Were they always unhappy?
The gleaming chandeliers with their exquisite tiers of crystals glittered across the expansive ceiling that seemed to stretch on indefinitely.
“Come on Cassie, what do you think? Not bad.”
He’d had his arm around her holding her close, and he was young. She remembered him young, and vibrant, filled with unabashed enthusiasm.
“It’s beautiful,” she’d said, caught up in that little bubble of happiness that seemed spun so tightly around them. But back then, when her eyes canvassed the lush lobby of the Hotel Mandolin, they didn’t stop. They didn’t hesitate and take in details like the cool icy texture of its arching coffered ceiling overhead, or the quiet dignity of its block long row of golden columns, or the endless stretch of mosaic floor that beckoned visitors inward. Back then, she hadn’t really noticed much of anything. Perhaps that was a special protection of youth. Would anyone really go forward if they truly saw what was there?
“Mom,” Cassie pulled herself out of her distracted musings.
She glanced about, not realizing she’d simply stopped in the middle of the lobby. Everyone else was standing near the elevator, its burnished golden doors gaping open waiting none too patiently. “Sorry,” she murmured just catching Peter Norfleet’s eyes as she stepped through its threshold.
“I don’t know Max. Maybe we shouldn’t be dragging these people into this.”
“You mean Caroline?”
“And Cassandra, I don’t know, doesn’t feel quite right to me.”
“You want me to cancel?” Max responded flatly.
Was that really what he wanted? Peter wandered out through the sliding glass doors onto the balcony of his Julia St. condo. It was late, late the same evening as the get together at Cassie Breslin’s house, and it was gnawing on him that he was somehow opening a can of worms bringing these people into this. He didn’t have the right to insinuate himself into that lovely, serene woman’s life. “Pete, you still there?”
“Yeah, just considering your question.”
He detected some frustration from his usually inordinately patient friend on the other end of the line. “Well, look we’ll make it simple — a quick visit and then let it go, just a quick exploratory visit, no harm.”
Peter considered grimly. How many times had he heard that through the years? No harm, just simple, and then the unseen gunpowder explodes. But then again there was poor Clara and Josh Tyler, grieving for their daughter Janie. It pained him. Strange at what peculiar moments he was reminded he still had a heart, and it still had the capacity to bleed for others. “Right, sorry to call so late. This case, it’s getting to me.”
“There’s a lot of upset here.”
“Yes, the family’s.”
“That’s some of it,” Max replied with no further explanation.
“I don’t understand. There’s nothing here. I mean so many people have been here. There should be something, but not a trace, not a trace of her.”
“How can that be? There must have been strong emotion to drive her to do such a thing.”
She heard the voices but said nothing.
“Try again, just for a bit,” she heard Max say.
“You know, there aren’t always answers. Perhaps you shouldn’t push too hard,” Peter’s voice. What she was feeling was such an odd sensation, as though she were hearing from a distant hollow place like an echo off a cold metal wall.
“Are you all right?” Peter Norfleet’s hand on her arm, it sent a shock right into her skin yanking her back from that strange disconnected place. And he was there in front of her, staring at her with those eyes as though trying to see right inside her. “You look pale,” he said. She glanced around the room. Max and Caroline were sitting on the edge of the queen-sized bed talking to each other quietly, not even audible. But moments before she could hear them quite clearly, although in that strange metallic like tone.
“I’m fine,” Cassie murmured, lying. And glancing again up into his face, she felt quite clearly that he knew it. But he stepped back giving her a quick nod. “Are you picking up anything?” she directed with distraction to Caroline and Max.
“I don’t know,” Caroline said with a tad of exasperation. “It’s strange, as though it’s muffled here.”
Max nodded, “That’s what I sensed, some sort of block.”
Caroline stood up, walking over to her. “Are you feeling anything Mom?”
Cassie felt a bit surprised. Her gifts had never been of the same overt nature as her sister and daughter’s. “I don’t know, just disoriented. Maybe if we could walk through more of the hotel. Whatever is going on here seems a bit broader than this room.”
Max looked at her with a bit of interest then turned to Peter. “Do you mind? It’s worth a shot.”
He nodded, taking out his phone. “I’ll try to get someone up here to show us around.”
Rick Lightner was a tall energetic, sandy haired bellboy that Cassie estimated couldn’t have had much more than a year or two on Jared. He’d arrived at the door of Room 503 with a broad smile and a curious attitude.
“So, Mr. McGinty has sent me up to show you around the Mandolin. I’ll do my best, but I’ve only actually been working here a few months, between semesters at the University or rather taking a brief break,” he rambled on. He was animated, smiling broadly at them the whole time he rattled off his discourse. “So where would you all like to start?”
It was disconcerting that Rick Lightner had so effectively filled up the silent room with noise. Cassie had failed to realize that it had been indeed silent, and actually quite awkward. Caroline, leaning against Max and looking a bit pale, said in a very low voice, “Mom?”
Oh right, this was her idea, and at the moment it seemed she was leading the charge.
“The kitchens,” she said flatly, having no idea where that idea had come from.
Max’s eyes widened a bit, “Really?”
And then Peter was beside her, “Yes, is that a problem Mr. Lightner?”
“Well, I suppose not,” he muttered a bit, “if I can remember how to get there.”
“Can we take the stairs?” Cassie blurted out again. Why exactly she wasn’t sure, but it felt as though something was filtering in.
