With that out of the way, it’s time to spill the beans. I’m actually pretty trustworthy about keeping other people secrets. But when it’s my own, especially when it’s something I’m excited about, I’m terrible at it. I’ve been blabbing all over Instagram about my new pen name, and I just told all my mailing list subscribers, so I might as well open up about it here, too, because that chicken has flown the coop.
And I happen to have experience chasing chickens and getting them back in the coop. It’s not an experience I wish to repeat.
So that thing I’ve been being all secretive and cagey about the last couple of weeks here on the blog? I’ve started writing a clean Christian romance novel, and I’ve launched a new pen name for it. That new pen name is Jeanie Nicholson.
As I’ve alluded to, the reason I (badly) attempted secrecy is because I need to keep these brands separate so Amazon’s algorithms don’t get confused if my horror fans start buying my sweet Christian romance novels, or vice versa. That sort of thing can really mess up their recommendation ‘bot. Which is why, if Christian romance isn’t your usual thing, I’m asking you NOT to sign up for any of my lists or pages or buy this new book, just to be supportive. This will also help me more accurately track and identify my target demographic.
At any rate, if Christian romance IS your thing, you can learn more about it at these links:
This week has mostly been focused on building and launching a platform for my new pen name so I can start building hype for this new novel. That, and launching my new Dominion book. So I haven’t done any writing or editing this week. But now that that’s all pretty much done and things are set on autopilot, after a break this weekend (which will surely involve more pre-Halloween movie watching and candy snacking), I’ll get back to business as usual.
But for now, I’m kind of wiped and ready for the weekend. I hope you have a good one.
KU subscribers and Amazon Prime members rejoice! Or at least give each other a high five. All of my short indie fiction is now back home on KU. Grab them all here.
“But wait, Jean,” longtime readers might be thinking, “didn’t you just take them all out of KU at the start of this year?”
Yes. Yes I did. But now I’ve moved them back, for reasons. If you want to know those reasons, you can read all about them right here, along with what I eventually plan to do for the benefit of non-Kindle readers. The short version is that after a year-long experiment with global publishing, I feel like Amazon and KU is the best home for my short fiction, at least for the time being. Which means I plan to publish more shorter works there in the near future, so if you like shorter fiction, and especially if you happen to like MY shorter fiction, that’s a good thing! High fives all around!
“But I don’t have a Kindle / I’m not enrolled in KU!”
You don’t have to be left out — you can install the free Kindle app on your smartphone, tablet or PC and read Kindle books to your heart’s content (true fact: I gave my actual Kindle device to my husband because I like the smartphone app better). And if you’re not in KU, you can purchase these books at the regular retail price (or if you’re a Prime member you can borrow them from the Prime Lending Library). Also, like I mentioned in the other post linked up there, eventually I’ll collect all of my shorts into a paperback edition. More high fives!
Okay, confession: these treats are recycled. We’re in the middle of getting ready to move and I don’t have time to run to Target and pick up new bags of candy make new content. But these old treats are still yummy, I promise!
Here’s me last year doing a Halloween live reading of my short horror story, Snack Machine:
And here’s me narrating two creepy pieces of flash fiction:
These are all featured in my short story collection, Midnight Snacks. Click here to get your copy. It also includes my horror novella Eucha Falls, which is available as a free standalone wherever e-books are sold. And if you like those you’ll also like my creepy story about a witch’s ghost, Weather Witch. Get it here.
And finally, here’s a Halloween tip: If you’ve got more candy corn than you know what to do with, try mixing it into your popcorn. We tried this the other night and it was the perfect mix of sweet & salty — and I’m not even a fan of candy corn. But that was a big bag o’ deliciousness.
Happy Halloween, folks. I hope you’re enjoying it this year. As for me and mine, we’re going to take a break from packing and prepping to enjoy our favorite monster movies and candy. What Halloween traditions are you enjoying this year? Shout it out in the comments!
I’ve teamed up with a number of other authors on three different upcoming seasonal promotions, each of which are packed with e-book freebies. Whether you like paranormal romance, urban fantasy, dystopian, horror, thrillers or cozy romance, there should be something to your liking. This is a great way to discover new authors and get introduced to some fantastic book series!
Here are the details:
October 20th – November 10th – Otherworldly Romance – Choose from over two dozen free paranormal romance e-books and enter to win a $30 gift card!
October 26th – 28th – The Halloween Free Book Party – Giving away free e-books in the horror, thriller, dystopian and paranormal romance genres. You can also win other prizes and a $20 Amazon gift card!
If you haven’t read it, now’s your chance to get a free introduction to this trilogy, the second book of which is coming later this fall. And if you have read it? This is a perfect time to get your friends hooked on this series!
For the last few months, when I haven’t been drafting the sequel, I’ve been working on a revised edition of my vampires-in-a-zombie-apocalypse epic Dominion of the Damned. And for the last couple of weeks I’ve been posting it in serialized form on Wattpad. The first six chapters are available now, with a new chapter going up later today.
