What’s Coming Up Next

The end of 2017 has been quite the whirlwind, given the release of both Notna and Behind the Mask. But with the Jill Andersen series at a bit of a crossroads four books in, and my first standalone book now out, what does the future hold?

Funny you should ask…

Okay, you didn’t ask. I asked for you. Same thing.

(Speaking of Notna… check out this fantastic review and interview with me over at Readcommendations. And if you haven’t read S.E. Anderson’s Starstruck and Alienation yet… well, what better time than the holidays?)

As we speak, I’m in the middle of writing Betrayed, which will be book five in the Jill Andersen series. It was my NaNoWrioMo project this year, and again I hit the 50,000-word mark, but I’m roughly midway through the first draft. With any luck, Betrayed will be out come spring 2018.

Notna was always meant to be a standalone: no sequel, no series. I am, however, beginning to plan out an anthology of sorts, tentatively titled Legends of the Gem. Similar to how the 1990s comic book Tales of the Witchblade detailed that mystical gauntlet’s history, this series of short stories will do the same for the Gem of Notna. There’s no release date on this one just yet, but if I can have it out by the end of 2018…

Having established, in passing, that Notna and Bounty inhabit the same fictional universe, I’ve been debating with myself as to whether or not Jill’s world should eventually be one with monsters and demons — you know, on top of the conspiracies and the science fiction, etc. But that’s not what the series has been, and I’m not sure how that big a shift would go over.

Once I’m finished writing Betrayed, I’m gonna finally tackle The Keeper. A paranormal thriller that tackles issues of life, death, and rebirth, this is another project I’ve had bouncing around in my head for the better part of a decade. I finally want to knock out a first draft and see what I’ve got from there.

I also have a spy thriller in the planning stages called The Agency. It’s got very much an Alias feel to it (Jennifer Garner’s Alias, not the Marvel Comics series of the same name), and I’m anxious to see what I can do in the genre.

Neither The Keeper nor The Agency have a timetable for release yet.

As a result, I’m thinking of doing a spinoff series. One that builds on the more fantastical elements of the Jill Andersen books, but with more of an urban fantasy twist. I haven’t decided the overall plot or the characters or any of that yet, but it’s something I’m excited to tackle — mostly because it’s gonna be a challenge.

2018 promises to be a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll join me for the ride!

Notna is now available! Get your copy: Paperback | Amazon | Universal ebook Link (Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, Scribd, 24 Symbols, Indigo, Angus & Robinson)

Behind the Mask is now available! Get your copy: Kindle | Paperback | Universal ebook Link (Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, 24 Symbols, Indigo, Angus & Robinson)

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.

EXCERPT: Notna

In part to celebrate World Book Day, I present another excerpt from Notna, my upcoming urban fantasy/paranormal book that will be out in paperback and ebook on Oct. 10. Bear in mind, this is a work-in-progress and that any mistakes are my own.

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (6)

 

Prague, Czech Republic

St. Vitus Cathedral was visible from the Vitava River, towering over much of Prague. With the sun as bright as it was on this bright April morning, the cathedral shined, especially the sea green edifice atop the main tower. The temple of Gothic architecture was housed within Prague Castle, and it was the final resting place of many a Bohemian king.

St. Vitus was a magnet for tourists, dozens of whom were milling about the grounds. Cameras hung from their necks, and many of the visitors stared up in awe at the rose window on the front of the cathedral. Tourists not wearing cameras had instead pulled out smartphones, squinting into the sun as they tried to frame just the right shot on their screens.

One tourist who held neither camera nor phone, a brunette woman, instead sat cross-legged at the base of a fountain with a large sketch pad splayed over her lap. She stared intently at the cathedral, chewing on her lower lip as the pencil tucked in her left hand scratched back and forth over the paper. Pamela Daly occasionally glanced down at her work, making sure she was capturing the church’s architectural elements.

This may have been Pamela’s Spring Break, but she still had to nail her final on Gothic architecture at the end of the semester. These sketches were going to go a long way toward fleshing out that section of her research paper. As much as Pamela detested art history, the fact was she wouldn’t graduate from Syracuse if she didn’t pass classes such as this.

A group of children ran through the square, chasing after a dirty, ratty soccer ball. Their laughs and shouts of glee carried through the square, and Pamela couldn’t help the smile spreading across her face even though she couldn’t understand their native tongue.

A flash of light erupted from the sky, and was gone was quickly as it had appeared. Everyone briefly glanced at the sky, including Pamela. The pencil dangled between her fingers as she used her free hand to shield her eyes from the sun. A flock of birds flew from one grove of trees to the next, crossing St. Vitus on the way.

Everything appeared to return to normal.

With a shrug, Pamela returned to her sketch. The soccer ball skipped along the cobblestone ground. Tourists snapped pictures of the cathedral and took selfies with their smartphones. The sound of Pamela’s pencil scratching against the rough paper was the only sound that filled her ears, even as something in the back of her mind told her to glance at the sky again.

Mouth agape, Pamela stood. Her pencil and sketchpad both fell to the ground. Her eyes widened, and Pamela brought up a hand to cover her mouth.

“Oh, my God!”

The horror in Pamela’s voice caught everyone else’s attention, and as they looked to the sky, they saw a human figure plummeting toward the Earth. Women gasped, grabbing children as the men stared in silent horror. The children watched in wonder, a few of them smiling and pointing.

“Angel!” One of the children jumped up and down like a kid discovering presents under the tree on Christmas morning. “It’s an angel!”

The figure crashed through the top of the cathedral, and the gasps from the onlookers turned into shrieks and cries of horror. The body burst through the main tower, leaving a gaping hole and showering pieces of stone and other debris onto the ground. Tourists scattered to avoid the debris, some of them stopping just long enough to scoop up the children who were still staring.

As everyone else distanced themselves from the cathedral, Pamela ran toward it. Her body began moving before she could stop herself, and she abandoned the sketchpad lying open on the ground. She could hear the body crashing through the buttresses and the ceiling of the main worship hall as she shoved her way into the church. With a grunt, she pushed the heavy double doors open with her shoulder.

Pamela paused for a few seconds to catch her breath and allow the throbbing in her shoulder to subside. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim of the cathedral, in stark contrast to the bright sunlight outside. Starting to walk again, Pamela silently thanked herself for leaving the heels in her suitcase.

Pamela weaved her way into the worship hall, jumping with a start when she heard a groan from a pile of rubble near the altar. The stained-glass windows called out to her from the corner of her eye, and in more normal circumstances, she would’ve allowed her curiosity to get the best of her. Even the Mucha window, in all its colorful glory, was begging for her attention.

Pamela passed by John of Nepomuk’s tomb, giving it a passing glance before pained groans again called her attention to the altar. She dropped to her knees, tossing aside a few bits of rubble and waving the dust out of her face, only to gasp when she saw a man lying face-down on the floor. His silver breastplate shone in the sunlight beaming through the hole in the roof. His brown leggings were tattered and covered in burn marks. His dark hair was matted to his face and tied back into a ponytail.

Looking up at the ceiling, Pamela frowned in confusion. Not only was it unclear from where the man had fallen, but he had clearly plummeted a great distance. No one should have been able to survive a fall that far, especially after crashing through stone and wood along the way. In some ways, the man appeared to be in better shape than the cathedral.

But how was that possible?

The man groaned again, rolling onto his back with a grimace. More debris fell to the floor around him, the resulting dust causing Pamela to break into a small coughing fit. By the time it passed, she locked eyes with him; they were blue, impossibly so. Blood ran from his nose and a cut on his right cheek oozed even more blood.

“My God,” she muttered with a shake of her head.

The man erupted into a coughing fit of his own, rolling onto his side. Something silver caught Pamela’s eye, and she looked down to see a blood-soaked sword on the ground. Its gold hilt shined brighter than anything else on the altar, even the candle holders in the center. She squinted; an angel ascending to the heavens was carved on the handle.

“Are you…” Her frown deepened. “Are you alright?”

For the first time, the man acknowledged her. He glanced wearily at Pamela before nodding and rolling onto his back once again. Aside from the cuts on his face, the man didn’t appear to be injured, which was impossible on so many levels.

He sat up, the wounds closing before Pamela’s eyes. His eyes still held a faraway look, and the stubble on his face was at least a week old. Pamela glanced over her shoulder, confident that no one had followed her into the cathedral. Was it because they were off calling for help, or had they gone about their day assuming the man had died?

Probably the latter, which begged the question: how was he still alive? And where did he come from?

“Wow…”

Her eyes went skyward again. The man’s eyes followed.

“That was some tumble,” he muttered. “What happened?”

