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Chapter One

“Sorry, I can’t let you in.” 

“I’m getting married here in a couple of days. You best get out of my way!” Jake Coltrane said as he stared down at Billy Kirkpatrick. Billy swallowed visibly and shifted back and forth from one foot to another. “I’m sorry Jake, but orders are orders. No one who works for the government can come within fifteen feet of the convention.” 

“Look — you know me. I’m not going to cause trouble for the UFO True Believers. I just want to get to my appointment with Rachel and the wedding planner. No one will mind if I use the fire escape here and go up the back way.” 

Jake had already tried the front entrance, but another Barny Fife was stationed there. Now he was late. It ticked him off that some self-important conspiracy theorists convention thought that they could tell him what to do. Especially if what to do involved not taking the short cut through the hotel. 

Never mind that he was the only officer in Tranquility. That was completely beside the point. 

If he weren’t so mad, Jake might have felt sorry for Billy. The kid had his application to the police academy rejected twice before hiring on as a security guard with the hotel. Now that he had a badly fitting uniform, he thought he was really someone. Billy licked his lips and swallowed convulsively before crossing his arms and taking a set stance against the door. Jake could tell that Billy was scared by the nervous way that he tried to puff himself up to look bigger. But he only had a sticker on his shirt that said security. Jake had a badge and a taser, and outweighed him by about 150 pounds. 

“Sorry, Jake. Rules are rules.” 

Jake frowned as a couple pushed past him. The guy had his hair dyed green. The girl had dealie-bopper antennas. Between them, they were carrying a nine-foot inflatable alien. Once they reached the fire escape entrance, they started trying to wedge the thing through the door. 

Stupid alien convention, he thought with a sour frown. 

“Son,” he said. “I don’t think that anyone in that building would mistake me for a man-in-black.” 

The boy looked Jake up and down, taking in the contradictions his appearance presented. He’d pulled back his long hair to make Rachel happy and wore his good flannel shirt and faded jeans for the meeting. But the badge pinned to the pocket was hanging slightly forward on the soft material, and just seemed out of place. 

“Jake, I just got this job. If I let you in, I could get fired.” Billy’s voice climbed higher with each word. “You’re a cop. That means you work for the government. No one who works for the government gets in.” 

“So you’re not going to let Horace into the wedding this weekend?” 

“That’s different. He’s elected. You’re employed.” 

“That logic doesn’t make sense,” Jake said. 

“Don’t question my authority, Jake! I’m an officer now!” 

By now Billy was almost screaming. The kid with the green hair stopped trying to shove the inflatable alien through the entrance long enough to look back at Billy and Jake. The girl with the antennas must have decided that she didn’t want to hang around long enough to watch the conflict escalate. Instead she popped the cork in the alien and let the air out. Then the two of them hurried away with their deflated E.T. 

Jake recognized that Billy was using verbal offensive tactics: If you don’t have a weapon, then say something once. If someone acts like they didn’t understand, just repeat it verbatim, only louder. Jake hated when people did that. 

“Screw pacifism,” he said as he reached for his taser. 


He recognized Dr. Dave’s voice in an instant. It was the tone of the perpetually worried that always gave him away. Instantly, Jake pulled his hand back from the weapon. 

“Dr. Dave.” He nodded. 

Dr. Dave took one look at Jake’s lock-and-load stance, then at Billy and did the mental math. He grabbed Jake by the shoulder and steered him out of earshot of the “security” guard. 

“You were just about to meet with Rachel and the wedding planner weren’t you?” 

“I was,” Jake said through clenched teeth. “But Barney Fife’s cousin here is standing in my way.” 

Dr. Dave looked at the kid the way an undertaker might size up a quick-draw contender. Personally, Jake thought that the boy looked the way Gumby might if he spent too long in front of a computer screen. 

“Why didn’t you just go around?” Dr. Dave asked. 

“I tried that already. They’ve got a hotel guard posted at the main entrance, too. I’m stuck,” Jake said. 

