“Yeah, well, we’re not going to have much time to play,” Camellia said. “I want to get this job done and get out of here.”
“You’re boring. You don’t think this could be at all fun?”
“Not really,” Camellia said. “We could be doing actual important work, but, no; we’re stuck looking for something that doesn’t even exist.”
“What about time ghosts?” Preston said. “You know those exist. Remember when—”
“Yes, Preston, I remember,” Camellia said through gritted teeth. “But time ghosts don’t ‘haunt’. In fact, they aren’t even really ghosts. They’re beings made of energy, not souls left behind by the dead or whatever.”
Preston waved his hand. “Simple technicalities. But this could be like hunting the time ghost! That was fun; wasn’t it?”
“Well, then. We could be like the Mystery Gang! Except down two people. And the talking dog. That’s the most disappointing part. But we could still be, like, Fred and Daphne!”
Camellia glanced at Preston. “You’re Shaggy.”
“But Fred and I are both Joneses. And, also, I can’t be Shaggy without a Scooby.”
“You very well can. Besides, it’s more like I’m Nancy Drew, and you’re just one of the Hardy brothers. Joe, probably.”
“Who’s Joe? For that matter, who’s Nancy Drew?”
Camellia parked her car at the top of the driveway. She pressed a button on her keys and popped open the trunk. “Get our stuff.”
Preston got out of the passenger seat and headed to the trunk. Camellia went up to the front door of the mansion and rang the doorbell. An elaborate chiming was heard from the other side of the gold-detailed doors. A moment later, they opened to a man dressed in a tailored tailcoat.
“Hello, I’m Camellia Dempsey and this is Preston Jones,” Camellia introduced. “We were hired by a Mr. Edmond Briar for an investigation?”
“One moment, please,” said the man. He closed the doors.
Preston joined Camellia carrying two duffel bags and pulling a suitcase behind him. Camellia took one of the bags.
When the doors reopened, a second gentleman was there. He clapped his hands together. “Ah, you must be Preston and Camellia! Do come in.”
He stepped out of the way, and Preston went in. Camellia wiped her shoes on the welcome mat as well as she could before entering herself.
“You can leave your bags and coats with Jameson,” Mr. Briar said, gesturing to his butler. “The children and I were just about to sit down to dinner. You’re welcome to join us.”
“Oh,” Camellia said, glancing down at her watch, “we’re sorry to interrupt.”
“Nonsense.” Briar waved a dismissive hand while Preston and Camellia handed their things to Jameson. “I’m simply very glad you two could come. These hauntings are driving me crazy. Besides, it’ll be a good opportunity for you to meet the kids.”
Briar led Preston and Camellia across the foyer and through an ornate door. The dining room was beautifully elaborate; decorative china and paintings adorned the walls. The table was set with shining silverware and hand-painted plates. On either of the long sides were sets of six darkwood chairs, each one seating a different child.
“Children,” announced Briar, “I would like you to meet Preston and Camellia. They will be staying with us for a few days while they inspect the house.”
The twelve kids all uttered some form of greeting. Camellia waved, and Preston said, “ ’Sup?”
“Preston, Camellia,” said Briar, “this is Hulin, Veronica, Keung, Alison, Gushi, Deanna, Song, Oliver, Isabelle, Yusheng, Qiu, and Rosie.”
“Don’t sweat it if you can’t remember all that,” said the girl identified as Song. “Dad can’t even, sometimes.”
Briar chuckled. “My memory certainly isn’t what it used to be. Oh — here you are.” He pulled an extra chair away from the wall and sat it next to an empty one on the end. “You can sit in my wife’s spot.”
Preston tilted his head as he pulled the chair out. “Why isn’t your wife sitting here?”
“Preston,” Camellia warned.
Briar shook his head as he took his own seat. “It’s all right. Wen passed three years ago.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” Camellia said.
“I appreciate it. Now—” Briar rang a small brass bell, and three chefs entered through the kitchen door, each pushing a cart carrying food. Three entrees and multiple side dishes were placed on the table, along with an extra plate set for Preston.
The meal looked — and tasted — more expensive than anything Camellia had ever eaten. It was a grand mixture of American and Chinese dishes, and it was perfectly delicious. She decided that perhaps this assignment wouldn’t be so terrible.