Release date: 30 April 2020
Whoever said that ghosts exist must be out of their mind.
Oh, wait. That was me. I said that. If you’d told me yesterday that ghosts were real I would have smiled, nodded, and called a shrink to fix your deluded little mind. Now it’s my turn to question my sanity when the ghost of my best friend turns up in my apartment. Was it the tequila shots the night before causing this apparition? Or one too many bumps to the head — let’s face it, clumsy is my middle name, it really wouldn’t surprise me if I’d done some irreparable damage to my grey matter over the years.
Now I have to accept that the paranormal does, in fact, exist. But sadly, my ghost friend is lacking something besides his body. His memory. He doesn’t know how he died but suspects foul play and he wants my help to find his killer. I can’t refuse, I’m a sucker for a good mystery and the chance to bring my friends killer to justice is too good to pass up.
Surprises abound as I discover a secret talent for sleuthing, not to mention an unexpected inheritance of a talking cat among other things. But the biggest problem of all? Captain Cowboy Hot Pants, or as he likes to be called, Detective Kade Galloway of the Firefly Bay PD. He’s one smokin’ cop, but my distrust of the police runs deep and despite his assurances that he’s here to help can I really trust him, or is his offer of assistance designed to keep me from discovering the truth?
I guess I’ll find out when death comes knocking on my door.
Join Audrey Fitzgerald in the Ghost Detective series, a paranormal cozy mystery featuring a cat, a ghost, and a murder to solve.
— a note to my fabulous readers —
This series will be in Kindle Unlimited. It may go wide at a later date. However, you can always purchase my books from Amazon, you don't need to be a Kindle Unlimited user to get a copy. Also, EVERYONE can download the FREE Kindle Reading App and read on your favorite e-reader! The link to download the Free Kindle Reading App is below.
To read the first three (unedited) chapters of Ghost Mortem, click on the READ AN EXCERPT section below. Enjoy :)
My name is Audrey Fitzgerald and this is how I died.
It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. It was a clear afternoon with not a cloud in sight, the sun was shining and all was right with the world. Wait a second, no it wasn’t. Oh, I got the weather part right, but this story doesn’t start all bright and bubbly, sunshine and unicorns. Oh no! This is the day I died. So no, all was not right in my world.
With such a monumental event looming I would have thought the skies would darken, thunder would boom, and basically the heavens would announce their displeasure that I’d been taken too early, too young, that it was not my time to die. But considering my tendency for clumsiness, I’m not that surprised, to be honest. It’s an affliction I’ve had my entire life and I’ve got the scars to prove it! If anyone were to walk into a closed-door, trip over an invisible bump in the carpet, spill hot coffee all over herself, it would be me.
But I couldn’t live my life wrapped in bubble wrap. Life was to be lived and that meant heading out into the big wide world and facing each day as the blessing it was. Mom and dad always used to shake their heads and mutter, “It’s a wonder she survived her childhood,” whenever I relayed the latest disaster to befall me.
Being clumsy shouldn’t define you, yet I could categorically attribute my clumsiness as the reason for my being fired from every single job I’d had. Usually, it involved spilling a hot beverage on someone. Typically the boss. On more than one occasion - because they’re not monsters, they’re not going to fire someone for spilling a drink. But after a trip to the ER with burns on your, er, delicate bits from the coffee I’d just spilled in your lap, the word liability starts to get thrown around, and rightly or wrongly, I would find myself performance managed out the door.
So my career, such as it is, is as a professional temp. Despite the fact that I’d completed a legal secretary certificate program, had a diploma in business administration and a small business management certificate, I could not hold down a job. Not for long, anyway. Because one way or another I’d screw it up. I’ve dropped my fair share of expensive laptops and phones and knocked over vases on reception desks - the water splashing all over the receptionist’s computer is just a given.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bitter. Not at all. I love temping, I love the freedom and flexibility. It’s the whole try before you buy scenario, and it pays well. But it means buying my own place is out of reach. No bank is going to lend me money without employment stability. I drive a rust bucket of a car. I live in a tiny apartment in a shady part of town. Until I’ve saved up enough to upgrade my car and the miracle of homeownership should befall me, I’m stuck where I am.
