Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots
Harve Presnell as Mr. Parker
Richard Marcus as Mr. Raines
Lisa Cerasoli as Zoe
Alex Wexo as Jacob
John Ritter as Dan Parker
Louise Fletcher as Ms. Penfield
The smell 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 warning.
“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.
* * * * * * * * *
What am I supposed to do with all these blues haunting me
Everywhere, no matter what I do…
Watching the candle flicker out in the evening glow…
I can’t let go.
When will this night be over?
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.
True Irish Ghost Stories
The Haunting of Chillingham Castle
Grey Lady of Chelsea
Haunted Houses of North America
Harry Houdini’s Quest
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.
The first thing Miss Parker did when she arrived at the Centre was head for Gabriel's quarters. He had just finished breakfast, and still held his sippee cup filled with juice. He smiled at her, and banged his cup forcefully on the tray.
“Mine!” he called, and reached out to her with his chubby hands grasping in the air.
“Here I am, sweetheart,” she cooed, and took a moment to clean him up before pulling him out of the high chair.
The nurse frowned, but said nothing. She busied herself with putting away the food and cleaning up the tray.
"You need to get out of here," Miss Parker told the child. "My goodness, it wouldn't kill anyone to take you outside for a walk now and then." She glared meaningfully at the nurse. "Would it, Ms. Pennywhistle?"
The woman stiffened. "That’s Penfield. And Mr. Parker says that Gabriel is to remain in his quarters until--"
"Hell freezes over?" Parker finished for her silkily. She smiled at the woman, ice glittering in her eyes. "Well, I guess it's my job, then." She turned to the toddler and warmed immediately. "Let's go to my office, Pumpkin. You need a change of scene, and I need a visit."
She started toward the door.
"Miss Parker!" Penfield screeched. "He'll be late for his classes!"
Parker paused long enough to grab the diaper bag that went with Gabriel wherever he did, and called over her shoulder, "What does a baby his age need with classes, Renfield? He'll be just fine with me."
She ignored the nurse's gasp of outrage, and headed for the elevator with Gabriel hugging her neck and leaving huge slobbery kisses on her cheek. Part of her cringed at the mess, but it was only a small part. Somehow she had grown to enjoy this particular child's displays of affection, unsanitary as they were. Gabriel was special to her.
In her office, she sat him down on the floor, and from a box she had waiting there, she pulled out some toys, a large pad of drawing paper and a box of big, fat crayons. For a few minutes she sat with him and showed him how to hold the crayons and press them to the paper to draw. Gabriel took to the new tool quickly, and sat quietly coloring random shapes across the paper.
While he scribbled, she went to her desk to catch up on paperwork, and write a little more on the report concerning the items found at Jarod's latest lair. Every so often she would glance down at the baby, watching him discover the fun of tearing pages of paper out of the big tablet. Her office was going to be a mess when he finished.
But that was what janitors were for. She smiled and cheered him on, clapping when he finally succeeded in tearing out one whole sheet of paper, which he then brought to her and laid in her lap like a trophy. She kissed his dark head, and watched him return to his seat on the floor, ready for more discoveries in the crayon box.
She didn't feel much like working at all, and enjoyed watching him for a long time instead.
* * * * * * * * *
“Kind of a weird place for a romantic getaway, isn't it?” Zoe asked as Jarod rolled over in the half-light of early dawn.
He gasped. Pushing bolt upright on the bed, he stared at the apparition lying on the mattress beside his sleeping bag.
She was wearing the sweater he had shed the night before, and nothing else, as far as he could see. She rose with a bounce on the edge of the bed and strolled to the fireplace, squatting down on the hearth with a stick she had broken off one of the pieces of cordwood he had brought upstairs with him to feed the fire. She grinned at him over her shoulder and gave him a saucy wink. “Miss me?”
Jarod shook his head to clear it. He had expected an apparition, if he saw one at all, to be the spirit of someone who had died long ago -- not someone he actually knew. This was not possible. His imagination was in overdrive. He was hallucinating, or dreaming.
But he would play along nonetheless. It was his dream, after all… even though it felt as real as waking. And it was an opportunity to probe his subconscious mind for good memories of her, to enjoy her one last time and tell her the goodbye Cox had denied him.
“Yes, I missed you,” he answered soberly. “Why did you come here?”
She shrugged and stood up, letting the sleeves of his sweater drop and completely cover her hands. The cuffs dangled several inches below her fingertips as she strolled seductively toward the bed. Her long, beautiful legs stretched out from beneath the hem of his sweater, almost long enough to be a dress for her.
“Because I missed you, Jarod,” she answered innocently. Then she slowly lifted the sweater off over her head, revealing the lacy black underwear underneath. “Wanna see how much?”
Walking across the dusty bed on her knees, she came to him, toppled him backward and proceeded to demonstrate.
