1. Bakersfield, California. Tuesday, December 8, 10:30 AM PST.

Army brat Christina Fuentes had one night in her own bed between the beginning of her winter break at UCLA and the beginning of her foray into reality television. She slept until ten in the morning, a glorious luxury compared to her hectic pre-med course of study with an emphasis on psychiatry. The reality show played into her academic interests , because Christina didn't want to become just a run-of-the-mill psychiatrist.

She wanted to become a parapsychiatrist.

At ten-thirty she sat in the kitchen sipping coffee while her mother, Edie cooked her a traditional American breakfast needlessly laden with cholesterol, consisting of bacon and eggs. "Just one egg, Mom," she said, "and two slices of bacon."

"You can't get by on just that," her mother complained.

"I'll have some orange juice, too, and some fruit and yogurt."

"You call me if either of these boys you're running around with gets fresh," Emilio, her father, told her. "I'm afraid they may have asked you to join their group more for your looks than for your interest in their project." He'd been a US citizen since he was twenty-two, but he still carried a trace of the Mexican accent of his youth. Edie was a perky, chunky redhead, born and raised in the Midwest. Christina favored her father's looks, with dark features and brown hair, tall and lean, more ethnically Spaniard than Mexican.

"I think Meeder and Garret are both terrified of women," Christina tried to reassure him. "Plus, Helen won't tolerate any monkey business. She's taking this very seriously. We all are."

Her mother set down a plate with three eggs and six slices of bacon. Edie thought Christina ought to put on a few pounds. Christina thought she looked fine and invested a lot of energy maintaining her appearance. "Mom, I'm only eating one egg."

Edie began washing the skillet she'd just finished cooking with. "Eat what you want," she told her daughter kindly. "The dog can have the rest."

"I'm worried that you kids aren't taking this seriously at all," Emilio said, watching Christina eat.

"We're not kids. We're all adults," she said in between bites of egg.

"You're not even old enough to drink a beer."

"Not legally," Christina pointed out with a grin.

"Yes, yes. I may be old-fashioned, but I'm not naïve enough to suppose a college girl has never had a drink or two. Nevertheless, you are a college girl, and I'm not satisfied that you've thought about this as seriously as you ought."

"Daddy, I know about what happened to you. What if my…" She searched for the right word. Her father would have bristled at the word gift. He'd prefer the word curse, but Christina didn't believe in curses. Her father was indeed old-fashioned, just as he'd conceded. Superstitious, even. "What if my ability can prevent the sort of tragedy that occurred at Fort Chaffee? What if I can help tormented spirits move on rather than linger and cause harm to the living?"

"What if you get yourself killed through your foolhardiness?"

"Please…" Edie said. "Emilio. Christina. Don't bicker on our last day together until January."

Christina ignored her mother. Impassioned by her father's lack of faith in the intrinsic goodness of the universe, she said, "God had to have some purpose in mind when He gave me this ability."

Emilio stared at Christina with hard eyes before saying softly, "Maybe the power you possess comes from some source other than God."

"Oh, Emilio," Edie pouted.

"What, you think I'm possessed by the devil? Oh, please, Daddy."

"Not possessed; but maybe…led astray, down a path that could lead to your destruction."

"Colonel Oglethorpe thinks that participating in the reality show is a great idea. He thinks it'll be another feather in my cap to separate me from the other candidates for parapsychology positions with the government."

"Oglethorpe is not a good Catholic," Emilio said flatly. "I don't believe he is actually any kind of Christian at all. I don't believe he is a person you ought to be consulting for career advice."

"Father Lopez has given me his blessing," Christina said, insistent.

"Yes, I know," Emilio replied. "And I have told him just how much I think his blessing is worth in this matter. You are my daughter. He should be encouraging your obedience to your father rather than encouraging these adventures into realms you do not understand."

"Father Lopez told me to contact him immediately if I sensed or even suspected any physical danger. He said he can put me in touch with a Vatican-approved exorcist in thirty-seven different states."

"Ah, yes. The five-gallon jug of cure rather than the four ounce bottle of prevention. A brilliant choice for the aspiring doctor." Emilio's tone had grown more acidic, his accent more pronounced.

