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Dead Endings: Chapter 1

Buy the complete Dead Endings ebook! Download of Chapter 1 also available in the free Year 1 Sampler Issue.

The fall wind ripped through the thin barrier of Cailen Delaney’s sweater and made cat’s cradles of her long hair. Impotent showers left only a lingering dampness and shallow puddles as reminders of their passage. She adjusted her scarf, trying ineffectually to keep the wind from creeping down her back, and fantasized about reaching her crappy apartment.

But there was the matter of the dead man. Watching her. That made it harder to savor the warm imagery of a glass of wine and her fake fireplace DVD.

Cailen wiped the mist from her glasses. Sadly, her improved vision did nothing for the view. Street lamps pooled dirty light at intervals along the road, but all lit paths would take her uncomfortably close to the indistinct white shape in the window of the butcher’s shop. The thought of passing him was enough to stop her cold, despite the unpleasant squelch in her shoes.

Details of the ghost were blessedly lost behind the beveled glass of the storefront. Cailen could make out the suggestion of a torso, and size, arms, and straight legs. A faint blackness hinted at eyes and nose and mouth, but they smudged together into a single, hazy blob. The figure moved slightly, perhaps impatiently, especially considering the hour. At two in the morning, any living people had long since left the store.

Unfortunately, Cailen knew this particular resident.

Carl Peruzzotti, butcher and one-time employee of Schellar & Weibeir’s Market was dead. Had been since 1937. Cailen knew this, because she’d looked the man up. At least, she was reasonably sure it was Carl, because how many murdered butchers could one shop have?

According to newspaper clippings from the era, he’d been killed by a pair of disgruntled toughs from a local crime family. Within the gristle of what was probably an incredibly messy crime scene, police had found blood-splattered money and empty kegs peppered with bullets. Carl had moonlighted as a bootlegger on the side, and his untimely end came as a surprise to no one. Apparently, he wasn’t missed–he had left behind no family or even a single notable event in his life to remember him by, except for his abrupt finale by a shotgun round to the face. That particularly gruesome act of violence, however, seemed sufficient reason for him to linger on as an unhappy spirit.

And so, Carl lingered. Some nights, anyway.

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Cailen had successfully avoided the dead man’s attentions for months. Her classes and work schedule were stringently arranged to take place during daylight hours. She had even explored more roundabout ways home. But 37th Street through Main was a straight shot, the only decently lit route for blocks, and the butcher was an infrequent visitor–so she’d taken the chance tonight, sure that the figure wouldn’t show.

“My luck is shit, my luck is shit,” she sing-songed atonally as she rocked in indecision.

She sighed and ran a nervous hand through her dark hair. It got caught in the snarls and took a minute of awkward flailing to free.

It wasn’t like she hadn’t passed him before, knew him for what he was, knew what to expect. The dead usually needed something, and the desires of a guy murdered 70 years earlier were probably pretty modest compared to the perverse appetites of the modern era.

But the concept of fulfilling Carl’s desires was a non-starter. When the dead wanted her to do something, they rarely had the courtesy to ask. And since a request from Carl would probably just start with seeing the aftermath of this particular death in 3D, she was out. She had her own sanity–and life–to preserve.

Accepting that it was going to bother her no matter what she did at that point, Cailen took a deep breath and continued up 37th. She readied her middle finger.

Her leather bag bumped comfortingly against her back as she walked. She focused on that simple familiarity as much as she could. More wet detritus gummed underfoot, and she stared purposely at the ground as she neared the corner.

Across the way, the figure in the window shifted again.

Cailen sensed rather than saw the movement, but she refused to look up. She counted the cracks in the sidewalk, the number of coins in the pockets she’d jammed her hands into, the rhythmic beats of the bag…

As she drew parallel with the shop, she felt a sensation of great intensity grow–like the deepening shadows in the narrow alleys she passed. Invisible needles traveled up her spine and stabbed the base of her skull. She broke out into a cold sweat, and then, surprised, realized that she’d stopped walking.

The wind tugged at her collar.

Across the street, a pale, meaty hand pressed against the pane.

A terrible, crushing force settled in her chest and made her breath catch. She lifted a hand from her pocket and felt the staccato beat of her heart through the lapel of the jacket.

“You bastard…” she breathed.

She willed her feet to move again, to carry her past the shop and away from the dead man. Woodenly, they obeyed, but she could hardly feel them over the pain of her heart beating madly with adrenaline.

