COLTON was sure there was another guy. Almost sure, anyway.
He was standing in the little area the apartment complex laughingly referred to as a kitchen, but was in reality more of an area that happened to have a stove, a sink, and a refrigerator. Colton hovered over the stove, although what he thought he was going to do to keep the meatloaf from completely drying out, he had no clue. With a sinking feeling, he opened the oven door just enough so he could see the meat sizzling within the pan inside. Yep, it wouldn’t survive for much longer.
Your own fault, Colton told himself. Why would you believe Matt would be home when he said he would?
Things had not been good between them for weeks. Not since Matt quit his job and joined that rock band. And even that had seemed great at first. After all, who didn’t want their boyfriend to become rich and famous? And the band was good. It was still early days, but already they were getting booked in some good clubs in Broadripple. And, truth be told, Colton got a vicarious thrill in telling his friends his boyfriend was in a band. Colton loved music, and it had always been the bane of his existence that he couldn’t carry a tune or play an instrument himself. So who could blame him if he made it sound like Matt and his band would be opening for the Foo Fighters next tour?
Okay, they weren’t that good. Not yet.
Of course, Colton didn’t reveal the downside of having a boyfriend in a band to his buddies. He didn’t fill them in on the late-night practices, or the promises that Matt constantly made to be home at a decent time that he never kept.
And the change that seemed to have come over Matt. Nowadays, Matt was often sullen and talked little. When he did, he seemed to find fault with nearly everything Colton did. Colton thought at first that it had been the pressure of joining an already up-and-coming band that had caused Matt’s personality to do a one-eighty. Matt before the band had been sweet and loving. Still on the quiet side, but rarely argumentative and never abusive. Matt after the band yelled. And complained. A lot.
In the last few days, Colton had come to the conclusion that the band wasn’t entirely the problem. He suspected there was someone else in Matt’s life.
It would explain so much. Matt’s changed behavior. How many times had Colton come into the room only to find Matt suddenly ending a conversation on his cell phone or quickly exiting out of a Facebook chat? It seemed there was nothing Colton could do that pleased Matt anymore. Matt was in love with someone else, and ready to move on.
And Colton had a good idea who it was. That little Braedon fucker. Braedon fucking Isaacs. Braedon was also in the band, the drummer, and had in fact been instrumental in getting Matt to join the group when they suddenly needed a bass player. Braedon and Matt had been friends in high school, and Colton had always suspected there was more history to the two of them than he’d ever been told.
Colton grabbed an oven mitt and pulled out the meatloaf. It looked bad. Dried out and probably tasteless. Colton’s lip curled in distaste, but he set the pan on the counter and found a platter in the cupboard to transfer the meat to. At least he’d eat some of it, even if Matt couldn’t be bothered to come home to enjoy it.
Colton added some vegetables to his plate and some mashed potatoes—instant, from a pouch, as it was beyond Colton’s patience to make fresh for just two—and checked the kitchen clock. Two in the morning. Matt’s gig was supposed to end before midnight, and he’d promised to be home well before one.
Sighing, Colton sat down at their tiny dining room table to eat by himself.
Two bites in, he heard a key fumbling in the front door lock. He almost went to greet Matt, but decided to stay put. Allow yourself to be mad at him, Colton told himself. Let him know he’s fucked up and you’re not going to take it for much longer.
Matt Hamilton shuffled in, his tall form clothed all in black—another new thing since joining the band—it seemed anything colorful was verboten. He looked tired and pale. Really, really pale. Worryingly pale. He slid out of his leather jacket and tossed it over a chair, his face unreadable. Colton rose quickly and went over to him, his anger melting away. Matt looked sick, or at least not his usual self. Maybe Colton had jumped to conclusions. Maybe there was a good reason for Matt’s lateness. Maybe he’d imagined the whole Matt fooling around with Braedon business.
Still, Matt hadn’t glanced at Colton since he’d come in. Maybe he was just feeling guilty.
“You okay?” Colton asked as he pulled Matt closer and kissed his cheek. Matt’s skin felt cold. Either the temperature outside had dropped or Matt really wasn’t well. Colton began to guide his boyfriend over to the table. Matt moved slowly and seemed grateful for Colton’s assistance. He plopped down in the chair wearily and rubbed a hand over his face. Colton noticed the dark circles under Matt’s baby blues. “You don’t look well.”
