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a haunting affair

A HAUNTING AFFAIR
Adirondack Gothic Series
by Ursula Bauer
Release date: June, 2011

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Ex-cop turned private security consultant Sam Tyler made a deathbed promise to uncover the truth behind the murder of his friend's wife at a remote Adirondack lodge, and his sense of duty won't let him fail. When he realizes the case is at a dead end, and the lodge is haunted, he fast concludes his only hope of making good on that promise is Emma Bishop, a psychic with a shady past. He's a man who believes in hard evidence and stone cold proof, but with too little of either, he's ready to take his chances with Emma.

Emma grew up with con-artist parents, but went legit when she hit eighteen. She knows the action at Holloway Lodge is a dangerous game, but one she needs to play if she plans to build on her already formidable reputation. Falling hard and fast for Sam Tyler is an unwanted complication she never sees coming. Not only is he a former cop, he's looking for happy ever after, and she sees love as the ultimate liability.

The dead demand justice and she can't turn away, even with a murderer drawing a target on her back. As old secrets and fresh bodies turn up, and Emma and Sam race against time to bring the truth to light. Neither plans on the attraction they share kicking into overdrive, but with danger and passion heating to the flash point, life, and love are put to the ultimate test.

 

excerpt

Chapter One

Emma Bishop's father was king of the con men, and her mother, his queen. As the heir apparent, she'd learned every trick, including how to spot trouble an hour before it hit town. All her years since her escape at age eighteen had been legit, but you didn't ever lose the skills you gained growing up in the life, or 'on the grift', as it was known. Holloway Lodge, the estate grounds, this job, they were trouble. Pure. Plain. Simple.

The late October wind rattled trees like knuckle-bone chimes, and everything smelled dead. Not mountain fresh, not clean and healthy, but wet and dead and rotten to the core. Emma took the measure of the timber monstrosity that passed for a home from the safety of her car, and knew, deep down in every single one of her bones, coming was a bad decision. Staying was worse.

Here the air worried, and the land carried the stamp of sorrow and menace. For generations, the shadowy Adirondack great camp was a Vaughn family compound. Five years ago it became the scene of a sensational, unsolved murder, when the elder brother's wife was killed. This spring death struck again, taking that same brother in a freak car accident. Tragedy was nothing new to the cursed line. Each generation Vaughn wives died under mysterious circumstances, and the sons found early graves as well. Few if any children were born, and when they were, trouble was their shadow. They had wealth, prestige and the mother-load of bad karmic debt.

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She took a cleansing breath and tried to shake the heebie jeebies loose. When a tentative calm settled around her, she released the steering wheel and opened her psychic channels. Emma reached deep into the preliminary energy read, searching for truth and connection in the sinister undercurrents. Instead of picking up the more of the vibe, she ran head first into her own better judgment telling her to cut and run.

Initial impressions of doom aside, she needed to sort out her priorities. Emma bit back a frustrated curse and pressed the mental reset button. Whether a con or a legit gig, the start of a job was the start of a job. You either committed all the way or moved on. Half way never brought anything but disaster. The choice to engage always came down to the simple debate of risk versus reward. Was the game worth playing? Was the prize worth the danger?

If she wanted the kind of fortune and respect her boss, world renowned medium Eric Savitch commanded, then she needed Holloway Lodge and the unprecedented opportunity it offered. Eric was counting on her, she couldn't let down the man who'd become her surrogate family. These were the reasons she took the job, these were strong enough rewards to shut out her fear and get on with things. If she ran, she may never get this chance again. If she ran, what was her word worth? The risk of loss was too great. On both counts.

Pushing off her earlier reservations, Emma climbed out of the car and shrugged into her coat. At least the driving rainstorms were at pause. She thought she'd dressed for the hostile climate, but what passed for warm and dry in the southern locale of New York City didn't quite cut it in the great white north of the Adirondack high peaks. Standing against the night, she kept her eyes open and let her mind drift, riding the strange currents of energy as far as they'd take her.

The wind gained strength, stirring up the smell of sodden earth and decay. Malice radiated from the main building. The yellow light hazing through windows was swallowed by the darkness, leaving the wrap-around porch swathed in uncertain shadows. The sharp roof edges stood blacker than the evening gloom, creating a sinister presence that all but breathed. How she could have been so wrong in her initial assessment of the job? Research was a mainstay for her. Somehow the place didn't look as bad in the pictures she'd been given, or the ones she'd pulled up on the internet. Settling inside, calming her core as her boss called it, she tried to absorb, filter and spin out the psychic energy. She was the conduit. She was the guide. Mentally, she pictured the grounds, trying to pull in more of the ambient vibe.

To the left and right of the sprawling menace, small guest cottages hunched warily along the shore of a bottomless lake she knew existed, but could not see. Beyond would be the foundation remains of a large building that once housed a laundry to serve the estate, and had in more modern times been converted to a sumptuous guest annex before becoming a burned out grave. Farther into the woods were skeletal remains of derelict buildings. During the gilded age, an army of servants lived there while providing support to the active lodge.

Everywhere the marks of ghosts were present, and the thought gave Emma the kind of chill she couldn't shake. When several moments passed without event, she breathed a sigh of relief and let the real world flood back into view. She squeezed the key fob and popped the trunk. The normal sound anchored her back into the firm safety of reality.

So what the place gave her the creepy-crawlies, she thought, hefting her suitcase from the trunk. So what evil choked the frigid air and the spirits of the wrongfully dead did anything but rest in peace. She was here to do a job no one else could seem to get done. This would make or break her in that next level of professional recognition, and she was gunning for the make and not the break.

Emma pulled out a large garment bag and slung it over her shoulder, slammed down the trunk, and popped the handle to her rollaway suitcase. The wind roared without mercy as she crossed the crunchy gravel drive. The sound grew strange and distorted. She cocked her head and listened closer. The wind died suddenly and all went still. Then, from nowhere and everywhere at once, a human cry filled the emptiness. The pitiful weeping fell from the mountain side, landing deep into the surrounding valley, where it shook the very earth. Electricity crackled along her exposed skin. She drew her arms to herself in protection. The weeping sound multiplied with echo upon echo, and though she crammed her hands over her ears to block the horror, it continued.

Focus, she told herself. Focus and forget the fear.

This whole communing with the dead thing wasn't her forte, but she could bend her own talent enough at times to make connections. Emma lowered her hands and opened herself to the sensations, and as she did the sound gentled, became more distinct. Soft spoken words, whispers she strained to make out, teased on the edge of comprehension. The words repeated but she couldn't catch the meaning no matter how she tried.

As fast as it had started, the spirit contact ended. The electric energy vanished, and the wind became the wind again, rustling mindlessly around the clearing that served as a parking lot. Breath heaved out of her lungs in a grateful rush. The psychic event was powerful. And promising. If she was that tuned into the spectral energies right out of the gate, the game was hers. If you survive, a small voice cautioned.

