Welcome to day nineteen of the Haunted Hotel Writer and Illustrator showcase!
Come back each day, the entire month of October for a scare! Today’s scare comes from the staff areas–places where guests are never supposed to go. Enjoy the employees only key…but beware!
“Food and Drink Man.”
“Yes, sir. You’ll be staying with us overnight?” The desk clerk stood stiffly behind the high wooden desk, blond hair pulled back to the nape of her neck. Her face looked pale in the light of the computer screen. The lobby behind them was lit with splashes of color from the cut glass inlays of the entrance. The light collected at the back of the lobby, the brass accents bouncing it back and forth with a large mirror so the alcove glowed. But the check-in desk was dim. She typed without looking away from Darryl, all but her face in shadow. She did not return his grin.
“Yep.” Darryl’s brow wrinkled, unused to having his charm ignored. He leaned on the desk to read her nametag and strengthen the effect. His suit coat fell open, revealing a tailored shirt stretched across his wide torso. A glossy tie hung just short of his waistband, tacked in place by a flashy pin. ”I’m meeting with your manager, Karen.” His grin widened. ”But my evening is free.”
“How will you be paying, Mr. Sanderson?” the desk clerk ignored his lean towards her. Darryl’s brow creases deepened.
“Thank you, sir.” The clerk looked away to run the card and write something on a ledger. She raised her eyes back to Darryl and held out her hand.
“You’re registered, Mr. Sanderson. The elevator is at the back of the lobby.” Darryl reached to take her hand, but she slipped from his grasp. He was left holding a heavy metal key with a brass tag engraved with “Thornewood Hotel” and a room number.
Darryl was starting to feel ridiculous. The cold fish of a desk clerk wasn’t feeling it. Still, he was going to be stuck in this old hotel all night. He tried once more.
“And the evening? What are my options?”
“There is dinner in the dining room, or you may order it in your room. We don’t have a band tonight, so the bar won’t have dancing.”
“And you? Are you an option for the evening?”
“I will be at the desk if you have any concerns about your room, Mr. Sanderson.” The desk clerk’s face remained impassive. ”But I think you’ll find our staff to be very attentive. They will respond, should you need anything. Or they’ll disappear into the woodwork if you wish to be left alone.”
Darryl frowned. Alone was not the idea he had in mind.
“Is there anything else, Mr. Sanderson?”
“Pretty obviously not.” Darryl grabbed his bag and marched towards the elevator, sneering.
God. This place. Someone needs to tell them decorating has moved on since Agatha Christie was a thing, he thought.
The elevator was a brass monstrosity with a ridiculously sized arrow sweeping across a dial of floors, perched above ornate doors. A huge, gilded mirror was set to capture guests waiting for the elevator without showing them the lobby behind them. The arrangement bathed the alcove in golden light.
Darryl seethed while he watched the arrow move, picturing the desk clerk smirking behind him. He tallied up her lack of service in his head, imagining how he would, regrettably, express it to the manager during his meeting. The clerk’s lack of response to his invitation would become unfriendly service and refusal to give him information on the hotel’s schedule and amenities. Her direction to the elevators would be a curt dismissal. He could make their food and beverage business shine, he would say, but it would be up to the manager to curtail the poor service, especially those who were the first interaction with guests. By the time the arrow settled on L, a satisfied smile was spreading on his face. He looked back, his eyes mean and directed towards the clerk on what was hopefully the last day of her job. He couldn’t see her. The desk area was dark, but he could tell it was empty. He looked across the lobby, its walls and furniture indistinct. Even the prisms of light were dim and seemed to waver as if shining on water.
She’s probably just standing there in the dark. But the image of her staring at him, unseen, chilled him. He entered the empty elevator as nonchalantly as he could.
The room was small, a feature Darryl had expected, but which disappointed nonetheless. Thornewood Hotel did not suffer from his typical complaint of old hotels, who usually crowded their rooms with furniture as if cramped was a design style. These furnishings were old and sparse. Their dark wood blended in with the muddy colors of the bed and carpet. The light from the bedside sconces and standup lamp was weak. The light was brighter in the bathroom, but the dark tones absorbed it before it could venture into the room.
There were two choices for sitting, an upholstered chair and the tapestry bedspread. Their placement didn’t matter, because there was no TV to watch. They shared a table that was nearly a writing desk, pushed against the window on the far wall. He rolled his bag next to a small dresser, pulled out his travel bag, and considered himself moved in.
He’d scout out the hotel and score some business expenses before his meeting with the manager. Staying in that dreary room wasn’t an option.
