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A chapter from the Joining by Frank Talaber
Welcome to Victoria in Beautiful British Columbia, the most haunted city in North America, and to Detective Carol Ainsworth's first day undercover at the very grand old lady, The Fairmont Empress Hotel. Ready to deal with the two Italian families flying in for a wedding to unite them, she did not bargain for the ghosts, the FBI agent or the ancient curses that come along too. Add to that the mysterious psychic lady claiming you've invited her, young boys disappearing, and weird things happening to the unfortunates looking for their next fix trapped alongside spirits in the sewers, Carol found her first undercover assignment way more challenging than she could have imagined.
The one saving grace was the great Empress High Tea that Agnes introduced her to and the fabulous scones that are to die for. Literally.
Somewhere in the darkness the coarse flax fibers of the Hangman’s noose sing,
Its hollow voice swinging to the hangman’s beckoning.
Waiting for the answers buried into the gurgle of time and the finality of voices ending.
From the stillness comes a subtle calling. Echoing reminders of what remains, Disturbed and unsettled.
Front deskman Samuel Desmond’s eyes opened in horror as the wet, naked man thumped towards him bearing only a bath towel, a watch and the look of a man stepping into a warzone. The splodge of soapy footsteps echoed behind him as he thumped down the ornate front staircase of Victoria’s Fairmont Empress Hotel.
“Sir, do you realize you are naked in our lobby, dripping soap and water all over our new and very expensive Isfahan rugs?”
The man thumped his hand on the counter. Water splattered. “I’m wet, pissed, cold and locked out of my room. Jake Holden, Blanshard suite.”
Samuel looked down, bowing to the sheer anger seething in Jake’s eyes, and clacked away on his booking computer. He hesitated a moment, pressed the button for the day manager and, summoning up his courage, turned back to Jake while water continued dripping onto the counter.
“It would appear you are not a registered guest. I would need ID to let you back into any suite.”
Jake stepped back and opened his towel. “Does it look like I’ve got any ID on me?”
Samuel’s eyes widened in shock. “But I’m not allowed to let anyone in without ID.”
Jake re-wrapped the towel, leaned over and grabbed the clerk by the scruff of his neck, effortlessly pulling him over the counter, until all Samuel could see was the man’s watch. Mickey Mouse’s left hand stood at ten, his right at two.
“The only ID I got are these fingerprints and if you don’t let me back in my room your face is about to become an ink blotter. Kapish?”
Her private cellphone rang as Carol Ainsworth, ostensibly Day Manager, actually undercover cop on assignment, was about to bolt from her office in response to Samuel’s panic button. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected to find but a naked six-foot giant of a man yelling into Samuel’s face and half dragging him across the counter wasn’t on her list of possibilities, not in a world-class hotel.
Forgot to turn off my phone. Carol glanced at the text from her sister and the first word was
Urgent. She paused, her sister wasn’t a person to send idle chat.
“Urgent! Nathan has vanished.”
As she quickly texted back Samuel struggled to reach the buzzer.
“Will call ASAP.”
Carol turned off her phone and quickly marched over to the front desk. Her and her sister, Barbara, didn’t talk much but Barb was never one to overreact. Whatever happened to her nephew must be serious.
So much for a quiet first day on the job. Okay, calm down. One thing at a time.
“Yes, sir, how may I help you?” She dropped her hand to gain comfort in the holster she didn’t have on this assignment. Damn it! Shouldn’t have listened to the morons telling me not to carry! Her cop instinct took over, mentally noting every detail of any possible importance. White Caucasian, six two, light tan, light brown hair, Mickey Mouse watch on left wrist, ripped to the max. Probable weight lifter strung out on steroids. Jeez, I might as well be back on the skid rows of Vancouver! What the hell would a real hotel manager be doing right now?
She tried to think of something, anything, she’d learned in the week of intense hotel management training they’d put her through in preparation for this assignment that might be of any possible use to her in this situation. As a street cop she’d just chop him across the back of the knees and slap the cuffs on him as he fell. Somehow that didn’t seem like the way to treat a guest of this grand establishment. Plan B’s definitely lock him up and then ask questions, though.
“I asked for the hotel manager,” he growled.
Carol glanced around the newly refurbished lobby, with its gold balustrades and pastel shaded panels. Fortunately, no other guests were milling around this time of the afternoon so hopefully this wouldn’t turn into a full-blown media fiasco. That was the last thing she needed, considering the guests who’d be arriving in the next little while.
