Saturday, August 20, 2016

Shallastra, Part Three

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.”

# # #


  1. Felt like I was there - nice that Tom and Rachel got out of the city, and in to bathing suits. I like Shallastra - she kept trying, and she know who to talk to. T. Jurgen is getting quite a rep on the other side. Fun!

    1. Got to admit, "Rachel in a bikini" was one of my notes in the outline. I'm a guy.