Excerpt: Unjust (Celeste Files)
Book 2: Psychic CORE
“WHERE’D YOU GO, girl?”
Celeste Kain’s hand trembled as she dragged in deep breaths.
To the bottom of the bay.
She dropped the sodden fishing net at her feet. Images of being tangled in it, then yanked into rough waters by a strong current rushed through her mind. She took a quick step back to avoid touching the source of the terrifying vision, and slipped on the puddle of water the net made.
Barney Newton, the grisly yet sweet boat captain, caught her arm before she fell, then sat her on the bench near the starboard side of his fishing boat. He glanced from her to the net, then out at the calm waters of Chokoloskee Bay. When he looked at her again, he took off his ball cap, which had a Vietnam Veteran logo across the front of it, then adjusted his eye patch. “You okay?” he asked, and covered his thick curly gray hair with the cap. “You zoned out on me for a few minutes after you reeled in the net.”
Sweat beaded along her upper lip and forehead. Even as the hot Florida sun blasted her skin, a chill passed through her. She hadn’t zoned out, she’d watched a man drown.
“I did?” She used the back of her forearm to wipe some of the sweat from her face. “It must be the heat,” she said, and started to rise. “I’m sure I just need some water.”
“You sit tight.” Barney reached into the cooler for a water bottle. After he handed it to her, he checked the net.
Olive-colored sea grass and silt coated different parts of the nylon mesh. When she’d touched the net, it had a slimy film, giving her the impression it had been submerged for a while. How long ago had the man drowned? Had a man drowned?
To hide her panic, she took a long drink from the water bottle. Damn it. This couldn’t be happening now. Not here. Yesterday, she and her husband, John, had flown to the Florida Everglades for a much needed vacation. Granted, this was more of a working vacation for John, but for her it was a chance to decompress, relax and forget about her responsibilities. Here, under the Florida sun, she didn’t have to worry about her bakery, the Sugar Shack. She didn’t have to deal with the laundry, grocery shopping, the dog, bills or changing her daughter’s diapers. This was her chance to reconnect with her husband and, with any luck, not just practice their baby making skills, but actually make a baby.
She drained the water bottle. Hopefully, the dead man would leave her alone. She hadn’t had lost souls creeping into her head since she’d regained her psychic visions four months ago, and didn’t want them bothering her now.
“Dang, girl, you got yourself one hell of a catch,” Barney said with a chuckle. He pulled a soggy leather boot from the tangled net. “It’s more than I caught today or yesterday.” When he held up the boot, he looked over his shoulder. His smile fell. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Really,” she said.
Barney went back to inspecting the net. He really was surprisingly sweet, and not what she’d pictured. When John, a criminalist for the investigative agency, CORE (Criminal Observance Resolution Evidence), had told her Ian, her father and the owner of CORE, wanted him to head to Everglades City, Florida, to train the agency’s southern counterpart, she wasn’t happy. The last time John had been to Everglades City, he’d been shot.
Plus, CORE’s southern counterpart wasn’t exactly legitimate. They actually called themselves ATL, or Above the Law. The name of their underground organization, along with the history of some of ATL’s agents, had worried her. While she knew their leader, Lola Tam, since she was the daughter of her dad’s fiancée, two of the members of ATL’s team had prison records, and one was a former hitman wanted by the Russian and U.S. governments. So she’d been leery when John had suggested she join him on the trip, until she’d met the ATL team. They were all great and had made her feel welcome, but for whatever reason, Celeste had immediately connected with Barney, an airboat captain and the group’s Jack-of-all-trades. When he’d invited her fishing today, she’d jumped at the offer to spend the day on the water, and maybe catch dinner. Now she wished she had stayed back at the condo she and John were renting and hung out at the pool. Call her selfish, but she didn’t want the dead ruining her vacation.
Barney let out a low whistle. “Unbelievable,” he said as he stared at the boot.
He glanced at her, then pointed to the letters D and C etched into the leather along the side of the boot. “Five days ago we were hit by a bad storm. Weather guys said we ended up with forty-mile-an-hour winds and twelve-foot waves. The Cajun Lady was out on the Gulf that night and got caught in it.” Barney shook his head. “I don’t know why she was out there. For days them weather guys were callin’ for a storm. Anyway, the Cajun Lady went down around midnight.”
“Do you think this net belongs to the Cajun Lady?”
