A Sneak Peek at A New Novel!
I've got several writing projects going on at the moment. This new series is one I'm really excited about. It takes place in Charleston, South Carolina, and it's a ghost story ... or rather, a story about a woman who can see ghosts and the troubles that ability kicks up for her. This may or may not be the final cover. I've been known to switch things up like that. Please enjoy the first chapter of book one. Leave me comments if you'd like, and don't forget, this is copyrighted material.
The ghosts were throwing a party. They hadn’t invited me to their shindig, but I was there. I was trying to ignore them, but they were loud, singing and laughing, their spectral bodies weaving around the passengers who sat in rows of orange upholstered seats on the six-thirty Calhoun Street bus. Those who had yet to leave this world didn’t look all that enthusiastic, even though it was Friday night and the weekend stretched out before them. They may have been happy the workweek was over, but they were tired. Businessmen in button-down shirts, whose ties had long since made their way to the briefcases they carried, sat shuffling through their phones. Collars were unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up and night time plans were being organized via text and Facebook messenger. The ghosts didn’t have homes to get to or schedules to follow. I often marveled at the fact that oftentimes spirits seemed more alive than those souls that still inhabited living, breathing bodies.
I can see the dead, but not all of them know it. I’m an introvert at heart. I don’t like idle chit chat and I hide my ability a great deal of the time. I don’t know if my dad, Gregory Neal, gave me the ability or not, but I do know I didn’t realize I had it until he died … and then came back to visit me four days after his funeral.
The soles of my sneakers squeaked on the damp sidewalk as I walked alongside the building. It was too hot for the boots I normally wore, but I was beginning to second guess the footwear I’d decided on before leaving the house. If anything went down, it would be difficult, but not impossible, to kick someone’s ass in the soaking wet Keds I wore on my sockless feet.
A nasty storm had blown in earlier bringing lightning that set the sky on fire and booming thunder I could feel vibrating beneath my breastbone. The worst of it was gone now, but the clouds were still emptying themselves and I squinted as the rain continued to fall. With the rain came humidity, and the air felt so thick and heavy it was almost like breathing cotton.
Music trailed out of the bar as two women came out, their arms wrapped around one another either in a loving embrace, or to help keep themselves upright. It was hard to tell from where I was standing. They giggled and swayed down the curb and across the wet pavement. I watched them traipse through a puddle that was colored blood red, the reflection from the traffic light above shimmering, then slowly becoming still again once they’d passed. When they were safely on the other side of the street, I looked first right, then left. An old, orange and white tomcat sat beneath a dripping valance, his striped tail wrapped around himself and one paw raised. He licked at his wet fur, his eyes squinted and his expression one of annoyance. The feline looked to be the scariest thing within the immediate vicinity, so I turned back to the bar.
Strange things had happened to me long before that heart attack came and stole my father away. I’d see things out of the corner of my eye, but when I’d turn to look, there was nothing there. Sometimes, I’d hear voices, whispers, even when I was alone, and then there were the times I had a feeling something was going to happen before it did, almost like a premonition. I never had an explanation for any of it. I talked to Dad about it once or twice. He smiled and ruffled my hair, then gave me a smile and told me I was just a sensitive soul. It turns out that I'm much more sensitive than he ever imagined.
Ghosts. Most of them just watch the living. Some of them don't understand that they're in the spirit world, and some of them are angry. They were wronged, betrayed, or hurt before they died and they're hell-bent on revenge. Unfortunately, they have nothing but time. They whisper a lot, ghosts, do. Sometimes I can ignore them. Other times, they’re just too damn loud. There’s more of the spectral creatures out here than you might imagine, and they sure are a lively bunch considering they’re dead.
The music I’d heard when the women left the bar was too loud to be coming from the ancient jukebox that only spit out songs when it was in the mood, and never any of them sung by Elvis Presley. I knew the owner of the place, so I had a little pull when it came to song selection. I didn’t have anything against Elvis. Actually, I liked him a great deal. Dad was one of his biggest fans, and if my childhood had a soundtrack, Elvis sang it. The thing was, death hadn’t changed Dad’s feelings about Elvis, and for some reason, the King always preceded his arrival. His voice would suddenly begin streaming through my car speakers even when the radio was turned off or a Muzak version of "Good Luck Charm" would fill the confines of an elevator before my dearly departed father would appear for a visit. The handsome man with the sultry voice from Tupelo, Mississippi had become an audio trigger for me. When his songs began to play and Gregory Neal didn't show up, it made the loss of my father hurt all over again.
