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Oleander House

Bay City Paranormal Investigations book 1



Ally Blue













Copyright 1st edition © 2006 Ally Blue

Copyright 2nd edition © 2017 Ally Blue

Cover art: Brent Brown, http://www.brentbrown.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.


This book is a second edition. Original edition released in 2006, edited by Sasha Knight. Minor re-editing has been done by the author for this edition without substantial change in the story.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

About The Author
















Forever and always dedicated to Sasha Knight, who turned this story from a grim-dark horror standalone where everyone died into a less dark horror-flavored romance series where everyone lives happily ever after. Mostly.















CHAPTER ONE


The sun had dipped below the horizon by the time Sam Raintree reached his destination. It was a full day’s drive from his home north of Atlanta to the town of Gautier, Mississippi, and nearly another hour from there to Oleander House. Luckily, he’d gotten an early start.

Sam smiled as he turned off the narrow road onto the gravel driveway leading to the house. The largest oleander bushes he’d ever seen lined the long, curving drive. Their bright pink blossoms littered the ground. Beyond the tops of the oleanders Sam could just make out a peaked roof of a red so dark it was nearly black.

His pulse sped up. Oleander House was his first case in his new job as technical assistant for Bay City Paranormal Investigations. He’d been hired after several phone interviews and one face-to-face meeting with Amy Landry, one of the co-owners of the Mobile-based business. He hadn’t even had time to move into the apartment he’d rented in Mobile before the job with Oleander House had come along. So he’d packed everything he owned into the covered bed of his pickup and left Marietta for the last time.

When the truck rounded the final curve in the drive and the house came into view, Sam stopped and leaned on the steering wheel, staring with wide eyes. The house was huge, squarish, white, with deep porches running the full width of both stories. Pine trees crowded against the outbuildings in back. The upstairs porch jutted out at either end and in the middle, forming wide balconies seething with shadows. Something about it seemed vaguely obscene, as if at any moment an unwholesome presence might reveal itself from around a bend in the humid air.

“Wow,” Sam said out loud to the breathless evening. “What a place.”

He grabbed his duffle bag off the passenger seat, hopped out of the cab, and started toward the house. The setting sun dyed the heat-crisped front lawn a deep red. Sam imagined he was wading through battlefield gore as he walked across the flat expanse, his bag slung over one shoulder. He wondered if the Civil War had splattered this place with blood and ghosts as it had so much of the South.

It took a couple of minutes for the door to open after he rang the bell. A woman with fiery curls and bright blue eyes stood on the other side. Amy Landry, the woman who’d hired him. She smiled and held out her hand. Sam took it and they shook.

“Hi, Sam,” she said. “How was your drive?”

“Hey, Amy. It was fine, no problem.” He stepped into the echoing foyer and set his bag on the polished wood floor. “This place is amazing.”

“It really is. Wait ‘til you hear its history.” She started toward an arch in the left-hand wall, motioning Sam to follow. “Come get some dinner, and I’ll introduce you to everyone else. You can leave your bag here for now.”

Sam trailed behind her down a long hallway with rich cherry paneling and a floor tiled in crimson-and-cream marble. French doors lined the hall on his left, opening on the front porch. They passed a closed set of carved wooden double doors on his right before they came to a set that stood open. Light and voices drifted from inside.

The dining room walls were painted a dark claret, offset by a cream-colored ceiling. The other members of the group sat around a large wooden table, eating and talking. Three pairs of eyes turned to Sam and Amy as they entered the room.

“Y’all, this is Sam Raintree, our new tech assistant.” Amy pointed a slim finger at each person as she introduced them. “Sam, this is Andre Meloy, Cecile Langlois and David Broom.”

Andre, a tall, muscular man with deep brown skin and a movie-star smile, stood and offered a hand across the table. “Pleased to meet you, Sam. I’m the lead tech specialist. We’ll be working together a lot.”

“Good to meet you too, Andre.” Sam shook Andre’s hand, trying not to wince at the other man’s bone-crushing grip.

“Have a seat,” David said, giving Sam a dimpled grin. “I’m the rest of the tech department. Great to have you on board.” He mopped his balding head with his napkin. “Hot in here, huh? August in Mississippi, we must be nuts. No air conditioning either.”

“At least there’s indoor plumbing.” Amy sat next to Andre and passed Sam a big bowl full of something that smelled hot and spicy. “Have some jambalaya. You must be hungry after the long drive.”

Sam took the empty seat next to David and started heaping his plate with food. “Yeah, I am, thanks.”

“So, this your first investigation?” Andre asked, forking up a mouthful of jambalaya.

Sam nodded. “Yeah. I mean, I’ve been on a lot of amateur hunts with my local group, but this is my first professional one. I’m really excited about it. Sure beats the hell out of working in computer tech support.”

“This isn’t a vacation, you know.” Cecile gave him a cool look from under her long chestnut bangs. “It can be dangerous. The spirit world isn’t something to be taken lightly.” Her many bracelets clinked together as she picked up her wineglass.

Sam frowned at her. The wine swirling around the bottom of her glass was the color of blood. For a moment he was sure it was exactly that. She took a sip, grimaced, and set the glass down.

“Cecile is the psychic sent by the home’s owner,” Amy said, as if that explained the woman’s attitude. The way she glared at Cecile was not friendly. “Sam, would you like some wine?”

“No. Thank you.” Sam scooped up a forkful of jambalaya. “Oh, man, this is fantastic,” he declared with his mouth full.

“Thanks. I made it myself.”

Sam looked up to see the owner of the new voice standing in the doorway opposite to the one he and Amy had entered through. His heart tried to climb up his throat. The man was near his own six-foot-plus height, slim and graceful, with caramel skin and large, soft eyes the color of rich delta soil. Swatches of straight black hair escaped a haphazard braid to fall across the sensual curves of his face.

Sam gulped, trying desperately to keep his immediate attraction from showing. He’d learned the hard way that not everyone took kindly to having a gay man in their midst. Some people still thought it was contagious.

The man strode toward Sam with a wide smile and an outstretched hand. “I’m Dr. Broussard. Call me Bo.”

