“I bet your favorite princess growing up was Ariel, huh?”
Turning toward the lanky security guard with the drooping blond mustache too long for his slender, oval-shaped face, Daize fought the urge to roll her eyes. Since she’d joined the team at the Newport Aquarium, he’d circled her like a shark who smelled blood in the water. Never mind the fact she thwarted his advances at every turn. She almost felt bad for the persistent man ... almost. The Little Mermaid had in fact been her favorite princess, but the aquatic rebel hadn’t been the inspiration behind her career choice.
It was a common misconception she’d stumbled into her career because she liked dolphins or wanted to be a mermaid. Forget the hard work necessary to earn her four-year degree. Women were making strides in the workplace, but sexism continued to persist.
“You got me there, Augie.” Too tired to put him in his place, she let the slight roll off her like water off a duck’s back.
His grin peeled thin lips back from pearly white teeth. “I figured as much on a count of you being a marine biologist. Girls always try to immolate their favorite characters, don’t they? I can remember my sister always pretending to be Belle, and she went on to be a librarian.”
Daize nodded her head, offering a fake smile.
“Your last name is odd. Where did you say you were from?”
I didn’t. “Recently, San Diego, but originally, Hawaii.” The only child of legendary surfer, Kahle, and his self-proclaimed mermaid wife, she was practically born in the ocean. Her earliest memories included the smell of the sea and the feel of the warm sand between her tiny toes. The lavish greenery of her native home on Oahu was etched into her mind and heart forever. While some looked up to the stars and dreamed, she pondered on the depths beneath the aquamarine surface of the waves.
“Well, no wonder you became a marine biologist. I hear they have the most beautiful beaches in the world.”
“I might be biased, but I’d have to agree with that statement.” Her smile turned genuine as the conversation shifted to a subject she was passionate about.
The spark ignited when she played in tide pools as a toddler matured into a full-blown obsession with the bodies of waters scientists still knew so little about. Four years and a Bachelor’s in Marine Biology later, she was no less hungry for knowledge on her favorite topic. That love had guided her to this town across the country from everyone and everything she knew in San Diego, California.
“Any wild plans this evening?” Augie stepped closer.
“If you count a hot date with my Roku as adventurous, then yes,” Daize said dryly. She rolled her neck and checked her watch. A day full of collecting readings on her fish friends, as well as maintaining the water quality and feedings, had her feet barking and her heart full. Every day she made a difference for the animals depending on her and her team for their well-being. It was equal parts rewarding and exhausting.
“You’ve been here for over a month. I’m shocked you’re still single.”
When she’d been offered the job as head Aquarist at the Newport Aquarium, it was an opportunity she couldn’t turn down. So, she’d packed her things, found a replacement to take over her lease in her apartment, and relocated to the frigid Midwest. As the dreary gray days, with frigid rain and strong winds continued, she’d questioned her decision. The scent of the ocean and the feel of the sun on her skin were becoming a hazy memory, and loneliness had begun to carve out an empty pocket inside of her.
“This job is a demanding one. I haven’t gotten out and about much yet.”
“Well, I could always help you with that.”
She pushed down the bile that threatened to flood her mouth. “You’re sweet. I don’t date where I work.” She shrugged and took a step back before he could continue the conversation. “I’m beat, and I still have to turn in paperwork for tomorrow’s shift. Night, Augie.” She extracted herself with the precision of a world-renowned surgeon, spun on her heels, and briskly walked down the tunnel. The watery bridge above her head was one of her favorite features. With the tank on both sides, above and below, you were fully immersed in the watery environment.
She admired the graceful ballet performed by the leopard shark. The black ovals and smaller circles stood out on its dark gray skin as it cut through the water seamlessly, mingling with the black tip reed shark with its splotch of black followed by white that bled down to gray on the dorsal fin. Each was a work of art, and much less intimidating in the diminutive lengths that they never allowed to exceed more than a few feet.
In order to provide adequate space for roaming, breathing, and enough food, they frequently monitored the size of each animal. The balance was carefully kept in the manmade habitat. With the main lights off and everyone except the handful of security guards out of the building, it was almost like walking in the ocean. The tanks emitted a soft glow. She trailed her fingers over the cool glass and lingered in the Coral Reef section. Brightly colored Tang fish darted about the display. Dark blue “Dory” fish with yellow tails, black oval-shaped bodies with orange markings around their body, and orange spots, contrasted with canary yellow and powder blue fish with electric yellow dorsal and pectoral fins. A beautiful turquoise blue spotted unicorn fish with a long snout swam up to the glass to say hello.