Matt closed his eyes and seemed to be gathering the energy to reply. His lip curled slightly as he attempted to smile. “I’m okay,” he said, opening his eyelids halfway. “Just a little tired.”
“I’m not surprised. You’ve been out every night, either playing gigs or practicing. You need a break.” Colton stood behind Matt and began to rub his boyfriend’s shoulders, hoping to ease some of the tension built up there.
Sighing heavily, Matt nodded at Colton’s plate. “You made food,” he said simply.
Colton wanted to say, “Yeah, I told you I was going to, you ass.” Instead he rubbed the kinks in Matt’s shoulder muscles harder. “Yeah. Meatloaf. I’ve had a little. It’s kind of dry, but edible. Want me to get you a plate?”
Matt shook his head. “I’m not hungry. But thanks.”
“You sure?” When had Colton last seen Matt eat? Weeks ago? They hadn’t spent much time together lately, as Matt’s band practices and gigs often went late and Colton worked days, but maybe what Matt needed was a good meal. “You must be hungry.”
A touch of sadness—or at least that’s how Colton interpreted the look—came to Matt’s eyes. “I’ll get something later,” he said.
Colton ceased the kneading of Matt’s shoulders and put a hand against Matt’s forehead. “You don’t seem to have a fever.”
“I’m fine, I tell you. Just a little tired.”
“Should we just head in to bed?” Colton eyed his plate hungrily. He’d purposely put off eating for hours so he could enjoy a late-night—or early morning, depending on the perspective—meal with Matt. Still, he’d had a few bites, and Matt was his first concern. How could he be so stupid to believe Matt had been cheating on him? And with that little Braedon idiot! “Let me just clear this stuff away—”
“No,” Matt protested. “You eat. I’m sure you’re hungry.”
Colton went around and began picking up his plate and utensils. “I’m fine. I’d rather hit the sack myself. Besides, you need someone to snuggle with.” He trotted to the kitchen area and deposited the remains of his meal into the trash, feeling a slight lurch in his stomach as the food slid off the plate. He returned to the table to pick up the bottle of wine he’d selected for the evening and the glasses. The wine was still corked, so they could have it another night.
“You even had wine ready for us,” Matt said softly.
“More for me, I think. You’ve never been a connoisseur of the vine.” Colton, hoping to coax a smile from Matt, held the bottle up as if he was touting the liquor for a commercial. In his best Bela Lugosi voice, he said, “I never drink… wine! But I make an exception for Woodbridge’s Cabernet Sauvignon!”
He immediately regretted the jest. Matt, instead of grinning at the bad impression, seemed to tense, and his eyes flashed in anger. “Why did you do that?”
“What?” Colton was genuinely confused. Worried as well. Matt’s anger had been sudden and even a little frightening. He looked like he was ready to throw Colton against the wall and belt him a few good ones. “It was only a little joke.”
Matt rose so suddenly that his chair fell back, banging against the floor. His eyes were blazing as he moved close enough to Colton that their noses were nearly touching. “Well, it wasn’t funny! I’ve had about enough of you and your stupid jokes!”
“But I—” Colton was about to explain that he hadn’t meant anything by his words, but there was no need. Before he could say more, Matt spun on his heels and was down the hall in an instant. Colton heard their bedroom door slam.
Even though Matt hadn’t physically touched him, Colton felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. He stood for a moment, barely daring to move, staring at the empty space where Matt had been sitting. Something was definitely wrong, and it wasn’t a simple illness.
If he is fooling around with that little Braedon fucker, Colton thought, I’ll make them both regret it. Colton wasn’t by nature a fighter, and there was no way he’d win against the taller and stronger Matt if it came to blows, but he’d hunt down Braedon Isaacs and teach him a thing or two. The thought of punching Braedon in the face snapped Colton out of his stupor.
Was that what was happening, though? Up to a few weeks ago, Matt had been Matt, the Matt Colton loved. As soon as he came home and announced that he’d joined a band, though, things had changed. Since that night, Colton had hardly seen Matt, and when he did, they inevitably ended up arguing. Matt now slept all day and was still in bed when Colton came home from work. Colton would make something for them to eat before Matt had to rush off to rehearsal or a show or whatever, but by the time the food was cooked and Matt finally crawled out of bed, it was always too late and Matt would have to throw on some clothes—always black—and bolt out of the apartment. And when Matt finally came home, Colton was usually already in bed and asleep. Colton figured that, in the past two weeks, he’d seen Matt up and awake an hour, maybe two. Total.
