sah?”
I smiled. “No, but thank you.”
I finished my eggs as Rachel sipped her juice. “So what do you want to do today? There’s hiking, canoeing, horseback riding, golf—””
“I’m not riding any horses.” She frowned. “I know what you want to do.”
“Give me some time to recover from that shower, and—”
She kicked me under the table. “Not that, you idiot. You want to go back to the room and research ghosts at the Arden Hotel on your laptop. I want to go swimming.”
I finished my coffee. “Maybe we can compromise. I wonder if the wi-fi extends to the pool?”
The Arden had a big outdoor pool. With wi-fi. I parked myself at a table under an umbrella and tried not to be too distracted as Rachel swam laps in her bikini.
“What’s the big deal?” She’d glared at me back in the room when I checked her out in her blue bikini. “It’s a swimsuit. And we just took a shower together.”
“I’m a man.” I shrugged helplessly. “We’re hardwired to drink beer, watch football, eat chips, and check out hot babes in bathing suits.”
She put a hand on her hip. “You don’t watch football.”
“So I make up for it by eating a lot of chips.”
I expected her to punch my arm. Instead she kissed me. In a bikini. Rachel’s full of surprises.
So I did my research in shorts and a T-shirt next to the pool. Kids and parents shouted “Marco! Polo!” and chased each other around from the splashing, chlorinated water. Women and men soaked up rays from the midmorning sun as their bodies glistened with sunscreen. A lifeguard in a tight red suit watched all of us, and occasionally blew a whistle.
Rachel swam approximately ten thousand laps, and then she pulled herself out of the water and walked over to the umbrella, watched by most of the men, some of the women, and at least two little kids as the water dripped off her body. And me, of course.
She grabbed a towel. “That was good.”
A waitress in a white T-shirt and a short green skirt came by to offer drinks. Rachel ordered a bloody Mary. “Make it two,” I said.
“What have you got?” She pulled a deck chair next to me, draping the towel over her shoulders as she sat down.
“Not much on ghosts.” I swung the laptop around. “Don’t get this wet, all right? So I looked into the history of the Arden Hotel, and maybe I should have checked it out before I made the reservation.”
She leaned forward. “Did I ever tell you it’s kind of cool watching you work?”
I grinned. “Not nearly enough. Anyway . . .” I flipped through the pages. “There’s been a string of suicides and mysterious deaths here over the years. Enough that they should have gotten an entry in Haunted Wisconsin, but it looks like they managed to stay out of books like that.” I clicked on my list.
“Six years ago a guest hung himself from one of those flagpoles over the front porch in the middle of the night. Three years later a dead body was found on one of the upper floors, in a storage area right under the roof. He was ID’d as a former employee, dead about eight years. Then a woman was found dead in the stables, apparently trampled by one of the horses, and a after that—”
“Okay, stop.” Rachel reached over and pushed my laptop down. “Our drinks are coming. Don’t spook the waitress.”
I was a little spooked myself. “You want to go home? I’ll take you right now.” “Not yet.” She leaned back in the deck chair and closed her eyes. “Go take a swim. It’ll help both of us relax.”
I swam for a while. The water was warm and the sun was hot. When I got out, some blond guy in a tight Speedo was sitting next to Rachel. “Hi, Tom!” He winked at me. “Rachel’s been telling me all about you.”
I wished for my Taser. It was back in Chicago. “Nice to meet you, uh . . .” I looked at Rachel.
“Oh, I forget your name.” She shoved the laptop into my bag and stood up. “Lunch, lover? Nice talking to you, uh . . .?”
“Eugene.” The guy shook my hand. A little too hard. “Have a good weekend, hey?” He grinned. “Maybe I’ll see you again.”
Back in the room we took showers to rinse the chlorine off. Separately. When I came out Rachel was waiting for me in jeans and a green T-shirt. “Hungry?”
I reached for a shirt from my suitcase. “You like talking to hot guys in Speedos?”
I wanted to take it back the moment I said it.
“Hey, he was just flirting. Not even very much.” She smirked. “Are you jealous?”
“Of course I’m jealous. A little.” I’ve never understood why men deny it on TV and in the movies. Rachel’s almost ten years younger than me. I was married once—briefly—and I don’t know how many boyfriends she had before we met. We both like our space. But we seemed to be good together. Even though she punches my arm a lot.
I grabbed my jeans. “It’s okay. Why shouldn’t you flirt with a good-looking guy in a Speedo at the swimming pool? I can see why he’d want to talk to you. And we’re on vacation and I’m doing research and . . . okay, maybe I’m a little paranoid.” I buttoned a shirt. “Sorry.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” For a moment I was sure she was going to punch me again. I got ready to flinch.
Instead she giggled. “Did you see his hair? Total dye job. And I bet he shaves his chest. And his back. And everywhere else.”
I laughed. “Okay. Let’s have lunch.”
Somewhat later we were back in the dining room. Rachel glared at my roast beef sandwich while she ate a Caesar salad, but she nudged her foot against my leg. We drank more Bloody Marys. I didn’t care about ghosts. I felt like a teenager on a first date. Then a server came up and dropped a note on the table. “Mr. Musgrave asks you to see him, sah.”
