It was a too hot July day and Quinn and Andy Philips spent most of it in their hotel room. Smallton had long ago lost its supposed “charms,” The “lovely” antique shops were closed for the summer and the “real home cooking” restaurants were hole-in-the-wall beer joints where once-upon-a-time bikers made frozen steaks and instant cakes for the few lonely widowers dwelling in its hills. Quinn pulled her waist length strawberry blonde hair to the side and braided it. Then she pulled it into a bun and fastened it to the top of her head. Her thin wrists were sore from doing most of the carrying of the rented camera equipment. Andy, her twin, had come along for support and been real good at it but was little use for anything else. He spent his time reading a graphic novel on a real life serial killer in the shade of the few trees in Smallton Square. Smallton was barely a dot on the road map. If you went past it on the freeway you’d never know you’d been. It had once been pretty famous around the cult circuit for being a real life ghost town. It was a hot spot for psychics, writers, and ghost hunters. They’d caught a ghost leaning over a balcony watching the host on one popular TV show and it boosted business for a couple of months. It was short lived, though after the hurricane wiped out most of Louisiana and sent the camera crews racing to get footage of the zombies and ghosts left behind. When Quinn’s best friend, Donna, was killed in a car accident Quinn had become obsessed with finding proof of life after death. She found the Hotel Snow’s website where customers could upload the footage they’d found while staying there. Orbs, half faces, mp3s of groans and creaking staircases captured her heart. Smallton was four hours away and she’d convinced her professor to let her do a live-action essay on the old forgotten landmarks in Smallton for her final. He agreed and said it had better be good. Quinn knew it would be. She watched the scene over and over of the host of the Ghost Hunters TV show talking with the owner of Hotel Snow while a spirit watched them from above. It sent chills down her arms. Andy was too engrossed with his novel to really care about anything his sister was saying. He watched the video with her and found it amusing but that was all. He only went along because he knew she needed him too. Quinn was frail after Donna’s death. That day she quit eating meat or anything dairy. She lived off of supplements and vitamins. He’d become a vegan long before she had and tried to help her stay healthy while she converted but Quinn was on a mission not of health but avoidance. She avoided death the way some people avoid germs. Her obsession with ghosts didn’t strike her as odd, as Andy had said. Nothing really phased her as odd anymore. Not her paling skin, thinning waistline, or weak muscles. She was on a mission to catch death on her camera or EVP recorder. Maybe one of the voices would be Donna.
It was late afternoon when they finally wondered out from their hotel room and into the diner. Quinn carried her tape recorder, EVP recorder, camera, thermal imager, and laptop with her at all times. She was weighted down to stooping but Andy made no attempt to help her. She was getting on his nerves and he didn’t have the heart to tell her. He showed her instead by not taking part in this desperate attempt to contact the dead. They settled in at a booth in the back. The smell of beef filled not only the restaurant but the whole town. Since the town was settled in the 1800's it’d housed one of the biggest beef farms in the US. Half the beef in stores all across America was raised in Smallton. The rest was cheap pink slime to them. The prided themselves in their thick steaks. The cows were treated like royalty. No herding them into small stalls not letting the muscles grow and no growth-hormones for these cows. They were grain-fed and happy roaming the land freely. It was their secret to the best tasting beef on the market. They had the restaurant market cornered and their beef was used in the finest five star restaurants only celebrities and royalty ate at. Quinn didn’t care about that. Who was she to knock them for slaughtering real live living creatures to make a living for themselves. Every part of the cow was used. Hide for clothing outlets leather jackets priced at $4,000 a pop, bones for cosmetic stores and JELLO, their eyeballs and brains delicacies shipped over seas for foreign dignitaries. Quinn didn’t care about that. She ordered oatmeal hold the butter and milk and an orange juice. The waitress was fat with three pencils behind her ear who never smiled and always sweat. Andy ordered the same. Quinn pulled out her laptop and looked at the days itinerary. She was going to interview Max Snow, owner of Hotel Snow, and the guy on the video she kept minimized on her computer ready to pop up and play at all times of the day. Then Deshaundra Milo, the hairdresser who claims one of the stations is haunted by the owner of the barber shop that used to be there. She looked over her notes and ate mindlessly. Andy was reading and every now and then peeking his eyes over the top of his hardcover and staring at his sister. He listened to the conversations around him. Talk of beef, talk of relatives, talk of who was getting how much. He didn’t feel like eating his oatmeal. He wanted something more solid. Tofu sausage and quinoa with fresh tomato and cut up papaya. The meat on their plates looked good and he could almost see their smell like in a cartoon beckoning him to eat, enjoy, live. He scooped a heap of oatmeal and let it slosh back into the bowl.
“I’m tired of being here,” he admitted.
“It’s only been two days,” Quinn said. She drank her orange juice in one gulp and went back to her laptop.
“That’s two days too long. You owe me big for this,” he eyed her but she wasn’t paying attention. She packed up her bag and stood to leave.
“I’m going ahead. Use the card to pay and meet me at the hotel.” She left before he could protest and he turned back to his oatmeal. Before Quinn had even left someone slid into the booth where she had just been.
