Raw draft – Spookshow book 3
“WHAT IS IT?” Billie asked.
“I just got a chill,” said Jen. She folded her arms to stifle a shiver on this hot end-of-summer evening. “Like someone just walked over my grave.”
Unlikely, Billie thought. The chill had had less to do with future grave-treading than it did with the ghost that had just passed Jen from behind, brushing her arm. Being that close to the dead would chill one to the bone instantly. Billie knew this as fact. Something she had encountered too many times.
The ghost still hadn’t spotted Billie yet and Billie meant to keep it that way. She wasn’t in the mood to deal with ghosts today. Or ever again, if she had any say in the matter.
The dead woman had entered the party, uninvited of course, through the back gate that led to the garage alley. She moved under the patio lanterns strung over the backyard, drifting through the crowd like a lonely debutante unable to find someone to dance with at a ball. Her drab coat, long skirt and filthy apron marked her as working class from a century ago. A washerwoman, Billie thought. Or maybe housekeeper of some kind. She searched the faces of the party-goers, as if hoping for someone she knew but Billie knew that the dead woman was looking for her. The woman kept stopping to adjust her ill-fitting hat. Even pinned as it was to her hair, the little headpiece slid backward because the back of the woman’s head was missing. A great gaping hole yawned there, foul with blood and brains and bone splinters.
A suicide, Billie guessed. Via a gun in the mouth. Which was unusual for a woman. Guns were men’s preferred exit method. Most women opted for poison or pills. Something less messy than the blast of a gunshot.
“Have you seen Adam?” Jen asked, rising up on her toes to scan over the crowd in her backyard.
Adam was Jen’s boyfriend of four years. The party was theirs, a barbecue on the last long weekend of the summer. The turnout was good, the backyard filled with friends of both host’s. Billie looked through the faces but shrugged. “He was here a minute ago.”
“He should have put the ribs on the grill by now,” Jen fretted. “He’ll ruin everything if he leaves it too late.”
“I’m sure he’ll manage.”
“I know but I had it all timed. I just wanted it to be perfect.”
Billie tried not to roll her eyes. Her friend’s insistence on perfection in all things was annoying, to say the least. She wondered what Jen would say if she knew there was a dead woman wandering around her party with the back of her head blown off. “Nothing’s ever perfect, Jen.”
“That doesn’t mean one can’t try.” Jen straightened the gingham spread on the picnic table. “Oh look, Tammy finally arrived.”
Tammy worked through the crowd toward them, her ever-present camera bag slung from one shoulder. Swiping someone’s unattended beer from a table, she dropped onto the picnic table next to Billie. “Ladies,” she said, hoisting the beer in salute.
“Did you forget the time?” Jen asked.
“I was working,” Tammy said. “You knew that. Nice party.”
Jen clinked her glass against Tammy’s bottle. “I’m glad you’re here. How did the shoot go?”
“I hate these amateur fashion shoots,” Tammy said. “These college kids wasted the daylight because they were so unprepared.”
“Did they pay or was this another volunteer job?” Billie asked.
“Pro bono. I need to pad out my portfolio with fashion stuff.” Tammy rabbit-punched Billie on the arm. “Nice to see you out for a change.”
Jen rolled her eyes this time. “I had to literally drag her out this time.”
“Puh-lease…” Billie groaned, knowing full well that her friend was right. She had become something of a recluse since early this summer. When her whole world had changed and her eyes were opened to the dead things that haunted the world all around them. These days, she spent most of her energy trying to close her eyes again. Or, at the very least, barricading herself at home to keep the dead out.
“Is Kaitlin coming?” Tammy asked.
“She’s running late too,” Jen answered.
“Oh? She and Kyle out picking china for their wedding?”
“She didn’t say,” Jen said. “She hasn’t mentioned the wedding in weeks, actually. Do you think she and Kyle are okay?”
Billie looked up at Jen. “Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know. She just seems distracted lately.”
Tammy chortled at Billie. “She’s too busy trailing you around like a puppy. I’m surprised Kyle hasn’t gotten jealous.”
Billie sipped her beer, thinking of a way to change the subject.
“Why is she doing that?” Jen asked.
“She’s trying to unlock Billie’s spooky powers,” Tammy laughed.
Jen bristled and stepped away. “Where the hell is Adam? I can’t trust him to do anything right.”
Billie watched their friend quick-march into the house. Tammy shook her head. “She still won’t talk about it, huh?”
“She doesn’t have to,” Billie said. “Hell, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I’m glad you came out,” Tammy said, glancing her way. “Does this mean your self-imposed exile is over? You ready to rejoin the world?”
Billie shrugged. A habit she indulged too often and one she was trying to stop. “Don’t get far ahead of me on that.”