“What seems to be the problem here?” She folded her arms in front of her.
“I said I asked for the—”
“And I, sir, am the hotel manager, and before I discuss anything with you, you will let go of my desk clerk.” She caught the nearly imperceptible rise of his eyebrows. “And gently. The Fairmont Victoria Empress Hotel does not take kindly to hotel guests strolling naked in public areas, nor do we care to have them accosting our front desk staff.” His eyebrow raised higher as he glared at her.
Carol had certainly handled bigger men. She stood her ground and glared back. If she hadn’t been on assignment she’d have told him to drop the desk clerk before she shoved his eyebrows so far up his ass it’d take a laser scope to get them out, but since she was, she didn’t.
The glare-down continued as Samuel’s face turned redder. Finally, Jake broke eye-contact and glanced down at her name tag. Carol had established control. She allowed herself to breathe.
Time to press her advantage home.
“I said Let. Him. Go. And I’m not telling you a third time.”
Jake lowered Samuel to the ground. “Sorry, didn’t expect a skirt. I mean a female manager.” And he certainly hadn’t expected a gorgeous brunette. She even looked good in her standard designed-for-all-shapes-and-sizes corporate uniform. She wasn’t intimidated in the least, not by his size or his state of undress. In fact, she was absolutely in control of the situation. Something very sexy in that. He liked his women assertive. Her eyes, though. Something in her eyes grabbed him right in the gut. Too much knowledge of the world and how bad it could be, that was it. He’d learned long ago to read people’s faces in his career, it’d saved his life many times when undercover.
Something about this woman he knew almost nothing about stirred his blood and wearing just a bath towel probably wasn’t such a good idea. Especially in light of what he did know about her. She was undoubtedly Canadian undercover detective on duty Carol Ainsworth. Our file reports don’t do her justice.
“Jake Holden, and you have my apology. I’ve been overstressed at work recently and decided to take a relaxing trip here.” He extended his hand. It was partly the truth, he’d taken this assignment to get away from LA, a place where you always had to watch your back and no man was a friend. Especially the crazy ones strung out on drugs.
She made sure Samuel was breathing well on his own before she shook hands. The touch sent an erotic jolt through him. He glanced down and smiled. No ring. Possibilities.
“Apology accepted. Carol Moore, Day Manager of the Fairmount Empress Hotel.” Carol studied Jake. She liked what she saw. And then again, she didn’t. Those dark eyes of his — they reminded her of places she hadn’t been and feelings she hadn’t felt in a long time. Not since Alan, her fiancé, with the same dark, dangerous eyes she fell in love with was shot dead on duty six years ago. It’s been too long. Too damn long. So get a grip, get over it, and get on with it.
I’ve got possibly even more urgent matters to deal with my nephew.
“So why don’t you tell me the problems leading up to this little au naturel trip into my lobby, Jake Holden?”
“Two things. One, I was taking a — quote — luxurious bubble bath — unquote — as stated in your hotel’s brochure and after using over half the bottle found it didn’t even make enough suds to coat the tub. Two, seeing as how my bubble bath was a no-go, I stupidly stepped out to grab some ice for my whiskey, leaving my key inside and locked myself out of my room. And since I didn’t think the hotel would appreciate me breaking the door down, I came downstairs so someone could let me back in. That’s when this employee of yours informed me while I’m standing here cold, wet and naked, he’s not going to let me back in my room without proper ID.”
“I can verify that indeed he does not possess any identification.” Samuel straightened his tie and blushed. Of course, he took the precaution of backing as far away from the counter as possible. “Sir, the hotel’s policy is quite clear on allowing the use of an extra key. We must have ID. We have high profile clients attending and high security standards at this hotel. However, I was about to call the manager when you put my neck in a vice, rendering me unable.”
Carol caught Jake twitch one hand and decided to take over before Samuel got himself killed. “Okay, Samuel. I’ve got this.” Carol turned to Jake. “I’ll take you up and you can show me your ID then, is that acceptable?”
“Yes. And what about the bubble bath?”
“Well, I can assure you if the hotel’s brochure states we provide luxurious bubble baths, we’ll provide you with a luxurious bubble bath and I personally will make sure this matter is handled.” She passed him a business card, even though he had no place to put it. He glanced at the card and handed it back.
“Good. I’m starting to get just a tad cold, standing here in nothing but my birthday suit.
Things are beginning to shrivel up into my throat.”