When he awoke later -- was it possible to sleep inside of a dream? -- she was still there, snuggled right beside him in the sleeping bag. Already awake and watching him, she smiled up at him and giggled in that slightly hoarse, sexy voice of hers.
Jarod was lost. They made love again, and he felt his perceptions beginning to slide.
Maybe this wasn't a dream. Maybe she really was here, and not just a figment of his imagination. There was substance to her, and perfume, and the music of her sighs. All of his senses told him this was real.
Zoe had come back to him.
He rose at her urging and stoked the fire while she dressed again in his sweater and padded toward the bathroom.
“I love your dad,” she called. “He’s a wonderful man, someone you can depend on. He took good care of me.”
Jarod smiled with pride. He hoped he was like his father.
“Unlike some people I know,” she added irritably.
His smile vanished. He rose, the fire forgotten, and turned toward the door. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She strolled out of the bathroom with a coquettish smile. But there was something hard and cold in her beautiful brown eyes. “You know what I mean. But don’t worry about it. It’s all over now anyway. Why don’t you go rustle up some breakfast?”
The pit of his stomach was churning. “Do you want some, too?”
Zoe laughed. “No thanks, I'm not hungry these days. But you need to eat. I’ll meet you downstairs.” She wandered out of the room and down the hall toward the staircase.
He bent down to stoke the fire again, visited the bathroom and went to make the breakfast she had ordered.
But he didn’t feel like cooking. Instead, he unwrapped a Wildberry Pop Tart and began to munch on it as he checked on the equipment he had set up the night before in the kitchen, where the previous disturbance took place. All the machinery had been switched off again.
He turned everything back on and checked the readings, but there was nothing recorded on any of the devices. In fact, from the moment he had gone upstairs, they had ceased to operate. Dutifully, he began to move the equipment piece by piece up to the bedroom, hoping to record something there. Surely when Zoe returned, there would be some evidence that something was there with him.
He would have proof that the human spirit was eternal.
As soon as he had unplugged the last device, he heard her laughter.
“Come outside with me!” she called. “We’ll play in the snow.”
Jarod followed the sound to the living room, where she stood beside the door, dressed in his sweater and nothing else.
She was so beautiful she made his heart ache.
“C’mon! I bet you’ve never built a snowman, have you?”
He loved the sound of her laughter.
He loved her.
“Get your coat and join me!”
The door opened, and a gust of wind blew inside, chilling him to the bone. He wasn’t sure if it was a faulty locking mechanism coaxed open by the wind, or the ghost he could so clearly see. But he wanted more than anything to have a little more time with her. He grabbed his coat and gloves off the draped sofa where he had left them the day before, and donned them as he raced outside.
She danced in the whiteness, her arms outstretched, her beautiful face tilted up toward the sky and the peacefully falling flakes. She was laughing, and the sound sliced into him with an agony he could not contain. Tears gathered in his eyes as he approached her, his hands outstretched to touch her, but she hopped playfully away.
“C’mon, snowman time!” she announced, and picked up handfuls of snow, packing them together into a tight ball. “Like this, only bigger. You make a big ball on the bottom, a medium sized one in the middle, and a small one for the head. Then you decorate it with hats and stuff, with features made of carrots and sticks and things like that.”
There was such humor and happiness in her expression and voice that his tears faded quickly, freezing onto his eyelashes. He began to build according to her instructions, while she scampered around him. His hands were freezing in short order, but he did not stop to warm them. When he finished the ball for the head and set it on top of the developing structure, he turned to face her and got a fluffy snowball in the eye.
“Ha ha!” she crowed. “Gotcha!”
He scooped up a handful of snow and threw it at her, but she seemed to dodge everything he launched. And then he forgot again that she wasn’t real, laughing and trying even harder to tag her with a snowball or catch her as she leaped and danced around him in unbridled joy. She caught him with a kiss as soon as he stopped for a breather, and then shoved him backward into a thick pile of snow.
“Snow angels! Betcha never made one of those, either,” she cheered, and fell backward into the snow beside him. She moved her arms and legs in the familiar pattern to demonstrate how it was done, and when he got the idea, she rose and dusted the dangling sweater arms over the impression she had made, obliterating it thoroughly.
“Hey! What’d you do that for?” he demanded playfully, standing up again to admire his handiwork.
“’Cause I’m already an angel,” she reminded him, head cocked to one side with a bitter smile sliding across her lips. “Don’t you remember?”
His throat closed up. He nodded, the happiness of a moment ago gone utterly.
“It didn’t hurt,” she assured him. “I just went to sleep and woke up… like this.” Zoe danced away a few steps, kicking up snow with her bare feet. “I was dying anyway, you know. I guess I should thank you for sparing me the pain I was facing.” Her expression sobered. “But then, I’d have had more time if you hadn’t walked back into my life.”
“I know,” he rasped, the words burning in his tight throat. “I’m so sorry.”
She nodded. “I know. But that won’t bring me back, will it?”
He hung his head guiltily. “No, it won’t. I would have--“
When he looked up again, she had vanished.
