The Godsend that is NaNoWriMo

It’s that time of year again. No, I don’t ,mean the Christmas trees going up in WalMarts and Targets around the country (seriously, can we not get through Thanksgiving first?). I’m talking about National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, as the kids call it).

That… is what the kids call it. Right?

Anyway, for the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is a challenge in which you have 30 days to write 50,000 words. It sounds maddening, and it can be (but less so if you consider that averages out to 1,667 words a day). Truthfully, the maddening part comes at the end of the month, when Thanksgiving approaches and family obligations take precedence.

But there is one benefit to NaNoWriMo, particularly for someone like me.

I’ve made no secret, both on this page and on my social media platforms, about my writing struggles of late. My lack of productivity has taken a toll in recent months, not only on my (lack of) word count, but also in terms of my emotional well-being. Writer is a large part of my identity, and if I’m not writing…

But one thing about NaNoWriMo, and why it’s such an important program, is that it establishes the habit of daily writing. It’s difficult to meet the 50,000-word goal in perfect circumstances, but if you’re not writing every day, then the task is even more daunting. Not that there’s shame in not reaching 50,000 words; there isn’t, and any progress made during NaNoWriMo is to be celebrated.

And in the interest of transparency, I’ve reached the 50,000-word mark every year since 2014, but none of my projects have been finished by the time November ended. That’s where the habit of daily writing comes in. Ideally, that habit carries beyond November into the rest of the year.

Which, again, is the whole point.

Three of my novels — Bounty, Behind the Badge, and Notna — started as NaNoWriMo projects. The fifth Jill Andersen novel, Betrayed, was my NaNoWriMo project last year, and this year, I’m using NaNoWriMo to take on a story and a genre I’ve never tried before.

That challenge, and NaNoWriMo as a whole, has been invigorating. Just yesterday alone, I knocked out almost 4,000 words on my NaNoWriMo project — a fantasy romance titled Unforgotten (working title). I also wrote 4,000 words in completing a short story for an upcoming anthology (from the same folks who brought you Cracks in the Tapestry).

Without NaNoWriMo, I’m not sure I’m a writer — and if I am, I seriously doubt I’d be published. Establishing that habit, treating writing as a journey rather than a destination, is what November is all about. It’s the perfect tonic for a lack of productivity, and I can’t wait to see what other words the month will bring.

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this month, best of luck to you! What are you writing? I’m J.D. Cunegan on NaNo’s website, so become a writing buddy if you’re so inclined.

And remember, even if you don’t reach 50,000 this month, anything you do create is worthwhile.

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books and art, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard, scratching a pencil over a piece of paper, or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitterGoodreads. and DeviantArt.

Mark Your Calendars: LEGENDS OF THE GEM is Coming!

Legends of the Gem is almost here. Two weeks.Legends of the Gem Final (2)

Tuesday, Jan. 15, to be exact.

That’s right — Legends of the Gem, a collection of short stories expanding on the Gem of Notna and the universe established in the novel Notna, is just two weeks from being released.

Even better? Pre-orders are now live for the ebook!

Millions of years ago, the Gem of Notna was created. A race renowned for its peace birthed the ultimate weapon—and it paid the ultimate price.

Eons have passed. The gem found its way to Earth, leaving a path of bloodshed and destruction in its wake. From ancient Greece to the Vatican through the Civil War to more recent events that saw the gem tucked away in a little-known tomb in the Amazon, there is no shortage of legends related to the Gem of Notna.

Building on the mythology established in NotnaLegends of the Gem takes readers on a journey through time, both in and out of this world. After all, the Gem of Notna has plenty of stories to tell… if you live long enough to hear them.

Here are the stories you’ll find in this volume:

  • Legend, the First: Lagos, Narazniya’s brightest scholar and mystical mind, is tasked with creating the Gem of Notna, but nothing goes as planned.
  • Legend, the Second: Ares, Head Elder of Narazniya, faces the reality of what he wrought, what his obsession did to the people he rules.
  • Legend, the Third: Divine warriors Michael and Damien fight off an Underworld invasion, only to discover an ulterior motive. Michael’s new obsession leads to his downfall.
  • Legend, the Fourth: A young girl named Vita finds herself in the middle of ancient Greek politics, whether she wants to be or not.
  • Legend, the Fifth: A young man named Pious III, who once would’ve been Pope, is on the run from the Vatican. His journal chronicles his descent into madness.
  • Legend, the Sixth: Union soldier Ferdinand Jackson is fighting in Gettysburg, but the Confederacy is the least of his worries.
  • Legend, the Seventh: Cian Kotzias pens his thesis on the Gem of Notna during his studies at Aristotle of Thessaloniki.
  • Legend, the Eighth: A secret task force discovers the Gem of Notna’s power, and a mysterious entity decides the crystal is better off out of humanity’s grasp.

Go ahead and reserve your copy today for just $1.99 — in Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Apple iBooks! Paperback edition will be available on release day.

And if you haven’t already, snag a copy of Notna as well.

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads, and you can also become a Patron.

LEGENDS OF THE GEM Update!

Legends of the Gem Final (2)Millions of years ago, the Gem of Notna was created. A race renowned for its peace birthed the ultimate weapon—and it paid the ultimate price.

Eons have passed. The gem found its way to Earth, leaving a path of bloodshed and destruction in its wake. From ancient Greece to the Vatican through the Civil War to more recent events that saw the gem tucked away in a little-known tomb in the Amazon, there is no shortage of legends related to the Gem of Notna.

Building on the mythology established in Notna, Legends of the Gem takes readers on a journey through time, both in and out of this world. After all, the Gem of Notna has plenty of stories to tell…if you live long enough to hear them.

Legends of the Gem will hit digital shelves in late January/early February!

Now’s the perfect time to catch up before Legends of the Gem‘s release. Pick up your copy of Notna now!

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads, and you can also become a Patron.

CRACKS IN THE TAPESTRY OUT NOW

Today is the day!Cracks in the Tapestry cover

Cracks in the Tapestry, the fantasy anthology in which my short story “Life at the Speed of Time” appears, is now live on Amazon!

What happens when the mundane and the fantastic meet? We get Cracks in the Tapestry.