The pressure is on from my siblings too. I’m the youngest of three, and at twenty-nine the clock is ticking to settle down, get married, buy a house, have kids. Although I admit the thought of having kids is terrifying because just taking care of myself is a mountain of work already. But I figure if I could find a lovely man to be my husband, he’d make sure the kid was okay, right? Only where do you find them? The decent men? Besides my dad, there is only one other decent man I know, and he’s my best friend, Ben Delaney. And there is no way Ben and I are getting hitched. Just no. We grew up next door to each other and have been besties since kindergarten. We know each other way too well to ever be romantically involved. Ever.
I suppose I’m giving my brother a disservice when it comes to decent men. He’s okay, I guess. He’s the eldest, is married to Amanda - who is younger than me, adding salt into the wounds of singleness - and they have two of the most beautiful children I’ve ever seen. Madeline, who’s three, and Nathaniel, who’s one. Amanda is a paralegal at Beasley, Tate, and Associates, and I briefly temped there while she was on maternity leave. Needless to say, it didn’t end well and caused Amanda a certain degree of embarrassment that her sister-in-law was such a disaster.
Despite being younger than me by two years, Amanda acts way older. She’s a twinset and pearl wearing type of girl who talks as if she has a plum in her mouth. Just last week at our regular family dinner at Mom and Dad’s, when the topic of conversation rolled around to my klutzy behavior like it did every week, she announced that “slower processing speed and reaction time may predispose certain individuals to errors in coordination which can lead to unintentional injuries.” I’d laughed, reached for my glass, and promptly spilled red wine all over the table. She’d arched a perfectly manicured brow and said, “Case in point.”
My older sister, Laura, is married to Brad, and they have one kid, baby Isabelle. Needless to say, at every family get together my ovaries are fit to burst at all the baby cuteness surrounding me. Not to mention the tick-tock of my approaching thirtieth birthday.
But I digress. I was about to tell you how I died. Well…not died…exactly. Nearly died.
* * *
I’d started my morning by dropping my phone on my face while lying in bed. The alarm had woken me from a deep sleep and I’d snatched the phone and practically catapulted it into my forehead. I’d spent an extra ten minutes covering the angry red mark with makeup while rummaging through my wardrobe trying to find a blouse without a stain down the front. I finally settled on a white T-shirt, wearing it back to front to hide its stain. I made a mental note to ask my mom about stain removal tips - either that or buy a whole new wardrobe. Slipping my navy blazer over the top, I eyed myself critically in the mirror. No one would ever know. Provided I kept the blazer on all day.
Thankfully the matching navy skirt was dark enough to hide any marks and sliding my feet into my heels, I rushed out the door. Stockings were pointless - nine times out of ten I’d arrive at work with a run in them. Don’t ask me how, they just seem to magically appear.
The day had gone remarkably smoothly, as far as days go. Up until three in the afternoon.
“Audrey!” Mr. Brown bellowed. I cringed, figuring my luck had run out. I’d really hoped he hadn’t heard the almighty crash preceding his bellow. I’d pushed through the board room doors with my backside, carrying a heavy tray piled high with crockery ready for the meeting at four. A very important meeting with very important people. VIPs. I’d been told a dozen times to make sure the room was perfect - and to make myself scarce as soon as it was. I would not be required to take notes.
How was I to know the princess and her pony were in there getting ready for their big presentation? I didn’t mean for the door to swing back and hit the princess. FYI, she’s not a real princess; that’s just what I call her. Better than pompous ass. She struts through the office as if she were better than everyone else and that grates on me. A lot. And her assistant, whom I affectionately call the pony since she’s always riding him — in more ways than one — was always on hand to see that her every whim, every small desire, was met. She was, of course, Mr. Brown’s daughter. Untouchable.
Only I’d touched her alright. The door smacked her in the butt so hard she catapulted into the pony who staggered back, tripped over a cord and pulled the whole podium, complete with laptop, onto the floor. Of course, I lost my balance and the tray carrying all the cups, saucers, glasses and jugs of juice went flying, hitting the floor with a crash. Shards of broken crockery flew through the air, and juice splashed the floor, walls, the princess and her pony. Pretty sure the laptop was screwed too.
“Audrey!” Mr. Brown’s voice was closer now, his footfalls heavy as he thundered down the corridor towards the board room. I looked at the mess on the floor, debated my chances of clearing it up before he got here, calculated I had less than zero chance, and figured I shouldn’t even bother. I was going to get roasted with a capital R. Especially when Mr. Brown got an eyeful of the princess, a big wet stain spreading across the front of her silk blouse. Sucking in a deep breath, I let it fill my lungs before slowly breathing it out, waiting for the inevitable explosion. It came seconds later, the door slamming back so hard it hit the wall behind it and chipped the plaster.
