Read an Excerpt
• CHAPTER ONE •
THE eye sockets of the skeleton were small wells of black ink, conveying both mystery and mockery. “That thing gives me the creeps,” Granny announced as she studied the figurine in Emma’s hands.
Emma smiled then whispered to the ghost of her great-great-great-grandmother, “That’s funny, Granny, considering that you’re dead.”
“I may be dead, but you don’t see me showing off my bleached white bones, do ya?” The diminutive ghost, dressed as always in pioneer garb, sniffed in disgust. “It’s like showing your backside to the world.”
Emma shook her head in amusement and turned the small figure in her hands over several times to inspect it. It was of a horse and rider, both skeletons. The rider wore a sombrero and a grimace of big white teeth. Around the horse’s bony neck was a tiny garland of silk flowers. “Phil might like this,” she told Granny. Reaching out, she picked up another skeletal figurine, this one holding a gun in one hand and a bottle of tequila in the other. It was also wearing a large colorful sombrero. “Or do you think he might like this one instead?”
The ghost shivered, even though she couldn’t feel temperatures—hot or cold—and pointed to two figurines on the shelf: a skeletal bride and groom dressed in wedding finery. “Maybe you should get those,” she said to Emma. “You can put them on top of your wedding cake if you and the cowboy ever get hitched.”
Emma put down the dolls in her hands and picked up the bride and groom. “These are pretty cute.”
“Puppies and kittens are cute,” groused the ghost. “Babies are cute. Those are downright creepy.”
“These are called Day of the Dead dolls, Granny,” Emma explained. “Día de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—is a big holiday in Mexico. It’s a day when people celebrate and remember family and friends who are deceased.” She smiled at the ghost and whispered, “Not everyone is as lucky as we are to have our dead relatives with us all the time.”
“Humpf,” snorted Granny. “I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic with that remark or sincere.”
Granny’s real name was Ish Reynolds. She’d died in the late 1800s at the end of a rope, having been hanged by vigilantes who’d thought she’d killed her husband—a murder for which Emma had proved she’d been framed. For a hundred years, Granny had searched for someone to prove her innocence, a search that had been frustrating and fruitless until she met Emma at a séance and convinced her to help. It was also this connection that had triggered Emma’s awareness of her talents as a medium. Ish and her husband, Jacob, had lived in Julian, a mining town in the mountains north of San Diego, which today is a charming tourist destination known for its apples. Granny had only been in her forties when she died, having received her nickname of Granny Apples due to her fame as a pie maker. In time, after her death, she did become a grandmother when her only child, Winston, married and had children, starting the line that led to Emma. As a sales clerk approached Emma, she bit back the laugh on the tip of her tongue. She handed the wedding pair to the clerk. “I’ll take these.”
Granny watched the transaction with interest. “Is there something you’re not telling me?” Emma only smiled as she took her change and package from the clerk.
Bright colors, lively music, and the smell of onions sizzling with sharp spices put Emma in a festive mood as she strolled down the small street lined with shops, restaurants, and kiosks.
“Are we in Mexico?” the ghost asked as she drifted alongside Emma.
“No,” Emma whispered. She put a hand to her Bluetooth earpiece as she spoke to give people around them the impression she was on the phone instead of speaking to herself. It was a trick she often used when speaking with Granny while out in public. “This is Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles,” she explained. “It’s the birthplace of the city.”
“Interesting,” said the ghost. “It looks like it could be in Mexico.”
Emma tried hard to remember the last time she’d visited Olvera Street. Her daughter, Kelly, had been in grammar school—third or fourth grade—and had been on a school field trip. Emma had come along as one of the chaperones. Quickly she did the math. Soon Kelly would begin her senior year at Harvard, so it had been about a dozen years since Emma had stepped foot on the short but busy brick-paved street.
It was a Tuesday in late July and the small street was booming with tourists and workers from downtown offices on lunch breaks. On the weekend it would be packed as the tourists were joined by locals looking for a fun weekend outing. Emma stopped at a booth to look at pairs of huaraches lined up like soldiers ready for marching orders. She’d once had a pair she’d picked up on a trip to Mexico. For years she’d worn them on weekends, but they had finally fallen apart and had to be tossed. Glancing over the various styles and colors, she picked up a pair and looked them over. With a smile that showed a couple of silver teeth, the woman working the kiosk encouraged Emma to try them on. After checking her watch to make sure she had time, Emma slipped out of her flats and into the huaraches. They weren’t quite right. She chose a couple of other styles and slipped into them until she found exactly the right style and fit. She looked down at the open-toed sling-back shoes in natural leather. The woven leather would need time to soften and break in, but she knew they would soon become comfortable friends to her feet. She looked back at the woman, returned the smile, and pulled out her wallet.
“Did you come here to shop?” asked Granny when the clerk left to get Emma’s change.
Emma shook her head. “I’m meeting someone for lunch.”
