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READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Alex McKenna & the Geranium Deaths by Vicki-Ann Bush


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CHAPTER ONE

Alex held Margaret, his firm hand pressing her head to his shoulder. His breath brushed across her ear. “Don’t look, no matter what you hear. That’s how it gets you.”

All the other victims had turned to ice. Alex couldn’t understand why, but the rules didn’t apply to him. None of the deceased were family, so maybe that was his armor. His family history protected him somehow.

They were huddled behind the furnace in the basement while they attempted to construct an escape plan. Although in a frenzy, Alex knew the level of heat from the unit should be enough to throw the beast temporarily off their trail. The foul spirit followed the warmth from the living, which made hiding from its ghostly grips difficult. The tighter he held Margaret, the more he worried about Wilby. His little brother had bolted in the other direction.

Alex was careful not to touch the hot, metal tank as he peered around it. He made the mistake a few years back of carelessly brushing against it while moving some boxes. The scar on his right arm left a permanent reminder. Alex crinkled his nose—the damp walls and seventy-year-old pipes needed more than a little fresh air.

It was dark in every corner except for a sliver of light emanating from the single ground-level window. He hated the basement, and especially the furnace room. It was the part of the below-ground space that wasn’t finished, and he felt like he stepped into a portal to hell every time he was there. He could sense the darkened soul still lurking in the shadows, but couldn’t hone in on it. Only the goosebumps standing to attention on his arms confirmed his suspicions. He eased back behind the tank. His plan worked for the moment, but it also limited their options. Now he needed a solid way to find Wilby and escape.

“I think I know how we can get out of the house.” Alex spoke softly. “But you’re gonna have to trust me.”

She nodded her head, her eyes widened with fear. Neither were normally the type to rattle easily, this one had them both off-balance.

“I know you’re really scared right now. So am I. But I also know you can do this. I’m going to lead the creature toward the attic.”

“Alex. No.” Margaret grabbed his t-shirt and gripped tightly.

He softly smiled.

“It will follow me. Then you get the hell out of here and find Wilby. Try my mom’s room first; he used to hide under her bed when he was little. It made him feel safe.

“Luckily, that thing stayed on our heels. I know the darkness is down here with us. My bumps are strong. After I get its attention, I’ll run for the stairs. You give it a minute or two before following. Get Wilby, and then head back down here and out that window.” Alex pointed to the ground window. It was big enough for Wilby and Margaret to fit through. “See the large wrench on the bench? Use it to break the window. My mom has rags over there, too. Line the ledge so you guys don’t get cut.”

“Why don’t we just break one of the windows in the den? They’re larger.”

“No. It would be harder to break through one of the double panes, and it would attract a lot more attention. This way you’ll barely be heard.”

Margaret shook her head. “I can’t leave you.” A tear streamed down her cheek.

“I need you to do this for Wilby.” Alex hesitated. He yearned to kiss her, but settled for a pal hug. “Text me when both of you are out.”

“How are you going to get the hell out of the house?”

“Don’t worry, I got a plan.” There was no plan, but he had to tell her something so she would agree. Margaret’s fierce when it comes to protecting the ones she loves.

He pulled away and eased out into the open. A chill ran up his spine—it was close. Alex squinted, trying to distinguish the difference in the shadows. He took a step forward; a blast of cold air startled him, raising the hair on his arms and roiling the butterflies in his stomach. He was headed straight toward the evil spirit.

A low, gravelly hum tainted his ears. Could Margaret hear it? He shook his head. No, he was not about to call out and give up her location. He shifted his eyes toward the right, his heart pounding. The beast lunged forward and reached out with a translucent, icy hand. Alex ducked and swerved. Spinning around, he ran straight for the door, and crossed the threshold before it could stop him. He scrambled up the stairs and made the mistake of turning back. It was a costly move. He tripped, and his body hit the floor boards, scraping his knees. He could feel stinging cuts, but chose to ignore it.

A frozen grip seized his leg and a layer of ice spread across the denim like a fungus. Furiously, Alex kicked free and scrambled back to his feet, running for the staircase to the second level. The entrance to the attic was in the hallway. Once he got the spirit there, he could buy Margaret the time she needed.

He reached the top of the staircase, rounded the corner, and reached for the knob. There was no need. The door flew open, slamming it into the wall. Chips of plaster exploded and nicked Alex near his left eye. He didn’t stop. Taking the steep steps two at a time, he ran to the center of the room. He heard the door slam and knew his plan had worked.

He was alone with the dark soul and nowhere to go.

