Andi Beene typed quickly, sparing a glance at the large clock on the wall, positioned, she was certain, to remind her of yet another looming deadline. But, as she had told Bill a hundred times, she worked best under pressure.
"Hey, Andi, the big guy wants to see you."
"Now?" She glanced again at the clock. "I've got forty-five minutes to deadline. Is he crazy?"
Carl shrugged, then moved on to his own desk.
Andi rubbed her eyes, then shoved away from her desk, walking quickly to her editor's office. Bill paced behind his desk, twirling his reading glasses as he mumbled to himself—a habit Andi now knew meant he was working on a sales pitch. Great. She had forty-five minutes to finish her piece and her boss wanted to throw out a new storyline.
She didn't bother with pleasantries, she simply tapped her watch. "You're cutting into my deadline," she said.
He smiled. "You have plenty of time, Andrea. Sit. I want to bounce something off of you."
"Yes, now. What piece are you working on anyway?"
She sighed, closing her eyes for only a second before answering. "Mrs. Hatcher. She's turns one hundred-two on Sunday."
"Oh, yeah. How have your visits been with her?"
Andi grinned. "She's a lovely lady. However, she can't remember anything that's happened in the last thirty years. But she can recall conversations that happened forty years ago without a problem. And I've interviewed what relatives I could find. She's outlived all of her children." She looked at her watch. "And I only have thirty-five minutes until deadline."
He dismissed her comment with a flick of one hand. "I'll give you an extension." He leaned forward. "You're from Hinesville, right?"
She frowned. "Originally, yes. I haven't lived there since I moved away to go to college."
"But you're familiar with the area?"
"Of course. My parents still live there."
"What do you know about—" He put his glasses on and read from a small piece of paper on his desk. "The Zeiko Place?"
She laughed nervously. "The Zeiko Place? I haven't thought of that since high school. Where did you hear about it?"
"Is it haunted?"
She looked away. "Some might say so, if you believe in that nonsense."
"Hell, no. It's garbage. Ghosts! Please."
He nodded. "I thought that was how you felt. You don't seem the type to get all worked up about those things."
"Well, it's just crazy."
He took his glasses off and began twirling them again. "Halloween is coming up."
"There is a doctor something-or-other who is doing a study on the Zeiko Place. Going to have a team there for a week, filming at night, inside the place and all that. Looking for ghosts."
Her eyes widened. "Inside?"
"I thought you didn't believe in that stuff?"
"Well, I don't, of course. But I remember the stories. I lost many a night's sleep because of that house."
"We're going to do a piece on it." He paused, looking at her. "In fact, I've agreed to send a reporter out to stay the full week with them.
She stared at him, her eyes widening. "Oh, no. No, no, no." She stood. "You can't be serious."
He smiled. "You're the logical choice."
"Logical? I don't believe in that crap. I can't be impartial." She pointed out his window. "Send Jean. She's convinced there are UFOs, and aliens living amongst us. She'd be perfect."
"That's the reason I'm sending you. Jean would see ghosts behind every door. I need someone a bit skeptical."
"And if I refuse?"
"Now, Andrea, why would you refuse an assignment? Besides, it'll give you a chance to visit with your folks."
"Great," she said dryly. She loved her parents dearly, but her visits consisted of not more than two days. That was all she could stand of them badgering her about getting a boyfriend and getting married. They refused to believe she was gay, simply dismissing it as a stage she was going through. It didn't matter that she was twenty-nine, fast approaching thirty. Her mother still insisted she would "come around" eventually.
"We'll talk more about this tomorrow, after I get the particulars from this doctor person. Right now, I think you have a deadline."
"You said I could have an extension," she reminded him.
"So I did." He glanced at his watch. "One hour."
"Time is wasting, Andrea."
Andi shoved yet another pair of jeans into her bag. She could always pack lighter and do laundry at her mother's house, but why stress over having to spend more time than necessary with her parents.
"You're a terrible daughter," she murmured.
Tomorrow, she would meet with the team of ghostbusters. She rolled her eyes. Lunatics, no doubt. And in two short days, she would be walking into the Zeiko Place. Not only walking into the house, but sleeping there as well. She swallowed nervously, acknowledging the tremor that coursed through her body at the thought. As she'd told Bill, she didn't believe in that nonsense. But hell, as a kid, she'd heard all the stories, had walked into the yard on a dare, had seen the lights go on and off during one of the house's vacant periods.
The house had numerous owners over the years, but it was still referred to as the Zeiko Place. It was a mansion, by Hinesville's standards, especially back in those days. With six bedrooms, two studies, and multiple dens and living areas, not to mention actual servant's quarters built nearby, it was the talk of the town. Of course, the murders had happened years and years before Andi was even born. By the time Andi was old enough to understand, the ghost stories had been passed down from older kids to younger, and the rumors grew of the Zeiko Place being haunted. Andi remembered three different families living there while she was growing up. None ever lasted more than a year, complaining of noises in the night, of aberrations, of screams coming from empty hallways.
Andi shivered again, remembering one night in high school when a group of them had parked across the road from the sprawling mansion. It had been vacant for nearly two years and the windows on the ground floor had been shuttered. It was an eerie night, a full moon sneaking in and out from behind the clouds. She wanted to blame it on the cheap bottle of wine one of them had swiped from their parents, but Andi saw it with her own eyes. One minute, the shutters were closed. The next, when the moon peeked out again, the window closest to the front door was open, the curtains fluttering in the breeze. She closed her eyes, remembering the shadow that passed by the window. They had all held their collective breath, and when the moon shown again, the window was dark and shuttered. They had laughed it off, but sped away anyway. As teenagers, it was easy to dismiss. But as an adult, Andi wondered how the bunch of them could see the same thing and just dismiss it.
But then, they all had their own issues to deal with, that of growing up and coming of age. For Andi, keeping her secret and still being friends with the "in" crowd was hard enough. If any of them suspected she was a lesbian, she would have been ostracized from the group. And if anyone knew of the enormous crush she'd had on Jaime Tucker, star athlete, she'd have been laughed out of town. But of course, she soon found out Jaime had a few secrets of her own.
She shook her head. "Do not go there." She had put Jaime and that awful night from her mind years ago, and she refused to revisit it now, nearly twelve years later. Just because she'd lost her virginity to the girl didn't mean she held a soft spot in her heart. Quite the opposite. She was the cause of her first broken heart.
"And if I ever see her again—"
But that was highly unlikely. Jaime had gone to college out of state—on a softball scholarship, she'd heard—and had not been back. Her family had since moved away. Not that Andi had kept up with her or anything. It was still too upsetting to her to know that Jaime had outed her to the group, had told of their night together, a night that was so special to Andi. Apparently it was just another roll in the sack for Jamie. But once everyone knew, the last month of high school had been nearly unbearable, and she had been made fun of constantly. The fact that Jaime, too, was a lesbian had quite the opposite affect on everyone. Jaime was still the most popular girl in school and Andi was reduced to simply one of her conquests.
Andi graduated high school and moved to the city two days later. At first, her visits home were few and far between. But, once she was settled in college, she realized that she no longer cared what her so-called friends thought of her, and she made the trip home more often.
But still, going back to stay at the Zeiko Place. For a whole week. Inside. She'd have to be crazy to do it.
Andi's research on Dr. Gilbreath confirmed her suspicions. The woman was a nutcase. She claimed to be an expert on the supernatural, having successfully filmed more than two hundred alleged haunted houses, all complete with sounds and sightings of aberrations and ghosts. The pictures on her website, although somewhat convincing, still had Andi in a state of disbelief. Photos could be altered. And if there were indeed documented cases of haunted places, why didn't it make headline news? Why were the stories shoved to the back of legitimate newspapers? Oh, they made the front page of the weekly trash magazines sometimes, but what sane person read that crap and actually believed it?
No, Andi was of the mindset that all things, no matter how bizarre, could be logically explained. Which was why she was still having difficulty reconciling the fact that she was about to spend an entire week at the Zeiko Place.
"Andi, Bill says they're waiting on you."
Andi looked up from her computer, then to the clock. "They're here already?"
Carl shrugged, then moved away.
Time to meet the ghostbusters. Andi hoped she wouldn't appear too cynical. But again, that was a sign of a good reporter. If you were too gullible, you'd believe anything and write anything. But there was a fine line between being too gullible and too stubborn to see things for what they were. So, she'd told herself she'd keep an open mind about this whole thing. She only prayed she would not see the ghosts of the long-dead Zeiko family.
A quick knock on the conference room door, and she walked in, her eyes drawn to the older woman, Dr. Gilbreath, as she was explaining a photograph to Bill. She was older than Andi expected, and not nearly as weird-looking as Andi had hoped she'd be. This woman appeared perfectly normal. She smiled pleasantly at Andi and offered her hand.
