Where They Look Away
by Geoffrey Marshall
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
Mantegna the Psychic opened the cab door and set his extra-special-bought-for-this-occasion patent leather shoes smack into the middle of an enormous puddle. The ice cold water, being just ever so slightly deeper than the tops of his shoes, sent a jolt down his foot, up his leg, into his spine and all the way to the very top of his head. He shivered and scrunched his shoulders to shield his neck from the rain.
The bellhop shouted at the cab driver, “You parked right in the middle of a puddle,” before continuing to unload Mantegna’s suitcases from the rear of the car.
The cabbie just shrugged. When Mantegna slammed the car door, he heard a muffled, “Where’s my tip asshole?”
Mantegna hopped up onto the curb, accompanied by the cabbie’s parting shot, “Thanks for nothing jackass,” as the yellow banana of a car screeched into traffic, where it lurched to a stop mere yards away, after wedging itself into the heavy downtown congestion.
Mantegna growled but let his better angel win. He turned back to the bellhop, just in time to see his flat, puce colored hat and blazer sucked through the revolving door into the lobby of the Lord Elroy Hotel.
The elegant, five star Lord Elroy Hotel — could it really be true? Mantegna gazed at the sign, reading the words for the fourth time, just to be certain. Satisfied (and reassured), he scurried up the steps and entered the legendary property. Inside, he marveled at the dazzling brass, nary a fingerprint to be seen, and the heavy oak panelling, thick as the hull of Old Ironsides. The air was clean, but the ghostly impression of pipe smoke was impossible for him to miss, ingrained in the walls as it was, by more than a century of non-stop smoking.
The bellhop had his nose buried in a newspaper and Mantegna could only see the top of his flat puce hat. He handed over a few bills, grabbed his suitcases and headed for the front desk.
The clerks were extremely busy. One was fiddling with a fax machine on the back counter. Another was talking loudly into a phone, “No, sir, we do not have all-day breakfast.” A third appeared free, although her face was cast downward as she stared at a glowing screen.
“Name?” clickety-clack on the keyboard without looking up. “Mantegna, Mantegna, yes, here we are. Hmmm, you’re a guest of the Legal Society?”
Mantegna said that sounded correct.
“A moment sir,” she turned away and flipped open a small cabinet door. He couldn’t see exactly what she was doing, but she finally said, “At last, here’s your key, Mr. Mantegna.” She reached over and dropped it on the counter. “Room 1206,” she closed the small door, just as a phone rang. She turned away to pick up the receiver, “Lord Elroy, please hold,” she held the phone away from her ear, “Mr. Mantegna, everything is in order, you can go to your room.” Then she spoke into the receiver again, “Thank you for waiting, how may I help you?”
She seemed overworked. In fact, all the clerks were occupied. Maybe they needed more staff, Mantegna reflected. Busy or not, he had his key, so he walked towards the elevator with his luggage rolling silently behind him on the soft carpet. The elevator door was open and a man stepped inside, joining a few people already crammed in. The man then leaned sideways, his head around the edge of the door, and reached out, apparently pressing a floor button. His back screened the other occupants from Mantegna’s view. The door began to close.
“Hey, hold that door,” Mantegna called out and picked up his pace.
“Elevator’s full,” a voice called from narrowing gap.
The doors closed in his face just as Mantegna reached them. He jabbed at the up button, but too late, the elevator was ascending. He watched it climb steadily and pause at three. He started to grumble but his better angel prevailed yet again. He would just have to wait a minute for the next elevator, that’s all.
The fact was, this Legal Society gig was his biggest job yet. Things were finally starting to look up and it would take a lot to upset him right now. He would do his stage show, and several groups of attendees had also booked private seance sessions — very lucrative, and very welcome.
With a ding that prodded him from his thoughts, the elevator opened — now empty. He whistled a little tune and stepped inside. No one joined him as he rode to his floor in solitude. The hall was silent and empty. He spent a quiet evening in his room, and the next morning the hallway was just as deserted. The front desk clerks in the lobby seemed even busier than the previous night, despite attending to no guests. In fact, apart from Mantegna, not a single guest was in sight.
Like hummingbirds, the clerks flitted here and there behind the counter, answering phones, searching cabinets, sending faxes. None of them stood still long enough for him to get a good look at their face. Come to think of it, last night had been the same. He was unable to recall a single face. How strange.
He shrugged and made his way to the restaurant. What he found was not good for his rumbling stomach. Closed — the damn place was closed. He bit his lip, counted to three and reestablished his mood. Bring it on baby. Nothing could bring him down. A handwritten not was taped to the door — it mentioned vague apologies to the valued guests. Blah, blah and blah. The kitchen had been closed for urgent work. Come back for lunch.
In the meantime, the note mentioned, he could go to the café next door for breakfast. They would even take room charges. He spun on his heel. See — it wasn’t so bad after all, told himself. He went back to the lobby, where he discovered something very strange — the revolving door was gone. At least it was definitely not where he remembered. He looked for a bellhop. Naturally, none were present.
He looked over to the front desk to get his bearings. That, at least, was exactly as he remembered. When he came through the doors last night, the desk was on his right, just as it was now. So where was the door? He turned around and took in the expansive wall, bordered on either side by semi-translucent windows. He made out the cloudy motion of vehicles passing by and the slower, perpendicular shapes of pedestrians bobbling along. The door was gone. Goddammit.
Was he going crazy? He circled the room. Maybe there were two lobbies. Could it be? One, with a door to the street, the other with only some strange interior access. That must be. He probably got on the wrong elevator and ended up on some mysterious level of the hotel. Now, if only he could find some someone, anyone, to give him directions.
There was a bellhop — the flat, puce hat loping across the expanse of the lobby.
“Excuse me,” he raised his hand, “I just need some directions.”
Mantegna hurried after the bellhop, who refused to spare him even the hint of a glance. In fact, he now seemed to be increasing his speed. The faster Mantegna hurried, the faster the bellhop scurried. He was heading for a door marked employees only. Mantega doubled down and broke into a run. He sucked in air and sprinted across the carpet, trying to cut off the bellhop, who was setting a pretty decent speed-walking pace by this point.
The bellhop reached the door first, sliding through. Mantegna poured on the speed but was hobbled by a stitch in his side. He watched the door close, ever so slowly, and he reached out, wedged his hand in the door and miraculously prevented its closure.
“Hey, excuse me,” he huffed his words into the narrow gap, “I could use a little help here.”
He tried to shove his shoulder into the door, to push it open, but it wouldn’t move another inch. The bellhop seemed to be on the other side, somehow braced against the door. Was he pushing back goddammit? Mantega leaned forward like a linebacker and heaved the door open just enough for him to get his head around the corner. He tried to get a look at the bellhop’s face but the frantic employee turned his head sharply away and pushed even harder against the door.