I pointed to the damage. “That wasn’t me!”
Mr. Brown’s eyes bulged, his ruddy cheeks and bulbous nose became even redder, and his wide girth jiggled as rage built inside him. His hand clenched into a fist, relaxed, then clenched again and I just knew he wanted to punch me in the face. Literally. Thankfully he had more sense than to risk a potential lawsuit.
“Out!” He pointed at the door. “Get out and don’t come back. You’re fired!”
I skirted around him, keeping out of reach just in case he forgot himself and decided to give me a clip around the ears as a farewell present. Hurrying back to my cubicle, I quickly gathered up my belongings.
“Oh no.” Joey poked his head over the divider between our cubicles and watched as I shoved my lip balm, phone, and a pad of post-it notes into my bag.
“Yep.” I nodded. “I warned you not to get attached.” Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I beamed at him. “See ya, Joey. Thanks for everything. Good luck with the presentation today — I’m sorry I left such a mess for you to clean up.”
“Audrey, wait.” Joey hurried after me. Stopping at the elevator, I jabbed at the button, keen to be gone before Mr. Brown re-appeared. I didn’t want to be responsible for him having a heart attack and I feared that was the only possible outcome if he laid eyes on me again.
“Let me talk to him,” Joey pleaded. “Give him time to calm down, maybe he’ll give you a second chance.”
I patted Joey’s cheek. “Bless you.” I smiled sweetly, knowing he meant well. “But please don’t. To be fair, my assignment was almost up. Lee comes back from vacation in two days.”
“Oh.” Joey’s face was crestfallen. “Well, maybe we could meet up for drinks after work? A proper farewell?”
“Yeah sure, that’d be cool.” The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. Stepping inside, I turned. “Text me the deets.”
God, I thought Joey was about to cry. His eyes welled up and his chin wobbled. The doors closed and I heard him call out, “See you, Audrey.” Leaning back, I waited for the elevator to deposit me on the ground floor. It didn’t have far to travel since Mr. Brown’s offices were on the third floor, but experience told me I was safer to take the elevator rather than the stairs.
The elevator arrived in the foyer and I hurried across to the rotating doors, concentrating hard on not getting squashed, smiling when I successfully navigated the moving doors to step out onto the sidewalk outside. I’d left my car a couple of blocks away, where the parking was free. I headed toward it, keeping a close eye on the people around me to avoid any further collisions. One unfortunate incident a day was quite enough.
Boss. You’ve got a message! My phone announced. Probably Joey with details of the after-work meet up. Digging in my bag, I pulled out my phone and squinted through the broken screen to see Joey's smiling face.
Six o’clock at the Crown and Anchor.
I started to text back when it happened. It wasn’t my fault, I swear. I was jostled from behind. From. Behind. But of course, that jostling had a snowball effect and I sort of cannoned into the person in front and then shot off at a sideways angle, twisting my ankle as I stumbled over the curb, and looked up in time to see a bus bearing down on me.
Hard fingers wrapped around my arm and yanked me back. The bus whizzed past, whipping my hair back from my face, only I’d now gathered momentum and with those fingers still wrapped around my arm, I swung around and hit my rescuer fair in the nuts.
“Oooof.” He dropped my arm to clutch at his crotch instead. “Son of a…” he groaned.
“I’m so sorry!” He was bent over, so all I could really see were his denim-clad legs — black denim, my favorite — and his dark hair as he dragged in a pained breath. I reached forward to offer a consoling pat on his shoulder when he suddenly straightened and our heads collided with a loud crack.
“Ow!” Pain ricocheted through my skull and I staggered backward, raising a hand to the egg already forming on my forehead.
“Jesus Christ,” my rescuer cursed. “Just stand still and don’t move.”
I did as I was told, watching as the dark-haired stranger straightened and I finally got a good look at him. My, oh my! Red and black checkered shirt over a black T-shirt, the dark denim I loved, boots, five o’clock shadow to die for. A red mark forming on his square jaw where we’d connected. His grey eyes —surrounded by long, thick lashes— narrowed as he studied me in turn.
