Debbie Lynn Smith Daughetee
EXT. VENICE WALK STREET – DAY
Vicki walks down the walk street in front of her apartment. People are out pruning their various flowering plants. A skateboarder flies by on his way to the boardwalk.
Gayle followed her, trying to get her back. “Please, Vicki, you shouldn’t be going out alone.”
Vicki stopped dead, then turn and studied Gayle. Gayle reached for her arm. “Please.”
Vicki jerked away, her anger glowing brightly in her chest. “Aunt Ellen told you to keep me home, didn’t she?”
Gayle paused, probably going through all of her options, and deciding the truth was her only one. “What gave me away?”
Vicki mimicked Gayle, “Vicki, you shouldn’t be going out alone.”
“Yeah. That was really lame.”
Vicki’s anger at Gayle melted. Her anger at her Aunt burned brightly. She had no right bringing Gayle into this.
“The tea was a good idea, though. Kept me home for a couple of hours until the buzz wore off.”
“I should have given you more.”
Then Gayle got serious again. “Ellen told me you were in danger. She didn’t tell me why, but she asked me to keep you home where you were relatively safe. Didn’t make a lot of sense to me since home is where someone would look for you.”
“Exactly,” said Vicki. “I’m going.now.”
“What will I tell Ellen?”
“Don’t tell her anything. As far as you knew, I went to lie down.”
Vicki turned and walked away. The neighbors, who were trying not to show they’d heard every word, smiled and waved or said, “Hi, Vicki.” Vicki smiled and nodded, but her anger at her Aunt followed her down the walk street and around the corner to the garage. What was she thinking bringing her roommate into their business? Gayle might be the best fighter in class, but that was stage fighting, it wasn’t like she could protect Vicki in a real fight. Vicki had trained for this fight since she could walk. She could take care of herself.
She lifted the garage door and looked at the black-on-black car with its glossy surface and sleek lines. The pulse of pleasure the sight of her ’stang gave her eased her anger. She climbed inside, luxuriating in the black leather seats. She cranked up the 8-cylinder engine and backed it out onto Speedway. After closing the garage door and locking it, she put down the top, popped in a Foreigner CD, and drove to the end of the alley with the classic rock blaring.
She turned on Rose for a short block, then onto Pacific. Saturday, tourists crowded the streets. It was the one thing she hated about Venice–the traffic. And the fact that there was no easy way to get anywhere else in the city. She was anxious to get out on the freeway and open Louise up.
She loved her car. Sure, it was used, but as she’d told Alex, she loved the lines of the older models. She’d dreamed of owning a car like this since she was a kid. She wondered if her father had had a muscle car like this; if maybe as an infant, its deep-throated rumble had been her lullaby.
Vicki didn’t have to stop at the studio gate; she’d worked enough Saturdays that the guard knew her, and her car, and waved her in. She parked in her assigned spot and let herself into the production office. Nobody else was there. She checked her office and found a script with corrections on her desk marked URGENT. It was Julia’s, of course. Vicki sighed and vowed to come in early on Monday to make the minuscule changes so she could bug out to the set. The first scene wasn’t set to shoot until eight o’clock, so if she was in by seven, that should do it.
She locked up the office and headed out into the lot. There was a feature wrapping up principal photography today. Trailers and people with headsets crowded around one of the sound stages. Other than that, the lot was relatively empty, at least compared to weekdays.
Tim and the other ghosts hung out mostly in the old commissary. It was an empty building now and only occasionally used as a set. The door was locked, but not for her. She didn’t know if there was a doorman she never saw or what, but as soon as she approached, the door swung open. Today was no exception.
“Thanks,” she said to invisible air as she stepped through the door into a space as cold as a meat locker. Luckily cold didn’t bother her.
Ghosts crowded the space. Some sat at tables and chairs, chatting or playing cards; some rehearsed a scene that had been shot decades ago and was dressed in costumes from films they had appeared in during life. Some were just crew hanging out. Some moved through the line at the cafeteria-like counter, even though the food they were putting on their trays was illusory versions of fried chicken, salad, or apple pie. If it weren’t for the insubstantial nature of the ghosts and the furniture, this could be any commissary on any studio lot in Los Angeles.
The largest concentration of ghosts gathered about a round table. Here Vicki found Tim.
“Vicki!” Tim waved her over to a table where he sat with a contingent of actors–Vicki knew their faces but not their names.
Tim turned to his friends. “This is Victoria Winters, the author of that great script I was telling you about.” The others nodded at Vicki in acknowledgment, yet all but Tim faded, and two ghosts winked out entirely. Some ghosts liked to interact with those who could see and hear them; some just preferred to stay invisible and unknown. And some of the women ghosts didn’t like the competition a warm, breathing woman represented.
“I’d invite you to sit down,” Tim continued, “But we don’t have any real chairs here.”
Vicki smiled at them all. “It’s okay. I just wanted to ask you a question if you don’t mind.”
“See, fellas, a good director is always in demand.” To Vicki, “Shoot.”
“Do any of you know of anything that can kill a ghost?”
All chatter in the room stopped, and Vicki could swear the temperature dropped another ten degrees. She felt the attention of all the ghosts focus on her.
“Why are you asking?” asked a big man in western garb at Tim’s table, his tone tinged with threat.
“Easy, John, if Vicki’s asking there must be a good reason,” said Tim.
wasn’t this. “A friend of mine, another ghost, just disappeared. I don’t mean the usual kind of disappearing. I mean wiped from existence kind of disappearing.”
Without a sound half of the room emptied. Timothy, himself, faded so much that Vicki could barely see him.
It was the big man who answered. “There’s word that ghosts have been disappearing like that all over the city.”
Vicki’s mind was spinning. “All over the city–like where? When? Did anyone see anything?”
More ghosts faded back into the ethers.
Tim answered this time. “Most of them were alone at the time. But one guy down on skid row said he saw a yellow ball of light eat his brother. He kept mumbling something about the smell of burned sugar. He was seriously freaked out.”
Vicki’s heart skipped a beat. “Burned sugar? Eat?”
The big man took up the story. “We didn’t give it much credence. Those guys on skid row are more than a little crazy.”
Tim continued in a whisper glancing at the big man, “John’s right. But then it happened here–on the lot. One of our own. And we all smelled that burned sugar smell.”
Vicki’s mind reeled in shock. She had never imagined that this thing extended beyond Mary.
Another voice joined the discussion–a girl who looked no older than seven or eight. “I’m telling you that new movie they’re shooting here brought whatever is doing this onto the lot.”
John swatted at her. “Buzz off, kid.” The girl shot John a dirty look and popped out.
“But how can this happen? What can kill a ghost?” Vicki asked.
The big man grew transparent. “That’s what we’ve been asking every day since,” he said. Then he was gone.
Tim, who was barely visible, stood up. “If you find out anything, Vicki, let us know. We’re all seriously scared.”
“I will,” said Vicki. “And you’ll do the same?”
Tim nodded just before he left her alone in the dark, empty building. The temperature was back to normal. Vicki turned and headed out the door. She had to push it open herself.
Vicki’s feet traced the familiar path back to her office while her mind whirled in disbelief. Something was killing the ghosts in Los Angeles. Mary wasn’t the first and, Vicki was sure wouldn’t be the last.
Aunt Ellen said it sounded like alchemy. Vicki knew next to nothing about alchemy. Well, it is about time I learned, she thought. There’s no way Vicki was going to let anything hurt Tim or any of the ghosts on the lot. She might not have been able to save Mary, but she was going to do her best to save the rest of her friends.
Her stride gained new purpose as she headed for her office and her computer. The Internet was a wonderful thing. She’d spend the rest of the afternoon studying up on alchemy and then–
Suddenly Vicki’s vision went black, and she stumbled, experiencing a sense of vertigo. She caught her balance, and the world came back into the light. Whoa, that was weird. She didn’t understand how weird until she looked up and realized she was no longer on the road that led to the production office.
How the hell did I end up on the backlot?
In front of her stretched the facades of five western storefronts and a two-story saloon. No one was shooting here today, so the place was deserted–quiet. The hair on her arms was standing at attention.
Vicki slowly began to back down the way she had presumably come. Something was very, very wrong.
A grating sound came from above. She looked up into the overhead rigging. A cable swayed back and forth as if something had just launched from it. Vicki took another step backward, keeping her eyes on the rigging.
A cable groaned as if it was bearing a massive weight, and a large black shadow flitted by Vicki’s peripheral vision. Vicki whirled toward it.
A growling sound that had nothing to do with cables echoed down the street from somewhere up above.
Power flooded into Vicki. She stretched out her hand, and the Blade of Inanna appeared in it. Only instead of a dagger, the blade was a broadsword. For a split second, shock rippled through her as she held the blade for the first time since she was eight years old. Then she realized it felt good… felt right like she had somehow regained the use of her arm.
The cables squeaked with movement, and there was another low, menacing growl. Vicki brought the blade in front of her, grasping it with both hands, and dropped into her fighting stance.
A black, hairy creature dropped from the overhead rigging behind her. She whirled, her training with Ellen kicking in. Pure hatred spilled out of the vertical slits that were its eyes, set deep in a face so twisted she couldn’t tell where the mouth was, at least not until the creature growled and opened it, baring two rows of sharp, white teeth. It had the body of a giant baboon, its fur black and matted with what smelled like feces. Vicki recoiled. Her stomach soured, and she thought she might be sick.
The mouth contorted, and a guttural utterance spilled out that almost sounded like Stillborn. Terror shot up Vicki’s spine and into her arms, causing her blade to tremble in her hands. This thing knew what she was.
Three more creatures dropped from the overhead rigging until they surrounded her. This time she saw the curving, gray claws that tipped each paw. Her terror boiled over into the power, and the power surged. Her heart stopped its pretend beating. Her lungs stopped their pretend breathing. And even though she knew she didn’t need those two things to exist, she panicked, and the power stuttered.
The grotesque creatures all roared at once, and Vicki almost went to her knees. The sword sagged in her hands.
“Vicki!” Tim popped in beside her. “We’ve got your back.”
Vicki looked up and saw the big man, John, saunter down the street toward four more of the creatures, six-shooters in his hands.
It was like a slap in the face. The ghosts were rallying to protect her when she was perfectly capable of defending herself. As if that one thought had invited it, power roared through Vicki. She brought the blade up and fell once more into her fighting stance.
A creature launched at her from the side. She swung the sword around, low and level. The blade sliced through the thing’s arm, and gray goo splattered the street. The creature screamed and fell back. The others began to circle her, howling and screaming until she wanted to drop the sword and put her hands over her ears. But the power held her steady. She sidestepped in a circle, moving, so she got the three other monsters insight, not letting them get behind her. Tim rushed one. It swiped at him, but the claws went right through him, and he let out a maniacal laugh.
In her peripheral vision, Vicki saw ghostly figures emerging from the fake western mercantile. Others emerged from the saloon across the street. Above, transparent men moved on the catwalks through the rigging.
But they were only ghosts. Vicki knew they couldn’t help. Then she heard gunshots ring out, a roar of pain and anger in their wake. It surprised her, but she didn’t have time to puzzle it out because the creatures came for her. She let the power and the sword claim her. It was like what had happened in class earlier except the sword she wielded was the weapon of a goddess and seemed to have a mind of its own. She attacked, catching lethal blows with her sword, then dancing out of reach. She cut, adding to the gray goo that spilled out onto the street. Sweat ran down from her hairline and stung her eyes. She cringed as she saw one of the creature’s severed arm slithering its way back to its owner.
