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The Dead Detective [MultiFormat]
eBook by Lorene Robbins

eBook Category: Mystery/Crime
eBook Description: C.J. Thomas wishes she had never heard of Budge Dirkwood. It's not the fact that she stumbled over his dead body when she went to meet him for the first time, and it's not the fact that the victim's obnoxious rich cousin seems intent on having her arrested for the murder. It's not even the fact that the victim was a somewhat flaky pawnbroker who dabbled in the I Ching and believed in all the paranormal phenomena that C.J.'s rational mind automatically rejects. No, the problem is that the ghost of the victim won't leave her alone. C.J. can't explain it, and isn't quite sure she believes it, but the ghost of Budge Dirkwood has popped into her life, and it seems the only way she can get rid of him is to help him solve his murder. With his help, she investigates all the possible suspects ranging from teen-aged gang members to the rich and powerful members of Highland Park society, checking out some wife beaters and Elvis impersonators in between. Will she find the killer and succeed in getting this ghost out of her life? Or will she be stuck with the ghost of a pawnbroker for the rest of her life?

eBook Publisher: Swimming Kangaroo Books, Published: 2006, 2006
Fictionwise Release Date: December 2007


12 Reader Ratings:
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* * * *
CHAPTER ONE

I don't know why I agreed to go with Leo that night. I didn't need the business that badly. But I always had a hard time saying no to Leo, and he promised me this would be a simple job.

"He is a very nice guy," he told me. "You'll like him."

"It doesn't matter if I like him or not, as long as he pays me," I replied nonchalantly.

"He doesn't need much. He just wants to upgrade his computer for the shop. And he wants to network it with his PC in another room. And I know he would like to play chess."

"Chess," I nodded. Of course. Leo was a chess player. That was one of the things he had wanted on his computer. A good chess program.

So there I was, late on a Friday night with nothing better to do than go to a pawnshop to talk computers with a new customer. My mother would freak. The thought made me smile for the first time that evening.

I nearly backed out, though, when Leo pulled into a parking lot at a convenience store down the street from the pawnshop. I lifted my eyebrows at him and he patted my hand reassuringly. I jerked it away. I hated it when he treated me like a blonde. Leo nodded toward the alley. "He lives down there. We go in the back."

"Of course we do," I sighed, looking nervously at the dim alleyway. "Nice neighborhood your friend lives in," I added, taking shallow breaths to try to avoid the noxious smell of spilled beer and cigarettes.

Leo looked at me reproachfully. "He lives in back of his pawn shop."

I stepped out of the car and shivered in the sudden chill of the evening. We walked down the alleyway, stepping gingerly around the fast food wrappers and other assorted trash. Leo stopped at a steel-plated door. The knife hole in the middle didn't make me feel any better about being in a cold dark alley behind a pawnshop late at night. Leo started to knock, but stopped in mid-motion when he saw the door wasn't closed all the way. "Hello?" he called. There was no answer so he called again and with a shrug, pushed against the door. It stuck in the damp spring air so he pushed a little harder. The door slowly creaked open. "Hello!" Leo called for a third time. When there was still no answer, he started to move inside.

Suddenly he stopped, a look of horror crossing his face. I nearly ran into him and peered over his shoulder. "Oh shit!" I whispered. There was a body sprawled across the floor. "He's dead," I said stupidly. There was no doubt about it. Half of the guy's face was blown away.

Leo swayed unsteadily, and I put a hand out to steady him, even though I was in need of some steadying myself. Leo stumbled back against me, his face an awful mixture of horror and disbelief.

I patted his shoulder awkwardly. "Are you sure it's him?" I asked.

Leo nodded, still staring at the body. Then he started to move into the room.

"We shouldn't go in there, Leo!" I warned him but he didn't seem to hear me. He walked right in past the body. I didn't see anything to do but to follow him so I stepped gingerly inside, cringing as I edged past the corpse. A sickly sweet smell assaulted my nostrils and I felt my stomach roil. "Oh no!" I murmured and looked for a bathroom. There were two doors to choose from, so I picked the one that was halfway open. Fortunately I picked correctly. I barely made it in time.

I stayed in the bathroom until I was sure my stomach was okay. When I came out, Leo was sitting on the sofa. His face was flushed, and he was breathing hard and shaking.

"Leo, are you okay?" I asked, realizing as soon as I said it how stupid it was. Of course he wasn't okay, not with his friend lying dead on the floor. I forgot my still queasy stomach in my concern for Leo. There was a clean glass on the drain board and so I brought him some water. He was trembling so hard he couldn't hold the glass. I was afraid he'd spill it so I held it to his lips. He took a sip and looked a little better.

"I guess we'd better call the police," I said.

Leo looked vaguely around and started to move toward a phone but I shook my head and pulled out my cell phone. "We don't want to mess up any fingerprints," I said as I punched 911.

The dispatcher assured me someone would be there quickly so I sat down next to Leo and waited. We didn't speak to each other. Leo seemed to have gone into some sort of trance. His eyes were half closed and his lips moved although no sound came out. Somewhere a faucet was dripping and that was the only noise we heard. There wasn't even any noise from the street outside. Except for the drip, drip, drip of the faucet, it was totally quiet. It was spooky. Real spooky. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't avoid looking at the body, so I took a deep breath and decided to study it analytically. I'd read murder mysteries all my life and always resolved that if I ever encountered a dead body I would act sensibly and rationally. Here was my chance. He had been a scrawny little guy when alive, and now he was a scrawny little corpse. From the look of things, he was dead before he hit the ground. The body reminded me of the guys from my high school physics classes. The ones with programmable calculators on their belts, Albert Einstein hair, and high squeaky voices. All brains and no brawn. I wondered if this pawnbroker had been a physics nerd in high school. Most of the nerds grew out of that stage into first-rate hunks, but this one looked like he never had. Of course, it was hard to tell when I couldn't really see his face.

