When you made a deal with the devil, he always came to collect. Or at least that’s how Tabitha Lawson saw it as she stood beside a lake in the dark in early March.
Groaning, she draped her camera around her neck, slid open the white van’s door, and stepped into the cold air. Her booted feet crunched in the icy grass. The days warmed in early spring in Asheville, but the nights were still too chilly for her. She sucked in a breath as the cold touched her face.
She regretted agreeing to this entire investigation. She clicked on her flashlight and made her way down to the lake. She hated being back at Laureline Lake. The place made her skin crawl, nothing surrounded it but trees, and she credited it as the beginning of her fractured relationship with her older sister, Lisa Greene.
“Isn’t this the best weather ever?” Drew Keane pointed his phone at Tabitha. Bundled from head to toe, he wore his favorite Duke Blue Devils cap over a black wool hat that covered his blondish-brown hair. Delight sparkled in his hazel green eyes. He held a black case carrying a camera in his other hand. As the man in charge of the technology at Restless Spirits, he knew where to place the cameras and other equipment for the upcoming investigation.
“I beg to differ.” Tabitha shivered. She didn’t know why anyone would enjoy the cold weather.
She brushed off his cheerfulness and returned her thoughts to the night’s investigation. She didn’t resent the idea behind the case she agreed to take. Two nights before, a teenaged girl named Monica had camped with her friends near the lake, and she had disappeared without a trace. Lisa brought the case to Tabitha’s attention. Tabitha wanted to turn it down. She hated the idea of going back to Laureline Lake. But then, Lisa called in her favor. A favor Tabitha regretted offering to her.
Two months earlier, Drew fought a family curse that almost claimed his life. To fight off a killer shadow, he built a device that broke apart a ghost’s energy, his trusty Ghost Disruptor. It resembled a laser gun out of a cheesy science fiction movie. However, he didn’t have all the parts he needed, and the missing one cost too much money. Lisa owned that missing part at The Greene Institute for Paranormal Research, a large facility located in Charlotte that Tabitha’s family owned and operated. She gave it to Drew in exchange for a favor. To save her friend, Tabitha agreed to the deal.
Stuffing one of her gloved hands into the pocket of her coat, Tabitha searched the wooded area for her husband. She found him a few trees away with their two other co-workers, the resident psychics on the team and sometimes annoying love birds, McKenna Ellison and Tristan Johnson.
She scrunched her nose as the cold wind bit her cheeks and walked over to the three. “What’s going on over here?”
“Just going over some rules. I don’t want your sisters to know about Mac and Tristan.” Aaron gave Tristan a pointed look. “And I’m hoping Tristan here can manage his power.”
“Dude, I’m twenty-five, not five. I can handle it.” Tristan narrowed his green eyes, the only body part visible. He wrapped the rest of his head in a scarf. A few wayward curls escaped and rested on his golden forehead.
McKenna pushed her long, brown hair out of her face, her sky blue eyes bright. “We’ve been practicing,” she protested.
“You a bit cold there, man?” Drew asked as he joined them and pointed at Tristan.
Tristan glared at him. “You know how I feel about the cold.”
Drew chuckled. “I do. I spent most of our childhood dragging you out to play in the snow.”
Aaron rubbed his gloved hands together and searched the area. “Tabby, where are your sisters?”
“They’re coming. Corrie called a few minutes ago and said they were about fifteen minutes away.” She jumped up and down, trying to stay warm. Everything inside of her screamed that this whole thing was a bad idea.
“I wish they’d hurry,” Aaron glared in the direction of the gravel road that connected them to civilization.
“You and me both.” She wanted to get this over with before her feet froze.
“Maybe we can go ahead? We can get a feel for the place before your sisters get here.” McKenna suggested. “At least we can walk around and get our blood moving.” She huddled next to Tristan, her hands shoved into the pockets of her puffy coat.
“Good idea,” Tabitha agreed. She really wanted to be back in the Restless Spirits van with the heat running. Even better, back in her own bed under her own blankets in her own heated house. Anywhere but that cursed lake. Nothing good ever happened in that place.
McKenna, Tristan, and Drew headed off to the right while Tabitha and Aaron headed left.
As they walked around the still, quiet body of water, Tabitha switched her camera to night mode and snapped pictures. The moonlight shone through the naked branches of the trees, bathing the wooded area around the lake in a soft light. The branches framed the moon, making it the centerpiece of the scene. Tabitha couldn’t resist. She angled her camera toward the treetops and clicked the shutter several times. She took the shot from several different angles.