A cream and brown spotted honeycomb moray eel poked his head from the small opening in the coarse material hat mimicked coral.
“Nice of you to say hi, Flotsam. Where’s your buddy Jestom?” He sucked back into his hidey-hole, and she forced her feet to propel her forward. When the animals were unique enough to spot, she often gave them names. It made her job more personal and helped combat the intense homesickness that threatened to bring her to her knees. Two months down, ten more until she made a choice to renew her contract or leave.
TUCKING HER LEGS UNDER her body, she palmed the hot chocolate. The cold air had a way of clinging to her bones. The locals referred to it as being thin-blooded. Growing up in tropical and unusually warm climates, she wasn’t accustomed to the colder weather. They assured her she’d adjust in time. Meanwhile, she never felt truly warm. Sipping the sweet, creamy liquid, she pulled the soft Supernatural blanket around her body. Setting down the ‘I’m a Mermaid’ mug with the brown-skinned, blue-haired, scaly fantasy character, she resumed reading It by Stephen King.
The recent remake had sparked her interest in the original novel. Slipping from the present, she found herself lost in the small town of Darry Maine where an ancient evil stalked the children. Her flesh rose, and the hairs on the back of her neck and arms stood on end as she turned the page. She swallowed hard as the story wove its magic around her.
A creak made her jump. The historic stone building had been updated, but it kept the quirks and characters that came with a structure nearly one-hundred years old. Calm down, Daize. It’s just the house settling. She returned to her book. Creak. She jumped.
“Okay. Enough King for one night.” She grabbed the bookmark off the side table and closed the hardback. Snuggling back into the corner of her floral printed couch, she focused on her drink. It was mid-October, and the leaves changing were straight out of a movie.
The view from her oversized window into a wooded area was exceptional, and the changing leaves on the trees fascinated her. Coming from the West Coast, she’d never experienced more than one season. Varying stages of hot, with a spattering of rain, and the occasional chill front were as far as her realm of expertise stretched. The chocolate danced its way across her tongue. With the sun sinking down in the horizon, she felt a moment of contentment. The day caught up with her, adding weight to her eyelids. She set her empty mug onto the side table and let the weariness win as she drifted off.
Waking to the darkness, she stretched her arms above her head and yawned. Blinking, she tried to acclimate to the darkness. Her heart sped as a dark shape registered in her peripheral view. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and turned her body to find the coat stand creating a false silhouette.
Imposter. She forced a laugh that sounded empty. Her tense legs shook, and her mouth went dry. The fear remained.
Scanning the living room slowly, she swallowed down the lump forming in her throat. The unease didn’t disperse. Standing, she pulled the blanket closer to her body and slowly made her way to the bedroom on high alert. She didn’t spook easily. Horror movies, scary books, and lore and legend were a regular source of entertainment for her. This wasn’t the first time she’d become unsettled in this apartment. At first, she chalked it up to the move. Being in a new home, a new city and state had her out of sorts for the first couple of weeks.
Now she’d started a routine and settled in, and she still felt out of sorts here. The background was beautiful. White subway tiles lined the walls of the kitchen, gleaming along with the stainless-steel appliances, and black countertop on the kitchen island. Wooden flooring throughout helped elevate the living space to its luxury status. It was a dream come true. A swank place with the character only history could provide. Yet it left her cold.
Inside of her room, she breathed a sigh of relief. This was her true sanctuary. Sinking her fingers into her curls, she rubbed her scalp and walked to the bed. Plopping onto the mattress, she massaged her temples, battling the headache that threatened to creep in. The doorknob rattled. She sat up and stared at the handle as it jiggled. Her stomach clenched. This can’t be happening. Jumping up, she stumbled to the door and turned the lock. A bang against the thick wood made her jerk back. The knocking increased. Her knees shook and threatened to buckle as she waited for the door to give under the onslaught.
The overhead light flickered off and on. She spun, searching for a valid explanation. The sky outside remained clear. There was no storm to mess with the power. Boom. What sounded like an explosion made her hit the deck. Her room shook with the intensity of the pounding. Her heart raced. The world narrowed to the length between her and the doorway. The walls bulged as if they were made of rubber. Fingers and heads pressed through the translucent material. The door swung open and slammed. The closet and her dresser drawers joined in the ruckus.
The oppressive sensation that had grown since she moved in slammed down like an invisible shroud. She stood, timed the open and closing of the door, and shot out of the room. Cramming her feet into her gray plaid slippers, she grabbed her purse and keys off the counter and fled. In this horror movie, the black girl would not be dying first. As she burst from the building, the crisp air tasted like freedom. Peering up at the window of her apartment, she gasped at the pale face looking down at her. Dark circles, which gave the gaunt face a bruised look, stood out in the round face with a bonnet.
