Chapter 1: Tell the producers I died
"What the literal infinite fuck?" Lena slammed the folder she'd been reading down on the desk and glared at the woman opposite her.
"I know you're upset about this, Lena, but--"
Lena growled loudly, cutting the brunette off. "Upset? Upset? Nowhere in my contract does it say I have to do this."
Samantha Arias sighed. "Look, unfortunately, you do have to do this. They added that cross-over clause, remember?"
"Arrrghhh ... Do they think they're the CW or something?" Lena rubbed her temples, where a headache was starting to bloom. "I knew I should've quit when Riley left; he was the only one with half a brain. Next they'll force some pretty boy with the IQ of a squirrel on us and expect me to fall in love with him."
"Not even the CW could think that would happen," Sam returned wryly. "Any other complaints?"
Lena pursed her lips. "Dozens. Why do they want us in this anyway? Our show is about explaining alleged hauntings, not having sit-downs with spirits."
"We're great in our time slot, but the brass says we need a better showing in the 15-24 demographic, and the 'youth' want shrieks and seances."
"I would rather gouge my eyes out than participate in anything resembling a seance, and I refuse to shriek over a noise in the dark." Lena crossed her arms. "Isn't it going to cause friction with us in the same building as all those ghost hunters?"
Sam gave her a stern look. "You do realize they're counting on that, don't you? They can't possibly think they can keep the audience over four nights without some kind of disagreements between teams."
"Maybe it won't be so bad." The woman sitting at the back of the room shrugged. "What's the worst that can happen?"
Lena groaned. "My reputation can be ruined, Jess, that's the worst that can happen. Our reputation is going to take a major hit regardless. And why in the name of whatever god is in charge of this shit does it have to be the manor?"
There was a long, awkward silence, broken when Sam finally cleared her throat. "It's the tenth anniversary of Metropolis," she answered softly.
"What?" Lena blinked several times. "I'm aware of that, but what does ... Oh, no. There is no fucking way I'm going to participate in anything associated with Lex's insanity. Woolcroft is about as haunted as my garage, and I am not interested in looking for things that aren't there."
Sam sighed again. "Lena ... Lillian has already agreed to the investigation, and she made it clear she would only allow it if you were present. You refuse to do this and it won't just affect you--plus you'll get hit with a major breach of contract suit, considering you'd fuck up the biggest event they've got scheduled for October."
"Shoot me. Just fucking shoot me." Lena dropped her head onto her desk. "A warning would have been nice; and here I thought we were finally making some kind of peace." Of course, Lillian wouldn't bother consulting her before making a decision about anything related to her golden boy.
It just drove home that despite everything, her step-mother still didn't consider her an equal heir to the Luthor name. Once again, she had to fall in line to prove her worth. Lena truly wished she could hate Lillian, but the woman treated her far better than she could have, given Lionel waited until she was eight to drop the bomb of a bastard daughter on his wife. She'd even managed to be nice to Lena's mother when they were forced to meet regarding Lionel's will.
Still, there was no complaint when Lena kept using her mother's last name; Lena Mercer kept under the radar far more easily than Lena Luthor would. Lena's diplomas all read Luthor, as did her driver's license, but everyone knew her as a Mercer and both she and Lillian were perfectly content with that. True, the press knew she was Lionel's child, but growing up in rural Ireland made for little that the tabloids could trumpet about so she was left alone as a child and now they only mentioned her in relation to her brother.
"Oh, Christ, they're going to tell the world who I am," she gasped as the realization hit her. "This is a disaster."
"The world knows who you are, Lena. You are the star of a wildly popular paranormal show. Well, wildly popular everywhere but the 15-24 demographic, apparently."
Lena lifted her middle finger. "That's not what I mean, and you know it. What kind of credibility am I going to have doing an investigation on my own damn house?"
"It's technically not your house," Jess pointed out. "It's your mother's."
"Step-mother," Lena returned sharply. She banged her forehead on the desk a couple of times. "Maybe I should move back to Ireland and pretend to have amnesia."
"Amnesia? Seriously?" Sam laughed. "That's a little melodramatic, don't you think?"
Lena looked at her in irritation. "Am I the only one who knows what's going to happen when Lena Mercer gets outed as a Luthor? A shitstorm, that's what's going to happen, with us right in the middle."
"Come on, Lena, calm down, will you?" Jess shook her head and rolled her eyes. "It isn't like we're going to walk in there and actually find a demonic portal. You aren't going to prove your brother really was possessed."
"Fine. Fine! So, we're spending four nights at Woolcroft--where, might I point out, my room was decorated by an emo teenager--looking for non-existent spirits, and pissing everyone else off by proving every bump and creak they want to blabber is an entity trying to communicate, is nothing more than pipes settling. Spirit rappings went out before the Civil War, for Chrissake!"
"You were a cute emo teenager," Jess replied with a grin. "I've seen the pictures." She dodged the pen Lena threw at her. "I'd think you'd welcome the chance to prove once and for all Lex isn't possessed by demons; isn't that why you started doing this in the first place?"
Lena had no answer for that, so she just sighed and picked up the folder again. "Who are we stuck with?"
"Well, we've got the Ghost Guardians, Haunt Hunters, Paranormal Squad and some amateur group called Midvale Exotemporal Anomaly Research ." Sam counted on her fingers. "Ghost Guardians will be fun; they're all about their tech and hate being told when they're using it wrong, which is all the time. Haunt Hunters seem to think they can commune with spirits and take them home in crystals, and Paranormal Squad ... Well, we all know about them."
