Saturday, October 22, 2022

Read an Excerpt from The Ex Who Glowed in the Dark by Sally Berneathy



Book 2 in Charley’s Ghost series

Amanda was in the process of divorcing her lying, cheating husband Charley when he was murdered, so she’s stuck with his last name. And even worse, she’s stuck with his ghost.

She can’t seem to get rid of his ghost, but at least she is able to go to court and get rid of his name. Elated at the small victory, she returns to her motorcycle repair shop ready to celebrate. But her assistant, Dawson, is having a meltdown because his younger brother has been kidnapped.

Amanda can see the obvious pain Dawson is in, but in the two years he’s worked for her he’s never mentioned a brother. Is this brother real or only an avatar from one of the computer games he loves to play? Charley thinks Dawson is losing it. Amanda thinks Charley lost it a long time ago.

Dawson produces an e-mail from demanding computer code written by Dawson’s father as ransom for the boy. That seems a little odd. Don’t kidnappers typically want large sums of money in unmarked bills as a ransom?

When Dawson tells Amanda his name isn’t really Dawson Page and that, since his parents were murdered two years ago, he and his brother have been living under false identities bequeathed to them by their father, she really begins to worry about him.

Then she talks to his next door neighbor to find out if he saw anything, and the man wearing a tin foil hat tells her he’s never seen Dawson’s brother, but if somebody’s missing, aliens undoubtedly took him to work in the crystal mines on Alpha Centauri.

Though the kidnappers have warned Dawson not to bring in the police, Amanda decides the situation has gone beyond her ability to help by offering a cold Coke and soothing words. She calls Jake Daggett, the detective who saved her life a couple of months before. Charley isn’t happy about that. He claims she only called Daggett because she wants to see him again. That really isn’t the only reason, but he does look nice in his T-shirt stuffed with bulging biceps, pecs and deltoids.

In case the kidnappers are watching when he arrives and might identify him as a cop, Amanda greets him as cousin Jake and throws her arms around him in a friendly cousin sort of way which Charley finds completely unnecessary.

Will the kidnappers believe Jake is her cousin? Do the kidnappers even exist? Is Grant only an Avatar? Will Amanda ever find a way to torture Charley? Will she give up her trademark Coke for a Pepsi? Will Global Warming melt Amanda’s Magnum Double Chocolate ice cream bar?

Okay, you need to test that last question for yourself, but the answers to everything else are in this book!


