The path to the basement normally led down the central stairwell, but since the central stairwell was apparently eating people, that left the stairwell normally used by the staff. This was equally dangerous in its own way. Not because of the shadow monsters, but because the stairs were quite steep and it would be very easy to fall down them. Down the stairs, Jack could hear the slight hum of a generator, which got louder as he crossed the kitchen to head down. The basement contained a furnace, that looked like it was powered by human remains, and a wall that was covered by a complicated switchboard and generator. It also contained a secret wall that opened into a land of carnivorous leprechauns. Jack wasn’t entirely sure if it was supposed to be part of the Inn, and if so, he wasn’t entirely sure how to go about cleaning it, but he had also never been able to find the door again after that first time so he usually left well enough alone.
The trip to the basement never ceased to disorient Jack. The main floor and the guest rooms tried so very hard to give the impression of an upstairs downstairs sort of arrangement much like those British television shows about snobby people having snobby people problems. Most of those houses didn’t resemble a complex spaceship in the basement. If spooks lived someplace in the house, the basement would be where they slept at night. Treading carefully down the staff stairway, Jack felt his pocket buzz. They didn’t normally use their phones on the job, but on occasion Stan needed to ask a few questions as he went about his own business.
Tugging his phone out as carefully as he could, he held it between his shoulder and his ear, “Yes, Stanley?”
“The third floor don’t have one’a them lounge arrangements, does it?”
Jack paused and closed his eyes, thinking back to the last time he had been up to the third floor, “They do have a big ballroom up there for events but it’s never been set up. What exactly is up there right now?”
“It’s set up for one’a them club singers they have at really swanky places.” Stan stood at the opening of what should have resembled a storeroom. The lights set the mood for the stage at the far end of the room. A huge red velvet canvas covered the back of the stage, with a few smaller ones on the wings where the next acts could wait their turn. On one side of the room was a bar complete with bartender and row upon row of liquor. Stan and the bartender had been staring vacantly at each other since Stan had called Jack on the phone, neither one quite sure what to make of the other just yet.
“Well see if you can’t do a little attitude adjustment and get the thing back to normal. We can’t have any more guests vanishing into thin air. That’s going to get harder and harder to explain to the guests.”
Stan grunted in annoyance on the other end of phone, “Can do boss.” Reaching to his bag, he rummaged around, seeking the right tool to make the appropriate changes.
Jack stopped at the bottom of the stairs, “Could you run out and grab the bag when you’re done? We’re going to run into some bodies in the stairwell. Well, either the bodies or the thing that ate them and either way that means a huge mess.”
“Sure thing boss, just gonna wrap up the lounge first.” Stan said as he tapped the mahogany bar twice, and the bartenders face lit up, ecstatic to have something to do. He pulled out a glass and a bottle of bourbon, gently pouring two fingers and starting to put the bottle away before hesitating as Stan tapped the bar again impatiently, gesturing to his glass.
“Stanley.” Jack let slip an exasperated sigh as he turned back towards the stairs leading to the kitchen, “You know I don’t approve of drinking on the job. Also, remember what I said about accepting drinks from cosmic horrors that feed on misery and hatred in an effort to keep you trapped in an endless soul crushing mire of agony?”
“Don’t.” Stan sighed resignedly and relit his cigar, which had gone out, and reluctantly left the glass untouched on the bar. The bartender’s expression briefly turned murderous before instantly morphing to contrite as Stan turned back to look at the glass longingly. The bartender had never stopped pouring, and now the bourbon was flowing over the edge of the glass and forming a small river on the bar, which trickled its way down to the carpet. Stan watched each drop hit the floor longingly, knowing full well that he would be blamed if he left that much spilled all over the bar top and floor. Still, Stan reasoned as he pulled a crowbar out from his cleaning bag, it was more the bartender’s job to clean up things he spilled. Even if they came out of the bartender.