-A former secret agent’s sister return from the dead, bringing with her mysteries surrounding her miraculous return?
-A Reverend takes his message from God to a new planet eager to spread the gospel.
-A NASCAR driver discovers there is much more happening on the track then he ever had imagined.
-A thief must steal her love’s most prized possession.
-A scientist discovers something very peculiar about an archeologist exhibiting odd behavior.
-A newborn siren discovers a man who can resist her song.
-A Sioux warrior must face off against the might of the US Military Remnant to defend his home and people.

Will you peer through the Cracks in the Tapestry?

Cracks in the Tapestry collects stories from Leslie Conzatti, J.D. Cunegan, Arthur David, C. Scott Davis, Benjamin D. Pegg, R. Eric Smith, and Lorna Woulfe.

Pick up your copy here!

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads, and you can also become a Patron.

LEGENDS OF THE GEM Update

So… how is everyone?Legends of the Gem Final (2)

As it turns out, due to circumstances — both related to writing and not — Legends of the Gem will not make its project Oct. 31 release. I hate that I won’t make that release date, but I cannot put together a story worthy of publication and have it truly polished and vetted in time for the original release.

As of now, I hope to have it out in late November instead, but for the time being, I’m not gonna set an actual date (because we see how well that worked the first time).

I’m sorry to delay this release, but it wouldn’t be fair to you guys — or myself — to rush this thing out for the sake of meeting a deadline. And honestly, this is one of the benefits of being self-published; if I need more time (and I need more time — and maybe some scotch), I can take it.

So please bear with me as I put the finishing touches on Legends of the Gem — and in the meantime, you can pre-order the fantasy anthology Cracks in the Tapestry, which will be out on Oct. 21.

Oh, and you can use this time to finish reading Notna. Trust me, you’ll want to.

Again, apologies for the delay, and thank you as always for your support.

PS: I don’t drink scotch.

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads, and you can also become a Patron.

COVER REVEAL: Legends of the Gem

Check out the cover for my upcoming anthology, Legends of the Gem, which will release on October 31! Sarah Anderson once again knocked it out of the park!

The Gem of Notna is history’s greatest weapon. In the right hands, it can protect the world Legends of the Gem Final (2)from virtually any threat. In the wrong hands, it is capable of untold destruction. Having found Earth from light years away, the crystal has helped shape the course of human history, millennia in the making.

A young girl who finds herself as ancient Greece’s savior. Warring factions so separate to end a stalemate that a trusted general does the unthinkable. The Inquisition claiming not just people’s minds, but their bodies. A Union soldier who is convinced the ravages of war have driven him mad. Scholars who believe the gem is capable of more harm than good.

All is revealed, in the gem’s ugly glory.

J.D. Cunegan introduces Legends of the Gem, which takes the lore established in his fantasy epic Notna and builds on it, adding context and illustrating just how remarkable the Gem of Notna truly is.

Legends of the Gem releases in paperback and several ebook formats on Wednesday, Oct. 31.

 

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV. Follow J.D. on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads, and you can also become a Patron.

NEW PROJECT ANNOUNCEMENT: LEGENDS OF THE GEM

I’m beyond excited to announce a brand new project!36384932

Coming this fall, Legends of the Gem will advance the lore surrounding the Gem of Notna and serve as a companion to my fantasy epic Notna. Neither a sequel nor prequel, Legends of the Gem is a collection of short stories detailing the crystal’s past. Comic book fans from the 1990s should think of this as my version of Tales of the Witchblade.

Official Blurb:
Millions of years ago, on a planet long ago destroyed, the Gem of Notna was created.

Dr. Jack Corbett is the current bearer of the gem, but what of its past? How did the gem wind up on Earth? How has it helped shape the course of human history? Whether it’s ancient Greece, the Inquisition, the Civil War, or even the origin of one of the world’s most dangerous and notorious villains, the gem has seen—and done—plenty.

J.D. Cunegan (Bounty, Notna) introduces Legends of the Gem, a collection of unrelated, but interconnected, short stories detailing the Gem of Notna’s past. Its power, its effect on the course of human events, brought together in one volume.

Legends of the Gem will release on Wednesday, October 31!

Look out for the cover reveal soon!

 

Official SealBounty has been nominated for a TopShelf magazine Indie Book Award!

It’s a big deal for my debut novel to even be nominated — and there are plenty of perks therein — but if by some stroke of luck I actually win, then there’s no end to the awesomeness that would ensue. Mostly I’m just jacked that someone thought enough of my work to nominate it. That’s pretty damn cool.

Anyway, check it out!

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

SHORT STORY: The Agency

This might eventually become a novel — because another book to write is exactly what I need right now — but for now, enjoy this short little tale.

Bethany was sweating.

Surrounded by pitch black, enveloped in silence, the bead of sweat trickling down her forehead and meandering between the nodes stuck to her was the only thing she could register. A soft, rhythmic beep interrupted the silence. Her heart thundered in her chest, as if it were trying to break through her ribcage. Her temples throbbed.

A sliver of light burst through from the other side of the room. Once her eyes focused, Bethany noticed a tiny red dot. She was being recorded, and her ears caught the faint whir of the zoom adjusting. That sound, mixed with her heartbeat and the beeping, created a cacophony of paranoia.

Bethany balled her hands into tight fists, her palms slick with anxiety. She tried to count the nodes stuck to her forehead, a feeble attempt at calming her nerves. But she kept losing count. She never got farther than eight. No matter what she tried, Bethany could not quiet her nerves.

The bitter taste of nausea twisted in her stomach. Her heart started beating even faster, as if that were possible. The Director could probably sense her fear without the fancy equipment he surrounded himself with. The giant gray slab housed all of the Agency’s data, and it was a constant reminder that there were no secrets here — not even in someone’s head.

If this was how the Agency treated one of its own… how did it treat its enemies?

The beeping came to a stop. The red light went out. Bethany was once again trapped in complete dark, complete silence. Next to death, this was what she imagined sensory deprivation to be like. Were it not for the constant thump of her heart, the trickle of sweat down the back of her neck, the hitch in her breath, Bethany would assume she had died.

“State your name, please.”

