The day she left California, Deegie Tibbs swore she would never return. The plastic people, the polluted air, the cheesy tourist attractions—way too mainstream for an eccentric free spirit like Deegie. Yet despite the heartfelt promise she’d made to herself last year, here she was again, standing in a lukewarm California downpour in the middle of a Daly City parking lot.
The lock on the driver’s side door of her elderly Volkswagen Bus was sticking—again. Rather than risk breaking the equally elderly key off in the lock with her enthusiastic jiggling, she resorted to good old-fashioned witchcraft. After a hasty glance around to confirm she was unobserved, she fixed the door lock in a steady gaze and snapped her fingers with a hearty “Aperi ianuam!” Blue sparks, a shade darker than Deegie’s eyes, made miniature fireworks around the stuck lock.
The door swung open on its rusty hinges, and Deegie ducked inside, shaking grimy raindrops out of her curly black hair. Peering intently through the downpour, she started the engine and guided the brightly painted vehicle out of the parking lot and onto Interstate 5.
The buyer’s show had gone well, despite the long drive from Fiddlehead Creek, Washington to Daly City, California. The Cow Palace, Daly City’s oddly-named events center, had been crammed to the rafters with all manner of supplies for the magically inclined. Eager vendors hawked their wares from long tables draped with tie-dyed cloths and veiled with clouds of Nag Champa incense.
The wanna-bes had outnumbered the true witches in attendance by at least two to one, but merchandise was merchandise. Deegie had ordered enough hand-made incense sticks, bottles of mysterious oils, and books on witchcraft to fill all the empty spots on the shelves of her own witchcraft shop back home.
Deegie pressed her foot a little harder on the gas pedal, urging the Bus forward into the storm. She missed her drafty old house, her mischievous cat, Bast, and Lisbet, the opera-singing ghost who hung out on the second floor. Maybe if she cheated on the speed limit—not much, mind you—she could make Grants Pass, Oregon by midnight. But the 1968 Volkswagen Bus had other plans. Just before the Highway 99 exit, it coughed, shuddered, and threatened to die in the fast lane.
“Oh you piece of shit!”
The engine quit; a nauseating burnt grease smell filled the interior.
“No! Wait! I’m sorry I called you a piece of shit, just don’t—aw, damnit!”
She coasted the dead Volkswagen down the off-ramp. It picked up enough momentum to carry her past a seedy-looking café, an abandoned gas station, and into the gravel parking lot of a run-down hotel.
“Son of a…” Deegie left her curse unfinished and resigned herself to the fact that she would be spending another night in California, most likely at this very hotel. Her magical abilities may have worked on the stuck lock, but judging by the luxuriant billow of steam issuing from the engine, she would need a mechanic this time. And at this late hour, the odds of finding anything open were pretty grim. She cleared a spot on the window with her sleeve—already the windows had begun to fog—and peered through the raindrops at the place where she would be spending the night.
The hotel looked as if it belonged on the set of a Wild West movie: two stories tall, with a false front; a walkway of gray, weathered boards; and an elaborate hand painted sign at the top that read “Hotel Torrington. A People-Friendly Place.”
Despite her aggravating situation, Deegie smiled to herself in the misty gloom of the gravel lot. I’d be willing to bet there’s a spittoon on the floor in the bar, she thought as she gathered up her purse and overnight bag.
She waited at the desk in the office for what seemed an inordinate amount of time. From behind a closed door marked MANAGER, she heard the muffled sound of a television and the raspy cackle of a heavy smoker. A smudged and dusty service bell sat on the desk next to a stack of post cards, and she gave it a couple of hearty whacks.
“Hello? Anyone working the front desk tonight?” She rang the bell again, feeling pangs of annoyance that rose in intensity. “Hey! You have a customer!”
The door yawned open, letting out a nimbus of tobacco smoke and an aroma of week-old fried food. From the center of this miasma stepped an elderly gent in a wife-beater undershirt. “Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t hear ya come in.” He grinned at Deegie with all three of his teeth. “Help ya?”
“Yes.” Deegie cringed inwardly and tried to breathe through her mouth. “My car broke down. I need a room.” She fished in her purse for her credit card and ID and slid them across the counter.
After hearing the price of a single room, she almost told the smelly old fart to forget it and go back to his TV. As she filled out the guest register, she felt his eyes roam her body, taking in her long black skirt, rock T-shirt, and scuffed black combat boots.
