Book 3: Psychic CORE
One for Sorrow
“WHERE’S YOUR DAUGHTER?”
Celeste Kain set the metal tongs into the ice bucket and glanced at her father, Ian Scott. “Olivia’s with John,” she said as she filled her daughter’s sippy cup with water from the wet bar tap.
“No, she’s not.”
Celeste looked to where her husband, John, stood in the corner of Dante and Jessica Russo’s large, newly finished basement. As he spoke to his fellow CORE agent and brother-in-law, Hudson Patterson, he used his hands. When she noticed John held Olivia’s favorite stuffed animal, a green and pink alligator their daughter had named Vlad, she closed the lid on the cup and glanced back to her dad. “John has her Vlad, and Olivia doesn’t go anywhere without that baby gator.”
“Then she’s doing a good job of hiding from Grandpa.”
She used a small beverage napkin to wipe water off the outside of the cup. “I warned you not to wear that clown mask around her. She’s like me. We don’t do clowns.” Poor Ian had thought he was playing good grandpa by donning a clown mask and bringing Olivia Halloween candy. When he’d showed up at their front door with fake red hair, a red nose, white face and triangle eyes, Olivia’s high-pitched screams had nearly burst Celeste’s eardrums. That had been a week ago, and Celeste still had remnants of the marks Olivia had made along her neck when she’d tried to claw herself away from Grandpa the Clown.
“I’m fully aware, thank you,” Ian said as he walked with her through the crowd toward where John and Hudson stood talking.
After they reached the men, Celeste looked down to the carpeted floor expecting to find her daughter playing at John’s feet. “Where’s Olivia?” she asked, glancing around in search of her sister, Eden. Their daughters were close in age and were probably playing together. When she spotted Eden with Hanna on her hip, she dismissed that idea. Her niece’s eyes were heavy-lidded. She had a pacifier in her mouth, her head against Eden’s shoulder, and looked as if she’d fall asleep any second.
John also peered around the crowded room filled with guests celebrating the christening of the Russos’ son. “I thought she was with you.”
Ian’s fiancée and Celeste’s future stepmother, Cami Carlyle, came down the basement stairs carrying a tray of sugar cookies shaped as either angels or crosses—courtesy of Celeste’s bakery, The Sugar Shack. Knowing how her daughter adored Grammy Cami—as well as cookies—Celeste met Cami by the dessert table. “Did Olivia follow you upstairs?”
“She sure did, the little stinker.” Cami grinned and snagged a cookie. When she turned and looked down, she frowned, then shifted her gaze toward the stairs. “She was right behind me.”
Celeste remembered Jessica saying that she needed to feed her and Dante’s four-month-old son, Leonardo. Olivia was infatuated with babies, and Celeste hoped her daughter wasn’t bothering Jess while she nursed Leo.
“Would you tell John I’ll be right back?” Without waiting for an answer from Cami, Celeste rushed from the basement to the main level of the bungalow. The heavenly scent of Dante’s homemade lasagna and stuffed shells lingered in the kitchen. Even though they’d eaten an hour ago, her mouth watered. The former Navy SEAL turned CORE investigator definitely knew how to cook, and she wouldn’t mind if he taught John a few of his recipes—not that John could make more than grilled cheese, but a girl could dream.
Although most of the guests were in the basement, a few of the older folks who had a difficult time managing the stairs had remained on the main level. After greeting some of them, then checking the family room, the half-bath and the office for Olivia, Celeste started up the stairs leading to the second floor. Olivia had spent the first eighteen months of her life in a single story condo. Since moving into their craftsman home four months ago, their daughter had not only mastered the stairs, but was a proven daredevil. With the exception of clowns, the girl had no fear.
A baby cried. Celeste released the stair railing and looked toward the closed door to the right, at the end of the long hallway—little Leo’s room. She glanced to the left and sucked in a breath. The hallway runner thankfully kept her steps quiet as she rushed toward the open door across from the baby’s room. If Olivia was inside, she did not belong there, and neither did Celeste. The room was a private place, a painful and unhealthy reminder of what the Russos had lost.
