Dances With Ghosts – Erin McCarthy

“YOU’RE GOING SWINGING?” Grandma Burke asked me. “I thought people stopped doing that in the eighties.” I had no idea if people were still swinging, but I strongly suspected the only ones in my family who might ever consider that lifestyle were my parents, which was a disturbing thought. My boyfriend, Jake Marner, homicide detective extraordinaire, and supercute guy, started to laugh, then covered it with a cough. I gave him a look, but he just grinned back at me. “Swing dancing, Grandma,” I told her. “Not the other kind of swinging. Like men physically swinging women around on the dance floor.” Was that why it was called swing dance? I actually had no idea but I needed to scrub my brain of the thought of my parents partner swapping. “Oh, like big band stuff?” She did an armchair dance, waving her hands and kicking her slippers up in the air. Despite it being a balmy spring day in the upper sixties, Grandma Burke was always cold. The curse of aging. She was only happy on days when it was ninety degrees. I couldn’t argue with her that winter was a challenge in Cleveland, unless you liked winter sports and activities. Which I don’t.

You can keep your skiing and your ice skating and your snowmobiling, thanks. I preferred a cozy chair by the fireplace with a cup of coffee in my hand. But we were experiencing an actual legit spring day and I had to admit, I would have preferred to be taking a walk in the part instead of going to dance lessons, but Jake’s mother had bought them for us. So we were obligated. “Exactly like that, Grandma.” “Have fun and remember to leave room between the two of you for the Holy Spirit. None of that grinding stuff.” Now Jake did laugh out loud. My grandmother was the oddest mix of devout Catholic, juvenile jokester, and slightly senile tell-it-like-I-see-it old lady. She was, in a word, awesome.

“It’s swing dancing, not the tango. No grinding required.” Though her words reminded me of awkward Catholic Youth Organization dances in middle school, which made me shudder. That had been the mantra—leave room for the Holy Spirit. Because, what, God wanted to be sandwiched between a sweating pubescent boy and a girl a head taller than him with braces? Doubtful. Also, Jake and I were moving in together in a few weeks, so I didn’t think a little dirty dancing was the major issue at hand. “We’ll be back in an hour and a half,” Jake said. “Call or text us if you need anything.” Grandma Burke beamed at him, patting her phone on the end table to show me she had it in close range. “I will, Jake, dear.

” Let me tell you about Jake Marner. He deserved the label of World’s Greatest Boyfriend because he did not even blink or bat an eye when I told him I needed to have my grandmother move in with me. My parents had decided it was time to divorce after nearly four decades of a crap marriage and Grandma Burke was caught in the crossfire. Maybe it was the swinging. I don’t know. But my parents no longer spoke to each other, there was a heated divorce in play, and Dad had a girlfriend named Judy. Grandma Burke was like the Corgi everyone claimed to want and fought over, but when push came to shove, they wanted to leave her alone for days on end with the food bowl piled high with kibble. So she had moved into my restored Victorian in Ohio City, which sounds like a large house, but isn’t. It’s an urban area with narrow lots (skinny houses) and nonexistent yards. The house had been perfect for me when I was single, and even fine with Jake as my overnight guest a few nights a week.

But with Grandma ensconced in the former office on the first floor it was shrinking dramatically. Especially since ghosts pop in and out at random. Because I’m a spiritual medium. Not by choice. By genetics, maybe. Dumb luck, more likely. Irish curse, for sure. Grandma said it was the final stamp of the Druids on our bloodline. She was the only one in my actual family who knew that I was a pay-by-thehour motel for disgruntled dead people. They dropped in, made demands, then left.

Jake knew, and tolerated it because he loved me, though he did not enjoy the invasion of privacy. Lastly, a few months earlier I had blurted my new status as seer of the dead out to my best friend, Alyssa, who had found it more intriguing than I had expected. Otherwise, the information was on lockdown, so I didn’t have people knocking on my door wanting me to summon forth Uncle Leo. It doesn’t work like that. I can’t conjure. After I triple-checked the front door to make sure it was locked and activated the alarm system on my phone that would tell me both if someone broke in and if Grandma decided to take a solo stroll around the neighborhood, I pulled my tote up over my shoulder. “Leaving her scares me.” “She’ll be fine. She’s pretty sharp for her age.” Jake opened his passenger car door for me.