She almost missed the next attack. Three came at once. Tim and two other ghosts, one a lumbering Neanderthal and the other a mobster in a zoot suit, stepped between her and one of the creatures. To her surprise, instead of the creature passing right through the blocking ghosts, the caveman’s club solidly connected with the monster’s head, and it went down for the count.
The other two creatures launched at Vicki. She aimed her blow at one creature’s abdomen and sliced upward while turning to face the second attacker. She was too late. Pain lanced her left shoulder as the razor-sharp claws of the second creature raked her. She ignored the warm trickle that ran down her arm and dripped from her wrist. She whirled and caught the creature with her blade and twisted, satisfaction surging through her when she heard the creature scream, and two claws went flying. It backed off, glaring at her while cradling its injured paw.
Her footing was precarious because of the gray goo. The first creature picked up its arm and reconnected it to its stump. It flashed its teeth in a twisted, evil smile that made Vicki’s gorge rise. Certainty washed over her. They were going to all attack at once.
A bugle call, accompanied by the thunder of horse hooves, froze the action. Suddenly a cavalry, men in Yankee blue on sleek, galloping horses, appeared behind Vicki, rode right through her, and attacked with sabers drawn. Vicki stepped back and watched as the soldiers shot, sliced, and trampled the creatures until the creatures screamed in unison and retreated up into the rigging. The cavalry gave chase, the horses sprouting wings like an army of Pegasi.
Only the creatures with the unsevered arm. Vicki readied her blade and grinned at it. She wanted to kill this thing, wanted it more than anything she’d ever wanted before. It was like a part of her buried deep inside, rose and seized her mind, filling her with the lust for blood and violence.
The creature stepped toward her, and she readied her sword. Before she could swing, John came striding up the street, guns blazing. The creature took five hits before it turned, screamed at the big ghost, then leaped up, grabbed hold of the rigging above, and disappeared, leaving the lines groaning and swaying behind it.
Suddenly all was quiet. The rigging was still. All that was left was the quickly disappearing goo and the ghosts who had come to Vicki’s rescue. The hair on her arms lay down.
“Whatever those things were, they’re gone now,” said Tim, his eyes wide as he stared at her.
The power fled Vicki’s body, and her heart began to beat again, her lungs to breathe. She straightened out of her fighting stance and let the Blade of Inanna disappear back into the ethers. Then she folded over and retched her entire lunch into the middle of the street. She wiped her mouth with the sleeve of her shirt and faced Tim. She was shaking all over.
“What are you?” asked Tim, a tinge of fear in his voice.
“I’m who I’ve always been,” answered Vicki. “How did you know I was in trouble?”
John walked over, holstering his six-shooters. “We’ve been keeping an eye on things since Ernie disappeared,” he said.
But Tim was still staring at her. “You stopped breathing. And that sword…”
Vicki sank on the boardwalk lining the fake street. Her mouth tasted like vomit, and she couldn’t get the smell of the creature out of her nose.
“Believe me, Tim, you don’t want to know. It’s better if you don’t know.” She looked up at John and the other ghosts.
“I don’t understand how you were able to hurt them,” she said.
“They were from the astral plane,” said John.
The little girl pushed her way in front of John and took up the explanation. “It’s a lot easier to become corporeal on the astral plane than it is on this one.”
John glared at the girl. She glared right back and said, “Why’d they come after you, Vicki?”
“I’m the Stillborn,” continued Vicki, “They were after my power.”
A chorus of whispers ran through the ghosts. “Stillborn.”
Tim looked at her in wonder. “We thought it was just a myth.”
Vicki sighed. It was all supposed to be this big secret to keep her safe. But it seemed the secret was out and she wasn’t going to keep it from her friends.
“Nope. I’m real. And if it weren’t for you, they would have had my power. Thank you.”
John gave her a crooked smile and tipped his ten-gallon hat at her. “Glad to have helped, little lady.”
The little girl beamed. Then all the ghosts faded away except for Tim. He sat down next to her on the curb.
Vicki looked at the blood that stained the sleeve of her shirt. Near the shoulder, the shirt was ripped to shreds. She was lucky she was able to keep it on.
“Just a scratch,” said Vicki.
“Not with that much blood. You need to get to the hospital.”
Vicki sighed, then moved aside her shirt and let Tim see her shoulder. The claw marks were red and swollen, but they had stopped bleeding.
“I heal fast,” she said, replacing her shirt as much as she could. “It’s part of the power.”
“Yeah,” said Tim, wonder in his voice.
“I owe you one, Tim.”
“I’ll walk you back to the production office.”
Vicki stood. Her legs were still shaking, but at least they felt like they would hold her. She was thankful that it was Saturday and that nobody she knew from the show was around. She’d have a hard time explaining her appearance if they were. As it was, anyone else spotting her would simply think she was an extra in a zombie splatter flick.
Vicki felt something hot against her leg and realized she’d been feeling it since she’d appeared here. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the small Eye of Horus. It glowed a reddish-gold but grew colder and duller as she watched. Another mystery to add to her list.
“Ready?” asked Tim.
Vicki put the pin back into her pocket. “Let’s go.”
7: THE UNDEAD
INT. VICKI’S BEDROOM – NIGHT
Joe stands over Vicki’s bed, looking down at her. Moonlight shines against her cheek, highlighting her porcelain skin, then spilling to the red, wavy hair upon her pillow. She is on her back, hands folded on her chest, looking nothing less than a gorgeous vampire in repose.
He’d broken rule number one, and part of him was feeling guilty. But the club had made him feel so alive, and that made him want to see her.
Vicki lay under what looked like a handmade quilt, the colors muted in the moonlight. A stuffed Eeyore sat next to a teddy bear, eyeing him sadly as if knowing the penalty for breaking the rules. On her dresser was a picture of three identical beauties, Vicki’s mom and aunts. With them was a gangly girl about twelve years old, all knees and elbows and masses of red, unruly hair. Joe smiled and ran his finger over the picture. The glass clouded with frost.
He turned back to the bed. Vicki lay there so quiet, so peaceful–he ached to touch her, hold her.
Vicki hadn’t made a rule about dreams. She must not know about dreamwalkers. Why not just slip himself in there and make love to her dream self? It wasn’t quite the same as making love in life, but as they say, there is no such thing as bad pizza. He would take his time, kissing her softly at first, then harder with all the passion that burned inside him.
He backed away from the bed. Who was he kidding? He didn’t even know if Vicki was attracted to him. How could any living being be physically attracted to a ghost? He was relatively sure she would enjoy herself, but he wouldn’t have her consent.
Joe had never violated a woman in his life, and he wouldn’t start now. He turned to leave, catching sight of her in the mirror. She lay on the bed; her flaming red hair spread out on the pillow. She looked so peaceful, so beautiful.
He turned back toward the bed and leaned down to brush his transparent lips against her pale, white skin, and noticed that she wasn’t breathing. Panic flooded him. He tuned in his hearing but couldn’t hear a heartbeat.
“No,” he whispered as he struggled with disbelief. “No, no, no!”
A cat hissed. Bagheera stood at the open window, half inside the room, half out, glaring at him. Then without taking his eyes off Joe, the cat leaped onto Vicki’s chest.
Vicki suddenly came to life. In a blur of action, Joe could barely follow; she jumped up. Moonlight glinted off a gold dagger in her hand as she pressed the blade against his neck. The prick of the blade surprised him, but it was nothing next to the dread that flooded from that blade into his own heart. He knew if he moved, and the dagger cut him, he would be forced into the Light.
“It’s me,” he managed to choke out through his fear.
Vicki’s eyes were dark as a shark’s. There was nothing warm in them. “What are you doing in my bedroom?”
“I thought you were dead.”
Vicki continued to glare at him. “You’re not supposed to be in here.”
“I’ll explain if you take that thing away from my neck.”
Slowly the black bled from Vicki’s eyes until they were their usual emerald green–still angry, but human. She lowered the blade and sank back down onto her bed, her back leaning against the window. Bagheera climbed into her lap, purring as she stroked him.
Joe rubbed his neck. The cold feel of the blade lingered.
Vicki had on a pair of striped cotton pants and a thin cotton shirt that outlined every detail of her breasts. It would be very erotic if she hadn’t almost snuffed out his soul, or whatever it was that dagger did.
Joe pulled his spectral self up to sit on Vicki’s dresser. “So,” he said, his voice not betraying his quivering insides. “That’s some dagger you have there.”
And it was, too. The golden hilt had the image of a scorpion with blood-red rubies for eyes. The blade was eight inches long and glowed with an eerie blue-white light.
“I thought we had an understanding,” she snapped.
“I had some information on who might know what happened to Crazy Mary. I thought you’d want it right away.”
The lie came easily to Joe. The shame that came with it didn’t. He’d done a lot of questionable things in his life and never felt remorse. Vicki brought the best out in him. He wasn’t sure he liked it.
“Mary,” whispered Vicki, closing her eyes. “Just Mary.”
Bagheera stared at him through slitted eyes, but Vicki kept her eyes closed.
“You were dead,” said Joe.
“Yes,” she said. “And I still am.”
Joe rubbed his neck. “You move pretty fast for a dead girl.”
“I was taught to protect myself at a very young age.”
Her eyes popped open. “From people who come into my bedroom uninvited,” she said as she pushed Bagheera out of her lap. “I need a cup of tea.”
Bagheera shot a last withering look back at Joe before disappearing out the window.
Joe looked for the dagger, but it was gone.
He followed Vicki into the kitchen. “So, about this being dead?”
Vicki put a cup of water in the microwave with such force that water splashed over the side. She slammed the door and punched the buttons as if they were manual typewriter keys.
Joe couldn’t let it go. “You’re not a ghost.”
Vicki jerked a box of chamomile tea out of the cupboard. “No, I’m not,” she whispered. There were Vicki’s bathroom and a closet between the kitchen and Gayle’s bedroom, but she didn’t want to take a chance on waking her.
“And you’re not a vampire.”
“There’s no such thing as vampires, Joe.”
The microwave beeped. Vicki pulled out the cup, dropped in a teabag, and headed for the living room where she curled up on the couch, looking very vulnerable.
He saw the struggle of emotions play upon her face and knelt beside the end of the couch. “Trust me,” he said.
She looked up at him, the need in her eyes pinning him as surely as her dagger had earlier.
“I don’t know where to start,” she said, the anger bleeding away, leaving uncertainty in its place.
Joe sat down next to her.
“Why don’t you begin with why you need protection?”
Her eyes stayed glued to his. “Because throughout history, people have hunted down the women in my line, forcing us to do horrible things.”
“There are more women like you?”
“Not anymore. At least we don’t know of any. There used to be seven lines of women known as the Seven Daughters of Inanna.”
Vicki held the cup under her nose, inhaling the steam as if it could calm her.
“Each generation had its special birth,” she said. “One generation would bring forth a living, breathing woman who would serve the Goddess in whatever form She chose to take. This living woman would then give birth to a stillborn female, a female who would live because of her mother’s faith in the Goddess and her unwavering belief that her daughter was, despite all evidence to the contrary, alive.”
Joe couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You’re the Stillborn.”
“One of the Stillborn. Dead, yet still up and functioning as if I were alive.”
Joe got up and started pacing. “I thought the Stillborn was a myth.”
“Yeah, that seems to be going around. But here I am.”
Vicki glanced up at him, gauging his reaction.
“Okay,” said Joe, running a hand through his hair. “You are a Stillborn, and your mother is a priestess.”
Vicki nodded again. “Mother and aunts. Our line moved from country to country to avoid detection. My great grandmother and grandmother were in Egypt. They chose to worship the Goddess in her scorpion form of Selket.”
“You don’t look Egyptian,” said Joe.
“Our line wasn’t originally from there. But my ancestors found sanctuary under the protection of a female pharaoh. I don’t remember her name. I just know that the women of my line lived there for a long time before Hitler discovered them.”
