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Heather Elizabeth King

Author of Dark Fiction

Zoey Matthews, the Undead Ghost, and the Demon

 

Chapter One

I sat at the table, watched the light dance off my Sam Adams Oktoberfest. Sweat was dripping down my temples, my brown skin shimmered under the lights. My clothes clung to me like a second skin. I’d just finished the second set of the night and was buzzing on an adrenaline high. I was hot so my boots suddenly felt a size too small, and my leather skirt felt like it weighed a good fifty pounds.

“How’s it sound?” I asked.

Nora and Kate eyed each other, grinning like matching Cheshire Cats.

“You’ve got your mojo back!”

The place was so crowded Nora had to shout to be heard.

Layne always had DJ’s fill the time between sets with music. Despite the fact that mine was rock, the DJ was playing dance music. It was a little confusing for the crowd. One minute they’d be jammed onto the floor in front of the stage, whipping their heads around, the next, DJ Freez was playing the latest group dance song.

A lot of people had come out to see me tonight, but I noticed many of the usual Thursday night crowd in residence as well. There were the single girls hoping to hook up, the single guys who weren’t quite attractive enough to draw the attention of the single girls, and the business set who came to unwind after work.

“You’re amazing tonight!” Nora was saying.

“She’s right.” Kate shoved strands of long, wavy brown hair away from her face and smiled at me. “The second set was even more brilliant than the first.”

“Serious?” I asked.

They nodded.

This was my first show in five years; practically the first time I’d touched my guitar in three months. I hadn’t had the heart to look at it since I’d found out my husband was cheating on me.

I was three months into my unexpected separation. For the last month Nora and Kate had been dragging me out to Layne’s every Thursday night, just like they used to. Layne’s was a place where people knew me as a musician, not as Joe’s wife. I got to catch up with friends, hang with Nora and Kate in a safe, Joe free zone, and start the healing process. I needed the friends, the crowd, the loud music, the beer. It was all like balm on my soul.

“You better go make the rounds,” Kate said. “Jackie, your old office cubicle mate came by with her husband. The guys from the gym are at the bar. I haven’t seen any of your sisters, but Cora told me she’d be coming by if she could get a sitter.”

“Eve won’t leave the kids and Surrey is broke. She refuses to come out when she has no money.”

“So maybe Cora will show.”

“I wasn’t sure we’d get much of a crowd tonight.” I grabbed a Sam and swallowed thirstily.

“Are you kidding?” Nora said. “Everybody’s so angry about all this church business.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Kate turned to look out the window toward said churches. “What a mess. I just hope the warring factions can hold it together till Fall Fest is over.”

“After weeks of being caught between two battling churches, people need this, that’s what I think.”

“But don’t think about that right now. People came for fun and it’s your job to give it to them.” Kate leaned forward and stage whispered. “What is Ronald McAlister doing here?”

I looked to where she was pointing. Sure enough, Ronald McAlister and his wife Gwen were sitting at the bar, mixed drinks in front of them. As usual, Ronald was holding court. He was dressed inappropriately in a navy blue power suit. His jetty hair was combed back from his face and his dark eyes looked as cold and calculating as they usually did. At nearly sixty he was still a very good looking man, unfortunately, his sour personality detracted from his looks. He was talking to a handful of people at the bar, making wide hand gestures and occasionally glancing around the room to see who was looking at him.

Also as usual, Gwen looked terrified and uncomfortable. She was chain smoking, her eyes darting this way and that. She looked as though if someone actually said hello to her she’d drop dead on the spot. Her auburn hair was pulled up into a fancy updo and her makeup was flawless. She was really quite beautiful, but I could only imagine that being married to such a jerk had sucked the spirit out of her.

Is that how I used to look when I was with Joe, I wondered? Is that what being married to a man like Joe had done to me? I knew that deer in the headlights look all too well, and the feeling of not really wanting to be someplace, but knowing I didn’t have a choice because that’s where he wanted to be. I remembered what it was like to feel I was nothing more than an accessory in someone else’s life.

