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Читать онлайн Dansk Bay Hotel. Cornachione Matthew.

Matthew Cornachione

with Adam Cornachione

DANSK BAY HOTEL

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Acknowledgments

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This work has been a wonderful collaboration. Story concept and ideas were developed with extensive help from Adam Cornachione, Kristen Cornachione, and Allie Cornachione. Thank you to my creative family. A special thanks goes out to my wonderful wife Kristen, who not only helped with the work, but encouraged me along the way.

This piece has also benefitted immensely from reader reviews. Another thank you to Harriet Cornachione, Brian Joy, and Hollie Richards.

Lastly, I owe a big thanks to Jake Clark for a fantastic cover design.

Chapter 1

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The conductor’s voice rang out over the loudspeakers. “Dansk Bay. Last stop.”

Last stop? It’s supposed to be “end of the line!” Seriously, don’t these conductors watch any movies?

Well, maybe not out here in rural Alaska. If Dansk Bay’s Hotel turned out to be a good buy we’d have to work on the intro. Much better for the tourists.

Brakes shrieked as the massive train slowed. I swayed side to side until we finally came to a stop. Hopping up, I grabbed my overnight bag from the rack. No one else was in the passenger car—looked like this wasn’t a hot spot. Now it was my job to make it one.

I stepped onto the platform, my travel bag slung over my shoulder. The station was small, but nice. Newly poured concrete, polished wood benches, and a metal canopy greeted me. They even had a set of heaters for the winter. No office building, just an automated ticket kiosk, but a new one. Not bad.

Behind me the conductor leaned out of the engine window, watching me depart. I politely nodded his way. He politely spit onto the ground and continued chewing his tobacco.

Once I stepped off the platform, he pulled his head inside. The engine throttled up and the train lumbered back toward Anchorage, off to pick up folks from a host of other small towns.

Dust stirred, disturbed by the passage of the bulky train. I watched as floating particles glittered in the midday sun. A beautiful introduction to Dansk Bay.

Unfortunately, the beauty ended there.

Behind the thin veil of dust stood a… a market maybe? It was little more than the shell of an ancient mobile home. I mean ancient. Loose siding, sagging roof, front door missing. Well, not technically missing, just sitting off its hinges next to a gaping opening. If it wasn’t for a tattered banner advertising “Cheap Smokes,” I wouldn’t have identified the structure as a store.

Part of checking out a prospective hotel is getting to know the town, no matter how shabby. Normally I check out the first stop I can find, but this one dictated a change to protocol. I’d walk out infected with a bout of the plague, but only if the roof didn’t collapse on me first. Besides, it looked abandoned.

As I continued past, the market proved me wrong on that last count. A teenager in a torn shirt stepped into the empty doorway. Untidy waist-length hair obscured her face. Only her eyes peeked through, staring into mine. She made no effort to signal me, so I waved. Instead of waving back, the girl ducked out of sight.

Um, okay. Moving on.

Off to the right, I spotted a narrow, but paved, road. Looked like the only way to town. Time to see if the rest of Dansk Bay favored the train station or the derelict market.

The asphalt wound through some scrub then sloped downhill. The brush cleared, giving me my first view of the town. Immediately, I spotted the Dansk Bay Hotel, and, just as immediately, I picked my winner.

Score one for the market.

Where to start? I wasn’t sure Dansk Bay could even be classified as a town. It had but a single intersection where my little road ran into an equally tiny cross street. To the side huddled a small smattering of buildings, including several more mobile homes. On the bay was a pathetic marina with a mere three weathered docks and a couple rusty boats.

As bad as the town was, the hotel was worse. It sat to the left of town, a drab concrete tower, all blocky angles and no imagination. An absolute monstrosity.

My job wasn’t going to be easy. Maybe Regina had finally lost her touch.

Regina, my boss, was the reason I was here. She had a knack for seeking out hidden gems, finding those properties that none of the others in the travel industry could. I’d lost count of how many junk heaps she’d converted into profitable hotels. The Dansk Bay Hotel was supposed to become the latest in that long list.

This one came with an added bonus. Alaskan Adventures had announced a new cruise line passing directly through Dansk Bay. A freshly renovated hotel would serve as a welcome stop for the tourists. The ships would ensure that we had a steady supply of visitors, at least in the summer.

Of course, that only worked if the tourists had a reason to come to town. Right now, I wasn’t seeing much.

Dansk Bay’s sole redeeming quality was the ocean. Sunlight reflected off its rolling surface. Mountainous islands covered in evergreens rose from the waters. A few specks moved lazily across the bay, probably the fishing boats that provided this town’s only revenue. If you cropped out the town in the foreground, you had a classic Alaskan picture.

That would play great on the brochures. I could see why they were sending a cruise liner up here. Problem was, I had to find a way to convince them to stop overnight.

Looking closer, I saw that the hotel was situated atop a short but steep cliff over the bay. Waves lapped against the rocks below, sending up sprays of mist. Perhaps there was some hope yet. The view from the oceanside rooms would be fantastic.

In any case, I had to do my job. Nice destination or not, my plan didn’t change. One: scope out the property and ensure that no nasty surprises awaited. Two: meet with the owner, in this case a man named Nigel Nekker, and negotiate terms of sale. Regina would have final say, of course, but I was the man who got it all started. Someone needed a firsthand look.

Still, as I gazed over the hotel’s weather-stained concrete, I couldn’t help but worry what mess awaited inside.

Chapter 2

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A few minutes later, I stood at the central crossroad, the thriving center of Dansk Bay. To my left was a post office, and to the right a log cabin trading post. Not a mini-market, an honest-to-goodness trading post. That was actually cool.

Across the road, Main Street, was the sheriff’s office and a restaurant. Okay, a diner would be more accurate. “LUCY’S” hung in faded letters over the entrance. The building was yet another mobile home, albeit in better repair than the gas station shack.

Standing here, I realized how out of place I was in Dansk Bay. My look, khaki slacks and a blue button up shirt, no tie, was already relaxed by my normal standards. Here though, it was several tiers above anything I might encounter. At least, I’d packed a pair of jeans and a polo in my overnight bag. That would fit in better. Too bad I hadn’t brought a sturdy pair of cowboy boots. My Oxfords would have to survive the next two days. That was okay. I preferred to be overdressed than under. People respected nice clothes.

After one last scan of the side roads, I decided to try my luck at Lucy’s. I crossed Main, instinctively checking for traffic, though there didn’t seem to be any cars around. The intersection didn’t even have a stop sign. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, the only way into town was by train or boat. Everyone must walk around here.

As I approached the door, I checked the place over. It wasn’t like the small-town diners I was used to. There was no neon “Open” sign, no menu, no flyers for local events. Just a set of dingy windows. But, there was movement inside.

I opened the door and stepped in. The familiar scent of burgers and fries wafted to my nostrils. My stomach rumbled in response; I hadn’t eaten since I’d gotten off the plane in Anchorage.

The interior decor was nicer than I’d expected. A few small, but clean, tables lined the walls. Scenes of trees, mountains, and oceans adorned the wall. The diner’s back half was blocked off, presumably for the kitchen. A little face-lift and this would be a nice place for tourists.

A small podium with a modern cash register stood by the door. There was no sign indicating whether to seat myself, so I waited for the waitress. She was at the far end of the diner serving a steaming plate to the only other patron, a burly man with a rocking beard.

After dropping off the meal, the waitress turned and walked my way. I could tell for sure she wasn’t the original Lucy. The girl was young, maybe 19, lean, cute. Reminded me of Lena, before the incident.

Ugh, why was that coming back to mind now? I pushed the errant thought away and gave the waitress my most charming smile.

As soon as she spotted me her eyes widened. She put her head down and turned off to the side, disappearing through a set of saloon doors.

Huh. That was the second girl to take off running. What was with these people? Hard to say, but it looked like we’d have to get a team in here for hospitality training. A very skilled team. I’d never seen servers abandon customers. How hard is it to show someone to a seat and ask, “Would you like anything to drink?”

I eyed the man, the only other diner present. He didn’t look up from his plate, but I figured he wasn’t going anywhere soon. The waitress had scurried off, but I could corner him.

I sauntered over toward his table, sizing him up as I approached. His thick beard reached to his chest. I’d call it a hipster look back in San Francisco but on this guy it looked genuine. With his torn flannel jacket and faded army-green cap, I’d be more likely to label him homeless than hipster. He was old too, skin weathered and wrinkled. A man who’d lived a full life.

“She always like that?” I asked casually, standing across the table from him.

He took a big bite of his burger without acknowledging me.

“Excuse me, sir? Sir?”

Nothing. My irritation got the better of me. “SIR!” I said and slapped the table, making the salt and pepper jump.

That got his attention. He gazed up, and I realized I’d grossly misjudged his age. His skin was worn, but his eyes shone with vibrancy. At most, this man was in his mid-forties, although those forty odd years had clearly been rough ones.

“Seems a man ought to be able to enjoy his lunch in peace.” His tone was unusually calm.

“Um, I just have a few questions about…”

“Everybody’s got questions. Only thing I know for sure is I ain’t got no answers.”

He looked back down to his plate. Most people in these small towns love to tell you all about how great their little slice of heaven is. This guy wasn’t even going to tell me his name.

I wanted to slap the table again, but stopped myself. Shaking my head, I backed away. He was a lost cause, and I knew it.

So back to plan A: the waitress. I sat at the table across from the saloon doors. After a few minutes, my patience was rewarded. The doors swung open, and she reemerged. She hustled past me, carrying a steaming carafe down to refill the man’s coffee. The two conferred for a few moments. The man gestured my way, and the waitress looked over, averting her gaze once she saw I was watching. She snatched up the carafe and strode back to the saloon doors, eyes fixed toward the floor.

And so, she nearly ran straight into me when I slipped up from my chair and stood in the aisle.

At the last instant, she jerked to a halt, coffee sloshing onto the linoleum. Her eyes peered up at me, fearful. What did she think I was going to do?

“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said courteously as I could muster. “Kyle Ressler, with Touravista. I was hoping I might see a menu.”

“Um, you shouldn’t be here.” She glanced around, as if nervous that someone might be watching. The man didn’t seem perturbed.

“Well, it is a restaurant, isn’t it? I’d like to eat.”

“I don’t mean the restaurant. I mean the town.”

“Oh, is there some reason why?”

She hesitated. Again, she glanced over her shoulder, this time at the bearded man. Then she leaned in close and whispered.

“Help us.”

“With what?” I whispered back.

“With, well, with him. ”

“That guy?” I pointed toward the other patron.

She batted my arm down, but not before the bearded man saw it. He stood up and walked our way.

“No, I mean the… the withered one. He won’t let anyone…”

“Now there. Let’s not be scarin’ this fellow.” The bearded man interrupted.

The waitress hung her head and backed away. Her shoulders slumped in defeat.

“Sorry ’bout that. Folks here are superstitious. Keeps life fun, but nothin’ you need trouble yourself with.”

Superstitious was an understatement; that poor girl was downright paranoid. She reminded me more of Lena than ever. Except Lena couldn’t even share her fears anymore.

“Oh, it’s no trouble. I love to hear all about local folklore. Perhaps you could fill me in.”

