Pale as a Ghost
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by Stephen Osborne
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Private detective Duncan Andrews's best friend Gina is a witch. His dog is a zombie. And his dead boyfriend, Robbie, is a ghost. So it's hardly any wonder that he uses his connection to the supernatural to help him solve cases. Good thing, too, because Duncan has his hands full. Janice Sanderson, the richest woman in Indianapolis, wants him to find her stripper daughter, Brenda, and another client is having some trouble with a specter haunting her family home. On top of that, Duncan has decided to add dating into the mix, though after Robbie's death, he's not sure he's ready. When Duncan meets Nick while tracking down a lead on Brenda's boyfriend, he shelves his doubts and agrees to a date. Robbie doesn't make it easy on him, showing up to spoil his chances, but that is the least of Duncan's worries--because one of his clients' husbands is missing and there's a serial killer on the loose--one Duncan fears isn't human.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: May 2011
11 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [256 KB]
Reading time: 169-237 min.
The bullet hit the brick wall behind me, taking a nice little chip out of the masonry and missing my left ear by mere inches.
The shooter, a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and bad teeth, shouted, "Come on out, Andrews! I promise not to hurt you!"
I wondered how stupid he thought I was. After all, trusting a man who just fired several shots at you isn't something that comes easily to most people, myself included. I stayed nicely hidden behind my Dumpster and yelled back, "No, thanks! I'm fine here, thank you very much."
He fired another shot, which struck the wall again, much further away. I was lucky the guy was such a lousy shot. I pulled my own gun, a .38, from my belt. I really didn't want to shoot the man, but who knew if he might get lucky after a while? I peered around the edge of the Dumpster. The alley was full of shadows, but I could see his silhouette about halfway down. He was just standing there, not even attempting to protect himself. I know he was angry and desperate, but surely he should have taken into consideration the possibility that I might be armed as well. After all, I was what is commonly referred to as a private detective. They often, at least in novels and the kind of TV movies shown on the USA Network, go out armed. Granted, the guy wasn't thinking straight, but still.
The man shooting at me, one Barton Clifts, was a mid-level management guy who worked for a pharmaceutical firm. Barton had siphoned off around $70,000 from the business, and I had been called in to investigate. I found the proof, and he was supposed to have been turned over to the police. However, he somehow eluded capture and had come looking for me. Apparently he blamed me for all of his problems. It wasn't my fault that he made discovering his embezzling so goddamn easy. Some people just don't use their brains. But then, he wasn't the guy hiding behind a Dumpster.
"Come on out, Andrews," he called again.
"He certainly is persistent," a familiar voice said. Seconds later I was joined behind the Dumpster by my boyfriend, Robbie Church. As usual, Robbie just seemed to appear out of the ether. One second there was a shadow; the next he was there, accompanied by a slight chill in the air. He was wearing an Everlast T-shirt and black basketball shorts. He liked to dress casually whenever possible. Also, as usual, he looked like he was all of twenty years old, which continually annoyed me. I hated that I had aged ten years, and he had stayed the same. "You must have done something to piss him off, Duncan."
"I caught him embezzling from his company. I think he's mad at me."
Robbie took a quick peek over the top of the Dumpster. A shot rang out, and Robbie quickly ducked back down. "He's not exactly a marksman," he said with a smile.
"Why are you ducking?" I asked. "Afraid he'll kill you all over again?"
Robbie grinned. "He may not even have seen me. Most likely he was just taking a potshot. Even if he was gifted with the ability to see ghosts, I doubt in his present frame of mind he'd be able to. Not everyone has the focus you do, luckily for me."
Great. I was getting Ghost Lessons 101 from my deceased boyfriend. "Why don't you go and haunt somebody else," I suggested, "and leave me to get on with my work."
He pointed to the gun in my hand. "Why don't you just shoot the asshole? He's standing right out in the open."
"I was about to do just that when you popped up. You've been in this alley before?" Ghosts, as I learned long ago, can only appear in locations they'd been to in life. The alley was in the old warehouse district on the east part of the downtown area. I couldn't imagine why Robbie would ever have ventured to such a place.
