An exclusive preview of Book 3 of the Penny Wright series
Kacey Eckert threw the last of her gear into her backpack. Water bottles, snacks, extra batteries. Bandages and antibiotic cream in case anyone scraped an elbow against old splintered wood. That seemed sensible. A package of dust masks, which Hannah had recommended.
Her headlamp still had the tag on it. It made a ripping sound as she pulled it free.
Kacey breathed in and out, trying to slow her racing heartbeat.
Her sister tapped on her door lightly, then pushed it open and poked her head in. “Ready?” Hannah whispered.
Ross peered over her shoulder, holding his phone aloft.
“Hey,” Kacey said, “no filming in my room. What did I say?”
Ross shrugged, acting like he’d forgotten. “Just a habit.”
That morning when he’d introduced himself, he’d added, I’m a film major. Like she was supposed to be impressed. The guy thought he was Scorsese or something just because his YouTube channel made a few bucks in ad revenue.
Kacey tugged on her coat, then slung the backpack onto her shoulders and joined the others outside.
“You sure you want to do this?” Hannah asked. “It’s okay if you don’t.”
“Of course I am. I wouldn’t miss it.”
Kacey still felt ready to throw up from the mixture of fear and anticipation in her stomach, even though her sister had been urbexing dozens of times before and knew the ropes. Hannah had explored an old tuberculosis sanitarium, abandoned schools and condemned factories. Many had been located in Denver, their hometown, but Hannah was getting more into rural locales. Less crowded, she’d explained to Kacey. More undiscovered.
Shady Valley Resort was situated on a small, no-name lake, with the mountains a faraway outline on the horizon. The only real attraction out here, especially in mid-November after all the leaves had fallen, was the Demler Mansion. Exactly what they’d come to see.
Their hiking boots crunched lightly in the gravel as they crossed the parking lot. They couldn’t risk turning on any flashlights yet; didn’t want to wake the lady who ran the resort. They weren’t supposed to be out exploring at night. She’d been adamant about that. The rules had even been posted above the check-in desk.
No unregistered guests.
No smoking within fifteen feet of cabins.
No admittance to Demler Mansion. Stay outside the fence.
No exploring grounds at night. No exceptions.
But Hannah said that urban exploring wasn’t the same as trespassing. You were supposed to take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. It was all about the thrill. Hannah had definitely come away with some amazing photographs. Her eyes came alive when she told the stories.
Visiting those rotting, forgotten buildings, Kacey’s big sister had explained, it’s like seeing the world naked. Kind of ugly, but so honest that it’s beautiful.
The night smelled of pine and cold. They crossed the icy grass toward the lake, Hannah leading the way. Ross held his ever-present camera in front of him, panning to take in the surroundings. When they were far enough from the cabins, Hannah switched on her flashlight, and they followed the trail along the edge of the lake.
As they rounded a curve, Demler Mansion came into view. Its pale stone glowed in the moonlight. Gray clouds shifted in its windows. Kacey’s nose ran from the cold.
For the last several years, Kacey had hardly seen her sister at all. Their parents forbade it after Hannah dropped out of high school and moved out. There’d been talk of drugs and boys and “loose morals,” like this was the 1950s. When Hannah left, Kacey had been thirteen, too young to fully understand what happened. All she’d known was that the brightest spot in her life had vanished overnight. Life without Hannah had felt listless, like all the color was drained away. Her parents hated Hannah’s absence too, especially Mom, but they’d been too proud and stubborn to forgive her. And like a coward, Kacey had followed their rules.
But as soon as Kacey started her freshman year at the University of Denver, just a few months ago, she’d tracked Hannah down at her waitressing job. They’d spent several weekends reconnecting, but for Kacey it wasn’t nearly enough. Kacey wanted to share something meaningful with her big sister—become a part of Hannah’s life.
This was her chance.
Demler Mansion sat upon a large hill, with white pillars framing its entrance and dramatic steps leading from the porch down toward the lake. Stone arches curved over each door and window. Kacey was surprised to find the place so intact, though it had been empty for a quarter century by now. Ever since the fire.
A fence surrounded the house. Beside Kacey, Hannah played her flashlight over the vertical wooden slats.
“Let’s go.” Hannah climbed up onto the fence.
“Hannah, stay there,” Ross said. “Tell the viewers about the place we’re about to visit.”
She sat on the top rail of the fence, crossing her legs. Hannah smiled coyly at the lens like she was sharing a secret.
“This house is where Edmund Demler died,” Hannah said. “The serial killer. He murdered three girls, and then killed himself, all before he reached twenty years old. They say he burned alive. He chose that ending—like he knew that he deserved it.”
Kacey had watched a docu-drama on daytime cable once. Born Bad: The Edmund Demler Story. She’d only made it through half the show before turning it off. She couldn’t take seeing those girls’ smiling faces, all around nineteen, the same age as Kacey herself.
