At first, she thought the pounding was in her head. It matched the throbbing rhythm of her headache. Chris groaned and turned over, trying to burrow into the couch cushions and willing it all to stop.
But the pounding only became more insistent, and Chris realized sleepily that it was coming from the front door. She sat up and listened, wondering what on earth those ghosts were up to. She also wondered what she was doing on the living room couch. She only vaguely recollected falling asleep there. Her cat got up from the opposite end and came over to head-butt her chest, letting her know it was breakfast time.
The pounding stopped, and Chris breathed a sigh of relief. Then the doorbell rang. And rang. And rang again. “Who in the . . .” Chris muttered, not having the energy to finish the question. She pushed the cat off her lap and pushed herself off of the couch, then padded barefoot toward the entryway, doing her best to smooth her messy hair and her rumpled clothes as she went.
She found Ron and Joe standing at the foot of the stairs, staring anxiously at the door. Buster circled near their feet, barking his little head off. Their expressions as they turned to look at her made her stomach turn over.
“It’s Derek Brandt,” Ron said before she could even ask. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Chris stared at her sister as her words, and their full meaning, slowly penetrated her hangover haze. “Ronnie, tell me you didn’t.”
“I swear, I had no idea he’d do this.”
“I can’t believe you! How could you—” The doorbell rang again, cutting her off. Buster let loose another salvo of barks. “In a minute!” she snapped. Then to Joe, “Can you please hush him up?” Joe grabbed the dog and tried to oblige, but Buster only wriggled and kept barking. Chris sighed. None of this was doing anything to help her headache.
With another glare at Ron, she moved past the ghostly trio and went to answer the door. She peered out the window before opening it. Brandt stood there, rocking on his heels, looking ready to pounce. He also look scared. What exactly had Ron done to him? She wished she had time to ask.
Glancing down at her wrinkled clothes, she briefly considered checking the hall mirror to see if she had pillow creases on her face, but it wasn’t like she could do anything about it if she did. She took a deep breath, braced herself, and opened the door.
“Mr. Brandt,” she began, but before she could finish, he barged past her into the foyer. “Come on in,” she finished, adding a touch of sarcasm. Buster went berserk. Totally unbeknownst to Brandt, the dog leapt from Joe’s arms and started running circles around him, yapping the entire time.
“How did you do it?” he asked.
She let her confusion surface on her face. It wasn’t hard. She had to strain to hear over the dog. “Do what?”
“You know what. Just tell me how you did it. There weren’t any wires. You couldn’t’ve broken in. Was it hypnotism? That’s it, isn’t it?”
Chris closed the door and rubbed her temples. “Okay, first of all, you’re going to have to back up and tell me what the heck you’re even talking about. And secondly, how do you even know where I live?”
“I’m an investigative reporter and you’re not exactly off the grid. And don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“Okay, I won’t,” she said, trying to hear herself over Buster’s yapping. “But I‘m telling ya, this is going to be a one-sided conversation unless you start explaining.”
“Why are you shouting?” he asked.
“Why are you shouting?”
“I’m not. Believe me, I want to, but I think I’m doing a pretty good job of keeping my tone civil under the circumstances.”
Chris had to give him that. She looked over at Ron and Joe and jerked her head toward Buster. Joe got the hint and scooped up the dog. “I’ll just take him upstairs,” he said, and the two of them disappeared, leaving Ron behind.
Finally, blessed silence. Chris let out a sigh of relief.
Brandt also sighed, but his came out more as exasperation. He looked really tired as he looked around the foyer. For a hair of a second, Chris almost took pity on him. Until he asked, “Is there somewhere we can sit down?”
“Oh, sure. Would you also like me to get you some coffee and cook you breakfast while you grill me?” He just stared blankly, as if he wasn’t sure whether that was a sincere offer. “No!” she clarified. “You humiliated me, and then you woke me up at an ungodly hour and barged into my house to tell me off for I don’t even know what! You don’t get to be comfortable while doing it!”
“You’re yelling again,” he said.
“That’s right! I am! This is my house and I’m very tired and confused and I have a headache and I can yell if I want to!”
It wasn’t her most mature moment, but at least it seemed to knock some of the self-righteousness out of him. He slumped and actually looked a little bit shamefaced. But only a little, and not nearly enough for her liking.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” he said. “I was just—if you did it, I have to know, and I have to know how.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but then stopped and looked embarrassed. Finally, he blew out another sigh, and said, “My coffee mug flew around my kitchen. By itself. And then it smashed on the floor.”
