Authors: Kat Richardson
“What do you want?” I asked when we got to the back of the plane.
“It’s all your fault,” she hissed back.
“What’s my fault?”
“It’s your fault, Harper.”
She didn’t tell me what was my fault. She only repeated her accusation over and over for the rest of the flight. Even retreating to the mindless noise of in-flight music couldn’t block her out of my head, since ghosts seem to have an affinity for electronic equipment and her uncanny voice seeped into the headphones to harry me.
There are a lot of types of ghosts, from the nearly alive to the merely present. Repeaters—ghosts that are essentially memory loops on endless play—are among the least annoying most of the time. They don’t interact with anyone. This dreadful drowned child was something a bit more than that, but not a lot. She annoyed the hell out of me while instilling the discomforting sensation that I’d done something wrong. But I couldn’t recall having anything to do with any drowning victims, so I didn’t know why I should feel guilty, though for some reason I did. The ghost disappeared somewhere over Santa Barbara, but by then it was too late to rest.
After my unpleasant flight, I was not in a good mood when I arrived at LA International. The baggage people at LAX added to my irritation by refusing to hand back my bag. It seemed that the X-ray tag that let them know there was a properly inspected and secured firearm in the case had gotten buried, and someone had freaked out when they saw the shadow of my pistol in the scanner. I had a long, boring, and circular discussion with everyone at the baggage office about handing it back. When they wanted to read me the riot act because they’d bungled the tagging and given some poor monkey on the X-ray machine a fit, I got a little testy, and that’s not a good idea with security people. By the time the luggage supervisor was involved, everyone was beyond pissy and I’d spent an extra forty minutes just trying to get my property back.
Therefore I was a bit short with the car rental clerk. It was nearly nine o’clock in the evening and I had very little tolerance left, so when he smirked at my chest, I snapped at him.
“What?” I demanded.
“Umm . . . your shirt’s funny. . . .”
I looked down, having forgotten what I’d thrown on under my Seattle-necessary leather jacket for the flight to the warmer climes of Los Angeles in mid-May. It was a dark blue T-shirt with van Gogh’s famous evening sky above a picture of a giant, gore-fanged bunny menacing a tiny human figure. “Starry Starry Night . . . of the Lepus!” it read. My bookstore-owning friend Phoebe had given it to me for my birthday on the principle that if you won’t shop for yourself, your friends have carte blanche to give you things they think you should wear.
“Oh, gods,” I groaned. The shirt was too conspicuous. I’d have to dump it at my first opportunity and hope Phoebe would forgive me.
“I wasn’t checking you out, I swear!” the young man objected. “I’m just kind of into schlock film,” he added, pink-faced and defending his casual glance at my chest.
Night of the Lepus
! One of the worst films ever made—mutant rabbits attack Arizona. It’s—umm . . .” He could see me losing interest and patience. He shifted back to business, and I wouldn’t have thought anyone’s face could have gone that shade of red without makeup. “So . . . would you like to upgrade to a midsize car for only six dollars more per day?”
“No. Thank you.” We wrangled for a while longer before he let me have the compact car I’d reserved and I set out into the spring twilight looking for my hotel.
A sultry female voice answered the phone. “Hello?” Mother was feeling femme fatale-ish.
“Hi, Mother,” I said. “I got in late last night, and this was my first chance to call you.”
Her voice swooped up in theatrical delight. “Snippet!” In spite of the fact that I tower over her by five inches, that’s been my mother’s nickname for me since I was five and suddenly a real human in her eyes, instead of a parasite. “I’m just having breakfast. You have to come up and join us.”
She ignored that. “Come up, sweetie! See you in a few!”
And, having issued her orders, she hung up. As much as I hated feeling summoned, I wanted to get it over with, so I headed down to the ghost-stuffed lobby of my once-grand Hollywood hotel.
The building was like something out of a Stephen King novel to me—ghosts, murders, crimes, and monstrosities lurked in every shadow—but at least I could see them first. I considered that I should have booked a more boring venue, but the haunting ratio isn’t a lot lower in most newer buildings—people just want to think it is—and I’d loved looking at the crazy California rococo facade back when I’d never seen a ghost. It tickled me a bit to finally be a guest. A dead flapper scurried, blood-spattered, down the hall, things watched me as I passed down the staircase of painted tile, and a tragically beautiful face gazed at me from a mirror. I didn’t stop to find out what any of them wanted. I didn’t need another mystery right now. I just retrieved the rental car and drove.
My mother’s house clung to a hillside far from the site of Cary Malloy’s death—I wasn’t ready to face that twisting bit of road yet. I stopped the car for a moment at the bottom of the street, peering out the side window at the curvaceous white plaster building hanging from the steep canyon walls like a hornets’ nest buzzing with orange and yellow energy clouds. She had one part of her dream, at least—she’d always wanted a house in the canyons. Judging by the colors around the place, I figured it hadn’t mellowed her out much, but I guessed I’d find out for sure in a few minutes. I hadn’t seen my mother since acquiring my Grey sight and I wasn’t sure if the manic flares of energy around her home were better than what she’d have shown me a few years ago. I shoved the car back into gear and growled up the twisty, eucalyptus-lined road.
The smell of the dusty trees, cholla, and canyon weeds reminded me of long treks up the ridges as a kid and of baking-hot days on “ego duty” with Cary—watching the houses of minor celebrities for suspected stalkers and known exes with grudges. It was the scent of the seemingly endless summer of southern California childhood. It should have made me smile, but I felt my brow creasing into a frown. Something nagged in the back of my head, making the memory bitter beyond the remembered misery of sweltering hours of dance rehearsals and auditions wearing fake smiles and unbroken shoes that raised bleeding blisters for the sake of five minutes’ beauty. That particular sunshine made me morose.