Musgrave. I’d seen his name on the website. His family had owned the Arden for decades.
“We might be getting kicked out.” I gulped the last of my drink. “Maybe you’d better pack.”
“Well, it’s been good so far.” Rachel glanced at the note. “But you know I’m coming with you.”
So we finished. I signed the check, and we headed into the back of the hotel to the owner’s office.
I expected to meet someone Haldane’s age, or older. But Musgrave was halfway between my age and Rachel’s, in his late thirties, with a full head of dark hair and bright blue eyes. He stood up to shake my hand over his desk.
“Donald Musgrave. Thanks for coming, Mr. Jurgen. And this is . . .” He looked at Rachel.
“Rachel.” She leaned over the desk to shake his hand too. “I’m his girlfriend. And business associate. We’re having a great time here, by the way.”
“Terrific.” Donald Musgrave sat down. “I’m very proud of the Arden. My grandfather built it, my father ran it.” He swung his chair around and pointed to a series of photos on the wall. The hotel in the early 1900s, with guests playing croquet on the lawn. Flags flying in the 1940s. President Gerald Ford swinging a golf club. A movie shoot in the 1980s with Meryl Streep. And a shot of a young Donald Musgrave, washing pots and pans over a big metal sink.
“Dad told me that if I wanted to be in charge, I’d have to work every job here. So I did.” He laughed. “I carried bags, washed dishes, answered the phones, checked people in—I even shoveled out the stables one summer. So I don’t want anything bad to happen here.”
I glanced at Rachel. Sometimes she could sense when someone was lying, sometimes not. But she nodded, which meant that as far as she could tell, he was being honest. “So what do you want to talk about?”
Musgrave folded his hands on the top of his desk. “You were asking about ghosts in my hotel.”
I nodded. “I asked Mr. Haldane about ghosts because I saw one in my room last night. It wasn’t a dream—”
“I know, I know.” Musgrave shook his head. “She’s all over the place. We’ve had ghost hunters and exorcists, and she keeps coming back.”
After years of lies from CEOs, cops, and editors, his honesty was surprising and refreshing. It also made me a little suspicious. My reporter’s instincts took over. “You’ve also had people dying.”
He grimaced. “Yeah. I mean, a lot of them happened before I was running this place, but I heard about them. And I was here when they pulled that guy out the attic. And that woman in the stables . . .” He gulped. “I saw her. I wish I hadn’t.”
I looked at Rachel again. She shrugged. “Yeah. I get that.”
Now what? “So what are we doing here in your office, Don?”
Musgrave sighed. “You’re a detective, right? And you have some experience with this sort of stuff. I mean, Rodney told me you were asking about ghosts, and he showed me some stuff from the internet about you. He’d like to kick you out, but I need to know what’s going on in my hotel. Can you help me with that?”
“I knew it.” Rachel kicked my chair. “This was supposed to be a vacation.”
“I’ll comp your whole weekend. However many days you want.” Musgrave leaned forward. “And come back any time you like, whenever you want—on me. I’ll put it in writing. Just . . . can you help me with this ghost? My family built this place up. I can’t let it go because of some hallucination. Or whatever it is. Help me. Please.”
Everything was going so well with Rachel and me. But I couldn’t ignore a plea for help. Or the chance to catch a ghost. “We’re only here until Monday. But I’ll do what I can.”
“Thank you.” Musgrave stood up. “Anything you need, you just ask for me.”
“I’ll need to talk with any employee here.” I thought about the server this morning. “No repercussions. From you or anyone else.”
“Fine.” He nodded. “What else?”
“Um . . .” Rachel nudged me as we stood up. “A massage would be nice. From a Swedish woman named Inga, if possible.”
I nodded. “A deluxe massage for Rachel. And anything else she wants.”
Musgrave smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.”
I hung out at the Overlook Bar, right at the top of the hotel, while Rachel got her massage. The Overlook looked over the lake on one side and the trees on the other. I could see the town in the distance.
I didn’t get drunk—I just nursed a beer and talked to the bartender and some of the waitresses. Bartenders can tell you a lot. So can maids, administrative assistants, cashiers, and waitresses. By the time I was done with my beer—and Rachel’s deluxe two-hour full-body massage with aromatherapy was scheduled to be over—I’d heard about drugs, screaming children, naked senior citizens, bats soaring through the hallways, and a boa constrictor in a bathtub. But no ghosts.
Most of them had only been working here a year or two, or just a few weeks. College students mostly, here for the summer. The bartender, a guy named Henry, had been with the hotel five years, and he remembered a man who’d slit his wrists on a balcony. But he wasn’t willing to talk about ghosts, even when I promised that Musgrave would protect him.
I left him a big tip anyway. He was a good listener.
Inga—or whoever Musgrave had sent—was all gone when I got back to the room. Rachel was lying on the bed in her underwear, a sleepy smile on her face. “That was nice.”
“Are you taking a nap?”
“I was, and then you walked in.” She yawned. “Now what? Did you find out anything?”
“Enough material for a listicle on the internet about the most shocking things hotel employees have ever seen. No. 7 will astound you.” I sat on the edge of the bed. “Let’s start from the beginning. What do we know about ghosts?”