And Edmund’s piercing eyes, staring out from the screen.
“Some people claim Demler Mansion is haunted,” Hannah continued, “but that’s just because it’s a ruin. Every abandoned building I’ve explored has a story to tell, and that past is slowly crumbling away. It’s eerie and unsettling to contemplate our own demise. People blame ’ghosts’ because that’s easier than explaining the true source of their unease—the fact that, someday, we’ll all be dead and forgotten.”
My sister’s kind of a badass, Kacey thought, before her anxiety kicked in again. But not because of Demler Mansion or its history. She was far more worried about embarrassing herself in front of Hannah. So long as she didn’t fall like a total klutz—and Ross didn’t get it on video.
“Hey Kacey, come up here with me,” Hannah said. “Ross, take our picture?”
Kacey grumbled, but her sister shushed her. “Not for his feed, for us. Careful, there’s splinters.”
She held out a hand, but Kacey shook her head. “I’ve got it.”
Hannah wrapped her arm tightly around Kacey’s shoulder. She smelled like cinnamon gum and fruity hair gel, and both scents calmed the nervousness in Kacey’s stomach.
They waited for Ross to set up the shot. He had some kind of fancy night mode for his camera, apparently.
“Did he really have to come?” Kacey whispered. She’d been surprised to find Ross in the car when Hannah picked her up. Kacey had thought it was going to be a sisters-only adventure.
“Ross isn’t so bad. We have fun together.”
No details, please, Kacey thought. “I still wish it was just the two of us.”
“But what if some ghost demands a sacrifice?” Hannah teased quietly. “We’ll give him up first.”
Kacey smothered a laugh.
When Kacey was little, she’d used to sneak into Hannah’s bed at night when their parents fought. I’m scared, Kacey had whispered, and Hannah would scoop her up and under the covers. Hannah made up stories about unicorns and rebellious princesses, petting Kacey’s hair until she drifted to sleep. Kacey had thought that her big sister was the most fearless person in the world. Now that Kacey was older, she understood that Hannah wore a brave face to hide the uncertainty beneath. If couch surfing makes the Olympics, I’m a lock for the gold, Hannah joked. And Mom said I wouldn’t amount to anything. She’d sworn to Kacey that she was doing great. She loved waitressing. No worries at all.
Just once, Kacey wished she could be the strong one, so her big sister could rely on her.
“Got it,” Ross said.
Hannah stood atop the rail and leaped down, arms flying.
They rounded the side of the building, and Kacey switched on her headlamp. The house looked different from the back. Soot blackened the stone around several windows on the second floor. A ragged tarp covered part of the roof, edges flapping in the nighttime breeze.
A cold blast of air flew over the lake and pushed against their backs, speeding them along. At a back door, Hannah used a pair of bolt cutters to snap the padlock. The door creaked open.
They went inside. A different sort of chill met them, the air dry and stale. Hannah walked ahead, lit up by Kacey’s headlamp. Her shadow stretched out ahead of her.
After wandering through several corridors and a kitchen, they came into a huge entrance hall filled with windows. Tattered velvet drapes hung on the walls. A chandelier made of deer antlers hung over their heads from a soaring ceiling. A grand staircase led up to the second floor.
This part of the house wasn’t as damaged as Kacey had expected. The fire hadn’t touched it. A few pieces of furniture remained, tipped over or broken; picture frames still held faded photos inside. Ross wandered around, taking stills and video of each relic.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it?” Hannah said reverently. “Sad, but regal.”
Kacey tried to see what her sister was seeing. A sense of loneliness did permeate the house. It was like a film negative, with the light and the dark switched—instead of feeling lived-in, the emptiness was the dominant feature.
This building still contained hints of the family that once lived here, the life they’d shared. Now, the home was shattered, a literal representation of the terrible things that Edmund Demler had done.
Kacey’s feet shuffled against the marble floor, and the soft sounds became whispers in her imagination.
Wait, wait, the whispers said.
“They were all runaways,” Hannah murmured. “The girls he killed.”
Runaway girls. Like Hannah had been. Kacey felt a tug at her center, a mix of disgust and sadness and dismay.
Hannah spun in a slow circle, head craned back. “I can almost hear their voices. Like those girls are still here. Why is it his life people want to talk about, instead of theirs?”
She started up the staircase.
Kacey hesitated at the bottom, resting her hand on the elaborately carved railing. “Maybe we should go. We’ve seen enough, right?”
Ross passed her on his way up, watching everything through his screen. “We’ve barely gotten started.”
Kacey hurried after them. The light from her headlamp bounced across the walls and flashed in a tarnished mirror. When she reached the second-floor landing, Hannah and Ross were halfway down the corridor.
Ross walked into one of the rooms, filming himself as he spoke to the camera.
