THE SMELL of rot permeated the air.
It was a foul smell. A blackness to it Wolf would never get used to. With the proximity of the Florida swamp and Atlantic, there was a faint hint of stagnancy as well, with an overlay of brackish algae just for good measure. He couldn’t imagine living in its stink every day. Like cigarette smoke, it would flavor everything he touched, breathed, or ate.
He’d expected some dampness, especially in the lower jut of an ill-advised half basement below the church turned hostel, but when his sneaker sloshed through an actual puddle in the kitchen, Wolf wondered if the owners had less of a ghost problem and were more in need of a home demolition.
The basement seemed to be where most of the noises were coming from. At least from what Wolf could figure out. Creaky, eerie sounds wafted through the sprawling hostel, carried through the antique ductwork set into heavily built walls, and they certainly appeared to be originating from underneath the first floor. Tapping at the plaster, Wolf frowned, wondering what the builders had been thinking when they’d put in so many tight hallways and corners. The maze made it difficult to find the source of the hostel’s supposed haunting, but it apparently helped keep the place cool when it got too hot.
“It’s like they got paid by the fucking corner,” he grumbled. “Every single damned old house has a million stupid little corners.”
An undulating groan drifted through the hostel, and a screeching wail followed close on its heels. A startled yelp nearly broke Wolf’s eardrum, and he stopped for a moment with his foot on the second step down to the basement.
“Jesus, you trying to get me killed?” Wolf muttered, flipping the light switch at the top of the stairs one more time. “I could have fallen down this death trap and broken my neck.”
Much like the other five times he’d clicked it, the light stayed off, and he glanced up, fumbling in his pocket for his flashlight. After finding it, Wolf turned the torch on and splashed the beam up along the ceiling, not surprised to find a pair of dangling capped-off wires where a light fixture should have been.
A woman’s voice tickled Wolf’s ear as he crept down along a tight spiral staircase. “I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be doing here, Dr. Kincaid.”
Wolf sighed and leaned his head against the cramped interior stairwell. Cupping his mouth over the wireless headset he wore to keep in contact with his intern, he counted to three, then said, “You’re supposed to keep up with me.”
“I’m trying to, Dr. Kincaid.” The young woman sounded exasperated. “But your legs are too long. I can’t keep up. I lost you back in the hallway. The lights aren’t working in this end of the house. Everything went black.”
“Where are you, Trixie?” he growled into his mic. “And more importantly, how soon can you get to the basement stairs?”
“Shit, you’re going to go down there? Why? Can’t we just use something to see underneath the house? Like they do for dinosaurs. What is that? Sonar? Can’t we use that?”
Biting back a sarcastic reply, Wolf reminded himself that soon-to-be-Doctor Trixie Huff was his only staff on the hostel job, so snarling at her probably wouldn’t necessarily endear him to her.
Initially, he’d agreed to use the headsets because he wanted to keep his communication to a whisper so as not to telegraph where they were in the building’s labyrinth of cellar space and servants’ quarters. Now Wolf was partially glad he had it on because he kept losing his damned intern.
It wasn’t Trixie’s fault.
Wolf was just too used to working with his team, and the intern, while highly intelligent and sharp, hadn’t planned on spending her summer vacation hunting ghosts in tourist-infested St. Augustine, Florida. Instead of lounging about the pool—or beach—being brought drinks by hot cabana boys in tight, skimpy shorts, she was tromping behind a grumpy parapsychologist in cobweb-cluttered mazes while rats and spiders dropped down on her like turtle shells in a game of Mario Kart.
When Hellsinger Investigations agreed to take on a pair of summer interns from Berkeley, it sounded like a perfect solution to his staffing woes. His techs, Matt and Gidget, longed to explore the Welsh countryside with its rambling hills and ghostly apparitions, while his office manager, Nahryn, planned on having a three-week visit with her grandparents in Los Angeles.
Trixie’d been a godsend. Especially since she was enthusiastic and, more importantly, a bit of a skeptic about paranormal activity.
If there was one thing Wolf needed in his life at the moment—it was a skeptic.
No, he wouldn’t think about Tristan. Not while he stood halfway down a flight of stairs with one wet foot waiting for an intern he was probably abusing by dragging her off to Florida so she could record his progress through a haunted hostel.
