What lies beneath…
Clare Cermak’s adjusting to a new man in her life—and a lot of ghosts. The passing of Clare’s aunt gave way to a sizeable inheritance of not only money, but also the ability to communicate with the dead. At the same time, she met Zach Slade, a private detective with a rough past, and just like Clare, he’s not yet ready to accept her gift—or his own.
But Clare has another matter to look into. A multimillionaire needs her help after relocating an old ghost town to his mountain estate. The bones of a murdered prospector are making nightly appearances in his guests’ beds. When the gold miner’s ghost contacts Clare, she promises to help find the name of his killer—but someone doesn't want the past revealed and might find her first…
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DENVER, COLORADO, SECOND WEEK OF SEPTEMBER
ZACH SLADE’S NEW cane had been delivered when he was gone. It was a necessity, but also a better weapon. The hook handle could snag and yank a leg. The box the cane had come in leaned against the gray rough-cut stone of the mansion where he rented the housekeeper’s suite. Sticking both old and new canes as well as the box under his left arm, he unlocked the side doors to the great house. Since he’d been shot below the knee, which severed a nerve, and his left ankle and foot didn’t flex, he lifted his knee high simply to walk into his apartment.
Yeah, he was disabled. Had foot drop. His career as an active peace officer, his most recent job as a deputy sheriff, was over at thirty-four.
He and his partner had pulled over a drunk driver, an ex-cop his partner had known. His partner had treated him friendly and hadn’t searched him for weapons, and Zach hadn’t corrected her mistake. The drunk had pulled a gun, and in a scuffle, Zach had been shot just below the knee, which shattered the bone and severed his peroneal nerve.
Instead of wallowing in anger, he had to move on to damned acceptance. He wouldn’t slip back into denial again. He’d finally gotten beyond that. Maybe.
The heavy security door slammed behind him. Cool air flowed over him and he realized how sticky he was from the long two-day drive from Montana. At least his clothes fit better. He’d finally packed on more muscle after his weight loss due to the shooting.
He tossed the box and his old cane on the empty surface of the long coffee table in front of the big, brown leather couch in the living room. Then he slashed the new wooden cane through the air in fighting moves. He was learning bartitsu, the Victorian mixed-martial art that featured cane fighting.
There’d been no bartitsu studio in Montana, where he’d been called back to testify against the parole of a serial killer he’d put away a year and a half ago. He’d been gone for six days . . . had only had a single easy day before that with his new lover, Clare.
Very new lover, along with his new life—moving from Montana in the first place, finding a job and an apartment . . . and Clare.
While gone, he’d thought often enough of her to keep track of the days. They’d met only two weeks ago tomorrow, so about thirteen full days.
If he wanted to do the calculations of twelve days, twenty-some hours, and minutes and so on, he could do that. But he’d leave that up to Clare, the ex-accountant good with numbers.
Still, of the thirteen days since they’d met, he’d just been gone six. Not a good average.
He held the cane in both hands, tested it . . . yeah, he could snap it if he wanted; his upper body strength had increased what with being on crutches for three months.
The peace of his apartment wrapped around him. It had come furnished for a man, except for the small twenty-inch TV screen. He liked the couch he could sleep—or make love—on. A couple of deep chairs, the sturdy coffee table, and a thick old rug with faded colors that must have been expensive at one time.
A floral scent teased his nose and he saw a colorful bouquet of fresh flowers on the dark granite counter of the breakfast bar separating the Pullman kitchen from his living space. He didn’t need flowers in his apartment, but guessed that both the old ladies—the housekeeper, Mrs. McGee, and the wealthy owner of the mansion, Mrs. Flinton—thought he did.
He’d pushed the drive because he’d wanted to see Clare, even though those seven days with her had been the weirdest in his life . . . what with Clare learning to see ghosts and help them move on and all.
During that week, Clare’d had to accept that she wasn’t going crazy, but that she had an unexpected and unwanted psychic gift. That if she refused to believe in the gift, she’d go mad. And if she denied the psychic powers she’d inherited through her gypsy blood, she’d die.
Zach’d had to decide whether he could accept a woman with such a psychic gift, and him being able to see ghosts when he touched her . . . and that he’d work with her to send that gunfighter spook on to whatever came next.
Yes, the week with Clare had been weirder than when he’d gotten shot a few months ago. That had just been stupid and devastating.
Right now all he wanted to do was sluice off the travel grime and rest a little so he’d be in prime shape for Clare.
After a quick rap on the door between his apartment and the rest of the mansion, Zach’s elderly landlady, Mrs. Flinton, opened the door and glided through it with her walker. He’d met her the same day as he’d met Clare. Mrs. Flinton had taken him under her wing when he’d arrived in Denver and insisted on renting him this place at a nominal fee.
“Zach, it’s so good you’re back,” Mrs. Flinton said.
He grunted, then realized he wasn’t among his former cop colleagues anymore and had to actually respond. “Good to see you, too. Good to be back in Denver.” And the hell of it was, that was the truth. He’d left his job and the scene of the shooting in low-populated Plainsview City, Cottonwood County, Montana, and traded it for big-city Denver, and remained okay.
Mrs. Flinton stopped close and tilted her creased cheek as if for a kiss, so he gave her a peck. She smelled better than the flower bouquet, her perfume fresh and perky. “Have you called Clare yet?” she asked.
He leaned against the back of the couch. “Not yet. I just got in ten minutes ago.”
Scowling at him, Mrs. Flinton poked his chest with a manicured, pale pink fingernail. “Did you two talk while you were gone?”
“We texted,” he mumbled. Then he rubbed the back of his neck. His hair had grown longer than he’d ever kept it as a deputy sheriff. But his neck, and his fingers, and the whole rest of his body recalled intimately Clare’s fiddling with that hair, how she liked it shaggy.
“The week with Clare before I left was pretty extreme,” Zach told the older woman. Yeah, extreme with events, and incredible sex, too . . . and startling intimacy. His body yearned for Clare.