I’ll be re-releasing the new edition in e-book and paperback form, first in Kindle Unlimited for 90 days and then in wide release, once it’s all ready, all in the run-up to launching the sequel in time for Halloween(!). But if you don’t want to wait, or if you know someone you’d like to introduce to the ‘Verse of the Damned in a commitment-free way, check it out on Wattpad and tell all your friends!
Chris admired the spread laid out on the kitchen table. She didn’t know how Marsha felt about Italian food, but she didn’t really care. It looked delicious and smelled even better, and she couldn’t wait to dig in. She picked up a fork and reached for the baked ziti, the recipe courtesy of Derek’s aunt’s Sicilian mother-in-law, intending to shave a tiny sliver off one corner that nobody could possibly miss. Derek caught her and smacked her hand.
“Oh, come on! A taste.”
“You already had a taste when it came out of the oven.”
“One more, then. It’s so good.”
He grinned. “I’m glad you like my cooking, but you can wait until the guests get here. Why don’t you open the wine? It needs time to breathe.”
“Fine.” Chris tossed the unused fork in the sink and retrieved a bottle of pinot grigio from the fridge. “Have I mentioned that you’re a lifesaver?” She nudged the refrigerator door closed with her hip and opened the drawer next to it to fish out the cork screw. “Where did you learn to cook, anyway?”
“My mom, mostly. But I also did a couple of stints subbing for the morning show anchors and helped out on some cooking segments. You tend to pick up a few things.”
“I’ll say. You saved me from having to serve takeout. My cooking skills are pretty much limited to picking up a phone.”
“Oh, come on, that’s not true. I’ve seen you pour a mean bowl of cereal.” He winked and then jerked his chin toward the table. “Besides, you did a great job with the salad.”
“Yeah, I guess chopping vegetables isn’t too far outside my skill set.” She grimaced as she pushed down on the levers of the cork screw. The cork was being stubborn.
“Want me to get that for you?”
“No, thanks. I’ve got it.” She pushed harder. The cork started to give. At that moment, the doorbell rang. With an exasperated sigh, she handed the bottle and the cork screw over. “Here. Remember, I loosened it for you.” With a wink, she headed out of the kitchen.
“Yeah, yeah,” she heard behind her, followed by a distinct “pop!” as the cork came loose.
Chris hurried toward the front door but slowed her steps at the entryway. This wasn’t merely the first time her dad had been to her new place. It was also the first time she and Derek had entertained together as a couple. Between that and the mysterious announcement she was about to hear, she couldn’t help the nervous flutter in her gut. She paused to take a deep, calming breath before opening the door.
It opened barely a crack when an admittedly impressive diamond was jammed in her face. “We’re getting married!” Marsha shrieked, shoving the door open the rest of the way and pulling Chris into a vice-like hug, all the while hopping up and down on her designer heels.
Chris’s gaze found her dad as she patted Marsha’s back awkwardly and tried to muster up sounds of enthusiasm. Even through her shock, she couldn’t help but notice how happy he looked underneath his obvious embarrassment. “Gee, Marsha, don’t keep her in suspense.”
Marsha released Chris and stood back, grinning as she fanned her face and blinked back tears before they could ruin her mascara. “I know we said we’d tell her together over dinner, but I couldn’t help it. I’m so excited!”
The sound of footsteps approaching from behind helped bring Chris back to her senses. “Excited about what?” Derek asked. Chris opened her mouth to answer, but Marsha beat her to the punch with an encore performance. “Hey, that’s great!” Somehow, he sounded sincere as she threw her arms around his neck and squealed right in his ear. Patting her back with one hand, he reached the other toward Chris’s dad. “Congratulations, you two.”
“Thanks.” Smiling, he shook Derek’s hand, then turned to Chris. “Do I get a hug?”
Chris blew out a breath. “Of course.” She leaned into one of his patented bear hugs and squeezed him hard. “Congratulations, Daddy.” They released each other, and she stepped back. “Come on in.”
The four of them moved into the foyer, where both Marsha and Drew studied the ornate staircase. “Oh, how beautiful,” Marsha gushed. “Sweetheart, wouldn’t this be a wonderful place for a wedding? Couldn’t you picture the bride coming down these stairs with her dress trailing behind?”
“I don’t think—” Drew began, but she cut him off.
“Oh, I don’t mean our wedding. We’ve got our venue all picked out. But for somebody, someday…” She looked meaningfully from Derek to Chris and gave Chris a big, showy wink.
“I’m pretty sure that whenever Christine does get married, she won’t want to do it in the spot where her sister died,” Drew said, his voice tight.
Everyone fell silent. Marsha’s hand flew to her chest. The horrified look on her face made Chris feel a little sorry for her. “Oh, Drew, honey, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know—”
Ignoring her, he turned to Chris. “This is it, isn’t it? Where it happened?”
