A Taste of... Last Breath
The lingering stink of popcorn, cotton candy, and salted peanuts was swallowed by the sweet smell of blueberry muffins, but Kyle Perkins had no trouble resisting the lure of Cookie’s fresh-baked goods. He’d done his carbo-loading over the past few days and was happily burning it away with this morning’s workout.
Mornings like this were Kyle’s favorite. The world was peaceful, despite containing residual energy and odors from the previous night’s festivities.
Beyond Cookie’s trailer, the peak of a bright-red tent sliced into the horizon, casting a dark shadow across the pavement as the sun rose behind it. Signs proclaiming Spectacles and Marvels! and A Plethora of Pyrotechnics! and Strongman Shoulders Chevrolet! pointed the way toward the circus act areas.
Even with those distractions, Kyle found a sense of ease and comfort in his lifting regimen.
The Ruby Red Spectacle Circus strongman brought the weight up again, ensuring the motion of the hundred-pound barbell remained smooth through the arc of his arm curl.
In his other hand, he held the day’s first protein shake, a double-chocolate-almond concoction that would soon serve as his breakfast appetizer. As always, the glass remained steady in his hand. That was the test.
It wasn’t enough to just lift the weight. The muscles needed to be isolated from the rest of his body.
Behind him, the kitchen trailer’s old stove rattled the wall, overworked and struggling. Not for the first time, he thought about how nice it would be to have a fridge or stove in his own camper. He’d never set foot outside that cozy space for anything but workouts and performances if that were the case, especially on cold January mornings like this. Maybe one of these days…
His stomach grumbled, as it usually did around this time. The straw of his protein shake tempted him.
No. Routine was everything.
No eating or drinking ’til you’re done, Strongman Perkins. Not a sip.
From the other side of the trailer, a performer was crying as she left the kitchen area. Maybe the fortune teller, Esther, but maybe not. Grief still hung heavy in the air since they’d lost Penelope and Dennis so suddenly, and Kyle imagined that had to be why she was still distraught.
Losing Penelope had shocked him, too, and it still did. She’d been a serious athlete and deserved a hell of a lot more than a cheap-ass billing with the Ruby Red Spectacle Circus. No, she’d been of an elite breed like him, devoted to her training and her craft as a trapeze artist against all obstacles and distractions. She’d just been trying to make a decent life for herself after being dealt a losing hand.
It still didn’t feel real.
A safety line had allegedly snapped, plummeting Penelope to the dirt- and straw-covered asphalt. Kyle worried no one had checked the lines as they were supposed to nightly. Like so much of the circus’s equipment, however, they were probably ten years overdue for replacement.
Gritting his teeth against the ache building in his right bicep, he refused to stop. He eyed his protein shake, noting a tremor in the liquid as he exhaled a cloud of breath through his chapped lips.
It seemed like whoever was in charge of those safety lines should’ve been fired, but no one claimed responsibility, and he hadn’t heard of anybody leaving the circus. Even the damn police had labeled it an accident and washed their hands of things in record time. Though they lived, breathed, loved, and lost like the rest of the world, “circus freaks” were not treated equally.
Not viewed as normal.
Reggie O’Rourke, the ringmaster and owner, said the Ruby Red took care of their own like a family…but that wasn’t how Penelope’s and Dennis’s demises felt. They felt like neglect.
“Least my barbells and other equipment can’t fall apart and drop me to my death,” Kyle muttered to himself between counts. “That’s something.”
Of course, Dennis Hamel’s death, unlike Penelope’s, hadn’t been because of aged materials. That’d been his own fault. How a trained professional like Dennis, who’d performed hundreds of shows, could mix up a prop firecracker with a real one was anyone’s guess.
Well, no, Kyle corrected himself.
The reason was clear. Dennis had been a drunk and a moron, an unfortunate trend within the Ruby Red Spectacle Circus.
