Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ghost of a Chance Excerpt

Taming the Ghost Tycoon

B-movie actress turned real estate agent Elizabeth Hunt should have it made. The real estate market is thriving and she had a fabulous house to sell. Too bad the house is in Banshee Creek, a tiny Virginia hamlet that has been recently crowned as the “Most Haunted Town in America.”  Working as an actress in L.A. was tough, but selling haunted houses is even tougher. The spirits are not real, of course. They are only stories, and with the help of the Banshee Creek Historical Preservation Committee, Elizabeth hopes to put the ghost stories to rest. Her hometown will again be known for its vintage homes, its heirloom apple orchards, and its historical, not phantasmagorical, attributes, and she won’t let anyone, even her long-time crush, Gabe Franco, stand in her way.

Gabe has a big problem. His new marketing campaign for Banshee Creek Cidery is based on one thing, ghosts, but the Historical Preservation Committee nutcases are trying to erase the town’s spookier traditions. He has to stop them before they render his investment worthless. Unfortunately, the leader of the anti-ghost crusade is all-too-tempting Elizabeth Hunt, his best friend’s sister and the one woman who is strictly off limits. But when Elizabeth rallies the townsfolk against him, Gabe wonders if he'll lose his business…or his heart

Chapter 1

“Do you think he’ll be there tonight?”
“Who?” Elizabeth Hunt asked, turning toward her childhood friend. They were walking down Main Street, heading for the Banshee Creek Library. The Town Council meeting was about to start, and her stomach was doing somersaults. No, not just somersaults, her insides were doing Olympic-caliber, one-handed standing back springs.
Her upcoming presentation was turning her into a nervous wreck. She was a real estate agent, not an orator. She glanced down at the handouts she was carrying. There it was, in bold lettering, “Banshee Creek Realty Presentation: Ghosts Begone!” Just looking at it made her feel sick.
Banshee Creek Realty depended on her. The Historical Preservation Committee was counting on her. The other businesses in town needed her to make this work. And she felt like she was on her way to face a firing squad.
Could this night get any worse?
“Are you kidding?” Patricia asked, raising a Spock-like brow. “The love of your life, of course.”
Elizabeth stared at her friend in confusion. In spite of the chilly evening air, Patricia was wearing a short-sleeved pink polo shirt bearing the “Banshee Creek Bakery” logo and a mischievous smile. She carried refreshments for the meeting, but the cupcakes and lemonade weren’t responsible for the naughty glint in her eyes.
“I’m talking about Gabe Franco.” Patricia drawled out the name meaningfully.
Elizabeth’s heel caught on a painfully picturesque cobblestone, and she almost dropped her bag.
Her friend caught her arm and steadied her. “Whoa, I’m trying to distract you, not kill you. Why did you pick those heels? You’re going to break your neck on these streets. Here, take this. It’ll give you something to do besides worry.”
She handed her a heavy bag. Elizabeth sighed, took the bag, and resumed her walk to the library, stepping carefully around the slippery cobblestones. Like the town, the library was small, old, and decorated in its best fall finery. Flickering gas lanterns brightened the evening twilight. A garland of green and gold magnolia leaves decorated the library’s white portico, and fat pumpkins and misshapen gourds sat haphazardly on tidy bales of hay. Banshee Creek took autumn decorating seriously.
A sign next to the gate announced “Town Council Mtng Tonite! To Ghost Tour or not to Ghost Tour, that is the question.” The head librarian wrote all the announcements in her own eccentric version of iambic pentameter, which made them a bit difficult to understand. For most of the Town Council meetings, the librarian’s eccentricity didn’t matter, but this one was exceptionally important. The ghost tours were a big deal in Banshee Creek. Their little corner of Virginia was famous for its military institutions, technology industry, and vineyards, but Banshee Creek had none of these. Their town was famous for only one thing: Ghosts.
They were just legends, of course, but there were a lot of them. Since its founding in 1563, Banshee Creek had accumulated an impressive array of stories featuring poltergeists, boggarts, witches, shape-shifters, and even, in recent years, a couple of chupacabra sightings. The town’s name was coined by a drunken Irish farmer who’d sworn a spirit had attacked him in a neighboring ravine. The so-called bean sĂ­dhe had most likely been a local barn owl, but that didn’t matter. Over the ensuing decades, the town attracted myriad ghost hunters, spiritualists, crazy cultists, and conspiracy nuts, and its supernatural mystique grew.
