Sneak Peek–Unfinished Business

5 Mar

I’ve been working for a while on my next release, Unfinished Business. It’s a follow-up to Dead Man’s Hand and follows the same main deadmanshand2500x1563_001Gcharacter on a new adventure.

Ace Stubble is a lawyer who specializes in helping the undead and paranormal with their legal problems. In Dead Man’s Hand, he dealt with zombies, a werewolf, conjoined twin mobsters, and a cute hacker with a (literal) handful of difficulties.

In the new book, Ace signs on to help a ghost rid her haunted house of her pesky descendants, only to find that the ghost and the house are hiding some pretty nasty secrets. It’s a ghost story with a Lovecraftian twist.

I’m about finished with the editing and formatting, and I’ve got an artist working hard on cover design. Once that’s done, I’ll be ready to release this one as an e-book and in a paperback combined with Dead Man’s Hand.

To whet your appetite, I’m releasing the first chapter here as a sneak peek. Have a look!

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

CHAPTER ONE

So there I was—alone in the dark with the woman I loved. We held each other tightly, our hearts beating hard against each other, our emotions beyond anything words could express. You’d think it would have been a perfect scenario, one of those times you look back on later as a defining moment in your life, a time when everything lined up just right and yet just so fleetingly that you’d spend the rest of your life trying to find that perfect combination of touch and intimacy again.

Like I said, that’s what you’d think. Unfortunately, the moment was far from perfect. For one thing, she was bleeding from several nasty cuts. For another, the thing that had done the damage to her still had us in its sights and appeared to be gearing up for another attack. Worse, it had more tentacles than I’d yet been able to count. And to top it all off, I knew that if I could somehow manage to get us out of this mess, there was still a good chance the house would be torched by a well-meaning but misguided mob before my lady love and I could make it out the door.

Not my best Sunday evening by a long shot, and yet still likely to be remembered as a defining moment in my life. Maybe the final one. And to think that two short days before, I’d been fantasizing that the weekend’s work would be nothing less than easy money. Not exactly taking candy from a baby, but close.

More like taking candy from a ghost.

Maybe if I start at the beginning, it’ll make more sense.

*****

Some people have a tough time knowing when a ghost has entered the room. A spirit can waft past them, mess with them in creepy or humiliating or just plain harmless ways, and the poor sap never knows he’s been toyed with or even haunted unless the ghost wants its presence known. Not me, though. I’m pretty finely tuned when it comes to picking up the vibrations of the undead, and though a ghost may be subtler than a vampire, it’s still all the same to me.

I usually like working with ghosts, actually. They make good informants—the ones you can trust anyway—and they work cheap. Most are so damned bored by their afterlife existence that picking up a job or two from me comes as a relief from the monotony. It only works, though, on spirits whose post-corporeal existence isn’t tied to a specific place. It takes an awful lot of luck to run into a ghost who’s haunting the particular building you need information on. No, it’s the free agents, the wandering spirits looking for some sense of purpose who make the best apparitional contacts for a guy like me.

It was a Friday afternoon when I met Cordelia Dearborn, or should I say the former Cordelia Dearborn. The clock on the wall said 3:20, a little early for closing up, but that’s exactly what I was pondering. It had been a busy week with three court dates, a couple of depositions, and a judge who’d chewed me out because my client had been late, only to find out that the client—a shape shifter—had been in the courtroom all along in the form of a seeing eye dog. It was just my luck that no one had noticed he wasn’t attached to a bona fide blind person. So, with my calendar cleared for the rest of the day and a lazy weekend stretching out ahead of me, the prospect of hanging around the office until 4:00 just wasn’t all that attractive. My favorite barstool at the Gaudy Mirage was calling to me, and I was ready to answer.

I scanned my date book to see what insults the coming week had in store for me, then flipped it shut and pushed away from my desk, ready to stand up and head out. That’s when I felt it—a sense of cold that’s not exactly cold, a chill that doesn’t come from a drop in temperature or even one you can feel on your skin. It’s more like being chilled from the inside out, like your marrow’s just been replaced with ice water and your body wants nothing more than to shudder and shiver itself into warmth again. It’s a feeling I don’t get any other time than when a ghost is in the room and hasn’t chosen to make its presence known. The sensation began to fade after a few seconds, the same way you get used to a bad smell or the sight of a corpse in a casket, and I leaned back in my chair to look around the office.

“It’s not polite to lurk, you know,” I said, glancing toward the ceiling. I didn’t like the thought of addressing a particular spot in the room, of talking toward the other chair, say, or the door when the ghost was actually perched on my desk or looking out my window. Making it obvious that I didn’t know where the presence was would only give the spirit the upper hand, and a ghost with a superiority complex is hardly something I relish dealing with.

