Story 1: A Ghostly Gift
The ghost of the gangster adjusted his Panama hat, briefly exposing the round bullet hole in the center of his forehead. No doubt it would have been a grisly wound, had it not shimmered in black and white, along with the rest of Frankie Valentine’s body.
The hook-nosed former thug stared down at the chessboard laid out on the floor between us, contemplating his next move with the focus of a commander planning an epic battle.
Absently, he reached for the cigarette case in his front left suit pocket.
“No smoking,” I said.
He cast me a glance. “Yeah. It might kill me.”
We sat in the back parlor, in the flickering light of a thick pink candle in a dish on the floor next to us. The electricity in my home worked perfectly fine. And I considered myself a modern girl. But due to money issues, I’d sold the century-old chandelier.
A fire crackled in the hearth. It was starting to get cold at night. Frankie and I had gathered the wood up onto the porch as the sun tossed orange and purple streaks across the horizon.
I’d gotten my workout in carrying the logs. Frankie had observed and made snarky comments. It cost him too much energy to move things on the mortal plane. He left that up to me.
Frankie pointed to the board. “Make my queen move diagonally, three spaces to the left.”
I squinted to see what he meant. “I don’t think queens can go that way.”
“Of course they can,” he huffed. “I’m the one teaching you, remember?”
Yes, but I didn’t think he was above cheating.
Frankie also liked the pieces facing perfectly straight ahead. Not angled, not backward. Who knew ghosts could be so anal?
I went ahead and scooted his piece over. Technically, he was my guest and I found I enjoyed treating him as such.
Besides, I owed him. A lot.
Last month, I’d accidentally trapped his spirit on my property when I dumped his funeral urn out onto my rosebushes. At the time, I’d believed my ex-fiancé had given me a dirty old vase, long overdue for a rinse with the hose.
Now I had a resident ghost living in my two-story Victorian. Frankie had the power to show me the supernatural world in a way that no one else could. With his help, I’d become a ghost hunter. Briefly. In order to save my house.
Now, I was trying to get back to normal.
If by normal you meant hanging out on a Friday night with a long-dead gangster.
Frankie watched me as I hovered my fingers over different pieces. Deciding.
His urn rested on the marble fireplace, above a string of yarn draped with homemade Kleenex ghosts. Their heads were stuffed with tissue, their necks tied with string, and their eyes and mouths drawn in spooky black marker. I’d tasked my friend Lauralee’s kids with making a few Halloween decorations to spruce up the place.
“When’s the next job?” Frankie asked.
My back crinked a little and I stretched it out. It would have been nice to own a table and chairs, but I had only a few hundred dollars left from our last adventure and I didn’t want to risk spending it. I knew what it was like to be down to my last nickel. I wasn’t going through that for furniture.
“I don’t want to be a ghost hunter,” I admitted to him.
“I don’t either,” he said, taking in my bare parlor, “but let’s face it, this place is a dive.”
“Hey—” He was talking about my ancestral home.
“One big score and we could live in the lap of luxury,” he added, as if I was never getting rid of him, as if this were his place too. “Wait,” he began, without a trace of irony. “Does this have to do with you dating the fuzz?”
“No,” I said quickly. “And one date doesn’t mean we’re dating.” Not that I would mind. Or maybe I would. Oh, for heaven’s sake, Ellis was my ex-fiance’s brother. I had to get a grip.
Frankie and I both turned when we heard knocking on the front door.
“It’s me,” my sister called. The hinges squeaked as Melody let herself in.
I hadn’t expected her tonight, but that didn’t mean anything. She passed through my empty front room and straight into the parlor. Her blond hair was up in a messy bun and she carried a Tupperware container. “Hi Verity. Hi Frankie.”
I stood and gave her a hug. “How’d you know he was around?” I asked. Half the time, Frankie disappeared into the ether, or wherever ghosts went.
“He always backs your queen into a corner,” she said.
Frankie groaned. “Aw, come on.”
I looked back at the chessboard, trying to see where I was in trouble, but found myself distracted when Melody handed me the delicious smelling container. “Mmm…roasted potatoes, onions,” I pulled open the lid, “gravy,” I added with pure delight.
“I made too much pot roast,” she said, as if it happened all the time.
She was lying through her teeth. Melody could barely bake a chicken. When it wasn’t undercooked or scorched to a crisp, she’d forget and leave the giblets packet in the middle.
Ever since my sister found out I was living on ramen noodles and granola bars, she’d been buying ready-to-go grocery meals, boxing them up in Tupperware and delivering them to me under the guise of Martha Stewart.
“Thanks,” I told her, keeping up the façade. Otherwise, she’d move on to phase two, which would be her trying to give me money she didn’t have.
She chewed at her bottom lip. “I have to confess. I’m not just here to give you dinner this time.” She cringed. “My friend needs help with a ghost.”
Frankie barked out a laugh. “Fantastic. She’ll do it.”
Good thing Melody couldn’t see him, or hear him. I shot him a hairy eyeball. He looked much too pleased with himself, hovering over by the fireplace.