“I don’t think the ghost is in the trees.” Aaron walked up behind her, a flashlight in one gloved hand and a small black box called an electromagnetic field detector in the other. The needle inside the tiny window on the electromagnetic field detector remained unmoving while the lights on top stayed dark.
Tabitha lowered the camera and flipped through the pictures. Some of them didn’t turn out the way she wanted, but others appeared sharp and clear. They told a story, the moon casting an eerie glow through the trees and on the still water. With a little photoshopping, they might be excellent additions to her portfolio. “These aren’t for the hunt.”
She felt him hover over her shoulder. “They look great.”
“Thank you.” She moved away from him, her eyes on the quiet, dark lake.
“Tabby, what’s wrong? You’ve been quiet for the last couple of weeks.” Aaron reached her in two strides. Not hard to do since he towered over her by eight inches. His legs were much longer.
She shrugged and kept walking. She hoped he hadn’t noticed her change in mood, and she didn’t really want to talk about it. She had been thinking about her career and what she wanted her future to look like. How could she tell him she wanted this to be her last paranormal investigation?
“I’m fine,” she said.
Aaron stepped in front of her, stopping her progress. He peered down at her, his brown eyes soft in the dimming light. Tabitha loved his eyes. They had little flecks of gold in them. He looked like an Eskimo all bundled in his thick coat, hat, and gloves, covering all of his tanned skin. Short sprigs of straight brown hair peeked out from beneath the dark gray wool hat.
“You’re not fine. You haven’t been fine for a while now. Something’s bothering you.” He took one of her hands. “You can always talk to me.”
“It’s nothing, really.” She pulled her hand out of his. “Now isn’t the time. We have a ghost to find, right?” She stepped around him and kept walking.
She loved Aaron, and she worried her news would break his heart. They had been together for three years, married for two. When she first met him on an investigation involving a ghost haunting a bed and breakfast, he acted arrogant and chatty. But at the end of the night after getting locked in a room together, he softened, and she started to warm up to him. By the end of the investigation, she found herself saying yes to a date.
His passion, his life involved investigating ghosts. A passion she used to share until this last year. Seeing ghosts almost take the lives of her team, her friends, terrified her. Before Restless Spirits, she had encountered one other ghost who killed. She’d never forget the damage the spirit left in its wake. She never expected to fight two more deadly ghosts. She had investigated the paranormal her whole life, and she desperately wanted a change. Something safer and not so dark.
And she reached the problem. She never had a special talent for hunting ghosts. She didn’t even really have a special job at the agency. McKenna and Tristan used their psychic powers, Drew constructed the machines, and Aaron led them all. She helped with research and took pictures. Not even the pictures she wanted to take. She wanted to capture professional images that didn’t involve dust masquerading as mysterious orbs.
But she practiced ways to tell Aaron. None of the words came out right. Not when she saw his face light up every time they helped a wayward ghost find peace. So, she kept walking and didn’t say anything.
“Tabby, come on. We’ve got plenty of time. When have you ever known a ghost to be on time?” Aaron kept pace with her.
She stopped and sighed. “Well, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you.”
“Tell me what?” A worried note crept into his voice. “You’re not leaving me, are you?”
“What?” Tabitha chuckled a little. “No.” She touched his cheek. “Never. You’re stuck with me, big boy.” She dropped her hand back to her side. “I…I don’t want to investigate ghosts anymore.”
Aaron stopped walking. “You don’t?”
“I don’t.” Tabitha faced him.
“Why?” His features were barely visible between the flashlight and the moonlight, but Tabitha made out the confusion in his voice.
Tabitha swallowed. Different reasons flitted through her mind. Because I’m scared. Because I’ve seen people die and almost lost a few more. Because my heart isn’t in it anymore. Because you don’t need me. She settled on, “I need a change.”
“Then what do you want to do?”
Tabitha cradled her camera in her hands, hoping it would steady her. “I found a job with a local travel magazine. Western NC. It’s full of photographs of the mountains and the trees and the towns. They’re looking for a new photographer. I think I’d be good at it.”
Her eyes had adjusted enough to the low light that she saw Aaron smile. “Of course, you’d be great at it. So, do you need to cut down to weekends? A couple of hours through the week? We can work with this.”
“Aaron, I want to walk away completely, focus on my photography.”
