The Challengers of the Unknown enjoyed a pleasant meal in the Stoney Battery Inn’s dining room and chatted casually.
Ace Morgan sliced a piece of beef and said, “Corinna, I don’t want you to think these lugs are the only ones who had a life before we suited up. After my time in the service and the space program, I started a private air freight company. It was not exactly a roaring success, but I had a few good clients. One job involved hauling explosives for some miners. The cargo shifted, and I had to make some quick decisions. I managed to drive off the miner and dump the nitro without hurting anyone.”
“He’s modest,” said Rocky Davis. “He not only saved their lives, but he did them a favor. The blast opened up a vein of valuable ores.”
“Right, but that didn’t do them a lot of good,” continued Ace. “The ore was on government land. I’ve often regretted how my flying won me a slot on that television show but didn’t do my clients a bit of good. If it had not been for those miners and that accident, I might still be running that fly-by-night operation, if you’ll excuse the expression. I owe them a debt.”
Corinna Stark sipped her drink and then glanced coquettishly over the glass at Ace. “My, my, well, we all owe them a debt,” she said. “If you boys hadn’t gotten together, I’d still be a captive of my father’s, or worse, I’d be one of the brides of Chu!”
“Chu,” grumbled Rocky. “The thought of that alien bozo and his spawn can still ruin my appetite.”
“That explains why you only had three pieces of pie,” said Red Ryan.
At that moment, Eden and Rodney Copenhaver approached with something a bit sheepish in their demeanor.
“Yuppies — they’re worse than Chu,” whispered Red.
Eden smiled winningly and said, “Gentleman, I do hope your dining experience has been delightful.”
“The food is fine, as is the ambience,” said Ace. “You run a beautiful place here.”
“Well, Mr. Morgan,” said Rodney, “in truth, the inn is what we’d like to talk about with you.”
“About those towels in my suitcase, I can explain,” said Rocky.
“You have a refreshing sense of humor,” said Eden, “but it is a serious matter we wish to discuss with you.”
“Please join us,” said Prof Haley. “We are more than willing to listen. Don’t mind the juvenile quips that some of us tend to generate.”
Red elbowed Rocky and said, “He means you.”
“I think he means Ace,” said Rocky.
“Stow it, you two,” said Ace. “What’s the matter, Mr. Copenhaver?”
Rodney sank down into a chair and said, “We left the city and my job as a commodity trader to open the inn. We love it here, and it has been a labor of pleasure, except for one thing. You see, like many old properties, the inn combines a quaint charm with a rather less desirable attribute.”
“Gabe’s not so bad once you get used to him,” said Rocky. “Or are you referring to something stranger?”
Eden folded her well-manicured hands together and sighed. “You know how an inn depends upon tourist trade as well as word-of-mouth for business? Well, bad word-of-mouth can ruin a place like ours. That’s why we weren’t overly thrilled when we recognized you when you arrived. We feared you were here to expose our little secret!”
Rodney laughed nervously as he said, “And I don’t mean that Eden’s a bottle blonde!”
An irritated Eden ignored her husband and said, “The inn has a rather bizarre problem. You see, the inn is haunted!”
Corinna laughed and said, “Excellent! I thought I detected certain vibrations.”
“And in what form does the apparition manifest itself?” asked Prof.
“Eh, well, that’s the problem,” said Rodney. “We can’t tell you.”
“You’ve come this far,” said Ace. “Why not tell us everything?”
“You misunderstood Rodney,” said Eden. “We literally can’t tell you. We’ve been here for three years. Everything seemed wonderful until we had a problem with a guest near the end of our first year here. He was perfectly fine until something happened in his room. He came stumbling out of the room, and he couldn’t remember a thing. Not only had he lost his memory and couldn’t tell us the source of his shock, but he didn’t even know his own name! We couldn’t help, because we had no idea who he was or how he got there. We assumed he was a guest. How else would he have been sleeping in a room upstairs? There was no record that he had ever signed in, but the guest book had a blank space where his signature must have been originally.”