So this was the founder and lead investigator for Bay City Paranormal. Sam stood and shook Bo’s broad, callused hand. He couldn’t help thinking how beautifully Bo’s darkness contrasted with his own fairness. Ignoring the mental picture of his blond hair between Bo’s long, dusky fingers, Sam returned Bo’s smile. “Good to meet you, Bo. I’m Sam Raintree.” He congratulated himself on sounding nicely casual.

“Welcome, Sam. Sorry I never got to be in on any of your interviews, but things just kept coming up.” Bo plopped into the chair next to Sam’s. “You’ve met everyone, I guess?”

Sam nodded. “Yeah, I did. Amy introduced me.”

“Good.” Bo helped himself to jambalaya. “After dinner I’ll show you to your room, then we’ll all meet back in the library and get started.”

Sam met Bo’s warm smile with one of his own, feeling his insides shift with a twitchy mix of nerves and desire. “So, uh, what’re we doing tonight?”

“First, Amy and I will review the history of the house. Then Andre and David can go over the equipment with you and Cecile.”

“Equipment?” Cecile shifted in her chair, her expression uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe I can use your equipment. It interferes with my ability to read the psychic energy of the house.”

Bo breathed a barely audible sigh. “Fine. After we’ve shown you the equipment, Sam, we’ll do a preliminary survey of the entire house, one team working upstairs and one downstairs. Our main goal tonight is to get baseline readings for temperature and EMF levels, and note any hot spots for further investigation.” Bo’s dark eyes cut to Cecile. “Cecile, I want you to take a notebook and pen, and make a note of the exact time and place where you feel anything out of the ordinary, all right?”

Cecile nodded. “Yes, certainly.”

Sam studied her tight jaw and downcast expression with curiosity. “What do we do if we find hot spots?”

“Set up recording equipment,” Amy answered. “Then we’ll let audio and video run until the tapes run out. We won’t worry about getting up in the middle of the night to change them unless the preliminary survey gives us a damn good reason to. Tomorrow we’ll see if it caught anything.” She made a face. “Hopefully one day we’ll have enough recording equipment to have cameras running in several spots at once all the time.”

“And if you get something on tape?” Cecile crossed her skinny arms and arched an eyebrow. “What then?”

“If we get something worth having, we’ll do a more in-depth investigation on that area tomorrow.” Bo arched an eyebrow at her over his glass of water.

“Don’t worry, we know what we’re doing.” Amy’s tone was sharp. “We’ve been running paranormal investigations since you were in diapers.”

“That true?” Sam met Bo’s gaze, trying to ignore the man’s natural sensuality and concentrate on business. “Have you guys really been investigating that long?”

“Twenty years, give or take.” Bo took a long drink of ice water. “I started out by hauling equipment for Dr. Pitre at LSU to help pay my way through college. She was a paranormal researcher, the first one I ever met. She’s the one who first got me interested in the subject, and she taught me a great deal. As soon as I graduated with my psychology degree, I started assisting her with investigations. A couple of years later, I was running them myself. She left me all her equipment and a chunk of money when she died, so I quit my teaching job and starting investigating full-time. I met Amy a couple of years later, and we went into business together.”

“I’d been working days as a receptionist at a doctor’s office and investigating part-time at night,” Amy added, helping herself to more jambalaya. “Happiest day of my life, when I got to quit the day job.”

Andre took Amy’s hand and kissed her knuckles. “That was your happiest day?”

Amy gave him a warm smile. “Okay. Second happiest.” She leaned her head on his shoulder, her face glowing.

“You’d think after five years living together, they’d stop being like that.” David shook his head sadly. “It’s enough to give you cavities.”

Amy flipped him off. David laughed.

“Amy told you about the ghost tours, didn’t she?” Bo asked, smiling at Sam.

“She did, yes.” Sam took a swallow of iced tea. It was cold and sweet, just the way he liked it. “It’s a great idea, in my opinion. Taking groups of tourists on ghost hunts.”

“Yeah, it’s fun, mostly.” David bit into a piece of garlic bread, chewed, and swallowed. “They don’t get the good stuff, though. We only take ‘em places we’ve been before, that we know are safe.”

“They get to investigate a real haunted house, and we get paid enough to keep the business going.” A big grin lit Andre’s face. “Everybody’s happy.”

Cecile’s brows drew together. “I thought that you charged for your investigations. The real ones, I mean, like this one.”

“We do,” Amy said. “But we charge on a sliding scale, according to what people can afford, so we don’t always get paid much.”

“We’re getting plenty for this job, though.” David smirked. “The owner’s stinking rich.”

“Thank God for that,” Andre said with feeling.

“Money makes the world go ‘round, brother.” David held a hand up over the table and Andre high-fived him. Sam laughed, feeling some of his initial nervousness draining away.

The remainder of dinner was spent in comfortable conversation. Sam learned that Andre had been in college studying computer science when an encounter with something he couldn’t explain had sparked an interest in paranormal investigations. He’d been hired at BCPI as an apprentice investigator a few months later and never looked back. David had moved to Mobile after a bitter divorce drove him from his Florida home. He’d met Bo when the construction company he was working for at the time was hired to renovate the old house BCPI used as an office. He’d taken an immediate interest in their work, and the budding business had hired him mostly based on his enthusiasm.

Cecile was the only one who wasn’t a member of Bay City Paranormal Investigations. A self-professed psychic, she’d been sent by the owner of the house as an adjunct to the scientific investigation. The sour expressions around the table told Sam her presence wasn’t exactly welcome.

“So what about you, Sam?” David scooped up the last bite of his Mississippi mud pie and eyed Sam with interest. “What’s your story?”

Sam set down his coffee cup with a shrug. “Not much to tell. I’ve been working in computer tech support for a community hospital ever since I got out of college. It paid the bills, but I never liked it much. I’ve been interested in hauntings since I was a kid, and I belonged to a ghost-hunting group back home in Marietta. That’s how I heard about Bay City Paranormal. A friend of mine pointed me to the website and told me he heard y’all were looking for another tech person. So I emailed Amy, and here I am.”

“We’re glad to have you.” Bo drained his coffee mug and stood. “If you’re done I’ll show you to your room, then we can get started.”

Sam pushed away from the table with a contented sigh. “Yeah, I’m done. That was great, Bo. Best meal I’ve had in forever. You’re a terrific cook.”

