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Excerpt

Excerpt

The Death Dealer

 

PROLOGUE

It’s not easy being a ghost.

You would think that it would be the most natural thing in the world. There you go --- you’re dead. Live with it.

But it’s far more difficult than you would ever imagine.

It begins with why?

Oh, we all know the theories. A death by violence. Something left undone. Someone to be protected, someone to be warned --- someone to be avenged.

Vengeance? Once you’re a ghost? Great stuff.

But that wasn’t my situation. My killer perished split seconds before the light of life faded from my own eyes. It wasn’t that I hadn’t loved life --- I had. There were those left behind whom I cherished deeply.

The great love of my life, Matt Connolly, had gone before me, however. And he was there to greet me when I arrived.

“Crossed over,” as they say. Except there’s the thing --- you haven’t actually crossed over. You’re existing in a vague and shadowy world where, often, you see something truly horrible about to take place --- and you don’t have the power to stop it.

I’d known something of what would occur. I had almost died before. I had felt the power of the light that beckons --- an invitation to heaven? I don’t know the answer to that yet.

Because that time I lived. And this time I stayed.

As a ghost.

And I know that I’ve remained behind for a reason, though I haven’t a clue as to the specifics. But at least, unlike some, I’m pretty sure I do have a purpose.

I’ve come across many of my kind who are far more lost than I am, having had a strange relationship with them after my near-death experience and before I departed the life of flesh and blood. There’s Lawrence Ridgeway, Colonel Lawrence Ridgeway, a charming fellow, with his perfectly trimmed beard and muttonchops.

Sadly, he can’t accept the fact that the Civil War has been won. He was a brave soldier who came to New York during the terrible draft riots of the eighteen-sixties. No matter how often I try to explain things to him, he’s forever keeping guard over his long-gone prisoners. Matt, too, has tried to point out to him that there are no prisoners present, but poor Colonel Ridgeway simply can’t accept that fact. I’m afraid he’s doomed to haunt one particular hallway here in Manhattan’s historic Hastings House forever, a sad and tragic figure who’ll never find closure.

Marnie Brubaker died in childbirth. She’s a sweet and charming creature, and she loves the children who pass through the house. Children tend to be more open than adults to visits from my kind. Marnie likes to play games with the little ones. When they’re falling asleep on a parent’s shoulder, she sings lullabies. Every once in a while, one of them gets scared by her presence and screams bloody murder, which puts her into a funk for weeks to come. All she wants is to offer is love and comfort, but some people, even kids, just don’t want solace from a ghost.

There are those, like Colonel Ridgeway, who will go on repeating their last action over and over again. Then there are those who learn to move around the physical worlds. Passing through walls. Appearing and disappearing at will. Moving objects. The truth of it is, we ghosts can learn to do all kinds of things, so long as we have the will, the patience and the stamina.

I was the victim of a killer who first took the lives of others, before he took mine. But there’s no pain in my world, especially not for me. Because Matt’s here with me, and that’s really all that matters. He died the night of my almost-death, and he stayed behind to warn me. To save me. But my salvation wasn’t to be. In the end, I died to save Genevieve O’Brien. And so far, at least, I’ve been successful. But as a social worker, she’s one of those people who won’t rest in her quest to help others, and that can put her in danger sometimes.

Then there’s Joe Connolly, Matt’s cousin. He’s a private detective and a super guy. A tough guy.

But no one’s so tough that he can defy death. Life’s not like the movies. Most of the time, the bad guys can aim, so Joe can use some protection, whether he knows it or not.

I believe Matt and I have stayed on because of either Joe or Genevieve. Or maybe both. It’s our job to make sure they --- and maybe others --- stay safe.

Nope, being a ghost isn’t easy. In fact, it’s damn hard work protecting people when most of the time they can’t even see you and don’t think they need protection, anyway.

Take Joe. He has a thing about going to the graves of the people he couldn’t save --- including Matt’s and mine. Sometimes he brings f lowers. Sometimes he just sits in deep thought. And sometimes he talks. Then he looks around, hoping that he hasn’t been overheard. I imagine that it would be difficult to obtain new clients if word got out that he was insane. But everyone out there has his own way of coping with loss. For Joe, it’s talking to people at their grave sites.