He nodded. “And I think this boot belongs to her captain. His name was Denis Comeaux, and he liked to carve his initials into just about everything.”
Dread slithered up her spine. She looked from the boot to the net. “Did he survive?” Please, God. Let the man be alive.
“No.” Barney stood, then moved into the boat’s cockpit. “I need to call the Coast Guard and Gabe.”
She followed after Barney. After he reported what they’d found, and had given the Coast Guard their location, she asked, “Who’s Gabe?”
“Gabe Jackson was Denis’s deckhand, and was on the Cajun Lady the night of the storm. Gabe said they thought they’d beat the storm, but it came at them too fast. The Cajun Lady was tossed about and started taking on water. He said Denis got his leg caught in the net and a wave knocked him overboard before he could get on his lifejacket. Gabe tried to save him after he took care of putting on his own lifejacket, but the boat was sinking too fast. He jumped overboard and was in the water for nearly thirteen hours before another boat found him.”
Thirteen hours? “How scary.”
“Ain’t that the truth? But Gabe’s been fishin’ all his life. He was smart enough to know which direction to swim and told me by morning he could see the coast. Thing is, if that passing boat hadn’t picked him up, Gabe would’ve had to swim a solid fifteen miles to reach shore.”
Celeste could maybe doggy paddle for a half-mile, but fifteen? “I’m sorry to hear about your friend, Denis, but I’m glad Gabe survived.”
“Since Denis is gone, this might sound bad, but I never liked the man. Gabe’s good people, though. He was shook up over what happened. He was even saying he didn’t think he’d step on a boat again.” Barney looked at the radio. “On second thought, I’m gonna hold off on calling Gabe. No point in upsetting him. The Coast Guard might not find anything.”
“Are you planning on sticking around to see if they do?” she asked, anxious to head back to her condo. She needed to call Maxine and tell her about the quick vision. Her psychic mentor, Maxine Morehouse, had taught her several exercises to help keep the dead away. But Celeste’s nerves were a scrambled mess. Without having her dog, Ruth, by her side to pick up on impending and uncontrollable trances, Celeste worried about hurting herself again. She also wanted no part in this search. The boat captain had been in the water for five days, and she didn’t even want to imagine what the water and fish had done to his body.
“No.” Barney shook his head. “We’ll show the Coast Guard what we found, then be on our way.” He walked to the port side, and began removing his fishing rod from where it had been secured to the boat. “Might as well clean up.” He reeled in the line. “I was hoping we might catch us a redfish or snook. The female snooks have been fattenin’ up for their spawn, and are big at this time of year. A buddy of mine who runs fishing charters told me one of his customers caught a thirty pounder just the other day.” When the rod bowed, he stopped reeling.
“Did you catch something?” she asked.
“Don’t know.” He looked over his shoulder. “Whatever I’m hooked to ain’t struggling.”
Barney pulled his old station wagon into the parking lot of the condominium complex, and parked in front of the condo Celeste and John were renting. When he let out a weary sigh and parked the car, she unbuckled her seatbelt and turned to him.
“Please don’t feel bad,” she said.
“Daggonit.” He pulled off his cap, and slammed it against the steering wheel. “We were supposed to catch fish, not a dead body. I feel awful about this. I’ve had plenty of strange things happen to me, but there ain’t never been nothing like this.” He faced her. “I’m sorry. This ain’t a way to spend a vacation.”
After the Coast Guard had arrived, they’d investigated what Barney had hooked, and had discovered the remains of Denis Comeaux. With her back turned away from the scene, she’d stayed in the cockpit of Barney’s boat as the body had been removed from the water. Although she’d been unable to see what they were doing, she’d sworn she knew the exact moment Denis’s body had surfaced. Not by sound, or smell, but intuition. The air around her had become heavier, muggier. Breathing had grown difficult, as if something had surrounded her and squeezed.
Fortunately, the moment the Coast Guard had realized they’d found the boat captain’s body, they had taken the Cajun Lady’s fishing net, along with Denis’s boot, and had dismissed her and Barney.
“It’s not like you planned any of this,” she said. “Please don’t worry about it. Honestly, up until the dead body, I had a great time. This will be one fishing trip I won’t forget.”
He chuckled. “Well, it’s nice to know you’ll always remember me. So what do you want to do tomorrow?”
“What do you mean? Wait, did John ask you to entertain me while he was working?”
His smile faded. “If I answer yes, is he gonna get in trouble?”
