Soul Food Spirits
Southern Ghost Wranglers, Book 1
It should’ve been so easy…
Blissful Breneaux has spent her career catching troublesome ghosts for a covert government agency. But all that changes the day she is fired.
She has one shot to redeem herself— track down the biggest, baddest spirit the agency has ever known and haul him in.
Too bad that ghost resides in the one place Blissful despises—Haunted Hollow, Alabama. It’s the tourist attraction from hell. Blissful is knee deep in a foreign place—and it’s not just the deer head trophies and the giant pickup trucks that are throwing her for a loop.
When a local reveals he has information that could save her career, Blissful is all ears. But when he winds up murdered, Blissful becomes a suspect.
Thrust into a murder mystery, Blissful teams up with a pair of amateur ghost-hunting grannies who know more about town dynamics than hunting spirits. Then there’s the handsome bed and breakfast owner who’s keeping more secrets than he’s revealing. But Blissful is determined to discover what the murder victim knew. She’ll hunt for clues all over town. Will the hunt save her career or place her in the clutches of the Haunted Hollow murderer?
I always thought that working hard meant everything in my life would fall into place. Checking off a great job would mean checking off a great life in the big daily planner that was my mind. If I tried hard enough, shed enough plasma, and kissed enough butt, I could make it anywhere.
Turned out, I was wrong.
My dad’s death a few months ago left an oozing wound in the establishment he helped create—The Ghost Team. With the help of secret funding from the government, my dad, Vince Breneaux, created a crew of highly capable, clairvoyant agents whose single mission was to seek out rogue spirits, those hell-bent on attacking and plaguing the living, and send them on to the other side—the light, as we call it.
Naturally, since my father had been director of said team, when it came to promotion time, I was a shoo-in by a thousand degrees.
At least in my own opinion I was.
But that’s not how it worked out, and now it’s several months later and the bimbo that stole my job is staring down her pert little pixie nose at me.
Yes, I know it isn’t nice to call people bimbos. I realize that, but when Anita slept with my dad’s boss and ended up sitting in the leather ergonomically correct chair that should’ve been mine—well, you can understand where my dislike stems from.
I inhaled the scent of Anita Tucker’s gardenia perfume. It reminded me of a funeral home. I shuffled in my chair. I could deal with Anita. I could deal with the fact that I didn’t have the job that was basically promised to me. By. My. Father. I could deal with it because at some point it would be mine.
I had patience. For goodness’ sake, I’d once waited one hundred and six hours for a ghost to appear in a barn. If I could sit through the onslaught of bloodsucking ticks that tried to attach to my skin every five seconds, I could deal with Anita.
“Blissful, I really hate to do this.” Director Tucker pouted out her full pink lips. Blue eyeliner rimmed her eyes, coral dusted her cheeks and her skin was flawless. Well, when you wore three tubes of foundation, I supposed anyone’s pockmarked skin would be perfect or you weren’t doing something right.
I sat in the air-conditioned trailer that the Ghost Team used as a mobile office. It worked great on the road, not so great in the middle of tornado season in the South.
“You really hate to do what, Anita?” I was pretty sure she didn’t hate doing anything when it came to me.
But I kept my tone upbeat. I’d been called into the office and was trying to be positive.
She gazed at me with a degree of pity I’m pretty sure she only reserved for babies and puppies. Her brown eyes flickered to her computer screen and then back to me. “I’ve got a report that says you didn’t transition the Peet ghost.”
I shifted to one side. “I transitioned her. She went easily.”
I didn’t transition her, but I didn’t want Anita knowing. Of course, it looked like she’d already discovered, and no amount of lying on my part was going to blanket the truth. That case had been one of those where it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
“Blissful,” she said, pouting out those lips again. “You don’t have to lie. In fact, I wish you wouldn’t. I want you to think of me as a second mother.”
“You’re my age.”
“And we’re both young and accomplished.” Anita pressed the tips of her fingers to either side of her nose. “Twenty-eight and we’ve already done so much.”
“You run the Ghost Team. I just work for it,” I said flatly.
Anita smiled like a shark in heat.
“Blissful,” she said in a sad, nasally voice. “I know your father would’ve wanted you to have this job.”
My fists tightened.
She glanced at the picture on her desk. My father—well, adopted father—Director Vince Breneaux, had one arm wrapped around Anita’s shoulders, a beaming smile on his face. His bald head that he always made me rub for luck glinted in the sun.
If his spirit knew that Anita had gotten his job instead of me, I was pretty sure it would’ve ticked him to high heaven. As it was, I didn’t feel the need to call him back from the other side to tell him. Though that wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.
“We both applied for the same job,” Anita was droning on. “I got it fair and square.” She pressed her hands on the desk. “Let’s face it; you weren’t emotionally ready to take on the challenge of the Ghost Team. You just weren’t, and this whole thing”—she nodded to her computer—“with the Peet ghost proves it.
“Blissful…” Her voice deepened now. Apparently this was the tone she used to reprimand folks—people with more experience and much more accomplished. “You let her stay.”