I looked around the room. He had a real fancy sound system and walls filled with books. Lots of books. "Didn't know pawnbrokers were so literate," I commented to Leo. I don't think he heard me. He just kept muttering whatever he was muttering.

I got up to take a closer look at the shelves. I'm a reader myself and am always glad to meet up with another one. He had a surprising range and variety of books. Me, I read mostly mysteries. Okay, that's all I read. But he seemed to read a lot of everything. Science fiction, mystery, philosophy, classics. Not just a pawnbroker, but a very well-read one. Even a few books about physics I noted. He really was a physics nerd! About the only thing I didn't see there was romance or westerns.

The pawnbroker seemed to have had broad interests, and I started to warm up to him as an intelligent man, possibly a kindred spirit. He must have been a pretty smart guy, I thought. Or at least that's what I thought till I came across a large section of books on the occult and new age mysticism. My favorable impression of him plummeted. He was just another flake who collected books.

It seemed to take forever before the police got there, but it really only took about ten minutes. After a quick tap on the door they came in. They looked down at the body with a yep-that's-a-body look on their faces and then politely told me to go sit with Leo on the couch. One of them took our names and asked a couple of questions. The older one asked me if I was okay. I pointed out that I was fine, but I wasn't too sure about my friend. The cop didn't seem too worried about Leo.

Pretty soon things got busy as more police arrived. They moved all over the room, taking pictures and stomping on the floor. Everyone pretty much ignored Leo and me, and I started to wonder how long we were supposed to just sit there.

As usual, Leo wore too much of his cloying cologne and that, mixed with the smell of the dead man's blood made me start to feel nauseous again. Just when I thought I was going to have to run to the bathroom and give a repeat performance, another man arrived. I groaned inside. I knew that face, and I did not particularly care to see it right now. His name was Frank Guerman and I'd dated him in high school. Well, we'd only gone out once. But that one time had been enough for both of us. I squirmed uncomfortably on the couch and wondered if there was any way I could sneak away. Maybe with any luck he wouldn't remember me.

Frank listened as one of the police officers filled him in. "His name was Cecil Dirkwood. He lived here in this back room. Not married. We might already have a good lead. Seems a couple of weeks ago he turned in a gang member called Mouse for trying to pawn off stolen merchandise."

The tall guy nodded, then absent-mindedly pulled a toothpick out of his breast pocket and stuck it in his mouth. "Okay, we'll check it out. Know any more about him?"

"Not much. He's never been in any trouble with us. In fact, he's helped us out a time or two. As pawnbrokers go, he was okay. His friends over there on the couch found the body. The call came in at 9:35 from a cell phone"

"What are their names?"

The police officer pulled out his pad. "Leo Kajosh and CJ Thomas."

He looked over at Leo and me for the first time, and his eyes creased. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he remembered me. I braced myself.

He sauntered over. At first he ignored me completely, thank goodness. He stuck his hand out towards Leo. "Mr. Kajosh, I'm Lieutenant Guerman. I've just got a few questions for you, and then we'll try to get you out of here as soon as possible."

Leo managed a nod.

Frank turned towards me. "Hello, Chrissie--" he said. Then he stopped.

To my surprise a purple flush stole over his face. I realized he was as uncomfortable as I was, but he didn't seem to be angry with me, just embarrassed. Suddenly I felt much better. "Hi Frank," I said and held out my hand. "I go by CJ now."

He relaxed visibly and grinned. "CJ," he nodded. "We'll get you out of here as soon as we can."

"Thanks," I replied, and then nudged Leo. "We're in good hands," I told him. "Frank and I went to high school together."

Leo rummaged in his pockets before pulling out a handkerchief. He wiped his forehead with it and then carefully folded it to put back into his pocket.

"I'm sorry," he apologized in his thick Middle East accent. "I've never seen anything like this before. My friend, he was a good man."

"Tell me what happened, Mr. Kajosh," Frank said.

Leo shook his head. "We just opened the door and found him, just like that."

"Okay, when was this? What time was it?"

"What, CJ? About 9:30?" Leo looked at me for confirmation and I nodded.

"Okay. So what were you two doing here anyway? It's an odd time for a visit."

Leo and I waited for each other to answer. Frank nodded at me so I shrugged. "Leo was bringing me to meet Mr. Dirkwood. He wanted to get a computer system for his pawnshop. I'm a freelance computer consultant and was going to advise him."

"So, you did not know him?"

"No."

Frank looked at Leo. "How long have you known Mr. Dirkwood?"

"For two years. We met at a psychic fair a couple of years ago, but didn't become friends until we met again at a chess tournament. We play chess every Friday night."

"A psychic fair?" Frank lifted an eyebrow. I put a properly cynical expression on my face so if Frank should chance to look at me, he would know what I thought about psychics. I didn't want him to think that I would ever go to a psychic fair.

"Yes," Leo replied, unfazed by Frank's amusement.

"Do you have any ideas on who would want to kill him?"

"Must-a been one of those gangs. They're everywhere." He shook his head sorrowfully.

"Did you see anybody when you got here? Any cars in the alley?"

Leo shook his head. "No one. It was empty."

Frank nodded. His next question surprised me. "What kind of chess player was he?"

Leo shook his head. "Pretty crazy. Always trying some crazy move that no one else would even think of. But he would win. Not all the time, but most."

Someone tapped Frank on the shoulder, and he turned away for a second. The two men carried on a conversation about a palm print on the door. Frank listened and nodded a few times and then turned back to Leo and me.

"Okay. Let me get your addresses and phone numbers." Frank pulled out a notepad and looked at Leo, writing carefully as Leo gave his address and phone number. He looked at me, and I gave him my information as well. "I'll get someone over here to take your finger and palm prints. Then you can go."

"Boo!"

The shout nearly made me jump off the couch.

"What's the matter, CJ?" Frank asked.

"Who said that?" I demanded.

"Who said what?" Both Leo and Frank looked at me with puzzled expressions on their faces.