Mrs. Flinton tsked and shook her head. “You’re doing the rubber band thing.”
“Coming close together, then drawing back.”
“It’s not only me!”
She sniffed. “Clare needs support during these first weeks of learning her new psychic gift, as I know from my own experience. There aren’t many people who can or would help her.”
“She’s got that damn phantom dog, Enzo, to help her,” Zach said.
Another finger poke and a steely gaze. “That’s not the same. And you need to talk to someone about your own gift.”
“I don’t have a—”
“Yes, you do, and don’t pretend to me you don’t.” She gave him a stern look. “When was the last time you spoke to anyone about your gift?” she persisted.
He might have thought, once, that he’d shared an extraordinary talent with his older brother. But everything had changed the day Jim had died in a drive-by shooting when Zach was twelve. None of that was Mrs. Flinton’s business.
His phone buzzed, and he welcomed it, then paused when he saw Clare was calling. Mrs. Flinton noticed, too. Suppressing a sigh that his first call with Clare after he’d returned to town would be overheard, he answered, “Zach here.”
“Hi, Zach.” She sounded like the former accountant she was, cool and professional. Her voice still zinged down all the nerves in his body.
“I just received a call from your boss, Tony Rickman . . .” Zach lost the rest of the sentence at the pang that he was now working as a private investigator for money instead of in the public sector to serve and protect.
Mrs. Flinton elbowed him, bringing his attention back to the call.
“Sorry, missed that, say again?” Zach asked.
“Zach, do you know why Mr. Rickman would like to meet with me?”
That made him blink. “No. He didn’t say anything to me about that. When did he ask you?” Zach’s thumb skimmed over his phone, hovered on the icon for video calling. He wasn’t ready to push it and see Clare’s face if she was on visual, get slammed with more mixed feelings.
“Rickman called not more than ten minutes ago and wants me there within the hour.” Her words were crisp.
“Meet her there,” Mrs. Flinton said.
“I’m sorry?” Clare asked. “I didn’t hear that.”
Now Zach rubbed his forehead. “I just got back from Montana. If you want, I can meet you there at the top of the hour.”
“You didn’t tell her when you were coming home?” asked Mrs. Flinton.
“Zach?” Clare asked.
“No, Mrs. Flinton,” Zach said loudly. “I didn’t tell either of you when I’d be in. Wasn’t sure of the drive myself. Get over it.”
Mrs. Flinton pouted, then angled closer to Zach’s phone. “Hello, Clare, you and dear ghostly Enzo-pup need to come over for tea again.”
“Oh.” Just one small word and Clare sounded confused, wary. Just like Zach. He smiled.
“Do you want me to meet you at Rickman’s?” Zach asked.
A small pause. “All right. I’ve never met the man, and don’t know what he wants. I only did that little accounting job for him.” Clare sighed. “The ghosts have been bothering me more lately, especially downtown. I’ll call the car service.”
“That sounds excellent, dears,” Mrs. Flinton said.
“Gotta clean up. Later,” Zach said, bending a stern look at Mrs. Flinton. She just smiled and sashayed out of his apartment. He understood why the housekeeper, Mrs. McGee, preferred to live in the carriage house. At the moment, a little space between him and the mansion would be welcome.
Zach rubbed his neck again, limped over to close the door behind his landlady—he only had his orthopedic shoes on for driving, not the light brace—and headed to his bathroom.
A few minutes later when he left his apartment and his ass complained at hitting the seat of his truck again after driving for so long, he just grumbled under his breath. Then he looked up and saw crows sitting on a power line, half a dozen of them, quiet in the heat. His jaw clenched. He hadn’t seen any of the damned birds in Montana, but here they were.
As always, the “Counting Crows Rhyme” his maternal grandmother had taught him ran through his mind.
Six for gold.
He ignored their beady eyes as he exited the circular drive.
• • •
Clare Cermak changed clothes just because she’d be seeing Zach—from new designer jeans and a silk blouse to a thin peach-colored sundress. She didn’t care what Rickman—whom she’d never met—or anyone else at his business thought of her . . . except Zach, her newish lover.
They’d gotten so close when she’d thought she was going crazy. It turned out that along with her great-aunt Sandra’s fortune, Clare had inherited the family “gift” for seeing ghosts and helping them move on to . . . what came next. She still had a shaky grasp on that, particularly since she preferred rationality in her life. Her now exploded past life as an accountant.
Hello, Clare! We are going OUT? Enzo, the ghost Labrador dog, sent mentally. He’d materialized from nothing to sit panting at her feet, gray-white shadows and shades.
“Yes. Zach’s boss, Tony Rickman, wants to see us for some reason.”
We are seeing Zach? Enzo hopped to his feet and his whole body wiggled front to back.
“Yes, apparently he’s back from Montana.” She frowned, not knowing exactly how she felt about that. She’d missed him outrageously in bed. No, scratch that thought, she missed him outrageously, period, darn it. She wanted him . . . and she’d forever be grateful that he’d helped her during the time she’d had to deal with her first major ghost. Did that make her dependent on Zach? She didn’t think so. They had a lot in common, and he was just plain fabulous in bed . . .
She thought back to what Enzo had asked. “Yes, we are seeing Zach.” Grudgingly, she added, “You can come with me.” Not that forbidding Enzo would make any difference. He appeared and vanished as he pleased.
I would like to see a new place with new people and maybe some ghosts?
“A high-rise downtown.” All right, she admitted she was curious about Zach’s place of employment. Frowning, she glanced at the old map of Denver she’d hung on the wall of the tiny bedroom she’d designated as her “ghost laying” office in her new home. “There might have been buildings there in the late eighteen hundreds,” she said to Enzo.
The dog itself—himself—had told her that the human mind could only comprehend ghosts from one slice of history. From her experimentation this last week, she’d determined that her period was from 1850 to 1900. She seemed to specialize in Old West phantoms.