Chris nodded. She looked around, hoping Ron had decided to sneak down for a peek at Marsha and was there to witness their dad’s obvious grief. But she and Joe had apparently decided to remain tucked away in the attic for the evening. Chris sighed. “Yeah. This is it.”
“Where did you find her?” The tremor in his voice was barely perceptible and would probably be missed by anyone who didn’t know him as well as Chris.
“Over here.” She led him to where she’d discovered Ron’s twisted body.
Drew stood there, contemplating the spot. Out of the corner of her eye, Chris saw Derek move close to Marsha and slip an arm around her shoulders. She gave him a grateful look and patted his hand before pulling away from him and coming to stand next to her newly minted fiancé. She took his hand and simply held it in silence, and Chris thought maybe, if she tilted her head and squinted, she could see a little of what her dad must see in the woman.
After a protracted moment of silence, Drew tore his gaze away from the floor and smiled at Marsha. “I’m sorry.” He patted her hand. “I don’t mean to rain on your parade.”
“It’s our parade, and I’ll march through rain all day long as long as you’re by my side.”
Chris didn’t know whether to feel touched or slightly nauseated by Marsha’s pronouncement, but her dad seemed to be moved by it. He bent his head to kiss her forehead, then seemed to remember they weren’t alone. “We, uh, we brought some champagne.” He patted his pockets as if he might find it there. “I must have left it in the car.”
“I’ll get it,” said Derek. “Is the car locked?”
“The keys are in my purse,” said Marsha.
“I’ll get them.” Chris went to retrieve Marsha’s purse and dig out the keys. As she handed them to Derek, she leaned in and said in a low voice, “Please tell me you got that wine open.”
“There’s already a glass poured and waiting for you.” He pecked her on the lips before heading out the door.
Chris watched him go until the door swung shut behind him. Then she took a deep breath and turned to her guests. “I hope you guys are hungry!”
“Are you sure you don’t want to go down there?” Joe twisted one of Ron’s blonde curls around his finger.
“I’m sure.” She wiggled down into the couch cushions and wrapped her arms more tightly around him as if to declare that she was firmly anchored to that spot. “Believe me, there’s nothing going on down there that interests me.”
“I gotta admit, I’m interested. Aren’t you even the least bit curious about this Marsha character?”
“Not really,” Ron fibbed. The truth was that she was dying—figuratively speaking, of course, seeing as how that ship had sailed—to get a look at her father’s lady friend. But the thought of seeing her dad carry on as though he’d never even had an older daughter, let alone felt any grief over her tragic passing, simply hurt too much. “But by all means.” She extricated herself from Joe’s arms and sat up. “If you want to go down, don’t let me stop you.”
“Now don’t be like that.”
“All huffy and put out. I said I’m curious, is all. That don’t mean I’m about to leave you up here to stew.”
“I’m not stewing.”
A crease in Joe’s brow conveyed his skepticism as his gaze drifted down to her arms. Ron looked down to see that they were folded protectively in front of her. She hadn’t even realized she’d folded them. She forced them to her sides and adopted a relaxed posture. “I’m not stewing. I really don’t care that my dad’s down there.”
“Now that’s a lie if I ever heard one.”
Ron sighed. Joe knew her too well. “Fine. I care. But I don’t want to think about it. I’m too tired. Aren’t you tired? Today was a long day.”
“You got that right.” He made a show of stretching, then reached an arm over to pull her back against him. “How many people did we help out today?”
“Five. Two coaching jobs, and a whole lot of Googling for the other three. But you’re the one who did all the legwork.”
“If you can call the way we get around legwork.”
“Well, it’s still exhausting. Who knew Tulsa had so many dead people wandering around with unfinished business and having no idea what to do with themselves?”
“Your sister knew.”
Ron nodded, conceding the point. “Well, she can’t help all of them single-handedly.”
“She’s hardly helped any of them since you took over. Does she know how much you’ve been doing for her?”
She shrugged. “She knows enough. The whole point is for her to not have to think about it. She’s got enough on her plate with her new boyfriend and his YouTube channel. Not to mention all the physical therapy she needed for her leg.”
“Well, at least that’s done.” Joe shook his head. “I don’t understand this YouTube business, though. It ain’t like we show up on camera. What’s the point?”
“Some apparitions do. And don’t forget about voice recordings. Anyway, it’s spooky and people like it. I was trying to convince Chris that we should start a YouTube channel before I joined the corporeally challenged.”
“I guess I’ve seen enough horror in my time that I don’t understand why people go lookin’ for scares. All those kids who used to break into the house whenever nobody lived here… Thank Heaven Lilly and I managed to scare ‘em all off before Sarah got to ‘em.” He looked at her sideways. “Our scare tactics didn’t work so well with you, though.”
“Yeah, well, when I get scared I tend to be more fight than flight.”
“Don’t I know it.” He brushed her hair behind her ear. “Can’t exactly complain about the way things turned out, though.”