But that was about to end. Tonight, the ghosts were getting kicked out of Banshee Creek.
And Elizabeth needed to focus on precisely that. The Ghostbusters theme song popped into her head and she took a deep breath, trying to stay focused on her goal—banishing the ghosts.
 “I want to take a good look at him,” Patricia adjusted her jar as she tried to peek through the windows. I’ve never met a billionaire before.”
“He’s not a billionaire,” Elizabeth corrected. She knew all there was to know about Gabe, who was Banshee Creek’s favorite son. The local grapevine kept her well informed as to his various escapades. She knew he was just a few million away from billionaire status; that, according to Esquire magazine, he owned homes in Manhattan, London, and Buenos Aires; and that he had a new super-secret project that had the financial press salivating with anticipation. She knew everything about Gabe Franco except for one thing.
“Why would he be here?” Elizabeth asked. “He’s a busy guy with a lot of jet-setting to do. Why come back home?”
“Well, I don’t know.” Patricia pushed the heavy wooden door open. “But his assistant dropped by my bakery today and picked up two gallons of coffee and three of those pecan coffee cakes Gabe likes. That means he’s in town.” She leaned against the door to hold it open. “Maybe he finally found a girl he can bring home to his mom.”
Elizabeth’s chest tightened. Gabe at the meeting would be bad enough. Gabe and a glamorous, model-thin girlfriend would be even worse. But she had bigger things to worry about tonight. As she entered the building, she noticed that the large wooded tables had been moved and the library chairs had been rearranged into rows facing a podium and a projection screen. Her palms grew sweaty and she scanned the room. She nodded a greeting to the president of the high school’s AV Club and forced her muscles to relax. She noted with some relief that Gabe Franco was not in the building.
Unfortunately, what was in the building was much more unpleasant.
She pointed at a giant map placed on an easel next to the podium. “Is that what I think it is?” she asked, approaching the map and trying to make out the words. The title, scrawled across the top in near-undecipherable gothic font, was Banshee Creek—A Marketing Opportunity That’s Out Of This World. Unlike the current town maps, this one didn’t highlight the house where George Washington had a tooth pulled, the pagoda designed by Thomas Jefferson, or the town’s quaint shops and restaurants. No, this map featured a jagged line crossing the town, the famous and totally fake “geomagnetic fault” that was the theoretical cause of the town’s supernatural happenings. Next to the fault, a large arrow pointed the way to Ambrose Bierce’s summer cottage, where he’d penned Peculiar Incidents at Banshee Creek, the eighteenth-century pamphlet that had cemented the town’s reputation as spook central.
Elizabeth looked closely at the familiar streets. Sure enough, the map marked every single one of the town’s alleged supernatural “hot spots” with a tiny ghost logo. Her heart sank as she tried to count the ghosts. According to the map, most of the Banshee Creek real estate inventory was contaminated by some kind of phantasmagorical critter or other. If this map hit the internet, her real estate business would be deader than the local specters.
“I see the paranormies brought props,” Patricia headed for the refreshment table.
“The prop says your bakery has a brownie.” She sighed heavily. “There goes your resale value.”
“My bakery has lots of brownies.” Patricia laughed, placing her jar on the table. “Blondies too.”
“Not that kind of brownie. The kind that washes your dishes and cleans your house.”
“I wish,” the town baker said with pronounced wistfulness. “This one changes the temperature controls and makes the mixers go haywire unless you put out a plate of scones and a bowl of milk for him.”
“Really?” Elizabeth handed her friend the cupcakes.
Patricia shrugged, placing the boxes on the table. “I don’t know. I always put out the scones. The prior owners left me the recipe.”
“So you believe the stories?” Elizabeth was surprised. Patricia was the most levelheaded, practical person she knew.
 “I don’t believe the stories,” Patricia said firmly. “But I also don’t believe in taking unnecessary risks.” She gestured toward the map. “And neither do these guys.”
