My name is Bailey Burke and I see dead people.
I’ve learned a few things about myself recently.
I can eat a whole pint of ice cream in one glorious dairy-fueled sitting. I’m attracted to Cleveland cop Jake Marner, who I had previously known for years without ever lusting after.
And I see dead people.
Or person. I saw a dead person. My friend Ryan, Marner’s partner on the force, who had died from a gunshot wound everyone assumed was self-inflicted. Ryan’s ghost casually appearing to me was freaky as heck, yet oddly reassuring. He’d told me that his murder needed to be solved or he would never get sprung from purgatory. I wanted to help him, and it gave me peace to know he was the same wise-cracking nonchalant guy in death he had been in life.
But as I stood in my citrine-green kitchen staring at the woman with dark hair and colorful tattoos trying to pick up an orange with her vaporous fingers, I was caught completely off guard. Not as shocked as the first time I’d seen a ghost and had wanted to scream my head off, but unnerved as to what she was doing in my house. This was Hannah, Ryan’s last love interest before his death, a woman who had reinvented her life after a troubled past. I’d only met her once for ten minutes very recently, and she had been alive then.
Yet here she was, crying celestial tears and looking terrified. And very, very dead. It wasn’t that she didn’t look solid, because she did. It was more that she lacked energy. It was like looking at her was like staring at a hologram, not a flesh and blood, heart is pumping, living human.
“Now what?” I murmured to Ryan from the corner of my mouth, which was still full of a hunk of mozzarella I had just stuffed in it. When in doubt, eat cheese.
“Hannah,” Ryan said, “it’s okay. Everything is going to be okay.”
She stared at him blankly. “Ryan, what’s going on?”
“You tell me.” He moved toward her and I watched, swallowing the chunk of cheese painfully down my dry throat.
I had no clue what to do or say. Taking a hit off my e-cigarette (I’m trying to quit, don’t judge), I marveled that Hannah had streaks of mascara running down her cheeks from her tears. How was that possible? I had once assumed that ghosts were either exactly as they were in life (a la Rose on the Titanic meeting Jack at the stairs), or caught as they were the moment death stole their breath. Which would suck if you died in the shower.
“I don’t understand what’s going on.” Hannah glanced over at me. “Who are you?”
“I’m Bailey Burke,” I said. I would give her a pass on not remembering me considering she was recently deceased. That might rattle your memory banks just a tinge. And we’d only met once briefly in a bar, where she had blended with the dim interior and other patrons. Whereas I had stood out like a sore thumb. An Ann Taylor outfitted Miss Priss amongst bearded men and tattooed women.
I liked to think that made me fairly memorable, if not cutting edge.
Hannah started to weep, which made me feel terrible. She had been bold and confident when I had met her, and the sound coming from her now seemed out of character. Though I wasn’t sure anyone would be badass when discovering they were vapor.
“Why can’t I pick up this orange?”
“Because you’re dead,” Ryan said flatly.
I shot him a glare. “You could have eased into that, geez.”
“What?” He looked bewildered as to why that was maybe not the best wording.
Hannah started to scream.
I wanted more cheese.
“You need to fix this,” I said, wincing when Hannah hit a particularly high note. “I’m a home stager, not a ghost counselor. I don’t know what to do.” Except I probably had more compassion in my little finger than Ryan had in his whole body. Sensitive was not his middle name.
“I don’t know how to fix this either!” he said, waving his arms in the general direction of Hannah. “I don’t even know what this is! I’m supposed to be going into the light and shit, not stuck in your kitchen with my dead best girl.”
This was how it was with Ryan and me. We had just shared a tender moment of friendship where we had expressed our feelings, assuming Ryan would move on, and now we were annoyed with each other at the first sign of crisis. Thank goodness nothing had ever come of my feelings for him. We would have been a seriously lousy couple.
Obviously he had made a charming partner for Hannah, given he was eyeing her with a look of horror. Poor girl. She was saddled with a dead douchebag boyfriend. Sighing, I went over to her. “Hey, Hannah, listen to me.” Since I couldn’t hug her or pat her hand, I kneeled down so we were at eye level. “I need you to stop and think and tell me the last thing you remember, okay? It’s really important, so Ryan and I can help you.”
Help her do what, I had no idea, but we needed progress that didn’t involve screaming.