Jack grimaced and turned off the phone. No need to listen to the mauling. Taking a quick look around, he took a mental count of what he needed to do. The furnace could be left alone. The real problem lay on the wall covered with wires and blinking lights. Jack took his glasses off and slid them into his vest pocket. Time to get to work. The fuse-box flickered in the middle of the wall with a series of wires spanning out in all directions. Order from chaos. Jack’s hands became a blur, finding the wires that had been damaged and wiping the grime from the dirty ones. In no way would this room ever be considered clean. Basements that contained the power source and a furnace usually were incapable of such things, but it would be functional and Jack would have to be happy with that.
While he worked, the shadows behind him convulsed and slowly shivered into the corner of the room closest to Jack. The flickering light of the furnace left many shadows around the corners of the room In the corner closest to him the shadows pulled themselves up and into a roughly physical form. They reached up higher and higher, straining for Jack, suddenly whipping into action, aiming a blow at the back of his neck. Jack swayed to the side at the last second and grabbed the shadow with his free hand.
“If I’m not mistaken, the fuse box has been really gnawed at by gremlins. I would feel sorry for them, but I know you’ve been the one gnawing on the gremlins.” The shadow vanished from Jack’s grasp. Another shadow formed behind Jack and attempted a stab at the back of his left knee. Once again, Jack only moved at the last second, raising his foot and stamping down on the shadow hard.
“We do this every year. Every year I come here and clean you up and every year you act like this is some sort of travesty. You know, if you stopped swallowing the bellboys whole we might actually be able to skip a year or so now and then, just a thought.” A flick of the switch from Jack brought some of the power back on, including one dim, flickering bulb at the top of the high ceiling. The amount of light it gave was enough to cause the shadows to dance frantically.
The steps were still the most dangerous thing about the basement. Not for the first time, as Jack tromped back up to the kitchen, he toyed with the idea of adding a railing to the staircase before reminding himself that he was a cleaner and not a carpenter. This despite the fact that he had just worked as an electrician. The sight that met Jack at the top of the stairs gave him reason to pause, something that precious few things in this world could do. While trying to restart the ovens, the chefs had apparently concluded that there must have been a gas leak. In their efforts to find the problem they had compensated by turning up the stovetops as high as they would go. What parts of the kitchen didn’t smell like gas were on fire and the chefs had formed into impromptu fire-fighting brigades to handle the situation. Smoke bellowed out the back door in an alarming fashion.
Jack pulled the glasses out of his vest pocket and ran his fingers through his hair, “It’s never just one thing, is it?” Luck often followed Jack like a stray kitten and today was no exception. On the far side of the kitchen, somebody had left a large picnic blanket. Jack snagged a fire extinguisher from one of the panicked cooks and took care of the blazes that water simply would not do for. It never ceased to amaze Jack how in those moments when one’s wits are needed the most, those are the moments when they are also most likely to flee.
Acting quickly, Jack dropped the blanket in a sink and turned the faucets as far as they would go. It would seem not even the Colonial Inn had a death wish as water came gushing out from the faucet and soaked the blanket. Gently recruiting a few cooks, he tossed the blanket onto the remaining fires and soon the crisis was over.
In his pocket the phone buzzed again. Jack dropped his part of the blanket and answered it, “Yes, Stan? I assume you have the top floor sorted out by now.”
“Them spooks need medical attention or some sort’a help, but yeah boss. All clear up here. How’s them things on your end?”
“The kitchen caught on fire, but I managed to get the power back on for the most part and now that your end is done…” Jack trailed off as the hum of the generator in the distance faded, “there it goes. We should be all clear to head into the stairwell now. Do you want to take those stairs down and meet in the middle and start from the outside on the first floor with me?”
“On the outside, we ain’t havin’ a repeat of last year with them grabby shadows in the stairwell. I’ll get the bag.”
“Fair enough, I’ll make my way to the front entrance and take a look at the doorway.”