He glanced around himself at the snow, noting that the only footprints in the powdery flakes were his own. The place where she had lain bore no evidence of her slender body having been there. He stood alone, waiting for her for a few moments, and then moved toward the unfinished snowman and began to scoop up handfuls of the white stuff to change the figure’s shape.
Hours later, his hands all but frozen, he trudged back into the house without a final glance at the winged snow angel standing guard over the frozen lawn behind him. The sculpture was fashioned Greco-Roman style, the woman’s body softly draped with frozen fabric made entirely of hand-shaped snow. Her bowed head bore a striking resemblance to someone he had loved and lost not long ago, someone he would never see again… at least, not in the flesh.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker was actually making progress. The theme of the afterlife was leading her somewhere, if only she could grasp that one element that kept eluding her. She narrowed her focus completely to the words she had keyed in on the computer screen, and re-read the last paragraph yet again, her keen intellect zeroing in on…
Nothing. She sighed. Whatever it was that had almost been there, slipped out of her grasp.
When she looked up again, Gabriel’s crayons and paper were scattered across the floor, but he was nowhere in sight. She started to rise in alarm, then realized he had come around the desk to stand next to her chair. “What is it, honey?”
Gabriel’s large, dark eyes were solemn. They seemed to swallow the rest of his features as he looked up at his big sister. “Go see Dawid.”
Instantly, she flashed back to his birthday, to the moment when he asked her if “Dawid” was real. She had dismissed the idea, knowing it was impossible that he could be talking about Jarod, someone he'd never met, never even heard mentioned. She still didn't want to believe.
"Gabriel, I don't understand." She reached down to pat his head. "What are you trying to say?"
Immediately he started to crawl into her chair. With a sigh she picked him up and placed him on her lap, where he squirmed around until his back was to her and he faced the desk.
"Are you going to write my report for me?" she asked lightly, one corner of her mouth turning up as she held him steady. "Because I really wouldn't mind that at all."
Gabriel busied himself by pawing through her papers. There among the lists of videotapes, the roster of people interviewed and other information on the firehouse, lay the photograph she had shown the realtor who rented the old building to the missing Pretender. Gabriel picked up the photo, his chubby fingers having difficulty with the fine motor movements needed to grasp the thin paper.
"Dawid," said Gabriel.
She took the picture out of his hand and looked at it. There was no longer any doubt. Gabriel knew exactly who Jarod was.
She felt as if she had been punched in the gut.
With trembling fingers, she guided the photograph back to her desktop. "Honey, do you know where Jarod is?" It was a long shot. A lost-in-space-type long shot. But the question had come out of her without conscious thought.
Gabriel turned around and buried his face against her neck, grasping at her shoulders with his soft baby hands. "Bad house," he said in a tiny, frightened voice. "Mine, go see Dawid."
She cuddled him close, and kissed his hair. Things she hadn't been quite able to reach now danced in her mind's eye. She picked up the phone and dialed Broots' desk in the Tech Room, hoping he would be there and not off with Sydney doing God knew what.
"Broots, I've got a job for you," she said quietly into the receiver. "Stop whining. You can do this at your desk." She sighed. "I want you to start in the area of Jarod's last lair, and work outward. You're looking for houses with a reputation, something out of the ordinary."
Gabriel slid down to the floor and toddled back over to the crayons and paper, but now he didn't touch them. He climbed into the box with the toys instead, and tossed them out, one by one. Then he just sat there for a moment, staring straight ahead.
"Bad house," he said again. And then he turned around to look at his sister.
Parker stared right back. "No, I'm not sure what you're looking for. But don't do anything else -- don't even breathe -- until you've brought me everything you can find within a 50 mile radius of that lair."
She hung up, and went to sit with Gabriel on the floor.
* * * * * * * * *
As soon as his shift was over, Willie handed over the keys to Raines’ office to the next sweeper assigned to guard duty, and headed for the elevators. He glanced at the control panel, aimed for the button that would take him to the top floor and home for the day, but changed direction and punched a lower floor instead. When the doors opened, he stepped out slowly, glancing right and left to see if anyone had seen him exit, but there was no one in the corridor.
He headed for Renewal, walking softly to listen for other footsteps or voices that would tell him someone was approaching. Cautiously, he opened the steel door, stepped inside and strolled between the curtained exam rooms, therapy rooms and wards. All the way to the rear of the wing he went, pausing outside one of the last private rooms where Centre secrets were locked away from prying eyes.
Quickly he eased inside, closing the door behind himself. With a glance through the glass panel in the door, he confirmed that no one had seen him enter that room. He turned around, his dark eyes studying the limp, apparently lifeless form of William Raines.
“Hello, Mr. Raines,” he said softly.
The other man didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t acknowledge that he was no longer alone.
Willie pulled up a chair from near the door, so he could sit close to the man in the wheelchair.