"There's definitely an evil presence here! I sense it, yes, it's a cursed item used in Satanic rituals involving spirit boards ... We must sage and throw salt immediately!" Jess spoke in an overly-dramatic voice before dissolving into laughter. "Oh, and bring in a priest from the Church of Quackery to perform an exorcism."
"Three psychics and a camera guy who doubles as an EVP specialist, yeah, can't wait," Lena responded drolly. "Why is there an amateur group--and what the hell is an exotemporal anomaly?"
"No clue. The network is testing them out for a new show next season. They have a medium, too. I heard one of them used to work for the FBI, so that should be interesting."
Jess snorted. "Let's hope it isn't the psychic; someone trained with a gun who thinks they see ghosts cannot be safe to be around."
"And there's no way we can be involved in a plane crash or something beforehand?"
"You hate to fly, Lena." Sam rolled her eyes.
"If it meant getting out of this, I'd deal." Lena flipped through the folder. "Wait, they're streaming 24/7 on top of the live nightly broadcasts? What the fuck?"
Sam chuckled. "I think someone has watched too many Shark Weeks; it's all about letting the viewer follow the whole process and sitting the cast down for audience interaction."
"What audience interaction?"
"Oh ... Um ... They want us to respond to tweets and do candid snaps for Instagram."
Lena blinked twice. "No. Fucking. Way. I hate Twitter."
"I'll handle it," Jess volunteered.
"No!" Sam and Lena spoke at the same time. Sam continued, "The last time you handled Twitter I ended up with a thousand marriage proposals from vegan strippers. If I ever see the word 'vagitarian' again...."
"It was one tweet!" Jess protested. "I now understand that sarcasm doesn't translate into 140 characters well. And it wasn't a thousand, more like two hundred."
"PETA tried to boycott us because they thought I loved fur hats," Lena pointed out.
"Four cats, fur hats ... Blame autocorrect, not me." Jess crossed her arms in mock disgust. "You guys hold a grudge way too long."
"Vegan. Stripper." Sam shot back. "I had to explain to my thirteen-year-old why a vegan would want fish tacos in the first place, much less with whipped soy milk! And don't get me started on the zucchini thing."
Jess snorted. "Fine, Eve can do it." At the looks of horror on her companion's faces, she grinned. "Kidding. Maybe."
"I think there's a bottle of arsenic with my name on it in my apartment," Lena groaned.
"We have two months to stress, so let's pace ourselves, hmm?" Sam managed to look like she wasn't ready to crack a rib laughing at her best friend. "There are three more tapings before that."
Lena swallowed the urge to scream; their schedule was always tight, and keeping her mind on the current case was going to be difficult when she couldn't possibly expect to just ignore the fact that she was being forced into the spotlight of her brother's insanity yet again. Instead, she simply nodded and resolved to pick up several bottles of very expensive scotch on the way home. It was a good adage to live by: when in doubt, drink.
Chapter 2: Why Did I Call Lillian?
After a few drinks, Lena calls Lillian, and ends up wishing she hadn't. Her cats are spawn of Satan and Jess must die.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Lena managed to wait until the weekend to call her step-mother. Saturday evening, two tumblers of scotch into the night, she picked up her cell phone and dialed. As always, Lillian answered on the third ring.
"Lena, dear; how are you?"
"I was better before my producers dropped a bomb on me," Lena replied in the calm voice she pulled out when forced to deal with things she'd rather not. "I hear you were involved in that."
Lillian chuckled. "Always polite. Yes, I agreed to let your channel run rampant in the manor for the week. I'm looking forward to it."
"You don't want to know what happened to your brother?" Lillian's tone was instantly flat.
Lena sighed and drained her glass. "Nothing happened to Lex, Lillian; other than being a monster." She regretted the words instantly. Before Lillian could finish the sharp breath she started, Lena rushed to add, "I'm sorry, that was completely uncalled for."
"You've been drinking," Lillian stated.
"So? I have a stressful job and I need to relax somehow. Back to Lex, though. You can't really think something took control of him. You're a doctor, you know as well as I do the paranormal isn't real."
"As a doctor, I feel I should remind you that your drinking is hardly a healthy coping mechanism." Lillian cleared her throat. "You're an adult, I know. I just worry."
"Woolcroft, Lillian." Lena hurried to get the discussion back on track. "I've spent plenty of time there, and I never had anything strange happen."
"It's an old house. There are stories like any other old house."
"You don't believe it's haunted, do you?"
"Your grandmother did."
"Not an answer; Grandmother loved a good story." Lena paused. "I would have appreciated a warning that this was going to happen."
"If I'd warned you, you would have refused."
"Blunt as always. Yes; yes, I would have. Why is it so important that I'm there?"
"I don't want strangers rummaging through my home without supervision."
"You could have gone. I haven't been there in eight years."
Lillian made a noise. "Neither have I. I can't, not yet."
"And I'm supposed to be fine with it? I adored Lex, you know that. Woolcroft has bad memories for me, too." Lena reached for the scotch and poured another glass. "Why now?"
"You know why. The network approached me and I said yes; it's time to find out what happened."
"How much are they paying you?"