* * *

Days Earlier

October was by far the most vibrant month in Floral Park. Alex preferred the crisp, cold air over the heat of the summer, and would patiently wait each September for it to escort out the ninety-degree temperatures to make way for the aromatic Autumn nights and warm covers piled on the bed.

He’d worked over the summer at the community pool, saving nearly everything he’d earned. Now, with winter and the holidays coming, he was hoping to get a job after school; the means to his goal of buying a car. If he could save up three grand, his mom would match it. Only eighteen hundred and forty-eight bucks to go.

Jumping in the shower, he barely had time for the water to get hot. The alarm beeped, but the flashing numbers indicated another power outage during the night. He only realized how late it was after he checked his phone for messages from Margaret. He briskly dried off and stepped into the confines of his second skin, pulling it up inch by inch. It seemed to help when he wiggled and twisted a little. He slowly wriggled it past his hips and waist, then yanked it up to his chest. He adjusted it, straightening and smoothing, before slipping on his t-shirt, jeans, and a hoodie, and he was out the door.

He had missed the bus, so he pulled out his current mode of transportation. At sixteen, it wasn’t the coolest to show up at school riding a bike, but it was a lot quicker than walking. Alex didn’t spend much time worrying what others thought. Live and let live was his motto.

Alex pedaled past Mrs. Carricchio’s house—the elderly woman was raking leaves from her front lawn. Her only son had been killed in the Vietnam War, and she’d lost her husband to a heart attack two years ago. Sometimes he and Margaret brought her pasta, a care package from his mom.

Alex waved, but she didn’t see him.

Pulling up to the bike rack, he saw Margaret pacing in front of the school, her brows furrowed. He latched the front frame securely to the rack, adjusted his backpack, and hustled over.

“Hey. Why are you waiting out here? You’re missing first period.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her through the academic cave.

“I was getting worried. I texted you like three times.”

“I’m sorry. The power went off and I overslept. Did you lose power at your house, too?”

Margaret’s eyes narrowed. “Lose power? No. Alex, you could have at least texted me back. With all the weird crap that’s been going on around here, that wasn’t fair.”

Alex sighed to himself. She was his person. The one that he could confide anything to and know his words would be safe. They took care of each other.

“Speaking of weird, did you hear what happen last night outside the church?” Alex grabbed a science book out of his backpack. “I’d better get this out now. I’m already late, and Mr. Klein is going to be pissed enough.”

“You are so frustrating sometimes. What happened at the church?” Margaret crossed her arms.

“They found Craig Earley dead on the back path to the rectory. His body was frozen.”

“What the hell? Frozen? Did they say how?”

“No. They don’t know yet. It was all over the late-night news. I can’t believe you didn’t hear anything.”

“I went to bed around ten o’clock. I was exhausted from studying for that pointless calculus test today. I swear, I will never understand why we have to take some of these bullshit classes. I want to go to art school, not become some damn engineer.” Margaret’s disdain faded into concern. “Your eyes look sunken in. How late did you stay up last night?”

“About one o’clock. My head was killing me. I’ve had so many headaches lately. So has my mom. It’s a pain in the ass.” Alex dropped his chin toward his chest.

“How you doing now?” Margret reached for him, but quickly pulled back.

“Better. They only seem to come at night. Poor Mr. Earley. His family… I know his son Oliver.”

“I know. He was a really nice man. He and my dad would golf together.”

They agreed to meet on the football field at lunch. He watched her rush down the opposite end of the hallway. He had that feeling again—the one that told him things were about to get stranger. At times, he hated the spidey sense—the superhero terminology that Margaret used to describe his abilities.

The morning lulled on with little excitement. Mr. Klein went easy on him for being late, and Alex was sure it was because of the news about Mr. Earley. His strange death was just the latest oddity that had been plaguing the town for the last two weeks. The bodies were starting to pile up, and in every case, the victim’s head was frozen solid.

Alex wasn’t sure what was responsible for this latest string of occurrences, but he did know he needed to call his great grandmother, or Gram as he always referred to her. She was the go-to for weirdness in the family, and he knew his mom wasn’t going to do it. She tried to ignore all the strangeness that surrounded their family, hoping it would protect them. The problem was, you couldn’t deny it. It was always there, and it wasn’t denying you, so you learned how to work with it. Gram had been teaching him, showing him how to cope with his gifts and how to use them.

He watched the hands of the large clock hanging above Mr. Klein’s desk. Three more classes until lunch. Ugh.

Thankfully, he was seated by the window in his next two classes, which was a welcome distraction. The puzzle pieces of the murders floated around in his mind, frustrating him. Multiple deaths by the hand of what? He had never seen a case like this, and it frightened him.

