The Lady in Residence – Allison Pittman

The tour ended where it began—in the courtyard of the Alamo, the fortress bathed in white light, flags snapping in the night sky. Standing still after the nearly four-mile walk, Dini Blackstone felt the chill. The Victorian-esque costume she wore to lead the two-hour walking Alamo Haunting Spirits Ghost Tour of downtown San Antonio gave little warmth. Spring in this city was a meteorological frustration, and this was one of those nights when you could feel the temperature drop with every step. By the time they made it back to the plaza, those with coats were clutching them closer, and those without were stuffing their hands in their pockets and bouncing on the balls of their feet through the last of Dini’s spiel. “And so ends our tour of the haunts of the Alamo City. You may not believe there are such things as ghosts, and maybe you’re right. But what is a haunting, anyway? It’s something that stays with you. And I hope the worthy tales of our restless spirits will follow you home.” Like all of the tour guides with the Alamo Haunting Spirits Ghost Tour, she was allowed to embellish the narrative script with her own interjections, and Dini had been delivering the same lines for nearly five years. So comfortable was she with the patter that she sometimes drifted away, letting her mouth move along with her feet while her mind soared, only to come back midsentence—just in time for a spooky punch line. So she was now, her face frozen in a smile as she posed for the millionth tourist selfie, standing close but not too close, before happily accepting the folded bills of gratuity. These she dropped in the deep pocket within the fold of her skirt, keeping a mental tally. Within hours her face would appear on the social media pages of strangers, hopefully tagged with the company name. Somebody in the office had the unenviable task of tracking those things, and the walker with the most mentions got a bit of a bonus every quarter.

The last pic (“say, ‘Boo!’”) finally taken and the final tip in her pocket, Dini made her way across the street and walked into the bar of the Menger Hotel. The welcome warmth touched her face and hands—the only parts of her body exposed. Once inside, her eyes adjusted immediately to the comforting dark. The Menger Bar was exactly this hue no matter what time of day, giving respite from a bright, hot afternoon and solid shelter on the coldest night. With its well-worn wood floor and sturdy columns and tables, travelers and patrons had been greeted with this exact same view for almost a century. As was her habit, Dini looked directly up at the portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. Blustery one is it tonight, my girl? “Yep, but just in the last half hour or so.” The fact that she spoke aloud to Roosevelt’s silent, imagined question drew very little attention, mostly because there was little attention to be drawn. While other bars and nightspots in downtown San Antonio might be pulsating on this First Friday night of March, the Menger Bar remained its accustomed, dignified, nearly empty self. One elderly couple at a table sipping wine and a gentleman at the bar, foot balanced on the brass railing, tie loose and shirt collar open, absorbed in his phone.

“Wind’s picking up?” This time the voice was real, and happened in its uncanny way to echo the essence of Roosevelt’s speech. Troy Gil—Gil, according to his silver name tag and all who knew him—stood behind the bar, already reaching for the carafe of coffee and a thick white mug. “Should’ve worn your coat.” “Spring is the season of should’a,” Dini said, tugging at her bonnet string. She wasn’t supposed to be seen bareheaded in public while in costume, but the thing was unbearable. How did women ever survive viewing their entire world through a tunnel? She combed through her liberated short waves— blond, but interspersed with various pastel curls, like she’d just walked through a cloud of confetti. “People always want to make March out to be spring. It’s winter still. Always more winter than warm. But I have a sweater in the back,” Gil said, gesturing with the carafe.

“You’re welcome to it.” “Thanks.” She wrapped her hands around the mug. “Any chance I could get this à la Hedda?” It was her code—their code—for an Irish coffee, and Gil raised one eyebrow in chastising amusement. “You know the rule, Blackstone. Coffee’s free if you’re in costume. You’ll have to present yourself a proper modern lady for anything else, and I’ll have to charge you a proper modern price.” Dini thought about the folded bills in her skirt pocket. Plenty for her loose expenses. “I’ve earned it.