“There’s some friction between Mr. Parker and his daughter,” he reported quietly. “I’m not sure exactly what it’s about, but I think it has something to do with the baby. Something suspicious is going on with him, and I think Miss Parker knows what it is.”
Raines blinked, his watery blue eyes vacant.
“There’s a rumor going around that she’s trying to sabotage the program,” Willie continued. “I don’t think there’s anything to that, personally, but then… I know what happened with her mother. Maybe history’s repeating itself.”
The sweeper stood and laid his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “I just wanted to keep you up to date, sir. I know it’s hard to hear anything down here. Not much gossip going on with the frea-- with the other patients here. And I know how you like to stay on top of things.”
Willie carried the chair back to its former position, adjusted his suit and turned to offer his boss a conspiratorial smile. “I’ll be back when I’ve got more, Mr. Raines, just like I promised.” He slipped silently out the door and let it close on its own behind him.
The old man sat perfectly still, his eyes blank, head lolled forward on his chest. He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, whistling around the oxygen tube just below his nostrils. The corner of his mouth twitched, jumped and pulled tightly into his cheek.
It almost looked as if he was smiling.
Broots 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.
“I’m impressed, Parker,” Sydney said. “I could hardly see the road at all in this snow.”
Fat, fluffy snowflakes obscured the view as well as the long driveway, but the vague shape of Ammon House loomed gray and indistinct not far ahead. A dark sedan was parked to one side, and Parker stopped her car right behind it. She whipped off her seat belt and bolted out the door, leaving Sydney to bring up the rear.
She headed straight for the front porch, pausing just long enough to glance at Sydney and motion for him to circle around the back way to prevent Jarod from escaping. The door opened easily, and she darted inside.
Sydney pulled his scarf up over his ears, tugged his cap down further onto his head for what meager warmth it would offer, and began to trudge through the knee-deep snow around the side of the house.
And stopped as soon as he heard that familiar voice. He headed toward it, disturbed by how unnaturally weak it sounded. Jarod was distraught; that was obvious from the strained syllables he called out in the falling snow.
Sydney saw him wandering away from the house, staggering aimlessly. The Pretender cupped his bare hands around his mouth and wailed out the woman’s name once more, dropped his hands to his sides and stumbled another few steps, his head bowed and shoulders drooping. He had no coat, no scarf or hat, and his dark hair and shoulders were thickly dusted with snow. He must have been outside for quite some time.
As quickly as he could manage, Sydney caught up to him. “Jarod!” he called. “You’ll freeze to death! We must get you back inside.” He grasped the young man’s elbow and tried to tow him back toward the house.
Jarod’s arm jerked reflexively out of his grip.
“Zoe!” he called again, his voice hoarse from shouting. “I’m sorry! Please… please come back.”
It seemed that Jarod hadn’t registered his presence. Sydney grabbed him, turned him around and tried to get his attention, but the young man’s eyes remained fixed on something he alone could see off in the distance. He looked right past Sydney, as if he wasn’t even there.
“My God,” Sydney whispered, frightened for his protégé’s sanity. He forced Jarod to move, towing and pushing him toward the house. “We’ve got to get you inside. You’ve got to get warm, Jarod!”
“Sydney?” Parker called from the kitchen doorway. “What the hell’s he doing out there without a coat?”
“Help me, Miss Parker!” he ordered. “He’s not himself.”
“I have to find her,” Jarod moaned. “I know she’s here. I saw her.”
Sydney glanced up at Jarod’s haunted eyes. “Zoe’s dead, Jarod,” he said gently. “Remember? We have to go inside now.”
Whatever determination had kept Jarod going now seemed to wither away. He let Sydney and Miss Parker haul him back into the kitchen. Sydney searched the house for his coat and wrapped him in it, then found the remains of the fire in the bedroom and hustled him upstairs to sit him down in front of it.
“Would you see if you can find something warm for him to drink?” Sydney asked his companion, brushing the snow off Jarod as the younger man stared into the flames.
Parker left without a word. In the kitchen she found the makings for coffee and started some percolating; while she waited, she glanced into the adjoining rooms. She had seen the equipment upstairs but gave it no mind; now she examined the items Jarod had left in the kitchen.
“Oh, my God. He really is a Ghostbuster,” she murmured. “But he should have remembered to turn the damn machines on.” She poured a cup for herself and drank it down, then another for Jarod. She carried the pot upstairs with her in case Sydney decided he wanted some as well.
The Belgian was already psychoanalyzing Jarod when she returned, and apparently making a little progress. Jarod was responding occasionally, but not often enough for them to be sure that he recognized their presence as real. Sydney gave Parker a worried glance as she handed over the mug of hot coffee.
“I’m going to check the road,” she told Sydney. “You take care of him.”
She was back in five minutes. “Looks like we’re going to have to stay the night,” she announced, keeping her voice low. “It’s getting dark, and there’s no way I’d be able to get us back to the main road with this much snow on everything.” She sighed. “And maybe by morning you’ll have gotten Jarod’s head back on straight.”
