“Mom,” Colby whispered, careful to hold her hand down below the level of the pew as she pointed. “Look.”
While Pastor Phin was finishing up today’s sermon on the virtues of helping your neighbor whenever you see them in need, Darcy followed the direction of her daughter’s attention. At seven years of age, Colby didn’t often show a lot of interest in these services so Darcy wasn’t surprised that she had been people watching again. Jon worried sometimes that he and Darcy had downplayed the importance of church a little too much, but then one day they found out that Colby could repeat every word of the sermons Pastor Phin had given.
Their daughter was a smart girl, Darcy had reminded her husband. Jon had shrugged and let it go. Obviously, Colby was listening a whole lot better than some people who claimed to be good Christians. There was definitely something to be said for that.
Darcy looked over to the pew that Colby was pointing at. Two ahead of them, on the other side of the aisle. A young girl sat there, by herself, next to the Barse family. A teenager. Darcy didn’t recognize her. She was slender and tall in a gray dress that probably would have been better suited to a funeral than a Sunday service. Her black, frizzy hair curled around a cheek the color of hot chocolate, and fell down the gentle slope of her graceful neck.
As if she could feel them staring at her, the girl twisted around toward them. Her smile pulled up the corner of her mouth and brought out a dimple in her left cheek. One deep brown eye winked at them.
Red and black scar tissue puckered around her other eye and all across the right side of her face, from the collar of her dress all the way up to her forehead. The hair on that side had been burned away.
This girl was dead.
Darcy had seen ghosts in any number of places. In cemeteries. In her home. Walking down sidewalks. Once, a ghost had appeared in a movie she was watching. Usually she saw one or two of them a week, just passing through this mortal coil. There were a lot more of them around than people realized. Seeing ghosts didn’t surprise her anymore.
Still, for all of her experience with ghosts, she had never once seen one appear in church, just sitting there listening to a sermon.
“What are you two looking at?” Jon whispered. “The service is about to end.”
“Sorry,” Darcy whispered back. “We were just…”
…looking at that pretty ghost over there with the burn marks on the side of her face. That was what she had been about to say. It was the truth but sometimes, the truth didn’t need to be said. Jon was used to his wife seeing ghosts. But, this time it wasn’t just her.
Colby saw the ghost, too.
Rather than try to explain that here, in church, Darcy shook her head. “It’s nothing.”
Raising a dark eyebrow, Jon shrugged, and let it go. She studied the strong profile of his handsome face for a moment. There was gray in the temples of his hair now. Rather than make him look old, it made him impossibly attractive. At least in her opinion.
She settled back in the pew, stroking Colby’s long, dark hair before resting a hand on her shoulder. Her daughter might still be a little young for her age, but in other ways she was more grown up than her years. The ability to see spirits and feel things before they happened and all of that was passed down through the female side of her family. It usually skipped around from generation to generation, and as near as Darcy could figure out it wasn’t always passed down from mother to daughter. It showed up where it wanted, with no explanation, and it was stronger for some than for others. Colby was going to be very gifted, without doubt. Maybe even stronger in her abilities than Darcy was.
Any question of whether Colby was going to inherit the gift had been dispelled two years ago when Colby had seen Jon’s ghost. Darcy’s husband had died—very briefly—during a case that had shook the entire town of Misty Hollow. He managed to come back to Darcy and his daughter alive and more or less in one piece, but for the few seconds that his heart had stopped beating his spirit was able to reach out for help. Darcy had seen him. So had Colby.
Since then, however, Colby’s gift had seemed to go dormant. She hadn’t spoken about seeing things, or hearing things, or talked about having any kind of premonition. Not even about the weather.
Now, Colby was seeing that ghost sitting right there, watching Pastor Phin finish up his sermon with a few announcements.
“It’s getting colder out, as I’m sure most of you noticed on your way in,” he said in that clear, bold voice of his. He wore simple clothes like always, a tan high-necked sweater that was a few shades lighter than his dark skin, and black slacks. The simple clothes of a pastor. His curly hair was neatly trimmed and his face was clean shaven. Darcy had always thought he had such an honest face. “Apparently,” he went on, “God wants us to have snow for Christmas after all so let’s make sure we’re ready. The church has a donation box for new or gently used winter coats of all sizes near the front entrance. Donations for all ages are always welcome. Our storage unit is getting full, but there will always be a need. Jesus spent forty days in the desert, remember, but we’ve got to help our neighbors through a New England winter. There’s some years I wonder which of those would be worse!”
