New Charity Anthology Available

Exciting news to share!

No, the latest Jill Andersen novel isn’t out yet, but this does involve our favorite red-eyed,51-kFlT3QhL._SY346_ badge-flinging superhero. An anthology, titled Courage on Infinite Earths: Kaiju vs. Cancer, was recently released, and it includes a short story from yours truly in which Bounty faces off against her largest, strangest threat yet — an actual monster.

This non-canon story, titled, “Beyond Belief,” is a departure for Jill. First of all, she’s never faced off a threat that wasn’t human before. Also, I wrote this story in first-person, which I hardly ever do, and the result is hopefully a story that’s as much fun to read as it was to write.

Best of all? Courage on Infinite Earths supports a very good cause.

In a pocket dimension, a dark creature comprised of a living illness is sending pieces of itself across the multiverse. As the emissaries of this horror reach different versions of Earth they are spreading the disease they carry and causing the deaths of countless people. Heroes from countless dimensions are facing off against this threat as the vigilante Raptor travels from universe to universe gathering a coalition of warriors to battle the source of this scourge.

The greatest heroes from independent comics, novels, and YouTube come together to face this threat! Within the pages of this book, you will read both short stories and comics featuring Raptor (Matthew Dennion), Marshal Star (Dennis Roth and Declan Burke) Jeremy Walker (Zach Cole), The Whisper (Serene Dennion), Bounty (J.D. Cunegan), The References, The Work Force (Mark Dennion), The Strangers (Jean-Marc Lofficier), Caitlin Crow (Alan OW Barnes), Moonstalker, Centurion (Christofer Nigro), Cosmic Gorilla (John Opal), Sky Girl (Joe Sergi), Jake Cooper (Martin Tiller), Smash (Chris A. Bolton and Kyle Bolton), Airheart (Jay Taylor), Striven (Tom Warin), Lightweight (Nicholas Ahlhelm), Nagoraiar (Planet-G), Augustine and Bell (William T. Kearney), and Draco Azul (Andres Perez).

All proceeds from the sale of this book will go to the patients at St. Jude Children’s Cancer Research Hospital to fight the real life monster of childhood cancer.

Click here to pick up your copy of Courage on Infinite Earths 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.

SNIPPET: Life at the Speed of Time

This is the first chapter of my short story, “Life at the Speed of Time,” which is featured in the anthology Cracks in the Tapestry, which was released last month. It’s the first Cracks in the Tapestry coveranthology I’ve been a part of, and this story was a lot of fun to write. Enjoy!

The steering wheel shaking in my hands is actually soothing.

It distracts me from the bead of sweat running down the right side of my face. It gives me a reprieve from the oppressive heat in the cockpit, a stifling one hundred and forty degrees according to a thermometer placed on my seat. The cooling unit attached to my helmet gave out back on lap 120, not ideal for a muggy day in central Florida. I can barely make out my crew chief or spotter when they talk into my ear, the roar of my engine drowning them out.

But all things considered, I’m having a good race. Daytona has never been my favorite race track; I don’t care for this style of racing. I’m surrounded by forty of my closest enemies, our beasts of speed inches apart as we barrel along the banking so fast we should be soaring into the air. This is all I’ve known my entire life, but even if I’m more comfortable at a half-mile bullring, this place is the pinnacle of stock car racing.

And I’ve led laps today. The car’s fast. But a bad pit stop thirty laps ago has me stuck in 30th. I have nowhere to run. I’m stuck in the middle of the pack, with cars on either side of me. If one of us sneezes, or someone gets an itchy arm, calamity is sure to follow.

The field barrels into the first turn. To the fans, we’re little more than a blur of color. But with my competitors going as fast as me, I can read every sponsor logo on their quarter panels. Freddy Bocelli, who wrecked me going for the win at Bristol last season, is to my outside. He has a new team this year, but the way his left front tire twitches tells me he still hasn’t learned how to hold a pretty wheel.

To my inside is Stan Gordon. No relation and not even half the talent of the Gordon you’ve actually heard of. He’s only in that car because he has a sponsor – his father’s chain of hardware stores.

Don’t get me started.

The banking gives way and we’re screaming down the backstretch. Only a concrete wall with energy-absorbing protection, a catchfence, and a row of billboards separate us from the airport behind the track.

Three wide middle. Three wide middle.

My spotter, Earl Webber. He’s probably staring at my car through binoculars from his perch above the press box on the frontstretch. I can only see but so much in this car: out the windshield and through my rearview mirror. Earl helps me navigate through trouble and tells me what’s going on around me. His information is paramount, especially here where the drivers can’t get away from each other.

Clear high!

As soon as the words leave Earl’s mouth, I jerk the steering wheel to the right. My momentum carries me past Stan, then I find myself passing two more cars. Finally, I’m getting somewhere. Earl’s in my ear again, but I’m not listening as the banking tilts me going into the third turn. Several rows ahead, I see a car jump out of line on the high side, making it three-wide.

No one goes with him, and he loses several positions.

Ten laps to go.

I curse under my breath. Ten laps?! I thought I had more time.

Clear low!

