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First pages

Chapter One

“Here you go, Heph. You like challenges. What do you make of this?”

“What is it?”

“The transcript and debriefing notes from our last mission. Gabriel and I ambushed an imp train on the way to Lumos. We thought it was an ordinary cattle express, but when we knocked it over, the souls inside turned out to be different. Very different. They had no fear. They didn’t try to run. None of them knew their own identities and they had no memory of anything, including how they got into the hands of slave mongers.”

“It says here they’re clean.”

“That’s right.”

“Completely clean?”

“Scrubbed. Spotless. As if they had never been born.”

“But that’s impossible. Did Malachai run a karmic scan?"

“Twice, on all of them."

“And?”

“Total amnesia.”

“What about a chrono-temporal regression?”

“That’s a thought. I’ll get Xathanael on it.”

“I see Malachai managed to question an imp.”

“Yeah, the only one he didn’t blast into protoplasm.”

“He traced the consignment back to a low level demon named Flatus. Has anyone followed up on this?”

“Not yet. Layla is busy investigating a ghul infestation in Limbo and Ariel is undercover in Mephista, trying to find out what Azmodeus is up to. You’re the only agent available.”

“I already have an assignment. I –”

“It can wait. This is more important. The demons are up to something. Gabriel wants to know how they’re getting clean souls and what they’re doing with them.”

“Okay. I’ll help Xathanael with the regression process. Where are the spirits now?”

“Sitting on ice.”

“Do I have the authority to follow this as far as it goes? I’m not interested in having my case yanked if it becomes too politically sensitive.”

“You can take it all the way to the top. Or the bottom. You have full investigative powers, with access to all of the necessary equipment. Gabriel’s had enough of the interregnum. He’s ready to make a move on Metatron if he has to. Preying on humans once they die is one thing, but messing with the unborn is going too far. If the fundamental laws governing the universe are tampered with, all of heaven might begin to unravel.”

“Gabe thinks it’s that serious?”

“He thinks it isn’t worth the risk.”

“I’ll do my best. This report isn’t very encouraging. If the tests come back negative, you’re basically asking me to perform a miracle.”

“Of course. You’re a guardian. A H.A.L.O. agent. If you can’t, then who can?”

“The Boss.”

“She’s not taking calls from anyone right now. You know that.”

“I know, but I still wish she’d come back to work.”

“Me too. Until then we just have to keep doing our job. It’s what we were made for.”

“I suppose. It doesn’t seem fair sometimes – only seven of us left, standing between humanity and everyone else in the United Realms.”

“The important thing is that we are here. Imagine what would happen if we weren’t.”

“In that case, I wouldn’t want to be human.”

 

Andy Lieffert spent four years cramming his brain with information until it dripped facts and figures like an oversaturated sponge, but when it finally came to graduating, the only thing that mattered was how fast he could run.

He was late, as usual. Sprinting down the halls of Gilcrest High School and fifteen minutes overdue for a crucial meeting with his Latin teacher, Mr. Wormald. He would have been on time but Jed had asked for help, promising it would only take a few minutes to push start his stalled car. Instead it took almost half an hour and Andy had to abandon his friend after the fourth attempt, leaving Jed at the bottom of a hill to contemplate doubling the value of his vehicle by purchasing a new battery.

Andy turned the last corner, his footsteps echoing down the almost empty corridor lined with rows of lockers. Occasional shadowy forms flitted past, the usual mixture of the living and the dead, ignoring him as much as he ignored them. He checked his watch. Gulped. Mr. Wormald hated people who were tardy. He hated Andy. Andy didn’t have a prayer.

Almost there. Light from the classroom’s open door spilled into the gloomy hall, a pale rectangle on the floor. Hallelujah! Wormald hadn’t left yet. Andy picked up the pace, gasping for air. Nearing the entrance, he hooked his arm to catch the doorway at speed and swing around. A figure emerged, bulky, bearded and sweater-clad, its arms full of notebooks. Andy hit the brakes, his shoes slipping on the freshly waxed floor. Collision sirens screamed in his head. He couldn’t stop.

