I am in the midst of shopping my latest novel, tentatively titled And Ghosts Return, to literary agents. In the mean time, I thought I’d give you a taste of it by posting the first chapter. I’d love to hear what you think! Leave any comments you care to in the comments section. Here it is.
Is pressed by unseen feet, and ghosts return
Gently at twilight, gently go at dawn,
The sad intangible who grieve and yearn….
T.S. ELIOT, To Walter de la Mare
Chapter 1: Let’s Spend the Night Together
The bottle of Bordeaux popped from the wine rack and missed Ethan’s head by inches. Again. I hate poltergeists, he thought as he swung around to his right.
The wine cellar was so dark that he feared he wouldn’t see the shards of glass and spilt wine on the stone floor. The footing was already treacherous from the remains of the first bottle the spirit had tossed at him. He regretted wearing boots; sneakers might have given him a better grip.
“Who are you?” he called. When no reply came after several seconds, he added, “Are you Richard Masterson? Tap once if yes, twice if no.”
Still no reply.
“I’m here to help,” Ethan said, his voice strong and confident. The air smelled like sweet grapes; bits of broken glass crackled under his feet. “You’re trapped here, and you want to get free. I get that, and the man who owns this restaurant gets it, too. No one wants to see you get your freedom more than he does. Please talk to me so I can help.”
He paused, holding his breath. The clink of something tapping a wine bottle once floated through the chilly air. He let out a long, slow exhale. “Okay, Richard. Are you trying to get out?”
Ethan’s pulse slowed, but only a little. He licked his lips and gave a wistful glance at the one or two bottles he could make out in the gloom. “Can you show yourself?”
When nothing materialized after a few seconds, he asked, “Do you want to show yourself?”
“It would help me if I could see you,” he said. “I don’t think I can help you if I can’t see you.”
Another wine bottle hit the floor, spraying chunks of glass and more fruity scent, some of it on his jeans and pullover sweater. Ethan gave a little start and ran a hand through his thick black hair. “Do you want me to help you?” he asked, trying to keep annoyance out of his voice.
“I’m going to perform a ritual to free you. It will take a few minutes, but I think it will work.” He looked around at what he could see of the mess on the floor. “It would be helpful if you didn’t chuck anymore bottles at me. Can you stop doing that?”
“Thanks.” He felt around in the bag hanging from his shoulder. Finding what he was looking for, he pulled it out of the bag and crouched down. “I’m going to light a smudge stick in a few minutes. It’s part of the ritual. Do you understand?”
This tap sounded more like a clang. “Good. Yes.” Ethan set a rolled stick of sage, bound together with twine, on the floor. Next, he fished two small incense burners and a small pouch out of the bag. He tiptoed around glass fragments and spilt wine to a corner, set a burner on the floor and spooned a little incense into it. The wine cellar had no windows; this would make his task a bit more difficult. However, he’d dealt with closed rooms before, and he knew there were things he could control.
A small pouch containing quartz and amethyst stones lay inside the bag. He retrieved it, trying to keep the rattling to a minimum. The stones were not terribly large; at least four would be necessary in each spot. He set four stones on the floor surrounding the burner, then pulled out a fireplace lighter and ignited the incense. The sweet smell filled the corner as he slipped the perforated cap down on the burner and crept over to the opposite corner to repeat the steps there.
With the air growing pungent from the burning incense, he returned to the middle of the room and picked up the smudge stick. “I’m about to begin,” he said, glancing around the dark space. “Are you still there?” This time, there was no tap. Only the sound of the occasional car driving by outside broke the stillness. “Are you there?” he asked again. “Do you want me to help you?” Again, there was no reply.
“Damn,” he muttered. If the spirit had changed its mind back and decided not to cooperate, this was going to be a whole lot tougher. As he touched the lighter to the smudge stick, he grumbled about starting to charge by the hour, then let out a startled grunt. Something struck him from behind, pushing him to his knees and almost causing him to drop the stick. It didn’t take much guessing to figure out what had hit him.