A toot in the driveway announced that the car service she now had on retainer had arrived. She couldn’t drive in heavily ghost-populated areas anymore—it was too dangerous when apparitions rose before her or pressed around the car, or invaded it.
She locked up, greeted the driver, and sat in the back of the Mercedes, heart pounding at seeing her lover again.
• • •
Zach arrived at Rickman Security and Investigations before Clare, shoved through the heavy glass doors—wouldn’t surprise him if they were bulletproof—and into the lobby area. The walls were pale gray, the reception station dark gray stone with a glossy black top, and black computer and phone accessories.
He nodded to the receptionist before heading straight to his boss’s door. Zach stood with his hand on the lever until the electronic lock buzzed to let him into the inner office, decorated in gray and cream.
Two men watched him with military assessment as he entered. Tony Rickman, a craggy-looking man in his late forties with buzz-cut salt-and-pepper hair wearing an engraved wedding band, sat behind his dark wooden desk.
The guy standing near the desk, six foot six, two hundred and seventy-five pounds, pale white blond hair in another buzz cut, light brown eyes, had “ex-special-ops” written all over his body and attitude. He wore expensive black trousers with knife-edge creases, dull but not scuffed shoes, a black silk shirt, and a lightweight black jacket.
“Hello, Zach,” Rickman said.
Zach nodded and made an effort to keep his walk as smooth as possible, even with his cane and brace, as he headed toward the far left of the four gray leather client chairs. “Hello, Tony.”
“Clare Cermak called you?”
“Obviously, you’re back from Montana.” A note in Rickman’s voice told Zach that the man had expected Zach to check in.
“Just arrived a half hour ago.” He sat and stretched his jeaned legs out, propping his cane against the chair.
“Make yourself at home,” Rickman said.
Zach smiled. “Thanks, I will.”
“I don’t believe you’ve met another of my operatives, Harry Rossi. Harry, this is Zach Slade.” Rickman gestured to the guy, who scrutinized Zach and his threat level. Zach stood, studying Rossi with his flat cop stare. Something—shadows—in the man’s eyes showed he’d had to kill. Zach figured that showed in his own eyes.
After a few seconds, the big man smiled and took a few steps toward Zach. Zach met him halfway and offered his hand.
“Good to meet you,” Zach said.
“Likewise,” said Rossi. A quick, hard grip and then they retreated at the same time.
“Rossi works mostly as a bodyguard,” Tony said. “He’s currently placed with a long-term client of mine, Dennis Laurentine.”
Zach nodded. “Rossi looks good for bodyguard work.”
Rossi gave a quick grin, ostentatiously adjusted his shirt cuffs.
Returning to his chair, Zach said, “I don’t think Clare needs a bodyguard . . . yet.”
With a bland smile, Rossi said, “Not with you around.”
“Looks like we need Clare,” Tony said.
“Is that so?” asked Zach.
A quick double buzz came from the door lock as the receptionist opened it.
Clare walked in and Zach had the novel experience of having his heart jump in his chest. Damn, she looked good.
Rickman stood and so did Zach, automatically moving toward her. Just a step or two and he scented the exotic fragrance she wore that reminded him of more than kisses. He fought to control a hard-on. Did the damn multiplication table.
Still, she looked good, better than he’d last seen her the morning he’d crawled out of her bed and headed to Montana. Better than he’d ever seen her.
She’d come into her own and was done with the worry over closing out her great-aunt’s estate, moving into her own home, and dealing with a gunfighter ghost. The peach sundress she wore accented her golden skin and hazel eyes. Her brown hair with red tints was rich and glossy. He thought he made a noise in his throat.
She smiled like she was glad to see him and all his irritation at the wearying day vanished.
“Hi, Clare.” Moving quickly, he took her hand, kissed her cheek. Oh, man, that perfume and her natural scent did a number on him. He didn’t want to be with her here, with two other guys in the room. He wanted to be in her bed, or have her in his.
She brushed a kiss on his lips and relief flooded him. They were still on the same page, goddam good.
He didn’t put his arm around her as he turned to face the men, but kept his body intimately close. “Clare, the guy behind the desk is the head of Rickman Security and Investigations, Tony Rickman. Beside him is Harry Rossi, another of Rickman’s men.” Zach had no clue how much she observed. As far as he knew, she wouldn’t recognize a military man by his stance, his movement, his attitude. Wouldn’t know when a guy was armed. She’d once said that she didn’t watch crime shows, so she was learning about police officers from him.
“How do you do,” she said politely.
Rossi nodded and stood at ease. Rickman came from behind the desk and offered his hand. Clare donned her professional woman manner, gripped it, and shook.
“Please, have a seat,” Rickman said. “Would you like some tea?”
She gave him a cool stare. “You’ve been talking about me with Mrs. Flinton? She’s the one who offers me tea.”
Rickman’s gaze cut to Zach. The guy wanted backup. Zach decided to test his luck, put his hand around her upper arm, and gave the lightest of tugs toward the chairs and stepped toward them himself. She slid her glance to him, and followed, answering Rickman’s question. “No tea, thank you. Coffee would be good.”
“Fine.” Rickman returned to his desk and pressed the intercom. “Coffee, cream, and sugar for Ms. Cermak.”
Zach took the last left chair, and Clare sat in the one next to him. He wished it were closer.
“You asked for this meeting?” Clare said.
Rickman lowered into his executive chair, but kept his manner casual. “Thank you for your work on the accounting ledgers in Mrs. Flinton’s case. She has spoken highly of you,” he said.
Clare inclined her head.
“We have a problem we’d like you to help us with,” Tony Rickman said.
Clare stilled beside Zach, wet her lips. “As a forensic accountant?”
A long, thumping pause.
“I’m afraid not. As a ghost banisher,” Rickman said.