Mantegna growled and fought back with all his might until, at last, the bellhop surrendered. The door lurched open. The bellhop brought his hand up, hiding his face, and walked away. Mantegna entered the doorway and saw it led into a shadowy hallway with earwax colored carpet.
The bellhop was already impossibly far away, hardly visible under the obscure lighting in the far reaches of the hall.
The door was closing behind him now and Mantegna’s alarm bells started going off. He didn’t think it would be such a good idea to be on this side of the door when it closed. He started to sweat and recognized the first signs of panic. He bolted for the door, crashed through and fell face-first into the lobby.
The front desk clerks were there, of course, busy as always. Naturally — bellhops now crisscrossed the wide room. A family, their backs to him, entered the elevator just at the doors were closing. The revolving door was still missing. Mantegna took a few deep breaths to rally his courage and crawled back to his feet.
He staggered to the front desk, his beating heart pumping away his previous bliss with the surge of each trembling pulse. The truth was, he had felt uneasy even since he climbed out of the yellow cab the night before, he had just refused to acknowledge his growing unease. But it was more than unease now.
Whatever was going on, he had get to the bottom of it. He had to be ready for his performance. He banged on the service bell at the counter. There were four clerks busying themselves with a variety of tasks, and not a single one looked his way. Why did they never let him see their faces?
“Just one moment sir,” one said.
“Thank you for your patience,” said another.
“Goddammit,” growled Mantegna. What would it take?
Just as he was thinking about taking his chances with the employee-only corridor, he saw something so amazing, something so wonderful, that hope fluttered aloft in his chest like a paper airplane in a breeze — he saw a face. An older man, with clipped, graying hair and reading spectacles, perhaps in his late sixties, was standing by a counter inside the office behind the front desk. The door was open and Mantegna could see him, flipping through a stack of files.
“Hello,” he called out. The man continued examining his files. “Hello,” Mantegna waved his hands. The man glanced his way, peering over his spectacles which were in the process of sliding down his nose. He pushed them back up with a practiced gesture and turned back to his files.
Mantegna was relentless. He even tried to scramble over the counter but two bellhops restrained him from behind. But his tactics worked and the man finally looked his way again. As the bellhops yanked him backwards and set his feet on the lobby floor, the man strolled to the counter.
“Can you — see me?” he asked, his voice tentative and halting, as if Mantegna could only be a mirage, certain to evaporate when directly addressed.
“Yes, yes yes, oh yes,” Mantegna shouted in relief, “Can you see me?”
The man rocked backwards, shocked by his enthusiasm, but he soon collected his wits and smiled back. “Oh yes, I most certainly can.”
With that, he turned around and ran back inside the office and slammed the door.
Mantegna’s heart sank again. What a freakin’ roller coaster. “Wait, don’t go,” he called out.
He heard another door slamming and the man’s muffled voice from inside the office, “Hold on, don’t move.” Seconds later, he bustled around the corner, now appearing on Mantegna’s side of the counter. He grabbed Mantegna’s hand and pumped it like a thirsty Texas cowpoke at the ranch well.
Mantegna finally got his chance to ask, “Just what in the hell is going on around here?”
“I have to apologize because it’s probably my fault, but I think you’re here to see me,” the man said, looking sideways with a guilty wince.
“To see you? What does that mean?”
“Follow me,” the man led Mantegna through a side door into the accounting office behind the front desk. “For decades, I was the night auditor here at the Elroy,” the man said, “This was my office, and, you might as well say, it was my life. I spent every night here, balancing the books for the accountants the next day. More than fifty years and never once out of balance. Not many can say as much.”
“What happened to cause all this?” Mantegna asked, waving his hands around.
“One night in 1998, just as I finished up the books — as always, balanced to the penny — I felt this sensation of pressure in my chest. Then shortness of breath. Then there was a flash of light, and when I could see again, there I was, still at my desk. But I could see my body. I was face down in my ledger — heart attack,” the night auditor said.
“So you died here at the Elroy?” Mantegna asked.
“In the very office right here, behind the counter,” the man nodded. “I just didn’t know what to do when it happened. So I did what I always had done, I kept coming to work.”
Mantegna shook his head in wonder. All these years?
The auditor continued, “For many years I sat with my many replacements. There was such a steady stream of them coming and going. It’s a rare night when the books balance these days, let me tell you. They leave everything for accounting to deal with in the morning.”
His brow was furrowed and there was a line forming between his eyes. The last thing Mantegna wanted was an angry ghost on his hands so he prodded him to continue, “The younger generation — what can I say?” he shrugged.
“I gave up on them,” the night auditor said, nodding his agreement. “They were beyond help. No matter what I said or did, they never even looked at me. Even when I tried to move things, it didn’t help. I would roll their pen off the desk, or make a sound, and it made no difference. They would always look away.
“Just like what’s happening to me,” Mantegna said.
“Yes, exactly,” the ghost agreed. “In this place, the living will always look away.”
“Am I dead?” Mantegna asked, suddenly more than a little worried. Still, he was pretty sure he wasn’t dead. He had been in a few strange situations before. This was probably like that. Nothing to worry about. Even so, he felt a pleasant pang of relief when the ghost shook his head. Not dead. That’s always a good start anyway. Still, he had questions.
“You said you brought me here,” he said, “What can I do for you?”
“I have been caught in this limbo between worlds for many years now — I just can’t move on.”
“To the afterlife you mean?”
The man nodded.
He thinks I can help him, Mantegna thought. Unquiet spirits had sought him out in the past. Somehow, these spirits found him, usually to deliver some last message to the land of the living. Never before had a ghost asked him for advice. To make things worse, he seemed to be at the mercy of this confused spirit. One way or another, he was trapped in this hotel purgatory.
“Do you have any unfinished business?” Mantegna asked.
The spirit shook his head. No.
“Family or lost loves to share any parting words with?”
“I had only my work,” the ghost said, “I never married. I had no family.”
The auditor, who up until this moment had seemed solid, now seemed gray and translucent, faded somehow. The sadness of his empty life was ravaging the night auditor’s soul. Perhaps in time, perhaps even soon, this malaise would spread and the fabric of his spirit would collapse into tatters and dissolve into nothingness. There could be no afterlife for such a soul, in the end it would be as if he had never lived.
Mantegna felt a deep sorrow for the man — aafter more than seventy living years and a couple decades of this miserable afterlife, the night auditor remained a cipher, even to himself. What could he do for such a man? He watched the fibers of this spirit fraying before his eyes. Mantegna could see right through him, he could see the calendar on the wall. It was so clear to him, he could even read the date — November, 1948. Mantegna walked around the miserable shade and laid the palm of his hand on the sheet of paper. The auditor would have been a young man. Mantegna closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, he was still in the office, but everything had changed. Instead of a ghostly specter, the auditor was now real flesh and blood — and young, almost boyish. The calendar date remained November, 1948.
