Just joining us? You may want to start at the beginning!
JD walked up behind Dillon and swatted his palm squarely between his shoulder blades.
That’s when he found out Dillon was playing with a large stack of business cards from the front desk card holder. Dillon jolted and the cards flew out of his hand, scattering across the desk, the keyboard in front of Danae and the floor.
“Aw, look whatcha — dude!” Dillon turned a deep red. Danae giggled, covering her mouth delicately while scrambling to catch as many as she could.
“Oh, sorry! I’m sorry!” JD tried to catch the sliding cards as they tumbled from the smooth varnished wood. “What’re you doing playing with these?”
“Dude, I’m jus’ holdin’ ’em. Whattaya want?”
“The Kiley’s are going to show us to our rooms now. Are you coming?”
“Uh … I dunno, I guess …” he looked expectantly at Danae.
Phoebe came around behind her. “Danae, why don’t you show Mr. Sparks to his room when he’s ready, sweetie?” She smiled and placed her hand on Danae’s shoulder.
“Oh … I’d be happy to.” Danae blushed deeply.
JD chuckled in spite of himself. Phoebe came back to the front of the desk. “Danae, please make sure the porters take Mr. Sparks’ bags to room 327. Try not to be too long, okay?” Phoebe winked at Danae and grinned.
Danae bit her lower lip playfully. “Thank you, Mrs. Kiley. I’ll take care of it.”
“Very good. Mr. Burrows, let me show you to your room so you can freshen up.”
“Oh, please — it’s JD. I … I’m not that formal.”
“Like hell you ain’t,” Dillon sneered. “He gets off on titles an’ shit. He’s all fulla himself.”
Danae covered a laugh, blushing yet again.
JD set his jaw. “Oh, Danae? Be sure to ask Dillon about his anaconda, okay?”
The blood drained instantly from Dillon’s face. “Oh my God, dude …”
“Oh, you gotta snake?” Danae said excited. “My brother has a turtle! And a ferret! I like weird pets.”
“I’m sure Dillon will be happy to tell you all about his anaconda, then,” JD continued, his eyes shooting darts at Dillon. “It’s definitely weird.”
“I’m so gonna kill you, Jaded …”
JD leaned in to whisper in Dillon’s ear. “Oh, I’m just warming up. You wait — it’s payback time. Bee-otch.” He swatted Dillon on the back again.
Dillon’s face was a mix of despair and fear as JD rejoined Wendy and the Kileys, looking back over his shoulder and smiling dangerously.
“Oh, I’m going to enjoy this. I am going to enjoy this immensely,” he muttered.
“All set?” Phoebe folded her hands and they draped in front of her sharply creased pants.
“Yes, sorry,” JD muttered. Wendy wrapped her arms around his.
“No problem. Right this way.” Hank smiled warmly as he followed Phoebe toward the elevator bank to the right of the main entry. It was embedded in a wall of varnished golden wood, adorned with elegant landscapes in autumnal colors. When the shiny brass doors opened, a few guests spilled out. Phoebe and Hank nodded and smiled greetings, then slipped inside and put their hands over the doors to ensure they wouldn’t close as JD and Wendy stepped through.
Hank pressed the button for the third floor and an instant later the car began to rise.
JD cleared his throat. “Phoebe … Hank … I just want to express again how sorry I am for your loss. I’m sorry I was so shocked before, I hope I wasn’t rude.”
“Yes, you’ve suffered so much,” Wendy empathized. “We didn’t …”
Phoebe’s mouth curled in a semi-sad smile and she patted Wendy’s shoulder gently. “Please, it’s all right. I apologize for just dropping a bomb on you like that. You had no way to know. We’re … coping as best we can. I don’t think we’ll ever …” Her voice trailed off, choked with emotion. Hank pulled her into him and she laid her head on his shoulder.