The booming, disembodied voice startled Bethany. She gasped and flinched hard enough that a couple of the nodes tugged on her forehead. The adhesive peeled from her damp skin, and Bethany hissed in pain before closing her eyes. Perhaps if she focused only on her own heartbeat, she could control it.

But why was she so worried? She had faced lie detector tests throughout her entire adult life; they were part of the territory in her line of work. Even before being recruited by the Agency, Bethany had constantly subjected herself to such screenings. But this was more than a mere polygraph. This machine was imprinting itself into Bethany’s brain, mapping her entire psyche and searching for the slightest irregularity. Even if Bethany answered every question as truthfully as possible, she knew there was a chance she would be expelled from the Agency.

Or worse.

In this void, time held no meaning. Bethany couldn’t tell how long she sat in silence, her brain scrambling to decide on a course of action. She uncurled her fists and latched onto the chair, hoping to keep some grip on reality.

What time was it? What day was it?

“I repeat: state your name.”

Bethany’s gasp was a little louder this time, and she instantly cursed herself under her breath. There was nothing more pathetic than being startled by her own boss’ voice.

“Beth,” she said, her voice cracking. “Special Agent Bethany Louise Harmon.”

The beeping returned.

With a deep inhale, Bethany closed her eyes again. She released the air built up in her lungs, feeling her body shudder with the effort. She swallowed thickly, refusing to let the bile tickling the back of her throat to go any further. She suddenly regretted having pasta for lunch.

“How long have you served the Agency, Miss Harmon?”

Again, the Director’s voice made Bethany jump. She could swear his voice was deeper than usual, though that was likely a trick of her surroundings. Here, his voice echoed off the walls. Were it not for the rampant paranoia, Bethany would have called the voice almost divine.

“Um.” She licked her lips, shook her head. “F-four years.”

Bethany cringed. That moment’s hesitation would undoubtedly be noted. That split second of indecision would be seen as evidence of a lie at best — the potential for becoming gun-shy in the field at worst. Bethany’s record in the field was nearly spotless, but any crumb of information the Agency could use against her, it would. The Agency demanded perfection, and loathe be those who consistently fell short.

Silence reigned again, though Bethany thought she heard a sigh. Was the Director disappointed in her response? That split second it took her to answer? The stammer? Had he already given an order?

“During that time,” the voice returned, “have you ever aided and abetted enemies of the United States of America?”

“No,” she answered in a tone she barely recognized.

“Are you sure?”

Bethany opened her mouth, but she was too shocked to form any words. The follow-up had caught her off-guard — which would also be used against her in any future evaluations. Her heartbeat picked up speed again, just as the incessant beeping returned. Her hands curled back into fists. She felt a bead of sweat trickle down the side of her nose. She licked her lips and opened her mouth again, but just like last time… no words.

“Bethany?”

She flinched. The Director had never used her first name before. She had always been Agent or Harmon. His voice had almost taken a paternal quality; in a way, it felt like this interrogation was a personal challenge for him. Did the Director know something? Had Bethany slipped up somehow over the years? Her mind raced with so many questions that she forgot to answer his.

She sucked in another deep breath to steel herself, using the armrests as anchors. “I have never knowingly aided and abetted an enemy of the United States.”

Once again, the beeping stopped. The Director had no response. Bethany’s heart slowed enough that it no longer felt like it was beating itself against her sternum. Her fingers relaxed their grip and her knees stopped shaking. Glancing at the pitch black around her, Bethany counted the seconds.

The count reached sixty. A full minute without another question. This couldn’t be the end of the interrogation, could it? Was it really as simple as stating her name and affirming she had never helped the people she was tasked with bringing down? Something was off; this felt all wrong. This was oddly cryptic, even for the Director.

The room went from pitch black to blindingly white without warning, and Bethany recoiled with a gasp. Squeezing her eyes shut, Bethany curled into herself as much as she could in a sitting position, slowly blinking the stars out of her eyes before they finally adjusted to the light. Two of the nodes tore off her forehead.

When properly lit, the interrogation room was ghost white. Massive databases and digital storage units lined the walls on either side of Bethany. Their secrets were well above even her pay grade, and she stared at the machine attached to her forehead, a black monitor displaying a digital readout of her brain.

The door swung open, slamming against the wall. Before Bethany could react, a tall man in a fine-pressed Italian suit hovered over her. The scent of his cologne, mixed with all of the other sensations bombarding Bethany, almost made her gag. Still, she held her composure as best she could, looking up to see the Director bearing his gray eyes right into her.

His hair was as white as the rest of the room. His nostrils flared and his mouth formed a tight line. The Director’s hands grabbed the armrests on either side of Bethany and he leaned in closer. Bethany had only seen the look on his face once before: five years ago after a mission gone wrong. The next day, over seventy associates of a Korean crime syndicate were dead.

Bethany’s blood ran cold as she once again tried and failed to speak. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the Director’s, despite her brain screaming for her to do just that.

“Then tell me, Agent Harmon… who is Grant Pasch?”

SHORT STORY: Like a Snowball in Aspen

As a treat for my readers and subscribers, I present a short story I wrote several months ago that I recently came across again. I really liked it, so I decided to clean it up a little, make it more presentable, and post it here for all of you… free of charge. Enjoy!

Okay, this is bad.

It’s pitch black. The kind of dark where I can’t see my hand in front of my face. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was still unconscious. The pounding in my head and the endless pressure on my chest tell me otherwise.

Wet dirt cakes under my fingernails. The silence is interrupted only by my gurgling stomach. I knew I should’ve grabbed a snack before walking out the door this morning.

Was that this morning? Is it still today? How long have I been out?

Most importantly, where the hell am I?

Okay, playing 20 Questions with myself won’t solve anything. The fog is slowly lifting in my brain, but now I’m dizzy. And nauseous. I choke on the stench of the dirt when I try to suck in a breath. On second thought, I’m glad I didn’t eat earlier.

Last thing I remember, I was tailing the cops. They were downtown, trying to break down the door to a politician’s penthouse. I can’t remember if they were looking for drugs or a body or what, but they broke out the SWAT gear and everything. At the moment, I can’t even remember the politician’s name. In the interest of lying about my age, I’m going to say the lack of oxygen is why I’m so foggy.