Something dropped onto him from above and skittered across his neck. Wolf resisted the urge to slap at it. He’d done that piece of stupid when he was younger and bore a half-moon scar on his shoulder from the very pissed-off centipede he’d slammed his hand over.
A strong beam of light cut over him, and Wolf grinned, glancing up at Trixie as she aimed the shoulder camera down the stairs. At some point, she’d dragged her glossy brown hair back and pulled a ponytail through a Hellsinger Investigations ball cap. Having abandoned her contacts for a sturdy pair of glasses to protect her eyes against the hostel’s dirt and cobwebs, Trixie’s eyes glittered with excitement behind her clear lenses.
“You ready, Huff?” Wolf grinned in the bright light.
“Sneakers on, boss,” she retorted saucily.
“Good, because we’re going in.”
They went down the stairs together, Trixie’s camera beam lighting up Wolf’s shoulders. It actually wasn’t a bad thing, because in the dank darkness, any light was welcome. Aiming his own smaller flashlight up, Wolf trudged through the tiny rooms built into the hill under the hostel, noticing the damp air thickened into an almost mist as they drew closer to the outer wall.
“Isn’t a basement in Florida kind of stupid?” Trixie asked above their squeaky footsteps.
“Yeah, not exactly the smartest thing. Whoever built this place made the hill first. It’s called a berm. It’s a smart thing to do to get your property above the flood line, but instead the asshole dug in and put half of the house into it. I’m surprised this place hasn’t come tumbling down on their—” A hissing noise made Wolf pause, and he turned, holding up his hand to stop Trixie from going any farther into the dark.
“What was that?” She kept her voice as steady as she could. Wolf gave her that. Even with the tremble in her throat, she held the camera steady, trained just beyond Wolf’s shoulder as he’d instructed her. “Oh God, something’s over there.”
Wolf’s beam was too weak to do anything but catch a sliver of movement beyond a turn in the hall. He took a few steps forward, but the camera’s light didn’t follow him, so he turned around, staring into the beam at the silhouette behind it.
“Come on, almost-Doctor Huff. Time to chase our ghosts,” he urged her on. The light bobbed once, and Trixie moved in step behind him, but he could still hear her mutter under her breath at his back.
“You are certifiable. No college credit is worth this.”
The thick rough walls under the old church must have been the only thing shoring up the foundation, but Wolf had to acknowledge the builder might have had something going. Lifted up off the ground, the airspace below would keep the building’s lower level cooler during the hot summer months, but he’d have been more scared of wood rot than a high air-conditioning bill.
Especially when his foot went through one of the floorboards, and his leg dropped out from under him, slamming his crotch into the rotted wooden planks.
Wolf grunted from the pain of getting his balls shoved up into his rib cage, but he stopped himself from whimpering out loud. Huffing to maintain his composure, he shouted back, “Trix, stay back there. The floor’s gone here.”
“Oh God, are you okay?” The large light bobbled and then dropped low when Trixie set the camera on the floor next to her. “Do you want me to go get someone?”
“Let me see if I can get out of this hole.” Wolf hissed when he leaned back. Massive splinters from the rough floorboards drove into his palms, and for once he was glad Nahryn insisted they all were current on their tetanus shots. “Okay, I’m going to rock back and pull my leg out. Be careful in case the boards go down behind me. I don’t know how big this hole in the ground is.”
“Why would someone dig a hole in the basement, then cover it with boards?” Trixie scooted forward a bit. “Do you want me to grab you and help?”
“No,” Wolf said with a shake of his head. “Our weight might bring the whole thing down. Stay back where we know it’s solid.”
Wolf gritted past the pain and pushed himself up, leveraging his weight back until he got his knee clear of the hole. His jeans were shot, torn along his thigh and flecked with blood where broken wood scratched into his skin. Another heave, and he cleared the hole up to his calf. Then the deep shadows beyond the camera’s powerful beam moved, and a low hiss echoed through the confined space.
The movement was slow, nearly graceful, and Wolf froze, trying to see into the darkness.
Then he realized what he was looking at, and his stomach crawled up to lodge itself into his throat.
“Trixie, I need you to move slowly back and go up the stairs. Now.”
