OF ASH AND SPIRIT: A CURSE KEEPERS NOVEL
OF ASH AND SPIRIT TRILOGY BOOK ONE
FEBRUARY 27, 2018
“I sense a spirit here. An older man.”
“I knew it,” Miss Louisa Carlisle said under her breath.
I pivoted around the living room cluttered with knickknacks and vintage furniture, including a baby grand piano in front of the picture windows overlooking the front yard. I held my palms out and kept my gaze fixed on the upper walls. This was my “sensing the environment” pose. Many of my clients thought it made me look more convincing.
Just another day in the life of Piper Lancaster, the gentle ghost whisperer.
“He’s confused.” I moved closer to the staircase, pulsing my palms slightly as if picking up psychic vibes. “He’s trapped between our world and the spiritual plane. I can feel his presence over here.”
“Yes!” she exclaimed excitedly. “My father fell down the stairs when I was in college. He died there at the bottom.”
I nodded. Her dead father hadn’t told me, of course. Rhys Sanders, my friend and co-conspirator, had provided that useful tidbit.
“He makes all kinds of racket on the stairs,” she said. “Usually at night.”
“He fell down the stairs in the middle of the night,” I said. “That’s why he’s so active then.” Or the more likely explanation—despite the fancy neighborhood, it was an old house in disrepair, and her imagination probably ran wild whenever she heard the creaks and groans of the settling floors and walls.
Not that I could blame her for that. She was hardly the only person whose imagination had run wild after the sudden reappearance of the Lost Colony of Roanoke nearly two months ago. In fact, my client bookings had increased from a handful of visits a month to one or two a day.
Everyone had a pet theory as to why the first full-fledged English colony on North American land had completely disappeared over four hundred years ago. The governor had left one hundred and eighteen men, women, and children in 1587 on Roanoke Island in current-day North Carolina, only to return three years later and find nothing. Not only were the colonists missing, but every last trace of the colony’s existence had disappeared.
Everyone also had a pet theory as to why the Lost Colony had so suddenly reappeared. The official statement was that the ruins had been uncovered by a storm, but most people weren’t buying it. Many of the naysayers attributed the phenomenon to the supernatural or even aliens, but my own theory was much less sensationalistic: tourism had taken a dive after the latest hurricane hit the Outer Banks, and someone had been brilliant enough to perpetrate an elaborate hoax to boost the flailing numbers tenfold. Maybe more. And plenty of us were reaping the benefits. Sure, Roanoke Island was a seven-hour drive from Asheville, but the paradigm shift hadn’t been limited to the island. The “impossible” had happened, which meant anything else could. With so many people believing the village had reappeared due to some kind of hocus-pocus, they were suddenly seeing supernatural events everywhere. Which was great if you were in the ghost-hunting and banishing business.
Asheville had already been a kooky city; now it was more out in the open. What had once been a little side business intended to help people settle their subconscious demons had become something more. I was busier than ever.
If I ever met the Roanoke tricksters, I’d have to thank them. Except I didn’t much like to think about Roanoke Island, let alone my own family’s connection to it.
Miss Louisa squeezed the tissue in her hand. She was an elderly woman dressed in tailored pants and a silk blouse. In my own brief research, I’d discovered she had inherited her parents’ house thirty years ago. She made her money, barely, as a piano teacher and had never married.
“Can you talk to him?” she asked.
“I can try. There’s no guarantee he’ll answer, but go ahead and ask him a question.”
She glanced around. “Can you see him? Where should I talk?”
“At the base of the stairs. He’s listening.”
She looked nervous as her gaze bounced around the staircase. “Daddy, why are you still here?”
What answer was she looking for? My clients often needed to know their loved ones were happy with both their situation and with the choices of the family members they’d left behind. Sometimes they needed to be absolved of guilt. I used to feel bad about faking answers from their loved ones—there was no getting around the fact that it was deceit—but I had quickly realized I was offering them something priceless, and it just so happened to be absolutely free.
That said, I willingly took generous tips.
Miss Louisa was waiting for me to speak. I paused for a moment, pretending to listen, then said, “Your father says he feels comfortable here.”
She nodded, looking relieved. “Can you ask him if Momma’s there with him?”
From what Rhys had put together, Miss Louisa’s mother had died of a heart attack in the hospital about ten years ago. I waited a few moments. “Your father says your momma has moved on,” I said, “but he stays to watch over you.”