Chapter One

Amanda Caulfield walked out of the Dallas County Courthouse into the warm July morning feeling as if she was floating down the sidewalk on gossamer wings rather than clomping along in a pair of scuffed motorcycle boots.
She’d entered that intimidating building half an hour ago as Amanda Randolph, estranged wife and widow of Charley Randolph, then emerged as Amanda Caulfield, the name she was born with.
Her father wrapped an arm about her shoulders. “You okay, Mandy?”
She looked up at him, smiled and returned his hug. When Emerson Caulfield sat in his own courtroom, his stern, no-nonsense demeanor quelled the rowdiest defendant. On the bench he looked every inch a district court judge with his stubborn jaw, strong nose and steel-gray hair, but now his gaze was soft, his parental concern for her obvious.
I’m fine, Dad. Really. Getting rid of Charley’s name makes me feel like a new woman, like the last few years never happened.”
That’s just great, Amanda,” Charley said. “Not bad enough I got murdered, but now my wife gets rid of my name and says she feels like a new woman and I never existed. You sure know how to hurt a guy.”
Amanda grimaced and glanced past her father to the slightly translucent figure floating a few inches above the ground and scowling. Other than the translucence, Charley looked much as he had in life—tall with streaked blond hair and bright blue eyes. He still wore the tan khakis and white Polo shirt he’d died in two months ago. Apparently people didn’t sweat or get dirty in the afterlife.
Ridding herself of Charley’s last name had been a simple matter requiring the completion of a few forms and a quick appearance in court. If only she could get rid of Charley’s ghost that easily.
She shot him a glare then continued walking down the street with her father toward the parking lot where his car and her motorcycle waited. “Thanks for going to court with me, Dad. It was kind of cool that you were on a first name basis with my judge.”
Her father laughed. “A name change hearing is a formality, just a matter of signing the decree. I was only there for moral support.”
That counted for a lot.”
Coming by for dinner tonight?” It would have been a tempting invitation if Amanda hadn’t already made plans. Her mother always hired good cooks, her definition of assuring that her husband and family were well fed. “Your sister and David will be there. Your mother wants to make plans for the baby shower you’re going to give for Jenny.” That took the temptation out of the invitation.
Golly gee, Dad, I’d just love to be there and talk about which engraver to use for the invitations because remember what a terrible job Ludlow’s did on poor Amy Cresswell’s wedding invitations—how embarrassing that they used ecru instead of ivory—but Hamilton’s has only been in business ten years and can you really trust such a newcomer, and should we stick with cardboard for the cake flavor or be avant-garde and go for lemon cardboard?”
Her father tried to give her his courtroom-stern expression, but he smiled in spite of himself. “You know you might as well give in and get it over with. Your mother is relentless. Eventually you’re going to have to deal with the baby shower details.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “I know, but I’ll avoid it as long as possible. Anyway, this afternoon Sunny and I are going for a bike ride and then out to dinner to celebrate my name change.”
Her father nodded, his expression tightening slightly but otherwise unchanged. “I’m glad you’re spending time with Sunny, getting to know her.”
Amanda had only recently learned that her mother and her birth mother were not the same person, that Sunny Donovan and her father had a brief relationship thirty-three years ago that resulted in her. Once she recovered from the initial shock, Amanda accepted her changed parentage without trauma. She’d always adored her father, always felt close to him, but she and her mother had clashed from her first memory.
Sunny made no attempt to take her mother’s place but had immediately become her best friend, a role no one had filled in Amanda’s life since Billie Jean Bennett moved to Florida in the second grade. Overall, the situation was a good one. Her parents and Sunny seemed to still feel a bit of tension when discussing it, but they’d get over it eventually.
The traffic light turned green and she and her father crossed the street to the parking lot.
Tell Mom I’ll be over soon with a bottle of two dollar champagne to celebrate Jenny’s future baby and my old name.”
Her father laughed. They both knew her very proper mother would not approve of a celebration of such an unorthodox event as ditching her dead almost-ex-husband’s last name, and she’d faint if a bottle of two dollar champagne came through the door of her perfect home in Highland Park. “Let me know before you do that so I can be out that evening.”
Love you, Dad.” She gave him another hug and a kiss on the cheek.
Love you too. Ride safe.”
She strode to her Harley.
Charley settled himself on the back and looked smug. “You can’t get rid of me just because you don’t use my name anymore. You’re still my wife. Our divorce wasn’t final when I died.”
Amanda groaned and spread her hands in a gesture of frustration. “Think about what you just said. You died. What part of till death do us part do you not understand?”
I’m still here so I guess death didn’t part us.”
It’s not my fault you got kicked back. You’re definitely dead. Your family and I buried you.”
Charley flinched. “That suit was terrible.”
Get off my bike. You don’t need to ride. You can fly. Everybody wants to fly. You can do it but you choose to annoy me by riding on the back of my Harley.”
C’mon, Amanda,” he whined. “You know how I used to love to ride motorcycles. This has been a traumatic day for me. It really hurts that you got rid of my name. At least let me ride.”
Like she had a choice. She strapped on her helmet, fired up the bike and roared away. No point in trying to throw him off or give him a rough ride. Until he completed the mission he’d been sent back to complete or got his karma balanced or whatever he needed to do to be allowed into the light, she was stuck with him. Letting him ride on the back of her bike was a minor irritation compared to the other things she had to tolerate from him.
Twenty minutes later she pulled into the parking lot of her shop, Amanda’s Motorcycles and More, in the northwest section of Dallas off Harry Hines Boulevard.
You ride too fast,” Charley complained as she got off the bike.
Amanda yanked off her helmet and looked at him. “Really? Are you worried I’m going to have a wreck and you’ll get hurt? Next time, walk.”
With her helmet under one arm and the folder containing her official documents under the other, she turned and strode toward the wide doors of her shop. Charley had put a damper on her good mood, almost made her feel guilty about getting rid of his name. But a few minutes with her assistant and friend Dawson Page would restore it. He’d been with her through the last year of her tumultuous marriage and her futile attempts to obtain a divorce. He’d appreciate what this day meant to her. They might very well share a two dollar bottle of champagne.
Dawson, I’m Amanda Caulfield again!” She walked across the large open area, stepping around motorcycle parts as well as bikes in various stages of repair and detailing. She’d expected to find him working on a paint job, his specialty and favorite thing to do other than work on the computer. But he was nowhere in the main area.