Her shriek cut off and she looked at me like I was a moron. “I was with Sam.”
“Who the hell is Sam?” Ryan asked, his fists clenching.
“The guy I’ve been dating.”
Great. Ryan’s jaw was working. He was jealous of the guy Hannah had been dating after Ryan had died. “You’ve been dead almost seven months,” I reminded him, before he tried to punch a wall. His ghostly powers were getting stronger and I seriously did not want a drywall dent in my kitchen. My Victorian in historic Ohio City had been completely renovated, and I didn’t need a dead dude jacking things up. You couldn’t send repair bills to the afterlife.
“I know,” he said through gritted teeth.
For the first time since she had appeared Hannah looked aware of who Ryan was. “I liked you better,” she assured him. She even gave him a smile, her expression going tender. “I missed you so much, Ryan.”
That was all it took for him to relax, his shoulders dropping.
While I was grateful for the danger passing, I was acutely aware of how much of a third wheel I was. Unbelievable. Only living soul in the room, and I felt like I’d stumbled on a private moment. And how in the heck was it possible for a ghost to have sex appeal? Yet Hannah did. She was wearing a black Pink Floyd T-shirt and those high-waisted shorts that guaranteed when she stood up her ass would be peeking out from under them, ironically cheeky. She wore black Converse. Her makeup, while streaked, was heavy on the smoky eye and oxblood lipstick. She gave the neither young nor old, neither innocent nor slutty vibe. She was mysterious and intriguing.
Like I had in the bar, I felt very floral next to her. Like she was an exotic jungle plant and I was an English garden. Rigid and heavy on the perfume.
I decided right then and there I was okay with that. The greatest risk I ever faced due to my lifestyle was being buried under six tons of magazines at a hoarder’s house. Maybe I couldn’t crook my finger and seduce a half dozen guys in a bar, but I appreciated my safe and tidy life. The only time I had ever been in danger was when I had been pursuing information about Ryan’s death.
“I missed you too,” he said gruffly.
“So what happened with Sam?” I asked, trying to force them to focus.
I prayed that Hannah had been killed by natural causes. Like death by choking. Or a car accident. Please don’t let it be murder.
“I was murdered,” she said. “Strangled to death.”
Aww, crap. That was a buzz kill.
“Why do I have to be here for this?” I grumbled to Ryan, getting out of my car in the Flats, an area of old warehouses by the Cuyahoga River that had gone through many reinventions and currently had restaurants and loft apartments. “Why can’t you two lovebirds look for Hannah’s body?”
Immediately I realized that was a horrible sentence. There was nothing romantic about seeking out your own corpse with your equally deceased boyfriend. I felt a flush stain my cheeks, which with my Irish heritage of fair skin and light freckles, was probably highly pronounced. Ryan’s eyebrows rose and I made a face. “Sorry, that didn’t sound right.”
“We can’t call the cops if we find something,” he reminded me.
He was right. If we found Hannah’s body in the last place she remembered being, neither of them could use a cell phone to dial 9-1-1. I was going to have to call the police and explain why I happened to be wandering around the riverbank alone after having spent the earlier part of the day held hostage by a maniacal insurance salesmen. This was going to go over well. I fervently hoped we found nothing but weeds, trash, and mosquitos in the summer heat.
“Fine,” I said. “But it’s getting late. It’s going to be dark soon, and I’m not wandering around here by myself. That’s just stupid.” It was a muggy, oppressively hot summer day and it smelled like asphalt with a whiff of fried food emanating from one of the nearby restaurants.
Even though I lived one neighborhood over, this was a part of Cleveland I didn’t actually frequent that often. I tended to stay in my own area, which had restaurants and bars galore, plus the enormous West Side market. I usually didn’t see any reason to fight to find a parking space in this part of town, even though it had great river views. I was probably limiting myself, but I could admit I’d been in something of a rut since Ryan’s death. I had stuck to the ease and comfort of being close to home.
Hannah seemed stuck in the car. I gestured to her. “Ryan, I think she needs help figuring out the transport thing you do.” Then I glanced around quickly to make sure no one had heard me. I forget sometimes that not everyone sees dead people and a slight redhead in a sundress and wedge sandals talking to herself was a little odd.
“Got it.” He popped back into the car then suddenly they both appeared standing next to me. Ryan eyed my outfit. “You should have changed your shoes.”