“Jesus.” She made the sign of the cross and ran to her car. Inside the turquoise Mini Cooper, she white-knuckled the steering wheel. Everyone she knew was a five-hour plane ride away, and even if she called them, they’d think she was insane, or overreacting because this was her first time living alone. Even after she left the house, she’d always had roommates.
She’d spent the past two months convincing herself the noises, figures out of the corners of her eyes, and misplaced items were a figment of her imagination. What she’d just experienced smashed that flimsy theory to pieces. Starting the car, she pulled out of the lot, dazed. What the hell is in my home? It felt like a nightmare. At three o’clock in the morning, clad in flannel pants, an old white T-shirt, and slippers, she waited to wake up. Shivering, she cranked up the heat, and searched for a hotel.
He took a long draw off his energy drink and steered the black SUV through the rain-soaked streets. He’d spent the day in meetings for the new factory they’d be opening locally. It was getting close to completion and they were focusing heavily on marketing campaigns and the hiring process. It was tedious work, but it would allow them all to spend more time closer to home. With his big brother, Luka, expecting a baby, and Asher ready to settle down with his new fiancée, Clara, it was worth the exhaustion and headaches. It also allowed him time to pursue his own interests, which was why he was headed to Pepper Pod in Newport, Kentucky to meet with the Cincinnati Paranormal Investigation Team. The twenty-four-hour diner had great service and never rushed them out.
After his parents died, Micah became obsessed with the notion of an afterlife. He wanted to know they were safe, and not completely gone. From a scientific standpoint, if energy could not be destroyed, only transformed, they had to be somewhere. Spiritually, he believed, but he longed for proof. That insatiable curiosity led him to devour all of the information he could find on life after death, ghosts, and the occult. When he met a member of the investigation team through Clara, and she invited him to a meeting, there was no way he was going to turn her down.
A year later, he was a full-fledged member, well versed in the art of paranormal investigation. He parked in front of the brick building and killed the engine. Grabbing the black umbrella, he slipped out of the SUV and made his way through the entrance. A long, white counter lined with stools took up the left side of the building, and light brown booths with cream-colored tables took up the right. Wood paneling lined the walls above the cream and yellow tile, which gave that added feel to the vintage diner.
The old-fashioned silver jukebox connected to the speakers mounted on the wall was full of an eclectic selection. Currently, the Beach Boys crooned about good vibrations. Shaking off the excess water from the umbrella, he rested it against the window and found the group taking up the last three booths in the back. They waved, and he grinned. The eight members had become extended family. Combined, the gang had over twenty years of experience under their belt. The organization had been operating for the past ten years and helped a slew of peoples.
Browsing through the completed case files had been an awakening. They’d dealt with everything from residual hauntings due to traumatic events that had occurred in an area, to lingering spirits and dark entities. He’d experienced a few minor hauntings since he’d come aboard, but nothing that had definitively satisfied his desire to know without question his parents were okay.
“Hey, guys. Sorry I’m the last one here. I came straight from work.”
“We could tell.” Brendon whistled. “Fancy duds.”
The others whistled and cheered, and he rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, yeah.” He shrugged off the suit coat and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, and then slid in beside Trisha, the sassy redhead who introduced him to the others. “What’s on the agenda today?”
Sam pulled out his black Chrome Book. “We had a follow-up from the case in Milford. Two months strong, and they’ve experienced no further activity. The house blessing and protection of their yard with the Four St. Benedict Medals in the four corners.”
“Excellent. Another successful case closed,” Eric said. His youthful exuberance was contagious. The college student was their technical whiz kid. He ran the cameras and bought the newest gadgets their budget could handle. He then proceeded to teach each of them how to use it. His brown eyes sparkled with happiness. He brushed his coal black hair away from his forehead.
“Any news on the Meyer case?” Carl asked. The older man had salt and pepper hair, a kind face with smile lines and crow’s feet, and psychic abilities. He often went into a home to pick up on what might have happened. Rooted in his Christian faith, he kept them safe and often advised the families.
“None so far. In this case, I’d say no news was good news. They might want to distance themselves from everything that happened, which includes us,” Mel, their active Wiccan, said. Her multi-colored, pastel-colored mermaid hair framed her delicate heart-shaped face.
“I understand it, but it’s a shame. I want to know they’re okay,” Micah admitted.
“I always feel the same way,” Scott agreed.
