It was a dark and stormy night. Yeah, I know that’s a cliché, but what do you expect the week before Halloween in the foothills of Mt. Hood in Oregon? Most autumnal nights are dark and stormy.
A wind gust roared through the confined space of the porte-cochère, presaging the flash of lightning… Wait, that was just the headlights from our airport shuttle bringing guests from elsewhere to the Whistling River Lodge and Golf Resort. Only no one would be playing golf until the fairways dried out for at least three full days of clear weather after this relentless rain dump. Say, maybe mid-April.
As manager and majority stockholder, I shouldn’t be manning the registration desk after eleven PM. But this was less than a full year after the plague had been quelled by a vaccine. I’d had to lay off or cut hours of a lot of personnel during the months and months of closed business. We opened the golf course for the summer (masks required) and that paid a lot of our bills. Between contagion and a nearly broken economy, I’d come close to losing my beloved home. But we’d managed. Now we slowly crept back toward normal, and I was grateful for every guest.
Business had picked up a little. People needed mini vacations anywhere other than home. I’d managed to hire back some of our housekeeping and maintenance staff. André, my brilliant chef, now had a sous chef and three extra wait staff. We’d replaced some tables in the Canyons Restaurant, now up to half-capacity rather than one-quarter, and started serving casual meals in the Woodlands café and bar. Of course, tented patio dining with portable heaters continued.
We’d coped for too long on take-out meals only.
Really, I was grateful for every booking, including late night check-ins. Even the Cascadia Paranormal Society that would be hunting ghosts here for three days and two nights over Halloween. During the first partial re-opening when the plague had started waning, the CPS hadn’t had any other guests to disrupt. I feared they expected the same free run of the entire hotel again. Not this year. I had other guests who didn’t want the spook chasers crashing into their locked rooms at all hours of the day and night.
My night shift security/front desk clerk needed a few hours off to attend his granddaughter’s sixteenth birthday party tonight. I’d looked the other way when he borrowed a few pumpkins, gauze ghosts, witch cut-outs, and corn stalks from my decorations to make the church meeting room more festive for the party, though I wished he’d taken the pirate skull and crossbones flag, and a few of the Dias de los Muertos painted skulls, and lost them. I knew Bill well enough to know that by tomorrow morning all the décor would be back in place.
The party ended at nine. Give him an hour to assist in clean up… and it approached midnight now. Where was he?
Those of us left at Whistling River were tired of twelve hour shifts seven days a week. I had four months to hire more staff to keep the place running while I took maternity leave. Junior kicked me hard enough to bruise a rib. I was more than ready for him to make an entrance. But my Lodge wasn’t.
I checked my computer screen. The vehicle coming to a sloshy stop out front shouldn’t be the CPS coming early. They weren’t booked until day after tomorrow afternoon, the day before Halloween. This must be the last-minute reservation that came in yesterday. Late check in. Two guests. Full Suite. Four nights. B. Thomas on the credit card. The second guest remained unnamed. Okay by me, as long as they didn’t do anything illegal while staying here. My husband and I had slipped away and registered at hotels anonymously—to avoid local gossip and being called back to work—several times before our wedding last Memorial Day.
The shuttle glided to a stop. Craig Knudsen, my security chief, new husband, and fill-in driver knew how to negotiate rain-slick roads. He’d been a cop before early retirement due to a bullet wound that was almost unnoticeable, except for the scars around his artificial knee, and therefore he’d taken every expert-level safe driving course offered. I trusted him to keep our guests safe on the road as well as at the resort.
Craig alighted from the shuttle, leaving the engine running. Then he opened the passenger door and offered a hand to Mr. B. Thomas (I presumed) and a tall, long-legged lady. They looked to be in their mid-forties, maybe early fifties. The outdoor lights embedded in the arched road covering just beyond the front door gave me full vision of the couple. He had wings of gray hair at his temples, and she had thick, shoulder-length dark hair with mahogany highlights that swept her shoulders in a fashionable cut. They both wore comfortable jeans. Expensive designer jeans worn to buttery softness that molded butts and well-defined calves. (Hey, I might have married the love of my life five months ago, but I could still appreciate a beautiful man). He sported a plaid flannel shirt beneath his heavy weather-proof jacket. She wore a cable knit sweater over a turtleneck top and carried her jacket.
They both looked familiar, but I couldn’t place them. The name hadn’t triggered a flag on the computer that they had stayed here before, or at least since we digitized everything.
Craig quickly retrieved their bags from the back of the van and ushered them inward through the automatic sliding doors.
Another gust of wind followed them. It smelled of moldy leaves covering the forest floor and other decaying things. Local legend said the scent belonged to Sasquatch. A common scent in this part of the woods, but not one I associated with indoors.
