Lorelei Clay isn’t like other people.
She isn’t even like other supernaturals. Her specialties are the nightmares of the living, communication with the dead, and cooking bacon until it’s golden brown and perfectly crispy—no magic required.
Six months ago she moved to the ultimate fixer upper, a monstrosity from the Gilded Age that borders the local cemetery in the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Fairhaven. Lorelei is content to spend the next few years in solitude, renovating the house and avoiding humanity, until a missing young woman disrupts her plans. Lorelei’s search for the teenager means crossing paths with the residents she’s successfully avoided so far, including the human police chief, the coven, a cursed vampire, the assassins guild, the werewolf pack, and the mysterious and infuriatingly alluring owner of The Devil’s Playground, an elegant nightclub that caters to the local supernatural clientele.
Lorelei plans to find the girl quickly and return to the privacy of her castle walls before anyone learns her secrets, but you know what they say about the best laid plans…
Dead to the World is the first book in the Crossroads Queen urban fantasy series.
Release date: May 11, 2023
Publisher: Red Palm Press LLC
Print pages: 237
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Dead to the World
“You’re doing it wrong.”
I stopped hammering long enough to cast a sharp eye at the apparition behind me. “I know how to use a hammer.”
“Could’ve fooled me. Your grip looks weak. You need to strengthen your wrists.”
With a deep sigh, I set the hammer on the table. There’d be no peace until I let this one feel useful; I could sense it. “Go on then, Roy. Dazzle me with your insight.”
“I told you, the name’s Ray. I’m not trying to mansplain or anything disrespectful like that. It’s just that I spent years as a carpenter, and it’s downright painful to watch you work.” The ghost drifted to stand opposite me. He was a burly man in dungarees and a red plaid shirt. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn he’d been buried with his beloved toolkit.
“And how many years ago was that?” Ray looked to be in his early eighties.
“Carpentry isn’t like technology. Nothing much changes.” He tried to lift the hammer, but his hand swiped through it. “You’ll have to pretend I’m holding it.”
I watched as the ghost demonstrated his technique, which, to be perfectly honest, wasn’t very different from the way my grandfather had taught me. I could’ve given him hints on how to make contact with physical objects, but that would only encourage him to hang around. “Thank you. That’s helpful, Roy.”
“My name is Ray. Sweet Nellie, I swear you’re saying Roy on purpose.”
He wasn’t wrong, and I was willing to do a lot worse to preserve my peace. When I first moved in six months ago, I helped the majority of the residents in the adjacent cemetery cross over, except for two that declined so respectfully, I couldn’t bring myself to force them. Personally, I didn’t see the appeal of sticking around. The sleepy town of Fairhaven was hardly a hotbed of excitement, not that they could travel beyond the gate anyway—which was probably the reason this ghost had taken a keen interest in my chores.
“Thank you, Ray.” I picked up the hammer, keeping my gaze fixed on the ghost. “You realize you’ve broken the first rule, right?” After helping the other spirits cross over, I’d given the remaining stage five clingers my rules. Rule 1: No entering the house without permission.
“I know, but it gets dull as dishwater out there,” Ray complained.
“Then cross over.” Whack! The nail slid into place.
“Don’t want to.”
Ray fell silent.
I twisted to look at him. “Listen, I don’t know if you realize this, but I can make you leave here.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“Because I believe you’re entitled to free will and bodily autonomy, even in your current state.”
“You’re one of those feminists, huh?”
“I am, indeed.”
“I’ve got a few of them in my family. Strongest Black women you’ll ever meet.” His chin lifted. “My grandbaby Alicia is…”
I put on a set of headphones, hopeful Ray would get the hint. When I looked up a few minutes later, he was gone.
I continued hammering until my eyes blurred. This task was one of about two thousand. It was my own fault, of course. I bought a house that had a date with a wrecking ball until I stepped in. If only I had no scruples, I’d have a team of ghosts operating heavy machinery to renovate this house in no time.
But patience was a virtue, I reminded myself. And I valued peace and quiet more than painted walls.
I took a lunch break, frying up eggs and bacon in the one pan I owned. I’d seen a few on the shelf in the local housewares store, but I decided to wait for a sale. There’d be one soon enough. Sales seemed to be the lifeblood of the American economy. I’d forgotten the regularity of them during my time abroad.
