My life would be a lot easier if the dead in this town would just cooperate. Maybe it was the living. They never seemed to cooperate, either.
I hefted one eyelid by sheer force of will and spied the time on my alarm clock. That alarm clock was just for show. No one—not even me—used them much anymore. Lately, it was there so I didn’t have to look at the time on my phone. Said alarm clock was blinking 12:00 at me.
The power had gone out sometime since I’d fallen into bed. Figures. It didn’t matter that I lived in a nice neighborhood. Mother Nature was a testy woman on the best of days, but in the spring in this part of the country? She was downright spiteful.
The knock—well, more like pounding—on my front door rattled through my house again, which was what had woken me up from a very deep, much-needed sleep in the first damn place. I knew that insistent cop-knock. Jay was pounding on my door like the badge-wielding tool he was. Granted, I, too, had a badge, but I wasn’t the jerk accosting his door at oh-butt-thirty in the morning.
Groaning, I peeled myself from my oh-so-soft mattress and stomped to my door, yanking it open before Jay could splinter the wood.
“What?” Yeah, it came out more like a bark, but it wasn’t even dawn, and I was in no mood.
Instead of saying anything at all, Jay waved a to-go cup of coffee in my face as a peace offering. I fell on the caffeine-laden cup like a junkie, sucking down the brew like my life—or more accurately, Jay’s life—depended on it.
Only after the cup was half-drained did I let him pass the threshold into my living room. Shuffling past me, he plopped onto my overstuffed sofa like he owned it. He didn’t, but Jeremiah Cooper, AKA, Jay, was my best friend—hell, my only friend—and he’d spent many a morning, evening, and afternoon on that couch.
Jay wasn’t the only person sitting there, but he paid exactly zero attention to the slightly see-through dead man perched right next to him, lounging on the cushions like the Queen of Sheba. Jay—and everyone else in my life—couldn’t see him.
No one could.
No one but me.
Dead guy was Hildenbrand O’Shea, and he’d died sometime in the 1840s. Hildy couldn’t tell me the exact year he’d passed, and records were scant, so it was anyone’s guess when he’d actually kicked the bucket. Hildy was adamant about the decade at least, even if the story of his demise changed every time he told it.
Hildy had a lot of fun messing with the living. At present, he was making grotesquely funny faces about two inches from Jay’s nose which was at odds with his posh knee-length jacket, waistcoat, and slacks—the markings of high society in the decade he’d passed. I wasn’t positive on the coloring of his clothes because Hildy wasn’t exactly solid, but I could tell he had light hair and eyes, wore a cravat with a paisley pattern, and sometimes held a walking stick and a top hat, even though he didn’t have either right now. He appeared to be in his late thirties, with a sharp knife blade of a nose and square jaw.
Typically, I’d be trying not to laugh, but half a cup of coffee was a losing battle against my tired body. I was in no mood. I was all in favor of crawling right back into my bed and waking up at the super-reasonable hour of seven.
Maybe even eight.
I’d spent the last three weeks solving a trio of homicides and was just about done with the people in this town killing each other for a good long while. Those three weeks should have been one, but like I’d said, the dead never wanted to cooperate.
“We’ve got a case, D. You’re going to have to get dressed.”
My gaze reluctantly moved from Hildy to Jay. Jay was dressed in a suit like every other time we’d been called in at the ass crack of dawn. He, too, was sipping coffee, but he didn’t look happy about it. No. Jay’s gray face said that coffee would be coming back up sometime in the near future.
Dammit. If people could stop killing each other for about three days, that would be gravy.
Heaving a sigh, I shuffled back to my bedroom and called over my shoulder for him to make me some more coffee. It was a fifty-fifty shot whether or not he’d do it. Jay could be a contrary bitch sometimes.
It didn’t take me too long to handle my business, brush my teeth, and put on my suit pants and tank. The only real trouble was what to do with my hair. Thick, wavy, and a middle-of-the-road blonde, it defied the laws of physics, gravity, and nature. Doing the best I could, I shoved it into a haphazard bun and called it good.
I didn’t bother with makeup, even though I probably needed it. I knew without looking in the mirror that I had bags under my eyes big enough to drive a truck through. But I also knew without a doubt at some point in the day I was going to start crying, almost vomit, actually vomit, or all of the above.
Makeup was a waste of time.
By rote, I strapped on my vest, slid my service weapon into the Kydex spine holster, and slipped a blessed rosary around my neck. My rosary wasn’t there for religious purposes—at least not on my part. I wasn’t particularly religious, to be honest.
Did I think there was an afterlife? Yes.
Did I subscribe to any one way to get there? Not so much, no.
But the prayer beads had been blessed by a priest and had stopped particularly nasty specters from causing bodily harm on more than one occasion. Pissed-off ghosts were not my favorite, and poltergeists were the freaking worst.
Tucking the rosary under my vest, I shrugged on my blouse and jacket, stuffed my feet into low-heeled leather boots, and hit the road. And by road, I meant my living room, following the smell of freshly brewed coffee.