 “This looks like a professional job,” Elizabeth replied glumly. “It must have been expensive.”
“Yep, but that’s not much of a surprise, is it? They have money now and they disagree with the town’s decision to downplay the ghosts.”
That was an understatement.
 “I don’t care.” She carried the lemonade to the refreshments table. “We need to change the town’s image. Our haunted town rep is killing Banshee Creek Realty. No one wants to buy a haunted house. And it’s not just us. The bed and breakfast is going bankrupt, and the Christmas shop hasn’t turned a profit in weeks.”
“I know.” Patricia’s smile was wistful. “The ghost thing was fun at first, but it’s gotten out of control. It would be nice to do a wedding for a change. A regular one, I mean. Not that I didn’t enjoy that Beetlejuice wedding we did in Leesburg, but a regular white cake would be lovely. Anyway, don’t change the subject. I want to talk about Gabe. I’ve never met an almost-billionaire before.”
“You’ve known him your whole life.”
“Yes, but he was just a pizza delivery boy then. Now he’s Mr. Megabucks.”
Elizabeth placed the jars on the refreshments table and looked around. She needed something to do. She couldn’t just stand here and fret about the presentation. She walked to the library entrance and the battered wood table where the head librarian displayed her favorite books. The Complete Works of Christopher Marlow had been pushed aside to make room for the meeting materials. Copies of her slides, which argued for banning the popular ghost tours and prohibiting other supernatural-themed activities, were stacked next to the sign-in sheet. But another pile of handouts occupied most of the table surface. Unlike her plain black-and-white slides, these were glossy and multicolored. The title, “Banshee Creek, The Most Haunted Town in America Has a Once in a Lifetime Business Opportunity,” was embossed in foil, and the slides had a lot of numbers and spreadsheets and graphs with lines that zigzagged up into infinity. Elizabeth wiped her clammy palms on her skirt. The paranormies weren’t pulling their punches.
Patricia grabbed her by the shoulders and gently steered her away from the foyer table. “Don’t look at those. You’ll make your nerves worse. Let’s talk about something else. Did you see the magazine article?”
“What article?” Elizabeth asked, feigning ignorance but grateful for the distraction. Of course she’d read the article about Gabe. She’d printed it out and attached it to her real estate brochures. She’d also highlighted the paragraph that described Gabe’s Italo-Argentinian background, his years at Banshee Creek High, and his admission to Harvard and Wharton.
“I know you’re lying,” Patricia said with playful scorn. “Five years in L.A., and you still can’t act. I bet you memorized the article. And you must have a pile of copies in your office.”
Elizabeth glared at her friend. She did not have piles, and anyway, they were for work. She was trying to save her family’s real estate business from the incoming paranormal hordes, wasn’t she? And nothing sold a school district like an alumnus with a record-breaking Wall Street IPO. The fact that the graduate looked like a telenovela star didn’t hurt either.
“My dad read it online,” Patricia continued. “And he wants to set me up with one of Gabe’s investors. He knows his grandmother.” Elizabeth wasn’t surprised. Patricia’s dad knew everyone’s grandmother.
“Is he setting you up with Gabe?” Elizabeth asked, careful not to sound jealous. Patricia was a very attractive woman, with long, dark hair and gray eyes. She was also kind and loyal, and kept an extensive collection of exotic margarita recipes for those occasions when kindness and loyalty were called for. Still, Elizabeth was surprised to find that she didn’t at all like the thought of her friend being and Gabe together. She knew her childhood crush was hopeless, but part of her still felt that Gabe was hers. She stifled a giggle. Imaginary possession was nine-tenths of the law.
“Are you kidding?” Patricia said with a snort. “I’m his sister’s best friend. That’s too close to home for the Franco brothers.”
Elizabeth nodded. Her brother Cole had been Gabe’s best friend, and she was well aware of the Franco siblings’ “almost family” dating restrictions. She pushed the thought away, not wanting to think about Cole.
The library door open loudly and a chilly breeze enveloped her, making goose bumps crawl over her arms. The town residents were arriving.
