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Wendy couldn’t tear her gaze from it.
“Holy … Wow, it’s even bigger than it looked on the Internet.”
“Yeh, bebeh,” Dillon’s wry smile twisted over one side of his mouth. “That’s what all the ladies tell me.”
JD sneered at him. “Dream on, Dillon. It is bigger than it seemed, isn’t it?”
The hotel spread over the crest of a minor rise in the mountainous terrain. A ribbon of blacktop wound from the highway past a cobblestone drive, meticulously swept of snow, and ended at a cyclone gate leading to an unpaved access road. The hotel’s river stone facade butted heavy golden logs at the base of the A-frame center structure. It rose three stories to peak over the clearing in the forest that nestled the big resort.
“Anaconda, dude,” Dillon crooned, “aaaaan-uuuuuh-con-daaaah.”
“Whatever.” JD shook his head chuckling. “I guess we pull up to the valet?”
“I guess,” Wendy’s eyes were still fixed on the massive structure.
It sprawled into wings that stepped up and over the terrain, which loped over the top of the mountain before rolling past the hotel. The timber-clad wings of the resort staggered up to five stories at their height, gleaming glass winking through the log sides of the buildings. Snow-crusted evergreens spiked like spires against the white gray sky, the talons of bare deciduous limbs clawing between them. The hotel’s majesty against the surrounding forestry was breath-taking.
“Dude, thought you said nobody’s gonna be here.”
The car crested the final rise and rolled beneath the canopy spanning the cobblestone drive. The pavered path circled in toward the doors of the resort then back to the road. Around the cleaned drive, shrubs were sprinkled in patches of snow. JD parked next to the aggregate stone walk leading to the wide glass doors.
“So did I,” JD muttered, noticing the activity buzzing around the doors. Guests were having cars pulled up to the door, bags loaded, tipping bell hops and rushing in and out of the resort.
“Well I … What do you suppose happened? Could you have misunderstood, baby?”
“I hope not,” JD said. “Now I’m worried about what else I might’ve misunderstood.”
“Like what, dude?”
“Like the rooms being complimentary.”
“Dude, that’d be bad.”
“Yes, it would. This is a very expensive resort.”
“That, an’ I ain’t got no moolah with me.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think I was comin’, ‘member? So I didn’t bring no dough, dude. You gotta float me, man.”
“I hope you enjoy the hospitality industry.”
“You’re going to be working your bill off if we have to pay.”
“No, I don’t think so,” Wendy interjected. “If there’s a problem with that, we’re leaving. We were invited here.”
“We’ll see,” JD said, but he was worried. If he’d misunderstood the arrangements, there’d be little doubt they’d have to either stay somewhere else locally or go home. The resort was simply too expensive for them. There was a reason only celebrities and political figures were able to stay there.
They opened the doors as a complement of bellhops trouped toward the car. Before they were completely out of the vehicle a well-groomed young man with dashing blue eyes under his shocking black hair stood next to JD.
“Welcome to the Winter Haven Lodge,” he said. His perfect white teeth gleamed from his broad smile, and his crisp uniform whooshed and zipped when he moved.
“Oh, hi,” JD said, uncertainly. “We’re here to –”
“Are your bags in the trunk, sir?” another voice distracted him. A shorter, blond boy stood behind the car.
“Uh … y-yes, and …”
“Just go right through those doors, sir. The front desk is just beyond the stairs, you’ll see it. We’ll take care of everything else and will bring your bags up when you’re ready.” The dashing blue eyes danced lightly over Wendy. She smiled back and tipped her head slightly.
“Thanks,” she said.
The young man pressed a plastic tag into JD’s palm as he watched Wendy, and he turned back. “Just through the doors, sir. We’ll take care of everything else. If you have any questions, my name’s Roy and I’ll be happy to help you.”
“Uh — o-okay, but I –”
Roy got into JD’s car behind the wheel and popped open the trunk. The blond boy and a company of other bellhops efficiently ripped the bags clear and moved them toward the door. Roy closed the door and as the trunk slammed shut he peeled around the circular drive and was gone. JD stood staring blankly at the plastic ticket.
“Dudes know their stuff, man,” Dillon muttered. “Lookit ’em go.”
“We don’t even have to bring our bags up to our room, baby,” Wendy grinned. “How exciting is that?”
“What’s wrong?” she said, catching the flatness of his tone.
“Nothing. I’m just tired from the drive.”
“Poor baby. Let’s get in and get settled.”
“Hello? Anyone care how I’m doin’ over here?”
No one answered Dillon as they sauntered into the resort.
The daylight was fading fast from the sky as they went in through the wide glass doors, which rushed aside allowing warm air to blast them. They stepped into the main lobby, under the peak and towering windows of the central A-frame structure. They stopped cold just inside the door trying to drink it all in.