The man lowered his gaze, fully taking in Pamela for the first time. His lips opened, but no words came out. With his mouth agape, the faraway look returned.

Pamela frowned as dread built in her stomach.

“Well, uh,” Pamela paused. “What’s your name?”

The man furrowed his brow, chewing on his lower lip. For the first time, char marks were visible on his breastplate. Pamela’s heart sank when saw them, resisting the urge to reach out and run her fingers over the marks. If the man didn’t understand how he wound up face-down in a church in Prague, perhaps he didn’t know much of anything else.

“I,” he began, his frown deepening when the words caught in his throat. His eyes widened when they locked on Pamela’s. “I don’t remember.”

EXCERPT: Behind the Mask

Below is an excerpt from Behind the Mask, the upcoming fourth novel in the Jill Andersen series. Please note that this is an early draft that has not yet been subject to strenuous editing. All mistakes are my own. Also, be warned that there are spoilers if you haven’t yet read Behind the Badge.

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (7)Every time sirens whirred to life, Jill Andersen’s heart skipped a beat.

The two weeks since Jill had marched into the WJZ studios, hacked into the live television feed, and broadcast to all of Baltimore who she really was had crawled by. It was almost reminiscent of when Jill and her younger brother Brian were children, eagerly awaiting Christmas morning. Each day that drew closer to the holiday seemed to drag along slower than the last. The only difference this time was the overwhelming dread that came with waiting. It almost literally pressed down on Jill’s shoulders, the bone-chilling and stomach-churning realization that any night would be the night Jill finally lost her freedom.

And in a way, Jill thought she should. After all, every time she donned the black leather, every time she assumed the mantle of the vigilante, she broke the law. Her day job centered around bringing those who broke the law to justice; if Jill broke the law, wasn’t she supposed to face the same fate?

In a perfect world, she would — but then again, that same perfect world would have seen the four officers who tortured and killed Devin Buckner suffer the same fate. Instead, the Baltimore Police Department aided and abetted them, threatening Jill in the process, and it got to the point where those four wound up in a watery grave thanks to a nameless, faceless vigilante.

That ultimately led to Jill turning in her badge. As for the reveal? Well, that was a much more complicated, much more sordid tale. Jill had kicked herself plenty for her rash decision over the past couple weeks, whenever a close call nearly had her hunched over in the back seat of a squad car with her wrists shackled together behind her back. It was the reason she wore a bulky black overcoat on top of her leather. It was the reason she had chopped much of her hair off and dyed it jet black. It now curled up at the sides around her ears, bangs forming over her forehead. It was the reason she abandoned her apartment and hadn’t so much as spoken to her brother or her former partner, outside of an untraceable text from a burner phone. It was the reason Jill kept her trademark katana hidden in an abandoned warehouse on the corner of Lee and Charles.

It was the reason Jill’s heart just now leapt in her throat and she peered over her shoulder around the corner of the building. The sirens were growing louder, and Jill couldn’t help but wonder if this was the night the cops finally cornered her. To her relief, the warehouse in question still had one of those old-style fire escapes. The metal was rusted from lack of care, and it chaffed against the leather on Jill’s palms when she jumped to grab it, but her enhanced strength made ascending the warehouse’s six stories a relative walk in the park.

As Jill made her way to the roof, she peered over her shoulder again. The police vehicle, which was actually a K-9 SUV, had stopped a block to the north, blue overheads spinning to announce their presence. The light bounced off the buildings in the vicinity, and despite having height to her advantage, Jill crouched down to stare over the ledge. A husky officer named Yancey emerged from the driver’s seat, sauntering to the rear of the vehicle and producing two adult German Shepherds. Jill cursed under her breath and pressed her back against the ledge.

Jill knew almost nothing about dogs, other than her childhood memories of Brian begging for a puppy for his tenth birthday. She had no idea how good their sense of smell really was, if they would be able to sense where she was and when. A side effect of being with the Homicide unit her entire career, Jill hadn’t taken the time to learn how other divisions operated. She wondered if that ignorance would be her undoing, and part of Jill bristled at that. She didn’t want Fido to be the reason she wound up behind bars. She was a superhero, a freaking cyborg… she was so much better than that.

Pushing off the ledge, careful not to let her boots crunch too loudly against the gravel, Jill tried to keep an eye on Yancey’s route. He stuck to the sidewalks, lighting a cigarette and seemingly content to let the dogs lead the way. Their black snouts were pressed to the pavement, their tails remarkably still.

Yancey turned around, giving Jill a full view of his face. He pushed the brim of his cap up, puffing out a drag of his smoke. Even from six stories up, Jill could see the bags under his eyes and the general disinterest on his scruffy features. Pulling the cigarette from his mouth and tapping out a few ashes, Yancey shook his head and glanced toward the sky. His gaze wasn’t in Jill’s direction, yet she still crouched down further in response. Yancey looked as if he was none too pleased with this particular assignment, and he didn’t notice as the two dogs wandered into a nearby alley. Instead, he kept sucking away at his cigarette before finally flicking the spent butt out onto the street without bothering to snuff it out.

The dogs barked in unison and Jill flinched. But Yancey just stuffed his hand into the pocket of his bulky overcoat, producing a flashlight and heaving a sigh before turning around and joining his pooches. It was in the opposite direction of where Jill was, and she released the breath she hadn’t even realized she had been holding. Chances were, Yancey was simply following orders — reluctantly so, if Jill had correctly read his demeanor. So if he was the one to catch her, would she really be able to blame him?

And for all the bravado Jill tried to pump herself up with, for all the times she would catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror and remind herself that there were those in this town who worshiped her… this was wearing on her. When Jill wasn’t actually on the run, she was having trouble eating. She certainly wasn’t sleeping. Her titanium skeleton and enhanced strength weren’t doing her any good when she was this run down. If only Project Fusion had rid her of the need for food or rest…

The barking in the distance stopped. Jill glanced over the ledge again, but she didn’t see Yancey or the dogs emerge from the alley. At first, she didn’t think anything of it, but with each second that passed, and as the traffic lights at the intersection of Charles and Hughes went through three cycles, dread built in her gut. Her first instinct was to go investigate; whether as a cop or as Bounty, that was what Jill’s body was practically trained to do. Yet she kept still, because there was too much at risk. If someone else saw her, if Yancey was, in fact, alright… the last thing Jill wanted to do was fall into a trap.

Minutes passed without any sign of Yancey or the dogs. Jill got to her feet, deciding she could no longer ignore the intuition plucking away at her subconscious. One of the first lessons she had learned as a cop was to trust herself when her gut told her something wasn’t right. A cop’s gut wasn’t gospel, despite what some old-timers had tried to tell her, but Jill had eventually learned that listening to her proverbial spider sense was beneficial more often than not.

But when Jill got to her feet, the sound of gravel scraping gave her pause. Jill held her breath, her hands balling into fists seemingly on their own. She held her breath, training all of her senses to hone in for that sound again. She was met with nothing more than the howl of wind off the bay, her hair fluttering in the breeze, but she could feel the presence behind her. Tightening her fists, Jill turned to regard whoever was now on the roof with her. She wasn’t sure what she expected — if it was a cop, chances were they would have already announced themselves, but once Jill caught sight of the lanky man wearing a black and orange overcoat and a matching baseball cap hung low over his forehead, she frowned. This was not what she expected.

“Erikson?”

“You’re a hard woman to find,” the Baltimore Sun‘s investigative reporter said with a sideways grin. “Though I guess that’s by design these days.”

Reluctantly, Jill unfurled her fists. “Sneaking up on a paranoid superhero’s not a very good idea.”

“Even if I have a tip?”

“Please tell me the next words out of your mouth are that the cops aren’t after me.”

“Not quite, but just as good.” Stanley Erikson glanced over his shoulder and tugged on the bill of his cap. His eyes narrowed when the wind picked up. “Tomorrow night, an associate of David Gregor’s will be awaiting a shipment at the Port of Baltimore.”

Jill’s spine stiffened at the sound of that name. “While he’s across the Atlantic. The perfect alibi.”

“My sources tell me he’s resuming the drug trade,” Erikson explained. “If you’re not too busy playing hide-and-seek with your former employers, might be worth checking out.”

“That it? You could’ve just texted me.”

“There’s also this,” Erikson said, producing a black USB drive from his pocket and handing it to Jill.

She took the device with a frown and a quirked brow, shaking her head. It wasn’t like she had ready access to a computer to read whatever was on here, yet her fingers curled around the small stick regardless. “What’s this?”

“Something I have a lot of questions about,” Erikson said, zipping up his coat and stuffing his hands into the pockets. “Questions I know you have answers to.”