Tears filled her eyes and she dabbed a corner with her tissue. “Daddy, you were always so good to me.”
I turned toward her, putting my back to “her father,” and lowered my voice. “Do you want him to stay, Miss Louisa? Or would you like me to send him on his journey?”
Surprise washed over her face. “Can you do that?”
I gave her a soft smile. “Yes. If that’s what you want.”
“But what does Daddy want?”
I’d spent the last fifteen minutes roaming Miss Louisa’s two-story Lakeview Park home, looking at photos of her parents and her siblings and her nieces and nephews. It struck me that she’d spent her life teaching children piano lessons in the home where she’d always lived. Miss Louisa was lonely, and though her voice had trembled with emotion as she told me about her strange experiences, there’d been no fear in it. The signs of the supernatural she’d experienced were fairly standard—noises in the middle of the night and photos on the staircase wall that repeatedly became crooked. Her last question answered my own. Miss Louisa wanted me to validate her belief that her father was in her house and to give her the opportunity to communicate with him. She wanted this haunting.
I turned to her and took her hand in mine. “I think there’s a reason your daddy hasn’t moved on, Miss Louisa. I think he’s worried about you.”
Her eyes flew wide. “Me?”
“He doesn’t want you to be alone.”
Tears tracked down her cheeks, and she dabbed at them with a damp tissue. “But is he happy?”
“Yes,” I said, “he’s happy to watch over you.”
She gave the stairs a worried look. “Should we ask him what he wants?” she asked again.
“We can,” I said, still speaking softly, “but your father is able to cross at any time. I don’t think he’s confused or stuck here. When I send spirits on their journey, it’s usually because they have made the host family’s life miserable. It sounds like you’ve coexisted with your father for years. I suspect he wants to stay. It’s a matter of whether you want the eccentricities in your home to go away.”
“Eccentricities . . . ,” she murmured as her head bobbed. “That’s a good way to put it.” She snuck a glance at the staircase. “I think I want Daddy to stay.”
I offered her a warm smile. “Then we’ll leave him to it. But if you change your mind, just give me a call. I would be more than happy to come back and smudge your house with white sage.”
“You’re a sweet girl, Piper,” Miss Louisa said, reaching up to pat my cheek. She stood nearly a half foot shorter than my 5’7” height. “Tabby said I should call you and not that other guy.”
“You know, the one on the billboard. The guy with all the equipment.” I couldn’t help but take some pleasure in her disgusted shudder. I knew who she was talking about, of course. My direct competition. My former boyfriend. He was the main reason I’d started this little side business. I was a thorn under his skin that wouldn’t go away, which was exactly what he deserved.
“Gill Gillespie?” I asked casually.
“That’s the one. Tabby said he and his guys were like a swarm of locusts, carrying all kinds of strange equipment into her house and disrupting everything. They kicked her out for a whole night, but they claimed they couldn’t find a thing. Then she called you. She said you were so quiet and sweet, walking through her house with your smoking stick and chanting, and then all the fuss in her house left with you.”
I remembered Tabby Gaines. She’d been certain the previous owners were haunting her house, so I’d told her she was right and smudged everything. Before leaving, I told her the problem had been solved, but she should call me if there were any more disturbances. There weren’t. My certainty that I’d taken care of my clients’ problems was usually enough to make them believe it. There was something to be said for psychosomatic cures. “I was happy to help her, just like I’m happy to help you, Miss Louisa. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
She shook her head. “Oh, honey, you’ve helped me more than you know.”
I grabbed my purse off the entry table and motioned to the matte black baby grand piano. “Do you still play?”
Her hands didn’t look gnarled from arthritis, but one could never tell.
Laughing, she patted the air. “Not like I used to.”
“You used to play for your daddy, didn’t you?” The thought had just occurred to me, but it seemed like a sound logical leap.
Tears swam in her eyes. “He loved listening to me play.”
Something tickled the back of my neck and I said, “He still does. He loves it when you play ‘Moon River.’”
Where had that come from? I was never usually that specific. Nor that spontaneous. It was dangerous.
She gasped and clutched her tissue-filled fist to her chest. It took her a moment to recover.
“That was Daddy’s favorite,” she finally said, reaching into the pocket of her slacks.