“I don’t think there’s ever a true recovery from something like this,” he said softly, kissing her head. “We’ve done our best to get through it, but the only thing that really helped us was … well, the resort.”
“Yes,” Phoebe nodded. “The work, the attention … it’s cathartic. We can lose ourselves in it and try to push it aside for a little while. That’s one reason the hotel’s open now. I know we said on the phone you’d have it to yourselves, but we simply couldn’t just stare at the empty lobby and not … remember.”
“I understand,” JD said. He thought he meant it, but he’d never suffered so huge a loss. “It’s okay.”
“Well, maybe,” Phoebe continued reflectively. “I just hope this won’t interfere with your investigation. You said you had equipment to set up and things like that. Having a lot of people around is going to make that more difficult, I’m sure.”
The elevator settled and the doors slid aside with a quiet rumble, revealing the hallway beyond. The thick, intricately pattered carpet in muted woodsy tones swallowed their shoe soles as they moved out of the elevator to their left. The neutral textured wallpaper ended in an amber wainscoting, and tiny tables of timber construction held rustic-styled brass hurricane lamps. The heavy wooden frames around the artwork accented the lodge feel, offset only slightly by the high-tech recessed halogen lamps, fire sprinkler heads and red-lit “EXIT” signs.
“Well,” JD said, and smiled as warmly as he could, “I’m sure it will be fine.”
He wasn’t being honest. He knew having a hotel full of people was going to make the investigative process more difficult at best. He looked up and caught the security camera mounted high on the corner of the wall as they rounded it, heading back toward the central part of the building. The presence of sophisticated electronic equipment would mean trouble getting accurate readings for EMF or EVP as well.
“Do you have any records or reports from guests of paranormal activity in the hotel?” he asked.
Phoebe pursed her lips in thought, slowing her pace, then shook her head. “No, we’ve never had any complaints of any kind before this. You mean have people told us they’ve seen ghosts before?”
“Yes, or anything else strange … cold spots, glowing orbs, hearing voices or seeing figures … anything of that nature?”
“No, nothing like that,” Hank said. “Everyone that’s stayed here has only had positive things to say about their experiences.”
“What do you mean by ‘cold spots’, JD?” Phoebe asked.
“Uh … well, a lot of paranormal investigators feel isolated temperature drops in specific areas are indications of ghostly manifestations. The ghost, the theory says, draws any energy it can from the environment to manifest itself. That energy includes heat.”
“Oh, I see,” she said. “We have a carefully controlled climate in the building’s main areas, of course, but each room is individually controlled. I don’t recall anyone saying it’s been cold in a particular spot though.” Hank shook his head concurring.
“This is really beautiful,” Wendy said quietly.
“Thank you,” Phoebe beamed proudly. “It was the fulfillment of our dreams when it was completed. We’re very pleased with it.”
“I can see why,” Wendy smiled back. “It’s so wonderful. Thank you for putting us up.”
JD nodded and smiled meekly. “It really is great.”
Phoebe returned their smiles. “It’s our pleasure. Here we are,” she pulled a stack of key cards from a retractable holder at her waist, and swiped it over the reader on the heavy wooden door. An electronic chirp and flashing of a green LED was followed by the metallic click of the lock releasing. Phoebe pushed the door open.
The sensation of space hit them despite the dark within. It was confirmed when Phoebe flipped the light switch.
Wendy drew a small gasp as she looked around the majestic room.
The fixture lit up a space as large as an urban apartment. The open design contrasted with the rustic hewn-log furnishings. Two enormous armoires dominated the wall opposite the entry, and flanked a wide sliding glass door. The headboard rested against a warm, rust-colored wall. Above it an elegant forest scene print was framed in shiny brass. The TV was hidden in a cabinet and rose on a lift, and beside it was a mini-bar and refrigerator sheathed in pine to match the furnishings. The sitting area near the room’s center had overstuffed chairs and a plaid sofa. Tables throughout the room were draped with runners and cloths. A broad desk with an LCD monitor and wireless router sat between the nightstand and slider.