I turn left. The tires squeal in protest, but the car does what I need it to. Coming off the fourth turn, coming back to the start-finish line, I’ve picked up three more spots. I can feel the air propelling my car forward. I can’t see the air, but I can definitely feel it.

But I do see a car in the infield grass, on its roof and on fire. I blink and shake my head. The vision’s gone.

What the…?

I pass another car going into the first turn, but I have to jerk the wheel to the right when my rear tires lose traction. If I hadn’t caught it, I’d have wrecked at least five or six cars. That’s how close together we are. I catch my breath by the time we’re on the backstretch again; at this late stage, it feels like we’re taking forever to race along this two and a half-mile track.

The image of the burning car returns. But this time, I hear the crunch of warped sheet metal. Someone screams. The sky above is a ghastly mix of coal black and burnt orange.

But as I barrel into Turn 3, the image is gone.

“What the…?”

You okay in there, Randy?

Before I can answer Scott, my crew chief, Earl’s yelling in my ear.

The leaders are wrecking on the frontstretch!

Another scream startles me. I cry out and have to corral the car as it swerves back and forth. No one hits me, and I scrub off enough speed that I’m lingering hundreds of feet behind the pack. The scream returns, louder, and when I squeeze my eyes shut, the car on fire explodes. The driver was still inside.

I know because that’s when the screaming stops.

Randy! Randy?!

Other than Earl’s voice, everything is silent. My car comes to a complete stop by the entrance to pit road. My grip on the steering wheel is so tight my hands start to cramp.

Then I open my eyes.

Nearly half the field is wrecked in the curve along the frontstretch, torn sheet metal and roll cages strewn about the asphalt and infield grass. Safety vehicles have already begun approaching the carnage, and some of the drivers have exited their cars after lowering the black netting over the drivers-side window.

Most of the safety crews are heading for the infield grass. When I see why, my heart stops and my stomach drops. In the grass, there is a car, upside down and on fire. The red No. 54 car, piloted this season by hotshot rookie Chase Flanigan.

Randy, you alright?

I yank the cords from my helmet – both the cooling unit that no longer works and the radio. Gritting my teeth, my heartbeat far quicker than it had been when I was going 200 miles an hour, I pull off my helmet, and the neck restraint device attached to it, and head sock underneath. I dislodge the steering wheel from its column, tear down my window net. The six-point harness trapping me in my cocoon of a seat is the next to go before I pull myself out of the car and run toward the wreckage.

No one sees me. The safety crews and ambulances are too busy tending to the wrecked.

Stock car racing is as safe as it’s ever been. To the point where we sometimes foolishly think we’re invincible. Never mind the guy who at this track a couple years ago hit a concrete wall so hard he snapped both of his legs. Or the fact that our most beloved driver had to hang it up, in part, because of head injuries.

But no one’s died in almost twenty years, so…

The fire’s grown by the time I reach the grass. The car’s on-board extinguishing unit must have broken. I push my way through three safety workers, unable to shake the déjà vu. I gulp down air as fast as I can, willing myself not to drop to my knees and hurl. I’ll be sick later. Right now, I have to get Chase out of that car.

“Hey!”

I ignore the safety worker. Once I’m within feet of Chase’s car, the heat pushes back against me like a wall. I cringe and push through it as best I can, shielding my eyes from the brightness. The smoke is black as night pouring into the sky, and I drop to my knees by the passenger’s side. Peering into the window, I see Chase’s eyes wide as they can go through the visor of his helmet. He stares right at me, tugging on his belts. We’re always told to pull those belts a little bit tighter before the green flag waves; right now, Chase needs them to loosen.

Springing back to my feet, I run across to the driver’s side. One member of the safety crew grabs me by the shoulder. I shake him off and point at the fire. “Put that out!”

No… no no no no no!

Not even five minutes ago, I had seen this exact scene unfold. And the first time Chase screams, I freeze. It’s the exact sound I’d heard just moments before the wreck happened. I still don’t know how it started. I imagine TV will be playing the incident over and over again on a loop, and non-racing media will even pick up on it. Train wreck spectacle, nothing more.

But Chase needs to get out of the car before the worst happens.

Reaching in, I tug with all the strength I’ve got. But those belts won’t budge. Cursing under my breath, I turn my head to cough. The smoke is so bad my eyes are watering. I gag and nearly lose my lunch. But a deep breath keeps me from blowing chunks all over the rookie, and I reach in again with both hands.

Still, the belts won’t move.

“Help!” he screams.

Part of me wants to be sarcastic in return, but the kid’s freaked. As he should be. His car’s on fire and he’s stuck in it. The plume of smoke has grown to the point where the wind gust is carrying it into the grandstands. Fans are fleeing, covering their faces as they seek refuge. Some fans have stuck around, either to get photos or to see Chase emerge from the car.

But if I can’t those belts off…

Three safety workers grab me by the shoulders and pull me away.

“No!” I try to free myself, but a fourth worker joins the fray. “I have to help!”

“There’s nothing you can do!” one worker, his firesuit reading Jenkins, shouts. “The car’s gonna blow at any minute!”

I whirl around in anger. “So you’re just gonna leave him there?!”

Jenkins points, and over my shoulder, I see two men in fireman gear drop to their knees. One reaches in, and after what feels like an eternity, both he and the other fireman begin the process of extracting Chase from the vehicle. What’s left of the crowd roars in excitement when Chase’s head emerges from the window, but his shoulders get caught on the damn belts.