A chill ran down my spine.
Just a lucky guess, Piper. Quit buying what you’re selling.
“What can I give you for your time?”
“Helping you is reward enough, Miss Louisa.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said as she shook her head and pulled several folded bills from her pocket. “Tabby said she gave you sixty dollars.” She shoved it into my hand. “You take this.”
I took the bills but still held them in front of me. “Technically I shouldn’t charge you. Many people don’t consider this a real service.”
“Shows what they know, and besides, you didn’t charge me,” she said as she gave my hand a tiny shove. “I insist on giving you the money. There’s a difference.”
Indeed, there was, which was why I tended to only take referrals from previous clients who tipped well. The topic of fees invariably came up at some point, and the fact that I never charged was a selling point to many of my clients. If I had charged, it would have raised eyebrows and elicited suspicions of fraud, especially since there were several other paranormal investigation groups that showed up for free. But that was where my similarity to other groups ended. I was so different than what most people expected—a woman in shorts and a T-shirt who used sweet-smelling smudge sticks and talked to their loved ones in soothing tones—that they were grateful for the lack of intrusion and results. Despite all of his fancy EMF and temperature meters, Gill’s clients’ homes continued to have “activity” after they left. Only one of the homes I’d visited hadn’t been cleared, and it turned out that the banging they heard afterward was from an overgrown tree branch.
Word had spread over the last six months. If you wanted an expensive circus to show up at your front door, you called Gill Gillespie and his band of idiots. If you wanted results, you called me. And people were more than happy to tip me for those results.
Sometimes they gave me money. Sometimes they gave me homegrown tomatoes. Beggars can’t be choosers, and besides, it was driving Gill stark raving mad that I had more clients than he did these days, and for that alone, I’d do a good half of these jobs for free. For now, anyway. I knew it wasn’t sustainable, but it was what I had for now.
I headed out Miss Louisa’s front door, and as I crossed over the threshold, I heard an older man’s voice in my right ear, clear as day.
I came to a sudden stop on the porch, and Miss Louisa asked, “Are you okay, dear?”
I gave a tiny shake. That was the fifth time this week I’d heard a phantom voice on one of my jobs. The first time the voice had been a whisper, but this was much louder. I was losing it. “I’m fine. The heat caught me off guard.”
“It’s a hot one,” she agreed. “Dog days of summer.”
“It sure is.” Technically the dog days of summer ended in the middle of August, which was over a week ago, but I wasn’t about to tell her that.
I walked toward my car, parked in the driveway, and reached for the door handle.
“You’re in danger,” I heard a woman say.
Startled, I dropped my hand and spun toward the source, relieved to see an older woman standing in the driveway at the back of my car. At least this voice had a tangible source, but the woman looked incredibly old and frail. I had no idea how she’d gotten there on foot, let alone silently enough to sneak up on me. Especially in that bright orange house dress covered in white kittens.
“I’m sorry?” I said in confusion.
“You’re in danger,” she repeated. “The wave is coming.”
I shook my head. “What wave? A heat wave?” Sure, it was hot for Asheville, but not exactly deadly.
Her cloudy eyes held mine. “Be ready.” Then she began to hobble down the sidewalk.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end again, and I scanned the area, trying to determine if anyone was watching. Had Gill found out about my appointment and convinced this woman to take part in some stupid practical joke? But there was no one else around.
I did a double take when I realized the woman who’d spoken to me was nowhere to be seen. She couldn’t have possibly scuttled away so fast, could she have? The only thing that looked out of place was a small pile of dirt about twenty feet down on the sidewalk and a wisp of black smoke evaporating into the air.
An ambulance turned down the corner and pulled in front of a house down the street, its lights and sirens turned off. A man in a uniform got out of the passenger side and made his way to the front door, where he met a woman dressed in scrubs as she emerged from the front door.
“Oh dear,” Miss Louisa said from the porch. “It looks like poor Martha died.”
“What?” I asked, spinning to face her.
“That’s her hospice nurse. The family’s been waiting for the end for the last few days. I’m going to miss seeing her brightly colored house dresses around the neighborhood.”
“Brightly colored house dresses?” I asked, my voice trailing off as I thought of the woman who’d just issued me a cryptic warning. Part of me wanted to ask Miss Louisa if she’d seen her too . . . but what if she said no?