” Gil reached in for the coffee and took a sip for himself. “Go on, then. I’ll make you one fresh when you come out.” He handed her a key, and she went behind the bar, through to the employee area to a small room lined with lockers along one wall. Within minutes she had divested herself of the skirt and blouse and pulled on jeans and T-shirt, this one featuring a local band with images of popular sci-fi monsters. She put her walking boots back on because they were of her own choosing and as comfortable as they were cool. She’d probably walked the equivalent of the entire state of Texas in these boots. The rest of the costume, though, got shoved into the depths of her vintage brocade satchel. It was due for a dry cleaning over the weekend, as she didn’t have another tour gig booked for at least a week. There was only one garment hanging on the brass coatrack in the corner—a grayish-green cardigan that must be Gil’s, though she’d never seen him wear it.

Theirs was not a relationship that ever strayed beyond the Menger Bar. He was handsome enough, with a high brow and ready smile. He wore his hair in long, thin braids tied neatly at the nape of his neck. Their first conversation had felt like a meeting of long-lost friends. Three years before—she, newly twenty-one and he seemingly ageless—talked until last call about the Menger Hotel, its famous history, and its two most infamous women: Sallie White and Hedda Krause. He was a font of knowledge and endless stories. Gil was expertly spooning thick cream over the top of her drink when she emerged. “By the way, one of the guys who took your tour tonight? He’s staying here, and we talked a bit before you set out.” “Okay.” Dini drew out the syllable, suspicious as she laid her money on the bar.

“I think you’re going to want to meet him.” “Stop. You know better than to try to fix me up—” Gil held up his hand in protest. “It’s not a fix-up, I promise. Promise. And I’m not gonna tell you any more, because the best mysteries are the ones you solve yourself, right?” “Right.” She looked up at Teddy Roosevelt and recalled the faces of her tour group. Four women, six men. Mostly coupled up, but of the two single guys (one cute, one…not), neither seemed heavily invested in her ghoulish tales of San Antonio ghosts. “Well, I don’t recall anybody interesting in my group tonight.

” “That’s because I told him to hang back, listen, and talk to you after. But if the idea makes you uncomfortable, I can kick him out.” “No.” Dini took a sip of her coffee to counter the unfamiliar buzz of wary anticipation. Never, in all her nights of coming in for coffee after a tour, or coming in for nachos before a tour, or hanging out —alone—on a Saturday night with a book and her cards had Gil ever intimated that he cared about her social life. Then again, something in his voice sounded like this had nothing to do with her social life. “Mind if I hide upstairs until he gets here?” He scooped up the money. “You are officially a paying customer. Do as you please.” Breaking with the tradition of playing 1930s swing music, and undoubtedly for her sake alone, the dark room soon flooded with the soft sounds of the seventies.

Drink in one hand, her bag in the other, Dini took the narrow staircase up to the second level and settled at the corner table where she took out a small timer—old-fashioned, with grains of sand—and a deck of cards. It was a new deck, the cards slick and stiff. In a fluid motion, she upended the timer and commenced to shuffling, counting under her breath, “One…two…three …” A mere fraction of a second lapsed between the f ttt of the cards arched between her palms and their clack on the table before the next interspersing zzzip. “Sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy, seventy-one—” and the last grain dropped through the glass. She gave the deck a final, frustrated tap against the thick wood of the table. “Table riffle’s faster,” Gil called from behind the bar. “And if I were some Vegas table dealer, I’d use it,” she said, giving the deck a series of soft overhand tosses. She glanced down and noticed the new arrival, recognizing him instantly from the tour. The cute one. He lifted his glass—a dark ale, two gulps down.

“I was only listening—but it sounded impressive.” “Thanks,” she said, with the perfect amount of gratitude to seem polite. She took advantage of the balcony to study him. “You were in the tour group earlier?” Phrasing knowledge as a question put people at ease, not that this guy seemed to be the least bit nervous. “I was. You were entertaining and informative.” “In that order?” “Maybe ‘engaging’ would be a better word.” She looked to Gil. “This the guy you were telling me about?” “It is,” Gil said. “I am,” said the guy.

