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"I'm not a forgiving person." Desi Hollyhock focused her sternest look on the newest member of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Team, or Rampart, as they were known. "Rampart is all about scientific method. None of that woo-woo stuff. One strike and you're out. Got it?"
Buck Walker nodded.
Desi kept her voice barely above a whisper, but she figured the recorders had picked up her words anyway. Big deal. Everyone knew she did not want a psychic on the team. Just because she'd been outvoted did not mean she had to put up with nonsense.
So far Buck had behaved himself. He'd helped the team set up cameras and recorders in this supposedly haunted house near downtown Colorado Springs. Quietly attentive, he listened to explanations about why recorders were placed in certain locations. His job was to learn, and he took it seriously. Neither the house's creepy atmosphere nor working in darkness fazed him.
He focused now on a handheld digital video recorder. It was a night-vision camera that magnified even the faintest light source. The glow from the viewing screen illuminated his face. He had a penlight hooked beneath his pinkie finger, and its thin beam pointed at her shoes.
"Safety first," she said. "Watch where you put your feet. Watch your head. Stick with me. We work in pairs so we can corroborate personal experiences. We keep each other calm, too. If you get freaked out, let me know."
"I won't get freaked out," he said.
"Everybody gets spooked. Eventually." She pointed her flashlight in the direction of the infrared camera taped atop a stepladder. "Stay away from the power cords. Keep your voice down, especially when you're near a digital recorder. They are verysensitive."
"Yes, ma'am," he said. The corners of his mouth twitched.
Did he laugh at her? It was bad enough that his height emphasized her lack of it, and bad enough the other female members of the team had indulged in raunchy comments about his dark good looks and buff body, but mostly she resented getting stuck training a guy who claimed psychic ability.
"I am a police officer," he said. "I'm used to working in the dark." He smiled, his calm, controlled air saying, Do your best. You can't rattle me. "Why are we working in the dark, anyway? Spirits are just as active in daylight."
Spirits, she thought with disgust. "It's practical. There are fewer people around, less electrical use and outside noise to interfere with the equipment. Not so many nosy neighbors trying to see what we're up to. Most of our clients do not want others to know they're having paranormal experiences. It's a pain sometimes." She held up a small digital camera. "I'll warn you when I'm going to take a picture. I'll say 'flash.' Close your eyes so you aren't blinded. Any questions?"
"What's the best way to use this camera?"
"Hold it close, right under your breastbone."
He raised the camera a few inches.
"Let it move with your body so it sees what you see. Keep your movements smooth and stay aware. You don't want to forget you're holding it and end up with a movie starring the floor."
He turned slowly, taking in the big room, his gaze intent on the black-and-white image on the viewing screen.
She turned slowly, too, examining the room that took up the entire third floor. Six Rampart members were investigating tonight. Tony and Tara were outside in the step-side van that served as the command center, watching the IR camera monitors and making sure the equipment didn't glitch. Desi and Buck investigated the second and third floors, while Dallas and Ringo took the first floor and basement. In about two hours the teams would rotate.
This house had a sad history. Built in the 1880s, it had been a monument to a silver miner's hard work and perseverance in the harsh Rocky Mountains. Since the 1950s it had sat emptyexcept for brief occupancies by tenantsslowly strangled by overgrown ivy and worn by the elements. The city had been on the verge of condemning it and having it torn down when the current owners, the Moores, bought it with high hopes of restoring it to its former glory.
The Moores had begged the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Team for help. They insisted the house was haunted. The activity was so frightening the Moores were ready to walk away and to hell with the money and work they'd invested.
Desi shone her flashlight at debris piled under a window. The walls were in various stages of undress, with patches of hideous cabbage-rose wallpaper, areas of missing plaster with lathing bared like bones, and large sections where the framing showed. The wooden floor was painted. Where interior walls had been removed, the beautiful original oak flooring was revealed. The Moores' bed sat in a clean, uncluttered corner near a fancy little fireplace with Van Briggle tiles and a cast-iron screen.
"What are we looking for?" Buck asked.