“It’s one of the tough parts of what we do. A lot of people are ashamed of having paranormal activity. They think it’s a reflection on them or how they live their lives. It’s the number one reason why most people don’t even contact us until their issues are out of control and they can no longer deal with them,” Brendon explained.
“It’s a thankless job in some cases.” Peter set his mug down and shrugged. “But if we don’t do it who will?”
“That should be our new motto,” Eric quipped.
“No, it took us long enough to come up with a slogan,” Mel protested.
“We have some business we’d like to go over with you, Micah.” Brendon brought the conversation back under control with his stern tone.
Micah swallowed as he tried to think of what he might’ve done to earn a talking to. “Yeah?”
“We all discussed it, and we think it’s time for you to head an investigation,” Brendon said.
“What? You do?” Suddenly, Micah was a child offered endless candy.
Brendon’s wife, Maria, placed a hand on his. “You know the protocol, and you’ve put in the work. We have a new case in. We want to hand it over to you.”
Silenced, he blinked. He hadn’t expected this.
“Will you take it?” Brendon asked.
“Yeah. I-I’d be honored.” He nodded his head enthusiastically.
“Let’s show him what we have.” Brendon produced a manila file folder and slid it across the table as everyone began to place their order. Daize Kahle, age thirty-one. A recent move from California landed her here for a job. She moved into the Claymore 300 apartments. She noticed creaks, groans, and missing items in the first month, but wrote it off. Two months later, the presence made itself known in an aggressive display of flickering lights, booms, knocking, and opening and closing doors and dresser drawers.
“This one is a 9-1-1.” Micah looked up from the file.
“Yeah. We want to meet with her as soon as possible. She’s been in a hotel for the past few days, but that can only last so long. I want us to be there when she returns to her apartment,” Brendon said. Maria nodded.
“I’ll get a game plan started tonight and have a course of action ready. Have we started researching the apartment or the area?” Micah asked.
“We plan on doing that tonight, too,” Maria said.
“No time like the present.” Scott’s fingers fly over the keys of his tablet. The Clifton Gaslight area had become a trendy place frequented by college kids, but many of the areas had roots that went back a hundred years or more. He sympathized with Daize. He couldn’t imagine relocating so far from everyone and everything you knew to face things you didn’t understand or know how to fight. He wanted to solve this for her to bring her peace and give her a chance to like the city he’d been born and raised in.
“I’ll arrange a meeting with her this weekend,” Micah promised.
A barely audible whisper to his left made him turn his head. No one had entered the shop, and the waiter was busy in the kitchen. He shuddered. The case was trying to get into his head. He couldn’t let that happen. He had things to prove.
HE ARRIVED AT LYDIA’S on Ludlow early to go over her case one more time before she arrived and snagged a seat in the library section. He’d chosen the cozy café because they served freshly baked goods, artisan coffee, and had a laid-back vibe that set most people at ease. A spiritual center with candles, innocence, and various stones behind a glass case greeted guests when they came in. Tables and booths with mismatched salt and pepper shakers filled the main area leading up to a counter with stools. Neatly written on chalkboards hanging on the walls were the soups of the day and coffee selections.
On the far left was a library section with shelves full of books on a variety of topics, and board games. The coffee shop hosted a number of events from live music to family game nights and book signings. The table in the library gave him the anonymity they needed to speak openly.
Micah wasn’t sure what to expect from Daize. It felt like an awkward first date when they agreed to look for the curly brown-haired person in a pink peacoat, and the man dressed in black with light brown hair. As far as he could tell, there was no history of paranormal activity in the Claymore apartments—at least, none anyone had documented.
It was odd to have such sudden intense activity unexpectedly. He’d have to look at Daize, her belief system, and her life. It would take getting up close and personal. I hope she’s ready for that.
The door swung open, and a bright pink coat caught his attention. He sat up, and his jaw dropped. The bronzed beauty had a head full of dark curls, which tumbled around her oval-shaped face. Large black eyes scanned the room. He stood and waved. Her full lips twitched up into a nervous smile. He was not expecting a total knockout. Used to hiding behind a mask of professionalism, he pushed his immediate attraction on the back burner and stood.
“Yes, Daize. Am I saying it right?”
She nodded. “You are. Nicely done.” She placed her hand in his, and he smiled. He liked her sass. Her handshake was firm, and her skin was soft. A light scent that reminded him of surf and sand wafted his way.
“Thank you for meeting me on such short notice.” Her soft voice held a sweet sincerity.
“Of course. We’re here to help you.” He patted her hand before they disengaged. “Would you like to get something to drink before we get started?”