"You must be our reporter. I'm Dr. Gilbreath. Glad you could join our team," she said, motioning to the three others who sat around the table. Andi slid her eyes around the room, pausing when dark eyes—somewhat familiar dark eyes—held hers. A woman about her age, with dark hair, smiled at her, then lifted an eyebrow. It was a gesture Andi used to find unbelievably sexy. Now, it only managed to annoy the hell out of her.
"Andrea Beene. My God. Beenie Weenie, how long has it been?"
Andi bit her lip, her blue eyes flashing at the nickname she'd been forced to suffer through during adolescence. She squared her shoulders and gave a slight smile. "Not nearly long enough."
"You two know each other?" Dr. Gilbreath asked.
"Small world. Yes, we went to high school together. Andi and I used to . . . hang out."
Andi glanced quickly at Bill. "May I have a word with you?"
"Now." Andi walked from the room, not caring a bit of the impression she was making on these people. She simply could not believe that she was here, of all people.
"What in the world is wrong with you?"
"I can't work with her."
"Dr. Gilbreath? Why she seems perfectly—"
"No! Not her. The other one."
"The other one? Your old high school friend?"
"She was no friend." Andi took a deep breath. "Bill, please, I just have a lot of unpleasant memories and . . . and issues with that woman. I can not work with her."
"You're almost thirty. You still have issues from high school?"
"Yes, I have issues, as ridiculous as that sounds. So, you'll have to get someone else to go on this little witch hunt."
"I'm sorry, but no."
"No. It's all arranged. You've already done the research. It's too late to back out now."
"No, Andrea, I'm sorry. You'll just have to get over whatever issues you have."
He walked back into the conference room, making apologies as Andi collected herself. How was she going to survive the next week locked in a haunted house with Jaime Tucker?
"It doesn't look all that scary."
Andi pulled her eyes from the old house, regarding Ronnie as he continued to stare at the giant relic. He was quickly getting on her nerves. He was the technician. And as he'd told her during their meeting, she was not to touch the equipment.
"Yeah? Well it's scary as hell at night when you're seventeen," Jaime murmured, her eyes still glued to the house.
"Can't believe you guys grew up here. Talk about a small world, Jaime. I thought you said you haven't even been back in the state since you moved away."
Andi silently watched the exchange between Jaime and her technician. Judging by the body language Andi remembered, there was no love lost between these two.
"Shouldn't you be setting up your shit, Ronnie?"
"Oh, sure. Be a big ole girl and make me go inside first."
"I thought you said it wasn't scary."
"Oh, hell, Jaime, I've been in a lot tougher places than this. Can't believe you talked Gilbreath into coming here. It's not like it's even famous."
But he moved away, leaving Jaime and Andi still staring at the old Zeiko Place. It hadn't been inhabited in years, judging by the appearance of the yard. The shutters Andi remembered from childhood were there, the lower floor closed up tight. She turned to Jaime, questions flying through her head as to why they were here, but approaching footsteps stilled her.
"Well, ladies, what do you think?"
They both turned as Dr. Gilbreath walked over, her young secretary right at her heels. The young woman appeared to be no more than twenty, but the wire-rimmed glasses and severe hair style indicated she was very serious about her job.
"Looks about as I remember," Jaime said. "Although it wasn't quite this shabby then."
"Well, I've made sure the utilities are functioning for our stay, so shabby or not, we should be comfortable. Now, we've got about four hours of daylight left. Let's get those cameras set up, shall we." She clapped her hands together, moving quickly towards the house.
Andi chanced a look at Jaime, surprised when the other woman turned, capturing her eyes. "Never thought I'd willingly walk into this place."
Andi simply nodded. The last thing she wanted to do was to become friendly with Jaime Tucker. She had too many years of pent-up anger to deal with. She wasn't simply going to dismiss it after all this time. And if it was the last thing she did, Jaime Tucker was going to get a piece of her mind!
But Jaime had already walked off. She paused on the front porch, glancing back at Andi, then went inside.
Andi was left alone on the overgrown sidewalk and a cool breeze unexpectedly rustled the leaves around her. She glanced to the sky, the clouds seeming to hover overhead, making the early afternoon appear much later. Perhaps they didn't have four hours until darkness.
She forced herself up the steps, her backpack slung over one shoulder, laptop computer slung over the other, trying not to think of all the ghost stories she'd heard as a kid. Ghost stories that had left her trembling in the night.
The front door stood open, almost welcoming, and she took a deep breath before walking inside. The entryway and foyer, for the most part, were empty. A table was shoved against one wall, a small lamp, still plugged in, sat on top. Moving farther into the house, bits and pieces of furniture remained—even partially packed boxes—as if the last residents hadn't had time to pack properly. She heard the others at the back of the house, heard the shutters opening one by one, letting in light. She walked into a formal sitting room, framed pictures still hanging on the walls, and the fireplace was stacked with wood, as if expecting them.
"Can you feel it?"
Andi whipped around, startled. Jaime stood in the shadows, a small flashlight in her hand.
Andi looked around. Yes, she did indeed feel the chill in the room. But, as she'd said, things could always be explained. "The house has been closed up. This is an interior room," she said matter-of-factly.
"Yes. But it wasn't unusually cold today. In fact, it was quite pleasant for October." She moved farther into the room, bending near a lamp and turning it on, chasing the shadows away.
"And cold is a sign?" Andi asked before she could stop herself.
Jamie shrugged, then arched an eyebrow. "That's what I'm told."
Andi could hold back her questions no longer. She let her backpack and laptop slide to the floor, flexing her shoulders to get the soreness out.
"How long have you worked as a . . . a ghostbuster?"
"What?" Jaime grinned. "Ghostbuster? Is that what you call it?"
Andi shrugged. "I don't know what to call it. What do you call it?"
"I used to call it fiction," she said.
Jaime walked to the fireplace, examining the portrait over the mantle. "I don't actually work for Dr. Gilbreath. I'm doing research."
Jaime turned, fixing Andi with those dark eyes she used to love to look into. She pulled her gaze away, making a show of studying framed pictures on the end table.
"I'm writing a book on haunted places."
Andi's head whipped around. "You're a writer? Like an author?"
"Why does that surprise you?"
"Because you were a . . . a jock."
"Doesn't mean I don't have a brain."
"Of course. I just never saw you use it before," she murmured as she turned away.
The deep, hearty laugh she heard was not what she expected. She turned back around, meeting the laughing eyes of Jaime Tucker.
"Good one, Beenie Weenie."
Andi scowled. "Look, I hated that name in high school and I despise it now. Please don't use it again.'
"And I'm supposed to care?"
Andi's eyes widened. "Excuse me?"
Jamie shoved both hands into the pockets of her jeans as she regarded Andi. "You didn't seem to care too much about me or what I wanted back then. I'm not really too concerned about what you want now."
Andi's mouth fell open as she stared, wondering what the hell she was talking about. Before she could ask any questions, Dr. Gilbreath and her assistant, Beth, walked into the room
"Good. You're both here. Ronnie is through with the kitchen area. This room will be our . . . oh my," she murmured as she spread her arms. "The energy in this room is very strong," she whispered. "Something happened in this room."
Andi looked up, locking gazes with Jamie. Yes, they'd both heard the stories of how three of the children's remains were thrown into the fire, their charred bodies found weeks later. Their bodies. Not their heads.
"I was going to say this would be our meeting room, but no, we need to stay out of this room. We'll find another room for our daily meetings."
They all looked up as boards creaked overhead. Andi involuntarily wrapped her arms around herself.
"I guess Ronnie's already made it upstairs," Dr. Gilbreath said. "We have three bedrooms made up. They were all guest rooms, so I don't see the need to monitor them. Of course, if we see or hear . . . or feel . . . a presence in those rooms, then we'll change our strategy."
Andi cleared her throat. "Three bedrooms? There are five of us," she pointed out.
"Well, obviously we can't occupy the entire house, especially the main rooms that were inhabited. Ronnie will, of course, have his own room. Beth and I will share, and you two will share."
Andi was surprised that it was Jaime who protested. "Share? For a week?"
"The rooms were furnished with the standard, old-fashioned double beds. We've had an extra twin brought in for both your room and ours," Beth said. "You'll have to decide between the two of you who gets the twin."
"Great," Jaime murmured sarcastically.
"Lovely," Andi added.
Ronnie walked in, both hands carrying heavy satchels. "I'm ready to head upstairs. Who wants to come?"
They all looked at each other, then slowly slid their eyes to the ceiling, where only moments before, they had heard the creaking boards.
It was Beth who spoke first.
"You haven't already been up there?"
'No. I was doing the dining room."
