Gone With The Ghost by Erin McCarthy
Ryan’s old friend Marner met me at the glass window and had the guard buzz me in. Ryan had become close friends with Marner when they both joined the force, when I was still in college getting the degree in criminal justice I’d done nothing with after my evidence tech tenure (and yes, my parents are still annoyed about that). I knew Marner by default since I had been friends with Ryan first, and occasionally the three of us did things together. During my lame attempt at working crime scenes after Ryan had thoroughly lost patience with me, it was Marner who had constantly offered me reassurance and encouragement. He was a good guy. Easy to be around.
Once we all had even gone to Niagara Falls together, which sadly was the closest I’ve ever gotten to a wild weekend with two guys. I had slept in a king-size bed sandwiched between two men after the hotel messed up our reservation but the wettest I got the whole trip was on the Maid of the Mist boat ride.
It was with that depressing thought that I smiled at Marner.
“Hey, Bailey, how are ya? Long time, no see.” Marner enveloped me in a hug, which startled me. He’d never hugged me before, except once at Ryan’s funeral, and now he was gripping me hard, right in front of half a dozen detectives in their cubicles.
“I’m okay, Marner, how about yourself?” I tried to subtly extract myself. He had a hell of a grip and was wearing way too much aftershave.
“Hanging in there.” He shrugged, but still didn’t let me go.
“Good.” I patted his back awkwardly, realizing that seeing me must bring up thoughts of Ryan. And Marner still thought Ryan had killed himself. He hadn’t been granted the relief that I felt, and I wondered if I was allowed to tell him. I’d check with Ryan first, but it seemed like Marner had a right to know.
Finally he released me, but kept my hands tightly in his. “What brings you by?”
Weirded out that we were essentially holding hands, I kept my voice low. “Do you have a minute? Can we talk somewhere private?” I wasn’t sure if what I was going to ask was exactly legal in the strictest sense of the word, so I didn’t want a bunch of nosy-nelly cops listening in on our conversation. I couldn’t say about other stations, but here this particular group of cops eavesdropped and gossiped like a group of grandmas. Replace the knitting needles with guns and they were one and the same, male and female detectives alike.
Marner is more serious than Ryan ever was. He has an intensity in his brown eyes that shows he’s thinking, planning, processing. Ryan was always more impulsive, going with his gut. I like both of them. But I do love Ryan, and I think it’s because he isn’t like me at all. Marner and I can get a little solemn when left on our own together.
He studied me for a long second, than glanced up at the clock on the wall. “Sure, Bailey. Let me grab my wallet and we’ll go to lunch. You want Italian?”
Wallet most likely meant his weapon. Marner always locked his gun in his desk drawer when he was at the office. I followed him back through the maze of cubicles and got a couple of waves and “What’s up?” from men and women I knew, plus the very predictable “Yo, Bailey, how’s that Irish Cream?”
This was a longstanding joke they all found hilarious and I realized I hadn’t missed working here at all. As if there was any doubt. This time it was a familiar face—Detective Cox, who once upon a time I had made the mistake of encouraging because I had been young, he was gorgeous, and it had been flattering. Before I’d realized he was married.
“No,” I told Detective Cox flatly. He was wearing a grin on his long face.
“How’s the Put It Where? business?” he asked, leaning back in his chair. “I have a couple ideas of where to put it.”
Sometimes you have what you think is a tremendously clever name for a business. I had thought that, truly. Only I had genuinely underestimated the number of grown men with adolescent humor. It wasn’t the first time I had gotten remarks about “where to put it”. Cox’s comment brought muffled laughter from the guy to his left, who I didn’t know. He must be a new hire. I also saw DeAngelo, the cop who had questioned me about Ryan, a few desks over. He was watching me. When we made eye contact, he waved.
Sexual harrassment when I didn’t even work there anymore was truly crap. I thought it was time to put an end to it.
“Knock it off,” Marner told him. “You’re being a dick.”
I appreciated the intervention but I wanted to get the point across myself so I smiled and leaned closer to him. I opened my eyes wide, a la Christy with her husband Tim, and said, “Where would you put it? Do you want me to call your wife and tell her where you’d like to put it?”
It was enough of a break from my normal thinly veiled digust that it seemed to confuse him. He swiveled his chair around so he was facing his desk. “That’s okay.”
That made me feel just a little bit smug. Bailey 1, Cox 0.
“Just ignore him,” Marner said as he bent over his desk, fishing his keys out of his pocket. “He’s an ass.”
“He started it. What’s this?” I pointed to a hand-drawn cartoon pinned to his wall. It was a stick figure lying on the ground in front of a car, yelling “Help!”
“I hit a bum by accident and this is the guys’ idea of humor.” He slid his gun into his holster beneath his suit jacket. Marner wore his suit well, very tailored and trim, and decent quality.
But he apparently mowed down bums. “You hit someone? Did he die?” I was a little horrified.
“Nah. Not a scratch on him. He was so drunk he walked right in front of my damn car.”
Ten minutes later, we were staring at each other across the table at an Italian restaurant on the end of what was an up-and-coming neighborhood. This place had been in existence for sixty years and stood by the philosophy that good comfort food would always trump trendy decor. Scooting the faux grapes and ivy floral arrangement out of the center of the table, I tried to smile at Marner. It was a struggle, because he was looking serious again.
“I’m sorry I haven’t called you,” he said. “I should have. I should have checked to see how you were doing.”
My throat closed. Guilt sat heavy in my stomach. I wasn’t the only one grieving, yet I had been selfish, caught up in my loneliness. “That’s okay. It goes both ways, you know. I haven’t called you either.”
“You’ve lost weight. Your clothes don’t fit right.”
