Partly the problem is my ongoing panic over running behind schedule and missing deadlines. I am so sick and tired of this situation (and you're probably tired of hearing about it). The truth is I don't write as fast as I used to. I can't because, frankly, there's just so much more to deal with now from a business and marketing standpoint. Plus, where I once used to feel energized and competitive in the face of insurmountable obstacles (like two books due in one month) I now just feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Having to plow through the work is not conducive to the best work--even if I could do it, I won't. Which means...missing more deadlines, which adds to the stress (not to mention financial pressure).
And so on and so forth.
The other problem with this project is I wrote THE GHOST WORE YELLOW SOCKS a very long time ago. And I'd started the manuscript several years before that, so it hasn't been easy to recapture the characters and the mood. I've rewritten the first three chapters four times now. I'm finally happy with what I've got--I'm confident most fans of the first book will be too--but it took some time. Time, frankly, that should have been spent on the first chapters of The Magician Murders.
Which is my lengthy and convoluted way of getting to my point, which is THE GHOST HAD AN EARLY CHECK-OUT is running behind but it is coming. I don't even want to discuss release dates at this point.
That said, here's the first chapter (unedited and unexpurgated) ;-)
A scream split the hot summer afternoon.
Perry, precariously perched on the twisted limb of a dying oak tree, lost his balance, dropped his sketchpad, and nearly followed its fluttering descent into the tall, yellowing grass growing on the other side of the chain-link fence that was supposed to keep people like himself from trespassing on the grounds of the former Angel’s Rest hotel.
The voice was thin and hoarse, sexless. There was no sign of anyone, but the cries bounced off the chipped gargoyles, crumbling stairs and broken fountains, echoed off the pointed towers and mansard rooftops of the eight-story building.
Recovering his balance, Perry scooted along the thick branch until he was safely over the barbed top of the fence, and then jumped down into the waist-high weeds and grass.
Heart pounding, Perry ran toward the voice—or at least where he guessed the voice was coming from. He still couldn’t see anyone.
This back section of the property had never been landscaped. Thirsty scrub oaks, bramble bushes, webs of potentially ankle-snapping weeds covered a couple of sunbaked acres.
When he reached the wall of towering—mostly dead—hedges, he covered his mouth and nose with the crook of his arm and shoved his way through, trying not to inhale dust or pollen.
Small, sharp dead leaves whispered as they scratched his bare skin, crumbling against his clothes. He scraped through and found himself in the ruins of the actual hotel garden.
Which meant he was…where in relation to the voice?
Without his leafy vantage point, he had no clue. Rusted lanterns hung from dead tree branches. A couple of short stone staircases led nowhere. An ornate, but oxidized, iron patio chair was shoved into the hedge, and a little farther on, an overturned patio table, lay on its back, four legs sticking straight up out of the tall weeds like a dead animal. A black and white check cement square was carpeted in dead branches and debris. A giant gameboard? More likely an outdoors dance floor.
Too bad there was no time to get some of this derelict grandeur down on paper…
Finally, he spotted an overgrown path leading through a pair of dead Japanese cedars--so ossified they looked like wood carvings--and jogged on toward the hotel.
The voice had fallen silent.
Perry slowed to an uneasy stop, listening. His breathing was the loudest sound in the artificial glade. Should he go on? You couldn’t—shouldn’t--ignore a cry for help, but maybe the emergency was over?
Or maybe the emergency had gotten so much worse, whoever had been yelling was now unconscious.
Far overhead, the tops of the trees made a distant rustling sound, though there was no breeze down here in the petrified forest. He could see broken beer bottles along the path, dead cigarette butts, and something that appeared to be a used condom.
The hotel would be a magnet for vagrants and delinquents alike. His heart was still pounding in that adrenaline rush, and he was breathing hard, but it was simply normal exertion. He was uneasy, of course, but there was no reason he couldn’t go on. He was not the one in distress.
One thing for sure. Nick would not hesitate one instant to offer help to someone in need—although he also would not be crazy about Perry charging into potential trouble.
