Footsteps and Photographs

Russell looked down at the photograph in his hand. The image was old, yellowed, and wrinkled. He looked up again. In the photo, the building had been a bar, with sign of active light. The colors were faded, and it had been uninhabited for probably a decade. Yet it was the same building. The angle of the mountain behind it was right, and the trim around the windows was dingy and battered but recognizable. At some point, over twenty years ago, his father had stood in this very same spot.
Carefully, he tucked the photograph away and took another look around. The coffee shop on the other corner was clearly of newer construction, but the bookstore across the street looked like it has been there for centuries. He took a deep breath and headed over.
He was pulling his phrase book from his pocket when the man behind the counter gave him an annoyed look. “I speak English.” His accent was thick, but the words were intelligible.
“Thank you.” Russell smiled. He hesitated a moment, then pointed. “Do you know anything about the bar that used to be just across there?”
The man gave him a considering look. “It closed five years ago, after the fire. Why?”
A fire. Naturally. The first real lead he had, and it caught fire. Russell exhaled. “My father visited this area before I was born. He liked the bar enough to have some photos of it.” Russell shrugged. “Thought I’d stop in for a drink while I was in the area.”
Something briefly flickered across the man’s face, and he gave Russell another look. “This is a bit off the path for tourists.”
Alright, the guy was willing to chat a bit. Or maybe he was bored. The shop was otherwise as empty as the street. “Yeah. I had a hard time finding it on the map. I, uh…” He swallowed. “My father, he uh, he died.” At least that was the assumption. “When I was ten. I thought I’d retrace his footsteps, see…”
“Finding a connection.” The man’s face warmed a little, and he offered his hand. “Otto.”
“Russell.” He accepted the handshake. “Yeah, that’s the intention. Can you, uh…” He smiled. “What made the bar special?”
Otto twitched his shoulder. “Beer was good. But uh…” Otto took a deep breath, then brushed an imaginary speck of dust off his counter. “Mostly it catered to a particular sort of crowd.”
“What kind of crowd?” Russell raised an eyebrow. His mother said his father had been a soldier once. “Military?”
“Some, but uh…” Otto shifted his feet a little awkwardly. “It attracted those of a certain persuasion.”
“Musicians?”
The other man gave him an annoyed look. “Men with preferences.”
“Prefer…” The wheels clicked in his mind, and he felt himself start to blush. “Oh.” He winced. “Oh.”
“Mmm.” Otto nodded.
“I don’t suppose you know anyone that…” He winced again.
“That sort tended to want to go unnoticed.” Otto shook his head. Then he frowned. “Though the landlord that rented it to the bar is still around. Not sure what you’re looking for, exactly, but he might be able to let you in to take a look if you ask politely.” He started looking around the counter, then after a moment produced a business card.
“Thank you.” Russell accepted it. “Uh…” He looked around. “If you’ve got a book on the history of the area…”
“It’s not in English.” Otto smiled as he led Russell to a shelf.
“I’ve got google translate.” Russell accepted the tome and paid. Then he tucked the book away before heading back to his vehicle.


#
Back in the hotel, he set the book on the desk, then took the envelope out of his jacket. He spread the photos out again. His father was clear in one. Shirtless and smiling as he stood, half turned toward something out of view of the camera. There was a rocky outcropping behind him, but his father stood on sand. A beach most likely, though no ocean was in view.
Two of the photos were of a cemetery. The mausoleum had statues, but between the age of the photographs and the angles of the photos, he could make out no words. Still, if he saw the grave site, there was enough that he should be able to identify it. His father had never spoken of his family, but he assumed it was a family crypt of some sort.
This hadn’t been a planned trip. His last year of high school he’d done a genealogy project. He’d traced his mother’s family back through the colonial days and into France and England. Then he’d tried doing the same to his father, only to discover the place listed on his father’s birth certificate didn’t exist. No records had matched the names and birth dates of those listed as his grandparents in the entire state of Wyoming. Further research had showed that his father’s social security number hadn’t been issued until only six months before Russell’s own birth.
He’d been ten when his father had disappeared. His father had gone to work as he had every morning, wishing Russell a good day at school. There had been a baseball game scheduled for that night, and his father was going to pick him up from school, so they could go together. It had been nearly eight o’clock at night before the janitor had found him still at the school, waiting. His father had left work at lunchtime. That had been the last anyone had ever seen Reed Samson.
His mother had died four months ago. He’d found the envelope with the pictures tucked away in a book when he’d gone through her things. Russell doubted she’d even known it was there. The book was on antique cars, clearly belonging to his father. Russell sighed, then hung his head in disappointment. It had been a miracle he’d found the bar at all. Expecting to solve the mystery of his father at the very first stop had been ridiculous.