“I’ll give ya room number three.” He plucked a room key with a green plastic fob from a peg board and tossed it on the counter. “Bathroom’s right down the hall from ya. Gotta share with the other folks.”
“What?” Deegie looked up, incredulous. “No private bathrooms? Are you serious?”
The old guy shrugged, releasing a fresh cloud of stink. “It’s an old building. Can’t afford to put a bathroom in every single damn room, can I? Besides, you’re the only guest here; you can have it all to yourself. Take it or leave it, girlie.”
With thinly veiled annoyance, Deegie took her receipt and key, and then left the office in search of room number three.
She found her room directly across from the staircase to the second floor. A bare bulb in a ceramic socket jutted out from the faded fleur-de-lis wallpaper and illuminated the door and half the hallway. The rest of the passage was steeped in shadows. Room number three was stuffy and dark and smelled faintly of mildew and pine cleaner. A single bed with a brass frame took up one side of the room. An ugly chest of drawers lurked in a corner. There was no TV, but Deegie didn’t care much for it anyway. She had a feeling the room had changed very little over the decades.
She felt spirit energy here as well: a brief sensation like cold mist from a spray bottle. She wasn’t surprised. In a place as old as this, a wandering ghost or two wouldn’t be unusual, and to Deegie, spirit contact came as naturally as breathing.
Sometime during the night, Deegie awoke in the squeaky bed, rolled over, and opened her eyes. “I don’t have to pee,” she told the cobwebby ceiling. But of course she did. And that meant getting out of bed, shuffling down the hall, and plopping her butt down on the same toilet seat used by everyone else in this wing of the hotel. “A people-friendly place, my freckled ass!” she groused as she padded down the hallway to the facilities at the other end.
The bathroom smelled even mustier than room number three; Deegie found herself wishing she’d brought along the can of disinfectant spray she kept in the Bus. The wooden toilet seat was cracked and lidless, and the sheet metal shower stall gave her the creeps.
As she gave her hands a hasty rinse under the rusty faucet, something tapped on the shower stall behind her. Seven loud taps, with obvious intelligent direction, echoed against the clammy walls. Shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits. The temperature dropped by several degrees and goose bumps scurried up the backs of Deegie’s legs. Whatever the clever tapper was, it wasn’t human, at least not anymore.
Deegie whirled around, heavy-eyed and irritable. An experience like this was nothing new to her; ghosts and spirits had been clamoring for her attention since childhood. But tonight she was in no mood for a supernatural chat.
Tap-tap-taptap-tap! Once again, that sound of a mischievous finger tapping rhythmically against the metal shower stall.
“Cut it out,” said Deegie. “Not interested.”
The tapping thing giggled, an odd, muffled sound, like a gramophone playing by itself in a forgotten room. An odor of violets, thick and cloying, rose up around Deegie and followed her back down the hall. As she turned the knob to re-enter her room, the violet-scented tapping thing giggled in her ear.
The morning brought even more frustration for Deegie.
After having her disabled vehicle towed to the nearest garage, she was informed that, due to the advanced age of the Bus, the part it needed would have to be special ordered. She would be stuck in the Hotel Torrington for at least another week. Resigned to her fate, she took a cab back to the hotel, stopping along the way to stock up on snack foods, bottled water, and an assortment of lurid tabloid magazines.
Later, as she reclined on the bed back in room number three, Deegie heard faint scratching sounds coming from behind the closet door. Her hand, with its load of cheese curls, paused on its way to her mouth, and she looked up from her magazine.
That odor of violets again, stronger this time, with a bottom note of unwashed armpits. Something shifted inside the narrow closet, and the latch rattled up and down.
Deegie set aside her National Enquirer and moved to the edge of the bed. Whatever had been following her around since last night wanted attention again. Since she was stuck here for another week and had nothing better to do, she might as well find out what it wanted.
“Hey,” she said. “Come on out. It’s okay.”
The closet door opened by slow degrees, creaking theatrically, and she heard that stealthy rustling sound again, as if the small space was crammed with thousands of moths.
“Pretty impressive,” said Deegie. “Who are you? Can you talk to me?”
The movement stopped; the room fell silent.
Just when Deegie had begun to think it was nothing more than a large mouse roaming around in the closet, an arm extended from the partially opened door. The limb appeared to be that of a female. The slender fingers waggled at Deegie in a macabre greeting, then the disembodied arm retreated back into the closet.
Despite her extensive dealings with the supernatural, Deegie’s throat tightened, and she scooted backwards on the mattress. It took a lot to give her the creeps, but this arm made her skin crawl. “That’s too weird,” she told the scrawny, aromatic ghost. “Don’t do that.”
