Ghost of a Chance

First in the series: Free

Ghost of A Chance
Original Edition: August 2003, Berkley Prime Crime

Second Edition: October 2016, Nightqueen Enterprises, LLC

Emerald O'Brien is the owner of the Chintz 'n China Tea Room where guests are served the perfect blend of teas and tarot readings. She never set out to be a detective, but once word gets out that she can communicate with the dead, there's no turning back... When the ghost of Susan Mitchell asks for Emerald's help in convicting her own murderer, Emerald can't refuse. Along with her friends-an ex-supermodel and a cop-and her new love interest, Emerald must search for clues to put the killer behind bars, and Susan's tortured soul to rest.

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Chapter 1

MY NAME IS Emerald O'Brien and I never set out to be a detective, but when Susan Mitchell's ghost appeared in my bedroom and told me that she'd been murdered, my life took a U-turn and I've never looked back.

Oh, sure, most people would have been scared out of their wits, but I'm used to dealing with the supernatural, so spirits and spooks don't bother me unless I figure out that my shadowy guests intend some sort of nasty surprise. My Nanna taught me how to work with my psychic abilities early on, and when the ghosts come calling, I don't freak out or hide under the covers or scream for help. I fully admit to being a coward when it comes to ill-tempered brutes and eight-legged beasties, and I have an unnatural hesitation about eating mushy bread. But show me a ghost and I can usually hold my own.

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I'm not a professional ghost-hunter, though. I own the Chintz 'n China Tea Room. Not Tea Shoppe, spelled with the cutesy extra pe, but Room. We sell fine china, go hunting for rare pieces customers ask for, serve tea and cookies all day long, and soup for lunch during the week. I also offer my services as a tarot reader.

Chiqetaw may be a small town, but I get my fair share of clients coming in. Mainly wonderful older women who want to know how the coming holidays are going to be, or if it's the right time to make that investment they were planning on. I don't answer health questions, I don't lie and tell them what they want to hear, I just read the cards as they fall, and most of my customers come back for more. They seem to find my candor refreshing, a relief to me since I'm not always as diplomatic as I probably should be.

Considering that I'm the only professional tarot reader in town, and considering my handiwork with folk magic, it's not surprising that I got labeled the "witch of the village." At least they didn't stick "old" in there-I don't quite fit any of the clichés in the movies, you know-the scary old hag out on the edge of the woods, or the lovely wise woman always ready to heal the sick. I'm thirty-six, divorced, and as far from a domestic goddess as you can get. I wouldn't know my way around a health food store if you paid me, and I have two brilliant, quirky children.

Anyway, that's where Susan Mitchell comes in. Or her ghost, rather. Given my reputation, it didn't really surprise me when she showed up at my bedside. I just wish she'd picked a better night. I was lying under the covers, fighting my usual insomnia, with a sinus headache so bad that it felt like somebody was using my face as a punching bag. I had on my sleep mask, trying to doze off in that desperate "please, oh, please, let me go to sleep" way all insomniacs have, when I heard a rustle in the corner. Samantha yowled and bounded off the bed. Somebody else was in the room.

Great. My eight-year-old wanted to get up to play Ninja Fighters or some equally violent video game and had startled the cat. Or my daughter was sneaking in from a late night's star gazing and wanted to talk over her latest discovery. I never knew when I'd find her sprawled on the roof in the middle of the night, using the telescope to spy on both Mars and the neighbors. More than once she held me breathless as she filled me in on some pretty kinky goings-on next door before I'd snapped out of it and warned her about the dangers of becoming a teenaged voyeur.

Prepared for anything-or so I thought-I sat up and pulled off the mask and there she was. Susan Mitchell. Or rather, the ghostly remains of Susan Mitchell. Of course, at the time, I didn't know that was her name. All I knew was that a short, translucent blonde was hovering about three inches above the edge of my bed. With a groan, I rolled over and closed my eyes, willing her to go away. After a moment the hairs on my arms stood at attention and I knew she was still there. Sigh. I was going to have to take care of this.

I swung my feet over the edge of the bed and felt for my slippers, all the while keeping track of the now-alert and rather excited-looking spirit. The gleam in her eye made me nervous, and I wondered if I'd have to resort to my handy-dandy middle-of-the-night exorcise-those-beasties ritual, but she pulled back as I poked my arms through the sleeves of my flannel robe. Then she folded her hands together, prayer like. Maybe it was this gesture that warmed my heart, maybe it was the grateful look on her face. Whatever the reason, I felt a little kindlier toward her and, sinus headache or not, decided to find out what she wanted.

I tucked my hands in the crook of my underarms. It was so cold I could see my breath. The Sixth Sense had it right-it did get colder when ghosts were around, but it wasn't because they were angry. I'd dealt with enough spirits to know that they seemed to coast in off the astral breeze and bring the wake of it with them.

The ghost hovered there, about two feet taller than me thanks to the fact that she was floating in midair. She seemed to be waiting for me to speak. I wasn't sure what to say. Most spirits I'd dealt with in the past hadn't been interested in the humans who shared their space. I rather preferred it that way.