Dr. Gilbreath clapped her hands. "Wonderful! Then we already have ghostly company! Isn't this wonderful?"
Again, Andi and Jaime exchanged glances.
"What exactly is on the second floor?"
"The second floor was the main residence. The master bedroom is there, as well as the children's rooms, and another living room area, not quite as formal as this one. The third floor is where the guest rooms are."
"The realtor assured me that the rooms were prepared," Beth said. "Clean sheets, towels, and the like. Unfortunately, modern plumbing only made it to one room on the third floor, so we'll be sharing."
"Of course, the second floor has two full baths, so let's don't worry about that."
"That's the least of my worries," Andi murmured as her eyes again slid to the ceiling.
"Well, I suggest we take our things to our perspective rooms, then help Ronnie with the rest of the cameras. We won't get a chance to set up full audio until tomorrow."
"The electricity is fully functional, by the way," Beth added.
Andi looked at Jaime. "You go first."
"Me? Why me?"
"You're bigger. You're an athlete."
Jaime scowled. "You're shorter. Maybe you should go. They probably won't even see you."
Andi grabbed her backpack and slung it over one shoulder, then did the same with her computer. "Very funny . . . you big chicken," she murmured.
"I heard that," Jaime muttered.
"Dr. Tucker, is there a problem?"
Andi's head snapped up. "Doctor?"
Jaime shrugged. "Not like a real doctor. I just went to college forever. They had to give me something." Then to Dr. Gilbreath, she smiled. "No, everything's fine. We'll head up."
Andi bravely took the first step, the old stairs creeping under her weight. The stairwell was dark, but Beth assured her there were light switches at the top of the first landing. She hugged the wall as she slowly, one step at a time, crept up the stairs. She was conscious of the others following silently behind her. She successfully shoved childhood stories from her mind as she kept a watchful eye on the second floor landing. Half-way up, she was surprised when Jaime shoved a small flashlight into her hand.
"This might help."
Andi turned it on, nervously flashing the dim light in front of her, letting out her breath when she saw the light switches on the wall up ahead. She reached out a shaking hand, sliding it against the wall in the dim light, finally finding the switches and flipping them on. The stairwell was suddenly bathed in brightness and she blinked against it, pausing at the last step to get her bearings.
"Most of the sightings have been on the second floor," Dr. Gilbreath said quietly, her voice drifting up the stairs.
"Lovely," Andi murmured.
The expanse of the second floor spread out before them, corridors going in both directions, but a smaller, less formal living area welcomed them on the landing. It, like most of the other rooms, was still partially furnished.
But it was Jaime who asked the question, not Andi.
"Why is there still so much furniture if it's been vacant for six years?"
"The last owners left in . . . a bit of a rush. But a lot of this furniture is from the original owners. The Zeikos collected antiques. I'm sure a lot of the pieces in the house date back a hundred-fifty years or more."
Andi avoided the still dark corridors, instead looking up toward the third-floor landing. It was brighter up there, the afternoon sun creeping in on the exposed windows. It was only then that Andi saw the heavy, dark drapes covering the windows on the second floor, leaving it in darkness.
The stairs to the third floor seemed to beckon her, the cheery light a welcome change from the darkness of the second floor. She didn't hesitate as she climbed the stairs. The second floor seemed nearly stifling compared to the airiness of the third.
Andi skipped the first bedroom, instead choosing the second. Only three pieces of furniture remained—double bed, a small four-drawer dresser, and the hastily added twin bed.
She eyed the double bed, the dutifully tossed her backpack on the twin. No doubt Doctor Tucker out-ranked her.
While the others moved about the house, setting up small, digital cameras, Andi escaped outside, enjoying the last rays of daylight as the sun crept ever closer to dusk. Now that she'd been inside—creaking boards or not—she still found the exterior of the house to be much more foreboding. The giant windows on the second floor were much like sinister eyes, watching . . .always watching. Of course, all of her childhood demons focused on the outside of this house. As kids, they were all too scared to set foot inside.
She walked around the back, the tall weeds of summer still clinging to life as the cool fall evening approached. The faded For Sale sign at the edge of the property was nearly swallowed up by weeds, and she wondered why the realtor didn't have someone tend to the yard. But as she rounded the corner and came upon the old servant's quarters, she stopped, frowning. The yard there was well kept, flowers still blooming in the south-facing flower beds. In fact, she would swear it sported a new paint job. She looked back over her shoulder at the old Zeiko Place. The wood weathered and worn, it hadn't seen a paint brush in fifteen years or more. She made a mental note to ask Dr. Gilbreath about it.
The cool breeze whipping through the trees, tossing the leaves about, caused her to wrap her arms around her. The sun had all but disappeared and she suddenly felt exposed—and vulnerable. She retraced her steps, thankful the porch light was on. In fact, it seemed most of lights were on in the entire house.
She found the others in the kitchen, a sketch of the interior, similar to a blueprint, was spread out on the table. Jaime Tucker looked up briefly, then went back to the sketch, watching as Ronnie moved his fingers across it.
"We'll put audio at the end of each hallway," he said, pointing. "And in each bedroom on the second floor. Down here, we'll hit all of the rooms, even here in the kitchen."
"What about the third floor?" Jamie asked.
"Hallway only. I don't see the need to monitor the bedrooms. Besides, they'll be occupied. If anything happens, we'll see it first hand."
"I don't expect any activity on the third floor," Dr. Gilbreath said. "All of my research indicates the sightings have been on the lower two floors."
"What about the servant's quarters?" Andi asked.
"No, they appear to be clean. In fact, they are rented out quite frequently."
"Are they now?"
"No, they're vacant at the moment. But we will have a couple of cameras set up outside, just to monitor the front door here and perhaps the sidewalk."
Jamie leaned back in her chair and regarded Andi. Andi wasn't afraid to meet her eyes.
"So, Beenie, you braved a walk outside alone?"
Andi shrugged. "We're not kids anymore. I didn't let my imagination get the best of me."
Jamie laughed. "Yeah, like that night we swore the shutters by the front door were open." She leaned forward. "Remember that?"
"What night?" Dr. Gilbreath asked.
Andi kept silent, waiting for Jaime to tell the story. Their eyes met briefly. It was that night, after too much cheap wine, that they acknowledged a sexual attraction. And it was but a mere two days later that Andi lost her virginity to Jamie Tucker.
"Seniors in high school—a group of us came out here one night." She looked at Andi. "How many did we have piled in that car?"
A ghost of a smile crossed Andi's face. They'd had too many for the small sedan. She'd ended up sitting in Jamie's lap. "There were nine."
"Yeah. I remember we were crowded. Anyway, after two bottles of god-awful wine, we were all brave . . . and crazy. It was probably after midnight. We parked across the street. It was dark over here, the bottom floor shuttered, like it was when we got here. I remember a thunderstorm in the distance, and there were clouds moving quickly across the moon. We were sitting in the car, daring each other to get out and go into the yard. And then, all of a sudden, the clouds parted, showing the moon, and when we looked at the house again, the shutters there by the front door were open. Or so we thought."
"They were open," Andi said quietly. "We all saw the shadow cross the window, saw the curtains blowing."
"I thought we agreed we all just thought we saw that," Jamie said.
"And as an adult, can you still say that?"
It was Jamie's turn to shrug. "No. Why do you think I'm writing this book?"
Dr. Gilbreath clapped her hands. "But this is wonderful," she said excitedly. "First-hand encounter when you were teenagers, only to come back as adults—inside the house. How wonderful."
"Yes, just wonderful," Andi murmured, sparing a glance at Jamie.
"You were partial to pepperoni, if I remember."
Andi looked up from her laptop and eyed the two pieces of pizza Jaime offered to her. She raised an eyebrow.
"They delivered out here?"
Jamie laughed. "Hell no. Ronnie had to drive to the end of the road to meet them. That's the closest they would come."
Andi took the plate. "Thanks."
"You working already?"
"Just doing an outline."
Jamie settled on the opposite end of the sofa, casually resting her feet on the low end table next to her.
Andi took a bite of the pizza, not realizing how hungry she was. She practically inhaled the first piece. But something Jamie had said earlier still stuck with her. She put her plate down, staring at Jamie until the other woman finally looked at her.
"Earlier, you said something about me not caring about you or what you wanted, when we were in high school. What exactly did you mean by that?"
"Oh, come on, Andi, it was no secret. Everybody knew how you played me."
Andi's eyes widened. "Played you? What the hell are you talking about?"
Jamie dismissed her comment, instead, leaning her head back against the sofa, staring at the ceiling. "I never stuck around to find out, but did you and that guy ever get married?"
Andi stared, wondering if Jamie had lost her mind. What guy? Surely the woman hadn't forgotten that they'd slept together. "Again, what the hell are you talking about?"
