|UNHACKABLE HEART -- Glenn Reston|
When she placed her soft hand over his large calloused palm, Glenn laughed and squeezed her hand once. "It's about time."
She laughed. "Oh yeah! Fix it, sell it, get out of Dodge."
That's not what he meant, but he wasn't about to scare her off when he was this close. He stopped at the passenger side door and then swung it open for her. He nodded, "Let's do this," and she stepped up into his truck. How long had he be been waiting on this?
When Glenn stopped at her dead vehicle still on the side of the road, Tessa loaded her six laptops in the backseat of his truck. He did not bat an eyelash, he made sure; no need to rile up armed-to-the-teeth security around her heart. Her defenses did not even sound alarms when he demonstrated neither approval nor disapproval. He intended to make it past the firewall around her heart, programmed to shoot intruders first and ask questions later.
As the sun set in a blaze of crimson against acres of green corn, he pulled in and turned off his truck. "This is only a place, Tessa. Not a dream. Not your nightmare."
She sat in the passenger seat while Glenn moved all the way around the property, taking pictures to plan landscaping. He ambled back to the open passenger door. She might not ever tell him, he decided, but she was scared to even exit his truck.
Glenn grinned at her, intending to turn her attention away from some horror painted here in the past. "Hey, tree hugger, do you have a rootkit?"
Tessa lifted stormy green eyes to study his profile in the dusk. "What do you mean by that? As in landscaping? Or as in hacking?"
"Tools of the trade."
"Hmm. Maybe Haven isn't good for you, Glenn. Have you fallen into a bad crowd?"
His answer didn't seem to help clarify anything for her, almost like it mucked up the already muddy water of the past.
She cocked her head, looking at the house now. "How much to make it a happy-looking place? How long to landscape it please?"
"Let's go inside and talk about it. You said it's all here as you left it. Your computer, electricity, internet connection, phone. You keep paying those, so you must plan to return inside at some point. I'll remote into my computer and show you how it could look." He held out his hand, and held his breath, as she placed her hand in his and slid out of the truck where he had left the door open for her.
Tessa walked up a series of concrete stairs, concrete slabs of granite leading up to the front door.
Rusty chains creaked as if in protest to the wind pushing a child's forsaken swing in the side yard. Twisted corroded barbed wire and fallen weathered posts did not inspire an invitation to intrude on the property. Weeds swayed like they were trying to pull up their roots and run away as a thick white fog rolled in to blanket the lonely wooden house in utter isolation. A no trespassing sign hung at an odd angle, a screechy whine in the wind. Her steps slowed where once there had been carefully tended flowerbeds. Yet even the few struggling, budding roses seem to shudder as the fragrant petals closed. A cold evil cloud swallowed up the ground.
Glenn walked up the steps in front of her and then held one palm up. "Wanna give me the padlock key? Or are we going into the fortress another way? Come on, we made it past the moat. Nice of you not to keep alligators there."
She tilted her head toward his face. "I kept coyotes in mine. And a couple bobcats. A wild black panther hunted here a time or two."
He rested one hand on her lower back. "You miss this life, don't ya?" he laughed.
"Not at all," she whispered. She opened the squeaky front door after pulling it up over the warped and forsaken front porch. The fog closing around them seemed to pause at the veranda. As twilight burnt from purple to navy, she stepped up to the padlock and slipped the key from her front pocket. She inserted and clicked the lock open. She lifted the padlock from the door.
But a full minute passed after her hand closed over the knob. Glenn enclosed her small smooth hand with his calloused one and helped her swing open the door. The darkness seemed to emanate an evil laugh at them. Oh he remembered this house. He knew why she was terrified to enter. Glenn scooted her in closer to his side and flicked on lights before memories and darkness finished her off in this dwelling.
"It's charming, Tessa. It surely has a century worth of charm."
"It's a lonely sad place, seeped in through and through."
"Then let's do it together, renovate it, develop it, sell it. Or I can buy it from you. That's what you're so hot for, right?"
She reached up and ran one finger over a curl behind his ear. "I won't sell to you. Ever heard of buyer beware? I won't sell it to you and have you live in it."
"Then let's fix it so you can move on. I'd like to renovate it though, ton of character, good bones."
"When I'm gone, Glenn. If you really want to do this, I'm not gonna be here with you. Don't wake it up!"
Finally, she must trust him enough to intend to tell him. "It?" he coaxed.
"Maybe it's they," she confided in a whisper as if another might hear her admission. "I don't want you to stir them up. I left here once, like a barefoot thief in the night, and I was careful not to awaken it while I snuck away. Believe it or don't. I really don't care. I know what I know and that's that you won't be renovating this place or living here."
"Protecting me, Tessa?"
"Stop teasing me."
"I'm not. I know! I was here when the scent of sulfur and frozen air carried a mist around your feet, a long loud ringing from the chimney, carbon monoxide detectors screaming out warnings from the basement even after you unplugged them. I tried to soothe you, don't you remember? You pointed your gun right at my chest when I crooned, Easy, babe. You got a gun now? You look almost as spooked as then."