“Besides, you have her on CCTV like the house is a casino. Every inch is covered.” That was true. “Would it be an invasion of her privacy if I just sat and watched what she does while we’re gone?” “Yes,” he said flatly. “She’s not a criminal, she’s your grandmother. What do you think she does? She plays with her iPad and watches all those British shows like Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife.” That amused me. “You know what shows she watches?” “She has the volume on at least a hundred. It would be impossible not to know.” He gave me a rueful look.

“How many more of these lessons do I have to do? I have two left feet and you’re a swing dance star. I’m holding you back.” He was, but I wasn’t going to admit that out loud. Jake dancing was like a bear on his hind legs. Rumbling, shuffling, intimidating. Then he would move without warning. My pinky toe was never going to recover and I was pretty sure he’d dislocated my shoulder on the one spin. He had no idea how strong he was, and he concentrated so hard on counting, he shoved me around with a vehemence I’d prefer reserved for other activities. “Your mother bought five total. This is number four, so you’re almost off the hook.

” “The whole thing is dumb,” he said. “This is my mother’s plot to get us engaged. You should have told her no.” That made me laugh. “We’ve already had this discussion and concluded you’re insane. I’m not telling your mother no. You know how you don’t like to talk about marriage with her? Guess what, I don’t either. Just dance. It won’t kill you.” “It killed me.

” I jumped. The voice came from the backseat of Jake’s truck. No. No, no, and no. The voice was vaguely familiar and I had a sneaking suspicion… I turned around, bracing myself for a dead woman. Yep. It was our dance instructor, Carmen Fox. Hair pinned up, wearing a black and red salsa costume, full makeup on. I was going to speak to her, but she disappeared, in that smoke routine I’d noticed spirits liked to do. They dissolved into a mist and were gone.

Shoot. Jake’s mother was going to be really ticked off our dance instructor had been murdered. MORAL DILEMMA—DID I tell Jake about the ghost or just let him drive to the studio and discover the body? That would seem like a no-brainer but it gets hard to explain to people how you know someone is dead or missing when no one else knows. There was no way Jake could call a homicide in to the station when we weren’t even at the studio yet. And there was at least a fifty percent chance that Carmen’s body wasn’t at the studio at all, despite what she was wearing. In my experience (I was up to at least seven ghosts to back me up on this data), ghosts appear in what they were wearing when they died. But it was possible Carmen had been killed at home on her way to the studio or in the car. Or heck, I don’t know, an actual dance competition. I bit my lip and wrinkled my nose and pondered what was worse—lying to Jake or hoping like hell someone else had already found her body and it was nowhere near the dance studio. My internal debate raged on as Jake pulled into the parking lot of the Tippy-Toe Dance Studio.

“Tippy-Toe,” Jake murmured, with a snort. He did that every time we had arrived. This was the fourth time he’d just given that amused shake of his head. I knew my role. I was supposed to give him the Seinfeld line back. It was the episode where George wanted Jerry to steal the answering machine tape from George’s girlfriend’s apartment and he distracts her. George wanted the warning code word to be “tippy-toe” while Jerry wanted “lemon tree.” I obediently said, “Lemon tree,” and Jake laughed. Just like every time. Relationships aren’t that hard.

Just indulge your partner, even when you think it’s silly. “I don’t think we’re going to be prepared to actually dance at this birthday party,” Jake said as he turned the car off. “We know like two steps. This might have been overambitious on my mother’s part.” I was distracted by the thought of what awaited us inside, so I just made a noncommittal sound. The studio had a window that faced the street and a sidewalk ran along it. If there was a body lying on the floor of the studio, surely someone walking past would have noticed it. I was really optimistic that we wouldn’t stumble on a corpse. There is nothing awesome about discovering a body. I could go forever without finding another one, thanks.

We walked across the parking lot around to the front of the building. I brought the bag with my heels to dance in and I took them out of the car just in case wires had gotten crossed and Carmen was somehow miraculously still alive and going to teach us a new move. I had on leggings and a tank top. It had seemed like reaching to wear a cute dress at my level of dance experience. I wasn’t there yet. You have to earn the cute dress. “What’s wrong?” Jake asked, shooting me a suspicious look. “What?” I widened my eyes in an attempt to look innocent. I’m not a great liar. “Nothing.