Emma left the shoe stand with her new shoes in a bag and continued her way down the lane, stopping here and there to look at various wares until she reached her destination—Restaurante Roble. It was a good-size restaurant and one of the few on the street with a proper dining room and patio and waiters in pressed black pants and bright white shirts. Most of the other dining options were geared toward take-out or grabbing quick bites.
Emma quickly looked around as she approached a hostess standing at a podium. “I’m meeting a friend for lunch,” she told the young woman. “But I don’t think she’s here yet.”
Emma figured the hostess wasn’t much more than eighteen or twenty tops since her oval face still held a trace of the plumpness of childhood. Through lips the color of rubies, the girl flashed a wide smile of bright white teeth at Emma and at the two men in business suits who’d come up to the entrance behind her. The hostess was wearing a traditional Mexican costume of a long flouncy black skirt encircled with strips of green and red ribbon and white lace secured at her waist with a wide red sash. Her top was a short-sleeved white blouse adorned with intricate embroidery. A red ribbon secured her long glossy black hair at the back.
“Are you Emma?” she asked in a soft voice, her brown eyes wide and luminous with inquiry. The name tag attached just below her right shoulder said Ana.
“Why, yes, I am,” Emma answered with surprise.
“Follow me, please,” Ana told her. Before leading Emma away, Ana told the two men that she’d be right back to seat them and flashed another smile. Emma doubted the men minded the wait after that.
Emma followed the girl to the far end of the patio to a round table that could easily sit six. On the table was a Reserved sign. As she took a seat, she noted that all the tables near her also had similar signs. On the other end of the patio, most of the tables were filled with patrons.
“Ms. Ricardo will be with you in just a few minutes,” the hostess informed her as she handed Emma a menu. “May I get you something to drink?”
Emma started to order an iced tea, her usual drink of choice, but changed her mind. “Ana, do you have limeade?”
“Yes,” Ana said, offering up another bright smile. “It’s made fresh daily right here.”
“I’ll have that,” Emma said.
Ana left the table and stopped a waiter—a small dark man who looked to be in his early fifties with his dark hair pulled back into a tidy braid. She said something to him in Spanish and indicated Emma. A minute later he returned with an icy goblet of limeade, which he placed in front of Emma. His name tag read Hector and up close Emma noticed that his hair was laced with gray and his white shirt was actually embroidered white on white. She recognized the shirt as a guayabera, or Mexican wedding shirt. Behind him was a tall young man dressed in the same manner toting a basket of chips and two small bowls containing salsa and guacamole. His name tag read Carlos. The younger man put the items on the table and left.
“Will there be anything else, señora?” Hector asked.
“Nothing, thank you,” she responded pleasantly.
With a slight bow, Hector left her table, but not before Emma noticed him frowning at the empty tables around her.
The limeade was perfect, not too sweet yet not too tart. Emma preferred limeade over lemonade on hot summer days. She took several sips and smiled. Ana had said that Ms. Ricardo would be with her shortly. She only knew the first name of the woman she was meeting. It was Rikki. If Ms. Ricardo and Rikki were one and the same, then Emma was about to have lunch with Rikki Ricardo. She couldn’t wait to tell Phil, knowing he would get a big kick out of it.
Granny settled into the chair next to Emma. “I love Mexican food,” said the ghost with a breezy wistfulness. “There was a woman in Julian in my day who taught me how to make some of it. My man Jacob enjoyed it, too, especially her tamales, which I could never get just right. What are you ordering?”
“I don’t know yet, Granny,” Emma whispered, glad the tables around her were unoccupied. “I’m here to meet a woman from my yoga class.”
“Yoga? You mean all that bendy stuff you do?” The ghost rolled her eyes.
“Yes. She asked me if I’d meet her here today for lunch. She said it was about a ghost.”
At the mention of ghosts, Granny’s interest sparked to life. “Oh boy,” the ghost said with glee. “We haven’t had any excitement since Vegas.”
“And that’s how I like it,” said Emma, “uneventful and unexciting.”
Granny stuck out her chin. “Speak for yourself. You try being dead for over a hundred years. It gets real boring real quick.”
Ignoring the remark, Emma said, “I sensed some spirits as I walked through the street just now, but nothing seemed disturbed or unhappy about them.”
“Yeah,” said Granny. “I got the same feeling. Everything seems pretty calm on that front.”
“And,” Emma continued, “Rikki’s concern might not have anything to do with Olvera Street.”
Rikki had approached Emma at the end of their Thursday evening yoga class—a class Emma took every week in Pasadena if she was in town.
“You’re Emma Whitecastle, aren’t you?” the woman had inquired just as Emma left the yoga studio. Emma had seen her in class many times. She was petite but strong and sturdy with great flexibility.
“Yes, I am,” Emma had answered.
