I’m putting some of this after a jump so as to share the front page with all the other lovely excerpts we’ll be seeing here during excerpt week, which I’m sure we can all agree was a genius idea on Marcia’s part. Naturally, I’m tacking on a little shameless self promotion. I hope you’ll all do the same, to make it easy for me to find your books.
I’m looking forward to finding some new stuff for my Kindle this week, so get posting!
Ghost in the Canteen is a modern paranormal fantasy with elements of horror, comedy, severed stuff, and supernaturally powerful dogs. As the first in the Lydia Trinket series, it’s permanently priced at 99¢ at major online retailers. Book two in the series, Peak of the Devil, is coming next month. (For anyone who’s already read Ghost, an excerpt of Peak is available at my website, but you should be warned: that one contains adult language!)
You can find Ghost at:
Amazon | iBooks | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Scribd | Inktera
It was the Newfie that started it. It attacked me, which is not normal for a Newfoundland, much less a statue. I was sitting in the dining room of the Dodd house, giving its resident ghost a lecture. The faint scents of tobacco and vanilla were the only signs of him in a room made dim by heavy (and awful) mauve-striped curtains.
“Look Thomas, I get how hard it must have been.” I gestured down the long table. “All the Thanksgiving turkeys served here over the years, all the birthday candles blown out. Your brother at the head of your table. Spending your money. Married to your girl.”
Something growled behind me.
A life-sized wooden Newfie sat between the sideboard and a bookshelf that held china figures and teacups, but no books. The poor dog had seen better days. His paint was chipped, his body scratched. One of his ears ended abruptly in a splintered edge.
We were of a height when I knelt in front of him. “Are you Thomas’s dog?” In the interest of common ground, I hoped so. Establishing rapport and all that. “I had a Newfoundland too,” I announced for old Tom’s benefit. “White and black, just like yours. His name was Little John.”
The vanilla-and-tobacco smell grew stronger. I scratched the Newf’s worn wooden ruff. “You’re a good boy to try to protect him. But I’m here for his own good.” I felt the rumble of his second growl beneath my fingers, and took my hand away.
“I told you, Thomas, I get it. I’d be pissed off too, believe me. But a century is long enough to wallow in it. It’s not healthy for you.”
No growl this time. The silence grew thick, the air cold.
“What do you say, huh? Maybe you’re ready to go of your own free will? Save us all some trouble?” They almost never accepted this offer, but I considered it polite to ask. Apparently my good manners did nothing to impress Thomas Dodd.
The dog came at me in a flurry of snarls and barks. I jumped away a split second too late, and his teeth grazed my hand. He was still made of wood, his coat faded paint instead of fur, but his breath was hot and real.
My back slammed into the bookshelf, nearly tipping it over. I raised my arms to protect myself from its falling contents while I thrust a knee into the advancing Newf’s chest. (Although the force of my strike was tempered by the part of me, the crazy part, that didn’t want to hurt a dog.) He snapped at my leg as a china shepherdess broke across his back.
Something heavy smacked my shoulder, then bounced away. I heard it shatter against the table. The dog got hold of my forearm, drawing blood. Whatever had hit me had thrown me off balance, and my feet got tangled with the legs of a chair as I tried to pull away from those teeth that didn’t feel like wood at all.
My head hit the back of the chair, and then my cheek and nose were smashed into the musty-smelling carpet. Well great, this is it then. As usual, my inner critic sounded disappointed, but not surprised. You go down when a dog’s attacking you and you’re as good as dead.
I grabbed the chair by the legs and gave it as much of a swing as I could manage. If I got it between me and the Newfie, great. If I hit the Newfie, even better. (Hurting him was no longer high on my list of concerns.) There was a sharp knock of wood against wood, then a yelp, then a slobbering noise. I shook the stars out of my eyes and sat up, banging my head on the table as I did, because this day didn’t suck enough already.
The Newf was sitting back in his original position, licking my blood off his snout. When he was done he resumed the happy doggy smile the sculptor had given him, and it was as if he had never moved at all.
“Right,” I said. “Good dog.” I stood up and sniffed the air. The vanilla and tobacco were gone. “Okay then, Tom, I’ll take that as a no.”