Andy shut his eyes at the impact. Mr. Wormald grunted as air whooshed from his puffed cheeks and he absorbed the blow like a giant pillow. They both went down, sprawling on their backs. Binders flew everywhere, pages flapping in an explosion of loose paper. Andy scrambled to his feet, grasping at the dozens of ungraded tests settling like autumn leaves.

“S-s-sorry I’m late, sir!” he stammered, scrabbling around the floor. “I tried to get here as quick as possible but ...”

The teacher hauled his considerable mass up, fixing Andy with a gorgon-like stare that froze him to the spot. The words died on the tip of his tongue, withered in the disapproving gaze. Mr. Wormald was a man who had Andy’s life in his hands. He knew it. Andy knew it. And right then Andy was sure his life meant less than the lowliest cockroach’s in the deepest, dankest corner of Gilcrest High’s cafeteria. He secretly hoped the teacher would just step on him and squash him into oblivion so he wouldn’t have to worry about failing his class. Instead, Mr. Wormald brushed himself off and they picked up the mess together.

“Lieffert,” he growled, snatching the last notebook from Andy’s trembling fingers. “Come inside and let’s talk.” He led the way and Andy followed, cold neon bulbs flickering to life as they entered the dark room. “Sit down,” Mr. Wormald commanded.

Andy obeyed, casting his backpack on the floor. He noticed the wispy outline of a spirit sitting in the chair next to him, a dour man with curly hair and an aquiline nose, garbed in what looked like the leather armor, wool skirt and sandals of a Roman soldier. Great. Another lurker. They were common but Andy had never seen a legionnaire before. He guessed the man had wandered into the class by mistake and heard them speaking Latin. It probably sounded familiar and made him homesick, and now he couldn’t leave. Who knew? The figure looked Andy’s direction, making him avert his gaze so the ghost didn’t think he could see him. Otherwise the specter would start pestering him and Andy would never get rid of it.

Mr. Wormald set aside the stack of binders and folded his arms, leaning back on his desk. “Glad you could make it, Mr. Lieffert. Do you know why I asked you to stop by?”

Andy nodded. “I have an idea, sir. It’s about the final.”

“Yes. The final. The last test of the year. The most important test. The test, in fact, that will determine whether you pass high school and continue your academic career.”

He took a piece of paper off his desk and held it out. At the top was Andy’s name, class and date in his handwriting, with a huge red ‘F’ scrawled by Mr. Wormald next to it. It was disheartening to see red marker covering so much of the page – Andy could barely spot his writing underneath – but it was something he had gotten used to.

“Recognize this?” said Mr. Wormald, watching Andy squirm. Out of the corner of his eye, Andy spotted the Roman staring at him. The ghost passed a hand in front of his nose to see if he would blink. Andy did, cursing silently as he tried to focus on his teacher.

“Yes, sir. It’s our latest quiz.”

“Yes. And to prove you’re consistent, if nothing else, you scored the same as on each of your previous quizzes. Which puts you at, let’s see ... a fifty-five average. Below passing, I’m afraid.”

“You can see me?” said the centurion. “Can you hear me, too?”

“I know, sir,” Andy said, ignoring the soldier. “But it’s not because I don’t try. I do. I always study, I review my notes, I pay attention in class –”

“When you’re here,” Mr. Wormald interrupted.

“I’ve missed a few days,” Andy admitted, “but I just don’t get it. I suck at this subject.”

“Why don’t you acknowledge me?” asked the Roman in heavily accented English, rising and standing between Andy and his teacher. He may have been as substantial as a spider web, but the desperate, imploring expression was clear on his weathered face. Andy peered right through him. Why wouldn’t he go away?

Mr. Wormald sighed and dropped the test on Andy’s desk. “Mr. Lieffert, I’m not asking you to be good at Latin. Heaven knows, I’m not even asking you for mediocrity. All I want is a reason not to flunk you. I’m merely asking that you somehow manage the barest minimum of sixty percent, which is a forgiving requirement by anyone’s standards. Is that too much to request?”

“No, sir,” Andy mumbled.

“Latin?” said the legionnaire, waving his arms. “You are having trouble with Latin? I can help you.”

