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

BEHIND THE BADGE Launch Day Sales

Behind the Badge ebook coverWhen Behind the Badge, the third installment in the Jill Andersen mystery series, goes live in Kindle and paperback on Wednesday, June 1, readers will be able to celebrate by picking up the earlier installments at a reduced rate.

Bounty, the first novel in the series — which was released one year to the day before Behind the Badge, will be available for free on Kindle from Wednesday, June 1 through Monday, June 6.

Blood Ties, the second novel in the series, will be available on Kindle for just 99 cents from Wednesday, June 1 through Wednesday, June 8.

It is also my hope that Boundless, the Kindle short, will be free from June 1-6 as well.

You can pre-order Behind the Badge for Kindle here. Click here to read the first five chapters.

An Ode To Kate Beckett

In less than a month, one of my favorite characters is going to be going away. With Stana Katic leaving the TV show Castle following this season, Kate Beckett will be no more.

This sucks, for several reasons — most of which have nothing to do with writing. But in a lot of ways, I have Kate Beckett to thank for my books, Bounty and Blood Ties.

More than one reader has told me that Jill Andersen, my protagonist in those novels, reads similar to Kate Beckett. That’s not by accident, either; when I discovered Castle a little more than a year and a half ago, something triggered whenever I saw Beckett on-screen.

See, Bounty has been a labor of love since I was in high school… emphasis, more often than not, on the labBeckett gunor part. Constant re-writes, reboots, do-overs… I could never really get the character, or her stories, right.

But along came this sometimes-lighthearted procedural about a mystery novelist who followed around a cop under the pretense of research… and everything just started to click. Jill started to click. I started to click.

I wasn’t in a writing funk before discovering Castle, but that show really turned up the proverbial wick. Adding the murder mystery element to Jill’s universe really helped things fall into place, and Jill herself was suddenly far more well-rounded and dynamic than she had been before.

In a lot of ways, Jill is similar to Beckett… but in a lot of ways, they’re also polar opposites. But were it not for Beckett — and Katic’s remarkable portrayal of her — I’m not sure I’m sitting here with two published novels under my belt and several more in the works.

I’ll be sad to see Beckett go — and take down a show that I had come to love in the process. But I’m thankful for the character and the actress, because they really helped bring forth a creative renaissance on my part. I’m a better, more confident writer because of Castle, and thanks to Beckett, Jill is a much more interesting character than I could’ve ever dreamed.

Besides, now that Katic is leaving Castle, maybe she could take the role of Jill should Bounty 
wind up on Netflix.

Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

COVER REVEAL: Behind the Mask

Time now to officially, fully, unveil the cover for Behind the Mask, the fourth novel in the Jill Andersen mystery series and the immediate follow-up to Behind the Badge (June 2016)!

It’s hard JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (7)to be a hero when everyone’s out to get you.

Once upon a time, Jill Andersen considered herself a hero. Not just because of the badge handed to her by the city of Baltimore and the pledge she once made to protect and serve. Her secret life, as the vigilante Bounty, had allowed Jill to protect her native Baltimore in ways her day job never allowed.

But all that has gone to hell now. One case pushed Jill past her limits, to the point where she made choices she can’t take back. As a result, the entire city is on the lookout for her. Allies can no longer be counted on. People who were once in her corner might very well be trying to bring her down… to say nothing of those she has crossed along the way.

But that’s the least of Jill’s problems. A shadowy figure emerges among the chaos, and his link to Jill’s past has the potential to be ultimate undoing. Jill thought every link to Project Fusion has been settled once she solved Dr. Trent Roberts’ murder almost one year ago, but if she’s not careful, her past might just kill her.

Behind the Mask, the gripping, hard-hitting fourth novel in the Jill Andersen mystery series (Bounty, Blood Ties, Behind the Badge), gives readers yet another taste of author J.D. Cunegan’s comic book-inspired brand of fast-paced prose, with chapters that fly by and plot twists that will leave readers guessing and waiting for more.

Behind the Mask will release in Kindle and paperback in January 2017. Also, be on the lookout for Behind the Badge, which will be out in June 2016!

EXCERPT: Behind the Badge

A snippet from my current WIP, Behind the Badge. Note that this is an early draft and may change upon publication.

Jill watched as the van careened off I-83 and onto one of the countless side streets that connected North Baltimore with downtown. Her perch atop the John and Frances Angelos Law Center on the campus of the University of Baltimore gave Jill a perfect vantage point for the chaos, and she was glad she had decided to tail Colonel Downs after her conversation with Officer Carter. Not that she had considered Downs a suspect, but if he had anything that could have led her to one of the other perpetrators, then she was going to take every advantage she could.

