But Verity is always ready to help out a friend, even one as eternally eccentric as Frankie. And in the case of Mint Julep Manor, the stakes are too high to refuse. The criminally insane mob boss holds a secret to Frankie's past, one that might set Frankie free. Do the favor - survive the favor - and they might change Frankie's afterlife for good. Fail, and they might never leave the asylum.
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Swirling gray clouds hung low in the sky as I wound my 1978 Cadillac up a narrow drive through a desolate forest of trees. My cell signal had cut out more than a half hour earlier, and the woods had only grown thicker and darker over the last several miles.
I tucked a wayward lock of hair behind my ear and managed to direct a confident smile toward my ghostly housemate and sort-of-friend, Frankie. "Good thing this isn't a dark and stormy night," I joked to the gangster, who sat stiffly in the seat next to me. "It's merely a cantankerous, mildly threatening afternoon."
Frankie "The German" shot me a long look and pulled his hat down over the bullet hole in his forehead. "We used to have a guy in our gang who joked like you."
"Oh, yeah?" I asked, intrigued. Frankie didn't like to talk about his past. Maybe he was starting to trust me more.
"Yeah," Frankie said. "I shot him."
Maybe we still had a way to go.
I adjusted my grip on the steering wheel. The gangster ghost didn't have to appreciate my sense of humor. He just had to live with it.
His spirit was trapped on my family's ancestral property. Permanently, unless we could figure out a way to set him free. And oh, I'd tried.
It had started innocently enough. I'd been cleaning house when I decided to rinse out the dented old vase my ex had given me. Turned out it wasn't an ugly knickknack — it was an urn that contained the earthly remains of one Franklin Rudolph Winkelmann. Unfortunately, I'd rinsed the bulk of Frankie's ashes into my rosebushes.
Ash was supposed to be good for the roots. I just hadn't realized my gardening trick would have serious consequences.
By the time the gangster had appeared, scared me half to death, and pointed out my mistake, the deed was done. Frankie had been grounded to my property, unable to leave unless I took his urn — and the smidge of ashes that remained in it — with me.
Right now, I had it wedged into the cute gingham bag I'd recently purchased with the earnings from my last mission. Frankie had wanted me to buy something manly, but I'd promised to tuck his urn firmly inside so nobody would know he spent his days idling around in a monogrammed tote fit for a Southern belle.
I swear anything could make that ghost saucy.
Frankie stretched an arm out over the long bench seat. "When this thing goes down, follow my lead." He glanced over his shoulder to the backseat, where my brave police officer boyfriend was catching a catnap. "And ditch the cop."
Hardly. "Ellis would have my hide." I spared him a glance. "And yours."
Frankie snorted, disbelieving.
"Oh, he'd find a way," I said. Never mind that Ellis couldn't see Frankie or hear him.
Ellis was nothing if not persistent, and protective. He'd graciously come along to help with any trouble that might crop up. Although for the life of me, I didn't know how that man could just turn it off and go to sleep — wherever, whenever — especially heading into a potentially dangerous situation. But Ellis didn't believe in addressing problems until they presented themselves. He took danger in stride and always found a way to bring the bad guys to justice.
I tended to do a lot of winging it.
We were heading to the abandoned Pikesville Sanitorium, a mental hospital built in the early 1900s. Some Yankee paper had nicknamed the facility Mint Julep Manor back in the day, and the name stuck. The authorities closed it down in the 1950s in favor of more modern facilities run by the local hospital system. And while the rest of the world had progressed, the old Mint Julep Manor lingered in the backwoods, a relic of an earlier time.
We were only about an hour outside Sugarland, in Jackson County, but it felt like an entirely different world. I spotted a black crow hunkered on a branch overhanging the road, then a dozen more in the same tree. They burst forth into the sky as we passed underneath.
Folks had been telling scary stories about Mint Julep Manor since I was a girl. Secondhand tales, mostly. And not pleasant ones at that. Still, if I believed every small-town rumor I heard, I'd be no better than those who believed the gossip about me. I'd been under the microscope plenty for my disaster of an engagement to our town's golden boy. And it hadn't gotten much better when word spread that — after a time of being alone — I'd started dating my ex's older brother.
Ellis and I had solved a ghostly mystery together and simply connected, but the rumor mill had its own stories to churn out.
I drew a lock of hair behind my ear and focused on avoiding a pothole in the road ahead.
Given the choice, I would have avoided Mint Julep Manor. I preferred happy, sunny places myself. But I was a ghost hunter now, and I had to go where I was needed.
I already missed my pet skunk, Lucy. She was staying overnight with my sister, Melody, and then going to Take Your Pet to Work day at our local library. Melody worked the help desk and the reference desk, and anywhere else she was needed in the century-old Sugarland institution. I hoped Melody would listen to my warning to keep an eye on our favorite skunk. Lucy liked to nose open books and chew holes in the pages, and she had a taste for hardbacks. Southern Living cookbooks in particular.
She always went for the desserts first.
As for me, I had to stay focused on the ghost-hunting job ahead.