Sydney said nothing. He lifted the cup to Jarod’s lips, and instructed him to drink. “He’s in no shaped to be moved anyway, Miss Parker. Perhaps you should try to find a comfortable place to sleep. I’ll be on watch till morning.”
“Good luck,” she told him.
Oddly enough, she found that she meant it.
* * * * * * * * *
Parker growled out the window at the snow. The weak light from the fire illuminated only the flakes nearest the window, but those were driving by on a strong, nearly horizontal wind. She could hear it howling outside, and the old house responded with a weary groan. She pulled her coat tighter about her and returned to the fireplace to add on more wood. The room was warming, but would retain the chill throughout the night.
With an unhappy glance at the shabby twin bed in the corner, she heaved a sigh of resignation.
"Why couldn't you find your haunted house in Southern California, Jarod?" she asked the empty room. Parker dragged the old wrought iron bed closer to the fireplace and lay down on it, wrapping herself up in her coat. It was going to be a miserable night, but at least she would have the satisfaction of hauling Jarod back to the Centre with her as soon as the snow let up. If she and Sydney were stuck in that dismal weather, Jarod was as well. Small comfort, to be sure, but enough to get her through the night.
Her belly growled, reminding her that she hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast. But she had taken stock of Jarod's supplies, and there wouldn't be enough for all of them to last more than a day or so. She could go hungry for the night, promising herself a good hot meal when she got back to civilization. And maybe she'd make Jarod watch while she ate it.
She closed her eyes, turning her thoughts to Gabriel and the amazing discovery she had made with him earlier in the day. He really was a special child, but she had more reason now than ever to be concerned with his future. She knew he couldn't possibly understand the ramifications of his gift, and worried that he might inadvertently let someone else know he could sense Jarod's whereabouts. At his age, he would not understand her directive not to speak about Jarod, and she wasn’t sure he wouldn’t let something slip. She would have to spend as much time with him as possible, to help train him that Jarod was a taboo subject. The vision of his dimpled smile coaxed her gently into uneasy dreams, and her breathing slowed as she curled up in the warmth of her Burberry wool.
* * * * * * * * *
Seen a lot of broken hearts go sailing by
Phantom ships, lost at sea, and one of them is mine
Raising my glass I sing a toast to the midnight sky
I wonder why the stars don’t seem to guide me…
Jarod stared into the flames, his coat draped over his shoulders as he sat on the floor before the hearth. Suddenly he took a deep breath, and blinked. For the first time in hours, he realized where he was and sat up straight, glancing around the room.
“I was wondering how long you were going to be lost,” Sydney said from behind him. “I was getting worried about you.”
Jarod flinched at the sound of that familiar voice, almost turning to look over his shoulder, but chose to resist the temptation. There was no reason to look, after all. He knew Sydney wasn’t really there.
The Pretender watched the fire actively now, contemplating how completely he had been consumed by the fantasy brought on by the atmosphere in that house. His need to have some sort of final closure with Zoe had gotten the better of him, and even now he couldn’t trust his perception of what was real and what was not. But he was tired. He felt as though he hadn’t slept in a week, and rose stiffly, slowly, pulling the coat about him as he lumbered over to the bed.
“Are you all right, Jarod?” Sydney asked softly. He sat on a dusty, overstuffed chair, book in hand, his glasses settled low on his nose. An electric lantern Jarod had brought with him sat on the nearby nightstand, illuminating the pages so Sydney could read. “Do you remember what happened?”
“I’m tired, Sydney,” he said to the apparition. “You can’t imagine how tired I am.” Wearily, he circled the bed, sat heavily on the mattress and doffed his coat, head bowed with fatigue.
“Let me see your hands,” Sydney suggested. “You were on the verge of frostbite when we brought you inside.”
Jarod ignored him. “I’ll be fine. I’m always fine. Always land on my feet.” He slumped over sideways, struggled into the sleeping bag and turned his back to the mirage beside him.
Sydney let him settle in before speaking again. “Do you want to talk about her, the girl you lost?”
A bitter laugh whispered across Jarod’s lips. “Why would I want to do that, Sydney? I’ll never get the blood off my hands. Not Zoe’s, or the hundreds of other people who have died because of me. This is a fitting place for me, you know. A haunted house.” He snickered. “For a haunted man.”
The Belgian started to speak again, but Jarod cut him off. “Leave me alone, Sydney. I want to get some sleep. Haven’t I earned that?”
With a sigh, Sydney closed his book and turned his gaze to the amber ballet in the fireplace. “Of course you have, Jarod. And much more,” he murmured. “Including the freedom I can’t give you.”
But the younger man didn’t hear him. He was already fast asleep, sliding headlong into dark dreams.
The ghost of you and me
When will it set me free?
I hear the voices call
Following footsteps down the hall
Trying to save what’s left of my heart and soul
Watching the candle flicker out in the evening glow
I can’t let go
When will this night be over?