“Thanks. It’s kind of a hobby.” Bo chuckled. “I think the main reason my wife hates for me to go on these things is that she has to cook while I’m gone. Even the kids get tired of frozen pizza and takeout after a while.”

Sam laughed, but his heart sank. Not that he’d expected anything else, of course. The odds were against Bo being single at all, never mind single and gay. The disappointment didn’t show on Sam’s face. He’d learned long ago how to hide his feelings.

“So, you live in Mobile, right?” Sam asked as he and Bo walked down the hall to the foyer.

“Yep. I grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, and I moved to Mobile when Janine and I got married. I’d just started investigating full-time, so it wasn’t difficult to pull up stakes and move the whole operation a few hours down the road.”

“How old are your kids?” Sam picked up his duffle bag and started up the wide, curving stairs beside Bo.

Bo smiled. “Ten and seven. Boys. They’re good kids. What about you, Sam, do you have a family?”

“Just my mom and sister.” Sam’s tone was relaxed and casual. He’d become an expert at answering questions like that one.

“Girlfriend?” Bo’s eyes twinkled.

Sam gave him an easy smile as they walked down the upstairs hallway. “Nope. I’m a busy man, no time for that sort of thing.”

Bo laughed. “You have to make time.”

“Yeah. Maybe I will, one day.”

“You do that.” Bo opened the last doorway on the left. Sam followed him inside. “Here’s your room. The bathroom’s across the hall. Just go in the door right across from yours and it’s inside to your right. There’s a door right next to the stairwell too. Sorry, there aren’t many bathrooms. This place is old enough that it had outhouses when it was built. Indoor plumbing was only added in the last seventy-five years or so.”

“No problem. I grew up in a one-bathroom house, I’m used to sharing.” Sam tossed his bag on the double bed and gazed around the room. The walls were painted a soft, pale yellow. Sheer white curtains covered a set of French doors that opened onto the upstairs porch. It gave him a wonderfully peaceful feeling. “This room’s great.”

“Glad you like it. Go on and get settled, then come down to the library. It’s to your left as you come down the stairs, you can’t miss it.” Bo stared at him with a curiously heavy look that turned Sam’s knees to jelly. “See you in a few minutes.”

Bo left the room, closing the door behind him. Sam sat on the bed until his legs stopped shaking, then got up to unpack.















CHAPTER TWO


Twenty minutes later, Sam headed down the stairs to the library. He followed the sound of voices through an archway and into a large room lined floor to ceiling with deep shelves overflowing with books. Rugs patterned in red and gold lay scattered on the dark wood floor. A round table that looked like mahogany sat in the middle of the room. It was covered with equipment, some familiar and some not. The room felt vaguely oppressive.

David caught his eye and waved him over. “Hey! I was just wondering if I ought to come get you.”

“Sorry to keep you waiting.” Sam took a seat next to David on a small sofa upholstered in deep red leather.

“No problem.” Bo smiled. “Before we do anything else, I’m going to tell y’all about the history of this house.”

“I’m sure we all know it already,” Cecile said in a bored tone. “Carl told me all about it.”

Amy’s eyes narrowed. Andre laid a hand on her arm, as if to stop an impending outburst. David rolled his eyes, but didn’t say anything.

“You mean Carl Gentry, the owner of the house?” Sam asked, trying to keep the amusement out of his voice.

“I’m sure he gave you the basics,” Bo jumped in before Cecile could reply. “But I doubt you’ve heard the full history. I don’t believe even Mr. Gentry knows the whole story. And I know that the rest of the group still needs to hear it.”

Cecile pursed her lips, but didn’t say anything else.

“This house was built in 1840,” Bo began without further comment, “by a man named Claude Devereux. He and his wife, Esmeralda, named it Maison de Oléandre, Oleander House, after the oleander bushes lining the driveway. They raised their children here, and lived out their lives here. They lost a daughter in the yellow fever epidemic of 1853 and two sons in the Civil War, but never experienced anything out of the ordinary in their home, at least not that anyone knows of. Claude and Esmeralda are both buried in the family plot out back. Their oldest son, Gaston, inherited the house when they died, and he moved his family from New Orleans back to Oleander House.

“In 1890, the local preacher came to visit one afternoon and found the entire family slaughtered, all except the oldest daughter, Cerise. The sheriff found her upstairs in her room when he came to investigate the killings. She was covered in blood, none of which appeared to be hers. She was completely unharmed, physically anyway. She died thirteen years later in an insane asylum at the age of twenty-eight. She never spoke another word from the time of the killings until the day she died.”

“Did they think Cerise did it?” Sam wondered. “It seems unlikely that one teenage girl could slaughter an entire family in the pre-automatic weapons age.”

“They were pretty sure she didn’t,” Amy said. “There were no weapons anywhere on the property that could’ve done the things that were done to the bodies that they found. They were literally torn apart, and it didn’t look like it was done by any sort of blade. There was no way Cerise could’ve done it, but she never told them who did.”

“Wow.” David grinned nervously. “Creepy.”

“The house stood empty for a while,” Bo continued. “The bank held the title, since Cerise was female and mentally incompetent to boot. In 1902, another family, the Wards, bought it and renovated it. They lived there without incident for over forty years. The kids grew up and moved away. A place this size was a little too much for an aging couple to keep up with on their own, and the husband and wife moved out in 1945. They sold it to a middle-aged couple, George and Sarah James.

“Five years later, in 1950, Sarah’s sister came for a pre-arranged visit and found Sarah dead, hacked into pieces. George was curled up in the corner, covered in blood. Like Cerise, he himself wasn’t harmed. He wouldn’t respond to anyone. He died two days later in the hospital. His heart just stopped, no one was sure why.”

“I’m sensing a theme here,” Andre said.

Bo nodded. “You’re sensing right. The house’s title reverted to the bank after George and Sarah died. In 1965, Lily Harris and Josephine Royce bought the house together and completely renovated the whole thing.”

Cecile raised her eyebrows. “Lesbians? In Mississippi?”

Amy glared at her. “Cecile, even in Mississippi in the sixties, people looked the other way if you didn’t rub it in their faces. Besides, nobody ever knew that for sure. They claimed to be cousins.”

Sam smirked behind his hand as Cecile’s face flushed and she looked away.