Joe blinked. Vicki was just so full of surprises. “Hitler?”
“He kidnapped them and took them to Germany. They died there just after my mom and aunts were born. Mom and her sisters were smuggled to the United States, where they were raised to worship Selket.”
“Raised by who?”
Vicki shrugged. “Guardians, I guess. I don’t know. I’ve never been able to get my mom or aunts to talk about it.”
Joe sank back down onto the couch next to Vicki. As a dreamwalker, he’d seen and met a lot of things he’d never believed in while alive. But this? A line of women who every other generation gave life to a stillborn who functioned as if she were alive. Sure it explained a lot of things about Vicki that Joe had never understood. But why?
“Why did Hitler want your grandmothers?” asked Joe, putting his thoughts into words.
“I don’t know,” said Vicki. Her brow furrowed as if she was trying to remember something. He saw the pain hit. She closed her eyes, and her forehead smoothed out.
When she opened her eyes again, they were no longer bright with pain.
“My mom and aunts don’t talk about their childhood much. I get the feeling they were scared much of the time. They learned how to worship the Goddess, they learned the basics about who they are, but much of the knowledge of our line has been lost.”
Joe’s mind whirled with disbelief. “So, if your mom dies?”
Vicki looked up at him, her face carved from stone. “I cease to exist.”
Joe’s heart squeezed. The thought of losing her…
“Your mother is how old?”
Vicki laughed. “Older than you would think. Our line is very long-lived as long as no one interferes with our life cycle.”
“It’s got to be hard for your life to depend on someone else like that.”
The sparkle faded from Vicki’s eyes. Joe was instantly sorry he’d said anything. She stared into her cooling tea.
“I’ve often wondered what will happen to me when I die for real,” said Vicki. “Will I become a ghost? Do I even have a spirit or a soul? I don’t know.”
Joe settled down by Vicki again, wishing he could put his arm around her and hold her close. “Nobody does, kiddo. At least nobody living does. Okay, nobody living who can’t see ghosts does. But believe me when I tell you, Victoria Winters has a soul. A bright, beautiful soul.”
Vicki smiled. She reached out to touch his hand, but her hand passed right through. It was an awkward moment as she pulled back to cup her mug of tea.
Joe changed the subject to get Vicki’s mind off such dark thoughts. “So, about that dagger?”
“Inanna’s Blade. If I had cut you, you would have gone into the Light.”
A deep chill ran up Joe’s spine. “Have you ever used it?”
“Once. A long time ago.” Her look went inward as if she was trying to work something out. “When I was eight, I sent Mary’s dad into the Light. That was the last time I was able to access the power and bring the blade to me.” Again, her brow furrowed as if she struggled to grasp a memory.
“Until today.” She looked at the clock. “Technically yesterday.”
Joe processed this information. “When Mary died.”
Vicki nodded. “I touched that goop that ate her soul, and the power rose inside me and destroyed it. Then later, at the studio, I was attacked by these creatures…”
Joe jumped up. “What?”
“I’m fine, Joe. The point is the power came to me, and so did the blade. So no whatever stood between me and my power is gone. “
Joe forced air between his lips in an explosive sigh. His world was being turned upside down, just at the point where he thought he was getting a handle on things.
“I love my life, Joe,” said Vicki, echoing his thoughts. “And now I feel like it’s all just slipping through my fingers.”
He sat next to her. “I’ll help in any way I can.”
She smiled at him. “It’s funny, I don’t have a lot of living friends, but the ghosts I know are fiercely loyal. Does being dead make you that way?”
Joe thought about that. Had he changed since he died? Maybe. But he didn’t believe that that was what made him care for Vicki. “I think it’s you, Ms. Winters. You inspire loyalty among those who know you.”
Vicki looked at him, and for a moment, he thought he detected a longing that tugged at his heart. Her eyes cleared, and she asked, “What do you have for me?”
Joe felt an electric shock shoot through him. “Excuse me?”
“The reason you came into my room in the first place,” said Vicki.
Joe frowned. He’d forgotten. Lawrence had given him a lead on the boardwalk, but now he wasn’t so sure he should give it to Vicki. Not with everything that was going on.
He must not have had his poker face on because Vicki read his thoughts. “The advantage of being dead is that it’s tough to kill me unless you kill my mother. And she’s in Ohio where she’s very well protected.”
“But you can get hurt.”
“I heal quickly.” She pulled down the shoulder of her nightshirt. “One of those creatures raked me good with its claws earlier. Now…”
Joe stared at the three parallel lines of white that looked like old scars. And that happened today?
“Look, Joe, there’s something out there killing ghosts. It’s not just about Mary anymore. From what I’ve been able to learn, it’s happening all over LA. Including on my studio lot. I’ve got to stop this thing before any more of my friends’ souls are destroyed.”
Joe was still reluctant, but he’d seen Vicki with that magical blade, and he knew he’d never hear the end of it if he didn’t tell her. Besides, she was right. If there was something out there destroying ghosts’ souls, it had to be stopped. He just wished it didn’t have to be Vicki who stopped it. But who else was there?
“There’s a ghost in Venice who might know something,” said Joe. “Name’s Shaun. You can find him at the graffiti walls tomorrow morning, early.”
“Good,” she said and took a sip of tea.
They sat there for a moment in silence. Joe listened.
“Your heart is beating now,” said Joe quietly. “And you’re breathing like a living person.”
Vicki nodded. “I don’t pretend to understand it, Joe. My Aunt told me that my mother doesn’t just believe I’m alive; she knows it. So I am, at least most of the time. But when I sleep or when I use the power of the Goddess, my heart stops. My breathing stops. I’m still able to function, but my body isn’t pretending to be alive anymore.”
“And you can give birth–to a living child.”
Vicki didn’t answer, and Joe realized it was because she didn’t have one.
Joe mulled this over. “So why? What purpose does it serve for you to walk the line between the living and the dead? What does the Goddess want from you?”
Vicki sighed, her head falling back as if she were staring at the ceiling. “That’s the question, isn’t it?”
She dropped her chin and looked directly into Joe’s eyes. “I’ve never told anyone this before,” she said. “At least not all of it. The studio ghosts know I’m Stillborn. They thought I was a myth, too.”
“Are you saying I’m your first?” he asked with a touch of innuendo.
Vicki blushed, then stood up.
“It’s late,” she said. “I’ve got to get some sleep, or I won’t be any good at work tomorrow.”
Vicki shook her head. “I can’t believe that it’s still Saturday. How can so much happen in one day?”
They stood there looking at each other for a moment. Then Vicki turned around and walked into her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Joe stood there in the middle of the living room, processing everything she had told him. A million questions roiled through his mind.
Suddenly the bedroom door opened.
“And stay out of my room!”
The door banged closed. Joe started laughing.
4: THE ALCHEMIST
Mary awakes in an ocean of blue. Not the blue like in Venice, but the blue like in the Pacific, where you can see forever and ever.
Suddenly a face broke through the blue—just the oval of a face, no hair, no body. Fear pulsed through Mary, and she tried to move away but realized she had no body, not even a ghostly one. She was floating there like two eyes off by themselves.
“Mary, are you in there.” Mary saw the words coming out of the mouth. They were words she knew she should know, but before she could grasp their meaning, the letters flew apart and disappeared.
The eyes of the face, a man’s face she decided, darted around looking for her. She puzzled over that one and decided that she must be in a container of some kind, and the memory of the bit of amber, of the feeling of being eaten flooded her eyes until crystal tears seemed to fall. The man saw her and smiled. She didn’t like that smile. She didn’t like the man. She wanted to go back into the blue.
The face disappeared, and Mary’s eyes felt relieved.
There was something else happening. Her crystal tears were attaching themselves to her and giving her a body, and Mary wondered if she was in a womb.
The voice of the man came to her, only this time she had ears to hear, and she understood the word.
“It ascends from earth to heaven and descends again from heaven to earth; thus, acquiring the power of the realities above and the realities below. In this way, I will acquire the glory of the world entire, and all darkness will leave me.”
From the Emerald Tablet, thought Mary. She had a moment where she wondered how she could know such a thing, but then she remembered she was being born again, and the second time must mean you understood stuff you didn’t use to. For instance, she knew her ghostly body died in that alley and that she was different than she was before. She knew that if this man was reading from the Emerald Tablet, then he was most probably an alchemist.
Mary floated up through the blue until she could go no further. She looked around, outside the blue, and saw a man standing at a table crowded with beakers, Bunsen burners, and mundane trappings of a commercial laboratory. But there were also jars of esoteric… that was a new word for Mary… materials lining the walls. Definitely an Alchemist.
Mary watched as the man picked up a picture and looked at it. She floated in her ocean of blue until she reached a wall. The container was a prison. But she could see the picture of three women arm-in-arm, so alike that no one except those who were close to them could tell them apart. In the arms of the middle, one was an infant.
Vicki thought Mary. He knows Vicki.
The man lost himself in memory so vivid that he carried Mary along with him. He was in a room with a statue of a woman with a scorpion on her head. Selket, she heard him remember. The sisters were chanting over him. He struggled, but his wrist and ankles were tied. He looked into the eyes of the one named Evelyn and pleaded past the gag in his throat. Tears ran from her eyes, but she didn’t waver.
Scorpions spilled out of the statue. They didn’t come through a hole or crevice; they sprang fully formed from the surface of the sculpture. They all skittered down and swarmed the man’s body. The tails struck, making the man writhe in pain while they drained his sorcerer’s power. No! the man screamed inside his head. More than drained it. Removed it. Stole it. Everything he had worked for, everything he had dedicated his life to, slipping away with each agonizing sting.
Suddenly Mary was thrown from the man’s memories. Something black and scaley slammed her back into the blue of her prison. She was hurt, and that made her angry. She’d been hurt enough in her life, and she wouldn’t get hurt anymore without a fight. She swam up through the blue and hit the top. She floated there, pressed against the barrier trying to push through as the darkness went back into the man.
The man’s fingers traced the puckered swath of scar that ran from his jaw up into his hairline on the right side of his face. The black thing escaped from there, and the man, who seemed unaware of it, massaged the scar as if it hurt.
He picked up the picture again. “It took me a long time,” he said to himself. Your protections are powerful. But I finally found her. And I will have my daughter’s power.”
The sudden knowledge that this was Vicki’s father caused Mary to bang at the barrier of her container. Her anger grew and grew until it burst from her in flames, and her blue world turned red. The flames licked at her but didn’t burn.
She knew that he found her because of her. Vicki would have come running. She was always trying to save Mary. First, from the father that was hurting her, then by talking to her about going into the light.
Now it was Vicki that needed saving from her father. And Mary was going to do it. She made up her mind. She would find a way to break out of her prison and find a way to kill that black thing hidden inside.
I will save Vicki, thought Mary. I will. I will. I will.
With only the faint SOUND of a room filled with conversation, the shuffling of cards, and the clicking of poker chips as they’re tossed into play.
The memory of the Bee Club flowed through Joe as he visualized the game room filled with tables, people sitting around studying the cards set out before them. The stronger the sense of a place, the easier it was to transport himself there. He heard the incessant sound of hundreds of players stacking, riffling, and restacking their chips. He listened to the shuffle of a thousand cards. There above it all, he heard the groans that accompanied a bad beat, and from the other side of the room, the cheers at a hand well played. He listened for the nasal call of the girl working the white chip tables: “Cigarettes, candy, cocktails.”
He let the love for the place wash through him, fill him–and then he appeared in the middle of the physical club, surrounded by the living and the dead alike.