Even if that meant breaking out the black leather and letting her hair down. The katana felt heavier than usual strapped to her back, a family heirloom that served as her symbol as much as anything else. Since the fallout from Vernon Delaney’s murder, Jill had kept her vigilante exploits to a minimum… mostly because far too many people now knew her secret. Sure, the vast majority of them were co-workers, people she trusted with her life, but the last thing Jill wanted was for her double life to become common knowledge. If that meant toning down the rooftop brooding and the bad guy pummeling for a bit, she had to make do.

But if any case begged for off-the-book investigating, this was it. If Jill’s hunch that cops were involved in Devin Buckner’s murder was correct, and if the pattern of behavior had been laid out before the brass downtown and nothing had been done, then something told Jill she wasn’t going to solve this case with her badge. Internal politics were her least favorite part of the job, and a large reason why she never showed any interest in moving up the proverbial food chain.

So why had she accepted Downs’ offer?

Sure, Captain Richards was desk-bound most of the time and got to go home at a decent hour most nights, but at what cost? She had heard some of his phone calls with the deputy commissioner and others at the Bishop over the years, and she decided long ago she wanted nothing to do with that. Jill became a cop to do good, not put up with bureaucratic hurdles. But still…

In the distance, Jill saw the van take the exit that led onto North Avenue, going far faster than any vehicle that size should. It almost toppled onto its side, and Jill wasted no time beginning her descent. This was one of those times where Jill wished Project Fusion had given her the ability to fly; at the very least, she wished she could afford to invest in a quality grappling hook. But she had to make do with fire escapes and improvising ways to get down off rooftops without injuring herself. Another multiple-story tumble was not something she needed.

Her infrared sight gave Jill the advantage of spotting the van from such a long distance. She had expected the van to keep on North, going westbound, but a sharp left took the vehicle onto Mt. Royal, and it was coming right toward her. Jill couldn’t believe how fortuitous that was, considering there was no way she could’ve made it from the University of Baltimore to North Avenue on foot and been able to keep up with the van. Then again, Jill wondered if maybe this was too easy.

But like Ramon once told her… gift horse, mouth.

◊◊◊

When Jill saw the van pull out from behind a black Cadillac, swerving into the right lane, she dropped into a crouch. She had to time this perfectly; otherwise, she would either bounce off the vehicle’s hood and wind up being run over by traffic behind, or she would miss the mark completely and possibly land in the middle of an intersection. Frankly, she didn’t want another trip to the hospital… especially considering what happened the last time. Not only did her secret get out to more people than she wanted, but Jill also had someone attack her in her own hospital bed.

Honestly, who tries to kill someone in a hospital?

Mentally counting down from three, Jill leapt into the air at one. She landed on the roof of the speeding van with a thud, trying to maintain her balance when the vehicle swerved in response. As expected, her stunt got the driver’s attention. Dropping to a knee, having an easier time balancing herself now that she had lowered her center of gravity, Jill pulled the katana from its sheath and pierced the sheet metal. She sliced through as best she could before using her free hand to pull the roof back like it was a sardine can.

She found Colonel Downs on his back, his face bloodied. He was still alive, writhing in pain. Jill was just about to drop down into the back of the van when gunfire erupted from the front of the vehicle, tearing through the partition. Jill lowered herself until her chest as flat against the roof, her free hand latching onto the peeled-back sheet metal. None of the bullets hit Downs, and none of them came up her way. Instead, the rear double doors had been hit, now resembling swiss cheese more than anything else.

Once gunfire had been replaced with the click of an empty chamber, Jill hopped into the back of the van, crouching beside the colonel and checking his pulse. It was faint, but it was there. He groaned in response to the leather-clad fingers pressed into the side of his neck, his eyes little more than open slits as he lifted a hand to point toward what was left of the partition.

Before Jill could turn around, one more gunshot burst through the partition. She ducked and covered Downs’ body with her own, squeezing her eyes shut before the realization dawned on her that neither one of them had been hit. Even with that knowledge, Jill needed a few seconds to gather her bearings — the sound of gunfire in such close proximity sending her back to a few months prior, when she had been chasing down a murder suspect downtown and wound up with a bullet in her gut. A bead of sweat rolled down Jill’s temple, her dark hair splayed out over her face. Her heartbeat thundered away in her ears, and Jill gulped in a deep breath to calm herself. But another gunshot rang out, this one clearly a shotgun blast. The concussive force dislodged her sword from the roof, and it fell to the floor with a clang.

Grabbing the weapon, and operating on pure adrenaline, Jill lunged toward the partition and sliced through it. She then reached through the hole the shotgun had torn through the metal, grabbing one of the masked figures by the neck and yanking them into the back of the van. She slammed the short man onto his back and pointed the tip of her blade at his throat.

“Keep driving!” the woman ordered, changing the clip on her pistol.

“I’d re-think that,” Jill warned. “Unless you wanna hear this guy gag on his own blood.”

“You wouldn’t,” the driver said, never once tearing his gaze from the windshield. Though the voice was muffled by the mask, it sounded an awful lot like the asshole cop she had questioned earlier that day.

