“HOW WOULD you like to make the easiest twenty grand of your life?”
From anybody else, Cruz Guthrie would’ve dismissed the proposition as irresponsible hyperbole, most likely brought on by drunken rambling after a particularly long day at work. With so many people he knew struggling to make ends meet, trying to find ways to make quick money was practically their favorite pastime.
But the question didn’t come from any of them, and this was a dry get-together since Cruz didn’t think it was fair to imbibe when half the party wasn’t allowed to drink. He couldn’t brush it off as nonsense when he knew full well it was meant to be taken seriously.
Still, he wasn’t in the mood for dealing with reality, especially since reality had been kicking the asses of everyone he loved in recent weeks.
“There’s no such thing as easy,” he said, flipping the lone burger on the grill. His portabella was already done, resting on the upper rack because even his barbecue timing was out of whack these days. “Are you sure you don’t want this medium-rare? We can eat right now if you give it a chance.”
“You know my position on pink meat.”
“‘Only on my knees,’” Cruz muttered, then sighed when his stomach rumbled. “C’mon, I’m starving here.”
“I don’t recollect telling you to cook me dinner.”
“Who else was going to do it?”
No answer came, because they both knew there was nobody else. When it came to friends, Etienne Newman claimed only one—Cruz. He alleged it was because Cruz was the only guy north of the Mason-Dixon Line crazy enough to stick around. The truth was a whole lot more complicated, even with the fact that Etienne’s theory wasn’t completely off base.
“I’m serious as a heartbeat about the twenty grand,” Etienne said, going back to his original question. “Aren’t you even a little curious?”
“Does it have anything to do with your work?”
Etienne huffed in indignation. “Since when are you so against what I do?”
His mushroom was starting to wilt. Cruz scooped it up and set it in the middle of his plate of roasted vegetables, resting on the side of the grill, before lowering the cover in hopes it would speed up the burger’s cooking time. Only then did he turn around and face Etienne.
“First, we both know I’ve got nothing against your line of work,” he said. “Never in all the time we’ve known each other have I judged you for it. But second, and more importantly, how on this good green earth can you expect me to listen to a job pitch when you literally just got home from the hospital after getting stabbed on your last job?”
To his credit, Etienne blushed. Not a common response, since almost nothing ruffled him. But sitting in the deck chair with his crutches propped against the table beside him, the bruises still visible on his arms where he’d been battered around, he could barely meet Cruz’s gaze in the face of that particular truth.
Something hot and wet smacked into the side of Cruz’s head. He jerked back to see his portabella land with a splat on the wooden deck.
Etienne sighed. “Don’t be so childish, Simone. He’s got a point.”
“And now only half a dinner,” Cruz said, snatching up a towel to wipe away the juices that ran down his cheek.
“You’re the only one here who qualifies fungus as food.”
Before Cruz could come back with a rejoinder, the mushroom rose in the air, floated to the garbage bin at the end of the grill, and plopped inside.
“Thank you, Simone,” Cruz said automatically.
“You can have my burger,” Etienne offered.
“Nah, that’s okay. I bought a two-pack. I’ll just cook the other one.” He shot Etienne a smile as he headed inside. “It’s not like I don’t have time.”
In the kitchen, he grabbed the portabella from the fridge and quickly cleaned it, but his attention kept getting diverted to the window and the sight of Etienne arguing with thin air. Etienne had been good about holding his tongue in the hospital. If the staff had seen this, he’d be in the psych ward now instead of nestled in his very private backyard. But half the reason Etienne had bought the six acres outside of Quakertown to call his home base was so he would never have to worry about what neighbors thought.
Life was rough for a ghost hunter when few people actually believed ghosts existed.
Cruz had made up his mind by the time he stepped back onto the deck, but Etienne spoke before he had the chance.
“Forget what I said. I just figured since you won’t take any money from me, you might want the chance to earn it yourself. But I’ve got no right to put you in harm’s way, even if I don’t think there’s any harm to be had. I’m sorry.”
Cruz believed him. Most people did, actually. That was one of Etienne’s gifts. With his tousled blond curls and New Orleans drawl, he had a snake charm few could resist. Cruz hadn’t when they’d first met. That was why he’d agreed to go out with him, even though his gut told him they wouldn’t be compatible romantically. As it turned out, his gut had been right, but the friendship they struck instead made that sole date more than worth it. Each was willing to do whatever it took to protect and fight for the other. For ten years, Cruz had lived with the certainty that Etienne would never consciously let him get hurt. He had no reason to think that had changed.
“So how do you get paid twenty thousand dollars without danger as part of the package?” he asked.
The tension in Etienne’s shoulders eased. They didn’t need the words to understand that apologies had been offered and accepted on both sides. “By putting an old rich man’s paranoid delusions to bed.”