Perry continued down the path. Actually, it was more of a trail, and it abruptly ended at the top of terraced hillside. There didn’t seem to be another way down, so he just plowed through the dead brush, trying not to lose his footing amidst the loose earth and broken stones.
At last—well, it felt like at last, but it was actually probably no more than two or three minutes—he reached the bottom of the first of three wide, shallow flights of steps leading to the back entrance of the hotel.
Aside from his own footfalls and raspy breathing, it was eerily silent.
He began to feel a little foolish.
Had he misunderstood those cries? Maybe he’d been fooled by the noise of a bunch of kids roughhousing. Maybe what he’d heard had been the rantings of a crazy homeless person. There was a lot of that in LA.
Maybe there had been real trouble, but the situation was now resolved.
He’d been sketching Angel’s Rest for the past week—ever since he’d seen photos of it during his friend Dorians’s exhibition the previous Saturday—so he knew that technically there were several tenants (or maybe just squatters) in the old hotel. In which case maybe someone had already rushed to the rescue.
Then again, maybe someone was dying while he stood here trying to make his mind up.
“Just do it,” Perry muttered, and started up the steps toward the hotel.
The back entrance to the building had to be up there somewhere. The pool was over to the left behind another wall of dying hedges, but it was nearly empty and if someone had fallen off the side of that, they would probably be dead. The conservatory, vines growing out the top and broken glass winking in the sun, was to the right behind still more hedges. That was another potential deathtrap, but he’d never seen anyone out there either. In fact, he had never seen anyone outside the hotel at all. The only reason he knew the place was inhabited because of the scattered lights that went on at dusk and the occasional scent of cooking food on the breeze.
Halfway up the first flight, a scrape of sound—footsteps on pavement--reached him. Perry raised his head as three figures crested the top. He froze. His breath caught. His heart seemed to tumble through his empty chest as he stared in disbelief.
Three figures. They wore long black capes and skeleton masks. They carried swords.
Okay, fucking terrifying. Skeleton men carrying swords was definitely an unexpected and unnerving sight.
His thoughts were jumbled. Was someone filming a movie? Pretty much everywhere you went in LA someone was filming something. Was this a trial run for Halloween? Were they bank robbers? He had some experience of bank robbers, so the thought wasn’t as random as it might seem.
Was he dreaming?
No. He could feel the sun beating down on his head, smell the dust and pollen rising from the cement. Perspiration trickled slowly down his spine to his tailbone. His heart banged against his ribs. His breathing was too fast and getting shallow. He was definitely not dreaming.
The fact that it was broad daylight made it worse somehow. Surreal. The blaze of sunlight lancing off pale stone, the dark fireball shadows thrown by the towering palm trees, the tall black and white figures sweeping down the stairs toward him…
It should have been a dream. If felt like a dream.
“Hey!” Perry shouted. He was a little surprised by his own ferocity. Mostly that was him trying to get past his own apprehension with a show of force. Plus, he had to say something.
The skeleton men were also running and did not notice Perry until he yelled. By then they were almost on top of him. They didn’t speak, but he had an impression of surprised alarm. Being an artist, he automatically paid attention to movement, to body language, to facial expressions. Well, there was no facial expression on those grinning, gaping skeleton faces, but three different sets of body language revealed varying degrees of shock. One of the skeletons veered left, the other veered right.
The middle skeleton who was a few steps behind the other two, raised his sword and charged straight at Perry.
No. This is not happening. This cannot be happening…
But the point of that sword was headed straight for his chest.
For a stricken instant, Perry couldn’t seem to process, but getting skewered for trespassing was not something he wanted to explain to Nick, and the thought galvanized him. Instinctively, he dived and tackled the other around his legs.
The skeleton man pitched forward, his hand locking on the collar of Perry’s t-shirt, dragging Perry with him. Perry ducked his head protectively against his shoulder, still trying to hang onto his assailant.
Hard muscles bunched beneath his hands. The other grunted but did not speak as they bumped their way down the steps, turning over and over. As they rolled, Perry got flashes of blue sky, sparkling bits of broken limestone step, a razor burned throat, dead leaves, clouds, scuffed army boots…
He could smell BO and cigarettes and musty wool.