She sat up and reached for a T-shirt. “You know more than I do after that one case when I was in Indiana.” She shivered, and not because the air conditioning was on. “They tend to hang around when they’re angry or frightened. They can’t usually do much more than scare people. Sometimes they can move small objects around—poltergeists. They don’t usually speak, but some do.” She grabbed her jeans. “And if you ever come back as a ghost and try to sit me down at a pottery wheel, I swear I’ll send you straight to hell.”
“I’ll try to remember.” I thought about my internet search this morning. “There have been a lot of deaths, but only one murder.”
“That body in the attic? But the ghost is a woman.”
I nodded. Even though I couldn’t see her face, I had no doubt that the ghost was female. “I ought to check it out, though. Maybe there’s a connection.” I stood up. “You want to come visit local law enforcement with me?”
The county sheriff was a woman named Adele Forrest, and she didn’t want to talk to me, even after calling the Arden to get Musgrave’s confirmation that I was indeed working for him.
“It’s still an open case, Mr. Jurgen.” She was a big woman who looked like she could drop-kick me through her window and score a winning field goal. “I don’t know how they do things in your big city, but in my town we don’t just drop case files into the lap of everyone who walks in with a bunch of questions.”
Forrest was actually more polite than most of the Chicago cops I’d dealt with. “Can you at least tell me who he was? How he died?”
She groaned. “That was in the papers, so I can tell you. His name was Ben Stephens. He was a bellman at the Arden, 22 years old. The body was severely decomposed when he was found, but it appears the cause of death was a stab wound to the chest. The weapon was never found.”
“Any surviving family?” Rachel asked.
Forrest drummed her fingers on the desk. “I don’t want you harassing his mother. She’s been through enough. She filed a missing persons report and waited three years before her son was found.”
“So the file is still open.” Meaning they had no idea who’d killed Stephens.
“We are actively pursuing every lead.” She stared across her desk at us. “Do you have anything you’d like to share?”
I was pretty sure Forrest wouldn’t be interested in my ghost story. “Thanks for your time, Sheriff.”
“Enjoy your weekend.” She turned back to her paperwork before we even stood up.
We drove back to the Arden on a road shadowed by tall green trees. “So now what?” Rachel watched my speedometer. “You can go faster. Do we talk to the mother?”
“Not yet.” I’d had enough of bothering mothers and widows when I was a reporter. I might have to do it, but right now I had another lead to track down. We’d have to wait until dinner, though. “Want to go swimming again?”
Dinner started at seven. The Arden’s dress code mandated a jacket and necktie for me after 6:00 p.m., and a skirt or at least a suit for Rachel. I don’t think she owns any skirts, so she wore a dark blue pantsuit that she’d once bought for a funeral. I had to find a YouTube video to remind me how to work a necktie.
We got to the dining room at 7:10. The maitre d’ was an elderly black gentleman in a blue vest. He had gray hair and a wide smile. “Good evening! Romantic table for two?” He handed me a pair of menus.
“Extra romance, please.” I took the menus. “Are you Ronnie?”
“Yes, sir.” He looked us over. “Have I seen you before? I have been working here a long time, but—”
“No, this is our first time here.” I leaned over. “I’d just like to chat with you when you have a few minutes. I’m working for Mr. Musgrave, but don’t worry, nobody’s in trouble. Just a few words about your experience here over the years.”
His smile never faded. “I don’t get off work until 10:15, sir. But I’d be happy to talk to you and your lady friend then.” He turned to greet the next couple waiting for a table.
A waiter led us to a table near the window, looking out over the long porch. I saw an employee in a red jacket pulling the flags down as the sun dropped in the distance.
“Extra romance?” Rachel kicked my ankle.
I winced. “I was getting into the spirit. No pun intended.”
She rolled her eyes. “Riiight.”
Our beers and salads came quickly. I decided not to push my luck by ordering steak again, so I had spinach lasagna and Rachel ordered angel hair pasta with alfredo. We watched the guests around us, laughing and drinking. The waiters moved fast and kept laughing no matter how many plates weighed down the trays they balanced on their shoulders.
We’d just asked for dessert—cheesecake for Rachel, and a whiskey-baked pecan pie for me—when Rodney Haldane walked over to the table. “Are you enjoying your meal?”
“Absolutely.” I lifted my beer. “Thank you.”
“You’ve been asking questions.” He folded his arms. “I hope there’s not a problem.”
“We’re having a great time.” Rachel reached out across the table to grab my hand. “Right, honey?”
Honey? I smiled. “This place is the best.”
“Good.” He backed away as our desserts came. “Let me know if you need anything. Otherwise . . . enjoy your stay.”
I sipped my coffee. “Uh, did you really say honey?”
“Oh, shut up.” She winked. “And get me an espresso. Darling.”
I grinned. “As you say, my queen.”
At 10:30 we were sitting in big chairs in the lobby outside the dining room, sipping brandy in small glasses.
“This is nice.” Rachel leaned back. “Even if we are working.”
“Sorry about that.” I kept checking the door to the dining room. “I’ll take you on a real vacation sometime. Maybe a cruise.”
