Authors: Gina Ardito
In Your Dreams
II of the Afterlife Series)
The following is a work of fiction. Any
resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not
intended by the author.
Cover Art by Elaina Lee of
For The Muse Design
Copyright © 2013 by Victoria Ardito
All Rights Reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or
stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form, whether by electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without express written
permission of the publisher.
For my son,
Nick. I’ve watched you grow from a beautiful baby to a witty, caring man. I’m so
proud of all you are and all you’ve yet to become. I love you. Be happy. Always
remember to live, laugh, and love with all your heart!
stared over the stark world of the Chasm and steeled against another round of
shivers. The smoldering ash covered nearly a mile of this colorless land, and
his orders specifically stated that he must not leave a single wisp behind. Not
that he intended to be negligent in this last service to his dearest friends,
Luc Asante and Jodie Devlin.
ashes glowed a stellar pink—not from heat, but pulses of leftover energy. And
maybe, he hoped, from an excess of love. Had they known love before their
destruction? God, he hoped so!
Once all the
ashes were gathered into the golden urn Sherman had pressed upon him before he
started out, he rose with his precious burden. “Goodbye, my friends,” he
murmured and tucked the urn beneath his arm.
On a twinkle of
light, Sean landed outside the auditorium where Sherman paced relentlessly.
“You have them all?” the spirit guide asked. “Every ash?”
Sean replied. “I said I’d get every one.” He’d have to be blind to miss one, no
matter how miniscule. “Trust me. I got every one.”
flushed rusty. “Sorry. I just can’t bear the thought of any single part of Luc
or Jodie lingering in that hellish place.”
understood perfectly. The same misery trickled through him like a slow and
Drip, hiss, drip, hiss, drip, hiss…
“Come this way.”
Sherman beckoned to the auditorium doors. “Bring the urn.”
As usual, the
doors swished open on their approach, and Sean strode down the long aisle
alone. Some things never changed. The Council of Elders sat at their places on
the dais. “Come, Mr. Martino. Bring their remains to us.”
. The idea flipped his stomach. How could
they be gone? Unfortunately, his mouth moved ahead of his brain. “They were
already dead. How could they die again?”
woman in a snow white toga floated forward, hands outstretched for the urn.
“Luc and Jodie did not die again. They spontaneously combusted, Mr. Martino.”
Sean retorted. “They’re still gone.”
“We warned them
both on many occasions.” Taking the urn, she turned back to the dais. “You may
go now, Mr. Martino.”
Goddamn it, he
hated these Elders! “Yeah, great,” he growled. “You’re welcome.”
dead was a real drag.
inside the defunct Bowl of Cherries Nightclub, Sean Martino waited,
emotionless, while his current bounty threw a hissy fit. Harris Walcott, aka
Mercedes Bends, had a major league flair for the dramatic. Then again, female
impersonators weren’t exactly known for maintaining a low profile.
in a fire-engine-red sequined evening gown, stomped his size 12 Lucite-heeled
sandals on the dusty floorboards. Despite his furious tantrum, and no matter
how hard he pounded his hammy fists, not a single dust mote danced in the still
air. Dead men (and/or women) made no impact on Earth.
minutes, the storm dissipated to a few sniffly tears. And then, at last,
acceptance overcame self-pity. On a sigh heavy with defeat, Harris osmosed
through the cobwebs shrouding the rafters and came to land where Sean stood.
“I was really
good, you know.” Harris shook his head, but his heavily Aqua Netted pageboy
haircut, black and sleek as a crow’s wing, remained plastered in place.
“I know,” Sean
second sigh infused the musty air with regret. “I never hit the Big Time.”
burgeoning talent that included perfect renditions of classics by Liza Minelli,
Judy Garland, and a soulful variation of Aretha Franklin
known to bring
audiences to tears, Harris had been struck down by a hit-and-run in 1998—two
days before a Hollywood agent had an appointment to take in the transvestite’s
show. Thus, no one outside the downtown club circuit ever got the opportunity
to “discover” this versatile performer.
“And I’m sorry
about that,” Sean said.
At one time, he
might have actually meant his words of sympathy for Harris Walcott’s plight.
The heavier a spirit’s burden, the more energy a bounty hunter depleted when
transporting that morose spirit to Ghoul Central for his/her reprocessing. To
alleviate some of that extra weight, Sean might have gone out of his way to
instill some sense of peace in the troubled phantom.