Bo took a deep breath. “Whatever their relationship was, they renovated the place and opened it up as a bed and breakfast. Right from the start, there was trouble. Guests sometimes complained of strange noises and cold spots, and some people saw things that scared them. It wasn’t constant by any means, but it was enough to make people nervous, and the word got around that Oleander House was haunted.

“According to the man who delivered groceries to the house, Lily wanted to sell and move out, but Josephine insisted on staying. Business kept getting worse, and by 1972 they were nearly bankrupt. They moved out and the title went back to the bank. Lily was relieved, but Josephine never got over it. She always talked about going back.

“In 1979, some school kids broke into the house on a dare. It had a reputation for being haunted, so of course kids were always hanging out here whenever no one was living here. Anyhow, these kids broke in and found Lily dead. Josephine was never found. The landlord where she and Lily had been living said they’d headed off for a weekend trip to the country, but he didn’t know exactly where they were going. The cops suspected Josephine of killing Lily, but of course they never could prove it. She’d been ripped to pieces, just like the others. A hard thing for one middle-aged woman to do.”

“Quite a story,” Sam said after a silent moment. “So who lives here now? It looks like it’s in great shape.”

“Carl Gentry’s the current owner, as you know. He bought the house from the bank the year after Lily was killed.” Amy twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “He spent a shitload of money fixing the place up, and he lived here for about sixteen years without ever experiencing anything unusual. He moved to a penthouse condo in Mobile and opened Oleander House to the public for tours in 1996. It got to be pretty popular because of its reputation.”

“I heard about it in college, when Mr. Gentry was still living here,” Bo added. “I’ve been dying to investigate it ever since. I started trying to get permission as soon as I had the resources for a real investigation. Mr. Gentry ignored all my calls and letters for years. I’d about given up completely when he called me out of the blue a couple of weeks ago and asked me if I’d investigate it.” Bo shook his head. “A little girl who was touring the house with her parents was bitten by something and died. Mr. Gentry paid all her medical bills and the burial expenses. There was a police investigation, of course, but no negligence on Mr. Gentry’s part could be found. The story slipped right by the news, but the whole thing shook him up pretty badly. He closed the house again and called me. And here we are.”

The group sat in shocked silence. “So what bit the kid?” Andre asked after a moment.

“No one’s sure,” Bo said. “The bite looked sort of like a cat bite, according to the tour guide I interviewed, but something about it was not quite right. He said it looked ‘skewed’. His word, not mine. I asked him what he meant, but he couldn’t explain. The wound got badly infected within just a few hours, in spite of multiple antibiotics, and the little girl died the next day. Her bloodstream was full of an unknown chemical, and the cultures grew out an organism that no one could identify.”

David let out a low whistle. “Damn.”

Bo leaned against the big round table and gave the group a solemn look. “I don’t think I need to tell you that this could get dangerous. I won’t make anyone stay against their will, but I also won’t have anyone giving less than one hundred percent. If anyone feels like you’re not ready for that, tell me now.”

No one spoke. Bo nodded, clearly pleased. “I came over here last week, did some preliminary readings, and talked to a few local people. I didn’t experience anything out of the ordinary myself, but we all know that’s meaningless. We should all keep our wits about us. No one investigates alone, ever, for any reason. If you see anything, hear anything, feel anything that says ‘danger’ to you, gather what information you safely can, vacate that area and report to Amy or me immediately. Understood?”

Nods and assenting noises all around. Bo smiled. “Great. I did want to mention one thing. The electromagnetic readings in this house are high at baseline, generally between two and three. I tried several different machines, to make sure it wasn’t just the equipment, and it did the same thing with every one. Keep that in mind when you’re investigating.”

“Excuse me.” Cecile crossed her arms, her voice icy. “But why are you downplaying that finding? It proves that this house is inhabited by spirits.”

“Not quite,” Bo said, ignoring Amy’s impatient grumbling. “The links between a strong electromagnetic field and paranormal activity are tenuous at best. Admittedly, I’ve never seen a place whose field is quite as high as this one at baseline, but the EMF readings don’t mean much by themselves.”

Cecile frowned and fell silent. Amy drew a deep breath. “Okay, folks, let’s get started.”


* * * * *


Amy pulled Sam aside and quickly showed him how to operate the few pieces of equipment he wasn’t already familiar with. Afterward, the group split into two teams to begin their preliminary investigation. Bo took David and Cecile with him to cover the first floor, while the rest of the group headed upstairs.

Sam wished he could’ve been in Bo’s group, but the excitement of beginning the investigation far outweighed that slight disappointment. His heart thudded as he switched on the video camera he’d been assigned and followed Amy and Andre up the wide staircase.

“We’ll start with Bo’s room,” Amy said, pointing toward the room on the left as they reached the top of the stairs. “We’ll work our way clockwise. Equipment check first. Honey, you ready with the EMF detector?”

Andre held up the electromagnetic field detector. “Yep. Got the thermometer too.”

“Great. Sam, you ready on video?”

“Rolling,” Sam answered, pointing the video camera at her. “Got the Polaroid too.”

“Okay, good. I’ll take notes. And I’ve got the thirty-five mm camera all loaded up and ready.” Amy fixed Sam with a bright blue gaze. “Sam, if we need to get simultaneous shots, I’ll let you know.”

“Cool.”

“All right, you boys got your two-way radios and flashlights?” Amy grinned as Sam and Andre dutifully nodded. “Okay, equipment check’s done. Let’s go find us a ghost.”

Sam found the next couple of hours almost unbearably exciting. The fact that nothing out of the ordinary happened didn’t matter. He was taking part in his first professional investigation of a possible haunting, and nothing could diminish the thrill that gave him. Even the sight of the bed where Bo would soon be sleeping didn’t distract him for long. For a few seconds, he let himself imagine Bo lying there naked, black hair strewn across the pillow, before turning his mind back to his work.

After taking video, some stills. and EMF and temperature readings in Bo’s room, they went through the same process with each of the other upstairs rooms in turn. Cecile’s room, then Amy and Andre’s room, David’s room, the small parlor opposite the stairwell, the empty bedroom, and Sam’s room last. Other than the unusually high EMF readings, which they already knew about, nothing showed up.

They’d just finished the small bathroom tucked into the corner of what used to be a nursery, across the hall from Sam’s room, and were about to start taking readings in the nursery itself, when the radios crackled to life. The burst of static made Sam jump.

