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One hell of a dangerous mystery.
Three years after solving the hundred-year-old murder case that brought them together, Greg Woodhall and Adrian Broussard have settled into life together in the colorful college town of Chapel Hill. Adrian’s doctorate research and Greg’s two jobs keep them busy, but they have each other and life is good.
When Greg’s part in a local theater production leads to a chance to help with a paranormal investigation of the historic Playmakers Theater, Greg jumps at the opportunity. The idea of helping the Bay City Paranormal Investigations team—owned by Adrian’s dads—investigate the theater’s rumored spirits excites him.
No one expects the real action to happen at DogOpolis, the hot dog place where Greg works part-time. Who ever heard of a haunted fast food joint? But the entity they encounter there poses a danger not only to Greg, but to Adrian and the people they both love. It’ll take all their combined talent to solve this mystery and stop the thing plaguing DogO before it stops them. Permanently.
Copyright 1st edition © 2012 Ally Blue
Copyright 2nd edition © 2019 Ally Blue
Excerpt: Chapter One
Greg Woodhall burst through the employee entrance of DogOpolis, Chapel Hill’s one and only gourmet hot dog palace—as the proud owners called it—five minutes late. “Traffic,” he explained before the daytime manager could turn around from her inspection of the refrigerator’s thermostat. “Sorry.” He clocked in and sprinted for the break room to change into his uniform.
“Traffic, my tired feet. There’s bike paths all the way from your place.” The manager, Elena Sims, followed him. She leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed and forehead creased in a fierce frown. “Besides, I’ve personally seen you ride up on the sidewalk to go around a traffic jam, so don’t give me that.”
Busted. He opened his locker, peeled off his tank top, and threw it inside. The sandals came off next, then the shorts, both adding to the pile on the floor of the locker. He turned to face her, giving her the full-frontal force of his very best puppy-dog face plus his boyfriend’s favorite tiger-print thong. “I just got going a little late this morning, Len. I’m really sorry. It won’t happen again, I promise.”
She pursed her lips, but he could tell she wasn’t actually mad. “Okay. Seriously, though, make sure you’re on time from now on. You know lunch is our busiest time.”
“I know.” He lifted his dark green uniform pants out of the locker and stepped into them, shooting Len a wide smile. “Thanks for understanding.”
“Oh, yeah, I understand, all right.” She aimed a pointed stare at his chest, which bore several purple marks courtesy of that morning’s mattress romp. “Which reminds me, say hi to Adrian for me.”
“I’ll do that. Thank you.” Grinning, he fastened his pants and reached for the matching green-and-white shirt.
She rolled her eyes. “You’re on the register today.” She turned to leave, stifling a yawn behind her hand.
As Greg shrugged into his shirt, he heard a shuffling sound behind him. He pivoted, expecting to see Len coming back into the room.
She wasn’t there. Neither was anyone else.
He frowned. Was he hearing things, or what?
Not that he had time to worry about it right now.
Shoving the uncomfortable thought to the back of his mind, he finished buttoning his shirt, pulled on the socks and shoes he kept in his locker for work, and hurried after his manager.
It happened again while Greg was ringing up one of his former UNC professors, although he didn’t realize it at first. After all, it was a busy afternoon. His fellow employees dashed back and forth behind him all the time. It took him a few seconds to notice that neither Denise nor Malachi had moved from the registers on either side of him.
He glanced around as subtly as he could. Everyone else was in the back. So whose footsteps had he heard right behind him just now?
On the other side of the counter, Dr. Clark let out a loud sigh. “Still with the attention span of a gnat, I see. Did you get my order, or do I need to repeat it?”
Behind the sweetest smile in the history of smiling, Greg smothered the urge to say things that were completely inappropriate in the workplace. “Two turkey dogs with mustard and coleslaw, an order of O chips, and a large unsweetened tea.” He added gratuitous eyelash-batting when the professor’s nose scrunched as if he was disappointed that Greg had heard him the first time. “That’ll be ten-eighty, sir.”
Dr. Clark handed him a credit card. He swiped it, gave it back, and turned the pad around for a signature.
He heard the footsteps again as he was handing Dr. Clark his tray. This time, Greg didn’t look. He didn’t want to know.
By the time his shift ended at five, the combination of an unusually busy afternoon and too many sounds without people attached to them had Greg jumpy and worn out. He changed back into his T-shirt and shorts before getting his and Adrian’s dinner dogs together so no one could keep him working. Damn, he’d never been so ready to go home in his life.