“It’s not too late to back out, Hunt.” The deep baritone belonged to a burly, redheaded biker. He was carrying a large box covered in shipping labels and was followed by a gaggle of town children. A handful of fellow bikers, also bearing boxes, walked behind him. He put his box on the floor and smiled at Elizabeth. “I’m going to give you one last chance to give up and go chase your well-feathered lovebird around town.”
      Elizabeth scowled. She didn’t like to be teased about her Gabe Franco obsession. But Caine, the owner of the local bar, met her frown with a broad smile. His beard and leather vest were stereotypical biker gear. But the T-shirt with the large purple eye that was the logo of the Banshee Creek Paranormal Research Institute wasn’t. No, wait, they had a weird new name with fancy spelling now. TRuTH? PRooF? Something like that.
In any case, the paranormies were an unwelcome addition to the Banshee Creek Chamber of Commerce. Her brother, Cole (may he rest in peace, the little hood rat) had founded the group before signing up with the Army. Back then, the group had consisted only of Cole’s fellow true believers, a pair of secondhand cameras, and a couple of shelves in the basement. Their early meetings had invariably devolved into Mystery Science Theatre 3000 marathons. Her brother had died in Afghanistan and, after his passing, the organization had grown and mutated, like a runaway virus in one of his favorite late-night movies.
A tight lump formed in Elizabeth’s chest, as it always did when she thought about her dead brother, but she fought it down. She loved Cole, but her feelings toward his Frankenstein creation were the complete opposite
Caine opened the box and took out a tray full of caramel-coated apples with spooky faces drawn with licorice. In a split second, the stand was swarming with kids staring longingly at his offerings, and the tall biker looked overwhelmed by his unexpected popularity.
Elizabeth sighed. Caine didn’t care about candies or treats. He just wanted to annoy the Historic Preservation Committee. And he was excelling at that goal. A member of Caine’s posse opened another box, which contained a large orange-and-black banner that read “Voted America’s Most Haunted Town.” A third biker handed out bumper stickers featuring the town’s new unofficial motto: “Suck it Salem.”
“I see you’ve joined the dark side, Caine,” Elizabeth said, arching a brow.
He took out a tray full of colorful treats. “Yep.” His eyes twinkled. “They’ve got cookies. Heavily frosted cookies shaped likes pumpkins, spiders, and, of course, ghosts.”
“You don’t have to do this. I gave you brochures explaining the history behind your bar. The place has a fascinating past. That’s a big draw.”
“I still have them,” he said with a gleeful smile. “All of them. Literally, we can’t even give them away. Tourists like ghosts. That’s what brings them to our town. They don’t care that Paul Revere’s horse pooped in my garage.”
“Revere was in Massachusetts,” Elizabeth corrected dryly. “Your poop belonged to Jack Jouett’s horse.”
“I don’t know who that is, and I don’t care. You’re spending too much time with the Historical Correctness Junta. It’s not good for you.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And you’re too enthralled by the Paranormal Research Institute.”
Caine straightened to is full six-and-a-half feet height. “That’s not our name anymore. We are now the Paranormal Research of Virginia Enterprises.”
Patricia looked puzzled. “That makes no sense,” she said.
“Spell it out.” Elizabeth waited while her friend mouthed the words.
“PRoVE?” Her friend grimaced.
“Isn’t it great?” Caine spread out his arms grandly. “It’s search-engine friendly. We’re now Google’s number one English-language paranormal site.”
“You say that like it’s a good thing,” Elizabeth snarked.
“Face it, Hunt, no one comes here for the Early American History seminar. They come for the ghosts.” His gaze grew sympathetic. “I know that doesn’t do much for the real estate values.”
Her spine straightened. “And that’s on my list of things that must change.”
Caine shook his head. “You’re a good egg. You were making it as an actress in L.A. and you gave that up to come take care of your mom. Now you’re taking care of her business. The whole town is proud of you.”
“Wow, multi-syllabic words. I’m impressed.” She knew her tone was sharper than it should have been. He meant well, but she didn’t want his pity.
“But this Joan of Arc act has to go.” Caine looked at her sternly. “You tend to take things too far, and this time you’ve gone all the way over the edge and hic sunct dragones. ” His face softened. “Anyway, shouldn’t you be chasing down he who makes your heart sing?” He looked around the room. “I hear he’s around here somewhere.”