Something about the way Erikson said that rubbed Jill the wrong way, yet she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the flash drive… nor could she ignore the intel he had provided just moments before. If she could corner one of Gregor’s associates while he was out of the country… oh, the possibilities were endless.

“I’m guessing you won’t take a ‘no comment’.”

A rueful smile crept onto Erikson’s face. “Oh, something tells me you’ll have plenty to say about this.”

EXCERPT: Notna

I wanted to share with you another snippet of my current WIP, the fantasy/supernatural epic Notna, coming this fall. Please note that this represents an early draft and has not been properly edited as of yet. Any mistakes are my own.

Present Day, Somewhere in the Amazon…

Dark storm clouds, nearly pitch black, rumbled in the night sky. Flashes of lightning hopped from one cloud to the next. The trees shielded much of the wildlife from nature’s fury, but enough drops from the torrential rain fell through the leaves to give the foliage and the ground the sustenance it needed. Each crack of thunder vibrated through the branches all the way to the roots, causing the ground to shake.

Standing amid the foliage was a temple. Its stone was faded and worn, cracks meandering along the foundation. Chunks of rock and rubble piled up near the entrance, which led to nothing but pitch black. But what the Tomb of Notna lacked in aesthetic quality, it made up for in power and mystique. The temple had an aura about it, and the native wildlife kept its distance.

But the elderly man approaching was no local.

Cian was of Greek heritage, his bronze skin wrinkled with age. His left eye was missing and he walked with a noticeable limp — the result of a hip injury in his thirties that never properly healed. Cian hobbled along the rugged ground, his boots so worn that he might as well have been hiking barefoot. His wooden cane dug into the soft ground, mud caked on the end. He ignored the thunder as best he could, but as Cian paused to wipe the sweat from his brow, he couldn’t help but notice each rumble was louder than the last.

Cian stared at the temple in awe. His life’s work stood before him. He had waited half a century for this moment. Nothing — not the wildlife, not old age, not fragile limbs — was going to prevent Cian from seeing this pilgrimage through to the end. He understood what that possibly meant, but as a man who had dedicated his entire adult life to the mystery surrounding the Gem of Notna, he welcomed the thought.

Striking his cane against the base of the temple, Cian flinched when flames erupted from the tip. The fire illuminated the entrance, but little else. Still, Cian took as confident a step forward as his body would allow; it was almost as if he was being pulled inside.

Cian was almost immediately engulfed in darkness. The flame only extended several inches in front of him — a full foot, if he was lucky. He heard what he thought were faint whispers in the humid, acrid air… but Cian figured his mind was playing tricks on him, exhausted due to the lengthy trip and the muggy conditions. Perhaps he should have refilled his canteen down by the river. Cian’s throat was dry, and it worsened with each step he took.

Cian had studied the legend of Notna dating back to his college days — specifically, his undergraduate years at Aristotle of Thessaloniki in the 1960s. Professors had thought him a fool in those days, told him he was chasing fairy tales. But the prophecies within the Narazniyan Scrolls had entranced Cian — so much so that his marriage to Marta, his lifelong love, dissolved.

In 1985, freshly divorced — or free, as Cian put it — he moved to Brazil and took a teaching job at Universidade Candido Mendes. The locals were a little more welcoming of his theories and his obsession, but Cian still didn’t feel completely accepted.

But that was fine. Genius was rarely recognized in the moment.

Cian never wanted the gem, or its power, for himself. His only vice was curiosity. He had to know if the Gem of Notna did, in fact, exist before he died — understanding that the discovery itself might be what killed him.

After all, they did call this place a tomb.

At this age, Cian welcomed death. Not because his life had been fruitless — quite the contrary. But with the hair on his beard ghost white and far more plentiful than whatever was on top of his head, with every step an exercise in pain tolerance, Cian could feel his body starting to give in.

At this point, the gem was all that kept Cian going.

The deeper Cian traveled into the bowels of the temple, the louder the whispers became. He tried to ignore them, but they pierced their way into his psyche… to the point where Cian was now actively listening for them, hoping to glean some meaning from them. But they were little more than gibberish to the elderly scholar, and he shook his head as he continued his descent.

It felt like hours. Cian had to stop to catch his breath, placing the palm of his hand flat against the stone wall to his left. He felt a cockroach flatten under his palm, ignoring the revulsion of bug guts now embedded in his skin.

He seeks the power. Thinks immortality is his for the taking.

Cian jumped and nearly lost the grip on his cane. But the flame died out, leaving him surrounded by pitch black. The voices continued to echo in Cian’s head, but he could no longer make out what they were saying. Beads of sweat trickled down his temple, and Cian’s hands trembled.

Keeping his free hand against the wall to guide himself, Cian started hobbling down the corridor again. Each step was wobbly, his entire body shuddering with effort and uncertainty. After several steps, sheer exhaustion drove Cian to his knees. His heartbeat thundered in his ears, and a flicker of light finally caught his attention.

It was green, almost emerald. The flickers grew more frequent, until the light was constant, spilling from the chamber into the end of the walkway. Cian’s heart rate nearly doubled, a surge of adrenaline taking over now that he knew he was near the end of his journey.

His muscles ached and his legs screamed for relief, but Cian could not stop until he reached the mouth of the chamber. The light was blinding at this point, engulfing the entire room in its bright hue.

His worthiness has not yet been tested. His presence was not foreseen.

The voices caught Cian off-guard, but his eyes eventually adjusted to the light. In the center of the chamber, he saw the very thing he had spent his life chasing: there, floating several feet atop a stone slab, shaped as four hands with palms raised skyward, was the Gem of Notna.

A tiny thing, not even two inches tall. Oblong and impossibly shiny. It hovered above the stone hands and rotated counterclockwise. The light spilling into the chamber originated from the gem, which seemed to throb with intensity. Cian licked his lips, hoping to combat the dryness in his mouth. The light was uncomfortably warm on his skin. But not even that discomfort could keep him away.

“Dios mio,” he muttered under his breath.

This power is not ours to give.

Cian ignored the voice, instead taking a step toward the display. His knee buckled, nearly causing Cian to fall face-first to the ground. But he kept his balance, even managing two more wobbly steps before the voices returned, louder and more insistent.

This one cannot keep the balance within the universe.

As he closed in on the altar, Cian could see symbols etched into the back of each hand. Having studied every text and scroll related to the Gem of Notna over the centuries, Cian knew these symbols by heart. He also knew the voices were arguing whether or not Cian was worthy of the gem’s power.

He wasn’t here for that. Even if Cian wanted to wield the Gem of Notna, his frail body and his advanced age wouldn’t allow it. The power would overwhelm him to the point of death. But Cian knew this would likely be a one-way trip, and the smile that crept on his face was one of joy, but also peace.

If Cian was to die tonight, his life was now complete.

He is not fit.

Cian studied the symbols once more. Running clockwise, he mouthed what each symbol meant: Strength. Conviction. Honor. Sacrifice. The four tenets of ancient Narazniyan civilization, ranked from least important to most. The Narazniyans valued sacrifice above all else… which was appropriate, considering they created a weapon capable of killing those it deemed unworthy.

He has come far… perhaps he is worthy after all.

“Yes,” Cian whispered before he could stop himself.

Exhaustion, mixed with relief, sent Cian to his hands and knees. He stared at the ceiling in awe, unable to believe he actually achieved the fruits of his lifelong labor. Everything he worked toward for the past fifty years was right in front of him, just out of his physical reach, and the euphoria that came with that was almost enough to override any physical discomfort.

It had not been in vain. He knew he could never tell anyone what he saw; no one would ever believe him. But all the work… the sleepless nights poring over texts… the long travels in search of like-minded academics… watching his beloved Marta walk out the door with two suitcases in-hand.

It had all been worth it.

“Yes, I am worthy,” he muttered. “I am worthy!”

Silence engulfed the chamber. The light dimmed.

No. This one cannot prevent the End of Days. His prime is well behind him.

The admonishment, true thought it was, was still like a kick to the stomach. Cian doubled over and shut his eye, shaking his head. Looking up again, he stared at the gem, watching as black strands of… something swirled about and a low hissing sound filled the chamber.

Cian had come to peace with his possible death. So why was he so scared?

In spite of the gravity of the moment, Cian managed a chuckle. He noticed there were no other bodies in the chamber. No bones, no remains, nothing. If the gem killed all those who were unworthy, shouldn’t the chamber have been littered with dead bodies? Cian wasn’t the first to be rejected, was he?