I shook the thought off. That was before. Things are different now.

I’m free.

I made a mental note to go over to the inn tomorrow and thank Gwen for coming, maybe invite her to tea.

“I don’t know,” I said. “He’s probably here for some informal business meeting.”

“Poor Gwen.” Frowning, Nora looked our friend up and down. “No offense to you, but she looks like she’d rather be anywhere but here.”

“Is that the mayor at the bar next to them?” Kate asked.

Yep, Mayor Trudy Collins along with her husband, Tom, were also at the bar.

“Who knew my show would be the go to event for Bridgeport high society.”

“Well, don’t think about them now,” said Nora. “You’ve got to circulate.”

I took a last swallow of beer, set the frosty mug down, then turned and froze.

My heart skipped a beat at the sight of his kinky black hair and crooked smile. He was dressed well in jeans and a silk, button up shirt. I think I’d gotten him that shirt for his birthday a few years back. He’d always looked good in royal blue.

For a moment I convinced myself that he’d come to see me. That he’d realized how stupid he’d been to ruin our marriage over a twenty-one year old twit. For a moment I thought he’d come to tell me he still loved me.

And then I saw her.

She was sitting at the table next to him, just about in his lap. She was wearing a matching royal blue dress that was so tight I could practically see the bulge of her veins through the fabric. She smiled and waved at people who stopped at their table to talk to him.

The sight was so unexpected my knees actually went weak on me. I had to sit before I fell.

“It’s been three months,” I said. “He’s not allowed to come here with her after only three months. Not after being married to me for ten years.”

Nora leaned forward, then swore when she saw them. “What an asshole.” Even with her blonde, Dorothy Hamill mop of blonde hair, she suddenly looked downright dangerous.

“Why is he here?” Kate demanded. “It’s been on the board for weeks that you’re playing tonight. I’ll tell him to leave.”

“No way,” Nora interrupted. “And let him know he’s gotten to her.”

“It’s not your choice.”

Kate was British, with a heart as soft as a downy pillow. She’d let me crash with her for a full month when I left Joe after finding out he’d been cheating on me.

I left my home so I could clear my head and figure things out; the separation was supposed to be a temporary thing, but three weeks after I was gone, the Gollum had moved in.

I’d never known it was possible to hurt so much, yet continue to breathe. Even with Kate as my constant companion I couldn’t stop crying. She’d cooked Shepherd’s Pie, decadently delicious lasagna, and all sorts of wonderful meals. She’d baked cakes, fed me double chocolate muffins, served me French toast in the morning, believing whole heartedly that the endorphins released from sugar and good food would counteract the heartbreak.

It didn’t work. In the last three months I’d lost twenty-five pounds. Though, to be fair to Joe, it hadn’t all been his fault. I’d started doing morning runs around Bridgeport in an effort to clear my head. Three months on and I was doing three mile runs four days a week.

But even with all that running the fact remained that I was now the quintessential thirty-something divorcee. At least I would be once our divorce was final.

I lifted my beer to my lips and swallowed, trying to wash away the dark thoughts. Tonight was supposed to be my night; my re-emergence into the world. My showing everybody that I was all right. My getting my life back.

I wouldn’t let him ruin this for me.

“No Kate,” I said, “it’s okay. They can stay. I refuse to let him ruin my night. This is our place, not his. He knows that.”

“And it damn sure ain’t hers.” Nora added.

Kate reached across the table and gave my hand a squeeze. “Okay. But just say the word and he’s outta here.”

“Who’s that guy with them?” Nora asked.

“What guy?” I turned back toward the duo only to realize they were in fact a trio. “I don’t know him,” I said.

“Oh. My. Gorgeous! That guy is hot. What is he doing hanging out with them? He looks like that artist, Renfield Baker.”

“He does,” Kate agreed. “They could be brothers. Except, does Renfield Baker have brothers?”