"I heard someone say 'Boo!'" I insisted and then suddenly felt very foolish.

Frank looked at me for a long minute and then carefully said, "I didn't hear anything, CJ."

Great, I thought. He thinks I'm crazy. I could see it all over his face. I shook my head. "It must have just been my imagination," I mumbled.

Frank nodded skeptically and moved away. Leo and I waited to have our prints taken. In the meantime I watched Frank as he wandered around the room. He'd certainly grown up nicely since I knew him in high school. Then he'd been what we called a goat roper. A tall, gangly, skinny kid with a Lincolnesque profile. All arms, legs and adam's apple. I, of course, had been a beauty queen. Really. My mom'd had me in pageants as soon as she brought me home from the hospital. Okay, maybe I exaggerate a little, but she did enter me in a beautiful baby contest when I was six months old. I won too. I won every pageant she ever entered me in.

Now it looked as though Frank could win a few pageants himself. He had definitely grown into a hunk. I never would have thought he was the cop type, but he seemed to wear the badge well. He moved around the room, watching the other officers at work and studying the surroundings. Pausing by the answering machine, he pressed the play button. The dead man's voice filled the room. "Hi there. I believe in psychics, but I'm not one of them. So, you'll have to leave a message. You know when and you know how." There was a shrill beep, and then a woman's voice filled the room. "Tag." Another beep, then a monologue from a credit card company. Then the woman's voice again. "Your turn."

Frank removed the tape from the machine and slipped it into an evidence bag, carefully marking an I.D. on the outside. I idly wondered who the woman was. A girlfriend maybe? Probably not. In my experience, girlfriends generally left more detailed messages.

A one-eared black cat crept into the room from the alley. He looked around at all the activity for a moment and then meandered over to the couch where he rubbed himself up against my legs. I bent down to scratch its remaining ear. He was a funny looking little thing with that one ear sticking up like a flagpole. "Is this his cat?" I asked Leo.

He shrugged then fastidiously shifted his legs away from the cat. "He was a sucker for stray animals. He'd feed them and try to find homes for them. I guess that one was his latest."

Someone finally came to take our prints and told us we could leave. I gave a last pat to the cat, briefly wondered who would feed it now, and then walked outside of the shop and down the alley. It was near midnight, dark and chilly, a typical Texas spring evening after a week of rain. The air reeked with the smell of worms and wet concrete. A gang of kids had moved to the lamppost by Leo's car, clustered in the light like junebugs, all trying to act like they weren't watching what was going on.

The closer we got, the more the kids swaggered. Teen-agers, at the height of their toughness. The boys out to impress the girls they had with them. The girls in streetwalker clothes, the boys in leather. They wore dark purple baseball caps turned backwards. They looked at us as we approached the car, and Leo stiffened. The kids stayed well away, however. Of course, the place was crawling with cop cars. I didn't think there was anything to worry about. Still it was good to get to Leo's car and drive away. It had been a long night and I was ready to get home.

* * * *
CHAPTER TWO

Budge did not recognize the body on the floor. After all, most of its face was missing. To his mild surprise he was not really curious about it. Instead he was more concerned with all the police in his place taking photographs, tromping over his floor, going through his stuff and sprinkling their little black dust all over. He followed first one and then another as they performed their annoying rituals that turned his slightly messy home into a very messy home. Despite his annoyance, he did not feel like saying anything to them. He was satisfied just to glare at them and wonder who was going to clean the place up when they were through.

As he looked over the shoulder of a man who was lightly spreading black dust over his folding table, Budge noticed Leo sitting on the couch. Leo's face was pale and sweaty, and he looked agitated. Beside Leo was a blonde, curly-haired woman Budge had never seen before. She and Leo were talking to a tall guy who looked as though he should be wearing a cowboy hat even though he wasn't.

"I've never seen anything like this before," Leo said in a slow, halting tone. Well Budge could certainly relate. He'd never seen anything like it either.

But, so far everyone was completely ignoring him, which seemed kind of strange since the body was on his floor. Budge reluctantly decided to leave Leo to his story and wandered over for a closer look at the body. He stood near the corpse and tried to figure out why there was a dead man on his floor, and why he couldn't remember anything about it. The last thing he remembered was hearing a knock on the door and opening it. After that everything was swallowed in blackness.

As Budge stood lost in thought an arm, a blue-sleeved masculine arm, suddenly came out of his chest, tapped the cowboy on the shoulder, and then disappeared again.

Budge gulped and looked down at his chest. Yes, it was quite whole. A flat expanse covered by a Star Trek t-shirt. So where had that arm come from? He looked up, and the cowboy was looking straight at him. Only he wasn't talking to Budge. He was talking to the cop who stood just behind him as if he weren't even there.

Budge walked back over to the corpse and made himself look at it again. It wore the same clothes he wore: Star Trek t-shirt and cheap blue jeans. It looked to be about five foot six inches, his height exactly. Above what had once been a face was a tangle of unruly brown hair that looked like his hair. Near the remains of its head was part of a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. The rest of the glasses must have been embedded into its--his face by the blast. Budge felt his face. For the first time since he was eleven years old, he could see clearly without his glasses.

The minutes slipped by while he stood and stared at the dead body. His own dead body. The word reverberated through his mind and filled it to the exclusion of all other thoughts. Dead. Dead. Dead. Passed on. Deceased. Dearly departed. Gone. Dead.

Even though Budge had read all about psychics, ghosts, poltergeists, astral planes, reincarnation and life after death experiences, and even though he had attended two sťances and three channeling sessions, he had not really thought about what it might mean to be dead.

Now he wouldn't have to. He was experiencing it first hand. He didn't know whether to be upset that he was dead or excited at the incredible opportunity that had just been handed to him. Finally he had a chance to find out for sure the answers to the big question that he had always wondered about, indeed, a question that had troubled philosophers and theologians for millennia. What happens after death?

