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Summer 2022

Conduct Unbecoming

A magical, romantic short story by Tom Howard


Roses Witchcraft Witches Bad Witch Fantasy Magic LGBTQ Queer Love Story

Trudy was a terrible witch. Not that she did terrible things, but she was terrible at it. No matter how many times she danced naked in the moonlight with the local witches or how many spells she memorized, she couldn’t entice her landlord to forget her rent check or make herself irresistible to millionaires who checked into her hotel.

The coven leader pulled her aside when the others dressed at the last full moon. “Goodwoman Trudy, the Dark Path eludes you.”

When the others bragged how much evil they’d accomplished in the last month, Trudy convinced herself the burst appendix in 314 had been caused by her giving an old man the evil eye when she checked him in. Of course, she’d called an ambulance for him, and he’d survived.

“Why are you here?” the woman asked. “Were you mistreated as a child? Did they pour pig’s blood on you at the prom?”

Trudy’s parents loved her. She loved them. She’d been popular in high school. “‘I don’t want revenge on anyone. I want to improve my life.”

The leader frowned. “That’s what mortals want, Trudy, not witches. To reach the power within you, you must feel passionate about something.”

“I understand,” Trudy said. “I’ll try harder.”

“You’d better. We have a waiting list.”

Doubting that she’d ever reach her mystical potential, Trudy printed the night’s reservations. She was training the new guy, Patrick, on the front desk, but he spent most of his time schmoozing with guests. She’d told him visitors didn’t notice the help until something went wrong at a five-star hotel like MacArthur’s.

Patrick would move up in management while Trudy stayed at the front desk and listened to people complain about their sheets’ low thread count. A real witch would be living in one of the suites and not reminding people of their checkout time.
The phone rang. Patrick picked it up and rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mrs. Underwood. Your room is too cold? We’ll send someone right up.”

He dialed maintenance. “Room 711. Too cold.” He hung up without waiting for a reply. “How do you do it, Trudy? Here we are in the most incredible seaside hotel in the United States, maybe the world, and we’re routing maintenance requests and taking room service orders.”

Trudy shrugged. “It makes the days go fast. Wait until you work a few nights. It gets pretty slow.”

“Problem, Mr. Euston?” The ancient head of reception, Mr. Dorsey, joined them.
“No, sir.” Patrick always sucked up to the bosses. As a management trainee, he’d serve in each department before he moved to an office upstairs. If Trudy hadn’t been such a terrible witch, he’d suffer from gout and hives for being so handsome and having shoulders wide enough to need tailored suits.

Ingratiating himself into Mr. Dorsey’s good graces, Patrick said, “Another great day at Hotel MacArthur, sir.” His perfect smile wasn’t returned.

“Indeed, Mr. Euston,” Mr. Dorsey said. “Have you delivered the day’s numbers to the accounting department? They go home by five. We don’t want anyone to think we’re unprofitable.”

Patrick picked up a folder. “On my way, sir.”

“Things run smoothly here at the MacArthur,” Mr. Dorsey said, “because each of us knows what is expected and strives to exceed those expectations.”

“Yes, sir.” Patrick took his folder and fled.

Rumors circulated that the grand hotel was being sold. Trudy couldn’t believe it. She liked working there.

Mr. Dorsey wasn’t one for idle chit-chat, and Trudy appreciated how Patrick hadn’t impressed the old man.

“Full house tonight, sir,” she said.

“Good. I know it’s short notice, Trudy, but could you stay and work the swing shift? Mrs. Simms isn’t feeling well.”

She could refuse, but she didn’t even have a cat at home to feed. She’d considered rescuing a black cat from the pound, but she had allergies. “No problem, Mr. Dorsey.”
________________

When the evening grew busy, Mr. Dorsey asked Patrick to work for a few extra hours. The front desk staff, including Mr. Dorsey and Patrick, checked in two large wedding parties.

When a customer’s credit card rejected, Patrick became impatient with the older gentleman. Trudy, too busy to step away and help, hoped Patrick wouldn’t suggest the customer check in at a budget motel down the road.

Mr. Dorsey finished another customer and moved to Patrick’s terminal.

