Medium in the Middle
Copyright 2010 by Rob Preece, all rights reserved. No portion of this book may
be copied, duplicated, shared or otherwise used except by the initial purchaser.
Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this
copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement,
including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the
FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations are fictitious or used
fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or people is coincidental
Being dead doesn't make you smart. It doesn't make you quiet, either.
Not that any ghost I've met admitted not knowing everything. They get in my face, moon me, demand attention and then they whine about the dumb things living people do, things they'd probably do themselves if they could. Admittedly, they don't have a lot else to do with their time.
Who cares, right? Most people never notice even when the dead shout at them. Ghosts can hear us, but that's their problem. At least that's the way it is for most people.
Not for me. I'm Annie Neeter, and I can't help but listen. Because I'm a medium, caught in the middle.
When I watch TV, I see people claim they can talk to the dead--like that's so special. Guess what? Everyone can talk to the dead. Most any time you open your mouth, you can bet dead people are listening. Every time you make a fool of yourself, dead people are laughing. The dead hang around in bars, restaurants, golf courses, sports arenas, and even worksites, just like they did when they were alive. A lot of people have died over the years, and they've got to go somewhere. Maybe you can't see them, but chances are you've got a ghost or two watching you, looking over your shoulder, checking out the play list on your iPod, and nagging at you to pay attention.
Like Harry Bitter was doing to me.
"That's the old Arndt place." Harry pointed at the document I'd dragged up after a thirty-minute search. Naturally he'd been no help in finding it. "Olay Arndt, I think his name was. Meanest man you ever met, wasn't getting paid for it."
"That's good to know, Harry," I lied politely. I didn't say anything about his out-of-date suit or the purple look his face had, probably from the heart attack that had killed him.
I was doing my job, researching titles in the basement of the Dallas County Courthouse. Harry was doing his job, too--being annoying.
Unlike Harry, I wouldn't be caught dead in the dreary Dallas County archives room if I could get my job done anywhere else. Its dirty-beige walls, stink of aging paper, and the hum of fluorescent lights forever threatening to go out on strike depressed me. Harry didn't see it that way. The head clerk there, Sam Bert made it even more unpleasant. Harry didn't like Sam, but Sam didn't try to flirt with him all the time either.
Harry hated it when I blew him off. "This Arndt guy, he used to catch kids and eat them."
"Really?" Not that I cared. Olay Arndt, if he really had been the property owner, had been dead even longer than Harry Bitter. And Harry Bitter had died in the 1950s after a frustrated career as a wanna-be property baron. Harry's biggest actual property investment was putting a hotel on Marvin Gardens, but that didn't stop him from going on about his big, long-dead plans.
Since I research titles for a living, you'd think having a live-in (no pun intended) ghost to help out would be a big asset. You'd be right--if Harry's memory hadn't gone on strike before he'd died and maintained the walk-out ever since.
"Yeah." Harry gave a ghostly sigh. "Olay Arndt used to grow apples on that property. He'd set his dogs after the kids who'd come around to nab themselves an apple or two."
If he remembered that much, maybe Olay Arndt really had owned the place. I didn't blame Arndt for setting the dogs on Harry. Harry had probably been as annoying a child as he'd become as a ghost.
A ten-minute search through a thick stack of misfiled documents turned up a property record that showed Harry was on the mark. Olay Arndt had owned the property until his death in 1952. At that point, his daughters had inherited and spent the next fifty years subdividing, re-dividing, consolidating, and suing each other until the property was so tied up in legal shenanigans that my computer searches had crashed the system and I'd had to go down to the courthouse to dig up old paper records.
"Good job, dude," I told the ghost. "You called that one exactly right."
"You talking to me, Annie?"
The voice wasn't Harry's. Unfortunately, it wasn't any more welcome than the ghost's.
For the sake of my job, I tried to like Sam Bert. My best sucked. The man had two nasty habits that I knew of--not bathing and coming onto anything female. Either problem alone, I could deal with. The combination, not so much.
I stepped backwards and turned so the stacks of paper I was looking through would be between us. They weren't a perfect shield, but you use what you have.
I gestured to the Bluetooth set I kept fastened to my ear like expensive jewelry. "On the phone, Sam--breaks up the monotony of looking at old records."