“I’ve given you every chance,” Mr. Wormald continued. “I let you make up missed tests, I extended deadlines for homework. I even offered to arrange tutoring, but you declined to accept it.”

“I work after school, sir. It’s not possible ...”

“I can tutor you!” the soldier exclaimed. “Hey, talk to me!”

“No excuses!” snapped Mr. Wormald. “You can do anything if you put your mind to it.” He didn’t see the excited Roman, now jumping up and down as close to Andy’s face as possible. It was distracting and Andy struggled to restrain himself. He swatted the air as if shooing a fly. Mr. Wormald stood and walked through the ghost, pausing and shivering before he returned his attention to Andy.

“Now listen, Mr. Lieffert. Do you want to fail? Do you want to spend the last summer before university sitting in a hot trailer at the local community college, struggling through the same subject you’ve already covered?”

“No, sir.”

“Then you had better take this final seriously. It counts for seventy percent of your grade. You’re currently hovering below the fail mark, so all you have to do is make a ‘D’ to pass. Does that seem reasonable?”

Andy said yes, but inwardly he groaned. Mr. Wormald made it sound easy, but in reality he was talking about a year’s worth of vocabulary and conjugating verbs. Andy would never make the cut, even if he studied every minute of the day for the next two months. The Roman saw his despondency and kept babbling about helping him. Andy’s eyes glazed over as Mr. Wormald returned to his desk and pulled a sheaf of papers from the drawer. He selected several pages and passed them through the wavering man.

“Here,” he said, lowering his voice. “Among these examples are the exact questions you’ll find on the test next Friday. Do all the exercises and you shouldn’t have a problem.”

Andy looked at the hundreds of lines of indecipherable text and realized Mr. Wormald was throwing him a lifeline, but his heart still sank. “Thanks,” he muttered, shuffling the material. The seconds ticked by in uncomfortable silence. He was about to get up when Mr. Wormald spoke.

“What do you want to do, Mr. Lieffert?”

“Huh?” Andy said, peering up in confusion.

“With your life. What do you want to do?”

“I want to be a writer,” he responded without thinking.

The teacher stroked his chin. “A writer! Great. But you’re going to need a lot more discipline than you’ve demonstrated in my class. A writer is self-motivated and can stick to a goal, even when it’s difficult or discouraging. I happen to know you’re not stupid, Mr. Lieffert. You excel in other subjects when you try, but I get the feeling you’re not interested in Latin, so you don’t make the effort.”

“That’s not true ...” Andy protested.

But that was the end of the meeting. Mr. Wormald stooped to collect his books. Andy rose and gathered his pack, stowing the pages for later. The centurion followed him to the door as Mr. Wormald called out at the last moment before he left.

“What kind of writing are you interested in, Andrew? Do you want to be a journalist?”

“Dunno,” Andy said, turning to find the teacher studying him intently. “I think I want to write fiction. Novels, maybe.”

“Got any stories yet?”

“Nothing finished. I find it hard to stick with any one idea for very long. I just know I want to tell them.”

“Discipline,” Mr. Wormald repeated. “Work on it. And do those problems I gave you.”

Andy nodded and hurried out before he got another lecture.

“Hey, what’s your name?” asked the soldier, walking backwards in front of Andy as he raced through the corridor to the parking lot. “I know you can see me, so it’s no use pretending you can’t. Speak to me or I won’t go away.”

Andy had enough. He detoured to the nearest toilet, banging the door open as he stormed inside and wheeled around to confront the spirit. The bathroom was empty, but he was so angry that he didn’t care if anyone overheard or not.

“Listen!” he shouted. “Whoever you are, I really don’t want to speak with you.”

“My name is Quintus.”

“I don’t care. You’re not supposed to be here, so go wherever you’re meant to go. You’re dead. I can’t help you.”

The Roman sniffed, a crestfallen look descending upon his craggy features. He wasn’t a big man – only as tall as Andy – but he was powerfully built and obviously hardened by years of fighting and marching in the sun. It was strange to see such a fierce character begin to weep.

“But I’m so lonely,” he said, choking back a sob. “All I want is someone to talk to.”

“Haven’t you found your way to the transit station?”

“The what? No. I have been roaming the world for a long time.”

