Adult, 136 pages
Finalist, 2012 International Digital Book Awards, short genre category
FBI Agent Jackson Yates had never believed in ghosts…until now.
Called to the deepest, darkest basement at FBI Headquarters to investigate the murder of former agent recruit Adrienne Garza, Jack is forced to look beyond the earthly to the spirit world for answers. Shaken by what he finds, he turns to psychologist Rachael Sullivan for help. But just how does Rachael know so much about Adrienne, who disappeared five years earlier? Can her revelations truly be communications from Adrienne herself? And can he get past his guilt over Adrienne’s death to find love with another?
Rachael Sullivan has spent her adult years seeking knowledge of life after death. She’s focused those years on helping those stricken with the grief, but when she receives messages from beyond the grave, messages that seem to point to the identity of Adrienne’s killer, she is compelled to follow the trail. As the slain woman’s spirit reveals more and more of her killer, and of her past with investigating agent Jackson Yates, Rachael wonders if the clues are leading her to love, or to death. Drawn together by forces beyond their control, beyond their comprehension, together they seek a killer. Together they encounter…Adrienne’s Ghost.
The story behind the story
Adrienne’s Ghost was borne from a conversation I had with my husband years ago. We were both working for the FBI in the headquarters building in Washington, D.C. He was in the accounting department and had to make trips to a sub-basement that (at least at the time) was creepy to the point that he dreaded those trips. He once told me, “You could bury a body down there and no one would know it.” And the story was born.
The story’s opening scene is derived largely from his experience…or his telling of it! 🙂
Jackson Yates wasn’t easily spooked, but even he succumbed to a shiver of apprehension when he stepped onto Floor 3B of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building. The air smelled of rotted paper and dust, and simmered with a cold clamminess that plastered an instant sheen of sweat to his neck. Overhead, a light flickered and buzzed, its life forces waning into oblivion. Somewhere in the dim depths, voices echoed, hushed and eerie.
The deepest of the building’s basements was darker, gloomier than he’d expected, and if John Larkin hadn’t summoned him personally an hour earlier, Jack might have retreated to the warm safety of his bed. But the Assistant Director in Charge of the agency’s Criminal Investigative Division had jarred him awake with a phone call, then ordered him to Headquarters in the blackest hours of the night. Larkin wasn’t a man prone to excitability, or jumping to conclusions, so Jack had rolled from his bed to travel to the bowels of the building where, for years, the agency’s secrets, memorialized on paper and magnetic disk, had been stashed for posterity. Still, it was harder than he’d expected to push one foot in front of the other toward the voices that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once.
After several twists and turns, past ancient file cabinets and rows of pallets and boxes stacked four feet high, he found Larkin at the end of a remote corridor, standing with several men under the glare of a four-foot fluorescent light fixture. There, a single, pale green cabinet spanned the twenty-foot wall, its massive drawers reminding him of slabs in a morgue. As Jack neared, he calculated the piece had been there since the building’s construction. Probably surplus World War I. Three floor fans aimed their forces along the length of the cabinet, rattling and humming as if excited to be in on the mystery.
He shifted his speculation to the men with Larkin—a uniformed security guard, a maintenance worker slumped against the wall with a couple EMTs crouched next to him, the chief of the Forensics unit at headquarters, and Richard K. Carter, a supervisory agent Jack knew only by his hot-shot reputation for successes in several mission-impossible types of cases.
They looked up at the sound of his footsteps, and Larkin stepped forward, meeting Jack’s gaze. In the five years they’d known each other, Jack had seen a lot of emotion in those eyes. That his expression now bordered on sympathy had the hair on the back of Jack’s neck prickling to attention and his heart kicking into high gear.
“I got here as quickly as I could, sir. What’s going on?”
Dropping his attention to the open file drawer, Jack reined in the impulse to step around Larkin and see for himself what had compelled three of the agency’s top executives to venture to Headquarters in the middle of the night.
“You’ve heard the stories, haven’t you, Jack, about the basement?”
Floor 3B, the third basement, was legendary among personnel for its strange sounds and so-called ghost sightings, mostly by harried file clerks who had to be coerced into its depths. The stories, as wild as staffers’ imaginations would allow, ranged from visions of Al Capone to old J. Edgar Hoover himself, who, back in the day, had been known to prowl the hallways of the original headquarters building and chastise employees for a breach in dress code.
