Welcome to day TWO of the Haunted Hotel Writer and Illustrator showcase!
Come back each day, the entire month of October for a scare! Today’s story comes from room #314.
Walking through the shabby hotel hallways with the luggage-toting bellhop in tow, Ray Martin assumed that the Thornewood Hotel had to have once seen better days. But he’d been coming to the quietly moldering New England hotel for going on forty-five years now, and it had always vaguely reminded him of the setting for Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.” The carpet was threadbare in spots, the wallpaper a degree of garish that the geriatric jazz trumpeter didn’t believe had ever been in style. Yet still he returned every year for a weekend in deep autumn. His loyalty to Eddie “Spider” Grant demanded it, despite the fact his former bandmate had been dead for decades now.
“Cindy at the front desk says you’re a musician?” the bellhop said, his pace suggesting he was in no hurry to reach room #314.
Ray patted the hard case of the trumpet tucked under his arm. It had seen better days. They all had. But like Ray himself, it was holding together. “Jazz trumpet,” he said, his voice wispy and thin. Since losing one of his lungs a few years back, he just didn’t have the air he used to. Being heard in a crowd was an effort so he avoided crowds. Playing trumpet was painful, both to his sole remaining lung and his pride. There was a time he could blow away any horn player from here to Kansas City.
He reached his room and dug the key out of his worn jacket pocket. It was an old skeleton style key on a brass disk engraved with the room number, and it felt cool to the touch. It was probably original to when the hotel was built sometime in the 1880’s. Good old #314. How many times had he been coming back to this room? How many more times before he didn’t have the health to travel? He clicked the key home. The lock greeted it like a familiar lover.
The bellhop followed him into the room. “I’ve been doing this job long enough to understand musicians have certain… needs.”
Ray shuffled to a stop, then executed a slow turn around to look the bellhop over. The kid’s belly strained against his red wool uniform. There was a thin ghost of a mustache on the upper lip suggesting that maybe he was less a kid and more what Spider would have called a “punk.” The pianist had a pretty low opinion of youth with more swagger than experience. His nametag read “Todd.”
“Needs? Son, I don’t need much more these days than the joy of waking up in the morning and a good poop every other day. Unlike what you may have heard, not all of us were junkies.”
Todd looked defensive, worried he might have offended and scared off a future sale of whatever it was he was peddling. The social cues of drug dealers had been a constant since Ray bought his first weed back in ’52. “No doubt! No doubt! Heroin is hardcore. I didn’t mean to suggest anything.”
“Oh Heroin, ain’t so bad. Sure, it ruined some lives here and there, but there’s worst stuff out there than heroin.”
“Like…cocaine?” Todd blinked, uncertain where this conversation was headed.
“Like black magic,” Ray said as he took a seat on the edge of the hard mattress. “Drugs are one thing. They’ll fuck you up and ruin your life for certain. Worst they can do is kill you. But mess with the dark arts and you tarnish your soul. You don’t ever get that kind of shit back. It just takes and takes until there’s nothing left. And then it keeps taking.”
Todd shifted his weight from foot to foot nervously, unprepared for the direction the conversation had gone. He had let go of the suitcase, abandoning it on the floor shortly inside the door to the room. Ray couldn’t tell if it was dangerous curiosity or instinct to stick around for a tip that kept him from fleeing outright. “Black magic… that’s not a real thing.”
“As real as you or me,” Ray said. “You ever hear of Spider Grant?”
“The piano player? Spider Grant Sextet? Yeah, my dad had a few of his albums: The Man Downstairs and Sin in Syncopation.”
Ray chuckled thinly. “Believe it or not, I played trumpet on those. Well Eddie… Spider. He was into the heavy stuff. Always chasing the next big thrill. Had a hard time keeping musicians as a result, but me and him, we’d come up together. Told him I’d do right by him to the end. But wasn’t a damn thing I could do to keep him away from sorcery.”
“So, he made a deal with Satan for fame or immortality or something?”
“Not Satan. He’s a myth,” Ray said, offering Todd a sly smile, a twinkling in eyes that had seen way too much. “Something much older. Something that used to be worshiped around these parts a very long time ago.” He kept the bellhop transfixed with his gaze. He might not be able to overpower a moth, but he still knew how to command a room. “Eddie wasn’t interested in being famous. And we buried him in November of 1982. No, Eddie Spider Grant, he was hungry for life. Hungry for experience. Just… hungry. And black magic fed that, helped him experience life more fully. More completely than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Todd didn’t look convinced, but Ray Martin didn’t seem to care, either. He was too old to place much stock in the opinions of someone as young as the bellhop. “And you never tried it? Not even once?”