Aaron took a step back, his smile fading. “But we’re in this together. It’s our dream.”
“It’s your dream, and I support it a hundred percent. But I want to follow my dream, and I don’t think investigating the paranormal is it.”
Aaron opened his mouth to answer when another voice cut through the night.
“You started without us?” Lisa waved her hands, her disbelief loud enough to frighten any animal in the vicinity.
“We’ll talk about this when we get home, okay?” Aaron clutched his equipment and walked away, not waiting for an answer.
Tabitha turned to find two flashlights bobbing in their direction. As they grew closer, she made out two figures bundled in coats and hats. Lisa, the taller of the two, had a scowl on her pale face. She wore her blonde hair loose, and the straight locks fell to her shoulders. Unlike everyone else, she wore a leather jacket. Tabitha thought that Lisa had to be freezing. Lisa didn’t seem to mind it. Her eyes, royal blue like Tabitha’s, flashed with anger.
Corrie jogged behind her, bundled head to toe in winter gear. She looked as if she were going on a ski trip. She had tied her long hair, blonde like her sisters’, back into a low ponytail. Worry hovered in her royal blue eyes.
Three blonde and blue-eyed ghost hunters, back together again. For a moment, Tabitha wished she had dyed her hair completely blue.
She tabled Aaron’s anger. She planned to deal with one problem at a time, and Lisa was the most immediate.
Tabitha raised her walkie-talkie to her lips to let the rest of the team know. “Lisa and Corrie are here. Meet you back at the van.”
“It’s bad enough you brought your whole team, but you couldn’t wait for us?” Lisa threw her hands in the air as her voice raised an octave with each word. “We were only a couple of minutes late.”
“You were twenty minutes late, and we weren’t starting without you.” It took effort for Tabitha to keep her voice even. “We were getting a feel for the place.”
Lisa crossed her arms over her chest. “Right. I’m sure that’s all you did.” She glared at the rest of Tabitha’s team. “We didn’t need everybody up here. I only asked for you.”
Tabitha tossed her head back and groaned. She tensed at the thought of another argument with her oldest sister. “After what happened last time, I thought it’d be good to have some back up.” She pressed her back against the Restless Spirits van, cold seeping in through her coat. Its chipping white paint looked a little shabby next to the sleek black of the Institute van.
“What happened last time?” McKenna joined them, looking from one sister to the other.
“You’ve been here before?” Tristan stood beside her.
Drew adjusted his hat, and for once, reserved his snappy quip.
Tabitha sighed. “Yeah, we’ve investigated this place before.”
“It’s not a big deal.” Aaron crossed his arms over his chest.
“Not a big deal?” Lisa poked a finger into Tabitha’s chest. “She cost me the biggest investigation ever.”
“That’s enough, Lisa. We’re all here, and that’s all that matters.” Corrie Parker, their middle sister, stepped between them. One gloved hand rested on Lisa’s chest, while the other touched Tabitha’s. She addressed Tabitha. “We’ve missed working with you, and I’m excited to do this as sisters again. I bet Lisa is, too.”
“She has a funny way of showing it.” Tabitha retorted.
Every time she and Lisa orbited each other, they fought. Nothing Tabitha did or said came across as good enough for her oldest sister. It had been that way for years, even before she and Aaron left the Institute. Corrie forever tried to make peace between them.
“I don’t know about you,” Drew raised his voice. “But I’d like to know all of the facts before we jump into this thing.” He sidled next to Tabitha. “So, what’s the dirt? What really happened?” He held up a video camera. “And remember, you can’t lie under fake ghost oath.”
“I didn’t take an oath, Drew. And it’s not funny.” A headache bloomed right between Tabitha’s eyes. Why did she agree to this again? The handle to Drew’s disruptor poked out from his pocket, and she remembered how they all got into this mess. It had been worth it to save Drew’s life.
If only he had enough parts to make them each a disruptor. But he owned the only prototype at the moment.
Tabitha groaned and shivered in the cold. She didn’t want to tell the story to McKenna, Drew, and Tristan, but they deserved to know what happened. They thought they were there to investigate the legend of Laureline Lake - a legend involving a ghostly woman, a portal, and a missing teenager. She needed them to know there was more to the story.
She pushed away Drew’s camera and cleared her throat. “Four years ago, Lisa, Corrie, and I were a team. Dad’s idea. Lisa is the tech genius, Corrie is the psychic muscle, and I’m everything else. Or I was.”