She reached the doorway. The naked, heavily branched tree near the window worked as a sieve, allowing small amounts of afternoon sunlight into the shadowy room. She’d expected a nursery, a place where time had stood still, a shrine to the daughter who’d been taken from Dante and Jessica. But they’d decorated Sophia’s bedroom for a little girl, rather than a baby. Their choice showed that they maintained hope, yet had been strong enough to let go of the past.
Celeste’s eyes misted as she sent a quick prayer to God, thanking Him for Olivia, and for keeping her safe. She couldn’t and wouldn’t want to imagine the pain and suffering Jessica and Dante had endured…still endured.
The November wind nudged the tree branches, causing the shadows to shift. Celeste looked away from the twin bed along the wall to where Olivia sat at the center of the room, her back to the door, the sun’s rays touching on her blonde head.
“Livy,” she whispered. Hoping Olivia hadn’t disturbed Jessica while she nursed Leo, Celeste glanced to the closed door across the hall. “Come to Mommy. You’re not supposed to be in here.”
Olivia’s curls bounced as she shook her head. “Pay girl,” she said with defiance as she crossed her plump arms over her chest.
“Hanna’s downstairs with Aunt Eden.”
“No Hanna. Livy pay dat girl,” she demanded, uncrossing her arms and pointing a chubby finger toward the wooden chest below the window.
Since it was close to Olivia’s naptime and her daughter had woken earlier than usual, Celeste reined in her irritation, grappled for patience and stepped into the room. “Don’t sass Mommy. Now come on, let’s go find Daddy.”
“No Daddy,” Olivia whined as she gripped the toes of her Mary Jane shoes. “Liv pay nice.”
The sun faded and the sky darkened to a muted gray. Wind whistled through the tree as traces of snow lightly pelted the glass panes. Determined to snatch up her daughter and haul her little butt downstairs before Olivia had a meltdown and alerted Jessica to their presence, Celeste took several steps.
“And you can play nice anywhere but in—”
Fear turned her legs rubbery, constricted her chest, cloaked her in an icy veil. A slight figure, bathed in iridescent shades of gray, white and pale pink, sat below the window. Celeste quickly knelt next to Olivia, her daughter’s words pushing past terror, the instinct to scream, to grab her child and run. “You can see her?”
“Liv pay nice,” Olivia repeated with a dimpled grin.
Maxine had warned her that Olivia’s gift was strong and would only grow more powerful with time, but Celeste hadn’t needed her mentor’s warnings. Within a week of moving into their century-old home, Celeste had sensed that Olivia was starting to hear and feel things no toddler should. She’d anticipated this, had figured it would be a matter of time before Livy would connect with the Dead, too. Only she hadn’t planned on it happening today. Here, in the room that had once belonged to a ten-month-old baby girl who had been ripped from her parents’ lives…
Oh my God.
Her hand trembled as she pulled Olivia close. “What’s the girl’s name?”
She desperately wanted to believe Dante and Jessica’s baby girl was still amongst the living. That the ghost by the window wasn’t an older version of their daughter, just a stranger reaching out to her and Olivia.
But who else could the spirit be?
Olivia’s smile grew as she clapped her hands. “Cake, cake,” she squealed, and Celeste knew Olivia referred to playing Pat-a-Cake.
Laughter came from downstairs. The figure dimmed, faded, then disappeared.
Olivia used Celeste’s thigh to push herself to her feet. “Where go?” she asked, looking around the room. She held her hands over her eyes and grinned. “Peeka, peeka.”
Celeste quickly stood and scooped Olivia in her arms. “No peeka, honey.” If John found out that their daughter could have been playing peek-a-boo or Pat-a-Cake with a ghost, he’d…well, she didn’t know what he’d do and wasn’t prepared to find out right now.
Four months ago, after Jessica had delivered Leo, Celeste had hinted to John that she’d love to try to use her psychic skills to obtain a reading from Sophia’s clothes or toys, even better, the diaper bag that had been left at the daycare the day the baby had been abducted. John had adamantly vetoed the idea and had told her to mind her business. He hadn’t wanted to give his friend and co-worker any false hope, especially when they’d just welcomed a child into the world.
