“Flagstaff?” I put my coffee mug down on the table and stare over at Frey. “Why would you want us to go to Flagstaff now?”
It’s June and I’ve come to Monument Valley to help my husband and step-son, John-John, pack. School on the Navajo Reservation is over, and they’re joining me in San Diego for the summer. The plan was for us to leave for the coast tomorrow.
Frey isn’t answering. Instead he busies himself at the stove.
I get up and join him. He and I have only been married for a few months—and separated for most of them. We are not exactly an average couple since I’m a vampire and he’s a shapeshifter whose other form is panther. But truth be told, I was looking forward to the end of the school year so he and John-John would come back to San Diego with me. John-John’s mother had recently died and as much as Frey and I hate being apart from each other, letting John-John finish school with his friends seemed the right thing to do.
But school is over now.
“Frey? Why Flagstaff? And why now? John-John is looking forward to spending time at the cottage. Won’t he be upset if we take a detour—”
“John-John knows we’re only postponing for a couple of days,” Frey says, still not answering the most important question. “He’ll stay with his grandparents until we come back to pick him up.”
“So, John-John knows about this? Why am I just hearing about it?”
Frey’s eyes slide away. Color floods up from his neck. His reaction is ridiculously exaggerated. The question now is why?
Before I can ask him again, John-John bounces into the room. He’s holding a small duffle and his almost six-year-old face is wreathed in smiles. “When are we going to see shih-chai’?” he asks.
Frey grabs up his keys from the kitchen counter. “Going to Grandma’s right now, Shiye. Give Anna a kiss.”
I bend down and John-John wraps his arms around my neck and squeezes. “See you Sunday?”
“You bet.” My eyes are on Frey, and I mouth over John-John’s head, You have some explaining to do.
He sends me a brilliant smile that almost, almost, makes up for all the mystery. He follows up John-John’s hug with one of his own. “We’re going to be doing a good deed,” he whispers in my ear. “For an old friend.”
Frey drives straight into Flagstaff after a drive with the top down on his Jeep that coupled with the speed he was going, made it impossible to talk.
A deliberate and not very subtle move on his part to keep from answering the hundred questions I’ve peppered him with since we left the reservation.
He maneuvers the broad, flat streets of Flagstaff like a native and within minutes of entering the city, we’re pulling up to a big square brick building that occupies the corner of two main drags. Above the building, Hotel Monte Vista glows in red neon against the night sky.
“I take it you’ve been here before,” I say dryly.
Frey is gathering his stuff from the back. “Once or twice.”
I follow him into the lobby. It’s an old hotel, austere on the outside, garish on the inside. The lobby and entrance are gold-toned and brightly lit. Music and loud voices drift up through an arched doorway to the left over which a backlit sign proclaims: Cocktail Lounge.
I let Frey take care of room arrangements since he seems familiar with the place. And he doesn’t have to worry about the big mirror behind the registration desk.
I drift around the lobby, soaking up impressions. It’s indeed an old hotel, a plaque commemorates the 1927 grand opening. It’s a popular hotel, voices and music from the direction of the cocktail lounge form a constant backbeat to a steady stream of patrons drifting in and out...
It’s a haunted hotel.
The hair on my arms prickles.
It’s a haunted hotel.
I’ve already had one experience with a ghost. My friend, Max, came to me minutes after dying. Max came to say good-bye and to set me on the path that ended with my marrying Frey and starting a life I never believed I could have. Vampires don’t usually get a happily ever after. His visit was not in any way malevolent or threatening.
The spirit in this hotel is different. I feel it as surely as the goose bumps dimpling my skin. Worse, it’s reaching out to me. Tickling my consciousness with icy feather-like fingers.
I don’t like the sensation.
Maybe staying here isn’t such a good idea.
I turn to look for Frey and bump smack into him. “Frey, I don’t think—”
He’s studying my face. “You feel it, don’t you?”
He dangles a key from his right hand and waves an envelope in his left. “That’s why we’re here.”
“To exorcise the ghost of Monte Vista.”