"The Moores have owned the place a year, but only moved in about a month ago. They had to put on a new roof, completely redo the plumbing and install a furnace before the place was livable. Activity started as soon as they moved in. They hear voices and other noises, and somebody moving around." Desi pointed the light at the corner near the bathroom door. "They've seen a figure that moves from there and across the windows, blocking the light."
She worked her cold toes inside her sneakers. The room stank of chemicals and that sour funk old houses acquired after decades of absorbing odors. She examined an exposed framing timber. Black streaks and splotches marked water damage.
"Mrs. Moore claims something chokes her while she sleeps." She then warned him: "Flash." She took several pictures of the moldy walls. She photographed the high ceiling where telltale water stains spread from the coving.
Her walkie-talkie crackled. "Desi? This is Dallas."
She unhooked it from her belt and thumbed the Transmit button. She spoke closely into the unit, keeping her voice down. "I'm here. Go ahead."
"Are you still up on the third floor?"
"Sure are. The walls are full of mold. With all the chemicals and dust it's no wonder the Moores say the place feels oppressive. It even feels creepy to me. It could account for her nightmares and sensation of being choked."
"The basement is pretty bad, too," Dallas said. "The electrical is a mess. Wires everywhere. The EMF readings are through the roof."
Focused on the camera screen, Buck made his way slowly around the cavernous room. The camera light gave him a corona, outlining his body. He had exceptionally broad shoulders. His waist and hips were lean, and his legs were long. Calvin Klein would loved to have this guy model in one of those sexed-up jeans ads.
"You haven't left the third floor? Been on the stairs?"
Dallas's voice through the walkie-talkie startled her. She scowled at where her mind had wandered. "Not at all. Third floor only."
"We heard someone walking around in the kitchen. We're going to check it out."
She hooked the unit back on her belt. A shiver ran through her. Even with a thermal shirt and a heavy sweatshirt, she had goose bumps. The walls and windows leaked icy air.
Buck asked, "What does the EMF meter do again?"
"It detects electromagnetic fields. The theory is that spirits need energy to manifest. If there are spikes in the readings, it could be because something is about to happen. A lot of people are sensitive to high EMFs. It can cause nausea, dizziness, flu-like symptoms, depression, even hallucinations."
She resumed documenting mold, places where heavy-duty paint strippers had been used on the woodwork and power outlets. She slipped the camera into a pocket and from another pulled out an EMF meter. She slowly swept the room. Even around the power outlets the meter barely moved.
Buck asked, "Have you ever seen a ghost?"
The question irritated her, but his voice took the edge off. Low and even with rich tones and careful enunciation, his was a voice to make a person sit up and pay attention. She needed to be firm, let him know she was in charge and that this wasn't a Halloween spook game they played. His smooth voice made her sound like a harpy by comparison. She wanted him to take her seriously, not think she was a bitch.
She forced a smile, determined to be professional and friendly. "I've never had any kind of personal experience. Nothing I can't explain, anyway."
"Do you hope to see a ghost?"
"This is research. It's about gathering enough evidence to prove the paranormal is more than superstition and ghost stories. It's also about ferreting out the hoaxes and scam artists."
Especially phony psychics, she thought.
A creaking noise froze Desi in her tracks. Buck froze, too.
She focused her flashlight on the bedroom door. It hadn't moved.
"It sounded like it came from the bathroom," Buck whispered.
Another creak. There was no mistaking the eerie protest of rusty hinges as a door slowly opened.
Buck held the camera steady on Desi while she examined the bathroom. A sensation akin to spiderwebs being dragged across skin tickled his nerves. This old house was definitely haunted.
He'd found the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Team Web site on the Internet. Their organization impressed him. Like Desi said, no woo-woo stuff. They sought evidence through scientific methods and counted numerous debunked hoaxes among their successes. It had taken Buck months to work up the nerve to contact Dallas Stone, founder and leader of the team.
After hearing Buck's story, Dallas had set up a reading, with himself as the subject. Buck didn't talk to people about his ability, and he only initiated contact with spirits when he sensed a compelling need. He didn't know how to conduct a reading. Buck had been nervous and embarrassed, which worsened as Dallas sat in stony silence, his arms crossed and his body language controlled.