That’s how we became involved in the Poe Killings.

And that’s how Joe became involved with Genevieve again.

She was a child of privilege, but even after she’d almost lost her own life, she couldn’t stop herself from investigating problems. Including murder.

Chapter One

The crash occurred on the FDR. Strange thing, Joe had just been driving along Manhattan’s East Side and thinking it was amazing that there weren’t more accidents on the busy --- and outdated --- highway when, right in front of him, a crash caused the car a few lengths ahead of him to slam into someone else. The sounds of screeching tires, shattering glass, grating steel and several massive impacts were evidence that the domino effect had come into play. Someone almost stopped in the aftermath of the first collision, but then that car was pushed into the next lane, and the driver coming up didn’t have time to stop. He slammed into it hard and careened into the next lane. The car that hit that driver bounced over the median and into the oncoming traffic going south.

Joe somehow made it off to the side, threw his car into Park and hit 9-1-1 on his cell phone. He reported what he saw and his position, dropped the phone and hurried out to help.

The car that had caused the initial crash was fairly far ahead of him, but there was a line of disabled vehicles stretching back from it almost to where he was.

The people in the car closest to him were fine, and so were the people in the next vehicle, and the driver of the third probably had nothing more than a broken arm.

The smell of gas around the car that had hopped the median was strong, though --- a bad sign.

People had stopped all around, talking, shouting, while other drivers were trying to get around the wreckage no matter what.

“Hey, it’s going to blow up!” someone called to Joe as he approached the car. He lifted a hand in acknowledgment but kept going. He wasn’t a superhero, he’d just worked lots of accident scenes when he’d been a cop, and an inner voice was assuring him that --- death-defying or not --- he had time to help.

The car was upside down. There was blood coming from the driver’s head, which was canted at an awkward angle. The man’s eyes were closed.

“Hey. You have to wake up. We’ve got to get you out of there. I’m going to help you,” Joe told him.

“My niece,” the man said. “You’ve got to help my niece.” He grabbed Joe, his grip surprisingly strong.

“Trish,” the man said.

Then Joe saw the little girl. She was in the back. Not really big enough for the seat belt, she had slipped out of it and was on the roof --- now the floor --- with silent tears streaming down her face.

Joe said with forced calm, “Come on, honey. Give me your hand.”

She had huge, saucer-wide blue eyes, and she was maybe about seven or eight and just small for her age, he decided. “Trish,” he said firmly. “Give me your hand.”

He sighed with relief when she did so. He managed to get her out, even though she had to crawl over broken glass on the way. As soon as he had her in his arms, someone from the milling crowd rushed forward.

“Get the hell out of here now, buddy!” the man who took the child told him. “The car is going to blow.”

“There’s a man in the car,” Joe said.

“He’s dead.”

“No,” Joe said. “He’s alive. He talked to me.”

Joe was dimly aware that the air was alive with sirens, that evening was turning to night. He was fully aware of the fact that he didn’t have much time left. Flat on his stomach, he shouted to the man who had taken the child from him. “Get them back --- get them all back!” “Trish?” the man in the car said. “It’s all right. She’s out. She’s safe. Now, get ready, because I’m releasing your seat belt. You’ve got to try to help me.”

He did his best to support the guy’s weight after he released the seat belt, but it was a struggle. An upside-down crushed car didn’t allow for a lot of leeway, especially when it was about to explode.

But he got the man out. He could only pray that he hadn’t worsened his pain or any broken bones. “Help me!” he roared, once he had the man away from the car. The same Good Samaritan who had taken the child came rushing up. Together, they started to half drag and half carry the man from the wreckage. Just in time. The car exploded, flames leaping high over the FDR. They would have been easily seen over in Brooklyn, and probably even halfway across Manhattan.

The blast was hot and powerful. He felt it like a huge, hot hand that lifted him, the victim and his fellow rescuer, and tossed them a dozen feet so that they crashed down hard on the asphalt.