Chris’s eyebrows lifted by a fraction, and she looked past him at Ron, who said, “It wasn’t me!” Chris narrowed her eyes and turned her gaze back on Brandt. “Okay. And you think I’m somehow responsible for this?”
“Yeah, I do.”
She snorted. “Typical.”
Brandt narrowed his eyes and appeared to study her. He shook a finger at her face. “There’s that look again.”
“That look like you know me and we’ve done this sort of thing before.”
“Well, duh.” She waited for him to react, to show some recognition, but when all he did was stare blankly at her, she threw up her hands in disbelief. “You actually don’t remember me, do you?”
He looked confused. “Should I?”
“Apparently not.” She tucked her hands under her arms. “So then, let me get this straight. Something you can’t explain happens in your kitchen and you just automatically assume that I’m somehow responsible because, why, exactly?”
“Oh, come on. I do a story exposing a psychic—”
“I’m not a psychic. I’ve never claimed to be.”
“Or whatever you call yourself and then suddenly, I’ve got dancing drinkware in my kitchen. How can that be a coincidence?”
Chris couldn’t argue with that, especially since she knew it wasn’t a coincidence. Again, she cast a glare at Ron, who again said, “It wasn’t me. It was his brother.” She glanced at Brandt, then back at Chris. “The kid’s been stuck there, unable to get through to him for years. You need to tell him.”
Chris felt her eyes widen. Oh sure, let’s tell the angry, unreasonable man that his long-dead brother is responsible for the spooky shenanigans. That’ll go over real well.
She didn’t know whether it was her protracted silence or the look on her face that made Brandt re-think his theory, but suddenly, he shook his head and said, “I don’t know. Maybe it really is a coincidence. Maybe I’m being an idiot.”
“Maybe,” Chris allowed.
“I’m sorry,” he said, holding out a placating hand. “I shouldn’t have come here. I should leave.” He started back toward the door, and Chris stepped out of his way.
“No!” said Ron, rushing to Chris’s side. “I promised Jimmy you’d help. Chris, you have to tell him!”
Chris wanted nothing more than to ignore her sister and let Derek Brandt go home and lick his wounds. Actually, what she wanted more was to unleash all of her wrath on Ron right then and there. But the man deserved to know the truth, and she couldn’t in good conscience let him go without being told. Whether he listened or not was none of her concern.
She lifted her eyes to the ceiling, heaved a defeated sigh, then followed him out to the porch. “You’re right,” she said. He stopped on the steps and turned to look up at her. “It wasn’t a coincidence.”
His face drew tight, and he put his hands in his pockets. “So how’d you do it?”
“I didn’t. It was—” She’d started to say it was her sister’s ghost, but she realized at the last minute that that wasn’t likely to go over with him any better than the truth. Might as well be straight. “It was your brother.”
He looked at her like she’d physically slapped him, and she immediately regretted her decision.
“Wow,” he said. “You actually went there.”
Ron appeared next to Chris. “Jimmy’s been with him this whole time. He wants Derek to know what happened wasn’t his fault. That given a choice, Jimmy would do it all over again to protect him.”
Chris repeated Ron’s words. Brandt’s face grew stonier and stonier as she did. When she was done, he pulled his hands out of his pockets and actually slow-clapped.
“Impressive,” he said. “You know it was in all the papers when that happened, right? I mean, of course you do, because that’s how you know about my brother’s murder.” He shook his head in amazement. “I gotta hand it to you, I didn’t think you’d actually stoop so low as to exploit something like that. Thanks, though. I’m gonna sleep a lot better after this.”
He turned to go, but on the bottom step, he turned back and pointed up at Chris. “By the way, stay away from me, and stay away from my house,” he said, then continued down the walk and climbed into a green Mustang parked out front.
Chris hugged herself as she watched him drive away. “At least you told him,” Ron said. Chris gave her a look as stony as the one Brandt had given her, then turned and went inside. Ron followed. “Sis?” she asked, but Chris did her best to tune her out as she made her way to the kitchen. “Chris, talk to me.”
Ignoring her, Chris put on a pot of coffee, then took a glass out of the cupboard and filled it at the kitchen sink. She swallowed two ibuprofen tablets out of the bottle she kept on top of the refrigerator, then grabbed a clean mug out of the dishwasher. She paused on her way to the coffee maker and held the mug out to Ron, finally acknowledging her sister. “Would you like to demonstrate what you did to that man?”
Ron came over to her side of the kitchen. “I told you, it wasn’t me. Jimmy’s the one who put on the display with the mug.”
“Yeah, but who gave him the idea? Or for that matter, the ability? You said he’s been stuck there for years. Did he even know how to make objects move before you showed up?”