Clare flinched. Her fingers tightened on a small purse she’d moved from her shoulder to her lap. “I’m not in that business.”
“Can you please hear me out? We have a problem,” Rickman repeated. “Or rather, one of our clients has a problem.” He gestured to Rossi, who treated Clare to a smile that showed male appreciation and twinkling eyes. Zach revised his first good impression of the man.
“I’m the bodyguard to Dennis Laurentine,” he said.
“The billionaire,” Rickman said.
Clare blinked. “Dennis Laurentine? No. He’s not. As of last month, Forbes’s website listed his net worth as being valued at approximately nine hundred and sixteen million. That makes him a multimillionaire, but not quite a billionaire.”
Rickman looked disconcerted. Rossi’s smile widened.
“Never argue with an accountant about money,” Zach said, lounging even more in his seat.
Clare sighed. “Well, Mr. Laurentine is very wealthy, and a client my former firm would have loved to have—would love to have. What does that have to do with me?”
“Why don’t you, ah, tell the story, Rossi,” Rickman said.
“Sure.” The bodyguard moved to the front of Rickman’s desk, leaned against it, his gaze focused on Clare. “Mr. Laurentine has a ghost problem on his ranch in South Park.” The ends of his mouth lifted in a half smile. “Or to be accurate, a bone problem. A dead guy is leaving his bones around.”
CLARE’S EYES WIDENED. A hundred questions already buzzed in Zach’s mind. He watched her head tilt in the way that showed she listened closely. “Bones appearing after they’ve been buried? That doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Rossi said, “I’ve seen it happen twice. Mr. Laurentine knows the legend of this ghost guy and his bones—Higgenberry? Humperdink? The story’s very famous.” Rossi lifted a brow.
Clare shook her head as if she didn’t know the story. Hell, Zach didn’t either, and he’d been born in Colorado.
Shrugging, Rossi continued, “We opened the guy’s grave, no bones, reinterred the skeleton—and the signed poems that he’d left with his bones—at the cemetery near the original site of the town, fifty miles away and up a canyon. We also put observers and rigged cams on the grave. No one dug the skeleton up, but the bones appeared again.”
Crossing her arms, Clare shifted her gaze and stared out the window, that showed a panoramic view of the Front Range mountain peaks.
Clare said, “I can only . . . help ghosts of a certain time period.” Her gaze flittered to Zach and he smiled, hoping she knew he hadn’t backslid about acknowledging she had a gift for ghosts.
And she did. He could see them, too, when he touched her. Rickman sighed. “We are not proceeding in an orderly fashion about this. Ms. Cermak, are you aware that Mr. Laurentine purchased an old ghost town, a mining town, had it disassembled and reconstructed on his ranch?”
Clare’s mouth dropped open. Zach’s stare went to Rickman, who looked as stern as always, and Rossi, who rolled his eyes.
“The expense—” sputtered Clare before her mouth snapped shut.
“Probably why he’s only a multimillionaire,” Zach drawled. “That had to cost a pretty penny.”
“He gave local labor good jobs,” Rickman said.
“Why would he move an entire Western town?” Zach asked.
“Because he’s crazy about the Old West, being born in Rhode Island and all,” Rossi said sardonically. “He likes the flavor out here. So he says.”
A crack of laughter escaped Zach. “So when he moved the town, the ghosts came right along with it.”
“Seems so,” Rossi said.
“What were the dates of this town?” Clare asked prissily, obviously trying to wiggle out of the request she could see looming. As far as Zach knew, she had no intention of hanging out a shingle as a psychic, and probably resented being here. He’d sure rather be with her somewhere else, too. This meeting was a waste of time.
“The dates of the town,” Rossi repeated. The bodyguard and Rickman shared a glance. Rickman shrugged. Rossi turned his head back to look at Clare, then lines around his eyes tightened as if he was thinking back. “It was booming in the eighteen seventies maybe?”
“Mr. Laurentine will be joining us shortly,” Rickman said. “You can get specific information from him.”
“I’m not a medium,” Clare stated.
Everyone just looked at her.
She endured the silence with tight mouth and body for a good full minute before Rossi cleared his throat and said, “Ma’am, the bones appear in the beds of real nice women.”
Now all eyes focused on Rossi.
“This happens mostly when Mr. Laurentine is entertaining, has a whole houseful of people. It scares his guests, especially when we take the bones out, rebury them with respect, and they show up again.” Rossi shook his head. “Laurentine’s losing local people who don’t want to work for him, and they’re losing paychecks.”
Every guy in the room seemed to know Clare’s soft spot.
“He needs help,” Rickman said, then more quietly, “and you’ll be paid well.”
Clare’s gaze lasered from Rickman to Rossi, fixed on Zach. “Evidently my gift is common knowledge.”
Zach matched her glare with his cop one. “I told no one.” Then he thought he heard barking, which meant Enzo the ghost dog was probably here and talking to Clare. Zach watched the other two men. Rickman appeared too casual—did he hear the dog, too? And what did that mean? Rossi was the original stone face and Zach couldn’t tell what he might hear, see, or know.
At that moment the door buzzed again, no warning before the door opened. Rickman scowled. If Zach was to guess, Rickman would be having a chat with his receptionist before the day was done.
The man who walked in was the shortest of them all, five-seven, blocky build, shoulder-length sandy hair and pale green eyes, probably in his fifties. He wore designer jeans, a tailored polo shirt that matched his eyes, and a lot of power.
Nodding toward Rickman, he took the far right chair as if he owned the room, hell, as if he owned the building and all of downtown Denver. He glanced at Clare, his gaze dismissing Zach sitting beyond her. Rossi moved between the guy and the door.
“Mr. Laurentine,” Rickman said. “I’m glad you could join us.”
Laurentine sighed. “I suppose this is a matter that I must handle myself, since you haven’t wrapped up the deal within the time frame I thought you would.”
Rickman ignored that, went straight to the meat of the matter. “We need information about your town.”
