One hundred years after Lucius Stewart is cast into limbo, Tallulah Thompson, a hotel consultant is called in to confer with his beloved hotel’s new owner. Her trip to Billings, Montana awakens her second sight into larger than life experiences.
Billings, Montana, Present Day
Tallulah Thompson stood inside the largest of the caves in Pictograph Cave State Park. She focused her binoculars on the distant figures painted thousands of years ago by hunters who camped out in the protected space. Alone in the room, she scanned the walls—then dropped the field glasses in astonishment. A tall, tanned man with two long black braids stood with his back to her. Wearing buckskin moccasins, pants, and a breech cloth, he pressed a stick to the wall. Stroking with great concentration, the man focused on his drawing, and the muscles in his back rippled. The small figure of a turtle emerged from his work. He must be participating in one of the interpretive events the park noted on the website. Great idea. But he should know better than to touch the walls. Just as she was about to call out to the man, a noisy group entered the space. She glanced at the family of five and turned back to the actor—but he had disappeared.
She searched the cavern. Where could he have gone? Maybe there was a back exit? A few moments later, on the walk to the visitor center, she mulled over the disappearing man. She hated to be a tattletale, but those walls were national treasures and shouldn’t be marred, even by a well-intentioned employee. She found the friendly park ranger with the beard and wire- rimmed glasses rubbing Tallulah’s chubby dog’s belly.
“Thanks so much for keeping an eye on Franny so I could see the caves.”
He handed her the leash. “No problem. She’s been greeting every guest.”
“Looking for food, no doubt. Pugs live to eat.”
The park ranger whispered into the dog’s velvety ears. “What happens at the park, stays at the park.”
Franny snorted and licked his nose.
Tallulah hated to break up the light moment, but she had to say something, the paintings in the caves were priceless. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news.”
He placed the dog on the ground and stood. “Uh- oh. Someone leave trash in the caves? Climb over the fence? Take a rock?” He shook his head. “It’s a nuisance, but my job, I’ll go talk to whoever did it. What do they look like?”
“Someone was drawing on the walls. It was your interpreter, the guy in the Native American costume working in the Pictograph Cave.”
The ranger’s brow furrowed. “We don’t have any events going on in the caves, or on the grounds for that matter. I have no idea who you’re talking about.”
“Tall, extremely tan, long black braids. I didn’t see his face.”
The ranger shook his head. “Nope, nobody like that here today. The only guy who works here who might fit the description is visiting his sick aunt on the Crow Reservation.”
Then who had she seen in the cave?
“My imagination must have been in overdrive.” Her face flushed. “Sorry I bothered you.” She scooped up the pug. “Thanks again for taking care of Franny.” She hightailed it to her rental vehicle before she made an even bigger fool of herself.
Why was this happening now? She hadn’t had visions this vivid since her mother and father died and she went to live with her grandmother.
Her grandmother warned her about her gift. Told her to keep it to herself or suffer the same consequences as her mother. Tallulah tried, but occasionally she used her second sight on the sly to help a few of her clients. Sometimes a pesky earthbound spirit needed to be guided to its next destination. But, this one—he was so real. The strength of the apparition took her by surprise. She hadn’t even suspected he wasn’t real. That was one powerful sacred space, strong enough to suck her back in time to see the artist who created the stick figures on the cave walls.
She leaned back against the headrest of the SUV, closed her eyes, and took deep, cleansing breaths. Her grandmother would have scolded Tallulah for telling the park ranger what she saw.
“He’s not one of us,” she would have said. “You should never share your visions with anyone you don’t know well. They’ll think you’re crazy, try to lock you up, drug you.”
Like her mother.
Except she hadn’t initially realized the artist was a vision. She rubbed the turquoise talisman her grandmother had given her for protection, and a sense of peace flowed over her. Tallulah opened her eyes, stared through the glass sunroof, and admired the cloud formation that appeared to be painted on a huge blue canvas. It looked like an eagle, its huge white wings outstretched.