“Hey, Joe,” said a tall, skinny ghost with gnarled fingers that worked an invisible poker chip through them with expert skill. “I was beginning to think you crossed over; it’s been so long.”
“Hi, Sal. Just keeping busy is all.”
“Yeah, I heard you got a Rita Hayworth livin’ in your place.”
Joe smiled. Vicki did look a lot like Rita, though she complained that she just didn’t get the comparison to the glamorous movie star. “Rita Hayworth was a brunette with brown eyes, whereas I’m a redhead,” she’d say. Vicki had piles of unruly red hair, green eyes, and curves to die for. Joe told her to watch Gilda if she wanted to understand.
Sal walked around the table, looking at players’ cards. He leaned down, whispering into a woman’s ear. She bet. The guy to her left raised.
“He’s bluffing,” said Sal to the woman. “Don’t fall for it.”
The woman laid down her cards.
Sal straightened up. “Stone deaf,” he said, shaking his head. “That other bozo raised on a deuce three suited, and she lays down two jacks. Women just don’t have the balls for playing poker.”
Joe laughed. “I seem to remember a certain blonde driving off in your ride more than once because you thought she was bluffing. What was it, two Cadillacs and a cherry 1958 Chevrolet Apache pickup?”
Sal winced. “Those were bad beats.”
“They’re all bad beats, Sal. You see Lawrence around?”
“In the lounge holding court.” Sal’s face twisted in disgust. It’s what had made him such a lousy poker player in life. Every emotion played across his face. “You know I hate that guy.”
“You and everybody else,” said Joe.
“Hey, you gonna be around on Halloween? We’re going to have a hell of a blowout this year.” Sal’s face brightened like a kid’s at the thought of Santa Claus. “Rumors are Marilyn is gonna show up.”
“I’ll think about it. Later.”
Sal glided around the table as the dealer dealt the next hand. He hadn’t given up on his deaf woman.
Joe stood there, drinking it all in. God, he missed this place. His place. His casino. The place he built from scratch back when money was still flowing in Southern California.
The Bee Club was his passion back then. Later he learned the word passion also meant suffering. He’d been young and stupid, not going to let such a little thing as money stop him from realizing his dream. He took on an investor who ran a drug-running network. Joe laundered money from the smuggling operation through different bank accounts and paper corporations, all in the name of the club.
Joe got his club. He also got dead. That’s all passion ever did for him.
Over the years, the club changed owners, changed decor. He hated the changes the new owners had made. He hated the ghosts who stood at more than half of the tables, trying to regain the thrill of the bet. He hated being dead–what he wouldn’t do for a shot of whiskey and a seat at a poker table. He had one night a year he got to pretend he was alive again, but that wasn’t enough.
He’d considered walking into the Light and leaving it all behind.
Vicki changed all that. Joe chuckled as he remembered his first glimpse of her as she ducked through the closet that connected the two living spaces of Gayle’s apartment. Vicki looked in the bathroom with its freestanding tub and was charmed. She looked into the kitchen and was a little less charmed. When she saw the wall of windows in the living room, she actually smiled. Then she walked into the tiny bedroom that used to be a glassed-in porch and said to Gayle, “I’d like to spend a few minutes alone here if you don’t mind. I like it, but I need to get a feel for the place before I decide to take it.”
Gayle had been happy to oblige. Joe knew she’d be thrilled to have a nice Midwestern girl interested in the place. She’d been growing tired of the mess her male roommate always left in the kitchen, not to mention the pot-smoking and the late-night drinking binges taking place upfront to the annoyance of the neighbors.
Joe helped like Gayle and had been more than a little responsible for the sudden departure of that particular roommate.
When Gayle left Vicki alone, Vicki turned and looked straight at Joe. “We’ve got to set a few rules if I’m going to live here,” she said.
He probably fell in love with her right then. She was smart, strong-willed, and sexy as hell. He was only too happy to agree to her rules if it meant she would stay.
1. He didn’t come into her bedroom unless invited.
2. He didn’t come into her bathroom, ever.
3. He didn’t mess with men who came over. Not that she had a boyfriend or anything,
but if she ever did get one, she didn’t want him scared off by something Joe did.
4. There’d be more rules as they got to know one another.
Joe wasn’t sure he could abide by the rules, especially if the list got too long, but he agreed. In the six months that he and Vicki had shared that space, he’d never broken one. Of course, Vicki had yet to bring a romantic interest home. Joe was pretty confident he’d be sending rule number three into the Light when she did.
Today she’d given him a reason to return to the closest thing to a home he’d ever known, and he was grateful. He stayed away too long.
The entrance to the Bee Club Lounge had been remodeled to look like a Greek mausoleum. Joe winced when he walked between the massive white pillars. Back when he owned the club, the place had understated class–wood-paneled walls, red leather booths, cocktail waitresses with skirts up to their asses and legs down to the floor. Well, at least that last hadn’t changed.
Lawrence sat at his regular table in the back with a piece of carrot cake and a mug full of Lone Star.
When Lawrence had first started coming to the club, he was just another fish giving away his money. He had seen the ghosts, recognized the advantage of having them as allies, and gone to work on a database.
Since ghosts were typically bound to one or two places, it was challenging to keep up with what was going on in the community. When information did filter down, it was like a game of telephone. A friend of a friend of a friend said this about that, the information twisting and transforming so that in the end, it resembled nothing like the facts.
Lawrence called his database the Kevin Bacon—it showed connections: who could talk to whom, who could get what information, what channels you had to go through to reach this person. Connections meant no more than six relay ghosts, keeping the information more reliable. The Bee Club was a nexus. A lot of players had been emotionally attached to the place in life, so a lot of ghosts hung out there. Many of them worked for Lawrence in one fashion or another, primarily as information gatherers and messengers. In return, Lawrence gave them information for free. Most of the time, however, Lawrence used it to blackmail other ghosts into helping him at cards until he held a spot as one of the top Texas Hold ‘em players in the world. The ghosts whispered in his ear as Sal did with the woman earlier. It was a perfect scam. Only he could hear the ghosts, and he didn’t have to respond. Just stare at the players like he was trying to read them.
If Joe could get past his disgust for the man, he’d admire him. The guy was a genius with a great business sense. He was also a total sleaze, and whenever he started thinking he was the Godfather of ghosts, Joe took care of it.
At Lawrence’s table, Joe pulled a chair around and sat on it backward. It took a great deal of energy for him to move a physical object. The casino, however, overflowed with energy. It’d been a while since he and Lawrence had established the fact the Joe was in control here, so Lawrence needed a reminder that Joe was much more than just another ghost.
The drawing of energy resulted in a cold spot, which alerted Lawrence to Joe’s presence. The man’s frown slid into an insincere smile as he looked up at Joe.
“Hey, Joe. Long time no see.”
“You miss me?”
“Of course, of course.” He lifted his bottle in a toasting motion toward Joe. “I mean, you’re an icon in this place.” He took a deep draw. Joe smiled inside. He knew he’d rattled Lawrence, and that made him very happy.
Two patrons got up and moved to a table on the other side of the room, looking at Lawrence and at Joe’s chair, which had just moved by itself, in suspicion, confusion, and a little bit of fear. Lawrence didn’t notice.
Lawrence’s cherubic face hid a larcenous heart. His propensity to guzzle Lone Star resulted in a bulging belly in an otherwise lean frame. He kept his hair buzzed in an attempt to look like an ex-Marine. He even had a tattoo on his arm that read Semper Fi. The closest Lawrence had ever gotten to the military was in one of his bottomless vat of computer games, many of which he wrote himself.
The stylish glasses were new, and Joe wondered if they were needed to see the computer screen or if they were a strategy to hide his eyes in the big poker rooms.
“The cards been treating you well?” asked Joe.
Lawrence’s eyes shifted to the left. “Can’t complain.”
“Heard you got your third bracelet at the World Series.”
Pride slipped into that pudgy face. “I’m shooting for Helmut’s record.”
“Hm, doesn’t seem quite fair since Phil Helmut wins on skill while you cheat.”
“Everyone has a system, Joe, you know that. They use what they got, brains, intuition, whatever. My system just happens to be better than theirs.”
“You don’t have a system, Lar. You have ghosts telling you the other players’ cards.”
Lawrence put up his hand, one palm out, one still holding onto the Lone Star. “I don’t overuse it. I only play when I need the money.”
Joe watched Lawrence drain the bottle. “Word is you need the money more and more lately.”
“You want something? Course you do. You want I should power up the Kevin Bacon. That is why you’re here, isn’t it?
Joe could only trust himself to nod slowly.
“Look, I know I’m not your favorite person. Though maybe you’d best remember who keeps track of who knows who and who can go where and how to get there from here. Without me, you got nothing, you know? Nothing. I’m the guy at the center of the information hub.”
Joe leaned forward, balancing the chair on two legs. “Don’t be vague, Larry. Please, if you wish to threaten me, you’ll need to be more explicit.”
Lawrence’s glasses began to fog up as Joe drew more energy to him, and the temperature in the room plummeted.
“No, course not,” stammered Lawrence. “Just reminding you why you guys help me win is all.” He took off his glasses and swiped at them with a soggy napkin.
“I’ve come across a little matter in Venice,” said Joe, ignoring Lawrence’s last statement.
Lawrence pulled his computer out of the bag at his feet and fired it up. “Venice. Got it. What are you looking for?”
“A ghost reduced to ectoplasm.”
Lawrence looked up at Joe, startled. “I thought that was impossible.”
Joe ignored the comment. “A glowing jelly-like substance nearby. I want to know if anybody saw anything or ever heard of this happening before.”
“You afraid someone is coming after you?”
There was a hint of hope in Lawrence’s voice. Joe looked at him under hooded eyes. Lawrence went back to his computer, looking through his data.
Joe didn’t know what he expected to find. However, he’d never seen Vicki so upset, and if he could find something that would ease her mind, he’d do it. Of course, a substance that could kill ghosts concerned him as well.
Lawrence looked up from his computer screen and addressed Joe.
“Well, if anyone is going to know about something happening in Venice, it’ll be Shaun. He’s the kid killed in a gang shooting down there a couple of years ago. He hangs out at the graffiti wall. I could go down there and talk to him.”
“I got that covered,” said Joe. Again, Lawrence looked startled. Good. Best to keep the creep guessing about what Joe could and couldn’t do.
Lawrence went back to his computer. “I’ll put the word out in Hollywood and South Central. I expect Beverly Hills would be a wash.”
Joe stood up, turning his chair back around.
Lawrence looked up, pensive. “So, we’re square, right? I get you the info, and I don’t get nightmares? I couldn’t take any more of those nightmares, Joe.”
Joe just smiled at him. “I’ll be back in a couple of days.”
As Joe walked back to the card tables, that old excitement for the game rose inside him. He still didn’t want to become like Sal and endlessly try to influence players, but he’d always liked watching a good game. Hell, a lot of people did, as evidenced by ESPN. Who knew poker would become a spectator sport?
Yeah, he could come back. He could watch the game. He could reestablish old connections to the ghosts he liked. Vicki had awakened something inside him he hadn’t felt since he died. She made him feel more… alive.
Joe decided he could make a new kind of unlife for himself. There’d always been restrictions in life. Death only meant you had a different set of limitations.
Joe willed himself over to the high-stakes table. Ghosts didn’t try to influence the high-stakes games over here. The ghostly community respected the players and their skill. Only when Lawrence played would you find a ghost floating around the table.
Joe settled in to watch the game. One player was short-stacked, but the rest were pretty much even. It promised to be a good ride.
