Authors: Nicole Dennis
The dead have no respect for anyone trying to have a life.
Portia Mahaffey is the only woman in her family without a psychic “gift”—and she likes it that way. After a concussion, she discovers her latent ability to see ghosts, including a murdered girl. Corinne wants Portia to convince the police that her death was no accident; she will haunt Portia until she agrees. Reluctantly, Portia uses her new gift and some old-fashioned detection to track down clues.
Seeing the dead is just the beginning as Portia discovers hungry demons, mercenary shadow beings, vengeful poltergeists and a murderer willing to make a ghost out of her. Who knew hanging with the dead could be so hazardous to the living?
Content Warning: Contains mild sexual escapades, ghosts, demons, and flatulent pugs.
“Are you okay?” Ethan looked at me strangely. “Were you looking for something?”
“Did you see the restrooms?”
“To the left.”
“Thanks. Be right back.”
I took my clutch and walked slowly, taking the opportunity to look around the busy bar. The booth where the blonde had been was empty, but the demon smell was stronger.
I reached the door to the ladies’ room and almost vomited. That’s how strong the smell was. As I grasped the restroom door, something brushed my hair. I whirled around and there it was, right on top of me. It loomed over me, breathing its horrible stench into my face. I wanted to faint or panic or run, but I couldn’t move. I tried to lean back, but I was up against the door. Then it spoke to me.
The First Ghost
Copyright Â© 2011, Marguerite Butler
Edited by Christy Phillippe
Book design by Lyrical Press, Inc.
Cover Art by Valerie Tibbs
First Lyrical Press, Inc. electronic publication: February, 2011
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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.
Published in the United States of America by Lyrical Press, Incorporated
This book is dedicated to my writing group, the Fangsters. Thanks for the endless encouragement, advice and cups of virtual coffee. No one could ask for a better group of friends.
I couldn't have done this without my writing group, the Fangsters: Grace, Andy, Alan, Celina, Kim, Sophie, Steve, Beth, Lori and Marla. Special thanks go to Celina, Alice and Grace for beta reading endless versions of this manuscript. Thanks to my editor, Christy Phillippe, for catching my foolish errors and making me look better than I am.
Almost there. I could see my train and rummaged in my pocket for my pass, confident I would make it--until the whistle sounded. “No!” Hot coffee sloshed out of my commuter mug, soaking my glove. I said a few naughty words, hoisted my tote bag and ran for the train. If I missed this one, I would be at least fifteen minutes late, and like they say, failure was not an option. My boss had zero sense of humor about tardiness and I was not crawling back to the family business.
This was about more than pride. We’re not talking about plumbing or insurance or even running a store. My family owns and operates Mahaffey-Ringold Funeral Home, proudly tending to your corpses since 1942. But not me. No way, no how. I was the family freak and I liked it that way.
All the Mahaffey women were clairvoyant. My mother saw spirits. My cousin Eleanor relived the last moments of death from personal objects. Her sister communed with the dead in Europe. My aunt saw visions of the past and occasionally even the future. I was the only woman without some sort of “gift.” No dead people or spooky visions for me. Nope. Just a nice apartment and a decent day job, which I was about to lose if I didn’t get on that train.
I focused on finding my rail pass without dropping my coffee or tote bag and trying to run in heels. I didn’t pay attention to where I was going.
I laid there on the ground for a moment, stunned. “Ow.” I sat up and rubbed my temple.
“You okay?” somebody called.
I waved them off. “Fine. Only thing hurt is my pride.” Which wasn’t strictly true. Both my knees and my head hurt. I’d wiped out hard. My pants weren’t torn, but the fabric on the knees was damaged. I located my steel mug, which had leaked most of its precious coffee into a brown pool on the concrete.
Staggering to my feet, I stepped right into a slushy puddle. My heel caught in a crack in the pavement. Now both my gloved hand and my foot were freezing. I swore a little more and tugged at my foot, trying to free my stiletto from the crevice.
The train whistle sounded again. I looked up in panic. The last whistle meant I had two minutes to board that train. At the moment that seemed vitally important.
Then everything in my life changed.
The air became electric, super-charged the way it does just before a storm hits, even though there were no hurricanes bearing down on Dallas. The hair on my arms stood on end, and not from the cold. A current hummed through me. My vision sharpened. Things looked different, like the world had suddenly snapped into focus. It was as if I’d put on a pair of new glasses.
A tiny, older gentleman with a head of wild, white hair like Einstein stood on the tracks in front of the train. He worried and twisted a hat as he stared up at the yellow engine.
How the heck had he gotten down there? Did he jump the railing? Was he confused? Other tardy commuters ran for the train in a mad scramble, ignoring the man on the tracks.
I tugged again on my shoe.
“Hey! Get off the track!” I yelled at him. “That train’s about to move!” It was about to move without me on it.
The man ignored me. The whistle blasted a third time and the train rolled forward. I dropped my tote and my mug, which rolled down into a gutter. “Hey!” I waved my arms in desperation. “Get off the track! Hey! You! Old guy!” The little man turned to look at me, but he didn’t move, just kept twisting that hat. What the hell was wrong with him? “Move!” I screamed.
