Caller Unknown

by M. L. McIntosh

part 1


“What do you mean the expo was canceled?” Kelly threw her hands up in a mix of exhaustion and exasperation.

“I mean if you wanted your money back, you should have paid better attention. We got the notice three days ago” was the stern reply from the lady at the Barker Hotel check-in desk. Her hairline was beginning to recede from years of dutiful straightening.

Ramona tapped her fingers on the counter like it was the world’s largest castanet. “And we can’t get a refund, for real?”

“For real, I ain’t” — the hospitality specialist paused for effect — “even playing.”

“But that’s over two hundred dollars! We’re belly dancers, not actual Arabian Princesses.”

The lady blinked. “You guys are belly dancers? For real? That’s pretty cool. Okay, I tell you what. I’ll see if we can try to work something out for you guys in the morning.”

“That’d be amazing, since our big workshop series has been pulled out from under us.”

“Yeah, just like a magic carpet,” the clerk added coyly.

We haven’t gotten many flying carpet jokes, Ramona thought as Kelly and the clerk continued to negotiate. Kelly usually did the talking, being the more experienced performer of the two. It was another way to say Kelly had a longer record of being messed around on account of being a belly dancer.

“And nobody told you, for real? Here” — the desk clerk reached in a drawer below, and Ramona could hear her rummaging — “These are the keys to our executive suite. Nobody ever uses it. Oh, and take this, too.” She reached beneath the counter and pulled out two eight-inch ticket stubs, “These are good for the diner here. I mean, it ain’t great food, but it beats wandering the ’burbs of Chicago looking for a White Castle.”

“Thanks, we really appreciate it,” Kelly answered.

“Do you guys teach around here or anything?”

“Nah,” Kelly answered. “We’re from Lexington.”

The clerk smiled. “Really? I’m from Louisville. Ya’ll have a good one!” the clerk said as Kelly and Ramona picked up their sequin-studded duffel bags.

“You too!” Kelly replied.

The clerk shook her head as they walked away. “Man, belly dancers. You never know what’s gonna come up in here.”

* * *

Kelly and Ramona sat wedged in the hole-in-the-lobby-wall diner. Kelly leaned her fist against her elbow. “Dammit! How can an entire expo be canceled?”

“You think we’ll get refunded?”

“At least our money. We can’t get our time back.”

Ramona morosely sucked on the straw leading to her margarita. Her forehead bloomed with brain freeze. As it died down, she added, “I mean, I planned to make some money this weekend, not take an impromptu vacation.” Ramona scooped her burrito up with a spoon.

“I’m so tired,” Kelly sighed, then her phone bloomed to life with the main line to Kitten Pig.

Kelly dug through her purse, the cold feeling of panic whipping through her chest. It always did when the phone rang, and she was away from home. Her mother was in and out of the hospital these days with the side effects of chemotherapy, and Kelly couldn’t tell who was suffering more, Mom’s cancer or Mom.

Ramona froze, waiting for Kelly to answer. It was the rhythm of their lives since Kelly’s mom had fallen ill. Move and freeze. Wait, then sigh with relief. Or Kelly would jump up and Ramona would pack their things and follow. It was driven deeper then baledy, ayoub, ciftitelli, or any other beat the dancers knew. The rhythm of knowing that someday, the call would be bad.

“I shouldn’t have come up,” Kelly murmured as she answered the phone. “Hey, Mom. Are you okay?”

Ramona watched Kelly’s face to see if she needed to grab their bags. Kelly looked relieved. “Yeah, we’re fine. Bad news, though. The stupid thing is canceled. Yeah, we’re coming back in the morning. I know. I know. Oh, no.”

Ramona bristled. What was wrong?

“Sounds like this weekend is a washout for everyone. I’m sorry about that, Mom. Can you take it back?” Kelly looked to Ramona and rolled her eyes, then smiled.

Ramona leaned back as Kelly hung up. “Mom bought the wrong sewing machine. I don’t know.” She shook her head.

“Did you ever dance to Kitten Pig?” Ramona asked. “I realize I probably ask you whenever your phone rings.”

“Yeah, as a troupe. It’s fine, we’re both exhausted.”

“I was just wondering. It’s Kitten Pig.”

“Yeah,” Kelly laughed. “That’s why we danced to it. We were a tribe of Kitten Pigs. Have you?”

Ramona looked comically beat. “Not in front of people.”

“We should do it, make a new routine. It’s a great song.”

“Damn right, it’s a great song.” Ramona looked over the cocktails list and considered a second Margarita. “It’s Kitten Pig.”