Bo’s voice came over the radio. “Amy, come in.”

Amy pulled her radio off the waistband of her shorts and held it to her mouth. “This is Amy.”

“We’re done and heading to the library. How’re y’all doing?”

“We’re starting the last room now. We should be down soon enough, if this one goes like the rest of this floor did.”

“Quiet, huh?”

“You could say that. Not a damn thing happening, other than Sam taking video of my ass.” She winked at Sam. He blushed. Andre burst out laughing.

Bo’s throaty chuckle killed the protest Sam was about to make. “You tell him he better behave, or else.”

Sam’s mouth went dry at the implications in that silky, sexy voice. He knew he was probably imagining it, but he couldn’t help himself. The very idea of Bo punishing him went straight to his crotch. His pulse sped up, pounding in his ears so that he didn’t even hear what Amy said, or if Bo said anything else.

“Oh. Oh, man, is it me or did it just get cold in here?” Andre rubbed his arms, dark gaze darting around the room.

Amy snatched her notebook and pen out of her pocket. “Temp?”

Andre swallowed and glanced at the specially made digital thermometer. “Just dropped ten degrees, from seventy-five to sixty-five Fahrenheit.”

Amy nodded, scribbling furiously. “EMF?”

“We’ve got a jump. Four, up from two point seven.”

Sam swung the video camera in a slow arc, capturing looks of mingled fear and excitement that mirrored his own feelings. His heart raced and the hairs on his arms stood up as a sense of something utterly alien tingled over his skin.

Amy stuck the notebook back in her pocket and held up the camera. “Sam, let’s get a couple of simultaneous shots with Polaroid and thirty-five mm, okay?”

Andre held out a hand. Sam passed the video camera to him and switched on the Polaroid. “Ready.”

“Right there beside the rocker, that seems to be the center of the cold spot. On my mark. Three. Two. One. Now.”

Lights flashed. Sam blinked, trying to clear the black spots from his vision. He didn’t like the way they swarmed around, as if they had a life of their own. The back of his neck twitched. He had to force himself to stay calm.

“Andre?” Amy’s voice was sharp and worried. “Baby, you okay?”

Sam turned to stare at Andre. His deep brown skin had taken on an ashen hue and his hands shook. An electric charge ran up Sam’s spine as Andre’s eyes met his. The expression on Andre’s face said he’d felt the same sense of alien presence that Sam had. Then as suddenly as it had appeared, the feeling of a sinister something nearby evaporated. Sam let out a shaky breath.

“Um. Yeah, I’m fine.” Andre wiped a dew of sweat from his upper lip. “Just got a little creeped out, I guess. Sorry.”

Amy gave him a skeptical look. Andre smiled at her, kissed her forehead and started methodically circling the room. “No change in EMF readings. Temp’s come back up.”

Sam took the camera back from Andre and resumed filming, but his mind wasn’t on the video anymore. All he could think of was that strange sense of something undefinable waiting to make itself known. For one white-hot second, it had been almost close enough to touch. The thought twisted his gut with equal parts dread and curiosity. He couldn’t help thinking that this week might turn out to be much more interesting than any of them had ever imagined.















CHAPTER THREE


They trooped down the stairs in a huddle, all talking at once. Except Sam. He used his filming duties as an excuse to hang back and think. What he’d felt in the nursery had shaken him. The thing he’d sensed, whatever it might be, was no simple spirit. Of that, he was absolutely certain. He made up his mind to talk to Andre alone as soon as he could, find out if Andre had felt that sense of menace as strongly as he had.

Bo, David, and Cecile all looked up when Amy’s group entered the library. Sam switched off the camera as Bo jumped up from his perch on the couch.

“Something happened.” Bo’s dark eyes blazed.

Amy nodded. “We had a temperature drop, and I think Andre sensed something.”

A roomful of eyes locked onto Andre, who shot a fearful glance at Sam. “I don’t know about that. I just got a little spooked, is all. It was nothing.”

Sam kept quiet. Andre clearly didn’t want to admit what he’d felt to the others, and Sam was oddly reluctant to tell the others what he’d sensed.

Amy rounded on Andre with a fierce frown. But before she could say anything, Cecile spoke up.

“Well, maybe you didn’t feel anything, but I certainly did. I sensed a presence in the old servants’ quarters.”

“Yeah.” David leaned toward Cecile. “What was it, Cecile? Something about a horny soul?”

“A lonely soul.” Cecile glared at David for a long moment, then turned her back on his teasing grin. “A lost and lonely soul inhabits that room. I felt that perhaps it’s the ghost of a young woman, who committed suicide after her husband died working in the cotton fields.”

“Actually,” Bo said, “this place never grew cotton, or any other crop. It was a simple private residence, not a plantation. And there’s never been a suicide recorded in this house.”

David clamped a hand over his mouth, shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter. Cecile flushed. “It’s possible I’m wrong, of course.”

“Hey, the use of psychic powers is an inexact science, at best.” Bo gave Cecile a kind smile. “Your impressions will be recorded, along with all the readings and any other thoughts or feelings anyone else has. It’s all part of the process. Nothing will be discounted.”

Cecile gave a curt nod, then perched on the edge a chair beside the table and crossed her arms. David caught Sam’s eye, pointed at Cecile, and tapped the side of his head. Sam bit back a laugh, even though he felt bad about it.

The group spent another twenty minutes or so comparing notes and making sure everyone’s impressions were written down. The Polaroids from the nursery were blurred by a strange, dark fog. After a few minutes’ debate, they decided to wait until they’d used all the film in the thirty-five mm camera before taking it to be developed.

Sam didn’t mention what he’d sensed in the nursery. He wasn’t sure why, except that he couldn’t quite pin down how he felt about it.

“Well, guess that’s it for tonight.” Bo glanced at the big grandfather clock in the corner. “It’s nearly midnight. Let’s set up video cameras and tape recorders in the servants’ quarters and the nursery, then get to bed. Breakfast at eight o’clock sharp, be there or miss out on the best biscuits and gravy you ever had.”

Everyone stood and started shuffling out of the room, talking together about the evening. Sam followed, lost in his own thoughts.

“Sam? You okay?”

