Wincing, he reached up and rubbed at the burning sensation. When he pulled his hand away, there was no blood. That was a good sign at least, he thought as he picked himself off the floor. His legs wouldn’t work properly, muscles stiff and rickety from having been on a lumpy couch all night—another rescue. A case of pins and needles assailed his arms as well. He cursed with every step, hating not sleeping in his bed.
Zander and his team lived most of their lives on the road. He’d seen the inside of countless hotel rooms and slept in many a strange bed. Sometimes, he even had to endure sleeping in the car with Adam, who farted like a cow, while Nate drove all night so they could all make it to their next investigation. So, when he was home, nothing could separate him from his beloved bed. Well, last night was the exception to the rule. What the hell happened to him? He felt like a freight train had dragged his body a hundred miles before the conductor noticed he’d run over someone.
Zander ran his hands through his hair as he climbed the stairs toward his other pride and joy: his master bathroom. He yawned, stretched—getting most of the kinks out—and flipped on the light switch. He’d converted one of the spare rooms on the second floor into a bathroom that would make most grown men weep. It took the contractors two months to build. It had a Jacuzzi instead of a bathtub, a shower closet with a state of the art showerhead which had ten different settings (his personal favorite was rainfall), and an illusion sink made to look like it was floating. The tiles were imported from
Spain and his toilet from had more buttons on it than his universal remote. No other bathroom could compete, which made being away from home always uncomfortable on the first day of any trip. Japan
He ambled to the sink and froze. With shaking fingers, he lifted up the hair that had fallen over his forehead. Three very red, very angry scratch marks ran down the middle of his brow. The mocking of the trinity. Whatever had followed him home last night was definitely demonic. No other spirit could muster up enough power to cause bodily harm like this.
“Aww shit, not again.” Zander leaned forward to get a better look at the marks. That explained the burning sensation. But what the freaking hell was going on here? He couldn’t remember anything after he’d stumbled onto the couch last night—no matter how hard he tried to piece events together.
In an effort to calm himself, Zander took a quick shower and cleaned up his bathroom before dressing in a black sweater and jeans. He jammed a baseball cap on his head to hide the marks and hurried to his kitchen for a quick bite. Opening the door of his stainless steal refrigerator, he scanned the meager contents within. Being away two to three weeks out of every month didn’t exactly afford him time to shop. He reached for the milk carton, took one whiff, and threw the offensive thing in the trash. The orange juice seemed fine after a test sip, so he pulled it out along with a couple of eggs. He searched the counter for the bread he’d bought, but it was nowhere in sight. Shrugging, he took one last gulp of orange juice before dumping the bottle in the trash as well. The eggs he returned to the fridge. What were scrambled eggs without toast? He’d have to grab a bite at work instead.
Unable to shake the unease that followed him around since he’d opened his eyes, Zander sat in his car, unmoving. It was his Super Freak ringtone that jerked him out of his stupor. He fished out his phone from his pants pocket and plugged it into the hands free jack on the dash. Nate’s picture filled the screen. Buckling himself in and starting the car, Zander debated whether to answer the call as he pulled out of his driveway. At the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of white behind one of the second floor windows, but when he looked up to make sure, it was gone. When he couldn’t take listening to Super Freak anymore, Zander tapped the screen and waited.
“You’re late,” Nate said.
“What else is new?” Zander turned the corner at the end of his street toward the freeway on ramp. He prayed he’d hit traffic and be forced to delay the inevitable. He didn’t know how he was going to explain the three scratches on his forehead.
A pregnant pause, then “Not like you, man.”
“You mean to tell me you went out partying after our investigation? That’s hardly what I’d call professional, bro.”
Just because Nate had a girlfriend to go home too, it didn’t mean he could lord it over all of them. But Zander chose to ignore his friend’s judgmental tone. He had other things to worry about.
“I wish,” he said simply. “Look, I’m on the freeway now, and it looks like I just missed rush hour. I’ll be there in twenty.”
Zander had to smile at that. Nate wasn’t one to mince words. They knew each other too well to dick around. “Better that I show you when I get in.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.” Nate breathed into the receiver. “It’s
all over again, isn’t it?” Octavia Island
“Not even close.”
“Allen’s Restaurant and Bar?”
“You’re not going to like how it looks, bro. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Another pause followed by Adam’s voice in the background announcing he’d brought coffee. “Shut up, bro! Can’t you see I’m on the phone?”
“Is that Z?” Adam asked. His voice held a hint of an echo, which meant he was far away from where Nate stood. “Why’s he late?”