Jake stepped backwards. A cool rush of air reminded him he was naked except for the undersized bath towel and his proximity to Carol was making continued coverage by that undersized bath towel precarious. The scar below his left ear twinged in response to the memory of what happened the last time he’d responded to a woman. Crazy bitch. And she was better left forgotten.
Jake maintained as much dignity as possible as he walked toward the elevator. He had to admit the situation was totally ludicrous. He hoped to hell there weren’t any witnesses and no videos of the past ten minutes captured on any unseen guest’s phone. He could read the local headlines now. Naked Man Roams Lobby of Five Star Hotel. So much for being discreet in this assignment.
One thing he knew. By the time he’d gotten what he’d come here for, he’d also know a lot more about Carol than her name. Maybe one hell of a long, cold shower is more in order than a hot soapy bath.
* * *
Sandy tied the rubber tube around her arm and flicked at her skin a couple of times. The stink of the sewers they were in, didn’t seem to effect either. “Oh man, everybody says this
White Lady skank is good shit.”
“Yeah, Wildflower said it was the best, like mixed with enough fentanyl to put you away. I saw angels, girlfriend. Lights, the light. You, like, brought me back from the light.”
“Cool. Yo-yoing is so freaking trippy.” Cindy sat on her haunches, unable to stand. Coming back from the dead had that effect on a girl. She held the free government Naloxone needle with both hands because she shook all over. Her skinny frame was pocked with jab wounds and scabs where she’d scratched herself over and over, something she did every time she came down.
Sandy found a vein undamaged enough to take the needle and plunged it into her own arm. “You know the deal. After I go limp, count to ten and bring me back. Don’t get any better high than flat-lining and coming back.” Her needle-scarred arm shook, and she slumped backwards.
Her eyes rolled into the heavens. The needle clinked to the concrete floor.
Cindy raised the needle. “One, two…”
Blue light flooded the chamber, coming up from the sewer tunnels leading in and out of the room.
“Three, four… what the fuc—”
Blue flames tore up through her, the Naloxone vial exploded.
“Sandy’s gonna die without the …”
She screamed as flames tore through her, taking her over until she became the flames and the flames became her.
You and she shall join us instead. Another mass of blue flames descended on the drugged-up woman on the ground and lifted her body up, then slammed it to the ground. Cinders sparked upward before Cindy’s eyes exploded in embers and her body burned from the inside out. A haze of blue sparks skittered over the ground.
Both blue flame elementals stared at the two piles of ashes left behind and at the countless needles stuck into the Chambers wall, some leaking their contents onto the cold cement floor.
Neither was the one we seek.
He is coming.
Yes, he disturbs us, the undead and those seeking deliverance.
We are restless and the one we dread is coming with a vengeance.
They scratched at each other with long angry fingers. Flames and sparks exploded. They swept down the cold tunnels and left the chamber, needle tubes clinking in the dark.
In the blue glow a pair of eyes stared waiting before he moved to get up watching the blue sparks slowly going out one after another.
* * *
Carol followed Jake into the elevator, tapping the plastic key on her other hand as the elevator rose, catching the scents of the fragrant bubble bath and his natural sweat. Gotta admit, if a naked man had to roam around in the lobby, at least it was a good-looking one. That was the problem, he reminded her a lot of Alan, muscular and hard. You could bend chisels on those biceps. Crap, focus on work lady, I’ve got other serious matters to attend to.
Jake reached down to snug the towel tighter. “You know, it’s the hotel manager’s job to keep the guests happy. If you wanted to help make all this up to me, you could have dinner with me. You’re not married, are you? I don’t see a ring.”
“No. I was engaged but my fiancé passed away a few years ago.”
“Sorry to hear that. A few years ago? Dating anyone seriously now or are you open to dinner? I was joking about it being part of your job description and really, I’d like to say thank you for the way you handled things back there.”
Man, so much for being sincerely remorseful. He doesn’t take long to dive in when the opportunity presents itself. “I’m afraid not.”
“Meaning no you’re not going out with anyone or meaning no you won’t go out for dinner?” He glanced her over.
Christ, the way he’s looking I think he just peeled my clothes off with his eyes, son of a bitch. God, I hate men like him. Sometimes. “Why don’t we do this? You leave me a message on my cell phone. It’s on my card. I don’t discuss personal business while on duty.”
“The one I handed back to you since I didn’t have anywhere to put it?”
“I’ll give it back to you when we get to your room. I might consider going out for dinner later.” Carol wasn’t an idiot. Both of them liked what they saw in the other, but she had more important things to deal with first. She was working and her first group of Mafia were about to arrive. That took top priority.
