A Ghostly Secret
Book 7 in the Ghostly Southern Mystery Series
Emma Lee Raines, proprietor of a small-town Kentucky funeral home, Eternal Slumber, is a “Betweener,” helps ghosts stuck between here and the ever-after— only murdered ghosts. After Emma Lee solves who murdered them, only then can they cross over to the Great Beyond, Big Guy In The Sky.
Emma Lee is up against a cold case that happened before she’d even gotten her “Betweener” gift. Not only is the ghost of eight-year-old Betsy Lynn Brady, but Mr. Whiskers Betsy’s cat needs to cross the Rainbow Bridge.
Betsy Lynn Brady has no idea who murdered her or why. With her heart in shambles, Emma Lee begs her sexy beau, Sheriff Jack Henry Ross to reopen the cold case because Betsy’s head is always stuck in a book and can’t remember exactly what happened to her.
Emma Lee learns real fast that someone doesn’t want her to snoop around the cold case. Can she help Betsy cross over and get Mr. Whiskers cross the Rainbow Bridge before someone helps Emma Lee check out from the living?
A Ghostly Secret
Book 7 in the Ghostly Southern Mystery Series
A Ghostly Secret
Ghosts sure are a funny thing. The afterlife was something I didn’t think I’d ever figure out. Even as a Betweener and after helping at least seven ghosts cross over to the other side, I still didn’t understand them.
My latest Betweener client sat near the casket in the front of the viewing room with a book in her lap. She’d been hanging around for about six months now with little to no advancement on her case.
“She sure could charm the dew right off the honeysuckle.” Mary Anna Hardy stood over the mahogany wood high-gloss casket with the white velvet interior looking at her handiwork, and took my stare away from the little ghost. “Damn shame she drank herself silly.”
“Damn,” the ghost girl repeated. I’d found that my young client loved to repeat dirty words. “What?” she asked when she noticed me raise my brows toward her. She stuck the end of one of her pigtails in her mouth and chewed on it.
“Seeing that she died from liver failure that was due to drinking, I’d bet Eternal Slumber that half of her charm was due to the fact she was always sweet talking to get another free drink. At least that’s what I’d heard she did down at The Watering Hole,” John Howard Lloyd, maintenance man of Eternal Slumber, took the Swiffer mop and ran it over the walls to get any dust off.
It was a handy trick and he was tall enough to run it from ceiling to floor, not like me. I’d had to get a stepladder just to reach the top of the window casing. Granted, all the windows in Eternal Slumber, my funeral home business, were practically floor to ceiling with big wooden casing around them. After all, the funeral home was located in a very old Victorian house that’d been converted into the funeral home that my family had owned. Now it was mine. All mine.
I sighed deeply thinking about the last six months as my eyes gazed up at Mary Anna and John Howard and back to the little ghost. Shelley Shaw had been found in the gravel right outside of The Watering Hole. According to Jack Henry Ross, my boyfriend and local sheriff, Shelley hadn’t even been in the bar. Apparently, she died of her own doing according to her autopsy and I wouldn’t be seeing her ghost. It was always hard to have a funeral for someone so young.
The last person that young was my sister, Charlotte Rae. Truly it’s taken me the last six months to start feeling somewhat normal. Even Zula Fae Raines Payne, my granny, had just begun to show her spry self again.
“You sure do pretty work,” John Lloyd said to Mary Anna, referring to the cosmetology work she’d done on Shelley.
“It’s an art.” She had a pair of scissors in her hand. Her wrist twirled around as she talked; the sharp end pointed out made John Howard duck each time the twirl circled back to him. “A gift, really.”
She reached over the casket and did a few final snips of Shelley’s hair. John Howard went on about the rest of his work. The florist had delivered the flowers and had set them in the foyer. With a couple of the baskets in each hand, I walked back into the viewing room and set them on some of the floating shelves on the wall. After the last basket was in place, the casket spray was the last one and prettiest one. It was from Shelley’s family and done up in red roses. The gold banner across the blanket of flowers read: BELOVED.
I stood in the back of the viewing room to make sure that it looked aesthetically pleasing. Rows of folding chairs were set up with one aisle down the middle. The red slipcovers with the Eternal Slumber logo embroidered on the back were neatly tied on the chairs. I walked around to all the windows and fluffed out the baby blue floor-to-ceiling drapes.
