The marvelous, sweet-scented hot soak did much to relieve my snarly mood.
Sixty minutes later I stepped out of the bedroom—dry, combed, and fluffed—wearing a slim, white skirt and matching jacket over an emerald green blouse.
With a little eyeliner, I felt ready for the dual challenge of ghost and Dax Larue. Not that I wanted to impress him, and of course the ghost lady would hardly care if I wore makeup. However, self-confidence boosters are important to any woman. I can face the world … but not without eyeliner.
I tilted up my chin once more and assumed a professional air.
Larue had changed into gray slacks and a red turtleneck. He cut a dashing figure there in the Pirate Suite. The red color sharpened his dark hair and darker eyes, the color of a moonless midnight sky. I didn’t have to wonder how many women would give up their favorite hairstylist to trade places with me, here in a Pirate Suite with Dax Larue—ghost or no ghost.
He studied the screen on his laptop but glanced up as I entered. His eyes registered instant approval. My confidence level jumped several notches, and the remnants of my petulant mood disappeared.
“Well, well, well, Miss O’Hara. Or should I continue calling you Mrs. Larue, since you’re posing as my wife? You look charming, either way. No one would ever guess that you hadn’t ‘wept a slink.’”
“Wept a what? Oh. Did I really say that?” Now I understood the amusement on his face before I’d disappeared through the French doors. “Well, that tells you how much I needed that moment to freshen up. Please, just call me Kaytie,”
“Kaytie O’Hara. And is there a Mr. O’Hara?” His eyebrows rose.
“No, but I am engaged.” I didn’t want him to assume I was a member of the throngs of adoring female fans who would do anything to get his attention.
“Engaged?” he asked, as if the concept eluded him.
“Yes. His name is … Ashton Wilson.”
Oh great. Now I had an imaginary fiancé.
Ashton leaped to the forefront of my mind and jumped off my tongue before I thought better. Too similar to Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind—the story from which my mother had taken my name. At least she had changed the middle name from Scarlett to Flame. I don’t like it and seldom use it. I should have known Ashton would sound contrived.
Dax glanced at my ring finger. No diamond glinted there; however, I had chosen to wear my grandmother’s emerald ring. It went well with my green silk blouse. My eyes, too. People always tell me my eyes are as green as the grass of Ireland.
“Ashton Wilson. What a novel name.”
He stressed the word novel. I felt the beginnings of a blush move up my cheeks. To divert attention, I glanced at my watch and suggested we head downstairs. Already past ten o’clock, the ghost was scheduled to show up at midnight.
Of course. What self-respecting ghost appears at any other time? Midnight to four a.m. Those are considered the witching hours in the South. Why those hours? I don’t know. I suppose that’s when most mischief occurs. Midnight in the garden of good and evil and all that voodoo mythology.
Larue offered his arm, and we started for the downstairs ballroom.
Once the grand ballroom of an antebellum manor, the room was large and elegant. Built before 1850, the manor had stood on a sugar plantation near the outskirts of rapidly growing New Orleans. Over the last hundred years, renovations had upgraded and expanded the original house, but the gracefully curving staircase remained its charming centerpiece.
A chandelier hung slightly off-center overhead. Softly glowing candles cast dancing shadows throughout the room, perfect ambience for spectral appearances.
Camera crews set up tripods and performed visual checks. Hotel employees worked to arrange five rows of folding chairs, which were soon occupied by newspaper, radio, and television reporters.
Discovery channel cameras, from America’s Most Haunted Places, were stationed on either side of the staircase. The crew had a third camera located on the balcony above.
This ghost drew a bigger turnout than the governor’s last press conference. I wondered if spectral woman had been a democrat or a republican, but silly me. Obviously, she was a confederate!
Dax and I found a couple of chairs in the third row.
“Where’s your camera crew?” I asked in a low tone. The atmosphere of the room begged for hushed conversation.
“We’ve got a cameraman here somewhere. Oh yeah, he’s over there.” He pointed to a Supernatural Seeker TV camera stationed near the grand staircase on the floor of the ballroom.
