The massive hotel stretched from city block to city block, surrounded by a low, medieval-style brick wall.
An array of lights lit the hotel, and the building's sheer complexity of style was enough to nearly overwhelm the senses, everything from Spanish Gothic, Mission Revival, Moorish Revival, Renaissance Revival and Mediterranean Revival. I know something about architecture. If I hadn't been an investigator, I would have been an architect. And the inn was a wonder to behold.
I was in a parking lot on Orange Street, along the south east side of the building. There was a side opening here that I was familiar with, one that led to a small bar that Danny and I had frequented many times, where we drank wine and beer and ate lightly breaded chicken strips and listened to a talented cellist and talked about our days.
Those days were long gone.
Years ago, before I met Danny, my first visit to the hotel had been a laughable one. I was running late to my then-boyfriend's cousin's wedding. I was in college and working two jobs and I had barely gotten off in time to rush out from Orange County on a Saturday evening. Running in high heels and clutching my dress, I dashed into the first chapel I saw. The wedding was about to start. Feeling self-conscious, I sat in the back row and looked wildly for my boyfriend, assuming he was sitting somewhere in the front. I felt like shit that I had come so late that I couldn't find him, but at least I made it, right? I had never met his cousins, and I didn't know anyone in his family, and so I sat in the back alone, going through the motions of a very Catholic wedding, kneeling and crossing and saying prayers with everyone else.
After the longish wedding, when everyone poured out into the courtyard, I was caught up by a group of women who forced me up a spiraled staircase for pictures. As I continued to scan the milling crowd below for my boyfriend, I paused every so often for the photographer. We took a God-awful amount of pictures, and when I was finally released, I happened to see another chapel on the far side of the courtyard. Another wedding had taken place, and was just now finishing.
And there, exiting through the doors, was my boyfriend.
Exactly. I had gone to the wrong wedding. That's me, Samantha Moon, the original wedding crasher. To this day, I'm certain the bride is wondering who that cute, dark-haired girl was in all her photos.
Back when I could take photos, of course.
Needless to say, that night only went from bad to worse, and my boyfriend and I broke up in an epic fight. I met Danny shortly thereafter and the rest, as they say, is history.
Good times, I thought, as I stepped across the street and headed under the veranda and into the gloomy bar where the cello player had long since disappeared. Now, no one played, and that was a damn shame.
I moved through the lobby and front desks, and through what appeared to be yet another lobby lined with presidential portraits. I assumed these were all the presidents who had stayed here. The hotel felt damn old and I sensed many, many lingering spirits. Hell, if I was a spirit, I would linger here, too. A ghost could do worse than haunt the Mission Inn.
Now with the hair on my neck standing on end, I turned and saw where one spirit was semi-manifesting. Staticy energy formed into the shape of what appeared to be a teenage boy. He was watching me casually from one of the spiraling staircases that led up to the more expensive suites. As I watched him, he took on more shape and made a partial appearance, the crackling energy briefly replaced by a wispy cloud of ectoplasm. Had someone chosen now to take a picture of the staircase, they would have captured an honest-to-God ghost. Anyway, his eyes widened with some surprise when he no doubt realized that I was watching him in return. He came to life, so to speak, and drifted immediately over to me, where he stood in front of me, smiling. Was that a wink?
I could be wrong, but I think he was flirting with me.
Next, the strong impression of a name appeared in my thoughts. "Your name is…Leland?" I asked.
He nodded vigorously, and now other spirits seemed to take note. They were manifesting around us rapidly, like human-shaped sparklers. Some fully formed, although most crackled and spat crackling energy, only vaguely humanoid. Most were dressed in older-style clothing. Some of the men even wore hats.
"Now look what you started, Leland," I whispered to the teen boy.
He frowned, and then shooed the other spirits away, moving quickly to each. The others departed, some clearly irritated, others fading into nothing or zipping away like blazing comets through the hotel. As they did so, I caught a very real little girl watching us from across the room. She was standing next to her mother, her index finger hooked into her mouth. Her wide eyes followed some of the fleeing spirits. Kids can see far more than we realize.
The teen ghost faded in and out of clarity, sometimes reverting to nothing more than a crackling human torch, and other times to a dapper young man who could have hailed from the 1920s. Once, he even made a gesture to dance, holding out his hand as one would lead a woman to the dance floor, and only then did I notice the ambient music playing over the hotel's speakers. A sort of jazzy/classical rag-time, of the type my grandmother would listen to. Had the classical music drawn him downstairs, I wondered, reminding him of his days when he was alive?