“I can do anything in heels,” I assured him. “And these are wedges, so I’m totally golden.”
“I don’t know what that means but I’ll take your word for it.” He scanned the area. “Hannah, where did you and Sam go?”
She pointed toward the bridge. It was a massive iron and steel structure. The pilings were so large they created huge concrete blocks down the side of the embankment. There was some graffiti on a few. In the sun everything shimmered with heat, the weeds still from the lack of a breeze. The river was sluggish, a huge barge equally lazy as it chugged toward Lake Erie.
“We were meeting his dealer.”
Her ghostly cheeks actually flushed pink behind her mascara streaks. She didn’t meet Ryan’s eye.
But he didn’t say anything about her falling off the wagon, which I agreed with. It seemed irrelevant at this point if she’d succumbed to her addiction again. What mattered was why she was dead and had appeared in my kitchen. Ryan said it wasn’t standard protocol for a ghost to show up so instantaneously, and I believed him, because what did I know about after death details? More than I wanted to, but not enough to understand what the hell was going on.
“So you remember the guy strangling you here? What happened to Sam?”
“He ran,” she said. “Before the guy attacked me. He left me there alone with him.”
Ryan swore violently. “Asswipe.”
Indeed. But then I had an equally horrifying thought. “Wait, how long ago did Hannah die? What if the killer is still here?” I frantically swiveled my head from side to side to make sure no one was creeping up behind me poised to wring my neck. I appeared to be alone, but one would assume killers would be circumspect. This was BS. “I want to go home.” There was a bag of Cheetos calling my name.
I had certainly regained an appetite for junk food since Ryan had shown up. It was like I was channeling his cravings. Which was weird.
“Relax. I’ll warn you if I see anyone.”
“Great, I feel so much better.” In order to just get the whole thing over with I started moving through the brush, glancing behind me every two seconds. There was nothing but hard-packed dirt and some stubbly weeds. It had been a dry summer and the brush was withered and brown. It made for an easy job. I could scan everything quickly and move on.
To my right there was a former warehouse that had been turned into apartments, and I could see a man on his small balcony leaning over the railing watching me. I must have looked sketchy as hell and I had no ready explanation for what I was doing. “What do I tell someone if they ask what I’m doing?” I asked Ryan.
“Tell them your phone was stolen from a restaurant and your find my phone app pointed over here.”
Oh, good one. “Got it.” There was a funky smell mingling with the fried foods and river water. “Gross, what is that nasty stink?”
In hindsight, I blame my cluelessness on being strung out from the day’s events and from the two (maybe three) shots of Jameson I had done several hours earlier. But I honestly said, without irony, “Ryan, someone threw a ham down here. Why would someone do that? Geez.”
It was rounded chunk of meat, with a reddish-brown leathery coating, like a HoneyBaked ham straight from the store. The front end was rotting, and there were flies crawling all over it. I covered my mouth with my hand to prevent some of the stench from invading my tongue and taste buds. A gag followed. I took it one step further and grabbed my thick auburn hair and covered my nose and mouth.
“Bailey, don’t touch it,” Ryan said, his voice low and urgent.
“What?” I turned around to make a face. “Why would I do that? That’s disgusting.”
His expression made me freeze. “That’s not a ham, Bai. It’s a human thigh.”
All the blood rushed to my head and for a split second my vision went black as dizziness enveloped me. Then I swallowed hard and scrambled back in horror, wanting many, many feet between me and the body part.
Hannah screamed, but my own horror was locked in my throat. I couldn’t make a sound.
“To the left,” Ryan said, his voice urgent, cutting through Hannah’s hysteria. “Be careful where you walk.”
That was reassuring. When I turned to follow where he pointed, my scream erupted. It was a hand. A freaking human hand and arm, swollen and white and looking like a Halloween store gag gift. Only it was far too real. Severed at the shoulder, the skin was waxy and discolored, but not the tough texture and rust color of the thigh.
“It’s clearly a male hand, so that isn’t Hannah. That’s good,” Ryan said.
I had forgotten that was why we were here—to find a body. And we had sort of found one, in pieces, but it was the wrong corpse. I wasn’t sure why the hell that was a positive. Because Hannah hadn’t been dismembered? I guess that was something, but we had another dead body. That seemed bad to me. Very bad. Nauseating. Vomit-inducing.