“Audrey, you really do need a keeper.” Ben Delaney, my bestie, stepped around the man, shaking his head at me. Launching myself at him, I wrapped my arms around his neck and squeezed him tight.
“It’s good to see you!” I declared, turning my head to drop a kiss on his bristled cheek. His chest rumbled as he laughed. “Still getting yourself into trouble I see. You’re a menace.” He disentangled himself from my embrace and slapped the other man on the back.
“You okay?” he asked.
Tall, Dark, and Handsome eyed me distrustfully, but nodded. “I’ll live.” His voice was deep and gravelly and did funny things to my insides.
Ben grinned. “This walking disaster zone is my best friend, Audrey Fitzgerald. Audrey, meet Kade Galloway. Detective Kade Galloway.”
My heart sank. He was one of them. A cop. My eyes darted between Ben and the detective. Ben gave a slight nod as if to reassure me that I could trust this one, that he was okay. Tentatively I held out a hand.
“Pleased to meet you,” I offered.
He looked at my hand and with what I could only call reluctance, gave it a quick shake, then slid his hands into the front pockets of his jeans.
“Pleased to meet you too, Audrey,” he smiled and I blinked in surprise. The smile was genuine and revealed a drool-worthy dimple. He was the best thing I’d seen in forever…why did he have to be a cop? Ben used to be on the force, he’d had a promising career ahead of him. Until he didn’t. Until they turned their backs on him and shunned him and forced him out. Now he ran his own PI business—one I helped set up.
But I’d learned something from Ben’s time on the force. Cops couldn’t be trusted. They twisted things to suit themselves, and they weren’t above bending the law to cover their own asses. I sighed wistfully. Such a shame.
“What are you doing out here anyway? Get off early today?” Ben asked. Then he looked me up and down, eyes narrowed, and he snorted.
“What?” I did a quick inventory, checking I hadn’t spilled lunch on my T-shirt or had my skirt on backward or anything else equally mortifying.
“You got fired,” he deadpanned. “Again.”
I shrugged. “I was at the end of my contract anyway. Two days!” I held up two fingers in a rude gesture and he swiped my hand down, wrapping my fingers in his.
“What am I going to do with you, Fitz?” He chuckled.
“Buy me a beer?” I suggested hopefully.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Detective Kade Galloway drawled, one brow arching over steel grey eyes. “Seems you can barely walk in a straight line sober.”
I ignored him. Linking my arm through Ben’s, I urged us forward. “What are you doing here anyway? On a job?” The detective fell into step behind us and I couldn’t help but be acutely aware of his presence.
“Business meeting,” Ben muttered, glancing down at me. We stopped at the lights and he placed an arm protectively in front of me, as if expecting me to cross against the red light.
“Haha.” Slapping his arm away, I folded my arms. “Oh? A runaway cat? Cheating spouse?” Those had been Ben’s typical cases since opening his doors a couple of years ago when he left the force.
“Actually, this is a good one.”
“A step up from a cat then.”
“If you’re finished with your meeting, how about joining me for a drink? I’ve got a couple of hours to kill — you can tell me all about it.”
* * *
The blaring of my alarm jerked me out of my torturous slumber the following morning. Groaning, I reached out a hand, fumbling to silence the headache-inducing screech emerging from the device I usually loved but — at right this minute — held in extreme contempt. Finally, my fingers landed on my phone and peeling my eyelids open I blearily peered at the screen, focusing around the cracks.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I’d forgotten to cancel the alarm. Punching angrily at the red cross, I eventually managed to silence it, tossing it back on to the bedside table, listening as it slid across the surface and fell off the other side and onto the floor with a thunk. Pulling the covers up to my chin, I rolled over and attempted to get back to sleep. I don’t know how long I lay there. Minutes? Hours? Possibly days. But eventually, it became apparent that sleep would not be returning and I may as well get up and face my day.
Throwing back the covers, I slid out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom, not bothering to check my reflection in the mirror. I didn’t need confirmation. I would bet money I looked as bad as I felt. Hungover didn’t begin to describe it. After the bathroom, I made my way to the kitchen. It wasn’t a long commute. My apartment was small, open-plan. The foot of my bed was literally my living room, sans walls.