“The stairs?” Rick repeated. “That’s the long way, but sure let’s give it a try,” he said light heartedly. But all Cassie could feel were all the eyes on her questioning her rather unorthodox choices.
“What’s going on?” Caroline whispered as they walked through one of the spacious kitchens tucked away on the ground floor of the hotel.
They were all a bit out of breath having descended five flights of stairs, but there had been something about the staircase — its dark golden carpet and heavy oak banister and balusters. Looking down into the stair well as they descended had sent her mind into a dizzying sort of vertigo so much that Peter Norfleet had caught her arm several times to steady her.
And now, here they were in the midst of this tremendous cold, largely white room and this too felt just eerie. Cassie could feel an anxiety wrapping around her. The ceiling was impossibly high and even filled with its staff the space engulfed them, its ceramic floor echoing with their footfalls. “I don’t know. I’m just feeling confused. Are you picking up anything?” she muttered trying to deflect the focus from herself.
Caroline looked at her with wide green eyes that reminded her so much of Elise. “No, just a headache. I feel totally blocked here.” Behind them following closely were Max and Peter, occasionally murmuring to each other but largely silent.
The skin on the back of Cassie’s neck prickled, somewhere between irritation and awareness. And then there were the whispers, light feathery rushes around her ears. She couldn’t be sure if they were real or if she was developing some inner ear infection that she had been oblivious to. All of it felt confusing. Many times, she’d begun to mention it, and then she stopped herself, feeling foolish.
Rick Lightner had stopped a bit abruptly in front of a mammoth sized, stainless steel gleaming stove, whirling around with a bit of flair. “Well folks not much more to see here. Just a kitchen, a big one yes but not much to recommend it,” he laughed congenially.
“Aren’t there tunnels?” Cassie murmured. Once again, she really hadn’t meant to say that.
Rick looked at her a bit like she’d certainly lost her mind. “Tunnels, tunnels in the kitchen?”
“Yeah Lightner, right on the other side of you.” A tall ebony-skinned man dressed in white that Cassie suspected was one of the chefs had wandered up behind them.
“Oh, sorry folks this is Joseph Montez, one of the assistant cooks here. And what were you saying, there are tunnels?”
“Yes,” he chuckled openly at Lightner. “The Hotel Mandolin was designed with them — tunnels running throughout the building, connecting all the major areas. Just through those doors,” he gestured.
Caroline tugged on her arm. “How did you know that Mom?” and then her eyes met Peter Norfleet’s. He was looking at her with an expression that told her that she was now definitely the focus of his interest.
“So, these tunnels? You’d like to see them?” Rick Lightner inquired a bit dubiously.
“Yes,” Max answered before anyone else spoke.
The mix had shifted a bit and when exactly, she didn’t know. But Lightner was leading the group, followed by Max and Caroline and Cassie and Peter Norfleet rounding out the party. She’d smiled at Peter once, but predominantly there were no words between them. A tension had settled amongst them all, and Cassie didn’t have the energy to make small talk. She was too busy being overwhelmed by what she was feeling. The tunnel out of the kitchen was dubious at best. The floor was granite. The walls were regular sheetrock with a coat of gray paint that she suspected by the smell had been done rather recently, and of course, there was that rather musty scent of a place that was old in its construction. The ceiling wasn’t particularly high but lined with pipes overhead. It took a path that seemed to snake behind the kitchen. It led at one juncture onto a rather rudimentary set of stairs then a narrow doorway heading to yet another flight of granite steps that Cassie swore ascended through several floors.
She breathed in deeply, steadying herself as they continued to climb. There was no banister to grab, just the narrow flight of stairs. Beside her, Peter murmured again, “Are you all right?” That seemed to be his purpose today, periodically checking on her well-being. She wondered distractedly how dreadful she must look to inspire such concern.
“Yes, I’m not overly found of such closed in spaces,” she murmured.
“Any idea where we’re headed?” Max directed toward their guide.
“None whatsoever, quite the adventure,” Lightner spat out jollily. And then they’d stopped at the top on a flat landing, no larger than three feet by three feet. Most of their group was still caught behind on the narrow granite stairs. “Ah here we go,” And with a bit of force, Rick Lightner pushed through what appeared to be another doorway, allowing light to flood into the dimness of the narrow tunnel space.
Their group walked forward into the light — an ornate, gleaming, tremendous and empty room. Looking straight up, Cassie noted a stylized vaulted ceiling at least twenty feet high set off by half a dozen massive crystal chandeliers of unbelievably detailed workmanship. And all of it was accented by an intricate looking Grecian trim. “Ah the ballroom,” Lightner muttered.
Her head was spinning emerging from such a confined space into the grandiose opulence and sheer massiveness of what was around her. But then she noticed Caroline separating from the group, wandering into the center of the room. “I know this. Don’t you remember?” she said to Max.
“Yes,” he answered with a concerned edge in his voice.
And then unexpectedly, Caroline suddenly put her hands over her eyes. “It’s too much,” she said in a panicked voice.
And Max was beside her, his arm around her. “I’m sorry, we have to leave.” He said, already moving with Caroline to the hotel’s main entrance to the ballroom.
“Yes, let’s go,” Cassie responded with concern, but behind her in the open doorway she continued to hear the soft whisper compelling her to stay.
Copyright © 2019 by Evelyn Klebert