“Curly Wolf?” The man rubbed his hands, his eyes lit with the gleam of an obsessive collector. “Fabulous place. A real jewel, I have some extremely historic buildings.” His face set. “I’ve been criticized for taking the town, moving it to my own personal and private property. But the buildings would have fallen apart and been lost to the future if I hadn’t saved them. Park County already has one ghost town for historic purposes, and there was no funding to take care of Curly Wolf.”
“What time period was the town active?” Clare asked.
The rich guy turned to face her, brows up. “You haven’t heard of Curly Wolf?”
“Or its ghosts? Ghosts well known during the time? Such as the people who died in the smallpox epidemic of 1861, or the apparition now plaguing me?”
“No.” Clare wanted to squirm and suppressed the urge. Why was she being questioned? She was here to listen to a proposition for her to help; instead it felt like she was being attacked. Granted, Mr. Laurentine had eight hundred and ninety-six million dollars more than she, but she had enough so she could walk away.
Laurentine grunted. “Not well educated on this matter, are you? You get rid of ghosts? Prove it.”
Clare stood. “I’m sorry, Mr. Laurentine,” she said in a chill tone. “You mistake me for someone available to hire to handle . . . an unusual problem for you. I am not in that business.” Turning on her heel, she made it only a step before Enzo barked.
Wait, Enzo yelled in her mind, then, in a deeper tone Clare dreaded because it wasn’t the ghost dog but that spirit she called the Other who spoke through the dog, said, Watch!
Stomach lurching, she did. A figure in prospector’s garb materialized no more than a pace in front of her. She’d have to walk through him to the door. He wore heavy pants, a light-colored shirt, a vest, and had a trimmed beard. He stretched out a hand. Help me!
What do you want? Clare directed her mental thought to the ghost.
“Ms. Cermak?” asked Rickman.
Without looking at him, she cut off his words with a gesture. Freezing air wafting from the spirit passed around Clare and into the room.
They said that I died of accidental causes. The phantom wore a sad expression on his youngish face. That I fell from the mountain while picking wildflowers.
Clare sighed. They were wrong?
He nodded. Yes. I was murdered.
“Of course you were,” she murmured.
“What’s going on?” asked Laurentine. He strode to her, curved his hand around her upper arm.
“Take your hand off her,” said Zach in a low, dangerous tone. She heard him rise from his chair. He moved into her peripheral vision, and the millionaire’s blocky fingers fell from her arm.
Rossi, the bodyguard, circled around her from the opposite direction and went right into the ghost. Rossi’s eyes widened and he grunted, pivoted in an athletic motion, and stepped out of the miner.
THANK YOU! shouted the ghost toward Rossi, but that man was saying to Laurentine, “You should sit, sir.”
“I don’t think so,” said Laurentine. Now he moved into the specter . . . who hissed.
Scowling, Laurentine faced Clare. “You’re acting odd.”
She shrugged, watched as the prospector stepped aside from the live man with an expression of distaste. He has no poetry in his soul.
Is that so? she asked the phantom mentally.
The apparition spread long, artistic-looking pale gray fingers over his heart and inclined his torso. It is very so, my sweet. He winked.
“You’re all acting odd,” complained Laurentine.
“Maybe you should take your business somewhere else,” Zach rumbled.
Rickman, the boss, sighed.
With narrowed eyes, Laurentine studied Clare. “I do have a problem. A very nasty problem that seems . . . supernatural.” He made a disgusted sound. “As much as I can figure that. I handled the bones myself, watched them buried.” He stomped away and she heard leather rustle as he sat.
The miner’s wraith shuddered. They ARE my bones.
Enzo, can you tell me anything about this gentleman? Clare asked.
The ghost dog sniffed all around the phantom. I like his smell, Clare, Enzo, not the Other, said. Enzo’s tongue lolled. He is the one we need to help now.
What’s your name? she asked the specter mentally, now flushing and very aware that everyone stared at her.
A dark bowler hat appeared on the apparition’s head, just in time for him to doff it with a bow to Clare. J. Dawson Hidgepath, at your service, miss.
His name meant nothing to her.
Enzo, can you show Mr. Hidgepath to the carriage house I use for consulting?
You’re going to open that space for consulting?Hooray! Enzo hopped around. I told you that you needed to do that, and that it would be a very good space.
I’m using it to consult with . . . She glanced at Hidgepath. Those who’ve passed on. I prefer to see them there.
Again the apparition winked. I prefer ladies’ bedrooms.
That sounded just great. Clare sincerely hoped to see no bones in her bed, no phantom, again, at the foot of her bed. She let herself relax as the wraith followed Enzo through the door. The cold dissipated.
She stood with her back to the others for only an instant then turned around and, keeping her expression bland, met Laurentine’s gaze and said, “Tell me about J. Dawson Hidgepath.”
The bodyguard, who’d stationed himself behind the millionaire, seemed to shake himself, rather like her ghost dog.
She remained the focus of all eyes. Zach took her arm and began to lead her back to her seat.
By the time she sank into the plush gray leather of the barrel chair, and Zach took his own chair, Enzo galloped back into the room, tongue lolling.
Hi, Zach! Enzo sent to her mind as his muzzle opened and he barked. He trotted around the room, sniffing the living men, then came back and licked Zach’s hand. Zach stiffened. Her lover had admitted he could see ghosts when he touched her, and believed it was due to her psychic gift and talent. She thought otherwise but hadn’t said anything about it yet.
She angled to look at Mr. Laurentine, two seats over to her right. Enzo leapt into the chair between her and the multimillionaire.
Mr. Laurentine glowered at her, tapping an index finder on the arm of his chair. “So now you suddenly know about J. Dawson Hidgepath.”
“I know the name. He was a prospector?”