Finally, feeling like a fool, Buck had said, "If there's anybody here who'd like to talk to Dallas, I can hear you." He'd half hoped no spirits would show. Then they could have a good laugh, and Buck could apologize for wasting their time and leave, never to return. A male entity had shown up and shared one of Dallas's secrets. When Buck revealed it, Dallasa no-nonsense type, macho through and through had broken down in tears.
Dallas had then surprised Buck by inviting him to join the team.
"They did a nice job in here," Desi whispered. "Can you imagine how much it costs to renovate one of these old houses?"
The first time he'd met Desi Hollyhock, she'd swaggered into the room like a pirate and talked as tough as any veteran cop. Her attitude was what cops liked to call Taser bait. It might have unnerved him if she weren't so tiny. He bet she had to stretch to claim more than three inches over five feet tall. He put her weight at one-ten, tops. Right now, in a bulky sweatshirt and cargo pants with multiple pockets bulging with ghost-hunting accessories, she looked like a little kid wearing her big brother's clothing.
He kept the camera focused on her as she opened and closed every cabinet and drawer. The hinges and slides were silent.
The camera picked up every reflection so the sheen off her smooth, dark hair made it look blond on the screen. Her eyes had a silvery glow. Those crystal-blue eyes, so striking with her dark hair and pale skin, were burned into his memory. Eyes alive with energy and intelligence. Eyes that made him want to see how deep the toughness went.
Not so sexy was her dislike for psychics and mediums. A dislike so deep and contemptuous it sounded like a phobia. He'd been subjected to skepticism, scoffing, fear and, worst of all, painful hopefulness that his giftcursecould solve problems. But Desi acted as if his very existence offended her.
He heard voices.
Desi froze, her head cocked. "Did you hear something?"
"Sounded like people talking."
They heard faint laughter.
"I know that laugh. It's Ringo." Desi crouched next to the vanity, where a large floor vent was covered by a fancy-work grill. She held her hand over the vent. "No wonder it's so cold
up here. There's barely any hot air coming through." She pulled the walkie-talkie off her belt. "Dallas? Desi here. Where are you?"
Buck leaned in to better see the vent. He caught the scent of Desi's hair, a mixture of sweetness and tang. He backed away.
"Basement. Furnace room. Where are you?"
"Still on the third floor, and we can hear you through the vent. Are there any doors?"
"One wall is covered with cabinets."
"Check the doors, would you?"
In a few seconds came the eerie creak of old hinges.
"That's it!" Desi exclaimed.
"It's loose," Dallas said. "It won't stay closed."
"Did the furnace come on within the last few minutes?"
"As a matter of fact, it did. Ah ha! The sudden rush of air moved the door?"
"That's exactly what I'm thinking. This vent must come straight from the furnace room. It makes it sound like there's a door opening in here." She flashed a big smile at Buck. "Mystery solved."
Her smile struck him right in the heart. It made her beautiful.
"All right," she said. "We're going to do some EVP work."
"Wait," Dallas said. "Do you have a K2 meter?"
Desi said, "I do, but it only works for you and Ringo."
"Exactly," Dallas said. "It's making me paranoid that Ringo is working some kind of hoodoo on it."
Ringo's "Hey!" drifted through the vent.
"I'll give it a shot." Desi rose to her feet. In the main room she headed for the bed. She set the digital recorder on the quilted coverlet. Velcro ripped and she reached into a deep pocket on her pants.
Buck peered at the unit she held. It was about ten inches long in a plastic case and had a bank of glass bulbs.
"Electricians use them," she said. "Dallas gets some interesting results with it. Me?" She shrugged. She turned it on and the glass bulbs lit up one by one, flashing from yellow to green to red. It darkened. She set the unit near the digital recorder.
The paranormal researchers had more gadgets than a patrol car. "What does it do?" Buck asked.
"Measures magnetic fields. Dallas and Ringo keep getting what looks like intelligent responses through it."
An image of a wooden rocking horse flashed through Buck's mind. Eyes half-closed, he listened with his inner ear. The entity felt friendly and very young, and it was aware of Buck and Desi. Another image danced in and out of his consciousness. A striped rubber ball, the paint rubbed away by use.