Only the Good Die Young
Jensen Murphy, Ghost For Hire
FIRST IN A NEW SERIES
You know the theory that ghosts are energy trapped when someone dies violently? It’s true. I know it for a fact....
My name is Jensen Murphy, and thirty years ago, I was just an ordinary California girl. I had friends, family, a guy who might have been the One. Ordinary—until I became a statistic, one of the unsolved murders of the year. Afterward, I didn’t go anywhere in pursuit of any bright light—I stayed under the oak tree where my body was found, and relived my death over and over. So when a psychic named Amanda Lee Minter pulled me out of that loop into the real world, I was very grateful.
Now I’m a ghost-at-large—rescued by Amanda (I found out) to be a supernatural snoop. I’m helping her uncover a killer (not mine—she promises me we’ll get to that), which should be easy for a spirit. Except that I’ve found out that even ghosts have enemies, human—and otherwise…
In the Beginning . . .
On the anniversary of Jensen Murphy’s disappearance, the psychic knew, without a doubt, that this was finally the night she would find her.
Amanda Lee Minter walked alone through the night-shaded trees of Elfin Forest, a place where haunted energy filled the air with legends like the White Lady and the insane asylum that was supposed to have burned to the ground and left many a soul to wander. And there had to be at least a hundred other ghost stories besides these, all pressed around the windy trails that snaked from the Southern California coast and then inland like long, gnarled fingers beckoning people to enter the darkness.
To get lost and maybe never found, just like Jensen Murphy.
After the police had finished all their interviews and investigations, it became public knowledge that twenty-three-year-old Jensen and her friends had ventured into the forest on that fateful night to scare themselves silly with the help of some of those ghost stories and, at least for the other kids, booze. Jensen had refrained that night since she’d been the designated driver.
But the group at large was only doing what so many others had done over the years, driving up to the security-guarded gates of Questhaven—a supposed cult church that was really only a spiritual retreat—and trooping through the woods nearby so that they might get a peek of the hooded figures that were supposed to roam the area.
Amanda Lee was too darn old to be frightened by that nonsense, though. Fifty-two years of psychic intuition had shown her some real hauntings.
And so had life itself.
As leaves crunched under her fringed boots, she knew just where to go, and she looked around at the shadows, drawing her shawl tighter, feeling the night’s chill on her face. Then she made her way deeper into the woods until she stopped, cocked her head, listened to what no normal person would be able to pick up in the air.
A . . . presence?
After months of preparing herself for this moment, she moved forward, taking shelter behind a tree, finding what she had been looking for all along.
Amanda Lee could barely breathe as she watched the young woman crouching near the trunk of an oak on all fours nearby.
Carefully, with her heart catching in her throat, Amanda Lee kneeled, her skirt spreading around her.
The girl was unnaturally gray under the shadow-filtered moonlight, her fingers scratching at the dirt, her eyes wide with animal fright as she fixed her attention on something in the distance. Amanda Lee thought of a picture she’d seen of Jensen Murphy from the night she’d disappeared: a rosy-cheeked face, long and straight strawberry-summer hair, freckles sprinkled over her nose, a glimmer of mischief in her green eyes as she posed with a Mello Yello she’d been drinking that night at the party. She was dressed in a pair of Levi’s jeans and a light blue top rolled up at the sleeves and tied at the waist with a white tank underneath.
She was the All-American girl who’d been popular in high school, everybody’s best friend.
And someone’s prey.
“Jensen?” Amanda Lee whispered.
The girl didn’t react.
She’s in a state of numbness, Amanda Lee thought, and she tried to reach her again, louder now.
Nearby, an owl took off in a flutter of wings, shaking a few leaves off a branch.
But even then, Jensen Murphy didn’t move. Her terrified gaze was still fixed on the trees to the right of Amanda Lee.
The eerie silence scratched down her spine. She didn’t look around, though. Nothing would be there. At least nothing that could hurt her. Her sixth sense had already told her that.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” Amanda Lee said, her voice stronger. “I’m going to help you.”
The girl began to shake her head, crawling behind the tree trunk, as if it could hide her from whatever was out there.
A strangled sound—half scream, half cry—came out of Jensen Murphy just before she sprang to her feet and started to run, her white sneakers flashing in the moonlight.
Amanda Lee pressed a hand over her mouth as she watched helplessly: Jensen making it only a few steps away before she crashed to the ground on her stomach. Jensen screaming as she turned onto her back, lifting her arms and pleading, sheltering her face, and then—
Then there was . . . nothing.