My comment got no response, so I kept talking.

“You here for a reason, or just bumping around old office buildings looking for a chain to rattle?” Still nothing. I shrugged and then leaned forward to put my elbows on the table, making a show of flipping through scattered papers as though I had better things to do. “You looking for a lawyer? If so, you came to the right place. Not many other people in this town’d be willing to give a ghost the time of day. Me, though, I’m happy to help.” Another shrug. “Can’t read minds, though. Sorry if my ads made it seem like I’m more than I am.”

I was referring to the ad I’d started running in the little throwaway papers the last couple of weeks. It had a picture of me, one I wasn’t happy with, standing between a werewolf and a vampire. I pointed at the camera while my companions looked earnestly at it. The caption read, “Is the law making you feel less than human? Ace Stubble can help.” It had my phone and license numbers and a couple of testimonial quotations in bubbles around the perimeter. I hated it, preferring to get business through word of mouth—the method that had always worked best. But the salesman who’d come around a few weeks before had talked a good game and made lots of promises; the ad was cheap and the exposure wide, so I figured I hadn’t much to lose—beyond a few dollars and my dignity.

In response to the continued silence, I just let go with a heavy sigh and got up from my desk the way I’d been planning to a few minutes before. “Sorry I can’t help you, then,” I said and began moving toward the door. “I’d ask you to lock up, but I suppose that would be absurd,” I added, pulling the little ring of keys from my pocket. “You should drop in again sometime if the spirit moves you. Oh . . . sorry about that. Where are my manners?”

I was a good three feet from the door when she materialized in front of it, appearing before me as a solid form, not the wispy see-through sort of apparition that usually bespeaks lack of confidence or just ghostly confusion. For all I know, she’d been there the whole time, but something told me she’d planted herself there at just that moment when she saw that I really was going to walk out on her.

She was good looking for a ghost—late twenties, tall and statuesque with blonde hair cascading around her shoulders. She wore old style clothes, the kind of thing the society ladies would have worn in my grandmother’s day with lots of buttons, conservatively cut but not so modest as to completely hide her figure. Her face had an elegance to it that was marred by haughtiness and an aristocratic bearing. I decided almost immediately that I wouldn’t have liked her when she was alive. Dead, she might have had some strong points, but that remained to be seen.

I stopped, looked her up and down for a second, and then nodded. “Nice to see you finally,” I said. “Ready to tell me how I can help you? Or shall I just pass through your midsection?”

“You will do no such thing,” she said, and the haughtiness in her voice matched her bearing. Clearly she was type of person—or former person—used to having things go her way. In life, she’d likely been the boss, and I had a strong feeling that she had found a way to run the show in the afterlife as well—that, or she’d gotten really good at fooling herself into thinking she was still in charge.

I figured the best way to play it would be to defer to her highness for the moment, if only to find out what she was after. Letting her think she had the upper hand would prove problematic if I allowed it to go on too long, but for now . . .

“You’re absolutely right, madam,” I said and turned back toward the desk, waving my arm toward an empty chair in an invitation to sit. “I forget my manners. Please forgive me.”

I took my seat again and watched as she just stood there for a few more seconds, staring at me, trying to figure if I was putting her on or not. Finally, she raised an eyebrow—giving me a look that said she hadn’t yet decided I passed muster—and then moved forward to sit across from me.

“Is this a professional call?” I asked amiably, resisting the snarky urge to lay it on too thick. “Or social?”

The eyebrow had only just gone down. Now it popped back up again. If I really wanted to know what was going on with her, I decided I’d better lay off and let her reel it out on her own. My Jeeves act was bound to get her riled any second if I kept it up, so I just smiled and waited.

“Professional,” she finally said.

I picked up a pen and slid a notepad in front of me, clicked the pen into life and held it poised. “At your service,” I said as sincerely as I could. “May I have your name?”

After only a twitch of the eyebrow and no measurable pause, she said, “I am Cordelia Dearborn, formerly Cordelia Hampstead. My mother was a Westcott, and my husband . . . my late husband was Woodbury Dearborn of the Waterston Dearborns.”

She rattled off her pedigree as though fully expecting me to know what all those names meant. I wanted to remind her that I’d asked only for her name but kept my mouth shut, doing my best to scribble what she’d said, or at least to make it appear that the scratches of my pen approximated something like the information she’d just imparted.

“Excellent,” I said. “And how may I help you?”

“You can get my house back, Mr. Stubble. It’s full of squatters. I want them evicted.”

Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow. She wanted to hire me to serve papers and file suit. I wasn’t big on real estate law, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t brush up. The bigger question, and one I wasn’t ready to ask, was how she planned on paying me. Her ghostly accoutrements didn’t include a purse or pocketbook, and even if that hadn’t been the case, see-through dollars don’t spend well, even in this town.