The sword clattered noisily in front of them. It sounded like wood.
He’d heard Nick talk about how time seemed to both speed up and move in slow motion when you were in a fight, and that was exactly how it felt. He had time to register the little details of sight, smell, sound, but they went past in a confused rush, like a racing freight train.
Nick had been right about something else too. He was already exhausted. His heart clamored in his chest, his lungs burned, his muscles shook. Punches thumped down on his shoulder and back, but that pain felt more distant than his own instant and immediate physical distress.
What the fuck was he going to do with this asshole once they reached the bottom?
The skeleton man tried to knee Perry in the groin, tried to bang his head against the steps. Perry, his hands otherwise engaged, tried to head butt him. His forehead collided with the other guys’s chin.
Bad decision. It seemed pretty straightforward when demonstrated by Nick, but was not so simple in execution. Slamming his forehead into the other’s masked face made him see stars--while having no visible effect on his assailant.
But it also knocked some sense into Perry.
He did not want to land at the feet of the other two skeleton men. That would not be a good plan.
He let go of the skeleton man’s cape and costume, and tried to stop his own rolling descent, which…momentum was not his friend. He did manage to shove the guy off and come to a stop. Shakily, he started to pick himself up, watching warily as the other tumbled the rest of the way to the foot of the steps.
Perry’s arms wobbled and he was having difficulty catching his breath. That was fatigue not asthma, although with the number of stressors he was experiencing, that situation might change any minute.
He had worse problems. His sprawled foe crawled around on his knees, scrabbling for his fallen sword.
Perry’s stomach did an unhappy flop. Really? More? He was not ready for round two.
As the skeleton’s hand closed around the hilt, he was dragged to his feet by his cohorts, one of whom panted, “Forget it, man. Leave him.”
It seemed touch and go, but then the skeleton man jabbed his hand at Perry. Even without words, the message was clearly, You’re dead!
Before he could make good on the threat, he was hustled away and the three took off running, disappearing into the overgrown jungle of dead rosebushes and run-amuck ornamental grasses.
For a few shocked moments Perry stared after them, not moving, simply trying to catch his breath. What the hell had just happened?
At the sound of low moans coming from the top of the stairs, he pushed upright and limped hurriedly up the stairs.
There was an arched entrance at the top of the steps. The archway led into the ruins of a walled garden. Dead vines hung like draperies. In the center of the courtyard was a cracked and dirty fountain. Curved benches ringed it. On the far side of the yard were tall Palladian style doors which must open into what would once have been the hotel foyer.
An elderly man slumped against the base of the fountain, clutching his midriff and quietly groaning. He wore blue jeans and a white shirt. His hair was silver and shoulder-length. His beard was also silver and worn van dyke style.
Perry stumbled forward, expecting to see blood gushing from beneath the clasped hands. “Are you all right?” he gulped. “Did they get you?”
The old man’s eyes shot open and he partially sat up. To Perry’s relief there did not appear to be any sign of gore on his hands or clothes.
“Who are you?” The voice sounded much stronger than the moans indicated. “Where did you come from?”
“Perry Foster. I heard you yelling for help.”
“Are you badly hurt?” Perry asked. “Do you need an ambulance?”
The old man was staring at him as though Perry was an apparition. He had very blue eyes. Not the deep marine blue of Nick. A pale, glittery blue like gemstones. With that high, elegant bone structure he had probably been very, very handsome in his youth. He was still striking even as he gawked wide-eyed at Perry.
“Did you see them?” he demanded.
“Yes. I saw them. Do you want me to call someone? Should I call the police?”
“You saw them?”
They would have been hard to miss, wouldn’t they?
“Yes,” Perry said. “We ran into each other on the stairs.”
Still clutching his midsection, the old man struggled to stand. Perry went to his aid. A bony hand fastened on his shoulder and the old man peered into his eyes.
“Who are you?” he asked again.
“Perry,” Perry repeated. “Perry Foster.”
“Do I know you?”