“Security was called to investigate suspicious noises earlier this evening. Not the usual moans and cries that get reported. This time it was a metallic clanging, like someone trying to break in. Or out. They sent Maintenance down, figuring it was mechanical.”
He nodded toward the open drawer. “Poor guy found this cabinet open, like this.” He shot his hand out when Jack moved forward, holding him back by the arm. “We need to preserve the scene.”
His heart starting a slow, heavy thud against his ribs, Jack pulled a pair of latex gloves from the box Larkin offered and stuffed his hands into the casings. He leaned in, peered into the drawer, and stumbled back, gagging on the shock that steamrolled up his chest. Larkin’s arm steadied him enough so he could take a breath. Even so, the pressure burned and swelled his lungs to near bursting.
“Adrienne.” There were no responses from the others, no denials, no sounds of shock to dispute what he saw.
Only a skeleton remained, clothed in the standard-issue FBI blue polo worn by recruits in the New Agents’ Training Unit. Even if the last name hadn’t been stitched across the pocket, he would have known it was her by the gold locket she’d worn daily, now circling the fragile column of bones that used to be a neck. The dark hair that hadn’t yet succumbed to decomposition was pulled back in a simple roll. She’d styled it that way, unfussily, to keep it out of her eyes.
Below the collar bone, a dirty brown blanket covered the torso, its surface littered with the carcasses of dozens, maybe hundreds, of insects. A horrific image flashed through his mind, swarms feasting on Adrienne’s dead flesh, and he sucked a shuddering breath between his teeth, then frowned, confused, as his eyes traveled down.
He shot a glance to Larkin. “Where’s the rest of her?” His voice scratched his throat, hurt to come out.
“Next drawer down.”
He jammed the upper drawer into place, and while metal grated against metal, his mind screamed against the reality of what he’d seen. Adrienne, murdered, chopped in half, and dumped in this cabinet like a damned piece of trash.
The lower drawer held more of the same, hips and legs encased in the expected khakis. As bile surged, and tears burned the backs of his eyes, he turned from the sight. Tipping his head toward one of the security cameras positioned in the far corner, he asked, “Get anything from them?”
“Nothing on there until the maintenance worker showed up. Poor S.O.B. suffered the shock of his life,” Larkin murmured. Jack followed his gaze, watching while the EMTs helped the man to his feet, then led him out. “Thinks the ghost of Adrienne herself was trying to break free.”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense to him.”
“Yeah, well, no ghost did that,” he said, pointing to the drawer. “Still, how the hell did she end up here, without anyone knowing?”
Larkin shook his head, his eyes, normally clear and decisive, clouding with doubt. “You know what I know. She left Quantico for a weekend in early January five years ago, never came back. At the time, some thought she panicked and quit the program.”
“Adrienne wasn’t a quitter.”
“I never believed it. We looked for her. You know we did.”
“Just not hard enough?”
Jack knew he should have stifled those words before they left his mouth, but he knew, too, that Larkin valued truth. And the truth in this case was that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, premier law enforcement agency in the country, had dropped the ball on finding one of its own.
Apparently recognizing that truth, Larkin grimaced. “Without a body…” His words choked off, and he shook his head once more.
She’d been one of Larkin’s favorites since the day he recruited her from the ranks of administrative obscurity to join the expanding team of special agents. It was the same class of recruits that Jack himself, a fresh-faced, foul-mouthed graduate of one of the country’s top law schools, had joined. Back then, at the advanced age of twenty-five, he’d thought he knew it all.
Adrienne had seen through him, though, right from the beginning. She didn’t have the fancy schooling he had, but she had street smarts and an unyielding work ethic. She had a strong sense of justice, too, that demanded protection for the innocent. To learn now that she’d been victimized herself, killed and mutilated, probably terrorized, and stripped of her dignity, sickened him. Made him want to spurt out the angry words that tumbled through his mind.
But he forced them down his throat and met Larkin’s gaze.
“Well, we’ve got a body now.”