Even if the stories had it right, and Mint Julep Manor was haunted to the gills, it didn't mean all the ghosts were hostile or threatening.
Only the one we were going there to see.
A rusting sign bent sideways over the road, and I had to steer into the oncoming lane to avoid it. Hitchhikers May Be Escaped Inmates it cautioned in bold black letters on white-painted metal, pockmarked with a long-ago shotgun blast.
"You are not stopping for any sad sacks you see on the side of the road," Frankie warned.
I rolled my eyes. What did he take me for?
"You and your do-gooder ways," he muttered, easing away from the window.
"If I didn't care about you, Frankie, we wouldn't be out here at all."
He cringed, which made me smile. Frankie hated when I expressed any sort of affection, and I confessed I did it partly to irritate him. He could stand to be grateful. It certainly wasn't my idea to haul out to a haunted asylum in the middle of a creepy forest to meet with the clinically insane murderer who happened to have been with Frankie on the night he'd been shot.
"We almost there?" Ellis asked, yawning. He lounged across my wide backseat, his tall frame taking up most of it.
"So good of you to join us," I teased.
He stretched. "Might as well get some use out of being in the backseat."
When he'd learned Frankie was nervous about the trip, Ellis had given the gangster the front seat. My handsome boyfriend was tough, but he was also a softie.
"Another mile or so," I said as the road turned sharply to the left. Winds bent the skinny longleaf pines. I didn't want to admit it to Frankie, but I half expected a long-dead inmate to walk out from the woods and block our way. Then what would we do?
I glanced over at Frankie. The gangster wore the suit he'd died in — a pin-striped number with a fat white tie. "You kept my power off, right?" I asked.
When the ghost lent me his energy, I could see the other side. For real. But there was one big catch to the power he gave me. When I was tuned in to the other side, I became a part of that world. Any big bad spirits I met could hurt me the same as any real-life thug I met in a dark alley. So far, ghosts had tried to drown me, impale me, and shoot me. And if any of them had succeeded, they would have killed me.
Right now, I'd rather not be so connected to ... whatever waited up ahead.
Lightning flashed across the sky, and the sudden boom that followed made me jump.
"Relax." The gangster fiddled with the knot on his tie as if it had grown too tight. "It's me Scalieri wants."
"I'm plenty relaxed," I countered. But I'd be cautious as well. "That gangster seemed very interested in my ability to get things done on this side of the veil."
Frankie didn't have a smart comeback for that. Instead, he shot me a worried glance, which scared me more than I'd like to admit.
Bruno Scalieri, a criminally insane killer, had zeroed in on me during our last case. I didn't like the way he leered at me, or the way he'd conducted his afterlife. We lurched over a pothole in the road and I cringed as my car's undercarriage scraped asphalt.
But Bruno Scalieri had something we wanted. In exchange for our help, he'd give us information that could possibly set Frankie free.
We needed all the help we could get with that.
The poor ghost had been tied to my property for more than a year. We'd tried to free him by separating his ashes from my garden soil. That had resulted in a mess, along with a trash can full of garden dirt and ashes, topped with a rosebush, that had taken a permanent place next to the fireplace in my parlor. We'd called in a psychic. She'd proceeded to give Frankie a complex that he'd soothed by opening an illegal racetrack in my backyard. We'd attempted to reunite Frankie with the only thing he'd claimed to love: a long-lost, favorite revolver. We'd tracked it down in a haunted speakeasy, and I'd barely escaped with my life.
Frankie had even found love — real love — a short while later with a sweet ghost from the Victorian era.
Yet he remained stuck.
So we were working on a new theory. Frankie was so attached to his ashes and the life they represented that he'd created a sort of prison for himself. I hoped if he could come to terms with what had happened to him, if he could make peace with his sudden death, then maybe Frankie could be free.
We just needed Scalieri's help to make that happen.
We rounded a curve in the road, and the asylum came into view.
Now I knew why they called it Mint Julep Manor.
It looked like a sprawling plantation house. Thick white columns graced a large verandah in the front. Then a second set of smaller columns supported a regal third floor. Faded black shutters flanked square windows on the first and second floors, and a collection of smaller windows on the third floor spanned the entire length of the white stone building. A dozen weed-eaten stairs led to an arched double front door. Towering chimneys with round capstones reached toward the churning gray sky, giving it a gothic Tara vibe.
Ellis leaned up between Frankie and me, his elbows planted on the front bench seat, and gave a low whistle. "Talk about faded glory."
"It's beautiful," I said as a jagged bolt of lightning lit up the clouds behind the tangle of vines climbing across the moss-dappled roofline.
Frankie crossed his arms over his chest. "You always think things are so pretty and interesting until a poltergeist pops up."
"Don't be so negative." I had every reason to believe the majority of the resident ghosts would be plenty friendly. This was the South, after all. Most people felt honor bound to be polite.
The tires rattled as we crossed a rickety bridge over a swollen creek. I kept my eyes off the waters churning below and focused on the imposing structure ahead.
Hopefully, we'd be in and out fairly quickly. "Maybe Scalieri wants something simple," I reasoned.
"Whatever it is, we can handle it," Ellis vowed.