“Welcome back, Mr. Manning,” Mr. Dorsey said to Patrick’s customer. “We’ll fix this in a minute. Ah, I see. We used your credit card from last year. It’s still in the system.” He showed Patrick the problem and how to enter the new card number.

The customer smiled. “Thank you. I can’t believe it’s been a year already.”

“For how long, Mr. Manning?” Mr. Dorsey asked. “Twenty years?”

“Almost twenty-five, Oliver.”

Mr. Manning was in his mid-fifties, slight and tan. Steel-frame glasses covered light blue eyes, and he had a full head of gray hair. He wore beige slacks and a matching golf shirt, and he carried a duffle bag.

“Always glad to see you, Mr. Manning,” Mr. Dorsey said. “You’re staying with us for the week?”

“As usual. I need time away from the office, and the ocean relaxes me.”

Patrick handed the man his card key and credit card. Sensing the guest might be Somebody Important, Patrick kept his mouth shut.

A bellhop approached, but Mr. Manning waved him aside. “No need, Andrew,” he said, “I’m traveling light this year.”

Andrew smiled and moved to another guest. “Good to see you back, sir.”

“Thank you.” Mr. Manning put away his credit card and extended his hand to Patrick. “You must be new.”

“I am. Patrick Euston, sir.” He shook Mr. Manning’s hand.

Trudy finished with her guest. She recalled Mr. Manning from his previous visits. He always remembered her name, and Mr. Dorsey greeted him like an old friend. Where would the perennial visitors like Mr. Manning stay if the MacArthur closed?

“Welcome back, sir,” she said. “Let us know if you need anything.”

He smiled. “Room 227?”

“Your usual,” Mr. Dorsey said.

The congenial man departed with his duffle bag.

Mr. Dorsey wasn’t finished with the impatient trainee. “Mr. Euston, please ask for me or someone experienced like Trudy when you run into a problem. Mr. Manning is a valued customer here.”

Trudy couldn’t resist twisting the knife. “Never judge a book by its cover, Patrick.”

“True,” Mr. Dorsey said.

Trudy and Patrick watched Mr. Manning wait for the elevator as Mr. Dorsey walked away.

“Valued?” Patrick asked. “What’s so special about that old guy?”

“Besides the fact that he’s paying your salary? It’s a sad story. He fell in love here, and he’s been coming back every year as if hoping his one true love will return. He checks in on the anniversary of when they met at the MacArthur.”

“Mr. Manning?” Patrick asked in surprise. “He had a legendary romance here? Who with? Marilyn Monroe?” He smirked.

Trudy had to find an acne spell to use on this pompous twit. Marilyn Monroe had stayed at the hotel while filming a movie here in 1958. “Why assume his romance was with a woman?”

Patrick’s jaw dropped. “You mean Mr. Manning is a . . . He comes here every year waiting for a guy?”

Trudy nodded. “Every year.”

“It takes all kinds,” Patrick said. “But when Mr. Dorsey said I needed to know our guests better, I don’t think he meant who they slept with.”

Patrick was right, but she didn’t tell him that. Mr. Manning’s tragic tale piqued her interest. Why did Mr. Manning feel, after such a long time, that the man he loved might return to the MacArthur? He must be an incurable romantic.

The crowd thinned, and she went to the dining room to pick up sandwiches for the staff. Mr. Dorsey and Patrick went home. The sandwiches weren’t ready, and she peeked at Mr. Manning sitting in the corner of the dining room. He sat alone with a paperback book, eating what appeared to be mussels and pasta, an item Trudy didn’t recall being on the menu.

She raised an eyebrow at Gonzado, a MacArthur veteran with the archaic title of Captain of the Dining Room. “Mussels?”

The tall man with jet-black hair and a pencil moustache smiled. “Ah, Mr. Manning. Yes, he orders it every year. I don’t have the heart to tell him we took it off the menu long ago. The chef prepares it for him special.” Gonzado sighed. People often did when referring to Mr. Manning.

“They say he’s one of the romantic legends of the hotel,” she said.

Gonzado sighed again. “It’s true. You should have seen them. I was a busboy, and they were incredible. Two handsome officers, one Air Force, one Navy. Lieutenants, both of them, and so crisp they cut the air when they walked.”

