The wind whistled eerily around my aging resort hotel. I listened to the wind as if an old friend whispered secrets to me.
“The tea leaves reveal a strong heart that leads your head,” Lady Anya intoned with ominous portent. “But you do not trust your heart. There is trouble coming soon. You must listen to your heart. The heart knows the truth and will lead you away from this trouble. The heart understands when the head sees only puzzles.” Lady Anya closed her eyes and dropped her hands as if exhausted.
More likely her rings weighed her down.
I shivered just a little as I watched the scene play out in the secluded alcove of the Whistling River Lodge dining room. The lowered ceiling and log beams gave the nook coziness in sunshine. This was late afternoon in early September on Mt. Hood in Oregon, about the only time of year we could plan on bright dry days.
Today a thin layer of smoke from wildfires east of the mountain cast a pall over the light.
Lady Anya, the psychic tea leaf reader I’d hired just for these cozy afternoon teas, made the most of those reaching shadows. Creepiness prevailed.
Just the right touch of theater.
A brunette in the audience of six golf widows gasped, the only local woman in the crowd, wife of one of my Board of Directors. She had carefully drawn eyebrows and that wide, strained look about the eyes, sure sign of a recent facelift. The silver streaks at her temples appeared just as artificial as her eyebrows. She held her hand flat against the middle of her skinny chest, splaying her fingers to protect her manicure.
“That was my cup,” she whispered. “I do hope that doesn’t mean my Edgar is going to have another heart attack out on the seventh fairway.”
I hoped so too. Edgar Hooten offered a note of sanity and logic to my Board of Directors and co-owners of Whistling River Lodge.
If Donna Hooten suddenly became a widow, she might cease bringing her friends here to the lodge and these teas. If I had the money these women had used just to buy their designer purses, let alone what they put in them, I could afford to fix the roof over the east wing of my hotel.
The guests shifted uneasily, tugging at their Roberto Cavelli slacks and sweaters. Two of them fingered their pearls, sliding them around and around their necks. I wondered how Donna had managed to find black pearls, each the size of my thumbnail, with a greenish cast that perfectly matched her knit shell.
My elbow in the waitress’s ribs reminded her to bring another pot of tea and tray of custard tarts and watercress sandwiches before our guests nervously shifted their feet out the door.
“Si, Miz McLain,” Maria whispered and bobbed away. Her hand reached for her pocket and the rosary I knew she kept there.
I tried to catch Lady Anya’s gaze and signal that the next reading should be more upbeat. The gaudily clad Gypsy woman ignored me, as if the cedar pillar carved with playful bear cubs that stood between us actually hid me.
Lady Anya raised her hands again. A hush fell over the women before the arrival of new treats could disrupt the mood. A blonde, younger than the others, but not so young as to be labeled a trophy wife, slid her empty tea cup in front of the reader.
Donna snatched her cup out of the way rather than have it pushed aside. She clung to it as my friend Joy Dancer would protect an amulet.
The Gypsy closed her eyes in preparation.
I checked my watch. Twenty minutes to the Board Meeting. Time enough to listen to the next reading. I had to attend that meeting. We had scheduled a final interview with Craig Knutsen, the most promising candidate for a new Resort Security Chief. The previous one had retired after a sudden heart attack. I’d found discrepancies in Knutsen’s resume and wanted to make certain my fellow board members addressed those issues before hiring him.
The wind raised its pitch a notch as it ripped through the narrow canyon just upriver from the lodge. The whistling wind unnerved the unwary. That peculiar high-pitched tone gave the river, the lodge, and the Oregon resort town its name—Aloysius Whistler, the town’s founder, probably took his name from it too, but that was just legend.
An east wind. That meant more smoke, trouble for asthmatics and the elderly.
A bit of chill wrapped around my ankles. It should be a hot wind. I frowned and scanned the log beams and pillars for clues to its source. The mountain stream continued to chuckle along its rocky bed through the center of the restaurant. Maybe the chill traveled along it.