My life would have been a lot easier if they'd invented headsets back when I'd been a kid. In those days, everyone thought I was crazy for talking to myself. Now I wear the Bluetooth and people think I'm normal.
Sam sidled closer. "You just need someone to keep you company. That way, nobody will think you've gone off your nut."
"I'm not crazy."
"Hey, don't get whiney. I'm just offering my help."
Sam's khaki slacks hadn't seen an iron since they'd rolled off a loom in China, his polyester tie was frayed at the bottom, and his short-sleeved dress shirt displayed a long streak of mustard from a long-ago lunch. Pretty much he looked like he always did, except this time his face showed a slightly furtive look. Maybe because he'd snuck away from his desk.
"Well, what do you say?" he asked when I tried to get back to work. "Want to go out sometime?"
"Uh--well--" I got a brainstorm. "We have to work together. I'm afraid dating wouldn't be professional."
Following by an odor so strong it made my eyes run, Sam took another two steps toward me, walking right through Harry. The clerk carried a pile of microfiche that looked to be crumbling around the edges. Those had to be his excuse for coming into the archives.
Harry squawked when Sam stepped into his space and sidled out of the way, glaring at me as if it were my fault he was non-corporal and didn't take up any room.
"I've got tickets to the Mavericks game tonight," Sam said.
"I'm not much of a sports fan."
"Really? Have you tried betting on the games? It gives you a stake in the outcome. I think it's pretty exciting." Sam gave his characteristic head-scratch, examined what he'd found, then ate it.
I had to close my eyes. Eeew.
When I opened them, Harry was piling on. He stood behind Sam, first grooming Sam like a monkey, eating pretend fleas, then sticking his face near Sam's armpit and managing a pretty good faint. Being noncorporal meant he could flop down hard without actually hurting himself.
I tried to ignore the ghost. Title research isn't the best job in the world, but it paid the bills. I didn't want Sam to think I was laughing at him.
"I know I should get out more," I told Sam. "But I'm really too busy right now."
"You know what they say? The busiest people always have time to do more. It's an organization thing. That's how I manage to both work and keep a social life."
Sam reached a hand toward me.
I shivered. Did he really mean to touch me?
I wracked my brain for some way to keep him away. "Uh, speaking of work, have you ever looked at the Old Arndt Ranch in south Dallas County? There seems to be a missing--"
Sam looked offended and took a step backwards. "The County doesn't pay me to do your research, Annie."
"But they do pay him to try to make time with you," Harry said from over Sam's shoulder.
"Sorry." I shoved the dusty stack of old papers toward the head clerk. "Most of these are misfiled and that is your job. If you have a couple of minutes--"
"I'd better get back to my office. Closing time in half an hour, remember?"
"I'll be out before then."
"Good. I've got serious money on the Mavericks. I can't miss the game." He headed toward the elevator and I stepped to the other side of one of the big steel bookcases that contain the history of Dallas.
* * * *
The elevator dinged, but I figured it was just Sam leaving until I heard a cheap imitation of Darth Vader's voice. "Sam Bert?"
"Who the heck are you?" Sam retorted to the mystery visitor.
That's when Harry started yelling. "He's got a gun. I think he's reaching for it. He is. Ohmigod, he's going to kill Sam."
Did I say ghosts were useless? I might have exaggerated. They've got no more ability to predict the future than does the Eight Ball my brother gave me when I turned six. Even their versions of the past have to be taken with a boxcar load of salt, but it's hard to hide things from them. If Harry thought the intruder had a gun, he probably did.
Texas is all for concealed weapons, but the Records Department had a strict no-guns policy. Like it or not, there wasn't a hunting season for overweight clerks.
My muscles clenched like I was getting ready to take a punch. In my mind, my non-ghost Sensei reminded me to relax and I thought I did--until I tried to take a step and nearly toppled.
"Petrov sent me," the Darth Vader voice said. "You're late again. You know that's not acceptable."
I was pretty sure I heard the click of a shell being ratcheted into a chamber. Oh, hell, what to do?
"There's got to be a mistake." Sam's voice was always a bit high-pitched, but now it whined like a dentist's drill.
"You're right, Sammy. And you were the one to make it."
"I'll pay. I'm just waiting for my paycheck."