She finally found him sitting at a battered wooden desk in one of the smaller rooms she’d designated as an office. Not surprisingly his attention was focused on a computer, though not the desktop she had for office work. He’d brought in his own laptop, something he often did because her computer was, to quote Dawson, antiquated.
She stepped inside the room. “There you are! Did you hear me?”
Dawson jumped, looked at her over his laptop, blinked a couple of times and pushed his glasses up on his nose. “That’s great, Amanda.” He sounded distracted, but he often sounded distracted. Dawson gave his complete attention to everything he did.
Even so, Amanda was a little disappointed he didn’t show more enthusiasm about her triumph.
Charley darted past her to stand beside Dawson. “He probably thinks a married woman should keep her husband’s name.”
Amanda gritted her teeth, biting back her response since Dawson couldn’t see or hear Charley and would think she was talking to herself. Instead she stepped over to the desk and swiped the file folder containing her name change documents through Charley’s midsection.
That hurt, Amanda,” Charley protested. “Okay, maybe not physically but emotionally. You’ve got a mean streak.”
In life Charley had been a liar, cheater and blackmailer, so Amanda thought he had the roles reversed, that he was the one with the mean streak, but again she bit her tongue and saved her rebuttal for later when they were alone.
She slapped the folder onto the desk. “Dawson, could you put this somewhere safe? It contains very important papers. I don’t want to lose them.”
She shifted her attention from Charley to her young assistant and realized for the first time that he didn’t look so good. As a certified nerd Dawson always had more computer pallor than Texas tan, but now his face was pasty pale. His short dark hair looked as if it hadn’t been combed in a while, and even through the lenses of his glasses she could see that his eyes were bloodshot with dark circles underneath.
A stab of guilt shot through her. She’d been completely wrapped up in her own world and had failed to notice that something was wrong with her friend. “Are you okay?”
What? Yes. I’m fine.” He picked up her folder and set it down again. His eyes darted to the computer screen then back to her.
Amanda frowned. “What’s going on? What are you working on?”
That was totally not like Dawson. A college student majoring in computer science, he usually took every opportunity to explain anything related to computers in excruciating, convoluted detail, his enthusiasm blinding him to the fact that Amanda’s eyes were glazing over while he talked.
She moved around the desk to look at the screen.
Dawson closed the laptop, blinked and looked guilty.
Something was very wrong. He wasn’t the type to hide things from her and she’d never before seen him look guilty. “Dawson, I don’t care if you were playing solitaire or looking at nude women.” She couldn’t imagine him doing either but couldn’t imagine any other reason he’d shut down the display so she couldn’t see it.
Amanda, you know I wouldn’t do that.” He sounded a little hurt and indignant that she’d accuse him of such things.
It wasn’t pictures of women or a computer game or anything normal,” Charley said. “It didn’t have any of those little things you can click on, just lots of numbers and letters.”
Okay, so not porn or computer games. Amanda felt helpless. Obviously something was wrong and it somehow involved whatever he’d been doing on the computer.
How could she help him when she didn’t know what the problem was? She fell back on Texas tradition. When in doubt, offer food and drink. Dawson already had an open Coke sitting on his desk so she couldn’t offer that. “It’s nearly eleven which is nearly noon so why don’t you take a break and grab an early lunch?”
Dawson shook his head, the movement uneven, half nod, half shiver. “I’m not hungry. You go ahead.”
Dawson never passed up a chance to eat. Apparently it took a lot of calories to operate a keyboard and mouse because he remained thin in spite of eating like a quarterback during training season. If he wasn’t hungry, he must not feel well. A bad case of the flu would explain the pallor and dark circles.
If you’re sick, go home. It’ll be tough, but I’ll get along without you for a day or two.”
Dawson stood abruptly, shoving back his chair. “I’m not sick.” He strode across the room and out to the main area then sat down beside a bike with an intricate flame design half completed. He picked up a brush and a small pot of paint but didn’t open it.
Amanda glanced at Charley who shrugged. This was totally unlike the amiable, easy-going Dawson.
Amanda reached down and opened the laptop. The screen was blank. She looked at Charley and mouthed, Turn it on. In his current condition, Charley’s abilities were severely limited, but he was able to influence electronics—turn on the TV in the middle of the night, read Amanda’s e-mail when she wasn’t looking, set off the alarm system she had installed after Roland Kimball broke into her apartment.
Turn what on?” Charley asked.
Dawson’s computer,” she whispered.
No problem. But I hope you remember this the next time you get all upset because I read a few of your e-mails. I’m not the only one who’s nosy.”
Just do it, okay?”
He made an elaborate show of waving his hands around and through the laptop as if he were a stage magician performing a trick. Finally he proclaimed, “Ta-da!”
The screen sprang to life.
Charley had told the truth about the display. Numbers and letters in some sort of raw data format. Definitely not a user-friendly Windows program. Why had Dawson been so anxious to hide this? Amanda wouldn’t be able to make sense out of it if she had the rest of her life to study it.
He’s coming back,” Charley warned.
Too late. Dawson stood beside her.
I’m sorry,” Amanda began, but he interrupted her.
I’m glad you know.” He sank into the chair with an enormous sigh and put his head in his hands. “What should I do?”
Amanda looked from the screen to Dawson to Charley. What was it she was supposed to know from that strange display? If she didn’t know what it meant, she certainly didn’t know what Dawson should do about it.
I have no idea what you’re talking about. That stuff is gobbledegook to me.”
Dawson lifted his head. His glasses sat slightly askew, but Amanda could see his eyes clearly enough to tell they had a strange look. The only word that came to mind was haunted.
Haunted? Dawson was quiet, intense, OCD, but—haunted?
She knelt on the floor in front of him. “You’re starting to freak me out. What’s going on?”
Dawson clenched his lips and his fists, looking very young and vulnerable, a little like a child holding in horrible secrets.
Secrets and Dawson just didn’t go together, but apparently he had a few.
Impossible images raced through Amanda’s mind.
Dawson the mild-mannered nerd—a secret life as a bank robber?
A spy who sold government secrets?
Certainly not.
A career as a writer of erotica?
Probably not.
He sat straight in the chair, squared his shoulders, and drew in a deep breath. “They took my brother. They’re going to kill him if I don’t give them a program my dad wrote, and I don’t have the program.”

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