“Ha! Son, what did I tell you earlier? I ain’t got no answers. All I can say is you’d do well to keep your stay short. Now, come on. You’d best get moving.”

He put his hand on my back, firmly ushering me toward the door. I let myself be guided away; no sense tangling with this guy.

“Another time then,” I said.

“No, I don’t think so.”

I reached the door and stepped outside. I hoped he’d follow, and then I could double back to question the waitress. Instead he let the door swing closed behind me and stayed inside, hidden behind the grimy panes.

“Wait. Where can I get some food?”

Chapter 3

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A bell rung as I walked into the trading post. I didn’t see anyone, which at least meant I wasn’t going to get kicked out right away. The store was small, and arranged like a gas station mini-mart. To the left, were shelves of various equipment, household goods, and all that; to the right, food. I went right.

In the back of the store, a door opened. The shopkeeper emerged from behind the gardening section. To my surprise, she was a true Alaskan native. She even wore a hide jacket, though blue jeans and boots made it clear she was steeped in American culture. She was old, white hair atop a weathered face, but she moved with grace.

“Welcome. How may I help you?”

“What?”

Oops. Had Lucy’s thrown me so much that a friendly greeting surprised me? I recovered quickly and continued more intelligently.

“I meant to say, I’m looking for something for lunch.”

“You’ve come to the right place.” The shopkeeper smiled. “I can set you up with a delicious meal. Do you cook? Have a microwave?”

“Actually, I’m hoping for something more immediate.”

“Of course. Right this way.”

She navigated the aisles with practiced ease and brought me to a small fridge filled with wrapped sandwiches. Her fingers hovered above them, moving back and forth before she snatched one out and handed it to me. Roast beef, my favorite. Nice.

“Made these myself this morning. It’s better than anything you’ll get at Lucy’s.” She cracked a wide smile.

I chuckled. I liked this woman.

“Do you happen to have any fresh fruit?”

“Of course.” She gestured to a basket to her left.

I grabbed an apple and followed her to the front.

As she rung me up at the register, I fell back into my familiar rhythm of information gathering. “So you’re an Alaska Native, right? You must have been here awhile.”

She raised her eyebrows. “What are you after?”

“Pardon?”

“Folks don’t come to Dansk Bay by accident, especially not your type. No need to be clever with me.”

“Okay, fair enough. I’m here looking into the hotel.”

“Ah, of course.” Her face tightened. “I’ll save you some trouble. Forget about your business and get out of town.”

Nicer than the bearded man, but still the same in the end. “I appreciate the advice, um… What’s your name anyway?”

“Thea.”

“Thea, my name is Kyle. I didn’t expect your name to be so… American.”

Thea laughed. “My real name is a mouthful. Too long for the simple folks around here.”

I laughed with her. Too true. “Well, Thea, I’ll admit I haven’t had a great impression Dansk Bay so far, but I owe it to my boss to check out this hotel. I’ll be moving on soon, so no one need worry. Why is everyone so eager to have me gone?”

A brief frown passed across Thea’s face, but she smoothed it quickly. “Just not a place you want to get stuck in. Outsiders cause more harm than good, usually to themselves.”

I sensed that Thea knew much more, but even she wasn’t eager to talk. I didn’t want to push too hard, but I needed more. There was something going on here, something I didn’t yet understand.

“But what about the hotel? Was it popular during its heyday?”

“It’s not a hotel,” said Thea. “It’s the home of an evil spirit. Stay in town if you must, but don’t go near that place. Not if you know what’s good for you.”

Looked like Thea carried some superstition herself. Normally, I would have brushed a comment like that aside, but after the waitress’s plea for help, I had to know more.

“Does this have something to do with the withered one?”

“Where did you hear that?”

I smiled. “I keep my ears open. So who is this guy? What’s his problem?”

“He’s not a man. Not anymore. I don’t know his spirit’s intentions, but I know his actions have only brought pain to Dansk Bay.”

Uh huh. Thea and the waitress were both sounding a little crazy. Maybe the problem here was worse than I thought. Hospitality training only went so far if there were rampant mental health issues.

“Okay, then, answer me this. If this town is so bad, why don’t you just leave?”

Thea leveled her gaze at me. “Someone has to stand up to it.”

With that Thea looked down and rang up my purchase.

“That’ll be $12.47,” she said in a businesslike tone.

For what I’d just bought, that price amounted to robbery, but hey, Touravista was buying. And, her information was good, if weird. I handed over my credit card.

“Thanks for the food and the advice. I’ll keep it in mind.”

Thea shook her head; I could tell she wasn’t fooled. But, that didn’t matter. After everything I’d just heard, I knew where I had to go next. The Dansk Bay Hotel.

Chapter 4

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Looming a few hundred yards down the street was the Dansk Bay Hotel. Foreboding, yes, but the home of an evil spirit? Doubtful. Still, the hotel looked completely neglected. I knew full well that unsavory things could happen in an abandoned building. I needed to find out whether this superstition thing would cause problems if we bought the place.

I walked down Main Street, still lugging my travel bag. The road was pretty much empty once I passed Lucy’s. No aloof people, no trashy buildings. Peaceful.

To the left, I spotted a bench in what appeared to be a park and made a quick pit stop. Best to explore evil hotels on a full stomach. I stepped across the cobblestones, sat down, and pulled out my goodies from the trading post.

Mm, Thea wasn’t fooling; the sandwich was good. Much better than the travel plaza fare along the interstates back in the lower 48.

As I munched, I glanced around the park. There was no open grass, just a few neatly groomed bushes planted in a semicircle around an American flag. In front of the flag was a golden plaque mounted atop a polished black marble. Curious, I sauntered over. The plaque read:

This monument is dedicated to the men and women who lost their lives in service to their country in the Second World War. Thanks to their brave service, Japanese forces were barred from Alaska and unable to threaten our country. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten.

Huh. Not a park. A WWII memorial. I hadn’t realized that Alaska had been involved at all in the war. I suppose it made some sense; they were on the coast nearest to Japan. Still, I was surprised, especially at the long list of names engraved on the rock below. There had to be at least fifty servicemen, probably close to the entire population of Dansk Bay today. Maybe this town had been thriving before the war.

That could explain some of Dansk Bay’s attitude. If Japanese invaders cost the town most of their youth, that would account for the survivors’ mistrust. Personally, I think you’ve got to move on eventually, but plenty of people held grudges to their deathbed. It was rare, of course, for a whole town to do it, but Dansk Bay was small enough that such resentment was possible.

Oddly enough, that made me feel a little better. There wasn’t any overt evil here, just lingering fear. These people had been through hardship; I could sympathize with that. Still, it didn’t explain why the waitress and Thea were scared of a withered spirit. Then again, I’d heard crazier stories.

Once my lunch was finished, I left the memorial behind. It was all of a minute to reach the cutoff road to the hotel. The drive was about fifty yards long and ran up a small rise to the foundation. As I paced the distance, I imagined an ornate sign advertising a luxury hotel. That would look better than fractured pavement littered with debris.

My imagination had to stretch a little more once I crested the rise. Up close, the hotel was abysmal. Well, even more abysmal. Broken glass littered the ground beneath empty windows. Rusted rebar showed where chunks of concrete had broken away. Thick scrub brush grew from patches of unattended earth. Regina had her work cut out for her; this place was a long way from habitable, let alone marketable.

I left my bags behind and picked my way across the small parking lot, stepping over weed-choked cracks. The hotel was built in a U-shape, the two prongs pointing toward the front. They framed an unkempt courtyard, replete with a walkway to the entrance. I took the path, shaking my head as I saw the industrial style doors, dented and rusty.

The doors were barred from the outside, a thick chain and padlock holding them closed. Despite myself, I pulled on a door handle, hoping the chain would magically part. The hinges protested at my efforts, squeaking as the door inched outward. Then the chain pulled taught, holding the doors closed.

Damn, I really wanted to scope out the inside. I eyed one of the empty windows. Shards of broken glass framing the pane dissuaded me from crawling through the hole. I’d rather not catch tetanus. The nearest hospital was way too far away.

Instead, I circled around the hotel, passing out of the courtyard and along one of the side walls. If this hotel was like every other building there should be… yes! There was the back door, also rusted metal. Unlike the front door, however, this one stood open a few inches. I had my entryway.

Careful, I pulled the door fully open, cringing as the screech of metal echoed through the interior. No one, man or spirit, came running out so I figured I was okay to proceed. I glanced inside, but couldn’t see much. None of the windows opened directly into the hallway, although a few rays spilled through from the rooms.

I slipped inside, waiting for my eyes to adjust. The interior was every bit as depressing as the outside, concrete walls, floors, and ceiling. A lot of gray. Dust and concrete chips littered the floor, but it was clear enough to walk. I took a few steps and glanced into the first room.

…And, realized right away we had a deal breaker: no bathroom. The room was an open square.

Floor could be carpeted, walls painted. Even a dingy place like this could easily look nice. Plumbing, on the other hand, especially through concrete, was expensive. Unfortunately we’d have no choice; high-end customers would not share a hallway bathroom. Even if we got this hotel for free, I wondered if we’d ever recover our investment.

I sighed, but I couldn’t stop yet. Might as well give the rest a quick scan. I picked my way down the hall to the lobby. Yet another disappointment. It was cramped, lacking room for a reception desk or continental breakfast. We’d have to tear down some walls. This place was a far cry from being a suitable hotel.

Indeed, I marveled that this dump had ever housed guests. I’d been through a lot of old hotels in my career, but none had been this sorry. Maybe Alaskans from a few decades back hadn’t known any better. But, really, this was dismal.

As I tried to estimate costs, I felt a chill that had nothing to do with finances. I spun around. Had I heard something? Was someone else here?

My heart started pounding. Damn superstition, now it had me nervous. I crept down hall, toward where I thought I’d heard a noise. I reached the corner and peered around. There was nothing but deep blackness down that way.

Immediately my mind went back to that night with Lena, that tunnel under old city Boston. The last night she’d been able to speak.

I pushed the memory down again. I couldn’t afford to invite that  terror in right now.

Still wary, I stood, listening and watching. I thought I made out a glint of metal, maybe a heavy door in the back corner. Before I could get closer, the noise came again. It was a distinct hiss, as if steam was escaping a vent. Was that a little puff of gas?

No, it was a faint cloud hanging in the dark. It drifted closer, carried on some invisible current. As it passed into a beam of light, I swore I made out the faint outline of a wizened face. It was glaring at me.

The withered one.

I stumbled away, took off down the hall, out the back door, and kept running.

Chapter 5

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“Excellent!” said Regina.

My boss was crazy, but at this point I wondered if I was, too.

“What do you mean ‘excellent?’ This place is… it’s a bust.”

“One man’s problems are my opportunity. Now is hardly the time to give up. You haven’t even talked terms with Nekker.”

“I know, but this is the worst hotel I’ve ever seen. This isn’t just a little face-lift job. We’re talking structural work, plumbing…” Not to mention evil spirits. Of course I couldn’t say that. I didn’t want to sound like a lunatic.

“Look, this isn’t the first time we’ve had to do some serious work.”

Regina was right about that, but, damn it, I wanted her to give me permission to get the hell out of town. All the weird superstition here had me unsettled.