Those six-point harnesses are great when you’re in the car. In a situation like this… my stomach falls again.

The four crewmen who had pulled me from Chase’s car grab me and yank me back again. We retreat to pit road and leap over the wall separating the crews from their pit stalls, and I don’t know why. I trip over the wall and grunt, scraping my hands on the pavement. When I turn around to yell at the crewmen, I don’t see them. Because they ducked.

Then Chase’s car explodes.

He had only been halfway extracted. Both he and the two firemen trying to rescue him are engulfed in the fireball. Fans scream in horror. Fellow drivers fall to their knees on the track.

And I throw up all over a set of unused Goodyears.

 

Like what you read? Check out the rest by picking up your copy of Cracks in the Tapestry, available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions! The anthology also features work from Leslie Conzatti, Arthur David, C. Scott Davis, Benjamin D. Pegg, R. Eric Smith, and Lorna Woulfe.

 

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.

Preamble

Okay, this is something I’m really excited about. I’ve got a secret project in the works (secret because I’m not quite ready to officially announce it yet), something I think you all will really enjoy. Anyway, my newsletter subscribers and Patreon supporters have already had access to this, but now, the rest of you get to catch this sneak peek into my secret project.

Enjoy!

*****

“Doctor… Lo, is it?”

Amanda Crawford tossed her glasses on top of the overstuffed file folder in front of her. There were so many files and papers crammed into the folder, it was a wonder the thing hadn’t torn yet. Maybe her advisers were right; maybe she should upgrade to a binder. But binders took up space, and space was one luxury her she didn’t have these days.

Well, her new office had plenty of space. Personal space? That was another story.

Sebastian Lo loosened his black tie for what seemed like the thousandth time since he stepped out of the limousine that had dropped him off here. Formal attire didn’t suit him in the best of situations, but with his nerves so shot that he could feel the sweat stains forming under his arms, it was a wonder the woman sitting next to him couldn’t smell him.

“Y-yes.” He gave a curt nod, pushed his black-rimmed glasses back up his nose.

“You have had quite the career,” Amanda offered with a shake of her head. “Normally, I wouldn’t give someone with a dishonorable discharge on their record the time of day, but right now, beggars can’t be choosers.”

Lo’s frown deepened. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand…”

The annoyance on Amanda’s face melted away, replaced with an exhaustion and a weariness that typically didn’t befall those in her profession until after a couple years. The bags under her eyes were darker than her brown irises, and in the harsh light of her office, she appeared so pale as to be dead.

But she wasn’t a corpse on Lo’s slab. She was the newly-elected President of the United States. And why she was bothering to meet with Lo, he had no idea. But the nausea told him whatever was in that folder wasn’t good.

“Are you familiar with the attack on D.C. several months ago?” she asked.

Lo’s frown disappeared. He quirked an eyebrow and stole a glance at the rest of the Oval Office. What was pristine in photographs, awe-inspiring, was surprisingly ordinary in-person. Sure, it looked like the Oval Office should, but the mystique Lo expected to feel wasn’t there.

Maybe it was the nerves. Sure, that was what he told himself.

“I’ve heard rumors,” he admitted, again pushing his glasses. “Not sure what to believe.”

“Well, it’s all true.” Amanda stood with a sigh, walking past Lo and staring out the massive windows overlooking the lawn. The American flag flanked her to her left, much larger than the pin she kept on her lapel. “There are monsters in this world, Doctor. Things far more dangerous than any threat we’ve ever faced. And I mean to do something about it.”

Lo blinked. “I don’t recall monster slaying being part of your platform.”

“No one will ever know,” she said, hands clasped behind her back. Her gaze never left the window. “What I’m proposing, Doctor, is completely off-the-books. Unofficial, doesn’t actually exist.” She glared over her shoulder. “That means nothing we discuss leaves this room. Understood?”

Lo nodded.

Amanda’s eyes narrowed.

“Yes,” Lo answered with a placating shrug.

“I’m impressed with your work, moral judgments aside,” she said. “I daresay that in many ways, you’ve honored Dr. Roberts’ legacy. Human prosthetics and cybernetics are as advanced as ever, and something tells me we’ll need that technology and expertise in the coming battles.”

Lo shook his head, removing his tie entirely. For the first time since entering the Oval Office, he could take a full breath. “Are you offering me a job, Madame President?”

“I’m offering you a choice.”

Lo opened his mouth. Amanda turned away from the window and took the large leather seat behind her desk. She seemed to sink into the cushion, crossing her arms over her chest and giving Lo the same sort of look the dean used to give him when he was an undergrad and spent more time chasing bottles and skirts than textbooks.

“I know what you did for David Gregor,” she said. “And I know all about your… other experiments. Rest assured that not only are they grossly unethical, they also break several laws.”

Lo pursed his lips. “I see. I either accept your offer or you throw me to the wolves.”

Amanda offered a thin-lipped smile. “So to speak.”

“What’s the offer?”