You are brave, old one. Perhaps, in another time…

The emerald light brightened once more, completely engulfing the chamber and burning into Cian’s flesh. He grit his teeth and his hands clenched into tight fists. This was pain unlike anything else he had experienced before; he could feel his insides burning. A loud crash from behind startled Cian, and he glanced over his shoulder just long enough to see the passage blocked off by a large boulder.

This… this is not The One.

Blood seeped from Cian’s ears and the tear duct in his right eye. His grunts morphed into cries of pain as he rolled onto his back. He reached out for the gem, screaming again when he felt the black tendrils slithering all over his body. The thorns of each dug into his wrinkled flesh, drawing even more blood. Cian’s aging muscles locked up, and his last scream was drowned out by sinews snaking over his face.

By the time the tendrils snuffed the rest of life out of Cian, his entire frame was covered in the living cocoon. He twitched in the seconds following his last breath, the tendrils wrapped around him glowing a bright emerald before a flash overtook the entire chamber. Incinerating Cian and his cocoon, the light burst through the ceiling, through the canopy of the rainforest, and into the night sky.

Storm clouds parted. The rain tapered off. Birds chirped into the night… but now, the chamber was empty, save the altar and the small crystal hovering above it.

There was no evidence Cian had ever been there.

COVER REVEAL: Betrayed

Exciting times ahead (and not just because of the holiday)!

Below, you will find the cover for Betrayed, the fifth novel in the Jill Andersen series! Betrayed is slated for a late 2017 release, and it will follow Behind the Mask, which will forever change the direction of the series.

No synopsis yet, as it would spoil Behind the Mask, but… behold the cover!

jd_cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000-9

EXCERPT: Notna

I’m excited to share with you an excerpt of my upcoming novel Notna, which will be available sometime in late 2017 in both paperback and Kindle. Keep in mind that this is a first draft and there will likely be changes before publication. Enjoy!

The Not-Too-Distant Future…
Depending on the culture, the Underworld has been known by several other names. Gehinnom, Sheol, Hades, Hell, the Fire… seemingly every Western culture or religion has some version of a spiritual place full of torment and punishment for the wicked. A simplified version of what was actually the truth — and the Underworld was not latched to any particular religion. It existed on its own merits, a hellscape of eternal fire and bloodshed. This was not merely a place for the wicked; anyone could fall captive to the Underworld’s eternal prison. No one ever escaped with their life or their sanity intact; the few who would manage to cross back over were condemned to a life of solitude and mental degradation. The ones who died in the Underworld were, in all honesty, the fortunate ones. But even they were faced with futures full of little more than torment and bloodshed.

On this night, the Underworld doubled as a battlefield. The final battlefield, truth be told. Fresh blood pooled everywhere, severed limbs decorating the drab, lifeless landscape. Fires blazed skyward, flames reaching for a nonexistent ceiling. The constant roar of the fire provided the soundtrack for swords clanging together, sparks flying, and warriors crying at the top of their lungs. Those cries were cut short when a blade lopped off a head or rendered a battle-hardened warrior defenseless. One of the Divine’s finest sword-wielders looked on in disgust as his hands were severed from his arms, still clutching his sword. But before he had a chance to look up, the leather-skinned demon swiped just under the warrior’s chin. The blow was clean, and the blood didn’t flow until the warrior’s head slid off and fell to the ground in a fit of dust.

From atop his throne, built from the bones of those who had dared defy him over the centuries, Seraphus couldn’t help but grin. This was what he spent the last several hundred years working toward: breaking his realm’s stalemate with the Divine and finally gaining the upper hand in this never-ending war. His smile grew when his eyes glanced down at the body at his feet. The previous bearer of the Gem of Notna had been formidable, far more than Seraphus had expected, but in the end, he was just another human being. Snapping his neck has been satisfying, but not nearly as much as prying the gem from his cold body and taking it as Seraphus’ own. The crystal hissed in protest initially, but once it settled into the ruler’s chest, talons and tendrils slithering all over his pale frame, he knew he was worthy.

And now that Seraphus had the gem, the Divine was without hope.

But there was one Divine warrior who hadn’t yet given up. Seraphus watched with great interest as Josef cut a swath among his demon hordes. Josef had died in battle several hundred years ago, at the hand of the vampire Demostricus, but the Divine — in a fit of panic — had resurrected him to serve as an ally for the Chosen One. Though the Chosen One lay dead and broken at Seraphus’ feet, Josef continued his rampage. He beheaded Ornias with little effort, green blood splattering onto his brown cheeks, his shoulder-length hair pulled back into a ponytail. Another armored demon got the jump on Josef, but a well-placed elbow allowed him to break free. One more sword swipe and another demon head fell to the ground.

Two more demons approached, one from each side. Josef grit his teeth and pulled a dagger from the small of his back. With a blade in each hands, Josef thrust both arms out to either side of himself. Both weapons plunged into the demons’ respective necks. Seraphus couldn’t help but cringe at the resulting bloodbath and the gargled screams of his fallen minions.

“Seraphus!” Josef called out from the bottom of the throne. He smashed one of the skulls with his sword. “This ends now!”

Rising from his throne, Seraphus kicked the body at his feet aside and curled his hands into fists. Black eyes turned red and began to glow, as did the ruler’s fists. He was shirtless, a scar running from his right shoulder all the day down, across his abdomen, and stopping near his groin. Of all the scars Seraphus had accumulated over the years, this was his proudest. It spoke to his resilience, his tenacity. His refusal to let anyone or anything stand in his way. He approached the warrior with slow, purposeful steps until they were level with one another.

“Does it?” Seraphus couldn’t help the chuckle that burst past his lips. “You are losing, nomad! Your numbers are few!”

“So I should just quit?” Josef twirled the sword, which was a foot taller than him, over his head. “You don’t know me very well, heathen.”

“I know enough.” Seraphus raised his right fist, a black tendril snaking out from the gem on his chest and slashing Josef across the cheek. The warrior responded by slicing the tendril in two, a loud hissing filling his ears and causing him to recoil. Seraphus used the opportunity to close the distance, sinews of lively black covering the ruler from head to toe like armor. He grabbed Josef by the neck and lifted him into the air. “I know your Chosen One has fallen. I know your numbers are few. I know you, valiant as ever, are weak.”

Josef, struggling for breath, grit his teeth and kicked Seraphus in the stomach. The ruler loosened his grip and Josef swung his sword. Sparks shot from the tendrils as the blade bounced off with no damage done. Josef tossed the weapon aside and bumrushed Seraphus, tackling the ruler to the ground. They both grunted when Seraphus’ back slammed into the ground, dust kicking up around them.

“I know you talk too much,” Josef muttered, backhanding Seraphus across the face. Something black spills from Seraphus’ nose and mouth.

More tendrils shoot out from the gem, wrapping around Josef’s neck and pulling his arms away from Seraphus. The warrior struggled with every bit of strength he had, but the sinews only tightened their grip as the hissing grew louder. Josef found himself hovering several feet in the air, the living armor surrounding him growing thicker and more voluminous. It began creeping onto his face, and as Josef bit back as scream, he felt one of the sharp points poke him in the side of the neck. A drop of blood fell onto Seraphus’ foot.

The ruler grinned, the glowing around his eyes almost blinding by now. Both fists unfurled and Seraphus raised his arms above his head. “Enough!”

Seraphus’ voice echoed throughout the Underworld, a large tendril shooting from the gem and piercing Josef’s neck. The warrior gagged when the weapon came out the other side of his neck, blood pouring down his chest. His eyes widened for a moment before all of the breath left Josef’s lungs. He fell slack, now dead, hung upright and in the air by nothing more than the gem’s living armor. With a snap of Seraphus’ fingers, the tendrils disappeared. Josef’s body fell to the ground in a heap, and he watched as five angels followed suit, having fallen in the heat of battle.

At last… at last, Seraphus’ moment of triumph was nigh.

When the war was at its peak, Hermes found himself terribly overwhelmed. Grabbing Cassandra Federov, the blue-haired woman who had been The Chosen One’s partner from the beginning, he had hidden behind one of the many mountains decorating the otherwise barren landscape. There were bloodstains and burn marks littered throughout the surface, but it provided the Wise One and Cassandra the cover they needed. Cassandra, predictably, had resisted the urge to hide, but considering how many of the Divine’s soldiers were helpless in this battle, Hermes wasn’t about to let a mere mortal run into the line of fire.

But that was before the Chosen One had fallen. Minutes later, the image of the Chosen One’s neck being snapped in half was vivid enough to turn Hermes’ stomach. He closed his eyes and raked a shaky hand through his white hair. The scar on his cheek throbbed, and for the first time since the Primordial had informed him of the prophecy coming to pass, Hermes was at a loss. The Primordial had failed. The balance within the universe had shifted with this new development, the centuries-old stalemate between the Underworld and the Divine over. Seraphus had his army ready, and no matter what the Divine had done — aligned itself with the Chosen One, resurrected its most decorated warriors, nothing was going to stop Seraphus.