“Emma Lee,” Mary Anna called me and turned around. The red lipstick almost took away from her white Daisy-Duke shorts and red-and-white gingham button down that was tied in a knot at her bellybutton. “I’m done. I’ve got to get back down to the shop.” She unbuttoned the first four buttons of her shirt and let the girls bust out. “Business is slow.” She stuck her hand in her bra and shimmied them things up to her chin. “I’ve got to call in backup.”
I laughed and waved ’bye, shaking my head with each twist of her hips. I could only imagine what she looked like walking down the sidewalk to Girl’s Best Friend Spa, the only salon in Sleepy Hollow, Kentucky, our little slice of heaven among the caves and caverns.
I ran my hand down my brown hair. It was time I get a highlight and a new cut. It was time I did a lot of things, like come back to the living. A little piece of me died with Charlotte Rae. Yeah. Like every sibling, Charlotte Rae and I had our fair share of disagreements. We never saw things the same way and at the very end it was a shame because it was only then that she truly knew who I really was.
Today wasn’t the day to get sad or depressed. The visitor log had to be put out on the stand and the memorial cards needed to be stacked.
I looked down when I felt the orange tabby cat’s tail drag along my shin.
“Hey, kitty.” I bent down and put my hand out. “Here kitty, kitty.”
It was the closest the cat had ever gotten to me.
“Wee-doggie, it’s hot in here. Ah’m bout to burn up.” Granny scurried through the front door of the funeral home. “Not as hot as the cleavage of Mary Anna’s boobs, but still hot.”
She dragged off her big purple sunglasses and focused her eyes on me. She glared at me like I’d better straighten up or she was going to jerk a knot in me.
“Granny.” I stood up and put my arms out to walk over to give her a hug.
She completely bypassed me and looked into the viewing room. Her spiky red-haired head twisted right, left, and around before she jerked her five-feet-four-inch frame back over to me. She smacked her palm on my forehead.
“You got the trauma?” She gave me the wonky eye.
“No.” I took a step back. “I’m fine.” I crossed my heart.
Technically I didn’t lie. I didn’t have what Doc Clyde called the Funeral Trauma. Two years ago this Christmas, I had walked down to Artie’s Meat and Deli to get me and Charlotte Rae a soup and sandwich for lunch. All the Christmas decorations were up and Artie had put a plastic Santa on the roof of the deli. It was particularly warm for a December day in Kentucky, which helped melt the snow. As soon as I walked up to the deli, the Santa fell off the roof and knocked me out cold. When I woke up a few days later in the hospital, I was surrounded by family and clients. Let me clarify, the clients were dead ones. Ones I’d put six feet into the ground, only they’d not crossed over.
I’d mentioned to Doc Clyde that I could see them and he claimed I had what was called the Funeral Trauma and I’d been around dead people too long. In reality, Santa had given me a gift not on my list. The title of Betweener, the gift of seeing dead people. Really dead murdered people that needed me to help bring their killer to justice. Fast forward a couple of years to now and I’ve still got Betweener clients. The cat was my first animal client and it’d been around for at least a year now.
The chime of the old grandfather clock that sat in the corner of the foyer chimed. There were only thirty minutes until show time.
“You were looking awfully strange when I walked into the door with your hand out. You might not’ve thought I heard you, but I heard you call for a kitty.” Granny pointed into the viewing room. “There’s no kitty in there, just Shelley Shaw who’s going to melt if you don’t get something done about this humidity.”
“Here Mr. Whiskers. Here kitty.” The ghost of the young girl that had come on the day of Charlotte Rae’s funeral reappeared out of nowhere. She twirled her pigtail around her finger. “Remember me? You said you’d help me cross over.”
“I don’t understand why you don’t talk to me,” the ghost rotated her body back and forth. Her little blue eyes stared up at me and she clutched a book to her chest. “Did I do something wrong?”
A few of the Auxiliary women were standing at the entrance of the viewing room waiting to sign the guest book. I offered them a wry smile that was part thank you for coming and part sympathy. It was hard. I had to be seen as someone who felt their pain as well as put on a good social event.
Yes. As sick as it sounded, funerals in Sleepy Hollow were just as much a social gathering as a birth, wedding, birthday, or any hoedown. I’d guess that half of the people sitting in the chairs in the viewing room hadn’t ever talked to Shelley Shaw a day in their life.
