looked at the map, rubbing his sweaty palms on his trousers. Ammon House
was situated on a large plot of land on the outskirts of three rural communities.
At the edge of each of those towns lay a cemetery, and two other historical
cemeteries out in the country surrounded Ammon House in an evenly spaced
pentagon. He had drawn connecting lines between the cemeteries, framing
the house with an upside down star -- a pentagram, symbolic of the black
arts. Added to the material he had gleaned from newspaper accounts over
the last ten years, the house fit Miss Parker’s request exactly. It was
the sort of place that made even the stout of heart uneasy, and there was
no way Broots was going to be coerced into going there.
He worked hard at arranging his schedule to pack it full with necessary jobs over the next few days, and once that was done, he printed out all the information necessary for his report and took it to Miss Parker. For a moment he smiled at the baby playing on the floor, still surprised by how she had taken to the boy. But then he remembered why he had come.
“This sounds like what you’re looking for,” he told her, tossing the folder on her desk as if he couldn’t get it out of his grasp quickly enough. “A house with a particularly bad reputation, spooks-wise. It’s located about an hour from Jarod’s last lair.”
The redhead flung open the folder cover and leafed through the pages. “Pack up your ghostbusting gear, Broots. We’re--“
“I can’t go, Miss Parker,” he said quietly, and started explaining his schedule.
She cut him off with the swipe of her hand through the air. “I don’t want to hear about it. Tell Sydney to meet me at the car.”
“Yes, Miss Parker.” He headed for the door, the back of his neck prickling as the hair rose. An ominous feeling rose up his back with chilly fingers. He turned in the doorway to regard her. “Miss Parker?”
She rose and met his gaze dispassionately. “Broots?”
“Be careful. That’s a bad place. You don’t want to stay there long.”
“It’s just a house, Broots,” she assured him.
He closed the door, certain it was much more than that, and offered a silent prayer for her safety, and Sydney’s as well.
And then he thought about Jarod, who had gone there voluntarily, looking for what the house had to offer.
He leaned against the wall for a moment, imagining all sorts of horrible things, straight out of every movie that had ever terrified him as a boy. His stomach churned, and he could feel his heart beating in his throat. He said another prayer for Jarod, hoping he wouldn’t find what he had gone there to see.
* * * * * * * * *
“Well, sweetheart, I guess playtime’s over,” Parker told the baby. Gabriel put down the shape sorting game and looked up at her with his big, liquid eyes. She could see he didn’t want her to leave him, didn’t want to go back to the nursery. But he wanted her to go to Jarod. He had told her so.
That in itself was a wonder… and terrifying as well. If her father or anyone else at the Centre found out that Gabriel could sense Jarod’s whereabouts, the child would never be allowed to rest. He would become another of Daddy’s little “projects” and she would never, never allow such a thing to happen.
Her stomach churned with worry for Gabriel. She picked him up and took a moment to snuggle him close, enjoying the feel of his soft, sweet little baby arms around her neck. Closing her eyes, she began to speak softly to him.
“Pumpkin, we must never, never talk about Jarod again,” she whispered in his ear. He pulled back, his fingers tangled in her hair, and looked deeply into her eyes. “You must never talk to anyone about Jarod. Do you understand?”
His precious little face grew sad. “No Dawid?”
Something in the pit of her stomach clenched. She was cutting him off from something important to him, and she knew it. But neither of them had a choice in that place.
“No Jarod,” she reiterated sadly. “You must never, never talk about him. It will make everyone very unhappy, very angry with you. And you want to make people happy, don’t you?”
He pouted and began playing with her necklace so he wouldn’t have to look in her eyes. And then he nodded.
She smiled. “And I want you to be happy, little brother,” she assured him. “That’s all I want from you. Okay?”
Gabriel smiled, and she felt the warmth all the way down to her toes.
With a sigh, she added, “Good. I have to take you back to that mean old Ms. Penny-pincher now. But I’ll come see you as soon as I get back. Okay?”
He hugged her again, playing in her hair all the way back to the nursery.
Penfield was waiting for her, arms crossed over her chest, chin imperiously high. She was smiling. And Mr. Parker stood right behind her, hands clasped behind his back, lips pursed impatiently beneath his snowy moustache.