Got it. I looked lousy. Thank you. I pulled my electronic cigarette out of my purse. Okay, so I had brought it. This was emotional DEFCON 1. I needed my security blanket. As I raised it to my mouth, Marner grimaced.
“You still smoking? Those things will kill you. You should quit.”
“This isn’t real smoking. I quit actual cigarettes two years ago.”
“You still can’t do that in here.”
“Fine.” But before I put it away I took a quick hit. That first drag is like a thorough kiss—smooth and satisfying. I know it’s bad for me, but so is pollution, and I had quit smoking once already. I was like in phase two of quitting. No one seemed willing to give me credit for that.
The short, paunchy waiter came over and Marner ordered a bottle of red wine. Not a glass, but a bottle. “Aren’t you on duty? Isn’t drinking off limits?”
“I can have a glass. They’ll re-cork it and I can take it home. You’ll have a glass too, right?”
“And when I said you’d lost weight, I wasn’t saying you looked bad. Not at all. It was just an observation. I was wondering if you’d lost weight because of Ryan.”
There it was. His name was out in the open between us finally, and it hung there, like the vapor cloud from my electronic cigarette.
“Yeah, I’ve lost weight. No, it wasn’t intentional. I haven’t been hungry.” I leaned back in my wrought iron chair, the legs wobbling on the tile floor. “I can’t let it go, Marner, that’s why I needed to see you. I don’t think Ryan killed himself.” That was as close to the truth as I was willing to skirt at the moment.
He didn’t say anything for a second. Hand scraping across his angular jaw, he watched me. “Bailey…” he said finally. “Why does it matter? Ryan is dead. As much as we hate it, that’s the way it is.”
That surprised me, I have to say. Of all the things I’d expected him to say, dead is dead wasn’t one of them. “Of course it matters! And I know we can’t bring him back, but wouldn’t it be better to know he didn’t do it on purpose?”
“Would it?” He shook his head, dark eyebrows furrowing. “If I found out he was killed, I’d feel just as lousy, but in a different way. I’d be mad at myself for not helping him, just like I’m mad at myself for not knowing he was unhappy. Either way, I let him down as a friend, and either way he’s still dead.”
Tears rose in my eyes before I could stop them. “Marner.” Now it was me reaching for him, wanting to give him some kind of comfort. “Neither one of us could have done anything, either way. But don’t you think Ryan’s mother would rather know he was murdered than that he killed himself? And Ryan wasn’t suicidal. You know that. I know that. He’s the most happy-go-lucky guy I know. Knew.”
Damn, I hate the whole past tense thing when someone dies. Needing to lighten the mood (or emotionally hide, you be the judge) I joked, “If I haven’t killed myself, than surely Ryan wouldn’t.”
Marner jerked in his chair, horror on his face. “You’re not considering that, are you?”
“No!” I yanked my napkin off the table and spread it across my lap. “Geez, I was kidding. Going for a laugh to ease the tension.”
“Shit.” He poured two glasses of wine, handed me one, and inhaled the other. Slapping the glass back on the table, he ran his hand through his short dark hair. “Don’t say stuff like that, not even joking. It’s not freaking funny.”
It wasn’t. He was right. Feeling guilty and embarrassed, I drained half the wine to avoid saying anything for a second. My cheeks felt slapped, and my limbs numb, like the air conditioning was up too high. Forcing my mouth open, I managed, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I care about you, you know.”
For a guy who normally never speaks unless spoken to, and who is more comfortable with electronics than women, this was a huge deal. The tears I’d been wrestling with all day shot out like a fire hose on high.
“I…I…care about you too,” I managed to say before dissolving into high volume sobs.
People at the tables surrounding us were gawking, but I couldn’t stop myself. It was so damn sweet. I hadn’t bothered to call Marner in six whole flipping months, and still he cared about me.
Marner got that panicked man look and said, “Hey, hey, now, it’s okay. We’re cool. And if you want me to look into Ryan’s suicide, I can do that.”
I nodded, blinded by tears and struck by inspiration. “And can you get the police report for me to look at? I just need some closure, I think.”
“Sure, sure. Have some more wine.” He filled my glass to the rim.
What? It’s called taking advantage of an opportunity. I wasn’t trying to play Marner or be manipulative. The tears were real. But if they worked in my favor, all the better. If I was going to humiliate myself in public, there should at least be some benefit to it.
I wiped my eyes, gave a shuddery sigh, and drained my second glass of wine. Or was it my third?
Which is how I wound up drunk at Ryan’s ranch house.
Bailey Burke has had a rough six monthsóit’s not easy thinking your romantic overtures toward your best friend caused him to kill himself. Except that’s exactly what happened. Ryan is very much dead, having shot himself with his own police-issued gun. Guilt and grief shouldn’t cause hallucinations though, but six months after Ryan went into the ground, Bailey is freaking out and swearing his ghost is standing in her kitchen.
Ryan claims he didn’t commit suicide, but was murdered, and he needs Bailey to help him find his killer so he can earn his ticket out of purgatory. Which contrary to national opinion is†not†their hometown of Cleveland. Ryan’s counting on a stairway to heaven, as opposed to wings, since that might be a little unmanly for a cop, even a dead one.
An expert in home design, with her own staging business, Bailey can tell you where to place a couch to improve flow and comfort, but solving a crime? Not her area of expertise. But with help from Ryan’s former partner, Marner, she is unraveling the mystery of what happened to Ryan that dayÖ and unwittingly putting herself in grave danger.
About Erin McCarthy
USA Today and New York Times Bestselling author Erin McCarthy first published in 2002 and has since written over seventy novels and novellas in teen fiction, new adult romance, paranormal, and contemporary romance. Erin is a RITA finalist and an ALA Reluctant Young Reader award recipient, and is both traditionally and indie published.