The open foyer rose the full three stories to an interlocking network of massive, varnished timbers. They connected and ran along the underside of the ceiling, stark white in contrast, anchoring into equally heavy logs forming the wall supports. The room was easily 100 feet long and perhaps 60 or 70 feet wide. A few yards in to their right, a massive, wide staircase of split logs rose to a second floor landing high above, the railing another long shaved tree limb. A railing ran across the landing, covering perhaps a third of the narrow side of the room. Rustic furniture with log legs and plaid upholstery was guarded by rough-hewn tables and burl lampstands. Navajo and plaid area rugs covered much of the dark plank floor. Along the far left wall a fireplace with a six foot tall opening yawned like a great maw, a roaring fire crackling within the riverstone hearth. The stonework rose the entire length of the wall and through the ceiling.
“Duuuuuuudddes,” Dillon whispered wide-eyed.
“Wow, this is incredible.” Wendy’s head panned over the room. “Really incredible.”
“Hm,” JD murmured, his face screwed into something between disgust and worry. “Incredibly expensive.”
“It’ll be fine, grumpy,” Wendy swatted his arm. “Let’s go check in.”
They passed the foot of the staircase and the hewn-log reception desk was just beyond. A young girl with a name tag reading “Danae” stood behind it and greeted them with bright eyes. Her dark hair was held back in a barrett, showing her finely sculpted features and dazzlingly clear brown eyes. Her crisp, blue blazer was emblazened with the embroidered logo of the hotel, the white starched collar of her blouse laid over the lapels.
“Hi, welcome to the Winter Haven Lodge,” she said, and her smile lit the room.
JD turned quickly and caught Dillon staring wide eyed at Danae. “Do you mind? Try to be professional.”
“Uh … right, whatevs. Damn, she’s hot.”
“What? She is!”
“Um … hi. We’re looking for Mr. and Mrs. Kiley.” JD tried to present as articulately as possible, but Dillon’s fixed stare on the girl made him nervous. He nudged Dillon with his elbow to snap him out of the trance.
Dillon looked briefly at JD then back at Danae.
She was staring at Dillon, coyly biting her lower lip.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” JD muttered under his breath.
“I’m … I’m sorry, who’re you lookin’ for?” She blinked and smiled at JD again.
“Mr. and Mrs. Kiley,” he repeated, trying not to laugh. “They’re expecting us. I’m JD Burrows … they called for our services. These are investigators Wendy Lerner and Dillon Sparks.”
Danae’s eyes wandered back to Dillon. “It’s nice to meetcha, Mr. Sparks,” she said. “… oh, and all of you, of course!” She blushed. Dillon giggled like a school girl.
JD couldn’t help looking at his friend. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothin’, nothin’,” Dillon said, but he was staring down at his shoes.
“I’ll … go see if the Kiley’s are available. Just a sec.” Danae was moving away from the desk to their left, but her head was turned toward Dillon. Only when she bumped a co-worker and started did she turn away. She muttered an apology and went through a door at the far end of the room.
“What is the matter with you?” JD demanded, turning toward Dillon.
“Dude, sorry! She’s hot, man! Whattaya want me t’do??”
“I’m tryin’a be, dude! But I …”
“I think she’s diggin’ me, dude!”
“Even so, you need to behave here! Like when you were at your grandmother’s house? There are breakables, Dillon. Inside voice, Dillon. Act your age, Dillon.”
“Aw, dude … I’m tryin’a be cool here. Seriously, I’m pullin’ it all together an’ shit now. Seriously.”
Danae came back through the door.
“Oh shit! She’s comin’! How’s my hair, Wen??”
Wendy giggled. “It’s fine, Dilly, just be yourself. I think she likes you.”
“Aw, day-um! …”
“Um … they said they’ll be out inna minnit. I’m supposta look up your rooms an’ stuff.” She was blushing, stealing glances at Dillon.
“Well, I think we’d better speak with them first, in case there’s …”
“Oh, you’re cool,” she said, pecking away at a computer terminal. “They said everything’s comped.”
“Comped?” JD saw Dillon fidgeting, grinning, and playing with the locks beside his face.
“Yeah, you know … free?”
“Oh! Oh, thank goodness.”
“Sweet!” Dillon said, a bit too loud. “Uh … what about food?”
Dillon shrugged helplessly.
“Yeah, meals too,” Danae smiled.
“Room service, too? ‘Cause that’d be the shit right there.”
Wendy giggled, covering her mouth.
“Yeah, sure. That’s on the room bill, an’ Mrs. Kiley says anything you want’s comped, so … an’ she don’t play, y’know?”
Danae giggled, and then Dillon joined her. They both turned pink, staring at each other a bit too long. Danae finally cleared her throat and returned her attention to the LCD.
“Anyways, they’ll be out inna minnit. Meantime, here’s your keys. I just needta see some IDs.”
