Read an Excerpt
Giulia Driscoll, formerly Sister Mary Regina Coelis, fell to her knees before her admin.
"Zane, please tell me one of your friends works in cloning."
Zane Hall, Summa Cum Laude at MIT, survivor of telemarketing hell, and Driscoll Investigations' unofficial bouncer, gaped at his boss.
"Ms. D., please get up."
"I planned to prostrate myself at your feet, but this one would object." She laid a hand on her barely there baby bump.
Zane's ghostlike complexion tried to pale even further. "You're still kneeling."
Giulia stood. "I spent ten years on my knees and have the calluses to prove it. Ninety seconds is a vacation."
Sidney Martin, DI's all-natural earth mother assistant and master unveiler of prenuptial secrets, peered over the top of her monitor.
"Why the interest in cloning? Although our farm would save a boatload on breeding fees if we could make test tube alpacas."
Giulia raised her voice over the early morning traffic noises coming through the open window. "Because it would take three of me and two of both of you to handle every potential new client in my inbox."
"Why are we the flavor of the month?" Sidney waved the words away the moment she said them. "Who cares? Now we can start Jessamine's college fund way before her first birthday. Olivier's already hinting at making her a brother or sister."
Giulia groaned. "Please don't have another baby until I'm back from maternity leave with this one."
Zane's Humphrey Bogart baritone tagged onto Giulia's plea. "I'm sorry, Ms. D, but nobody in my circle was into cloning tech."
"This might be the first time you've disappointed me." Giulia pressed one hand into the small of her back. "I don't know whether to send Stone's Throw a thank you note or see if one of our prospective clients will let us borrow their ghost."
"Their what?" Sidney said.
After a few mouse clicks, Zane turned his screen to face the room. The home page for Stone's Throw Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast proclaimed:
Have a Haunted Holiday! Thanks to Driscoll Investigations, the Stone's Throw Ghost has been Tamed! Can YOU sleep in the Haunted Room? Now Taking Reservations for Halloween Weekend and Beyond!
Luminous ghosts in old-fashioned costumes flitted across the screen. When Zane turned up the volume, a female voice moaned in time with the flying ghosts.
Giulia sagged into Sidney's client chair. "Every single email asking us to dehaunt a house is connected to Stone's Throw."
"But you proved there wasn't a ghost in the lighthouse."
Giulia rested her forehead on her arms. "Why let facts get in the way of a good advertising scheme?"
The phone rang. "Good morning, Driscoll Investigations," Zane said and listened. "One moment, please." He put the call on hold.
"Do we perform exorcisms?"
Without lifting her head, Giulia said, "We do not."
Zane gave the answer to the caller, listened a moment, repeated the answer, and hung up.
Sidney said, "Exactly how many emails this morning?"
Now Giulia raised her head. "Eight. Two poltergeists, four Ouija Board requests, and two asking for Tarot readings."
"But we don't do any of that," Sidney said.
"Thanks to Stone's Throw, the entire state of Pennsylvania thinks we do." She raised her head. "My floor is covered with failed attempts at drawing up schedules to accommodate our regular caseload plus the possible paranormal branch of the business."
Sidney held up a much written on spreadsheet. "I know I don't need to refresh you on our current caseload."
"You do not. But the wise business doesn't dismiss a whole queue of new customers beating on its door. In a manner of speaking." From her private office, her incoming email Godzilla roar punctuated her sentence. "I couldn't be more popular with the ghost-hunting crowd if I added purple streaks to my head and went to work for Lady Rowan across the street."
"You'd match the décor," Zane said.
"I'd almost be willing if I could reverse it when I need to work on regular jobs."
"I can change the phone greeting," Zane said. "For Tarot readings, press two. For Ouija Board sessions, press three. For exorcisms, dial 1-800-NEEDAPRIEST."
Giulia smiled for the first time that morning. "I will not dare you to follow through on the idea." She turned her head toward the door. "Did you hear that?"
The barest shadow of a human being faded from the frosted glass as everyone looked.
Sidney cupped her hands around her mouth. "It's the Driscoll Investigations ghooooost."
Giulia buried her face in her hands. Sidney scurried out of her way and opened the door.
The woman in the hallway plastered herself against the opposite wall. Over Sidney's shoulder, Giulia saw golden blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin.
Only the woman's dress stood out: white with a subtle jacquard pattern, it shimmered in the cool dim hall. Giulia estimated its price equaled a month of her own salary.
Sidney glanced back at Giulia before facing the hall again with a warm, welcoming smile on her face.
A single vertebra in the scared-rabbit woman's spine relaxed. "I'm, that is, I want to talk to, I mean, is this the Driscoll Investigations on the websites for Stone's Throw and Lady Solana?"
Giulia counted to five in Irish, a skill learned from her husband's grandmother. Then she walked into the hall holding out her hand. "I'm Giulia Driscoll. How may I help you?"CHAPTER 2
Giulia plugged in her electric kettle. "Would you like some tea?"