“God rest her soul,” Miss Louisa said, clucking her tongue. Then she walked back inside.
But I remained in place, watching the EMTs pull the gurney out of the back of the ambulance. I was being ridiculous. Half the people on this street were retirees.
I had not just seen a ghost.
I wasn’t the only one watching the scene unfold. A guy standing at the end of the street was tuning in with an equal amount of interest. He appeared to be far younger than most of the residents of this neighborhood—probably in his late twenties or early thirties—and he was overdressed for the heat in a medium-gray suit. But it was his looks that really caught my attention. His black hair and short-trimmed beard and mustache made a sexy contrast to his suit, and his perfect features were drawn into a scowl. Sexiness aside, the scowl made it clear he didn’t like what he saw. His gaze lifted to mine, and I gasped.
I’d seen him before. But when had I seen him before? It wasn’t the kind of face you could forget.
My phone vibrated in my pocket, and I jumped. Calm down, Piper. You’re becoming a basket case. I tugged it free, relieved to see Rhys’s name on the screen. She could wait. I hit the button to ignore her call and glanced back up at the mystery man.
He was gone.
First, the old woman had disappeared, and now him. Maybe I really was losing it.
I climbed into my car and cranked up the air-conditioning on high. Asheville was surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the higher elevation helped keep the summer heat down, but the temperature had broken ninety degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The rest of North Carolina—which was suffering in the upper nineties and hundreds and much higher humidity—would likely bitch-slap us if we dared to complain.
As I pulled away from the house, I called Rhys back and put her on speaker. “Sorry,” I said. “This was the first chance I got to talk to you.” Thankfully, my voice didn’t betray that I was possibly losing my mind.
“No worries. How’d it go?” she asked eagerly, but that was nothing unusual. She loved all of this and hated that she was the behind-the-scenes person. “You rushed me on the research for this one. I was worried I missed something.”
“You had all the pertinent facts. You were right. It was her father.”
“I knew it.” I could hear a grin in her voice.
I flipped my turn signal, then made a left back toward my house in North Asheville.
“You still have an appointment tonight at that house out on Beaucatcher Mountain?” she asked.
“That’s why I’m calling. Have you found anything yet?”
She hesitated. “Nothing. The house is only about thirty years old, and nothing I found on the internet or in the Citizen-Times microfiche could lend itself to a haunting. I resorted to digging up information about the general area. The only thing I come up with is Helen’s Bridge.”
“Helen’s Bridge,” I scoffed. “That’s a good quarter mile away from Evelyn Crawford’s house. That’s a stretch.”
“It’s all I’ve got, Piper.”
Helen’s Bridge would be excuse enough—it was arguably the most haunted site in Asheville—but it felt too clichéd and obvious to use it. Besides, the bridge’s “hauntings” had always been reported at either the bridge itself or the large historic house next to it, Zealandia Castle. Never in Evelyn Crawford’s neighborhood.
I pushed out a breath. “Maybe I should reschedule. I hate evening appointments anyway. I prefer to do them in daylight.” Unlike Gill. I’d always been creeped out by the prospect of visiting some abandoned, supposedly haunted place after midnight. But Evelyn’s house wasn’t technically abandoned. Sure, she hadn’t stayed in the house for the last week, but all her things were still there. It was a lot less creepy that way.
According to the email she’d sent, stuff had started getting weird about a month ago and had gotten progressively worse ever since. Things that went bump in the night or moved around, the usual signs of a psychosomatic manifestation. I usually followed up with an interview on the phone, but this appointment had been too rushed for me to fit one in.
“I thought she needed this taken care of fast,” Rhys said. “Isn’t she trying to sell her house because of her divorce?”
“Yeah.” Her soon-to-be ex-husband was my number one suspect. He wouldn’t be the first person to try to scare an ex out of their shared home. Evelyn had mentioned in her note that they were locked in a bitter dispute over who would get the house. I was reluctant to get in the middle of it, but if I found evidence that Mr. Crawford was moonlighting as the resident ghost, I’d have to call out a human source.
“And isn’t her brother a producer on one of those cable channels that broadcasts ghost hunter shows?”
That was what had finally convinced me to take a chance.