Well, from everything that had happened to him since he regained awareness, Budge decided he must be a ghost. He wondered what that meant, exactly. He had already figured out that nobody could see him, and given that one of them had put a hand through his chest, he had to assume that they couldn't feel him either. There was only one thing left for him to do. Budge walked up behind the cop who was busy examining the door and, in a shout loud enough to wake the dead, yelled, "Boo!"

His hopes were raised for an instant as the cop turned but then he walked through Budge's body to compare notes with another cop. Budge looked around to see if anyone else had heard him, but no, they were all busy with their appointed tasks.

Budge sighed. No one could see him. No one could hear him. No one could feel him. People walked right through him without seeming to notice anything. No icy cold, no clamminess, no stepping on your grave dread. Nothing. What was the good of being a ghost if no one was even aware he was around?

A full eternity of ghosthood stretched ahead of him, eons and eons of being just an observer, with no hope of anyone ever being aware of him. That dark blackness started closing in on him again, but this time he welcomed it. The void was better than being a ghost if being a ghost meant no one could see, hear or feel him.

Just as he was about to lose himself totally in the inky depths, Budge heard his own voice on the answering machine. That was a very spooky feeling, listening to the sound of his voice after he was dead. Then he heard Deb's voice. Deb! Budge hadn't even thought about her. It would just kill her when she found out about him!

Resolutely Budge pushed the blackness away. Just in time, too. The cops were talking about notifying her that he was dead. The last vestige of darkness vanished from his mind. If Deb was about to find out that her only brother was dead, he needed to be there to comfort her. Maybe blood was thicker than death, and she would be able to feel his presence.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Leo and the woman with the Trixie Belden hair headed toward the door. On a whim he followed them. He wasn't sure why. It would have made more sense to stay with the cops, but for some reason, he followed the two outside. They slammed the car doors before he could get inside the car, however. He stood feeling helpless while Leo turned the ignition key. Budge didn't know what to do. He pounded on the window, but his arm just went through it. Of course. He was a ghost. A mere car door shouldn't be able to stop him. So, as Leo shifted into drive, Budge dove through the door, scrambled over Blondie's lap, and settled in the back seat of the car.

It was his first official ghostly act.

* * * *
CHAPTER THREE

Leo didn't say a word all the way back to his apartment. I stayed quiet too. I wasn't quite sure of the rules of etiquette regarding our situation. Leo and I weren't exactly friends; he was a client. What does one say to a client who has just discovered another client's dead body? I wondered what Miss Manners would advise one to say in such a situation. Maybe I could write a letter to her. "Dear Miss Manners. What do you do when you are out on a job with a client and discover his friend's dead body?"

I think we were both relieved when we got to his place. He hurriedly said good night and seemed anxious to get rid of me, which was fine because I was anxious to get out of there. "I'm sorry about your friend," I added as I headed for my car. I felt like I had to say something. Leo nodded and turned to go into his apartment.

Once in the car, I realized that I was hungry. Of course, I'd emptied the contents of my stomach back at the pawnshop. I pulled into the drive-thru of a Whataburger

and waited behind a jacked-up pick-up truck to place my order.

Sarah McLachlan sang "Angel" on the radio as I waited for my fries. A man's voice came on the air over the song, so I hit the reset button. Must be another station crossing over, I thought. Hitting reset didn't help so I turned off the radio.

"I can't believe I did this! I should have gone to Grand Prairie with the cops!" It was a slightly impatient man's voice. I could hear it quite clearly now that the radio was off.

My heart did grasshopper flips inside my chest. "Who's that?" I said loudly. The voice stopped. I took a quick look at the back seat. There was no one there.

"You heard me?"

The voice seemed to be coming from the passenger seat. I looked over but couldn't see anything in the dark. "Who's there?" I demanded, flicking the light on.

"It's me, Budge!"

This had to be a joke, I thought. Someone must have planted a radio or something in my car. Probably my neighbors. I live next to a group of fraternity boys who are always eager to add me to their list of conquests. Mostly they confine themselves to ogling me and trying to peep through my bedroom window, but every once in a while they like to play tricks. "Okay, guys. Ha! Ha! It's a good joke. Now turn off your radios and get back to your books," I called.

"Uh ma-am?"

I jumped at the voice coming at me from my other side and then flushed when I realized it was the Whataburger guy. He held a bag of fries out to me and tried not to look as though he thought I was crazy. "Thanks," I said breathlessly, grabbing the fries and rolling up my window. I must have heard someone talking from inside the restaurant, I told myself and prepared to drive off.

This rational explanation was quickly dashed. "I'm not joking," the voice said in an indignant tone. "I'm real. I mean I was real. I guess I'm not really real anymore."

I pictured the guys back at the frat house rolling on the floor with laughter at this point and wondered which one was playing ventriloquist. It was probably Doyle. He was good with voices. He'd spent a lot of time in my back yard last summer imitating various stars in an effort to impress me. I'd never let him know it, but he was very talented. "Okay guys," I grit my teeth and tried again. "Enough already. You've had your laughs so knock it off!"

"It's no joke!" the voice insisted. "I'm real! I'm a ghost!"

See, I have one big problem. I don't have a sense of humor. I'm always the last one to figure out jokes and I never think slapstick is funny. It doesn't take people long to figure that out about me. Everyone loves to play tricks on me because I'm such a great straight man.

The Whataburger

guy was looking at me like he was about to call the cops so I squealed out of the drive-thru lane, moving over to one of the lights in the middle of the lot where I stopped. Then I searched the car, first looking under the seat. I found about fifty pens, some french fry cartons, and enough change to keep me in candy bars for a year, but I didn't see a transmitter of any kind.

"Ooh! Watch where you put your hand!"

The only reason I didn't say what I wanted to say was I just knew the guys at the other end of the radio would get a big charge out of it, and I didn't want to give them the satisfaction. The only problem was, I couldn't find a radio anywhere. There was no hidden radio in the glove compartment. None under, or as far as I could tell, in the seat. Nor was there one by the door.