“Goddamn crows, am I right?” Darryl asked the bartender. The man acknowledged Darryl’s comment, but did not respond. Darryl stabbed another bite of steak. Striking up conversation in this place was a thankless job. He’d taken dinner in the mezzanine bar check out the food and beverage situation, but he hadn’t gotten past the server to get any details. Darryl pushed on.
“Never had quite that entrance to a hotel before. Crows flying all around, following me from the parking lot. You guys have that problem much?”
“I haven’t heard that from other guests, no.” The bartender moved behind the bar, setting things to order. ”Was everything all right with your check-in?”
“Yeah,” Darryl sensed the bartender’s question was polite at best. ”No problems there, except for the desk clerk. She was the opposite of all right.” Darryl watched the bartender for some response, but the man continued fiddling with glassware.
“Glad it went well for you. And your meal?”
“Yeah, all good.” Darryl took a last bite. ”Your cook makes a good steak.” He gestured with his fork. ”I’m in the business. The plates and flatware are good, too. You know how old they are?”
“I couldn’t say. But the hotel has been in business for many years.” The bartender stopped and addressed Darryl directly. He no longer sounded distracted. ”We keep the things that serve us best.”
Darryl nodded. Another weirdo.
“Damn it, man! You need to announce yourself!” Darryl jerked back from the elevator panel to keep from touching the gaunt hand that was laying against it. A short man stood stooped in the corner, his fingers splayed over the buttons. He watched Darryl expectantly.
“Just push L. Before I have to do it myself,” Darryl added, nastily.
The operator nodded and smiled. His uniform of wine fabric and gold trim blended in with the carpet and brass. Folds of skin hung below his eyes and jowls, gray in the yellow light. His tarnished nametag read, “Kirby.”
What the hell. There’s no way I’d force guests into an elevator with this repulsive, little man.
The operator stared vacantly at him as they rode. Darryl grabbed his bag and bustled through the doors when they opened, ignoring the operator’s gesture of help. The huge mirror stopped him, showing his startled face and the brass doors sliding shut. Darryl was alone in the reflection while he pulled himself together.
“I think you can do better than this, Mr. Sanderson. You can do better by the Thornewood Hotel, its guests, its staff.”
Darryl was at a loss. The manager had barely looked at his presentation. He smiled winningly.
“Ms. Ash. May I call you Dee?”
“Our relationship is formal, Mr. Sanderson.” Darryl dropped his smile.
“Ms. Ash,” he began again. ”I know service is your game. A place like this,” he lifted his hand towards the door, “service is the product you can sell to people.” She tracked his movement.
“A place like this?”
“An older place. Without the amenities that guests are used to. I know you’re marketing to folks who find that quaint, or maybe even comforting. Those are solid guests. But you’re not going to get the business travelers or the corporate clients without adding some high-end style. You have to make their stay luxurious.”
The manager watched Darryl with interest, even after he had stopped speaking. She smiled mildly.
“I agree, Mr. Sanderson. I would not have expressed it as you did, but I agree that we are here to provide service. I pass this expectation on to my staff. The guests have needs, and we are here to provide them.” She looked toward the door, mimicking his gesture. ”The hotel is meant to draw them in, and we who work here are meticulous in maintaining its allure.” She glanced at the glossy brochures Darryl had before him, and then looked back into his eyes.
Darryl inhaled sharply, struck by her gaze. He struggled to compose himself. Ms. Ash showed no sign that she noticed. She leaned forward on the desk.
“I’ll repeat myself, Mr. Sanderson. I believe you can do better by Thornewood Hotel. We need a food and drink man, and you have much to offer. However, you also have much to learn about truly meeting guests’ needs. Something I value highly. Shall we work together, towards our mutual benefit?”
Darryl stared into the Ms. Ash’s face, puzzling out her words. Her stare was unsettling, a trick Darryl used himself to bully weaker hotel managers. Her gaze felt that like that type of push, pressing him into agreeing while confusing bits flew around his brain. He wanted to shake his head, to clear it, but he held steady. Just power through it, he told himself. Go with the idea that she’s going to buy.
“Sounds like we have a deal, Ms. Ash.”
“Yes,” Ms. Ash leaned back to her straight posture, “it does. We will meet again in the morning.”
“Will we?” Darryl grinned, raising an eyebrow. Bam! There it is. The deal’s almost in the bag. The foreplay’s done; all that’s left is the big bang at the end.
Ms. Ash’s smile didn’t change, though she tilted her chin, obviously hearing him. Darryl searched for amusement in her face, a slight crinkle around her eyes, but her expression remained inscrutable.
“I’m quite sure of it, Mr. Sanderson. After you check out, of course.”
Darryl knew he was being dismissed. This was usually the part where he stuck his hand out, grabbed the manager he had just nailed, and sealed the deal. Instead, he stood up, unsure what to do. Ms. Ash’s hands rested on the desk, folded and unmoving. Perhaps a closing handshake was too informal.