“Jake, if you’re too late, Rachel’ll kill you.” 

“I know that! I got two jobs to do: be on time and have the ring.” 

“You do have the ring, don’t you?” 

Jake patted his pants pocket, then nodded in confirmation. “And I’ll be on time, once Barney here gets out of my way.” 

“Don’t kill him, Jake!” 

“Give me one good reason.” Jake scowled. 

“Let’s see if I can go up and get Rachel.” Dr. Dave said. Billy looked wary as the two men approached him. “Can I go inside?” Dr. Dave asked. 

“Go right ahead.” Billy nodded. 

“Wait a minute!” Jake said. Before he could argue further, Dr. Dave pulled him aside for another whispered conference. “You work for the city too, Dave! How come you can go in?” 

“He obviously hasn’t figured that out,” Dr. Dave said. 

“That’s not fair!” Jake protested. 

“Look,” Dr. Dave said. “It’s probably just the badge that’s drawing all their hate. Why didn’t you just put it in your pocket?” 

“I forgot.” Jake looked away. “You’re probably right. I think Billy there is going to be mad at any badge he sees for the rest of his life. But that still don’t give him the right to keep me out. We paid to use this hotel, same as the UFO geeks.” 

Dr. Dave raised his eyebrows at Jake’s outburst. “You want to sit here and argue that with him, or do you want me to go get Rachel?” 

Jake wanted to argue with the kid. But he knew that the smart thing would be to let Dr. Dave go. “You get Rachel. I’ll wait here.” 

“While I’m gone, why don’t you put that badge away? You’re off duty right now anyway.” 

“I’m never off duty,” Jake said. 

The Hotel Des Portiers stood at the summit of a mountain overlooking Lake Tranquility. It looked like a four-story Gothic nightmare of heavy limestone, gabled roofs and jutting towers that seemed to scrape the blue sky overhead. According to the locals who drank coffee with David every morning at the Tranquility Diner and CoinOperated Laundromat, the hotel had been built sometime in the last century before there was a lake, to take advantage of the local rail system and the stopping vacationers who wanted to get out of the city and see the surrounding Ozark Mountains. 

When David had first moved here it had been a decrepit mess. Even now when he looked at it, he expected to hear the piping of heavy organ theme music, and see Dracula flitting from window to window. 

The town really had something to talk about when a development company by the name of Wilson Management bought the hotel a few months back and began restoring it. The renovations provided a shot-in-the arm to Tranquility’s constantly teetering economy and promised economic prosperity when the hotel opened. At the same time, the construction workers fueled local imaginations with stories of secret passageways, haunted rooms and a basement morgue. And so far the outlook was promising, what with it hosting Jake and Rachel’s upcoming wedding which was already the talk of the town. But in David’s estimate, the hotel might be a little overbooked. Considering that they were holding the wedding at the same time as a convention for serious UFO enthusiasts. 

As he opened the door from the fire escape to the lobby, David passed a portly man in a pompadour and a rhinestone-studded white jumpsuit. David paused and glanced back over his shoulder. Across the back of the jumpsuit, the words “The King” were stenciled in rhinestones. With a dismissive shake of his head, David turned back to his search for Rachel. 

The first two floors of the hotel were open to non-guests. They were both built like a horseshoe around the central lobby, with the front door at one end and the elevators at the other. The ground floor held a hotel desk, staff offices, a kitchen, dining room and lounge all built on three sides around the lobby. The open lounge held a fireplace. The main entrance opened to a porch. Convention goers wandered around as if they owned the place. Though most of them were dressed soberly in suits and ties, the occasional person with blue hair or a fantasy costume stuck out like a camel at a dog show. 

The second floor was open to the lobby, with interior balconies on three sides and an exterior balcony over the porch. Descending from the south balcony was a staircase of intricately carved wood. As David looked over the scrollwork of the staircase, he imagined Victorian ladies in sweeping skirts, lacy parasols and feathered hats making a grand entrance into the lobby in fashions shipped from St. Louis. 

