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The dude's elbow poked the side of her boob. Again. Carrie couldn't tell if he was doing it on purpose or if he was just clueless. If she had to make a guess, it would be clueless.
It was bad enough the Crider Inn was over an hour from the Denver airport, but the shuttle bus was so packed Carrie hadn't even been able to sit next to Erin. Although Carrie shouldn't complain too hard. At least she was wedged against the luggage rack on one side, whereas her friend was in the middle of a creepy-guy sandwich. The one on her right looked to be in his thirties, sported a world-class mullet and kept pushing up his tortoiseshell glasses with his middle finger, making it look as if he were flipping everyone the bird. Repeatedly. On Erin's left was a nice-enough-looking guy, somewhere in his twenties, who wouldn't be bad at all if he hadn't snorted every two seconds. The postnasal-drip kind of snort that even if you gave him a tissue, it probably wouldn't do any good.
Carrie caught her friend's gaze and scowled at her with evil intent. For her part, Erin smiled brightly as if this were the best shuttle ride ever. Who knew? Maybe for Erin, it was. After all, everyone with the exception of the driver and herself talked of nothing but ghosts.
Carrie sighed, reminding herself Erin hadn't pointed a gun or threatened her in any way. Carrie had willingly dropped over a thousand bucks of her very hard-earned savings to come to this almost weeklong ghost-hunting extravaganza. She never would have agreed if it hadn't been their last vacation together. Erin was moving to New York three weeks to the day from when they returned, leaving behind her downtown Los Angeles loft to begin her new career as a bona fide architect in New York City.
The two of them had vacationed together every single year since they'd been juniors at the University of Louisville. Last year's trip to Bryce Canyon in Utah had been Carrie's pick, and although Erin hated camping out, she'd gone along with the plan. In return, Carrie had promised she'd go along with whatever, although if she'd known it would have involved ghost hunting, she might have amended the agreement.
Her complaints had fallen on deaf ears, and Erin had booked the trip through Marnie's Fantasy Escapes travel agency. Marnie had been thrilled and grateful, which had helped seal the deal, but the real capper had been when Erin had pointed out, quite cleverly, that Carrie could consider this a weeklong research trip. After all, she was a cartoonist who made her living mocking trends and popular culture. If ghost hunting didn't give her enough ideas for her next graphic novel then she should just quit right now and go find herself a job serving fries with that.
"So, I was sound asleep. I mean, I was out like a light. Nothin' could have gotten me up, not after the workday I'd put in. But then I hear this shriek. It was loud. Like, I don't know"
Carrie winced and covered her ears as the guy with the elbow issue screamed at the top of his lungs. It was a girly scream, too, high-pitched and weird as hell and far scarier than any apparition.
"Yeah, like that," he said, as if he hadn't almost shattered the windows.
Carrie noted that the shuttle driver hadn't flinched. The bus hadn't swerved or anything. She guessed working for the "Most Haunted Hotel in the U.S." got one used to the odd scream.
"The weird thing was, the people in the living room, like, I don't know, ten feet away or something? They didn't even hear it. But I had my EMF under my pillow, and it was going crazy. Seriously. All in the red. No shit."
Erin had given her a cheat sheet on the ghost-hunting nomenclature. It was far too lengthy to memorize, but she knew that EMF stood for electromagnetic field, and that Elbow Guy was referring to his meter. Carrie'd had no idea there was so much equipment involved in ghost hunting. EMF meters, ultrasensitive thermometers, night-vision goggles and cameras, and a bunch of other stuff she'd zoned out about. Erin had packed her fair share, but Carrie couldn't complain too much. She'd brought not only her laptop, but also her scanner, a bunch of files and her drawing supplies. Thankfully, the Crider Inn had, as Erin put it, "Wi-Fi up the yin yang."
"I've had three important encounters."