Joe rolled, trying to take the brunt of the impact, knowing he was in far better shape to accept the force than the victim of the crash. For a moment he didn’t breathe, since there was nothing to breathe but the fire in the air. Then he felt pain in almost every joint, and the hardness of the road against his back. He became aware of the screams around him, which he hadn’t heard before; the blast had sucked all the sound out of the air along with the oxygen.

“You all right, buddy?” he asked the man who had helped him.

“Yeah --- you?”

“Fine.”

The next thing he knew, there was a young EMT hunkered down in front of him. He tried to struggle up.

“Take it easy. Don’t move until we’re sure you haven’t broken something, sir,” the med tech said.

“There’s nothing broken. I’m good,” Joe told him. “The guy who helped me --- ”

“He’s being taken care of.”

“The man in the car --- I think he was hurt pretty bad,” Joe said.

“We, uh, we got it,” the med tech told him. “And,” he added gently, “the girl is fine. Everyone’s already talking about how you saved her life.”

“Great, good,” Joe said. “But the man needs --- ”

“Sir, I’m sorry to tell you, but he’s dead.”

“I thought he had a chance.”

The med tech was silent for a minute. “You did a good thing,” he said very softly. “But that man…he died on impact, sir. Broken neck.”

“No --- he talked to me.”

“I think maybe you hit your head, sir. That man couldn’t have spoken to you. I’m sure his family is going to be grateful you got the body out, but he’s been dead since the first impact. Honest to God. It was a broken neck. He never suffered.” As he spoke, the med tech got a stethoscope out; apparently he wasn’t taking Joe’s word that he was okay.

Joe had his breath back. He pushed the stethoscope aside and sat up, staring at the med tech. What did the kid know? He wasn’t the coroner.

“He was alive. He spoke to me. I wouldn’t even have seen the girl if he hadn’t told me she was in the car.”

“Sure.”

Joe knew damned well when he was being humored. “I’m telling you, I’m fine.”

He knew the EMT was all good intentions, but he was just fine --- except for this kid trying to tell him that the man had died on impact.

“Sir, let me help you,” the med tech said.

“You want to help me? Get me the hell out of here,” Joe told him. “Fast.”

“Just let me get a stretcher.”

“Sure,” Joe said, figuring anything that would get the guy out of the way was fine.

As soon as the med tech went off for a stretcher, Joe took a deep breath and made it to his feet. Damn, it hurt. Well, he’d been pretty much sandblasted when he skidded down on the roadway, and he wasn’t exactly eighteen anymore.

He saw that there was no way in hell he would be leaving the scene in his own car. But it wasn’t blocking anyone, so the thing was just to start walking, to get away.

He did. It was easier than he’d imagined, but then, he was walking away from a scene of chaos, and everyone’s attention was on the wreck, not on one lone pedestrian. He could hear voices --- most alarmed and concerned, some merely excited --- surrounding him as he escaped the scene. More and more cop cars and ambulances passed him.

He headed south along the shoulder, and at last he followed an entrance ramp down to the street, where he hailed a taxi. The driver didn’t even blink at his appearance. Hey, this was New York.

He suggested a route to Brooklyn that didn’t involve the FDR.

He got home eventually, where he showered and changed, then went out into his living room and turned on the television, looking for the local news.

The accident was center stage.

“Twelve were injured and are being given care in various area hospitals,” the attractive newscaster was saying. Her face was grave. “There was one fatality. Adam Brookfield was killed when his car f lipped over the median. The medical examiner reports that Mr. Brookfield died instantly, though a heroic onlooker, who f led the scene, carried the man’s body from the automobile just instants before the car exploded. That same man rescued Mr. Brookfield’s six-year-old niece, Patricia, who is doing well at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where her parents are with her.”

The woman shifted in her chair to look into a different camera. The somber expression left her face. She smiled. “This weekend, we welcome the All American Chorale Union to Kennedy Center, and for those of you with tickets, remember that tonight’s the night for the special showing of ancient Egyptian artifacts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All those pricey meal tickets will pay for more archeological research right here in New York. And now…”

Joe no longer heard her. He was irritated.

That man, Adam Brookfield, had been alive; he had spoken to Joe. It was bull about him dying on impact. He couldn’t have spoken if he’d been dead.