“Exorcise a ghost? Are you crazy?” My voice is an octave or two above screech and it causes a ripple among the dozen or so people in the lobby. They turn as one to look in our direction.
Frey shuffles uncomfortably in place. “Please, Anna. Not so loud. Let’s go up to the room and I’ll explain.”
Back stiff with anger and embarrassment, I follow him to the end of the lobby where an elevator stands with door yawning open. It’s dark paneled and barely big enough for two. I step inside gingerly. “Is this thing safe?” Then, as my outraged brain finally catches up, another question pops out. “What do you mean, the room?”
He pushes the button for the third floor in lieu of a reply. The doors creak slowly closed and there is a moment of hesitation before the elevator starts to labor upward. It moves like an arthritic old lady being roused into a standing position from a rocking chair.
We could climb the three flights of stairs faster.
I glare at Frey, who is studiously ignoring me. It seems to take forever before the elevator comes to a thudding halt. Just when I’m about to ask if the doors are ever going to open, they do. We step out and in a flash, the elevator suddenly revives. The doors slam shut and the elevator whisks downward with sudden, brisk efficiency.
Which is almost as creepy as the feeling I got downstairs when I realized the place was haunted.
The hallway looks benign enough. It’s narrow, painted the same gold tone as the lobby, but well lit by wall sconces that cast warm shadows. There’s a windowed door at the end of the hall where rose hued twilight seeps through. My mind is on high alert, but so far, the only thing I’m sensing is Frey’s nervousness.
Frey uses the key to open the door to 306. He steps aside to let me precede him. I suspect the gallantry is not out of chivalry, but because he’s reluctant to take the first step into the room. The set of his mouth and worry lines creasing his brow give it away.
Curiosity now has me firmly in its clutches. Frey is not a coward. Whatever is haunting this hotel, if it scares Frey, it’s got to be bad.
I glance around the room. It’s a big, square, corner-of-the-building room. The walls are painted the same gold tone as the lobby and hall. Must have had a sale on that color when the hotel was last renovated. There’s one double bed set against middle of the far wall covered with a pale green spread. Throw pillows take up half the bed’s surface. Two large windows flank the corners on each side of the bed. Tiffany style lamps on tables, a couple of cushion-less wooden rocking chairs that look stiff and uncomfortable and a big flat screen TV suspended near the ceiling across from the bed complete the décor.
Looks like a hundred other rooms in turn-of-the-century hotels. Nothing out of the ordinary except...
I close my eyes and breathe in.
Except for the faint whiff of lavender and spice. A fragrance that ebbs and flows around me like a receding tide.
“Do you smell that, Frey?”
There’s no answer. When I open my eyes and turn around, I see that Frey hasn’t moved from the doorway. I take the key out of his hand, pull him inside, and shut the door.
He looks around as if expecting something to jump out at him. I’ve never seen him so spooked.
I prod him. “What the hell is the matter with you?”
A couple of gulping swallows until at last, he manages to speak. “I hate this place.”
“That’s helpful. Then why are we here?”
He draws in a breath, holds it, lets it out with a sigh. “I owe the manager.”
“You owe the manager? That explains why you’re here. Why am I here?”
“Because you’re my wife and you’d do anything for me just like I’d do anything for you.”
He says it with such sincerity, I feel the shell of my irritation crack. Truth is, I would do anything for him, just as he’s done so much for me in the past—from fighting witches to rogue vampires, he’s always been on my side.
I sit on the edge of the bed. “What do you want me to do?”
Frey drops down beside me on the bed. “We’ll stay here tonight. When the spirit shows up, talk to her. Ask her what she wants. Help her move on.”
“You know it’s a she?”
He nods. And takes up the envelope he’d laid beside us when we sat down. “Phil put this packet together for us.”
“The manager.” He guesses my next question and answers it before I ask. ““Phil and I go way back. We met at the reservation my first trip here. We were both donating time to build a new school.”
“How long ago was that?”
“I don’t know. Twenty years maybe.”
“Does he know you’re a shapeshifter?”
“No. But He’s lived in this part of the country for a decade. He accepts that there are things beyond the scope of what most think of as normal. He works in a hotel with a ghost, after all.”