“I’m sorry,” Phoebe said, “but we have to reserve our suites for paying guests. I hope you understand. Hopefully this won’t be a disappointment to you.”
JD had to bite back a laugh. “Um … no. No. This is … no, not a disappointment at all.”
Wendy turned to Phoebe. “This is … this is better than my apartment, Phoebe. We’re so grateful.”
Phoebe giggled. “It’s okay, we’re so glad you could help us. Thank you for coming.”
“It’s our … pleasure,” JD murmured, still drinking the room in.
“Well,” Phoebe said, “why don’t we let you get unpacked and settled a bit. Shall we meet downstairs again, in say … half an hour? Is that enough time for you?”
JD looked at Wendy. She nodded. “Half an hour sounds fine,” he said smiling, “provided we can get Dillon away from your employee.”
Phoebe laughed. “Well, if they’re still down there chatting I’ll ask Danae to bring him up. He’s the door to the left, JD. Wendy, you’re the door to the right.”
“Oh,” Wendy said, and smiled wryly at JD.
“I … requested three rooms,” he said blushing. She winked at him.
“I knew you would.”
“Well, we’ll see you in half an hour then?” Phoebe said, and Hank followed her to the door.
“Yes,” Wendy smiled, slipping her arms around JD.
“Good. We’ll see you then.”
JD noticed he didn’t hear the door close. He turned as Phoebe and Hank exchanged a look.
“Is … everything all right?” he ventured.
Phoebe sighed. “Yes, everything’s fine, but …”
He perched a brow. “But?”
Hank cleared his throat. “There is … more information we have to give you. But it can wait until the meeting, I’m sure. It’s just … well, in the interest of the investigation, we feel you should know everything.”
“I think we just want you to be prepared,” Phoebe added, “so you’re not so shocked. We aren’t trying to drop another bomb on you.”
JD nodded. “All … all right. Are you sure it can wait?”
“Yes,” Phoebe said firmly. “Yes, it can. We probably shouldn’t have brought it up, but like we said, we just wanted you to be prepared.”
“Well … we’ll meet you at the reception desk and find a quiet place to talk.” Her friendly smile put JD at little more at ease.
“All right, then. Thanks for the heads-up.”
Hank softly closed the door behind them.
“Oooo-kay,” Wendy said. “I wonder what … we’re in for?”
“I don’t know. That was peculiar. Very,” JD said, moving toward the door. He noticed his luggage in the alcove beside the door. “Oh, wow! Look! My bag’s already up here!”
“Roy told you he’d bring it up,” Wendy said, dropping onto the luxuriant bed and bouncing.
“Well,” she said sighing, “I guess I’d better go to my room. All alone. Cold. And lonely.”
He snickered. “Shall I pick you up?”
“‘Kay. See ya!” She pecked him playfully on the lips and went out the door.
Thirty-two minutes later they were seated in a conference room in stark contrast to the rest of the hotel.
The lower level of the hotel had many conference rooms and business accoutrements. The room they used was intimate, with a big mahogany conference table gleaming in the center. A plasma screen was mounted on the bright white wall at one end. On the other, a wet bar went unused. A central device with conference and private line phones, network jacks and power outlets sat on the table. JD, Wendy and Dillon, pried from his conversation with Danae, sat in plush black leather chairs opposite Hank and Phoebe.
Phoebe leaned forward with her elbows on the table, the material in her suit whispering against the glossy surface.
“Well,” she began, and exhaled in preparation, “once again, thank you for coming.”
“Yo, it’s no prob.”
“Dillon!” JD said, nudging him.
“What? It’s not, right?”
“I’m sorry, Phoebe, go on,” he said, glowering at Dillon again.
“We’ve … we’ve told you part of the story. That the death that occurred here wasn’t one of our guests, but our son.”
“Dude! I don’ ‘member hearin’ that!”