“You haven’t seen the place. You’ve got to trust me on this. The work is major stuff. I don’t know if a few cruise liners are going to keep enough money coming in. It’s not worth the cost.”

“Leave that decision to me. We don’t even know the price. That’s why you’re there—secure the best deal possible. With all those defects we’ll get this place for next to nothing. Guarantee Nekker knows how little the thing is worth. He’s assured me he is quite eager to get rid of the hotel.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll talk him down. But, I’m telling you, even if he gave us this thing for free, which he might, it’s a bad buy. This place is just… weird. Tourists aren’t going to want to stop here.”

“Okay, I get it: You’ve got a bad feeling. Noted. But, finish the job. Talk to Nekker and let me know what he says. And, send a few photos too. If it’s that bad, prove it.”

Damn. She wasn’t going to be swayed. I don’t know why I would have expected differently.

“Fine. I’ll get in touch after the meeting.”

“I’ll look forward to it.” Regina hung up.

I set my phone down on the park bench and looked up to the sky. Regina was all business, as usual. I glared at the phone, but inside I knew the talk had been good for me. It was easy to let my imagination get carried away, isolated as I was. A touch of reality helped. There was noth


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ing amiss in Dansk Bay, only frightened people and a dark hotel.

My own past didn’t help. This wasn’t my first weird encounter. In that tunnel with Lena, oh so many years ago, I’d seen a similar white cloud. I’d pretended otherwise, but deep down I always thought it had been a ghost. Maybe a part of me wanted to see a ghost again, to make it real. To excuse what I had done.

But, I couldn’t afford to dwell on that now. Regina was right; I had a job to do. It wasn’t like me to walk out in the middle of a negotiation. I could get to my meeting, get an offer, then get out of town.

The meeting! I checked my watch. Shit, it was in fifteen minutes; I had to hustle.

I had looked up a map online, but I couldn’t get Wi-Fi on my phone to find it again. Fortunately, Dansk Bay was a small town and I knew that Nekker was on the ocean. He couldn’t be hard to find.

I wound back past Lucy’s, and headed toward the bay. Dark clouds gathered over the ocean. Looked like a storm was about to roll in. I kept up my brisk pace.

Along the bay front, I saw a two-story log cabin with a faded restaurant sign, a pretty cool place. A handful of boarded up shops lined the ocean drive, none of which were built from a mobile home base. This place could be revived for tourists in a heartbeat. That restored some of my hope.

At the end of the road was a warehouse, lights on inside. That had to be the place. Nekker ran the fishing industry in town. It was small as far as commercial fishing was concerned, but it was the only real source of wealth here.

As I neared the warehouse, a young man emerged. Like the rest of this town, he looked grungy, his blond hair almost brown with dirt. The only difference was the energy in his step. His blue eyes met with mine, then he angled away. I almost let him go, but I was done with these people’s avoidance tactics.

“Excuse me,” I called. “Do you know where I might find Mr. Nekker’s office?”

He stopped. Like the waitress, he glanced around before speaking.

“What you want?”

“He and I have business to discuss. The hotel.”

“Whoa, he told me it was all okay.” The man started to back away.

“What was all okay?”

“Um, nothing?”

“Come on, you can tell me.”

He shook his head. “Boss is upstairs. Take it up with him and leave me alone.”

Before I could say anything else he hurried out onto the docks. I watched him run past a worn out old ship to a newer vessel at the end. Yet another person freaking out about the hotel. That man seemed worried about something other than spirits though.

I pushed through the front door into a reception area. A vacant desk greeted me. Off to one side were a couple folding chairs bracketing a ficus on the brink of death. A double-wide door to the left obviously opened into the main warehouse floor. Next to it was a stairwell.

I assumed Nekker’s office was upstairs and climbed the steps. At the top was a narrow corridor with full-height windows overlooking the warehouse. The place was virtually empty. It didn’t look like they were moving many fish through here. Maybe they’d just sent out a shipment. More likely business was going poorly. One guess why Nekker was selling off the hotel.

To the right were three doors. I walked past the first two, which hung open on empty offices. At the third door I found an engraved nameplate. Nigel Nekker. 

Three crisp knocks on the door started someone stirring inside. A gentle voice called out, “Please come in.”

With a deep breath, I braced myself for the negotiation and stepped into the room. What I saw inside shocked me.

Chapter 6

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Dansk Bay was a worn-down town, a place making the best of a bad lot.

Nekker’s office was the picture of opulence.

Ornate lamps lined the walls, their light reflecting off the polished marble floor. Paintings of fishermen fighting a marlin, ships sailing into the sunset, and salmon swimming upstream adorned the walls. Bookshelves filled with commercial fishing tomes sat along the back of the room.

In the center of it all was an oaken desk, styled with carvings of whales. Atop it rested an enormous pair of modern computer monitors along with a phone and other typical office fixings. Two plush guest chairs faced the desk. The rest of the room was empty, but immaculately clean.

Frankly, I was amazed. Business must be better than I thought.

Or, it had been once.

Nekker himself stood behind the desk. Like the room, he projected elegance. His hair was neatly groomed, face clean-shaven, and he was dressed in a three-piece suit. Aging and a little overweight, but still vibrant. As soon as he saw me, a smile blossomed on his face, and he stepped around the desk, hand extended.

“You must be Kyle Ressler. Pleasure to meet you.” That was a heavy accent. German? Dutch maybe?

“The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Nekker,” I said as we shook hands. Though he was short of stature, his grip was strong.

“Nonsense, and call me Nigel. Please, have a seat.” He gestured toward the guest chairs.

Nothing creepy about this man. Just the usual bullshit flattery. I loved it. Despite myself, I relaxed into my routine. “Of course. Thank you, Nigel. And, please, call me Kyle.”

I took my seat, and Nigel moved back around the desk to his own chair. “So, Kyle, I see someone is finally interested in purchasing my lovely hotel. Perhaps it can now be returned to its former glory.”

“Former glory? So, you owned it when it was operational?”

“Alas not. I bought it when I came here ten years ago, hoping I would find an opportunity to use it. I have not, and the beauty rests, abandoned. Perhaps you can do what I could not.”

“Well, yes, that is our hope,” I said. “We at Touravista would love to be the ones to restore the, um, beauty.”

“Excellent! I see you truly appreciate her potential. Easy to see, then, that you will buy her for what she is worth.”

Wow, Nekker liked to get to the point. Eager as I was to set the price and get out of town, that was a huge red flag. I needed to know more. How had the hotel fallen so far?

“The question of what any hotel is worth is a difficult one to answer,” I said. “Tell me a little of the history. A building so unique must have quite a story.”

“Indeed. The hotel, she is almost as old as this town. She has watched over us for decades. Dansk Bay would not be the same without her.”

“I can imagine not, but right now, that place isn’t doing any good for anyone. How much business did it used to do? What kind of clientèle did it attract?”

“All before my time, I’m afraid. I do know that she has stood proud since I’ve owned her. She’d be a fine purchase, dear Kyle.”

We were going in circles. This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered resistance; it always  meant that there was something to hide. Nekker knew exactly how awful the hotel was. But was he covering up anything else?

I’d just have to press harder.

“I can’t that I agree. Everyone in town has told me to get the hell out. Even your worker down there got upset when I asked him.”

“Ah, but that is just Lucas. He is very sensitive.”

“Lucas?”

“He’s the hired hand. The Captain always needs extra help in the summer. The young lads who come in, well, they can’t always afford a home. I look the other way when they stay in the hotel. It is good that she can still serve.”

The man was living in the hotel ? I wouldn’t do that if someone paid me.

“Ah. Well, that’s going to have to stop if we can come to any deal.”

“Bah.” Nekker waved a dismissive hand. “I will be sure to have the lad removed. You can count on it.”

“Okay, I’ll trust you, but I still need to know something about the hotel’s potential. If you don’t know the full history, at least give me the records you have. I need to review them before I’ll talk price.”

“Records? She has stood empty for a decade. There is nothing to record.”

“You’ve got nothing? No permits, licenses, repair receipts, floor plans? You must at least have the title.”

“Mm, I did once, but so much has happened since then. It is lost to time.”

Oh, thank you, Nigel. That was just the out I needed.

“Well, that’s it, then,” I said, standing up. “If you don’t have the title, we can’t do business. Touravista will only work with someone who has a legitimate claim to their property.”

“Oh, dear, um… Well, it must be that there is a record of it somewhere. I will call my associates; they will find it. Too late today, of course, but I am certain I can have it for you tomorrow.”

I eyed Nekker carefully. Sweat beaded on his forehead, highlighting a receding hairline. He wiped his pudgy hands on the front of his shirt. The man came across as borderline incompetent, but from the look of his office, he did some things right.

No, I suspected the truth was much harsher. I’d met businessmen like Nekker before, men who cut every corner possible to maximize their personal haul. Up here, isolated, he was unchecked, able to do whatever he wished without scrutiny. But, what was he hiding?

I didn’t know yet, but I was more certain than ever that there was something wrong with the hotel. Likely the seed of the local superstition. Nekker wouldn’t share his secret outright, but that didn’t matter. I had the upper hand in this negotiation, especially since I was more than happy to walk. I pressed harder.

“That’s your last chance to give me something solid. I don’t care what you have to do. Call your agent at home. Either way, I’m out of town on the next train tonight. You have until then.”

“I understand your concern. But, Kyle, I cannot disturb my agent at home. That is not good for business. Please, wait until tomorrow. You will see that everything is in order. My hotel is a good purchase.”

I eyed him. His eyes darted, his hands fidgeted. He was definitely worried. But, his back held tall, rigid. Despite his nervousness, he wasn’t going to budge.

“Fine. But show me the title first thing tomorrow. Don’t make me regret this.”

“Of course. And please, let me make this up to you. I have a lovely guest cabin reserved for my esteemed colleagues. You will have a wonderful night.”

Before I could respond, Nekker dug through a desk drawer. He pulled out a small golden key and handed it over. “The key to your accommodations! Just follow Main Street past the hotel and up the hill. Your cabin is the second on the left.”

“Uh, thank you, Mr. Nekker. But, this won’t affect my final price. We have a hell of a lot of work to do to get that place looking decent.”

He nodded, and I headed to the door. As I set my hand on the knob, Nekker called after me.

“Oh, and Kyle, have a safe evening.”

Chapter 7

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Rain fell outside. Not hard, but a steady drizzle. I stood in the warehouse lobby, surveying the dreary weather. The storm looked like it was here to stay. Everything was going from bad to worse.

Fortunately, I’d come expecting it to be wet. I set down my bag and pulled out a poncho. After draping the garment over my dress outfit, I picked up my bag and ventured into the rain.

A fishing boat motored into the marina, but I kept my distance. I was done dealing with the weird Dansk Bay folk for the day. What I needed was a good night’s rest and a stiff drink. No bars here, but one place might help me out.

Thea’s trading post looked especially welcoming when I reached the main intersection. I stepped under the eaves and pushed the door open.

The little bell chimed again, and, once again, Thea bustled out. This time, she stopped and stared when she saw me. Her eyes narrowed, but she stayed silent.

“You didn’t listen to me,” she said at last.

How did she know? It didn’t matter. “I have a job to do.”