“Did you bring me here because I’m vampire?” I touch his hand. “It’s all right. It makes sense that one undead might communicate with another.”
He squeezes my hand, then releases it to open the envelope. He pulls out a weathered sheaf of old newspapers and hands them to me. The date of the first is 1942, and the gist of the story is this: In June, 1942, a young girl was lured up to room 306 during a family party being held for her sixteenth birthday. Her abductor was a business associate of her father’s. She was attacked and strangled sometime after ten o’clock and her body thrown out of the window. Her attacker was arrested, but his lawyer got him off. Three weeks later he was shot dead. It was suspected that the girl’s father killed him. Suspected but never proven.
One of the stories has a picture of the girl. The face smiling up from the yellowed newsprint is full of life and promise. Her name was Imogene Cocker. As I look at her, the hair stirs on the back of my neck. It feels like the soft breath of someone standing behind me. I don’t want to spook Frey so I say nothing. But Imogene is here, there’s no doubt.
“So, why do you think she’ll show up tonight?”
His jaw tightens. “Because I’ll be here.”
“She’s after you?”
An abrupt wave of the hand. “Not me specifically. She always shows up when there’s a man sleeping in this room. She doesn’t like men.”
After what I read, I can hardly fault her for that. “So, the plan is, you’re the bait.” I look at those two stiff, unforgiving rocking chairs. “You get the bed and I, what, have to sit in those chairs all night?”
“And what do I get if I manage to dislodge the ghost from this room?”
“The manager’s undying gratitude. This room has caused more than a few male guests to run screaming down to the lobby. Which in turn, unsettles nearby occupants, too. It’s gotten so bad, the manager is afraid to rent out the room. And having one unrentable room in a hotel of only thirty is unacceptable to the bottom line.”
“What do I get from you?”
That brings a smile. “What do you want?”
“I can think of a few things.” I start to lean toward him. “It’s only eight. Maybe I can get an advance on that payment.”
But Frey is on his feet. “Let’s go to the bar. We have an open tab in the lounge.”
“Your turning down sex? With me?”
Frey is on his feet, moving to the door with a speed I wouldn’t have thought possible, even for a panther.
He must really be spooked.
He doesn’t wait for me, but plunges into the hallway. I follow, pausing to pull the door closed. A whiff of perfume and the creak of floorboards makes me hesitate. Look back.
One of the chairs in the corner begins to rock.
The image is still in my head—the empty rocking chair moving slowly back and forth. It makes my skin crawl even though I know there could be a logical explanation—a draft from those corner windows for instance. The Monte Vista is an old hotel, after all.
But even as I think it, I recall the smiling face of Imogene in the photo.
I follow Frey to the elevator, but steer him to the stairs before he can press the button. I’d like to get to a drink sometime before midnight.
The entrance to the Cocktail Lounge is down a short flight of stairs at the back of the lobby. The noise level has ratcheted up considerably. Crowds make me uncomfortable and antsy. Sensory overload for a vampire is no laughing matter. Suddenly, I’ve lost my thirst for booze.
Frey seems to have no such concerns. He heads down the steps. Predictably, there’s barely enough room to find a place to stand let alone a table to sit. The hotel may be suffering from its ghostly guest but the bar is certainly doing well.
Frey throws me a glance. “Pretty crowded.”
He has to yell to be heard over the din.
I jab him with a finger for stating the obvious and yell back, “You think? Are there any other bars around here?”
“None that will pick up our tab.”
He attempts to clear a path for us through the crowd and toward the bar. The noise becomes unbearable. My head starts to throb.
I grab his arm and stop his forward momentum. “I have to get out of here, Frey.”
He cups a hand to an ear. “What?”
I don’t wait to repeat. I turn and push my way back toward the door. I feel like I have a hundred cymbals crashing against the walls of my brain. I can’t remember the last time I was so overwhelmed by sound. The loud hip-hop music and the cacophony of raised voices brings the vampire dangerously close to the surface. I need to get away from this dimly lit, hot, claustrophobically crowded hellhole. Not only for the noise—the place reeks with mortal blood pounding through alcohol-saturated veins. It awakens vampire’s blood lust.
