THE GHOST in the elevator was back.
He was a surly teen with a dark sheaf of hair that flopped into equally dark eyes. If there was a space on his face that wasn’t pierced, I couldn’t find it—eyebrows, mouth, stretched lobes, and a strangely tasteful stud in his nose. His smooth white skin was eerily pale and probably had been pale even in life. His crossed arms and protruding lower lip signaled his mood. He was pissed. No surprise there. He was always pissed.
“Not again,” I whispered.
I could feel the difference in temperature even before I stepped foot on the elevator. Freezing fucking cold. I stepped on and faced forward with a grim expression. I tried not to shiver as I jabbed the rounded button for the sixth floor, BAU. I let out a quiet breath that misted and dissipated like cigarette smoke.
“Come on, Christiansen. You gonna talk to me?”
Not if I can help it. The floors ticked by. I checked my watch. The Rolex Daytona had been a gift from an ex, and I hadn’t felt bad enough about the breakup to give it back. My steel reflection shimmered in the mirrored elevator. Nothing strange there.
Just a man in a black cashmere sweater and tailored black trousers. A gray-checked Burberry scarf and coat. Well-polished, Apron toe-tie oxfords. Honey-blond hair that could use a trim. Widely spaced hazel eyes. Anxious hazel eyes.
I’d been at an outdoor market, hemming over fruit I had no idea how to pick, when Graycie left me one of his short, cryptic messages. Even though it had been a “get your ass here now” kind of message, I took the time to go home and change. Spruce myself up a bit. I smoothed back my hair. You should look snazzy when you’re getting fired.
“You ought to know by now that I’m not going anywhere,” elevator ghost said. I knew his name of course, but because he was an annoying little beast, he had lost that privilege. He was just elevator ghost now. Sofa ghost. Kitchen ghost, sometimes. And wherever the hell else he felt like popping up.
“I told you my parents wouldn’t like the message.”
Bit of an understatement there. His father hadn’t been pleased to get a message from the afterlife and nearly broke my nose.
“You can’t blame me,” he went on. He usually did. It didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t respond anymore.
The hell I can’t. I like my nose right where it is. I’d broken my own rule and listened to the ghost, and I wouldn’t make that mistake again. Three floors left. “This elevator is so slow today,” I murmured.
“It’s slow every day.”
As expected, the spirit cast no reflection in the mirrored doors. I looked like exactly what I was—a crazy man talking to himself.
“Do you have office hours or something? I can come back.”
I gritted my teeth. How about the first of never at kiss my ass o’clock?
“Oh come on.” Was it possible for a ghost to be annoyed? Apparently so, judging from his peevish expression. “You can’t keep ignoring me.”
“How can I ignore someone who’s not here?” I snapped and then winced. The wince wasn’t enough. I wanted to slap myself good. I’d managed to ignore him for over two months. Now he’d never go away.
“Aha.” Ethan was triumphant. “I knew you saw me.”
I pressed the sixth-floor button again.
“I’ll make you a deal. You listen to me this once, and you’ll never see me again.” At my stubborn silence, he pressed the issue. “Or maybe you’d like me to tell my friends where they can find a bridge to the living world.”
As far as trump cards went, that was, well… devastating. I could either deal with one annoying ghost or a platoon of them. I exhaled heavily. “You have until this elevator reaches the sixth floor. So I’d hurry if I were you.”
“I need you to get another message to my parents.”
“Well, that was easy.” I folded my arms. “Hell to the no.”
“Come on,” he whined. “You’re a medium. I’m a ghost. I tell you my unfinished business. You fix it. Then I can get the hell out of here. That’s the way these things go.”
Yeah. Tell that to Shawna Paul’s parents, otherwise known as the reason everyone thought I was unstable. She was the first ghost I tried to deliver a message for. Her father pulled out a shotgun on me. Ordered me off their property. The mother called and reported me to the bureau. Then I got some nice quiet time in the departmental psychologist’s office to think about what I’d done.
