of diesel and dust still permeated the old fire station. Miss Parker strolled
across the former garage area where a broken-down engine still sat, the
faded red body propped up on blocks. For years the station sat derelict
and empty, until its most recent occupant rented it, then disappeared without
“Well, this is a little off the norm, even for Jarod,” the redhead mused, glancing around at the cobweb drapes hanging from the ceiling. Wan winter sunlight glowed through filthy panes of glass high up on the walls, casting a sickly light on the garbage-strewn interior of the building. Downstairs, one desk had been cleared off and dusted, and a set of chemistry materials caught her eye. She walked purposefully toward the desk and peered into the beakers and vials, giving a test sniff here and there.
“What was he up to?” asked Broots nervously. The place clearly gave him the creeps.
“Who knows, with Dr. Jekyll,” she shot back.
Sydney gave the desk only a cursory glance, and headed for the stairs, swept free of trash and obviously recently used. On the upper floor he found the dormitory, rows of bunks built onto the flimsy walls. All the mattresses had been taken away, but one was recently replaced. The sheets were mussed, the bed still unmade, but what drew the Belgian was the TV cart nearby. A small television with built in VCR sat on the top shelf, and beneath it were stacks of videos.
Sydney turned as his companions arrived on the scene. Broots made a beeline for the cart, while Miss Parker strolled around the perimeter, looking for smaller clues to Jarod’s latest endeavor. She studied the bed, the stack of old newspapers on the floor next to the bunk, and picked up a red notebook from the top of the pile.
“Oh, cool! Scooby Doo on Zombie Island!” Broots cheered. “That’s one of my favorites.”
Miss Parker rolled her eyes and opened the notebook.
“Notice the theme, Broots?” Sydney asked, reaching for one of the videos. He picked up Kenneth Brannaugh’s remake of Hamlet and studied the jacket impassively.
“The Haunted, Poltergeist, The Legend of Hell House.” Broots turned on the television and pushed “play” on the VCR. “Ghostbusters! All right.” His attention was immediately focused on the screen. He quoted the dialogue right along with the actors. “’Where do these stairs go?’ ‘They go up!’ I love this movie. Cracks me up every time!”
He noticed Sydney’s long-suffering look and hit the stop button on the VCR. The tech cleared his throat nervously. “Uh, sorry. I guess I got a little carried away.” Broots scanned through all the titles of the videotapes. “Looks like he’s investigating the paranormal. But why?”
Sydney moved away from the videotapes to a stack of books on a nearby table. “He’s looking for something. But ghosts? That’s a little on the fringes even for Jarod.”
Miss Parker thumbed through the red notebook, reading the newspaper clippings about his last pretend. There wasn’t anything particularly paranormal about it. She shifted her attention back to the newspapers and tucked the notebook under her left arm. Squatting down with the grace of a dancer, she noticed that all the dates of each paper were from the last week of October. Every front page featured an article about some old, unsolved murder that still haunted the people who had been involved in its investigation, or scarred by the loss of a loved one to violence. The themes went with Halloween, but that holiday was long past. Thanksgiving had come and gone, and the calendar was moving on toward Christmas and year’s end.
“Jarod lives on the fringes, Syd,” Parker reminded him.
But he wasn’t listening. Sydney picked up a small hardcover book entitled Embraced by the Light. “This one’s on near-death experience, and there are several others in this stack as well.”
Parker strode over and began reading the book titles at his elbow. “Psychic phenomena, electromagnetic distortion, spirit photography… look out, Venkman. The Ghostbusters are in business.” She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at Sydney. “I think your boy’s losing it, Dr. Frankenstein.”
Sydney calmly turned the page, ignoring her barb. “He’s searching for something, Miss Parker. Something he can’t find among the living.”
Parker rubbed her arms against the chill in the room, and glanced around the derelict station. “Let’s get out of here. He didn’t leave us much this time. Broots, you gather everything up and bring it back to the Centre. I’m going to see my baby brother.”