Ron leaned back in and snuggled up against him. “Neither can I.” It wasn’t that she was happy about being dead. But if she hadn’t died, she wouldn’t have known Joe, and they had managed to cobble together a pretty good existence here in their limbo between life and whatever comes next. Between this and watching over Chris, she managed to stay busy enough that she hardly had time to miss out on life.
She tilted her head to smile up at Joe. He returned her smile, his eyes crinkling in that way that made her feel warm all over. They held each other’s gaze for a long while before he brushed her forehead with his lips. “You’re right, though. I am a might tuckered out. I could use some shut-eye.”
“You and me both.” She laid her head on his broad chest and closed her eyes.
But sleep didn’t come.
Despite all her bravado about not caring, she couldn’t shake the sense of awareness that her father was right downstairs, or an intense curiosity about his girlfriend. It was only sheer stubbornness that held her in place long after Joe had faded out of consciousness. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she slipped out of his arms and went downstairs.
She could have simply popped herself down there with a thought, but she wasn’t sure exactly where they were and she didn’t want Chris to see her and know she’d caved. So she transported herself to the second floor and took the stairs the rest of the way down, creeping slowly and listening for voices as she went.
Sounds of laughter drifted out of the living room. Ron approached cautiously, peeking around the corner to see where Chris was seated before materializing behind her, safely out of sight. While it seemed that other spirits could somehow remain invisible to her sister if they so chose, that was one trick for which Ron had never developed the knack.
From her vantage point behind Chris’s chair, she stood facing her father, who was all smiles as he leaned forward to pick up a wine bottle and refill his glass. He also topped off the glass of the woman seated next to him on the love seat, who could be none other than the infamous Marsha. Ron couldn’t help noticing the big diamond prominently displayed on the hand that was propping up her chin as she gazed adoringly at their dad. She also couldn’t help immediately comparing the woman to her mother, which she knew wasn’t fair, but still. The differences were striking.
Ron’s mother had been a natural beauty. Ron had inherited her curly blonde locks, which she had worn long, usually braided to keep them out of a face rarely touched by makeup. She simply hadn’t needed it. By contrast, Marsha was exactly as Chris had described—a brunette Barbie, dressed to the nines with perfectly winged eyeliner and a face expertly buffed and powdered to perfection. Actually, there was a name for the brunette Barbie, wasn’t there? Bridget or Midge or something like that. Ron should know. She had really been into Barbie dolls as a kid. That was how she’d inadvertently killed her mom, after all.
“—your sister could be here for this,” the living Marsha doll said. Ron blinked. She had been so caught up in her own thoughts that she barely heard a word anyone was saying, but that got her attention. “I would have loved to have known her.”
“I’m sure she would have loved you.” Drew reached over to squeeze her hand. Ron made an involuntary sound of disgust, which went unheard by all but Chris, who suddenly cocked her head and glanced behind her.
“Will you guys excuse me?” she said, leaning forward to set her drink on the coffee table and standing up.
“Everything okay?” asked Derek.
“Yeah. I need to check on something.” She headed into the hallway before glancing back and making eye contact with Ron. A jerk of her head commanded Ron to follow.
They were in the office with the door safely closed, but Chris still kept her voice low. “I thought you didn’t want anything to do with this.”
Ron shrugged and folded her arms. “So I got curious. Sue me.”
“How long have you been there?”
“I don’t know. Not long. A couple of minutes.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. So, Dad’s getting married, huh? Good for him.”
“Yeah,” said Chris. She didn’t sound overjoyed.
“Are you okay?”
Chris shrugged. “That woman’s going to be my step-mother.” She flinched and corrected herself. “Our stepmother. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. Pretty sure it doesn’t count when you’re dead.”
“So what do you think of her?”
“I don’t know. She’s really different from Mom, but other than the whole homecoming queen, sorority girl vibe she gives off, I haven’t really seen enough to form an opinion.”
Chris nodded. She was silent a moment as she watched Ron, seeming to consider something. Finally, she asked, “Do you want to come back in there with me? I could tell them you’re here. You could meet her, sort of, and maybe talk to Dad.”
“Oh, I’m sure Dad would love that. No thanks.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. But you should get back. My curiosity’s satisfied. I’m going to head back upstairs.”
“Ron…” Chris looked like she wanted to press but wasn’t sure what to say. Before she could complete her thought, a thump out in the hall grabbed their attention. She turned to peer through the French doors “What was that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the cat?”
Chris opened the door and leaned out into the hall. “Here kitty,” she called, but there was no sign of Miss Persnikitty, nor of anything else that could have made the noise. She eyed Ron sharply. “You and Joe didn’t bring home any strays, did you?”
“No,” she said, indignant. Then she considered and softened. “At least, I don’t think. You haven’t bought any antiques lately, have you?”
Chris glanced at her once-haunted desk. “No.”