I shook my head. “No. Absolutely not. And I’m not a medium,” I added for good measure.
“Obviously not,” Ethan grumbled. “Because I’m still here.” Underneath all that attitude, he sounded confused. Sad. “Why am I still fucking here?”
“I don’t know. You’re the ghost, not me.”
“I need to tell them I’m at peace.”
I sighed and turned to face my ghostly stalker. That ought to make scintillating footage for security later on. “Ethan. You’re going to have to trust me on this. They probably wouldn’t even believe me.”
He slid down the elevator wall until he was sitting, legs pulled up close to his chest. He wrapped his arms around skinny-jean-clad legs and stared at the floor. It was another moment before he could speak again. When he did, his voice was flat, controlled, matter-of-fact.
“I’ve been the good son my whole life, you know. Or at least my parents thought. Having them think I just up and ran off….”
“You’re the one who decided hiking alone was a good idea.”
“Like I knew there would be a bear?” he snapped. “It wasn’t exactly an easy death, you know.” He let out a deep breath and rubbed his eyes hard. He looked older than seventeen in that moment. A lot older.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.
“I can’t fix what happened. But I can’t have them looking for me for the next ten years. They need to move on. Use my college fund and get that cabin in Alaska they were always talking about and stop wasting it on private detectives. It’s the last thing I can really give them.”
“It’s just a stupid message. Why the hell did you get this gift if you’re not going to use it to help us? It’s not like I have a lot of choices of people to talk to. I really am… dead.” He swallowed, as though processing it all over again. “I’m dead,” he repeated.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, a little helplessly. If he was a figment of my imagination, he was a pretty vivid one. “I’m sorry for what happened to you—that you don’t have a chance to do it all over again. But this is where it ends for you and me, Ethan. I cannot go back to those people, face them, and tell them I saw your ghost.”
I shuddered just thinking about it. “Do you know what size boots I’d need for that kind of shitstorm? It would be the end of my career.”
“Fuck your career,” Ethan said, his voice hard. “In fact, fuck you.”
“Fuck you too,” I snapped. My tether was fraying super thin. The last thing I needed was to get reamed out by a flippin’ ghost. If there was really a ghost. The elevator doors soundlessly slid open on the muted hub of activity that was the BAU, and I stalked through.
Of course Ethan followed, paced me as I walked, and sent the temperature of the room plummeting. I was proud of myself. I didn’t scream as I made my way across the floor… mostly because getting tased in a federal building held no appeal. Neither did being left twitching on the floor in front of my coworkers. With that in mind, I even managed to accept a few nods and waves directed my way.
There are no ghosts. It’s anxiety. I just needed to take my pills and rest. The pills would only keep the visions away for so long, but I’d take any reprieve I could get. As Graycie’s office came into view, I poured on speed. As though I could outwalk a ghost.
“Running away?” Ethan hissed.
“If necessary.” I paused, one hand on the knob of Graycie’s office door. I could not come into my supervisor’s office, fresh off a two-month administrative leave—psychiatric leave—and be caught talking to a ghost. Or myself. That made me desperate. Desperate people did desperate things. And if that meant threatening a ghost who might or might not actually be a figment of my imagination, then so be it.
I looked around to see if anyone was watching. Coast clear. I leaned down and pretended to brush something off my shoe. “If you ever want me to help you deliver a message, and I do mean ever, then you had better keep quiet,” I said quietly, barely moving my lips a scintilla of a centimeter.
“I’m not trying to cause you any trouble,” Ethan said, clearly insulted.
“Well, then shut your ghostly yap,” I responded.
I yanked open the door and slipped inside. I shut it on Ethan’s face, as though that would protect me.
“I’ll see you around,” Ethan called through the tempered glass. It wasn’t a friendly sounding promise.
“If you don’t get wiped out by a ghost bus,” I mouthed. Judging from the expression on Ethan’s face, he’d heard just fine.