The soft voice came from two rows back, and Carrie turned to see it was the pretty woman who was speaking. She was somewhere in her thirties, which seemed to be the median age, and she defied Carrie's stereotypes by being elegant, fashionable and from her reading materiala heavy-duty philosophy tomeeducated. Not that Erin wasn't all those things, but Carrie had never lumped her in with the vague group she considered ghost-hunting nut-jobs. Anyway, the pretty woman's voice held a hint of somewhere exotic, perhaps Jamaica, that captivated with its quiet strength.
"When I was a child, my old grandfather came to me after his death. He sat on my bed and he talked to me as clearly as I'm speaking to you. He told me not to worry, that he was in a fine, fine place, and that he would watch over me for all the rest of my days. He also told me that I would travel the world, and see many great things, but it was my family I should treasure most."
Elbow Dude started to comment, but Carrie clipped him one in his side because the woman wasn't finished.
"The second experience was many years later, at a small hotel in Florence, Italy. I woke from an afternoon nap to find an old white woman standing near the balcony. She never turned to look at me, so I didn't see her face, but I watched her shoulders rise as she appeared to take a deep breath, and when she let it out, her head bowed. She was gone the next instant."
The woman smiled at Carrie, maybe because she was staring so blatantly. "I keep my third experience private."
Carrie faced front once more, wishing she could be one of them. One of these true believers. They seemed to get much more than spooky scares or thrills from these supposedly haunted places. Take Erin, for instance. Something about her belief in ghosts calmed her. It made her world easier to understand, and despite the utter lack of scientific proof, she had no doubts whatsoever.
Carrie wasn't so lucky. She understood the psychology of belief in the supernatural. Human brains were designed to assign patterns and reason whether or not they exist. Ghosts, aliens, conspiracies or even finding evil messages in rock music were all based on assigning meaning to random things. At least ghost hunting was harmless and had been around since the beginning of large-brained hominids, but it wasn't something she subscribed to, and being around people who were so ferocious in their certainty became wearing after a while.
What she found most bewildering was that in all the years and years of ghost hunting, no one seemed concerned that no matter how hard people looked, and damn, there were industries based on people believing in ghosts, there was no repeatable, verifiable proof. She tried hard to keep her opinions to herself when she was around Erin's friends, but it wasn't always easy.
When she heard intelligent, eloquent people expound on their supernatural experiences she tried not to roll her eyes. Whether she could remain a stoic observer after an intense week of pretending to believe in ghosts and goblins, well, that remained to be seen.
Her gaze went to the window as she let herself fall into the lovely Colorado scenery. She'd make the most of her week, especially spending time with Erin. She was going to miss her friend something terrible.
Another shuttle load of ghost hunters was due to arrive in the next ten minutes, and Sam Crider, current proprietor of the Crider Inn, was ready for them.
Since it was Halloween week and this was the largest and longest convention of ghost aficionados he'd booked since taking over the hotel, he'd gone all out decorating the place. It wasn't hard to give the hotel a spooky ambience. His family had been doing it for generations, ever since the Old Hotel, now condemned but not torn down, had been destroyed by a fire of mysterious origin that had killed a number of his ancestors, who, according to legend, had never checked out.
Personally, he was delighted by this resurgence of ghost hunting and all the television shows that glorified the sport. All the paranormal legends about the Crider property were not only filling his coffers, but they were also a large part of why the hotel and the hundred acres of Crider land were now involved in a bidding war.
Two companies were interested in buying the place. One wanted to exploit the haunted reputation, and the other simply wanted to exploit the land. Sam had no preference as to who won, just so long as the check cleared.
Almost no one who worked for him knew that, of course. All negotiations had been done on the quiet, because a Crider had always owned and run the property and, it was assumed, always would.
He wanted nothing more than to shake the dust of this place off his shoes and get back to his real life. He'd been in the middle of his fifth documentary film when his father had died. Shit, it was ten months ago. The time had gone by in a blur.