Silence followed. The rustling and tapping ceased, and the sickly violets and B.O. stench disappeared as suddenly as if it had been sucked up by an exhaust vent.
I guess I insulted it, Deegie thought, picking up her magazine again. But her curiosity had been piqued, and she could no longer focus on the juicy gossip and glossy photographs. She didn’t even want the cheese curls anymore. Keeping her eyes on the closet door, she got up and stood before it.
“Are you still in there?” She tapped on the door with a black-laquered fingernail. Shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits. “Hello? You there?” She curled her fingers around the latch and opened the closet door.
A woman’s severed head fell from the top shelf, landed next to Deegie’s feet, and rolled across the floor.
“Holy crap!” She leapt backwards and stood on the bed.
The head ended its journey across the room with a thunk against the far wall. Bits of dust bunnies and carpet fibers clung to the ragged red neck stump. A fly stopped hurling itself against the window and flew over for a taste.
The head’s eyes snapped open and fluttered long, sooty eyelashes. The carmine mouth curved into a crooked-toothed smile and let out a high-pitched giggle. “Scared you, didn’t I?” it said.
"No," Deegie lied, trying look casual. "I've seen worse."
"Aw hell, you was scared!"
The head had accent that Deegie couldn't quite place. Irish perhaps. It had thick auburn hair that left a scattering of hairpins in its wake when it tumbled across the room.
"You startled me a little, I guess," Deegie admitted, her eyes ticking back and forth from head to closet. "What do you want? Why are you making contact with me?" She steeled her nerves for the next body part to come out of the closet.
"Well who the hell else am I supposed to make contact with? Nobody else 'round here to talk to." The head's hazel eyes lit up with an impish twinkle and the rouged lips grinned.
"Yes, I've noticed. Was that you in the bathroom last night?"
"None other," said the head.
"I wanted to let you know I was around first before I appeared to you." The head lifted its thin brows and gave Deegie a hopeful look. "Now then, would ya mind taking me head over to the closet?"
"Are you serious?" Deegie's initial shock was replaced with an odd sense of euphoria and she gaped at the talking spectacle on the floor in front of her. Out of all her supernatural experiences, this had to be the most wondrous and bizarre.
"Well o' course I'm serious! Ya don't wanna talk to a chopped-off head all day, do ya?”
The closet door squealed on its hinges as it slammed opened the rest of the way, and the skinny arm snaked out and pulled itself across the carpet with its red-tipped fingers.
"Never mind, doll," said the head, "I'll manage."
Deegie watched in open-mouthed astonishment as, one by one, the rest of the disassembled parts of the young woman emerged from the closet and reattached themselves in the middle of the floor. A fully formed female finally stood before her. Deegie gaped and blinked. "Before all the gods, that's the craziest damn materialization I ever seen!"
The ghost cocked her head this way and that until the neck bones aligned with a meaty snap. “There we are! Much better!” She smoothed her rumpled dress and added, “I’m Tildy. Pleased to meet ya!”
"My name’s Deegie. What the hell happened to you?" Deegie realized how insensitive that sounded a second after she said it. "Oh crap... I'm... so sorry. I didn't mean..."
"No worries,” Tildy knelt and gathered her fallen hairpins "I have the damnedest time putting all me pieces together, but it don't hurt." She twirled her matted hair into a vague semblance of an updo and jabbed the pins into it at random.
"That’s where he put me after he chopped me up, you know." The ghost pointed a hairpin at the closet she'd just spilled from. "That selfsame wardrobe right there."
"Oh. I um... I'm so sorry." Deegie winced; the backstories of the dead could be hard to hear sometimes.
"What do you want from me? How can I help? Do you need me to guide you over to the other side? I can do that."
"No." Tildy's pallid face lost its good humored twinkle and her body grew semi - transparent; it flickered, as if she were about to disappear.
"No, wait!" Deegie scooted off the bed and stood in front of the wavering ghost. "Don't go. Please. I'm sorry I was rude. It's just that my car broke down, and I have to stay in this dump for an entire week while it gets fixed. It can make a girl grouchy, you know?"
"The old man sells chocolates in the lobby," Tildy said with a wink. "Best medicine ever for a case o' the grouchies." Her head wobbled on its unsteady neck, and her frowsy updo lost a few more pins.
"Yeah." Deegie cocked a thumb at her bulging overnight bag and grinned, "I'm well stocked."