“Not for long.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means you are in more danger than you realize.”

“Look, let’s cut out all this talk of spirits. It’s a creepy building, sure, but it’s just a building. I’ve done this a hundred times. You’re making something out of nothing.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Is that so? But, of course, what could I know? I’ve only lived here all my life.”

“I didn’t mean--“

“No matter. After all, you came here for food, not wisdom. That’s what I’m good for.”

“Thea…”

She hustled off to the back aisle, ignoring me. I thought that was the end of it, but after a moment she emerged with a small food basket.

“Turkey and artichoke soup with rosemary sourdough. Mind that you eat it before it goes cold. And, although I don’t approve of alcohol, one beer on the side.” She led me over to the register.

“Thank you, Thea. I’m sorry I didn’t listen. Please understand, this is how my job works.”

“I understand more than you’d believe.” She looked up at me, hard gaze softening. “I think you understand more than you give yourself credit for. This isn’t your first spirit encounter.”

Was she talking about the time with Lena? No, she couldn’t possibly know about that. Thea was fishing, and I wasn’t going to bite.

“You’re right. It isn’t. Because, I haven’t had any. Look, I really do appreciate the concern, but I can handle myself.”

“I hope so. I sense strength in you, though it is buried within layers of weakness. Perhaps you will find it in time.” Thea pushed the basket across the counter. “Dinner is on me. I hope I’ll see you for breakfast.”

Instinctively, I started to insist on paying, but her tone stopped me. I could tell it was more important to accept her kindness. “Thank you, Thea. Of course, I’ll be here first thing in the morning.”

“You take special care.”

I nodded, picked up the food basket, and slipped back into the rain.

I strode down Main Street. The Dansk Bay Hotel loomed to my right. It looked especially ominous in the rain. My stomach knotted and my hands clenched, but I continued past.

The road swept upward, and I climbed a steep hill. By the time I reached the top, I was breathing hard. A dense growth of evergreens swallowed the sky as I passed into a forest. Off the road, I spotted a smattering of secluded drives. Following Nigel’s direction, I started down to the second one on the left. I couldn’t see the cabin from the road, but soon the trees parted to reveal my accommodations.

Before me was a picture from a storybook. Forget the hotel—I had half a mind to buy this cabin from Nekker. We could rent it out for a premium to high-end guests. This was a gorgeous two-story log cabin, complete with moss on the ceiling. Fresh pine scent was amplified by the rain. And lights were already on inside. If I was in a better mood, I’d have called this a lovely getaway.

As it was, I noticed that the trees blocked everything else from view. The cabin was truly isolated. I wasn’t sure yet if that was going to be good or bad.

Inside, I found a cozy layout that matched the cute exterior. A radiator drove away the wet chill, and a bank of lights kept the single large room bright and cheery. A plush bed sat in one corner. Up on the second level was a small office with a huge skylight.

I dumped my bag by the bed, then climbed up to the office and pulled up a chair at the hardwood desk. I’d just eaten lunch, but I was still ravenous. The stress was getting to me. I downed Thea’s dinner. Delicious.

My mind was racing. I needed to distract myself with work. I pulled out my tablet, but found there was no wireless here. What a shocker. No matter, I had hard copies on a few more of Regina’s prospects. I spread them out on the desk and dove in.

I made notes as I went. The lodge in the Rockies sounded nice, but transportation could be a challenge. I definitely wanted to visit the villa on the Florida coast. The strange igloo building in Oregon might be a bust though.

My eyelids grew heavy, but I kept at it anyway. Still a few more to review…

Sometime later, I startled awake, face pressed to the wood desk. I blinked away the sleep and peered outside. Gray skies had darkened to a deep twilight. Despite the craziness, I’d actually fallen asleep.

As I stood, my bladder protested. I climbed down to the main room and soon found a major drawback with the cabin: no toilet. I checked out the window, and, sure enough, there was a narrow wooden shed. A genuine outhouse.

I put on my poncho and stepped out onto the covered front porch. The rain had slowed. I slogged along the footpath to the outhouse. No crescent moon on the door. Disappointing. Inside actually didn’t smell too bad, probably because no one used it on a regular basis. I finished my business quickly all the same.

It was on my way back to the house that I saw it.

Bobbing around the corner was a transparent head. The details were vague, but I could see the wrinkled complexion, the thin wisps of hair. And the eyes. Eyes that stared straight into mine.

I screamed. It just came out. I mean, not a full scream, just a shout really. The sort a brave man might make if he was a little surprised.

It opened its mouth and screamed back. The sound was muted, barely a low moan, but the intent was evident. Then, it floated toward me, deliberate.

I staggered backward, trying to get away. I turned, grasped at the outhouse door. Missed the handle. Then I got it, pulled the door open, slipped in. With nowhere else to retreat, I pressed against the back wall. My hands shook as I cowered. My breath came sharp and ragged.

Outside, the moan grew louder. It evolved into something coherent. Words. Over the sounds of my quivering, I made out the ghost’s voice.

You have entered my domain. Now you shall join me in fulfilling my great purpose. 

“Leave me alone!”

Let yourself go .

The voice cut off, and the ghostly visage pushed through  the outhouse door. Knees to my chest, I scrunched into the back corner, hands covering my chest. I could actually feel it now, a tangible tingling in the back of my neck. The spirit shouted again and came at me.

As it got closer, a sense of wrongness settled over me. Almost as if my very soul was under attack. I waved my hands at it. No effect. Nothing I could do. Terror welled up.

This must have been how Lena felt, at the end.

I closed my eyes and held on to her memory as unconsciousness closed in. My heart swelled with sorrow, and I whispered a silent apology for all I’d done wrong.

Suddenly the tingling on my neck vanished. The air lightened again. My soul relaxed, safe for the moment. Still, I sat with my eyes closed, too afraid to open them, ever again. I didn’t want to see any more.

Eventually, I chanced a look. Nothing. I was alone in the dark outhouse, light rain pattering on the roof. My hands were clenched and my cheeks wet. When had I started crying? How long had I sat there, a pathetic quivering wretch?

I forced my arms to unravel. My hands trembled, but obeyed. I pressed a palm against the wall and rocked forward, standing up. Weak legs shook, but held. I was alive and, as far as I could tell, unharmed.

I stumbled back to the cabin, locked the door behind me, and climbed up to the loft bed. I didn’t even take off my poncho, nor my shoes. I couldn’t think straight anymore. All I could do was curl up and tell myself that everything would be okay in the morning. Everything had  to be okay.

Chapter 8

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I dreamed of Lena. There we were together, back in Boston Commons, following the Freedom Trail. We diverged from the beaten path to explore a “haunted” tunnel network. At that moment, we were holding hands, laughing, and smiling. We even turned off our flashlights for a private kiss.

Then we both saw it. A white cloud, somehow light even in the dark. It let out a piercing wail, chilling me to the bone. I ran.

I thought Lena was behind me, wanted her to be, but I reached the sunlit exit alone. I waited. She never came out.

Police cars materialized, sirens flashing. An officer led me inside, and there she was, lying still. Not dead, yet not really alive anymore. She was a body breathing, but no mind to go with it.

She probably slipped and fell on the way out, the officer said. Damaged her brain. Except she had no bruises. And I’d seen that white cloud.

I woke up with a start, the guilt I’d felt that moment as tangible now as ever. Years of rationalizing it away had done nothing. I’d abandoned her to her fate. To what I now firmly believed was a ghost.

I blinked and shook my head, clearing the awful memories. The early morning sun filtered through the window, illuminating the cabin and clearing my mind. Past mistakes notwithstanding, I was in a bad place now. If I didn’t watch out, I had a feeling I’d end up just like her after all.

I didn’t fully understand what the hell was happening around me, but one thing was obvious. I had to get out of town. No hotel, no job, was worth this. I’d make up some excuse for Regina later. That was a problem I could handle.

All my follow-up plans with Nekker faded as I hurriedly stuffed my pack. I tossed my dinner basket and beer bottle into the trash can, slung my bag over my shoulder, and pushed out the door.

My hands trembled as I scanned the front porch and the outhouse. If the spirit could get me here, then nowhere was safe. Could ghosts appear outside in the day? I had no idea. For now, at least, everything was clear. I hurried down the road.

I passed back through town and up the hill to the train station. Nothing jumped out at me. No one tried to accost me. So far so good.

Cresting the hill I spared a glance for the run-down mini-mart. Still a mess. Last time I’d see it. My heart lightened as I finally reached the train platform. It was clean, modern, familiar. Not a part of the nightmare in town.

I walked to the automatic ticket kiosk. The screen lit up and I pressed the button for one adult ticket on the next train. I dug around for my credit card, but before I found it, a red box showed up on screen:

Train service to Dansk Bay temporarily suspended. Please check back later.

What the hell? I navigated back to the main screen and tried again. Same message.

I pulled out my phone. There was a customer service number on the kiosk. I tapped it in and held the phone to my ear. Silence stretched. I looked at my phone screen and saw the little “No Service” indicator in the top left corner.

A knot grew in my stomach. I jabbed at the poor phone a few more times, willing the call to go through. I knew it wouldn’t work, but I had to try. Again, nothing.

Now feeling full-on sick to my stomach, I stepped back and swiveled my head back and forth. I don’t know what I expected to find, some sort of help maybe, but no one was there.

Rationalize this thing. Dansk Bay was a remote town. They probably lost train service all the time. And, cell service. There had been a storm. Maybe the cell tower had fallen onto the train tracks. No one would be able to fix it right away; a technician would have to come down from Anchorage. Not a big deal, right? They’d get to it soon.

I wasn’t convincing myself, but hey, it could happen.

My thoughts drifted right back to the evil spirit. If this thing could block the trains, what else could it do? I didn’t want to find out.

So, how else could I get out? There was no road, but maybe a boat? I could hitch a ride with the fishermen. But, could I trust them? Were they all in on this?

Thea. She’d know. She’d seen all this coming, I was sure. She could set it right.

My mind made up, I set off back to town. This time I couldn’t appreciate the beauty of the ocean view. I knew on some level that it was pretty, but now I felt the taint of evil across the scene.

A couple minutes later, I burst into Thea’s shop. “Thea, are you here?”

Silence. I waited, listening to my own ragged breathing. My arms trembled as the quiet dragged on. Then, just before a full panic set in, the back door opened and Thea emerged.

“You’re alive.” Her wise old eyes stared into mine with disbelief.

“Um, yes, of course. But I saw—“

“The spirit.” She nodded her head. “That’s why I’m surprised you’re here. You’re either lucky or strong. How did you stop him?”

“Stop him? I didn’t do anything. It… he just left.”

“That’s not like him. Are you sure you didn’t do anything special? What was your last thought?”

“I was thinking of… of someone.” I didn’t want to talk about Lena right now.

“You care about her.” Thea smiled. “He cannot handle compassion. There might be more hope for you than the others.”

“Others? What others?”

“Oh, you’re a smart man. Evil has reigned here for a long time. I’m sure you can put it all together.”

A chill ran down my spine. “How many?”

She shook her head. “I don’t keep count. It’s better that way.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You wouldn’t have listened.”

Damn it, she was probably right. But, still, I wish she’d said something.

“But some must have survived, right? Some got away?”