INT. SOUND STAGE AT CULVER STUDIOS – DAY
We’re in a vast sound stage on the Culver City lot. A walkway winds through a maze of walls, which are the different sets constructed for that shoot. We are on a set that looks like someone’s attic, fulled will odd and ends furniture (a desk, chair, full-length mirror, sewing form, boxes, etc. Bright lights shine down onto the set, cables wind in and out and around, taped down in the walkways for safety. Dozens of people stand on the sidelines watching as a camera dollies in on the actors in the scene playing out.
Vicki quietly made her way to her writer’s chair on the edge of the attic set. Seeing the set for the first time sent a thrill shooting through her. Everything she described in the script, from the humidor and the scales of justice on the desk to the open box of old toys, was there. It felt like power, you write something down, and the construction crew, the prop crew, and the set designer get it done. The power was an illusion, of course, but it felt good anyway.
“Cut,” Terrance, frustration thick in his voice.
Terrence O’Donnell was oblivious to the controlled chaos he’d initiated as he strode from his director’s chair onto the set to speak to his star, Bryce Brogan. Neither of them seemed to notice as the AD moved in and gently shooed the two of them away while props came in and added a smooth, layer of dust on the desk where Bryce had mussed it. Bryce’s stand-in came in; the director of photography walked around the star with his light meter. He talked to the lighting designer, who, in turn, set his crew to work adjusting lights.
Vicki sat back in the tall director’s chair with the word WRITER emblazoned across the back, watching the chaos with a warm sense of accomplishment glowing in her abdomen.
Vicki managed not to start when she heard a whisper in her ear. “What I wouldn’t give for the chance to direct this script. Terrence is okay, but I could have won you an Emmy.”
Vicki couldn’t help the smile that came to her lips. She forgot herself for a moment and looked over her left shoulder at Tim’s gauzy figure. “You really like the script?”
The director of photography, who returned to the camera on Vicki’s left, looked at her, thinking she was speaking to him.
“I told you so, didn’t I?”
Vicki smiled and nodded, her cheeks flushing with warmth.
Vicki smiled and nodded. “Thanks, Carl,” she said, turning to hid how flushed her cheeks were with warmth. Stupid, stupid, stupid, she thought. She knew better than to talk to a ghost out in the open like that.
Culver was an old studio and had its fair share of ghosts. Case in point, Timothy the Whisperer. Tim had fancied himself an Alfred Hitchcock, though he stood about six-two and was skinny to the point of emaciation. The lack of resemblance didn’t end there. Tim directed one movie here at Culver Studios back in the 90s. The reviews panned not only the film but specifically singled out the directing. It disappeared from the theaters a week after opening. Tim was unable to get work after that, and, ultimately, he gave up and committed suicide.
“We all like it,” said Tim. “Well, except for Gloria, who believes you should have made the protagonist a woman. You know how she is. Anyway, for most of us, you’re our new golden girl.”
Gratitude, like a tropical wave, rushed through Vicki. “Thanks, Tim. That means a lot,” she whispered, barely moving her lips. Tim patted her on the back–cold seeping through her clothing–then winked out of existence.
It only took minutes for the tech to set up two more lights while the electrician ran power to them. Once the lights were set to Carl’s satisfaction, he waved a grip onto the set to give it a few shots from the smoker.
After taking a look through the camera, Carl nodded. He was ready, but Terrance was still giving direction to Bryce, who shook his head in understanding. Carl came over and stood by Vicki.
“You were lucky to get him for your director. He’s excellent. He had a hard time of it even so. Being black in this industry is a huge roadblock to success.
“But he kept at it, never let rejection get him down, worked at every job from PA to Script Processor. Spent as much time as he could on set learning.”
“I’m loving what he’s doing with my script,” said Vicki. “Everyone said Bryce is hard to work with, but Terrance doesn’t seem to have any trouble.”
Carl motioned toward the camera. “Want to take a look?”
“First script, first day of shooting… gotta give you the full experience.”
Vicki hopped down from her chair and went to look through the dolly-mounted camera, being careful not to trip on the track. She looked into the eyepiece and saw a wide shot of the set. She knew that once they established the scene from here, the camera would dolly forward to get a close-up of Bryce sitting at the desk.
Int. Attic – Day, thought Vicki, remembering how it read on the page. Among the boxes and other paraphernalia was a large wooden desk that appeared as it must have in a study from some different era. On top were a desk blotter, an old-fashioned Rolodex, a cup filled with pens, a pair of scissors and a letter opener, and a humidor with pipes ringing the sides.
What she saw through the eyepiece was precisely as she’d described it in her script down to the type of desk chair that Bryce was sitting in.
She leaned back and smiled at Carl. “It looks great.”
“I aim to please,” said Carl, returning her smile. Carl had been a DP longer than most of the crew had been alive and was probably the most down-to-earth person she’d ever met. He lived in Santa Monica, but she could see him fitting right in with the more bohemian, and poorer, Venice crowd.
Vicki jumped down from the dolly, returning the camera seat to the cameraman idling nearby, and went back to her chair.
Makeup and Hair danced around Bryce as Terrence got the last word in with his star. Cheri, dressed in a bright pink dress that left one shoulder bare, green tights, and tennis shoes, swooped in to touch up Bryce’s makeup. Jay, who had dreadlocks and was meticulously dressed, ran a comb through Bryce’s hair, then added a generous dose of hair spray into the room. It was hot under all the lights, but you couldn’t tell it by looking at the actor. When all was finished, and he was left alone on the set, he looked like he’d just walked from his air-conditioned trailer, even though he’d been on the set for the last hour and a half.
Terrence returned to his seat beside Vicki and adjusted the monitor. Carl sat to Terrence’s right, Vicki to his left.
“You’re late on your first day of shooting.”
Vicki blushed. “I…”
Terrance waved her off. “It’s okay. You would have been crying if you’d seen Bryce’s performance.”
A man stepped onto the set, holding a long pole over his head and positioned the mike above Bryce, but out of view of the camera.
“ROLLING,” shouted the cameraman.
“SPEED,” barked the soundman.
The AD put the clapper in front of the camera. “Scene 10, take 5,” she said and clicked the clapper.
“And ACTION,” said Terrence.
Vicki leaned forward and watched Bryce walk into the attic shot. He took his time moving through the set, looking at the box of open toys, picking up an old, well-used sock-monkey, then putting it back. He ended up at the desk of his character’s deceased father. Memories played across his expressive face as he ran his finger along the desktop, disrupting the dust that had gathered there. He sat down in the chair, and give it an experimental spin as if remembering another time. Finally, he began methodically going through the desk drawers, leafing through the odd papers, not finding what he was looking for. He looked about to give up when he spotted the humidor sporting three pipes.
Bryce opened the humidor and leaned over as if to smell the stale scent of tobacco. He sees something inside the box. He hesitated a beat, then slowly, reluctantly, took out a folded piece of paper, unfolded it, and began to read. The camera dollied forward, pushing in close on Bryce’s face, a perfect mask of grief.
“And CUT,” yelled Terrence.
“MOVING ON,” yelled the first AD.
For a moment, Vicki couldn’t breathe. Bryce had brought more grief, pain, and vulnerability to the scene than she’d been able to bring to the page. Carl turned and winked at her as the crew went into motion setting up for Bryce’s close-up. Vicki managed a breath and smiled back.
Terrence turned to her. “What do you think?”
Vicki had difficulty getting the words out past the lump in her throat. “I think we just created magic,” she said.
Terrence chuckled, clearly pleased. “I usually don’t like writers on the set,” he said. “But, you’re okay.” He looked down at the script in his hands. “Victoria Winters. Mom a big Dark Shadows fan?”
“Dan Curtis was a golfing buddy. He never understood the whole fan thing.”
Vicki knew Terrence was referring to the creator of Dark Shadows. Her mother had made her watch the episode in which Barnabas first appeared. From then on, Vicki was hooked and watched every episode from her mother’s DVD collection. Vicki always wondered if it wasn’t that show that made her want to be a writer.
Terrence walked off with the first assistant director to discuss the setup for the next scene.
“Kiss ass,” said a disembodied Tim. He had stuck around, even though he had chosen not to show himself.
Vicki jumped out of her chair and headed for craft services. “I never lie, Tim. People learn very quickly that if they ask my opinion, they’re going to get an honest one.”
Craft services was a banquet of sugary instant energy. Vicki went for an apple, though her taste buds wanted her to reach into the bowl of Snickers. She didn’t have to worry about her weight or her health for that matter, but she had developed the habit of pretending she did.
“You know, they say talking to yourself is the first sign of senility.” Carl brushed by Vicki and grabbed a packaged Rice Krispies Treat.
“Those things are nasty, Carl,” said Vicki.
“You going to bring in some homemade ones?”
“Then I have to go with what I can get.” Carl pulled off the wrapper and took half the treat in one bite. “So, what’s your plan?” he asked, words muffled and distorted.
“Plan?” said Vicki, taking a bite of her apple while eyeing Carl’s treat. Once the juicy goodness hit her taste buds, however, she was a lot happier with her choice.
Carl swallowed. “Are you one of those one-hit-wonders: write a script, get it produced, and then disappear? Or are you going for a career? Producer? Director? Showrunner?”
“Definitely not a director,” said Vicki. “From where I’m sitting, it’s too much like work.”
Carl grunted as he shoved the rest of the treat into his mouth.
Vicki considered the question. She’d been so thrilled to sell a script she hadn’t thought about what came next. “I’ve been writing since I was eight years old. I can’t not write. If I can make money doing it, great. But even if I couldn’t, I’d still be writing. So, if I am a one-hit-wonder, it won’t be for lack of writing.”
Carl nodded and grabbed a handful of unsalted almonds.
“Producer definitely,” said Vicki. “Executive producer–I’d like the control, but it seems like EPs don’t get to write much. I think I’ll have to reserve opinion on that one.”
“The goal of most writers in the biz is to get their own show. Lots of money in it–prestige.”
Vicki shrugged. “What good is all of that if I don’t get to do what I love the most?”
Carl gave her one of his rare, dazzling grins. “Don’t let success change you, kid,” he said, bits of almond in the spaces between his teeth. The walkie on his belt squealed at him, and he turned and strode back to the set while his question lingered in Vicki’s mind. What was her plan? She’d had a plan when she left Ohio and moved to California. She planned on breaking into the business and working her way up. Well, she’d sort of done that. Now what?
The second assistant director found her just as Vicki took another bite of her apple.
“You’re wanted back at the office,” she said, not waiting around to get an answer. Vicki sighed. She wanted to see the close-up on Bryce, but duty called. She walked back through the lot to the production offices chewing on her apple and thinking about how Tim and the other ghosts on the lot had taken her in. Most people weren’t able to interact with spirits as Vicki could. Many ghosts craved that interaction. After all, they were hanging around because they didn’t want to let go of the lives they’d had. On the lot, ghosts like Tim got to live vicariously through Vicki. That was as close as they could get to regaining their old lives.
A script sat on Vicki’s desk waiting to be processed, which to a script processor meant typing in changes and checking for inconsistencies. Too often, a writer would change the name of a character or take someone out of a scene, then fail to make all the changes later in the script that became necessary because of the earlier revision. Vicki’s job was to make sure she corrected these errors before she put out new pages–this time blue pages, as it was the second set of revisions since this script had gone into preproduction.
This script, however, was the coproducer’s script and was three episodes down the line. Leave it to Julia to call her back to the office when it wasn’t urgent.
Julia Swift was one of the more competent writers on the show. When Vicki had decided to write a spec script for the show, she’d approached Julia to see if she would read it. Julia made it very clear that Vicki had been hired as a script processor, not a writer. She did everything she could to discourage Vicki from writing that script, including giving her busy work during downtimes so that Vicki couldn’t work on her own writing.