Clutching the front of her sweater like a lifeline, Cailen began to squeeze, nails pressing hard into the palm of her hand. Pain started trickling into her brain–an unpleasant but clarifying hurt that began to override the dread. Grimly, she carried on.

The crushing feeling suddenly intensified, then stopped. She took a steadying breath and looked up, sure that she had made it past the shop.

The door to the butchery was now right beside her.

Cailen was struck by the most profound surprise of her life. She took a jerky step back and fell on her ass.

“Son of a–”

When had she crossed the street?

Did he just control me?!

Dark wood, so close that she could count all the cracks in the frame, filled her vision. Her own shocked face goggled back at her from the brassy shine of the door handle. She looked scared, wet, and as pale as the figure beside the door on the other side. She also looked like an idiot sitting on a dirty sidewalk on an otherwise empty street.

She pushed herself up, anger overriding the fear.

“I don’t care what you want!” she shouted at the window. “You’re dead! Nothing is going to change that! Stop screwing with me and just go away!”

Droplets were flung in all directions as she furiously brushed dirty water from her jeans and bag.

“Why are you even here?! Stop haunting a damn store! It’s pointless! I’m probably the only one who will ever notice you and…your deli meat rotted a long time ago!”

Silence swelled in the wake of her outburst. It was oddly free of emotion as well, which was unusual for this particular spirit. She hadn’t really expected a reply, though, and Carl obliged her by not giving one.

Neither she nor Carl moved, and Cailen felt a creep of embarrassment flood her cheeks. Her best defense against the dead had always been absurdity, but even she had to admit that insulting the quality of a dead man’s meat shavings might be a new low. Especially if someone living passed by and heard her screaming that at nothing.

Something wet began seeping into her shoes again. She glanced down, her annoyance flaring in hot bursts.

Blood pooled about her feet.

Ruby-colored liquid, almost black in the wan glow of the streetlamps, ran from under the door. It was an unbelievable amount of blood–thick and viscous as it flowed sluggishly about the soles of her boots and stained the bottom of her dark jeans before flooding into the street.

Her stomach gave a sickening clench and she recoiled from the doorway. She lurched backwards so fast that she stumbled over the curb into the street and almost fell again. The air began growing heavy with pressure once more.

Cailen twisted away, sour bile so high in her throat that the acid burned her nose. She ran, the damp clacking of her heels against asphalt echoing wetly in the night. She didn’t look back at the pale hand pressed against the glass.

***

The alarm bleated pleadingly at 8 A.M. High-pitched and unrelenting, it called out into the darkness of the room.

Cailen finally stirred from under the thick quilts to grab the cord and yank it from the wall. She retreated back into her warm cocoon. Nnnnghn, her brain supplied.

She eventually pushed her head out of the blankets to stare blearily at the ceiling of her room. Faint lines and water stains made for a mildly entertaining view on other nights, but on this cold, gray morning, she had no energy to appreciate amorphous designs.

Her attempts at sleep had been hours of chalky darkness, dreamless and unsatisfying. She had woken up constantly, thoughts of dead things never far from the surface of her mind.

Though her body screamed in protest, Cailen swung her legs over the side of the bed. A cup of coffee sounded better than fruitlessly huddling under the covers, trying to recall what it meant to sleep properly.

Cailen padded to the bathroom over brushed concrete floors, flicking lights as she passed, the smooth warp of the stone cool under her bare feet.

Half-leaning on the huge porcelain sink, she twisted the faucets until steam rose from the basin and bathed her face. She rested her forearms on the edges and indulged in the warmth until she felt somewhat human again. Not expecting much, she raised her head and looked into the mirror.

A quick bark of laughter escaped her lips.

Dark gray eyes ringed by even darker smudges of fatigue stared back at her. A faint patina of red circled her lids and fanned out from the inner edges of her eye sockets, raw and dry from constant rubbing. The sharp line of her left eyebrow, drawn down in consternation, began to twitch spasmodically.

The harsh glare of the bulbs did her no favors, either. Her painfully pale skin looked nearly translucent under their light and her hair was an unruly mass, the tangled weight of it hot on her neck and back. She yanked it up into a messy bun and gave not a fuck.

Abandoning the bathroom, she made her way past the two squat, beat-up sofas and glass coffee table that crowded the living room. A woven carpet muffled her footsteps as she meandered over to the bay window and threw back the curtains. Sharp morning light assaulted her, and she quickly drew them back. That was a battle best left until after coffee.

She stepped into the attached kitchen. Pushing books off to one side of the countertop, Cailen wrestled the coffee maker from its tight alcove and checked the water level. There, by the clear level measure, was a Post-It note marked with neat handwriting.