* * * * * * * * *
A sound startled Parker into wakefulness. She glanced at the fireplace, and caught the last glimpse of a shower of sparks as a log fell off the iron grate onto the stone floor of the hearth. Parker sighed with relief and turned away from the flames, facing the dark end of the room.
"There's my Angel," said a soft voice that she recognized immediately.
Parker lifted her head and squinted toward the shadows. A familiar shape wafted toward her, dressed in white. Catherine Parker came to sit gracefully on the side of the bed, and smiled down at her.
I'm dreaming, she told herself. But it was a good dream. She smiled up at that face so like her own, and held out her hand. "Mama," she murmured warmly.
"Baby, I've missed you so much," Catherine told her. "You're so grown up now."
Parker sat up and let the coat fall away from her shoulders. "Everybody says I look just like you, Mama."
Catherine's smile melted. "Yes. But you're not like me, are you?"
"What do you mean?"
"All that anger inside you," Catherine explained. "All that hate. Your father poisoned your soul, smothered all that was good and joyous in you. And you let him."
Parker's auburn brows knitted together. "What? Mama, I--"
"I gave you everything you'd need to be strong and kind and full of love," Catherine whispered sadly. "And you buried it under a mountain of mistrust and selfishness. What happened to you, Angel? Why did you throw away everything I tried to teach you?"
"Look at you. Look at what you're doing with your life, darling. Persecuting that poor boy, doing everything you can to drag him back to Hell. Is that what you think I'd want you to do?" She rose from the bed and smoothed down her dress, gazing down at her daughter with distinct disapproval written on her elegant features. "That's not the little girl I loved. I don't know who you are."
She backed away, toward the darkness.
Parker scrambled toward the side of the bed, her legs tangling up in her coat. She threw it off savagely and vaulted off the dusty mattress, stumbling to her feet in the chilly room. "Mama, wait!" she called, following the pale form into the shadows. Feeling her way forward with her hands, she hurried after the image, heedless of danger. Panic and desire warred within her, desire to catch the apparition and make peace with her; fear that she had lost that chance.
"Mama!" she called. "Mama, come back!"
Faster she padded barefoot into the darkness, uncertain now if she was dreaming or awake. She could sense a wall to her left and reached out to touch it with her fingertips. The blackness was so complete she had utterly lost her bearings, and could barely remember the layout of the upstairs rooms. She wasn't certain if she was still in the bedroom or in the hallway outside it. All she knew was that she had to catch up with the pale shape still ahead, moving away more quickly.
"Mama," she whispered tightly, blinking back tears, her heart clenching from the sting of her mother's rebuke.
And then she was pitching forward, her left foot coming down on air as she stepped off the landing above the stairs. Her foot twisted as it impacted against the step below it, throwing her sideways in the dark. Instinct made her grab out to her right, and her fingers caught the railing just before she tumbled head first down the stairs. Her body swung crazily toward the banister, but her grip held and she caught herself, banging hard against the steps and the railing.
For a moment she just sat there, precariously balanced on the stairs, her muscles throbbing where she had impacted against the hard wood. A sob choked her, fear welling up in her throat as she thought about what had almost happened. Carefully, she pulled herself to her feet and followed the railing back up to the landing, feeling her way back to the bedroom by the wan glow of the fire.
Limping, she took a seat on the far side of the bed and added more wood to the flames. She slipped her coat on, wrapped it around her, and decided to wait for morning without benefit of sleep. She didn't want to close her eyes in that place again.
The skin on the back of her neck and sides of her face rippled with gooseflesh as her hair stood on end.
"Don't mess with me," she said aloud to the room. "Or I'll set fire to this place before I leave."
She rubbed her arms and stoked the fire in her soul, glancing at her watch to see how long she'd have to wait for sunup.
* * * * * * * * *
Sydney rose and carried the lantern with him, taking the book downstairs to look for another. He replaced the volume on the bookshelf where he’d found it, and held up the lantern to better read the book spines. This time, he chose a fictional novel, carried it into the living room and pulled the dust cover off the sofa to make himself comfortable.
He set the lantern up, adjusted his position to take advantage of the light, and checked his watch before delving into the first page of the story.
Hours to go until morning.
He glanced out the window and was relieved to see that it had stopped snowing. Once the sun was up and they had scraped some of the snow off the car, they’d be able to leave that dreary place. Driving would be treacherous, but he was certain they would make it back to the highway eventually. He certainly didn’t want to spend another night in that house, even if it did mean taking Jarod back to the Centre.
The story was interesting, set in Switzerland in the 1940s. But he couldn’t keep his mind on the text, and found himself reading the same paragraph for the third time. He closed his eyes for a moment to rest them, reclining his head against the plaster covered wall behind the sofa.
