With the sounds of celebration ebbing from the rooftop, Gemma relaxes in the pool and tries to spot stars in the cloudy sky. She is surprised that the sounds of the city are so distant and only the banging of a truck over a pothole manages to jolt her out of a gentle trance. A bubbling fountain shaped like a nest helps to make her drowsy as she floats from one end of the pool to the other. The heated water relaxes her muscles after a day of wandering the hotel and talking to employees about their boss. Nobody has said anything other than praise and compliments, one passionate chef going so far as to call Dawn his muse. Wanting to forget the disturbing barrage of loyalty, Gemma can think of nothing better than to take advantage of the pool being relatively empty. Only two other people are outside, one of them asleep on a lounge chair and the other preparing to go back inside. By the time the detective finishes another lazy lap, she finds herself alone in the water and she grips the side to remain in the shallow end. The thought of falling asleep and drowning helps throw off some of the blossoming lethargy that is caused by the serene surroundings.
The fluttering of wings draws Gemma’s attention to the fence where a large raven can be seen in the shadows. The bird’s ebony feathers shimmering even in the dim light that abruptly flickers. Hopping to the ground, the animal wanders around the lounge chairs in search of fallen food. It stops at the sleeping guest and pecks at the man’s foot, getting no reaction beyond a muttered complaint. More crimson-eyed ravens appear around the pool, each one silently staring at the first arrival. With a loud caw from their leader, the flock divides into groups of two to hunt for easy meals. It is not until Gemma moves that they stop and turn toward her, the animals showing more curiosity than fear.
“I must have fallen asleep,” the nervous woman whispers as she sinks up to her chin. She pinches her arm and winces at the pain, but the birds remain. “Maybe a very deep dream. I saw those fake ravens in the lobby, which is where all of you came from. Come on, Gemma. Wake up and avoid drowning.”
With a chorus of human-like shrieks, the flock takes to the air and flies around the pool in a brief frenzy. The banging of a window causes most of the ravens to leave the area, only the leader and two others remaining behind. They return to the sleeping man, all three pecking at his body and drawing blood from his exposed skin. He rolls over and the birds jump onto his chest where they continue their casual attack. When their victim waves at them, the ravens hop down to his legs and greedily eat his toes.
Gemma looks for something to throw at the birds, but freezes when she looks up to see the flock is returning. The thick mass of feathers and beaks descends on the man, covering his entire body. Not a sound is made as he is devoured and the ravens carry off the remains to finish on a distant rooftop. A strong wind out of the sky to remove the fallen feathers and the guest’s broken sandals. The gale is strong enough to bring a chill to the detective’s body and she swears a layer of frost is forming over the deep end of the pool.
“Definitely dreaming,” Gemma mutters as she feels warmth flow through the pool again. A small plop makes her float toward the stairs, the sound repeating closer. “Maybe I was poisoned when I touched my clothes. Some kind of contact hallucinogen. Yeah, that would give me some vivid dreams or make me see stuff if I’m awake.”
The water in front of her moves as if a creature swam by and broke the surface for an instant. As the lights on the bottom of the pool go out, Gemma sees the motion continue toward the opposite wall. The parting waves stop and the gurgling of bubbles causes her to hurry, the water making it impossible to run. She pauses when the mysterious creature returns and turns back only an inch from the young woman. The feel of rough skin touches her right leg, making her think of a shark. As if to feed the ridiculous idea, the nearest light turns on long enough for Gemma to see that she is bleeding from tiny cuts. Whatever is in the pool with her moves faster than before and is nearly on the detective when she rolls herself onto solid ground. The concrete shudders when something large bangs into the side and another collection of foamy bubbles reaches the surface.
“Are you okay, lady?” a young man asks as he approaches with a towel. He helps Gemma sit up and examines her leg as the lights come back on. “Really sorry about that. I didn’t see you in there and I put the cleaning machine into the water. Looks like one of the rough brushes got you, but it’s already stopped bleeding.”
“A machine,” Gemma repeats while getting to her feet. Staring into the water, she can see the distorted imagine of a pool cleaner moving in the deep end. “I’m awake? That doesn’t explain the ravens and the man they ate.”
“Think you’ve had too much to drank, ma’am,” the patient employee says, pointing at the slumbering man. The distant figure rolls over and flexes his toes, the motion almost mocking the confused cop. “Mr. Silver always passes out by the pool when he visits. He’ll wake up and go back inside soon. We don’t get ravens here, but there are pigeons that come for scraps and sleep in the bushes.”
“I should get back to my room.”
“Do you need any help?”
“Just a towel please.”
“Here you go, ma’am. Have a nice night.”
Still shaken by the vivid dreams, Gemma can only nod while she wraps herself in the soft towel. Grabbing her sandals and small bag from nearby, she stops and waits for the employee to go back inside. Shifting her left foot, the red-haired woman is sure that something is inside and sits to remove the shoe. Her mouth goes dry when she holds up an ebony feather that is too big to belong to a pigeon.