“Something happened,” Nate said.
“Oh, bro, you’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I’m still on the phone,” Zander interjected.
Nate mustn’t have heard him because he said, “He said he’d show us when he gets in. He’s on the road now.”
“Can you tell him to grab me pierogis from Faustino’s on the way into the city?”
“Nate!” Zander barked.
“Oh sorry, man, forgot you were still on the line.” A muffled argument ensued on the other line then Nate said, “Catch you later. And forget about Adam’s pierogi. Just come in so we can see what you have to show us.” Then he hung up.
Zander had to stop himself from rubbing his forehead in consternation. The marks still hurt. He loved Nate and Adam like brothers, and he’d definitely bury a body for them, but sometimes, they were annoying as hell. Stepping on the gas, he decided there was no use running away from telling his team about what had happened last night; at least, what he remembered of it anyway. Maybe they could help him piece it together.
Light traffic and a quick parking job later, Zander walked into the lobby of the Institute for Paranormal Activity, or IPA for short. The heavy thumps his boots made bounced off the marble floors, walls, and high ceiling. It was like he’d entered a cavern, the lobby was so big.
Their building was located downtown, and to the masses, it was known as the Haunted Channel Headquarters, a cable network that featured anything paranormal all day every day. Any show involving vampires, werewolves, witches, fairies, you name it, aired on the Haunted Channel, along with several reality TV shows like the one Zander hosted; aptly titled Paranormal Investigations. All of it was a front for IPA, an organization whose sole objective was to rid the world of any paranormal activity. Zander always thought it ironic that he hosted a show about proving the existence of ghosts only to eradicate them when the cameras stopped recording. As he saw it, he was the modern and cooler equivalent of the Ghost Busters, even if Adam reminded him of Slimer most of the time.
He neared the front desk manned by a leggy brunette named Tina. The Haunted Channel logo of a ghost silhouette hung on the wall behind her. She lifted a finger to forestall anything Zander was about to say and answered the phone. “Haunted Channel Headquarters, how may I direct your call?” She paused to listen. “Please hold.” After connecting the call, she put down the phone and looked up at Zander with a beaming smile. “Good morning, Z. You’re late.”
Zander lifted his hand to scratch his head only to remember he wore a cap. He dropped his hand and said, “I’d been getting that a lot today.”
“What? Ran out of gel for your hair?” Tina’s demeanor changed faster than lightning flash. She scowled at him now.
“What’s gotten into you today?” Zander rested his forearms on top of Tina’s desk.
She grudgingly handed him several pink slips of paper. “Here are your messages.”
He took the stack from her with a confused scowl. “Shouldn’t Morgan be handling these? Did he forget that he’s my assistant again?”
“How should I know?”
“Tina,” Zander put on his most winning smile, the one Nate liked to refer to as his on camera face, “what’s the matter? I have a feeling there’s something you’re not telling me.”
Tina crossed her arms, which served to plump up her breasts further. “What happened to you calling me, huh?”
The smile on Zander’s face froze as he backed away slowly.
“Zander! You get back here!” Tina almost jumped the counter from the way she bent forward. “We’re not done!”
He shimmied to his right and ran for the security gates leading to the elevators. He fished out his ID, fed it to the scanner, and gave Bernie the security guard an apologetic grin.
“You have to stop dating the staff, Z,” Bernie admonished.
The elevator doors parted with a ding and Zander slid in like he was stealing second base. Those exiting had to dodge or be run over. Several people gave him disparaging looks, but before anyone could comment, Zander punched the security code that would take him to the Paranormal Investigations floor near the top of the fifty-story building. The closing doors blocked out Tina’s mounting histrionics.
Alone in the quickly climbing cab, Zander sighed. He reminded himself never to enter through the lobby again. One date…and that was before the Miller House investigation. How could he expect to remember to call Tina when he couldn’t even remember everything that had happened to him in the last week?
One thing Zander did know when the doors parted again, the video taken from Miller House would explain everything. He strode out of the elevator with a newly awakened sense of urgency. If he was going to get to the bottom of the three scratches on his forehead and what had followed him home, then he needed to get to the editing room and scan every second of footage they had. And surely, Adam and Nate knew something. They just had to.
Zander ignored the greetings of the rest of the Paranormal Investigations crew. He’d apologize for being a diva later. He hurried to the end of a dimly lit hallway and yanked open the door. Adam and Nate sat in front of a large control panel with monitors and editing equipment. In unison, they turned their heads to regard Zander with curious expressions.
Without waiting for them to speak, Zander removed his cap and brushed back his hair.