She headed for the stairs, and turned on the landing. “You coming, Syd?”
The Belgian spared her a brief glance before picking up another book. “I think I’ll stay with Broots and explore this lair a little further, Miss Parker.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself. I’ll send the cleaners to help you get everything moved.” She started downstairs, her fingers lightly sliding on the railing, buffed to a high sheen from the caress of many hands over decades of use. As she stepped onto the lower floor, she started at a whistling sound to her right, and saw Broots sliding down the shiny aluminum pole at the far end of the garage bay.
He was grinning like a kid at Christmas, and had to work hard to rein in his enthusiasm and look properly contrite when he met her eyes. “I just had to, Miss Parker. You know.”
“No, Broots. I don’t,” she snapped icily. “And don’t bother explaining it to me.”
“Uh, okay. We’ll get everything packed up, and we'll have it set up to sort through as soon as possible.”
She didn't respond, just nailed him to the wall with a cold stare, and swung out the door into the first flakes of an afternoon snowfall.
* * * * * * * * *
The house sat crouched beneath a pair of huge, barren trees, as if trying to hide from the leaden sky. Other, smaller trees surrounded that grouping, forming a cover that all but wrapped the dwelling in a blanket of shadows. The windows were bleak and dirty, and the stone exterior made the house look as if it had stood there since the middle ages.
There was snow on the ground, though none had gathered on the slopes of the steeply pitched roof. Wind moaned in the naked branches and made them rattle against the shingles and sides of the house. As Jarod stepped out of his rented car, he heard the call of a bird and scanned the trees until he located it.
The raven called once more, then leapt into the air and flew away.
Jarod smiled. The bird made a deliciously creepy touch, especially since most of the local avian population should have flown to warmer climes much earlier in the year. For a moment he speculated what might have kept the bird in the area so long past migration season, but the other man in the car ahead of his had already made it to the porch and was waiting for him there.
He hurried across the yard, covered with a pristine blanket of white except for the two men’s footprints. No other home was in sight for miles in any direction. Not even the curl of smoke from a neighbor’s chimney could be seen on the horizon to indicate the next closest home.
Dan Potter pulled the collar of his sturdy wool coat up over his neck and hugged himself against the cold. From the look on his face, he didn’t want to be there. But then, Potter was a local real estate agent and he knew the house’s history.
“You sure you want to do this?” he asked. “Nobody ever asks about this place after Halloween, you know.”
Jarod listened to the boards beneath his feet creak and groan. He smiled at the man. “Yes. This is exactly what I want. You’re sure it’s haunted?”
Potter’s eyes gleamed with fear. “I can’t swear to that. I can’t promise you’ll see or hear ghosts, or that your coffee cup will fly across the room. All I know is that nobody’s been able to spend more than one night in this place without coming away telling tales or dressed in a body bag. We rent it out during October to the curious, but the rest of the year it just sits here. The family who owns it won’t come near it, so they leave the rentals to us.”
Jarod held out his hand and took possession of the keys. He stepped toward the door and reached for the padlock.
“Ammon House,” he mused aloud. “Interesting name, Ammon. It means ‘the hidden.’ Who decided to call it that?”
The agent was already stepping down off the porch. He paused on the steps. “The man who built it, Gordon Woods, had the reputation of being involved with the supernatural. He was a traveling magician and medium in the late 1800’s and when he retired, he built this place, all by himself. When he died, his wife and children left the house that same day, but provisions in the will encourage his descendants to hang onto it. Woods named it Ammon House, because he said it had a special connection to the world beyond.”
“So he built it to be haunted?”
Potter shrugged. “Nobody knows, Mr. Stanz. You tell me when you turn in the keys whether or not you think it’s true.”
“Thanks,” said Jarod over his shoulder. “I’ll be sure to do that.”
Crunching away a few steps, Potter stopped, turned and studied him for a moment. “You know, people have died here, looking for what you want to see.”
