CHAPTER ONE

Mercy Stowbridge found Dylan Dutcher in the Triptych Hotel, soaking in the bathtub. He wasn't so hard to find, considering he hadn't left the hotel since he died in 1982. At the moment, he didn't look his usual self. To the common eye, one would mistake him as the pretty blonde woman who'd checked in two days ago, in town for a business meeting. Should Dylan have rendered himself visible at all, one might have seen a young man, dark haired, heavy-browed and wide-mouthed. But since Stowbridge could recognize a ghost on sight, she had no problem identifying him.

"Odd choice," she said, standing in the bathroom doorway. "Possessing a woman when there are plenty of men in the hotel."

Dylan glanced up at her indifferently. "She's in my room," he said. "Besides, women appreciate tactile things more. Men hate baths."

"I know many men who like baths," Stowbridge said.

"I don't."

"Do you know who I am, Mr. Dutcher?"

"No," he said, sinking deeper into the tub and closing his eyes. "But you know I'm possessing a human, you're wearing a suit and can break into a hotel room. Not as quietly as you think you can, by the way. So either you're a psychically-sensitive, mildly incompetent assassin here to kill this woman, or you're a ghost-seeking businesswoman. Am I close?"

Mercy Stowbridge grinned. "Not really."

"So who are you?"

"My name is Mercy Stowbridge, I represent a facility called Paranormal House. We like to think of it as a rehabilitation center for supernatural beings. You can be around others like you. Other ghosts. Psychics. That sort of thing. Many of our guests are show how to control their abilities and be integrated back into society. Ghosts like you are shown how to cross over, to begin the next phase."

"I don't want to cross over."

"Nonsense, all ghosts want to cross over."

Dylan cast a suspicious glance over her.

"How come you're here alone?"

"Unless there's reason to come with assistance, the recruiters always come alone. We feel it puts stressed and confused minds at ease."

"I'm not stressed. I'm in the bath."

"It is worth mentioning, Mr. Dutcher," she said, "that you are not like other ghosts. You will be given a more human form. You'll be able to eat and drink and you'll feel objects when you touch them. Do you remember the last time you could feel your own skin?"

Dylan didn't answer.

Stowbridge arched an eyebrow, smiled to herself. His silence apparently amused her. "I'll leave you my card on the nightstand."

"Don't bother."

From the tub, he heard her leave, her footsteps grew faint against the carpeted floor, the door clicked behind her, and Dylan was alone. Or rather, he was alone with the blonde woman. After getting out of the tub and drying off, he lay down on the bed and lifted himself back out of the blonde's body. He had noticed in the past that people tended to faint or collapse when he left them, and they were often hurt in the fall. There was something so pathetic about an injured person. So he made sure to handle them carefully.

Dylan watched as the blonde regained her senses, sat up and got dressed. He wondered what it must be like to be possessed. They never seemed to fully remember. For instance, the blonde woman did not seem shocked that she'd taken a bath. But she ignored the business card on the nightstand. Bits and pieces, that was all she remembered. She probably thought she'd dozed off in the tub, dreamed something strange.

Later in the evening, she went out for dinner, and Dylan was left alone. He switched on the TV without pushing any buttons, a trick he'd learned back when he was trying to freak out the guests, then sat down on the bed to watch reality shows. When he grew bored, he could change the channel just by thinking about it. It used to take a lot more focus. But that was decades ago.

When he'd died, he'd had no choice but to stay in his room at the hotel. He was rather pissed at his bandmates for leaving him there while they continued on tour. Who did they think they were, anyhow? They just picked up another bass player like Dylan had never been there to begin with. Assholes. He hoped their stupid band went nowhere.