The doors opened, and they trundled down the carpeted corridor. Carol gave the key reader a quick swipe and pushed the door open.
“Here you go. And as promised, here’s my card again.”
“I’m free tomorrow at eight. Like seafood? Heard of a place that has great reviews just down the street, Nautical Nellies.”
“I’ll think about it. But only if you wear more than a towel. I don’t think the fish would blush, but the women might get flustered.”
Jake walked over to his jacket and pulled out his wallet, handing her his ID. “Lady, I think the scallops would turn red seeing you naked. And I think I might just too.” He grinned as Carol took the proffered document, ignoring his blatant come-on as she glanced at his driver’s license.
“Seeing me naked isn’t going to happen and I’d watch your tongue and manners in this establishment. Any other reports of rude, vulgar or disrespectful behaviour to guests or staff and
I will have you evicted.”
He scowled at her. “My apologies.”
“Now, this appears to be in order. I apologize for the confusion.” She committed his driver’s license number to memory. For some reason alarm bells were going off in her head.
He escorted Carol to the doorway, admiring her rear view.
“And what makes you think you’re going to see me naked?”
“A guy can always hope, can’t he?”
“I think blood’s rushing to the wrong part of your body.”
“I don’t suppose you’d care to stick around for a drink or three?”
“Don’t push your luck, Mr. Holden, I haven’t even agreed to have dinner with you yet. In public. Let alone have drinks with you alone in your room. That goes beyond our employee guidelines, even for management.”
Oh, yes. She was definitely his type. Guts, fire and willpower. “My apologies for being rude and presumptuous, and thanks again for letting me into my room. Please apologize to your clerk for me. I’m known for my short-fuse back home.”
“I will, but I really think you should apologize to him yourself too, if your ego can take it. I’ll let you know about dinner.” Carol walked out before he could respond. The entire episode had certainly given her a new respect for hotel staff. Do they really have to deal with things like this? And her naked guest was American. A fluke, or was he there because of the expected guests? Dinner was definitely on the cards because she seriously needed to check this guy out, and not just for his physique, although it helped he was easy on the eyes. Something didn’t smell right. One background check coming up, but first things first, she rounded the corner at the far end of the hotel and rang her sister.
“Carol, thank God you called. Nathan’s missing. I found his window open and he’s gone.” The voice of her sister trembled. Carol knew how much she loved her son and her two daughters.
They were her whole world.
“Wow! Okay I’ll be there tonight.”
“Tonight?” Barb’s voice shook.
“I’m in Victoria. So I’ll head over when I can, but I really can’t leave my post right away.
Understand? I’ll explain more when I get there. Later in late afternoon.”
She could hear Barb begin to sob on the phone. “You’re here? In Victoria?”
“Yes, can’t say anything more, working undercover. I’ll be over as soon as I can. Where did you see him last?”
“I woke up in this morning and… he wasn’t there.” She stopped, allowing herself to think about what Carol had just asked. “The bedroom, I tucked him in. He’s gone, and his bedroom window was open.”
“Okay, I know this is hard, but you got to hold it together, for him, for yourself and for me. I’ll be over and you show me what you know. Now have you called the police?”
“Yes. They left a couple of hours ago.”
“Good. I’m really sorry I can’t leave right now but you’re in good hands.”
“Thanks Carol. I wouldn’t know what to do if you weren’t in my life.”
“We’ll find him.”
“But what if he’s …”
“He ain’t. You gotta trust yourself and think positive. I will find him no matter what.”
“Yes, yes, think positive. See you tonight.”
The phone went dead cutting off the sound of Barb bawling freely.
Not having children Carol couldn’t really feel the depths of Barb’s anguish. But she knew
Nathan, he was a good kid, raised by a loving, caring mother. And here I thought I’d have a couple weeks of a somewhat sedate undercover operation babysitting pretentious rich people and the mob in stuffy Victoria. Not the pinkies extended and pass the tea and crumpets day she expected.
* * *
A six-year-old boy stands on the corner of Shelbourne Street and Hillside Avenue and stares at the sky as his hands tingle. The blue begins to splinter into shades of purple and orange, even though it’s only midday. Houses vanish, concrete dissipates. His skateboard melts beneath him until his feet touched gravel road, not asphalt.
Only fields of waving grass answer his plea.
Behind him an older woman emerges from the swirl of dust, stepping out of the past into the present. She stares at the boy and gestures for him to approach. She holds two chocolate bars in her hands. She seems nice enough as she offers him one. He reaches up to take it but hesitates.