Grabbing the roll away handle, she approached the front entry with her shoulders squared and her senses open and ready. A shadow detached itself from the gloom on the porch and her heart leapt into her throat. "Spooky, isn't it?" The shadow had a man's voice. A nice one at that. Deep and resonant, the kind of voice that could talk a woman into all kinds of crazy things.

She found her own voice and answered the darkness. "It's the scene of a brutal, unsolved murder. Spooky is part of the package."

"Some people say it was suicide." The shadow stepped closer to an anemic swath of light, revealing a long body, wide shoulders, and a strong profile, but not much more in terms of detail. What was there, however, was promising.

"People say a lot of things about Jennifer Vaughn's death. Murder at the hands of an obsessive stalker. Death at the hands of her jealous husband. Robbery gone wrong. I've even heard the Lakeside Ghost is responsible," she countered.

"Eric said you're always on top of your facts. Looks like he was correct. As to the theories, knowing the Vaughns and their history, any one is a good possibility."

"That's why I'm here, isn't it? To help you figure it out once and for all?" She advanced as they talked, eager to get a better look. She couldn't resist a good mystery, or a good man, two top runners on her fatal flaw list. She cleared the last shadows, and looked up the stairs at his silhouette. "I'm Emma Bishop."

"Sam Tyler. I was wondering when you'd show." He took the steps with an easy grace at odds with his brawny frame.

"The last storm slowed me down. I had to pull off into a diner parking lot on the outskirts of town for almost an hour until it finally let up enough to drive. Cell reception's pretty sketchy. I tried calling a few times from the road but had no signal."

"Meyerville's a town that likes its mountains pure. They're against too many cell towers. Dead spots all over town and the surrounding hills. Welcome to the outback."

Sam reached for her suitcase and she let him take it, enjoying the chivalry as much as the wave of heat radiating from his solid body. The view held up pretty nice, too. He was old school man, ruggedly handsome with black, close cropped hair and cool gray eyes. The polar opposite of the overly groomed metrosexuals who were the steady fare in the circles she frequented.

a haunting affair

He also wore 'cop' they way those men wore the latest fragrance from Dolce and Gabana. She knew from Eric's email that the 'ex' in Sam's ex-cop status was permanent, but some, they had it in the blood, the way the Vaughns had nothing but trouble. Taking away the badge didn't take away the inner cop. Guys like Sam were the original white knights. Stick them back in the times of old and they'd be first in line to slay the dragon of the day.

He regarded her with a level gaze. "It's been a bad season so far. Between the rain and early sleet, we've had road closings, mud slides, and fatality after fatality. I'm glad you showed up in one piece. I was worried."

Emma found him instantly intriguing, and vaguely dangerous. A hold over from her old life. It didn't do to get close to anyone, make yourself vulnerable. Casual, however, was completely acceptable. Which was good, because the way his muscled body filled out those faded jeans and that dark fisherman's sweater held too much promise to pass up. "I'd worry more about living here than getting here."

"I agree. It's a perfect setting for murder. Remote, exclusive town, with primarily seasonal, rich residents, a token municipal police force, and no one for miles around this estate. There's even an abandoned sanitarium on the other side of town. It's a wonder more bodies haven't turned up. It's a killer's dream." On that cheerful note, he slipped the garment bag from her shoulder.

As they walked towards the stairs, she debated informing Sam of the spectral event she'd experienced. He'd hired her, after all. But he was still cop to the core, which meant skeptic. She'd have to prove herself all over again. Then again, it would be a good test. Tell him something minor, see how he took it, and determine if she could trust him for heavier things. "I'm amazed anyone voluntarily lives here."

"We're more expensive per square foot than Lake Placid. Older families, more swank, better pedigrees. No simulated bob sled rides, though, and Placid is closer to the good ski trails."

"Meyerville has more ghosts," she said, testing the waters.

"At least here at Holloway Lodge," he replied, not missing a beat. "The Lakeside Ghost's over in the center of town, by Rose Lake. So I guess you're right. Might even be more. Meyerville's a weird town."

He had a disarming manner and seemed to be a very earnest man. If she told him the truth would he dismiss her out of hand? Mock her? She was used to it from cops, one of the reasons she hated working cold cases at all. He seemed so genuine, with that white sheen of good guy ringing him like a halo. She weighed the risks and figured Eric wouldn't have stuck her with a jerk, especially on such short notice.

She stopped him on the porch as he reached for the door.

"I had an attempted spirit contact a few minutes ago." When he regarded her again with that potent, unblinking gaze, seemingly clear of judgment, she continued. "The area's hot, which is a good sign. I don't normally get hits this quick, or this strong."

"I don't know much about this psychic stuff," he started.

Her heart sunk a little, but Sam continued unaware.

"You'll need to bring me up to speed, probably more often than not." He appeared thoughtful as he considered his own words. "Eric says your unique background and particular set of psychic skills puts you at the top of your game. Between the two of us, if there's anything else to find on this case, we'll get the job done."

He wasn't one to rush to action, she thought. A man so self assured and sturdy he made her feel safe despite Holloway Lodge's evil presence. Part of her wanted to sink into the safety, the rest of her recoiled at the thought. She took care of herself. The risks of leaning on someone were way too high. "I'll explain what I do as we go. I have the crash course version, but you strike me as the type who likes the details."

"Big picture's always good, but it's the little things that tell the most." That whiskey smooth voice tickled her ears, turned up the heat in her blood another dangerous degree. "Connecting so quickly, it's a good thing, right?"

"It's a good thing." Emma was off kilter and more than a little stunned by how open to her twilight zone he seemed. If he was playing her, she'd lost her edge. She'd need to be careful with this guy. "It is a little unusual for me, but the grounds amplify horror. I wouldn't be surprised by anything that happens here."

Sam tossed a challenging look back at the murky darkness. "I used to love this place when I was a kid. Ever since Jen's murder, it creeps me out. Reminds me of a blind alley on a dark night-you think twice about going in, and you don't drop your guard for a second."

She liked him, she decided. He certainly took the edge off the fear. As to his ability in the cops and robbers department, according the information Eric had conveyed, he'd single handedly brought down a team of corrupt police and politicians operating covertly for years. It had ended his career, but cleaned out a poisoned squad. Then he stunned everyone by going back to his roots in software engineering. He designed a lucrative computer program designed to ferret out industrial espionage deep inside corporate computer systems, then used the money he made to go private with his own security concern, Lost and Found. Which meant the guy was gold in the crime and punishment area.

Super smart. Super cop. And worst of all, super hot. She needed to watch her step. "You and Jen's husband Keith were close friends?"

"Closer than brothers. I've known him since kindergarten. We were inseparable until college graduation."

