Thursday, July 12, 2018—Port Costa, California

By craft, I am a writer of fiction. In simple terms, I write novels. Simplified even further, I am a storyteller. I write because I enjoy the work and occasionally people buy my books, which puts food on the table and a roof over my head.

One of the things about writing I like most is the research that goes into a story. I write historic fiction, so my research takes me to some interesting periods and places. I especially love physically visiting historic locations that still exist—not necessarily landmarks and parks, but old places that have managed to remain standing despite "progress."

Sometimes, however, visiting old places can be more than just interesting. Take, for example, a place I visited when writing the Johnny Spicer Caper called PACIFICA. The story is set at the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, which was held on Treasure Island in San Francisco. The story also visits other locales in the Bay Area, including a tiny burg called Port Costa.

Post Costa is located in Contra Costa County east of Oakland on the west bank of the Carquinez Strait. The town—an exaggeration of its size—was founded in 1879 and owes its existence to the Central Pacific Railroad. When planning its transcontinental route, CP ran into a small problem when it got to the Bay Area; namely, the bay and its related bodies of water. The railroad was supposed to end in San Francisco, but the Carquinez Strait was smack-dab in their way.

The Central Pacific's options were to build a bridge or operate a railroad ferry across the strait. The latter option appealed to them for some reason, so they created Port Costa as the terminus for their railroad ferry, the Solano.

Thus, Port Costa consisted mostly of a switching yard, a large warehouse, a hotel, and a few shops to provide goods for the railroad employees who lived and worked in the town. Many of these buildings still exist and date back to the 1880s. Incidentally, the Central Pacific was gobbled up in 1959 by the Southern Pacific Railroad, so for the latter part of its life, Port Costa was owned by the SP.

Today, the switching yard is gone, and the town's main and only drag, Canyon Lake Drive, ends at a gravel and dirt tourist parking lot alongside the water where the network of tracks once stood. Lest my reference to a "tourist parking lot" mislead you, I hasten to add that very few actual tourists actually park in that lot. Mostly, Port Costa's visitors are members of Bay Area motorcycle clubs who show up on weekends to drink beer and behave badly, which seems to be just fine with the locals because the proceeds from the aforementioned beer help a decaying town survive a little longer.

My main interests in Port Costa were the old railroad warehouse, containing a small café, bar, and antique emporium, and the hotel across the street. The hotel was being restored, but was still more or less in the same dilapidated condition it had been in since the 1930s.

While arranging for my research visit I was told the Burlington Hotel was not yet operational and to get the keys from the bartender in the warehouse bar across the street. He had no qualms about giving me the keys so I could look around and get a feeling for what the hotel was like in the 1930s. Actually, the bartender was quite impressed with meeting an author. I think he might have actually read a book once.

In addition to the front door keys, the bartender also gave me a couple of suggestions for my tour, including a visit to Betty, a room that was already restored. A room named Betty? Yup. Local rumor has it that the Burlington was once a bordello and the rooms were named for the ladies who occupied them. Sure, why not?

Despite its rundown condition, there was enough left of the Burlington to appreciate its Victorian heritage, complete with half-hexagonal bay windows jutting out over the sidewalk from the rooms on the second and third floors. Inside, wainscoting and chair rails decorated the lower halves of the hallway walls above a carpet with an elaborate geometric pattern that might have been maroon at one time, but was so threadbare it would take chemical analysis to be sure.

Several of the room doors I passed were hanging by one hinge, or were missing entirely. In the gloom beyond these openings, I could make out wooden bedframes with broken and rusting springs and the remains of small three-light chandeliers dangling from the ceilings at odd angles on brass chains. I was certainly getting a firsthand look at the aging relics of a long-gone era.

I found Betty on the second floor after negotiating a stairway that creaked and groaned with every step I took.  A glance at the stair railing, apparently held in place by two loose screws and a wad of chewing gum, told me the quickest way back down to the first floor would be to lean on it.

Betty was a grand old lady from her elaborately carved closet door frame to the ornate corbels—L-shaped brackets—used to strengthen the wall opening created to make Betty into a two-room suite. Her furnishings were genuine antiques lovingly restored, but from many different periods and in a variety of styles. She had a little of everything from classical to traditional.

Standing at the bay window next to the closet door, I looked down at a street on which nothing stirred on a lazy spring afternoon in Port Costa. The wall of the warehouse across the street wore a few vines of ivy for character; utility poles leaned, but no two in the same direction; and large trees created a foliage canopy over Canyon Lake Drive.