“Daddy,” Parker greeted him with a smile. She kissed Gabriel and handed him over to the nurse with a glare. Then she mustered up the remains of a cool smile for her father. “What are you doing here?”
“Shall we go to my office to discuss this?” he inquired stiffly. His eyes went to Penfield, who carried the baby off to the first of his classes, diaper bag looped over her arm.
“Mine,” Gabriel called miserably.
Parker turned to watch him go, smiling encouragement, and waved to him as he disappeared through the nursery door and down the corridor.
Heads up, expressions stony, the Parkers strode with military precision toward the elevator that would take them to the upper floor office of the new Chairman.
“What did you want to see me about, Daddy?” she asked once the doors had closed behind them, though she was fairly certain she knew the answer to that question.
“I can’t have you constantly interrupting Gabriel’s schedule, Angel,” he answered gruffly. “The boy needs his routines--“
“He needs to play,” she countered. “Play that doesn’t have a point to it. He needs to be a baby.”
“We’ve been over this before,” he argued, his face settling into a scowl. “I have plans for that child that don’t concern you, and I’d appreciate it if you’d just let him be for a while.”
“Daddy, he’s a baby,” she insisted. “He needs to be treated like one.”
“He’s also gifted, and I intend to see those gifts developed.” He stepped behind his desk, leaning forward so that just his fingertips touched the gleaming rosewood. His blue eyes glittered with intent, daring her to argue further.
“There’s plenty of time for that,” she snapped, striking a stiff pose, her chin rising defiantly. “He’s not one of your projects. He’s your son. Or have you forgotten that?”
Color seeped into the elder Parker’s face, giving it a ruddy hue. “I haven’t forgotten,” he growled back. “I know exactly who he is. And I’ll ask you to remember who you are. His welfare is up to me, not you. So I’ll thank you to stay out of how I choose to raise him.”
“He needs his family,” she shot back, her voice rising slightly in volume. “And if I want to visit with him when I have a few minutes, I will. He needs variety. He needs a change of scenery, for God’s sake. You want him to have stimulus? I can give him plenty of that. He’s bonding with me, Daddy. Don’t deny him the closest thing he’s got to a mother. All babies need--“
The chairman’s fist slammed down on the desktop. “Dammit, I will not stand by and let you ruin that child, Catherine!” he roared.
And instantly recognized his error.
Her eyes narrowed. She crossed her arms over her chest and took a step toward his massive desk.
“Catherine,” she hissed, “was my mother. You know what my name is. And I’d suggest you never forget it again.”
She pivoted on her heel and strode out the door, a chilly breeze in her wake.
Mr. Parker sat down heavily in his chair. He felt the color draining out of his face and glanced at his hands. They were trembling.
He pressed his palms against the blotter, and took several deep breaths to calm himself.
“Too damn close,” he whispered.
* * * * * * * * *
He took some time to warm himself before returning to the task of moving the equipment to the upstairs bedroom, and then stopped for lunch. Zoe seemed to have deserted him for a while, but he caught echoes of her laughter now and then. Each time he checked the sound equipment to see if the phenomenon had been recorded, he found it switched off.
Apparently, whatever was causing these anomalies didn’t want him to have any concrete proof of its existence.
But if it was Zoe, if her spirit was really there, he would happily set up housekeeping in that derelict structure for a long time to come. He needed more time with her, and the longer he stayed, the more intensely he felt the need to be with her. There was much for which he needed to atone, and now, perhaps, he had a chance to do just that.
He sat on the sofa, meditating and opening himself to the energy of Ammon House. “I’m here,” he murmured. “I’m waiting for you, Zoe.”
“How long have you got?” she returned.
The smile that had started to form when he heard her voice cracked and broke as he opened his eyes to regard her, standing just in front of him, dressed in a hospital gown. Dark circles beneath her eyes revealed her pain. She looked older, thinner now, and more fragile than he remembered. There was an unhealthy pallor to her skin.
He gasped, certain now that his mind was playing tricks on him.