Her eyes met mine. “None yet. But, you’ve survived an encounter so maybe you’re different.”

“I want to be. I need to get the hell out of here. The train is out of commission. Can you get me on a boat or something?”

“That won’t work. The fishermen are all too scared. None will cross him.”

“Seems like you’re too scared yourself.”

That earned me a glare. I mean a serious glare. I felt my heart tighten as Thea stared me down.

“Don’t presume to know my mind.”

I held up my hands. “Okay, I crossed a line. Sorry. But, there’s got to be a way for me to get home alive.”

“Hmph. Me, I’d just walk. Only thirty miles to the next town as the train runs. You might be able to make it before night.”

Thirty  miles? I’d been exhausted after a 5k last year. “I can’t make that.”

“Well, there is one other way. Of course, I doubt you have the fortitude.”

“Tell me. I’ll try anything else.”

“If you want to know more, check out the Net Profit .”

“Net Profit?”

“The boat at the far end of the marina. It’s an old museum from the tourist days. Maybe you’ll find something helpful.”

“A museum? How will that help?”

“I’ve given you all I can Kyle. I don’t expect you to understand. From here, the choice is yours.” She bowed her head to me and shuffled into the back room.

“Thea! Wait!”

She didn’t stop. I was left alone in the trading post, alone to face a spirit that had murdered other unsuspecting travelers. I had no idea how to stop it, how to escape.

But, I had to try.

Chapter 9

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Thea might have thought she was helpful, but all I had from her was a useless clue. So I made an idea of my own. I’d steal a boat.

I’d never driven (or was it “captained?”) a boat before, but how hard could it be? Certainly easier than walking 30 miles. And it had a better chance of success than visiting an old museum. Resolved, I pushed through the door and turned toward the docks.

And, nearly jumped out of my skin.

An old couple strolled down Main, the first people I’d seen out and about. Were they working for the ghost? Did they know what I was planning?

As they walked past me, heads down, I realized how paranoid I had become. The balding husband gently ushered his white-haired wife into a small church. Nothing sinister. These were normal people, living here under this evil oppression.

The ghost, or spirit, or whatever it might be, was scary as hell and dangerous. Even so, it couldn’t be all-powerful. I had a chance to escape it and damned if I was going to waste it. I took a few deep breaths, calming my nerves. I continued on toward the docks.

When I reached the ocean, the marina was empty save for a tiny silver motorboat, a dingy fishing trawler, and a wooden derelict. The tiny boat didn’t look seaworthy, not with whitecaps on the bay. My best bet was the trawler.

I headed toward it, but before I made it to the dock, a door opened over at Nekker’s warehouse. Instinctively, I slipped out of sight, hiding behind a bathroom stall. Definitely still jumpy.

Breathing heavily, I waited as footsteps approached. I thought they were coming my way, but they turned out onto the dock, then stopped. They were close enough that I could pick up on their conversation.

“Lucas still isn’t here. Got anyone else for me?”

“I’m afraid you’re on your own today.”

I recognized the second voice:


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Nekker.

The first man sighed. “Well, I need someone else soon. Damn hard to get a good catch alone.”

“I know, but it can’t be helped. Lucas was acting strangely, not a good fishing hand for you anymore. I’ll hire a better replacement.”

“Yeah, I know how that goes. Survival of the business comes first. Just don’t be surprised if it’s a lean week.”

“Of course not, Captain. You’ll give it your best.”

With that, the pair split, one heading along the dock, the other heading back toward the warehouse. I stayed hidden, though I wasn’t sure why. Something felt wrong about the talk. Lucas had to be the young man I’d bumped into yesterday, the one who wouldn’t tell me anything. He had been acting strangely, but more than that, he’d been acting scared. Did he know what was going on? Had Nekker fired him over it?

I had no answers, but, as the boat engine roared to life, I knew that my plan was sunk. The captain was leaving with the only seaworthy vessel. Sure enough, a minute later, the engine chugged, and I heard the boat speed off into the ocean.

For a moment I stayed quiet, listening for any sign of Nekker, or anyone else. When I heard nothing, I emerged from hiding. The fishing trawler was shrinking from sight leaving two lines of white in its wake. The warehouse was quiet. I was alone.

I still didn’t want to chance the motorboat. Maybe the derelict ship was in better shape than it looked. Not that I had a choice.

As I crossed the marina, I spotted a wooden sign lying askew on the deck. The word “MUSEUM” was printed in big lettering. Closer in, I saw Net Profit  painted in script along the bow. Below it was a picture of a net scooping up fish-shaped dollar bills. So, this was Thea’s big tip. Classy.

I stepped onto the deck, the boat swaying beneath my feet. I hadn’t gone boating since I was younger, but the gentle rocking brought back happy memories. If only times were still so innocent.

Edging around the damaged sign, I tugged on the door. Locked. I rapped on it, as though there was a museum attendant inside who would let me in. Nothing moved inside.

My excitement stirred; I was about to do my first ever breaking and entering. Warily, I glanced around the docks. No one was around, not even the ghost. I shuffled back, then ran at the door, slamming my heel into the weathered wood.

It felt like kicking a tank. Pain blossomed in the back of my leg. I hopped backward then tripped over the fallen museum sign. I crashed onto my back, banging my head against the deck. Stars dotted my vision.

Looked like the spirit wasn’t going to need to kill me; I was doing a pretty good job on my own.

Groaning, I rolled to my stomach and pressed back up. My head swam, my hamstring protested, but I stood. I hobbled back to inspect the door, wincing with each step.

I’d pictured a gaping hole in the door. What I found were a few loose splinters. The door was old, but it was a hell of a lot tougher than I’d expected.

I needed something heavy duty. I walked along the deck and found a large toolbox toward the stern. Fortunately, it opened easily to reveal a tangle of aged fishing gear. I dug past a few nets until I found something perfect: a wicked looking spear. I didn’t know what they used it for, but I knew that it had a solid handle with a heavy metal end.

Returning to the door, I smashed the spear into the wood, again and again. Each blast echoed across the water. I was sure Nekker or someone would hear, but I didn’t stop. Finally, the wood split. A couple more blows and I made a wide hole.

Chest heaving, I tossed the spear aside and stepped into the museum. From the ragged exterior, I hadn’t expected much, but the layout was actually nice. A few intact exhibits stood in the middle with ancient nets, anchors, and various tools enclosed in dusty glass. Each item was labeled and captioned. The walls were lined with photos of old sailors and fishing vessels, some with articles detailing their exploits. It was small but cute.

I checked for some kind of engine control station, but saw nothing. If the ship could still be piloted, it couldn’t be done here. I strolled through the exhibits, scanning through articles for anything of interest. Maybe something could still help me out.

What I got was a quick history lesson. Dansk Bay had been founded in 1924 as a fishing town. They displayed dozens of different fish; I at least recognized salmon and king crabs. The town had grown rapidly until about 1940. That agreed with my earlier guess; the war had devastated the town. After that, there wasn’t much here. A couple of articles from the early 50’s proclaimed Dansk Bay’s plans for expansion to a fishing mecca. I already knew how those plans had turned out.

Other than that, I found a smattering of useless facts: tales of the dangerous-but-exciting life of a fisherman, schematics of boat design improvements, and a picture of the largest sea bass ever caught in Alaska. Not even a mention of the hotel.

Finally, I found another door toward the bow. My heart picked up. This had to be the control room. I tried the handle.

Shockingly enough, the door was unlocked. Maybe my luck was changing. I slipped inside.

Chapter 10

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As it turned out, this was the museum office. The room was abandoned save for a barren desk, a host of dusty filing cabinets, and a few rows of shelving.

Then, I spotted it, half covered by a tarp. A steering wheel. I rushed over. Once I dragged the tarp off, I saw the wheel was rusted solid. I tugged at it, but it wasn’t going anywhere; this ship must have been docked for decades. My shoulders slumped. I felt stupid for thinking I could captain this piece of junk.

I surveyed the rest of the office. At this point, it was little more than a large closet. I’d call it a museum archive.

Junk lined the shelves, stuff that hadn’t met the cut for the showroom. One section held old equipment, including a dozen spools of fishing line and, for some reason, a rusted toilet seat. Another held a collection of old books and journals from the town. The last section had stacks of rejected exhibits including “Widow Continues Char Fishing Pro’s Legacy.” Hard to imagine how that one got cut.

Useless, all of it. If it wasn’t good enough for the museum, what good would it do me? Frustrated, I slammed a fist into the nearest pile of books.

A single piece of paper slipped to the floor. I knelt down and picked it up. Like everything else in the room, it was old and torn, but was heavier than most papers, like card stock. The lettering was typewritten and it appeared to be a brief memo.

To: Records Clerk, Dansk Bay Branch

From: Director of Records Retention

Date: 10-Aug, 1946

The order has come. All mention of facility 387AR-55 is to be scrubbed from public record. Priority documents are to be secured and delivered to Washington. All other documentation, including this missive, is to be destroyed.

Execution of these tasks must be completed by 17-Sep, 1946, after which date the facility will be decommissioned.

Signed, Richard T. Lincoln

Wait, did this mean what I thought it meant? Well yeah. Since the missive had survived, it meant that the records clerk hadn’t followed orders. More importantly, this sounded suspiciously like the cover-up of a secret government facility. One abandoned right after the end of WWII. Short list of candidates in this town for which building they’d used…

A piece of the puzzle clicked into place. The Dansk Bay Hotel didn’t look like a hotel because it never had been. So, then, what kind of facility was it? And, why had the government expunged the building from record? I didn’t know much about the military, but I was pretty sure that sort of thing wasn’t normal.

Intrigued, I dug through the pile of books. I skimmed pages of the journals and newspapers, but found only the daily ups and downs of a fishing town. No apparent military connection. Disappointed, I almost stopped, but then I found a navy blue journal dated 1946. By the first line, I knew I’d found something.

08-15-46:

They want to bury it all. I should have known they would, but the truth must get out. Our research must count for something greater.

Where these pages will end up, I cannot know, but at least now I have a chance to pass on a message. Perhaps someone will get it, will pick up where we left off.

Regretfully, I do not have time to explain the experiments that my team has been authorized to perform. I leave only the pertinent details and know that a suitably keen mind will understand their value.

This war, terrible though it has been, allowed us to run tests on the most fascinating subjects: humans. We have been asked, nay forced, to push the limits of what the mind can achieve. Many cultures through history have spoken of the concept of an “out-of-body experience” in vivid detail. My colleagues and I suspected such a thing must be real, not merely a delusion of laypersons. Indeed, our evidence from the last three years shows not only that this state exists, but that it can be induced at will through the right chemical elixir.

Our military overseers think only to harness this power to spy upon their enemies, but the applications are boundless. A chance to see the world from the safety of one’s own home. The ability to send the mind to explore inhospitable regions like the ocean floor or the center of the Earth. Just imagine!

Alas, our efforts have been cut short before our formula is complete. We have seen indisputable evidence that our elixir works as intended. Gaseous vapors rise from the subjects and coalesce into tangible clouds. These clouds move in ways that cannot be described by any physical equation. A conscious will must be directing their movements. This conclusion is supported by numerous observations. Stimulation of the vapors elicits a response in the bodies of the subjects.