The woman adjusted her rolled yoga mat under her left arm and offered her right hand. Emma took it. “I’m Rikki,” the woman said, shaking Emma’s hand. “Can I speak to you for a moment?” Before Emma could say anything, Rikki added, “It’s about ghosts and I was hoping you could help.” When Emma stiffened with wariness, Rikki quickly added, “I know who you are. You’re the medium on TV. My family could really use your help with something. We’d be willing to pay you.”
“I don’t know how much help I can be,” Emma had demurred. “Maybe you should contact my colleague and mentor Milo Ravenscroft. He’s much better at contacting spirits than I am. They generally just come to me or I stumble upon them. I can give you Milo’s number.”
Rikki shook her head. “No, I’d rather it be you. We may not know each other well but at least you’re not a total stranger.” The woman gave Emma a shy smile. “My mother sometimes watches your show. She was quite impressed to learn that I took yoga with you.”
After coordinating their schedules, they agreed to meet for lunch on Tuesday, although Emma was surprised when Rikki had insisted on a restaurant on Olvera Street, a tourist spot.
“Is that her now?” asked Granny.
Emma looked up from the menu to see a woman around thirty speaking to Ana, then heading their way. She’d had short black hair when Emma had last seen her, but now it was cut even shorter in a trendy style that made her large brown eyes look even larger. She’d worn no makeup on Thursday night, but today her face and eyes were beautifully done. Like the waiters, she wore black pants and a white top, but her top was similar to the feminine embroidered blouse Ana was wearing.
“Yes,” Emma whispered to Granny, barely moving her lips. “That’s her.”
“Emma,” Rikki said with a big smile when she reached the table. She shook Emma’s hand with warmth. “Thank you so much for coming today.” She pulled out the chair next to Emma and sat down. It was the same chair Granny had been sitting in and Rikki sat down on top of the ghost.
“Humpf!” groused Granny, moving to hover behind Emma. “I hate that.”
Ignoring Granny, Emma said to Rikki, “I haven’t been to Olvera Street since my daughter was in elementary school. I’d forgotten how cute and fun it is.” She held up the bags containing her purchases. “I even did some shopping. Do you work here?”
“I’m one of the owners of this restaurant and I also manage the place. My family has owned it since the late 1920s,” Rikki told Emma with great pride. “It started out as a hole-in-the-wall café. My great-grandfather waited the few tables and my great-grandmother did the cooking—everything from scratch. Over the years it expanded to become the largest restaurant on Olvera Street.”
Emma looked down at her menu and took note of the oak tree depicted on the front. She tapped it with a manicured nail. “Isn’t this the same logo that’s on Roble products in the grocery store? Any connection?”
Rikki nodded with another wide smile. “That’s us. Over the years we’ve gone from a tiny cantina to a large Mexican food brand. We’ve even launched two food trucks that are doing great. Roble means oak tree. My great-grandfather named the restaurant for the huge tree that grew on their property back in Mexico.”
“We use those products all the time at home,” Emma told her with a chuckle. “My boyfriend loves your salsa verde. He slathers it on almost anything he can. He’ll be tickled that I met you. In fact, I bet he’ll insist that we come here for dinner sometime soon.”
Rikki blushed a bit. “I’m sure with your TV show and your background with the rich and famous, you meet a lot more interesting people than us restaurant folks.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. Rich and famous doesn’t always translate into interesting. Besides,” Emma told her with a wink, “now I can tell people I had lunch with Rikki Ricardo.”
Rikki laughed and her blush went deeper. “Yeah, you’d think I would get used to that over time, wouldn’t you? Would you believe my sister is Lucy Ricardo?”
“It’s true,” Rikki said with a playful grin. “We’re named after our maternal great-grandparents, Lucinda and Ricardo Duarte, who lived in Mexico, not after the old TV characters. It was something my mother promised her mother she’d do right before my grandmother passed when my mother was young. There was supposed to be a boy in the family, but after a few miscarriages following Lucy’s birth, my parents decided I’d be the end of the line, so they named me Ricarda. Our parents never call us Lucy and Rikki, but everyone else does.”
There was a slight pause in their conversation, so Emma got down to business. “So why do you think you’re being haunted?”
“Let’s order first,” Rikki said. “Are you allergic to anything or dislike anything?”
“I’m mostly a vegetarian,” Emma told her, “but I do eat fish. In fact, I love it.”
“Got it,” said Rikki. “Then let me order your lunch for you. Something special. How spicy do you take it?”
Rikki got up. “I’ll be right back. Then we can talk about ghosts.”
Emma watched Rikki as she disappeared into the restaurant and wondered what kind of ghost was involved. Picking up a chip, she dipped it into the fresh salsa and bit into it. It was delicious and the chips were fresh and crispy with just a hint of salt, not coated with it like in some restaurants. She tasted the guacamole, and it was so wonderful she wanted to eat it with a spoon.
