This is NOT a date, I told myself again as I approached the doors of The Tipsy Cow, Redemption’s best, most happening bar.
Yes, it was true I was meeting Officer Brandon Wyle in said bar. But we were meeting for lunch, not a drink. The Tipsy Cow had surprisingly good food.
Besides, he had already made the point clear. It was about a case he wanted some help with, although that alone was enough to raise my suspicions. Up until this point, Wyle had never appreciated my help with his investigations. He would prefer I focus on my little home-based tea and tincture business and leave the investigating to the “professionals.”
Quite honestly, I wouldn’t mind that, either. I’d love to concentrate solely on growing the herbs and flowers I used in my teas and on baking and cooking in my big farmhouse kitchen. But, as it turned out, I had a bit of a knack for solving cases. And that talent ended up coming in handy for my tea customers, as some of them had a knack for finding trouble.
Usually, Wyle begrudgingly accepted my help, mostly because he knew once I got involved, there wasn’t much he could say to talk me out of it. But we also had a clear understanding that I’d keep him in the loop.
So, for him to bring me in on a case was … strange. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I was also too curious to not agree to meet him.
Even though I was clear on the purpose of the meeting, I still found myself taking a little extra time with my appearance that morning. Well, okay, a lot of extra time. I ended up going through most of my closet before settling on jeans and an emerald-green sweater that brought out the green in my hazel eyes. I paired it with a clunky gold necklace and big gold hoops and left my wild and curly brownish-blondish hair loose around my shoulders. I even applied a little makeup—some mascara and lip gloss.
Not too much. Because, of course, this was not a date.
But that didn’t mean I couldn’t look nice.
I also wore my jean jacket, as it was fall in Wisconsin, so it was nippy. Early October was so beautiful, with the leaves changing colors and the temperature cool, but not bitterly cold. That would come later.
Parking around The Tipsy Cow was full, which didn’t surprise me, as it always had a brisk lunch crowd. I had to park a little ways down the street, and as I walked to the bar and grill, I checked the cars to see if Wyle’s was there yet. I didn’t see it, which didn’t necessarily mean he hadn’t arrived. He could’ve parked somewhere else other than on the street. However, when I opened the front door and surveyed the bar, I wasn’t completely surprised not to see him.
“Would you like a table?” the young, perky hostess asked as I stood in the foyer frowning and scanning the area. She looked like a cheerleader with her dark-blonde hair pulled up in a high, bouncy ponytail and bright smile. Only the line of piercings that outlined her ears betrayed the image.
I chewed on my lip. Did I want a table? On one hand, we were there to eat, so getting one seemed to make sense. On the other, it felt a little too … something. I would have to admit to Miss Perky that I was waiting for someone, and she might then assume it was a date, which it wasn’t. And what if he didn’t show up? It was possible he got pulled away and couldn’t leave the station. And then I would be sitting by myself at a table, and the hostess would know I had been stood up.
“I’m waiting for someone, but I can just sit at the bar,” I told her. The bar had a full view of the door, so not only would I see him, but he would see me when he walked in. That felt a little less assuming.
“Of course,” the hostess said with a big smile. I gave her an awkward nod in return and headed to the bar.
It was too early for a drink, so I ordered a Coke with lemon. I perched on the edge of the stool, shrugged off my jacket, and looked around.
As it was early, there weren’t many people in the bar. Most were sitting at tables eating lunch. An older guy drinking a beer and eating a hamburger was at the opposite end of me. He seemed to be a regular, as he was chatting with the bartender. Another man sat alone at a table, a beer and bunch of papers and folders strewn about in front of him. He muttered to himself as he pawed through them, occasionally taking a sip from his bottle. Every time he set it back down, it was closer to his papers. I kept watching, fascinated despite myself, wondering if he was going to end up knocking it over. He was tall and gangly, all legs and arms and elbows, and didn’t seem to be paying attention to his surroundings at all.
I had about decided I really ought to say something to him when it happened—his arm flew forward to grab a different folder, except he whacked his beer at the same time. It toppled to its side, spilling the contents across his papers. He leaped to his feet, tipping his chair over while knocking some of them onto the ground.
He swore as he desperately tried to save the pages from the puddle of beer. I grabbed a stack of napkins from the bar and slid off my chair to help him.
“How stupid,” he was saying as he shook the papers. “I can’t believe I did this. What an idiot.”
As I mopped up the beer, I tried to reassure him. “Hopefully, we can save most of it,” I said.
“Yeah, well …” He looked sadly at the soaking wet papers in his hand. “It serves me right. I’m such a klutz. I should have known this was going to happen.” He glanced up and flashed me a shy smile. I caught my breath. He was surprisingly good-looking in a geeky sort of way, with his messy light-brown hair falling across his forehead, straggly goatee, and horn-rimmed glasses.