Reaching into a drawer to her right, Amanda produced another folder — this one far thinner than the first. It was plain manila, with large red letters spelling out CONFIDENTIAL – EYES ONLY scrawled along the front. She tossed the folder at Lo, and he watched it land in his lap.

“Open it.”

With shaky hands, Lo did just that. He frowned at what appeared to be autopsy photos — only these were no ordinary humans. One specimen had his mouth pried open, revealing fangs. Another looked to be an oversized slug split open down the middle, like it was a middle school science class dissection. A third photo was of a man-sized bat, half of his body scorched and rotting.

“Operation: Hellion is our answer to the growing supernatural menace,” she explained as Lo thumbed through the rest of the folder’s contents. “If the monsters are intent on invading our planet, threatening our way of life… well, what kind of president would I be if I didn’t try to protect my people?”

Lo frowned. “I’m not a monster fighter.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m not asking you to be one.” Amanda leaned back in her chair, hands steepled together. “I could put the most capable military might at our disposal on this team, and they wouldn’t last two seconds against a nest of vampires. No, I need a super team. I need people with… abilities.”

Closing the folder in his lap, Lo sighed and shook his head. “You want to resurrect Project Fusion. Officially.”

“No. I want something better than Project Fusion. And you’re going to give it to me.”

*****

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Bounty has been nominated for a TopShelf magazine Indie Book Award! Pick up your copy today!

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.

 

OUT NOW: BOUNDLESS

Yesterday was National Superhero Day.

No, really.

So how did I celebrate? With a new release!

Boundless is a prequel to my debut novel Bounty, and it takes readers through Jill Andersen’s first adventure as the costumed vigilante Bounty. It’s exciting, violent, and the perfect jumping-on point for the Jill Andersen series.

Best of all? It’s just 99 cents.

Boundless Final_Resize

A little more than two years before the events of Bounty, Jill Andersen makes a life-altering decision. But this decision comes with consequences she didn’t foresee, and her first night as the vigilante Bounty winds up being something for which she was wholly unprepared.

A crisis of faith eventually gives way to certainty: both in terms of discovering who killed a young man named Johnny Ruiz and in terms of coping with the latest change in her own life.

Along the way, Jill defies death and discovers just how deep the city’s corruption runs. But will she survive the experience long enough to decide if a life of vigilantism is for her?

Just 99 cents — available on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and other digital outlets

 

Also Out Now
Notna is now available! Get your copy.

Behind the Mask (Jill Andersen #4) is now available! Get your copy.

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, 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

SHORT STORY: Ghost of a Life, Chapter 4

I don’t know how long I’ve been out, but by the time my eyes open again, I almost wish I could go right back to sleep. The fog clears from my vision and I see Grayson floating several feet in the air – or what would be several feet in the air, were we somewhere normal that had a ground and a horizon and an air. He’s upside down, mouth agape and eyes wide open. He’s having trouble breathing, and as I scramble to my feet, I can see his tie is tighter around his neck than normal.

But what really make my blood run cold are the streaks of blue surrounding Grayson. Translucent streaks of a whitish blue, vaguely human in form with thin arms and skeletal fingers. Their tails trail behind them, and it takes me a few moments to figure out that there are four of these spirits surrounding him. The ghost I recognize as the leader, for lack of a better term, is floating just a few feet away, admiring the handiwork of its underlings.

One of the spirits passes clean through Grayson’s chest, and the scream of agony he belts out has me recoiling. My stomach lurches at the sound, as well as the understanding of how it feels when a spirit passes through a corporeal form. The head ghost waves its arm, and Grayson’s scream cuts off in a harsh gag. Grayson tries to reach up to cup his neck with both hands, but one of the other spirits grabs his wrists and pins them behind his back.

Another spirit passes through Grayson’s chest again. I can’t stand the look of agony on his face. He might be a prick, but I don’t think he deserves this.

“Hey!” I call out, straightening my posture. Might as well go all out if I’m gonna fake this. “Stop!”

He must pay…

“With what, his life?”

If it comes to that.

I shake my head. “What if he turns into one of you? What if all you do tonight is create another pissed-off spirit?”

He won’t. We’ll make sure of that.

“And what about you?” My hands curl into fists, not that I can actually do anything with them. “You know what happens to spirits who meddle with the living.”

As if the ghost is taunting me, one of its minions passes through Grayson’s chest again. He bites back a scream, but the look of agony on his face and the vague memory of what that feels like makes me turn my head. I can’t stand to see this kind of suffering, even from someone I’m not terribly fond of. I mean… yeah, Grayson’s a first-class toolbox, but that doesn’t mean he deserves this. No one does.

The same goop that had stained my pants is now running down Grayson’s shirt. His head is listing to the side, eyes hooded and mouth hung open. He’s barely conscious at this point, and my compassionate side hopes he goes under. Sure, it means he might have an easier time slipping into death, but if it means he can’t feel anything… that’s a trade-off I’m willing to take.

The screeching and wailing grow louder, to the point where I have to cup my ears. Because of this, I can’t hear the device on my left hip beeping. Fortunately, the beeping is accompanied by a frequent, incessant vibration – one that makes me snatch the device with one hand and squint at the screen. It’s probably the most advanced piece of equipment I have, a remote sensor designed to alert me when there’s supernatural energy in the vicinity. It just now occurs to me that the thing never went off when I was in that hallway – or when I was here the first time – or at any point until the ghosts started getting violent.

