Read an Excerpt
“Why can’t the dead die!”
She hanged herself from a plant hook.
One of those white, faux wrought-iron things that screw into the ceiling. It was guaranteed to support up to one hundred pounds. If she had weighed more than ninety-eighty pounds soaking wet, the darned thing never would have held and she would be alive today.
That was almost funny, considering that she had had a phobia about getting fat—she was only five feet tall—and had spent her entire adult life on a rigorous diet to keep her weight under a hundred pounds.
But then, such is life.
Life. The spirit—for she was a spirit—dreamily contemplated it. As she did, she felt a tingling within, like the slow awakening of a blood-starved limb.
Did she want to be alive again? The spirit pondered.
How it had felt to be alive was hard for her to remember. It was as though she were viewing life from the perspective of an underwater swimmer, as though life were a bright day seen through a distorting veil of water.
The underwater world was so much more real to her now that she was part of it. She was content here, in this floating, dreaming, distorting netherland that had been her abode for—how long?
She didn’t know. Time had no meaning for her now. Simply, she had been here since she died.
Since the night when her stockinged feet had rested on a cool metal desktop and a length of nylon rope had been looped around her neck. Since the night when she had choked and kicked and fought, fought, fought to breathe.…
Memory was swamped by the emotions she had felt at that moment, which burst through now with dazzling clarity: terror, disbelief, despair.
The water-veil cleared, and briefly she was back in the room where she had died, floating up near the ceiling, near the self-same plant hook that had done her in. Despite its grisly history, no one had bothered to take it down. It still curled like a beckoning finger against the clingy plaster, forgotten.
Why was she here? What pull was so strong that it had sucked her back from her lazy swim through eternity?
A face flashed into her consciousness: a man, blond and handsome. Followed by another, swarthy and rough-skinned.
With the faces came a name. Her name, from the life that had ended: Deedee.
Deedee. She’d been dead, but now she was back. Not alive, but conscious.
For a purpose. One thing she had learned was that everything had a purpose.
While the purpose remained to be revealed to her, she drifted out across the ceiling into the endless night, content to wait.
Toilets were the pits. Especially men’s toilets. Nasty creatures, men: didn’t they ever hit what they were aiming at?
Summer McAfee wrinkled her nose in disgust, tried not to think about just exactly what it was she was down on her hands and knees scrubbing off the floor, and plied her brush to the tile with a vengeance. The sooner she got the job done, the sooner she would be out of there.
“I can’t get nooo SATISFACTION …” Summer crooned the Rolling Stones’ thirty-year-old megahit in a throaty undertone as she worked. So she sang off-key. So what? There was no one in the vicinity to hear. Bringing her Walkman was a no-no on this job, so she had no choice but to rely on her own less than musical voice for distraction. Not that it was working. Despite the imaginary presence of the mythical Mick, she was as twitchy as a tied shoulder for what must have been the tenth time in a quarter of an hour. Not that glancing around did much good. The rising Lysol vapors were so thick in the small rest room that she could scarcely breathe, let alone see through the tears that filmed her eyes. Maybe she’d gotten a little carried away with the Lysol, but the men’s room had been so darn filthy.
Summer had enough vision left to assure herself that the rest room door was still solidly closed. As for what lay beyond the door—well, she just wouldn’t think about that. Whatever the creak was, it was certainly harmless. The building was over a hundred years old; of course it was going to creak. Harmon Brothers, a chain of funeral homes, was her struggling cleaning service’s biggest client. She was not about to blow the account over an idiotic case of the willies. Her worthless Saturday night work crew had failed to show up for the second time this month (she should have fired them the first time!). There had been no one else available to clean the flagship mortuary of the Harmon Brothers chain on such short notice. The bottom line was, the buck stopped with her. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d had to do an entire job by herself. In fact, when she’d started out, despite her bold claims to the contrary, she’d been Daisy Fresh’s sole employee: chief executive officer, chief financial officer, head of marketing, and cleaning lady, all rolled into one.
That the place she was cleaning tonight was a funeral home shouldn’t matter, not to a professional such as she prided herself on being—but it did. It was two a.m., she was beyond tired, and her imagination was starting to go into overdrive.
There were dead bodies in the other room. Rooms, rather. Three corpses, nicely laid out in coffins, ready for their funerals on the morrow. And one more, under a sheet in the embalming room.
Maybe it was just her, but Summer was discovering that she had kind of a thing about being locked in a dark, deserted building in the small hours of the morning with a bunch of dead bodies.
The key was not to dwell on it. Summer suppressed a shiver as she forced her errant mind to focus on the job at hand. The place between the base of a toilet and the wall was always the worst.
“… good reaction. / And I’ve tried / and I’ve tried / and I’ve tried / and I’ve …”
Summer almost swallowed her tongue along with the last tried. What were those sounds? Shooting an uneasy glance at the door again, she knew she was being ridiculous even as she did it. All right, so it was the dead—no, not a good word—the middle of the night, she was all alone in a restored Victorian mansion cum funeral parlor in the midst of a six-hundred-acre cemetery with four dead bodies, and she was letting the knowledge spook her. As long as she recognized that fact, and the sheer absurdity of it, she would be just fine. Corpses could not harm her, and there was no one else around.
“I’m the only person alive in the whole damn place,” Summer said aloud, then made a face as she discovered that the knowledge did not make her feel appreciably better. At this point, the presence of another living, breathing human would be more than welcome.
Finishing the third and final toilet at last, she sank back on her haunches with a thankful sigh and tossed her scrub brush into the plastic bucket nearby. It landed with a clatter that sounded abnormally loud in the echoing silence.
Summer winced, but of course there was no one to hear and be disturbed by the noise. As it died away, silence once again reigned.
It was probably the silence that was getting to her, she decided, giving her the feeling that a thousand unseen ears were listening and a thousand unseen eyes were watching everything she did.
“I can’t get nooo …” This time the song was hardly more than a breath of sound, pure bravado really, and quickly abandoned. Unable to shake the uneasiness that gripped her, Summer gave up on the Stones. Perhaps such unreverent music in a funeral home was stirring up the spirit world.…
How ridiculous! She was a thirty-six-year-old grown woman who had proven, time and again, that she could more than handle whatever life threw at her. Having survived the death of a parent, a failed first career, and a hideous five-year marriage, there was little left that could scare her. One thing was sure: She was not afraid of no ghosts.
Or was she?
If there’s something strange / in your neighborhood …
The theme from Ghostbusters brought a flickering smile to Summer’s face as it popped into her mind. Maybe she should sing it for courage. But she didn’t think it would help—and besides, her contract with Harmon Brothers specified that Daisy Fresh employees were required to behave with dignity on the premises at all times. Her cleaning crew was not even allowed to bring a radio to this job, and she would not have invoked the Stones if she hadn’t been so thoroughly demoralized by various stray sounds that in bright daylight would have seemed like less than nothing.