Unfortunately, the range of the effect is limited by subject mortality. No subject survived more than a minute after receiving the dose, thus preventing the mind from traveling far afield. As such we have been unable to study the properties of these “mind clouds.” A complete physical understanding eludes us.

None of us took the abrupt end of our research well. Jorgensen committed suicide and Pizzani is locked up for attempting to smuggle an elixir sample. Then there is young Friedrich… he is frighteningly angry. He claims to have a plan to continue our work, but I fear his naive hopes are misplaced. We will all be watched for the rest of our lives. What we’ve done here can never be revealed to the masses. In this case the government is right – the people will not understand.

Although removing a physical sample of the elixir has proven impossible, the formula must be set free. Here it is:

Below was only a smudge. Apparently someone had tampered with the journal, but I read on, too fascinated to care.

Know, he who reads this, that further improvements are still needed to suppress the toxic side-effects. Experiments will cost more lives, but I believe that one day, the elixir can be perfected.

Please, do not let our work be in vain, and please do not judge us for what we did. You, whomever you may be, are not so different. Think of how many have died so that you may stand where you do. Ancients suffered plagues that we could learn how to heal them. Construction crews died to perfect our home designs. Automobile pioneers lost their lives so that our vehicles could become safe. All life is built upon death. We do not admit this to ourselves, but we know its truth.

Yes, they were our enemies, but they were still human. That is why their sacrifice must have meaning. Their deaths can advance all humanity. One day everyone will thank us.

Chapter 11

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Cool droplets fell against my upturned face as I stood on the dock. Eyes closed, I let the rain patter over my skin, as if it could wash away this whole situation. It couldn’t, but, for a moment at least, I felt free.

I knew the freedom couldn’t last. What I’d read, the atrocities that had been committed, that knowledge could never leave me. Long in the past, yes, but by our government, by our citizens. The hotel I’d come here to buy turned out to be a former POW camp, one drenched in the blood of its captives. It was a horrific secret.

I knew this was what Thea had wanted me to find. This thing was much bigger than I had ever imagined.

But now I knew something about the evil spirit. It had something to do with the elixir, with the vapors described in the scientist’s journal. Was the spirit the tortured remnant of some prisoner’s mind floating in space for eternity? Was that even possible? The whole idea was too crazy to comprehend, yet it explained everything I’d seen in Dansk Bay.

The ghost was no longer so mysterious. I knew where it came from, why it existed. But not how to escape.

Then it hit me. Thea’s words rang in my head. I doubt you have the fortitude. 

If you can’t run, you have to fight.

Damn that woman.

I took off at a jog, quickly crossing town. I reached the trading post and tried the door, but it was locked. No, she couldn’t leave me now.

“Thea!” I pounded on the door. “You can’t do this to me.” No response.

Part of my job is to read people. I’d been so thrown off by the ghost that I hadn’t seen it sooner. Thea wasn’t trying to help me; she was trying to help Dansk Bay. She knew I didn’t have a choice and was using me as a weapon.

But, at this point it didn’t matter. I’d walked into this trap, and there was only one way out.

Deflated, I turned and stared into the rain. Across the street I saw the young waitress in her raincoat walking into Lucy’s. She glanced around, spotted me, and gave me a long look before slipping inside.

So much like Lena. Lena who was now in a full time care home. Because of me. Because I’d left her alone to face a ghost.

This was my chance for redemption. If those old notes were to be believed, this horror went back over half a century. Hundreds of lives ruined in the pursuit of mad science. I’d ruined one life, but I could save others. The waitress, the fishing hand, the old couple.

I had to try.

I started walking. Before I knew it, I stood at the back door to the hotel. I paused, wavering for a moment. Did I really want to do this? Hell no, but I was going to anyway. Pulling the door open, I slipped back into the hotel.

The rusty door creaked behind me as it slowly fell closed again. The interior was cast in darkness and I realized I hadn’t brought a flashlight. Or had I? My phone might not be able to call anyone, but the flashlight app worked fine. The small beam gave me a pool of light to work with.

I remembered exactly where I’d first seen the clouds, the spirit. I moved with confidence down the hall, past the lobby. At the corner my foot hit a sticky patch and I nearly fell, but I caught myself and kept going.

Down the far wing I went until I my phone light glinted off something to the left. Set in the wall was a massive steel door with a wheel crank and thick deadbolt. I was sure the spirit lived beyond.

The hallway was blessedly empty. I let out the breath I’d been subconsciously holding. For some reason I’d expected to find the ghost perched in from of the door, blocking my entrance.

Still, I hesitated. I’d broken into the museum, but I was hardly a master criminal. This door was locked, probably with military grade security. There was no way I’d get through.

I tried anyway. Setting down my phone, I grabbed the wheel and twisted with all my might. The wheel didn’t so much as flinch. I shifted my stance, trying for a better angle.

And my foot slid. Only my grip on the wheel kept me upright. What the hell was this? Was something growing in this nasty building? I retrieved my phone and looked at the floor.

Indeed, there was something glistening down there, but not a fungal growth. No, this was a single patch of a viscous reddish fluid, smeared over the concrete. Unmistakable.

Blood.

Chapter 12

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Shit!

This… this was fresh. Someone nearby was hurt. Or worse.

I abandoned my futile effort to open the door. Keeping my flashlight pointed down, I traced the blood smears along the concrete. I’d been so focused on the walls, I’d missed it on the way in. I came to the corner where I’d first stepped in it and saw my bloody shoe prints leading away. From there the trail led up a staircase, along the second floor hallway, and into a room.

I crept forward, afraid of what I might find inside. When I peered through the door, I saw no one. The room was empty. Well, empty of people, anyway.

The blood trail led back to a filthy bedroll. A red spatter covered the wall next to it. There was a knapsack and a few other odds and ends, including a fishing pole. I guessed this had once been Lucas’ accommodations.

My lips quivered, and I thought back to yesterday when I’d seen the young fishing hand. He had been aloof, fearful. That fear was apparently justified.

So the blood trail led the other way. Into the basement. Which meant that whoever assaulted the fisherman had a key. There was only one person in town who I’d expect to have one. The same person I’d overheard this morning saying that the fishing hand wasn’t coming back to work anymore.

Would Nekker actually kill anyone, especially in his own hotel? Was he some sort of psychopath? I wasn’t sure. From our encounters, I knew he was a little odd, but I hadn’t sensed anything threating about him. But, he had to be involved somehow.

Regardless, it was clear to me the fisherman was in grave peril. That, or I stood at the scene of a murder. This was too much.

I turned and fled, running down the hallway, down the stairs, out the back door, and away from that terrible place. Rain pelted me as I sprinted down the driveway to the main road. I finally slowed, gasping for air and stopped beside the WWII memorial.

Despite what I’d learned about Dansk Bay’s contribution to the war, I found this place peaceful. It was a sign someone had cared about the lives lost, about the toll that crisis had taken.

Part of me wanted to keep running, but another part (besides my aching lungs) urged me to think this through. So, there I stood, rain soaking my hair as I stared at the trimmed bushes surrounding the American flag. And, I breathed.

Eventually, my heart slowed to a normal rhythm. I wouldn’t claim I was calm, but at least I could think. With that clarity, my next step was obvious. You find a murder, you go to the police. Or, in this case, the sheriff.

In no time flat, I stood at the town crossroads, looking at the doors of the sheriff’s office. I didn’t know what waited for me in there, but what I’d witnessed went beyond my own personal fears. Atrocities committed decades ago were bad enough, but one done this morning… That had to be set right.

So, I pulled the door open and stepped inside, dripping all over the floor mat. I found myself in a small room with an empty reception desk straight ahead. Behind it was a closed door, a light showing underneath. A placard read “Sheriff Clement.”

I knocked on the door.

“Just a moment,” said a familiar voice.

The door opened to reveal the bearded man who had pushed me out of the diner yesterday. Today, he was properly dressed with a crisp beige coat, official patches on shoulder, and a badge pinned to his breast. At his hip was a holstered pistol.

“Well, I heard you were still in town. Need some help getting out?” He cracked a smile.

Did he know I couldn’t leave town? That didn’t bode well, but I decided to go for it anyway. “Sheriff, I think there’s been a murder.”

“Murder? In Dansk Bay? Ha, I doubt that, but I suppose I’d best hear you out.”

“I was in the hotel—“

“Trespassing?”

“No, no. I mean, I have permission from Mr. Nekker. But listen. I found blood in one of the rooms. Someone hurt the fishing hand.”

The sheriff let out a laugh at that. A laugh! He sat back and said, “Son, now come back when you have a real crime to report.”


“Excuse me?”

“What you’ve seen, that there’s fish blood. Happens all the time. Captain’s a little soft on his hires, sometimes lets it slide when they steal from the catch. A big halibut can fetch a hundred dollars easy. Boy probably tried to fillet in his room and made a hash of the thing.”

“Uh, I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve never seen a murder, or fish gutting before, but of the two, it looks a hell of a lot more like the first. There’s even a blood trail leading to the basement.”

“Bet he’s got a freezer down there. More clever than most of the captain’s hands, that one.”

Obvious bull, but something the sheriff said set off an alarm. “You said most of the captain’s hands. Does he have a lot? Do many of them leave fish blood in that hotel?”

“Not that it’s any of your damn business, but yes, they come through every summer. Sometimes a couple each season. Usually once they steal some fish they skip town. Guilty conscience, I suppose.”

“And, do you ever see them again?”

“’Course not. What are you getting at?” A note of hostility crept into his voice.

“Nothing. Look, maybe you could at least investigate this scene. This time it might be different.”

“Ain’t nothing worth my time.” The sheriff stood up. “Now if you haven’t got a real problem, then get out of my office. I hope I’ll not be seeing you again.”

I was about to object when I glanced down to the sheriff’s desk. Poking out from beneath a binder was a paper addressed to Alaska Railway. I couldn’t read the message, but I saw enough. The subject line indicated “Request for suspension of service.”

He was part of it all. The sheriff wasn’t going to help me. This man had used his authority to stop the trains and trap me in town. I needed to get the hell away.

“Okay, I’ll go.” I backed out of the office then darted out the front door. As the door swung shut behind, I saw a parting smile on the sheriff’s bearded face.

Chapter 13

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I strode down the street, mind reeling. The evil wasn’t just a carryover from WWII. It was happening today. Thea had hinted at it, but this drove it home. Nekker lured in fishermen every summer, killed them, and locked them in the hotel basement. Then the sheriff covered it all up. Or worse, helped.

But I couldn’t fathom why. How could that help Nekker’s business? It had to have something to do with the ghost, but I couldn’t see a connection. If my hunch was right though, I was up against a ghost and at least one serial killer.

Terrifying, yet somehow reassuring. Evil men seemed easier to deal with than a hostile spirit. And, I hadn’t seen the ghost all morning. If Thea was right, I had fought it by thinking of Lena. Maybe I hurt it somehow.

In any case, I knew where I had to go next.

I passed by the docks. The abandoned shops looked especially ominous today. The weather worsened, leaving the area sheathed in fog as I rain pelted my head. I felt like the only person left in the world.

When I reached the warehouse, I pushed inside and stormed up the stairs and down the hall to Nekker’s office. Summoning up my courage, I pounded on the door and shouted, “Nekker, we need to talk.”