"What are you looking for?" the voice asked.

"The radio!" I snapped.

"What radio?"

I shook my head and continued looking. "You guys got me good with that chili burger, Barbie doll and motorcycle helmet last month, but I won't let you get me this time," I vowed.

"Great," said the voice in a disgusted, desperate voice. "You're the only person who can hear me, and you think I'm a joke. But I guess most women always did think I was a joke, when I was alive, I mean."

By then I had searched the front seat and dashboard, and checked my cell phone to make sure the frat boys hadn't done anything to it. Next I crawled into the back seat, the strange voice jabbering at me the entire time.

"Can you see me at all? Or feel me when I poke you?" the voice asked hopefully.

"No, just hear you." I muttered as I sat in the back and tried to figure out how the guys were carrying out this trick. Then I thought of the ceiling and carefully ran my hands along the top of the car.

"How about this?" the voice continued.

"What?"

"Did you feel anything?"

"Of course not!"

"Oh. I thought you might have. I passed my hand through you."

I rolled my eyes and did my best not to react to his comments as I finished searching the car. At last I crawled back into the front seat and sat behind the wheel. I might as well go along with the joke and let them get a good laugh. Then maybe they'd let me in on how they did it. "Okay. I give up. Who are you?"

"I already told you!" the voice said indignantly.

"Well, tell me again. Who are you?" I practically shouted.

"Were, actually, I guess," the voice said in a maddening tone.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Then I took another one. "All right," I said ultra calmly. "Who were you?"

"I'm Budge. The guy who was killed."

Figures. "All right. If you're Budge, how about telling me who killed you. I'll pass it on to the police as part of my civic duty."

The voice sighed. "I wish I knew. All I remember is opening the door and then bam! I'm dead."

I shook my head. Something wasn't quite right about this. By now the guys should have delivered the punch line and laughed their fool heads off. I started to feel a little uneasy.

"Anything I can do to help you find my killer, I'll do, of course."

"Of course."

"You don't know how good it feels to have someone know I'm here." The voice sounded like he was about to cry.

"Um. Yeah. I can imagine. It must be rough being dead." I started the car again and pulled back onto the highway.

"I just never really thought about being dead. I mean, I thought about it and read about it and talked to psychics about it, but I never really thought about what it meant. Or at least I never thought it would be like this. I mean-"

"Would you be quiet!" I snapped. Joke or no joke, the prattling of the voice was getting on my nerves, like a sweater rubbing over a scraped elbow.

"I'm sorry. I just got so excited that someone could finally hear me. You don't know what it's like to be standing in a room full of people and not one of them knows you exist."

I pulled into my driveway and ran to the front door, eager to get away from the voice, but it followed right behind me. I yanked the front door open and quickly stepped inside, slamming the door and leaning against it.

"...So first thing in the morning I was hoping you could take me to my sister's house."

It had followed me inside. I flung my purse on the table and ran into the bedroom. I marched over to the window and peered out at the frat house next door expecting to see their grinning faces leering back at me. All looked quiet and innocent.

"I know it's an imposition, but you're the only hope I have of getting there. She'll be so upset," the voice continued.

I started to wonder if they'd managed to put something on my clothes. I pulled my shirt over my head and tossed it out the bedroom door. Then my jeans. The voice continued babbling. Gritting my teeth I started to pull my sports bra off.

"Oh my, excuse me. I'll go in the next room while you change!"

"You do that," I muttered as I tossed my bra out the door, followed by my panties. Then I went into the shower and scrubbed everything. Hard. Finally I pulled my favorite cotton nightshirt over my head and stepped back out into the bedroom.

"Do you feel better now?"

I stopped. Not only was the voice still there, it was coming from my bed.

"I guess I didn't think about what you've been through tonight. I'm sorry."

Now the voice was coming towards me. I collapsed on a chair and looked dully around the room. "All right," I muttered. "Where is it?" It was a major act of self-control on my part to speak quietly.

"Where is what?" said the voice in an amused tone.

"How are you doing that?"

"I don't know."

"All right," I snapped, brushing my curls out of my eyes. "Who are you?"

"Budge."

"Very funny! Ha! Ha! And I'm Hilary Clinton."

"Hilary doesn't have curly hair"

"And Budge is dead!"

"I know. I don't understand it myself. No one else can hear me, I don't think. I mean none of those policemen seemed to hear me, did they?"

I let the spooky voice prattle on while I tried to track it to its source again. I searched my bedroom inch by inch. There was nothing there. I finally stood in the middle of the room, thoroughly frustrated. "All right guys, you win," I called. "You've got me!"

"I'm not joking."

Fine, I thought. Be that way. The frat guys didn't always know when to quit. They'd probably make me carry my "ghost" around for several days before they broke down and confessed. I sat down on the bed and laid back.

"You don't believe me, do you?"

The best way to handle this was just to entirely ignore them, I thought. Sooner or later they'd get tired of the game.

"My name is Budge. I opened the door this evening and got blown away. One minute I'm alive, getting ready to learn about computers, the next minute I'm dead. I guess the I Ching was right after all. It said today would be a day of great changes."

Great. Not only was I haunted, but the ghost was two tacos short a platter. This just has to be a joke, I told myself. Over at the frat house the guys were having a real hoo-haw over how they'd convinced me that I had a ghost following me. Somehow, though, I was beginning to fear that this was not a joke. "All right," I said. "Why don't you just go and haunt somebody else?"

"I told you. You're the only one who can hear me."

"And how did I get this great honor?"

"I don't know. I'm new at this."

I groaned. I didn't seem to be getting anywhere. "Okay," I said. "So what do you want from me? Ghosts usually want something, don't they?"

"I want you to drive me to my sister's house first thing in the morning. I want to make sure she's all right."

"I don't even know your sister," I protested weakly.

"She's very nice. You'll like her."

"Let me get this straight. You want me to go bug a complete stranger who's just found out her brother is dead?"

"That's it," the voice agreed.