What it was like to have that depth of history with someone other than a blood relative? Friends, especially best friends, were off limits for her as a child. She'd done better as an adult, but still, it was awkward, and her social circle was something she kept small and compartmentalized. Better not to think too hard on that, the thoughts were too uncomfortable. "What if we turn up something that pegs Keith as the killer?"

"Won't happen. Keith was devoted to Jen. When you see some of the things I have to show you, you'll understand."

"Your loyalty is admirable. In this kind of inquiry, the best approach is with mind wide open. If you go in with too many fixed ideas of what is and what isn't, you setting yourself up for failure." She smiled at him, the same way she did with clients who weren't being entirely truthful, either with her, or with themselves. "Perception is nine tenths of the law. And it's often faulty. That may be why none of the psychics, shamans, mediums, and, cops, failed to turn anything up over the years."

"You don't like cops very much."

a haunting affair

Was she that transparent? She was losing her competitive edge. "Not usually. Lucky for you I do like white knights."

Something shifted in his gaze. Transforming. Speculative. And predatory.

"I put you in the guest suite next to mine to keep you close. Things have been off here since Keith's death last spring, and I don't want to take chances. I hope that won't be a problem."

The light from the interior framed him perfectly in the doorway. He was a man pulled straight from some of her long forgotten dreams. They'd be sleeping with only a wall between them. Not a problem? Her earlier assessment was right on the money: this job was nothing but pure trouble. "No worries," she lied, uncertain she was up to Holloway Lodge, and sharing close quarters as well as every waking, and sleeping moment with Sam Tyler.

He seemed ready to respond, then decided to keep his silence. But the hot look that briefly lit his grey eyes told her clearly she wasn't the only one with a fast growing appreciation. Even her years on the grift couldn't stop a blush from creeping across her cheeks. He moved the door open wider, allowing her to pass. "Ladies first."

 

Chapter Two

Eric Savitch had warned Sam about Emma. She was damn good, he'd said. A psychic's psychic. Mixed bag of skills, he'd said, and some other mumbo jumbo. She worked for him, weeding out all the potential clients who were scam artists, or, dangerous to his professional reputation. But she'd worked a number of cold murder cases, too. Worked them, and hated them. Hated cops. Hated the way they treated her, with skepticism and derision most times. Don't piss her off, Eric said in dire tones. She may look small and fragile, but she's hell on wheels and doesn't take crap from anyone. She'll walk out on you if you don't take her seriously and treat her with respect.

Sam easily remembered the whole cautionary lecture, but there was one key piece of information missing. At no point had Eric warned him that in addition to being an out of the box psychic with an attitude, Emma Bishop was also beautiful. Not plastic Hollywood gorgeous. Hers was a more dangerous kind of beautiful. She had that combination of girl next door innocence and smoldering mysterious sex goddess, all rolled into a petite package full of more curves than the average man's hands could safely handle.

He poured cold water from the coffee pot into the well and set it to brew the decaf Emma had requested. The way his blood ran hot, he should be pouring the water on himself instead. She didn't need to be a complication unless he made her one, but when he'd followed her up the stairs to her suite it hit him that he'd never wanted a complication more.

The circumstances couldn't be worse. She'd been a con artist growing up, certainly not the kind of woman he usually kept company with. On top of that, she was a psychic, something he wasn't certain he believed in. Then again, he'd not been keeping company with anyone for quite a while.

This case was a problem at every turn. There was nothing left to go on. Maybe this psychic thing might work where everything and everyone else had failed. He was off script at this point with a game that was up for grabs. Sam hated flying blind. Maybe it was in his nature. Between being a computer geek and a cop, he was hooked on things like hard facts, data and evidence.

Working with a psychic would be a serious challenge. His unexpectedly strong attraction to Emma didn't make things any better. He liked the easy curve of her smile, as much as he liked the other curves that graced her petite body. He liked the way she moved, a kind of glide that was all woman and made a guy take immediate notice. In fact, her whole package appealed to him, on the surface, and on a more primal level.

Sam tossed the marinated flank steak on the grill in the center of the island. It sizzled against the hot iron. He needed to watch himself with this one. She'd been around town a time or two, and still managed to give off an innocent look. Sam figured she'd perfected that image over time to give herself advantage. Even though she'd gone straight as soon as she reached adulthood, a con didn't walk away from a life time of training. Emma Bishop knew how to work angles. While the fact kept him on his toes, it didn't stop him from appreciating the results. He was a man, after all. A man gone a long time without the company of a woman.

Sam grabbed a cold beer from the mammoth fridge, popped the top and took a long swallow. He wanted her, for the psychic part, and for her internal bunko detecting abilities. And he wanted her for other reasons, ones that he'd never expected. Reasons that made this whole insane scheme way too problematic.

This situation was getting crazier by the minute. He'd bought into it when Keith was dying in the emergency room after they'd brought what was left of him in from the car crash. But in a weird way, after assessing the scant facts for himself, and living in the lodge, Sam had a feeling Keith was onto something when he demanded that Sam enlist Emma's aid as the last hope to solving the impossible cold case. Sam had built every kind of program imaginable, run all the data, used his computer analytic skills along with his law enforcement training, and in the end, he was left with the same conclusions as his friend. Dead ends and angry dead required an unconventional approach.

"To you, Keith," he said aloud to the cavernous kitchen, raising his beer. "Wherever the hell you are."

"Thanks for making the decaf. Smells good."

Emma's musical voice startled him. He turned to face her, surprised she moved so quietly. She'd changed from the jeans and baggy sweatshirt into a pair of cream colored slacks and a clingy pink turtleneck in a fuzzy knit. Locking down his libido, Sam refocused. "It'll be ready in a few."

She hovered in the doorway, a thoughtful look on her heart shaped face. "Do you think Keith is haunting the lodge?"

Wow, she knew how and where to strike. Sam cleared his throat, uncomfortable and unprepared to share the real answer to her question. "He died at Albany Medical Center."

"I read about the crash in the email Eric sent me. Where your body dies isn't always a predictor of where your sprit haunts. Or so I'm told. Ghost hunting isn't my specialty."

"According to Keith's journals, none of the ghost hunters managed to scare up any spirits. Some 'debunked' the lodge, said the ghosts were non-existent." Sam steered the conversation towards something other than Keith. "A few thought they were too weak to pierce the veil between life and death."

He picked up the tongs, turned the steak, and motioned to her to pull up a stool. It was strange to be talking about this situation, to say the words out loud to someone other than the thin air. It was cathartic and a little scary. Emma had a way about her that made it all too easy to talk. He'd hate to face her in an interrogation room.

"Keith logged a number of spectral incidents in his records. Why do you think the ghosts never showed for the professionals?"

a haunting affair

Emma shrugged. Some of her honey blond hair spilled back over her shoulders. Light gleamed off the silky strands, making Sam want for all the world to run his fingers through them. Were they as soft as they looked? Softer, he bet.