Why would something be wrong?” We turned the corner and Jake swore. I glanced around frantically, not seeing anything out of the ordinary. “What? What’s going on?” He pulled at the shoulder of his T-shirt. “A bird just crapped on me.” There was a big blob of doo-doo on the cotton. “Ew.” Jake yanked the door to the studio open, still muttering about flying rodents. “I’m going to have to wash my shirt out in the sink. This is stupid.” I wasn’t sure if he meant the dance lessons, birds pooping, or life in general was stupid, but as I followed him tentatively into the small dance space, I didn’t have time to even respond.

Jake’s arm came out and stopped me. “Bailey, stop. Back up and go out the front door and make sure no one else comes in here.” My heart started to race. “Why? What’s going on?” He glanced over his shoulder at me. “Carmen is dead on the dance floor.” The horror of the situation and his unintentional phrasing made me give a nervous giggle. Yep. I giggled. Our dance teacher was dead and I felt my cheeks burn in embarrassment that for whatever reason I had actually laughed.

I used to do that as a kid in church. Something another parishioner would do would trigger a giggle, or my sister, Jen, would whisper to me and I would get the urge to laugh, which of course was massively inappropriate at mass. So, then I fought to contain it, which would make me want to laugh even more. I would be a wheezing, jiggling, red-faced mess until my mother would give me a look so withering it would erase all need to chortle out loud. Jake’s look wasn’t quite like that, but it wasn’t filled with adoration either. He frowned. “Did you hear what I said? Carmen is dead.” I nodded, not sure how to explain my reaction when I didn’t even understand it myself. I chanced a peek around his shoulder and saw that yes, Carmen was very much deceased, prone on the wood floor. There was blood pooled all around her.

“That wasn’t a heart attack,” I said, swallowing hard. “Do you think she fell and hit her head or something?” “I don’t know. Go outside, Bailey.” He was pulling his phone out to call 911. His voice tone had changed. He was no longer Jake, my boyfriend. He was Detective Marner, and I was annoying him. “You knew she was dead, didn’t you?” he asked flatly, before turning away from me to talk to the operator. Grateful I didn’t have to answer that question I decided to do what he had asked in the first place. I started to leave, but took one glance back at Carmen.

The sight made me shudder. That was a lot of blood. The whole studio had the sweet sickly scent of it in the air. Our lessons were private, so it was unlikely anyone else would come into the studio but I knew it was important to secure the scene. I stepped outside, took a deep breath of the spring air, and positioned myself in front of the door, hauling my bag with my shoes against my chest, hugging it for comfort. I knew almost nothing about Carmen. I’d spent exactly three hours in her company and all of it was while Jake was tossing me around like a rag doll. The studio was filled with Carmen’s personal ballroom trophies and those of her students. She was the Heart of America International Latin pro-amateur champion in 2008 and had a myriad of other awards and placements. The first lesson we’d arrived early and she had been with her prior appointment, so I had studied all the trophies, along with the photos hung of her posing with her partner, a man probably ten years younger than her.

She rocked one sparkly, short costume after another in them. Carmen Fox was not an outfit repeater. I wondered if she was originally from Cleveland and why she might have an enemy. It wasn’t like anyone would target a dance studio for a robbery. We were in Tremont, a neighborhood once a stronghold of Eastern European immigrants before falling on hard times. But then in the nineties and later, the area had seen a gentrification and was now a mix of various income levels, with trendy restaurants, restored houses, and new-build condos. It was an area that had more than a couple of car thefts and muggings of hipsters coming out of industrial chic bars at two in the morning drunk, but it wasn’t known for murder. Residents in general felt safe if you lived by the laws of common sense. Don’t leave your doors unlocked. Don’t walk alone at midnight.

The usual. For Carmen to be killed during daylight, right where her studio window was visible to any number of urbanites walking their Labradors, was bold as hell and risky. We were in Cleveland proper, which was Jake’s jurisdiction. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Ten minutes later when Detective Debby Smith rolled in, I decided it wasn’t the greatest thing ever. She had an attitude with me, that went back to when I had discovered a couple of body parts in a field and she hadn’t believed me when I’d said I was just out for a walk. As if I had purposefully wanted to discover a human thigh. Maybe that was her jam since she did investigate murder for a living, but it wasn’t mine. No one in their right mind could mistake me for a killer either. I have zero arm strength, a lousy poker face, and feel guilty when I accidentally squish a bug.