Jay was the bestest friend a girl could have. If I were even a little interested—or if his preference swung anywhere near my gender—we’d have been the perfect couple. Sadly, neither of those things were ever going to happen, much to his mother’s dismay.
I slugged down a healthy gulp of steaming coffee and sighed with blissful glee as the caffeine hit my system. Only then did I really focus on Jay. He was pale-faced and pinched. Neither of those were his norm. Jeremiah Cooper was a golden boy if Haunted Peak, Tennessee ever had one. Dark-haired and tan-skinned, with the palest of blue eyes, Jay was a football star and straight-A student in high school. Graduated with honors right next to me at the University of Tennessee and was a well-respected member of the community—even if he was BFFs with the town weirdo.
Jay hadn’t been pale-faced and pinched a day in his life.
“I’ve consumed enough caffeine to not rip your head off. Spill it.” My delivery could have used a little work, but I’d checked the time on my phone. It was barely after three in the morning on a Tuesday. I had a good reason to be cranky—especially since I’d done the lion’s share of the legwork on our last case.
“We know her, Darby. And…” He didn’t finish his sentence, but Hildy did.
“It’s another weird one,” Hildy chirped from Jay’s shoulder, busy poking his spectral finger into Jay’s ear.
This was Hildy’s way of trying to cheer me up, and like every other time he’d done it, it not only did not work, it creeped me out. If I’d told him once, I’d told him a thousand times: Don’t mess with the living, and they won’t mess with the dead. Like always, Hildy didn’t listen to my warnings. And as was the norm, Hildy kept right on talking.
“Ya went to school with her, lass. Brenda, Barbara, Blanca, somebody. Cut up like a Thanksgiving turkey, too.” The burr of Hildy’s Irish accent raked against my nerves. Hildy was up on all the gossip, and he knew when just about anyone died in this town. Even though he was an excellent source to have in my hip pocket, no one wanted guessing games at the ass crack of dawn—especially with his flair for the dramatic.
“Blair?” I blurted, too tired and too irritated to bite my tongue. Shit.
Rule number one was never converse with the dead in front of living people. That said, I broke rule one so often, it was a miracle I was still a cop—even with a damn near perfect close rate.
As expected, Jay’s eyes went round, his face paling like I’d tapped his jugular and cranked it wide. I’d guessed right.
“I swear to god, it freaks me the fuck out when you do that.”
Playing it cool, I asked, “Do what? Extrapolate data based on your mood and make a hypothesis? It’s literally my job.”
Jay smacked his mug down on the counter so hard I was surprised it didn’t break, crossing his arms as he sized me up. “You know damn well that’s not what you were doing. You were talking to a ghost just now, weren’t you?”
He was way too with it this early in the morning.
Jay was the only person in my life that knew I saw the dead long after they’d gone off to their final rest. He wasn’t cool with it by any stretch of the imagination, but he still hadn’t carted me off to a psychiatric hospital to have me committed, so at least there was that. Granted, it had taken me talking to his deceased grandma Marcy to get the goods on him, but it was nice not to worry that my best friend thought I was crazy.
Well, Jay thought I was crazy, he just didn’t think I needed medication.
“It’s too early to hide it, man. Cut me some slack. Do you know how hard it is to try and keep a straight face every minute of every day while the dead just chatter on like I’m in their freaking knitting circle?” I stopped my rant to slug back more nectar of the gods, drained the cup dry, and smacked it back down onto the counter. “It’s fucking exhausting, and I’m tapped out. So quit being a bitch about it.”
Jay’s face got that irritated, squinty quality I hated before it fell away. I got the “big sigh” that said he would forgive my weirdness, and he pulled me into a huge bear hug. “I’m sorry I was a dick, D. But do me a favor, don’t talk to any ghosts while we’re out there.”
His warning gave me a niggle of unease. He knew I never planned to, but that didn’t stop me from slipping up on occasion.
“You got a reason?” Did I accidentally use my cop voice on my BFF? Maybe. But even though Jay was my partner and had heard that tone about a zillion times in the last fifteen years, he still answered me like a perp.
He sighed, pouted at his empty mug, and answered, “We aren’t the only ones investigating this one. Word is there’s a Fed there.”
A Fed was stomping all over my crime scene? I cursed loud enough and inventive enough that both Jay and Hildy were threatening to wash my mouth out with soap. I ignored them both, snagging my badge and clipping it to my belt before I tossed my messenger bag over my shoulder and tagged my keys.
“What the hell are you doing just standing there?” I growled, my hand already on the doorknob, my key in the lock.
It took three ages and half a millennium for Jay to get his ass in gear, but when I made for my Jeep, Jay snagged my sleeve and redirected me.
“We don’t need to drive,” he muttered, nodding toward the end of our block that was just past the apex of a hill.
Only then did I see the faint flash of lights from a black-and-white at the end of my street.