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Delia Banks crouched by the front display window of Same As It Never Was antiques, not the least bit dressed for cleaning. Flowing blouse, dark slacks, multiple bracelets jangling, and long dark hair tossed out of the way over her shoulder, she tackled the small handprints and smeary mystery marks with Windex. "I don't get it," she said. "These weren't on the glass when we closed last night. And they're on the inside."
"Energetic mice?" Melinda Gordon suggested, admittedly without giving it much thought. She sat behind the marble-topped sales counter at the back of the store, scrolling through the online listings for local estate sales on her beloved laptop. Ooh, nice. "This looks good JWC is having an estate sale not far from here a week from now." She reached for her pen and a pad of Same As It Never Was stationery to note the particulars in an absently neat hand. The counter otherwise held the business phone, the register, and an appropriately antique keepsake box where Melinda stashed notes and paper clips and other clutter bits. Beyond that, the counter gleamed as clear as she could keep it, with gift wrapping papers, small bags, and ribbons on the shelves beneath. Every possible personal touch... and it made her customers' eyes light up when they saw the care with which their purchases were handled.
"Not mice," Delia said, still at work. "So definitely not mice. Mice always leave..."
Melinda looked up, perfectly willing to play fill-in-the-blank. "Poop?"
"I was going to say signs." Delia flipped the rag over to buff the window one last time and pushed herself to her feet. "Oof. I swear, this used to be easier." She gave Melinda a wry glance, tugging her blouse into place over her generously shapely form. "You just wait, Miss Young-and-Beautiful."
"I'm supposed to buy that?" Melinda looked up from the laptop screen, giving Delia forty-something, mother to teenaged Ned, as fit as stair-climbing could make her a skeptical look writ large.
"Yes," Delia told her. "And if you say You're only as old as you feel or anything like it, I'll..." And there she trailed off, because Delia was too gentle at heart to come up with anything truly wicked.
But sensing a note of true frustration in Delia's voice, Melinda held up her hands in surrender. "Okay, okay," she said. "You win. You're old. Happy now?"
Delia appeared to give this some thought. "Strangely," she said, "not so much." And went to return the cleaning supplies to the back room, a long narrow space crammed with furniture making its way to the sales floor, following restorations and cleanup downstairs. The cramped space was defined mostly by a desk, with just enough room for Melinda to engage in a hastily clandestine encounter with an unexpected visitor of the spiritual sort.
Once, before her store partner Andrea had been killed in the crash of Flight 395, Melinda hadn't gone to such extremes hadn't rushed to hide such encounters. But as Delia spent more time in the store, Melinda had grown used to concealing her gifts once again. Too many personal betrayals had taught her well, and she knew Delia wasn't even close to coming to terms with her recently acquired knowledge that her employer and friend spent a great deal of time talking to earthbound spirits.
A very versatile place, that back room. Not to mention that it was the only route to the bathroom.
Melinda tucked her long, dark hair behind her ear and returned her attention to the laptop, found she'd reached the end of the estate sales never a long list, not unless she went all the way into the city, or sometimes west to Albany and clicked on the link that would take her back to the local paper. That, too, was usually short and sweet... headlines at a glance, done for the day, and no trees killed for it.
She glanced around the store as the page loaded, satisfied that all was ready for the day the clothing sorted by size if nothing else, off in a niche to the side; the furniture and wood floor gleaming; the whimsical bathtub with its glass ornaments full to overflowing but no more; and the shelves of heavenly soaps and lotions neatly arranged and dusted. Hmm. This could be a lotion-sniffing day, at that. Outside, Grandview was settling into its day, the morning pedestrian rush hour through the town square tapering off to a trickle. The line at Village Java just might be getting short enough to handle...
"Hey," she called back to Delia. "You up for some coffee?"
"Coffee might help me get up," Delia responded, with a faintness that suggested she was probably washing her hands in the little bathroom.
swingbatterbatterswing a kaleidoscope of sound and motion and bursting colors and a sudden explosion of darkness and the astringent smell of ants
The counter swooped in her vision; Melinda gasped, catching herself just before she toppled from the stool and into the hard countertop. "Well," she murmured, straightening. Ants? "That was so very special." She ran a hand over the smooth, deep green velvet of her corsetlike vest and tugged the overlong sleeves of a lace-edged poet's blouse back into place. "Now I really need that coffee." Melinda scanned the store again this time with narrowed eyes, looking for any sign of spiritual influence.
But no flickering lamps; no lotions gone askew. Except... the seasonal section nearest the door vintage spring clothing and a darling wicker baby carriage beside a turn-of-the-century croquet set looked subtly disturbed. She focused in on it but realized quickly enough that Delia had moved the carriage in order to clean the glass.