"Wise girl." Tildy drifted over to the bed and sniffed an empty chocolate wrapper. "Ah, to be able to taste it again..." she sighed.
"Yeah, that's gotta suck," Deegie looked down guilty at the orange cheese curl dust on her fingers. "But anyway, what's up? I mean, ghosts don't generally appear unless they need something from the living, right?"
"Something like that, yeah." Tildy tugged at the neck line of her dress until it covered the gaping slice in her shoulder. "I was hopin' you could help me find something I hid away when I was still – you know – alive.”
"Yes," Deegie said. A needle of pity stabbed at her heart; Tildy was bizarre, but likeable. "I can help you with that. But why me? I mean, surely it's been well over a hundred years since you – you know. Haven't others come along who have abilities?"
"None like you." Tildy's hazel eyes misted over. "A lot of fake mystics who wouldn't know a wee ghost if it shat on the rug."
Deegie sputtered giggles behind both hands, and Tildy laughed back, straightening her wobbly head.
"Lots of tourists passin' through, men cheatin' on their wives, and maybe a few who could sense me or see me, but they got scared and ran off. You're the only one who offered to help, miss. Just you. I knew it when I saw you comin' down the hallway."
Tildy grew misty-eyed again, and Deegie raised a hand. "No tears, now. It interferes with my abilities."
“How?” Tildy adjusted her hair pins and frowned.
"Never mind. Just tell me your story."
"Aye," Tildy nodded, holding her head in place, then seated herself on the ugly chest of drawers. "I'll tell you. From the beginning."
She was born in 1848 to an illiterate mother, and a cruel alcoholic father. When that father finally drank himself to kingdom come, Tildy's mother, Patsy, inherited and took over the Hotel Torrington. Although they still ate turnips and potatoes on most nights, it was a blessing to be in control of their own future and free from the liquor-sodden grip of Mr. Torrington.
When Tildy was sixteen, Mrs. Torrington decided to turn the hotel into a bawdy house and gave her daughter the option to sign on as one of the 'sportin' women'.
"Ye might as well make a little money with what ya got between your legs," Mrs. Torrington said. "Lord knows ya ain't got a brain in ya head for anything else."
And so Tildy became a prostitute. After an initial period of hesitation, she became inured to the nightly parade of men and their lewd requests, and she began to enjoy a few of the finer things in life. For the first time.
On an unseasonably warm day in March, one of the town crazies had had a quarrel with his woman over his frequent visits to the Hotel Torrington. Bitter and sulking, he overmedicated himself at one of the local watering holes. Befuddled by alcohol, the man's already unstable mind deduced that the only logical thing to do would be to grab the axe he used to cut wood for the stove and head on over to the hotel.
Tildy's mother had just finished bagging up the earnings for the week when the axe-man came to call. She still had the leather money pouch in her hand when she and her bevy of soiled doves were pursued through the rooms and hallways. One by one, the good time girls of the Hotel Torrington were snatched from their hiding places and slaughtered by the drunk with the axe.
Halfway down the long hallway to the back door, Tildy's mother stumbled and fell. Aging and obese, she was unable to run any longer. She flung the money bag at her daughter with a "Take this! Hide it and get out of here!"
Despite her horror, Tildy did as she was told, but she never made it out. Hers was one of the seven bodies that were removed, piece by piece, from the Hotel Torrington that evening.
"He did me in right here in this very room. Put all me pieces right there in the wardrobe." Tildy said, finishing up her gruesome tale.
"Killed me mum. I heard it."
"That's awful," was all Deegie managed to say. She couldn't imagine the horror this girl must have endured on that dark day. At any rate, it only strengthened her resolve to help this sad, funny ghost.
"I don't remember where I hid that money bag, though." Tildy went on. "Don't remember for the life of me. Or the death of me, I should say!" She laughed so heartily at her own joke that her arm became detached again and it fell to the raggedy carpet with a plop.
"Aw, damn it all!" Tildy hopped down from the chest of drawers to reattach her stubborn limb.
"So, you hid the money, but you don't remember where. Any idea at all? Upstairs? Downstairs? Somewhere in between?" Deegie asked as she watched Tildy put herself back together again.
"No idea whatsoever." Tildy was replacing her left foot now, which had fallen off in the struggle to reattach her arm, "I remember putting it on top of two boards that went like this," She angled her hands into an 'L' shape to demonstrate.
"Well, that doesn't really narrow it down, does it?"
