The phone on his hip began buzzing immediately as he struggled to open the door, the bags of groceries laced over his wrists. The plastic handles dug deep into his skin as stumbled inside, grimacing in pain and struggling to get through the living room into the kitchen beyond, hefting the rattling white bags atop the counter.
Dillon shuffled in after him, more bags dangling from his fingers. He kicked the door closed behind him and ambled through the living room after JD.
"Hello?" JD puffed into his phone as he put it to his ear.
"Hey, baby," Wendy's voiced cooed. "Have you missed me?"
"Oh, hi!" JD sang, his face brightening. "I was just going to call you!"
"Really? See, we are connected, lover. What's on your mind? Besides me, of course."
"Of course," JD laughed in agreement. "Well, Dill and I received a very strange phone call while we were out grocery shopping."
"Oh yeah? How strange?"
"Really strange," JD said, pacing around the linoleum floor. "It was a long distance call, for one thing ..."
"Dude ... really long distance. I mean, the longest possible distance, yo."
"And why's that weird, sweets?"
"Well, the caller said they were referred to me. Recommended, I think the word was. By a friend."
"Okay, I'm still not seeing weird here."
"Well, first of all, I don't really ... really have any friends. I mean, none that would recommend me as a ..."
"No, you were right the first time, dude. You ain't got no friends."
JD sneered at Dillon. "None that know about my paranormal investigation business, anyway."
"Business?" Dillon snorted. "You makin' any bank on that 'business', dude?"
"Okay, so maybe they meant an acquaintance, babe. What's wrong? What's troubling you?"
"Well ... the caller said the referral came from ... Bea Jenkins."
Dillon visibly shuddered, turning his face away. JD noted the reaction, then returned focus to the conversation.
"Did you just say someone called you and was referred by Bea Jenkins, hon?"
Wendy's voice was amused, but there was an undertow of tension.
Silence; JD paced casually across the floor and absently began pulling groceries out of the first bag on the counter.
"No, I'm here," she said quickly. "I'm just ... I'm just having a hard time processing what you said. You're saying that you got a call from Bea Jenkins. the dead librarian that helped you with the last case. Right?"
"Uh ... no, no. I'm saying that someone called me today and told me they were referred to me by Bea Jenkins, the dead librarian that helped us on the last case."
"Yeah," she said softly. "That's ... that's a bit to process for me, baby."
Dillon began slowly emptying the bags in front of him as well. JD stopped for a moment, listening, one eye trained on Dillon.
"I ... yeah, it was a bit for me to process too. It took me completely by surprise."
"Yeah," Wendy answered fast. "Yeah, that'd be surprising."
"So ... I ..."
"You accepted the case."
"Well ... well, yes. Of course. The person asked for my help. I didn't ... I didn't think it would be right to turn them away out of hand."
"Who is this person?"
"It's the owner of a lodge somewhere upstate. Way out in a very remote area. It's the Winter Haven Lodge."
"The Winter Haven? That really exclusive one where the politicians and movie stars go? That Winter Haven Lodge?"
"Uh ... yes. I've never heard of it before, but I suppose that's the one ..."
"Dude, you never even heard o' the place?"
JD looked helplessly at Dillon, shaking his head. Wendy laughed in his ear.
"Poor sweet Jaded. You don't get around much, do you, love?"
"I ... guess not. Should I know about this?"
"Probably not. This is a multimillionaire's resort, baby. It's for the rich and famous, and not for little commoners like us."
"Dude, everybody knows 'bout it. How'd you not know 'bout it?"
JD shrugged. "Oh. Well, it should be a nice visit then. We're being provided rooms and all we can eat free of charge."
"We? Are you inviting me to come along to an exclusive hotel and resort with you, baby-cakes?"
JD blushed, his voice trembling. "Um ... yes, I am."
"Well ... I'm just getting back from a long weekend. I have to go to work and see if I can take the time ... it's going to be tricky."
"Oh," JD said, his heart sinking. "Well, if you can't come ..."
"I don't know yet, lover. Let me look into it and see. Are you sure you're able to just drop everything and go?"