“Hello,” said a deep and mellow female voice. It was the seductive voice only a black woman could do and Andy could listen to it for hours. He had once only listened to black female singers to sooth his anxiety disorder. Now he took pills but it wasn’t the same. He looked over at the speaker, a tall lean caramel colored woman with long silk hair and long pink nails. She was eyeing him up and down with green contacts and rubbing her shin with her golden heel.
“I’m Deshaundra Milo. I think I’m supposed to meet your sister today,” she said. Andy noticed how she didn’t fit in with the gruff cowboys and toughened broads in Smallton. She was an outsider.
“Oh, yeah. I’m Andy Philips. Nice to meet you.”
“I don’t think I can make it today. You see, I forgot all about this pageant we’re having and I have to do all the girls hair when school gets out. I can do it tomorrow, though. Will you still be here?”
“Oh, yes,” said Andy. He was smiling his best flirtatious smile and hoping she picked up on his attraction to her.
“Good,” she said and stretched out a long hand for him to take, “Pleasure to meet you,” she said and stood to leave. Andy took her hand and kissed it lightly. He waved good bye and was able to finally gobble up his oatmeal.
“Tell us about the hotel, sir,” Quinn said. She was very proper and serious. Max Snow liked that. Some of the college kids who came out here to talk about the beef were more laid back and country. It was alright but it made the whole thing seem unreal. He liked talking to a real reporter even if she was just a student. She’d make a good one someday.
“Well, this used to be the best Hotel in the south. My great-great-great-great grandaddy ordered its construction. Beautiful place. Lots of smart folks would come up here and relax a little. See that lake over there?”
Quinn moved the camera and panned it over the lake in the distance. A great shot, she thought.
“That water was said to have healing powers. Hot Springs, Arkansas has its own little business with the magic water but Smallton’s water wasn’t just healing. It was the real fountain of youth.”
“Well, folks said it was the silt. If you scrubbed it on your body the wrinkles would vanish over night and you’d have amazing clean skin when you woke up. It really was awesome to read about. I read in some papers it was jarred up and someone tried to sell it as ‘Mike’s Magic Mud’ but he got caught stealing it off our shores and jailed up for a time. The city wanted it to be free. This was before everyone went mad for money. A real peaceful time when good folks took care of good folks. Everyone loved thy neighbor.”
“I wish it was like that now,” said Quinn. Max smiled at her and she smiled back. They had good rapport. Quinn looked down at the thermal image recorder. She couldn’t wait to review the tapes tonight.
“It’ll be Halloween in three weeks. Used to be we had our reservation book full of people wanting to take our ghost tour. Now, its bare as the horror book shelf down at Melvin’s.”
“Ghost tour?” Quinn was intrigued.
“Yeah. Me or Dalton walk through the hotel and give a little information on the ghosts we know haunt here.”
“Will you take me?” Quinn asked.
“Sure. Starts at six p.m. but we can do it now if you’d like.” Quinn nodded and Max hitched up his pants.
“Let me grab a water and I’ll met you here in five. You want one? On the house?”
Quinn nodded and primped in the mirror. A ghost tour sounded fun. She wasn’t as scared as she thought she would be. Now, if only Andy would get here. He soon was and he had the face of a man in lust. He told Quinn about Deshaundra not being able to do the interview today. Quinn could’ve cared less. She told him about the ghost tour. He agreed to carry the camera behind them. Max was back and tossed Quinn the water bottle. He led them to the staircase of the Hotel Snow and when Andy gave him the signal began his long practiced speech about the stairs.
“Back when the hotel was under construction it was an old wives tale to put a quarter on the first step to ward away bad spirits who were known to push construction workers off their beams and to their deaths. A man named Jensen was religious about it. Daily he put his quarter down and picked it up on his way home. He said his prayers and kissed his wife’s forehead every night before bed and prayed for safety as they worked on the hotel. My great-great-great-great grandaddy ordered more floors when he saw how glorious the hotel looked being built. Jensen loved it too and began to feel real good about the work he was doing. He had long believed it wasn’t him working on the hotel but the spirits giving him the knowledge of what to do and when to do it. He was laughed at by most of the men and it was wearing him down. He began to hesitate before he put his quarter down. He forgot to pick it up a couple nights in a row. Instead of kissing his wife’s forehead he made love to her and would fall asleep right after forgetting to pray. When the hotel reached its sixteenth floor Jensen was no longer concerned with pleasing the spirits in the building. He was proud of himself and shared a pint with the boys after work. He went to work on the morning of November eleventh and never left the hotel again. His body did, sure. But his spirit stayed. At night you can see him staring down at his broken body from the sixteenth floor fourth window,” Andy panned the camera up and watched the windows.
“Also, if you happen to be walking up the steps you’ll see something shiny, maybe a quarter, but when you go to reach for it its gone.”
“That’s so sad,” said Quinn. She looked at the windows above her and saluted.
“Now, if you direct your attention to the tenth floor second window on the left you’ll see a black ribbon tied to the shutter keeping them shut. That’s because of Mabel Anne Ramsay. She was a pretty thing. You can see her pictures in the elevators. We got all their pictures, that we know for sure are the people still residing in the hotel, in the elevators for light reading. Mabel Anne Ramsay was a rascal as well. Her father came to Smallton for the beef, as many men did at that time, wanting a piece of the action. The Cloud family at that time was the elite in the cattle business.