Her eyes closed. "I'm really sorry about that, Glenn. I thought maybe you were part of . . .. "
When she added no more, he said, "I know about that too. But now you want to go away again and not face it, not fix it. Exorcise it from your soul, the wounds that never heal. Truly knock the tainted dust off your feet when you leave here this time, so the darkness will never again whisper in your ear."
"Bad things happened in this house, so far away from anyone or anything else. I don't want to think about the past, ever, especially not in this house."
She pointed toward the upstairs and lowered her confession like he did not already know everything. "After I finally left him, after I survived the siege . . . my husband killed himself here. I'm glad Sammy didn't take me with him as he had promised to do."
"No one knew what all was going on out here. You certainly didn't tell anyone."
"I was desperate, decimated, so irate . . . it was a poor choice to go looking for friends in that frame of mind." She turned away from where she had stopped at her old computer and desk.
Did she think she could close the subject just like that? Silly woman!
Glenn stepped in front of her. "Have you ever told anyone what went on here?"
Spring green eyes shot sparks at him. "I don't talk about history."
Although she still hadn't opened the subject, Glenn pushed ahead. "What if I had been one of those hackers? Once upon a time, long long ago, you had a big hate going on for hackers. And you were learning to hack, couldn't see the difference between script kiddies and a cybercop for the FBI. The second administrator that came in at the ISP asked me to find out why you were the only one on his entire network who kept having this problem. What if I was one of your hackers?"
Her unruly curls shook hard and the deep breath she drew in expanded her t-shirt where hacker stretched across her chest. "Then I'd say back off, bud. Thanks for pushing me toward security because I just so happened to excel at it. I forgive you, but forgetting is another matter entirely."
"What about now? Do you truly forgive me, Tess? Will you let me near enough to know you now?"
She tossed the tawny curls away from her face. "There's nothing to see here, nothing interesting about me at all. Dull. Boring. Don't even try to hone in cause nothing makes me tick. That's who I am. I do try to be invisible you know!"
Glenn grabbed her hand. "Invisible. Precisely like your ghosts in this house. You ever used white noise to hack?" He snorted, forgetting for a second who she was now. "I'm sure it's a part of your arsenal. So why not help me fuzz out these ghosts? I have all kinds of equipment, been hunting ghosts for ten years in my spare time."
That seemed to grab her attention. "You landscape by day and hunt ghosts by night?"
"I've been doing it ever since I was here with you in this house and needed answers about paranormal happenings that I could not understand or explain."
She tipped up on her toes and lifted her mouth near his face. Her whisper shivered into his ear. "Hack the house?"
"Let's document it and get it out. Then you will stop being afraid of selling terror to the next owners of this house."
She wandered through the house, flicking on every light she passed. Fine, so he would give her a few minutes to process the request.
When she stepped out the back exit and sat on a concrete bench on the patio, Glenn sat next to her. He was going too fast, throwing too much at her too soon. Maybe it would be wiser to talk about landscaping, that much of him she knew and obviously wasn't threatened by. She used to love to work outside with her hands and plants. He had only become a ghost hunter because of her and what went on in this house when he was every inch the skeptic.
Glenn grinned at her. "What are you thinking?"
She waved one hand toward the house. "You can remote in, plug in the pics, and show me the plan if you want. I know I'm kinda counting on you, for a ride and all, but I'd rather do it from Haven or even my hotel room. I wanna go, Glenn. This place gives me the creeps. If the hair lifts off the back of your neck while you are using that ancient computer, then it's time to go. It's dark and it'll wake up soon. I'm not comfortable here."
He concurred. The house could be blessed, but that would only make the forces here very angry. That is what happened the last time, when he and his preacher had blessed the house a decade ago, asking for protection for Tessa. The mists and dark shadows had not left. Instead the evil permeating the inside had been whipped into a foaming-mouth frenzy. Tessa needed to be prepared this time.
"I thought about burning it."
"It wouldn't matter, Tessa. The evil, the trauma, the spilled blood has seeped over the land for acres around this house. A new house could be built here and the trauma would simply spill its paranormal activity into it. It's like this house is on a giant battery, looping horrors that happened on this land. The cave in the woods right back there," he pointed into the woods beyond the patio where they sat. "It has quartz, limestone, water, salt, an off-the-charts electromagnetic field, recording horrific events, maybe even creating them."
"I don't believe in ghosts."
"Of course you do. You lived in a house full of them!" He clicked up one finger. "A big dark shadowy man." He clicked up a second finger. "A short monkey-sized shadow." He clicked up a third finger. "A misty cloud." He held up a fourth. "And bright flashes of colorful orangish-red lights that come and go. Maybe more."
"No more than you, Tessa. We will record it ourselves this time. Scientific and documented like you were locking up the corporate code." He stroked one knuckle across her defined cheekbone. "You excel in that area, too."
A slow heat crept up her face that he could see even in the star-studded night. "Say thank you, Glenn," he suggested. Did she feel the same attraction toward him that he did her? He knew her though, really knew who she was down deep, and she had not been with a man who had complimented her. Tessa deserved compliments.