“This…thing I do,” I said, returning my attention to Melody, “it has to be a secret.” People in our small southern town already believed I was an odd duck. I’d be crazy to add to the gossip. Besides, the work was dangerous and scary. I was a graphic designer by trade. “I need design jobs.”
“How’s that going?” she mused, knowing the answer.
Not so well. Ever since I’d offended the first family of Sugarland Tennessee by leaving their son at the altar, my freelance business had dried up.
Now I was secretly dating his brother, Ellis.
I didn’t know how things could get worse, but I was willing to bet they would if that little nugget got out.
Or if I started chasing ghosts.
I headed for the kitchen with my dinner.
Melody followed. “The good news is she can’t pay you anyway.”
“This is getting better and better,” I mused.
Melody flipped on the lights. “She does have a nice pre-owned kitchen set she’ll give you,” she added, grabbing my lone plastic plate out of a drying rack by the sink. “This is my friend Julie from high school.”
“I like her.” Julie had always been nice to me. She owned a resale shop downtown. The store carried some fancy, high-end antiques, but much of the merchandise consisted of good, gently used items.
I took the plate from my sister and slid the entire pot roast meal onto it. “What does Julie want me to do?”
My sister leaned against the counter. “The store has always been haunted. She’ll leave at night and come back to find pennies stacked up on her cash register. Or she’ll open up in the morning and smell cigar smoke. One time, she watched an entire display of antique doorknobs start shaking like we were having an earthquake or something. A customer saw it too.”
“Yikes.” I located a fork and arranged my meal on the kitchen island. “It sounds like she has more than one ghost,” I said digging in. “And if the place has been haunted for a while, they might even think the shop is theirs.” Spirits tended to get possessive after decades in the same place.
I took a bite. Yum. Lauralee had ordered from the diner. I could taste the fresh meat drippings and the hint of rosemary in the gravy.
Melody frowned. “She doesn’t need you to get rid of every ghost. Just the one rooting around in her collectibles case.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, realizing I’d forgotten to pour myself a water. I grabbed a plastic cup and headed for the sink.
“Julie has this antique glass display case toward the back of the store,” Melody said.
“It’s about as tall as a person and it’s full of quirky, unusual things. Lots of dent-able, breakables too, like porcelain figurines, antique snuff boxes and perfume bottles. She’ll lock up at night, come back in the morning and the case is still locked, but the valuables inside are scattered. Last night, she lost the arm off a shepherd.”
“That doesn’t sound too tragic,” I said, taking a sip.
“She might be able to fix it, but now it’s a restored piece instead of an original. Julie doesn’t make a lot of money in her store. She can’t afford broken collectibles.” Melody pushed herself off the counter. “If it continues, it could put her out of business.”
“Ouch.” I knew all about a failing business, and what it did to a person.
“She knows it’s a ghost. Nobody but Julie can enter the store or open the case. She carries the only set of store keys.” Melody crossed her arms over her chest. “She’s really upset, Verity.” She shook her head. “I know I shouldn’t have told her about you.”
“You shouldn’t have,” I agreed. Melody and Ellis were the only two people who knew my secret. And he probably wouldn’t want me ghost hunting either. We’d almost been killed when we’d faced a poltergeist on his property.
Melody plowed forward anyway. “She’s in real trouble. You are too. Let’s face it, you could use some direction, or at least some furniture.”
“I resent that,” I told her. Mostly because it was true.
“She’ll give you a kitchen set if you can get rid of her destructive ghost.” My sister insisted. She glanced at my plate. “Maybe we can ask for dishes too.”
That was all well and good. “But have you stopped to consider exactly how I’m supposed to know which ghost is causing the trouble?”
“I don’t know,” she said defensively. “You’re the expert.”
I barked out a laugh. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Melody didn’t let that stop her. “Julie promises to keep your secret and never tell a soul.”
“What do you say, Frankie?” He’d given up his spot by the fireplace and now lingered outside the entrance to the kitchen.
“Let me think,” he mused. “No money and no reward.” He made a show of tapping his finger on his chin. “Oh, wait. I don’t have to think at all.” He dropped the pretense. “No.”
For some reason, that ticked me off. “What’s wrong with helping someone?” I asked. And getting a nice table in the bargain. I turned to Melody. “We’ll give it a shot.”
“Consider it personal growth,” I told him.
Although Ellis wouldn’t be happy. I ran a hand through my hair. Still, it wasn’t his decision to make. Of course, I didn’t want him to worry.
Curse my luck, I was seeing him tomorrow night.
“We’ll help,” I corrected, “on one condition.”
“Name it,” she said, as if this would be simple.
I dropped my hand. “We go this evening.”
That way, everything would be over and good before I had to mention anything to Ellis.
Melody perked up. “She’d love that. I’ll call her right now.”
“All right then,” I said, returning to my pot roast. I’d need the energy. Hopefully, I hadn’t gotten Frankie and myself into too much trouble.
We’d find out soon enough.