She grinned. “No, but I also don’t expect you to play tour guide.”
“Oh, hell. I don’t mind. It’s nice hanging out with a pretty lady. I’m enjoying your company. So, what’d you say? Do you want to go to the beach? Or maybe we can drive up to Naples. If you’re into shopping, there’re plenty of places.”
“Since you give airboat tours, how about taking me on one of those? They look like fun.”
He frowned. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why not?” Barney worked for Lola’s fiancé, Ryan Monahan, who owned an airboat tour business, and was also part of ATL. She and John had stopped by Cap’n Ryan’s Airboat Tours when they’d arrived yesterday. Since she’d seen families with small children exiting one of the airboats, going on a tour shouldn’t be too dangerous.
“With your condition and all, I don’t think traveling through the Glades is a good idea.”
“And what condition would that be?” she asked. “I’m not pregnant and I don’t have any issues with my heart.”
He leaned toward her. “On account of your psychicness,” he said, his tone hushed as if it were a dirty secret. “Sorry, I overheard Lola tellin’ Ryan about you, and I’m just trying to look out for you is all.”
“Look out for me how?” she asked, amused by the direction of the conversation.
“How much do you know about the Everglades?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. This is my first trip to Florida.”
“Well, let me tell you a little something about the Glades. It’s a great place to hide a body. We’ve got ourselves over seven hundred miles of uninhabited wetland that ain’t patrolled. Hell, back in the day, rumor was the Mafia used the Everglades as a dumping ground. They’d fly a body or two into Everglades Airpark, then take them out into the Glades and throw them into a swamp for gator bait. But the mob wasn’t the only ones who liked to use the Glades to hide bodies. In the seventies and eighties, it was drug dealers. Nowadays, I suspect there’re bad folks using the swamps to hide their secrets.”
“So, with you bein’ psychic and all, I don’t think you’ll want to go into the Glades. Now, I don’t have the psychic gene, but I believe in it. Listen to this…a lady friend of mine was sitting on the dock just outside of her house one night. When she heard something in the canal, she got her camera and flashlight. As soon as she spotted a fifteen-foot gator, she started taking pictures. When she looked at those pictures later, there were dozens of white orbs in them.”
Spirits, or so some said. She had never personally seen orbs and was on the fence about them. “I’ve seen photos like that before. Are you worried that if I go on an airboat tour a restless spirit is going to try and connect with me?”
“He did today.”
She stared at Barney. “What do you mean?”
“Girl, I saw your face when you held that net. Your eyes went vacant. I even snapped my fingers in front of your face and you didn’t blink.”
Damn it. She’d been under longer than she’d thought. “Is that why you asked me where I’d gone?”
He nodded. “Did you see something?”
She considered her husband, who hated her gift, but loved her. She thought about her dad, Ian, who wanted to use her ability to assist his agency on certain cases. Then she pictured the dead man at the bottom of the bay, and prayed that he’d found peace now that his body had been recovered. “Yes. I felt the man being dragged under the water, but the vision disappeared as he was drowning.”
Barney rubbed his chin with the back of his hand. “No lie?”
She shook her head. “I’d prefer not to advertise this. I’ll tell John about it, but Lola and the rest of your gang don’t need to know. Not everyone believes in what I can see.”
“I can understand that. No worries, I know how to keep my jaw from flappin’.” He grinned. “So how about tomorrow?”
“Now, Celeste, I just told you—”
“I know what you said, but I’d really like to go for a ride. For the record, I’ve walked through plenty of cemeteries and have never brought a ghost home with me.” Then again, the last time she’d been to a cemetery had been the day her mom had been buried, and before she’d realized she could connect with the dead. Still, Maxine’s house was haunted, and never once had any of those spirits latched onto her. She doubted they would if she and Barney were zipping through the Everglades on an airboat.
“Well, ain’t you a stubborn one?” Barney grinned. “Okay, then. A tour it is. Call me in the morning and we’ll set up a time.”
She agreed, then thanked Barney and slid out of his station wagon. Once she was inside the vacation condo, she immediately called Maxine. “Why are you calling me when you should be having fun in the sun with your husband?” Maxine asked.
At the sound of her mentor’s soothing voice, Celeste relaxed into a chair. Ignoring the condo’s beach themed décor, she closed her eyes and took herself to the parlor of Maxine’s century-old home. Pictured the woman’s massive unicorn collection housed in that room. Imagined herself sitting on one of Maxine’s wingback chairs—upholstered in a unicorn print—and saw Maxine in the neighboring chair, her silver hair perfectly styled in a cute pixie cut, dressed in a classic outfit that Audrey Hepburn might have worn, and drinking tea.