“You know what your problem is?”
“I don’t have problems,” Billie replied.
“You need to meet a guy,” Tammy went on. “Someone to bring you out of this funk.”
“That is sooo not an answer right now.”
Tammy guffawed. “I didn’t say marry one. Just meet one. Mister Temporary, as opposed to Mister Right.”
Billie brought her beer to her lips but the bottle was empty. She didn’t bother responding.
Tammy wagged her chin at the crowd of people in Jen’s backyard. “Plenty of guys here. A few of them real candidates.”
“Then why don’t you meet them?” There was half a snarl to Billie’s tone. She disliked her friend’s diagnosis and easy remedy. Like it was that easy. Tammy wasn’t the first one to suggest that she needed to meet somebody either. Jen and Kaitlin had both tried their hand at it. And had their hands slapped for their efforts.
“I might,” Tammy said. She surveyed the prospects around her. “But that’s not a problem for me. We need to find you someone to waste time with.”
Billie took a deep breath. “Honey, I know you mean well but I’m just not in the right space for that. Honest.”
“Okay.” Tammy set her bottle on the picnic table. “Let’s get another drink, then I need to vent about working with these stupid bitches today. Deal?”
One of the things that Billie liked about Tammy, and there were many, was her lack of drama and ability to speak plainly. The matter was dropped and within minutes she had Billie laughing over the details of today’s photo shoot with the high-maintenance fashion students. They scrounged more drinks from the perfectly quaint tin ice tub that Jen had laid out and after a while, Billie relaxed into the old routine of simply hanging with the ladies. After Kaitlin arrived, they convinced Jen to let Adam handle the hosting for a while so they could talk. It was almost like the old days and that allowed Billie to settle in and relax.
An hour onward and Billie realized too late that she had relaxed too much. Her guard had gone down, the closing-off to the dead had slipped and when she looked up, she saw the dead woman marching straight for her.
Billie tried to close herself off again but it was too late for that. The woman drew up before her, her lips pursed in a cold frown.
“I didn’t do it,” the dead woman said.
Billie didn’t even look at her. She picked at the label on the beer bottle, trying to remember how many she’d had.
“I didn’t, if that’s what you’re wondering.” The woman sat down next to Billie at the picnic table, her back rigid and her manner prim. She smoothed her long skirt and straightened her hat again, as making herself presentable to the party. Despite the daintiness of her movements, the dead woman’s hands were raw and hard. The hands of a woman who had worked them hard all her life.
“The shame of it is what burns me,” the woman said. “What people would think of it. Suicide, of all things. You’ll be denied Heaven if you give in to that sin.”
Billie turned her head to look at the woman and then looked away. “I can’t help you,” she said.
“That’s unChristian of you.” The woman stiffened up, her eyes narrowing. “I didn’t ask for your help, thank you very much. I just hate the thought of anyone thinking I killed myself.”
“My mistake,” Billie said. “I shouldn’t presume.”
The woman adjusted her hat and then probed gently at the catastrophe that was the back of her head. “It’s ghastly, isn’t it?”
“It is. Maybe a bigger hat would help.”
“I had a damn sight just finding this one.”
The woman smoothed down her skirt again. The two of them fell silent for a time, watching the people around them.
Billie sat up. “Was it a gun shot?”
“Who did it?”
“My husband. He was mad with drink and in a rage. He knocked me senseless, then propped me up in a chair and fetched up his Winchester. He fitted the stock between my knees and put the barrel in my mouth. And then it was over. A suicide to any who had eyes to see.”
“I’m sorry,” Billie said. “No one ever learned the truth?”
“No. The children had their suspicions but none ever voiced them. Too afraid of their father.”
The people around them laughed and chatted and carried on, unaware of the spectral tragedy in their midst. Billie was situated somewhere between the two. She turned to the woman. “Can’t you move on?”
“I’m afeared to. Purgatory holds a special place for suicides.”
“But you didn’t kill yourself.”
“Do they know that? On the other side?” The dead woman folded her hands in her lap. “I’ll bide my time here, thank you very much.”
“I don’t think it’s like that,” Billie said. “On the other side.”
“How do you know?”
Point taken, Billie thought. She became quiet.
The woman stood up. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”
“Where will go?”
“Somewhere quiet. This damn city is too loud by far.” The woman stepped through the crowd and made her toward the back gate that led to the alley. She stopped and looked up at the sky. “There’s a storm coming, girl. A nasty one too. It’ll spoil your little garden party I’m afraid.”
None of the party-goers had noticed the clouds forming in the night sky. When the rain came down, they squealed and ran inside for shelter.
Billie decided she’d had enough for one night and left through the back gate.