"That guy is a psychopath," Frankie said as one fat raindrop, then another, splatted my front window. "Why am I even here?"
"This is for you," I reminded him. He needed to work on his thank-yous. If I had my choice, I'd be lounging in my parlor, watching Ghost Adventures with Ellis.
I could use the tips.
But Scalieri claimed to have seen the man who shot Frankie, and Frankie believed him. "The truth can set you free," I mused.
"Now you're just making things up," Frankie grumbled.
The rain picked up, and I hit the wipers as we rumbled up to a chain-link fence surrounding the property. Barbed wire draped along the top like a gnarled, twisted garland. The rusted gates hung open despite the new red and white signs that warned No Trespassing.
"Good thing I called ahead," I remarked. The owner had said she'd be waiting for us and that she'd be glad to let us inside if I did her a favor.
These favors were starting to stack up.
The driveway had disintegrated into weeds and rocks. I slowed the car as we bounced over them and onto the abandoned property.
My wiper blades smeared water and fall pollen into a yellow mess on my windshield. I leaned forward, trying to see the road. "Mark my words. We will get this job done for you." As long as what Scalieri wanted was reasonable. If not, there was nothing we could do, and we'd have to be okay with that.
"Look at this objectively," Ellis said. "This project is already starting off better than usual. Nobody's died." Frankie shot him a glare he couldn't have seen, but he must have felt. "Recently, at least," Ellis corrected himself. "I've got three days off. We'll figure out what Scalieri wants, do him his favor, and then hit up some of those home decor shops for Verity, maybe see what they have in the Jackson County Walmart."
"Because their Walmart might have something different than ours," I teased.
"You never know," Ellis said, dead serious.
I couldn't help but smile.
After succeeding in my previous ghost-hunting case, I finally had a portion of the funds I needed to restore the antebellum home that had been in my family for generations. I'd inherited it from my grandmother. It was a lovely old place, and I'd nearly lost it during an unfortunate financial downturn. While I still owned the property and the house, I'd had to sell off most of the furniture and family heirlooms. As a result, I'd been sleeping in my parlor on an old futon and brewing sweet tea in my Girl Scout camp pot. It would be so nice to reintroduce some elegance to my once-gracious home.
We parked in the remains of an asphalt parking lot, under a mobile billboard that read Haunted Halloween Tour and Laser Light Show!
A construction trailer resting on cinder blocks stood between the asylum and us.
"So this place isn't completely abandoned," Ellis said, frowning at the billboard, which featured a picture of a man in stained surgical scrubs. Blood ran down his face and neck as he held his mouth open in a terrified scream.
"That would be the work of the current owner," I said, shutting down the car. "She bought the place a few years ago." It was a good thing as far as I was concerned. As a police officer, Ellis always wanted me to get permission to enter abandoned properties, and at least this time I'd known whom to ask.
Frankie studied the crumbling asylum and shuddered. "There's something in there that doesn't like us."
"Wait till it gets to know us," I said as the door to the construction trailer flopped open and a short woman with a halo of frizzy blond hair poked her head out.
"You're here!" She rumbled down the metal staircase, her worn ankle boots pounding the metal and her jean jacket flapping in the wind.
"Barbara Slater?" I asked, swiping at the rain droplets peppering my cheeks. "I'm Verity Long," I said, reaching out a hand.
She ignored my offer of a handshake, along with my greeting, and instead glanced up at the sky. "I think we're about to get hit with it." Then her attention turned to Ellis. "This must be your law enforcement friend," she said, warming up. And who wouldn't? Ellis was quite a specimen. "I promise you I have all my permits."
"Noted." He grinned and shook her hand. "This is quite a place. There's nothing like fixing up an old property."
I was about to tell her how Ellis had bought and renovated the old Southern Spirits distillery in Sugarland when I detected the ghostly shadow of a woman in a window on the third floor. She wore a smoky black dress that trailed away at the edges. I tried to make out her features, but she disappeared.
"She didn't look friendly," Frankie gritted out.
How could he tell? She didn't have a face.
"Is there anyone inside now?" I asked Barbara.
She shook her head. "Not a soul."
"Except for that one," Frankie muttered. "And probably about a dozen more."
He was probably right on that account. This had been a large facility. It did spark my curiosity that I could see the woman without Frankie's help. It meant either the ghost was extremely powerful, or that the asylum itself held an unusual amount of energy.
Perhaps Frankie was right to be uneasy.
"I picked up this place for a song last year," Barbara drawled as she led us across the weed-strewn lawn, toward the front stairs. "I've updated some of the electricity and brought most of the first and third floors up to code. Otherwise, I couldn't have my haunted house going, or charge people to sleep on the death floor." She grinned. "That's what I call the third floor. For marketing purposes, mostly."
"Sure," I said, ignoring Frankie as he glared at her. He didn't like it when people made light of the deceased members of our community. I didn't agree with it, either, but I could at least be polite. "Thanks for letting us inside."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Mint Julep Murders"
Copyright © 2019 Angie Fox.
Excerpted by permission of Moose Island Books.
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