“John’s working, but should be back in a couple hours.”
“Don’t tell me you’re bored.”
“Hardly. I went fishing today.”
“Fishing?” Maxine asked with disgust. “My third husband was an avid fisherman. He talked me into going fishing on Lake Michigan once, but I found the entire process loathsome. He actually expected me to put the bait on the hook.”
Maxine had been married seven times. While she and Celeste had grown close during the months Maxine had been mentoring her, Celeste only knew about husband number five. She liked Maxine, but didn’t want to pry into the woman’s business. Now that she’d brought up husband number three… “Is that why you two divorced?”
“Because he tried to force me to shove a worm onto a hook? No. I hooked the worm like a pro. Unfortunately I vomited shortly thereafter, which led to him carrying on about how his ex-girlfriend could not only hook a worm in her sleep, but skin a deer better than most men he knew.” She released a soft chuckle. “I admit, I was rather impulsive when I married him. Instead of taking into consideration that we had nothing in common, all I could focus on was his rugged manliness and, well, never mind. Like I’ve told you, I might be psychic, but I’m a lousy judge of character when it comes to men. And when it came to husband number three, I was shallow.”
Celeste grinned. Maxine was so classy, refined and practical. Celeste had never pegged her as the type to throw spaghetti at the wall to see if it would stick, or marry a guy for his manliness. “Shallow? Because you thought the guy was hot and good in bed?”
“Goodness, Celeste. I never said any such thing.”
“Sorry. That was crude.” And stupid. She knew Maxine, but not well enough to discuss their sex lives.
“That’s okay, dear. You caught me off guard.” She cleared her throat. “He looked like Robert Redford and made love like an untamed barbarian.”
“Other than looking like Robert Redford, why did you marry him?”
“I just told you, he made love like an untamed barbarian.” She sighed. “It was heavenly.”
While she and John were just fine when it came to sex, this untamed barbarian style intrigued her. Maybe once she returned back to Chicago she’d ply Maxine with vodka or wine and find out what was so heavenly.
“Enough about that,” Maxine began. “Where were we? Yes, fishing. Did you catch anything?”
“A net, boot and a dead man.”
Maxine laughed. “There’s a tall tale.”
“Unfortunately, I’m serious.”
“What? Oh, no. Is that why you’re calling? Is the dead man trying to talk through you?”
“No,” she replied, then explained everything. She even told her what Barney had said about the orbs floating around the Everglades.
“You said you’d felt the man’s spirit embrace you?” Maxine asked.
“Not an embrace, more like a squeeze. But it could have been my imagination. It was hot and humid, and the Coast Guard was pulling a man out of the water. I’m sure anxiety could have been part of the squeezing sensation. If not, and it was the man, I’m hoping he’s able to move on from his physical life.”
“Yes, let’s hope so. Just in case, I want you to burn sage to cleanse your condo of any negative energy or unwanted spirits.”
“Already done. I took care of it when John and I first got here.”
“And the notepad and pen?”
When she’d first begun working with Maxine, she’d learned that scribbling had helped her to stay grounded and focused during a vision. But the visions weren’t what had Celeste worried. The trances scared the hell out of her. She still hadn’t learned how to control them or prevent them from happening, which had been why Maxine had gifted her with Ruth, a service dog. The black Lab had been trained for people who had epilepsy. She could detect abnormal electro-magnetic energy changes. According to her trainer, Ruth knew the difference between normal and abnormal movement and could even hear changes in her owner’s breathing patterns. Fortunately, Celeste hadn’t slipped into a trance since taking Ruth. Plus, she liked the dog, and loved how protective Ruth was of her daughter, Olivia.
“I’m all set with my grounding techniques,” Celeste said. “So what do you think about the orbs and me going into the Everglades?”
“Honestly, I’m not a believer. I’ve seen paranormal experiments conducted where a person will fluff a pillow and send dust motes into the air. The flash from the camera picks up on these particles giving the impression there are spirits in the room. I certainly don’t discount what your friend Barney told you. It’s quite possible there are restless spirits haunting the Everglades, but right now, I’m more concerned with the net you touched today.”