Granny settled herself in the chair next to the one Rikki had occupied. “Let me get this straight,” the ghost said with knitted brow. “She and her sister were named after the guy on that old TV show who sings ‘Babalu’ and his nutty red-haired wife?”
Emma whispered back, “Not named after but they have similar names to those characters. Is I Love Lucy another show you watch with my father?” In spite of being a ghost, Granny loved watching TV, especially with Paul Miller, Emma’s father. Crime dramas and NFL football were Granny’s favorites.
“Not with Paul,” Granny clarified. “I watch it with your mother. Elizabeth and I have seen some of those shows over and over but they’re always a hoot.”
Emma shook her head. Granny had become an important part of their family and kept company with all of them, even with her father and Phil, neither of whom could see or hear her. Over the years, both men had learned to sense when she was near and talked to her like she was breathing flesh and bone even if they could not hear her responses.
When Rikki came back out, the man named Hector stopped her. He seemed perturbed and gestured toward the empty section of the patio where Emma was sitting. He spoke to Rikki in Spanish in a low but angry voice. Rikki squared her shoulders and responded back in the same tone.
“You don’t understand Spanish do you, Granny?” Emma asked the ghost, trying to keep her lips from moving since she’d removed her earpiece upon entering the restaurant.
“Nothing beyond adios, gracias, and cerveza,” responded the ghost. When Emma shot her a sharp look, Granny added, “What? Like you’ve never heard Phil order a beer?” The ghost turned her attention back to Rikki and Hector. “That’s who we need now, ya know. Phil speaks Spanish. I’ve heard him.”
“Yes, he does, Granny,” Emma confirmed. “And so do both Milo and Tracy. I really must take the time to learn it, but that’s not going to help us now.”
When Rikki left Hector and returned to the table, Emma gave her a warm smile. “I hope everything is okay? I can move if you need this table.”
“Everything is fine,” Rikki assured her as she sat down again. “And stay put. Hector is worried we’re losing business by having these other tables empty. I blocked them off so we could have some privacy. But there’s no line for lunch today and there’s plenty of room inside the restaurant.” She inhaled deeply, held it, and blew it out, then repeated the calming exercise again. “Sometimes Hector forgets who’s in charge.”
“Is he family?”
Rikki shook her head. “No, but close enough. He’s worked here since he was a kid. He came over the border illegally when he was just ten or so. He was an orphan and showed up here starving and begging for food. My grandfather took him in, found a family to care for him, put him in school, gave him a job, and eventually helped him gain citizenship.”
“Wow,” Emma said. “That was really lovely of your grandfather.”
“Yes,” Rikki agreed. “He was like that. He did the same for a couple of other orphans over the years, but only Hector remained with the restaurant. The others moved on to careers in other fields.” She watched Hector as he consulted with Ana over something, then sighed deeply. “Hector and my dad were tight, like brothers. I think he was disappointed that he didn’t get more in the will. I think he was expecting to get a piece of the business.”
“But he didn’t?”
“No,” Rikki answered. “Both my father and grandfather were generous to him in their wills, but neither gave him any interest in Roble Foods. Since its humble beginnings, the family business has been just that—the family business. My father convinced my grandfather to incorporate decades ago but only he, my grandfather, my uncle Tito, and my mother were on the board and only family members held shares. For a Mexican family, we’re very small. Uncle Tito never married and had no children. He died when I was still in college. It was just after Uncle Tito died that they elected Lucy and me to the board, and when Lucy finished with her MBA, she became involved in the day-to-day operations of the corporation and helped expand it deeper into the retail market. When our grandfather died, he was not replaced on the board. Since my father’s death, only Lucy, our mother, and I remain on the board. We’ve talked about bringing Hector on to the board and even selling him stock, but we can’t seem to agree among ourselves about his capacity or how much stock to sell him or much of anything else, so we’re in a bit of a stalemate. The Crown Corporation had approached my father about selling the business to them shortly before he died. That went by the wayside after his death, but Lucy still wants to sell and opened up dialogue with them again. I’m dead set against it, and our mother is torn between us. One day she wants to sell. The next she doesn’t. The company cannot be sold without unanimous consent.”
Rikki turned her attention fully on Emma. “Which segues right into why I wanted to meet with you, Emma.”
Rikki stopped speaking when their food arrived, carried by Carlos, the young man who’d served Emma her chips. He placed a sizzling plate of grilled shrimp and vegetables in front of Emma. Also on the plate were chunks of grilled fish, rice, and beans. He placed a similar plate in front of Rikki.
“Thank you, Carlos,” Rikki said to him. “Could you also bring me a limeade? In fact, just bring me a glass and a pitcher of the limeade. That way we can do our own refills.”
“Sure,” Carlos said. When he tucked the tray under his left arm, Emma noticed a smattering of tattoos snaking out from under the short sleeve of his guayabera down past his elbow. “Anything else?” When he spoke, he didn’t look at either of them but straight ahead, his jaw tight.