I was about to say goodbye and turn away when I noticed something about his face. There was something that looked like blood coating his lower jaw and staining the front of his shirt. I next had the strong hit of a single word: tuberculosis.
So Leland had died here at the hotel, long ago, and has been hanging around ever since, his chin and shirt forever stained with the ghostly hint of perhaps his last coughing fit.
"I have to go," I whispered to him, "but thank you for the offer to dance."
As I turned to leave, I realized I had no clue how to actually get up to the dome. I turned back to the young man, and somehow, someway, he was able to read my thoughts, because he was nodding excitedly and motioning for me to follow him. He held out his hand and, feeling rather silly, I reached out and took it – or simulated taking it – knowing full well I looked silly as hell to just about everyone else. Everyone, that is, but the little girl.
He led me quickly through the massive hotel.
We went through some doors – well, he went through them, I had to open them – and once in the outside courtyard, moved quickly past an elegant restaurant that I had always wanted to try. Back in the day, Danny and I were too poor to dine elegantly. Drinks and chicken tenders were about all we could afford.
Anyway, the teen boy led me along the main artery that led down the center of the hotel, past beautiful planters and water fountains and the pool. We plunged under Mediterranean Revival-style archways lit with hanging lanterns, and dashed quickly over Spanish tile that looked both ancient and impenetrable. We passed couples holding hands or sitting contentedly on ornate benches. We passed more crackling spirits, all of which seemed to have somewhere to go.
Now above us, shining like a mother ship descending from the heavens, was the jaw-droppingly beautiful north tower dome. I only had a glimpse of it before the ghost teen disappeared through a closed door. A closed locked door.
A very bloody and sheepish face appeared a moment later in the center of the door. Leland smiled and the ancient blood on his lower jaw almost seemed to sparkle.
"Through here?" I asked.
He nodded vigorously. I tried the handle. Locked.
"I don't suppose you can unlock it from the inside, could you?"
He nodded again and disappeared back through the door. I next heard some very odd, lightly scraping sounds from the other side, and shortly his gruesomely handsome face reappeared. He shook his head sadly.
I looked from side to side, and didn't see anyone paying particular attention to us. I then took hold of the doorknob and applied a smidgen of pressure.
The lock shattered and the handle broke off in my hand. Pieces of metal fell everywhere, inside and outside the door.
Lord, I'm a freak.
The shattering lock would surely have attracted some attention, and so I ignored the stares and pushed the door open like I belonged there. I kicked the broken knob inside.
Leland took my hand again, which felt a bit like plunging my hand in a picnic cooler, and led me up a very narrow spiral staircase that was clearly not meant for hotel guests, judging by how rickety and unstable it was. Who used this staircase and why, I didn't know, but it felt unsafe as hell.
I heard the sounds of pots and pans banging, the sizzle of something or other, and someone shouting an order in Spanish. We were behind the kitchen, perhaps in a forgotten storage room, along a forgotten staircase. I suspected this old hotel, with its many additions, had many such forgotten rooms and staircases.
Sometimes our hands broke contact, but the teen boy would always reach back for me. Sometimes I could see the concern on his face, but mostly I saw his excitement. And with each step we took, my inner warning system sounded louder and louder. Perhaps the loudest I had ever heard it sound. So loud now that even the ghost boy turned and looked at me.
Jesus, had he heard my own alarm system?
There was just so much to learn about the spirit world, a world that had unexpectedly opened up to me these past few months.
Now we were at another door. This was unlocked and soon we were standing in a very long and creepy hallway. The hallway had been used for storage. Now, I suspected, it was long since forgotten. Old sinks and clawed bathtubs and disgusting toilets that turned my stomach.
He led me deeper. I noted Leland didn't kick up any dust, whereas I left behind great swirling plumes of the stuff.
We hung a right and soon came upon another narrow flight of wrought-iron stairs. The boy floated up them effortlessly, whereas, I climbed up them as quietly as possible. I felt for the medallion in my pocket, suddenly wishing I had left it in the van, after all.
Lord, if I lost this…
The few breaths I took echoed loudly around me, filling the small space. The ladder seemed like it might creak, but mercifully, it didn't. I followed the boy up, sometimes looking through a pair of ghostly buns.
