Saturday, August 20, 2016

Shallastra, Part Two

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.”
            “I’ll try.”
            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.”

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