There’s high water everywhere and she’s about to drown on dry land.
Roxie Mathis lost her home and her livelihood to a devastating flood. The trauma of almost drowning has left both her life and her magical abilities in disarray. The return of sexy sorcerer Blake Harvill has her even more confused.
Hired to evict ghosts from a bed and breakfast, Roxie’s confidence takes another hit when she encounters a violent spirit she’s crossed paths with in the past. When innocent people are trapped in the house, Roxie’s going to have to tap reservoirs of power she’s never touched before. In magic, like physics, everything has an equal and opposite reaction, and Roxie can only hope her desperate spellwork won’t kill her – or conjure up something even more dangerous.
There’s an art to rolling down a flight of stairs. Protecting the head and neck is paramount, followed by trying to keep your legs and arms from getting tangled. It’s best not to scream while it’s happening because that breath will be needed after crashing to a stop. With conditions being what they were, I also had to be mindful of getting a mouthful of mold and flood debris.
Sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, I lay there for a moment to see if anything hurt more than it should. Nothing seemed broken so I got to my feet. “Bubba? Where are you?” I adjusted my ponytail and scanned the area for spectral energy. Nothing.
My cousin Daniel came down the stairs at a stately pace, clutching his side with one hand. “You know what I enjoy least about coming out with you on these jobs?”
“The fact that the last two checks bounced didn’t warm my heart at all,” I muttered.
He came to stand next to me and I could make out the blood on his clothes in the darkness. “What happened?”
“I hate getting my ass handed to me by ghosts. The damn thing speared me with a poker.”
That was something we’d have to worry about if Daniel were mortal, but he was a vampire. The wound had probably already healed. “Did that ghost look familiar to you? I could swear I’ve seen him before.”
Daniel raised a disdainful eyebrow. “Yeah, I saw him at the drive-in the other night getting a cherry limeade and tater tots. What the hell, Roxie?”
“You don’t have to get snippy. Especially since you’re the one who dragged us out here.”
“I thought you’d enjoy this job. You haven’t worked in weeks.”
I stared at him, incredulous. “What, you don’t think filling sandbags is work? Or cleaning houses, hauling trash? None of this counts as work with you?”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it. You haven’t done any paranormal investigating, any ghost hunting, in weeks. Ever since…”
“Ever since I had to give up the lease on my office because I couldn’t pay the rent? Or do you mean ever since my house was destroyed by the flood? Because stuff happened so close together, sometimes I get all confused about the order of craptastic events in my life.” I tried to keep all the built-up anger and frustration out of my voice, but it was pretty much impossible.
“I know things have been rough,” he said. “I just think you’d feel better if you were working. Your kind of work. Get back in that supernatural saddle, you know?”
I glared at him until the hopeful smile melted from his face.
“Come on, Roxie. How long are you going to hide out at my place and watch Buffy and Angel over and over?”
I punched his injured side. “Until they get the happy ending they deserve. Jerk.”
Something bounced off my shoulder and for a brief moment I wondered if Daniel hit me back. He would never do that, though. “What was that?”
Before he could respond an object slammed into the side of my head. I cried out, rubbing my skull, then knelt to search the floor. A bundle of sage, used as part of my ghost eviction rite, lay in chunks at my feet. “Hey, you know all that stuff we left upstairs when we had to make a run for it?”
Daniel swore. “I hate it when they throw stuff at us.”
What sounded like the bell we used in the rite clanged off his chest and clattered to the floor. Various other implements rained down on us from the top of the stairs, sending me ducking and hiding behind Daniel. It didn’t take long for everything I’d brought to be scattered on the floor, most of it destroyed. I tried to collect it all, shoving broken pieces of candle and crockery in my messenger bag. Only one piece couldn’t be replaced and that was a small saucer given to me by my teacher, Rozella Kent. From her good china, she’d given it to me to use when burning incense and candles during workings. One of the few things I had left of hers, it was something I treasured. Now it lay in my hands in jagged pieces.
My shoulders sagged. The sting of tears, something I’d felt far too often lately, burned my eyes. A strange empty kind of anger filled me, coupled with frustration over all the things I couldn’t control. Someone or something needed to pay for all this damage.
“You bastard.” Jumping to my feet, I started hurling everything the ghost had thrown at me back at it. “You don’t belong here! Get out of this house. Get out. Go back where you came from!”
Daniel grabbed me, pulling me toward the door. “It’s already pissed off. Don’t make it worse.”
He opened the door and made his way to the porch. I stood in the threshold, staring at the ghost at the top of the stairs. “Go back where you came from.”
The gray haze coalesced into a more recognizable form. What concerned me was the dark red seeping out of the ghost’s aura. Red was never a good color to see in an energy signature, especially when it was coming right at me. I had no time to move. It slammed into me and straight through, knocking me out the door to land in the yard. My feet never touched the porch.