“Cruise ships are full of diseases.” She sipped her brandy. “And you’re kind of cute when you get all obsessed.”
I loosened my necktie. “Did I mention you’re hot in a bikini?”
Before we could explore that issue any further, Ronnie emerged from a door behind the reception desk. He’d unbuttoned his blue vest but his smile was still friendly. “Hey, Mr. Jurgen? You wanted to talk to me?”
I stood up. “Thanks. Can I buy you a drink?”
He glanced around. “Better not. We’re not really supposed to fraternize with the guests. Just ask me your questions.”
“Okay.” I leaned forward. “Is there a ghost in this hotel?”
“Sure there is.” He chuckled. “I’ve seen her. A woman in a hood? Lots of times.”
“Who is she?”
Ronnie shook his head. “Don’t know. But I know this, a lot of people have died at this place over the years. I’ve seen it. I don’t know if she’s doing it, or what. But ever since they found that boy upstairs—”
“Ben Stephens?” I looked at Rachel. “What about him?”
“He was a good boy. Worked hard. Then one day he was gone.” Ronnie shrugged. “Then they found him upstairs, three years later. Shouldn’t have happened to a kid like that.”
“So what happened to him?” Rachel set her glass on the table. “Why did he end up in the attic?”
Ronnie stared at both of us. “I don’t know. Nobody knows. That’s the problem.” He sighed and looked away. “Long day. Got to go to bed.”
“Thanks for your time.” I reached for my wallet. “Can I, uh . . .”
Ronnie waved a hand. “Don’t do that, man. I work for my living.”
“Of course.” I stepped back. “Good night. And thanks.”
He smiled again, and then he walked away.
Rachel sighed. “Can I get another brandy? I don’t even like the stuff, but that told us nothing.”
“Actually, he told us a lot.” I say back down flagged down another young waitress in a green skirt. “He’s seen the ghost. And he confirmed the timeline.”
“Okay, what is that? Wait—” She closed her eyes. “Oh, I get it—”
“When they found Ben Stephens, he’d been missing for three years. The guy who hung himself from the flagpole did it when Stephens was already dead. It’s like that other case I told you about when you were in Indiana. Angry ghosts.”
“Right.” She opened her eyes. “So what do we do about it?”
I was afraid she’d ask me that. “The only thing I can think of is to talk to the mother. Tomorrow morning.”
The waitress brought us our brandy. “Is there anything else?”
I signed the check. “We’re fine.”
Rachel sat back. “I hate to say this right now, but I’m not sure I can, you know, relax tonight.”
Damn ghosts. But I felt the same way. “We could binge the Godfather trilogy on my laptop.”
She clinked her glass to mine. “Sounds like a date.”
Of course we fell asleep in the middle of The Godfather, Part Two. Rachel in a T-shirt and me in my boxers. I woke up to the ending credits, shut the laptop down, and went to the bathroom.
When I came back out, the woman was back.
She stood in the same spot, looking down at the bed as Rachel slept. This time I crossed my arms and walked toward her. “Hello? My name’s Tom Jurgen. What do you want?”
Her hood shifted as she jerked her head around, and I got a glimpse of her eyes—cold and white. She stepped away from the bed and lifted her arm. Again, like last night, up toward the sky. Then down toward the floor.
And then she vanished again.
Goddamn it. I moved the laptop off the bed and sat down next to Rachel, trembling. Who was this ghost? What did she want? Did Ben Stephens have a girlfriend who wanted vengeance? Was the Arden Hotel haunted? Would Rachel ever go away with me for a weekend again?
I reached for Rachel’s hand. She murmured something in her sleep and rolled away.
A few hours later I jerked my head up. Not the ghost this time. A noise down the hall outside. I grabbed a T-shirt and a pair of sweats, and the key card, and opened the door.
Two men in dark jackets were sliding a stretcher through a doorway. Sheriff Forrest stood in the hallway, a radio crackling on her shoulder. She twisted around. “Go back to bed, nothing to see—oh. You.”
The stretcher held a body bag, big and black. “What happened?”
Forrest sighed. “Overdose. Not your problem. It happens.”
Minutes after I’d seen the ghost. “Does it happen a lot?”
“Jurgen!” Haldane marched up the hall, jostling the stretcher. “Sheriff, this man is asking too many questions. I want him out of my hotel.”
Forrest looked at me, then chuckled. “I ask a lot of questions too, Rodney. You going to throw me out?”
Haldane lowered his voice. “We have to keep this quiet. You know this is bad for business in the town.”
“Let’s talk about this in the morning.” She closed the door and hung a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the handle. “Just keep everyone out of here. I don’t want to have to seal it up with tape.”
“No! Don’t do that.” Haldane backtracked. “I just don’t want to scare the other guests.”
“Fine.” Forrest glanced back at me. “You know anything about this, Jurgen?”
“I might. If you’re willing to listen.” I kept my voice low. “Call detective Elena Dudovich in Chicago. She thinks I’m crazy, but she’ll tell you I’m usually telling the truth. Then we can talk.”
She smirked. “I might just do that. Get some sleep, Jurgen.”
Haldane stalked up to me. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing here, Jurgen—”
“Then talk to your boss.” I slid my key card through the lock. “Like the sheriff said, I’m going to bed.”