Fortunately, the executive producer caught wind of it and offered to read Vicki’s script. Then he bought it. Julia had hated Vicki ever since.
Vicki opened Final Draft and pulled the script up on the computer. There were changes to the dialog, a name change, some little niggles. Very dull and mundane. Vicki chafed at being called away from the set for this but went to work anyway. The quicker she got it done, the quicker she could get back.
Without even a knock, Vicki’s door flew open. Julia walked in like she owned the place. “My script ready yet?”
Julia stood at five feet nothing, had black hair, violet eyes, and a mouth that was at the moment turned down into a frown.
“I’m working on it now,” said Vicki, not looking around.
“Unacceptable. I want it distributed by lunch.”
Vicki glanced at the clock. Eleven thirty. “I only just started it, Julia. There’s no way I’ll have it ready.”
Julia threw her hands in the air. “I warned Del that this would happen if he let you go to the set. You ignore your work here and…”
“Did I hear my name used in vain?” In the doorway stood Delmar Taber, executive producer, and in Vicki’s humble opinion, the best writer on the show. Maybe even in television. He was definitely the most handsome.
Julia suddenly became all smiles. “Hi, Del. I finished the changes in my episode, but Vicki’s been too distracted to input them yet. I was just saying that if she hadn’t been on the set…”
“Your episode is number one eleven, isn’t it?”
“And we’re shooting one o seven?”
Julia tried unsuccessfully to hide her frustration. “Yes, but…”
“Then there’s no hurry on the changes, is there?”
Julia smiled at Del. “I guess not.” She turned to Vicki and said in her sweetest voice. “Just let me know when you’ve got them finished, Vicki.” She left the room.
Del came in and plopped down in one of Vicki’s chairs. “She’s jealous because your episode got shot before hers.”
She’s jealous because there’s another woman writer and she sees me as a threat, thought Vicki. But she kept her mouth shut. She’d learned it was always the best policy to fly as far below the radar as possible. This was a little difficult to do when the show you worked for was producing your script, and your handsome boss was sitting across the desk from you.
Del’s Polynesian heritage showed in his nearly black eyes and stylized turtle barrette that held back black hair that hung to his shoulders. His face was chiseled in the way GQ liked, with high cheekbones and slightly sunken cheeks, which made Vicki wonder what other ethnicities might be mixed in there.
Vicki aspired to write as well as Del. His scripts took complex ideas and broke them down into character and dialog and action that riveted the viewer to the screen. When he was writing, he had a massive ball of bubblegum stuffed in his cheek that he chewed on periodically. He said it saved the tender skin inside of his cheek. His cheek bulged now, so he must have been working on his next script before he rescued her from Julia. He was the only EP she knew that made the time to write, no matter what. Maybe, if she could balance the work of an EP with writing, she was interested in having her own show.
“So how’d it go on the set today?”
“It was great,” said Vicki, her lips curving up in a big smile. “Everything I described in the script, even down to the kind of humidor on the desk, was right there on the set. It made me feel…”
“Don’t get used to it. One script doesn’t mean you have a career.” He was out the door before Vicki’s ego had time to deflate. Yeah, she knew the truth about this business, but it was one thing to know it and quite another to have your boss shove it in your face.
Great looking, thought Vicki, but a real ass sometimes.
Vicki turned back to her computer and started inputting Julia’s changes.
2: MEET JOE BLACK
EXT. VENICE WALKSTREET – DAY
What once had been a street is now a long walkway lined by fences made of concrete, railroad ties, wooden slats. Behind the fences is a jungle of oleander and hibiscus hiding many of the yards of the houses they protect. Vicki’s place is one of the few that has a low fence and a clear view of the walkway.
It was only half a block up the Ozone walkstreet to Vicki’s apartment.
Bagheera, the feral black cat with one white sock, met her at Speedway and walked along the tops of fences in his version of walking her home. Usually, he only did this when she came home late at night. But today, he seemed to sense her distress. Either that, or he was just hungry. He accompanied her up the walk, through the front gate, and up the steps to her apartment.
Except for Bagheera, cats didn’t like Vicki. Not many animals did. She had no idea why, but animals either shied away from her or went into attack mode.
Bagheera was an exception to the rule. He was one of those neighborhood cats that killed baby birds to eat. No one could get close to him. He avoided all the well-meaning traps set out by the Humane Society.
Then one day, Vicki sat at the picnic table in her front yard, reading a novel when Bagheera climbed up into her lap and insisted on being petted, purring like a motorboat until he curled up and fell asleep. Every night since, he met her as if he were her bodyguard.
Vicki followed Bagherra up the front stairs and unlocked the door, allowing him to slip inside and glide into the kitchen to his bowl of kibble.
Vicki’s door opened directly into her living area. Windows lined the wall opposite the door, filling the room with light. Her off-white couch and chair sported a cacophony of colored pillows. A myriad of photos crowded her sofa table. She picked up one of her and Mary when they were children. They stood arm in arm, were covered in mud, and had huge grins on their faces.
Tears rushed to Vicki’s eyes. This was Mary as she used to be before Vicki sent Mary’s father into the Light.
FLASHBACK – CIRCA 1997
INT. MARY’S BEDROOM – NIGHT
Eight-year-old Vicki, her red hair mussed from her midnight bike ride, stands next to her friend Mary’s bed with its Cinderella comforter.
Vicki clenched her fists, her entire body shaking as she gaped at the ghost manifesting in the center of the room. Not the “I’m not ready to leave this plane and go into the Light” kind of ghost, but the bad kind who enjoyed hurting people. She took a step back.
Mary, Vicki’s best friend, huddled between a pine nightstand and the wall. She was blond, blue-eyed, and cheerleader pretty. Her entire pajama-clad body shook while tears leaked from eyes screwed shut. “Please don’t hurt me, Daddy. Please don’t hurt me,” she whispered like a mantra.
Anger bled into Vicki. The bruises on Mary’s arms made Vicki ask questions, but Mary told Vicki that she wouldn’t believe what was happening to her. But Vicki got it out of her anyway. And that night, Vicki climbed out her bedroom window just before midnight. She rode her dirt bike through the fallow fields of their adjacent farms, the full moon lighting her way.
Daddies weren’t supposed to hurt their little girls. Daddies were supposed to protect them. They were supposed to love them—even ghost daddies.
Vicki steeled herself and took a step forward. Suddenly Mary’s arms were around her legs. Vicki looked down into her friend’s eyes. They were opened so wide that white showed all around the blue.
“No, Vicki, don’t. He’ll hurt you too,” Mary whispered.
Vicki gently stepped free and faced the entity. It still looked like Mr. Pope. The same bald head, the same massive arms, the same buff body that Vicki and the other girls used to whisper about behind Mary’s back.
Now the sweet smile he used to show all Mary’s friends twisted with cruelty.
Vicki faced him. “Go away,” she yelled at the ghost. “Leave Mary alone.”
“The little Winters girl,” said the ghost. His eyes played over her body, and she thought she might throw up. “You can see me. Interesting. But then, I always thought you were the most interesting of my Mary’s friends. The most… developed.”
Vicki’s face burned; her skin tried to crawl away without her. Still, she stood her ground.
“You’re not going to hurt her anymore,” said Vicki, dismayed at the way her voice trembled.
A grin split the monster’s face. Low, dark laughter spilled out like pus from a festering wound.
“Who’s going to stop me? You?” His tongue darted out and ran across his lips. “Sure. We can have a little fun. Variety is the spice of life.” He looked her up and down, and she crossed her hands across her chest.
“But we have to keep it quiet,” he continued. “So we don’t wake the missus. Can’t have her believing in things like ghosts, the murderous bitch.”
Fear crashed down on Vicki. He’s a ghost, she told herself—a really, really mean and scary ghost who could actually touch things and hurt people. But still just a ghost, I know how to deal with ghosts. She opened the door behind which waited the power. She thought of it as the power of Winter, because it was cold and sharp and sweet like the first snow. It flowed into her like a mountain stream just free of ice. She accepted it, embraced it, welcomed it. Bent knees and weight around her center, she held out her hand. The sudden weight of the dagger in her palm bolstered her courage. She’d been training for this kind of fight ever since she could remember.
He came at her.
Vicki lashed out, catching Mr. Pope’s arm near the wrist. It sliced all the way through, his hand exploding into Light.
A deafening keening ripped through the room as Mr. Pope reared back. The sound ran down the blade into Vicki’s arm, causing her to gasp in pain. Mary clamped her hands over her ears and screamed.
Vicki blinked away the tears that came with the pain. She bent her knees, holding the blade out in front of her. She stood her ground as the keening stopped, and Mr. Pope turned on her.
“Impossible,” he rasped. “No knife can hurt me.”
“I am a Daughter of Lillith,” Vicki said, her voice now calm though her insides quaked with fear. “And this is Lillith’s Blade! Go into the Light voluntarily, or I will send you there against your will.”
The ghost snarled, launching itself toward Vicki. Now all the days of training with her mother and aunts kicked in as she stepped aside, letting the ghost pass by. In an instant, Vicki twirled around, stabbing with the blade, sending it directly into Mr. Pope’s heart.
For a moment, Mary forgot to cry. Vicki forgot to breathe. Mr. Pope forgot to curse.
Then the ghost exploded into a blast of white light bright as a sunburst. Mary screamed, jamming herself further into the wall. Vicki threw her arm up across her eyes to block out the brightness. As she looked away, she spotted Mrs. Pope at the threshold, hands gripping the doorframe, riveted, silent, the light blazing across her sharp features and glinting off the amber beads encircling her neck.
The light collapsed in on itself. When it disappeared, so did the ghost of Mr. Pope.
Vicki began to shake. The power surged back behind the door, like a wave receding from the beach. The door closed. The dagger disappeared again into the ethers.
Mary whimpered. Vicki turned toward her.
“It’s all right now,” said Vicki. “He’ll never hurt you again.”
Mary cringed away; her fear-filled eyes turned on Vicki.
“Come here, Mary,” said Mrs. Pope from the doorway.
Mary scuttled away, running across the room to her mother, giving Vicki wide berth. Mrs. Pope scooped her daughter up in her arms. Mary buried her face in her mother’s chest. The cold realization that Mary was afraid of her hit Vicki like a wave of ice water. Then she looked at Mrs. Pope and saw that same fear etched on her face.
“I’ll call your mother to come to pick you up.” Mrs. Pope’s eyes didn’t meet Vicki’s as she spoke. Her face was pale and drawn. “You can wait in the living room.” She turned to leave, then paused and turned back. “Don’t come here anymore.”
Shock pounded on Vicki. “But I saved her,” she said. “I—”
“Don’t,” said Mrs. Pope. Then she disappeared out the door.
Fifteen minutes later, Vicki’s mother put Vicki’s bike in the back of their SUV. Neither Mary nor Mrs. Pope came out to say goodbye. On the ride home, her mother listened while Vicki explained what happened. When her mother didn’t comment, Vicki kept talking to fill in the silence. She needed her mother to understand.
When they got home, her mother tucked her into bed, kissed her on the forehead, and turned out the light. But Vicki couldn’t stand the silence anymore.
Her mother, silhouetted in the doorway from the light in the hall behind her, turned back. She wore jeans and a T-shirt; her hair hung loosely around her shoulders in soft waves.
“Why are Mary and Mrs. Pope afraid of me?”
Her mother sat down on the edge of the bed. Now Vicki could see her eyes, gray, not the black that showed she was angry. She stroked Vicki’s hair away from her face. “They’re afraid of you because they don’t understand how you did what you did tonight.”
“Mrs. Pope told me never to come back.”
