Queen of the Dead


Queen of the Dead

The Ghost and the Goth Novels, Book 2

After being sent back from the light, Alona Dare—former homecoming queen, current Queen of the Dead—finds herself doing something she never expected: working. Instead of spending days perfecting her tan by the pool (her typical summer routine when she was, you know, alive), Alona must now cater to the needs of other lost spirits. By her side for all of this, ugh, “helping of others” is Will Killian: social outcast, seer of the dead, and someone Alona cares about more than she’d like.

Before Alona can make a final ruling on Will’s “friend” or “more than friend” status, though, she discovers trouble at home. Her mom is tossing out Alona’s most valuable possessions, and her dad is expecting a new daughter with his wicked wife. Is it possible her family is already moving on? She’s only been dead for two months! Thankfully, Alona knows just the guy who can put a stop to this mess.

Unfortunately for Alona, Will has other stuff on his mind, and Mina, a young (and beautiful) seer, is at the top of the list. She’s the first ghost-talker Will’s ever met—aside from his father—and she may hold answers to Will’s troubled past. But can she be trusted? Alona immediately puts a check in the “clearly not” column. But Will is, ahem, willing to find out, even if it means leaving a hurt and angry Alona to her own devices, which is never a good idea.

Packed with romance, lovable characters, and a killer cliffhanger, Queen of the Dead is the out-of-this-world sequel to The Ghost and the Goth.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Will

On television, ghost-talkers run antique stores, solve crimes, or stand on a stage in a nice suit giving the teary-eyed audience a toothy, yet sympathetic grin.

I, however, was entering my second hour of hiding in a prickly tangle of brush with an increasingly cranky spirit guide, all for a ghost who might not even show up.

The Gibley Mansion in Decatur’s historic district had been falling apart for years. But it was officially scheduled to be torn down tomorrow morning, which meant tonight was Mrs. Ruiz’s last chance to make peace with the place where she’d served as a housekeeper for most of her life. So, we were waiting (and waiting and waiting) for her on the east side of the house, in the former rose garden, where she’d keeled over twenty some years ago while digging a hole for a new bush.

Unfortunately, ghosts don’t always do what you expect.

“Can we go now?” Alona nudged me, sounding annoyed. “I have to pee.”

Case in point.

I just looked at her. Since she hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in well over a month, I seriously doubted that was a genuine concern. Besides which, I hadn’t ever heard of any ghosts visiting a bathroom unless, of course, they’d died there. (No, I’ve never met Elvis, but it’s an educated guess.)

Alona tried again. “I’m cold?”

That was at least possible, especially given what she was wearing. Alona Dare, former Homecoming Queen, varsity cheerleading cocaptain, fashionista and mean girl supreme of Groundsboro High, had died in her gym clothes—short red shorts and a cheap white shirt. If you don’t believe in karma, that alone should give you cause for reconsideration.

But given that it was an early Monday evening on what had been a blazing hot June day and I could still feel the heat rising from the ground beneath us, she was probably more comfortable than I was in jeans and the long sleeve T-shirt I’d worn to protect myself from rampant thorns.

“Fine.” She dragged out the word on an impatient sigh. “I’m dead and I’m bored. How much longer do we have to wait?”

“She’ll be here,” I whispered. “Soon.” I tried to sound more certain of this than I actually was.

“Why are you whispering?” she asked with a frown.

“Because unlike you, I can still be arrested,” I pointed out.

Apparently fearing that the mansion might be a target for last-minute vandalism or pranks, the city had boarded up all the windows, hung about nine hundred NO TRESPASSING signs, placed caution tape around the entire perimeter, and hired security guards to make regular patrols. We’d slippedonto the property when the guards changed shifts.

Alona waved my words away. “Dopey couldn’t catch his own ass if it was on the seat next to him.”

She might be right about that. In fact, I was kind of banking on it. Dopey, as Alona had dubbed the security guard on duty, was currently dozing behind the wheel of his rent-a-cop car, which was parked in the driveway about twenty yards away. Loud snores emerged from the open car windows. I just hoped he would keep on snoring until after our business with Mrs. Ruiz was done, assuming she even showed up. Sometimes ghosts, when faced with final resolution of their earthly issues, panicked.

