“Wayde Hagen is, in fact, dead.”
That’s how long I remained silent after my boss, Max, the police sergeant with the cold case division in Memphis, dropped that one-liner bombshell on me. And with said bombshell, the barn I now stood in seemed far spookier than it was three minutes ago.
In the pitch black, surrounded by cobwebs and the spiders living within them, I used my flashlight to scan the area in front of me. While I wasn’t alone in the barn and had Gretchen, Dane and Amelia with me, plus Kipp and Caley, it didn’t reassure me much. The sense of looming danger hammered my heart.
The beam of my flashlight swept across the big wooden planks that made up the barn’s exterior, which also had large spaces between them where murderers could be watching me. I did my best to ignore the large spider off to my right, as well as the gardening tools that someone could use to gut me.
The whistle of the wind sounded right before a cold sliver of air brushed my arm and reminded me why I remained in this freaky barn. I gasped as the flickers of ice rushed through my veins, and finally, I was able to blink out of my apparent stunned state.
My vision cleared to my ghost boyfriend, Kipp. His eyebrow was arched over his intense blue eye, but the brown eye looked warm. Even as a spirit, Kipp portrayed a healthy amount of testosterone, and he had a body packed full of muscles to back it up. My heart might have stuttered at his chiseled features and at his kissable lips, if that would be an appropriate reaction now, which it wasn’t.
Besides, that sexy piece of man—ghost—heaven was the reason I wouldn’t run from this scary situation. I needed to find a way to put his soul back into his comatose body. The freaky-as-all-hell-shit would simply have to wait to be acknowledged.
At my continued silence, Kipp gestured to the phone in my hand. “You need to talk to Max and find out what’s going on?”
The side of my head throbbed and reminded me I had an awful headache that had plagued me for days. I suspected it was stress related, considering it had grown progressively worse since I’d entered this wretched barn.
I rubbed my temple to each ease the ache, stared at the concern in Kipp’s eyes, and then said into the phone, “What do you mean, Wayde is dead?”
“Exactly that,” Max replied in his hard, I-am-a-cop-don’t-mess-with-me voice, as police sirens rang out in the background. “The Wayde you know appears to have taken on someone else’s identity.”
I hesitated, trying to make sense of that. Wayde had been the first member of the Animus—a secret society of the supernaturally gifted located in White Castle, Louisiana—I had met.
From what I had learned, Wayde had taken over the role of Grand Master of the group after the murder of the last Grand Master, Alexander. This was where I came in, since no one in the Animus could communicate with the dead. If I helped solve Alexander’s murder, Wayde would give me a spell from the Animus’s private spell book, called the Lux, which would force Kipp’s soul back into his body.
So, what Max suggested made no sense. Why would Wayde take on someone else’s identity? “Are you sure?”
“Very sure.” Max exhaled, sounding like white noise through the phone line. “Once we started looking deeper into the lives of those with you at the house, and into Wayde Hagen’s social security number, as well as his birth date, it suddenly became obvious he’s been ghosting.”
I blinked as that term usually meant something far different to me, and Wayde—or the Wayde I knew—wasn’t dead. Unless he had killed himself in the last day, which was of course plausible, but didn’t make a lick of sense.
Why would a man with no motive to kill Alexander, since he made me magically bind the promise that I’d help solve Alexander’s murder, have killed himself? “What do you mean by ghosting?”
The sirens continued to wail through the phone line, and Max raised his voice. “Wayde stole the identity of someone who’s the same age as him and perhaps knew him, which is how he stole it without any detection. As in, he merely jumped into a new life and his real identity died.”
Part of me wanted to sputter out a thousand questions at this insane theory, but I could only listen in surprise as Max continued, “It appears the real Wayde Hagen must’ve had no family because his death was never reported.”
I blinked…again. “Then, how do you know he’s dead?”
Kipp gave me a perplexed look under the beam of my flashlight. I understood and suspected only hearing one side of this conversation made zero sense. Hell, even hearing the whole conversation didn’t help much.
I focused away from Kipp when Max said, “The real Wayde Hagen was arrested for car theft in his late teens, and we got a hold of a mug shot. We compared his picture to the current Wayde Hagen, and they are not the same person.”
Max hesitated, maybe waiting for me to say something, which now was impossible since I was stunned stupid, and then he added, “There’s more to tell you. For now, just get somewhere safe. We’re only a couple minutes out.”
The phone line went dead.