Several of his friends had pointed out this whole trip was ridiculous. His mother’s will had left him enough money to pay for college and make a good start, especially since he’d also inherited the house. His eyes went to his father’s picture again. Until he’d found it, he’d thought his father’s ghost rested easily. He’d done well in school, even gone in for track because his father had liked to run. Reed Samson’s boy would have made him proud.
Russell bent to his bag and took out the book he’d purchased. He turned on the television to fill the silence, then sat on the bed to thumb through it. There were pictures, starting with old ruins and the like. Events too far in the past to concern him. Halfway through the book, the pictures became of active life. Eventually, he found the first image that showed the bar. He frowned a little. After what Otto had said, he’d expected the place to be only men, but he could make out women among the patrons.
After flipping a few more pages, he was about to set the book down when something caught his eye. It wasn’t the bar, but an image of some ruins. Russell stood, carrying the book back over to the picture of his father. The image carved into the stone showed an odd sigil. He glanced at the picture of his father. In the picture, the tattoo on his father’s shoulder was visible. And it was a match for the sigil.
The chair creaked when he sat back down. Seeing the tattoo in the photo had been a surprise. His father hadn’t had a tattoo. But there had been a scar, a round and raised bit of damaged flesh in the same location. His father had claimed it had been shrapnel from his days in the military. Russell looked again at the picture in the book. The image of the ruins was captioned. He had another location.
#
He hung up the phone, then put the phrasebook back in his bag. After twenty minutes of tortured conversation, the landlord had agreed to let him into the bar tomorrow. He was fairly sure the man had agreed just to get the conversation to end. Russell grabbed the keys to the rental vehicle before heading out of the hotel. If the map was accurate, he had plenty of time to go check out the ruins.
The drive was pleasant, at least. The roads were narrow, but since he encountered no other traffic there was no cause for concern. It took him nearly two hours to reach his destination. Russell parked, then got out. He frowned, then looked down the small hill. There were a couple vehicles parked at the base, but he saw no people. Then again, from what he was told, picnics in the country and hiking were popular pastimes.
Russell grabbed his camera and headed toward the ruined castle. There were the usual ‘keep out’ and ‘private property’ sort of signs, but if he got caught traipsing around he could always hold up the camera and play the stupid American tourist. The place likely had its share of those. It was rather breathtaking. And better preserved than he’d expected. He probably should have translated the section of the book dealing with the place.
The camera drank in the daylight as he snapped a few pictures. The sigil must have been on the other side of the building. He started making his way around. From the angle of the photograph in the book, the sigil was on the outside of the building. Good. Ruin or no, breaking and entering would probably get him in more trouble than just trespassing. At least with it not being the US he didn’t have to worry about getting shot for wandering about.
There. He headed toward the graven sigil. The area had clearly once been a courtyard of sorts, and he could make out the remains of a metal framed structure. The remains of a greenhouse, perhaps? There was no glass left, making it look more like a cage than anything else. He took a shot of it, then moved back to get a few shots of the sigil.
Halfway through his mental debate of whether to try the door, he heard the sound of a throat clearing. Russell winced, then turned around. The man standing behind him was dressed in hiking boots and jeans, but his shirt looked to be silk. His hair was white, and there was a dignified air around him. He said something in German. When Russell started to reach for the phrasebook, the man sighed. “English?” His accent was light and didn’t sound quite German.
“American.” Russell nodded. He held up the camera. “Sorry, couldn’t resist. Are you the, uh, caretaker?”
“I am the owner.” The man inclined his head. “And you are trespassing on a private gathering.”
“Oh.” Russell blinked. He looked around. “Uh…” He shrugged. “What sort of gathering?”
“A hunt.” The man shook his head. “I suggest you vacate the premises, unless you wish the involvement of law enforcement.”
“No, no, I just…” Russell started packing his camera away. “Sorry. I’ll go. I…” He stood. “Can I ask you a quick question?”
“If you do it while heading back to your vehicle.” The man gestured as he started leading Russell out of the courtyard. Russell could hear some faint shouts in the distance.
“I just…” Russell glanced over his shoulder as he followed. “That sigil. I’ve seen it before…” He said the man’s measured walk falter just slightly before the man recovered. “Somewhere. What’s it mean?”
It took a moment before the man responded. They were nearly to the other side of the ruins, and his car was in view. “Where did you see it?” The man raised an eyebrow.
Then it was his turn to hesitate. He’d left the pictures in the hotel but had copies on his cell phone. “A tattoo. On my father.” He saw the man’s eyes widen and started pulling his cell phone out of his pocket. It picked that moment to ring. “Shit, hang on.” He answered. “Doug, can you hang on one sec?”