With a yawn, I shoved a pod into my Keurig and hit the magical button. While I waited, I pulled out a drawer and dug around inside, my fingers closing around a box of painkillers. Popping two in my mouth, I turned on the faucet, ducking my head to drink directly from the flow. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I leaned back against the kitchen counter, surveying my apartment. Heels, blazer and purse on the floor by the front door. Check. Skirt and stained T-shirt in the middle of the floor, en-route to the bed. Check. A random person asleep on my sofa. Check.
Frowning, I tried to recall last night’s events. Ben had been a champ and joined me at the pub. Much to my chagrin, he’d invited the detective to join us, but he’d declined, saying he’d catch up with Ben later. Ben had a drink, maybe two, and I remember playing darts and pool with him. Then Joey had arrived and Ben had left. A couple of others from the office had turned up, there were tequila shots, and then it all gets a bit fuzzy.
So who on earth had I brought home with me? And did we…but no. I was in my PJs and he was on the sofa. Nothing had happened in that department, I was sure of it. But then, who was currently snoring on my sofa?
Creeping forward, I peeked over the back. At that exact moment, he sat up and we almost collided. I leaped back in fright, squealing as I did, promptly losing my balance and landing on my rear.
“Audrey?” Ben propped his arms on the back of the sofa and peered down at me. “You okay?”
“Ben?” I blinked at him. He blinked back.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, scrambling to my feet. The aroma of coffee filled the air so I returned to the kitchen, opened an overhead cupboard, and took down a second cup. “Coffee?” I asked.
“Please.” I heard movement, looked out of the corner of my eye to see him sit up, elbows resting on his jean-clad knees as he ran his fingers through his hair.
“So,” I said, preparing his coffee, “what a night.” I had no recollection of Ben even returning to the pub, let alone coming home with me.
“Yeah.” His voice was muffled and I jerked my head up. He was rubbing his face, vigorously, with both hands.
“You okay?” Crossing to him, I set his coffee on the table in front of the sofa. “Hungover?”
He cocked his head, looking at me. “I guess? I feel…strange.”
“Strange how?” Cupping my hands around my coffee, I took a tentative sip and burned my tongue. Pursing my lips, I softly blew on the black brew.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I feel weird. How did I get here?”
My eyebrows shot into my hairline. “You don’t remember?” We were both screwed if that were the case. He was shaking his head. I plopped down beside him.
“I don’t either,” I admitted. “I don’t remember you coming back to the Crown & Anchor. I vaguely remember leaving. Pretty sure I got a cab. Damn — that means I’ve gotta go back and get my car.”
He chuckled. “I’ll give you a lift. Later. When you’re sober.” He waved a hand in front of his face, “When you stop reeking like a brewery.”
“Haha. So what do you remember?” I tried my drink again, closing my eyes as the blissful kick of caffeine hit my stomach.
Ben was silent for so long that I cracked an eye open to check on him. He was staring at the wall, a blank expression on his face. I frowned. Had he had a stroke? I was just reaching out to poke his shoulder when he swung his head to look at me, making me jump and spilling my coffee in my lap.
“Shit!” I jumped up, placing the cup on the table and rushing to the bathroom. Darn, it was hot, hot, hot. I quickly stripped out of my PJ pants, the skin of my thighs bright red from the hot drink.
“You okay?” Ben called.
“I’m just going to jump in the shower,” I called back. May as well, since I was partially undressed. And he hadn’t been wrong when he said I smelt like a brewery — anyone would think I’d marinated myself in tequila. Grabbing a strand of blonde hair, I pulled it in front of my nose, rearing back at the stench. Gross. God, I must have dragged my hair through the contents of the bar — and goodness knows what else.
Keeping the water cool, I stepped beneath the spray, wincing a little as it hit my heated flesh. After a few minutes, the sting disappeared and I cranked up the heat, steaming up the bathroom. Freshly washed and shampooed I eventually dried myself, slipped on a robe and wrapped my hair in my turban towel. Cracking open the door, I peeked out. Was Ben still here or had he gotten tired of waiting? I spotted him in the same position on the sofa. Pulling the belt of my robe tighter around my waist, I went and sat down. My coffee was almost cold, but I didn’t care. I slugged it down.
“Remember anything yet?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Something’s not right. Audrey, I think something’s wrong.” His voice had taken on an urgent tone and my heart rate spiked in response.
“What? What do you think it is? Amnesia? A brain tumor?”
He chuckled. “I’m wondering if I was drugged. If someone slipped me something — this has all the hallmarks of a roofie.”