“Is that your way of telling me I should brace myself?”
He barked a laugh. “No. That was me being polite and using the manners my parents taught me. I’ll confess to picking this spot because their food is amazing, and I don’t want to stuff my face with pastries while you sit there with nothing.”
She smiled. “Well, when you put it that way, I can’t leave you hanging.” He walked her to the counter, and they fell easily into light conversation. She ordered a Lavender Mocha. The organic hot chocolate had a shot of espresso and lavender syrup. Inhaling her coffee, she wrinkled her upturned nose in a way he found adorable. Getting a refill on his coffee, and a plate of banana nut muffins, he led them back to the table. A quiet fell over the table as they ate.
“I have no clue where to start this conversation,” she mumbled.
“Well, how about you tell me about yourself.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Is this where you make sure I’m mentally sound?”
“I’m not a trained psychologist if that’s what you’re asking.”
“You know it wasn’t.”
“We’ll be spending a lot of time together in close quarters. It’ll go a lot smoother if we’re friends.”
Her shoulders relax. “I like that idea. What do you want to know?”
Everything. “Whatever you feel like telling me?”
“A question for a question then? We have to keep it fair.”
“I’ll bite,” Micah agreed.
“All right. You start.”
“Have you ever experienced paranormal activity before?” Micah leaned forward.
She pursed her lips and took a moment before answering. “No. At least none that I was aware of. Why do you do this?”
“Paranormal investigation?” he guessed.
“Curiosity about the unknown and helping others.”
She nodded her head. “Decent answers.”
“What do you hope the CPI will be able to do?”
“Best case? You’ll get rid of whatever’s in my apartment. Worst, I’ll know I wasn’t crazy and relocate.”
That answered one of his major questions. Too many times, the client was attached to the home and viewed relocation an impossibility. It made true resolution impossible when the land was the problem. “If you’re willing to move, why contact us?”
“That’s two questions.” She held up her pointer finger and middle. “I know from watching shows things can be attached to the person. If that’s my issues, moving won’t help.” She shook her head. “My turn. How long have you been doing this?”
“A little over a year. Before now, work kept me so busy traveling I had little time for much else,” he answered honestly.
“I got stationed locally. We’re opening up a new location in town, and it’s been a game changer.”
“Oh, that’s nice.”
“It is. I loved traveling when I was younger, but I find I want to slow down and enjoy my friends and family.”
It helps when you co-own the company. Part of him felt guilty. Lying could be more than directly telling falsehoods. Omission counted, too. Still, he liked forming a relationship with someone who had no clue who he or his family were. It gave him a sense of normalcy he didn’t often experience.
“It was. Have you ever personally dabbled in the occult, or been exposed to it recently?”
“Are we talking horoscopes?”
Shaking his head, he gave her a small smile. “No. Ouija board, séance, or ghost walking tour.”
“No. Do tours really lead to this?” Her eyes widen.
“Well, there can be an attachment situation.”
“Are you on any sort of medication that might make you hallucinate?”
She scoffed. “No.”
“I know this seems ridiculous, but we have to ask. Do you have a history of mental illness?”
She gritted her teeth. “No. Do you?”
“I had a bout with depression years ago, but otherwise, no.”
“Oh.” She hadn’t expected him to be so honest.
He grinned. “I know this is invasive. Believe me when I say it’s necessary. If we had to call in someone else to help, they would expect this groundwork to be covered.”
“Do you think it’ll require that?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. We try our best to prepare for all situations. We want to get you back into your apartment, comfortable and safe as soon as we can.”
She nodded her head. “What can I expect?”
“The first thing we’ll do is observe. Our camera crew will set up. We’ll bring in our equipment and do EVP. That’s electronic voice phenomenon. We may also bring a Spirit Box. It uses radio signals to allow a spirit to communicate if it wishes.”
“How is that possible?”
“The machine sweeps through stations continuously, and the spirit can manipulate them to create words and phrases. You’ve watched the shows ... it’s the thing that makes them sound like a robot. It can be creepy, but it’s effective.”
“What about the machine that shows the stick figures?”
“I think you mean the 3D mapping camera. Is there anything else you have questions about?”
“None you could answer without investigating. I just want this taken care of, so I can put it behind me and move forward.” Her voice wavered.
Reaching over the table, he covered her hands with his. “You’re no longer alone in this, Daize. We want the same goal. I can’t promise you it’ll be an easy fix, but we will be there for you every step of the way.”
Her full lips parted to reveal a dazzling white smile with a crooked eyetooth. The sight stole his breath. Stressed and scared, she was still stunning. He was dazzled.