When something goes bump in the night . . . it’s most likely a plumbing problem. But fake medium Eleanor Wilde is happy to investigate and cleanse your home of spectral presences—for a fee. Hey, it’s a living . . .
Ellie has an ailing sister to care for and working as a ghost hunter who doesn’t believe in ghosts helps cover the bills. When she’s lucky, it also pays for the occasional tropical vacation. On her latest job, though, she may be in for some genuine scares.
The skeptical, reserved, and very rich Nicholas Hartford III has flown her all the way to his family’s ancestral estate in England—supposedly haunted by a phantom named Xavier. Nicholas thinks it’s all just as much a crock as Ellie’s business is, but his mother is sure that Xavier is real, and he’s willing to employ Ellie if she can put a stop to the nonsense. But when an actual dead body appears—and subsequently disappears—at Castle Hartford, she’ll have to apply her talent for trickery and psychological insight to solve a flesh-and-blood murder.
“A winning blend of mystery and the paranormal, with a little humor and romance thrown in for good measure.”
—Juliet Blackwell, New York Times bestselling author of the Witchcraft Mystery series
“A fun story with likable characters and a plot that kept me guessing until the end.”
—Rose Pressey, USA Today bestselling author of the Haunted Vintage Mystery series
About the Author
Tamara Berry is a part-time author and part-time freelance writer/editor. She has a B.A. in English Literature from Eastern Washington University. In addition to books, she has mad love for all things TV, movies, and pop culture. Visit her at www.tamaraberry.com.
Read an Excerpt
"Hand me the maiden's sacrifice."
The woman standing beside me frowns through the haze of burned sage, the air a perfumed whirl that cloaks the senses and confuses the eye. The whole room is dark save for the flickering candles from the mantelpiece, which cast fluid shadows on the blood-splattered walls. It feels as if we're all standing at the gates of hell.
"Maiden's sacrifice?" she echoes.
"Yes, please. And with all due expedience. Her spirit is retreating."
I extend my hand, my bracelets filling the air with the clack of protective obsidian, and wait. Then I wait a little more, because no one is putting anything in it.
"The sacrifice, if you please," I demand again. "She's aware of our intentions. I don't know how much time we have."
"She means the wine," a voice hisses from the depths of the darkness. I don't turn my head for fear of losing concentration, but there's no need to identify the owner of the voice. I felt the young man's aura enter the room about five minutes ago. He's only a half-believer, which is why I'm having such a hard time holding on to Mary as it is. She senses his disdain and is recoiling from it much more strongly than I'd anticipated.
"Do you think she wants merlot, or is cabernet okay?"
I bite back a sigh. "You'll find that it's actually a 1945 Beaujolais — the year of Mary's death. It's by the door."
The three people in the room release an exhalation of understanding, which continues until one of them finally places the bottle in my hand. The cork has been pre-loosened, so all it takes to open it is a tug and a loud pop that's swallowed by the choking silence settling over the room.
The silence grows as everyone collectively stops breathing to see what happens next. It would have been nice to spend a few more minutes with Mary in hopes of communicating with her directly, but I don't choose the time.
The time chooses me.
A preternatural howl fills the air, starting at the ceiling and working its way downward. The smoke and candlelight move with it, flickering out and filling our lungs as the entire room is plunged into blackness and a bone-deep cold. The wine bottle flies from my fingers before I have a chance to recite a prayer of goodwill. It crashes to the ground with a thump and the muted shatter of glass on carpet.
"Is she still here?"
"That's my foot — ouch! You're stepping on my foot."
The lights come on so suddenly that we're plunged into painful, blinking awareness of our surroundings. My vision, accustomed to the playfulness of spirits and their quick changes of light, clears right away, so I wait patiently for the other three to catch up. Mrs. Levitt is the first to cross the line. The prematurely white-haired matron emits a scream that's half horror, half delight.
"She was here! She was actually here!"
Since the furniture that's been thrown around the room and the blood-spattered walls have already proven that beyond a reasonable doubt, I wait for one of the other two — Mrs. Levitt's next-door-neighbor, a pretty young woman by the name of Becky, or her son, the latecomer to our little session — to elaborate.
"Is that ..." The son, whose flat, black hair matches the dullness of his aura, takes a step forward, careful not to land where the wine has left an imprint on the white carpet. "It can't be. It's impossible."
"Nothing is impossible," I say, but I doubt he hears me. I've been present at enough cleansings to know that I've suddenly become the least important person in the room. Never mind that I was the one to break through to Mary, to see beyond the mischief of her spirit to discover the troubled and restless soul underneath. Of even less importance is the fact that I'm the only person she treated with a modicum of respect — enough respect to actually listen when I urged her to move out of this house and into the next realm. As is always the case, only the bloody, gory, macabre details matter.
People love the bloody, the gory, the macabre.
"I can see the outline of her body!" Becky gasps and reaches for Mrs. Levitt's son. Their auras mingle with a spark of electricity. I sense a match in the future, despite the inauspicious conditions of their meeting. "Her feet are right here, and her arms are spread out on either side, and her head ..."