The woman perched on the edge of the client chair in the temporary shelter of Giulia's private office. Her thin hands gripped the arms of the chair like Giulia's former Novice Mistress used to grip the arms of her seat in an airplane. Of her mental list of reasons clients this fearful knocked on her door, Giulia chose spousal abuse or a guilty conscience worthy of a tell-all biography.
"Oh — that's Cissy's favorite tea." The woman pointed to the "Constant Comment" picture on the box of Bigelow's assorted tea.
Giulia took her Godzilla head mug from the shelf under her small tea table. The woman flinched. The mug vanished under the tabletop and Giulia opened her door.
"Sidney, would you bring me two Styrofoam cups from the supply cabinet, please?"
Three minutes later, Giulia poured hot water over the orange spice tea bags in both non-threatening cups. Constant Comment was the only tea three-months-pregnant Giulia didn't actively hate.
A few more of the woman's vertebrae loosened at the first sip of "Cissy's favorite tea," but that was all. Her eyes twitched to the desk, the painting on the wall, the curtains, the filing cabinet, and back to the tea table. She didn't come anywhere close to meeting Giulia's gaze. Her hands clutched the flimsy cup, and Giulia, watching, could barely detect her chest rising and falling as she breathed. This woman could've been hired as one of those human statues she'd once seen in New Orleans.
Since her first afternoon appointment wasn't until two thirty, Giulia accepted the challenge of drawing out the potential client.
"Would you like sugar for your tea?"
The woman started but avoided a "Caution — Hot Tea Is Hot" accident. She sipped.
"No. No. It's fine."
The statue returned. An evil imp on Giulia's shoulder tempted her to check for a talking doll pull string in the woman's back. Giulia dispatched that particular imp with a mental fly swatter. Instead, she let the silence lengthen. Despite the woman's makeup, an ashy tinge marred her flawless skin and circles the size of dessert plates ringed her eyes. Close up, the shadow-patterned dress — real silk — and the unusual diamond and silver wedding ring confirmed Giulia's initial impression of serious money.
When Giulia had suffered through as much of the tea as humanly possible, she said, "Have you stayed at Stone's Throw?"
Another full-body jerk. "Oh, no." A police siren screamed along the street and her head snapped toward the window and away again.
Giulia set down her cup.
The woman blurted, "You get rid of ghosts," and slugged her tea like it was whisky.
Behind her polite smile, Giulia gave a point to one of the old clichés: prying information out of a clam would be easier. "Is there a ghost in your house?"
The big blue eyes finally latched onto Giulia's. "I'm so happy you believe me. Yes, there is, or maybe there are. We're not sure how many. The ghosts are trying to drive me out of my mind or out of my house or maybe both, and Pip is wonderful, Pip is my husband, and he's made my life exactly like a fairy tale. The ghosts are tormenting him as well as me. They won't let him sleep. They won't let me sleep unless I play my nursery rhyme recordings. You don't think I'm silly for listening to nursery rhymes even though I'm an adult, do you?"
"Of course n —"
"The ghosts must have been there all the time, even all those years ago when Mama and Daddy renovated the castle from top to bottom. We call the house a castle because Daddy always called me his little princess even though it's only a plain old house. Do you think ghosts hide when certain people are around? I do. I think they were scared of Mama and maybe of Aunt Caroline too. When Pip and I were married and he came to live in the castle with me I think maybe they were waiting to see if Pip would scare them too." A fleeting yet stellar smile. "You'd love Pip too if you met him. Pip is wonderful and he's not scary at all, but now the ghosts are making our lives a living hell."
"In what way are —"
"Harriet showed me her Tarot cards when I was small, but Mama sent her away. Mama wouldn't let me have any Tarot cards, but now that the ghosts are ruining our fairy tale, I bought my own set. I'm still learning how to read them. You know Ouija and Tarot and have all kinds of occult knowledge. I read the Stone's Throw website over and over. You banished the ghosts from that bed and breakfast. Will you do a Tarot reading for me and Pip and see what the ghosts are planning for us? Then we can form our own plan of attack — you, me, and Pip — to kick out the nasty ghosts and make the castle all our own again." She drained the last of her tea.
Giulia's own breathing had speeded up to match this breathless monologue.
Voices from the main office penetrated the closed door. The intercom buzzed.
"Ms. Driscoll, your client's husband would like to join the meeting." Zane never called Giulia "Ms. D." when a client could hear.
This time the woman started so violently her empty cup went flying. Giulia snatched it in midair and slam-dunked it in the trash can. With her other index finger, she pressed the reply button. "Please send him in."
If Paul Newman had smiled instead of smoldered in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Giulia would've sworn young, handsome, chiseled Paul Newman now strode into her office and gathered the brittle woman in his arms.
Giulia kept her Oh, my reaction to herself.
The woman launched into another monologue: "Don't be angry, please, Pip. I couldn't take it anymore, and when I saw the wonderful reviews of this agency I thought I'd found the one person able to help us banish the ghosts."
Giulia resolved to police her language for the word "wonderful."
Paul Newman/Pip radiated soothing, adoring protector. "Honey, I was worried about you. I called home to see how you were and Cissy told me you'd gone out. She heard you give the address to the taxi driver, and I came right over."
Giulia also noticed the way he said "you'd gone out."