The smell of cigarette smoke was in the air. Brimming ashtrays lurked everywhere, waiting to be emptied. The clock showed a quarter after ten and a radio was playing something that sounded disturbingly cheerful. Mantegna shivered — something, something, buttons and bows, something, something, other things — the song was like crack, one hit of that chorus and he knew he would be humming it for days.
A young woman was seated at one of the desks and the auditor himself was talking with a short, bearded man wearing a green jacket.
“Here’s the deposits,” the man told the young auditor. He handed over a wooden cash box. He slapped a stack of slips on top, “And here’s the room charges.”
He took the box and stack of papers from the green-jacketed man and handed them over to the woman. The green-jacketed man, his mission accomplished, said goodnight and scurried out of the room. The auditor returned to his desk, sitting across from the woman.
The present day night ghostly auditor appeared from nowhere at his elbow, “Her name was Della,” he whispered.
Della opened the cash box and began counting the bills. She hummed along with the music. Something, something, rings and things — Mantegna gritted his teeth. The auditor began copying the room charge slips into his ledger. They worked in silence.
“Her husband died in the war,” he offered. Mantegna noticed a warmth in the man’s voice he had not previously detected. Could it be, this ghost wasn’t quite the hollow husk that he appeared to be.
“She had two children to provide for,” the spectral man continued, “and we worked together every night for a few years. Then one day she was gone.”
“Just like that?” Mantegna asked, “And you don’t know why?”
The ghost mumbled, “We didn’t talk about — personal things.”
“You worked together for years and you don’t even know why she left?” As a stage psychic, Mantegna had learned to read people pretty well, but even he was staggered by the sheer level of paralyzing reticence on display. Then again, like his father always said — listen boy, not everyone yaps on endlessly about whatever pops into their heads.
The auditor continued, “I expect she got married and moved out of state. Yes, I believe that’s what happened. I seem to recall the housekeepers had a sendoff party for her.”
“Did you go?” Mantegna asked.
“I — no,” he hung his head, “She probably didn’t even notice I wasn’t there. I’m sure she had a happy life, wherever she ended up.”
Della chose that moment to look up from her paperwork. She took a sip from her coffee and looked at the clock — 4am. She looked over at the seated Darling, head down, buried in the ledgers. “We should go for breakfast when our shift’s over. Would you come Mr. Darling? A little sunlight would do us good.”
Mr. Darling? So that was his name. The auditor looked up from his books, “I have to stay late this morning Mrs. Piper, a meeting with the accountants you see.”
“Ahh, right,” she said, “Well, that’s important I suppose.” Mantegna couldn’t help but notice the downcast look on her face even though she (unnecessarily) hid it from the auditor.
“Why didn’t you go?” he asked the older ghost.
The auditor looked away, “I had a meeting of course, just as I told her.” He turned and walked to the door. “I’m sure she had a wonderful life,” he said, leaving Mantegna alone with the two apparitions from the past.
Mantega approached the desk and looked down at the bookkeepers, their heads down. They were facing each other, yes, but not looking, not seeing, at least the night auditor. He took a chance and reached out, covering Della’s hand. Even though she was an apparition, she felt warm and real. His touch raised goosebumps on her forearms and she shivered.
“Mr. Darling, is it cold in here?” she asked. Darling shook his head, not looking up.
Mantegna maintained contact and closed his eyes. He began to see images, scenes like a movie playing inside his eyelids. They were at a small party at a restaurant. Della was there, a half dozen other ladies, some in their hotel uniforms, even a couple of bellhops. This must be the going away party the housekeepers threw for Della.
They were all chatting and having a good time. The coffee and cake was circulating and Della was happy — or maybe happy looking was a better way of putting it. Every now and then she glanced at the door, lingered for a moment and then turned back to the party.
“Did any of you talk to Perry?” she asked a couple of bellhops. They looked blankly at her so she added, “Mr. Darling, the night auditor, did he say he would come?”
“That cold fish?” one of them laughed. “Good luck seeing him out of the office.”
“He probably went home, to the bottom of the East River, to be with the all the other fish.”
“Nah, he’s by himself, no fish can survive down there.”
They all laughed, except for Della.
The scene changed, now back to the office — the same stacks of ledgers, the same coffee thermos. They stood facing each other. Darling held out his hand. She brushed it aside and gave him a hug.
“I’ll miss you Mr. Darling — Perry”, she said.
“Good luck in the future Mrs. Piper,” the look of shock from her hug still on his face.
Mantegna saw tears in her eyes.
“Call me Della, please Perry,” she said.
The scene faded and a new vision presented itself — there was Della, along with her two small children. Darling had been right — there was a man. He and Della were not married, but still he was there, and that was enough for Della to give her children what they needed. At least at first.
The children grew older, and the man became abusive. Verbal remarks gave way to yelling. The yelling steadily escalated to shoving. She showed Mantegna fragments of what had been.
The man slapping her. They were not his children anyway, he yelled, so who cares?
She was trapped, unable to return to the city, unable to leave, with no family to help.
Her children grew unhappy. They were scared of the man — the man she had, after all, brought into their life.
The boy, in trouble — in and out of jail.
The girl, leaving at sixteen, never to return.
Della leaving when her kids were gone.
He saw her working as a clerk in a department store. She never met anyone else. She never saw her children again and she spent her remaining years in her apartment, alone, growing more bitter as each year passed. At the end she was no longer recognizable to Mantegna. The young woman he first saw in his visions was gone.
Finally Mantegna lifted his hand away from hers and, in a blink, they returned to the office. There sat Della and Perry, carefully checking their numbers, carefully looking away.
“Skip the meeting Perry,” Mantegna said to the suffering spirit at his elbow.
“I — how? It’s too late for me,” the creaky ghost protested.
“Just try, sit down there and try,” Mantegna ordered. He had to get something going or he could be stuck in Darling’s personal purgatory forever.
Darling stood beside his younger self, chewing his lip. Mantegna waved him down, and at last the ghost closed his eyes and sat. His immaterial form settled into his younger self.
Mantegna watched the forms merge. Nothing changed. Della did not look up. Darling continued scratching away with his pen — but then, he stopped. He looked up over his heap of papers, like a prairie dog from its burrow. The ghost was gone now, submerged in his younger self — lost in time and reliving the past. Mantegna crossed his fingers.
“Have a spine Perry, have a spine,” he murmured under his breath.
Darling at last blurted out, “You know, Della, let’s grab that breakfast you mentioned.”
She looked up, eyes round in surprise.
“Ohh, but what about your meeting?” she said.
“Don’t worry about the meeting,” he replied, “We deserve a break, just like everyone else.”
They were smiling now, looking into one another’s eyes. Mantegna patted himself on the shoulder. Now that they were all lovey-dovey, would he finally get to leave? The office scene vanished and Mantegna was abruptly back in the lobby. Was that it? Was that enough to get me out of here? He rang the service bell.