“We took him into the hospital, and he regained his memory enough to confirm that he had been a guest,” added Rodney. “He had met all of us and even shared a conversation with Eden about her flowers. At that time we had no memory of his arrival or of such a conversation. He could not tell us what drove him out of the room or made him briefly forget his very name, nor do we know why we never have been able to remember anything about the man before the night in question. We did finally regain our memories of his arrival and his talk with Eden, and the empty space in the desk sign-in book mysteriously filled in with his signature. It was all terribly strange.”
“Trauma can induce temporary amnesia,” said Ace. “A service buddy of mine had something like that happen to him back in ‘Nam.”
“Ace, that’s not exactly what happened here,” said Prof. “The guest may very well have had some scare that robbed him of his faculties for a time, but how do you explain the fact that the Copenhavers had no recollection of his very existence? They weren’t witnesses to the apparition that apparently robbed him of his memory.”
“Gabe didn’t recall checking him in, either, and Gabe has a memory like an elephant,” said Eden. “Of course, his memories of the guest returned when ours did, but something or someone made all of us temporarily forget that the guest had ever existed. If that isn’t supernatural in nature, then what is?”
“First, we’re here to help you,” said Ace. “We aren’t here to ruin your business by spreading stories about ghostly encounters.”
“I have the feeling that there’s more to your story,” added Prof.
Eden nodded and dabbed at one of her heavily made-up eyes with a napkin. “You see, we had similar experiences last year and the year before,” she said.
“You mean different guests checked in and then lost their memories?” asked Prof. “Were they each in the same room?”
“Yes,” said Eden. “They were in the large room by the gallery. In each case on the night of November 3rd, the occupant of room 214 lost his or her memory, and accompanying their loss of memory was a total lapse of memory of their presence here by the rest of us. Two years ago, two brothers checked in. One had room 214 and the other had room 213. The next day, the one in room 213 couldn’t remember who he was, nor could any of us, including his own brother, recall ever seeing him before!”
“Room 213?” said Rocky. “That’s Corinna’s room!”
Corinna nodded slowly and said, “I admit that something in the very atmosphere of the room haunts me. It makes me uneasy, and yet it seems to seduce me with unseen portents.”
“Did the pair of brothers regain their memories after a few days?” asked Red.
“After they departed from the inn, they eventually regained their memories, and we suddenly recalled their arrival and their names, just as before,” said Eden. “However, the guest in 213 still could not recall the night in question or exactly what happened in his room.”
“November 3rd is tomorrow,” said Prof. “I’m glad you told us about the mystery. We can take certain steps to reduce the danger.”
“Corinna, doll, you gotta get out of that room!” urged Rocky.
“No,” said Corinna. “This is exactly the kind of crisis in which my psychic sensitivities and training in the hidden arts will prove useful. You wouldn’t forbid Red to participate in a case on a steep mountain. You wouldn’t tell Prof not to handle a deep sea mystery. You would realize that the individual cases were perfect for their respective talents. This supernatural mystery is perfect for one of my background.”
Prof nodded and said, “That’s certainly logical, Corinna.”
“Let’s get all the details,” said Ace. “You said this precise series of events has occurred every year since you came here. I assume that includes last year?”
“No,” said Rodney. “We closed the room last year to prevent such an occurrence.”
“We were not going to book the room this year, but your arrival changed our minds,” added Eden.
“You put Corinna in that spook room on purpose!” said Rocky. “Talk about pulling in the welcome mat!”
“We haven’t known what to do,” said Eden. “We thought perhaps someone of your unique reputation could act as phantom repellents or ghost-breakers!”
“We’ve encountered more than our share of supernatural or alien beings,” said Prof. “Leave the matter in our hands.”
Ace nodded grimly and said, “Let’s be candid. You first tried to scare us off with that stunt involving the masonry. That was not an accident. When that failed, you decided to ask us to help.”
“I admit it,” said Rodney. “I’m sorry. Like Eden said, we’ve been half-mad with worry. We thought if we could get rid of you, then you’d not be able to expose the fact that our little inn is haunted!”
“Rodney is under stress and has been drinking,” said Eden. “You can’t take his confession at face value!”
“Ease up, honey,” cautioned Red. “We’re not going to sue you or belt Rodney one. Just work with us and not against us, and we’ll come out fine.”
Eden smiled and said, “Thank you. You can’t know what a relief this is to us. Tell us what you need, and we’ll provide it.”
Rocky grinned and said, “We got all we need. Consider your ghost on notice from this moment on.”