I CAN’T pinpoint when, exactly, I’d begun to see ghosts, but I’d certainly seen my fair share. I generally did a good job of ignoring them, but in terms of annoying me to death, the one in Graycie’s office was an unexpected front-runner.
He was standing by the window, staring out. His clothes seemed dated, maybe even a little old-fashioned—suspenders holding up a pair of midnight trousers. He had pushed his glasses up on his forehead, which seemed about right. The jumpers never wanted to see the end. He looked sad. Regretful. I’d regret taking a header out of a sixth story window too.
It didn’t seem like a good time to tell Graycie there was a ghost at his window. Instead I watched Graycie turn a page of his newspaper with one hand and absently stir the cream in his coffee with the other. As head chief of the BAU-3 unit, he was good at making people squirm.
To the casual observer, he appeared relaxed. Not a care in the world. I knew him a little better than that. Graycie was pissed. He didn’t suffer fuckups lightly, and at that moment, I was first-draft pick for the Ultimate Fuckup League.
“Thanks for agreeing to meet with me this morning.” Graycie flipped a page of his newspaper. “I’m not going to beat around the bush.”
Well, good. Bushes are full of all kinds of nasty critters. “Sir?”
“I spoke with Mr. and Mrs. Paul. They had quite a bit to say about you.”
“All good, I hope.” Probably not a good idea to get smart with him. But I’m pretty sure I’m 70 percent blueberries and blackberries, because sarcasm is my jam.
He took off his glasses, laid them on the desk, and rubbed temples rife with silver. It wasn’t a bad look. He was about twenty pounds and a haircut from true silver-fox material, Sean Connery–style. His salt-and-pepper hair was still thick, and the lines around his eyes only added character to an already interesting mélange of features. Right then, those features were pulled downward as he sighed heavily.
“Christiansen, you’re a damn good agent, but I’m having a real problem with this. I’m still trying to understand why, on God’s green earth, you would give them a message from their dead daughter.”
Because her ghost wouldn’t fucking leave me alone, that’s why.
“I didn’t give them a message,” I said. “I simply told them that she was at peace. I was just… trying to give them a bit of closure.”
Sometimes I thought Graycie’s eyes were pretty. When he chose to pin me down with an unblinking stare? Not so much. Then those round light green orbs were a bit unnerving—like being stared to death by a pair of hostile seedless grapes.
“Shawna Paul’s abduction is still an open investigation. We haven’t located a body.” Graycie spoke carefully. Slowly. “We don’t, in fact, know if she’s dead. So how would you know if she’s at peace or not?”
“Look, what do you want from me?” I asked tiredly. “I felt bad. Okay? Mr. Paul has kept on a porch light for seven years, just so his daughter can find her way home in the dark. They won’t even sell the house in case Shawna comes back, so she’ll know where to find them. They can’t move on.”
“So you made up a story about their daughter being dead?”
“I didn’t make—”
I stopped short. There was no need to make things worse. That wasn’t the time to admit that, not only had I seen her spirit, but she’d been kind of chatty as well. It’d probably go much better for me if I were a liar, rather than certifiable.
I rubbed my eyes. Frankly I was tired of the whole mess. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“You think?” Graycie looked like he wanted to deck me. “If you weren’t the agent you are, I wouldn’t hesitate to can your ass. You do know that, don’t you?”
I sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“You are that,” he snapped. “If I hear of you going within fifty feet of even the Pauls’ flea-bitten beagle, I’ll make you into one of those ghosts you love so much.”
“Got it,” I said through gritted teeth. “Can I go?”
“No. That’s not why I called you down here.” Graycie pulled out a thick manila folder from the stack of crap on his desk. “I’ve reviewed the report from the departmental psychiatrist.”
“Oh yeah?” The mild words couldn’t quite begin to cover what I felt about that. Embarrassed about my two-month administrative leave. Nervous about what Ryder, the departmental psychiatrist from hell, had concluded about my mental state. As far as I knew, the man never answered a question unless it was with another question. And how does that make you feel?