“No, Carlos,” Rikki told him. “That’s it. Thank you.”
When Carlos left, Rikki gave up another deep sigh. “Between Hector and Carlos, I can’t seem to win today. Shortly before you arrived, I spoke to Carlos about wearing a short-sleeved shirt instead of one of our longer-sleeved ones.”
“But it’s awfully hot out to wear long sleeves,” Emma noted.
“True,” Rikki agreed, “and personally I don’t mind it. In fact, I have a couple of tattoos. But our customers don’t like seeing the tattoos, especially the gringo summer tourists from out of town. They tend to equate them with gangs, although Carlos is a good student and on his way to college in September. He’ll also get much better tips if he covers the tats. Carlos has worked for us for a couple of years and knows that covering tattoos with our longer-sleeved shirts is one of our policies. And our long-sleeved shirts don’t come all the way down to the wrist, so they aren’t that uncomfortable in summer.”
“Your hostess seems quite young. Is she also a student?”
Rikki glanced over at Ana, who was in the process of seating a couple on the other side of the patio. “Yes. Ana is Hector’s daughter. She’s been working here summers and school holidays for several years. She starts her second year at the University of Arizona in September.”
Emma started in on her food. So did Rikki.
“Boy, that looks good,” said Granny. “Nod once if it is,” she said to Emma.
Emma nodded while she chewed a big bite of the shrimp. “This is delicious,” she said to Rikki after she swallowed.
Rikki smiled. “The shrimp and fish are marinated in citrus juice and spices before being grilled. It’s one of our specialties and a guarded secret of the chef.” With her fork, she pointed to the left side of Emma’s plate. “That’s grilled cactus. I hope you like it. And the pinto beans are vegetarian.”
“It’s all scrumptious,” Emma said with enthusiasm. “I’ll definitely have to bring my boyfriend here. He’ll love it.”
Carlos brought a pitcher of limeade and a glass for Rikki. He placed it on the table and left without a word. Emma could see that his silent anger bothered Rikki.
After taking another bite, Emma opened the conversation back up. “So back to the ghosts. Do you think this place is haunted?”
“I’m hoping it is,” Rikki said in all seriousness. Picking up the pitcher, she refreshed Emma’s glass then poured herself a glass of limeade. After taking a drink, she said, “I want you to contact the ghosts of my father and abuelito. That’s my grandfather. I believe they are still here in the restaurant or at least visit it from time to time. Since Lucy and I are in a deadlock, I’m in bad need of their advice on how to change her mind.”
“Tell her no.”
Emma almost dropped her fork. The voice had come out of nowhere. It was male and not faint or tenuous, but bold and determined. The words were not a request, but an order.
“We’re not alone,” Granny cautioned Emma. “The spirit’s over there.” Granny pointed to the railing separating the restaurant from the street. Emma glanced over to where Granny indicated but could only see a shaky shimmering cluster of light, not a full outline of a spirit.
“You okay, Emma?” asked Rikki.
“Ah, yes,” Emma answered as she quickly regained her composure. “I’m fine. I just remembered something I forgot to do before leaving home,” she lied.
Emma turned her attention away from the railing and focused back on Rikki. “As I told you after yoga class, I’m not well versed in calling spirits to me. I more or less stumble upon them or connect with those that are already present.” Emma stuck a piece of grilled fish into her mouth and chewed without tasting. She cast a look at the railing but still didn’t see anything beyond a faint shimmer.
“I got this,” Granny told Emma. The ghost left the table and floated over to where she thought the other spirit was hovering.
Across from Emma, Rikki tapped the table top with the tip of her right index finger. “I do believe my father and grandfather are here. I just need someone to connect with them so we can communicate. I’m sure they would never want their legacy sold like a sack of oranges on a highway divider.”
“Tell her no,” the voice said again. “She’s to listen to her sister and sell it all. As soon as possible.”
Granny approached the shimmer. “Don’t be so rude to Emma. Show yourself if you want help.”
Not wanting to rouse Rikki’s suspicions, Emma tried not to focus on Granny and the spirit. She continued eating. After another couple of bites, she asked Rikki, “Why does your sister want to sell the business?”
“She says she wants to move on and do other things with her life, like be free to travel the world while she paints.” Rikki scoffed at the idea. “Don’t get me wrong,” she quickly added, “Lucy is a pretty good artist, but I don’t think she’s touched her brushes in years. And believe me, she’s not wired to be footloose and fancy free. She’s been uptight and controlling since we were kids.” Rikki speared a shrimp but didn’t put it into her mouth. “We were both made to work here during vacations. Lucy hated it, while I thrived here. When our father started the commercial food end, he all but forced her to run it for him. She seemed happy enough to do that as long as she didn’t have to participate in the restaurant end.” Rikki put her fork down and spread her arms in a wide encompassing arc. Her brows were knitted in defiance. “This restaurant, this street, and its people are in my blood and I’m fiercely proud of that.”