“Yeah, man.” Came the response. Russell quickly switched screens, then pulled up the image. “See?”
Slowly, the man nodded. Then he pulled a business card out of his pocket and offered it to Russell. “We will talk. Tend to your friend and vacate the area.” The moment Russell took the card, the man turned and strode back the way they had come.
He put the phone to his ear and watched the man go as he headed to his car. “Doug?” Russell unlocked the car. “Yeah, I think I’ve got a lead.” He looked down at the card. There was no name, no logo. Just a phone number. “Maybe.”
#
The landlord let him in, even offered him a better flashlight than the little one he’d had. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t much to see. A few old photographs still hung on the walls, and there were a few broken bits of barstools and tables. But anything of value had long been cleaned out of the place. Someone had even pried the trim off the bar.
In the back half of the building, he could see the fire damage. He was no arson investigator, but it didn’t appear to have started in the kitchen. There were what looked like sleeping rooms in the back half of the building. Otto’s statement of what kind of bar it had been came back to him, and he shuffled his feet a little when he realized what purpose the rooms had more likely served. “Dad, what brought you to a place like this?”
His father hadn’t been gay. His own existence was evidence for that, as well as the fact that his father had lavished affection on his mother. That was half the reason they’d concluded his father was dead. Reed Samson had loved Melissa Moore. Everyone knew that. After a moment, he had to conclude that his father’s love for his mother didn’t necessarily preclude some experimentation, and bisexuality was a possibility. His father had died too young for them to ever have those kinds of conversations.
“Well, Dad…” Russell took another look around before snapping a few pictures. “I hope you lived it up.” He blinked back a few tears. Maybe the trip had been a little worthwhile, after all. The idea that he’d found one more thing he had in common with his father was appealing. There were signs here and there that local youth had broken in. Empty beer bottles, even some blankets in a room littered with condom wrappers. He moved into the ruined area, careful not to dislodge any wreckage.
Something in a corner room caught his eye. Carefully, he moved a board out of his way, dislodging some soot and dust but nothing else. He coughed, then made his way into the area. He had to crawl a bit to get past another portion of wreckage. In the back of the room there was a grate set into the floor. It wouldn’t have caught his eye at all if there hadn’t been a metal ladder near it. At one time, the ladder had been attached to the wall in a manner that would have allowed it to be lowered into the hole.
It took him a few tries to get the grate off, and another try to get the ladder to descend. It was creaky and rusted but held his weight. He ventured into the small room. It was tall enough for him to stand upright, but just barely. The temperature down here was a few degrees lower than above, and there were metal eyelets set into the stone in various locations. Several chains were scattered, along with some rusted locks, and there was a wooden shelf of some kind toward the back.
There, laying practically at his feet, was a pair of what looked like old handcuffs. He stared at them for a moment before looking back up. Had this also been used as… His eyes went back to the shelf. It could be a cot of some kind. Slowly, he moved toward the back of the room, stopping to examine the chains. Moisture had rusted them into a nearly solid mass.
Russell sat down on the wooden cot. The pad was either nonexistent or long since lost to the elements. He lay back on the cot, staring up at the stone ceiling of the chamber. Had his father ever been down here? He sat back up, looking around again. The place looked for all the world like some ancient dungeon. “Have a few drinks…” He shrugged. “Get a little adventurous…” Had his parents ever… He winced. “God, did not need that image in my head.”
After taking a few more pictures, he made his way back out of the chamber. One last look around, a few more pictures, and then he made his way back out. The landlord was having lunch at the cafe. Russell thanked him, returned the key, then paid for the guy’s coffee and sandwich. It was unfortunate that the guy didn’t speak more than a dozen words of English. He’d have loved to ask about that chamber.
#
The card with the number stared up at him from the desk. Russell shook his head. He needed food before he could process anything else today. The hotel had a restaurant on site, one that thankfully catered to an American palate. Trying out foreign cuisine was something best handled with baby steps. He grabbed his camera before heading out of his room again.
He didn’t have to go far for photos. The hotel had clearly been remodeled and modernized over the years, expanded out from the original building. The original building, however, had been left charmingly near intact. The juxtaposition of the new and the old pleased his photographer’s eye, and he started moving around with the camera, composing finished images in his head as he snapped pictures. A bellboy in a fancy uniform stepped out, pushing a cart, and Russell lifted his camera. “May I…” Dammit, he’d forgotten his phrase book.
“You want a picture taken?” The man smiled before nodding and holding out his hand.
