First Chapter: Gone With The Ghost by Erin McCarthy
Murder by Design, #1
Bailey Burke has had a rough six months—it’s not easy thinking your romantic overtures toward your best friend caused him to kill himself. Except that’s exactly what happened. Ryan is very much dead, having shot himself with his own police-issued gun. Guilt and grief shouldn’t cause hallucinations though, but six months after Ryan went into the ground, Bailey is freaking out and swearing his ghost is standing in her kitchen. Which he is…
Ryan claims he didn’t commit suicide, but was murdered, and he needs Bailey to help him find his killer so he can earn his ticket out of purgatory. Which contrary to national opinion is not their hometown of Cleveland. Ryan’s counting on a stairway to heaven, as opposed to wings, since that might be a little unmanly for a cop, even a dead one.
An expert in home design, with her own staging business, Bailey can tell you where to place a couch to improve flow and comfort, but solving a crime? Not her area of expertise. But with help from Ryan’s former partner, Marner, she is unraveling the mystery of what happened to Ryan that day… and unwittingly putting herself in grave danger.
The day I tried to kiss my best friend Ryan he killed himself.
Seriously. I confessed my love after a decade of friendship, he scratched his head and said, “Whoa, didn’t see that coming,” then left my house and ate a bullet.
So six months later, when I stumbled into my kitchen (painted citrine-green to promote happy thoughts) at six a.m. and saw Ryan standing there, I did the only thing that seemed appropriate. I screamed. At the top of my black, former-smoker’s lungs. I knew I wasn’t dreaming. The coffee was perking on a timer just like it should be, and I had a full bladder and morning breath—all signs of reality. But that was Ryan standing there wearing a navy-blue T-shirt and jeans, looking very much alive and sporting a full grin. Yet Ryan was dead. Dead, dead, dead. Flat-lined, DOA, pushing daisies, In Loving Memory inscribed headstone dead.
I’d been to his funeral. I’d cried enough tears to float an SUV downriver, and had suffered so much guilt and anxiety I was on the edge of cracking. Snapping into a dozen powdery pieces like peanut brittle dropped on a hardwood floor.
Ryan winced. “Jesus, Bailey, turn it down. It’s the crack of freaking dawn.”
Hearing him speak startled me so bad I cut off mid-scream. My jaw worked for a second before I managed to stutter, “R-R-Ryan?”
“In the flesh,” he said, holding his arms out. Then he laughed. “Or something like that, anyway.”
“You’re dead,” I said, which wasn’t the most brilliant thing I’ve ever said, but I was feeling like I’d been clocked with a brick. My ears were ringing and my chest felt crushed, like it did whenever my mom’s cat took a snooze on my breasts.
He leaned on the marble counter and crossed his feet, which were shod in his favorite hiking boots. The ones his mother had insisted they bury him in.
“No kidding. Where have you been, Captain Obvious?” Then he leaned a little closer to me, studying my face. “Do you have the flu or something? You look like hell. Not that I know what hell looks like, since I’m stuck in purgatory. And I’m so freaking bored, I might actually be willing to take a chance on hell. But anyway, you look wrecked.”
“Uhhh…” I reached a tentative hand out, thinking to touch him, I guess.
“You can’t touch me, Bailey.” The smile wavered on his face. “I’m a ghost, though I don’t really like that word. It’s too dramatic for me.”
My hand froze in mid-air. He was a ghost. Ryan was a ghost. How incredibly and totally bizarre. Heart racing to rival a hummingbird’s, I reached for the phone.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m calling 9-1-1, because I’m having a heart attack.”
“Hold off a minute on that, will you?” He ran his hand through his short brown hair. “I need to ask you some things…like how long has it been since I bit it? They won’t let me have a calendar in purgatory. I mean, what kind of a rule is that? Why does it matter?”
“It’s been six months.” Six long, horrible months. Picking up the phone, I clutched it to my chest and stared at him in wonderment. I had always thought ghosts would be transparent, wispy sort of things, moaning or gazing in longing at the living. Ryan looked like he always had. He looked alive, healthy, exactly as if nothing had happened at all.
“Six months? Are you serious? Man, I thought it was more like a month.” Ryan glanced at his watch. “I’m going to have to keep an eye on that. Scary.” He shook his head. “Are you dieting? I think you should stop. That emaciated look doesn’t work on you. With your red hair, you look like an Irish orphan. You’ve got smudgy black circles under your eyes too, and it ain’t mascara, babe. Why don’t you fix yourself some eggs and bacon for breakfast?”
Maybe I really was sleeping and my stomach was sending messages to eat protein in the guise of a concerned Ryan. Very sneaky. Got to watch that tricky little piece of anatomy—you turn your back for a second and your stomach is completely in charge.
“I haven’t been hungry.” In fact, the thought of scrambled eggs made me gag behind my hand. I picked at my sleep T-shirt and went for the coffeepot. Some things can’t be faced without caffeine, and the ghost of my best friend was one of them.
“You got any appointments today? Stop off at the Bob Evans first and get loaded up. Nothing like a little butter to put the color back in your face.” He sniffed the air. “Man, I wish I could pick up a mug. I’m dying for a cup of coffee. That’s purgatory humor, by the way. Dying for a cup of coffee.”