I felt a presence behind me and knew without looking that it was the old lady in the bubblegum pink robe, whose name I’d also deliberately avoided remembering, despite her valiant efforts to tell me. We weren’t roommates, no matter how many times they drifted into the house without an invitation.
“I like my eggs poached,” she said.
“Congratulations.” I slid my food onto a plate and ate it at the counter.
“Why bother having a table and chairs if you’re going to stand to eat?”
“Because sometimes I’m not in the mood to sit.” I shoveled down the eggs and wished I’d remembered to buy hot sauce.
“You’ve been standing for hours. My legs are tired just watching you.”
I glanced over at her. “Then stop watching me.”
Her gaze traveled around the airy kitchen. “This house is awfully big for one person. Are you thinking about starting a family? How old are you, anyway?”
Bacon in hand, I pointed to the doorway. “Out.”
The old woman disappeared in a huff. They’d been relatively well behaved since I spared them. It was only recently that they’d grown bolder and started encroaching on my space. At least there were only two of them. London had been so much worse.
I fell asleep after lunch and awoke to the sound of dripping water. Terrific. Now I’d have a pipe to fix before bedtime. I rolled out of bed and went in search of the source.
“It’s the toilet in the downstairs half bath,” Ray said, appearing at the bottom of the staircase.
“What did I tell you about house rules?”
“I found your leak, young lady. You should be thanking me.”
“I’ll thank you for not crossing the boundaries I set.” I wasn’t a fan of witches and didn’t want to hire one to ward the house, but I would if it became necessary.
Ray floated to the bathroom door and pointed. “It’s a simple fix. You need a new washer in the tank. They sell ‘em down at Hewitt’s. Ask Clark. He’s real knowledgeable. Terrible poker player though. If you need money for all these jobs, he’s an easy mark.”
I bit my lip to suppress a smile. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The old woman was on the front porch as I passed by. I tossed a triumphant glance at Ray over my shoulder. “See? This one knows how to follow the rules.”
“Why is Ray allowed inside?” she demanded, folding her fuzzy pink sleeves across her chest. “I don’t like these double standards.”
Ignoring her, I walked across the bridge that spanned the moat and passed through the gate to where I’d parked my pickup truck, another relic of the past I bought when I moved back to the States. The truck’s previous owner had taken good care of the vehicle, though, which saved me time and money.
I drove down the hill to the heart of Fairhaven. Although I’d given the town a cursory glance online, I’d been unprepared for the slice of Americana that it truly was. White picket fences. Clean streets. Charming shops that promised a superior customer experience. As a child, I’d driven through towns like Fairhaven on weekend outings with my grandfather. Pops liked to repurpose pretty much everything, which meant trawling nicer neighborhoods for trash that he then fashioned into our treasures. You wouldn’t think a Navy veteran would have the kind of skills required to upcycle a wooden chair as a planter, but Pops was a man of many talents. He’d done his best to pass his skills along to me, as though he’d anticipated the struggles I’d one day face as an adult. There was nothing wrong with the way I wielded a hammer, thank you very much. I was only rusty because I hadn’t needed to do any DIY during my years in London.
Hewitt’s was nestled between the barber shop and a store called Recreation that seemed to cater to cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts. Over the past six months, my trips into town consisted mainly of visits to the hardware and grocery stores. I’d checked out the housewares store twice, but that was about it. I’d successfully avoided the bakery and the coffee shop, no matter how tempting the aromas were.
I slipped into the hardware store unnoticed and listened to the sounds of friendly neighborhood chatter that included the warm weather (to be expected), the upcoming Fourth of July parade (not to be missed), and a recent supply chain issue affecting power tools (what was the world coming to?).
As I turned down the first aisle, I was intercepted by a man in a blue-and-white striped polo shirt. He looked to be in his midsixties, with salt and pepper hair and a thick beard to match. Hazel eyes inspected me from behind wire-rimmed glasses; they were curious and without judgment.
“Hello there. I’m Clark. You must be the new lady of the manor.”
“Lorelei Clay. Nice to meet you.” Of course he knew who I was. It was a simple process of elimination when you recognized everyone in town.
“Good to meet you, Miss Clay. I’ve been waiting months to meet you. Chuck seemed to draw the lucky straw the other times you’ve been here. Sounds like you’ve had your hands full from the moment you arrived, not that I’m surprised. The Castle’s a huge undertaking for one person.”