I gritted my teeth. “That ghost wasn’t harming anyone.”
A joyous spark lit in Anita’s eyes. I’d just admitted it. Told her that I hadn’t helped the ghost move on. I was such an idiot.
“Mrs. Peet made a sewage line explode. Need I remind you? We can’t have the spirit world doing things that are so destructive. Someone could’ve been hurt. Anyone could’ve been hurt. Our job is to protect people. You know that, and you willingly allowed a spirit to stay.”
“No one was hurt. All she wanted was to see her daughter go to prom. That’s why she screwed with the line to begin with. Someone”—I eyed Anita carefully—“had already tried to transition her. She wasn’t ready.”
Anita sniffed. She knew darn well who had tried and failed to make Mrs. Peet go to the other side—Anita had.
I could see a ball of happiness bubbling inside the new director of the Ghost Team. I’d admitted I hadn’t done my job. I’d willingly allowed a spirit to stay. Anita had me right where she wanted me.
Her voice lifted in what I assumed was happiness. “So you admit it?”
See? What’d I tell you?
I rubbed my eyes. “Yes, I allowed Mrs. Peet to stay. As long as no one bothered her, she promised not to make any more trouble. Once her daughter—who’s deaf, by the way—attends prom, Mrs. Peet promised to cross. If it’s a problem, I’ll go back, make sure Mrs. Peet does as she said she would. But I’ve been dealing with spirits a long time, longer than you,” I said, “and I’m pretty sure she’s going to stick to her word.”
“Pretty sure?” A slow smile curled on Anita’s face.
I leaned forward and drilled a hole in her forehead with my laser-beam eyes. “One hundred percent.”
Anita sighed, sank back onto her chair. “See, that’s a problem for me, Blissful.” She sounded sad, but Anita was faking it. She hated me. Always had. From our earliest training days Anita had it out for me. I was better than she was at transitioning ghosts, better at fighting, a faster runner and my dad had loved me. Loved me.
Which was why Anita was so proud of stealing my job. Granted, I’d never actually had the job. But it was mine to inherit. I should’ve been the director. But Anita had won. Now she was all set to punish me for an infraction that wasn’t even really an infraction.
Okay, I’d gone against my job description, but I did believe Mrs. Peet. For goodness’ sake, she’d died before her daughter could attend prom. A daughter that had fought adversity and challenges her entire life. All the spirit wanted was to see the look of happiness on her daughter’s face. Was that too much to ask?
I didn’t think so.
I flexed my fingers. Fingers that were used to slipping into our Ghost Team suits. Suits that moved electromagnetic energy away from our bodies so that spirits couldn’t use the magnetic fields to attack us. My biceps were tight from years of training. A Ghost Team member had to be physically fit. I ran four miles every day before breakfast, did two hundred squats with a barbell on my shoulders. I could do fifty pull-ups without breaking a sweat.
And now Polly Princess was telling me my days were numbered. She hadn’t said it yet, but it was coming.
“Blissful, Blissful, Blissful,” Anita cooed, “as much as I don’t want to do this, I don’t have a choice. You know the rules. You transition the spirit if you can or you’re off the team. You could have. You’ve willingly allowed a mischievous ghost to remain.”
“She wasn’t a threat,” I said. “Anita, how many times did my dad allow a spirit to remain if they weren’t deemed harmful?”
She lifted a hand to silence me. I almost laughed at the absurdity of the gesture.
“Your father and I have different leadership styles, I’m sorry to say. Whereas he might’ve let this little slip go”—her gaze dragged from my head, where I knew she was inwardly cringing at my violet-colored hair, to my nails that were in desperate need of a manicure—“I can’t be as kind. I’m sure you understand. I just started in this position. I can’t have everyone thinking they can walk all over me.”
“Especially not me, huh?”
“Especially not you,” she blurted, then covered her face, realizing she’d screwed up. “Listen, Blissful. Since I know you’re still dealing with Vince—your dad’s death, I’m going to make you an offer.”
“I’d love to hear it,” I said, seething.
Anita tapped on her computer and then swung the screen around to show me. “Recognize this place?”
The picture was of a serene town. Banners and streamers hung from the covered shops on Main Street. In the background a white church steeple spiraled to the heavens while folks poured from shop to shop. It was an ideal scene.
I groaned. “Of course I recognize it. It’s Haunted Hollow, Alabama. How could I forget it? It’s the second most haunted town in the entire country.”
“Second to Savannah, Georgia.”
“It’s also a hotbed of spirit activity. We’ve gone in before and weren’t able to do anything. The ghosts there are too hard to transition. It’s like they’re unionized or something.”
A slow smirk of satisfaction coiled on Anita’s face.
My stomach dropped. I didn’t like that look.
“As you know, Lucky Strike is rumored to reside in Haunted Hollow.”
“Correction, it’s not a rumor. It’s a whisper. No one’s ever found him.”
Anita tapped the screen. “Until now.”
I perked up. “What do you mean?”