“Why don’t you compromise with Lucy?” suggested Emma. “Let her sell off the commercial food end and you keep and operate the restaurant end?”
“I did suggest that,” Rikki told her, “but Lucy said the potential buyers want it all or nothing.”
“She has more than one buyer lined up?”
Rikki nodded. “Lucy told me that there is another company interested and both want it all.”
“Maybe you can change their minds on it,” Emma said with encouragement. “Open negotiations and see if you can reach a compromise.”
“According to Lucy, that’s not going to happen.” Rikki picked her folk back up and popped the shrimp into her mouth. When she was done chewing, she said, “That’s why I need you. I know my father and grandfather are here. I need them to help me convince Lucy not to sell or to at least let me keep the restaurant end.”
“No,” said the unknown spirit. The shimmer came closer to the table.
“Show yourself if you want help,” Granny told it again in a stern voice. “Or go away.”
After a short pause, the hazy sparkles came closer and started to gain an outline. It was definitely a man. He was of compact stature and middle-aged with thick silver hair and a gray mustache. He wore clothing almost identical to the waiters in the restaurant. Emma looked at him, then at Rikki. They had the same broad face and sharp jawline.
“Do you have a photo of your father and grandfather?” Emma asked.
“So you’re going to help me?” Rikki’s voice swelled with hope.
“I don’t know yet,” Emma answered truthfully, “but it helps if I can see a photo of the people.”
Rikki nodded in understanding and pulled a cell phone out of a pocket of her pants. After scrolling through some photos, she turned the phone toward Emma. “Here’s a photo of my father with my mother. It was taken just before he died. I don’t have one with me of my grandfather, but he and my father looked a lot alike.”
Emma studied the photo, then quickly shot her eyes at the spirit standing next to the table. Granny looked over Emma’s shoulder at the photo. “Yep,” Granny pronounced. “That’s him.”
“What was your father’s name?” Emma asked Rikki.
“Felix,” Rikki answered. “Felix Guillermo Ricardo. His father was Paco Miguel Ricardo.”
Granny looked at the spirit of Felix Ricardo. “Is Paco going to be joining us?”
Felix shook his head. “My father no longer has interest in earthly matters.”
“But you do?” asked Granny.
“In this matter I do,” answered Felix.
Emma listened to the ghosts’ conversation while keeping her attention on the photo and Rikki. She didn’t want to arouse Rikki’s suspicions about the presence of any ghosts—her father or Granny. “You look a lot like your father,” she said to Rikki. “Same jaw and facial bone structure.”
Rikki smiled. “Yes, and Lucy looks like our mother. Her name is Elena.”
While the man was compact and wiry with a broad face, his wife was taller and thickly built with a delicate face. Emma studied the photo one last time before handing the phone back to Rikki.
Rikki took the phone back. “So are you going to help me? I really need to convince Lucy to not sell our family’s heritage to the highest bidder.”
“No,” the ghost of Felix Ricardo said again with great passion. “Tell the stubborn child to sell like her sister wants.” Felix drifted in his agitation, then came to hover close to Emma, almost putting his face next to hers. Emma tried to remain still so she wouldn’t put Rikki on guard. “Tell her to sell it all!” he yelled. He pounded the table with a fist. It created no sound or impact. Had he been alive, the same gesture would have caused the dishes to hop and their drinks to spill.
Emma glanced at Granny, trying to convey for her to question the spirit since Emma couldn’t herself. Granny read the almost imperceptible gesture with accuracy.
“Calm down,” Granny told Felix. “Getting all huffy won’t help Emma help you. If Rikki wants to keep the family business, why not let her?”
Felix straightened up, his eyes flashing between Granny and Emma. “Because she’ll die if she doesn’t sell,” he told them. “Just like I did.”
• CHAPTER TWO •
“TELL me, Rikki,” Emma said. She’d taken another couple of bites of food even though she was no longer hungry. She was stalling for time while she sorted out what Felix had just said and its implications. “How did your father die?”
Rikki pushed her plate away. “It happened here in the restaurant. In his office upstairs. He was working there alone and had a heart attack. Apparently he fell while trying to get help and hit his head hard on the edge of his desk. I found him crumpled on the floor but it was too late to do anything.” Rikki looked upward, toward the canopy that protected the patio. “The coroner said it was actually the blow to his head, not the heart attack, that killed him.”
“Is that true?” Granny asked Felix, but the ghost didn’t respond. Instead, he drifted over to Rikki and tried to put a cloudy hand on her head to comfort her. It only slipped through her solidness.
Granny and Emma exchanged a quick look of curiosity before Emma said to Rikki in a soft voice, “I’m so sorry for your loss, Rikki. When did this happen?”
