Chapter One

“I see dead people.”

The whispered, somewhat embarrassed words of a child from a popular movie several years back echoed dully in Emma’s mind. Squeezing her eyes shut, she took a deep breath, counted to ten before opening them again and…the dead man was still there.  Shaking her head to clear it didn’t make him disappear, squinting only made him a tad blurry, and tilting her head to either side like a curious dog just made her dizzy.  No matter what she did, he remained right where he was, leaning with studied nonchalance against the wall beside the newspaper rack in KC’s, arms and ankles crossed, smiling at her like she was the answer to all his prayers.

“I see dead people.”  The child’s voice was insistent now with a slight plea as if begging her to believe him.  A shiver ran up her spine.  She believed, oh how she believed.  It was a chillingly accurate statement as far as she was concerned.

“You and me both, kid,” she muttered then looked up at the clock on the wall above the dead man’s head.  It was four minutes after two, Monday, December…she wracked her brain to remember the date, something that often slipped her mind during school vacations.  Oh, yes, it was the twenty-third.  School had been out for three days.  She’d spent nearly every waking moment of each of those days trying to finish her latest labor of love—and failing miserably.

Three days blown to hell, unless she could get through this despicable bout of writer’s block, finish the young adult novel she’d been working on for nearly two years, and get up the nerve to actually submit it to a publisher.  Then, well, then the possibilities were endless.  Submitting the book would probably be enough to put a small dent in the depression that had taken over her life since her husband’s death.  If—and it was a very big if—she could actually sell it, it just might be enough to chase away this persistent hopelessness and give her something to live for again.

Desperate to fight her way out of the depression without using drugs or, worse to her way of thinking, going to a psychiatrist, she’d decided the book had to be finished and submitted before the stroke ofmidnighton New Year’s Eve.  If it wasn’t, she planned to erase the file from her computer and chalk the whole venture up to another lost opportunity in her miserable life.  What she would do after that, only heaven knew.  The only thing she knew was that the world would go on—with or without her.

The dead man uncrossed his ankles, drawing her attention back to him.  She’d worry about her mutinous muse later, right now she needed to deal with this latest…hitch in her stride; the dead man standing over there smiling at her.  She looked at the clock again, thinking it might be important in the future to know the exact moment when she’d rounded that final, fateful curve on the road to insanity.  Heck, she might even write a story about it; Emma Trips the Light Fantastic or maybe Emma Goes Bonkers.

It was bound to happen sooner or later, she’d known that, had been waiting for it all her life—or at least from the time she was about ten years old and had been rudely awakened to the fact that she was different from the other children in her fifth grade class.  Up until then, it hadn’t been a problem.  Children were imaginative creatures, but when they reached the age where they were approaching puberty, their beliefs and creative outlooks on life were stymied.  Her friends had stopped enjoying her so-called imagination and started pointing their fingers at her instead.  Since then, she’d been expecting insanity to come calling at any minute.

“You’re just special, that’s all,” her mom had often assured her.  A biased opinion, surely.  Special she might be, but she’d learned fast that special meant different—and most people didn’t take well to others who were “different.”  Emma herself didn’t like it much.  She longed to be a normal, everyday, average Josephine, instead of someone who heard voices in her head, or someone who knew things were going to happen before they actually happened.  Shuddering at another chill, she hunched her shoulders as if trying to hide from the next thought; she didn’t want to be someone who saw dead people, for crying out loud!  Granted, that was a first for her, but with her luck, she figured it wouldn’t be a last.

She’d spent her life doing everything she could to be—or at least appear to be—just like everyone else.  Doing her best to behave as the so-called normal people did, she’d learned to interact with them and taught herself to tolerate their idiosyncrasies.  Through it all, she’d instinctively kept her personal quirks and unconventional traits hidden.  Hers, after all, were much more frowned upon than theirs.