I rubbed my shoulder and turned to the table to see what had fallen on me that was heavy enough to hurt that bad. Jagged pieces of slate-gray pottery. A vase? No. A figure of some sort. There was a little foot, and there… I snatched my hand away and jumped back from the table.
The face was almost completely intact. The wide leer. The squinty little eyes, the stubby pointed ears. My mouth went dry as I stared at it.
“It’s a coincidence,” I whispered. “Just a coincidence.” I reached for my bag where I’d set it on the table earlier. “A coincidence,” I repeated while I pulled out bandages and baby wipes. “Just typical ghost stuff, trying to scare me off.” I cleaned the bites on my arm and hand, which were thankfully not deep. “He could not have known about the gargoyle. Of course he couldn’t.”
I ruined a few of the bandages, trying to peel off the backs with my shaking fingers, but eventually I got all the wounds covered. I was just finishing the last one when I heard the front door open and close.
“In the dining room.” My voice was more-or-less normal, so at least I had that going for me.
“Oh good you’re here, I couldn’t remember if I told you where to find the key, I’m so sorry I’m late Tyler forgot his lunch and I had to drop it off, and oh my gosh what happened in here?” Katie always spoke without the benefit of periods. I was lucky to even get commas.
“Your ghost is pissed off,” I answered.
She walked over to the table and picked up a piece of the gargoyle. I hoped she didn’t see me flinch.
“Well, he was always violent, even when he was alive, you should have heard some of the stories my cousins used to scare me with.”
I had heard them, or at least got a basic outline, when I first took on the case: not the same when he came back from the war. Volatile, violent, even abusive toward his beautiful young fiancée. If he had been pushed down those stairs, the story went, obviously it would have been during a struggle of his own making. Great-Grandpa Clarence was probably defending Great-Grandma Flora. It was romantic, when you thought about it. The gargoyle’s cracked face kept grinning at me. Before I could stop myself, I reached out and flipped it over.
“I always hated that ugly thing, but Grandma Maisie loved it, she called it Irving,” said Katie. “You were supposed to put it up high so it could watch over the family, or some crap like that.”
“What about him?” I nodded toward the Newfie. “Was he supposed protect you, too?”
“Garm?” Katie laughed. “Well if he was he didn’t do a very good job, I got a beating because of him, look.” She bent and pointed at the statue’s front paw, which had been colored with what looked like blue marker. “I gave him a manicure when I was four, Grandma Maisie actually pulled off her shoe and whacked me across the butt with it.” When she turned back to me she took in the bandages on my arm, then the pile of their wrappers and the bloody wipes, for the first time.
“Oh my gosh are you okay?”
“Totally fine. Just some scratches. The table’s in worse shape than I am.” I pushed aside a piece of gargoyle to show her the gouges it’d made when it shattered.
Katie shrugged. “I’ll throw a tablecloth over it when I clean up later, but can we get started? I have to pick up Branson at one.”
I took one last look at Garm’s big sloppy Newfie grin, then gathered up my things. “Yeah. Let’s get going.”
Katie led the way into the sunny yellow kitchen and gestured at the center island, which was topped with a thick slab of garish rose-colored marble. She blamed the ghost for the lack of buyers interested in her Grandma Maisie’s house, but I had to wonder whether the color scheme wasn’t an equal culprit. I set my bag down on the pink nightmare and slid the switchel ring off my shoulder.
“So that’s it?” Katie reached out to touch the timeworn clay, gingerly, like a legion of ghosts might come out of it and attack her. “I thought you said it was a canteen.”
“It is. It’s ring-shaped so you can put it over your shoulder, like I was carrying it.”
“Like a purse for your booze?”
“Sort of, except it’s meant to carry switchel.”
Katie nodded but didn’t ask what switchel was. It takes a certain kind of person to be captivated by the details of eighteenth-century canteens.
“You have his personal item?” I asked.
“Yep.” She produced a tarnished silver pocket watch from her purse.
I took it and turned it over in my hands. It felt cold despite having just left a nest of tissues and granola bars. My fingers brushed across an engraving on the back, but the watch was so dirty I could only make out two and a half words: hero, Clarence, and something that started with al. “His brother gave this to him? Your great-grandfather?”
“I guess so,” said Katie. “I think it’s pretty expensive.” As if its monetary value made it more powerful.