"Some mediums say all the electronic equipment ghost hunters employ counteracts the energy spirits use to manifest." She took up the middle chair and settled in. "There are a lot of alternate theories on how spirits work. Some say they use electrical energy to manifest, others say strong emotion. Some believe fear of the living can push them on or hold them back. Do you think ghosts hold your answers?"

A good question. "The evidence certainly doesn't say much. I think at this point the only way to get the truth of what happened that night might be to shake down a ghost or two and see what we get."

"Spoken like a cop."

"Ex-cop."

"Private cop. But still, a cop." Her eyes sparkled with challenge. They were dark like rich chocolate. He'd always favored that combination in women, fair hair and dark eyes. Girl next door. Sex Goddess. He found himself wondering again which one she really was.

"Steak's burning."

"Right." He tonged the cut of flank onto a stoneware plate and covered it with a glass pot lid to let it rest. She was distracting. He'd been alone too long. Not just here in the lodge, but in his life, to be hit so hard and so fast. Like a teenager with a killer first crush. Grabbing his beer, he leaned across the island. Not to catch her scent but to prove to himself he was more man than lustful idiot. "I intend to open the research and training branch of my investigation company, Lost and Found, on these grounds. I can't do that until I put this case to rest. I need to know who killed Keith's wife Jennifer. And if I can't know that, then I need to believe it's something that will never be known so I can move on."

"Not too tall an order. What if I can't do either?"

He refused to consider the possibility. Instinct told him he was close to the truth. That Keith had been close. Pride held him back from any thoughts of failure. "You want the book rights, help me figure it out. If you can't, I move on to someone that can."

This surprised a laugh out of her. It was genuine. And sultry. "I like honesty in a man."

He wondered, and wanted to ask what else she liked. He bet they'd both have fun finding out.

Her pale cheeks colored with a light rose flush, as if she'd read his thoughts. She was interested. More than that, he realized, studying her closer. She was considering. At least he wasn't the only one feeling the attraction. Who would be the first to stop fighting it, he thought idly, and what would it cost them both?

The tension of the moment stretched taut between them. Another second and he'd reach for her. The awareness shocked him back to reality. Sam pulled back and busied himself prepping the pan to sauté the mix of veg he'd cut earlier that day. "So this will be a true crime book?"

"Not the kind you're used to." She folded her hands and rested them on the island, keeping eye contact to a minimum. "I plan to write this more about the journey of a psychic and using esoteric energy to find truth, rather than the listing of sensational details you see in the true crime books. My first two articles were about psychic development and the use of those skills in solving cold cases. The book will be similar, only longer."

He'd read them both. Keith had dog-eared the copies and made copious notes in the margin, by highlighted passages. They'd led Sam to Eric Savitch and then to her. "Why the pseudonym? Don't you want to be famous like your boss?"

"I'm famous enough in the circles I travel." There was a cold note to her tone. "Besides, I think you know my past. Not exactly something I want going public. The more my real face is out there, the less effective I can be at what I do for Eric and people like you. And the more chance I face of trouble from a life I had no choice in leading."

He knew how damaging the past was, how it could hold you back from doing things you wanted, how it forced you to take other routes to live the life you needed. An authentic, true-to-self life. He knew it firsthand. It was why he became a cop, and, after he'd done what he thought was right, why he couldn't be a cop anymore. It was why he started Lost and Found, and why a part of him still stayed lost in the mists of what was, and what would never be. Emma's dubious past was a trigger point for her, if the glacial stare she aimed his way was any hint.

Sam cursed himself for backing her into a corner. He didn't need her angry, he needed her on the job. He needed…his mind drifted and he corralled it back. Time for a more neutral topic. "How do you take your coffee?"

"Cream and two sugars. Real sugar."

He fixed her a cup. "Most people like the fake stuff."

"I had eighteen years of fake stuff. Real works much better for me these days. On all fronts." She accepted the mug, and their hands brushed in the exchange. Electricity charged between them, and he jerked free before the heated contact did any more damage.

If things got any more real between them, he'd be dragging her up the stairs to his bed. What was wrong with him? Maybe it was the lodge. Living here made Keith obsessive and crazy. Was he next on the list? He uncovered the flank steak and quickly sliced it cross grain into long strips. "Your earlier connection sounded promising. Anything else hit you since you've arrived?"

"There's a dense level of creepy. Evil saturates the air. Every few minutes I have the urge to run." She drank some of the coffee and smiled up at him. "But no other formal incidents, or contact."

"It used to be a great place to visit. I spent more time here with Keith through all the seasons than I did in my real home." The memories fell on him, followed by the wave of sadness. Emma had pegged the current state of the lodge and there was no reason to argue or pretend things were otherwise. If they were, he wouldn't be desperate enough to have her in residence. "When Jen died, all the life was sucked out of Keith, and the lodge seemed to follow suit. I should have noticed sooner. If I did maybe-"

"There's a bigger evil at work here, Sam," she interrupted. "I don't think anything you did, or Keith for that matter, would have changed what's present on these grounds."

The cryptic revelation was startling. His internal warning radar went into high alert. Was she working a scam? Escalating to inflate her importance, or play up fear? "If you don't mind me asking, what exactly are you basing that on?"

The minute the words were out he regretted them. She stiffened, squared her shoulders.

"Just a feeling." Sarcasm dripped off each word like poison. "You'll hear that a lot from me. I'm not a computer, or a suspect, and you can't treat me like one. If you can't deal with things that come outside the normal bounds of logic and convention, either find a way to get over it or tell me you can't. Because if you can't, I'm out of here, and you can find someone else. I'll give you several recommendations for other psychics who are more accommodating."

"Emma," he held up a hand in peace. "I'm sorry. Cut me a break. This is new to me."

"And strange," she said.

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"Very strange. I'm going to stick my foot in my mouth more times than once." He rapidly dialed down his attitude, even though he still had his doubts. He couldn't blame her for the reaction but she needed to cut him some slack. "I'm not just a cop, Emma, I'm a computer guy. It's all logic and facts for someone like me. It's how I think, and it's hard to suddenly switch gears. I can't have you threatening to jump ship with every stupid remark I make."

Tension charged the air. For a long moment she stared at him, taking his measure, deciding. Under the scrutiny it became clear to Sam how important she was to him. He wanted her. Emma Bishop. Sordid past and all. Here with him, figuring this all out. And doing a whole lot more.

"We all have our blind spots. Even me. I'm asking you to take me on faith and we've only just met."

"Let's start over."

"Dinner smells good."

Her tone was carefully neutral as she changed topics. He wasn't out of the woods yet, but saw the light and the clearing ahead. He wanted to relax but being so close to her had him too keyed up.

"Let's hope it lives up to the promise."

"So what are you, Sam? Cop, Private Eye, and Master Chef?"

Don't forget Lover, he thought foolishly. Damn. She was under his skin. It happened that way sometimes. Where you connected fast, achieving flash point in less than three seconds. But it didn't happen to him. Not until Emma. He returned to the countertop range, gave the veg a quick stir, and plated them.