The battery levels on the device are fine, so that can’t be it. I frown and place the machine back on my hip, because at this point it’s not alerting me to anything I don’t already know. The supernatural energy is fairly obvious at this point, in large part because of how violent the ghosts have become. One of them reaches out and tears off Grayson’s suit coat, tossing it aside before a slimy tentacle traces an outline over his jaw.

That brings Grayson fully back to the consciousness, and he gags as he recoils. I don’t blame him; that slippery stuff is nasty enough on walls or ceilings or clothes… but to actually have it touching your skin? I’d probably be struggling to keep my dinner down too.

“Let him go!” I order, as if I have any agency over these spirits.

This no longer concerns you.

A force pushes against my chest again, and the pain is searing as I skid along the invisible ground. I grit my teeth against the sensation, resisting the urge to grab the area that hurts. I don’t know why this matters to me so much, but I’m trying to make a point of not showing pain or fear in front of the spirits. I doubt it would actually do any good; maybe it’s just a point of pride with me. Still, the throbbing in my ribcage is impossible to ignore, and it’s a chore just to get back to my knees.

By the time I look up again, even more spirits have joined the fray. I don’t know where they’re coming from, but where that had been a handful of ghosts, there’s now… at least a dozen. Maybe more than that. It’s hard to keep count when they’re floating around in circles, overlapping with one another. One glowy white-blue spirit blends in with another and it’s impossible to tell them all apart.

This time, Grayson does scream, and it makes me recoil. I struggle to get back to my feet, still doubled over from the pain in my midsection. Like hell, this doesn’t concern me anymore. The ghosts I was supposed to set free – who I thought were on my side – are now trying to tear Grayson limb from limb, and for some reason, I can’t let that slide.

It’s not even like these are other people ganging up of Grayson. This isn’t living-on-living violence. And by all accounts, Grayson’s an ass, so… why does it matter to me that they stop? And why do I get the feeling I haven’t been told the whole story?

“Stop!” I bellow out, as loud as my vocal chords will allow.

To my surprise, the spirits do stop. They’re surrounding Grayson, who steals a sideways glance in my direction. His eyes are wide, and I can tell he hopes I know what I’m doing. Sad thing is, I really don’t. I’m playing this by ear. I haven’t been doing this for very long and there’s no handbook to tell me how to deal with hostile spirits. Vengeful ghosts aren’t exactly my wheelhouse.

“You told me you needed my help.” I focus best as I can on the leader, whose name I still don’t know. “When this all started, you pointed me to Grayson and you asked for my help. You never said a word about making him suffer.”

You played your part, little girl.

Little girl? Oh, no, this see-through motherfucker didn’t…

“Uh-uh.” I take a step forward, ignoring the pain. “I’m not letting you play me like that. And I’m damn sure not gonna let you hurt Grayson. Put him down.”

Never mind that I can’t actually do anything to these spirits. The corporeal cannot affect the uncorporeal without all sorts of magic know-how… of which I have exactly zero. It suddenly occurs to me that if this is going to become a long-term profession for me, it might behoove me to learn some occult. Being helpless like this isn’t much fun.

He must pay…

“So you’ve said.”

Grayson yelps as his body plummets several feet. But before he can hit the ground that’s not really there, one of the spirits grabs him by the ankle. He shivers at the sensation, glancing down to see one of those translucent tentacles wrapped around the bottom of his leg. He then looks at me in a panic, and I open my mouth to reassure him, only to find the words aren’t coming.

Cause really, how can I reassure him when I’m not sure how this is gonna turn out?

“Listen to me.” I decide to try talking to Grayson instead. The tie around his neck has loosened to where he can breathe again, and the color has returned to his face. A little too much color, since he’s still upside down, but hey, at least his skin isn’t the color of death anymore. “Whatever it was you did, you need to apologize for it.”

His face scrunches up in confusion. “What?”

Granted, it’s not the most logical plan in the world. It might not work. Hell, it might even backfire. But at this point, what other choice is there? These spirits seem pretty intent on killing Grayson and taking their sweet old time about it – and it’s not like I’ve got a proton pack strapped to my back with which to threaten them.

“You got a better idea?”

The look on Grayson’s face makes it obvious he doesn’t. Still, it doesn’t look like he’s keen on saying the words. Fortunately, I happen to have some incentive handy in the form of a taser I always keep on me. It’s usually just to keep the pervs and the creeps away, but if I can make Grayson think I’ll zap him if he doesn’t cooperate, I’ll take it.

“Alright, El Presidente,” I say, dropping to a knee and turning on the taser inches from his face. “Don’t say I never tried to help you. But if you don’t make with the apologies, I’m gonna zap you and then let them do whatever it is they’re gonna do to you. Then I’m gonna cash the check you wrote and go about my day.”

Not really, but he doesn’t need to know that.

His eyes dart back and forth, between my taser and the ghosts hovering just feet above. The glow of the taser bolt reflects in his eyes, and I can tell Grayson’s torn. He doesn’t know how to handle fear… probably because his life’s been so cushy that he’s never had to face such a dire scenario before. This is probably the kind of president who delegates to others whenever there’s a crisis on campus.