Yeah, I was just cracking up.
“Umm, I have to stage a house on Avalon at ten, but I’m free until then. I was planning to catch up on some social media, clear out my email.” I also was planning to measure Ryan’s West Park ranch house, that his parents had finally put on the market, hiring my staging company, “Put it Where?” to get it ready for a quick sale. But it seemed rude to bring that up.
“Good. I don’t know how much time I have to hang with you, so drink your coffee and let’s plan our strategy for finding my killer.”
It’s embarrassing to admit, but at this point I completely lost it. Hysterics are not usually my forte, but I had spent the last six months suffering. We’re talking sobbing myself to sleep, therapy, guilt hanging like a choker around my throat kind of six months. And here he was, Mr. No Big Deal. Like strolling into my kitchen was expected and nothing out of the ordinary.
“Killer? Did you say killer? What are you talking about?” I said in something that could only be defined as a shriek, given that it rivaled an opera singer in pitch. “You killed yourself, Ryan, six months ago yesterday. You stuck your police department issued gun in your mouth and pulled the trigger in your car. You sent a text and you left a whole mess of people behind who hate that you’re not with us anymore. It was selfish and shitty and it sucks and I miss you and I…I…just want you to know that.”
My air gave out and I stopped to breathe.
“You think I killed myself?” Ryan stood straight up and stared at me. “Holy shit, how could you think that? What kind of a douchebag kills himself?”
Well, I had been wondering the same thing.
“I was murdered, Bailey, and I’ve come back so you can help me find out who my killer is.”
“Oh,” I said. It’s not easy to be witty in these circumstances. If Ryan had been murdered, that changed everything. It altered the entire scope of my grief and shifted my guilt to anger and my shock to horror. “Can we have a do-over?”
His eyebrow went up as I gulped half a cup of coffee, hot liquid sloshing over the mug and onto my red shirt. I brushed frantically at my now wet chest.
“This is crazy, just absolutely bleepin’ crazy! I want a do-over! I want to go back in time and erase February seventeenth. I want you not dead.” My words crashed to a halt with a wheezing gasp. “Crap, I’m hyperventilating.”
“Okay, take a deep breath, babe, come on now. I’d tell you to stick your head between your legs, but you’re standing up and wearing no pants. I may be dead but I’m not in a coma, and that’s more than I need to see.”
“Wait.” A horrible, humiliating thought occurred to me. “Do you remember coming over here the day you died?” And me trying to lay one on him. His quick cop maneuvers that allowed him to dodge it. The way he had stuck his feet back into his snowy boots at warp speed and muttered a few things at the floor that could have passed for a goodbye or a “Good God”—I was never sure which. Neither one was desirable.
If he remembered all of that, then I wanted to die.
“No, that’s the whole problem. All I remember is driving over to your house. Then it’s a blank until I pulled into the lot at the park. I don’t even know what made me go to the park, and I don’t know who was in the car with me. Because someone was. I know there was someone talking. Then nothing. I don’t know what happened.” He shook his head. “But I didn’t kill myself, and I’m pissed that you would think I would. What the hell? You know me better than that.”
“Ugh!” I gasped in indignation. How was I at fault here? “You sent a text to your mother! The department said you killed yourself, no question about it. Prints, powder burns, all that crime scene crap—they said it was clear that you did it. Going to see an old friend—me—is typical suicidal behavior. You transferred money, made a will, and drove yourself to a peaceful, private location that was meaningful to you!”
“The park was meaningful to me?”
He needed a sign that read Big Dumb Dead Man stuck to his forehead. Geez. “You told me you lost your virginity there!”
Understanding dawned on his face. “Oh. I’m with you now. Yeah, that’s right, I told you about that, didn’t I? Cami something-or-other. Can’t remember her last name. She had a great…” His hands came up in front of him, then he cleared his throat. “Sense of humor. She was a fun girl. But I’d forgotten all about that park. Those were good times.”
I rolled my eyes. “Your sensitivity is heartwarming.” Then I remembered where my thoughts had been going. I know, a little slow on the uptake, but the dead rising at six a.m. tends to throw me off. “So you don’t remember coming over here that day?”
“I said that already, Bailey. Keep up with me.” Ryan started to pace, his hands in the pockets of his jeans.
He had no memory of my little moment of insanity. My pathetic little speech about how all the feelings I had for him were much more than friendship. That kiss. Ugh. That attempted kiss. I had nightmares about that moment, where my lips inflated into giant taco-sized suction cups attacking Ryan while he pointed his gun at me and told me to freeze.
Man, I was glad he didn’t remember any of that.
Not that it really mattered, since he was dead, after all, but never underestimate the power of mortification.
“None of this makes sense.”
No joke. Give the dead guy a gold star.
USA Today Bestselling author Erin McCarthy has written over sixty novels in romance and YA fiction. In first grade, Erin won a Young Novelist contest with a paranormal romance story about a witch in training who used a spell to enchant her classmate, and she had been hooked on books ever since. A RITA finalist and the winner of the Reluctant Young Reader award from ALA, she is a member of RWA, Horror Writers of America, and Ohioana. Stop by www.erinmccarthy.net for upcoming releases.