“Dillon!” JD again fired an angry stare at him. “Please, forgive my colleague. He’s … please forgive him. Go on — yes, you’ve told us about that. You mentioned there was more.”
“There is,” Phoebe said, and Wendy leaned forward in her chair. Hank gently rested his hand on Phoebe’s back. “Much more. You see, the police quickly closed the investigation after the … incident. There simply wasn’t evidence of anything other than a tragedy for them to continue to investigate.”
“Did you suspect something otherwise?”
Hank sighed. “We weren’t sure. But … the way it happened … it just seemed so — implausible, I guess. Our son was only 12 years old. He was only …” His voice choked and he wiped a tear away from the corner of his eye.
“He was not typical in a lot of ways, as you can imagine,” Phoebe finished, taking Hank’s hand in both of hers. JD noticed how tightly they clutched. “He was … privileged. Private tutors means he didn’t have many friends from school. A few that he’s come to know, but from activities, which around here … well, as you can imagine they’re few and far between. He makes friends with people on the staff to fill the void.”
JD nodded. He didn’t know what that sort of life was like, but he could see the problems.
“Sometimes,” she went on, “he’d make friends with kids that stayed here, at least while they were here, but for the most part he was alone or with us. Tina — she’s the maid he was working with that day — was very close to Mark. She’s young, and I think he had a little crush on her.” Her eyes misted and she looked down, holding Hank’s hand to her lips as she wavered with emotion.
Wendy’s face was pained. “I’m so sorry. This must be so hard for you.”
Phoebe nodded and managed a brave smile. “It is. Anyway …” she sniffed and daubed at her eyes, “Mark and Tina were working together that day. When it happened, we were in the lobby. We saw Mark … he just …”
JD was silent, and Dillon was stoic.
“… He just flew over the railing, JD. His whole body seemed to fly over the railing. His heels hit the hand rail — we could hear the soles of his shoes. And then …” She couldn’t finish.
Hank leaned forward and embraced her. She nuzzled into his shoulder, turning away from the investigators. Hank spoke over the top of her head as she sobbed quietly. “He sailed, JD. We felt — we feel — he was either thrown or pushed. It’s just not … not possible for him to have fallen.”
Phoebe shook her head and spoke from inside the safety of Hank’s embrace. “No! He didn’t fall! It’s not what happened. Even Tina said he didn’t fall! She didn’t see anyone … the security cameras didn’t show anyone in the hallway … but there was a glitch in one of the tapes at exactly the moment that he … ” She again trailed off, a fresh burst of sobs wracking her.
Hank gently patted her shoulders and kissed her hair softly. When he looked at them again, his eyes were red and welled with tears. “Mark was either thrown or pushed. We were sure of it. But the security tapes have a moment, just a second, of static. The only thing you can see is that he’s there one instant, right outside the second floor room, and he opens the door. And the next, he’s flying over the railing. You can see his face … his expression … he was … so … afraid …”
The three investigators sat waiting as the Kileys openly wept for a few minutes. When they finally collected themselves, Phoebe turned her make-up smudged eyes to JD again.
“They wouldn’t look into it anymore. They wouldn’t check the equipment, for sabotage. They didn’t check the room very well. They said they had no evidence. But they didn’t look. So … we decided to hire a private investigator. Just to look over the case more thoroughly.”
“You hired a private detective?”
“Yes,” Phoebe said, and fished a wadded tissue from her jacket pocket. “Yes. He was a relative of mine — a cousin, I think, or second cousin — not someone I knew well at all, but we’d met him a few times at family gatherings.”
“What … what did he find?” JD watched their faces closely. He felt awkward for prying, but knew that something the PI found might prove helpful.
“I don’t know,” Phoebe said, “I don’t know. He never told us.”
JD knit his brows in confusion. “I’m sorry?”
“He was found dead in his car on the highway just a few days after we’d hired him.”