Pip said to the trembling lips upturned to his face, "You're my brave princess. You know that, don't you?"
Giulia worked hard not to gag as they murmured endearments to each other.
Pip detached one hand and shook Giulia's. "Ms. Driscoll, isn't it? Thank you for consulting with Elaine, but I'm sure we'll be able to deal with our unfriendly ghosts by ourselves."
"But, Pip —"
With another gleaming smile, Pip said, "You need to trust me on this, sweetheart. I'm working on a few of my own ghost-busting plans."
With the aid of a completely relaxed spinal column, Elaine draped herself like a mink stole onto his broad chest. "You know I trust you for everything, darling."
Pip repositioned Elaine over to his left hip. "Ms. Driscoll, what's the charge for today?"
Giulia put up her hands. "Initial consultations are free of charge."
He nodded. "Always a good business practice. I run a marketing firm. You'd be surprised how many small businesses lose customers because their thinking is too short-term."
Elaine's brief farewell touch of Giulia's hand couldn't remotely be called a handshake. Giulia didn't feel condescended to though. It was more like the woman had little to no face-to-face interaction with strangers.
Pip led Elaine into the main office. She squealed and unpeeled herself from his side.
"Pip, look!" Her thin finger pointed out the window. "A Tarot reader."
Giulia said, "Lady Rowan is the Tarot reader for the owner of Stone's Throw Bed and Breakfast."
Another squeal. "Pip, it's serendipity. Do you have time to go with me now, right now, please?"
The gleaming smile reappeared. "If you're sure this outing hasn't been too much for you, darling."
"Not a bit. I've been preparing myself since last Thursday when I found the websites. I know I can handle a Tarot reading." She reenacted her mink stole impression on his broad chest.
"Then I can't think of a better way to spend my lunch hour."
They left after another round of thanks. Sidney watched their progress from the window. "I hope she didn't drive here."
"She came by taxi," Giulia said. "Why?"
"She's glued to the curb. He's encouraging her to cross the street. The light's changed twice already. Third time green ...and there they go to land safe on the opposite sidewalk. She's pointing to the merchandise in Rowan's window. Okay; they made it inside." She faced the room. "Cinderella and Prince Charming?"
"Definitely," Giulia said. "I'm trying hard not to lust after her clothes."
Sidney shook her head with vehemence, her long brown braid swishing back and forth. "Fancy clothes all have to be dry cleaned. Did I ever tell you that perchloroethylene causes cancer in humans and animals and can harm your central nervous system, your kidneys, and liver?"
"But does it contribute to the honeybee die-off?" Zane said.
Sidney glared at him. "One day I will wash out your mouth with organic soap."
Desperate not to laugh, Giulia bit the inside of her cheek until her eyes watered. When Sidney became a mother a whole new side of her appeared at the same time: Organic Mama Bear.
Zane cleared his throat. "Do we have a new client?"
"Not this time. They're making a husband and wife project out of it."
"You know," Zane continued in a thoughtful voice, "if you could create a bogus haunting in her house and then sign on to banish the evil spirit, she'd swallow it whole."
"Fortunately, I possess an active and healthy conscience."
"I'm just thinking of those months when money is tight." Zane's charming smile rivaled Pip's.
Sidney returned to her desk. "If we turn into Cottonwood's Spooks 'R' Us, I will quit to raise the alpacas full-time, no matter how much spinning their wool gives me a backache."CHAPTER 3
At eleven o'clock the next morning, three pairs of hands on computer keyboards made most of the sound in both offices. Zane muttered at his screen as he worked on the complex research Giulia had assigned him.
Sidney's head turned left and straight, left and straight as she typed up case report notes. On cue, at least once for every case, she muttered, "I should never have cheated in typing class."
"You can still teach yourself to touch type," Zane would reply, and Sidney would shake her head. "No time," and return to her head-pivoting exercises.
Inured to this eternal exchange, Giulia typed a paragraph in her lengthy email to the Diocese of Pittsburgh. She read it over and deleted it. Another paragraph. Another deletion. She had a strong desire to lay a curse on an institution overburdened with wealth that nevertheless tried to cheap out on every business transaction. She had friends who could teach her how to lay such a curse too.
As always, she thought better of the karma hit and tried a third paragraph.
Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsodies" played at low volume from Zane's phone. Giulia pictured Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck descending on the Archbishop's office. The imagined chaos significantly improved her morning.
The outer door opened. All sound except Liszt ceased for three ... four ... five seconds. Giulia stuck her head around her monitor. Sidney's face could've posed for a surprised emoji.
As the music climaxed with crashing cymbals and crescendoing brass, Zane shut it off.
In a thinner baritone than normal, he said, "Welcome to Driscoll Investigations. May I help you?"
A feminine voice in the alto range said, "I do apologize for barging in here without an appointment, but would it be possible to see Ms. Driscoll for a mere fifteen minutes?"
Even though Giulia's door was open, Zane buzzed her. His vocal cords under control again, he said, "Ms. Driscoll, are you available?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Clock Strikes Nun"
Copyright © 2017 Alice Loweecey.
Excerpted by permission of Henery Press.
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.