We reached the upper landing and stood before another door and I had a sense that we were very high up. As high as the mosaic dome, no doubt.
"In here?" I asked.
Leland nodded. He had now made a full appearance, and I could see all the fine details of his handsome young face, a face that was now creased with concern.
Who knew ghosts could crease?
When I reached for the door knob, he seized my wrist with hands solid enough to pull my own away. Crazy goose bumps appeared instantly up and down my arm. He shook his head vigorously.
"It'll be okay," I said quietly. "Thank you for your help."
"Please," Leland said, speaking for the first time, his voice a grating whisper. "There's a very bad man inside."
I smiled and reached out and touched his face. A shiver went through me again.
"I'm pretty bad myself," I said, and opened the door.
The door opened loudly enough to wake the dead.
Hell, maybe it did.
Although I doubted I would ever sneak up on the vampire, any hope of doing that went out the window.
Or through the squeaky door.
The ghost teen stayed behind, clearly worried, and anything that worried a ghost should seriously worry me, too, I figured.
Except, I rarely backed down from a fight, even back in the days when I was very mortal. Bullies and assholes never scared me, and this French vampire piece-of-a-bitch was clearly both.
A narrow catwalk encircled the entire area, branching off in both directions. Above me was the inverted arch, sealing off the night sky. A small pinprick of moonlight made its way through a window. An open window, actually, and I suddenly realized how the vampire had been coming and going.
Below, the floor dropped down about twenty feet, to what appeared to be more storage. With the dome arching two stories above, there was, in total, about forty to fifty feet of open space here. Big enough for one's voice to echo, and certainly big enough for a giant vampire bat to take flight.
As my eyes fully accustomed to the big, open space, I heard the sound of breathing. Short, frightened gasps. Coming from seemingly everywhere at once.
There, on the far side of the catwalk. A small figure was curled in the fetal position, shivering violently. He was still wearing his thin hospital down, which was next to useless. Fury raged through me. The boy needed immediate medical attention. The heartless piece of shit. I couldn't imagine the horror this little one had endured.
The catwalk was even more wobbly than the last staircase. As I stepped onto it, the boy's head rolled in my direction. My instincts were to run to him. Hell, anyone's instincts would have been to run to him. Running to him would have entailed racing along the metal catwalk, which curved around the inside of the circular dome and hugged the gently sloping wall.
But I forced myself to stop. To think. To wait. Hard as it was. As nearly impossible as it was. I would be of no use to the boy if I died.
Although I couldn't sense him, I knew the vampire was here. He had to be here. The only beacon of light energy that I could see formed around the boy. The vampire, like other immortals I had seen, was immune to my detection.
But he was here. Somewhere. Watching me.
The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and that was a completely human response to the feeling of being watched. I listened for breathing – other breathing – but heard nothing.
Wait, a flutter from above.
I looked up sharply. The tiny silhouette of a bat crossing in front of the window in the upper dome.
I remembered his words: I'm here with the other bats.
I turned right onto the catwalk, although I could have just as easily gone left, since the boy was directly opposite me. As I walked, I held onto the rusted guardrail, all too aware that the mesh flooring beneath me felt unsafe at best.
My footfalls echoed metallically. The whole damn catwalk seemed to sway. I scanned above and around, searching for a winged creature or the tall man with the bow tie.
I considered the possibility that I was dealing with a very powerful vampire. How long had this vampire been alive? Hundreds of years? Thousands? In that time period, what dark secrets had he uncovered? Invisibility, perhaps?
I had no clue, but I hoped like hell I didn't bump into him unexpectedly. That would just suck.
Something scuttled from above, too heavy for a bat. I snapped my head up.
Nothing there, other than beams and rafters and larger, seemingly random planks of wood. No vampire bat. Although the hiding spots were few and far between, he'd certainly had enough time to pick a good one.
He was watching me now. From somewhere. Of that, I had no doubt.
I was halfway to the boy, who was now trying to sit up. He couldn't see me in the dark, but he could certainly hear me coming. Hell, the dead could hear me coming, with all this rattling.
"It's going to be okay, Eddy," I said, although I was still thirty feet away. "I'll get you home soon."
"Oh, it's most assuredly not going to be okay," said a voice with a French accent above.
I looked up again, and this time, crawling down through the hole in the dome like a four-legged insect, was a man.READ MORE >>