He wondered if he should go in the bedroom and try to talk with Matt. Surely things weren’t so bad that they couldn’t discuss their relationship, or what was left of it. But the savage fury Matt had just shown over a trivial joke really worried Colton. In Colton’s mind, he saw himself gently opening their bedroom door and asking if they could talk, only to be physically attacked by Matt. And Colton knew he couldn’t take that, couldn’t face being punched by Matt. That would be the end of it all for sure, something Colton wasn’t ready for.
Unsure of what to do, Colton sat on the couch and turned on the TV. There was an old Star Trek episode on, one Colton had seen several times. One of the worst ones, where Kirk’s body was inhabited by a woman and vice versa. It didn’t matter, as Colton barely paid attention to the screen. His mind was too occupied.
Should he sleep out here on the couch, or wait until Matt was asleep and then sneak in? Neither prospect was pleasing. The couch was short and lumpy, and if he went in and Matt wasn’t asleep, everything might explode again. Colton turned the sound down and listened. He thought he could hear movement coming from their bedroom. Matt wasn’t asleep, then.
Colton switched off the set. Maybe Matt was feeling just as bad as he was. Maybe all that was needed was for one of them to make the first move, offer the first olive branch, for them to make up and forget the silly fight. Still, Colton was hesitant to enter the bedroom. Instead, he went to the bathroom across the hall from their room, and made a lot of noise preparing to brush his teeth. After all, if he could hear Matt moving around in the bedroom—what was he doing in there, pacing up and down?—then Matt could surely hear him.
Sure enough, by the time Colton had worked up the toothpaste into a lather in his mouth, the bedroom door creaked open. Colton didn’t turn, but he saw Matt in the bathroom mirror, emerging wearing only a pair of basketball shorts. Colton nearly smiled when he saw the shorts were black, but he didn’t want to be the first to show he wasn’t mad. No, it was Matt who was acting like a jerk. The ball’s, Colton thought, in his court.
But there was something wrong with the mirror. Matt was pale, true, but he looked almost translucent in the reflection. Like he was barely there. Blink, and he couldn’t be seen at all. It was like the photo in one of those old Back to the Future movies, where Marty McFly was vanishing from the picture because he had changed the past and therefore was being removed from the future. Matt had always been pale, but this went beyond skin tone. Colton, still with a mouth full of foam, turned to look at his boyfriend. Matt was standing in the doorway, pale but substantial. It had been the mirror, after all.
Matt looked chagrined. “I guess I need to apologize.”
Colton huffed and turned to the sink and spat. He turned on the faucet and bent his head down to fill his mouth with cold water. He rinsed and then spat out more foam. Straightening, he said, “You guess you need to?”
Matt came up behind him and put his hands on Colton’s shoulders. “I do apologize. I acted like a fool. I’m—”
Colton was staring at the mirror, wondering why his lover had stopped speaking. Oddly, Colton’s reflection was perfectly defined in the glass, but Matt could hardly be seen, as if he were a mere wraith standing behind Colton. Matt must have seen the anomaly as well, because he was glaring angrily at the mirror. His eyes seemed to have turned red with anger. He roughly let go of Colton’s shoulders and picked up the glass that they kept their toothbrushes in. Colton ducked when he saw Matt drawing his arm back in preparation for the throw. Seconds later there was a loud crack and a shatter as the glass collided with the mirror. Colton put his hands up to his face, fearful of flying glass, but the damage didn’t extend to shards scattering everywhere. There were several splinters across the mirror and a small area, right at the point of impact, where the backing of the mirror now showed. There was glass on the counter and in the sink, mostly remnants of the toothpaste glass, which seemed to have suffered more than the mirror.
“What the hell was that—” Colton didn’t finish. Matt was gone. Colton heard thumping footsteps go down the hall and then the opening of the front door.
“What are you doing?” Colton yelled as he rushed out of the bathroom. “You can’t go outside dressed like—” Again, he didn’t complete his sentence. There was no need. Matt had slammed the door behind him. He’d gone outside in only shorts, despite it being late October. With no shoes.