I clapped a hand over my mouth, then peeled my fingers away to whisper, “Someone roofied you? That’s awful! But who? And why? Have they…?” I dropped my eyes to his jean-clad crotch and back to his face, fearful for him.
“I don’t feel like anything like that happened,” he said, but his dark brows were drawn together in a frown. My pickled brain scrambled through everything I knew about the date rape drug Rohypnol. It wasn’t a lot. All I knew was that it was a sedative and after-effects could include memory loss.
“We should get you to the hospital, get you tested.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” He nodded.
“You were going to drop me at my car anyway,” I pointed out, “we could do that afterwards.”
“Okay, sure.” He stood, heading for my front door. “I’ll wait outside for you.”
I’d been about to follow him when I realized I was still in my bathrobe. Duh. I turned my back, already loosening the belt when he said, “Uh. Audrey?”
“Yeah?” I was rummaging through my dresser for jeans and a T-shirt.
“I can’t open the door.”
“What do you mean you can’t open the door?”
“I don’t know.” Frowning, I looked at him over my shoulder. He was standing by the front door looking helpless. The drugs must’ve messed up his head.
“Okay, wait a second and I’ll help you. Just turn your back while I get dressed.” I kept an eye on him, waiting until he’d done as instructed and was now facing the wall. Quickly stripping out of my robe I pulled on clean underwear, slipped on a Scooby-Doo T-shirt and worn jeans and slid my feet into my sparkly pink flip flops.
“Right, let’s go.” I leaned down to pick up my purse from the floor when Ben said, “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
I lifted a hand to my head to find my hair still wrapped in my turban towel. I laughed. “Oops.” I studied his face. Now that I was closer I could see he had a grey pallor. Reaching around him I opened the door and held it open for him to pass through. “You don’t look so hot. Why not wait for me outside in the fresh air, I’ll only be a minute.”
He chuckled as he brushed past, his skin prickling mine in an icy shiver as we touched. “You forget I know you too well, Audrey Fitzgerald. You will be twenty minutes minimum.”
I clasped my hands to my chest in mock outrage. “How dare you.”
“Go.” He waved me away. “I’m going to sit here on your stairs and wait.”
Ben wasn’t on the stairs when I emerged thirty minutes later. Okay, so I took longer than anticipated. My blonde hair is thick, wavy and tenacious, which is why I keep it on the shorter side. That's not entirely true. It used to be long but then I had a curling iron accident and burned off a rather substantial chunk of hair. I'd had no choice but to trail my sorry butt to my hairdresser, who must be a witch because she performed magic on it, the style she suggested - a shoulder-length bob - is edgy and chic and I love it. She even taught me how to style it with ease, rather than battling with the straightening iron to try and create a sleek sophisticated look, every day I scrunch and blast and play to my strengths - which results in a tousled beachy look that other women pay a fortune for at the salon.
“Ben?” My apartment block was old and small. Six tiny apartments crammed into the footprint of a single house. My apartment was on the first floor, and because I was on the end I was closest to the external staircase at the end of the building. Great on nice sunny days. Crap in bad weather.
I stood at the top of the stairs. I’d been expecting Ben to be sitting here, waiting. But I had been longer than I’d anticipated; I couldn’t really blame him for leaving without me. And if he’d knocked or called out I hadn’t heard him over the hairdryer. Hurrying down the stairs I stood on the footpath and looked left, then right.
“Finally.” Ben drawled from behind me and I jumped in surprise. Hand to my chest I turned to face him.
“Jeez, scare a girl half to death why don’t you?” I grumbled. He still looked awful, like he had no color at all. I faced the street again. “Where’s your car?”
“Yeah, that’s what I was wondering.” He stood next to me and ran a hand around the back of his neck.
“What? You think someone stole it?”
“Maybe? I’m really blurry on the details of last night. Maybe I didn’t drive here. But I don’t remember drinking — aside from the two beers I had with you.”
“So you do remember that? What do you remember after that? When you left the Crown & Anchor? You said you had work to do. Were you meeting someone?”
“I don’t know.”
Someone had definitely slipped him something. That was the only explanation I could come up with. The question was, why? Was it some idiot spiking people’s drinks randomly? Or something more sinister? I ran my eyes over him, looking for signs of injury, but he looked okay. Just washed out. Even the blue denim of his jeans seemed lacking color. Weird.