“Wow.” Trudy pictured it. “That had to be dangerous back then. They should have known better.”

Gonzado shook his head. “Young woman, you obviously haven’t been in love. They didn’t choose to become enamored of each other. One was married, one was engaged, and both could have lost their commissions and been kicked out of the military if the authorities had known. What happened between them wasn’t romanceit was two planets colliding.”

Trudy leaned against the counter. “Did they meet here?”

“Yes. Two young officers, far from home and attending a conference, came in for dinner,” Gonzado said. “Like many visitors, they were excited to be at the MacArthur. Mister, I mean, Lieutenant Manning, loved movies and, as it turned out, so did the handsome Navy Seal.”

Gonzado paused to seat a young couple and returned. “As the meal wore on, it became obvious they were simpatico. After several bottles of wine and a lengthy meal, they became fast friends. We kept the place open for them long after we closed to everyone else.”

“They made an impression on you,” Trudy said.

“The two lieutenants were the sun and the moon, one dark, one light, both full of life. Everyone noticed them, and more than a few men and women envied their attentiveness to one another. Although careful with public displays of affection, they made everyone around them feel happy to be alive.”

Gonzado was right. She hadn’t experienced a love like that.

He continued with a faraway look in his eyes. “We weren’t surprised when they checked in that night, saying they’d drank too much to drive home. But they didn’t stay in their room. I helped the kitchen pack a picnic basket for them late that evening, and they spent the night together on the beach. The staff hadn’t had as much to talk about since Miss Monroe stayed here.”

“Sex on the beach?” Trudy took the bag of sandwiches from the busboy who delivered them. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

The busboy grinned. “There are a couple coves down by the rocks you can only reach at low tide. You’re as isolated as being on a desert island until the tide goes back out the next morning. That’s what I’ve heard.”

Gonzado cocked an eyebrow at him, and the young man blushed and scurried off.
“It was a memorable summer for the MacArthur,” Gonzado said. “They returned every weekend.”

The guy-on-guy sex didn’t bother Trudy, but she found it intriguing they’d risked everything for a summer of togetherness. She’d never met anyone she’d risk her career for and obsess about for twenty-five years. “What happened to the Navy guy?”

“We never saw him again after that summer,” Gonzado said. “Killed in some war or lost at sea somewhere.”

Or married to his fiancé. She had to find out.
________________

Swing shift wasn’t so bad . . . until everybody went to bed. It got quiet, and the evening shift completed the tedious tasks not done during the day. After the timesheets had been verified and the workstations had been tidied for the night shift, Trudy took a short break and used the business center’s internet to find out more about Mr. Manning.

Several articles mentioned his software, green industries, and niche manufacturing. Everything the man touched seemed successful. Except for his love life.

Divorced, he had grown children and lived an alternative lifestyle no one mentioned or cared about. She couldn’t find the identity of the swarthy Navy Seal or what had happened to him.

Mr. Manning’s sad situation drew her like a moth to a flame. The possibility of the MacArthur closing meant there was no chance of a happy ending for nice Mr. Manning.

The hotel’s records might go back far enough to reveal the sailor’s name. Mr. Dorsey would know. She’d ask him tomorrow. In the meantime, she’d used the scrying lessons the coven had taught her. One member swore she’d found her missing wedding ring by using a map and a piece of string. Trudy had tried but couldn’t find her keys if they weren’t in her hand.

She printed off maps of each floor used to show the fire escape routes and wished she had something that belonged to tall, dark, and handsome. She couldn’t ask Mr. Manning if he’d kept a lock of his lover’s hair.

After connecting a strand of paperclips to use as a dangling string, she laid the floor plans out on the breakroom table. What next? Picture the object in her mind. It might help if she knew what she was looking for. A journal? They made people sign in twenty-five years ago. If they’d been naïve enough to use their real names, she might find their signatures. Knowing his identity, she’d be closer to finding him. The internet was faster and more accurate than scrying.

Could she find something that might not exist? She closed her eyes and pictured a ledger with a date from two decades before. She tried to imagine Mr. Manning as a young man with blond hair and an unlined face, but she couldn’t maintain it. She concentrated on the lover, moving from page to page on the conference table, letting the string of paperclips sway back and forth. Where was the ledger with Mr. Manning’s friend’s name? Where?