“If he did, I’d so be about them.”

My friends were right about the guy, he was very easy on the eyes. His wavy, dark blonde hair brushed the collar of his shirt. He had the kind of startlingly sea green eyes that made you do a double take and that smile could only be described as unforgettable. His clothes; however, were odd. He’d opted for a white tee-shirt with something written in French across the front and a massive red heart poised in the center of the word. He had an assortment of bangles and bracelets on each arm. The bangles and bracelets in conjunction with that obscenely large red heart should have emasculated him, but somehow they didn’t. He wasn’t just handsome, he was as near as a man could get to stunning, and I couldn’t look away.

One of his green eyes shut, quite deliberately, then opened slowly.

When I realized what he’d done my mouth fell open. “He just winked at me,” I whispered to the table at large.

And that very unforgettable smile was directed at me.

He lifted a hand and waved.

Quickly, I turned back to my table. Last thing I needed was to be associated with one of Joe’s stupid friends.

“Can you believe that?”

We all looked up at the sound of a new voice. The German accent was too strong to be mistaken.

Yonika Layne stood beside Nora, a pad in one hand, a tall glass of beer in the other.

“You’ll be needing this,” she said, slapping a third Sam Adams in front of me.

It was a tall mug, the beer so cold the frosted glass perspired. “Are you trying to get me drunk?” I asked, smiling genuinely now. “I still have a third set to do.”

“I’ll throw him out if you want. You just say the word. Him and the trollop.”

Said trollop looked up as if she’d heard her name.

Kate scooted closer to me and stage whispered.  “She looks just like you. He’s sick.”

“Yeah, me fifteen years ago,” I said.

“No, not fifteen.”

“It is uncanny,” Layne decided. “Same brown skin, same brown eyes, same facial features.”

“But your hair is different,” Kate added. “Yours is long, hers is more like Nora’s, except it’s black.”

I lifted the beer to my mouth and took a slow swallow. The flavor was sweet on my tongue. I savored the crisp, delicious taste.

“She drives the exact same kind of car I drove when I met Joe.”

“But you’re not a hood rat,” Nora added. “Tina is.”

“Why would he leave you for a woman who could be your double?” Kate asked, sipping from her martini. “Well, she’s a tartier version of you.”

“You won’t be alone long,” Layne promised. “Pretty little thing like you will have someone new in no time.” She winked at me then disappeared into the kitchen.

“Thing is,” I said, “I don’t want anybody new. I think I’d rather be on my own for a while. I don’t trust men. I’m not ready to commit myself to someone.”

Nora’s eyebrows shot into her forehead. “You cannot be serious.”

“Men are headaches. Who needs them?”

Nora raised her hand. “Me. Especially one like Mr. Sexy over there.” She indicated Joe’s friend with puckered lips.

“Zoe.”

Nobody had heard or seen him approach, so it seemed like he’d materialized in front of our table like a genie. An evil genie who took away wishes instead of granting them.

He really wasn’t that good looking, but for some reason women seemed incapable of resisting him. Our entire relationship had been spent with me practically beating women off with a stick. It had been exhausting.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Need a babysitter to watch your girlfriend so you can go out Saturday night?” Nora laughed at her own joke.

Joe ignored her. “I need to talk. Can we meet for breakfast tomorrow?”

“I hope you’re not serious.”

“I need help and I’m not sure…you’ll know what to do.”

“Ask Tina to help you.”

“You’re my wife.”

“Not anymore.”

He looked down at the floor then met my gaze again. “Please.”

“I’m busy tomorrow.”

“Please, Zoe. I don’t have much time. It may be too late tomorrow.”

For a moment I wondered if the look of panic on his face was real, but discarded the thought. I knew Joe. He didn’t do vulnerable unless he was out to get something. I’d given the bastard eleven years, he wasn’t getting another minute.

“I can’t believe you have the nerve to walk over here and ask me to meet with you tomorrow. Meanwhile you’re here with another woman.”