Her voice grows thick as it trails away, not stopping until Mrs. Levitt's son offers a willing shoulder for her sob.
"Her head, as you've noticed, is twisted off to one side. I believe we finally have the answers we've been seeking." I reach for a knitted afghan draped over the back of a couch and lay it gently over the outline of the figure, formed from the spilled wine. The dark red liquid has seeped into the carpet around what appears to be the shape of the fallen woman's body. I don't have to look up to the balcony to set the rest of the scene. My audience's imaginations are more than capable of filling in the details of her final plunge.
The chill in the room is less apparent now that Mary has gone, but my body has grown tired of the exertions put on it over the past forty-eight hours. I wrap my arms around myself for warmth. Mrs. Levitt, the only person in the room not preoccupied with comforting embraces and sobbing shoulders, sees me and offers a seat on the aforementioned couch.
"No." I shake my head. "I don't want to linger. My prolonged presence can sometimes act as a conduit for the spirit to find its way back."
Mrs. Levitt's mouth opens and closes again. "Really? That can happen?"
"It's not common, but it's not unheard of. Now that Mary's claim on the house has been cut off, I'm the only remaining tie she has to this realm. The negative energy in your home should clear in the next few weeks, but enough of it lingers to act as a lure. It's best for me to get as far from here as possible to avoid a recurrence."
And to immerse myself in as many positive energies as I can find, but I don't say that part out loud. For some reason, my clients like to imagine that I go from dark possession to dark possession, never resting my earthly feet anywhere there might be sunshine or light. But after a cleansing like this one, sunshine and light are essential.
This time of year, I'm thinking Mexico. Definitely Mexico.
"Of course." Mrs. Levitt's son is the one to act this time, and he nods as if he hasn't spent the past forty-eight hours doing everything in his power to prevent me from finishing the job. He even seems to forget the part where he threatened to call in the police. "You'll want to get on your way. I'll see you out."
"I need to gather my things first," I say.
His eyes narrow in suspicion. "What sort of things?" "My overnight bag, my toothbrush, the talismans I placed in your mother's energy vortexes ..."
He blinks at me. The average human being's ability to understand the nuances of my profession is slim, to say the least.
"It shouldn't take me more than ten minutes," I say as calmly as I can. In addition to flagging energy, my patience has a way of wearing off rather quickly after an event like this one. "No, no — it'll be faster if I do it on my own. And this will give you a chance to come up with the other half of the payment."
"The other half?" His expected outrage comes out in full, though I suspect he's attempting to hold some of it at bay for Becky's sake. "But we already paid you two thousand dollars!"
"Yes, and I understand that kind of money isn't easy to come up with on such short notice. But I wasn't kidding about that being a 1945 Beaujolais — the wine alone means I'll barely be breaking even on this exorcism."
"You couldn't have used a bottle of the table wine we have in the kitchen?"
I smile sadly at him. Some people will never appreciate the finesse that goes into what I do. "Not unless your ghost happened to be the murdered remnants of a 2016 vintage. Sorry. You should be grateful your haunting was restricted to the twentieth century. You wouldn't believe the going rate for medieval ghosts. It's almost impossible to find anything corked in the middle ages."
On that parting shot, I leave him to figure out the details with his mother. I don't think they'll give me any trouble regarding my fees, but I can always threaten to park myself in their living room until they manage to come up with the cash. Now that they know keeping me around means Mary might make a return appearance, I get the feeling they'll do anything they can to see the last of me.
It takes the full ten minutes to gather my supplies, which have been carefully placed throughout the house for maximum efficacy. The Levitt home dates to the early nineteen-twenties, which means there are dozens of hidden nooks and crannies where evil spirits can dwell. I concentrated most of my efforts in the attic, so that's where I head now. Hoping they're too busy arguing over my payment to notice the telltale creak of the attic stairs being lowered, I slip up into the wooden rafters to grab the most important tools of the trade — a bottle of super-hydrophobic spray and a portable air conditioner I placed near the home's HVAC vents.
The spray, one of my favorite tricks, is a prime example of the latest nuances of nanotechnology and its domestic applications. Some day in the near future, people will coat their homes in the stuff. It acts as a barrier for moisture of all kinds. Neither water nor bleach nor, as my activities downstairs have proven, red wine are able to pass through it to the fabric below. I used the spray to paint the shape of the dead woman on the carpet late last night, when Mrs. Levitt was huddled in bed, ignoring the thumps of her haunting.
The thumps, by the way, were a family of rats in the attic. I relocated them to the field out behind the house.
The portable air conditioner is just as easily explained. Cold drafts have long been associated with ghosts, and I needed a quick and easy way to snuff the candles at the moment of crisis. A perfectly timed gust of air-conditioning will do the trick — and because my system is set to last only a few minutes, no one thinks to question the ventilation system afterward.
It sounds bad, I know. And it looks even worse, especially once you figure in the work this family's going to have to do to set their house to rights after I broke all that furniture and smeared chicken guts on the wall. But the reality is that I haven't done anything Mrs. Levitt didn't ask for. When I got the phone call last week, she was tearful, frantic, desperate for someone to rid her home of the phantasmagoric plague that had cursed it ever since she found it listed on an online ghost registry.