“And leave you here?” she scoffed. “That makes—”
“Leave the camera and get the hell out of here. Use the flashlight I gave you.” Wolf kept his voice low, not wanting to spook the young woman. “Like right—”
The gator lunged out of the shadows, its teeth flashing a sickly yellow in the light beam. The reptile was nearly as wide across as Wolf’s hips, its quick legs whipping its long body back and forth as it moved across the floor. Its long tail slapped into one of the walls, making a wet sound on the hard surface.
Trixie screamed and fled, her cries for help seemingly coming from all directions as she ran out of the space. Wolf jerked himself free of the hole, rolling to the side as he tried to scramble to his feet. The alligator made another lunge, throwing its body up a few inches, and his sneaker sole caught in its teeth, ripping from the bottom of his shoe as the gator twisted its head.
“Fuck!” Wolf dodged the camera, catching his nearly bare foot in its harness.
The gator went after him again, the floors creaking under the reptile’s enormous weight. The boards bounced, and Wolf heard them cracking under him as he ran toward the room’s entrance. Trixie’s anxious screaming continued to bounce about the basement, a high-pitched wail loud enough to drown out the gator’s aggressive hissing.
His own flashlight flickered woefully when Wolf tried to aim it down the hallway outside the room. A fragmented beam warned him he’d probably broken the lens, but it still gave off enough light for him to see his way out. Something heavy slammed into his side, and Wolf’s heart jerked in fear until he realized it was Trixie running out from another room.
“I can’t find my way out!” she wailed, grabbing at his arm. “Oh God, it’s right there!”
Wolf chanced a glance back, and the gator grumbled with a menacing roar. Nudging the discarded equipment, the gator made the camera’s light flash and tilt against its hide, illuminating its variegated skin. Wolf grabbed Trixie’s arm and dragged her with him, urging her to run. A loud cracking sound came from the room behind them, and some small part of Wolf’s brain wondered if the gator would be trapped in the hole he’d almost fallen into.
The larger part of his brain shoved that thought down, intent on escaping the seemingly pissed-off reptile rather than pondering if the rot would give before the gator could catch up with them or if gators could climb stairs. They hit the steps at a run, and Wolf pushed Trixie up ahead of him. Her sneakers pounded up the staircase, and he followed close behind, his hands pressed on the small of her back.
All around them, they heard the hissing and screaming wails of the gator thrashing its way through the basement. Its vocalizations echoed through the ductwork, and somewhere in the hostel, someone else started screaming, matching Trixie and the gator in volume.
Voices called out from various rooms, but Wolf didn’t have the breath to answer. He shoved the intern through the open door at the top of the stairs, flung himself through, and kicked the door closed behind him with a mighty thump.
He lay on the floor, panting as people poured into the kitchen. Trixie lay on her stomach next to him, her body heaving from the sprint up the tight staircase. Someone sounded alarmed at the sight of his leg, but Wolf didn’t care about the pain. From what he could tell, he was still intact, if just a little bit winded.
The owner, a long-haired older woman, leaned over him, her bright blue eyes blinking in surprise at his bloodied and mud-caked body. Patting him on the shoulder, she asked someone to call 911 before Wolf could stop her.
“Oh my, Doctor Kincaid. Are you all right?” she murmured in her soft butterfly voice. “What happened?”
“Found your ghost,” Wolf gasped, fighting to push words out as he sucked in clean air. “And it’s big enough to make a whole set of luggage.”
“THEY ARE never going to give you another intern,” Nahryn, his girl Friday, complained loudly as Wolf came through the front door of Hellsinger Investigations. “You keep breaking them!”
“Hey, I returned that last one in perfect working order!” he shot back, dropping a bag of donuts on her desk as he hobbled by. They were damned good donuts, hot and yeasty malasadas from a nearby Portuguese bakery. Good enough to ward off a scolding from a girl ten years his junior, but Nahryn wasn’t having any of it, judging by the look on her face. “I’m the one who got fucked up.”
“Yeah, well, death by gator isn’t something a lot of people want to put on their résumé.” She sniffed at him and opened the bag. The pretty Armenian girl eyed him, as if searching for sugar around his mouth. “Did you already eat one?”
“Yeah, on the way in.” He winced at the steady ache along his thigh. Eight dissolvable stitches and a few shots later, his leg was patched up, but he was reminded constantly of his refusal to take any of the painkillers the doctors shoved at him. A few ibuprofens would do the trick, he promised his leg, along with a very nice hot cup of coffee.
