Creeping doubt and lingering mysteries. Unanswered questions and hidden secrets. Jack is haunted by all of these as friends, family and enemies pull him one direction and then another, all seeking to catch his loyalty. He finds himself stretched thin as another part to the mystery of his new home reveals itself.
Jack Erikson, late to bed and late to rise, shuffled out of his bedroom at nine o’clock on a day two weeks before Christmas. Outside the world was still bare of snow but dark clouds threatened to bring them a white holiday. When he reached the lobby he could hear his mother cleaning up in the kitchen and he dragged his legs in that direction.
“Well, well, if it isn’t my little zombie,” she teased as he stuck his head into the fridge. “There’s some leftover eggs in there if you want.”
“Hmm?” He pulled his head out and his mouth was full of the yellow, cooked yokes.
“Did I bring you up in a barn?” She wrinkled her nose when he laughed and bits of egg sprayed the floor. “All right, that’s enough joking around.” She tossed the dish rag at him. “Clean up, get a plate like a civilized human being, and get eating. I’ve got a lot of planning to do and not much time.”
“What’s going on?”
He got his plate filled with food and sat down on his stool.
“Mrs. Grover’s kindly offered the inn as the spot for the town’s annual Christmas Party, and she’ll be here any second.” Jack choked on his food.
“When did this happen?”
“I found out this morning.” Her voice was dry and her expression unamused. “She called and practically ordered the inn to be used. How could I refuse such a kind invitation?”
His mom loudly sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. She looked more tired than he felt. There was some deep trouble going on that she didn’t want to tell him, and it wasn’t about Mrs. Grover.
“By hanging up the phone?” he suggested. His mom let out a barking laugh, but then she shook her head.
“As much fun as that would have been, I don’t think it would have raised our standing in the community.” She perked up her ears while Jack, too, heard the sound of a car’s wheels crunching on the parking lot gravel. “And that must be her. You’d better finish your food as fast as you can before she recruits you for work.”
After she went to greet their guest Jack took her warning to heart as he scarfed down the rest of the plate. Putting the dish in the sink, he stuck his head into the lobby and saw his mom talking with Mrs. Grover and Amelia. In Mrs. Grover’s hands was a large box with Christmas lights sticking out. He quietly inched his way out and toward the stairs when he heard his name called. Mrs. Grover wanted him. He turned and smiled, but didn’t move over to them.
“Jack, we’ll especially need your help with these lights.” She scowled as he tried to slip closer to the stairs. “Now come here and take this box. I can show you where they need to go.” His shoulders drooped as he marched over and took the box. Amelia partially came to his rescue, though.
“Oh please let me help him put them up,” Amelia pleaded. She gave her best puppy dog eyes. Jack figured that’s where Kyle got his talent, because she looked like a sick dog. The trick worked, though.
“Oh, all right, just stop with that face,” Mrs. Grover agreed. Amelia quickly grabbed Jack and began hauling him and the box toward the stairs. “And don’t dawdle too much up there! We’ve got a lot of other rooms to plan!”
“Yes, ma’am!” Amelia called over her shoulder.
Jack allowed her to drag him upstairs and into the ballroom.. There he put the box down as Amelia joyously clapped her hands together.
“I’ll have to use that face more often.” Jack almost pleaded with her to not do that. It was pathetic to see. “Now let’s see what we can do about all these lights.” She opened the box and began dragging out string after string of lights. They made a huge mess of bulbs and wire on the floor. “What say we divide this mess and conquer?” He didn’t really want to do any of it, and she noticed his tired expression. She crowded up to him and peered into his face. He wished she had a sense of personal space. “You look awful.” And more tact.
“I guess.” He wanted a second opinion.
“You been sleeping well? Exercising? Eating your vitamins?”
“I’m fine.” He moved away from her so he could breath.
“You’re a terrible liar, Jack,” Amelia scolded. “If you were fine, you wouldn’t look so pasty.” She pinched his pale cheek.
She was right, of course, things weren’t fine. They hadn’t been fine since he’d arrived at Hawthorn Inn, and his last adventure with his friends had really taken it out of him. He couldn’t explain why, and he couldn’t find his grandfather to ask, but he’d been growing physically and emotionally more exhausted each day. It’d been several weeks since they’d gotten rid of the ghost, and yet he still slept poorly and his dreams were filled with nightmarish figures and strange shadows. They weren’t the same coherent image of the field, but of some place darker.
It reminded him of when he’d ran into the fog bank created by Smith. That strange feeling of being surrounded by something alive and familiar, yet terrifying.
“I guess I’m just tired. Haven’t been sleeping well.”
“Nana did say you were wearing yourself out with fun,” Amelia mused. Jack was a little surprised with her using the title for Mrs. Withers, but then he remembered the elderly lady was Amelia’s mother. She gently elbowed him in the ribs. “She’s taken a liking to you, you know. Talks about you a lot.”