That damn firecracker had blown a hole right through Dennis a week ago, and not one person trained in pyrotechnics within the circus could figure out how he’d mixed the real thing up with his props. His death was a true blow to morale.
But the two deaths together…
Kyle brushed away the thought.
Coincidences happened, especially in a world like the one they lived in.
High-pitched, off-tune whistling signaled Reggie O’Rourke’s approach. Kyle looked up just as the ringmaster rounded the corner, glad for anything to interrupt his thoughts.
“Fancy seeing you here.” Reggie’s greeting came complete with one of his annoying bows.
“Always am. Gotta get the morning curls in.”
“So you do, so you do.” The man’s white hair and bushy beard were even unrulier than usual, but Kyle tried not to judge his unkempt appearance when he wasn’t on the job.
It wasn’t as if Reggie ever really had a wife to tell him when he looked the fool. He slept with enough women, though. Surely, one of them would tell him how nuts he appeared at some point. Though it didn’t seem like that was ever going to happen.
The thought might’ve made him laugh on another day. Today, not so much.
Instead, Kyle bit back the urge to ask about the investigation into the circus’s recent deaths. Police were still wandering around, looking into Dennis’s demise, but Reggie hedged whenever he was asked a direct question about the situation. He’d only say that this stuff took time.
“Don’t forget, I want you to do some research into adding cannonballs into your routine. Take advantage of this downtime while we’re between shows, all right? Let’s see if we can find some thirty- or forty-pounders in D.C. this week. Get me the costs, and let’s get it done.”
Reggie clapped him on the shoulder as he went on by, rocking Kyle’s shake and not bothering to wait for a response. Why everyone couldn’t leave him in peace so he could exercise—so he could do the job they damn well paid him for—he didn’t know.
“I’ll look into the cannonballs,” he promised to Reggie’s back, doubting the ringmaster even heard him.
What Reggie said, folks did. Normal enough for the owner of a circus, Kyle guessed. If the man really thought cannonballs would wow the crowds, he didn’t mind obliging, as long as he didn’t have to foot the bill. What did he care what he lifted for their audience? So long as whatever it was didn’t blow him up…
At least the Ruby Red provided him with a solid job and an escape from his old life.
That was what he should’ve been billed as—an escape artist.
He’d escaped his parents, his marriage, and his mortgage. And even though everyone was in disbelief when he filed for divorce, they didn’t ask questions. The marriage had been his mistake either way, and it didn’t matter what anyone said.
He’d only married Marsha to prove to his parents he wasn’t gay. But after five years, no kids, and a lot of personal growth, he hadn’t been willing to hold up his end of the charade. And staying at his accounting job felt more like a death sentence every day.
His one serious hobby—bodybuilding—had saved him. Given him the escape he’d desperately needed.
And now he’d lost track of his damn count.
He set the heavy barbell gently down before stretching his bicep. He hadn’t mucked up his routine too badly. Looking around, he hoped nobody had noticed him spacing out, but the only person around was the young trick rider.
Bunny Weaver was up early, too, training. The makeshift corral was like a second home to the preteen. Her focus was wholly on somersaults around her horse’s belly at crazed speeds. Good on her for being that brave, but Kyle preferred to keep his feet on the ground. He admired Bunny, though. She had the same discipline as he and Penelope had, rest her soul.
Sitting on top of a crate, he downed his breakfast, enjoying the richness of the double-chocolate-almond shake as it coated his throat. The chill of the drink would’ve been more enjoyable on a warmer day, but he was warm enough after his workout.
Reaching down to retrieve his barbell, Kyle froze as the world began to spin. Nausea roiled in his stomach, churning like a knife in his gut. He tried to straighten back up but couldn’t. His entire body seemed to be locked in place.
What the hell?
His heart picked up speed, pounding against his ribs worse than when he’d walked out on his wife.
The protein shake burbled in his stomach. He fell to his hands and knees just before bitter vomit exploded from his lips, covering the ground, his hands, his barbell. It was frothy like the chocolate of his shake but bloody too.