The old man continued to peer at him. “Perry, you said?”
“And you say you saw them. What did you see?”
Old though he was, he had a beautiful, deep voice. A commanding voice. A trained voice?
Perry answered obediently, “I saw three figures—male. At least, I’m sure two of them were male--dressed up in skeleton costumes and capes. They had swords.” He recalled the clatter of the sword bouncing down the steps. “Wooden swords, I think.”
“Oh, thank God.” The old man shut his eyes and swayed. “Thank. God.”
“Here, you better sit down.” Perry helped him to one of the marble benches. He was tall, taller than Perry, but willowy. All at once he seemed very frail.
The old man rested his face in his hands and shook his head. He raised his head. “You don’t understand.” He shook his head again. Tears shimmered in his eyes. He covered his face.
Perry looked around for help, but there was no sign of anyone. He waited for a couple of moments while the old guy tried to compose himself.
“Is there someone inside?” Perry asked finally. “Is there someone I can get for you?”
“No, no.” The old man raised his head. He wiped his eyes without self-consciousness. “How did you get here, Perry? Where did you come from?”
Oh, that. Perry grimaced. The moment of truth. “Well, you see… I’ve been sketching Angel’s Rest. The building.”
There was no comprehension on the face in front of him—and why would there be?
Perry persisted. “Maybe I should have asked permission. I didn’t really think about it until now. There’s an oak tree in the back on the other side of the property line. The branches grow over the fence, and I was sitting up there.”
The old man frowned. “What do you mean you were sketching the building? Why?”
“Because it’s…beautiful. The bones of the structure, I mean. The architecture.”
Instead of replying, the old man once more dropped his head to his hands.
Perry glanced back at the tall, dark windows of the hotel. Why was no one coming out? How was it possible that no one had heard any of this commotion?
The man raised his head, and glared at Perry with unexpectedly hard blue eyes.
“If you’re an artist, where are your paints or pencils? Where is your easel or your sketchbook?”
The sudden suspicion was startling. Why would he lie about sketching the property? He could have come up with all kinds of fake excuses for being on the grounds, after all, if that’s what the old guy was hinting at.
Perry said, “I dropped my gear when you yelled.”
“I see. Then it will still be where you left it.” The distrust was still there, bright and shining.
“Yes. It should still be lying there in the grass.” Then again, the way things were going? Perry added, “I hope.”
Perry stepped back warily as his rescuee rose. “Okay, but wouldn’t it make more sense to call the police?”
The old man gave a short, bitter laugh. “Would it? No. Show me where you left your things when you raced to my rescue.”
Not like Perry was looking for a big thank you, but the hint of sarcasm in “when you raced to my rescue” was strange and troubling. So too was the other’s obvious paranoia. An already very weird situation seemed to be getting weirder by the minute.
“Sure.” Perry turned to lead the way. He was suddenly, painfully conscious of his own bumps and bruises. He hadn’t fallen far, but it had been a hard landing. He’d banged his elbow, his knee, his shoulder. He was very lucky he hadn’t broken anything.
They walked down the three flights of steps in silence, but when Perry started toward the terraced hillside, the old man said, “What are you doing? There’s a walkway right here.”
Sure enough, beneath the dead leaves and pine needles, a brick walk wound through the black iron pick-up sticks of what had once been an ornate gate. Perry hadn’t noticed the walkway in his earlier haste.
“Oh. Right. Okay.” He changed course obligingly. The old man gave him a sideways look.
“I suppose you think I’m ungrateful?”
“Well, I guess you’re pretty shaken up.” He felt pretty shaken himself, and he hadn’t been the target of that attack.
The old man made an unappeased sound. “I have to wonder. How would you happen to be here at just the right moment to see them? Hm? That timing is a little too convenient.”
Perry tried to read his face, tried to make sense of the open disbelief. Not just disbelief. Antipathy. Like the old guy thought he was…what? What was he implying? That Perry had been with the skeleton men? That he was part of a gang of Halloween-costumed hooligans who went around beating up old people?
“I’ve been here all week,” Perry said.