“You’re British.” He sighed in relief upon hearing the man’s accent. “Actually, I was wondering if I could take a shot of you. The shadow plays just right across the foyer and, uh…” He shrugged. “Mind?”
“I…” The man twitched a shoulder. “I suppose not. Where…”
“Just like you would have walked across the floor if I hadn’t been here.” Russell lifted the camera. His model nodded before grabbing the cart again and returning to his duties. Russell snapped about a dozen shots before lowering the camera.
Before he shifted it away again, the man turned. “You know…” He rubbed his chin. “Okay, look, I’m an artist too. If it’s shadows you’re looking for…” He jerked a thumb in the direction he’d been going. “Follow me, but keep it discreet, alright?”
Russell grinned. “As discreet as flash photography can be.”
The man laughed. “Right.” He led Russell toward the door. “Todd.”
“Russ.” Russell nodded. “Painter?”
“Pastels, mostly.” Todd grinned. “Though this place is great for just charcoal.” He pointed toward a hallway. The narrow windows sent light in sharp demarcations, while dust played around a little in the drafts. “See? And it’s the right type of day.”
“Awesome.” Russell knelt to get a better angle before bringing the camera up. “Let me get a few shots, then if you wouldn’t mind walking down the hall this is going to look great in black and white.”
Almost fifty shots later, he was getting Todd’s email address to send him copies. They stepped out of the way of another worker, and Russell glanced after the woman, then frowned. There was a grate in the room she’d entered, with a metal ladder. What… He put his address book away. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure.”
“Uh…” He moved to push the door open, then indicated the grate. “What’s that?”
“Oh.” Todd chuckled. “Yeah, weird place for a drain, but it’s not a drain. It’s like a wine cellar. Back before refrigeration and air conditioning, stuff like wine or other things that needed to be kept cool were stored down there.” He shrugged. “Now I think they use it to store the holiday decorations or something.”
A wine cellar. In a hotel. That was… “So, these things are common in hotels?” He raised an eyebrow. Of course, it was a wine cellar.
“Not just hotels. Taverns and bars. Especially the ones that doubled as flophouses.” Todd nodded. “A lot of those lock the grate and use it for secure storage for backpackers and the like.”
Flop… He felt his cheeks start to burn a little. A tavern that doubled as a flophouse for backpackers. That must have been why his father had visited the place. His dad had loved to run and hike. “Thanks.” He put his smile back on. “Kind of weird, these old places.”
“Well, you know the saying.” Todd chuckled. “To Europeans, a hundred miles is a long way, and to Americans, a hundred years is a long time.”
#
Back in his room, he set the camera on the desk before taking out the memory card. He plugged it into the laptop to download the pictures, then spent a half hour looking through them. He marked a few of the exposures to post-process later and went ahead and emailed a few of the shots to Todd. Then he closed the laptop and put the memory card into the case before plugging a fresh one in. Uploading the photos, putting them on the laptop, and leaving them on the card seemed like overkill, but he didn’t want to risk losing any while traveling.
The card was still staring at him. He looked at the clock. It was only 8PM. How late was too late to call here? Russell hesitated, then scratched his neck before picking up his phone. He stood, pacing the small room. The bed spread didn’t match the curtains. It had been charming when he’d first entered the room, but tonight he found it irritating. His eyes went back to the card. The man had seemed to know something about the sigil. Russell took a deep breath.
He dialed the number. Guy probably wouldn’t even pick… “Dag.” A male voice on the other end of the line.
“Uh…” He swallowed. “Somebody gave me this card yesterday, and uh…”
“You are the photographer.” He recognized the voice now. The same faint, not quite German accent.
“Yes.” He sat down on the bed. “Look, I know I was trespassing the other day, and I’m sorry. I just…”
“It is a small matter. Done is done.” The man’s voice sounded friendly enough. “You had questions about something on the building, yes?”
“Yeah, a symbol that was carved in the stone.” He spun his father’s picture to look at the sigil again.
“Would you be available tomorrow in the evening? I am occupied at the moment, but if you wish to join me for dinner tomorrow I may be able to answer your questions.”
“That would be awesome. Where?” He grabbed scratch paper.
“Where are you staying? I can give you directions. The map programs often have trouble, as it doesn’t consider some of the trails out here to be ‘roads’.” The man sounded amused.
“Uh, it’s a Holiday Inn, but that’s not what the locals call it, they uh…” He looked around for the name.
“I’m familiar with the place.” The man started giving directions, and Russell wrote them down quickly. “Do call if you get lost.”
“Yeah, you’ll probably hear from me.” Russell exhaled. “Thank you.”
“Bring your camera and your pictures.”
“I will.” Russell nodded. “Thanks again.”


 

Not sure where exactly to go with this story.

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