“Not quite a year ago,” Rikki answered. She didn’t look at Emma when she spoke. Running a finger down the side of her glass, she stared instead at the trail it made in the condensation. When she finally looked up, her eyes were damp. “I miss him so much, Emma. We were very close. He taught me everything about running a restaurant and made me the manager of this place about three years ago. When I suggested using food trucks to reach more customers, he gave me total control over implementing the idea and was so proud when they became an instant success.”
“I’m sure he’s still very proud of you,” Emma told her. She glanced up at the ghost, who was looking at his youngest daughter with both pride and sadness.
“Help her,” the spirit said to Emma, taking his eyes off the top of Rikki’s head for an instant. “Help her by convincing her to sell the place. You’ll be saving her life.” With a final attempt at patting Rikki’s head, he disappeared.
Rikki was about to say something when a woman ran up to the railing from the street side and leaned over it toward them. “Mom told me what you’re up to, Rikki,” the woman said as she shook a finger at them.
The woman looked vaguely familiar to Emma, but she couldn’t place her on the spot. It was Granny who put the pieces together. “Isn’t that the woman from the photo?” The clue gave Emma clarity. The woman wasn’t Elena Ricardo but Lucy Ricardo, Rikki’s older sister. She looked exactly like her mother, with a plump lush body and pretty face, made less lovely at the moment by her anger.
Before Rikki could say anything, Lucy strode along the railing and entered the patio, brushing past Ana like a tornado hell-bent on destruction, her high heels punctuating the pavement with each riled step as she made her way to her sister’s table.
“So this is the crackpot you’re bringing into our family business?” Lucy said the words at Rikki, but pointed a finger at Emma as she spoke. She had long red nails, Emma noted. Acrylic nails freshly and expertly done.
“Who’s she calling a crackpot?” Granny asked, approaching the table, her hands on her slim hips, a scowl on her hazy face.
Emma wanted to caution Granny but didn’t dare with Lucy Ricardo watching her with an intensity ready to erupt into a blaze.
Rikki stood up, her jaw as set as her sister’s. “Now hold on, Lucy. This woman is my guest, so treat her with respect.”
The physical difference between the two sisters was made more obvious as they stood facing each other. The waif-like yet athletic stature of Rikki was dwarfed by Lucy’s larger, rounder, and softer body. Even if Lucy had not been wearing heels, she would have been almost a head taller than Rikki. Lucy was prettier than Rikki in a more classical sense with her delicate face and thick dark hair worn in a feminine shoulder-length cut. Lucy was also dressed in an expensive and stylish designer suit in a dark rose that enhanced her brown skin and clung to her plump curves in such a way as to enhance her figure rather than point out its flaws. Based on the photo Emma had been shown, the sisters had been divided squarely between their parents in the looks department. The only physical similarities were their large brown eyes and the set of their mouths when angry.
“I don’t need an introduction to any scam artist,” Lucy shot back.
“Now wait a darn minute,” Granny protested. The ghost moved between the two sisters and faced Lucy. “You can’t talk about Emma that way.”
“It’s okay,” Emma said, meaning the words for both Granny and the Ricardo sisters. She dabbed at her mouth with her napkin and stood up. “I’ll just go.”
“No,” Rikki said to Emma. “Please don’t. My sister has no right to insult you that way.” She turned to look at Lucy, not realizing an angry ghost stood between them. “You will apologize to my guest, Lucy.”
“The hell I will,” the older sister said. To show she meant business, she plopped her large designer handbag down into one of the nearby chairs and looked straight at Rikki in defiance.
Hector rushed over. “What is going on here?” he asked in hushed English. He switched into Spanish for his next words, which Emma judged by his tone and look contained a sharp scolding. He glanced over at the other side of the patio, where diners were watching the face-off with interest, as if it were a show staged for their benefit.
Both sisters looked over at their customers, then at each other, neither giving in. Finally, Rikki said, “Sit down, sis. I don’t know what Mom told you, but at least hear me out.”
Lucy was clearly thinking about the invitation to sit. She glanced over at the curious patrons and studied Hector’s glare a moment, then finally removed her handbag from the chair and sat down.
“Please, Emma,” Rikki said, indicating for her to take her seat. “I’m sorry, but please stay.”
“Please, Emma,” said Felix Ricardo, echoing Rikki’s words. He’d appeared once again, this time between his two daughters. “It’s too late to help me, but not them.”
“Tell us what happened to you,” said Granny, floating over to him. But instead of answering, he faded away again.
Emma considered her options and decided to stay, if for no other reason than to possibly find out more about Felix and his death. She wanted to know why selling Roble Foods would save the Ricardo sisters. Had the stress of the business driven Felix to his grave, or was there more to it than that? She took her seat. Granny hovered right behind her. “Do you want me to try and find that Felix spirit again?” Granny said into Emma’s ear. Without a word, Emma gave her a very slight nod and Granny disappeared.
