When Olivia James receives a phone call just after midnight, she recognizes her brother’s voice. But there’s a problem: her brother has been dead for the past nine weeks. Moving back to her old childhood home in Tennessee – the place where her brother has just died – her young daughter Teddy seems troubled, telling her mother that she’s being visited by a menacing ghost. When another tragic death occurs and her daughter disappears, Olivia must confront the demonic force that has cursed her family.
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By Lynn Hightower
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2013 Lynn Hightower
All rights reserved.
They call us, you know, the dead do. The ones we've loved, the ones who've passed. Someone you know has received a call – maybe it was you. They call to tell us they love us, to tell us they're okay. And sometimes they call us to warn.
For Olivia James, the phone call came through on the last night that she and her daughter, Teddy, spent in the California house. Olivia's brother, Christopher James, had been dead for just nine weeks. Olivia immediately recognized his voice.
The radio alarm had been set for seven a.m., but it went off just after midnight, at 12.12 precisely, waking Olivia with a song she had not heard since she was a little girl – 'Heart and Soul', that old romantic standby from the nineteen forties. Like every other child in America, Olivia had played the song on the piano as a duet, sometimes with her brother, Chris, but most often with her big sister, Emily, before Emily disappeared. Twenty-five years ago, when Olivia was only five. Six years later her mother died, from what Olivia always secretly thought was a broken heart. Both parents were dead now. It had just been Olivia and Chris, for the last ten years, expanding their little circle to spouses and kids of their own. Olivia and Chris and the ever present hope that someday their sister Emily would miraculously return.
Heart and soul, I fell in love with you –
Heart and soul, I fell in love with you –
Olivia's cell rang on baby. The land line had been cut for months.
Olivia was immediately awake. She was a bad sleeper, particularly these last few months, when the money worries had been extreme. She heard static, and rubbed her forehead, then frowned over the distinct echo of chimes. Wind chimes, she thought. The voice, so familiar, so longed-for, brought her sitting up and trembling in her bed.
'Livie? Do you know who this is?'
It sounded like her brother. But it couldn't be her brother. Her brother was dead. The death verdict had been bizarre. SUNDS. Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome. A rare, mysterious death that worked like an adult form of SIDS. People died in their sleep and no one knew why.
'Chris? Is it really you?' Olivia gripped the phone so hard her fingers ached. As if she could squeeze her brother out.
'I tried to hang on, Kidlet. But it just wasn't meant to be.'
The voice was her brother's, but different somehow, in a way Olivia could not quite figure out. But only her brother called her Kidlet. Her brother who was dead but talking to her on the phone.
'Chris, if it really is you, somehow, I love you, okay? I miss you.'
Static again, and Olivia got out of bed, pacing toward the front window, the connection was always better there.
'— sten to me, Livie, I don't have ... ong.'
The silence came like a vacuum, the voice gone. Olivia dodged the boxes that were stacked to the ceiling. The movers had taken ten long hours to get everything packed up, and were due in the morning first thing to load. She pinched one of the slats of the blinds and looked outside. The For Sale sign in front of her house was slightly twisted. There were lights in her neighbors' houses, and the blue of television screens glowed in every house in the cul de sac, though everyone was sealed up tight. Californians lived behind closed doors and did not hang out on porches, like Olivia remembered from Tennessee.
She saw the glow of a cigarette, and a woman in a dark tee shirt, walking her tiny dog. The woman lived three houses over, usually wore sandals with rhinestones, and she always turned away when Olivia said hello. Olivia made a point of saying hi whenever she saw the woman, in the way of southerners who use courtesy to mess with people under the cover of being polite. People who did not grow up in the south never understood they'd been insulted on the sly. Olivia had learned early that you could say any nasty thing that came to mind so long as you preceded it with bless your heart, and said it with a smile. Teddy's father, Hugh, called it her southern bullshit.
Olivia's throat was tight enough that swallowing hurt. She had just decided the call was nothing more than a dream when she heard the chimes again, and a crackle, as if a lost connection had been restored.