I stepped aside and headed down the hall toward the back of Eternal Slumber. On the right were two offices, one was mine, and the other had been Charlotte’s. The elevator went to the basement where Vernon Baxter, my undertaker who was also the county coroner, worked. The basement also served as the county morgue.
The morgue might give someone the heebie-jeebies, but it was actually a state-of-the-art facility with all the bells and whistles. It was a genius idea really. After Vernon was elected coroner of Sleepy Hollow, since it didn’t require full-time work, he kept his day job here at Eternal Slumber. The old morgue was run down and was like one of those creepy made for TV movie kinds. Even had the flickering lights. I’d gone to the town council and proposed that they could use my facility, in turn, any equipment purchased to upgrade the county morgue would also be available to be used by Eternal Slumber. Surprisingly they agreed and voted yes. Vernon was hunky-dory in that basement.
Also down the hall was a small gathering room where the family members could go and have a timeout from all the mourners. There was food back there from the Auxiliary women. Funerals were their time to shine and try to outdo one another with their recipes.
But I was headed to my little apartment in the back of the old Victorian. I’d grown up in the funeral home. Trust me, no one ever wants to spend the night in a funeral home, so as a young girl, I wasn’t the most popular kid in school. I’d say I was the least popular. After my parents retired, I brought the funeral home up-to-date by adding new fixtures, new paint, new drapes and added another viewing room. I did keep a small apartment in the back that had an efficiency kitchen, small TV room, bathroom and a bedroom. There was even my own entrance.
I’m not going to say it’s not creepy sleeping in the same building with cold bodies, but nothing fazed me now that I could see ghosts.
I shut the door to my apartment and locked it so Granny couldn’t just walk in, even though she did have a key. At least I could hear her fussing under her breath and jiggling her key, giving me time to stop talking to the little girl. Trust me, if Granny caught me talking to myself, she’d have Doc Clyde over here in no time flat.
“I’m not ignoring you.” I bent down to the little girl. “Every time I ask you to give me some information, you can’t.” I sighed. It was times like right now that I wished I could reach out and touch my clients. “I really do wish I could help you.”
“But you ignore me.” Her little voice cracked.
“Here’s the deal. Those people out there.” I pointed toward the front of the funeral home. “They don’t know I can see you. If they see me talking to myself, they will think I’m crazy and call a doctor to tell him I’m not feeling well.”
“You gonna get a shot?” She shivered. “I hate shots.” She rubbed her arm like she had a memory.
“You remember getting shots?” I asked trying to coax her to talk to me.
When she showed up on the day of my sister’s funeral, she was with another woman she claimed was her sister. They fought like they were sisters, but then the sister was gone. I realized it was a ghost even though she told me she was a Betweener like me. She wasn’t. It just goes to show you can’t trust ghosts.
“Mr. Whiskers!” The little girl’s attention swiftly turned to the cat when he appeared. She was able to pet on him and rub him. All I could do was feel his tail when he’d rub it against me.
“You still can’t remember if Mr. Whiskers was your cat?” I asked, like I’d done several times.
She shook her head and giggled when Mr. Whiskers licked her fingers. The knock at the door that led into the funeral home startled her and the cat. They disappeared.
“Coming,” I called and ran my hand down my black suit jacket. I wore the same thing to each funeral. Black pantsuit. I swung the door open and Jack Henry Ross stood on the other side.
“Hi,” his whisper swept past my ears as did the smell of his cologne.
My stomach tumbled and rolled. I wanted to sop him up like gravy with a biscuit, but the time and place wasn’t now or here.
“Why are you hiding back here?” He eyed me suspiciously.
“You look so hot.” I referred to his blue uniform he always wore for the funeral processions. Even though he was sheriff, out of respect for the families and our small town, he always led the cars from Eternal Slumber to the cemetery.
He winked, pulling me to him for a nice long kiss.
“Now spill.” He lowered his eyes. “Ghost girl? Ghost cat?”
“Yeah. She was upset that I ignore her when people are around.” I flip-flopped my head shoulder to shoulder. “There’s not much I can do if she can’t tell me more than her age. I don’t know where she’s from. I’ve scoured all the missing persons and hospitals over the last months and no one that looks like her has been reported missing or dead.”
Granted, ghosts didn’t look exactly as vibrant as they did when they were living. It was only when they were about to cross over that I could see how they had truly looked. It was probably good too because it left me with a good image of them instead of the muted ghost spirit that I was used to seeing.