I gritted my teeth. "And if I do, you'll leave me alone?"

"That's all I want," the voice said.

I considered. Doubtless this was more of the boys' little joke. I'd go to the so-called sister's house and all the frat boys would jump out at me and make a big deal about how they had fooled me. But if that were the only way I could get them to shut up, it would be worth it.

"Fine. I'll do it. Now go out in the living room or somewhere and let me get some sleep." I rolled over and punched my pillows for emphasis. It took me a while to get to sleep however, and when I finally did drift off, I had nightmares about trying to pawn a ghost.

"Are you ready to go yet?"

I opened one eye and glanced at the clock. It was six fifteen. Slowly the events of the previous night came back to me. "Go where?" I asked sleepily.

"To my sister's house."

Suddenly I remembered everything. "Oh yeah," I said. "That's where I get rid of you, isn't it?" I hurried out of bed and dressed in record time. Then I stopped and looked at the clock again. "Wait a minute! It's too early to go visit your sister! I don't even know her!" I poised to flop back down on the bed.

"She'll be awake," the voice that claimed to be Dirkwood wheedled.

"No!" I said resolutely. "Go find someone else to bother. I'm going back to bed."

"There is no one else."

"You just haven't tried," I said wearily and stretched out on the bed. "What did you do all night anyway?"

"Went through your closets."

I aimed a disapproving look in what I hoped was his direction and he laughed. "Just kidding. I just kind of sat in the corner and watched you sleep. Did you know you snore when you sleep on your left side?"

I pulled the pillow over my head. "Well, now that you know my sleeping habits, why don't you go haunt my neighbors?"

I didn't hear anything out of him for a while, so I managed to fall asleep again. By eight o'clock, though, he was back. I gave up and struggled out of bed. If I woke up his sister up it was just too bad. If she were half as annoying as him, it would be worth it. I grabbed a Little Debbie

Swiss Cake Roll and a can of grape soda from the fridge and headed for the car.

"How do we get to your sister's house?" I asked. Following his directions, I drove to Grand Prairie. As I drove, my mind was busy thinking. Try as I might, I couldn't figure out how the guys were doing this trick. It was slick and much too realistic.

It was with a sinking sense of foreboding that I started to fear that I might really have a ghost. It was a feeling I didn't like. Of all the people in the world, why did he have to pick me? I was the last person in the world who should be haunted by a ghost. I didn't believe in them. Even as a child, I had never believed in the monster under the bed or the bogeyman. I had never even believed in Santa Claus, much to my mother's disappointment. So it just didn't make sense that I should have a ghost haunting me now. But something was haunting me, and it was getting harder and harder to believe that it was a fraternity trick.

Dirkwood's sister's house was in the part of town that, when I was growing up, was termed "the wrong side of the tracks." It never had seen better days and from the looks of things, it never would. Even in the dim early morning light, I could see that it was old, dirty and badly in need of repair, paint and cleaning. I stopped my car. "Okay. We're here. It's been nice knowing you. Get out and good-bye," I said quickly, my hands poised over the wheel ready to make a quick get away.

"You've got to go in."

"No I don't! That wasn't part of the agreement. You said if I drove you to your sister's house, you'd leave me alone. Well, I've done what I said I would, so leave."

"But she may not be able to hear me."

"Too bad."

"Fine. I'll just hang around with you till you do it."

I could almost picture him folding his arms and jutting out his lip. I rolled my eyes and sighed. This would be one way to determine if what I was experiencing was real. If it actually turned out to be the home of Dirkwood's sister, I could pretty much assume that the frat boys had nothing to do with it. "Fine! I'll go inside," I said. "But then you've got to leave me alone!"

I got out of the car, and picked my way up a cracked sidewalk past an old Chevy with no tires, a rusted wheelbarrow and some old boards propped up against the porch. As I approached the door, I realized I didn't know his sister's name. "Who am I supposed to see?" I whispered.

"Deb. Deborah Bowers," the voice returned.

There was a small, hand-printed sign above the doorbell that said, "Bell is broken. Please knock."

For some reason I almost expected the little green man from the Wizard of Oz to answer the door. I knocked and waited. I expected a long wait since it was still pretty early in the morning, but after a few moments, a woman opened the door.

She was of average height. Several months pregnant, she clutched the flapping ends of a terry bathrobe around her protruding abdomen. A lot of the weight she was carrying, however, wasn't due to the baby. It was obvious she had been crying recently.

I wasn't sure what to say. There were so many things that the etiquette books didn't cover. Once again I was going to have to write a letter to my favorite columnist. Dear Miss Manners: What do you say when you go to see the sister of the ghost who has been bugging the daylights out of you?

"Can I help you?" the woman asked softly.

At the same time, the ghost whispered in my ear, "Say something!"

I realized I'd better come up with something quick so I cleared my throat. "I'm sorry to bother you," I said. "I know this will seem really weird, but my name is CJ Thomas, and I'm looking for Deborah Bowers."

"That's me."

I recognized the voice on the answering machine. The woman ducked her head as if there was something wrong with being Deborah Bowers.

"I'm not quite sure what I'm doing here. I'm one of the people who discovered your brother's body." I looked at her, trying to gauge her reaction. How upset would she be? And why wasn't my ghostly voice saying anything!

Deborah's eyes filled with tears. I poised to flee, but a hand reached out and grabbed my arm. "It was so good of you to come," Deborah said. "Please come in."

"I really can't stay long," I babbled, discomfited by her reaction. I had expected to have the door slammed in my face. I wasn't prepared to be invited inside.

"Come in. Sit down. It must have been horrible for you."

I followed her into a dimly lit living room. Deborah sat on the couch. I sat down on an upholstered chair beside her, gingerly avoiding a loose spring. There was a musty smell of dampness in the air.

"Deb, can you hear me?" the voice said softly.

She showed no sign of hearing it. "I'm so glad you came. I probably would have tried to call you. I mean, the policemen were very nice, but I wanted to talk to you."