Dachau loomed up out of the darkness in his memory. The smell of unwashed bodies crowded into too-small quarters, the stench of death filling his nostrils, the prickling of fear as he watched people around him disappearing daily… He clung to Jacob, huddled in a corner with his twin, both of them trying to make themselves as small and invisible as possible, so they would not be chosen…
Sydney started awake when the book slipped out of his lap and landed with a slap on the floor.
“You remember what it was like,” said the echo of his own smooth, cultured voice from the darkness just outside the lantern’s glow. “You remember how we felt, uncertain what horrors would be visited upon us with each new day.”
At first he was afraid of the voice, its sudden appearance from nowhere. But Jacob eased closer, just enough for Sydney to see his face, still so young, before the accident, before their final separation. He relaxed again, happy to see this spectre reappear in his life. “Of course I remember, Jacob. How can I ever forget?”
Jacob’s gaze rolled slowly upward, then back down to make eye contact again with his twin. “Have you never watched Jarod sleep, brother?”
Sydney shook his head. “He deserves a little privacy, here and there. And I have to sleep as well. You know that.”
“But not tonight.”
“I’m on watch.”
“Afraid of the dark, Sydney?”
“Afraid of what might be happening to Jarod.”
“He’s been through a great deal,” Jacob agreed. “Much more than anyone was meant to suffer.” He drifted to the couch and sat down at the far end. “You remember what it’s like to suffer in that way, don’t you? You still dream about it. You still smell Dachau in the shadows.”
Sydney said nothing, and dropped his gaze to the book on the floor. He bent to pick it up.
“We knew what we were doing,” Jacob went on. “But we were so caught up in the advancement of science that we chose not to think about it. It was easier that way, not to deal with our consciences.” He grinned. “We made some fascinating discoveries together, didn’t we?”
“Yes, we did. Through our work, we have contributed greatly to the welfare of mankind. It’s something we should be proud of achieving.”
“We should be, yes… But at whose expense?” Jacob let the subtle accusation hang in the air between them.
Sydney looked at his brother. “We also suffered, Jacob.”
His twin nodded. “But we were grown men when we came to the Centre. We knew what the experiments would do to vulnerable young psyches. We knew how much more deeply the young feel terror, how profoundly it affects them. We knew how desperately children need the security of family, of roots, of knowing who they are… and yet we cut Jarod and the other children off from their lives, from the world, and left them floating in darkness, unable to find their way out. We knew what it would cost them, and we complied with project management anyway.”
A muscle twitched in Sydney’s jaw. “I did what I could to blunt the trauma,” he argued. “I got rid of as many of the more damaging projects as I could. I protected him the best way I knew how.”
“It wasn’t enough. You knew that. You knew what was happening to him. What is still happening to him.”
A distant cry of denial from somewhere above echoed through the house. Sydney recognized Jarod’s raspy voice instantly. He rose to go to his protégé.
“You can’t fix it now, Sydney,” Jacob reminded him. “It’s too late. What’s done is done. Jarod’s wounds will never heal.”
Sydney faced his twin, tears glistening in his eyes, and blinked them hastily away. “He can recover. I can help him.”
Jacob chuckled. “Like you helped him find his parents?” he accused. “Like you helped him come to terms with his guilt over taking a life with his own hands? Like you helped him deal with this most recent grief?” He shook his head, still smiling. “You’ll be helping him into his grave shortly, won’t you, brother?”
“No. I want to help him come to terms with his emotions.”
Jacob’s dark eyes burned into his. “How can you do that when you’re striving every day to send him back to Hell?”
“I can help him,” Sydney argued, but the assurance in his voice sounded dreadfully hollow in his own ears.
“Help him, then,” Jacob ordered harshly. “Take the pillow while he sleeps, and help him find peace. You’ve taken lives before. Once more won’t matter.”
Hot anger flushed Sydney’s face. His hands clenched into fists. “How could you suggest such a thing?”
Jacob shrugged. “You and I hunted down the men responsible for our parents’ deaths. We took pleasure in meting out justice. You particularly enjoyed squeezing the life out of Major Reiner and Herr Doctor Gerber with your own hands, while I watched. How different could it be to offer peace to one in such desperate need, than it was to take vengeance on those who so richly deserved it?”
“It was different then!” Sydney growled. “It was war.”
“People kill each other without a second thought in war,” Jacob reminded him casually. “It’s what war is about. But tormenting a soul for the sake of knowledge… is that what peace means to you, Sydney?”
“No.” Something in his chest was on fire. Sydney flexed his left hand, aware of the numbing pain demanding his attention. “No. We had no right…”
Jacob stood, meeting his brother eye to eye. “Then do the right thing, for once. End Jarod’s eternal suffering. Be kind to him for a change. Help him.”
Sydney recoiled from the apparition, turning and stumbling out of the living room. He made his way to the stairs, relieved that the pain eased as he put more distance between himself and that terrible vision. He could never harm Jarod, he told himself.
