Paulsen, head of the Auctions Unlimited team that had hired me, thrust a pitted and flimsy set of keys at me. “Here. First key’s for the main door, second’s a skeleton for the bar and restaurant, third’s a skeleton for the upstairs. No key for the basement; there’s black mold and our liability won’t cover it.”

The Royal Tecumseh had been Deerton’s shining jewel in the boomtown days, lying as it did astride both the road and the rails, within spitting distance of the sawmills. The salad days of cutting and shipping wood south to be made into furniture gave way to a leaner but no less golden age as a rail transshipment point, and the thriving restaurant, bar, and hotel served as the community’s focal point.

“You’re to prepare a written inventory of the contents and photograph each item. Multiple views.” Paulsen took a fresh, deep drag from his cigarette and rubbed out the stub on one of the Royal Tecumseh’s old No Smoking signs. “You can combine them into lots within reason. Every item or lot gets a tag from the stack in your bag.”

It had all ended so subtly that I was scarce able to notice it at the time. The last trains had come through in 1985, and they’d torn up the rails in 1990. The demand for wood had withered away, with what little remained of the furniture industry further south now reliant on cheap foreign timber. In an attempt to remain relevant, the Royal Tecumseh had undergone renovations in 1980. They’d been a disaster, slathering stucco and paint over the intricate brickwork and aluminum siding over the ornate pediments that had been common to all buildings of the 1870s (to say nothing of slapping cheap pressboard panels and kitschy artwork over the old wallpaper and woodwork).

“The auctioneers arrive in two weeks and demolition starts in four. That’s your timetable. You can stay in one of the rooms upstairs if you want, but there’s no heat and no water and the place is lousy with rats.” Paulsen offered no alternatives; the Royal Tecumseh had been the only hotel in town, after all. I figured I could walk in from my parents’ old house, since I’d already arranged for the water and sewer to be temporarily reconnected.

A minor bribery scandal had been the end; it had come out that the proprietors, the sixth set of hands the Royal Tecumseh had been in since its inception, had been quietly avoiding inspections through payola. They’d lost their liquor license, and with it the last vestige of business. The doors had shut for good in 2002, with a few half-hearted attempts at revivals. A 2004 attempt to reopen the restaurant as a deli had folded in six months. A plan by a couple of out-of-towners, the Patels, to remodel a bed and breakfast out of the place had failed when the tax assessor had shown up with a $40,000 bill in arrears–a gift from the last owner they’d failed to mention when handing over the keys.

“Payment is expenses up front–keep your receipts–and then a lump sum afterwards, plus five percent of the auctioneer’s premium. You do a good job, there might be more work for you in Petoskey at our next job.” I forced a smile. With the Hopewell Tribune belly-up along with a lot of the other newspapers statewide, and an unemployment level closer to Gaza than anywhere else in the USA, I was lucky to have found a gig that allowed me to use my camera and pen at all. If nothing else, the job would delay the inevitable for a few months. Most people who limped back to Deerton wound up working at McDonald’s.

Looking around the dark and musty confines of the Royal Tecumseh as Paulsen finalized his paperwork, I wondered how someplace once so prosperous and still so historic could have been so mismanaged. The entire east part of town had all but withered away with it, and persistent rumors that the place was haunted hadn’t helped. There were ghosts there, all right. Just not of the sort that made the walls bleed.

They were the ghosts of wasted potential, of squandered history, of the Rust Belt still quietly oxidizing as people like me stood by and did nothing.

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