“His bones have been legendary for over a century, though they seemed to have stopped appearing near the turn of the twentieth century,” Mr. Laurentine said, then waved a hand. “But, of course, I didn’t move the cemetery of Curly Wolf when I bought the rest of the town. I only moved the buildings. I would not disturb the dead.”
“I see,” Clare said. Unfortunately she saw way too much . . . like ghosts.
“But the bones have begun to appear again,” Zach put in.
“How are you involved in this?” Mr. Laurentine asked.
“He’s one of my operatives,” Rickman said.
“He’s a friend of mine,” Clare said.
“He doesn’t look ex-military,” Mr. Laurentine said.
“I’m not,” Zach said, and his body and his eyes changed in that way he had.
“Cop,” Mr. Laurentine said, glanced at Zach’s cane. “Ex-cop.”
The multimillionaire shifted more toward Clare. “And you’re Clare Cermak.”
“And you can lay ghosts.”
Yes, she can! Enzo shouted, though his confirmation didn’t seem to have been heard by anyone else.
“You vouch for her?” Mr. Laurentine asked Rickman.
“Yes, enough that I’m willing to negotiate a fee for her as a consultant.”
Clare shrugged, not interested in that right now, but figured like most executives he’d take it for assent. “Mr. Hidgepath told me that his death wasn’t accidental. He said he was murdered.”
The word electrified the men.
Zach sat up straight, reached for his cane, and ran his hand over the curve. She noted it was a new cane with a hooked handle and looked more old-fashioned than his other one.
Rickman scowled. The bodyguard . . . shifted or something, and looked about ten times more dangerous.
Mr. Laurentine’s eyes popped a little. He blinked, then answered her with suppressed excitement. “I’m an expert on Curly Wolf and its history and I’ve never heard this. His death was ruled an accidental fall from a trail to his mine near Mount Bross.”
“Sounds suspicious to me,” Zach said—and he sounded as if he were just being contrary. “And I think I’m the only one here who’s ever investigated a murder.”
Everyone shifted their attention to him and she was glad. For a minute she’d felt like a pinned butterfly.
“Tcha!” Laurentine made a disgusted noise. “As if you could find out what happened nearly a hundred and fifty years ago about a man whose whole life doesn’t amount to more than a few paragraphs on the Internet.”
Rossi, the bodyguard, gave a little cough. “That’s true enough. Most of what we know about him concerns his bones.”
Mr. Laurentine scowled. “His bones. Those damned bones. I wish they’d remained legendary.” He ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair. Clare studied him. His hairstyle didn’t look quite modern, more like something she’d seen in the many antique photographs in her books on the Old West.
“J. Dawson Hidgepath?” she prompted.
“If he was murdered, maybe Clare can’t send him into the great beyond until we find out the truth,” Zach added.
“J. Dawson was a ladies’ man, and considered himself a poet.” The multimillionaire leaned back in his chair, like a storyteller. Clare didn’t think he’d be a good one.
“Just the facts,” Zach said.
“As I said, there seems to be a dearth of facts. But if you wish a quick and dirty summary, the prospector ‘courted’ several ladies, a saloon girl, a teacher—any new woman showing up in Curly Wolf would get a bouquet and a poem. When he fell off the mountain, he was no sooner buried than his decomposing body appeared in the saloon girl’s bed.”
“Eeewww,” Clare said.
“They reburied him in the Curly Wolf Cemetery and a few nights later he showed up in the schoolmarm’s bed, even more disgusting, along with a poem. Again they buried him, this time at an unknown location with the ministers from all the churches from all the towns around taking part in the service . . . and yet he continued to rise throughout the end of the century. When we buried him, we went back to his first grave.”
“It was a localized haunting, then?” Clare asked. Of the three ghosts she’d actually sent on, two had seemed to be local, staying in the same place as their death.
Enzo said, Ghosts stay where they feel they need to be, but they can move around lots if they thinkthey have to. He yipped cheerfully. It all depends.
How wonderful, still no darn solid rules. Clare’s fingers went to tug at her hair—a new bad habit that she hadn’t had as an accountant—but she stopped the gesture and turned it into a roll of her hand for Mr. Laurentine to go on. The man shrugged. “That’s all I know.”
“Until now,” Zach said. “He’s back.”
Another frown from the multimillionaire. “So we believe. My last two house parties were spoilt; the two ladies whose beds he showed up in were extremely unhappy and left in the middle of the night. They won’t return despite my persuasions.” He scowled, flushing with anger. “I lost other guests, too. Worse, I’ve lost some of my housekeeping staff and a couple of caretakers, carpenters, of Curly Wolf itself. I don’t want a ghost that will cause me problems or a haunted house.” His jaw set and he appeared once more a formidable man, accustomed to wheeling and dealing in millions of dollars.
Then his pointed stare fixed on Clare. “If I hire you, I’ll expect you to produce results.”
She met his gaze calmly. “If I accept the consultation, I will do so to help Mr. Hidgepath.”
Mr. Laurentine stood, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a gold card case, took the top card, and held it out to her. “This is the address of my ranch in South Park. I’m heading straight up after this meeting. I’ll tell my people to expect you in no later than forty-eight hours.”
Only the image of J. Dawson kept Clare from saying something snippy. She stood and Zach and Rickman followed. She stared at Mr. Laurentine’s card. She really didn’t want to do this.
This is your next ghost to help move on! Enzo ran around her in a circle, seeming happy as usual. He is waiting for you at your carriage house.
As long as it wasn’t her bedroom.
Come ON, Clare! Enzo shouted.
She looked down at the doggy spirit, slid her gaze toward the arrogant Mr. Dennis Laurentine with all his expectations and no belief in ghosts or her. Perhaps she could show him something.
With a gesture, she asked Enzo to sit and shake. He sat and offered his paw and she took his icy paw in hers, gave it a good squeeze. When she initiated contact with ghosts, and she always had to do that to help them, she experienced their frigid selves with cold sleeting through nerves and muscles to settle in her bones. The experience was always worse than if the ghost touched her.