Over the years, she’d kept a list of the many terms the commoners—her secret name for them—might use to describe her.  It was saved on her computer and she often edited it, adding new terms as she heard them and changing the rankings.  At present her top three favorites were; raving mad—short, sweet, and to the point; loony-tunes—self-explanatory with a nice humorous bent; nutty as a fruitcake—descriptive in a festive sort of way.  She’d even started writing a children’s book about the many ways of saying someone was insane; The ABCs of Insanity.  Abnormal, bonkers, crackers, ditzy; the list went on and on.  Right now, at this heart-stopping moment in her life, she felt as if she’d touched them all on the long, winding journey that was her life up to this point.

The dead man…ghost…whatever the heck he was…cleared his throat and drew her attention back to him.

Wrapping both hands around the steaming cup of coffee, she reveled in the heat as she studied the…apparition.  I’m one up on you, kid.  I not only see dead people, I hear them too.

He looked up and gifted her with a charming smile then went back to perusing the headlines on that day’s newspaper.

He doesn’t seem to know he’s dead.  Should I tell him?  If I do, will he disappear?  Just Poof!  Could it be that easy to get rid of him?

He lifted his eyes, frowned at her then shook his head as if he knew what she was thinking.

Jiminy Christmas, did he know what she was thinking?

Holding the cup of coffee beneath her nose, she inhaled the fragrant mist, and wished she could remove the lid and dive into the wonderful heat.  She was always cold these days, had been ever since her husband died.  It was as if Bill’s death had leached all the warmth from her body along with all the hope from her heart.

And now she was seeing dead people.  What next?

Could this be some sort of weird dream?  If it was, why could she feel the heat and weight of the cup in her hand, and smell the tantalizing aroma mixed with a hint of balsam from the small Christmas tree standing on a table at the end of one of the aisles?  Why could she see the colorful lights blinking manically?  Why could she hear Judy Garland’s lovely voice counseling her to have a merry little Christmas from the radio behind the counter?

She almost snorted.  Not much chance of that, Judy.  Especially if this isn’t a dream, and she was becoming more and more sure it wasn’t.  It was way too real to be a dream.

Narrowing her eyes, she studied the dead man.  Perhaps he wasn’t who she thought he was.  Maybe he was one of those celebrity doppelgangers, those people who looked so much like famous movie stars or sports figures that they went around posing as them at parties, bar mitzvahs and such.  Or, he could be a distant family member, a cousin, say, who just happened to share most of the same genes as his more famous relative, Ted McNabb.

Old Ted might be more famous, but he was also very dead.  Dead, as in no way could he be standing here in KC’s checking out the local newspaper.

Good grief, she’d probably be seeing Elvis next.  Or maybe Jim Morrison would swagger through the door, shake his curly locks and break into the chorus of “People are Strange.”  Shoot, at this point she wouldn’t be surprised if a group of little green Martians appeared demanding to be taken to her leader.

She lowered her head, peeked at him from beneath her eyelashes.  He looked good for a dead guy.  Nothing like the last photograph she’d seen of him where he’d looked terribly old and washed out, like he was standing on his last leg—well, she guessed when the picture had been taken, he was, but now, he looked more like the earlier pictures, tall with a slim build and a slightly craggy, albeit handsome and appealing, face.

Incredibly sexy, outrageously alluring; the man of her dreams come to life.

She peeked at him again and saw he was smiling at her now.

Could he read her mind?

He winked, straightened away from the counter, and started walking in her direction.  Yikes!  Dead man walking!  She heard him laugh then the air around him seemed to shimmer and shift as he passed through a rack of candy bars—directly through it as if he were made of nothing more than smoke—and the old Almond Joy/Mounds commercial ran through her mind, “Sometimes I feel like a nut, sometimes I don’t.”

Ye gods, it was official.  Emma Bradshaw, bored elementary school teacher, depressed widow, aspiring young-adult novelist, just tripped the light fantastic, took to the air and flew around the bend into La-la land.

* * * * *

I see dead people.  As Emma Bradshaw’s thoughts rang clearly in his mind, Ted “Mac” McNabb grinned.  He could read her mind.  Cool.  Finally, a plus to being an Apprentice Angel.