Guess this is as good a time as any to mention I’m a P.I. I don’t have the greatest reputation in the world; in fact, half the police force threatens to arrest me every time they see me. The other half threatens to bash in my face. Mess up one murder investigation, and suddenly everyone thinks you’re a hack.

The forged degree doesn’t help either.

Truth is, I’m not a goody-goody P.I. I’m not even the sort they made movies about in the 40s. I don’t have a fedora, my office was shut down last month over some bullshit “building code violation,” and the next time a potential client becomes my femme fatale will be the first.

See, the politician they were after — now I got his name: he’s a high-profile Senator named Wilkins — he’s been linked to underground drug money and sex trafficking for more than two decades. Nothing’s ever stuck to him, though, mostly thanks to me. I’m not tailing him to get dirt on him; I’m tailing him to make sure no one else gets too close.

Well, I was.

Is it a shit job with thankless hours and a bowl full of moral questions? Abso-fucking-lutely. Am I a terrible person for taking this job? If you said yes, I wouldn’t argue. But here’s the deal: I’m set for life. My daughter’s about to graduate from MIT with no debt. My old man beat lung cancer last year and never had to a pay a dime. So while you’re hand-wringing over the moral quandary, I’m thanking Senator Wilkins for the seven-figure salary.

Course, if I’m gonna see my next check, I gotta find a way out of here. The heat and the pressure are unbearable. I can feel the oxygen level depleting. The headache is subsiding, though that may be a response to the adrenaline rush. How am I still alive? Hell, how am I even conscious? The dirt should be pressing down hard enough on my chest that my ribs snap like kindling.

I somehow manage to pull my smartphone out of my pocket and push a button on the side. The screen lights up, illuminating my surroundings. From what I can tell, the only thing missing is a coffin. I notice dried blood on my fingers; with my free hand, I push loose dirt away and touch my temple, then my nose and lips.

The blood’s not mine.

Before I can process that information, I’m startled by the sound of something digging into the ground. I remain as still as I can, trying to ignore the pounding heartbeat in my chest. There’s the sound again. And again. With each muffled shunck, dirt shifts and falls against me. Even as the pressure eases, uncertainty gives way to fear, and my instinct is to curl up against myself.

The shunck grows louder and more frequent. Before I know it, light begins piercing the pitch black. My eyes can’t adjust to the contrast, and all I can see is a pitch-black figure.

“Cole!”

It takes a second for the voice to register. Yeah, that’s my name, and I recognize that voice. But for a few seconds, it just don’t click.

Cole!

I sit up as much as I can before I feel a sharp stabbing pain in my right side. I grit my teeth and recoil before glancing up at the hole. A hand is extended toward me and for the first time, I can see details. The purple nails are my first clue, but once I see the pitch-black hair framing the woman’s face, I know my momentary savior: Chloe van Kempt, a deep-cover detective who specializes in narcotics who’s the only friend I have on the force.

We don’t always see eye-to-eye when it comes to Senator Wilkins, but I trust her. For some reason, she trusts me too.

“Come on, Cole!” she hollers. “We gotta go!”

Don’t have to tell me twice… I grab her hand and, with a strength that doesn’t match her short frame, she lifts me out of the ground. I stumble onto the grass, taking a moment to appreciate how cool it feels compared to the dirt. I gulp large chunks of fresh air as fast as my lungs can take them, hacking and doubling over before slowing myself down.

I don’t really feel like blacking out again.

“What,” I’m still having a hard time breathing, “what the hell happened?”

“You were knocked out and buried alive.” Chloe is so matter-of-fact about it. I lay still as she places a call to the dispatcher, taking a moment to make sure everything’s still attached. My side still hurts, but it’s not nearly as bad when I’m prone like this. As long as I don’t have to bend at the waist or get up or anything, I should be okay. Then again, it’s kinda hard to investigate things while on my back.

“Who?” I ask once she’s finished.

“I think it was someone with the senator.”

I cough in surprise and jolt upright… only to recoil and grunt once the pain shoots up my side again. Sweat coats my forehead, and I can feel the dirt caked into my graying beard. “Guessing you forgot the part where he pays me.”

“No, I’m quite aware of that.” She glances over her shoulder whenever she thinks I’m not looking. Never mind the fact that she’s not the only detective here. My guess: whoever put me in the ground is still close. “This runs a lot deeper than we thought.”

Without warning, Chloe grabs me under my arms and lifts me to my feet. I howl in pain before she hoists one of my arms over her shoulders and leads me to her squad car. I look around for her partner, Ramirez, but it’s just Chloe and me.

“What about the paramedics?”

She doesn’t answer me. She moves with a determination I’ve yet to see from her, eyes focused straight ahead. Something’s going down, something beyond just me.

My roll into the passenger seat will never be considered graceful, but the pain’s so blinding that I can’t even crack a joke as Chloe starts the car and peels out into the night. I lean against the door, swallowing back a combination of bile and fear. Chloe swerves from lane to lane, which doesn’t help the on-again, off-again nausea.

“Who’s behind us?”

“What?” Her eyes dart to the rearview mirror. “No one. Why?”

“Cause you’re driving like we’re being chased.”

“Vincent’s dead,” she announces as the squad car races through a red light. A fire engine whines to life in the distance.

The news doesn’t immediately register. Part of it’s the pain in my side, which flares up again with every bump in the road. Part of it’s the unnerving reality that I was buried alive. When we pass under a street light, I can still see the dirt caked under my fingernails. I don’t think one wash will suffice for my pants. I’m damn sure not gonna get the stench out of my hair for at least a week. But hey, I’m pushing 50, so I’m just glad I still have hair.

But if the Chief of Police is dead…

“Who?”

Her eyes scan the mirror again. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

I force myself to sit up, yelping like a wounded animal when my side flares up again.

The car pulls into a dark alley. Chloe kills the engine but not the headlights. “You’re hurt.”

“No shit.” I grimace, reaching down to hold my side. My fingers find something warm and wet. I frown. It was my blood after all. How did I not notice that before? I must’ve been so preoccupied with the whole being-buried-alive thing that I didn’t notice the wound.

“We should get you to a hospital.”