The house didn’t seem any more restful when I got closer to it, in spite of the architect’s best efforts. It was still too active in the Grey for my comfort. I pulled past a gate that shut behind me and into the narrow, trellis-covered shelf that served as a carport, between an older, forest green Jaguar convertible and a spanking-new Mercedes coupe. That brought my eyebrows up, but the thought that prompted it got no further as I was hailed by my mother’s voice from a speaker set in the creamy white wall.
“Sweetie, come through the gate to the terrace. It’s on the left.”
I left my bag in the car—who was going to steal it?—but I kept my jacket on. I walked through the rustic gate in the plastered wall, which was as white and perfect as wedding cake frosting. My boots clacked onto a bed of smooth indigo stones pretending to be an oxbow surrounding the white marble island of the terrace. The view spread beyond the wall in the perpetual canyon haze of blue eucalyptus dust as if the pebble watercourse had widened into a river of sky. It would have been a restful haven if only my mother hadn’t lived in it.
My mother and a man who looked like an accessory to the fake-Mediterranean decor sat at a round redwood table facing the view over the scattered remains of the morning meal. So much for “join us for breakfast.”
Mother smiled and waved like Princess Grace. I admit she looked great, if too thin. She’d given up the battle against gray hair and embraced a dramatic sweep of silver through her chestnut mane. Makeup and artfully casual clothes added to her morning polish. It would have looked better without her apple green aura—possessiveness? Jealousy? I wasn’t sure.
The man stood up, bending to give her a quick kiss on the lips before walking toward me. He put out his hand as he got close. He was Hollywood’s idea of sixty-five and dressed like a 1940s gangster on vacation. I smothered a snicker.
“So, you’re Ronnie’s Snippet. I’ve heard all about you. I’m Damon.”
I took his hand, but I didn’t shake. His palm was warm and dry, but the gleam of energy around his body in the Grey was sickly olive green. Mother’s complementary green energy trailed after him like a thread raveling from his sleeve. I guessed he was the owner of the quarter million dollars’ worth of Mercedes in the carport.
My mother’s name was currently Veronica Geary, and she’d always hated the nickname Ronnie, so I had to assume that she was angling to make Damon into husband number five, or she would have chilled him to the bone for calling her by the despised moniker. I wondered if she knew there was something wrong with him, though whether it was physical or mental, inward or outward directed, I didn’t know. I only knew the size and color of his aura weren’t good. I didn’t like seeing my mother’s energy tied up to his that way; there was something squick-worthy about it.
“I’m sure you haven’t heard it all just yet. And I’d prefer ‘Harper,’ ” I replied. “I think I’m a bit tall to be a snippet.” And “Snippet” hadn’t always been an endearment, either.
His hand fell away from mine. “Ah. Well. I was on my way out, so I’ll let you two have some privacy, then,” Damon said, not quite frowning.
My mother waved and blew him a kiss. “Be good, Damon! Dinner at Marmont—don’t forget!”
“Of course not, bunny,” he answered, waving as he passed through the gate.
I just stood still until I heard the Mercedes purr to life and crunch away across the eucalyptus pods scattered on the pavement. I walked over to the table and stood beside Damon’s vacated chair—all the others were up against the cool white wall.
My mother looked me over, scowling. It didn’t become her. “Good God, baby, aren’t you sweltering in that jacket? Take it off; you’re making me sweat just looking at you,” she added, flicking her hand airily at me. Queen Veronica.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
She glared and leaned forward, all trace of the royal charm wiped away. “I said take it off, Harper.”
I shrugged and slipped out of the jacket, dropping it onto the back of Damon’s chair before I sat down on the seat.
My mother stared, aghast, at the holster tucked into my jeans. “Jesus, Harper! You bring a gun into my home? Into
home,” she repeated. She clasped a hand to her chest like someone from a silent film. I didn’t think it was the gun that offended her so much as my having it on my person.
“I bring a gun everywhere, Mother. I have a license for it.”
“But this is my
! How could you possibly think you’d need a gun in my house? This is a safe place! Not a . . . a barrio pool hall.”
“I was killed in a ‘safe place’ two years ago.”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Harper. You’re not dead.”
“How would you know? You’re listed as my next of kin, but I never saw you at the hospital, Mother. If you’d bothered to show up, they’d have told you I died for two minutes.”
“You were fine! I called.”
“Not while I was conscious.”
She waved my words away. “How did I raise such a drama queen?”
“Because that’s what you wanted. Twelve years of professional dance and every audition and road show you could get me into was kind of a hint. I’m sure you remember it as well as I do. Like, when I was ten and instead of summer vacation, I did fifty-four performances of
“In the chorus! And if you’d only lost a little weight, you’d have been first understudy!”
“I am not fat and I never have been. But I was much too tall to play a ten-year-old orphan. I’m five ten, for heaven’s sake!”
“Well, you weren’t then.” She looked me over and snorted. “And you could stand to lose five pounds. . . .”
Since I’d worked hard to put on that five pounds of muscle, I disagreed, but I didn’t say so. Instead I answered quietly, “And, if we’re slinging personal criticisms, you could stand to gain a few.” A woman in her late fifties shouldn’t have the body of a heroin-addicted teenager. I didn’t like my mother, but that didn’t mean I wished her ill.
She glared at me and kept her mouth shut—score one for me. She picked at the pineapple rind that sat on her plate and sighed, exasperated. “You don’t know how hard it is to compete in this town, sweetie. . . .”
I shook my head and rolled my eyes.
“You don’t,” she insisted.
“Do we have to have this conversation?”
“It’s entirely your choice.”
I’d heard that before—usually before emotional blackmail. “Then my choice is that we don’t.”