“How about some coffee?” Rikki said to Emma and Lucy. When neither answered, Rikki asked Hector to arrange for three cafés con leche to be brought to the table. Hector gave the Ricardo sisters a final warning scowl and left. Rikki retook her seat.
Rikki indicated Emma. “Lucy, this is Emma Whitecastle, a famous medium and TV personality. I’ve asked her to help us contact Abuelito and Dad. I believe they can help us resolve our issues.”
“I don’t need to hear about any mumbo jumbo,” Lucy insisted, keeping her voice low. She glared at Emma as she spoke to her sister. “You may have Mom fooled, but not me.” She turned her face to Rikki. “This is just some cheap trick to keep me from selling Roble Foods. But it won’t work.” She started to say something else but stopped when Carlos appeared at the table with the three cafés con leche. He placed them on the table, one in front of each of them, and started to clear Emma’s and Rikki’s plates.
Lucy put out a hand and pointed at Carlos’s bare left arm. “And this is how you run this restaurant?” she asked. “By hiring cholos?”
“I am not a cholo,” answered Carlos, his jaw tight and chiseled in contained anger.
For a minute, Emma thought Carlos might fling the dishes back down on the table, but instead he took a deep breath. Emma knew that cholo was a term for a tough Latino male who dressed in baggy pants, wife-beater T-shirts, and flannel shirts. Usually cholos were also gang members.
“I’m sorry, Carlos,” Rikki told the young man. “You’ll have to excuse my sister’s ignorance.”
“I’m not the ignorant one,” Lucy said to no one in particular.
With a slight nod, Rikki dismissed the young waiter. He took the dishes and left them, but as he passed Ana and Hector, who’d both been watching from a distance, he snapped something at them in Spanish. From Ana’s look of surprise and Hector’s scowl, Emma surmised what the young man said wasn’t very pleasant. When he disappeared into the restaurant, Hector followed him. Emma wondered if Carlos had just given his notice.
“Exactly what did Mom tell you, Lucy?” Rikki asked her sister.
Instead of answering, Lucy concentrated on sipping her coffee. Emma’s first impression of the older sister was that she was smug and imperious, totally opposite Rikki in more than just looks.
Lucy put down her coffee. The cup hit the saucer with a sharpness that echoed her disapproval. “Mom told me that you were trying to contact the dead in order to change my mind about selling the company.”
“Not the dead, Lucy, Dad and Abuelito. It’s their company. They built it from nothing and I want to hear what they have to say about the sale. I’ll bet they wouldn’t be too happy with you right now.”
Lucy tilted her head back and laughed. “You’ve been hanging around Olvera Street too long, little sister. You’ve got Día de los Muertos on the brain. All those ghoulish dolls have finally twisted your thinking.”
Lucy turned her attention to Emma. “Or did you put this nonsense into her head?”
“Leave Emma out of this,” Rikki told her sister. “It was actually our mother who suggested I have someone help me contact either Dad and Abuelito.”
“Well, Mom’s nuts,” pronounced Lucy. “She’s always been a little off the rails, and you know that. We may not often see eye to eye, Rikki, but I’ve always thought of you as being stable and sensible.” She picked up her coffee and took a quick sip. “Now I’m not so sure.”
Looking around, Lucy caught the eye of Ana and waved her over. She said something to the young woman in Spanish, and she left and disappeared into the restaurant.
“Ordering food to go?” Rikki said, still simmering over her sister’s remark. “Not good enough to eat here with your crazy sister?”
“It looked to me like you’ve already eaten.” Lucy drained her cup and set it down, more gently this time. “Besides, I have to get back to the office. I have a company to run and a company to sell.”
“You can’t sell Roble Foods without my consent,” protested Rikki. “And I’ll never allow you to sell, especially to Crown. That big conglomerate would just suck the life out of it.”
“Like I’ve told you, Rikki, Crown is not the only company attracted to Roble. In fact, they very recently withdrew their interest.” Lucy slapped a smirk on her face. “But Fiesta Time is very interested.”
“Fiesta Time?” Rikki was obviously not pleased with the news. She clenched her fists as she glared at her sister. “Selling to them would be like spitting on Dad’s grave.”
Carlos came out with food packed to go and placed it on the table, leaving before anyone could say anything to him. Emma was glad to see that he hadn’t quit his job in a huff of anger. Maybe Hector had calmed him down. Maybe he could also work some magic with the Ricardo sisters.
Lucy stood up and fished her car keys out of her purse. “At least if we sell to Fiesta Time, Roble Foods will stay in Mexican hands.”
Lucy glanced at Emma and tilted her head so that she was looking down her nose at her. “I’d appreciate it, Ms. Whitecastle, if you’d keep your nose out of our business. This doesn’t concern you one bit.” She slung her bag over her arm, picked up her plastic bag of take-out food, and started to leave.