"The quarterback guy, the one you were seeing."
Andi leaned forward. "Jamie, in case you've forgotten, we—you and I—slept together. So, there was no . . . guy."
"Of course I remember we slept together," Jamie said sharply. "I just wasn't certain you did."
Andi gave a sarcastic smile. "Okay, obviously I'm in some sort of time-warp, and we are not talking about the same lifetime."
"Look, I'm over it. It's no big deal."
"You're over it? What the hell do you have to be over? I'm the only one that had something to get over!"
"Now what are you talking about? You used me!"
"Used you?" Andi jumped to her feet, pacing in front of Jamie. "Used you? How the hell did I use you?"
"Look, it's been a long time. There's no sense in dwelling on it. Like I said, I'm over it."
Andi pointed her finger at Jamie. "Tell me what the hell what you're talking about," she demanded. "I've spent the last twelve years hating you for what you did to me."
"What I did?" Jamie repeated, touching her chest.
"Yes, what you did. You outed me to everyone. You told everyone! Something that should have been private, something that was special . . . was suddenly all over school!" she yelled. "The last few months of high school were pure hell. I was laughed at and talked about and pointed at . . . and I had no friends left—thanks to you. The fact that you were gay didn't seem to hurt your popularity though."
Jamie stood, facing Andi. "I never outed you. I don't know what you're talking about. Connie Parsons came to me, said you'd told her we'd slept together, said you didn't want the quarterback to be your first time, said you wanted to have some experience before you slept with him. She told me you pretended to be gay so I'd sleep with you."
"What? She said what?" Andi paced, her head whirling as she tried to recall those awful times in high school. "I never dated the quarterback. I don't even know who the quarterback was." She turned back to Jamie. "And besides, after what we . . . did, how could you think I'd be with a . . . a freakin' guy?"
"Ladies? Is there a problem?"
They both turned and stared at Dr. Gilbreath.
"Good thing Ronnie doesn't have audio hooked up in here yet." She looked from one to the other. "Is there an issue we need to hash out? Because we can't have any issues during this week."
"There are no issues, Dr. Gilbreath," Jamie said.
"It sounded like issues, Dr. Tucker."
"Just . . . reminiscing, but we're fine."
"Yes, sorry. We're fine."
She looked at them both, then nodded. "Good. Because Ronnie's ready to set up audio in here. After that, any personal conversations you have, you may want to save for the third floor."
"Excellent." She looked at her watch. "It's nearly nine. As soon as Ronnie is done here, we need to go upstairs. The computers are set up in Ronnie's room for monitoring. My research indicates most of the activity is between midnight and three a.m., however, at periods of the full moon—for whatever reason—the activity seems to be more frequent and prolonged."
Andi's eyes widened. "And the full moon is when?"
Dr. Gilbreath gave a huge smile. "On Halloween night. Isn't it wonderful? We couldn't have scripted it better."
Andi stood behind the others, eyes glued to the monitors as Ronnie pulled up camera after camera.
"We can capture four cameras on each monitor," he said as four images appeared. "So, we can get twelve of the twenty cameras at once. If I'm not here, and you want to view the other cameras, just hit F9 and your options show up at the bottom, like so."
Andi watching, seeing twenty thumbnail-sized images lined up at the bottom of one of the monitors.
"Just double-click on the one you want. Each image has a camera number assigned to it so you'll always know which one you're viewing. It's automatically set up to record any movement on my hard drive, but I always make backups."
"Audio same as the last time?" Jamie asked.
"Yeah. I've got them all opened right now. Well, the ones I've got planted. I'll finish up audio in the morning." He turned on a fourth monitor. "Sound waves will show up here, so we'll be able to determine which room it's coming from."
"Do you often have sounds, or is it just visual images you capture?" Andi asked.
"It's more difficult to capture sounds, although I would say at fifty percent of our sights we've managed to record some sounds. Of course, most of it is just gibberish. As if they're speaking another language."
"Language of the dead . . . perhaps," Jamie said quietly.
Andi swallowed nervously. For about the hundredth time, she wished she'd not gotten this assignment. Because honestly, even though she'd professed that she did not believe in ghosts, she didn't mind admitting—at least to herself—that she was afraid to be in this house.
"Everyone might as well get comfortable," Dr. Gilbreath said. "Beth's got a mini-kitchen set up on the dresser there. I think a pot of strong coffee will get us through to morning." She looked pointedly at Andi. "I know you're probably not used to our hours, Ms. Beene, so if you feel the need to crash, don't worry about it. Anything we see will be recorded. You can review it in the morning."
Andi smiled. "I'll try to hang with you guys." If only because she refused to go into the other bedroom alone. In fact, she was fairly certain she would go nowhere alone at night in this house.
"I'll be lucky if I can hang until midnight," Jamie said.
"You never could make the night, Dr. Tucker."
Andi stared as Jamie casually met her eyes, if only for a moment. Andi smiled slightly, nodding, acknowledging the silent offer. Despite their differences, Andi would welcome Jamie's presence in the bedroom.
Now, after two hours of staring at the monitors, looking for movement—anything out of the ordinary—Andi was convinced that their first night in the Zeiko Place would be uneventful. As midnight approached, the thought of another cup of the god-awful coffee she'd forced down earlier was not appealing. She slumped down farther in her chair, wondering if she could sneak in a quick nap without anyone knowing.
But the high-pitched scream followed by children's laughter brought her out of her chair with eyes wide. She looked around the room at the others, but they were all huddled near the monitors.
"There," Jamie pointed. "First floor den."
"Yes, I see it."
Ronnie zoomed in, the fuzzy aberration taking form. The first thing Andi noticed was that it had no legs, but the head, torso, and arms were well defined. As it began to move across the room, a long, flowing skirt swooshed beneath the torso.
"The mother," Dr. Gilbreath whispered.
Loud voices were heard, but as they'd said earlier, it was just gibberish. Andi could not make out words. Then the chilling laughter again.
"Pan back," Jamie said.
But no other images appeared, and soon the aberration faded, leaving the den dark and still.
"Holy shit," Andi whispered.
"For sure," Jamie murmured. She looked at Dr. Gilbreath. "She was well defined."
"Wonderful image, yes. It will be spectacular if we can capture the children."
Andi rubbed her forehead. It would not be spectacular if they saw the children. Her eyes widened. What if they saw Mr. Zeiko? How did he die? Her breath caught. He hung himself from the third floor landing.
"You want the double or the twin?" Jamie asked three hours later as they stood alone in their bedroom.
"The twin is fine, although I doubt I'll be able to sleep," Andi admitted.
"We'll leave the light on if you want," Jamie offered.
"I can't believe I saw what I saw."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. The first house I did with them, I about shit my pants the first time we saw something. It makes it more difficult here, I think, because we know all the stories."
"He hung himself up here."
"Yeah, the landing."
"Does Gilbreath know that?"
"I'm not sure, but her research indicates that he's never been seen. Just the wife and kids, and the parents."
"The wife's parents were either killed in the den on the first floor, or one of the bathrooms on the second. There's all kinds of conflicting information as to where the bodies were found and in what condition."
Jamie shrugged. "If she knows, she's not shared it. She doesn't like to share too much. It makes you see things where there's really nothing. She likes everything to just play out."
"I hate this assignment."
Jamie laughed. "Remember, they are just aberrations. They can't hurt you."
"How do you know that? If they can physically turn lights on and off, if they can open shutters, why couldn't they hurt you?"
"So I've been told."
Andi shuffled through her bag, pulling out a pair of sweatpants and an oversized T-shirt. She looked questioningly at Jamie.
"You want me to leave the room?"
Andi glanced at the door. "I actually would like to go to the bathroom and wash up. It's been a long day."
"Okay. Go ahead."
"Maybe you could . . . hang out in the hall."
Jamie laughed. "To protect you? What makes you think I'd feel the urge to protect you?"
"Look, we obviously have different opinions as to what happened in high school. And as much as it pains me to say this, can't we just forget about it and get past it?"
"Why does it pain you to say that?"
"Because it was very difficult for me at that time, especially thinking that you'd . . . outed me, and were laughing at me with the others. I've carried a lot of anger with me, mostly directed at you. And it's not something that I thought I'd ever get over."
"But now you want to forget about it and get past it?"
"Has it done any good to hang on to it? I'm not saying I've forgiven you, I just don't want to dwell on it."
Jamie stared at her for the longest, her expression softening. "I never betrayed you, Andi," she said quietly. "You might not believe this, but that night has always stayed with me. I didn't know you were a virgin. Had I known, I never would have—"
"I know. That's why I didn't tell you."
"Why what? Why you?"