"Why would you want to talk to me?" I asked in surprise.

Deborah looked down at her hands. "Well, you discovered the body. I don't know why, but that makes it seem as though you and he have some kind of connection. Like maybe you caught his soul."

I shifted uncomfortably. I remembered all the paranormal books in Dirkwood's apartment. His sister must be as cracked as he was, I thought.

"Maybe that's why you can hear me," the ghostly voice mused. "Maybe my soul is trapped in your karma."

I watched carefully to see if Deborah heard him, but she gave no sign of it. Instead she asked, "You don't think he suffered any, do you? I mean, being right there, you might be able to tell. I don't think the police wanted to tell me everything."

I gulped and forced my mind back to that body on the floor. "He was shot in the face," I said quickly. "He died instantly. He didn't suffer."

"The hell I didn't!" I just managed to avoid jumping at the ghost's indignant yell. Again, Deborah did not seem to hear it.

"I just don't know why anyone would want to kill Budge. He was such a nice guy." A lone tear slowly trickled down her face, more poignant than a flood of tears might have been. I recognized that she was grieving deeply for her brother. Again I shifted uncomfortably. Ghost or no ghost, what right did I have to intrude on this woman's sorrow?

"He had problems with the gangs," Deborah said finally.

I nodded, not sure what else to do. I wished I were anywhere but where I was. "Did he talk to you about it?"

"A little. He didn't seem too worried. He said it was just kids."

Deborah didn't look well at all, and I wondered if there was another family member who could come stay with her. "Do you have anyone else?" I asked. "Are there any other family members or--"

"No. It was just us. Our parents are dead. We've got cousins in Highland Park but except for my uncle's funeral, it's been years since we've seen them."

The front door opened and a heavily tattooed man walked in. His stomach hung well over his jeans, which, from where I was sitting, looked to be hanging onto his hips by a wing and a prayer and not much else. The bottom button of his shirt was torn off, allowing the corners of his shirt to flap and show unappetizing glimpses of his hairy belly. Deborah's shoulders tensed ever so slightly.

"Nick," said the voice in a disgusted tone. "What a jerk!"

"Company, babe?" The man sat on the couch beside her and kneaded her leg. He leered at me. I'm used to men looking at me like that. It's the curse of being a beautiful blonde. I looked evenly back at him.

"I'm CJ Thomas," I said.

Deborah reached for his hand. "Nick, the police were here last night. Budge has been killed. CJ here found his body."

I caught an initial expression of relief on Nick's face and then shock. To his credit, he put an arm around his wife and tried to comfort her. "Hey, babe," he said. "I'm sorry. Budge was all right." He held her for a moment before asking, "Was it the gangs?"

"I would imagine. The police didn't say."

Nick leaned forward. "Listen, it was nice of you to come and all that, but Deb's not well. Being pregnant and all, she's having a hard time." He was right. Her tightly clenched fists were white with the strain of holding her sorrow inside.

"Hey, Deb, it's okay. I'm here." The voice started as soft as a whisper and grew louder. "Why can't you hear me Deb!"

An idea suddenly struck Nick, which from the look of surprise on his face probably didn't happen too often. "I wonder who will get the pawnshop? I guess it'll all come to Deb." I heard a barely disguised eagerness in his voice.

"But you sure won't get your hands on it!"

"He had no kids?" I asked.

Nick shook his head. "Naw! He was a loner, Budge was. Never even dated anyone as far as I know."

"I most certainly did too!"

I stood up. I'd had all I could take. I had done what I had promised and it was time to leave. "Listen," I said. "I'm really sorry about your brother. I just wanted you to know that." I wasn't sure what else to say. Again, the standard rules of etiquette just didn't seem to apply here.

I got to the car as quickly as possible. Once inside, I leaned my head on the steering wheel, glad to be out of that gloomy little house with its gloomy little smells.

"Where to now?"

I jumped and clutched the steering wheel. "I thought you were going to stay with them!"

"They can't hear me. You're the only one who can."

"That doesn't mean you can stay with me!" I protested.

"I'm sorry, CJ, but right now it doesn't look like you or I have much choice. And I don't see any way you can stop me."

The heck of it is, he was right. There wasn't much I could do to stop him. It looked like I was stuck with this ghost, for a while anyway.

"Did you notice?" the ghost asked eagerly.

"Did I notice what?"

"Nick wasn't home last night."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning I wonder if he's the person who killed me."

I shifted my car into gear. "That's not my concern." Maybe I was stuck with him, but that didn't mean I had to do whatever he told me to. I had my own life to lead, and I didn't intend to spend anymore of it than I had to dealing with a pawnbroker's ghost.

The ghost sighed heavily and spoke slowly, as though I were a child. "Listen, CJ" he said. "I know that this is a shock for you."

"And a real pain, too," I snapped as I drove away from his sister's house.

"But I really do need your help. I've got to find out who killed me, and you're the only one who can help me."

I swung into a McDonald's and ordered an Egg McMuffin. "You see, that's not really my problem," I said. "It's yours. I've got a life, and a business to maintain. I don't really have time to help you avenge your death. I'm sorry you died, I mean, I'm sure you were a very nice person. But you are dead."

"Fair enough. But I need you to do one thing for me."

I sighed. "I've already done one thing for you," I pointed out.

"Okay. One more thing."

"Which is?"

"Just drive me by the pawn shop. It's where I died. I have to start somewhere."

I sighed and stuffed the rest of the breakfast sandwich into my mouth. "If I do that, will you leave me alone?" I demanded.

"I won't bother you again! Cross my heart and hope to die--er--"

"Never mind!" I snapped. I drove to the pawnshop and pulled up outside. When I got there, I was actually kind of glad I had done so. Frank Guerman stood outside talking to a patrolman. When he saw my car, he grinned and walked over to talk to me, bending his head to peer inside. I wouldn't mind investigating the pawnbroker's death if it meant I got to spend a little more time with Frank.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Curiosity, I guess. Are you having any luck?"