You see, the real crooks in this world aren't the people like me, who eliminate ghosts when people have nowhere else to turn — it's those who invent them in the first place. The owners and operators of www.HowHauntedIsMyHouse.com are the ones who truly deserve our censure.
And to be fair, I did exactly what I promised. I got rid of the cause of trouble (those disgusting rats in the attic), and even more to the point, I purged Mrs. Levitt of the belief of said trouble. There's an important lesson in there. When I first became a ghost hunter, called to the profession nobly and with the most earnest of intentions, I didn't pay as much attention to the theatrical side of things, and my customers were almost always dissatisfied.
What do you mean, it's only termites?
Don't be absurd — there are no geomagnetic fields under my house.
My son would never switch the pictures on the wall in the middle of the night just to mess with me.
That lack of appreciation for my hard work hurt, to be honest. People don't want termites and obnoxious sons. They want dead bodies, and they'll go to alarming lengths to get them. Better a fake ghost today than one of them taking up murder as a hobby tomorrow — that's my motto.
As if to prove my point, the three members of my audience stand huddled around the body's outline when I return to the living room. They gasp and drop the blanket as if caught peeking up a lady's skirt. I smile to show them I understand the fallibility of mere mortal beings such as themselves.
"I left the protective amulet above your headboard," I tell Mrs. Levitt. "I don't think you'll need it any longer, but it's always nice to have that extra layer of insurance in place. Especially for a single woman living alone."
"Oh, thank you! Yes. How lovely." She rushes forward and presses a piece of paper into my hand. A check. "Jimmy is furious with me, but I added a little something extra to your fee. I can't tell you how grateful I am to have helped Mary's spirit find its eternal rest."
I do my best not to show my disappointment. Cashing checks is always a tricky business in my line of work. Naming my company Eleanor's Cleansing Service proved somewhat beneficial, since it sounds as if I carry rolls of paper towels instead of rolls of ectoplasm in the back of my hearse, but I never like having the watchful eye of Uncle Sam coming too close.
Uncle Sam is a judgmental old bastard.
"Thank you, Mrs. Levitt. I'm the one who should be grateful to you." I give her hand — and the check — a squeeze. "Putting restless spirits at ease is fatiguing but so rewarding. Not everyone has an opportunity to help people on both sides of the ether. I wouldn't change professions for this world. Or, you know, the next one."
And with that, I hoist the vintage medical bag containing all my tricks of the trade over my shoulder. To show you what a good person I am, I pause before making my escape, leaning forward as if to brush a light kiss on Becky's cheek.
"You two will be very happy together," I murmur. "You'll live a long, fruitful life free of spirits — restless or otherwise. I see three children. All girls."
Her blush and gasp of delight is all I need to know that I've done everything I can here. Pulling my gloves on tightly and making for the door, I notch one more happy customer on my figurative belt.
Now. Who said something about Mexico?CHAPTER 2
"I don't want your dirty margarita."
As if to prove how much he means it, my brother pushes his beverage across the table, sloshing tequila and lime all over the salsa verde. The frown he's been wearing ever since he walked through the door disappears as he smiles up at the waiter, a large, mustachioed man who happens to be his type. "I'll have a glass of water, thanks. And if she orders me anything else, you can go ahead and cancel it in advance."
"Good. That means there's more for me." I also smile up at the waiter. I've never been fond of facial hair, since there's something so scruffy about it, but largeness is a trait that appeals to me on a much baser level. "You'll have to forgive my brother. He's on a diet."
My brother, William, an elementary school gym teacher who works off about a billion calories a day, puts his frown back on. "I am not. I'm opposed to beverages bought with immoral money, that's all."
"My money is not immoral."
"Oh, really? Why don't you tell" — he breaks off to read our waiter's nametag — "Kevin here what it is you do for a living, and we'll let him be the judge. Go on. I'm sure he's dying to hear all about it."
To his credit, Kevin does appear to be interested in my story, but I imagine that's mostly because he assumes I earn my keep on a pole.
"I'll drink the second margarita for him," I say primly. As soon as we watch Kevin's large, retreating form disappear around the corner, I hiss, "Thanks for that, Liam. Now he's going to tell the entire kitchen staff about the exotic dancer at table twelve."
Liam snorts. "No one here thinks you're an exotic dancer, Ellie. I promise you that much."
If my brother's words seem harsh, I should probably note that I haven't yet changed out of the costume I wear when ghost hunting. In the ordinary way of things, I like to think I'm attractive enough. Though a little on the pale side, I have extremely dark hair and eyebrows, which I've been told have a striking effect on men when they first meet me. If some people say that's only because I look like an angsty high school student who's finally reached the legal age of consent, I would counter by saying that he's jealous his own youthful good looks don't lend themselves to impressing other men at the gym.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Séances Are for Suckers"
Copyright © 2018 Tamara Berry.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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