“No,” Ron admitted. “But isn’t it a good thing that now he can make his presence known?”
“What, so Derek Brandt can keep thinking I’m somehow behind it? He’s just going to keep accusing me. What if he sues me, Ron?”
“Then sue him back! For slander, or libel, or whatever it is when it happens on TV.”
“I don’t want to sue anybody,” said Chris. “And I don’t want to be sued. I just want to get on with my life. But you’ve made that impossible. Thanks, sis. Thanks a lot. Why couldn’t you just do what I told you?”
Ron’s eyebrows almost disappeared into her hairline. “What you told me? Since when are you the boss of me?”
“I’m the boss of my life, Ronnie! Don’t you get that? It’s my life you messed with. Just because you lost yours doesn’t give you the right to take mine over!”
The look on Ron’s face instantly made Chris regret her words. She’d never looked so hurt—at least, not because of Chris. Still, she was too angry to take them back, even if she could.
Ron folded her arms and stared at a spot on the tile. “Is that really what you think?”
Chris closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I think it’s very early, and I have a headache, and what I need now is coffee and time to figure this out.” When she opened her eyes again, Ron hadn’t moved. Chris sighed. “I know you thought you were standing up for me. But I don’t need you to do that anymore.”
“I know,” she said softly. Then, so softly it was barely audible, “I’m sorry.”
“What was that?”
Ron slumped and dropped her arms to her sides. “I said I’m sorry. You and Joe both told me not to go, and I was too stubborn to listen. And now, I’ve dragged you into this thing. I know it wasn’t fair, and I am sorry, Chrissy, really.”
Chris nodded. “Thanks,” she said, and poured some coffee. As she sat down with it at the kitchen table, Ron pulled out the chair to her right and sat down.
“But you have to help him.”
She held up her hands in a gesture that said, “Hear me out.” Chris shook her head and blew on her coffee. Ron forged ahead anyway. “Jimmy’s just a kid, no more than sixteen or seventeen. He died protecting Derek from something—I don’t know what. I didn’t have time to get all the details. All these years, he’s been hanging around, wishing he could tell his brother to stop blaming himself.”
“I already passed on that message,” Chris reminded her. “You were there. You saw how the guy took it.”
“I know,” said Ron, “but you have to get him to listen, Chris.”
She let loose a laugh. “How?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we should go over there and you could talk to Jimmy. Maybe he can tell you the whole story and give you some insight that’ll help you get through to Derek.”
“Go over there? Are you insane? Didn’t you hear what he told me?”
“Yeah.” Ron waved a hand like that was a minor inconvenience that she could swat away like a gnat. “But we know he’s not home right now, don’t we? If we go now—”
“Now? You are nuts. How do you know that’s not where he’s headed?”
Ron looked down at her hands. “We scared him pretty badly. I kinda doubt he’s in a hurry to go back there any time soon. Besides,” she said, perking up, “we know what he drives. If we get there and see his car in the driveway, we can just keep on driving and come back home.”
“And what if he comes home while I’m there? What will I tell him as he’s calling the police?”
“I can keep watch while you talk to Jimmy. I’ll warn you in plenty of time to clear out before he gets there.”
Chris propped her elbows on the table and buried her face in her hands. “I must be the insane one. Why am I letting you talk me into this?”
“Because you’re a superhero,” she said. “And you’re about the only one people like Jimmy have.”
Chris rolled her eyes at the flattery, then leveled a gaze at Ron. “Why do you care so much about what happens to this kid? You just met him.”
Ron sat back and shrugged, and Chris wasn’t sure whether that shrug said she hadn’t really thought about it, or that it should be obvious. She clarified by saying, “I know what it’s like to be trapped and helpless. I only had to endure it for a matter of days. Imagine spending years like that.” She shook her head. “We can’t let this go on. Not if we can end it for him.”
Chris straightened in her chair and took a big drink of her coffee. She closed her eyes as it warmed her and made her just a tiny fraction more able to deal. “Fine,” she said, opening them to look at Ron. “Let me finish this, then I’ll go get dressed.”
Ron grinned big, but stopped short of squealing. “I’ll go tell Joe,” she said, getting up. Then she stooped and planted a peck on Chris’s cheek. It felt more like someone blew on her there, and it gave her goosebumps. She didn’t think she’d ever get used to that. “Thanks, sis,” Ron said, before disappearing from view.
“Sure, no problem.” Chris stared into her coffee and pondered her million reservations. “What could possibly go wrong?”