“And what?” I counter. “Shoot up a flare to whoever put me in the ground, tellin’ ‘em where I am?”

Chloe throws the keys onto the dash and sinks into her seat. She knows I’m right. I know she’s right. If people weren’t being killed and buried left and right, I’d march my happy ass to St. Mary’s or whatever and let them do whatever my insurance would cover. But if Chief DiCicero is dead, then who knows how many other bodies are waiting to be found.

“Who was it, Chloe?”

She’s not sayin’ anything. She doesn’t wanna tell me. Can’t say I blame her. Hell, something tells me I already know.

“It was Wilkins.”

I almost don’t hear her. I grab a handful of napkins from Chloe’s glove box and press them against my side with a grimace. Once the worst of the pain subsides, I give her a sideways glance. “Shit,” I growl. “You sure?”

Chloe looks me dead in the eye. Even in the dark, I see the tears burning the edges. “I saw him do it.”

I stare through the windshield, forcing myself not to look back at Chloe. I hate seeing people cry. I’d rather be shot in the crotch than see someone in tears. I avoided my mother’s funeral for just that reason. I can handle grief. Anger. Sadness. Feel those near every damn day. But crying? I can’t deal.

“Two weeks ago,” Chloe explains, sniffling, “I told Chief our Special Investigations unit had solid, concrete evidence that Senator Wilkins was involved in a sex trafficking ring with ties to the Yakuza. Signed documents, audio recordings, GPS signals, everything. I’ve been working Wilkins for three years and this was the first time we had anything that could stick.”

I frown in confusion. “Didn’t Wilkins help pass a law fighting international sex trafficking?”

“Yeah, but it had no teeth. It was nothing more than a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo bluster that was impossible to enforce — especially on the international level. Total PR move.”

I shake my head. “That way, if word got out of his involvement, he had an easy way to deflect the bad press.”

I’ll admit to not being in the loop when it comes to Wilkins. He signs my checks, he gives me assignments, but I know next to nothing outside of that. He keeps me just out of arm’s reach. Close enough to be of use, far enough away to not be a threat. But I’m obviously a threat to someone; otherwise, I wouldn’t have woken up in a bed of dirt.

“Chief wanted to go forward,” Chloe continues. “He ordered a warrant and everything. Then the FBI called.”

Argument over jurisdiction, probably. More like a “my cock is bigger than yours” pissing contest. Always happens when one of the law enforcement alphabet soups get involved.

“He tried to stall them,” she says. “The FBI. This was our case, our investigation. In Chief’s mind, if anyone brought in Senator Wilkins, it would be us.”

“Why wasn’t I told about this?”

Chloe gives me an emotionless smile. “Didn’t think you’d take kindly to watching the gravy train fall off the tracks.”

Fair point.

“Two days ago,” Chloe added, “Senator Wilkins announced he was forming an exploratory committee to run for president.”

“So now he’s gotta make all that baggage disappear. Can’t run for the White House if people think you fondle kids.”

That explains why the chief was killed. That explains how I wound up in the ground. I always knew I was expendable; Wilkins said so to my face more than once. I just figured it meant I’d be replaced with another P.I. I never thought he’d try to kill me, too much at stake in his career. But if he’s willing to off a police chief by himself…who knows what else Senator Wilkins can do?

Normally, I feel a rush of adrenaline whenever the puzzle pieces start fitting. That jolt has gotten me through many a case in my day, both as a cop and as a P.I. But with this picture getting clearer by the second, I’m not ready to jump off any rooftops. Mostly, I just wanna bury my head in a trash can and retch til I’m inside out. Probably hurt less than my side right now anyway.

“Let me guess,” I groan, “Chief goes to move quickly on this, someone close to Wilkins catches wind of it…”

“…Boom.” Chloe shakes her head. “I was this close to –”

I notice the shattered glass before I see the bullet tear through Chloe’s shoulder and bury itself in the console. She growls in a mixture of horror and pain, clutching her shoulder and doubling over against her seatbelt. I duck, doing my best to ignore the pain as I glance over the edge of my seat. We never heard the car sneak up behind us, and we sure as shit didn’t hear the gun being fired. Another round is fired, missing us both.

“Get the fuck outta the car, Cole!”

It’s Senator Wilkins.

Chloe is too busy applying pressure to her wound to do anything else. Sirens blare in the distance, drowning out her harsh breathing. I reach over and grab her gun, giving her a reassuring nod when she shoots me a look of protest. Hey, if I had my weapon, I’d use it, but for all I know, the Senator took it from me before tossing me in the ground.

“Get out of the car and put your hands above your head!”

I take a deep breath to steel myself, hiding the gun in the waistband of my pants. I open the car door, each movement shooting pain up and down the side of my body. I’m not sure I can even stand upright, but I have no choice. I don’t fancy having my brains splattered on the ground in some random alley.

With tremendous effort, and a fuckload of pain, I stand. I have to lean against the car to turn around, facing the Senator with my hands above my head. Sweat rolls down my temple. I’m trying like hell not to shake. Fear mixes with adrenaline. My body’s telling me it needs help. Chloe’s still dealing with the hole in her shoulder.

And there stands Senator Stewart Wilkins, all 6-foot-4 of him, wire-rim glasses and the build of a linebacker. All-American at Nebraska, had a promising pro career cut short ‘cause of a fucked-up knee. Got into law to make his daddy proud, then ran for public office for… well, no one’s exactly sure why.

“You always were a crap shot, Senator.”

Wilkins sneers, cocking his gun. “I don’t want her dead, Cole… not until I retrieve the file.”

I cast a sideways glance at the car. An overstuffed manila folder cradled in a cardboard box sits on the backseat. Everything Chloe and the rest of the NYPD have to nail Wilkins, no doubt. He knows the file’s in there. He really is tying up all his loose ends.

I can’t help myself. “So I’m guessing a spot on your cabinet’s out of the question.”

“What was your first clue, Cole? Sticking you in the dirt or the bullet in your gal Friday’s arm?”

“Shame,” I tease. “I had my heart set on Secretary of Interior.”

“No,” Wilkins waves the gun at me. “The shame is I kinda liked you, Edward. But you got too damn nosy. Why, Cole? Was I not paying you enough?”