“What the hell?” Patrick asked.

Trudy’s eyes flew open. “What are you doing here?”

He held a cup of coffee. “Reporting for duty, officer. Have you been here all night?”

She hadn’t realized she’d been scrying for hours.

“What is this?” Patrick picked up a sheet of paper. “Are you putting together a book or something?”

She collected the pages into a pile. “I didn’t realize how late it was.” She kept an extra change of clothes in her locker in case of emergencies. She’d be tired today, but she could sleep when she got home.

“Why is this one burned?” Patrick peered at the sheet he held.

She snatched the page. On the parking deck beneath the hotel, an unmarked room had a small pinpoint burn on it as if a magnifying glass had been held to the sun. Had she done that with her marathon scrying? More likely, the printer had jammed again.

“I’m going to change,” she said. “Is that coffee fresh?”
________________

“Well, we survived another one.” Trudy tied back her hair as she checked the desk log. “I was betting the woman in 656 would go into labor.”

Patrick’s eyes widened. “That happens?”

“More often than you’d think. Babies, suicides, the occasional murder. It’s a never-ending cornucopia of madness and mayhem. So, how was your night, Mr. Upwardly Mobile?”

He looked around for Mr. Dorsey before he spoke. “The usual. Too much bed, not enough sleep.”

“You’re disgusting.” Acne wouldn’t be enough for Patrick when she got her witchy powers. Was there such a thing as a penis shrinking spell?

“Got a lot of checkouts this morning,” she said. “You’ll need another cup of coffee before rush hour.”

Patrick sighed. “More old people like Mr. Manning, desperate to recapture the past. Poor saps have more money than sense.”

Poor Mr. Manning, spending another week waiting and alone. Not just a week, the rest of his life. The Navy Seal might be dead and unable to return.

“In spite of what they teach you in management school,” she said, “guests aren’t units of commerce. People know when you’re faking sincerity, Patrick.” A fake host working alongside a fake witch.

Mr. Manning entered the lobby, returning from a walk on the beach. He waved at them, and they waved back.

“It’s so sad,” Trudy said.

Patrick sighed again, deeper this time. “Yeah. Poor sap.”
________________

During the morning break, Trudy asked Mr. Dorsey how far back registration records went. He told her at least a hundred years. He directed her to the record storage room behind his office.

Trudy was surprised. “Not the parking deck?”

“Oh, I forgot we kept ledgers in the storeroom down there. Never got around to scanning them. Why do you want them?”

“We’ve become so high tech that we’ve forgotten what it was like a few decades ago. I wanted to show Patrick some of MacArthur’s history.”

He nodded. “I’m glad to see you taking an interest, Trudy, but don’t let the hotel’s history take over your life. There will be other opportunities.”

He knew of the rumors of the grand hotel closing.

“I understand, sir. I’d better get back. I shouldn’t leave Patrick alone too long.”
“I quite agree. We need to keep our eye on that young man. He needs to learn the MacArthur is more than stones and woodwork.”

She left Mr. Dorsey’s office. How long before the MacArthur closed? If time was running out, she’d better visit the garage storage room on her lunch break.
________________

Lunch was late because she helped the wedding parties check out, but she found the keys and went to the garage on her break. Almost as if by magic, but more likely coincidence, she found the correct drawer in an old filing cabinet. She smiled through her fatigue, fingering the paperclips she wore as a bracelet on her wrist.

She found the summer the men had stayed at the MacArthur, but Mr. Manning had signed for a single room every weekend to prevent military investigators from discovering they were a couple.

It didn’t speak well of Mr. Other Guy. Had he been ashamed of Mr. Manning? Maybe he didn’t want Trudy to find him.

Back at the front desk, Patrick addressed a departing guest. “Thank you for staying with us, Mrs. Underwood. We hope you enjoyed your visit.” He sounded as if he meant it. The old woman smiled at him and said she did.

Mr. Dorsey came up behind them and studied the line of guests waiting to check out. “Do you need help?”

“No, sir.” Patrick motioned another wedding party member forward. “We’ve got it under control. The day whips by when you’re busy.”

