Sleepless in Steelhead Shanghai

11/1/09  at 3:05 AM
A Special Ghostly Story for the Season
by Riven Homewood


My name is Morton Dreamscape. I do not expect that this story will be believed, but I am telling it in the hope that that it may serve as a warning for some other unsuspecting traveller.

I am a man of middle years, and for some time now I have lived in the Steamlands. My business requires frequent travel, and it is my custom to travel alone, locate a suitable residence, and only then to send for my mother, who is a widow and keeps house for me.

Recently the needs of business brought me once again to the pleasant community of Steelhead. My mother had categorically refused to leave her comfortable situation until something equally commodious could be arranged in our new location, and unfortunately some temporary pecuniary reversals made this extremely difficult. It was therefore with great relief that I learned there was now a hotel in Steelhead, located on the mountain that rises above the harbour in Steelhead Shanghai.

On arriving in Steelhead, I immediately hired a water taxi and proceeded to Shanghai. At the dock, a villainous-looking oriental offered to show me the way to the Dragonlands Hotel and carry my luggage. With some misgivings, I entrusted my trunk to him, and, although at first I had doubted both his strength and his trustworthiness, he proved a reliable guide as we ascended the mountain through a maze of dingy alleys, muddy paths, hump-backed bridges and crooked staircases. Without his presence, it is quite likely that I should never have found the hotel at all -- in which case the story I am about to tell would never have taken place.

The proprietress of the hotel proved to be an attractive woman, though a bit long in the tooth and showing evidence of a dubious past. She said they had a room available that might suit me, and I followed her through a hidden door and up yet another set of stairs. The hotel had clearly seen better days, but the room was pleasant and well-lit, with an entire wall of French windows that opened onto a balcony overlooking the harbor. I immediately engaged it, feeling relieved that I had found a comfortable place to batch it during this visit to Steelhead.

It being rather late by this time, I immediately went to bed, arose early the next morning, and proceeded to my first business appointment, which occupied me for the remainder of the day. On returning to my hotel, I sat for a bit in the lobby, enjoying a nightcap and some pleasant conversation with the owner and a Mr. Broek, whom I was pleased to find was a man of law and might therefore be useful to me as my business proceeded. I then took my leave, ascended the staircase to my room, and prepared for bed.

As is my normal custom, before retiring I took a few moments to record the day's events in my journal. I was deeply engrossed in doing so, when suddenly I became aware that the room had become quite cold, as though a chilly draft had entered through an open window. Thinking that perhaps one of the doors to the balcony had blown open, I looked up and was astonished to find that I was no longer alone in the room!

A few feet away stood a lovely young woman. Her skin was very pale and she was dressed in layer upon layer of diaphanous white garments. Despite her pallor, her glossy black hair and the shape of her face made it clear that she was an oriental. She was staring at me as though she perhaps wished to say something but was afraid to do so.

My mouth agape, I stared at her. I confess that my first thought was to wonder if I had arrived by mistake at some sort of bawdy house and would receive a bill for her services in the morning. But she appeared quite agitated, and then it occurred to me that perhaps she was simply another guest who had wandered into the wrong room. I closed my mouth and decided the best course in any event would be to greet her and introduce myself.

"Good evening, Madam. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"

She smiled. It was an amazing smile, and completely transformed her face. But she said nothing, walked to the french doors, opened one, and stepped out onto the balcony. As she stood there, the full moon illuminated her garments and made her almost seem to glow. The harbour breeze kept all the layers of her clothing swirling about her in constant motion, so it seemed she was surrounded by some sort of mystical aura. She stood there for a moment, then walked to the rail and gazed out over the harbour.

Dumbstruck, I rose from my chair and followed her out onto the balcony. She took no notice of me - indeed, except for that brief moment earlier when she smiled, she might have been totally alone in the room for all the notice she had paid me. Still staring out into the harbour, she leaned far over the railing. Then, with no warning, she turned toward me and again that dazzling smile transformed her face.

Still smiling, she turned away, placed her hands upon the railing and in a single graceful motion vaulted over the rail and hurled herself into the air. For a second, I saw the shape of her body silhouetted against the moon, then stared in horror as she plummeted toward the harbour that glimmered far, far below us.

I raced to the rail and looked down, but could see no sign of her. Without even taking the time to don my coat, I dashed down the stairs, through the deserted hotel lobby, and out into the night. Though in my haste I had forgotten to bring a lamp with me, the moon was of such brightness as to illuminate the entire mountainside. There was not a soul to be seen. For the remainder of that hideous night, I wandered blindly through a maze of streets and alleys, searching and listening, until the first light of dawn appeared and the streets began to come alive. I found no sign of her body, no hint of the tragedy that had taken place. Chilled to the bone, I dragged myself back up the mountain and collapsed gratefully into a chair beside the lobby fireplace.

I was alone in the lobby for several moments, and then the landlady bustled in. Sizing me up with what seemed to be a practised eye, she said nothing, retired to the back of the building, and returned with a large mug of coffee
and a glass of some mysterious concoction.

"Drink this - it is the best thing in the world for the morning after."

Gratefully, I downed the coffee in two swallows, then politely refused the hangover remedy.

"Thank you, Madame, but my condition is not the result of overindulgence but of shock and fear!"

I began to describe the young lady and detail the strange encounter in my room. Before I could complete two sentences, she interrupted me.

"Oh sir, you have had a bad dream. There is no one resembling that girl in this house and what you are describing could not possibly have happened."