In fact, I did just that. With the view of mutilated flesh before me and the horrific stench clogging my nostrils, I stumbled back, bent over, and threw up the mozzarella cheese and whiskey combo that had been my dinner.
“Shit,” was Ryan’s opinion.
“Are you okay?” Hannah asked, looking concerned as I stood up and wiped my mouth with trembling fingers.
My eyes were filled with tears but I blinked hard to make them recede and shook my head. “I’ve just never seen anything like this.”
“Me either,” Ryan said, squatting down in his work boots and inspecting the hand. “This doesn’t look like an accident. It looks like a clean cut. Bailey, call the cops. We need detectives down here.”
I fumbled to get my phone out of my sundress pocket and swiped the screen. Because Marner had recently texted me it immediately went to that. He had asked how I was, which made me feel better, safer. I realized I wanted him there, keeping me calm, asking me the hard questions, not a stranger or one of the other detectives I knew casually from my brief stint as an evidence tech. Before I realized I hate blood and guts and death. Like the partial thigh lying in the dirt.
So with trembling fingers I typed a message that pretty much summed up everything I was feeling.
Two seconds later my phone rang. Jake Marner appeared on the screen as the caller. I answered it, my voice shaky. “Hello?”
“Are you okay? What is going on?” His voice was muffled, like he was walking with full hands and had his phone propped on his shoulder.
“I’m in the Flats and I just found an arm. Like a dead person’s arm. Cut off from his body.” In case that wasn’t clear. “I threw up. Literally. I don’t know what to do,” I said, the words tumbling out in a breathless rush.
“What? Are you serious? How do you know it’s an arm?”
That seemed to me the dumbest question ever asked in the history of life. “I know what an arm looks like!”
“Maybe it’s rubber or something. Why are you in the Flats anyway? I thought you were going home.”
That made me feel insta-defensive. I didn’t have to justify my actions. “I felt restless. Can you please get here? I’m freaking out! I don’t know what to do.”
“Call 9-1-1. I’m on my way.” There was a pause. “Bailey?”
“Yeah?” His whiskey-smooth voice cut through my panic, calming me down. Jake was a solid, stand-up guy. He never got rattled and he knew precisely how to keep me from losing it. I waited for him to say something kind, or sweet, or even romantic. We had almost had a romance for a brief fleeting moment. There had been a date, a kiss. Now maybe he was interested in keeping that spark burning.
“Get in your car and lock the doors.”
Or that. I was starting to think Marner found me to be a burden. “Sure, right, absolutely.” I ended the call and stood shivering, despite the heat, and blankly watched Ryan moving around the area, looking for clues in the weeds.
That hand just lay there, waxy and so oddly detached. Those fingers had eaten hot wings, and brushed someone’s teeth, and caressed a lover tenderly. Maybe those nails had been nibbled on, and knuckles bruised, skin cracked from the dry winters. Typed on a computer, driven a car, turned the pages of a book. Now they were stiff, lifeless. Useless digits with no identity. It was horrifying to consider the fleeting quality of life. From mundane daily tasks to death.
I suddenly remembered I was supposed to call 9-1-1.
It wasn’t a great call. After, “Hi, I found an arm lying by the river,” it got strange. The dispatcher asked a lot of questions I couldn’t answer or I thought were stupid, like “how do you know it’s an arm?” and “are you sure the victim is deceased?”
“There is no victim,” I said. “Just an arm. Like there’s no body. Can you just send someone here?” I knew the woman was just doing her job, but for Pete’s sake, go off script and learn to think for yourself.
I hung up and turned around, yelling to Ryan, “I’m waiting in the car!” I needed a breath of air freshener to overpower the horrible scent of flesh clogging my nostrils. I whipped around so quickly I almost ran into a guy who was coming down the hill. “Oh shit! You scared me.”
My heart rate flew into overdrive as I realized this could be the killer.
“Bailey, get him out of here before he contaminates the crime scene,” Ryan said from behind me.
I glanced back, trying to assess how far we were from the corpse. Hannah was sitting on a rock studying her fingernails, not looking particularly interested in our current dilemma. Then I turned back to the guy to see how far we were from my car and other human beings, just in case he tried to conk me over the head. I could hear a siren in the distance and I hoped it was for me.