Anita inhaled deeply. She was putting on her font-of-wisdom attitude. She wore it like a clean pair of panties—with pride. “Ever since the team was born, it’s always been a goal to get Lucky Strike. This”—her voice rose to a pleasant, throaty timbre—“should not be news to you. Ever since our induction, Strike has always been a target.”
“Yeah, ever since he took credit for the blackout that took out half the Southeast.”
“Right,” she said, squeezing her fists with what appeared to be delight. “And now intel is that he is in Haunted Hollow.” Anita pointed one long coffin-shaped fingernail at a column of paperwork on her desk. She swiveled toward me. “That’s your file, Blissful. Most of it’s from the Peet case. I’m getting pressure, a lot of pressure to fire you. But I won’t do that. You’re too valuable. Too much of an asset.”
I think she meant too much of a pain in the asset. That’s what I’d been to Anita ever since she made director. Not that I did anything intentionally. It was in the narrow, slitted gaze she always gave me. The condescending tone she used when we spoke.
I wasn’t the one who was so insecure about my job. She was.
I raked my fingers through my hair. “What are you saying?”
She took a deep inhale, inflating her bosom to twice their silicone size.
“Blissful, you’re suspended.”
I couldn’t deal with that.
My heart popped out of my chest and hit the floor with a thud. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
Then Anita, the woman who had bested me for my dad’s job by sleeping with his superior, who spoke to me like I was three years old, who had the audacity to put a picture of her with my father on her desk, slowly opened her mouth and enunciated every single syllable.
“Blissful. You. Are. Suspended.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.” She closed her eyes and pressed her lips to a thin line like she was the one who was so freaking irritated. No one was taking away her life, much less her livelihood.
Her eyelids popped open. “I’ve got the paperwork already filled out. You are now officially not a member of the Ghost Team. You have been suspended.”
I stopped myself from doubling over. Tears threatened to prick my eyes. I gnashed it all down. I could get through this. There had to be a way. All I’d ever wanted in life was to continue my father’s work, to help spirits float right on over to the other side.
Heck, I’d been on the team since I was eighteen. I didn’t have any other skills. If I tried to get a job, what the heck would I do? Could I do? Nothing. I could do absolutely nothing.
The realization that I was worthless to the economy of my country and a liability to myself stung almost as bad as having to bear Anita’s superiority complex.
My world was crashing down on me. There was nothing I could do except rise. I stood, towering over her.
“So that’s it?” It had really only been a matter of time before she found something that was good enough to punish me with. Anita hated me. I was her competition. Didn’t she get it? She’d won the popularity contest and owned the director’s chair.
“I’ll appeal,” I said. “I’ve been in this business a long time.”
“No,” she snapped, “you won’t. I’m your director. Listen, Blissful, I know you don’t like me. I get it. I took your job. I’m not the enemy,” she said soothingly. “That’s not me. I’m your friend. That’s why I’m giving you a chance to earn your place back on the team. I want you here. You only have to do one thing.”
“What’s that?” I tamped down the hope rising in my chest.
“I’m sending you to Haunted Hollow to bring in Lucky Strike.”
My jaw dropped. “You’re kidding? We’ve tried. We’ve all tried. He can’t be found. He doesn’t want to be found.”
Anita hitched one shoulder. “Those are the terms. Bring him in and I’ll lift your suspension. You can rejoin the team. Walk away and your suspension becomes permanent.”
Our gazes locked. Would I, Blissful Breneaux, allow a plastic Barbie doll whose ghost-hunting skills involved whistling loudly and undoing the top button of her shirt, win?
Or would I go to Alabama? It was the state I had grown up in. It was a place filled with humongous trucks, radicalized football fans and dead animals hanging in almost every house.
Once I left, I’d sworn I would never go back. I was meant for more than living in a podunk town with folks who couldn’t speak the English language correctly.
Not that I was perfect, but I did pride myself on using verbs the right way. I could accept the suspension and give up everything I’d ever worked for in my entire life. Maybe I could land a job hosting a fake ghost-hunting television show like that horrendous Xavier Bibb guy on Ghost Wranglers. It was so stupid. The guy had fake blond hair, dark eyes and such a stupid intensity to his stare that it was impossible not to laugh whenever he came on camera. The man took himself way too seriously.
Okay, so that was one choice. The other was to accept Anita’s challenge. Go to Haunted Hollow, find Lucky Strike and turn him in. Prove I’d captured him and then get the guy to transition over to the other side. I was good at it. Actually I was great at it. It was what I lived and breathed for.
I rolled my shoulders back, cracked the joints of my neck. I stared at Anita so hard I was trying to bore a hole in her head. No such luck.
“I accept your challenge. I will go to Haunted Hill and bring back the spirit of Lucky Strike.”
“You go without equipment. You’re not one of us anymore.”
I gritted my teeth. Way to twist the knife, Anita. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t need equipment to bring in what you’ve asked for.”
Anita extended her hand. I shook it. Her lips coiled into a slithery smile. “Then we’ve got a deal.”