Especially now that he had the Gem of Notna.

As soon as Josef’s lifeless body landed, Hermes sank down to his knees. He cradled his face in his hands for several heartbreaking seconds, letting the emotion of the moment overwhelm him. His impossibly blue eyes, once the picture of clarity, were now clouded with tears. Tears of loss. Tears of mourning. Tears of failure. The Chosen One was supposed to be Earth’s salvation; instead, he suffered the same fate all mortal men did — albeit in a far more violent and destructive way. The screams of the dying filled Hermes’ ears, drowning out the roar of the hellfire. This truly was it. This was the night he was finally going to meet his end. For real this time.

“Josef is dead,” Hermes whispered with a shake of his head, staring skyward. A dragon roared by, one wing twice his size. Were the beast focused on Hermes, it would have itself an easy meal. Instead, the dragon swooped down low, gathering two Divine warriors into its mouth and ending their lives with its powerful jaws. The red spray made Hermes flinch; hundreds of years of war, and he still wasn’t used to the bloodshed. Perhaps this was why he never actually fought.

Hermes glanced to his left to see Cassandra where she had been ever since Seraphus had snapped the Chosen One’s neck. She was on her knees, practically catatonic. There was a distant, not-even-hear-here look in her green eyes. A scratch on her cheek trickled blood, but she didn’t notice it. She didn’t even blink. None of her muscles moved. Not even a twitch. So many times in recent months, Cassandra had been the one to insist on soldiering on, fighting the battles that needed to be fought. More than once, Hermes had wondered if the Gem of Notna had gotten it wrong. Jack Corbett had been a fine Chosen One, no question, but Cassandra had proven to be even bit as worthy as he… if not more so.

Just as obvious, though, had been Cassandra’s love for Jack. The devotion she felt to him was so strong, not even a war for the fate of the Earth could turn her away. But now, that devotion had led to her worst fear: the man she loved dying, right in front of her, and there was nothing she could do about it. Were the situation not so dire, Hermes would not begrudge Cassandra her moment of stasis; in fact, he felt the urge to go catatonic himself. But they couldn’t afford that. Not yet.

“Cassandra,” Hermes said, gently placing his aging hands on her shoulders.

No response.

The dragon returned overhead, its roar a blood-curdling shriek that vibrated in Hermes’ bones. He cringed and shook his head, making sure the monster wasn’t coming for him before turning his attention to Cassandra once more. “Cassandra, are you here? Are you with me? Say something!”

At first, Cassandra was as still and as silent as she had been. But without warning, her eyes turned red and began to glow. She lifted her gaze, chin held up high. The moment startled Hermes so much that he let go of her, watching in awe as Cassandra got back to her feet and began to float. She went from inches above the ground to several feet, until Hermes had to crane his neck to get a look at her. The energy surrounding her eyes was now encasing her entire body. Her hands had curled into fists. Hermes opened his mouth, but there were no words.

Instead, she looked down upon him.

We are here, O Wise One. There was an echo to Cassandra’s voice, as if she were no longer the only one occupying her mind. The Bearer has fallen. The Nomad has fallen. The Primordial was wrong not to interfere.

Hermes didn’t disagree, though this wasn’t exactly the time for an I told you so.

Returning to the ground, Cassandra grabbed one of Hermes’ hands and gave it a squeeze. When his eyes met hers, Cassandra nodded. Consider this our apology.

Cassandra pushed herself skyward, as if flying were something she had been doing for years. A force field of red energy surrounded her and she made a beeline for Seraphus, who was now back on his throne with Josef’s severed head in his lap. Seraphus! She called out, and Hermes couldn’t help the self-satisfied smile that spread across his face when Seraphus jumped to his feet, the head careening down the staircase back to the ground.

The Primordial has always acted in… indirect ways, Cassandra began, grabbing Seraphus by the throat and squeezing until black blood oozed out from under her fingertips. She lifted Seraphus into the air, almost reaching the same height the dragon had just moments before. But even we were helpless to stop this. Well… not so much helpless as stubborn.

Cassandra released her grip, and Seraphus plummeted several hundred feet back to the ground. He landed with a stomach-churning thud, several bones snapping in the process. Seraphus did not immediately return to his feet, barely able to get back to his knees. His nose was broken, a fountain of black spewing from his nostrils down his face. He grit his teeth and snarled before Cassandra landed behind him, grabbed a tuft of his dark hair, and smashed him face-first into the ground once more.

You will not win, O Terrible One. We will not allow it.

A tendril shot out from the gem still embedded in Seraphus’ chest, impaling Cassandra in the stomach. She doubled over with a grunt, her free hand reaching down to grab the strand of sinew buried in her gut. With another grunt, this one almost a scream, she yanks out the tendril and snaps it at a ninety-degree angle. The resulting hiss of anger and pain is sudden, before the strand recoiled back within the ruler. The red in her eyes was now white hot, and Cassandra flipped Seraphus onto his back before straddling him and choking him with both hands.

“I will take back what is mine,” the echo was gone from Cassandra’s voice, “and end this war!”

Reaching into Seraphus’ chest, Cassandra grabbed the gem and began to yank. The ruler’s skin was molded into the crystal itself, and the harder Cassandra yanked, the more Seraphus cringed and writhed in pain. Eventually, the skin began to tear away. Seraphus grunted and bit back several screams, but once Cassandra finally managed to pry the crystal from his chest, her fingers coated in black blood and the tendrils that had swiped at her disappearing, the ruler could hide the pain no more. His scream echoed throughout the abyss, catching all of his undead minions off-guard.

Hermes watched on in awe. Becoming a vessel for the Primordial had actually been her idea. Seeing everyone around her so supernaturally inclined had left Cassandra wondering if there was anything she could do to change that — and seeing as how she wasn’t going to abandon Jack any time soon, Hermes thought it wise to at least investigate the possibility. Gaia and the rest of the Primordial hadn’t been happy — Hermes long thought they were nothing more than lazy do-nothings who hated to be imposed upon — but given the gravity of the situation had reluctantly agreed.

Upon meeting Cassandra, Hermes had underestimated her. What she had lacked in physical strength, she more than made up for in cunning, intellect, and heart. In many ways, she surpassed even Jack, and Hermes felt that she would’ve been just as deserving of being the Chosen One. Even now, he had to chuckle at the memory of something she had once said: Why is the Chosen One always a he?

Well, because the world was an unfair place.

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 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

SHORT STORY: Ghost of a Life, Chapter 2

This is so not the job I signed up for.

Can I bill a ghost? Is that a thing?

Hey, I get snarky when I’m nervous. Sue me. I came into this job with the understanding that I was dealing with a garden-variety haunting. Ghosts were spooking up a joint because they couldn’t go elsewhere, and it was freaking the hell out of the living. But that was before one of these things grabbed me by the leg and shoved me into what appears to be the Tron dimension without all the pretty lights.

“Okay…” I purse my lips together and stuff my hands into my pockets. My pants leg is heavy with gunk from where that arm had grabbed me, and something tells me that’s one stain that’ll never come out. Shame, too, cause this is my favorite pair of cargos.

“So let me get this straight… President Grayson calls me out here to investigate a haunting, when in all actuality, you guys don’t wanna be here any more than he wants you here?”

The sound the ghost makes when I mention President Grayson is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. I guess I could call it a shriek, but as I recoil in horror, clasping my palms over my ears in the vain hope that my brain doesn’t start oozing out, I realize that word wouldn’t do the noise justice. It’s a ghastly sound, the sort that sends a violent chill down my spine. I nearly gag at the force of the shiver, gritting my teeth together and curling within myself. Ghosts are not to be trifled with, even if they appear cute and cuddly.

Well, as cute and cuddly as a dead thing can be.

The Wretched One must pay!

The Wretched One… President Grayson? Seriously? I mean, the combover is pretty bad. Why not just let nature take its course and own being bald? Bald can be cool… if you’re Vin Diesel or The Rock. Overweight college professor whose closet is full of tweed and maybe a pair or two of suspenders? Not so much.

Right, combover it is, then.

“What are you saying?” I so desperately want this ghost to be an English speaker. I mean, they all have been to this point, but if I could get this one to not talk in riddles and half-assed prophecies, that would be fantastic.

The one you call Grayson has trapped us here for decades!