“But you gotta ‘member the pics are, like, bad an’ stuff, ‘kay?” Dillon’s sudden interjection almost startled JD.
“Oh yeah, like always,” Danae said, glancing up at him and smiling. “‘Sides, I can see ya, so …”
“Oh. Oh, yeah, right, you can see us an’ stuff.” He cleared his throat.
“Danae,” JD said, choosing words carefully, “you don’t normally work at the front desk, do you?”
Danae stared at JD saucer-eyed. “Wow! How’d you know?”
Wendy lowered her head to try and hide her laugh.
“It was just a guess.”
“He’s all brainiac-y an’ stuff … you know.”
“Yeah? Are you, like, psychic an’ stuff too?”
“Um … no. No, I’m not.”
“‘Cause usually I work the bar, y’know? But I got to work the front desk today ’cause o’ my internship an’ stuff. I done other stuff, too, but today’s my first time at the front.”
“I see,” JD smiled, and Wendy swatted his arm, still chuckling.
JD turned. A woman in a black, finely creased business suit was behind them. She had a layered pageboy haircut that swept light and wispy down the length of her neck, just touching the silk collar of her blouse. Her large, gold hoop earrings matched the gold in her necklace. The cuffs of her blouse were folded over the sleeves of her jacket, exposing her gold bracelet. Her hazel eyes were sharp and clear, and she smiled warmly at them.
“Yes. Mrs. Kiley?”
“Oh, please, Phoebe,” she said easily. JD shook her extended hand and was surprised at the firmness of her grip. “We’re so glad you could come.”
“This is Wendy Lerner and this …” he turned, but Dillon was still at the reception counter with Danae. They were chatting beneath the noise of the lobby, and they both burst out in guffaws over something. Danae covered her mouth and snorted loudly as she tried to stifle her mirth. Dillon made no such concessions as the belly laughs shook him.
“… is an idiot,” JD muttered.
“Pardon me?” Phoebe said, leaning forward to hear him.
“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s Dillon Sparks. They’ll be working the investigation with me.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Wendy,” Phoebe shook her hand, and Wendy beamed her smile.
“My pleasure, thank you for accommodating us.”
“Not at all, it’s you who are accommodating us. We appreciate your assistance. The least we can do is make sure you’re comfortable and happy.”
A man in his middle forties appeared from behind the staircase, in a loose-fitting cable knit sweater that hid his softening midsection. His salt-and-pepper hair was cut close to the head, his royal blue eyes lidded by heavy lashes. His wiry frame was just beginning to show age. He sauntered up behind Phoebe and put his hand on the small of her back, getting her attention. She half-turned, then smiled, looking back at Wendy and JD.
“This is my husband, Hank.”
“Mr. Kiley,” JD said, extending his hand. The older man’s grip was almost putty, much softer than his wife’s.
“Oh, I’m Hank,” he said, his baritone voice soft and gentle, almost lazy. “Mr. Kiley’s my dad.” He chuckled at his own joke, making Wendy giggle.
“Hank, I’m JD, and this is Wendy. Dillon’s over there.” He gestured to Dillon, still monopolizing Danae’s attention. Other attendants assisted customers. “I hope she isn’t going to get in trouble for him being so …”
“Nonsense,” Phoebe interjected, waving her hand dismissively. “Of course not! Danae, like everyone at the Winter Haven, is here to make sure our guests are happy. And,” she leaned to look around JD and Wendy, “it appears Mr. Sparks is happy.” She smiled and winked at JD.
JD couldn’t help but smile back, and he looked down, shaking his head. “I assure you, he’s a very good investigator.”
“It’s not an issue, really, JD,” Phoebe said. “Well, shall I give you the grand tour before you go to your rooms? Or would you rather get settled first?”
“I’d like to settle in first, if that’s all right,” Wendy said, and glanced at JD. He smiled at her.
“I think we could probably use a bit of a break from the road, unless that’s going to conflict with your schedules.”
“Not at all,” Phoebe said, “we’re at your disposal. Just let the front desk know when you’re ready and we’ll be sure to be available for you. Is there anything you need immediately? Can I have the staff bring you up anything right away?”
JD and Wendy glanced at each other, shrugging. “I think we’re fine, but thank you for asking.” JD couldn’t wipe the grin from his face.
“Please, don’t thank us. It’s why we’re here. We want you to be comfortable and at home while you’re here.”
“Yes, we’re very grateful for your help,” Hank added, moving closer to Phoebe. She leaned into him as his arm slipped around her shoulders. “This has been a very … trying time for both of us.”
“I’m sure. Having someone … well, after one of your guests has … here, in your hotel … I’m sure it’s very …”
“It wasn’t one of our guests that died, JD,” Phoebe said. Her voice quavered, her eyes misting. “It was our son.”