Andi felt her face flush and she turned away. "I . . . I was extremely attracted to you, that goes without saying. But it was something else, too. I just felt a connection with you, even though we really didn't know one another all that well." She looked quickly at Jamie, then away. "And I wanted you to be the first. It felt . . . right."
"I . . . I don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say anything. That was a long time ago. But I would be very grateful if you'd go with me to the bathroom."
Jamie nodded with a soft smile. "Okay. I'll stand guard."
"You want to go out to the landing and test the audio?"
Andi stared, realizing Ronnie was speaking to her.
"Yeah, you. Make yourself useful."
Andi frowned. I hate him. She hesitated before standing, then glanced at Jamie, who smiled slightly.
"I'll go with you."
The light was out in the third floor hallway and Jamie produced the tiny flashlight she'd handed Andi the night before. She shined it along the ceiling, finding the speaker.
"There it is."
"Couldn't he have tested this before dark?"
"I think this was the last one he set up."
"Where is the light switch?"
"By the landing."
"Of course," Andi murmured.
They walked slowly down the hallway, Andi glancing in every direction as she tired to maintain her composure. The speaker was centered over the landing and they stopped, Andi feeling comforted by Jamie's presence.
"Did you hear something?" Jamie whispered from behind her.
Andi shook her head, her eyes glued to the dark stairwell. She felt Jamie move close behind her, felt the hand that came out to touch her waist. Her breathing increased, and she wasn't sure if it was from being scared or the warm body pressed against her back. When she felt Jamie move, felt her small breasts, she realized it was the latter.
"Don't move," Jamie whispered.
Andi swallowed, hoping Jamie couldn't hear the pounding of her heart.
"I feel something," Jamie whispered again. "Like feathers brushing my skin."
They both saw it at the same time, and Andi leaned back, her body molded with Jamie's. She took the hand at her waist and pulled it tighter around her.
"Oh my God," Andi murmured, her voice trembling.
"Don't move," Jamie said again. "Ronnie, are you getting this?" she asked loudly. "Bottom of the stairs."
"What is it?" Andi asked, aware that she was beginning to shake, and this time it had nothing to do with the body wrapped around her own.
"I'm not sure."
They both jumped as the ghostly shape leapt up the stairs, loud masculine laughter echoing in the hallway. The hand around Andi's waist tightened.
"Back up slowly," Jamie said. "I think it wants us off the landing."
"Slowly? Can't we just run like hell?"
"Remember, it's just an aberration."
"Well it's a fucking scary one!"
They backed up down the hall, Andi pushing the limits of slow as she urged Jamie to hurry. The bedroom door opened and Dr. Gilbreath stepped out, her eyes wide.
"Where is it? Is it still there?"
"Halfway down the stairs," Jamie said.
Dr. Gilbreath walked quickly in the dark hallway, and Andi stared after her, thinking the woman was crazy.
"Go sit down, you're white as a sheet."
Andi nodded, her heart still pounding as she sat on the edge of the bed. Ronnie and Beth were huddled around the monitors.
"There's something in the bedroom, look," Beth pointed.
"There she is in the den again, too."
"You got sound?" Jamie asked.
Ronnie adjusted the volume, shaking his head. "No sound."
"Listen. There's something," Jamie said, moving closer. "There it is. Like a scraping noise or something."
Andi cocked her head. "Like something's being dragged," she murmured.
Ronnie nodded as the noise sounded again.
Andi glanced out into the quiet hallway, then back at the others.
"Shouldn't Dr. Gilbreath be back by now?"
"Holy shit. Look!"
Ronnie enlarged the picture. Dr. Gilbreath was in the second floor den, arms spread wide. In front of her, they could see the shapes of two small children.
Ronnie switched monitors, then they all heard the children's laughter.
"Should she really be in that room?" Andi asked nervously. "I mean, really, is it safe?"
"Look behind her," Jamie said, pointing. "It looks like the mother."
"She was just in the first floor den," Beth said.
"I doubt they have to use the stairs to move around."
They all watched as Dr. Gilbreath turned, facing the ghostly aberration.
"Get out of my house!"
Andi stood, moving closer to Jamie, her eyes wide. If she wasn't witnessing this herself, she never would have believed it.
It was Beth who ran for the door and down the hallway, screaming.
"Dr. Gilbreath! Dr. Gilbreath!"
The others turned back to the monitors, watching. Dr. Gilbreath seemed to be in a trance. Her eyes fluttered as she raised her face to the ceiling. Then Beth appeared in the frame. She grabbed Dr. Gilbreath, pulling her, but another force—an unseen force—pulled against her.
"What the hell?"
"What should we do?"
"Dr. Gilbreath! Come on!"
Andi gasped as she watched Beth slap Dr. Gilbreath hard across the face. The older woman shook her head, her eyes blinking several times.
"She's like, under a spell or something," Ronnie said.
Jamie went out into the hallway, waiting. Before long, Beth and a bewildered looking Dr. Gilbreath climbed the stairs.
"I'm not sure."
Jamie looked into the hallway, making sure they weren't being followed by . . . something, then closed the door. She found Dr. Gilbreath sitting on the edge of the bed, Beth fanning her with a magazine. For the first time since Jamie had been working with them, Dr. Gilbreath looked scared.
Dr. Gilbreath shook her head. "I don't know. I went out to the landing, I wanted to see first-hand what you and Andrea had called up. The next thing I know, Beth is pulling me from the den."
"Play the video back, Ronnie," Jamie said.
Dr. Gilbreath moved closer, her eyes widening as she saw herself being pulled by an unseen force.
"The energy in this house is very strong," she said quietly.
Andi rolled her eyes to the ceiling. You think?
"I feel dirty and grimy and sweaty, and I'm scared to take a shower," she said hours later as they made their way to their bedroom.
"It'll be a long wait anyway. The other three already called dibs on it." Jamie paused. "Of course, we could always use the second floor bathrooms."
"Are you insane?"
"Daylight. Open the blinds. Lights on. What could happen?"
Andi stared at her. "Are you serious?"
Jamie shrugged. "I thought you wanted a shower."
"Well, I do." She hesitated. "Are you sure it's safe?"
"We've been here three days. We haven't seen anything except around midnight."
Andi nodded. "Okay. You're right." She opened her bag and grabbed her overnight shirt and a pair of clean underwear, then snatched her travel bag from beside the bed, pausing long enough to toss her towel over her shoulder. "Where are the bathrooms?"
"There's one off the hallway and one in the master bedroom."
Andi's eyes widened, remembering what had happened in the bedroom the night before. "I get the hallway."
They walked down the stairs to the second floor, Andi immediately flipping on the lights in the hallway when they reached the landing.
"It's kinda dark," she murmured.
"Main blinds are closed," Jamie said. She walked on, motioning for Andi to follow. At a closed door, she turned the knob and pushed the door open. It was a modern bathroom, complete with tub and shower, and Jamie walked in and pulled the blinds, letting in the morning sun. "See? It'll be fine."
Andi nodded. "Thanks."
"I'll just be in the next room. I'll meet you out in the hallway."
Andi closed the door, then looked around, thankful there was not a closet or anything—where something could hide. She pulled back the shower curtain, finding the tub clean . . . and empty.
"Were you expecting Mrs. Zeiko?" she murmured.
She stripped quickly, then turned on the faucets, waiting only a few minutes before hot water streamed out. She stepped into the spray, letting out a contented sigh as the water washed over her. But she reminded herself not to dawdle. So she ducked her head under the water, then quickly shampooed, forgoing the leisurely shower she normally enjoyed.
But with her eyes closed, head tilted back as the warm spray hit her, she swore she heard . . . scratching on the window. Her eyes popped open, and she shook her hair, water spraying the sides of the shower. She cocked her head, listening. The room darkened, as if a cloud suddenly obscured the sun—a dark cloud.
She grabbed her chest, her breathing labored. Only the shower curtain separated her from—the unknown. The undead.
Again, the scraping noise on the window pane. I'm on the second floor, for God's sake! With a trembling hand, she turned the water off. And on a silent count of three, she opened the shower curtain.
The bloodcurdling scream that left her mouth sounded almost foreign to her ears—almost. But the vision before her caused her to jump from the shower and bolt to the door, the high-pitched scream still spewing from her mouth. The woman . . . the severed head of the woman . . . opened her mouth and a deep guttural scream was heard, bouncing off the bathroom walls.
Andi jerked open the door, then screamed again as she was face to face with a very naked Jamie Tucker.
"What the hell?" Jamie demanded.
Andi pointed. "In . . . in . . . in there . . . a . . . a . . . head . . . a woman . . ."
Jamie pushed open the bathroom door, the room empty.
Andi walked behind her, her eyes wide. "She was . . . she was right there."