Without pause, Lillian responded, "Enough. Don't worry, I insisted it be a donation to the survivor's fund. Lex is my son, but I know what he did was devastating. I just want to know why. Don't you?"
"Of course, I do! But looking for ghosts isn't going to answer anything. You have watched my show, haven't you?"
"Yes, I have. I don't understand why you would give up research to be a reality TV actress; you had two doctorates before you could drink."
"Lex taught me to drink." Lena reigned herself in quickly. "I loved research, and I loved working for LuthorCorp, but this is more important to me."
"Why? You've never told me the real reason."
"I'm sure you know."
"I want to hear you say it anyway."
Lena sighed. This was heading down the tubes just as she expected it would. "Lex tried to justify killing sixty-eight people by claiming he was possessed--and some people believed him. The families of his victims deserve the truth. They deserve to know he is the only one responsible for what he did, not some demon, or ghost, or anything else. Him." There was a long silence, which usually meant her step-mother was gearing up to start ranting. "Lillian?"
"Something happened to him in that house. I don't know what, but something happened. I don't believe in ghosts either, but if this is what it takes to get you to look for it, then I'll take it."
"You. There's more to you than you know, Lena. A lot more; Lex isn't the only one that house influenced."
Lena wasn't sure how to respond. Her step-mother was many things, but someone who believed in anything unscientific was not one of them. "I don't follow."
"I've kept my peace about your ... career choice ... because I somehow knew it would happen. Your father kept many secrets, and you are one of them. He insisted that you visit in the summers at the manor, even though we could easily have gone to one of the less dreary properties. He never told me why, and honestly, I never cared enough to ask."
One of Lena's cats jumped up on her lap and meowed, batting at the phone. Lena pushed him away, and he leapt onto the top of the sofa and began to clean himself. Another joined him, leaving Lena wondering if she'd forgotten to feed them. It wasn't a pressing matter, however, not when compared to the nonsense her step-mother was suddenly spouting.
"Lillian, there's nothing wrong with me. Nothing ever happened to me at Woolcroft, and I have no idea what you're talking about with Father. You sound like he was practicing magic or something, and we both know he'd laugh his ass off at the very idea."
"As usual, I see you prefer to ignore any advice I try to give you."
"And you can't let a conversation go without criticizing me," Lena snapped, reaching for her drink. She was either angry or drunk enough that she misjudged the distance and the glass tipped off the table, spilling liquor across the carpet. "God-damn, mother--" the cats screeched and leapt off the back of the sofa. The sound of glass shattering cut Lena off and she spun to find two photos on the floor, frames shattered. "Go mbeire an dá dhiabhal deag leo tú!"
A heavy sigh came through the phone. "Well, that's my cue to say goodnight. Do try not to drink so much you destroy your house."
Lena answered with a sharp good-night and ended the call. She surveyed the mess before glaring at the culprits, who now sat together on an armchair gazing back reproachfully, as if to say, "Don't accuse us!"
"Fecking cats, should make you into fur hats," she grumbled as she got up to find the dustpan.
Lena had a nightmare that night. She was home in Ireland, watching a younger version of herself playing near the lake down the road from her home. She found this strange, given that she'd been forbidden from getting near the water until she was a teenager, and now she couldn't be more than four.
From behind her, someone yelled, "Morgana! Let's go!" Startled, she turned around just as her child-self did; there was a large castle on the hill, where she knew fully well no building existed, and the area buzzed with people, cables, horses and cameras. Glancing down, she saw she was wearing robes she easily recognized from television.
Before she could process this, a splash from the lake made her spin back in time to see little Lena floundering in the water, screaming and only getting further from the shore. Lena felt the panic in her own chest, and started running. She tripped, and was suddenly in the water herself, trying to stay afloat and screaming in a voice far too high pitched to belong to her.
She caught a glimpse of her mother dashing towards her, then she was under water and trying to breathe. An instant later, she was in her father's arms as he rushed her into a building, promising her she would be alright. There were bright lights and voices tumbling over one another as someone shoved a tube down her throat, causing her to gag.
"Are you sure about this, Mr. Luthor?"
"She's been in the water for an hour--there's no--"
Lena woke up clawing at her throat. It took a moment to realize it hurt because she was screaming. Taking deep breaths, she forced herself to calm down. It was just a dream. Nothing like that had ever happened to her; in fact, it was her mother who nearly drowned, not her, and that was in the ocean.
She got up and stumbled to the bathroom to splash water on her face. The cold helped bring her fully awake, but she looked at her reflection in the mirror just to be sure. Jet hair and green eyes stared back at her, and she breathed a sigh of relief, sagging against the vanity.
"What the fecking hell was that about?" Lillian had gotten into her head, as always, planting the seed that Lionel had done something to her before he died. It was as ridiculous an idea as the image of her wearing the costume of Morgana le Fey. "I can't fucking escape being reminded I look like Katie McGrath even in my fucking dreams," she grumbled. "I knew I should never have read that fan fiction about us."
She drew in a few more breaths and made a mental note to do something evil to pay Jess back for sending her the link to the story to start with. The internet truly was a terrifying place. After getting a glass of water, she padded back to bed, where her cats stared at her balefully, chastising her for interrupting their slumber.
"You dream about dying in medieval period robes and try not to wake up screaming," she growled at them. They ignored her and curled back up, clearly not interested in excuses. Lena finished her water and climbed under the covers again, falling asleep far more quickly than she might have expected. If she had any further dreams, she didn't remember them.