The music filtering from the main entrance meant Zeke was on stage with his band. He hadn’t gotten rich off his musical talent yet, but I knew it was only a matter of time. He beat that stupid jukebox any night of the week. Zeke was a part of the group of us who used to hang out as kids in high school. We still hung out, even though high school had ended more than ten years ago. It wasn’t that any of us loved where we lived. I wasn’t sure about the others, but I’d decided to leave on numerous occasions. Every time I packed up the odd assortment of things that resided in my tiny one-bedroom apartment, someone—or something—would pop its evil head up and I’d feel the compulsion to go to bat for my hometown. Most folks thought I was just kindhearted or that being a good Samaritan was my kind of thing. We were a friendly group, close in many ways, but there was only one of us with whom I’d shared my secret.
The Lucky Penny was a no-frills dive that served greasy burgers with soggy fries, but the beer was always cold. It was open even on Thanksgiving and Christmas, it always looked and smelled the same, and the pool table had a dip in one corner that all of us had learned to manipulate in our favor. It was reliable and never offered up any surprises. I’d come to appreciate that.
The door swung open just as I approached, and I took a few steps back. It missed me, but the backend of an overweight wannabe cowboy didn’t as he pushed himself out of the bar ass first.
“Oh,” he said, as he bumped into me. He reached back, grabbing my bare shoulder, and I stepped away from him before he decided to grope anything else. I watched as he turned his head and blinked. After a few seconds, I saw the light of recognition flicker in his bloodshot eyes.
“Hi, Porter,” I offered.
A slow smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “Well, if it ain’t Mallory Neal …”
He reached out again and stumbled forward, his inebriated brain believing there was an affectionate embrace in his near future. I let him think that and tolerated the feel of his rubbery neck pressed against my face long enough to push my hand into the front pocket of his jeans. His voice rumbled in my ear; an excited, low laugh of surprise and anticipation. His breath was rank as it washed over my face, and I turned my head to get away from the smell.
“Ooh, Della’s been busy in the kitchen tonight,” I told him, one palm flat against his chest so I could push him away. “Her onion rings are one of a kind, aren’t they?”
Porter’s grip tightened around my waist, his fingers finding the barrier between the waistband of my denim cut-offs and the hem of my tank top. Deftly, I moved sideways out of his grasp and lifted my other hand in the air. Porter’s keys were swinging from my finger. I saw a spark of green light shine from them as the streetlight above cycled.
“They sure are,” Porter agreed. “Just like you.”
“Ah,” I said without affection in my voice. “That’s sweet, Porter. It really is.”
“Are those my keys?”
“They are,” I agreed. “It’s kinda hard to pull one over on you, isn’t it?”
He laughed. “You see that rabbit’s foot right there?” He pointed somewhere in the vicinity of the keys I held. I glanced at the ring and saw what looked to be a purple rabbit’s foot hanging from my fingers. The unnaturally dyed fur had seen better days. It was greasy and dark, and missing altogether in some spots.
“Ewww. Really? I haven’t seen one of these since they stopped giving them away as prizes at that fake fishing pond at the carnival.”
“The little rubber fish in the blue water …” Even in Porter’s drunken state he remembered the popular game booth from when we were kids. “I couldn’t catch any of ‘em on that stupid little rod they gave me. The water was dyed so dark. It pissed me off, so I just reached in and grabbed a couple. My hands were blue for days.”
“I didn’t think anyone carried these things anymore. Did you get this one at the carnival?”
“Yep.” He nodded, and his hat fell forward. “I gave it to my mama for good luck.”
“Didn’t your mama die in a tractor accident?” I knew full well that she had and felt sorry for bringing it up as soon as the words left my lips.
Porter pushed another stream of onion and beer scented breath my way. “She didn’t have the rabbit’s foot with her at the time. Things woulda been different if she had.”
“You’re probably right,” I agreed.