I checked my dogs, where they snoozed before the gas log hearth across the lobby from the massive registration desk. They’d alert me if anything unusual walked the nearby trails or entered the lobby. Pepper, the black miniature poodle bitch, half-opened one eye. Salt, her white litter mate, lifted his head and cocked his ears forward in curiosity. Officially the poodles belonged to the hotel, (thanks to the previous owner) but they lived with me. Big Al, my Newfoundland Retriever rescue dog, knocked over a pyramid of real pumpkins in his haste to wrap himself around my feet under the desk. He didn’t like strangers. And Craig, his pack mate, left to park the shuttle in the back of the building.
“Beautiful dog,” Mr. B. Thomas said as he approached the desk. “Do we need masks? We’re both fully vaccinated.”
“No, you are fine.” Besides, it was now illegal to require proof of vaccination—medical privacy laws at the federal and state level. Masks and social distancing remained in place at some businesses. “But if you are more comfortable with one, we have no objection. Everyone on staff has also been vaccinated.”
I extended my hand across the desk. “Hi, I’m Glenna McClain, the manager. We spoke earlier today about your reservation.”
He took my hand and shook it, firmly but not aggressively so. No clammy palms either.
“Bryant Thomas,” he said. “And this is Janet Dryer.”
Ding, ding, ding. My brain woke up and identified them. I admitted my secret vice to myself, and knew him as a judge and producer of a couple of music and dance reality TV competition shows. There was one currently airing on Wednesday nights. This was late Wednesday evening. They must have flown to Portland right after the close of tonight’s episode. I’d watched from the employee lounge. My favorite contestants were safe for another week.
I forced myself into a professional blank countenance. We sometimes hosted celebrities who needed anonymity.
Big Al obligingly poked his nose above the desk, sniffing in every direction. He climbed upward, massive paws on the desk while he continued to sniff. Then his tongued lolled and his butt wiggled happily, tail slapping the side of my chair. He trusted this guy more than he did most men. Therefore, I should too.
The woman held back half a moment while she admired Pepper and scritched Salt’s ears. “I was getting quite used to wearing a mask as a fashion statement, color coordinated of course, when they started easing restrictions,” she said with a sultry laugh.
I was willing to bet that she made quite the fashion statement any time.
Salt trotted over and dropped his favorite squeaky toy at her feet. Generous of him, but reassuring. He welcomed her into the family pack.
She smiled and crouched before him. “Thank you, sweetie,” she said, her voice a lilting, almost musical alto. She patted his head, examined the toy, and murmured soothing sounds to him.
Salt retrieved his squeaky, brushed his muzzle against her leg and retreated to the warmth of the fire, further dismantling the pumpkins.
“Best reception committee I’ve met in a long time,” the woman said, and stood to face me fully. She added her own credit card to the man’s on the desk in front of me.
“Janet, I thought I was paying for this?” Mr. B. Thomas said. He didn’t look annoyed, just tired and a bit frustrated.
“We agreed that you’d pay if we are still a couple at the end of the stay. Otherwise we share, fifty-fifty.” She smiled brightly at me. Janet Dryer, talk show host whose insightful interviews were frequently featured on the evening news. She somehow made all of her guests (willing victims) comfortable with her gentle manners and dagger sharp questions.
“I know you requested a suite overlooking the river and the golf course. That wing has been completely booked by the Cascadia Paranormal Society for day after tomorrow and the next night. So, I’ve put you in the north wing, a full suite, with a view of the river and the wilderness hills. I hope that is acceptable.” I was prepared to offer a hefty discount just in case it wasn’t acceptable. They could be golf fanatics, for all I knew.
“No problem.” He waved away the change with a flick of his long, elegant fingers, brushed a fake cobweb from his shoulder, and shook his whole arm to dislodge the sticky stuff.
“Sorry,” I apologized. “My head housekeeper’s teenage daughters decorated with enthusiasm, if not exactly good taste.” They were responsible for the skulls peeking out from the middle of some of the pumpkin pyramids. About half of the white papier mâché or clear plastic decorations were painted with Dias de Los Muertos designs in vivid colors. They peeked through other displays when least expected. Sort of scary, sort of friendly.
I finished up the couple’s registration and sent them toward the elevator with an apology for no bellhop service this late in the evening, or ever before ski season.
Again, he waved away the problem with a flick of his wrist. He shouldered his soft duffle and reached for hers. But she’d already slid her arm through the strap of a more elegant, bright red, leather carry-on bag. At the last second, she grabbed a flyer for the Halloween festivities on the mountain. “Good, there’s a dance here Halloween night. We have time to cobble together some costumes.”
Mr. B. Thomas wasn’t just the judge and producer of a ballroom dance competition, he had been a professional dancer with a string of titles. She’d been a contestant a couple of seasons ago and danced with him for two of her most spectacular numbers. There’d been rumors….
He dropped his left hand to his side. She slid hers into it and their fingers curled in a gentle clasp without them having to look to find the other hand. They acted like this was completely normal for them.
Yep. I believed those rumors now.