Hot, bright lightning bolts of pain struck all the way down his spine. His muscles seized, spilling him sideways in the dirt. White stars flared across his vision as his head knocked against the kitchen trailer.
“I need…” His cry for help was preempted by another flood of bloody vomit. His body arched back and then curled in on itself like a giant was playing with him, pulling and pounding until he simply broke.
Agony brought a tight scream from his lips. His whole body was being crushed and punched and stretched, and his heart drummed ever harder as his brain went white-hot from the pain. He jammed his eyes shut, wishing he were dead.
Distantly, panicked voices shouted his name. Cookie? Bunny? Reggie? Ty? Jamie? But they didn’t matter. Not unless one of them would have mercy, finish the deed, and just kill him already.
Kill me. Kill me, please.
He tried to speak the words, but his body jerked again, hard, then his stomach spasmed, twisting tighter than any charley horse from overdoing it during training. Then the seizure came, stretching his muscles to their breaking point and beyond. It felt like every abdominal muscle snapped like an overworked rubber band.
Kyle really wanted to die. There were sounds coming from him, from his throat and chest, but they weren’t human. He wasn’t human anymore. Just a big ball of burning pain with no means of escape.
He didn’t know how much time had passed, but he could barely breathe through the blood and vomit dribbling from his mouth. His lungs ached, too, and a pressure like none he’d ever felt built behind his eyes. When the pounding in his heart got louder, then louder again, he knew cardiac arrest was coming for him.
And he welcomed it.
FBI Special Agent Emma Last reached around the tree of ceramic coffee mugs on her kitchen counter and smacked her Keurig on its side—again—waiting for some gurgle of compliance. None came. The device appeared to be hopelessly clogged, or else it’d swallowed the water she’d poured in for her coffee.
Emma groaned in frustration.
She brushed a few locks of light-brown hair out of her face, flinching as her fingers passed through a patch of icy air. The dreaded, frigid chill had become an all-too-familiar sensation ever since her birthday. Still, sometimes that was all it was, just a sensation that came and went. Emma waited, hoping that would be the case this morning.
When another, more powerful shiver raced down her spine, all the way to her toes, Emma groaned a second time. She was no longer alone.
“Those newfangled machines are always going to let you down.”
The ghost of Mrs. Kellerly lurked behind Emma, peering over her shoulder with those milky-white, pupil-free eyes. “If you want a decent cup of coffee, young lady, you start with a kettle of boiling water. That’s the only real way to go about it. You must invest in a press.” The woman had risen from the dead last week, too, to tell her the very same thing. Mrs. Kellerly really needed to get a life. Or get a death, in her case.
At least I’m not screaming this time.
Emma suspected the first time she’d seen a ghost was at her high school graduation party. Over the ten years between then and now, a specter would occasionally appear. Then there was the woman she spoke to in Ireland. Then there was Miguel, someone she’d known personally. Her murdered FBI teammate had tried to help her with an investigation, but Emma claimed it was a dream. She half believed she’d dreamed Miguel and his shooting injury.
But it wasn’t until last month, right around her twenty-eighth birthday, that ghosts started popping up in her daily life.
Like Mrs. Kellerly, for example.
Emma sighed and turned to her elderly neighbor, who now stood on the other side of the kitchen island. Ghosts could move fast. “I think you must be right, Mrs. Kellerly. Unfortunately, I really have to get to work. And I need caffeine. So I need to focus.”
“New team members today, hmm? Are you nervous?”
Emma wasn’t sure what had possessed her to tell Mrs. Kellerly about her team dynamics. The Washington D.C. Violent Crime Unit had recently attained a new supervisory special agent, Jacinda Hollingsworth, after Neil Forrester, Emma’s mentor and former SSA, decided to retire. To make matters more awkward, her best friend and VCU partner, Keaton Holland, had transferred to the Richmond Behavioral Analysis Unit.