“Morning, Audrey,” Juliette my downstairs neighbor appeared, dressed in her work uniform. Juliette was a teller at Wells Fargo Bank and, according to her, was going places. I figured she was, like me, saving money by living in our dumpster dive apartments. “Talking to yourself?”
“What?” I snorted, “No. I’m talking to Ben.” I slung my arm out to indicate the six-foot-something man beside me.
Juliette peered at me closely for a minute before aiming her keys at the blue hatchback parked out front. The alarm beeped. “Oh. You got one of those Bluetooth headset things? Sorry, my bad. It looked like you were talking to yourself. Say hi to Ben for me.” She climbed into her car and I stood watching with my mouth hanging open until she pulled out and drove away. More weirdness.
“Come on then.” I shrugged Juliette’s bizarre behavior off and began walking, “we’ll catch the bus into town, get my car, then I’m taking you to the hospital to get checked out.”
“Hospital?” He snorted, “I’m fine. I don’t need to go to the hospital.” He fell into step beside me. I was worried for him. Half an hour ago he’d wanted to go, now he didn’t.
“Ben, you can’t remember anything beyond six o’clock last night. That’s not normal.”
We were silent for a few minutes, walking to the bus stop around the corner.
“There’s something else.” He muttered.
“You’re not going to like it.”
I stopped and faced him, hands on hips. “Now what?” The hangover headache I thought I’d conquered was starting to creep back, pulling at my temples, creating tension across my forehead.
“Let’s walk. Tell me what you see?”
I huffed out a breath, but began walking again, “Maybe you’ve had some sort of brain aneurysm.” I said, more to myself than to him.
“What do you see, Audrey?”
I looked about. “I see the road. Cars. Trees. Houses.”
“No. Closer. Immediately in front of you. What do you see.”
“What’s on the footpath?”
“Can you just tell me because I really don’t know what you want me to say!” I burst out, puzzled by what he was trying to get me to discover.
He stopped walking, so I did too. I looked to where he was looking. At our shadows. But…there was only one shadow. Mine.
“What the hell?” I yelled, blinking rapidly, then rubbing my fists into my eyes as if to clear my vision. I danced around in some sort of crazed jig, my shadow followed — as you’d expect it to.
“You see it — or rather, don’t see it?” Ben asked, voice so incredibly calm. How could he not have a shadow? My brain hurt trying to figure it out.
“Where’s your shadow? What’s going on?” I heard the note of hysteria in my voice and dragged in a ragged breath, my pulse skyrocketing. Ben began pacing — minus his shadow. He paused and cocked his head my way, one brow arched.
“You…you…” I gulped. He had no footsteps. He was walking, moving, yet making no sound. I swallowed, raised a shaking finger to point at him. “Are you…you can’t be…”
He stepped right up to my finger, not quite touching.
“Dead? A ghost?” He supplied, still sounding outrageously calm, “I think I might be.” And then he stepped forward and my finger, hand, and forearm disappeared through him, where his body should have been, an icy coldness. I snatched my arm back and staggered backward, clutching my hand to my chest. I watched as my best friend, correction, the ghost of my best friend, stared solemnly back at me.
“I can’t remember what happened because last night? I died.”
My eyes rolled into the back of my head and my legs gave out. As darkness rushed in all I could think was Ben couldn’t be a ghost. And if he truly was, why the hell was he haunting me?
* * *
I woke with a start, heart pounding, head thumping. My cheek rested against the cold, hard, gritty ground. Prying open an eye I discovered I was on the footpath and quickly lifted my face off the disgustingly dirty surface. Gross.
“You okay?” It was Ben, crouched in front of me. Moving to my hands and knees I glanced around. No one was about; no one had seen me faint. No one had seen me talking to a ghost. Except for Juliette. What she said made sense now. She’d thought I’d been talking to Ben via Bluetooth. Because she couldn’t see him. Because he was a ghost. A spirit.
“How long was I out?” I croaked, struggling to my feet. I felt dizzy and my legs wobbled. Ben reached out a hand to steady me, then dropped it, a rueful grin flitting across his face.
“Not long. A few seconds.”
I nodded, sucking in several deep breaths. My heart rate steadied back into its normal rhythm. Brushing myself off, I picked up my bag and resumed walking. Ben fell into step beside me. “Where are we going?” he asked.