"I live alone, and I enjoy a good meal. When I'm in my New York condo, I have a cook come in part time." He moved the strips of steak next, and served up the meal. "He showed me a few tricks of the trade, and I went from there."

"Versatile."

"I try."

"I appreciate versatile." She held up her mug in toast. "Here's to a new beginning. For us, and the case."

He moved without hesitation. Clinked his bottle against the mug. "To new beginnings."

The lights overhead flickered and dimmed.

Emma looked up and around. "More storms?"

"The Lodge went through several renovations in the last ten years. Not all the electrical was changed, and what was, wasn't always done to code. Then Keith got his hands on it, mixing in his weird security system wiring. He was a great programmer, but no electrician. I've had guys in the last few months trying to correctly wire the place to something approaching code, but it's a big property and a slow process."

The strength returned to the lights, but Emma didn't settle. "Is the kitchen up to code?"

"It's on the way."

"Why the need for the intense security system?" She tucked into the food, cutting the lean steak into smaller, bite sized pieces.

"Keith did a fair amount of his computer game designing up here. It's a highly competitive field, with a lot of industrial espionage. But after Jen died, there were some incidents-break-ins that couldn't be explained away. Local sheriff thought it was fans of the case. He wrote it off since nothing was taken. Keith wasn't convinced. He had the front gates and perimeter security enhanced. Then he kind of went off the rails with the rest."

Suddenly his appetite disappeared. How had he missed Keith's slide into insanity? He'd helped him with the case on numerous occasions. He was Keith's best friend. Best friends cared. They knew the score. Except he'd been too wrapped up in his own drama to recognize the truth. Too preoccupied to help. He'd failed, and it was that sense of failure more than anything that drove him now to get this settled.

"And you're picking up where Keith left off?"

If she meant being crazy, he was beginning to think the answer was yes. "I made him a deathbed promise. I don't go back on my word."

"I bet not."

They fell into companionable silence for a while, and he wanted to ask her what she was thinking on three different occasions. The memories of his friend passed, and along with them went the tightness in his chest. For the first time in a while Sam sensed an end in sight. He was no longer alone in his fight, no longer alone in the nightmare that was Keith Vaughn's legacy to him. When he'd first entered into this arrangement he wasn't certain he'd get any results. He was honoring a debt to a dead friend and trying to make sense of the madness settling in around him.

His expectations, if he had any, had been low. Now, he almost believed. Almost. A part of him still sat back, watching, waiting for disappointment and failure. That part warned him that a con's first weapon is the ability to make a mark believe. But the rest of him was close to buying in. It was bad, and good at the same time, and he made up his mind that for now and the immediate future, he'd decide to let it be good and see where it took him.

"Thanks for making dinner," she said, breaking the silence when her plate was nearly empty. "It was a long drive from the city and I was starving. If you get tired of being a private cop, you should hang your shingle as a personal chef."

"You didn't have anything at the diner?"

"The place was packed. Everyone was waiting out the rain and the kitchen was backed up. I decided to stay in the car."

"I'll take you one night. They make great meatloaf, and the best omelets north of Saratoga."

They cleaned up together, their movements matched like they'd done this a thousand times. He set the dishwasher while she poured herself another cup of decaf and went to get more cream from the fridge. The rain had started up again mixed with dull flashes of far off lightning and hushed echoes of thunder.

"More storms?" Emma poured in the cream and returned the carton to the shelf.

"It's a bad year."

a haunting affair

"So, Sam, where do we start?"

He had a lot of answers to that question, none of them he could say aloud. He grabbed another beer and closed the door. Standing beside her, he was wrapped in her floral scent. He leaned against the fridge, affecting a casual attitude at odds with the blood pounding in his veins. "How about I catch you up on the case. We can review the main points."

"That's a great idea."

"I have an ocean of material you can review. Keith was meticulous with his data collection. I started at ground zero. Examined everything again, even build a few programs to sift the information. See if there were things missed, or new angles to examine." And came up with zilch. Sam steeled himself against the thought of another failure. "I put together a basic package of case facts as they stand. I figure the weird stuff can follow."

"It usually does," she said, rewarding him with one of her genuine smiles.

He found himself smiling in return. It was a rusty motion, something he was out of practice doing, but once the mold cracked, it came free and easy. This time the warmth that ran through him had nothing to do with desire. A hot moment stretched between them. What would she do if he reached for her? Touched her bare skin. Kissed her even. Would she slap him and run for the door, or would she part for him and let him taste his fill?

His big head reminded the rest of him that she was here to do a job, not him. The moment turned awkward and he backed off.

"The stuff's in the library." Sam grabbed the shreds of self control he once prided himself on and strode out of the kitchen, leaving her to follow. He had to put some needed distance between them. Had to re-establish boundaries. Reason told him he couldn't afford a complication like her, not with the plans he had in mind for his life as soon as all of this was cleared up.

It had been his experience, though, that reason and desire rarely had anything in common. A woman like Emma, complex and mysterious, wouldn't be easy to resist, no matter what game plan he'd concocted for himself prior to meeting her. Since she'd flashed him that hot look on the porch, all bets were off.

 

~ * * * ~

 

She'd wanted him to do it. To kiss her. He was close enough. The intent was there. In the slant of his gaze, in the low purr of his voice. And when he didn't, she fairly ached with the loss. Her lips tingled, disappointed with the lack of follow through. Her mind kept telling her he wasn't her type, and warning her off a guy she'd known less than a few hours, but everything else in her had other plans.

Emma breathed a heartfelt sigh when he turned on his heels and stalked out of the kitchen. It was one part relief, one part longing. They could have some fun, and if the heat kept climbing at this rate between them, they certainly would. Would it stay just fun, though? His presence was still palpable. What would casual with a man like Sam Tyler really be? Could she keep it contained, the way she preferred all her relationships?

Once in the library she tried to get her bearings. It was hard to play it cool when you burned white hot for the guy not three feet in front of you. Playing games with fire always had a bad end. She knew that, told herself that she shouldn't play with this particular flame. But as she grabbed a pen and legal pad from a rough hewn log console and curled into a corner of the tartan sofa, she knew she couldn't lie. Given half the chance, one or both of them would strike that match. Knowing that, it then became a question of distraction. Would burning a while with Sam Tyler interfere with her plans, or would the heat be worth the risk?

"I read up on Jennifer's murder on the internet this afternoon. People familiar with it say this case is hopeless." She was the psychic part of the pair. The real detective work came from his end, and she was eager to find out what he'd made of the convoluted history and evidence. She put her pen to paper. Taking notes was a crutch, a way to focus on the case to avoid focusing on...other things.