But that was
before the loss of Luc and Jodie.
ago, maybe more—Sean thought he served a greater purpose for the Afterlife. He
believed the insight gained by retrieving these unfortunate souls taught him
something about his own shortcomings. Perhaps, by helping miserable souls on
Earth, he’d come to terms with the demons that had driven him to suicide in his
life. Although, technically, he knew what had driven him to suicide. A young
man, high on PCP, who’d waved a toy gun at him—a toy gun that in the darkness
of that alley in Bedford-Stuyvesant had looked too real for Sean to take a
chance. But the truth had been his undoing, and despite assurances from his
C.O. and even I.A.B. that his actions were justifiable, Sean couldn’t live with
the guilt. He put his service revolver in his mouth and sought peace from the
demons that refused to be silent.
reached the Afterlife, he’d hoped for a second chance, an opportunity to come
to terms with his pathetic past so that he might achieve his own advancement to
the next realm.
dismal journey to the Chasm. The memory of what he’d seen there crept into his
thoughts like a chill fog in a graveyard. Bits of astral dust, all that
remained of two extraordinary bounty hunters, glittered over a stark taupe
landscape. Fetid wind howled mournfully, empathizing with his misery and
scattering the last few pieces of Luc and Jodie across the bleak canvas.
Such an ignoble
end for his dearest friends. And no one, except Sean himself, railed against
the injustice of it all.
now, fury rose inside Sean. Beneath a frustrated growl, he swallowed his
bitterness and returned his attention to his latest quarry. “Maybe you’ll hit
the Big Time in your next life.”
lashes dotted with silver sparkles fluttered against strawberry-rouged cheeks.
“Do you think so?”
No. But as a
former NYPD detective, Sean was an expert at hiding his real thoughts. He
forced a confident air, complete with shit-eating grin and wide-spread arms.
“Absolutely! The next time around, Harris—”
drag queen corrected with a sniff drenched in disdain. “I prefer to use my
stage name at all times.”
“Well, next time
, life will be different for you. I promise.”
different place, different name…
differences there to make the statement fact. Besides, once he got to his new
life, Harris wouldn’t even remember Mercedes. Or anything else about this dingy
theater, his glitzy nights on stage, or the mysterious gray car that had
careened out of the darkness to end his dreams in one painful collision.
sideshow barker veneer, Sean held out a hand. “If you’re ready to go, take my
arm. I’ll do the rest.”
With one final
spin of electrical cyclonic energy, Sean touched down and guided Mercedes to a
stop beside him. As always, the Welcome Level of the Afterlife roared with
activity. New spirits, garbed in their lavender togas, lined up inside the
velvet-roped queue that snaked around in front of the long white marble
Reception Desk. Busy clerks behind the desk processed the incoming spirits with
assembly-line speed. The occasional staccato call of “Next!” resounded like
gunfire in the cavernous marble lobby.
crystals, suspended from the sky-high ceiling on silver filaments, winked with
light. Water splashed into fountains shaped like unicorns, angels, and winged
horses, saturating the vanilla-scented air with spring mist.
Like the local
yokel experiencing the big city for the first time, Mercedes Bends gaped and
gawked, craning his neck to look up, down, around the porcelain statues, past
the throng of dazed newcomers, up to the numerous floors towering hundreds of
stories overhead. “Oh, my.”
Sean, long accustomed to the hustle and bustle here, simply pulled the
along. “Come on. This way.”
clutching the bounty’s arm, he meandered around the lost sheep waiting to be
processed, but stopped dead when he caught sight of a familiar profile among
the newcomers. The kid. He stiffened. It couldn’t be. Coincidence, right? Yet,
that hawk nose, strong chin, slender build, and screw-you-attitude all matched
up. He’d have to get a closer look, see the guy straight on, rather than from
the back, to be
Afterlife’s top spirit guide, Sherman, strode forward, ivory hair flowing
behind him as if he posed for the cover of a romance novel. He wore his usual
white suit with gold braid embellishing the padded shoulders. His ever-present
clipboard sat snugly tucked beneath one armpit. Expectancy glowed in the
ageless geezer’s marble eyes.
greeted him with a terse nod, gaze still glued to that unique buzz cut and
pimpled neck in the crowd.
“Splendid to see
you’ve returned from your hunt, successful again,” Sherman enthused.
“Uh-huh.” All he
wanted now was to hand over the goods so he could catch up with the kid on
line. Was it him? Really? He was too far away to be one hundred percent sure.
Sweat broke out on his palms, and a high-pitched buzz filled his head.
unaware of Sean’s discomfort, Sherman addressed Harris…Mercedes. “Ms. Bends,
I’m delighted to make your acquaintance. My name is Sherman, and I’m here to
assist you with your transition. If there’s anything I can do to make your stay
with us more comfortable, please do not hesitate to ask.”