“Well?” I nudge the taser closer to Grayson’s face. “What do you say?”

He can tear his gaze from the taser. “I-I’m sorry.”

“What was that?” I glance up at the ghosts again. “I couldn’t really hear you.”

“I’m sorry, okay!” Grayson’s borderline panicking at this point, which is good. He glances up at the ghosts hovering together, shaking his head as a bead of sweat rolls down his temple. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry for what I did! I’m… I never should’ve just taken the hospital like that!”

The spirits slowly descend upon Grayson, who tries to wriggle his way backwards. Anything to put some space between himself and the ghosts. Many of the spirits screech and howl as they swirl and float around each other. The leader hovers back a few feet, its arms crossed over what passes for the being’s chest. I’m not sure how I can tell this sort of thing, but it looks as if it’s deep in thought.

“I’m sorry,” Grayson repeats. “What I did was wrong. Beyond wrong, just… terrible.”

The leader inches closer to us. I fight the urge to back away and curl within myself; instead, I turn off the taser and pocket it, thankful that I didn’t actually have to use it. I watch the spirit approach, swallowing thickly once its faint glow reflects off my skin. I can feel the chill now, wrapping my arms over my midsection and suppressing a shudder.

Your contrition cannot be trusted…

“Oh, but it can!” Grayson’s shaking and sweating up a storm now. “It can be! I’m so totally sorry, you have no idea…”

I do not mean that you are insincere… only that you are too late in expressing it.

I frown. It was worth a try.

With a yelp, Grayson is airborne again. By the time it registers where he is, and I reach out to grab his foot, he’s well out of range of my grasp. The spirits slither around him like snakes, and the first time one of them passes through his chest, I flinch and turn away. I’ve heard horror stories of pass-throughs gone wrong; ghosts who are able to affect the physical realm passing through a person and coming out the other side carrying one of their organs. I hope beyond hope that doesn’t happen here, but the spirits are so set against Grayson that I can’t discount the possibility.

All I can do now is hope. And maybe pray, even though I don’t do that much. Certainly not as often as my grandmother would’ve liked. Sorry, Gram…

Tell me, Grayson… The leader was floating several feet in the air again, its face inches from Grayson’s. Why did you do it? Why send those patients’ lives into upheaval? Why snatch a sorely-needed hospital out from the community’s grasp?

“Because…” Grayson’s teeth are gritted together and his hands are balled into fists. He’s shaking – not the shivering from the cold of the ghost’s presence, but a full-body shake from someone who’s certain this will be his last night on Earth.

Are we even still on Earth?

“Because,” Grayson tries again, “because of Ben…”

Okay… who the hell is Ben?

Read Chapter 1 | Read Chapter 2 | Read Chapter 3

SHORT STORY: Ghost of a Life, Chapter 3

If you’ve never been held at gunpoint before, let me tell you: it’s not fun.

It’s even less fun when the guy who hired you in the first place is the one pointing that cold hunk of metal in your general direction. My arms go up on their own, because I’ve seen enough TV shows to know this is the appropriate thing to do when someone’s pointing a gun at me. Not that I ever expected to be in this situation – barring the rare instance of Casper having an arsenal – and yet here I am.

“What are you doing down here?” Grayson asks, flipping on the light with his free hand.

“My job,” I answer, noting the white gloves he’s wearing. I arch a brow at the sight; it really does detract from the intimidation factor. He’s threatening to blow a hole in my chest, but God forbid there be any germs on that gun.

“I don’t remember hiring you to break into my file room.”

“No, you hired me to look into your little haunting over at McGuinnis.” I shrug as best as I can with my arms up around my head. The muscles are starting to ache. “I can’t help the fact that it’s led me right back to you.”

Grayson chuckles, an unnerving sound coupled with a look in his eyes I’ve never seen before. It’s almost a cross between amusement and anger… and frankly, it’s a look I hope I never have to see again. “Let me guess, those slimy bastards told you I’m the bad guy, right?”

“Something like that.”

“And you’re taking them at their word? You’re believing a bunch of dead things over me?”

“They said they could prove it.” I shrug again. The pain in my arms is getting so bad that my fingers are twitching. Part of me wants to go ahead and lower my arms, but knowing my luck, he’d pull the trigger at the first movement. Not only would I not get a fat payday, but it’d almost certainly mean the end of my career.

Unless I become a ghost, too. That would be kinda cool.

“Proof.”

“They poofed me straight over here.” A knowing grin creeps onto my face as I chin-nod toward the floor next to Grayson. “The evidence of my trip is right there.”

He glanced down to the floor, the pile of vomit inches from his right foot. I can’t help but laugh at the way he yelps and jumps back, as if he were leaping away from a rat or some other foul creature. He lowers his weapon and fights back a gag – at which point, I lower my arms and bum-rush him, tackling him to the floor and jarring the gun from his hand.

Springing back to my feet – because really, I’m not interested in fisticuffs – I grab the gun and return to the file cabinet. I ignore Grayson’s groans and coughs, flipping open the manila folder and squinting at the tiny handwriting that greets me. I can barely make out every other word, frowning because my supposed jackpot is turning into nothing more than useless scribbles.