"No, but when you're runnin' from a man with an axe, it's easy to forget where you put things, ain't it?" Tildy buttoned her high-topped shoe and boosted herself back onto the chest of drawers.
"I'm sure," Deegie said. "I'm also sure that money's worth a lot more now. Coin collectors would go nuts for a find like that."
"Hell yes. Buncha' gold coins it were. The gold miners loved this place. Anyway, I can't cross over till it's found. The other girls got to, and me mum got to, but not me. Somethin' about havin' unfinished business or some such."
"We'll find it," Deegie said, hoping her words were comforting.
"Yeah, well ya can't keep it," Tildy said sharply. "It's gotta stay in the family."
"Of course. I wouldn't—wait, you still have living family members?”
"O' course I do, ya silly head! A family's gotta go on, don't it? Me mum’s sister took this place over afterwards.”
Deegie nodded, feeling uncharacteristically intimidated by the feisty little ghost.
"One of my relatives runs this place right now, in fact."
"Yup!" Tildy giggled at the look on Deegie's face. "That old man in the lobby? That's Nate Torrington!” She furrowed her brow, trying to remember what to call him. “I don’t know if he’s a cousin, or a great-great nephew or what. Never could get that straight. He took out a mortgage on this place some time ago, and that money would go a long ways towards paying it back. Prob’ly with a lot left over, too! Why, he might even put one o' them fancy piss-pots in every room!"
"Bathroom," Deegie corrected with a wry grin. "It's called a bathroom."
Deegie and Tildy began their search for the bag of money late that evening, after old Nate had gone to bed. At Deegie's suggestion, they started in the basement. Deegie stood in the middle of the dank, subterranean room with her arms outstretched and her eyes closed. She called on the ancient gods and her own natural ability, then sent her mind out to search. Tildy hovered close by, wavering back and forth, and fading in and out as if she were smoke on a windy day.
Deegie sensed the generations of people who had once been in this basement. There were so many of them, layers of energies left behind. Some recent, others decades old. But these were mundane energies left behind by ordinary people living ordinary lives. Nothing dramatic or horrifying had ever taken place here.
"It's not down here, Tildy." Deegie said. "I don't feel anything. Come on, let's look somewhere else."
All through the night the search went on with Deegie locating nothing more valuable than a few Indian head pennies which had fallen behind a radiator. Looking out the window of a rarely-used maid's room on the second floor, she noticed the sun just beginning to peer over the Pacific Ocean.
"Tildy, I need sleep," Deegie announced stifling, a yawn. "I can't do much psychic work when I'm tired."
"It was easy for me to work when I was tired," Tildy said. "Hell, I was laying down anyway, wasn't I?" She laughed merrily, slapping her skinny thighs and losing more hairpins.
Deegie offered a sleepy smile, Tildy was annoying, yet endearing at the same time. "I'll help you look some more tomorrow night. Promise."
The raven-haired witch slept until noon, when an insistent tapping from the closet awakened her.
Tap - tap - taptap - tap.
Thunk - thunk! Deegie finished the familiar sequence with two sleepy knocks on the wall. "Hello, Tildy," she said around a huge yawn. "It's not time to get up yet."
But the prostitute's ghost was insistent; a barrage of taps and stifled giggles issued from the closet. Tildy's voice, muffled and indistinct, said, "Let me oooooout! I'm stuck in the wardroooobe!"
Deegie threw an empty water bottle at the closet door. "Hush! Let me sleep!"
Tildy opened the door a crack and peered out at Deegie. "Boooo!" she said.
"Okay, okay. I'm up!" Deegie sat up, grumpy and craving caffeine. "And why do you call it a wardrobe, anyway? It's a closet."
Tildy left the dark confines of the closet and shrugged her transparent shoulders. "It's supposed to be a wardrobe. Somewhere along the line, somebody took it out and put this here instead. Hell, there's been so many changes to this place over the years. Sometimes I think there's entire rooms missing!" She shrugged again, with less enthusiasm this time
"That's progress for ya I s'pose. Now come on! Let's look some more! We can check the attic tonight when Nate’s asleep.”
They explored the rest of the second floor, gaining access to the empty rooms with a passkey Tildy had stolen from the office.
Old money, Deegie told the seeking, psychic part of her brain, old things, lost things, where was Tildy that night?
She homed in on a few more old coins, the shredded front page of a nineteenth century newspaper, and an ivory handled buttonhook; ordinary items lost by ordinary – but long dead – people. She could even discern part of the wild, looping trail of terrified energy left by Tildy as she ran for her life on that fateful night. It was weak after so many years, and partially buried under the layers of so many other events, but it was there. The long-lost money bag, however, wasn’t.