“Did you, by any chance, think to find out what time she died?” Alona asked with just enough sarcasm to suggest she already knew the answer.

“No.” Which I could see now had been an oversight. But Mrs. Ruiz had caught me off guard by approaching me at the grocery store. It had been challenging enough to find out what she wanted without freaking out the entire produce aisle, including my mom.

“I would have,” she muttered.

“You were unavailable for consultation,” I said through gritted teeth.

For somebody who was dead, Alona had an active social life. She was forever dropping in to spy on living family and friends, despite my warnings against that, and attempting to socialize with other ghosts.

The latter, I suspected, had not been going so well. Most ghosts moved on to the light too quickly to concern themselves with making friends while in this in-between place,what I called Middleground.The ones who remained tended to be a little too obsessed with whatever was keeping them here—an injustice, unrequited love, finding their murderer, etc.—to be good company for very long. Trust me, I know—from years of overhearing them.

But I also thought it might be because Alona did not really make friends easily. In life, she’d collected followers. There was a big difference between the two, as she’d found out after she’d died a couple of months ago and had to hear all her former “friends” talking about her.

There were a few ghosts who hung around her—like the sorority girl from Milliken who’d drowned in a hazing accident and now walked around with lake weed threaded through her hair and left wet footprints everywhere. Sometimes I wondered if they thought being friends with Alona would earn them a higher place on the running list of spirits we were trying to help attain closure. Sometimes I think Alona wondered about that, too.

But she kept trying, which I had to give her credit for,even though that meant she was gone sometimes when Ineeded her, like at the grocery store with Mrs. Ruiz. If Ididn’t know better, I would have suspected she staged herabsences deliberately to remind me how much I was dependent on her help to keep the ghosts at bay.

Alona had gotten bounced from the big white light about a month ago, and helping other ghosts who were stuck in-between earned her the karma points, for lack of a better term, to allow her to regain entry someday. At least that was the theory. I got the impression that Alona’s sources in the white light hadn’t been all that specific. She refused to talk much—at all, really—about her time there. As she told me once, it wasn’t like she’d been greeted at the gates by some big guy in white robes and Jesus-type sandals. It was more a feeling than anything else.

Alona shifted impatiently. “Why do we need Mrs. Ruiz anyway? Can’t we just go in and get the thing, whatever it is, and bring it to her?”

I shook my head. “She didn’t say what or where it was.” Mrs. Ruiz’s ability to make peace with her past was evidently tied to some object that was still hidden inside the house. “So, unless you want to search under every floorboard and in all the walls—”

She sighed. “Okay, okay.”

But she wasn’t done yet. I could sense the wheels turning in her mind. Even though we’d gone to school together for years, I’d only known Alona—as in actually having spoken to her—since she’d died. But that was long enough to know

she didn’t give up that easily.

She stood abruptly.

“What are you doing?” I hissed.

She looked down at me, unconcerned. “What? If we’re staying, I need to stretch. We’ve been sitting here for hours. And Dopey couldn’t see me even if his eyes were open, which”—she glanced in the direction of the security guard’s car—”they’re not.”

She reached behind herself and caught her ankle and pulled her leg toward her back, bending forward slightly. Her long blond hair slipped forward over her shoulder, and a wave of her light flowery scent washed over me.

I looked away. Alona Dare had the best legs I’d ever seen. Long and toned, with smooth skin that made you ache to touch them to see if they felt as good as they looked. I’d had fantasies about her and those legs since the sixth grade. And she knew it.

I shifted uncomfortably and kept my gaze locked firmly on a nearby tangle of leaves. “If that security guard sees the branches moving, he’s going to come running over here,” I warned. Thanks to my “gift,” if that’s what you wanted to call it, Alona—and all other ghosts—had physicality around me, the same as she would have if she were alive. Dopey might not be able to see her, but he’d definitely notice the bushes moving in a way that didn’t look wind-generated.