I could also see the water off to my left. It lapped against a couple of rotting pilings that might have been part of the ferry dock. Except for a few modern cars parked along the street, the scenes outside were the decaying remnants of a once bustling company town where men worked hard and, judging by the number of shuttered bars along the street, played hard.

Gradually, I was roused from my window musings by a sound—a rustling coming from somewhere close. I turned to my right, the direction from which the sound seemed to be emanating, and found myself face to face with the closet door and its elaborately carved frame. From the volume of the rustling, I concluded they had some dang big mice in these parts.

I took a step toward the door and the rustling stopped. I reached out and turned the doorknob. The already quiet room seemed to get even quieter, as if holding its breath for what was about to happen. The thought that I might be reading too many John Geddes stories passed through my mind as I pulled the door open, and . . . absolutely nothing happened, at least not right away.

After a few seconds, though, the room temperature began to drop. I mean it was getting cold in a big hurry. I stepped forward and leaned into the closet. Yup, that was where the frosty air came from. It was like a refrigerator in there, which made me think the old hotel needed some new insulation. Then it dawned on me that the cold air in the closet couldn't be coming from outside the building. The air outside was much, much warmer than what I was feeling in the closet.

By then I realized something else was happening, and it was happening to me. An anxious feeling was spreading through me. The hairs on the back of my neck were actually standing up. Resisting a strong urge to get the hell out of there, I studied the interior of the closet. So far as I could see it held nothing more sinister than a discarded paint rag. There had to be something in there I wasn't seeing, and was probably better off not seeing.

I reached for the closet door to close it and something directly behind me said, "Yeowp!"

I jumped a foot straight up and spun around. There sitting on the bed calmly washing a paw was the thing that said "yeowp." I knew that because the big orange-stripped cat on the bed said it again. She looked me in the eye and clearly said, "Yeowp."

As my pulse slowly returned to the near normal range, I said, "Hello there. Where did you come from?"

The cat gave me a look that clearly said, "Now, that's a dumb question."

I looked at the hallway doors. There were two, one at each end of the suite, and both were closed. Since Betty shared a bathroom down the hall, the closet had the only other door in the room. I looked back at the closet. It had changed. The air inside was almost room temperature now. How could air that cold instantly warm up to seventy degrees? The goings-on in Betty's room weren't just mysterious, they were downright weird.

Closing the closet door, I asked the cat, "You know anything about this?"

The cat stretched lazily, said "Yeowp" again, which seemed to be her answer to most questions in life. Then she hopped down from the bed and strolled to the hall door, where she waited until I opened it. She beat me out the door and shot around the corner like an orange streak. To the  empty hallway I said, "Thanks for stopping by, nice to see you."

A few minutes later I was back in the warehouse bar returning the bartender's hotel keys. He asked, "See everything you wanted to see?"

I nodded. "Yes, I did. Thank you for the loan of your keys."

He grinned slyly. "Sure. Anything strange happen while you were in Betty?"

I got the picture. The refrigerated closet gag was a common occurrence and he'd set me up for the spooks by sending me to Betty. Determined not to give him the satisfaction of a laugh on me, I looked innocent and said, "No, why?"

He looked disappointed. "Oh, nothing. People say that room is haunted or some silly thing. It seems Betty, the hooker the room was named for, committed suicide in there—hung herself from a rafter in the closet.

"Visitors say the air in the closet is freezing cold and they feel uneasy, just nonsense like that. One of those paranormal TV shows even sent a crew out to film ghosts last year. They didn't see any, but it was fun to watch those guys and their ghost-busting gadgets at work."

I smiled. "I'm sure it was." Glancing at my watch, I said, "I guess I'd best get a move on if I want to beat the traffic back to San Francisco. Thanks again for your help."

"Sure. I hope your story comes out okay."

"I think it will. In fact, thanks to you, I may have gotten another story idea about the hotel."

He put on a big grin. "Did ya? Hey, that's great. Glad to help!"

Walking back to my car, I passed the hotel, and ran into a friend. There, on the entrance steps, sat the orange-striped cat I'd met in Betty. Seeing her gave me an idea. I stopped walking and the cat stopped washing the paw she'd been working on. For cats, cleanliness really is next to Godliness.

I said, "Hi, there. Say, by any chance would your name be Betty?"

She looked up at me and said an emphatic, "Yeowp!"

"I thought so. Nice to meet you. I have to go now, but I'll come back and visit you another time, if that's okay with you."

The cat got up, hopped down the two steps and rubbed briefly against my leg. I said, "The same to you, Betty. Take good care."


Story, design, and Port Costa Images © Steve Eitzen
Header graphic & HPO logo © HPO Productions
All rights reserved by copyright owners

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, locations, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.