“It’s probably nothing, but I’ll check it out. You should get back to your dinner.” When Chris hesitated, Ron shooed her away. “Go! I’ve got this!”
Her reluctance evident, Chris gave in and went to rejoin the living. Ron watched her go. Then, hands on her hips, she looked around the room. “Hello? Who’s there?” When nobody responded, she added, “It’s okay. You don’t need to be afraid. Come on out and let’s talk.” She moved to the back of the office, peering into each darkened corner, even looking under the desk. The creak of a door made her turn in time to see one of the French doors swing open.
Suddenly, Ron had a vivid flashback to her first day in this house. A sense of dread filled her. She crept toward the double doors, hoping she wouldn’t find that a spirit had followed her home. Leaning out into the hall, she heard a low growl. She sighed and slumped with relief.
“What are you doing down here, little guy?” she asked as she approached the pooch, the adorable ghost of a Jack Russell that had been left behind when his owner’s spirit was freed to move on. He stood peering into the living room, shoulders hunched, head low. As Ron got closer he grew emboldened enough to start barking. It looked like Marsha was the target of his ire, although he might have simply been put out by having strangers in the house.
From her spot back on the couch, Chris looked over at them and raised an eyebrow at Ron. She waved a hand dismissively before bending to scoop the pup into her arms. “They say dogs are a good judge of people,” she muttered as she carried him back upstairs, growling and barking the entire way.
Want more? Join my Launch Team and get your very own electronic ARC of Bound Spirits to read before everyone else!
The release of Bound Spirits is still three months away, but for those of you who are hungry for the next Restless Spirits installment, here’s a look at the cover to wet your whistle. And for an appetizer (…I’m carrying this metaphor too far, aren’t I?) scroll down to read the first chapter!
“What are we doing here?” Chris Wilson looked at her boyfriend and waited for an explanation, unable to make his face out in the darkness. Even if the street light behind him didn’t make him impossible to see clearly from this angle, his face would have been partially hidden by the video camera he had trained on her.
“What do you think?” Derek Brandt fiddled with the camera settings as he spoke. “This is a notoriously haunted location. Allegedly.”
“Yeah, a little too notorious,” Gus, the team’s tech guru, called from the edge of the parking lot as he walked the perimeter, taking readings of the temperature and electromagnetic field activity. “The Hex House is one of the first stops for every teenager wanting to scare his girlfriend and every amateur ghost hunter in the tri-state area. This isn’t exactly new to us.”
“Well, it is to me, and to my channel.” Derek stepped toward Chris. The whine of the zoom lens warned her it was time for her closeup. “Now say hello to the YouTubers, beautiful.”
She gave him a wary look. He lowered the camera, but it didn’t make his face easier to see. Still, she could hear the exasperation in his voice. “Chris, come on.”
“Gus is right, you know. This place might have been haunted once, but I think the spirits have moved on. I’ve never run into anything here. It’s just an empty parking lot.”
“Yeah, an empty parking lot on top of a basement where women were enslaved with some kind of voodoo magic. You’re telling me there’s nothing?”
“Sorry, babe. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
“What about you, Gus? Are you getting anything?”
“Nada,” he called from across the lot.
Derek sighed. But rather than calling it quits, he raised the camera. “Well, we’re here. We might as well make the most of it.”
Chris suppressed the urge to suggest they pack it in and go get pancakes. She knew this was important to him and wanted to be supportive. After all, the man had tanked a promising career in TV journalism for her. She owed it to him to help him salvage his career through his YouTube channel. Besides, that dogged determination of his was one of the things she loved about him. “Fine. What do you want me to do?”
“Talk about this place. Tell the viewers what happened here.”
“All right.” She chewed her bottom lip, thinking of what to say before putting on her best announcer voice. “This parking lot was once the site of an old mansion-turned-duplex known affectionately as the ‘Hex House.’ In the 1940s, it was the center of a local scandal when Carolann Smith, the middle-aged woman who lived here with two younger women, was discovered to be keeping the two of them prisoner in her basement.
“Bizarrely, the women would leave and go to their jobs every day, but always return to their basement prison as though the mistress of the house had some kind of Svengali-like hold over them. They even signed all their paychecks over to her. They lived on rations and slept on orange crates while she lived in luxury. When the police finally raided her home, they found furs, expensive clothing, and cosmetics—even a new car.
“After her scheme was discovered and the women were rescued, they claimed that Smith had also beaten them regularly for ‘religious purification.’ Along with a house full of luxury items, authorities also found books on mesmerism, magic, and the occult.
“The house stood vacant until it was demolished in the seventies. The basement still exists underneath this parking lot. It doesn’t get a lot of use now, but back when it was used regularly, people reported car lights turning on and off on their own, horns going off at random, and just a general spooky vibe.”
“What about now?” asked Derek.
“Now?” Chris looked around. “If anyone—or anything—was ever trapped here, I’m pretty sure they’ve moved on.” She shrugged. “It’s just a parking lot.”