“That’s why I’m here. I’m researching paranormal phenomena, and Ammon House has a particularly disturbing reputation.”
“There was a couple here last Halloween… the girl murdered her boyfriend. When they hauled her away from the house, she was a raving lunatic, wandering around in the rain.” He paused. “They were just fine when I let them in. Real nice people, obviously in love.” Potter shook his head, the memory lighting up his eyes with fear and remembered pain. “She’s still not herself, after just a couple of nights in there. Might never get out of the asylum where they put her afterward.”
“Well, I’m here by myself, so you don’t have to worry about anybody getting killed.”
Potter cocked his head. “Unless you do yourself in. Wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened in there.”
Jarod flashed him a reassuring grin. “I’ll be fine, Mr. Potter. I’m an old hand at this sort of thing. More often than not, researchers never find anything conclusive.”
“Yeah. Right.” The agent turned away and started off again. “See you in a week, Mr. Stanz.”
He listened as the man drove off, working the frozen padlock to try to get it open. He took off his gloves and warmed the cold metal with his hands and blasts of warm breath, and eventually managed to get it unlocked. The door hinges creaked wonderfully as he pushed the door wide, and he stood transfixed for a moment, just looking at the dim interior, lit only by the wan light filtering through the breaks in the heavy drapes, and the open door.
Pensively, he peered inside, thinking back over his conversation with Potter. "And besides," he added to the empty house, "I have to know."
The furniture inside was draped in sheets and everything was covered with a fine layer of dust. There were pictures on the walls - bad oil paintings of werewolves and vampires, ancient castles that had the look of haunted places, and a small scattering of family photographs from the turn of the previous century. The largest one, facing the door on the opposite wall, featured a stern-looking man with a waxed moustache, curling up on the ends in the dapper style of the day. His thick, dark hair was parted in the middle and slicked down, but there was a slight smile playing around his lips and eyes that softened the severity of his expression somewhat. He seemed to be hiding a secret.
“Mr. Woods, I presume,” Jarod greeted the photograph, and tipped an imaginary hat. “And to whomever else might be residing here, greetings from one of the curious.”
He stamped the snow off his boots in the doorway and trudged inside, leaving the door standing open to light his way. As he passed curtained windows, he opened the drapes and sneezed from the clouds of dust flying up his nostrils. Checking beneath the dust covers, he discovered the furniture and fixtures he would need to use and left them exposed. After he had made a thorough check of the house, he returned to his car for the camping supplies he had brought with him.
The foodstuffs he stowed in the kitchen, and he investigated to determine if any of the appliances were in usable condition. The old stove was a wood-burning model with a vent pipe out the kitchen wall, and after a little cleaning that left him in need of a bath, he managed to solve the problem of creating hot meals. Upstairs he went to the bathroom, but if there had ever been running water in that house, the pipes must have frozen solid or the water well had dried up.
He jogged out to the not-too-distant barn to see what he might scare up out there, and found himself a couple of tin buckets that might have been used for milking once upon a time. Jarod emptied out the grass nests inside them, packed them both with snow and took them inside the house. That done, he fetched the remnants of some sticks of cord wood from the woodshed just by the back door, and in no time had a nice fire burning in the stove, melting the ice in the buckets carefully set on the metal griddle covers. As soon as water was available, he washed himself up, changed into sootless clothes and went to fetch more snow. He wanted to have water on hand in case he needed it.
Fireplaces in the master bedroom and family room were clean enough to use, and he started fires in both of them to ward off the chill. Nearly an hour had passed before he was comfortable enough to remove his coat and gloves, but he was still thankful for the thick fisherman’s sweater he had picked up in a recent visit to L.L. Bean. He set up one portable generator along with the video cameras, sound and vibration measuring equipment, temperature sensitive scanners and a variety of other machines used by researchers into the paranormal. Lastly, he set up his laptop in order to keep notes and work on the variety of projects he had in progress, and then began a room by room study of the place to determine exactly what about the house might lend itself to the illusion of being haunted.