“Well, take one in with you. Meegan’s here.” His office manager stepped in behind him before Wolf could turn around and drag himself out of the office. “Oh no you don’t, Kincaid. She’s your mother, and she’s here to ask you something.”
“I’d rather be eaten alive by the gator,” Wolf muttered darkly. “Go get me coffee, and if I buzz you in ten minutes, I expect you to come rescue me.”
“You’ll be lucky if I even answer,” Nahryn shot back with a Cheshire cat smile. “But I’ll bring you some coffee, you big baby.”
His mother was standing at the wraparound glass window of his office, her hands cradling a large cup of fragrant jasmine tea and her eyes dreamy as she stared out at San Francisco’s bay. Ferries jetted from shore to shore, carrying tourists and locals alike. The morning fog kept a light grip on the shoreline, but it was a weak one, with a lemony sun pushing its way through the watery mist.
The faint sunlight shone around the older woman, outlining her long, curly bright auburn hair and crazy-quilt peasant dress. Large chandelier earrings made of tiny bells and beads tinkled when she cocked her head, her eyes following the activity on the pier below. She’d lost her sandals somewhere in the office, her bare toes spread over the office’s wooden floors, and she shifted slightly, adjusting her black cobweb lace shawl over her pale arms.
His coffee arrived with a filthy look, both courtesy of Nahryn, and Wolf nodded pleasantly at her, then shooed the young Armenian woman out. Meegan Ocean-Kincaid turned and caught her son’s eye, but instead of the beatific, motherly smile she normally gave him, her mouth was set into a neutral straight line.
From his hippie-gypsy mother, this was tantamount to a scowl.
“Hello, Mom.” Wolf leaned in to give his mother a kiss, but she tilted her head back to stare up at him. Sighing, he rolled his eyes and said, “What?”
“What now, you mean?” Meegan sniffed.
It was a mighty sniff. Possibly one of the greatest she’d ever given him. It rivaled the one she’d aimed at him and Bach when they’d shaved Ophelia Sunday’s head with their Uncle Stavros’s clippers, but he still thought the time he’d dumped an entire load of horse manure on their living room floor because he was looking for gold coins held the top spot.
Another sniff, and the Horse Manure Incident sadly dropped to second place.
“I take it this is about Tristan?” He wondered if he could bribe Nahryn to go to the corner store and grab him whiskey so he could doctor his coffee or if it was still too early to start some serious drinking. “Have you talked to him?”
Her arched eyebrow lift was pointed enough he could hang a Christmas ornament on it, and Wolf took a gulp of his coffee, wincing at its sugary taste.
“Great, now even my office manager is trying to poison me,” he muttered, setting the mug down. “Okay, get it out of your system, Mom. Go on and scream at my head.”
“I don’t scream, Wolfgang,” Meegan informed him smoothly. “What I am going to do is tell you how disappointed I am in you. You have a chance at so much happiness, and you’re letting your pigheaded stubbornness get in the way.”
So yes, his mother had spoken to Tristan, and knowing his reclusive lover, he’d probably been nudged, bothered, and poked at until he spilled every last detail of their argument.
He didn’t need his mother to tell him he’d fucked up. He screwed up by starting up a fight with Tristan Pryce, owner and proprietor of Hoxne Grange, a spiritual hub for ghosts passing on to the afterlife, then walking out on Tris. The gorgeous blond man was reserved, quirky, and more importantly, willing to shove back at Wolf’s strong personality—and damn it, if Wolf didn’t miss the hell out of him.
Tristan ended up under Wolf’s skin, and part of the argument—most of the argument, if Wolf was really honest—was that he was scared. He was frightened by how quickly Tristan hooked his soul and pulled in Wolf’s heart. He hadn’t been looking for love when he went to debunk Tristan’s ghost-hosting inn, but that’s what he found—and he didn’t want to ever let him go.
And that scared Wolf most of all….
“We had a fight, Mom,” Wolf protested. “Things like that happen—”
“You accused him of hallucinating everything the two of you went through!” She turned on him, setting her cup down. Jasmine tea sloshed over the cup’s rim, leaving a small amber puddle on his desk. “What happened at the Grange was—”
“Mom, the iced tea you gave us to drink had euphoric honey in it, and then you left a quart of it in his kitchen cabinet!”