“Do you hear that?” Hannah murmured. “Like…voices?”
Wait for me, the whispers said.
Fear gripped Kacey’s throat, making it impossible to speak. What if there were squatters living here?
Or a killer. Like him. Edmund Demler.
Demler is dead, she reminded herself. Ghosts are just make-believe, like the stories Hannah used to tell. Her limbs felt heavy and stiff, but she kept moving. The walls in the corridor were warped, darkened by soot. The fire. The floor creaked, and the boards made a brittle snapping sound.
Hannah walked into another room. Kacey heard Ross still talking to his camera next door. She hurried after her sister.
Charred pieces of furniture filled one corner of the room. A breeze wafted through the empty window frames, carrying the smell of smoke, though Kacey couldn’t say if she was just imagining it. The scent was so fresh, like this room had burned just days ago instead of decades.
“We should go.” The words came out like a croak.
Hannah didn’t seem to hear. She stood in silhouette, facing the half-crumbled wall. Beyond her, the dim outlines of mountains stretched across the horizon. The moon gleamed, dotted with wisps of cloud.
Kacey’s headlamp blinked and went out. Cursing, she pulled it from her head and knocked it against the heel of her hand. She tried switching it on and off, but the light wouldn’t come back on. The room was still bright with moonlight, but everything had softened. Hannah’s flashlight hung loose at her side, forming a meager pool of yellow on the ground.
Kacey shivered inside her coat. She stepped closer to her sister, halting in place when the floor creaked ominously. She stretched one foot forward, testing. The floorboards sagged toward the center of the room. Somehow, Hannah had avoided the weak spot. She was used to exploring ruins like this. But Kacey didn’t feel safe.
“Hannah, we should go back. The floor—”
“He brought her here. But this isn’t where she died.”
Goosebumps pricked Kacey’s skin. “What? Who?”
The breeze turned into a gust, stirring up blackened dust around the room. The whispering sounds crescendoed. Wait. Please, wait.
Hannah turned her head. Kacey followed her sister’s gaze.
In the shadowy reaches of the space, something glowed. At first, it was a streak of silver. Kacey thought maybe it was a reflection from a mirror, or broken pieces of glass. But then the thing started growing. It was like the light of a train approaching in a tunnel. Getting brighter and brighter. She blinked, and spots danced before her eyes.
From the corridor, she heard Ross calling out for them. “Hey, where’d you go? Come on, you’ve got to see this.” Kacey opened her mouth to reply, but no sound came out.
Ross’s words repeated, yet this time they sounded tinny and distant. They’d come from the wrong direction, an echo—from that glowing smudge of silver across the room.
“Come on.You’ve got to see—”
That thing. That thing was speaking, using Ross’s words.
This isn’t happening, Kacey thought. This isn’t happening.
Hannah crossed the room. She was going toward it. The silver thing moved to meet her. Reaching out.
Finally, Kacey’s voice worked, though it was no more than a croak. “Don’t,” she said, instinctively backing up toward the doorway.
Saving myself, she would think later, ashamed. Like a freaking coward.
Hannah’s boot fell through the floor. She went to her knee, though she didn’t even cry out. For a split second, Kacey thought it was over. Just a close call.
But then a hole opened beneath her sister, and Hannah was gone.
Penny Wright put a hand against the cold glass of the car window. Morning had passed, but the town of Crimson Falls still looked half asleep. A few pedestrians ambled slowly down Main Street. Even the snow was sluggish, drifting in clumps that turned to damp splatters on the sidewalk.
“Looks like we’re right on time.” Anderson Green parked in front of a restaurant. A huge wooden sign in old-fashioned lettering proclaimed it
“The Stagecoach Diner.” Evergreen garlands draped over the tops of the windows.
“First stop is a meeting with the sheriff,” Anderson said. “Our point of contact.”
“The sheriff?” She hadn’t expected this to be so official. “Aren’t police skeptical of…people like us?”
“Some are. Some aren’t.” He glanced at her, lips curving wryly. “But desperation tends to make one more open minded.”
Penny got out and joined Anderson on the curb. He was dressed in tailored chinos, a black Oxford shirt, and a slim-cut blazer. His close-cropped hair and goatee were neatly trimmed. Penny looked more like the locals, with her jeans and favorite plaid shirt. The sun was shining despite the snow, so she left her coat unzipped.
A sleigh bell jingled when they opened the door. Inside the Stagecoach Diner, patrons sat sipping hot drinks and reading newspapers. Wagon wheels, rusty tools, and coils of rope decorated the walls, all accented with Christmas ribbons in red and silver. A coffee grinder whirred, and a milk steamer emitted a high-pitched hum.
Anderson headed straight for the tables. A young man in a tan uniform stood when he saw them, removing his cowboy hat.
Anderson nodded, extending his hand. “Sheriff Lofton, I presume.” The men shook, and the sheriff turned to Penny.