No, Lena isn't Morgana. I just threw that in there for fun. Next chapter will introduce Kara's point of view, so stay tuned!
Go mbeire an dá dhiabhal deag leo tú! = You are one of the Devil’s fools. Irish insults are ... unusual.
Chapter 3: Donuts and Dead People
The MEAR team is on the road, headed to Woolcroft.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Traffic was starting to pick up as the sun rose higher over the plains of the midwest, and Kara Danvers was singing along to the only station they could find on the radio, which had paused earlier to give the farming report and vital information on the current futures of soy and feed cattle. It was now broadcasting country music so old that even Susan Vasquez had heard of the song, and if it wasn't hip-hop or rap, it usually didn't warrant her attention in the slightest.
It was driving her insane. "Kara! For God's sake, it's too early for Johnny Cash. Please stop."
"But singing makes time pass faster," Kara returned with a grin. "Come on, you know the words; 'Down, down, down, the ring of firrrrrre'--"
"I will murder you in your sleep," Susan interrupted.
"What time is it?" Alex Danvers finally surrendered to the chatter and opened her eyes. "Kara, stop singing."
Kara pouted, but stopped. "It's seven-fifteen. We're coming into Porkville."
"Did I really hear someone talking about corn prices earlier?"
"Unfortunately," Vasquez told her. "I think I prefer that to this horror they're playing now."
Alex snickered. "I'm sure. We could stop tonight, if you guys want. I'm not that stuck on getting there early."
"Are you sure? We're going to be behind the others on research if we do."
"And it will be longer before we meet the Para-X Team." Kara added in a near whine.
Her sister rolled her eyes. "You won't die if you have to wait another day, Kar."
"You want to meet Sam Arias just as bad, Alex," Kara pointed out. "I mean, you actually drool."
"I do not! Yeah, she's cute, but she's not all that gorgeous." Alex crossed her arms defiantly.
Kara met Susan's gaze and choked back a laugh, not wanting to make too much fun of her sister's crush.
Susan had no such qualms. "Oh? What happened to--and I quote--'I could eat that for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and still have room for a midnight snack'?"
Alex turned bright red. "There was alcohol involved when I said that," she responded weakly.
"If we ignored everything you say when alcohol is involved, we'd think you were mute," Vasquez replied with a deadpan expression.
Susan shrugged. "It's what I do; it's what I live for."
"I thought you lived for shooting perps and chasing blondes."
"I have many talents."
"Ok, ok, do I have to separate you two?" Kara laughed.
"She started it!"
"Girls, if I have to pull this van over..."
"Please do," Alex responded. "Your driving terrifies me."
Kara pouted. "But I like to drive."
"And we like to live," Susan retorted. "It's my turn anyway. Besides, I think Alex needs to find a restroom and wash the tears off."
"Bitch," Alex grumbled.
"Ooh! There's a donut place at this exit!" Kara swerved across three lanes of traffic to make the off-ramp, ignoring the horns blaring at her.
Alex and Susan screeched at the same time. "Damn it, Kara!" Alex growled. "If you keep driving like that, we'll be the dead ones!"
Ignoring her, Kara turned and went the two blocks to the neon sign for the donut shop. She had to park next door to have room for the trailer, and jumped out the door, trotting intently toward the store.
"We're going to die, aren't we?" Susan commented as she climbed out of the passenger's seat.
Alex groaned and followed. "Quite possibly. We've never had to drive this far."
"She's always ridiculously enthusiastic, but this is a new level of hyper even for her."
"Yeah." Alex rubbed her face wearily. "She's fan-girled over Lena Mercer for years, even before she got her show. Did you know she published three papers on quantum entanglement before she was twenty?"
Vasquez cocked her head quizzically. "And she's a ghost hunter now?"
"Paranormal debunker," Alex replied with a grimace. "I can't wait to see how she and Kara get along. I'm thinking oil, meet water."
"How do you know what she's published?"
Alex couldn't help but chuckle. "Fair warning: if you are anywhere near Kara when she's on a Lena-ramble, you, too will know what sign she is and what elementary school she attended. If it was anyone but Kara, I'd be thinking it was all a bit too stalker-y. I've threatened her to rein it in or Mercer will probably file a restraining order. I have a crush; she's obsessed."
"Kara is too much of a puppy to scare anyone."
"You do know who Lena Mercer is, don't you?" Alex glanced sideways.
Susan shrugged. "I don't know, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Mercer?"
"Half right." When Vasquez raised an eyebrow, Alex sighed. "Her legal name is Lena Luthor."
Susan stopped dead. "What?"
"Lena Mercer is Lionel Luthor's daughter." Alex ran her fingers through her hair. "We wanted to interview her after the massacre, but she lived in Ireland and her mother refused. Not sure what good it would have done, though they'd spent the prior summer together. Three guesses where."
"You're shitting me! And Kara is gaga over her?"
Alex shushed her. "She doesn't know. It isn't common knowledge outside the agency, though I can't imagine the network isn't aware. I can't help wondering if she knows something she might let slip while we're investigating."
"Didn't you work the case?"
"It was my first assist. I was a glorified lab tech at that point, but yeah, I worked it."
Vasquez considered her. "Are they going to mention all this on-air? I mean, they kinda have to."