“Tom?” Rachel was awake. “What happened to the movie?”
“Coppola screwed up the third one.” I made sure the door was locked and bolted. “And the ghost was here again.”
“Oh, hell. Are you okay?”
“I am. Some other guy down the hall . . .” I threw my T-shirt on the floor. “Overdose, according to the sheriff. Not sure what happened. Maybe the ghost again.”
She sat up and threw the covers off the bed. “That’s it. I’m not going to sleep again until I see this thing. Why should you get all the fun?”
“Yeah, that’s right.” I collapsed onto the sheets, shivering. “Fun.”
Rachel sank back down wrapped her arms around me. “You okay?”
I wanted to go home right now. But I couldn’t say that. And as scared as I was, I wanted to see this through for as long as I could. I kissed her cheek. “I’ll be fine. Let’s try and get some sleep. You want to watch the movie?”
“Maybe.” She patted my arm. “I’ve never really made it to the end of Part Three.”
“Are we going down to breakfast?” Rachel walked out of the bathroom in a white fluffy hotel robe. “Or are you too traumatized to eat?”
I’d showered and dressed two hours ago. “I’m going to need it. After breakfast we have to go talk to Ben Stephens’ mother.” I’d already called her.
“Oh, god.” She grabbed some underwear from her suitcase. “Just give me a few minutes here.” She held up a sleeveless white blouse. “This works, right?”
“Take your time. She’s going to the 11:00 service, so we can’t drive over much before 1:00 or so. But yeah. Everything works on you, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Awww.” She was too far away to slug me. “Shut up and let me get dressed.”
Amanda Stephens had gray hair tied back in a bun and eyes that looked permanently dark from grief. She invited us into her small house and offered us coffee and homemade cookies.
“I’m really very sorry to bother you, Mrs. Stephens.” We sat on a low sofa in the living room. Photos hung on every wall, sat on every bookcase, and even perched on the small upright piano crammed into a corner. “We wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t important. And we’re both very sorry for your loss.”
She gulped some coffee from a mug. “It’s been a long time, but thank you. I can’t—I still can’t think of him being gone. But I appreciate you and your girlfriend coming over here. I just don’t see how I can help you.”
Rachel didn’t twitch the way she sometimes did when people assumed she was my girlfriend. I took that as a good sign. “This is difficult to explain, ma’am—”
“Oh, don’t call me ma’am.” She sat back in her chair. “I’m not that old. I mean, I have two other children, and grandkids, and all that . . .” She pointed at the pictures around the room. Then she groaned. “I just wish I knew what happened.”
“What do you know?” I tried to ask as gently as possible.
“He loved working at the Arden.” She folded her arms. “It was a good job, you know? He liked the people, the guests were always nice—well, there were always one or two assholes, you know—” She smiled. “But he really seemed happy. And we’re a small town. Not a lot of jobs. I told him to go to college, do something else, but he liked it here. Maybe in a few years he might have changed his mind, but then . . .” She looked down at the floor. “It was too late.”
“He just . . . disappeared?” Rachel sipped her coffee.
“He didn’t come home. Sometimes he went out with friends, so I didn’t worry until the next day. I called Mr. Haldane, and then the sheriff, but they couldn’t do anything, and then . . .”
She wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry. One day I got a phone call, and they’d found—a body up somewhere in the hotel. I had to give them some of my hair for the DNA, and they said it was him, and they didn’t want me to look at him, but I did, and it was horrible . . . but it was him. Ben . . . all alone, up there next to the sky . . .”
She grabbed a handkerchief from a pocket in her skirt. “At least I knew. It wasn’t so bad. The town, the church—they helped me. But I still—I can’t imagine why.”
She pushed the plate of cookies at us. “I hope this helps.”
I took a cookie because I couldn’t think of anything to say. Rachel took one too. “These are really good.”
“Thank you.” She smiled.
“Can you tell us about Ben?” I needed more information, and I didn’t know what might be important. Or what might connect him to the ghost.
Amanda Stephens smiled. “He loved baseball and comic books. And swimming in the lake. My husband, he died when Ben was 11. My other sons were growing up, but Ben tried to take care of me. I had to work—I got a secretary job in town, but he did his best to help me here with the yard and the cooking, and everything else. But he loved drawing most of all. Here, let me show you.”
She lurched up. Rachel and I looked at each other as she wobbled from the room.
Rachel shrugged. “They are really good cookies.”
Amanda came back holding a heavy stack of large sketchbooks in her arms. “Look at these. He was drawing a comic book. All the time in his room, even after high school. I know, I’m his mother, but these are good. He has—had a talent.” She dumped the books on the sofa next to my knees. “Just look!”
Superheroes, some in black and white in pencil, others in bright colors. Men and women and aliens, flying through the sky, battling fierce enemies, and standing triumphant as they vanquished their foes.
The pictures were probably good, although I was never much of a comic book fan. But when Rachel set it aside and opened the second book I sat up straight.
SHALLASTRA—THE AVENGER. The title page. And beneath the three words was a clear sketch in pencil of a woman in a gray hood and a long cloak swirling around black boots.