Angry. Really fucking angry.
“Most of it seems to be in order.”
Most? I nodded and wondered about the one emotion that remained absent. Relief. I felt no relief. I would’ve felt the same if he’d said I couldn’t come back. Nothing. Flatline. I frowned at my thoughts. I’d worked hard to get where I was. I wasn’t about to give it all up because I suddenly had the emotional range of a tomato.
I cleared my throat. “I’m ready to get back to work.”
“You have the report,” I said defensively. “Where is everyone? Fox? Scout? Angela?”
“I’m already sending the rest of the BAU-3 to Texas. They have a series of abducted children there.”
“I can be ready in an hour.”
“They left two hours ago.”
“Then I can meet them in Texas,” I gritted out. His silence spoke volumes, and I scowled. “You don’t think I’m ready.”
“No,” he agreed, and his simple agreement sent my brows sky high. He wasn’t even going to bullshit me? Must be serious.
“Several members of the team have expressed… concern. And you know how much we have to depend on one another in this job.”
It was true. Sometimes we spent more time with one another than with our families. Holidays, birthdays. Hell, when we traveled, even breakfast and dinner. It was a demanding job and one that required that you trusted everyone on your team. Apparently that was no longer the case. I was trying not to be bitter, but I’m genetically wired that way. It’s in my DNA, right next to punctuality and a love of chocolate.
“If you’re going to fire me, you could’ve done it over the phone. I was getting a good deal on some blood oranges.”
“I’m not firing anyone,” Graycie said, clearly exasperated. “But I do have something different in mind for you.”
“Yeah? I have no desire to fold shirts at the Gap.”
He ignored my flippancy with effort, but the left corner of one eye did twitch. “I want you to work on one of these outstanding cold cases. We’ve had requests from all of these departments, some dating back several years. You know our department is stretched paper-thin, so cases like these don’t really get the attention they deserve.”
Graycie picked up a stack of yellow color-coded files and held them out. After a moment of hesitation, I took them.
“Options. Ryan Markisson from Brighton, Michigan. He went missing from a basketball court. Tavis Ward, a six-year-old from Charleston.” Another yellow folder joined the stack. “Found dead in the woods behind his home. Carly Woodward. Sixteen-year-old from Chicago. They found her car in a parking lot behind her high school. From the amount of blood in her trunk, it doesn’t look good.”
It was times like these that the nature of the job really struck home. Each one of those yellow folders—some thin, some thick—represented someone’s life. Someone who was missing, maybe dead, possibly murdered. It was sobering. And it might not be the high-profile serial murders in Texas that the rest of the team was working on, but it was important. I picked up one of the yellow folders. They were important.
“I like the Tavis Ward case,” Ethan said near my ear. I barely caught my groan. I’d been so intent on the folders that I hadn’t even heard him come in. “I’ve never been to Charleston, you know.”
You should go. Like right now. I tried to project the message with a glare toward the nosy ghost, but Ethan only took a seat in the chair next to me.
“I’m going to need a moment to review the files,” I said.
“Take all the time you need.” Graycie’s phone vibrated on the desk, and he picked it up. I watched his thumbs awkwardly paw at the screen. He looked like a museum display as he searched for the next letter, brow furrowed. Cro-Magnon Man Meets Samsung Galaxy.
I bit my lip. That was my cue. I should probably get up and leave and let Graycie respond to whatever text had just winged in from God knows where. Probably from one of his nonfuckup agents telling him that he or she’d helped close the murder case of the century.
Instead I thumbed through the files and familiarized myself with the cases. I flipped open the Tavis Ward case file and began reading. It wasn’t long before I shook my head. “1965? The first forty-eight is usually in reference to hours, not years.”
“They recently found a witness who remembers seeing him in an ice cream shop. He’d been crying and carrying on, but she just thought he was giving his father a hard time.”
“What made her come forward now?”