Derek pulled into the parking lot behind Tally’s Cafe. He spotted the SUV belonging to his Uncle Jim, and smiled. Predictable, as always. His stomach grumbled as he turned into an empty parking spot. He still hadn’t eaten breakfast and he was starving, but that was only one of the reasons he’d headed to the diner. Still too shaken up to return home, he also wanted some company.
He killed the car’s engine—and the radio along with it—and then sat there a moment, fiddling with the keys. He’d blared the car stereo all the way there from the Wilson woman’s house, trying to drown out his thoughts. Still, he hadn’t been able to silence a tiny voice at the back of his mind that kept asking, What if she’s telling the truth?
Now, in the silence of the parked car, the voice became louder and more insistent. Derek knew the voice—that of a scared thirteen-year-old boy who wanted nothing more than to see his big brother again—and he knew better than to indulge it. He’d made that mistake once, and he wouldn’t get suckered like that again.
Jimmy was gone, dead and buried long ago. He wasn’t sending any messages from beyond the grave. That much had already been proven, and to even allow the possibility was to open a doorway to hope that would only end in disappointment and grief.
And in his twenty-eight years, he’d already had more than his fair share of those things.
Derek got out of the car, pocketed his keys, and made his way down the sidewalk to the diner’s main entrance. The place was a shrine to the 1950s and Route 66, with a black-and-white checkerboard floor and sparkly red vinyl covering all of the stools and booths. Buddy Holly sang about Peggy Sue over the restaurant’s speakers, and photos of Elvis and Marilyn adorned the walls.
Derek spotted Jim at the large, circular counter that took up the middle of the main dining room and seated himself on the stool next to him. Jim was reading a folded up newspaper—the sports section, no doubt—as he absently worked on a plate of bacon, eggs, and hash browns, taking no notice of Derek.
“How goes the world of sports?” Derek asked. The older man glanced at him, then let out a chuckle as he laid the paper down.
“Well, look who’s here to have breakfast with his Uncle Jim.” He clapped Derek on the back. “What brings you here, boy?”
“The French toast,” he said, and then repeated it to the waitress who hurried over with a menu. The diner’s nostalgic approach apparently ended at the uniforms, which consisted of jeans and red t-shirts sporting the diner’s logo. “And coffee,” he added. “Oh, and a side of scrambled eggs.”
The waitress nodded as she jotted down his order, then bustled away. She came back with an empty cup and saucer in one hand and a pot of coffee in the other, set the first down and filled it with the second, then she was gone again, a picture of efficiency.
“It’s been a while,” said Jim. “What’ve you been doing with yourself?”
“Oh, you know,” Derek said. “Work, mostly.”
Jim nodded. “I saw your segment last night.”
“Yeah.” Derek stared down into his coffee. “That one’s not exactly gonna win any awards for hard-hitting journalism.”
“Maybe not,” Jim conceded, “but at least you did that widow a favor. That psychic was sure a piece of work, huh?”
“That’s one way to put it,” Derek said as her voice rang in his head: I’m not a psychic. I’ve never claimed to be. “You know, she actually had the nerve to tell me she had a message from Jimmy?”
“You’re kidding me! What did the greedy little vulture hope to get out of you with that one?”
“I don’t know. And I don’t know that she’s greedy—it turns out she doesn’t charge for what she does. I don’t know what her angle is. Just trying to get back at me for the story, I guess.”
Jim snorted. “Sounds to me like she had it coming.” He shook his head and scooped a small pile of hash browns into his mouth. Once he finished chewing, he added, “It almost makes me glad your dad’s not still around to see this sort of thing.”
Derek didn’t say anything to that. He couldn’t agree. Selfishly, he’d rather have his dad there, sharing this burden and telling Derek what to do about it, instead of planted in the ground next to Jimmy, dead too young of a heart attack brought on by the grief of losing his oldest son and unhealthy methods of coping with said grief.
Jim wasn’t Derek’s true uncle, but he had loved Derek’s dad like a brother and had been the next best thing to a father to Derek ever since his dad’s passing.
“Anyway,” Derek said, “I thought I’d come and load up on some carbs before I go for a run and get it out of my system.” As if on cue, the waitress appeared with a big plate of French toast and eggs. The golden slices of bread were already covered in powdered sugar, but Derek poured an obscene amount of syrup over them and then dug in. At the first bite, he sat back and closed his eyes. Heaven.
After they’d both spent a few minutes attacking their meals, Jim asked, “So, did this psychic say what Jimmy supposedly wanted to tell you?”
Derek washed a bite of eggs down with some coffee and wiped his mouth. “She said he wanted to tell me that it wasn’t my fault, and that he’d do it all over again.”