Mr. Dorsey arched an eyebrow at Trudy, and she smiled. “You heard the man, boss. We’ve got this.”
________________

Trudy’s last job of the day was to ensure the function spaces were laid out for the next day’s meetings. She was so tired she couldn’t keep her eyes open. After being up all night and obsessing over Mr. Manning’s mystery man all day, she was working on autopilot.

Accompanied by Gilbert, the head of maintenance, she took an employee corridor to the function room reserved for the next morning. The space had been cleaned and reset after one of the wedding receptions.

Her makeshift bracelet fell from her wrist and hit the hardwood floor with a loud pop. She picked it up and stood before a group photograph hanging on the wall. She’d walked by it a thousand times and never noticed it.

There, in front of a beach volleyball net and surrounded by housekeeping, maintenance, waiters, waitresses, laundry workers, and gardeners, stood two young men as different from each other as night and day. They had their arms draped around each other’s shoulders, and it was difficult to determine who was smiling wider. The hotel staff had done more than hide the young officers’ summertime affair; they’d adopted them into their hotel family.

Gilbert stopped to see what she was looking at. “We had a summer volleyball competition with other hotels back then. It was a lot of fun, and Mr. MacArthur loved having the trophy in his office. Since the other hotels changed hands so much and the old man retired, the competition died out. Maybe the MacArthur has lived past its prime.”

“Nothing’s official yet, Gilbert. We could be here another hundred years.” Or be gone next week. She removed the photograph from the wall. “I want to look at this.” Her heartbeat faster; the attendees had signed the bottom.

She carried it to the function room and placed it on a table. Mr. Manning’s friend was big and muscular. And Mr. Manning was more filled out and butter blond instead of gray-haired. They looked like a couple. Seeing them in happier times made Trudy sad to think of them never being together again. She found the sailor’s signature. Ryan James.
________________

The next day, she hit another brick wall. She’d stayed up past midnight looking for Lieutenant James’ current location. She found his Navy career. He’d accelerated up the ranks, becoming a three-star admiral before he disappeared. Trudy found a picture of him in his white uniform at a ribbon cutting ceremony for a naval base. As a powerful man in the Navy, he probably couldn’t let his brief relationship with Mr. Manning to come to light. Five years ago, his wife had passed away, and he’d vanished. Trudy couldn’t find a retirement ceremony press release or an obituary.
Bleary-eyed and depressed, she felt like crying at the unfairness of it all when Mr. Manning stopped by the front desk to check his messages.

She had to do something. This not knowing was ruining her life. She might not be able to give Mr. Manning an explanation for the admiral’s absence, but she wanted one for herself. Why hadn’t he returned to Mr. Manning after his wife had died?
Figures Trudy had finally become passionate about something that didn’t have a snowball’s chance of a happy ending. Maybe she’d talk to their coven leader at the night’s gathering.
________________

Dressed in dark robes and standing before a large bonfire in the coven leader’s manicured backyard, Trudy was tired from her late nights. She felt an invisible clock ticking. Soon, Mr. Manning’s week would be over. Distracted, she missed the start of their opening chant and the disrobing, but she caught up when she saw the other twelve members placing their robes on nearby lawn chairs.

Was she supposed to feel something besides embarrassment at seeing a bunch of naked women? Young, old, thin, thick, they tried not to look at one another.

The familiar chant of beseeching favor from a higher power had little effect on Trudy. It never did. Before the meeting started, she’d asked their leader how to find someone lost for over two decades.

“A father who abandoned you?” the woman asked.

“No,” Trudy said. “A friend of a friend.”

The woman shook her head. “Not close enough. As I mentioned, the craft requires passion. A friend of a friend is too distant. Sorry. Try searching online.”

Trudy nodded and took her place in the circle. It had been too much to hope for that the answer would be easy. Still, she had to find Mr. Manning’s lover before time ran out.

“Goodwoman, Trudy!” A woman bumped into her. “You’re going the wrong way.”

“As usual,” someone behind her muttered.

Their leader stopped the circling with a pronounced frown at Trudy. “Today, we are going to cast a weather spell. We’re using the one we memorized.”