“Hey, G. Your O chips.” Malachi handed Greg a large bag of homemade kettle chips fresh out of the fryer. “I put in a thing of that chipotle ranch dip Adrian likes.”
“Awesome. Thanks.” Greg tucked the chips into the big plastic bag along with Adrian’s salsa verde dogs and his own mustard and coleslaw ones. “See you at rehearsal, yeah?” He had a part as a chorus member in the current PlayMakers Repertory Company production—job number two, though it didn’t pay as well as DogO—and Mal ran the lights and sound.
“I’ll be there.” Mal saluted him with a grin, brown eyes sparkling.
Greg laughed as he made his way to the employee entrance in back. “Bye, Len,” he called to his manager, who was ringing up a customer at the drive-through. “See you tomorrow.”
She glanced at him. “Bye, Greg.”
Between the office and the break room, a dark shape moved at the limit of Greg’s peripheral vision.
He turned, goose bumps rising on his arms. Malachi, Eden, and Crystal continued at their respective tasks up front. Len had moved out of the drive-through window to gather the order. She gave him a curious look. “Greg? Did you need something?”
He looked around. He could’ve sworn whoever he’d seen was bigger than Len, who practically had to stand on a box to work the drive-through, but no one else was there, so it must’ve been her.
It had to have been her. Had to have been a person. Something real he saw and his brain misinterpreted. Creepy black shapes were a whole level up from footsteps, and dammit, he did not want to play that game.
“Naw. Thought I forgot something, but I have it.” He answered her frown with a grin that hopefully hid the way his pulse suddenly raced. “See you.”
He strode outside, sliding his shades over his eyes, and went to unlock his bike from the rack. Forget about weird sounds and shapes and stuff. He really wanted to eat dinner with Adrian before rehearsal tonight, and he had to hurry if he wanted to make that happen.
Dinner secured in the basket on the front of his bike, Greg swung himself aboard and started up the bike trail toward his and Adrian’s cozy little apartment a couple of miles away.
He smiled to himself as he rode. Sure, he bitched about his low-wage wiener-slinging job and not-exactly-starring role in the play, but that was all hot air. He knew how lucky he was. Especially when it came to the best part of his life—Adrian Broussard.
The thought of Adrian in bed that morning—tousled black hair, big dark eyes, sexy, kiss-swollen mouth, and oh God that gorgeous, naked body—spurred Greg to pedal faster. If he made it home in time, maybe they’d have a chance for more than dinner.
Greg arrived at the PlayMakers Theater for the scheduled all-day rehearsal on Saturday tired, grumpy, and with the smell of frying oil permanently lodged in his nose.
Myah Sandoval, a fellow generic singing-and-dancing townsperson in the PlayMakers production of A Tar Heel Born, stopped halfway through her warm-up routine to stare at Greg as he stomped across the stage. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“I had to work a double shift yesterday because Denise called in sick. Adrian was already asleep when I got home last night, and all we had time for this morning was coffee and a hello in passing because he had to be at the physics lab early.” Greg let out a deep sigh. “I’m ready to be rich now. Why aren’t I rich?”
Myah laughed. “I feel your pain. Wouldn’t we all love to have more money?” She lifted one foot up onto the prop table and stretched sideways across her leg.
“No kidding.” Greg yawned. “All right, I’m gonna go get changed. See you in a few.” He waved at Myah and headed offstage.
In the dressing room—the newest part of the building, added during the 2016 renovations of the backstage area—Jon Hudson and Omar Nejem were talking while they changed from street clothes into light, comfortable things better suited for dancing onstage all day. They both looked up when Greg came in.
Jon stared at Greg with his usual uncomfortable mixture of resentment and fascination. “Hello, Greg.”
“Jon.” Greg didn’t understand Jon’s whole deal with him—insults one day, weirdly intense stares the next—but he wasn’t about to waste any time worrying about it since Jon had never been his favorite person. Instead, he turned his best dazzling smile to Omar, who he actually got along with. “Hi, Omar. You’re looking awfully chipper this fine morning.” Greg toed off his sandals and dug his jazz shoes out of his bag. “That date with Enrique must’ve gone pretty good, huh?”