"Dunno." Alex shrugged. "I had to let them know I'd worked the case before they offered the contract, but there hasn't been any mention that they're going to use it."
"Aleeeeex!! Come on!" Kara's yell stopped the discussion.
"Better get in there before she clears out the place."
"It's been five minutes," Alex replied with a smirk. "She probably already has."
"I have not!" Kara whined as her companions joined her. "I got stuck talking to someone in the ladies' room and I've been smelling apple crullers forever!"
Alex studied her quickly, which was all it took to recognize the tell-tale signs that the person in the ladies' room hadn't been living. Kara was fidgeting and slightly pale, a faint line of sweat on her forehead, which was displaying its trademark crinkle. She sighed; she was tired and she knew Susan was tired, but Kara needed real rest and not in a plastic booth.
"Hey, let's get them to go," she said quickly. "That way we'll make up a bit of time before stopping tonight. I'll take the first half of the day and you can sleep, Kar."
Susan almost protested, but realized what was happening in time to just nod. "We can run fine on coffee and donuts."
A small smile flickered across Kara's lips before she sighed and dropped her shoulders. "Thanks, guys. This wasn't the best time to run into someone."
Alex gave her a side-arm hug. "Head back to the van and get comfortable. Vee and I can clear out the store for you." Vasquez gave her a thumbs up and nodded.
"I love you both." Kara started across the parking lot, glancing over her shoulder as her companions went inside. Her sister always seemed to know what to do when she needed her. Alex didn't know how much Kara needed her when she was unexpectedly pulled into communication with someone who didn't know they were dead; it always reminded her of how her abilities were unlocked in the first place. At those times, Alex's presence calmed her and reminded her that she, herself, was still breathing.
Past and ability were intertwined; until she was ten, her life was no different from any other child's. She was perhaps a bit smarter and faster than her friends, but not advanced enough to garner comment. Her mother was a judge and her father a noted scientist. They lived in a comfortable house, in a comfortable neighborhood, in a beautiful corner of the northern Arizona desert. Krypton was a tiny town, but it was home, and Kara loved the rusty reds and brilliant yellows of the rugged landscape.
All that changed one late autumn afternoon, when the chill of winter was starting to descend and the shadows of night crept across the mesas earlier than the weeks before. One perfectly normal Tuesday that started like any other and ended with the destruction of Kara Zorrel's entire world.
Alex didn't know how deeply Kara's attachment to her ran for a simple reason. Things were rough between them when Kara first arrived at the Danver's home, and Kara learned how to get the comfort she needed without letting her new sister know how fragile she was feeling; that masking of her inner emotions grew as they aged and even though they were now best friends, Kara still put a cheerful face on regardless of how unsettled she was mentally. It was so pervasive that everyone called her "Sunny Danvers" despite her ongoing struggles with her past and her abilities.
She didn't feel much like Sunny Danvers right now; she felt like she'd run a marathon in high heels. For not the first time, she wished they'd bought a camper instead of the van and trailer. The back bench seat would have to serve; she crawled in and curled up, pulling the blanket her sister had been using over her. By the time Alex and Susan returned with donuts and coffee, she was fast asleep.
Vasquez studied the blonde, who had almost disappeared under the blanket, and sighed. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"Nope." Alex popped the "p" dramatically. "But Kara has been avoiding her demons for a long time, and if this is what she needs to do to face them, then that's what we do."
"Most people's demons aren't real," Susan replied quietly. "She may not call them that, but the way she describes them...."
Alex shook her head quickly. "We don't know what they are. That's half the reason we do this--at least me and Kara. I just wish she'd lean on us more; she's not Supergirl, she can't take so much on without help."
"Yeah." Vasquez rubbed her forehead thoughtfully. "She's a real team player until it comes to her feelings, then she has to go solo. I just hope this case doesn't overwhelm her. I mean, I don't buy that Luthor was possessed any more than you do, but I also know he just snapped for no apparent reason. There has to be something there, or the network wouldn't be pulling this huge production."
"It worries me that Mercer will be there. With her MO, she could distract everyone away from anything really important. She's great at what she does, but it's her own house this time, y'know?"
"I brought my friends," Vasquez replied with a smirk. "You did too, right? We can always just shoot her in the knee and pretend it was an accident."
Alex choked back a snort. "I like the way you think, Vee. Unfortunately, Kara would unleash Hell's front line on us if we hurt her precious Lena."
"Well, times a-wastin'. You sure you want to take first shift?"
"Yeah, I'll drink Kara's coffee if I start getting drowsy." The pair climbed into the van, organized their pastries, and headed back to the interstate for another long day's drive.
This story is coming together really well, though of course I am incapable of not injecting angggggst in anything I write. My plot is getting ridiculously twisted around and I'm looking forward to it! The next chapter is from Kara's viewpoint, but it might be shorter than usual. I don't want to give too much away this early!
Chapter 4: When Nightmares are Real
This chapter is a little exposition-heavy, but it sets up more of Kara's past. I'm feeling creative so hopefully I'll have another chapter or two this week.
Also, an open note to Travel Channel: Hans Holzer was NOT the first American ghost hunter! He was born in 1920, and the American Society for Psychical Research has been around since 1887. One of their primary goals was originally to scientifically prove the existence of spirits. Ghost hunters existed before that, too. As a relatively serious researcher in parapsychology (it ties into my interest in mythology and folklore) I really hate it when mis-information is used to drum up interest in a new show.