“You haven’t gone to that place where everybody sort of hangs out – the one with the big black gate?”

“No. Never.”

“No bright lights came to get you when you died?”

Quintus shook his head. “I hid from them and stayed here, feeding off the energy of rats and mice. Now I can’t go.”

Andy sighed. Unbelievable. How could this happen to some people? There was a lot he didn’t understand about death and the afterlife, but how a few individuals fell completely through the cracks was still the biggest mystery of all. There should have been some sort of fail-safe mechanism to ensure everyone went straight to their eventual destination when they died, but as far as Andy knew, there wasn’t. Instead there was Limbo, the transit station, the black gate, the homelands and hundreds of thousands – maybe millions – of lost souls wandering the planet in a daze, shadowing the living and unable to accept their demise. It wasn’t fair. But of course it also made Andy’s job as a taxi possible, so he couldn’t complain too much.

“Look, mister ...”

“Quintus,” the Roman said.

“Mr. Quintus. I don’t have the ability to help you. I can’t take you anywhere or even point you in the right direction. All I can say for sure is that you’ll be able to leave when you let go of whatever is holding you here. I don’t know what that is. You have to find it. And the sooner you do, the happier you’ll be.”

“But you’re the first living person I’ve met who can see and hear me. That must mean something. You’re special.”

“No,” Andy corrected him. “I’m probably the first person who acknowledged you. I’m not special. I’m sure there are heaps of others like me, just better at ignoring the deceased.”

“I only want a friend,” said the legionnaire sadly. Then he added, almost as a bribe, “I really will help with your homework.”

Andy frowned. “It would never work. The dead and the living don’t mix. The rest of the world would never see you and I’d look like a fool talking to myself all the time. There’s a name for adults with imaginary friends – they’re called lunatics. Society locks them up and treats them with anti-psychotics.”

“But –”

“No. And besides, I wouldn’t be much of a friend if we grew attached and I kept you here longer. Go home, Quintus. Find what is binding you to this world and release it.”

The Roman bit his lip, considering what Andy said. For a moment it appeared he would listen to reason, then he spread his arms and flashed a hangdog smile.

“Can’t we at least be friends for a little while?”

“Bye, Quintus,” Andy said sternly, stalking out of the toilet. “Good luck with whatever you decide to do.”

Andy felt like a hypocrite telling him the dead and the living didn’t mix, because of course they did. And actually, Andy’s talent for seeing spirits was special. He had never met anyone else who shared the same ability, or anyone who could do his other trick, either. He knew he was condemning poor Quintus to a miserable, solitary existence, but what was he supposed to do? If he appeased one pesky ghost, he’d have to converse with them all. Chaz had known that when he identified Andy and took him under his wing. It was why Andy had representation in the spirit world – a benefactor and a protector.

Andy tore down the hallway past the assistant principal’s office, almost outside when a door creaked opened and someone called his name in a familiar gravelly voice.

“Mr. Lieffert! May I have a word, please?”

Fabulous. Another delay. Andy could tell this was going to be one of those days when he pissed everyone off by being late. He gnashed his teeth and turned to see the vice principal, Mrs. Case-Reynolds, standing with her hands on her hips and tapping her foot with metronomic insistence. She was short, blond and cured like a side of bacon from her thirty year, two-pack-a-day unfiltered cigarette habit. Her skin was as brown and tough as the bottom of an old leather shoe, and the vertical wrinkles intersecting her thin lips made her mouth look stitched shut when it was closed. Andy followed her tractor beam gaze back to her office and tried to smile.

“Yes, Mrs. Case-Reynolds?”

“Hurrying somewhere, Andy?”

“To work, Mrs. Case-Reynolds.”

“Don’t you have something for me?” she said, arching a thin, overly plucked eyebrow.

At first Andy didn’t know what she meant, then he remembered the note Jed had forged for him and quickly searched his pack. Andy hadn’t even read it. It was wrinkled up at the bottom and covered with mashed apple from when he dropped his books at lunchtime, but the handwriting was still legible. With any luck, Mrs. Case-Reynolds wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from his mother’s. Andy scanned it and swore silently with disappointment at what Jed had written. But he smoothed the note out and handed it to her with an apologetic grin.