Laughter rippled through the pews, and Phin let it play out before he went on. “Speaking of donations, let’s not forget about the Policeman’s Winter Fund. There’s a fifty-fifty raffle, for anyone who wants to buy a ticket instead of giving a donation, and all proceeds go toward purchasing heating fuel for those in our community who can’t afford it this year. Well, I guess that about does it for another week. Thank you all for coming. God bless, and stay warm.”
People stirred around Darcy, talking and standing and gathering their belongings, but she was still watching the ghost of the girl with the burn marks. She was about fifteen or sixteen, just sitting there in the pew without anyone even noticing, and it still bothered Darcy that she didn’t recognize who she was. She knew just about everyone in Misty Hollow, if not personally then by name or face because the town was just small enough to encourage good friendships and strong community ties. It was hard to believe that she wouldn’t have seen this girl around town before she died, or heard about a fire that took the life of someone so young.
“I wonder why she’s here,” Colby mentioned quietly, standing up on her tiptoes to try and see around the milling crowds.
“Sometimes,” Darcy told her, “we don’t ever know.”
Her daughter stared at the pretty ghost with the burn scars and summed it up as only a seven-year-old could. “Weird.”
Darcy hugged her tight. This was her little girl, through and through.
They picked up their coats from the pew and snuggled into the puffy warmth, getting ready to brave the cold outside again. Darcy’s was a purple ski jacket bought on a trip with Jon a year ago in Bear Ridge. Colby’s had long strings hanging down from the corners of the hood that ended in white pompoms and it was not pink, as her daughter had explained several times, just a very light red. She was a girl, but that didn’t mean she had to like pink. Jon still wore that hip-length parka that was starting to get a little threadbare. Practical man, Darcy thought with a secret smile.
Darcy saw several of her neighbors as they folded themselves into the line heading out of church through the double doors at the side of the building. A few of them waved to her, or exchanged little greetings, while they waited for their turn to step back into the wintry mix of snow and rain that Misty Hollow had been getting all week.
On warmer days Pastor Phin stood outside to shake everyone’s hands and say goodbye and, Darcy suspected, to make sure no one tried to sneak back into the church. In her younger years she had discovered that hiding behind the pews at the far back until the doors of a church were closed could get you a wonderful place to just sit and think in absolute quiet. Once or twice, she’d been known to commit that mild act of trespass with a friend. Usually a boy.
Reaching forward she wrapped her fingers into Jon’s. She really wished she had known him back in those days. Growing up with him would have been amazing.
A few places ahead of them in line, Helen and Bruce Turner were talking closely with each other, whispering in each other’s ears and smiling. Darcy was happy for her friend. Helen had finally married a good man who loved her, and now she had sold the bakery she had owned in town for years. She could finally focus on enjoying life. That, and on being the mayor of one of the fastest growing towns in New England. She and Darcy still found time to have dinner together about once a month. It was just a matter of getting their busy schedules to mesh.
Busier was sometimes a good thing, Darcy reminded herself as she placed a hand on the top of Colby’s knitted cap. The cap was the same not-pink-but-red color as Colby’s coat with sparkly snowflake designs. Her daughter was in a phase where she liked to wear girlie things, even if she was still too much of a tomboy to admit it.
A tap on Darcy’s shoulder brought her attention behind her as the line moved slowly forward. Her good friend and business partner, Izzy McIntosh, was wearing a jean jacket more suitable to springtime than December. Especially on a day like today. Then again, Izzy had always been more suited to the cold than Darcy. Up until a few weeks back Izzy had still been wearing flipflops on the weekend.
“Are we still opening the store this afternoon?” Izzy asked her. Her smile seemed forced as she looked at her watch. “I have an errand I need to run. Something came up.”
“We are,” Darcy confirmed, “but I can take care of it today. Maybe Colby will join me.”
Her daughter shrugged, but didn’t say anything. She kept facing straight ahead.
“Are you sure?” Izzy asked. “I know I said I would be there to help set up the Christmas displays but, well, Lilly called and Connor’s car ran out of gas. In his driveway. I’m sure there’s a fantastically amusing story behind that but for now it means her mother needs to come and rescue her and since I’m her mother, that means me.”
“I was wondering where Lilly was,” Darcy said. Izzy’s daughter almost always came with her to church services. Not that the teenager with the colored streaks in her hair and carefree attitude was the typical churchgoing kind of girl. She came because her mother did. They were very close, those two. It was the same kind of relationship she hoped to have with Colby when the teenage years hit.