She no sooner got the words out before the bathroom door slammed shut. They both stared at the door, then at each other. It was only then that they realized they were both naked.
"Jesus, Andi," Jamie murmured. She reached for the towel and tossed it at Andi. "Do you mind?"
Andi stared. "And you?"
Jamie reached for the doorknob, but the door would not budge. She wrapped both hands around the knob and pulled, straining against the door.
"It won't open."
"What do you mean? It opens to the inside."
Jamie flicked her a wry glance. "I know that. Why do you think I'm pulling on it?"
She finally got it to budge, only to be pulled closed again. She locked glances with Andi.
"Someone's pulling on it from the outside."
"Or something," Jamie hissed as she strained against the door.
Behind them, the bathroom window broke, glass spewing in onto the floor. Andi screamed again as they both pressed hard against the door.
"Get out! Get out of the house!"
"Oh my God," Andi murmured, her eyes darting around the room, looking for the voice.
"Get out or you will die!"
"I hate this assignment," Andi whispered.
"I'm not too crazy about it myself," Jamie murmured.
Then, as if it had never happened, the sun reappeared, bright light shining into the bathroom. The door clicked behind them, swinging open gently, revealing the empty hallway outside.
Their eyes met again, Andi tightening her towel around her, trying desperately not to look at the naked woman standing next to her.
"Will you fast-forward past my naked ass running in the hallway?" Jamie asked as Ronnie's eyes were glued to the monitor.
Dr. Gilbreath stood behind them, waiting. Beth subdued a yawn, as she, too, waited for Ronnie. Only Andi stood removed. She did not need to see the scene again. It was still too fresh in her mind.
"Okay, there," Jamie said, pointing. "When Andi first opens the door, you can just about make out the woman," she points again. "Right there, see?"
"It's just a shadow," Ronnie said.
"Yes, but it's obviously something foreign in the bathroom."
They watched as Jamie walked into the bathroom, then saw the door slam shut. They all gasped as the aberration appeared outside the door. The force that was holding the door closed.
"Good God, people, do you see that?" Dr. Gilbreath whispered.
Andi trembled, and turned away. Yes, she saw that. Then Jamie was there, gently taking her hand and squeezing. Andi closed her eyes for a moment, trying to chase away the memory of the woman with the severed head—and replace it with one much more enjoyable. A naked Jamie Tucker.
"I'm exhausted," Jamie said. She motioned with her head to the door. "Let's try to get some sleep. It's going to be a long night."
Andi raised her eyebrows.
"Halloween. Full moon tonight."
Andi sighed. Yes, Halloween. And a full moon. Dr. Gilbreath expected this to be the most active night. Could it possibly get anymore active?
"I'm not certain I can sleep," she finally said. "Daylight or not."
"Come on. We need to try."
"She's right. I think we all need to try and get some rest," Dr. Gilbreath said. "I suspect we will be very busy tonight." She turned back to Ronnie. "I assume you've already burned copies of this latest video?"
"Doing it now."
"Good. You never know when your hard drive could fail. We'll get out of your hair. You've had less sleep than the rest of us, Ronnie. Don't stay up all day monitoring the cameras. We need you fresh for tonight." She clapped her hands twice. "Okay, ladies. Out, out, out. It's already nearly ten. I think we need to be ready to go by five. Not a lot of time to rest."
"What about lunch? Or dinner?" Jamie asked. "I can't remember the last time I ate."
"Oh, yes, Dr. Tucker and her bottomless stomach. We'll order something from town. Beth can run in and get it this afternoon You don't mind, do you dear?"
"Of course not, Dr. Gilbreath."
"Okay. See you no later than five."
Andi sat on the edge of her bed, waiting. When Jamie simply closed the door, Andi cleared her throat.
"Can you lock it?" she asked quietly.
Jamie smiled, but nodded. "Sure."
"I know it's silly," Andi said.
"It's not silly. Everything that's happened, it's still unbelievable to you." She shrugged. "I've been with these guys before and this is still unbelievable to me."
"I don't know how I'm going to write a story about this. I don't know where to begin."
"Yeah. It's a lot for a newspaper article. That's why I'm devoting a book to it."
"So, as far as haunted places go, the Zeiko House is not all that famous, right?"
"No. And mainly because it's been a private residence. A lot of the so-called haunted places are hotels, or bed and breakfasts, or other public places where you have lots of sightings. Here, it's just more rumor than anything else."
"Rumors and ghost stories passed down through the years."
"Hard to believe they ended up being true."
Jamie nodded, then pulled the covers back on her bed. "We need to get some sleep, Andi."
"Yeah, I know." Andi did the same after shedding her shorts. She took a deep breath, glancing once at the opened window. "I'm almost afraid to close my eyes."
"We'll be fine."
But thirty minutes later, Andi was still shuffling on the twin bed, her eyes going again and again to the window.
"What are you doing?"
"Nothing." She heard Jamie sigh, then a rustling of covers.
"You know, you can always . . . sleep with me."
"If you're scared, why don't you just come over here with me."
"Oh . . . I . . . I couldn't."
"Neither of us is going to get any sleep with you tossing about like you've been." Jamie sat up. "Andi, come on."
Against her better judgment, Andi tossed off her covers and walked the few feet to Jaime's bed. Their eyes met, then Jamie gave her a crooked smile.
"Don't hog the covers."
But Andi slid under the covers, moving closer to Jamie and her warmth, then dutifully turning her back to Jamie, but enjoying her closeness. She gasped when she felt Jamie move next to her, wrapping one arm around her.
"See? You're perfectly safe," Jamie said quietly. "Get some sleep."
But sleep was the furthest thing from Andi's mind. Who would have thought? A week ago, she was dreading this assignment, hating the thought of spending any time with the insufferable Jamie Tucker. But here she was, in her bed no less, at the very house that started it all.
She remembered the night so well, her trying to hide the enormous crush she had without appearing to be a total idiot in Jamie's presence. And even though they'd already crammed eight girls into Connie's parent's sedan, Andi was only too happy to comply with Jamie's request. "Here, you can sit on my lap."
Yes, she remembered the hands that had guided her hips, the hands that stayed right where they were, as if resting on Andi's hips were the most natural thing in the world. And she remembered those hands moving to innocently brush the skin at her waist, sneaking under the edge of her shirt. How she managed to survive the ride, she had no idea. But by the end of the night when they all separated, Jamie's eyes held her, and Andi realized in that moment that her secret was out. Jamie knew.
And two nights later, Jamie showed up at her house, unusually nervous as she asked Andi over to play video games. Andi's parents had waved her on, telling her not to be too late coming home. But Jamie's parents were nowhere to be found. "They went to a dinner party."
Andi squeezed her eyes shut, memories colliding as she remembered that fateful night. A movie replaced the video games, and Jamie turned the lights down. Andi remembered how nervous she'd been, sitting there on the sofa with Jamie. They never talked about what was happening, about what was going to happen. As young and inexperienced as Andi was, there was no mistaking the look in Jamie's eyes. And when Jamie moved closer, Andi didn't shy away. Their first kiss—Andi's very first kiss—was tentative, hesitant. "Is this okay?" Jamie had asked. Andi could only nod.
It was a complete blur as to how they moved from the sofa to Jamie's bedroom. But she remembered with delicious clarity the sight of Jamie pulling the shirt over her head, revealing Jamie's small breasts to her. Then those hands had come to Andi, and before she knew it, they were both naked, both lying on Jamie's bed.
Andi squeezed her eyes shut, hoping Jamie couldn't hear—feel—her thundering heartbeat.
It was a night Andi remembered with fondness . . . and with bitterness. It was the most magical of nights . . . Jamie touching her, her touching Jamie. Her first orgasm . . . well, her first orgasm that wasn't self-induced. And her first exploration of another woman's body. She remembered how it felt the first time her fingers moved into Jamie's wetness, the first time she slipped inside her, the first time she heard another woman scream.
She didn't want to remember the bitterness that followed, only a few days later. She only wanted to remember the pleasure.
Andi fell into her eyes . . . it was the same look she remembered from twelve years ago—eyes darkened with desire. She wondered if perhaps Jamie had been recalling their night together, too. Because now, now she knew what that look in her eyes meant. She wasn't the fumbling teenager of old.
So, she uttered the only coherent words that were crowding her brain.
Jamie leaned on her elbow, head tilted as Andi rolled towards her. Their mouths met, gently at first, then with an urgency that made Andi moan as she grasped Jamie's arms.
And then, just like all those years ago, no words were spoken. Jamie sat up, pulling her T-shirt over her head, tossing it on the floor before reaching for Andi's. Jamie's skin was as soft as Andi remembered . . . and as taut. And when her mouth lowered, finding Jamie's breast, the taste shouldn't have been as familiar as it was. But when her tongue circled Jamie's nipple, it was a taste she'd carried with her over the years, a taste she'd tried to duplicate.
