My grandmother had a never-fail solution when it came to catching ghosts: brew some coffee. We always served twelve cups: three black, three with sugar, three with cream, and three extra sweet and extra light. Because my grandmother always said, “Even ghosts have a preference.”
Until they don’t.
Or rather, they have so many that I’m not sure I can keep track. Our never-fail solution is failing—rapidly.
The aromatic scent of Kona blend fills the lobby of K&M Ghost Eradication Specialists. It mixes with the heady perfume of lilacs floating in a crystal bowl on the coffee table. Someone—possibly my business partner, Malcolm Armand—has scattered fashion magazines across the table’s scratched surface. Usually, our customers don’t visit us. When they do? They’re not looking to update their style.
Instead, we go to them. After all, we are K&M Ghost Eradication Specialists, and even the friendliest sprite needs encouragement to vacate the premises.
Right now, two dozen of those sprites, each in a tiny Tupperware container, are bouncing around the lobby with gentle thump, thump, thumps. They’re everywhere—underfoot, under the coffee table, and under the velvet in our storefront display.
I snag a container and bring it to eye level. The sprite inside dances—as much as the small space will allow. I try to gauge its intentions, its personality. Sprites don’t have much of either, but they love attention, which is why you’ll find them playing pranks at three in the morning.
This one swirls under my scrutiny and adds a flourish—definitely an attention seeker. I shift my grip and search for something more, something familiar. I run my fingers around the seam of the lid, hoping for a clue.
Nothing, not even a whisper. I’ve never caught this one before.
Still, it’s sweet and not much of a threat. I hand the Tupperware to Tara Davenport, our pre-teen summer intern. “What do you think? Gold star?”
Since the ghosts can’t—or won’t—stay in any one place, we’ve been using star stickers to keep track of the ones we’ve cataloged. Gold for good, silver for iffy, and red for an all-out troublemaker.
Tara nods, the beads in her hair jangling in a way that sets off the sprites around her. The beads are translucent, almost like little ghosts at the tip of each braid. I’m guessing the sprites approve of this fashion choice.
“Yes,” she says and pulls a sticker from a sheet. With the utmost care, she places it on the side of the container. The sprite inside does a backflip.
“Does it have a name?”
Tara is only twelve. In some ways, she’s more attuned to the supernatural than even the most experienced necromancer. The sprites see her as a compatriot, one of them, more so than all the adults trying to catch and catalog them.
“Unicorn.” She rolls her eyes and bites her lip. “It says its name is Unicorn.”
Laughter comes from the laptop on the receptionist’s desk. Malcolm and I have never had a receptionist—or much for them to do. Still, we have a desk, and today it’s coming in handy.
On the laptop’s screen, Malcolm’s brother Nigel Armand taps away at his own keyboard. “Unicorn number nineteen, now logged.”
I shut my eyes and sigh. I’d bet my stash of one hundred percent Kona that not one of these sprites is actually named Unicorn.
Nigel laughs again, and even Tara giggles.
“Not to worry,” he says. “I’ve got other key identifiers for them.”
I nod like I know what that means. Nigel is revamping our database. Since all these new ghosts came to town, we’ve struggled to keep track of them. This database will, in theory, help us catch them in the future. Nigel claims he can create a mobile app for our phones. Enter a few details, and up pops a ghostly candidate.
Right now? We have a lobby full of sprites and not much else, which is why it’s good he’s working from home. Even though his addiction to swallowing ghosts is under control, there’s no sense tempting him with an all-you-can-eat buffet.
On the screen, I catch sight of his grin and the shock of pure white hair, a legacy of his addiction.
“How does it take its coffee?” Nigel asks Tara.
She turns the container in her hands and tilts her head. The ghostly beads sing out a happy tune.
“Black with extra sugar.” She pauses and raises her chin like she’s tasting the air. “But it has to be organic raw sugar.”
Of course it does.
If my grandmother caught ghosts with the equivalent of 1950s diner coffee (but excellent diner coffee, mind you), then we’re now catching them with the equivalent of a Starbucks. Almond and soy milk. Flavored syrups. Cinnamon Dolce sprinkles. You name it, these ghosts want it.
Our business might be booming, but I’m out of my depth with these new ghosts.
I push aside the fashion magazines to clear a space where I can sit on the coffee table. Technically, they’re not so much fashion magazines as wedding ones. They have names like Bridal Best Bet and Your Dream Day. There’s even a Martha Stewart Weddings lurking somewhere in the stack.
I rub my hand, or more accurately, my left ring finger. The engagement ring Malcolm gave me sits there, the sensation still strange and wonderful even after all these months. The moonstone glimmers like the otherworldly. Sometimes I swear it glows in the dark. I love my ring. I love Malcolm. Technically, I’ve said yes. I cast a glance at the magazines.
Just not to the dress.
Sunlight glints on the bay windows of our storefront. The gold lettering of K&M Ghost Eradication Specialists sparkles. Somewhere out there, Malcolm is biking up and down the side streets of Springside, uncapping thermos after thermos of coffee in an attempt to lure and catch more sprites so we can catalog them.
He’s been gone for hours. We’re nearing the end of the last batch he caught, and he must be exhausted. I’m almost hoping he returns empty-handed. We’ll call it quits, go get breakfast for dinner at Springside Pancake House, and ignore our pesky ghost problem for an evening.