Crap. There had been homework? Maybe Trudy could fake it, mouthing nonsense Latin words and imitating others’ gestures. No wonder her spells never worked.

Although she tried hard to follow the others, her concerns for Mr. Manning distracted her. She never felt anything performing these rituals. Clouds didn’t appear. Either she didn’t have the gift, or her coven was doing it wrong.

Maybe she should try something different. She stopped flailing her arms about and closed her eyes. Breathing deeply, she felt the moisture in the air and pulled it into her. The heat from the fire and the soft breezes caressed her body. Something stirred within her, and she raised her head to the night sky. Clouds swirled overhead, slowly at first and then faster. She heard thunder in the distance.

The woman who had bumped into her screamed. A wall of rain swept through the coven, dousing the fire, and sending women running for their robes, already soggy.
As quickly as it began, the tempest ended, and the leader approached Trudy.

“I know,” Trudy said, “there’s a waiting list.”

She grabbed her robe and slipped it on without saying thank you or goodbye. It wasn’t until she reached her car that she discovered both she and the robe were dry.
________________

Leaving work the next evening, Trudy couldn’t understand what had happened the night before. Had she somehow summoned the shower or was it another coincidence? Losing the coven was no great loss. Maybe she’d give up being a terrible witch.

She felt an overpowering urge to walk along the beach before going home. The warm night air and the way the moon reflected on the water filled her with unexpected energy. She removed her jacket and her shoes.

“I must be out of my mind,” Trudy shouted into the wind. She walked along the sandbar at low tide, the farthest out she’d ever been. The full moon sang to her, and the sea frothed around her feet. The air around her flowed electric, and the dark green ocean boiled and whirled as a maelstrom formed in the water ahead of her.

Her blouse flapped around her, and her paperclip bracelet sparkled in the moonlight. She pounded the sand with her bare feet as if she danced on a drum. Her spirit sang with the stars overhead. What was happening? Was this magic? Or had she lost her mind?

The ocean rose around her, forming a column twice her height. The tide. The ocean. The moon. They attended her like old friends, and she bowed to them as they welcomed her.

The column of water writhed in the moonlight, changing shape. Appearing as a school of dolphins, jade green and translucent in the moonlight, it swirled as if lit from within. The dolphins disappeared and became a giant octopus, but Trudy wasn’t afraid. Her skin cracked with green lightning, and she laughed as the octopus whirled around her.

“Ocean!” Her voice rang out crisp and clear. “Hear me!”

The figure of a bearded man wearing an emerald crown appeared, but he didn’t speak. She wasn’t sure if a manifestation of nature could. She didn’t care. Deep within her, she knew she had summoned the elemental, and he waited for her command. “Find the admiral and bring him here.”

In her mind, she held an image of Admiral James as he had looked in a newspaper article. The sea god nodded and disappeared in a spray of collapsing water. God, she hoped the admiral wasn’t dead and decaying at the bottom of the sea. She’d seen that movie; it didn’t have a good ending.

Exhausted and unsure of what had just happened, Trudy walked back to the hotel. She hadn’t needed fancy rituals or spells of power. The ocean understood her deep need and obeyed. Or had she imagined it all?

God, she needed sleep.
________________

“Are you okay?” Patrick asked the next evening.

“I’m fine.” She printed the last of the late check-ins. “Why?”

He looked around the reception counter. “You seem distracted. What’s with the roses?” He pointed to a large vase on the counter.

“Oh, they’re for an evening arrival.” She smiled. Not even Patrick could disturb her mood today.

Mr. Manning exited the dining room and walked across the lobby. He smiled and waved at them before taking his evening walk on the beach.

“Poor man,” Patrick said. “His week’s almost over.”

“Be careful, Tough Guy,” she said. “Your empathy’s showing. Send a bottle of champagne and two glasses to his room.”

“Me? Call room service.”

“You call room service and charge it to the hotel.” She used her newfound voice on him. If she could command oceans, a sea slug like Patrick shouldn’t be a problem. “Now.”

He frowned but picked up the phone.

Mr. Dorsey approached. “Did you want to see me, Trudy?”

“Yes, sir. Look at this.” She held a newspaper, open to an article she’d circled on the inside page.

Patrick ordered the champagne and hung up.