She not only had to get used to a new supervisor but also needed to learn how to work with Keaton’s replacement, a guy named Leo Ambrose, who transferred from the Miami office with the new SSA.
The end result of all these new faces was that Emma felt like this was the first day of school and she was missing supplies. “Not…nervous, per se.”
“You’ll make new friends, dear. Don’t worry.”
At least one of the new faces was familiar, though.
Special Agent Mia Logan’s transfer from Richmond to D.C. couldn’t have come at a better time. With Mia around, plus the two remaining members of her original team, Denae Monroe and Vance Jessup, Emma could count on more familiar faces than new ones.
“New team members, new case, new everything. So I have to get ready.”
Emma waited, thinking Mrs. Kellerly might take the hint, but it didn’t happen. Hands clasped together in front of her like a schoolmarm, Mrs. Kellerly stood there observing the kitchen drama as if she might just be content to do so all day. Emma suspected ghosts just didn’t have much to do.
She decided to be more pointed. “That means I have to get dressed.”
The woman shook her head. “Everybody in this city is always rushing around. It’s a real shame. You need to slow down and smell the flowers sometimes. Take your time and have a real cup of coffee, with me even, instead of rushing out the door.”
The hope in the ghost’s voice made Emma’s heart squeeze.
When Mrs. Kellerly first appeared in her kitchen, Emma had poured them both a cup of coffee—after she’d calmed down from the fright. The old woman couldn’t enjoy the beverage, of course, but had seemed pleased with the gesture.
Over time, Emma had found the courage and refined some skills to make the visits end quicker without making the old soul feel rejected. Yes, ghosts had feelings, too, she’d learned.
“That’s Washington, D.C. for you, always a rush. But…” Emma gestured down to the running gear she still wore from her morning outing. Two miles in the cold January air had woken her up, but she could’ve used the added warmth of coffee. “Maybe you wouldn’t mind going back across the hall to your own apartment, so I can have some privacy to get showered?”
The gray-haired woman huffed, her lips forming into a comical pout. She clutched the oversize sweater hanging on her bony frame and shook her head. “You know I get so incredibly bored over there. But I suppose I understand.”
Instead of allowing guilt to change her mind, Emma gave her a small wave that some might call affectionate. The white-eyed Mrs. Kellerly mimicked the gesture before disappearing through the front door.
I’m sorry, Mrs. Kellerly.
Emma paused a moment to make sure the old woman had gone, then headed off to shower. Breakfast and coffee could wait, or else she’d risk the old woman wandering back over for another visit.
Emma didn’t get a single moment of peace anymore.
Not. One. Moment.
Granted, she hadn’t had much peace to begin with—not since joining the FBI’s Violent Crimes Unit two years ago—but now? Now everything had changed. Her work life, her private life, and even her perception of the world had altered.
Because of the ghosts.
At first, Emma couldn’t even comprehend that they were ghosts. They appeared humanlike—opaque, 3D figures like their formerly living selves. It was their eyes that gave them away—all whites with no pupils.
For some, the other giveaways were their wounds, like Miguel’s shooting injury. Fortunately for Emma, her elderly neighbor had no “war wounds.” It was hard not to react to the ghosts that appeared out of nowhere with their throats slit or their guts hanging out.
Emma knew the signs by now, though, which helped her to remain calm, including controlling her facial expressions. A shift in air pressure and a chilling sensation. A decade back, the first time that feeling had come over her, she’d mistaken it for some kind of random windchill phenomenon.
Ten years later, she was only just beginning to understand her esoteric ability sometimes referred to as a “gift.”
The fact that Mrs. Kellerly wandered in to chat over morning coffee every day, even though she’d died of heart failure three months before, had certainly been giving Emma a crash course in how it felt to have ghosts spring up on you from the abyss, or “the Other,” in her words. And although she’d somehow grown used to the woman’s visits, she was far from being used to these changes in her life.