“He’d have to be awake first,” she said back, mimicking my warning tone. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her switch legs and stretch the other one, giving a small sigh of pleasure.

I swallowed hard. I guess stretching still felt good even when you were a ghost. I know it looked good.

“There. Much better.” She sat down next to me again, closer than before. Her shoulder pressed into me, and her leg rested against mine.

Thirty seconds ago, I’d been concerned about nothing other than finding Mrs. Ruiz and getting in and out of the house undetected. Now all I could think about were those two points of contact between us, connecting in a white-hot line of awareness.

I turned to see her watching, so close, so very close to me.

“What?” she asked.

I cleared my throat. “You have a . . .” I reached out and pulled a bit of leaf from her hair. The blond strands slipped like silk through my fingers. I’d touched her hair before, wrapped my hands in it when kissing her, as a matter of fact, and I wanted nothing more than to do it again right now.

“Thanks.” Her mouth curved in a knowing smile, and I was lost, even though I knew better.

I leaned closer, drawn to her mouth like it was pulling me in with some mysterious gravity of its own, half expecting her to push me away.

But she didn’t. Her mouth was warm and soft under mine.

I sat up straighter without breaking the kiss and slid my hand to the back of her neck, pulling her closer and slipping my fingers into her hair again.

She moved with me willingly and made that same sound of pleasure I’d heard from her before. I could feel her softness pressing against my chest. Oh, God. She just felt so good.

I pulled back for a second and watched her eyes open slowly. She looked as dazed as I felt, but with a touch of self-satisfaction. She’d planned this, of course.

“So is this when you try to talk me into leaving again?” I asked, breathless. I was all too aware that Alona knew my weak spots and wasn’t afraid to use them against me. Not that I minded at this exact moment.

She didn’t try to deny it. She leaned in and kissed the edge of my mouth. “Maybe I’m not so bored now.”

Good enough.

She rose up on her knees and balanced herself with her hands on my shoulders before laying a series of tiny kisses along my cheek. Her breath was warm, and her eyelashes fluttered against my skin like small caresses. Her scent filled me, overwhelmed me with the desire to shut out everything but her. This girl who equally drove me crazy and made me care about her more than I should. She was the only one who understood. The only one who could help make what I was more bearable, even if she occasionally tortured me in the process.

I slid my hand down her back to her hip, where the edge of her shirt met her shorts. And she let me. More than that, she moved closer, her mouth suddenly hungry on mine. My hand slipped under the hem, and I stroked the bare, warm skin of her stomach with my thumb.

She pulled back sharply, her hand catching mine and holding it in place. “Wait.”

I shook my head, trying to think while my body was screaming at me to keep going. “Sorry, I just—”

“No.” She squeezed my hand. “I hear something.”

I don’t care! I wanted to shout, but I swallowed the words.

She let go of my hand and cautiously pushed herself up to her feet to look out and over the tangle of brush that protected us from view of anyone walking by.

“Is it Dopey?” I whispered, taking advantage of her momentary distraction to try to adjust the front of my pants. If I had to run now, I’d be in big trouble.

“No.” Her voice held a strange note. “Not him.”

“Well, then what—”

She turned to face me, and I realized what I’d heard in her voice was suppressed laughter. The very same thing danced over her expression.

“It’s Mrs. Ruiz,” she said. “I think.” She sounded almost gleeful.

Ah, now it made sense. Because Alona had been off doing whatever when Mrs. Ruiz had approached me, this was her first glimpse of the . . . woman.

“Don’t,” I told her. “We’re here to help.”

I stood up, carefully, and peered out to see for myself.

Alona was right. Directly across from us, Mrs. Ruiz had finally materialized, her garden spade in hand. She was looking around like she was searching for just the right location to dig the hole that would kill her.

“Are you sure it’s Mrs. Ruiz?” Alona whispered in my ear, clearly delighted.