“You know, I think you and me could be real good for one another.”
He smiled again, although it looked more like a leer from where I was standing. I shook my head and felt my ponytail swung from side to side.
“Oh, yeah …”
“I seem to remember hearing you say something like that before.”
“Really? I was pretty sure you weren’t listening.”
“Maybe not the first hundred times or so,” I told him, “but you’re not easily dissuaded and kind of hard to ignore.”
“I got my truck,” Porter persisted, his cowboy hat slipping even further down on his sweaty forehead. I was shorter than he was, but he had to raise his chin to see me from beneath the brim. The movement made him tip backward until his back hit the doorframe, and his arms flew up to balance himself out.
“Yeah, you’d be a real sexual powerhouse right now I’m guessin’.”
The leer grew bigger and a little sloppier on his face. “It’d be a wild ride,” he agreed. “Just like riding one a them bulls. They got one in there,” he told me, moving his head to indicate the establishment he was trying to vacate. “You’d be real good at it, I bet. That’s a show I wouldn’t want to miss.”
“That bull’s been broken for the last four years, Porter. Just about as long as it’s been since you last had a date.”
Porter blinked again. “That ain’t true,” he told me. “For someone so nice, you sure can be a bitch sometimes.”
“I might feel bad about that a little later. Right now, though, I’m gonna call you a taxi.” I reached into the back pocket of my shorts to fetch my phone. I’d memorized the number years ago. It helped that it consisted of only one digit.
“I don’t need no taxi,” he said, lifting a hand to brush away the notion. “I’ve driven home drunk lotsa times.”
I finished my call and pocketed my phone. “That’s reassuring, Porter. I probably could’ve lived without hearing that.”
“Gimme my keys.”
“How ‘bout this for an idea? I’ll give you your house key. The rest I’m gonna keep, and you can give me a call when you wake up tomorrow. I’ll be expecting to hear from you sometime after noon. You can get them back then .”
“Hey, Porter,” someone said from behind him. “You wanna move your ass? I need some fresh air and you’re standin’ between me and the exit.”
A woman with cherry red hair piled up in loose curls on top of her head pushed past Porter’s bulk. She had a cigarette between two long fingers and a lighter in the other hand. She smiled when she saw me.
“Hey, girl. You do-goodin’ again?”
I sighed. It was the same song and dance. Porter and I had performed it countless times. “I just can’t help myself. Did you know Porter carries a rabbit’s foot on his keychain?”
Rita lit her cigarette and breathed deep, the end blazing a bright orange in the night. A cloud of smoke surrounded her head and she blinked long, fake lashes at me for a second before turning her gaze on Porter.
“Can you still buy those things?”
Porter shrugged. “It belonged to my mama. It’s good luck.”
“Not for your mama it wasn’t.”
Porter opened his mouth, but I was faster.
“I called him a cab. You gonna be out here for a while?”
“Smoke break. I’ll hang out with him. I don’t know if you’re hangin’ with Joel tonight, but I do know if you are, you’re gonna have drink quick to catch up.”
Rita pulled Porter over to a bench a few feet away. I turned back as I walked through the door.
“Don’t forget to call,” I reminded him. “You can talk, or you can just do what you always do and breathe real heavy into the phone. Either way, I’ll know it’s you and that you’re ready to get your keys back.”
The Lucky Penny had been smoke-free for nearly as long as it had been legal for me to drink, but the smell of cigarettes permeated the walls and the old red vinyl booths that filled the bar. Smoking had never been one of my vices, but the smell was familiar and oddly comforting.
Joel wasn’t hard to spot. He was sitting at his regular table, but the dark-haired guy that was sitting next to him wasn’t someone I recognized. Joel and I had been friends for almost as long as I could remember, but I never knew quite where we stood from day to day. Friends, lovers, distant acquaintances … we ran the gamut, sometimes all in the span of a week. Truth was, I was love with him. I had been for years. I was pretty sure he knew it and took advantage of it from time to time. He loved me, too, but it depended on the day. He was always easy to love. Sometimes he wasn’t that easy to like.