“My mom said don’t talk to strangers.”
“Of course not. But I’m just a sweet old lady, what do you have to fear from me? I think you’d make a wonderful playmate for my son.”
He takes the chocolate bar and begins to unwrap it.
“Come with me, I’ll introduce you to him.”
The boy follows. His skateboard reforms in his hands. Concrete coalesces back into reality, replacing gravel with asphalt, and houses grow anew. The chocolate wrapper lies crumpled on the deserted sidewalk.
* * *
Carol closed her office door behind her and dialed Big Dan McKinney, her superior. A bulky six-foot two that didn’t take shit from anyone. Carol had the greatest respect for the man that some called tough as nails. Others, but never to his face, called him an outright asshole. One thing he was, was honest and up front. “What’s up, lady. Didn’t expect to be hearing from you already. Have the mob arrived yet?
“No sir. I’ve got a problem. Just got a text from my sister, who lives in Victoria. Her son, my only nephew, appears to have been abducted. I want —”
“That ain’t happening. We just put you on the case and slammed you through intense upper hotel management.” He hesitated. “Is your sister’s last name Pendray?”
“What? No? Why ask?”
“Have you read the morning papers yet like I told you to, so that you keep up to the latest in town?”
“No, I just dealt with a crazy naked man in the lobby and was about to call the IT guys when
I got a text from my sister. She asked for my help.”
“Look at the damn first page of the paper.”
Carol grabbed the daily paper that was on her desk and read the newspaper’s lead story.
Pendray Heir Missing! The young son of one of Victoria’s elite families is missing. The pioneer Pendray family discovered their six-year-old son Robert was not in his bedroom this morning. Police believe he was abducted from his second storey bedroom during the night and are asking for any information.
“Shit. That’s not her, his name is Nathan.”
“Crap. Okay, I get that this is important to you, but I need you to stay on this case. I’ll make some calls and try to get someone to step in or sub as much as possible. I’ll contact Victoria, appraise them of the situation, get hold of their files and tell them we want you to join in that investigation as well. I’m double dutying you, so don’t let me down. Once the journos hear of this the shit is going to be spread all over the place. So, low profile, but the focus is on the mob, got it?”
“Yes, sir, and thank you.”
“You owe me a favor, I’ll get hell for this, but I get it, its family. Hope none of this is linked to the mob showing up, but I don’t believe in coincidences or Chinese lucky draws. If there’s a connection here. Find it.” He was about to hang up. “Oh, I’ve just been informed the Americans have an operative there in the hotel as well.”
“Are we supposed to be working together on this case then?”
“They haven’t said as much, but that’s the Americans. What I hear you’ll hear.” “I think I may have already met him.” She told him of Jake in the hallway.
“So much for keeping a very low profile. Could be the guy, call IT and check him out. I’ll pull some strings. Damn Americans. Thought they were our friendly next-door neighbors.”
“Not after that crack Trump made about us burning down the White House.”
“Well we did, way back in history, and kicked their butts twice in a war, otherwise we’d be singing the Star-Spangled Banner and drinking that watered-down piss water they call beer.
Keep me abreast of either case.” Dan hung up the phone.
Yup, never a man to mince his words.
Carol called the Crime Lab’s best IT guy, Louie Degraff next. She pulled up her secure email as she waited for an answer. “Hey, Louie, can you run a check on a Jake Holden for me? I’m e-mailing his fingerprints right now.”
“No problem, that’s why I’m here. You use the business card trick?”
“Yeah, that thing comes in handy. Got a still of him off the lobby security camera as well, so you can run a facial recognition search and see who we see who we really come up with.”
“Ahh, you did that just for little old me? You spoil me. ’Kay, I’ll get back to you ASAP.”
“Don’t suppose yesterday’s a possibility?”
“Not unless somebody invented time travel and didn’t tell me. Patience is a virtue. Hit you back soon as I can.”
“Thanks. Text me on my private line, I’ve got other business to attend to.”
Carol leaned back in her chair. She couldn’t wait to hear back from Louie. Her gut told her Jake Holden was either mob or American law enforcement who might, or might not, be on or off duty. And if he was on duty, he’d be butting into her operation. But whoever he was and whatever his reason for being here, one thing she was sure of. With those looks he was definitely trouble of one kind or another.
She called her sister on her private line. “See you later today, I’ve joined the case will talk more when I get there.”
She checked incoming emails, but nothing on Barb’s file had arrived yet.
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