* * * * * * * * *
The chamomile tea felt good going down. It had been a long trip back from Rochester, and Miss Parker was weary. She had listened to Sydney’s ruminations and speculation for an hour once he and Broots returned with the haul from Jarod’s lair, but this one even he was having a tough time figuring out. He told her about Jarod’s troubled phone call a few weeks ago, and the loss he had suffered; but the Pretender had not shared enough information about the dead woman for Syd to speculate whether or not this latest fascination with things occult might be related.
Parker had immediately assigned Broots to discover just who the woman was, and Jarod’s connection to her.
She stared at the stack of Jarod’s books she had brought back to her office.
The theme was clear - an obsession with ghosts. But what could Jarod possibly be looking for among the dead? His family, aside from Kyle, was still living. That couldn’t possibly be it.
She picked up the book on Houdini and skimmed through it. Unlike most biographies on the famous magician/escape artist, this book concerned Houdini’s search for proof of an afterlife. While Harry wished fervently to believe, he spent considerable time and personal income in busting fake mediums who bilked people out of their money and their faith by pretending they could communicate with the dead.
Perhaps that was what Jarod was up to this time. Some poor schmuck had lost his or her life’s savings at the hands of a fraud using the occult as a con platform, and Jarod was out for justice, as usual. She’d have Broots look into that as well, come morning.
But for now, she sipped her tea, twirled slowly in her chair and let her weary mind wander.
Ghosts. There were certainly enough of those in her own life. Thomas, her mother… but she didn’t want to dwell on that. Those spirits were restless enough.
She thought about Ethan, and wondered briefly where he was and how he was doing. That led her thoughts right back to her mother, and the subject of her inner sense. Sydney had given her a few exercises to try, but so far she had been unsuccessful at making any sort of progress. Once again, she wondered why her sense hadn’t developed, what had happened in her life that caused it to be so inaccessible.
Her mother’s death was probably the key to that. Such a trauma had left her adrift from everything except the familiarity of her father and the shadow-life she had at the Centre. Jarod had been part of that -- he and Angelo and, for a short while, Faith.
She almost smiled, remembering the frail little girl she had befriended, and discovered later was her adopted sister. But Faith, too, was long dead. So many people loved and lost in her life.
Parker sighed, finished her tea and set the cup and saucer aside. Her eyes were heavy, and her body felt as if it was made of lead. She wasn’t going to make any progress like that, so she packed up her briefcase, turned off her light and decided to go home.
But on her way out, she stopped by the nursery, adjusted the soft blue blanket over Gabriel’s sleeping form, kissed his silken hair and whispered a wish for sweet dreams. The baby slept deeply, seemingly unaware of her presence, but as she drew away, she saw the flash of a dimple in his cheek as his mouth curved into a quicksilver smile.
How beautiful he is, she reminded herself.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod was surprised by all the books in the library. Many of them were well over a hundred years old, in good shape and most likely collectors items. Much of the library covered the occult, with a particularly large section on ghosts and the afterlife. There were a few tomes on witchcraft that he found amusing, but after a couple of hours looking through them, he decided he needed to eat and returned to the kitchen to start supper.
Both of the buckets of snow that he had collected earlier were upside down in the middle of the floor, their contents vanished.
“Well, at least you’re neat,” he mentioned aloud to the room. His observation led him to the windows, where he checked the snow outside for footprints other than the sets he and Potter had made that morning. There were none.
Putting off his meal a little longer, he made an even more thorough search of the house, this time including the attic and basement. He compared spatial measurements to determine if there were any extra spaces between walls where someone might be waiting to play tricks on him, but there were none. He was absolutely certain that he was alone in the house.
But those buckets hadn’t moved on their own, and whomever moved them had been painstaking about not making any noise. He hadn’t even heard the sound of water pouring into the sink. With a sigh, he donned coat and gloves and returned outside for more snow.