Connor, Lilly’s steadfast boyfriend, did not attend church. That didn’t mean he wasn’t a good kid. On the contrary. He was one of the better ones in Darcy’s opinion. Lilly and Connor had really lucked out when they fell into each other’s lives all those years ago. Connor’s mother was an amazing person and one of Darcy’s closest friends, but she didn’t believe in God. It was possible that her lack of faith had a lot to do with her previous line of work as a contract killer. Or with the hand life had dealt her and her son afterward. Either way, when things got tough, there were only a few people Darcy could depend on more than Connor’s mother, Ellen Gless.
Izzy had proven to be a lifesaver, too, in more ways than one. She’d certainly covered for Darcy at the Sweet Read bookstore enough times. Darcy was more than willing to return the favor now. “It’s really not a problem, Izzy. I don’t know if we’ll have many people coming in with the weather outside.”
“I know, but the decorations…”
“There’s still three weeks until Christmas,” Darcy reminded her. “The displays will get put up today, or tomorrow. Santa won’t mind if we’re a day late.”
Izzy laughed with Darcy, and even Jon chuckled. Colby did not. She didn’t even roll her eyes or make any of the comments she usually would have about her mother’s insistence on talking about a jolly, chubby elf in a red suit when clearly Santa didn’t exist. Colby had figured out very early that there was no such thing as Santa, or the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy either. Ghosts were enough for her world.
But there should have been at least a comment about how reindeer can’t fly.
Looking down at the top of her daughter’s head, Darcy wondered what was holding the girl’s attention so strongly. She was still standing, staring straight ahead of them in line. The hallway that led to the exit door was getting shorter as the line moved them forward. At the end, by the window, there was a book rack with uplifting feel-good novels for people to borrow and pamphlets on good living for people to take with them when they left. Pastor Phin stood there as well, smiling and telling everyone to have a great day even if the weather was cold enough to freeze the Devil’s pitchfork.
People laughed, and shook his hand, and then left the church to dash for their cars or dodge snowflakes on a chilly walk home. Not a one of them noticed the girl standing right next to Phin with the burn marks on her face.
But Colby did.
The ghost watched the people going by, smiling at each one as they talked to Pastor Phin. She was squeezed into the corner, and no one noticed her at all. She looked happy to be where she was. Darcy had to wonder why.
“Hey, there’s your sister,” Jon suddenly pointed out to Darcy. “I didn’t realize Grace and Aaron were even here this morning.”
The church wasn’t all that big, but people routinely came in just before services were about to start to sit in the back, Grace and Aaron usually among them. Her dark hair was the same color as Darcy’s, and there was a distinct similarity to the line of their jaws and the heart shape of their faces. There was a slight height difference in Darcy’s favor and Grace kept her hair short after a very bad incident at work but those were minor things. They were definitely sisters.
Grace was huddled into her own coat, white like her daughter Addison’s was. She was standing close by her mother and father and looking impatient to leave. Aaron was wearing a bulky ski jacket, already done up to his chin. He had pale as milk skin and brown hair, and he was just as unsuited to the cold as Darcy was. He was talking to Pastor Phin about something, Darcy saw, and whatever it was Grace didn’t seem to like what was said. She was staring hard at the pastor, her face darkening.
Then she turned to look back at Darcy.
Huh. Darcy wondered what that was all about. She’d catch up with Grace later, or maybe tomorrow, and ask then.
Addison saw them at that moment too and waved to Colby. She was so energetic about it that her whole body swayed. Colby waved back, her gaze still focused on the ghost even if Addison didn’t notice. They hadn’t gotten together in a few days now and Colby had already been asking when Addison could come to hang out. Those two cousins were as close as sisters. Closer, even, than Darcy and Grace.
By the time they made it up to the doors most of the church had emptied out but Phin still had enough energy to smile and shake Jon’s hand warmly. Over Phin’s shoulder, the ghost floated closer.
“Jon Tinker!” Phin greeted him. “How is our police chief doing today?”
“We’re fine, Pastor.” Jon took his hand back, and Darcy noticed how he flexed his fingers. Phin had quite the grip. “I appreciate the mention of the Policeman’s Winter Fund, by the way.”
“Anything to help. You know that.” He clapped Jon on the shoulder and smiled down at Colby before reaching out to hold Darcy’s hand, too. “And Darcy. Always good to see you. Your store going to be open later?”