Okay, so Mrs. Ruiz was not a small woman or particularly . . . feminine. She was beefy with broad shoulders thatbelonged on a coal miner. The shapeless but heavily patterned housedress she wore didn’t help matters, making herlook that much more like a man in drag. The not-so-faintoutline of a mustache on her upper lip was a little . . . off-putting as well. But still, she needed our help.

“Stop,” I said to Alona. Then I eased out from behind the tangle of branches, keeping an eye on Dopey, who, thankfully, continued to snore throatily. Alona followed.

Mrs. Ruiz saw us coming and gave me a curt nod of acknowledgment. She frowned at Alona, which had the unfortunate effect of drawing her two eyebrows into one big one. I could almost feel Alona shaking with the need to spout something spiteful but funny.

“Some people aren’t as obsessed with appearances as you are,” I said quietly over my shoulder to Alona.

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t be obsessed with my appearance if I were her, either,” Alona said, not as quietly as I would have liked.

“This way,” Mrs. Ruiz said when we were close enough. She gave Alona another dark look and then slung her spade over her shoulder and started toward the house, ignoring Dopey and his car like they weren’t even there.

“Cut it out,” I said to Alona under my breath once we’d passed the security guard and Mrs. Ruiz was far enough ahead on the worn walkway to the front door.

“Oh, come on,” she said. “Even you can’t blame me for this one.”

“I mean it.”

She stayed quiet for a second.Then she looked thoughtful. “Ten bucks says she’s got a tattoo of an anchor somewhere on her body.”

“Alona!” I whispered as loudly as I dared.

“What, you’ve seen it?”

I glared at her.

“She has a ‘stache that would put a porn star to shame—hello, it’s called waxing?—and you’re lecturing me about—”

I pointed to her feet, which were beginning to flicker in and out of existence, as though a faulty movie projector were involved.

She sighed. “Damn.”

A being of mostly energy, she was dependent on keeping the energy flowing by remaining positive, i.e., nice. Which annoyed her to no end, unfortunately. Made for some highly entertaining moments on my end, though.

“She looks very strong and was probably very . . . capable at her job,” Alona said carefully. I could see she was dying to make some further remark, like how it was hard to keep a good man down. Or, how handy it was that she could carry the cows around while she milked them, or whatever. “You suck the fun out of everything,” she said to me.

It wasn’t my rule, just a rule of existence here, but I knewshe hated being reminded of it. “Everything?” I asked, takingin her rumpled hair and the way her lips still looked puffierthan usual, thanks to our kissing session.

Her cheeks turned pink, but she rolled her eyes and stalked past me to where Mrs. Ruiz was waiting on the front porch.

Nice. I was taking that as a compliment.

I hung back, using one of the huge old pine trees that dominated the front yard to block me from the view of any passing cars, until I saw Alona pass through the heavy wooden door as easily as if it were mist. Once I was sure she was in, I hurried to the porch, where my presence gave her the physicality she would need to unlock and open the door for me.

Except she didn’t. Five seconds passed. Then ten. And I was feeling mighty exposed, standing there on the front porch in full view of the road, until the door finally groaned and opened about two feet.

Alona stuck her head out.”Welcome to Craphole Manor,” she said with a grimace, stepping back to let me squeeze in.

The front hall was dim and smelled of mold and neglect. The scarred wooden floor seemed pretty solid, at least, but the wall was down to the studs in several places, whether due to predemolition work or decay, I didn’t know. I tried to shove the door shut again, but only got it to move a few inches. It had obviously swollen in the last few days of heat and humidity to a point where it no longer truly fit inside the frame. Great.

It would be good to have the fresh air and the extra light beyond the small flashlight I’d jammed in my pocket at the last minute. But anyone looking closely enough at the front of the house would see that the door was open.

“We need to move quickly,” I said.

“You don’t need to tell me,” Alona said with disgust, stepping back and brushing her hand down the sides of her shorts, creating grayish streaks of dust visible even in the limited light.

“Where’d she go?” I asked. “Did you say something?”

“Why are you always so quick to blame me?” she demanded.

“Because it’s usually you?” I offered.