I’d come into contact with ghosts plenty of times. It was like putting my hand in a stream of cold running water, except that same sensation all through my body. The feeling was unsettling as hell but it’s never hurt. That was what I was expecting when the ghost flew at me. If I’d known it would be different I would have tried harder to get out of the way, but I wasn’t anticipating anything serious.
This time it felt like a bandage ripped from an open wound, then being immersed in freezing acid. I screamed so loud my throat shredded. Daniel held me, both of us on our knees.
It took several minutes for me to recover. I fought down a mixture of nausea and the shame of failure as I sat on a bald patch of yard where there probably used to be grass before flood water ripped it from the ground. Daniel hummed a Statler Brothers song and held my hand. Shivering, I dug around in my messenger bag for my glasses case, then put on my glasses.
“Flowers On The Wall? Really?”
He quirked an eyebrow as he helped me to stand. “Feeling better?”
I couldn’t think of a single quip. “No. Let’s get out of here.”
We walked slowly to his SUV. He said, “Did you figure out where you’d seen that ghost before?”
“Yeah. He’s the Confederate general that haunts the Carnton place in Franklin. What I don’t know is what the heck he’s doing here.”
Daniel opened the passenger door for me and walked around to the driver’s side. I lowered my glasses for one last look at the house. Of course I didn’t strictly need to do that to see the auric field but my glasses made for a nice shield to keep my vision from being overwhelmed by the colors others couldn’t see. It had been a long time since a ghost managed to defeat me. My job wasn’t always to evict them. Plenty of times I’d been hired to get them to calm down, like when a certain fellow haunting the Ryman Auditorium got riled up and started lobbing beer cans at the young country artists. Dealing with a ghost was sometimes not uncommon from dealing with a puppy or a toddler. Someone like me has to show them who’s boss. They recognize fear and weakness and will not take orders from anyone who exhibits either one. I didn’t have the energy right then to analyze exactly why I’d failed. I just hated that I had.
Something skittered across my nerves like bass notes in a minor key. Who was out there? I scanned the night, feeling watched but finding nothing. There was no trace of an aura, much less the starfield I wanted to see. The tang of cigar smoke and something else, but that was it.
Longing piled on top of every other bad thing I was feeling. I climbed in the vehicle and closed my eyes, pretending to sleep on the way home.
* * *
My dreams were still full of water. Pounding, relentless rain. A rolling, frothing rush of flash flood the color of chocolate milk. It poured into the house by inches that quickly became feet. Soon I had to give up my desperate attempt to pack as much as I could salvage and flee. Wading through water that quickly came up to the middle of my chest, I fought against the current to reach a tree. I clawed my way up to the hardiest branch I could reach, fingers digging into the bark for purchase. My teeth chattered, body battered by wind and rain and shock. I touched my glasses compulsively, as if to make sure they were there, and the one backpack full of belongings I’d made it out with.
There was no way of knowing how long I’d have to wait for help. I hooked the backpack on a higher branch and tried to settle myself as comfortably as possible. My glasses kept fogging, tendrils of spectral energy teasing around the edges. I didn’t want to see all that angry energy but my auric vision was overwhelmed with it. I kept cleaning my glasses and tried to focus on the solid world around me.
But there was no solid world. It was all being washed away.
I don’t remember dropping my glasses. There was a moment of absolute clarity, the kind only felt when a sickening nightmare is unfolding in slow motion and can’t be stopped. I lunged for them, one hand outstretched so far surely I would be able to reach, the other clinging to sodden tree bark. Then the world gave way and the water had me.
I never learned how to swim. The current was too fast, too powerful. A mouthful of flood water forced its way down my throat. Debris pelted my body as the water carried me. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see. I slammed into something, my skull cracking against a hard surface. Forcing my eyes open, I saw my house. The water had brought me to the bottom of a boarded-up window. I scrabbled for a hold on anything I could grip but my fingers were too stiff from cold and shock to gain purchase. The current kept pulling me away from the house, sometimes slamming me back into it. My sneakers slipped against the siding. More heavy debris crashed into me, something large and metal that left my back throbbing. My vision had been filled with red but now it began to slide down the spectrum into gray.
I reached for the only thing I had left – magic. The magic inside me, the magic all around and in the land on which I had made my home. I had a connection to that land, from living in the house, from growing flowers and herbs and vegetables in the soil, from dancing barefoot in the grass bathed in light from the full moon and summer fireflies. I reached for that connection, took strength from it, sent my will into it, and asked it for help.
A strong eddy of water lifted me. I grabbed the window casing, got one foot on the ledge. Then I slipped, crying out as I fell back into the water. It swirled around me and I let myself sink to the ground, digging at the dirt with stabbing fingers. I had no chant or spell or incantation, just the visualization of launching out of the water all the way to the roof. Gathering all the magical energy I could conjure, I fired it into the ground beneath.