He stood, legs braced wide, hands on his hips. Beside him, a large dry erase board balanced on a battered desk shoved up against one richly paneled wall. Pictures central to the cold case, a few crime scene shots of the guest lodge before and after the fire, and assorted other ephemera were taped to the white surface. Table surfaces and parts of the floor were covered with drifts of spiral notebooks piles, leather journals and what appeared to be reams of computer print outs. It reminded her of something from a TV detective show, and with the exception of the print outs and journals, was like most of the police departments she'd worked with over the years.

Sam, on the other hand, came straight from a fantasy. He wasn't like any other cop she'd met, and certainly not like your average computer geek. How she was supposed to pay attention, stay on her game enough to pick up any stray energy, and keep her hands off him was beyond her at the moment.

"There's very little evidence. The main suspect died before a real investigation started." He'd pushed up his sleeves as he worked, revealing well shaped, entirely masculine forearms. Such a simple part of the anatomy, seemingly innocuous, but Emma found herself mesmerized by them. By him. "On the night Jennifer Vaughn died, four guests were in residence in the main lodge. The groundskeeper was also around. Keith had left for Lake Placid to meet one of his software developers about a programming problem. Unknown to all, a stalker Jen had met while doing charity work was hiding in one of the abandoned staff buildings. By the time Keith returned to the lodge, his wife was dead. Burned to a crisp along with the guest annex."

Emma made a few preliminary notes while he talked, but nothing struck her. She worked herself down off the ledge of tight desire, coming somewhat close to a normal operating level in hopes it would open up the psychic channels more. Reviewing the information in her head, she knew it matched with what she'd learned on her own.

Sam continued the briefing, emotionless and mechanical in his presentation. "Prevailing theory goes: While the other two couples are sleeping or otherwise occupied, and Keith is in Lake Placid, Jen goes to the guest annex where she's killed. Fuel taken from the boat house is used to light the place up. Between the fire, and the heavy rains, no evidence remained. She was identified from dental records."

The lifeless statement of the facts unsettled her. The heinous crime certainly accounted for some of the sinister energy she picked up from the lodge, but not all of it. Pieces were missing. Giant pieces. Pieces that might not even belong to this particular puzzle. The thought that there was more going on stuck with her as he talked, so she jotted it down. She never knew where her odd bits would lead, and more often than not, these were the things that broke cases wide open. "The Vaughn diamonds went missing that night."

"They did." Sam tapped a picture of a cluster of priceless diamonds arranged in an antique choker setting. "The fire inspector thought they were scattered after the fire was put out, since the setting would have melted. Keith wasn't convinced. Twice he brought in teams of seasoned archeologists. They sifted the site and surrounding area and found nothing. The insurance inspector believed they were stolen. The police were neutral on the topic."

She absently chewed on the end of her pen. She tried to relax, to open her senses, but Sam's proximity made it hard to concentrate. The word necklace repeated in her mind. Dim yet insistent. As if memory chanted, trying to wake a sleeping thought. "Doesn't that strike you as odd?"

a haunting affair

"The missing necklace has always been a major question in this case."

"I sense it's going to be important to our outcome." She braced herself for his anticipated bad reaction.

To his credit, Sam's expression didn't change. "It wouldn't surprise me. The necklace was worth a fortune. For it to go missing and never appear again, not even for sale as pieces on the black market, is very unusual. Keith paid off jewelry fences on both sides of the Atlantic to keep tabs on it, but nothing ever surfaced."

"So, back to that night." He faced the board, tapped a picture next to the one of Keith and Jennifer. "Keith and Jen were at a Saratoga fund raiser. They left early in the evening with two friends to come to the lodge. Keith's brother Wesley, and his wife Audrey, were already at the lodge."

"Was coming here part of the evening's plans?"

"According to Keith, no. They wanted to party a little harder than was socially acceptable at the charity ball. Jen had an image to maintain, and when she wanted to cut loose, she did it in private. Up here."

His voice was tight, his stance one of battle. An impression lanced into her consciousness. "Jen was a druggie."

Now Sam's expression changed. Not negatively, though. He looked curious, and maybe a little impressed. "Coke. She wasn't overboard, but she was close. Keith didn't like it, but couldn't seem to stop her."

"So Keith and his wife, along with two friends, left Saratoga earlier that night to come to the lodge and party a little more in depth." A picture formed in her mind. She heard manic laughter. Emma closed her eyes and tried to pick up the essence with more clarity. "I see a lot of alcohol," she said, as the vision slipped from her grasp. "Brandy, I think. Expensive."

"The other couple was Keith's lawyer and his wife. They were drinking brandy with Wesley and Audrey." He shook his head. "Eric said you were good, but I've never worked with a psychic before. I didn't realize how good."

"Mileage varies. It's an unpredictable talent." She didn't want to raise his hopes. He struck her as a man who'd suffered much disappointment in the last year.

"I'm dying to ask where you from the skill came from, or how you learned it. I'm sure you get those questions all the time and are tired of answering. Maybe if we get some downtime you'll tell me? I bet there's a good story in it."

The switch, from stone-faced Sam reciting facts to excited Sam had a strange effect. His face transformed, the burdens and clouds lifted, and for a moment he was boyishly handsome. The impact startled her. So did the line of questioning. "Not many people ask me that directly. The sight, in many forms, comes down through my mother's line. Seems one in every generation gets it. My grandmother had it, so did my aunt."

"There's more, I bet."

"There always is." Emma didn't like the questions focused on her. "Maybe over coffee I'll tell you the rest, when we're not up to our eyeballs in ghosts and cold case crimes."

"Fair enough. I'll hold you to your promise."

As sudden as it came, the change in demeanor vanished. Sam the cop was back in action. He pointed to a picture of a dark haired man with a weak chin. "That's Mike Foyle. Keith and I grew up with him. He was like our third wheel. The woman in the background leaning against the car is his wife Lora."

"Wesley and Audrey had arrived earlier. Were they at the fund raiser too?"

"No. It was Wesley's weekend to have the lodge. Keith and the gang showed up later."

Uninvited, she scrawled, linking the word to Keith and then to Mike Foyle. The earlier connection went dead, and she couldn't get anything else. "Okay, so, we have Wesley and Audrey, Mike and Lora, Keith and Jen. Everyone's having a party of some kind. Then Keith drives to Lake Placid."

"He had a call earlier that night about a problem with a key piece of code. The developer flew up to Lake Placid, and they met to go over the problem. Keith was a genius with that stuff, and the game had an impending release date. He didn't trust it to go over electronic media, even with encryption. Paranoia is rampant in the video game design business."

Frantic energy tingled in her as he talked about Keith but it lead nowhere concrete. She noticed the three couples were all grouped together on the board. Then two other pictures, both of men, were grouped together.

"Who's the guy with the bright red hair and the thousand yard stare?"