“Sorry, ma’am. I forgot.”

“Hmph,” she said, taking it and examining it closely. She held it up to the light like someone searching for a watermark on a counterfeit bill. Andy watched her face for signs of rejection. The note was a standard excuse, explaining he had been home with a fever and an upset stomach. But its similarity to others Jed had provided made Andy nervous about the lack of creativity. He half expected to get caught, but miraculously Mrs. Case-Reynolds pocketed it without question.

“I hope you’re feeling better now.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said, coughing into a closed fist for dramatic effect. “I am. Mom thinks it was just a tummy bug.”

“It’s not turning into a chest infection, is it?”

“I don’t think so, ma’am.”

“Good. Because you can’t miss any more days without medical leave. Yesterday was the last one.”

“I know, ma’am.”

“Almost three weeks of school missed this term. That’s a lot.”

“Bad luck,” Andy nodded in agreement.

“And even with a doctor’s permission for further absences, I don’t see how it could fail to affect your studies. Especially this far along in the semester.”

“I can always borrow someone else’s notes,” Andy suggested.

“Of course you can,” said Mrs. Case-Reynolds. She looked Andy up and down, her scrutiny as powerful as an x-ray scanner. Andy felt naked and wanted to run away, but his feet were glued to the floor. “I’m amazed at how fit young men such as yourself become more prone to nonspecific viruses and physical complaints around this time of year,” she mused. “There’s even a term for it, I believe. They call it the senior flu.”

Andy gulped. “Is that right?”

“Yes. My advice is to make sure you don’t catch it, because the only cure is to stay back another year and repeat the same grade.”

She pivoted on her heels and marched back into her office without another word, leaving him to wipe away the bead of sweat trickling off his forehead. ‘Hard Case’ Reynolds, that’s what they called her. Andy didn’t know how he was going to get around her if he missed another day, but he was reminded not to use any more of Jed’s lame explanations. If he was absent, he’d just have to barf up a lung and present it to her in a jar of formaldehyde.

For now though, he still had an appointment to keep.

 


Chapter Two

“Hephaestus. What did you and Xathanael find out about the souls?”

“Well ... I don’t think you had any idea how interesting this assignment was going to be when you gave it to me.”

“Sure I did. You’re the best at this kind of thing.”

“Thanks, but as I recall, you said I was the only agent available.”

“Oh, come on. Can’t you take a compliment? I know you have something to prove, but –”

“Nine of the ten souls were untraceable, despite our best efforts. I would have had to destroy and reconstitute them to take the procedure further. But one had cognitive fingerprints. A slight trace. It took a bit of work but I was able to get a name, I think. And some impressions. Have a look at the pics.”

“That’s Earth.”

“Yep.”

“The soul was Earthborn.”

“Looks that way.”

“Yet it isn’t aware of itself?”

“It is now.”

“Fascinating. And its name ... is that a girl’s?”

“Hard to tell with humans. They call their children all sorts of things these days, without much care for symbolism or etymology.”

“The soul was Earthborn, yet doesn’t remember anything. That is interesting.”

“That’s not the interesting part.”

“What?”

“This is the interesting part. Check out the autonomic spectroanalysis on all ten of them.”

“Is this accurate?”

“I recalibrated the machine three times myself. Xathanael did it twice. He couldn’t believe the results either.”

“But it says here they’re incomplete.”

“Right.”

“Yet still functioning.”

“Right again.”

“How is that possible?”

“Think binary.”

“Tandems? But those are extremely rare. Statistically, that many would have to have been intentionally created.”

“Possibly.”

“Which has far reaching implications if demons are involved. Did the ten souls match up?”

“No.”

“You mean the other pieces are missing?”

“Yes.”

“But where ...”

“Look at the pics again.”

“Good god. Earth.”

“I believe so. They’re incarnated in both realms at the same time.”

“With part of their souls held captive by imps. That’s illegal and unnatural.”

“We’re talking about succubae, Michael. They don’t give a damn.”

“No, of course not. But why would they want to do this?”

“It could be a back door to the temporal realm. More reliable than possession, less dangerous than running afoul of the regulatory agencies.”