Kelly put her phone away. “C’mon, let’s pay up before I pass out.” Of course, the ticket stubs didn’t cover the whole meal, and there was a difference to pay.

The belly dancers packed their duffel bags across the lobby to the hotel’s only elevator. Its capacity was exactly four trim-and-packed-lightly people on an intimate ride. Kelly went to press the button. “Oh, there is no sixth floor.”

Ramona looked at the buttons. “Huh, that’s weird. You think she got it wrong?”

“You ladies headed to the sixth floor?” A bellhop swung around the elevator’s corner, stopping the door with one hand. “I’ll show you. It’s kinda indirect to get to.”

“Awesome.” Ramona surrendered her duffel to the bellhop’s outstretched arm.

As the elevator doors closed, the bellhop asked, “So, sixth floor, huh? Are you ghost hunters?”

“We’re belly dancers,” Kelly answered.

“Nice. Way cooler than ghost hunters,” the bellhop replied enthusiastically.

Kelly narrowed her eyes at the bellhop. “Why did you think we’re ghost hunters?”

“Didn’t Keisha tell you about the sixth floor?” The bellhop led them off the elevator and down the fifth floor hall. “Just this way, guys.” He opened the door at the end of the hall to reveal a narrow set of steps. The steps creaked under foot as they climbed. Ramona was fairly certain the stairs were too steep to meet modern building code.

Flame-shaped bulbs in faux gold sconces lined the sixth floor hallway. The air was close, as if they were visiting someone’s house. The carpet was an older, less-trodden maroon and faded landscape prints covered the walls. Apparently all the prints that looked too bad to keep in guest rooms came here to die.

“It’s just as well you’re not ghost hunters. Most people leave disappointed because it’s not the room that’s haunted.” He pointed down the hall to a door behind a retrofitted chain length fence. “This all used to be the servants’ quarters, where I’d be sleeping tonight,” he indicated the wallpapered hallway before them. “But they filled in the doors and papered it over because that side is continuous with the service hall. Almost nobody goes back where our supposed ghost is.”

Indeed, the wallpaper behind the console tables bearing silk flowers and old photographs looked subtly newer.

“Have you seen it?” Kelly asked.

The bellhop paused. “I wouldn’t say I’ve seen anything here that’s weirder than in any other hotel.”

“That’s an awfully big fence to keep guests out,” Ramona noted.

Kelly shrugged. “Well, if you’ve got a ghost hunter infestation, you probably need a big fence.”

“Anyhow,” — the bellhop inserted an old-fashioned key into the door — “we never updated the keys up here. Lends to that old world charm.” He held the door open for the belly dancers.

Kelly dug through her bag. “You’ll need a tip, right?”

“It’s not necessary, ladies, but much appreciated.” He beamed a smile at Ramona.

“So, the ghost is an old employee?” Ramona had a soft spot for ghost stories. She was the creepy schoolkid who loved Halloween a little too much.

“Well, the short version is that back in the ’20s a hotel maid, questionably with child, was jilted by her bellhop fiance. I know, quite the legacy Buddy the Bellhop has left us. Mary locked herself in the maids’ rooms for days, and all anybody could hear was her crying and the radio.”

He put a hand against the wall and leaned closer to Ramona. “No one could get in, except the guy with the skeleton key. Well, he went up there to get her out. He opens the door. She comes bursting out like a trapped bird, runs to the river and jumps in.

“A few days later, people started seeing her running down the hall, screaming. The staff thought maybe she’d got back out of the river, since they, you know, didn’t find her body. And then Buddy died of the flu right after that.”

“Ooh, creepy,” Kelly replied jovially as she handed the bellhop a five-dollar bill.

“If it gets too scary for you ladies,” — the bellhop pulled out a conventional key card and wrote a number on the back — “you can come to this room or call this number.” He handed the card to Kelly and paused. Ramona watched the exchange and the embarrassed look that flashed across her friend’s face.

Ramona raised an eyebrow. “I thought you said the room’s not haunted.”

The bellhop shrugged. “You never know.”

* * *

Kelly closed the door behind him. “Oh, my God,” she said as Ramona sprawled on the king-sized bed, rummaging her overnight bag on the floor. “He just finger-lingered me.”

“What?”

Kelly sat next to Ramona. “When he handed me the card, he did this.” Kelly took Ramona’s hand and rested her index finger on the back of Ramona’s hand, sliding her finger slowly over the surface until Ramona jerked away, laughing.