“What is it?” Mr. Dorsey studied the paper, but Patrick was already reading over his shoulder.

“Some admiral retired,” Patrick read. “Who is he?”

“It’s Admiral Ryan James, returned to the world,” she said. “He’s been missing for years.”

“Where has he been?” Mr. Dorsey asked.

Trudy pointed to a second article of a clandestine monitoring station off the Chinese coast, destroyed by a freak underwater earthquake. “I’d say he’s been the commander of a secret underwater installation since his wife died.” Out of contact with the real world and unable to return to the MacArthur.

“But where was he before that?” Patrick asked. “Amnesia? Why didn’t he come back to Mr. Manning?”

“Fear,” Trudy said. “Dedication to his sick wife. Who knows?”

A tall man came through the front doors and approached the counter.

Patrick stared. “Who’s that?”

“Good evening, Mr. Smith.” Trudy held a card key she’d programmed. “We’ve been expecting you. Room 227.”

She smiled into a handsome face with dark eyes and a square jaw. After twenty-five years, not one gray strand peppered his hair.

Patrick opened his mouth. “You’re

“Mr. Smith,” Mr. Dorsey finished. “Welcome back to the MacArthur, sir.”

“Thank you.” The retired admiral smiled and lifted his bag.

“Wait!” Trudy handed him the vase of roses. “You’ll need these.”

The admiral grinned. With roses in arm, he headed toward the elevator.

“If that’s who I think it is, how can you both be so calm?” Patrick asked.

“Nothing’s impossible,” Trudy said. Especially if the sea helped.

She wasn’t surprised when Mr. Manning returned early from his walk. The wind had picked up.

The gray-haired man walked toward the elevators, not paying attention to the broad-shouldered man who stood there.

But it wasn’t magic that electrified the air, or it was a magic that occurred between two people who belonged together.

Mr. Manning stopped when Admiral James turned around and smiled. They didn’t throw themselves into each other’s arms in slow motion, and they didn’t kiss each other passionately, but both their faces lit up as if they’d been shadowed for twenty-five years. They truly were the sun and the moon.

Time stood still, and the lucky spectators—Mr. Dorsey, Trudy, and open-mouthed Patrick—watched as Mr. Manning took the roses and laughed. The men hugged and didn’t speak or break apart as they entered the elevator. Decades of words passed between them with an unbroken look.

Mr. Manning would forgive the admiral for showing up twenty-five years late. A man who waited that long had faith.

“That’s amazing.” Patrick looked dazed.

“A love worth waiting for, Mr. Euston.” Trudy hoped someone would look at her like the admiral had looked at Mr. Manning.

“Euston?” Patrick shook himself. “That’s my mother’s name.”

“Patrick!” Mr. Dorsey said. “Are you okay?”

“I understand now.” Patrick smiled. “I thought my grandfather was crazy for sticking with this old place for so long, but now I see why. It’s people like Mr. Manning.”

“Your grandfather?” Trudy asked. “I don’t understand.”

Mr. Dorsey sighed. “You might as well tell her the bad news, Mr. MacArthur. The board meets tomorrow.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I’m sorry, Trudy,” Patrick said. “My last name is MacArthur, not Euston. My family wants to sell the hotel. I’m doing an assessment before the board makes the final decision tomorrow.”

“You can’t!” She’d been too focused on finding Mr. Manning’s friend. Maybe if she’d tried to prevent the MacArthur being sold from beneath them . . .

“You’re right. I can’t,” Patrick said. “This isn’t about head counts and bottom lines. This is much more. Mr. Manning and the admiral made me understand.”

“Mr. Dorsey, I suggest we comp Mr. Manning’s reservation another week. What do you think, boss?”

“An excellent idea, young man. Trudy?”

“No problem.” Her fingers flew across the keyboard. She wished she hadn’t sprinkled the wart powder in Patrick’s locker. Although, with her luck, she’d likely made him even more irresistible to women.

After all, she was a terrible witch.


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Tom Howard is a fantasy and science fiction short story writer living in Little Rock, Arkansas. He thanks his friends for their inspiration and the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers' Group for their perspiration.


Copyright © 2022 by Tom Howard
Published by Orion's Beau