“This way.” Mrs. Ruiz emerged from the shadows behind us, making both of us jump.

She pushed past us, still carrying her garden shovel, toward what had once been a grand and sweeping staircase. Now, with most of the spindles missing out of the railing and some of the stairs rotted through, it looked more like an eerie smile of broken teeth.

I started to follow her.

“Wait,” Alona said from behind me.

I tensed, expecting that she’d heard something from outside, but when I turned, I found her staring into the dark gloominess of the first room to the right of the front door. “What’s wrong?”

“Give me the flashlight.” I could hear the frown in her voice.

I turned it on and handed it to her.

She swept the beam over the remains of the room. It appeared to have been a study or a parlor of some kind. At the back of the room, a dark doorway to the kitchen or whatever room was next door was a solid patch of inky blackness. Huge rectangular holes dominated the walls where it looked like the built-in bookshelves had been removed. A few scattered, moldering books still lay on the floor along with . . . I frowned and moved closer for a better look.

“What are those?” Alona asked, voicing my exact question.

In the center of the room, five black metal boxes had been placed on the floor in a precise five-point arrangement, each box equidistant from the others. A thick black cord trailed from all of them to what appeared to be a portable generator.

The boxes themselves looked well-worn. The sides were dented and dinged, and the black paint was chipping off in many places.The roughly soldered edges of the boxes looked like nothing that would come out of a factory. Someone had made them.

I shook my head. “Something to do with the demolition, maybe? Explosives or something. Don’t touch anything.”

She gave an exasperated sigh. “It’s not a Vegas high-rise. They’re going to tear it down, not blow it up.”

I shook my head. Something about this was just off. “I don’t know. Let’s just get this done and get out of here before—”

“This way!” Mrs. Ruiz’s voice boomed from above,makingus both jump. The former housekeeper sounded annoyed, onthe edge of angry.

“Does she even know other words?” Alona asked.

“Come on,” I said. I took the flashlight back from her and headed for the stairs.

Aiming the light ahead of me, I found Mrs. Ruiz waiting for us at the first curve of the stairs. “This way,” she said yet again, sounding a little more relaxed.

“Cute and a great conversationalist,” Alona murmured behind me. “You really know how to pick them.”

“Watch your feet,” I muttered back.

“Shut up,” she snapped. But then I heard her muttering compliments about the house’s original architecture and style—”Real hardwood floors!”—so I knew I’d been right once again.

The staircase creaked and moaned under our weight, but it held, thankfully. At the top of the stairs, Mrs. Ruizled us down a long dark hallway with doors on both sides. The doors, which presumably led to the family’s bedrooms, were open, but only the faintest light seeped out under theboarded-up windows, and I really didn’t want to point theflashlight inside any of the rooms. I had no idea what I’d see, if anything, and honestly, even my creeped-out level wason the rise. If I happened to look in one and see some littleface staring back at me, I’d probably bolt. Two ghosts were more than enough for now, thanks.

Ahead of us, Mrs. Ruiz stopped at the last door on the right, the only one that was shut.

She looked back over her massive shoulder at me. “This way,” she said, at the same time Alona whispered it mockingly in my ear.

Mrs. Ruiz turned the knob and pushed the door open, the loud creak of the hinges echoing in the empty house. She stepped just across the threshold and stopped. The shovel slid off her shoulder, the metal end landing on the floor with a heavy and hollow thud, and her more-than-sturdy frame began to tremble.

Something was wrong.

I eased past her into the room, with Alona just behind me, and the reason for Mrs. Ruiz’s distress became immediately clear.

All over the room, random floorboards had been torn up with careless effort, splintering the ancient wood into dangerously sharp spikes. Plaster dust coated the floor from the dozens of recent holes punched or cut into the walls. Clearly, someone had been looking for something.

“Told you,” Alona muttered, referring to her plan to come in without Mrs. Ruiz.

I ignored her. “Mrs. Ruiz,” I said, approaching her cautiously.

She didn’t look up, fixated on the destruction, and I wondered if this had been her room. It would make sense that whatever she wanted would have been in the one room she thought of as her own.