After a few minutes of this standoff, I decided that she was either shy or didn't know how to speak to me. If I ever wanted to get back to sleep, I'd have to be the one to make the first move. I took a deep breath and planted myself on the foot of the bed, near enough to seem friendly, but not enough to be a target should she decide to get nasty. "Hi, I'm Emerald. You can call me Em. Who are you, and what do you want?" Not very original, but blunt and to the point.

She cocked her head, beaming. I hoped she wasn't one of those spirits who could manipulate physical objects. The last thing I needed was a hug from beyond the grave. Granted, my grandmother had done just that, after Roy blackened my eye and stomped out to go live with his bimbo. But right now I didn't feel like being the recipient of any ghostly embrace.

She seemed to be trying to speak-her mouth moved but I couldn't hear anything. I shook my head and she tried again. Finally, her eyes flashed with frustration and she glided over to my desk, which sat below the Monticello window overlooking the backyard. A pen began to vibrate and went scribbling across the stationery scattered on the top of the desk.

In scrawls that were almost illegible, the name "Susan Mitchell" covered the page. The name seemed familiar, but I couldn't place it. I looked at the ghost. "You? You're Susan Mitchell?"

She nodded. As soon as she filled another page, the pen fell to the floor. I gingerly picked up the paper and looked at the letters that danced across the paper. What I saw made my blood run cold. I glanced up, and Susan looked at me wistfully. She pointed to the note, then to me, and vanished in a puff of icy air.

I looked at the note again. The words were damning. In looping letters she had written: "I was murdered by my husband but nobody knows. Help me."

What did she expect me to do? True, I was considered the town witch, but I owned a china shop, for cripes' sake-I didn't run a detective agency. Now I was supposed to go to the police and say that Susan Mitchell's ghost had appeared by the foot of my bed, begging me to prove that her husband had killed her? I didn't know who she was or where she had lived. I didn't even know if she was telling the truth-ghosts could lie, too. And I wasn't sure why she'd shown up in my bedroom, except for the fact that I was a pretty good medium and happened to be Chiqetaw's only professional tarot reader when I wasn't busy selling Earl Grey tea and Royal Winton china. But somehow, the paper in my hand seemed to have captured the spirit's mood. Sorrow echoed through her words... sorrow and resignation. How could I ignore the plea for help? Just because she was dead didn't mean Susan Mitchell was at peace. But what could I do? And where would I start?

Feeling more awake than ever, I trundled downstairs. Nothing beat a good pot of Moroccan Mint served up in a chintzware teacup at three in the morning when you were trying to figure out how to help a ghost prove she was murdered.

* * *

MORNING CAME FAR too early. I squinted, aware in some faint corner of my mind that I had fallen asleep in the rocking chair, and found myself staring into my son's bewildered face. My eyelashes were stuck together, and there was a ball of fuzz on my lap-Nebula, one of Samantha's kittens, had curled up for a good, long snooze. I gently shooed the cat down. I had the feeling that standing up was only going to lead to pain, so I avoided it for as long as possible. In the end, I gave Kip a blurry-eyed grin as I pushed myself to my feet.

"You okay, Mom?"

I leaned down and planted a kiss on his head. "I'm fine, bud. My insomnia's been acting up, but it's nothing to worry about. Have you had breakfast yet?"

He shrugged. "Leftover pie."

"Healthy, huh?" Nature called and I made a stiff-legged dash upstairs to my bathroom.

Sun slanted through the rose window that I had the carpenter install when I bought the house a little over a year ago. The light cast a rosy hue over the pale canary of the walls, and the result always startled me as a blush of tangerine filled the room. I leaned against the vanity as I washed my face, savoring the few moments alone, not thinking of last night, not thinking of the day-just enjoying my own company. My mother had sent me a bar of jasmine-scented soap from her last trip to Hawaii, and I worked up a good lather because I loved the smell and because it felt like soft cream.

After a quick shower, I slapped on some moisturizer and braided my hair so it would dry into a mass of waves. I had stopped dyeing it when we moved to Chiqetaw and only now was getting used to seeing the long, silver strands interweave through the brunette. I tucked a bandanna around my head to keep from catching cold. Utilitarian, if not pretty.

Still blurry-eyed, I pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweater. As much as I'd rather spend the morning figuring out just what had happened last night, Saturday was cleaning day down at my shop. We opened at noon, after waging war on all the cobwebs and dust bunnies that had collected under the counters and tables throughout the week.

Kip pounded on the door. "Mom, are you sure you're okay? I grabbed a Pop-Tart, too."

I smiled. Eight years old and he didn't know how to work a cereal box yet. My little slacker. But he helped around the house and finished his chores without complaining too loudly, so I wasn't going to bitch about his lack of motor skills in the cornflakes department. I blinked at myself once, twice, then opened the door and shuffled out. My mind was beginning to race, but my body definitely lagged behind.

Kip leaned against the wall with the remains of the toaster pastry. He had a wary look in his eyes and crumbs on his face. I immediately knew something was up. I reached out and tousled his head. "Whatchyu doing, kiddo?"