At first, when he was unable to leave the room, Dylan simply drifted in and out of reality, like fading and regaining consciousness. Time passed strangely, sometimes it moved too slowly, sometimes it hurtled forward. He watched adulterous couples meet for steamy afternoon rendezvous, watched women shower and teenage girls change into swimsuits. In life, Dylan had what some might describe as a "healthy" sexual appetite, so it seemed natural to take up a voyeuristic haunting. Eventually, the sexual nature waned, and Dylan found that instead of lust and desire, he felt jealousy and longing, not for them, but for his own physicality. He'd never see himself in a mirror again. He'd never enjoy a shower, never have sex or eat food or talk to anyone. Now his body was buried in a cemetery somewhere. Or maybe it had been cremated, reduced to ash. He wasn't sure. He hadn't gone to his own funeral.

The years went by and Dylan learned how to move objects, a trick he used to toy with the guests. He would open a closet door and when the guest had closed it, he waited until they were out of the room to open it back up again. It drove them crazy. To get a bigger reaction, he would pull the sheets down over the bed while they slept. He would pull all the towels out of the bathroom and throw them all over the floor, or use up all the toothpaste to write obscene things in the mirror.

He'd become sort of famous. Not among normal people, just kids who'd seen too many horror movies and adults with too much free time. When the internet became popular, he discovered he was on message boards in supernatural forums. Not him, exactly, no one knew his name or who he'd been or how he'd died. They only knew he existed. People came in specifically requesting Room 410, and would stay up all night trying to call on his presence.

Dylan found them ridiculous. They would come in with wide eyes and t-shirts with TV references and say things like, "Are you in the room with us now?" and, "We're not here to hurt you."

He loved messing with them. He communicated to one group that he had been part of the original construction crew on the hotel and had died when a can of paint dropped on his head. Another group learned that he'd been an old woman whose husband had poisoned her while she slept. One team came in with high-tech recording equipment and Dylan screamed, "Oh God, help me," into the microphone over and over again, before erupting into a fit of giggles. When he grew strong enough to venture outside his room, he would take the elevator to the lobby and watch hotel guests check in and out. He wondered if this was Hell, watching the living in transit, while he was unable to leave, trapped in a growing loneliness, a mounting depression.

Only recently had he learned to possess the living. He didn't have much control, but he do little things, take baths or feel the things he touched. Only once had he tried to eat food, and he became so sick he threw up.

And now there was this woman, Mercy Stowbridge, promising that he could feel the things he touched without possessing anyone, that he could eat and drink. And all this bullshit about a rehabilitation center, like Dylan needed rehab, like he was addicted to being dead. Like he needed help. He tossed her card into the garbage. What a joke.

Dylan shut off the TV and left the room. There were other ghosts in the hotel, but none like him. These ghosts were just energy, bits and pieces of memories that cycled through repetitive motions. They were hardly company. One such ghost was Rosie, a girl who'd drowned in the swimming pool. Since her death, she had sat at the edge of the pool, kicking the water with her little feet. Guests often reported seeing her when they passed by the pool doors. They'd see her out of the corner of their eye but when they turned to look, she'd be gone.

The pool was busy this time of night. A few kids and their parents, a small group of teenagers, a newlywed couple. And there was Rosie at the side of the pool, watching her feet move in and out of the water. Dylan sat down beside her, rolled up his faded jeans and stuck his legs in the water. It wasn't that he could get wet. It was just an odd habit he never grew out of.

"Hey, Rosie."

"Five more minutes," she said. It was all she ever said.

From the deep end of the pool, a set of siblings began a cannonball competition. The teenagers, annoyed, moved to the hot tub.

"If you could," Dylan asked to the unresponsive Rosie, "would you leave?"

Rosie only splashed her feet.

"I don't even want to cross over. You should, I mean, you're sad as hell just sitting here forever."

A boy swam the length of the pool without taking a breath. Two girls did handstands in the shallow end.

"Maybe I just want someone to talk to," Dylan said. "Not that I don't enjoy your company."

"Five more minutes."

Back in room 410, Dylan pulled the business card out of the trash. If Paranormal House was really like rehab, then he could check himself out whenever he wanted. He'd go, poke around a bit, see what he thought, and if he didn't like it, he'd leave. Not a big deal. It wasn't like anyone was going to force him to do anything he didn't want to do.