“Sure is,” Darcy said as she shook Phin’s hand—
In her mind’s eye a fire blazed, burning up a large two-story house with gabled windows and two brick chimneys.
—and then let go. The vision faded away. “Um. Sorry, Pastor. I had something on my mind. Yes, the bookstore will be open. I’ll be there.”
“So will I,” Colby said abruptly, which Darcy supposed settled that.
Behind Phin, the ghost raised a hand, and reached out for Colby. Her lips were moving, rapidly, trying desperately to say something that wasn’t penetrating through the void between the world of the living and the next plane of existence.
Her pale fingers were bare centimeters from Colby’s face.
“Well we should go,” she said to Jon, pulling Colby with her to the door, away from the ghost, disguising the frantic movement with a tight hug that she hoped looked natural. “We’ll see you next week, Phin.”
“Uh, sure,” he called after her. “See you then!”
The rain and snowy mix drummed down on the top of Darcy’s head, freezing cold where it stung her face, wet where it soaked into her hair. This wasn’t a fit day to be outside for man nor beast, as the saying went. She hoped Smudge and his daughter Tiptoe had the good sense to stay inside, curled up nice and warm on the living room rug. That’s where Darcy would like to be, actually. Curled up in her bed at home, maybe with a good book on her tablet, and a steaming cup of hot cocoa.
“She wasn’t going to hurt me,” Colby said when they were almost back to Jon’s car. It had been lined up along the side of the street with all the others from today’s service and now it was one of the last ones here. “She only wanted me to hear her.”
Jon looked over at Darcy, over the top of Colby’s head, his deep blue eyes reflecting the same question that Darcy had been hearing from him a lot recently.
Is this one of those things?
Jon knew about their daughter’s abilities. He’d known about Darcy’s gifts for years now, or at least most of what they involved, and now his daughter had inherited the same gifts. There were still a few darker bits of what Darcy could do that she had kept from both of them. She had started teaching Colby the basic techniques of what she’d been blessed with, but the more advanced stuff was, well, just that. Advanced. Stuff that only people skilled in their gifts should try.
The day that Darcy had told Jon that the gift had been passed down to their daughter they had been alone in bed after a very nice, very private moment together. A very long moment that had seemed far too short when it was over for them both. Lying together, catching their breath, Darcy had told him that Colby was just as gifted as she herself was. Maybe more.
He’d squeezed her tight to his chest, and sighed, and told her that this was what he had signed up for when he married her. He would never love their daughter less, and he would never be afraid of her, but he would always be afraid for her, because he knew the trouble that he and Darcy had gotten in and out of over the years. Trouble that often revolved around Darcy’s gifts. Then he had kissed Darcy full on the mouth, and they fell asleep.
Ever since, Jon had let Darcy take the lead whenever it came to matters of the ghostly sort with Colby. Like now. So, he was asking her silently, was this one of those things?
Yes, she answered him with a look of her own and a tilt of her head, this is one of those things.
He nodded, and said absolutely nothing as he got in behind the wheel of the car and started the engine.
Darcy stood out with Colby for another moment in the sleet and wind so they could talk privately. “I know you think she wasn’t going to hurt you,” she said, meaning the ghost, “but you never know. Sometimes spirits become confused, or angry, or they try so hard to get a message across that they cause you pain without realizing what they’re doing. Until you can get the ghost one on one with you on your own terms, it’s best to keep your distance.”
Colby thought that over, chewing on the inside of her lip. “Okay, Mom,” she said at last. “I think I understand.”
“Good girl. Let’s go home and dry off. After lunch we’ll go over to the bookstore for a few hours. Feel like helping me hang up some paper snowflakes? We can hang them upside down and see who notices.”
Colby giggled at that as she closed the back door of Jon’s sedan and pulled her seatbelt on. Then she looked back over her shoulder, through the rear window.
Darcy followed her gaze. The ghost was still standing there, at the corner of the church building, watching them go. One hand reached up to touch the burns on her face as if she was trying to remember how they happened.
In her mind, Darcy saw the image of the burning house again, the same one she’d seen when she touched Pastor Phin’s hand. It happened like that, sometimes, where she would see into a person’s past or see their intentions from a single touch. Sometimes she even knew what the visions meant.
This time, she had no idea.
A Darcy Sweet Cozy Mystery Book 20 will be available for purchase on Thursday, December 8th, 2016.