I feel better now.
Kara rested her chin on her fists and gazed up into the star-scattered sky. They had finally stopped for the night, somewhere just east the Mississippi River, and she was glad for it. She'd slept most of the day, but it wasn't a restful sleep. Instead, she'd continually startled awake from cloudy nightmares and had to regain her bearings before falling back into her slumber.
Alex and Susan were downstairs in the hotel bar, likely causing problems as usual, but Kara had no interest in joining them. She rarely drank, and wasn't in the mood for the kind of jovial fellowship her companions enjoyed on their downtime. Her attention was on the darkness, and the pin pricks of light that brought more comfort than even her beloved sister.
She remembered laying in the back yard with her father, staring into a carpet of stars so thick it rivaled the moon; they spent hours there, her father teaching her all about space, about other suns and other worlds, and about the possibilities that what was real might not be all there was. Even now, she could pick out the constellations they had created together--their own little pantheon of sky-gods and earth-mothers.
"Rao," she murmured, remembering the supernova her father showed her through the powerful telescope at his lab when she was ten. She was awed by the power of the brilliant explosion and the destruction it brought to whatever life might have been nearby. She was too young to fully grasp what he was saying about space-time and light speed, but she sensed his passion about the possibilities it held.
"This star exploded twenty-four years ago," he explained. "But we are just now seeing it. Physics says that nothing travels faster than light, but there are things that suggest we could do just that by using a space we don't know about yet."
He then went on to tell her about quantum theory and entanglement, and the possibility of multiple universes and his belief that man could move faster than light using dark matter; it was all very exciting and baffling, and Kara vowed that someday she would help him in his search.
Little did she know, that within a week she would do just that--but he wouldn't be there to hear what she discovered. He was dead; the telescope, the lab, their backyard, all gone in a single, mighty flash of light that would take twenty-four years to reach the shell that was Rao.
Kara shook herself. The last thing she needed was to start down the path of those particular memories. She'd spent enough time inside the darkness she called the Phantom Zone, and it dogged her every moment since; in her own way, she was keeping her promise to her father, but she doubted he'd be able to comprehend what she would tell him.
"Hey, you aren't brooding again, are you?" Alex's voice was soft and slightly slurred.
Without turning around, Kara nodded. "I can't help it sometimes."
"This morning threw you, huh?"
"Yeah." Kara sighed. "Why am I doing this?" She faced her sister. "Why am I torturing myself?"
Alex studied her with a sympathetic expression. "As long as I've known you, you've wanted answers, and I really think you're going to find them at Woolcroft. We can still back out if it's too much, though."
"No, you're right. Is it strange to feel like I need to go somewhere I've never been to explain something I should already know?"
"Kara ... there's nothing about this that isn't strange. All I know is that what you do is something I've never seen anyone else able to, and I also know how painful it is to do it sometimes. You are the bravest person I know, and I've worked with some pretty brave people."
Kara rubbed her face. "I'm not brave, Alex, not at all. I'm fucked up and insecure and totally lost in my own skin. My life is controlled by the dead, and I hate it."
"And yet, you help so many people," Alex responded, sinking onto one of the beds. "Bravery isn't being unafraid; it's feeling the fear and doing it anyway. I mean, if I was dead and stuck, I'd want someone like you to help me find my way."
"I know, that part of it isn't the problem, it's ... Them."
"Isn't that why we're going to Woolcroft? You're the only one who can tell for sure whether Luthor really got jumped."
Kara joined her. "He can't have been; if They can do that ... we're screwed. It's really ... it's because of Lena Mercer." She hadn't admitted that to her sister when she agreed to take part in the program.
Alex looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "You're obsessed with that woman. I really don't get it; she makes her living proving people like you aren't real."
"She knows, Alex. I can feel it; she has the answers to why I'm like this. People who have these ... abilities ... we're unicorns, and most of us cut off our horns and convince ourselves we're just regular horses because it's easier."
"You're saying Mercer has abilities?" Alex scoffed. "She's a genius, and yes, she could be working toward a Nobel in physics with her quantum work, but that doesn't mean she has any experience with the Phantom Zone."
"She didn't give up research just because she thinks ghosts aren't real." Kara's face was more serious than Alex was accustomed to. "Maybe she thinks that, but she's got the same drive I do. She wants to understand; she needs to understand."
Alex shook her head. "You know better than to psychoanalyze someone through the TV, Kara."
"I'm not. Why else would she suddenly start trying to disprove something that can't be proven in the first place?"
Alex wisely kept her answer to herself. Kara didn't know the connection between her idol and Lex Luthor, and it wasn't her place to reveal it. Kara took her silence as agreement.
"When's the production meeting? I want to get a feel for the area before we head in."
Alex gladly accepted the change of subject. "Day after tomorrow. We'll be there tomorrow afternoon, but you know we won't have access to the house until this weekend."
"I know. I want to look around and get some history."
"We aren't supposed to research the house, remember?"
Kara nodded. "I meant the town, the area. You're looking at the geological reports, right?"
"Yeah. I want to brush up on the other teams, too. Vasquez is going to get all the social media set up. I really don't understand why we have to do that, though. It's not like anyone knows who we are."
"Well, this is a screen test, isn't it? I suppose that's how they measure interest."