Nosy? I roll my eyes. It’s in my freaking job description — or it would be, if I bothered to sit down and write one. “Can’t be nosy about something I didn’t even know about until she dug me out of the ground.”

I’m leaning against the car again, gulping breaths as the pain in my side becomes almost unbearable. I can feel something throbbing under my skin. My fingers are twitching. I’ve broken into an even more intense cold sweat. I can hear Chloe’s muffled voice. If she’s as smart as I think she is, she’s called for backup.

Hopefully some medical attention too.

“Consider what I did… pre-emptive.”

“So you think it’s that easy?” I warn. “Just wipe out everyone you’ve ever met and stroll into the White House, no one the wiser? It’s 20-fucking-15 now, Senator. Nothing’s private anymore.” He’s squeezing the handle; I can see his knuckles turning white. Good. “You’ll never kill the rumors, Stew. And eventually, one of those rumors is gonna become a report, and that report’s gonna become an investigation… and on and on it goes, like a snowball in Aspen. Killin’ Vince won’t change that. Killin’ me and Chloe won’t change that. You think puttin’ a bullet in my head and throwing me into a hole will help you become president? You’re a lot dumber than I thought.”

Blam! I feel an intense burn in my right knee. I drop in an instant. Suddenly, the pain in my side isn’t so bad anymore.

You ever been shot? I don’t recommend it. I’m not even sure I can come up with the words to describe how it feels. All I know is, I’m hobbled on the ground, my right leg bent in a pool of my own blood. I hear sirens again, and they’re growing closer. I hope it’s an ambulance. I hope it’s backup. I hope it’s the bullet that puts Wilkins out of our collective misery for good. Hell, if I’m really lucky, it’s all three.

But I’ve never been that lucky.

“It’s not about smarts, Cole.” Wilkins stands over me, pressing the warm barrel against my temple. “It’s about power. Haven’t you paid any attention since you’ve been working for me? Money, power… I have it. You don’t. By the time I hit the Iowa caucuses, no one will ever know about Thailand or Indonesia or Santa Monica or any of that.”

He cocks the gun again. I flinch.

“I’m tempted to let you live,” he whispers. “Just to rub it in your face when I finally –”

Blam!

I flinch again, but feel no pain. I open my eyes, eventually dawning on the fact that I wasn’t shot again. There’s a gun at my side… and a dead Senator face-down at my feet. Blood oozes from his forehead and mixes with my own. I can see the hole in the back of Wilkins’ head, brain matter stuck in his ghost-white hair.

Remind me to throw up later.

My eyes dance around our surroundings. There’s no one else here. Just the dead Senator, Chloe, and me. Chloe’s leaning out the driver’s-side door now, cringing and talking on her police-issued phone. She says something about the folder in the back seat, a wry smile on her face. I try to focus on her words, but an ambulance screeches to a halt in the entrance to the alley. I sigh in relief as two medics leap from the ambulance and bolt our way.

No sooner does the female medic reach me, though, I pass out. Like a fuckin’ lightweight.

SHORT STORY, Ghost of a Life, Chapter 5

I glance up at the ghost hovering over Grayson, hoping against hope that he’ll give me the answer I’m looking for. But the spirit remains silent, inching closer to the cowering man, relishing in the way Grayson flinches when its tail brushes up against his leg. The small blue stain on Grayson’s pant leg is prominent, and Grayson is curling up against himself to the point where he’s in the fetal position.

If I don’t do something soon, he won’t make it out of this plane of existence alive. For all I know, I might not either. There’s no telling what the spirits will do at this point.

“Hey,” I call out, extending my arm in a futile attempt to touch Grayson’s ankle. “Who’s Ben?”

The ghost turns its attention to me. Which… unnerving much?

You mean you don’t know?

Considering the sheer volume of things I didn’t know coming into this… note to self: do a better job of vetting your clients from now on. I shake my head and offer a shrug, not trusting my words when the pissed-off spirit is now glaring in my direction. At least, I think it’s a glare; kinda hard to tell when the spirit’s eye sockets are empty.

Grayson opens his mouth, but I can’t hear anything outside of panicked wheezing. His eyes are too wide for my liking, but at least he hasn’t gotten any paler. If I play this just right, he might make it out of here. Sure, he’s a prick and I can’t stand what he did, but he’s still a human being and I’m not comfortable with the idea of playing judge, jury, and executioner.

“Who’s Ben?” I try again.

The ghost lowers itself to my level, though it still towers over me by about three feet. But slowly, the figure begins to morph, its ethereal tendrils and wisps of… whatever it is changing form until I find myself staring at a boy. A child, perhaps no older than 11. Maybe 12. His eyes are sad, the left darker than the right, and his head lists to the left. The sadness shifts to anger when the child glances up at Grayson floating several feet above us.

I’m Ben… and Daddy must pay!

Oh, lovely. I’ve stumbled upon some supernatural Dr. Phil shit. I follow the boy’s gaze up to Grayson. The fear in his eyes has been replaced with a sadness that can only be explained away with guilt. Whatever Grayson did, it had to do with a son I didn’t even realize he had. Yep, definitely doing more homework before taking on a new client from now on.

“Grayson…” I get back to my feet. “What did you do?”

A tear rolls down Grayson’s cheek, gravity be damned. Another follows soon after, and within seconds, he’s this close to bawling his eyes out. He doesn’t even register the other spirits hovering around him anymore, which have appeared to given him some distance. But they’re still circling him, wisps of their ghostly frames coming close to contact with him.

He’s staring at the child, shaking his head and straightening himself. Gently, the spirits place Grayson back on his feet, but he immediately drops to his knees. Eyes red and puffy, tear streaks on both sides of his face, Grayson doesn’t notice when I approach and place a hand on his shoulder. He’s too busy staring at the translucent child in front of him.

“What happened to your son?”

He left me with those monsters! They did things to me… bad things…

I glance at the ghost boy, shuddering to imagine what he might be talking about. I turn my attention back to Grayson, who is now staring at his hands in his lap. I really need him to rejoin the land of the sane right now. I squeeze his shoulder and drop to my knees; maybe if I’m on his level, it will help him open up a bit.