I rub the ring on my finger one more time. Yes. We deserve that.
What I see instead is Malcolm careening down the center of Main Street. He’s pumping his legs so hard that his feet slip from the bike’s pedals. He swerves, the bike crashing into his cherry-red convertible before he bumps up and over the curb.
He doesn’t stop, not to check for scratches or when six precision-made German thermoses scatter in his wake.
I jump up. My hand gropes for some Tupperware. Maybe today’s brew lured something more dangerous than a sprite. My fingers meet nothing but wedding magazines.
Tara tosses me a large container the moment the bell jangles over the door. Malcolm bursts inside, breath ragged, face flushed with exertion. He stumbles forward and crash-lands in the center of our sprite collection. Tiny containers skitter across the floor.
“Get it.” His chest heaves with the words. “Get … it.”
Frantic, I glance around, my gaze keen. I’m expecting something fierce and unflinching—the sort of ghost that crawls inside your head and destroys dreams.
Instead, before the door closes, a nearly insubstantial sprite slips inside.
* * *
I’ve been chasing and catching ghosts since I was five. Sometimes, I think the sprites are the hardest to capture. They’re small and slight, often barely there. Some people have sprites for years without realizing it. Some people don’t mind, which is just as well, since once you have sprites, they’re almost impossible to get rid of. Kind of like bedbugs.
Honestly? I’d rather have the sprites.
This particular sprite pings around the office, ricocheting off the front bay windows and arrowing straight into the conference room. It whirls around the space, gathering up steam, until, at last, it targets the coffee table.
The sprite plows through the stash of wedding magazines. One flies through the air and smacks me in the face. When the magazine lands on the floor, the spread inside urges me to Go Vintage!
Tara leaps into the air, Tupperware container clutched in her hands. She misses. Because this sprite?
This sprite does not want to be caught.
Malcolm is still prone on the floor, chest heaving. After each circuit of the room, the sprite dive-bombs and cuffs him on the back of the head.
“Ow.” The word is barely a protest, and it takes all his effort to raise a hand to shoo the sprite away.
Nigel is shouting something that sounds a lot like, “Catch it!”
Like we’re not trying. Well, Malcolm isn’t. So maybe Nigel has a point.
The sprite whips around the room. For something so insubstantial, it’s powerful enough to shake the walls. The other sprites in their containers are oddly quiet, a respectful sort of silence that has me wondering what this crazed thing is up to. It buzzes in tighter and tighter circles. Its target? Me. Even Tara must feel it, since she cries out.
“Katy, look out!”
A second later, the sprite smashes into my chest.
I land hard on the floor, the fall jolting my tailbone and sending a spike of pain up my spine. The sprite spins in front of me. This is no happy dance. Its moves are frantic, uncoordinated, and agitation flows off it and through me.
With that agitation comes a spark of recognition.
I know this one.
This is a Springside sprite.
Or rather, it’s a sprite from before all these new ghosts came to town, before everything happened with Orson Yates, before I captured a powerful entity, before Malcolm conspired with all the ghosts of Springside to bring me back to this plane.
“Malcolm?” I’m so breathless that his name is little more than air.
He cranes his neck to peer at me.
“This is a Springside sprite.” I hold up my hands, and the sprite swirls between my palms, still agitated but more content. “From before.”
Nigel falls silent—at last—and Malcolm pushes to his knees. He reaches a tentative hand toward mine.
He’s close enough now that the heat of his skin washes over me. The barest hint of his nutmeg and Ivory soap scent fills the pocket between us. It’s warm and reassuring, and some of the tension leaves my shoulders.
“I’ve caught you before,” I say to the mist between my palms.
“So have I,” Malcolm says.
“Where do you think it came from?”
True, Malcolm did gather up every ghost in Springside last September, but that doesn’t mean he found every last Springside ghost.
My question perturbs the sprite. It starts up again, pinging from me to Malcolm and back again. Clearly frustrated, it zooms across the room and knocks over Tara.
She sits for a minute, the sprite buzzing around her head. “Oh!” Her eyes brighten, and she nods. “Yes, I’ll tell them.”
The sprite careens off, but it shows no intention of leaving, so I don’t chase it.
“It’s been locked up,” Tara tells us. “It escaped, but there are other Springside ghosts that also want to leave but can’t.”
“Who locked them up?” Malcolm asks.
She tips her head, left ear in the direction of the sprite. “A necromancer.”
Well, obviously. We could probably run through a list of names, but at this point, I’m not sure that would help.
“Where?” I ask instead.
Tara considers the air for a moment. “A mall.”
Springside doesn’t have a mall. I glance toward the reception desk and the laptop sitting there.
“I’m on it,” Nigel says. “Malls in what? Thirty-mile radius? Fifty?”
“Let’s start small.” I peer out the front bay window. Sunshine glints on the silver thermoses scattered in the gutter and along the sidewalk. “Maybe we can offer it some coffee?”
With my words, the contained sprites start thumping and bouncing about the room. The Springside sprite whirls about Tara’s head.
“Okay.” I lean down and offer Malcolm a hand. “Maybe everyone can have some coffee.”
* * *
The Ghosts You Left Behind: Coffee and Ghosts 4 releases on October 31, 2021!