He missed the old man. They'd been close. The bond had taken root when Sam was thirteen and his mother had died of breast cancer. It hadn't been strong enough, however, to give Sam a love of the hotel, or a desire to carry on the family tradition. The sale would make it possible for him to continue making films, and no longer on a shoestring budget.
He'd finally have enough money to hire some help, like sound professionals and a full-time assistant. Not to mention the massive upgrade in equipment he'd be able to afford. He could stop thinking local and travel anywhere the stories dictated, film for as long as necessary to get what he needed. He'd have the cash to submit his films to all the important festivals. He'd actually be able to move out of the glorified Brooklyn broom closet he currently called home base.
So ghosts it was, and would be for the next week. Not only to curry favor with the convention people, but also to wow the potential buyers, both of whom were coming to check out the grounds.
That had been a neat trick. As he'd been told by his attorney, his accountant and his real estate broker, no one conducted sales by having the competing parties survey the place at the same time. But Sam had no interest in playing games. Representatives from both companies had already checked out the property, the numbers had been crunched and recrunched, now all that was left was for the CEOs to do a walk-through before actually making bids.
Sam had told the two men that he was having one showing, and that was that. They could take it or leave it. Luckily, they'd both taken it. Turns out they knew each other, had figured they'd both be interested in the place, and were looking forward to seeing each other. But now that it was happening, Sam worried that they'd both say no, and he'd be back to square one.
He surveyed the lobby slowly, trying to see the place with fresh eyes. It wasn't possible. He'd grown up here, had slept in almost every one of the thirty-six guest rooms. He'd eaten in the restaurantgood cooks and badlearned to shoot pool in the small pub. He'd lost his virginity in the Old Hotel, and had his heart broken sitting in front of the big stone fireplace that dominated the lobby.
He'd miss it all, but not tragically. It was just a building, just land, just a view. He'd already made sure that both the buyers were amenable to keeping the permanent staff, so no guilt there. And he'd found a great retirement place in Denver for his Aunt Grace. If there was one fly in the ointment, it was Grace. She'd lived here all her life, residing in the attached apartment that had once been his parents' home.
But she was getting on in years, and she shouldn't live this far away from medical care anyway. He was doing the right thing, for himself, for the employees, and for Grace. He'd sent her off to her friend's home in Miami for a couple of weeks. She'd been happy to go, to be somewhere warm. He just hoped she'd be half as excited to move when it was time.
He heard the door behind him, and turned to find his old friend Jody Reading bringing him a hot beverage and what looked to be a dessert. Jody was an executive chef, a damn fine one, who'd agreed to come in for the week. She would wow the guests with her superb meals and drive them insane with her prize-winning pastries.
"I thought you'd like to try this before the deluge."
He peeked in the mug to find coffeea latte, from the looks of itand a large piece of a layered napoleon, his favorite. "You're ruining me. I'll be a French-pastry junkie and end up living in some alley behind a patisserie."
"As long as it's not my patisserie."
He really shouldn't indulge now, not when the shuttle was due to arrive any minute, but the dessert looked so delicious, he took his plate and the fork and dug in. His moan wasn't particularly manly, but it seemed to please Jody.
"My work here is done," she said. She gave him a friendly swat on the ass, then went back to the kitchen.
Luckily, he was alone, at least for the moment, because he downed the pastry way too fast, which was a crime. But he didn't want to be caught by a guest, and there was a strict rule about eating at the front desk.
Just as he lifted the last forkful to his mouth, the lobby door opened, bringing a gust of cold wind along with eighteen paying guests.
He dropped his fork on the plate, then shoved the plate under a newspaper. He smiled and rang the bell that would bring Patrick from the office. Patrick was the manager of the hotel, and he would handle the registration, while Sam schmoozed.
"You're Sam Crider? The guy who owns the place?"
He nodded at the first person at the desk, Liam O'Connell, one of the conference coordinators.
Liam took the pen and began to fill out his registration card. "Bet you've seen a thing or two."