“How was I supposed to know he’d make baklava with it?” She waved off his disgusted look. “Really? Does he look like he’s the type to bake homemade anything? Does one even bake baklava?”
“He could have poisoned us with it! Honey’s a major ingredient in that.”
“No, really, how do you make baklava? Does it really go into the oven?” Meegan’s attention had obviously wandered off into the intricacies of Greek pastries.
“Jesus, Mom. That stuff was potent. Hell, no wonder we ate ten pizzas after that damned séance. We had the raging munchies. What were you thinking?”
“Just to calm everyone down after the haunting!” Meegan protested. “I’ll even bet you the baklava was good. It was premium honey. So what if it was a bit hallucinogenic? Some of my best memories were when I was a bit baked. Hell, you’re here because of a bit of that honey.”
“That’s not the point.” He rubbed at his face, then dropped his hands to his hips. “And I didn’t say what happened that day wasn’t real. I just—”
“You accused him of drugging you and said the whole experience was a mass hallucination!”
“I did not say that.” Wolf kept his voice as even as he could. “When I was done tripping along the Timothy Leary Highway—”
“Something that wasn’t his fault—”
“Mom, will you let me finish one sentence?” Wolf gritted his teeth and took a long breath to steady himself. “Please?”
“Fine, go ahead.” Meegan threw her hands up. “Talk, but nothing you say to me is going to fix what you messed up. So you got a little bit stoned. It’s just a relaxer—”
“It wasn’t the five minutes of fun-house-mirror world, it was the hour and a half of me living in the bathroom, wondering if I was going to have to reel my guts back in, after the two hours of trying to talk to Tristan’s monster illustrations,” he insisted. “I might have said a few things I wasn’t proud of, but I never accused him of drugging us that day. You did that.”
“I told him I loved him and I’d call him in a bit. Did he tell you that?”
“I didn’t actually talk to him about afterwards. He’s very close-lipped,” his mother hedged. “But I definitely got the feeling things went a bit haywire. Then you hied off to God knows where.”
“Florida. I had a job in St. Augustine, and I couldn’t cancel. I was going to call him this morning.” Suddenly tired, he sat on the edge of his desk, wincing when his leg reminded him of his stitches and bruises. “I just needed to think of what I was going to say.”
“I’m sorry is a good place to start,” Meegan replied tartly. “Then I’m sorry again. Maybe even I love you? You do love him, don’t you?”
“It’s complicated.” The weariness of dealing with his mother set in, and he rubbed at his leg. “But yeah, I love him. It’s crazy because I’ve known him for what? A month? And it’s not like he’s totally normal. We’re going to have to come to some kind of middle ground.”
“Well, it’s time to uncomplicate it,” his mother ordered. “And I have just the thing for that. Something you both can do together.”
“Why does that scare the shit out of me?” Wolf picked up his coffee and took another sip. The sugar in it hadn’t magically evaporated. “God, I’m going to kill Nahryn. This is like hummingbird food. I did text him while I was in Florida.”
“And what did you say? That you were sorry?”
“That we needed to talk.” Admittedly, his messages had gotten more and more insistent with each unanswered text. He hated being ignored, and Tristan could ostrich with the best of them. “And I was an asshole. He didn’t text me back.”
“You should have called. It’s been over a week, Wolf,” Meegan huffed. “Okay, we can fix this. I have just the thing.”
“I’m already going to go up there, Mom. I don’t think I need—” He intercepted her simmering glare. “Fine, what is it?”
“Do you remember Sey? Your second cousin from your Great-Aunt Natty?” Meegan frowned at Wolf’s clueless look. “The one in San Luis Obispo.”
“Sey with the toys? Yeah, I love her. We’ve kept in touch.” A slender, brash woman known for her boisterous laugh and nearly endless energy, Sey was one of the few relatives he positively adored. He’d spent more than a couple of summers as his older cousin’s satellite, a tall lanky girl with sharp elbows and freckles. She’d been the one who’d taught him how to shoot a crossbow… and more importantly, how to run away from a charging bull when he’d accidentally fallen into the temperamental bovine’s corral. “Why? What’s up with Sey?”
“Funny you should ask that,” Meegan practically cackled as she rubbed her hands together. “Because she’s got a problem, and it’s one that is totally up your alley.”