“Are you one of them? The—” He paused briefly, glancing toward the counter. A woman in an apron was watching them, frowning.
“Investigators?” Sheriff Lofton finished.
Penny had never imagined herself as an investigator, even the paranormal kind. Yet here she was.
“I’m new,” she said, “but yes. I’m part of Anderson’s team. Penny Wright.”
“Lovely to meet you, Penny. Trey Lofton.” The sheriff leaned closer. “Tell you the truth, I’m new as well. Took over from my dad not long ago. The older guys didn’t want me to talk to ya’ll at all.” He didn’t look much older than Penny herself. She’d have thought mid-twenties was too young to be sheriff of a whole county, even a small one.
“Would you rather we speak somewhere more private?” Anderson asked in his smooth, deep voice.
“Oh, everybody’s heard the rumors. If we meet here in the open, they won’t bug me demanding to know what I’m hiding. Besides, the coffee at my office is like battery acid. Hey, Aunt Diane?” Lofton called out to the woman behind the counter. “A large French press and a couple of your delicious Snickerdoodles?”
The woman gave a curt nod. “Anyone need decaf?”
They shook their heads.
Trey gestured for them to sit. “Your rooms are all ready at Shady Valley Resort. You’ll be the only guests, as requested.”
“I appreciate that.”
“What else will you need to get started? I’m afraid I’m out of my element here.”
Penny felt eyes on her. The other diners turned their heads when she caught them looking.
“We’ll need to interview the witnesses,” Anderson said. “If you could help with setting that up—”
Lofton’s brow tightened. “I’m afraid those kids went home to Denver weeks ago. Poor girl got airlifted from the county hospital to one closer to home. You have their contact info and their statements in the file I sent.”
“I don’t just mean witnesses to the events last month,” Anderson said. “I’m planning to contact Kacey Eckert and Ross Trujio on my own. But I’m requesting interviews with anyone who might have information relevant to the haunting. Including the Demler family.”
The woman from behind the counter brought over the coffee and cookies, her frown never leaving as she eyed them and then returned to the kitchen.
The sheriff poured coffee into his cup, then lowered his voice. “Look, Mr. Green, I’m in a difficult position here. I’m grateful to you for contacting me, and I’ve been happy to admit from minute one that I needed your help.”
So the sheriff hadn’t requested this intervention. Anderson, or somebody else in the Mercury Group, had known about the incident. Penny made a mental note to ask about this later, though she had doubts about whether she’d get a straight answer. Anderson enjoyed asking questions more than he liked answering them.
“If it were up to me, Demler Mansion would’ve been razed to the ground years ago.” Lofton paused, scratching at his forehead. The cowboy hat had left a faint indentation in the skin. “But the people of this town are innocent. They don’t deserve the stain that’s been put upon them because of…what happened before. Many of the Demlers have already changed their last names to avoid the association with Edmund. If the family chooses to talk to you, fine. But don’t ask me to tear open old wounds from over twenty years ago.”
“I’m sure we can be sensitive to your concerns,” Penny said. “Everybody has things they’d rather keep private.” Sometimes that was especially true when the gossip had already started. She had personal experience in that department.
Anderson sat back in his seat, his jaw tightening. Maybe she’d spoken out of turn. But in the car, Anderson had told her not to hesitate to speak up. I want to hear your perspective, he’d said.
Trey Lofton smiled. “Exactly my point. Thank you, Penny.” He handed her one of the cookies. “You let me know if I can help in some other way.”
“We’ll be in touch,” Anderson said, standing up.
Outside The Stagecoach Cafe, Penny held up the Snickerdoodle. “Want half?”
Anderson broke off a piece with the tips of his fingers. Sugar, butter and cinnamon melted on Penny’s tongue. Her parents were busy decorating right now for Christmas, putting on the finishing touches. Penny had gone with Matthew, her boyfriend, to pick out a tree for his house before she left.
She’d given Matthew the information that Anderson had provided—the address for the cabins outside Crimson Falls, the rough details of the case. A young woman had been in a terrible accident at Demler Mansion, and the local authorities believed the supernatural might be involved. Aside from that vague outline, Penny hardly knew what she was walking into.
But Penny’s life had taken some very unexpected turns in the last several months. She’d made sacrifices that she never could’ve imagined to be standing here right now: her job in Los Angeles, her best friend. She didn't even know where “home” was anymore, technically.
And I’m the one who made this mess, she thought. Nobody to blame but me.
Though maybe it wasn’t her fault, technically. As far as she could tell, she was born like this. She’d seen ghosts her whole life. But in the last few months, the ghostly sightings had become impossible to ignore. Frightening, in a way they hadn’t been before.
Anderson Green had turned up at just the right moment, offering help that she couldn’t refuse.
