It’s that time again! I’ll be counting down to the June 29th release of Ghost of a Chance, the next book in The Many Travails of John Smith, by sharing sample chapters, advance reviews, content warnings, and whatever else seems fun. In Chapter 1, John’s Friday night out turned into a Saturday morning out, with his house ghost taking him to meet with the other White Ladies of San Diego. Chapter 2 continues that meeting as John gets a little bit more information on Graciela’s disappearance.
If you haven’t read Investigation, Mediation, Vindication or Blood is Thicker Than Lots of Stuff yet, please be aware that some of these sample chapters may include spoilers from that series. Read at your own risk!
IN WHICH A HILL IS NOT A HILL AND
ALL THINGS FLEE THE DAWN
According to my research, ghosts had been around at least as long as humanity itself. San Diego had seen its share of spectral encounters dating back to the eighteenth century, when the local mission was first established by Spanish monks. Even so, ghosts were little more than footnotes in the few marginally reliable supernatural histories I’d managed to acquire. The occasional haunting or exorcism made its appearance, but San Diego’s ghosts had never been a force to be reckoned with on more than an individual basis.
Graciela had changed all of that. I didn’t know anything about the ghost’s mortal life, but in death she had proven an active and able administrator. She’d organized the city’s White Ladies into a coalition to be feared. They, the vampire House, and the ocean-dwelling Mer formed the triumvirate that ruled San Diego.
In short, if the local spirits had a queen, it was Graciela. Which made the agitation over her disappearance easy to understand, even if that disappearance itself was not.
“When you say she’s missing—” At my words, the redhead wailed again, the shrill sound piercing the night. That was going to get old rather quickly. “—what exactly do you mean?”
Broken-Neck spat forth a stream of Spanish which no doubt contained disparaging comments about my intelligence. Or my appearance. Or my fashion sense. The only Spanish words I knew were the expletives my friend Mike had taught me. Even so, I recognized insults when I heard them.
The sneer on her translucent, glowing face was kind of a dead giveaway too.
“Okay,” I admitted, “that could have been phrased better. What I meant to ask was: when did you become aware that she was missing and what makes you think that something happened to her?”
“It’s been more than a month since anyone saw Graciela, boy, and she’s missed Assembly twice,” said the ghost in the bathrobe, gesturing to her Spanish-speaking companion. “Begoña traveled to her haunting and found the building empty and deserted.”
“Is it possible that she just moved on?” I asked carefully.
“She saw the light!” squealed the teenage ghost, in a broken voice every bit as disturbing as her laughter. The woman closest to her, a gray-haired matriarch wearing a tie-dye poncho, turned and shushed her ineffectually.
“Graciela would never abandon us,” growled yet another ghost, this one middle-aged with a prominent nose, “and I’ll have the tongue of any lying, no-good bastard who says otherwise.” She began to float through the tall grass toward me, as if to make good on that threat.
I took a careful step backward and found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with my house’s ghost. She bared her black-gummed teeth at the aggressor in an unmistakable challenge.
“Peace, Ruth,” said the ghost in the pink bathrobe. “This boy is a guest. We will not harm him for asking the questions of his profession.”
“Yes,” giggled the broken-voiced teenager, who had somehow crossed the space between us to whisper directly into my ear, “Instead, we should welcome him with open arms!”
Thin, spectral arms wrapped around my body in a hug that shook my bones. Lips branded my neck with white-hot fire. I tried to shake free, but my body was suddenly heavy and sluggish.
My eyes drooped shut.
A flash of light blinded me even through my closed eyelids. When sight returned, I was flat on my back in the grass, warmth slowly returning to frost-coated limbs. Standing above me like an angel of vengeance was my ghost, her dark hair and blood-soaked nightgown fluttering in a wind that had arisen from nowhere. She threw back her head and let loose a wordless scream of rage that echoed and rumbled like it was emerging from the depths of the earth itself.
The teenage ghost who had attacked me huddled where she’d been tossed aside, sobbing inaudibly in a broken little voice.
“Valentina!” Begoña’s sharp voice cracked like a whip, slicing through the wall of sound.
My ghost didn’t acknowledge the broken-necked woman, but her dreadful wail cut off. Silence descended upon the hilltop, broken by my own labored breaths, the whimpers of the teenage spirit, and the quiet murmuring of the ghostly circle that had tightened even further around us.
“Nobody begrudges you the right to protect your human,” the bathrobe-wearing ghost said soothingly, the metaphorical good cop to Begoña’s bad, “but your point has been made. I’m sure Jennifer has seen the error of her ways, yes?”
My ghost—Valentina?—seemed unmoved by the other’s words. I wasn’t sure if she had even heard them. Under her pitiless gaze, the teenage Jennifer was squeezing herself into an increasingly tiny ball, the way only someone who was mostly ephemeral could do.
The deep bruises that had killed her again flickered across translucent skin.
I was up before I even knew my legs could support me, stepping between the two ghosts in what my biographer would no doubt call the damn fool move that got John Smith killed.
She turned her head to regard me, hair falling back in front of her face as the wind went still. Behind that veil, her black eyes were angry. I had a small glimmer of what my would-be killers had felt before their deaths the previous winter, and almost felt bad for them.
Except that they’d been assholes intent on murdering my parents.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m fine. Thanks to you. Again.” I offered a smile, trying not to let my teeth chatter.
Valentina held my gaze for a long moment, and then returned a black-gummed smile of her own, stepping away from Jennifer like the other ghost no longer existed.
Begoña rattled off another stream of incomprehensible Spanish, and the bathrobe-wearing ghost nodded in agreement. Around me, the illumination began to dim as ghosts flickered out like candles. In a single breath, I was alone on the hilltop with Valentina and the two women who had seemingly inherited the mantle of leadership in Graciela’s absence.