“I’m looking forward to it. We can talk specifics then. I’ll pull together a price list tonight.”
“I’m sure everything will be in order. That’s our way here at Thornewood. Welcome to the hotel, Mr. Sanderson.”
Ms. Ash watched him as he stowed his papers and let himself out. Even with the door closed behind him, he sensed her watching him, that inscrutable smile seeming less pleasant the longer she held it.
Darryl flicked on the stand up lamp and dropped into the upholstered chair. A corona of light reached the edges of the chair and table, but the remainder of the room sat in gloom. Lighting the lamps had made the rest of the room darker.
Even in the low light, he recognized the subtle changes from housekeeping. His personal items had been arranged away from the edge on the table. The pillows had been fluffed so they stood upright and full. Darryl noted the upkeep with grudging approval, then returned to scowling at the vintage room.
“‘The guests have needs,’” he muttered to the room. ”‘I think you can do better than this.’” What a bitch. Lady, if it’s service you want, I’m your man. Darryl didn’t laugh at the joke. He got up to grab his bag. Ms. Ash’s prices just went up ten percent. Maybe fifteen.
He pressed the switch for the bedside sconces. The room became a little brighter, the light reaching around the bed. He crossed to turn on the bathroom light, and the sconces flickered and went out. Darryl made a disgusted sound.
“Crap electrical system,” he said to the lights. ”Probably chewed by roaches in this ancient hotel.” He stalked back to the bedside sconces and popped his hand against the back plate, hard. The sconces flickered, then stayed lit. Darryl glared at the lights to flicker again, then headed back to the chair. The only full light was on the table under the lamp, so he spread them there.
“This lousy place,” Darryl muttered. ”You can be all prissy, say “we provide service,” but if you can’t see a goddamn thing in here, you’re never going to get business travelers.” He spoke to the walls, to the ceiling, blaming them for his frustration.
They don’t know how bad they need me. Darryl settled down to his papers. He barely noticed when his eyes adjusted to the light, as he made notes on a package that would please the manager, or at least shut her up about him “doing better” by the hotel. The light started to waver again.
Darryl glanced over at the sconces, expecting to see them flickering again. Instead, shapes moved against the frosted glass covers. For a horrified moment, Darryl imagined the roaches had come out of the walls and were crawling around in there.
The shapes grew darker, resolving as they moved closer to the glass. Fingers slipped around one of the shades. An arm followed.
The arm pushed out from the wall, extending nearly to a shoulder. Its hand spread open and waved around, as if to grasp something. Darryl’s mouth opened with it, and he hitched a breath in.
“What? No, no…” Darryl moaned. A second arm pushed through on the other side of the sconce. A bright white cloth hung from its fingers. The empty hand moved in unison with it, as if recognizing its mate. They drew closer until they touched the top of the sconce.
The hands moved together, one swiping the cloth across the glass while the other held it steady. The sconce cover lifted slightly and the cloth was drug under its edge. With a small flourish, they finished dusting and the arms slid quickly into the wall. A moment later, the arms slid out alongside the other light and repeated their dusting, this time moving right to the task. Darryl’s eyes darted, following the brisk movements. The only sounds were swishing and the clink of glass against metal, and then the arms slid noiselessly back into the wall. Darryl stared at the spot where they disappeared.
“I’ll be damned,” Darryl said. ”That was…,” then he broke off into giggles. The image of the fluttering cloth and working fingers hit him again, and he squeezed his eyes shut. ”That didn’t happen,” he said aloud, though his mind raced.
The arms had been gray. That was true, right? Gray, bodiless arms, jutting out from the wall and dusting my room, and… Titters burst out again, and he tried to catch his breath. But where were the bodies?! Darryl shrieked in his head, and then laughter took him fully, racking his body like sobs. He leaned back, an arm laid across his eyes, struggling to get himself under control.
The shaking subsided a bit at a time. Darryl wiped his streaming eyes. Everything was quiet now that his laughter had died down. The light glowed steadily around him. The walls were unmarred on either side of the sconces. That bothered him more than if he’d seen the arms waving there. Now they were conspiring to freak him out. Darryl’s fear boiled up into anger.
“A dirty trick, huh?” He asked the room, angrily. They probably had the place bugged; they were probably watching him now. ”A dirty trick for a dirty hotel, that’s what I figure. Can’t get decent housekeeping staff to clean up the room in time, so you had to do your tricks to try to clean up your mess after I had checked in. Poor management, that’s what that is. Poor management and crappy service.” Darryl leaned back in the chair, yelling the last bit to the ceiling where he figured the camera or microphone was.