I opened my purse and pulled out a small digital camera. It looked very unworthy in the presence of all the high-tech equipment, but it would do the trick. I might write for an obscure journal, but I was here on the job, same as all the big corporate newspaper reporters and network journalists.
“How long have you been at Beyond Fantasy?” Dax asked. “Do you like it?”
“About a year, and yes, I enjoy it. Debunking urban legends. Modern myths. The kind of supernatural junk that a certain part of the population is always so willing to believe—some of it is harmless enough. Some of it not.”
I restrained myself from taking jabs at his journal, which I considered right up there with tabloids that run stories like Vampires Sunk the Titanic. Well not quite that extreme maybe, but close enough.
“Debunking the charlatans. That’ important. Deceived people and dangerous behavior definitely go together. Like the Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide back in 1997. I’m guessing that’s an example of what you’re talking about.”
I was surprised that we were on the same page. “Exactly. How do you suppose that happens? Forty misguided souls believed they could drink poison and wake up to bliss on the passing Hale Bopp comet. Who in his right mind would follow someone who asked them to do that?”
Dax shrugged. “Right-mind is the operative term. Sane people wouldn’t follow him. Then you also have the opposite types. Guys like David Koresh and Jim Jones. Both handsome and charismatic. It’s not hard to believe that Jones could attract large numbers to his People’s Temple, or that they’d follow him to Guyana to build his Jonestown paradise.”
“Yes, Jones was an attractive man,” I said. “I can understand why people might follow him to Guyana. But mothers and fathers deliberately poisoning their own children? If I went to a church where the leader started rehearsing the congregation for mass suicide, I’d be saying, ‘See you later, guys. I think I’ll go find a church where you don’t have to kill your kids as an act of faith.’”
Dax looked amused. “Me too.” He turned toward me with a disarming grin. “I think your magazine will do a great service if you warn people to stay away from the Heaven’s Gates cults and Jim Joneses of the world.”
I was pleasantly surprised. “Of course, we can’t expose the weirdoes unless we can verify exactly how they’re off the elevator,” I said. “Even then, some will continue to believe—regardless of the facts. I’ve come to realize there are people who plain want to believe weird stuff. That’s up to them. My job is to present the truth.”
I thought that might trigger a rise out of him—a writer who specializes in stories on telekinesis, mediums, psychic healers, and other spooky subjects filled with fraudulent potential. When he didn’t respond, my curiosity got the upper hand.
“What about you? Do you enjoy working for the Seeker?”
“It’s interesting. The money is good.” He shrugged nonchalantly.
Most journalists have a passion for their profession and their subjects. I didn’t sense that in Dax. Was he really just about the fame and fortune?
“I like the travel,” he confessed. “Guess I’m just an adventurer at heart.”
I immediately pictured him as Indiana Jones, with hat and whip in hand, and decided he fit the part.
Someone passed a tray of shrimp-filled canapés, and I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
“Maybe we should get a late supper somewhere after the event is over?” Dax said, as if reading my mind. Either that or he could hear my stomach growling.
“That’s not a bad idea,” I agreed. This time he’d better pay for the cab. And the dinner.
A pendulum clock near the entrance hall chimed the eleventh hour. Cameramen ran visual checks and others jotted down notes.
We passed the time getting acquainted with news hounds we didn’t already know. Some of the female variety kept glancing at Dax.
If you’re a female TV anchor or reporter, it’s an unwritten rule that you have to be young and cute, and they were. All long legs and high heels, but they must have assumed we were a couple, because they kept their distance.
Too bad for Larue.
The haunting hour approached.
Quiet chatter dwindled to a murmur.
All remaining gaslights were extinguished. Candles cast a soft amber glow in the lower room, leaving the grand staircase shrouded in shadow.
An antique grandfather clock began to chime. At the somber tone of each gong, anticipation mounted.
Nobody moved or spoke.
What would we see?
By the eleventh chime, my fingers tightened on the edge of my seat. The twelfth gong sounded, faded, and a melodic echo hung in the expectant hush.