“Those bastards. They never give up, do they?”

“Who wouldn’t want a holiday on Earth? Anything’s possible there. It’s a totally lawless place. It suits them.”

“I’ll brief Gabriel and get back to you.”

“You still want me on the case?”

“Of course.”

“What should I do now?”

“Hmmm. You have the cognitive impressions from that one sentient soul, right? Are they enough to begin an investigation with? Do you think you could locate its other half?”

“What about Flatus?”

“Forget him for now.”

“You want me to go earthside?”

“I’m not officially saying that. Yet. But I’ll turn my head if an avatar drive went missing for a while. I’d be interested to know what you find.”

“Okay, but it isn’t going to be easy. I’d have a better chance of figuring out where The Boss is.”

“That’s my job.”

“Any luck recently?”

“No. The magician, after making everything else appear, has completely disappeared herself.”



Andy gunned his car out of the parking lot, skidding his wheels in the gravel and sending stones pinging off the equipment shed by the sports field. He glanced at the dashboard clock and groaned. He had five minutes to make a twenty minute drive across town, and Chaz would be counting every second he was behind schedule. ‘Time is money’ he always said, tapping his gold Rolex. Spoken like a true pimp. Andy could have called him on the soul phone, but it wasn’t going to get him there quicker and he hated people talking on their mobiles and driving at the same time.

He careened through traffic like a madman, narrowly avoiding two cops with his police scanner and radar detector. At one point Andy glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw the shadowy silhouette of the Roman in the back seat, quietly staring out the window. He almost slammed the brakes and ordered him out, but the ghost wasn’t bothering him and he didn’t want to hurt the spirit’s feelings any more than he already had. Andy felt sorry for him, actually. The centurion didn’t look well. His form was blurry around the edges and noticeably more transparent than it had been at the school. It took a lot of energy for a spirit to materialize on Earth. Andy couldn’t imagine what two thousand years of incorporeal wandering might do to a person. Two hours out of body was enough for him, and that was in the relative comfort of the transit station. After that, he couldn’t wait to get back and feel the sun’s warmth on his skin.

He skidded into the botanical gardens and parked away from other cars, then checked his reflection in the wing mirror and made sure he didn’t have spinach in his teeth or any egregious whiteheads on the tip of his nose. Andy ran his fingers through the wavy, disheveled brown mop that passed for his hairdo, and set off for the usual rendezvous point by the wishing well in the rose section.

Andy always got the jitters when he met a new client. He didn’t know why. Chaz had established a set of protocols to protect him from skinjacking and other unpleasant possibilities, but he still took a gamble on each trick. Each time he let another spirit into his body, he opened a window that could prove hard to shut. And the fact that he gave himself to the clients completely – total motor control, memories, everything – meant each liaison was an act of faith for both parties. Andy counted on the ghosts to behave and do what they said they were going to do, and they relied on him to provide a healthy, fit body through which they could experience the temporal world again.

Oh, and Andy also expected them to remunerate him. In cash.

Of course, there was always a small risk someone might abscond, or fail to follow the flight plan and get him in trouble. But that was where Chaz came in. Charles Victor Allen Unsworth the fourth. He was Andy’s ghost pimp, although he didn’t like to be called that. He said ‘pimp’ belittled the hard work he did to ensure Andy’s protection. He preferred the word agent or manager.

Whatever. Anyone who found clients that would pay handsomely to use his body for a set amount of time was a pimp by every definition in Andy’s book, and he didn’t care if Chaz sometimes called him his ‘bitch’ in retaliation. Andy knew he was a spirit whore and was quite happy with it. He didn’t plan to turn tricks forever. It was a temporary business arrangement to achieve a specific objective – namely acquiring enough money to put himself through college. After that, he intended to ditch it and give Chaz the big kiss-off. Chaz would probably be upset but that wasn’t Andy’s problem. He had given the ghost plenty of free rides over the years, and the only reason Chaz operated so freely in the material world was because of the energy shots Andy regularly administered. It had been a lucrative deal for both of them, but all good things had to come to an end, didn’t they?