Now that she was talking with Maxine, her worry over the dead man seemed ridiculous. The connection with him had been quick, and she honestly couldn’t be certain if he’d touched her on his way to the other side. “I’m not. I didn’t feel anything negative.”
“You saw the man drown.”
“What I meant was that I felt no malice.”
“You hadn’t when you’d touched the baby blanket this past winter, and that nearly cost you your life,” Maxine said. “Celeste, if you’re not concerned by what you saw or felt today, then why are you calling me?”
Celeste rested her head against the chair. “Because I did panic when I first touched the net. I was worried about having trances and visions while being over a thousand miles away from you and Ruth.”
“Understandable, but I’m wondering if it’s more than being away from me and your dog. Obviously, you encountered a dead man. Was it his spirit that squeezed you, or the humidity? Better yet, was it your anxiety getting the best of you? Think about it, this is the first time you’ve left Olivia, it’s the first vacation you’ve had with your husband since you were married, and you’re hoping to conceive, correct? Oh, and let’s not forget that you just placed your condo on the market and are looking for a new home.”
Celeste let out a sigh. She’d cried during the first twenty minutes of their flight to Everglades Airpark. The guilt and worry over leaving Olivia with Ian and his fiancée, Cami, had chased her all the way to Florida. The stress of preparing to move while taking care of an eighteen-month-old and running a business still knotted her shoulders. This trip was also the first time she’d left the managers of her bakery in charge for longer than a weekend. Yeah, Maxine was probably right. Plus, it was almost ninety degrees when she and Barney were on the boat. The oppressive heat could have definitely been what had given her what seemed like a squeeze, not the dead man.
“I think you might be on to something,” Celeste said. “John wanted me to come here with him so that I could learn how to relax again.”
“You’re not doing a very good job,” Maxine said, amusement in her tone. “Pour yourself a glass of wine and lose yourself in a book while you wait for John to come home. Then talk to him.”
“We talk all the time.”
“No, I mean talk to him. Tell him about today and about the pressure weighing you down. He might see that you need to relax, but he can’t understand how much the stress you put yourself under affects your mental health if you don’t tell him. He’s a good man, Celeste. It’s okay to give up a little control and let him take care of you.”
Sometimes she wondered if Maxine was a marriage counselor in a past life. The woman always knew the right things to say, and always at the right time. “I definitely plan to tell John about the dead man. This is a small town. Having come from one, I know word will travel fast.”
“And the pressure you’ve put yourself under?”
She looked to the ceiling. “Yes, I’ll mention that, too. Don’t forget, John has his own stress. I know it’s not easy working for my father, and dealing with me. I’m sure he’d prefer to have a normal wife.”
Maxine chuckled. “I’ve had seven husbands. I wouldn’t even know how to be a normal wife. If you figure that out, let me know and I’ll think about husband number eight.”
“Only if you tell me what your untamed barbarian did that was so heavenly.”
Maxine laughed harder. “Maybe when you’re a little older. Enjoy your vacation and don’t let what happened today ruin your time with John. You both deserve to have fun.”
“I plan to. He’s only training the next three days, then after that, the rest of the week is just for us.”
“Perfect. In the meantime, if you need to talk, you know I’m here.”
Celeste thanked Maxine, then said her good-byes. Once she ended the call, she decided to take her mentor’s advice: have a glass of wine and lose herself in a book while she waited for John.
As she rose from the chair, the curtains billowed. She stopped and stared at them. Swore the fabric had formed into a shape—a human shape—before sinking back and framing the front window. There was no air vent by the window. There was no reason for the curtain to move.
Her skin crawled with unease. Her heart pounded hard. The room became hot, humid. She gripped the cell phone tight. Still staring at the curtain, she backed her way toward the kitchen. Had she imagined the moving curtain? Was her mind playing tricks on her? She’d connected with a dead man today. Her anxiety level had been high. She let out a shaky breath and shook her head.
“You’re going to lose it if you don’t get it together,” she muttered, opening the fridge, then reaching for the bottle of wine she and John had opened last night.
Celeste whipped the refrigerator shut, and slammed her back against it. Breathing hard, she glanced around the condo. The place was small and open. The kitchen led into the living and dining area, and straight for the front door. A small patio was off the kitchen, but with the tall fencing surrounding it, there was no way to escape from it.
Wait. What was she thinking? Maybe she hadn’t heard—
A masculine chuckle filled the room, her head and nearly stopped her heart. “No escape, sugar. You’re mine.”