“So, that’s the way you want to play it,” he said, stumbling back to his feet. “You think you’re the first poltergeist to give me a shove?” He was unsurprised by the silence that followed. “I am officially sick of this shit.” Tightening his grip on the smudge stick, which was now emitting thick smoke, he took a cautious step forward. When nothing happened, he took another step, this time with more confidence. Feeling somewhat assured that the poltergeist would not attack again right away, he began walking around the room in a counter- clockwise pattern, reciting the incantation:
“Negativity that invades this sacred place
I banish you away with the light of my grace You have no hold or power here
For I stand and face you with no fear
Be gone forever, for this I will say
This is this sacred place and you will obey.”
He repeated the chant in each corner of the wine cellar. The combined smells of the incense and burning sage made him a little light-headed. Performing this ritual in a windowless room was not the best idea, but if it worked, he wouldn’t have to try a more elaborate and difficult plan B. Wine bottles shook in their racks, making the cellar sound like a crowd at a wedding reception trying to get the newlyweds to kiss. Ethan squeezed the smudge stick tighter.
“You have no hold or power here
For I stand and face you with no fear.”
As he moved to the last corner, the temperature dropped a good fifteen degrees below the already cool level in the cellar. In the dim light, he could see the wine racks trembling as if an earthquake had hit. Gritting his teeth against the cold, he hissed out the incantation.
“Be gone forever, for this I will say
This is this sacred place and you will obey.”
Now he stubbed the smudge stick out on the concrete floor, sending up a small shower of sparks. He reached into his bag again and withdrew a small bell. Hugging himself against the chill, he stood above the stones surrounding one of the incense burners and gave the bell a light shake. He went to the other burner and rang the bell again, then sat down on the floor to wait for the incense to burn out.
Early dawn sunlight was beginning to peek through the front windows of the restaurant when Ethan trudged upstairs. He nodded to the balding, skinny man waiting at the bar, pulled up a chair at a table and plopped his muscular, five-foot-eleven frame down with a weary grunt. The skinny man looked at him.
“Got any coffee?” Ethan asked. The man assured him that he did, and poured him a steaming cup.
Ethan took a long sip and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he said, “It’s gone.”
“Are you sure?” the man asked, looking like he was afraid to believe it. He reminded Ethan of the actor Steve Buscemi.
“Absolutely.” Ethan gulped a little more coffee, dribbling some on the black whiskers dotting his chin. The man handed him a napkin from the bar. “I finished the ritual at around two. According to my measurements, there has been no occurrence of unnatural energy in the basement since 2:03. The noises, moving objects, temperature changes, all ceased at approximately that time. All indications are that your guest has checked out.”
The man smiled, lit a cigarette and eased into a chair opposite Ethan. “That,” he said, “is the best news I’ve had in a month.”
“There was some collateral damage.” The man cocked an eyebrow at him. Ethan gestured with his mug toward the stairway. “Your basement’s a mess. The spirit wasn’t going down without a fight. It lobbed a few wine bottles at my head.”
“How many is a few?” the man asked, frowning.
Ethan yawned. “I was busy ducking, not keeping count, so I’m not sure. Why?”
“I paid through the nose for some of those bottles.”
“So make an insurance claim.” Ethan finished his coffee and pushed the mug toward the man, who picked it up and got him a refill.
“And how am I supposed to explain this to an insurance company?” the man asked as he handed the mug back to him.
“You’ll think of something.”
The man glared at Ethan. “You were supposed to rid me of a ghost, not destroy my wine list.”
Ethan returned the look. “You had a poltergeist, a particularly energetic one. Be thankful that every bottle down there isn’t a heap of glass right now.”
“I should sue the crooks who sold me this place,” the man said, sitting down with a sigh. “They never mentioned anything about the place being haunted.”
“Yeah? What kind of price did you give them?”
The man made a face. “Twenty below market.”