“I didn’t mean to scare you, but are you okay?” He was around thirty years old, attractive, dressed in a polo shirt and khakis like he had left work at his accounting office or he was an aspiring golf pro.
“Absolutely, I’m fine, why do you ask?” I put my hand on my hip for some reason. Like my elbow would serve as a picket line he couldn’t cross. My logic was if he was the killer I didn’t want him to know I had found a body. But given that the cops would be there in three seconds it would make me look completely suspicious if he wasn’t the killer. My thoughts were winging in all directions and I panicked, retracting my statement. “No, actually, I’m not okay. There’s a dead body down there.” I turned and jerked my thumb in the direction of the corpse. “The police will be here any second.”
“What?” He frowned. “Are you sure?”
Why did everyone keep asking me if I was absolutely certain I had found a dead body, or at least parts of it? There is no confusing a corpse with someone else, unless you’re me and you think it’s a HoneyBaked ham. But once you see fingers with dirt under the nails, it can’t be anything else. Not a mannequin. Not a piece of driftwood or an old chicken tender from a fast food joint. My voice rose. “Yes. I’m really, really sure.”
A vehicle pulled in beside mine and I recognized it as Marner’s truck. He had beat the on-duty detective.
“Why did you think I needed help?” I asked golf shirt guy.
“I heard you yell.” He pointed to the warehouse behind us. “I live there.”
So he was the man watching me from the balcony. He had probably seen me talking to myself when I had actually been talking to Ryan and Hannah. Great. I would look like a lunatic to the police, who already thought I was a bit of a nut bag. Or at least a little dramatic. “Oh, well that makes sense.”
Marner got out of the car, dressed in basketball shorts and a red T-shirt featuring a hot sauce brand. He wore gym shoes and it seemed like I had interrupted his workout, which would explain his muffled speech on the phone when he had called. “Are you okay?” he asked me when he got closer.
He eyed the guy standing next to me. “I’m Detective Marner, Cleveland Police. Who are you, Bailey’s date?”
Because I had time to meet a guy and go on a date in the five seconds since I had been out with Marner, on the same day that Tim Jensen had threatened to kill me with a gun? Men were inexplicable.
“No!” I said, when the man looked startled. “He lives up there.” I pointed to the apartments. “He heard me scream.”
Two more cars pulled in. One a black sedan and one a patrol car with lights flashing.
“I’m Nick Pitrello,” the man said, holding his hand out to Marner, who shook it. “I thought she was going to commit suicide or something, to be honest. Or that she was injured, I wasn’t really sure. I just knew something wasn’t right.”
I really wanted Marner to hug me. I was still shivering and my palms and armpits were sweaty. I felt like I had the flu. But that wasn’t his style. Definitely not when he was in cop mode. He would hug me later, in private, I reasoned. I just had to hold my shit together until then.
“Explain to me again what you were doing here,” Marner said, eyeing me with grave suspicion.
“I couldn’t relax. I just wanted to walk by the water.”
“Uh-huh.” He didn’t believe me. At all. “Where is the body?”
“Ten feet down, straight ahead. It’s an arm, and maybe a leg piece. I don’t know. It’s something chunky.” The thought made me gag again and I quickly covered my mouth.
He moved down the incline and Nick Pitrello stuck his hands in his pockets and watched. “That’s creepy as hell to think someone was killed right below my apartment.”
“I don’t think whoever it is was killed here. There was no blood. I think this was just the dumping ground.”
“I’m not sure that’s much more reassuring.” He turned to me. “What is your name? Bailey?”
“Yes, Bailey Burke.” I stuck my clammy hand out. “I’m a home stager, but Detective Marner is a friend of mine.”
“Your boyfriend?” he asked. “He seemed a little annoyed by me.”
“He’s annoyed by everyone. And no, he’s not my boyfriend.” I wasn’t even sure how I felt about that.
“Is he just your friend with benefits then?” Ryan asked, mere inches from my ear.
I jumped. “Oh my God!” I turned and swatted at him, flustered. I was really sick of him moving with the silence of a ghost. It was unnerving in the wake of recent events and really inconsiderate. He should make noises and warn me of his presence. He needed a cow bell.
“What?” Nick asked, looking bewildered.
“I got stung by a bee,” I lied. “The heat is terrible this summer.” I sounded like an idiot, but there was nothing for it.