“Why?” He hadn’t met her that often, and usually very briefly.
“Something about your looks.” Amelia cackled at her suggestive joke, but Jack cringed. “Well, these lights aren’t going to fix themselves.” She rolled up her sleeves and grabbed an end. “Take hold of the end and you’ll get to the beginning eventually.”
“I guess.” He picked up an end, but it knocked out of his hand when his companion slapped his back.
“Cheer up. Everything gets answered if you wait long enough. Besides.” Amelia gave him a wink and a large grin. “Christmas is coming.”
Her child-like enthusiasm was hard for his moodiness to weather and soon her antics had him smiling. He had to repeatedly save her from the string of lights when she literally plunged in to grab at any miscellaneous end. After an hour’s hard work they’d managed to get the strings untangled, but they hadn’t even gotten around to checking to see if the bulbs worked when Mrs. Grover checked in on them.
“You don’t even have the lights up?!” she yelled at the two. She dramatically threw her arms up in the air and gave off an exasperated sigh. “How in the world are we ever going to get this done in time?”
“Gerty, there’s still while yet before the party,” Amelia calmly pointed out. She wasn’t even trying to hide her amused smile. “We have plenty of time.”
“Not if you two keep moving like slugs.” She was still mad, but she could see her pushy anger wasn’t going to have any effect on her old friend. She sighed and shook her head. “Just get this done as fast as you can. We have to get all the invitations out and order some fliers for everyone we miss.” Gerty was still making a checklist to herself when she explained.
“Is she ever happy?” Jack had to ask.
“Sometimes.” She picked up a string of lights and dragged them over to the nearest plug in. She hooked it up and sighed when only half the lights came on. “Gerty isn’t going to be happy about this.”
Jack wondered when the last time these lights were used. Half of them didn’t work and the other half only partially turned on. They spent the next hour trying one bulb at a time and only got a quarter of the way through the pile when Mrs. Grover returned. Needless to say she assigned him the chore of finishing the task before they returned the next day.
The minute he heard them leave Jack snuck out of the ballroom and found his mother on the cushioned bench. Her head was in her hands and she held very still. For a moment he wondered if she’d stopped breathing.
“Mom?” She was startled as she jerked her head up.
“Oh, Jack, you scared me. I didn’t hear you coming.” Jack detected tears in her eyes, but she wiped them away. “Something wrong?”
“You tell me.”
“Yeah, I guess I should.” She pulled a crinkled letter out of her pocket and gave it to him. “This came about a week ago.”
Jack broached over the heading, which held an address from California, and realized the contents were from an investor group located in that state. They’d heard about the inn from several mutual acquaintances and were inquiring about using assets to help in the reopening. In essence, they were offering themselves up for the same position de Rais and Nelson currently held. They were a rival investor group.
“Did you get back to them?”
“And?” The suspense was killing him.
“And I told them I’d think it over.”
“What conundrum have you found yourself in?” They both looked to see Mr. Nelson walking down the stairs. Jack was surprised he didn’t smell him coming. The man wore enough perfume.
“To be honest, Mr. Nelson, it involves you and Mr. De Rais.”
“Oh?” He appeared genuinely surprised.
“I received another offer for investment from a firm in California. They call themselves the Hidden Angels Fund.” Mr. Nelson visibly stiffened and his smile fell off his face, but only for a moment. Then he was all grins again.
“Ah, yes, they are one of our largest rivals. Did you accept their proposal?”
“No, but I have to ask you and Mr. De Rais for an answer soon.” She hated to be this firm so out of the blue, but the clock was ticking. Even Jack knew their cash would be exhausted within a month or two, and they’d need to work out the finer details of a loan from any investment company. “I’m very sorry to have to demand this from you so suddenly, but I really must think of my business.”
“I speak for both of us when I say we would be sorry to lose the investment opportunity you’ve offered us.” He gave a solemn bow, and they could see his mind was working overtime with thoughts. “Have you decided on a deadline for our investment?”
“I hate to do this around the holidays, but I really need an answer by the end of the year.” That gave them a few weeks to get back to her on their decision.
“I understand. I’ll speak with Simon as soon as I can and see about that answer.”
“I’d appreciate it.” Mrs. Erikson gave him a polite smile, but Jack could see she was straining to do that simple gesture. She was at the end of her patience with their stalling.
“Then if you’ll excuse me, I’ll see about getting a hold of our headquarters.” He bowed to them again and left.
“Do you think that was too harsh?” she asked her son. She hated to be the bad guy, but being kind was getting her nowhere.
“Nah, they should be used it to.” Jack secretly wished his mom hadn’t given them even that long. Any chance to get rid of Ryan permanently was too good to pass up. He sat down beside her and handed back the letter. “Besides, they’ve been here what? Three months? How much longer do they need to give us some money?”
“You’re right.” She smiled and leaned back against the cushions. “I really need to get used to being mean in this business or everyone’s going to eat me up.”