Sam turned toward Bo’s voice with a smile as they started up the steps. “Yeah. Just tired. It was a long drive.”

“I bet. You must be exhausted.”

“Kind of. I like driving, but it does wear you out.”

“Yeah.” Bo cast Sam a sidelong look. “You were pretty quiet just now. But I guess when your day’s been as long as yours has, you don’t feel like talking much.”

Sam swallowed, trying not to stare at the graceful curve of Bo’s neck under the thick braid. “Um. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”

They reached the top of the stairs and walked to the end of the hall. The nursery opened to their right, Sam’s room to their left. Bo stood there for a moment, looking like he wanted to say something but couldn’t figure out how. Sam wondered what it would be like to pull Bo against him, slide his fingers through Bo’s shadowy hair, open those soft lips with his tongue…

“Sam? You sure you’re okay?”

Startled, Sam blinked. “Uh, yeah. Yeah. Sorry, I zoned out.”

“Why don’t you go on to bed?”

“I will, after we get the cameras and stuff set up.” Sam stifled a yawn.

“The rest of us can handle it.” Moving closer, Bo laid a hand on Sam’s shoulder. Sam managed to keep his part-surprised, part-wanting moan to himself. “You’re falling asleep on your feet. Go on to bed.”

Sam started to protest. Another yawn stopped him, and he relented. “Okay, I’m going. Night, Bo.”

“Night. Sleep well. See you in the morning.” With a quick smile, Bo turned and headed into the old nursery. Sam allowed himself a brief second to watch the way Bo’s body moved, then opened the door to his room.


* * * * *


Bare skin, hot and smooth, slick with sweat. Blunt fingers digging into his chest, strong thighs pressing against his hips.

Sam couldn’t see the man who straddled him in the humid darkness, but he could feel him. Could hear his grunts, smell the musk of his arousal. The man’s ass contracted around his cock, burning hot and almost painfully tight. Semen shot onto Sam’s chest and he came with a shout…

His own soft cry woke him. He lay gasping in a tangled nest of damp sheets, trying to blink away the lingering shreds of the dream.

“Christ,” he whispered. He’d had erotic dreams before, but none this vivid. A faint scent of sweat and sex still perfumed the air. He could almost feel the man’s hands on him, the fierce heat clutching his cock.

His hand wandered beneath the waistband of his boxers before he realized what he was doing. He gave in to the inevitable without a fight.

Sam stared at the ceiling as he slowly caressed himself. Motes of dust turned lazily in the morning light, hazy forms swirling tantalizingly in and out of existence. If he let his vision blur just a little, Sam imagined he could see his dream man taking shape in the soft glow. Tall and slender, dusky skin and dark liquid eyes, black hair falling like a silky cloud over one broad shoulder.

Sam wasn’t surprised. Whether or not Bo been the dream man, he could certainly star in Sam’s waking fantasies. He came after a few hard pulls, picturing his prick in Bo’s mouth.


* * * * *


The table was already set and Bo was bringing a plate of biscuits and a bowl of gravy out of the kitchen when Sam came down to breakfast. “Hey, Sam.” Bo smiled as he set the dishes of food on the table. “Did you sleep okay?”

“I did, yeah.” Sam managed to meet Bo’s eyes without blushing, but he couldn’t help letting his gaze slide down Bo’s body. “Looks good. The biscuits, I mean,” he added hastily.

“They are,” David said, wandering in from the kitchen with a large blue mug in his hand. “Coffee’s on, if y’all want some.”

“Did someone mention coffee?” Amy came through the dining-room door, Andre yawning behind her. “Mmm, biscuits and gravy.”

“Good.” Andre patted his stomach. “I’m hungry.”

Bo laughed. “Everybody sit down and dig in. I’ll get the coffee.”

“I’ll help you,” Sam offered.

He followed Bo into the kitchen, looking around him to keep himself from staring at Bo. “Wow, the kitchen’s smaller than I would’ve thought.”

Bo nodded as he started filling coffee mugs. “Back when Oleander House was built, the cooking was done outside, in a separate building. The kitchen was added during renovations in 1902. They didn’t place quite the same importance on a big kitchen as we do now. Grab the cream out of the fridge, would you please?”

“Sure.” Sam opened the small portable refrigerator they’d brought with them and took out the pint of half-and-half. “Is there anything about this place you don’t know?”

“Probably. But it wouldn’t be for lack of trying, I’ll tell you that.” Bo handed Sam two fragrantly steaming mugs. Sam took them, tucking the carton of half-and-half under his arm. “Thanks for helping with the coffee. I appreciate it.”

Sam had to look away from Bo’s face. It was too easy to imagine he saw things that he knew couldn’t be there. “No problem.”

In the dining room, Sam handed a mug to Andre and set the half-and-half carton in the middle of the table. He sat down and took a sip from his own mug. “Where’s Cecile?”

Amy wrinkled her nose. “Still sleeping, I guess.”

“No, I’m up.” Cecile swept into the room, narrow nose in the air. She eyed the table with undisguised disdain. “Isn’t there anything else to eat?”

“There’s some granola and fruit in the kitchen,” Andre said, reaching for another biscuit, “but you don’t know what you’re missing if you don’t have some of this.”

Cecile smiled a tight little smile. “Oh, I’m sure I do. Excuse me.”

David shook his head at Cecile’s back as she went into the kitchen. “Christ almighty, that woman’s enough to put you off your feed.” He turned and fixed Bo with a serious look. “We’re doing the outbuildings today, right?”

“Yes,” Bo confirmed, pouring gravy over a third biscuit.

David nodded. “Pair me up with Cecile.”

Amy’s eyebrows shot up. “Funny, I’d gotten the feeling you didn’t much like her.”

“I don’t. Thing is, I want to keep an eye on her. I’m not sure she’s for real.”

“No kidding.” Andre leaned over the table and lowered his voice. “Carl Gentry must be nuts if he really believes she’s psychic.”

“Maybe,” Bo said. “But we have to work with her, whether anyone likes it or not. You know that was Mr. Gentry’s condition for letting us do the investigation rather than someone else. He wanted his own psychic present.”

David wrinkled his nose. “Psychic, my ass. She’s no more psychic than this damn table.”

Cecile’s emergence from the kitchen stopped the conversation from going any further. She sat as far as she could from everyone else and started nibbling at the banana and small bowl of granola cereal she’d brought with her.