Just that morning, before Anderson arrived to pick her up, Matthew had asked her again not to go. It makes sense that you want to get training for your ability, but you don’t really know this Anderson Green guy, Matthew had said. And are you sure the ghost of a serial killer is the best place to start?
Perhaps he had a point, there. But she had nowhere else to turn.
For the next week or so, Penny would investigate—and hopefully resolve—the haunting at Demler Mansion with Anderson’s team. In exchange, he had promised to train her to control her ability. The arrangement would benefit them both, and it would last only so long as necessary. Then she’d have to pick up the pieces of her career—if she even still had one. At least she knew that Matthew would be waiting for her, even if he didn’t quite approve.
“You were awfully quick to tell the sheriff what he wanted to hear,” Anderson said, forcing her mind back to the present.
“You make it sound cynical. I just understand how he feels, that’s all. There’s history here that he doesn’t want to dig up.”
“It’s fine to understand. But you can’t let yourself be influenced.”
Her mouth felt dry. The cookie had left a sandy residue. “I apologize if I spoke when I shouldn’t.” She tried to measure her tone, though it still betrayed her annoyance. She hadn’t thought of Anderson as her “boss,” but he was acting like one.
“Oh, don’t be sorry. I expected that you’d have a rapport with Sheriff Lofton. I was counting on it.”
Penny brushed crumbs from her hands. “And you’ve got me all figured out?” She didn’t like the fact that he presumed to know so much about her. He’d probably claim it was his job to know. Which, to be fair, was probably true.
“I didn’t say that.” Anderson stepped off the curb toward his SUV. “As for Lofton, he’s still something of a mystery to me. He was eager enough to accept the Mercury Group’s help. He can’t explain what happened at Demler Mansion last month, and he wants to prevent anyone else getting hurt. But he’s hiding something.”
“You could tell that from talking to the guy for five minutes?”
“It was just an impression. Perhaps I’m wrong. But it’s worth looking further into Lofton’s background.”
They got into the car. Penny searched for the words to defend the sheriff, though she didn’t know the guy either. Maybe it was because Trey Lofton reminded her of people she knew back in Ashton, her hometown—another small Colorado enclave, though a more prosperous one than Crimson Falls. For over two decades, this town had been defined by the crimes of Edmund Demler. No wonder Lofton was sensitive about it.
Penny sat back in the leather seat, gazing through the windshield at The Stagecoach Diner. Sheriff Lofton was speaking with Diane, the woman who’d served them coffee. Neither looked pleased by the discussion.
“There’s no reason to believe Lofton’s secret—if it exists—has anything to do with the incident at Demler Mansion,” she argued.
Anderson looked at her calmly, his hand resting on the gear shift. “Penny, have you ever cleared a haunting without following the truth, wherever it might lead?”
She considered his question. Penny had never thought of herself an expert on the paranormal. But she’d faced dangerous ghosts before, and she’d helped several souls move on. She understood the stakes involved—for both the dead and the living.
“No,” she said, replying to Anderson. “I’ve never seen a ghost let go of this life without facing the past.” No matter how disturbing or painful.
“As a medium, it’s your job to guide the dead through that process. We are not ’ghost hunters,’ even if the media enjoy that moniker. When we treat the dead as prey or as enemies, we do so at our extreme peril. We must understand the ghost’s reasons for staying in the physical world. Even if the entity is someone as unsympathetic as Edmund Demler.”
“I understand. Believe me.”
“That’s why I wanted to work with you.” Anderson put the car into drive and turned down Main Street. “Are you having second thoughts about our arrangement?”
Penny’s teeth ground together. Part of her wished she could just forget about Anderson Green and the Mercury Group. But ghosts would still haunt her, making a normal life impossible. She couldn’t escape her ability any more than she could escape herself.
“I’ll do what we agreed.”
“Glad to hear it. But it’s crucial that you remember this, Penny: you cannot help the dead while being an advocate for the living.” He spoke with an air of finality, as if no argument were possible.
“I think we should be able to do both.”
He arched an eyebrow, glancing sideways at her. “You can think whatever you like. But when the time comes that I give you a direct order, I’ll expect you to follow it.”
Zandra Mendes heard loud footsteps approaching her cabin. Her new partner was on his way over, and she didn’t need to be psychic to realize he wasn’t happy.
Briefly, she thought about pulling her door closed. She’d left it cracked open when she carried her suitcase inside. Could I pretend to be in the bathroom? she thought, hating that she’d even consider something so passive-aggressive.
But it was too late, anyway. Her door widened, and Ben Kwan appeared. Snowflakes blew in past him.
“What does Anderson think he’s doing?”
Zandra removed a folded shirt from her suitcase and carefully set it inside a drawer. “So you finally got his text.”
“I just got onto the wi-fi. It’s so like him to spring this on us at the last moment. Un-freaking-believable.”