"Tildy, I don't think it's here," Deegie said at last as she leaned against the faded wall paper in the second floor hallway. She felt drained, exhausted, and the psychic part of her brain protested mightily. "Someone must have found it and taken it."
"There's still the attic!" Tildy insisted, stamping her foot. "It has to be there, it just has to! Nobody found it! I hid it well and proper! I did!"
In a fit of pique Tildy disappeared, leaving Deegie by herself in the dusty hallway.
"Aw, jeez." Deegie out her frustrations in a long breath. "I tried," she said to the empty hallway. "I really did."
Her head took on a dull, painful thump, a sure sign that she was pushing herself a bit too hard. She relaxed against the wall, focusing on deep, slow breaths. Her eyes, still in seek and find mode, swept up and down the walls of the old building, looking for something that was no longer there.
The axe-man found it and took it after he killed her. Deegie thought. That must be what happened. Tildy's been looking for something that's long gone.
She felt bad, of course. Terrible, in fact. Despite her somewhat coarse exterior, she took great comfort in helping people. Even the ones who no longer walked among the living.
"I'm sorry, Tildy." She headed back to her room to find something to eat and, hopefully, to grab a few more hours of sleep before tonight's search of the attic.
As she unlocked the door of room #3, Deegie noticed something odd: room number three had once been room #4. Behind the metal number three affixed to the door, she saw the faint outline of a number four. Although it had been painted over at least twice, it was plainly visible; she wondered how she'd missed it before.
How weird. No wonder Tildy's so mixed up.
Since there were no phones in the rooms at the Hotel Torrington, Deegie used her cell phone to order a pizza and have it delivered.
The employee on the other end sounded chipper and helpful until she told him where to deliver her meal.
"Oh! Uh, sorry, but, uh, we don't deliver out that way."
"I see." Deegie sensed the lie in the young man's voice. "Is it because of the ghost?"
The pizza man muttered something about a "bad part of town," and hung up.
"Chicken shit," Deegie said to the dead air at the end of the line. She settled for some stale chips and a granola bar instead, then settled in for a nap.
The minute she felt herself drifting off, she heard Tildy's familiar "shave-and-a-haircut" routine on the closet door. "Damnit, Tildy. That's so annoying!" But she was secretly gladdened by the reappearance of the ghostly hooker; she had grown quite fond of her over the past couple of days.
"Boooo!" Tildy bounced out of her dark lair, carrying her own grinning head under her arm. "Howdy, doll! Just let me get me head back on me shoulders and we'll have us another look, yeah? We're gonna find it tonight, Deegie! I just know we are!"
But the attic search yielded nothing more than a lot of dust and some broken bed frames.
"Well, horse pucky!" Tildy seated herself on the bottom step after they'd come down from the attic. "You're right. It ain't here."
"I'm sorry, Tildy," said Deegie, sitting beside her friend. "I tried."
"I know ya did, and I love ya ta pieces for it, but if it ain't here, then why can't I move on? I want to see me mum again, and Maybelle, and Ugly Mary, and the rest of the girls. It ain't fair, Deegie. It just ain’t!"
"No," Deegie said. "It isn't." This doesn't make sense, she thought, if the money bag's gone, then she has no unfinished business. What the hell is keeping her here then?
"I don't want to stay here anymore," Tildy sighed. "I been here so damn long." Her ear fell off and landed on the floor next to her feet. She gazed at it morosely, but made no move to pick it up.
"Tildy, I'm so sorry," Deegie hated to repeat herself, but she didn't know what else to say. Frustration compounded frustration; she'd been unable to locate the missing money, and she could not do anything else for Tildy. She felt the sting of tears, and she studied the row of doors to distract herself.
Count the doors, Deeg. Don't cry. You did your best. She repeated it to herself over and over, while Tildy quietly sobbed beside her. Six doors, wearing countless coats of off-white paint. She let her eyes linger over each one, taking in all the details, and noticing that doors number 4, 5 and 6 each bore the ghostly outline of the number ahead of it. Just like the door of the room number 3.
She put aside her sadness for now and let curiosity take over. Deegie left the bottom step for a closer look at the doors while she waited for Tildy to compose herself.
Doors number one and two looked normal enough; there were no shadow-numbers. In between doors number 2 and 3 was a short wall, just wide enough for an end table with a sickly ficus resting on top. Weird how the other doors don't have a space like that she thought.
