Zander endured three hours of nonstop editing; two of which was spent ignoring his team’s many protestations. Nate insisted the footage was too intense for viewers to watch. He warned that the audience had never seen a possession so deep before. Zander or one of them usually had some control over themselves and managed to get out of it when something tried to take over. He reminded Zander of the times the Net buzzed because one of them was possessed. This time, it was definitely different. Too real. Too in your face. Unapologetic in any way. Nate talked and talked until he started repeating himself, which succeeded in grating at Zander’s nerves. Adam, on the other hand, was freaked out—enough said. He was a simple boy. He didn’t want the world—particularly his seven brothers—witnessing him practically peeing his pants in fear. He kept grumbling about having his ass handed to him come Thanksgiving. But that was his usual excuse for anything, and Zander never listened.
By the third hour, Zander had reached his limit of their whining. It took a snap to shut up and a reminder that he was the leader of their team. Ultimately, it was his call. Nate and Adam shared another concerned look, which they’d been doing way too much in the span of a few hours. Zander was beginning to suspect a deep bromance blossoming between the two. He wanted to yell at them to get a room, but he knew Adam and Nate were only concerned for his wellbeing. They were thinking of his reputation as an investigator.
The team experienced their share of criticism. Skeptics believed Paranormal Investigations was all a sham, a scripted reality show like all the others. The footage at Miller House looked staged, even to Zander’s trained eye, but he wanted the world, especially those who believed, to see the dangers that came with their job. Already there were too many idiots risking their lives “investigating” the existence of the paranormal. Some of them went to places Zander and his team hadn’t cleansed yet, which meant the possibility of amateurs getting possessed was very high. He didn’t want anyone going through what he had experienced. And he had a feeling, the scratches on his forehead and the dream he couldn’t remember weren’t the last of what he’d brought home from Miller House. It was one of the reasons why he joined IPA in the first place. And why he’d stayed single for so long. He’d dated a girl once who couldn’t handle the shit that followed him home. She fled into the night and never looked back. Since then, Zander knew what he had to do: protect the innocent, allowing them a glimpse into the paranormal without altering their lives. More than anything, Zander wanted to educate, to open the minds of the public that the things going bump in the night were as real as they were and could actually cause them great harm.
Halfway through their third hour, Adam stepped out for a bathroom break when Nate opened his mouth to speak again.
Zander was splicing together Adam’s cam shots and lifted a hand, saying “If what’s about to come out of your mouth has to do with convincing me not to show the footage, zip it. You’re better off trying to brainwash me into dating a dude. I’ve made up my mind.”
Nate leaned his elbows on the console and rested his chin within the cup of his hands. “The network wouldn’t mind showing a marathon again, you know. It’s not like we need the ratings. Holding steady every week and increasing by the month.”
Zander heaved a deep breath, sitting back to stare at a screen shot of his face before Adam had dropped his camera. His features were unrecognizable, like he wore a Japanese demon mask Samurai warriors used to wear into battle to intimidate their opponents on the field. He grimaced. “It’s fine. We’ll just add a viewer discretion disclaimer at the beginning of the show.”
“You know that’s not what I mean.” Nate squeezed Zander’s shoulder. “You’re my bro, I’d do anything you ask. I just don’t want you looking so vulnerable in front of our audience, Z. We’ve cultivated a reputation of fearlessness for a reason.”
“Tell that to Adam.”
Nate barked a sad laugh. “He’s special.”
Zander tore his gaze from an expression that would haunt his dreams for the rest of his days to face his best friend. “Nate, you have to trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
“It’s not that.”
“Then what? Why are you so against this?” Zander was near the end of this patience. He couldn’t understand why Nate wouldn’t let it go. This was the first time his second was so adamant about not showing footage. Normally, Nate would bitch and moan, and Zander would humor him for about an hour, but at the end of the day, Nate still followed his call without question.
Something akin to a mix of concern and deep sadness entered Nate’s brown eyes. “When I was calling out to you that night, and you weren’t responding, my heart stopped. I literally felt it stop beating for a second.”
“Jeez.” Zander frowned. “You’re not going to start crying, are you?”
Nate punched him hard in the arm. “Let me finish, man.” Tears brimmed. “Shit!” He covered his eyes with a forearm, rubbing furiously.
Uncomfortable, Zander reached out and rested a hand on Nate’s shaking shoulder, praying Adam wouldn’t choose this moment to walk in on them. The last thing he needed was the big guy teasing the both of them for being too chummy. “Come on, bro, pull yourself together.”
Nate looked up, red-eyed and angry. “I was so worried, Z! Seriously! I thought you weren’t coming back to us…that you’ve reached your limit and was finally possessed by something too powerful for you to resist. Scared can’t even describe the feeling.” He rubbed the last of his tears away with the sleeve of his shirt. “Then when you turned around and I fell to the ground, you know what I was thinking?”
Zander waited, not removing his hand from Nate’s shoulder. Something told him his friend was hanging on to his composure by his teeth and the physical contact between them was what tethered him to the present.
Nate sniffed, his nose turning as red as his eyes. “I was thinking of what I would say to your mother if you didn’t survive that night. Damn it, man! Don’t ever do that to me again. I swear, the next time, I’ll slap you silly just to get you back. Believe me, I will. Let’s see if you’d want to show that footage.”