“Mrs. Ruiz,” I tried again.

This time, she did meet my gaze, and her fury was enough to make me take a step back.

“You,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Hey, a new word!” Alona, who had moved past me to further inspect the damage and possibly the empty closet, piped up.

I kept my attention focused on Mrs. Ruiz. “No. I didn’t do this.”

But my words had little effect. “Told only you,” she said in that gravelly voice, further deepened by rage.

I held my hands out in a peacemaking gesture. “I’m sure it might seem that way, but surely someone else—”

She hoisted her heavy shovel back up to her shoulder, choking up on the wooden handle like it was a baseball bat.

Oh, crap. Another downside of the giving-physicality-to-ghosts element of my gift was that the pissed off ones could use it to try to kill me.

I backed up slowly. “Alona?”

From the corner of my eye, I saw her look up sharply, registering the note of barely repressed panic in my voice.

She sighed and started toward Mrs. Ruiz, stepping over and around the missing floorboards with a grace that made it look like she did it every day. “Okay, look, I know he can be annoying, but he doesn’t steal stuff. Believe me.”

She gave me an exasperated look. Evidently, she was still irritated that I’d refused to take part in her elaborate plan to get her hands on an iPad. She’d been convinced the touch screen would be sensitive enough for her to use it even when. I wasn’t around to give her the physicality to do so. Blogging, Twittering, and a Facebook page—all for a dead girl. I don’t think so.

“So, there’s no need to go crazy,” Alona continued. “He didn’t take your . . . whatever. Besides, you need to go through me—”

To get to him. Those words had some kind of ritual-like effect, temporarily freezing ghosts who intended me harm. But before Alona could speak, Mrs. Ruiz lashed out with a meaty fist and connected solidly with Alona’s face.

Alona is not a tiny, fragile girl. She is athletic, toned, and muscled from years of tough cheerleading workouts and the relentless pursuit of cellulite extinction. But she was no match for Mrs. Ruiz and the power behind that blow.

She flew backward, striking the wall behind her before sliding down into an unconscious heap on the floor.

“Alona!” I lunged for her, Mrs. Ruiz temporarilyforgotten. Yes, Alona was, in theory, already dead, but youdon’t spend eighteen years as a ghost-talker without realizing there are all kinds of dead, and some kinds are preferableto others.

I dropped to my knees in front of her, but before I could touch her, she flickered and vanished.

I pulled back. She’d exhausted her energy on this plane of existence. Alona rarely disappeared completely anymore, having gotten the hang of the positive-energy thing. But every time it happened might be the last, meaning she might not be able to come back.

It would happen someday. It was unavoidable. Alona would be gone, either because she’d disappeared one too many times or the light had returned to get her. The question was, would it be today? I felt sick just thinking about it. I didn’t want it to happen like this, Alona sacrificing herself to save me.

The air whistled above my head in a split-second warning, and I threw myself backward as the shovel cracked down where I’d been kneeling. I landed hard on my back, and splinters gouged through my shirt and into my skin. The other immediate question was, without Alona, could I survive Mrs. Ruiz?

I gritted my teeth and forced myself up even as Mrs. Ruiz brought the shovel to her shoulder again. I scrambled for the door, my back protesting and trickles of blood rolling down my skin.

I fell more than stepped into the hallway, just grateful to be out. Then I heard Mrs. Ruiz’s heavy step behind me. I pushed myself up to my feet, expecting the crack of the shovel again at any second, this time maybe against my head.

Instead, the doors on either side of me slammed closed, followed by the next two, all the way down the hall.

She was closing me in. Damn, she had to have some serious energy to be shutting doors without touching them. Speed wasn’t her <strength; strength was. If I didn’t make it to the front door fast, she might be able to slam that one shut on me, too, and then I’d be stuck. I might be able to kick out the plywood covering one of the windows, but I wasn’t sure I could do that before Mrs. Ruiz caught up to me with her shovel.

Panting and gritting my teeth against all my various aches and pains, I hobbled for the stairs as quickly as I could.