A clerk backed out of the office, balancing a tottering stack of files.
“One minute sir,” the clerk said just before he promptly vanished around the corner.
Damn, still here, Mantegna cursed. He sank to the floor and leaned his back against the counter. His ran his hands over the plush carpet, a shade of orangey brown that reminded him of old cheese. Well, it hides the dirt, I suppose, he thought. He was out of ideas. Goddamn, this night auditor was one tough nut to crack.
He leaned his head against the counter, and was looking up at the ceiling when he heard his name. He opened his eyes. There was Darling, peering over the countertop, his face inverted, from Mantegna’s point of view.
“Mr. Mantegna, Mr. Mantegna,” he said, “Wait til you hear what happened.”
Mantegna struggled to his feet and slapped a smile on his face. Come on, he thought. As his father used to say, the show must go on. The excited night auditor breathlessly related a tale about how he had for years been trapped inside an awful dream — a nightmare really — where his life was spent miserable and alone. He had only just awoke, and could not express his relief when the details of his life with Della had come flooding back.
Mantegna sighed, “Why are we still here Perry?”
“What do you mean?” the ghostly auditor asked.
“You found the love of your life and didn’t die alone. Shouldn’t you be moving on? Della must be waiting for you in the afterlife. Why are you lingering in this limbo?”
The ghost looked confused and mumbled “I’m not ready to go. I’m truly sorry, but someone is keeping me here.”
“I don’t understand,” Mantegna said.
“An innocent person died because of me. She won’t let go until she has justice.”
Mantegna was willing to bet, that even now with a family at home, the night auditor wasn’t anyone’s idea of a party animal. The idea that anyone could be dead because of this wish-washy wimp seemed ridiculous.
“Have you ever heard of the Baby Garret Murder?”
Mantegna shook his head.
“Let me show you.”
Before Mantegna knew what was happening, he was again transported into the office of yesteryear. This time the calendar reported August, 1971. Things looked about the same — still stacked with brimming ashtrays, still a radio on the counter, just a little smaller — and plastic. Darling was there at his desk, a little older maybe, but as dedicated as ever to his books. Della was nowhere to be found. Perhaps she took a job elsewhere in the intervening years, or she was home for some reason.
Mantegna was startled by the ghostly Darling appearing beside him. “If she had been here, I know things would have been different,” the ghost mumbled. Together they watched his younger self jab a pile of slips onto the spike file beside his ashtray. Mantegna shivered, those things gave him the creeps. He couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if he accidentally missed with the paper and transfixed his own hand. With some effort, he looked away from the evil device.
The time was five after four according to the clock. Darling ambled to the coffee pot on the counter to top up his cup with the motor oil brew. He paused, pot in hand, and cocked his head as if to listen for a noise. Mantegna joined him at the counter. A sound was coming from the air duct in the wall above the counter. Voices. Darling turned off the radio. Yes, there it was — two men, talking in heated voices. Mantegna strained to listen to the sounds wafting from the ventilation system.
The first voice, reedy and high, “Did the cops take her away?”
“Yes,” a second voice, deeper, calmer, “She’s been arrested, charges will come.”
The first voice again, “Christ, I need a drink.” After a pause, “You’re sure they believed my story?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t they? Your father owns half the state and she’s not even a citizen.”
“I just want to be sure, dammit,” the first voice said. “If they suspect what really happened, they’ll lock me up and throw away the key.” Mantegna detected more than a trace of hysteria in those last words.
“Get a hold of yourself,” the second voice reassured, “That will never happen.”
The younger Darling was now still as a statue, perhaps trying to make sense of what he had heard. After a moment, he took his sludgy coffee back to his desk, lit a cigarette and picked up another stack of slips.
Mantegna looked for the ghostly present-day Darling. There he was, hovering at the edge of the room.
“What was that about?” Mantegna asked.
The night auditor didn’t answer. Instead he hid his face in his hands and shuddered.
“Perry, tell me what this is about. Why am I here?” Mantegna demanded.
“She died,” the ghost sobbed. “The baby died, two days later. So they executed the girl.”
“You’re not making sense,” Mantegna said, “What baby? What girl?”
He dropped his hands from his face and told the terrible story. That night, the night they had just watched, a baby had been injured in one of the suites —severely injured. The mother was out, her parents were staying in the hotel and they were all in the dining room when it happened. Only the baby’s father was in the room — along with the nanny.
After the injury, the nanny called emergency. Paramedics and police showed up, and at first, they suspected the father, who had been drinking. But before long the police turned their suspicions on the nanny and arrested her shortly thereafter. Two days later the baby died and the nanny was charged with murder. After the guilty verdict, she was executed.
“Those voices from the duct,” Mantegna asked, “the father?”
“Yes, and his father’s majordomo, his fixer,” Darling said. “Like he said, the family owned half the state.”
“And you didn’t tell the police what you heard?”
“No, I — I didn’t want to get involved. I didn’t know the baby would die, I swear. When the news came, I was afraid to tell the police because of how long I had waited. The nanny was an Au Pair. Nobody believed her. It was her word against the father, and the family was so rich, she never stood a chance.”
“Maybe you could have saved her,” Mantegna said, “Or at least tried.”
“It haunts me,” the ghost said, “ and I can’t leave. She keeps us all here.” He pointed over Mantegna’s shoulder.
A young woman stood behind him — dark haired, beautiful — in her arms a sleeping baby. Mantegna turned towards her, Darling’s ghost tugging at his arm.
“She keeps me here,” he whispered, his voice dry as a corn husk. “She came from Europe — from Spain — to serve as an Au Pair for a year.
The woman looked at Mantegna, her eyes like magnets. She didn’t seem to want to talk and instead seemed content to let Darling tell her story.
“The baby, is that the —”
“Yes,” Darling said, “that’s the baby who died. Bernard Garrett III.”
“Why doesn’t she speak?” Mantegna asked.
“When the guilt verdict was returned and the sentence came down, she cursed the courtroom. As they dragged her away, her last screams were in Spanish. After that she never uttered another word, even at the very end, when they shaved her head, blindfolded her and strapped her in the chair.”
“What did she say in this curse?”
“She said that everyone who knows the truth and holds their tongue will never sleep until justice is done,” the ghost recited. “She has been true to her word ever since and keeps us all here.”
“All? Are there more of you?”
Darling looked at him, eyes wide, “Oh yes, there are more.”
In front of the woman, Mantegna could see several other figures now, where before there were none. The first of those were two men, one short, bald, the other, tall and thin, both unshaven, in cheap looking crumpled suits.
“The detectives,” Darling whispered.
“We knew but had no proof,” the first detective said.
“The family was too powerful, how could we stand up against them?” said the second.
“The chief said to arrest the girl. It wasn’t our fault,” they said together.