“Grayson…”

“Before Ben was old enough for school,” he starts, “we started noticing things. He was… quieter than most kids. Wouldn’t respond to his name. Had trouble keeping eye contact. We thought maybe it was nothing, but…”

He shakes his head and I can see the emotion welling up inside him again. I need to keep him calm, keep him here.

“Ben was autistic,” I offer.

Grayson nods and sniffles before straightening his posture. “We tried everything we could to get him help. But… he was almost better off not being able to walk, you know? Doctors would’ve known what to do then. But since it was my Ben’s brain that was…” I watch as Grayson’s hands curl into fists. “It was like they didn’t even try.”

I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t make friends. So Mommy and Daddy shipped me to this hospital. It was a dirty place, full of bad people.

A smile creeps onto Grayson’s face, which I find odd until I realize that is probably the most he’s ever heard his son say at one time. “It wasn’t Merciful Souls, was it?”

Grayson shakes his head. “It was A New Day, on the other side of the state.”

I vaguely remember hearing about that place on the news a few years ago. A lot of disgusting shit apparently went on in that place. Doctors and nurses using their positions in the facility to take advantage of their patients, doing some truly despicable things for which they deserve to spend lifetimes behind bars. I can’t even repeat some of the allegations without my stomach turning inside out.

I turn my attention back to the boy. “What did they do to you?”

They wouldn’t give me my medicine. They told me I was there because my parents didn’t love me. One of the nurses… one of the nurses would spank me until I couldn’t even sit anymore…

My stomach churns and I have to cover my mouth. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people taking advantage of and abusing a child like that… especially in a place that’s supposed to help them when no one else can. I still don’t have all the pieces, but if I connect the dots correctly, I’m starting to view Grayson in a different light.

Why did you send me there, Daddy?

“Because your mother and I didn’t know what else to do.” Grayson shakes his head. “Nothing we were doing was working. Nothing the doctors told us was working.”

You left me with bad people… I died in there!

“I know.” Grayson’s crying again. “I know, and I’m so sorry…”

I’m fighting back tears of my own at this point, though it’s more out of anger than anything. The rage is so strong that I can feel my hands trembling. I have to ball them into fists to keep them steady. “But what does this have to do with Merciful Souls?”

“The same group that ran A New Day ran Merciful Souls,” Grayson explains.

I nod. “So you assumed the same things were happening there, too.”

“Before our divorce, Frances sued the management group responsible for A New Day. Bled them as dry as she could. It was a victory, but without Ben, it rang hollow.”

“So… what?” I shake my head. “You decided more needed to be done, so you pulled the strings to bankrupt Merciful Souls and left a bunch of mentally ill people with nowhere else to turn?”

“No! I –“ Grayson turns his gaze to the young boy in front of me, swiping under his eyes to catch any more tears. He’s pretty much cried out at this point, but the emotion of the moment is so thick and raw that his body can’t help it. I’m even a little choked up at this point, even if I still think what he did was fucked up.

“It wasn’t supposed to go down the way it did,” he admits.

Liar!

The boy stretches his arm skyward, pulling Grayson back into the air and twisting him until he’s rightside up again. But when one of the spirits passes through his back – without coming out the other side – I have to turn away. His scream is enough to turn my stomach, and the thought of a spirit shacked up inside the body of someone who’s still alive… I can’t think of anything worse at the moment. The physical pain is one thing; I can only imagine what’s going on in Grayson’s head.

Sure enough, when I look up, Grayson’s clutching his temples with both hands. His eyes are scrunched closed in agony, and he’s gritting his teeth. When the boy clenches his fist, Grayson’s eyes fly open and he clutches his chest. His mouth hangs open, as if there’s a scream begging to be set free, but no sound comes. Desperate to not watch Grayson die – why, I’m not entirely sure – I lunge for the spirit, swiping my arms as if to scoop him up into my arms.

And much to my surprise, that’s exactly what happens. I shudder and gag at the rush of ice cold against my body as I hold onto the child. But the surprise that I’m actually able to affect the noncorporeal has registered for both of us. The child glances down at my arms with wide eyes… before his face morphs into something sinister, bearing three rows of sharp teeth and snarling at me as if I were an uncooperative meal.

I stumble backward and lose my grip. The boy, having now shifted into full-on monster mode, with talons and everything, swoops into the air and grabs Grayson by his chin. The snarl is louder this time, and Grayson is trembling. His eyes meet mine, and all I can do is give him a sad smile to let him know I wish there was more I could do. I’m not equipped to handle spirits that get violent… mostly because this is the first time I’ve had that happen.

One of the translucent tendrils swipes across Grayson’s midsection, and he doubles over with a scream. I cup my hands over my mouth, watching his dress shirt stain with blood. It’s a shallow cut, meant more for instant pain than lasting damage, but if his son’s spirit has gotten to the point of physical assault… then I don’t see how this ends without one of us in a body bag.

Do they have body bags out here?

“Hey!” My voice echoes in the abyss.

Another invisible force hits me in my stomach and sends me teetering backward. I double over and wrap both arms around my midsection, desperate not to vomit again. And you know what? I don’t care if this ghost is actually some child who died because of neglect or maleficence at the hands of those who were supposed to care for him. He’s starting to get on my last nerve, and I can’t let him kill Grayson.

He swipes at Grayson again, and this time, I see the blood trickling from the side of his neck. Adrenaline takes over at this point, pushing me back to my feet and running full-speed until I tackle the spirit to the ground. Which, considering we can’t see the ground, it comes up quick and hurts like hell when we land. I wrap my hand around the ghost’s neck to pin it down, using my body weight in the process.

The ghost reverts back to its child form, as if to elicit sympathy from me. But I only tighten my grip, my jaw clenching. “Look,” I practically growl. “I’m sorry for what happened to you. I really am. But it’s not your dad’s fault. Whatever he did, whatever made him take Merciful Souls, he did it out of love and grief. For you.”

The spirit shakes its head and its lip curls into a sneer. “No… if Daddy loved me, he never would’ve put me in that hospital in the first place!”