I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. I raise my arm to point the gun in Grayson’s general direction. I have no intention of firing, but he doesn’t need to know that. I just need him to stay still while I look for something of value in this heap of intel. I glance up to see Grayson in the corner, far away from both me and the mess on the floor. It’s actually sort of funny to see him up against the wall like that, but at the same time, it’s kind of pathetic.

“You were awful eager to claim that building for yourself, weren’t you?” I begin my interrogation, flipping through more pages. Many of them were now typed over, most likely by a typewriter, so the legibility had slightly improved.

“We needed more on-campus housing,” Grayson argues with a stutter.

“And you had plenty of land on which to erect a new building.”

“C-cost prohibitive.” Grayson swallows thickly, and I catch him glancing over his shoulder. Did he call campus security on his way over here, or was he hoping to take care of me himself? My gut tells me it was the latter.

At least that’s my hope.

“The only way to do that would’ve been to hike up tuition,” he adds.

“So instead of screwing your students,” I argue, “you decide to screw some mental patients.”

“Hey, nothing I did was illegal.” Some of his bluster’s come back. He’s kinda cute when he’s angry – in that impossibly out-of-touch old man sort of way. “The hospital’s lease was up, they weren’t near being able to afford it… I merely jumped on the opportunity.”

“Without giving the hospital a chance to re-locate its patients and doctors in a timely, orderly fashion.”

The way Grayson shrugs his shoulders and purses his lips makes me want to pull the trigger. Not to kill him. Maybe not to even hit him. But scaring the shit out of him would be oddly gratifying. I’d love to watch the bullet lodge itself into the wall next to his ear, then have my nostrils catch the faint stench of him soiling himself. But, entertaining as that thought is, I don’t pull the trigger – because with my luck, I’d actually hit the bastard.

“Good luck proving that.” The smarmy grin on his face damn near makes me shoot. “And even if you do, what are you gonna do? Go to the cops? They won’t work a case on behalf of some half-baked ghosts.”

“Maybe.” I shrug. “But I bet they’d like to know what happened to all those patients.” I squint as I read over one of the redacted files, inconsistent streams of text broken up by solid black lines. “Like, say… Vernon Gomez. I bet his wife would love to know he committed suicide not long after being told he was no longer eligible for treatment.”

His face goes pale. Well, paler than it already is. “You wouldn’t. You won’t.”

“You sure about that?”

“You will refund the money I paid you.” Oh good, Grayson’s reached the bravado portion of the tour. “And I will make sure you never work a case in this godforsaken town again.”

“But I haven’t finished your job yet.” I give the man a coy smile and bat my eyelashes. I’m mocking him more than anything, though I doubt he possesses the self-awareness to figure that out. “You wanted me to get rid of the ghosts, and that’s what I’m gonna do.”

Grayson opens his mouth to protest when I click the safety back on the gun and pocket it. He almost lunges toward me when I close up the file folder and tuck it under my arm, my free hand slamming the cabinet shut. He flinches at the sound and I have to suppress a grin; if nothing else, I plan on scaring him so badly that he’ll never toy with supernatural forces ever again.

“What are you…?”

“I’m Samantha Blanchard, paranormal investigator.” I give him another coy grin, cocking my head to the side. “And you and I are gonna go on a little trip.”

His eyebrows scrunch in confusion. “If you think I’m going anywhere with you –“

My hand on his shoulder cuts him off before I glance up at the ceiling with a shit-eating grin. “Any chance of a return trip, Sparky? You’ll never guess who I ran into.”

It occurs to me in this moment that Merle is the only ghost name I know; the one who originally sent me here still doesn’t have a name, as far as I know, and I hope beyond hope that Sparky isn’t some ghost slur. I’d hate to not give Grayson his just desserts because I’m not well-versed in ghost etiquette.

But in the blink of an eye – an expression I never completely understood until now – I find I worried for nothing. Though for the record, teleporting to another dimension isn’t any more pleasant the second time around. By the time it registers that I’m once again surrounded by pitch black, I drop to my knees and gag so hard that my ribs hurt. Nothing comes up this time, but the sensation is no less painful.

But at least I’m conscious, which is more than I can say for my travel companion. No sooner do we arrive wherever this is, he’s sprawled out on the ground we can’t even see. I swear I can even see him drooling a little.

Pathetic.

So, being the good Samaritan that I am, I kick the guy in the side. “Hey, numbnuts… wakey wakey. Don’t be rude, you’re a guest here.”

I look up and find that we’re all alone. No ghosts to be found. No Merle, no big, long-tailed guy… it’s just Grayson and me. Which is unnerving on several different levels. I don’t care for being stuck in a pitch-black dimension of nothingness, and I like it even less when I’m stuck here with a passed-out douchebag who started this whole mess.

So, to recap: Grayson calls me three days ago, swearing up and down McGuinnis Hall – the psych hospital turned dormitory – is haunted. I check it out and Sweet Holy Jeebus, the supernatural activity is off the charts! But it turns out the spooks aren’t haunting the place; they’re stuck there because of Grayson.