Then, another man came forward, his short hair and round head made it look as if he was wearing a helmet. “The father’s majordomo,” Darling mumbled in his ear.
“I was only doing my job,” the round-headed man said, “Doing what was best for the family. Only what they paid me to do. No more. No less. How could I be to blame? It wasn’t my fault.”
An elderly couple was next, frail and distinguished looking, the man with silver hair, the woman bedecked in pearls. “The father’s parents,” Darling said.
“My boy could never hurt his own child,” the mother said, “It’s just not in his nature.”
“Can you imagine the scandal if it got out?” the father said. “The press would have a field day dragging our family name through the mud.”
“We did what we did to protect the family,” the mother moaned.
“What happened to the nanny was sad, but it wasn’t our fault,” the father said.
A young woman, stood alone, with wide, sad blue eyes and her hat in her hands. “The baby’s mother,” Darling whispered.
“Oh god, what could I do? I knew he killed Bernie. He was drunk and crazy. But I was so scared. You don’t know that family. They would have killed me too. I was helpless. It wasn’t my fault.”
A man came forward, he wore dark robes and sported a razor-sharp, pencil-thin mustache. “The judge,” poor Darling murmured.
“I can only judge a case based on the facts presented,” the man said. “How could I do otherwise? Surely you understand? Besides, the family was always so generous. Their donations kept me on the bench all those years. Think of all the good work I did. Would you erase all of that for just one woman? One foreign woman? Justice is blind. It’s not my fault.”
Then one last, final figure stood before him — a slouching man with receding hair and a red nose. “The baby’s father,” Darling spat, the pathetic spirit at last showing some fire.
“I never meant to kill poor Bernie,” he said. “He just wouldn’t stop crying and the damned girl wouldn’t do a thing to shut him up. It was just a mistake, I only wanted him to be quiet. It wasn’t my fault.”
Mantegna stared at the figures in front of him in shock. Were all these people, all these tortured spirits, held prisoner by this curse? The crowd parted for the woman as she walked forward. Each one faced her in silence with a bowed head. Her anger was real — fiery and palpable — forged by the heat of this calamitous miscarriage of justice.
“Her curse keeps all of you trapped here?” Mantega asked the night auditor’s ghost.
The man nodded and hung his head, from shame or weariness Mantegna couldn’t say. Perhaps it was both. His problem was now clear — the Spanish Au Pair nanny was holding the night auditor here. He, in turn, had drawn Mantegna into this mess.
Why did all these crazy spirits seemed to want to dump their problems on him? He gazed over the enthralled figures, from the detectives, to the baby’s family, and even the night auditor. What a pathetic collection of lost souls, trapped as they were in the Au Pair nanny’s web.
He considered them and made his decision. Like his father always said — boy, stop burning daylight, I haven’t got all goddamn day.
Of all of the ghosts, the majordomo seemed to him like weakest link.
“Perry, let’s go back to the office in 1971,” he said.
The night auditor looked flustered at first. He glanced at the Au Pair nanny. Mantegna noticed her slight nod, then he blinked and he and the night auditor were again alone in the office, watching his younger self balance the books, the calendar again on August, 1971.
Mantegna rushed out and stood behind the front desk. There was a small crowd in the lobby — police, paramedics, hotel staff and members of the baby’s family.
He scanned the faces, finding the pair he was looking for — the detectives. He crawled over the desk and approached the men. This was not the first time Mantegna had ever found himself in this type of situation and he knew he had to shake things up. He seized both men by their hands and established his link.
He pushed a vision of the duct grate laying on the counter where Darling had set it down. He showed the night auditor standing, hand cupped to his ear, listening. He let them hear the conversation between the majordomo and the perpetrator’s father.
When the conversation was over, he hurried back to the front desk, vaulted the counter and ran into the office. The younger Darling was just beginning to rise, preparing to refill his coffee. Mantegna hurried to the duct and tore the grate from the wall.
He had no idea if it would work, but work it did, and the grate went flying. The duct was left wide open. Darling, having seen the grate fly off the wall, had frozen, empty cup shattered on the floor beside him, his jaw hanging open.
The two detectives hurried into the room and stopped at the threshold. Their eyes went to the exposed duct and the grating on the floor. They silently slunk to the counter and stood huddled beneath the opening and listened as the majordomo and the father began to speak. They quietly took in the entire conversation.
“Dammit, dammit, god damn” the bald one said, “I knew that rat was lying to us.”
His partner shook his head, “How can we go to the chief with this? We already arrested the girl for Chrissakes.”
“How about we just put that there grate back up on the wall and make like we heard nothin’?”
Mantegna felt his stomach roll over. People never failed to surprise him— in all the wrong ways.
The thin one looked at his partner, his eyes narrowed, “Will that work?”
His partner laughed, “Yeah, so long as we don’t piss off the chief.”
After a chuckle, the thin one said, “Ok, ok, so we’ll just never mention this again, and no one will be the wiser.”
“Sounds —,” his partner’s reply was cut off by the sound of someone clearing their throat.
They pivoted on their heels and blinked at Darling. He stood there in his brown jacket, his brown hair, his brown pants — perfectly camouflaged against the brown carpet and brown curtains.
Mantegna had to laugh. Darling really did look like one of those bugs whose pattern and coloration so closely reflect their environment that they are invisible until they start to move. Unlike Mantegna, the detectives didn’t find anything funny about their current situation. Mantegna saw murder in their eyes. What if they went after Darling?
His worry lasted less than a second, and was instantly dispelled when a front desk clerk appeared at the door.
“Perry, Della called,” the clerk said, “She’s wants to know what to get you for breakfast, said she’ll bring it in when she starts her shift.”
The clerk then noticed the shattered coffee cup and the pair of detectives under the open duct.
“Gentlemen,” she said, “Can I help you?”
There was a moment of silence, finally broken by Darling, “Gentlemen?”
Mantegna was still smiling as the vision began to dissolve and he found himself once again in the same office, present day. The collection of ghosts that had surrounded the nanny had apparently departed, leaving only her, with the baby still in her arms, and, of course, Darling. They were waving at him.
Darling seemed reborn. The dreary workaholic who dropped dead at his desk was gone, replaced by the young auditor, full of hope. The nanny hugged the baby, kissed his cheek. Their voices broke the silence, coming to him as if from a great distance.
“Thank you,” he heard them say.
A bright light began to shine behind them and they began to slowly fade away. Blurry edges became gauzy forms, washed out by the brightening light like an ice cube in hot water. Before long, they were gone, their last words in his ears like the remembered winds of last winter’s snowstorms.
Mantegna looked around. He was standing at the front desk. What year was it? Hell, was this even real?
“Sir? Can I help you?” the clerk repeated.
He blinked several times, he looked at the clerk’s face, not without a feeling a dread. What if this still wasn’t over? He didn’t think he would be able to handle that. The clerk however, returned his glance — and, he didn’t look away. Thank God.