But a spirit so fragmented... so confused that it was able to communicate only in short jumbled pieces...
Melinda could definitely count on a return engagement or two, until whoever it was sorted themselves out well enough to communicate more clearly. She took a deep breath, made the mental note to stay off ladders and other tricky high places until this particular spirit had crossed over, and returned to the online news.
Because, after all, this was her life: ghosts on board.
The headline startled her out of serenity mode. Local Man Murdered in Bayview. Whoa.
"Did you hear about this?" she called back to Delia, lowering her voice as Delia appeared in the doorway, still smoothing lavender lotion over her hands, her eyebrows raised in unspoken question. Melinda gestured at the laptop monitor. "The murder?"
"On the radio this morning." Delia moved in to look over Melinda's shoulder, where the screen displayed a photo beside the headlines. "Oh, and he looks so young, too."
"Just starting a new life," Melinda murmured, picking up on the story lead-in. Gordon Reese, murdered...
"That's what they said on the radio, that he'd been hanging with a rough crew one of them died young, one went to jail, and Gordon himself had a nasty temper, ran hot all the time but then he met his wife... went to school, got a degree, went into her family business. They run a B&B on the edge of town, and they have that great honey over in the market you know, the creamed honeys, and the honey with the comb "
"Oh! Right the Honey Bs stuff! I've seen it. I never dared to get any. Put that stuff on Jim's french toast and my head might just explode."
"I guess they just had a baby," Delia said, and her voice held all the wistfulness of a mother who knew her son's father would never see him grow up.
"That's so sad." But when Melinda turned back to her laptop, a flurry of activity outside the store caught her eye. Early spring morning, grass so very green, flowers so very thick and bright along the sidewalks, the war memorial standing tall in the middle of it all. Only a few stragglers from the morning traffic flow, now, and the first of the day's shoppers, and
The murdered man's ghost.
Gordon Reese. A clear and strong angry ghost etched with unnaturally acidic sharpness not vague, not hazy, not uncertain. A ghost with purpose and plenty of energy.
She thought at first that he was looking for her looking and hadn't quite found her. But that didn't fit, because he wasn't looking at all. In fact, his entire being focused on the man before him a man who walked, oblivious, through the square, coffee in one hand, briefcase in the other, and distraction on his face.
Or maybe not so oblivious, for as the ghost kept pace not walking, but flickering from spot to spot so quickly his movement was nothing but a blur the man stumbled slightly, barely keeping hold of his coffee. He steadied himself, giving the sidewalk a bemused look as though he might find a gaping crack there, just as the angry spirit halted his dizzying harassment and leaned into the man so their faces nearly touched, bellowing something without sound, but with a force that made the air around them ripple with vehemence.
Spirits, Melinda had found, had a very poor understanding of personal space. Either that or they just didn't care, but to the same effect. In your face turned quite literal at times.
And then the ghost was gone. Worn out... distracted... or so beside himself that he couldn't hold his presence here.
"Melinda?" Delia said, acting as though it wasn't the first time, or the second.
"Hmm?" Melinda straightened, bouncing back into cover-your-tracks mode as she pushed the laptop lid down, ready to clear the counter and make way for the day. And then she hesitated, seeing the look on Delia's face and realizing her friend had seen too much in recent weeks to fall for cheerful misdirection any longer. So she said, "Trust me. You don't want to know."
"Maybe not, then," Delia said, acting a little sorry that she hadn't just played along with the cheerful misdirection. "But how about that coffee?"
"Sounds great." Melinda tucked the laptop beneath the counter. She had found a spirit struggling with confusion and a spirit struggling with anger, but neither of them was ready to cross over and neither was ready to come to her for help, so... yeah. Coffee sounded just about right, for the beginning of what might turn out to be a long day.
It feels good, the anger. It feels strong. And with it, with the toll he exacts from the man who, tire iron in hand, left him for dead, he feels something else, too a flutter of energy, siphoned from this man he's vowed to haunt. Each time the man stumbles, not knowing why, each time he feels the punch of anger in his gut, not knowing why... the raw exhilaration from that flickering fear goes down like hot whiskey, leaving a hunger for more.
And he knew just how to get it.
And a long day it was made that way by fruitless waiting for a recurrence of either of Melinda's visitors. Endless expectation, no results.
"Maybe tomorrow," Melinda murmured, for now just happy to be home, the place where she'd once been safe from visitors but lately seemed to experience intrusions on a regular basis. She headed for the closet, reaching for the leather buttons of her vest... and her fingers stopped, hovering, before they got there.