"God . . . Andi," Jamie murmured.
Unlike their first time together, Andi didn't hesitate. She moved between Jamie's legs, spreading her thighs before her hand moved between them, searching for Jamie's wetness. She found her, unable to stop the groan as her fingers slid inside her, confirming her suspicions that Jamie had been remembering that night, too.
Her pleasure, however, was short-lived. Jamie rolled them over, settling between Andi's thighs as their hips met. Jamie's mouth silenced Andi's protest, and Andi opened to her, their tongues meeting, all gentleness gone now as their passion ignited.
Andi grasped Jamie's bare hips, pulling her forward, grinding against her. She couldn't remember a time when she had such a physical ache for someone. Her hips rose, then fell again, in her quest to touch Jamie.
Then Jamie moved lower, her mouth finding an aching nipple, and Andi pressed into her. She moved, finding Jamie's hand, sliding it between their bodies. She would just die if Jamie didn't touch her soon.
"Please, Jamie," she murmured quietly, then groaned when she felt Jamie's fingers caress her swollen clit.
"Oh, sweet Jesus," Jamie whispered. "You're so wet."
Andi opened her eyes, meeting Jamie's dark ones, nearly melting under her gaze. "Kiss me," she whispered again. She opened to Jamie, her tongue mating with Jamie's, matching the rhythm of Jamie's fingers. She was embarrassed by the sounds coming from her but she couldn't contain the moans at each stroke of the other woman's fingers. She felt her orgasm build, knew that Jamie felt it, too. Just as she was about to climax, Jamie's fingers moved deep inside her, and with one last thrust of her hips, Andi reached the heights of orgasm that she'd been striving for for the last twelve years. Not since the very first time Jamie had taken her had she wanted to scream out at the top of her lungs.
But Jamie's mouth was there, catching her scream, soothing her as her breathing slowed. She finally opened her eyes, daring to meet Jamie's. She was surprised by the gentleness she saw there. Not a hint of triumph, just a softening of the desire Jamie apparently was trying to keep a rein on.
Andi touched Jamie's face with a gentle hand, her thumb lightly rubbing Jamie's lower lip. She was pleased by the rapid pulse she saw beating in Jamie's throat.
"Let me make love to you," she whispered. She didn't wait for Jamie's response. There was no need to. Jamie's eyes said all she needed to know. As she moved between Jamie's legs, the scent of her was nearly intoxicating. Andi moaned as she spread Jamie's thighs. She was about to experience the one thing she had not dared do during their one night together all those years ago—taste Jamie Tucker.
When Andi walked into Ronnie's room, Jamie turned, a piece of pizza halfway to her mouth. Their eyes collided for a second, then Jamie lifted one eyebrow.
"Doesn't matter. I'm starving." She lifted the lid on one of the boxes and pulled out a piece. "Where is everyone?" When she woke up, she was alone. The shadows outside her window telling her it was fast approaching dusk. She'd found the third floor bathroom empty and took the opportunity to clean up. Her hair was disheveled, and there was no mistaking the smell in the room. Not that she cared what these people thought, but perhaps Jamie did. But she wondered if it really mattered. The walls were probably paper-thin.
"The camera on the front porch wasn't working. They've been tinkering with it." She glanced at the monitor. "Oh, shit. It's up." She reached for the handheld radio. "Ronnie, I got a picture."
"Okay, thanks. The wire was totally disconnected. It's weird."
Jamie and Andi exchanged glances. Then Jamie smiled.
Andi nodded. "I don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say anything. It was completely mutual."
"Thank you," Andi said quietly. She didn't want to feel embarrassed by her wanton actions, but she was. Her only saving grace was that Jamie's ardor had matched her own.
Jamie walked closer, her voice low. "Please don't thank me. I should thank you. I can't remember the last time it felt so good to be with someone."
Andi blushed and turned away. She was thinking the very same thing, but she was hardly going to voice that to Jamie. But she was saved, anyway. The others came back into the room. At the knowing glance from Dr. Gilbreath, Andi turned crimson.
"I see you've decided to join us, Ms. Beene. You must have been very . . . tuckered."
Despite her embarrassment, Andi met her gaze head on. "Yes, very tuckered."
It was Jamie who laughed outright. "Good one, Dr. Gilbreath. I wasn't aware you had a since of humor."
"I don't," she snapped. "I also got very little sleep, Dr. Tucker. Please try to refrain from . . . social activities during this watch."
"What are you all taking about?" Ronnie asked.
"You didn't hear? I would have thought the entire house heard."
"Dr. Gilbreath, please, can we drop it?"
"I'm sorry, Ms. Beene, didn't mean to embarrass you. You're right. Let's drop it. It's already dark. The full moon will rise shortly. I expect an active night."
The words barely left her mouth when the crack of thunder was heard.
"How spooky," Ronnie teased. "Maybe we're in for the mother of all nights."
"Be careful what you wish for," Jamie murmured. She walked over to the pizza box and took another piece, handing it to Andi. "Sorry about that," she whispered.
"Dr. Gilbreath! In the den, look!"
They all turned to the monitors and Ronnie pulled up a larger image. The fireplace that had been laid with wood, as if expecting them, was just beginning to smolder. Then the flame grew, licking at the dry wood.
"Oh my . . . God," Andi stammered. "Look at the porch camera."
Walking up the steps was the shadow of a man—a man carrying an axe. Ronnie quickly enlarged the thumbnail, just in time to see the axe raise, then the camera went black.
"Do not panic, people," Dr. Gilbreath said. "This could be the opportunity of a lifetime."
"I just hope we live to tell about it. That aberration of an axe just killed our camera," Jamie said loudly.
"Dr. Tucker, you've been in haunted places before. Don't tell me you're scared," Dr. Gilbreath chided.
"Okay. I won't tell you then." She glanced at Andi. "Okay?"
Andi stared at the monitors. "Not really, no. Look at the master bedroom."
As thunder crashed around them, the fireplace in the master bedroom suddenly came to life. Then, without warning, a roar sounded downstairs. They all stared as a camera caught the front door exploding inward. Andi gasped as the man with the axe walked inside. The image of the man, Andi silently corrected.
"That's Mr. Zeiko," Jamie murmured. "Dr. Gilbreath, all of our research indicated that he never showed himself."
"The murders happened on Halloween. Perhaps this is the only night he does show himself."
"In the bedroom, the mother and the children," Ronnie said.
"Enjoying the fire," Beth murmured. She glanced nervously at Dr. Gilbreath. "This is too much. I can't believe what I'm seeing."
"Believe it." She spread her arms out. "Embrace it! It's so wonderful!"
Andi glanced at Jamie, thinking the older woman had lost her mind. Embrace it? She wanted to run from it!
"Holy shit! The den. Look what's happening!"
"That must be the in-laws. Some accounts show they were killed in the den."
"With the axe."
"Yes. Most likely the same woman Andi saw in the bathroom."
They all jumped when screaming was heard, then watched in disbelief as the man grabbed the woman, the axe striking her repeatedly until her head rolled away from her now still body. Deep, guttural laughter sounded, then the axe was flung across the room, striking the other man in the head.
"Oh, God," Andi whispered as the man fell to the ground.
"The fire, it's . . . it's not right," Jamie said. "Look, it's like its reaching out or something."
"He's coming upstairs," Dr. Gilbreath said excitedly. "We're going to witness all the murders!"
"If we live that long! The den's on fire!"
Dr. Gilbreath shook her head. "Can't be a real fire, Dr. Tucker. It's the aberration of a fire."
"Well, the aberration sure smells like smoke!"
"She's right, Dr. Gilbreath. We're losing the camera," Ronnie said.
They all heard the hissing sound as the tiny microphone was fried.
"No. It can't be," she said. "It's fine. We are witnessing a play, if you will. Let's watch it unfold."
More screaming was heard as Mr. Zeiko made it to the second floor. They watched in horror as he grabbed one of the children, the axe striking quickly. As the mother ran forward, he grabbed her, tossing her across the room as if she were a rag doll. The other child ran down the stairs, Mr. Zeiko catching him just as he ran into the flames of the den. The camera when black.
"He's coming back up!"
"The fire in the bedroom! It's spreading, too," Jamie said, pointing.
"Aberration, Dr. Tucker."
"The hell it is!"
Jamie ran to the bedroom door, jerking it open. The all gasped as smoke crept up to the third floor.
"The cameras on the stairwells, they're useless," Ronnie said. "I'm getting nothing but smoke."
"We don't need them, anyway. He's back on the second floor!"
"Look at the fire," Beth said urgently, pointing.
"Look at the goddamn smoke!" Jamie yelled, shutting the door again. "We've got to get out of here!"