“Uh, I was just wondering when the dining room will reopen?” he said lamely.
“Reopen? It was never closed,” the clerk pointed across the lobby. Sure enough the doors were wide open. “It’s open right now.” You dummy. Except he didn’t say it. Mantegna knew it was what he was thinking. He was, after all, a psychic.
Mantegna mumbled a few words of thanks and headed for the restaurant. Soon he was seated at a table with his morning coffee. He pulled out his phone and did a search for the Baby Garrett Murder. The story popped up. Bernard Garrett II was found guilty of the accidental death of his son Bernard Garrett III and spent ten years in prison.
Mr. Garrett was the scion of the Garrett coal mining dynasty and the events proved devastating for the family. His father died shortly thereafter and his mother later remarried Reginald Duclose, the Garrett’s former majordomo. The case was interesting because the police had originally charged the Garrett’s Spanish Au Pair nanny, but a pair of steadfast detectives were credited with uncovering the truth. Mantegna shivered and put down his phone.
Late that afternoon, his show now over, Mantegna sat at another table, signing autographs. Autographs? Me? Why would anyone want that? he wondered — but, for whatever reason, it seemed like they did, and so he found himself scratching away with a marker. It wasn’t so bad — and he did love to chat after all.
The line slowly dwindled until the last attendee — a young woman — sat down across from him. She slid a small envelope his way. He immediately readied his pen, but she reached out in alarm.
“No, no, don’t sign it,” she said, “It’s a note, for you.”
“For me? Who is it from?” He glanced at her name tag: Fiona Darling.
“It’s from my grandfather,” she said.
He examined the envelope, now noticing the aged, yellow paper, so brittle in his hands. He carefully extracted the note, gently unfolding it and laying it flat. It was from Perry Darling, the night auditor.
“Dear Mr. Mantegna, Thanks for all your help back in ’71. You saved my life.” That’s all it said. It was signed Perry Darling and dated June, 2005.
“He gave it to my mother, and she gave it to me,” Fiona said. “Correct me but I don’t see how you could have been alive in 1971.”
“I was born in the nineties,” Mantegna said.
“How did he know about you?” she asked.
“Well, I am a psychic,” he said.
She smirked, “I would almost say this is total crap, except — ”
“Except what?” Mantegna asked.
“Except he told my mother the exact time and place to deliver this letter,” she said. “I never believed, but I came just to see — out of curiosity mostly — and there you are.”
“And here I am,” Mantegna agreed. Here I am.
Geoffrey Marshall is a writer in Aurora, Canada. He knows just enough to be dangerous (mostly to himself) in several different fields. You can find his work in The Ansible, Academy of the Heart and Mind and the September 2022 issue of MoonPark Review. His education never really took, through no fault of his instructors (debatable) but he did manage to acquire a BA in English Literature from Carleton University. Find him on twitter @g_k_marshall.
by Claude Chabot
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai Podcast.
“Did you say a full month in the country?”
“Naturally, Steven. Your leg won’t heal any quicker whether in the city, suburb, or a hamlet in Vermont. And where would you rather be in August? Gasping for a breath of air in your pied à terre in the Village with the smells and the noise, or staring at the landscaping in that benighted suburban graveyard where you were raised? Outside of Princeton, isn’t it? All horsey and proper?”
Dawson disapproved of what he called “a young man of my station” living in a flat on MacDougal Street, although being a self-made man who married into an “old family” he also made fun of my background. But I couldn’t fault him for trying to be funny. Or, for that matter, trying to be helpful. He did trust me well enough to handle his caseload when he was laid low with a nasty case of pneumonia. Now he wanted to return the favor, and I couldn’t walk easily, that was for certain. There wasn’t much good trying to get things done when I simply couldn’t do them.
“Even if it is only a minor fracture, and you can hide your cast beneath your suit, you’ll have the office in an uproar, thumping up and down the hallways with those crutches of yours,” he slyly added.
“The hallways, as you well know, are well carpeted. You’ll never know that I’m around. And my cast is very hospitable. Everyone’s signed it. And look,” I said, pulling my trouser leg up, “Patty’s drawn a little caricature of you. Just for the fun of it.”
“Just above my ankle.”
He bent forward to examine it. “My, my,” he exclaimed, “is my nose really that big?”
He paused and gave me a serious look, lowering his head and peeking over the top of his glasses, “Now really, my boy. The war’s over and it’s time for a little fun. You haven’t had much in your life I gather? Just out of law school and then two years of service at the North African front trading quips with Rommel. Then back here to make your mark in our little firm. Mind you, it’s a good place, a good place for you. I see your name up with the partners in, say, ten years. So why not relax, shake the war’s dust from your soul. Take the month, I heartily endorse the plan. I’ll clear it with the partners. Maybe you’ll meet a girl...some rosy-cheeked cow maiden you can dazzle with your urbane urban ways.”
He was playing the role of mentor with a parental relish. Dawson paused again and stared out the open window at the Hudson and mopped his brow. The piers at Vesey Street were thick with freighters, and the humid air hung misty over the oily, ebbing river. Dawson’s paneled office, though thronged with antique maps, thick settees, and oriental carpets, was inviting, but even the rapid flailing of the ceiling fans did little to relieve the effects of the relentless heat of late July.
I casually remarked, “I can't easily get to the corner with this leg, I don’t know how I’ll get to Vermont.”
“We'll have my car drop you at Pennsylvania. It’s but a few hours by train to Burlington, and a twenty-minute ride by taxi amongst the cow flops and the dairy farms to The Gables. Then when you’re up there, the gardener can run you around wherever you need to go. I was up there just last spring. The place is a bit dusty, but I can call beforehand and have the house opened for you. It was my wife’s family place you know. Called “The Gables,” because, well, it has so very many of them. Marvelous view of the mountains, and the air,” he murmured looking a bit lost, “the air will be sweet with newly mown hay,” and raising his hand in mock exultation, dropped back in his chair, closing his eyes.
I think old Dawson paused, not thinking so much of the air and the aroma of cut fodder but imagining Rita Hayworth atop a newly mown haystack.
Then he abruptly opened his eyes and continued, “Of course, I’ll have to give the cook a ring. We had to find a new one,” he stopped for a few moments, took off his glasses, rubbed his temples, then went on, “and I can never remember her name. I’ll have to ask Emma to ring her. We don’t want to send you up there and have you starve to death, do we? I’ll have Patty make all the other arrangements. Mind you, the place is five miles or so from the main road, and there’s no electricity, except for the kitchen. Had it completely modernized back in ’36. But Emma wanted to keep that old New England feeling, so we didn’t electrify the whole house. No telephone either I’m afraid. I must say we’ve got to remedy that soon.”