Omar blushed to the roots of his neat black hair, an interesting effect with his dark complexion. “It did, yes. We had a nice time.” He studied Greg with unnerving intensity. “So, how’s Adrian? I haven’t seen him for a while.”
Which was Omar-speak for I can tell something’s wrong but I can’t tell if it’s something wrong at work or at home and I know you don’t want me to ask in so many words, especially in front of Jon, who we both know will be a giant dick about it.
Yeah, Greg hadn’t known Omar for long, but he’d learned a lot about him very quickly.
Unlike Jon, who remained a mystery. Not the least because a mutual acquaintance asking about Adrian apparently pissed him off enough to make him turn interesting shades of red and stalk out of the room.
Greg shook his head as Jon disappeared out the door with his jazz shoes in one hand and a sense of the wounded victim following him in a nearly visible cloud. “Swear to God, he’s fucking nuts.”
Omar nodded, his expression solemn. “All is definitely not well in the state of Jon. But that’s neither here nor there, really.” He leaned against the wall, arms crossed and every bit of his considerable attention focused on Greg. “Is everything all right?”
Greg wasn’t about to tell Omar about the strange shadows and noises that had plagued him for the last couple of days at DogO. Omar wouldn’t laugh like some people, but he’d worry about Greg hallucinating.
Not that the thought hadn’t crossed Greg’s mind. Which was more than a little scary.
“Yeah, fine.” Greg shrugged. “Adrian and I are both really busy lately, so we haven’t gotten to spend as much time together as usual, that’s all.” He flashed the evil grin he used to steer people away from serious subjects. “Overwork and undersex makes me cranky.”
“Ah. I see.” Omar pushed away from the wall, cheeks pink and his usual shy smile back in place. “Let’s get out there before Noemi comes after us.”
Greg laughed. Their director was a wonderful woman, calm and patient to an almost saintly degree, but she hated her cast loitering in the dressing rooms and would not hesitate to fetch them out and drag them onto the stage half-naked if she felt it necessary.
A shove of his foot stashed Greg’s bag out of the way under the makeup table. He followed Omar out of the dressing room and onto the stage just as Noemi called to them.
As Greg took his place onstage, something fluttered in the shadows between the curtains at the tail of his eye. He resisted the urge to turn and look, because it was obviously nothing. Just the movement of the fabric as someone brushed past.
Except that no one had been near that spot. And the shape seemed awfully human.
Rehearsal went well, though Greg personally thought they’d have to spend less time going over the final song-and-dance number if Jon would stop sneaking glances at the chorus and pay more attention to his leading lady. Isabella DeSoto—a pro if ever there was one—agreed, judging by the increasingly frustrated way she glared at Jon.
“All right. It’s nearly seven. Let’s call a halt for today.” Noemi rose from her seat in the theater’s front row and stretched, both hands on the small of her back. “All-day rehearsal tomorrow, children. Be here at nine, ready to work. Now off with you.” She made a shooing motion with her hands.
Theo Smathers fell into step with Greg on the way offstage. “Maybe Jon should pretend he’s proposing to you instead of Isabella.”
Greg stared. “What? Have you lost what little of your mind you had left?”
“Oh, Gregorio.” Theo shook his head. “You’re so clueless sometimes. Dude, he was staring right at you during the proposal scene.”
“He was not.” Greg thought about it. In fact, Jon had been looking in his direction. Shit… “He was probably staring at nothing, you know. Did it occur to you that his attention might’ve been wandering because he’s about as professional as a seventh grader? The only reason he got this part is ’cause no one else who auditioned could sing it.”
He kept that bit to himself. No need to sound any more bitter than necessary.
“No argument on that point.” Theo scratched his short, sandy beard, watching with a thoughtful expression as Jon walked toward the dressing room with his brows drawn together and his mouth set in a grim line. He might as well have had a sign on his back reading stay away. “Did it occur to you that your dance shorts are really tight and you have a great body?”
Greg sighed. “Oh, my God. I give up.” He’d known Theo ever since freshman year, but he thought he’d never get used to a straight guy being so un-shy about speaking up on the matter of another man’s assets.
He nearly ran into Theo when the man stopped in his tracks, turned, and peered into the shadows formed by the curtains at the sides of the stage. Greg followed his gaze, but didn’t see anything. “Theo? What’re you looking at?”