Documents show that Grayson, in a fit to expand his campus and increase dorm housing, snatched the mental hospital out from the previous owners’ hands and just… converted the joint without caring much what happened to the patients. Many had been relocated to other hospitals. A few wound up in foster care. Many of them died not long after the ordeal – and if I had to guess, they were the ones floating around making life miserable for everyone.

So basically, this whole thing started cause Grayson is an ableist douche.

I am so not giving him his money back when this is all over.

“Hello?” I call out, wrapping my arms around myself and fighting back and shudder. It’s not cold or anything; I just hate being surrounded by nothing. If this is what the proverbial abyss is like, then I’ll pass.

“I’ve got President Douchebag here to see you,” I try again.

Still nothing.

This can’t be right. Why would the ghosts send me off to investigate Grayson, and then not be around when I actually have Grayson with me?

A pained groan tells me Grayson has re-joined the Land of the Living – even if that’s not where we physically are at the moment. I bite the inside of my cheek, trying not to bust out laughing at the reaction I know is coming once he realizes we’re no longer in his records room – or anywhere else on Mountain Oak’s campus, for that matter.

Sure enough, he doesn’t disappoint.

“What the…?!”

He leaps to his feet far quicker than I would expect for a man his age. His forehead is coated in sweat, and his eyes are a wide as I’ve ever seen this side of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. He’s in a full-on panic, limbs shaking and breath shallow. It’s simultaneously funny and unnerving, and the sooner my ghost pals show up to deal with this, the better.

“You!” Grayson’s angry now. “Where did you take me?!”

I didn’t take you anywhere,” I argue, because technically, that’s true. “We’re wherever the ghosts are.”

“Then how come I don’t see any ghosts?”

I shrug, not willing to admit I’m thinking the exact same thing. Their disappearing act has me on-edge, mostly because it makes no goddamn sense. They didn’t bring us here so I could take care of Grayson myself, did they? That thought makes me shudder again, because one thing I am not is a professional hitman. Grayson might be a douche to end all douches, but he’s still a human being. I have my limits – to say nothing of the laws I still have to follow.

Grayson’s pacing now, which is grating on my nerves. If these ghosts don’t show up soon, I might just pop him one to knock him out again. Grayson is far less irritating when he’s unconscious. I try not to watch him wandering back and forth, muttering under his breath and running his shaky hands through his hair. In fact, he doesn’t really catch my attention again until he stops in his tracks.

I find him standing perfectly still. No, it’s more than that, actually… Grayson isn’t just not moving. It’s as if all of his muscles have seized up on him. His limbs are perfectly straight. His jaw is clenched. Eyes are wide. They find mine and I can tell me trying to call out for help. A muffled noise escapes from his mouth, but with his teeth mashed together, I can’t make out what he’s trying to tell me.

I glance all around me. “Hello?” My heart rate picks up. “Guys?”

You should not have brought him here.

Okay… I can hear them now. That’s something.

“Why not? I thought you wanted to confront him.”

Oh, we want much more than that…

Something about the way the echoing voices say that sends off all sorts of alarms in my head. I turn to glance at Grayson again. He’s still as stiff as before, but his hands are starting to tremble. Soon enough, the rest of his body follows suit. He screams as best as he can through his gritted teeth, but his eyes are still wide open. I bet he’d squeeze them shut if he could, but something isn’t letting him.

I take a step toward him. A small trail of blue ooze seeps from his tear duct. Another drop of the stuff is coming out of his nose. I cringe in disgust, and I can only imagine how that must feel. I have to briefly cover my mouth and take a step back, shaking my head to try to regain my composure before approaching Grayson again. I touch his arm, which is hard as a rock. He’s growing paler by the second, and he can do little more now than stare at me and whimper.

“What are you doing to him?!” I demand.

He must pay… he must suffer for what he has wrought upon us!

“No!” My hands ball into fists, and for a brief moment, I feel awkward standing up to a vast nothingness. “Not like this! You can’t kill him!”

Why not?

“Because that’s not what I agreed to!”

Presumptuous of me? Perhaps, but my first meeting with these ghosts led me to believe they still had a bit of human decency in them. They had left me with the impression they just wanted to be set free. I never once got the vibe that I was dealing with vengeful spirits.

This is not your concern, human.

“Like hell it’s not!” My voice carries far more than I expected. “I’m here to help you!”

And we no longer require your assistance.

Before I can open my mouth to respond, something slams into my midsection and sends me flying back. I never saw anything more than the pitch black that has greeted me since my return, yet now I’m on my back, gritting my teeth in pain and trying not to lose my lunch again. I double over myself in pain, squeezing my eyes shut before a high-pitched wail startles me and damn near pierces my ear drums.

I look up to see Grayson – still rigid and unable to move – floating higher into the air. The panicked look in his eyes has only intensified, and streaks of blue ooze similar to tear tracks decorate his cheeks. His entire body is trembling, and I can’t help but wonder how he’s still conscious.

“Don’t,” I manage between gasps for air. “Don’t do this. Please…”

Another force wallops me, in the chin this time, and I can’t help but see stars. In fact, they’re the last thing I see before everything really does go black. But before I go, I hear a horrific sound – something like a gargling scream. I can tell it’s Grayson, but before I can react, my eyes slip closed and my head slumps to the side.

Read Chapter 1 | Read Chapter 2