He stopped talking, suddenly sat up in his chair and looked straight at me, “Come to think of it, maybe it’s not such a grand idea. I’m offering it to you as it is sight unseen but perhaps you’ll feel…isolated. With your leg in that condition,” he frowned, his jowly face and thick lips compressing into leathery concern, “perhaps it really is not such a good idea…”
“Nonsense,” I retaliated immediately, “there’s nothing I like better than an old homestead ‘far from the madding crowd,’ and the twentieth century’s prying telephones and lurid electric lights. To say nothing of leaving New York behind in August. Besides, I can move around tolerably well and have been known to make a sandwich or boil an egg in distress. I take The Gables sight unseen!”
“Very well, I like that attitude! Now, I’ll ring for Patty. She’ll fix everything for you my boy – Patty!”, he hollered into the intercom.
I put my work in order, going over with Dawson the details of the estates that I had newly organized, took my pay in cash, and left at 3:30, spared the sultriness of the subway when I was given Dawson’s car for a ride home. The driver waited while I packed and changed, then it was off on a mad dash for the 6:10. We arrived at Pennsylvania Station, and I found a red cap in the dizzying, echoing vastness of that evocation of the Baths of Caracalla, picked up my reservation at the ticket window and then made a red-faced, breathless and hobbling run for the train.
For all the last-minute rush, the cars were quiet for a Friday evening, and I had a row of seats all to myself. As we made our way through upper Manhattan, then Yonkers, and through the Hudson Valley, I thought of the new super-highways that Washington wanted to crisscross the country. Weren’t there enough roads and cars and people, I wondered? Must progress always mean tearing ourselves from the slow, human rhythm of the past?
Far above the city, the sun set over the Connecticut dales whilst I enjoyed a martini or two, very dry, in the dining car, before my steak, salad, and mashed potatoes. I got a little tight and almost forgot my painful leg and loathsome crutches. When I finished my cream pie and a last cup of coffee, I limped back to my seat feeling a bit groggy as the train click-clacked ever closer to Vermont. I enjoyed a cigarette before dozing off and then slipped in and out of sleep, tortured by the occasional painful tingle of my broken left ankle.
When I arrived, there was a cab ready to meet me. We made our way from the quaint downtown of Burlington out into the lush farm countryside. The windows of the car were rolled down and the cool air was heavy with the perfume of grass, earth, and honeysuckle.
We turned onto a dirt road from the state highway. I wondered how the driver made out the almost invisible road, not much larger than a cow path. We traveled uphill through dense woods for a few miles when the driver turned again and, going another two or three, eventually came to a clearing. That was when I first saw The Gables. The rambling building lay as if sleeping, some of its many crenellations visibly outlined in black against the amazingly starry, moonless sky.
The car slowly made its way up to the house jostling my cast as the suspension responded to the deep ruts in the old driveway. We stopped. As the driver helped me out, I saw that the front yard was quite overgrown, my feet sinking deep into the tall grass. The headlights cut twin swaths of light across the derelict lawn and illuminated a section of wooden balustrade of the front porch. Insects churned in the startling motes betrayed by the headlights. Somewhere behind me, I heard a rustling. I felt a surprising sense of relaxation with the cool, sweet air, the isolation and the immense dome of night perforated with pinpricks of diamond light.
I found and unlocked the side door, which fortunately opened into the kitchen where I flipped on its oasis of electric light. I hailed the driver from the bright interior to bring in my bags. The low-ceilinged room was scrubbed and spotless. Someone had been in to clean as there was a mop still standing moist in a bucket of wash water.
The driver nodded courteously when I paid him, and he and his cab disappeared: its twin beams pulled away from the house, hurtled around into the blackness as they bumped and quivered down the old road out of sight. Dawson was to be congratulated when I got back, I told myself. He had made every part of the journey painless.
Stepping back into the house and shutting the door, I tore open a note that lay on the kitchen table simply addressed “guest.” It informed me that tomorrow the garden would be tidied and food brought from town.
The light from the kitchen illuminated part of the small dining room and cast some light to the front of the house. I found a candle on a sideboard in the dining room, and lighting it, proceeded to explore the ancient structure. It was really a charming old place, furnished with antiques and practically reeking of its colonial past. Then I wearily made my way up the narrow staircase (hauling my valise and crutches with me not without difficulty). The steps squeaked alarmingly under my two-hundred-odd pounds of former halfback.
The second floor contained three bedrooms and a commodious bath with all the modern conveniences. I flipped on a switch and happily discovered that the room had electric light. Dawson had forgotten to mention this. Leaving the light on, I extinguished the candle between my fingers.
I hobbled into the master bedroom, set my bag down and threw the huge casement window open. The uneven, bubble-filled panes in the weathered, leaded sash were probably as old as the house itself. In the distance, the blue-black outline of the mountains was silhouetted against the iridescent sky. Cool, moist air crept into the room, and I collapsed into the comfortable nest of the four-poster, tired of carrying my heavy frame around with one leg and crutches. I helplessly fell into a voluptuous sleep.
I awoke sometime later startled into blithering consciousness by the sound of...what? Pots and pans? Somewhat surprised by my strange surroundings, I struggled to force myself awake, remembered where I was, sat up in bed and listened. I was reassured by the simple chirping of crickets. The sounds that had awakened me were gone. I shrugged them off as part of a silly dream. Swinging my body off the bed and steadying myself, I awkwardly tore off my shoes and clothes, staggered out to the bedroom to shut the bathroom light whose glare fell across the room, then went back to pull the bedclothes down, and collapsed into them. I was drowsy and eager to get back to sleep, though I was still a little puzzled by what I had heard. I listened again as I lay there with my eyes closed, but the house maintained a sepulchral stillness.
The raucous chirping of birds awakened me the next morning as much as the cheerful sun flooding the room through the chintz curtains. Emma had such a gracious touch. It was certainly far from my flat and the grubby shades I used for privacy. Rousing myself, I staggered over to the window, stretched, yawned, and rubbing my eyes, brushed aside the curtains to take a look at the day. The house had an even finer view of the valley and mountains than I thought, perched as it was on the gently sloping hillside. The air was sweet with newly mown hay and the morning looked brightly promising. Glancing at my watch I saw it was well past seven o’clock. I planned on getting a lift into town when the supplies arrived to call up some college buddies who still lived near Dartmouth.
My enthusiasm was only dimmed by the realization that there was no food in the house nor anyone to cook for me. But someone would be arriving this morning, I reminded myself, and I could check and see if there was anything edible in the kitchen cabinets. In the meantime, I wanted to scrub up and get into some fresh clothes. In a half-hour, I was bathed (one leg out of the tub), shaved and groomed and in a pair of comfortable old Bermudas, white polo shirt and loafers.
Then I heard the clatter of pots and pans from downstairs which I thought I had imagined the night before. I smelled bacon frying and coffee percolating.