“So,” Bo said after a couple of uncomfortably silent minutes. “How’d everyone sleep?”

“Terrible,” Cecile complained. “All night long, spirits were trying to communicate with me. I’d like to find a way to make them speak to me when I’m awake and better able to understand them.”

“That’s, um, interesting.” Bo shot an amused glance at Sam, who stifled a laugh. “We should set up video and audio in your room and see what we get.”

Cecile’s pale cheeks flushed. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

“I’ll just bet,” David muttered. Sam lifted his mug to cover the grin he couldn’t stop.

“I would’ve slept okay,” Amy said, “but Andre kept waking me up.”

“It was just a couple of bad dreams,” Andre insisted. “Sorry I woke you.”

Amy laid a hand on his arm and kissed his cheek. “Honey, you know I don’t mind about that. But I think it’s significant that you’re having these dreams here, in this house. You don’t normally have nightmares.”

Bo leaned his elbows on the table and gave Andre a considering look. “Want to tell us what you dreamed?”

A flush colored Andre’s cheeks. He shifted in his chair. “I don’t remember it all that well. All I can remember for sure is feeling like there was something waiting in the house, and it scared me.”

Sam frowned. Andre was lying, he was sure of it, but he couldn’t figure out why. It made him more eager than ever to find a few minutes alone with Andre to compare notes.

Bo sipped his coffee, dark eyes thoughtful. “Anyone else have strange dreams, or any other experiences during the night?”

“Not me.” David scooped the last bit of gravy off his plate with his finger. “Slept like a rock.”

Sam just smiled when Bo glanced questioningly his way. The thought of telling everyone what he’d dreamed made his guts clench.

The dream he remembered, anyway. Vague memories and scattered images floating on the surface of his mind told him that the dream that had woken him hadn’t been the only one.

“Okay.” Bo’s gaze lingered on Sam’s face just long enough to make Sam squirm. “Only Cecile and Andre experienced anything unusual during the night, right?”

Everyone nodded. Sam ignored the way Bo’s eyes narrowed at him. “All right. Any strange experiences—dreams, seeing or hearing things, anything at all—please report it to me or Amy.”

Noises of affirmation echoed around the table. Amy shot one last worried look at Andre, then turned to the rest of the group with a smile. “If everyone’s done eating, let’s get the dishes cleaned up, then meet back in the library to go over last night’s tapes.”

“Sounds good.” David jumped to his feet and started collecting dirty dishes. “Great breakfast, as usual, Bo. You’re gonna make us all fat. I don’t know how Janine stays so hot, with you doing all the cooking.”

Bo laughed. “Hey, I try to keep my family healthy.”

“Yeah,” Amy chimed in. “He saves the artery clogging for us.”

Bo shook his head. “Okay, let me get the dishes cleaned up, then we’ll meet back in the library and get everything set up for today.”

“Aye-aye, cap’n.” David grinned. “Sam, why don’t you go on ahead with Andre. Y’all can get the equipment set up and he can show you the procedures we use to screen several hours’ worth of video. I’ll help Bo get the cleaning done, won’t take us ten minutes.”

“Okay, sure.” Sam resisted the urge to turn and look at Bo as he followed Andre out of the dining room.















CHAPTER FOUR


Since Sam was already familiar with most of the equipment, it didn’t take long for Andre to instruct him in the video review procedure. By the time Bo and David returned from the kitchen, Sam and Andre already had everything set up.

“Okay,” Bo said. “What say we divide into teams now and get started?”

“How do you want to handle it?” Amy glanced at him from the armchair in the corner, where she was fiddling with one of the EMF detectors. “We have the washhouse, the barn, and the old outdoor kitchen to look at. Plus we have several hours of tape to review from last night.”

“Hm. Let’s see.” Bo tucked a stray lock of glossy black hair behind one ear. Sam swallowed and forced himself to look away. “Why don’t we divide into three teams, with two teams starting on the outbuildings while the third stays behind to start going over the tapes?”

“I’d prefer not to waste my time staring at videotapes,” Cecile declared. Sam turned, startled. He hadn’t realized she’d come into the room. Her sharp features were set in an uncomfortable grimace. “I’d rather be in the field where I can communicate with the spirit world, not stuck in front of a television set.”

“What if the spirits are in here, not out there?” David asked, absolutely straight-faced.

Cecile’s pale cheeks went pink. “Well… Well, I suppose…” she trailed off, clearly flustered.

“We’ll just have to chance it.” Bo raised an eyebrow at David, who grinned, obviously unrepentant. “David, you and Cecile take the washhouse. Amy and Andre, you take the barn. Sam and I will stay here and get started on those tapes. Everybody keep your radios on channel two. I’ll leave one on in here as well, so if there’s an emergency Sam and I will hear you.”

Amy gave Bo a sharp look. She opened her mouth as if to say something, then stopped, frowning.

“Sam might as well go ahead and get some hands-on experience with tape review,” Bo said, as if in answer to an unspoken question in Amy’s eyes.

His answer didn’t seem to satisfy her, but she kept quiet. Sam glanced from one to the other, wondering what was going on.

Pushing himself out of his chair, Andre held a hand down to Amy. “Come on, babe. Let’s get going before he changes his mind.”

Amy let Andre pull her to her feet. They gathered their equipment and went into the hall, headed for the outbuildings behind the house. As they left, Amy shot Bo a look heavy with things unsaid. David and Cecile were close behind, and in a few moments Sam and Bo were alone.

Sam wanted to ask what was going on with Amy, but something about the way Bo’s eyes sparked warned him off. Probably some private thing anyway, he told himself.

He cleared his throat. “Okay. So. Which tape you want me to take?”

“What about the nursery tape from overnight? Would that be okay with you? And I’ll take the one from the servants’ quarters. We’ll start on the others if we have time after that.”

“Sure, that’s fine.” Sam picked up the tape from the nursery and put it in the video camera, which was already hooked up to one of the portable televisions. “Remind me why we can’t just use digital?”

“Too easy to manipulate. Anyone with the right software and the skill can fake a very convincing ghost or other phenomenon on digital. Tape’s harder to fake things on. An expert can usually spot even the best fake on tape. We use regular thirty-five mm and Polaroid cameras for the same reason.”