“Like Mrs. Grover?” he pointed out.
“Especially her.” His mom laughed at a sudden thought. “And I think she would, too, if I got in her way. She’s a little trollish, at least according to Kyle.”
“He thinks she’s a little worse than that.”
“Well, whatever Kyle or I think, she is helping the inn get free publicity.” She stood and arched her back to crack a few old bones. “But I guess I’ll start cleaning up and seeing about getting food for the guests.” She turned to her son. “What are your plans? Friends coming over again?”
“I don’t know, probably not.” They were running out of topics to talk about, and everyone was getting tired of throwing out the same old theories and suggestions.
“Well, whatever you do try not to get into trouble,” she warned as she sauntered off to the kitchen. “I don’t think my nerves could take any more of your fun.”
“Yeah, mine either,” Jack muttered as he stared at the crackling fire.
He stood and wandered over to its comforting heat. His grandfather never ceased to keep the flames alive in the large hearth. They still hadn’t figured out where the wood was stashed, but Jack supposed he could do with some unanswered questions. At least this one was harmless.
As Jack stood there alone with only his thoughts, he wondered back to the adventures he’d had with his friends and older relation. The scares in the bone yard beneath the inn, the trips out into the cemetery and the strange cave of the werewolves. Taking a tour of the Magi Farms with Violet leading the way, and the unsettling confrontation with Mr. Fletcher. Jack rubbed his hands together as he thought about that man’s ability. Fletcher was capable of a great deal of evil with that talent, but Jack trusted him. He figured he had to in these darkening times. As he had felt before and since, there was something going on much greater than he could comprehend.
Jack’s head shot up when he heard the soft sound of whispering. No one was there, not even his grandfather. He could hear the faint noise of his mom working in the kitchen.
“Hello?” he softly called out to the empty air. Nothing answered, not even a draft. He knew he’d heard something, though. Jack turned back to the warm fire and bumped into someone standing on the hearth. He almost stumbled backward, but a hand grabbed his shoulder to steady him. A familiar, strong hand. He scowled as he looked into the face of his grandfather. “Are you ever going to get tired of trying to kill me?” he scolded as he was released. He stepped back for some personal space.
“Will you ever realize I’m here?”
“Maybe if you weren’t so quiet.” Jack moved to the side to catch some of the fire’s precious heat.
“I’m not quiet, you merely don’t listen.” Jack rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, like trying to hear a mouse squeak from a few houses down.”
“And yet it still makes a noise. You need only focus on the sound.” Jack paused for a moment as he thought about what sort of sound his grandfather made. The only thing that came to mind was the crackling of a million old bones.
His grandfather was very confused when Jack let out a barking laugh at that idea.
“Um, yeah, grandpa, sure.” He stifled his chuckling but not his wide grin. “So what are you down here for? To give me more advice I probably can’t use until it’s too late?”
“I heard a noise.” Jack looked sharply at him.
“What sort of noise?” He didn’t really need to ask to know, but just in case. His grandfather slowly turned to gaze strangely at him. It was almost like he was trying to understand what his question was about, like it was something foreign to him.
“The echo of memories.”
“The what?” He wasn’t expecting that strange reply. It didn’t make sense to him, he’d just heard some voice whispering. He cringed back when his grandfather leaned forward and stopped only a few inches from his face.
“Do you hear her?” Jack didn’t hear anything but the sound of his own heart beating wildly. His eyes dodged over to the kitchen hoping for rescue from the crazy man. His grandfather stared at him a moment longer before he smirked and retreated. “Perhaps I’ve overestimated your abilities.” He glanced down into the fire. His voice dropped to barely above a whisper. “Perhaps I was mistaken in what I heard.” His comments made Jack angry.
“It’s always about what you’re expecting, isn’t it?” he shot back, but not loud enough for his mom to hear. “You expect me to do all these miracles when you don’t answer my questions or help me. What the hell are you supposed to expect? Some miracle to happen? Me to have some sort of brilliant thought one day and be able to understand you?”
“I expect you to listen.” His grandfather wasn’t angry, but there was disappointment in his voice. Maybe even some pride wounded. “All your answers are right in front of you if you would stop moving and listen.”
“When I stop moving is probably when I get myself killed.” Standing still would’ve done him in more than once during his adventures. “So if that’s what I need to do to get your approval or some answers, then it’s not worth it.”
“For what are you willing to sacrifice your life?” Those same words had rang out among the bones beneath the inn. “Would death be too great a treasure to sacrifice for something greater?”
“What’s worth more than life?” Jack shot back. It was the worst thing anyone could take, and the most important thing anyone could give up. “Well?”
“Indeed, what is?” His grandfather pulled back closer to the fire. Jack rolled his eyes. That wasn’t an answer, it was another question.
“Well, as soon as you know, let me know.” He headed for the stairs. “I’d rather go take a nap.”