“I see,” I said. “Why don’t you tell me a bit more, and I’ll see if I can give you a sense of where we stand legally.”

“I know exactly where I stand, Mr. Stubble. I am in the right one hundred percent. My husband and I purchased that home outright, and in my declining years, after my husband’s untimely end, I established a trust into whose possession the house would pass upon my demise. I intended to remain upon the premises indefinitely, you see, and did not want my afterlife disturbed by any other . . . occupants.” She said the last with disgust.

“And the conditions of the trust haven’t been carried out?” I asked while trying to process the bit about her intentions. It’s not everyone who decides while they’re still alive that they’ll spend eternity as a ghost; if Cordelia was to be believed, she’d even take it so far as to draw up papers providing her post-corporeal self with a nice, secure place to haunt. I guessed that there was something more to Cordelia Dearborn, probably more to her husband’s death, but I couldn’t begin to cipher what those things could be.

“Regrettably, no,” she said. “I originally commissioned a lawyer, a bit more reputable than yourself, to administer the trust.” She slipped the insult in without a shift in tone or expression, and I took it without reacting, filing it away for the future. “His name was Ellison Dodge, and after my death he held faithfully to the terms of our agreement for a few years before making the mistake of becoming involved with my daughter, a foolish girl who squandered her position and good looks and now resides in a mental institution, completely incapacitated. Only the fortune her father amassed has managed to keep her in reasonable comfort.”

“And Dodge?”

“Disappeared. Ran off to Mexico, the rumors had it. And I don’t doubt it. The cretin. After which my daughter fell into her current sorry state. Fortunately for me, before absconding he had done enough work with the trust to ensure the payment of property taxes on my home and had contracted with a maintenance company to ensure the building’s perpetual solidity. For the last thirty years, my wishes have been fulfilled to the letter of the law.”

“And now? Squatters?” I was still wondering what any of this had to do with me, and what deal Mrs. Dearborn could possibly think of striking to make taking the case worth my wile.

“Before Dodge’s departure and the onset of my daughter’s infirmity, they married and produced a child. It is my understanding she was raised by the state.” No mention of a name, I noted, no pedigree offered for the child of a misguided society girl and a lowly lawyer. And no concern for the well-being of her granddaughter, no effort made during all those years to divert funds from the trust to enable the child to be brought up in any of the comfort she might otherwise have inherited. “And now,” she continued, a hint of venom seeping into her tone, “my granddaughter has arrived on my doorstep, her own bastard in tow, expecting to live in my house without so much as a please or thank you.” Her voice reached new heights of haughty indignation as she recounted the sins of her descendants, her expression indicating that any fool should be able to see how deeply she’d been injured by all of this.

I nodded. “And you want me to . . .”

“Kick them out!”

I sighed and clicked the pen closed.

“I’m afraid that may be difficult, Mrs. Dearborn.”

“Nonsense!”

I continued as though she hadn’t spoken. “Even if Dodge established the trust and filed everything correctly, the law doesn’t exactly work quickly in cases like this. There’ll be hearings to schedule, investigation, old paperwork to dig up. I expect your granddaughter will hire a lawyer who’ll fight me every step of the way.”

“You’re afraid of a fight!” she said with a sneer.

“Not in the least. Just trying to give you a realistic view of what to expect. The problem is that with your granddaughter—and her child—physically occupying the house, there’s not likely to be a judge willing to issue eviction before the investigation is complete. So they’ll continue to live in the house for quite some time. I assume you’ve tried other . . . methods of encouraging them to leave?”

“You mean haunting? Dragging chains and moaning in the night?” She gave me a severe look to indicate that such spook stuff was beneath her. Then she sighed and said, “I have tried everything. They are unflappable.”

I hoped that my smile conveyed sympathy for her predicament.

“Is there nothing you can do, then?” she asked.

I shrugged. “It would be easier if there was an executor of the trust, but you say he ran off to Mexico years ago. May be dead by now.”

“Executorship transferred to my daughter.”

I liked the sound of that since it was bad news for Cordelia. “Who’s incapacitated,” I said. “Easily declared incompetent by your granddaughter and whoever she hires. At which point, if your granddaughter hasn’t figured out that there’s a trust yet, she’ll find out then, and it’ll be the easiest thing in the world to have executorship transferred to her given your daughter’s mental state. There are no other heirs to contest it?” I tried to stop myself from gloating and must have succeeded, as I got no ire from the ghost.

“None.”

“Well, then I would suggest that the only way for you to proceed would be to try to convince your granddaughter to move out without involving the courts.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Just ask her nicely?” she said sarcastically.

“Have you tried?”

“You’re impossible!”

I smiled. In my way of thinking, she’d just paid me a compliment.