I glanced at Rachel. “It’s her. Can you—?”
She nodded and pressed a hand down on a page. Her eyes flickered. “Oh, wow.” She pulled her hand away and arched an eyebrow at me. “Yeah.”
The rest of all the sketchbooks contained pictures and stories of the character named Shallastra. Most of the stories were incomplete, with blank pages following scenes of fighting and death, as if Ben hadn’t figured out how to end the tale.
I set the books down and took another sip of coffee. “We’ll return these,” I told Amanda. “But it would help if we could take a look at them back at the hotel. So we’re not bothering you here.”
“But they’re . . .” Amanda turned in her chair to look at a large photo of her son on an upright piano in a corner of the living room. “Ben worked hard on those. If anything happened to them . . .”
I looked at Rachel. I knew what had happened to her in Indiana, when she’d had to burn a book to destroy a demon.
“It’s okay.” She closed the book. “We’ll bring them back tomorrow.”
In the first story Ben had drawn, Shallastra was gang-raped and murdered as a teenager, in images that were disturbing and graphic. Then she arose from death as a furious avenger, killing sexual predators with long fangs in her fingers and heat rays burning through her eyes.
Ben’s pictures were violent, filled with blood and death. He never showed Shallastra’a face—just her eyes, wide and white beneath her gray hood, wrapped in a cloak with her feet in tall boots as she kicked villains in the face and the crotch.
“I’m impressed that at least he didn’t put her in a chain-mail bikini.” Rachel turned the pages as we sat close together on the duvet. “Do you think . . .?”
Some of the sketches were dated at the top of the page. The final sketchbook, half finished, had a date on the first page just a few months before Ben’s disappearance. “What do you think?”
Rachel pressed a hand down on a picture of Shallastra driving a long dagger through the chest of a tall bald demon, drawn in explicit detail. “Anger. And fear. He was furious. And scared. And young.”
“Yeah.” I stood up and paced around the bed. The sun was starting to set, casting violet light through our windows. I had an idea about what had happened, but nothing I could take to Musgrave. Or Forrest.
I needed Shallastra to come back to me again, but if she wouldn’t talk to me, or anyone . . .
I closed my eyes and pictured her from last night. A woman in a gray hood. Silent, steady.
I grabbed the phone next to the bed. Musgrave had given me a number that would reach him any time. He said. I waited through two rings. Then—
“Don Musgrave. How may I help you?”
I looked at Rachel. “It’s Tom Jurgen. I need to see where Ben Stephens’ body was found.”
The bellman sent by Musgrave wore a maroon jacket and a clip-on bow tie. His name was Paolo, and he was older than most of the other college-age bag carriers at the Arden, maybe 28 or 29. And he was nervous.
I tried to offer him money, but he shook his head as if I’d insulted him. “I’m just doing what Mr. Musgrave asked.” He did check Rachel’s tight jeans out as we rode the service elevator to the top floor, just below the Overlook, but I couldn’t blame him for that. I was more pissed off with her for not waiting in the room, but I’d learned not to argue when she really wanted to do something.
He led us to the end of a hallway. No guest rooms on this floor, just storage areas. The guest elevator to the Overlook bypassed the floor entirely. He unlocked a door and flicked a light switch. “Up there.”
Narrow wooden stairs pointed upward. They looked shaky, but Paolo went first. “It’s okay, they’re safe.”
I wasn’t so sure, but I followed, with Rachel right behind me. Paolo unlocked a door at the top and scrambled through.
I reached for Rachel’s hand, but she ignored me as we crawled into the upper level of the Arden. Paolo yanked a chain hanging from the ceiling, and a single big bulb from above threw a yellow cone of light around us.
Darkness extended in both directions around us like tunnels into the unknown. The air smelled like damp hay and sour vinegar. The three of us stood between stacks of crates, and the floor under my feet felt like it could give way at any minute.
“Have you been up here before?” I looked up at the thick rafters, expecting birds and bats.
“I found him.” Paolo reached into a pocket. “That’s why Musgrave sent me.” He turned on a slim flashlight. “I thought you knew.”
I looked at Rachel. “You okay?”
“Oh yeah.” She punched my arm. “Except, you know, I’m going to run away like a girl in a horror movie the first time we hear a weird sound. Are you going to try to hold my hand so I’m not scared?”
“Actually, I want you to hold my hand so I’m not scared.” I turned. “Where was he?”
Paolo flashed his light around. “It was nine years ago. I was practically just a kid. They sent me up here to look for a box of old photos to hang in the lobby. It was me and another guy, he never came back after that summer. Anyway . . .”
He pressed his hand against a crate. They were numbered, although the strips of tape were dry and falling off. “Down here. It was 10886. This is—oh, god.”
He stopped and pointed. “Back there. Behind those crates. It was—he was . . . right there.”
Paolo stepped away, shaking. Rachel put a hand on his arm. “Do you need to go back?”
“No. I just . . .” He thrust the flashlight at me. “I’ll wait by the stairs. Okay?”
He fled. I didn’t blame him.
I slid into the space between the crates. The roof slanted down, and the rafters bumped my head. I leaned down, pointing the flashlight.
