Authors: Gina Ardito
Tags: #Adult, #Ghosts, #PNR
Knock off the
crap and concentrate,” Luc growled.
A faint odor
stung her nostrils. Mildew. The tang grew sharper, nearly choking her throat. She opened her eyes to darkness. Within two beats of her heart, her vision cleared.
Heavy oaken beams triangulated above Jodie. Dust-covered sheets draped objects of various shapes and sizes, some broad and squat, others tall and narrow. A family of mice squeaked in a far corner. Chinks of light filtered in from vents on either end of the cramped space.
he filmy outline of a young woman floated in the gloom. She wore her hair long and blown around her shoulders, a look reminiscent of Jennifer Aniston in the nineties. Her clothing, an ivory silk gown embedded with crystals and slashed across the abdomen into two separate pieces, also appeared to embody the era’s fashion.
e blinked, and then blinked again. The vaporous form still hovered. As Jodie’s vision intensified in the dingy air, the woman’s form became more solid and sharpened around the edges. The ghost’s core, however, remained translucent.
A whoosh echoed in Jodie’s
ears, and another presence hummed to her left, gaining her full attention, at least temporarily.
?” She may have tried to utter his name aloud, but her lips never moved. She and Luc obviously communicated through a higher plane, a thought process beyond language. An Afterlife sensory-meld.
Right beside you
.” In the same manner as her dialogue, his voice resonated inside her, jumping electrical circuits and snapping synapses. “
Remember. Let me do the talking here
.” Whorls of colorful lights spiraled as he turned his attention to the other spirit in attendance. “Kristin?”
The phantom nodded.
“It’s time to go,” Luc said, his tone an easy cadence.
The woman’s hands flew to her face, and her shoulders hunched up and down as if she wept. Luminescent fingers still obscuring her features, she shook her head. “I’m not ready yet.”
Kristin,” he coaxed with the patience of a doting parent. “You knew we’d come for you. The Council is eagerly awaiting your arrival.”
In all their time together, Jodie had never heard such a
sympathetic tone from him. Envy pierced deep in her center, in what would have been her heart. Since her suicide, only Serenity had treated her with true kindness. Would her Afterlife have been different if she hadn’t committed suicide? If she’d fairly played out the life dealt her, would she have received more compassion from those she’d met later?
“You’re about to embark on a wonderful new adventure,” Luc whispered.
Despite his genteel manner, the stubborn spectral socialite shook her head again. “You don’t understand. I can’t go yet.”
Why would anyone
spurn Luc’s polite request, preferring to stay in this cramped crawlspace? While Luc attempted to cajole Kristin into submission, Jodie scanned the rundown attic. What could possibly keep a woman such as Kristin here? Certainly none of the clutter in this run-down storage space.
The Voice had provided details about Kristin’s greedy siblings, her sudden downturn in finances, and her struggle with the lung disease that finally overwhelmed her. Nothing Jodie had absorbed from the glowing, jittery clipboard warranted remaining in a stuffy attic for eternity. So what did Kristin hide that would require such sacrifice?
Maybe the answer lay on one of the other floors of this creepy house. She forced her mind to propel her cellular structure downstairs. When her filaments grew fine as sand, she poured through a knothole in the floorboard, aimed for the room directly below the attic.
She landed, once again
a full spectral entity, in a bedroom with a limestone fireplace, a four-poster bed, and a matching dresser in warm cherry. Voices erupted as the door swung open, bringing in a rush of cool air and the odors of male sweat.
“I’m not going to just give you the property, Jasper,” a
platinum blond said as she bustled inside. “If you really want this wreck of a house, you’ll pay me half of the fair market value. For God’s sake, it isn’t like you can’t afford it.”
A tall cadaverous man followed, his thin lips drawn into a flat line.
“You’re missing the point…as usual, Jessica. If I use my half of the insurance payouts to give you ‘fair market value,’ I’ve got nothing left to pay for the improvements this place will need to make it habitable again. God knows why Kristin let it go to pot the way she did.”
Hands on hips,
Jessica whirled. Brimstone fire blazed in her eyes. “So…what? I’m supposed to let you have the house
the insurance money?”
“Only for the short-term
.” The man raked a claw, shaking with suppressed rage, through his gilt hair. “You’ll get your half of fair market value in five years’ time.”
“Fine.” She tossed her head. “Give me
what you think fair market value will be five years from now, taking into consideration what the house will be worth with the improvements you plan to make. Then, we’ll have a deal.”
“But that’s not fair to me. I’m going to do the work.”
“Oh, please!” Her fingers flitted through the air. “You’re going to hire crews to do the work. God forbid you should ruin your manicure or get a callus while performing manual labor.”
“Look who’s talking,” he retorted.
“When was the last time you carried anything heavier than a Birkin bag?”
Jodie’s head pounded. Surely,
Kristin didn’t linger here because of these two, did she? They weren’t worth waiting ten years to enter the Afterlife. They weren’t worth ten seconds. No. Kristin had to have another reason. A much more powerful incentive to want to remain pinned to this place. Time to travel down another level. Her motions were effortless now as she again transformed to a fine mixture and poured like sunlight through the floor to a warm and cozy kitchen.