I need to get away now.
It’s not until I’m back in the quiet of the lobby that I realize I’m shaking all over. I sink into a chair on the other side of the lobby, as far from the lounge entrance as possible, and wait for my heart to slow enough to ease the pounding in my head and for vampire to retreat. I don’t think Frey followed me. I don’t really care. I want only to lean back against the soft cushions and close my eyes.
“Ma’am, are you all right?”
A young, female voice.
Without opening my eyes, I nod. “Yes. Thanks. I just need a minute.”
“I saw you come from the saloon. It’s too noisy, isn’t it?”
Saloon? Well, we are in the Wild West. “Yes. I must be getting old.”
A rustle of fabric close to my ear. “Oh no. Your kind doesn’t get old.”
Something cold, soft, like the tip of an icy finger, touches my cheek.
My eyes pop open.
Frey is standing in front of me, frowning. “Who are you talking to?”
I sit upright with a jerk and look around.
“A girl. Did you see her?”
He follows my gaze as I search up and down the length of the lobby. Except for a few drunken revelers emerging from the depths of the cocktail lounge, we’re alone.
“Maybe you fell asleep,” he says.
His tone is hopeful.
I hoist myself to a standing position. I know I didn’t fall asleep. The goose bumps racing up and down my arms now are as real as the feel of that ghostly finger on my cheek. “Let’s get back to the room.”
When I look up at Frey, he has a darkly concerned frown on his face.
I smile at that. “Don’t look so scared. For whatever reason, I think your ghost is trying to communicate with me. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
He presses his lips together. “I’m sorry I wasn’t straight with you. I was afraid if I told you why we were coming here, you’d think I was nuts. Now I think I’m the one who’s nuts. You looked pretty spooked. Did she threaten you?”
The feel of that icy finger on my cheek certainly startled me. But did it feel threatening? I shake my head. “No. At least I don’t think she did. She touched my cheek. It was like a greeting of some sort. Listen, Frey, I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight but I’m not sure you should be a part of it. Let me stay in the room myself. She’s tried to make contact twice now. She may again.”
Frey blows out a breath. “Believe me, I’d love to leave this to you. But there’s no way I’m going to let you face this ghost on your own. I didn’t tell you what she does to the male guests, did I?”
I wave my hand in a go-on motion. Frey takes my hand “She smothers them. Puts a hand over their mouths and around their necks. They wake up fighting for breath. In the last two weeks alone, there have been three incidents. One man almost died from a heart attack and two stroked out. She may not seem threatening to you, but she has it in for men and one of these days, she’s going to kill someone.”
If this conversation had taken place two years ago, I would have written it off as urban legend. And told Frey that the men who claimed to have been attacked by a ghost were delusional. Now, battling monsters of every denomination, not to mention my own visitation by Max’s ghost, I sit here wondering what strategy I can use to persuade this ghost to move on.
If not to a better place, than at least to another hotel.
One where Frey has no connections.
“Okay.” I glance at my watch. “The article mentioned Imogene was killed after ten o’clock. It’s ten fifteen now. Come on, my handsome hunk of ghost bait, time for bed.”
Frey grabs his bag and stumbles into the bathroom as soon as we get back to the room. I hear water running, the toilet flushing, the shower springing to life. In fifteen minutes, a scrubbed Frey wearing a pair of tighty-whities is back and headed for the bed. He waves a hand at me, presumably a “good-night” gesture, and settles under the covers.
Now that’s a switch. He’s gotten into bed alone and with underwear on. There hasn’t been a night since we’ve been married that if we were in the same town, we didn’t make love before going to sleep. The fact that he didn’t even kiss me before pulling those covers up means he really is spooked.
He opens one eye. “Let’s get this over with. The sooner we make contact, the sooner I don’t have to sleep alone.”
I lean over and plant a kiss on his forehead, then move into the bathroom to change from my jeans into shorts and a camisole top. By the time I reenter the bedroom and click off the light, Frey’s deep, regular breathing is the only sound in the room.