Big Sky Country, indeed.
The apparition in the cave put her on notice. Be prepared. You are on special lands, as sacred as her grandmother’s home in the Choctaw Nation in Durant, Oklahoma.
The lengthening shadows on the craggy hillside told her it was time to buckle up and face what was certain to be a distressed property and a distraught hotel owner. She checked her dog’s safety restraint, then started the engine. “Time to work for our keep, Franny.”
The fawn pug cocked her head, stuck her tongue out, and appeared terribly interested in her owner’s words.
“You know what we have to do, right? Get in, get it fixed, and get out. Time is money and while we love to rescue hotels, the more time we spend there, the less money we make.” And the lower her bank account dropped. She wasn’t starving, but if she didn’t keep moving ahead like a shark, she and Franny might be fighting over her expensive dog food. And she couldn’t count on her visions to put dog or people food on the table.
After earning a Master of Management in Hospitality from one of the best universities in the country, and steady advancement in New York City hotels for over a decade, Tallulah knew what did and didn’t work. During her education, she learned the business of managing a hotel from marketing to profit margins. Her internship and employment provided the nitty-gritty of the real world. She’d cleaned toilets, hauled bags up to rooms, registered guests, and served food. Hotel management was a twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week business. She kept in touch with her classmates and knew the industry ate half of them alive. The grueling hours, the demanding clients, and the constant budget pressures weren’t easy, especially for women who wanted families. Some, like her friend, a superb pastry chef and hotel manager, had left the field completely, choosing a forty-hour work week. Now she was an elementary school principal with a handsome husband who coached the basketball team, and a tiny
army of her own adorable little ones.
Instead of opting out of the hotel world, Tallulah stayed in the game by starting her own consulting business. Granted, she wasn’t a millionaire TV celebrity like that bald guy who went around the country inspecting hotels, but she made ends meet. Maybe they didn’t overlap, but they did touch. Last year, she and the IRS agreed that her company, T & F Hotel Inspectors, Inc., was truly a going concern. Her spare bedroom in her small, well-organized—well maybe she was a tad crazy about sticky notes— Trenton, New Jersey apartment served as her business address.
Most days she commuted to work in her pajamas, saving on gas and wardrobe costs. Her coworker, Franny, was pleasant and not terribly gabby, except when she was hungry or needed to go out. Best of all, as her own boss, she determined the work hours. She traveled at the client’s expense, and her black marker, pads of sticky notes, and Franny, the “F” in T & F Hotel Inspectors, always went with her.
She now exited the winding, pine-tree-flanked road onto I90 West, to search for her newest client’s establishment, the historic Hotel LaBelle. Established in the early 1900s, the hotel had been one of the first in the area to provide fine dining and sleeping accommodations for travelers who wanted the adventure of the Wild West, without the discomfort. The current owner emailed her after reading one of her guest posts on a large travel website about the challenges of modernizing historic hotels.
Dear Ms. Thompson,
I am writing to see if you can assist me with my historic hotel. I purchased it at an auction for the price of back taxes, which came to over three hundred thousand dollars. Abandoned by the owner in 1905, the Hotel LaBelle was ahead of its time for the era. Everything inside was made from the finest materials, so even though it has been unattended, beneath the animal droppings and graffiti, I could see her beauty. I was in love.
I obtained a bank loan for a million dollars to restore the original property. My plan was to get the dining room up and running first, along with five of the original rooms. The earnings from the restaurant and the rooms were supposed to help with the costs of renovation and expanding the hotel, as there is plenty of land. Over the last year, I have begun to question my decision and my sanity. There have been so many problems with the help and with construction. Customers are fleeing, not flocking to stay here. I am on the verge of bankruptcy.
Can you help me? I have enough money set aside to pay your fee and travel expenses. Please say you will come. I am desperate.
William Wellington, III Owner and General Manager Hotel LaBelle