“I’m sorry for everything. I was stupid. I’m breaking things off with Tina tonight. I want to make things right.”

“You cheated on me for two years with a child. She was nineteen when you started sleeping with her. There is no making things right. And I’ve moved on, Joe. I don’t want you back. I like my life now. Scratch that. I love my life now. It’s so much better without you in it.”

“If you’d just let me try…explain, you’ll understand.”

I looked into his eyes. “Are we done?”

“See, that’s what I mean. Why do you always have to be such a bitch?”

Nora shot to her feet like a bullet. “Zoe told you to go.”

“With Tina, it’s all smooth sailing. No arguing, no drama…” he looked me up and down. “And no saggage.”

My mouth fell open. Without thinking I looked down at my chest then back up at him.

Nora was coming around the table, hands fisted, cocked, and ready. Kate was on her feet now too, shouting at him to leave.

Too late, he slapped a hand over his mouth, as though he could unsay the things he’d just said. “I didn’t mean that, Zoe. I didn’t mean it. I don’t even know why I said it.”

“Is that why you came to my show, to ruin it? Haven’t you hurt me enough? Just go away.”

Joe looked from me to my friends. “I’m sorry, Zoe.”

“That son of a bitch!” Nora shouted as he walked back to his table.

“Are you okay, honey?” Kate sat and slid her chair closer to mine.

I was out of breath, felt like I’d just sprinted a mile, but I nodded and lied. “I’m fine.”

“Bastard!” Nora was saying.

“I’m fine. Sit down, Nora.”

Nora stood for a few seconds longer, staring daggers into my husband and his girlfriend, then went back to her chair and practically threw herself into it.

“I can’t believe I ever loved that man.”

“You’re so much better off without him,” Kate said.

“I know I am. But it’s like I never knew him.” I picked up my beer, gazed at the amber liquid inside then returned the glass to the table. I looked down at my chest again, then up at the girls. “I sag?”

“No,” they said in unison. “You’re perfect.”

I jerked around in my seat when a screech rose from the other side of the room.

Jessica Layne, Yonika’s twenty year old daughter, was looming over Joe’s table, finger pointed in his direction, screaming at him at the top of her lungs.

“You liar,” she roared, “you cheater! You told me you left her and then you show up in my mother’s restaurant with her.”

Joe began to stand but Tina beat him to it.

“What she talking ‘bout, Joe?”

Joe looked from Jessica to Tina, then back at Jessica. “You said you were going to Baltimore this weekend.”

With that, Jessica hauled back and slapped Joe so hard it rang in my ears.

“Every dog has his day,” Nora said, sliding her chair forward to get a better view.

“That’s what you should have done,” added Kate.

“I wish I had.”

“You fucking that bitch, Joe?” Tina demanded.

“Who are you calling a bitch, bitch!”

Both girls started toward each other, fists raised, but Joe moved between them.

“It wasn’t like that, Tina,” he said.

“Then what was it like?” Jessica edged closer, trying to get a hold of Tina’s hair. “I’d sure like to know.”

“He used your ass,” Tina sang as she bobbed out of reach. “What you think?”

“Bastard!” Jessica screeched, then ran at them.

“I can’t believe I’m married to that man,” I said, turning back to my table. “If this wasn’t so ridiculous I’d be humiliated right now. I mean, seriously, what woman has to sit and watch two woman fight over her husband at her own show?”

“Ex-husband to be,” Nora amended.

“Exactly.”

There was a shout, a thump and another scream.

Again I turned to see what was going on in time to see Joe hit the floor.

Now, in addition to Jessica, two overgrown thug types were standing at Joe’s table. From the look of things, one of the men had punched Joe. At present, my cheating spouse was trying to pick himself up off the floor.

That’s when I realized, the cute friend was gone. I hadn’t seen him since he’d waved to me. When had he left?

“You liar,” the larger of the men said, drawing my attention again.