At the top of the stairs, the edge of my shoe caught on the rotting remains of the stair runner, and I slipped down the first few steps. I reached for the railing to pull myself up, and Mrs. Ruiz’s shovel slammed into the wood, just missing my fingers. Loose spindles rained down on the floor below.

I yanked my hand back with a yelp. “I was just trying to help you, okay? I didn’t take your stuff!” I shouted at her.

“I did.” A new voice spoke up from below.

I risked taking my gaze off Mrs. Ruiz to aim the flashlight, which I’d somehow managed to hang on to, past the curve in the staircase. A girl I’d never seen before stood at the foot of the stairs, her face pale in the light. Long, dark curly hair floated in a cloud around her head, like it had a life of its own. She was dressed all in black, which helped her blend into the surrounding dimness. Another ghost? Great.

But then I saw she held what appeared to be a flashlight, aimed at the stairs, but it wasn’t on, for some reason. In her other hand, she had a dirty old pillowcase, stuffed full of something with hard edges and with considerable weight. The case looked ready to split open.

So, not a ghost then. A thrill seeker? A looter? The girl shook the pillowcase, and it made a heavy jangling sound, like coins but louder. “Looking for this?” she asked.

“No,” I said slowly, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was staring at something or someone above my head.

Mrs. Ruiz grunted, and I felt the staircase shake as she started down.

I pulled myself up to my feet and stumbled down the rest of the stairs. I didn’t want to be in her way.

When I reached the bottom, the girl’s gaze flicked to me for split second before returning to monitor Mrs. Ruiz’s lumbering descent. And a delayed realization finally clicked in. This girl knew someone else was there. She could see or hear—maybe both—Mrs. Ruiz.

She was a ghost-talker. A real one. Like me.

Holy shit.

“Silver spoons?” The girl shook the bag again. “Really? They left you their mansion and you stole all their good spoons? From more than one set, too.”

Still reeling from my discovery about this mystery girl, I forced myself to focus on the conversation going on. That’s what this was about? Flatware?

“This place was not a gift!” Mrs. Ruiz shouted. “It was a prison, one I would have escaped when the old woman finally died, but she made me tenant of this place instead of giving me the severance she had promised. I did not own it. I could not sell it. After years of devoting myself to her every need, I still could not leave.” Apparently, seeing her recovered hoard had loosened up her vocal cords. Alona would have been impressed.

Mrs. Ruiz slammed her shovel into the banister, like an All-Star player on steroids. The old wood fractured and collapsed. Bits of it sprayed in all directions. She grinned, a horrible, dark expression. She hadn’t been protecting the house from unworthy people, as we’d thought. She’d been protecting her stash, her self-awarded reward that she’d never gotten a chance to cash in.

“That must have really pissed you off.” The girl gave the pillowcase another heavy shake and began backing up, past the still partially open front door, to the study/parlor room.

The place where Alona had found all that strange equipment.

Suddenly, pieces of this puzzle were falling into place. Whatever that stuff was, Alona had been right. It had nothing to do with the demolition. It belonged to this girl and whatever she had planned for Mrs. Ruiz. We’d obviously interrupted her . . . what? Investigation? Exorcism?

Mrs. Ruiz, her gaze fixed on the pillowcase in the girl’s hand, was following her into the room, like a dog fixated on
a liver treat. A sterling silver liver treat.

As the former housekeeper passed me, I moved to follow, even as aching and bloody as I was. I had to see what was going to happen next, once the girl got her into that room.

That was a mistake.

Mrs. Ruiz, evidently deciding that the girl and I were in on this together or that my continued existence was just another affront she could no longer stand, spun around at me with her shovel. I dropped to the ground, flashlight skittering from my numb fingers.

She missed me, but I felt the rush of wind over my head when the shovel passed. And there was nothing to stop her from another attempt now that she had her sights on me. The front door was only about five feet away, but Mrs. Ruiz was much closer.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the girl jerk her flashlight upward.

A bright blue beam emerged from the device, catching Mrs. Ruiz in the right side.