He shrugged. “Who knows? What makes any of them come forward? Sometimes those kinds of people only care when it becomes personal for them. Maybe she suffered a recent loss in the family. With the new information, they’re filming a special for them on that missing people show? The Forgotten?”
“I haven’t heard of it.”
“You haven’t heard of anything on television, Christiansen.”
I shrugged. No, I wasn’t an expert on pop culture, but I had a TV. Apparently when you flubbed one game of charades, you were blackballed for life. “We lost fair and square, Grace.”
“We had that game in the bag.” Graycie sighed and shook his head at the misery of it all. “It was Harry freaking Potter. How do you miss something like that?”
“You drew a flower pot with hair on it.”
“And what would you have liked me to draw?” he snapped.
“How about a wizard hat? And, I dunno, a book?”
He scowled at me. “The next file is a missing girl from Brickell Bay. Amy Greene. They’re not sure if she took off on her own or if she had some help.”
I flipped open the folder and her picture smiled up at me. Reddish brown waves of hair surrounded her heart-shaped face and fell to her slender shoulders. She looked exactly like what she was—a happy, healthy teenager. Except the eyes. Those brown eyes looked… knowing, somehow, incongruous with the braced, cheery smile.
I sighed, closed the file, and tapped it against my leg. Graycie had gone back to his phone already, as though I weren’t there. “And if I don’t choose one of these?”
“Where is the fricking number sign?” He didn’t look up.
“I’m not deaf, Christiansen. No matter what, you can’t be here,” he said. “Not while I’m fixing this Shawna Paul disaster. You should be thanking me.”
“Thanking you? You gotta be—”
“They wanted you fired.”
Oh. Well, there was that. I swallowed. “Thank you.”
He sent me a meaningful look. “Mmhmm. You’re not working with the team until you get your head together. And before you return to full duty, you’ll have to sit down with the departmental psychologist and get cleared.”
“I already did that,” I protested. “You read the report.”
“Yeah.” Graycie finally looked up from his phone, those mossy green eyes serious and soft. So unlike him. “I did.”
I blew out a breath. Fucking Ryder. I probably shouldn’t have been quite so honest with the shrink.
Graycie looked back down at his phone again, and whatever look I had seen was gone as quickly as it had appeared. “This one is a gimme, Christiansen. You poke around one of these cold, and I do mean ice-fucking-cold cases. You go down, investigate, make nice with local PD, and make no waves. Make it look good. You solve the case? Even better.”
Yeah, well. Brickell Bay was also located right on the outskirts of my hometown. That also meant I would have to see my sister and have dinner with my parents at least once. That should certainly qualify me for some hazard pay, right?
He pointed at the folder I still gripped in my hands. “Is that your case?”
“Yeah. Amy Greene.”
He nodded, satisfied. “I’ll email you all the details for when you meet with the Brickell Bay Police Department. They’ll have an escort waiting for you at the airport.”
“Escort?” My eyebrows climbed my forehead. “So I don’t escape? Am I going to Brickell Bay or Alcatraz?”
I groaned inwardly as I stood and shrugged into my coat and gloves. I had to play nice with some stooge from the ancient history squad all the way back to Brickell Bay. That did it. I was officially going to have to pad my expense reports.
“Let’s get this over with,” I sighed. “When is my flight?”
“The red-eye tonight at DCA.”
“No agency jet,” I said mournfully.
“No, but I’ll book you two seats in economy.” Graycie smirked. “So you’ll have elbow room.”
“Smug bastard. You ever heard of business class?” I stood and slung my scarf around my neck, but didn’t bother to secure it. I’d be in my car soon enough. That’s what God made heated seats for, after all. That and keeping takeout warm on the way home.
“Oh, and Christiansen?”
I looked back to find Graycie staring at me. Hard. “Yeah?”
“Don’t fuck up.”
The word again hung in the air, unspoken, and my mouth tightened before I headed out the door.
Thanks for the vote of confidence.