She had known since last night that Anderson was on his way with a fresh recruit in tow. He’d told her to pack a couple of extra tech vests and book two additional rooms at the Shady Valley Resort. The place looked more like a summer camp than a hotel. A tidy row of miniature log cabins with a lodge at the far end. Zandra couldn’t help thinking of tie-dye and rainbow-colored friendship bracelets.
“You know how Anderson works,” she said. “We’re supposed to be nimble. He doesn’t like us overthinking or overanalyzing. Which is what you’re doing now.”
Ben leaned his solid form against the dresser. He was already geared up—black cargo pants, black wool sweater, tech vest zipped and ready to go. The small eye of his body cam winked at her from the center of his chest. Usually, Zandra kept her focus on mind rather than body. It was the nature of her talent. But Ben’s physical presence was so…present. He took up at least half of the small room. It was distracting.
“We could’ve handled this on our own,” he said. “Instead, we’ll have him looking over our shoulders, criticizing every little thing.”
Most Mercury Group cases were handled by a single, two-agent team. But perhaps this wasn’t the typical haunting. She didn’t have much information yet. In fact, she’d been wondering why Anderson had kept the police files to himself so far.
Zandra had known Anderson for almost twenty years, and she trusted him more than anyone else in her life. He’d started out as a paranormal researcher and academic. At times, his instincts were so accurate they bordered on the uncanny, though he only had a touch of para-sensitivity himself. But he also had over a decade’s experience managing Mercury Group agents. He believed in their mission above all else.
He also cared little for making his teams comfortable, which didn’t bother Zandra. Their work was important, but only a fool would expect it to be easy.
Ben narrowed his eyes at her, then cursed. “Are you reading me right now? Seriously?”
“Calm down. I wasn’t even thinking about you, honestly.” She shrugged one shoulder. “You know, you could just tell me what happened. Because the rumors? They don’t sound like you.”
“Hard pass.” Ben crossed his arms, biceps bulging.
Okay, then. “Look,” she said, “if Anderson thinks we need the extra personnel, then he’s got his reasons, and he’s not going to explain them. Even to me.”
“His reasons are obvious.”
Now, she was reading him. She couldn’t help it—Ben’s emotions had risen to the surface. But he wasn’t angry so much as hurt. Why? She couldn’t say.
Ben rubbed a hand over his chin. “I admitted that I screwed up. Hasn’t Anderson punished me enough?”
“Are you saying that partnering with me is a punishment?”
He rolled his eyes. “Don’t be dramatic, Z.”
At that, she had to laugh. Zandra felt like she was the one Anderson had unfairly singled out. He expected her to deal with trainees and overly muscled problem cases without complaint. Because, of course, she would.
She hadn’t asked to get saddled with Ben as a teammate. Zandra’s longtime partner had recently retired, and she’d spent the last two months without a new one. Instead, Anderson had been giving her special assignments and research projects. Maybe, if she’d had any family or friends outside Mercury to speak of, she’d have taken time off. But she and Anderson had a similar type of personal life—pretty much none at all.
Ben, by contrast, had a huge family and more personal life than was good for him. That was how he’d gotten himself into trouble. From the little she’d heard, anyway. Which may or may not be true. If Ben would only enlighten her.
“Who is this new recruit, anyway?” he asked. “Do you know?”
“Anderson gave me her name. Penny Wright.”
“There’s some info about her online. A small following, some media attention, which isn’t ideal. She’s from Ashton—closest terminal to here.” A place where the worlds of the living and dead converged. Which could either heighten Ms. Wright’s abilities, or make her dangerously unpredictable. At this point, it was impossible to know.
“You think she’s worth the effort?”
“Anderson thinks she is.” Zandra resumed unpacking, organizing her belongings in their proper places around the room. They’d allowed a couple of weeks for this assignment, but it was always hard to predict how long a haunting would take to clear. There were so many variables—whether living witnesses were helpful or obfuscating, how active the ghosts might be, whether the mediums could form a quick emotional connection with the dead.
Zandra prided herself on her record: 90% of assignments cleared without injuries, on schedule. Even that ten percent problem rate—not necessarily failures, but problems—was higher than she’d have liked.
Ben’s track record, in contrast? Only sixty-eight percent clean. Long sessions at the gym didn’t tend to impress ghosts.
Or me, she noted. Obviously.
He quieted down for several minutes, scrolling through websites on his phone. Zandra glanced at his screen and saw the same articles about Penny Wright that she’d perused earlier. Penny didn’t seem to be an attention seeker, nor did she present herself as a paranormal expert. She’d refused nearly all interviews or requests for comment. Zandra wondered how Anderson had gotten her to join up.
“I’m not convinced,” Ben said. “Even if she’s powerful, she’s untrained. Babysitting her will make this case ten times harder.”
