Jackson Crow sat staring at the pile of dossiers before him. This was his first meeting with the man on the other side of the desk: Adam Harrison, white haired, dignified, slim and a taste for designer suits. The office was modest, nicely appointed, but far from opulent. Plate-glass windows looked over row houses in Alexandria, Virginia, and other companies with shared space in the building had names such as Brickell and Sons, Attorneys-at-Law, Chase Real Estate and B. K. Blake, Criminal Investigation.
Adam had just handed him the folders. "Jackson, do you have any idea of why you're here?"
He'd returned to his old Behavioral Science Unit in D.C. to discover that he was being given a new assignment. His leave of absence, it seemed, was somehow permanent.
His last assignment, despite the excellent work done by him and his colleagues, had ended with three of them being dead. Yet if it hadn't been for his intuition, two other fellow agents might have died as well. Local police had not responded to the call sent out, and there was no way to blame himself. Naturally, he did.
Maybe the empathy of his superiors had caused them to give him a new assignment, in a different placebehind a desk.
He'd heard things about Adam Harrison. He'd worked solo over the yearsand for the government where the government could not act officially. Adam went in where others did not.
It wasn't because of extreme danger. Rather, it might be considered that he went in because of extreme weirdness.
"No," he said simply.
"First, let me assure you, you are not being let go. You will still be working for Uncle Sam," Adam told him. "The assignments will come from me, but you'll be heading up the team. A new team."
A cushy job somewhere behind a desk that didn't involve serial killers, kidnapping or bodies discovered beneath concrete.
Jackson wasn't sure how he felt; numb, perhaps.
"Take a look at this."
He hadn't had a chance to look at the files yet, but Adam now handed him a month-old New Orleans newspaper bearing the headline Wife of Senator David Hol-loway Dies from Fall into Courtyard.
He looked up at Adam.
"Read the full article," Adam suggested.
He read silently.
Regina Holloway, the wife of beloved state Senator David Holloway, died yesterday in a fall from a balcony at their recently purchased French Quarter mansion on Dauphine Street. Six months ago, the Holloways lost their only son, Jacob, in an accident on I-10. While there is speculation that Regina cast herself over the balcony, David Holloway has strenuously denied such a possibility; his wife was doing well and coming to terms with their loss; they were planning on building a family again.
The police and the coroner's office have yet to issue an official cause of death. The house, one of the grand old Spanish homes in the Quarter, was once the killing ground of the infamous Madden C. Newton, the "carpetbagger" responsible for the torture slayings of at least twenty people. Less than ten years ago, a teenager who had broken into the then-empty house also perished in a fall; the coroner's office ruled his death accidental. The alleged drug dealer had raced into the vacant house to elude police.
An uneasy feeling swept over Jackson, but he calmly set the newspaper back on the desk and looked at Adam Harrison.
"That's a tragic story," he said. "It sounds likely that the poor woman did commit suicide, and the senator is in denial. I'm afraid I've seen other instances in which a woman could not accept the loss of her child."
"Many people are insistent that the house is haunted," Adam said.
"And that a ghost committed this murder?" Jackson asked. He leaned forward in his chair. "I'm not at all sure I believe in ghosts, Adam. And if they did exist, wouldn't they be things of mist and imagination? Hardly capable of tossing a woman over a balcony."
"The senator has friends in high places, though he's still only a state senator. He absolutely insists that his wife did not commit suicide," Adam said.
"Does he suspect murder?" Jackson asked.
"The house was locked, no lower windows were open, and the gate to the courtyard was locked as well."
"Someone could have crawled over the wall or gotten through the gate," Jackson suggested.
Adam nodded. "That's possible, of course. But no witnesses have come forward in the past month to suggest that such a thing might have happened. The death was determined to be a suicide fairly quickly. Are you familiar with the city of New Orleans, the French Quarter or Vieux Carre, specifically?"
An ironic smile curled Jackson's features. "Land of vampires, ghosts, voodoo and fantasy. But some of the world's best cooking, and some truly great music, too."
"All right then. You work in behavioral science. Don't you agree that people's beliefs can create actions and reactions?"
"Yes, of course. Son of Sam
Berkowitz believed that howling dogs were demons commanding him to kill. Or, it was a damn good defense."
"Always a skeptic," Adam said. "And yet you're not really, are you?" Now, Adam smiled.
"I am a skeptic, yes. Am I open to possibility? Yes," Jackson said carefully.
"You know, both of your parents were amazing believers," Adam reminded him.
Yes, they had been believers, both of them, always believing in a higher power, and it didn't matter what path someone took to that power. Jeremiah Crow had been born a member of the Cheyenne Nation, although his ancestry had been so mixed God alone knew exactly what it was. He had loved the spiritualism of his People, and his mother had loved it as well. Nominally Anglican, his mother had once told him that religion wasn't bad; it was meant to be very good. Men corrupted religion; and a man's religious choice didn't matter in the least if it was his path to decency and remembering his fellow man.
But his maternal grandmother had come from the Highlands of Scotland, and her tales of witches and pixies and ghosts had filled his childhood. Maybe that's why it had been while he was in the Highlands, and not on his Native American dream quest, that he had found himself in a position to question life and death and eternity, and all that fell in between.
"You're here because you are the perfect man for this team, Jackson," Adam said. "You're not going to refuse to investigate what seems like the impossible, but you're also not going to assume a ghost is the culprit."