No answer. I tried the handle. It was locked, so I pounded louder, but still Nekker didn’t respond. “Nigel?” I asked. “Are you here?” Silence.

I pressed my ear to the door, thinking I’d hear him rustling around inside. I heard nothing but the hum of fluorescent lights. He wasn’t here.

I looked through the windows behind me, surveying the warehouse floor. There was no sign of anyone at all. Where else could Nekker be?

He could be out on a ship, visiting with a client in Anchorage, hiding in the hotel basement or… his cabin. Only place I could check was the last one. Might as well.

I jogged back across town, hoping nobody was watching through their windows. I didn’t trust anyone anymore.

At the top, I took the first drive. I guessed that Nekker would want the spot closest to town, and I was right. A three story monster cabin sat atop the cliff overlooking the bay. Any other time, I would have thought it gorgeous with its dark stained wood, a sloped modern roofline, and huge windows. Knowing a murderer lived there spoiled the beauty.

I stopped at the end of the walkway, realizing this was my last chance to turn away. I could walk along the train tracks and take my chances that none of this ever caught up to me. But, no, I needed to do this. For Dansk Bay. For Lena. And, for myself.

Walking with what I hoped looked like confidence, I came up to Nekker’s door and pounded on it. “Nekker!” I shouted. I kept slamming my fist on the door, making a racket impossible to ignore.

Silence. Well, if Nekker wasn’t here, maybe I could find some evidence inside. I shook the front door, but it was locked. I stepped off Nekker’s porch and circled the house, trampling a couple flowers along the way. In back was a large deck. I took the stairs up and tried the back door. It opened.

Moving as noiselessly as I could, I stepped into the house. I crept through the kitchen, dining room, then into the living room. It was there, against a leather sofa, that I finally saw Nekker.

Or, rather, his corpse.

Nekker’s rotund body lay in a heap between the couch and a coffee table. His head was toward me, and I could see the sticky mess of matted hair where he’d been bludgeoned. Half opened eyes stared blankly toward the fireplace.

I staggered back, doubling over and vomiting on the hardwood. The blood stains in the hotel had been scary but abstract. With an actual body death wasn’t pretty. Especially not this way.

Once my stomach settled, my mind turned back on. This didn’t make any sense. Hadn’t Nekker been the perpetrator? I must have been wrong. Or someone else had figured him out and gotten revenge. My thoughts raced through all the possibilities.

Then something caught my attention. There on the coffee table was a small book, resting open. It seemed out of place, like Nekker had been reviewing it before his murder. I picked it up and saw it was a list of names. My heart caught; last on it was mine: Kyle Ressler – hotel. Above that was another I recognized: Lucas Brewster – fishing hand. Lucas’ name had a line through it.

The rest of the list was crossed out. Most of the others had “fishing hand” written after their name. A couple were labeled “tourist,” and one more with “hotel.” I was pretty sure I was looking at the string of victims. Nekker had definitely been involved, and here was proof.

I was so engrossed that I almost missed the approaching danger. Only when the hair on the back of my head tingled did I turn around. There, floating in the gloom, was the ghost.

Or, rather, a  ghost. This one was different. Where last night’s terror had been fuzzy, this one was sharp, lines mimicking those of a live human. To boot, it was a full body instead of just a head. And it’s face was far from withered. In fact, I recognized this one.

If I’d had any lingering doubts that the fishing hand was in trouble, they vanished as his ghostly face stared at me. The poor kid wasn’t just dead, he was the next elixir test subject.

Aaaaiiiiiiiyyyyyyaaaahhhhh!  The ghost’s mouth contorted as a wail echoed through the cabin. It stretched its arms out and wobbled toward me.

I darted to the side, and it whisked past.

I wasn’t sure if it could actually hurt me, but I didn’t want to chance an end like Lena’s. I ran out past the house, onto the road and down the lane. Risking a glance back, I saw that it was chasing me. This one was much faster than the spirit last night.

I picked up the pace. Disoriented, I turned away from town, but there were a few more cabins out here. I angled for the closest, sprinting up the porch to the door. Tugging at the handle, I found it locked. With the ghost following, I didn’t have time for anything subtle. Whispering a silent apology to the owner, I lowered my shoulder and slammed into the door.

I don’t know if it was my adrenaline or rotted wood, but the frame splintered and the door swung inward. I dashed inside, passing through a dusty sitting room and kitchen to find a secluded study. Slamming the do


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or shut, I backed up to the far wall, hoping that I was hidden.

My heart almost stopped when the ghost floated right through the doorway. I took a step toward the window, but the ghost slid between it and me. I skittered back, the darted aside, trying to slip past. It was too quick. The ghost stayed between me and escape, herding me toward a corner.

It had me pinned, but I’d already survived this once. Compassion had worked before, maybe it would again. I raised my fists, steeled my will, and thought of poor Lena.

The reaction was immediate. The ghost backed up and wailed, its pained shriek cutting through my head. As I watched, it grew fuzzy and wobbled like a flame in the breeze. Then it spun around, as if caught in a whirlwind.

Suddenly, everything stopped. We met eyes, and I saw tears streaming down its spirit cheeks.

Hheellpp mmee… 

Then, it exploded.

Chapter 14

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Until then, I’d never have guessed that ghosts could explode. But the fishing hand’s ghost sure did. Sparks shot out in all directions, the ghostly body dissipating before me. A wave of pressure swept across the room. My ears popped, my stomach turned, then it passed.

I was alone in the dim cabin.

Panting, I stood there for a few moments, waiting to see if anything else happened. When nothing did, I calmed down. This whole episode had gone from strange to bizarre to terrifying, but I was still alive.

Too bad I couldn’t say the same for Nekker and the fishing hand.

I leaned on the desk, my whole body feeling wobbly, sapped of strength. As I cradled my head in my hands, I noticed a worn journal, yellowed pages speaking to their age.

That was a strange thing to find lying around. I almost brushed it aside, but an old journal had gotten me this far. I picked it up and cracked the aged spine.

Inside were the initials C.F. My heart raced as I scanned through some entries and saw that these were from the WWII POW studies. This journal must have belonged to Friedrich, the young, angry scientist from the museum journal. Eager, I searched for insights about how to defeat this spirit.

10-11-43

Initial tests were an absolute failure. Subject mortality rate is 100% with no sign of supernatural activity. I contend that our detectors need to be more finely tuned. Regardless, the elixir must be modified. I remain convinced that lithium is the key, but something stronger may be needed. Alas subjects are unable to withstand even mild doses. Challenges lie ahead.

3-5-44

Eureka! Our first success, albeit a small one. Subject 27 triggered an electromagnetic pulse on the detector across the room. The effect lasted 1.9 seconds before subject expired, a clear breakthrough. Still, its potency is limited. We must enhance this effect.

5-18-44

We’ve continued to make improvements. We regularly register activity on all four detectors for up to six seconds. Subject mortality still remains the primary issue. Only one subject has survived, and it suffered irreversible brain damage – useless for further work. The military is demanding something usable soon, and I intend to provide it. I think they are planning something big.

9-7-44

Progress has stalled. We have yet to achieve greater detector activity, but have decreased elixir volatility. In the last two months, approximately 50% of subjects survived, 10% without any discernible brain damage. Unfortunately, only two subjects survived repeat testing.

2-1-45

A truly auspicious start to the new year. Inspired by historical tomes from the Far East, we’ve modified the formula, and our potency has skyrocketed. Electromagnetic activity has saturated the detectors. Better still, we’ve had visual confirmation of our success, an image of a subject’s face floating in the room. The image is vague, like a cloud, but there can be no doubt that we have achieved full mind-body separation. All that is left is to stabilize the compound sufficiently to let the mind travel far afield. Currently, the effect can only be sustained for about thirty seconds.

8-18-45

Damn, word has come that the Japanese surrendered. We won’t be getting any new subjects. Fortunately, subject mortality has dropped to 5%, though lingering side effects are still common. We have argued to the government that it is too dangerous to free these last prisoners. They have agreed and our work can continue. We are too close to stop now.

2-6-46

We lost our last subject today. The elixir is much improved, but still imperfect. It leaves lingering damage to subject psyche. The cumulative dosage of several tests proved too much for even the most stalwart subjects. No word on where we will get new subjects, but I have some ideas.

8-11-46

No! This cannot be! They are closing us down. This work must continue. I know the answer is so close, just within grasp. Fortunately, I have a plan.

The journal stopped there and I stood up, stunned. Here was hard evidence of what was happening, what these ghosts really were. But reading it had been horrible. That man, Friedrich, had taken countless lives in pursuit of this fantastical elixir. And, he hadn’t cared one bit. He only wanted more people, or “subjects” as he callously called them, to poison. As if this government psychic program, or whatever it was, justified the killings.

He had to be long dead by now, but someone had found his old journal. Someone was still down in that lab, carrying on Friedrich’s evil work. If Nekker wasn’t the murderer, it could be anyone in town. I had a guess which one it was.

Chilled, I knew it was time to leave the cabin. I grabbed the journal; it would be evidence if I ever escaped Dansk Bay. Otherwise I’d sound like a crazy person.

But, even with this new knowledge, I was stuck. Nekker was dead, Thea wouldn’t help. I didn’t know where else to turn. Walking the train tracks to the next town was beginning to sound like a better and better idea.

I left the study, heading back through the cabin. Now that I wasn’t fleeing a spirit, I could see how old the place was. All the wood in the kitchen was splintered and grayed, the cabinets sagging, the refrigerator an ancient vintage. Dust covered everything.

Well, almost everything. In the living room I noticed a break in the dust, a trail leading into the front bedroom. Someone, or something, else had been in here recently.

My heart rate picked up again. I didn’t think that the ghosts could disturb dirt. It had to be a live person and I guessed only one person would live in such a creepy old cabin. Here I was, right in the middle of his lair. I knew I should get the hell out.

But, I had to know for sure who it was. I needed hard evidence.

Stepping into the room, I saw I was alone. There was little here, just a tidily made bed, and a nightstand with a lamp on it. And another journal.

I set the old journal down on the bed and picked up the new one. The pages in it were crisp, clean. I opened it, flipping to a random page.

4-3-15

They cannot be trusted, no no no no no no. But they are needed, yes. How can that be? How can all this be? Oh, but they will know the truth. Soon, so soon. This time, yes, this time, I am sure.

Rambling. Some entries were completely incoherent, lacking real words or punctuation. Unnerved, I thumbed through quickly. Nothing jumped out until I got to the latest page, marked with yesterday’s date.

7-15-15

New blood. The Nekker has brought it to me. Time, yes, it is time. Have waited so long. The new formula will work! It must. Tonight.

7-16-15

I could not touch it. How can this be! Harvested the other subject. Too early, but cannot wait any longer. No choices left. One last test, then I am free.

The Nekker has failed. But he will not hurt me again. And the new blood will be harvested. I will be set free.

My blood froze. Through the ravings, I could pick up enough. Nekker had been in league with the murderer and, as far as I was concerned, got what was coming to him. But the murderer was still after me.