Even her showers had gotten faster, partly for fear of a ghost popping up on her out of nowhere.
Which meant she needed to hurry. She bore down harder on her toothbrush and spit out the remaining paste with some water. Thank god Mrs. Kellerly always stopped short of following her into the bathroom, or she’d probably instruct her on how to brush her teeth. She’d always been quick to offer unsolicited, vaguely parental advice when she was alive too. Why should Emma expect the woman to be any different as a dead person?
Deep inside, though, Emma appreciated the routine of the visits. The consistency. The knowing. Especially now that so much was changing in her life.
Her biggest adjustment was losing Keaton. He’d transferred to Richmond’s BAU to be near his little sister, Hailey. Her career with the Richmond PD had just started. More than anything, losing him from the office hurt.
“Wonder what it would be like to have a big brother willing to make a move like that for me?” Emma scoffed at herself in the bathroom mirror as she tucked her button-down white blouse into her pants. She would’ve been lucky to have had family who wanted to be close to her that badly for any reason. Dead or alive. But then she let out a humorless bark of laughter that cut through the apartment. It wasn’t like she was all alone and hurting for company.
No, Emma was arguably inching toward becoming the most popular living human on the planet. Always surrounded by people these days…or what was left of them, at least.
She finished tying the laces on her work boots just as her phone buzzed.
SSA Jacinda Hollingsworth’s name popped up on her screen. She clicked the message to read the whole of it. The new SSA wanted the full team to meet up at some seldomly used fairgrounds out on the edge of D.C.
New week, new team members, new case.
Emma shook off her nerves. Strangely, today reminded her of the first day of school. An unknown teacher would be steering her and her new classmates.
But a case was good. A newly formed team built for action and investigation couldn’t exactly mesh while sitting around an office, after all.
After pulling on a scarf and zipping up her work coat, Emma picked up the keys to her white Prius. She grabbed her iPad and shoved it into her shoulder bag as she headed out the door.
SSA Hollingsworth had included the address of the fairgrounds and promised to brief them at the scene, which was fine with Emma.
Maybe getting on scene early with her new SSA would allow her to gain Hollingsworth’s approval sooner rather than later. Emma hadn’t been able to get a read on the woman or her dry sense of humor very well. She hoped working an actual case might help in that department. A new case would also be a welcome distraction from the ghostly changes accosting Emma’s life on the regular.
And with any luck, working a first case together would help Emma get to know Leo Ambrose, the agent who’d tagged along with Hollingsworth from Miami. She could read him fine. After just one week in the D.C. field office together, Emma knew Leo was one of the nicest people she’d ever met. Not to mention charismatic. Charming too.
Leo couldn’t have been more different from her old friend and partner, but for some reason, she thought of him as Keaton’s Replacement.
Emma sighed as she flopped into the driver’s seat. “Really, aside from the two of them both needing a haircut, they’re polar opposites.” Where Keaton was somewhat shy and regularly anxious, Leo was outgoing and seemed to always have his shit together. At least, Emma hadn’t seen him lose his cool yet. Where Keaton had been humble, Leo was, well, not arrogant, but he wasn’t ashamed to share his accomplishments, that was for sure.
“I just hope I can depend on Leo like I depended on Keaton.”
Turning out of her quiet subdivision and onto the main road, Emma pushed herself to reframe her thoughts. There was no use being pessimistic about the new team situation. Being an adult meant dealing with change. So she would. This was just a transitional period.
Did she miss her best friend? Yes, absolutely. Was she more than a little disoriented by the dead people popping up every time she turned her head these last six months? Well, yeah. Who the hell wouldn’t be? Were the two issues technically nonrelated? Yes, but still…the universe was piling on.
“Bring it on.” Emma shifted into drive and cruised to the fairgrounds. She’d never met a challenge she’d backed down from, and she wasn’t about to start now.