Scared and confused, Colton went after him. By the time Colton got out to the parking lot, though, he heard Matt’s car speeding off. Colton saw the taillights disappearing around the corner. He hadn’t heard Matt pick up his keys, but they would have been in the bowl on the stand by the door where they usually were kept, so it wouldn’t have been difficult for Matt to grab them, even as fast as he had to have been moving.
Colton stood there, dumbfounded. He listened until he could no longer hear the sound of Matt’s engine as the car raced away. He tried to come up with some logical explanation for Matt’s behavior, but none came to him. The irrational bursts of anger were troubling enough, but what was up with the mirror? If it had been some defect in the glass, then why was Colton’s reflection not affected? Colton shivered, not entirely because of the cool night air. His mind raced. Drugs? Fooling around with Braedon or some other guy? Those explanations might cover the behavior, but not the mirror.
Something strange was going on, and Colton was very afraid for his lover.
“WHOA. I feel a cold spot. Right here! Oh my God, it’s like it’s ten degrees colder right here!”
“Maybe,” I said, trying to let Nick down gently, “it’s because you’re standing by a window.”
Nick emitted an anguished moan as he turned and played the beam of his flashlight over the windowpane. He waved a hand in front of the glass. “You’re right. It’s not very well insulated. I thought the ghost was ready to make an appearance.”
“They don’t always pop right up. Sometimes you’ve got to wait for them. They don’t appear on command, no matter what you see on television.”
“Well,” Nick said, sounding almost wistful, “not all of us have ghost radar like you do.”
Whatever reply I was going to make was stopped by the feeling I suddenly got at the back of my neck. I wouldn’t say I’m psychic, not as most people think of the word. I can’t read minds. I can’t tell you if the next card in the deck will be the queen of hearts or the ace of spades or whatever. Hell, I can’t even predict the weather, a talent that seems to plague the Indianapolis weather guys as well, as they hadn’t warned anyone about the sudden plunge in temperature or the accompanying rain we were enjoying. I can, however, tell if anything supernatural is lurking nearby, ready to jump out and go, “Boo.” And something was preparing itself now, gathering up energy.
We had just entered the auditorium at the school where Nick taught history to a bunch of teenagers who didn’t know Karl Marx from Groucho Marx. Recently, the school had started renovating the auditorium, which sometimes stirs up paranormal activity. New seats had been installed, and the plaster that had been peeling from the ceiling for years was getting a makeover. You’d think ghosts would like the places they haunt to be kept up, but they can be a pissy bunch. Since the work had begun, contractors, students, and faculty had reported seeing the apparition of a middle-aged woman with long, stringy hair and sorrowful eyes. The official word from the school’s office was that it was all hogwash, but try telling that to the frightened junior who had peed herself when she turned the corner and caught sight of the specter.
“Where did this woman kill herself? Somewhere on the stage?”
Nick nodded. “Yeah. Over here.” He led the way down the aisle. Every now and then, he’d slow his pace and scan the area around him with his flashlight to make sure Evelyn Banks wasn’t sitting there waiting for convocation to begin.
Ms. Banks had taught art back in the ’70s, or so Nick had told me. She’d also been the director of the musical the school put on every year. She had been married for four years to a man who, according to legend, loved football more than her. Ms. Banks found solace in the arms of a student, who happened to be the captain of the football team. While Evelyn Banks fell deeply in love with the student, it was merely a fling for him, a few tumbles in the hay with an older woman. When Ms. Banks learned her affections weren’t returned, something snapped and she hanged herself. Over the years, the story had been embellished, and some stories even had the young man shooting himself when he discovered the body. What the guy was doing with a loaded firearm in the school auditorium is anyone’s guess. Maybe the school play had been really bad that year.
We were approaching the stage area when Nick stopped short. “There’s a shadow over there. I’m sure of it.” He had turned to his left and was nervously checking the nearby seats.
Robbie suddenly materialized several feet in front of him. He was wearing jeans that were ripped at the knees, a wrinkled football jersey, and a cheeky grin. “And now the fun can begin,” he said.
“Do you see it? The shadow?” Nick’s voice had gone up an octave.