"Well ... I have a lot of vacation time saved at work. It's ... I've been saving it up for a long time. The only problem might be with the notice. I may have to stall the owners for a while until I can make the arrangements, but I think I can go right away. I'll have to verify that tomorrow, of course, but I think it'll be fine."
He watched Dillon out of the corner of his eye while he pretended to put things away in the cabinet over the counter to his right. Dillon was quiet. Very quiet. JD wasn't sure if something was wrong or whether he was just being polite while JD was on the phone. He seriously doubted the latter.
"Well, I can't make any promises. But I should be able to get some time off next week if I can't get time off this week. If you want me to go with you, you might have to delay the trip for a week. Can you live with that?"
"Sure," he said softly, still watching Dillon, continuing to shuffle items out of bags and put them away around the kitchen. "I could probably just let them know I can't do it on such short notice. I'm certain they'd understand that."
"Well, either way, I'm game."
"Yeah? That's great," he said, trailing off.
"You sure?" Wendy giggled. "You don't sound all that enthused, to be honest."
"OH, sorry. No, I am. I'm just ... I'm thinking ahead already. You know me. I have to prepare a list of things we'll need in terms of equipment and such. I can have all that together and ready before the trip whenever we decide we can go."
"You didn't tell them when you'd be there?"
"No." JD turned to follow Dillon from the back of the kitchen as he balled the empty bags up and stuffed them into a plastic bag holder mounted behind a cabinet door under the sink. "No, I didn't say when I'd be there. I told them I would have to check my schedule and see when it would be possible."
Dillon quietly ambled past JD around the kitchen island, past the peninsula and out through the living room. JD heard his familiar plod up the stairs.
"Babe?" Wendy said. "Baby? You okay, love? You sound really distracted. Everything okay?"
"Yes," JD said, more firmly this time. "Yes, everything's fine. Will you be home tonight?"
"I'm home now hon, that's why I'm calling. I just wanted to let you know."
"Oh! Are you -- how was the shower and party?"
"Great! We had a blast. It was really good to see everyone again. I haven't seen some of those people since high school, so it was nice to reconnect with them."
"Yeah? Did anything ... anything ... special happen at the bachelorette party?"
"Special? Lots of drinking and being rowdy, but special? I wouldn't say so."
"No? Nothing that ... that I should -- you know ... know about?"
Wendy giggled. "Know about? Like what?"
"I ... I don't know. I just was wondering how it went, that's all."
"It was fine. A lot of fun."
"Oh, well that's ... good."
The dead air was heavy on the phone.
"Was there a ... was there a stripper -- at the party?" His voice was weak and he flushed even hearing the question come out of his mouth.
She burst into hysterical laughter. JD shook his head, covering his eyes with his palm in embarrassment while she cackled for long seconds on the other end of the phone. Finally, she could control herself again and she regained composure.
"Is that what's been bugging you? You're worried that there was a stripper at the party?"
JD stammered into the phone, unable to collect himself in his mortification to answer her. She bellowed that lilting, sing-song laugh again, and nearly coughed as she finally exhaled sharply, and drew a deep breath.
"Oh my God," she said, "oh, my ribs hurt. That's the best laugh I've had all weekend. Whew!"
"I'm ... I'm glad I could help cap it off right."
"Oh, baby," she said, the giggles still in her voice as she spoke. "No, hon. There was no stripper. Just a bunch of girls going out and dancing, having a great time, and sharing one last girl's night out with our friend before she gets married. There was no stripper. She's not into that."
"Are - are you? Into that?"
"Well, I dunno," she teased, "I guess it depends on the stripper."
"Yeah. Do you want to strip for me, lover?" She whispered in that incredibly sultry, sexy tone that she knew would completely collapse him. It did.
"Uh -- I -- well, I don't -- I guess I -- ummm ..."
She burst out laughing again. "Okay, okay stop! I gotta pee! Stop! I have to go to the bathroom, now, or I'm going to wet myself!"
"Oh, sorry, I --"
"Stop! I'm going. I'll call you after I nap, okay? I'm a little tired. Bye love!"
"B--" The phone went dead in his hand. "--ye."