“Well, I still need to get my car,” I pointed out, doing my best not to sound hysterical, “and then I’m going to your house to find out what the hell happened.” I didn’t know what else to do. Who do you call to say “I think my best friend is dead because his ghost is here with me now?”
“Good plan.” He nodded.
I snorted, ignoring him as I stomped along the sidewalk, anger starting to blossom and take hold. Anger that Ben had died. Anger that he hadn’t known he’d died. And anger at myself for not realizing I’d been talking to a dead person all morning!
“Don’t even,” I muttered. “I’m going through some emotions right now, Benjamin Delaney and I just need you to be quiet while I process.”
Two people waiting at the bus stop turned their heads to look my way as I approached. Right. Talking to myself, again. He mimed zipping his lips and my lips twitched in response.
The bus was packed, the nine to five crowd on their daily commute. After a fifteen-minute ride spent with my face pressed into the unpleasant armpit of a guy decked out in construction gear, I jumped off at Main Street and hustled to where I’d left my car. Unlocking the door, I slid in behind the wheel. Ben stood on the passenger side, bent to look through the window at me, and said, “Check this out!” I gave a startled yelp when he moved right through the door and seated himself in the passenger seat.
“Cool, huh?” He grinned, nodding his head, apparently immensely pleased with himself for this ghostly feat.
“I wonder why you’re a ghost,” I commented, turning the key in the ignition, pulling on my seatbelt, and shoving the car into reverse.
“Dunno. Unfinished business I guess?”
“So…your…uh ...body? It’s at your house?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to see what had happened to Ben. Part of me was worried that if I reunited his spirit with his body then he may disappear for good and I hadn’t come to terms with any of this yet. Coming to the end of Elm Street, I flicked on the signal to turn left onto Washington. Ben lived in a nicer part of town than me. A lovely four-bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood, right next door to the woods.
His years on the police force had paid well, and he’d been smart with his money as soon as he was old enough to know digging under the sofa cushions could pay great dividends. Plus, as an only child, his folks had helped out with a deposit to buy his own place. I wondered what would happen to it now? Did he have a will? I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye, he was staring straight ahead, a muscle ticking in his jaw.
“Ben?” I prompted.
“Yeah,” he finally answered. “I don’t know. I wasn’t kidding when I said I don’t remember anything. I truly don’t.”
“I wonder if you had a heart attack?” Even I was surprised that I was having such a conversation with him. He chuckled, placing a big hand across his chest.
“I’d be surprised. Had a yearly medical on the force and they never picked up any potential heart issues.”
“Hey, no need to sound so disappointed!” he protested.
I cast a glance at him before directing my attention to the windshield. “It’s just that…a heart attack seems the least gross way of dying. If you’ve fallen down the stairs and broken your neck and your head is on backward I’ll never forgive you!” It was a valid worry. The closer we got to Ben’s house, the more my anxiety grew.
“I’ll go first,” Ben said now, patting my knee. Only, of course, I couldn’t feel his touch, just a cold blast of air that raised goosebumps on my skin. “If it’s … bad, I’ll come tell you and we can work out a plan.”
“Well you’re gonna have to call the cops and explain to them how you found me. So at some point, you’re actually going to have to find me. Yeah?”
“Oh. Right.” Of course. Getting into Ben’s house was easy — I had a key. It was attached to my keyring, hanging out of the car’s ignition. Likewise, Ben had a key to my apartment. Which was why I hadn’t been surprised to find him sleeping on my sofa this morning. I touched the key and sighed. “I just wish…”
“I know.” He’d always known what I was thinking, had a knack for it. It seemed even in death he hadn’t lost that skill.
Pulling into the driveway, I shifted into park and killed the engine. Ben’s car wasn’t in the driveway, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t in the garage. Climbing out I slammed the door and locked it and stared up at the house Ben called home. It was gorgeous, painted a soft grey with white trim, high pitched roof with three dormer windows letting in light to the upstairs rooms. Along the front was a wide verandah, white posts with an American flag proudly on display. He kept the place immaculate. The curved paved path leading to the front door was swept clean of debris, the flower bed between the path and house blooming in a riot of color - the other side of the path a wide expanse of green manicured lawn.
Slowly I approached the front door. A discrete plaque to the right announced Delaney Investigations and beneath the plaque a bell. Guess Ben now had a new case. Finding out how he died.