"Father Lopez said that the exorcists would—"

Emilio slammed a fist down on the table, rattling all the dishes and silverware on it. Christina flinched back from him.

"I saw an evil spirit throw a Roman Catholic exorcist against a concrete wall at Fort Chaffee, so that his skull shattered like so much pottery! So do not tell me how safe you will be if you incur the wrath of a spirit and then call for an exorcist!"

His anger and intensity frightened her. Normally he was a calm, dignified, soft-spoken man. She'd never seen him like this before, mainly because he was a tolerant man who was content to let Christina make mistakes and support her while she took responsibility for them. And for her part, Christina had always been a smart, mature girl who learned from her parents' example to avoid situations that might put her at unnecessary risk, either physically or emotionally. Up until this subject of the reality show, she and her father had never disagreed to dramatically over any of her choices.

"You never told me there was an exorcist there," she said softly, a little intimidated.

"I'm not supposed ot discuss details. You've upset me so much, I've said more than I should have." He calmed down some, regaining control of his temper.

"What harm would it do to tell me about it?" Christina asked. "I wouldn't repeat anything."

"When you promise your country to keep a secret, you keep that promise."

Christina could tell that was all she'd get out of him on the subject. The only thing left to say was, "It's too late for me to back out."

"I want you to call us every night after you finish your…investigations."

"Oh, Daddy. It'll be the crack of dawn. Most of our work will be in the dead of night."

"I don't care," Emilio said. "I want you to call each night when you're finished, even if it's two or four or six in the morning."

"You can call us, can't you, sweetie?" her mother asked.

Christina rolled her eyes. It was like a long-distance curfew. Call if you're going to be late. "How about a text message? Like, 'All done, everything's OK'?"

"No," Emilio said flatly. "A phone call. I want to hear your voice and I want you to tell me what happens each night."

"Please, Chrissy," Edie said. "We'll worry if you don't talk to us every day."

"We will worry, regardless," Emilio said.

"Okay. If I promise to call every day, can we stop arguing about it? I signed a contract. I'm obligated for the next month while we try to put a pilot episode together."

"If you promise to call every morning, we promised to support you," Edie said. She laid a hand on Emilio's shoulder. "Right, honey?"

"If you promise that, I will say nothing more against your involvement unless I have reason to believe you're in real danger."

"Haven't you seen any of these ghost shows on television?" Christina asked. "All they ever turn up is unintelligible Electronic Voice Phenomena or these ridiculous 'orbs' that are probably just weird light reflections, or else shadows hat can't be explained but don't really prove anything. Doors opening and closing, small objects moving. Really, it's just the most innocuous things that show up during these investigations."

"But you said your show would be different," Emilio reminded her.

"Chiefly because of Helen's and my psychic abilities," she said, feeling guilty for her lie of omission. "Meeder thinks the 'psychic discovery' angle will separate our show from all the others."

Nate Meeder's idea was to research various ghosts around the country, looking for obscure, little-known hauntings with local reputations for spectacular activity. He would keep his research to himself and leave Christina, Helen, and Darren—his three teammates—to uncover the stories behind the spirits using their own talents while he documented the investigations, giving prompts from his own research when needed. Helen believed she could help most spirits move on, so part of the show would involve—according to Meeder—updates on previously exorcised spirits.

Emilio finally smiled weakly, his first smile since Christina had shown up in the kitchen that morning. "Very well. You will call us every morning, and I will stop trying to talk you out of your decision to pursue this."

Christina beamed, happy to be done arguing. It was a done deal anyway. There was a contract. She could be sued if she backed out.

#

The Fuentes family avoided talking about the reality show for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. They shared an early Christmas gift exchange since filming the pilot was scheduled to last through the first week in January.

At two o'clock, her teammates arrived to whisk her away. Meeder's van's horn sounded, and Christina's mother and father went to window. She saw her father's jaw clench and his eyes narrow. Her mother's hand flew to her lips and her eyes widened.

Christina looked outside. Meeder's van had been treated to a new paintjob since the last time she'd seen it. It had been painted black, and enormous red lettering on the side read: World's Deadliest Ghosts.