“Peeka,” Olivia protested. Her lower lip shot out far enough that a tiny bird could have perched on it.
Celeste made sure Olivia hadn’t taken or moved anything in the room. “Mommy will get Vlad from Daddy and play peeka with you, okay?”
When she turned toward the door, Olivia clapped again. “Peeka!”
“Ssh, no more peek—”A small, shimmering mass emerged from nothingness, blocking their way to the door. It rolled, fell into itself, then swelled until it rematerialized as Olivia’s ghostly playmate. Celeste froze and held a squirming Olivia close.
“Uh-oh.” Olivia stopped clapping. “Boo-boo,” she said, touching her own head.
Celeste quickly shielded Olivia’s eyes with her hand. “My God.” She gaped at the dead girl, at the black hole that had once been her temple, and met her dark gaze. “Oh, honey, who did that to you?” she whispered.
“Hello?” The hall light turned on and Jessica stepped into the doorway carrying Leo. “Celeste?” She reached inside and flipped a switch. The small space immediately brightened. With the exception of a chocolate brown accent wall, the rest of the room had been painted a pretty shade of lilac. A lilac and apple green comforter covered the twin bed, along with matching pillows. The bed set and color scheme worked well with the espresso furniture and artwork hanging on the walls. If it weren’t for the dead girl, the bedroom would be a comfortable inviting space and something one might find in a Pottery Barn catalogue.
“Is everything okay?” Jessica asked.
“Fine.” Celeste forced a smile and tried to focus on Jessica, not the way the young spirit moved to the doorway, her black eyes fixated on the swaddled baby in Jessica’s arms. “Sorry about this. Liv must’ve followed you upstairs.” She kissed Olivia’s head and took hold of her hand before the toddler could point to the ghost again. “I don’t think she touched anything. If she did, or broke something, please let me know and I’ll take care of it.”
“Olivia can’t hurt anything in here.” Jess stepped forward, and into the spirit. The ghost vaporized, then reappeared over Jessica’s shoulder.
Leo cooed, then burped.
A child’s laughter filled the room. Olivia giggled and leaned forward, pointing toward the dead girl.
“Do you think Leo’s silly?” Jessica asked.
Olivia answered by shoving her thumb into her mouth, her blue gaze locked on the spirit hovering over Jess and the baby. The dead girl’s color changed to a pretty pink as she shifted her black, vacant eyes from Olivia to Leo, and Celeste swore a smile curved her translucent face.
Celeste looked away from the ghost. “We think Leo’s a cutie, huh, Liv?”
“This used to be Sophia’s room,” Jessica said, a catch in her voice.
Celeste wasn’t exactly best friends with the former Chicago detective, and hadn’t known Jess or Dante when Sophia had been kidnapped more than seven years ago, but she considered Jessica a friend. The unmistakable pain in the woman’s eyes tore at her heart, and she wished she could erase Jess’s misery.
But she’d promised John.
“I wasn’t sure.” She kissed Olivia’s cheek and kept her focus on Jess, not the ghost, the wind or the snow hitting the glass. “I love what you’ve done in here. It’s cute.”
“All Dante.” Jess dragged in a breath, closed her eyes and brushed her lips along her baby’s forehead. “If I’d had it my way, the room would look like it did the day Sophia went missing.”
The air grew heavy, oppressive. The pretty colors on the walls, the artwork and bed dulled. Like a summer annual reaching the end of its life, the colors faded, browned. When Olivia pointed to the ceiling, where dark gray smoke wisped and churned within the blades of the ceiling fan, Celeste’s heart tripped. The smoke liquefied. Melted, dripped and ran from the fan’s blades, gelling together as the fluid hit the floor.
She held her daughter close and took a backward step. “Cami was setting out dessert,” she said, trying her damnedest to keep the fear from her voice. She didn’t want to come across as insensitive, but she also wasn’t prepared for whatever was happening in the room.