But the truth of what the vision had said haunted him all the way up the stairs. He stood over the bed and watched Jarod toss and turn, twitching and crying out, his face revealing the torment that he suffered even in his dreams.
“My God,” Sydney whispered. “What have I done?”
His mouth was dry as he reached for the dusty pillow on the mattress beside Jarod’s head. Tears filled his eyes again, and this time, he did not blink them away. He studied the lines of the young man’s handsome face, imprinting it on his memory, and drew the pillow against his chest.
“I’m sorry, Jarod,” he breathed. “Please forgive me.”
* * * * * * * * *
Inhaling to scream, Jarod shot upright in the bed and held his breath, stifling the noise, trying to get his bearings.
Ammon House. That's where he was. And he had overstayed his welcome.
He rose, and thought about packing up his things. The equipment would take considerable time to move, but when he checked the instruments again, he found them off once more. None of them had been on long enough to collect any data at all, so there was no point in hauling them away.
Jarod felt no closer to an answer than he had been when he arrived. Except for the buckets emptying out in the kitchen and the faulty equipment, there was no real evidence of any supernatural occurrences at the house. Everything that had happened to him had come out of his own psyche, out of his guilt and sorrow.
Except, perhaps, his brief moments with Sydney, but even that could be explained away.
He padded quietly downstairs and took note of additional movement of his kitchen supplies. A thought struck him, and he crept quietly to the upper rooms for a quick check. He was fairly certain ghosts didn't sleep, and upon finding Miss Parker stretched out on another bed down the hall from his room, he decided it was definitely time to leave.
His watch confirmed that dawn was still a few hours away. Hopefully she wouldn't waken till he was clear of the place, but he wasn't taking any chances. He collected his coat and shoes, left via the kitchen door and finished dressing outside, in case there were others in the house, as he suspected. Digging his car out of the snow was no quick task, but a hasty pursuit would be out of the question for the Centre operatives, since their car was covered as well.
Luck held, and in half an hour he started the engine and eased down the long driveway toward the highway without any sign of the others on his tail.
He didn't like the idea of leaving them alone in that place, but he had no choice.
It had only been his imagination plaguing him, after all.
Miss Parker and the others were perfectly safe.
He glanced at the rearview mirror uneasily, and hoped that was all it was.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker woke to the pale light of early morning. Her head ached. Her left ankle was swollen and tender from her fall on the staircase. Her muscles hurt, and she felt as if she had been in a fight for her life. But she forced herself off the dusty bed, smoothed her hair into place and headed downstairs to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. She could smell it, and it tugged at her senses as a necessary requirement for wakefulness.
Sydney stood in the kitchen, pouring the first cup from the small coffee pot. Upon seeing her, he picked up another cup and poured for her. “Did you sleep?” he asked congenially.
“Not a lot,” she croaked. “Coffee.”
He handed one to her, and she drained it in three swallows.
“How soon can we get out of this hell hole?” she asked, holding the empty cup out for more.
“Whenever you like,” he answered slowly.
“Where’s Jarod?” she asked. “Still sleeping?”
The coffee pot hovered in mid-air for a moment. “He’s gone, Miss Parker.” More coffee spilled out of the spout, but this time the stream of fragrant black liquid was trembling, almost missing its mark.
“What do you mean, he’s gone? On foot? In that snow? He’ll freeze to death.”
Sydney shrugged. “I haven’t been outside to check for footprints, or to see if his car is gone,” he replied flatly. “But he isn’t in the house. I’ve checked twice.”
She sighed. “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. And I don’t want to stay in this place any longer than necessary. How soon can you be ready to leave?”
The Belgian set the coffee pot down. “Let me get my coat.”
Half an hour later, they had the snow cleared from their car and were motoring slowly down the ice-covered lane, driving in the ruts made by Jarod’s car some hours earlier.
Parker kept her eyes on the road, or what she could see of it, but in the quiet of the car she felt the need to speak. “Have any dreams last night, Syd?”
He was silent for a long time, gazing out the window at the white-blanketed scenery. “A nightmare or two. How about you?”
“Aside from an episode of sleepwalking, nothing special,” she lied. Suddenly, she didn’t want to talk about her dream. She could feel the house behind her, standing guard over the barren landscape, watching her retreat, its malevolent spirit pleased with her pain. She shook off the feeling, reminding herself that buildings were not living beings, and the picture her imagination painted was simply due to fatigue and the creepy atmosphere provided by Jarod’s research material.
It had been nothing more than a bad dream. But it had been so vivid, more real than any dream she’d ever had before.
She turned up the heat to try to break the chill stealing over her, and took one last glance in the rear-view mirror as the house disappeared into the distance.
A gust of wind howled around the car, and she jumped in her seat.
The noise sounded eerily like laughter.
I didn’t mean to fall in love with you
And baby, there’s a name for what you put me through
It isn’t love, it’s robbery
I’m sleeping with the ghost of you and me…
When will this night be over?
Ghost of You and Me, by BBMAK