"There is no fire, Dr. Tucker!" Dr. Gilbreath ran to the door. "Watch. I'll show you."
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Watch the cameras!"
She ran down the hallway, and they all turned to the monitors, watching as she descended from the third floor landing, into the smoke.
"She's lost her mind," Jamie murmured.
In disbelief, they watched as the man with the axe grabbed Dr. Gilbreath, pulling her forcefully into the bedroom, into the fire. Sharp screams were heard, screams drifting up the stairwell, much like the smoke. The screams died as suddenly as they'd begun.
"Dr. Gilbreath? Dr. Gilbreath?" Beth yelled.
Before anyone could stop her, she ran from the room, screaming for Dr. Gilbreath.
"There!" Ronnie pointed. "She's still alive! He's got her in the hallway."
Dr. Gilbreath was pinned against the wall, the axe held high above her head. Then Beth moved into their view, her scream piercing their ears as the axe fell.
"We've got to help them!" Ronnie yelled.
Jamie grabbed him as he tried to run from the room. "Are you crazy? Are you not watching what is happening?"
"Look! He's dragging them downstairs!"
The stairwell camera went black the instant the explosion sounded. Jamie took Andi to the ground, covering her as part of the ceiling gave way. The smoke was thick now, making it difficult to breathe.
"We've got to get out of here," Jamie said, pulling Andi to her feet.
"Goddamn idiot!" Jamie ran to the monitors, clicking on each image, but there was too much smoke. The only camera still functioning was the third floor stairwell, and it showed no movement. In the distance, they heard screaming. Not from the microphones, no. Just screaming as it drifted up the stairwell.
"What should we do?" Andi asked urgently.
"We've got to get out of here. We can't help them. We don't even know if it's them screaming or the goddamn aberrations!" She straightened up. "Come on!"
"Where? We're on the third floor, for Christ's sake!"
"The oak tree in the back. Maybe we can reach it."
"It's on the other side of the house."
"Got a better idea?"
Their eyes met. "No."
They ran out into the hallway, the smoke totally engulfing the stairwell. Jamie grabbed her hand, pulling her down the hallway to another closed door.
"It's the attic."
But the knob wouldn't turn. The door was locked. With her shoulder, Jamie banged into it, but it wouldn't budge.
"Come on, come on," she muttered, banging into it again.
"Kick it in!"
Jamie stood back, then lifted one powerful leg, hitting the door square on the doorknob, breaking the latch. But it was dark inside, the light switch clicking uselessly.
Andi tapped her fingers on her jeans, waiting. Finally, a small light shown. The flashlight Jamie always seemed to carry produced a tiny beam.
"It's not much," she said.
"Oh my God, Jamie," Andi whispered. "Look."
The small beam bounced around the attic, the old skeletons glowing ghostly in the dim light.
"There's ten or fifteen of them," she said.
"At least." Jamie flashed the light at their feet. "Watch your step."
"No. I can't. I'm not going in there."
"You have to." Jamie pointed the light at the window, where lightening lit up the night sky. "That's the only way out."
Andi squeezed her eyes shut, then shook her head. "I can't."
"Andi, they are just skeletons. They can't hurt you."
"Right. Just like the ghosts of the Zeikos couldn't hurt us."
"Andi, we don't have a choice! The house is on fire!"
She forcefully pulled Andi into the room, grabbing the nearest object she could find—an old chair—smashing the glass covering the window. Cold air streamed inside, chasing out the stale smell of death. Andi rushed to the window, suddenly feeling the need to escape.
"Okay, it's going to be tricky. The closest branch is below the window ledge," Jamie yelled, pointing. "Can you lay flat on the ledge, then swing to it?"
"Are you crazy?"
"Okay. How about you sit on the ledge and jump to the branch?"
"I'm not a fucking gymnast!"
Jamie grabbed both of her shoulders, her voice calm as their eyes met. "The house is on fire, Andi. This tree is it. So, are you going to jump to the branch or do I have to toss you?"
Andi looked behind them to the smoke-filled hallway, nodding.
"Okay. I can do it." She shrugged. "I mean, what's the worse that could happen?"
"Good girl. Come on."
Andi didn't bother telling Jamie she was afraid of heights. She was fairly certain that if she didn't fall, she would surely die of a heart attack somewhere among the higher branches. She dutifully climbed out on the ledge, refusing to look down at the enormous expanse of space between her third floor perch and the ground.
"It's not that far, Andi. Just a couple of feet, fall to the limb and wrap your arms around it. Once you scoot to the center, near the trunk, you'll have plenty of footholds."
Andi didn't answer. On a silent count of three, with eyes locked on the branch, she let herself fall, arms outstretched. She wrapped around the limb, the subtle bouncing from her weight causing her to gasp in panic, her legs swinging wildly as she pulled her chest tight against the tree.
"Great! Now move to the center. There's a limb you can stand on. Don't look down, Andi. You can do it! Once you get your footing, just move down the tree, limb by limb."
Andi followed her instructions, relief replacing panic as her feet struck the larger branch. She moved to the base of the tree, hugging it tightly, finally daring to look back. But the window was empty. There was no sign of Jamie.
"Jamie!" she screamed. "Jamie!"
Oh dear God . . .
"Keep your foot elevated, dear, it won't hurt so much."
"You're fussing, mom."
Andi closed her eyes as the older woman fluffed the hospital pillows one more time.
"Burned to the ground, I just can't believe it," her mother said for the tenth time. "Why, that old house has been there my whole life. It just won't be the same."
"No, it won't" Andi murmured.
"And why on earth your editor wanted to do a story on that house is beyond me. Ghosts! Just a bunch of baloney, if you ask me."
Andi nodded, rolling her head toward the window and the bright sunshine. Her mother's voice drifted to the background as she tried to recall Jamie's face, her smile . . . and those damn laughing eyes of hers. She didn't want to think about what might have happened to her. If she let her imagination go, the skeletons suddenly came to life, or old man Zeiko climbed the stairs to the third floor, or . . . or maybe the smoke just got to her. Maybe that was all.
But it was a day and night she would remember always. She doubted she would ever tell anyone what really happened that night. She doubted anyone would believe her.
"Hey, hey, anybody home?"
Andi jerked her head around, her eyes widening.
"Hey, Beenie weenie. You look like you've seen a ghost."
"What . . . what . . ."
Jamie tapped the cast on her foot. "What'd you do? Fall out of a tree or something?"
"Where the hell have you been?"
"Is that any way to say hello." Jamie bent down quickly, her mouth warm and soft as their lips met. "Now that's more like it."
"Who are you?"
Jamie turned, eyeing the nurse. She raised an eyebrow. "A . . . friend."
Andi smiled. "Jamie, I don't suppose you remember my mother."
"Your mother? I'm sorry, I thought she was a nurse."
"She's that, too."
"Jamie Tucker, ma'am. I'm terribly sorry."
"Jamie Tucker? The Jamie Tucker." She turned to Andi. "Andrea, isn't she the one—"
"Yes, mom, but I'm . . . over that."
"Mom, can we have some time alone, you think?"
"Of course, dear. I'll be right outside if you need me."
As soon as the door closed, Andi grabbed Jamie's hand, pulling it onto her lap. "I can't believe you're here. You don't want to know what I've been thinking."
"Where the hell did you go? I looked back, and you were gone."
"I had to go back for something."
"You risked your life for his laptop? Are you stupid?" she asked loudly.
Jamie grinned. "Not stupid, just crazy. All the camera images were stored to his hard drive. No one's going to believe us, anyway, but Dr. Gilbreath and her team deserve to have their story told."
"Everyone will think they just died in the fire."
Jamie nodded. "We'll tell our story to the authorities, they'll think we're ready for the nut house—in fact they may send the men with the white coats for us. But, regardless, the case will be closed."
"So what are you going to do?"
Jamie sat on the edge of Andi's bed, her hand rubbing lightly on the sheet covering her thigh.
"I'm going home. Spend some time on the beach, clear my mind. Then I'm going to write a book on the Zeiko Place." She looked up, meeting Andi's eyes. "I was kinda hoping you might consider coming with me."
"Well, I'm thinking a collaboration on this book could be a good thing. I was also thinking, maybe you and me together, might be a good thing, too."
"Why do you think that?"
"Because, Andi, you still take my breath away. You did in high school and you never even knew it. And those few hours we spent making love . . . that was one of the best mornings of my life. And I'd like to repeat it."
"So if I tell you now that I had a god-awful crush on you in high school, you won't laugh?"
"A crush? Oh yeah?"
"I was head-over-heels for you back then."
Jamie leaned closer, their lips brushing. "And now?"
"Nothing has changed, Jamie Tucker."
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