When she leaned into his fingers, Glenn pointed the other hand toward a clearing in the corn beyond an outbuilding. "Out there?" he asked. "Tell me about what happened there, Tessa."
"No thank you."
"Okay, I'll tell you. You kept a fire going for days, burning anything important to you, trying to burn out who you are, a woman who believes in a positive slant on the big picture of life and happy save-the-world endings. Why would you do that? How could he stand by and watch you sacrifice everything like some kind of burnt offering?"
"I ticked some people off, burned a bunch of bridges. I'd left Sammy for a month, then came back to pack and leave for the university for good. Got stuck in a rut cause he said he'd kill himself if I left. Stuck cause he said he'd come after me, wherever I tried to hide, and kill me first and then himself. Spinning my wheels in frustration, feeling trapped; it was a bad scene. If who I was sucked that much, then burn baby burn."
"There was nothing wrong with the woman you were. You were too sweet, too spicy with anger, and no one understood why you stayed with him."
"I was under heavy siege at the time. Found out I'd stand and fight."
"Yeah," he agreed. "Do you still have that gun you pointed at me?"
Glenn swung one arm around her and pulled her to his side before pulling them both to their feet. "Well don't bring it. Who you planning to shoot with that thing . . . an invisible force? A walking dead person?"
He walked back through the house, shutting off lights, and locking the door. "It's an intelligent haunt, darlin'. It knew we were coming before you had even left the city."
"I like city life. I'm invisible there."
Glenn laughed at that and opened the truck door for her. He wasn't going to touch that one. He wasn't going to touch where he knew it would set her off. Oh but he wanted to trip her trigger all right. "So men don't ask you out in the city?"
"That's different. That's living around hordes of people. That's real-time."
"So men do ask you out then. I thought you said you were invisible?" He thought he'd decided not to touch this one.
She sighed long and loud. "Some men don't have the good sense to realize that."
"Then I guess I don't have the good sense God gave a guppy because I have always seen you. Right or wrong, I wanted to know more about you. I always liked your mind. You're fast when you care to show it. Funny. Deep."
"My mind?" She leaned against the open door. She studied her fingernails, but she was not doing a good job hiding her smirk. "That's why you came to my house, three times a day, three days in a row? No one was touching my network . . . I wasn't even using it then."
"I know. You got quiet, didn't talk to anyone. Low-tech hacking, Tess. Up close and personal, people watching can tell a talented person a great deal. Shoulder surfing. Dumpster diving as you know. What if I know what you are like inside because I saved some of your burnt offerings before you could sacrifice all of you."
She snapped glacier cold green eyes at him, shooting him with ice shrapnel. "You best be joking, Glenn. That was my stuff."
"You fed it to a bonfire."
"Keep it. Burn it. Bury it. I don't care. That woman is dead and gone."
"No. She's there in the woman I chat with online."
"I knew it was a mistake to be chatting with a man I don't work with over the stupid computer. My brain is connected to my fingers, but chat with you is so fast onto the keyboard, before my good sense has had time to process the thought, nevertheless speak it . . . it will be staring at me on the screen because I typed and sent it."
"Yes, little pen tester, you bent your own rules for me. What do you think that means? Could you be looking for a way to sneak past your unhackable heart as you social engineered me? You'd seen who I was now, looking for a landscaper. You knew me. Yet you didn't. Now you do ‘cause we have been chattin'."
She slid her arms across her chest, across the word hacker. "I'm leaving here, Glenn, moving away."
"Yes, you told me that a decade ago. And then you did. And now you are going to sell this house and move on to a different city for the job you have set as your goal. I know where you stand. How about you get to know me a little better, up close and personal, while I landscape this place, while we hunt down your ghosts? How about you shutdown that firewall around your heart and let me in to live in the moment with you before you go?"
"You must like danger." She pointed one gracefully manicured fingertip toward the upstairs window. "Sammy killed himself; said it was my fault. Why would you even want to test that out? You're so much smarter than that."
"I'm not him," he said simply.
Glenn moved closer to her, pressing her back against the truck without even touching her, simply by moving into her space. When she seemed to realize he was moving in on her, she looked tense enough to try out her flight or fight instincts. "Easy, Tessa," he murmured while sliding one hand under her hair to cup her nape. He lowered his lips to slant lightly across hers. Once, twice, before she relaxed against him and began to kiss him back.
Upstairs from the window, a red glow flashed like an indoor laser show.
Like an invisible force picked it up and tossed it, a brick along the front sidewalk flew from the ground to about three feet from where he was kissing her.
She shoved back at him, slid into his truck, and leaned over to pull the door closed. "Let's go."
Glenn glared at the upstairs windows where noises now rang out like the screech of electronic interference. "I'm going to get rid of you," Glenn promised the noise. "With or without her help, you will not haunt her anymore. Get ready to be exorcized."
He slammed into the truck too. Although he started the engine, and another brick sailed to land closer this time, Glenn took her hand in his. "Do you want to hunt ghosts, so the darkness will never whisper to you again? Or do you want to simply do what you must to landscape the place so you can sell it?"
What will Tessaa tell him?