She let go of Enzo’s paw and saw Mr. Laurentine and Zach watching her, the other two men, Rickman and Rossi, ostentatiously looking elsewhere.
Chin high, she strode over to Mr. Laurentine, and began to take the card, making sure her cold, cold fingers brushed his. His hand jerked and the card fell.
And Enzo lifted it to her fingers.
“I didn’t see that,” Rickman muttered.
“I didn’t either,” Rossi said.
“What are you talking about?” asked Mr. Laurentine.
“I’ll be in touch, Mr. Laurentine,” she said, and strolled toward the door, putting a little extra sway in her hips for Zach. He’d been gone six days.
The electronic door lock released with a click, probably from Rickman’s desk, and she opened it and sauntered out, hearing Rickman say, “Let’s talk provisional terms, Laurentine. Zach, please stay on Clare’s behalf.”
“Oh, very well,” Mr. Laurentine said. “And I suppose you want me to hire the ex-cop to look into a more than century-old death by accident.”
“We’ll negotiate,” Rickman said smoothly. “But first, Ms. Cermak’s services . . .” The rest of his words were cut off by the door shutting, and the sass in Clare leaked out of her like air from a deflating balloon.
Whatever Rickman charged Mr. Laurentine would be both too much and too little. Too much because she had to help ghosts pass on to whatever awaited them, or go crazy. Too little because money, no matter how much, didn’t make up for her life being totally screwed up now.
A HALF HOUR later, after a ride home during which she hadn’t wasted any time checking out Curly Wolf and J. Dawson Hidgepath and the cemetery on her tablet, Clare went through the iron gate next to her large new-to-her home into the backyard. She walked down the red flagstone path set in thyme to her carriage house or, since her house had been built in the twenties, an early garage. She hadn’t visited the smaller building since the day she’d toured the property with her realtor, eleven days ago, and hadn’t paid much attention to the one-story-and-a-loft building.
During the last week she’d been occupied in the main house, arranging her portion of Great-Aunt Sandra’s furniture, setting up a home office for accounting and perhaps tax preparation services, and a tinier office for her “ghost layer” psychic gift.
Learning the rules for helping apparitions move on had not been going well. Enzo would sit next to her as she read books written by mediums and other psychics and shake his big head mournfully, saying, It is not like that with us. He’d been her great-aunt Sandra’s dog and was now Clare’s, to help her.
She thought she’d rather have a cat.
Great-Aunt Sandra’s jumbled journals didn’t help much either, assuming Clare knew items or procedures that she didn’t, talking about ghost laying in Sandra’s own personal terms, which made Clare’s brain hurt.
But Great-Aunt Sandra had made another fortune for the family . . . as had Sandra’s predecessor, Great-Great-Uncle Amos. Sandra had compiled money both as a psychic consultant and, as she had told Clare in a video, because “the universe supports our efforts.”
Clare had found that out from experience. At the end of her first case, she and Zach had found a gold coin that was so rare it was currently sitting in a New York City auction house valued at four million dollars. That still staggered her. Four. Million. Dollars. For one “case,” as Zach would call it. She still didn’t know how that worked.
Unlike her great-aunt, Clare hadn’t intended to make the psychic thing a business, and yet here she’d been dragged into a paying job. Rickman had probably already negotiated her fee from Mr. Laurentine.
Come ON, Clare! Enzo popped out of the oak wood door of the small brick building.
The Labrador was always cheerleading and she was always dragging her feet. That wouldn’t happen with any cat, real or ghost.
She used key and keypad to open the door and walked in, and the sunny cream-yellow walls made her smile. Pretty light from high horizontal windows and the huge skylight in the roof of the nonloft part of the room illuminated the space. The shabby floral pastel furniture from her great-aunt Sandra’s secondary sunroom had been temporarily placed here by the movers. Clare recalled now that this team was also the one that had done the kitchen, and had been led by a woman. She’d done a good job, setting up a cozy conversational area near the small kitchen area, revealed by an angled lacquered floral screen of a pale blue. And that’s where Great-Aunt Sandra’s copper teapot had gone, along with a new coffeemaker. Clare approved.
Miss. The ghost of J. Dawson Hidgepath bowed before her, his bowler in his hand. He wore a new and elegant suit.
Clare offered her hand. He took it and kissed her knuckles. She felt nothing but chill, no icy drops of spit or anything.
“So, J. Dawson, what is your first name?”
He smiled slyly. It could be John. Or James. Perhaps Joseph or even Jedidiah. He winked.
Great, he wasn’t going to be forthcoming. Clare let loose a sigh, perched on the seat of a wing chair. “What do you need from me, J. Dawson?”
He scowled, hovering close, but appearing distracted as he looked around the room. This place is only as big as a cabin, and too fussy. I’m better outdoors. That’s why I left my family back East.
“I’m not consorting with ghosts in my backyard,” Clare stated. The brick walls around her place were twelve feet high, but her neighbors’ homes were also two to three stories, with balconies in the back.
Struggling for more courtesy so she could get this done fast, she said, “Ah, J. Dawson, tell me why you began leaving your bones around again, and at Mr. Laurentine’s.”
Another sly smile. He has pretty ladies at his house.
“I’m sure he does.”
Now the apparition looked serious. And in the grayness of my existence, I . . . felt . . . the movement of Curly Wolf, how it bloomed again. He placed a hand over his heart. It stirred me.
Mr. Laurentine would not want to hear that, and it was time to get to the bottom line. “You were murdered, J. Dawson?”
He stopped floating around, clenched his fists. Yes, someone pushed me off the trail!
“I’m so sorry,” Clare said. And she was.
Enzo whined and rubbed against J. Dawson, and that reminded her that if she wasn’t helping J. Dawson, she’d be struggling with some other ghost. She’d just hoped that the next big test of her very puny skills and limited understanding would have come later . . . maybe even a month later rather than a week.