Then a creak came from the floorboards behind me. I spun around just in time to watch a rod smash into my face. The blow sent me to the ground, nose smarting. I raised my arms overhead to defend myself, but it wasn’t enough. The rod smashed into the top of my head and the room disappeared.

Chapter 15

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To my surprise, I woke up.

Much less to my surprise, my head hurt like hell.

I blinked, clearing the fog from my vision. Aside from the head injury, I was pretty sure I was okay. Well, sort of.

Metal cuffs tied my wrists and ankles to a surgical chair mounted in the center of a windowless room. Dim fluorescent lights illuminated the concrete walls. The surroundings were drab, but all too familiar. I was back in the Dansk Bay Hotel and, if my guess was right, in the basement laboratory.

I twisted my head, trying to see behind me. Bad idea. Pain shot through my neck, crawled across my skull. Damn, I hadn’t felt pain like that since I broke my leg in high school. I closed my eyes, gritting my teeth until the worst passed.

With a deep breath, I opened my eyes and looked around again, this time more slowly. I spotted a few benches with vials and other chemical equipment, but most of the room was empty. Except there, on the far wall to my right, a heap of blankets by a fireplace. A bedroll? My captor was nowhere in sight.

I exhaled; I was in it now. Why had I ever thought it was a good idea to stalk a murderer? True, I now understood exactly what was going on in Dansk Bay. Nekker had drawn people to town to serve as test subjects for a madman. It sounded like the madman had almost perfected the WWII elixir. I’d seen the effects firsthand. Unfortunately now I was going to help him complete that twisted dream.

Worst of all, I was alone. Thea had been an ally, but she’d made it clear this was my battle. All the other townsfolk were either too scared or too oblivious. And who could blame them when their own sheriff was in league with the madman? Or was the madman.

I looked back to the chemical vials and my chest tightened. At this point it didn’t matter who the serial killer was. I knew exactly what fate awaited me if I didn’t get free.

Tensing my muscles, I pulled at the restraints with all my might. Of course, none of them gave. I tried again, shaking them back and forth. Most didn’t give, but the cuff around my right wrist was ever so slightly loose.

Even with some serious wiggling, my hand stayed stuck. I checked again, making sure I was still alone, then pulled harder. Metal dug into my flesh, eliciting a grunt, but I didn’t let up. Finally, my hand slipped out, leaving an unhealthy amount of skin behind.

My eyes watered at the pain, but I bit my tongue and fought through it. Pain was better than death. I unlatched the cuff on my left wrist. In another few moments, I had both ankles free. I was out.

Behind the chair, I found a stairwell. I hustled up it as fast as my head would allow and found the backside of the sturdy basement door. Like the front, it had a metal wheel and I tried to turn it, hoping to open the door. Unfortunately, it was barred shut.

There wouldn’t be another exit; this had once been a prison. Still, there could be a spare key down here. I saw an inviting keyhole on the back of the door. Now I needed to find its match.

Back down the stairs I went. I circled the room, checking everything, starting with the bedroll. I pulled the sheets back and found not a bed, but a pile of charred bones. The odor of burnt flesh filled my nostrils. The massive fireplace next to the bones was still warm. I could put the pieces together. I gagged, but had nothing left to throw up.

My last threads of composure dissipated, panic surging forward. Before I lost it completely, an image of comatose Lena swam to mind.

That triggered a new emotion: fury. Fury at myself for abandoning her, fury at those WWII scientists and my government for condoning such an atrocity. But, above all, fury at the evil that still lived here today. The evil that had destroyed a town and wanted to destroy me.

Somehow, that was enough to keep me here, to keep me fighting. I had to end this. I owed it to Lena, but, most of all, I owned it to myself.

Then I heard a clatter from down the hall, followed by muttering. I wasn’t alone after all; the murderer was here.

Beside the roll of bones was an iron poker for the fire. I wrapped my hands around it, calmed by the feeling of solid metal. I’d never been much of a baseball player, but I could swing the poker hard enough. Hopefully.

I scampered across the room and pressed my back to the wall by to the chemical bench. I edged around the corner, peering down the hall. Light came from a side room at the end. Muted shuffling echoed across the concrete. The heart of the evil was in there. I could end this.

My body disagreed. My throat stuck, and I couldn’t draw a breath. I pulled back and doubled over, gasping. Finally, I relaxed enough to suck in a mouthful of air.

I knelt there on the floor, trembling, poker in my left hand and blood dripping from deep gouges on my right. Who was I kidding? The man or woman in there had killed dozens, maybe hundreds, of people. I was a glorified hotel inspector in enough shape to climb three flights of stairs. What chance did I have?

Then I saw it, my hope. Resting on the corner of the chemical bench was a silver key. It was an old-fashioned type, large circular handle with a thick shaft. I’d bet my life, literally, that it opened the basement door.

I clutched the key in my right hand, the poker in my left. Looking back and forth between the two, the choice was obvious. I knew who I was. As quietly as possible, I set the poker down.

Immediately, my body relaxed. My shoulders lightened, my throat opened. This was the way. I’d do what I’d always done; get help. I could get out of here, take off down the train tracks, and report this all to someone back in Anchorage. I didn’t have to do this myself. That would be suicide.

I whispered an apology to Lena for that day, all those years ago. I could have acted then, but hadn’t. She might have been okay. But, more likely, I would have ended up like her. Better to live with regret.

I climbed up to the door and tried the key. It fit, and I turned it, a heavy clunk sounding outside as the locking bar slid aside. Relief flooded my system and I turned the wheel. The deadbolts slid into the concrete and clicked into place. I pushed the door open and stepped into the hallway of the hotel.

Then I ran.

Chapter 16

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My head pounded and my hand screamed. I ignored them. I had to get out. Seconds later, I reached the hotel’s back door and burst out into the rain. It was pouring now, and I’d been stripped of my poncho, but hell, getting wet felt good at this point. Meant I was still alive.

I tore down the driveway and into town. Sparing a sideways glance at the sheriff’s office, I turned up the road to the train station. And, the thirty mile walk to the next town. Through heavy rain. Way better than fighting a murderer. I was done here.

“I’m sorry, my friend.” The voice was a whisper, but I heard it clearly and stopped. There, on the porch of the trading post, was Thea.

Despite my terror, I stopped. “Wait, what are you sorry about?”

“I thought you would overcome him,” said Thea. “Thought you’d find your inner strength. I was wrong.”

“Oh I found it. I found the strength to get the hell out of here.”

She shook her head sadly. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“What does that mean? You know, you set me off to face him in the first place. Are you going to send me back in now?”

“No. I truly wanted you to live. But, there’s nothing I can do now. Your fate is sealed.”

 I furrowed my brow. She wasn’t talking any sense. I could walk down those damn train tracks. It had been her idea in the first place.

Then, I heard a door open and looked to my left. Emerging from the sheriff’s office was Clement. He stopped at the street, hands on hips, and looked at me. Then he nodded and walked into Lucy’s.

Wait. Wasn’t this all his doing? If it wasn’t him, then who was in the hotel basement?

“I’d guess you have about twenty seconds left.” Thea’s voice cut through my confusion.

“Left until what?”

Thea didn’t respond, just shook her head and pointed to my feet. I looked down. My Oxfords were soaked and ruined, but at this point that didn’t matter. What was she looking at?

Then, I finally saw. 

I’d heard that the brain fills in gaps with what it expects to find. That it can deceive itself when it believes it is for the best. When I saw my glowing feet hovering above the ground, I realized that my brain had deceived me.

Strapped down on that chair, I’d been worried that the madman would shoot me up with the elixir to separate my mind and body. He already had. I hadn’t escaped anything; I’d fooled myself into thinking I had. My body was still strapped to that chair.

I wasn’t about to leave town. I was already the next victim, the next ghost.

“No! Thea, save me. End this.”

“It will end soon enough dear.”

With a shout I spun, intending to race back to the dungeon. It was too late. Even as I turned, the whole world blanked around me. Everything went dark, and then I snapped back awake. I was in my body, lying on my side in the dirt.

And, found myself staring at him .

Dark eyes stared at me from a withered husk of a face. Before me was a wiry man, easily in his late 90s. Wrinkled skin covered thin, but muscular arms. He wore nothing but a ripped pair of cargo pants. I could count the ribs on his scrawny torso.

No one had picked up Friedrich’s mantle; he’d kept at it himself. Somehow, the scientist had survived all these years, driven to perfect his elixir. He’d tested it on innocent men and women. And, himself.

I’d read the journals, I knew what happened to anyone who drank too much. I imagined the madness had claimed him long ago. Friedrich probably didn’t even know why he was working anymore.

This whole town existed solely to feed his twisted goal. Nekker, the sheriff, even Thea and the fearful townsfolk. They all helped sustain him in their own way. Through aggression, fear, or indifference. Now I was going to pay the price.

“Yes, very potent that batch. I nearly have it now. One more subject should do it.”

I thought back to his journal. Just one more subject. I’d seen that in several entries. Success was always around the next corner. But, I got it now. Friedrich was never going to perfect his elixir. He was just going to keep killing until the day he died. And the townsfolk knew that day was coming soon. No one lived forever.

I tried to lash out, but my arms and legs were firmly bound. I struggled, kicking up dirt into the air. It blacked out my tiny room and I started coughing. Then I realized it wasn’t dirt. And I wasn’t in a room.

“Wait! Please, let me out of here!”

Friedrich didn’t even look at me, he just stepped back and closed the grate. A moment, later I heard the hiss of gas, the click of the ignition. Then, a wall of flame.

Epilogue

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Regina Townsend closed her Internet browser. The article was nothing new, but still sad.

It said the same thing as the police report. Nigel Nekker and Kyle Ressler had been murdered in Dansk Bay. Nekker was bludgeoned in his house, Kyle’s body had never been found. The local sheriff had conducted a thorough investigation. In the end, a transient fishing hand had been to blame. Dansk Bay’s fishing captain mentioned the poor boy had been unstable, but no one suspected he was capable of murder. The transient was on the run, but there were no leads.

Regina looked out the window and sighed. Forty floors below, busy people filled the streets of San Francisco. Down there folks lived and died every day. Murder, awful as it was, happened. But, people almost never died in this line of work.

Bad business any way you looked at it. Kyle had been a good employee, a decent man. No one deserved an end like that. Should she have listened to his objections? Called him back home?

But, how could she have known? No, Kyle had a job to do and so did she. Bad things happened, but she couldn’t blame herself. It was time to move on.

With Nekker dead, the Dansk Bay Hotel would be hung up in probate. Regina could probably get it for free, but now it was toxic. Double homicide turned off the tourists. Fortunately, there were plenty of other choices; it was a big world.

She marked the Dansk Bay file “CLOSED.”

About the Author

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I am a PhD student at the University of Utah. I currently study astrophysics and, though I usually write science fiction, I occasionally dabble in horror.

When I’m not writing or studying I enjoy a hike or bike ride with my wife, daughter, and our husky. I also love to read, cook, play video games, and play soccer.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this story. I’ll have more works coming out soon. You can check everything out at my website, www.cornachionetales.com, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Happy reading!

Copyright

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This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, locations, or incidents are purely coincidental.

Copyright © Matthew Cornachione

Cover Design by Jake Clark

All rights reserved

ISBN: 978-0-9898110-2-6


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