“After the cemetery I’ve got a reservation for supper at Bella Vino Restorante and an appointment with Debbie Dually,” he said and squeezed my hand.
“What on earth did I do to get supper and Debbie?” I gulped.
Before Charlotte crossed over, she was visiting me while I was in the hospital. I’d moved Jack’s coat and a velvet ring box had fallen out of his jacket. Now. . .in high school I’d cut his pictures out of the yearbook and pasted them on my wall. Many nights I dreamed of marrying him, but right now wasn’t the time for me to get engaged. It wasn’t that I didn’t see myself with him, heck, I already had my wedding dress picked out as well as all the colors, cake, food, venue and music. It was just my heart wasn’t in the right place. Even though Charlotte told me that she’d be with me in spirit when I got married and I had to do it without her, I wasn’t ready. Not now. Not yet.
“Why don’t we just go see Debbie?” I suggested.
Debbie Dually was the medium who told me exactly the name of my gift. Betweener. She’d helped out so much and I needed her now. I’d never had a ghost I didn’t know or a little girl. The thought of someone killing her really did bug me and I just didn’t know how I was going to proceed. Maybe I was blocked or something.
“No. We’ve got something to celebrate.” His slow southern drawl still sent my heart into a rapid beating fit. His deep brown eyes stared at me, making me want to reach out and run my fingers through his brown hair that had grown out a little from the high and tight he normally sported.
“Oh.” I gnawed on my bottom lip wondering how I was going to get out of this one. I just knew he was taking me to our favorite restaurant to propose. I bit back the tears. The thought of me getting married without Charlotte Rae was really heavy on my heart. “Okay,” I whispered and put it in the back of my head.
I’d do something, but right now I had to get back to Shelley Shaw’s funeral.
“Sh…sh…shell,” the little girl sat on the top of Shelley’s casket trying to sound out the sash on the casket spray while Julie Miller’s gospel, All My Tears, played over the loud speaker.
I couldn’t help but think if Shelley Shaw knew her time was coming to an end since she’d had this song playing in her car the night they found her body.
And I will not be ashamed. For my Savior knows my name. It don’t matter where you bury me. I’ll be home and I’ll be free, Julie belted out and made me wonder if Shelley sang these words and had wished to be free from the grip alcohol had seemed to have on her.
“Let’s pray.” Pastor Brown’s razor-sharp blue eyes scanned the crowd to make sure everyone’s head was bowed and eyes were clamped tight. If they weren’t he’d curse you with those eyes until the fear of God was in you, which made you close your eyes.
He put his hands up in the air. The sleeve on his already too short brown pinstriped suit coat exposed a tarnished metal watch. His pale skin stood out against his coal-black greasy comb-over.
“He sure is scary lookin’.” The little girl appeared next to Pastor Brown and looked up at him with a snarl on her face. “Are you sure he’s not a ghost like me? He’s awfully white.”
Granny nudged me when I giggled.
“Act like you got some sense,” she warned with a whisper but her whisper was as loud as a train whistle. “What’s wrong with you, laughing while someone is lying corpse?” She bent down and scratched her legs to high-heaven.
Pastor Brown’s voice boomed as he cracked one eye open and mentally told me to hush.
I rolled my lips together and looked down. Mr. Whiskers was dancing between Granny’s ankles.
“I’m so itchy.” She gave one last scratch before she gave up, giving me the head nod to follow her. “You got any itch cream?”
“Not a bit.” Even though we were in the foyer, I kept my voice down.
“I’ve got some at the Inn.” She grabbed my hand and dragged me out of the funeral home and down the steps.
The square, what we locals called the downtown area of Sleepy Hollow, was just that, a square with businesses on the circumference, like shops, local business, the courthouse and The Sleepy Hollow Inn. In the center was a big park with a large gazebo in the middle where people tended to gather.
Granny stalked across the street, through the park, and across the street again to The Sleepy Hollow Inn, or as locals called it the Inn, where she was the proud proprietor.
“Don’t it look good?” Granny stood in the front yard of the Sleepy Hollow Inn with her hands on her hips as she looked at the freshly painted inn. After about a second, she started to itch again.
“It does look good.” The pale yellow had been freshened up to more of a lemon yellow. With time it’d fade like before. There was a long porch along the front with four white pillars.
The white rocking chairs were occupied by guests of the Inn.