Huh. Pale gold dog hair... slightly crinkly, clinging to the green velvet of her vest. She moved into the light of the bedroom bay window, plucking the hair away. Strange. She didn't recall brushing up against any dogs during the day not even Delia's big, happy golden retriever Bob.
"Mel?" Jim's voice filtered up the stairs of the house, an old structure under ongoing renovation if no longer one that regularly blew circuits, lost the capacity to heat itself, or shed unexpected bits and pieces during rough weather.
"Just getting undressed," she called back to him, and knew immediately that she'd left herself wide open for
"Ah," he said, and a smile touched his words even from the distant kitchen. "My favorite."
"Do I smell burning hamburger?" Melinda grinned as she unfastened the small leather buttons of the vest, quickly inspecting it for more dog hair as she hung it in the old freestanding wardrobe and just as quickly shrugged out of her poet's shirt and snug black jeans. She traded them for a comfortable long-sleeved tee and low-slung yoga pants, revealing just a little gap of bare skin that would drive Jim mildly insane. And since the furnace was working just fine to keep the house warm on a cold spring night, she padded downstairs in bare feet, pulling her hair up into a sloppy ponytail along the way.
"It's taco salad," Jim said as she entered the kitchen. He stirred a frypan of perfectly unburnt ground beef, already simmering with taco seasoning, chili beans, and French-style dressing; it smelled heavenly. "A hint of burn just adds a special essence."
"Hmm," she said, most skeptically. She went straight to the cabinet to pull down dishes, making it only as far as the cooking island before she set them down and circled back behind Jim to snake her arms around his waist. Unlike her, he hadn't yet changed from his work clothes, but he'd untucked and unbuttoned his paramedic uniform shirt, and he had a distinctly adorable end-of-the-day rumple to him. Melinda rested her cheek against his back and felt the play of muscle as he turned the heat down and reached for the frypan cover; one of his hands covered both of hers and gave them a squeeze.
"One of those days?" he asked.
His voice rumbled against her ear; she smiled. "Not really. A good day, actually. Flowers blooming, grass growing, trees budding it might just be spring."
"Uh-huh." He took a step sideways and turned as he leaned against the counter; her cheek ended up against his chest, warm from the reflected heat of the stove. He drew her in closer, kissing the top of her head. "Do I sound convinced?"
"I've got a reminder ghost, that's all."
"I get the feeling that's not the same as a tying-a-string-around-your-finger reminder."
"Does anyone even do that anymore?" She lifted her face to look at him, pondering the line of his jaw and the proximity of same. Hmm, tempting. "No... more like life-is-short-sometimes, appreciate-what-you-have."
"Want to talk about it?"
Melinda shrugged, a restless gesture. "He's not really even mine, yet. I just saw him. And read about him. You must have heard the man who was killed over in Bayview?"
He stilled against her, an instant of not-breathing and then a deeper breath to follow. "Yeah," he said. "The guys were talking about it today. The crew from Bayview was pretty upset over it. I guess they'd patched him up a time or two after bar fights. They were pulling for him when he started this new-life thing."
"It doesn't seem fair," she mused, tightening her hold on him giving back some of what he'd just given her. "But what was he even doing out there? At the bar again?"
"Saying good-bye, is the way I hear it." Jim stroked her back, an absent gesture; she knew if she looked, she'd find his gaze far away. Thinking about what he'd heard, how he'd heard it. Why he'd heard it.
She'd have to read that article more carefully. "He's angry, and I can't blame him. First I thought he might be looking for me, but I'm not so sure. He was pretty focused on this man in the square... really taking him on. Once he gets a little more experience, he could make a real impact."
"You'll get through to him before then," Jim said, so full of matter-of-fact confidence that she stretched up to kiss him except
swingbatterbatterswing lichen crumbles and melts into swirling soup erupts into lava lamp Day-Glo stench
"I gotcha," Jim said, and he did, holding her upright when she would have flailed for balance, then holding her an extra moment while she caught her breath. "Was that him?"
"No." But her voice came out a little shaky, and she hated that. She took a deep breath and stepped away, just to prove to herself that she could but couldn't stop her arms from coming up to warm her stomach and chest where she no longer touched him. "That's my other ghost from the day."
"Busy day," he noted.
"He I think it's a he is pretty much the opposite of Gordon Reese. Has no idea what's going on, who he is... He's not new, but he hasn't been aware of himself until now. He's got a lot of catching up to do before he can cross over." If he can even do it. Sometimes, it was too late. Sometimes, those confused spirits never did gain the strength and understanding they needed.