“Feels that way too.” It didn’t surprise me that locals were aware someone had bought the Castle; the development would be big news in a town of only three thousand people. Known locally as Bluebeard’s Castle, the house had been built during the Gilded Age, five thousand square feet of glamour and grandeur. The original owner had been fascinated by cemeteries and more than happy to build his ‘summer cottage’ beside one. According to local accounts, Joseph Edgar Blue III frequently hosted seances to capitalize on his location. After World War I, his wife died, and he stopped summering in Fairhaven. After his death, the house passed to his son, Joseph Edgar Blue IV, affectionately called Quattro, whose gambling addiction sent his life into a downward spiral from which he never recovered. The house then fell into disrepair, and by the time the bank claimed it, it was a monstrous mess, with astronomical property taxes to boot. Nobody wanted it except squatters and teenagers, and it was set for demolition—until I saw it online and decided to roll the dice. Again.
Clark rubbed his hands together. “I always say I have the best job in town because I’m more likely to meet the new folks.”
“Do you get many new people in Fairhaven?”
“More than you’d think. Not everybody stays until their deathbed. We lose folks to sunnier climates, mainly Florida. You won’t catch me moving to heaven’s waiting room though. I prefer to spend time in all four seasons before I join the hereafter.”
Despite my initial plan to grab supplies and get out quickly, I felt rooted in place as Clark continued talking.
“Fall is my personal favorite. Changing of the leaves.” He paused, as though admiring them in his mind. “There’s nothing prettier in the world than a giant wall of gold and red shimmering in the sunlight.”
“Summer’s starting to heat up,” a woman said, as she maneuvered past us with a hand cart full of cleaning products.
“It’s only beginning. Wait until August,” Clark said. “I keep an extra roll of deodorant right here in the store.” He chuckled. “That’s probably TMI, right? My daughter says that means Too Much Information. For the longest time I thought it meant Tell Me Information. I’m sure you can see the problem there.”
“You’re rambling again, Clark,” the woman called over her shoulder.
Clark cringed. “Thank you, Marcie. I’m sure Chuck didn’t ramble,” he said to me.
“He was very quiet,” I agreed. In fact, there’d been no exchange of pleasantries at all, which had suited me fine. I preferred minimal interaction. There was something about Clark that reminded me of Pops, though, and it had been a long time since I’d encountered such a friendly older man.
“Chuck was too quiet. I had to fire him. I hated to do it, on account of I like his parents very much, but poor Chuck didn’t inherit their level of competence. He seemed more interested in playing games on his phone than assisting customers.” He splayed his hands. “Anyways, that’s enough of my tale of woe. What are you looking for?”
“A washer for a leaky toilet.”
He sucked in a breath. “Can’t say I’m surprised. If you need a plumber, we’ve got a few good ones in town I can recommend.”
“I should be able to manage.” Under Ray’s watchful eye.
“Aisle 4 is where we keep plumbing supplies. Let me know if you need any help. I’m here to serve.”
“Thanks, I will.”
“I heard the Castle is haunted,” another woman said. She had a toddler by the hand and a baby on her hip. “I was shocked when I found out somebody bought it.”
“I live alone,” I said simply.
I continued to aisle 4, conscious of the other customers now watching me. The friendly chatter had all but ceased; everybody seemed intent on what the newcomer was doing. I couldn’t imagine anything less fascinating than browsing the plumbing aisle.
“Maybe you can all come to my house next and watch the paint dry,” I murmured under my breath.
As I studied the options on the shelf, a large man rumbled down the aisle toward me. As he reached into his pocket, my body tensed and tension coiled in my stomach, ready to spring.
“You’re the lady who bought the Castle, right?” He didn’t wait for a response before thrusting a folded piece of paper at me. “My name’s Jerry. I’m with the fire department. We host a fundraiser every year at the VFW, the evening of Fourth of July. There’s a nice spread and live music. It’d be a great way to meet people.”
I unfolded the paper and realized it was a flyer advertising the event. “Thanks, Jerry. I’ll keep it in mind.” I refolded the paper and tucked it into my purse.
“If you like brisket, you’ll be in heaven,” he added. “It’s cooked lower and slower than any you’ve ever tasted.”