“Makes sense.” Sam still wished they could use digital, but instinct told him Bo wasn’t going to budge on this issue.

He started the tape rolling. The nursery flared to life on the screen, strange and unsettling in the faintly greenish glow of the night-vision filter. His hands trembled a little, remembering the night before. He jumped when a warm hand covered his, fingers curling around to brush his palm. He turned to meet Bo’s concerned gaze.

“You okay?” Bo asked, his voice soft. “You’re shaking.”

Those big, dark eyes were so close. Sam licked his lips. “Um. Yeah. I was just thinking of last night. It was…” Terrifying. Exhilarating. So close… “It was exciting.”

Bo nodded. His hand didn’t move. “What did you see?”

“I don’t… I mean, we didn’t really see anything.”

“Maybe not. But something happened that you’re not telling me.” Bo stopped the tape without looking, sharp gaze fixed on Sam’s face. “I’ve known Andre for years. He doesn’t rattle easily, but last night he was more shaken up than I’ve ever seen him. And I may not know you yet, but my gut tells me that whatever he experienced, you experienced the same thing. Am I right?”

Part of Sam still wanted to deny it, if only because Andre clearly didn’t want anyone to know. But Bo was his boss now. He figured he owed him the truth.

“Yeah,” Sam said finally. “At least, I know what I felt, and I think Andre felt the same thing, but I don’t know for sure because I haven’t had a chance to talk with him about it.”

“What was it?” Bo leaned forward, thick braid swinging over one shoulder. “Tell me.”

Sam wondered if Bo knew he was still holding Sam’s hand. “The temperature dropped, and then I had this sudden sense that there was something near. Something not friendly.”

“But you didn’t see anything?”

“Not a thing. For a second there, I really thought something was going to manifest. But it didn’t. The feeling went away just as suddenly as it appeared.”

“Andre felt the same thing?”

“I think so.”

Bo sat back, letting his fingers slide away from Sam’s as if he hadn’t noticed they’d ever been there. Sam wished he didn’t feel the loss quite so keenly.

“Why didn’t you want to tell us last night?” Bo asked after a moment. “You and Andre both.”

“I can’t speak for Andre, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t quite know what to think of it. I just needed a little time to process it.” Sam stared at his lap, feeling guilty now. “I should’ve told you. Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. The first time I had a paranormal experience, I didn’t tell anyone for a week.”

Sam looked up again, surprised. “Really?”

“Yep. It’s just such a profound experience the first time, I guess part of me wanted to keep it to myself. You know?”

“I know exactly what you mean.”

Sam didn’t mention his first experience with paranormal phenomena. He’d been thirteen, getting his first kiss under the bleachers at school. Shirts and jeans had easily covered the bruises and long, shallow scratches that had appeared on the body of the boy he’d been kissing, so there was no need for explanations to anyone. Not a word had been spoken by either of them, and there’d been no more kisses.

If Bo could read the pain of that memory on Sam’s face, he didn’t let on. “How about we start the tapes now?”

Sam returned Bo’s smile. “Good idea.”


* * * * *


By noon, they’d gotten halfway through the tapes, Bo watching the one from the servants’ quarters, Sam watching the one from the nursery. Sam felt like he’d been staring at the TV screen for days instead of hours. Not a damn thing had shown up so far. He sighed and rubbed his eyes.

“Dull, huh?” Bo glanced over at him, grinning.

Sam laughed. “Deadly. Please tell me it’s not always this boring.”

“Nope. Wait ‘til you see a mist form right in front of your eyes, or a door opening by itself. That’ll make up for all the times you stare at the same patch of wall for hours on end.”

As if to lend credence to Bo’s words, a faint grunt of nearly subterranean depth sounded on the nursery tape. The back of Sam’s neck prickled.

“Bo,” he said softly. “Listen.”

Bo stopped his own tape and leaned over. The grunt came again, followed by a strange, undulating hiss, so faint that Sam wasn’t even sure he heard it. Bo’s eyes went wide. “Wow.”

“No kidding.”

They watched for a moment more, but nothing else happened. Sam turned off the tape and swiveled around to face Bo. “Okay, what the fuck was that?”

Bo shook his head. “No idea. I’ve never heard anything quite like it before.”

“It sounded like it was coming from outside the room. Maybe…”

“Maybe what?” Bo asked.

Sam barely heard him, the words drowned out by the memory surfacing with shocking suddenness in his mind. Half-waking from a dream of heat and sex to a cold, writhing blackness, thick with malevolence. A spike of fear, the unnatural dark dissolving into silver moonlight. Sinking back into warm, welcoming sleep.

Dreaming again. Heat, sweat, hands and skin and whispered pleas and Christ it was so good…

“Sam? Sam!”

Sam gasped, jerked, and found himself staring into Bo’s wide, worried eyes. “What? What happened?”

“You tell me. You blanked out for a minute. Wouldn’t answer me.” Bo regarded Sam cautiously. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. I’m fine.” Sam took a deep breath and let it out, feeling his racing pulse slow. “Just, um…just give me a minute.”

Bo didn’t look away from Sam’s face. “Do you feel like telling me what just happened?”

“I thought I remembered something. From last night.” Sam leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, more to escape Bo’s sharp gaze than anything else. “A dream, that’s all. Just a dream.”

Sam didn’t say anything else, and Bo didn’t ask.

They’d barely started watching the tapes again when they heard the back door open. Footsteps and voices sounded through the hall. Sam schooled his face into a smile as the rest of the group trooped into the library.

“Man, oh man,” David said, wiping the sweat from his brow with his forearm. “It’s hotter than hell out there.”

“The barn wasn’t hot.” Andre grinned. “Nice and cool in there.”

David stuck out his tongue, and Andre laughed.

“So how’d it go?” Bo switched the tape off, rose to his feet and stretched. “Did anything happen?”

“Nope.” Amy flopped onto the sofa with a sigh. “We saw a few mice, a bird and the biggest spider in the history of the universe, but that’s it.”

“I’m sure you saw and felt nothing.” Cecile stood beside the door with crossed arms and a haughty expression, “but I know now that at least one spirit inhabits that washhouse. A slave, maybe, forced to scrub the master’s clothes day and night until her poor heart finally gave out.”

“I felt something.”


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