"Apparently," he said. "Not that I remember, but I might have wandered down here after a concert or some late-night binge. I must have been lost." He looked at the end of the alley, which was blocked by a large wooden fence. "This alley doesn't really go anywhere."
"I noticed that when he started shooting at me, and I ran down here for cover." Another shot winged by. "I don't suppose you could help out here, could you?"
Robbie frowned. "Why don't you just shoot the mother and get this over with?"
"You know I don't like to use a gun unless it's absolutely necessary."
Robbie popped his head up and a bullet went right through where his forehead would have been had he been corporeal. It might just as well have gone through mist for all the effect it had on Robbie. "This might be one of those times."
"That warehouse behind him must have been made into apartments at one time. I noticed a window a few floors up that had a potted plant on the window sill. He's right underneath it, if you get my drift."
"You know how hard it is for me to move objects," Robbie said with a roll of his eyes. "Really. Just shoot the guy already. He's getting on my nerves."
I looked into those deep brown eyes that I'd fallen in love with all those years ago. "Please," I said. "Do it for me."
Robbie sighed and disappeared in an instant. I carefully peeked around the corner of the Dumpster and saw that Clifts had actually moved forward a little. He was now illuminated by the lamp post at the end of the alley. Several floors above him Robbie appeared, sitting on the window sill with his legs dangling. The flower pot was next to him. I saw him draw in as much energy as he could and give the pot a push.
The terracotta pot hit the pavement a good three yards behind Clifts. It did, however, cause the man to start violently and turn around. "Shit," I muttered as I quickly took aim and shot him in the leg. Clifts let out a yell and clutched at the wound with his free hand. He turned and fired wildly in my direction. I breathed in and shot him in the arm. Luckily for him I'm a good shot. It didn't hurt that he really wasn't that far away. The man fell, screaming in pain.
Robbie appeared at my side as I rose from behind my protective covering. "I missed," he said. He looked somewhat paler from the energy he'd used pushing the pot.
"Yeah, thanks. I had noticed." I pulled out my cell phone and was about to call 911 when I heard sirens approaching. Someone had heard the shots and had already called. I looked at Robbie, who was starting to look transparent and more like what people think ghosts look like. "You'd better get out of here. I really don't want to explain to the cops that my boyfriend who's been dead for ten years still hangs around."
A moan came from the alley where Clifts was laying. We ignored him.
"Like they'd be able to see me anyway," Robbie said, a little petulantly. "Honestly, sometimes I think you don't like having me around."
I sighed. For a dead guy, Robbie had a lot of self-esteem issues. "You know I love you, and I always will."
I could see by his face, pale as it was, that he wasn't convinced. "What were you doing in this part of town anyway?"
"I was going to Sam's Place for a drink." I knew he wouldn't like the answer, but the sirens were coming closer, and I wanted to get rid of him quickly.
"You were hoping to pick up someone." Robbie folded his arms and turned his head away from me. "Some boyfriend you are."
A patrol car skidded to a halt at the end of the alley. "We'll have to talk about this later, okay? Why don't you get back to the apartment and check on Daisy?" Daisy was my beloved bulldog, who had some problems of her own--the main one being that she, too, was no longer alive. However, she wasn't a ghost like Robbie. Daisy was a zombie. Long story.
"At least she still loves me," Robbie pouted. He vanished just as several policemen began scanning the alley with their flashlights. I put my arms up so they would know I wasn't a threat. "Over here," I called to them.
It would be a long night explaining the chain of events. It would have been longer, though, if I also had to explain Robbie the ghost boyfriend to the cops.
* * * *
I'm not psychic, which is what most people assume once they know that I can see ghosts. I can't read minds. I can't even read palms. Come to think of it, I have a hard time understanding my phone bill. No, I was merely born with the Gift, which makes me sensitive to paranormal phenomena. Lots of people have it in one form or another. Some don't have it at all, and if a ghost was standing right in front of them, they wouldn't see it. Some people born with the Gift lose it over time because they convince themselves that their eyes are playing tricks on them. After all, there are no such things as ghosts, right? Some have the Gift so strongly that they not only can see ghosts but can sense other paranormal creatures, such as vampires or demons. Oh yes, vampires exist. Always have, as far as I know. So do demons, zombies, witches, warlocks, and goblins. It's a fun old world, if you only open up your eyes and your mind.