The train picked up speed. “Somebody! Stop! Stop!” People looked now, but not at the man on the tracks. They edged away, giving me sideways looks. “Can’t you see him? He’s going to get run over! He’s--”
I turned away with a sharp cry, unwilling to look. I don’t know what I expected, but I expected
to happen. I thought there would be screaming and horror as people realized what had just happened. I thought the brakes would screech. I even thought I might hear the train hit him, but instead it slowly rumbled out of the station.
I stepped out of the stiletto still trapped in the puddled crevice and scanned the tracks for carnage.
Unless of course you considered the people staring at me. I locked eyes with a man, but he averted his and moved away.
“Pardon me, miss. Have you seen my mother?” I turned to the voice that came from right next to my ear. The same little man from the tracks, apparently unharmed, stood at my elbow.
I reached out to grab his coat and swiped my hand right through him. “What the--” I took a startled step back with the foot still wearing a stiletto, overbalanced and fell. My head made contact with the concrete for a second time that morning and everything went black.
* * * *
I hurt all over, especially my head.
I didn’t want to open my eyes, but I had to look around. Bright. I blinked to clear the fuzziness. All I saw was industrial white and green. Curtains. Machines. Beds. Someone lay in the next bed, but her face was turned the other way.
The woman sitting on the edge of my roommate’s bed had to be at least a hundred years old. She had wrinkles on her wrinkles and a huge mound of teased and sprayed hair colored an improbable shade of blue. She wore the official senior uniform of a hot pink velour tracksuit and a bored expression. She looked around like she was waiting for something.
“Where am I?” I knew I was in a hospital. What I meant was:
What hospital am I in and how did I get here?
But I could only manage a few words.
The woman looked right at me, but she didn’t answer.
I tried again. “What hospital is this?”
She looked more intently at me. “Can you see me?”
“Of course,” I replied.
She patted her fluffy hair helmet. “Well, la-de-da. I thought I was in invisible mode. Must have been the blow to your head.”
Which explained my headache, but not the harpy. She looked down at the lump of bedclothes. “Wait here,” she said to the motionless figure. “I’ll be back.”
I blinked because she suddenly stood right next to me and I hadn’t seen her move.
“Ow!” I cried out. “You pinched me.”
“You really can see me. And feel me, too.”
“Who are you?”
“Not yet, doll. First you tell me your name.”
My head hurt too much to argue. “Portia. Portia Mahaffey.”
“Ohhh.” Her voice trailed off into a coughing fit. “That explains it. You’re one of
Mahaffeys, aren’t you? You must be Imogene’s daughter.”
“Do I know you?”
She laughed again. “No, doll, but I know your mother real well. We talk all the time.” She patted my arm. “Your mother said you didn’t have the gift, but it looks like she was wrong.”
I stared at her. Mother never talked about the family gifts. Ever. “How do you know about that?”
“I know lots of stuff, honey. I’m Death. But you can call me Hephzibah. Pleased to meet you.”
I closed my eyes, hoping she would be gone when I opened them.
This was a bad dream. I’d suffered a blow to the head. I was obviously hallucinating. With my eyes closed, the throbbing in my head worsened. I opened them gingerly.
Hephzibah was real.
“We’re gonna be good friends,” she said. “I can tell. I should have known you were Imogene’s kid. You look like her. Red hair and all them freckles. Don’t you ever get any sun? That skin could use a little color to it. So when did you first start seeing spirits?”
“Is that what you are? A spirit?”
“More or less. I’m Death. Sort of an escort for the dead, a guide if you will, to the other side. I cross people over. So when did your gift finally arrive?”
I squinted at the clock hanging on the opposite wall. “Ten minutes ago? Maybe fifteen? I think. I’m not really sure.” My hands shook and I fought the urge to bury my head under the covers. I was too old. The Mahaffey gift always arrived with the first agonies of puberty. This couldn’t be happening.
Hephzibah whistled. “Brand spanking new, huh? Better get ready. Hospitals are chock-full of spirits.”
“So far you’re all I’ve seen. Maybe I won’t really see ghosts.”
“If you see me, you’ll see ghosts. Trust me on this one, doll. So are you single? Married?”
“Single. Why are you here?”
“Oh, I’m just waiting. Business call, so to speak.” She tilted her head in the direction of the neighboring bed. “I got here a little early. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the time.”
“She. Any minute now.”
It was a sobering thought. “That’s so sad.”
“Yeah, it’s a real kick in the pants.”
“How did she...I mean will she...I mean...what...”
“Her? Murder. Sad, really. She’s pretty young. Younger than you even.”
“Isn’t her family here? Shouldn’t they be with her?”
“She ain’t got any family, unless you count an aunt in Omaha.”
“What about friends? She shouldn’t die alone.”
Hephzibah shook her head. “Just you and me, kid. She ain’t got nobody else.”
The machine that had been softly beeping next to the woman’s bed screeched. My headache flared like someone had stabbed me behind the eyes with an ice pick.
“There we go,” Hephzibah said. “About damn time.” She popped a stick of gum in her mouth.
The room exploded into activity as nurses and doctors swarmed the room, trying to revive my roommate. I could have told them the outcome.
Someone closed the curtain separating our beds. Hephzibah continued staring, like she could see through it.
Of course my mother picked this moment to walk into the room. When she spied Hephzibah standing by my bed, she dropped the cheerful vase of flowers, which landed with a crash.