“Oh, I believe you.”
“You have time to joke about this?” Nate shrugged off Zander’s hand.
Zander let a smirk spread across his face. Whatever mushiness that had passed through Nate in that moment was gone, replaced by righteous indignation. He loved his teammates, but he wouldn’t be caught dead admitting it to them. He appreciated Nate’s concern. He’d feel the same way if it were Nate or Adam going through what was happening to him. But how Nate felt wasn’t enough to bend his will. The footage will air. No one short of the network president could stop him, and he was about to say so when Adam burst into the editing room short of breath.
“Guys!” He panted like he’d sprinted from the restroom. “You have to see what’s going on outside. Come quick!” Like a child unable to wait for his parents to reach the Christmas tree before opening presents, Adam disappeared through the door again, prompting Zander and Nate to follow.
The tall, bald boy may be the more excitable member of their team, but when he said something was up, Zander and Nate were inclined to believe him. One thing about Adam, he never cried wolf. Whatever got Adam excited was definitely worth checking out.
Nate and Zander were met with a wall of their colleagues blocking the entrance to the Paranormal Investigations office. Adam towered over all of them, which was why he remained at the back of the group. He didn’t feel the need to elbow his way to the front the way Zander and Nate did.
“What’s up?” Zander asked Morgan, who’d position himself closest to the glass doors.
His assistant spoke without taking his eyes away from the elevator doors. “The Pres is bringing in the newest Exorcist.”
Zander sucked in a sharp breath. He stared at Morgan in abject disbelief.
“What happened to Bishop?” Nate asked the question Zander couldn’t find the wits to form on his own.
Something big must be up for a new Exorcist to be replacing Bishop. It didn’t feel right to Zander. The old priest was like a father to him. He’d taught Zander everything he knew about the art of cleansing and keeping spirits at bay. Going on another investigation without Bishop was unacceptable. He would do anything short of killing someone to get Bishop back. Morgan’s reply to Nate’s question pulled him away from formulating a plan.
“From what I heard, Bishop got recalled to the Diocese because of a case he’d handled when he was younger that’s still open. It’s all hush, hush. I don’t know any more than that.”
Zander cleared his throat, finally finding his voice. “And where’d you get your information from?”
Morgan shrugged. “Barbie.”
“The Pres’s secretary?” Zander flicked Morgan behind the ear. The young boy squealed and covered his stinging ear. “She’s ten years older than you, kid. What were you thinking?”
“It’s not like that.” Morgan rubbed his ear. “God! All I can hear is ringing. I think you’ve damaged my ear, Z!”
Nate slapped Morgan’s hand away from his red ear. “Don’t be such a baby. And stop hanging around Barbie. Am I making myself clear?”
“Or what?” Morgan challenged.
Before Nate could threaten the boy with bodily harm, the elevator dinged and its doors opened. Everyone at the office breathed in, causing a hush to greet the network president as he stepped out of the elevator. Despite the salt and pepper of his hair, he looked no older than his mid-thirties. The coal lounge suit was perfectly tailored to his body. The indigo tie complemented the deep, piercing blue of his eyes. Zander had only spoken to the Pres a handful of times, but during every one of them, he’d left feeling awe and respect for the man. Logan Winters was said to be the first paranormal investigator for IPA. In fact, he was one of the founders of the institute. He’d been given the presidency of the channel when he’d retired from investigating not only because of his dashing good looks. He was the best man for the job. He could be the face of the channel while still handle the grittier aspect of ridding the world of the paranormal. His aura alone was enough to intimidate even Zander, who considered himself possessing steal cojones.
was a hero to all investigators after him. Logan
A glimmer of red was what distracted Zander enough to notice the person who’d followed the Pres from the elevator. The black cassock she wore, even with its sharp lines, wasn’t enough to hide the curves of her body. Exorcists from the fairer sex weren’t unheard off. Bishop told Zander once about a legendary Exorcist who’d been a woman. The one with the Pres was a tiny thing, standing 5’3” at most by Zander’s estimation. And that blood red pixie hair cut wasn’t doing anything to disguise the fact that she was a she. But what reason would she have to hide herself? The stiletto boots she wore certainly exposed her femininity. A large Gothic cross hung from a chain around her neck. And Zander counted five piercings on one ear while leaving the other bare. Her lips matched her hair and dark liner brought out the paleness of her eyes. He’d never seen anything like her. Well, maybe except in graphic novels. She seemed to float rather than walk, so light were her steps. The marble didn’t even click from the contact her heels made.
“I’d wipe that droop off your face, if I were you,” Nate whispered into Zander’s ear.
Zander lifted a hand and shoved Nate’s face away from his. Again with the personal space violation. His second should have known better. His claustrophobia was already acting up because of the press of bodies behind him. Everyone wanted to get a good look at the new Exorcist. She barely looked old enough to leave high school, let alone be fully fledged.
Great, that was all Zander needed right now: an inexperienced chick. If he was really possessed by a demonic entity, he needed Bishop, not some wet behind the ears girl who had a penchant for anything Goth. And as if reading his thoughts, she locked gazes with him. Zander’s heart sputtered like a dying engine before revving up again.