“What’s going on?” Detective Smith asked me. She was chewing gum, had on sensible shoes and black pants with a blue button-up, and her hair in a ponytail. “I have no idea. Jake and I are taking dance lessons and we showed up for our lesson and our teacher is dead. I don’t know if it was an accident or what.” She and her partner glanced at each other and grinned. “Marner is taking dance lessons? Get the hell out of here.” Oops. He was not going to be happy with me that I had let his little secret out. I didn’t even know it was a secret, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out he was not going to want his co-workers to know he was learning to swing.

Dance. Swing dance. “His mother wanted us to do them,” I said in an effort to fix my gaffe. “His mother?” They both burst out laughing. Double oops. That had made it worse. But whatever. Lots of men dance and they needed to stop being part of some cop bro club. Dancing had been popular back in the day and it was having a resurgence. I couldn’t do anything about the perception of him being a mama’s boy because it was quite possibly true.

He didn’t exactly tell Mrs. Marner no on a regular basis. “Dancing is a great way to socialize. You should both try it. Look at how many professional athletes compete on Dancing with the Stars. Ballroom is trending.” I was saved from my babbling further by Marner opening the door to the studio and greeting his co-workers. “So do we call you Detective Twinkle Toes from now on?” the male detective asked. “Kiss my ass.” Jake pointed to the etched sign on the door.

“Get a load of this name though. Tippy-Toe. Tippy-Toe.” “Lemon tree,” Detective Smith said. They all laughed. Yeah. This was all just hilarious. Jake handed me his keys. “Here, you can head home, babe. I’ll get a ride from someone.

” I was being dismissed. I understood the why of it in theory, but hey, I had a decent track record solving murders. I had been the only one who had even suspected my grandma’s friend Vera had been murdered, and because of me, a confessed killer was sitting in jail awaiting his hearing. This sucked. “Okay.” I took the keys, because what choice did I have? They weren’t going to let me stay. Crime scene techs were already unrolling the yellow tape. Once upon a time, in my early twenties, I had been a crime scene technician myself, because I had wanted to be badass like my prosecutor mother, but sucked at public speaking, so law was out. I had also wanted to be around Ryan, who I had met in criminal justice class at community college, and who I had developed a massive crush on, so while law was out, crime scene tech was in. But I hadn’t vibed with the job.

In fact, if I hadn’t quit, I would have been fired. I’d gone on to start my own home staging business “Put It Where?” but knowing how to choose a soothing color palette did me no good in this ghost business. Marner took his cronies inside and barely gave me a wave. It occurred to me that the murderer might still be in the area. None of those pros had considered that, had they? Except they had. I realized a uniformed officer was following me discreetly and doing a sweep, gun out. Yikes. I fast-walked around the corner. Ryan, my one-time crush, and Marner’s former partner, fell in step beside me. “Dance lessons? How did you talk Marner into that?” I glanced over at my dead friend, not surprised to see him.

His ghost came and went at will. “His mom bought them for us as a gift.” “Ah. That makes sense. You can’t say no to Mrs. M.” “That is very true. I was just thinking that same thing.” I crossed the parking lot, glancing around to make sure there was no murderer about to leap out and strangle me. “What’s new with you? Are you here because of Carmen? Was she murdered?” I knew she had been murdered.

She had to be. There had yet to be a ghost who had shown themselves to me who had died of natural causes. But Ryan occasionally had intel from upstairs and could share it with me. “Yep. Bludgeoned to death. Multiple hits to the head. I saw the paperwork.” He always talked about mysterious paperwork but never explained what actually went on in his afterlife. I strongly suspected at times Ryan was withholding information from me or flat-out lying. Now didn’t seem like the time to question it though.

“That seems very aggressive,” I said, as I unlocked the door to Jake’s truck. “Isn’t that classic overkill?” I approached the truck and was about to open the door when something from under the carriage grabbed my ankle. I screamed.

.

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