On that much, Zandra and her new partner agreed. “Then I suggest you start working instead of whining.”
She smiled at his answering scowl. Ben stormed out of her cabin, the decks shuddering in his wake.
About half an hour later, Anderson’s Jeep pulled into the parking lot. Zandra stood on the walkway that connected the row of cabins. She heard Ben’s door open, though she didn’t look over at him.
Anderson got out of the car, brushing at his clothes to loosen any wrinkles, though Zandra couldn’t spot any. He nodded at her, then at Ben, his typical lukewarm greeting. But Zandra knew his expressions. His eyebrows raised just slightly, lip twitching with humor. She wasn’t close enough to read him, but she’d known Anderson long enough to interpret.
Fireworks yet? his expression asked.
Did you expect anything less? Zandra’s smirk responded. Then she focused on the young woman who’d just stepped out of the passenger side.
She was petite, with strawberry-blond hair falling past her shoulders and freckles dotting her nose and cheeks. Kohl lined her wide-set eyes. Her face was open, her eyes friendly.
“Hi. I’m Penny.”
So she hadn’t waited for Anderson to introduce her. Zandra liked that. The warmth of her aura swept over Zandra in a rush of turbulent energy. Raw power, but uncontrolled.
And she’s nervous, Zandra thought. She’s left everyone she loves and fears she won’t be able to find her way back. Maybe she’s right. I never did.
“I’m Zandra. Or just Z.” She tilted her head in her partner’s direction. “The lurker over there is Ben.”
He mumbled a greeting. Penny waved.
I'll need to stay close to herto keep her steady, Zandra thought. She sought out Anderson's aura and sensed eager confidence. He wanted to see what Penny could do.
“We can break more ice later,” Anderson said. “Z, get Penny a vest. We’ll all meet at the hotel office in five. Daylight’s wasting.”
Penny followed the others into the lodge. She pulled at the vest Zandra had given her. The thing felt heavy, and Penny wasn’t even sure how to read the various digital numbers. Zandra had promised to explain later. Anderson wanted them to get started.
They walked past the front desk, which sat deserted, into a large room with a rectangular table in the center. Open rafters crossed the vaulted roof, and the walls and furniture were constructed of knotty oak.
Anderson bent over a laptop. On the table lay a stack of file folders. “Good, you’ve got your gear.” He stood upright, gesturing for them to gather closer.
“I realize I’ve kept a lid on the details of this case so far. But since we have a new addition”—here he pointed at Penny—“I wanted to keep you all on the same page. I’m sure you’ve all heard of Edmund Demler?”
Anderson rested his hand atop a file, tenting his fingers. “Demler Mansion was Edmund’s home since childhood, as well as the location of his death. For years, stories have circulated that the building is haunted, but we had no corroboration until recently. About a month ago, sisters Hannah and Kacey Eckert were exploring Demler Mansion when Hannah fell through a weak part of the second floor. She’s in a coma, critical but stable condition, so she hasn’t explained what she experienced. But Kacey, her younger sister, reported having seen a silver shape in the room just before Hannah fell.”
He picked up his computer and flipped it around so that the screen faced the rest of them. “And their companion, Ross Trujio, apparently captured the phenomenon on video.”
Ben and Zandra stood to either side of Penny, all of them intent on the screen.
Anderson hit play.
The video was shaky, the only sound heavy breathing. Penny could make out a dim hallway with doors on either side. Some hung off of their hinges.
“We’re in the eastern wing of the house,” a young male voice said. Ross Trujio, Penny assumed. “Somewhere around here is the bedroom where Edmund Demler grew up."
The camera pointed upward, showing patches of mildew on the ceiling. Then back down to the hall. The shot moved through a doorway and entered a room, the man's flashlight illuminating the space one piece at a time. Parts of the walls had sloughed away, revealing bricks and narrow slats of wood beneath. A few rotting items of clothing draped over the back of a wooden chair. A cracked mirror hung above a chest of drawers.
The camera shifted to Ross’s face. He was around twenty, with a faint growth of whiskers on his chin. He spoke in a hushed, excited tone.
“They say Demler's grandparents kept him locked away most of his life. His room was somewhere on this floor, with a window that faced the lake.”
Penny leaned forward as she watched, placing her hand on the back of a folding chair.
“Could that be why he drowned them?” Ross asked. “Seeing them happy, when he was stuck in here?”
The camera swung around to the window, its glass a web of fractures. Then back to Ross.
“The air has a chill to it—even colder than outside, I think. It smells damp and musty. There’s a bad feeling here, for sure.” Ross exhaled, shaking himself. “I’m getting chills here, you guys. Major vibes.”
Zandra’s hand moved toward the screen. “What’s behind him?” she murmured.
“I see it too,” Penny said.
There was a streak of silver. But it wasn’t from the window glass or any mirror.