After the lunch bell rang, he headed to the field. He got there early, so he whipped out his phone and Googled how long does it take to freeze to death. Alex turned his head just as Margaret was rounding the corner of the bleachers. She jumped up to the second level and sat beside him. He quickly turned his phone screen off, giving her his full attention.

A natural beauty, her chestnut hair flowed in a curtain down her back, falling freely unless they were on a case. Then, it was pulled back in a loose ponytail for some serious research. Her eyes melted him every time. Light brown with flecks of gold, he could lose his soul in those eyes. Best friends forever. He repeated the phrase in his mind.

“What are you doing?” Margaret lightly punched his shoulder.

Alex squirmed. “I was checking how long it would take to freeze to death. You’d think one of them might have gotten away.”

“The whole thing is disturbing. It’s like there’s a serial Mr. Freeze in Floral Park.”

“How was your morning?” Alex put his phone back in his pocket.

“Long and boring. I swear, I can’t wait until we graduate. College has to be better than this.”

Alex furrowed his brow. “I don’t know, but at least it will be our choice to go. I hate the confines of being told it’s required.”

“I know, me too. What’s our next move?”

“I’m calling my gram later. She might be able to give us some insight.”

“Sounds good. How’s Wilby doing with training? You haven’t mentioned it lately.”

Wilby—real name William—was Alex’s younger brother and the newest member of the family to start his ghostly training.

“He’s training fine. I’m worried he doesn’t have the know. I remember going to preschool and seeing things others didn’t. Wilby hasn’t experienced that yet. He knows strange things happen, but it’s because he’s told, not that he senses them. I’m hoping he’s just a late starter. I know others in the family that didn’t have their abilities show up until they were eight or nine. So, I keep waiting. Not that it’s easy having this thing, but at least I’d know he’d have a better chance of dealing with something if he could see it. And since it seems to circle my family wherever we are, he’d be better equipped.”

“Do you ever think that maybe it’s easier for Wilby not to see things? I mean, if he doesn’t see it, he doesn’t deal with it.”

“No. I know what you mean, but it’s all around him anyway. As long as he’s near me, Mom, or almost anyone on that side of the family, he’s susceptible. I think my dad would have learned to deal with it, but my mom turning a blind eye made it harder. Things would happen, and she didn’t want to talk about it. He was left with one foot in the strange and the other in everyday life. I think, for a lot of years, it frustrated him.”

“You think that’s why he left?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. He seems better now that they’re apart. Divorce turned him into a real father of the year. New wife, new kids, new outlook.”

Margaret smirked. She clasped Alex’s arm and weaved it with hers, and lay her head on his shoulder, allowing her hair to fall across his chest.

“I’m glad we’re best friends, Alex McKenna.”

A whiff of mint tickled his nostrils, and he turned his cheek toward her silky locks. “Uh-huh, me too.”

CHAPTER TWO

The house was empty when Alex arrived home. A note on the fridge left dinner undecided. His mom was out with friends, and Wilby was spending the night at their dad’s house. His brother adjusted a lot easier to the divorce and their dad’s new family. He had remarried a woman who had a kid of her own—Shea—named after the New York Mets. His dad’s new family were devoted fans. Shea was twelve, and Wilby adored him. When Sariya, their little sister, came along, the little family was complete.

Alex felt like an outsider. Maybe it was because he suspected his abilities made his new stepmother nervous; he hoped not. That would mean she might act differently toward Wilby once he got the know.

It was quiet with no one home, and he liked that. He had time to think and do some uninterrupted research. There was homework, but it took a backseat to the more pressing issue—murder. Over the years, he had managed to figure out the balance. Even when things were out of hand in the spirit world, he found a way to make up what he missed in the living one. Not to say it wasn’t difficult.

A second search through Google produced several failed attempts at learning any new information until he came across a small paragraph. The only thing that could remotely explain the frozen bodies was Flash Freezing. The victims would have had to come into contact with liquid nitrogen at a deadly -320.8°F, which could be feasible for Mr. Earley if he were frozen and then dumped. Or, Grace Johnson. However, none of that explains Mrs. Brewster. How would the murderer just freeze her head while it was still attached to her body? No. This was definitely not an earthly serial killer. He figured it was time for that call to his gram. He wanted to speak to her before his mom got home so he could avoid any unwanted explanations.

His great grandma, Mary LaBoccetta, lived in Stony Brook—a quaint community further out on Long Island, about an hour’s drive away. Alex preferred it out on the Island, and would have rather lived with her this past year. It would have been easier for him with his ability growing stronger. His mom’s lack of participation just added to the anxiety. He dialed her number on his phone, and she picked up after one ring.