Nick was getting better at seeing ghosts, but more often than not, they were unformed shadows to him. “It’s Robbie,” I told him. I switched off my flashlight. There was a ghost light on stage, a single bare bulb left burning that emitted enough light for me to get around without knocking into things. “Anything?” I asked my late boyfriend.
Robbie gave the tiniest of shrugs. “She’s here, but I’m sure you’ve already picked up on that. She’s hiding, though.”
Nick turned to me. “He just said something, didn’t he?”
“Yeah. He said that she’s here. Hanging back, but here.”
Something close to a smile came to Nick’s lips. “I thought I heard something. A whisper. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or not that I can almost hear him most of the time.”
The more time you spend around ghosts and creepy things of all persuasions, be they demons, ghouls, or whatever the more your system gets attuned to them. I always have had the gift and grew up seeing ghosts—and other supernatural goodies—all the time, so I was used to Robbie suddenly popping up. When I became a private detective, I naturally was drawn to cases that featured otherworldly elements. You do what you’re good at, what can I say? Nick, however, was still trying to adjust to the fact that there were things around him he hadn’t been aware of before. I could tell he was so wired that, if he did catch sight of Ms. Banks, he would probably scream loud enough to wake the dead that weren’t already up and around.
And Ms. Banks was gathering energy to make her grand appearance. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck were bristling, an indication that things were about to happen, and in a big way. Off to the side there were some steps leading up to the stage. I walked over to them slowly. Nick and Robbie followed. Nick was rubbing his arms. “It’s cold in here,” he muttered.
“And getting colder.” I stepped onto the stage, aware of the shadows being cast by the theater’s ghost light. Ghost lights have a practical use, of course. They keep people from walking off the stage into the orchestra pit when the house lights are off. But there’s also the superstitious element attached to the custom of leaving a lamp burning on stage. Most theaters have at least one ghost, either actual or legendary, and the light is supposed to appease the spirits that don’t like to see a darkened stage. If there were other ghosts in this theater, they were gone for the moment, fearful of the dominant and malevolent personality of Ms. Banks.
“Evelyn?” Robbie called out. “Why don’t you come out and talk to us?”
At the back of the stage, I heard a soft chuckle. Not one of those “Oh aren’t we having fun” chuckles. More like an “I’m going to scare the fuck out of you” chuckle. Luckily, I don’t scare easily.
“Thanks for doing this, Duncan,” Nick said. “I figured if anyone could get this ghost to behave, it would be you.”
“No problem,” I answered. The truth was, I was between cases anyway and I had nothing else to do that night, and the judging on The X Factor was starting to piss me off royally, so TV was out. I nodded toward the back of the stage, which was mostly vague shapes and dark shadows. “She’s back there. Can you feel her?”
Nick shone the beam of his flashlight around. “I feel something. I’m not sure what.”
“We’re not here to hurt you,” I said to the shadows, some of which seemed to be shifting. “We just want to talk. You’re scaring the kids who go to school here.”
“And that’s so not cool,” Robbie added. When I glanced at him with a raised eyebrow, he added, “Hey, I’m just trying to get her to chat. I figure I look like a student, I should use their language.”
It was true; Robbie could pass for a high school kid. He’d died at the age of twenty, over a decade ago. We’d been close to the same age then. Now I was in my early thirties and getting gray hairs around my temples, while he remained fresh cheeked and youthful. It was a pisser, as every time I looked in the mirror, I wondered how much longer the two of us could go on like we were. His dying really put a crimp in our relationship. Especially as… well, we won’t even talk about our sex life. Mainly because there wasn’t one.
My thoughts were interrupted by a sudden breeze that shot across the stage. The gust was enough to ruffle my hair. At the back of the stage there was now a white light. It started off as just a speck but quickly grew and formed a human shape. Ms. Banks was ready to receive visitors, and she wasn’t happy we were there.
She was thin and fairly tall, wearing black slacks and a gray top. Her hair hung down limply to her shoulders and her dark eyes burned with hatred. Seconds after she materialized, she let out a wail and moved with inhuman speed, shooting downstage toward us with arms outstretched.