Jim frowned and stared down at his plate. “Well, that’s true enough, I s’pose. You gotta admit, that sure sounds like your brother.”
“Yeah,” Derek admitted, but shook his head. “That’s what these con artists do, though. They wouldn’t be so successful if they weren’t so good at being believable.”
“Well, either way, what’s done is done,” said Jim. “Can’t go back, can’t live in the past. You’ve got a good thing going, Derek. At your age, you should be focused on your career, not ancient history. That, and maybe finding a nice girl to settle down with.”
“You’re right. About the career part, at any rate.”
“Darn straight, I’m right. I raised an NFL player, didn’t I? You just ask my boy if I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Derek grinned. “How is Steve?”
“Oh, you know. Busy running that company of his. Speaking of someone who needs to find a nice girl to settle down with.” Jim shook his head as he stood up to dig out his wallet. “I’m an old man. When am I gonna get some grandkids to spoil?” He picked up Derek’s ticket and laid it on top of his own, then laid a twenty on top of the stack.
“What are you doing?” Derek asked, reaching for his ticket. He got his hand slapped for the trouble.
“Oh no you don’t, Mr. Big Shot Reporter. You let your Uncle Jim buy you breakfast. Makes me feel like I can still be useful.”
“Jim, you’re retired, not an invalid.”
“All the more reason to let me treat you. I’m a retired widower with a rich son and no grandkids to spend my money on.” He shoved his wallet back in his pocket. “Just let me have this, boy.”
Derek found himself grinning. “All right. Just this once.”
Jim nodded and sat back down. “Speaking of your brother, are you still digging into his case?”
Derek’s grin faded abruptly. “What happened to leaving the past in the past?”
“Cut the crap. We both know he’s the reason you got into crime reporting. So, any progress?”
“No more than usual. Just the same old dead ends.”
Jim’s mouth tightened into a grim line, but then he nodded. “Probably just as well.”
“Just as well that Jimmy doesn’t get justice?”
“Just as well that you’re not the one to bring it. You should leave that to the police.”
They paused as the waitress came to collect the check. Jim told her to keep the change but passed on a coffee refill. Derek, feeling every minute of the hours of sleep he’d missed, accepted one gratefully. After she left them alone, he said, “The police quit trying years ago.”
“They didn’t quit. They just haven’t had anything to go on. I’m sure if something new comes up, they’ll chase it down.”
“Yeah,” Derek said, but even to his own ears he didn’t sound convinced. He raised the fresh cup of coffee to his lips and paused. “Too bad Christine Wilson’s not the real deal. If there were such things as psychics, that might actually be helpful.”
“Now don’t you start down that road.”
“I’m kidding.” Mostly.
“Well.” Jim looked at his watch. “I hate to leave on that note, but I’m supposed to meet up with Steve for some golf. I’d best get going. You want to come? Steve’d be glad to have you join us.”
“Thanks, but no. I need to go run off this food, and I need to get to work planning next week’s segment.” And figuring out how Christine Wilson knows me.
“All right, then. I’ll tell him you said hello.” He clapped Derek on the shoulder. “It was good to see you. Come around more often, my boy. We should do this again.”
Derek smiled. “Next time, it’s on me.”
Jim returned his smile and squeezed his shoulder before heading for the exit. Derek watched him go, then turned back to his coffee. He sat there and nursed it a while, not in a big hurry to go back home. Maybe he should’ve taken Jim up on his invitation. He’d hoped talking to his surrogate uncle would make him feel better about things, but he didn’t.
It always came back to Jimmy.
He wished he could put it all behind him, but he couldn’t. What kind of brother would he be then? What kind of son? Those men who murdered Jimmy—almost murdered Derek himself—hadn’t only taken his brother. They’d torn his family apart. His dad was gone, his mother gone to Florida . . . she had no trouble putting it all behind her. Not that Derek could really blame her for seeking a fresh start.
Again, that voice piped up, asking, What if? If Christine were on the level, it could be a big help in tracking down Jimmy’s killers. If there really and truly was a way to talk to Jimmy, it could be just the thing to crack the case and bring the people who’d destroyed his family to justice. Then Derek could finally close this chapter in his life once and for all.
It was too bad none of that was actually possible. No more so than that some ghost or poltergeist—certainly not the ghost of his big brother—had made his coffee mug levitate that morning in his kitchen.
If it’s so impossible, then what are you still doing here?
Feeling resolute, Derek drained his cup, then got up and headed out of the diner, fishing his keys out of his pocket as he went.