Queen of the dead, p.1
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       Queen of the Dead, p.1

           Stacey Kade
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Queen of the Dead


  Text copyright © 2011 by Stacey Kade

  All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011-5690.

  ISBN 978-1-4231-4735-0

  Table of Contents

  1. Will

  2. Alona

  3. Will

  4. Alona

  5. Will

  6. Alona

  7. Will

  8. Alona

  9. Will

  10. Alona

  11. Will

  12. Alona

  13. Will

  14. Alona

  15. Will

  16. Alona

  17. Will

  18. Will

  19. Alona

  20. Will

  Acknowledgments

  To Mom and Dad,

  thanks for endless readings of Go, Dog. Go! and Little House on the Prairie, all the trips to the library and bookstore, and not freaking out when all I wanted to read were stories about ghosts, witches, haunted houses, and other scary things. And special thanks for all the phone calls and Gmail chats this year. Love you guys!

  On television, ghost-talkers run antique stores, solve crimes, or stand on a stage in a nice suit giving the teary-eyed audience a toothy, yet sympathetic grin.

  I, however, was entering my second hour of hiding in a prickly tangle of brush with an increasingly cranky spirit guide, all for a ghost who might not even show up.

  The Gibley Mansion in Decatur’s historic district had been falling apart for years. But it was officially scheduled tobe torn down tomorrow morning, which meant tonight was Mrs. Ruiz’s last chance to make peace with the place where she’d served as a housekeeper for most of her life. So, we werewaiting (and waiting and waiting) for her on the east side of the house, in the former rose garden, where she’d keeled over twenty some years ago while digging a hole for a new bush.

  Unfortunately, ghosts don’t always do what you expect.

  “Can we go now?” Alona nudged me, sounding annoyed. “I have to pee.”

  Case in point.

  I just looked at her. Since she hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in well over a month, I seriously doubted that was a genuine concern. Besides which, I hadn’t ever heard of any ghosts visiting a bathroom unless, of course, they’d died there. (No, I’ve never met Elvis, but it’s an educated guess.)

  Alona tried again. “I’m cold?”

  That was at least possible, especially given what she was wearing. Alona Dare, former Homecoming Queen, varsity cheerleading cocaptain, fashionista and mean girl supreme of Groundsboro High, had died in her gym clothes—short red shorts and a cheap white shirt. If you don’t believe in karma, that alone should give you cause for reconsideration.

  But given that it was an early Monday evening on what had been a blazing hot June day and I could still feel the heat rising from the ground beneath us, she was probably more comfortable than I was in jeans and the long sleeve T-shirt I’d worn to protect myself from rampant thorns.

  “Fine.” She dragged out the word on an impatient sigh. “I’m dead and I’m bored. How much longer do we have to wait?”

  “She’ll be here,” I whispered. “Soon.” I tried to sound more certain of this than I actually was.

  “Why are you whispering?” she asked with a frown.

  “Because unlike you, I can still be arrested,” I pointed out.

  Apparently fearing that the mansion might be a target for last-minute vandalism or pranks, the city had boarded up all the windows, hung about nine hundred NO TRESPASSING signs, placed caution tape around the entire perimeter, and hired security guards to make regular patrols. We’d slipped onto the property when the guards changed shifts.

  Alona waved my words away. “Dopey couldn’t catch his own ass if it was on the seat next to him.”

  She might be right about that. In fact, I was kind of banking on it. Dopey, as Alona had dubbed the security guard on duty, was currently dozing behind the wheel of his rent-a-cop car, which was parked in the driveway about twenty yards away. Loud snores emerged from the open car windows. I just hoped he would keep on snoring until after our business with Mrs. Ruiz was done, assuming she even showed up. Sometimes ghosts, when faced with final resolution of their earthly issues, panicked.

  “Did you, by any chance, think to find out what time she died?” Alona asked with just enough sarcasm to suggest she already knew the answer.

  “No.” Which I could see now had been an oversight. But Mrs. Ruiz had caught me off guard by approaching me at the grocery store. It had been challenging enough to find out what she wanted without freaking out the entire produce aisle, including my mom.

  “I would have,” she muttered.

  “You were unavailable for consultation,” I said through gritted teeth.

  For somebody who was dead, Alona had an active social life. She was forever dropping in to spy on living family and friends, despite my warnings against that, and attempting to socialize with other ghosts.

  The latter, I suspected, had not been going so well. Most ghosts moved on to the light too quickly to concern themselves with making friends while in this in-between place, what I called Middleground. The ones who remained tended to be a little too obsessed with whatever was keeping them here—an injustice, unrequited love, finding their murderer, etc.—to be good company for very long. Trust me, I know—from years of overhearing them.

  But I also thought it might be because Alona did not really make friends easily. In life, she’d collected followers. There was a big difference between the two, as she’d found out after she’d died a couple of months ago and had to hear all her former “friends” talking about her.

  There were a few ghosts who hung around her—like the sorority girl from Milliken who’d drowned in a hazing accident and now walked around with lake weed threaded through her hair and left wet footprints everywhere. Sometimes I wondered if they thought being friends with Alona would earn them a higher place on the running list of spirits we were trying to help attain closure. Sometimes I think Alona wondered about that, too.