“I’d say it’s more than that.”
“Really? What would you say, then?”
“I’d say it’s a local legend.”
Chris smiled. “Guess I can’t argue with that.”
“All right.” Derek lowered the camera. “Let’s call that a wrap.” He let the camera hang from the strap around his shoulder and moved in closer. Chris turned, making him turn with her until the street light illuminated that handsome face she loved so much. “Have I told you that you’re a natural at this?”
“Pfft. I’m a total dork. I don’t know why you insist on pointing that thing at me.”
“Stop it. The camera loves you.” He grinned. “And so do I.”
She couldn’t help grinning back at him as he leaned in to steal a kiss. Although it couldn’t exactly be called stolen when she gave so freely.
Chris and Derek both groaned as they reluctantly broke apart. Chris looked over at Gus. “What?”
“Sorry. You know how much I hate to interrupt when you’re having smoochies. But I’m actually getting something over here.”
“Really?” Chris hurried over. Derek followed, turning the camera back on. “What have you got?”
“Electromagnetic field’s off the charts in this spot.” He held the meter out so she could watch the needle dance. “And does it feel colder to you?”
“Yeah, now that you mention it.” She hugged herself and rubbed her arms.
Gus pocketed the EMF reader and pulled out a thermometer. He walked back a few paces, waving the wand in the air. “A balmy sixty-eight degrees.” He returned to where Chris stood and held out the wand next to her. “Only forty-two.”
“Do you see anything?” Derek asked her.
She squinted around at the darkened lot. “Nope. But I’m starting to get a sense of…” She trailed off, too busy concentrating on the sensation to find a word for it.
“A general spooky vibe?” Derek supplied.
“Gus, get the audio recorder. Let’s get some EVP.”
Gus hurried back to the van. Chris continued to scan her surroundings. “Hello? Is anyone here?”
“Wait for Gus.”
She shook her head. “I don’t have a great feeling about this.”
Derek lowered the camera. “Do you want to quit?”
“No. I want to know what’s here. Nobody actually died here, as far as we know. So if it’s haunted, who’s haunting it?” She refrained from vocalizing the rest of her question. Or what?
“Wasn’t this lady also suspected of killing some people for the life insurance money?”
“Yeah, but nothing was proven. And they didn’t die here, even if she did murder them.”
Derek looked reluctant to share whatever he was thinking.
“Come on, what is it?”
“Maybe we’re dealing with whatever helped that woman control her prisoners.”
A chill ran up Chris’s spine as she let that sink in. “That’s not a very pleasant thought.”
“No, it’s not. Maybe we should get out of here.”
“And have your channel subscribers miss all the action?”
“Right now, I don’t care about my subscribers. I care about seeing you safe.”
“I can handle myself, Brandt. Here comes Gus. Start the camera.”
“Come on!” She gave him a look that brooked no argument as Gus returned with a digital voice recorder and a parabolic microphone. At Derek’s nod, she tried again. “Is anyone here?” She waited a moment. Nothing happened. “If you’re here, all you have to do is speak up. I can hear you. I can see you, too, if you’d like to show yourself to me. I might be able to help you move on from this place.”
Still nothing. Chris sighed and shook her head. She took out her phone and turned on the flashlight. “There are a lot of power lines running through here.” She shined her light on them. “Those could be throwing Gus’s readings off.”
“What about your spooky feeling?” asked Derek.
“That too, actually. High electromagnetic activity can cause feelings of wariness and paranoia. Not to mention headaches and nausea.” She shrugged. “Mystery solved.”
“But what about the temperature change?”
Before she could think of an answer, the lights on their van suddenly turned on. The three of them turned toward it as one. The lights began to blink.
Derek aimed the camera at the van. “Are the power lines doing that, too?”
Chris ignored him. “Why don’t you come here and talk to me?” she called to the entity. As if in response, the horn blared. Shouting to be heard over the racket, she asked, “Do you want us to leave?”
The horn fell silent. The blinking stopped.
“Okay. We can take a hint. Let’s get out of here, guys.”
“Wait. That’s it? We’re just leaving?”
“Do you want to stick around and see what happens if that thing gets angry?”
“No,” he said. Then, “Well, kinda.” At her look, he lowered the camera and turned it off. “No, you’re right. Let’s go.”
The three of them filed into the Village Inn. They didn’t have to wait to be seated. At a quarter past one in the morning, the place was well past the dinner rush and not yet inundated with the post-bar and club crowd. They barely had time to slide into a booth next to the front window before a waitress handed them each a menu.
Chris handed hers right back. “I know what I want.”
“All righty.” The waitress, whose name tag identified her as Vanessa, tucked the menu under her arm and whipped out her pad and pen. “What’ll it be?”
“I’ll have the Ultimate Breakfast.”
Derek also handed back his menu. “I think I’m more in the mood for a cheeseburger.”
“Fries or coleslaw?”