“Maybe you should have gotten a bigger table,” I suggested as I continued piling the used napkins on the table.
He laughed. “More room for me to make a bigger mess.”
The bartender appeared behind me, bar rag in hand, and suggested moving to a different table, so he could clean up. It took a bit to help the man move, as we laid the worst of the drenched pages flat on the table to help them dry. Eventually, though, he settled on one nearby. The bartender even brought him a second beer.
“I think I’m going to drink first, then work,” he said, shaking his head at the wet pages. “Or maybe I should say, ‘hopefully’ work. Once things dry.”
“It looks like most of the pages are somewhat legible,” I said. “So, maybe you can transfer the data somewhere else.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’ll have to do.” He sighed and glanced up at me with another shy smile. “Can I buy you a drink? It’s the least I can do, to thank you for your help.”
“I already have a soda,” I answered.
He gestured to the seat next to him. “Do you want to have a seat?”
I bit my lip and glanced around the bar. Still no sign of Wyle. “I’m meeting someone,” I hedged.
“I won’t stop you from leaving when he arrives,” he said. “Or is this a nice way of telling me to buzz off, and I’m just not getting the hint?”
That made me laugh. “Okay, I guess it can’t hurt to keep you company while I wait.” I started to turn back toward the stool to fetch my jacket, purse, and drink, but paused. “How did you know I was meeting a ‘he’?”
His smile widened, crinkling the skin at the corners of his eyes. “Well, I had a fifty-fifty shot of being right. So, I guess this means you do have a date.”
“Not a date,” I said hastily. “Just friends … sort of. It’s complicated.”
His eyebrows went up. “Oh, one of those relationships.”
“No, not one of those,” I said, flustered. I could feel my cheeks starting to burn. “He’s just … it’s more professional than anything else. Never mind. I’ll just grab my stuff.” Feeling like an idiot, I went to get my things and then sat down in the seat next to him, so I could still keep an eye on the door.
“I’m Ike, by the way,” he said. “Ike Krane.”
“Charlie Kingsley,” I said.
“Nice to meet you, Charlie,” he replied. “I take it you live here.”
“Is it that obvious?”
He smiled, and his eyes crinkled again. “Well, I confess, your meeting someone here for some sort of ‘professional’ lunch was a big clue,” he said. “So, what is it you do?”
“I make teas and tinctures,” I said.
He looked surprised. “Oh. That’s interesting. So, you do consults, then? About the types of tea someone might want?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “I do make custom blends, depending on what a person is looking for. But I also have pre-blended teas that are very popular. Like my lemon and lavender and Deep Sleep teas. Nearly all my customers want those. Why, are you looking for something custom?”
“Honestly, I’ve never thought about having one made,” he said. “But maybe I should. I take it your lunch companion is looking for something custom, too.”
“Oh, Wyle? No, he’s not a huge tea drinker,” I smiled at the thought. While it was true Wyle would drink my tea when he came over to discuss cases, he was mostly interested in the cookies and other baked goods I always had on hand.
Ike’s expression was puzzled. “Oh. I just assumed, since you said it was a professional meeting.”
“Oh, that.” I was feeling flustered again. “No, I’m helping him with a case.”
His eyes widened. “A case? Like a private investigator type of case?”
“Sort of.” I was really uncomfortable now, especially since I could picture Wyle cringing at the words. He had mostly resigned himself to me helping on an unofficial basis, but he would hate people thinking it was anything sanctioned. Not because he cared about who got credit, but because he didn’t want me to either inadvertently mess up the case or become a target. “He’s a cop. I sometimes help him with his cases.”
“Oh, so you’re the private investigator.”
I shook my head. “It’s nothing like that. Strictly amateur, I assure you.”
“Ah.” He cocked his head as he studied me. “You must be pretty good, then.”
“It’s a gift,” I admitted, smiling.
“Maybe I need to work with you,” Ike said.
“Why, are you in some sort of legal trouble?”
A cloud seemed to pass over his face, but almost as quickly, it disappeared, leaving me to wonder if I had imagined it. “Actually, I was thinking more about combining forces. I’m an investigator, too.”
“Really? You’re a private investigator?”
“In a way, I suppose. I investigate ghosts.”
“Ghosts?” It was my turn to give him a confused look. “People hire you to investigate hauntings?”
He smiled. “Sometimes. I used to do a lot more of that a few years back. Now, I focus mostly on investigating famous ghost hauntings around the country.”