Ray closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He remembered his first time here at the Thornewood Hotel. He and Eddie, naked as the day they were born, high on weed and wine as they crept out into the nearby woods. Ray thought it was a lark at the time, just hijinks, despite his friend’s earnest insistence. It was cold that November, and bravado and bourbon only went so far to keep him warm. After twenty minutes, Ray was ready to turn back. But Eddie was insistent, and only a few minutes later they found the massive gray stone carved with arcane symbols.
Had he tried it? No. Not even once. But he’d seen it done once, only once, and that was enough. He’d seen his lifelong friend utter strange words to alien gods beneath the cold stars. He’d seen Eddie open himself to new experiences, and been there to see those new experiences enter him, violate him, change him.
“I don’t fuck with black magic, son.” Ray said tiredly. He opened up eyes and fixed them on Todd. “Anyway, you want to do an old man a favor? There’s a crisp ten in it for you.” As if to prove he intended to play to pay, he took a bill out of his wallet and held it between two fingers.
Todd brightened immediately. Money was familiar territory for him. “Sure thing Mr. Martin. What do you need?”
“I’ve got a pair of jackets in my suitcase that are getting all wrinkled. It would mean the world to me if you could get those out and hang them up in the closet for me?”
Give the punk some credit, he was wary, as if expecting there to be some kind of catch. “Ten bucks to hang up your jackets?”
“And for carrying my bag up. Yes. Is that okay?” Ray didn’t move from the edge of the bed, let his narrow shoulders sag, emphasized that at the end of the day he was just a tired old man with a bum lung.
“It’s your money,” Todd said with a shrug. He picked up the suitcase and set it on the luggage jack near the closet. He unzipped the old bag quickly and flipped it open. There on the top was a carefully folded square of pale yellow fabric, a little over eighteen inches to a side. The bellhop reached for it to move it aside for the jackets beneath, but his fingers recoiled as soon as he touched it. “What the hell?”
“That,” Ray said reverently, “Is a piece of history. Go ahead. Pick it up. Unfold it.”
A look of disgust etched into his punk face, Todd picked the object up by the corners. It shifted in the breeze of motion, practically unfolding itself. “It’s like silk, but lighter,” Todd said. “I can hardly tell I’m holding something. And cold.”
“Yes,” Ray said. “Cold. And hungry. Eddie was always so voracious.”
The fabric unfurled to an impossible size, cascading to the floor, billowing around Todd’s feet. But it wasn’t fabric. Even the bellhop was starting to realize that now as a gaping maw made itself evident along the top of the pale shape. It struck at Todd’s face, digging a furrow along his cheek so deep that his molars were exposed all the way back to his wisdom teeth. He let out a high, keening wail, only to be cut off as the ghost of Eddie Spider Grant took the rest of his head. The rest of the bellboy followed shortly thereafter, threadbare red wool uniform and everything.
Once satisfied, it slithered out the window and into the surrounding woods. It would be back by morning, Ray knew. Just like every year since they’d buried Eddie’s body. Ray had said he’d stick by his friend to the end. He figured at the time that meant until Eddie’s end. He was disappointed to find it meant his own. He folded the $10 back into his wallet. “Takes until there’s nothing left then keeps on taking,” he repeated to himself in a whisper. “Fucking black magic.”
Around him, the bones of the Thornewood Hotel creaked, sighed and settled like a fat man at the end of a feast.
About the Author
The eldest child of an existentialist librarian and a teacher/child-care specialist, Nathan had always tended towards the literary. Lurid ghost stories and big books chock full of pictures from classic horror movies captured his imagination early on, and nothing was ever quite the same again. Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, he wanted to be a writer from as far back as the age of 10 This career dream was later replaced by chef, paleontologist, teacher, and any number of things, but he would find himself being drawn back to writing again and again.
Due largely to his love of movies, his first serious writing was screenplays, of which he’s written five over the past several years. He has also written over a dozen novels, including the super-hero novels Chanson Noir, Cobalt City Blues,Greetings from Buena Rosa, and Ride Like the Devil. His short fiction has appeared in such places as Thuglit.com, Byzarium, Crossed Genres, Absent Willow Review, WilyWriters.com, and in the anthologies Close Encounters of the Urban Kind by Apex Books, Cthulhurotica, Rigor Amortis, Cobalt City Christmas, Human Tales, Rock ‘N’ Roll is Dead, Space Tramps, and Cobalt City Timeslip. His ghost story “None Left Behind” won the Hauntings competition at the prestigious Hugo House in 2007, and his urban/sci-fi story “Deacon Carter’s Last Dime” has appeared on the long-list for storySouth Notable Stories 2009. And “Frames of Reference” was an honorable mention in Ellen Datlow’s Years Best Horror 2010.
Nathan currently lives in the Bohemian wilds of Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood where he blogs about writing, film, fringe candy, and social justice. He is known to haunt the local coffee houses, comic shop, dives, and karaoke stages. Nathan lives alone with his cat, Shiva, who is currently managing his career in exchange for fresh kibble.