It was probably the person who was supposed to bring the groceries, I thought, although it seemed much too early for anyone to be at the house, or to be here unannounced. I was suddenly uneasy. I quickly gave myself a mental slap on the wrist; thinking like this was absurd and not worthy of me. Standing erect with my full six feet two inches, reassured by the flexed strength of my athletic build, I opened the door, then paused. Yes, the noises were real. I called out, “Who’s there?” surprised at the timidity in my voice. No one answered.
I went downstairs, following the curving “U” of the stairwell without wavering until I reached the bottom. There was a chill dampness in the air. I was suddenly, irrationally, afraid and had the urge to run, anywhere, as fast as I could. My heart beat so spastically I thought it would explode. I again heard the clatter from the kitchen.
“Who’s there!” I demanded, stealing around the corner into the dining room. What I saw riveted my attention as I approached the table. A plate was laid for breakfast with crisp fried bacon, two fried eggs sunny side up, biscuits, and a chunk of country butter. Beside it was a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee with a tiny creamer. The steam from the coffee undulated lazily under me. I felt silly. Afraid of this fine breakfast?
“Just squeezed that juice myself.”
I started involuntarily, “Are you the cook here?” I asked of the woman who stood in the shadows, leaning against a doorjamb of the kitchen.
A nearby window, overgrown with ivy, cast a faint green light on her. She was a somewhat plump, dark-haired woman of maybe forty years, with pale, smooth skin and startling black eyes which focused somewhere beyond me. She stared as if looking through me. It occurred to me that she might be blind.
“Oh, I’ve cooked many a meal here. Like I said, squeezed that juice myself and made those biscuits. Baking powder biscuits. I just had to make them again. Go on. Try one. They’re still warm. Try one with lots of butter. They’re very light, you can’t use too much butter. Sit down and enjoy your breakfast.”
“Yes, I will,” I said, hesitating. Her voice was soothing, tranquilizing. I started to walk over to her. “I’m a guest of the Reeds. I work for Dawson Reed. Steve Dalton…” I volunteered as I approached within a few feet of her.
“Miss Blackburn, Mr. Dalton. Now enjoy your breakfast.” She quickly turned and retreated into the kitchen. A bit odd, I thought, especially with that fixed stare. It was possible she was blind, but might know the layout of this house so well that she could move around without accident. It would be typical of Dawson to forget to tell me this as well.
I sat down, and forgetting my puzzlement, I did enjoy the breakfast. Everything was prepared perfectly. And the biscuits! Like nothing I had ever tasted, and yet they were simple and homely.
“I could use some more of those biscuits,” I shouted as I finished the last one, sopping up egg yolk. There was no answer.
I got up to take a peek into the kitchen where everything was in order. In fact, the stove was cold, and no pots or pans were out drying. The dishtowel was stiff and dry. Perhaps she had brought the food cooked from elsewhere? That didn’t seem likely. As I walked back to the table, I saw her again, this time facing away from me going toward the front door. I didn’t notice her cross the dining room. She must have left the other side of the kitchen through the pantry, just as I entered it.
“I hope you’ve enjoyed your breakfast Mr. Dalton,” she said softly, her back to me.
“Yes! And those biscuits. I wondered if there were anymore.”
She turned slowly, “I just had to make those biscuits one last time,” she declared in a dreamy way, looking through me with those strange, staring eyes.
My attention wandered to the table, and I noticed that there were more on my plate and a fresh cup of coffee. When I looked up, she was nowhere to be seen.
“Miss Blackburn?” I called, “Miss Blackburn?” I went over to the front door, opened it and looked out. “Miss Blackburn!” I shouted to the hills as I wandered outside through the tall grass. I could see where the car and the driver and my own footsteps had crushed the tall grass the previous night, but there was no sign of Miss Blackburn, her car, nor any indication that she had left this way.
I went back inside to enjoy the rest of my breakfast but felt a little out of sorts. Afterwards, I had a cigarette on the front porch and took some time awkwardly exploring the overgrown front yard. After a long while, an old roadster appeared out of the woods and bounced up the gravel driveway. A woman with hair dyed a violent red clambered out of it.
“Yoo-hoo! Mr. Dalton? It is Mr. Dalton, isn’t it?” she called in an overly friendly, too familiar way, lowering her head and shielding her eyes from the sun. I reluctantly waved to her from the side of the house Her manner and appearance immediately put me off. She tripped across the tall grasses toward me.
“I’ve brought you some groceries. I bet you’re famished for breakfast by now,” she hollered as she came towards me.
“Well, the cook has already fixed me a fine breakfast,” I casually answered as she approached. I was examining the weedy remains of a flowerbed.
Her friendly smile turned to a puzzled frown. “The cook? But Mr. Dalton, I’m Mrs. Childs, the cook and housekeeper. I was up here yesterday and left you that note. There isn’t anyone else besides me and the gardener, and he won’t be up till later.”
“But I’ve told you, I’ve already had breakfast prepared for me by Miss Blackburn.”
Her face now went from a puzzled frown to nervous astonishment. “Is this a joke Mr. Dalton between Mr. Reed and yourself, to make fun of the new housekeeper?” she said indignantly. “Because if it is, it’s a tasteless and cruel one!”
I sputtered out completely baffled and rather annoyed, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I am not making you nor anyone else the butt of a joke. Miss Blackburn was here this morning and prepared breakfast.” As I said this, I had the feeling that there was something terribly wrong.
She crept up to me and I could see the distress in her twitching face and quivering lips, “You aren’t joking are you Mr. Dalton?” She leaned in too close to my face and asked, “Did she make you biscuits?”
“Well, yes!” I said wearily. “What does that have to do with anything!”
She was shaking a little now, and choking on her tears she whispered, “The Reeds were so upset by what happened that they went straight back to New York after the final arrangements.”
I couldn’t understand what was making the woman so upset, “You’re making no sense. What arrangements?”
“On the state highway…they don’t know who caused it…but the truck driver and Miss Blackburn were…”
“Were what?” I impatiently demanded.
“Killed, killed, they were killed! They think the truck went out of control and hit her, but no one is really sure what went wrong. She had gone into town one day last spring to pick up some baking powder. That’s what the grocer told the police afterwards. How peeved she had been that she had to go into town just for that one little thing.”
I watched poor Mrs. Childs as she searched my face for a denial of what I had told her, as I searched hers for the same thing. But remembering the unfocused gaze, I realized that those blank, staring eyes of Miss Blackburn had been the eyes of a corpse. Shuddering, I recalled the distant, dreamy voice and her last words to me, “I just had to make those biscuits one last time.”
Claude Chabot has published five short stories and has produced and directed four radio plays based on his own stories. One of them, an adaptation of his own ghost story, was aired on public radio worldwide. He has also completed a collection of short stories exploring the conflicts and changes his characters experience while traveling, along with several ghost stories and other stories with assorted themes.
About the Host
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