I protested, but she remained adamant that it must have been a dream. At my insistence, she agreed to send an urchin to notify the sheriff. He returned sometime later and reported that the sheriff was investigating, but had so far found no sign that a young woman had been killed last night anywhere in Steelhead. I sent him out again with messages cancelling my day's appointments, retired to my room, and immediately fell asleep. My sleep was filled with strange dreams of oriental palaces and beautiful women, and when I awoke the next morning it did indeed seem possible that I might also have dreamed this woman's appearance in my room.

For the next few weeks, my life proceeded in a quite normal fashion. During the day I travelled about Steelhead conducting my business and resuming my acquaintance with friends made during previous visits. Evenings I attended civic functions or enjoyed a quiet drink in the hotel lobby. For the first few nights, I waited apprehensively to see if there would be another mysterious visit, but none came. My nights remained filled with strange dreams, and I soon decided my experience the first night had been yet another of these.

I had now been in Steelhead for almost a month and the moon was once again quite full. I had written to my mother and invited her to join me in Steelhead, but she replied that she had met a delightful gentleman and did not wish to leave Caledon at this time. As I stood on my balcony enjoying the the moonlight, I decided that since my business here had reached the point where it no longer required my constant attention, I would wind it up quickly and join her in Caledon so I might determine what this fellow was about. Past experience has shown me that my mother is inclined to be impulsive in affairs of the heart and requires guidance lest she become easy prey for fortune hunters.

Having made my decision, it seemed best to begin preparing immediately. I opened my trunk and began packing the items I did not anticipate using during the next few days. The moonlight through the French doors made the room so bright I did not even need to light a lamp. I worked away, wondering what this cad could possibly want with my mother.

A sudden motion caught my eye. I looked across the room and was astonished to see the same young lady I had encountered before. She was dressed exactly the same as on the previous night, all in white with many layers of soft clothing swirling about her, and the moonlight once again gave her a strange glow. The totally astonishing thing was that she was emerging directly from a solid wall as though she had simply walked through the wall and into my room.

She glided to the centre of the room, exactly where she had been standing when I looked up and discovered her on my first night in the hotel. She turned toward the desk where I had been sitting. Once again, that extraordinary smile illuminated her face. She opened the French door I had just closed and stepped out onto the balcony.

I could not believe this was happening again. I lunged toward the balcony, intending to do anything I could to prevent her dreadful fall.

Once again she turned and smiled. I was so close that I could almost touch her. I reached out and felt my hand grasp something whispy and soft.

She placed her hands on the balcony. Again, with a single graceful motion, she vaulted over it into the night. Something cold slithered through my fingers, and then my hand was empty.

I don't know how long I stood upon that balcony under the moon, but it seemed like a very long time. When I could move again, I turned and went back into my room.

I had encountered a spectre once before, in the haunted mine of Steeltopia, but that one was so distorted and so obviously supernatural that it was impossible to mistake it for anything except a ghost. This was an entirely different experience, yet there was no doubt in my mind that I had once again experienced a visitor from the other side. But the question remained of who this young woman might have been and why she was compelled to repeat her final evening in this room.

And what was on the other side of that wall? It had never occurred to me to wonder about this before. I walked out into the hall to see if there was a door there leading to another room, but there was none. Yet there was definitely some space between my room and the outside the building. I tapped on the wall and heard the unmistakable sound of a hollow space behind. What was there and how did one enter it?

I began investigating the wall, running my hands along it. Suddenly I heard a click and felt something move beneath my palm. A section of the wall slid away, and I looked into a dark hole. Light from somewhere far above revealed a staircase leading down into an unlit pit and another leading up to a higher level.

Lighting a lamp, I resolved to investigate. The stairs led me down into an almost empty room. Narrow wooden bunks ranged along the walls. Some had tatters of hangings tacked above them and one or two seemed to have the remnants of a pillow. Every empty spot on the bare walls was covered with the stains of black smoke and the cryptic designs of Chinese written characters.

During the course of my travels, I have spent a bit of time in the Oriental lands. I immediately recognized this space as having once been that type of notorious place commonly known as an opium den. No doubt at one time it was filled with Chinese labourers and white ne'er-do-wells seeking to escape their shabby lives by partaking of the smoke of dreams. Coming closer to the far wall, I discerned a drawing of a dragon standing in a field of flowers, and this confirmed my conclusion. Since the readers of this publication are doubtless not familiar with the manufacture of opium, perhaps I should explain that the drug is a distillation of the sap of the poppy flower.

So part of the mystery was solved. My room had once served as the respectable front for a den of iniquity.

But what was upstairs? And how did this young woman fit into it all?

I ascended the other hidden staircase. At the top I found another room much like the first. There were some slight differences, however -- the ceiling was lower. And the couches were broader, as though made to hold more than one person. And the room seemed rather small in comparison to the one below it.

I walked to the far end and discovered there was a door I had not seen at first. When I opened it, I knew at once that I had found the home of my mysterious visitor. Although the few remaining furnishing were old and half-decayed, there was no one else they could have once belonged to. And every inch of the wall was covered with more oriental writing, and with lovely graceful drawings.

I spent a good deal of time exploring that room and the one below. Some of what I found cannot be told in a family publication. Of the rest, I will simply say that I was left convinced that this hotel had a dark and shadowed past indeed. When I had finished, I felt a strong need to clean myself. I bathed and dressed.

When I had finished dressing, I began unpacking my trunk. My mother could fend for herself this time. I was not leaving until I had discovered who this beautiful woman had been and whether anything could be done to end her captivity. If so, I resolved not to leave until I had seen her pass on to her eternal reward.

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