He gave me one of his long looks. He was so good at them that he could reduce an adult to gibberish within five minutes. I was proud of him for it. Not every woman's son had the ability to disconcert his elders, and it seemed more useful than anything the Boy Scouts could have taught him.

"Waiting for you. Why did you stay up all night?" Did I detect a hint of concern in his voice? Could Kip have possibly seen the ghost, too? My son was far too psychic for his own good at such a young age. I'd been trying to help him learn how to control and cope with it for the past year. Though his talent had been apparent from birth, it had blossomed out since Roy left us. A lot of things had blossomed since then.

He took a deep breath and plunged ahead with what I was afraid I was going to hear. "Mom, I thought I felt something in the house last night. I had a nightmare."

Nightmare? Kip hadn't had nightmares for over a year. "What was it about, kiddo?"

"Some lady, I guess. I dunno. I woke up in the middle of the night and was worried about you. I thought maybe something was going to hurt you." He swallowed the last of the Pop-Tart and wiped his hands on his jeans.

Normally, when Kip was upset in the middle of the night he would come tapping gently on my door and creep under the covers next to me. That he hadn't done so this time told me that he'd been too frightened to leave the security of his own bed. I didn't want him to worry, didn't want to talk about the ghost until I'd figured out what was going on. "Well, I look all right this morning, don't I? It was probably a dream, my Kipling."

He gave me a penetrating glance, and I knew he knew I was hiding something, but I also knew he knew I wasn't going to tell him until and unless I was good and ready. He nodded and bolted for the stairs, stopping long enough to turn at the railing. "Okay. Can I go over to Sly's?"

Sly was his current best friend and a little con artist, but Kip had enough brains to keep from getting involved in whatever trouble that kid had cooked up. I waved him away. "Wear your jacket-it's cold out. And don't forget that I want you at the store in an hour. Be there." One of the kids' chores was to help out on Saturday mornings. He took the stairs two at a time and vanished out the front door with a slam.

On the way to the kitchen, I stopped by the rocker and picked up the sheets of paper on which my ghostly visitor had written. The moment I touched them, I felt a wave of sadness overwhelm me. I looked at the writing. No, it hadn't been a dream. Susan's presence had been real enough. "I was murdered by my husband but nobody knows. Help me." How the hell was I supposed to deal with this? I didn't even know who she was.

I cracked eggs into the skillet and started toasting the bread, while Miranda grabbed the paper from the front porch. She gave me a quick peck on the cheek as I slid our breakfast onto the ruby crystal dishes I had so coveted for years. Roy had thought them too old-fashioned. After he left, I didn't care what he thought. In fact, I had decided to find a set of Cranberry Spode to go with them. The contrast would be startling and eye-catching.

Miranda poured the juice. With a bite of runny yolk on toast, I opened the paper and glanced through the news. There, down at the bottom of the page, an article caught my attention. The headline read, "Local Romance Writer Found Dead in Home."

Susan Walker Mitchell died Thursday evening after slipping into a diabetic coma. Mae Tailor, the Mitchells' housekeeper, found Ms. Mitchell unconscious upon returning to the residence at about 4:00 P.M. on Thursday afternoon. Blood tests confirmed the presence of both alcohol and Valium in Ms. Mitchell's system, a dangerous combination. However, doctors attribute her death to hypoglycemic coma, brought on by a failure to eat after taking her morning insulin.

"The levels of Valium and alcohol were high, but not within life-threatening ranges," Dr. Johansen, the Mitchells' family physician, stated. "Mrs. Mitchell has been admitted to the hospital four times in the past year for low-blood-sugar seizures... unfortunately, no one was with her this time to prevent her from slipping into a coma." Ms. Mitchell died without regaining consciousness.

Ms. Mitchell was well loved for her work in the community theater, but she was best known for her career as a romance novelist. She produced twenty-nine books over the past fifteen years, including the best-selling Love on Clancy Lane. Her books are read worldwide.

Survived by her husband, Walter Mitchell, Chiqetaw, and a daughter, Diana Mitchell, Seattle, Ms. Mitchell will be greatly missed.

I stopped reading. Of course. Susan Mitchell. The romance novelist. I remembered seeing her mentioned in the paper before, though I'd never met her. The photograph beside the obituary was most definitely that of my ghostly visitor.

"Is everything okay, Mom?" Oh no, not her, too. It was bad enough that Kip had sensed something, but Miranda spooked too easily, and I didn't want her involved in any part of this yet.

I squelched the urge to blurt out the truth. "No... no... nothing wrong. Go ahead and run along. Remember to be at the store by ten."

She grabbed her pack and raced out the door to catch the bus. Grabbing a pen and a steno book I always keep handy near the phone, I ripped the article out of the paper and tucked everything in my purse.

So my ghost was real, or had been. Diabetic coma? Murder? With a dozen thoughts reeling through my head, I made my way out to the car and pulled out of the driveway. I had a lot to do before opening the shop. The only trouble was, I didn't know where to begin.

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