Nora raised a hand over her head as though she were in church testifying. “Somebody please tell me Joe was not having sex with that man.”

The accuser was a red-head, looked well over six and a half feet tall and had to have a good three hundred pounds of muscle on him. His skin was pale white and he looked like he could hammer nails with his fists.

“Where is it?” the other man asked.

Under any other circumstances the other man would have seemed oversized too. He topped six feet easily and was a mass of muscle. His dark brown skin fairly glistened under the restaurant lights, making me wonder if he’d oiled himself up with Baby Oil before he’d come in. He had short dreads and a deep, rough voice.

“Where is it?” he demanded a second time. This time, however, he dragged Joe up with one hand and held him still while red plowed a beefy fist into Joe’s stomach.

Upstaged, Jessica and Tina stared on, open-mouthed.

Joe gasped, grabbed his middle and doubled over on the third gut punch. He glided back onto the floor. Tina shrieked and bounced up and down.

“A lot of good that’ll do,” Nora said, “unless she’s trying to distract those guys with her tits.”

“Could be,” Kate said, thoughtfully.

I’m not sure if anyone else noticed when Jessica back-pedaled to the kitchen. From the look of the room, everyone was fixated on the one-sided fight.

That Joe wasn’t well liked in our community was evident in the fact that it took a good minute before anyone intervened.

Layne appeared from the back, a large shotgun in hand, and two of her bouncers following in her tracks.

“This is a family establishment,” she announced, despite the reams of smoke drifting into the air and the copious amount of beer being consumed in every corner of the room. “Get out!”

The two men stared at Layne with matching looks of alarm that would have been comical if they had not been about to beat Joe to death a minute ago.

Red seemed to be considering Layne.

Standing in the center of her restaurant, blonde hair braided down the middle of her back, arms thick with muscle, Layne looked like a Viking warrior who wasn’t in a particularly good mood. If I were red, I wouldn’t press my luck with her.

“Are you deaf or would you like me to—”

Red threw his hands into the air and started backing toward the entrance. His buddy followed suit, throwing a, “we want it,” at Joe before disappearing out the restaurant behind his friend.

I turned back to face Nora and Kate.

“That was so totally awesome!” Nora announced.

“But what was it about?”

“Cool thing is, you don’t need to know. It’s not your problem.”

I looked at Joe’s table. Two guys had helped him up and were leading him toward the bathroom where I figured he’d clean the blood off his face. Tina continued to stand, hands flapping uselessly, eyes darting from one side of the room to the other.

“You’re right,” I said. “It’s her problem.”

Nora grinned.

It took a good five minutes before things in the restaurant settled down. In that time, Layne brought Nora and Kate refills on their drinks, Kate ordered a veggie burger and Nora began to regale us with tales of how she’d met Paul, the guy she was going out with tomorrow night. As she talked, I finished off my first beer and made a good-sized dent in the second. After the night’s events I was feeling pretty good about myself and the fact that Joe was out of my life. He’d obviously gotten himself into a situation, although I couldn’t imagine what situation an architect could get himself into that would require two thugs to come to Bridgeport to beat him down.

I shook my head. It wasn’t my problem. I was free of him. Let Tina worry about what he was doing.

Joe and Tina left and I finished my last set. I wasn’t sure how the crowd would react to music after all the craziness, but it had gone well. Better than I’d expected, in fact. At the end of the night, as I was packing up my gear and the band was tearing down, I couldn’t get the giddy smile off my face.

I’d moved into the loft above my mom’s bookstore two months back. In a wildly optimistic gesture I’d converted one of the bedrooms into a home studio. No one had been in the room since work on it had been completed. Now, at last, I finally felt like creating music again. I didn’t even want to wait until tomorrow. Tonight I’d go into my studio, power up the Work Station, plug in my Line-6, strap on my Jackson and go to work.

“I’m back,” I said to myself and didn’t feel like a sap when a lone tear streaked down my cheek. “I’m back,” I said again.