I frown and chew on my lower lip… something I’ve done since elementary school when trying to piece together something that doesn’t make sense. My parents tried to get me to kick the habit, worried I’d cut myself or something, but it stuck around through puberty and into adulthood. But hey, at least I kicked that cigarette habit. Eventually.

Three more spirits have joined the conversation, though to this point their contributions are little more than floating through the blackness and occasionally howling in terror. It’s not a terrible sound, all things considered, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d record and then sell to people who need white noise to sleep at night.

The sight of them swirling around unnerves me. Then again, there’s nothing about this that’s calming. I’m in an alternate dimension, with no clue how I got here and no idea how to get back. As it turns out, the job I agreed to is actually the exact opposite of what I thought it was. Assuming, of course, the ghost is telling the truth. I have to at least account for the possibility that it’s not.

Come. You seek answers.

Well… yeah.

I can see you sitting there right now, begging me not to follow the ghost. All this stuff about it being a trap and how this is always how the girl dies in the horror movies. But the thing is… this isn’t a horror movie, and if this spirit wanted to cause me physical harm, it would’ve done so by now, at tremendous cost to itself. Non-corporeal beings are not supposed to physically interact with the corporeal, and that’s true for all ghosts.

Yes, I realize one grabbed my leg and dragged me here. Believe me, I’m still shuddering at the memory. I’m gonna feel that wet spot on my leg long after this pair of cargo pants has been tossed into the incinerator. I don’t have an incinerator, but after this, I might have to consider getting one.

But follow the ghost, I do. I’m glad he’s sort of glowing; otherwise, I wouldn’t know where to go. Hard to have a good sense of direction when your surroundings are pitch black. The other three spirits follow, whispering and murmuring to each other as their translucent tails intertwine and wrap around each other. It’s a fascinating, macabre dance – one that almost has me so transfixed that I lose track of my guide.

Then again, this ghost is so large, its slimy trail so easy to notice, that I’d have to be downright oblivious to lose my way. If anything, I’m watching my step to make sure I don’t get any of it on my shoes. Not only is it harder to get off the soles of my sneakers than dog crap, but if I’m not careful, I’ll slip and bust my ass on the invisible floor. I’d call the spirit the Giant Walking Banana Peel, if I thought the thing had a sense of humor.

The hushed murmurs of the other ghosts grow in volume the closer were get to where we’re going. At least, I assume we’re close; the pitch black is slowly giving way to a blinding white light. For a moment, I think of the light at the end of the tunnel, and instantly, I think of how foolish I would feel if I just let this thing lead me to my death. How unceremonious. How embarrassing.

Once I blink the blindness out of my eyes, I notice that I’m being led into a library of sorts. Only… the term library doesn’t really do this place justice. Walls upon walls of books expanding as far as the eye can see, disappearing into darkness only once my field of vision has run its course. There was nothing else; no tables, no chairs, no lamps. Just books stacked on top of books. My brother Gerald would love this place. I’ve never seen anyone read as voraciously as him, and something tells me he would gladly spend the rest of his life here.

The ghost who had led me here points to his left. The other three spirits scatter, approaching the shelves before returning with several duty tomes in their grasp. Again, I’m struck by their ability to affect physical objects. Maybe that’s only possible in this plane of existence, but I have a stain on my leg that disproves that.

Purgatory is not where we belong. When we are lost upon the ether, we remain in the realm of the living. Only when what is keeping us in place has passed, do we wander into the next step of our journey.

“And President Grayson’s making sure you can’t do that.” I peer sidelong at the books splayed out in front of us. The tomes are hovering in midair, the pages seemingly turning on their own. Half of the passages are written in Latin, a few in Aramaic. Drawings too disturbing to mention litter the fraying, yellowed pages, and I suddenly have flashbacks to a fictional library in Sunnydale, California.

He calls it retribution.

I frown at this. “For what?”

Tell me, young lass… what do you know of McGuinnis Hall?

My frown deepens to the point where there’s a scrunch in my forehead. An old boyfriend called it adorable, even though he used to be a frequent cause of the look. “Just what I’ve been told. Building was a mental institution that got shut down, and when Mountain Oak was built, they changed the place to a dorm.”

That is only part of the truth.

It just now dawns on me that the ghost called me lass. How old is this thing?

Something is haunting McGunnis… but it is not us. We are as much the victim here as the students who fear for their lives.

I tried to do my research on the place before coming over. Unfortunately, information on McGuinnis Hall outside of the rumors and innuendo is scarce. You get the rumors of the hauntings, and the timeline from mental home to college dormitory, but nothing beyond that. One of those ghost-hunting shows came by to film an episode three years ago, but the episode never made it to air. Rumor had it President Grayson threw seven figures at the producers and the TV station to make the whole thing disappear.

“No sense in scaring off potential students,” he had said at the time.

That was Edward Grayson, the stalwart and longtime president of Mountain Oak College. Purveyor of higher education and full-throated advocate for student rights and safety. As friendly as a next door neighbor, as awkward as a 50-year-old man trying to fit in with college-age kids, and a world-class germaphobe, Edward had seemed nice enough the few occasions we had spoken. He’s also pretty loaded, and he’s not afraid to throw that around when it comes to his school.

The offer sheet burning a hole in my back pocket is a prime example.

The one you call Grayson is not as he seems.

Figures. Wealthy public figures who boost themselves as benefactors rarely are. And in Grayson’s case, he spends half his time hob-knobbing with state and national-level politicians, so it stands to reason some of their stink has rubbed off on him over the years. But the ghost flips another page, and when I see the image of a white-haired man with red horns on his forehead and yellow snarling fangs… my heart skips a beat.

There’s a name etched underneath the disturbing etching. It begins with a G, but I’ll be damned if I can pronounce it. I barely passed German when I was in school; no way in hell did I even think of taking Demon Speak 101.

 Grayson did not merely overtake a long-abandoned building to assist with campus expansion. What he did was raid Merciful Souls Mental Hospital until the patients were left with nowhere to go and his Mountain Oak goons could re-purpose the place to fit their needs.

I shake my head. “But… that’s illegal. You can’t just… take over someone else’s building.”

He can, and he did. Another page flips, and this time I find myself staring at an architectural layout of the president’s building on campus. A translucent, slime-covered finger points at a room in the back right corner on the first floor.

Here. This is where all of the school’s records are kept. There you will learn the truth. There you will find everything the one you call Grayson did to us.

So… now I’m a spy? How am I supposed to sneak into President Grayson’s building and make my way into his records room? I mean, for one thing, I’m stuck here – wherever here is. Secondly… I am the world’s worst sneak. I can’t do stealth to save my life. I’m the kind of person who would turn Metal Gear Solid into a shoot-em-up, get frustrated, and put in something like Contra instead.

“And what then?” I shake my head. “Go public with it?”

Yeah, that’ll work; tell the news their friendly neighborhood rich guy is actually a ghostaphobic prick. I’ll either be hailed a citywide hero or led away in a straitjacket, staring up at the stars and rambling on about the fact that King of Cups wants a party, but it’s not his birthday. Or maybe I’ll just smile and drool for the cameras. Whatever gives them better video to feed on a 24-hour loop while the world learns just how nuts I am.

You will leave that to us. Once we are freed from our shackles, we will deal with Grayson as we see fit.

Oh, that sounds cheery…

“Um, just one more thing.” I squint and bite the inside of my cheek as I point at the map splayed out in front of us. “How do you suppose I get there?”

Let us take care of that.

The ghost makes a motion that vaguely resembles the way a person snaps their fingers – and as the library surrounding me is replaced in a flash by a dimly-lit storage room with a black rolling chair and six metal filing cabinets, I’m struck by the thought that the ghost doesn’t have any fingers.

I’m also struck by a wave of nausea, so sudden that I’m retching before I even hit my knees. It feels like minutes before my body stops turning itself inside out, that evening’s dinner now splattered all over the beige carpeting as if I attempted a poor imitation of Picasso. I wipe my mouth off with a disgusted grunt, slowly getting back to my feet. Teleportation is definitely the sort of thing I hope to never experience again.

It also doesn’t help that I just blew a whole bunch of potential evidence all over the floor. I’m sure there’s some of my DNA in that steaming pile, and I can imagine campus police scooping up my barf into a small Ziploc bag for the real police to put through testing. My inability to handle traveling between dimensions is going to land me in prison, and I won’t be able to cash the check Grayson wrote me.

Hey, the guy might be a ghost-hating douchebag, but if that money clears…

Finally back to my feet, I carefully step over the mess I just made, holding my breath. I have six filing cabinets to look through, and a quick glance at my watch tells me I have four hours before sunrise. I’m good, but finding a supernatural paper trail in that short amount of time, with no official law enforcement help?

I’m not that good.