“You really wanna find out?”

Silence filled the front compartment, and Jill hoped the masked attackers were reconsidering their strategy. Jill was flying by the proverbial seat of her pants; this was, by far, the strangest scenario in which she had found herself — which was saying something, considering she once had a man’s heart sitting in a box outside her apartment. She knew she wasn’t going to stab this guy in the neck, Colonel Downs probably knew she wasn’t going to stab this guy in the neck. But Jill needed the four in the masks to think she might.

What she hadn’t counted on was the press of the gun barrel into the back of her neck.

“What I want,” the female voice hissed, “is for you to put down that sword.”

Well, if this was ever an impasse… they wanted Jill to put down her sword, she wanted them to pull the van over. They didn’t appear willing to acquiesce, and Jill was worried pushing the issue further would get someone killed. But if she lowered her weapon, showed any sign of surrender at all, there was no telling what kind of signal that would send.

“How do I know you won’t pull the trigger even if I do?”

“You’ll just have to trust her,” the driver called out over his shoulder.

Jill swung her free arm behind her, her coiled fist hitting the masked woman in the elbow. The bone gave way and the woman howled in pain. The momentum of the blow sent her into the driver’s right side, their shoulders colliding before he yanked on the wheel and the van skidded across two lanes of traffic before hopping the median. The right front tire took out a fire hydrant, pressurized water shooting skyward before the van slammed back onto its wheels right in front of oncoming traffic. Cars skidded onto the sidewalk and crossed the median as they slammed on their brakes, and there were three crashes as motorists tried to keep from running into the van.

Jill reached for a metal bar on the left side of the partition, grunting when the force of the van almost popped her shoulder out of its socket. Fortunately, the four masked figures were too busy trying to hold on or control the vehicle to notice her, so by the time Jill gathered her bearings, she grabbed the sword again and reached around the driver, placing the blade flush against his neck.

“Stop the van!” she ordered. “Now!

“Or what?” the masked man in the back of the van with Jill asked. “We all know you won’t press down. That’s not your style.”

“You don’t have what it takes,” the man in the passenger’s seat, who to this point had been silent, added.

Even as they spoke, the van was decelerating, the front tires hoping over the curb as the vehicle bounced and teetered onto the sidewalk. Onlookers from across the road had pulled out their phones and were snapping pictures and taking videos — because apparently, a high-speed chase was social media fodder, but no reason to call the authorities. Not that Jill wanted the authorities here just yet; with any luck, they wouldn’t show up until she was already gone. That was seldom how it worked out, but Jill figured one of these days, it had to go her way.

Then again, it wasn’t like she could just tie up the bad guys in a makeshift spider web and just… leave them there.

She pressed the blade harder against the driver’s neck. It wasn’t yet deep enough to cut through skin, but if the van jostled just the wrong way…

“You know nothing,” Jill muttered under her breath. She didn’t need Carter recognizing her voice.

The man who had been on the ground behind Jill got up and punched Jill in her kidney. Though the blow caused her knees to buckle, and Jill bellowed in pain, she kept her grip on the katana and it moved just slightly against the driver’s neck. It cut through the material of the mask and came to rest against his skin. Carter tightened his grip on the steering wheel, and she felt him tense around the weapon.

Before Jill could react, though, she heard her attacker howl in agony before crumpling to the floor of the van. She frowned in confusion before seeing Colonel Downs, resting on his good elbow and holding onto a black taser. The anger and pain on his face made for a potent mix, and Jill reminded herself to never actually cross him. She also respected him a lot more than she had before; she had considered him part of the downtown cover-up that allowed these four officers to get away with these rough rides in the first place, but if they had kidnapped him and subjected him to a rough ride of his own…

Jill turned her head so that by the time Downs looked directly at her, he wouldn’t see her face. She so did not need someone from the Bishop figuring out who she was.

“You alright?” he asked.

Busy Times Afoot!

The third novel in the Jill Andersen mystery series — Behind the Badge — is currently in the revision stages, and I’ve begun writing the first draft of Behind the Mask, the fourth Jill Andersen book.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL…

In addition, I’m writing a political thriller titled The Pen is Mighty, which follows political speechwriter Peter Hollingsworth as he stumbles across a scandal involving Senator Roger Pearson — who is running for President. Will Hollingsworth’s knowledge get him killed?

I’m also in the beginning stages of a supernatural/fantasy epic titled Notna — in which Texas A&M archaeology professor Dr. Jack Corbett stumbles upon the Gem of Notna, is deemed the next Chosen One, and thrust in the middle of a holy war that’s been at a stalemate for centuries.

Expect synopses and cover reveals (and maybe even release dates) in the coming days!

And in the meantime, head on over to Amazon and pick up your copies of both Bounty and Blood Ties (that way, you’re all caught up once Behind the Badge hits in June)!