Everyone looked at Gus, who sat bent over his open menu. He glanced up at the waitress. “I’m gonna need a few minutes.”
“Gus!” Chris didn’t even try to hide her exasperation. “You always do this, and you always end up getting the patty melt.”
“Something else might look good to me this time.”
She reached over and grabbed his menu, eliciting a “Hey!” from him as she handed it to the waitress. “He’ll have the patty melt.”
Vanessa quirked an eyebrow at him. “You sure, sugar?”
“Yeah.” Defeat weighted his voice and made it come out sulky. “It’s fine.”
“All righty, then. One patty melt, one cheeseburger with fries, and one ultimate breakfast, coming right up.”
“What’s got you so cranky?” he asked Chris after she left.
“I’m not cranky. I’m just not in the mood for your usual nonsense.”
He pointed at her. “See, that’s cranky.”
“You do seem a little on edge,” said Derek.
Chris rolled her eyes. “I’m not cranky. I’m hungry and I don’t want to wait an extra five minutes so Gus can read the entire menu before he decides to get another frickin’ patty melt!”
“Okay, you’re right,” said Gus. “That’s not cranky. That’s actually called ‘hangry.’”
Chris took the paper tube off of her straw, crumpled it up, and threw it at him. It smacked him right between the eyes.
“Guys.” Derek’s tone was that of a parent calling down a pair of unruly kids. He turned to Chris. “Are you sure that’s all that’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong.” She met his stern gaze and sighed. “Fine. I just hate to lose, is all.”
“What are you talking about? Tonight went great! The footage we got—”
“It’s not about getting great footage.” As his brow furrowed, she hurried to add, “Look, I know the footage is important. Your channel’s important. I’m not saying it’s not. But you know that’s not why I do this. I do it to help people.”
“I know that. But not everybody wants to be helped.”
Chris thought about it a moment, then sighed. “Whatever we were dealing with back there, I doubt it was even human.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because human spirits are usually glad to show themselves. They’re grateful for someone to talk to, and they do want my help.”
“Maybe. Scottie Tucker sure didn’t.”
Chris drummed her fingers on the table while she considered this. “Scottie Tucker was terrified for his mom. As soon as he knew she’d be safe, though, he was happy to have us pass on a message to her.”
“There’s another explanation,” said Gus. “One that you guys never seem to think of.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
Gus turned his gaze from Derek to Chris. “Your sister’s messing with us.”
“What?” Christine grabbed Derek’s empty straw wrapper and launched it at Gus. “Shut up. Ron wouldn’t do that.”
“Sure she would. She used to play practical jokes on me all the time back before she kicked the bucket.”
“Come on, man,” said Derek. “That’s not—”
“Ron wouldn’t do that,” Chris repeated, enunciating carefully. “Besides, she can do a lot of things, but she can’t hide from me.”
“You sure about that?”
“Yes. Anyway, she had plans tonight or she would have tagged along.”
“What kind of plans does a ghost have on a Friday night? Other than interfering with our investigation for kicks and giggles?”
“I don’t know. I don’t pry into her afterlife. Whatever it was, I’m sure it included Joe.”
“All right, look,” said Derek. “Let’s just listen to sound recordings to see if we picked up any EVP. You brought it in, right?”
Gus nodded and patted the duffel back on the bench next to him.
“Okay, then. Maybe we got something that can help shed some light on whatever it was we encountered tonight.”
While they pulled out devices and headphones and searched for an outlet for Gus’s laptop, Chris let her gaze drift to the window. A homeless man caught her attention as he shuffled along in the parking lot. Tall and skinny with a long salt-and-pepper beard, he reminded her of an even more grizzled and tattered version of Phil Robertson. She watched him, wondering if she should leave him some of her leftovers in a take home box or whether it would be better to pay for a meal and have a waiter take it out to him.
Suddenly, she realized he was looking back at her, the intensity of his gaze startling her. She turned back to her companions, who were arguing over the settings on Gus’s audio program. Looking back at the window, she screamed as she came face to face with the man pressed up against the glass.
Derek ripped off his headphones. “What is it? Are you okay?”
“It’s nothing. This guy just startled me.”
Derek glanced at the window, then back at her. “What guy?”
“Ah. Of course.” As she spoke, the man in question started to melt through the window. “Oh, come on. Please don’t do that.”
“Do what?” asked Derek.
“He—” Before she could finish, the ghost straightened up abruptly, turned, and shuffled away from the window in the opposite direction. “Never mind. He’s leaving. I should probably go talk to him.”
“This is a ghost thing, right?”
“Right. I…” She trailed off as she spotted what had gotten Dead Phil’s attention. He had stopped to talk to a petite young woman with short, blonde curls. Very familiar curls. “What the…”
“What is it?”
“I’ll be right back.” Chris got up from the table and headed out to the parking lot. Making her way across the lot, she kept her eyes on the ghostly pair. The blonde spoke animatedly to the transient.