One of the file cabinets slides across the room. The movement and the sound of the cabinet jostling back and forth startle me. My heart skips a beat and I take a step backward… directly into the pile of vomit. Ugh… see, this is why I wear busted-up tennis shoes when out on jobs like this. First tip of being a supernatural sleuth: wear for comfort and function, not for style.

The cabinet in question is glowing a soft whitish blue, as if the ghost who had just played host to me in its home dimension were the one offering me a clue. Considering that the case, I smile and wave at the ceiling, keeping my thanks silent lest I be seen as a crazy person for talking in a room occupied by only me.

And that’s when I see it: a small black dome on the ceiling, tucked away in the corner. There’s a tiny red dot inside the dome, and I shake my head with a silent curse. Of course there’s video surveillance in here! This is 2016… modern technology is kind of everywhere by now. Something tells me ghosts dating back to McGuinnis’ days as a mental home aren’t exactly privy to such things.

But as a thick blue film oozes from the ceiling, encasing the entire dome before hardening into a solid, I start to think I need to stop underestimating my ghost friends. They’re entrusting me with a seemingly important task, and maybe it would behoove me to start believing them. By and large, ghosts are not untrustworthy. They’re not the tricksters some of their other supernatural brethren tend to be. Generally speaking, if a ghost is telling you something, they’re telling you the truth.

Once the cabinet stops glowing, I approach. The second drawer from the top is slightly ajar, which I take as a hint. Please be a hint; otherwise, I would feel even sillier than I already do. The drawer finally opens after three tugs, as if some of the papers had been jammed along the railings. He lo and behold, the paperwork I find in the first manila folder tells me everything I need to know. Everything about McGuinnis Hall, everything about Merciful Souls, everything about…

Ch-chlick.

Uh… crap.

Read Chapter 1

SHORT STORY: Ghost of a Life, Chapter 1

I realize I have a buttload of manuscripts in various forms of production right now, but apparently, I’ve also got this short story that’s just begging to be told. So, as a treat to you loyal readers, I’m offering Ghost of a Life for free, right here on my website, broken up into chapters. There’ll probably be about five or six chapters total. Please feel free to share and give feedback as you see fir. Enjoy!

 

They say once you lose one of your senses, the others make up for it.

I don’t know if that’s true, but as I peer down the pitch-black hallway, my heartbeat pounding in my chest, I swear I can sense the walls closing in on me. Every creak in the overhead pipes fills my ears, and it’s all I can do not to turn around and go back. My eyes eventually adjust to the dark, a dull speck of red on the far end of the hall signaling an exit. That’s my destination, but who knows what lies between me and that light.

A week ago, I got a phone call from the president of Mountain Oak College informing me of a potential haunting in one of their dorm rooms. What President Grayson had failed to mention at the time was that the dorm in question had at one point been an insane asylum. Just hearing that made me glad I decided on attending Somerset University instead.

Sure enough, here I am on the third floor of the freshman dorm with as serious a case of the heebie-jeebies as I’ve felt in my six years as a paranormal investigator. I just sorta stumbled upon this career. I once longed to be Samantha Blanchard, detective… or Samantha Blanchard, federal agent. I never expected to be Samantha Blanchard, wannabe Ghostbuster.

I don’t even have a photon pack. Or a zapper. Or a trap. Or any of those kickass gadgets you used to see in those paranormal mystery stories back in the day. I barely have the budget for office space, telephone access, and what scientific gear I do own looks like something I picked up at a RadioShack clearance sale.

One step and my shoes find something cold and sticky. I grimace in disgust, knowing exactly what I stepped in before turning on my flashlight. Sure enough, a pile of blue gunk sits on the floor, looking like some spine-chilling combination of snot and tree sap. In my experience, if this slop is lying around, then supernatural beasties can’t be too far behind. It’s their trail, for lack of a better term, almost like if I had left a line of footprints on a sheet of snow.

But snow is pretty. This stuff is anything but. It’s a lot like sand. If it gets on you, it’ll wind up in places you didn’t realize you had. Don’t ask me how I know; that’s one story that will never get told.

Fortunately, this pile of goop decided not to latch onto my foot. Peering down the hallway, flashlight illuminating my narrow path, I see more of the stuff on the walls. It oozes down a silent trail that makes me shudder, and my eyes travel to the ceiling. Just then, a large drop of the stuff falls from an off-kilter ceiling tile and onto the floor, not six inches in front of me. One more step and that stuff would’ve been in my hair.

Remember when you were a kid, and you wound up with bubblegum in your hair? Yeah, it would have been a lot like that.

I’m about midway down the hall when I hear this screech. I flinch and cover my ears, gritting my teeth and hoping desperately for the shudder in my bones to go away. No sooner do I uncover my ears, the ungodly sound returns. It echoes along the hall and I find myself cowering into a fetal position, even though I’m still on my feet. I can’t tell if it’s a cry of rage or agony – oftentimes, in this line of work, the two are interchangeable.

I look up just in time to see a ball of that gunk heading straight for me. I duck just in time, whirling around to see it splatter against the white walls.

Get out…

Oh, good, they spotted me. Whoever they are.

Wherever they are.

Get out!

Well, that’s just rude. I’m here to help, and these things are basically throwing supernatural monkey poo at me. It’s a good thing the school’s offering me five figures for this job; otherwise, I’d just turn around and tell them to deal with the haunting themselves. Then again, this isn’t a case of cockroaches run amok. If left unchecked, hauntings can lead to mass hysteria, psychological problems, and even suicides or murder. Naturally, the school would like to avoid that; the word of mouth alone would be damning.

Hey, did you hear about Mountain Oak? That dorm the freshmen stay in used to be an insane asylum, and now the ghosts of the deranged haunt the place and drive the students batty.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

This is no place for you, little girl

My mouth hangs open. Can ghosts be sexist?

Go back from whence you came, or else you’ll not see the coming day

Oh, good, we’ve reached the cryptic riddle portion of the festivities.

“Well, come on out and it won’t get that far,” I say, reaching for logic even though it has not worked for me once when dealing with these things.

This is our home! I can almost hear the anguish in the spirits’ collective voice. It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for them. They have no right being here!

More often than not, hauntings are the result of a spirit that can’t quite move on to the next life. They’re stuck, either because of some external force holding them back or because something related to their previous life was left unresolved and they can’t break free until there’s closure. Sadly, mental institutions are some of the most vulnerable places for hauntings for just that reason. Decades, if not centuries, of mental anguish and emotional torment create an environment thick with hate and fear – and the living are often the targets.

Given that Mountain Oak is itself 150 years old, there’s no telling how long these ghosts have been here. Hauntings that last centuries tend to end violently for everyone involved – living or not – and I’m not sure I have the delicacy or the patience to see this through to a non-violent conclusion. Then again, these spirits aren’t corporeal, so really, how much pain can I inflict?

The spirits, on the other hand… one of the arms appears from the wall and swipes across my chest. It goes straight through without touching a thing. Even as cold air compresses and rises around me, all I feel is a nasty chill take over my entire body. I am nearly frozen me in place, except my knees buckle and I drop to the floor, mouth agape. All color has left my face and it’s a wonder I still have a hold on my flashlight.

The arm swipes again, passing through the top of my head this time. The shock and cold overwhelm me to the point that I gag, hunched over myself in anticipation of my lunch’s return. Yet I regain my composure and eventually scuffle back to my feet.

Every instinct is telling me to turn around, go downstairs, and get back in the car. To say screw the outlandish payment and let Mountain Oak deal with this on its own. But student safety is paramount; if I bail, and these spirits keep haunting to the point where students start hanging themselves in the showers or slitting their wrists in their beds… wouldn’t that make me worse than the ghosts hidden in the walls? Wouldn’t I, theoretically, be making more ghosts?

“I feel like we got off on the wrong foot,” I offer, even as I wonder if these things actually have feet. “I’m Samantha.”

Slowly, the beam of my flashlight dances along the wall. If I can find the source of the spirits, where that gunk is at its highest concentration, I might have a chance of drawing a few of them out. I just hope there aren’t too many. I work alone, and there aren’t many others like me around. I’m pretty much it, and I am not about to take on an entire dorm full of spookies. Not without a significant rate hike.

The source is across from me, just underneath the red exit sign. The flow of that substance is constant, a large puddle on the floor that keeps growing. I keep my distance; just because I’m wearing old, beat-up sneakers, that doesn’t mean I want them submerged in light blue slime. There’s no telling what’s actually in that stuff, so the less of it that actually finds its way onto my person, the better.