At the top of the staircase, Rachel paced back and forth, looking fit to murder someone. One of her two pet ferrets clung to her shoulder as if its life depended on it. It had hair, so David thought that it might be Liliuokkalani. Her other ferret, Duke, shed his hair like a founding member of the Hair Club for Men. One look at Rachel, and David was suddenly more fearful for the life of the guard outside. 

It might have been a kindness to just let Jake taser him, the doctor thought ruefully. 

Just then, Rachel spotted him. 

“Dr. Dave!” She probably intended to call out to him gently, but her voice was strident like a gunshot. David barely resisted the urge to duck-and-cover. Instead he gave an involuntary full-body twitch. His gaze shifted right, then left, searching for cover. But he was caught. Rachel moved down the stairs toward him like a United States Marine storming Iwo Jima. 

“Have you seen Jake?” 

“Er... Yeah. . .” David glanced to up and noticed his sometimes girlfriend, Average Jones, looking down from one corner of the balcony and trying to be inconspicuous. He looked imploringly to her in an unspoken request to be saved. Average’s eyes widened like a frightened doe in response and she shook her head in the negatory. David responded with a bug-eyed glare, trying to reemphasize his initial request. 

“Hey!” Rachel snapped her fingers in front of David’s face. “I’m over here! Make goo-goo eyes at Average later.” 

David’s eyes snapped forward to fix on Rachel’s scowling face. 

“Where’s Jake?” she demanded. 

“He’s trying to get here.” David smiled apologetically. “Hotel security is giving him trouble. They have him stopped at the fire escape. Something about him being government.” 

“Trouble.” Rachel’s nostrils flared. She handed the ferret to David, shoved her way past him and stomped off across the lobby. Convention goers scattered like chickens in the shadow of a hawk as she cut across. As she was leaving, David could hear her angry muttering, “I’ll give them some trouble.” 

When she was gone, David breathed a sigh of relief. He turned to look up at Average and for the first time noticed a nervous, wormylooking man in a rumpled suit and red tie stumble out from his hiding place behind her. He adjusted his tie, nodded to David as he passed, and ran after Rachel. 

“Who was that?” David asked as he climbed the stairs and walked up to Average. 

“That’s the hotel manager... I think,” Average said. David started. Now that he could see her clearly, he could tell that she was wearing a plaid corset and skirts that trailed the ground. He stared at her dress in amazement. 

“Did you get mugged by a passing Renaissance festival?” David asked in confusion. 

Average glanced down at her dress, and then glared at David. 

“This is my bridesmaid’s dress.” 

“Are we having a wedding or the highland games?” 

“Very funny.” Average crossed her arms and leaned back against the wall. “You haven’t tried on your own outfit yet, laughing boy.” 

“Huh?” David’s humor vanished. 

“Remember when Jake and Rachel got engaged? How he said he would give her anything she wanted?” 

“Vaguely,” David said uneasily. 

“Well, she wants a Renaissance-themed wedding.” 

“You’re kidding, right?” 

Average smiled sweetly. “We haven’t decided whether to put you guys in kilts or hose.” 


“Or hose.” 

“Jake never mentioned that.” 

“I don’t think he knows yet.” 

“You know what he’s going to say, don’t you?” 

Average’s acid smile melted into a more genuine one. “I have some idea,” she said. 

“There’s no way that I’m going to wear a dress... or tights.” David mimicked Jake’s rural southern cadence, which brought a giggle from Average. He shook his head ruefully. “What is she thinking?” 

“I’m not sure that she is,” Average said. “You know Rae has only ever loved Jake, right?” 

“No, I didn’t.” David’s eyes grew wide. “So even when he was married to his late wife?” 

“Yeah, even before that, back in high school when Jake was dating Anna,” Average said. 

“And Rachel stayed best friends with Anna though all that.” David recalled the stories that Rachel and Average had told about their teen years together. 