“Oh, don’t you start.” She felt her face flush. The Saint Joan dig had hit its mark, but thanks to Caine, everyone would think she was blushing at the prospect of a Gabe Franco sighting. Small towns had long memories, and her love-struck teenage self was, unfortunately, one of those.
“You may have a chance with him now,” Caine continued. “Your stint in the City of Angels did you good. You don’t look like Wednesday Addams anymore.”
Elizabeth shook her head in exasperation. Caine was incorrigible. She liked her new highlights and heels, but still, she had rocked the goth drama geek look in high school. Wednesday Addams, indeed.
Caine laughed again and turned to give a caramel apple to a little girl in pigtails and pink glasses. The girl’s shirt sported a Mythbusters logo. Talk about corrupting today’s youth.
Elizabeth assessed Caine’s contributions to the refreshments table. Patricia’s red velvet cupcakes were no longer the only baked goods on offer. The table was now laden with candy-corn cannoli, ghost-shaped meringues and candy-studded rice cereal treats. One of Caine’s employees was unpacking bottles bearing Haunted Orchard Cidery labels. Elizabeth wasn’t surprised. Haunted Orchard had developed an aggressive marketing campaign based on their spectrally challenged hometown. They’d probably donated the cider.
“Looks like the paranormies are pulling out all the stops,” Patricia chimed in, picking up a cannoli and examining it. Her face hardened. “These are from Manhattan,” she said, glaring at the innocent pastry cylinder. “Well, we can play dirty too.”
Caine’s laugh boomed out. “Don’t bother, girls. Accept defeat gracefully.”
Patricia put the cannoli down and stepped away from the table, dragging Elizabeth with her. “C’mon, time to counterattack. I have donuts and more lemonade in the car.”
She pushed Elizabeth to the library entrance, making her stumble, and led her to the parking lot.  As they headed out the door, Elizabeth tried to pep herself up.
Cookies and banners didn’t matter. She had logic on her side. Banshee Creek didn’t need the ghosts to be successful; the town had many other attractions.
Take this street, for instance. The cobblestone streets glowed as the remaining sunlight streamed through amber leaves. The inevitable fall drizzle hadn’t dampened any spirits and the crisp fall air smelled like wet leaves, burnt sugar and apples. The town’s vintage houses looked lovely in their period-appropriate moldings and historically correct paint colors.
All except one.
Elizabeth frowned at a crowd of tourists snapping pictures of the mansard-roofed building that housed the Paranormal Research Institute—no, wait, PRoVE. The organization’s home was as weird as its new name. With lurid purple siding and acid green trim, the house looked like it belonged in a Scooby-Doo cartoon.
She noted with chagrin that the edifice sported a banner that read “Banshee Creek: 137 documented hauntings.” Great, just great.
The expensive new digs testified to PRoVE’s very substantial resources. The organization owned high-tech cameras and expensive computers and had plenty of money to pay for fines and, in a few occasions, bail. But Elizabeth still had no idea why a Bahamian corporation would invest in a fly-by-night enterprise like PRoVE. Who’d convinced them to waste so much money on a group of conspiracy buffs and “certified” ghost hunters? Whoever it was, Elizabeth wanted to find him and tell him where to stuff his state-of-the art, Russian-made EMF meters.
“Here we go.” Patricia opened the door of her van, which was filled to capacity with jars and boxes. “More ammo.” She lifted a large glass jar of lemonade and gave it to Elizabeth. “Take this. I’ll bring the donuts. No one can resist my apple cider donuts. But be careful, that jar is a vintage find and it leaks.” She locked the car and walked briskly toward the library, carrying a pair of large boxes.
Elizabeth followed at a more sedate pace, carefully balancing the heavy lemonade jar.
Her presentation had to go well. No, not just well, spectacularly well.
She raised her chin and practiced her best auditioning-actress smile. The smile had made her a mainstay in the mutant monster movie industry when she’d lived in L.A., and it could certainly dazzle Banshee Creek. Her back straightened as she steeled herself.
The show was about to start.

Ghost of a Chance is up for sale at Amazon. You can also read it for FREE through Kindle Unlimited.

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