“More time than I did, I’ll bet,” she added. “Then again, this is forever.” Her face and body began to shrivel and discolor, fading to grayish blues and unnatural greens. Maggots spilled out of her nose and ears onto her gown, and her body desiccated before his eyes, falling apart rapidly until there was nothing left but bones. The skeleton cocked its head contemplatively and faded away, until all that was left of her was her ghostly voice.
“You did this to me, Jarod,” she accused. “If you hadn’t come back, I might have lived. Does everything you touch turn out like this?”
Air whooshed out of his lungs, and he scrambled off the sofa, darting to the kitchen door to look back at the place where the spectre had stood. His heart pounded so hard in his chest he thought it might break out of the bony cage that held it inside his body. He lifted a quivering hand to smooth down his hair, struggling to make his mind work, to make sense of what he had just seen.
Not real, he assured himself. None of this with Zoe has been real. It's just my pain and guilt at work.
He turned around and started to step into the kitchen. He'd make himself a cup of coffee. The action of doing something so routine would calm him down.
But she was standing right there, dressed in jeans and a pink-and-white checkered tank top, looking fresh and beautiful. She smiled at him, and gave him a wink.
"It's okay, you know," she said brightly. "I forgive you for killing me."
He couldn't make his mouth work. The words wouldn't come out. His chest clenched painfully, and his eyes burned as he stared down at her.
"I-I didn't kill you," he stammered at last. "Cox did."
The spectre shrugged and wandered into the kitchen. "Yeah, technically. He's a creepy bastard, isn't he? But you had a hand in it, too. It's okay, though. Really."
She hopped up onto the counter, sitting beside the sink and dangling her sandal-shod feet above the lower cabinet doors.
Jarod's gaze slid away from her, and he set about making that cup of coffee. But he couldn't stop himself from stealing glances at her as he worked.
"So have you come back to torment me?" he asked.
That husky, sexy sound melted him every time, taking the edge off his suspicions and disbelief. It was so undeniably her that he had a hard time holding onto reason when he heard it. But she wasn't really there. He was certain of that.
"Why would I do that, Jarod? I love you. But then, I never got a chance to actually tell you that, did I?"
Ice-pick sharp pain jabbed into his heart.
"No. You never told me that. But I knew."
She cocked her head. "Did you love me? You never said."
He was prepared to give her the usual arguments: he had never been in love before, didn't have the same frame of reference, didn't know quite how to figure it out. Then he remembered playing in the snow earlier that day, the way he felt when she smiled or laughed, and he knew. The emotions were there, much as he might want to deny them sometimes.
"Yes," he murmured. "I loved you."
She frowned, and kicked the cabinet with her foot. "Well, you had a funny way of showing it."
He looked right at her, unsettled by her constant gentle barbs. Something in her eyes chilled him to the bone. There was darkness in her, rage that boiled somewhere below the surface, masked by her pretty face and pleasant demeanor.
Fear prickled the back of his neck as she leaped down and sauntered over to him. She lifted her arms to him, pressed her body against his chest and laid her palms right over the tingling spot, and smiled. "I understand, Jarod. You had to go after your brother. You chose him over me. You had to. Didn't you?"
Jarod took hold of her by the wrists and pulled her arms down. "Yes, Zoe. I tried to cover both bases, but it didn't work out. I'm sorry. They should have left you out of this."
"Oh, but you knew they wouldn't," she reminded him, stepping slightly away. "Cox and Lyle had already used me to get to you once. What arrogance to think they'd just let me go my merry way, that I wasn't important enough to use against you. You proved once that you'd do anything to save me. You knew, Jarod. You knew they'd be back for another round."
"Yes, I knew," he snapped. Anger surged up inside him, intensifying the guilt and pain already tearing at his soul. "I was going to find you again, make sure you were safe. I thought my father would look after you--"
"But his daughter was more important," Zoe taunted. "You knew he'd put family ahead of me. You knew Emily was in danger. You knew he'd take care of her first."
"I didn't know you were so sick!" he countered. He grasped her by the shoulders, his fingers digging into her fair skin. "I didn't know you'd be in the hospital. I wasn't prepared for that."