Robbie and I originally met at a party up in Lafayette. He'd just graduated from high school, and I was finishing up my studies at IUPUI (which stands for Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis, in case you were wondering). A few minutes into our conversation we discovered that not only did we both live on the west side of Indianapolis, but we even lived within a few blocks of each other. This ended up being a good thing as when we left the party, Robbie's car refused to start, and I ended up giving him a ride. It was on the sixty mile trip home that we bonded over our love of science fiction television shows and a deep, abiding passion for the Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein. By the time we pulled into his apartment complex, we were fast friends. The differences--he was a jock, I was a geek; I was a voracious reader, he only read Spider-man comics, etc.--didn't seem to matter. Neither did the few years age difference. We soon became lovers and found that we matched each other perfectly in bed as well. As soon as his lease was up, he moved in with me.
At that time I was renting a small house not far from campus. When I'd signed the lease, I was surprised that the house had been empty for so long, since it was perfect for students, and the rent was very reasonable. I soon learned the reason. A horrible murder had taken place there in the 1950s, and the house was reputed to be haunted. My first week there I found the reputation was well-earned. The ghost of a forlorn-looking young man walked the halls and would occasionally creep into my bedroom to tickle my feet in the night. I never learned why he enjoyed this activity. The spirit, I discovered, was named Sam, and he had been murdered by his girlfriend. She had been unreasonably jealous over one of his co-workers and had ended up shooting poor Sam in the head.
A few days after he'd moved in, I related the tale of the haunting to Robbie, leaving out the part about my contact with the ghost. Robbie found the prospect of living in a haunted house exciting. "Have you ever seen anything?" he asked.
I knew I could trust Robbie, but I still hesitated. I didn't want to come off as a raving lunatic. Finally trust won out, and I told him about Sam and the tickling. "I've always had an affinity with ghosts and the supernatural," I told him. "Growing up, it almost seemed like ghosts sought me out to tell me their woes. It got me into a bit of trouble because I thought that everyone talked to ghosts. When I got to school, everyone thought I was a loony."
I could tell Robbie was skeptical but anxious to find some proof that Sam really existed.
We soon learned that Robbie was unable to see Sam, although he would often catch sight of a shadow out of the corner of his eye. When he turned there would be nothing there. Robbie often felt cold spots in the house, though, and woke up several times feeling that his feet had just been tickled. On several occasions he'd walk into the kitchen to find every cabinet door open. Objects often went missing for days, only to show up in a totally different part of the house. Before long, Robbie was a firm believer.
We never knew what caused the fire that burned our little house to the ground. The fire department put it down to faulty electrical wiring, but I wasn't so sure. In the days prior to the blaze I'd catch sight of Sam, looking sadder than ever, fiddling with the stove or other appliances. My guess was that he was unable to move on while the house was still standing. After the fire, I never saw or heard from Sam again. If Sam was some sort of arsonist spirit, at least he picked a night when Robbie and I were at the movies. Got to give him credit for that.
With most of our belongings now ashes, Robbie and I began apartment hunting. After we found one (the apartment I still call home), we decided to get a dog to cheer ourselves up. At that time Daisy was just a normal, exuberant little bulldog. Things changed for her a few years ago, but I'll go into that later.
The new apartment was spirit free, something that made Robbie and me a little sad. We had gotten used to dealing with Sam and his problems. By this time I had graduated from college and was working for a large detective agency. Robbie delivered pizzas. We were annoyingly happy.
Then one night a van full of drunken teenagers rammed into Robbie's car. He was killed instantly.
My grief was profound and lasted up to the day of his funeral--which Robbie attended. I was sitting in the front pew, crying my eyes out, when I noticed a drop in temperature around me. Before I could react Robbie was sitting next to me, wearing the suit he was about to be buried in. He looked around him with a mischievous little smile.