“Well, that explains why you’re in Redemption, then.” All the way back to its founding in 1888, Redemption had a long history of being a strange and haunted town. All the adults disappeared that winter, leaving only the children. Since then, the town had been plagued by more than its share of mysterious disappearances, odd occurrences and, of course, murders.
“Yeah, Redemption has definitely been at the top of my list for some time. I’m excited to finally make it here.”
“You’ll definitely stay busy,” I assured him.
He did that eye-crinkling thing again. “Good. I like being busy.”
I glanced toward the door, wondering where Wyle was. Even though I was enjoying my conversation with Ike, I was also starting to feel a little uneasy. Especially with the way he was looking at me. It had been a while since a man openly flirted with me. Whatever the apparent connection between Wyle and I was didn’t count. Honestly, I wasn’t at all sure what to do with it, anyhow. “So, once you investigate these famous places, then what?”
He let out a laugh. “Oh, I guess I forgot that part. I’m a writer.”
“Really?” Now I was definitely uneasy, but for a very different reason. “For a publication?”
“If you define books as publications, then yes,” he said as he sipped his beer. “I have a series where I write about haunted places in America. I go investigate different places and document my findings.”
“So, you’re going to write about Redemption?”
“That’s the plan. My next book is about famous hauntings in the Midwest so, of course, Redemption is near the top of the list.”
I nodded, still feeling bothered. I had a bad feeling about where this was going. “Focusing on any places in particular?”
His face lit up as he started pawing through the papers on the table. “Yes. There are a few local legends I want to track down … one is called ‘Fire Cabin.’” He glanced up at me. “Have you heard of it?”
“I have,” I said. I decided I didn’t need to mention my last case, where five friends went into the woods looking for Fire Cabin, but only four returned.
“That one, for sure,” he said, turning his attention back to his notes. “There’s also a local bar that burned down. Lone Man Standing, I think it was called?”
“Yes, I’m familiar with that bar,” I said, also deciding not to mention that I had a memorable run-in with Red, the owner, before he disappeared. Everyone assumed he died in the fire. I wasn’t so sure.
“I know it’s gone now, but I was thinking the area around it might still be haunted,” he said. “While fire is good at destroying things, depending on what exactly is haunted, or if there’s anything left, there still might be something there.”
“It’s definitely worth checking out,” I said, the knot in my stomach becoming tighter. I was dreading what else he would mention.
“Oh, and the haunted houses, of course,” he added. “There are quite a few of them, which of course makes sense in such a haunted town. The one at the top of my list is Helen Blackstone’s. I definitely MUST check out her house.”
And there it was. My house. And the absolute last thing I wanted was for it to be written up in any book.
I cleared my throat. “Actually, Helen Blackstone doesn’t own that house anymore.”
His eyebrows went up. “Oh?”
“Yes, she sold it.”
His brow furrowed. “That isn’t in my notes.” He started shuffling through his papers. “How do you know?”
“Because I’m the one who bought it,” I confessed.
Now I had his full attention. He sat up straight and stared at me. “You? You own Helen Blackstone’s house?”
He beamed at me. “Oh, this is my lucky day! I guess it was a good thing I spilled my beer.”
I smiled back, but it was forced. “Good thing,” I repeated, although inside, I was wondering if it was less about luck and more about Redemption deciding to put us together. Along with all the other strange happenings, many of the local townspeople were convinced that Redemption itself decided who stayed and who didn’t. I personally didn’t believe it, but on the other hand, I couldn’t account for all the odd coincidences that had to align for me to end up a permanent resident.
Ike was so excited, he didn’t notice my less-than-enthused response. “I can’t believe the sale wasn’t in my records. When did that happen?”
“About three years ago,” I said.
He fumbled through his belongings until he located a pen. He pulled the cap off with his teeth and started to jot down a few notes. “Were you already living here then?”
“No, I was passing through.”
He wasn’t looking at me, still busily writing things down. “Where are you from?”
He stopped writing and looked at me. “Really? That’s where I’m from. Where in New York?”
“Manhattan,” I said.
“Oh, the city,” he said. “I’m from a little town outside of there.”
“Where?” I asked. “We did a lot of traveling around New York when I was a kid, so I might recognize it.”
Now it was Ike’s turn to make a face. “It’s pretty small. You wouldn’t know it.”
He definitely had my attention. “Try me.”
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Sleepy Hollow.”
My eyes went wide. “Really? Talk about a haunted city. Is living there what got you interested in ghost hunting?”
“You could say that,” he said drily. “That and my parent’s sense of humor.”
I tilted my head. “What do you mean?”
He sighed. “My last name is Krane, although it’s spelled K-r-a-n-e.”
I looked at him in confusion for a moment, before it all made sense. “Ike? Is that short for Ichabod?”