Two figures clung to the ceiling, their fingers and feet flat against the painted surface. Black housekeeping uniforms hung down from their slender frames. Their hair was pulled back into tight chignons. Light flashed in their hidden eyes, and Darryl jumped. They stared down at Darryl, then skittered across the ceiling and down the wall.
Darryl screamed. He screamed as he jumped from the chair and tried to back away from the shadowy women, his arms out in front of him to ward them off. He screamed through his stumbling fall onto the bed, and his scrambling to get upright again. He screamed when the women leaned over him there, their arms open and reaching. Darryl screamed until fabric was stuffed into his mouth, and he was silenced.
The housekeeping staff stripped the bed and gathered the linens together. They split up so one could pull the pillowcases while the other grabbed the towels from the bathroom. They bundled Darryl up with them, swaddling him. They wound the sheets tight, until he stopped twitching. Then they hefted the heavy bundle together, sharing the armful, and carried it from the room.
The hotel had modernized in ways that most guests did not notice. The industrial sized washers on each floor allowed them to flip rooms much more efficiently. The machines were large enough to fit a roomful of linens, and they could handle some unbalanced thumping. The scalding water got out any stains a guest may leave, even blood.
“To begin, Mr. Sanderson: I understand your room did not meet your expectations, and housekeeping was called. I suspect their quick response may have opened your eyes to how seriously we take such comments. We value the guest experience here at Thornewood Hotel quite highly.”
Darryl jerked at the sound of the manager’s voice and opened his eyes. The room swung around him, and he squeezed them shut immediately. He felt for the arms of the chair where he was slumped, gripping them to keep steady as he struggled to sit up.
Darryl nodded his head, a mute acknowledgement. The room had stopped pitching around him. He opened his eyes slowly and slowly raised his head. Ms. Ash sat straight-backed in her chair, watching him with her hands folded on the desk. For a moment, he thought he had nodded off during his meeting, before he was dismissed, before the night in his room.
A drip of water slid down his neck and soaked into his damp collar. His hair was wet and combed. He wore a freshly pressed shirt with more starch that he preferred. Darryl slid his hands over the shirtfront, stopping at the stitching on the breast. Elegant letters, T and H, curled around each other.
“In our last meeting, Mr. Sanderson,” Ms. Ash’s tone was of one pressing through, despite an interruption. Darryl didn’t look up. He slid his hand into the unfamiliar pants pocket, pulling out the object he felt there. ”I said I thought you could do better by the hotel. Do you remember?”
“Good. That is why I agreed to our deal. I still believe this, Mr. Sanderson. The Thornewood Hotel and her guests need a good Food and Drink man.”
“But I’m not…I don’t work for the hotel.” Darryl tried to sound put out. He would have liked to stand up to emphasize his point, but the room threatened to spin when he leaned forward. He grabbed the chair arms again and stared at the manager.
“Of course not, Mr. Sanderson. You work for the guests, as we all do.” Ms. Ash leaned back in her chair, her hands coming together to tent over her chest. ”Service, Mr. Sanderson. That is why you are here. Your many years on the road have taught you things that will be valuable to the hotel. I appreciate how experience shapes a person. And now you are here to put that into practice to serve.”
“I don’t serve you, bitch. I don’t serve anyone.”
“That’s a poor way to begin your time here, Mr. Sanderson.”
“I’m going back to my room.” Darryl stood up abruptly. ”Changing into my own damn clothes.” the room threatened to sway, and he grabbed the chair back. ”And getting the hell out of here.” He gestured with the heavy metal key in his fist, pointing it at the manager.
Ms. Ash smiled at Darryl, her eyes crinkling at the edges in a way he had not seen before. She looked pleased.
Darryl stalked across the office, working to keep his swimming head clear, intent on throwing open the door to the hallway. But the wall was blank. A landscape painting of the hotel, the field around it the muddy green of early fall, hung in place of the doorway. Darryl looked side to side, his chest tight. He could feel the satisfied smile of Ms. Ash at his back.
The doorway stood further down the wall than he remembered, almost too close to the corner to go out to the hallway, but he walked to it anyway. The handle looked weathered, as if years of use had worn down the finish. The door had a brass keyhole now. Darryl stared down at the key, heavy in his hand. The brass tag hung from his palm: Employees Only.
“I agree. Best to begin, Mr. Sanderson.”
About the Author
Victoria Nations grew up wading through swamps and visiting torn-up hotels that her father refurbished. The dangling light fixtures and torn wallpaper were as mysterious as the deep woods. It was odd how sound carried through them, especially the shuffling footsteps that stopped just a moment after hearing them. She owns more Halloween decorations than for any other holiday.
She lives in Florida with her wife and son, who indulge her love of monsters.