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The Grand Pineda

by Audie A. Murphy

part 1 of 2

The cobalt blue BMW hugged the highway heading north from Cocoa Beach. To the east, the restless Atlantic Ocean hammered the Florida coastline as if angered by the suburban sprawl just beyond its reach. Ahead, the metal skeletons of launch pads loomed above the palmetto thickets of Cape Canaveral.

Gusty winds whipped sand across the two-lane road and a light rain began to spatter against the car’s windshield.

“I’m cold,” the young woman said irritably. “I didn’t know Florida had weather like this.”

The driver, a serious young man with an angular face and a shock of dark hair, stopped shifting gears long enough to turn on the heater and windshield wipers.

“There’s a nasty weather front stretching from here to New England,” he said. “ I wish I didn’t have to be back at school Monday, but that’s the breaks. This cold snap is nothing compared to what’s waiting for us in New York.”

The woman frowned and crossed her arms. Her disheveled blonde hair all but concealed her green eyes, which suddenly flashed with mischief.

“You’re the one who has to get back, not me,” she said. “I still have two weeks left in my vacation. Besides, I don’t want to go back anyway. I’m sick of studying.”

Her boyfriend shot her a disapproving glance.

“Let’s drop out and just stay in Miami permanently,” she continued. “I’m sure your parents won’t mind supporting us.”

She flashed a goofy smile, but he obviously was annoyed by her joke.

Tom Stoddard Jr., like his father, was not known for his sense of humor. He was solid and unflappable, but also very predictable. He didn’t entertain any rebellious thoughts, much less voice them, and he had little patience with those who did.

Tom’s path through New York University and Harvard Law had been mapped out before his birth, and he was intent on fulfilling that plan.

Meg Bryant had met Tom a year ago while a junior at NYU and had no illusions about his view of their relationship. She knew that her role in his life would always be merely supportive and supplemental. Tom was the star and always would be.

Even so, she recently had accepted his marriage proposal and was determined to make their life together a success.

To accomplish that she would have to overlook some of his more glaring faults, especially his sizable ego. But, she told herself, nobody’s perfect.

And by any standard Tom was a good catch. His father, Thomas Stoddard Sr., had made his fortune in real estate and now owned substantial properties in New York City and Miami. Along the way, the senior Stoddard also had acquired Tom’s mother, the former Alexis Wentworth Hale of Atlanta, a trophy he valued at least as much as any of his waterfront high-rises.

In Meg’s eyes Alex Stoddard was just about perfect in every way except one: Meg suspected that Tom’s mother had never expressed an idea or a sentiment that conflicted with any held by her husband. Meg was determined not to be so passive in her own marriage. She had made her own way all her life and was not about to change now.

The second of three daughters of hard-working public school teachers, Meg had always competed fiercely with her sisters. Patricia, the oldest, was a classic overachiever at home and at school. Ellen, the youngest, was spoiled rotten and an expert at manipulating others to get whatever she wanted.

Meg was caught in the middle and often overlooked by her parents, who spent more time with other people’s children than their own.

Meg learned to cope with life in her own way. Usually level-headed and practical, she also could be stubborn and unpredictable. And her quick temper sometimes got her into trouble.

In short, she told herself, she was the mirror image of — and therefore the perfect complement to — her staid and respectable fiance.

Tom was familiar with her moods, and he now sensed that she was becoming bored and irritable. He knew that the best way to keep her spirits up was to spark her interest in something new, and he had just the thing.

“We might as well stop early and let the storm blow out,” he said. “There’s an old hotel up ahead that I’ve been wanting to check out for a while. How about it, are you game?”

“I’m up for it,” Meg said. “I’m hungry and my butt is numb. But what kind of hotel would be way out here in the sticks?”

The rain was coming down harder and the landscape had become more desolate. Australian pines and scruffy bushes had replaced gas stations and fast-food places along the road. The setting sun, shining intermittently through ragged storm clouds, cast strange and ominous shadows. Meg squinted through the rain-smeared windshield, but could see no signs of civilization, much less a hotel.

She noticed that Tom had fished from his jacket pocket a hand-drawn map he was using to get his bearings.

Then he downshifted, slowed the car, and suddenly they were there.

The Grand Pineda Hotel sat a hundred yards off the highway at the end of a brick driveway shaded by palms and laurel oaks. lnspired by classic Spanish architecture, the sprawling, two-story structure evoked the free-wheeling Florida of the 1920’s. Meg half expected to see Al Capone and his henchmen come strolling by with chorus girls on their arms.

But the decades had taken their toll. The red tile roof gleamed in the twilight above pale masonry walls badly in need of fresh paint and ornate iron grillwork spotted with rust.

“My father learned about this place while looking for new properties a few years ago, but he never got around to coming here,” Tom said. “He asked me to check it out when I got the chance. Apparently, the place doesn’t do much business anymore. The old couple who own it are about a thousand years old and don’t keep it up very well.”