Alex shrugged. "You don't think they'll really offer us a show, do you? Our method isn't very exciting. It's not like you run around talking about angry spirits and poltergeists and cursed mirrors, and Para-X already does the geo-mechanical stuff."
That got a chuckle from her sister. "They probably won't, once they realize we aren't trying to prove hauntings are real. I'm certainly not going to live up to Paranormal Squad's antics. How Snapper Carr hasn't had a heart attack on air yet is beyond me."
"I kind of feel bad for him," Alex responded. "Edge always shoves him into the scariest places alone, like he's trying to give the guy a nervous breakdown."
"Morgan Edge doesn't play well with others," Kara agreed. "Though it could be punishment for his t-shirts."
"Kiss me, I'm haunted ... that one got me." Alex laughed, glad her sister's mood had improved.
"I exorcise daily." Kara giggled. "And the ever-popular, Ghosts get me going."
"Can't believe they let that on TV. I understand that the poop emoji is a thing, but still ..."
"Thanks, Alex." Kara let out her breath. "I needed a distraction."
Alex leaned over and hugged her. "Any time. I'm gonna shower and hit the sack. Don't stay up too late, yeah?"
"I won't." Kara smiled. "Just going to do my meditations." She watched her sister wander into the bathroom before sighing and looking out the sliding glass doors into the darkness. Lena Mercer and Woolcroft held the answers she needed, she was sure of it. Now she just had to survive getting them.
Chapter 5: Back at Woolcroft
Well, this took a lot longer to write than expected. I'd honestly planned to be finished with this story by now, but we'll get there eventually.
"Holy crap, Lena!" The disbelief in Eve Tessmacher's voice was evident even without looking at her. "This place is fucking huge!"
Lena sighed heavily and watched as the hulking shape of Woolcroft came fully into view. "Yeah, I know." After eight years, the effect wasn't quite as stunning as the first time she'd seen it, but she had forgotten just how big the manor really was.
"And creepy," Jess added. "I thought giant foreboding castles were an Old World thing."
"It's not a castle. Castles have moats and turrets; this is just a ridiculously large summer home." Lena rubbed her temples. "Trust me, the only thing creepy about Woolcroft is how quiet it is."
Sam glanced away from the driveway long enough to shoot Lena an incredulous look. "You don't think this is creepy?"
"No! I grew up in fucking Ireland--where there are real spooky castles; this is just a wannabe high society knock-off."
"Only you would call a twenty-million dollar estate a knock-off." Jess rolled her eyes. "How many bedrooms are there?"
"No clue. Twenty-something, I don't think I ever counted." Lena studied the building. "Looks like Lillian's kept up on the maintenance, at least. Nobody's been here in years."
Ignoring her, Lena flipped through the file in her lap. "According to Lillian, the staff have our rooms ready, and we're set to eat in the lake view breakfast room. You'll like that, the sunrise is pretty."
"Why name it? I mean, it's not like you have more than one dining room, right?" Jess snorted. When Lena didn't answer, she cleared her throat. "Right?"
"Errr ... well, the lake view room is best for summer and early fall, but for winter the west room looks over the mountains. There's the nook by the kitchen, too, but only kids use that one."
Sam made a noise. "Lena, did anyone ever tell you you're loaded?"
"Oh, for fuck's sake. Not my house, remember? You've been to my house, it's hardly a mansion."
Eve and Jess exchanged glances. "To be honest, Lee, your house is kinda big, too." Jess kept her voice kindly, sensing Lena was getting irritated. "None of us had a formal garden or a tennis court growing up."
"Moving on." Lena turned the page resolutely. "Lillian wants me to do a walkthrough inventory before the camera guys come in. Jess, you can run video for me. I highly doubt anyone plans on nicking an ashtray, but she's a bit paranoid."
"Is everyone staying in the house?" Jess leaned forward and looked over Lena's shoulder. "Seems like it'll be a bit crowded--even with a zillion bedrooms and six dining rooms."
"Just us. Lillian insisted I be on-site to supervise, and since I already know the house the network agreed we could stay." Lena glanced through the windshield as they rounded the final curve and the front courtyard of the manor came into view. "Íosa, Mhuire's, a Iósaif!" she growled.
"Um ... Lena ... is that the staff?" Sam tried to keep her shock hidden as she slowed the car and stared at the two lines of uniformed people standing by the front doors of the building.
Eve and Jess openly gaped. "You're kidding!" Eve managed to squeak.
"Tá seacht gcinn déag diabhal ag dul ina dhiaidh!" Lena face-palmed. "I was wrong; Woolcroft does drive people crazy, because I'm going to kill Lillian for this."
"How very Downton Abbey," Jess teased, ruffling Lena's hair. "Which one's the butler?" Sam just smirked and came to a stop in front of the group.
An older man in a set of tails stepped forward and opened Lena's door. "Miss Lena, what a pleasure to see you again!"
"Wilson!" Lena couldn't help the smile that lit her face. She undid her seat belt and slipped out of the car, giving the man a hug. "I'm so glad you're still here."
"We were most pleased to learn of your visit," the older man said with a smile. "And how you've grown since last we saw you!"
"It's been a long time," Lena agreed, glancing at the receiving line of staff. "This really isn't necessary, you know."