"All right. So you want me to go to New Orleans and find out exactly why this woman died? You do realize there's a good chance that, no matter what the husband wants to believe, she committed suicide."
"Here's the thing, Jackson, most people will believe that she committed suicide. It is the most obvious answer. But I want the truth. Senator Holloway has given his passion to many critical committees in our country. He has made things happen often when the rest of the country sits around twiddling its collective thumbs. He is a man who can weigh the economy and the environment, and come up with solutions. He wants the truth. He's young in politics, barely forty, and if he doesn't bury himself in grief, he will continue to serve the American people with something our politicians have lacked heavily in the past fifty yearscomplete integrity. People in Washington need him, and I'm asking that you lead the group."
"If it's my assignment, I'll take it on." Jackson paused. "But
do I really need a unit?"
"I believe so. I'm giving you a group to dispel or perhaps prove the existence of ghosts in the house. They all have their expertise as investigators as well."
He was quiet, and Adam continued, "When several members of your last unit were killed, you got to the ranch house quickly enough to save Lawson and Do-natello. No one knew where the Pick-Man was killing his victims. No one knew that he had arranged for your agents to be at the ranch house."
Jackson felt his jaw lock, and despite the time he had taken for leave, he swallowed hard. They'd lost good agents. Among them Sally Jennings, forty-five, experienced, and yet vulnerable no matter how many years of service she had seen.
He'd felt that he'd seen Sally; dreamed that he'd seen her, standing there at the house.
And it had been that dream that had brought him to the ranch house, and there he had discovered that she had been the first to die.
"I shot the Pick-Man," he said. "He's dead."
"That was the only chance Lawson and Donatello had, since, had he seen you before you warned him and fired to kill, he'd have put that pick through Donatel-lo's chest," Adam said. "Trust me, I've watched you for years, Jackson. I actually knew your parents."
That was surprising.
Adam might well have known about the event when Jackson had been riding near Stirling, Scotland, and been thrown. His friends had gone on, thinking that he had left them; that he'd won the race and the bet. He'd encountered a stranger after, one who had saved his life. And then.
It had been long ago.
And yet, hell. He'd spent his life debunking ghost stories and dreams like the one he'd had. Finding the truth behind them. Proving that the plantation in Virginia was "haunted" by a cousin of the owner who wanted him out of the estate. Proving that there were no ghosts prowling the Rocky Mountains, that a human being named Andy Sitwell was the Pick-Man, even if he supposedly believed that the ghost of an old gold-seeking mountaineer was causing him to commit murder.
Six months had passed since he had shot and killed the Pick-Man. Six months in which he had tried to mourn the loss of his coworkers. He'd been back to Scotland to visit his mother's family, and he'd spent a month with his father's familyhelping them organize their new casinos and hotels.
But he was ready to get back into the kind of work for which he knew he had a talent. Digging. Following clues. Whether it meant studying history, people, beliefs or a trail of blood. He was good at it.
He had the mind for it, and the mind for the kind of unit Adam Harrison was putting together.
"I'm open to possibilities," he said to Adam. "Possibilitiesthere are a lot of people out there manipulating spiritualism and making a lot of money off the concept of ghosts."
Adam smiled. "That's true, and I actually like your skepticism. As far as believing in ghosts, well, I do," he said. "But that's not important. I've got you scheduled for a flight into Louis Armstrong International Airport at nine tomorrow morning. Is that sufficient time to allow you to get your situation here in order?" His situation here?
The apartment in Crystal City had little in it. All right, a damn decent entertainment center because he loved music and old movies. A closet of adequate and workable clothing. Pictures of the family and friends he had lost.
He nodded. "Sure. What about these?" He lifted the file folders, the dossiers on his new unit. "When do I meet the crew?"
"They'll arrive tomorrow and Wednesday," Adam said. "You've got the dossiers; read up on them first. I figured you might want the house all to yourself for a few hours. Angela arrives firstshe'll get in tomorrow evening around six. You'll know who they all are when they arrive if you've done the reading." Adam stood, a clear sign that the interview had come to an end. "Thank you for taking this on," he said.
"Did I actually have a choice?" he asked with a rueful grin.
Adam returned the grin. Jackson was never really going to know.
He started out of the office. Adam called him back.
"You know, you have a gift for this, Jackson. And you can really take on anything you want."
Jackson wasn't sure what that meant, either. "I'll do my best," he promised.
"I know you will. And I know that we'll all know what really happened in that house on Dauphine."
X-Files. The thought came to Jackson's mind as he finished with Adam Harrison.
He went down to his car, still wondering exactly what it was he was getting into.
Yeah, it was sounding like the X-Files. Or Ghost-files.
And he was going to have Ghost-file helpers. Great.
In his car, he glanced through the dossiers, scanning the main, introductory page of each. Angela Hawkins, Whitney Tremont, Jake Mallory, Jenna Duffy and Will Chan. The first woman, at least, was coming from a Virginia police force. Whitney Tremont had started out life in the French Quarter; she had a Creole background and had recently done the camera work for a paranormal cable-television show. Jake Mallorymusician, but a man who had been heavily involved in searches after the summer of storms, and been called in as well during kidnapping cases and disappearances. Then there was Jenna Duffy. A registered nurse from Ireland. Well, they'd be covered in case of any poltergeist attacks. And Will Chanthe man had worked in theater, and as a magician.
It was one hell of a strange team.
Whatever, Jackson figured; it was time he went back to work. There was one thing he'd discovered to be correctthe truth was always out there, you just had to find it.