'... warn you, Livie.'
'Warn me about what? Chris? Warn me about what?'
'I had to pay the piper. You have to know it's been taken care of.'
'I don't understand. What's been taken care of?'
'... my fault. Don't let him ... after you.'
'Who's coming after me?'
'The Mister Man.' Static again. '... ove you, Livie ...'
Silence like forever in her heart.
The Mister Man.
Olivia stumbled across the hall, dodging the boxed up pictures that were stacked next to the wall outside the bathroom. She peered into Teddy's room, heart beating hard until comforted by the visible curl of her little girl, sleeping on the wrong side as usual, head at the foot of the bed, wrapped in the pink chenille bedspread. Olivia and Teddy had their peculiar habits of sleep, Teddy wrong side up, and Olivia always on top of the bedspread, because she hated the slippery sensation of sheets.
Winston, the golden retriever, lifted his head and groaned because his bones ached, but dutifully padded out to the hallway to nuzzle Olivia's knee.
Olivia and Winston settled side by side at the top of the steep stairway, Winston with his muzzle in Olivia's lap, smelling like old dog and comfort.
The Mister Man. Sibling code for the nameless, faceless unknown that made Emily disappear. Olivia knew that it was her imagination, but ever since her sister went away, Olivia had often felt the ongoing, unsettling sensation that she was being watched.
He is three million, eight hundred years old and counting. He is six hundred sixty years since renewed. In the flesh, he leaves the footprint of the goat, though he can leave the footprint of the man, if he chooses.
Tonight he walks behind the woman with rhinestone slippers, watching with his lazy yellow sated lion eyes. Her tiny little dog looks anxiously over its shoulder, but the Piper's business, his hunger, is not for the woman or this miniature guardian. The little dog strains the leash, hard enough for its tiny heart to burst, how delicious, yet the woman only frowns, no appreciation at all, too busy talking on the cell phone to her married lover. The Piper turns his connoisseur's nose up at the reek of her, ennui on the hoof, no thank you – too easy, too tainted, too dry.
It is the face he sees at the window that rouses him. Heart shaped and full, those fleshy pink lips, flower petal soft, the thick hair a man could wrap round his hand to pin her down, the juicy rounded body, contours where he could sink his teeth and chew. This one stirs his loins, and sings like an ache of exquisite pain in his blood. He tastes her, shudders at the strength of her yearning, though she hardly seems to know, truly, what it is she wants, only thinking of it as home, the hungry grief for the ones she has lost. Now hunger – that is one thing the Piper understands. And when they fall away into the dark, as some of them always do, the Piper is there to catch them. One more into the fold.
But he yearns most particularly for the special ones, craving the warmth and throb of their light, wrapping himself around it tighter and tighter until he chokes it off for good.
The Piper looks up at the window and smiles. She does not see him, oh no, she will not see him unless – until, dare he say it – she chooses that he be seen. The very best games have rules. But she can't keep him from stalking, and she is sensing him, smelling him, he prickles now on the back of her neck. He knows her sweet spot, her little Teddy. The Piper can always taste the salty red meat of their hearts.
He howls with pleasure, has watched her such a long time, licking at her heels, and he is after her now, like a dog digging up an old buried bone, but then he stops. He listens.
A scent, perhaps? Merely instinct?
Something makes him hesitate, stops him mid stride, chokes off the flow of pleasurable pain. He hears it very faintly, the voice that calls his name – not Decan Ludde, not Duncan Lee, the Piper has so many names, and he loves them all, like little treasures. This is the old name that knows him, that puts him in his place, and he feels the nasty anger that burns. He does not like being distracted from his pleasures, but he is a wise old hunter and he knows when to put the pretties aside and concentrate on the smells.
Nothing he can see yet, just the feeling, which is knowledge enough. She will not be easy prey, this one, she is not alone. They never are alone, if only they knew it. And how little they do know, how innocent and simple their delusions. It makes them that much more delicious to hunt.