Over the last year, my original life plan had hit a speed bump, although it was admittedly one I’d put there. Last summer, I’d made the decision to put my last year of law school on hold, much to my grandmother’s utter dismay. I’d assured her—and myself—it was temporary, and returned to Asheville to work full time as a legal assistant at my deceased father’s law firm. The Gill thing had kind of just happened, partly out of boredom, partly because he was sexy as hell and I’d needed a diversion, and partly out of some strange interest in ghosts that I’d never allowed myself to indulge before. But six months ago, that speed bump I’d hit had turned into an enormous wall forcing me to pull a U-turn.
My deceased father’s bombshell six months ago only accounted for a few bricks in that wall. Gill Gillespie’s highway robbery of part of my inheritance two weeks later sent me into a full-blown midlife crisis at the ripe age of twenty-four. I officially dropped out of law school and took up my new “hobby.”
I’d considered quitting the ghost whisperer gig more times than I could count, especially since it paid so little, but I couldn’t ignore that I felt like I was actually helping people, even if I was duping them to do it. I wasn’t just doing this to mess with Gill . . . I kind of liked it.
In the meantime, I’d gone from working full time to part time at my father’s law firm. I’d been there even less over the past month, though the situation wasn’t quite the Piper’s-messing-up-again catastrophe my grandmother believed it to be.
At least I had something to do. And besides, I had help. Rhys had been a junior when we’d met my senior year at UNC Asheville, and we’d kept in touch after I moved to Durham for law school. So when my first ghost-hunting case accidently fell into my lap—okay, so it was a case I’d stolen from Gill just to piss him off—I asked her to help me research the house and surrounding area. As the cases became more frequent and people began to tip me for my services, I continued to seek out her help—in return for half of my unsteady income.
One night, after a few glasses of wine too many, I’d joked that we could get our own ghost-hunting show, and she’d latched on to the idea like a dog with a bone. (To be fair, there probably wasn’t a whole lot of money in her future. She’d stayed at UNCA to get a master’s degree in early Roman history.)
“That doesn’t mean she’ll recommend me to her brother,” I said. “And it would be tacky to bring it up.”
“I know you think her asshole husband is the culprit, but if you can make it a badass ghost, it’s sure to resonate with her more.”
“Rhys . . . ,” I sighed. “If it is her husband, the haunting won’t go away. Which would be worse. My clients believe in me, and the activity stops if they want it to. If it’s her husband, it will look like I failed.”
“I suppose you’re right,” she said with a pout in her voice. “I was sure that guest spot on Darling Investigations was going to do more for us.”
Back in April, a producer had found my blog, The Gentle Ghost Whisperer of Asheville, which was full of stories about my clients—names changed to protect the innocent, of course—and invited me to be on a new reality TV show with a has-been former child actress, Summer Butler. Rhys had gotten her hopes up about my appearance on the show. “Too bad they cut my entire segment,” I grumbled. “It just wasn’t our time.”
Rhys sighed. “We’ll figure it out. I’m about to head to a study group. We’re only into our second week of school, and this Latin class is already intense.”
“Is that the class you have with that cute redhead, Abby?”
I could hear the grin in her voice. “Maybe . . . but that has nothing to do with my need to go to the group. She’s just an added bonus. Let me know how tonight goes.”
“Miss Louisa gave me sixty bucks, so I’ll add it to the spreadsheet and PayPal you your cut at the end of the week.”
“Sounds good. Good luck at Evelyn Crawford’s.”
I hung up, thinking I needed all the luck I could get tonight.
When I pulled into my driveway, an uneasy feeling settled in my gut. That had been happening a lot lately too. Like I was being watched. Like something bad was about to happen. My best friend Hudson claimed it was because I was wallowing in a trough for unhealthy feelings and bad juju. Maybe he was right—okay, I was sure he was right—but I couldn’t bring myself to care. Gill deserved all the payback I could give him. Shame on him for stealing the fifteen thousand dollars in cash my father had left for me in a manila envelope. Shame on me for putting my father’s reputation above my need for cash.
As far as I was concerned, I’d only just begun to make Gill suffer.
But there was no denying my increased paranoia, and as I walked toward my kitchen door, my whole body tensed as if it knew I was about to face danger. Maybe Hudson really did have a point.
When I walked into the kitchen, I found the source of my unease—my grandmother was sitting at my kitchen table, and the glare in her eyes guaranteed she wasn’t interested in a friendly chat.