“He did not! Oh, my God, hopefully the ‘ghost’ doesn’t pinch our butts tonight, and we can rocket out in the morning.” Ramona reached for the remote and switched the TV on. The screen glowed to life with late night TV.

Kelly flipped the card over. “Oh, Jesus. It’s a hotel phone number.”

“Where he’s waiting to finger-linger us.”

There was a loud POP and the TV died.

“You’ve got to be kidding! This is some high-falutin’ suite,” Ramona said, disgusted, and dropped the remote onto the bed stand.

Kelly’s heart raced from the sound. “Okay, teeth brushing, bed, rocket. But the first butt pinch I feel, I’m out.”

Ramona lifted her toothbrush from her bag and regarded Kelly. “Baby.” The two sashayed past each other and Ramona shimmied into the bathroom with her brush and toothpaste. Dutifully she alternated feet in relevé as she brushed her teeth. She watched herself in the mirror to make sure her head didn’t bounce.

“Hey, they have the same wallpaper in here as the hall,” she noted, her mouth full of paste-foam. The pink lattice and floral print paper covered the walls and, odd enough, the ceiling. The paper extended over an obvious maintenance door above Ramona’s head. The paper had been glued right over it. Guess they don’t need it anymore.

Kelly set her duffel on the king-sized bed as the room phone rang. Kelly froze, staring at the phone. It couldn’t be about Mom, but Kelly got the same cold shock of fear when she heard any phone these days.

It rang again, and Ramona came from the bathroom. “You think it’s finger-linger?”

Kelly shrugged as Ramona advanced on the still-ringing phone. “Oh, don’t answer it!”

Ramona picked up the phone. “Hallo?”

“Room service,” a voice whispered.

“Please?” Ramona gave Kelly a perplexed look, and when the caller did not repeat, she shrugged. “No thanks.” She hung up.

“What was that?”

“Room service. But I thought that was the sort of thing we called down for.”

“Maybe it’s like last call for room service. We’re in the hoity-toit room. Maybe they were expecting an order.”

“Maybe it’s included.” Ramona perked up.

“Yeah, right,” Kelly said. “Let’s go to bed.”

“Some high-falutin’ guest suite, with only one bed,” Ramona grumbled as the two climbed into the king-sized bed. Kelly faced the window and Ramona the bathroom. Ramona turned out the lamp and they were plunged into almost total darkness.

Kelly’s eyes adjusted slowly as she focused on the window. The Barker Hotel was in the ’burbs, and not a lot of urban glow leaked around the closed curtains. They shifted gently as Kelly watched in the gloom. It was only the second weekend of October, but already there had been two hard frosts. It was going to be a long, cold winter. Kelly pulled the stiff sheets around her chin and tried not to listen for radio music. What did they listen to back then? Cab Calloway?

The curtains went still and Kelly’s eyes fluttered, then closed. She woke back up some time later with a little jerk. Ramona lay asleep, and Kelly could feel her friend’s breath slow and even.

The curtains swayed back and forth.

The heater must be on.

The curtains billowed out from the window.

This is the second hotel we’ve stayed in that put the air unit under the windows, like they’re trying to heat the glass.

Kelly desperately wanted to sleep, but the shadow of the curtain’s sway danced over her eyelids every time she shut them. There’s no heater over there.

The curtains flew out from the window, then fell back, still. Ramona shifted next to her.

Kelly was stuck between being too scared to speak aloud and the need to tell Ramona they should probably leave when she noticed the wind blowing against the window and felt cold air pass over her. It’s a draft. There’s a draft coming from the stupid window. She forced her tense muscles to relax as she watched the still curtains. Several minutes passed, and she drifted to sleep again.

* * *

Ramona’s eyes snapped open to a sound she couldn’t identify. Did she really hear something? The pipes above the bathroom? She shifted in the bed, trying not to wake Kelly. Ramona had driven most of the way up here, but Kelly would need to help drive tomorrow, and with her mom feeling bad, Kelly had been on edge the whole ride up.

Kelly was right. We shouldn’t’ve come. She must be crazy tired. Ramona tried to get comfortable on her left side. Her shoulders were stiff from the drive, and she tried to gently roll onto her back.

Man, it’s kinda bright in here. She looked over at the window. Now, I wonder why she did that. Kelly must have opened the curtains while Ramona was asleep. Maybe that’s what woke me up, but she seems pretty out of it.

Ramona looked out into the inky blackness of the window. What if you see something? Ramona turned back onto her left side. If a creepy face was suddenly gonna appear, she didn’t want to know about it.

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2016 by M. L. McIntosh

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