Behind her, Tildy's sobs had slowed to an occasional sniffle and front of her, a sagging piece of wall paper flapped sluggishly in the breeze from an air vent. The motion caused it to slip even further down the wall, exposing a horizontal crack about a foot from the ceiling--a crack too perfect and even to be anything but the top of a door.
Hope renewed and fluttered in her chest. Deegie shoved aside the end table and the yellow-leafed ficus. Then, fully realizing she was committing an act of vandalism, she grabbed the end of the fluttering wall paper and yanked hard. It came free easily enough, releasing a puff of dust and vintage wall paper paste as it fell to the floor. Deegie peeled away another ragged strip, and revealed what she already knew was there: another door. The framing and door handle had been removed so the wallpaper would lie flat, and the cracks, except for the top, had been sealed with putty.
She stood in awe for a moment, staring at her discovery, then rose up on tip toes and placed her hand flat against the crack at the top of the door. The stark, desperate energy she felt nearly galvanized her arm, numbing it all the way to the elbow.
Old things, lost things - it's here! The money is here!
She ripped her hand free and whirled around. "Tildy! I found it! It's here!" Her hands trembled wildly as she began picking at the putty with her stubby nails.
Tildy's head rolled and tumbled down the hallway, her body stumbling after it. Her hands groped around blindly for her head, picked it up by its tousled hair, and reconnected it. "You found it." Her voice was surprisingly calm, and her hazel eyes grew huge in her face. "I think... oh my sainted hat... I think this is my room, Deegie. I think this is where it happened! I feel scared. Why am I scared?"
Deegie turned to her friend and tried to put her arms around her; they went right through the ghostly hooker's body.
"Ssh," Deegie soothed. "Don't be scared, Tildy. You're just feeling all that chaotic energy that's been trapped in here. Nothing bad will happen, I promise. The money's in here. I can feel it! And just think - very soon you'll be with her mom and your friends. Okay?"
Tildy nodded, overcome. Then she disappeared completely, except for her voice. "This is where it happened. Not in your room, in this room!"
"They must have sealed the door and papered over it after... well... after it happened." She picked out a few more crumbs of putty with her nails, then wiped her fingers on her skirt. "This isn't going to work. I need a knife, or a screwdriver, or something. I'll be right back."
She ducked into her room, just a few feet away, and rummaged through her purse for a suitable tool. She came up with a pocket knife, a metal nail file and her ring of keys. It would have to do. Taking these, she hurried back to the real room number 3.
Chunks of putty rained down on the carpet as she worked. Tildy, still unseen, hovered close by, making sounds of alternating excitement and despair. The last chip fell away and Deegie gave the door a hesitant push.
It swung open easily, even after being sealed shut for over a hundred years, revealing a room almost identical to Deegie's. Against the back wall, next to the single boarded-up window, sat Tildy's wardrobe.
"I don't want to go in," Tildy whispered.
"You don't have to. I'll go. It's in here, Tildy. I can feel it so strongly." With her nail file, she sliced through the thick layer of cobwebs that veiled the open doorway, then, taking a deep breath of the dust - filled air, Deegie stepped inside.
The atmosphere of the room was so dark and full of horror it became an almost tangible thing. It dragged the breath from her lungs and wrapped around her legs; moving around the room was like walking through thick, icy syrup. As often happened when she explored old buildings, the memories contained in this room started to play like a movie in her mind.
She forced herself to not react, to focus on her breathing, to just home in on the money bag she knew was in this room. But the scenes of horror and blood flashing through her mind were incredibly graphic, even for Deegie: The axe, rising and falling again and again; the harsh grunts of exertion from the killer, mixed with Tildy's desperate pleas; and blood - so damn much of it.
Money bag, full of old coins, hidden by two boards in the shape of an L.
She held her hands out in front of her to better feel the powerful call of the long lost coins, and turned in a slow circle, eyes closed. A small space between the windows and its board let in a silver of daylight that snagged in Deegie's hair. Dust motes, stirred up by her movements, danced and shivered in the air. When the siren song of the money reached its apex, Deegie stopped and opened her eyes.
The wardrobe, thick with dust and festooned with cobwebs stood directly in front of her. It was here, in the very same spot where Tildy's dismembered corpse had been discovered over a hundred years ago.
Deegie ran a finger over the wardrobe's brass door knob, then took it in her hand and turned it. It was like holding a handful of ice; her fingers went instantly numb. She opened the wardrobe door, and her breath billowed out in a white plume.