I saw cobwebs and mouse droppings, and a stain in the wood floor that might have been blood. The air smelled foul. I circled the light around, looking for anything left behind. But after nine years there wouldn’t be any evidence I was likely to spot with a little flashlight. Maybe this was a stupid idea.
I pushed myself back. I didn’t want to ask Rachel to go back there, although I knew she’d do it. Maybe she could sense something that I couldn’t see. Maybe—
“What’d you see?” Rachel pulled on my arm. “Do you want me to—”
Oh, hell. “There she is.” I pointed. “Take a look.”
Rachel whirled around.
Shallastra stood right behind her. Her hood drooped over her face, just like last night, but now she held a long dark dagger in one hand, just like the one that Ben had drawn in his notebooks, stabbing the red demon. She pointed it directly at the spot where Ben Stephens’ body had been found nine years ago.
Then she lifted the dagger above her head with both hands and dropped to her knees, driving the sharp point into the wooden floor. She wrapped her hands around the handle and pushed it down into the planks. The dagger wavered, and then it vanished. Her hands were empty.
Her head bobbed up. I could see her eyes, glowing white. She jabbed a finger downward, just like last night.
Then she faded away. Just like last night.
“Did you see that?” I grabbed Rachel’s arm.
“Uh, yeah.” She pulled away. “She wants us to go down.”
“Yeah. I got that.” I should have figured it out last night. “Hey, Paolo?”
“Y-yes, sir?” He was still near the stairway.
I turned the flashlight off. “What’s the lowest level in the hotel?”
“Uh, there’s a basement. Nobody goes there.”
“Well, I think we need to go there. Can you show us?”
He peered into the darkness. “Who was that?”
“A ghost. Sort of.” I held up his flashlight. “Mind if I keep this for a while?”
“She doesn’t mean any harm.” Rachel put a hand on Paolo’s arm. “But we really need to do this.”
He glanced at Rachel’s big hazelnut eyes, then at my face, and then back to her again. “If you say so, ma’am. Okay.”
“So here’s what I think.” The elevator descended slowly, but I had to talk fast. “Shallastra’s not really a ghost, but somehow she came to life when Ben was murdered. And she’s been behind the wave of suicides and deaths ever since. He created her to be an avenger.”
“His avenger.” Rachel leaned back, her eyes half-closed. “That’s what in those books. Vengeance for people who got hurt.”
“So, like an angry ghost—”
“Yeah, I get it. The only way he could work through what happened was to create a character to deal with it.” She sighed. “Shallastra couldn’t protect him, but she could avenge him. The way she did in his drawings. When he died, she was all he had left.” She wiped a hand over her eyes. “Poor kid.”
“Uhh . . .” Paolo stared at us. “What are you talking about?”
“Ghosts.” I took Rachel’s hand, and this time she didn’t yank it away. “Sorry.”
“Hey, everyone knows this place is haunted.” The elevator stopped. “This way.”
We were one floor below the lobby. Paolo led us down a narrow hall past a small office marked PERSONNEL and another one with a big sign that read SERVERS—DO NOT ENTER. He stopped in front of a tall door with no sign.
“The only guy I know who goes in here is the fellow who takes care of the porch.” He turned the knob. “Mostly because he keeps the best vacuum cleaner hidden somewhere, and the rest of his stuff for polishing the brass and other things. But it’s kind of spooky.” He shivered. “And that’s before I heard you guys talking about ghosts.”
“You can stay out here.” I pushed on the door. “Thanks.”
He was right. The basement was spooky as hell. A plank over a dirt floor, a string of light bulbs hanging from an extension cord across the ceiling, half of them burned out, thick beams holding up the roof, and at least one rat scuttling away from the glare of the light.
I turned on Paolo’s flashlight. A tall metal storage locker stood in one corner. Rachel and I stepped off the plank and trudged through the wet dirt. I pulled on the handle and flashed light inside.
A broom. A can of brass polisher and a stained rubber glove. A dustpan and a collection of dirty rags. And a porn magazine from the 1980s. Rachel snorted.
I looked behind the locker. Behind a tall slab of plywood I found the vacuum cleaner. Well hidden. Well, if a guy needed the best vacuum in the place, I couldn’t blame him for hiding it where no sane person would ever look.
“Uh, Tom?” Rachel’s voice was a whisper. “I think we’re on the right track.”
I turned. Shallastra stood behind us.
“It’s okay.” Rachel held up a hand. “She wants to show us something.”
I trusted Rachel’s psychic feelings. So I waited.
Shallastra turned and stepped over the plank toward the other side of the basement. She stopped next to a pile of cinder blocks and jabbed a finger at her feet.
I stepped forward. “What’s down there?”
She pointed again. Then she vanished.
Damn it. “Rachel? Get me, uh, that dustpan.” It was the closest thing I had to a shovel.
“Right here.” She tossed it at me.
I thrust the dustpan down into the dirt. Fortunately it wasn’t hard, and we brought up a pile of earth in a few minutes. I handed the dustpan to Rachel and buried my hands in the hole. It had to be here. Right down here . . .