He ate a meal of beef stew, canned by someone bearing the unusual name of Dinty Moore. Afterward, he drank some hot chocolate, and went upstairs to lay out his bed roll on top of the mattress. He didn’t want to disturb the covers on the bed and stir up still more dust, so he figured he’d just bed down in his arctic sleeping bag with the mattress as a cushion. After stoking the fire and feeding it a few more sticks of wood, he went back downstairs to move the motion detection and temperature scanning equipment to the kitchen.
“You can come out anytime now,” he invited congenially. “I’m ready when you are.”
The house answered him with silence.
He glanced out the windows as a light snow began to fall. For a moment he thought about going out in it to play and tasting the flakes on his tongue. He loved the snow! But there were things to do, questions to be answered, puzzles to be solved. Wandering into the family room, he sat on an antique settle before the fireplace, and meditated on a solution to one of them, listening to the quiet.
Soft feminine laughter jerked him out of the light doze he had fallen into, and he glanced around the room.
Just my imagination, he thought. Rising stiffly from the settle, he went back to the instrument panel and noticed that everything was off. Certain he had left it all running, he reactivated the equipment, rubbed his eyes and decided to work on something a little more physically active.
He turned on his laptop, fetched some extra batteries and another cup of cocoa from the kitchen and trudged up to the master bedroom, to the room where Gordon Woods had died in his sleep nearly a century past.
The Pretender worked in the silence for a while, until full dark had settled on the house. There would be no moon out that night, and with the cloak of trees surrounding the house, the upstairs windows showed nothing but the merest glimmer of pale snow reflecting starlight against the barren landscape. He put away his computer, dressed in the red thermal long johns he had so recently discovered -- complete with trap door -- and settled himself into a lotus position on top of his sleeping bag. This time, he would not meditate. He would seek out whatever presence might still linger in the building, and try to make contact… if such a thing were possible.
Jarod took several slow, deep breaths, relaxed his body and let his senses and his mind open like a flower to all the possibilities. If there was something there, he was certain he could find some trace of it. And if he could understand what it wanted, maybe he could put an end to the violence and terror at Ammon House. If not, then he would have an interesting place to lead Miss Parker into afterwards. He might even be able to rig up some appropriately spooky surprises for her visit.
He quieted his mind, brought his thoughts to stillness, and waited.
There was anger in that place. Loneliness. Despair.
It was as if the emotions of those who had come before him had soaked into the building itself, leaving behind the subtle perfume of fear.
For over an hour he waited, moving between contemplation and active analysis of the house and everything he knew about it, but no revelations came. He scanned through all of the research material he had covered before coming to Ammon House, but most of it was legend and conjecture, with virtually nothing to prove any sort of an afterlife really existed. He wanted to believe, but a leap of faith was impossible for him. He needed proof, and had hoped this place could give it to him.
With a sigh, he opened his eyes.
Just as a breath of familiar, musical laughter echoed distantly from somewhere downstairs.
He bolted off the bed and chased after it, but it was gone before he reached the lower floors. A quick run through the house proved him to be still alone, not a track outside in the snow indicating that someone else had come to join him. He ran his hands over his face wearily.
Just the fatigue, he reasoned with himself. My mind playing tricks on me. That's all it is.
Back to the kitchen he went for a last check on the equipment he had left monitoring that room.
The machines were still and silent in the darkness.
He switched them back on, checked the readings, frowned and went upstairs to try for a little sleep, listening for the soft hum of the equipment watching over him to lull him into troubled dreams.
* * * * * * * * *
Long shadows danced in the darkness, stretched out across the floor from the dying flames. The visitor jerked in his sleep, responding to memories of pain and fear. The room grew cooler, drafts of chilly air wafting across that warm body like a lover's breath, stroking the planes of his face with gentle pleasure.
Unbelievers were always fun. But seekers were better, because they were primed and ready to accept whatever they saw.
This one… this one would be the best of all.
He was going to be delicious.
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