  But she kept trying, which I had to give her credit for, even though that meant she was gone sometimes when Ineeded her, like at the grocery store with Mrs. Ruiz. If Ididn’t know better, I would have suspected she staged herabsences deliberately to remind me how much I was dependent on her help to keep the ghosts at bay.

  Alona had gotten bounced from the big white light about a month ago, and helping other ghosts who were stuck in-between earned her the karma points, for lack of a better term, to allow her to regain entry someday. At least that was the theory. I got the impression that Alona’s sources in the white light hadn’t been all that specific. She refused to talk much—at all, really—about her time there. As she told me once, it wasn’t like she’d been greeted at the gates by some big guy in white robes and Jesus-type sandals. It was more a feeling than anything else.

  Alona shifted impatiently. “Why do we need Mrs. Ruiz anyway? Can’t we just go in and get the thing, whatever it is, and bring it to her?”

  I shook my head. “She didn’t say what or where it was.” Mrs. Ruiz’s ability to make peace with her past was evidently tied to some object that was still hidden inside the house. “So, unless you want to search under every floorboard and in all the walls—”

  She sighed. “Okay, okay.”

  But she wasn’t done yet. I could sense the wheels turning in her mind. Even though we’d gone to school together for years, I’d only known Alona
as in actually having spoken to her—since she’d died. But that was long enough to know she didn’t give up that easily.

  She stood abruptly.

  “What are you doing?” I hissed.

  She looked down at me, unconcerned. “What? If we’re staying, I need to stretch. We’ve been sitting here for hours. And Dopey couldn’t see me even if his eyes were open, which”—she glanced in the direction of the security guard’s car—“they’re not.”

  She reached behind herself and caught her ankle and pulled her leg toward her back, bending forward slightly. Her long blond hair slipped forward over her shoulder, and a wave of her light flowery scent washed over me.

  I looked away. Alona Dare had the best legs I’d ever seen. Long and toned, with smooth skin that made you ache to touch them to see if they felt as good as they looked. I’d had fantasies about her and those legs since the sixth grade. And she knew it.

  I shifted uncomfortably and kept my gaze locked firmly on a nearby tangle of leaves. “If that security guard sees the branches moving, he’s going to come running over here,” I warned. Thanks to my “gift,” if that’s what you wanted to call it, Alona—and all other ghosts—had physicality around me, the same as she would have if she were alive. Dopey might not be able to see her, but he’d definitely notice the bushes moving in a way that didn’t look wind-generated.

  “He’d have to be awake first,” she said back, mimicking my warning tone. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her switch legs and stretch the other one, giving a small sigh of pleasure.

  I swallowed hard. I guess stretching still felt good even when you were a ghost. I know it looked good.

  “There. Much better.” She sat down next to me again, closer than before. Her shoulder pressed into me, and her leg rested against mine.

  Thirty seconds ago, I’d been concerned about nothing other than finding Mrs. Ruiz and getting in and out of the house undetected. Now all I could think about were those two points of contact between us, connecting in a white-hot line of awareness.

  I turned to see her watching, so close, so very close to me.

  “What?” she asked.

  I cleared my throat. “You have a…” I reached out and pulled a bit of leaf from her hair. The blond strands slipped like silk through my fingers. I’d touched her hair before, wrapped my hands in it when kissing her, as a matter of fact, and I wanted nothing more than to do it again right now.

  “Thanks.” Her mouth curved in a knowing smile, and I was lost, even though I knew better.

  I leaned closer, drawn to her mouth like it was pulling me in with some mysterious gravity of its own, half expecting her to push me away.

  But she didn’t. Her mouth was warm and soft under mine.

  I sat up straighter without breaking the kiss and slid my hand to the back of her neck, pulling her closer and slipping my fingers into her hair again.

  She moved with me willingly and made that same sound of pleasure I’d heard from her before. I could feel her softness pressing against my chest. Oh, God. She just felt so good.

  I pulled back for a second and watched her eyes open slowly. She looked as dazed as I felt, but with a touch of self-satisfaction. She’d planned this, of course.

  “So is this when you try to talk me into leaving again?” I asked, breathless. I was all too aware that Alona knew my weak spots and wasn’t afraid to use them against me. Not that I minded at this exact moment.

  She didn’t try to deny it. She leaned in and kissed the edge of my mouth. “Maybe I’m not so bored now.”

  Good enough.

  She rose up on her knees and balanced herself with her hands on my shoulders before laying a series of tiny kisses along my cheek. Her breath was warm, and her eyelashes fluttered against my skin like small caresses. Her scent filled me, overwhelmed me with the desire to shut out everything but her. This girl who equally drove me crazy and made me care about her more than I should. She was the only one who understood. The only one who could help make what I was more bearable, even if she occasionally tortured me in the process.

  I slid my hand down her back to her hip, where the edge of her shirt met her shorts. And she let me. More than that, she moved closer, her mouth suddenly hungry on mine. My hand slipped under the hem, and I stroked the bare, warm skin of her stomach with my thumb.

  She pulled back sharply, her hand catching mine and holding it in place. “Wait.”