If my brain had been working halfway functionally, I would have stayed hidden. Sam's problems had nothing to do with me. But Harry distracted me by screaming at the top of his non-corporal lungs.
I grabbed the heaviest book I could see off the shelf, stepped from cover, and threw it at the guy doing the voice impression, hitting him in the Darth Maul ski mask that covered his head.
A mask meant criminal activity. It also meant the phony Sith probably hadn't planned on killing Sam. Maybe.
"Are you crazy?" Darth pointed the gun at me.
I hated it when people called me crazy. That word gave me the energy to rush the fake Sith, who looked a bit woozy from his close encounter with literacy.
I have no clue why he didn't send me to join the ghosts. Somehow, though, I closed the distance before he shot me.
I went directly from the run into a jump and I kicked his gun hand with a crescent kick at the top of my leap.
His gun spun across the floor, rebounding when it hit the wall.
I don't know much about guns, but this one was black, solid-looking, heavy as all get-out if my aching foot was anything to go by, and definitely not a toy.
Before Darth reacted, I reversed my foot's direction, popping him in the gonads with a twist kick.
Darth went down and I was on top of him, driving my knees into his ribs. As if a hundred-and-five pounds of woman could keep him down for long.
"Don't just stand there like a lump, Sam," I shouted. "Grab his gun. And call 9-1-1."
"Police," the Darth Vader impersonator said.
Cold rushed through my veins. Oh, shit. I should never have listened to Harry. Still...
"What are you talking about?"
"You've attacked a police officer in the line of duty. Get off me and I'll show you my ID. You're in big trouble, sister."
Now I know that no cop wanders around Dallas dressed like a refugee from a Science Fiction Con, but his confident tone confused me for just a second.
That was one second too long.
* * * *
I relaxed my knees against Darth's ribs slightly when he'd said he was a cop.
The Sith took advantage, bucking his hips and sending me sprawling. He rolled to his feet and barely missed me with his own kick.
Instead of flashing any police ID, he scrambled for his gun.
Sam, naturally, hadn't moved.
"He's lying. He's not a cop. No ID," Harry reported from where he'd stuck his head into Vader's jacket.
"Thanks for the timely call. But I'm not blind, Harry."
The prison tattoo on Vader's biceps was plenty to tell me that Harry was right. This guy definitely wasn't a cop. What he was, though, was on top of his gun.
I shoved Sam into the elevator, jumped in after him, and punched the 'close door' button.
Harry joined us a couple of seconds later, his brown suit blending with the fake wood-paneled elevator as he oozed through the wall.
Darth must have reached his weapon when we were about halfway up to the main floor because he stitched a series of shots through the elevator's floor. The steel construction might have slowed the bullets--it certainly didn't stop them.
Sam grunted. His already stained khakis got darker in one leg and he leaned against the wall, doing his best not to fall and make himself a bigger target.
Harry dithered. "He's hit. Do something, Annie."
I nodded. Stopping the blood was a priority, but I didn't want to save Sam just so we could get plugged again a few moments later. Maybe Darth hadn't been planning on killing anyone before, but he'd changed his plans. And, breathing problems or not, Darth could take the stairs and easily beat us to the main floor.
So I hammered the elevator's emergency stop button.
A loud alarm went off, which seemed like a good idea. It might scare Darth into leaving, and it drowned out Harry's screaming and Sam's sobbing. It's pathetic that I needed a zillion decibels of siren to be able to think, but that was pretty much my life.
As long as the elevator wasn't moving, I at least didn't have to worry about the elevator door opening and seeing Darth in front of me. So, I grabbed my mobile and a wad of Kleenex out of my pocket. Trying to do two things at once, I punched 9-1-1 on the phone, holding it between my ear and shoulder while I peeled Sam's baggy pants up his leg and pressed the Kleenex against what looked like a long scrape just above his knee.
"How come you don't use your headset?" Sam asked.
The 9-1-1 operator answered before I had to respond to Sam's question. I really didn't want to tell him the Bluetooth was a fake.
The operator had trouble hearing me over the elevator alarm, but that was her problem. I shouted at her, gave her directions, and remembered everything I could think of about what the fake Sith had looked like, what he'd been wearing, and what he'd been shooting.
* * * *
One good thing about working in downtown Dallas--there are always cops around.
Sirens sounded within two minutes of my call.