“Delaney,” it read. “Coffee is not a meal.Gabriella”

She ripped the small square from its accusatory perch and tossed it in the garbage.

Her roommate and best friend thought it was funny to leave reminders about the house every time she went on a trip.

Sleep,” “Get sunlight,” and, more cryptically, “Leave a peeled banana in the tree behind Hanafin’s” were some of her latest orders. Cailen generally ignored them, but she had left the banana in the tree out of sheer curiosity. When she’d checked it later that day, it had been mysteriously sliced into neat pieces–uneaten, but altered. Cailen planned to check the banana again for further developments, since she had nothing else pressing during the start of her break.

Once she had the coffee going, Cailen folded into one of the sofas and thought glumly about the previous night.

The dead were a pain in the ass. And New York had plenty to go around.

Cailen had begun her reluctant relationship with ghosts after her own semi-demise. She’d survived her encounter with death, but after a lifeguard resuscitated her on that hot beach in Florida all those years ago, Cailen had been able to mark spirits. And they’d been able to mark her. Most were nothing but recordings–playbacks of some event or mishap that left a particularly emotional stain on the location. Cailen could handle those, since they just minded their own repetitive business, acting out their last moments over and over again. She could see them and sense faint strains of whatever they had felt at the end of their lives, but they were little more than distractions while waiting for the bus or train to arrive.

Other spirits were more active. They would mope around a certain spot and occasionally spook the general populace with an appearance or timely manipulation of some small object. Cailen didn’t actively avoid those, either, because they seemed as unaware of her as most people were unaware of them.

It was the third type of spirit that scared her. When she looked at them, sometimes they looked back.

Cailen snapped from her thoughts as the coffee maker beeped its happy conclusion. She poured a tall mug’s worth and added generous dollops of milk, then stirred it lazily, watching the creamy blooms twist and swirl around her spoon.

A little flashing, red light caught her eye. It seemed that there were some messages on the answering machine–a fairly rare occurrence.

She took a long sip from her drink and eyed the phone dock with suspicion. There was a chance it was her professor about the previous night’s project. Cailen hoped fervently that it wasn’t, because she had no desire to go anywhere near Schellar & Weibeir’s for at least a month. The only other likely candidate was some acquaintance of Gabriella’s: a boy, most likely. A new boy, completely unaware that while her friend was incredibly thoughtful and kind, she also loved men. Lots of men.

Cailen collapsed back into the sofa and hit the “play” button. She made mental bets on the callers.

“Hello?” the first one began. It was indeed a man’s voice, or a boy’s voice, at least. He was certainly younger than herself and way under Gabriella’s normal range. A young relative?

“Gabriella? It’s Everett. Can you call me back? I think I have something that needs your…talents.”

Or not. Cailen raised an eyebrow very high. The machine beeped as it played the next message.

“Gabriella, it’s Everett again. I really need your advice on this, if you could give me a call. I know something’s there. I can smell it. Please call me back ASAP.”

The machine beeped again.

“Gabriella, I can’t reach your cell. Where are you? Please call me back.”

She’s in Spain, Cailen thought uncharitably. Too bad for you, Everett.

Cailen took another sip of coffee, then nearly spilled the entire scalding mug when the phone blared unexpectedly by her elbow.

“Shit–!”

She irritably slammed the mug down onto the coffee table, winced at the loud crack, and blew cold air across her burned knuckles.

The phone continued to ring.

“Yeah, yeah. One sec, one sec.” She snatched at the cradle, fanning her hand through the air as she said, “Hello?”

“…De…Delaney?”

The voice was familiar. Very familiar.

“Yes?”

“This is Everett Jung. You don’t know me, but I’m a…friend of Gabriella’s.”

Cailen chewed the inside of her cheek thoughtfully. “Uh, hi?”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, for which Cailen was grateful. She wasn’t sure what to say, either.

“I’m calling,” he began, then paused again. “I’m calling because I can’t get ahold of Gabriella, and–”

“She’s out of the country right now,” Cailen interjected. “I actually just heard your messages, but she won’t be back ‘til next week.”

“Right, I found that out already…but I’m calling for you now, actually.”

It was her turn to pause. She fiddled with the mug, turning it round and round on the tabletop.

“Me?”

“Yeah. I was wondering…I mean, can I… Shit. Can I come in?”

There was a knock at the door. This time, she did spill the coffee.

Proceed to Chapter 1, page 2–>