Saturday, August 20, 2016

Shallastra, Part One

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.”

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