“Shall we continue the balcony scene? Or may I join you?” She looked past him to Gil, who gave an oddly encouraging nod. He mouthed the words Trust me. “Fine,” she said. Watching his first few steps away from the bar, Dini thought him to be cautiously aware of his physique, moving purposefully. His footfall on the ancient staircase was even. Precise. The back of her neck still fizzed, and she admonished herself. Don’t be weird, don’t be weird. She was comfortable leading a crowd around the city, telling ghost stories, and even more comfortable in front of an audience, holding them spellbound with close magic and card tricks. The average back-andforth conversation, however, danced outside of her comfort zone.

By the time he was upstairs and at her table, whatever strength she’d gained from her pep talk had utterly dissolved. She barely managed to invite him to sit opposite her before asking, “Want to see a trick?” So much for not being weird. He set down his glass. “I love card tricks.” She shuffled the deck three times, set it down for him to cut, then recommenced shuffling. “What’s your name?” She knew he would eventually introduce himself, but asking allowed her to control the conversation. “Quin.” “Quin? So, you’re a fifth?” “How did you know?” She tapped a finger to her temple. “It’s what I do. Magic.

Plus, you had a bit of a hesitation before you answered. Means you had a choice in what to tell me, and you went with the nickname, even though we don’t know each other well enough for you to be so informal. Also, it’s a nickname that needs explanation. Not like Bob, short for Robert. A lot of people aren’t aware of the tradition. Sure, maybe a guy named Trey is just a guy named Trey. But maybe he’s really Morton Snoddinghouse the Third. So, you know, Third…Trey. And if Trey Snoddinghouse had a son? The Fourth? Drew. Like quadruple.

Fascinating tradition, right? Almost lost in the rush to name everybody after Western cities. Austin. Cody.” There she was, rambling in an attempt to explain the man’s own name to him, like there was some invisible audience in need of distraction. So much for being normal. Shuffling blind as she spoke, the cards moved almost as quickly as her words, so she stopped—the shuffling, not the speaking—and studied his face. Bemused might be the best word to describe his expression. Bright blue eyes behind light-prescription lenses. A hint of red in his neatly trimmed beard, darker in his hair cut short with a sharp part on the left. A bit of gel to keep it in place.

“Are you from out of town?” “I am.” But nothing more. She launched into the conversation she would have in a darkened theater in front of an audience even though they were just two people at a tiny table in a dark bar. “Okay, Quin from out of town. Where are you from?” “Buckhall, Virginia.” “What do you do in Buckhall, Virginia?” “I teach high school math.” “Ah, math nerd.” She hazarded a look up from her shuffling to make sure he was smiling. He was. “Here for a conference? Those are usually at the Marriott.

” “Nope. Spring break. Being a tourist. And a little business. Some research, actually.” Dini committed a tiny fumble in her shuffling at the word research. He said it with a lilt that almost made it a question. Given Gil’s mysterious lead-up, she had a feeling she might be part of the answer. She focused with a breath. “Count a number of cards off the top of the deck.

Up to twelve. Don’t tell me how many, and put them in your pocket.” He was wearing an athletic fleece with a zippered pocket. “Now, count out the same number. Still don’t tell me.” She kept her eyes trained on his face as he did so, noting how—unlike most people—he didn’t move his lips as he counted. When he finished, she held her hand out for the remaining deck and told him to look at the top of the stack he’d counted out and memorize the card. “Got it,” he said after a moment of mock concentration. “Now give it here.” She put the small stack of cards on top of the deck and made a show of shuffling—once, twice, three times—never allowing the top cards to be mixed in, but keeping her hands at a practiced angle to disguise her skill.

She slid the deck back over. “Now, I want you to think of three names. Any three. Your first, middle, and last. Or your favorite actors. Anything at all. Spell them inside your head and take out a card for each letter.” He counted off six cards. “You haven’t told me your name. Unless it really is Henrietta, like you said on the tour.

But you don’t look like a Henrietta.” He counted off five more cards. Clever, him using the same distracting technique she’d worked so hard to perfect. “I’m Dini.” He counted off five more cards. “Like the song?” And, completely unbidden, sang a few soft bars of the old Shaun Cassidy hit “Hey, Deanie, won’t you come out tonight?” It was a pleasant memory; her mother used to sing that song to her all the time, and she felt a soft bit of connection to this stranger who so easily tapped into that memory. Dini smiled and took back the untouched deck, then scooped up the cards he’d counted off and put them on top. “No. Dini as in hoo.” Quin’s eyebrows rose above the frame of his glasses.