"Hey," he said. "Maybe you should take it easy tonight. Muster your mojo, or whatever it is that you do when you watch one of those sappy movies of yours." He shook his head. "I don't know how many times I've said it I just can't understand how you deal with this stuff."
"Are you kidding?" She smiled at him, genuine and suddenly full of energy. "I'm the lucky one. I get these reminders... I never get to take anything for granted. That means I don't have to worry about waking up fifty years from now and realizing I wasted my time with you."
He raised his eyebrows, taking in all the implications of that. "I guess that makes me the lucky one, too."
Except suddenly, she smelled something, and this time it wasn't Day-Glo stench. She wrinkled her nose. "Except I think dinner is burning. Seriously."
"Hmm. Just as well." He reached to turn off the burner. "Eat light. I have some exercise planned."
He follows the man home. Finds it stings when the man's wife greets him singsong from the kitchen. Finds the warmth in her eyes a physical blow one he quickly assuages by circling around the man so quickly he feels the power build, feels the fear trickle in, and the man stumbles. Craig, she calls him, and urges him to sit, quickly checking his forehead, his flushed cheeks.
But Craig doesn't have a fever. Craig only has Gordon Reese, the man he killed, the man he walked away from.
The man he thought he walked away from.
The woman pulls a letter from the mail for Craig's attention, and her expression has turned hopeful. Gordon suddenly realizes that they're discussing children, discussing adoption, discussing family.
Gordon has family. Gordon turned his life inside out and upside down and remade himself, and in return he has family his incredible Carol, his little baby girl.
But they no longer have him.
And there, hovering around Craig, drinking in the energy derived of uncertainty and fear, Gordon decides that Craig's family will lose him, too.
Jim opened his eyes to a midnight darkness that wasn't quite complete. Not with the bed beside him still warm but empty and the bathroom light on down the hall. "Mel?" he called, sleepy but waking up fast. That light only came on when there was trouble something more than a quick bathroom break.
Ghost trouble, mainly.
"It's fine," she called. "Go to sleep."
But her voice held a puzzlement that made him sit up, and he turned on the light beside the bed. "Too late," he said. "What's up?"
She must have seen the light; she came back into the bedroom, though not with any speed. She, too, looked sleepy. Adorably sleepy, with her wavy dark hair mussed and her eyes half-mast. And ooh yeah, she'd put on that red satin robe. His favorite. If you didn't count the black satin, and the flowing white satin, or the
All right. So they were all his favorites. And the red satin seemed to be what had her attention; she held a section of it between her hands and never looked away from it even as he pulled her down to sit beside him. She said, "Did we get a dog while I wasn't looking? Or have I just been spending so much time with Bob the wonder dog that I'm bringing his hair home with me?"
Jim looked at the section of robe in question. Red. Shiny. Touch-me satin. "Not seeing it."
"What?" She looked away from the robe for the first time to double-check his expression, truly startled. "Oh, no. Don't tell me we have two of them!"
He got it then. A ghost dog. Another ghost dog. "You're kidding. Another Homer?"
"Except Homer is all the fun and none of the hair. So far, this dog is nothing but hair!" She wasn't kidding; her voice rose in frustration.
He did his best to hide his smile. He really did. She gave him an incredulous look; he held up both hands in a mea culpa and shook his head. "Everything you deal with... and it's the Cheshire ghost dog that "
He didn't get to finish. She dropped the robe; her hands were everywhere poking here, tickling there. "Don't make me hurt you, Jim Clancy!"
Aha. She'd started it; that made her fair game. He grabbed her up, pulling her close even as he flipped her over. She squealed, of course, but couldn't keep it up, not when she was laughing so hard. In the next moment he was comfortably on his side again, arms clasped around her, covers only a modest tangle around them. A deep breath, a satisfied smile, and he closed his eyes.
"The light," she said, but when he twisted to turn it off, she made no attempt to escape, only snuggled deeper as he drew the covers up around both of them. Her voice fell to a murmur. "You did that on purpose."
"Maybe," he said, which was as close as he'd get to a confession not that it mattered. The heavy pattern of her breathing told him she was well on her way to sleep. Good. With a bevy of ghosts making the scene one an angry ghost at that she'd need the rest. She'd push herself with this one... he knew the signs well enough. And she wouldn't let up on herself until she'd done everything she could which wouldn't include asking for help.
He'd learned to work around that, though, as much as anyone could. In such small ways as this.
He smiled again, breathed the scent of her, and followed her into sleep.
Copyright © 2008 by ABC Studios and CBS Studios, Inc.