An hour later, half the Dallas Police Department was on scene drinking coffee and looking for shells.
Darth, of course, had vanished in the confusion.
You'd think I'd be the hero of the day, right? I mean, this was the first time I'd used my Tae Kwon Do for real, and the bullet holes in the elevator proved that Darth hadn't been making a social call.
I would have thought that, too. Boy was I wrong.
I would have done better if Detective Dane hadn't been completely sexy. His dark blue eyes, black hair, and knife-sharp cheekbones weren't just a little distracting. I couldn't see much of his body beneath the business suit he wore, but what I could see looked good enough to eat.
Which made it harder for me to think about my run-in with the dark side of the force.
Dane's scowl was distracting enough. When a gaggle of ghosts wandered in and started imitating him, overlapping their protoplasmic selves with the detective's body, their lips moving just a fraction behind Dane's speech so the cop looked like a slightly out of focus television tube, I had an even harder time concentrating.
One of the visiting ghosts had holes in his chest and another had his nose adjusted completely to the right side of his face. From their uniforms, I thought I was seeing the ghosts of Dallas Police Past. They didn't fill me with confidence.
The detectives picked up on my distraction. From the way their questioning changed, they thought I was hiding something. Which I was, of course. I didn't want to see that disappointed look on Dane's face when he learned that I was a crazy-woman who talked to ghosts.
After two hours of increasing frustration, Dane's cell rang and he went outside the interview room to take it.
I looked at Fineman and relaxed just a little. She was another female, after all. I was better at dealing with women than with sexy men. "Are we done?"
Fineman blew a cloud of cigarette smoke toward a 'no smoking' sign. "We can be done when you get around to telling us what you're hiding."
"Hiding?" My voice squeaked. The only thing I was hiding was Harry's warning.
"We can't help you if you don't let us."
Dane burst back into the interview room, a big snarl on his face. "All right, we've had a break in the case. This is your last chance to open up, unless you want to be charged as an accessory."
"I've told you everything I can think of."
"Everything?" Dane made sure I heard his skepticism.
"We're going to find out the truth," Fineman added. Dane hadn't let her know what was up, but he didn't have to. The already-chilly room had turned downright icy when he'd exploded back from his phone call. "When we do, you'll wish you'd been straight with us from the start."
I started through my story again, but Dane stopped me almost at once.
"Hang on. You say you heard what sounded like a bullet being chambered?"
"That's right." Surely they wouldn't argue that one with me. I mean, there were a dozen holes in the elevator that told me that Vader was up to no good and had definitely been armed.
"Think real hard. Did you say anything then?"
I tried to remember. "I might have been screaming." My throat was still a little sore, but that could have been from inhaling Fineman's second-hand smoke. "But I don't think I said anything in words until I'd knocked away his gun. That's when I told Sam to call 9-1-1."
Dane stuck his too-sexy face within inches of mine.
Irrationally, I noticed that he smelled like sunshine and ancient forests. I suspected I smelled like old swamps.
"You didn't call the gunman Harry?" he demanded. "You didn't ask him what he thought he was doing? You didn't say you were going to kill him?"
My stomach dropped. I had said something to the ghost. Sam should have been worrying about staying alive but instead he'd been listening to me blather. He could have come clean about his gambling debts but instead he was trying to stick me in the frame--maybe because I'd turned down his date.
I blinked at Dane, torn between wishing I could get away from him and enjoying that kind of scrutiny from a guy who could best be described as steamy. I came up with what I thought was a clever evasion. "Why would I call him hairy? I've given you a description. The guy wore a ski mask. He could have been bald from what I could see."
Dane pounded a fist into his open palm right in front of my nose. The sound, a hard smack, shocked me into silence.
"You're not a very good liar, Miss Neeter," Fineman brought her face so close to mine I could count the pores in her nose. "We know things can get out of control. It's obvious your plan didn't work and it isn't right that you're the only one who has to take the heat for that. If you don't give your side of the story, who will?"
Dane shook his head but at least he stepped away from me when Fineman got close. My brain stopped thinking about a sexy guy and started worrying about going to jail.
"I say we lock her in the tank." Dane stripped off his suit jacket, exposing muscular arms beneath a white linen shirt--and his shoulder holster. "A few hours of that and she'll be begging us for a chance to talk."