“Your actual name is Houdini?” “Marilyn Houdini Blackstone,” she said with a grand gesture of introduction. “Give me the cards you took off the top.” He did, and she counted them. Nine. She deposited them casually on top of the deck. “Now, you’re going to tell me your three names, and I’m going to deal off the cards and spell them. If I spell them wrong, don’t tell me, okay?” “Okay. First, Menger.” “Well, that one I know. M-e-n-g-e-r.

” She dropped a card faceup with each letter. “Hedda.” “As in, Hedda Krause?” “I wasn’t sure how to spell her name.” An unusual, and unwelcome, tremor zipped through Dini’s hand. “H-e-d-d-a.” “Oh good. I spelled it right.” He seemed genuinely relieved. “Last one, Irvin.” Her finger was poised on the top card, but at the mention of the name, her hand dropped to the table.

“Irvin? Why Irvin?” “Does it matter?” The tone of his question ran everywhere from teasing to—maybe, but probably not—flirting. “It’s kind of a random choice.” A tiny shrug. “Not so random. It’s my name.” To say that Dini froze in that moment would not be quite accurate. Breath moved in and out, she blinked, and her left hand closed on the deck of cards with a death grip. Still a jab of ice pick–sharp pain stabbed at her head, like she’d taken an ill-advised gulp of a frozen drink. She fought—and, probably failed—to keep a neutral expression on her face as it waned. Quin mirrored her gesture of introduction.

“Irvin no-middle-name Carmichael, the Fifth.” She’d get back to that later. “I-r-v-i-n.” She looked up. “Do you remember your card?” “King of diamonds.” “And you had nine cards drawn.” She counted them out, dropping them face up on the pile. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight”—dramatic pause—“King of diamonds.” “Cool,” he said and took a sip of his beer. “The trick I get—you put the cards down in reverse order.

But keeping the stack intact while you shuffle? That was amazing.” Dini decided not to confront his condescension, even though it irked her. “Do you know who you are?” “Do any of us really, Dini? And isn’t that question a little too existential for a first date?” The response caught her so off guard she laughed and fumbled her shuffle. She put the cards away and took the cooling mug in her hands. “This isn’t a date.” “A date is in the eye of the beholder.” “Dates don’t have secrets, Quin Carmichael. And I have a feeling you’re carrying one.” “Not a secret, exactly. More like a mystery.

Here it goes.” Quin shifted himself as if settling in for a long story. “A few years ago, we—my sisters and I—were clearing out my grandparents’ house. It was originally owned by my great-great-grandfather. Built sometime in the 1890s. We all had a chance to go through and take whatever heirlooms or knickknacks or furniture we wanted, and I found this.” Quin reached into his pocket, pulled out his phone, and began scrolling. He held it out to Dini, who saw a battered cardboard box, loosely tied with string. “It was at the back of the closet in the master bedroom. So far back that I had the feeling it was hidden.

” “Feeling.” “Sixth sense, you know? And when I opened it…just this weird assortment of stuff. A couple of magazines, newspaper clippings, and”—he all but shuddered—“photographs.” Everything within her sparked. So much so, she imagined tiny lightning bolts shooting from her curls as she forced her voice to remain calm. “So how did you know to connect it all to here?” “The newspaper articles mostly. About the, um—” “The robbery?” “Yeah. I did some googling and learned more about the place. And since I had some time on my hands, I finally decided to come and check it out. See what I could learn.

I came in here for dinner and told the guy behind the bar—” “Gil.” “—and he said he knew someone who could tell me the whole story inside and out. And that you’d be leading a tour. So I signed up. And here we are.” “Here we are.” No doubt Gil was relieved that she had a new audience for her obsession. “So, I’m here until Thursday morning. Maybe we could meet up again? And you could kind of …? Because I have to tell you, some of it’s pretty …” He had that speech pattern that made statements sound like questions, allowing spoken thoughts to drift off into vague hand gestures. He was clearly a gregarious sort—instantly at ease with a stranger, a quality Dini never quite understood.