“Uh huh,” Average nodded. “I don’t think she ever thought she’d get married. It was Jake or no one. So now that she’s actually getting to walk down the aisle...” 

“She’s morphing into Bridezilla?” David supplied. 

“She just wants things to be perfect,” Average said diplomatically. “You know—like the fairy tale ending.” 

“So why not get married at Disneyland?” 

“David.” Average pinched the bridge of her nose between two fingers. “You’re not helping.” 

“Sorry,” he said. “So how much is this little soirée costing?” 

“Too much,” Average said. In addition to being an empathicallygifted performance artist and a waitress with near-perfect memory, Average was better at math than her father, Horace Jones, who was both owner of the diner and mayor of Tranquility. Thus, she’d been drafted to keep the books for both the diner and the city. Apparently her bridesmaid duties included keeping a running tally on the expenditures for the wedding. She ran her hands through her hair in a frustrated move. “It makes the annual grocery budget for the diner look paltry by comparison.” 

As Average slumped in exhaustion, David felt sorry for giving her such a hard time. “Hey,” he said. He started to reach for her and then remembered that he was holding a ferret. He draped the slinky creature over his shoulder and then pulled Average into his arms. In a town where everyone was a bit off-kilter, Average’s special gifts were actually very low-key. Especially when compared with Rachel’s ability to talk to animals, Jake’s never ending lucky streak, or David’s secretary, Mrs. Paulson’s precognitive abilities. Thanks to her gifts, Average was probably feeling the stress of everyone involved in this wedding. His sarcasm obviously didn’t make things easier on her. Contritely, he made soothing noises in her ear as he rubbed circles across her back. 

Holding her this close, he suddenly realized how nicely that corset augmented her figure. 

“Don’t even start.” Average pulled away slightly and poked at his chest in a playful gesture. 

“Empaths,” David said lightly while he allowed a lazy, relaxed smile to cross his face. 

There were times—now being one of them—that he forgot about her emphatic abilities. 

“Hm.” Average rested her head on David’s shoulder. “I needed this.” 

“Anything I can do to help?” 

“Maybe,” Average said. “But first I’d like to get out of this corset.” 

“Like I said, anything I can do to help?” David asked. 

“Later.” Average pushed him away. “I actually do want to talk right now.” 

David sighed. He’d been semi-going out with Average for a while now. But she was insisting that they take baby steps in their relationship. She didn’t think he was ready for more than holding hands and an occasional smooch. 

Granted, he didn’t always make rational decisions when he was upset. He’d just broken off a long engagement with his previous girlfriend and that was when he’d decided to pack up an old rusty Chevy Nova and move from Memphis to Tranquility to start again. And while the move turned out okay, on paper he’d been a moron for doing so. 

In Memphis, he could have earned a six-figure income and been a partner in a lucrative private practice. In Tranquility, he was the only doctor at a charity walk-in clinic. And his pay consisted of a house with Naugahyde furniture, utilities paid and a small stipend for living expenses. And the chance to consult with the other members of the Tranquility Medical Association, which consisted of Rachel the town’s veterinarian—who only qualified thanks to the fact that some old-timers would go to the vet practice rather than see him— 

Jimbo Pulaski the pharmacist, and Winthrop Stevens who, despite having no medical experience, was the county’s elected coroner. Not that David was bitter over the move or anything. Since Average could feel what he felt and was stressed out from the wedding, he decided to get his mind off of his professional hari kari before he dragged her mood farther down. “Alright, what did you need to talk about?” 

“Have you had a chance to look around the hotel yet?” she asked. 

“I just got here today,” David said. “There’s obviously an alien convention going on down stairs. I saw Elvis.” 

“UFO convention.” 

“What’s the difference?” 

“Alien conventions are for folks who watch science fiction and read the tabloids. UFO conventions are folks who believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that UFOs exist and want to prove it scientifically.” 