“Yes.” Jessica smiled. “Thank you for making the cake and cookies.”
“Get out.” The whispered words swept through the room, mimicking the cold November wind blowing against the house.
The dead girl shifted her black eyes to the center of the room where another shape emerged from the floor: feminine, older than Olivia’s dead playmate, her coloring shades of dark yellow and gray. She raised an arm toward the younger ghost. “Get out,” she repeated.
The small ghost’s mouth yawned, her eyes widened. She burst away from Jess and the baby.
Olivia leaned forward. The young girl abruptly reappeared, this time only inches away.
Liv jerked against Celeste’s chest. “Peeka,” she shouted, then giggled.
“Help us,” the girl hissed. “Please, please help.”
This ghost’s black eyes weren’t vacant like Celeste had originally thought. They held anxiety and earnestness no child should ever experience. But this wasn’t an ordinary child. This could be Jess and Dante’s daughter.
At that thought, acid burned a path through Celeste’s chest and into her throat. She looked to the other ghost. The fear, the acquiescence and mistrust in the older girl’s eyes punched a whole in Celeste’s heart, especially when the girl turned away, revealing a hole in her head similar to the younger ghost’s. The sight of the wound made her sick inside, but she did her best to maintain her cool in front of Jessica. She had no idea who she was dealing with, why they were here, or if they’d been here all along and the Russos just hadn’t known it.
“No! Leave them.” The older girl’s voice became stronger, her coloring more vivid. “They can’t help.”
“We can try,” the younger ghost pleaded, her dark eyes on Olivia before she met Celeste’s gaze. “Can we?” She reached for her and Olivia. “Please.”
The older ghost moved across the room and engulfed the small spirit. Their colors mingled, but their sadness and fear left an imprint on Celeste’s psyche. The mother in her wanted to hold them, let them know that there was hope. Hope from what, she didn’t know.
“Do you want to play peek-a-boo?” Jessica asked with a chuckle.
“Celeste? Are you up there?” John called from the hallway.
“We’re all up here, John,” Jessica said, and touched the tip of Olivia’s nose. “Maybe your daddy will play with you while your mommy and I dive into a pot of coffee.”
“Please,” the young girl begged as she was dragged toward the ceiling. “Please help us.”
The desperation in her tone and her agonizing cries had Celeste’s throat tightening. She wanted to know what had happened to these girls. The Dead came to her when they needed something…her conscience told her to help them, to do anything to give them whatever it was they wanted. But what about Olivia? The spirit had come to her daughter first. Or had she lured Celeste to the room through Olivia?
Celeste cleared her throat and forced a smile. “Sounds like a plan.”
“Before he kills,” the girl wailed, then disappeared. The ceiling returned to normal. The air in the room lightened. The colors on the wall became vibrant again.
Guilt and regret weighed heavy on her shoulders. Even if Jessica and Olivia hadn’t been in the room, she wasn’t sure if she would have tried to communicate with the spirits without John or Maxine with her. The last ghost that had come to her hadn’t been friendly, and had been powerful enough to find a way into her head and body. These two…the hopelessness, the despair and dread radiating from their young souls had weakened them. The training she’d been doing with Maxine assured her of this and made her wonder if maybe she shouldn’t consider coming back here to talk with them.
A thump came at the window. A crow sat on the outer sill.
Jessica walked across the room. “One for sorrow.” She closed the blind. “That’s all it’s been.”
“What are you talking about?” Celeste asked.
John entered the room, drawing Olivia’s attention. “Daddy!”
“I wondered where you two went.” He pulled Liv into his arms. “Grammy Cami has a piece of cake for you.”
“Mmm. Hotch-let?” Olivia asked, using the ‘more’ sign.
“Did she just say chocolate?” Jessica moved away from the window. “And was that sign language?”
John lightly nudged Celeste with his arm. “It’s the only appropriate sign language symbol Celeste knows.”
Celeste grinned. “Would you stop,” she said, grateful for John’s timing. She needed to process what had happened here and talk with Maxine about it.
She needed to find a way to tell her husband that their daughter could see ghosts.