“Mrs. Pope has a lot to lose, Vicki.” Her fingers traced the geometric design on Vicki’s comforter, absently smoothing out the wrinkles. “She reported her husband missing. Nobody knows he’s dead. Except for you.” Her mother looked up at her. “And I don’t think Mrs. Pope wants you to know that.”
“Because I don’t think she wants anybody to know. I think she’d like everyone to think Mr. Pope ran off and left them.”
Vicki thought about how Mr. Pope had called his wife a murderous bitch. “Do you think Mrs. Pope killed him?”
Her mother’s face turned to stone. “I think a mother will do anything to protect her child.”
“That’s what I was doing—protecting Mary. I did a good thing, so I shouldn’t be in trouble.”
“You helped a friend, yes. But you didn’t have to do it by yourself.”
Vicki rolled her eyes. “It’s not like I could have died or anything.”
“There are things much worse than dying.”
Vicki let out a disgusted sigh. All her life, her mother and aunts warned her about “worse things.”
“Dad wasn’t like Mr. Pope, was he?”
Her mom’s eyes flashed with something that Vicki couldn’t identify. Fear, anger, something secret. “Your daddy was a photographer, an artist. He was nothing like Mr. Pope.”
Her mother tucked the covers in around her. Vicki hated it when she did that. She hated having the covers so tight so she could barely move.
“I saved her,” said Vicki. “I saved Mary from her father.”
“Saving someone is a lot more complicated than removing a problem from their life.”
Vicki turned over, pulling the covers loose as her mother moved to the doorway.
“You could have come to me, Vicki,” she said. “We could have talked about the best way to handle it. A safer way, a way where you wouldn’t have revealed your true nature.”
“They don’t know,” said Vicki. “They don’t know I’m a freak of nature.”
Her mother stood in the doorway a moment. “I love you, Vicki,” she said finally. The glow from the hall disappeared as she walked out, pulling the door closed behind her.
Hot tears slipped down Vicki’s face and onto her pillow. It was the first time she’d ever sent a ghost into the Light. She didn’t like it; she didn’t like it one bit.
The next day Vicki awoke and faced the morning with her routine unchanged, except that Mary, her best friend, wasn’t in school. Nor was she there the next day. Vicki tried to call, but a recorded voice stated, “The number you have reached is no longer in service.” Her mother told her that Mary and Mrs. Pope had moved away.
PRESENT DAY – VICKI’S APARTMENT
Vicki gasped as a freight train crashed into her head. The pain made her eyes tear. She carefully set down the picture, then grabbed one of the snow globes on the entertainment center. The pain increased, and black spots appeared before her eyes. She sat on the couch before she fell and shook the globe, concentrating on watching the white flakes float down. She fought the urge to curl up in the fetal position, close her eyes, and scream. It didn’t work. Only the globes worked.
She took a deep breath, swallowing against the impulse to retch up the little bit of a croissant she consumed. She shook the globe again, watching the snow. So light. So peaceful. So cold against the fire inside her brain.
The black spots in her eyes disappeared, and the pain began to recede. She shook the globe a third time, then a fourth, letting the snow douse the fire and build a wall between her and the pain.
Finally, she saw white flakes floating around a farmhouse and drifting against the tiny fence. Her family’s farm. Home. Her Aunt Elmie made all the snow globes for her. They were the only thing that helped her deal with the pain of remembering.
Homesickness washed over Vicki, settling in her heart like a lead balloon. Maybe she should call her mom. Maybe she should tell her about Mary.
Bagheera jumped up on the couch and stretched, having the good manners to keep his claws sheathed. Then suddenly, he arched his back and hissed.
“I hate that cat,” said Joe, his voice arriving a beat before his transparent body manifested.
“The feeling’s mutual,” said Vicki as Bagheera jumped down and went back into the kitchen. Her headache had receded enough that she managed a small smile at Joe.
“Yeah, well, I was here first,” said Joe.
Joe had a short haircut, kind of old-fashioned, with bangs that were forever falling into his eyes. Vicki ‘s fingers twitched with the urge to reach up and brush those bangs out of his eyes, but being that he was a ghost, he was impossible to touch.
Usually, when Vicki met ghosts, she could tell what period they were from. Joe, however, mixed old-fashioned charm with modern-day slang, making him an intriguing enigma.
Joe had knelt beside her and placed his hand on her shoulder. She felt a touch of cold instead of a warm hand, but that didn’t stop butterflies from forming in her stomach.
He’s a ghost, Vicki admonished herself, Not good relationship material.
“What’s the matter?” asked Joe.
Vicki placed the globe on the end table and leaned her head back against the pillows. Joe sat down beside her, his dark brown eyes filled with concern, his full lips pressed into a straight line. Her homesickness gave way to an overwhelming need to have him wrap her in his arms, press those lips against hers, and chase away the memory of Mary’s scream. He was looking at her like he was thinking the say thing. Vicki sighed; it was colossally stupid to be having those thoughts about a noncorporeal entity.
“How do ghosts die?” she asked. She’d never really thought about it until now. Until today, she didn’t know they could die.
Joe’s eyebrows shot up. “We don’t die. We’re already dead. We either choose to walk into the Light, or we choose to stay. That’s it.”
“You can be forced into the Light.”
“That takes a pretty powerful medium, and believe me, a ghost who doesn’t want to go has ways of defending itself.”
Vicki closed her eyes. “Something happened to Mary,” she said.
“Something like what?”
“Like I saw her down on the boardwalk. I talked to her. A little while later, I heard her let loose with a scream that almost split my head open. By the time I got to her, she was gone. Totally gone, Joe. Nothing left but some glowing goop that smelled like burnt sugar.”
Joe didn’t get up like an average person. One moment he sat, and the next, he floated across the room in a ghostly imitation of pacing.
“You think she was forced into the Light?”
Vicki pulled a pillow into her lap. “No. That doesn’t leave any residue.”
Vicki saw the eyebrows lift, the signal that Joe would like to know how she came by that little tidbit of information. She ignored it.
“I think Mary was, well, I think she was murdered.”
Joe sat down beside her. “Okay, let me get this straight. Crazy Mary…”
Vicki interrupted. “Mary. Just Mary.”
“Mary,” Joe said, emphasizing the name, “the woman who died two years ago from a drug overdose, was murdered today.”
Vicki clutched the pillow tighter. “Yes.”
Joe jumped up and started pacing again. “You can’t murder someone who’s already dead.”
Vicki leapt from the couch, throwing the pillow. “Then you come up with a better theory that explains psychic scream, ghost gone, sticky goo.”
Tears stung her eyes. She fought them, but all the shame and guilt crawled over her skin like centipedes pricking her with their sharp, tiny feet. If only she had gone to her mother instead of trying to take care of Mary’s father herself. Maybe they could have done it without anyone seeing her. Then Mary would have stayed, and they would have been friends, and Mary’d have never become an addict and whatever else.
Joe studied her as if trying to get a handle on something too slippery to grasp. Vicki walked over to the snow globe and shook it once again.
“I’ll look into it,” said Joe as the snow began to settle on the farmhouse.
“I can talk to all of the ghosts in Venice, Joe.”
“I’ve got a much larger network than that.”
Vicki frowned. “How can you when you’re bound to Venice?”
“I’m not exactly bound here.”
Another Joe intrigue. Vicki realized she should stop being surprised. “I was given to understand that ghosts were bound to one, maybe two places they used to frequent when they were alive.” She held up one finger. “This apartment.” A second finger went up. “The boardwalk.”
“We can visit places that hold a strong emotional attachment,” said Joe, avoiding the issue of how many places that might include. “I’ll let you know what I find out.” In less than the space of a breath, he vanished.
“Damn it, Joe!” Vicki hated that ghosts could pop out that way instead of using the door.
Mercedes, Vicki’s living housemate, ducked through the closet that doubled as the doorway between their two spaces and came striding down the long hallway toward the kitchen, the one room they shared. Mercedes had her own living room, bedroom, and bath.
“Joe, again. So when are you going to tell me about this mysterious Joe?” she asked.
Mercedes had a mass of curly black hair that tumbled to her shoulders and a runner’s body, the kind you see in all the cliché establishing shots of the Southern California shoreline.
“There’s nothing to tell,” said Vicki. “I was just…”
“…Running through some dialog. Yeah, you do that a lot.”
“Comes with the job,” said Vicki.
Mercedes disappeared through the kitchen doorway. “Actors run dialog,” she called out. “Writers write dialog.” An angry hiss, followed by the sound of something hitting the floor, issued from the kitchen. A black streak shot out the doorway and stopped abruptly at the front door. “Damn that cat!”
Vicki smiled, opening the door to let Bagheera out. At least both roommates, alive and dead, were consistent. She went into the kitchen, where Mercedes mopped up some spilled coffee.
“Whatever happened to not biting the hand that feeds you?” demanded Mercedes.
“You don’t feed him. I do.”
Mercedes heaved a dramatic sigh, looked at the empty coffee pot, and then at her watch. “I’ll get coffee on the way. Aren’t you going to be late for work?”
Vicki looked at her watch. “Dammit!” She ran out of the kitchen and grabbed her key and her bag.
“Don’t forget tonight,” called Mercedes.
Vicki’s face must have been as blank as her mind.
“Sword practice? At your aunt’s? The thing we do every Saturday?”
Vicki stared at Mercedes for a moment, wishing she could rewrite this scene. She didn’t feel like sword practice. She wanted to sit down and think about what happened to Mary, and then she wanted to do something about it.
Mercedes read her expression. “You know your aunt.”
Yeah, Vicki knew her aunt and knew that if she didn’t make it to practice that she’d better have a damn good reason. Now that Vicki thought about it, she’d like her aunt’s advice. She wouldn’t preach at Vicki the way her mom would. Aunt Ellen cut straight to the point, pun fully intended.
“Broadsword or staff today?” Vicki asked Mercedes, who stared at her like she had two heads.
Vicki grabbed her broadsword from the umbrella stand by the door and was gone.
Chapter 1, Ghost Writer
INT/EXT VENICE GRILL – DAY
A boardwalk café with picnic tables set up outside. Locals sit enjoying the early morning sun, reading their papers and sipping coffee.
Vicki loved Saturday mornings when she could get up and come down to the beach. She soaked it all up, the crashing waves, the raucous gulls, the touch of the breeze not yet warmed by the sun, the sight regulars greeting her as she walked by.
“How’d day one go?” asked Alex as Vicki approached the counter. Alex had long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail and day-old stubble on his face. He was an artist, musician, and owner of the Venice Grill.
Vicki couldn’t suppress her smile. “Great! I got to spend a little time on the set. It’s crazy watching my words coming to life,” said Vicki, as he handed her usual–a cup of mocha, no whip, and a chocolate-filled croissant.
“And that new Mustang GT convertible?”
Vicki’s smile widened. “Everything I dreamed it would be.”
“I’m curious why you bought used instead of going for new. A television script brings in big bucks.” He handed Vicki her mocha.
Vicki took a sip. “More money than I’ve ever made in my life. But there’re taxes, joining the Writer’s Guild, paying my mom back for the money she loaned me. Besides, I like the older models better.”
Alex handed her a croissant.
“Well, congrats. Don’t let them eat you alive.”
Vicki headed out to one of the picnic tables on the walk. She set down her croissant and took a sip of her mocha. Then she leaned back and breathed in the salty tang of air.
Venice harbored people like her; people who in some form or another were trying to make it in show business. Her roommate, Gayle, worked in CGI, Computer Graphics Imaging. She was currently a production manager, but she was working up to producer.