“So the guy with the green hair?” 

“Every serious endeavor has people on the fringe. But you’re going to see more folks downstairs in business suits than you’ll see Elvis impersonators and Klingons.” 

“How do you know this?” 

“I work in the only diner in town. Even true believers have to eat. And everyone talks to the girl who serves coffee.” 

“Why are they so worried about Jake?” 

“Jake has a badge. So he represents the face of the government to these folks. They’re threatened by that.” 

“I thought it was just that the security guard was jealous over Jake’s badge.” 

“Nope,” Average said. 

“So the guys wearing three-piece suits are the disenfranchised, and the guy with the long hair and flannel shirt who hasn’t shaved in three days and doesn’t believe in carrying a gun is the cold, cruel fascist regime?” 

“Pretty much.” Average nodded. 

“When did I enter the Twilight Zone?” David laughed. “Oh yeah, I forgot. It was when I moved to Tranquility.” 

Average frowned. “We’re getting off the subject here.” 

“We had a subject?” 

“The hotel.” 

“Oh, right.” David glanced around the hallway they were currently standing in. “What about it?” 

“I’ve been getting weird vibes.” 

“Weird vibes?” He looked around again studying the décor of the building for the first time. The hotel was decorated in that late nineteenth century Victorian overdone way—hardwood trim, hardwood floors, heavy dark furniture, dusty velvet drapes, gold swag. Clashing colors like pink and red all in one place. He made a face. 

“I’m getting weird vibes, too.” 

Average rolled her eyes in response. “When did you become a decorator snob?” 

“Who me?” David pointed to himself and raised his eyebrows. 

“I live in the land o’ deceased nauga. Who am I to throw stones?” 

“That’s not what I’m talking about, anyway.” She put one hand on her hip. “I was actually talking about the ghost stories.” 

“What about them?” 

“I think they’re true,” Average said. 

David looked at her in surprise. Average’s gift was empathy. So her assessment that the hotel might be haunted didn’t quite fit. “So you’re a medium now?” 

“More like I’m picking up lingering feelings from the departed.” 

David felt like he should be a skeptic. But he’d always taken everything at face value. When his fiancée, Jody, had told him that she was working for charity, he’d believed she was busy with committees—not sleeping with the chairman of the board of directors for Helping Hands Across Memphis. 

So when Average told him that she had empathy, he believed her. If she had empathy with ghosts, he believed that, too. 

“So? What do you want to do about it?” David asked. Her jaw dropped. “That’s it? I tell you that ghosts exist, and you say so what?” 

“Av.” David tilted his head to look at her levelly and still raise his eyebrows at the same time. “We live in a town that’s like the cosmic nexus for all things weird; ghosts aren’t that big of a leap in logic. No one has dropped dead or anything, so it’s safe to say that they’re not hurting anyone.” 

“Well, yeah,” Average said. 

“Good. Because I don’t feel any pressing need to dress up in a jumpsuit and don a particle accelerator for the purposes of putting down a bunch of ghosts. And it would fry Rachel’s mind to know that her wedding is in a haunted hotel. So my question to you is this: so what?” 

“You’re always so darn logical,” Average said. 

“One of us has to be,” David said. “And considering what a busybody you are, I get to be Clark Kent to your Lois Lane. So what do you want to do?” 

“Well, I’m shielding my empathy the way I did when I lived in New York,” Average said. “I can still use it, but only at close range. Other than that, I’d like to look around the hotel,” Average said with a grumpy frown. “We can’t do anything about the residual energy, but if I know where it is, I can avoid it. Besides, I went to high school with some of the hotel staff. I bet if we ask, someone would give us a tour of the morgue in the basement.” 

David made a face. He’d seen his share of morgues. Seeing an old Victorian one wasn’t high on his list of fun things to do with his girlfriend. “Yeah, sure,” he agreed reluctantly. Average bounced and clapped her hands in response. David’s eyebrows rose. The girl was just weird.

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