She had no idea how much silence had elapsed since he stopped talking, but she knew her cue was to pick up the thread. “You won’t be able to understand any of it if you don’t know the whole story.” “So tell me the story. You’re an awesome storyteller. I listened to you out on the tour for, like, two hours. Excellent. Chills.” She wanted to tell him that most of what he heard was a script, memorized and repeated. Despite his apparent lack of historical intuitiveness, he seemed harmless enough. Her week was pretty empty, save a birthday party tomorrow and an afternoon event on Wednesday.

And she might get a free meal or two—call it her fee. Plus, he was the in-flesh descendant of the man who had vicariously broken her heart a thousand times over. “What do you know about your great-great-grandfather?” “Not much. Not as much as I should. He worked for the FBI? Back in the day before it was, you know, the FBI.” He punctuated this with a duh-duh-duhn. “So much of my family followed him on that. My grandfather. And two of my sisters, but they’re forensic accountants. I took the wimp route and went into teaching.

Not that I haven’t had my share of rough days there.” Dini filed all of this away the way she filed everything—neatly and without effort. “What do you know about Hedda Krause?” “Again, not much,” he said. “There’s a couple of pictures and newspaper clippings. I did some online searching about her too and didn’t come up with any more than what you said on the tour. I mean, I don’t even know if all of the stuff in the box is related. So, like I said, I was coming to town anyway and thought I’d—” “You said you had time on your hands and decided to come here. That’s not the same thing as coming here anyway.” “Does it matter?” Dini looked at him, thinking about the story of Hedda Krause and Irvin Carmichael. A story she knew by heart.

A story that her mother had handed down, that they had spent hours telling and retelling each other on long bus rides and in cheap motels while her father slept in the next bed. She wasn’t about to recount this story to a stranger like it was one of her farfetched Alamo Haunting Spirits Ghost Tour tall tales, no matter how desperately she wanted to get her hands on what he tossed aside as a few photos and clippings. “I suppose not. But when I say you need to know the whole story, I mean—I think you should learn it from Hedda herself.” “I have no idea what that means, but I’m game. So we can…maybe tomorrow?” “Not tomorrow, I’m working. Besides, that won’t give you enough time.” “Time for what?” Dini took a deep, patience-affirming sigh. “Time to learn the story.” “How am I supposed to know the whole story if you won’t meet with me.

” “Give me your driver’s license.” Quin actually sat back and gave a small shake of his head, like her request had jangled his thoughts. “My—what?” She held out her hand. “Your license. I want to be sure you are who you say you are.” “Why would anybody lie about being Irvin Carmichael the Fifth?” Still, he reached into his pocket to retrieve his wallet. Simple, black leather, thin. He opened it to reveal his Virginia license, and the name he claimed. Besides his address, Dini’s quick mind scanned the photograph. He must have weighed a good twenty pounds more when this picture was taken.

The lack of beard alone wouldn’t explain the round, soft face. That explained the certain edge he carried. “Here’s my deal,” Dini said, opening the bag beside her and rummaging around beneath her costume. There, at the bottom, she found the quilted zippered pouch, which she opened to withdraw her greatest treasure from. “You’re going to read to me?” “No. You’re going to read for yourself.” The title, My Spectral Accuser: The Haunted Life of Hedda Krause, was stamped in gold lettering on the front cover of the thin green volume. Her mother had fished it out of a donated books bin at the library, and the way she clutched it made young Dini love it before she ever heard a word. Mom said she’d actually met the author, the subject of the book, who was a very old woman at the time. Since then, there was rarely a day when Dini didn’t have it in her bag, or purse, or satchel—for comfort as much as anything.

Even her mind, sharp as it was for numbers and patterns and memories, couldn’t begin to calculate how many times she’d read it. Hundreds, easily. Some passages, thousands. And now, in a gesture that she would have deemed impossible only an hour ago, she handed it across the table to a stranger. “You have to read this.” Quin took the book in his hands with what could be seen as either reverence for, or unfamiliarity with, such a thing. “Someone wrote a book about her?” “She wrote a book about herself.”

.

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