Sean shook off
his distraction to pay attention to the discussion in front of him.
load of crap.
In some other life, Sherman must have been a hotel manager or
concierge. He played the part perfectly.
most other newcomers, fell for the act, clasping the offered hand as if it were
a life line. “Thank you,” he replied on a whoosh of drama-laden breath. His
gaze dropped to his platform sandals, and his voice lowered to a mere whisper.
“Should I be frightened? I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now.”
boisterous laughter drew several curious stares from the milling crowds.
“You’re not supposed to know, my friend. If you did, I’d be out of a job.”
The humor in this
place made the Three Stooges look like comedic geniuses.
his throat, and the gawkers went back to staring blankly ahead. Patting the
manicured hand in his grasp, the spirit guide added, “There is absolutely
nothing to be afraid of here, Mercedes. You’re about to discover the peace that
eluded you on Earth.”
recognize peace if it slapped him across both cheeks. With his anger mounting,
he itched to get to that queue and see the dead kid’s face. Maybe talk to him.
Apologize. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said with a nod.
Before he could
spin away, Sherman’s voice stopped him cold. “Sean, I have some news for you,
as well. The Elder Council has agreed to meet with you. If you’ll follow
Mercedes and me, I’ll let them know you’re available now.”
About damn time. Sean had pestered Sherman for an interview four bounties ago.
But of course, the Elder Council had their own concept of time versus need. And
naturally, they chose a time when Sean was fresh off a hunt. Knowing that
bounty hunters depleted all stores of energy in traveling to and from Earth,
they must have planned to catch him at his weakest, in the hopes he’d be too
exhausted to argue. Fat chance. He’d call up extra power from any source in the
area, including the energy of the crowded room, to make his case.
Focusing on the
frantic clerks behind the counter, he amassed excess static from their frenetic
movements, from their keyboards, and from the air crackling around the harried
space. Energy sparked inside his core, snapping his synapses into a moderate
he leveled a withering glance at the spirit guide. “I know the way, Sherman.”
Straightening his spine, he strode with determined steps toward the auditorium
where the sages of the Afterlife held their meetings with residents and
Sean didn’t know
where the Council of Elders came from originally or how they’d achieved their
wise status. Since the sorry episode at the Chasm, any respect he’d once
reserved for the dozen members had evaporated, turned to dust.
Like Luc and
Hands fisted at
his sides, he made his way up the aisle to the dais where the council of six
women and six men sat in assembly. As he drew nearer, a woman, garbed in a nineteenth
century style gown of robin’s egg blue, rose from her seat at the dais and came
toward him. The lights dimmed, and the rest of the spirits dissolved away in a
cloud of purple mist.
remained. Verity, his personal counselor. He’d chosen her at his first meeting
here, shortly after his suicide. To some, she might have seemed an odd choice
for a hard-bitten New York City police officer.
lovely in face and form, with rich red hair framing a soft, oval face and eyes
the color of Granny Smith apples. Her profile reminded Sean of a cameo pin his
mother used to wear. With that memory lingering in his still-numb senses, he’d
connected immediately to its embodiment. And until recently, he’d believed
opting to work with Verity had been a wise decision.
before him, her usually flawless face creased with worry lines. “Sean,” she
murmured in her maternal tones.
replied, his tone all black rock and chipped ice. “I thought I saw the kid in
the crowd outside. Did I?”
outside has no bearing on our discussion today,” she answered—which was no
answer at all. Worse, as she spoke, the auditorium melted away, replaced with a
scene indicative of the kitchen in his childhood home.
The bastards did
this on purpose: surrounding their subjects with the familiar.
the setting was to put the recently departed at ease, but Sean suspected an
ulterior motive. At least in his case. Out of respect, he would never raise his
voice or misbehave in his mother’s
kitchen—even if the kitchen wasn’t
real but a facsimile created by the Afterlife’s Council of Elders to cow him
into submission. Talk about a Catch-22. He despised them for manipulating him
while allowing them to manipulate him.
To hell with
Verity and the rest of them. Just because they provided the furniture didn’t
mean he had to sit at the Formica dinette table. He was an adult, dammit—not a
five-year-old, scared that Mommy might get mad. Besides, his suicide had
disappointed his mother far worse than any trouble he could possibly cause in
“You’ve asked to
speak with us?” Verity asked as she took the seat at the right end of the
table—traditionally, his mother’s seat.