"A few interesting things. Why don't we go grab a cup of coffee and I can tell you about it?"

"Sounds great!" I swung out of the car and fell into step beside Frank.

Budge was torn. Did he want to watch CJ and the detective make goo-goo eyes at each other, or did he want to go back inside his old home? He opted for the pawnshop.

His heart gave a leap as he walked inside. As usual, the store was in a state of highly organized clutter--watches and jewelry at the cash register near the front door, guitars, flutes, harmonicas, a violin, and assorted other musical instruments clustered neatly around a spinet piano, cameras prominently featured in the barred front windows and assorted other items. He took a deep breath, and felt a twinge of sadness because he could no longer smell the slightly musty, metallic odor of junk, the stuff that various people had decided they could live without, at least until payday. From experience, he knew that by the time payday came around, most of them would have figured out that they could live without their junk a little longer. Only a few ever came back to redeem their goods.

It was a small store. Too small for everything he had tried to pack in it. His store's counters and shelves overflowed with jumbled items, and its aisles were barely wide enough for one person. Put two people at a time or a very pregnant woman in there and things got pretty cramped. It was organized in a loose scheme that had made sense to him and probably no one else. Right now the shop looked like someone's attic before a rummage sale. Budge had long wanted to move to a larger store, but with the competition from the larger chain pawnshops, his own business had decreased to the point where he could not afford to move. He'd made a good enough living for his own modest way of life, but he certainly would never have gotten rich off his pawnshop earnings. This was his store. His baby, left to him by his father. He'd not had much in this world, but he'd left Budge what he could.

There were two cops in the corner by the musical instruments, systematically searching every nook and cranny. Budge wondered what they expected to find.

"Hey Mick," one of them called. "I just realized what's weird about this shop."

"What, Jake?" The cop didn't look up from his search. Budge recognized him. He'd come in several times searching for stolen items, and he was the one who had taken the report when Budge had turned in Mouse.

"No guns."

"Budge didn't deal in guns. He was kind of funny that way. He didn't like them."

"I've never met a pawnbroker who didn't like guns," Jake said disbelievingly, jutting his lower lip out.

"You never met Budge," Mick laughed. "He was a character, but he was a nice guy."

Much as Budge enjoyed listening to them say wonderful things about him, he needed to move on. He wasn't exactly sure what he was looking for. He just knew that he had to start somewhere. Budge wandered through the aisles and then went into his office. A female police officer was gathering up his ledgers and stuffing them into a box, presumably to take to the station for further study. Budge wished her the joy of it. He used his own bookkeeping system. It worked for him, but somebody else might have a hard time figuring it out.

His living quarters looked very bleak and lonely. It wasn't much, just a room with a kitchenette in one corner and four walls crammed with books, but it was home. His sofa folded out into a bed, but most of the time Budge just slept in an old overstuffed recliner--usually over a book or after studying a chess problem. Now black fingerprint dust covered most of the surfaces, and there was a large stain on the floor by the door. His body was gone, probably on an icy slab somewhere waiting to be dissected. Budge shivered at the thought.

He hoped to pick up the aura of the person who killed him, but he couldn't feel anything at all. It just seemed like a typical, slightly messy room. Budge did have a fleeting feeling that something was missing, but try as he might, he couldn't put his finger on what it was.

He wandered back outside to wait for CJ. After about fifteen minutes she and the police detective came back. They were both laughing at something.

"I'd better get back to work," the detective said. "I'll call you."

CJ nodded. "Fine. I'll look forward to it."

"Hi CJ," Budge said quickly as she got into her car.

I stiffened and sighed. I felt the warm glow from being in Frank's presence draining from my body, being replaced by irritation. After what Frank had told me, I really didn't want anything further to do with my ghost. "Don't you have anything better to do?" I snapped.

Not really. No." He waited till I pulled out of the parking lot and then asked, "What did Dick Tracy have to say?"

I felt the heat rising in my face. "Actually what he had to say was very interesting," I said. "In fact, I think they'll be making an arrest soon."

"Oh?"

I shot a disgusted look in his direction. "Yes. They've already found your little stash."

"My stash?"

"Your stash of crack."

"Crack?"

"Crack. Cocaine."

"I don't know what you're talking about." He sounded puzzled. "I've never even smoked a joint before, much less crack cocaine."

I sent a dagger-filled look in his direction. I didn't believe him for an instant. "It's no use lying about it. Frank says they found the package in one of the tubas--"

"Inside one of my tubas?"

I nodded.

"And you think I had something to do with it?"

"Didn't you?"

"You've got it all wrong," the ghost said so earnestly that I would have believed him if I had not found out what a liar he was. "I've never had anything to do with drugs. Not even pot. I know you don't believe me, but it's true."

"You're right. I don't believe you."

"Check up on it then. Ask around. Everyone will tell you I'm clean."

"Oh, I don't need to check it out, because I don't really care. But Frank will find out all about your sordid little doings." I sent a grim look in his direction.

"You know, when you are angry, you don't look like Trixie Belden anymore."

"What!"

"You look more like Glenn Close at the end of Fatal Attraction."

I shook my head. "This right here is a pretty good motive for murder, wouldn't you say?"

"Well, it would be if I had anything to do with it, but I don't."

I gnawed on my lip. "I don't see why you insist on lying about it. After all, it can't hurt you now, can it?"

He actually seemed to have nothing to say to that, but I did. "You know, the hell of it is, I was actually starting to like you. And now I find out you were just another cheap crook who got shot."

"Whatever happened to innocent till proven guilty?"

"As far as I'm concerned, that stash proves it. And the sooner Frank follows up on it and finds who blew your head off, the sooner I'll be rid of you!" Any good feelings I had been starting to have for him had vanished. Now all I wanted was to get him out of my life and get back to a nice, normal life with no ghost. Particularly a despicable piece of ghost slime like him.


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