Ms. Banks must have summoned enough energy that even Nick could see her, because he yelled out, “Shit!” The ghost had been aiming for me, but seeing that she had a better audience—and a more nervous one—she veered toward Nick instead. He backpedaled several paces and would have fallen into the pit if Robbie hadn’t sucked in energy to become solid enough to grab Nick by the elbow. The spirit of Evelyn Banks went right through Nick and shot out over the orchestra pit and into the seating area. She was floating several feet off the ground, sailing right over the seats. Her laughter echoed throughout the theater. Halfway up the aisle, she vanished.
Nick put a hand over his heart as if to quell the rapid beating. “Holy fuck,” he said, his voice shaking, “she went right through me!”
“Yeah, something seems to have annoyed her.” I went over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “You okay?”
“I think so. Was that Robbie that grabbed me?”
Robbie grimaced. “Oh yeah, sure. Spooky McPhee he can see. Me, I’m still the Invisible Man.”
I nodded. “Yeah, it was Robbie. Be careful. I think she was trying to get you to fall off the stage.”
“I thought you said ghosts usually didn’t try to harm people.”
“Usually not, but this one’s nuttier than my Aunt Sally’s fruitcake.” I didn’t actually have an Aunt Sally, nor was I sure if there were even nuts in fruitcake, but it seemed a good idea to keep things light in tone so Nick didn’t freak out. “I’m not sure we can convince her to play nice.”
“So we go to Plan B?” Nick asked.
“Not yet. Let’s give her one more chance.” I turned to my spectral boyfriend. “Robbie? Think you can find her and have a nice ghost-to-ghost chat?”
He nodded. “On it,” he said as he promptly vanished.
The atmosphere in the theater had changed now that Ms. Banks wasn’t rearing her angry head. Everything seemed very calm and peaceful. I sat down on the edge of the stage and let my legs dangle. Nick walked around for a few minutes, scanning every nook and cranny with his flashlight. His own step made a floorboard creak, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. I patted the area next to me.
“Come and sit down. She’s not here right now. Let’s see if Robbie can get to her act sensibly.”
Nick hovered for a moment but finally decided that pacing wasn’t accomplishing anything, so he sat down next to me. We were quiet for nearly a minute until he broke the silence. “I screamed like a little girl, didn’t I?”
“It was a manly scream. Chuck Norris would have been proud.”
Nick laughed uneasily. “I nearly peed myself.”
“Nearly is good. It’s when you follow through that a change of underwear is needed.” I put my arm around his shoulder. “Honestly, you did good. Seeing something like that coming at you, howling like a banshee, would make almost anyone scream like a little girl.”
“Oh, so I did scream like a girl.”
“A very butch little girl. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
It felt odd, having my arm around Nick. A while ago, when I’d been having doubts about my relationship with Robbie—after all, he was dead—I’d sort of dated Nick. It didn’t go far, but he’d become a good friend and had stuck around through thick and thin. Touching him, though, brought thoughts into my head I didn’t want there. I removed the hand.
Nick may have felt uncomfortable with the contact as well because he cleared his throat loudly and shifted ever so slightly away from me. “Do you think Robbie can get through to her? I don’t want to get rid of her if she wants to be here, as long as she doesn’t scare the bejesus out of everyone.”
“We’ll do what we can,” I said, although I wasn’t feeling optimistic. The look I’d seen in her eyes was that of sheer madness. If we let her go on, someone was going to get hurt.
“If we banish her—is that the right word?—what actually happens to her?”
I sighed. “I don’t really know.” And that was the truth. “Getting ghosts to move on is not really my area of expertise. If you believe that jerk on TV, though, that Ricky Vallis, they go onto a better place.” On a case not too long ago, I’d run into the host of the paranormal show I See Dead People. I hated him from the start, and didn’t see eye to eye with him in matters pertaining to ghosts, but a lot of people hung on his every word. “I hope that’s true, and that if they go willingly, they go to Heaven or Valhalla or Sto-vo-kor or Happy Bunny Land or wherever. Banished spirits I’m not so sure about. There’s a different feel in the air when you banish a ghost. It feels like you’re killing them. Hard to do, when they’re already dead, but you know what I mean.”
Nick nodded sagely and then looked at me questioningly. “Sto-vo-kor?”
“The Klingon equivalent to Heaven. I’ve been watching a lot of Deep Space Nine lately.”
That got a laugh. “You really don’t know what to do with yourself when you’re not on a case.”
Another silence follow