No more Jensen, no more missing girl.
Nothing except for the empty air, traced by a smell that stole into Amanda Lee’s senses. Fear. Sweat. And the faint hint of something else she couldn’t identify yet.
She calmed her heartbeat, her intuition telling her there would be more to come. She reached into her skirt pocket and gripped an object she had brought with her—something that would be all too familiar to Jensen.
“I’m only here to help you,” Amanda Lee whispered again.
Nothing moved—not unless you counted the near-distant creak of a branch, the wind whistling through trees.
Still, she waited.
Until Jensen popped into existence again out of thin air.
Hardly surprised at this turn of events, Amanda Lee watched as the girl repeated everything she had done before, as if she were in a time loop: crouching beneath the tree, her wide gaze on something in the near distance—
This time, though, Amanda Lee held out the objects in her hand—a black-banded network of rubber bracelets like the ones Madonna used to wear before she’d gone fully mainstream. They were dull with age.
Ignoring them, Jensen was already shaking her head, inching back toward the tree.
“Jensen!” Amanda Lee had focused every bit of mental energy and desperate sympathy she had into the name, and now . . .
Now, with a burst that felt electric and startling, Jensen Murphy swiveled her gaze over to Amanda Lee.
Air whooshed out of her lungs, and for a breathless second, she didn’t know what to do. She’d never encountered anything like this before.
But Amanda Lee recovered soon enough, straightening her spine as Jensen’s gaze locked on to the bracelets.
“You lost jewelry just like this that night,” Amanda Lee said, offering the objects again, just as if the conversation she was having with Jensen were perfectly normal, as if, every day, she encountered missing women like this.
She shook the jewelry, reclaiming the girl’s focus. “These could have been yours.”
Jensen narrowed her eyes, obviously confused now. Then, spooked, she looked around the forest, then back at Amanda Lee, whose blood was rushing to her head, making her dizzy with surreal success.
“You have a sort of amnesia,” Amanda Lee said as gently as possible. “I hear it isn’t unusual, and it should disappear as you get over the initial shock.”
“I’m . . .” Jensen trailed off.
The word had sounded like a burst of static, but somehow Amanda Lee understood it clearly.
“It’s March fifteenth.” Amanda Lee smiled at Jensen, her gaze going fuzzy with oncoming tears. Emotion that she couldn’t hold back for much longer. “I’ve tried to find you on other nights, but then I realized . . . you might come and go, but you would definitely be here now, on this date, after midnight. That’s when your friends noticed you hadn’t returned to their party here in the woods.”
The young woman lifted her gray, colorless hand, looking at it as if she was just now recalling something vague, something that was slowly coming back to her. “This . . . is the night . . .”
She was having trouble forming words, but Amanda Lee had no problem supplying them.
“That’s right,” she said softly, gradually walking toward her. “This is the night you died, nearly thirty years ago, and I’m here to help you figure out who killed you.”
She didn’t add that she had something else in mind for Jensen Murphy, too.
She reached out to touch the ghost’s face, but Amanda Lee felt only a zapping chill when her hand met the freezing air.
It took me a while to get used to being a real ghost, and I only say that because, since my death, I guess I was in some kind of state of shock.
That’s what Amanda Lee told me, anyway.
My so-called savior was an intuitive and, well, let’s just be honest, a different lady. First of all, when she pronounces her name, it sounds a lot like that creepy house in the book Rebecca. Remember “Manderley”? That’s just about how Amanda Lee says her name, except with an a at the beginning. “A MANdaley.” I think it’s because of the years she spent living in Virginia before moving to SoCal. She told me a little bit about that after she rescued me from the woods, but we’ve basically been talking about me instead ever since then.
At least, she’s been telling me what she knows of my story.
Based on what my friends had said to the police about that night, the tale went a little something like this: a young college dropout slash Round Table Pizza waitress and her buddies went out late to frolic in the spooky old forest out of sheer boredom. Said waitress had been drying out from a bender the night before, so she’d drank scads of soda pop because she’d been in charge of carting around her doped-up buddies, then wandered off to take a pee, never to return.
And that’s all she wrote. No body, no blood at my death spot, no trace of evidence that would help the cops to find me—not much of anything, really.
Weirdly, when I heard what’d happened to me, it didn’t surprise me all that much, because the second I snapped out of what Amanda Lee called my “residual haunting phase”—a time loop I was clearly stuck in until she yanked me out of it with the psychic mojo in her voice and the sight of the bracelets from my era—I knew just what I was.