“This house has been empty for almost twenty years. It’s seen some really dark stuff, and some people say it should’ve been torn down, but you know? I don’t agree. We can’t just get a sanitized version of our history, from like, textbooks and museums. That’s why I’ve gone to lots of places and—”
Ross cringed. “Crap, that sounded lame. Okay, edit that last bit out.” He tilted his head, examining his own face on the screen. “I should get the girls over here. Reaction shots.”
The camera’s motions were jerky as Ross walked toward the door. He stepped out and said, “Hannah? You’ll want to see this.” Then he turned back toward the bedroom.
The silver shape suddenly loomed into view.
Ross yelped as he fumbled the camera. At the same moment, there was a deafening crash. “What the—oh holy—” His voice cut off, and the screen went black.
Penny inhaled, her heart thumping.
For several seconds, none of them spoke. The air in the lodge had turned stuffy. Like the oxygen had depleted in the room.
Anderson returned to the laptop and minimized the window. “We don’t have video of Hannah’s fall. Just a statement from Kacey, her sister.”
He picked up one of the files. Zandra accepted it and flipped it open.
“Kacey described seeing the same kind of visual phenomena in the adjoining room,” Anderson continued. “Hannah was listening to it. Responding to it.”
“I’ve seen that happen before,” Penny said. “A ghost’s memories can overwhelm someone. Make them do irrational things. But…”
“Go ahead,” Anderson encouraged. “Follow that train of thought.”
Penny tucked her hair behind her ear. “In my experience, ghosts don’t usually speak to people directly. Even mediums.”
Most of the time, the dead weren’t aware of the living at all. Or even aware of the fact of their own death. “Unless the ghost is fully conscious,” Penny said. “Those are the dangerous ones.”
“Yeah. We know.” Ben strolled across the room, stretching his arms. “But poltergeists can be just as deadly. And they don’t have to possess any consciousness at all. They’re like a natural disaster, able to strike at any second when an energy source comes near.”
“But there was no sign of any IO—inanimate object—movement on the video.” Zandra pointed at the open file in her hand. “Nor does Kacey mention anything like polt activity in her statement. Says she saw a silver shape in the air. Her sister was acting strangely, then she fell.”
Penny looked over Zandra’s shoulder at the witness statement. She was thinking of her own encounters with ghosts in the past. Ghosts, aware or not, could take on energy from the living. Especially mediums.
“Was Hannah a medium?” Penny asked. “Or Kacey or Ross? Could this ghost have been absorbing their energy?”
“Not that I’ve seen from the statements,” Anderson said. “It’s worth asking when we speak to them.”
Ben sighed, shaking his head. “But Hannah and Kacey and Ross aren’t here now. We can assume the entities will draw energy from us when we enter the house. So I’d rather not spend all day asking questions that might have no relevance to the current situation.” He glanced at Penny. “No offense.”
Her skin heated. Penny had come here for training so that she could avoid ghosts in the future. But for Zandra and Ben, chasing dangerous spirits was a way of life. Anderson was going slow, explaining things because of her.
“At this point, all questions are relevant. It seems to me that more than one person in this room could benefit from a reminder of the basics.” Anderson’s tone remained light. Yet the tension in the room was palpable. Ben stared out the window. Zandra’s back was straight and stiff. Penny had been dressed down by a boss before, and it could be humiliating. But somehow, having Anderson defend her was almost worse. He was the one who’d encouraged her to share her ideas, all for Ben to scoff at how obvious they were.
And she’d thought the haunting would be the most difficult part of this assignment.
“We are here to clear the haunting at Demler Mansion,” Anderson instructed in a professorial tone. “First, we determine the possible entities present and assess the level of danger. We cannot make simply assume we know the situation.”
He returned to the computer keyboard and time-shifted the video until Ross’s face dominated the shot, his eyes wide.
“Second, we delve into background information to understand those entities and their motivations. We speak to witnesses and dive into further research. Third?” Anderson punctuated the word by rapping his knuckles against the table. “We choreograph our approach to liberate the entities while minimizing casualties. Questions?”
Only a million, Penny thought. She hardly knew where to begin. She’d helped ghosts move on before, but she’d relied almost entirely on instinct.
Step one sounded clear enough, though—“determine the entities present.” In other words, identify the ghost. It might be Edmund. But they couldn’t assume.
“I have a question,” Zandra said. “According to Kacey’s statement, Hannah mentioned the name ‘Tina.’ Do we know who that is?”
“I do,” a quiet voice said. “I knew Tina.”
They turned. A middle-aged woman stood in the doorway, wearing a cable-knit sweater, her blond hair swept off her face. She pushed her cat-eye glasses up on her nose, smiling at them shyly.
“Tina Freeman was a resident at a local camp for girls,” the woman said softly. “She was also Edmund’s last victim.”
DEMON HOUSE will be released on January 6, 2022...