“Is there any way you could pay her off?”

“A bribe?”

Even if it would have worked, a payout was beneath her. I played dumb, as though I’d misunderstood.

“Forgive me,” I said. “I forgot for a moment that in your . . . current state of existence getting your hands on something as tangible as cash may be a bit of a challenge. Which makes me wonder, Mrs. Dearborn, just how were you planning on paying me if I were to take the case?”

“By making you the executor of my trust.” She paused before going on. “And including an annual stipend for its administration. My husband and I had millions, Mr. Stubble. Millions. Many years ago. And those are millions that have been earning more money for all the years since we met our ends. I could see my way to ensuring that you begin collecting, say, one percent of the total annually.”

I hate to say it, but now she really did have my interest. It wouldn’t be an easy thing, but there were definitely judges in this town who’d give a ghost the time of day, and if I brought Cordelia around to one’s office and she made her wishes apparent, it would just be a few pen strokes and control of her trust would fall to me. I might just find myself on the right end of a situation for once, and without having to do much but be nice to a dead old lady.

The part about kicking a single mother and her child out of their home had sort of faded into the background for the moment. But after a few seconds of mentally counting my money, the ugliness of the whole situation reasserted itself in my mind.

“How about this?” I said. “Why don’t you let me talk to your granddaughter? Maybe I can talk her into relocating.”

“You’re going to offer to pay her off!”

She’d seen through me. Smart old bird. “If I do, it will be out of my pocket, a portion of that stipend you mentioned.”

She shook her head, her eyes narrowed. It was like she was looking at a man who’d just passed up the opportunity to grab the golden ring. I wasn’t ruthless enough for her. In another second, she’d be gone.

“You won’t find anyone else who’ll help you,” I said. “No other lawyer anyway.”

She didn’t look like she believed me.

I shrugged. “Try. You’ll find soon enough that everyone else you . . .”—I stopped myself from saying confront—“contact will just refer you back to me.”

She thought about it for only a second. “Fine. That’s fine, Mr. Stubble. Have it your way. But not a penny comes straight from me. All from you, or not at all.”

I jumped at it, not wanting to give her time to reconsider. “Done. What’s the address of the house?” She told me, and I wrote it down, not playing at note-taking anymore. “Great. Give me a couple of days to research the case and I’ll—”

“Absolutely not! I want them out of my house tomorrow, not a day longer.”

I smiled, a bit foolishly. “Tomorrow’s Saturday, Mrs. Dearborn. I’ll be on the case first thing Monday.”

“You’ll be on the case tomorrow, Mr. Stubble! Tomorrow! If you are going to administer my estate, you are going to do so seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. You are going to come when I call and DO YOUR JOB!”

I’d never had a ghost yell at me before. I just sat there and took it. But after a few seconds of processing her tirade, something clicked in me. I took a deep breath and told myself it was all right. I might get some money out of this deal, and I might not, but from here on in, it didn’t matter. There was more to this job than met the eye. Cordelia Dearborn didn’t know it, but there was more to me as well.

I leaned back in my chair, and said, “Forgive me, Mrs. Dearborn. I didn’t realize the urgency of the matter. At what time would you like me there tomorrow?”

She gave me a smug look, satisfied at having put the help in his place. “I wouldn’t normally take callers before noon, but with those . . . people in the house, there’s no longer any such thing as a leisurely morning. Ten should do fine.”

“That’s fine. Now . . .” I leaned forward, elbows on the desk, hands in front of me in an almost pleading gesture. “Mrs. Dearborn, here’s the delicate bit. If you’d like me to get your house back for you in a timely manner, you’re going to need to let me work it the way I see fit. My methods may not always be as . . . direct as you’d maybe like, but you’ll need to trust that I’ve got your interests at heart.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“It’s like this. If we want your granddaughter out without her getting her own lawyer and dragging the whole thing into court, we need to use a little . . . finesse.” I raised an eyebrow, and she raised one back at me. Clearly, I wasn’t coming off as a finesse kind of guy. “You’ll see results, or I won’t collect anything from your estate. It’s just that you’re going to have to let me handle your granddaughter, without your assistance in the negotiations.”

“You feel I’ll muck things up.”

I smiled. “Not exactly. It’s just that emotion can get the better of people in these situations, and we need to stay at a bit of a remove. Do we have a deal?”

She hesitated, clearly sizing me up one more time. Finally, she nodded her head and said, “I will consent to being a non-participant.”

“An invisible one,” I added.

She did little more than raise an eyebrow, and seconds after I had spoken, she faded into nothingness. I was alone again, left to do nothing but replay the conversation for the rest of the night while trying to map out all the angles. The barstool that had been calling my name was just going to have to start calling out to someone else.

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