Gently, Clare said, Your murderer must also be . . . gone by now.
I want the truth! His next words came with a fierceness that had ghostly spittle flying from his mouth. I am a phantom, stuck in gray space, stuck in NOWHERE, mind being nibbled away by time until I am only shreds on the wind UNTIL YOU FIND ME THE TRUTH.
Clare felt herself paling. “I am sorry, J. Dawson. I will do my best to help you, uh, pass on.”
If she’d gone whiter, his aspect had gained a darker shade—embarrassment, she thought. His bowler appeared and he pulled it low over his head rather than tilting it at a jaunty angle. My deepest apologies. I should not have raised my voice to you. I am ill-mannered and have behaved like a cad. He made a jerky gesture of distress, then vanished.
Clare tugged a strand of her hair. “That didn’t go well.” She wasn’t pleased with herself either. She stood. “I have so much to learn.”
Enzo licked her hand, a cold swipe along her skin. You did okay, Clare. I will help you!
“Thank you, Enzo.”
And this is a very nice space.
“Yes.” She smiled. “But I can’t see Mr. Laurentine here, and I’m not inviting that man into my home. Home is for sanctuary.” She sensed she’d need every smidgeon of peace she could find while dealing with her gift for the rest of her life.
• • •
Clare let out a huge breath as she entered her wonderful and huge home by the modern kitchen . . . and went straight to the bar. She assembled a pitcher of margaritas, poured herself one, and wandered to the living room and the multipaned bay window, which curved out over the front yard.
She was hoping Zach would drop by. It was evident that he wasn’t quite sure of their relationship, of bonds forged between them in danger and weirdness. Well, neither was she.
Then his large, dusty black truck pulled into her wide driveway, and she set her drink aside and sighed in relief.
Zach’s here! Enzo said, running to the old-fashioned boxed radiators built in around the bottom of the window and sticking his head through the glass. A pause. He’s just sitting there. Why isn’t he coming in?
She couldn’t prevent herself. “Why don’t you go ask him?”
Yes! I will. Someday he will hear more than just my barks. Maybe today! The dog galloped out.
Clare went to the kitchen, and pulled out one of the Tivoli beers she stocked for Zach. Denver was a microbrew center and she’d gotten other beers the person at the wine store said someone would like if they liked Tivoli. Trying to lure the man to spend more time with her? Absolutely. She didn’t know what they had, but felt deeply in her bones . . . wait, not a good phrase right now . . . Felt their sex and sharing and intimacy could lead to a solid, true, and lasting relationship. Not that she’d tell him that.
Enzo zoomed into the kitchen, stopped abruptly, and skidded on the tile clear across the room, like a real dog might, a look of astonishment on his face.
He grinned back at her, complete with wide mouth and draping tongue. You need to laugh more often.
“I’ve always been a serious person,” Clare said, but smiled.
He heard me bark, I’m sure of it. But he didn’t hear anything else.
And he’s still in his truck.
“Ah.” Clare stared at the bottle of beer in her hands. Her cell phone played a rock tune that reminded her of Zach, so she’d programmed it for his calls—hot, edgy, nearly losing control, but never going quite that far.
She plucked her smart phone from her pocket and answered. “Yes, Zach?”
There was quiet.
“Clare, you know that thing I asked you about before I left last week?”
Her mind scrambled; they’d had only one full day together and that had been a workday for Zach. “I’m not sure.”
He cleared his throat. “When I drove in today, I stopped in Boulder to see my mother.”
Memory kicked in. “Of course I’ll go with you to visit your mother.” Mrs. Slade was a resident of a mental health facility in the college town where Zach’s family came from . . . though Zach’s father was career military and Zach had grown up all over the States.
“Mama was having a good day and recognized me. She asked about, uh, girlfriends, and I told her about you and how you’d visit with me.”
“Okay,” Clare said.
“I got a call from the facility just as I left Rickman’s. Apparently Mama thought I’d just gone out to get you and is waiting for us. She’s . . . agitated.”
“I’ll be glad to visit your mother with you right now.”
“Good.” She heard him exhale. “That’s good.” A note of amusement entered his voice. “Clare, I don’t dare come into that house or we won’t make it up to Boulder tonight.”
“Ohhh.” She flushed, with pleasure, with yearning. “I’ll be right out. Keep your hands on the wheel, mister.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Do you want some bottled water?”
“That would be great. I didn’t drink anything at Rickman’s, and I’ve been on the road since early this morning and a lot of yesterday.”
“The least I can do is treat you to dinner in Boulder.”
“Sold. Be right there.”
“You don’t need to freshen up. You’re gorgeous as is.”
I’m coming, too! Enzo said.
For the first time, Clare hesitated. She didn’t know Boulder, where the historic places were, where she could expect to see ghosts. Maybe even in the residential facility itself.
Zach said, “Clare, the place is on ten acres with a view of the Flatirons and was built just after World War One.”
Bless him for sensing what she was thinking. “Thank you.” She glanced down at the ghost Labrador. “I think Enzo is coming, too.”
“If he must, he must. Get a move on, Clare.”
“Be right there!” She clicked off, dumped her drink in the sink and rinsed the glass, stuck the beer back in the fridge . . . and smoothed her sundress with a twinge of disappointment that Zach and she wouldn’t be making fast, frantic love on the couch, or in the tiny elevator, or in her new California king bed.
She set the alarm, exited by the side door next to the driveway, and saw that Zach wasn’t even watching her, which was a little deflating. He sagged over the wheel.
He is tired, Enzo said.
With her new sandal heels clicking on the concrete, she crossed to the driver’s door of the truck and opened it and tugged on his arm. “Come on. I’m driving.”
Zach gave her crooked smile. “Damn, the sexual buzz has crashed. I’m blocking your car in the garage.”
Excerpted from "Ghost Layer"
Copyright © 2014 Robin D. Owens.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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