“Hello, my little Bonzetta.”

Alex chuckled. His great grandma was first generation American. Her parents had come to the U.S. from Naples, Italy in 1928. Literally translated, “Bonzetta” means “breast of veal that has a pocket cut out for stuffing.” But she just meant it as a term of endearment. “Hi, Gram. Wait, how did you know it was me? Oh, never mind. Stupid question.”

“I’ve been waiting all day for your call. I could feel something was not right.”

“Gram, have you been watching the news? There’s a load of strange crap going on here.”

“No, I’ve been busy with my bridge club. We’re planning the annual Christmas event with the Senior Center. Lots of sign-ups for this year. It’s so sad how so many of the elderly are alone. You said strange. Not the usual encounter?”

“Uh, this is anything but usual. This is weird even by our family’s standards.”

Alex gave her a brief account of the murders, finishing with his concerns for Wilby.

“Tesoro, have you seen anything new lately?” She cleared her throat.

Alex hesitated. “Nothing yet. It’s more like a queasiness in the pit of my stomach. This one is really bad… I can feel it. I mean, yes, the deaths tell even the normal person that whatever is doing this is evil, but Gram, it’s so much more. I just know it.”

“When did you say this started?”

“About two weeks ago. I think the first death was on the seventh. That was followed by the second body found on the thirteenth. And now, Mr. Earley.”

Alex heard rustling and knew she must be fiddling with the calendar she kept by the kitchen phone.

“That’s another six days.”

“Huh. I didn’t see that pattern. Do you think there’s something to it?”

“Maybe. If you keep adding six days to each death and the murders continue, it leads us to Halloween.”

“Oh, Gram, you’re brilliant!”

“Well, only if it means something. Let me do some reading, and I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, keep Wilby close. If you’re feeling something, heed the warning.”

“I will. Thanks, Gram. I’m gonna do some digging here, too. If you’re right, we only have six more days to prevent another murder.”

Alex hung up and plopped on the couch. Staring at the ceiling, he repeated the words to himself. It’s time. A twinge of guilt heated his belly. He hadn’t been completely honest with his grandmother. He wasn’t sure what it was he was seeing in the house; the new occurrences started right before the first death. Still, it could just be a coincidence. It would be easier not to get her worried. She might drive down, and that would just start conflict with his mom. He made a pact with himself: no worrying until there was something to worry about. A loud growl followed by gurgling in his stomach poked at his senses, and he went into the kitchen to make something for dinner.

In Italian mom fashion, there were always cold cuts for sandwiches in the fridge. He pulled out some Genoa salami and Provolone cheese—his favorite combination. There were two loaves of crusty bread from the Italian deli on the counter, which was another staple of the McKenna household. Reaching for a knife to slice the bread, Alex hesitated.

I guess it’s not really the McKenna household anymore, he thought to himself. Sure, he and Wilby still had his dad’s last name, but his mom didn’t. After the divorce, she changed it back to her maiden name of LaBoccetta. Loosely translated, it means “little mouth,” which was a phrase that tickled his humor. The Italian side of the family was not known for its quiet demeanor. He grabbed a handful of chips and put them on the plate next to his sandwich. A culinary delight.

He took his dinner up to his room; the search for answers paired well with food.

He started typing in “Halloween” when a buzz from his cell interrupted him. He glanced over. It was a call from Margaret. He quickly chewed the bite of sandwich he had just attacked, washed it down with some Dr. Pepper, and tapped her picture on his phone.

“Hey, you call your gram yet?” Margaret sounded tired.

“Yeah. She’s gonna do some checking. In fact, that’s what I was just about to do. Gram figured out that the deaths were each six days apart. Don’t know if that means anything, but if you keep adding six days, they lead you right to Halloween.”

“So what, six more days and there will be another dead body?” Margaret’s voice squeaked.

“That’s what we’re thinking. But this is all just guessing at this point. You okay?”

“A little weirded out. Your spidey sense has led me to believe in some strange crap, but those people, the ghosts… They’re already gone. These are people we know that are dying. And now you’re saying there might be more, and we have no way of knowing who. Which means we can’t even warn them—or help ourselves, for that matter. Not that I can’t take care of myself, but what if the connection goes back to you and your family? What if it’s something that knows you know, or wants you gone so you can’t prevent what’s happening? Alex...”

“Slow down. We know nothing yet, and you’ve gone from zero to a hundred in half a second. Just like every other case, we’ll research and get answers. Then we’ll help. Or, in this case, stop it. I’m not gonna lie, this thing is bad. But I don’t think you needed me to figure that one out. I will get this and end it. Do you believe me?”