Theo said nothing. Greg waited, ignoring the other cast members skirting around them and shooting Theo cautious glances. Theo was a great guy who would walk through fire for his friends, but he lived in his own world. Greg was no longer fazed by his occasionally weird behavior.
After a few seconds, Theo sighed and rolled his shoulders. “I think that was a kid.”
Greg laughed. “Um. What?”
“The ghost I just saw.” Theo looked at him like he’d said something stupid. “It was little, so it must’ve been a kid.” He ran a hand through his unruly curls. “I mean, I guess it could’ve been some other ghost, but the only other one I’ve seen is the flapper lady. I see her all the time.”
In a blinding flash of insight, the figure Greg had seen in the curtains made sense. A ghost. Of course. Every theater had a ghost. He’d graduated from UNC with a degree in Dramatic Arts, for fuck’s sake, he knew that.
It didn’t explain the shit going on at DogO, but hell, he’d take what he could get.
Excited now, Greg let go of Theo’s arm and turned in a circle, as if he could spot the flapper ghost right then and there. “Where have you seen her?”
“In the lobby, mostly. I’ve seen her in the audience a couple of times, too.”
Myah emerged from the women’s dressing room at that moment. “What, the flapper ghost? Yeah, I’ve seen her before. Only in the lobby, though.” She tilted her head sideways. “You’ve seen her in the seats?”
Greg couldn’t help feeling this wasn’t fair, since he was the one with the boyfriend who could talk to the dead. He planted his hands on his hips. “Okay, I’m starting to feel left out here. All I’ve seen is a shadow. It didn’t look like anyone in particular.”
“Hey, count yourself lucky you saw that much. Most people never see any of the PlayMakers’ spirits.” Myah hauled her enormous purse higher up on her shoulder and pinned Greg with a curious look. “Why are you trying to spot a ghost?”
Theo laughed. “Greg’s been on the lookout for ghosts ever since Adrian brought him around to the dark side back in sophomore year.”
Greg glared at Theo, who grinned back at him. “I’m not on the lookout. I just think it’s cool that the stories about this place might be real, that’s all.”
“There aren’t that many stories,” Myah pointed out. “The only one I ever heard was about Professor Koch, who founded the place. He’s supposed to haunt the theater.”
“Oh, hey.” Theo’s eyes took on an unholy gleam. “You should get Adrian to talk to his dads about getting BCPI out here to investigate the place!”
Myah’s forehead creased. “BCPI?”
“Bay City Paranormal Investigations. Adrian’s dad and stepdad own it.” Greg met Theo’s gaze, excitement building as the idea grabbed hold of him. “I like that, Theo. I like that a lot. I wonder if Noemi would go for it?”
“Or the university. It’d be cool if they did.” Myah bounced in place. “I had no idea Adrian’s dads owned a paranormal investigations company. That is awesome.”
Greg beamed. “I know, right? I bet they’d love to investigate this place.”
“What are you children still doing here?” Noemi crossed the stage toward them, her low heels clicking on the wide boards. “I thought you’d be anxious to go.”
Greg, Theo, and Myah all shared a questioning look. Theo shrugged, as if to say, whatever you think. Typical. Myah gave him a thumbs-up. Squaring his shoulders, Greg faced Noemi’s curious expression. “My boyfriend’s dads own a company that investigates hauntings. We were just talking about how cool it would be if they could come investigate the PlayMakers.”
Understanding dawned on Noemi’s face. “Ah, yes. I remember reading about that when you and he solved the mystery of the Groome Castle haunting a few years ago.”
“Yeah.” Greg was surprised she knew about that. He raked his sweaty hair from his forehead. “So. What do you think?”
She ran a thumb over the stones of the bracelet on her opposite wrist. “Actually, I think it’s a good idea. Proceeds for the Repertory Company have been dropping over the last couple of years, in all our venues. Perhaps an official investigation into this theater’s alleged haunting would be good for business.” She smiled. “I’ll talk to the school about it. Now you children go home.”
Greg barely stifled an excited squeal as Noemi walked away. “Come on, let’s get our stuff and get out of here. I have to go home and tell Adrian.”
Myah left, calling goodbye to Greg and Theo. Greg hurried into the dressing room, with Theo hot on his heels. The two of them changed, grabbed their things, and went on their way, exchanging goodbyes with the tech crew on their way out.
As he left the theater, Greg did his best to spot the ghost child, or the flapper, or one of the other spirits. But he couldn’t, no matter how hard he tried.