I gave my head a good hard shake to clear it and now more aware, I remembered the others in the barn with me. I turned to my best friend, Caley, and worried for her. I hated putting her in any sort of danger, especially since it wasn’t my best friend standing in front of me, but the previous Grand Master of the Animus, Alexander. Or his ghost occupying her body, I should say.
I heaved a sigh, honestly wondering how much more I could take, and placed my cell phone into my pocket. Then I turned to Dane, a member of the Animus who’d recently turned out to be on my side, and asked, ”Do you know where Wayde is now?”
His eyebrows furrowed over his crystal blue eyes as a few strands of his blond hair fell over his forehead. “Wayde told me he received a phone call from an Animus member.” Dane’s voice was slow and careful, his eyes even more cautious. “He left last night and he hasn’t returned yet.”
A dreadful horror rushed over my body in a heat wave. A loud creak in the wood planks, followed by a flutter sounding like bat’s wings, had me glancing around the barn with my flashlight, even if deep down I didn’t want to.
I’d come into this scary barn in hopes of finding answers for Kipp. This came in the form of a diary by Nettie Glasglow, a woman who had lived in the nineteen hundreds and held the exact gift as I did.
Wayde hid her diary from me as an advantage to ensure I’d continue to help him, but Alexander had found the book in the barn. And what else was new in my life…finding the diary had only brought more crazy-ass truths I didn’t want to know. The most important fact: it was possible my traveling into the Netherworld—the veil between here and beyond—to locate Kipp only days ago might mean my own death.
I hoped Nettie’s death was simply a coincidence, and nothing more.
To hold my sanity together, I went with that theory.
A mouse scurried in front of my feet. I took a step back and could’ve sworn I moved into a spider web. But after a few fast swipes of my hair, I couldn’t feel anything crawling on me or see a spider web. “That’s it. I’ve had enough. Let’s go.”
I stepped forward when a cold wisp of air brushed over my arm, and I glanced to Kipp as he muttered, “Light off, Tess.”
With a deep sigh of total unhappiness, I shut off my flashlight, and once again, a pitch-black night surrounded me. Kipp thought it was safer for us to move around the yard in darkness since a killer wouldn’t easily spot us.
While it made sense and all, I, honest to God, hated the dark.
However, the moment I followed Gretchen and the others out of the barn, the sound of sirens blaring through the air made me blissfully happy. The arrival of Kipp’s fellow cops meant safety.
As we strode through the yard, the large historical plantation that was the home to the Grand Master of the Animus stood out in the dark night with the porch light turned on. If this place hadn’t been hell on earth, since it only complicated my life more, I might be a tad jealous of its beauty.
A flicker of light came to my left, and I noticed someone that had been bugging me since I arrived in White Castle. Sammy’s hair still looked messy and spiked in complete disorder. He also looked in desperate need of many cheeseburgers to get some meat onto his bones. Of course, that was impossible now, considering he was a ghost.
He gave me his sweet smile and a wave, but I quickly looked away not to engage him in conversation. It tugged at me to keep ignoring him like I had been. However, now, I needed to be selfish. My focus remained on Kipp’s dire situation, that’s it. Every other ghost would have to take a ticket and wait in line for help.
We neared the house and red and blue lights lit up the dark sky. It surprised me to see not only one police car tearing down the long gravel driveway, but at least a half a dozen. The local police force, I assumed.
At the amount of police presence, my heart thumped and skipped a beat. Was the other detail that Max had to tell me about Wayde deadlier than what I assumed? He had seemed almost frantic at first, hadn’t he? He did tell me to get to safety. While I didn’t suspect Wayde was some crazed murderer, maybe I was wrong.
The car squealed to a stop and spit up rocks. Max jumped out of the car and jogged toward me with his gun out of his holster and in his hand, as did the other members of the cold case squad, including the cute blue-eyed Eddie and the muscular blond, Zach, all of whom I loved like family.
Even if their arrival made me feel protected, dread turned my blood ice cold. Like a mob on the run, a flurry of activity stormed in front of me as cops fanned out. Some police officers went into the house and some headed into the yard, which I assumed was to search for Wayde…or whoever Wayde was.
When Max finally reached us, a deep crease had formed in his brow over his chocolate colored eyes as he asked, “Have you seen Wayde?”
I shook my head and felt sick to my stomach at the deep concern etched into his features. “No one has since last—”
An ear-splitting noise cut me off and had every head, including mine, turning toward the direction of the forest to our left. After which, three things happened simultaneously.
I recognized the deafening sound as a gunshot.
Loud masculine yells surrounded me.
I ate dirt.