“Focus, Mr. McNabb.”

The deep voice of Gabriel, his heavenly nemesis, blasted into his head and wiped away the smug smile.  Cautious, Mac braced his feet and prepared to dodge the lightning bolt Gabriel had a tendency to flash from his eyes when he was annoyed.  After a few seconds, he relaxed.  Maybe Gabe’s temper didn’t extend down to earth.

“Bite me, Gabe.”

“No, thanks.  Do your job.”

When he got back to Heaven, he was going to go right over Gabe’s head straight to the Head Honcho.  He had a couple of bones to pick with the Big Guy.  Controlling a wince as Emma squirted way too much cream into her coffee—hadn’t the woman ever heard of too much of a good thing?—he catalogued his list of grievances.

First, there was this bit about being an Apprentice Angel.  What a freaking joke that was.  No way in Hell—or Heaven—was he going to put up with that.  It was, in a nutshell, a kick in the ass.  And that was putting it mildly.

Which brought him to his next complaint; why couldn’t he get out a single sentence without peppering it with clichés?  It was annoying, not to mention mortifying.  He was a best-selling author, for crying out loud.  Any writer worth his salt knew to avoid clichés…well, like the plague.

Damn!  This had to stop!

“Pay attention, Mr. McNabb.  I didn’t send you down there to try to figure out your own problems, I sent you to help Ms. Bradshaw.”

Mac rolled his eyes before fixing them back on Emma.  Archangels, with their holier-than-thou attitudes and their asinine rules, were a major pain in the butt.  Gabriel, in particular, with his multitude of brightly colored wings, gleaming halo, and sparking angel eyes, pushed all of Mac’s buttons into overdrive.  Old Gabe was prone to change at the drop of a hat.  His appearance, his clothes, hell, his entire being sometimes seemed as if it was in a constant state of metamorphosis.  He could be a cranky, leathered old man one minute, a drop-dead gorgeous, ditzy blonde the next, and a young, precocious child the minute after that.  Then he could morph seamlessly into a snarling, rabid dog in the blink of an eye.  It was a little disconcerting, even for someone who’d lived his life studying people and weaving the odd and often unbelievable personalities together to create interesting characters for his books.

A rolling rumble of thunder, followed by a bolt of lightning that pierced him right through the heart, made him jump.  Shit!  The fiery shaft didn’t burn as expected, but was mildly warm, passing through him with only a brief jolt of awareness.  Still, it was enough to make him stand up and take notice.

“You have a job to do, Mr. McNabb.  Pay attention, if you please or you will never make it to your Personal Heaven.”

Mac ducked to the side as another bolt of lightning flashed then looked up to see the woman watching him warily.  Had she seen that?  He sent a pithy “back off” to Gabriel and plastered a smile on his face.

“Keep your mind on what you’re there to do and I will.  Ms. Bradshaw needs your help.  Make the connection and get this done.”

Uh-oh, how was he supposed to make the connection again?  Okay, right, he had to hold Emma’s hand for three seconds then he would be “tuned in” to her for the duration of this assignment.  When he’d accomplished that, he could move on to helping her with her book and convincing her to go to that Christmas party where she would meet a man—supposedly her soul mate.  His lips moved into an automatic sneer.  Christ, he’d been sent to earth to play matchmaker for the Archangels.  Somebody up there was going to pay.

“Don’t forget she’s psi.”  Gabriel interrupted his thoughts, which was just one more thing to be pissed about.  It might be cool to read someone else’s mind, but that didn’t mean he had to like his own being an open book to Gabe and his celestial buddies.

“What the hell’s psi?”

“Psychic, precognitive and telepathic; weren’t you listening when I was briefing you?  I don’t do that stuff for my health, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah, psychic, okay, I get it.  Don’t have a clue why it makes a lick of difference, but I’ve got it.”

“It’s important because you can use it.  Get your mind in the game and watch for the right time”.

“Alright, already.  Now get out of my face, will ya?”