This played in the back of Andy’s mind while he ran through the gardens, but when he saw Chaz it was always different. In reality he wasn’t just Andy’s pimp, he was also his friend. Probably his best friend besides Jed and Cat. He was the only ghost Andy trusted, and through him Andy had gained some insight into life after death. That wasn’t something most teenagers experienced and got to talk about. Andy had grown to like the irascible spirit and he thought Chaz genuinely liked him too. He knew severing their working ties would affect that friendship in a bad way.

Andy tried not to think of it as he rounded the last hedgerow and spied Chaz with the flickering apparition that was his next trick. As predicted, Chaz was checking his watch and searching the area, pacing around the water feature at the center of the grounds. His face lit up when Andy arrived, but there was a hint of annoyance in his greeting.

“Hello, Andy. Thank you for being punctual. Come meet our new client, Marvelyn Faneslow.”

Andy apologized as Chaz ushered him over to the hazy outline of an old woman. Her form was weak and barely perceptible – by contrast, Chaz was as solid as a brick wall. But Andy could just make out a smile on her warm, wizened face.

“Pleased to meet you, dear. I’ve heard so much about you from Mr. Unsworth. Thank you for letting me spend a little time back on Earth.”

She held out her hand to shake, but Andy didn’t return the gesture. Not because he was trying to be rude, but for two reasons. First, it was creepy passing through a spirit. It gave Andy a shiver like ice water dripping down the back of his neck, and it also made his scalp tingle. Ghosts were energy vampires, sucking up the life force of everything around them so they could manifest on the physical plane. That was why people complained of cold spots in haunted houses. Second, shaking her hand would have violated one of the cardinal rules of spirit interaction, which was not to touch before money had been exchanged.

Mrs. Faneslow didn’t seem to mind. Andy acknowledged her with a cursory nod and she continued to grin good-naturedly, listening as Chaz launched into his spiel. Andy never talked at this point because he had found it was sometimes confusing if two people explained things. It was more professional to let Chaz handle everything, and it also maintained a little distance between Andy and the clients. Whatever happened, he didn’t want the ghosts to think he was befriending them, otherwise they might start asking for special favors and get angry when he said ‘no.’

“Now, Mrs. Faneslow, I know you’re probably anxious to get started, but first we need to discuss the rules for borrowing Andy’s body ...”

“Marvelyn, dear. Please call me by my first name.”

“Marvelyn,” said Chaz, bowing slightly. “Here are the guidelines we expect you to adhere to. First, the body must be returned to where you checked it out, in the same condition as when you borrowed it. You can eat, but try to avoid anything that will make it sick later. Go easy on the greasy stuff. Andy doesn’t have any food allergies, so there shouldn’t be a problem. But alcohol and drugs are forbidden. Under no circumstances are you to bring the body back drunk or intoxicated. This is for your protection as much as Andy’s. Understand?”

“Yes, dear.”

“Good. Smoking is also a no-no. We don’t want Andy’s healthy young lungs polluted, either.”

“Of course not,” said the old woman, giving Andy an affectionate smile.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I wear a lot of hats: illustrator, cartoonist, author, father and husband. But writing is the one thing that allows me to wake up each day and keep on dreaming. I love creating stories and bringing new characters to life, and it's through this that I try to make sense of the world. When I'm not busy tapping away at my keyboard, you can find me skateboarding around town, hanging out at the beach, swimming in the nearby rivers, and climbing the highest hills while I let my imagination roam.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
I woke up one night paralyzed, with a ghost whispering in my ear. It was terrifying, but also thrilling. The next day I wondered what it would feel like to be possessed. Then I wondered what it would be like to allow spirits into your body, for a living. Then I wondered what could go wrong.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
Since I enjoy reading fantasy, sci-fi, magical realism, historical fiction and mysteries, I also enjoy creating in these genres. Every story I write begins with 'What if?' Taking my characters to alternate realities, different worlds and other eras is a fun way to help me explore that question.
Q. What books are you reading now?
A.
I'm currently reading a selection of books by Kindle Scout winning authors. Justin Sirois, Katherine Hayton, Jada Ryker, Rebecca Vickers, Max Eastern and Jayne Castel. And I'll be reading a new set when my current successful nominees are published.

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