The spirits haven’t answered, and I can’t tell whether that’s a good thing. They haven’t flung any more of that stuff, so I have that going for me. Still, it’s not a fun feeling dealing with a bunch of supernatural beings when armed with little more than a flashlight, night-vision goggles, and a temperature gauge. No crossing the streams here.

“Please,” I try again, “please, whatever is causing you pain, I need you to let it go. Okay?”

If I sound like a shrink, it’s because that was I originally went to school for. Got an undergrad degree in psychology and was all set to start working on a Master’s in counseling. Only the idea was always to counsel the living; something tells me there aren’t many programs in this country for dealing with the emotionally disturbed once they’re dead.

So how did I wind up a ghost hunter instead?

Funny you should ask, and I promise it’s a riveting tale, but… can I save this dorm from being haunted first?

There’s a wooden door to my right. I reach for the golden, rusted knob, but the shock it gives me causes me to recoil. The goop-covered wall in front of me hisses, like a snake pit one might find in those old Indiana Jones movies. Snakes never have bothered me the way they did ol’ Indy, but I gotta tell you… that hissing sound is not helping my nerves right now.

No!

Okay… apparently, that room is off-limits. What, are they afraid I’m gonna find ghost porn or something? Is ghost porn even a thing? How would that work, exactly? And why am I standing here, in the dark, pondering the logistics of ghost smut when the wall in front of me is practically a waterfall of supernatural mucus?

I’m pretty good at this job. I swear.

I’d be better with a partner, but… oddly enough, no one wants to work for no pay. Not even slapping the word “internship” onto the job description got any hits. Because let’s be real: where would this internship be of use? It’s not like the Ghostbusters are just down the block, a big NOW HIRING sign on the door.

“Sorry,” I say with my hands out, hoping the international signal for I mean no harm crosses over to the other side. The hissing dies down to the point where it’s no longer fraying my nerves, but the sound is still there. “I just – kids live here, and it’s hard for them to learn when you’re all scaring the piss out of them and –“

This is OUR house! THEY are the intruders!

Oh, boy… pissed off, territorial ghosts. This isn’t just a case of lost souls on their way to the ether. We’re talking poltergeists who feel some type of way about being dead, and feel even worse about the fact that they have to watch the world around them evolve over time. It’s a terrible way to not-live, and the sympathy pangs tug at my heart again. These ghosts are potentially bad news, but that’s just because of the craptactular situation in which they find themselves.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see another arm reaching out from the wall to swipe at me. I jump back with a start, holding my breath as those ethereal, skeletal fingers barely miss. Again, I have to remind myself these things can’t actually touch me. But they don’t feel that great passing through me, and I’m loathe to experience that again.

Remembering the bag hoisted over my right shoulder, and the notepad within, I roll my eyes and fish for it. I really should’ve consulted this thing before entering the dorm, but hey… it’s not like there’s a manual for how to do this sort of thing. Flashlight clenched between my teeth, I grab the notepad and flip it open and suddenly wish I’d taken more care of my penmanship when I was in elementary school.

Before I get to the page in question, a mind-numbing chill reaches my left leg. My brain tells the leg to move, but a weight comes down over it and the rest of my body shivers in response. Closing the notepad, I glance down with a furrowed brow, only to curse under my breath when I see one of those boney, sinewy arms latched onto my calf. This… this is not supposed to happen. Ghosts are not supposed to be able to affect our realm like this. They are not supposed to be corporeal!

“Hey!” I whack at the arm with my notepad. Bits of bone fall to the floor, but the grip on my leg remains tight. “Let go!”

Instead, the hand around my leg tightens even more. The numb sensation has now spread over both legs, and I can feel it crawling up past my hips and into my midsection. My stomach almost lurches at the sensation, but because my brain can’t stop sending signals to my legs to move, I fall forward before anything else can happen. My chin hits the hard floor, and my teeth come within less than half an inch of biting off the tip of my tongue.

I lose my grip on the notepad, and the bag on my shoulder has slumped all the way down to my wrist. Black spots form in front of my eyes and I have to shake them out. Now my arms are numb, as is my chest. I can barely gasp for air to fill my lungs, let alone fling a series of expletives at the ghosts who have managed to break the laws of physics.

Now I’m moving. Toward the wall. This ghastly thing is dragging me toward a brick wall that’s covered in blue slime. Great, so I’m going to have a concussion and the unshakeable need to shower for the next week and a half. I flash back to my Harry Potter-loving friends, the ones who fantasized about taking the train at Gate 9 ¾… only to have me burst their bubble by telling them they would smash face-first into the wall and lose enough teeth to be drafted by an NHL team.

Now here I am, with a one-way ticket to How many teeth do I have left? And it’s not like I can lift my arms to protect my face, because hello? I’m numb. Not comfortably numb, just… numb.

But then a strange thing happens. Okay, another strange thing happens. I pass through the wall. I legit pass right through the wall, slime and all. None of it’s on me, unless you count the stain on my favorite pair of cargo pants from where the Cryptkeeper wannabe tried to cop a feel. If I get out of this, I’m sending that bastard a bill.

Ghosts get snail mail, right?

So… I’ve traded one pitch-black hallway for another. At least… I think this is a hallway. I can feel a floor beneath my feet, but damned if I can see it. I check my pockets, belatedly realizing I must have lost my flashlight sometime before crossing over. But what, exactly, did I cross over? Am I still alive? Did I just… slip through a portal I didn’t realize was there?

I check my phone. No service. Because of course.

“Hello?” My voice echoes, but that’s the only response I get. Still, it’s a cool effect. If I ever get out of here, I might try to learn how to get back, just so I can talk to myself and listen to the echoes.

I amuse easily, alright?

But this isn’t so funny. I don’t like my question being greeted by nothing more than a fading memory of my own voice. So, naturally, I try again. “Hello?”

Ugh, what’s the definition of insanity again?

Having my bag with me would be nice, not to mention that notepad. I suppose I could keep all my notes and everything on my phone for instances like this, but why suck up all that storage space and drain my battery even more? If I’m gonna be stuck somewhere unfamiliar with no way out, I need my phone to last.

A small flicker in the distance catches my eye. For a moment, I think I’ve imagined it, but it returns. Almost like a lightning strike miles away signaling an incoming storm, each flicker is accompanied by a low rumble. Each rumble is louder than the last, until I begin to feel them in my ribcage. The light is almost blinding now, and I tell myself it’s because I’ve spent the past however many minutes in near-pitch black conditions.

Naturally, I shield my eyes – as if my arm is going to do any good.

But just like that, the light is gone… replaced by a floating apparition with a tail almost as long as I am tall. Its limbs are gangly and over-stretched, and more of the blue gunk that surrounded the walls of the dorm coat its ethereal frame. Its face is empty save a hole where a normal person would have a mouth, but something tells me this thing isn’t much of a talker.

Greetings…

Or I could be wrong. Again.

“Um… hi?”

Forgive Merle, he’s not used to having guests.

I arch a brow, because… Merle? I’m standing at the precipice of the biggest supernatural discovery of my young career, and I got snatched into a different plane of existence by a spook named Merle? What is this, Supernatural meets My Name is Earl?

“Where am I?” I ask, because it’s really the most obvious question at the moment.

This place has many names. I believe your kind call it Purgatory.

Oh, that’s splendid. I mean, I guess I should be glad this isn’t Hell, but… Purgatory’s not exactly a winding field of roses. I glance at my surroundings, frowning at the fact that I’m still surrounded by pitch black. If I make it back home after all this, I’m sleeping with a damn nightlight. I don’t care if I’m 28 years old.

“What am I doing here?”

You have stumbled upon one of the many gates between our realms.

My nose crinkles and I shake my head. This is so much more complicated than I was originally led to believe. I might have to charge double if I get out of this alive. “There’s a dimensional rift in a college dorm.” Sure, because that was the most normal thing ever.

The rift has weakened over the decades… we cannot come and go as we once did. Many of other brethren are stuck on the other side.

“So they’re not haunting the place,” I theorize, “they’re just… stuck?”

Precisely. We wish the students of Mountain Oak University no harm. We merely wish to return to our realm as we please.

Okay, this complicates things, especially since some of the voices on the other side shouted about the students being the ones who didn’t belong. I came into the job thinking the poltergeists were my adversaries, for lack of a better term. To this point, I had been operating under the assumption that the students of Mountain Oak needed my help. How… alive-ist of me? Like, racist but against ghosts?

However… we are glad you are here, young Samantha.

I frown. I generally don’t like dead things knowing my name without me telling them first. Another one of those icy chills runs down my body, this one almost powerful enough to make me topple over, and I dread the answer even before asking the question.

“Why?”

Because you are the one who will set us free.

Read Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5