With his food on again and Etienne’s checked, Cruz settled in the other chair and stretched out his legs. “Let’s hear it.”
“About a month ago, I got an email from this Loren Weber fella in New York, asking me for a consult. I drove up, did a sweep, told him his place was clean, and came back home. Next day, he’s emailing me again, begging me to give it another go because he’s absolutely, one hundred percent convinced he’s got ghosts. I figure, maybe I was having an off day or maybe Simone was in a mood or something happened to give me the all clear, so I tell him, no problem. Same result. I even stuck around a few extra days to be sure.”
Cruz wasn’t sure he liked where this was heading. “Please tell me he’s not the job.”
“He emailed every day while I was in the hospital,” Etienne said. “Nothing I said could make him budge, so I finally told him I could do one last analysis after I got out and then threw a price on it I thought he’d never be willing to pay.”
“He’s willing to pay.”
Cruz stared at Etienne in disbelief. “Let me get this straight. You want me to pretend to be a ghost hunter, pretend to sweep this guy’s house for ghosts that don’t actually exist, and then not pretend to take his twenty thousand dollars? Since when do you put up with scams? You hate all the fakes out there.” They agreed on that last point, actually. Because the phonies made it harder for the few real ghost hunters, like Etienne, to be taken seriously, and ultimately, what Etienne did was for the good of all, ghost and corporeal alike.
“It’s not really a scam.”
“You want me to take money for faking a job.”
“You won’t be faking it.”
“You said he doesn’t have ghosts.”
“And he doesn’t,” Etienne said. “A fact I’ve repeated over and over and over to Mr. Weber. He doesn’t believe me. But he’s so scared, he’s throwing money left and right, trying to make it go away.”
“That doesn’t mean you need to catch it.”
“Look.” Any frivolity vanished from Etienne’s tone. His gaze locked on Cruz, silent entreaty shining in its dark depths. “I don’t know what’s going on with Mr. Weber. I did my usual background check when he first contacted me, and he’s healthy as a horse. No sign of mental illness. A long history of stable decisions. Even though he retired five years ago, he still serves on the board of his company, and not one person there has a negative thing to say about him.”
“And yet he thinks his house is haunted when you say it’s not. Does that sound stable to you?”
“I think he’s exhausting his options. All he wants is one more sweep, and if it comes back clean, he’ll let it all go. He promised. His one condition, however, was that I couldn’t skip out after a couple days. I had to stay on for two weeks so I could see what he does. That’s why I put such a steep price tag on it.”
“But I can’t do sweeps,” Cruz argued. “The only reason I even know Simone is around is because she knows you’re safe with me. She’d never act out otherwise, and I would never have been the wiser.”
All true. When they’d first met at Lehigh University, Cruz had thought Etienne’s obsession with the supernatural was a Southern thing, cultivated from bouncing around foster homes in New Orleans. They’d been friends for more than a year before he started noticing the odd occurrences when they were hanging out alone together at Etienne’s apartment, how lights would sometimes come on by themselves, or the channel would randomly change on the TV. Cruz had made one bad joke about poltergeists, and the spare controller for the PlayStation had flown across the room and hit him in the head.
That was when he learned about Simone.
In life she’d been Etienne’s older sister, his sole relative in a world that wanted little to do with orphans who weren’t babies. When she was killed in a hit-and-run at the age of fifteen, six-year-old Etienne had been inconsolable. He’d lashed out, been thrown back into the system, was labeled a problem child for months until he saw her again as a ghost. The system put him into psychiatric treatment, but Simone was more persuasive than the doctors, convincing Etienne to play along because most people would never understand.
She’d been with him ever since, looking out for him, acting as an aide when he chose to make his life’s work helping ghosts who insisted on remaining on this plane of existence.
And she still threw stuff when she got mad or annoyed. Cruz had the mushroom-scented hair to prove it.
“I’ll teach you what you need to know,” Etienne said. “The hard part is the evictions, and you don’t have to worry about that because there’s nothing there. Then all you have to do is keep an eye out. If he starts claiming things are there that you’re not seeing, let me know so I can pass it along to his son. At that point it’ll be his problem, not yours.”
“But twenty thousand dollars for what’s essentially a babysitting job? You don’t see anything wrong with that?”
Etienne fidgeted, then winced and put his hand to his side, where he still had stitches from the stabbing. “I can’t say I’m totally comfortable with it, no,” he admitted. “But if I don’t send you to do it, I have to pass, which means he’ll go looking for someone else. Someone who probably won’t be as ethical as us about taking his money. And if he’s just going to toss twenty grand at the problem, why can’t it be put toward something good? I know you’ve been working triple shifts to take some of the load off your parents. Think of how far this money could go, and you wouldn’t have to accept my charity to do it.”