I gather throw pillows and a blanket and try to make a nest for myself in one of the rocking chairs.
Not the one that set to rocking by itself this afternoon.
She may consider that her chair.
I curl my legs under me, rest my head back, close my eyes. I don’t expect to sleep...
From far away, a sound.
I burrow deeper against the cushions. Shut it out.
It comes again. A strangled sob. Louder now. Pleading.
Something stirs in the back of my consciousness.
Anna. Wake up.
I struggle up through the depths of a dream sluggishly, like a bubble through molasses.
My eyes stay shut. But my ears pick up sounds like an echo bouncing off the wall of a cave.
Rustling of silk. Thrashing of bedclothes. Sobs, both male and female. I recognize the male voice.
My eyes fly open.
Frey’s hands are at his throat, clawing at his attacker.
The girl leans over him, transparent as mist, her face grim and determined. She presses a body that should be weightless against his chest, squeezes hands that should be incapable of inflicting damage around his throat. Frey fights to throw her off, his own face darkening as he struggles for air.
When she senses that I’m awake, she looks over at me. Her cheeks are wet with tears. She’s so young, her pretty face unlined, cheeks and bow mouth touched with rouge. She’s dressed in an off the shoulder gown of red fabric, ribbed bodice, sleek, pencil style skirt. It looks like something out of the 40’s with its puffed sleeves and satin fan hip bow. Her party dress. Her shroud.
The only thing to mar the perfection of her milky skin are the angry, red marks that circle her own throat. Strangle marks. And the anger that blazes from her eyes.
Her grip on Frey doesn’t weaken.
I stand up and approach the bed. “Please stop.”
She’s staring in my direction, but I can’t tell if it’s me she’s seeing. Her gaze seems to pass through me. To something behind me. Her features shift, from anger to fear.
Another spirit has joined us. I feel the presence like a cold draft on the back of my neck.
When I turn, I see him, too.
A man. Laughing in mime. Dressed in dark evening clothes. He pulls a white silk scarf from around his neck.
The girl lets go of Frey, backs off the bed, cringes in a corner.
Frey rolls into a sitting position, coughing, sucking in great draughts of air. He sees the man, too. He moves to stop him, but his hands pass through the specter and he’s left clutching at a void.
The man advances upon the girl, twirling the scarf in his hands. He’s in his thirties, dressed like a dandy. He would be handsome but for the complete lack of compassion in his face. There is no touch of humanity in his eyes, dark and hard as flint. He is a killer. And this girl is his victim, trapped with him, bound somehow to relive her death again and again.
I lunge for him, but like Frey, I pass through his spectral body and land in the corner beside the girl. She reaches out to me for protection, clings to my arm.
Protection I’m powerless to give.
Yet, I feel her touch. Frey and the other men she attacked felt her. I look toward her killer.
I grab her hands. “Use these. Protect yourself.”
She doesn’t understand. Her eyes beg for my help.
I point to Frey. “Attack him the way you attacked my friend. Use your strength, your will. You can do it.”
She pulls her hands out of mine, her shoulders slump in a gesture of despair, resignation. She has no grasp of what I am telling her to do. Her eyes bore into mine, communicating her pain.
“There is nothing I can do.” Her gaze slides away, to the man approaching.
I understand. She thinks this is her destiny. She thinks she has no choice. She thinks what happened is her fault. Her frustration is tangible. Frustration she takes out the only way she can—on men she finds at the scene of her own murder.
The killer is a step away. He pays no attention to me. Perhaps he’s not even aware of my presence.
I grab the girl by the shoulders. Shake her until her eyes once again find mine. “You think you are doomed to relive this night again and again. You may be wrong. Fight him. Just once. Take the power away from him. What do you have to lose?”
The girl hesitates, still afraid, still not convinced.
“Listen to me. You are taking your anger out on the wrong victims. Your attacker is right there. Don’t let him hurt you again.”
Suddenly there is a subtle change—a shadow passes from the depths of her eyes. A spark of hope makes her square her shoulders. She pulls away from me and watches the wraith approach.