He sighed, and then set his jaw. He went up the stairs resolutely, and found Dillon's bedroom door closed when he got to it. He knocked softly.
"Come in, dude."
JD opened the door. Dillon was laying on his bed, his signature Chuck Taylors crossed one over the other at the ankle, thumbing through an Amazing Spider-Man comic book. He looked up, scratching his stubble-crusted jaw beneath his chin.
"You tell me."
"Something's wrong, Dillon. You've never been that quiet for that long, especially while I'm on the phone with Wendy. What's going on?"
"Nothin'. Ever'thin's cool."
"Cool? I don't think so." JD sat on the foot of Dillon's bed. "We've known each other too long for that, Dill. Something's bothering you, troubling you, worrying you ... whatever. Something's not right with you. What's going on?"
Dillon sighed heavily, deeply, and sat up and back against his headboard. He fixed his gaze on JD.
"This case ... you already decided you're takin' it, right?"
"Yes, I told them I would on the phone. You heard them. They have multiple witnesses to paranormal activity and need help. And ... well, frankly, a woman who's dead referred them to us."
"Not 'us', bro -- you."
"Me? I don't understand."
"They weren't referred to us, dude, they was sent to you. By a ghost."
"Okay ... I guess. Or someone pretending to be the ghost of Bea Jenkins, I suppose. What's the problem? Are you feeling neglected because your name didn't come up, or because it's not on the business license?"
"Pff. Dude, please. I ain't about that crap. You know better'n that."
JD shrugged. "Then what?"
"I can't believe you forgot already," Dillon said, shaking his head. His face showed no signs of mockery, his body language showed no indication of a coming joke. JD watched Dillon avoid his eyes.
"Okay, what did I forget, Dill?"
"Everything we went through last time, dude. All the crap. The way you was haunted an' stuff after it started. The way you got all beat up 'n shit -- by a ghost. The way all that creepy-ass shit went down. It's like you forgot it all."
JD tipped his head. "I didn't forget, Dill. But ... I'm into this. This is what I do. At least in my own time. I can't let those things sway me from proving that 99% of the 'paranormal' is nothing more than misinterpretation of evidence. Those things that happened -- we have no proof that we weren't experience something like mass hysteria. We have no tapes, no photos, nothing except those weird recordings. And that's something, that's big. It's real EVP, I think, but we haven't really got any reason to believe it's anything more than a strange play of the sounds."
"Aw, dude -- naw, man, naw," Dillon said acidly. "I can't believe you gonna pull that crap again, Jay-Bird. Dude, you're doin' it all over again, man! You're doin' th' same crap you did before that ghost kicked your ass, bro. Don'tcha see?? It really happened, dude! It really did!"
"No, don't misunderstand me -- I believe we encountered something supernatural. I have no explanation, whatsoever, for what happened to us. Especially Bea. And the encounter with Robin Brown. I have no idea what that was, other than experiencing a real apparition. None. I'm not saying that. I'm saying that it may still be that what we went through has an explanation, but I don't have it. A better investigator might.
"And that still doesn't mean that this case is going to be a legitimate haunting, Dill. I still firmly, soundly, whole-heartedly believe that 99% of what people think is a haunting isn't. It's just misunderstanding what they see."
"Dude ... whatevs, bro. All I know is, it scared the shit outta me. For you, for me, and for Wen. Who knows what th' hell coulda happened, dude? One of us coulda been killed, man. Killed. We wandered out inna yard for like five hours, man. We coulda been led inta traffic or somethin'."
"We weren't, though."
"No, not that time. But what 'bout this time, home-brew? What 'bout somethin' goin' all hella wrong an' shit, out inna middle o' nowhere, an' one of us buys it? What if these ghosts ain't nice an' helpful an' shit? Mebbe they ain't tryin'a get their story heard an' shit. Mebbe they wanna be left the hell alone, an' they'll kick th' crap outta anyone that mucks with 'em, y'know?"
"Wh ... what're you saying, Dill?"
"I'm sayin' I ain't goin' this time, dude. I'm out. I don' think you should go, either, and I damn sure don' think you oughtta drag Wen inta this, bud. But ... me? I'm out, dude. I'm out."