Joe glanced at his watch. It would be hours before he could reasonably go for his car, which meant it would probably be towed anyway. Screw it.

He had been on his way to attend tonight’s fund-raiser at the Met when he’d gotten sidelined by the accident, but now he decided he no longer cared. He was heading to Manhattan and a bar that had become one of his favorites.

***

“Congratulations, she’s just beautiful, Senator,” Genevieve O’Brien said to Senator James McCray and his wife. They had been showing her pictures of their new grandson, Jacob. She had done the right thing, “oohing” and “aahing.”

Frankly, the baby looked like a pinhead at the moment. As bald as a buzzard. Squinched up and…newborn.

But the senator was a supporter of the Historical Society, and had a paid great deal for his meal and a walk through the museum. Naturally she was going to say all the right things about his grand-child. Of course, if she’d met him on the street, she still would have said the same things, she realized.

She damned digital cameras.

The senator had not had just one picture but at least a hundred.

“You need to get married and have children yourself, young lady,” James McCray said.

His wife elbowed him. She’d suddenly gone pale.

Genevieve sighed and tried not to show her feelings in her expression, but she was so weary of this. Anything that so much as hinted of sex was considered taboo around her. She’d been the vic-tim of a maniac who’d been stalking New York’s streets and targeting prostitutes, the same prostitutes Gen worked with. Everyone knew what she’d been through and that it was a miracle she was alive.

She had stayed alive because she had realized quickly that her attacker was actually incapable of sex. She had played on his own psychological makeup, providing the bolstering and ego boosts that he needed, and though she had been a prisoner and abused, she wasn’t suffering as shatteringly from the experience as the world seemed to think she should be. If she faced an inward agony, it was knowing that someone incredible, her friend Leslie MacIntyre,had died.

“I would love to have children one day, Senator, Mrs. McCray,” she said cheerfully. “When the right person to be a dad comes along. You enjoy that beautiful baby. But now, if you’ll excuse me,

I need to see to a few things.”

Yes, she needed to see to an escape.

She walked quickly into a side hall, opened only for the convenience of the Historical Society, which was hosting the event. There was a bench, and she sat on it.

He hadn’t shown. 

She let out a sigh, wondering why she had even thought Joe would show up. He was a fascinating guy, intrigued by almost everything in the world. He hadn’t come from money, but if anyone out there knew that money really wasn’t everything, it was her. Joe was one of those people who lived life, and he’d done well enough for himself. He could look like a million dollars in a suit. Definitely a striking guy.

And her friend, she thought.

When he wasn’t avoiding her.

She smiled to herself. If she was in trouble, if she needed rescuing, he would be right there. Thing was, she didn’t need rescuing. And she didn’t want to need rescuing, either.

Her smiled faded.

She did want help.

She had hoped he would show tonight because she wanted to ask him about the current worry dogging her life.

A murder.

The media had dubbed it the Poe Killing, because the victim, Thorne Bigelow, had been president of the New York Poe Society, a readers and writers group whose members studied the works and life of Edgar Allan Poe, and called themselves the Ravens, and the killer had left a note referring to the famous author.

She looked around the room. Most of the members were involved with things that were considered either literary or important educationally in the city of New York. There were several of the Ravens here tonight; like her own mother, they also supported various groups interested in history and archeology. Among them she noticed newspaper reporter Larry Levine, who had come to cover the event. Then there was Lila Hawkins --- brassy and outspoken and very, very rich. Quite frankly, she was obnoxious, but she did do a lot of good things for the arts in the city. Just a few minutes ago, Gen had seen Lila with Barbara Hirshorn, another Raven and the complete opposite of Lila; Barbara was so timid, she had difficulty speaking to more than one person at the same time.

She had noted that even Jared Bigelow had made a brief appearance with Mary Vincenzo, his aunt, on his arm. He was gone now, and she hadn’t had a chance to speak to him. He had shown up just to support the cause tonight; he was still in mourning for his father.

From her seat on the bench she could hear the booming voice of Don Tracy, the one Raven who’d taken Poe to the masses. He was an actor, a good one, even if he’d never become a household name. He loved the stage and had performed Poe’s works on numerous occasions.