As soon as she entered the room, she sensed whatever she sought wouldn’t be found here. This was a room of sustenance
, of holiday dinners, of coffee and conversation. One of Mom’s old adages whispered through Jodie’s memory.
The heart of a home is its kitchen
. The heart here had dimmed with the home’s owner, becoming a ghostly shadow of happier times. Moving on…
Next to the kitchen sat the cheery dining room. Beyond that, however, came what Jodie would have considered a living room, but
, in a house this size, was probably a sitting room or den. Queen Anne chairs angled catty-corner near a white marble fireplace. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined the walls. First editions with thick maroon or hunter green bindings and gold foil lettering filled every available gap. And then she spotted a familiar title facing out among the sideways spines. The aged ivory dust cover proclaimed in bold brown letters:
Rebecca, A Novel by Daphne du Maurier
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…
Coincidence? Doubtful. From what she’d seen of the Afterlife thus far
, every thought, every action, every meeting had a purpose. So if Jodie’s last conscious thought before arriving here at the Esterby estate was the first line of a book sitting in a place of honor on the shelf in the Esterby library, she’d indulge in some deeper investigation.
Nancy Drew, girl detective.
Stifling a giggle, she focused
on the title blaring from the book’s cover. She drifted to the shelf and reached for the novel. Her fingers wafted through the cover and hundreds of pages like a plane through clouds, grasping nothing. Damn. This not-human-only-energy aspect of her existence could be mighty inconvenient. Now what? She recalled the scene in
, a movie she’d seen a long time ago, about a guy who’d died and stayed on Earth to protect his girlfriend. The guy had met another ghost who’d taught him to take all his emotions and focus them on the object he wanted to move.
Okay…let’s give that a try.
She began with an image of Gabe and collected
tremendous amounts of disappointment, self-pity, and shoulda-woulda-couldas. But the simple act of amassing that energy sapped her strength, and from habit, she leaned against the shelf, struggling to regain her strength.
How did a Fury manage to use negative energy for acts of supreme destruction? She couldn’t even pick up a book. Dammit, where was a helpful phantom mentor when she needed one? Like Casper, the friendly bounty hunter…
Unfortunately, Casper didn’t exist. She was stuck with
Luc, who obviously wanted her to fail. Why, she couldn’t begin to understand. Except so he might tell Sherman and the Board, “I told you so.”
All the more reason she wouldn’t ask for his help. She’d figure out this Kristin puzzle or die trying. Or…whatever dead people did when death wasn’t an option.
Think, Jodie, think!
Maybe using a movie for research wasn’t the brightest idea she’d ever had
. Disappointment poked her brain, but she refused to dismiss the theory without a more definitive attempt to make it work. What if all she needed was a different emotion? Or a different impetus for that emotion?
Furies, no doubt, relied on hate
, a feeling with which she had little experience. Considering her past, though, maybe love was a better answer. But she had no great experience with love, either. Still, love had to have more power than any amount of self-pity or self-loathing. Didn’t love conquer all?
So what did she know of love? Only what her parents had taught her.
Keeping the ideals of love uppermost in her mind, she scanned her memories. She recalled her mother in a straw hut in Kingston, teaching Jamaicans—young and old alike—to read. She remembered her father’s participation in an anti-poverty project in Belize, his forceful voice calling for better schools, access to libraries, and the right to educate all people, regardless of their gender or station. Then there was the free software her parents wrangled from private and corporate donors for use in schools in Venezuela.
All those years, all their sacrifices,
all for love. Not for love of her, although, throughout her childhood, Jodie never once doubted her parents’ devotion. No. Jack and Rachel Devlin loved all mankind, and struggled to provide those less fortunate with benefits to change their destinies. To overcome poverty, disease, and ignorance. Theirs was the greatest gift one man could bestow upon another. The Devlins represented hope.
that realization crystallized in Jodie’s mind, her fingers solidified. One hand curled around the book while the other skimmed between the front and back cover. Wedged inside the title and copyright pages perched a photograph. A newborn, wrapped in a hospital blanket, stared out at the world through eyes wider and bluer than the Caribbean Sea. Jet black curls, slightly damp, swathed the tiny head.
Flipping the picture over, Jodie noted the simple statement written along the back.
Rebecca Lynn Esterby, born July 3, 1998.
Jodie suddenly realized why the ghost in the attic wished to
remain earthbound for eternity. Poor spinster Kristin Esterby had a love child.
Feeling smugger than a five-time
champion, Jodie returned to the attic in one headlong flight. Sure enough, she’d missed little in the debate between mule-headed Luc and bull-headed Kristin. They still stood where she’d left them, Luc’s arms over his taut black t-shirt, Kristin’s hands on her curvaceous satin-clad hips. Whorls of amber light sparked the air between them. A baritone echoed in Jodie’s head:
Welcome to Afterlife Gladiators...
“You still don’t understand, sir.” One major change: Kristin’s tone had grown decidedly more forceful in Jodie’s absence. “No matter what you offer me, I’m not leaving yet.”