“You were right,” the squat ghost told Begoña grudgingly. “It was a mistake for us all to be here.”
Begoña’s reply, even in Spanish, had the recognizable tones of a satisfied I told you so.
“The girls have as much invested in Graciela’s fate as any of us,” the other ghost continued, now facing me, “and they wanted to be here for your hiring. I apologize if you came to any harm.”
“You can make it up to me,” I said, “by introducing yourself. And by calling me John, like I asked. I stopped being a boy more than a decade ago.”
“Ha!” She barked a laugh. “Fair enough. I am Margaret. Call me Marge and not even Valentina will be able to protect you. My companion, as you have no doubt gathered, is Begoña. And you are John Smith, and not a boy, even though I have great grandchildren older than you.”
“Uhm, right.” Great grandchildren? The only math I did these days was on my wonderphone’s calculator app but given that Marge looked to have been in her forties when she died, that meant she’d been a ghost since long before I was born. I had nothing against the elderly—some of my best friends counted their lives in centuries, after all—but the whole thing still made my head spin.
“So then, John,” continued Marge, “will you take the case?”
A smart man would have said no and found himself abandoned on this unlikely hill in the middle of what couldn’t possibly be San Diego, never to be seen again.
A wise man would have sought assurance of safe passage and then made the same choice as the smart man.
Sadly, nobody had ever accused me of being smart or wise. I liked to think of myself as a good person though, and this was a chance to help the ghost at my side. Valentina had now saved my life twice and continued to protect my parents and keep me company.
I owed her, and Smith men paid their debts.
Moral debts, anyway.
“I’ll take the case.”
“Excellent,” said Marge. “Ask your questions, and we will do our best to answer.”
After all the drama leading up to that point, the actual briefing was anti-climactic. And short. Part of that was because we no longer had a dozen other ghosts hanging on—and reacting to—every spoken word. But mostly, it was because I’d spent the night drinking at a bar and was having trouble figuring out what I needed to ask.
As Marge had already told me, Graciela hadn’t been seen for a month, and the location she’d been haunting for the past twenty years was free of her presence.
Whatever that meant. I was guessing the phrasing held more significance for the ladies than it did for me.
Because ghosts didn’t own or use cell phones, neither Margaret nor Begoña had been able to leave their absent leader a voicemail, check her Twitter status, or even review her Foursquare check-ins. That was why they’d finally decided to hire me, on the off chance that a mediocre private investigator would make an exceptional ghost finder.
It was one more skill I’d have to add to my business cards and LinkedIn profile. If I ever bought business cards. Or signed up for LinkedIn.
“How do you know,” I asked, aware that I was repeating myself, “that she’s still alive? Or, well, I mean, you know.” Flustered, I fumbled for the right words. “Couldn’t she have passed? Again?”
Marge and Begoña—who clearly understood English, even if she refused to speak it—gave me matching looks of condescension and pity.
“Ghosts clearly go somewhere eventually,” I pointed out, “or the world would be drowning in them. And I think humanity might have noticed that.”
“You’d be surprised what mortals fail to notice,” Marge murmured, shrugging heavy shoulders and tightening the pink bathrobe about her for at least the fifth time. I was starting to think that was a nervous tic from her mortal life. Certainly, the action served little purpose when both that robe and the woman beneath were translucent. “It’s true that we eventually fade, but only when we are ready to do so. Graciela is young and driven. She has centuries left to her. She would never have abandoned us. We’re more than just a group to her; we’re a—”
“Vocación,” supplied the other ghost, and even my non-existent Spanish was sufficient to make the necessary translation.
“So, you suspect foul play?” It was the sort of line I’d always wanted to say on a case, but now that the opportunity had finally arrived, there was no joy in it. Go figure.
“Maybe,” Marge admitted. “I can’t think of anything else it might be, but I also don’t know who or what would have the power to keep her imprisoned or to…”
Do away with her entirely, I finished silently. If that was even possible. How do you kill a ghost? I shook my head. I was woefully uninformed. Worse, my buzz was starting to fade, leaving only exhaustion behind.
“Dawn approaches,” said Marge, “and its arrival will bring an end to our meeting spot. We must go.”
I guess that answered my question about why there weren’t any lights on the coastline. Sort of, anyway. A place that existed only at night? That was… Actually, it was pretty damn cool. Although it was hard to believe it was already almost dawn.
“How do I contact you if I find something? Or if I have more questions?”
Like, for example, who was going to pay my fee? Or why Begoña’s neck remained perpetually broken, when all the other ghosts I’d seen cycled between full health and the wounds that killed them?
Marge was already floating away but she paused long enough to toss a reply back up the hill to me. “We will meet here again next week. Tell Valentina if you must speak with us sooner.” With those words, she and her companion disappeared.
“Tell Valentina,” I said. “Well, that’s straightforward enough, I guess. Shall we go home now then?”
Silence. I was alone on ghost hill.
“Uhm.” Somewhere to the east, the first rays of the sun began to light the real world’s sky, and I could feel the ghost hill shiver in reaction.
“Valentina? Hello?” I didn’t want to see what happened if I was still here when the sun fully rose. Well, to be totally honest, part of me did, but that was the part that invariably got me into trouble. I was learning to ignore it.
I was spinning about in increasing desperation, when the dark-haired ghost appeared directly before me, her mouth wide in a silent giggle.
“Yes,” I said, “you’re very funny.”
She nodded, eyes sparkling, and took my hand in her cold grip. Once again, we began to move.
Ghost of a Chance releases June 29th, and is now available for pre-order in digital format!
Next Tuesday, I’ll be back with Chapter 3. See you then!