None of them seemed to be frightened by the note that had been found with Thorne’s body.

Thorne Bigelow had been a very wealthy man. A well-known man. And though murder happened all too often, it was the sad truth that a murder with a hook --- like a victim who was regularly in the headlines and a mysterious note making reference to a long-dead storyteller and poet --- intrigued the media more than most deaths did.

It was only happenstance that Thorne Bigelow had been a very rich Raven. The Ravens didn’t demand that a member be wealthy, published on the topic of Poe’s life and works or world-renowned, though sometimes they were. Thorne Bigelow had written a book on Poe that was considered to be the definitive work on the man. Bigelow was honored far and wide for his knowledge.

And he had been poisoned. Poisoned with a bottle of thousand-dollar wine.

He loved wine, perhaps even to excess. And he had died of it.

À la Poe.

“The Black Cat.”

Or perhaps “The Cask of Amontillado.”

The killer didn’t seem to have been too precise about which story he meant Bigelow’s death to parallel. He had made his intentions clear in the note he’d left at the scene, though.

Quoth the raven: die. 

The police were pretty much at a standstill, though why the media were harassing them so strongly about the case, Genevieve wasn’t certain. Thorne Bigelow had only been dead a week. She knew from personal experience that bad things could go on for a very long time before a situation was resolved. If it hadn’t been for her family’s wealth and her own disappearance, the sad deaths of many of the city’s less fortunate might have gone unsolved for a very long time.

But Bigelow was big news.

“My darling, there you are!”

Genevieve looked up. Her mother --- it was still strange to call Eileen Mother, when she had grown up believing that she was her aunt --- was standing before her. Eileen, only in her early forties now, was stunning. Her love for Genevieve was so strong --- not to mention that without her persistence, Genevieve would surely be dead now --- that it was easy to forgive the lies of the past. Especially since Genevieve knew what family pressure was like, and that her mother had been far too young to speak up for herself when Gen had been born.

But Eileen Brideswell had finally decided that a New York that embraced reruns of “Sex and the City” would surely forgive her a teenage, unwed birth. What she might once have been damned for now passed without notice by most in the city.

And after all, Genevieve had loved Eileen all her life.

“Here I am,” Genevieve said cheerfully.

“He didn’t show,” Eileen said.

“No.”

Eileen hesitated. She was very slim, and had classic features, the kind that would make her just as beautiful when she turned eighty as she was now. But at the moment, her expression was strained.

“What?” Genevieve asked, suddenly worried by what she saw in her mother’s eyes.

“There was a terrible accident on the FDR.” Genevieve leapt up. “When? Joe uses --- ”

“About an hour ago. The reports are just coming out now. One man was killed --- don’t panic, it wasn’t Joe --- and a number of other people were injured.”

Genevieve sat back down and fumbled in the pocket of her black silk skirt for her cell phone. “That bastard better answer me,” she muttered.

“Joe Connolly,” came his voice, after three rings.

She could hear music in the background. An Irish melody. Hewas at O’Malley’s, she thought. “Joe, it’s Genevieve.”

“Hey. You still at your big soiree?” he asked.

“Yes. I thought you were coming.”

“I couldn’t make it past the traffic.” She let out a sigh. All right. That might be a legitimate excuse.

“Ah.”

“I’m at O’Malley’s.”

“Yes, it sounded like O’Malley’s.” He was silent. It felt like an awkward silence. Was she being too clingy? Good God, did she sound disapproving, as if she were his wife or something?

Stop, she warned herself. She had to be careful of expecting too much from him. It had seemed, after she was rescued, after Leslie had…died, that they were destined to be close. The best of friends, needing one another.

But then it was as if he had put up a wall.

She gritted her teeth. She needed him now. Cut and dried. Needed his professional help. He was a private investigator. Finding people, finding facts, finding the truth. That was what he did. And she needed to hire him. She wasn’t asking any favors.

“Well, have fun,” she said.

She clicked the phone closed before he could reply.

Eileen looked at her. “Don’t worry, dear.” Her mother sat down beside her and patted her knee. “It’s all going to come out fine.”