A thud to my left tells me Grayson’s no longer hovering in the air. Instead, he’s on all fours, looking as if he’s about to wretch at any moment. And he does – but instead of food, the spirit that had shoved its way into his chest spills out of his mouth. Drops of blood also follow suit, and I shudder in disgust at the whole display. I can only imagine how terrible that felt. He collapses face-first, sweaty and out of breath. His eyes are barely open, and he turns to look at us. Swallowing thickly, he opens his mouth to speak… but no words come.

“Grayson?” I quirk a brow.

“I-I’m sorry,” he whispers. “We didn’t know what else to do, Ben. Nothing we tried worked.”

So you just abandoned me?

“No! We-we thought we were helping!”

Do you have… any idea what they did to me in there?

“No, he doesn’t.” I tighten my grip even more on the ghost, and its face begins to shift again. “But that doesn’t give you the right to torment him like this. What happened to you was out of his hands.”

And what about the others?

“Those are on me.” Grayson’s voice is just barely above a whisper now. He cringes with every other word, cradling within himself and cupping his right hand over the wound in his gut. The bleeding has subsided, but I doubt the pain has. “I was wrong. I should’ve found another way to secure a building for McGuinnis.”

“Even so,” I chime in, “what gives you the right to torment those students?” The ghost looks at me in confusion. “You’re pissed at your dad, I get it. You want him to suffer, I get that. But why haunt the students living in McGuinnis? What did they ever do to you?”

The students are just a means… a way for us to get to him.

“You’re causing undue suffering,” I argue. “In your thirst for vengeance, you’re hurting innocent people.”

For the first time, the child actually looks incredibly childlike. Almost as if it had never considered what I just said. I can see the reality of what the spirit was doing dawning on it. I’m trying to ignore the hissing of the spirits still hovering above us, monsters eager to strike when next commanded. They’re among the most gruesome creatures I’ve seen in my short time doing this, and after all this is over, I’m gonna start reading up on how to handle hostile ghosts.

Because this shit ain’t cool.

Then, with a wave of the boy’s hand, the other spirits disappear. I blink in surprise, reluctantly releasing my grip on the ghost’s neck. He blinks up at me and gives a sad smile. I then stand, hands still cocked into fists just in case. But the spirit only floats into the air and hangs its head.

You’re right.

I… I am?

I mean, of course I am.

The boy hovers over Grayson. Its tiny hands glow white for several seconds, and I can see the gash on Grayson’s neck closing. The same happens to the wound in his midsection, and slowly, Grayson scrambles back to his knees. He’s pale and sweaty, and he’s having a hard time catching his breath. His eyes are red and bloodshot, and he occasionally sniffles.

“I’m sorry, son.”

So am I, Dad.

Then, with a snap of the spirit’s fingers, we’re no longer surrounded by pitch black. It takes me a few moments to gather my bearings, but once I do, I realize we’re back in Grayson’s office. It’s a simple place, all things considered. The desk only houses a computer and two framed photographs. One depicts the day Grayson married his wife; the other is a Christmas photo of a younger Grayson and his wife with a baby on her lap. The baby is smiling, but it’s not a full-on grin and it doesn’t reach the child’s eyes. It’s a sad sight, particularly in light of what had just happened. Grayson is sitting on the floor, staring at his hands in his lap.

“It’s over,” I offer, because really, what else is there to say?

“Thank you, Ms. Blanchard.”

I shake my head and crouch down to Grayson’s level. “I have half a mind to report you to the authorities, but something tells me the statute of limitations has already passed. So I’m just gonna have to be comfortable in knowing you’re a miserable wreck over what you did.”

Grayson lifts his gaze. “You hate me.”

“Can you blame me? First of all, you hire me under false pretenses. Then all that mess… look, I’m sorry about what happened with Ben. I can’t imagine what it’s like for a parent to lose a child. But… making others in need suffer because of your pain is no way to go.”

All he can do is nod and go back to staring at his hands. With a sigh, I reach into my back pocket and pull out the check he had written for me when he first hired me. I place the check in his hands and give a soft smile when he looks up at me in confusion.

“Keep it,” I say.

“But… but you earned this.” He swallows. “And then some.”

“And believe me when I say I could really use it.” Because it’s a lot of money. Far more than I normally charge. I didn’t realize a college president could be so loaded, but the evidence is right there in front of us. “But there are others who need it more.”

Grayson frowns at me. “I don’t…”

“You wanna make it up to your son? To those you displaced when you bought McGuinnis?” I smile when he nods. “Use that money to honor them. Donate it to a mental hospital. Start up a charity of your own. Better yet, use that money to form the Ben Grayson School of Mental Health. What better way to memorialize your son than to turn your school into one of the nation’s best in mental health?”

It’s like a light bulb goes off in Grayson’s head, and for the first time since he uttered his son’s name, I see a smile on his face. It’s a sad smile, but it’s also full of purpose. He scrambles to his feet and approaches his desk, frantically scribbling all over the yellow legal pad sitting next to his mouse. He then grabs his checkbook and begins scribbling again, even as I approach the desk and shake my head.

“Oh, no, that’s not necessary.”

“Nonsense.” He rips the check off and hands it to me. My heart leaps into my throat when I look at it, because it’s the same amount as the other check. Just how loaded is this guy? And if he’s this loaded, what’s he doing in academia?

Ah well, you know what they say. Gift horse. Mouth. Yadda yadda.

“Consider that an apology,” he says. “And a thank you.”

I pocket the check with a nod, pursing my lips. “Well, no offense, sir, but I hope we never see each other again.”

I turn to walk out of the office before Grayson can say anything, because I’m beat and just wanna go home and crawl into bed. This might a nightlight situation, given I just spent much of the evening in a pitch-black plane of existence and would rather not be somewhere that dark again any time soon. I also remind myself that the next time I catch a case, it would behoove me to vet the person hiring me just as much as I vet anything else.

I don’t want any more surprises like tonight. Because surprises like this are emotionally draining, and it’s disheartening just how often the supernatural and the spectrum of human emotion collide like this. All of this madness and suffering because one father didn’t know what do about his son who needed help.

Still, I hope Grayson finds peace. Likewise for his son and those whose lives he ruined.

~FIN~

Read Chapter 1 | Read Chapter 2 | Read Chapter 3 | Read Chapter 4