Rage contorted her face, and she angled her body as if to take another swing at me. I flinched away in anticipation. But even as I watched, her fingers twitched around the handle of the shovel, but neither the shovel nor her arm moved. She tried again and again, with increasing panic. The beam seemed to hold her in place where it touched her.

I let out a breath of relief.

Then she reached for me with the hand that was not caught in the beam. Her gnarled and dirty fingers scraped past my nose.

“More to the left,” I shouted at the girl. She swore under her breath and corrected her aim quickly.

The beam encompassed the entire ghost, and Mrs. Ruiz froze. Then her mouth dropped open in a silent scream. A loud buzz filled the air, and I could feel the hair on my arms stand up.

The light grew brighter for a second, and then Mrs. Ruiz vanished with a pop that made my ears hurt.

The girl cut the beam off immediately, letting loose a torrent of swear words almost as vicious and painful as the pop that had preceded them.

“What was that?” I asked, still stunned.

“That was you screwing up my life. Thanks.” Then she turned on her heel and speed-walked into the room with the equipment.

I scrambled to my feet, grabbing my flashlight from where it had fallen, and followed her more slowly. I watched as the girl gathered up the metal boxes from the floor, yanking the cords out and shoving everything into an enormous black duffel bag she’d produced from somewhere.

“I’m serious. What was that?” After a beat, I realized there was a better question. “Who are you?” The only other ghost-talker I’d ever known had been my dad. And he’d died—killed himself—three years ago. I’d always assumed there were probably more of us, as rare as we seemed to be. It was, after all, passed down through families. I couldn’t be the only one out there to hit the genetic lotto, so to speak. But I’d figured that most of them were either crazy or dead, given that I’d been on one or both of those paths myself until recently.

“I’d get out of here if I were you,” she said. “Ralph is too scared to come in here on his own, but he’ll call for backup.” She slung the now full bag over her shoulder, and headed toward the door to the next room, lugging the generator with her. The pillowcase of silverware and the flashlight device that had saved my life were nowhere to be seen. Maybe they were in the bag as well?

“Ralph . . .” I had no idea who she was talking about.

“The security guard?” she asked with disdain.

As she spoke, I heard the rising sound of sirens from outside. Damn.

“Wait. Tell me who you are, how I can find you.” I couldn’t just let her walk away without knowing something. Everything I knew about being a ghost-talker had been pieced together from bits of information my dad had reluctantly let slip, and what little realistic information I could find in books and on the Internet. Most of it was very woo-woo, spiritual crap, nothing very practical. The chance to compare notes, to learn from someone else like me, would be huge. And then there was the weapon she’d used on Mrs. Ruiz. If I had one of those . . . suddenly I could picture a life where I didn’t always have to be on guard.

She turned, exasperation written on her face, and thensomething else . . . fear. She dropped the generator and herbag with a speed that surprised me, and whipped the flashlight device from one of the many pockets on her cargo pants.

“Walk toward me,” she commanded. “Now.”

A flutter of movement to my right caught my attention, and I looked over, half expecting to see Mrs. Ruiz again. Instead, I recognized the vague shape of Alona rematerializing, an indistinct blur of blond hair, white shirt, and red shorts.

Thank God. I let out a breath of relief on multiple counts. “It’s okay. She’s a friend.”

The girl looked at me with a mix of pity and disgust. “You’re a Casper lover.”

I stared at her. “A what?”

She shook her head and put the device back in her pocket. “Idiot,” she muttered.

But I didn’t even know enough about what was going on to contradict her.

She scooped up her equipment again and started to walk away. Then she stopped with a sigh. “If I leave you here, you’re going to get yourself arrested, aren’t you?”

Uh …

“Let’s go.” She gestured at me impatiently. “I can’t risk you blabbing to the cops.”

“You’ve got another way out?” I asked. From what I’d seen, the whole house, other than the front door, was locked down and boarded up tightly.

She smirked. “You don’t?”

She hustled through the darkened doorway to the next room, leaving me to scramble after her.

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