He sighed again.
“Oh, wow.” I stared at him in amazement. “I know it’s a fictitious story, but is there an actual Ichabod Crane? And are you related to him?”
“As far as I know, it’s all a product of Isaac Washington’s imagination,” Ike said. “But regardless, our last names ARE spelled differently.”
“Right. Of course.”
He looked at me, one side of his mouth curled up. “You shouldn’t laugh. You have no idea what it’s like growing up as Ike Krane in Sleepy Hollow, New York.”
“I’m sure it was challenging,” I said, trying not to smirk.
“Yes, it was,” he affirmed. “And trust me, my folks were not much help.”
“That does seem a little brutal, to name your son after a fictional character who disappeared after a run-in with the Headless Horseman,” I said. “Weren’t they afraid to tempt fate?”
“Along with having a warped sense of humor, they are also firm nonbelievers in ghosts, hauntings, and anything else paranormal,” he said. “I think naming me Ike was another way to spit in the eye of Sleepy Hollow’s ghostly reputation.” He waggled his eyebrows.
I laughed. “They must be so proud of your career.”
He snorted. “Yes, my becoming a ghost hunter was MY way to spit in their skeptical eye.” His expression turned more serious. “Quite honestly, I’m not a huge believer in ghosts, either.”
I shot him a curious look. “A ghost hunter who doesn’t believe?”
He shrugged. “I know. It sounds weird. But I do think it’s helped me more than not. I come into each situation expecting to debunk the ghosts and hauntings.”
“And do you?”
He sipped his beer. “For the most part, yes.”
“The most part? So there are times you haven’t?”
“I would say there have been times when the results haven’t been conclusive.”
“But that’s not enough to convince you that ghosts exist?”
“I said the results were inconclusive, which means they weren’t conclusive either way. That ghosts exist or don’t exist.”
“Of course,” I said, nodding.
He sat back and studied me. “Although I don’t know why I’m trying to convince you. You not only live in Redemption, but in a notoriously haunted house. I mean, yours isn’t just any haunted house … it’s the most haunted in Redemption. You’re probably a big believer, I’m guessing.”
“Well …” I started.
His expression was shocked. “You don’t believe?”
“I think the truth is more complicated,” I said. “While it’s true I’ve had some strange … encounters in that house, I also think that the way ghosts reveal themselves is a little different from what most ghost stories lead us to believe.”
My house was built back in the early 1900s by a rich man to impress his new bride, Martha. It didn’t go very well, as she ended up killing her maid and then herself. It’s her ghost who still allegedly haunts my house to this day. Then again, it could also be Nellie, the maid who was purportedly having an affair with Martha’s husband. I supposed who the ghost is, or even if it were both of them, didn’t really matter. The bottom line is that the townspeople continued to consider it one of the most haunted places in Redemption.
My personal dealings with the ghosts were pretty minimal—a few unexplainable occurrences and some peculiar dreams. For the most part, the ghost (or ghosts) left me alone, and I left them alone. It seemed to work out just fine for all of us.
Ike, however, seemed puzzled by my response. “What do you mean? How did the ghosts show themselves to you?”
I paused, contemplating how to explain it. “More subtly, I guess,” I said. “It’s less in your face, so to speak, like what you see in the movies. It’s more about a … a feeling. Or a different way of communicating, through dreams or the way certain events line up. I personally haven’t seen anything, although I suppose it’s possible that some people are more … sensitive, maybe? And again, I think a lot of times, if there is something haunting a place, it reveals itself in more subtle ways than jumping out from behind a corner and yelling ‘boo.’”
“Well, I will say, in my professional opinion, ghosts rarely say ‘boo.’” Ike said gravely. “Still, you make a good point. That could also mean there are more haunted places than we even know of, simply because we don’t know what to look for.”
“That’s possible,” I agreed. “I hadn’t thought about it like that.” From the corner of my eye, I saw the door to the bar swing open and Wyle step through. “Oh. I have to go,” I said, gathering my things.
Ike glanced over to the front of the bar. “So that’s your lunch date,” he said.
“It’s not a date,” I insisted as I got to my feet.
“Of course not,” Ike replied as I looked over toward Wyle. He was staring at us, a scowl on his face. I could feel my heart sink.
“I have to go,” I repeated. “I hope you’ll be able to get your investigating done.”
“Oh, I will,” Ike said, flashing a smile at me. “And don’t worry … I’ll be in touch. The most haunted house of Redemption is definitely getting special treatment from me.”
Great. That was all I needed.
I didn’t even respond as I made my way over to a very unhappy-looking Wyle. This was going to be an awesome lunch.