I made my way through the room, skirting several couples who were pushing each other around the dancefloor while Zeke performed a stunning impersonation of Glen Campbell who was trying to find his way back to Phoenix. I caught his eye and gave him a finger wave. He smiled as he sang and returned my greeting with a dip of his wavy brown head. When I finally found my way to our regular spot, Joel looked up and gave me a friendly half-smile.
“What the hell took you so long?”
I watched him for a moment, gauging his blue eyes and the tone of his voice. “Porter,” I said, walking around behind him. When he reached back and grabbed my wrist, I allowed him to pull me closer. When he tipped his bearded face up and sideways, I hesitated only a second before pressing a kiss against his cheek.
“Oh, shit,” he said, shaking his head and brushing his beard against my lips. “You’ve been holding out for years. I was hoping you’d stay on that path.”
I dropped into the seat beside Joel and watched him signal the bartender. “I may be lonely,” I told him. “But I’m nowhere near that lonely.”
His eyes weren’t entirely clear. They had a beer haze clouding them ever so slightly, but he wasn’t drunk. I’d seen the look he was giving me more times than I could count. I tossed a glance at the other man sitting at the table, hoping Joel wasn’t working on hooking the two of us up.
“You’re all wet.”
I looked back at Joel. “It’s raining.”
“And you stayed out there messin’ with Porter?”
“I took his keys from him just like I do nearly every Saturday night. Did you know he carries a rabbit’s foot?”
“A rabbit’s foot?” the stranger asked. “You can still get those?”
Joel shrugged and drained the last of his beer just as Cody showed up with another round.
“You could if you really wanted to, I’m sure,” Joel said. “But why would you want to?”
“Hey,” I answered, grinning at Cody. “How’s it going?”
“I can’t complain.”
“But you probably still will.”
Cody looked over at Joel. “Yeah, man, I probably will.”
“I’m picking up the next few rounds,” I informed him.
Cody gave me a smile. “Noted. There’s a burger back there with your name on it.”
“I don’t suppose that burger has a couple of friends, does it?” Joel asked.
“I’m sure it does. You want fries or onion rings with those?”
“Fries,” me and the stranger said at the same time. I looked over at him and gave him a smile. “We don’t know each other,” I said, noticing how dark the man’s eyes were. “But I’m gonna ask you to trust me on this one.”
“Yeah,” Cody said with a shake of his head. “Della’s trying some new spices in her batter. So far, the reaction has been a mixed bag.”
“Fries is it, then.”
Joel took a drink from his fresh glass.
“Be back in a minute.” Cody tossed a wink in my direction and I settled back into my chair.
“Mal, this is Owen. Owen, this is Mal. She’s wicked smart. She’s also kinda scary. If she says stay away from the onion rings, stay away from the onion rings.”
“I’m only scary sometimes,” I clarified. “Mostly I’m sweet. Too sweet if you listen to the majority of people around here.”
Joel and I both had our hands on the table. He reached over and touched his pinky to mine. “Ya are kinda sweet.” I held his eyes for a few seconds then moved my gaze over to his friend.
Owen wasn’t a hard guy to look at. I studied him from over the rim of my glass. His hair was black and cut very short. He had a dark complexion, but I noticed it was lighter around his eyes. Sunglasses. It was an easy guess that he probably spent a great deal of time in the sun, and he most likely had a physical job judging by the muscles that bulged from beneath his casual button-down shirt.
“I’ve never seen you before,” I commented. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Owen shook his head. “No, ma’am. I’m spending some time here with my family. My uncle, he ain’t been feelin’ so good lately, and he needed some help at the store.”
I shook my head. “Okay, you’ll need to stop ma’amin’ me, first off. Second, who’s your uncle?”
“Ah,” I said. “How long have you been in town?”
“Just a couple weeks. There’s been some strange stuff goin’ on over there, and the doc can’t seem to pinpoint exactly what’s ailin’ Uncle Ford.”
I put my beer down on the table and studied Owen for a second. Then I let my gaze wander over to Joel. “You’re not trying to hook me up here, are you?”
Joel gave a slow shake of his head. “Nope. You think I’d try that again after what happened last time?” He reached up and fingered his beard. I didn’t want to think about the last time and was somewhat annoyed he’d brought it up.
“Whatever,” I told him, brushing it off.
“This ain’t no date, darlin',” he continued. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves another job.”