"Jen's stalker." Sam gave a curt nod at the picture in question. "George Mason. Mildly schizophrenic, totally paranoid and delusional. And a crystal meth addict. Jen had a restraining order against him. George followed her up here after she left the fundraiser. He hid in one of the abandoned buildings off towards the ravine. He'd been sending her mail that showed an escalation in his delusions and indicated a potential for violence."

"Most people, police included, think he killed her." Emma scrawled crazy stalker George on her note pad. A faint stir of energy teased at her. Not as strong as what she felt when Sam talked about Keith, yet enough to earn a place in her notes. "He was never convicted."

"Five days after her death, he turned up in town, raving about demons chasing Jennifer in the woods and stealing her star. He had her evening bag on him but it was empty. When the locals arrested him they missed a concealed stash of meth. George got so lit up after the preliminary questioning, he went into cardiac arrest. Died before the deputies could open the cell door. The cops think he took the necklace as a trophy and hid it somewhere."

Emma's internal scam radar went off. She added more detailed notes in her own, cryptic shorthand. "That's convenient, isn't it? Crazy guy kills socialite, hides zillion dollar necklace, then offs himself. I wonder: did the arresting officers find the necklace on him and forget to let anyone know?"

"Keith had me dig into their financials. Nothing out of the ordinary."

She wasn't convinced. She'd sensed something important tied to the necklace. Maybe Jen was killed for that alone and the fire was a cover up. As to the cops and clean financials, there were ways to hide money so that even the best of investigators couldn't find it. Her father had turned that skill into an art form. "Why were they so sure George Mason killed her?"

"They found a torn piece of the blouse Jennifer was wearing that night, as well as other stolen items he'd accumulated over time, stored at the shack George was using."

"So why are we here? If George did it, what else is there for us?"

Sam smiled wanly. "He died before any investigation could get up and running. Keith was convinced someone else was responsible. I agree. Judging by the increase in weird things happening here, I'd hazard a guess, so do the spirits of Holloway Lodge."

a haunting affair

Emma considered the photos arrayed before her and the dotted red time line Sam had labeled 'alleged'. A man who took nothing for granted, and focused on the details. No wonder he'd been such a good cop. A strange thought leapt out at her. He knew her sordid details. Would they be easy for him to dismiss, or would he eventually come to hold them against her?

She pushed it out of her mind. As if she'd even get anywhere beyond casual. First, all she did was casual. Second, even if she did more than that, it would never be with a guy like him. Men like Sam, when they got serious (and they always did), went for their own kind-upstanding citizens with squeaky clean history and boringly normal occupations. Woman like her, on the edge of propriety and the fringe of strange, weren't keepers in that circle. "I'm glad you're being open-minded."

"I don't have a choice," he said, his voice heavy with grim determination. "George Mason, meth addict stalker, is too perfect. There were five other people on the grounds that night with opportunity and means. Any of them could have done it."

And Keith, she thought. Don't forget Keith. By all accounts he was mad for his wife, and her death had sent him over his own personal edge. He'd spent the rest of his days trying to reach beyond the veil of death to talk to the woman who took his heart to her grave. Love could easily inspire such devotion. Equally, mania, or guilt, could spur it on. Emma kept this theory to herself. "Other than George, the lawyer and wife, the brother and wife, who else was close by?"

He tapped the grainy photo of a hard faced man with a thick shock of white-blond hair. "Brad Heath, the caretaker. He was first to notice the blaze and call it in. He also got the lake pump set up and had it going when the fire trucks arrived. He cooperated with the investigation initially, but disappeared two nights after Mason died. Turns out he did a stint for burglary ten years earlier in Texas."

Another set of alarms went off. And they had nothing to do with her psychic sense. "Why'd the Vaughns hire an ex-con?"

"Wesley hired him as part of a prison rehabilitation project he was working on. There was never a problem."

"I'm not getting anything on the caretaker," she said, scratching out a few more notes, "but I did get a mild charge from the stalker, Mason."

Sam nodded, grabbed a dry erase marker, and made an asterisk next to Mason's picture. For some silly reason this pleased her immensely. "So the family present at the time was cleared along with the lawyer and his wife?"

"Both couples insist Jen was alive and in the den the last time she was seen."

There were few notes on her page and even less in the way of psychic connection. Her impressions had been plenty, but they were scattered. Nothing linked substantially. It rarely did at first. She shouldn't be disappointed. In comparison to most cases, she was running hot. Emma decided to pursue another nagging line of thought. "Holloway Lodge was a family compound since the founding brothers first holed up here several generations back. Why'd you end up with it?"

Sam didn't look uncomfortable with the sudden turn. In fact he looked defiant. "A while back, without me knowing, Keith put me in the will to get first crack at the place if he died. He knew I loved it since I was a kid. If he died, I was to be offered the place at fair market value. He even had an agreed upon appraiser named in the will. If I didn't want it, the Lodge would go to his brother Wesley."

"But he made you buy it, he didn't will it to you free and clear. Why?"

"I'd never go for the free ride on the lodge. I'm worth almost as much as Keith. Half his first game company belonged to me. I don't need a hand out."

Emma resisted the urge to scribble down pride. Pride made a man hard sometimes. And vulnerable. Keith knew exactly what to do to lure Sam into his world so that even after his death, the mission to find Jen's killer was carried on. She was impressed. He was a skillful manipulator, doing it now even from the grave. She wondered if Sam realized his best friend had used Sam's pride and superhero complex to gain his own ends.

"The prominent Doctor Vaughn was cut out of the picture," she said, moving on. Doctor Wesley Vaughn, the younger brother, was a psychiatrist to the rich and famous. According to her quick research he was as moneyed as his brother Keith, and more discrete than an international spy.

What motive would a filthy rich and very well respected physician have to kill his brother's wife? Jealousy? Money? Emma had learned early on that for some people no matter how much money they had, it was never enough. He could have killed her and stolen the necklace, then found a way to move the stones. Keith may have searched, but there were a lot of rocks to overturn and he couldn't have hit them all. "Who got what you paid for the Lodge?"

"It went to the estate, and ultimately Wesley. Compensation for not getting the Lodge I suppose."

Emma scribbled a few dollar signs next to Wesley Vaughn. The money angle might still play out, but it didn't sit right. Thinking about the necklace stirred up something but it was too intangible. The other information didn't trigger any great psychic revelations. When they went through with the personal interviews more information would surface. If not, she'd turn to her tarot cards and other means.

A sad look came over Sam's handsome face as he moved on to Audrey Vaughn's picture. "Audrey was always fragile. She'd lost a baby a month earlier. Jen's death broke her. She crawled into a medicated haze and never came out again."

The shrink's wife was over medicated and miscarried? She couldn't begin to imagine the pain of losing a child. Did it play into what happened that night? Bad relationships often led to bad outcomes for those involved and those closest to ground zero.

Emma made a few notes and drew a line across the page. "Jen and Keith had reciprocal wills, I take it? All her assets go to her husband if she pre-deceases him, right?"