"Good turnout," he said.
As there were no screams or people rushing to the exits, I assumed I was the only one who knew he was there. I lowered my head and whispered, "What the hell are you doing here?"
He rolled his eyes. "That's gratitude for you! I come back to keep you from crying incessantly, and you give me attitude. You know I can't stand to be away from you for long."
I have to give him credit. The tears stopped. It was too difficult to deal with Robbie being at his own funeral service and cry at the same time. I said between clenched teeth, "You need to get out of here. What if someone here manages to see you?"
Robbie shrugged as the minister strode up to the podium and gazed out at the mourners. It seemed to me that he paused a second as his eyes passed over the spot where Robbie was sitting, but that may have been my own paranoia. The minister cleared his throat loudly. "It's always tragic when a life is ended too soon, and the life of Robert Randall Church certainly ended much too soon."
"You're telling me," Robbie said. "Now I'll never be anything except a pizza delivery guy. I won't get to find out what career I would have had! And by the way," he leaned in to me and continued, "the accident was so not my fault. That van came out of nowhere. They must have been going at least eighty miles an hour when they rammed me."
"Ssshhh!" I hissed.
Robbie paid no attention to me. As the minister continued with the eulogy, Robbie kept up a running commentary. He actually was pretty funny. By the end he had me smiling.
He's been with me ever since.
* * * *
I don't have a real office. My detective agency is run through a virtual office. It's all e-mail and websites and answering machines. There is an actual office building, up on the north side of town, and that's what's listed as the address on my business cards, but I don't technically have an office there. When I have to meet with a potential client, I arrange for a small meeting room at the office building. It saves paying for an office that I would rarely use.
There are downsides to this arrangement. For one, when I meet with a client it's usually in a bare, utilitarian room with no personality. I also don't get to have a waiting room complete with secretary, like Sam Spade had. Of course, I wouldn't have a leggy blonde for a secretary. Or if I did, it would be a male leggy blond. Robbie would probably get jealous, though, and find some way to scare the shit out of him. Still, I often yearned for an actual office where I could put pictures of... well, Robbie when he was still alive and Daisy before she became a zombie. Robbie had been quite a looker, despite a somewhat large and broken nose, and Daisy was adorable. She still was if you overlooked the slightly gray tinge to her fur and the bloodshot eyes and her penchant for eating squirrels and rats in a rather disgusting manner. You get that with zombie dogs, though.
I didn't bring Daisy with me to meet with Janice Sanderson. I found that clients didn't appreciate the presence of a strange-looking bulldog. There was no chance of Robbie appearing, either, as he'd never been in the office building.
The room contained a bare desk, which I sat behind. Janice sat on the other side. She was in her early forties, although she wasn't the sort to admit it. Her dark brown hair was pulled tightly back, and she wore a no-nonsense business suit of a dull green. She probably thought she looked like Rosalind Russell in some old movie. If smoking had been allowed, she'd have lit up.
"I want you to find my daughter," she said. She even had the quick snap to her voice. If I'd looked like Humphrey Bogart, she'd have been happier. But hell, Bogart would have had an office of his own.
I nodded. I thought about doing my Bogart impression and saying that the police had a whole department devoted to missing persons, but I wanted the case. Private detectives have to eat too. "How long has she been missing?"
"Two weeks. I'm guessing as to the time. It could have been longer. It's been two weeks since I've heard from her and none of her friends have seen her in that time." She crossed her legs rather demurely. I wondered if she knew the action was wasted on me. I raised my eyebrows just a fraction to make her happy. She was a potential client, after all.
"Have the police been informed?"
She frowned at me. Bogart wouldn't have asked that question. "They are under the impression that she's run away with one of her boyfriends." Here she looked down so she didn't have to look me in the eyes. "She's not been herself lately. She's going through one of her phases. She'll do anything to annoy me."
"Like running off with a boyfriend?"
That got me an angry glare. Janice Sanderson bit her lip and decided to ignore my comment. "Brenda just turned twenty. She doesn't live at home any longer, but she does keep in touch. Kevin, that's my son, and she are very close. Kevin still lives at home. I'm sure that's why she still comes around. It's certainly not for me."