Chris had almost reached them when the homeless ghost shuffled away, fading from sight as he went. The blonde watched him go with a grin on her face. Her smile grew brighter as she finally noticed Chris approaching. “Hey, sis! What are you doing here?”
“You just stole my line. Ron, did you follow us here?”
“What? No. It’s a total coincidence.”
“You know I don’t believe in coincidences. Why are you here?”
Her sister’s spirit let out an exasperated huff of non-breath. “I had some news for Burt. He asked me to check up on his estranged daughter.”
Ron jerked her chin in the direction Dead Phil had disappeared. “I saw him approaching you the other night when I tagged along on that taco run and I headed him off at the pass.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Why would I? It was nothing I couldn’t handle. Anyway, he agreed to meet me here tonight to find out what I learned.”
Chris felt a little ashamed of her suspicion. Ron could sometimes be a meddler, but her heart was always in the right place. And ever since Chris’s abduction last spring, Ron and her partner Joe were more protective than ever. They’d been running interference with the spirits who came to Chris for help so she could recover and focus on her new relationship with Derek. Chris appreciated the help.
“Is there anything I can help with?” she asked.
“Nope, it’s handled. You should go back to Derek. He’s probably wondering why you’re out here talking to yourself.”
“Derek can wait a minute. I just need to ask…” She bit her lip. Ron was out here doing something nice for her. Still, Gus made her wonder… “You weren’t out at the Hex House lot tonight, were you?”
“No. Why would I be?”
“No reason.” She waved away the notion. “It’s just… something was out there—”
“Really? I thought that place was all tapped out.”
“I did too, but something showed up. It wouldn’t show itself, but Derek got some good footage for his next video, so that’s something. Anyway, Gus is convinced that you were there messing with us.”
“Yeah, well, Gus can go ahead and—”
Chris’s back pocket rang before Ron could finish her instructions for Gus, which Chris doubted she’d want to deliver anyway. She held up a finger and pulled out her phone, expecting Derek to be calling to see what was taking her so long. Her surprise at the caller ID filled her voice as she said, “It’s Dad.”
Ron’s eyes widened. “This late? I hope everything’s okay.”
Chris answered. “Hey, Dad. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Drew Wilson’s voice crackled with static. “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I thought you’d be in bed. I was going to leave a voice mail.”
“Well, I’m up, so I guess you can just tell me why you called.”
“Marsha and I were wondering if you had any plans tomorrow night. We’re heading up there in the morning and were hoping we could all have dinner. Derek too, if he’s available.”
Chris winced. She’d love to see her dad, but dinner with his girlfriend was always a torturous affair. Still, she couldn’t think of a good excuse. “Sure. I mean, I’ll have to check with him, but I can do dinner. Just tell me when and where.”
“What about your place?”
Chris paused and looked at Ron, who looked back at her questioningly. “My place? Really?”
“Sure. You’ve been bugging me to come see that house of yours.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just…you’ve never…”
“I think it’s time. Besides, Marsha and I have some news, and it’s not really something I want to announce in a crowded restaurant.”
“News? What kind of news?”
“Nothing bad. You’ll find out tomorrow night. Listen, I’ve got to get off and wrap some things up so I can turn in. We’ve got to get an early start tomorrow. We should be to your place by seven, if that works for you.”
“Um, okay. Yeah. I’ll see you then.”
“Great. Now get to bed, kiddo. Love you.” He hung up without waiting for a reply. Chris stared at her phone, feeling slightly ambushed.
“What’s going on?”
Chris looked from the phone to her sister. “Dad’s coming over for dinner tomorrow night.”
“He’s coming to the house? Really?”
“Yeah. He said it’s time.”
Ron’s eyebrows crawled up into her bangs. “What does that mean? Time for what?”
“Time to face where you died, maybe?”
“I doubt that.” As usual, Ron was dismissive of the idea that their father grieved her passing in any way. “He probably just means it’s time to get over himself and come see where his only daughter lives. And he’s right about that.”
“Anyway, he’s bringing Marsha, so you’ll finally get to see what she’s like.”
“Not unless she comes up to the attic, I won’t. I think Joe and I will just keep out of the way.”
“That’s not necessary.” Chris glanced at the phone. “He said they have news.”
“Good news or bad news?”
“He said it’s not bad, but that could be subjective.”
“You don’t think… I mean, they’ve been together a while now. Do you think—”
Chris held up a hand to cut her off. “Don’t say it.”
“But you’re thinking it.”
“I’m trying not to think about it.”
“What else could it be?”
“I don’t know. Lots of things. Maybe Dad won the lottery, or got a new job. Or maybe they got a new puppy.”
Ron smiled. “You’re cute when you’re in denial.”
“Yeah, well.” Chris pocketed her phone. “I’m going back in to tell Derek. If you won’t be there for moral support, at least he will.”
“And you can tell me all about our new step-mommy-to-be in the morning,” Ron called after her as she went back inside.