She cocked her head, grinning at him, disbelief shining in her eyes. "But you’re a Pretender. You cover all the possibilities. You simmed it all. You made allowances for me to get held up along the way. And you knew what would happen when it did."
"No!" he shouted, giving her a little shake. "I didn't know they'd kill you! They were supposed to take you hostage again. I could help you then. I didn't know they'd kill you, Zoe, I swear." His voice broke, and the intensity faded. "I didn't expect that, not even from them."
He let go of his crushing grip, slid his hands around her shoulders and pulled her close. Her arms came up around his neck again, and she kissed his cheek. Her lips brushed his ear, and she whispered softly, "You knew what kind of men Cox and Lyle were. You know how much they both enjoy death. You knew they'd get off on mine, didn't you, sweetheart?"
She moved sinuously against him, panting now in his ear. He tried to push her away, his hands betraying him by holding onto her slender waist. “Cox couldn’t keep his hands off me as I died, baby. He had to touch me as my soul left my body. And Lyle -- he fantasized about it, couldn’t wait for Cox to share the details with him. They whispered about it, like two men sharing seduction stories.”
“No,” Jarod whimpered. Tears dampened his eyelashes. His throat hurt, tightened up so it was hard to breathe. He could see the picture she painted for him so clearly. Her fingers on the back of his neck were like ice, but her lips against his cheek were hot enough to burn his skin.
“They loved it, Jarod,” she went on. “It excited them, what they did to me.”
“No. Nononono…” He shoved her away, covered his face with his hands and turned his back to her, unable to bear the sight of her any longer. “Go away, Zoe. Leave me alone. Please. Oh, God. Please leave me in peace.”
“Peace?” She laughed.
The sharp-edged peals of her good humor shredded his soul and left him bleeding.
“That’s a good one, Jarod. Leave you in peace. Rest in peace. Peace on earth.” Her voice grew louder, angrier, shrieking at him now. “There is no peace! Not till you find a way to wash my blood off your hands. You killed me, Jarod, just as surely as if you cut my heart out with your own hands!”
“No!” he shouted, covering his ears with his hands. But he could still hear her, inside his head. Inside his heart. Echoing inside his soul, accusing him, tormenting him, strangling him with guilt until he could not think, could not reason. She was real, pointing her dead finger at him and demanding retribution.
“You know what to do, Jarod,” she cried harshly. “You want me to find peace? Give me justice. Give me my revenge for the life I didn’t get to live.”
Her hands tugged at his sweater, fingernails raking across his back through the cloth to remind him she was still there.
“Do it, Jarod.”
“I can’t--“ He whipped around and shoved her away.
She spun backward, bouncing hard off the kitchen counter. She shrieked with pain and surprise, and turned eyes on him that were gentle, sad and filled with disbelief. “Jarod?” Her voice was soft now, the Zoe he remembered. The Zoe he had cared for so deeply. “You hurt me. Why did you do that?”
“I’m sorry,” he blurted, stumbling toward her, arms outstretched. He couldn’t think, drowning in a maelstrom of emotion.
She cringed, recoiling from his touch, and faded into nothing.
Jarod straightened, and stopped in his tracks. He blinked, glancing around him to see where she had gone.
“Zoe?” He turned in a slow circle, but she was nowhere in sight. He lurched out of the kitchen, looking for her in the next room, and the next. He looked everywhere, but she was gone. “Zoe?” he called. “Come back.” Downstairs he went, back to the kitchen where he had seen her last. “Don’t leave me, Zoe. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry.”
A tear trickled slowly down his cheek, but he didn’t feel it. He reached for the kitchen door and yanked it open, stumbling out into the snow. With his hands cupped beside his mouth, he called for her, wandering slowly around the white-blanketed yard, heedless of the fact that his coat and gloves were still inside, and the kitchen door stood open to the weak afternoon sun.
* * * * * * * * *
Fat, fluffy snowflakes danced downward out of the leaden sky, and the empty windows looked down on the man as he searched for the woman he had lost. A whisper of laughter echoed on the light breeze, and the door moved slowly closed, latching quietly into place. Shadows danced on the snowbanks in silent celebration of another victory.
Ammon House was pleased.
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