Rachael set the journals on the table and sorted through the pile until she found the one that began during Adrienne’s high school years, figuring it would be a good place to start. Before she could sit, the diary dropped from her hand and fell to the floor. Tsking at her clumsiness, she retrieved the book, resettled herself into the sofa’s cushions, and turned back to page one. Again the book landed on the floor, but this time it somersaulted through the air, as though it had been propelled by a force.
The surface of her skin beginning to prickle, Rachael stood and scanned the room, to search for the source of an energy strong enough, other-worldly enough to have caused what she’d witnessed. But the room was empty. Or maybe it only seemed empty because she couldn’t see whatever life forces might be hiding just beyond the realm of her comprehension.
Still, she felt like an idiot when she retrieved the diary from the floor, then deliberately closed it and set it on the coffee table, as if she no longer had any interest in the secrets it held. She wondered if the night of passion had scrambled her brains when she sat back to watch, her fingers crossed.
It wasn’t long before her hunch paid off. The journal on top of the pile began to tremble, then buck. Fascinated, Rachael trained her eyes on the book, and as its movements became more frenzied, her heart raced to match its pace. Within a few seconds, the book had somehow shimmied itself forward so it teetered on the edge of the pile, like it needed no more than a tiny nudge to take the plunge.
Debating if she was supposed to provide that nudge, Rachael reached forward, and in that instant a shadowy image materialized inches away from the tips of her fingers. She jolted and snatched her arm back as the shadow transformed into a shape. It was a hand, only a hand, like someone was reaching through a split in some cosmic curtain that separated two dimensions. A shriek whipped up Rachael’s throat, and she slapped both hands to her mouth to stuff it back down. Scrambling backward, she found herself pressed against the couch, ready to run, when the ghostly fingers prodded the diary.
It tumbled over the table’s edge, landing with a thunk, and Rachael dropped to her knees, inhaling one choppy breath after another until her lungs could take no more. She was paralyzed, mesmerized, watching the hand where it hovered over the open book, less than a foot away. The fingernails, ragged and torn, were dirty and stained with smears of what looked like blood. They waggled suddenly, and the pages of the book began to flutter, making the sound of a hundred birds in flight. The air Rachael had been holding expelled in a burst, and her lungs refilled on another giant breath. But before she could scream, the humming from the FBI’s basement, that heartbeat-like pulse, saturated the air.
She didn’t realize she’d scrambled to her feet and retreated until the backs of her legs hit the edge of the sofa. As her muscles gave way to fear, she sagged onto the cushions and watched as Adrienne formed in front of her eyes. Only this time, the ghost didn’t look sad, she looked angry. Angry with Rachael.
Again Rachael nearly screamed, nearly let the terror in her chest rip up her throat and out, but she held on to the thought that the ghost had to be here for help. Her help.
Forcing her legs to take her weight, she stood and took a step toward the ghost, then another, until they were within arm’s length from each other. The ghost held its ground, her eyes narrowed and blazing with an intensity of a mother protecting a child. Adrienne was guarding the book on the floor, and Rachael was obviously the enemy.
After taking a few deep breaths, Rachael said the only thing she could think of. “Jackson asked me to help.”
Apparently it wasn’t the right thing to say because the ghost began to tremble, and a growling sort of noise emitted from her space. A warning.
And then it dawned on Rachael. Here she was in Jackson’s apartment, wearing nothing but one of his shirts. Adrienne might be dead, but she wasn’t stupid. She was jealous.
“I get it, Adrienne. Jackson isn’t mine, he’s yours.” The words were an attempt to soothe the ghost, to assure her of Jackson’s priority. “He loved you, and loves you still. He needs your help. He needs to know where to look for your killer.”
In a blink the ghost’s eyes went from enraged to bitter. Her mouth began to open and close like a guppy’s, and after what seemed like enormous effort, she spoke three words that wobbled in the air as if they rode a current of turbulence. Then she disappeared.
“Adrienne, wait!” Rachael called out to the empty room. “What do you mean? What does ‘wild goose chase’ mean? Are you telling me it’s hopeless?”
Too late. Adrienne was gone. She’d probably depleted every bit of her energy to emerge here in Jackson’s apartment, so far from the site of her discovery. But she’d left behind a starting point—the book lying on the floor. The diary held the key to Adrienne’s killer.