“One other thing, do you know the date of his death?” I asked. “It’s not any time soon, is it?”
“April 27, 1919,” Katie said, then added, like she was expecting a sticker, “I looked it up.”
Several uneasy real estate agents, one animated statue, and five small adhesive bandages worth of minor injuries. Tom was kicking kind of a lot of ass for more than half a year from his death date. So he’s powerful, big deal. That doesn’t make him the goddamn Shadow. He’d have no way of knowing about the gargoyle. None.
I pulled out my lucky bowl, the same redware as the switchel ring, and asked Katie to fill it with water. While she was at the sink, I took out the sage oil and a little muslin pouch of salt. Katie set the bowl down in front of me, and I handed her a box of long kitchen matches.
“This is the important part for you,” I said. “You cannot let the fire go out. Whatever happens, whatever I’m doing, whatever you’re seeing or hearing. If you see it start to sputter or go low, put another match to it and add more oil if you need to. I can’t be interrupted once we’re underway, so if you have any questions, now’s the time.”
Katie shook her head. “Keeping the fire lit seems pretty straightforward, and that’s all I need to know, right?”
“That’s it,” I agreed, but privately I was judging her. Most people asked whether the ritual would hurt the ghost, or for reassurance that what we were doing was the right thing. Even if he wasn’t such a nice guy when he was alive (and even if he sent wooden Newfies to attack you when he was dead), banishing someone from earth forevermore is a pretty big deal. But Katie didn’t appear to give her great-great-uncle any thought at all, except as an inconvenience. He might just as well have been squirrels in the attic.
I sprinkled some salt in the bowl and floated plenty of sage oil on top. “Ready?” When she nodded I added, “Remember, don’t let the fire go out.”
Katie gave me an impatient look. Okay fine, I was nagging. I uncorked the switchel ring, struck a match, and lit the oil. Then I began to speak.
I had no idea what language the incantation was in. I didn’t even know what the words meant, let alone how to spell them. Cyrus never taught us more than he had to, only to mimic him until we could say it perfectly. But it managed to be lyrical and disturbing at once, and it gave me the chills every time.
As I said it, the vanilla-tobacco came back, and another smell too, something like blood. Tom’s hostility was palpable, but he didn’t interfere. Maybe he’d used up all his strength on that little trick with the dog (and the gargoyle shut up he didn’t know about the gargoyle). I got through the first and second verses, then as I began the third and final one, I dropped his watch into the bowl. It disappeared through the flames with a faint hissing sound, never to return.
And there was our apparition at last, on the other side of the ugly kitchen island. Ghosts look pretty much like they’re described in stories: pale and translucent, but usually distinct enough to make out their features. Thomas Dodd, for example, had a long nose and an expression like he wanted to punch me in the face.
Katie gasped when he appeared and almost dropped the match she’d been holding at the ready. But it seemed Tom really had exhausted himself, because the fire didn’t so much as flicker. I spoke the last two lines, my voice rising with the flames as the ghost of Thomas Dodd was drawn toward the bowl and the open canteen beside it. Then my eyes were filled with flame and smoke, light and shadow, and I was thrown back by some force I couldn’t see. I fell to the floor.
That happened every time, too. You’d think I’d have learned to wear padding.
But then, as Thomas Dodd’s silvery form shrank through the switchel ring’s opening, something else came out of it: a child’s laugh, teasing, sweet, and horrible. I could actually feel it as I heard it, the breath fluttering across my cheek like a caress. And then it was gone as fast as it came.
I almost lost it, right there on the floor of the Dodd house. My chest tightened and my stomach folded into itself. Nothing had ever come out of the switchel ring before. Nothing could come out of it. As far as I knew, as far as I’d always known, it was a one-way portal, an express train for reluctant travelers. You could use it to get to the afterlife, but the afterlife couldn’t use it to get to you. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.
The real reason I had to choke back a scream and a gag was that I knew that laugh. I’d only heard it once before, and not for nearly five years, but neither that nor the quickness of it made me any less sure. It was the laugh of a three-year-old poltergeist named Roderick Turner. I’d banished the little shit, but not before he killed my brother Nat.
Nat died of massive head trauma after being struck in the head with a blunt object: a cast iron gargoyle.
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