That evening, the male Challengers sat around a small table in room 213 and looked expectantly at Corinna as the redhead gazed into a flickering candle.
“The only way we will ever truly know the nature of the haunting is to go directly to the source,” she said. “I suggest a séance. Talking to the ghost should help us find the answers we need.”
“I’ll defer to your expertise, although I’ve never found such ceremonies to be particularly fruitful,” said Prof.
“Rapping with wraiths is not your bag, Prof,” said Red. “We understand.”
“Corinna, this is your ballgame,” said Ace. “Tell us what to do.”
“She’ll come through, don’t worry,” assured Rocky. “The lady’s a champ!”
“And you’re a chump,” muttered Red.
As Rocky glared at his friend, Prof sighed. The foursome had always bantered back and forth with one another, but he was concerned about the effect Corinna was having on the group. Rocky was clearly smitten with her, and she and Red had some type of odd chemistry that seemed to manifest itself as friction. He wondered if her presence might undermine years of teamwork if left unchecked.
June never caused this kind of trouble, he thought, referring to June Walker Robbins, the brilliant computer and robotics expert who had worked with the team in the past as a fifth Challenger. The lovely blonde had been attractive and personable, but she had carried less emotional baggage than the fiery and enigmatic Corinna.
“Join hands. I will attempt to summon the restless spirit behind this haunting!” she declared. As Corinna began to chant in some arcane words, a cold breeze seemed to pass through the room, and the candles flickered fitfully until a sudden stillness came over the room, and Corinna’s eyes widened as if in surprise.
She spoke haltingly in a tone not her own. “Who seeks the Forgotten One?” she said. “Who dares to disturb the one who has yet to know rest?”
“Who are you?” asked Rocky. “What’s your name?”
Corinna stiffened and said, “Josiah Randolph! I am Josiah Randolph! Cry my name again and again, yet never shall it be named by any other mortal tongue. Can the chill of the grave be as numbing to my bone as such a fate as mine?”
“Randolph?” said Red. “Were you related to the man who built this place — Thomas Randolph?”
The spirit using Corinna said, “He was my father. May he know the rest denied to me! He was my loving father, although he never mourned my passing!”
“There was no record of Thomas Randolph’s having a child,” said Ace. “Were you disowned? Did they remove you from the family records out of some spite or curse?”
Corinna shook violently and said, “No! If he had remembered me, he would have mourned me with wailing and lamentation!”
“Josiah, why do you haunt one room of this inn?” asked Prof. “What happened to you on November 3rd?”
Corinna shrieked, “It was in that room I was lost! It was in that cursed room that I made the infernal bargain and reaped the consequences of that dark act!”
She gasped for breath and then collapsed as Rocky leaped to her side and gently cradled her in his arms. “Corinna, are you OK?” he said. “Speak to me, baby!”
“She’ll be fine,” said Prof. “She’s already coming around.”
Indeed, as Corinna opened her eyes, she touched Rocky’s arm and said, “I am OK. I communed with Josiah for a moment, and then he was gone. In that moment, I felt his suffering as if it was my own. His isolation mirrored my own.”
“Did you pick up any details that might help us?” asked Prof. “Why has he been forgotten? How does his condition reflect on the circumstances of what occurred in room 213 to the past guests?”
“I cannot say,” replied Corinna. “I do not know.”
“Sheesh!” grumbled Red. “Last time I leave something like this to a glamor-puss!”
“Back offa her!” said Rocky. “She did her best!”
“A forgotten heir and an infernal bargain,” mused Ace. “What could it all mean?”
“If Josiah was the son of Thomas Randolph, then he must have come of age roughly around the time of the Civil War,” noted Prof. “I wonder if he served with the Confederacy.”
“Maybe he served with the Union,” suggested Ace. “That could have led to his estrangement from his father.”
“I feel he will return tomorrow night,” said Corinna. “I also believe he is behind the amnesia that struck past guests on that evening. Yet I also felt his pain and his sorrow. He is not deliberately doing anything. He’s more victim than villain!”
“How can you be sure?” asked Rocky. “He could be one of those deluded creeps who think the world is wrong, but he’s right.”
Corinna said nothing as she thought, I know because he touched my heart and mind, and for that moment we were one.