“Good night for a funeral, ain’t it?” Granny greeted the guests in only a way she could. The guests looked half-scared, half-amused. “Get on in here before you let the bugs in.” Granny held the screened door for me.
The inside of the Inn was very homey and inviting. It was the only place to stay within downtown Sleepy Hollow, so it was always filled. There were many returning guests because they love Granny’s down-home hospitality. Though I think they liked her blunt attitude which some could mistake as crazy.
The big room on the right was the hospitality room where Granny kept refreshments for her guests. Most of the guests were in town to explore the caves and caverns. Some would even camp, but keep their room at the Inn. The room to the right was a dining room that was also open to the public. That’s where everyone experienced Granny’s southern cooking. Up the stairs were the guest rooms. Granny also lived there so it was hard for her too to separate work from life.
While Granny walked to the kitchen, I walked into the refreshment room and grabbed a couple of her chocolate chip cookies and a glass of sweet tea. Granny made the best sweet tea in the entire state of Kentucky and I’d bet the funeral home on it.
“What are you doing in here?” She came back in with a tube of itch cream. She unscrewed the top and squeezed out a glob. She bent over and smacked the goop on each ankle. “Darn fleas. You’ve got fleas in the funeral home. Get an exterminator.”
“I’m sure I don’t have fleas.” I watched as the red bumps got bigger on her ankles.
“I’m telling you that I’ve not had a reaction like this since I was a kid and took home a cat with fleas. I’m allergic to cats and to fleas. You ain’t got no cat, so I’m telling you it’s fleas.” She snarled. “So what’s going on with you? How have you been, kiddo?”
She grabbed a glass and poured some tea, gesturing me to follow her back out to the front porch.
“You know. It’s still not getting any easier.” I referred to the loss of Charlotte. “I think it’s going to take time.”
“Time is flying by. You might need to go see a doctor.” She cocked a brow and started to give the ferns a drink of her sweet tea by pouring some in each pot. She claimed it was magic food for them.
They were gorgeous and bouncy and perfect for the start of fall. Maybe if I drank more of Granny’s tea, I’d be gorgeous and bouncy. I sighed.
“And I think Jack Henry wants to propose.” It came out of my mouth like a bad thing.
“You sound like it’s a death sentence.” She picked and plucked the ferns to get out some of the soon-to-be-dead pieces. “I sure do remember you swooning all over that boy when you were a teenager. Ain’t it just like a woman to get what she wants and don’t want it?”
“Oh. I do love him.” There was no denying that. “I never imagined myself getting married without Charlotte Rae and for some reason I feel like my happiness doesn’t feel appropriate.”
“If I recall, and don’t go thinking I got memory loss because I don’t, but if I do recall, Charlotte Rae did tell you to go and be happy according to your dream.” Her eyes narrowed and she brought the glass up to her lips and let the last little drops of tea fall into her mouth.
The last time I spoke to Charlotte Rae’s ghost played in my head like a movie.
“No.” I gulped back the bittersweet moment. “Not without you by my side.”
“I have to.” Charlotte ghosted herself next to my bed. “I’m sorry for not being the big sister you wanted me to be. You are going to be a beautiful bride.”
She pointed to the coat.
“Now pick it up and act like you don’t know anything about it.” She looked so angelic with the brightest smile across her face. Her eyes lit up like stars. “Let him wow you with how much he loves you and adores you.”
After that I’d told Granny that I’d had a dream about Charlotte Rae. I couldn’t tell her the truth about my Betweener gig.
“I’m telling you that spirits come to us in our dreams and she wants you to get married to Jack Henry as much as I do.” Her eyes slid past me, across the town square, and over to Eternal Slumber where John Howard was getting the hearse ready for the drive to the cemetery.
Jack Henry stood on the front porch of the funeral home and waved me over.
“Look at that boy,” Granny said in her saucy voice. “Now, you get on over there, finish up Shelley Shaw and get a ring on that finger. Good gawd, you’re gonna be a thirty-year-old maid in a few days.”
I grumbled the entire way over to the funeral home. It was true. I was going to be thirty in a few days and had hoped she’d forgotten since Charlotte was always on the forefront of our minds.
“It’s gonna be your birfday?” The little girl appeared. I couldn’t help but smile at her lisp. “I loved mine. I think I’m eight.”
“You’re eight?” I asked with my eyes still on the funeral home as I walked across the square. My shoulders dropped when I noticed she’d disappeared. It was the first real fact that she might’ve told me about since she showed up.