Meg looked around at the gravel parking lot, empty except for the BMW. “I don’t see anyone, so I guess we’re on our own,” she said. “I’m glad we packed light.”

They removed their bags from the car trunk and dodged puddles as they made their way to the hotel entrance. There was no canopy, no banners, no uniformed doorman. Just a faded sign above the massive wooden door with the name of the hotel carved in elaborate cursive script.

To their surprise, the door swung open easily and they found themselves in a lobby designed to resemble the living room of a 19th century hacienda. Heavy wooden furniture was arranged tastefully, if sparsely, in the room and darkly colorful paintings adorned the walls.

The place seemed deserted.

With Meg close behind, Tom walked quickly to the antique check-in desk and slapped the metal bell to demand service. The noise reverberated in the room like a spoon falling onto a tile floor.

“Anybody home?” Meg yelled.

Her words were still hanging in the air, like dialogue in a comic strip, when a door opened behind the desk and a very old man shuffled into the room. He was as skinny as a stray dog and stooped with age. He wore a faded blue shirt with frayed cuffs and khaki pants that appeared nearly as old has himself.

“Didn’t you see the sign?” he asked testily.

“What sign?” Meg and Tom said in unison.

“The sign out by the road that said we’re closed,” replied the old man who, Meg decided, fit Tom’s description as one of the owners. “Must have blown down again.”

“Look, we’re on our way to New York and need a room for the night,” Tom said “There’s a storm kicking up outside and this is the only place for miles. How about it, can you accommodate us?”

The old man pondered the question for several seconds.

“Well, we can put you up, but you will be the only guests,” the owner said. “For that matter, you will probably be our last guests ever. This hotel has been sold and we’re in the process of closing it down. There’s no restaurant, no pool and not much in the way of frills, so I’ll only charge you half the rate we use to charge. Take it or leave it.”

“We’ll take it,” Meg said.

Tom handed over a credit card and the old man entered their names into a computer that had been obsolete for years. As he worked, he seemed to warm to his role as host, and they saw him smile for the first time.

“Tell you what,” the old man said. “My wife will have dinner prepared in about an hour if you’d care to join us. It’s not fancy, but it beats junk food from the machines.”

Tom looked skeptical, but the idea sounded just fine to Meg, who had been hungry for hours. “That’s very kind of you. We would be delighted,“ she said quickly.

Ignoring Tom’s glare, she picked up her bag and waited for him to lead the way to their room. “Staying at this place was your idea,” she reminded him as they walked down the dim corridor. “If you think I’m going hungry in the process, you’re nuts.”

An hour later, having settled into their room, they reported for dinner like a couple of novices at a boarding school. The old couple, who introduced themselves as Robert and Mavis Benson, lived in a suite of rooms off the lobby. Mavis, who appeared nearly as old and fragile as her husband, nevertheless had managed to prepare a meal that looked and smelled delicious.

“I hope you like homemade stew,” she said. “I use only the freshest ingredients.”

Meg and Tom assured her that stew was just fine with them.

“It was so nice of you to invite us,” Meg said as the four of them passed bowls and platters around the table.

The conversation soon turned to the closing of the hotel, and Mavis explained that they had spent more than half a century running the place.

Robert had learned the hotel business in Chicago and moved his family to Florida after World War II. He and Mavis bought the Grand Pineda a week after arriving in the state and eventually raised three children under its roof. Selling the place was painful, but their advancing years left them little choice. An assisted living facility in Orlando awaited them.

“This place has quite a history,” Robert said. “The original owner, the man we bought it from, was an architect and developer in Palm Beach. But the rumor was that he had made most of his money smuggling whiskey from Cuba during Prohibition. The Grand Pineda once was a watering hole and winter home for lots of gangsters, movie stars and society types. Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, they all passed through here at one time or another.”

As Robert had spoken, Meg had been eyeing a faded photo in a silver frame on a table behind his chair.

The picture showed a slim, dark-haired woman with bobbed hair, her neck swathed in a feather boa and beads.

“Isn’t that Clara Bow?” she said, pointing at the picture.

Robert turned in his seat and frowned, “Oh, no,” he said. “That’s Valerie Vargas. We kind of inherited that picture from Mr. Broadhurst. He told us the story behind it on a night that was nearly as stormy as this one.”

“Hey, I think I’ve heard of her,” Tom said.

“Sure you have,” Robert said. “She was a big star for a while in silent films. Then she just disappeared.”

Tom’s interest was piqued. “Disappeared?” he said. “How so?”

Robert put down his fork and muttered to Mavis, “I guess I have to tell them about Valerie now.”

“Please do,” she said. “You tell it so well.”

Meg clapped her hands. “Let’s hear it,” she said. “I love a good story with dinner.”

“Very well,” Robert said “This is the story as told to me by Winston Broadhurst, who owned this hotel in those days. He swore that it’s true and I have no reason to disbelieve him, except maybe that it’s simply unbelievable.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2005 by Audie A. Murphy

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