"Exactly." Sam folded his arms and frowned. "I know where you're going with this, Emma. Keith was richer than King Midas. Jen wasn't born with a silver spoon. Grew up in foster care, and married into his money. She had nothing of her own to leave to him, and no relatives to worry about."

"I'm not picking up anything on that line, Sam. Don't worry. What about suicide?"

He scowled. "Not likely."

"If she was using drugs, possible."

"Possible," he conceded. But it was obvious he didn't like the idea too much. She didn't either, but wasn't ready to take it off the list.

"How about the security? Were there tapes, footage, anything like that?"

"The storms had caused a few power surges that blew the camera system during the week. They were waiting for a repair guy to come Monday. Everything was off line."

"And if it was robbery? Pure and simple? Who then becomes a suspect?"

"Everyone in the world."

"But you don't believe it was an outside job."

"I don't know what to believe." He looked to the board like an enemy he needed to beat. "I can't accept five rational adults saw nothing, heard nothing, and did nothing, on the night she died."

"Someone, and probably more than one someone, is lying. I don't need a ghost to point that fact out. Neither do you."

"If people are lying, and the case is cold and without evidence, the only way to break it wide open in an 'admissible in court' fashion is to get the liars to compromise or confess. That won't be easy."

A dark thought hit her: maybe he'd brought her here for her ability to find truth, and was using the ghosts and psychic thing as a cover. Takes a con to break a con, her father always said. And Dad was never wrong about things concerning lies. She knew she shouldn't jump to conclusions, she should give the guy the benefit of the doubt. But old habits die hard. Rather than fall into a funk, she decided to back burner her suspicion and give Sam a chance.

"All it takes is one really good psychic lead." She took a second and scanned her scribbles. "I don't have anything definitive, but I plan on doing Tarot readings later on the key players as a start, and branch out from there. I have some other techniques I can try if we strike out there."

a haunting affair

Emma stayed perched on the edge of the overstuffed cushion. She wanted to get closer, maybe touch the pictures, but she didn't want to risk more contact with Sam. He'd sent her into overdrive, and she needed to be calm if she was going to pick up lingering energy surrounding this chaotic mess of facts and, most likely, pack of lies. Sam was right about one thing: this wouldn't be easy. "I see why everyone thinks the case is nothing but dead ends."

He crossed to the sofa and sat down heavily beside her, brooding, as he considered her pronouncement. "I'd say it's the perfect crime, except I don't believe in perfect. Every killer makes a mistake, it's up to us to find it. How about you? Picking anything else up?"

She was swamped with every nuance, his heat, his spicy male scent, the way he owned the space around him. Her focus went to hell in an instant. She needed distance if she was going to get anything. She all but scurried to the board, glad to escape his nearness.

"I'm primarily an energy reader. I sense currents mainly from objects, or ambient energy that remains in a geographic area. Sort of like finding a psychic fingerprint. I also use tarot cards to stimulate intuitive leaps." She faced the information arrayed on the surface of the white board, the 'facts' as Sam probably called them. What truths sat buried beneath lies? What truths served to misdirect? "Some psychics can get information from touching photographs of people or places. I'm normally not so good with that form of psychometry, but I'll give it a shot."

Emma touched the caretaker's photo with her left hand, grazing her fingertips across the glossy surface. Cold laced through her skin, into her blood. Startled, she pulled back, and a firm impression lodged in her mind.

"I think he's dead. A long time dead, too. If I can touch something more substantial of his, maybe something made of metal, I might get a better read."

"That would explain his disappearance. There's nothing left of his personally, but he stayed in the caretaker cottage. We can check that out. Would it work?"

"It might." Sam surprised her, buying into her announcement without argument. When she'd reported this kind of thing to cops on some of the cold cases, it was met with an expected heavy dose of skepticism, and often, outright insults, despite the fact that when proof emerged, she was always vindicated. Those experiences always made her doubt herself, made her feel wanting in some way. Her desire to be accepted surged strong, bringing with it all her old insecurities. It was infuriating. She'd thought she was over that silliness. She didn't need someone else's approval to be who she was but at the same time she couldn't stop the desire to be taken on her word without question or insult. "I could be wrong, Sam."

"We all could. When I'm into a case, I try not to censure myself or anyone else. Killers don't normally operate in a box. Hunters shouldn't either."

"Hunters?" The curious phrase had her turning to face him. "Is that what we are?"

"You disagree?"

"No. I never thought about it quite that way." So the white knight had a predator inside. Sam Tyler had layers. Dangerous layers. She touched the other pictures, but picked up nothing until she reached for Jen.

Heat seared through her fingers, arcing up into her arm. Acrid scents of charred wood and smoke choked her. With the smoke came an oily and pungent stench like rotten gasoline. Frightened by the force of the connection, she pulled away. The moment contact broke, she started coughing and gasping for air. Her throat constricted and panic set in. Sam was beside her in an instant.

"Breathe, Emma, that's right. Slow it down. In through the nose. Out through the mouth." His strong arms wrapped her in a warm embrace and held her fast as her legs gave way. "Come on, honey, breathe with me. That's it. Real slow."

She followed his lead, struggling for each breath. Finally, she found a balance and the panic eased. Next thing she knew, she was back on the sofa with a very concerned Sam holding her fast with equal measures of protection and possession.

"What happened?" More demand than question.

a haunting affair

She blinked a few times to clear her vision. "Fire. So hot. I couldn't breathe. The smoke." A terrifying understanding lodged itself in her conscious mind. "Sam, she was alive when the guest lodge burned. She was alive, but she couldn't move. She couldn't escape. I don't know why, don't know what happened to incapacitate her, but I know that her killer covered her with fuel along with the rest of the room and burned her alive."

She swallowed hard, her throat still raw. This contact was unlike any other she'd experienced. The power was unreal. If a spirit had sent these impressions to her with such visceral force, what else might they be capable of doing to the living? She'd heard tales from ghost hunters about spirits responsible for causing heart attacks in the living, or using energy like electricity to trigger fatal fires. She recalled the earlier issues with the kitchen lights, and shivered.

The gruesome crime made her skin crawl and the implications of what had happened terrified her. Only the safety of Sam's strength held her fear at bay. Emma relaxed into him, taking advantage of what he offered. It was a more dangerous connection than her earlier desire. She knew she shouldn't let up her guard. But she needed him, and he was there. Right now that was the only thing that mattered.

"The intensity of the connection, Sam. It's dangerous. I think it means Jen's still with us. If the spirit had moved on from the site, I'd get the connection, but not as potent."

Sam's mouth tightened into a thin line as he digested the information. "What are you telling me?"

"Finding a murderer may not be our only problem. The ghost of Jennifer Vaughn is here, and she's just as dangerous."

Copyright 2011 by Christine D'Allaird.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

First Kindle Edition: June 2011

Cover design: Glendon Haddix of Streetlight Graphics.

DISCLAIMER
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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