"Does she live alone?" I asked.
Janice shook her head. "She has a roommate. This girl, Tiffany, and she live downtown. I don't believe for a moment that Tiffany is her real name. Even Brenda is using another name nowadays. She calls herself Amber."
Tiffany. Amber. I took a stab in the dark. "Where has Brenda been working?"
Janice sighed heavily. "She's been working at one of those clubs; this one is called Pickin's. Imagine, my daughter a stripper! She's just doing it to annoy me." Mrs. Sanderson uncrossed her legs. Maybe she noticed it wasn't getting her anywhere. Janice obviously liked to be noticed. Someone should tell her that the green business suit wasn't helping. However, the diamonds in her earrings were nice.
For the next half-hour, Janice Sanderson filled me in on lots of little details of her daughter's life, or at least what she knew. It was enough to get started at any rate. A missing person case isn't easy for a one-man operation, but I told Mrs. Sanderson I'd do what I could. When she left she actually batted her eyes at me and told me she looked forward to seeing me again. Some people just don't pick up on signals.
* * * *
He shuffled across to the refrigerator, feeling less human than he had in quite a few years. It was time. He knew this, more by his internal clock than by the calendar that was affixed to the wall in his kitchen by a thumbtack. The man looked at his hands. He could see the aging process beginning. Fine lines and wrinkles showed on the back of his hand. He knew that if he went to the bathroom and checked the mirror there, he would no longer look youthful and fit. He'd have aged, looking decades older. Just yesterday someone had guessed his age at twenty-three. Now he'd be doing well if he could pass for his mid-forties
The flesh would rectify all that
Opening the refrigerator door, he looked at the meager offerings inside. Nothing looked good. Even the raw beef didn't sound appealing. Eating it would only leave him wanting. He needed the flesh. The man closed the door and glanced over at the counter where his knife rack sat. The large butcher knife, which stood out amid the smaller cutlery, seemed to be calling for him. Yes, it was time.
* * * *
Daisy met me at the door when I got to my apartment. She barked excitedly, and I leaned down to scratch her ears. Her tail wagged appreciatively. "Who's a good dog?" I asked. She didn't answer, but she did blink her bloodshot eyes. Even zombie dogs like attention.
I could sense Robbie's presence in the apartment even though he was nowhere in sight. Just floating around the ether, I figured. I called out anyway. "I'm home!"
He didn't reply. Probably still sulking. Well, screw him. He'd been dead for ten years after all. Surely I could at least hook up with someone for some casual sex without Robbie getting all mopey on me. It wasn't like I was getting any from him. I had just sat down on the couch and had grabbed the TV remote when my cell phone rang. I fished it out of my pocket and answered. It was Gina, my best friend.
"Darling," she said, "we have to go out somewhere to dinner tonight. I have some absolutely fantastic news!"
"Sure," I said. "Where do you want to go?"
She named a restaurant, and I had to immediately nix the idea. Robbie and I had been there. I needed a Robbie-free night. "Let's try somewhere new," I suggested.
Gina named a Mexican place that had only recently opened downtown. I tried to think of other restaurants that had been in the same building that Robbie might have gone to. I couldn't. "That sounds fine," I told her. "Give me an hour or so, though. I've got to take Daisy to the park so she can catch a squirrel for dinner." Not for the first time I found myself wishing they made Purina Zombie Dog Chow. It would be easier, but I knew it wouldn't work anyway. Zombies have to have living flesh or nothing. It's just a zombie thing.
When I arrived at the restaurant I found Gina already there, dressed as usual in a long skirt and voluminous shirt with lots of frills. Gina would fit in any local opera production as a Gypsy extra. With all her rings and earrings, "Gypsy" was a word that fit Gina well, although "witch" was more accurate. Gina wasn't the New Age sort of witch, either. Not a Wiccan. She was a spell-casting, honest-to-goodness witch. It had been she who, years ago, had resurrected Daisy when she'd passed away. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
I sat down, and Gina smiled at me. "You've got a new client," she said.