“Yeah. I do. I didn’t mean to overreact. When it comes to you being in danger, it sets me off. I got some homework to do, but I’ll see if I can pull up anything useful, too. Maybe my abilities as a super sleuth, fact-gathering, kick ass Wonder Woman can find something you’re missing.”

“Really? Wonder Woman?” Alex laughed. “I’ll meet you by the bleachers.”

Margaret didn’t need him to be the brave one. She was strong on her own. But he was responsible for getting her into the strangeness that was his world. In the past, he thought it might be better for her if he stepped back. Danger was his to carry, not hers. One time, he went so far as to suggest she back off from working cases. They didn’t talk for a week. It was then he realized he couldn’t be without her.

He pecked in Halloween again, but this time, sleep took precedence to research. He decided to get up early and do some checking before school. If his gram was right, they didn’t have a lot of time.

* * *

Floral Park, New York 1928

Mr. and Mrs. Bishop stood in front of the three-bedroom, one-bathroom structure that was nearly finished, and the original move in date would be sooner than anticipated. The four of them had been living in a cramped apartment in Brooklyn for over three years, and now they would finally have their dream house. Standing there now, it was all worth it. Jim could finally stop working two jobs.

“Honey, isn’t it perfect?” Carol nestled her head on Jim’s shoulder.

“Yes, it is. And it’s all ours. Well, ours and the banks.” He laughed.

“I think the kids are going to be overwhelmed with all this space. I was thinking, would it be very costly to finish the basement? It would be a great playroom for them.” Carol was rubbing her hand over Jim’s heart. That always got to him.

He grabbed her hand and kissed it. “No, I don’t think it would be costly at all. I’m sure my brother would help me. We can do the main area and leave the furnace room alone. No need to waste money prettying up a bunch of pipes.”

“Thank you.” Carol stood on her toes and kissed his cheek. She was about to move to his lips, but they were interrupted by the foreman on their property, Jake Warner.

“Mr. Bishop, we have a small problem. Nothing that can’t be fixed, but it needs your attention. I’m actually thankful you were both out here today. It could have delayed us but getting your decision on the spot will keep everything on track.”

“What is it, Jake?” Jim lit a cigar.

Carol frowned as she waved away the billows of smoke from her face.

The foreman took out a blueprint and rolled it onto the hood of his black Ford truck. “The original plan had the option of a second half bathroom down in the laundry room. Just a toilet and the sink. I know you both opted to save a few bucks and not have that installed. However, my guys neglected to refer to this before adding the connection in the laundry room, and they put in the sink. Now, that’s my crew’s mistake, so I’ll absorb that cost. But if you would like the toilet, the plumbing is there. We can put one in for real cheap. I’ll give it to you for cost plus ten percent. That might come in handy with two kids.”

Carol tried to temper her excitement after Jim winked at her. For years, they had used only one bathroom; two would be heaven. Jim put his arm on the foreman’s shoulder. The two men walked away to speak.

“Carol, I’ll be back in a few minutes. Why don’t you see where you are going to plant that garden you keep telling me about?”

Carol knew this was her husband’s way of saying this talk was for the men. He was a take charge kind of man. While walking the perimeter of the property, she imagined in her mind’s eye the plethora of foliage and luscious green grass she had always envisioned. One of her dreams was to plant a row of rose bushes lining the yard, giving privacy from the street and the sidewalk. She could enjoy a ribbon of pastels and her favorite, white. A thriving garden would need plenty of sunlight, so she decided, after much turning of her head from one side of the yard to the other, that the perfect spot would be the northeast patch of dirt. She could involve the kids, and they could work it together. Maybe even a small area for a vegetable garden.

It wasn’t long before Jim came strolling into the back yard. He was smiling, which excited her. They must be getting that toilet.

“So, Mr. Bishop, have you worked your magic and gotten us a reprieve from long waits to use the bathroom?” She grinned.

“Not only are we getting the extra facility, but at five percent above cost instead of ten.”

Carol threw her arms around him and planted a robust kiss on his lips. “I knew it!”

“Oh? How did you know that we would have that second toilet?” Jim said sheepishly.

“Because you always take care of us, and I know Jake was offering a great deal. You just got him to sweeten it.” She squeezed him tight and showed him her plans for the location of the garden. Carol began to shiver, and briskly rubbed her arms to warm them. Jim grabbed her hand and led her back to the car.

“I’m going to say our goodbyes to Jake and the crew. You get in and stay warm, and I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Jim opened the car door and escorted her into the front seat. Carol’s gaze followed her husband as he went in the house. Everything was going to be perfect.

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