Maybe. I’d heard other stories and legends about this building that explained every eerie feeling. Ghosts.
“Yieeeek!” A scream made the hairs on my nape stand on end. A human scream, not the wind.
The golf widows jumped and started. They all stared at each other rather than risk catching Lady Anya’s disapproving gaze.
I signaled Janice, the restaurant manager, to keep an eye on Lady Anya. I’d hired the woman on a whim to entertain the guests from two to four every afternoon—something to keep the bored wives of the golf players from leaving the lodge to go shopping elsewhere. I wanted those ladies happy, not scared out of their wits.
In the lobby, two college interns behind the registration desk wrapped their arms around themselves and looked to me, wide-eyed, for guidance. Their forest green blazers over mint green dress shirts and khaki slacks or skirts weren’t warm enough to guard them against the unearthly chill descending on my resort.
Three women bent over the glass display cases frantically stretching to keep fragile pieces of handmade lace from blowing about.
I smiled at them nervously as I marched for the elevator to the south wing.
Only one place in the lodge could evoke that kind of scream.
I punched the elevator button three times before the brass doors slid open. Silently I thanked George Ramstad, the previous owner, for updating this most essential amenity. He hadn’t done much else for the historic lodge—like fix the roof—other than stash empty liquor bottles in odd corners and between walls and get into trouble with the IRS, Immigration Service, and the mob.
His demise had allowed a few of the employees, myself included, along with some local investors, to buy the place just before it went on the auction block for back taxes.
In the past six months, I’d cursed George Ramstad often, but never regretted sinking every penny I’d inherited and saved into this money pit.
Too many agonizing moments later the silent elevator slowly settled at the third floor. I tapped my toe anxiously until two sets of doors opened at their leisure. The rich dark wood paneling had started to feel claustrophobic.
Three sets of wide, dark eyes and trembling chins greeted me.
“Consuelo, what happened?” I addressed my head housekeeper. The middle-aged matriarch had trained me as a maid when I first started working at the hotel. I was all of fifteen at the time. She’d comforted me after my mother died of breast cancer the following year.
The two younger maids, her oldest daughters, crowded close to Consuelo as if for protection.
“I quit, Miz Glenna,” Consuelo replied angrily. “We all quit.”
Her two daughters, Lilia and Rosario, aged sixteen and seventeen respectively, nodded their agreement.
“We no work in this ungodly place no more,” she insisted. Her daughters continued to nod like bobble-head dolls.
I watched Consuelo’s tense shoulders and wringing hands for signs that she might really mean to quit this time.
“What happened?” I asked as I stepped free of the now beeping elevator. The doors closed behind me with a sigh and the lift headed off to a summons from another of the four floors on this wing.
“La Llorona.” The ghost. Consuelo crossed herself and looked around anxiously. Her daughters mimicked her, half a heartbeat behind.
I noticed that all three of them wore their crucifixes prominently on the outside of their green and white uniforms. The two teenage girls fingered the red beads of their rosaries anxiously.
“It’s just the wind, Consuelo,” I reassured her without much hope. I could do something about demands that I hire her nephew Hector as a maintenance man, or that I upgrade the quality of the bath towels.
This was something else.
“When there’s a high pressure to the east and a storm building to the west the wind funnels through the canyon and makes that weird whistling sound…”
“Not the wind.” She frowned so hard the fine dark hairs on her upper lip quivered. “We saw. We all saw La Llorona. We quit.”
“There is no such thing as ghosts. Aloysius Whistler does not haunt this place.” The man who had built the lodge had died tragically in the large suite at the end of this wing right after Black Monday in 1929. Some say he hanged himself; others that his creditors murdered him. Either way, the third floor of this wing had earned a reputation over the years.
“Not him,” Rosario whispered. “La Llorona, who cries for her dead children. She assumed the body of Mr. George. My grandmother says that La Llorona takes the form of our most recent dead one.”