“Sounds like you made out all right,” Ethan said as he slurped the coffee. The man scowled in reply.
Ethan drained his mug and stood. “Thanks for the coffee. Now, about the fee…”
“My bank will transfer the other half this afternoon.”
“Perfect. If you ever need my services again, please feel free to call.”
The other man picked up the mug and slid it onto the bar. “Yeah. If I find another goddamn ghost here, I’ll burn the place first. I don’t need to restock the wine cellar to replace bottles I didn’t sell.”
Sensing another struggle over collecting his entire fee in the future, Ethan nodded. “Well, if you know of anyone else with unwanted hauntings, I’d be grateful for any referrals.”
The other man grunted, walked over to a closet and removed a mop. “Time to go see what you left me down here,” he said as he headed to the basement stairs.
“Thanks again for your business,” Ethan said. As he reached the front door, he heard the man shout, “What the hell did you burn down here? It smells like a goddamn Grateful Dead concert!”
Ethan yawned as he got behind the wheel of his Ford Focus and started the engine. These restaurants in converted old houses were proving to be a gold mine. That little poltergeist clean-up job would net him $2,500, assuming the guy didn’t try to make a point about the spilled wine. He needed jobs like this to fill in the gaps between the Wenscorp projects.
Now that he was beyond the presence of supernatural phenomena, he could check his Blackberry for messages. Three had come in already, even though it was just seven-thirty in the morning. One from the realtor he’d been working with; one from Aaron at Wenscorp; the other from someone who’d found him in a Google search and wanted to discuss a job on his office building.
He decided to return the realtor’s call first. With his savings and the monthly retainer from Wenscorp, he could afford to think about a vacation home in the Carribean. His realtor was monitoring the market for him, and she was waiting by the phone when he returned her call. A condo in the price range he’d given her had just been listed in St. Thomas. Despite her subtle pressure to make an offer, he decided to wait and see what else might come along. She made no effort to hid her disappointment; he wondered if she’d already spent the commission in her mind. He promised to call her in a few days, and clicked off the line.
Half an hour later and craving a hot shower, he pulled into the driveway of his ranch house and frowned at the uncut lawn. He gave an irritated kick to a dandelion as he trudged up to his front door and opened the lock. Eli, his tiger cat, looked up at him with sleepy eyes from his perch on a chair. “Hey, dude,” Ethan said to the disinterested cat. Ethan had named him after the New York Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning, figuring that Manning’s performance in Super Bowl XXXII had proven that, like a cat, he had nine lives. Even though his hometown New England Patriots had been the victims of Manning’s heroics, he had to admire the man’s feats.
He dropped his jacket on a chair at the kitchen table, limped into the living room and collapsed on the sofa. The weariness of the night’s work washed over him, and he would have dozed off right there had Eli not hopped up next to him and demanded affection. Ethan petted the feline. “You need to eat? You probably need to eat.”
Eli uttered a soft meow.
“Right.” He gave Eli one more scratch behind the ears and got up. He almost had the tin can of cat food open when his phone rang. He glanced at the clock on his coffee maker. A few minutes before eight-thirty. A little early for business calls. For a moment, he considered letting it go to voice mail, then snatched it up. “Ethan Andrews.”
“Ethan, it’s Aaron.”
“Hey, Aaron. Give me a second.” He put the phone down, finished opening the can and picked the phone back up. “What’s going on?”
“Did you get my message?”
“Yeah, but I just got off a job. Haven’t even gotten a shower yet.” He scooped the can’s smelly contents into the small bowl in the hallway.
“Well, we need to talk.”
Ethan stood and tossed the empty can into the kitchen sink. “So let’s talk.”
“In person would be better.”
Uh-oh, Ethan thought. “Aaron, what’s going on?”
Aaron’s voice sounded cautious. “Can’t get into it on the phone. When can you be here?”
Ethan’s shoulders slumped as he gave a wistful thought to the nap he was not going to take. “Give me two hours.”