"Perhaps you didn't realize that it would get so violent." Fineman faked a smile and I noticed the line of gold around each of her upper front teeth.
One of the ghosts pulled out of Dane and pushed himself between Fineman's enormous breasts, his head poking out like a third boob.
I stifled a completely inappropriate laugh. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Perhaps they didn't tell you what they had planned." Fineman draped a big hand over mine and offered me a cigarette.
I turned down the cigarette and pulled my hand away. Her sympathy was way too fake. Even if I'd been too stupid to figure it out myself, eighteen separate ghosts all reminded me that the police were playing the good-cop/bad-cop game. Clearly Dane had been tapped as the bad cop. He was convincing, so I suspected this was his usual role.
I wasn't an expert at handling sexy guys, but my years interacting with the psychiatric profession had made me an expert on hostile questions. It was time to go on the offensive rather than just sit back and take their abuse. "I don't like what you're implying."
Fineman shook her head in obviously faked sadness. "Think about this, Annie. This Harry guy is walking around free. You don't think he's going to turn himself in to help you out, do you?"
"They've got you now." Two ghosts high-fived each other.
I'm normally not paranoid but I didn't need ghostly visions to tell me that the cops had decided to build a case against me.
I briefly considered telling the police who Harry really was. It wouldn't convince them, I knew that. I'd been trying to convince people since I learned how to talk and hadn't even persuaded my own brother I was telling the truth. Still, they might decide I was too crazy to be a gun moll, or whatever modern-day female accomplices are called. I felt ashamed when I realized why I was holding back--I was tired of every cute guy I met looking at me like I was a jar of nitroglycerine set to go off.
It was obvious that Arran Dane and I weren't going to have magic moments, but I still didn't want him thinking I was crazy. I'd practically rather have him think I was a criminal than a nut-job.
I decided to put an end to what had become a pointless discussion. "I've got nothing else to say."
"If you don't--"
Dane put a hand on Carly Fineman's shoulder. "We'll leave her here to think about it." He focused on me. If you change your mind," he pointed at a button near the door, "you can ring for me."
"I want a lawyer."
He shrugged. "We all have our problems."
"Come on, I watch TV. I'm entitled to a lawyer, right? One will be appointed, all that stuff. Miranda, remember?"
He narrowed his eyes. "Maybe you should have watched more carefully. You haven't been arrested--you came here voluntarily, remember. Until you're arrested and formally charged with a crime, you don't have a right to squat."
That didn't ring quite true to me. "But--"
"If you're not arrested, you can leave," a semi-friendly ghost said. I think she had a crush on Dane and wanted me out of the way.
I nodded without thinking, then noticed the strange looks from the two detectives.
"If I'm not arrested, then I'm out of here. You've got my phone number. Call me if you want to listen to what I have to say instead of putting words in my mouth."
"On the other hand, we could arrest you." Fineman forgot she was supposed to be the good cop here.
"Then I'll get a lawyer and get out of here anyway. You pick, but don't play me."
"Don't leave town," Dane grumbled.
It wasn't as if I had any place to go, but his attitude bugged me.
It was annoying to realize that I still found him sexy. I don't like to think of myself as shallow, but his hard body and deep blue eyes did something to me.
Dane followed me out of the interview room and down the hall. "You think you're being smart walking out of here, Miss Neeter, but you're not. Whoever he his, Harry knows we've been talking to you. When you walk, he'll figure you spilled. If you don't talk to us now, he might silence you for good."
"Spilled? Do they train you to talk like 1930s gangster, or did you pick this up yourself?"
He clenched his fists so tight his knuckles turned white and I jolted back when one of the ghosts made a punching motion at my head.
Dane gave me a pitying look and I realized he must have come to the same conclusions every other guy in my life had--I was a crazy woman.
I didn't need giggling ghosts to tell me that Dane followed me outside the substation and toward the bus stop. He didn't try to keep it a secret.
We hope you've enjoyed this free excerpt from MEDIUM IN THE MIDDLE by Rob Preece. You may buy the complete novel, in multiple eBook formats (HTML, Adobe PDF, ePub, Kindle/Mobipocket, eReader, Microsoft Reader, and Sony LRF) by clicking the Buy Now button below (processed by PayPal for your security).