  I shook my head, trying to think while my body was screaming at me to keep going. “Sorry, I just—”

  “No.” She squeezed my hand. “I hear something.”

  I don’t care! I wanted to shout, but I swallowed the words.

  She let go of my hand and cautiously pushed herself up to her feet to look out and over the tangle of brush that protected us from view of anyone walking by.

  “Is it Dopey?” I whispered, taking advantage of her momentary distraction to try to adjust the front of my pants. If I had to run now, I’d be in big trouble.

  “No.” Her voice held a strange note. “Not him.”

  “Well, then what—”

  She turned to face me, and I realized what I’d heard in her voice was suppressed laughter. The very same thing danced over her expression.

  “It’s Mrs. Ruiz,” she said. “I think.” She sounded almost gleeful.

  Ah, now it made sense. Because Alona had been off doing whatever when Mrs. Ruiz had approached me, this was her first glimpse of the…woman.

  “Don’t,” I told her. “We’re here to help.”

  I stood up, carefully, and peered out to see for myself.

  Alona was right. Directly across from us, Mrs. Ruiz had finally materialized, her garden spade in hand. She was looking around like she was searching for just the right location to dig the hole that would kill her.

  “Are you sure it’s Mrs. Ruiz?” Alona whispered in my ear, clearly delighted.

  Okay, so Mrs. Ruiz was not a small woman or particularly…feminine. She was beefy with broad shoulders that belonged on a coal miner. The shapeless but heavily patterned housedress she wore didn’t help matters, making herlook that much more like a man in drag. The not-so-faint outline of a mustache on her upper lip was a little…off-putting as well. But still, she needed our help.

  “Stop,” I said to Alona. Then I eased out from behind the tangle of branches, keeping an eye on Dopey, who, thankfully, continued to snore throatily. Alona followed.

  Mrs. Ruiz saw us coming and gave me a curt nod of acknowledgment. She frowned at Alona, which had the unfortunate effect of drawing her two eyebrows into one big one. I could almost feel Alona shaking with the need to spout something spiteful but funny.

  “Some people aren’t as obsessed with appearances as you are,” I said quietly over my shoulder to Alona.

  “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t be obsessed with my appearance if I were her, either,” Alona said, not as quietly as I would have liked.

  “This way,” Mrs. Ruiz said when we were close enough. She gave Alona another dark look and then slung her spade over her shoulder and started toward the house, ignoring Dopey and his car like they weren’t even there.

  “Cut it out,” I said to Alona under my breath once we’d passed the security guard and Mrs. Ruiz was far enough ahead on the worn walkway to the front door.

  “Oh, come on,” she said. “Even you can’t blame me for this one.”

  “I mean it.”

  She stayed quiet for a second. Then she looked thoughtful. “Ten bucks says she’s got a tattoo of an anchor somewhere on her body.”

  “Alona!” I whispered as loudly as I dared.

  “What, you’ve seen it?”

  I glared at her.

  “She has a ’stache that would put a porn star to shame—hello, it’s called waxing?—and you’re lecturing me about—”

  I pointed to her feet, which were beginning to flicker in and out of existence, as though a faulty movie projector were involved.

  She sighed. “Damn.”

&nbs
p; A being of mostly energy, she was dependent on keeping the energy flowing by remaining positive, i.e., nice. Which annoyed her to no end, unfortunately. Made for some highly entertaining moments on my end, though.

  “She looks very strong and was probably very…capable at her job,” Alona said carefully. I could see she was dying to make some further remark, like how it was hard to keep a good man down. Or, how handy it was that she could carry the cows around while she milked them, or whatever. “You suck the fun out of everything,” she said to me.

  It wasn’t my rule, just a rule of existence here, but I knewshe hated being reminded of it. “Everything?” I asked, takingin her rumpled hair and the way her lips still looked puffier than usual, thanks to our kissing session.

  Her cheeks turned pink, but she rolled her eyes and stalked past me to where Mrs. Ruiz was waiting on the front porch.

  Nice. I was taking that as a compliment.

  I hung back, using one of the huge old pine trees that dominated the front yard to block me from the view of any passing cars, until I saw Alona pass through the heavy wooden door as easily as if it were mist. Once I was sure she was in, I hurried to the porch, where my presence gave her the physicality she would need to unlock and open the door for me.

  Except she didn’t. Five seconds passed. Then ten. And I was feeling mighty exposed, standing there on the front porch in full view of the road, until the door finally groaned and opened about two feet.

  Alona stuck her head out. “Welcome to Craphole Manor,” she said with a grimace, stepping back to let me squeeze in.

  The front hall was dim and smelled of mold and neglect. The scarred wooden floor seemed pretty solid, at least, but the wall was down to the studs in several places, whether due to predemolition work or decay, I didn’t know. I tried to shove the door shut again, but only got it to move a few inches. It had obviously swollen in the last few days of heat and humidity to a point where it no longer truly fit inside the frame. Great.

  It would be good to have the fresh air and the extra light beyond the small flashlight I’d jammed in my pocket at the last minute. But anyone looking closely enough at the front of the house would see that the door was open.

 
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