He looks back up at the window. She is no longer there, but he feels her. Olivia. He knows her name and she'll soon learn his.
Next time he will leave her a calling card. A tiny pool of water, no bigger than your average blood stain, maybe by the bed. He likes water, it makes him strong, it travels, and he drowns them like rats in the water.
Let me in, little girlies, let me in.
This is how it begins. Again.CHAPTER 2
Olivia was barely aware when the movers arrived at nine forty-five a.m. instead of eight, and though she was a veteran mover and knew better, she supervised very loosely while they loaded the furniture and boxes. They were grateful for the Gatorade (electrolytes), the bananas (potassium for muscle support) and cashews (protein) that she always provided. They worked up a serious sweat and took smoke breaks, and, as usual, never stopped for lunch. By six p.m. the house was dirty, empty, echoing.
Olivia did her final walk through, with her phone jammed into the front pocket of her jeans, where it had sat, silent and uncomfortable, all day.
She had kept the phone line open for an hour last night before she hung up. Then she'd checked the record of incoming calls. It had been there, twelve twelve p.m., lodged, inexplicably, as voice mail. No number to trace.
The Mister Man.
Olivia was upstairs in Teddy's empty bedroom when she heard the front door open and Teddy shout for Winston. She headed down the stairs, smiling hard.
Teddy's khaki shorts were crumpled and stained with something orange, little round glasses loose on her nose, fine brown hair limp from the heat. Her toes were dusty in the sandals, and she had a Nancy Drew book tucked under one arm. Right now it was The Secret of the Old Clock.
'The truck's gone, Mommy. How come you didn't call? I'm hungry and Dr Amelia's taking us to the Wolf Creek Grill. I ate a bite of Winston's dog chow. It really wasn't bad.'
'I promise you she got to the dog chow before I could stop her.' The red of Amelia's hair had a harsh glint, like a bad dye job, though Olivia knew Amel paid several hundred dollars a month for that particular shade. Her eyes were brown, slanty and kind, and she wore black cat glasses on a chain around her neck.
Olivia had toyed with the idea of going red herself, maybe a rich auburn instead of her natural color of mud brown, but constant coloring was expensive so she settled for blonde streaks when she was in funds. She kept her hair shoulder length and layered to set off the rounded shape of her face, the Kewpie doll lips. On good days she looked at that face in the mirror and thought Botticelli angel. On bad days she thought fat.
Amelia had changed out of the usual white coat and scrubs into blue jeans and a tee. She was a physician's assistant with her own practice in conjunction with a family services clinic in Valencia, and she had been Teddy's pediatrician since the Los Angeles move.
'Teddy and I stopped and got your last bit of mail. Don't let me forget to give it to you.' Amelia patted the green crocodile purse slung over one shoulder. 'It's in the bag. So, are you hungry? Did you even eat today?'
'I had a mustard sandwich for lunch. Teddy, did you thank Dr Amelia for letting you hang out at her office all day?'
Teddy was shy around moving men. Packing up the house always upset her.
'Thank me?' Amelia said. 'I should be thanking her. She organized my store room, sorted and threw away all the old magazines, then curled up and read her book for the rest of the day. If I'd known how useful she was, I'd have kidnapped her a long time ago.'
Olivia gave Amelia a grateful look. Things had been going badly with Teddy since the divorce. Badly enough to scare both Olivia and Hugh into setting their inevitable hostilities aside, so they could present a united front.
The most infuriating thing was the lies – not big ones, defiant ones. When it came to the big stuff, Teddy seemed to have the strong moral center she'd had since she was a little girl. No, the lies she told were stupid ones. Obvious ones. Like a little girl begging to get caught. Things like eating cookies for breakfast and saying she'd had toast and jelly, when there were Oreo crumbs spilling down her shirt. Or saying that Hugh had given her permission to pour beer into Winston's water bowl.
Hugh and Olivia had instituted the policy of same rules, both households, had sat down together all three of them to explain all boundaries.