Deader than a doornail. Deader than a shrunken head. Deader than when video killed the radio star.
Very dead indeed. Actually, I had been living that truth over and over for a long time in that forest, so death didn’t seem like all that big an issue when I became an intelligent spirit. What actually freaked me out more than anything was the fact that I didn’t remember who my killer was. I guess I’d spent so much time in my noninteractive ghost state that I’d gone a little numb. Or maybe, as Amanda Lee suggested, I had some sort of “fright wall” erected in my brain, and that was the only thing keeping my fragile spirit psyche together.
Amanda Lee thought my memories would all come back to me, though, just as soon as I was ready to deal. And, being a total rich-lady do-gooder, she promised to help me figure out my deal. To her, I was a real live . . . I mean . . . not totally alive mystery.
I’d latched onto Amanda Lee’s offer to help me straightaway, mainly because she also told me I’m probably “tethered” to this plane because of being killed, and the only way my soul can find peace would be to take care of my earthly business.
Funny, huh? That word—tethered. Like I was a volleyball tied to a pole, winding around it and around it, going nowhere.
About a week after Amanda Lee found me, I felt about as aimless as that ball as I hovered in front of a computer in a teeny casita guesthouse on her property. Since Amanda Lee theorized that spirits are composed of energy—she mentioned electromagnetic radiation— you could say that I was using my connection with the electricity in the air to manipulate what she called “Web pages.” Even if the screen always futzed a bit when I got too close, I had already done a ton of research into my killing and had hit every barrier imaginable. Now I’d graduated to satisfying my curiosity about things such as whether Jane Fonda ruled the planet yet or if there was any place you could still buy Pop Rocks.
By the way, I couldn’t get over this Internet. It was like the mind of a communal, confused, sometimes idiotic, god.
Amanda Lee eased open the door and strolled into the room, wearing designer hippy-dippy boots under a flowered skirt, a long-sleeved sheer purple top over a camisole, and a clump of turquoise necklaces. Pretty hip for her age. She reminded me of the type of cool, got- it-together mom who’d lived on my suburban block when I was a kid—and her house would’ve had the swimming pool that everyone liked to visit because she was never home except to say hi. Her hair was a deep red with white streaks framing her face, pulled back in a low ponytail today. She was tall and slender, with a longish face and high cheekbones, her eyes a clear gray.
She had a way of looking at me all the time with what I’d call a “soft” tone, as if she was always thinking sympathetic thoughts or maybe even pitying my fate.
Poor Casper me, right? The eternal houseguest.
“Anything interesting on the World Wide Web on a Sunday?” she asked in a voice that a pool mother would’ve used when she poked her head out to ask kids if they wanted any lemonade.
I hadn’t heard a tone like that in . . . you guessed it, aeons. But it wasn’t just because I’d been dead awhile. My parents had gone on a fateful sailing trip on their Catamaran a year and a half before I’d passed on. In way, I was relieved that Mom and Dad hadn’t had to go through the pain of my missing person case. Imagine, dealing with their only daughter vanishing off the face of the planet. Ugh.
“I’ve discovered,” I said, since talking was much easier now that I’d had some practice with Amanda Lee, “that I’m still just a stranger in a strange land. One minute, I’m playing Duran Duran’s first album on a turntable. The next I’m looking out the window decades later, seeing thirteen-year-olds walking home from school with . . . smartphones?”
I was still getting used to all the lingo.
Amanda Lee nodded, looking pleased with me. If I were a dog, my tail would’ve been wagging.
I float-walked away from the computer. “When I was thirteen, I was utterly amazed at how a record needle picked up sound. It was magic. Now kids can hold every piece of music ever created in their palms. Hell, these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if you can get information chips in your brains and the mark of Satan on your foreheads.”
Once, a friend had told me to read The Late Great Planet Earth after we’d gotten into a weed-fueled discussion about how the world was going to end. It was actually the last book I’d picked up before I died. Funny how I could recall that and not the finer details of important stuff in life like . . . oh, who’d killed me or anything.
“I’ve already had my mark of evil cosmetically removed with a Martian laser,” Amanda Lee said.
I actually believed her until she laughed. But can you blame me for being gullible, even for a sec?
I wasn’t sure I liked this new age. The ’eighties had been much . . . quainter.
As if tuning into my thoughts, Amanda Lee said, “Don’t grow old before your time, Jensen.”
“I’m not sure I have a time anymore.”
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