“Uh, what are we looking for?” Rachel scraped dirt away from the side of the hole. “I mean, these are my last good jeans here, but I don’t really care about that so much. Actually, this is kind of fun, you know? Better than horseback riding.”
“I don’t know.” I leaned down. “But it’s here. It has to be.” I hoped. “If not—”
“Hey! What the hell are you doing here?”
I had it. Something long and heavy, wrapped in plastic. I ignored the voice as I pulled it up, and then I dropped it on the ground with a grunt.
Rachel was standing up, wielding the dustpan like a blunt mace. Paolo stood at the door, his hands at his sides, one arm twitching as if he wanted to throw a punch.
Haldane stood below a light bulb, his half-bald head gleaming bright, his eyes red with anger. “You can’t be down here! Get out!”
“Nice hotel you’ve got here.” I got to my feet, Rachel’s hand on my arm. I held the object from the dirt in my hands. “I wonder what this is.”
“It’s nothing. It belongs to the hotel. Paolo!” He raised his voice. “Get them out of here!”
“Actually . . .” I didn’t want to unwrap the thing, but Rachel and I could see the shape through the plastic. “It’s a knife. A big knife. I bet there’s blood and DNA on it, even now. I bet the blood belongs to Ben Stephens. I wonder what else they can find on it. What do you think, Rachel?”
She reached out and cautiously put her hand on the plastic. Then she jerked it back. “Oh yeah. It’s all over that thing.” She looked right at Haldane. “His stuff. I mean, I can’t testify in court or anything, but—”
“You killed Ben Stephens.” I put the package under my arm. “You molested him and then you killed him and hid his body up in the attic, and then you buried the dagger down here—as far from his body as you could. And when the ghost came, you ignored it, and people died.”
“No. No! It wasn’t like that!” Haldane took a step back, but Paolo blocked the door. “You don’t understand! He was a good kid! I didn’t mean—I didn’t want anything like that to happen, but . . . oh god—what’s that?” He pointed a finger behind us, into the darkness.
I’d seen too many movies to fall for an old trick, but Paolo’s face turned white with shock too. So I turned, slowly, and Rachel lifted the dustpan again, ready to smack Haldane over his head.
Shallastra stood in the shadows. She stood steady on the cold dirt under her boots, and then she pushed her head back, exposing her face for the first time.
Her eyes were white, her hair short and black. She had a nose like a hawk, and a chin as blunt as a cliff. She looked at me, and then at Rachel. And she nodded. Just once.
Then she was gone.
Haldane dropped to the dirt. “No, no, no . . . you don’t understand . . .”
I handed the package to Rachel, wiped my hands on my pants, and slid my cell phone from my pocket. “I’m calling the sheriff, and then Musgrave. Paolo, could you keep an eye on him?”
Paolo grinned. “Just doing my job, sir.”
We returned Ben’s notebooks to Amanda Stephens the next morning. Sheriff Forrest wasn’t likely to need them as evidence if the DNA tests showed what I expected, especially since Haldane had more or less confessed to the murder in front of three witnesses—four, counting Shallastra, but I didn’t think she was going to be called to the stand.
Mrs. Stephens cried, offered us cookies and coffee again, and cried some more. We told her everything, and even though she didn’t quite believe all of it, she seemed satisfied at getting some answers about her son’s death. It wasn’t much—not nearly enough—but she thanked us for listening. And I’ve learned that sometimes that’s okay.
Back in the room we packed up. I wanted to go swimming one more time, but Rachel was anxious to get back to the city. “I know where the monsters are there. I don’t like wondering what’s going on in the shadows.”
“Yeah.” I felt tired and depressed. Sure, I’d caught a murderer, but this weekend was supposed to be romantic. “I’m sorry. I just wanted us to have a good time.”
“What? Shut up.” Rachel threw her nightgown into the suitcase and walked around the bed. “You were great, Thomas Hale Jurgen.” She kissed me. “We can do this again anytime. I mean, maybe without the ghosts—or whatever Shallastra really was.” She tilted her head. “Next time with a new bikini.”
A knock at the door interrupted us. Irritated, I expected a bellman eager to carry our luggage out, but it was Donald Musgrave. He held out an envelope.
“This is for you.” He looked embarrassed. “I found your website and checked out your rates. There’s a check, and a bonus, and a certificate for—well, I’ve never done this before, but it’s a lifetime pass to the Arden. For you and whoever you want to bring here.”
“Okay.” I looked inside the envelope. “That’s pretty generous of—”
“Hey, wait a minute.” Rachel stalked to the door. “What’s with this ‘Whoever you want to bring’ business? I was the one here helping him.”
“It’ll always be you, Rachel.” I tucked the envelope into my pocket. “Maybe you could change that and send me a new copy.”
Musgrave grinned. “Absolutely.” He reached out to shake Rachel’s hand. “Thank you so much. Have a good trip home.”
“What about Haldane?” I had to ask.
He ran a hand over his thick black hair. “Well, he’s not exactly fired yet, but he’s not allowed on the property.” He leaned forward. “You know, I never really liked him. But he worked for my father a long time. I’m just glad . . .” He looked up. “I just hope the ghosts are gone.”
I nodded. “We’ll see the next time we visit.”
Rachel kicked my ankle. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
# # #