Wilson made a motion of dismissal. "Of course it is! The young lady of the house has returned, and with friends; you must have the best of Woolcroft's hospitality, Miss."
"Woolcroft's best hospitality is hot cocoa at the kitchen table with you and Mrs. Carlisle," Lena replied. "Did Lillian tell you to do this to everyone?"
"Now, now, Miss Lena: I know you don't care for attention, but it's our way of showing how much you mean to us."
"Aww, isn't that sweet?" Jess bumped Lena's shoulder and gave her a goofy grin. "Everybody loves little Lena."
Lena glared at her. "I'm taller than you are, Huang!"
"I'm Asian, I'm supposed to be short," Jess shot back. "What's your excuse?"
"All right, ladies," Sam interceded. "Can we argue after I've hit the head?"
Lena rubbed her temples. "I need a drink."
"Please, come inside," Wilson said, reasserting his air of control. "George and Morris will bring your luggage straight away."
"Thank you, Wilson." Lena sighed. "And, thank you all for coming out to meet us. I'll speak with you tonight about what to expect for the week."
She suffered through the head butler introducing the staff to her companions, and followed him into the mansion. The entry hall was as gloomy as she remembered, dark wood and heavy furnishings that always reminded her more of the parish church back in Ireland than a private dwelling.
“Oh my God, would you look at that?”
Lena turned at the shock in Jess’s voice and followed her gaze into the front parlor before face palming and letting out a long groan. “I was sure Lillian would have had all of those pictures removed by now.“
“That’s not a picture, Lena. That’s a fucking oil painting; an actual, real life, oil painting. Of you.“
“I thought you said you were an emo teenager,“ Eve added, eyeing the outfit the younger Lena was sporting in the large canvas hanging over the fireplace. “That is decidedly not emo.“
Lena blew out her breath. “It’s s just our Hunt club clothes. I only dressed like that on Hunt Saturdays. If you notice, we’re re all wearing them. Lillian thought that it was appropriate to be dressed for sport, considering that this is technically a summer house.” She studied the painting solemnly. Lillian commissioned it the year she turned 12, and the family looked happy together. It was hard to believe that in less than two years, The patriarch would be dead, and the dashing young man standing behind her with his hand on her shoulder would be facing life in prison for crimes so horrific it was still hard for her to comprehend he had committed them.
“Oh, just our Hunt club clothes ,“ Sam responded in a faux accent. “And I suppose that in the dining room we shall find you in a ball gown?“
“Jesus fucking Christ, I hope not,” Lena muttered before eyeing Wilson nervously. “Is there any way to take those down before anyone else gets here?“
The old butler cleared his throat and smiled sympathetically. “Mrs. Luthor said that nothing was to be changed. I believe she wishes the house to be seen as it was the last time the family was in residence.“
“Wait; does this mean there’s actually a picture of you in a ball gown around here somewhere?“ Jess sounded entirely too enthusiastic about the concept. “This is going to be more fun than I thought!“
“I will poison your coffee,“ Lena threatened. “Or worse, I’ll make sure you only get decaf. All. Week.”
"All right, all right; let's just calm down and take a breath." Sam was struggling to contain her laughter, but she tried to sound stern anyway.
Lena groaned. “Why did I agree to this? Why?"
"Not this again." Jess rolled her eyes. "Listen, Lena: Lillian seems to think you need to be here, so here we are. I, for one, would prefer a couple of embarrassing pictures to letting Para Squad hold unsupervised seances in my basement."
"You're right," Lena agreed grumpily. "Doesn't mean I have to like it. Why don't you all go up to your rooms and settle in while I call Lillian. We can do a quick tour after."
The others agreed and Wilson led them toward the stairs, leaving Lena to make her way to Lionel's study. It may have been a vacation home, but her father never took a day off; she remembered sitting on the couch in his office as he worked, listening raptly to his explanations and instructions on how a successful business was run.
He never pressured her to choose a certain track in life, though he died before she started high school. Lex was the golden boy, the next face of LuthorCorp; Lionel probably only taught her what he did because it was the only way he knew to share time with her. Lena didn't mind. She knew very early in life that her passion was science, particularly the science of quantum energy. Lionel likely didn't know that the afternoons they spent together would instill in her a remarkable ability to frame her research needs in terms of potential profits, but she had never found it difficult to obtain funding for projects she worked on.
If things had been different, if she had been older when Lex went insane, she might have ended up at the reins of the family business. Lillian floated the idea toward her during her post-graduate studies, but she was never one to press too hard, and when Lena expressed her disinterest in the position, she dropped it.
Lionel's study look just as it had the last time she was there. His favorite pipe sat next to two others on a small stand, the only thing different from when he was still alive. His desk was neat, the now-antiquated telephone still the only electronic to be seen. Feeling a bit like a child again, Lena pulled out the leather desk chair and sank down into it, taking a deep breath of the faint odor of the tobacco her father favored.
Lena's research gave her a background on the stories associated with the manor, but even knowing them didn't change the atmosphere of the house for her. It was still just an old, creaky mansion, with an admittedly dark aura, but hardly frightening. She could find no reason to change her opinion: the entire event was nothing more than the network taking advantage of Lex's crimes to increase ratings.
With a sigh, Lena pulled out her phone and opened the file folder she'd placed on the desk. The sooner she had things settled to her step-mother's satisfaction, the sooner she could pour a large tumbler of scotch and collapse.