The tricky part of both physics and magic was gambling that the equal and opposite reaction of whatever a witch did wouldn’t kill them. I shot through the water, through the air, and crashed onto my roof like a ton of bricks. And promptly passed out.
I don’t know how long it took before someone came along in their fishing boat and helped me. Once I finally woke I sang to myself as a distraction, a mish mash of random songs and stray snatches of lyrics. Anything to help me focus and not give in to shock. I stayed in a shelter set up in a church until Daniel finally found me.
I was not there to see the water finally push my house off the foundation, or to witness a bigger tree become uprooted and crash down on top of what used to be my living room. That sight was waiting for me after the flood waters receded and I could come home to find I had no home anymore.
It was daylight. Daniel couldn’t be with me because of the hour, so there was no one there to see me fall to the saturated ground, shaking and heartsick. I had nothing left.
Staying at my cousin’s house, which fortunately had been spared the worst with only the cellar taking on water, the debris of my life floated through my mind. In the last case I did for my business, Mathis Paranormal Investigations, my car was destroyed and my house trashed. Daniel let me borrow his SUV but I refused to let him pay for the damage to my house. I let the lease on my office go so I had money for repairs instead. The Broom Closet, the metaphysical store where I rented space, still bought homemade candles and other supplies from me, so I tried to get by on that. But the flood took that away, too, filling the shop with water and mud, destroying everything. I’d lost my business, my side job, and my home. The possessions I had left were so few they fit in a backpack. I had no flood insurance and I was so broke I didn’t have enough money to buy a meal off the dollar menu at a fast food joint. It was the closest I’d ever come to a nervous breakdown.
The person I wanted to see most had disappeared from my life as quickly as he came and I had no idea where to find him. For all I knew, Blake Harvill wouldn’t want me to find him. I sank into a colorless depression that gathered me tight in its embrace. I welcomed it, letting it wash over me in a slow motion parody of the flood that brought my life to a standstill.
After it became apparent there was no way to salvage my own home, I spent my days helping to fill sandbags, volunteering to clean, coming back to Daniel’s house sick from allergies and exhausted. In the evenings Daniel went out to do what help he could at night, and I wandered his house like a drifting spirit. As my life slowly adjusted to this new normal, calls began trickling in to the cellphone I’d used for my business. Pretty soon it became evident it was Ghosts Gone Wild out there. I went back to work, needing the money and something to do.
* * *
I lay in bed, not wanting to go back to sleep after dreaming about the flood again. Didn’t much want to keep obsessing over my problems either. Five minutes, maybe ten, I got tired of that and went downstairs. Neko Case echoed from the living room. Daniel had a tendency to get restless the closer it got to dawn, as if he didn’t want the night to end. I found him swaying to the music, a drink in one hand.
He gave me a smile as he sang along to Furnace Room Lullaby. His voice suited the old-timey feel of the song beautifully. During a break in the vocals he said, “Do you know how to waltz?”
“No,” I said, rolling my eyes.
Waving a hand, he set his glass on the coffee table. “Just fake it.”
He twirled me around the room and I did my best not to step on his feet. The song came to an end, replaced by Dolly Parton. I escaped to one of the overstuffed wing chairs flanking the coffee table. “What’re you drinking tonight, bubba?”
He dropped onto the middle of the sofa. “Sure you wanna know?”
I nodded. Daniel drank blood of course, and he liked to make mixed drinks with it, too. It used to bother me but lately it seemed perfectly normal. I’d accepted the fact that he was a vampire and my ancestor pretty easily, but his blood drinking had taken a little longer to get used to.
“I juiced a few strawberries and a lime. Added some of that mint liqueur I made. Some spiced rum, a little club soda, and a couple shots of O positive. I call it a Havana Night.”
“So what’s going on, Roxie?”
I didn’t have the energy to pretend I didn’t know what he meant. “I don’t know. I’m off my game, I guess. He broke my stuff.” That bothered me more than I wanted to admit.
“Got any ideas on why he was at that house and not the Carnton Plantation?”
“None whatsoever.” I was silent for a long moment. “You know I’ve been getting more and more calls.” A ghost who moved from one house to another wasn’t something I’d encountered before. It made me wonder what else was going on out there, and why now? Did it have something to do with the flood?
He nodded. “So let’s saddle up, cowgirl. There’s ghosts need bustin’.”
I laughed, the sound coming out more of a snort. “Now I know you’re drunk, talking like that.”
Patsy Cline filled the room. Daniel sang along to Walking After Midnight. Good. That kept him from asking why it hurt so much when the ghost slammed into me. I didn’t have an answer for that, either.