“Will you stay?”
She stands to meet him. He pauses then, tilts his head, telegraphing his thoughts with body language. Contempt. Excitement. This is something new. He grins. She is challenging him? No more the frightened child he found so easy to subdue before.
He likes it. He licks his lips. It will make the taking so much more delicious.
The girl moves away from me. He counters, the scarf held in front of him like an offering. He sneers at her clumsy efforts. He thinks she is trying to flee. He closes the distance between them, quickly grown tired of the game. He wants only the pleasure of the kill and what comes after. He wants what has been and what will be for eternity.
The girl moves away again, quickly, an apparition dissolving and reappearing like an object in fog. This time she is behind him. She gathers her strength, pushes him.
Startled, he loses his footing and falls onto the bed. Frey scrambles off, though neither the girl nor her attacker pay any attention to us. Frey joins me in the corner.
“Can you do anything to help her?” he asks.
I shake my head. “She has to do this herself.”
The girl falls upon the back of the man. His mouth is open, as if bellowing in rage but no sound reaches our ears. Her hands grab for the scarf, yank it from his clutching fingers, wind it around his throat. She wraps her legs around his thrashing body, riding him, refusing to let go, refusing to allow him to gain leverage against her. She, too, seems to be screaming whether in rage or satisfaction we have no way of knowing. She hangs on, tightening the scarf, twisting it so savagely the fabric disappears into the skin. As it does, the marks on her own neck fade.
A few more minutes of thrashing, a startled, gasping cry from the man.
Then, it’s over.
The man disappears with a scream that echoes in our ears. Like a performer in a carnival magic show, he’s there one minute and gone the next.
I hear Frey draw a sharp breath beside me.
The girl is still with us. She’s standing beside the bed, touching her unmarked neck, her expression a marvel of relief and joy. When she looks at me, warmth floods my body. I feel her peace.
It’s her parting gift to me.
Frey and I are seated in the manager’s office, an open, half-empty bottle of Scotch on the desk. Frey is massaging his neck, still bearing the marks from the girl’s attack. He’s dressed in jeans and a tee shirt now, a glass in the hand not working at the bruises on his neck. I’ve changed into jeans, too, a hoodie over my camisole.
I notice the grimace as he takes tiny sips of the liquor.
“Hurt to swallow?” I ask.
“Like a son of a bitch. That little girl had a mean grip.”
Phil is seated across from us. I’ve placed the newspaper articles on the desk. “You’re sure this is over?”
He’s tall and lean and has a mop of dark auburn curls touched with gray. His face reflects years of living under the sun, lines radiate out from the corners of his eyes and his tan skin is worn to leather. Right now, he’s still frowning, looking from Frey to me and back again as if afraid to accept what we’ve told him.
“As sure as we can be,” I reply. “Imogene stood up for herself for the first time. She took back her power. I think she’s moved on.”
I think of the last image I have of her back in the room. Instinctively, I pick up the newspaper article with the photo, the glowing studio portrait of a happy sixteen year old. Her smile hadn’t changed. It was still full of promise. This time of peace.
Frey doesn’t want to spend another minute longer in the hotel then we have to. So with Phil’s protestations of undying gratitude ringing in our ears, we gather our things and beat the sun out of town.
Once back on the road, I cast Frey a suspicious glance. “Any more surprises?”
He makes a little cross over his heart. “Nope. Promise.”
“Good.” I lean towards him. “Stop the car.”
He glances over as if unsure what he heard. “What?”
“Stop the car.”
Frey slows the Jeep and pulls onto the shoulder of the deserted highway. “What’s the matter?”
I lean toward him, a hand snaking between his legs. “You owe me. I want to collect.”
“Why not. Not much traffic this time of night.”
He jumps out of the Jeep, pulls the top up and secures it. “You sure?” he asks.
But he’s already got me pinned back against the reclined seat, his hands working on the zipper of my jeans.
“I’m sure,” I whisper, wiggling him free of the confines of his own jeans. “One good deed deserves another.”