The guy across the walkstreet from their apartment was a studio musician. Every night he practiced his sax. Vicki would lie on her bed, listening to the warm melodies playing over the sound of the distant foghorn. He dreamed of being a composer for high-budget films, but he made his rent as a studio musician
Venice Beach was the place to be if you were more than a wannabe but less than established. Some people had been here for years, and their dreams had worn thin. It had only taken Vicki a year to find a job and sell her first script. Life was sweet. Life was good.
She took another sip of coffee. And all was right with the world, she thought.
Vicki turned at the sound of a boy’s voice.
“Look, there’s Vicki.” A young man wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt with red surfboards all over it pointed at Vicki from his wheelchair. His mother, Doris, dressed in a clashing Hawaiian print with pink plumerias, wheeled Danny over. Colorwise the two clashed horribly. Mother and son, however, went together perfectly.
Danny waved at Vicki, flashing a giant smile. “Hi, Vicki!”
“Hey, Danny. What’s up?”
Danny looked up. “The sky and the clouds and the sun and the birds.” He laughed at his joke. Vicki joined him.
“They sure are,” she said.
Vicki didn’t know what was wrong with Danny, but one could call him developmentally challenged–in both body and mind. He’d spent his life in a wheelchair, his legs too weak to support him. His mind hadn’t progressed much beyond seven or eight years old. Doris refused to put him in a home or “school.” That choice had lost her a husband. She seemed happy with the choices she’d made, though. Vicki understood because Danny was one of the most loving individuals she’d ever met.
“I like your shirt,” said Vicki.
“My grandma brought them to Mom and me. She went to Hawaii and saw dolphins. Isn’t that cool?”
A man stood, leaving a bit of bagel on his table. Two opportunistic seagulls swooped down and began a raucous tug-of-war over the bit, sending the plate flying off the table. Danny laughed.
“Mine,” he parroted in a high voice.
“Mine,” said Doris in the same voice.
“Come on, Vicki. Your turn!” said Danny.
Vicki joined in, recreating the scene from Finding Nemo, all yelling “mine, mine, mine” until the startled seagulls flew off. Danny’s exuberant laughter caused the few other locals at various tables to laugh with him.
When the hilarity died down, Danny turned to Vicki. “We’re going to see the monkeys tomorrow.”
“Really? That sounds like fun.”
“You can come with us, can’t she, Mom?”
Doris nodded. “LA Zoo. We’ll be back midafternoon.”
“Tempting,” said Vicki. “But, I’ve got a sword-fighting class.”
Danny made a sweeping movement with his arm. “Like Conan the Barbarian!”
“Well, we are using broadswords right now,” said Vicki. “But it’s an all-woman class, so it’s more like Xena.”
“Xena, Warrior Princess,” said Danny, making more sweeping sword motions. “She’s beautiful. Did you see Crazy Mary today? She had her clothes on.”
Doris gave him a gentle frown. “Now, Danny, you know that Crazy Mary died and went to heaven.” She engaged the brakes on his wheelchair.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. But he shot Vicki a look, and she winked at him.
“I want a coffee today, Mom,” Danny said, winking at Vicki.
“Every time I get you a coffee, you take a sip, spit it out, and then cry until I get you hot chocolate.”
Danny giggled, mock punching his mother in the arm. “Gotcha.”
Doris laughed. “You stinker.” She went inside to get their breakfast.
“I’m going to be a pirate for Halloween,” Danny said to Vicki.
“Wow. Have you got your costume already?”
“Uh-huh. Mom got me a Captain Jack wig from Disneyland. I got a patch for my eye and a sword. It’s not real like yours, but it’s pretty cool. Mom said she’ll get me a stuffed parrot for my shoulder.”
“Sounds like you’ve got it all covered. You coming by my house?”
“Nah. We’re going to a party where everybody dresses up, and there’s cake and punch with people like me, so nobody gets made fun of. What are you going to be?”
A girl in tight shorts, halter top, and roller blades whisked by them into the café. She and Doris collided at the doorway.
“Sorry,” the girl yelled as she stumbled past.
“Right,” said Doris as she set down the tray and started mopping up spilled hot chocolate.
“I’m not sure,” Vicki told Danny. “Maybe I’ll buy a tiara and go as a princess.”
Danny took a bite of glazed donut. “I think you’d make a pretty good vampire,” he mumbled past the donut.
Vicki smiled at him. “Nah. Too many people are going as vampires these days. I want to be something different.”
Danny shot her a look. “I know a lot of girls who want to be princesses. How about a witch! You already got a black cat!”
Vicki laughed. “Yeah, a pretty smart one at that. I’ll think about it.”
Doris sat down and took a sip of coffee and leaned back in her chair. “Just another perfect day in Southern California,” she said, looking at Vicki. “Hard to take, isn’t it?”
Vicki smiled. “All the leaves are turning in Ohio. Mom says it’s cold enough for a heavy sweater. Perfect hayride weather.”
“Hayride?” said Doris. “Do people still do hayrides?”
Vicki nodded. “With hot apple cider and powdered sugar donuts to follow. October was my favorite—”
A high-pitched scream sliced through the air and into Vicki’s head. Her vision went black. Danny burst into tears. When Vicki’s vision rushed back, she saw that he rocked back and forth in obvious distress.
“Something’s wrong with Crazy Mary,” he wailed.
Doris, who hadn’t heard a thing, shook her head. “Honey, I just told you…”
“Nooo…” Danny screamed. Vicki jumped up as a piercing scream sliced through her head a second time. The man seated at the table across from them looked up from his paper. He frowned at Vicki, obviously thinking she’d done something to make Danny cry.
“I just remembered… I have something… I’ve got to go.” She darted past him, the scream already fading from her mind.
“Vicki,” said Doris, confused. “What…”
But Vicki didn’t stop. The scream left a residue of pain in Vicki’s head. She ignored it, concentrating on heightening the sight that allowed her to see ghosts. There. The scream had left a trail like a dull, heavy chain running from her to the alley. She took off running.
She cut between two buildings out onto Speedway. A garbage truck emptied a Dumpster halfway down the alley. The chain of pain pulsed, leading her to that very same Dumpster. As she got closer, she felt a tickle of familiarity that indicated she’d located Mary’s essence. She locked on, strengthened the connection, and ran toward the departing truck.
The connection ripped away so violently that Vicki staggered, her gorge rising. The garbage truck drove down the alley. Vicki swallowed hard, struggling to re-establish the connection. It wasn’t there. Mary wasn’t there. Fighting off the dizziness, Vicki ran to the Dumpster and peered inside.
Empty. No, wait, there was something. Vicki reached in, touching the gooey mess with a finger. Ectoplasmic goop. She brought her fingers to her nose and sniffed—burnt sugar.
The horizon tilted, and Vicki sat down hard on the pavement with her head between her knees. She scraped her fingers on the side of the Dumpster. The stuff clung to her as if it were an amalgam of Super Glue and ectoplasm. For a terrifying moment, she thought it would spread up her fingers to envelop her hand.
A long-forgotten door inside her wrenched open, stealing Vicki’s breath from her. Power, cool and sweet, rushed to fill her, slicing into the amber goo, melting it with vicious efficiency. Vicki’s fingers tingled with pins and needles, the wooziness she’d experienced just a moment before disappearing in the wake of that surging power. And then it was gone, the door shut as if it had never opened.
Vicki sat on the pavement, concentrating on taking a deep, calming breath.
Oh, God, thought Vicki. Mary…
She lifted her hand to her face and stared at her fingers. Ordinary fingers. No stains. No burns. Not even the pricking feeling of the power eating the goo.
Vicki put her hand down on the pavement, jerking it up as something stabbed her. Blood welled around a tiny hole in her palm. She looked down and saw a small gold pin–the Eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian symbol of protection and royal power. She picked it up and put it in her pocket. Then she forced herself to her feet. Fear, grief, and confusion threatened to take her down to the pavement again. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, held it, then let it out slowly. She opened her eyes, determined. She couldn’t let Mary’s essence be snuffed out so easily. She would find out what happened to her and, if Vicki couldn’t save her, she would have revenge on whatever could murder a ghost.
What I Write
Ryan is afraid of the dark. He is afraid of the thunder that rumbles outside like the stomach of some hungry beast. He is afraid of the lightning that gives glimpses of things hiding in the dark. In one flash, he sees the dark maw of the kitchen arch. FLASH, he sees the refrigerator door where an angel magnet, its wings spread to protect the picture of he, his mom and dad, and the twins. FLASH, he sees his father sitting at the kitchen table head hanging as if he slept sitting up.
Then the darkness returns, and he only sees after images of those glimpses swimming before his eyes.
“Go back to bed, Ryan,” his father says.
“When’s mom coming home?”
“I’m afraid,” says Ryan.
“So am I.”
But Ryan knows it isn’t true. His father is a fireman. He saves people’s lives while risking his own. Lightning pours into the room. His father hasn’t moved. Ryan turns away.
The hall is dark, but a little light pours through a doorway at the far end. He walks past the twin’s room. The door is shut so he can’t see inside. Sometimes he wished he could close a door in his head so he didn’t have to see inside it either.
He moves down the hall and into the light spilling from his aquarium. Five Discus swim over to the glass to greet him. His mother didn’t want him to get Discus. The pet shop guy said they weren’t suitable for kids. They’re skittish. They don’t like vibrations like those from kids jumping around. But Ryan convinced his mom that at twelve years old, he was no longer a kid.
These are Red Turquoise Discus. They have red-brown stripes and are blue around the outside of their bodies. Each one has a name. Sally, Jack, Alice, Sam, and Bill.
Jack is a little bit smaller than the rest, but he acts like he’s the biggest fish in the tank. He eats first, and nobody gives him any grief. Ryan likes that. It makes Jack his favorite.
The twins had always wanted to come in to see the fish. But they would tap on the glass, so Ryan had kept them out. He wishes now he had played with them more.
Ryan didn’t realize he had fallen asleep until a deafening crash of thunder makes him jump awake. There are voices in the kitchen, so he creeps down the dark hall and stands beside the refrigerator.
FLASH. His father stands facing Ryan’s mother. She’s beautiful. Her skin is white and smooth, her brown hair short and sort of wild looking. She wears the T-shirt Ryan gave her that says, “World’s Greatest Mom.”
“Jess,” Ryan’s mother says. “Let’s not fight. I love you.”
Ryan hears his father murmur something, but thunder rumbles, and he can’t make out the words. FLASH. His mother embraces his father, and, for a moment, Ryan thinks that maybe everything is going to be okay. Maybe his mother is back for good, and they are going to be a family again.
DARKNESS. Ryan hears the muffled sound of the gun. A wail cuts through the night, and the thunder crashes in unison. FLASH. The t-shirt blossoms with blood in the ‘a’ of ‘greatest.’ His mother’s mouth twists, and her fangs descend. DARKNESS. Ryan covers his ears against the terrible wail filling the kitchen. FLASH. His dad raises the gun to his mother’s forehead. DARKNESS. The crack and flash of the gun are worse than that of the thunder and lightning. The sulfurous stink of the gun powder hurts his nose.
FLASH. His father picks up a machete and raises it above his head. “I love you, too,” he says. Then he brings the machete down. DARKNESS. Ryan knows his mother is no more.
The keening that should have stopped when his mother’s head separated from her body continues. Ryan realizes it’s coming from his own throat. FLASH. His father drops the machete and turns. His face is a reflection of the grief that Ryan feels ripping through his body. DARKNESS. Ryan runs to his dad and holds on. He cries. But it’s okay because his dad cries too.
From: The Fall
|What I Write||
I write urban fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror.
My Write-a-thon Goals
I’m going to be working on revising my novel, The Dead of Winters. I’ll be posting chapters as I go along.
I never set a true goal. We’re all doing this for Clarion West, a great cause. So my goal, get as many supporters as I can for future CW classes.