Teddy had responded by ignoring her work at school – going so far as to stand on the back of the toilets in the girls' restroom after lunch every day, folding her arms and refusing to come out, much less do her school work. Teddy was doing things that made Olivia want to laugh and punish her at the same time. My outrageous daughter was what Hugh called her now. But even when Olivia and Hugh laughed, they knew it wasn't good.
'Teddy, take Winston out, okay? He needs to pee.' Olivia waited till the sliding doors opened and closed. 'Amelia, what's wrong? You've smeared all your mascara off. And there are wads of tissues hanging out of your pocket.'
'Maybe I've known you too long,' Amelia said. Olivia was famous for leaving a trail of tissues wherever she went. 'And couldn't I just be sad because my best friend is moving all the way to Tennessee? Or tired because you called and woke me up in the middle of the night?'
'Why don't you just set that shit on fire and tell me what's up?'
Amelia tucked her hair behind her ear. 'Marianne Butler. More fluid in the lungs and Alexis and Jack won't let her go. They want another round of chemo while Marianne gags like a baby fish on a hook. Don't ever let anybody tell you drowning is painless.'
Olivia squeezed Amelia's hand. Little Marianne Butler, in and out of hospitals with leukemia for most of the three short years of her life, haunted Amelia in her dreams.
Amelia and Marianne's mother, Alexis, had been college room-mates, together during all the major milestones, graduation, Alexis marrying Jack, Amelia opening her practice. Four years ago they'd gone to Santa Barbara for a couples weekend, Alexis and Jack, Amelia and Brandon, for a miraculous forty-eight hours that ended with two unplanned events – Amelia and Brandon in a spontaneous wedding resulting in a marriage that lasted eighteen months, and the conception of Marianne.
Olivia had learned to slough off the little geysers of envy when she saw Amelia and Alexis together. A friendship, lasting through the years, stronger than your average marriage, was not an option for a nomad like herself.
'Look, let's skip dinner. You go ahead to the hospital, Amel.'
'I can't do it anymore, Livie. I won't. Alexis is a brick wall when I try and talk to her about it, Jack is a zombie, and the oncology team is dead set on prolonging the agony – there's nothing I can do. Let's go have dinner and a drink. Or two.'
'We absolutely have to talk. I've been googling all afternoon. I'll tell you over dinner, Livie, but there are entire websites devoted to this stuff.'
'Phone calls from the dead.'CHAPTER 3
The Wolf Creek Grill specialized in hamburgers grilled with melted blue cheese, portabella mushroom sandwiches, wood fired pizzas and house brewed beer. Amelia ordered the Asian Sesame chicken salad, which came with a side of fruit, and Olivia was not surprised that Amelia had been continuously stealing shoestring French fries off Olivia's plate. Olivia had ordered the Swiss mushroom burger, and set the bun aside, eating onions, mushrooms and meat. She was not in favor of salad for dinner, and did not care for any fruit except mangoes. She was happy to share her fries. She would have preferred mashed potatoes, because mashed potatoes, mustard sandwiches, and bread and butter pickles were her particular comfort foods, but the Wolf Creek Grill had none of these. It was hard to find bread and butter pickles anywhere but the south.
'Mama?' Teddy said. 'Ashley just texted me. She and Amber are going to the Marble Slab. Can I go over there too? Like a goodbye thing? I've had all I want to eat, I promise, I'm full, and it's right next door, so I'll be safe.'
Olivia glanced at Teddy's cheeseburger. Three bites, maybe four, but little ones. She'd made inroads on the fries. 'Okay, but you stay there, in the ice cream shop, till I come over and get you. Don't go anywhere else. Here.' Olivia dug her wallet out of her purse. 'Here's five bucks.'
Amelia shuddered. 'Five dollars for ice cream. The world has gone mad. And while we're digging in purses, let me give you your mail.'
'Amelia, I'll be right back. I just need to walk Teddy —'
Excerpted from The Piper by Lynn Hightower. Copyright © 2013 Lynn Hightower. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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