“Sounds amazing.” I turned back to the shelf and hoped that was the end of the conversation. This would be one of the differences between London and Fairhaven. In a large city, I could go all day without speaking to another living person. Unfortunately, it was the dead I couldn’t avoid, and London had more than its share of lost souls. Here there were fewer dearly departed, but many more living and breathing chatterboxes who seemed to think ownership of a face was an invitation to converse.
Jerry seemed to take the hint because he exited the aisle, and I heard him say goodbye to Clark. I chose the necessary supplies and then ducked into the paint aisle for extra cans of eggshell and one additional color. I set the cans on the counter to be mixed.
Clark shot a quizzical look at the smaller can. “Red? Well, I guess the walls in your place are pretty large. You can probably get away with a color like this.”
“It can work as an accent color. Do you sell hoses?”
“In the outdoor section.” He nodded toward the open doorway at the back of the store. “You’ve got time to take a look while I mix the paint.”
“Great. I’ll be back.” I’d been putting off the yard and the moat because the interior needed so much attention, but I’d need to get around to them sooner or later. A hose would be a good start.
In the outdoor area, an old woman leaned on a cane in front of a row of large pots. Her stark white hair was tucked haphazardly under a sunhat. She would’ve been my height, except for the slight hunch in her back as she leaned on her cane. When she looked at me, I saw that her eyes were a dark, luminescent blue.
“You’re the lady who bought the Castle,” she said.
“Nice to finally meet you, Miss Clay. I’m Jessie Talbot. I’ve seen you in here before, but only from a distance.”
“I’m looking for a hose,” I told her, like she cared.
“Plenty of those in the first aisle. Be sure to buy one of these before you leave.” She used her cane to point to a wreath of dried flowers hanging on an end unit.
“Those are pretty.”
“Sambucus nigra,” Jessie said. “You’ll see them all over town if you pay attention.”
“Was there a sale or something? Why does everybody have the same one?”
She gave me a long look. “Do you know anything about flowers?”
“Not much.” The garden had been my grandmother’s domain. After she died, Pops and I left it to nature.
“Once upon a time, people believed this particular flower kept away witches and dark spirits.”
“Once upon a time, huh?”
“Like many things, it became a tradition in town.”
I touched the wreath. “Do you believe it?”
Jessie regarded me with those sharp blue eyes. “I don’t just believe it. I know it.”
“Have you lived here your whole life?”
“Born and raised.” She relaxed her grip on the cane. “We’ve got a long history of strange happenings in Fairhaven. I think most folks here are used to it by now. Comes with the territory.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that Fairhaven could be some kind of magnet for supernatural activity. I wondered whether that was the reason I’d been drawn here, until I remembered I found the Castle online when I was still in London. Was it possible to sense supernatural energy through the interwebs, as Pops used to call the Internet?
“Do people talk openly about these strange happenings?”
“Not everybody. Some don’t believe, of course. They refuse to see what’s right in front of them.” She used her cane to liberate the wreath from the nail and delivered it to me. “Take it. You’ll thank me later.”
I didn’t know how to tell her the wreath was useless, so I simply carried it to the register, along with a hose.
Once I paid, Clark glanced at my purchases on the counter. “You need help carrying all this? It’s a hike to the Castle from here.”
“My truck is parked outside.”
“Well, that makes things easier. I can help you carry everything to your truck.” He didn’t wait for me to accept; he simply filled a box with the paint cans and the hose and carried it toward the exit.
I hurried behind him, carrying the bag with the other supplies.
“I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again soon,” Clark said, placing the box in the flatbed.
“What makes you say that?”
He smiled. “Have you seen your house?”
I opened the driver’s side door. “I’m taking my time. It’s just me, and I don’t mind the condition.”
“That’s a great attitude to have. Most folks these days want instant gratification. They expect a fairy godmother to fix up their money pit with the wave of a wand.” His cheeks colored when he realized the insult to my house. “I’ll stop rambling now. Have a good one, Miss Clay.” Clark returned to the store, no doubt to chat with the remaining customers about the new owner of Bluebeard’s Castle.
On the drive home, I replayed my conversation with the geriatric Jessie Talbot. I knew better than to think she was simply an elderly woman with eccentric ideas. It seemed that a deep dive into the history of Fairhaven was in order. If the town was harboring a dark and magical secret, it was one I needed to learn.
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