The wardrobe's interior was daubed and splashed and spattered with tell-tale brown stains. Deegie looked at them and swallowed hard, rubbing her arms as if trying to smooth down the goose bumps that rose there.
Two boards in the shape of an L, two boards in the shape of an L...
"Where?" She asked aloud.
Aside from the brown bloodstains, the old wardrobe held nothing but the smell of dust and stale air. Her eyes traveled from the wooden bottom, past the worst of the brown stains, then up the back wall with its row of brass coat hooks.
At the very top of the wardrobe were the wooden brackets that supported the top panel and its decorative gee-gaws. Wooden brackets in the shape of an upside down L. On top! It's on top!
When she stood on tip-toes she was just able to reach the top of the wardrobe and the brittle leather pouch resting there.
It was much heavier than she thought it would be. Deegie loosened the drawstrings and looked inside. The light from the hallway reflected off dozens of gold coins. Exuberant, she clutched the money pouch to her chest and dashed back out into the hallway.
"Tildy! I found it! Where are you?"
She materialized right in front of Deegie. Her head was askew and her hair hung in her eyes, but her grateful smile was one of the most beautiful things Deegie had ever seen.
"Oh, thank ya, thank ya! Bless ya, Deegie, thank ya!"
Tildy threw her arms around her, but they passed right through Deegie's body. She tried to pluck the money bag from Deegie's hand and laughed when she couldn't do it. "I can go now, Deegie! Bless ya, bless ya!"
The insistent warble of the cell phone in Deegie's pocket interrupted the happy moment: her car was repaired and ready, three days earlier than she expected. She hadn't even realized it was morning. She explained her situation to Tildy and promised to be right back, but when she got no reply, she realized that the ghost had disappeared.
She returned to the Hotel Torrington a short while later, relieved, happy, and eager to drive back to Fiddlehead Creek. All she needed to do now was say goodbye to Tildy and hand over the money to old Nate Torrington.
Back in her room, Deegie called out to her ghostly friend, "Tildy, I'm back!"
The room was still and silent.
"Tildy?" Deegie put her knuckles to the closet door and rapped out shave-and-a-haircut.
"Tildy? You there, hun?"
A passing seagull squawked and cackled as it flew over the old hotel, but that was all. Tildy had crossed over at last.
Deegie gathered her belongings and retrieved the money pouch from under the bed.
In the hotel office, she found Nate Torrington busily flicking a feather duster over the mismatched furniture. He looked up from his task and flashed his three toothed smile.
"Leavin' early are ya?" he asked.
"Yes. My car's been repaired, and I'm ready to go. I've enjoyed my stay."
"Well hold on then, girlie. Let me pay you back for a couple of days." He shuffled back behind the desk, heading for the register.
"No, no, that won't be necessary," Deegie said, and she stepped forward with the money bag. "Here. I have something that belongs to you."
The old leather split open when she set it on the counter; the gold coins spilled out and rolled across the desk.
The old man's eyes went from the coins to Deegie and back again. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down, and tears filled his faded blue eyes.
"Where... where did you find this?"
"Let's just say I stumbled across it down the hall from my room." She said with a deliberate vagueness. She briefly considered apologizing for the damage she'd done to the wallpaper but, under the circumstances, she didn't think old Nate would mind. The crumbly leather pouch held more than enough money for new wallpaper and more.
"What? But…where? Where did you…" Wonderingly, he ran gnarled fingers through the pile of coins.
"Let's just say a friend told me about them," Deegie said, and she turned to go.
Just before she stepped out of the office, a station wagon with a fully loaded luggage rack pulled into the parking lot.
"Looks like you have some more guests," said Deegie. "There weren't any others during my stay. Not that I noticed."
"Of course there was," Nate said with a wink. "Long term guest, in fact. Been here longer than I have."
"I think she checked out," Deegie told him. "Good bye, Mr. Torrington. Take care."
On her way out to her car, something orange and black swooped across her field of vision, and she stopped, wondering what she'd just seen.
An enormous Monarch butterfly circled around her head and alit on her shoulder. As Deegie watched, the creature's delicate wings pumped up and down a few times, then it lifted off and spiraled high into the sky, higher than she'd ever seen a butterfly go. And as it soared away, Deegie caught the faint aroma of violets.
I hope you enjoyed this Deegie Tibbs short story. Deegie is the feisty witch from my series, The Complicated Life of Deegie Tibbs. Ordering info can be found on my Amazon author's page. (see link below)