"You've been looking into your crystal ball," I said.
Gina shrugged. "Don't need a crystal ball to see that you're feeling prosperous. Your aura has changed."
Our waiter was a thin, redheaded kid who seemed to think that flirting with me would get him a bigger tip. He was right, of course. He wasn't even the age Robbie had been when a car accident had ended his life. When you're over thirty, you can't help but like it when someone under twenty flirts with you. I can't, anyway. Gina and I ordered, and the waiter flittered off, promising to check back with us in a few minutes.
"So what's your news?" I asked, sipping my water. Gina's face split into a grin. "I'm dating someone!"
"Really?" I tried not to feel jealous. "Human, or...?"
"He's human. His name's Mark. He's a dentist."
A witch dating a dentist.
"I think this was a sitcom back in the 1960s. Does he know you're...?"
"Of course not! It's not something you bring up right away. 'Would you like to go out on a date?' 'Sure, but I'd better tell you first that I'm a witch.'"
"There's the age difference to consider too. You were around at the Salem witch trials."
Gina scrunched her face. "That's witchist. Whenever anyone wants to point out that a witch is old, they always reference Salem. I was around long before that, and you know it."
"Fair dues. Most people don't have a witch as a best friend."
Gina shrugged again. "You're different than most people. You were born special. You can see more than most. You know of the things that lurk in the dark. That's what makes you such a good friend. You don't judge or have preconceived notions."
"I've got a dog that eats live rats, and I'm haunted by my dead boyfriend. I can't afford to be too judgmental."
The waiter brought our chips and salsa. "Need anything else to drink?" he asked, giving me the tiniest of winks. "Your entrees should be out shortly."
"We're fine, thanks," I told him. He shimmered off.
Gina scooped a good amount of salsa onto a tortilla chip and chomped on it. "I thought you'd be happy for me," she said.
"I am." I tried the chips myself. They were nice and salty, just like I liked them. "It's just that... I'm wanting to start dating myself." I saw Gina's eyes bug out. "I don't mean dating myself. I've been doing that for ten years now. It's gotten to the point where I buy my left hand chocolates on Valentine's Day. What I mean is that I want to start dating other people."
"I thought for a moment there," Gina said, wiping a bit of salsa off her lip, "that you were going to ask me to conjure up a doppelganger for you. Don't look so shocked. A lot of people have fantasies about having sex with a double of themselves."
"I'd settle for another human being, preferably male. And good-looking. I'm not picky. Johnny Depp will do nicely."
Gina helped herself to more chips. "What does Robbie think of this idea?"
"He's pissed off at me right now. He just doesn't understand that I need... well, the touch of another man. Plus, Robbie still looks like he's twenty."
"That's the age he was when he died," Gina reminded me unnecessarily.
"Yeah, but I look thirty. Because I am. Robbie is always going to look twenty, and I'm going to keep getting older and older. It's going to look very strange at some point."
Gina blinked. "Like having a dead boyfriend still around isn't strange enough."
"You know what I mean. Plus, there's the no-sex factor. It's okay for Robbie. He's dead. Apparently things change once you've breathed your last. Me, I'm still horny."
I hadn't noticed that the waiter had come back with our food. He heard my last statement and smiled at me. "I get off at ten, honey," he said. "Maybe we can take care of that little situation."
Gina waited until he'd departed once again to chide me. "You didn't take him up on his offer."
"He's a baby. He probably just graduated from high school."
"That's the good thing about the young. You can teach them things. Besides, I don't think he was offering you a long-term relationship. He was merely suggesting a brief fling."
"He probably lives at home still, and we'd have to go back to my apartment. And what would happen then? Oh yes, the ghost of my old boyfriend would appear and find some way to scare the piss out of him."
"You're going to have to talk with Robbie and arrange something," Gina said, digging into her food, "or you're going to stay celibate for the rest of your life."
I frowned. "My love life doesn't stand...." I let the sentence trail off.
"I almost said a ghost of a chance, but I swear I didn't mean it as a pun."