“All week? You’ve been trespassing all week?”
Old people could be cranky, that was a fact. Perry tried to hang onto his patience. “If I was trespassing on your property, it was only today when I heard you yelling.”
“Yet how could you hear anything from this distance?”
This was getting kind of ridiculous. “I guess the breeze was blowing in the right direction.”
The old man made an unconvinced noise.
Well, he could think what he liked. He seemed as unhurt as he was ungrateful, so really Perry’s responsibility—assuming he had any in this situation—was at an end. He’d grab his gear and show this old coot that he was exactly what he said he was, and then climb back over the fence and head home. He had plenty of sketches of Angel’s Rest by now. He could paint from those. Or find another project. He wouldn’t be returning here again, that was for sure.
The brick path took them past the checkerboard dance floor and up the path with the broken bottles and trash. The old man made a sound of disgust as he noted the discarded condom.
“Kind of a weird place for romance,” Perry offered. It was not his nature to hang onto irritation.
Though he was also limping, Perry’s companion didn’t really move like an old person. He was old though. Seventy at least. Perry had spent a lot of time with elderly people, both when he worked at the library in Fox Run and when he’d lived on the Alston Estate. He was used to their quirks and general crankiness, and the last of his exasperation faded.
“Have you lived here a long time?” he asked.
The old man gave him look of disbelief and declined to answer.
They didn’t speak again until they trudged across the barren back of the property and reached the oak tree. Perry hunted through the dry grass and found his sketch pad. He brushed the foxtails out of the pages and handed it over to his companion. He pointed up into the overhanging branches.
“You can see my backpack up there. Leaning against that Y in the trunk.”
The old man, flipping brusquely through the pages of Perry’s sketch book, did not look up. “My God.” He paused at a sketch of a raven perched on the sill of one of the tower windows. “Where did you learn to draw like this?”
“Art classes and stuff.”
He did look up then. “No.” Pale blue eyes met Perry’s solemnly. “This is…this is a gift. This isn’t training.”
“Well, a lot of it’s training.”
He continued to stare as though seeing Perry clearly for the first time. “It’s a gift from the gods,” he pronounced.
Oh-kay, that was a little dramatic.
“Yeah, but I don’t really…” Believe in the gods? Believe in talent without training? Believe you’re entirely sane, Mr. Angel’s Rest?
“It’s the Muse,” insisted Mr. Angel’s Rest. “It’s fire from heaven.”
Fire from heaven? What did that even mean? This oldster would have been right at home on the Alston Estate with little old Miss Dembecki and creepy Mr. Teagle.
Perry said politely, “I guess some of it’s aptitude.”
The good news was he no longer seemed to be suspected of being in league with the skeleton men.
As though reading his thoughts, the old man flipped closed the sketch book and offered his hand. “I’m Horace Daly. I want to thank you for what you did for me earlier, and I’m sorry I wasn’t more…gracious.”
“That’s okay,” Perry began. He was hoping Horace wasn’t planning on keeping his sketchbook. “Do y—”
“No, it’s really not,” Horace said earnestly. “But it’s difficult to explain without sounding completely mad.”
Mad? Horace Daly seemed to have quite the dramatic turn of phrase. But then he was living in a mostly abandoned hotel and had just been attacked by three guys in skeleton costumes, so maybe drama was his default?
Perry opened his mouth to, well, he wasn’t sure what. Ask if Horace needed help getting back home? Ask if Horace wanted to file a police report perhaps? Because really that’s what they should be doing right now. Phoning the cops. The longer they waited the less chance they had of—
Who was he kidding? They had zero chance of catching Horace’s attackers at this point.
Horace was still watching him with that blazing-eyed intensity. When he stared like that, he almost… sort of…looked familiar.
Had he seen Horace before? Where? Why did he have the weird inkling it had been in church? Perry hadn’t been to church since he’d left his parents’ home nearly two years ago--and he was pretty sure Horace was no Presbyterian.
Horace, still following his own thoughts, pronounced in that grand, grave manner, “You see, Perry, someone is trying to kill me.”