“Mom…” The word seemed a bit strange, but Genevieve loved to use it. “Mom, I’m worried about you now. You’re a Raven, and…”

Eileen sighed. “Oh, darling, don’t worry. I’m a fringe member, at best. Poor Thorne. I like being a member, I love all the reading and discussing we do, but… honestly, I’m just not worried.”

“Mom, he was murdered.”

“Yes.”

“By someone who apparently wasn’t impressed with his work on Poe.”

“And I’ve never written a book,” Eileen assured her.

Genevieve sighed, rising. “But you are a Raven.”

“Along with many other things.”

“Can’t help it. I’m worried about you. Henry is driving you home, right?”

Eileen frowned. “Yes, of course. What about you? Are you leaving, too?”

“I’m going to drop by O’Malley’s.”

“Oh.” Eileen frowned worriedly.

“I’ll be all right,” Genevieve assured her. “I’m in my own car, but I know where to park. I’ll let security see me out and I won’t leave O’Malley’s without someone to walk me to my car. Okay? I’ll be safe, I promise. Hell, I think they ask your approval before they hire anyone at O’Malley’s.”

Eileen laughed, but there was a slight edge to it. “I do not tell them who they can and can’t hire. I’ve simply always enjoyed the place, and I’m a friend of the owners.”

“And I’m safe there,” Genevieve said very softly.

Eileen still appeared worried, Gen thought. Then again, these days she was worried every time Genevieve was out of her sight.

But Genevieve had gone back to living in her own apartment. Not that she didn’t adore Eileen or love the mansion. She just loved simplicity --- and her independence.

It was sadly ironic that they both seemed to be frightened for each other these days, just when they had become so close.

She couldn’t help worrying about Eileen in the wake of Thorne’s murder, though. Eileen was a Raven, and though the police discounted the idea, it seemed to Gen that Thorne had been killed specifically because he was a Raven, not just because he was a published Poe scholar.

Admittedly, it was quite likely the book that had brought him to the killers attention, and it was true that Eileen had never written a book. She had way too many charities and women’s clubs to worry about to devote much time to being a Poe fan.

Still, the connection made Genevieve uneasy, and she wanted Joe involved.

That was it, cut and dried.

Or was it so cut and dried?

Maybe she was lying to herself; maybe she wanted to see Joe for personal reasons, too. God knew there was enough about him that was easy to see. He was intelligent, funny, generous and a little bit rough around the edges. Sexy and compassionate. A hard combination to resist.

And he was in love with a dead woman.

She tried to dismiss the thought. She and Joe were just friends precisely because of what had happened. They had seen one another through the hard times and come away good friends.

Yes, she had a multitude of emotions raging within her where Joe was concerned. But what was becoming a growing fear for her mother’s safety was the driving force in her desire to see him now.

She rose, kissing her mother’s cheek. “I’ll be at O’Malley’s. I’ll call when I’m leaving, and I’ll call when I get home, all right?”

Eileen flushed, then nodded. “Did you enjoy the exhibit?”

Genevieve nodded. “I think we raised a lot of money. I think Leslie would have been happy.” Leslie, who had been either gifted or cursed with extraordinary powers, had been an archeologist. She had loved history; she had revered it. Tonight had been planned in her honor, and they were going to use some of the funds raised this evening to respectfully reinter some of the bones Leslie had dug up on her last dig, the one that had ended up costing her life.

Genevieve dropped another quick kiss on her mother’s cheek, then hurried out.

The night was a little cool, making her glad she had chosen a jacket rather than a dressier stole. Not so much because it was warmer, but because it would f it in a hell of a lot better at O’Malley’s.

The attendant brought her car, and in minutes, she was taking the streets downtown. As she drove, she turned on her radio.

She was in time to catch the news, and the topic was that evening’s accident on the FDR, which was still being sorted out. There were brief interview snippets with several of the survivors, and Gen sat up straighter, alarmed, at the sound of one name.

Sam Latham.

Excerpted from THE DEATH DEALER © Copyright 2011 by Heather Graham. Reprinted with permission by Mira. All rights reserved.

The Death Dealer
by by Heather Graham