It didn’t matter anyway, because suddenly the area was crawling with cops. A Detective Debby Smith came over and started asking me questions while a patrolman pulled out the yellow tape to secure the scene. Another was on his radio. I tried to focus on what the detective was asking me. Detective Smith was in her early forties. I had only met her once or twice when I had been working for the department, but she had a reputation of being thorough, fair, and an excellent court witness. All of which made her very intimidating.
“So you called Detective Marner before you called 9-1-1?” she asked. “Why did you do that?”
“Because we’re friends and I was scared. Actually, I texted him and he called me after he read my text.” I figured I had to be as honest as possible.
She was chewing gum and the sound was grating on my nerves. “What did your text say?”
“Help.” That was kind of embarrassing.
The corner of her mouth actually turned up. She was fighting a smile.
“How long were you watching Miss Burke?” she asked Nick.
“Maybe five minutes. It wasn’t long. She pulled up, got out, started talking to herself and wandering around. Then she screamed.”
Could he make me sound any more like a lunatic? But at least we were off the subject of Marner.
“Do you frequently talk to yourself out loud?” Detective Smith asked me.
“I had a bad day.” I wasn’t sure what else to say.
Ryan laughed behind me. I turned and shot him a glare.
Marner came over then and spoke to Detective Smith. “Let me know when you’re done talking to Bailey and I’ll take her home. I can guarantee this won’t be my case.”
She just nodded. “Agreed. Give me a few more minutes, then you can take her to the precinct to file a formal report.”
I stood there as the sun dropped down lower and lower and the air finally started to move, dissipating the heat, but also kicking up the odor of the body. Ryan stood behind me the entire time, which was not as distracting as it had been weeks earlier when he had first appeared to me in ghost form. I was getting used to his eavesdropping. I explained to the detective that I had smelled the rot first, then had seen what I thought was a ham.
“A ham?” Again, she looked amused with me.
Stoically, I nodded. “It looked reddish-golden, like it had been roasted.”
“Did you see it?” she asked Nick.
He shook his head. “No, thank God.”
At least Nick Pitrello wasn’t morbid. I didn’t doubt a whole slew of people would be curious. I was with Nick on this one. I could have done without the experience myself.
“So when did you realize it wasn’t an Easter ham?”
I never said Easter. That was embellishment. But I stayed calm, knowing she was just doing her job. “When I saw the hand a few feet away. I was backing up to get away from the smell and I saw it.”
There was no reaction from her. She had a poker face. After another twenty minutes of questions she told me I could leave with Jake. “All right, I’m going to let Detective Marner take you now.”
That didn’t sound very appealing. Like I was a white elephant gift. “I drove here. Why can’t I drive myself home?”
“Because you need to go to the station. He’ll bring you back here for your car.”
It almost sounded like she didn’t trust me to actually show up at the station. I didn’t respond.
When Marner came back over at Detective Smith’s hand wave, he said, “What’s going on?”
“You can take me now,” I said, feeling exhausted and a little peevish.
Marner’s eyebrow rose but he said nothing.
“The truth comes out,” Ryan murmured with a choked laugh.
Such a funny guy, that Ryan. I ignored him. I hoped that he wouldn’t follow me to the station. Having an invisible friend was exhausting.
I said goodbye to Detective Smith and gave a half-smile to Nick Pitrello. “Thanks for getting involved when you thought I was in trouble. Not everyone would do that.”
“Sure, no problem.” He looked a little sheepish.
We walked to Marner’s car, me regretting my earlier defense of wedge heels. My feet hurt. I wouldn’t have objected to being carried, honestly.
That didn’t happen. Plus Marner’s nostrils were flaring. They did that frequently. “If you ever go wandering around under a bridge at dusk by yourself again, I will personally tie you up and spank you.”
I stared up at him as he opened the passenger door for me. “That’s very Fifty Shades of Grey of you.” It was meant to lighten the mood. I was a little punchy from what was basically the longest day of my life.
Marner wasn’t in the mood to joke. Marner was never in the mood to joke. He pushed me into the car. Gently, but a push nonetheless. “Not funny, Burke.”
I had been downgraded to my last name. He really was annoyed with me.
What, like I asked to have body parts pop up at my feet?
Then I realized I had actually gone in search of Hannah’s body and I clamped my mouth shut.